Walking home from school on a Friday afternoon should be a joyous moment. For me, though, it just means I have to find ways to avoid No Man’s Land for the next two days, No Man’s Land being, of course, those areas of my house that are not either my room or one of my parent’s rooms. Spending time in public spaces in my house risks parental interaction. Single-parent interactions are fine, but if both of them wander into the same space at the same time, you can bet that this high school sophomore will remember an urgent engagement elsewhere, and quick.
But all this brooding can’t be healthy and sure isn’t helpful, so I try to focus on things that don’t suck. The weather, for instance. Fall has finally arrived, and the sky has gone from the broiling perma-haze of summer to a crisp sapphire. Also, it should just be Mom at home for a while, and I head back to the lab before Dad gets home. And the guys have promised to help me with the guidance module, because it’s one things that still sucks, very badly in fact, and I hate to admit it but I’m at a loss on how to get it working, and regionals are next week. But we’re talking about things that don’t suck, like this great pumpkin.
Maybe I’m too old for jack-o-lanterns, but it’s a tradition that Shelly insisted on. And even though she’s off at college, I’m confident that on this day she’ll be carving one, and I’m sure she’ll ask me if I did, too, and I don’t want to disappoint her. So what if it’s childish?
Lyle dances and slips around the kitchen floor when I come in. I drop my bag, yell up the stairs to Mom, grab a knife and a spoon and blast back outside before she comes down. Lyle follows me.
I set the pumpkin on the picnic table and shove the blade into the top. I carve around the stem and remove the skull cap. With both hands I scoop out a mess of pumpkin. The Halloween gods are appeased; good fortune is assured.
Lyle cracks me up, writing in the grass making happy little yips while I slop out the rest of the gunk. I’m pleased at the way the cap fits back onto the hollowed-out pumpkin. My shoulder has hardly hurt all day. Lyle leaps to his feet with a sharp bark. startles me with a bark, and jumps his front paws up on the table and starts to bay at the pumpkin.
A thin voice, muffled or distant, says, “Little help, please?” And I’m totally confused. It’s just me and Lyle hear, and him howling.
“In here!” It’s coming from the pumpkin.
I lift the cap, and a tiny girl looks up at me and waves. A girl, in the pumpkin. She tilts her tiny head and raises her eyebrows as if to say “about time.”
Next thing I know Lyle’s all over my face, licking and whimpering. And how’d I get on the ground? My head’s fogged, but there she is, pumpkin-girl. She’s regular-sized now, sitting on the picnic table, feet on the bench, watching me.
“First of all, thanks,” she says, plucking a seed from her shoulder.
“What the hell?”
“For getting me out of there.”
My heart’s thumping. This makes no sense. “What is going on?”
“You fainted,” she says. “Not unusual.”
Yes, I fainted. Because I saw a girl inside a pumpkin, and now she’s sitting on the picnic table. “Am I dreaming?”
“Nope,” she hops down from the table. “Dreamy, but not a dream, good boy-oh-boy.” This last part she says in a babyish voice, kneeling down, saying hello to Lyle face-to-face. “Take your time,” she says in her girl voice. “When you’re ready, you’ve got three wishes coming to you.”
“For rescuing me.” She’s become sort of translucent. “Call me when you’re ready.”
I can see through her. “How do I call you?”
“By my name,” she says. “Jeannie.” The word hangs in the air like a rung bell, until it fades, with the girl, into nothing.
My brain swirls as I try to take stock: No blood. No lumps on my skull. Mom’s in her room. Dad’s at work. A girl came out of a pumpkin, promised me three wishes, and vanished.
Lyle’s panting, which is good, I think, because maybe it means he saw her, too. I go upstairs, where a cop procedural blares from Mom’s room. “I’m going to Pavel’s.” I grip the top of her door frame and stretch to ease the ache in my shoulder.
Mom rolls over and says “Okay” and asks if I want to sit with her for a minute. Gross.
