An old piece I picked up and finished, because the adage for every writer is ‘finish your shit’, and I tend to leave too many shorts undone. Enjoy.
Arthur Pym was both surprised and a little dismayed to discover that his lawn gnome granted wishes. After all, it wasn’t the sort of thing lawn gnomes usually did, was it? Normally, they’d just stand there, the grass at their feet a little longer than the rest of the lawn, tall hat pointed toward the sky, beard resting across their belly. Now though, it lay on its side, a bare patch of earth where it had stood exposed. A single beetle trundled across the patch, and over one of Arthur’s fingers.
He sucked in a breath and clutched at his ankle. He was sitting where he had fallen, having knocked the gnome over, his ankle throbbing. He had stepped in a gopher hole and twisted his ankle, and at that moment, was having particularly vicious thoughts about rodents in general. He sat for a moment, rubbing the bruised area, and when the throbbing abated somewhat, picked up the gnome. He inspected it, checking for chips or cracks. It seemed to be fine, so he set it down, his hand lingering on the hat.
His ankle gave another pang of pain, and he thought, I wish there were no more gophers.
There was a pop, like someone had sucked the air out of a plastic bottle, and a mild shock passed through his hand. He jerked away and popped his fingers in his mouth, sucking the tips absently. He looked around, hoping his neighbor, Cheryl, hadn’t seen.
After a moment, he turned his attention back to the hole he’d tripped over. He froze in place, frowning at the lawn. The hole was gone, and the mound leading to it, too. The earth was smooth in its place, and littered with dandelions. He looked around his yard and noticed more of the same, smooth green grass dotted with more dandelions than he’d seen in years. He turned toward his garden patch, and noticed the row of carrots, which had previously been sparse and anemic, was full and ripe. His brain struggled with the sudden change, as though someone had snuck in and done set dressing on his yard in the time it took him to blink.
He gathered himself, stood, and wandered back into the house, a bit dazed. On the way in, he noticed his ankle no longer hurt. He stepped into the house, letting the screen door bang behind him. His wife, Renee, looked up from the kitchen table, where she had been reading a magazine with her feet up on a chair she’d pulled out. Arthur went to the sink, and grabbed a glass from the cupboard. He listened to the water fill the glass, aware that Renee was looking at his back.
“Hot out there?” She asked.
He took a long swallow of water. “Yeah. I think the gopher problem’s solved.” He turned to look at her, but she was already back on her magazine.
“Mm-hm. Good.” She said. He could tell she wasn’t really all that interested. He set his glass down on the counter, and turned back to her. He had opened his mouth to tell her about the thing with the gnome, when a knock at the door interrupted him. It came again, almost immediately, loud and fast and angry. He went to the door and peered out the peephole.
His other neighbor, Frank Cubbins, was standing on the porch, his fist raised to knock again. He was red-faced and scowling. Arthur opened the door just as Frank had reached forward to knock again, leaving the man standing for a moment with his fist in the air.
“Hello Frank.” Arthur said, a hint of resignation in his voice.
Frank lowered his fist, but kept the scowl. “When’s the last time you weeded your lawn?” He asked, with no preamble.
Arthur shrugged. “I have the lawn people out at least once a month.”
Frank shook his head. “Not good enough. Look!” He pointed a fist over at his own lawn, which was overgrown with dandelions.
“Okaaay…” Arthur said.
“You’re costing me money, Art. Get your shit together. You can pay my next weed bill, or you can see me in court.” That seemed to be the signal the conversation was over, and Frank turned smartly and marched back to his own house, slamming his front door shut with a bang that echoed in the quiet suburban air.
Arthur closed the door, and leaned against it. He ran a hand over his face, then walked back to the kitchen. Renee didn’t look up.
“Who was that?” She asked.
“Oh that’s nice. Did you invite him to our barbecue next week?”
“Er – no. Forgot.”
She sighed, as though Arthur’s memory was a burden, and said nothing more. Arthur left the kitchen and walked into the back yard again, letting the screen door slam behind him. He stood in the shadow of the eaves of his home, and stared out at his lawn. After a moment, he walked over to the gnome, sat down next to it, and pulled it close to him.
I wish there were no Frank Cubbins, he thought.
The popping sound came again, as soon as he had the thought, and he felt a mild jolt, as though he’d just accidentally touched a live wire. At the same time, there was a scream that came floating through the open kitchen window. Arthur dropped the gnome. It hit the ground with a soft thud and rolled on its side. He stood, and ran into the house, banging the screen door behind him for a third time that day.
He skidded to a halt on the linoleum, his shoes letting out a squeak of protest. His wife was standing by the table, the chair she’d been sitting on tipped over backwards. She was looking at her belly, terrified, and running her hands over it.
“What is it?” Arthur asked.
