The day Cressida got the wish, she was on the bus, wedged between a baby carrier and an elderly man that had fallen asleep or else died. She wasn’t sure. The bus seats, the final resting place of a thousand ancient farts, were a ruinous eggplant color.
When the bus stopped on 95th Street, the baby carrier was replaced by a young woman, and a man in a thick wool coat sat across the aisle from Cressida. He smelled like the peach cigarillos Cressida used to bum off her roommate in college. The scent mingled with the stench of the bus seats, infusing the cabin with the heavy smell of rotten fruit. This is what hell must smell like, Cressida thought.
The bus started moving again. Cressida was listening to the latest episode of the My Favorite Murder podcast. It was about Ray and Faye Copeland, a Kansas couple that used drifters to buy cattle, then killed said drifters. The entire thing was about as Midwestern as a crime could get, and just as it was building to a crescendo — the police raid on the Copelands’ farmstead — the man in the wool coat spilled the contents of his bag onto the floor of the bus.
A wallet, a lighter, a tattered copy of Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere…he scooped all but one item back into the bag. An acorn. He didn’t seem to notice that he’d missed it, and Cressida wondered whether the acorn had already been on the floor. Maybe the sudden movement had jostled the clutter that made its home beneath the feet of the bus’s occupants. Still, feeling ridiculous, she picked the acorn up and held it out to the man as if it were something precious and not simply an acorn.
It took him a moment to look up from his phone and notice her, but when his eyes fell upon the acorn, his hand snapped out with the same liquid speed that he’d used to scoop up his belongings. Cressida flinched away, afraid that he was going to strike her. She had no idea why he would strike her for simply holding an acorn in his general direction, but people on the bus often did things she didn’t expect, for reasons she didn’t understand. The man snatched the acorn from her hand and stuffed it into his left pocket. Asshole, Cressida thought.
He was saying something, but her cheeks were hot, and she couldn’t decide whether she was more angry or embarrassed, so she left her earbuds in and said nothing.
That was the end of it. Or so Cressida thought when she exited the bus in front of the Friends of Boone County Library. The winter air was crisp and still, almost painful to breathe after huffing the smoky, rotten miasma inside the bus. She stuffed her hands in her pockets and scurried into the warm glow of the library.
Inside, the ceilings were low, the light soft and yellow, and the air smelled not unpleasantly of dust and mildew. Cressida wound right, through the large print section, and then left, through the children’s section, until she stood before a brass plaque that read: Fiction, Science Fiction, A-E.
She didn’t have a reading list, had really only got off at the library to escape the confines of the bus, so she wandered through the aisles, touching the spines of books, waiting for the one, or two, or three that just felt right. She was reading the inside cover of The Night Circus when the man from the bus appeared.
“Excuse me,” he said. His face was impassive, but his brown eyes flashed in a way that told her he was no less frazzled than he’d been on the bus, only trying harder to hide it.
Cressida took out her right earbud and peered at him through narrowed eyes. The chronicle of the Copeland murders had long since ended and slow, thudding bass emanated from the dangling earbud, as if heard from a great distance.
“Can I help you?” she asked.
The man reached into his bag. Cressida was certain he was going to draw a pistol and shoot her dead right there in the science fiction aisle. Instead, he held out his hand to her, the acorn pinched between thumb and forefinger.
“You found this,” he said. His voice was soft as dead leaves whispering over cold pavement. “Thank you.”
“It’s cool, man,” Cressida replied.
“No, no, no! Each “no” was harsher than the last. “I owe you, now.” In the warm, musty air of the library, the smell of peach cigarillos was stronger than it had been on the bus and layered over something dark and loamy, like wet soil or tree moss.
“Dude, it’s just a fucking acorn,” Cressida said. She wondered if helping a stranger on the bus had been a mistake. She would have to be careful when she left the library, or else end up like those unfortunate drifters that tarried too long at the home of Ray and Faye Copeland.
“So, what do you want?” He spat the words at her, then seemed to realize how he sounded and said, more slowly this time. “What can I do for you?”
