“If Tears Were Wishes”
The smell of industrial strength cleansers was laced with the smell of urine. In the back of her mind, through the pain and anger and fear, Brooke registered that the girls’ bathroom didn’t smell this way, pungent behind the clean, the traces of decades of boys and young men missing the urinals impossible to get out of the walls and the floor. The gag in her mouth tasted like dusty cotton.
“Do you really believe that stuff about the wishes?” the guy guarding the door said, his voice slurred with drink. She thought his name was Damon.
Another one, blond and sleek, one of those jocks who hung out in the west wing, yanked the rope tighter around her wrists and pushed her to her knees. She hit the tiles hard, and pain shot up her thighs.
“Only one way to find out,” the blond said, and kicked her in the stomach.
A third teenager pulled out a couple of vials he must have stolen from the chemistry lab, kneeled down beside her, and held them to her tear ducts to capture the valuable liquid. Brooke jerked her head away. She and her twin sister had always given their tears freely to those who asked—but no one had ever beaten her for them before. If she could have kept from crying, she would have, but it hurt too much. The boys couldn’t catch all of the tears, though. Salt tracks dried on her cheeks and tears leaked into her mouth through the gag.
If only they would grant her wishes, but the magic didn’t work for her. She only created it.
She wasn’t going to survive this. She knew these guys, they were seniors in her high school, a couple of years older than she was. They hadn’t even bothered to blindfold her when they nabbed her in the parking lot after the tryouts for All’s Well That Ends Well and dragged her back into the school, into the mens’ room, to the cold tiles against her knees and the gag in her mouth and the bruises she could feel developing on her cheek and back and thighs.
No, she wasn’t thinking straight—of course they couldn’t blindfold her. It was her tears they wanted.
She hoped they didn’t get Crystal too.
“Damn,” the guy holding the vials barked at the one hitting her. “Get Damon in here to hold her face, would you?”
She could tell from his expression that he would have hit her too if not for the vials he held. Vials which held a fortune. The rarest substance in the world: her tears.
The twins had grown up in the middle of an extended voluntary family known as the Farm; between remnants of old growth forest and fields of hallucinogenic substances, among the smell of pine trees and marijuana; in a community on the outskirts of a town somehow outside and beyond the mainstream of American culture, a place behind and out of time. Their parents, who might have abused one too many illegal substances in the course of conception and pregnancy, had died in a very conventional American Way
The twins had grown up in the middle of an extended voluntary family known as the Farm; between remnants of old growth forest and fields of hallucinogenic substances, among the smell of pine trees and marijuana; in a community on the outskirts of a town somehow outside and beyond the mainstream of American culture, a place behind and out of time. Their parents, who might have abused one too many illegal substances in the course of conception and pregnancy, had died in a very conventional American Way—a car accident —when Brooke and Crystal were only six. Perhaps they had unwisely wished to die together after treating a scraped knee one day.
If the twins had any other relatives, no one on the Farm knew about them: most of those who chose to live in the little community on the outskirts of the village outside of Eugene had long been disowned by their biological families.
For a long time, the twins remained normal children with a less-than-normal lifestyle: uncanny perhaps in the affinity they had for each other, but otherwise not unusual. If good things came to those who dried their tears, what of that? It was surely the principle of cosmic karma at work.
It wasn’t until Brooke and Crystal were ten that something happened to make anyone think any differently.
Sean, one of their many foster parents, was driving them to Eugene for Saturday Market when his beat-up old Beetle broke down between here and nowhere, spewing stinking clouds of smoke. The twins broke into tears when he told them they wouldn’t be able to make it. Sean dried their tears with the back of one rough, hairy hand, and in an uncharacteristic show of temper, kicked the tires of the poor purple bug.
“I wish I had a decent car, a Mercedes or a BMW!” And then as an afterthought, “Even if they are symbols of capitalist pigs. At least they work.”
The twins continued to cry.
Sean took their small hands and hitchhiked with them the rest of the way to Eugene. When they got back to the Farm that evening, the notification was waiting for him that he had won a Mercedes in the Oregon Lottery.
“Since when do they give away Mercs in the Oregon Lottery?” Angel asked, tucking a strand of long, dirty-blond hair behind her ear.
“Since when do I play the Oregon Lottery?” Sean asked, shaking his head. “I never bought a ticket in my life.”
He looked at the twins, and an unbelieving smile lit up his long face. “Wow, man. It was those two. I don’t know how, but we’ve known for a long time that good things come to us when we help them out.”
