“Sweetie Pumpkin! I’m so glad you’re home,” Marshall gushed at Penny as soon as she came in the door after school.
“Dad, what are you doing home? Is something wrong with Mom?” Penny asked.
“Oh no, your mother’s fine. She’s in the kitchen.” Turning towards the kitchen he shouted, “Sheila! Penny’s home. Come on out and let’s tell her the good news!”
“Marshall, what are you doing?” Sheila asked, emerging from the kitchen, the smell of floor polish wafting in along with her.
“I was just about to tell our little cotton candy puff ball the good news about the fruitcake, Apple Dumplin’.”
“Uh, Dad, what are you even talking about?” Penny whined.
“Never mind your father, Penny. He’s had too much wasabi sauce at lunch again.” Sheila stepped up close to Marshall to speak to him in a harsh whisper. “I don’t think it’s at all wise to allow the children to make their own wishes.”
“Huh? Why not?” he questioned- at full volume and ignoring the pinch Sheila gave him to help him get the hint about the whispering she’d wanted him to do.
“She’s a teenage girl- can you imagine what she’d wish for? I don’t even want to think about it.” Sheila shuddered, apparently thinking about it anyway.
“Oh, Honey-cakes, it can’t be that bad-”
“Uh- Mom, Dad, I can hear you. And, do I even have to be here while you argue over uh, whatever?”
“No, dear,” Sheila answered, just as Marshall replied, “Yes, Bon Bon.” They exchanged a look and Sheila tried again, “Go ahead upstairs and do your homework,” she told her, while Marshall chirped out, “The fruitcake hex is real- and it doesn’t just work on Rex!”
“Dad?” Penny asked, unsure because, oddly enough, he seemed to be the one who was more confident in what he was saying, which was a bit of a reversal.
“Marshall, don’t you dare!” Sheila warned.
Undaunted, Marshall pointed into the living room and told his daughter, “Just go look at the carpet.”
Penny glanced in that direction before saying flatly, “It looks like something died on it- like twenty times or so.”
“Exactly!” Marshall crossed his arms and grinned assuredly, as if he’d told her something important and irrefutable.
Sheila made a strangled noise and burst out, “Oh Marshall, if you’re going to tell her, then at least make some sort of sense while you do it!” and proceeded to tell Penny about the auspicious timing of the commercial for a free canister of Cosmic Carpet Cleaner.
Penny listened with a skeptical smirk on her face, breaking up the monotony of actually listening to her mother by pulling out a pack of Cherry-watermelon Superblast Gum and shoving four pieces in her mouth at once. “So, um,” (chomp, chomp) “you really expect me to believe that? It was just a commercial.”
“But, you don’t understand, Candy Cane, I wished for a promotion,” Marshall explained. “And, I got it, by gum.”
“And I already got a call back on the interview I went to this afternoon,” Sheila added. “Although, I’m not sure I’ll take it, even though Dottie Jones put in a good word for me with her boss- the place has industrial tile, and not even very good industrial tile.”
“She is afraid that working in a place like that would be too stressful,” Marshall interjected, helpfully.
“I might stay at my job at the library- all that organization in one place is soothing-”
“She has a crush on Melvil Dewey,” Marshall confided to Penny from behind his hand.
“And the Italian marble floors with the inlaid mosaics…” Sheila trailed off, lost in a vision of flooring.
“Heck, she should be paying them just to walk on that floor.”
“Thank you, Marshall- I think she gets the idea.”
“I’m just saying.”
“Wow! You guys aren’t blowing smoke, are you? Just because you got a job offer, Mom, and you got a promotion, Dad, doesn’t mean-”
“Don’t forget Rexy-boy and his wish to catch Tabby,” Marshall interrupted.
“And the carpet, Honey,” Sheila sing-songed.
“And my chocolate milk!”
“Yeah, Dad- the milk’s the most convincing argument of them all,” Penny snarked.
“You really don’t believe us?”
Penny looked doubtfully from one of her parents to the other. “You know, I actually do believe you- the un-dead cat thing was way convincing. Where’s the fruitcake? I want to make my first wish.”
