Note: You can read Chapter One here if you haven’t yet.
Lauren’s body felt hollow after Sara left, the way it feels after a long cry. She absently wished the food away and sat with her hands braced against her knees like a person recovering from a panic attack. For a long time she just breathed, her mind a jar of mud that needed time to settle. She cursed the fact that her door had no lock. Then she laughed, a short, strangled sound. “I wish the door had a lock,” she said, and it did. That was better.
She looked around the room, replaying the bizarre events of the past few days in her mind. It had started when she got back from the Caribbean, and the only thing she brought back from there was…
Her eyes came to rest on her wrist, and she furrowed her brow. It was an absurd theory, but there was an easy way to test it. She took the bracelet off, set it on the desk, and said, “I wish for, I don’t know, a button.” Nothing happened. “On the desk,” she specified. Still nothing. “I wish for a barstool on the rug,” she tried. The rug remained empty. She slipped the bracelet on again. “OK, I wish for a bunch of grapes.” A glistening green bunch appeared where the French toast had been a few moments earlier.
She jumped. Jesus Christ. Shakily taking the bracelet off again, she held it up and studied it. It sparkled impassively. Her image of an heiress casually losing jewelry would have to be replaced by something even more unbelievable — or more sinister. A tingle of foreboding crept up her spine. Maybe there had been a struggle. Maybe worse. Or maybe someone wanted to get rid of it.
She shook her head, and another mystery occurred to her. She was pretty sure she hadn’t been wearing the bracelet that morning when she wished for eggs Benedict, but she was definitely wearing it when she wished Sara would go away. “It must not work on people,” she reasoned with equal parts disappointment and relief. That kind of power would be too creepily God-like, too easy to abuse.
Her eyes closed wearily. It was late and her mind was a wreck; it couldn’t handle one more crazy thought, theory, or question. Maybe things would be clearer in the morning somehow. She placed the bracelet in her jewelry box and drifted into uneasy sleep.
She awoke on a hard, small bed in a dark, bare room. There were bars on the window. She heard a deafening clang behind her. Looking back, she saw a figure retreating from a wall of bars. She was in prison. Why? She looked at her wrist, ready to wish the bars away. The bracelet was gone. She sat up abruptly, panic permeating every pore. They’ve taken it. But who were they? What were they going to do with it? What were they going to do with her?
She gasped and turned over, and she was back in her little room in Washington Heights with its new blue rug, a thin sheen of clammy sweat covering her body. Early light filtered through her window as she grabbed the bracelet, got dressed, and fled without knowing where she was going.
Instinctively she headed toward the George Washington Bridge. It was 7am, long before she would normally get up, and she appreciated the relative freshness in the air. She passed a young man with stringy black hair sitting against a wall and staring at the sidewalk. A dirty backpack and dejected-looking dog rested beside him. I wish I had a hundred dollar bill in my pocket, she thought. She pulled out a crisply-folded bill and handed it to the young man.
“Thanks,” he mumbled as he crumpled it into his backpack without looking.
“You’re welcome,” she said, feeling a bit deflated.
She wished for another twenty dollars and bought a chai latte along the way, leaving the rest as a tip.
There was a particular spot where she loved to sit and think, where she could see trees, water, the sky, and soaring civil architecture. A hard-to-find, narrow pedestrian underpass smelling of stale urine opened onto an unmarked path that led through a broken chain-link fence to a small bluff under the bridge overlooking the Hudson Parkway. The green New Jersey bluffs rose on the other side of the Hudson and there was a lovely view up the river. Cars whirred by above and below on perpendicular paths, like a frenetic white noise machine.
As she wrapped her arms around her knees and took a sip of the warming tea, a memory bubbled up of being eight years old, when her mom was still struggling after the divorce and she was made fun of at school for things about her parents she didn’t understand. She remembered desperately wanting magical powers, praying for them every night for years, wishing for them on every birthday cake. She reasoned with God that it would be an efficient arrangement; she could solve her own problems and wouldn’t have to bother Him about them anymore. In all the books she read, if the protagonist wanted something badly enough, he or she could usually find a way to get it, against all odds. If she petitioned God and birthday candles long enough, she hoped it would work out for her as well. The childish delusion lasted until her early teens, when she started wishing about boys instead.
But now, decades later, her ridiculous prayer had somehow been answered. As a kid she would have known just what to do with it. Her desires were simple, her view of life narrow. Now? She felt utterly lost, without any hint of a roadmap, unable to catch her breath.
