©2019 by Daniel Alexander

A Year and a Day

A Short Story by Daniel Alexander

The Strange Mundane - Part 1

            Lisa knew she’d entered the town limits when her car abruptly sputtered to a stop. It had been purring along without a problem just moments earlier, but the second she rounded a bend and saw the weathered street sign welcoming her to Kelley, its engine gave out and she only had barely enough time to pull it off to the side of the road before she lost momentum.

            Every year, she thought, groaning internally. This happens every damn year.

            She got out, checking the road for signs of traffic out of habit. The road into Kelley had been light on traffic since she was a child, and now that she was grown up – well, it was still lightly travelled, but for a different reason than the fact that no one had any desire to enter or leave the small town of Kelley, Maine. The people who lived there tended to spend their entire lives within the borders of their little community, and nobody from outside ever visited. Kelley wasn’t on the way to anywhere else, it had no notable people or historical significance to speak of, and even when it did appear on maps, it was more often than not misspelled as Kelly.

            Flipping up the hood of the car yielded little of interest. Lisa was not a mechanic and the most she knew about cars was that they somehow used exploding gasoline to move. Nothing looked like it was broken, though. There was no smoke coming from anything, no scorch marks, no acrid smell – no more than usual – and everything looked like it was in perfect working order. Lisa slammed the front down and walked back to the driver’s seat. Turning the key in the ignition did nothing, and so she resigned herself to calling someone for help.

            It wasn’t until she got a dial tone from her phone that she remembered the other peculiarity of entering Kelley – there was, in the most literal sense, no cell reception whatsoever. None of the people living in town even owned cell phones because of how pointless it was. Lisa was, to her knowledge, the only person from Kelley who had one, and that was just due to the fact that she did her best to spend as much time outside of the town as possible.

            “Walking,” Lisa muttered to herself. “Perfect. Exactly what I wanted to do tonight.” If Arthur were here, he’d probably crack a bad joke about needing the cardio. She had no other options, though, so with a resigned step, Lisa set off towards town.

            It started to rain as Lisa walked. She almost didn’t notice, but a drop hit her square on the nose and she wiped it off. It wasn’t a downpour by any means – just a few droplets here and there, falling from the gray sky above. Lisa remembered enjoying similar evenings as a child. It had always felt as if something big was about to happen on such nights, something exciting and unusual.

            “Hello.” The man walking beside Lisa seemed to have simply appeared out thin air. He had certainly not been there a moment ago, but now he was striding along next to her, keeping perfect pace with her own footsteps.

            Lisa didn’t look at the man. “Go away,” she said.

            The man chuckled. “That seems like a rather rude way to greet an old friend,” he said.

            “We are not friends.”

            “Does that make us enemies? I’ve been told I’m a positively scintillating enemy.”

            “Shut up. Go away. I don’t want to talk to you.”

            The man sighed. “Really,” he said. “After all the trouble I went to, giving us some time alone together, and you won’t even look at me? Annalisa, darling . . .”

            Lisa stopped, and the man, somehow, stopped at exactly the same moment. “My car.”

            “Hmm? Ah, yes the metal chariot. Not the most elegant method of transportation, but I suppose it has its perks.”

            Lisa groaned and turned to the man. He was already facing her, grinning. He wore a dark suit over a dark shirt with no tie. Wisps of shadow seeped from the edges of his clothes, as if a breeze were blowing across his skin. His face could have been anyone’s face – young, old, beautiful, ugly, large, small – but his eyes burned and flickered, as if something were holding up a pair of matches in the wind.

            “You,” she said. “You broke my car.”

            The man’s grin widened. “I suppose I may have tinkered with the contraption a bit,” he said. “Is it such a wicked thing, wanting some time to speak with you alone?”

            “I’m going back to my car. When I get there, it had better be working.”

            Lisa turned back the way she’d come and the man simultaneously started walking backwards at the same pace. “You know you can’t avoid me forever,” he said. “A year and a day, dear Annalisa.”

            “If I’m not mistaken,” Lisa said, not looking at the man, “I don’t need to speak with you until I’ve decided to leave town, right?”

            “But I so enjoy our little chats—”

            “Am I right?”

            “. . . Yes. All you absolutely need to do is meet me at the stream, call my name, and make your third wish.”

            “Or I can continue not making it.”

            “Yes. Although really—”

            “Then there is no need for us to talk any longer.” Lisa turned to the man. “I will find you when it’s time for me to leave. Now will you please just go away?”

            The man bowed deeply and the light around them seemed to dim for a moment. When he straightened up, there was nothing left but an empty suit which promptly collapsed to the ground in a heap.

***

            Once upon a time there was a little girl who lived in a little house in a little town with her little family. This girl was bright and cheerful, and all who crossed her path found themselves happier simply from being around her. She always smiled to friends and strangers alike, and they would smile in return.

            This little girl also had an adventurous streak, for no matter how many times her mother and father sat her down and told her not to go into the woods, she always found herself exploring them in the evenings and on the weekends. The woods, her parents told her, were full of sprites and pixies and other mischievous creatures who would play tricks on her. She would get lost in a fairy circle or wander into some ogre’s cave, they told her, and the little girl would sit and listen and nod her head all through their lecture, but the next day always saw her venturing out into the woods once again.

            One day the girl found a river in the woods. She hadn’t known that there was a river by her little town and so this made her quite excited. Perhaps she was the first to discover the river – perhaps she would get to name it. As the girl considered what a good name for a river would be, she heard a small voice call out to her. She didn’t see anything at first but then the voice called out again and she found where it was coming from.

