If Wishes Were Horses

approx 6500 words

As the horses galloped around the bend, Larry Delmont clutched his winning ticket and screamed, “Go Lady Luck! Go! Go! Go!”

Lady Luck was on the outside and losing ground, but now they were entering the homestretch and she was pounding the dirt with those powerful long legs, her jockey flailing at her rump with the crop.

“Go Lady Luck! Go for it!” Larry screamed again—rising to his feet along with everyone else in the stands, his throat burning and hoarse. She had to win. Had to. Every last penny he owned and quite a few that he didn’t was wagered on her, on this ticket in his hand for Lady Luck to win in this last race at Steeplechase Downs.

And she was going all out, coming forward in the pack, her nose pulling ahead, only a few lengths to go, when suddenly Lady Luck’s front leg snapped and collapsed under her.

Oh God, no!

She fell onto her shoulder and rolled, those magnificent long legs in a tangle, her jockey tumbling free as the other horses streamed past her and over the finish line.

Larry closed his eyes and clutched his no-longer-winning ticket, the one he’d bet on Lady Luck to win. This was awful—both for the horse and for him. If only he could’ve known the outcome beforehand! This brought the total he owed to his bookie, Bennie the Knife, to two thousand three hundred eighty-five smackeroos.

The stands had fallen silent in a single breath—and now went berserk. People clambored upward for the exit stairs or down toward the edge of the stands, all of them jostling Larry as they streamed past.

When Larry opened his eyes again, Lady Luck was lying in the dirt, not moving. Her jockey was kneeling beside her and other people were standing around her.

The horse ambulance drove onto the track toward the fallen horse. The other horses were trotting on their cool-down round before going back to the stables—all but the one heading for the victory circle. Half a dozen more people were running toward Lady Luck, but the jockey looked up and shook his head. Moments later, the announcer came on and said, “Ladies and gentlemen, I’ve just been informed . . . Lady Luck is dead.”

Larry’s throat constricted, and he stared down at the ticket in his hand. Usually, he tore up his losing tickets, but this one . . . he couldn’t bring himself to rip it in two. It would be as if he had killed the horse himself. Larry put the ticket in his pocket and headed for the exit.

Let this be a lesson to you, Larry told himself. Win, place, and show. The rest lose the race and a few their lives.If only we could see the outcome beforehand. Lady Luck would have stayed out of the race. She would still be alive.

When Larry got home, he put the ticket into a plastic Ziploc bag and tacked it to his wall, over his dresser. There, he told himself. The next time you want to head for the track, remember this!

Bennie was sure to call him soon. And Bennie wasn’t big on taking “I haven’t got your money” for an answer.

That race was on a Sunday, the second of April. Five envelopes arrived the next day. The first four contained pre-approved Platinum Visa card applications. He didn’t bother to read the fine print—just filled them out, signed on the dotted line, then sealed and stamped them. With a little luck, the cards would arrive soon and he could take out another cash advance before Bennie got really nasty about the money.

The other envelope had a return address of Trappello Animal Hospital. Larry turned it over in his fingers. He had never been to a veterinarian. Never owned a pet. But it was definitely addressed to him, Lawrence Delmont, 57 West Cedar Street. It had to be some kind of mistake, Larry thought, but he opened the envelope anyway, slid out the paper inside and unfolded it.

A bill for $128 for dental surgery on a cat named Snaggles. Disbelief changed to amusement. Snaggles, what a great name. And he’d always wanted a cat. Larry took out the phone book and looked up the address of the ASPCA. Two hours and three buses later, he was strolling down a line of cages, looking at kittens.

Snaggles. The tawny-striped male blinked up at Larry with yellow eyes, then pounced on an imaginary mouse on the floor of the cage. “This one,” Larry told the attendant. Several signatures and the swipe of his not-quite-maxed-out credit card later, Snaggles was meowing piteously in a cat-carrier as Larry left the ASPCA and headed for the grocery store for cat food and kitty litter.

