“What about wishing? Did you try wishing?” Charlotte asked. She handed the ring back to Jack, who sat across from her in the back seat. It was a rare event, getting to ride to school in the big white station wagon, but Jack’s extra bath meant that he missed the bus.
“I wish you’d shut up about it already,” Hannah said, from the front seat.
“I only had it since last night,” Jack said. “I haven’t tried everything yet. What do you think I should wish for?”
“A million dollars,” Charlotte said.
“What’s he going to do with a million dollars?” Hannah asked. “Jack, don’t listen to her. Wish for something… bigger.”
“Don’t say that, he’ll wish for an elephant!”
“Who wants an elephant?” Jack asked. “I’d need my million bucks just to feed it!”
“Think of the mess,” their mother said. “No elephants in the house.”
Jack sighed. He held the ring up in front of his face, gave the chain a bob and watched the ring swing from side to side. ”Wishing is hard work. I wish I knew what to wish for.”
“Wow, better hope it’s got more than one wish in it,” Charlotte muttered.
Jack stuck his tongue out at his sister. “Mom, what would you wish for?”
“A happy, safe and loving family.”
“Mother, you already have that,” Charlotte said, batting her lashes.
“I am not raising your allowance.”
Charlotte sat back, sulking.
Jack gave the ring another swing. “I wish I could see her again.”
Jack’s mother pulled the car into the school parking lot. “All right. Everybody out, so mom can go home and lay on the couch and watch her daytime TV and eat bon bons.”
“Now we know what she’d really wish for,” Charlotte said.
Hannah and Charlotte leaned over and gave their mom a kiss before heading for the school’s main doors. Jack hesitated.
“It’s all right, Jack. You’re a boy. Rules are different.” She held her hand out. Jack reluctantly lowered the ring into it.
“Keep it safe for me, mom?”
“It will be waiting for you when you get home. Now go learn something.”
* * * * *
After dinner, Jack’s mother and father sequestered themselves in the kitchen. Hannah and Charlotte kept their noses in their school books, but rather than their usual spots on the sofa and by the coffee table, they both sat at the dining room table.
Jack sat in his chair at the table, as well, working on another drawing. Not a beach, or a cliff, this one was of a forest clearing.
“I thought you grew out of your fairy tale phase,” Charlotte whispered.
“I did,” Jack said.
“Shh!” Hannah hissed. “I think they’re talking about the ring again.”
“The green crayons are all over here,” Charlotte said. “Dragons are supposed to be green, aren’t they?”
“Dragons can be any color they want to be.”
“Well, then that’s either the brownest dragon or freakiest looking tree I’ve ever seen.”
“Quiet! I can’t hear!”
Jack stuck his tongue out at both his sisters.
* * * * *
Jack pushed his way through the underbrush. At first, the trails were familiar. His parents had only allowed them to hike within the first half mile or so of the woods. Jack had always wanted to go deeper, but his father’s rule was absolute.
Jack smiled, as he climbed over another moss-covered fallen tree. He wondered why he hadn’t thought to dream about the woods before. The air felt right, Jack had been in the woods and knew how it smelled of leaves and wood and earth. At certain times of year, in certain spots, the air was thick with the smell of berries. They somehow smelled better coming from the woods than his mom’s greenhouse. Blackberries were Charlotte’s favorite. Jack liked strawberries. Hannah was weird, and liked peaches, but they didn’t grow in the forest, just on the tree out by the tool shed.
The further Jack went into the woods, the bigger and closer the trees got. Jack was reminded of the scene in Dumbo, where all the big elephants crowd around and wouldn’t let the poor little elephant into the group. He squeezed between two trees. He’d find out what they were hiding here, in the heart of the woods.
He jumped down from the gap between the trees, slid down the slope as the ground dropped away in a gentle slope. He almost fell over backwards, but propelled himself forward with windmilling arms. He had too much momentum as the ground leveled off, ran forward several steps, and caught his foot on something buried beneath the leaves.
He sprawled, his cry of surprise lost as the air whooshed from his lungs. Bright white stars danced in his eyes, and his hands stung from where he’d tried to catch himself. He wheezed, and then remembered his mother’s advice when he’d fallen off his bike. He tried for short, slow breaths, not trying to fill his lungs all at once.