            A small log jutted out from the riverbank and on its edge there sat what looked to be a small wisp of smoke with two tiny glowing eyes inside it. As she watched, it spoke once more and now she was able to make out what it was saying.

            “Girl,” the wisp said. “You. Girl. I am needing your help.”

            The girl frowned. “I’m not supposed to talk to strangers,” she said. “What’s your name?”

            “Lantern Jack,” the wisp replied.

            “I’m Annalisa. But everyone just calls me Lisa.”

            “Annalisa. Your help, I am still needing. Wandering about the woods, and I was caught by Old Man of the River. He trapped me here upon a log and soon I shall wash away.”

            The girl nodded and stooped down by the river to pick up the small wisp, but she paused. “My mother and father say I shouldn’t trust fairies,” she said. “They say you’re always trying to trick people into doing bad things.”

            “Wise words, your parents have for you,” the wisp said as it slipped a little more on the log, moving closer to the river’s current. “Tricks and japes and ruses abound, but please, girl. There is danger, to me, here, and if you help me, reward you shall have. I would grant you wishes three, as Solomon’s djinn would do.”

            The girl’s frown lessened and she edged closer to the wisp. “What if I don’t want three wishes?” she asked.

            “Then you may, as you choose, allow others to wish for you. Your mother, your father, your friends, anyone you desire – but no more than three.” The wisp slipped again. A single strand of shadow held it to the log now. “Annalisa,” it said. “Now is the moment.”

            The girl nodded and reached out to the wisp. She knew what her parents would have said to her, had they been there – that it was a fairy, and she should turn away lest some ill befall her, but she could not find it within herself to do so. Besides, she thought, what terrible fate could come of helping someone in need?

            Cradling the dark wisp in her hands, the girl made her way to the riverside where she lay it down upon the soil. As soon as she removed her hands there was a puff of smoke and then a man was standing before her, dressed in a black suit and carrying a cane. She knew this was the wisp for the man’s eyes looked just the same, small flecks of embers glowing in shadows. Lantern Jack bowed to her. “My dearest Annalisa,” he said. “I thank you deeply, and I shall not forget this service. On the path you do take, when your wishes you make, then I shall be back – so says Lantern Jack.”

            The man straightened and then he was gone. The girl smiled and pulled herself from the river, then set off for home, humming a tune the whole way there.

***

            It was about to rain when Lisa parked. She could feel it in the air as she got out, in the way the wind rushed around her and in the cool tension that permeated the atmosphere. It was more than just that, though – it always rained when she came back to Kelley. That was just one more constant about the town – the bad service, the weather, even her talks with Lantern Jack were always more or less the same.

            The house in front of her looked strange to her eyes. It was familiar, and yet unknown. She could remember playing in its lawn, running through the front door, looking out from the windows on winter days and summer nights, but that all felt removed from the present. There were little things – peeling paint along the seams, a thin film of dust along the windows, the lawn that was starting to show signs of overgrowth – that set it at a distance from those memories. Lisa glanced at the sky and then hurried to the front door.

            It wasn’t locked, which she’d been expecting. Kelley was not a place where people locked their doors, even at the worst of times. What she wasn’t expecting was the small piece of paper that drifted down from the door seam as she opened it into a darkened hallway.

            Lisa stooped down and unfolded the paper. At the top, in cartoonish large print, were the words Welcome Home, Lisa! Scrawled beneath was an explanation from her dad that he’d gone to sleep early and wouldn’t be able to greet her in person, but he was looking forward to seeing her the next day. Sighing, Lisa folded the note back up and placed on the side table, then made her way quietly down the hall.

            The kitchen was sparsely furnished, with just the bare minimum to qualify as an actual kitchen – fridge, oven, and sink, with a blender sitting unused on the counter. A table with three chairs sat in the middle of the room, empty save for the salt and pepper shakers. Lisa sat down and breathed out. She felt exhausted – not from any physical exertion, though. The most strenuous thing she’d done all day had been walking back to her car after Lantern Jack’s mind games. She always felt tired after making the trip back to Kelley. It was as if the town had some soporific effect on her, making her drowsy even if she arrived in the middle of the day. She found it unpleasant.

            Lisa blinked and stood up, stretching as she checked her phone for the time – past midnight. It was a slow walk up the stairs, avoiding the ones that she knew would creak if she put too much weight on them. Then she stepped silently past her parents’ bedroom – just her father’s bedroom, really, but she never called it that, like some reflex kept her from thinking of it as anything else. Her room was at the very end of the upper hallway and only after she had shut the door behind her did she let herself relax.

            The room was the same as it had been when she’d left years ago, unchanged from the retreat of a quiet teenager with far too much time on her hands and no idea how to spend it. Artifacts from her parents’ various attempts to get her interested in a hobby of some kind were shelved neatly along the walls – art books from when they thought she liked drawing, model kits from when they decided she had a knack for miniature construction, even the tiny chemistry set that they’d gotten her for her eleventh birthday. The only thing they hadn’t tried to get her interested was anything involving the outdoors – hiking, camping, any activity that would have taken her into the woods. She spent plenty of time there already, according to them.

            Lisa sighed and shook her head to clear it. She was tired and it was late. Reflexively, she reached to her side only to realize that she hadn’t brought her suitcase in with her. It was still in the trunk of her car, with an old and creaky house separating it from her.

            Screw it, she thought. Lisa kicked off her shoes and lay down on the bed. She didn’t feel like walking through the house again and besides, she was exhausted enough to sleep in her clothes. It didn’t take long before she drifted off to sleep, eyes closing on the darkened house surrounding her.

