Twenty-Eight and a Half Wishes

By: Denise Grover Swank
Chapter One     

    It all started when I saw myself dead.
    Rain hung heavy in the air that Friday afternoon. The air conditioning of the old municipal building didn’t know how to handle it, making the office especially chilly. I’d just returned from lunch and grabbed my worn red sweater out of my drawer as I sat down at my workstation. The fluorescent lights flickered overhead, casting a sick gray pallor over the room.
    I sucked in a breath to prepare myself for the next few hours. All that rain was bound to ruin a lot of Memorial Day Weekend plans, making the DMV customers even crabbier than their usual.
    “Number fifty-three,” I called out over the counter as I turned on my computer screen.
    A scruffy man in his mid-thirties approached and plopped his paperwork on the chest-high counter in a huff.
    “I need to renew my plates,” he said. Irritation made his voice scratchy.
    I looked him over as I tugged the paperwork down. Gray-tinged stubble covered his face, a sharp contrast to his shaggy dark brown hair. His light brown eyes held a menacing glare. I chided myself for my foolishness. Everyone has menacing eyes at the DMV on a Friday afternoon, even the sweetest of grandmas.
    “Let’s have a look at your paperwork,” I said as I glanced at the neatly stacked forms. “Mr. Crocker.”
    I pulled the clip off the stack and examined the documents. He had all his required papers: the license renewal form and his personal property tax receipt, but his proof of insurance was expired. I glanced up with great reluctance. Mr. Crocker had to have been in the reception area at least thirty minutes and he had the look of a man tired of waiting. He gripped his keys in his hand, like he could squeeze a glass of juice right out of them. His eyes jumped around the room as he studied all the DMV employees behind the counter, landing on one person and moving onto the next.
    Just as I was about to explain the situation, I felt the all-too-familiar tingle of a vision coming on.
    Oh, crappy doodles.
    Like a photograph in my mind, I saw me. Deader than a doornail.
    I stared at Mr. Crocker and gasped, my eyes so big I felt them drying out. My jaw dropped so far I was amazed it didn’t hit the counter. Just as the words “You’re going to kill me” began tumbling out, a black fuzziness flooded my brain.
    The next thing I knew, a buzz swept through the DMV and it wasn’t from a swarm of bees. The DMV staff and customers had crowded around me.
    I opened my eyes. My forehead throbbed where it must have smacked the Formica.
    “Rose Gardner, what in heaven’s name happened to you?” The voice of Betty, my boss, boomed in my ear. I knew I must have fainted because one minute I sat gawking at the man who was planning to murder me and the next I was practically making out with my workspace. Not that I ever made out. I was a good girl, after all—twenty-four years old and I’d never even been kissed.
    Sitting up, I raised my hand to my head and lightly probed the growing knot with my fingertips. “I don’t know…” I mumbled, squinting from the light. Fear slithered in my gut as I peered over the counter to see if Mr. Crocker was still there. He stood to the side, pushed out of the way by a couple of elderly women eager for what had to be the best gossip in Henryetta all week. He eyed me warily, and my heart raced as I wondered how much I said before I passed out.
    Now, I’d had a multitude of visions all my life. I was gifted, or cursed—depending on who you asked—with the sight. My grandma on my father’s side had it. People respected her and considered her the Oracle of Lafayette County, Arkansas.
    But me? I was just a freak.
    Most of the time I paid it no mind. I kept to myself and everyone in my town of Henryetta liked it that way. While my grandma saw helpful information such as droughts and locust infestations, I was cursed with seeing useless and mundane things like Mrs. White’s toilet overflow or the ear infection in Jenny Baxter’s baby. None of that would be so bad if I kept what I saw to myself, but my visions didn't work that way. Without any volition of my own, whatever I saw just blurted right out of my mouth. Most of the people who knew me thought I was a snoop or a gossip, the only rational explanation to reason away my knowledge. But Momma had another opinion. She declared me demon-possessed.
    But in my twenty-four years, I’d never had a vision about me, so seeing myself dead was quite the shock. I scrunched my eyes, trying to remember what I’d seen. I was leaning back on Momma’s sofa. Blood spread out behind my head, blending with the pink cabbage roses and seeping into the ivory background. My open eyes had a dull, glazed stare. All I could think was how angry Momma was going to be about all that blood on her favorite sofa. I didn’t think there was enough hydrogen peroxide in the entire state of Arkansas to get out that stain.
    My eyes flew open. A crowd of people had gathered around, watching to see if I’d pass out again. After I considered Momma’s impending outrage, it was a definite possibility.
