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Lyle Skains lives in North Wales (United Kingdom), with her husband, two cats, and two dogs (one naughty, one nice).  She teaches writing, mostly to fund her Ph. D. studies, and spends her spare moments making things up.  When she's not writing, she's usually out taking photographs, riding horses, or playing soccer or rugby.  Visit http://lyleskains.com to read more of her work, scroll through her blog, or contact her.

Lyle Skains

I wish Ieuan would talk to me.

Not specific enough.  I can't do anything with that, really.  My luck, I'd put all that effort into getting old Ieuan to talk to her, and he'd blather about football.  I'd never get a penny from the git again.

I wish Mummy wouldn't die ever.

Bit ambitious, that one.  I might be capable of living forever down here, but I'm no god (Thank the Fates!  Gods have crushing workloads.).  And I can't share my immortality.  Next.

I wish for her to say yes.

Ugh.  A marriage proposal.  How droll.  Wrong number, mate.  Cupid's exchange is 588.

I always start with the easy ones.  Get little Gavin's doggie to come home.  Direct Mrs. Welling toward her keys.  I've been at the job long enough these little chores are automatic.  Plus, it's nice to see so many checkmarks on the To-Do list this early in the day.

I move on to more intricate desires later.  Evan Landeg wants the promotion he's up for.  His wife Caron wants a baby.  These aren't earth-shattering wishes, but they require a bit of concentration on my part.  It's usually best to start these after I've had my morning tea.

It's often noon by the time I get to the really tough ones.  I take a rest and a repast, and then I settle in.

Some can't be handled in only a day.  Like Ginny Tucker.  Two months ago she dropped 50p on me and wished for her son to stay out of jail till he graduates in four months.  Now, I'm free to cast out the requests that make no sense or that aren't within my power to give, but if I think I can tackle something, well then I'm bound to try.  Besides, it's 50p, and that'll keep me for three months if I can cash it in.  But it's a hell of a job keeping that rotter out of prison.  I've given up on trying to redeem him or direct him away from bad sorts of ideas like taping porn in children's books in the library.  I'm reduced now to simply encouraging the authorities to look the other way.  Works better that way, especially as government staffers are always overworked and undermanned.  (That's something else that's out of my hands.  It's not so much the shortage of workers I can't handle.  It's the shortage of workers smart enough to handle a job.)

It's late in the evening on a Thursday when the 2p plunks into the water outside my alcove, splashing my new gossamer skirt.  It's a hazard of having a waterfront apartment carved in the side of a well.  Dabbing the stain as best I can, I pick the coin out.  I fold my fingers over it and feel the wish.

After a few moments, I sit at my table and set the coin down to contemplate its challenge.

It's not the potential monetary gain from this offering that catches my attention.  Two pence isn't much, only enough to have the old wings cleaned, and not even the premium service at that.  It's not even the wish attached to it: I wish I could crawl into a hole and never come out.  Everybody wishes this at some point (maybe a lot of points).  Myself, I've got a similar desire, but it has a bit more to do with getting out of a certain hole than with getting into one.

Rather, I'm drawn by the wisher: a pale girl who held the coin so tightly before wishing that it was still warm when I fished it from the water.  She didn't stay long at the well, just wished her wish as firmly as anyone ever has, tossed it in, and went on about her daily business.

I stand at the edge of the water, tuppence lying wet in my hand, and stare up at the small circle of night sky.  The girl is gone, but as long as I hold her coin, I can feel her.  Where she is, what she longs for.  If I close my eyes, I can see what she sees, hear what she hears.

She walks up the hill, across the high street.  Her sensible shoes grip the cobblestones, her stride steady.  A mist hugs the tightly packed shops, and it threads through her hair and clothes.  The village is quiet, streetlights struggling to pour their orange light through the murk.

As my wisher approaches a pub a man steps out.  He reeks of beer, and I push her as hard as I can to go into the establishment so I can taste the nectar through her tongue.  But not even the warmth oozing out the open door can entice her to enter.  Wonderful, I've settled on a yawn.

The man doesn't let her pass.  "Ceri, you all right?"  He steps in front of her, not so much to block her but because he knows her and expects her to stop and chat.