***

            The girl rushed out of the woods and back to her home, where her mother and father were waiting for her. They were very happy to see their daughter and after hugging her, they asked where she had been. She had the most wonderful news, she said to them. In the woods she had a met a fairy – a wisp – and had saved its life. In gratitude the fairy had granted her three wishes which she could use or give away however she desired. Because the girl loved her parents, she immediately gave one wish to her mother and one wish to her father, for them to use as they pleased. Her parents thanked her but, having lived by the woods for most of their lives, wisely urged the girl to be cautious about these wishes. Fairies, after all, were known to be tricksters and rogues, and there was no telling what would come of making these wishes. The girl nodded and promised that she would only use her wish for something very, very important.

            Later that night, the girl was asleep in her bed when her mother cracked her door open very slightly, just to see her little darling peacefully dreaming away. She closed the door and leaned back against it. She had not shown it earlier when her daughter had returned from the woods, but a great worry had sprung up in her heart. She supposed it had been there since the day of the girl’s birth, but knowing that her daughter was out alone in the woods for hours on end had turned it from a small voice in the back of her head to a noise that drowned out all other noises. What if, a part of her asked. What if one day, she doesn’t come back? What if she becomes lost, or is set upon by wolves? What if some devious fairy tricks her and steals her away? What if? What if? What if?

            And so the first wish was made.

            It was not made with words, but then it did not need to be spoken to be wished. The girl’s mother knew it was made the instant she wished it – for her little girl to always, always come home safe to her.

            The next morning the girl awoke with a smile. She greeted her parents, skipped off to school, and afterwards ventured out into the woods to explore. She traipsed over streams and fallen logs, through dense brush and mossy rocks, across empty clearings and past stumps that had once been mighty trees. And, at the end of it all, still she returned home to where her mother waited for her.

            The days passed and then the years did as well. The girl grew older, as did her parents. She continued to go on adventures in the woods, although she knew most of the land surrounding the town by now. Strangely enough, she could never find the stream where she’d saved the wisp, but she did not think much of this. Still, she always returned home to where her mother waited for her.

            One day, when the girl was quite a bit older, she came home to find it empty. She tried calling her mother but could not reach her. The girl then tried her father, who, when he answered, explained that her mother had collapsed suddenly and that they were in the hospital awaiting the results of a test. And so the girl went to join them. The doctors there used many words that she did not know the meaning of, such as “pathogenesis” and “neoplastic clones,” but also many words that she did understand, such as “tumor” and “terminal.” Her father thanked the doctors and then they left the family alone. Still, the girl clung to her mother that night, and felt at home next to her.

            The girl did not remember much of the time that followed that single night, but it was not long before her mother became thin, then thinner, and then finally the light in her eyes died entirely. Then she was taken away and then she was ash and then she was in an urn and then the urn sat silently on the mantle in their house where the girl and her father would sit together without speaking.

            And still, every day, the girl always returned home to where mother waited for her.

***

            A tapping at the window woke Lisa the next morning. She sat upright and rubbed the sleep out of her eyes, yawning. She still felt tired, something she chalked up to her tendency to wake up in a start, without any warning. On rare occasion, Lisa would find herself drifting slowly out of slumber, peacefully transitioning into the waking world, but more often than not she always woke up in a single, jarring instant, as if she were being interrupted in the middle of a sentence.

            The tapping at the window continued and Lisa turned to see black cat sitting outside, batting at the glass with its paw. She stood carefully and moved closer to get a better look. Just a cat, right? Nothing else.

            The cat’s eyes flicked to Lisa and it stopped hitting the window. Lisa didn’t move, instead holding the cat’s gaze. It cocked its head to the side and then, without warning, turned and strolled leisurely off to the side and out of view. Lisa released a breath. It was just a cat. Just a normal, ordinary cat. She felt a little foolish for being so overly careful, but not very much. A cat was not always just a cat, especially in Kelley. Arthur would want to adopt it. She smiled faintly. He’d already have half a dozen names picked out, and he’d look at me with those big eyes . . . Lisa shook herself. Focus, she told herself. Just . . . just try not to think about him right now.

            Checking her phone, Lisa saw that it was just past eight in the morning, meaning that her father would certainly be up and about. If she had any luck, black cat notwithstanding, he would already be gone to his job in the local bakery. If not, well, she was going to have deal with him sooner or later. That was another constant in all her trips home – the broken car, the lack of signal, Lantern Jack’s infuriating smugness, and at least one conversation with her father.

            Lisa opened her bedroom door and another note, much like the one her father had written the previous night, fell from the crack to the floor. She picked it up and began reading: Hey, hon! I had to go into work early today – sorry we keep missing each other. I was really looking forward to seeing you again, but you sounded like you were pretty tuckered out from the trip (I can’t believe your snoring didn’t wake me up once last night!) I’ll be at the bakery all day if you want to swing by and chat. Love you! – Dad

            Lisa sighed and dropped the note. At least this meant she’d have some time to herself – time to shower, change, get something to eat, maybe even enough time to figure out what she was going to say to him when he got back home. She always found herself rehearsing some speech in her head, trying to figure out exactly what she was going to say to him, but it always fell apart within moments of real conversation.

            Getting her luggage from the car and taking a quick shower helped Lisa relax a bit. At very least she felt properly awake, even if she still didn’t feel entirely comfortable in the old house. She found herself sitting on the front porch, breathing in the cool autumn air. There were clouds on the horizon that seemed poised to descend upon the small town and drench it in torrential rain. The weather had been the same the day she’d left Kelley for the first time, as well as every time she’d returned – a storm approaching but never arriving. She would be willing to bet it was like that even when she wasn’t around.