“It’s in the kitchen, Sweetie Pumpkin. Here let me show you-” Marshall began.
“Hold on a minute there, young lady,” Sheila said, getting a hold on Penny’s arm. “I’m not so sure we’re ready for you to be allowed to make a wish.”
“Oh come on, Mom, why not?”
“Well, it’s a great responsibility-”
“I promise I won’t wish for more lenient parents, okay? I mean, you and Dad are a pain in the butt, but I know it could be much, much worse- you could be really crazy and not just annoying and lame.”
“PENELOPE FOGERTY! That is a terrible thing to say about your father!”
“Okay, fine- I will wish for new parents-”
“I don’t think that’s what your mother means, Pudding Cup,” Marshall said in a little more firm a tone than Penny had heard from him in years.
“Yeah, got that, Dad. I’m just tired of her treating me like I’m four years old. You guys really think I’d wish for something stupid or dangerous? I mean, exactly what horrible wish are you so afraid of, Mom?”
“Rubber flooring,” Sheila admitted, the words coming out a panicked whisper.
“Oh, Sugar Lump.” Marshall slid a protective arm around his wife’s shoulders.
“I- I don’t even know-” Penny stopped abruptly, shaking her head. Her parents really were crazy. “Think I’ll just go do my homework now,” she mumbled and went up to her room. The fruitcake thing would still be there to convince Dad of later, as long as she didn’t really piss off Mom, she could bid her time.
As Penny had figured, her dad showed up at the door to her bedroom half an hour later with a plate of brownies and some sour cream to go on top (of course) and ready to mediate the sort of a fight over the fruitcake. Sometimes she wondered how it was that her goofy dad was the glue to their family- how was that possible?
“Plum Pudding, All right if I come inside?” he asked, his head breaking the plane of the doorway while his feet remained safely on the hallway side of the door (as per previously agreed).
“Only if you’ve got magic cake buried under the brownies,” Penny replied sulkily.
“As a matter of fact, I do,” he whispered in the same super-sneaky voice he used to use when she was like four and he had let her tap dance on the linoleum in the kitchen while her mom was out.
“Really?” she asked, even though it wasn’t at all in question- the super-sneaky voice never lied (not once in her whole childhood). Marshall stepped inside and made a show of securing the door before taking three brownies off the top of the plate and revealing a morsel of crumbly, old, previously-in-the-trash fruitcake. “Knew you wouldn’t crap out on me, Dad!” Penny reached for the fruitcake, but Marshall lowered the plate to keep it from her reach.
“Brownies first, Sugar Plum,” he told her before shoving one into his mouth whole and then thrusting one at her with his free hand.
She glanced at it, considered refusing it on principle, but took it anyway to please her father. “Why?”
“Mwll,” Marshall paused and swallowed hard before continuing, “Well, your mother is not entirely wrong to be worried about what you might choose to wish for. It’s a hard decision. Your mother and I are lucky to have our copious life experience, education and wisdom to help us decide our wishes.”
“You aren’t serious? Dad, you act like a five year old.”
“But, believe it or not, I didn’t wish for my weight in chocolate.”
“No?” Penny was surprised by that. “But, you did wish for that old train set you had as a kid, didn’t you?”
“Old Steamy- yeah, I did. It’s set up in the basement and all ready for the next chocola- er- coal delivery to Marshmallow Valley…” he drifted off into a five year old’s daydream.
“Dad!” Impatient, Penny nudged him with her elbow. “My wish won’t be for something stupid or dangerous.”
“Or new parents?” Marshall prompted.
“Or new parents,” she parroted back.
“So, what would it be for?”
“I get no privacy around here as it is, can’t you just trust me?”
“Afraid not, Cinnamon Truffle, what kind of a parent would I be if I just trusted you willy-nilly?”
“Good grades. I want to wish for good grades,” Penny tried.
“Oh, Licorice Stick, even I can’t buy into that one.”
“Dad,” she whined.
“Come on, Peanut Brittle, try the truth. I might approve if it’s really not stupid or dangerous.”
