Fetch a Pretty Penny

by Justin Williams

My greatest fear is losing my wife. That’s what I would have said before it happened. Now, as I cradle Felicity’s photo in my hands and the last rays of daylight play upon her angelic face, I find myself with so much more to fear. 

Little feet pitter-patter across the ceiling as the children get ready for bed, and I place the picture back on the living room mantle. 

Dust motes dance like spirits in the fading light and my Felicity seems to fade as well. I fear the memories will go next. A tear drifts along her cheek, fallen from my face to hers.

Felicity’s photo stands in line with a dozen others of life before: our wedding in San Francisco, the quiet little honeymoon in Carmel-by-the-Sea, school and Christmas portraits and an empty space waiting for the trip we planned with the kids this fall. The kids we were supposed to raise together. The life we were supposed to build. Together. 

Laughter echoes down the stairs as the kids help each other forget, just for a moment. I wish I could laugh so easily.

I wipe tears on my stained sleeve and stumble upstairs. Felicity watches from the photos hung along the hall, posed there with Emma at the zoo, there with Sam at the aquarium. In my mind’s eye, she’s cheering me on from wherever we go after

Just outside Sam’s room I pause, and with a deep breath and a forced smile, I push the door open.

“You guys ready?” 

Sam is snuggled in his blankets. Emma’s on the floor, reclining against the wall, smiling up at me.

“Ready,” she says.

It feels surreal doing this alone. But here I am, at the foot of the bed, beginning the ritual of tucking in the kids, and trying to forget the pain, even if just for a few minutes. I wish I could forget it completely, I think, but I never say it out loud.

“Alright, guys,” I say. “Three wishes time. Sam, what would you wish for?”

Emma sits up. “He always goes first.”

I rub my forehead. “You’re right. Ok, Emma’s first tonight.”

“Just don’t steal mine,” Sam says, rolling to face his sister. He curls his knees up and I’m surprised he can get smaller. Sometimes I see the big six-year-old he just became, and sometimes he still seems like a baby. I smile at Emma.

“So, what is it? Three wishes. One for each of us. What are you doing with yours?”

“Same rules?” she asks.

“Genie law hasn’t changed in thousands of years,” I say. “No chance it would change just for us.”

“Then I’d wish to be a bird. Long and beautiful feathers, like a peacock.”

“The boys are the pretty ones,” Sam says.

“Then I’ll be a boy one. Whatever.” She smirks at him, then cradles her chin in her hands. “Why are the boy birds the pretty ones? It doesn’t make sense.”

“Maybe we don’t make sense,” says Sam, the wisdom of the ages whistling through his missing front teeth. 

“You may be on to something, Sammy,” I say before turning the focus back to Emma. It’s hard to keep her feeling like she’s treated equally. She’s already heading to middle school in the fall. Sam just needs more attention. Hopefully she’s not feeling neglected, but the worst part of parenting is I’ll never know I messed it up until it’s too late.

“So,” I say, “a peacock. This is what, the third night in a row?” 

“I want to be colorful and beautiful,” she says. “And, I want to fly, with nothing to hold me back, especially not a cage. The peacock does it all.”

“No rules,” I say.

“No rules, yeah,” she says, wistfully.

An emptiness forms in my gut, the realization I’m about to lose her to the teen years. I shake it off. “Ok, so I have a beautiful peacock for a daughter. What about my son?”

Emma talks before he can get the words out. “He wishes to be—”

“Quiet.” I snap at her before even realizing I’m doing it. “Sorry, sweetheart. I didn’t mean it like it came out.”

“I know,” she says. “I’m sorry. I was just playing around.”

I give her my most apologetic smile and turn back to Sam. His eyes are wide. “Go ahead, Sammy. Sorry for snapping.”

He smiles and sits up. “I wish…” he pauses, flourishing his hands like a stage magician. In the corner of my eye, a smiling Emma shakes her head at his (completely expected) antics. “I wish… to be… a fish.” 

He laughs and falls back, wriggling in bed and making bubble sounds with his lips. 

Every night is the same with him, but it’s part of the routine, the shield against the devastation of the past six months. So I play along: “A fish? How surprising! And why, dear Sam, would you want to be a fish?”

