Summit County short story contest winner: “The Price of a Wish,” by Calliope Cortright
December 17, 2016
Editor's note: Every year the Summit County Rotary and Summit Daily News host a Short Story Contest. The Summit Daily featured the top three winning stories over three days, from Friday, Dec. 16 to Sunday, Dec. 18. This is the third installment and third-place story, "The Price of a Wish," by Calliope Cortright, a 10th-grader at Summit High School.
One dollar, three quarters, six dimes, two nickels, and three pennies. I counted $2.48 in my cup by the end of the day. A bag of potatoes costs $2.88 with tax, and I wondered if the people walking by could hear the roaring from my stomach and why it didn't compel them to give just a little bit more. But as the daylight wore away so did the pedestrians on the bitter Chicago street, and when the sidewalks had been completely deserted I made my way back to the homeless shelter, questioning if I'd be able to sleep on such an empty stomach.
The sounds of the city nudged me along: a car horn honking, faint music from closing restaurants, tires shoving the asphalt underneath them, and the fading chattery words of those who had it all.
Finally, I came to the wishing fountain. The smooth chime of the water and the billions of glistening coins underneath yanked me towards it. Every night I came to this fountain. Although I never had anything to throw in, I would stand close to it and make a wish.
The snarling of my hollow stomach jerked me from the soft hands of delusion. Before I could think, my hands plunged into the brisk water. Lanky fingers clenched onto the coins, deformed by the movement of water above them. I didn't grab more than I would need: a quarter, a dime, and a nickel. With an empty feeling in my stomach, I went to get my potatoes. But, even after eating all I could, the guilty hollowness remained.
At the shelter, my eyes soared across the same faces I had seen the previous night, and the night before, and every night for as long as I could remember. Until, that is, they rested on someone strange and unfamiliar. He had a dominating presence with a hood pulled far over his head to shadow his face. I quickly turned away as the man began to make long strides in my direction.
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"Are you Brenda?" he asked, his head bowed, only to show me the top of his hood.
"Yes. . ." I hesitated. He lifted his eyes to mine. They were a bright piercing green that made me want to jump back and lean in at the same time.
"Follow me." He began to walk away. I didn't know if it was curiosity, boredom, or something else entirely that pulled me after him.
The man brought me to a street I had never been to before. Lifting his bony fingers from his palm, he exposed a quarter, a dime, and a nickel to the brisk night wind. He then poured the coins into my hand, and, upon closer examination, I found that they displayed a little girl and two men where Washington, Roosevelt, and Jefferson had once been.
"What are these? Who are these people?" I asked, shuffling the coins around my shivering palm.
"That is what you took, and those are the people whose wishes you spoiled." His eyes bore into me.
"I – I didn't mean to. . . I mean. . . I had to-" The excuses dribbled out of my mouth all at once, not waiting their turn.
"I will give you a choice." His head bowed again. "You will either grant these three people their wishes-"
"Yes!" I interrupted, hoping to amend what I had done.
"I wasn't finished." The man walked to a bench and sat down. "Or, you will choose to grant your own wish."
His words ignited a flame of hope that danced behind my eyes and melted the guilt that had been there. "You can do that? But my wish is to-"
"I know what your wish is. I hear it every night at the fountain."
I stepped back. How did this man know my wish? I hadn't told anybody, I had never said it out loud.
He smirked at my confusion, "Think about it. In four days I will accept your answer at the fountain." Just then, the man seemed to dissolve into the background of the city.
Sliding the coins into my pocket, I hurried back to the homeless shelter and attempted to drive the thought out of my mind. It didn't take long for sleep to pluck me away from this life and carry me into my dreams.
I was transported to the street corner with the fountain I visited every night. The sun's glowing fingers leapt across the shoulders of those spilling down the Chicago streets, surrounded by an energy of excitement and anticipation. There I saw a young girl, about eleven years old, skip to the fountain with her mother's hand held tightly in hers. She had bouncy, wild, brown curls that framed her face and reached to touch her shoulder blades. I recognized her.
Just then, I felt a slight burning sensation in my pocket and reached in to find the nickel that the strange man had given me. The little girl's smiling face, her teeth too big for her young smile, stared back at me from the bright silver coin.
Glancing back at the fountain, I saw the girl's mother hand her something.
"Make a wish, Elizabeth." Elizabeth closed her eyes and clasped it in her hands until the pressure caused a bright white to shine through her knuckles. I heard her voice, growing to fill the space of the dream. "I wish I could become a famous singer, and people could hear me on the radio, and they would dance, and my voice would make them happy." She opened her eyes and threw the coin into the fountain. The nickel disturbed the smooth surface of the water sending ripples in every direction.
