Wishing Fountain

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The coin was no bigger than a dime in my hands.

It was a dime, in fact.  Wispy clouds stretched over a cornflower blue sky as I stood at the center of the park, where the wishing fountain stood.  The trickling sound of water filled the air as I considered my wish.

I wish…

I wished I had straight hair.  I wished I could talk without stumbling.  I wished I smiled more.

I wish…

I flipped the coin over and over, so small in my fingers.  I’d had a hard time finding it on the way there, hiding in some lost corner of my purse.  It was the smallest coin, but not with the least value.

I wish…

I wished something exciting would happen.  I wished I wasn’t allergic to cats.  I wished I wasn’t so afraid.

I wish…

I sighed and looked at the coin, at the head of some guy whose name I should know.  I probably slept through that part in history class.

I wish…

I flicked my fingers, sending my coin through the air.  It went up until it looked like the sky would reach out and grab it.

Then with a flash of silver, it fell.

I watched it make hardly a splash in the clear fountain as it joined the other glittering coins.  So many wishes.  Everyone’s dreams and hopes, laying inside a fountain.  Gleaming in the water, resting together.

Doing nothing.

I hadn’t gone to the wishing fountain thinking a dime in the water would make things happen.  I went there to see the coins.  To see how many people dreamed, and wished, and hoped.  I went there to add myself to their crowd, to say I’m there too.

Hands in my pockets, I turned away from my coin.  A breeze picked up, playing with my hair as I walked home.  Some things I can’t change.  That’s okay.

But some things I can.

So I will.

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Subways

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The city is dying.

The people who took power now sit in crumbling chairs, demanding obedience from those who stopped listening a long time ago.  Even on the brightest of days, the streets are overshadowed by husks of buildings from a time past.  The place is a swarming ruin, it’s citizens living in the crumbling chaos they built for themselves.

It is a world for scavengers now.  The street rats and crows have swept in to take over, fighting over the remaining scraps with empty, hungry eyes.  They scream and fight, if only to be rid of the ringing silence in their ears.  In time, even they will sulk away into the shadows, leaving the city to fall apart on its own.

The subways haven’t run in years.  No one dares wander from home farther than they can walk.  They don’t know what happens beneath the surface.

The tunnels are filled with color.

Thousands of Christmas lights are strung through the darkness, spreading light to every twist and turn.  Idle subway cars sit detached from each other, filled with families that have made them homes.  Stations are crowded with wood-carvers and potters and musicians, dancers and stylists and storytellers.

The painters scale the tunnel walls with their colors, covering every inch with their art.  Plants and faces and objects, sceneries and memories and creatures, everything real and imaginary illuminated with dangling strings of light.

Writers are scattered everywhere.  Usually sitting in the nooks and crannies, bending over a notebook or mobile device or staring into space.  They bind their pages of words with string and fabric, often leaving a few at a platform that has become a library of sorts.

Dirt has been smuggled down, and plants that can survive the dark are being coaxed to life by a growing body of gardeners.  Ivy and mushrooms and ferns stretch out hesitantly into the patient and caring hands that planted them, spreading through the tunnels and creeping up pillars.

Music bounces and echoes off the walls, swelling with musicians calling out to one another.  They gather in groups and play off each other, learning and growing and obliging the dancers that call out requests.

The subways are full of life, and it’s growing.

The city is dying, but there is a seed planted beneath it.  Someday, it will burst through the surface and chase away the rats and scavengers.

What a beautiful sight that will be.

 

Spring Forest

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Spring is when the things of the forest grow.

Branches of green buds spread across a backdrop of storm clouds, swaying in a phantom breeze.  Deep yellow crocuses poke out of the dark forest bed, stretching out as though escaping whatever lies below.  I’m always careful not to step on them, their scent is not easily shaken off.

The dogwoods offer up their cream-white flowers, mimicking the lucky clovers with their petals of four.  I often pause to look at them.  After a rainfall their petals become the darkest shade of white.  They hold a melancholy I could never quite understand.