“To swim!” He raises his arms like a heavyweight champion. “To swim and swim forever and ever and never have to come in to eat or for sunscreen or because it’s raining or anything else.” He takes a deep breath and I’m already preparing for another wave of words, but he simply says, “It would be perfect.” 

Sam yawns so wide I see straight down his neck and wonder what gills would look like down there.

Emma laughs, leaning back against the wall. I tuck Sam in and kiss his cheek. 

“What about you, Dad?” asks Emma. “What’s your wish?”

I stop myself from saying the obvious. Genie’s don’t bring people back from the dead anyway. Instead, I simply say, “I’d just wish we could forget our troubles.”

“Gotta have bad days sometimes,” says Sam. “Makes the good days better.”

I reach for the light switch.

“Wait,” he says. He adjusts the picture of Felicity on his nightstand. “I couldn’t see her.”

“Goodnight, Sammy,” says Emma, going first out the door.

Pulling the door shut behind me, I pause to say, “Love you, Sam.”

Emma’s door is across the hall and I give her a squeeze before she disappears into her room. She’s too big to kiss on the cheek anymore, so I skip it, and look forward to the day she’s no longer too old for affection. 

“Love you, kid.”

“Love you, too, Dad,” she says, closing the door. 

Alone in the hallway, the crushing weight of life pushes out a long, slow breath. I linger a moment, then head down the stairs. My eyes burn from tears and tiredness, but there’s still work to do: another thousand words on my novel, the pipe dream for the future, and a job hunt for the realistic present.

Sliding into a dining chair, I shuffle through the mountain of unread mail: condolences and past-due notices, all piled on a bed of junk mail. Buried beneath is my laptop, with that manuscript that will make all our wishes come true. At least that’s what I tell myself when I sacrifice spare moments to work on it. Tonight, though, I can’t seem to find the computer at all. 

Grabbing a bill instead, I slide my finger beneath the flap and pull it open. The pink notice appears an unthreatening gray in the dimness. I could pay it. We have the savings. I just don’t. 

I push away from the table, the squeal from the chair giving me a shiver, and reach for the light switch but I just… can’t. I fall back into the chair.

Life is easier in the dark. In the dark my mind can wander. Anything to stop thinking about the present, right? My body wanders to the living room.

I finally find my laptop on the coffee table and collapse into the couch. The glare of the screen forces me to squint. The flashing cursor taunts me. After writing the same sentence twice and fixing the same fumbled keystrokes several times a piece, I give up and switch to the job search. 

Nothing new. Of course. When should I consider part time? Entry level? 

If I could go back, stick with the corporate job and not quit to stay with Sam, I wouldn’t be mired in this decision. Even a master’s degree can’t erase a six-year gap in employment. 

It wasn’t supposed to be like this. 

“But it is,” I tell myself. 

I lay on the couch, my head in her spot, just for a moment.

I wake the next morning to a six-year-old bouncing around the room and asking for breakfast. I’ve got an interview in less than an hour and I only wish it were me up for a job. I scramble to get eggs on a plate for Sam and a shower for me. Emma tends to handle herself these days. 

After the shower I towel off and dress, consider a tie, then decide an informal interview might be better. I rush downstairs and send the kids to dress, too, so nobody knows we live in our pajamas now. They disappear just as the doorbell chimes. 

It was more a whim than any conscious decision to place the ad for a nanny in the newspaper. I wanted someone traditional. I also wanted to avoid the appearance of hiring one of the young ladies listed with the online services. Old and experienced is what we need, even if it means a lack of five-star ratings. 

Mrs. Rosetti had sounded pleasant on the phone, and while her few references were no replacement for a wealth of web reviews, something about her put me at ease. I expected old fashioned, but still, I’m quite surprised when I open the door.

“Mr. Jackson, I presume?” she says in an accent I still can’t place. English, maybe. It doesn’t match the name.

She stands at the door, not quite Mary Poppins and not quite Fairy Godmother. A cab drives away behind her.

Her eyes sparkle with the youth the rest of her had given up. She’s well put together, and I wish I had worn the tie.

