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.

Nicole and the Pumpkins

Once Nicole used to watch the pumpkins bloom on their vines, swelling and blushing like so many bee stings. She used to run her fingers along the smoothness of their skins, fingertips in the beginning ridges. She used to dream with those pumpkins, in the musty damp air of her pumpkin patch with the moisture in the soil soaking through the knees of her jeans.

Now she’s too old for that sort of thing, even though she’s not that old. If you look close in the mirror you can see the parentheses etched into her skin around her lips, so faintly, as if her mouth was an afterthought and the proof was showing too late. Nicole is sure that soon other lines would make their way onto her face as well, commas and apostrophes spiking out around the edges and quotation marks outside her eyes. There will be punctuation engraved into her face, pauses and stops with nothing to say.

For now she is still mostly young-looking, plain as she’d always been. She never had expected much, really, and her skin will crinkle until she is caressing the new pumpkins with creased hands, bent fingers, reaching them after a stiff lunge toward the ground because her back is aching and her arthritis acting up.

Sometimes she still wishes that she didn’t live alone. She has a decent job and lives in her parents’ old house. The pumpkin patch is still outside, and she still visits it. Now, though, Nicole really just hacks at the soil and rips out weeds, cursing when they leave shiny pink weals striping her palms. The pumpkins are big these days. She plants them carefully, watching the new ones take root and balloon out.

When she was a little girl playing outside, she thought that she might find a pumpkin in the patch and coax it to grow so big that she could sit inside it. She would have been a tattered sort of Cinderella, the kind without a fairy godmother, but she might have met a prince anyway. She had hoped. A prince never came along though, and the pumpkins only got to a normal kind of big. She lives alone and doesn’t visit her pumpkins, because they could never really take her anywhere. Sometimes she sits on the porch with her laptop and scares off the birds with the sound of her fingers on the keyboard. She always typed loudly, angrily, as though she had to get the words out in a hurry or she’d forget them entirely.

The air doesn’t smell damp and musty anymore, even when she pats down the soil around the pumpkins. It just smells like dirt now, and she puts down a towel so that the soil won’t dampen her knees. When she brushes a pumpkin with a knuckle she stiffens, surprised, because its skin is smooth and cold against her warmth. She wins a prize for her pie every year now at the fair. It brings her a brief flush of pride, silly really. She knows it doesn’t mean anything, but she always makes an extra or two. She lives off that pie for a week, letting it melt on her tongue and debating whether she ought to have added more cinnamon.

She gets a grim pleasure from hewing into the pumpkin and watching it spill its slime and seeds onto her counter. Her kitchen smells like the distinct sour tang of cold pumpkin flesh for days. The little air freshener plugin that she buys at the drugstore never really helps. Most of the pumpkins stay on the vine until the cold bites, and then she chops them off and throws them into the woods. One of these days, she really has got to start selling them. In October they would make her a mint, to be turned into jack-o-lanterns and all that. Her backyard would be mostly empty, just the bare vines and the scatter of autumn-colored leaves.

For now, Nicole lives alone in her too-big too-empty house with a pumpkin vine out back. She has a decent job and she wins the prize at the fair every year for her pie. It’s good enough, for now. She tells herself that and is reassured. Someday perhaps things will change. Her job will get better, or she’ll get promoted. A prince will come along with a perfectly sized glass shoe and a glint in his eye. The soil will smell like must and damp again, and she can be a child without lines starting on her skin. One of her pumpkins will grow big enough for her to ride away in, and she’ll never have to look back or be in that house again or go to work or make pie or wish for anything else ever after.

Brief Travels

When Arthur first saw her, she was distracted. Harried, confused, and more than a little stressed. Her face was shiny with sweat and her eyes darted from one side of the subway platform to another. She wasn’t beautiful. She was reasonable-looking, mostly. Her cheeks were a little too flat and her chin a little too weak, and her lips pressed together in a disapproving way, biting back some curse or another. Despite that, he knew something at once. He wasn’t sure what it was, but it was something deep and powerful that propelled him to her. He stepped forward from where he’d been standing, his hand twined with Leah’s.

The girl was Rachel, and she was unhappy. She hated to be lost. She was almost relieved when a strange man tapped her shoulder. It was crowded, people pressing up all beside her, but her eyes fixed easily on his face. It was a light, thin face that smiled easily, and her lips curved in answer. Her eyes flickered down, though, to the hand he held clasped in his. “Hey,” he said. “Can I help you?”

They lived in the same town. They had, anyway, before he moved to another city (San Francisco) and she went somewhere else (Boston) for school. Now they were in his place, and she was visiting just for a few days. They explained this to each other as they started up the subway steps to go the opposite direction. They were going to the same place. Of course, she thought.