            Lisa stood and walked away from the house, towards town. She didn’t fully know why she was doing so, but she felt a powerful to get moving, to get away from the house. Perhaps she wanted to explore her old town a bit, or see some of the people she’d used to know. Maybe you just want to leave, a voice in her head whispered. Maybe you just don’t want to be around when he gets back.

            She ignored the voice and continued walking into town.

***

            Hardly any time had passed before the girl left. She was an explorer at heart, after all, and she could feel the wider world calling to her, drawing her away from the little town. Every nook and cranny of her home had already been discovered and she yearned for something more, something exciting and exhilarating far beyond the horizon. And home held too much history, too many bad memories. She had no desire to surround herself with such things, instead seeing only the way forward.

            Clouds surrounded the town on the day her father saw her off, driving away and disappearing beyond the bend in the road without once looking back. He had not asked her to stay, although he had desperately wanted her to do so. She, in turn, had not offered to remain, despite seeing his longing in his eyes. Forward, she told herself, was the only way.

            As the girl drove through the winding streets of town on her way out, her father entered his empty house and sat before the silent ashes. He had always prided himself on being solid and dependable – a rock for those around him, someone they could turn to in times of need. But now, it seemed to him, the world was changing around him faster than he could see. It felt as if bits and pieces of himself were being worn away, until eventually there would be nothing left. As he sat there, as the girl crossed the line separating the town from rest of the world, he began to weep.

            And so the second wish was made.

            Not a word was spoken, not a sound was made, but he wished it all the same. And he knew the moment it was done – for the world around him to be still, for his life to stay simple and quiet, for things to remain the same and never change.

            And so, throughout the little town where he lived, everything stopped. People stopped aging, the weather stopped shifting, and memories stopped forming. Every day the town woke up and every night it went back to sleep and it was always the same. It could hardly even be called a town anymore, for it was more akin to a model of a town, with every person going through the same motions as they had the day before and as they would the day after.

            But for the girl’s father, all that mattered was that things were at long last quiet and still.

***

            The streets of Kelley were silent and empty in a way that Lisa would have thought was almost eerie had she not grown up walking them on a daily basis. Kelley had always a sleepy little town, full of people who wanted nothing more than to sit back and let life happen to them – and that was before she’d left town for the first time. Now there was hardly any sound, save for the occasional puttering of a car along some unseen side street, and even that faded away eventually.

            Lisa crossed the main road at a stoplight that perpetually blinked red and turned to stroll down the sidewalk. She knew each little storefront she passed – the Campbells’ arts and crafts shop, the hardware store owned by Joe Westerly, a tiny restaurant managed by the Harford family. Without even rounding the next corner, she could recall what she would find there as well – George Borowski with his outdoorsman setup, Jodie Whitehouse’s antiques store, and—

            The bakery.

            Lisa stopped on the corner. She hadn’t really been thinking about where she was going, but it wasn’t as if she had anywhere else to go but her dad’s bakery. It wasn’t actually his – someone from out of town owned it, but they never bothered to show up during operating hours, so it may as well have belonged to her father. Even the name was his – Bread, an exercise in minimalism, according to him.

            It wouldn’t hurt to stop in and see him, Lisa thought. It’s been a year. You know he misses you. She turned and peered down the street. The pink and white awning of the bakery was just visible at the very end of the block, with a table and a couple of chairs sitting outside for customers. Arthur would tell you to go in. If only for the pastries. With a little smile, Lisa walked around the corner to the bakery.

            The silver bell tingled as she entered and she was hit with the powerful smell of at least nine different kinds of baked goods. A voice from the back called out, “Just a minute!” Lisa sat down at a stool before the counter and waited.

            A few moments later, her dad walked out from the back room, his apron covered in flour and smudging a few spots on his shirt. He broke out into a massive grin. “Lisa!” he said, practically jumped over the counter as he leaned out to give her a hug. “It’s so good to see you, kiddo. I’m sorry I left before you woke this morning, but it sounded like you were pretty beat from the trip.”

            “It’s fine dad,” Lisa said, grinning back. “I know you love the bakery more than me anyway.”

            Her dad laughed. “Well, I want you to know,” he said, “if I had to choose between saving you from a fire or saving this place from a fire . . . I would absolutely save Bread because really, what have you done for me lately?”

            Lisa laughed. “It’s good to be back,” she said. “I never realize how much I miss Kelley until I’m here again, and then it all comes crashing in.”

            “It’s that small town charm – well, maybe not charm. Kelley’s got chutzpah more than charm these days, if we’re being honest. Oh! Wait right here!”

            Lisa sat patiently while her dad rushed into the back and then emerged with a tray of small bread rolls. “I’m trying out a new recipe,” he said, setting the tray down between them. “I’ve almost got it perfect, but I can’t be sure until someone unbiased helps me test it.”

            “What a coincidence,” Lisa said. “I just so happen to be getting into the baked goods quality assurance business.”

            “Oh, really?” her dad asked. “Just now, eh? So all those Christmas cookies that mysteriously disappeared when you were a kid were just, what? Training?”

            “Gotta hone the talent.”

            “Naturally, naturally.” He held the back of his hand over the tray. “Eh,” he said. “Probably still too warm, but we Kendalls like to live dangerously, isn’t that right?”

            “No other way to live.”

            Her father smiled and plucked a pair of the rolls out from the tray, handing one to Lisa. “Do actually be careful,” he said. “These are still really hot and it would look pretty bad if my own daughter sued me.”

            Lisa rolled her eyes and took the roll, making a show of taking a large bite out of it. “Ah!” she said, her eyes tearing up a bit. “Ish hot!”

            Her dad laughed. “I don’t know what you were expecting, honestly,” he said, blowing on his own roll before taking a small nibble.

