by Laura Garrison
It was ten minutes to midnight on New Year’s Eve, and Dora was the only one in her grandparents’ house who was still awake.
Her cousins Peter and Jack were upstairs, sleeping in bunk beds that had once belonged to Dora’s mother and Aunt Alice. Grandma and Aunt Alice were asleep in the master bedroom. Dora’s parents had retired to the guest room around ten-thirty.
From her seat at the kitchen table, Dora had a view of the living room, where Uncle Bud and Grandpa were passed out on the couch and the easy chair, respectively. Grandpa’s Boston terrier, Mugsy, was asleep on his lap. They were all bathed in the soft electric glow of the television, which was tuned to the live broadcast from Times Square. The volume was low, but Dora could hear the drone of cheerfully intoxicated revelers who were waiting for the ball to drop. The only other sounds were Grandpa’s periodic snores, which clattered like handfuls of gravel in a high-speed blender. Whenever he let one rip, Mugsy’s ears would twitch, but the dog never opened his eyes. He’s probably used to it by now, Dora thought.
Having anticipated this exact situation from years of experience, Dora wandered over to the refrigerator. She swung open the door and was greeted with a solid wall of leftovers in Tupperware containers. She selected a few of them and made herself a sandwich: turkey, mashed potatoes, peas, and sugar plum jelly on rye, with a dollop of congealed gravy on top. If anyone in her family had seen her eating this, she would have been subjected to an insufferable onslaught of jokes and gagging noises; as it was, she would be able to savor every delicious bite alone. Afterwards, she would perform her other secret ritual, the one she had begun when she was fifteen years old.
Dora’s New Year’s Day ritual was simple yet profoundly satisfying. She would stay awake until sunrise—roughly 7:20 a.m. or so—and in the long, dark hours in between, she would teach herself something new. Nothing too difficult; in previous years she had learned to “walk” a poker chip along the back of her knuckles, figured out how to juggle using tangerines from the fruit basket, and knitted a yellow-and-navy-striped scarf. This year’s challenge would be to make a perfect omelet. She didn’t know a lot about cooking, so it would probably take a while, but with a little luck, she would greet the first sunrise of the new year knowing she had mastered another desirable skill.
But first she needed something to drink. She set her sandwich plate on the kitchen table and returned to the fridge. There probably weren’t any beers left, but sometimes a can got pushed to the back of the fridge or rolled into the salad crisper. Dora wasn’t technically old enough for beer, but her family was pretty lax about that sort of thing. And it’s not like I’ll be driving anywhere, she thought, glancing out the window over the kitchen sink. A three-day blizzard had piled the snowdrifts as high as seven feet in a couple of places, which was typical for a western New York winter, and the plows wouldn’t clear the side roads before noon the following day.
Dora crouched down and reached as far as she could into the back of the fridge, past bottles of rancid salad dressing and jars of expired mustard. When her fingertips brushed the rim of an aluminum can, she grabbed it and pulled it out. “Root beer!” she groaned. “Well, I guess it’s better than nothing.”
She brought the root beer to the kitchen table and set it down next to her sandwich. The can looked positively ancient. It was dented in several places and speckled with black tarnish, or possibly mold. On the side of the can were the words Black Forest Root Beer, a brand with which Dora was unfamiliar. The words were printed above a picture of a buxom fairy with butterfly wings sipping daintily from a froth-capped stein.
Dora happened to glance at the clock on the stove just as the numbers changed from 11:59 to 12:00. “Happy New Year,” she whispered to the fairy on the soda can. She pulled the ring-tab.
Instead of the familiar psst-chunk sound she expected, Dora was instantly enveloped in a cloud of sparkling green mist that erupted from the mouth of the can. She had time for one fleeting thought (I probably shouldn’t drink that root beer), and then the mist cleared. She found herself staring at a tiny man in red silk pajamas. Other than his size, he bore no resemblance whatsoever to a fairy; he had a strong, square jaw and a pencil mustache. He looks like a Clark Gable action figure, Dora thought, amazed.
The man was sitting cross-legged on the top of the soda can. As Dora watched, he unfolded his arms with majestic slowness, puffed out his chest, and burped.
This was no ordinary eructation. It was astoundingly deep and resonant, like the lowest note on a tuba, and the rich sound gradually increased in volume until it shook the walls of the house, rattling the cups in the cupboards and sending a light dusting of plaster down from the ceiling.