    “I’m…I’m sorry. I don’t know what happened.” I said between gasps of air. My eyes glanced to Mr. Crocker, who crept backward with a look of annoyance.
    “I’ll tell you what happened,” said Suzanne, who worked at the counter next to mine. “She was processing that license renewal and the next thing I know she mumbled ‘You’re’ and then her head fell forward and whacked the counter.” Suzanne’s favorite obsession was herself so it amazed me that she had caught that much. But then again, she didn’t much like me so my guess was that she welcomed the opportunity to gather more ammunition. She leaned back in her chair, arms crossed in front of the cleavage bursting out of her low-cut blouse. She tilted her head and her mouth lifted into a mocking half-smile.
    “I just felt a little dizzy, that’s all. I’ll be fine.” I tucked a stray strand of hair behind my ear with a shaky hand.
    “Oh, no. No way. You might think you’ll be fine, but you just fainted. You sit there for a minute and then you’re goin’ home.” Betty’s voice was as large as her oversized body. Every person in the room heard her proclamation.
    “Seriously?” Suzanne asked, sounding like a toddler on the verge of a fit. “I asked you four times already if I could leave early to get a head start on my weekend and you said no. All Freaky Rose has to do is beat her head on her desk and she gets to go? That hardly seems fair.”
    Betty put her hand on her hip and narrowed her eyes. “Suzanne,” she drew her name out slowly as if she were talking to a small child. “Rose never calls in sick and hardly ever takes a day off. You, on the other hand, call in all the time and have used all your vacation days. But next time you wanna leave early, I’ll let you go. As long as you beat your head on your desk first.”
    “Yeah, well, the only reason she never takes time off is because she doesn’t have a life.” Suzanne eyed me as if I were a cockroach about to scurry across the floor.
    Betty scowled then surveyed the room, taking in the gawkers lined up against the counter. “All right, show’s over, folks. Y’all get back in your seat unless your number’s been called.”
    The crowd broke up, people grumbling and whispering. No sane person balked at Betty’s orders, not even the fuming Suzanne. Her eyes shot flaming arrows of hate toward me as she fluffed her bleached blonde hair.
    Suzanne leaned toward me and hissed. “Don’t think I’m not on to you, Miss Goody-Two-Shoes.”
    I turned toward her in surprise. I had no idea what she meant. But then again, I suspected she didn’t either. My clammy palm rested on Mr. Crocker’s paperwork, reminding me I hadn’t finished processing it. But as my head swiveled around and searched the room, I saw he was gone.
    I couldn’t understand that. Why would he just abandon his personal papers?
    I sat at my desk trying to slow my galloping heart and glanced down at the paperwork. His first name was Daniel and he lived on Highway 82. I tried to memorize the address, knowing that if I wrote it down, Suzanne would catch me and make a big deal about it. I told myself I was crazy, or paranoid. Or both. My demon possession had branched out into new areas.
    I grabbed my purse and headed out. I pushed open the heavy metal door, searching for Mr. Crocker before I entered the humid parking lot. Nothing. I shook my head at my over-active imagination. Seriously, Rose. My visions didn’t always come true and this one seemed too preposterous to consider. The logical explanation to his leaving was that I freaked him out. Just like I freaked out everyone else in Henryetta.
    Nevertheless, when I reached my car, I looked around for signs of someone preparing to jump out and grab me. Where should I go? If I went home, Momma would ask questions. I’d rather give Suzanne’s hammer-toed feet a pedicure than face that. I turned left, toward the edge of town. A visit to my sister sounded like a good idea.
    Violet lived in a new neighborhood on the outskirts of town, still in the city limits but hanging on the edge like it couldn’t make up its mind. She lived in a new house, my older sister’s dream come true. She hated the one we grew up in, the old and worn-out home I still shared with our Momma. It only needed a little tender loving care, but Momma insisted it was a waste of time and money to paint and add fresh curtains. Not to mention that in her eyes, it was greedy. Momma tried to avoid the seven deadly sins like they were Satan himself.
    Violet lived in a cookie-cutter replica of every other home on her street. The houses were only a couple of years old, each one in various pastel shades. Most of the yards were bare of landscaping, with just an occasional tiny tree here and there. But Violet took great pride in her home, and flowerbeds full of red begonias lined the walk from the driveway to the front door and the backyard was bursting with more. Violet loved flowers.
    I parked my old Chevy Nova in the driveway. It was Daddy’s old car. It became mine after he died during my freshman year in college, when Momma made me drop out of school to take care of her. The car was old, but well maintained. Not that it mattered. I didn't drive it much. I had nowhere to go. Or, more accurately, Momma said I had nowhere to go.
