Flower Boy

“Ten baht each! Fifteen baht for two,” Rehan shouted, standing at one of the busiest intersections in Bangkok. Just like any other boys selling goods on the road, he strode between the cars and motorcycles, pulling his cart. He smiled big; that’s what his dad—God rest his soul—once taught him. Smile—that’s how he sold flowers here.

Just then, a tuk-tuk sped by, with its wheel treading on Rehan’s right foot. He lost his balance and fell to the ground.

Then he heard a car stop and its door open. A face was looming closer—an old lady. Rehan remembered her. She was the one who would never open the car window while waiting for the light to turn green. She would stop the car in the red light and stare the whole time at the boys, including Rehan. Especially him. Rehan wondered if he had met this lady somewhere else.

The faces of old people flashed in his mind. He had seen them passing by while strolling through his neighborhood. He decided that he hadn’t met this lady anywhere else. For one thing, she looked too clean and neat. For another, she had a car.

Rehan didn’t like her. She always looked too sad and serious. Sometimes, she shook her head before driving away. Rehan wished she would not look at the boys at all. He thought, after all, she isn’t going to buy anything from us, is she? She never did.

Now in front of Rehan lying on the ground, she cried out, “Oh, dear. Oh, dear. Oh, dear.”

“I’m fine,” Rehan said, raising his head. But his right foot was so painful that tears welled up in his eyes.

“Let me take you to the hospital, boy.” She helped Rehan stand up. As she held his arm for support, Rehan looked around and called out his brother’s name. “Nattapol. Hey, Nattapol!” He knew Nattapol was somewhere on this road, too.

“Why? What’s up?” Nattapol replied from a distance. He was in the middle of selling a fresh coconut to a driver.

“Got something to tell,” Rehan shouted.

“Come here then.”

“I can’t. I can’t walk!”

A car beeped. Nattapol turned back and sold a couple of coconuts to a driver nearby and put the money into his pocket. Then he looked back at Rehan. Between them, cars sped like sharks crossing the sea. Nattapol waited. Then pulling his coconut cart, he came over.

“Are you limping or what?” Nattapol said. “You didn’t break your leg, did you?”

“Sort of. I don’t know.”

Nattapol frowned.

Rehan could tell, by that look, what was going on in his brother’s mind: how costly and luxurious calling the ambulance was, how he couldn’t afford a doctor, not to mention taking some time off from selling the coconuts. Nattapol’s cart was still half full.

Nattapol thought for a moment, then, before the old lady, he made the wai gesture, bowing his head down. He thanked her for helping Rehan and called her “a kind, merciful, gracefully old lady.” She didn’t show much reaction to that. “I’m Aparporn. We’re going to the hospital.” That’s all she said, squeezing Rehan’s hand. Warmth like freshly baked bread flew from her hand to Rehan’s.

Nattapol checked his wristwatch, and then said to Rehan, “Phone me later!” He left. Back to his coconut business.

“I’d just go home,” Rehan said to Aparporn. “I’ll be fine.” But as soon as he said that, he realized he couldn’t even stand still without her help. He found himself leaning on her again. She behaved as if she couldn’t hear any no’s from Rehan. She took him and his flowers to her car and made him lie down in the back seat. Holding a frilly cushion in his arms, Rehan felt as though he were becoming a baby again; he smiled.

Aparporn drove to the hospital. “I saw you every time on my way to the marketplace.”

“I know, ma’am,” Rehan said.

She tried to say something more, and then stopped. They fell silent. At the entrance of the hospital, she handed him her cell phone. “Call your dad or mom.”

“No longer alive. So I live with my older brother and you saw him.”

“Oh, dear.”

Later, Rehan had a cast on his right foot. At the reception desk, Aparporn paid the bill for him, and then gave him a business card.

Rehan looked at the card.

“That’s where I live, with my son.”

He read and looked up. “Rujiporn Thai Cultural Center?”

“I know it’s an unusual place to live.” Aparporn laughed. “Anyway, visit us anytime you want.”

“Okay,” he said timidly.

Then Aparporn gave him a ride home, said goodbye, and left.

 *     *     *

Several weeks later, when he was fully recovered, Rehan went out to pick flowers. This time, he rode his bike to a university, instead of a public park or garden; he didn’t go to the same place every day, afraid he might be caught.

It was still dark outside. In the rose garden, Rehan made sure no one was around, took out his garden scissors, and wore white gloves.

He had just finished picking when someone approached him, holding a flashlight. “Who’s there?” a man said.

Rehan ran to hide, but the man caught him right away.

“You! Come with me,” the man said. “Who are you trying to impress, your girlfriend? Your mom?” He took away the roses and grabbed Rehan’s arm hard. Rehan felt his heart beating fast. The man took him straight to the nearby police station.

He turned out to be a security guard at the university. “Good morning, sir,” he said after sitting Rehan down in front of a policeman.

“Hello, Mr. Armymee,” the policeman said. “Pickpocketing? Or robbing on campus like yesterday?”

“Oh, no. But it is as bad as that. This little thief touched our school property. From our famous rose garden!” Armymee showed the policeman the bundle of roses Rehan had cut. “This, this much.”

“Too bad,” the policeman said.

“Yes. And see here? Look at how it’s cut. It’s so professional. I bet he stole flowers quite frequently. Didn’t you!” Armymee glared at Rehan.

“I just needed to sell flowers. I needed to,” Rehan said.

“What? Stealing flowers and selling them? That’s a crime! A serious crime,” Armymee said. “Oh, it’s worse than I thought.”

The policeman shook his head. “Huh, boys with crazy notions.”

Rehan stared at the ground. He couldn’t stop himself from trembling. This was his first time ever being in the police station, and he had heard about how scary and heartless the local police are. He wanted to say, “I didn’t know it was a serious crime, sir. Really, I didn’t.” But no words came out of his mouth. Fear ate him up.

“Boy, look at me.” The policeman slammed a wooden stick on the desk. “You are…what, nine? Ten? Here’s a pen. Write down your guardian’s phone number so I can call.”

“Well, sir,” Armymee said, “I’ll leave now if you don’t mind. Please don’t go easy on him so he learns a lesson.”

“Staying in a cell will teach a boy to behave,” the policeman said.

 He wanted to say, “I didn’t know it was a serious crime, sir. Really, I didn’t.” But no words came out of his mouth. Fear ate him up.

Rehan stayed in a cell, waiting for his brother. He held the metal bars and looked out. As he did so, cold air washed over his face, and he shivered, wondering if he would be caged here forever. The policemen outside the cell acted as though they didn’t see him, as though he was completely forgotten by the world. An hour passed. Would his brother ever come? Would he? Hot tears dropped from his face.

