« Poem For Radio | Main | The World's Tallest Towers »

The Fourth Wish: Chapter 11 - A Change Of Plans

“I’ll be glad when I get back to Sacramento, which should be soon. Stand by the phone.” That was the first time her father had said to stand by the phone. Melanie had been seven. It was summertime. School was out. And she had stood by that phone as long and often as she could, until her mother finally asked what was wrong with her. Then her mother had to explain that it was just a figure of speech....

There's magic going on all around, put poor Melanie's parents are divorced, and she is missing her father.

The children in Elizabeth Varadan's tale of magic and wonder presents are so "real'' they could be your next door neighbours. To read earlier chapters of the novel click on The Fourth Wish in the menu on this page.

When Arthur hadn’t knocked on their door by eight-twenty, Melanie phoned the rooming house.

“He’s still asleep,” Mrs. Sloan told her. “His father’s up, though, groaning around and pacing the floor upstairs over his new book.” The landlady chuckled. “Arthur can sleep through anything!”

“Well, I can’t wait for Arthur,” said Mrs. McCormick when Melanie relayed this information. She checked Cory’s temperature again and made Melanie promise to give him juice before leaving to go shopping.

“Hurry home as soon as possible,” she added on the way out the door.

Until the door closed, Cory had been on the sofa, propped with pillows, but now he got up and turned on the TV. He sat down on the floor with his blanket wrapped around him. Erin sprawled beside him.

“Some invalid,” Melanie remarked. She left them to squabble over TV programs and went down the hall to her and Erin’s room, where she pulled the shoe box with her father's cards out from under the bed.

Removing her diary from it’s latest hiding place, she sat cross-legged on the spread and tried to compose her thoughts. She tapped her pencil against a palm. Today everything seemed so normal it was hard to believe the weekend’s events had really happened. But over coffee this morning, her mother had said again how wonderful the Jacksons were to give away all those crullers and how inspiring it was. So that part must certainly be real.

After a moment Melanie wrote:

Things have been pretty weird lately. Like Mrs. Seraphina. And all those crullers. And Mondo, I mean Pete, losing his magic and having to drive a cab.

"Beladie?" Cory's voice carried down the short hall. His cold had settled in his nose. She ignored him and kept writing.

It’s not our fault we messed up Pete’s life. Well, maybe it is. But how were we supposed to know how wishes work? Erin’s wish didn’t mess up Daisy’s life.

She pursed her lips, considering this. Last night, Daisy had looked so happy about the publicity. Even quiet Mr. Jackson finally seemed cheerful as he ran back and forth in front of the TV cameras. There had to be a reason why the two wishes for Pete had turned out so differently. Something about Pete. Maybe those wishes were teaching him a lesson. Hadn’t Mrs. Seraphina said you could learn a lot from wishes?

"Beladie?" Cory called again. "Cad you get be sub juice?"

“In a minute!”

Quickly Melanie scribbled:

I think the reason Pete lost all his magic wasn't really my fault. I think it was to remind him he shouldn't have moved up here. He should have stayed in the Bay Area and worked things out with his wife. Like my dad should have stayed and worked things out wth my mom. They always tell us we have to learn to get along.

“Beladie!”

“All right! I’m coming!” Melanie yelled. She put down the diary and stormed up the hall to the kitchen to get him his juice. He was on the couch now, reading a space comic book while Erin sat, chin in her palm, happily watching as two furry puppets on TV sang off-key.

Melanie handed him the glass. “I don’t see why you couldn’t get it yourself. You just have a cold, not pneumonia.”

Cory guzzled down the juice, then wiped his mouth with his pajama sleeve and set the glass on the floor. “It could turd idto deubodia.” He closed his eyes, looking pathetic.

She wheeled and went back to the bedroom. Now she wasn’t in the mood to write. Instead she began riffling through her father's postcards in the shoe box.

For awhile she had kept them in order by date, bundled with rubber bands. After the divorce last year there were fewer cards, even though she was sure his ship must dock as often as before. It unnerved her, so she had jumbled all the cards up. Now and then she’d pull out a card to read, as if it were a special magic trick. When she read them out of order, it didn’t seem so strange for him to be gone so long. She could pretend he might come home any day, like before.

A card from Egypt showed two camels in front of the Giza Pyramids. “You should ride one of these camels, you sure would enjoy it,” he had written. She had been in first grade when she got that card. It had been her show-and-tell for class.

She picked up another card, with a picture of an elephant. Her father had gone to India two years ago. “This sure is a big elephant,” he wrote. “How would you like to ride it?” He was always asking if she wanted to ride the animals in the pictures. He said the same things on Cory and Erin’s cards, too. It was just something to write, Melanie guessed. She fingered the edge of the card thoughtfully.

The next card made her flush with remembered embarrassment.

“I’ll be glad when I get back to Sacramento, which should be soon. Stand by the phone.” That was the first time her father had said to stand by the phone. Melanie had been seven. It was summertime. School was out. And she had stood by that phone as long and often as she could, until her mother finally asked what was wrong with her. Then her mother had to explain that it was just a figure of speech.

Just something to say. Tossing the card inside with the others, Melanie pushed the shoe box under the bed again and returned to her diary.

