Every year in January, Cast of Wonders takes the month off to recharge, plan the year ahead and highlight some of our favorite episodes. Throughout the month, different members of the Cast of Wonders crew will present their favorite story of 2017.
This week’s episode is hosted by assistant editor Dani Daly.
by Amanda Helms
The wishing well discovered its meaning in existence only through a case of mistaken semantics. In point of fact, it started its existence not as a wishing well but as a decorative fountain. In point of another fact, it was sentient, all of which is most unusual for either a decorative fountain or a wishing well.
The way these three unusual things came to be is this:
On one summer solstice, a mother and her toddler stopped by the decorative fountain in the middle of Longview Mall, a middling shopping center located in a middling town in middling America.
The fountain had a basin less than a foot deep, and a diameter of less than ten feet. It featured a stone goldfish with quartz scales, which perched on its tail in the center of the fountain, and was meant to spout water from its pursed lips. However, the pump often became clogged with various forms of detritus, causing it to break down, and eventually the property owners decided the monthly repair fees were not worth the cost and so allowed it to remain inert.
Despite the state of the fountain, the mother, having reviewed and declared the available tables in the food court as Unsanitary and Unfit for herself and her daughter, chose it as the best spot for the consumption of Pisa Pizza, under the circumstances. If the mother had known the number of people who had spat, bled, and, on three sadly memorable occasions, urinated in the fountain, she would have seized her purse, her daughter, their Pisa Pizza, and run screaming for the Unsanitary and Unfit tables in the food court. But she was blissfully unaware, so she and her daughter sat on the edge of the fountain to eat.
“Hailey. Use your napkin.”
Hailey pointed at the fountain. “Wissing well!”
Hailey’s father had been reading her fairy tales at night. How Hailey managed to extrapolate the concept of the wishing well and apply it to a decorative fountain with a defunct fish is a matter of speculation best left to the sages.
“Hailey, aren’t you hungry? Eat your pizza.”
Again, Hailey pointed at the fountain, rather more emphatically. “Wissing well!”
“What? No, this isn’t a wishing well. This is a fountain. Foun-tain. Eat your pizza.”
“Notta wissing well?”
The realization that the decorative fountain was not a wishing well destroyed Hailey’s faith in the universe. She wailed. She bawled. She knocked her Pisa Pizza meal into the fountain, where the pepperonis slipped from the cheese and drifted to the bottom of the pool to join the collection of quarters, pennies, and nickels. Hailey’s screams attracted the attention of fellow mall-goers.
Hailey’s mother hated for people to misunderstand what an excellent mother she was. So she attempted to drag Hailey away from the fountain. But Hailey latched her little fists onto its ledge with a force better suited to Hercules, and her mother could not wrench her free. In desperation, Hailey’s mother offered her a quarter.
“Notta wiss-iinng wellll!”
“No, but it is a wishing fountain! You can still make a wish! Take the quarter, Hailey, and make a wish!”
Shaking with the force of her sobs, Hailey brought herself to accept the quarter from her mother. She hiccupped, stretched her hand out over the water, dropped the coin, and said, “Wissyouwissingwell!”
She did so at the precise midpoint of the longest day of the year.
Wishes wished strongly enough have power. And when wished at points of rarity— traditionally times of confluence and magic—their power increases. The timing of the wish, plus Hailey’s own furious toddler will, conferred the decorative fountain with sentience and transformed it into a wishing well in one fell swoop.
For the first time, it had awareness, and that awareness was of its disturbed waters as a small metal disk spiraled past soggy bread and globular cheese to settle on its floor.
It was aware also of a fading echo of words.
Now, if Hailey had possessed a stronger sense of the subjunctive case, if she had already seen a speech pathologist to help with her lisp, and if she had not been sobbing, she would have said: “I wish you were a wishing well.”
But the wishing well did not hear “I wish you were a wishing well.” It heard “Wish you well wishing well.” Perfectly understandable, considering that most creatures have several years to grow into their sentience; the wishing well had approximately three seconds.
So it was left to ponder: were those fading words a benediction, or an imperative? Had the small human meant that she wished the wishing well well? Or did the human want it to wish well?
The wishing well pondered this conundrum for the rest of the day, as the janitorial staff cleared it of the disintegrating foodstuffs, as the foot traffic died down, as the lights of the stores blinked off. Invocation or imperative?
Blessing? Or command?