I shut Lyle in the kitchen and head out.
How do you adjust to a world where girls appear and grant you wishes and vanish? Same way you adjust to everything else. Pretend it’s normal, and eventually it becomes normal.
Pavel’s in his room playing Feline Frenzy. He says “hey” without looking away from his screen. He switches his feed from headphones to speaker, and the room’s full of mewling and lasers. Kahn’s there, too, in voice at least, insisting that we all go to the Burger Hop, like, now.
“Cheerleaders are meeting there before the game.” Kahn says. “Dummy can fix the guidance module tomorrow morning.” He means me, his jab a reference to my shortcomings in robotics.
Soccer and robotics are two of the few fun things in my existence, less so with soccer lately. I’m not a super-good programmer, but Kahn and Pavel let me take the third slot on the school’s robotics team. Some genius girl was their third, but she got kicked out or something. Plus, Dad says a national robotics championship will be the golden ticket into college, which is good because lately my grades are for shit.
We’d planned to go to the lab after school, then the football game, and I’m surprised that Pavel’s happy to blow off robotics for the possibility of interaction with cheerleaders. “We can go in early tomorrow,” he says. I have soccer in the morning, but what’s one more missed practice? Varsity’s pretty much a pipe dream this year. So, fine, let’s go to the Hop.
Pavel’s car rattles and smells like gasoline, but it gets us there. We snag a table near the cheerleaders, and while we wait for Kahn, I ask Pavel the question I’ve been asking myself since Jeannie.
Pavel doesn’t hesitate. “New car,” he says.
“You wish for a car,” I repeat. “What if you get a Matchbox car?” I turn to see what he’s looking at: Shelia’s miniskirt riding up as she bends to write something on Marla’s folder.
“I’d wish for a car that a girl like that would ride in.” The girl being Sheila, I presume.
Kahn comes in and nods but goes straight to the counter.
“I’m telling you, you’ve got to be more specific.”
“Sixty-four Ford Mustang, five-speed. Sky blue. Mint condition.”
“Boom,” I say. “You fire up the engine and take off. But wait. Blue lights. Grand theft auto. Enjoy prison.”
“So your point,” Pavel says, “is that wishes are hard?”
Kahn sets down a tray with pile of burgers. “Who’s hard?”
“Steve’s posing deep, philosophical questions.”
“So was I,” Kahn says.
“Guys, listen,” I have to say this before I change my mind. “I met a genie, and she owes me three wishes.”
Kahn chomps into a burger. He sits back and chews, looking at Pavel, then they both turn to me, waiting for the punchline. Kahn swallows audibly, and a silver bell of a voice rings behind me.
“Mind if I join you?”
It’s not like my friends and I never talk to girls, but Jeannie’s new, and did I mention she’s hot? So not only do Pavel and Kahn sit up straight, but the cheerleaders stir, too, and pretend not to stare.
“I’m Jeannie,” she says as she sits next to me.
“Oh, I get it,” Pavel says. But before either of them can make a joke about what I’d wish for, here comes that dork with his vintage camera and his inexplicably attractive girlfriend.
“Say cheese.” The dork is poised to photograph.
“Not on your life or his,” Jeannie’s tone is scary and no-nonsense, and if anyone thinks she’s joking, she squelches that notion with a no-nonsense glare that sends the girlfriend and her dorky photographer packing.
“Yikes?” Pavel says, sharing a WTF look with Kahn.
But Jeannie’s back to normal, happy Jeannie already. The awkwardness is blown away by Sheila, coming our way.
“Help, please!” She says. “I need a favor. I forgot my folder and somebody won’t pause her meeting to take me. Can you run me to school real quick?”
“Maybe,” Kahn says. “What’s in it—”
“Yes.” Pavel grabs his keys as he stands. Kahn pushes back his chair, too, but Pavel waves him off.
So now it’s just me and Kahn and Jeannie, and I’m wondering if Pavel just snaked one of my wishes. But before I can ask, heavy hands squash down my shoulders.