Even a few years ago she had felt more certain about the world and her place in it. Her first dream as a kid, tucked in a corner of the Wichita Public Library, had been to join the great men of history (they were almost always men): explorers, scientists, philosophers. Inspired by National Geographic, she was also interested in the environment, which led to politics. As she dug into that dismal subject, she realized books would only take her so far; she needed to see the world with her own eyes. She studied abroad in Russia, where she met politicians, professors, musicians, and ordinary people with completely different life experiences, and soldiers and refugees fresh from the carnage in Chechnya. After that it was excruciating to go back to college and try to pay attention in class. She’d had a taste of the real action, and she wanted more.
For three years she scraped by with odd jobs and writing gigs across Europe and Russia, sometimes waiting tables, washing dishes, or sweeping floors — like George Orwell and Frank McCourt before her, she liked to think — always on the cusp of hitting zero and having to limp back home. Selling the first book had been a godsend and validation, until it became a humiliating disappointment and a stone around her neck. Maybe it was time to face the fact that she’d had it wrong from the beginning, and it was time to change direction entirely.
At least, for as long as this strange miracle lasted, she didn’t have to worry about money. She wondered if the wishes might run out at some point, or if there was a set number of molecules she could manipulate. She decided to proceed with a bit more caution. No sense squandering near-omnipotence on rugs and chai lattes.
More than anything she needed to talk to someone. Sara was lovely but inclined to melodrama, and she couldn’t keep a secret to save her life, and if a secret like this got out, it was only a matter of time before someone robbed or killed her for it. It was terrifying to think of the damage a ruthless person could do with it, the blood that could be shed as people fought over it. She had seen people killed for far less.
It was a stroke of luck that Conal would be visiting New York soon for a conference on narrative journalism. He had turned down a prestigious job with Britain’s top news source to work for a second-tier paper so he could write what he considered true instead of what his bosses considered expedient. He’d won several awards for investigative pieces, but he remained humble and hardworking. They had met when they lived in the same apartment building in Palestine for a summer. He was the most levelheaded person she knew and the only one she could trust with a secret like this.
Feeling slightly clearer about things, Lauren walked back to her apartment and conjured up a lightly beat-up rolling suitcase containing one million dollars in small bills. She spread the bills evenly and wished for a padded false bottom to cover them. Then she stuffed the suitcase with jeans, sweaters, and her winter coat and hid it well in the back of her closet. Just in case.
* * *
The next few days were surreal. She stopped looking for jobs. She stopped answering emails and reading the news. Until Conal came, she pretended to be a traveler in New York, seeing it with new eyes, with the carefree attitude of exploration and enjoyment she used to have in exotic foreign cities. She relaxed into the comforting sense of time being a friend rather than an enemy; of the sunset being a highlight of the day instead of a dim event outside a window shut tight against intrusions; of sitting in cafés reading novels without a hint of shame. She took the Subway to neighborhoods she had never seen before and walked around, smiling and greeting people like the most soft-headed tourist imaginable.
She wondered: Was happiness really only the province of travelers and people with trust funds or magic bracelets?
* * *
Conal blinked a few times. His eyes, the luminous color of green sea glass, narrowed as if searching for the angle. Lauren knew the look; it was the same one she had given Sara when she insisted a hand-crafted Italian tiramisu was sitting in their refrigerator.
They were seated across from each other in a high-backed booth in a trendy sushi place north of Little Italy. The dark-paneled walls muted the conversations around them to a low buzz, and a white tea candle in a clear hurricane glass glowed steadily between them.
She sighed. “Name an object. A small object that I can hold in my hand.”
“A lemon,” he said in his Irish-flavored British accent, playing along. He’d grown up in southern Ireland, studied at Oxford, and spent his professional life based in London.
She brought her hand out from under the table. It contained a lemon.
He looked impressed. “OK. That’s a nice trick.”
“It’s not a trick. Name another object.”
“A tiny bust of Vladimir Lenin.”
She smiled. “Good one.” Then she set one on the table.
His expression wavered. He looked under the table at Lauren’s hands, which she flipped over so he could see they were empty. “Interesting. OK, er… a cup of Earl Grey Tea. In a golden wine glass.”
“Damn,” she muttered and he smirked, seeming relieved the odd joke was over. “No, I can do it,” she said, lifting a gilded goblet onto the table and setting it down quickly. It sloshed a bit, spilling a few drops on the table. The smell of bergamot was unmistakable. “It’s just really hot.”