Later that night, Nattapol appeared. He went to the policeman and apologized, begged, and even bribed him; Rehan had to swear that he would never pick flowers, which were not his, not to mention selling them. Then, the policeman finally let Rehan go home.

Nattapol was silent until they got home, brushed their teeth, and put on pajamas. He turned his back on Rehan and said, “You could’ve gone to prison and stayed there forever. Or been killed by the police at any time. And no one in the world would know you died. You were lucky this time.”

“I know,” Rehan said.

“Oh, what do you know!” Nattapol said. “Anyway, I’m going to bed. It was a tiring day.” He switched off the light and went to bed. Soon, he snored.

“I’m sorry.” Rehan sighed deeply and closed his eyes.

The next day, Rehan opened the windows for fresh air and made breakfast for his brother. While he tidied up the place, he found the business card Aparporn had given him. The card had a phone number and address.

Rehan hesitated for a while, staring at the card. Well, she is a good old woman, he thought, and then went out to the public phone booth to place a call. When Aparporn answered the phone, Rehan asked her if there were any part time job positions available at her place.

“We shall see,” she said. “So, are you going to visit us? I’m glad. Come! I’ll show you around. Wait, let me tell you how to get here easily from there. Do you have a bike?”

After the phone call, Rehan went home to get a map and a bicycle. He then rode from Bangkok to a neighboring city about 40 minutes away. The silky wind tapped his face. “Countryside,” he murmured, breathing in the greens and blues from the sky, trees, and river. The sound of birds replaced the shouts and horns of cars and motorcycles.

Soon, the sign that said The Rujiporn Thai Cultural Center appeared. Aparporn was there to greet Rehan. She then led him to an elephant stable. Rehan wondered, in surprise, if she lived in the stable. He had heard of circus people living inside a camp with their animals.

“That’s my son.” Aparporn pointed at a tall man who was walking the elephants. As Aparporn and Rehan went closer to the fence, the man stopped the elephants and came out. He had a broad forehead, thick eyebrows, and a big nose.

“Who is he, Mom?” the man said.

“Son,” Aparporn said. “You have a spot for a flower boy, don’t you?”

Puzzled, the man was quiet for a moment, and then he burst into laughter. “Well, I guess you’re right about that. We only have flower girls.” He gestured at two small girls standing next to a wooden bangle artist: one with a red flower in her hair and another with a yellow flower behind her ear. Each held a handmade Thai traditional umbrella. A Korean tourist stood between the girls, having a picture taken with them.

Rehan thought the girls looked pretty in Thai traditional dress. Then he found Aparporn’s son staring at him, standing closer. “What are you doing?” Rehan said.

“Looking into your eyes,” the man said. “You have the eyes of a sparrow. Good. Now show me your teeth.”

“Teeth?”

The man nodded.

“Really? Why?”

“They’re the window to your soul, dear,” Aparporn said.

“Oh.”

“No worries, boy,” the man said. “Let’s be friends. I’m Bank. The manager of this cultural center. And your name?” He held out his hand.

“Rehan.” Rehan shook it.

Outside, the sky darkened and the warm evening air blew. It was not too humid. At first, Rehan insisted on sleeping in a stable with elephants, but both Aparporn and Bank said no-no to that. They said Rehan was their guest. So Rehan decided to make himself useful by helping Bank feed the elephants and hungry street cats and dogs.

The three went inside the house. As Aparporn went to the bathroom, Rehan stood in the living room and looked at the photo hanging on the wall—dozens of smiling boys in school uniforms. Next to them stood a man who appeared to be a principal, and Aparporn in a black dress.

“Taken right before my mom retired,” Bank said. “It was a private secondary school for boys.”

“Does she miss her students?” Rehan said.

“I don’t know. She hardly talks about them anymore.”

The following day, Rehan stayed in Aparporn’s house and helped Aparporn prepare to cook, clean up, water the plants, scrub the windows and mirrors, and dust off the piano and closets. He even followed her to the Buddhist temple for early-morning prayer and to a walk along the river around the palace. He felt as though he had become her secretary. And a friend.

Just as Aparporn suggested, Rehan phoned his brother and told him that he would probably be here for a couple of days, like having a short holiday.

“Okay. Cool. My girlfriend will stay here until then. Bye.” Nattapol hung up the phone.

Rehan at first hesitated to stay longer, but then he thought about Aparporn’s delicious Patai and Tomyamkum. And her breakfast plate: banana bread, mango, and coconut milk ice cream. And a shower with hot water every night. That’s something, he thought. Besides, he loved the small books Aparporn lent him. They were boys’ adventure novels written in simple language. Rehan enjoyed reading them and talking about them with Aparporn afterwards.

One week later, Bank, Rehan, and Aparporn were looking out the living room window at the stars. Bank pointed at the elephant stable and said to Rehan, “You can commute to here and clean that place. And other places I might ask. I’ll pay you, of course. Which means you’re hired! What do you say?”

“Er…” Rehan thought and thought.

“It’s good,” Aparporn said, “that you decided to find another job. I never liked you selling flowers on that road. Too dangerous. Risking to earn so little. What’s the point?”

“No!” Rehan felt as though he was suddenly awake. “I sell flowers. I have to. I must.”

“No, boy, we won’t allow it,” Aparporn said.

“Haa.” Rehan wondered why everyone was trying to stop him from doing what he wanted, what he loved to do. The policeman, the university security guard, the tuk-tuk driver, and his brother, they all flooded his mind. He thought, leave me alone. Leave me alone!

“You could have been killed by cars,” Aparporn said.

Rehan shook his head. “Doesn’t matter.”

“Gosh.” Aparporn covered her mouth with her hand.

“You’ve cleaned our house so well,” Bank continued. “And what I pay is much better than what you would’ve earned by working all day on that road. And safer!”

“He’s right. Safer! And I’ll take care of you, like a grandson,” Aparporn said. Then she gave Rehan a hug. “Yeah?” She looked at his face.

Rehan bit his lip. He couldn’t think of something excellent to say. Maybe, if he thought hard enough. He wanted to show them he could make a judgment on his own. Hadn’t he already survived three months without his parents?

“Whatever.” Rehan opened the door and walked outside, leaving Aparporn and Bank alone.

Rehan walked towards the forest, past the elephant stable. Soon, his shoes met the dark brown earth, and the forest perfumed. He sat down near milky mushrooms. “I’m a flower boy. I am,” he murmured, his finger pushing down a fern leaf, again and again. All was so quiet that he imagined the whole forest was silently listening to him. So he went on. “I wonder if my parents are a gardener and florist in another world, just as they were on Earth. And I wonder if their place is crowded with flowers. And if they have a room left for me there.”

