by Gary Inbinder
Bob was sitting at his usual outdoor table in a strip-mall coffee shop near his former office. He got his morning caffeine infusion at sunrise, smoked a cigarette and flipped through a newspaper. This day began with a fine, clear southern California winter morning: bracing rather than chilly, with a clean salt-watery taste to the air so different from the acrid smog-laden summer.
The vermillion sun emerged from dark purple shadows, its rays staining white cotton-ball clouds gentian violet and mercurochrome red. A light wind blowing over the mountains from the western sea licked his face; cawing crows and crying gulls circled overhead, and then descended to peck at parking lot rubbish.
Bob watched the flying scavengers squabble over scraps of human refuse. He returned to his newspaper, studying football scores while reflecting on the birds’ fight for survival. A young woman popped up next to his table. Startled by the girl’s sudden and unanticipated appearance, Bob spilled some coffee on the sports page.
“I’m sorry if I disturbed you, sir,” said the young woman, in a polite, melodious voice. “Would you mind if I sat with you for a few minutes?”
Napkin-mopping muddy-brown coffee-stains from a news photo of a scowling linebacker, Bob answered, “Uh...sure.” As the young woman sat, Bob furtively glanced at the surrounding empty tables and chairs, thinking, Is she a panhandler, a Jehovah’s Witness, a Moonie, a traveling Viagra peddler? Looking directly at the smiling girl sitting across from him, one thing was certain; she was exquisitely beautiful.
The girl looked no more than eighteen; a willowy blue-eyed blonde with warm cherry-red lips and flawless cream-colored skin. She exuded a fresh floral and spice fragrance, like an herb garden after a spring drizzle. Casually but neatly dressed in a college sweatshirt and jeans, she seemed like a very pretty, but otherwise ordinary student at the local University. She continued smiling at Bob, without saying a word.
Shyly lowering his eyes, Bob grabbed an ashtray and nervously stubbed out his cigarette. Unsure why this girl would want to sit with a nondescript middle-aged man, he looked up at her, and asked, “Are you a student?”
“Oh,” she replied, “you noticed the college sweatshirt. No, I’m a traveler; I picked this up just to blend in with the locals my own age.”
Eyeing the girl suspiciously, Bob thought, so what’s your angle, dear? Are you going to hit me up for some change, save my soul, sell me something? Seeking to resolve his misgivings with a polite inquiry, Bob asked, “I’m curious; is there some particular reason you chose to sit with me? After all, there are plenty of empty chairs and tables.”
The young woman’s face flushed; her warm smile turned to an embarrassed frown. “I’m sorry, sir; I am disturbing you, aren’t I? I’ll go now.” The girl began to get up from the table, until Bob exclaimed,
“No, please don’t leave.” Smiling sheepishly, he added, “I’m glad of the company; it’s just not every day that a very attractive young lady asks to share my table. In fact, up until now, it hasn’t been any day.”
Smiling broadly, the girl returned to her seat, and remarked, “I’m so glad you said that, Bob; it makes my job much easier.”
Perplexed, Bob stammered, “Uh... what job, and how do you know my name?”
Reaching out with her right hand, the young woman brushed Bob’s arm with her soft fingertips, and replied, “Oh, I know all about you, Bob.” Still smiling sweetly in response to Bob’s bewildered stare, she added, “I may call you Bob?”
Bob nodded nervously, in silent acquiescence.
“Thank you, Bob. My name’s Ariel.”
“Uh, yeah, Ariel; pleased to meet you. Now, will you kindly tell me what this is all about?”
Sitting back in her chair, and brushing away a few golden strands from her eyes, Ariel continued, “You’re Robert Scott Smith, age fifty-six. You were formerly a senior engineer at International Aeronautics, where you worked for the past seventeen years. Due to major downsizing, your company recently offered you an early retirement package, which you gratefully accepted. You’re single and childless, and spend most of your time drinking beer, watching television, surfing the Internet...”
“Just a minute, young lady,” Bob interjected, “we’ve got laws in this country that protect an individual’s privacy. What are you: a con-artist; a blackmailer; a government agent, or terrorist spy?”