Angel stared as him, her light blue eyes wide. “Yeah.”
“But not all the time,” henna-haired Dawn objected.
“They were crying.” Sean’s voice was slow, amazed. “That’s it. It’s when they cry.”
Few of the Farm members actually believed him. But then Angel told her friend Mandy, who lived in the Real World and was fighting her way through a Real Divorce, what the twins’ tears could do. Mandy told Brooke that her husband was trying to take her daughter away from her, and Brooke shed tears of sympathy for her: the courts awarded custody to Mandy the next day.
Even after the members of the Farm could no longer deny that the tears of the twins were special (although they soon discovered that crocodile tears just didn’t cut it) Brooke’s and Crystal’s childhood continued to be dominated by the Farm’s laid-back approach to home schooling, the sweet smell of mildly hallucinogenic plants, and the slinky softness of kittens being given away on the side of the street at the weekly trips to Saturday Market in Eugene. Most of the spaced-out Farm members thought a suit was weirder than tears granting wishes—and certainly more perverse. There was a cosmic justice to it, after all, and the wishes granted were entirely in keeping with the morals of the farm: better harvests, more milk, a previously undiscovered hot springs in the hills. With the exception of Sean’s Mercedes, of course.
But even such wonders as Brooke and Crystal could be a major pain in the ass at times and became more so when they reached adolescence. The day came, as come it must, that Angel was totally fed up with their moods.
“I wish I could wash my hands of you!”
“You’ll regret it!” came Crystal’s teary answer.
The next day, an elderly woman showed up at the Farm. She seemed a bit weak in the head, but she did have papers proving she was a forgotten aunt of the twins’ mother, and she was taking Brooke and Crystal away to live in Eugene.
In Eugene, the strange talents of the girls went unnoticed. Aunt Dotty hadn’t asked and no one had told her—she probably would have forgotten if they had. The knowledge might have disappeared forever if not for an article in the Eugene Register Guard about communes in the region that had a picture of Sean next to his capitalistic Mercedes, complete with a description of how he claimed he had gotten it.
A week later, KEZI did a tongue-in-cheek story on the evening news about the local wonder twins whose tears granted wishes.
And the next day, Brooke disappeared.
Crystal fought her way through the students and teachers and police crowded around the door of the men’s room, pushing ahead to a woman she presumed was an officer kneeling next to some spots of dried blood on the white tiles of the floor, urinals behind her. A cleaning woman was being questioned by a second officer nearby.
“What did you find?” Crystal asked. She barely registered that she was in the forbidden territory of the boy’s john, with the odd fixtures she before had only spied through half-open doors.
The officer looked up. “Are you the sister of the missing girl?”
The woman rose. “Good. We can take a blood sample from you and use it to match the DNA. I’m Officer Anderson.” She held out her hand. Crystal stared at it a moment. The palm was square and the fingers long, the fingernails cut off short.
Crystal took the hand, cool against her own. “Have you found anything yet?” she repeated.
“No. But there isn’t much blood here. I can’t offer you any guarantees, but my instincts tell me your sister is still alive.”
At the word “blood,” Crystal closed her eyes, imagined Brooke bleeding on the smooth tiles, tied up, gagging from the cloth in her mouth. No, no, no. What had she bled from? Had they broken her nose, cut her to make her cry?
She opened her eyes again, forcing herself to be calm. If they wanted Brooke for her tears, they wouldn’t kill her. They would make her cry, but they wouldn’t kill her. She had to hold on to that.
“I’d like you to go with Mr. Rehnquist to the station so that we can get that blood sample from you,” Anderson was saying now.
Crystal nodded, numb. But she couldn’t be numb, she had to make plans. The world she had grown up in wasn’t the Real World, this was, and she had to find her way into it, find Brooke.
Find whoever had done this to her sister and make them pay.
But how? She couldn’t use her own magic to find Brooke, only someone else could. She cast a speculative glance at Officer Anderson, with her suit and her logic and her laws, her square palm and her practical fingernails. The police wouldn’t be interested in magic. Her old aunt would be useless too—the twins called her dotty Dotty behind her back—and besides, she couldn’t stay there and put her aunt in danger. Whoever wanted Brooke for her tears would want Crystal too. She had to hide.
And she had to find someone to help her.
Dotty met her on the front porch of the big old house on Alder Street when the police car dropped her off. The smell of the roses in front filled the air, a smell much too happy and hopeful for the way Crystal felt.
