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Bittersweet Memories
by Lauren Grey

      Dark clouds approaching fast, and with it the promise of a strong storm. Already lightning could be seen in the distant clouds, and curtains of rain hid the western end of the plain below from view. Jana knew they needed to find shelter soon. Even after all she had been through, she still hated lightning storms. Whether it was its unpredictability, the raw power unleashed, or lingering childish fears she didn't know. But it is safer inside than out in a storm, and pushing a broken motorcycle up a hill wasn't helping them find anyplace to stay any faster.
      “Are you SURE its this way?” Jana lamented.
      “As sure as I can be”, replied Sylvia. For someone who was just a skull, she was exhausted and probably as frustrated as Jana was. While she could fuel a motorcycle with her magic, she was no mechanic. Nothing she was able to do seemed to help, and the effort had worn her out.
      Unconvinced, Jana none the less continued to push the bike up the road leading into the hills. As she reached the crest of the first hill, she spied a house nestled by the next hillside. As much as it was a relief to see, it was also an annoyance that once again Sylvia had been right. Once, just ONCE, Jana would like to prove her wrong. Maybe Sylvia would stop treating her as a kid then.
      The wind was picking up as they approached the house. Had circumstances been different this house wouldn't have stood out. As it was, seeing a typical two-story country farmhouse with white siding and red trim with a well kept lawn WAS unusual, for this place at least. It was almost as if it were untouched by the other changes in the world.

      The front door slammed open and a angry looking man stormed out, followed by a concerned looking woman in a sun dress.
      “Don...”, the woman called with concern in her voice.
      “Look, I just don't want to talk about it anymore!” came his reply. He stopped by the fence at the edge of the road and leaned on it heavily with his head hung deep in thought. With a sigh he looked up to the west at the approaching storm, only then noticing Jana and her bike standing at the southern end of the fence line.
      “You look a bit lost”, he said looking her over.
      “I think I am” Jana replied. “My bike's broken and I don't know what's wrong with it.”
      With another quick glance to the storm he said “There's no place else for at least 10 miles.” Then, nodding towards the bike mentioned “Why don't you put that in the horse barn then come inside. Its almost dinner time, and we've got enough to share and a spare bed. That storm probably won't be done until morning.”
      “Thank you.” was all Jana could think to say, and she pushed the motorcycle up the driveway to the barn.
      “Jill,” the man called to the woman in the doorway, “we've got a guest tonight.”

      Rain was already starting to fall by the time Jana went into the house. The woman greeted her inside.
      “Welcome to our home.” she said warmly. “I'm Jill, and you already met my husband Don. And that”, she said smiling and gesturing to a little girl shyly peaking around the living room doorway, “is our daughter Cynthia. She's eight.”
      “Eight and a half!” Cynthia shouted and dashed behind the wall.
      “I'm Jana. Thank you for letting me stay.”
      “Why don't you get washed up. The washroom is at the top of the stairs, first door on the left.” Jill said.

      By the time they sat down for dinner, the storm was in full swing. Except for the pounding rain, it was merely a background noise for those in the house. Jill had made roast beef, mashed potatoes and gravy, green beans, a dinner rolls. Jana had never liked roast beef. It was always so chewy. But after the meals she had recently, this was a feast to be remembered. It seemed strange to her how she had changed. As she savored the memories of her mom's cooking, she became sad and started to tear up.
      “What's wrong, dear?” asked Jill.
      “Its just that... that... this reminds me of my momma and how she sometimes made dinner like this. And so much has changed... its not like before,” Jana said, starting to cry. She didn't know why it hadn't affected her this badly before, but now even memories of the times she didn't like made her miss the way things were.
      “So that's it, “ Don mused. “You remember it too. The way things used to be.”
      Jana nodded.
      “Why don't you tell us what happened, dear.” Jill said.
      “I was in the diner with my momma and dad and I wished that everyone would get their wish and then everything changed. Its all my fault!” Jana sobbed.
      “There there, dear. Its all right,” Jill said comfortingly, having gotten out of her chair to put her arm around Jana. “I think that was a very nice wish. You couldn't have known anything bad would happen.”
      “I know,” Jana replied, feeling a bit less sad. “It's just that...”.
      “Shhh. Hush now.” Jill said softly, “You better eat while dinner's still hot. We can talk about this later.”
      Jana nodded soberly and began to eat.
      Don, who had been silent and thinking ever since Jana mentioned the restaurant, then said “I'll have a look at your bike tomorrow. I'm a mechanic... or at least I used to be. I might be able to fix it. Its not right being separated from your loved ones and I'll do what I can to help.”

