The shopkeeper held the ornately carved wooden box delicately in cupped hands. He leaned over the counter, glanced left and then right. Peter, the young boy opposite him leaned back and also scanned, but right and left, wondering for what, or for whom, the old shopkeeper was looking.
"Can you keep a secret young man?" The shopkeeper asked.
Peter nodded, raised himself up on his toes, and tried to peer into the mystical box. The shopkeeper clutched the box to his chest. "What are you trying to do boy? Do you think you're ready to see inside this magical box before I've even told you its secret?"
Peter nodded, shook his head, nodded again. "No; I mean yes, uh"no""
"Okay boy, have you ever heard of Merlin the Wizard?"
"You mean from King Arthur; yes."
"Good. Do you believe that Merlin once owned this very box?" The shopkeeper nodded slowly, caressed the box, and traced his fingers smoothly along the grooves of its carved surface.
Old man Garrity sat on a stool near the magazine racks. He'd become a fixture in the store since his retirement. Cotton-white locks curled out from beneath a faded Boston Red Sox cap. Garrity snatched Peter's attention away from the box when he snapped and crackled his newspaper flipping to the sport's section. The shopkeeper glared at Garrity. Garrity paid him little mind and continued reading his paper.
The shopkeeper turned back toward Peter. "Never mind him," he said as he reintroduced the box, placing it carefully on the counter, the lid in place concealing its mysterious contents.
Peter made an involuntarily boyish move, his curious fingers reaching for the lid.
The shopkeeper slapped Peter's hand away. "What you doing boy? I still haven't told you the secret of the box."
Peter stepped back. "What's the secret, please?" His eyes never left the box.
"You know how to make a wish?" The shopkeeper asked.
"You mean like on a star"like that?"
"Sure; like on a star, only better."
"Better, like how?"
"When you wish on a star, where does the wish go? Out into the night sky, right?" The shopkeeper spread his arms in a wide arc. "What good is that? It's like adding too much water when you make orange juice. It gets diluted. And you can only wish at night"a clear night, when you can see the stars, right? That's no way to make a real wish. I'll show you an infinitely better way, a way to focus your wish on a single magical space." The shopkeeper rubbed his hands together. "Okay, you ready for the secret of Merlin's box?"
"Yes," Peter said, brushing back thick brown bangs from his eyes.
The shopkeeper picked up the box and held it out before Peter in a dramatic and theatrical manner. "This is a Wishing Box boy," he said with a gleam in his eye and a tremor in his voice. "You wanna know how it works?"
Peter nodded"his mouth agape.
The shopkeeper removed the lid and placed it on the counter. He grabbed a pencil and scribbled a few words on a scrap of paper folded it, held it aloft, and then with a grand flourish tossed it into the box. He completed the ritual by replacing the lid and stepping back, his head bowed as if the ritual had left him depleted.
"What happens now?" Peter asked.
"My wish will come true."
"What did you wish for?"
"Oh come on"even a boy your age knows about wish etiquette; don't you? If you tell someone else your wish it won't come true."
Peter nodded as if he'd known, but had merely forgotten.
"It would be a lucky person who could have such a box. I hate to part with this one, but the powers of the universe tell me when someone's worthy to possess such a box. These powers have told me you're such a person. Would you like to purchase this box?"
"Really?" Peter's eyes locked onto the box. I don't know if I have enough money."
"How much you got?"
"Well the spirits must be smiling on you, kid; it just so happens that this Wishing Box, the very box owned by Merlin, costs only nine ninety-five. Tell you what"I won't even charge you the tax; ten bucks and it's yours."
"I don't know," Peter hemmed. "My mom wanted me to get some stuff for her."
"Just think about what you can get for her with a box like this. You can wish for stuff for her too you know."
A light came on in Peter's mind. That was true; he could wish for a new car to replace his mom's broken down beater.
"Okay"I'll take it." Peter said with a smile and a plan in mind. A tail of bells chimed after the boy as he departed.
"Why you gotta do that to the kids?" Old man Garrity looked up from his paper.
"What?" The shopkeeper slammed the cash register drawer shut. He reached under the counter and pulled out another "one-of-a-kind" wishing box.
"Don't give me, what, like you don't know. You know exactly what I'm talking about. Why you take money from kids like that?"
"What's this store for? It's a place of business. I provide products to the community and they pay for it"I provide a service."
"Ripping off kids is a service to the community?"
"Ripping off? I'm offended." A mask of innocence melted over the shopkeeper's face. "Do you know what I just did to spark that kid's imagination? And who knows"the box might even work." The shopkeeper smirked.
"Well, that kid's gonna need a good wish when his mother finds out about this. I'm betting that a small wood box ain't her idea of supper." Old man Garrity snapped his newspaper with a grunt and raised it to cover his face.
"Oh stop being so damned dramatic, Garrity. It's just business," the Shopkeeper justified.
Peter ran all the way home. He had no time to waste; he had to get a wish going and get it going quickly. He knew his mom would be mad that he'd "lost" her money. Ten dollars was a lot to them, especially since Jeff, his mom's boyfriend, hadn't come back home after the last time he'd hit her. But now it could all be different. He could wish her a new car, a good job, a new boyfriend"a new anything.
After taking a good yelling from his mother Peter ran up to his room. He slipped the wishing box he'd kept concealed from his mother, from within his backpack. He placed it on his dresser and stepped back. He could have sworn that he saw an aura surrounding the dark cherry-wood box.