“Mrs. Rosetti. Please, come in.”

She carries a navy carpet bag embroidered with a tangle of golden vines, and I fight the urge to ask if it’s bottomless. “Have a seat on the couch. That side please.” She holds the bag in her lap.

“So, Mrs. Rosetti,” I say, shifting my weight, feeling uneasy in the easy chair across from her. “Thank you for coming. Please excuse the…” I try to think of the most tactful way to describe the chaos around us.

“I understand it has been a difficult time for your family,” she says. “Losing a wife and mother is a devastating blow. You should be proud, Mr. Jackson, for keeping your lives afloat.”

“I… Thank you.” Did I tell her about Felicity? I must have. There’s too much on my mind these days. “The children should be down shortly. As you can see, we need help with the housekeeping as well. Laundry, meals, errands, the works. You’ll be welcome to use my car.”

“I can get myself around just fine,” she said, a slight lilt in her voice. Irish, maybe?

“With any luck I’ll be working within a week or so.” Her face is impossible to read. Have I already lost her? “I can pay you in the meantime, of course.” 

“Not to worry, Mr. Jackson.” Finally, she smiles. “Consider me an old grandmother just wishing to help. Room and board are a fair trade to begin, and we can work out the rest in time. For now, we must consider the children’s wellbeing.” She looks toward the mantle. “They are quite precious.”

I lean back in my chair. “You have no idea how much I needed to hear that. The kids in good hands, that’s all I really wish for.”

“I assure you, Mr. Jackson. They will be in good hands.” 

The kids creep down the steps and I wonder how long they were eavesdropping.

“Emma, Sam, this is Mrs. Rosetti. She might be staying with us for a while, helping us get back on our feet.”

“It’s nice to meet you,” says Emma with a polite smile.

“What’s in your bag?” asks Sam, already reaching for the clasp.

 “That’s Mrs. Rosetti’s, Sam.” I nudge him away. “None of our business what’s inside.”

“A curious little cat is he?” She winks at Sam. “I suppose you’ll see the inside soon enough. I simply brought a change of clothes and some toiletries in case I was needed at once.” She turns to me. “I do have the job, I presume?”

I wasn’t expecting to make such a quick decision and there’s an uneasy feeling in my gut. “I’ll need to talk it over with the children. If you’ll excuse us.” 

I motion for the kids to follow me into the kitchen, leaving Mrs. Rosetti waiting. Holding the swinging door for the kids, I glance back at her. She seems delightful, patient, hard-working. Bringing anyone into the house is a gamble, but how long can I keep up this balancing act?

“I like her,” Sam says. “Her bag is awesome.”

“She seems kind,” Emma adds. She looks around the mess in the kitchen. “And helpful.”

My chest feels knotted, but I chalk it up to parental distrust of leaving my kids with anyone else. We need help. We need it now. And here it is, like a wish granted. 

“It means you two’ll have to share a room. It’ll be tough to get privacy.” I look at Emma, knowing she’ll soon be desperate for it.

Her eyes water, just a bit. “We need help,” she says, “But not forever.” 

When did my kids grow wiser than me?

“You’re right,” I say. She’s almost big enough to handle Sam alone, and both are taking on more and more chores. A nanny is temporary. “So, it’s a yes?”

The kids nod. 

Mrs. Rosetti smiles when we tell her. “A grand adventure awaits us all.” 

I show Mrs. Rosetti her room. “Emma will move across the hall,” I say. “I’ll fix up the bed this afternoon.”

“Please don’t make a fuss,” she says. “That position is now taken.”

“It’s a relief to have you here,” I say.

“No trouble at all, Mr. Jackson. I can already tell the children and I will get on swimmingly.”

Smiling, I leave Mrs. Rosetti to settle in. 

The children are standing at the foot of the stairs when I come down. 

“Don’t you guys have chores?”

The kids scatter and I fall back into my chair, looking up at the mantle. The four of us stand there, squeezed together at the farmer’s market last year, smiling, happy. 

We’ll be ok.