I can't see the expression on her face, considering I'm looking out of it, but it bewilders the man.  She doesn't even have the decency to meet his eyes.  Steps around him and keeps on going is all she does.

"Ceri?  Aw, come on.  We don't all blame you.  Ceri!"

Ceri never turns, never slows.  I can feel her cheeks flush, and my view of her world blurs as she tears up.

She continues on to her flat and begins the motions to end her day.  I open my eyes and release the wisher.  I have enough dreams and nightmares of my own without experiencing everybody else's.

I should toss Ceri's wish back in the water.  Hundreds of pennies lie at the bottom, infused with the same wish to hide, to run away.  I never worked them, and I don't know that I want to work hers.

Instead, I go to my kitchen and drag a box from the cupboard.  Inside is another coin.  It's not viable currency these days, but it's worth something.  I dug it out of the soft side of the well an age ago, a bit of bronze dropped carelessly long before anyone dug my well.  I didn't know what to do with it then, the irregular circle bearing the likeness of a distant and ancient emperor.  But I knew it was worth keeping.

I slide Ceri's wish in next to my ancient coin and look up at the sky again.  I can count ten stars through my tiny porthole.  Ceri's stars are a thousandfold more than mine, but I'd bet all my hard earned pennies she doesn't see a one.

***

It's morning, and the plopping of school kids' laughing wishes wakes me.  I stretch and flutter my wings to free them from sleep dust before making my bed.  A proper bed, thank you very much, not some trite walnut shell.  Why anyone would ever want to sleep in something hard enough to crack teeth is beyond me.  I have a pink duvet, which cost me 5p worth of fulfilled wishes, for keeping out the damp.  And I like it.

I bathe in the well, staying under a water-worn ledge of rock to avoid being squished by wishes.  I stay there a lot longer than I usually do, contemplating the gray dome far above.

Breakfast is honey and scones, then I fish for wishes.  Only two worth keeping, and those are easy-peasy: Robbie wants to score a goal in his football match, and Dona wants the spot on her face gone for her date tonight.

I set both their pennies aside to cash in later, then I sit at my table.  I try not to stare at my bag of wishes in progress, the difficult ones, the daily toil.  I think about going back to bed and ignoring them all, but it wouldn't be long before my stash of converted wishes runs out and I start getting hungry.

Hardly anyone bothers to come up with a fresh wish anymore.  I get possibly forty requests a week for a winning lottery ticket, more if the jackpot gets into double digits.  They're all from folks ready to crack under the weight of their day jobs.  After more centuries than I'll admit to, I'm starting to understand those wishes.  Only I don't have a well to drop my secret desires into.

The bag of coins slumps on the table, neither smaller nor larger than on any other day.  I fight the desire to throw the whole lot back in the water.

In a rush, as if I'm hiding it from myself, I abandon the mockery of my daily chores and swoop to the cupboard.  I snatch the tuppence out, clutch it in my hand, and find Ceri.

I waver with confusion when I find her.  I can see two women, one in a chair with an apron on, the other standing behind the first.  The standing woman is pretty, her eyes as blue as the rare patch of clear day I sometimes see at the top of the well.

She says something, and I don't immediately catch it because Ceri speaks at the same time.  Sparks fly in my mind, and I realize the blue-eyed woman is Ceri looking into a mirror.  I don't often gaze into human mirrors; it's the clarity that fooled me.  My own looking glass is old enough to still be called a looking glass.

"Have you thought about changing your color at all, Gwen?" Ceri asks, staring at the top of the woman's head.  "Some highlights might be nice for spring."

"Just the cut, please, love."  Gwen has a magazine in her lap, but her eyes are glued on Ceri's reflection.

Ceri won't look at her, so I shift my focus around through the corners of Ceri's vision.  The shop is posh, all purple velvet, red paint, and bright chrome.  I memorize the scheme, thinking to do something similar the next time I mess about with my arrangements.  A girl's got to redecorate every century or so.

The bell over the door jingles every few moments as ladies with shaggy hair come and others with glam hair go.  Midmorning, and the place is filling up.  Considering the village is small enough to only offer me a few pence worth of wishes a week, half the ladies in town must be in need of a trim.