She looked up, tears smudging her mascara, her mouth distorted in an ‘O’ of shock. “My babies!”
She lifted her shirt, and Arthur could see that her pregnancy had ended. The skin of her stomach was taut and smooth, and her bellybutton was once again inverted. He stood there staring at her for a moment, then looked around the kitchen.
He didn’t see blood, or amniotic fluid, or any other indicator that said she’d had a miscarriage or a surprise birth in the middle of the kitchen. He only saw that her belly was flat, and she was distressed, and then he remembered his wish, and a cold rage worked its way into his stomach.
No more baby. No more Frank, no more baby. No more.
Renee was still staring at him, as though he might have an answer.
“Well?” She demanded, letting her shirt drop. “Are you going to say anything? Are you just going to stand there?”
He struggled with himself for a moment. Rage flowed over him, through him like cool, clear water. It was refreshing to see the world for what it was. He choked down the shout that had bubbled to the surface, and said through tight lips, “No”.
He turned on his heel, and walked through the back door, and across the lawn. He picked up the gnome. Then he made a very specific, very purposeful wish.
I wish my wife, Renee, would go away, and never come back.
There was a pop, and a jolt, and then quiet. He was aware of a bird singing in the sycamore tree in the corner of his yard, and the way the leaves rustled together as the wind blew the branches. After a moment, he heard the slam of his front door. He put the gnome down, and went back inside. He got a glass of water, sat down, and began to think.
Wishes. Are they unlimited? I’ve already made three. Maybe it’s only three. What else do I wish for? Pfft, that’s easy. Money. Cheryl? Am I being petty? World peace? Hm. What if it’s only three? One way to find out…
He stood, went to the back yard one more time, grabbed the gnome, and brought it inside. He set the figurine on the table, ignoring the bits of dirt from the base that smudged the finish.
Something simple, he thought.
He put a hand on the gnome.
I wish I had a ham sandwich, on rye.
The familiar pop and shock came again, and a sandwich appeared on the table. Arthur peeled back the top layer of bread. No mayo, cheese, or lettuce? He made a face. He’d have to remember to be more careful with his wording.
He got up and rummaged through the fridge for a moment. When he was done, he added some mayo and cheese and lettuce to the sandwich, then took it back to the table. While he ate, he tried to think of what to do next.
You’re thinking too small, too petty, he told himself. You need to be helpful. You need to do the most good where it counts. You need to be a hero.
The idea struck him, and his brain rang like a bell. Some deep-seated part of him stood up taller, imagined a cape blowing in the wind, maybe reporters gathered around, and the strobe of flashes. He finished his sandwich, feeling much happier than he had in the past couple of hours. He picked up the gnome and carried it into the living room, where he sat on the couch, cradling it in the crook of his arm.
He turned on the TV, and flipped through the channels until he got to the news. A middle-aged anchor in an Italian suit stared out at him, bobbing his head in time to his words, his gray hair absorbing the light.
“…and in other news, thousands of owls and hawks have been dying all over the world. Experts say they were likely suffering from severe malnutrition due to a lack of readily available prey, most notably, gophers.”
There was a pause as the newsman shuffled his notes.
“In international news, the drought that has plagued Syria over the past few months has steadily grown worse. An estimated three million families are now without water. The Turkish government has said it is now seeing the biggest influx of refugees since the civil war.”
The newscaster went on, but Arthur had tuned him out. A chance to save three million people? Perfect. He pulled the gnome close.
I wish there was enough water in Syria for all the families.
The now-familiar pop sounded in the living room, drowning out the TV for a moment, and Arthur almost dropped the gnome as the shock passed through his arms. He yawned and set the gnome to the side, then turned off the TV. He’d done his good deed for the day. He thought he would sleep well for the night.
He left the gnome in the dark; made sure the house was locked up, and went to bed. His last thought as he turned out the light on his bedside table was an image of him having coffee with Cheryl while he revealed his secret to her. He smiled slightly in his sleep.
The next morning, Arthur woke with a grin on his face, and excitement tingling his nerves. He threw his covers off, and ran down the stairs, stopping in the kitchen for a cup of coffee. He walked to the living room with a spring in his step, and flopped onto the couch. He set his coffee down and rubbed the gnome’s hat, grinning as he did so.
“So, shall we see what we’ve done?” He asked it.
He grabbed the remote, and turned the TV on. It took a minute to warm up, and as it did, he sipped his coffee. The quiet in the living room was broken by the newscaster’s voice, sounding grim.
“If you’re just joining us, the nation of Syria is gone. It was swallowed by the Mediterranean Sea. Initial reports are still coming in, but the estimate is that of more than 20 million lost.”
An icy pit of fear filled Arthur’s stomach. His coffee threatened to come back up, and he felt acid fill his throat.
“Okay. Okay.” He said to the room. “Okay. I can fix this.”