On Tuesday, April 4th, an orange envelope from the Parking Clerk arrived in the mail with huge letters: SECOND NOTICE. But I don’t own a car, Larry thought as he opened it. The Town of Wallabash had added a $15 late fee to a $10 unpaid parking ticket. And once again, the address was correct, right down to Larry’s zip-plus-four code. Larry was about to toss it into the trash when the license plate ID caught his eye. A vanity plate: SNAGSIE.

Larry grinned. Yeah, that would be like him. And he’d been wanting to get a car. In fact, a fine-looking Astin-Martin had caught his eye just the other day at the used car dealership on Jefferson Avenue.

The salesman didn’t even blink when Larry told him he was self-employed. Just continued filling out the loan application. Thirty minutes later, Larry drove the fire-engine red car off the lot, a temporary plate taped to the back window, and headed for home.

Bennie the Knife was waiting for him. And he wasn’t alone. Two thugs were behind him, bulging biceps on the arms crossed over their equally ample pecs.

“Nice wheels,” Bennie said. He held out his hand. “The cash?”

“I’ll have it soon. Promise.”

“Yeah, right. Cross your heart and hope to die?”

“Soon. Really. I sent in four preapproved credit card applications yesterday. I can get you your cash as soon as they arrive.”

“Unh-huh. And until it does? Those car keys will do just fine as a security deposit.”

“But the car’s not mine. Not paid for, I mean.”

“Then we got something in common, right?” Bennie snapped his fingers twice and held his palm out at chest height. “Dude. Don’t make me break your knees.”

Damn. There weren’t a lot of choices here. Larry unhooked the car keys from his ring and handed them over. Bennie got into the Astin-Martin and drove off. The thugs got into a nearby black Mustang and followed.

Man, that sucked. He liked that car. It had great acceleration and really comfy seats. And the only way to get it back? Finding twenty-four big ones for Bennie. And waiting for those credit cards to arrive? That was easily at least a week, possibly more. If they arrived at all. Chancey, that. He’d had to put “self-employed” on those forms too. It was obviously time to earn some money again—but day trading wouldn’t get it into his coffers fast enough.

That evening, Larry revved up his computer system and considered his options with some misgiving. Citibank or MegaTrust? Both huge. Both firewalled and encrypted up the wahzoo. He had hoped to avoid this particular risk, but . . . that car was a beaut. Larry flipped a coin. MegaTrust it was.

Five nerve-wracking hours later, Larry had found a back door into the MegaTrust system, fabricated four thousand point-of-sale transfers from randomly-chosen checking accounts into a dummy account he’d built at MegaTrust, then wired those funds to a PayPal account, shifted them again to a new account he’d opened with a bank in the Caymans, and left a virus in his wake to erase his trail from the system. If he didn’t go to the track again, this night’s work should keep him and Snaggles in fine style for at least a year.

The next afternoon, he called Bennie and arranged a meeting “at the usual place.” As soon as Bennie had counted the bills, he tossed the car keys to Larry and pointed to the opposite curb.

Larry trotted happily across the street and slid behind the wheel, only to see a parking ticket on the windshield. Crap. He got out and pulled the ticket from under the wiper and tossed it into his glove compartment. When he got home, on a hunch he compared the ID numbers on the ticket and the demand note he’d received from the Town of Wallabash. They matched.

Weird. What was going on here?

On Thursday morning, he drove to the Registry and ordered his vanity plate of SNAGSIE. Might as well make it official. Then he sent a check for $25 to the Town of Wallabash Parking Clerk, just in case the car might disappear if he didn’t.

On Wednesday of the following week, an envelope arrived from the Rothe Brothers Envelope Factory. Intrigued, he slit this one open and removed the single sheet of—no, really, pink?—yes, pink paper.

“Dear Mr. Lawrence Delmont,” it read. “Please be advised that your services are no longer needed at the Rothe Brothers Envelope Factory. Enclosed is a check for severance pay in the amount of $500.”

