The Cost of a Wish

It was 1988, and my parents had been living apart for a little over a year. Because my Mom had taken on more shifts at work, I found myself spending more time at my grandma’s house, with my cousins. One afternoon, when my cousins and I were sitting around bored, Sam and Mike convinced me to come explore the woods behind our grandma’s house. Her warning rang out from the back porch where she sat on her rocker: "Look out for unmarked wells. You'll fall in one if you ain't careful."

We raced our bikes down the old woods road, which was divided into three sections that ran from clearing to clearing. The first clearing was an old dumping ground for what seemed like all the cars my grandpa and uncles had ever owned. The cars sat, a graveyard of rust and oil, waiting for the day my uncles would finally work on them. Most of them ended up there in the first place because my uncles had worked on them. 

The second clearing was little more than an old stagnant pond by the right side of the road. The area was overgrown, and the pond itself only good for breeding mosquitoes and cottonmouths. 

The third clearing was as far as we ever ventured. It opened into a wide field, which still held the dilapidated remains of a wooden barn. We took large sticks and searched for any sign of my grandmother's wells but weren’t able to find one. The third clearing would become our base, our command-central for the games we invented.  

A few days later, Sam and Mike caught me crying at grandma's house. It was Heather again. She’d spent most of elementary school making my life miserable and, now, junior high was even worse. On that particular day, she had taken one look at my clothes and led the class in a chorus of "Katey doesn't match."

Being boys, my cousins didn’t understand why I cared about my clothes matching, but they wanted to make me feel better. Even though they were older, and usually balked at my childish suggestions, today they humored me by agreeing to head to the third clearing for a game of hide-and-seek. Sam counted first. Since it was my turn to hide, I searched around the borders, looking for a place we hadn’t yet explored.

In the northwest corner, obscured by an overgrowth of honeysuckle and bittersweet, there was a large arched trellis, half rotten, that formed a tunnel leading deeper into the forest. The overgrowth was so thick that I couldn’t see around it, so I pulled away a few vines and crept inside. I sat for a while, waiting for Sam to wander over. When I was finally bored of waiting, and my calves ached from crouching, I turned and looked toward the far end of the tunnel. 

Although the opening of the trellis was overgrown, the pathway was clear beyond it. I could see straight through to the opposite end, and what looked like another clearing. I was excited by the prospect of a new, secret place. I decided that unless Sam or Mike found me, I wouldn’t tell them about my passage.

 I made my way through the tunnel of rotting wood and vines. At first glimpse, the archway hadn’t seemed very long. The cloying scent of honeysuckle was dizzying, making the humid air seem thicker. Farther down the tunnel, the old, rotten wood gave way to posts that were new and well kept. The plants hanging from the top were no longer unruly vines, but beautifully cultivated wisteria. 

I heard a soft rustling noise, although there was no breeze. I stopped and listened, thinking Sam or Mike had uncovered my hiding place. My ears strained to make out the faint sounds. It wasn’t coming from the entrance to the trellis, but from all around me. And it wasn’t rustling; it was murmuring. 

“Who is there?” My voice came out as barely a whisper.

Whoisthere? Whoisthere? Whoisthere? repeated a soft echo.

“Mike?” I tried a little louder. “Sam?”

Whoisthere? Whoisthere? Whoisthere?

I stepped out to find myself in what looked like someone's garden. There was a stone bench beside the trellis, and a path of paving stones led to a well in the center. The garden, for that is what it must have been, was weeded and maintained to perfection. Small trees with pink and white flowers stood in a circle around the well. A part of me couldn’t help but recall my grandmother’s warning about abandoned wells. I looked for a path that might lead me to the home of the garden’s owner, but there was only the one that led me here.

A light fog covered the ground just enough to obscure my feet. I walked around, glancing at the lilies and coneflowers that bordered the garden. Although there were no walls, the place felt completely enclosed. The stargazer lilies emanated a strong sweet smell. The colors were more vivid than any flower I’d ever seen. 

“It’s about time,” came a voice from behind me. 

I turned to see a woman sitting on the bench. I was certain she hadn’t been there before, and yet I wasn’t surprised to see her there. As a matter of fact, I wasn’t surprised to enter the garden. The flowers, the smells, they all seemed strangely familiar to me. 