The whole thing lasted perhaps twenty seconds. As soon as it was finished, the house sprang to life. Lights came on, bedroom doors flew open, bare feet pounded down the stairs and up the hallways, and everyone seemed to converge on the kitchen at once.
Dora’s parents were visibly flustered. Her mother’s face was twitching, and her father was trying unsuccessfully to tie the belt of his robe with shaking hands. Aunt Alice put her arms around her sons’ shoulders, pulling them close. Whether this was to give comfort or receive it was unclear, as Peter and Jack looked more excited than scared.
“What was that? An earthquake?” Dora’s mother asked.
“Excuse me,” said the little man in the red pajamas, “but you don’t spend a thousand lifetimes trapped in a can of off-brand root beer without accumulating a little gas.”
Everyone stared at him.
“Sweet mother of pearl,” Grandpa whispered. “I knew I shouldn’t have eaten all those hot pickles right before bed.” He was holding the trembling Mugsy in his arms and stroking him absently with one gnarled finger.
“Don’t be an idiot, Herbert,” Grandma said. She turned to the little man. “Explain yourself.”
He cleared his throat. “I’m a genie. I’m here to grant you nine wishes.” He paused to let this sink in before adding, “My name’s Stanley.”
“Nine wishes?” Dora’s father said. “Why not three?”
Stanley regarded him with a level gaze. “Would you prefer three?”
Dora’s father mulled this over. “Well, it seems more traditional, but no, I suppose not.”
Grandma had no such hang-ups. “I wish for a new toaster,” she said.
“You got it,” Stanley replied. There was a flash of light on the kitchen counter, and a sleek chrome toaster appeared. “Eight left,” he said.
“A new toaster?” Aunt Alice said. “What a waste.”
Grandma glared at her. “It’s nothing of the sort. You know I’ve wanted a new toaster for years. The old one always burned my bagels.”
There was a brief silence while they all considered this.
“Hey, where’s Dad?” Peter asked suddenly.
Dora glanced into the living room and saw, with only mild surprise, that her uncle was still sound asleep on the couch. When it came to beers, nobody could knock them back like Uncle Bud, and after his New Year’s Eve libations, nothing short of setting him on fire would wake him up before early afternoon.
“He’s fine,” she said, turning back to the others.
“So, what next?” Stanley asked. He plucked a speck of lint from his red pajamas and flicked it away.
“I’ve got one,” Jack piped up. “I wish Peter were a giant slug.”
Aunt Alice clapped her hand over Jack’s mouth, but it was too late. There was a flash of light, and then Peter was gone and there was an eight-inch banana slug on the floor where he been standing. It was sporting a rather incongruous shock of Peter’s shaggy blond hair.
Jack collapsed in a fit of high-pitched giggles.
“Nice kid you got there,” Stanley observed. “Seven left.”
Aunt Alice bent down and pulled her older son off the linoleum, grimacing at the long strings of slime that stretched out like melted cheese between his belly and the floor.
“Poor little guy,” she said. “Don’t worry. I’ll fix this.” She took a deep breath. “I wish Peter were back to his normal human self.”
There was another flash, and then Aunt Alice was staggering under Peter’s weight, as he had reverted to his usual form.
“Six left,” Stanley said.
Peter jumped out of his mother’s arms. “I wish I had a bucket of creamed spinach.” It appeared in his hands with a flash, and he promptly dumped the whole thing onto his brother’s head.
“Oh, gross!” Jack cried. “I hate this stuff!” He wiped off as much of it as he could, but there were green streaks all over on his face, and one big glob of spinach clung to the neck of his t-shirt like a strange brooch.
“Five left,” Stanley said.
“Well, who’s wasting wishes now?” Grandma said to Aunt Alice, with more than a hint of triumph in her voice. “My new toaster’s starting to look pretty damn smart, isn’t it?”
Dora sighed. Why had she pulled that stupid can out of the fridge? The new year had barely begun, and already everything was a mess.
“Hey,” she said, “why don’t we all just—”
She was interrupted by a series of sharp barks from Mugsy. He began to squirm in Grandpa’s arms, so Grandpa set him down on the floor. There was a flash, and Dora’s sandwich, which had thus far escaped everyone’s notice, vanished from the table and reappeared on the floor in front of Mugsy, who immediately buried his face in it, wagging his stub of a tail in satisfaction.