    My knuckles rapped the metal door. I didn't want to ring the doorbell for fear I’d wake up my niece and nephew from their naps. The door swung open, and the shock of my unexpected visit was written on Violet’s face.
    “Rose! What on earth are you doin’ here at this time of day?” She gripped the edge of the door with one hand and held a dishtowel in the other. She looked like one of those greeting cards of women from the fifties, only those were spoofs and Violet was the real thing.
    Not that I was making fun of her. Violet was everything I longed to be. Pretty. Married. A mother. Free.
    “I’m sorry to barge in on you, Violet,” I said with a sigh, “but I wasn’t sure where else to go.”
    Violet’s eyes widened with concern and she moved out of the entrance. “Of course. Come on in.” She led the way to the small kitchen where the mouth-watering smell of chocolate chip cookies greeted me. A mixing bowl sat on her tiny kitchen island, along with a cooling rack covered in a fresh batch of cookies.
    I perched on a bar stool in front of the island and snatched a cookie so fresh that it folded over as I lifted it from the rack.
    “Want some sweet tea?”
    “Mmmhmm.” I mumbled through a mouth full of cookie.
    Violet poured us both a glass and sat on a stool. She sipped her tea as she watched me over the top of her cup, waiting. I loved that about Violet. While Momma was always quick to snap and drag every piece of information out of me, Violet was content to wait.
    I set my tea on the counter, careful not to let the sweat-covered glass slip through my fingers.
    “Violet, do you remember me ever having visions of anything bad?”
    Violet scrunched her nose. “Bad? You mean like the time you told Miss Fannie her husband was sleeping with her best friend?”
    “Or the time you told Bud Fenton his business partner was cheating on the books?”
    “Or….” Her eyes widened in terror, “when you told Momma that Ima Jean was going to win first place in the pie contest at the Fenton County Fair?” Violet shook her head at the memory. Then she nodded, raising her eyebrows. “That was a bad one.”
    I shuddered. Up until that year, Momma had always won the pie contest at the Fenton County Fair. She never forgave me for it. “No,” I hesitated and sipped my tea. “Worse.”
    Violet appeared stumped as she tried to reason what could be worse than taking away Momma’s blue ribbon. She waited.
    I cleared my throat. “Um, today I saw a vision about me.” I paused, letting the full weight of it settle in the room.
    “You? But that’s impossible. You’ve never seen yourself in a vision before.” Violet cocked her head. “Have you?”
    I pursed my lips and shook my head. “No, I’m sure I saw someone else’s vision. It just happened to be about me.”
    Violet grabbed a cookie and took a nibble. “Who was it? What did you see?”
    For some reason, I didn't think I should tell her. The seriousness of the vision, and the fact I knew the name of the man who killed me scared the bejiggers out me. To speak it would make it real. To remain silent left it in the realm of the nebulous otherworld. I shrugged. “Just a customer at the DMV. Nothing special.”
    I worried Violet would push harder, but mentioning the DMV jogged her memory. “That reminds me. What are you doin’ here eatin’ my cookies when you’re supposed to be at work?”
    I shrugged again then grabbed another cookie. “Dunno, it was a slow day.”
    Violet squinted her disbelief. “On a Friday? At the end of the month?”
    Henryetta was a small town, and word was bound to get out about Freaky Rose fainting at the DMV. Violet would be upset if she heard it from someone else. “Well, I don’t know what happened. I was sittin’ there at my desk, tryin’ to work and suddenly I just fainted and whacked my head on the counter.”
    Violet leaned forward and examined my forehead. “Oh, I see it. Do you want some ice for that?”
    “No, I’m fine.”
    “Why did you faint? You’ve never fainted before.”
    “No, but I was really cold.”
    “Do people faint from cold? I can see hot….” Violet bit her lip and looked out her kitchen window as she considered it.
    “I dunno, Violet. I just fainted.” I regretted the harshness of my words. “I’m sorry, Vi. I’m tired.”
    Violet’s eyes got as big as the hubcaps on her husband Mike’s four-wheel drive pickup truck. “You don’t think you’re pregnant, do you?”
    Her question shocked me more than seeing my own lifeless body in my vision. “Good heavens, no. NO!” To be pregnant meant I had to… with a man. Fire flooded my face and I placed my glass against my cheek. “How could you ask such a thing, Violet Mae Beauregard?”
    “Well…” Violet said slowly and searched for the right words.