Meet Nico Schmidt, soccer team captain. “Missed you at non-req’s last week.” The off-season, Saturday morning practices are “non-required” in name only.
I squirm, stretching out a knot in my back. “We have Districts next weekend.” I don’t want to say the word “robotics.”
“Not exactly varsity-level commitment.”
I search for a witty way to point out that there’s no way I’m playing varsity because Nico plays my position and is pretty much awesome. But nothing comes to mind before Nico says “see you tomorrow,” and goes to talk to the cheerleaders.
“Didn’t know you were a soccer player,” Jeannie says. She makes “soccer player” sound like it means “prince/war-hero/billionaire.”
“My chances of making varsity this year are pretty much nil.”
“Oh,” Jeannie lights up. “Is that something you want?”
“Then you should go to practice tomorrow,” she says.
“Robotics,” Kahn says through a mouthful of burger number three. “Guidance module.”
“Maybe I could—” I’m interrupted by a clatter and a crash and a wail. The whole restaurant turns toward Nico Schmidt on the floor, his leg twisted in a way no leg should twist.
“I’ll finish the guidance tonight,” I say.
Alone in the lab, as the test systems boot, I’m excited about the opening on the varsity squad. I also feel shitty about enjoying the ruination of our star midfielder, and even shitter that I might have wished for it. On top of it all is the dread of wading back into the computerized disaster that is my totally fucked up, nonfunctioning guidance system.
* * *
The chatter at practice is all about how Nico will miss the entire season. In the scrimmage I’m on fire. Two seniors give me high fives. I’m wondering what number I’ll get.
I didn’t make much progress in the lab last night, so I’d better check in with the guys. I walk over from the fields, and strange to hear whooping inside, Pavel and Kahn and someone else. I go in, and fuck if it isn’t Nico Schmidt, his braced leg propped up on my chair.
“Who knew this guy was a hacker?” Pavel says.
Nico’s fixed my guidance module, and now he’s explaining how to integrate it with the tracking and communications modules.
I’m beyond jealous, closing in on furious, and even though it sounds whiny, I remind them how I worked for three hours while they goofed off at the football game. Instead of thanking me, though, they get quiet. Kahn lists flaws in my coding. Pavel says they’re lucky that Nico came along with some simple, elegant, and, in retrospect, totally obvious ways to fix what I’d botched all semester.
Nobody needs to remind me that the competition rules limit the teams to three.
* * *
By the time I get home I’m numb. Then my day gets that much shittier because Dad’s there in the kitchen.
“Lyle?” he says.
“Steve,” I say, because I’m fucking hilarious.
“You forgot the dog.” He checks his watch.
And, yes, now I remember very clearly telling Dad I would pick up Lyle from the vet on the way home from practice. I consider sharing the fact that I just got booted from the robotics team, but Dad’s not big on excuses.
“Be right back.” I turn to get Lyle.
Dad says don’t bother. The vet closed at noon, which means “another eighty damn dollars in boarding fees.” There’s only two things that make Dad cuss. One of them’s money. I consider offering to pay for it, but that’s three weeks of paper route money. So I offer the world’s meekest apology and slink upstairs.
I have plenty of homework, but what’s the point? So I pull on my headset and log in for a round of Feline Frenzy. But then Mom’s knocking, and I’ve wasted the whole afternoon.
“Where’s the dog?” she asks.
“At the vet.”
“Is he okay?”
“Yes,” I say, picturing him in his tiny cage. “I forgot to pick him up.”
“I’ll bet your father’s pissed.”
She seems almost happy about this, and she asks if I’m hungry. I figure I’ve had enough interaction with Dad to balance a meal with Mom, so sure. Mom surprises me by suggesting we walk to Sol’s. “I’ll get dressed,” she says.
Absolutely nothing awkward about going out with your mother on Saturday night, especially Halloween. And absolutely nothing annoying about her millions of questions.