His eyes were drawn to the address on the letterhead, which sank into his brain like acid on steel. 91 East Walnut Street.

NO! I am not going to go get a job at the Rothe Brothers Envelope Factory. He tore the check into pieces that he then burned in the sink.

The next day as he was cruising down Central Avenue, curiosity won out. He spun the wheel onto Walnut Street, and parked outside number 91 at the corner with First Avenue.

The cornerstone of the red brick building proudly proclaimed a baptismal date of 1883. Wrought iron bars formed mini-balconies around each window. The roofline was crenelated; Larry’s imagination supplied medieval archers aiming through the notches. A huge air-conditioning unit crouched against the right-hand wall. A modern sign over the door announced itself as the Rothe Brothers Envelope Factory.

A stray thought ran through his brain: Might as well find out what sort of job it was.

And then NO! I don’t want to know.

A shiver ran down his spine and he punched the accelerator, tires squealing as he tore away. But the next day, his hands and feet took him back to the corner of Walnut and First Avenue.

Larry sat in the car and stared at the entrance. I don’t want a job. I don’t even need a job.

But curiosity again took him out of the car, down the concrete pathway, up the steps and into the lobby.

“Can I help you?” a receptionist inquired.

She was pretty, with pink roses on her dress right over her boobs, which were . . . ample. Larry raised his eyes back to her face. A brunette, with bright red lipstick. With that smooth skin, must be in her twenties. No telltale laugh lines crinkling the corners of her eyes.

“Um, I’m here about the job,” he said.

“Okay. Here.” She handed him an application form on a clipboard with a pen attached. “Fill this out. Mr. Rothe will talk with you as soon as you’re done.”

“Which Mr. Rothe would that be?”

“Peter Junior. His father and uncle founded the firm. They’ve both passed on.”

“Oh. I’m sorry to hear it.”

She smiled—an effect like opening a dingy window onto a sunlit paradise. “It was years ago. Before my time. Junior’s been running the place for a goodly while now.”

“And you would be . . . ?”

“Jill.”

“I’m Larry.”

Working here might not be so bad if it meant seeing Jill every day.

He followed Junior towards an office on the other side of the factory floor. The wide-planked wood was scuffed and worn. Rows of towering machines gleamed in the light spilling through the tall windows and emitted various hums, clicks, whirs, whooshes and thumps.

As soon as they were seated, Peter Rothe said, “I need a man who’s good with numbers. Are you good with numbers?”

“Yes.” Which was certainly true.

“What’s 437 times 869?”

Something in his brain supplied the answer: “Three seventy-nine thousand, seven fifty-three—but don’t you have computers?”

“I need a man who understands numbers. Not just operating some machine. So you can do the math, hm? What’s 291 divided by 49?”

“Um, five point nine three eight something.”

“Something?”

“Seven seventy-five. But look—”

“Great. You’re hired.”

To do what? Larry wanted to ask. But he found out soon enough. Starting the following Monday, he was thrust into hours of tedium, copying numbers into a customized accounting database program, tracking envelopes, glue, deliveries, deliverables, receivables, oil and upkeep of the machines, electricity bills, the whole magilla. He was a bookkeeper. And whether or not he understood numbers had absolutely nothing to do with the job. A smart monkey could do this, was his constant thought.

Every time he saw Junior, Larry opened his mouth to say the words, I quit. But nothing emerged. His lips and tongue refused to form the sounds.

He began slacking off, the sooner to get that pink slip. But weeks went by. Junior frowned often, yet said nothing to reprimand him.

Larry wondered, Should I have cashed that severance paycheck after all? Then thought, No, that really would have locked me into this job.

His only consolation was Jill. They’d begun dating soon after he started working at the factory. Weekdays were off limits, though, because she was taking an MBA program at night school and either going to courses or studying.