Come morning, the wishing well had its answer. The human had meant “Wish you well, wishing well” as one would use the imperative “Wish thou well, wishing well” rather than “[I] wish thee well, wishing well.” (The well oddly having been gifted with a nuanced understanding of subject and object pronouns in anachronistic English.) The young human wanted the wishing well to be the best wishing well that could ever be.
Having discovered its purpose in life, which, in a spurt of magnanimity the well decided meant to wish others well, it next had to figure out how to fulfill its mission.
This was rather more difficult.
Because while wishes do have power, without the extra magic rare conditions confer, a wish the magnitude of Hailey’s is rare. Most are small, wizened things, the wishing well discovered. Gossamer thoughts that fade within seconds. Small hopes that the wishers have no faith will come to pass.
The wishing well tried to come up with wishes on its own, but they did not alter the fabric of the universe. It would wish that the shoppers might be a little less harried, a little less footsore, and, when it was a bit selfish, a little less inclined to spill their bodily fluids in it. But these wishes did no good. The people continued on their way, still harried, still footsore, and having divested themselves of said bodily fluids.
Yet why would people go about making wishes all the time if they couldn’t come true? Because people did make them all the time. Some would pause by the wishing well, stare into its waters, grimace when they noticed the green-flecked spume the cleaning crew had missed, and make a wish.
Perhaps the wishing well was telepathic as well as sentient, because it always knew what the wishes were. And it considered many of the wishes, shall we say, subpar.
There, the woman with the bouffant. She wished for a stronger hairspray as she patted her hair to make sure it remained in place. That boy wished his teacher would just, like, give him an A, because it wasn’t as if the teacher actually read any of the homework anyway, so why not?
Some wishers went through the coin business, and the well felt these wishes more keenly. From the boy with the cleft lip: I wish someone would want to kiss me. From the woman with deep shadows under her eyes: Oh what the hell I’ll toss a coin. I wish I could sleep without drugging myself into it.
These wishes, attached to the coins, were granules of desire and power that sputtered and fizzled and collected in the well like silt.
But not enough to do any good.
The wishing well discovered it could cannibalize some wishes to strengthen others by accident.
It had no clear concept of time passing, but it knew there were occasions with more people than usual, and that the influx of people was associated with a change in decor: fake bits of holly and mistletoe strewed on the walls; in the big clear spot in front of the food court, a giant simulacrum of a tree in regalia of lights and red baubles; at its base, empty cardboard boxes wrapped up in glittery gold paper and silver ribbon.
Each time the tree went up, someone stole one or more of the empty boxes. The thefts saddened the wishing well, because they were usually accompanied by the wish that despite the lightness of the package, there was something inside. (Well, unless the theft was committed by what mall security called teenage punks. Teenage punks were usually the ones putting bodily fluids in the wishing well, so it was not very charitable toward them.)
During these times of odd decorations and more-than-usual people, the wishing well was beset with more wishes. It was statistics, of course; more people equals more wishes, but there came one wish that stuck with the wishing well more so than any other.
It came from a man who plodded through the mall like its walls weighed him down. Unlike the other mall-goers, he carried no packages, and he walked with no purpose. He sat on the edge of the wishing well and watched other people pass by with their bags and boxes. Finally, he dug out a small copper coin, twirled it between his fingers, and tossed it into the wishing well.
The small coin and its accompanying wish rocked the wishing well on its metaphoric heels.
I wish I knew where her next meal was coming from.
The wishing well did not need to eat, of course, and had only a vague understanding that the people traversing the mall required sustenance. It knew that some people were more desperate for sustenance than others. And it knew that whoever this man’s her was, that person needed food more than just about anybody.
Despite the depth of need, the wish was weak. Despondency does not mean strength; it makes the wishes themselves tired. Sinkable. Wishes, the wishing well thought, need to be buoyant and airy. This wish sank like a greased stone. The wishing well longed to make the wish lighter. With a surge of frustration, it rippled its waters, the only means it had of expressing rage at the injustice of the world.
And somehow, defying the laws of physics, the coins at the bottom of the well wibbled, and wobbled, and wended their ways toward the newest coin among them. Slowly, slowly, the newest coin rose in the water, floating ever higher until it broke surface.
At the far end of the food court, the man who had wished for the next meal of his her gave the Das Pretzel Haus cashier, whose nametag proclaimed her as CONNIE, HAPPY TO SERVE YOU, one dollar and twenty-two cents in exchange for a twelve-ounce cup of inferior coffee (the coffee at CoffeeHutt! being too expensive). Connie, grinning widely, brought out an air horn. The subsequent eeeeeee reverberated around the food court and set three previously sleeping babies to crying. Connie took no mind of them or of their parents’ deep scowls.