“Careful there, Mugsy. That’s one evil-looking sandwich,” Grandpa observed.
“Four left,” Stanley said.
“What?” Dora’s father exclaimed. “Now the dog gets a wish?”
“Well, I guess I’d better get mine in before they’re all used up,” Dora’s father said. “Now, what do I need the most? Infinite knowledge? World peace? A motorcycle?” He stroked his chin, frowning with concentration.
“I wish you would get rid of that gut,” Dora’s mother said, poking him in the stomach.
There was a flash.
“Three left,” Stanley said.
“Thanks a lot, Honey,” Dora’s father said, peering down at his newly svelte physique. “You obviously put a lot of thought into that one. Allow me to return the favor. I wish you would be nicer to me.”
“Oh, Schmoopsie Poo, you knew just what to wish for,” Dora’s mother said. “I’m so proud of you, my clever, handsome man.” She squeezed his arm and looked up at him with an expression that made Dora’s stomach fold over on itself. I’m glad I didn’t eat that sandwich after all, she thought.
“Two left,” Stanley said.
“I wish I had a birdfeeder that would keep itself filled all the time,” Grandpa said slowly. “I like watching the birds, but I’m sick of tromping out there through the snow every other day with that bag of seed.”
Through the kitchen window, Dora saw a flash like lightning from somewhere in the vicinity of the backyard birdfeeder.
“Done,” Stanley said. “One left.”
“Geez, Dad, that one was worse than Mom’s!”
“Horsefeathers! Mine’s been the only good wish so far!”
“Oh, I suppose I should have just let my son be a slug for the rest of his life.”
“Now there’s only one left!”
“Really? And whose fault is that?”
They were all getting into it now. Everyone began shouting, and it wasn’t long before the conversation degenerated into a babble of angry voices and vehement hand gestures.
Dora rolled her eyes. This couldn’t be further from the peaceful night she had planned. If she didn’t interfere, they would bicker into the small hours of the morning.
There was only one thing to do. She bent down and whispered into Stanley’s ear.
“Excellent choice,” he said.
There was a brilliant flash.
Uncle Bud snapped awake as something cool and wet washed over him. “What the hell?” he exclaimed, scrambling to his feet.
The last thing he remembered was lying down on the couch and turning on the television. Now he was standing on a beach, and the sun was much brighter than he would have preferred. He looked down and saw that he was wearing swim trunks.
This was very peculiar.
“Well, look who’s up,” his mother-in-law said. She was wearing a skirted bathing costume and a wide-brimmed sunhat. His father-in-law stood beside her in a tank top, shorts, and sandals with black socks. Mugsy was playing in the surf, plunging into the waves and snapping at small fish. Further down the beach were his sister-in-law and her husband. She was resting her head on his shoulder, and he had his arm around her waist. Uncle Bud’s sons, Peter and Jack, were digging in the sand with plastic shovels.
“Hi, Daddy!” Jack shouted, waving.
“We’re making a sand castle!” Peter added.
“That’s… that’s nice, boys.” He turned to his wife, squinting and confused. He had a massive headache.
Aunt Alice handed him a bottle of water and four aspirin.
“Thanks,” Uncle Bud said. He swallowed the aspirin and proceeded to chug the entire bottle of water with his eyes closed. When he opened them again, a long-tailed animal with enormous feet was hopping past him, leaving oddly shaped tracks in the sand.
“Is that a … ?”
“Kangaroo, yes,” Aunt Alice said. “Sit down, and I’ll tell you all about it.”
Dora leaned over to inspect her cheddar-and-mushroom omelet. It was perfect: uniform pale yellow and as fluffy as a cloud. Smiling, she carried it over to the kitchen table. The Black Forest Root Beer can was still there, but Stanley had disappeared in the flash that had signaled the fulfillment of the final wish. Outside, the sun was just beginning to break through the trees in her grandparents’ backyard, painting the snow with delicate tints of pink and peach and lilac. Chickadees darted back and forth between the branches of the blue spruce and the recently installed font of everlasting sunflower seed. Dora paused with her fork in her hand, savoring the silence. She knew that her family would make its way back home eventually, but for now, she was alone with her thoughts, her sunrise, and her omelet. Despite an inauspicious start, it was starting to look like this might be a very good year.