The wish goblin appeared just before dusk, as Marlon reached up to the top shelf inside a Hannaford Supermarket. It was summer, and Marlon was searching for swimmer’s ear solution in the ailments aisle. He knew it was just isopropyl alcohol with a little glycerin mixed in, and he had isopropyl alcohol at home, but he didn’t want to risk it. Much safer to buy something packaged and marketed explicitly as swimmer’s ear relief, than rely on something all-purpose. Marlon appreciated the specificity of things, of intended, directed uses, even if it was all bullshit.
He stood on his tiptoes, felt around. Where the swimmer’s ear solution should have been, there was only empty ledge. Except. Some small box, way in the back. He stretched his fingers out, grazing the cardboard.
It wasn’t working. He was actually pushing it farther away, he thought, when the wish goblin swirled into being, beside him.
That was the first thing the wish goblin wanted to get out of the way. That he wasn’t a genie.
“There’s a difference?” Marlon asked.
“In practice, no. But there are too many associations.”
“You may as well just say Aladdin.”
“I didn’t know if you knew Aladdin.”
The wish goblin sighed, cleared a space next to the Preparation H, sat down.
Marlon looked around. “Can anyone else see you?”
“Nobody cares, it’s Saturday night.”
He had forgotten. All his kids wanted to do was swim, and that was all he wanted to do, too. And so Marlon swam with his children, the whole day usually, on weekends. He tried leaving work early, during the week, as well. He was something else to them, his children, in the water. They were, all of them, better.
“I’m tired, I forgot.”
“Don’t overthink it, you already know the drill. Three wishes, can’t wish for infinity wishes.”
Marlon stepped closer to shelves, but the wish goblin didn’t move over, didn’t make room for him. “You sure you don’t want, to stretch a bit, first?”
“Nah, I wasn’t trapped up there long. Just this morning some other guy found me, too.”
“This is like, your burden?”
The wish goblin cringed at the word. “Think of it more as community service.”
“So you don’t have to do this?”
“Technically no, but it would make certain aspects of my life more difficult.”
“What did the other guy wish for?”
“Can’t say. But, if you look over there.” The wish goblin pointed at a large political banner hanging over the automatic sliding doors, at the front of the store.
“Wow. I do kind of want to vote for him.”
“You probably shouldn’t.”
“How about if I wish for twice as many wishes as I currently have?”
The wish goblin clapped his hands. “That’s pretty good. Maybe, you’d have to try it. It’s not like there’s a committee, or anything.”
“But there are rules.”
“Can’t account for everything.”
Marlon started lowering himself toward the floor, but stood back up when the wish goblin frowned. “OK, I’ll make two wishes, then try doubling my last one.”
“Do I have to phrase it a certain way?”
“This is much less formal than you think.”
“I just don’t, couldn’t forgive myself if I wished for something by accident.”
“I’ve been doing this a long time.” The wish goblin enunciated “long time,” and it reminded Marlon of his children, putting on goggles, blowing air out of their noses so they sank to the bottom of the pond, the mud on their backs. And how they looked up at the sky, the distorted clouds, through the liquid, through plastic. How his youngest wanted to stay down there forever. They had tried to build an extended snorkel out of PVC piping, but failed. “And in that time,” the wish goblin continued, “no one has ever made a wish, by accident.”
Far from comforting Marlon, the undertones, the emphasis of what the wish goblin said, made him anxious. So he blurted out the first, and most basic, thing he could think of.
“I wish for world peace.”
At that instant, every light went off in the supermarket. The pair moved outside, where the last of the sunset made it possible for them to see each other without squinting. Most of the other customers left the store silently, without complaint. Many of their cars would not start up, but those who were able began to walk to their next destination, and those who weren’t able snacked on what they had bought, or were about to buy before the power was cut. Nobody helped each other, but nobody was actively aggressive, either.
“This is world peace?” Marlon asked.
“These things take time. What’s your next wish?”
“I don’t want you to judge me.”
“Listen, I’m not God, I’m just a wish goblin.”
“OK. I wish I could grow a beard. Like, a full one.”
Marlon touched his bare chin. “Um.”
“Like I said, these things take time. You didn’t ask me to rewrite physics.”
It was probably better the hair didn’t come right away. It meant he could be faster, racing against his kids. He always reached the dock first, and never let them win, which, he could see, hurt their pride a little bit, but, below that, there was trust, which was more important.
“So I’ve got one more left?”
“And you’re, sure you’re a volunteer, right?”
“You don’t want me to wish for, you know.”
“Freedom? Don’t you think world peace would have taken care of that?”
“OK. I want to double my current wishes.”
No discernible change.
“Now I should have two?”