Evening comes and it’s a relief to see dinner plans are no longer mine to make. The scent of thyme and rosemary floats from the kitchen before I even think of offering takeout. I hadn’t even noticed her leave for groceries. Maybe that bag is bottomless. I smile at the thought.

“It smells amazing, Mrs. Rosetti,” I say, leaning into the kitchen. 

“I hope you are good eaters. Those children looked on the skinny side.”

“My grandma said the same about me,” I say. “And look how I ended up.” I pat my stomach and laugh. 

Mrs. Rosetti pokes at boiling potatoes with a fork. “Dinner will be ready in about twenty minutes.”

And it’s exactly twenty minutes later that we’re gathered around a dining table with nothing on it but dinner. The roast falls apart at the slightest touch of the fork. The mashed potatoes are buttery smooth. Emma, who often eats like the bird she wishes to be, cleans her plate. Sam asks for seconds.

“Can we help with dishes?” I ask, pushing back from the table. Even the chair seems lighter.

“You can all take the night off,” Mrs. Rosetti says. “We will discuss chores in the morning. Chores are good for children of course, but I must give fair value for my part.”

Sam is out of the dining room in a flash. Emma and I follow, lingering in the aromas of dinner. Walking out, I realize how early it is. Not even seven and I have no dinner clean up, no laundry, no chores, just time.

“Can we go ride bikes?” Emma asks. Sam appears at her side.

“Just don’t leave them in the yard like last time,” I say. I pull a twenty from my wallet and hand it to her. “Get some ice cream at the Cardinal, too. It’s a night for celebrating.”

Sam grins.

“Thanks,” says Emma. She gives me a hug and runs off. Sam chases after her. He’s soon ringing his bicycle bell as they race down the street. 

For a moment, I stand frozen, not sure what to do with my sudden free time.

The moment passes. 

Grabbing my laptop from the coffee table, I sneak back through the kitchen, and I’m surprised to find everything already spotless. It’s like magic. We definitely chose the right nanny. 

Out through the back door, I settle in on the porch and load up my manuscript.

The words flow.

That night, I get Emma set up on an air mattress in her brother’s room. In their room. “We’ll have a real mattress for you in a day or two,” I tell her.

Emma settles in, wobbling on her unsteady sleeping arrangement, and I sit at the foot of Sam’s bed. 

“Three wishes time,” I say. 

“Today was pretty great,” Emma says, hands behind her head, watching the ceiling fan spin. “But being a bird still sounds pretty nice.” She laughs. 

“And you, dear Sam. Can I guess what you’d wish for?”

“I’m thinking something different tonight. Maybe…” He’s smiling big. Too big. It’s a setup. “A fish!” He curls up in laughter. Emma and I laugh just as hard. I feel light.

I say goodnight to the kids and slip out, closing the door behind me. Mrs. Rosetti is in her new room across the hall. 

“You’re welcome to join us any time,” I tell her.

“It is a lovely game, the three wishes,” she says. “And what would your wish be, Mr. Jackson? If you don’t mind my asking.”

“Easy. To sell my book for a fortune so we could forget all our troubles.”

“And live happily together,” she adds. “Accuracy is important. Fairness, as well. A tricky business it is, wishing. Take too much, the universe slips off balance. So, you only get three, and you get precisely what you wish for, not a pretty penny more.”

An odd shiver runs up my back, but I shake it off. “Then I’d wish to sell my book for just enough to let us forget all our troubles and live happily together,” I say.

“I’ve had several lifetimes worth of troubles, I’m sure, but I wouldn’t want to forget any of them. Our memories make us who we are,” she says, “But, perhaps I can give you a boost while you work on your words.”

“For the book? Or the wish?” I ask, laughing.

I expect her to laugh as well, but she doesn’t. Instead, she says, “If you’ll excuse me, it has been a big day.” 

I drift downstairs and fall back into the couch. The last few months have brought a rush of childhood memories, my mother in a situation like my own, keeping the two of us going, alone. I rest my eyes and remember.

Tonight’s memory: Mom wearing a costume-shop mask of an ancient woman with wispy white hair, wrinkled and reeking of cheap rubber. A large and crooked nose hangs from the face; holes take the place of eyes. The mask, too big on her head, sags like a strange second skin, leaving the eyeholes dark and lifeless. 