“True Love, okay! I want true love- I want to find the perfect boy for me. Which is stupid and all, but our hegemonic, hyper-conformist, anti-feminist culture has worked its brain-washing magic and I want a perfect, pink and fluffy love that will last forever and ever,” she spat out.
“Sweetie Pumpkin,” Marshall said, meltingly. “That’s wonderful-”
“Dear Lord, don’t even look at me.” She shuddered and hid her face behind her hand.
“All right.” He held the plate out to her.
Penny came out from behind her hand, plucked the bit of fruitcake from betwixt the brownies, dipped it in the sour cream, and swallowed it down. Then she ran for the bathroom to chase it with several glasses of water. “Thanks, Daddy,” she squeaked out when she returned to the room.
“Mou’re welca, Cubcake,” Marshall replied around a mouthful of brownie.
An hour later, Wink came in from band practice leaving a trail of book bag, coat, shoes, French horn, etc. Marshall excitedly tried to tell him that the fruitcake worked, but Wink wearily informed his father that he knew that, and had already saved some that morning before he left for school. Then he went to his room to get on his GameManiaNet and attempted to beat FIRE_EATER1303’s high score.
It should go without saying that Penny didn’t actually wish for true love, at least not at first.
The first thing she wished for was for Ryan Jones, who lived next door and was captain of the football team, and also the captain of the swim team, to be her boyfriend. No, wait, that’s not true. First, she wished that the fruitcake didn’t make her vomit and, after a minute or two, it didn’t- but really, she didn’t count that one, since it was probably just luck and the iron stomach she inherited from her dad. The next thing she wished for was for Ryan’s girlfriend Matilda to get boils, and for that to lead to Ryan dumping her, and for that to lead to Ryan asking Penny out, because there really wasn’t any point to stealing the boyfriend of the girl who made the whole school start calling you fat- unless that girl has boils- there just wasn’t.
Then, since the last three wishes might take some time, she did her homework, which led to her wishing that the Civil War would make sense to her. Amazingly, when she read her chapter again, somehow something clicked and she got it that as much as the war was about slavery, it was also money, and about people being afraid of change, and even more about them never wanting to admit that they were wrong and- Wow! She got it. It all made sense and she was going to totally rock her essay assignment. A minute after she finished her essay, her phone rang. It was Ryan.
At school the next day, in English class, Ryan sat next to her and they made stupid jokes about Mrs. Wilbertha’s extremely large amount of facial hair at each other under their breath all period. Then at lunch, Ryan gave her the nod to come over and she abandoned her friend Beth (she would totally understand- she had to) and sat at the popular table. It was just the best day she had ever had, really.
“So, Penelope, you have a date for the Ice and Snow Ball yet, do you?” Ryan asked her over tasteless peas, mystery meat and chocolate milk. His friends were making those stupid oooo-oooo noises that people made when the subject of boy/girl stuff like dating and dances came up, but Penny didn’t even hear them.
“Uh, why no, I don’t. Do you?” she asked back, and she really didn’t know where she got the nerve- maybe it was the fruitcake. “You’re not taking Matilda?” she added feeling daring.
“Nah- Mattie and I aren’t going. I didn’t- well, she and I aren’t right for each other anymore, you know.” He shushed one of his friends who was making a joke about leprosy or zombies or zombies with leprosy- Penny didn’t get it, but she knew it was about Matilda. “So, you want to go with me then, since you don’t have a date, yet?”
“Oh Ryan, really?” She made herself sound so surprised- she had been practicing this morning in the mirror, so she knew she could sell it. “I- I guess so. That sounds like fun.”
During sixth period gym, Wink and his stupid friend Toby Brickle were on Penny’s volleyball team (Ryan wasn’t in her gym or she so would have been on the cool team). Wink kept spiking the ball at her (even though they were on the same team) and saying that he was setting her up to put it over the net, but she knew he was just messing with her. She wished that he would hurt himself so he couldn’t do that anymore and the next moment, he came crashing down, having twisted his ankle when he jumped to return the ball. Ms. Greer sent him to the nurse and she made Penny walk with him. “You should want to help out your little brother, now Miss Fogerty. That’s what families do,” she had admonished. Penny had grumbled some, but she had done it. At least it got her out of class.