“Rehan! Rehan!” Somebody shouted at a distance. Recognizing the voice, Rehan stood up.

Bank came to him. “All right? What about a big mug of hot chocolate? With lots and lots of cream on top.”

“Okay.” Rehan choked back his tears.

He followed Bank to the house, then to the kitchen. There, he felt drowsy. He sat on a chair, gulping his hot chocolate, feeling the stream of water inside him. A chocolate river.

Aparporn came in, looking anxious. “Umm.” Her mouth was moving a little to form a word. “Sor—”

Rehan cut her off, saying loudly, “I’m a flower boy, and I’m proud of it!”

Rehan cut her off, saying loudly, “I’m a flower boy, and I’m proud of it!”

Aparporn said nothing. She made tea for herself and sat in front of Rehan, sipping the tea and spreading the smell of peppermint. She stared at him for a while, and then said, “Yes, my friend. You would wear a sunflower smile, big and bright, I remember.”

“You do?” Rehan said. After swallowing the tears and wiping tears from his eyes, he took out a photo from his wallet and showed it to Aparporn.

Bank came closer to Aparporn, and they looked at the photo of a young man and woman in front of a flower shop. Bank and Aparporn looked surprised.

“Mom and Dad. They sold flowers there. And I helped them.”

“Ah,” Bank said.

“And I told them I would become a florist, too…that I would sell flowers.”

“I see. They look lovely, dear,” Aparporn said.

“Nice shop,” Bank said.

“Ummm, hummm.” Rehan nodded, trying hard not to cry. He wished he and his brother hadn’t lost the flower shop after their parents’ death. Then he wished they hadn’t lost their parents.

“Hmmm, it’s getting late. Goodnight,” Bank said. He gently tapped Rehan’s shoulder and left the kitchen.

Aparporn led Rehan to the guest bedroom and tucked him in. She didn’t need to do this; Rehan said so, but she made no reply. Rehan thought, she seems to be enjoying all this. Aparporn smiled and turned off the light before leaving the room quietly.

Rehan stayed wide awake until late at night, thinking over what Bank had said and imagining his new future. A possibility. Maybe not, he thought. I’d better not. Oh, I’m not sure.

At dawn, Bank woke up Rehan and took him to the marketplace that was about to open. He led Rehan to a wooden cart containing baskets of blooming flowers and small plants pots. The seller stood, half hidden behind the bombardment of colors.

Rehan gave Bank a questioning look.

Bank gave him some coins. “You shall remain a flower boy. Be our flower boy plus our cleaning boy. You can buy flowers here every day.”

Rehan looked. It was enough money to buy a bundle of flowers. Rehan chose light pink and cream-colored calla lilies. Then he said softly, without looking at Bank, “Thank you.”

“So, is everything good?”

“Yes, Bank.”

“Then you’re welcome. I’m happy if you’re happy.” Bank walked to his car. Rehan followed him behind, holding the bundle in his arms real gentle—like someone falling in love.

*     *     *

In front of the elephant stable, Rehan stood handing out the flowers—which he had bought this morning—to the tourists who came to ride an elephant. This had become his daily routine.

Now there was only one flower left in his basket; a tourist in spring dress gladly received it. One hand holding the hem of her dress, another hand holding the hand of her fiancé, she sat on the back of an elephant. She then leaned toward her fiancé, holding the flower right in front of her chest. The elephant glanced at Rehan once and set off with a hoot, toward the forest under the noon sun.

Nayoung JinNayoung Jin has found love and the meaning of life in creative writing thanks to all the great teachers she met at the University of British Columbia (Vancouver). In her free time, she enjoys taking part in Story Hours at a nearby community center, singing, and reading picture books for toddlers.

She has had a creative nonfiction piece based on her childhood published by M– USED, an animal story for children published online by a U.K. company, Alfie Dog Fiction, a poem for teens published by CICADA, and a children’s story for the LGBT community published by Wilde Magazine.

Louisa and the Moon

Have you ever wondered what it is the moon is doing when it’s up there? Hanging in the night sky? Well, don’t. It’s a silly question. The moon is obviously doing what the rest of us are doing when the sun is down. Sleeping.

However, there are nights when the moon can’t sleep. When the moon tosses and turns fretfully, lurks alarmingly behind clouds, causes milk to sour and dogs to bark and old European grandmothers to frown suspiciously and draw the curtains early.

In the manner of you or I looking out at the moon in a fit of insomnia, some nights when the moon is awake, the moon likes to look through the window of a small girl named Louisa. The light rolls off the roof, creeps down the siding, and leans against the glass.

When the moon had first started watching Louisa, she was a little tiny thing being put to cradle by some adult or other. Later on, Louisa was a little toddling thing, who was put to bed with songs and murmurs, and pulled herself up the edges of her cot, peering out at the world through round eyes. By this time, Louisa is a little walking thing, who sometimes sits drawing at a tiny desk before going to bed. Other times, she flips the pages of a storybook in the big chair by the window before going to bed. Sometimes, she sits on the floor eating a snack before bed. Sometimes, she is not in the room at all, but about in the house, only returning to her bedroom just in time to turn the lights out and go to bed. Once she’d been sleeping at her grandparents’ house when the moon was awake and feeling dull, and shortly thereafter the moon had sulked itself to sleep, bereft of amusement.

Now, one night, the moon woke up from an unpleasant dream (yes, the moon has nightmares, too) and decided to look through Louisa’s window. When the moonlight reached Louisa’s window, it curled back on itself, jumping to find Louisa sitting up sleepily in the chair by the window, looking back out at the Moon.

“Hello,” Louisa yawned. “I couldn’t sleep. What are you doing up?”

The moonlight glimmered skittishly outside her window.

“You can come in if you like,” Louisa offered, small voice polite. “I can see you out there. You’re quite bright, you know.”

The moon hesitated for a moment, but, finding the object of its curiosity beckoning in a perfectly amiable, if half-asleep, manner turned out to be too potent a pull, and bit by bit the moonlight came through Louisa’s window, falling to the floor and throwing glowing patches of light across the carpet, over the little desk, up over the edges of Louisa’s nightgown as she sat curled in the big chair.

“Oh, pretty!” Louisa said, watching the silver light play off the white walls, gleam off the mirror, and send moonbeams to play with the dust.

“I had a nightmare,” Louisa stated, “and I didn’t want to go back to sleep and keep having it, so I got up to look at the light outside. It’s nicer having light inside. The dark is a bit scary after a nightmare. The shadows seem to jump out at you.”