“What’s going on in school?”
“How’s the robot club?”
“Fine.” Without me.
Kids are out trick-or-treating even though it’s not even dark.
“Any good gossip around school?”
“How would I know?”
I regret my snark when Mom goes quiet, and we walk the rest of the way in a sort of tense silence that’s even worse than her yammering.
I want Mom to be happy, I really do, but she doesn’t seem to care. Or maybe I’m what’s holding her back. Without me, she could go anywhere. I can’t tell you how often I imagine a scene where someone finds out what a trash fire my family is. They’re amazed at how well I’ve coped, and they smother me with sympathy. The person in these fantasies is invariably female, sometimes a motherly figure but usually a girl I like. In real life, though, no one bothers to ask why I’m pissed off all the time. I tell myself it’s because I hide it so well, but in reality it’s because no one cares.
Nothing I can think to say could possibly salvage this moment, and while I’m feeling sorry for Mom, having me for a son, having Dad for a husband, a million wishes cross my mind. They range from “I wish we could be a normal family,” to “I wish someone would ask me why I’ve gone from As to Cs,” and, I’m not proud to admit, “I wish they’d legalize euthanasia.” These aren’t real wishes, or at least I don’t mean them to be. But when we reach the deli, guess who’s behind the counter.
“Hi, Steve,” Jeannie beams.
I blush pre-emptively, waiting for Mom to say something horrific.
“Hey,” I say.
Mom’s giving me a look that I exaggerate back at her, and she says, “Aren’t you going to introduce me to your friend?”
“I’m Jeannie,” Jeannie says.
“Jeannie,” I say, “this is my mom.”
And somehow between the time we order and when the sandwiches are ready, Mom has Jeannie coming back to the house to help me hand out candy. And I’ll admit to a newfound admiration for Mom’s conversational skills. I also consider that maybe all women are magic, and maybe Mom just granted me a wish.
My excitement fades as I see our house through Jeannie’s eyes. I should’ve used a wish to scrub the place. But Mom invites her in to help prepare for the trick-or-treaters. A mouse watches from the kitchen counter. It’s perched on its hind legs, nibbling a cracker. My neck tightens and starts to ache. Mom’s probably into her second bottle, which, at this moment might be good because instead of shrieking and panicking, she just laughs and shoos the mouse away. Then she wipes out a bowl and says, “What are y’all doing for costumes?”
“We’re a little old for costumes,” I say.
“Oh no,” Mom says. She disappears and returns with the dressy-up box, which has the remains of every costume Shelly and I’ve ever worn. We take the candy and the costume box to the front porch, and even though I want Mom to leave, it’s nice to see her having fun.
I fasten some devil horns to my head and brandish a red, plastic pitchfork. Mom puts on a witch hat and does a witchy laugh. Jeannie puts on cat ears and a tail and Mom draws whiskers on her cheeks. She purrs, and my thoughts go lurid.
Mom lights my jack-o-lantern and brags on my artistry to Jeannie, who hams it up about what an awesome jack-o-lantern it is. A few times Mom says things like, “I should get out of you kids’ hair,” but she never does. She’s joyful and relaxed in a way that I haven’t seen in a long time. She brings out a radio and dances to the Monster Mash, so ridiculous it’s funny. Jeannie joins her, and even though I have no clue how to dance, I’m thrilled when Jeannie pulls me in.
A pack of mothers with little kids wanders into view. The kids hesitate as the moms goad them up the sidewalk.
Mom hunches and yells over the music, “Don’t be afraid, kiddies.” Her voice is crackly and witchy. “You’re still too little to eat.” Her cackle sends the kids streaking back to their mothers, who laugh at or with Mom as they move on.
“Fuck ‘em if they can’t take a joke,” Mom says. She rummages through the candy bowl. She says that this much fun is dangerous for an “old lady”, and how we kids probably want to get rid of the fuddy-duddy. Jeannie protests good-naturedly.
