Wishes

The poor boy just touched it, just a brush of the pads of his fingertips and the whisper of skin against the brass, and everything stopped. From the spout boiled something red and dark and quivering into a great cloud of bloody air which gathered and pulsed until in the mass of red could be seen the shape of a body.The man folded his arms and peered down at the boy, who quaked and tried not to whimper.

The red man sank to the ground. His body trailed into mist after the waist, but he could have been sitting. He spoke, and his voice was dark and shaking. “Listen, child,” he said, “Three, and that is all. Use them well, for you are a little lamb of a thing.”

The boy thought that perhaps this meant that the demon would take pity on him, and he drew in his breath to speak. “Please, sir,” he said, his voice a thread, “I didn’t mean to. I don’t know what I did. I am small, and, and, like you said, I’m not going to hurt anyone, I don’t know what I did.”

The red man bent closer and with his sharp red teeth showing, he smiled. “Ah,” he said to the boy. “A lost lamb, yes. So lost. I will explain to you, dear one, and then you will understand. You’ve heard stories, you know what I am. I emerge from that metal prison, I grant you three, and then I am suffering inside while you go on with your life, while you humans take what I have given and toss aside this ornament that is of no use to any, not even for light.”

The boy sat back on his heels and fixed his eyes on the red face. At last, he said, “Three? Any three?”

The demon nodded.

“I want a wife, please, Wait, though, I know how this works. I need to explain. I want a wife who the same age that I am, and alive, and well. She must be very beautiful, and she must be here. Please.”

The man nodded, and the woman appeared. She was very beautiful, so lovely that the boy was stricken. He gazed at the bright eyes and full lips and long limbs of his new wife, and he fell to his knees. “I love you,” he said. She spat in his face and walked out of the attic room without looking back.

The boy scrambled to his feet, knees jerking in his eagerness and despair, and followed her. For a week the red demon watched them as he tried to reason with her, tried to tell her how much he loved her, tried to make her understand that his heart beat for her. One morning, the boy came to the demon and said, “I need to use the second. I want my wife to love me. I want her to love me more than anything.” The red man nodded.

Barely had a moment passed when the boy heard footsteps pounding down the hall. The boy’s wife rushed in. She knelt in front of him and turned her lovely face to his. She said, “Oh, my husband, I love you,” and the sound of her voice was sweet and soft to his ears. He pulled her to her feet and kissed her. She drew him out of the room. The red man watched for a day as the boy lived in perfect happiness with his bride. The boy thought of nothing else until they woke the next morning. The boy walked into the kitchen and his wife followed him. He prepared breakfast, brought it to the table, and began to eat. His wife watched. When he offered her a morsel of food, she shook her head. He pushed a glass of water toward her, and gently she slid it back to him. The boy stopped eating and said, “My love, why will you not eat or drink? You must be hungry.”

She looked at him with something like surprise written on her face, and said, “My husband, I love you more than anything. I cannot love anything else more than I love you. I love you more than the wants of my body. I love you more than life itself.”

“I don’t understand,” her husband said. “You love me, and I am glad. You need to eat.”

She shook her head. Finally, he shrugged and finished his own food. They repeated this scene at midday and in the evening. They sat on a terrace before the lightless sky and he begged her to eat, but she only shook her head. “I cannot,” she told him, “for that would change things. I cannot.”

On the third day, the boy’s wife could not get out of bed. He lay next to her and put his arms around her, and her answering smile was week. On the fourth day, he tried to pour water into her mouth, but she choked and spat. On the fifth day, when he awoke, she wasn’t breathing.

The red demon smiled at the boy, whose eyes were swollen and sore with tears. His voice was ragged and he said, “I need to use my third. I know better than to wake the dead, so you won’t have me that way. I want to go back to before any of this. I want to go back to before I touched your lamp, before you appeared, before any of this happened. Please.”

The man nodded, and the world shifted. The boy was alone, with no horrors clouding his mind. He was trying to clean out the attic room at the top of the stairs, but it was so cluttered with the shiny forgotten pieces of somebody else’s life that he was struggling to find anything. He reached into the box in front of him, and his fingers brushed the smooth brass of an old lamp.