All trace of amusement vanished from his face. He looked at her, looked under the table again, turned pale. “What the…? How did you…? How in the hell did you do that?”
“Keep your voice down. Look, I know it sounds crazy. It is crazy.”
“But what…? What…? How?”
“I don’t know. I just know it has something to do with this bracelet.”
He looked at it with dazed eyes. “Good God.” She let him sit with his thoughts for a while. Finally he looked at her. “But what does it mean?”
“I have no idea.”
“Did it come with instructions or anything?”
She shook her head. “Nothing.”
“And what if someone tries to take it from you?” He looked around briefly and dropped his voice to its lowest register. “There are people who will kill for that if they figure out what you have.”
Her hand instinctively covered the bracelet. “Are you considering it?”
He rolled his eyes. But there was a glitch in his countenance, as if he hadn’t really considered it until just that moment. Lauren drew back slightly. Conal sighed. “Look, I appreciate that you trusted me enough to tell me about this. But whatever it is, it’s your deal, OK? You found it, your deal. Honestly, the more I think about it, the more I’m kind of glad as hell it isn’t me. Where did you get that thing anyway?”
* * *
The next day Lauren found a specialty jewelry shop and asked the owner if he could reinforce the bracelet by attaching it to a steel loop and covering it with braided leather. The sad-eyed jeweler with Einstein hair accepted without comment her story that the bracelet had sentimental value, and she wanted to wear it without having to worry about theft. She was sure that in New York, he had heard far stranger requests.
When he finished the modifications and clamped it on her wrist, it looked tasteful but valueless, and he assured her it would be impossible to remove without heavy wire cutters.
Walking home she was thinking about the warm turquoise water and the strange glint in the coral below. Part of her wished she had shrugged and moved on with the others. Part of her wanted to chuck the bracelet into the East River and get on with the demoralizing job search. But she had investigated. It was who she was. And now she had to face the consequences. Whatever that meant.
Panting from the five-story climb, she unlocked the heavy apartment door, trying her best to muffle the loud locking mechanism. Lauren had managed to sidestep Sara’s questions so far by claiming an uncle had sold his land in Texas and was sending gifts to his family with the proceeds. But Sara wasn’t stupid. She noticed Lauren had stopped looking for work and was acting strange in general.
“Hi there.” Sara emerged from the kitchen, and Lauren jumped.
“What happened to your bracelet?”
Lauren sighed. “I don’t want it to get stolen, so I had it wrapped in leather.”
Sara nodded dubiously. “Where’d you get it anyway?”
“I told you.”
“Right. You found it at the bottom of the ocean.”
Lauren winced. That story had actually been true. “Look, Sara. I love you. I appreciate you looking out for me. But I can’t deal with any more questions right now.” It was precisely the wrong thing to say. Sara’s eyes glinted with the excitement of kindled curiosity, and Lauren suddenly reached her limit. She slowly closed her eyes. “All right, fine.” She had lied to enough border guards, she ought to be able to come up with a plausible enough story to get Sara off her back. “Here’s the truth. My uncle didn’t sell his land in Texas. He actually died.”
Sara’s face froze. “Oh,” she said quietly. “Sorry.”
“Thanks. I didn’t know him well, but he made a lot of money in oil in the eighties, and since he never had children, he left the money to his nieces and nephews. So,” she shrugged apologetically, “I guess I don’t need to worry about getting a job for a while.”
“Wow.” Sara slowly spun the mystic topaz ring on her right hand. “Well… condolences and congratulations both, I guess.” Her apparent jealousy meant she probably bought it.
Lauren relaxed a bit. “But listen, it’s something I don’t deserve. It just fell into my lap. So I’d like to spread the wealth a little. Is it OK if I pay your rent for the rest of the year?”
Sara froze again. “Oh my God. Are you serious?”
“Are you sure you’re serious? I mean, it’s a lot—”
“It’s fine. Really.”
Lauren was starting to feel awkward when Sara suddenly squealed and danced around. “Free rent! It’s a real estate miracle! It’s the New York dream!” She grabbed Lauren’s hands, and Lauren joined her and laughed. It was a relief to be on good terms again, and at least she knew part of the truth — that Lauren suddenly had access to a lot of resources she hadn’t earned. As long as Lauren was paying Sara’s rent, she suspected she wouldn’t complain.
“So what are you going to do?” Sara asked breathlessly.
“I don’t know. I’m still in shock, to be honest.”
“No wonder you’ve been acting so weird. Why didn’t you tell me?”
“It was just something I needed to process. I haven’t told anyone except Conal.”