He lived in San Francisco with his girlfriend, Leah. Rachel smiled vaguely at Leah, and then turned her face back up to Arthur’s. He was telling her about his favorite place in San Francisco, but she only caught the last few words. She smiled at him anyway. When he talked excitedly like that, he had a sort of glow to him. He was lovely like that, caught up in his own words. She thought of this and looked at him, and tripped a bit on the concrete steps.

On the subway train they hardly talked at all. When they got out of the station, Rachel recognized the street. She could do that much, at least. It was only her second day there. She hastily typed her name into Arthur’s phone, and waved goodbye at the couple as they walked off, hand in hand, in the other direction. She got to her friend’s place and into bed without having to say another word. Once the covers were warm on her skin and she was sinking into sleep, she let herself be sad. She wouldn’t remember in the morning anyway.

The next day she didn’t hear from him until 10:38 that night, when she checked her email. She thought of him all day – of the light clear blue of his eyes, of the way he smiled at her as if he knew her. She was sure it wasn’t just her. He had noticed it too.

She emailed him back, and they made plans. The next morning they met up, Rachel and Arthur, and Leah as well of course. They wandered around the city all day. Rachel was grateful to have found someone willing to show her around. The friend hosting her worked all day, and was kind enough already. She was glad, too, to have found someone so friendly. Two someones so friendly, that is.

Arthur watched all the same television that she did. They talked happily about that for a while. They talked about their favorite foods. When she asked him his, he said, “I love fries that are just cooked, all warm and crispy with mayonnaise – the real kind, not in jars or anything. “

She grinned at him, her eyes bright, and said, “Mine is spaghetti with homemade tomato sauce and grated cheese on top.” Nobody else was ever so specific – most people just said “pizza.” He patted her knee, in a casual friendly sort of way. Leah smiled tightly.

The rest of her time there passed like this. She left only two days later, anyway, early in the morning. The night before she left the three of them went to a bar together, an awkward triangle huddled around a corner with their feet curled around the legs of the bar stools and their eyes catching on each other’s gazes.

On the way back they found seats. Arthur sat pressed up against Rachel, the sides of their hips and legs meeting warm and solid against one another. On the other side his hand curled around Leah’s fingers. As they left, he put his foot squarely on a seam in the subway stairs, connecting the two halves with a faint dark line. He climbed the stairs putting a foot on one side and then stepping on the other side, leaning from one half to another until he reached the top and was covered in new night. He could see Rachel’s face as she turned to say goodbye. She hugged him, holding onto him for a moment too long, and then let go. He looked at her for a moment, her face smoky in the city lights and darkness, and then she turned to leave. He turned too, holding Leah’s hand and starting to walk in the direction of home.

Chocolate, Love, and Wishes

The houses piled on the hills, all perched among the trees in red-and-white blocks. They nestled among the furry cascade of trees until they lost themselves in the forest, and the mountain rose above them dark and green. Emma sipped her lemonade without tasting it, feeling the sting of the lemon on her tongue from far away. She stared at the colors of the mountain where they faded in a wash of fog.

“You’re tired? Coffee, very good.” Emma jerked to attention at the sound of the waiter’s voice. It was deep and warm, marked with an accent. He grinned at her, his teeth white against a short beard. She smiled faintly back before her mouth dragged down again.

“No,” she said. “Thanks. I’m just distracted.”

“Ah,” he said. “Then no coffee for you. We don’t give coffee to distracted Americans, is a very bad habit.” Emma glanced up at him, her mouth falling open, but he was still grinning at her. Reluctantly, she let her lips curve into another smile, more genuine this time.

“Too distracted for dessert?” he asked.

She shook her head. “Oh, no, I couldn’t. Dinner was so good – ” She gestured helplessly at the pile of food left on her plate. “I’m stuffed. I can never eat a whole dessert by myself anyway.”

The waiter looked around the cafe, his eyes searching the people littered around tables and the half-empty bottles of wine. “I do not know this word stuffed. But I have plan for you. What kind of dessert you like?”

She craned her neck around to look at the chalkboard, tempted. There were desserts scribbled onto the bottom. She said, “I guess there’s chocolate mousse, I love chocolate. But it’s so rich, I really could never eat the whole thing.”

“I will be back. One moment!” the waiter announced. He disappeared with her plate, leaving her to wish she had eaten more of the carrots. She waited, leaning on the table. Her eyes wandered over the mountain, climbing up past the clusters of houses into the depths of forest above. Close up, she thought, it was probably all twigs and leaves brushing your face and funny smells. From far away, though, it looked like a deep mysterious forest. It looked like the trees would rise up around you and reach into the sky, and the shadows would stretch long and black. It was the kind of forest you could get lost in and stumble upon a witch’s cottage.