Mom finds what she’s looking for, mint chocolate, and plops into the rocking chair. “Jeannie, do you live nearby?”
Jeannie says she just moved here from North Dakota, and the more Mom probes the more elaborate Jeannie’s story becomes. I try not to crack a smile. But I love being in on her joke, and I could listen to Jeannie talk all night. But I really, really wish Mom would just leave us alone.
Mom and I turn at the sound of Dad’s brakes, like we’re dogs, and he pulls into the driveway.
Ordinarily he’d go in the side door to the kitchen, but instead he comes to the front to see what’s up. He carries his briefcase. The music sounds too loud now, with us quiet. Dad’s face is a rock.
I would’ve expected Mom to have gone inside before he got out of the car, but she stays put. It’s like she’s claiming territory. Dad eyes the witch hat but doesn’t say it.
“Hello, Steve,” he says. Then he says hello to Jeannie, who says hello back. It’s all very formal. Mom makes a mocking face behind his back, but her expression sharpens to a glare when he turns toward her. I straighten and twist my back a little, trying to squeeze pain out of my shoulder.
“School okay? ” he asks me, as if this is all perfectly normal. My devil horns feel ridiculous.
“It’s Saturday.” I leave off the “duh,” but he hears it.
“I am aware what day of the week it is. I meant in general.”
“It’s fine, I guess.” I’m saved from further interrogation by a ballerina and a mummy, running up the walk. “Great costumes,” I tell the kids, and I dump handfuls of peanut butter spookies into their bags.
“I’m going for a ride,” Dad says, and he goes inside. I hear him thump up to his office, then Mom excuses herself, too.
Jeannie looks at me from the porch swing. Part of me thinks I should go in, too, in case it gets ugly, but instead I dare to lump into the swing beside her.
I pull off my devil horns, and slump into the porch swing. Jeannie sits beside me.
Dad screams across the house. “Do you have to do that inside?” He means Mom smoking.
“It’s my fucking house,” Mom shouts.
Jeannie and I both try to start swinging, but our feet are miss-timed, so we oscillate diagonally.
“Sorry about my parents,” I say.
A door slams inside. Another slams in reply.
Dad comes around from the back, walking his bike. He’s dorked out in his helmet and spandex. “How’s it going,” he says, as if we didn’t just have this conversation.
“I’m going for a ride.”
“No shit,” almost comes out of my mouth.
Dad swings a leg over the seat and clips in. “I’ll be back in while.”
Why? I think.
His red safety lights flash dimmer and dimmer as he rides away.
Jeannie and I find our rhythm on the swing. The chains creak against the eyelets in the ceiling.
Somewhere inside a glass breaks. Mom shouts that she’s okay in a way I suspect she wants me to come help.
“I have a wish.”
“I wish I had a normal family.”
She laughs under her breath, raises her eyebrows. “You sure?”
Too impulsive, I think. “Was that a dumb wish?”
“Most guys wish for sex.”
“I’m not most guys.” I say this to sound cool, but the reality is I’d be embarrassed to ask for that.
The swing creaks. The crickets are going strong.
“Are you nervous,” Jeannie asks, “About your wish?”
“Don’t want another Nico Schmidt.”
“That wasn’t me,” Jeannie says.
“The twisted knee?” I ask.
“I wouldn’t ruin legs that gorgeous.”
Creak. She’s here with me, prepared to do my bidding, practically offering herself to me, yet I’m jealous of him. Creak. The candle in my jack-o-lantern, or her jack-o-lantern, gutters in a breeze.
“You’re mother loves you, you know.” Jeannie says.
What this has to do with anything is beyond me.
“And she’s adorable, by the way.”
“She’s miserable,” I say.
“Not your job to make her happy.”
“You sure about that?”
“Your dad loves you, too.”
“Dads have trouble expressing themselves,” she says. “But I can tell.”