    “Do you think so little of me? How could I be pregnant? You know I’ve never…ever…”
    Violet plastered an indignant look on her face and lifted her chin in defiance. “Well, maybe you should. Have you ever considered that, Rose? It's the twenty-first century, for heaven’s sake. People have sex.”
    I shrank away from her in horror. “How can you say such a thing? Momma would have a conniption.”
    “And maybe that’s why you should, Rose. Momma needs a few conniptions. You need to stand up to her. You’re fritterin’ your life away. You’re gonna regret it one day, mark my words.”
    We sat in silence while I digested Violet’s pronouncement. There was no denying I’d thought everything Violet just said, but they were just thoughts. Ugly and hideous thoughts. I couldn’t act on them.
    “Momma needs me, Violet. You know that. I’m all she’s got left.”
    “And why is that, Rose?”
    I stared at her like she’d asked me to explain how to assemble a nuclear bomb.
    “I’ll tell you why. She’s an abusive old woman who’s run everyone else away. Why, even poor Daddy had to die to escape from her.”
    “Violet Mae!”
    Violet squirmed in her seat and leaned closer, lowering her voice. “You know it’s true, Rose. Everyone says so. The question is why do you put up with it? You’re a grown woman.”
    I would have loved to stand up to Momma. I couldn’t do a blessed thing right in that woman’s eyes, but somehow, every time I tried, I froze up like the power lines in a raging ice storm. I looked down at my glass of tea, running my finger around the rim. “It’s not that easy.”
    “Well, of course it won’t be easy. You’ve let her ramrod you for twenty-four years. But Rose, it’s time. You can’t let her control you for the rest of your life.”
    I sighed, a deep and heavy sigh. If only sighs could carry all my troubles away. But after a big exhale, they were still there, as large as ever. “I know. But not today, okay? Can I just hang out with you and the babies for a while? I can’t go home and deal with her right now.”
    Violet reached over and gave my shoulder a big squeeze. “Of course! Ashley will be so happy to see you and you won't believe little Mikey. He’s almost walking.” Violet beamed with pride.
    I envied Violet. Always the pretty one, she was blessed with blonde hair and blue eyes while I inherited boring brown hair and murky hazel eyes. Violet had experienced so much more of life even though she was only two years older. She married her high school sweetheart right after graduation and started having babies several years later. She and Mike, her husband, seemed happy. I couldn't help but wonder if that was because Violet had very little to do with Momma.
    A little later, four-year-old Ashley woke up from her nap. We played tea party until thirteen-month-old Mikey got up and showed me his tottery walk. I glanced up at the clock and realized it was after five.
    “Oh, I have to go,” I said.
    “Do you have to, Aunt Rose?” Ashley asked, her big blue eyes begging in an earnest plea. She looked so much like a younger Violet that my breath caught in my throat.
    “I’m sorry Ashley, but I do. Grandma needs me.”
    Violet made an ugly face, but to her credit, she didn't say a word. I gave her a big hug after I picked up my purse. “Tell Mike I said hey.”
    I left her house and cute little neighborhood, working my way past the DMV and to the older part of town where Momma and I lived. Traffic wasn’t bad in our town of eleven thousand, but a little after five o’clock on a Friday and a holiday weekend to boot, I had to stop at the lights longer than usual.
    When I pulled onto our street of older bungalows, I knew I was late. The rustle of curtains in the front window as I parked in the gravel driveway confirmed it. Momma had been watching for me.
    The over-grown landscape encroached on the broken concrete sidewalk. I had to sidestep the bushes to walk to the side of the house. Daddy had taken great pride in his house and would be upset to see the state of things. He’d always kept the hedges neatly trimmed, the yard meticulously cut, and a multitude of flowers blooming along the edge of the walk. Daddy had loved his flowers. I often wondered if that was how Violet and I had gotten our names. Momma would never say. I did the best I could with the yard, but it was a big lot and Momma refused to hire anyone to help maintain it. I was lucky to get the lawn mowed and tend to my rose garden in the back.
    I walked in the side door and set my purse on the kitchen table. The sounds of the television filtered in from the living room. I knew Momma would be watching the national news on the Shreveport channels we used to get with our giant antenna outside. Now the news came through a little black box that sat on top of the TV. Momma resisted the box and pronounced it a government attempt to spy on us, but the alternative meant no television since Momma refused to get cable. Momma declared cable full of pornography, though what I’d seen at Violet and Mike’s house looked perfectly respectable. Even if I could have convinced her otherwise, she would never have stood for paying to watch television.