Birds call out from the branches overhead, though I don’t ever spot them.  They sing crisp notes into the silent air, and I swear it’s what makes the branches sway.  I never follow the sound, their song is not meant for me.

I am not afraid.

The forest knows me, it seems to have accepted me as one of its wild things.  There is always its desire to keep me, but also an understanding of the freedom all wild creatures need.  Still, I never linger in one spot for long.  I do not wish to become rooted to the forest floor.

The plants around me rustle every now and again with whatever lives in this place.  I’ve stopped jumping at the sound, they are just curious.  I wonder what they think of me.

I don’t go after the noises I hear.  I don’t follow the beetles that scutter into the underbrush.  I leave if a chill works up my spine.  I am not afraid, but I am wary.

The forest is where the wild things stay, and I am only a guest.  Not everything that grows should be seen, and there are some things that are better left alone.

The air smells of rain and soil, and the birds are singing overhead.  Spring has settled into the forest.  It is beautiful, it is haunting, it is alive.

If you go, keep alert.  Watch, listen, but do not follow.  You must be always careful when things of the forest grow.

Gifts

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The gift is wrapped in bright cranberry red, with a white ribbon bow that was obviously tied by human hands.  It looks all the more fantastical for it.

It’s my first.

My first real gift.

I can’t believe it.  After the years of work in the North Pole, crafting and wrapping and double-checking labels, I never really thought about what it would feel like to receive a gift.  Especially not one from a human.

Now I’m holding it, and it’s an easy weight in my hands that makes me shiver with giddy excitement. 

Jenna gave it to me, she was the first human to accept me as her crazy and peculiar friend after I left the workshop for adventure.  She thinks it’s funny when my eyes get wide after seeing something new.  She loves pulling me from place to place, pointing out her favorite things and answering my thousands of questions.

I walk home with the present carefully cradled in my hands.  It’s still sinking in.  I was given a gift of my own.  Jenna had laughed at the shock on my face when she’d given it to me. “It’s Christmas, of course I got you something.  I hope you like it.”

I love it.

Up ahead, I see Amy walking home.  She lives with her family in the apartment next to mine, and she’s always smiling in the way that makes me want to smile back.

I was the Good List Manager at Santa’s workshop for years, and it’s strange, I never once saw her on my lists.  I’ve thought a lot about it and concluded that she must have slipped through a crack in the system.  It’s a pity, her smile always cheers me up in this scary world and she patiently explains things upside-down and sideways for me when I don’t understand.

Mr. Claus would love her.

I twirl a finger in the white ribbon.  Amy is staring at the sidewalk ahead of her, lost in her own thoughts.  Humans tend to be like that, there’s a lot they think about but won’t say.  I’m beginning to understand it.  There’s so much to do, and so many things happening, it’s a lot to process.  I’ve begun to feel very single-minded compared to these people.  How do they decide on anything?  How do they focus? 

They think.

They think and they think and they think.

They do it until their thoughts become a whole side of their world that I can’t see, but I try to understand it anyway. 

Amy once told me about a few of her thoughts, and what she said makes me think her smiles must be made of bravery.  I wonder why no one else sees it that way.  Perhaps someday I’ll ask her, and she can explain it inside-out and downside-up until I understand.

“Amy, wait up!” I call.  I see her pulling out of her thoughts as she turns towards me.  A smile brightens her face a moment later and she waits for me to catch up.

“Hey,” she says, “good to see you getting comfortable with this place.”

I grin at that.  I used to get so turned around and lost after walking anywhere away from my apartment.  Amy guided me home more than once the month I moved in.

We walk together in comfortable silence as I wish she hadn’t gotten lost in the workshop’s system.  What would I have sent her if she’d been on my list?

I want to give back one of her smiles.  I’ve never wrapped a present like that before.  I don’t really know if I could. 

