This week I’d like to share with you a short story of mine that first appeared years ago in Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone Magazine.
That magazine (long since defunct, unfortunately) sponsored an annual short fiction contest. The second year of the contest, I entered it with a story called “Evening in the Park.” And then I put the whole thing out of my mind. One night some weeks later, I was flabbergasted to receive a phone call from the magazine’s very kind and helpful editor, T.E.D. Klein (read his Wikipedia entry here). My story, along with two others out of more than 4,000 entries, had tied for 1st Place. The only time in the magazine’s history such a thing happened.
So here, with only minor changes to bring it up to date, is “Evening in the Park”:
Sara slammed the front door behind her and strode down the sidewalk, jamming her fists into the pockets of her sweater. She would probably freeze to death dressed so lightly, but for the moment she didn’t feel a thing. How many times have I done this in the past few weeks? she wondered, hesitating at the curb. She glanced over her shoulder at the house and considered going back to discuss the situation. Nothing could be accomplished this way. In that brief pause, the curtain at the living room window was flicked aside to make a tiny peephole. Then it quickly settled back into place.
Okay, fine. If Barry wanted to stand there sneaking looks at her through the living room curtains instead of coming out to bring her back inside, so be it. He was probably just waiting till she was out of sight so he could call his girlfriend without being interrupted.
Deciding to make life easier for Barry, Sara stepped down off the curb, looked both ways, and headed across the street into the park.
The park was empty this time of year, reminding Sara of a cemetery. The trees were stiff and sharp; dead leaves in the deep end of the swimming pool whispered against the concrete. Perhaps this was not a good idea. It was almost five o’clock, getting dark already. Sara briefly envisioned herself crawling back to Barry on her hands and knees. Hi, Barry. I went to the park and got raped. Guess I showed you. No, that wouldn’t do. On the other hand, no rapist would bother coming to this frozen, desolate spot for a victim. He would never dream that someone would actually be here.
Drawing confidence from her rationalization, Sara settled into a swing. She would stay alert, and if anything seemed the least bit strange . . .
“So peaceful without joggers, don’t you think? Must be the cold keeping them away.”
Sara leaped to her feet and spun toward the voice, the swing seat striking her in the leg. Sitting two swings away with her hands folded across a cane in her lap was an old woman so small that her feet did not reach the ground. She was wearing a light summer dress, a lavender scarf tied under her chin, and white anklets with shiny black shoes.
She gave Sara an understanding smile. “I’m sorry, dear, did I startle you? I could see you were lost in your own thoughts, so I felt I had better speak now. If you’d noticed me in ten minutes, your reaction would’ve been rather more pronounced.” As she spoke, the swing moved gently back and forth without apparent effort from its occupant. The old woman waited patiently for Sara to gather her wits enough to speak.
“Have you been there the whole time?” The woman was small, but she wasn’t invisible. How did I overlook her? Sara wondered.
“Yes, I have.” The woman gave a decisive nod, the ends of her scarf bobbing. “Sitting in this spot. You looked right through me. Not very flattering, but I’m accustomed to it.”
“Really?” Sara considered for a moment the old woman’s unsuitable and rather odd attire. “Aren’t you cold?”
“Not especially. I find it doesn’t bother me much.” She paused and studied Sara carefully. “You must be freezing, though. Nothing but a light sweater.”
“To be honest, I hadn’t noticed if I was cold or not.” Sara settled back into the swing, feeling somewhat safer in the old woman’s company.
After swinging for a while in silence, Sara’s curiosity overcame her usual reticence with strangers. “From your comment about joggers, I’d guess you’ve been to this park before?”
The old woman nodded.
“Do you come very often, then?”
“No, not really. Just when I have some clearing out to do.” She waved a frail hand in the air near her head, indicating mental cobwebs.
Sara sighed. “I know what you mean.”
The old woman gave Sara a kindly smile. “Do you, dear? You should be too young to have problems weighing you down. After you get to be my age, then you have problems.”
“That’s too bad. I’d hoped you’d reach a stage when all your problems could be left behind.”
“Oh, that would be a very fortunate person. But perhaps someday you’ll have your wish.”
Sara opened her mouth to speak, then jumped, feeling as if someone or something had touched her knee. She cast a furtive glance at the old woman, whose hands calmly rested on the cane across her lap. I’m being silly, Sara told herself. She’s not close enough to reach me.