Giggling mellifluously, Ariel shook her head, answering, “Oh, heavens no Bob; I’m nothing like that. I’m a good fairy, and I’ve come to give you three wishes.”
Bob’s face reddened, and his hands trembled. Controlling himself, he glared at Ariel, and said, “Ok, missy; I think I get it. You’re some smart-ass college kid pulling a prank. I’ll bet you have a mike and a tape-recorder going.” Glancing around the parking lot, he added, “Maybe you have a friend hidden somewhere with a video-camera?”
“Please Bob, don’t be upset. I have no microphone, or tape-recorder, and there’s no one with me... except, of course, for you.”
Bob stared at Ariel; her sweet, innocent looking smile and demeanor calmed him, a bit.
“Bob, I understand you being suspicious and doubtful; we fairies have to deal with this all the time. To help put you at ease, I’m going to tell you something from your past; something no one else could possibly know.”
Curiosity overcoming his anger, Bob inquired, “And what might that be, Miss Ariel?”
“Do you remember, when you were in the seventh grade taking an aptitude test that asked the question, ‘Imagine a fairy granted you three wishes. What would you wish for?’”
Dumbfounded, Bob stared, and then affirmatively nodded in response.
“And do you recall your answer? ‘I refuse to acknowledge the existence of such nonsensical beings as fairies.’”
Okay, this must be a dream, or a hallucination; whatever, I might just as well go with the flow. “Well, now Ariel,” Bob said, “that’s pretty incredible, you knowing that little bit of information. I’d say it’s highly improbable, but not impossible for you to know. For example, you could have obtained a copy of that test from some archive; or you could be a relative, or an acquaintance of the test administrator.”
“Of course, you’re right Bob; obtaining such information is possible, although extremely difficult. And what would be my motive for doing so, and then tracking you down?” Ariel’s blue eyes sparkled with just the slightest hint of mischief; she toyed with a strand of golden hair while studying Bob’s face for a reaction. Hearing no response, she continued, “Why not test me? Ask for something you really, really want, and see if I deliver.”
Bob found it hard to look at beguiling Ariel without smiling, and lowering his skeptical defenses. After all, what harm was there in playing along with her? What else did he have to do this morning that was more important, or amusing? “Alright, Ariel, how about this; I want an account, in a local bank, with ten... no make it one-hundred million dollars.”
“No problem, Bob.” Ariel held out her right hand, palm-up, closed her eyes, whispered a few unintelligible words, and materialized a green and gold-stamped First National Bank savings account passbook.
Staring at the passbook in Ariel’s outstretched palm, Bob exclaimed, “Damn; that’s the best sleight of hand trick I’ve ever seen.”
“It’s no trick, Bob,” Ariel replied. “Go ahead; take it, it’s yours.”
Bob took the passbook gingerly, as if it came to him wrapped in poison ivy. After carefully examining the cover, Bob opened the little cardboard book. His eyes widened, and he gasped in awe as he saw his name, address and a deposit and balance of one-hundred million dollars.
Amused by Bob’s shocked and bewildered expression, Ariel said, “Don’t worry, Bob. Your reaction is typical of skeptical mortals when first encountering fairy magic. Why don’t you go home now, and relax. The bank opens in about one hour; confirm the deposit and then give some thought to your next two wishes. I have to run now.”
Shaking his head, Bob answered, “I’ve got to hand it to you; this is one hell of a prank, or a con job. However, I’ll do as you suggest, and go to the bank to check things out. Assuming I’m now an extremely wealthy man, how do I contact you to get my remaining wishes?”
“That’s easy, Bob. Just say, ‘Come away, servant, come! I am ready now. Approach my Ariel: come!’” Opening her pocketbook, she handed Bob a card with the quote from Shakespeare’s The Tempest.
Scratching his forehead, Bob grimaced, and then smiled, and said, “The lines from Shakespeare; now I get it. You’re a drama student, and this is some goofy experimental theater class assignment.”
Ariel put her slender white fingers to her rosebud mouth, and tittered, “Tee, hee!” Getting up from her chair, she said, “Have a lovely day, Bob. I’ll be seeing you soon.”
