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Three Wishes

"And this is the room in which the Cantor Gregory invented the hat...."
Elizabeth had suspected for most of the morning that their tour guide was making it up as she went along. This latest one-step-too-far factoid seemed to confirm it. She glanced around the rest of the tour party, but the faces had all the dull credulity of cattle. Except for her family, of course. They weren't falling for this pseudo-historical drivel. Because they weren't even listening.
"These doorknobs were wrought from the part of Excalibur that was not trapped in the stone...."
Behind Elizabeth trailed her husband, Jake, and slung against his chest, swaddled in a yellow Babygro, like a bloated starfish with a human face, one-year old Kimberley. Jake was occupied making cooing noises, which Kimberley gave every indication of not enjoying.
And trailing behind, Samuel. Fifteen years old. Elizabeth had to admire how he managed to navigate the cobbles, flagstones, and spiral staircases while his eyes and thumbs were locked to his mobile phone, held before him like some object of veneration, or a dowsing rod in a time of drought. For what seemed like the fiftieth time that morning--what was that famous definition of madness?--Jake snapped under his breath for Samuel to put his phone down and pay attention to the real world. "You'll stay like that. In fact, I wish you'd stay like that. Then you might realize how bloody irritating it is."
In response Samuel just grunted his one-size-fits-all monosyllable. Elizabeth had long since given up expecting eye contact, politeness, or grammatically recognizable sentences.
"At this table was signed the famous treaty that decreed all semi-skimmed milk should carry a green label, skimmed red, and full fat blue."
Her friends thought they were crazy, another baby fourteen years on. Needing to buy all that baby stuff again. The sleepless nights, all over again. An extra decade of only being able to go away during school holidays. Hell, the year Kimberley was due to start school proper was the year Samuel would leave, as if pushing her way into the educational sausage machine would eject him out the other end.
"The section we are now walking through was built in the late fifteenth century to plans the Seventh Earl is reputed to have copied from the veins on a stilton."
Elizabeth glanced back at Samuel or, rather, at the top of his blonde mop of hair as his thumbs furiously tapped. What would it take for him to look up from his screen for just a moment? Certainly no gems, however outrageous, from tour guide Miriam. An earthquake? A meteorite? What if Miriam got naked? Hell, what if she got naked?
"And now we come to Brevis Castle's famous wishing well. It is said..."
"It is said." Elizabeth choked back an involuntary laugh. "Reputed that." "Legend has it." "The story goes." How many variations did Miriam have for "I've just made this bullshit up"?
"...that if three people in succession silently and secretly wish for the same thing, it will come true."
Elizabeth failed to keep another snort of derision in. She turned in to see Jake put a pound coin into oblivious Kimberley's hand and gently help her pitch it through the grating and down the well. Kimberley gurgled happily. He tossed one of his own in after.
"What are you doing?" Elizabeth asked.
"It all goes to maintaining this crumbling heap," Jake said, handing her one of the two remaining coins in his hand, the other....
Their eyes met, a shared understanding--not one that Elizabeth felt comfortable vocalizing--that it wasn't worth giving the coin to Samuel, that if he wasn't prepared to detach his eyes from his screen at breakfast, when he went to the bathroom, in the car, or at any point during their day out to Brevis, then it wasn't worth wasting another pound on a silly romantic gesture. But that understanding--that one would surely deny with shocked surprise if the other said it out loud--went deeper than that. Elizabeth feared that, if brought into focus, it would reveal something rotten in her soul. That she believed Samuel was somehow lost to them. Even that that was the unstated reason why they had had Kimberley.
Not that Samuel noticed any of it, tap, tap, tapping away. What is it you do on it all day? Elizabeth mused. She had asked, but the answer always seemed to be... nothing.
"Shall we go back to the car?" Jake wondered. They had become detached from Miriam and her alternative history.
Crunching back along the gravel paths, Elizabeth and Jake walked together holding hands in the sunshine. Kimberley gurgled. Samuel brought up the rear, presumably keeping their heels in his peripheral vision as a means of navigation.
Back at the car, while Elizabeth helped separate Jake and Kimberley from the sling and from each other, Samuel suddenly made his Neanderthal grunt, but with an added sense of panicked urgency. Given he remained head down, staring at his screen, she initially assumed he'd gotten a particularly low score on whatever tartrazine-colored game he was playing. But the noises he continued making suggested otherwise.
"Sam, what's wrong?" Jake put a hand to his son's shoulder. Samuel turned, but didn't look up. If anything, he was trying to catch Jake's gaze by twisting at his hips.
"Is he having a stroke?" Elizabeth shrilled.
Jake tried to take the phone, but it seemed locked in the teen's hands. He pulled, but it wouldn't come. But Samuel's irritated gurning wasn't that of a teen fighting to hang on--it was a teen fighting to let go. Only his flailing thumbs remained free.
The realization hit Elizabeth and Jake simultaneously. It wasn't that Sam wouldn't release his phone or raise his head. It was that he couldn't.
"What was it you wished for?" Elizabeth asked carefully.
Jake stood open-mouthed. "Me?"
And with that they both turned and stared at baby Kimberley.
The End
This story was first published on Friday, March 19th, 2021
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