And every last one of them is sneaking glances at Ceri, when they're not staring outright.

Ceri acts like she doesn't see their scrutiny, but she feels hot and her cheeks in the mirror are pink.

Were it me, I'd round on the lot of them and shout "Boo!"

Not Ceri.  She just combs and cuts.

She snips at Gwen's head, but her customer never looks at her own hair.  Gwen keeps opening her mouth, little webs of spittle forming in the hole.  Then she shuts it again.  She doesn't even flinch when Ceri's increasingly nervous scissors bite off a significant chunk of her dirt-colored hair.  It falls to the woman's breast and clings to that rather deflated hillside.

Say it, I think at Gwen as hard as I can.

It doesn't work that way, of course.  Even if some wish of hers is floating around in my well, I can't find it fast enough to get into her head.  In the part of me sitting at my table, I stamp my foot with impatience.

Gwen's maw gapes again.  It doesn't close.  My wings shiver with excitement.  She will finally say what she came to say, what everyone came to hear.

Very loudly.

"He loved you like the devil, you know."

Everyone in the shop freezes, even Ceri.  The hair dryer in the back shuts off.

Shaking, Ceri recovers and cuts another hunk from Gwen's mop.  I try to influence the scissors to score a bit of flesh, but the pounding of guilt and sorrow coursing through the girl weakens me.

"We all loved him.  Sweetest lad for three counties." 

Gwen's tone is conversational, informative.  She could well be chatting about the personality quirks of the mole on the left side of her neck.  There is an air of accepted fact to her words that slices deeper than any shrill accusation could aspire to.

The blades snip, snick.

"You ought not have done to him what you did.  Broke his heart.  All the way to the bottom of the strait, broken right in two.  His mum, too, did you think of her when you cast the boy off like so much rubbish?  She'll be dead within the year, I reckon."

In Ceri's head, I snarl at the hen.

Ceri takes a different tack.  Finally.  Though her hands shake, her face is a marble mask.  She lifts a mohawk of hair on her comb and slides the scissors underneath the black plastic.  Cuts a swath an inch wide from front to back, all the way to the scalp.  I think I see blood.

Ceri's moving too fast for me to make sure.  She pitches the instruments at the mirror and pushes her way out of the salon, her head ducked behind a cloak of hair.

Before she gets to the door, I hear Gwen finally break into a screech.  It must have been the new 'do.

"You're a tramp is what you are, Ceri Owen!" she screams.  "Dafydd Trow was the best boy ever lived and breathed in this town.  Cer i grafu, slag!"

Dafydd Trow.  I slam back into my own head, leaving Ceri to possibly follow him off the bridge in her shame.

I stumble out of my kitchenette with its comforting blue china and framed images of sprites and mermen.  I kneel by the water's edge and plunge my arm shoulder deep.  It's in there.  Not too deep; it wouldn't take me long to find it if I needed to.

I don't have to touch it, though.  I don't have to hold it in my hand to feel again the wish, again my choice to return it to the well.

He came a week ago, in broad daylight, whistling.  He tossed a penny for a wish that was worth at least 20p: he wanted his girl to marry him.

I despise these wishes.  Either the girl loves him and would marry him without any prodding from me, or she's going to say no.  In that case, my interference leads to doubt and bad marriages.  Down the road lie more desperate wishes: for fidelity, for freedom, for courage to end it after years.  Eventually some sad child dumps his entire piggy bank in my well and asks for his mum to stop crying and his da to come home.

I did the due diligence.  I held Dafydd's penny in my hand and visited his mind for a time.  A short time.

Human beings have a lot of layers.  Most humans never see past anyone's top one or two.  But when I squiggle my way into the source of someone's wish, I see the crevices.

I don't encounter serial killers or the like; they're not popular in my corner of the world and don't often wish upon a penny anyway.  That doesn't mean I don't see ugly things in regular old folk.

In Dafydd, I saw nothing at all.  No layers.  Certainly he seemed sweet and charming; he had nothing else for people to see, nothing to hide.  But the boy was a void, and that emptiness was deeper than my little well.  I didn't yet know Ceri, but no girl deserved to be tied to a hole of a man.  I couldn't entertain the notion to grant him any wish at all.  I scuttled out of his head and hurried to pitch his wish back into the well.  Then I thought no more on it at all.