As if to oblige, the moonlight chased some shadows from under the desk out beneath the crack under Louisa’s bedroom door. She laughed.

“Seem to, I said.”

Louisa pulled the blanket more snugly about her small shoulders and yawned again.

“It is nice having you, but I really ought to sleep. I’d get a story book, but I wouldn’t be able to see you with the light on.”

The moonlight flowed over the floor, up to the far wall of Louisa’s bedroom, and lit up the wallpaper. It called back the shadows it had chased under the door, and, alternately, bright and dark horses and cats and birds ran and flew over Louisa’s walls, and she laughed, but into her blanket, lest someone hear.

Running around her ankles, the moon lit the way to her little bed, and Louisa curled up again.

On the wall before her, the silver light began making shapes again.

First, a bright shape rising over shadows. The moon. Then, a low little tree, and a dark little house, with a single bright window. The house and window grew on the wall, as the moon coaxed the wee shadows into its visions, and Louisa sleepily watched as the dark shape of a lady put a small bundle into a cradle in the window. The bright moon moved back and forth and up and down on the wall, and the little tree grew higher. In the bright shape of the window on the wall, a man was putting a small child into a tiny bed. Louisa laughed again as she realized what she was watching.

The moon moved, and the tree grew, and now a shape of a girl was looking out the window. Now she was reading. Louisa waved out the window at the big moon from her bed.

The girl in the window on her wall waved out at the little moon on her wall.

The little, bright window of light on the wall grew even bigger, and the shadow girl was in her shadow bed, falling asleep, while the little, bright moon went down.

But Louisa was already asleep, and the moon crept out her window, rolled back over the walls and roofs and trees, and beamed brightly enough to annoy the clouds, who disbanded in a snit and rolled off elsewhere, and the whole hemisphere glowed brightly that night, with many astronomers and meteorologists scratching their heads.

But the moon was quite pleased with its new game, and if you ever find yourself troubled to sleep, find a bit of light from outdoors on the wall or ceiling. It will play marvelous tricks with you, and perhaps show you something true.

Shannon AndersonShannon Anderson is a student, traveler, writer, and jill of all trades from Thunder Bay, Ontario. She’s been journaling and writing poetry for years, and has enjoyed jobs as varied as wine making, donut baking, and lingerie selling. She loves wine, dinner parties, and naps, and when I grow up I want to be Robertson Davies.

The Self-Improvement Plan

I found this perfect song. It’s a sort of jazz-gospel thing I lifted from one of my dad’s playlists, totally not what I’m normally into, but I like the groove. There’s a little organ intro that I use for warm-up stretches, then it slips into this steady beat for ten crazy-long minutes that builds perfectly while I’m on my speed rope. Three skips to a beat, perfect for getting this girl’s heart rate to a steady one-twenty at 7:30 in the morning.

My best friend Serena and I made this pact to get in shape this summer, to get into a healthy routine and enter senior year ready to crush it. It was Serena’s idea. Speed skipping, something I think she read about in a magazine. Ten minutes skipping with a rope, then an isometric upper body routine, then a short jog over to the pool for a swim. We went online and calculated how many calories we’d burn and what we needed to eat afterward. We made a list of forbidden foods and restaurants to avoid. Our self-improvement plan also included reading one work of classic literature a week followed by a weekly discussion. The problem was that Serena’s idea of classic was Little House on the Prairie when I was thinking along the lines of The Stranger, so we dropped that part of the plan.

In the end it didn’t matter because Serena bailed on me in the first week. On the second day she complained of cramps but kept me company and encouraged me during the workout. On the third day she overslept her alarm and told me she’d meet me at the park but then never showed up. Given that she barely ever made it to school on time I don’t know why I thought she’d get up before noon during the summer if she didn’t have to. After that third day she just didn’t even bother to make excuses and we never mentioned it.

I can’t say I was surprised. In middle school Serena decided to run for Student Council, which meant collecting student signatures to get on the ballot. She seemed like a perfect candidatelikable, wanting to please everyonebut when we went to turn in her candidate papers she…well, she said she lost them, but I saw them crammed in the back of her locker once. In sixth grade we were part of a science project on electricity and Serena volunteered to make the oral presentations, which was awesome because no one wanted to do it. But Serena was absent every day we were scheduled (and rescheduled) to present. In the end Ms. Macque knocked us down a grade because our project was incomplete. Even when we were ten years old we spent two days getting everything together for a lemonade stand, buying lemons and making signs, Serena made it sound like we were going to be millionaires. When it was time to set up the stand she said her mom wouldn’t let her. In those early days when she said her mom wouldn’t let her do things I just accepted it; you’ll overlook your best friend’s faults for a long time before you even realize you’re doing it.

The first couple weeks of the workout were hard. I remembered my 8th grade science teacher Mr. Whitaker saying that it takes three weeks for the brain to create and replace new habits with old ones. At the time he was trying to convince us to give up sugar until after school and had us keep a journal of our progress. None of us made it to the three-week mark, but Mr. Whitaker was philosophical about it. “You have to really want it to make it happen. And maybe you can use this experiment to understand how hard it is for some people to change certain habits and addictions.” We rolled our eyes at the time because we knew he was secretly trying to scare us away from smoking. He was right, of course, but his insights were wasted on our immature 8th grade brains.

By seven in the morning the pretentiously-named Oxford Gardensa pocket park that used to be the backyard of a razed mansion from the 1820swas already alive with people divided into two groups. Parents and nannies congregated at the north end with the playground equipment, turning it into a crawling infestation of tiny terrors reveling in their ability to run without falling and the discovery that “outside voices” could be louder than emergency vehicle sirens. At the south end the dog owners huddled around the picnic tables talking, throwing balls, and casually picking up dog crap. Off to one side near the playground but enclosed on three sides by bushes there’s a square of concrete that used to be a public water fountain. When I was a tiny terror myself the town would have these fountains in the parks running all summer, but that ended one day when this one little guy got pushed back by the force of a fountain and cracked his head open. Totally a freak accident but the Neighborhood Overprotective Parent Association forced the city to shut down all the fountains. That was also when they insisted on a name change to “distance the park from bad memories” which was how Ames Street Park became Oxford Gardens.

Fine by me, they left that perfect little square of concrete so I could speed-skip while Serena slept her summer away.

Three weeks in now and I’ve got this rhythm down. I start facing the playground, hit the music, and do my stretches. When the drum kicks in I start skipping, three skips to the beat, and every three beats I rotate an inch or two counter-clockwise. I’m like one of those Rain Bird sprinklers, letting the rhythm and momentum carry me along.

Skip-skip-skip. Skip-skip-skip. Skip-skip-skip. SHIFT-skip skip.