“Have they found her, dear?” Dotty asked, her voice quivering. She looked much more down-to-earth than she was, her figure generous, her cheeks rosy, and her short hair steel gray shot with black. But if you looked at her eyes long, you saw they always wandered, and her hands were often moving, as if searching for something to do. The twins had hated leaving the Farm at first, but soon they understood that Dotty was a gentle, lost lady who needed them to take care of her.
Crystal wished she didn’t have to go, but she might be the only one who could find Brooke.
“They have some ideas,” Crystal said. “I’ll have to help them night and day and won’t be home for a while. You know how connected Brooke and I are.” She didn’t normally lie, but this was serious, and she didn’t want Dotty worried.
Besides, it wasn’t a complete lie.
“Oh, yes. They will find her with you.” Dotty gave her a relieved smile as they entered the house together, the safe world their great aunt had created for them: the world of cinnamon buns and fried chicken and mashed potatoes, smells that lingered in the house night and day, from dishes that had become the girls’ favorites—right alongside alfalfa sprout-avocado sandwiches and veggie burgers.
Dotty trusted her. Crystal couldn’t let her down. Not her, not Brooke.
Early the next morning, while Dotty’s regular snoring still punctuated the silence of the house, Crystal got up and pulled out the small package she had bought the day before, tore open the thin cardboard and took out two bottles, one brown glass and an even smaller one of plastic. After spreading the instructions out on the counter in the bathroom, she took her long, dark–blond hair in one hand, the silky–rough tresses sliding across her palm. Could she become the person she had to be to do the job she had to do?
She could. Rage would help her.
“Bye,” she whispered and pulled a pair of scissors out of the drawer, her hand steady.
She tossed 14 inches of blondness into the plastic bag that had held the dye. The first step in her new armor.
Snip, snip, snip, snip.
When she was done, she screwed the plastic bottle onto the brown one and shook it. The stinging scent of the dye made her eyes water. Using the slick plastic gloves, she smeared the vile-smelling mixture into the hair that was left, the uneven tufts that stuck out all over her head.
Vile, like herself now, the person she hadn’t known had been there until the fury took over.
The fury and the hatred—hatred for people whose names she didn’t even know.
After the required time, she stuck her head under the faucet, girding herself. The first shock of the barely warm water against her scalp sent goose bumps popping up down her arms. Although Dotty slept like the dead, Crystal still didn’t want to use the hair dryer, so she towel-dried her hair, rubbing the soft terrycloth against the newly black locks.
It was barely dry when she shook it out and finally turned to look in the mirror.
It would do. It would definitely do. Better than she had expected, actually. While before she’d looked like a gentle flower child, she now looked like a street-wise punk. There was no messing with the chick in the mirror, man.
She was ready.
She took the plastic bag with her blondness and her bottles and let herself quietly out of the back door, taking care not to let the screen door bang against the frame. She would throw the hair and the dye away somewhere where Dotty couldn’t find them. A note waited on the kitchen table, and all the money she possessed was in the wallet in the back pocket of her jeans.
Crystal would now become Chris.
She had to wait for a while between the burrito stands and the assortment of ethnic cuisines and the all-natural lemonade and juice bars before she finally spotted Sean. He was ordering double-strength leaded at the Allann Brothers Coffee booth on the 7th Street side of the Saturday Market food court when she sidled up to him. A faint smell of pot surrounded him. He probably needed one drug to cancel out the other.
“You owe me, buddy.”
Sean looked down at her, clueless. “Hey, man, I’d give you something, honest, but I’m pretty broke at the moment.”
“What about the Merc you’re so fond of, that capitalistic piece of shit?”
He stared at her for moment while the cheery saleswoman handed him the double, and his eyes widened. “Crys!”
“None other. Where are the others?”
Sean was still staring at her. “Under the trees next to the stage.”
“Okay, I’ll meet you there. I need your help.”
To Crystal’s great satisfaction, it took Angel, Dawn and Aurora a while to recognize her too. Although with this gang, she probably couldn’t give her disguise all the credit. She settled down on the lawn in the midst of the puppies and kittens, and Sean returned with two burritos with sprouts and peanut sauce. He poured himself into a lotus position next to her, seemingly boneless, and offered her one of the burritos. Crystal shook her head.
“Hey, Crys, ya gotta eat, man. We’ll find Brooke. The Farm takes care of its own.”
Crystal gave a disbelieving snort. “Then how did the Farm lose us?”
No one had an answer to that; instead, they devoted their attention to the puppies in their laps, their soft fur and tiny yaps.