      After dinner Jill showed Jana to the guest bedroom. Jana thanked her once more and shut the door, plopping down on the bed. She hadn't been on a bed like this in a long time, and it also reminded her of home. After just laying for a few minutes, soaking it all in, she grabbed her box and took Sylvia out.
      “Well, I know we're in the right place, but I still don't know who made the wish or what it is.” Jana confided.
      “Looks like you're going to have to dig into it, hon. I don't think I'm going to be much help with that. I'm so tired now I can't even tell which one of them is the wisher.” an exhausted Sylvia stated.
      Jana frowned. “They're good people. I don't want to take anything from them. They've been so nice to me.”
      “I know. But maybe it will be different this time. Maybe it is a simple wish, “ Sylvia replied.
      “Is that your mommy?” came a small voice from the doorway, which was now open a crack.
      Jana jumped in surprise, dropping Sylvia in the process – who thankfully landed on the bed.
      “Is she dead?” asked Cynthia, now clearly visible in the doorway.
      “No, she is NOT my mommy. She's just... maybe like an aunt... I guess” Jana said, recovering from her initial shock and recalling a friend of her mom's that she called an aunt: an honorary title as she wasn't really related.
      “Do be more careful!” Sylvia scolded. Then, more calmly she stated “No child, I'm not dead... well, at least not totally.”
      “Aren't you scared?” Jana asked.
      Cynthia shook her head. “I've seen dead people before. But when they look like you, people don't hear them anymore.”
      “Cynthia, get to bed! Shoo!” came her mother's voice from the hallway.
      Jana quickly put the blanket over Sylvia to hide her from view as Cynthia dashed down the hallway to her room.
      “I'm so sorry about that. She should have better manners than walking in on guests. Goodnight Jana. Breakfast is at 8AM tomorrow. Sleep tight.”
      “Goodnight” Jana replied.
      “Well, that was certainly odd” came Sylvia's muffled voice from under the blanket. Jana nodded and put Sylvia away in her box, then laid back down on the bed. She didn't sleep because she was full of thoughts and memories. She remembered how her mother sometimes saved things in a memory book – photographs, report cards, and other things she said would bring happy thoughts and help her remember someday, and she wondered if this family had something like that.

      Later that night, curiosity having gotten the better of her, Jana quietly left her room and crept downstairs. Everything was quiet now, the storm having finished leaving only the sound being the crickets and frogs outside. She went to a bookshelf in the living room, the light of her candle flickering off the books until she found what she was looking for: a memory book. She grabbed it and thumbed through the pages.
      There were many photographs of Don, Jill, and Cynthia and small mementos such as one labeled “Cynthia's first haircut” with some strands of hair taped to the page. The last few pages of the book were empty, but the last item in the book was a newspaper clipping, with a date from a year before wishes. Jana slowly read what it said.
      “Local resident Don Olson was released from the hospital in this morning after a hit and run driver ran into his car, killing his wife, Jill, and daughter, Cynthia, last weekend. Don is expected to make a full recovery but will require months of physical therapy to recover from his injuries. He will be staying with his brother, Robert Olson, in San Antonio, Texas during his recovery. Those wishing to donate to the memorial fund can address...”.
      Jana stopped reading and ran upstairs, burying her head in the pillows and cried herself to sleep.

      She woke the next morning with a tray on a chair next to her bed. On the tray was breakfast: pancakes, bacon, some butter, a small glass pitcher of syrup, and some orange juice. She glanced at the alarm clock on the dresser – it was 10AM. She'd missed breakfast hour but not breakfast. After eating and washing up, she hurried downstairs and saw Jill outside hanging laundry on a clothesline.
      “Good morning, sleepy head!” Jill said brightly. Jana wondered if she knew about the accident at all.
      “Don had a look at your bike,” commented Jill. “He said it needed a new fuel pump, though lord knows where you found fuel in the first place. Not around here at least. He took the wagon into town and said he knew where he might find one. He should be back this evening for dinner time.”
      Jana opened her mouth to ask a question, but before she could Jill asked “Could you go get Cynthia for me? I think she ran to the east end of the pasture. She's supposed to be doing chores.”
      It was going to be an awkward question anyways and Jana was glad she could avoid it, at least for now. She grabbed her things, including Sylvia's box, and headed east along the fence line.
      “I can't do it. I can't ask him to give up his wife and kid.” she muttered. “Its too mean!”
      “You always have a choice.” came the reply from the box. “And none of the choices are easy. That's one of the unfortunate problems with being a grown-up: understanding the consequences of the decisions you make. You realize that your choices affect others.”
      “It's just not fair!” retorted Jana. “Why can't it work out for everyone? I didn't want this. I didn't choose this!”
      “But you did. You chose for everyone in the restaurant to get their wish.”
      “I just want everyone to be happy.” Jana pouted.
      “So do I, hon, but the world doesn't work that way. And if we try to force the world to work that way it often just messes it up for someone else. Listen, I'm proud of you, Jana. You've had to grow up fast... faster than any girl should have to. Its hard, but I know you'll make the right decision. Give it time.”
      That made Jana feel a little better, but it didn't last. At the corner fencepost, not fifty feet away, was Cynthia.
      “So what do I tell her?” Jana asked. But her question was only met with a contemplative silence.
      “Jana!” Cynthia shouted, “This is my most favoritest spot in the whole world. You can see everything from here!”
      The western fence ran along the edge of the hill, overlooking a forested valley. A waterfall fell from the hills higher up to the north, flowing through the valley lands. It was indeed a beautiful view.
      “I really like it here, but I know I'm not supposed to be here now.” Cynthia finally stated.
      “Yes, “ replied Jana, “Your mom says you have chores to do.”
      “Yeah, that too.” Cynthia said as she hopped down off the fence and the two of them walked back west.

