There’s no stopping Liv once she sets her mind to something. Today it’s visiting the old wishing well at the top of Harper Hill.
It’s Nina’s fault, of course. She should know better, but she usually doesn’t and at lunch she confessed to having had a dream about the well. I didn’t get the details, but Liv did. Her eyes lit up, and that was the end of it. Instead of an after school trip to the mall, we’re out on a nature hike in search of wishes. I don’t believe in wishes, so this is basically a giant waste of a Friday afternoon.
We’re not supposed to go there. Not since that boy fell in and died however many years ago, but Liv gets off on the rush of doing things she shouldn’t. She likes to flirt with the idea of having a bad girl reputation. But not like smoking or having sex bad. Rebellion lite, she calls it. Bad enough. That’s how I know this is more about her than Nina.
It’s always about Liv.
She’s out ahead of me, moving way too fast up the steep path. My gum is hard as a rock, my nose is starting to run, and my feet are numb. If I’d known we’d be spending our afternoon mountain climbing, I definitely would not have chosen the three inch heel, knee boots.
“This better be worth it,” I yell, but Liv only waves her hand in the air.
Nina turns, always the peacemaker, and mouths, “Sorry.” It doesn’t really matter if she is or isn’t, we’re still clawing our way up an invisible path to visit a wishing well she saw in her dream.
I never would have come alone.
The woods are cold and quiet. I hear the wind tossing pine needles overhead, but the trees are old and tall. Nothing stirs around us except our own breath. Three continuous streams of white clouds. The sound of our steps is all there is and it’s as if we are all there is.
“I see it!” Liv sings, victorious, and moves more quickly than before.
“’bout freaking time,” Maddy mutters, but I know she’s just as curious as we are. Sullen is sort of a lifestyle for her.
A tremor passes over my shoulders; cold, fear or excitement, I’m not sure which, but I shove my hands into the pocket of my hoodie and jog behind her.
In my dream, everything was grey. The well was little more than a low piling of slate stones with holes around the lip where the wrought iron grate had been torn away. It was too deep to see any way, but the smell of it hovered just around the opening.
There were no words in the dream. It was just me and the well and the overwhelming sense that I needed to come. When I woke, I knew what my wish would be.
“No wonder that kid died,” Liv says, her voice loud as a wolf’s cry in the silence around us.
“Jesus.” Maddy rests her hands on her knees. I’m not sure if she’s talking about the well or the hike.
“Don’t be dramatic.” Liv moves right up to the edge of the well and leans over as casually as if she were considering a pair of satin pumps. “Is this how it looked in your dream, Nina?”
It is exactly as it looked in my dream, but that seems strange to say. I shrug. “Yeah, I mean, mostly.”
There’s nothing in that well but black. The bottom could be ten or one hundred feet below me and it would look the same to me: a solid plane of nothing. I’m pretty sure any dream involving this place wasn’t so much a dream as it was a nightmare, but Nina has a way with understatement the way Maddy has a way with black eyeliner.
I hold my hands out to the side and step up onto the crumbling stone lip. Nina gasps and Maddy mutters something under her breath. They’re both jealous in their own ways. Neither of them is fond of taking risks. That’s why they like me; I take risks for the three of us.
One pass around the crumbling well is enough to keep my rep solid. As I leap to the ground, pebbles roll beneath my boot and I slip. Just a little, and I land safe and sound, but Nina gasps again, playing to her strengths.
“What the hell are we doing here, anyway?” Maddy does her best to appear uninterested in her surroundings.
“Wishing. What else are creepy, old wells for?” Nina’s wandering toward the old wrought iron grate, as oblivious of my little digs as always. “Right, Nina?”
“Oh, um.” She turns and crosses back toward us. Her eyes are wide and as grey as her hoodie. “Right.”
I’m not convinced there’s any more magic in this well than there is in the sole of my boot. It was just a dream and not even my dream, but there’s no way I’ll have come all this way and not make a wish. Better to try than regret.
“Offerings ready?” Nina nods, Maddy shrugs, and I pull mine from my pocket. “Then wish if you’ve got ‘em.”
My quarter flies first. Nina carefully drops a silver charm she’s pulled from the trite little bracelet she’s worn for years. And Maddy, not to be out done, blows in her gum.