Noisy Boots

The boots clattered down the stairs with a brisk knocking noise and, when they reached the bottom, paused as if deciding where to go next. Lisa looked up expectantly at Kat, who said, “Those are the ones you just bought today?” Lisa nodded and Kat smiled. “They’re really cute. Definitely have a personality to them.”

“They do, don’t they?” said Lisa. She pried them off her feet and tossed them at the foot of the stairs. Her feet in their polka-dotted socks made no sound as she led Kat into the kitchen. They were there for quite a while. They talked about shopping, and what to do for dinner, and other sundry bits and pieces. From where the boots lay, splayed on the floor, their voices rose and fell like strange low music.

Eventually the two women returned to go back up the stairs. Lisa frowned. “Huh,” she said. “Weren’t those tipped over or something?” Kat looked too at the boots, tidily lined up against the wall, and shrugged. They went upstairs, their toes slipping with little whispers on the wood of the steps. Several minutes passed, and then the music of their voices drifted downstairs. They stayed hidden upstairs until nearly seven, and then they slipped and slid down the stairs again, talking.

Kat arrayed herself on one of the kitchen stools, her skirt tucked neatly under her. Lisa opened the refrigerator. Her eyes grew wide, and she stopped speaking mid-sentence.

“What is it, hon?” Kat asked.

Lisa shook her head, and pointed. “How did they get there?” Kat leaned to look, and her eyes widened too. Crowded on the middle shelf were the boots. One had a carrot sticking out its top. Kat jumped to her feet and went to stand next to Lisa, who said, “Do you think someone’s in the house?” Her voice quavered, but then steadied. “I mean, though, why would someone put my boots in the fridge?” She maneuvered them off the shelf and put them down, letting them drop gently onto the floor.

“You know what?” said Kat. “I think I’m going to run upstairs, bathroom. Be right back.” Lisa nodded and sank into a chair, her head propped on a hand. After a minute, there was a faint thud. She started, but she didn’t see anything.

Kat walked out of the bathroom, smoothing her hair, and almost tripped. There on the floor, entirely innocently, sat the boots. She backed away from them and called downstairs, “Hey, Lisa, want to just go out for dinner?”

Lisa nodded, her gaze fixed at the spot on the kitchen floor where the boots weren’t. Then she coughed and yelled back, “Yeah, sure. I’ll just grab my coat and heels.” Behind Kat, the boots stood taller, relieved, but she was already starting for the stairs and didn’t see anything. Another minute later, the slam of the door echoed through the house and reverberated in the empty rooms.

The boots clattered down the stairs with a brisk knocking noise and, when they reached the bottom, paused as if deciding where to go next.

Because of Emily Dickinson

A man is sitting at a barstool, leaning forward and staring dully at the glass clasped between his hands. He is thinking, vaguely and hopelessly, that there is very little in his life. This is a good reason to straighten and gulp down a swig of scotch.

After a while, and another glass filled and emptied, the door to the bar swings and slams. Somebody settles into place on the stool beside him, but he barely notices. His glance hardly flickers to the side. He concentrates only on the shards of light piercing the glass before him.

Another long while passes, and eventually it occurs to him to look at his companion, drinking quietly next to him. He turns and scans and sees nothing remarkable, and returns to his comfortable slump. In a minute, though, as he raises the glass to his lips, it occurs he can’t remember what the person next to him looks like. The thought tickles at his mind, drawing his attention to – something. Something that did not hold his attention at all, and it bothers him. He saw only a face, and it left no imprint on his mind. He doesn’t think he’s quite that drunk yet.

After a sip he turns again, sliding a glance from half-lidded eyes, and nods. A normal face, nothing outstanding. But when he turns forward again, the face slips from his mind. He has no recollection of the person two feet from him, no sense of what he – or she? – looks like. He shrugs, and his hands settle before him once more. He sits and chats with the bartender, empty small words, and after a few minutes he has mostly forgotten that anyone is there at all. The barstool is a familiar sort of uncomfortable under him, and his head swims pleasantly.

Time passes until a flicker of movement at his side catches his attention, and he realizes that the barstool next to him is still occupied. He peeks over, another sidelong glance at someone wholly unremarkable. The plain stranger is watching him steadily. So he sits up straight, and turns completely, and looks back. The man and the stranger stare at each other, the stranger unperturbed and the man bewildered. He waits for a long moment of peering at the stranger’s vacant eyes, blank but for something – searching. Something that prods him with a question, but he cannot hear it and does not know the answer.