    “Hello, Momma. Did you have a good day?”
    I heard her harrumph. “I most certainly did not. Ya left the air conditionin’ on. It cooled off so I had to go through the entire house and open all them winders.”
    “I’m sorry, Momma. They said it might rain so I worried you would have to close the windows if I left them open.”
    “I ain’t made of money, Rose Anne.”
    “Yes, Momma.” I let the detail that I paid the electric bill slide right on by.
    I opened the refrigerator and pulled out the meatloaf I’d made in the morning before work. I would’ve asked Momma to put it in the oven so it would be ready when I came home, but she claimed she couldn’t bend over anymore. She was only sixty-two years old, but you couldn’t tell by the way she behaved. Our eighty-two year old neighbor, Mildred, often acted younger than Momma did.
    “Why’re you so late?” she called from the other room.
    I ignored the so late comment. I was only ten minutes later than usual. “It’s the Friday before Memorial Day, Momma. Everybody’s trying to get out of town and head to the lake. The intersections downtown were plum crazy.”
    There was a moment of silence as I pulled a bag of potatoes from the cupboard.
    “I heard about your faintin’ spell.”
    I sighed and grabbed the peeler from the drawer. It didn't surprise me she’d heard already. Gossip in Henryetta spread faster than a smallpox plague in an internment camp.
    “I heard ya had a fit right there at your desk, thrashin’ and foamin’ at the mouth and flingin’ your arms everywhere. I must say it didn't surprise me one bit, what with your demon and all.”
    “That’s not what happened, Momma. I just got a bit dizzy after lunch is all. I lost my balance and hit my head on my desk.”
    “Hmm…that’s not what I heard from Mildred.”
    “Momma, Mildred wasn’t even there. I promise you, it was nothin’.”
    Her voice faded into the national news anchor’s monologue. Momma loved the nightly news. Nothing made her happier than watching carnage and pestilence sweeping through the world so she could mutter, “I told you so” to the television. Momma said the world was the devil’s playground and the people in it weren’t nothing but the devil’s Barbie dolls, dressed up in floozy clothes and lettin’ loose in fancy cars, God bless their souls. The fact that a good portion of the world lived in poverty remained lost on her.
    I finished peeling the potatoes and started them boiling on the stove. Cleaning the scraps out of the sink, I peered out the little window. A soft breeze fluttered the gauzy curtain while I studied my next-door neighbor pulling a lawn mower out of the dilapidated, rusted shed behind his house.
    He wasn’t from around here which made him an outsider, kind of like me. I’d never talked to him. I was too shy to approach a man, especially an attractive man close to my own age. He had moved into the old Williams house a couple of months earlier. The neighbors suspected he was single since they never saw a woman come and go. Trust me, if a woman had shown up, it would have been caught by the eyes of the Busybody Club. The elderly women of the Neighborhood Watch loved to snoop under the guise of being vigilant.
    My neighbor wore a t-shirt and jeans. He leaned over to check the gas in the mower, giving me a perfect view of his posterior. A blush rushed to my face when I realized I’d been staring at it. I turned away and wiped stray potato peels from the kitchen counter with a dishrag as I heard the mower start.
    “That infernal Yankee is interruptin’ my news!” Momma shouted from the other room. While the mower could be easily heard with all the windows open, it wasn’t even close to drowning out the news anchor’s voice.
    “Momma, he is not a Yankee.” In Henryetta, being a Yankee was a serious offense, the term synonymous with liars, thieves, and murderers. And not necessarily in that order.
    “Mildred said she heard he was from Missoura. That right there makes him a Yankee. Besides, it don’t matter where’s he’s from, he ain’t from around here.”
    There lay the actual problem. He wasn’t from around here, which meant no one knew anything about his family. In this neck of the woods, the deeper the roots of your family tree, the higher your social esteem. My neighbor was a sapling transplanted into a prehistoric forest. It amazed me that he lasted this long.
    “People move around nowadays, Momma.”
    She harrumphed again. “Not in Henryetta they don’t.”
    The sound of the television rose, competing with the buzz of the mower. I tried my best to ignore both while I finished making dinner. My mind wandered to my vision earlier. Violet and her children had been a great distraction but with the company of just myself, my thoughts presented themselves like unwelcome houseguests. I’d never seen something really bad before, and the fact that it was about me scared the stuffing out of me. But I also realized my visions didn’t always come true. I’d never met Daniel Crocker before today. Why on earth would he want to murder me? People ignored me, mocked me, and even gossiped about me, but murder me?
    The best thing I could do was just forget about it.