Nights and Wishes

Three Cheers and a Tiger ~ Gold
Cheryl Clark


headless mannequins
Photo Credit: James Butler

The circle of yellow light framed its headless performer, but she stood silent.

They always were. He liked the ones in the bridal shop window even after they switched to this headless, modern model. Their costumes were flashy or elegant, take-your-breath-away special, suitable for the stage. But though he could imagine himself in the front row of the concert during the long, lonely hours of his shift, he was destined to be forever just after the performance. Mike stood watching the mannequin in her spotlight, picturing her bow and summoning the impression of applause. He smiled, considered joining in the cheers and clapping, then thought better of it.

“Goofball,” he declared. “Can’t clap with a flashlight in your hand.” He laughed quietly and waved the beam in playful circles. “Wooo! Back up singers, too.” He lit on a trio of aquamarine bridesmaids that shimmered in the moving light as if they were dancing.

His watch beeped sharply once, and the concert was over. Mike sighed.

“Another couple of months of this and they’ll have to carry me out of here in a long-sleeved coat. Bad enough I’m talking to myself.” He instinctively grabbed the card dangling from a lanyard around his neck and turned toward Check Point One. Tennis shoes squeaked against the tiles as he walked. During the day, the mall was packed with shoppers. Guys who got the day shift never had to listen to their squeaky shoes. They never had to stage mannequin concerts to keep from dozing off. There were shoplifters and fights and teenage pranks to police. How long did you have to work the night shift before you’d paid your dues? One year? Two? Maybe it was just until you cracked, and if you could still knock some heads together after that, they moved you to days. God knows the mall security guards he remembered from his teen years were all a little off. Maybe that was how they got that way. Or maybe, he thought, they didn’t let you out of this trap until you found someone to take your place.

He sidled up to Check Point One and ran his badge through the slot. Red to green.

“Tick,” he said along with the unit, then spun on his heel and strode toward the next. His flashlight beam ran merrily ahead. When he first started a couple months ago, he tried to keep himself occupied by imagining attack scenarios on the route of his rounds. Every hiding place held a thief, a ninja, or some variety of skittering, snarling demon thing waiting to lunge out with claws or swords or whatever. Planning his counter to each foe kept him on his toes, but it also started to freak him out a little. He almost wet himself when a poorly balanced display fell one night as he came past the sporting goods outlet. Now he just tried to keep his mind on meaningless trivia, philosophical puzzles, and random daydreams. Then again, could you call them daydreams on the night shift? He decided you could at about the same moment he ran the card through Check Point Two.

Another rapid direction change aimed his track across the central plaza and toward the food court at the far end of the building. He always sharpened his focus for this leg, trying to determine how early he could hear the bubbling of the fountain at the heart of the structure. They switched it to low at night to save energy, but kept it rippling just enough to retard the growth of mold or disease or whatever plagued mall fountains. He was no expert, but he had noticed the newer malls rarely had them anymore, and that was probably due to some public health concern that might be bad for their insurance rates. Maybe there were too many walking texters drowned in them these days. He picked up the faint sound of moving water as he was passing the cell phone kiosk. That was pretty much the same every night. Really, how could you expect something different when the variables weren’t inclined to change much? The only thing that might affect it would be an ear infection or a mishap with radioactive waste that granted him mutant hearing powers.

In a flash, he assumed a comic book pose of vigilance. “What’s that I hear?” He cupped his ear. “Someone has thrown a rare golden doubloon in the fountain and wished to rule the world. With my super hearing, I shall detect its precise location and stop this mad plot by… Oh, screw it. A wish is a wish. We’re all doomed.” He glanced into the rippling pool as he glided past. No doubloons. Must have been hearing things. Mike continued on down the long hall that led to the food court, his flashlight beam bouncing now like a blind man’s cane.

Check Point Three clicked over to green, and he made for the table where he had left his Thermos and sandwich when he arrived. He’d learned to ration the coffee to avoid drinking it all out of boredom within the first couple of hours. Nothing made you jumpy like a pot worth of caffeine and a long night of shadows ahead of you. Mike poured a cup as a reward after each of the scheduled rounds. This time, he poured it to the brim of the lid and watched the glimmer of the black surface under the dim light. A deep, rich scent flowed outward from his personal reflecting pool. Suddenly, a thought occurred to him, and he sprang into action.

Taking a deep sip from the cup first, he swept it up from the table and marched back toward the plaza with its gurgling fountain. He had an hour to kill before he’d have to make the rounds again, and the collection of wishes in the shallow water could use counting and categorizing. He set his cup on the chipped faux marble that surrounded the pool and dipped a hand into the cold liquid. It felt a little thicker than water should be and a little slipperier, but Mike forced himself not to think about what additives the mall maintenance crew might have spiked it with. It couldn’t be too toxic if they let the general public close enough during the day to toss their pennies in and wish. He came up with a handful of dripping change and shook it as dry as he could before setting it on the ledge. Pennies mostly. Small change for small wishes: little things like cool new shoes, or passing tests, or catching a cute girl’s eye. Nickels and quarters were for bigger jobs: true love, fame, and fortune. He separated the varieties, naming off new wishes for each. Still no doubloons. When he finished sorting, he reached for a second handful. With his hand immersed, he startled as something grabbed his wrist. He jerked, flinging jewels of water through the air and tumbling back to bruise his tailbone on the floor.

“Son of a—” he gasped, never taking his widened eyes from the fountain.

“A wish is a wish,” came a voice behind him, soft and feminine but with a resentful edge.

He spun on his bruise and looked up into the darkness.