He shifts, fidgets, and a shiver brushes his spine. His hand finds the glass on the bar and he looks at it, keeping his gaze there. He speaks, his voice rasping and thin, and says to the stranger, “Who are you?”

The stranger’s voice is flat. “I’m nobody. Who are you? Are you nobody too?”

The man is confounded. Surprised, too, that he is less confused than he should be. He nods at the question as if it makes sense, and then wonders at his own quick acceptance. And a voice comes from his lips as he realizes too late what he is saying, “I don’t know. Nobody. I guess I could be.”

The stranger smiles and nods, but he cannot see. He sinks back into himself, crumpling onto the barstool and forward toward the glass and the drop of scotch left traced around its edge. In a bit he notices that he is the only one sitting there, that the bar is empty. And when he shakes his heavy head he feels the wisp of something drifting from his mind, like a dream hidden in the shroud of sleep. He leaves the bar very late that night, alone, and watches his own shoes step forward on the pavement until he can rest.

***

That man wanders now. He goes to many places and talks to people who don’t understand what’s happening, but he stops that quickly because he cannot bear their confusion. They hold so much of substance in their minds that he cannot fit. So he goes from place to place and watches people, hoping someday to find a person with nothing on his mind and little to live for. In the meantime he sits on trains, stands in line for coffee, steps through sidewalks with a crowd of people who cannot remember his face.

Journal of Relics

This piece of writing was found scratched onto the wooden wall of a house with what appears to have been a nail. The house has been uninhabited for nearly the century since it was built, and was condemned 75 years ago. For most of those 75 years it has remained in that state.

It has a local history of being used as a playplace for the children of the neighborhood and a dare on Halloween, but while children play games on the property, in the yard and the porch, nobody has been reported to go inside of the building since 1953.

“Hey – READ THIS. I know it is very strange to read something written on the side of a room of an old house, but this is important. Someone needs to know about this place. I came here by accident – this house is fifty years old, I was looking around. I needed to buy a house, I just got a job here, and this place was for sale though nobody had lived here for a long time. Since it was built, maybe. I came to look around and got a little spooked, because – look at this place. Anyway, I came back because there really wasn’t anywhere else and the point is there’s something here. Ghosts. I don’t think it is actually ghosts, or can’t be but I wanted to write it down I’m not sure how much time I have. It seems like ghosts. There are strange sounds, it sounds like somebody else is here and I’m so scared. I want to leave, I was supposed to be back at work an hour ago, but I tried to leave and I couldn’t. I don’t even know why. I don’t think the door is locked and I’ve been trying to walk out of the room but it’s either that I just end up back here or I don’t know I give up. Not on purpose. I want to leave. But I can hear something and it’s shuffling around and this place smells odd, I don’t know what it smells like but kind of cold and flat. It’s making my nose itch. Anyway I don’t know what that thing is maybe it’s just a burglar – just, right, but maybe it’s a person. In any case it’s a person trespassing making strange noises and I can’t leave and I really want to believe it’s a person. If you’re reading this get out, I don’t know what is happening but don’t be like this. Don’t do this. I stayed, I wanted to look around. Don’t. There’s things. And maybe a person. I tried to leave but I couldn’t and I can hear it I don’t know if it knows I’m here but maybe ”

This journal has no data on the identity of the author of this message, or an exact date regarding the time it was written. If a reader has any information, please forward it to GreenHouse Realty, 54 Pond St. The company has requested any knowledge of the house to add to their existing description, as the house is once again on the market.

In the Basement

They moved into the house at the end of the street. It looked almost exactly like all the others; the roof was a bit differently shaped, the pieces of wall rearranged, but it was like a picture of house with its pieces mixed up in each green-lawned lot. Their house was almost unique, in that once they moved into it they painted it a cheery spring yellow. All the other houses were painted grey or white or sometimes blue. The houses were probably the same on the inside too, but they didn’t know the neighbors well enough to find out. There were all the necessities for a standard house in the flat middle of suburbia; a kitchen, bedroom, a couple bathrooms and a rather dank basement. There was a tiny room to the side of the basement, right past the stairs to the left. It looked a bit as if the architect hadn’t liked the space jutting out and had closed it off with a wall and door just to have something to do with it.