There’s the mom with triplets who clearly got more than she bargained for when she said she wanted a big family. She talks to the Hispanic nanny with the two shy kids and punctuates her sentences with the word honey in a way that sounds both sweet and accusatory. “I love those earrings! You buy those yourself, honey?”

Skip-skip-skip. Skip-skip-skip. Skip-skip-skip. SHIFT-skip skip

Some days I get so lost in the rhythm that the song will end and totally catch me by surprise.

Myra’s here with her little brother, Joey. I used to babysit for Myra when she was Joey’s age but now she’s inherited the job. From the way she snarls when she sees me I suspect she resents it. She’s probably making less in weekly allowance than I used to charge an hour for sitting them. Myra’s not as careful about watching Joey as I used to be. The result is that he’s always covered in bruises and Band-Aids. It’s because she’s usually buried too deep in a trashy teen book to notice when Joey’s got his head stuck between the bars of the playground equipment or his foot caught on a tree branch. The adults nearby are usually there to bail her out but you can tell they disapprove of Myra by the looks they give each other behind her back.

Skip-skip-skip. Skip-skip-skip. Skip-skip-skip. SHIFT-skip skip

I’ve gotten to where I know the names of the dogs but not their owners. It’s funny how the owners calling their dogs sounds the same as the adults at the other end of the park calling after their kids.

Sammy, get back here!

Portia, get that out of your mouth!

Lynette, stop that!

Sammy, you get down from there!

Trixie, you be good and share!

Sammy, no!

Skip-skip-skip. Skip-skip-skip. Skip-skip-skip. SHIFT-skip skip

At this point I can close my eyes while I’m skipping; my balance is impeccable. I’m able to make full rotations without drifting from the drain in the center of the cement. Some days I get so lost in the rhythm that the song will end and totally catch me by surprise. It’s like I’ve found this place that exists and doesn’t exist at the same time, what I imagine time travel feels like, a little disorienting and dream-like. I mentioned this once to my dad, the self-proclaimed “lapsed Buddhist,” and he thinks I’ve probably touched the edges of Satori. He says it sounds like I’ve skipped into my “inner essence.” He’s always making ordinary things try to sound deep. I told him that I’m just getting healthier, that I was probably hitting some sort of endorphin rush, and that my self-improvement plan didn’t include achieving a Zen state. All he did was smile, which pissed me off for some reason. Not very Zen of me, I know.

Skip-skip-skip. Skip-skip-skip. Skip-skip– 

*     *     *

I had my eyes closed when I heard the scream and the thump of a car hitting something. Or maybe they both happened at the same time. I was so deep in the rhythm that I almost wasn’t sure where I was when I pulled the earbuds off. Loose dogs were called in and put on leashes, all present and accounted for to everyone’s relief. Kids were gathered to the far end of the playground while a few adults ventured the opposite direction toward the fence not far from where I stood. I had to step out of the enclosed fountain area to see what they were looking at out on the street. I dropped my rope and wrapped my earbuds on autopilot as I walked to join the adults studying a Prius idling in the middle of the street. Someone was crouched down in front of the car, pleading.

“No, no, no! Please, no! Please, Rocky, please get up!”

Rocky.

I knew Rocky. He was a rambunctious wire-haired terrier owned by the Sandersons. He didn’t normally come to this park; he lived closer to my old elementary school…

Across the street from Serena.

That was when I realized who was talking to Rocky.

The mothers got to the edge of the park fence first, moving with fake smiles that betrayed their casual urgency, eyes always glancing back at their own children. Myra and Joey quickly joined them, to the visible disapproval of the other adults.

“You probably should take your brother back to the playground, honey.”

The dog owners had gathered at park entrance, near enough to catch a glimpse of what was happening but not close enough for their dogs to understand one of their own was involved. I made it to the edge of the fence not really sure I wanted to see whatever had happened. People who lived in the houses surrounding the park came out to see Serena hovering over the motionless body of a dog with the driver of the silver Prius stood over her on her cell phone.

“Please, Rocky…”

“…Fine, send Animal Control or whoever,” the driver said, her voice wavered with a combination of anger and fear. “Just…this dog needs help.”

Satisfied that a child wasn’t hurt the parents and nannies turned to calmly usher the kids home. The dog owners also began to drift away, unwilling to expose themselves to the heart-sickening feeling that it could have been any of them.

“He’s gonna be alright, right?” Serena said to the driver.

“He’s still wagging his tail,” the driver said.

Serena looked back to Rocky. “I knew this was a bad idea…” Her voice had the brittle tone of a little kid trying to grasp the concept of being trouble, while hoping there was no punishment involved. Maybe she expected Rocky to reassure her, or at the very least forgive her.

Myra turned to me with a confused face and I fixed her with a glare, the look I used when babysitting that meant It’s-time-to-go-and-I’m-serious. She took Joey’s hand and led him away without looking back.

Serena found herself surrounded by curious neighbors in the middle of the street. There wasn’t really anything I could do, but I thought she could use a friendly face. As I made my way out of the park everything looked slightly smaller than before, like I’d grown and the world receded proportionally, all in a matter of minutes.

A police car pulled up just as I got to the Prius. As the crowd parted to make way for the cruiser I saw Serena crouched in a tiny ball with her head as close to Rocky as possible, quietly whispering to him.

“I’m so sorry,” Serena looked up at the driver. “He pulled the leash right out of my hands.”

The police officer got out of his car and the Prius driver headed toward him.

“He darted out from between these two parked cars…” The driver pointed. Closer now I could see the driver was maybe in her late 20s, easily post-college and with a good enough job to afford a new hybrid. Smart, composed, very together. She looked like the kind of person I imagined myself becoming in a few years.

“These cars,” the officer said, “Some of them are so damn quiet you can’t even hear them until they’re right up on top of you.”

“This isn’t my fault,” the driver said defensively.

“It isn’t anyone’s fault,” the officer said. “They’re called accidents because no one does them on purpose.” He crouched down on the other side of Rocky, facing Serena. “What’s this fella’s name?”

“Rocky?” Serena’s eyes were red and puffy. She looked over the officer’s shoulder and saw me standing just behind. I gave her a weak smile and a little wave, probably the worst reaction in the world, given the circumstance.

“Hey, Rocky. How you doing?”

Rocky lifted his head a little and gave his tail a couple of weak thumps against the pavement. The officer carefully placed one hand on various parts of Rocky’s body, applying only the briefest amount of pressure. Then he carefully took one of Rocky’s limp paws and gave it a light squeeze. Rocky didn’t even flinch.

“He’s going to be alright, isn’t he?” Serena said.

