by Sarah Abbott
When I blew on the dandelion, I didn’t expect for anything to happen. And I only wished for every wish in the world to come true because I was stuck on a horrible second date.
I know, I know, I never should have given that guy another chance. It’s not okay to talk about yourself for two hours straight even if you won the Nobel Peace Prize, and he’d only won third place in a bodybuilding competition. He did have great biceps, and I needed a date for my sister’s wedding in May (any wedding’s a nightmare when you’re a single woman nearing your thirties, but you just can’t watch your baby sister get married without a plus one). With those biceps, I figured at least I’d get some great sex before he and I parted ways.
Basically, my pride and libido ended the world as we knew it. Sorry.
On our second date, he took me on a picnic, which was kind of cute except I’m allergic to anything that grows—flowers, trees, grass—so I sneezed my head off while he ate all the strawberries. I did manage to gulp three glasses of champagne between sneezing fits; I had my priorities. When he stuck a dandelion beneath my nose and said “make a wish,” I couldn’t help it. I sneezed, and the white seeds floated away and melted into the ground like snowflakes.
He said, “I wished for you and me to end up together.”
My eyes itched so much, I could barely open them. “That’s nice.”
“What did you wish for?”
I hadn’t made a wish at all, but that didn’t seem like an acceptable answer, so I went the Miss America route. I said, “I wished for everyone’s wishes to come true.”
And like I told the police and FBI and Congress and United Nations, I don’t know how or why it happened. I don’t know why the seeds grew with my wish and not with his. Maybe because I’m the one who blew them away. Maybe snot’s the catalyst for dandelion magic.
If only the seeds had listened to him, we would’ve gotten married. I would’ve watched his biceps shrink and turn to fat and sag with extra skin when we got old. And maybe we would’ve hated each other—he didn’t say we would end up together and happy, and the whole world knows by now how specific you have to be with wishes—and our children would’ve been scarred for life by our dysfunctional relationship. In other words, we would’ve been normal.
But the seeds didn’t listen to him.
“Excuse me,” I say to my Buddy, “would you mind kneeling for a bit?”
She glances at the muddy ground. “Oh, I don’t think I can. These are my favorite pants.”
“Okay, sorry.” My butt bumps hers. The cord linked through our belt loops goes taut.
Lights cordon off the perimeter of the field, as bright as a football stadium. When you don’t need to sleep, time loses meaning, but it’s around one a.m. My own shadow seems to shrink and fade as I kneel. Dandelions rise everywhere like little suns. I dig my spade beneath the nearest yellow weed and dump it into my bucket. One down, approximately a million to go. The president thinks that if we pull every dandelion in this area, maybe we’ll kill the original seeds that I blew. Maybe then the magic will go away.
I admire his optimism. The magic has a mind of its own, or at least a survival instinct. For every weed I dig out, three more take its place the next morning. Fire won’t catch anywhere near the field; if you want to smoke, you have to walk half a mile down the road. Pesticides got us nowhere. The president has a bomb in his back pocket, but he keeps stalling on the drop date. Bad PR, he says. Between you and me? I think he’s afraid the magic will soak up the radiation and get superpowered like the Hulk.
Someone shouts for help on the perimeter, and seven index fingers point to a middle-aged man standing underneath one of the lights. His mouth moves. The man’s Buddy plucks the dandelion stem from his hand. An Unwisher sprints over in a yellow jumpsuit, stripping duct tape off a roll. She slaps it onto his mouth. She cuffs him, unlinks him from the Buddy, and calls over a pair of volunteers—all very textbook. The Buddy joins them, which should make going to the bathroom even more complicated than normal for the trio, but what can you do?
I shake my head and keep digging. They assign new volunteers to the edges so the Unwishers can reach them faster; that way, even if the crazies do get a wish off, it’s only one wish. One shot before the Unwishers haul them off to jail. They’d better make it good.
My Buddy adjusts her cat-eye glasses. “You have to admit, it’s tempting.”
I dig another dandelion out. “Don’t even think about it.”
“I’m just saying.” She crosses her arms. “You get to make wishes every day.”