“I never see you,” was Larry’s constant complaint—but the sex on the weekends was incredible. On Fridays after a foray to some restaurant, a different one each week, they got naked together about 10 pm. Between experiments with honey, chocolate syrup, fur-lined handcuffs, ice cubes and hot wax, they soaped each other off in the shower, finally falling into bed for a marathon sleep session on Sunday evening.

“Don’t you have any ambitions?” was Jill’s constant refrain during the week—and yes, he certainly did! But getting fired was the first item on his agenda, and surprisingly difficult to achieve. He knew it was going to happen, of course, just like he knew Snaggles was going to need dental surgery someday.

The challenge to get fired so he could get on with his life became more urgent in August when the next strange envelope arrived, this time from Jamboree Investment Advisors. Larry ripped it open—and learned that his trust fund overseers had managed to invest all his money in Bleddleton’s High Gain Micro-Cap Fund—which was the current Wall Street insider trading scandal, discovered when the IRS had frozen their assets in a tax fraud accusation, and having the side effect of forcing the fund into bankruptcy.

But I don’t have a trust fund, was his immediate thought, followed swiftly by, Ohmygod, now I have to build enough wealth to have a trust fund!

Of course, he’d been planning to do that one of these days anyway, but now the whole question of how to do it had arrived smack dab on his doorstep, or more precisely, in his mailbox. He examined the fine print on the portfolio report to find out how much money he’d managed to lose and discovered that his investment had fallen from $31,782,294.03 at the beginning of the year to . . . $8.36.

This is crazy! was his next thought. Surely the whole purpose of foreknowledge was to avoid mistakes! Not to commit them. What could possibly have persuaded him to entrust thirty-one million smackeroos to a bunch of charlatans named Jamboree Investment Advisors whose hugely bad judgment had put all his money into a high-risk micro-cap fund?

Greed, came the immediate response. I must’ve been trying to get rich quick. And while there was nothing intrinsically wrong with that notion, apparently there were flaws in his plan. Okay, forewarned is forearmed, he thought. I won’t make that particular mistake. I’ll choose some other investment firm.

The inability to get fired was clawing at his nerves, though. Every night, he tossed and turned while his brain sought for ways to earn that pink slip without committing any crimes—like embezzlement—that might send him to jail. He misfiled papers, hung out at the water cooler, even tried smoking because he knew that Junior hated cigarettes. But nothing worked.

When the next odd envelope arrived, he was tempted to burn it unopened, especially since the return address said “Infallible Psychic Readings.”

Infallible—now there’s a hoot.

He’d never been to a psychic in his life. Nor would he have imagined ever going to one—but the contents proved to be an invoice for a session with Madame Lesyieux.

This is really crazy. Why would I go to a . . . ? Oh. Of course. A psychic might know what’s happening to me.

Larry took his checkbook with him, in case he got his money’s worth after all.

“Eet certainement looks like eet ees my stationery,” Madame Lesyieux said when he slammed the invoice on the table in front of her. “But I have nevair sent out any such ting.” And she glanced behind him, as if expecting him not to have come alone.

“Look, you can drop that phony accent,” Larry told her. “I Googled you—and can’t believe I’ve come here despite what I found. But that damned bill arrived, and every other time that’s happened, it means something. Something I’m about to do, or destined to do. So tell me: Why is this happening to me?”

The psychic picked up the invoice, placed it to her forehead, and closed her eyes for several moments. Then she stared up at Larry. “It has my aura,” she said. “It seems we will have spent a full session together. So sit.”

He pulled the chair out and sat.

She rose with a clinking of bracelets and swirl of long skirts that seemed made of scarves, lit a candle in the center of the table, then turned off the other lights in the room and came back to the table. Then she held out her hands and gestured for him to clasp them.

He reached out and took them. They were warm, dry, and held his own hands in a firm grip. Then she closed her eyes. They stayed like that for long minutes as the scent of vanilla rose from the candle and endless questions raced through Larry’s mind. The vet bill, the parking ticket, the pink slip, the investment report, and finally Madame Lesyieux’s own bill. What’s next? he wondered. And how do I get myself out of this?