      They didn't walk fast. Jana and Cynthia talked along the way the way that eight year olds do, which Jana enjoyed very much. By the time they reached the house, the late afternoon sun shown in the western sky. While Cynthia ran to the house, Jana heard the motorcycle start in the horse barn and walked over to investigate.
      “Did you get it working?” she asked excitedly.
      Don spun around and, sweat on his brow and a faced mixed with determination and sadness, swung a double barreled shotgun to aim at Jana. She instinctively crouched and readied her hand by her knife, but didn't move any further.
      “Yeah, that's right, its fixed. Now get your things and get out of here!” he said in a shaky but serious voice.
      “I don't understand.”
      “There were some people in town asking about someone just like you. They told me what you do. I will NOT let you take them from me! I can't lose them again!” he replied.
      “Don! No!” Jill cried, having just come in the barn and seeing what was going on.
      “Get back in the house, Jill. You don't need to see this.” he said nervously.
      “But I don't want...” Jana started.
      “I don't care what you do or don't want! I just want you away from here and never coming back. Back in that restaurant I was empty inside. That was supposed to be my last meal. Then all this happened, and I don't know why and I don't know how but I got back everything I cared about. I will do anything to keep them. Those men who were asking about you in town... they know you're here. They can't be but a couple hours from here by now. You best be on your way.” he said sternly.
      Jana relaxed her stance. “No matter what I do, someone always ends up hurt. Millions of people are gone, maybe all of them dead and its all 'cause of my stupid wish. And I can't make things right without making more people dead. Good people. It's just not fair.” She seemed resigned to give up at this point.
      “Don, I...” Jill started
      “I told you to go back to the house!” he barked.
      “I will not, Donald Olson!” she snapped back in tears. “I've been trying to tell you about things being not quite right. I've been trying to get you to talk about that night at the restaurant...”
      “And I said I didn't want to talk about it!”
      “Don...” she said slowly walking towards him “I know I'm not supposed to be here, and Cynthia knows too. This has been everything I always wanted. Its been a second chance for us, but it costs too much! I can't live with myself knowing it cost other people's their lives.”
      “You can't live at all without it! I can't lose you again!” Don said in tears. Jill had reached him and embraced him as he lowered the shotgun. They cried in each others arms for many minutes. Cynthia came running in and hugged them both too.
      “Now listen”, Jill said “you know this is the right thing. I want more than anything to be with you, but not at the expense of others lives.”
      “I won't let you go!” he sobbed.
      “Its not your choice.” she replied. “This was MY wish. I was at that restaurant with you, even though you couldn't see me. I've always been with you. Your heart was so empty and I yearned to make you happy again. I wanted us to be together again as a family. I wanted life to be perfect.”
      After a few more minutes crying together, Jill finally said “I want you to know I will always be with you, and I will be waiting. But I... WE need you to be happy. Can you do that?”
      Don nodded a mournful nod, and at that moment there was a bright flash. A red jewel hovered out of Jill's chest for a moment before it fell to the ground, with Jill and Cynthia slumping to the ground at the same time. “NO!” He cried, reaching for them.
      After a moment, Jill blinked and opened her eyes. “I'm not dead again?”
      Cynthia also roused and Don hugged them both. “Thank god!”
      Jana reached down and picked up the gem from the ground, she was still sad. “It won't last.” she said.
      “How... how long?” asked Don.
      “I don't know. Maybe until I get the rest. That might be a while though.”
      Jill said calmly “Well, it looks like we get a third chance. Let's make the best of it.” She smiled, with tears still on her face, and hugged her family. Then, looking at Jana, she said “They'll be here for you soon. There's some food in the pantry you can take, but you best be quick about it.

      Jana didn't want to leave, but she knew she had to. After hugging Jill and Cynthia (Don refused to say goodbye, and wandered off to the eastern pasture) she got on her bike and took off down the rough road.


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