Grown-ups were always telling us to make a wish; when blowing out our birthday candles, when finding a four-leaf clover, when snapping the wishbone on the chicken after Sunday lunch.
But when things were serious, we were told to pray. Prayers were answered by God. At least that’s what they said. Nobody ever told us who answered wishes.
When Uncle Jack went into the hospital, we had to pray for him to get better.
‘Maisie and Tommy, make sure you say your prayers for Uncle Jack tonight.’ But we didn’t pray; we wished as hard as we could. Because we knew something grown-ups didn’t: prayers never work, but wishes did.
We had proof. When Tommy lost his toy truck out in the street, we wished for it and there it was, underneath the bed, the very next day. And when I needed to get out of a test, we wished really hard, and the next day I was so sick, genuinely sick, vomiting and everything, I couldn’t go to school.
And it was no use praying for the boy who called Tommy names to slip and stab
himself with his freshly-sharpened pencil, you had to wish for that kind of thing.
We wished because we didn’t think God would want to be bothered with our trivial
problems. And also because, deep down, we knew some of the things we wished for were what our Sunday School Teacher would probably have said were Plain Wrong or Evil. Our Sunday School Teacher talked about Evil a lot.
It usually worked out more or less the way we wanted, until we wished for our father to come back and got Uncle Jack instead.
Uncle Jack wasn’t our real uncle, he just appeared one day.
‘This is Uncle Jack,’ said our mother. ‘He’s come to live with us and take care of
Uncle Jack was a rubbish uncle. We’d never had an uncle before, but we had friends at school with uncles, and we knew uncles were supposed to do fun things, like play games, and take you to the seaside and buy you ice cream.
Uncle Jack just asked us to pass him things: his newspaper, his cigarettes, and his
shots of whiskey. He taught us how to measure three fingers’ worth of the sour-smelling brown liquid into a glass.
‘That’s what Uncle Jack likes,’ he’d say if we got it right.
If we got it wrong, he’d grab hold of our fingers and bend them back until we
screamed. He’d threaten to break them off to teach us what three fingers looked like.
Then our mother would narrow her eyes and say, ‘Jack,’ in her special voice that meant stop doing what you’re doing now or else, and Uncle Jack would laugh and tell her he was only joking.
But we didn’t find it funny. We wished Uncle Jack’s fingers would snap off, and the
whiskey would choke him.
Then one day, we got home from school and found the ambulance outside and mother standing in the doorway crying. She said poor Uncle Jack had been eating a chicken sandwich made with the leftover Sunday roast when he had had a coughing fit, followed by some sort of seizure.
We kept our wishing up. All the time we weren’t talking or doing something else I’d say, ‘Tommy, are you still wishing?’ And he would nod and say, ‘I’m still wishing, are you still wishing?’
The day the telephone rang, we thought our wish had come true, and Uncle Jack must be dead because mother screamed so much.
She ran out of the house, and Mrs Green from next door had to come over and look
after us. We heard her whispering into the telephone, telling all the other neighbours.
It turned out Uncle Jack had got better, but another woman had arrived at the hospital to take him home. A younger woman. A blonder woman.
The neighbours all pitied our mother, and we hated them for it.
Our mother came back with a grim look on her face. She didn’t tell us where she’d
been or what she’d done, didn’t even whisper it to Mrs Green.
We never heard her mention Uncle Jack again. We stopped believing in wishes.
It was years later, when we were teenagers, going through the cupboards, looking for our mother’s secret stash of sherry, that we found the old bottle of Uncle Jack’s whiskey hidden away at the back. It was about half full, cloudy; it must have been almost ten years old. We wondered if it would still be drinkable.
Tommy gave it a little shake; it looked like something was bobbing around, suspended in the fluid. We held the bottle up to the light and watched as three fingers floated up to the top.
Terri Mullholland (she / her) is a writer and researcher living in London, UK. Her flash fiction has appeared in various journals and anthologies, including Litro, Flash Fiction Magazine, Toasted Cheese, The Liminal Review, Mercurious, and Analogies & Allegories Literary Magazine.