            Lisa forced the bread down and blew on her own roll. “Aside from the burnt taste buds,” she said, taking another, smaller bite, “I think it’s good.”

            “Glad to know it has the Lisa Kendall stamp of approval.”

            “You know, Arthur would probably really like it, too. I’ll have to get him to try this the next time we visit.”

            Her dad frowned. “Arthur?” he said. “Who’s that?”

            Lisa dropped her bread and it fell to the floor, but she didn’t fully register it. He doesn’t remember. Well of course he doesn’t. What did you expect? “I’m sorry,” she said, standing quickly. “I – This was a mistake. I’m sorry.” She left the bakery before her father could say anything.

***

            The streets outside were still empty as Lisa walked away from the bakery. That was dumb, she thought. Dumb. Did you really think anything would be different? That he’d remember anything from last year? That he’d remember Arthur? Stupid.

            Something rubbed against her leg and Lisa looked down to see a black cat. It strolled lazily around her feet and then looked up, its green eyes staring inquisitively. “Hello there,” Lisa said, kneeling. “Were you outside my window this morning?”

            Yes, said the cat.

            Lisa blinked. “Huh,” she said. “So we have talking cats now. Lovely.”

            The cat crooked its head. You don’t seem very surprised, it said. It’s not every day I decide to talk, you know. Some appreciation wouldn’t be amiss.

            Lisa chuckled and knelt down. “I grew up in this town,” she said. “I saw fairies in the woods and nymphs in the rivers. I’ve met kobolds, pixies, and whatever the hell Lantern Jack is supposed to be, so a talking cat doesn’t seem out of the ordinary.”

            That depends on your definition of ordinary. Do you normally find yourself speaking with cats?

            “No.”

            Then this is, in fact, out of the ordinary.

            “Alright. So why are you speaking to me? Did Jack send you?”

            The cat sniffed and began walking easily down the street. No, it said. I don’t associate with Lantern Jack or others like it.

            Lisa frowned and followed after. “It?” she said. “I thought Jack was a he.”

            I’m sure it looks that way to you.

            “Fine. So Jack didn’t send you. Why are you here, then?”

            I was following a scent and it led me to you.

            “A scent? What scent?”

            Something gray and withdrawn. Can’t you smell it? It’s everywhere.

            Lisa sniffed. “I don’t smell anything,” she said, and sniffed again. “Nothing but normal town smells. Maybe some pine, from the trees in the forest? And I can kind of smell rain, but that’s just because of the rain clouds.”

            That, the cat said. That is the scent. The rain-before-the-storm. The press of the grey sky upon the earth below. And that is what I smell in this place. It’s everywhere, in every house and on every street, but mostly I smell it on you.

            “Is it the curse?” Lisa asked. “Is it the wishes my parents made?”

            The cat stopped and turned back to her. Lisa got the impression that it was frowning. No, it said. It doesn’t smell like a curse. Curses smell crooked, like rotten apples and dried corn husks. It’s something else, something different.

            “Is it Lantern Jack?”

            No. Lantern Jack and others of its kind do not have a scent. I don’t know what this is, but it comes from you.

            “Well, that’s not very helpful,” Lisa said. “What am I supposed to do now?”

            I was not trying to be helpful. I was trying to find a scent and now I have found it and now I am satisfied at having found it. The cat started trotting off.

            “Hold on,” Lisa said. “Don’t you have any advice for me? Isn’t that what you’re supposed to do, give me some kind of sage wisdom before vanishing?”

            The cat didn’t look back. I am neither sage nor wise, it said. I am a cat. Although if I were not a cat and were instead you, I would think of returning home. It is getting dark out, and many things come out at night in this town.

            Lisa frowned. “It’s not that late,” she said, getting out her phone. “It’s just—” She stopped. The time on her phone told her that it was past six in the evening. “That’s impossible,” she said. “It hasn’t been that long.” Lisa looked up to ask the cat what had happened, but it was already gone.

***

            And so the girl ventured out into the world on her own, determined to set her own path. What she found was a strange and unfamiliar place, full of unusual people with peculiar habits. Not a single person seemed to know anything about fairies or pixies or their like, and they certainly didn’t understand wishes, wisps, or exploring the unknown. What truly struck the girl, however, was that there was no forest beyond her little town. There were no trees concealing the path ahead, no hidden rivers, brooks, or streams, not even any clearings of tall grass hemmed in by the surrounding woods. It was a concrete path, bordered by glass and metal trees, fed through by streams of asphalt and surging, choking vehicles.

            Despite this, the girl stayed. She did not understand the workings of this new world she found herself thrust into, but she decided it was merely another adventure – one with cities instead of forests. So the girl found a place to live, a place to work, a place to learn, and she began her exploration of this strange place beyond her little town.

            Time passed and the girl was content with her life. She had all but forgotten about such matters as fairies and wishes until one morning, the day after the anniversary of her departure. She awoke quite suddenly from her dreams, which had been strangely lucid. She had seen a red sky with all the stars above falling in crooked lines, leaving trails of shadow in their wake. All around her, voices called her name and yet she could see no one, nothing, only the dying stars.

            The shadow was waiting for her when she sat up. It stood in the corner, making not a sound, watching her without eyes. The girl was still, unsure of what to do, and the shadow spoke.

            A year and a day, it said, lest you should stray.

            The girl rose from her bed and made her way to the door.

            From the path you now take, as you walk, as you wake.

            She left the room, but could still hear the shadows’ final words behind her, echoing within her head.

            A wish yet to choose, a game not to lose.

            There is no going back.

            So says Lantern Jack.