“Attention, Longview Mall food court customers!” Connie wished she had a microphone or at least a megaphone but had to make do with the power of her lungs. “We at the Longview Mall Das Pretzel Haus are pleased to announce that we have served our one millionth customer!” She lowered her voice and leaned toward the man. “Er, what’s your name?”
“Lionel,” said Lionel, more out of shock than a desire to have a teenage food court worker announce his name to over a hundred people.
“Lionel is our millionth customer! And to show our appreciation for Lionel (and by extension all pretzel lovers), we are hereby awarding him with a year’s supply of authentic German-style soft pretzels and all their tasty toppings, including but not limited to cinnamon sugar, cheesy goodness, and Himalayan sea salt!” Connie began clapping. About twenty food court patrons joined in with varying levels of enthusiasm. The rest were occupied with conversation or eating or telling their children to be quiet, be quiet NOW! and neither the clappers nor the non-clappers noticed when Lionel covered his face with his hands and wept.
“Er,” said Connie, whose employee manual had done nothing to prepare her for crying customers when they’d been awarded free pretzels for a year, “if you’re gluten intolerant I’m sure we can work something out—”
Lionel lowered his hands and wiped at his eyes. “No, that’s not it. That’s not it at all. This— just comes at a really good time.”
Connie broke into a broad smile. “Oh, I know! Our extra-cheesy garlic whole wheat pretzels just came out, and they. Are. Awesome.”
The wishing well allowed its attention to fall away from Lionel. Its waters rippled again, not in in rage but in triumph, for it, IT, had caused Lionel’s wish to come true.
There followed a period where the wishing well became drunk on its own power. Rare were the wishes that had enough strength to be fulfilled on their own. Before they could take effect, the wishing well had to merge them like a child slapping together wads of clay. It became the arbiter and judge of which were Worthy Wishes.
The vast majority, it concluded, were not.
No to the wishes for curly hair instead of straight, or straight instead of curly.
No to those for slightly less pinchy boots or poutier lips.
No even to those wishes for True Love, because what if the object of affection bore none for the wisher? Who was the wishing well to sublimate another’s will?
With its righteous sense of justice, the wishing well became a hoarder of wishes, miserly and, it must be said, bitter.
Because humans wished for such worthless things. Who cared about cheesier pretzels (and thank you, Lionel, but aren’t you looking a gift horse in the mouth?) or smaller bottoms or flouncier hair? Who cared about flashier cars or quieter children? (Well, sometimes the wishing well did care about quieter children, but it felt guilty soon after.) Where were the selfless wishes intended to ease the burdens of others? Did no one but Lionel love someone apart from themselves?
The wishing well was thoroughly disappointed with the customers of Longview Mall, and thus, by extrapolation, with the human race in general.
It may have continued growing ever more jaded and resentful were it not for an overheard, past-closing-time conversation.
Connie swept up behind the Das Pretzel Haus counter while Torrence, who worked at Pisa Pizza, spilled salt on the counter and drew patterns in it with her finger. “So I hear the demo crews are starting in a month. You get your transfer request?”
If the wishing well had possessed a jaw, it would have gaped in shock. Demo crews? Were they tearing down Longview Mall?
“You spill the salt, you clean it.”
Torrence did not clean the salt. Connie sighed. “The Millington location said I could go there, but I was hoping for the one in downtown Longview.”
“Gonna take Millington?”
“Probably not. It’s a forty-five minute drive. I’m not that devoted to pretzels, yanno?”
Torrence unscrewed the salt to pour it out into a mini-mountain.
“God, you sound like Bao. That salt will come out of your paycheck! Whatever. It’s like, ten cents. Sue me. One of the many, many reasons I’m gonna wait to see what goes in the new outdoor mall. Maybe there’ll be a Forever 21. So much better to get a discount on clothes.”
Connie grunted. She liked the food discounts. “Why d’you think they’re tearing down Longview just to put in an outdoor mall?”
“Duh, because outside malls are super-popular.” Ignoring Connie’s scowl, Torrence topped the salt-mountain with a sprinkling of pepper. “It’s the fresh air. Fresh air makes people happier. Happy people spend money.”
“I guess that might be it,” Connie said. Then, “Hey!” as Torrence strolled out the food court and toward the wishing well, leaving behind her salt-and-pepper mess.
Connie wished that Torrence’s hair would catch fire.
