The day Liz discovered the pipe was a bad one from the start. First, she overslept and was late for school. Second, her nemesis Alana was wearing the same grey and pink sweater as her as if she’d spied on Liz when she ordered it three days ago. Third, and this was the worst, Liz got a B- on a psychology paper she had been really excited about. Apparently, her teacher had not been as excited about the result of her excitement.
Liz stomped out of the school building for lunch break hating the whole world in general and everyone in it specifically, including cute and fluffy animals. She went around to the back entrance, out through the open gate and into the sparse forest covering this side of a hill that created the false impression the school was secluded and outside the city, which it wasn’t.
It was here that Liz discovered the pipe although “stumbled upon” would be a more accurate description of the event. Liz was climbing up the hill with the intention to spend her lunch break on its other side, where someone had long ago made something like a shelter for bored students consisting of three milk crates in bare spot of land under the shadow of a uncharacteristically old and large oak. And an aluminium ashtray that nobody ever stole. Sometimes Liz came here with a couple of friends but most often she came on her own to be alone and hate everyone in peace.
As she climbed, her right foot caught on something under the thick carpet of old leaves of various origins and Liz added a fourth entry to her list of shitty things happening to her today when she fell on her knees and hands. It didn’t really hurt thanks to the leaf carpet but Liz did get dirt on her hands and jeans. Determined to get back at the offending whatever it was she dug into the leaves to see what had tripped her.
It was metal, it jutted out of the ground just enough to trip the careless walker and it was curved. Liz dug deeper and revealed a larger part of the thing that now looked decidedly tubular. Liz got up and kicked it. The thick thud and slight tremble that followed added fuel to her annoyance. The kick also dislodged a heap of leaves about a foot from where Liz stood revealing the mouth of the pipe, as if Liz had needed a confirmation it was a pipe.
It wasn’t a small pipe, either. Its diameter was about half a foot, which Liz established by lowering herself on her belly, no longer bothered about the state of her jeans – or the new sweater for that matter – too curious to see what was inside for reasons she could not explain even if someone pressed a gun to her head and asked for these reasons in a no-nonsense tone.
She peered into the darkness, which smelled faintly of… chicken salad. Liz jerked her head back when her nose rejected the expectations she had, which had been along the lines of more dry and rotting leaves, mould, and possibly a decomposing dead animal. She peered in again and sniffed deliberately. Yep. Chicken salad. With extra onion, just the way Liz liked it.
“What the hell?” Liz murmured under her breath. She sniffed again and her mouth watered. Now there was another smell under the rich chicken, mayonnaise, and onion aroma. Raspberry jam. Liz sniffed again to make sure she had smelled it correctly, unaware her head now almost touched the not too clean edges of the pipe. She inched forward and her right cheek scraped against the edge of the pipe. The smells disappeared abruptly, replaced by a rush of wind from the inside of the pipe. Liz drew back and this time stayed back as the wind blew in her face, intensifying as if someone somewhere deep in the pipe was turning up a dial.
Liz first sat on her haunches, squinting against the wind, and then figured she could remove herself from the stream of rushing air by crawling away. Instead of just crawling, however, she threw herself to the left when the pipe spewed a billow of black smoke.
“This can’t be happening,” Liz whispered, flat on the ground, when the smoke thickened and began whirling like a miniature tornado. Liz slid back, dragging her clean jeansed ass through the rotting leaves, her legs too weak for running. She had time to wonder if the stains would wash off before all thoughts scattered in search for a place to hide when the smoke began shaping itself into a woman.
She wasn’t particularly tall, this woman, nor was she particularly beautiful, her nose a little too long for her heart-shaped face and her eyes a little too far apart and not round enough to cover Liz’s requirements for beauty. That was as far as Liz got ticking off attractiveness criteria before a tightness in her chest reminded her she also had to breathe. She closed her gaping mouth and breathed in.
A question begged for her attention and this question was who had slipped her drugs in her coffee but since the answer would have to be one of her parents and they weren’t into drugs, the question was summarily dismissed and Liz continued gaping.
“Right,” the woman said and looked around, patting her ragged long black dress to remove a few dry leaves the tornado had scooped up. “Where the hell is this?”
Liz still gaped. She had got really good at gaping in under a minute. She could do it forever or at least until her mouth got so dry she’d need to close her mouth. The woman finally looked at her and frowned.
“Did you summon me?” The incredulity was probably offensive but Liz was in no shape to take offence. She first nodded and then shook her head. The woman’s eyebrows flickered up and down. “Which is it?”