            The girl knew what she would do before she understood why. Perhaps it was Lantern Jack, placing the thought in her mind. Perhaps it was some instinct, deep and primal. Or perhaps she’d always know what her mother’s wish had been – for her to always come home.

            The girl packed quickly, made a few rushed phone calls to explain her sudden disappearance, and then drove all the way back to the little town she’d left a year before. It hadn’t changed at all, which at first seemed quaint to the girl, but as the weeks became months, she began to understand. A part of her found it comforting, but another, louder part warned her that this was not right, that everything was simply too mechanical, too rigid, too static. And so the girl once again decided to leave the town, but found as she made to leave that the shadow barred her way.

            A year and a day.

            She knew what had to be done. She left her things behind and ventured into the forest where she found the same river from which she had saved Lantern Jack so many years ago. The shadows on the other side gathered and the man with flickering eyes smiled back at her. “Hello, dearest Annalisa,” Lantern Jack said. “Have you come to make your final wish?”

            But the girl had seen what her parents’ wishes had wrought and wanted no part of it. “No,” she said. “I do not want my third wish.”

            Lantern Jack shook his head. “Three wishes were given,” he said. “Three wishes you will make.”

            “I will not make the third wish.”

            “Very well,” said Lantern Jack. “A year and a day, dearest Annalisa.” And he vanished into the shadows.

            The girl left the town for the second time, finding that, to her surprise, not one day had passed in the world beyond during her stay. The years went by, one after the other, and on every year, the girl made a trip back to the little town, each visit becoming shorter and shorter. Her life in the world beyond moved on as she met people, friends, even some who were more than friends. She moved to new places, explored new forests, and continued her grand adventure.

            And when a year and a day passed, she always returned home to the little town.

***

            Lisa stared at the front door. All the lights in the house seemed to be turned on, shining from every window. She took a breath and gently pushed open the door. There was no little paper fluttering down this time, just a brightly lit hallway. She could hear movement at the end, coming from behind the door to the kitchen.

            Just get it over with. Lisa took a breath and stepped inside. She swung the front door shut with more force than she’d intended, sounding a bang that echoed through the house.

            “Honey?” a muffled voice called. “Is that you? I’m in the kitchen, come on over. Got a surprise for you!”

            Lisa walked stiffly forward, propelling one leg in front of the other by force of will. She slowly opened the door to the kitchen and peered in. Standing in front of the stove was her father, apron tied around his waist, whistling as he flipped a pancake into the air and expertly caught it in the frying pan. “Hey there, Lee,” he said, craning his neck around, beaming a smile in her direction. “I figured we could have breakfast for dinner, just like we used to. I got some fresh maple syrup yesterday from the Alcotts – you remember them? – and I know it’s not blueberry season, but I froze some from spring. They’re thawing out in the fridge right now. Just have a seat, these’ll be done soon.”

            Lisa pulled out a chair and sunk down into it. Her father flipped the pancake again and slid it onto a plate. Whistling, he turned and his smile immediately dropped. “Lee?” he said. “What’s wrong? Lisa, are you okay?”

            “I’m fine.”

            “Lisa, you’re crying.”

            Lisa blinked and to her surprise felt a tear drip down her face. “Shit,” she muttered, wiping it away and rubbing her eyes. “Shit, shit, shit.”

            She heard her father set down the plate and then his hands were resting on her shoulders. “Lisa, if something’s going on, you can talk to me about it,” he said softly. “I’m here for you, no matter what.”

            “No, I – I’m fine.” Lisa sniffed and blinked hard, clearing out the last of the tears. “I’m alright. It’s over.”

            “It’s okay to feel sad, Lee. I don’t want you to feel like you have to put on a strong face for anyone. Just let yourself feel what you’re feeling.”

            Lisa shook her head and stood up, brushing his hands away. “No,” she said. “You wouldn’t understand. You just – don’t.”

            “Then help me understand, Lisa. I want to help you, if I can, but I need you to let me.”

            “I can’t. I just can’t.”

            “Come on. Let’s sit down.” Her father led her out of the kitchen, back through the hall, and into the living room. “Just tell me what’s going through your head, right now,” he said, sitting down on the couch and patting the space next to him. “Even if it hurts, or if it’s about me. I can take it, Lee.”

            Lisa hesitated, and then sat. “I just can’t do this anymore,” she said, leaning back.

            “Do what?”

            “This.” Lisa vaguely gestured around. “All of it. This town, this house, you, mom, the wishes, all of it. Honestly, I’m amazed I held up as long as I did.”

            “I’m still not sure I understand what’s going on.”

            “What were you feeling when you made your wish?” Her father was quiet. “Grief, right?” Lisa guessed. “Sadness too, probably.”

            “I felt angry,” her father said. “I felt angry and confused and just fed up with everything. I wanted to scream at the world to slow down for just a minute, to wait while I caught up. And then I made the wish and it did.”

            The room was still for a moment. “And how is that working out?” Lisa asked, almost whispering. “The town is stuck in time, no one’s growing or getting any older – hell, people don’t even realize anything’s wrong because their memories are getting twisted, too. Everyone here is trapped, including me.”

            “Come on, Lee, it isn’t that bad—”

            “I met someone,” Lisa said. “Someone nice and funny and just so much better than I thought I’d ever find.”

            “Honey, that’s wonderful! What’s their name?”

            “You met him. Last year. And you don’t even remember, do you?” Her father opened his mouth to respond, and then closed it, a confused look crossing his face. “That’s my point,” Lisa continued. “Wishes aren’t words, they’re . . . they’re something you have to feel deeply. And when you wish for something, it gets all twisted to the point where you can’t even recognize it anymore. I want to tell him I care about him too. I want to care. I want to let myself laugh and cry and feel everything that I know I should be feeling, but I can’t because if I did . . .”