“You had some fruitcake, didn’t you?” he asked her as soon as they were out in the hallway, Wink leaning on Penny as he hobbled his way to the nurse’s office.
“Dad gave me some, what do you care?” Penny sneered back defensively. The truth was that she had forgotten that when she wished for him to be hurt, it would actually happen. Wishing him ill was such a habit for her, precisely because it wouldn’t hurt him- he normally wouldn’t find out she had thought about something like that.
“I care because you made me sprain my ankle, that’s why I care,” he snapped back. “You wished for Matilda Clemens to get sick, too, didn’t you?”
“Only a little,” she admitted sheepishly.
“You are so using the magic the wrong way, Pen. It’s going to come back and bite you if you don’t stop,” Wink warned her.
“Uh-huh, and Mom and Dad practically wishing out and out for money isn’t using the magic in the wrong way, right? They both got new jobs, you know.”
“New jobs don’t give people boils and make me walk funny. This really hurts, Sis.”
“I know. I’m sorry. I kind of forgot that that it would really happen, you know.”
“That is not really comforting, Penny. I was just trying to play the game. And, was getting that jerk to ask you out really worth making someone really sick. She had to go to the emergency room last night- did you know that?”
“Oh- no. I- I just wanted her to look bad, not- not really be sick. Now I wish she never got sick. Will that work? Can it go back and make it never happen?”
“I don’t know. I guess we’ll see, since you just wished for that.”
“Yeah, I guess we will.”
They walked a little while in silence. Then Wink asked, “How did you even get Mom and Dad to give you a piece of the fruitcake anyway? Mom wouldn’t trust you not to wish for something bad- she always thinks you’re up to no good.”
“Uh- I didn’t say Mom and Dad.” Penny couldn’t look at him anymore.
“Oh Penny, what did you say to Dad?”
“Uh- I promised to wish for true love,” she mumbled out.
“Why did you do that? You know he’ll believe almost anything from you. You shouldn’t use that against him.”
“Yeah, I know. I just- I wanted to be able to make a wish. They treat me like I’m a kid.”
“Like a kid who would wish for someone she doesn’t like to get hurt?”
Penny sighed in defeat. “Okay, yeah, I know. I messed up, but- but I wish that both you and Matilda get better really, really fast, okay?”
“And-” Wink prompted as he took another small step on his wounded foot and his ankle gave a mighty cracking noise. “Ow!”
“And? Uh- hmmm- Oh! And I wish for true love so that I won’t have lied to Dad, because he so doesn’t deserve that.”
“Good. Hey!” He hopped on his lame leg a couple of times. “Something popped back into place. You did it Pen! Wow, thanks! It feels one hundred percent better.”
“You’re welcome, doofus.” She gave him a shove setting him off balance and into the lockers that lined the hallway. “Thank you for making me fix my wishes. I feel one hundred percent better, too.”
After school, Matilda showed up, miraculously cured and Ryan didn’t even bother to say anything to Penny, he just shrugged at her as if to say, ‘What are you gonna do?’ slung an arm around Matilda and walked away with her. ‘So much for the Ice and Snow Ball,’ Penny thought to herself. As she was trying to be nonchalant and act as if she didn’t really care if she was dropkicked by the coolest guy in the school, Toby Brickle came up and asked her if she was okay. She only sneered at him, but he kept smiling at her anyway. He was such a doofus.
When she turned around from Toby, she spotted her friend Beth watching the whole thing and thanked whoever it was up there that she had a friendly face to rely on, except when she walked over to Beth and said, “Can you believe what a supreme jerkface Ryan is being?”
Beth just smirked at her and replied, “Uh, do I know you? I could have sworn there was a girl that looked just like you I used to eat lunch with, but I haven’t seen her lately.” Then she walked away. Penny called after her, but Beth didn’t even look back.