Kicking the edge of the wishing well, Torrence said, “Can’t say I’ll be sad to see this cesspool go. They’re probably going to put in one of those water-jet things. You know, where water shoots out of the ground, and little kids run through it? Schpew!” She mimed water jetting upward. “Way better than this thing.”
The wishing well wanted to deem Connie’s wish Worthy, but then Connie felt guilty and unwished it.
Which made it officially the worst day of the wishing well’s existence.
Over the next month, the wishing well hoped, selfishly, that someone might wish that it would be spared the demolition of Longview Mall. Fulfilling that wish would be self-serving, but it would also allow the wishing well to grant future wishes, and perhaps those wishes would be Worthy.
But oh, who was it kidding? It was too much to hope that with the appearance of a new mall would come people with changed hearts who stopped caring so much about their hair or the annoying mouth-breather who would just not shut up, and care instead about Worthy Things.
The wishing well had to admit it still had only a fuzzy sense of what met that definition, but as with Lionel and his starving her, it felt confident it would know a worthy wish when wished.
Still, it resolved that if it had only a month left, it would find a way to use the wishes it had, and any new ones besides. It would not have existed in vain. There would be people whose lives were improved because of the wishing well. Even if they never knew it.
Except being so magnanimous proved difficult when the new wishes were all so asinine. Wishes that the dog would stop shedding on the couch. Wishes that one’s shoelaces wouldn’t keep coming untied. Wishes that there were more hours in the day (which was not asinine, but, even considering the unspent wishes, was impossible to grant, what with requiring a massive alteration to the Earth’s rotation).
In the weeks leading up to the razing of the mall, there were three wishes that the well deemed Good Enough to grant:
- I hope that spot on the on PET scan doesn’t mean anything. (A hope rather than a wish; but the well granted it anyway.)
- I wish my cousin would get a job and get off my couch.
- I wish Snowball would come home.
Two days before the closing of Longview Mall, and three days before its slated destruction, the well granted one more wish: I wish my hair weren’t so frizzy. (It was at least the fifth time the guy had wished it; the well took pity.)
One day before the closing of Longview Mall, the well spent the majority of the day feeling sorry for itself. Of the wishes it had granted, it had witnessed the good outcome only a few times; perhaps an average of five percent. What if those other wishes hadn’t truly been granted? After all, it wasn’t like the wishers returned to announce, “Wishing well, the wish I wished last Thursday came true! You are awesome, and I will write the Longview Mall owners that you should not be destroyed!” (This sentiment depressed it further, and it took a few minutes for it to recover enough to resume contemplating the futility of its existence.)
What if the dispersals of power it felt meant nothing, and the few outcomes it had seen were merely flukes? What if, despite being self-aware, it offered nothing to the world?
The well rippled its surface, and a tiny amount of water bubbled out of the fish’s mouth. If the wishing well could not see the majority of outcomes of granted wishes, it would grant every single one that came to it today, no matter how petty. After all, petty wishes usually involved instant gratification; maybe the wishing well could see those results.
I wish my shoes didn’t chafe. Granted!
I wish I didn’t get out of breath so easily. Granted! (And with the benefit of being less-asinine, since it pertained to quality of health!)
I wish my cheesy pretzel were even cheesier. Granted! (You’re welcome, Lionel.)
As the well cobbled together its store of wishes to grant the new ones, something changed: People passed the well with lighter steps, with hints of smiles on their faces. They stopped, if only for a moment, to chat with one another. The well didn’t mind it even when Teenage Punks threw six Colossal Burger buns in it, because the Punks were just so exuberant about it.
Even if it was only for a day, even if it was only for petty wishes, people were happier for having at least one thing go their way. Life looked a little brighter when the colicky baby fell asleep; when the hipster store at last changed its radio station; when she finally, finally kissed him.
The mood of the mall as a whole was more like a block party on a sunny, not-too-hot evening than the final day before demolition. Laughter echoed from the food court, and no one thought it was too loud. Women and men grinned as they found just the right shirt, boots, candle, tchotchke, and at forty percent off, too! Children screeched in joy as they wobbled wildly, one last time, on the bobby horse in the play area.
The wishing well rippled its waters in contentment. It still had a few wishes left it could combine to grant one more—but even if another didn’t come, it had been a good day.
It let its waters lie still again. It had been an existence well existed.
“Do you remember this fountain, Hailey?”
The wishing well stirred, awoken from its satisfied quiescence by the woman’s voice. The lights were turning off in the storefronts, the gates coming down for the last time. “You were about two, and you were so disappointed that it was just a fountain, not a wishing well.” A chuckle.