With the mask on, the chase begins. “Come here little one,” she says in her wickedest witch voice. “I’ll fetch a pretty penny for you at the market.”

Laughing, I burst into a run, feeling the remembered lightness of my feet, the adrenaline pulling me forward like the fall from the tallest peak of an old wooden rollercoaster.

At some point in the chase, every chase, imagination takes control, ramming reality into hiding and bringing the game to life. Then the tears well in my eyes and my feet slow to a terrified trudge down the hall. 

My heart pounds in rhythm with my feet against the hardwood as I look for a place to hide. But the old witch knows my house too well, knows where to look, how to find me. I turn into my room, everything blurred behind tears, reality blurred into nightmare. 

I hurl myself under the bed, pushing against the wall and out of reach. I hope. The witch’s feet creep to the edge of the bed’s shadow and she stoops down, hands and knees on the floor. Her eyes, darker than the shadows across her face, find me, and I squeeze my own eyes shut. 

“You alright?” The witch asks in a kind voice, mom’s voice. The tension drifts away and I take a chance at opening my eyes. The old witch pulls off her face.

Mom smiles. 

I shake my head back to reality. 

Just the smell of a costume shop can trigger a skip of panic in my heart. Some shops still sell the same mask. Still, with kids of my own I understand. She did the best she could to keep me distracted from the trouble around us. 

Maybe I can do it without scaring the kids to death, I think, laughing. I open my laptop on the coffee table and load up my manuscript, feeling energetic for the first time in months. Inspired. Hopeful.

The next few weeks are a blessing and a blur, bringing a stream of souvenirs from Mrs. Rosetti’s adventures with the children, and a steady flow of words written on my novel. 

A smile stretches across my face as I sit at the coffee table, my laptop surrounded by reminders of our good fortune. A peacock statuette stares at me from beside the computer (“Mrs. Rosetti can make it fly,” said Emma when she brought it from the zoo), and on the other side sits a little plush goldfish from the aquarium (“Mrs. Rosetti makes it wriggle,” said a wide-eyed Sam. “For real!”). Ticket stubs and snapshots, pinecones and pebbles fill all the open spaces of the table and the evenings are filled with fantastical stories from the children. 

“What wonderful imaginations they have,” Mrs. Rosetti tells me often. “The most valuable thing a child can have.”

And it’s good to see the kids believing in magic again. It’s good to see them have the childhood I feared they’d lost. Laughter rings out from the children’s bedroom and Mrs. Rosetti hums as she dusts the mantle and it all feels like a dream as I type, finally, The End

Postponing a job was a risk, but the writing flowed and Mrs. Rosetti was supportive and our savings had been just enough. There’s enough one more month, too, and I’m sure by then I’ll have real work. Now, I have a novel to submit, and it’s the victory I needed.

“It’s done!” The neighborhood can probably hear me shout.

Emma runs down the stairs. “You finished the book?”

“I did.” My face aches from smiling bigger than I have in a year.

Sam comes down, too, and hangs from the back of my chair. “Is it good?”

“Hopefully,” I say. “There’s plenty to fix, I’m sure. But I hope to get it polished and in the mail soon.”

Sam leans over my shoulder and looks at the screen. “You should let Mrs. Rosetti read it. She knows lots of stories. Magic ones, too. She knows some, even.”

“Knows some stories? Or magic?” I ask.

“Both,” Sam says, smiling. 

“I’d be glad to let her read it,” I say.

“I would be honored, Mr. Jackson,” she says, turning from the mantle and making the feather duster disappear into the pocket of her apron. “Finishing a novel is a fine accomplishment. It calls for a celebration. A cake, for the birth of a book.” 

The kids cheer. 

“First, I must go to the market and trade for ingredients,” she says. She disappears through the kitchen door.

“Trade?” Emma asks.

“Must be a language thing,” I say. “Like calling the elevator a lift.”

Sam curls his fingers like claws toward Emma. “Maybe she trades away the children she watches,” he says.

“Or maybe she just eats them,” Emma says, tickling Sam as they fall to the floor laughing.

I sit back, admiring those final words on the screen. 