Two teenagers standing in front of the graphic novels were staring at them with eyes round as dinner plates.
“I don’t want anything,” Cressida replied. She had only just noticed that there was a leaf, starting to wilt from the cold but still fiery red in the center, tangled in the man’s hair.
“Nonsense,” he said. “There must be something you want.”
A million dollars. For my roommate to never come home again, or at least do the dishes once in a while. A car so I don’t have to take the bus anymore . . .
Cressida thought all of those things and said none of them. What she did say was, “No, sorry. I really can’t think of anything right now.”
“Well,” the man said. “I’ll just make do until you think of something.” A vulpine smile pulled at the corners of his mouth, forming his lips into a sharp, perfect V. He pulled a yellowed piece of paper from the chest pocket of his coat and slid it between the pages of Cressida’s book. “Until next time.”
The words cast a sort of spell over her, and it wasn’t until the man snapped upright and disappeared around the corner that it broke. Cressida stood there for a moment longer, stunned, but when the shock had faded, she checked out the book and made her way home. It wasn’t until later, reading by lamplight, that she found the piece of paper between pages 38 and 39. It was a business card, printed on ivory cardstock and embellished with gold leaf. It read, “1 wish. No refunds or exchanges.”
Every Tuesday and Thursday, Cressida dropped $1.50 in the farebox to take the bus to her 7 p.m. night class. That Tuesday was no different, until it was. The professor was droning on about the Pre-Raphaelite art movement and, searching for a pen to take notes, Cressida reached into her coat. There was no pen, but she did find the $1.50 she’d dropped in the farebox.
Every Tuesday and Thursday, her money appeared back in her pocket. She paid again, as usual, with six quarters. Then, she tried paying with a dollar bill and two quarters. She even tried paying with thirty nickels. But all the money she dropped in the farebox appeared back in her pocket, exactly as it had been before. The nickels had been especially noticeable. The moment she dropped the last one in, her coat pocket grew heavy again.
One Thursday after class, she walked to QuikTrip and paid cash for a Cherry Coke. The money stayed in the till. The spell, for she was convinced the man from the bus had cast some sort of spell on her, only worked on the bus. Cressida huffed and walked home, drinking her Cherry Coke. If a stranger was going to ensorcell her, she thought, he could’ve at least been more generous about it.
When the man reappeared, Cressida was listening to an audiobook of The Occultist’s Handbook. There was much talk of crystals, and tarot, and divination, but none of spells that only paid the bus fare. The book had mentioned that all magic had a cost. What was the cost of this spell, then? Perhaps for every cent she saved on bus fare, she lost a second of her own life. She was afraid, so when the man marched through the open doors of the bus and plopped down next to her, she ripped out her headphones and hissed, “What did you do to me?!”
“I paid your bus fare,” he replied. Neverwhere was open in his lap and he appeared to be a little annoyed that she had interrupted him. “Are you ready to make your wish now?”
“What is this? Are you some sort of wizard or…something?!” She felt like a sputtering idiot, but she’d been replaying their first meeting in her head for weeks, and the question had been gnawing at her just as long.
“No,” he said. “I’m not a wizard.”
“If I say yes, will you make your wish now?”
Cressida snorted. “Absolutely not. Do you think I’m an idiot? Whatever I wish for, you’ll twist it around and everything will be worse than before.”
He stared at her, aghast. “I will not!” he said. There was dirt on his coat and smeared on his chin, but it looked like he’d combed his hair.
“What if I don’t want a wish? What if I just want you to go away?”
“I owe you a debt. If you make the damned wish, I’ll happily never speak to you again.”
“Is this still about the acorn?” Cressida groaned. “Jesus Christ.”
The man said nothing. The dingy bus lights cast strange shadows over his face, turning his eyes black as ink, that true black that isn’t a color, but the absolute absence of light.
The bus went buh-bum-buh-bum-buh-bum as it passed over a rumble strip and exited the highway. The sound seemed to snap the man out of a trance, and his eyes returned to normal. “So, what’s your wish?” he asked.
“Don’t have one.”
“There must be something.”