Gum snapped. “This is your surprise? Why we had to drive for two hours all the way to Longview? A stupid fountain?”
Hailey’s mother, used to what she referred to privately as Hailey’s sarcastic phase, said only, “Do you remember?”
“No, Mom, I don’t. I was two. It’s been almost fourteen years.”
Hailey’s mother allowed herself to descend deep into the throes of nostalgia. She heaved a sigh. “Well, it was really cute.” A pause. “I’ll miss this place. It’s such an icon of the city.” She had heard that during the twenty-second spot on her local news announcing the mall’s last day.
“It’s not an icon. It’s an idol to our conthumer— consumeristic, throwaway society.” Hailey sniffed. “I’ll be glad when they tear it down.”
“Just for one of those new hipster pedestrian malls . . .”
“Yeah, well, at least it’ll be out in the open air, so people can experience nature and sh—stuff.” Another snap of gum. “Mom, if you’re done being all weepy, can we go? I still have two more chapters to read for English.” Without waiting for her mother to reply, Hailey set off down the hall.
But Hailey’s mother lingered. She opened her purse and dug out a coin, a bright shiny quarter. Feeling a little silly, she balanced it on her thumbnail, blew on it, and flipped it into the wishing well.
I wish for the new mall to have a wishing well.
To the surprise of the two security guards, Hailey’s mother, and Hailey herself, who turned at the sudden splash, water erupted from the fish’s mouth in an air-infused, popping burst. It took a moment for the spray to steady, but it kept going.
If the well had had hands, it would have clapped them. If it had had lips, it would have smiled them. If it had had a tongue, it would have said to Hailey’s mother, Thank you.
Instead, it fulfilled its purpose.
About the Author
Amanda Helms is a science fiction and fantasy writer whose fiction has appeared most recently in Daily Science Fiction, Diabolical Plots, and The Cackle of Cthulhu anthology. “Skinned” is her third story to appear in Cast of Wonders. Amanda blogs infrequently at amandahelms.com and tweets with a smidgen more frequency @amandaghelms. She and her husband live in Colorado with their increasingly lazy Boxer mix.
About the Narrator
Dave Robison is a storyteller who has been captivated by tales and legends his entire life.
He’s contributed vocal fabulousity to dozens of audio drama and fiction productions for EscapePod, Pseudopod, Cast of Wonders, and Podcastle, as well as The Drabblecast, StarShipSofa, Tales to Terrify. He has narrated several audio books for Tantor Media, J. Daniel Sawyer, Scott Roche, and John Meirau and appeared in audio dramas by Jay Smith and Bryan Lincoln.
As a child, he wrote Curious George and Paddington Bear fan fiction to the indulgent delight of his family. He was drawn to the immersive storytelling of live theater at an early age, participating in community workshops and school productions, a passion that continued through high school and college. He was also drawn to role-playing games which led to a deep appreciation of speculative fiction, cutting his genre teeth on Robert E. Howard, Michael Moorcock, and JRR Tolkien.
He attended the University of Michigan, majoring in Theater and Dance but transferred to the University of Wyoming when tuition costs got too expensive. Securing his Theater degree, Dave pursued a degree in Graphic Design and, in the years that followed, worked at dinner theaters, design studios, and ran a used bookstore. When he was hired teach computer classes at New Horizons Computer Learning Center, it began a decade-long exploration of programming, education, and web development.
In 2012, Dave launched The Roundtable Podcast with friend and colleague Brion Humphrey. The podcast gave writers the opportunity to brainstorm their story ideas with established authors and editors like Lou Anders, Cat Rambo, Kameron Hurley, and Hugh Howey. The unique format combined with Dave’s over-the-top delivery and enthusiasm earned the podcast a small but dedicated following.
In 2015, Dave formed Wonderthing Studios, LLC and brought the Roundtable Podcast under its banner. The studio is the launching point for several creative endeavors including Vex Mosaic, a monthly review of essays inspired by speculative fiction media, and Manifest, a board game combining the positional strategy of chess with the fantastical diversity of Magic: The Gathering.
In 2016, Dave was honored to be invited to help lead The Ed Greenwood Group (TEGG) as its Vice-President assisting in the initialization of the diverse processes required to execute a massive shared world collaborative storytelling publishing venture. Later that year, he was appointed Executive producer of Onder Media Group (OMG) overseeing the development of multiple media channels that celebrate speculative fiction culture in all its forms and facets.
In 2017, Dave released Archivos, a story mapping and presentation tool, through Wonderthing Studios.