The weight of the world seems washed away. If I sold the book fast enough, I wouldn’t have to go back to work at all. I could write from home and look after the kids myself. Selling it so fast is impossible of course, but a little wish here and there can’t hurt.

That night, after eating a strawberry cake no less sweet and moist than biting into a ripe berry itself, I share my story with Mrs. Rosetti.

“It’s rough,” I say, fidgeting with the clip binding the stack of papers. “I should spend a while editing first, but I’m so excited to hear someone else’s thoughts.”

“I am sure it will be just fine,” she says. “Don’t expect me to be easy on you, though. I have quite the eye for words.” She squints at me.

“I expect no less.” 

On the way to the stairs I stop at the mantle, lifting the picture of Felicity. “I wish you could be here for this.” I set the photograph down and let my mind drift among the memories along the mantle.

Mrs. Rosetti is already there when I get upstairs to the children’s room. She’s telling a bedtime story, a witch and a princess and three little bluebirds, and the kids seem to love it. Mom would enjoy this one, I think as I laugh.

I listen as I wait for my turn in the routine.

Later that night, I dream of all the memories still waiting to be made.

“You must let me send this to my friend in York,” Mrs. Rosetti says to me a few days later after dinner. 

The lingering scent of herb and garlic chicken follows her from the kitchen. I still can’t believe we’re eating so well these days, but the added pounds can’t be ignored. It’s like she’s trying to fatten us up.

She holds out my manuscript. “Perhaps it’s time to make that wish come true.”

“New York?” I ask. “You know someone in publishing, Mrs. Rosetti?”

“Mrs. Bateman can help us make those wishes come true if you’re ready to commit.”

“I just wish I’d get a big payday and we could forget all our troubles,” I say. “That would solve everything.”

Mrs. Rosetti hesitates. Is she waiting for me to say something? “Yes, please send it. If she can help… that would be amazing.”

“As you wish,” she says. “I shall send it straight away.” 

A Cheshire grin spreads across her face as she turns and heads up the stairs and already my head is filled with thoughts of checks and book signings, fans in the street, maybe a movie deal. I can’t believe my luck. 

“Thank you, Mrs. Rosetti,” I half yell as she disappears into the shadow of the upstairs hall. Thank you.

After a moment of unrestrained daydreaming, I head up the stairs two at a time to tuck in the kids. 

“Can you believe it?” I ask, bursting into the kids’ room. “Mrs. Rosetti knows someone who can help with the book.”

“She told us,” Emma sits up in bed and hugs her legs. “It’s so exciting! Mrs. Rosetti says I’ll have all the room I could wish for soon.” She tucks her chin to her knees. “I’m going to miss her.” 

“She’s been such a help,” I say. “We couldn’t have made it without her.”

“I wish she’d stay,” says Sam. 

“It would be great,” I agree, “but she was just here to get us back on our feet. If she can help with the book, I think we might be on our way.”

I pull the blanket up on Sam and take a seat on his bed.

“So, three wishes time?” I ask.

Mrs. Rosetti taps at the door, leaning in from the hallway. “If you’ll forgive my intrusion, I had hoped to hear the wishes of these little ones as well.”

“Mrs. Rosetti!” Sam shouts. “Sit on my bed.”

“Of course,” I say. “It’ll be a treat to have you here.” I scoot over to the foot of Emma’s new bed. Sam scrunches into a ball to make sure Mrs. Rosetti has enough space.

“Ok. Three wishes,” I say. 

“Two wishes,” Emma says with a laugh. “You’ve already used yours.”

“Alright. Two wishes.”

“We’d add a wish for you,” Sam tells Mrs. Rosetti, his tone quite solemn. “but we can’t wish for more wishes. Those are the rules.”

“The rules are quite important,” Mrs. Rosetti assures him. “Accuracy and fairness are the hallmarks of wishing, making them and granting them both”

“Well then,” I say. “With the rules in mind, what are we wishing for tonight? I think it’s Sam’s turn to go first?” Emma nods in agreement.

I brace myself for Sam’s melodramatic routine, but even I’m caught off guard when he jerks up and grabs Mrs. Rosetti’s arm.