I could see her, her fingers wildly fluttering across the keys of a piano. And I could hear her, the most beautiful noise in the world coming from the mouth of such a young girl.
I woke to a warm feeling inside of me, a sneak peak before fleeing into the depths of my mind. I chased it through the crowded files of memory. It was more joy than I had felt in a very long time. Finally, I shook off the dream. There was no way I was going to give up my wish so a little girl could be a singer.
The day was long, but I had gotten used to long days under the Chicago clouds. That night I wondered what dreams awaited me, and my anticipation slowed sleep from sending me to the fountain once again.
This time the sun was cowering behind the menacing clouds. The fountain crouched from its position on the sidewalk, deserted, as if out of place. The man I recognized from the dime in my pocket lurked up to it timidly. He was tall and young, in his mid-twenties, but he stood with his head down and his shoulders slumped. He was wearing a fitted navy blue suit and clutched a coin in his clammy hands. His bright blue eyes were iced shut, and his mouth stretched into a thin pink line across his pale cheeks.
I couldn't help but pity him. He seemed so sad. When he spoke, his wish bounced around the dream in a small broken voice. "I wish I was good enough for them, and I wish I was good enough for myself." He threw in the dime, and just then I saw him on a track field, clutching tightly onto a bronze medal, hoping that if it held the warmth of his skin, it would be good enough. He would be good enough. I heard his discouraged sobs, and I felt his defeat.
I woke with a sickening feeling in my stomach that I could not shake all day. I began to dread going to bed that night, for fear I would hear another wish like this one, a wish that would make my decision more painful.
That night I lay in the shelter for what seemed like hours before sleep came to deliver me again to the fountain. Rain soaked my hair and clung to my eyelashes as people poured down the street with umbrellas and coats pulled over their heads. Through the downpour, the man from the quarter strode up to the fountain with nothing shielding him from the angry clouds. Lightning overwhelmed the sky with light, causing people on the streets to quicken their pace, but the man stayed still. He was an older gentleman, in his sixties, with a hoodie pulled over a button down shirt and a pair of khakis. He walked up to the fountain with hope shining through his deep brown eyes and kneeled next to it, fishing a coin from deep in his pants pocket.
"I wish that my son knew how much I loved him." The voice flooded into my mind, spilled down my spinal cord and trickled through my veins. I heard the man yelling, watching as the tears carved scars down his son's face. I saw the young man scramble out the door of the house, never to come back again. I heard the man's sharp words scream out the door at his son, "I hate you!" And, worst of all. . . I saw his son hear him.
When I woke it was the middle of the night. I watched the somber sky ease into day and then drain into night again as I pondered my decision. Although I knew what was coming, I couldn't stop sleep from leaving me in the hands of my worst nightmare.
My dreams took me back fifteen years to my father's house. Dad had been the one to take care of me for the first 17 years of my life, but walking home from school I had a strange feeling he wouldn't be on the other side of the door. Instead, my mother invited me with the news he had died. Something inside me cracked, and the tears surged down my face uncontrollably, the sobs escaping my mouth without warning.
My mother didn't understand, and the shouts began to leap from her mouth. Her words twisted their way into the crack inside my body and pelted me from the inside out. Between my growing sobs and the pounding in my ears, I made out words: Selfish, ungrateful, disappointment, stupid, helpless, parasite. Each one planted a seed that would grow to fill my stomach with guilt and my throat with eternal silence. She threw me out the door and I landed hard on the asphalt. The crack inside me grew until I burst into 1000 pieces. The tears stopped just then.
I woke with the words occupying my breath, "I wish to forget." I wished to forget my father, and I wished to forget what my mother said. "I wish to forget," because maybe then I could believe in myself again.
This wish weighed heavy in my thoughts, but the more I thought about it, the wishes from the stolen coins weighed heavier. I couldn't let Elizabeth's voice be hidden from the world, I couldn't let the man from the dime live through his shame, and I couldn't let the old man's son go through what I was going through.
At the fountain, I fished the coins out of my pocket and let them drop into the water. "I want to grant these people their wishes." The man's pointed laugh darted toward me, "Good choice." The ground rolled underneath my feet and I was engulfed in a flash of light for an instant before finding myself back at my begging spot in the streets of Chicago, back where I started.
As I crouched on the streets, I glanced down at the loose change in my cup, tirelessly avoiding the judgmental eyes pacing steadily over me, when I heard a familiar voice.
"Brenda," my mom looked down at me, kind and inviting, "I am sorry."
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