A VERY CARELESS WISH
I came to sometime later, on my back, staring up at a slot of night sky between silhouetted walls and fire escapes, with no idea where I was—until I tried to lift my head. The sirens and alarm bells this one small movement set off throughout my body brought everything back, and my confusion vanished into fear that it might still be waiting somewhere just beyond my line of sight.
The pain wasn’t distant anymore. Every time I gasped, rosettes of fire bloomed against my lungs. The smallest shift or flex brought sickening sensations of grinding bone, or the internal gush of liquids where I knew none should be gushing. I wondered how much longer it would take to die, and how much more painful it might get.
Though I didn’t try to move again, my eyes never ceased to rove in search of the monster. Yet it took me several minutes to notice the stranger sitting almost right above me on a dumpster, so still that I had simply taken her for a pile of rags and bags.
She stared down at me in silence, her face half hidden in cascades of dark, wavy hair, her hands buried in the folds of a long, tattered skirt in faded colors.
“Is he gone?” I whispered.
“Have you called for help?”
“Is that what you wish?” she asked.
I didn’t even think about the strangeness of her reply. I simply realized that…perhaps help wasn’t what I wanted. Hadn’t I just been wishing for some escape from pointless years of waiting out my failed existence? And here it was. Surely half the dying was already done. Why waste all that just to hang around for thirty or forty more years of bitter dregs?
“No,” I whispered, gasping softly at the pain just speaking roused. “You’re right. I don’t...want help.”
“You do not wish to live?” she asked.
“Not this life,” I groaned, beginning to shiver from both cold and shock.
“What life then?”
“The life I should have led,” I gasped in more than physical pain, hardly conscious of how much I wanted to confess my failure to someone—anyone—before it was all done. “There’s no way to fix it...nothing left for me to want…but an end to this.”
“What would you have fixed?” she asked.
The wave of grief this question caused just made my broken body seem a fitting final punishment for my utter failure as a human being. I began to moan, and then to sob. “Everything!” I cried, heedless of the lances this sent through my torso. “I just want...to do it over! All of it! No one ever tells you what it’s for—what any of it’s worth.”
The pain was almost welcome now; a knife with which to stab at all the unbearable regret and shame writhing in my gut. The woman simply watched in silence until I felt nothing anymore but empty, wishing only that my body would give up and get this over with.
She wasn’t finished with me, though. “So…you wish to start life over? All of it?” She sounded incredulous.
“If only…that were possible,” I wept.
“I think you cannot remember how much work it was just to learn to think—or talk, or walk, or use a spoon. You would go back to messing your diapers? Spitting up your milk? To do it once is like a miracle of penance. To do it twice… This seems a dreadful wish to me.”
As she sat there, scolding me, my grief gave way to irritation. “Okay, I’d wish to be twelve then...or fourteen.”
“Fourteen?” she asked as if it were a point of some profound importance. “Why that age?”
“If I’d known,” I gasped between shallow breaths, “everything at fourteen…that I know now, I’d…have ruled the world by twenty-five.” The pain was starting to recede into a numbness that I hoped meant I was nearly done. “What does it matter? … Now.”
“But you’re wrong,” she insisted. “However much you knew, you’d just make all the same mistakes again. For all the same reasons. Mistakes are how life works.”
“For Christ’s sake, lady, I’m dying!” I spat. “Who are you, anyway? What are you even doing here?”
She fell silent for a moment. Then, very quietly, she said, “It was my daughter that you saved tonight.”
I looked away, embarrassed, a little guilty even, for yelling at her; and then it hit me that I’d saved somebody’s life. A child’s.
“Thank you,” I whispered, struggling not to weep again.
She leaned back slightly, in apparent surprise. “For what?”
“For giving…my existence…some…redeeming value.”
She sighed, braced her hands against the dumpster lid, and slid down to stand over me. “You have little cause for gratitude to me, I think.”
She smiled. A sad smile, but it changed her weary, weathered face completely, made her lovely as an angel. “Not many of your kind can claim to have done battle with a troll and lived. You are a better man than you seem to know.” Then, to my confusion, she just turned and walked off toward the street.