“Make me a fish, Mrs. Rosetti. I wish to be a fish and swim and swim and—”

“Easy, Sammy,” I say. “I think you’ve heard too many stories. Mrs. Rosetti isn’t magic.”

“But she—” 

“Ah the imagination of a child. More valuable than diamonds it is.” Mrs. Rosetti says, keeping her impeccable composure. “Don’t worry dear Sam. I do my best to grant the wishes of all my precious little children.”

Sam smiles and lays back, satisfied with the answer, and probably the compliment as well.

“Alright,” I say. “One wish down. Emma, you’re up.”

“Accuracy,” she whispers. Emma seems deep in thought for a moment, then says, “I wish I were the most beautiful peacock in the world and had the freedom to fly and live wherever I wanted forever and ever.”

“A well-thought wish,” says Mrs. Rosetti, clasping her hands together. “Quite accurate, though forever and ever may call fairness into question. Still, you’ve done fine work with it.”

“Alright then,” I say. “Time to tuck in our little fish.” I kiss Sam on the forehead. “And the most beautiful peacock in the world.” I give Emma a squeeze and follow Mrs. Rosetti out the door. “Love you guys,” I say.

“I’d better turn in myself,” I say when we’re in the hall. “Thank you, Mrs. Rosetti. Thank you for everything.”

“The time was very well spent,” she says. 

An overnight envelope awaits me on the coffee table the next morning and I’m surprised to see it’s from Mrs. Bateman. I don’t recognize the publisher, but there are so many divisions at the major houses I can’t keep track.

I fall back into the couch, bracing for rejection, but hoping Mrs. Rosetti is magic.

The stairs creak behind me. “I’m off to the market, Mr. Jackson. I’ll fetch a pretty penny today.” Mrs. Rosetti passes behind me carrying her carpet bag and a plastic baggie that smells like a costume shop. I turn and see a flash of orange just as she slips the baggie into her bag and disappears into the kitchen. 

My heart skips with excitement. “Mrs. Rosetti,” I say, “I got something from your—” The backdoor bangs shut. I’ll tell her when she gets back.

There’s a letter in the envelope, and something more. My hands shake as I pull out a check.

“Kids!” I call out. Silence answers. 

The stairs groan under my weight as I run up to share the news. I turn into the kids’ room, finding the beds made and lights off. 

Where are they?

“Mrs. Rosetti?” I check her room, forgetting she left. 

With a fish.

Two wishes down. 

The check falls from my hand as I race back downstairs. I chase after Mrs. Rosetti and burst through the back door, only to find myself face to face with the most beautiful peacock I’ve ever seen.

The peacock looks me in the eyes, raises its head and puffs its chest, then fans its feathers in a stunning show of greens and blues and golds. It folds them back with a snap and, with a quick hop and burst of its wings, pushes into the sky and floats off like a dream.

I gasp. 

Brilliant white clouds drift across a deep blue sky that seems to go on forever and ever. 

I take a deep breath to steady my heart, then step down from the porch. The neighborhood kids left their bikes in the yard again, but I’ll deal with that later. I have an important errand to run. 


I have the strangest feeling I’m forgetting something. 

“Ah, I forgot my keys,” I say to myself, patting down my pockets.

Where was I going again? It was important, I know, but the memory is just out of reach, like a dream lost to the morning light. I think about the peacock I nearly ran into. Or… no. That was the dream. Too much writing lately, too little sleep. 

Shaking my head, I turn back inside and pull the door closed behind me, tossing the image of a peacock around in my mind. My footsteps echo through the silent house. 

There’s a check lying at the foot of the stairs. The bank. Of course. I grab the check and take my keys from the coffee table, wiping a spot on the empty mantle, and thinking about getting a maid as dust motes drift in the morning light. I set the keys atop the check so it doesn’t blow away again. The errand will have to wait.

A peacock, a market, something about wishes. It feels like the seeds of a story. Sitting on the couch, I open my laptop to get the idea down before I forget it all. 

As I type, I can’t help but look up at the mantle and daydream about covering it with awards. I wish I could fill it up one day. 

It’s always been so empty.