“Maybe,” I say, but I don’t doubt it. “I just wish … It doesn’t feel like anyone really likes anybody.”
“What about Shelly?”
I don’t remember mentioning Shelly.
“She thinks you’re pretty awesome.”
I want to show her my jack-o-lantern.
“And you like her.”
“True,” I say. I feel mature, praising my sister. “Shelly’s pretty much the best.”
“And even though you both know your parents love you, you both think they’re fucked up.”
“They’re way beyond fucked up.” Saying it out loud brings an unexpected relief.
“There you have it,” Jeannie says. “A normal family.”
She lets the thought settle.
“So I have a normal family, just by wishing for it.”
* * *
After Jeannie leaves I retreat to my room. I lift my headphones every so often to check the music and television from my parents’ rooms. Finally, it’s quiet. I wonder who gave in first. I creep out to pee and brush my teeth. Dad uses Shelly’s and my bathroom now, and it’s damp from his shower. His hair on the soap disgusts me. If my parents are still up when I go to bed, I’m expected to tell them goodnight. If I go to Mom first, I imagine Dad feeling slighted. I imagine Mom thinking I was saving Dad for last because I love him more. And vice versa. I stay up late to avoid all that. All perfectly normal.
I go into Shelly’s room for no reason. Before she left, I thought I’d like having her gone. No waiting for the bathroom, no Kay Paisley blasting 24/7. But I miss having her to commiserate with, someone to roll my eyes at when they make shitty comments at each other under their breath. They barely even fight anymore, but then again, they’re never not fighting, either. They mostly just avoid each other, and annoy each other. All perfectly normal.
My door has a foot-sized hole near the bottom. They’re cheap, hollow numbers, the doors in our house. I learned this when Mom kicked the hole in it. Dad was helping me with quadratic equations. “Lucky we have cheap doors,” Mom said as she scotch-taped two toes together. Nowadays my goal is to minimize alone-time with either of them. Easier on the doors.
I think about my wasted wish for a normal family. What did I think that even meant? I should’ve been more specific, maybe wishing Mom and Dad loved each other again. I try to remember if that was ever true. I should’ve just wished for sex.
Imagining Jeannie granting guys’ sex wishes makes me want to punch a wall. There’s some small comfort in assuming that their wishes backfired somehow, but I get derailed again when it occurs to me how many guys probably wished for sex with Jeannie? It’s ridiculous for me to feel possessive about her, jealous really, but I’m just weak that way. And why shouldn’t I wish for that? But there’s no way I could say that to her face. In fact, when I think about it, I don’t want to wish for sex. I want to have sex, don’t get me wrong, but not wish-sex. I want it to be real. Maybe I should wish for a girlfriend. Even that seems perverted, somehow, because I know what the real motivation is. So I decide I’ll wish for a cute girl to like me. Maybe I could figure things out from there.
* * *
“Are you sure that’s what you want?” Jeannie asks me.
I haven’t officially made my wish yet, but I’ve explained my theory to her.
I’m on my bike, an amazing contraption I cobbled together from one of Dad’s old frames and components I’ve scrounged from yard sales and bike shops. It’s a chore to maintain, but it’s also kind of rewarding. Plus, without it, no paper route.
Jeannie’s behind me on a shiny red beach cruiser with a bell that trings like a smile. She pedals effortlessly. I zigzag down Glendale, slowing to stuff papers into boxes as we ride.
“What if you don’t like her back?”
I usually enjoy the solitude of my route, but the pre-dawn glow is even more amazing with Jeannie here.
“Why wouldn’t I like her back?”
“Do you like every girl?”
Her question strips the veneer off my motivation, and I feel like a creep for thinking I’d probably be just fine with anyone who liked me. “I try to see the good in people.” It sounds bullshitty, even to me.
“Then why not wish for a good girl, instead of cute?”