“You still okay, Penny?” Toby asked her again, but Penny was too busy trying to keep from crying in front of everybody who was there in front of the school.
She let Toby Brickle walk her home because he at least was still talking to her. And, after they got to Penny’s house, Toby kind of kept following her, even up onto the front porch, even when Penny tried to make him catch a clue by saying, “Uh, so like, thanks for, uh- you know- walking with me, and stuff.”
But, Toby just went, “Uh- huh,” and didn’t leave.
So, she was like, “Uh- look, I know that you think that this moment is like your big chance and all, but-”
“My big chance at what?” Toby interrupted her to ask.
“Uh- at me,” she said, because it was totally obvious that he was trying to find some way to parlay his always being nice to her and her being completely socially humiliated into them kissing or dating or something like that.
But, then Toby just burst out laughing really, really hard and went inside the house. Then he stayed a while hanging out with Wink, who had gotten picked up early from school on account of his ankle, (but Penny knew Wink was really just using the injury to get some extra time on the GameManiaNet).
After spending the afternoon doing her homework and waiting for the whole True Love thing to start happing (that’s two days in a row with the homework- Penny was starting to wonder if Mom had done some wishing about that) she heard Toby leaving, dropped her pen and hopped out into the hallway to walk him downstairs. She wasn’t sure why, but she was feeling like maybe she should apologize for what she had said to him before- since he was always so nice to her even though she was a sort of low level rude to him all the time. And, she had gone beyond that low level rude by being so mean about how he was crushing on her like that.
But, before she could figure out what exactly to say, Toby stopped just short of the front door and asked, “So, Penny, you going to be okay tomorrow at school with the whole Ryan-Matilda and Beth situations?”
“Oh, I don’t- I wasn’t really thinking about it.” Which she realized was true because she had spent the better part of the afternoon digging into the Post-Civil War Era, wondering about what else her parents might have wished for, and ignoring the fact that Wink and Toby were just on the other side of the wall playing stupid medieval knight video games.
“So, I guess that means yes, you’re okay?” And, somehow the fact that he was still being so nice about it all- and were his eyes always that warm shade of green, and wasn’t that mistletoe up there- made Penny lean in and kiss him softly on the cheek.
“Yeah, I’m doing okay, thanks.”
When he left, they were both smiling hard and goofy. And, Penny figured that her wish had kind of backfired, because- hello Toby Brickle was a total doofus, but maybe he would be her doofus which would be the really good kind of all right.
Wink understood the weight of the magic of the fruitcake, so he was not really tempted by it. Much. Okay, maybe he was a little tempted, since all he would need was just a tiny advantage to beat FIRE_EATER1303 at the GameManiaNet. They were pretty evenly matched. So, all he would have needed was to wish for his reaction time to be a tiny bit faster and for his luck to hold when he faced the cybordragon, so he didn’t lose more than fifty lifepoints before he got to the Magical Snowflake Keep. Then he could really show FIRE_EATER1303, the big, gloat-y, quicker-than-Wink jerkface.
Wink glanced at Mr. Cambie, the stuffed calico cat he had had since he was three. Wink had secured his just-in-case piece of fruitcake inside the split seam in the cat’s back (tight inside a plastic baggie, of course), and closed it up with gray utility tape. Mr. Cambie looked back at Wink so trusting and innocent. It made Wink feel guilty for thinking of using the fruitcake for a gaming advantage.
The cybordragon blasted him again and his well toasted virtual corpse feel to the ground with a dull thud. “Bleeping Dragon!” he yelled at the screen. He watched FIRE_EATER1303 jumping over the acid-daisies and entering the Magical Snowflake Keep. It made Wink want to throw something. He was supposed to be the winner. He really, really wanted to be the winner. He just wished-
He glanced over at Mr. Cambie again. The stupid cat was looking accusingly at him. You know what? Wink didn’t care. It wasn’t giving someone boils, it wasn’t killing the neighbors’ cat twenty times, it was harmless. It was harmless and he was doing it! He picked up Mr. Cambie, ripped open his back and got himself some wish fulfillment fruitcake.