            “You’d make your wish,” he father said. “The last wish.”

            Lisa nodded. “I’ve tried just flat out wishing for things,” she said. “I wish for nice weather when I wake up. I wish for green lights when I’m stuck in traffic. I wish for a burger and fries when I’m feeling hungry. I’ve said the word ‘wish’ so many times, it’s started to lose its meaning. It never works, though, because it’s not enough to just say you want something.”

            Her father nodded. “You need to feel it,” he said. “And if you feel it, then you wish it. And if you wish it, it gets ruined.”

            Lisa breathed out. “Exactly,” she said. “And then every year I have to drop everything and come back here. I have to tell people some dumb excuse for why I’m dropping off the face of the earth, I have to drive all the way out here, and I have to go through some ridiculous ritual with Lantern Jack. And the worst part is that the longer I’m here, the more I start thinking that just staying for a little while longer wouldn’t be so bad, that I could take a few weeks off, or maybe a few months, even though I know there are people out there waiting for me, depending on me. This place isn’t good for me, dad. And I don’t think it’s good for you, either.”

            “I know.” Lisa looked at her father, but he was staring straight ahead, at the urn on the mantel that held her mother’s ashes. “I think I’ve known for a while now. It’s been a long time, even if I can’t really say exactly how long, but it feels as if I just lost her yesterday. I still wake up and expect her to be around, maybe watching TV when I walk downstairs or doing a crossword in the kitchen. Every morning, I feel like I get sucker punched the moment I remember she’s gone.” He looked back to Lisa. Tears were forming in the corners of his eyes. “We should have been able to move on by now,” he said. “Both of us. But even before all this nonsense with the wishes and the town, we didn’t talk about it. You left and I never even thought to call you, to ask how you were dealing with . . . everything.”

            Lisa reached out. “It’s okay, dad,” she said. “We can talk now.”

            Her father gave a half-hearted chuckle. “But that’s the problem, isn’t it?” he said. “All of this will just get lost by tomorrow morning, and I won’t remember any of it – not really. Not the parts that matter.”

            Lisa pulled him into a hug. “I’ll fix it,” she said. “I’ll figure something out.” She felt his arms encircle her, holding tight.

            “I hope you do,” he said. “Then maybe we can talk – and I mean really talk.”

            “I think I’d like that.” Lisa rested her head on his shoulder. “Can we just stay like this for a bit, though?”

            She felt him nod. “Yeah,” he said. “Just for a bit.”

            Lisa smiled and closed her eyes.

***

            The forest was nothing like she remembered as she pushed through the underbrush. Lisa had left her father on the sofa, almost asleep as he lay there. She’d walked onto the street, turned, and then kept walking until she reached the edge of the woods. There was a full moon hanging over her, lighting the trees with strange half-shadows and an even glow that ruined her depth perception. That, coupled with the fact that nothing in the forest looked familiar anymore, made navigating her way through it nearly impossible. She continued to press on, though, and eventually she pushed out of the dense trees and found what she was looking for.

            The river looked different, whether because of time or the strange lighting or the distortions of memory she couldn’t tell, but it was definitely the same river. As she scanned the opposite bank, a shadow turned to her and almost immediately solidified into the shape of a man.

            “That was quicker than usual,” Lantern Jack remarked, perching himself delicately on the edge of the stream. “You’ve hardly spent a day back home and already you seek me out? I mean, I’m flattered by the attention, but I think—”

            “Shut up,” Lisa said. “I’m not here to listen to you prattle on. I want you to end this.”

            Jack raised an eyebrow. “I’m afraid that’s not in my power, dear Annalisa,” he said. “Do I need to you remind you? A year and a day, lest you should stray, and so on and so forth. The only way to make this end is to make the final wish, and that is something I cannot do.”

            “I don’t want my last wish.”

            “Whyever not?”

            “Why do you think? You twisted my parents’ wishes into curses, so what makes you think I’d want anything to do with a third?”

            Lantern Jack frowned. It was hard to see from across the river, but Lisa thought she saw the flickering lights in his eyes dim ever so slightly. “Curses, you say,” he said slowly. “What makes you think these are curses, Annalisa?”

            Lisa chuckled bitterly. “Oh, I don’t know,” she said. “What would you call something that forced you to return to the same place every year? Or something that trapped an entire town in time? Because I’d call those curses.”

            It’s not a curse, a voice from below said. Lisa jumped and looked down to see the cat sitting beside her, staring out across the stream.

            “What are you doing here?” she asked as she steadied herself against a tree.

            I am sitting next to the river and looking at the moonlight on the water. You are standing next to me. And it is sitting across from us and wondering why you think you have been cursed.

            “That I am,” Lantern Jack said. “Annalisa, you are not cursed, not in the slightest. I can’t imagine what would make you think such a thing.”

            “Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that your wishes have me trapped in this place,” Lisa said.

            “My wishes?” Jack said, straightening up. “My wishes? Oh, Annalisa, these aren’t my wishes – they’re yours. They’ve always been yours.”

            Lisa shook her head. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

            Jack stepped out onto the water’s surface and began walking towards her as if over solid ground. “It means a great many things, dear Annalisa,” he said. “Being your wishes, they draw life from you, and you alone. No matter who you give them to – your mother, your father – and no matter what wishes they might make, they are still fundamentally, irrevocably yours.”

            The cat rubbed up against Lisa’s leg and yawned. Your scent is everywhere in this place, it said. Not the scent of a curse or a charm or any other thing – just you.