Ariel turned, and walked down the sidewalk toward the parking lot entrance. Bob blinked, and shaded his eyes as hundreds of tiny, sparkling multi-hued lights danced around Ariel’s receding form. In the distance, her body seemed to dissolve into a swirling, flickering gold, green, red and violet light-shower until nothing remained but her memory.
Bob looked at the passbook in the palm of his hand; rubbing his thumb across the grainy-textured surface, he muttered, “It’s real.”
At about three o’clock in the afternoon of the day he met Ariel, Bob sat in an imitation leather reclining chair, about seven feet from the screen of his twenty-five inch color T.V. Glancing around the living room of his neat, modestly furnished one-bedroom apartment, Bob thought, It’s not bad ... but so ordinary, and unimpressive. Now, I can afford an estate in Beverly Hills or Bel Air, a New York Park Avenue penthouse, another home in the Hamptons or Martha’s Vineyard, or perhaps an Irish castle or Italian Villa.
Ever since he confirmed the bank deposit, visions of glamorous young models and actresses, Mediterranean and South Seas cruises on luxury yachts, endless parties at exclusive seaside and mountain resorts-all these images flickered across the screen of his imagination like scenes from a lurid Hollywood film.
Feeling the call of nature, precipitated by his sitting posture and three bottles of Pilsner Beer, Bob got up and staggered to the bathroom. After relieving himself, he looked into the mirror, confronting the reality of fifty-six years. His face had acquired a slightly sallow tinge; his eyes appeared a bit cloudy and tired; his hair was mostly white. He gazed sadly at plastic bottles containing his prescription medication: pills for high cholesterol and blood pressure. Realizing the lifestyle he contemplated could kill him within a few short years he thought, Maybe Ariel could make me younger.
Seated in his living room comfy chair, with an open bottle of beer in hand, Bob spoke Prospero’s lines invoking his servant Ariel. Immediately following his muttered, “Ariel: come!” the dimly lit room scintillated with tiny points of polychromatic radiance as though a silent starburst rocket had exploded nearby. Bob shuddered, winced, closed his eyes and spilled beer on his semi-white tee shirt. Squinting, Bob watched Ariel materialize amid the swirling, glimmering, and then fading light.
As his eyes re-adjusted, he noticed something different about Ariel’s appearance. Instead of the wholesome college girl look of that morning, she now resembled a fashion model in dramatic evening make-up, a low-cut short-skirted dress, and three-inch plus platform shoes.
Smiling in response to Bob’s startled expression Ariel bubbled, “Cool entrance, huh?” Smoothing down the soft material of her skimpy dress, Ariel added, “Like the outfit, Bobby? I was partying with some friends on an absolutely fabulous yacht down at the Marina. You should join us, now that you’re a multi-millionaire.”
Mopping spilled beer from his shirt with a less than pristine handkerchief, Bob looked at Ariel, and replied, “Yeah, nice dress, and the party sounds swell. In fact, I’ve been thinking along those lines; I’d like to enjoy life in the style of the rich and famous.”
“Of course you would, Bob. Is that why you summoned me?” Wiggling her hips suggestively, she added, “Do you want to par-tay?”
Looking down, and blushing, Bob stammered, “Uh... well, yes I would. And I’ve been thinking it might be more fun if I were a bit younger, not to mention the fact that the good times would last longer, if you know what I mean.” Looking up, Bob thought he detected just the hint of a lascivious leer in the curl of a ruby upper-lip and the narrowing of a cornflower-blue eye on Ariel’s otherwise cherubic face.
Unable to suppress a titter, Ariel responded, “I think I tee-hee detect a wish coming on.”
After swallowing a little beer for courage, and then clearing his throat, Bob said, “I wish I were twenty-five again.”
With an elflike grin, Ariel exclaimed, “You’ve got it, Bobby!” Closing her eyes, Ariel mumbled a few words; the small living room filled with a flash of blinding yellow light.
Startled and temporarily blinded, Bob shielded his eyes with his hands. Sensing an unpleasant burning in his chest, Bob groaned, “Ariel; what the hell are you doing to me?” Suddenly, the room went black; slumping back in his comfy chair, Bob lost consciousness.
