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The Fourth Wish: Chapter 1 - Cory's Good Deed

Eleven-year-old Melanie McCormick has to baby-sit her brother, Cory, and their little sister, Erin. She persuades them to go to a magic show at the Majestic Theater so she can see her film idol’s new movie. Arthur Hensley, their pesky neighbor, joins them, and the day is set for disaster.
On the way to the theater, they encounter Mrs. Seraphina, who claims she can grant wishes...

Today we bring you the first chapter of Elizabeth Varadan's novel, The Fourth Wish. Melanie, her brother Cory, and their friends are Californian pre-teens who, because of a good deed, are about to be plunged into a magical adventure.

Elizabeth's gripping and convincing narrative will delight children of all ages. Look out on succeeding Sundays for further chapters of this super tale.

The magic show was supposed to start at twelve-thirty, but Erin and Cory were dawdling as usual. Through the open archway to the kitchen, Melanie McCormick saw her ten-year-old brother stuff the last of his peanut butter sandwich in his mouth. His hair—normally sand-colored like hers—stood up in bleached tufts. His jaws moved as if they were battling something alive.

“Eeuw, gross, Cory!” Sitting on the sofa, Melanie fastened her little sister’s pigtail with a blue barrette and stood up.

Erin fingered her braid. “I want my red barrettes,” she mumbled.

“Erin!” Melanie was tempted to tell Erin to fix her own hair. Instead she coaxed, “If we’re late, you’ll miss the magic show.” The magic show was the only reason she’d been able to talk Cory and Erin into going to see Travis Heartworth’s new movie, Race To Tomorrow. Melanie had to see it; Travis Heartworth was too awesome!

“I want my red barrettes,” whined Erin. Her face puckered up. She had been doing that more—crying to get her own way—since their parents’ divorce last spring.

“Oh, all right!” Melanie stalked down the short passageway to their room and slammed the door. She opened the middle drawer and took out her diary from where she’d hidden it under her sweaters. Ever since Cory had seen it on her bookshelf two months ago and read it out loud, she’d been finding a different hiding place each day. She hesitated, then shrugged. They were probably going to be late for that stupid magic show anyway. Sitting cross-legged on the rug, she licked her pencil and wrote:

My Life Continued. It isn't fair. I'm eleven years old. I
should be able to hang out with my friends and not have to drag
THEM along! My very first day of Christmas vacation and I get
stuck with THEM, just because Mom works on Saturdays now. If
Dad was here, everything would be different.

But Melanie knew that wasn’t entirely true. Their father was in the merchant marines. Even before the divorce, he had been at sea more often than at home. Her mother waited tables at Soup du Jour then, too, during the week. Melanie was often left in charge.

Before, though, Melanie always knew their dad would return after his latest trip. Now she realized he would never come home again except to visit, and then only as someone who didn’t live here anymore. Last winter she had been so busy explaining the divorce to Cory, she hadn't realized the finality of it herself.

Lately everything reminded Melanie. Her father hadn’t written in weeks. She had to baby-sit more often. Erin cried easily. Cory teased and argued. Their mother was impatient when Melanie complained. All her grievances tangled in a knot of unfairness throbbing in her chest. She stared at her pencil, pressed her lips together, then scribbled:

This is going to be the most boring Xmas vacation in my
entire life. I don't even feel like decorating.

Calling it boring made her feel better, more in control. She snapped her diary shut and put it in the shoebox under the bed, where all her father’s postcards were stored. Riffling through Erin’s Little Mermaid tray on the dresser, Melanie found the red barrettes and started back to the living room.

A familiar rat-a-tat-tat sounded on the apartment's main door.

“I’ll get it,” yelled Cory. He opened the door into the outer hallway.

In strolled Arthur Hensley, wearing his usual oversized plaid jacket and baggy pants. A new haircut made his head look like a dark fuzzball.

“Yo,” he said, making a little circle in the air with his open palm.