“Oh, there are plenty of somethings, but I don’t trust you to give them to me.”
“Well,” he answered. “We shall have to work on that.”
After that, every Tuesday and Thursday, the man would join Cressida on the bus to and from her night class. It seemed he had convinced himself that if he could guess her dearest and most secret wish, she would make it and set him free. For her part, Cressida had begun to look forward to these conversations in a way that made her feel absurd.
The man always brought something with him. First it was pastries. Raspberry and cream cheese, topped with slivered, roasted almonds. As they ate, he asked, “Do you want to be rich?”
“Everyone wants to be rich,” she’d said. But no, that was not her wish.
Next, he brought a kitten. It was tiny and black, with white socks on its two front paws. He had it cradled in the front of his coat and it was mewling pitifully.
“My apartment doesn’t allow pets,” Cressida said.
“Do you wish they did?” he asked, and they both laughed. She took the cat home anyway and hid him in her bedroom and named him Acorn. The second time she heard the man laugh, it was because she’d just told him the kitten’s name.
One night after class, she introduced him to The NoSleep Podcast. They listened to a story called The Djinn Bottle. It was about a man that purchased a magic bottle that could hold all of his weariness…at a cost.
“See?” Cressida told him, “That’s the sort of thing that makes people not trust wishes.”
“Let’s listen to another one,” he said.
After that, he brought bundles of wildflowers. Asters and blue thistle and bright yellow coneflowers.
“Did you pick these yourself?” Cressida asked.
“I grew them,” he said. And that night he didn’t ask for a wish.
The next Tuesday, the man wasn’t on the bus. Then Thursday passed with no sign of him. Then another Tuesday, and another Thursday. On the fourth night without him, Cressida skipped class and rode the bus until the driver announced at 12:06 that they’d reached the last stop of the night. She was three miles from home, and she walked the whole way, trudging down the dimly lit sidewalks and feeling incredibly foolish.
There are two kinds of revelations: the slow, creeping ones that bubble up like water kept over low heat, and the sudden ones that crash into our lives like meteors or traffic accidents. Cressida’s revelation was the latter, and it was this. She knew what to wish for.
The man reappeared on the last Thursday of Cressida’s night class. Winter break would be starting soon, and she would have no reason to ride the bus, at least, not the same reason as before. But that didn’t matter, did it? After all, the ride was free.
The first thing he said was, “I’m sorry.”
“I thought you might have given my wish to someone else,” Cressida joked.
It was quiet. There was no one else on the bus, and she was afraid that her heart was beating so loudly he might hear it thudding against her ribcage.
“I just needed to rest,” he said, then added cryptically, gesturing around the bus cabin with a wide sweep of his hand, “There’s iron under all this paint you know.”
Cressida filed the comment away for later. She wouldn’t, couldn’t consider it too carefully now.
“I’m ready to make my wish.” She blurted the words out, afraid that if she held them in a moment longer, she’d lose her nerve.
The man leaned forward in the bus seat, obscuring the view of the seat across the aisle. She had thought he’d be pleased, but his mouth was set in a grim line.
“What is it?”
“Can I tell you something first?”
“Of course,” he said. He drummed his fingers on the seat in front of him. It was a very human gesture.
“My name. It’s Cressida.”
“Rowan,” the man said, and smiled. Rowan, Rowan. She fought the urge to speak his name aloud. They would be at her stop soon.
“This is my last day of class,” Cressida said. “I won’t be riding the bus for a while.”
“Oh,” he said. “I suppose that’s why you want to make your wish now.”
“Yes…it is.” She sucked in a breath of fetid bus air. She had always hated the bus, but now…she thought she might miss it.
“I wish…that I could see you again.”
He said nothing, just stared at her with eyes dark and shining like slick pavement after a heavy rain.
“I mean,” she went on, desperate to fill the silence, “There’s not really a reason for us to see each other. I’ve had my wish. You don’t owe me anymore and we probably won’t meet on the bus again, so —”
He laughed then, and the sound was like the chiming of silver bells. “No,” he said. “But a wish is a wish.”