They said to use your wish wisely. In Harold’s opinion, most people squandered their one-time, anything-goes ticket on wasteful nonsense.
Meaningless crap, all of it.
Harold pulled his coat tighter about him and walked faster. The Ticket Exchange office closed at 5 p.m. and he didn’t dare risk waiting until morning. When his lucky number had come up on Saturday night’s drawing, his name and face had become public knowledge overnight. Many winners usually found themselves liberated of their tickets before the office opened for business on Monday morning.
His tires had been slashed so Harold had just started walking, pulling the collar of his jacket high and his baseball cap low. He hadn’t even stopped for lunch. Only a few more blocks, now. An elderly woman crossed onto his side of the street, going the other way. Her suspicious eyes rested on him for several long seconds.
“Hey, aren’t you that guy?”
“No,” he grunted, shoving past her and increasing his pace.
She shouted after him, and he broke into an all-out sprint. More people were turning to see him go by. Only one more block.
A young guy, hardly more than a freckled kid, tried grabbing his sleeve. Harold kicked him in the knee.
In front of him loomed the shiny black facade of the Ticket Exchange. Harold shouldered his way inside, panting in the brightly lit lobby.
A man in an exquisitely tailored black suit approached him, a subdued smile doing little to soften the otherwise snakelike face. This man was impossibly tall, with slicked back white-blond hair, but coal-black eyes. His pale hands gestured Harold through an open doorway into a stark office and into a plush arm chair across from an ornate oak desk.
“You must be this week’s lucky winner,” the man said amiably enough.
Harold wiped his hands on his jeans, trying to stop sweating.
“Yeah. Yeah, that’s me. I’ve got the ticket right here.” He fumbled through his pockets, finally fished out a tiny scroll tied with a maroon ribbon and handed it over.
The blond man with the reptilian features took his time in unfurling the papyrus and checking the numbers printed in bold black digits.
Harold watched him so hard he thought his eyes might pop out of his head. He had spent so much time thinking about what he was going to do with his winnings. He wasn’t going to waste it like so many others had in the last three years, since the lottery’s inception.
“Well, it seems everything is in order,” the tall man said. He tenderly rolled up the tiny scroll and placed it inside a hidden pocket in his jacket. “What is your wish?”
Harold swallowed. He rolled the words around his mouth, selecting each syllable carefully.
“I wish that Janine Winters, mother of Charlie and Elizabeth, deceased on September eleventh Two-thousand-one, would come to life again and rejoin her family. I wish she’d come back to me.”
The man raised a thin eyebrow. “Until death do you part once again?”
Harold rose from his chair in a rush. “No funny business, asshole. No unexpected accidents, no sudden illnesses. She gets to be with us until one or both of us die of old age.”
He was shaking. It was a crazy thing to ask for, but if the rules could be believed, there was no wish that could not be granted, no desire too great.
The man’s tailored suit crinkled as he bent over his desk, reaching for another piece of parchment and an elegant pen.
“Please initial and sign this form acknowledging the official exchange of your ticket for one, and only one, wish. No refunds, no returns. All wishes are final.”
Harold signed with shaking fingers, nearly dropping the pen twice and horribly botching his usually swirly letters.
“That’s it?” he asked, when it was done and the man had secreted the scroll away again.
“Yes. You may wait outside, if you like.”
Outside, thunder rolled across the sky. Harold stepped from the bowels of the Ticket Exchange, shielding his eyes against the blinding lightning streaking through the sudden gloom.
Behind him, the man in the tailored suit was locking up.
“Is this normal?” Harold nearly had to shout over the rising wind.
The roaring gust did not rustle a single hair on the other man’s head.
“It is what you wished for.”
“My wife’s coming back to me in a thunderstorm?”
The man smiled cryptically. “Among other things.”
He turned his back on Harold, whistling softly as he walked away. Swiveling to look after him, Harold noticed that the Ticket Exchange building was nowhere to be seen.
“Where’d the Exchange go?”
The man turned back, glancing wistfully at where his place of employment had been.
“It is not needed anymore. There won’t be any more tickets to exchange.”
Over the wind, Harold could hear what sounded like moaning coming from a few blocks away. Then a scream. Then another.
“What’s going on?” Harold shouted, backing away from the horrible sounds coming toward them.
“You wished for the dead to rise. The gates have opened. It won’t be long now.”
Harold tumbled to his knees, his whole body shaking uncontrollably.
“That’s not what I wished for. I just wanted Janine back.”
“The gates are far too large for only one soul to escape. I’m afraid your wish comes with… baggage.”
Above them, lightning struck the side of a high-rise, raining glass and dust on them.
Up ahead, just across the street, a gaunt woman in a tattered lace dress shambled toward them.
The tall man shrugged debris from his shoulders and gave Harold’s shoulder a reassuring squeeze.
“Do not be afraid. She will not kill you. After all, that was part of your wish. Until one or both of you die of old age.”
The tall man vanished. Harold was alone on the street. No living soul heard his scream.