Melanie closed her eyes. How could she have imagined he wouldn’t end up with them on the first day of vacation? Arthur included himself in all their doings. From the day he’d moved into the neighborhood three years ago, he attached himself to their family. His mother had died in a car crash, and he lived with his father in the rooming house across the alley. Melanie’s mother felt sorry for him, but, as far as Melanie was concerned, Arthur was walking disaster. Just last month he’d gotten them all thrown out of King Skate by setting a mouse loose during the couples skating. Melanie opened her eyes, sighing.

“Cool hair,” Cory told Arthur.

“What's up?”

Cory made a face. “We're going to this dumb old magic show.”

Melanie scowled at him. She knew very well he wanted to see that show. Cory planned to be a detective one day, and he was always trying to make up mysteries to solve. All he had talked about this morning was how he planned to trap The Great Mondo in one of his tricks.

“Magic show?” asked Arthur.

“Because guess what?” Erin burbled, “The Great Mondo can read minds and make people float in the air!”

“No kidding!” Arthur grinned and gave her pigtail a little tug.

“That’s what the ad says,” Melanie murmured, hoping he wouldn’t be interested. Her mother had said the theater was trying to get a large audience to prove it was well used. Some developers wanted to tear down the Majestic to build a parking garage.

“I wanna see how he does it,” Cory told Arthur. “It’s all tricks....” He and Arthur gave each other knowing nods.

"It is not tricks!" Erin's chin wobbled.

"Co-ree...." Melanie tried to eyeball her brother, but he was grinning at Arthur.

"Then we're going to see a Travis Heart Throb movie. Wanna come?"

“Heartworth, dummy,” Melanie said. “You wouldn’t like it,” she told Arthur. “It’s a love story.”

Arthur jingled some coins in his pocket and shrugged. “Sure,” he said, “I’ll come”.

Outside, the rain had stopped. The spicy scent of wet leaves mingled with wood smoke from chimneys. Taking Erin’s hand, Melanie started down the steps and they headed up Tenth Street, walking in front of the boys, who splashed through all the puddles they avoided.

At the corner and crossing the street, Melanie's mood lifted. After all, school was out for two weeks. She could sleep late every morning. Mr. Garcia had piled on tons of homework, but it could wait until after Christmas. Right now—she smiled to herself—she was on her way to see Travis Heartworth.

She could hear the boys behind her planning their strategy against The Great Mondo.

“Let’s sit in the front row,” said Cory. “I'll watch his head, you watch his hands. Watch his sleeves, too.”

“Why his head?” asked Arthur.

“He could have things in his hair under his hat. Magicians stick things under their hats.”

“No, they don’t. They do card tricks,” said Arthur. “Remember the magician who came to our assembly last year? Pick a card, any card….”

“Remember how he kept tipping his hat to the audience?” asked Cory.

Arthur grunted. “You probably got that idea from my dad's book,” he finally said. “Now You See It, Now You Don’t....” Arthur's father wrote mysteries.

Melanie looked back. “When is he going to finish his new book?”

Arthur shrugged. “I dunno. He’s got this guy tied up in a cabin, and now he doesn't know how to get him loose so he can testify in court....”

Cory snickered. “Tell your dad to untie him.”

Erin let go of Melanie’s hand and skipped ahead.

“Careful,” Melanie called after her and dropped back with the boys.

“So, how come Jenny isn’t coming?” asked Arthur. Jenny Leong was in their class and was Melanie’s best friend.

“She’s coming, but her aunt and uncle are here for a week,” Melanie explained. “So she has to bring Victor and their cousins along.” For a moment Melanie felt consoled by the fact she wasn’t the only one baby-sitting. Victor was Jenny’s brother, a year older than Erin. The cousins, both boys, were close to Victor’s age. Jenny called all of them together the Three Terrors.

A sly look came over Cory’s face. “Maybe Bill Drexel will be there.”