“Is this your garden? I’m sorry. I didn’t know this was here. It’s beautiful.”

The woman grunted in reply.

I approached the bench, hoping that if I drew close enough, I might recognize her. She looked ancient. Her body was small and gnarled. At eleven years old, I was sure that I was taller than her. I gasped as I looked at her face. She had no visible pupils, no irises. Nothing but pure white orbs. 

She must have heard my gasp, because she laughed. “They say that eyes are the window to the soul. If it’s true, what does that mean for me?”

“I… I don’t know.” I started backing up. 

“Don’t run from me, child. I’ve been waiting for you to come.”

I nodded. Of course she was waiting for me. That strange feeling of familiarity washed over me again. 

“This is your garden now. Take better care than I did.”

“But, you do take good care of it. The plants are lovely.”

“It isn’t the plants that you need to worry about.” She pointed a gnarled finger at the wishing well.

I approached the well and glanced inside, unable to see the bottom through the darkness. Vines with berries as red as tomatoes snaked up the stones around it. It was the only sign of neglect in the garden. I glanced back at the woman. “What does a wish cost?”

“More than you can imagine.”

I turned back, undaunted by her words. “All things come with a cost.” 

“Perhaps it costs a strand of hair. Perhaps a fingernail clipping. Perhaps it costs something you’ve already lost.”

“That doesn’t make any sense.”

“Or, perhaps it costs a precious memory. Perhaps your right hand. Perhaps it costs something that you’ll never have.”

I started to worry for the woman, sure she was talking nonsense. “How long have you been out here? Can I get someone for you?”

She shook her head. “You are the one I waited for.”

It seemed impossible. The garden, the woman, the well. When I turned back to the bench, she was gone. 

Unobserved by human eyes, I gazed into the well again. “If only…”

Ifonly. Ifonly. Ifonly. The sound emanated from the fathoms below.

“I suppose it can’t hurt to try.”

Hurttotry. Hurttotry. Hurttotry.

“Oh, shut up!” I shook my finger toward the darkness. “You could at least say something useful.”

I gazed back down at the well. What I wanted more than anything was for my parents to get back together. I hated how empty my house felt, and how many hours mom spent at her job. I closed my eyes, and I wished.

When I emerged from the garden, the sun was setting. “Sam? Mike?”

“Katey!” I saw them charge down the path toward me. “We looked everywhere. Didn’t you hear us yell? We were heading home. Thought you snuck off as a joke.”

I shook my head and pointed to the trellis. “I was over there. I didn’t hear you calling me.”

They both looked as if they didn’t believe me, but I hadn’t heard them calling. I didn’t know how to explain where I’d been. 

“Whatever Katey. We didn’t want to play hide and seek anyway. Next time, we pick the game.” 

I nodded, and the three of us set out for home. 

The next day when I got home from school, my mom was nowhere to be found. I thought it odd that she wasn’t home, since it was her day off, but continued to the kitchen where I grabbed a banana off the counter and noticed a note taped to the fridge. 

Katey,

I’m having dinner with your father tonight. You can go to grandma’s if you need anything. Money in the canister.

Love,

Mom

When I got to grandma’s, my cousins were waiting for me. We grabbed our bikes and headed back to our clearing. The whole time that we rode, my heart raced. I was bursting to tell them about the trellis, and the garden beyond it. I decided to show them. I wanted to see the look on their faces when they saw it. 

“Guys, I want to show you something.”

“Yeah?” asked Sam.

“Remember yesterday, when we were out here playing and you couldn’t find me?”

Mike rolled his eyes. “Rub it in, why don’t you?”

“No, seriously. This is important. I found something.”

“What did you find?”

“It’s over here.” I said, and led them to the corner of the clearing where the trellis stood. 

The trellis stood exactly as I remembered it. Honeysuckle mixed with bittersweet snaked up the sides, seeming to hold the structure in place. It was as if the vines had grown back in overnight. They had filled back in so completely that once again I couldn’t see the path beyond leading to the garden. Sam and Mike helped me pull the weeds away. 

“Oh, cool!” Sam grinned.

“Yeah, just wait until you see what’s inside.” I stepped under the trellis. Mike and Sam followed,but there was no tunnel, no pathway. It was a simple half-rotten arch, held up by vines and weeds.