“Man, you are hot today! Maybe you should play in pain everyday!” Toby suggested.
“Yeah, maybe,” Wink agreed vaguely- he was busily beating FIRE_EATER1303 soundly. He had made it to the Magical Snowflake Keep and rescued Princess Rowindanastein four times in a row. It was getting kind of pathetic how easy it was to win, now.
“So,” Toby asked in a suddenly squeaky voice that was trying to be casual just the same, “did you hear about what happened after you went home? To your sister, I mean.”
Wink paused the game. “Let me guess- Matilda got all better and Ryan ‘the Idiot’ Jones dropped Penny like a bad- uh Penny, right?”
“Yeah. How did you know?”
“Lucky guess. So, why are you talking about her again? Don’t we have a rule?”
“Yeah. Yeah, we do, but I’m kind of worried about her. She looked kind of wrecked from it.”
“She’ll be fine,” Wink assured his friend. It had all been Penny’s choice, when it came down to it.
“So I walked her home.”
“You are such a stooge.” Wink threw Mr. Cambie at Toby as punishment for being a fool for Penny. She so didn’t deserve him.
Half an hour later, FIRE_EATER1303 got eaten by the cybordragon for the fifth time in a row and signed off in disgust. That was okay, since Wink was really bored with not being challenged by the game anymore. “I wish my gaming skills were back to normal,” he mumbled under his breath, admitting to himself that, yes, he was just like Rex- always winning got boring after a while. “Hey Toby, want to play some chess?” Wink asked, because he had always meant to start playing, and why not today?
That night, Great Aunt Gretchen showed up uninvited for dinner. Sheila had almost expected that Gretchen had forgotten since she usually came on the sixth and it was the seventh, but there she was, walking into the house without even knocking and staying for dinner (and changing the menu) whether or not they wanted her to.
“Here Gretch, have my seat,” Marshall offered, pulling out the chair at the head of the table.
“Thank you, Darling Boy.” She gave him a too hard pat on the cheek with her overly ring-adorned hand. The ancient shawl she wore to keep off the chill had small bells sewn to the edges and they tinkled as she took her seat. Then, Sheila served the halibut.
After they had eaten, Shiela started clearing the dishes and Marshall grabbed up some of them so he could have an excuse to ambush her in the kitchen. “Quick, Sugar Lips, where’d you stash the fruitcake?” He opened the cabinet over the stove and started searching through it.
Cottoning on immediately, Sheila gasped, “Marshall, you can’t be serious. You don’t really want that woman to have a piece of the fruitcake, do you? Imagine what she might wish for!”
“Don’t be like that, Gumdrop. We should share the magic. She is family after all,” Marshall argued.
“But what if she wishes for us to ask her to move in? She never does get the hint when we want her to leave.”
“Well, then we’ll have to wish for all of us to be happy together. That would work, wouldn’t it?”
Giving in, Sheila answered, “You know, you are either a moron or a crazy genius, and I don’t even care which.” Sheila threw her arms around him and held him tight for a long moment before going to dig the fruitcake out from its hiding place behind the dog’s food.
“What Marshall means to say, Auntie Gretchen, is that we would like to share this gift- this unbelievable gift with you. So, would you like a piece of fruitcake?” Sheila explained, hoping with all her heart that the old woman wouldn’t wish for something that was highly inconvenient for them.
Gretchen didn’t answer, as much as she launched into one of her gypsy stories, “To you I am a gruff, old crone of a woman, but listen to this old hag and you may learn something. Long ago, when I was newer than the dew on a flower, smaller than the wings on a bee and before my sainted mother, God rest her, put me and my two little sisters Anastasia and Drusilla on the ship from the old country, I, too, had a gruff crone of an auntie. Her name was Auntie Dagmar. Auntie Dagmar married an eccentric gypsy-man, Uncle Vasile. One year, on the Day of the Kings, what do they name it here?” She leaned towards Sheila, unconsciously reaching out with coaxing fingers as if to tease the words from Sheila’s mouth.