Bob awoke seated bolt upright on an uncomfortable swivel chair. His bleary eyes focused on an ancient black-and-white computer monitor situated in the middle of a gray steel desk piled high with paperwork. Enclosed within a tiny, claustrophobic cubicle, its walls lined with indecipherable charts and graphs, Bob felt a gut-churning twinge of horror as he slowly emerged from the void.
A paunchy young man with coke-bottle glasses poked his hydrocephalic carroty head into a crack that served as the cubicle entrance. “Are we daydreaming again, Smith?”
Staring in the direction of the grating, whiny voice, Bob cringed in recognition of the worst-ever supervisor at his crappiest employer. “Oh, Christ,” Bob muttered, realizing that he was twenty-five again in his twelve-thousand per year job-from-hell, battered ten-year-old Ford, no girl-friend, no bank account, furnished studio-apartment past, rather than his comfortably retired, adventurous choice-filled, luxurious one-hundred million dollar present.
“That’s right, Smith; Mr. Hanson wanted that report like yesterday. If your assignment isn’t completed and on my desk by 7:00 a.m. tomorrow, you’d better start looking for another job. Now, get cracking.”
“The Thing,” as Bob once called him, exited the cubicle crack like a roach scurrying beneath a baseboard. Viewing the dreary surroundings in which he spent three of the worst years of his life, Bob thought, I’ve wasted a wish; with only one left. Oh well, at least I can enjoy my one-hundred million for whatever time I have left. Resigned to the circumstances, Bob summoned Ariel.
Back in Bob’s apartment, Ariel sat on an imitation leather couch next to the comfy chair, sharing a beer with her now forlorn client. Trying to appear sympathetic, a sad-faced Ariel sighed, “I’m sorry that wish didn’t work out for you, Bobby; really, I am.”
After taking a swig of beer, Bob glared at what he now perceived to be a mischievous, if not malevolent fairy, and asked, “Why didn’t you warn me, Ariel? I wanted to be twenty-five, here and now, to enjoy my one-hundred million. You knew that.”
“I know, Bobby; it’s really a shame. But there’s an iron-clad rule of fairy magic; we take the wishes literally, as they come; we can’t interfere with the client’s choice.”
Leaning back in his chair, Bob mumbled, “Okay, Ariel; I understand.” Turning toward her, he smiled slightly, adding, “I guess all’s not lost; at least I have my millions.”
After placing her almost finished glass of beer on the imitation mahogany coffee table, Ariel got up, walked over to Bob, and cheerfully chirped, “Well, Bobby, this is it. You’ve had your three wishes, and it’s time for me to go back to the Marina and par-tay. However, before I go, you need to know about a little something that happened while you were away being twenty-five.” Extending the upturned palm of her right hand, Ariel materialized a newspaper. Innocently smiling, she handed the paper to Bob.
Bob appeared perplexed as he took the proffered newspaper; the headline enlightened him: “First National Bank Closes: Depositors Lose Millions in Fraudulent Loan Scandal.” Bob’s hands trembled; crumpling the paper, he threw it on the floor. Face reddening, eyes bulging and lips quivering, he glared apoplectically at Ariel.
With a cute little grin, and a twinkle in her eye, Ariel observed, “You must always look on the bright side of things, Bobby. After all, your deposit is FDIC insured up to one-hundred thousands dollars. You can file a claim with the government, and get in line with the other defrauded depositors; I’m sure you’ll get what’s coming to you... sooner or later.”
Bob rose slowly from his chair; spittle flecking his twitching lips, he grunted, “Don’t... call me Bobby... you bitch.” Bob keeled over onto the floor. Clutching his chest, he groaned, shuddering and jerking spasmodically for about one minute, after which he lay still.
Ariel walked to Bob’s corpse; scowling at his blank-eyed face, she gave him a petulant kick in the side with her open-toed platform shoe. “That wasn’t nice, Bob,” she hissed. “I am not a bitch.” Opening her leather designer handbag, Ariel retrieved a little black book and flipped to an entry with Bob’s personal information. Taking a silver pen, she lined through Bob’s name, and then replaced the book in her purse. She walked out the front door, took a deep breath of fresh air and smiled. Dissolving in a swirl of shimmering multi-colored confetti-lights, she disappeared into the rhinestone and sequin studded purple-velvet night.
Copyright © 2006 by Gary Inbinder