Her eyes snapped open and she dropped his hands. “But do you want to get out of it?”

A chill ran down his spine. How could she have guessed what he was thinking? “Of course I want out. This damn job is driving me crazy—and I can’t quit. The words won’t come out of my mouth.”

“Even—what is her name? Even if it meant you would never have met her?”

“Jill.” He gave the name with some reluctance. This was how they conned you. They said something vague and you supplied the details yourself.

“There is a swirl in your aura—a place where—I’ve never seen anything like it. Some kind of reversal in the energy, a backward whorl.” Her bracelets jangled as her hands made a spinning motion in the air. “I think—it would seem that cause and effect are reversed for you. That first you see the results of your actions, and then must do the things that will bring it about.”

“But that’s nuts. Nobody can see the results of their actions beforehand.”

“Apparently you can. Was there some moment when you wished for this with the full passion of your soul?”

“No.” But then the memory of staring down at Lady Luck’s lifeless corpse crashed through his mind. “Yes.”

“Then you must have done something that pinned this moment to reality, something that transformed it from wish to tangible—just as a goal is no more than a dream until you take action.”

“The ticket. From the racetrack. I put it up on my wall. In a Ziploc bag. I thought—if I could see the future, I could avoid the mistakes.”

“And have you?”

“No. It’s more like I’m doomed to make the mistakes anyway. But now I can see them coming, even when I’m trying to avoid them. It’s like standing on the train track, watching the train coming at you and unable to move.” He told her about the Rothe Brothers Envelope Factory. How he hadn’t wanted or even needed a job, but he’d gone inside and asked about it anyway. And now, apparently he was going to make a fortune, only to lose it all through bad investment decisions.

“So, knowing you will lose the money, would you rather not make it in the first place?”

“Heck no—I’d rather keep it!”

She smiled. “Yes, of course. Still, if you want to reverse your condition, you must find a way to undo the making, that moment of bringing your wish from the dream world to the tangible.”

“That’s it? That’s all you can tell me? Somehow I’ve got to reverse it back from real to unreal?”

“Yes. You must destroy that ticket. But remember the saying? That if wishes were horses?”

“Mm. All men would ride.”

“And you have found a way to ride. Your attachments to the fruits of your wish will keep it anchored here.”

“What do you mean attachments? That doesn’t make any sense.”

“The seeds of your sowing, they grow into fruits. Every action has its consequences. You wished to know them beforehand, so you could always choose the best action. And even though the foreknowledge is doing you no good, still you wish to have it. Giving it up will not be so easy.”

Easy? Nothing she had said suggested easy—aside from destroying the betting slip. That he could do.

But when he got home and took the bag down from the wall, he found himself staring at the ticket rather than taking it out and burning it as he’d intended.

What if Jill goes poof along with the job? And Snaggles and the Astin-Martin? Gone as if they’d never been a part of my life? Surely I can find a way to get fired without risking all the rest?

The next day he was rude to Junior every time they crossed paths. The final straw proved to be their meeting in the men’s room, when Larry wiggled his dick over the urinal and chanted, “Mine’s bigger than yours.”

Junior turned beet red. “You’re fired!”

Yes!

Larry grinned hugely, even wanted to hug the little twerp, but stayed calm. “As you wish, Mr. Rothe.”

“I’ll tell Payroll to prepare your severance pay.”

And I’ll cash it this time!

Larry sang as he slid into the Astin-Martin and drove home. He started building his nest egg the next morning, resolved never to invest a dime with anyone resembling the Jamboree Investment Advisors or Bleddleton’s High Gain Micro-Cap Fund. No, he would get his startup funds the predictable way: through a gazillion faked point-of-sale transactions that were individually too small to hurt anybody, but would make him a mint when added together, which was easy to do with the lightning speed of today’s processors. He just had to be careful, that was all.

