My previous entry “Fellow Prisoners” won its group in the 3rd round of the NYC Midnight Flash Fiction Challenge, “a competition that challenges writers around the world to create short stories (1,000 words max.) based on genre, location, and object assignments in 48 hours.” This meant I would be one of 60 writers moving into the final round of the challenge, from a starting field of 3000-ish.
For the fourth and final assignment I was given open genre, a mobile home and a wrapped gift. I wrote this story quickly, promptly freaked out and wrote a completely different story, and proceeded to edit both while tearing my hair out. At some blessed moment mere hours from deadline, I decided on this one.
It’s not a new story. You find yourself in reduced circumstances and so you reduce, and things get smaller and smaller until you’ve whittled life down to nothing but a crummy mobile home in a crummier trailer park, with the only end in sight the tiny dot of your future. Like looking through the wrong side of a telescope.
And then, one day, you are presented with a gift. A literal gift, as in an actual box absurdly trussed in red metallic wrapping paper, with so many ribbons they threaten to start their own gift-wrapped nation. But it’s here I should drop the pretense, because it’s not you I’m talking about, it’s me. And I’m not sure this gift fits my grandma’s definition, which is a boon, or a small miracle. Then again, any gift from my grandma was technically free but came with the cost of small sighs of disappointment if adequate gratitude was not expressed. I think it might be that kind of gift.
Before the package showed up, Nancy Eaton was lodging complaints as usual, and I was taking them, because not only do I live at the mobile home park, I’m the on-site manager so I can get the cheaper rent.
“Them people next door are too quiet. I don’t like it. I think they’re plotting something.”
“Nancy, last week you took issue with the Rodriguez family hosting a quinceañera and being too loud. Quiet is good, right?”
Nancy regards me with deep suspicion. I wonder if her face has ever held anything but that single sour expression, foisted on me a dozen times a day because the park owner considers her a good tenant.
“You’ve got to stick up for them because you’ve got Latin blood. Name like Nina.”
“I’ve told you before. Nina was my grandmother’s name. She was Swedish.”
Nancy walks off with a grunt of disgust, and in it is all the things I hear her say to her cadaverous husband every time I walk by. Divorced. Thinks she’s something. This is what I’ve been reduced to since my husband left me for his personal trainer: mean girl drama with a trailer park crone. It’s not often I’m glad my grandmother is dead, but I never would’ve wanted her to see me like this, fumbling to pick up the scraps of life other people have left on the floor.
An hour later I see a hunched form at the bottom of the step-down, and I figure it’s Nancy, waiting to take another chunk out of me. But when I open the door, there’s only this elaborately wrapped box waiting for me. I walk down the three tiny steps, look left and right, but nobody is in sight. Sometimes when the mailman runs out of steam or a package is crudely labeled, he’ll just drop it off at my steps and let me deal with it. But it wasn’t the postal carrier I saw on my AstroTurf. A tag hangs from the gift, reading only For You. The handwriting is oddly anachronistic, as if it came from a time when penmanship was important. Like something my grandma would have written.
I turn over the tag and with a start I see my own name, written in the same almost fussy font, the big N with such a looping flourish it nearly overwhelms the paper. I take the box inside my trailer, shifting it from hand to hand. Lightweight, nothing clacking or rattling as I move it around. It appears someone gave me an empty box as a joke.
But the box is not empty; there’s a small slip of paper inside. Two wishes, it says. I try to draw out sharper mental details of the person who dropped off the package. Stooped, presumably old, and dressed in nondescript, shapeless clothing. Two wishes. I let out a dry laugh. Probably a holiday prank to instill either hope or despair. I close my eyes and imagine life before my divorce and before I came here. No trailer. No struggling. No Nancy. Especially no Nancy. There’s a loud thud outside.
Once again there’s a shapeless form, but this one is on the ground, and I know it. Nancy Eaton is lying there, completely inert and on her back, her face almost angelic in its slackness.
Three hours later, after the police clear her out and ask all their questions, I finish my last packet of ramen for dinner, turn over that piece of paper in my hands and seriously wonder if it’s possible I’ve just made a wish that came true.
You’d think I’d feel guilty that I potentially wished Nancy dead, but I don’t. She probably would have died from some old person malady sooner or later, like choking on that disgusting marshmallow and Jello salad she was always eating. The real problem is I’ve become so petty I can’t even make a proper wish. Now I’ve potentially wasted one of only two wishes killing a cranky old lady, when I could have wished to come up with an invention that made me rich and also killed cranky old ladies.
I feel something I haven’t experienced in years: power. It quickens my heart and drums the blood in my veins and even the walls of this ratty trailer are electric with it. And I won’t lie to myself or to you and pretend I’m going to use this last wish for something magnanimous. I have to squeeze every last drop out of it. My grandma used to tell me a fairytale about a fisherman who kept making bigger wishes until he finally wished to have his crummy little shack back because castles and riches didn’t make his wife happy, but I don’t think I’ll ever want to be back in this trailer. Probably the real lesson there is not to get married.
It seems the telescope is turning itself around. I just don’t know what it’ll be facing when it stops.