“I’m not a vet, but you just keep talking to him until someone gets here.”

No, no, no, I thought. You don’t say that. You tell her he’ll be okay.

Serena got it. I saw it in her face. She got told the trutha solid dose of wake-up call realityand it didn’t instantly kill her. Now she had to deal with it.

The officer pulled the driver away to the sidewalk to get a statement. A woman from one of the houses who said she witnessed what happened joined them. I moved around and crouched next to Serena.

“Rocky?” I said. “How’s it going there?” Rocky tried to lift his head again to look at me and when he did I slid my hand under his head. His tail began thumping against the pavement and didn’t stop.

“What are you doing?” Serena said. “Don’t move him, you might hurt him more.”

“He’s scared,” I said. “He doesn’t understand what’s going on. He probably thinks he’s being punished. Stupid dog.”

“I just wanted you to see I wasn’t a total loser,” Serena mumbled. I pretended I didn’t hear her while I reached under Rocky’s neck with my fingertips, unclasped his collar, and handed it to her.

“Here, call the Sandersons and let them know what’s going on.”

“They’re in Tahiti. It’s, like, the middle of the night there.”

That didn’t make sense; it couldn’t have been the middle of the night. I looked at Serena’s face and it was as if a ten-year fog had lifted. Serena lived in fear, constantlya walking raw nerve doing everything it could to avoid bumping into the rest of the world. Instead of making me feel sorry for her my blood began pumping with rage.

Rocky’s tongue flicked in and out of his mouth. “Get my water bottle. It’s over at the fountain.”

Rocky kept his eyes trained on my face, that dog look of total trust that can melt your heart just as surely as it can betray you. I knew this look; it was seared into my memory when I was seven years old, a look accompanied by the endless echoes of my parents’ voices.

He’s your responsibility, Gwen.

He’s a living creature, Gwen, don’t you forget that.

He isn’t our pet. We’re his caretakers.

Don’t let him eat that sticker grass.

Foxtails. Those annoying burrs that get caught in your socks when you walk through an overgrown field. Technically, a diaspore grass. I learned that in science.

You need to brush those out of his fur, Gwen.

That sticker grass can make him really sick.

Some dogs can’t resist eating foxtails. But the tips are sharp as needles and can get lodged in the soft spot at the back of the throat.

Come help me get him into the car, quickly!

The animal doctors will know what to do.

The infection from the foxtail tips can spread, sometime to the eyes, sometimes to the brain.

I know it hurts, sweetie.

Sometimes you have to close your heart and say goodbye.

And right up to the end they give you those big puppy eyes. Stupid dogs.

“Yes, you are! You are a stupid doggie, aren’t you?”

“Here’s your water,” Serena said. “And stop calling him stupid.”

“He doesn’t understand the words, just the tone. Get your hand down here and make a cup, pour some water in it.”

Serena put her hand on the ground warily like she thought Rocky might bite her but his tongue flicked at the water. On instinct she tipped her hand so some of the water poured into Rocky’s mouth. When it was gone she poured a second handful of water and Rocky licked his chops, tail pounding the ground harder than before.

I took her free hand and swapped it for my hand supporting Rocky’s head. Rocky’s eyes darted between Serena and me as we made the switch.

“It’s okay, Rocky,” I said. “She’s right here. She won’t leave you.” I glared at Serena so she understood what I was saying.

“Where are you going?” Serena said.

“Keep talking to him, Ser. Just stay with him…”

“Gwen?”

I couldn’t look at Serena; her eyes would be as bad as Rocky’s, and that would only piss me off even more. She had to do this; she had to finish something for once.

I got to the entrance of the park where only a handful of dog walkers had stayed to watch, their dogs blissfully wagging their tails and straining against leashes.

“How bad?” one woman asked me.

“No blood or anything, but he won’t get up,” I said.

Portia’s owner reeled back on her heels. Sammy and Trixie’s owners turned away.

“That’s why I’m never hiring a teen as a sitter,” Trixie’s owner said. “They mean well, but that’s just not good enough.”

I wanted to scream. We aren’t all irresponsible, I wanted to yell. I wanted to tell them about how Serena was once Student Council President, how she got us the highest score on our group science project, how she had the most successful lemonade stand in our neighborhood when we were kids. I wanted them to know how wrong they were. But I didn’t.

I couldn’t.

Saving Serena wasn’t part of my self-improvement plan.

An animal control truck pulled up and the crowd parted to let the officers inspect Rocky. From my workout spot I could see Serena slowly stand, her face slack. I put my earbuds back in and reset my workout music to the part where the drums kicked in. I thought I heard a sound, like a yelp, and I saw the police officer usher Serena away when I went to pick up my rope. I counted backward from five and when I hit zero slipped into skipping with the rhythm, eyes closed.

Skip-skip-skip. Skip-skip-skip. Skip-skip-skip. SHIFT

davidelzey_headshot_optDavid Elzey is a graduate of the Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA program in Writing for Children and Young Adults. He’s had poetry published in the Found Poetry Review and is currently at work on a novel entitled Petting Zoo. This is his first published short story.

Wishing Day

Taleb stood at the far end of the Town Hall lodge, peering at the parchment that had been tacked to the wall.

RULES FOR WISHING DAY

  1. You must be at least 16 years old to participate.
  2. One wish per person.
  3. Wishes cannot be given away.
  4. Wishes cannot be used to do harm.
  5. Death is permanent. You cannot wish for someone to return from beyond.
  6. Your wish will only last four hours—be prepared for it to end.
  7. Report to Wish Square at six o’clock. Entry will not be granted without a ticket.

Outside, the sun spilled across the afternoon sky, pushing the clouds to the edges of the horizon. The air, though bright, snapped with the crisp taste of autumn, but inside the lodge it was warm, as if autumn didn’t dare to enter, waiting instead at the doorway to peer at the gathering within.

Taleb had been one of the last to arrive, long after the cluster of old-timers had claimed the center of the room and the four-piece fiddle band had converged in the front corner. Later than his schoolmates, or the farmers who had put the animals to pasture and made their way to town.

The lodge hummed with anticipation, and the mayor bustled through the crowd, cheeks the color of flames, while his wife followed behind, trays of spiced peach pies balanced on her wide arms.

Taleb stood quiet, apart from the others, his hands tucked into his pockets. A flurry of unease had gathered in his stomach, weighing him down. The gathering was too loud, too happy, too overwhelming. He knew he shouldn’t have come.

Ila caught Taleb’s eye and waved him over to where a group of schoolmates had gathered.