By the following March, day trading had expanded his nest egg to a comfortable 3.8 million dollars when another envelope arrived, with divorce papers inside. His eyes went immediately to the signature: Jill Delmont.

No!

It wasn’t so much the thought of marrying her as the foreknowledge that they would wind up divorced. What was the point? A lot of wasted years—and all for nothing in the end. The sex was still great, but . . . she’d gotten her MBA degree last summer and moved on to a new job. Her new boss hadn’t actually said she had to be there by 7:30 am and stay until 9:30 pm—but water-cooler gossip agreed that was the only way to get promoted. His complaint was still, I never see you. And her reply was still, Don’t you have any ambitions?

“Sure,” he wanted to say. But Jill was principled, and confessing to his methods of starting his portfolio seemed . . . imprudent.

Still, asking her to marry him when it was foredoomed to failure—that was just plain stupid. No, he’d better destroy that ticket first. Then at least they’d have a chance at the marriage working out.

Larry took the Ziploc baggie down from the wall and carried the losing ticket to the kitchen sink. He struck a match and held the flame to one corner—but the slip wouldn’t ignite. Six matches later, he gave up on that approach and picked up a pair of scissors. It was like trying to slice through goo. The damn thing slid between the blades, then snapped back to its original shape. He even tried feeding it through the paper shredder, only to find it intact on top of the pile of strips in the bin.

The next day, Larry took the ticket to Madame Lesyieux, who placed it in one palm and closed her eyes.

“Intriguing,” she said after several moments. “It shares your aura with the reverse energy swirl—and is heavily anchored in this world. You say you cannot destroy it?”

Larry took the ticket and tried to rip it in two. It stretched like rubber, and sprang back the moment he released it. “You see?” he said, and held it back out to her.

She grasped it and inspected the place that had refused to tear, running a fingertip along the edge, then shrugged and handed it back. “Your passion is still holding it to this world.”

“You mean Jill? I haven’t asked her to marry me yet. Figured I’d better get rid of this first.”

“Yes, that would be wise—but the passion in question is not for Jill. In order to destroy this thing, you must have no attachments to the fruits it brings to your life.”

Larry thought for a moment. If it wasn’t Jill . . . “The money, then? The nest egg that I’m building?”

Madame Lesyieux smiled. “You are determined to keep it, yes?”

Larry nodded. “It’s just stupid to put in all that effort if you know in the end it’s going to be wasted.”

“Ahhh. But our actions, what we choose to do, that’s all we have in this world. How can any effort be either stupid or wasted?”

“You’re saying, ‘Better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all’?”

“Of course.”

Larry thought about his options on the way home. He didn’t mind losing the money; he could always get more. But Jill was a whole different kettle of fish. If destroying the ticket meant losing Jill too . . . then no, he wasn’t ready to do that. In fact, Madame Lesyieux was right about Better to have loved and lost.

The next day, Larry cashed out his investment account, then went to the most posh jewelry store in town. The result was four flawless carats of diamond surrounded by a swirl of smaller stones, together with an equally flawless ruby necklace. He gave Jill the necklace that night.

“Ohmygosh!”

The glow in her eyes was reward enough, but then she frowned and looked at him with alarm.

“What did you do? Rob a bank?”

“No! Nothing like that. I’ve been doing some day trading. It seems I’m pretty good at it. I thought you deserved a little reward for putting up with me.”

She smiled, then reached forward and clasped his hand. “Don’t be silly. I love you.”

“Love you too,” he said, and almost followed it up with Marry me. But then thought No, not until that damn ticket is destroyed and we have a chance of making it last.

But the ticket still proved impervious to flame, scissors, and shredding. In the days that followed, Larry also tried soaking it in acid, burying it in the freezer, even taking it to a friend with an acetylene torch—thinking, Perhaps a match just isn’t hot enough. All to no avail.

Then the next envelope arrived. The return address was the Ridgemore Cancer Research Center. His stomach tightened into a stiff ball.