“The hot journalist?”
Lauren rolled her eyes. “You know he’s like a brother to me.”
“Whatever. So what do you think you’re going to do?”
“I don’t know. I just wanted to be a writer. And I didn’t succeed, I mean not in making a living at it.”
“Well, now you don’t have to worry about making a living at it.” She sighed. “God, you’re so lucky.”
“Yeah,” Lauren said weakly. It was the dream. Not to have to worry. To be able to do exactly what she wanted. How could she explain how empty she felt — how scared? And how did she dare feel that way when she had what everyone wanted, or thought they wanted?
* * *
“All right, Conal, you’ve had some time to digest this. I need some advice. I need some clarity. I feel so lost.”
“I feel so bad for you.”
She backhanded him lightly on the shoulder. “Shut up.” They were sitting in a noisy tea house near Columbus Circle after his conference duties were over. “I feel like there’s something I should do, but I have no idea what. Should I go to a monastery or an ashram and wait for a sign? Should I travel again, follow my nose like I used to, find more adventures, make more friends, write more books? Should I hang out here and try new things? Dancing, martial arts, violin, all the things I didn’t try as a kid? Immerse myself in a foreign language?”
“Can the bracelet help with things like learning languages?” he asked.
“Naw. I tried wishing I spoke Chinese. Apparently my powers don’t extend to manipulating the human mind.”
“Thank God. I’m not sure I could be your friend if they did.”
“But you see my problem?”
“For God’s sake, Lauren, the world is your oyster. You can do whatever you want.”
“All right, put yourself in my position. If you had this power, what would you do?”
“I would… Hmm…”
“Not so easy when it’s you, is it?”
“I mean, I’d pay off my mum’s house. I’d help a friend in Kosovo start a business. I’d—”
“Of course I’ll do that kind of thing. But that’s for other people. What would you do?”
He looked at her and narrowed his eyes. “I guess I’d need to think about it.”
“That’s all I’m saying.”
“All right, all right, I get it. Most people spend their lives just doing what comes next, whatever they think they have to do. They never have the luxury of an infinite crossroads. I guess evolution didn’t really prepare us for this.”
“No wonder so many movie stars become Scientologists,” she muttered.
“Nothing. Look, I thought I knew who I was. I thought I knew what I wanted to do. But now, to be honest, I don’t even know if I want to write anymore.”
“That’d be too bad,” he said. “You’re an amazing writer.”
“It doesn’t seem to matter much. And it’s getting too painful to put everything I have into something and hope to make a difference, and have it rejected over and over.”
“Hmm,” he said sympathetically.
“Look, I know I can’t really call this a problem, compared to real problems,” she said, blushing slightly. “But thought I’d found a calling — a way to contribute to the world that was uniquely mine. Either I was right about that and I blew it, or I was wrong and I have to start over and find a new calling, or I just have to resign myself to a callingless life. And I don’t know how to do that, I don’t know where to start. It’s like I’m on an infinite featureless plain, and there’s no sign pointing in any direction. I’ve been here before, and I made my choices, and it didn’t work out. So how do I know it’ll work out any better if I try again?”
Conal met her anxious eyes. His transparent irises did something funny to her stomach, but it was lost in her agitation. “I understand why you feel this way,” he said in a placating voice that indicated he knew she was being somewhat ridiculous, and he knew she knew it as well. Lauren smiled in spite of herself. “And I don’t think I can talk you out of it right now. But I think a change of scene might do you good. I’m heading to Croatia next week to write about the beaches on a couple of Adriatic islands. You have infinite resources. Want to come?”
She raised an eyebrow, trying to regain her composure. “A puff piece? That’s rare for you.”
“Everyone needs a vacation now and then. What do you say?”
She relaxed her tense frame and sighed. “That sounds nice. But you never answered the question: What would you do if the bracelet were yours?”
He slowly blew air through his lips. “After several months mucking about in Southeast Asia, I suppose I’d think about starting my own newspaper. But I don’t know much about running a paper — ads and publicity and all that. I could hire some good people. But is another paper what the world really needs?” He took a sip of ginger tea. “It’s easy to keep on with my job because I like the people I work with, the pay is enough, the work is really interesting, and it’s all I’m really good at. I don’t even know what I’d do if I got fired, much less if my choices were infinite.” He narrowed his eyes thoughtfully.
“So you see where I’m at.”
Conal’s eyes smiled. “Come with me to Croatia. We can both think about this some more.”
# # #
To read Chapter Three, click here.