In the time it takes to reach across my body to pull a paper from the bag and fold it, one-handed, into thirds, I decide she’s right. “Okay.” I squeeze the brake, angle in to 237 Glendale, and slide the folded paper into the tube. “I’d like a good girl to like me.”
We make eye contact as I veer over to 240. I get the impression I’ve done the right thing. “Say it.” She turns a graceful curve.
“I wish a good girl would like me.”
Jeannie’s bell triiings. “Tracy Lee likes you.”
“That was quick,” I say, coasting to the next house. It’s a tricky one, a real mailbox instead of an open tube. I slow, flip down the door, chuck the paper in and knock the door closed without stopping.
“I saw the way she looked at you at the Burger Hop.”
“Couldn’t take her eyes off you,” Jeannie says. She circles me in big, lazy swoops. “You should ask her out.”
“So I wish for a girl to like me, and now a girl likes me.”
“So I basically wasted another wish?”
She shrugs as she circles me. “You still have one more.”
I try to think of something flirty to say about a sex-wish, but Jeannie’s gone.
I stuff my paper sack into the pouch under my seat and pedal for Tracy Lee’s house while my nerve is up. But what if she says no? And really, six forty-five on a Sunday morning is way too early to drop in, so even though it feels like procrastinating, I tell myself I’ll wait for a reasonable hour.
Going home would destroy my happiness, so I make for the river and do a speed run through the Riverside curves. I’ll admit that I feel pretty cool blowing past all the joggers and strollers on my somewhat self-built bike. At the park, I take off my shoes and wade through the chilly rapids to a rock. I should wish for one of those mansions on the bluff, to live there all alone, or, better yet, just me and Tracy.
When I was seven I had a fear of dark water. The bathtub was okay, and the pool, but lakes, rivers, and god-forbid the ocean, terrified me. The idea of dangling my toes into the impenetrable murk ignited an animal panic. So when Dad decided to take us tubing down the river, it was Shelly’s idea to keep me in the dark until the last possible moment, and only when it was too late would they spring their terrible truth upon me.
We drove for an hour, singing with the windows down, eating licorice strands and root-beer candies, and it didn’t even occur to me to ask where we were going with our suits and towels until Dad pulled into the park beside the wide, dark river. And as Dad got tubes from the rental shack it was Shelly who put her hands on my shoulders, leaned in eye-to-eye and said, “Don’t worry, Steve-o, I brought you some magic.”
Shelly’s magic, it turns out, was a pair of neoprene booties she said were made of a special fabric they’d invented in Zanzibar to protect oyster divers from sharks. “Tough enough to stop a great white.” And the licorice and root beer she’d shoveled into me, “guaranteed to produce a scent so repellent to aquatic life that I had to promise the fishermen we’d stay away from where they were casting.”
I was skeptical, of course; I wasn’t a baby. But the booties did give my toes a layer of protection, and licorice smelled pretty funny, so I let myself believe in Shelly’s “magic” just enough to numb my fear.
At first I floated stiff atop my tube, not daring to touch the water despite the baking sun. But as we spiraled down the first riffles, the cool splashes delighted my roasting skin. I dipped my fingers; no bites. Then my bootied feet. By the time we reached the end, I was diving under the water, exploring the murky wilderness without a care.
The sun and the swimming left me pleasantly exhausted, and as we drove home through the shimmering sunset, wind tossing my hair, my skin taut from the sun, I drifted in and out of sleep. What a great day, I thought. What a great sister, what a great family.
A big Irish setter splashes over and scrambles up onto my rock. He does a full body shake, and now I’m damp and smell like dog, and then I remember Lyle locked up at the vet, and I feel bad for not thinking of him sooner.
The vet doesn’t open until ten, so I keep cruising and find myself passing Tracy’s house. I don’t stop, but while I ride I play out this scene where I ring her bell and she opens the door and her face brightens. “What a nice surprise.” She invites me to stay, and her Mom brings us iced tea which we sip through straws while we sit on lawn chairs in her backyard. We edge closer and face each other, our feet on each other’s seats. We reveal our life stories, and we confide our fears, and we share our dreams. Darkness falls, and her Dad calls us for dinner, and we’re both astonished that the entire day has passed in what seems like just a few minutes.