“Epiphany, Gretch,” Marshall supplied from her other side.
“Yes, Epiphany.” She shifted her focus to him for a moment. “Thank you, Darling Boy. One year, on the Epiphany of the Kings, Auntie Dagmar and Uncle Vasile came to visit. It was a wonderful day, my father and uncles had gone to hunt the day before and my mother and aunties had cooked, the most delicious smells coming from the kitchen all morning. And, when the meal was finished, we had brandy and oranges and Uncle Vasile’s gypsy cake. After we each had a slice of cake and a nip of brandy (for even the little ones had brandy on winter holidays- to keep us warm, you know), Uncle Vasile told us of how he had mixed a potion into the cake as a special present for the family on the Day of the Kings, and if we only wished for something, it was sure to come true in the morning.
“Well, of course Mama and her sisters and Papa and his brothers did not believe, because they were too old for such nonsense, but my cousins and my sisters and I, we believed and we all made beautiful wishes as we lay down to sleep that night. When we woke, Uncle Vasile and Auntie Dagmar had gone, but every one of our wishes had come true. Still, Papa and his brothers and Mama and her sisters did not believe what we children knew to be real. There were only a few bites of the cake left wrapped in a cloth so, my cousins and my sisters and I, we broke it into pieces and each did what they wished with it. My wish of the night before had been for wisdom, and so I wrapped my morsel of magic cake in a small cloth, dipped it in wax and kept it under my pillow to bring me sweet dreams.
“And now I can see you asking yourself, ‘how is it that a small child would choose to wish for wisdom and not for a pretty doll or a chocolate cake or another childish thing?’ Well, I will tell you. I was a very foolish child, at least by the account of my aunties. They enjoyed telling my just how foolish I was whenever I made some small mistake, and many times when I didn’t. I wanted never to make a mistake again, to show them that I was not foolish- for that I needed wisdom- and I wished for it. So, my defect served to bring me wisdom by happy accident.”
Then, while the family sat staring amazedly at her and trying to come to grips with the idea that she was the source of the fruitcake, Great Aunt Gretchen sat back from the table, belched loudly, swallowed the rest of her coffee and got up from the table. “I thank you for dinner. I also thank you for the offer of dessert, but I couldn’t eat another bite.” And, with that, she said her goodnights.
“Oh hey there, Apple Dumplin’. What are you doing?” Marshall asked Sheila after coming in through the back door to the kitchen, Rex slobbering and barking and dragging in icy mud behind him. (They had been out playing in the season’s first snowfall.)
“Cleaning out the cabinets,” Sheila responded. “I’ll have to fit all the shopping for Thursday in here.” She pulled out 13 half-empty cereal boxes (Marshall would have called them half-filled, or maybe just dinner).
“Ah, Thanksgiving- tell me you’re going to make your special shoe-fly pie again, this year.”
“Of course, dear.” She stacked cans of soup on the counter, making precarious towers.
“With the extra chocolaty goodness?”
“Of course, dear.” She pulled out the extra large bin that held Rex’s food (Rex barked at it, hoping it might spontaneously tip over and feed him if he startled it well enough). The almost empty fruitcake tin rolled out from behind it. Marshall pulled Rex away before the dog could jump on it and pop it open. Then he picked up the tin and set it on the counter next to Canned Soup City. “I suppose we ought to wash this out, as well,” Sheila sighed, picking up the fruitcake tin and opening it. There was only one small bite left inside.
Marshall looked over her shoulder. “One wish left,” he noted. “Which on of us ought to use it?”
“More shoe-fly pie, Gretch?” Marshall asked, digging the pie server into the pan again.
“No, thank you, darling boy,” she answered, pushing her plate away. “I’ll just have my brandy.”
“Yeah, I’ll just have my brandy, too,” Penny echoed, but Sheila gave Gretchen a sharp headshake when she reached for the bottle to pour some for Penny, so she didn’t.
“How about some fruitcake, instead?” Sheila offered Gretchen, standing and stepping over to the sideboard and picking up the fruitcake tin that was sitting there.
