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What You Wish For
A short story by Angie Dixon

I am years gone from my family and miles away. No one is holding a knife to my neck or a gun to my head, but I find I can’t go back. They are the only people who know who I am and the threat they pose is greater than death. They, alone of all the people in the world, can expose me for what I am. Should they choose, the people bound to me by blood could end my life forever. Whether they would choose to, I pray that only they and God will ever know.

I am. But I am not who I think I am. I am not who I say I am or who I act as if I am. I am. A murderer. A fratricide. A suicide. I am the rat who carried plague through London town. I am Mrs. O’Leary’s cow*. I am the man that everyone’s mother warned them about and no one believed existed.

I am the one who never should have been. And yet I am.

It began when I was twenty-one. My brother Damon and I were in our senior year of college.

It was clearly an accident. Everyone present agreed that it had been a tragic fluke. The only thing I remember about Penny Wolderman is the flush on her cheeks as she slammed the door of Damon’s apartment, screaming, "I never want to see you again!" Damon shrugged when I inquired, and said, "They all say that. She’ll come back tomorrow."

But she didn’t come back. The next day she was mixing a chemical that began to fizz. When she shook the beaker to calm the bubbles, the acid splashed into her eyes. She was blinded for life, her dream of becoming a painter ruined. I heard later that she married a blind man and taught music somewhere in Seattle.

Damon recovered from the loss of Penny and fell in love with Sara Jenkins. They married in his first year of medical school and began their happily ever after. I started law school in the same town, living alone except for a Siamese called Cat because I didn’t have the time to name her anything better.

Law school went. I passed the bar and accepted an associate position with a prestigious law firm in my town. That’s when it happened again and I began to understand that there was something very wrong with the world I lived in.

I was having lunch with Damon at the Five Pound Note when my current client approached our table. I’d been given the case because it was impossible to win. As an associate, I had no face to lose. Chuckles Robay had strangled a waitress at Finders, the local bar preferred by motorcycle gangs and low-rent thugs. He’d strangled her in the parking lot, in the back seat of his car to be precise, because, according to the only witness, she had told him that he was the fattest, ugliest specimen of manhood she had ever seen, and she’d die before she ever had sex with him. "Okay, that sounds like a good deal," Chuckles had said, his meaty hands encircling the waitress’s neck. The witness, a dishwasher named Alvin Beck, had been taking trash to the dumpster and seen the whole thing.

As he approached my table at the Five Pound, Chuckles said, "I want you to get me off. I ain’t gonna die for no two-bit whore." The fact that the waitress had been married with two children and gone to church every Sunday since she was three was lost on him.

"You committed the crime in front of a witness," I pointed out calmly. "I’ll get you the lowest sentence I can, but you’re going to be convicted." I moved my chair a few inches to the side, to be further from Chuckles Robay’s enormous hands.

"Yeah, well maybe that witness will up and die," Robay said, lifting my Scotch and soda and taking a deep swallow before pouring the rest of it on my salad. "And if he don’t, maybe my lawyer will. That way I can get someone who knows how to win."

"I’ll do my best," I said, though there was no doubt at all of my client’s guilt or of his murderous intentions.

Two weeks later I defended Chuckles Robay on the charge of murder. He was acquitted, the only witness in the case having died of a massive heart attack six days before at the age of twenty-four. The prosecution, reasonably suspecting Chuckles of poisioning the witness, had demanded an autopsy, which showed a congenital defect in Alvin Beck’s aorta that, according to the coroner, ‘should have killed him twenty years ago’. With no witness, the prosecution had no case and my client walked out of the courtroom a free man, no longer threatening to kill his lawyer.

It occurred to me that twice in my presence a pronouncement had been made that later came true. I didn’t believe for a minute, however, that I had the power to grant wishes. Not then. Not until Alice died.

Alice had been a member of Chuckles Robay’s jury and had asked me out for a drink after the trial. Six months later we were married. We lived in a condo on the west side of town, only three minutes from Damon and Sara. Alice was driving home from their house when it happened. The other driver ran through the stop light, nearly crushing Alice’s red convertible. She swerved, lost control and drove into the side of a condominium. Alice was thrown from her seat, the car smashed to unrecognizable junk. The other driver was never apprehended.

She would live, the doctors said, but she would never walk or move her arms again, and the baby had been lost. The baby? I asked, not having known I was to be a father. She was driving home from telling Sara and planned to tell me at dinner that night. "She’ll never have children," the doctor told me in the hallway. "She’ll be completely dependent. You’ll want to hire help."