“I, I, I just looked in that pipe,” Liz said, amazed her voice was willing to go through all the trouble of making an appearance. She pointed to the opening of the pipe to support her words with evidence the pipe existed.
The woman closed her eyes, sighed and opened them.
“And part of your body touched the sides, right?”
“My… cheek,” Liz admitted. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to summon anyone. I’ll just go, no harm done.” She tried to stand up but her legs were still wobbly so she stayed where she was.
“That’s okay. It happens,” the woman said with a voice that suggested it was not okay, it has never been okay and it never will be but it will continue happening because Someone Somewhere Had Not Done Their Job. “Just tell me what your wish is, I’ll grant it and then we’ll go our separate ways. I’m too busy for this… this.”
Liz did what she now excelled at: she gaped. This caused another exasperated sigh from the woman, now supported by her pinching the base of her nose.
“OK, let’s get this out of the way. I’m not a genie. Alright? But I do grant wishes. One per client, no more. Alright? And you have fifteen minutes to come up with one because I can’t hang around all day. I’ve got other things to do, too.”
“What things?” Liz heard herself say and flinched. She hadn’t meant to say this but curiosity had got the better of her. “I’m sorry, you don’t need to tell me.”
“I wasn’t going to. Suffice to say there are more important things in the world than granting a wish to a… how old are you?”
“Sixteen next month.”
“To a sixteen-year-old who doesn’t know not to touch dirty old pipes.”
Liz flushed with equal dozes of embarrassment and anger.
“I didn’t do it on purpose.”
“Whatever.” The woman crossed her arms. “What is your wish, child?”
“Whatever.” The woman glared at her and Liz drew back. “Your wish?”
“I, I don’t know.” All the things she wanted rushed through the door of possibility at the same time and got stuck because there were so many of them. Rewind the day so she can set it right. Rewrite the paper. Have someone beat up Alana and tear her sweater into little pieces. Have Owen ask her out. Lose two pounds. Make all chocolate in the world vanish because it gave her spots. No, that would be too cruel. Make all oil disappear. Yeah, this was a good one. Good for the whole world. But what would she gain out of it? Nothing much. No one would even know it was her. Something else then.
“Did I mention I didn’t have all day?” the woman said. She had started tapping her foot on the leaves and they rustled, distracting Liz from her increasingly global wishes.
“I’m trying,” she said and then out of the tangle at the door of her attention one idea tore away and came in at a rush. “I’d really like a chicken salad sandwich and a raspberry jam cheesecake,” she blurted out without thinking.
“Done!” the woman said and snapped her fingers. She disappeared without a cloud of smoke and what appeared next to Liz’s right hand was a plastic tray containing a foot-long baguette stuffed with chicken salad and a fat slice of raspberry cheesecake on a porcelain plate with a silver fork in it.
“Um… thanks?” Liz called to the empty air where the woman had stood. She touched the baguette gingerly. It was real. So was the cheesecake which she established by cutting a tiny piece from the top and tasting it. Liz was starving. She kicked away all the whys and whats and hows, and dug into her sandwich.
Deep inside the pipe a gust of wind blew away from the opening behind Liz’s school. It turned down another, deeper, pipe, then another and another until it blew out in a small cave deep underground. The woman that materialized now was a lot smaller.
“I’m not going back there,” she announced to the man sitting in a wooden chair with a book in hand. He raised his bald bespectacled head. “Next time one of those idiots rubs the pipe you’re going and that’s that.”
She stormed off to the small table next to the man’s chair and poured some red liquid from a teapot into a cup. She emptied it in one go.
“I swear, Henry, they’re getting worse. Once, they took a stab at abstract crap like world peace and all that, and now I think that was better. The wishes that girl had!” The woman shook her head. “I’m better off with the beetroots and the potatoes, I tell you.”
Henry set the open book on his leg and reached out to pat the woman’s hand.
“I’ll go next time,” he said with a voice that sounded like treacle dripping from a jar. “They’ll never see me coming.”
“Thank you, Henry,” the woman said. She leaned over and kissed the top of his head. “You’re a dear.”
“Anything for you, Veronica,” he said. “Now, for dinner…”
A bell chiming interrupted Henry. Veronica frowned, deep in thought.
“That’s in Belgium. Ghent.” She clapped Henry on the fleshy shoulder. “Well, off you go, brother. I wish you a better luck than I had.”
“I’ll make a quick business of it,” Henry said, raising his body from the chair slowly. “I made lark stew for dinner.”
His eyes flashed violet for a second and then he was a gust of wind racing through the pipes higher and higher. Veronica sat in the chair and took the book. “133 Recipes for Disaster” the cover said. She grinned and started reading.