I want to try.

I’m already getting discouraged, because all I can think of is how I don’t have much of anything worth giving, much less a smile.  It’s hard for an elf to blend in with the world and get a decent job.  I barely have an apartment.  Where would I get her a smile?  I look down to think, like Amy does.

Cranberry red with a white, human-tied ribbon.

My first gift.  First ever.  It’s full of the biggest kind of smile, already leaking from the wrapping paper and staining my face whenever I look at it.  And it’s sitting in my hands.

Amy and I are at the apartment building.  Our steps match rhythm as we hurry up the stairs, both of us panting like we’re out of shape no matter how many times we’ve taken these steps before.  By the time we’ve reached the top we’re so out of breath we pause to catch it.

The wrapping crinkles under my fingers.  Somehow, I’m already smiling.  I don’t remember feeling like this when I sent out presents from Santa’s workshop.  I think it must always feel different when a piece of your heart gets involved.

“Amy, this is for you.” I say, and I hold up the gift.

Her eyes are big enough to see every shade of color in her brown eyes.  She looks at the box I hold out to her and touches it with her fingertips. “Really?  For me?”

Her reaction feels so familiar, it’s like I can almost hear what’s going through her head.  I’m nodding my head, nearly bouncing from the excitement building up inside me.  Was this how Jenna felt?

She takes the gift, and the weight is suddenly gone from my hands. “Thank you so much.” she breathes, staring at the white on bright cranberry red.

“I hope you like it.” I say, and I really do.

Amy looks back up at me, and she’s wearing the kind of smile that seeps from the wrapping because cardboard and paper aren’t enough to contain it.  It’s already the biggest kind of smile I’ve seen on her face, and she hasn’t even opened it. “I love it.”

I leave her there, standing in front of her door with a gifted smile on her face.  It’s the best present I’ve ever given, wrapped in red and tied with a bow.

I don’t even know what was inside.

Nightmares

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The wind was howling when you called, long after I’d gone to bed.  My heart pounded as I answered my phone.  You never called me after seven.  I did my best to sound awake when I said hello to you.  All I heard on your end was breathing.  Shaken, halting breathing.

“What’s wrong?” I asked, my heart twisting with worry.

You took in another hitching breath and held it.  I realized that perhaps you couldn’t trust yourself to speak.  I sank back down in my pillows, pressing the phone to my ear.

“It’s okay,” I whispered, “I’m right here.  You don’t need to say anything.”

In a sudden rush you released your breath, as though I’d flung open the door to an over-crowded room.  The wind outside matches your gust, making my house shudder.

In.  Out.  In.  Pause.

Each breath sounded like a struggle for calm.  I listened in silence, wondering what you needed me to do.  Wondering what was wrong and if I should say something.  I wished I knew the right words to make you feel better, but I didn’t.  So I listened.

Your breath came out like a whistle, and you sucked it back in through your teeth.  My eyelids drooped against the pitch black in my room, and I imagined you sitting in yours.

Out.  In.  Out.  In.

Your breathing started sounding smoother.  I hoped that I was helping in some silent way, because my brain never comes up with good words until they aren’t needed.  I heard you move and hoped you were settling down in your bed.  It was late, and you needed to get some sleep.

Your breaths became quieter, I could hardly hear them through the phone’s speaker.  I wondered if perhaps you’d gone to sleep, but then you drew in a deep breath and murmured two words to me.

“Thank you.”

A smile of relief pulled at my face, my muscles relaxing.  You whispered goodbye and hung up, and I’d let my phone slip down the side of my face.

I never found out what was wrong, or why you called, or what you had expected from me.  I do hope you’re at least a little better now.

It is my hope that, perhaps, I’d done something to help.

 

Listen

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“Have you noticed how the clouds watch you, or how the trees speak to each other?” Firelight flickered in the storyteller’s dark eyes. “Have you ever seen the water stare back at you, or felt the shadows hold your hand?”