She dismissed the sensation as the product of her over-tired imagination and tried to relax. God knew she had enough reason to be jumpy. Barry’s behavior the past couple of weeks had been secretive, to say the least. Every time she had walked in on him lately, she had found him deep in thought, a small smile on his face, staring at the walls. She had the feeling of interrupting some intimate conversation he’d been having in his mind. And not with me.
Then there were the telephone calls, with Barry’s end apparently being carried on in code. He said it was business, but wasn’t that the oldest excuse known to man?
Sara realized she didn’t need excuses; she knew what was happening. Her intuition plus a failed love affair before her marriage to Barry told her all she needed to know. Here comes another broken relationship. She swung slowly back and forth, studying the bare ground moving beneath her and trying not to think too much. It was depressing.
“In a year’s time, you’ll probably wonder why you wasted so much energy worrying about it.”
Sara’s head snapped up in surprise. “How in the world did you know what I was thinking?”
“It wasn’t hard. I’ve learned to read people fairly well over the years. Your face so obviously said, ‘Why me?’” The old woman gave the ends of her lavender scarf a securing tug. “You really must try to believe in yourself, my dear. You can change almost any situation with a little correctly applied thought.”
“I don’t know. I can’t shake the feeling that most things happen for no reason whatsoever.” Sara glanced around and deliberately changed the subject. “I wish it wasn’t so dark already. With just the two of us here, it gives me the creeps.”
Suddenly a pool of light opened at their feet as the streetlamp overhead flashed on. All around them the park was brilliantly lit from one end to the next as all the lights came to life at once.
Sara gave a small shriek and clapped a hand to her mouth. Then she burst out laughing. “Somebody must be listening. That just about scared me to death!”
The old woman was still swinging, calm and composed. “It seems to me you got your wish.”
Sara grinned. “I wish I had.” She missed her companion’s pained expression. “These lights must be on a time-delay.”
A demurring cough came from the second swing. “You don’t think perhaps it was what you said that caused the lights to come on?”
Sara chuckled. “Hardly. Nothing I’ve ever said has changed things one iota.”
Her companion looked at her with mild reproof but remained quiet.
They swung for a while longer in silence, Sara hoping she hadn’t been rude in her breezy dismissal. She had been taught to always be polite to her elders, no matter how strange they might be. At last she said, “Wouldn’t it be lovely if things did work out that way? When I was a little girl I used to make wishes and hope that they’d come true, but they never did.” She smiled. “Maybe I just didn’t know the right wishes to make.”
The old woman put a veined hand on the knob of her cane and waited. Finally, she prompted, “What would you wish for today? If you were able to make just one?”
Sara shrugged. She didn’t particularly want to take the conversation any further, but she didn’t want to brush off a well-meaning old person. Just to be courteous, she said the first thing that popped into her head. “Probably a new TV. The one I have now is old and the images are all distorted.” Then she nodded. “Yes. That’s it . . . I wish I had a brand new, fifty-five-inch 4K Ultra HD TV. As long as I’m wishing, I might as well wish for the best, right?” She slid off her swing, feeling slightly foolish. “There. We’ll see what happens.”
Sara felt the old woman’s eyes on her as she dusted off the seat of her jeans. She returned the look with a false, bright smile. “I’d better go. My husband’s bound to be wondering about me.” She started away, then paused to look over her shoulder. “I’ve enjoyed our conversation. Maybe we’ll run into each other again here. I come to this park fairly often.”
The old woman smiled and nodded. “That would be lovely, my dear . . .” She waited till Sara had retreated out of earshot. “. . . but highly unlikely.” She sagged into the seat of her swing, slightly depressed. Her failures always affected her this way. You prompt them, she thought, give them every chance, and their human pigheadedness preserves the status quo.
The swing next to hers gave a slight creak as a lightly-furred creature with tufted ears settled fastidiously into the seat.
“What do you think she’ll do when she gets home and finds the new TV?” it asked.
“I imagine she’ll come back here looking for me.” The fairy godmother sighed deeply. “We’d better leave now, I suppose. She lives just across the street.”
The creature jumped down from the swing. “You shouldn’t let it get to you,” it said. “She wasted the first two, but she had her three wishes fair and square.”
The fairy godmother snorted. “Yes, and all it will get her is more trouble over the property settlement. Her husband will end up with the TV, and she’ll blame me.” She hopped lightly from the swing and gripped her cane resolutely about the middle. “Oh, well. Let’s get busy. We still have three more people to see tonight.”
“How many more TVs have you got in you?” the creature teased.
Together they started out of the park.
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