I had no idea what she meant, did not even wonder, but realized suddenly how much I didn’t want to die alone. “Where… Where are you…”
She paused at the alley’s mouth to look back at me. “My debt to you is far beyond any payment I am able to provide. And I have been…instructed to help you. But if this does not turn out as you imagine, please remember that I warned against it.”
This made even less sense to me, but I didn’t care. I just wanted her to stay—until I was gone. I craned my neck to call her back, which proved a big mistake. A flash of white-hot pain shot down my spine, leaving me only time to hope I wouldn’t wake again.
And I didn’t, really.
Did she think she’d done me a favor? Bestowed some reward?
Should she not at least have warned me?
She had tried, I guess.
And I would never have believed her anyway. Even if I’d understood, would I have possessed the sense to refuse? Not that night. That night, I’d have run through fire for this without a thought for details.
And she had clearly taken very careful notes.
When I woke again, the alleyway was bathed in morning radiance. I felt marvelously rested—more light and limber than I’d felt in years, and filled with almost manic energy—until I sat up to find myself swimming in someone’s gigantic suit, wearing lithe, freckled, hairless little arms and hands that could not possibly belong to me either.
Little crossed my mind at first but the white-noise of numb incomprehension, then the suspicion that I was still unconscious—dreaming or hallucinating, and finally the panicked possibility that I was dead.
Was this what happened when people died? Did they wake as little cherubs, tangled in whatever they’d been wearing at the time? Was some angel going to come now and direct me to the celestial shuttle? Or some devil maybe? Would they send a man to Hell who’d died to save a child? The whole thing scared me right back into unconsciousness before I’d even tried to stand.
The next time I awoke, a blond, middle-aged man was bending over me, sunglasses pushed up on his forehead, and a badge and various other insignia attached to his white, short-sleeved shirt. At the alley mouth an ambulance was parked, its lights flashing silently as morning traffic whizzed past in the street beyond. Behind its steering wheel a second man, also in uniform, spoke into a hand unit.
The fellow bending over me explained that he was a paramedic, and started asking simple questions I had no idea how to answer, like, “How do you feel?”
Well, … great, I thought—compared to how I’d felt the night before, yet not so good about still being unable to find my hands or feet inside the expensive, wool-blend parachute I wore. I just said, “I’m not sure.”
“Are you injured anywhere?”
No, in fact, I did not seem to be—anymore—but could no more tell him I’d been road kill just hours before than that I had been fifty years old when I’d gone to bed here. Yet, when he asked me who I was, I blurted out my name by force of habit.
He looked concerned and said he’d found a wallet in the suit I was wearing which contained I.D. and credit cards for someone of that name who was, unfortunately, a fifty-year-old man. Did I know the man whose clothes these were? Was I, perhaps, confused about my identity?
Golly, mister. You think?
I started babbling increasingly absurd assertions about who I was—no, really!—and about what had happened to me—But I swear it’s true!—until the grim sympathy forming on his face finally made me understand that I was milliseconds from being bundled up and hauled off to a loony bin.
And that was when the bigger picture finally began to register.
I was a child again—somehow—without parents, or even one acquaintance who’d believe that I was me, or a house that anyone would believe I owned, or a car that I could legally drive—if I could even reach the pedals anymore—or any job I could attempt returning to without being sent straight off to some child-psychiatrist I could no longer afford to pay for. My ill-advised dying wish had been appallingly short on all sorts of crucial provisions. I should have asked to be fourteen again knowing everything a less imbecilic man of fifty might. I had no idea how I would survive, but at that moment I just needed some ‘sane’ cover story to buy time while I figured out what the hell was really happening, much less what to do about it.
“No, wait,” I said. “You’re right. I guess I am… confused. I think… My…uncle, yeah. These must be his clothes… I don’t know what they’re doing on me… My uncle and I were… Last night... Something happened. I… I don’t remember what. But my name is …is…” As I scrambled for some more plausible name than my own to give him, the face of an acquaintance back in grammar school popped suddenly to mind, and I just borrowed his name.
“I…I remember now,” I said. “I think…my name is Matthew.”