Lyle’s out-of-his-mind ecstatic when I pick him up, and it’s tricky walking him and my bike at the same time, and I don’t know where she came from, but Jeannie’s back.
“How’re you coming with your last wish?”
“I know I am kind of stupid, and that I should wish for, like, a thousand pounds of gold or something.”
“Don’t,” she says. “Trust me.”
“But anyway, I feel like I should wish for fabulous wealth, or to be able to fly or something. Or maybe, like, world peace or a cure for cancer.”
“Why do you think there are things you’re ‘supposed’ to wish for?”
“I just feel like people will say I’m an idiot if I waste this.”
“Don’t worry about them. What’s your wish?”
“I want another try at my first wish.”
“Meta-wishes are off limits.”
“No, listen,” I say. “For my first wish, I wished I had a normal family. It came true, because, I guess, there’s no such thing as “normal.” Technically, I already had a normal family. What I should’ve wished for was that my parents could get along with each other.”
“Yeah. I don’t expect them to love each other or anything, but I just wish they could be the slightest bit mature with each other. Civil at least.”
“So you plan to use your third wish on your parents, wishing they could get along?”
“Is that stupid?”
“I’m not the biggest moron on the planet?”
“You’re doing something kind for your family. Entirely respectable.”
Before I can talk myself out of it, I say, “I wish my parents could get along.”
“Done,” Jeannie says. She turns to face me. “So I guess my work here is complete.”
I contemplate how nice it’ll be to live in a house where Mom and Dad aren’t constantly at knifepoints, where I can talk to one of them without worrying that I’m pissing off the other, where I don’t have to keep track of who I say goodnight to first.
“I may have had the lamest set of wishes in the history of genies,” I say, “But I’m glad I got to know you.”
“Likewise. And you’d be surprised at how badly other people’s wishes have gone.”
“Really?” I ask. “I broke our team’s star midfielder, my best friends kicked me off the robotics team, and I wasted two wishes on things I already had.”
“That soccer player thing wasn’t me,” she reminds me, “and some people just aren’t good at robotics.”
“Ouch,” I joke.
“Don’t think of them as wasted wishes. Think of all this as a lesson in perspective. And it was nice meeting you, too.” This last thing she says to Lyle. She’s stopped, and we’ve all stopped, and she’s scratching behind his hears. “Plus, it was nice of you to think of your family.”
I remember something that I’ve been meaning to ask.
“Trust me,” she says. She stands up and takes my hands. “You did good.” Her fingers sparkle, but her expression is grave. She lets go and waves as she backs away.
Her cheeks take on the blue of the sky behind her. I’m seeing through her. She’s fading.
“Wait,” I reach for her, but touch nothing. “The other day … ” I wonder if Jeannie can still hear me. “How did you know about Shelly?”
“Shelly sent me.”
“She made me promise not to tell you,” Her voice is hollow and distant. “But you know what they say,” she smirks as he evaporates, “Never trust a genie.”
Lyle and I walk home, and I’m cautiously curious to see what it’s like to have parents who behave like actual parents. A orange blob stains the road in front of our house. My jack-o-lantern’s gone, sacrificed to Halloween.
There’s also a rental truck out front. A bent golf club lays on the sidewalk.
Mom’s shriek carries from inside the house, “Don’t you dare touch my mother’s silver.”
“I don’t want your goddam silver,” Dad screams back.
My shoulder aches. I pat Lyle to stop him barking at the pair of men carrying Dad’s bed out the front door.
Now I’ll have to choose which parent I want to live with. I know the answer, I just don’t want to have to say it. My throat wants to close. I wish Jeannie was here. I wish Shelly was here. I wish someone would tell me what to do. I wish I didn’t have to choose.