Taleb shook his head and turned away. How could he stand next to Ila and pretend he wanted to be there? Debate wishes that he didn’t want to cast? His schoolmates would be laughing about their mothers, who’d spent the morning clucking over their sons and daughters, scrubbing their faces and dressing them in their best Wishing Day clothes, and their fathers, who’d gravely spilled out wisdom on the best way to cast a wish.

Of course, that was the real problem, wasn’t it? It wasn’t the volume of the room, or the pitch of the fiddles, or even the bluster of his mates. It was the fact that no one had clucked over Taleb today. No one had given him advice, or laid out his best clothes. There was only Mawmaw, and she was lying in bed at home, too troubled for clucking or wishes.

Taleb traced over rule number five. Death is permanent. No matter how badly he wanted it, he couldn’t have his parents back.

He scooted through the crowd to the rear of the room, the opposite direction of his mates. The back door was held closed by a thick wooden beam. All Taleb had to do was slip it out of its clasp and he’d be free of this day. He could go back home, sit in the far corner of the yard, and pretend he couldn’t hear the fireworks. Ignore the cheers and hooting that would fill the town square. No one would notice he wasn’t there.

“Taleb.”

Taleb turned, his knuckles grazing the door.

Mika, the blacksmith, stood near the stairs leading to the stage. Coarse red hair crowded over his ears; the ginger strands were shot with threads of grey. “Where do you think you’re sneaking off to?”

Taleb tucked his head. “Home,” he mumbled.

“Ridiculous. The fun hasn’t even started.”

“Yes, Taleb, you must stay.” Forita, the baker, spun in front of Mika, her braids swirling around her head. “You’re meant to be here. Besides, I’ve learned new steps to the music.” Forita smiled at the burly smithy. “Dance with me, Mika,” she called as she twirled. “Let’s show Taleb how it’s done.”

Mika plucked at the thick nest of beard on his chin. “I haven’t danced in years, you silly woman. I’m not going to start now.”

Forita’s laughter wove through the air. “Just you wait. I’m going to wish to be the most beautiful woman in town. Then you’ll have to join me.”

Mika winked. “I’ll be looking for you then, my dear. And you can join me in the twenty-course feast I’m wishing for.”

Forita wobbled to a stop in front of Taleb. “Do you see what I put up with, Taleb? Mika doesn’t know what he’s missing.”

Mika’s deep chuckle rumbled in his chest. “So what are you going to wish for, lad? Fine clothes, buckets of candy, a delightful young lady with which to pass the time?”

Would the townspeople hate him for what he was about to do?

Forita shook her head. “Those are trifles, you red-bearded fool.” She caught Taleb’s hands and clasped them in her own. Her palms were warm and she smelled like lavender, a dark, mysterious scent. “Think deeper. You could ask for a rare musical talent or to swim like a fish. You could be handsome. Not that you aren’t already quite the fine young man.” She wiggled his chin in her hand. “I swear. Look at you, lad, all grown up. Your first wishing day. Your parents would have…” She stopped and a furrow creased her brow.

Your parents would have been happy. Taleb heard the words in her silence.

Forita studied him. She bent down, eye-to-eye. “Take advantage of the day, Taleb. You deserve one afternoon of happiness.” She put her hands on Taleb’s shoulders and pointed at the door. “Go. Walk in the woods, clear your head. Get away from this noise and you’ll realize that it’s what they would have wanted.”

Taleb left the lodge and kicked his way through the tall, amber grass that lined the hillside. At the top of the hill he stopped, one hand raised to shade his brow.

To the north rose the Dornay Mountains, their dusted caps an early sign of the changing seasons. Mawmaw’s house was near the outskirts of town, in the shadow of the Dornay Mountains. It had once been a cozy haven, but the house was dingy now, and her garden had disappeared into a tangle of weeds, brown except for an empty plot at the corner of the property.

Directly below him was Wish Square, the center of town, with lanes of cedar-roofed cottages spiraling outward. Signs of Wishing Day were everywhere. Every street was strung with ribbons, and banners lined the shops. Wish Square had been cordoned off, and the altar, where people would write down their wishes, had been built. A rainbow of flowers had been brought in and set around the square. Everything was ready. Everyone was ready. Except for him.

Taleb bent the stalks that tickled his legs and crouched on the ground, his arms clutched around his legs.

Forita had told him he should make a wish, but what could he ask for? The only wish he wanted, he wasn’t allowed to have. His parents were gone. If he could wish for them back, even for half a day, he’d hold onto every minute so it would last him a lifetime.

Taleb squeezed himself into a ball. In just a short time, Forita would be beautiful. Mika would have a bellyful of food. His schoolmates would have wings or a mountain of treasure. They’d have their deepest desires and then four hours later it would vanish, like it had never existed at all. They’d be left with their lives, so ordinary in comparison, and they’d spend the rest of the year taking everything they’d already had for granted.

Above Taleb, the sun crawled its way across the sky towards the deep horizon. Taleb watched it go. Evening gathered itself and spread across the town.

When the town’s bell rang, Taleb rose and made his way to Wish Square. Inside he felt small and hollow and terribly uncertain.

The gatekeepers took his ticket with blessings for a pleasant wish night and ushered him in to the square.

The townspeople had gathered in an untidy line before the altar. Their voices were muted, spilling through the square in low whispers. Taleb took his place at the end of the row, his hands curled into tight balls.

A rock-lined fire pit smoldered at the far right of the square, eager to be stoked into bloom. When the time came, and the wishes had been cast, it would light the way for the townspeople’s wishes, igniting them into existence.

Taleb kept his head tucked, meeting no one’s eyes, as he waited his turn. Ahead of him, the line inched forward and each person, when reaching the podium, scribbled a wish onto a wafer-thin scrip, dropped it into the basket, and then moved off to the side, waiting for the Wishing Time to begin.

When Taleb reached the podium, he hesitated. Smiles, laughter, dances. Anticipation, joy. Would the townspeople hate him for what he was about to do?

Taleb thought of his parents, of his mother’s fresh smile and his father’s broad hands; the way they’d bent to work in Mawmaw’s garden every spring, tilling rows for vegetables and stocking barrels of flower seeds. He remembered the warm beat of life they’d brought to the now-empty rooms in Mawmaw’s house.

He put the tip of the pencil’s lead to the paper and scribbled his wish, fast, before he could change his mind, then folded the scrip, dropped it into the basket, and slipped to the edge of the crowd.

The town’s leaders, led by the mayor, carried the container over to the fire. A sturdy platform had been built above the flames and it was here they placed the basket.

The leaders used sticks to tumble the coals. Heat jittered underneath the basket, pushing the scrips into a frenzy. They surged to the top of the basket, the papers’ wisped cotton strands transforming into delicate wings.