My dad is never coming home again. I don’t know what’s happened to him. He doesn’t write or anything.
Everything is horrible. Jenny can’t go shopping. I’m stuck
with Erin and Arthur. Okay, I asked Arthur to come, but only
to keep and eye on him and see what’s he’s up to.

She looked up suddenly, narrowing her eyes. Where was Arthur? Where was he right now? He could have tiptoed out without Mrs. Sloan even knowing. He could be out looking for Mrs. Seraphina this very minute—hoping to get that Go-Cart. She tucked the diary under her pillow and went out to the living room where Cory had joined Erin on the floor to watch the puppets.

“Wowie, Cory. Cool show,” Melanie couldn’t resist saying on her way to the kitchen. She took the receiver from the wall phone and dialed the rooming house again.

“Hello?” It was Mrs. Sloan again. Melanie could picture the landlady in her big striped apron.
She was probably getting flour all over the phone. A huge, white-haired marshmallow of a woman, she was usually baking something for her grandchildren or great-grandchildren who lived in various parts of town.

“Is Arthur up yet?” asked Melanie. “He’s supposed to go shopping with us,” she explained, in case Mrs. Sloan felt pestered by so many calls.

“I think I hear life signs up there. Yes. That’s him, all right, thumping around. He must smell the gingerbread.”

“Gingerbread?” Melanie’s mouth watered. Mrs. Sloan made the best gingerbread in the world.

“Why don’t you come on over? You can all have some while you wait.”

“Cory’s sick,” said Melanie. “He has to stay here. But Erin and I….”

“Poor thing.” Mrs. Sloan made a clucking sound. “I’ll fix him a plate for you to take home. You can stop by on the way back from…oh,” she interrupted herself. “Morning, Arthur.”

Satisfied that he was where he should be, Melanie relaxed. “Tell him we’ll be right over, okay?”

* * *

“You sure are a grouch today,” Arthur told her a few minutes later. They were in Mrs. Sloan's breakfast nook. He had already managed to scarf down two pieces of gingerbread.
Melanie finished her last bite. “That sure was good, Mrs. Sloan,” she told the landlady. She wiped crumbs from Erin's chin, still rankling from Arthur’s comment.

“How would you like to wait on Cory all morning?” she asked him.

“It’s not his fault he has a cold.”

“Yes, it is. I told him not to walk in puddles, but he never listens. No one ever listens to me.” She looked glumly out the window. A few red camellias were blooming in the backyard. The predicted snow had been a big disappointment—just a faint dusting, like powdered sugar. The sky was so clear and sunny, it was hard to believe it was so cold outside. But in the short walk across the alley the air had pinched her nose, even her fingertips right through her wool gloves.

“He can’t go anywhere,” Arthur pointed out. “He’s probably bored.”

“Poor little thing.” Melanie rolled her eyes, then sent a guilty glance toward Mrs. Sloan at the stove. But the landlady’s attention was on the teakettle. Arthur stretched and yawned.

“I’d sure hate to be sick at your house,” he said, “and be waited on by a grouch like you.”

“You’d be grouchy too, if everything was going wrong in your life!” It burst out of Melanie. Arthur’s eyebrows shot up.

“Well, just pardon me, okay? Like, I’m supposed to know everything’s going wrong. Here I’m stuck with you because Cory’s sick….” He drummed his fingers on the table.

“Stuck with me!’

“Doing you this big favor….”

“Doing me a favor!”

Mrs. Sloan brought two steaming mugs of cocoa with marshmallows floating on top. Setting them before Melanie and Erin, she gave Arthur a long look. “Sometimes Christmas is hard on people,” she told him. She returned to the stove for his drink.

Erin dipped a finger in the chocolate and licked it, then fished out a marshmallow. “Mmmm.”

“What’s so wrong in your life, anyway?” Arthur asked Melanie.

She stared at him. How could he be so dense? “My father’s never coming home again!”

“Huh?”

“We’re never going to see him again.”

“That’s what’s eating you? The divorce has been over a year.”

“He could at least come to see us.” Melanie hated the way her voice wavered.

“He’s on a boat, Melanie. Duh.”

“He’s not on a boat.” Erin’s eyes were solemn. Melted marshmallow smeared her lower lip. “He’s on a ship.”

“Sometimes it’s good to leave things be,” murmured Mrs. Sloan as she gave Arthur his chocolate.

“I just said….”

“Never mind,” Melanie told Arthur. She folded her arms and looked out the window again.

But Erin suddenly burst into tears. "We will too see him again!" she wept.

“Now, now, of course he’s coming to see you,” Mrs. Sloan assured Erin. “Let me get you another marshmallow,” she clucked, as if that might hurry the ship.

Arthur’s father ambled in from the hall, hands clasped behind his back.

“Greetings McCormick princesses,” he intoned. “And what brings you to our kingdom? Let me guess. The aroma of ginger wafting gently on the morning breeze….”

“Hi, Mr. Hensley,” said Melanie. Except for his wire-rimmed glasses and thinning hair, he looked like an older version of Arthur. Same long face and St. Bernard eyes. Same skinny build. Same oversized plaid shirt and beat-up shoes, although he wore trim khakis instead of baggy jeans.