The room wasn’t really used for anything much. It was small, and had a single lightbulb screwed into the ceiling with a cord hanging down from it, which got progressively grubbier despite rarely being used. There were a few packages of paper napkins and other hefty items that needed storage and weren’t often needed, stacked against one wall. Hanging on the opposite wall was a large rectangular mirror, which the husband — John — had tried half-heartedly to pull off and given up when they were first reorganizing amidst still-unpacked boxes. It had a crack in one corner and a determined mist of dirt that had settled on its surface with serious intent to stay. Every few months the housekeeper ventured into the room to attack it with Lysol and paper towels, and found herself giving up surprisingly quickly at the grime’s refusal to lift.

John had only ever been in the room those few times, stacking packages or prying at the dirty mirror. His wife, Emily, had been there once. She got spooked easily, and the shadows in the corners seemed to flit closer when the door swung closed. She’d run to John a bit pale, barely trembling, and never gone in again.
For the most part, they lived a lovely normal life. They read the papers in the mornings with steaming mugs of coffee. They came home from work and cooked together, or argued over the menu for Chinese takeout.

It was on one of these nights that Emily disappeared. The two of them were sitting at the kitchen table, cartons of wontons and spring rolls and spareribs scattered among crumpled piles of food-stained napkins. They had put a package of napkins that was nearly empty in the middle of the table, and now only the plastic wrapping remained as a centerpiece. Emily put the last morsel of her wonton into her mouth, and said, “Would you go grab some more napkins from the downstairs room, sweetie?” Her fingers were slippery and the sheen of grease on her lips shone as she smiled at him. He pushed himself up from his chair, leaned across the table to kiss her glistening lips, and started down the stairs.

Emily ate two more spareribs, and scraped the sauce from her hands with her scrunched-up napkin. She didn’t hear anything from downstairs. She refilled her glass of water, and bit into a spring roll, and crunched contentedly on it.

After ten minutes and the rest of the spring roll, Emily wandered to the top of the stairs, wondering what was taking John so long. She hung from the doorframe, peering down the staircase, and called, “You need any help with that, John, honey?”

She heard his voice answer back, strained and spiraling from the basement, but she couldn’t distinguish the words. Emily walked down the stairs to the basement room, its door open and casting a shadow that sliced across the neat linoleum floor. She stepped around the door and into the room, hesitantly. She could see only darkness and the dim shadowed corners or the room. Her voice quavered on “John? Love?” and she reached out blindly, swiping at the air, for the cord to the lightbulb.

John dropped the full package of napkins on the table squarely on top of the empty plastic wrapping, which crackled satisfyingly. “Em?” He called out, and ripped open the plastic. There was no answer. He popped half of a wonton into his mouth, crunched. “Em?”

The basement door was still open. Maybe she had gone to look for him. He called down the stairs, but still heard no answer, and shuffled down the staircase to check just in case. The door to the basement room was shut. The knob was cold to the touch and stiff as he tried to—it had turned easily, just twenty minutes before. He wrenched it open and pushed the door forward, which swung silently into the room. He yanked on the overhanging cord, which flashed on to reveal an empty room. He glanced, tugged the light off, and pulled the door closed behind him as he turned to go back up the stairs.

Most of the wontons and the spareribs and the spring rolls disappeared in the next hour, and John called his wife’s name intermittently in increasingly perplexed tones. He checked the garage, where the car was parked, untouched, and the bedroom, undisturbed. After another hour, bewildered and upset, he curled up in bed and stared unseeing toward the blank stretch of wall until he fell into sleep.

Emily didn’t come back. John’s days went as before, but alone. He never saw her again.

Every once in a while, he hoped she was just around the corner. Maybe she was coming up the walk, about to ring the doorbell and fall into his arms again and everything would go back to normal. He would wait and hold his breath and hope, and nothing would happen. She had simply disappeared.

She couldn’t have left the house. The car was there, and he hadn’t heard so much as the slam of a door or the purr of a motor. She was just gone.

He stayed in, mostly. Drank the glass of wine they used to share each night, ordered Chinese until half-full cartons were stacked on each shelf of the refrigerator, filling it with a slow smell of soy sauce and rot. He hit the buzzer on the alarm until he had just enough time to dress for work, and slept early each night.