“Look, you guys,” Crystal said. “I can’t use my own magic, so you have to help me.” It was easy enough to conjure up the tears when she let herself; repressing them had been the hard part. She could feel the slight sting at the back of her eyelids, feel her throat closing and the moisture begin to seep from her eyes.
The first thing she made them wish for was that no more harm would come to Brooke.
The second was that they would find her.
It didn’t work.
Crystal paced the dingy hotel room she had made Sean rent so that they could stay in Eugene and concentrate on looking for Brooke. Her new self wasn’t surprised that the Real World had won for the time being; her old self cried out that the wish should have come true. She should have her sister now, and the guys who had taken her should be paying.
“They must have wished that no one would find her,” she said. “Then the wishes would cancel each other out, right?”
Sean nodded. “That makes sense. But how do you know there’s more than one of them?”
“I just know.” She stopped pacing and looked at him, sitting in his usual lotus position on the floor on the faded brown rug. But while he still appeared boneless, he seemed more “there” than she’d ever experienced him in all her years on the Farm. The characteristic smell of pot that always clung to him was fading too.
“We have to come up with a wish they haven’t already anticipated,” she said.
“You know what I wish, Crys?”
Sean unfolded himself from the lotus and flowed into a standing position. He towered over her, long and skinny, but much less insubstantial than he had been only a couple of days ago. “I wish the guys who took Brooke would pay for the profits of her tears.” There was an intensity in his voice she had never heard before, and she stared at him. It was like he’d read her mind.
“Sean, I love you,” she said and cried.
The next day, a senior from her school who’d just gotten a new Porsche from his dad ran it into the side of a tunnel on the way to the Oregon coast and died instantly.
The same week, another senior won the jackpot in the Oregon Lottery. Shortly after becoming a freshly minted millionaire, he was mugged on the way home from school and shot by one of the robbers.
The lavender-colored high school flew its flag at half mast and the awnings over the front doors were draped in black. South Eugene had never known such a series of what the media incorrectly referred to as tragedies.
Crystal stood with Sean across the street in the bright May sun, gazing at the black banners, her teeth clenched. “We still haven’t found Brooke.”
“Maybe revenge isn’t the way to go,” Sean suggested.
“You’re the one who wished for it.”
“I know. But I didn’t know they would all die. I don’t believe in the death penalty.”
“I don’t either, but it’s my sister.” What she didn’t tell Sean was that her new self was overjoyed. She wiped away a stray, unused tear of rage from her cheek. “And there’s still one of them out there.”
“How do you know?”
“If there weren’t any more of them, our wishes would work and we’d find her.”
She heard Sean take a deep breath beside her. “What if Brooke is dead?”
“No. They wouldn’t kill her. They want her tears. Besides, I would know if she were dead.”
Sean took her face between his bony, long–fingered hands and brushed away a second tear. “I have an idea,” he murmured. “We wish that Brooke will somehow find her way to the hospital. They can’t have anticipated that.”
Crystal shook her head angrily. “Whoever is left has her tears, as many as he can make her shed. He can anticipate everything.” She ran a hand through the uneven, short black hair. “Will I pass?”
“Can I go into the boy’s room like this?”
“Why do you want to go into the boy’s room?”
“Haven’t you ever heard that thing about criminals always returning to the scene of their crimes?”
“Crys, you haven’t thought this out. Of course he’s going to return to the scene of the crime —it’s the fucking boy’s room.”
Crystal stared at him. “Whatever happened to laid-back old retro-hippie Sean?”
“Not enough drugs.”
“Well then, maybe you’ll be awake and aware enough to watch my back.”
He stared across the street at the pairs of double doors. “How can I watch your back if you go into the school? It’s pretty obvious I don’t belong.”
She looked both ways for cars and dashed across 18th Street. “When did that ever stop you before?” she called over her shoulder.
He rubbed his thumb and fingers together. “I wish I can keep you from harm,” he murmured to himself.
Crystal was afraid someone would recognize her, but either all her classmates were blind, or she looked different enough to be invisible in the anonymity of the big high school. She—her new self—was inclined to think the former.
She passed the rows of lockers, passed couples making out next to them in their free period, passed the closed doors of classrooms, until she finally reached the boy’s room where Brooke had first suffered for her magic. She wondered who the third guy was. For some reason she knew there were three, as she had known the gag in Brooke’s mouth, known the blows she had suffered. The two who had died had been from the West Wing, not guys who would have known her and Brooke as people, guys who could have used them as a means to an end, a way to make wishes come true.