Her skin was green and glistening but oddly insubstantial. Mike could see straight through her like rain on a windowpane. She had the same sort of coursing flow running down from the crown of her head to the puddle at her feet. It was really just the idea of a puddle, he reasoned in the bizarre calm that hid beneath a good panic. That steady flow would have made a lake before long if it had been real. Clothing was unlikely, but the figure was so indistinct that it was difficult to tell. She made no outwardly threatening moves. Instead, this mysterious watery spirit loomed unnervingly close over him as if waiting for his response before she would descend on him.

A flurry of feet propelled the guard backward until he hit the fountain edge. Then, remembering the contact there, he scrambled on a tangent somewhere between the two threats. When the lady didn’t follow, Mike tried to speak.

“Go away,” he mouthed voicelessly, and as her eyes shifted accusingly to him, he added, “please.”

The phantasm trickled closer to the fountain edge, staring at the coins laid out on the tile. Mike raised himself on trembling legs.

“Do you know what it is to be a slave to the magic of the well?” The question swirled through the still air, and Mike felt the chill as it flowed past. “Every wish tugs on your essence, siphons a bit more of you away to serve the whims of those who know nothing, nothing of the drain. Water was meant to run.” The figure melted to the level of the ledge, resting as Mike had done when he fished out the coins. One transparent hand rippled over the stacks of metal.

There was a rush like an ocean in Mike’s ears that might have been the spirit’s doing, or else it was the effect of his own frozen heart.

“What do you want?” he asked finally in a tiny voice. The wells of her eyes flooded him with a deep and inexplicable sadness. He swallowed and looked at his shoes.

“Freedom,” she said quietly.

A slow, lonely drip made its way from ledge to floor.

“Who’s keeping you?” Mike found the courage to ask, compassion overtaking his fear.

Again, the accusing presence veiled the sorrow like ice creeping over the edges of a pond. “Wherever men believe, wherever water is drawn and ritual is performed, a spirit flows in and is bound. I am not free until the wish frees me. I am bound and enclosed in stone for all time.” She looked up toward the darkness at the height of the ceiling. A skylight lurked above, but in the absence of a moon, the window might have been obsidian.

“A wish would free you?” Mike shrugged, “Just a simple wish for your freedom? How hard could that be?”

The spirit looked at him like he was six years old. “Just a choice,” she clarified, “Just a choice between your own desires and another’s—whether your own pain is more important.”

Now he felt the heat rising as he turned the matter over in his mind. Struggles were everywhere. We all had trouble; we all had things we wanted. Would anyone truly choose their wish if they knew it was at the expense of someone else? The conclusion he uncovered was a sad reality.

“I’m making that choice,” he declared. “I’m wishing for your freedom right now.”

“And what of the ones who come after?” the fountain asked. “When I am free, another will be bound.”

Mike thought a moment, considering the bars of his own night-shift prison. An endless stream of spirits to rescue was a huge commitment. He could save his wishes to make his lot more tolerable. At the least, he could spend his nights conversing with this spirit so that each would be less alone. There was really only one choice.

“I’ll free them, too,” he replied. “We’ll make a path to freedom, an underground railroad, a river of fountain spirits flowing out into the world.”

“You would be robbing your people of wishes,” the spirit argued, but the ice was melting in her eyes and rolling over the flow of her cheeks.

The stacks of coins on the ledge seemed suddenly so small. “Let them make their own magic,” he suggested. “Most of them don’t even really believe anyway.”

With that, Mike dug into his pocket, seeking the biggest coin he could find. He wasn’t sure a quarter was big enough for a critical wish, but it was the biggest he had. It gleamed as he flipped it toward the pool.

“I wish I could take you from this fountain and make you free,” he pronounced.

Immediately, the spirit began to turn. The smile that was spreading across her lips blurred as she picked up speed, whirling into a waterspout and rising up before draining seamlessly into his coffee cup. The silence was thick now and heavy, not hollow as it had been before his encounter. There was no splash, no displacement of liquid one might have expected as a full-sized woman went into a cup of coffee. All was still, and only the glistening dampness around the fountain told the story that anything out of the ordinary had happened.

Mike approached cautiously and peered into the cup, half-expecting a face to be peering back. There was nothing.

He lifted the cup carefully and carried it slowly, step by step, back to the food court. His flashlight was left back at the fountain, poking its cockeyed beam at the wall from where it had been dropped. The light from soda fountains and signs was sufficient to see by as he poured the remainder of his Thermos down the drinking fountain drain. The cup he poured, as gingerly as possible, into the emptied container. He screwed the lid back on reverently. Come morning, he’d be able to smuggle the spirit out and pour her into a little stream in the park near his apartment.

“Gotta go clean up the spill by the fountain,” he told the Thermos and walked away toward the maintenance closet where he could find a mop.

Old Mike was a little off, they all said. He insisted on the night shift, had the run of the mall while the world slept. For thirty-seven years. Every evening, he’d show up with his sandwich, Thermos, and flashlight. Every morning, he’d leave with the same, minus the sandwich. Rumor had it, he talked to the mannequins and the fountain, but he made all the Check Points on his rounds, and he never called in sick. If you got the inkling to ask about his dedication, all he would say was that people depended on him.

pencil

Cheryl Clark wrote an unpublished collaborative fantasy novel with her husband John Reed Clark. Afterward, they took their multiple perspective concept and broadened it into a series of short stories for their website. Cheryl works in a medium-sized library in Northern Illinois where her kindergarten lessons in sharing are put to good use. Email: Cielle_9[at]yahoo.com