Peter quartered a sheet of note paper and upon it he carefully wrote his wish: I wish that my mom had a new car. He folded the scrap imitating the shopkeeper as best he could remember. With an unsure boy's diminutive flourish he cast the wish into the box, replaced the lid, and stood back for a moment.
Peter ran outside to the driveway and was upset to see the same old car sat leaking oil onto the gravel driveway. Disappointed the box didn't work; Peter hopped on his bike and pedaled furiously back to the store.
Peter stormed into the shop. "It doesn't work."
"What?" The shopkeeper turned in surprise.
"The box you sold me"that wishing box"it doesn't work."
"Boy, it's only been a little more than an hour. How did you use it?"
Peter caught his breath. "I did like you showed me. I folded the wish and put it in the box and put the lid back on, but when I ran to the dri"" Peter stopped himself, remembering the admonishment to never tell a wish. "Anyway, I checked on my wish and it didn't happen."
Old man Garrity lowered his paper and peered askance over the top edge at the shopkeeper. The shopkeeper turned away dismissively and said to the boy, "Look, I should've explained; the box doesn't work that fast. Depending on the difficulty of the wish, it can take some time. Even the smallest wish will take at least over night to work. You understand?"
"But that's not what I thought"I mean you said"I just want""
"Look kid, I know what you're saying. I'm just saying to give it time to work. Try it with a smaller wish first. Okay? Doesn't that make sense?"
"Yes." Peter nodded. He wasn't happy, but it did make sense.
"You go home and try it again."
Peter went home and removed the wish for the car. He decided he'd try that wish again later after he was sure the box worked. Before he went to bed that night he placed a small wish into the box, something that should be easy. I want my mom to stop being mad at me by morning.
In the morning Peter slid into the kitchen and poured himself a bowl of Cheerios. His mother came down. "Good morning, Mom," Peter said with a hopeful smile.
"Don't you good morning me, young man," she said. A simple wish like that, not even for any stuff, and the box couldn't do it. He finished his breakfast as fast as he could. He had to get right down to the store. This time he was going to get his money back. Worthless box.
"I told you kid; you must be doing something wrong," the shopkeeper said.
"What could I do wrong? You put paper into a box and your wishes come true. What's so hard about that?" Peter said, shaking with anger.
"Look kid, all I can say is you really gotta want the wish for it to work. You must not have wanted what you wished for bad enough."
"But I did, I really did," Peter cried.
"Look kid, I'm not gonna argue with you. All sales are final. Just get out of here; I got work to do," the shopkeeper said as he ushered Peter outside slamming the door in the boy's face, the chain of bells crashing as one angry jangle.
Peter stood staring at his reflection in the store window. How could he have believed in such a stupid thing as a wishing box? He turned to leave and bumped into Danny Campbell.
"Oh, sorry Danny," Peter said.
"What's wrong, Pete?" Danny asked.
"Oh, come on; it's not nothing; you look really pissed."
"You're gonna think I'm stupid if I tell you," Peter said.
"I already think you're stupid, so you may as well tell me." Danny smiled and Peter managed a slight grin. He and Danny had been friends a long time.
"I bought this box from the store. He told me it was a wishing box for wishing for stuff. But it doesn't work. How stupid am I?" Peter said.
"Don't feel bad; this guy's been ripping people off for years, and not just kids."
"Really? How come I didn't know?"
"You always believe people too easy, Peter; you know that. It's just how you are," Danny said.
"You're right. But not anymore. I'm gonna go home and smash that box to bits." Peter hopped on his bike and sped for home. Danny shook his head and continued walking down the street.
Peter got home and rushed upstairs. He snatched the Wishing Box, his plan to smash it to bits firmly in mind. He ran downstairs, grabbed the hammer from a kitchen drawer, and then went out behind the house. He placed the box on a flat surface, raised the hammer above his head, and was about to smash the wishing box to bits, when he stopped. He wasn't sure exactly what made him stop, but he couldn't rid himself of a tenacious niggling in his mind. He thought his hesitation nonsense, but when he tried again to hammer the box into oblivion, he couldn't do it. Confused and defeated, he brought the box back up to his bedroom.
The next morning Peter finished breakfast at a slower pace; things in his life back to normal. Never again would he fall for such a line from any adult. "Bye Mom. I'm going over to Danny's," Peter said as he glided past her intent on his bike leaning against the front stoop. "Alright, but you be home for dinner." His mother seemed to be over her anger, but Peter hadn't noticed.
As Peter approached the five-corners, where the business district began, he was struck by an odd sight. There were fire trucks in the road and grey smoke swirling up into the blue morning sky. He picked up his speed and pedaled to as close as he could get to the building that burned. It looked as if it had burned all night. Only charred remnants and smoldering embers remained.
Peter was so intent on the building's utter destruction he hadn't noticed a man leaning against a rail, his face alabaster, awash in shock, staring into the ashes. The man looked down at Peter; a look of recognition came over him. He reached into his pocket, pulled out a ten dollar bill, and handed it to Peter.
Peter took the money and said, "What's this for?"
"That's my last ten bucks, kid. You may as well take it for that bogus Wishing Box I sold you," the old shopkeeper said.
Peter handed the money back to the man with a smile. "No, you keep it. You were right after all; that Wishing Box works just fine. Like you said, you just have to really want what you wish for."