She pushed open the door to the john, to the smell of cigarette smoke lingering in the air and the row of urinals against the wall. She hardly had time to look around before a hand shot out and clapped her across the mouth.
She’d found him.
“I finally got my wish,” he muttered against her ear as he moved her back with him towards the door, one of those cones in hand that the janitors used to block the doors when they were cleaning. He inched the door open again and put it in front.
“Now,” he said. “If you want to see your sister again, you’re going to keep quiet and walk out of here with me like we’re the greatest buddies in this school.”
Crystal nodded and the guy took his hand off her mouth. The other hand was now holding her arm painfully up behind her back. She twisted around to see who he was.
“Peter Glass,” she said. He was blond and tall and captain of the football team, one of the most popular guys in the school. What did he need their tears for?
“That’s right, babe. You came to me, just like I wanted.” He graced her with his All-American grin. “After what happened to Damon and Steve, I figured I’d better hold off with my wishes until I had the other twin. So all I wished for was you.”
The door of the john slammed open.
“But no good can come from it,” Sean said. “Because that’s what I wished.” He slammed a bony fist into Peter’s jaw. Peter dropped Crystal’s arm and turned on Sean, who was shaking his aching hand and backing away.
Crystal leaped on Peter’s back, screaming at the top of her lungs.
“Bitch!” Peter yelled, trying to shake her off, pounding on the thighs clinging around his waist. Crystal held on tight and bit him hard on the back of his neck. Peter screamed.
Then people were pouring into the bathroom, pulling her off Peter, holding back Sean. “Don’t let him get away!” she yelled. “He has my sister!”
“What the hell are you talking about?” Peter said. “I don’t even know who you are!”
“You okay, Pete?” a big guy who was holding Sean asked. In the distance, Crystal could hear sirens. Well, at least that meant that Peter couldn’t get her this time.
And she now knew who her enemy was.
“She bit me,” Peter said, holding a hand to his neck.
Officer Anderson forced her way through the crowd blocking the door of the men’s room, followed by another plainclothes detective and two uniformed officers.
“Interesting getup, Crystal,” she said, shaking her head. “Trying to take the law into your own hands, huh?”
Crystal lifted her chin. “That’s right.”
“Release them,” Anderson said, and the big guys let her and Sean go. The officer took her arm. “Your sister was found at the door of the emergency room at Sacred Heart Hospital. She said she escaped from the basement where she was being held, and she was able to give us the names of her kidnappers before passing out.”
Brooke escaped. A cloud lifted from Crystal’s soul.
She glanced over at Sean behind the officer’s shoulder and smiled. “You got your wish.”
The detective turned to Peter. “Peter Glass?”
“I’m afraid I have to arrest you for the kidnapping and assault of Brooke Morey.”
Dotty hardly recognized Crystal when they picked her aunt up before going to the hospital to visit Brooke. “What did you do to your lovely hair?” Dotty asked.
Chris only ran a hand through the short tufts and grinned.
But when she entered the hospital room, Sean and Dotty behind her, and saw Brooke unconscious on the hospital bed, face discolored with bruises and her arm in a sling, Crystal broke into tears.
Dotty patted Crystal’s shoulder, crying herself. “Shhh, shhh, dear. She’s all right. Brooke is all right.”
Crystal just cried harder.
“Oh, dear,” Dotty said, even more distressed. She leaned over and brushed the tears from Crystal’s cheeks. “I wish . . . I wish neither of you would ever cry again.”
Before giving up theory for imagination, Ruth Nestvold was an assistant professor of English in the picturesque town of Freiburg on the edge of the Black Forest. The university career has been replaced by a small software localization business, and the Black Forest by the parrots of Bad Cannstatt, where she lives with her fantasy, her family, her books and no cats in a house with a turret. Her short fiction has appeared in numerous markets, including Asimov’s, Baen’s universe, Strange Horizons, Scifiction, Gardner Dozois’s Year’s Best Science Fiction, and several anthologies. Her novella “Looking Through Lace” made the short list for the Tiptree award in 2003 and was nominated for the Sturgeon award. In 2007, the Italian translation won the “Premio Italia” award for best international work. Her novel Yseult will be coming out in translation from the German imprint of Random House, Blanvalet, in the winter of 2008/2009. She maintains a web site at ruthnestvold.com
Story © 2008 Ruth Nestvold. All other content copyright © 2008 ByrenLee Press
Art Director: Bonnie Brunish