But I didn’t want to hire help. I had help, in the form of Damon and Sara. Between the three of us, we managed.

Then it happened.

Alice had been home for six months and was more depressed that day than I had ever seen her. "If I can’t have my body back," she said as the four of us ate dinner, Damon holding her pizza for her, "then I’d rather be dead."

The pneumonia set in two days later and, within a week, my Alice was gone. It was then I began to see the connection. In my presence, the wish of dire consequences was made and the wish came true. Why not happy wishes, I wondered. When Alice had wished to be either mobile or dead, why had she not recovered from her paralysis instead of growing ill?

I went to see the only psychiatrist I knew who would not shoot me full of anti-psychotic drugs and throw me in the hospital, my brother.

"You’re just projecting your guilt onto these tragic events," Damon said. "There’s absolutely no way you could be making people’s death wishes come true. It’s happened only - what? Three times? The first of those was clearly an accident and didn’t result in death. The second, well, Alvin Beck lived twenty years longer than most people with his condition. And Alice . . . It was the accident, Joshua. She lost her will to live, and the pneumonia was too much for her. But to think that you caused these things - brother, I think you might have a delusional disorder."

I didn’t have a delusional disorder. I knew exactly what was happening and who was doing it.

I told Damon that he was likely right and I was over-reacting to a few disparate incidents.

Until two years later, when a young woman named Marie Cavanaugh died in her sleep after expressing suicidal thoughts. Marie was a law student working for my firm during the summer and, when she mentioned that she was struggling with depression, I recommended Damon’s services. Her roommate told me later that Marie had said she wanted to die, that she wished she could just not wake up in the morning. "She told Dr. Journey," the roommate said. "She told him she didn’t want to live, that she wanted everything to be over."

Dr. Journey she may have told, but she never told me.

The truth I knew, I couldn’t prove. The belief I held was beyond horrifying. Before I had time to talk myself out of it, I went to Damon’s office, letting myself in the back way. "You did it," I said.

I thought he’d argue. But he didn’t.

"I gave them what they asked for," Damon said. "It’s not as if I have any control over the power. It happened. First with Penny and then when that hoodlum threatened you - and Alice. I didn’t want Alice to die. It just happened."

"There were others. Besides Marie." He didn’t argue. He didn’t ask how I knew. He simply admitted it.

"Yes. Those I couldn’t cure, I helped along."

"You said you couldn’t control it."

"I can’t stop it. I can . . . call on it. I can use it when I desire, but sometimes it happens when I don’t intend."

"Die." My tone was cold, the word a hiss. "You have to die, Damon."

"It doesn’t work that way," my brother said. "I’ve wished my death for fifteen years and yet here I stand."

"Die," I repeated. "Drop dead, Damon. You have to die."

It started slowly, with a shaking hand, and then a vessel in his temple began to bulge. "Josh . . ." he said. "Sara . . . don’t let Sara know . . ." And then my brother was dead.

I stared at his body for more than a minute, the hair neatly combed on the right, the blue shirt and club tie with navy blazer and khaki trousers. If we hadn’t been twins, people would still have believed we were. Though my shirt was white, my blazer black and my pants a charcoal gray, we were otherwise identical. Except that my power was more destructive even than Damon’s, though my brother would never know this.

When I walked out of Damon’s office, his secretary said, "Good evening, Dr. Journey." Sara, when I arrived at my new home, gave me a kiss and told me that she was going to her mother’s for the weekend. My new Scottish terrier licked my hand and dropped his ball at my feet.

It was too much, even for me. The next day, after Sara drove away, I packed Damon’s bags, put them in his car and left the city. His body would be discovered, and though it might have been mistaken for Josha Journey if I had remained in town, it would now be obvious to all that Damon had died of a stroke in his office and I had run away to be with my grief in solitude. No one would know what Damon had been, or what I was.

No one knew. No one could know. Damon’s ability to grant catastrophic wishes was beyond belief, but even more unimaginable was my own ability to create false images in the minds of the people near me - to impersonate Damon whenever I wished, to pass myself off as a skilled lawyer when I’d never opened a book, to pretend to the doctors that I was grief-stricken when Alice died, though in fact I’d been driving the truck that pulled in front of her and caused her car to swerve into a building.

More than anything, to make Damon believe it was he who granted the wishes.

I am what I am. And no one alive must ever know.

* Infamously blamed for starting the great Chicago fire