What if it’s not for me? was his immediate thought. What if it’s Jill?

The envelope sat in his desk drawer for three days before he finally tore it open. It was the results of a colonoscopy—his—and the findings were positive.

That’s just dandy, he thought. Now the damned ticket expects me to give myself cancer?

The thought was so distressing that he went to the store and bought a pint of Double Swirl Chocolate ice cream—which he promptly demolished. As he scraped the bottom of the container, a thought suddenly hit him: Maybe this was real and he already had cancer? No, that couldn’t be. He hadn’t gone to see a doctor, hadn’t actually had a colonoscopy. Trying to reassure himself, Larry searched everywhere on the report for a date, but there was none. There wasn’t even a box for that information or a blank spot where it should have been. It was as if the person who designed the form hadn’t thought a date was important.

Larry called his GP and asked her to set up an appointment, just to make sure he didn’t really have colon cancer—yet.

Ten days and twelve pints of Double Swirl later, he was forcing chalky glop down his throat in preparation for the next day’s test when he caught sight of the ticket in its Ziploc bag. I bet you think this is funny, he thought. A real barrel of laughs. Yeah, well, the joke’s on you, ’cause I’m going to find a way to get rid of you! No way am I going to give myself cancer.

The next envelope from the Ridgemore Cancer Research Center also contained a screening report—negative—and this time, the report had a date. Larry heaved a big sigh of relief and celebrated with a Big Mac and fries.

Another envelope arrived the next morning—from the Kilgore Funeral Home—sending an immediate chill down Larry’s spine.

I’ll swear off the Big Macs, I promise, was his first thought. Start eating my veggies and get more exercise. Then he realized it might not be his own funeral, and tore the envelope open.

Eighteen hundred dollars for a child’s casket.

No!

Larry took the ticket down off the wall and stared at it. Losing a marriage to the ticket was one thing—but a child too? What was it Madame Lesyieux had said? It is the fruits of your wish that keep it anchored to this world. No, that wasn’t quite right. Something about his attachments—that he wanted to know the future. Well, he was done with that. No more knowing in advance. Not when it brought foreknowledge of colon cancer and divorce and death. Nobody would ever do anything if they knew in advance their actions were doomed.

Somehow, he had to find a way to destroy the ticket and restore oblivion to his future. What would Madame Lesyieux tell him to do?

Get rid of the fruits, popped into his head.

Yes, that made sense, and okay, he could do that.

Larry drove the Astin-Martin to the Make A Wish Foundation, filled out some paperwork, and took the bus home. Then he called the Pets for Seniors Foundation and made arrangements to give Snaggles—along with $128 to cover that pesky dental bill—to an older woman only a few blocks away. Snaggles meowed piteously in the cat carrier all the way over, and glared accusingly at Larry when released into his new home—but then the woman sprinkled some catnip on the floor and Snaggles went wild rolling around in it. On his way home, Larry stopped at a supermarket and looked around until he found an unattended purse in the child’s seat of a grocery cart, and dropped the diamond ring into its open maw.

Feeling light and free, Larry made his way home again, then took down the Ziploc baggie and removed the ticket. Holding it over the sink, he struck a match and held it to the corner—but again the ticket would not ignite. Similar results ensued from attempts to tear and shred it.

A short search of his paperwork yielded Madame Lesyieux’s phone number.

“What’s wrong?” he demanded. “I’ve gotten rid of everything—the cat, the car, the money. The job is already long gone. Do I have to wait until I’m divorced, with colon cancer and a dead kid before I can get rid of this ticket? And what if it sends me something new in the meantime?”

“Ah, but you have kept one fruit of your wishing. What of Jill? What are you doing to ensure that she stays in your life?”

“You mean I have to break up with her?”

“No. Only that you must stop whatever you are doing to try to control the outcome.”

The answer leapt to his mind immediately: He was lying to her. Pretending to be a better person than he really was. A small ball of dread coalesced in the pit of his stomach.