Melanie gasped. “That was supposed to be a private conversation with Jenny!” It was sickening to have only one phone, and in the kitchen, of all places.

“Whoo-whoo-whoo,” Cory taunted.

“Who's Bill Drexel?” asked Arthur.

“Just...someone.” Melanie tried to sound casual.

Cory smirked. “You don't know who Bill Drexel is? The brand new boy in sixth grade? The one who looks like Travis Heart Throb?”

“Heartworth,” said Melanie. “And he does.”

“You mean that weird-looking punk in Mr. Chinn’s class?” asked Arthur. “The one with his hair shaved at the sides?”

Melanie sniffed. “That's how they wear hair in LA.”

“And all those itty-bitty braids in back?”

“He happens to have style. Something you wouldn't know about.”

“Oh, excuse me, I forgot you were Miss Queen of Style. But...." Arthur snorted. “No way does he look like Travis Heartworth!”

“If Travis Heartworth braided his hair like that he would.”

“Yeah, man. If Travis Heart Throb had plastic surgery, Bill Drexel could look just like him!”

“Shut up, Cory!” said Melanie, as he and Arthur gave each other a hand slap. “I don’t know why I bother to talk to either one of you!” Storming ahead, she grabbed Erin’s hand and marched to the corner, where she stood tapping her foot, waiting for the light to change.

An old woman across the street caught her eye. Melanie watched her set down a bulging shopping bag with one hand while her other hand clutched a thick walking stick for support. The stick looked like it was carved from some dark wood, thick and knobby at the top, tapering toward the bottom, like a giant, crooked needle. Next to it, the woman seemed small and frail, a slanting line wrapped in a flapping black cape. She glanced from side to side. Melanie had an impression of sharp, chiseled features, bushy white brows, and a sweep of white hair like dandelion fluff, held down by a black beret.

The boys caught up.

“Hey, Mel? Race to Tomorrow’s coming out on video pretty soon.” Cory was using his let's-be-friends voice.

“DVD, too,” added Arthur.

Melanie lifted her chin, refusing to reply. A sudden gust of wind came up. Across the street, the old woman clutched at her cape.

“Wowie, who's that? Zorro's mother?” asked Arthur.

“That's not funny,” Melanie answered, in spite of herself.

The light changed, and the woman reached for the bag. Her hand grasped only one of the handles, and her bag suddenly sagged open, spilling its contents onto the sidewalk.

“Oh, n-o-o-o....” Her thin voice drifted across the street.

“Cool!” said Cory.

Melanie stared at him.

“My good deed,” he said. Cory was in Scouts, mainly because their mother's brother had once been in Scouts and she thought it might be good for him. “I only need one more deed for my badge.” He ran across the street and picked up the half-empty bag. Melanie hurried after him, pulling Erin along, followed by Arthur. In a flurry, they started putting things into the sack. Cory stuffed in a dark silky cloth sprinkled with a pattern of tiny gold stars.

Melanie goggled. For a moment the stars had seemed to twinkle before disappearing into the bag. Erin and Arthur put in several small, orange lacquered boxes. Melanie picked up a star-tipped rod that reminded her of the tooth fairy wand her mother had given her when she lost her first tooth. Only this wand was made of glass or crystal instead of balsa wood and glittery cardboard; its star points cast rainbow slivers of light along the pavement. Her fingers tingled from the warm shaft as she put it on top of the boxes and star-spangled silk.

Looking up, she met the woman's intent eyes. Dark, glimmering eyes that peering back from a face webbed with wrinkles; eyes that seemed to see into a person's deepest thoughts.

Cory handed the woman her shopping bag.

“That was kind of you, Cory," she said. Her voice seemed to shimmer, though each word was as clear and precise as a star point.

Cory’s eyes widened. “How do you know my name?”

Ignoring the question, she said, “I’m Mrs. Seraphina,” as if that were something they should all take note of and remember.

© Elizabeth Varadan 2006


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