“Here.” The waiter’s low voice pushed into her thoughts, and she turned back to the table. He was pushing a goblet in front of her, full to the brim with chocolate mouse and topped with a tuft of whipped cream. She opened her mouth to protest, and he held up a hand. “No, wait. Here is my plans.” He stretched out a hand toward her, and the spoon between his fingers became two, splayed apart. He flipped one onto the table in front of her, and then sank into the empty chair.

Emma paused. She thought about germs, and strange men, and accepting food from people she didn’t know. Then she laughed at herself a little bit and took a scoop of mousse. It was smooth and intense, and melted into cream in her mouth. She closed her eyes to taste it better, and thought the waiter must be watching her. She wondered if he would think she was silly or cute. When she opened her eyes though, he was scooping his own spoonful of mousse out of the glass. She watched him close his eyes and let it melt in his mouth.

They finished the whole goblet between the two of them. The waiter stole the last bite, flashing his mischievous grin at Emma. She smiled back now. Then he got up and left, without a word. She wondered, suddenly upset, and then he returned. He laid a slip of white paper before her and walked away again. Emma leaned to see it, curious, and realized with a flush that it was the bill.

She dug out her wallet, tucked a few bills under her half-finished lemonade, and stood to leave. There over her shoulder was the waiter again, and he smiled at her as she gathered her things. She smiled back, and then she began to walk away. She heard his “goodbye” from behind her, and she wished she weren’t leaving. She wished she could stay where the whole world was beautiful, and learn the waiter’s name, and maybe have more desserts. She kept walking, back to her empty hotel room and her messy suitcase, with the taste of chocolate lingering on her tongue.

In the Magic Place

Joe was staring, his mouth hanging open, his heart beating a rhythm of staccato awe. The woman in front of him was juggling colors. She flung one hand up, the fingers outstretched toward the sky, and a spinning clump of blue whirled in a neat round arc. The red sank into her other hand, which clasped it comfortably, and the yellow and purple flew in between. That all happened in the space of a second, and then she did it again. Her hands, moving up and down, framed a spinning circle of color that smeared pink and green and turquoise between the pieces of color she was throwing and catching.

Arielle tugged on Joe’s hand, and he started. “Come on,” she said, “We don’t have that much time left here, and before I bring you home I want to show you some other stuff.” She was pulling him toward the corner of the block. There was a living statue there. A man was standing next to it, motionless until Arielle plucked a coin from Joe’s shirt pocket and tossed it to him. Then his hand snapped up to catch the coin and he twirled, bowing to them and touching a gentle hand to the lump of silver towering over him. It was softly rounded and droopy, like a piece of metal that was interrupted halfway through melting.

When he touched it, though, it began to come to life. The shapes gathered themselves and their edges shrank into being, lines carving themselves on its surface. Suddenly the lump of silver had lengthened and was a gleaming tiger, tail flicking and head swinging from side to side to watch them with cold metal eyes. The man clicked a finger against it again, and it began to shift once more. It drew itself up and then folded, and then it was a rather old man, shining wrinkles wobbling on his chin and a dapper cap drawn low over his head. He was sitting and reading a silver newspaper on a bench that wasn’t there. One more tap, and the man melted to re-form as a statue, a lovely young woman with blank eyes and perfect proportions, her mouth a round O and her hands clutching a silver sheet around her. Joe and Arielle looked at the statue in its lovely still splendor for a moment, and then the statue smoothed and dropped into nothingness again. They thanked the man, who gave an almost imperceptible nod from his resumed position next to his magic treasure.

There was a candy stall on the next block, just across the street. Joe began to walk toward it, but Arielle caught him by the shoulder. He protested, “No, wait, I just want – ” She shook her head at him, and pulled the other way. He craned his neck to look as he stepped toward her. The second person had just bought a candy and popped it into his mouth. After a moment, he began to float – at first, just a few inches about the sidewalk, but he circled higher and higher until he was several heights above everyone in the street, at the same level as the first floater-eater. The table was piled high with jars and boxes  – Joe read “Fireballs – very hot!” and “Jawbreakers CAUTION” on one corner, while “Rescue Candy” and “Bubbly gum” were stacked on the other. He said, “Listen, Arielle, can’t we just – ”

“No,” she interrupted him. “We can’t. I’m sorry, but I have another tour coming up, and you know you can’t do magics here, not even borrowed or bought-for-a-quarter.”

Joe slumped and followed her, forlorn. The tours were expensive, and he couldn’t afford another for a while. “Chin up,” said Arielle, smiling at him. “We had to get you back to the real world eventually, after all.”