She leaned forward, and I leaned in with her, drawn into the world she spun. “Have you ever noticed the stars shine brighter when you wish on them?  How they twinkle with the secrets they’re told?”

She paused, looking straight at me, the stillness of the night echoing with her questions.  Slowly, she shook her head. “Perhaps not.  So let me ask you a different question: do you remember a time when you were sad, and rain fell in unison with your tears?  Do you remember once when you were alone at night and the darkness seemed to wrap you in its arms?”

The hairs on my arms slowly stood on end as she dropped her voice to a whisper. “Have you ever looked up into the sky and felt the waiting silence?”

She had a small smile on her face as she to looked up at the dark sky.  In the ringing silence, I could hear it.  The stars were waiting to hear my secrets.

“There is more to the world around us than we care to see.  Some call it magic, but I see it as something more normal than that.  It is simply the parts of the world that keeps better secrets than us.  It hides away, waiting for someone to come looking.”

She pulled her gaze from the sky, meeting my eyes across the small fire. “When you’re awake, keep your eyes open.  When you sleep, look carefully in your dreams.  There are secrets within your reach.  Listen.” A soft breeze played with wisps of her hair. “The trees might whisper them to you.”

Asylum

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She owned the asylums, and that’s all anyone knew.

Most people avoided her.  She had that air about her, like she knew every crazy thing you’d ever done.  She was good at getting you to talk about yourself, even if you went into the conversation with the best intentions to keep your mouth shut.  I’ve seen her do it.  And somehow you’ll walk away without knowing a thing about her.

That’s what intrigues me.

When you’re a shy girl who’s intimidated by people in general and conversations in particular, you end up watching her.  Wondering how she does it.  How she walks like she owns the place and slips her way through conversations, how it never bothers her to have people whisper and stare when she walks by.

She scares me, but even more than that, she fascinates me.

That’s how I end up crouching in the bushes outside the Ellis Asylum, heart beating so fast I wonder if I’ll pass out from it.

She’s inside.  I know because I followed her.  Now my terror is fighting it out with my curiosity and I’m wondering whether I’ll end up in the hospital or police station.

Or the asylum, I suppose, if things really went south.

I don’t know how long it’s been, but it feels like hours and my heart hasn’t slowed one bit.  That can’t be good for my health.

Nothing about this trip can be good for my health.

I can’t believe I’ve made it this far, and it’s that one astounding fact that makes me think maybe I can finish what I’ve started.

I take the biggest breath I’ve had in a couple hours.  The advantage to being shy is you learn the art of sneaking.  I put every bit of that skill to use now, creeping up to the door and slowly, slowly cracking it open to peer inside.

The front desk is empty.

I listen, holding my breath, but there isn’t a sound.

So I slip in.

I think my chest will explode, the way it feels to keep holding my breath when my heart is going thumpathumpathumpathump–

I dash on silent feet for the nearest hall.

The doors on either side have little barred windows, and sometimes more than one lock.  I imagine myself being pushed behind one of the doors and locked in its room forever.  I can see myself screaming, pounding on the door, but it’s an insane asylum, that’s probably what everyone does.

I’m scaring myself.

There’s a door to a stairwell on my left and I run through it if only to get away from that hallway of locked doors.  I force myself to stop for a moment, to try to calm down.

It almost works.

But then I hear a door open a level or two above me and my heart is in my throat trying to escape from my mouth.

I go down.

Somehow it hadn’t even occurred to me to go back into that hallway.  I’m trying to be quiet but I can hardly tell anymore because the heart beats so much louder in my ears now that it’s in my throat.  There’s only one level to go down so I slip through the door there and face another hallway.

Only, this hallway isn’t white on white with fluorescent lights.

The walls are a nice kind of dark green, and the floor is carpet.  The lights give off a warm sort of glow, and there’s pictures hanging here and there.  It’s the first thing that looks safe, and that scares me the most.