He grabbed the gnome, and closed his eyes. I wish to undo my last wish.
Nothing happened. There was no popping sound, no jolt of electricity. He tried again.
I wish Syria was normal, and all those people were alive.
Still nothing. He swore furiously under his breath.
I WISH THOSE PEOPLE WERE STILL ALIVE.
There was a pop, and a surge of electricity. Arthur let out a sigh of relief, and opened his eyes, and then watched the news. As usual, they had gone to commercial break. Sure, all the world’s dying, but here, buy some soap.
I wish the commercials were gone.
He thought it before he had a chance to stop himself, and with a look of horror, pulled his hand away from the gnome. Pop. Zap.
The commercial ended mid-sentence, and the picture went black. The newsman was back on, and looking somewhat confused.
“Oh? Oh, all right.” He said. His hand went to his earpiece. “Oh. Oh God.”
The picture cut to a coastline, where the shot was shaky, and Arthur could hear the chop of helicopter blades overhead. Dark shapes were emerging from the surf, in an unbroken line that went on for miles.
“This…this just in.” Came the newscaster’s voice over the feed. “Something is coming out of the sea that used to be Syria. Eyewitnesses on the ground claim it to be the – no. No way. I’m not reading this.” A sigh. “Fine. The dead. They claim the dead are walking out of the sea.”
Below the pictures being beamed back, the stock scroll was nearly all red. Arthur noticed, and blanched. He’d done that, as well. Without ad dollars, companies were failing. The dollar would be worth about as much as a roll of toilet paper at this rate. He thought of his pension, and his plans for a little boat. He thought of his ideas for a future with Cheryl, and cursed under his breath.
“Make it right.” He said, rubbing the gnome’s head. “Make it right.”
Nothing happened. He dropped his head. In the background, the newscaster was drifting between the two stories – the living dead in the Middle East, and the fall of the dollar. There was already talk of foreign markets falling as well. The president was due to make a statement at any minute now – not that Arthur thought much of him. Weasel of a man, hiding behind his vice-president’s skirts. Weasel of a man.
Cold dread fell into Arthur’s stomach like a bomb dropped down his throat. He watched the news, horrified, as the feed cut to the White House lawn, where the Secret Service was chasing a man-sized weasel in a blue suit around the perfectly manicured grass. The weasel was squeaking, and the reporter’s mic kept picking up noises that vaguely sounded like ‘USA USA’.
A knock at the front door interrupted Arthur’s frozen, horrified viewing, and he clutched the gnome close and got up to answer it. Halfway there, it came again. He wondered who it could be. The CIA? Secret Service? Pizza guy? He doubted the last one. He opened the door to find Cheryl standing there, a worried look on her face. Her hand was still raised as if to knock, her mouth open. She lowered her hand, and a frown creased her forehead.
“Is that – is that a gnome?”
He shrugged. Once you’re holding a garden decoration outside of a garden, it’s hard to explain why. He suddenly wanted her to touch it, though he couldn’t say why. In his head, an elaborate fantasy spooled itself out – Cheryl loving the gnome, and then him. Then he could share his secret. There was another pop, though distant, weaker. As if on cue, one corner of her mouth curled up and she reached a hesitant hand out.
“May I touch it?”
He held it out like a child happy to present his favorite toy. She took it, stroking its cap. Arthur blushed. She looked up, and the other side of her mouth joined the first, a Grinch smile if he’d ever seen one. Her sea-green eyes sparkled as they stared into his own mud-brown.
“Oh, I love it! I may never let it go. May I come in?”
He nodded dumbly, and she passed him, her hips brushing his, her free hand tousling his hair. He stood at the door, looking out. He almost wished someone had seen her going into the house. Sudden pain flared through his head, and he staggered. Arthur craned his neck to see what was happening, and caught a glimpse of Cheryl raising the gnome for another blow.
“Wha-” he managed to get out.
“I just love you both so much – there’s no way I can let you go. I just wish you could be mine forever. You’ll see, Artie. It’ll be good.”
The gnome descended, and blackness followed.
Arthur woke in the garden. It was hard to move. It was hard to blink. Not that he could do either. His eyes were frozen open, his body rigid. On the upside, his head no longer ached. He tried to call for help, but his voice came out a thin squeal, like the world’s tiniest teakettle. The back door to his home opened, and Cheryl stepped out, cradling the gnome. She placed it next to Arthur and patted first it, and then him on the head.
“I don’t know what did it, Artie, but my wish came true. I have you, and this gnome, and we have our own little place. I’ll come out and visit you every day. We’ll be so happy.”
She turned and went back into the house. Black smoke rolled across the sky from the corner of his eye, and from the open door, Arthur could hear the newscaster. “They’re in the city! The dead are in the city!”
He wanted to sigh. He wanted to close his eyes. He couldn’t do either.