FOUR DAYS LATER
I haven’t slept more than an hour since the day we went to that stupid wishing well. The nightmares won’t stop. I even tried staying home from school yesterday. I thought maybe I could sleep during the day but the nightmares were still there, and this time I was home alone.
So today it’s back to school. I’m so tired I actually wore sweatpants. In public.
When I walk up to Nina at her locker, she doesn’t recognize my makeup-free face. The surprised - but still friendly - expression she wears for the stranger approaching her shifts into recognition, and then concern as she realizes it’s me and I look like crap.
Worry lines form between her eyebrows. “Hey, Maddy. You still sick?”
I nod and even that feels like a monumental effort. “Yeah.”
Nina’s lips turn down in her pity pout. I must really look bad. She usually saves that for homeless people and the kids that get shoved into lockers at lunch. “Well, you weren’t really dressed for the weather when we went up to the well.”
“I know,” I say, and try to keep the anger out of my voice. It wasn’t her idea to go up there, it was Liv’s. And I could’ve said no, but I didn’t. It’s hard to believe it was only last Friday that we hiked up Harper Hill and my biggest concern was making sure I didn't fall and get my favorite skirt dirty.
This is what I get for mocking the wishing well, I guess. For spitting in it and thinking sarcastically, I wish I could get out of this place.
I don’t believe in wishes. That’s what I keep telling myself. But it’s starting to feel like the wishing well believes in me.
In the dreams, the well calls me. Not with words, but like, this feeling. And I know I have to go back. The only way to get the nightmares to stop is to go back. But I don’t want to go back. Because I understand now.
That boy didn’t fall into the well. He jumped.
I’m starting to wonder if I did the right thing.
Maddy’s eyes are so haunted. They look around, but they’re not seeing anything in the hallway. They’re focused on some other place and it’s scaring me because Maddy’s usually the one noticing everything. She spots the latest gossip as it’s happening.
I did what it wanted. I gave the well something that mattered. Something that mattered a lot. Even now my fingers reach absently for the little bird and I miss it. It’s like I threw a tiny piece of my heart away.
Maddy grabs my arm and I jump. Her grip is so tight it pinches. “What happened in your dream? The one about the well?”
I want to ask Maddy what she wished for, but then she would ask me and I can’t tell her. I can’t tell anyone, ever. Instead, I bend the truth. “My dream? That was days ago. I don’t really remember.”
“Nina,” Maddy leans close and stares me down. “I really need to know.”
The cacophony of noise in the hallway comes to a dead stop and I’m saved. The silence can only mean one thing. Liv is here. Maddy’s head jerks up in surprise. All around the hall, heads are swiveling, the conversations gradually picking back up as Liv makes her way through the crowd.
Maddy’s grip on my arm relaxes. “What’s going on?”
Liv approaches in sunglasses and a scarf tied around her head like some fifties movie star. Even as the boys laugh, and the words bitch and whore are tossed at her she holds her head high.
I sigh. “You missed a lot yesterday.”
I should’ve gone to the well alone.
Whoever said “be careful what you wish for” got it wrong. It’s not what you wish that matters, it’s how. Be specific. That’s rule number one. Watch your word choices; semantics count.
I thought being infamous would be cool. Like, badass. But it turns out the difference between being famous and being infamous is way bigger than I thought. Like, famous is being loved and admired. Infamous is having all your dirty little secrets exposed and being hated for them.
I should’ve said what I wanted to be infamous for instead of leaving it up to fate.
Nina is at my locker with some girl when I get there. They’re ripping off paper that’s been taped to the door so I won't have to see it, but it’s pointless. It’s not like I haven’t seen the photos before. The whole school has. And my parents. And the police.
Apparently the girl with Nina is the only person alive who hasn’t seen them because she’s staring at the picture in her hand with her mouth wide open. “Liv? Is that you?”
It takes me a minute to realize the strange, scruffy girl with Nina is Maddy. Wow. If I wasn’t going through my own personal hell, I might be worried about her. She looks like crap.
I swear the whole hallway hushes, waiting to see if I’m going to claim those photos. “It’s not a very good shot of my face is it?” I say, and force a grin. “At least my boobs look good.”
Nina frowns. So disappointed in me, I’m sure. Maddy just looks confused. Some jerk from the basketball team slams his fist into the locker next to my head, startling us all. “Nice job, whore.”