“Ah- no. I don’t need it,” Gretchen answered.
“But we thought that, since there is only one small piece left, you might want to be the one to have the last wish.”
“Again, I thank you, but no.” She picked up her brandy and drank the remainder in one quick swallow. “In fact, I think that it is time I am going.” She gathered her shawl around her shoulders. “I say goodnight to you all and-” She stopped speaking to pat at her pockets one after the other until she found something in the last one. She drew out a crumpled and yellowed piece of paper. “Sheila, my dear, this is for you.” She pressed the paper into Sheila’s hand. “You must make it this year for the Epiphany of the Kings, yes.”
Sheila unfolded the page. It was a recipe for fruitcake- Gretchen’s recipe. “Oh, uh- thank you,” Sheila replied, wondering how likely it was that, after all the to-do about the magic fruitcake, Gretchen might not remember asking Sheila to make some this year. She figured that the odds were not in her favor.
After Gretchen had gone, Marshall asked, “Well, how about you, Honey Muffin?” He was holding the fruitcake out towards Sheila. “I would, but to tell you the truth, I don’t know what else I would wish for- not since I got that lifetime membership in the Chocolate of the Month Club last spring.”
“You know,” Sheila stopped to think for a moment. “I think I have everything I could wish for right here at this table,” she finished, gushing (and Penny made a not-at-all-disgusted gagging noise.)
Apparently taking her noise for some sort of request, Marshall shifted the fruitcake in Penny’s direction. “How ’bout you, Cinnamon Sugar?”
Penny started to reach for it, but then replied, “Actually, there isn’t anything I want either- not enough to eat the moldy old fruitcake for, at least. Man, that stinks! And, Christmas is coming, too. How am I supposed to ask for lots of expensive stuff if I don’t actually want any of it?” She made a disgruntled face. “Stupid ironic wish-fulfillment cake,” she grumbled.
“Maybe you should wish to be more greedy, Pen,” Wink snarked at her.
“And that would be like the smartest thing to do with the Last Wish, jerkface,” Penny tossed the last remaining dinner roll at her brother. (He responded by sticking out his tongue and blowing a big old raspberry at her.)
“How about you sport?” Marshall shifted the tin again to put it in Wink’s reach.
“No thanks, Dad. I only ever made one wish and it didn’t work the way I wanted anyway. I’ll pass.”
“Well, I don’t think we ought to give it to Rex,” Sheila chirped out, as if this had been suggested by one of them. “I guess, I’ll just throw it in the compost, then.” She reached into the tin and lifted out the last bit of fruitcake.
Now, the family had opened and closed the tin containing the magical wish-fulfillment fruitcake a good hundred times over the nearly full year’s time since it had been left on their doorstep, and it never had anything in it that wasn’t sweet and sticky and laden with dried fruit.
Except for this time.
This time there was a small folded piece of paper stuck to the bottom of the last piece of cake. It unstuck and fluttered down into Wink’s lap. He picked it up and read it aloud.
A lesson learned can be of great value.
Greater still is a lesson passed on to another.
“Huh?” Marshall said, “I wonder what that means?”
“Isn’t it obvious, Dad? We aren’t supposed to use the last bite ourselves to throw in the compost. We are supposed to pass it on,” Wink explained.
“Hey! That must be why Aunt Gretchen gave you the fruitcake recipe, Mom,” Penny exclaimed.
“You know, you just might be right, dear,” Sheila replied. She pulled the recipe out from her pocket and re-read it. “I wonder if we could use a different kind of cake?”
In the deep and inky cold of a December’s morning, two young figures, one swathed in the latest fashions, the other in less flashy stuffs, stirred together a most heady concoction. A giddy chuckle rose from one of their companions,
“It’s just too bad we couldn’t make this double fudge chocolate.”“Don’t worry, we’re making brownies next,”
the last of them said as she added the vital and last ingredientLater, in the quiet calm of suburban mid-morning, the same strange forms laid a brightly wrapped parcel at the doorstep of the unwary Jones family. . . .