He pushed himself up, shoulders hunched. His chest burned. He looked behind, and saw that his fall had cleared away a layer of leaves and loam from irregularly-cut stone. Following the line of it, Jack could see the slight ridge across what he’d thought was plain old forest floor. It was straight. A wall. Jack got to his feet, trying to get a deeper breath, and shuffled along the edge of the wall. After a dozen steps, he kicked the corner. He’d been expecting it, though, and didn’t trip. He turned, following it.
He rubbed at his chest. It still hurt, throbbed with every step. He squatted down, found it slightly easier to breathe. After a while, he got back up, trudged along the edge of the wall again.
After six more steps, the throbbing pain in his chest flared. He sucked in a breath — tried to, but the air would not come.
The trees hissed and rattled all around him, at the edges of the clearing.
Go back, they said. Leave this place.
Jack shivered. He hadn’t really been aware of the temperature; he’d expected it to be to be comfortable, so it was. He took another step. It grew colder. The pain in his chest flared again.
Go back. Leave this place.
“Wake up, Jack. Please, don’t take another step, just wake up!”
The girl’s voice lingered in Jack’s ear, barely heard over his gasping for breath. He rolled over onto his side, and the pain in his chest slid away.
He poked a finger through it, lifting it up. It wasn’t hot, just holding what warmth it had gathered sitting against him, bundled up beneath the blankets. It didn’t feel any heavier than normal. He turned the ring all the way around on his finger, feeling the engraving slide over his fingertip.
A.A.L. That was her, he knew. He didn’t know how he knew, he just… did.
Tomorrow, he and his mom were going into town, to a friend of hers at the jewelry store, so that they could get the ring praised.
He thought that was a strange thing to do to a ring, and thought a church would be a better place for something like that.
But then, he thought as he drifted back to sleep, everything about the ring was strange….
* * * * *
A hollow banging sound started Jack from sleep, and he was already sitting up, swinging his feet from the bed before he was even fully awake. It came from downstairs, and fortunately, Jack’s feet remembered the routine of stairs even if his foggy mind hadn’t fully caught up with the idea of moving around.
Somebody was knocking on the front door, and the side kitchen door. Several somebodies.
No… it wasn’t knocking. It was the sound of hammers. Hammers and nails, on wood.
A shadow flashed across the curtained window of the kitchen door: long, straight. Unmoving, save to shudder as many hammers drove nails through it, into the door frame and side of the house.
His father was going to be upset in the morning. He’d just repainted that last summer.
Jack could see the corners and edges of other boards gone up across the front door, peeking through the tall, narrow windows that flanked the front doorway.
A sharp crash and the chattering of falling glass came from upstairs. From his sisters’ room. A girl screamed, but it wasn’t Hannah or Charlotte. There was another crash, and something round thudded into the living room with a spray of shards from from the window. There was another crash from the kitchen, and two more upstairs.
Again, the girl screamed. But the tone was different. If possible, it was even more frantic.
Jack ran up the stairs, saw the orange, flickering glow from beneath the door frame as his head came level with the balcony. Another crash came from behind the door, and the flickering orange quickened to yellow. The wash of heat stung Jack’s eyes, and everything blurred and skewed.
Flames roared as he kicked the door open, reaching out to embrace him, even as the smoke rolled forth to smother him with its kiss.
Jack sat up so quickly, he knocked his head against the angled wall above his bed. Once more, he was gasping, gulping for breath, but instead of superheated air, he sucked in the odd mix of hot-and-cold air of his room in the winter.
His finger stung, as if he’d cut it on one of the shards of broken glass that littered the living room floor. He shook his hand, and the ring bounced off his bed, hitting the floor with a solid ‘thunk.’ The pain vanished.
Jack got up, giving the ring a wide berth, and peeked down the short flight of stairs to the main landing.
The house was quiet. Light filtered up from the nightlight in the kitchen, and the flashlights at the top and bottom of the stairway.
No crackle of flame, not even a ghost of a hint of smoke in the air.
Jack pulled his comforter from the bed, went down the stairs and curled up in his dad’s easy chair. The leather burped and squelched as Jack settled.
The ring upstairs, Jack’s sleep was deep and dreamless the rest of the night.