Mr. Hensley flashed Melanie an Arthur-like grin, then tweaked Erin’s nose. She stopped crying long enough to give him a watery hello.

“I’m not quite sure what to do about Paul,” he told Mrs. Sloan with a sigh, then paused. “Is that cocoa?” It was just the tone of voice Arthur might have used to ask, “You guys are having pizza tonight?”

“I’ll get you a good hot cup.” Mrs. Sloan took a new mug from the cupboard and carried it to the stove. “I hope you don’t kill Paul off,” she told him as she poured. “I like Paul.”

Erin’s eyes widened. Melanie sent Arthur an inquiring glance.

“A character in his book,” he explained. “The guy in the cabin I was telling you about. The one who’s supposed to testify.”

“If this were a sci fi fantasy,” Mr. Hensley said, “I could have someone come from a simultaneous universe and rescue Paul.”

Mrs. Sloan looked baffled. “Simultaneous universe?”

“Another world going on at the same time in another dimension.” Mr. Hensley gave an Arthur-like shrug. “Sci-fi writers have an easy way to get their characters out of any predicament.”

“Maybe you could bring in a ghost.” She handed him his chocolate. “Wasn’t it exciting to see Daisy on television last night?” She smiled around at them all. "You know, I remember hearing a long time ago that her building had a ghost. I think it’s supposed to be in the basement."

"A ghostie-ghost?" Erin was pop-eyed.

Arthur regarded the landlady thoughtfully. “You remember everything Daisy said in that interview, don’t you.” he said. “Awesome,” he told Melanie.

Melanie nodded. “I wonder if Jenny remembers.”

"Yeah. Since she didn’t remember the show Saturday…."

“And just why is it awesome,” asked Mrs. Sloan in a testy voice, “to remember what I saw on television only just last night?” She put her hands on her hips.

“Well, sometimes people forget,” said Arthur. “Some people, anyway.” When her face grew red, he hastily added, “What I mean is….”

“I’ll have you know, young man, my memory is as sharp as a tack! Sharp as a tack!”

“What did you hear about a ghost?” Melanie asked, hoping to distract the landlady.

“Well….” Mrs. Sloan smoothed her apron. “The Chews had that café before the Jacksons bought it, you know.” She lowered her voice. “I remember Mr. Chew saying he heard noises.”

Erin chewed at a finger. “What kind of noises?”

Arthur’s eyes lit up. “Moaning and crying?”

“I figured he was talking about the usual noises buildings make when they’re settling. They do that, you know. But….”

“Amnesia” cried Mr. Hensley, who had been leaning against the counter, sipping his cocoa, his forehead wrinkled in thought.

They all looked at him.

“Paul’s chair falls over when he’s struggling.” Arthur’s father waved a hand as if he were sketching in air. “Hits his head—amnesia. Doesn’t remember a thing. They untie him since he’s no threat.” He put the mug on the counter, pacing. “The detective tracks him down—more struggles? Hmmm." Mr. Hensley hooked his thumbs in his back pockets and meandered out into the hallway, lost in his plot.

“Your dad is so weird,” Melanie told Arthur.

The landlady shook her head. “It’s amazing how that man works out his stories! “You know,” she said, returning to Daisy, “If the Jacksons are still giving crullers away, I think I’ll get a fresh bagful for Reba tonight. Her little girls like Mr. Jackson’s crullers almost as much as my gingerbread.” Reba was one of Mrs. Sloan’s granddaughters. She lived across town on C Street.

Arthur leaned forward and wiggled his eyebrows at Melanie. “We can go get them for you,” he offered, and he nudged Melanie’s foot with his toe.

“Oh, you kids need to go do your shopping.” Mrs. Sloan protested. She emptied Mr. Hensley’s mug into the sink, washed it, and began washing the bread pans, humming softly.

“We really need to get going,” Melanie reminded Arthur in a low voice.

“This won’t take any time. Besides….” He gave her a sly look. “Don’t you want to find out how many crullers are left?”

“How will getting a bag of crullers tell us anything?”

“We might see how fast they’re piling up or something. Didn’t it seem like they were slowing down a little last night?”

“I promised Mom we’d be home early.”

“You haven’t even finished your cocoa. I can go get ‘em and come back while you drink it.”

“Never mind.” Melanie swallowed the rest of her chocolate in a gulp.

“We might even see Daisy’s little ghost,” joked Arthur.

“Noooo,” whined Erin. She clutched Melanie’s hand.

“There’s no ghost,” Melanie promised. She sent Arthur a dark look.

“We’re just wasting our time,” she fumed, as they went down the front steps. Arthur ignored her.

“It’ll be like yesterday—crullers everywhere.” Melanie scowled. They’d never get to the mall at this rate. If it weren’t for keeping an eye on Arthur, she’d go on without him. But what if he started scouting around the block or went to the park before bringing the crullers back to Mrs. Sloan?

“Nothing’s going to happen, you’ll see,” she predicted.

© Elizabeth Varadan 2006


Categories

Creative Commons License
This website is licensed under a Creative Commons License.