I’m so mad I want to punch him in the face, but I channel my inner Marilyn Monroe and keep my composure. “No one told Jake to send those pictures to the whole school.”
It’s not my fault Jake “accidentally” sexted the whole school – including the principal. Those photos were just for him. It’s not my fault he got kicked off the basketball team. It’s not my fault we both have to go to court now.
That freaking wishing well did it. And I’m going to make sure it undoes it too.
I’m actually starting to see the appeal of sweatpants and sneakers. The hike up Harper Hill is much easier today than it was in heels. By the time I get to the well, I’m pretty calm. I’m not annoyed like I was before, back when I thought it was all hocus pocus and a waste of a Friday afternoon. I won’t waste it today. I'm not even sure what I'm doing here. I just know that I'm tired. I am so freaking tired, and I just want this to end.
The wind blows and I wrap my arms around myself. “Jesus, it’s cold.” As soon as I say it, I get that feeling. The one I’ve been dreaming about. It’s telling me that it would be warmer inside the well where there’s no wind.
My skin creeps with the feeling like someone is watching me. I scan the clearing. The old grate sits up against a tree. A crow caws from up in the branches above. But there’s nobody here but me. Me and the well.
I pull cold air in through my nose, and the smell hits me. I remember it from the first day we came up here, but it wasn’t nearly this strong. I don’t have to wonder where it’s coming from. Or what it means. I step up closer and peek down into the blackness.
When I walk into the cafeteria at lunch, I spot Liv right away. She’s not at our usual table, where Jake and the rest of the team sit, but at a table in the back. Her face is turned toward the wall, pretending not to hear the whispers. Even if she couldn’t hear them, every eye is on her, and nobody is making it subtle. How could I let this happen?
I scan the line to the concession stand for Maddy but she’s not there. I know she’d never eat a regular school lunch, but I check that line too. There’s no sign of her. I can’t even think about food, not with everything that’s going on in my head. I go straight to Liv and slide into a seat beside her. “Hey.”
“What’s up, chica?” she says without looking up. “You seen Maddy?”
I shake my head. “Not since this morning.”
“Huh. Hey, did she tell you what she wished for?”
I shake my head again. A knot forms in my stomach and I turn away from her, hoping she stops there. But I know she won’t. Liv can’t let things go.
“What did you wish for?” she asks. I tense up. I can’t answer that question. All of that happened before Liv and Maddy. It was a different life. Besides, Liv’s wish could be pure coincidence. And Maddy might really be sick. I try to make myself believe that, but at the same time some small part of me hopes it’s real.
Nina pulls her shoulders in and turns away from me. I think I deserve to know what she wished for. After all, I only made my wish because of her. Everyone in this room is staring at me like I have TRAMP stamped on my forehead. She owes me. “Well?”
“Your wish. What was it?”
“Oh. It was nothing. Kid’s stuff. Just for fun.” She looks around the room, everywhere but at me. “I’m worried about Maddy. Where is she?”
“She probably went home. She looked like death.” But Nina and I both know that’s not where Maddy went. As soon as this day is over and not everyone is staring at me, I’m going too. This time, I’ll be specific. No way am I going out like this.
It’s quiet in the woods. There’s no sign that Maddy will be at the well, but I keep hoping I’ll see her when I get there, or that she really does have a cold and she never went at all. No matter how much I want my wish to come true it can’t. Not like this.
I reach for the little bird on my bracelet, only to find the empty ring, which opens up the empty part of my heart. When he gave it to me, we were only kids, but I knew he meant it. It makes me think of you, Nina. I can still hear his voice. And I can still see the haunted look in his eyes the last time I saw him. The same one Maddy wore this morning. His smile coated with the same false sense of pride I saw in Liv today. What happened to him was my fault, and I won’t let it happen again. I can’t.
I quicken my pace and push through the last of the trees and I spill out into the clearing. There’s a figure by the well, but it’s not Maddy.
He turns to me and smiles. He looks the same as in my dream, the same as I remember; deep brown eyes and dark hair that’s neither black nor brown, but somewhere in between. He was thirteen when it happened, and he still looks it, except for something reflected in his eyes that makes him look older. Only his wet clothes and the smell of his damp skin give away where he’s been.
Luke holds out his fist. He unfolds his fingers, and in his palm rests my charm.
*Photo by Robyn's Nest via Flickr Creative Commons