“Is that poison oak?” Mike asked. 

“No, this isn’t right. It’s supposed to…” I pushed back some of the vines, but there was nothing. 

“Supposed to what?” Sam asked.

“It leads further in. Or, at least it did yesterday.”

Mike blew a raspberry. “Is this another one of your little kid games? Seriously, Katey. You need to grow up.”

“I swear to God, I went in there yesterday and wished for mom and dad to get back together, and today they’re going out to dinner.” 

“Quit yanking our chain. The arch is cool. We could make a game with it without all the stupid make believe crap.”

“It isn’t crap, Mike!”

“Katey, nothing’s there. Say what you want, but I don’t see anything besides poison oak that I ain’t gonna touch.”

“I’m not…”

Mike held up his hand. “It ain’t funny. Come on, Sam, we’re going home”

“Mike!” I slumped to the ground as they headed back down the woods road without me.

I’d never fought with my cousins before. We argued from time to time, but they’d never turned their backs on me. I started after them, needing to explain, but stopped in my tracks. I had a better idea. I would show them.

I walked back to the trellis and tore down the vines. The arched pathway appeared in front of me just as before. I marched forward, coming out, once again, in the garden. The bench was still there, the plants, the wishing well. The only thing missing was the old woman. 

I approached the well. 

“I need help.”

Help. Help. Help.

I shivered at the familiar echo. 

Sam’s birthday was next week, and I knew he’d been asking for a new bike. “I need to prove that you’re real. I wish that Sam would get the bike he wants for his birthday.”

Youarereal. Youarereal.

*     *     *

The week passed slowly. My mom spent most of her free time going out with my dad. When I asked, she’d say they were “working things out.” My cousins were quiet and didn’t want to play with me. Anytime I suggested we ride out, they made excuses or told me they didn’t have time to play little kid games. 

I approached Sam the day before his birthday. “I know you don’t believe me, but I wished on the well that you’d get the bike for your birthday. If you get it, that means that the wish came true, and you’ll have to believe me about the well.”

“Jesus, Katey, not that again. Would you stop it? If you want to tell stories, go get your notebook and write them down. I don’t want to hear it.”

I huffed and walked away muttering. He would see. He would get that bike for his birthday, and then he’d thank me.

The next day, I went straight to my grandma’s after school. Sam was riding up and down the driveway on a new mountain bike, Mike trailing behind him, begging for a turn to try it.

I smirked and rode down the hill, stopping in front of the house. “Told you so.”

Sam pulled in behind me and slid to a stop, testing the brakes. “Told me so, what?”

“That you would get the bike.”

He rolled his eyes. “No shit, Sherlock. I asked for it.”

Grandma raised her head from her crocheting. “Language, young man.”

“Yes ma’am. Sorry.”

I lowered my voice. “Yeah, you asked for it. But, your dad said he couldn’t afford it. You got it because I wished for it.”

“Bullshit.”

“SAM.”

“Sorry, grandma.”

“Where is your dad, anyway?”

“He’s on the road ‘til tonight. Grandma said he left it here for me last week. She put it up until today.”

“See? That proves it.”

“How does that prove anything?”

“He got it for you when I made my wish. Last week.”

Sam shook his head. “You really don’t know when to quit. I don’t believe you, and I’m not going to believe you, so shut up about it or go home.”

I climbed back on my bike. “Happy birthday, Sam,” I mumbled as I rode away. 

I didn’t see Sam or Mike at all that weekend. I decided it was best to stay away from my grandma’s house in case they were there. I couldn’t bear the way Sam looked at me anymore. 

With my mom busy and my cousins avoiding me, I was lonely. I considered visiting the well and wishing things right again, but it seemed that no good had come from wishing so far, even if they had come true. I’d have to be careful how I made my wishes going forward. 

At school, I sat at my desk thinking. I doodled a picture of the well and, beneath it, I wrote potential wishes. I checked and revised each one, adding notes in parentheses. I wish my mom and dad were back together (and had time for me). I wish Sam and Mike would believe me (about the wishing well). These were things I could wish for, and, if I worded the wishes just right, then I could fix things.

Without warning, the paper was jerked off my desk. 

“What’s this?”

I looked up to see Heather studying my scribblings. “Nothing.”