“Not every day.” Twice a week—maybe three times, if the Wish Committee is especially indecisive—I appear on World News and make government-sanctioned wishes. The anti-regulation camp thinks I’m a sellout, even though I never asked to be the Genie. My Buddy is ticking inside. I can hear it. She’ll have tape over her mouth and cuffs on her wrists soon.
I don’t know her name. We’re not allowed to share personal information with our Buddies: no names, no hometowns, no stories about your dog.
She says, “Are you really going to do this all night?”
“Feel free to grab a spade and help.” In the completed sectors, the meadow looks like the moon: brown, barren, pockmarked with tiny craters. But we never have enough people or time. We never finish by sunrise.
My pager goes off. “Lucky for you, we have an emergency. Let’s go.” I drop my supplies, stand, and start walking.
Linked as we are, she doesn’t have much choice but to follow. “What emergency?”
“I won’t know until I get there.” I’m betting it’s the typhoon near Indonesia. The UN meteorologist has been trying to get approval to stop that for a while now, but of course it’s the Wish Committee, and there’s all kinds of red tape before I can alter the natural state of things.
An Unwisher detaches from the perimeter and follows us at textbook distance away from the field. After the original Wish, the application to be an Unwisher was supposedly open to anyone with “high moral fiber and uncompromising justice,” but politicians, businessmen, whoever paid the most money—they got the job. The people on top always find a way to stay on top. We all know the Unwishers don’t have to follow the Buddy System. We all know they have sixteen hours a day to be free and alone. That whole situation is ticking louder than my Buddy, and it’s going to detonate.
My Buddy says, “Will I be on camera with you?”
She pulls a compact from her purse, opens it, and bares her teeth.
Here’s how it works. If you want to make a wish, you have to say it out loud, and not just a mumble under your breath, no funky made-up languages—it has to be audible and intelligible. Along with a survival instinct, the magic has a low tolerance for bullshit.
Right after the Wish, the bodybuilder made me go with him to the police station and explain how we’d accidentally changed the world. The right thing to do, he said, puffing out his muscled chest. Interviews on the local news turned into interviews on CNN and the BBC. The news anchors kept asking us questions about the magic like we’d done it on purpose, like we had more power than everyone else. The bodybuilder mastered the pope’s smile-and-wave for the adoring masses, though they were mostly too busy making wishes to adore him. I brushed off the makeup artists and endorsement deals and waited for the other shoe to drop.
It took longer than I expected. Thousands of people made pilgrimages to the field during the first week, and most of them even made good wishes. Global warming reversed overnight. Decade-long wars ended. Cancer disappeared. Everyone had more money in their bank accounts than they could spend, and if they didn’t have a bank account, money appeared in piles by their beds. If they didn’t have beds, money rained down on them in the streets.
Just when I started to believe I’d done something good, people figured out how to game the system. People always figure out how to game the system. They get ahead. They get even.
It became clear that we couldn’t contain the problem to one field in the Midwest, and we couldn’t contain it to blowing on dandelions. Rainbows—fair game. Eyelash on your hand? Go for it. Not even the stars were safe. The magic doesn’t have many scruples, but it is democratic.
Imagine lying in bed one second, then finding yourself tied to train tracks the next. It happened—a lot. And because the survivors couldn’t be quite sure who had wished them onto the tracks (or in front of a fast-moving bus or teetering on the edge of a skyscraper), they started wishing the same things to everyone they’d ever disliked, just to protect themselves.
In case you’ve never stopped to think about your life and everyone who might hate you, let me tell you: the list gets long. The international population took a nosedive, but that wasn’t all. A month after the Wish, piles of money stopped feeling so great. For one thing, no one went to work anymore—why would they?—and the food shortage killed off even more of us. For another, whoever made that wish clearly failed history and macroeconomics. The whole world went into a state of hyperinflation ten times worse than Germany in the twenties.
So we—and by we, I mean the United Nations, who used the bodybuilder and me to deliver the news—passed the Wishing Laws and put them into effect. We had two choices, to be fair: join the Buddy System in a major city or live in a silent commune without your tongue.