“If it worked.”
“Let’s double my current wishes again, just to be sure.”
“OK, here we go. I wish for a bigger dock.”
At that moment, Marlon’s phone pinged. He had an emailed receipt from a marine construction company, confirming his order. Due to shipping constraints and staffing challenges, they were happy to schedule a site visit in eighteen months’ time.
“OK, next wish, I want to be next in line for a dock.”
Another email. It was the same exact message, from the same company, except the site visit was now scheduled in seventeen months’ time.
“Looks like the doubling worked.”
The wish goblin was busy with his own phone. “Sorry, yes, very good.”
“I won’t do too many more, I don’t want to keep you.”
“Nah, you’re fine, just personal stuff.” The wish goblin put the phone away. “Lots of people take longer.”
“What’s the longest you’ve stayed?”
“Was it Jesus?”
The wish goblin blinked. “Can’t say, but it wasn’t a person.”
“Sorry. I’m not religious, I can’t remember if Jesus was technically a person.”
The wish goblin seemed wary at this turn in the conversation. “Let’s do this. I have some errands I can do, why don’t we meet here, tomorrow night. And you can go on multiplying, as long as you’d like.”
Marlon’s car started up, but he couldn’t shift out of first gear. So he coasted the few miles back to his house, and kept that feeling, the gentle breeze of movement, as he pulled into his driveway, killing the engine but not putting it in park, letting the grill nudge and come to a stop against the dog fence.
His kids were already asleep, all in the living room, instead of their separate beds. He lied down with them, and in the morning he glided into the water, like they did. The electricity didn’t come back, so he turned off his phone, to conserve the battery, and made lunch from cans of soup. That evening, he walked to the Hannaford parking lot, and the wish goblin was there, drinking a can of soda.
“It’s warm,” he said, handing one to Marlon. “You ready?”
“OK. Please double my current wishes.”
Marlon multiplied his wishes, in that manner, for close to an hour. “How many do I have now?”
“Lost count, my bad.”
“Did you get everything done last night?”
The wish goblin snapped the little pull tab off the drink. “There’s always something on the list.”
“I don’t want to be greedy.”
“Personally, saving them up, I think is smart.”
“If it’s cool with you, I’d like to keep doing this, if you’re up for sticking around.”
The wish goblin put the aluminum tab on his thumb, flicked it up into the air. It was too dark to see where it landed. “Don’t worry about me.”
“You said the last guy took forty days.”
“Not a guy, but yes.”
“OK. How about we plan on thirty-nine? So I’m not the longest.”
So they met every night, like that. Marlon, like many people that summer, quit his job, without giving notice, without too many repercussions. He still had cell service, the rare times he turned on his phone, but the internet was spotty. The bank sent letters, in the mail, about the mortgage. But they were auto-generated, and lacked any credible threats. The letterhead was skewed, like the printer was running out of ink.
He dived down to the bottom of the pond, every day. His kids collected a record number of salamanders, before letting them go.
Five and a half weeks later, it was almost autumn. Marlon and his children rode their bikes, on the thirty-ninth day, after dinner, to the grocery store. A sort of nightly, bartering market had taken root where the curbside pickup spaces used to be.
The wish goblin had his arm around an elderly woman. Marlon had his kids wait until the two had said goodbye, before letting them run over.
They wished for whatever they wanted, each trying to outdo the other. Mostly, nothing happened. Marlon showed them, on his phone, text messages from various numbers, verifying the purchase of a pony, a helicopter, a thousand empty taco shells, and how due to this or that reason, shipment would be delayed.
After a while they got bored, and chased each other around the market stalls.
“Did you have a good summer?” the wish goblin asked.
“I did. It’s a shame it has to end.”
The wish goblin raised his eyebrows. “Is that a wish?”
Marlon watched his children watch a demonstration, in awe. It was the elderly woman, the one the wish goblin had been talking to, powering up an antique ice cream maker. The engine ran on vegetable oil, and the assembled crowd cheered once it began churning, gasped when a belt snapped off, danced when someone was able to fix it.
The family hadn’t had ice cream in some time. It was cold, sweet, perfect. They ate it by a nonregulation bonfire, shopping carts overturned and arranged in a circle, for seating.
Someone passed them blankets. He couldn’t remember whether he had wished for them, or not. Marlon was getting sleepy. He started dozing off, feeling the heads of his children around him, tapping each, gently, to make sure they were all there, without opening his eyes.
Someone put out the flames. Someone scared off a bear. Someone disappeared. Everything was OK.
Thomas Mixon has fiction and poetry in On Spec, Radon Journal, MAYDAY, and elsewhere. You can find him on Twitter @truckescaperamp.