“Oh, so I can throw it away?” She crumpled the paper into a ball.

“No, stop that!” I tried to grab the paper, but she waved it teasingly beyond my reach.

“So it isn’t nothing, then?”

“It’s nothing to you.”

She unwadded the paper and looked at it. “What kind of stupid shit is this? A wishing well? What are you, five years old?”

“None of your business,” I said, reaching for the paper. “Give it back.” I could feel my eyes tearing up.

She held it out so she could see it. “Boohoo, I want my Mommy and Daddy to love me. Even my family hates me. Poor me. I wish I had friends.”

“It works,” I said, and then covered my mouth with my hand. Stupid.

She burst out laughing. “Yeah, and I’ll bet you still believe in Santa Claus, too. I knew you were weird, but I didn’t think you were a baby.”

“I’m not.”

She laughed harder. “Don’t worry, I’ll take care of this for you.”

By that afternoon, the whole class knew. She’d invented a new rhyme for them to sing, “Crazy Katey, such a baby. Lives alone up on a hill, has no friends and never will.”

I got off the bus that afternoon in tears. I headed straight back to the clearing, straight back to the trellis hiding in the bittersweet vine. 

There was only one thing that I wanted. 

The vines murmured as I ran through the arched path. I grabbed the sides of the well, and doubled over to catch my breath. 

“Have you used its power enough to recognize its cost?”

The woman sat on the bench behind me, looking as she had the first time I’d seen her.

“Is that what happened to your eyes?” I asked.

She nodded. 

“How long have you been here?”

“Oh, a few seconds, or a few days. Maybe even years. But certainly a lifetime.”

“You always say things in riddles.”

She nodded. “Such is my curse. I must answer your questions, and yet I cannot.”

“Are you here to tell me something?”

“I am here so that you will see, as I could not. The last wish pays for all.”

“But I’ve already paid. I wanted my parents to get back together, and now I never see them. I wished for my cousin to get the bike he wanted, but now he hates me. I've lost everyone I care about. What else can I lose?”

She stared at the well with her milky eyes. “It isn’t too late, until it’s too late.”

“Yeah, I get it. This is the last time I can use it. Will I lose my sight, like you?”

“Does it matter, if you’re already blind?”

“Why can’t you just tell me what to say? I need this wish, do you understand? I hate Heather. I hate her! I can’t go one more day with her bullying me. I just wish she was gone!”

Shewasgone. Shewasgone. Shewasgone.

“Shit.” I spun and looked at the well. “I didn’t mean to. It wasn’t a wish.” I turned back, and the bench was empty.  I looked around the garden and shouted “HOW DO I STOP IT?”

Stopit. Stopit. Stopit.

I collapsed against the cold stones of the well. I didn’t know why, but I began to weep.

The next week, Heather wasn’t at school. Without the constant strain of her abuse, I paid more attention in class and answered more questions. I looked my classmates in the eyes for a change. It was wonderful to finally feel free, to feel that I could be myself without fear of humiliation. But, my happiness was tainted by guilt. I felt guilty because I was happy. I didn’t know what happened to her, and I didn’t want to find out. I wanted to remain ignorant, uncaring. If I never learned what happened, there was nothing to feel bad about, or so I told myself. 

When I went to my grandmother’s house one afternoon, the police were there. I saw the black bag on a stretcher being loaded into an ambulance. I’d seen enough movies to know what was inside. 

My grandmother was on the porch in her rocker. For the first time I could remember, she looked old and pale. “Who… who was it, grandma?” My heart beat so hard I was sure she could hear it. I was afraid that Sam or Mike would be in that bag. 

“A girl from your school.”

I must have looked relieved, because she gave me a strange look. “She was found in one of them wells I’ve warned ya’ll about.”

“Oh. But… why was she here?”

My grandmother cocked her head, studying me. “She wasn’t here to see you?”

I shook my head. “I didn't invite anybody over.”

By then the officer in charge came over. He was tall and clean shaven with a crew cut. He looked exactly as I thought a policeman should.

“Your name, young lady?”

“Katey Owens.”

“Do you know anything about a girl being out in the woods around here?”

I swallowed hard. His tone was pleasant, but he made me nervous. “No, sir. Just me and my cousins. We come out here to play just about every day.”