After they made us read those options aloud from the teleprompter, I returned to this stupid field because I finally had an idea. I grabbed another dandelion and blew on it and said, “I wish that no one’s wishes would come true.” The seeds landed, but nothing happened. There are two things the magic can’t or won’t do, apparently: kill people outright and turn off.
Well, scratch that—three things. It might reverse our mistakes, but it doesn’t stop us from making them. It doesn’t change who we really are. Magic can’t make us smarter, can’t make us love someone we hate, can’t fix our most broken parts.
People kept wishing despite the laws. Some thought there was no way they could be enforced. Some, like the bodybuilder, just got desperate. When they conscripted him as the Genie, I was relieved. I thought I could begin putting the pieces of my life back together—whatever that meant after the Wish—but the bodybuilder never agreed with the laws. It was a matter of time. I visited him in jail once, and of course he couldn’t talk without his tongue, but he wrote that his mother had attempted suicide again, and he’d been trying to help her with a wish and nothing had worked. He’d looked at me like I knew all of this already, like I knew him.
I have to get the world back to normal. I have to outsmart the magic, and I’ve had this idea growing in my head for a month now—but no one’s going to approve it.
“Man, it must be nice to be you,” my Buddy says as the makeup artist works on her.
I shrug and scan the printout for my Wish special tonight. They’re rushing us into the live broadcast because the typhoon’s due to reach Jakarta in half an hour. Typical Wish Committee: they take four days to decide and expect me to do something about it in four minutes.
Everyone thinks they could do my job, but wishing’s not that easy. You have to watch your words. The magic only lets you think that it’s following your plan, that you have control, while it’s getting ready to yank the rug from underneath your feet. If I tell it to stop the typhoon from hitting Jakarta, that won’t stop it from hitting Kuala Lumpur or Singapore. And I can’t just nix the typhoon, because Wayne—the meteorologist—insists that the region needs rain.
I write a few versions before I arrive at a wish that should be airtight. My Buddy peers over my shoulder. I ignore her. Out of everything we’ve lost, I miss sleeping and being alone the most. When we instituted the Buddy System, one of my officially-mandated wishes was that we could all be healthy and fully functional without sleep. We change Buddies at the depot three times a day—an eight-hour shift for work, an eight-hour shift of free time for you, and an eight-hour shift of free time for your Buddy. Instead of sleeping, we spend eight hours a day following someone else around. Try it. I promise you’ll go crazy faster than you thought possible.
And that’s mostly what I’m worried about now—being crazy. If I do this and it doesn’t work, I’ll be the one in cuffs and duct tape. I could lose my tongue on international TV, and that would be embarrassing.
But I have to go for it. No one’s going to slap tape over the Genie’s mouth for saying “I wish.” They’ll realize pretty quickly that I’m not stopping the typhoon, so I won’t have long, but I unleashed magic on the world; it’s my responsibility to force it back into the bottle and cork it.
The producer asks, “Ready, Genie?”
I nod. I clear my throat and drink some water. For this to work, I’ll have to talk fast.
“Ready in five, four, three…” The producer’s voice drops off, and he holds up the numbers instead. Two, one.
I read from the teleprompter about the typhoon and its potential impact on Indonesia. The UN makes the justification behind every wish clear, so no one thinks we’re abusing the power. As always, I check my notes, but it’s for show. I’ve been practicing this wish for a month.
When I speak, the syllables are staccato but clear. “I wish to go back with all my memories to the moment before I wished for everyone’s wishes to come true.”
They’re coming for me—the camera rolls as the duct tape unrolls—and Wayne the meteorologist’s jaw drops—and my Buddy says “oh my god”—and the silver tape zooms toward my mouth—but I’m not there to feel it stick to my lips.
White seeds float away and melt into the grass like snowflakes. It’s quiet in a way the world hasn’t been quiet for a long, long time.
The bodybuilder says, “I wished for you and me to end up together.”
My eyes itch, and I can barely look at him, but we understand each other—the magic and me. I let it send me to this moment, after the seeds were blown, for a reason. It wants its price for going back into the bottle. “I wish the same thing.”
At least I can take a nap now.
“After the Wish” previously appeared in the print anthology Feel It With Your Eyes: Writing Inspired by the University of Kentucky Art Museum.