Around Taleb, the crowd’s breath paused as they watched the heat burst higher. The scrips flew into the air, carrying the hopes and expectations of the townspeople skyward. A sigh whispered through the crowd. Time seemed to stop. Then…

“Where are my spring-bottomed feet?”

“Why can’t I fly?”

“I don’t see any food.”

“What’s going on?”

Across Wish Square, voices called out, quietly at first, then gaining volume.

“It didn’t work…our wishes…what’s the matter…is this a trick?”

Taleb felt the air around him swirl as hope turned to confusion.

The town leaders called the crowd to order and the mass grew silent as they waited for an explanation. But the mayor didn’t have an answer. He stood before them, his ruddy face a jumble of confusion as he looked from the empty basket to the sky.

The moment stretched out before Taleb. It wasn’t too late; he could still walk away. He could go home to Mawmaw and pretend he didn’t know what had happened. No one would ever have to know the truth.

Except the truth was worth knowing.

Taleb worked his way through the silent crowd and stepped forward into the clearing by the fire. “It was me,” he said.

The townspeople turned to stare at him, their eyebrows raised. No one said a word.

Forita stepped towards him. “What do you mean?”

Taleb spoke low, but his voice rang clear. “I wished that nobody’s wishes would come true.”

“What?…How could you?…Why would anyone…” The townspeople’s mutters felt sharp against his ears.

He had to make them understand.

Don’t you see? You already have what you desire. You don’t need wishes.

Taleb stared at the faces around him. “Forita,” he said, looking into her anguished eyes. “You’re already beautiful. That you would spend an entire year not seeing that, wishing to be more than who you are.” He turned to face the blacksmith, who stood with his scowl disappearing into his beard. “Mika, tell Forita she’s pretty just as she is and she’ll happily cook you that twenty course meal. I guarantee it’ll taste sweeter than anything you could have wished for.”

Taleb searched across the square, his eyes lighting on the faces of the people before him. “Ila, my friend, what do you need with riches that will vanish? Or you, Trude, you can already out-throw everyone in our class. Why would you want to be stronger than you already are?”

The crowd seemed frozen.

“Don’t you see? You already have what you desire. You don’t need wishes. You need to appreciate what’s right in front of you.” Taleb spun, seeking out any glimmer of understanding. “What you have won’t last, not forever, and if you look past it, it’ll be gone. You’ll have missed it.”

“We missed it, alright,” a voice called out. “No wishes, not for a whole year. It’s not fair.”

“No,” Taleb cried. “Don’t waste time feeling sorry for what you don’t have. Don’t you see? My wish was to give you a year to appreciate what you already have.”

His words were swallowed by angry voices that rose into a swell around him. Taleb’s schoolmates jeered at him. The butcher, his white coat gathered around him, shook his fist.

The mayor stepped forward, his hands held high. “The boy’s in mourning. It’s not his fault. He doesn’t know what he’s done.”

Around him, the anger faded, subsiding into pity. “He’s grief-stricken…he never should have been allowed…he should have stayed at home…his grandmother should have known better.”

Taleb blinked against the tears that welled in his eyes. They thought he was misguided; they didn’t understand. Forita took a step forward, her hand out. Taleb shook his head, darted past the mayor, and slipped under the rope that surrounded the square.

He ran up the hillside where he’d spent his afternoon, swiping his hands against the hot tears on his cheeks. Below him, a buzz of voices rose from Wish Square.

When he reached the top of the hill, he curled on his side and cradled his knees to his chest. He felt more alone than he ever had and not entirely certain he’d done the right thing. What he wouldn’t give for the soft comfort of his mother’s touch right now.

Taleb closed his eyes against the emptiness inside him. He imagined he was like the darkest of nights, without stars or a moon to light the way. Nothing. Nowhere. Alone.

After a time, the world faded away.

When he woke, the evening had grown late. Below him, the townspeople still gathered, but the mood had changed. The voices that, before, had been filled with displeasure, now rang loud and clear, joined by pockets of laughter. Lights ringed the square and the sound of fiddles filtered through the trees. The smell of roasting pork was rich in the air.

Taleb rolled over. A figure sat beside him, her feet tucked underneath her legs and her face tilted up to the sky. Forita.

“It’s the year without wishes,” she said.

Taleb’s body sagged. “I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be.”

“But I ruined your night.”

Forita shook her head and turned to him. She was smiling, a small thing that lifted the edges of her lips. “You told me I’m beautiful, just the way I am. What woman wouldn’t want to hear that?”

Taleb stared into her eyes. She met his look and held it.

“Nobody hates you, if that’s what you’re wondering,” Forita said. “They just needed some time to make sense of what you did.”

“But they were so angry.”

She paused. “Yes, they were. But that doesn’t mean you weren’t right.” Forita pointed to Wish Square. “Look at them down there. What do you see?”

Taleb followed her gaze, taking in the twirling dancers, the heavy tables of food, the children playing skipping stones, the couples arm in arm.

“Any other year the square would be empty by now. People would have gone off, alone, most likely, to celebrate their wishes.”

“But not tonight.”

“No, not tonight. You told us that what we had in front of us was better than anything we could wish for,” she said. “You told us not to take that for granted.” Forita touched his sleeve, her fingers whispering against his arm. “It was a brave thing you did.”

“Then you don’t mind my wish?” A lump clogged Taleb’s throat, choking off any other words. He kept very still and waited for her answer.

Forita’s hand reached over to take Taleb’s. Her fingers curled against his palm. From one end of the square a rowdy burst of song rose over the fiddles. “It’s the best wish ever made,” she said.

Taleb squeezed his arms tight over his chest, holding Forita’s words against him. Across town, the cottages were dark against the shelter of the Dornay Mountains.

“Do you want to join me and Mika in the square?” Forita asked. “He’s promised me a dance.”

Taleb shook his head. He knew where he needed to go. Home, to Mawmaw, who was tucked in her bed, her eyes heavy and her heart linked to the bare patch of earth in the corner of her garden. He’d wake her gently, and make her some tea; he’d sing to her, brush her hair, and light candles in the windows. Tomorrow, they’d go to the garden. He’d give her his arm, so her steps would be steady. He’d till the soil for vegetables, and plant seeds in the barrels. And he’d clear away the weeds so that both of them could see the possibilities of what lay ahead.

Mureall HebertMureall Hébert lives near Seattle with her husband and three kids. Her writing has appeared in numerous magazines, including Crack the Spine, Stone Crowns Magazine, and Bartleby Snopes. She’s an MFA graduate from the Northwest Institute of Literary Arts. You can find Mureall online at www.mureallhebert.com and @mureallhebert