The next Friday afternoon, Larry packed his bags with the bare essentials of his life and placed them in the closet. That night, he took Jill to their favorite restaurant, complete with the cherry cheesecake she especially loved. So okay, that was loading the dice just a teensy bit—but after they’d gotten back home, instead of lighting the candle in their usual pre-sex ritual, he said, “Sweetie, I have a confession to make.”

“Yes?”

She was looking at him so trustingly with those gorgeous hazel eyes, a twinge of concern crinkling her brows. Did he really have to do this? Shatter her faith in him? Then he remembered the invoice for the child’s casket, and plunged ahead.

“You remember when I gave you that necklace, and you asked me if I’d robbed a bank?”

“Mm-hmm.” Her brows knit further together and a puzzled look invaded her eyes.

“Well, actually I did. Sort of, anyway. Not exactly.”

Concern and puzzlement gave way to wide-eyed alarm. “What do you mean?”

 “I’m a hacker. A computer hacker. That’s how I got the money to start the day trading. I never took much—from any one person anyway. Two bucks here, seven there. When you add it all up—well—it adds up. If you do it enough times.”

Wide-eyed alarm had grown to open-mouthed shock. “You mean—you stole? From ordinary people like you and me?”

Larry nodded. Put like that, what he’d done was kind of ugly. He wondered how he’d ever been proud of it. “The first time, it was really just to see if I could. And then, it seemed like a smart way to get some money when I needed it. Like I said, I never took much.”

That excuse sounded hollow to him now. Before this, he’d never thought about the people he was actually stealing from—only about Citibank and MegaTrust and how clever he was in getting past their firewalls.

“I’m done with it now,” he continued. “All of it. The money . . . the gambling . . . the wishing . . . and I hope you can forgive me or love me anyway because I really want to marry you and have some kids. At least two. Maybe three. But if you don’t or can’t . . . I understand. If you want me to leave . . .” A lump grew in his throat, choking off the words.

Jill was silent for a really long time. The knot in Larry’s stomach grew larger and colder. It was all he could do to keep his hands still and not quivering with anxiety.

 “You say you’re done with it,” she finally said. “But—that’s what all the addicts say, isn’t it? I won’t do it again? But then they do. Over and over. Suppose something happens and life gets tough. You’d be tempted, wouldn’t you?”

Larry nodded. “Yeah, I would.”

“So, how can I know if you’ve hit rock bottom? If you’re really changing your life or just saying you want to? Because I do love you. And forgiving you—I can see why you would lie to me—not wanting me to know about this. But I don’t think I can live with a thief. And kids . . .” Tears rose to her eyes and spilled down her cheeks. “They deserve better from their dad.”

She stopped talking, and the silence grew longer. Larry kept hoping she would say something more. Finally, he said, “Should I go, then?”

Jill nodded, tears still rolling down her cheeks.

Larry went to the closet, got out his suitcases, and took the bus to the nearest motel. He hung his clothes in the closet and filled the bathroom shelf with his shaving gear and other toiletries. He began moving his socks to the dresser drawer—and saw the top edge of the Ziploc baggie at the bottom of the suitcase, peeking out from beneath his boxer shorts. He was sure he’d left it behind, the last remnant of a ruined life, but it had somehow found its way into the valise. Determined to stuff both ticket and its plastic encasement into the nearest dumpster, Larry pulled it out of the suitcase—but instead of the ticket he was so accustomed to seeing, the baggie held only soot and smudges of ash.

Yes! He’d freed himself of foreknowledge. The future was again just a huge blank slate, ready to be written upon.

He picked up the phone and called Jill.

“I’ll prove it to you,” he said. “That I’ve quit. Won’t do it again. I don’t know how I’ll prove it, but I will. Just give me a second chance. That’s all I ask.”

Larry closed his eyes and crossed his fingers, waiting for her reply. It was all he could do—and the most he could do. But at least now, with the ticket gone, the future was once again up for grabs.

 


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