I pull my hand out of the water.  I don't want to be close to that void again.  Besides, holding the wish of a dead man is enough to have me vomiting my insides for days.  Not pretty.

I think of all the wishes that have crossed my hands, centuries of desires, both petty and massive.  Ive always held to the idea of reasonable doubt in questionable wishes, that the world would sort them out if I cried off.  I work the harmless wishes, or the ones that help people.  Some good in the world has to come from me being trapped in this pit.

I threw Dafydd's wish away, thinking I was doing good, and now he's corked.  I broke his one layer, and he couldn't handle what I left him with.

Ceri is worse than corked; she gets to live to see her life ruined.

I collapse to the bedrock.  I wish to win the lottery, to leave my day job behind.  I haven't had a vacation in 3,000 years; I deserve a winning ticket.

Crying.  I hear crying.  Is that me?  I hope not.  The last time I cried, a nasty bugger of a water sprite stole my tears and used them to flood a seaside village to the north.  I touch my face.  Dry.

The well darkens, and I look up.  Ceri, her features reddened and blotchy, her brave calm tattered, leans over the lip.  Sobbing, she tips a coin down, and it lands a breath away.

I don't even reach out to it.  I don't touch death wishes.

Another wish lies ungranted on the floor.  I stand and pick it up.

I wish I could crawl into a hole and never come out.

Gripping it tightly, I pluck my other hidden coin from my cupboard box.  My Roman coin, worn, degraded, eroded.

Unwished.

I squeeze it in my left hand, Ceri's wish in my right.  I look up to the top of the well where she is crying still, her tears lost before they can touch the water below.

I wish.

I've never done it before, not properly.  I can only hope I'm doing it right.  I push the wish into the Roman coin, capturing it there.

Closing my eyes, I work one last job.  It's a bugger of a task, wrapping wishes together and making them both come out right.  I would have done well to have tea before I attempted it, but there's nothing for it now.

I spread my mind to Ceri's, and I reach out to her.  Shes startled, and her sobs cease instantly.  I bring her eyes into mine.  I show her my little world.

I can feel her sigh as though it were my own.  It is my own.

Trade? I ask her.

She looks at my gas stove, my frilly pink bed, my sterling tea set.  She fumbles with her thoughts, clumsy.  Mine?

Every bit.

I expand my consciousness, showing her the job.  It doesn't take long; granting wishes isn't brain surgery.

I pose the question again.  Trade?

Please.  And now she is weeping again, this time in relief.

Hold on.  I gather my mind back from hers, and I turn to the granting.  I concentrate on both our wishes.  I draw lines.  I set parameters.  I fill the wishes with specifics.

Then I push.  I make the wishes real, like I've done a million times before.

Something touches me.  I feel it on my skin, not Ceri's.  I open my eyes to look at my arm, and dizziness forces me to my knees.  I land on grass, wet and soft.  Rain drizzles over me.  I turn my face to the sky and am glad I am already sitting.  Though it is overcast, it is wider than anything I have ever imagined.  The distance to the horizon is unfathomable, but I can't look away.  I reach out for it as though I could touch it.

I laugh.  If I want, I can touch.  I can walk, skip, run as far as I like.  Buses, trains, unicycles, they're all open to me now.

I stand and peer over the edge of the well.  I can't see her down there, though I imagine I see a glimpse of a wing.

"Thank you!" I call.  She doesn't know what I'm thanking her for, but that's all right.

I dig in my pocket, the pocket that moments ago belonged to Ceri, for a spare coin.  Careful to want for nothing, I toss it down to her.

Then I walk away.

***

I'm at the train station in Caernarfon when I find a Chronicle on an empty seat.  In the bottom right corner is Ceri's picture with a brief caption: "Local girl missing, believed drowned."

In the bottom left corner is a larger picture of a frail but smiling old woman, with a happier caption: "Dee Trow was presented with a 500,000 check after matching 5 Lotto numbers in last week's drawing."

I toss the paper back on the seat.

She'll learn.

 

 

Wish In One Hand