John almost never went into the basement now. He spent most of his time at home in the kitchen or the bedroom, curled up with a cup of coffee and a newspaper. He buried himself in the even black text that told of other people’s tragedies, the things that definitely happened, the hard evidence, the quotations and dates and photographs that marked their pain. He sat each day and leaned into the shelter of the stacks of papers. They stood between his face and the windows and helped somewhat to block the brightness of the light.

The housekeeper stopped coming. She explained, frankly, to John, “Look, sir, I like you and the lady. I don’t know why she’s not around anymore though and I don’t want to get in the middle of nothing. There was a whole mess like that at the last place I worked, and not the kind I’m paid to clean up.” She was chuckling. John nodded dully, pretending he couldn’t hear her. She didn’t say out loud that the odd smell made her nervous, or that she thought to herself once in a while that she didn’t know what she’d do if she came across the wife’s murdered body hidden somewhere and had to call the cops on him, such a nice man. She left, the door clicking closed gently behind her, blotting the sunlight out from the cool shadowed hall. After that, nobody else came to the house.

Six months passed this way. John padded around the house in his socks, read his newspapers, sipped his coffee in the morning without thinking about what it tasted like. He got used to making coffee every morning just for himself. He divided up the packets, shaking half of the powder into the filter from the bag, and tucking the edges neatly over the top and pushing it back into the cabinet. Eventually this was routine. It felt if he’d always shoved the coffee back, half-empty, every morning. He spent the rest of each day struggling to stay awake.

He didn’t see a trace of her. He didn’t hear from her—no phone call, no postcard with a glossy picture of some exotic place, explaining why she’d left so suddenly. The fastest he ever walked was to the mailbox, to check eagerly each day if she was somewhere. She never was.

One night, eating Chinese food with his newspapers as always, John ran out of napkins. He crammed the rest of a wonton into his mouth and swallowed it like a lump of dry dust, and dropped his head into his grease-coated hands. After a long moment, he wiped them off on the one crumpled napkin he’d been using. The door to the basement room swung open easily at his touch. He pulled a dusty package of napkins into his arms, and stopped the door from swinging closed. John flicked tired eyes back into the room and his heart caught on a beat. Echoing, faintly, from the too-close corners there was a sound he thought he could almost hear. It sounded like Emily’s voice. He thought he could hear her calling out, the words blurred together and faded. He paused and listened. The door clicked closed gently, flat with the wall again, and the strains of her voice faded to silence. John listened to it for a second, and then went upstairs with the new napkins.

Twice more in the next few months when he needed more napkins — and once when he’d run out of toilet paper, he heard her voice. Once he thought he saw her out of the corner of his eye, only a flicker that he knew would vanish from his peripheral vision. He held very still and didn’t move so much as an eyeball, so he could keep the impression of her image in the corner of his eye.

Her voice began to echo in his head after the second trip down to that basement room. The second swing shut of the door that blotted the faded notes of her laugh from his ears pushed them into his mind. He heard her when he was drinking his half-packet of coffee in the morning, and when he was trying vainly to be engrossed in breaking news on the front page of the paper. He saw her just out of sight when he was sitting in his swivel chair at work, and when he was trying to sleep he could almost hear her laughing at him.

He stopped visiting the basement room after he couldn’t sleep for the sound of her, for feeling her breath on the side of his neck when he knew it wasn’t there. She was everywhere. All he heard and saw and felt was Emily, and she was gone. Disappeared. He thought, maybe, if he disappeared too, he’d be in the same place. Maybe, somehow, he could see her, and hear her, and feel her, and she would be there again.

He ate Chinese takeout again one night, after long days of sleeplessness and full packets of coffee, torn newspapers and crinkled napkins. He stood, slowly, when he was finished eating, and he walked downstairs to the basement. The door was closed, as always, and he couldn’t see anything but the blank white rectangle before him. He took a tentative step closer, and he thought maybe he could hear her voice. He thought, maybe, it was louder this time. Almost like it was real. He hesitated, and glanced up the stairs as his arm moved almost of his own volition. He turned back to the room, and his hand hovered over the doorknob for a moment – and then he nodded, and smiled, and opened the door.