He nodded. “Did you ever have friends over?

I shook my head. “Not in a long time.” I stole a glance at my grandma. When had she become so frail?

“Did either of your cousins ever talk about bringing a girl over? Bringing her into the woods?”

“No. I mean, they talked about girls… but not… like, a girl.” My face flushed. I looked down at his shoes, which were covered in dust from grandma’s driveway. He would be taking a part of grandma’s house with him when he left. He’d deposit her dust to the other places he went.

He grunted in reply.

Somehow I knew the girl in the body bag was Heather. Part of me felt guilt for what I had done to her, but the other part felt relieved it wasn’t Sam or Mike. 

My grandmother looked up from her rocker at the officer. Her arthritic hands trembled as she asked, “Are you gonna take her in, too?” 

“What do you mean, too?” I asked.

“We’ve taken your cousins down to the station to answer some questions.”

“You think they did this?” I glanced from the officer to my grandmother, who was now clutching her chest.

The cop shrugged. “It’s too soon to think much of anything.”

Grandma gasped for air, tremors wracking her body. 

The officer called for a medic.  “Shit. Shit. Shit.”

Tunnel vision closed in, and everything around me was painted in darkness.

By the time I came around, they were loading my grandmother into an ambulance. There was a paramedic sitting beside me. 

“Slow, deep breaths. That-a-girl. You fainted.” The paramedic smiled down at me, but it wasn’t reassuring. One of the buttons on her shirt was unbuttoned. 

Seeing me awake, the officer walked back over. “Your grandmother had a heart attack. They’re taking her to the hospital. Is there somewhere we can take you, or drop you off?”

I shook my head. “I live down the street. I can ride my bike home.”

He looked skeptical, but didn’t argue. 

I went home to an empty house and cried myself to sleep. 

I spent the next few days at home. I didn’t feel like going to school. My mom came by briefly, but told me that she needed to stay at the hospital with grandma. I didn’t hear from Sam or Mike. I had no idea if they were being held by the police, or if they had been allowed to leave. 

My grief and guilt consumed me. A prisoner of my own mind, I no longer seemed to inhabit the physical world. I laid around for days feeling sorry for myself, wallowing in my guilt.

After a week, I’d had enough. All of what happened - Heather, Sam, my grandmother - all of it had been my fault. No one was going to fix it for me. I had to go back.

I showered, dressed, and got on my bike. My hands on the handlebars looked old and gnarled. 

The clearing had been trampled by rescuers and police, leaving it naked and exposed. Part of me feared that the trellis would be gone, and that I’d never find my way back to the garden with the well. 

It was still there, but knocked over, discarded in a heap of vines and debris. I lifted it carefully, afraid that the slightest movement might cause it to fall apart. I wasn’t sure how, but I knew that if the trellis broke I’d never make it back. I dragged it over to where it once stood, and propped it up as best I could. It didn’t look stable without the vines to brace it, but it would have to do. 

I took a deep breath and stepped inside. The rotted wood was more obvious. I was sure that at any moment the trellis would fall and trap me underneath. “Hello?”

There was no echo this time. 

I reached the end and stepped through. The garden was changed. The well was a half covered hole in the ground. The only thing familiar was the creeping vines with tomato-red berries. Bits of police tape were wrapped around the ring of trees surrounding it. The beautiful array of perennials were now gone, and in there place grew dandelions and pokeweed. 

“I need to make another wish. Please!”

I glanced at the bench, now a shattered slab of rock. She wasn’t there. I sat down and wept. 

I couldn’t say how long I sat there. I never moved from the bench. I just sat and thought about the things I’d done. I wondered if anyone would bother to look for me, if anyone missed me. 

*     *     *

Time seemed frozen. Days passed. Weeks. Months. But it had been only seconds, minutes. I was finally shaken from my reverie when I heard a quiet murmur.

 Whoisthere? Whoisthere? 

A silhouette stepped out from the trellis and approached the well. I listened from the bench. The girl looked as I had when I first discovered the well. 

“It’s about time,” I said to the girl.

She jumped and spun to face me.

“Is this your garden? I’m sorry. I didn’t know this was here. It’s beautiful.”

“I’ve been waiting for you,” I replied. And, in that moment, I knew it to be true.

Collective Realms

27.09.2019

Fiction