            “Then why am I trapped by them?” Lisa asked as Jack stepped onto the riverbank beside her. “If these wishes are mine, how’d they get so twisted?”

            Jack nodded. “A town trapped in a moment and a daughter who returns to it each year,” he mused. “I would imagine it had to do with how the first two wishes were made. You gave them to your mother and father, yes?”

            “I did.”

            “And why did you do that?”

            “I wanted them to be happy. I thought having a wish would do that.”

            “You wished out of love. But then your mother made her wish out of fear, and your father made his out of grief. They may have been the ones who did the wishing, but as I said—”

            “They’re my wishes.” Lisa stared at Lantern Jack. “Why didn’t you mention this sooner?” she asked. “Why didn’t you tell me? All this time, I thought I was cursed, but you didn’t say a thing.”

            “To be honest? I didn’t know. Me, and others like me – our minds don’t follow thoughts the same way you do. You just kept coming to this river and insisting you weren’t going to make a wish, which I thought was odd, perhaps, but it never occurred to me you thought you were cursed. They’re just wishes. And you’ve been keeping them alive all this time, with all the fear and grief that entails.” Jack sighed and sat down, his feet dangling in the river. “I didn’t mean for this, Annalisa,” he said. “I know what you must think of me – that I’m some trickster who played a cruel joke on you and your family, some mischievous fairy laughing at your misfortune, but that was never my intention. You saved me that day, and I simply wanted to repay you in kind. No tricks or games – just a thank you.”

            Lisa sat down next to Lantern Jack and the cat jumped into her lap where it curled up into a ball. “So now what?” Lisa asked. “Can you undo the wishes? Change them?”

            “Sadly, that’s not how it works. I can’t interfere once the wishes have been given except to grant them. I’m afraid the only way to resolve this, dear Annalisa, is for you to make your final wish.”

            Lisa laughed. “Lovely,” she said. “I’ve spent almost my entire life deliberately trying to not wish for anything, and now I have to.” She looked down at the cat. “What about you?” she asked. “Any thoughts?”

            The cat looked up at her and blinked slowly. No, it said. I really don’t know why you keep expecting me to help you with any of this.

            “You’re a talking cat.”

            All cats are talking cats. We just don’t usually talk to humans for reasons I am reminded of every time you speak.

            Lisa frowned. “What reasons are those?” she asked.

            You always insist on complications, the cat said. We occasionally try to simplify things for you, but that tends to be a tiring and futile effort. Take this business with the wishes, for instance – all you need do is make your final wish, and be done with it. But you will not allow it to be as easy as that, and so you try to twist things into a more familiar shape.

            “Really? So if you were me, what would you wish for?”

            I would not wish for anything, the cat said. I am a cat, and cats pursue what we wish for. And now, I think, I am done talking. The cat jumped off of Lisa’s lap and strolled into the forest, vanishing quickly into the shadows.

            “Well that wasn’t very helpful,” Lisa said.

            Lantern Jack grinned. “Cats are not typically known to be the helpful sort,” he said. “I think that’s why I like them.” He turned to her, the embers in his eyes glowing softly. “Annalisa,” he said. “If you don’t want to make a wish right this instant, that’s alright. You can go away and come back, a year and a day from now. We’ll go through all the motions again – the shadow, the rhyme, this moment here on the river. You don’t need to make your wish, not until you want to.”

            “But I do need to,” Lisa said. “And I finally think I’m ready.”

            “Very well. In that case . . .” Lantern Jack stood and was suddenly standing on the opposite side of the river again. Lisa stood as he bowed and shadows began to seep ever faster from the seams of his suit. “Annalisa Kendall,” Lantern Jack said. “A year and a day has passed again, and a year and a day will pass once more. Two wishes have been made, one yet remains. Shall you make your last wish, or will you leave it unspoken?”

            “I will make my last wish,” Lisa said.

            “Then speak, dear Annalisa – what do you wish?”

***

            The sky was dark and gray when the girl awoke. The clouds that had surrounded the little town for so long were now spread above her, rumbling lightly as they warned of the storm to come. The girl smiled as she looked out her window, imagining how the quiet town would respond to the sudden torrent that was about to assail it.

            Her father was in the kitchen when the girl went downstairs. He smiled as she entered and they embraced, years of unspoken words dissolving silently. Her suitcase sat in the corner, a reminder that she would be going away again, and yet her father found that he felt differently this time. No longer did he want his daughter to stay with him, but rather he found himself overcome with the urge to follow her as she ventured out into the world. He decided that perhaps one day he would, once he had done everything he needed to do within the little town.

            The girl and her father had breakfast – reheated pancakes from the previous night, but they didn’t mind, so long as shared the meal together. Then they were done all too soon and the girl stood. It was time for her to leave.

            Her car started almost immediately and she pulled away from the little house as her father waved to her from the porch. It may have been a trick of the light, but the girl was certain she saw the faintest wisp of shadow on the wind, with two flecks of light that winked at her as it passed. With a slight grin, she drove away, not looking back.

            The girl felt better than she had in fifteen years as she drove through the little town that was just beginning to wake up. Around her, she could see people on the sidewalks blinking their eyes and yawning. Some of them looked up at the sky in surprise and hurriedly made their way indoors to avoid the rain that was surely coming. The girl smiled as she drove out of the town, through the woods, and over the thin line separating her from the rest of the world. She would return to the town and her father, one day – but not in a year and a day. She would choose when, and maybe she would even bring another along with her. As the first drops of rain began to fall, the girl laughed with joy, for she knew she was at last free to go into the world and simply be as she wished to be.

            And so the final wish was made.