I can’t remember why I decided to come here.  I just know I had to have been very stupid to think exploring an asylum would be a good idea.

It isn’t even a good way to die.

But I hear distant sounds of someone coming down the stairs behind me, and I run.  I don’t look at the pictures.  Or the carpet.  The hallway bends up ahead and if I just–

I hear the handle from the stairwell being turned and I don’t think.  I just throw myself into the nearest room and shut the door behind me.  I don’t look around the room, I just squeeze my eyes shut and slide down the door until I’m sitting.  Wrapping my arms around my knees is the only comfort I can give myself.  I’ve locked myself in a room, and now I am doomed.

Trapped.

Something touches my arm and I scream, then burst into tears because I’m scared and have been for a long time.

Shhhhhh, shhhhh. I hear, and there’s something in the sound of it that calms me.  Like how a lullaby feels when you’re very, very tired.

My eyes clear of their tears and I see a figure kneeling in front of me a couple of feet away.

She wasn’t how I’d have imagined an insane person would look like.

I didn’t think there was a particular look I’d be expecting in an insane person, but now I know there is.  This wasn’t it.

I hadn’t pictured smooth, beautiful skin, or long wavy hair the shade of pink you find on the inside of an oyster.  I hadn’t pictured big, moss-green eyes looking at me like I was some frightened animal that needed calming.

It’s okay, don’t be frightened.” she says, and her voice lifts the terror away from me.  My heart returns to a normal, healthy beat.

There’s a knock at the door, and it opens a crack. “Merilda?  Are you alright?”

The girl looks up with bright eyes and nods. “I have a visitor, she was scared.

Her words are lined with outstretched friendship and security.  I’m safe here.  I’m okay.

The door opens wider, and a head peers in at me.  It’s the lady I’d followed here, the owner of this place.

Suddenly I don’t feel so relaxed anymore.

I blink, looking at the pink-haired girl still kneeling a few feet away.  She smiles at me.

“What are you doing here?” The lady says, and I realize in all the time I knew about her, I never once heard her name.  Her question is kind, and she, too, looks like she’s trying not to scare me.

“I– I–” but my tongue is twisted up like it usually is when I’m put on the spot.  The lady comes in and kneels on the carpet before me.

“It’s alright, you’re not in trouble.  My name is Carleen,” she waves a hand towards the pink-haired girl. “and this is Merilda.  She’s a siren, that’s why her voice sounds like that.”

“But- but th-that’s not– I mean . . .” my arms suddenly feel limp, as though everything I’ve done today has used up all my energy.  I’m not surprised.  “fairy tales.”  I finish weakly.

Carleen laughs, soft and sweet. “Yes, I suppose we are.  It’s not such a terrible thing to be, is it?

“I was following you.”  I don’t know where I got the courage to say that much.  Then again, it was always Carleen’s skill to get others to talk.

She nods, not looking nearly as surprised or offended as I thought she’d be. “That’s how most of the others ended up here.” her eyes twinkle, and I feel suddenly that she looks very much like a fairy queen. “Would you like to see another world?  It’s only down the hall and around the corner.”

I realize now why she never let people know a thing about her.  As I’m led down the hall and around the corner, I see what she could never tell the rest of the world.  Glittering wings weave back and forth through colorful trees.  Mushrooms form a circle at my feet, and there is the bluest sky above my head.

It’s almost funny, how she’s hidden this secret world under an asylum.  Like she knew what people would think of her.  Like she didn’t care.  Like she was ready to laugh in their faces.

Carleen looks over at me, and her expression is warm and inviting. “I know the woodland folk when I see them; skittish, curious, and good at sneaking about.  Forest nymph perhaps?” she leads me into the trees.  The air smells crisp and sweet.

I feel it settle into my bones.  This is where I’m meant to be.  Amongst the branches and wings and silvery laughter, under the colorful leaves and bluest sky.

This is home.