A Wish to Build a Dream On

Garrett was completely wrong, Mary Samson told herself, straightening in her seat. You are not a prude who’s incapable of being impulsive.

Wasn’t this impulsive enough? Taking two weeks’ vacation from her engineering position to travel to Ireland? She hadn’t taken a vacation in three years because . . . well, she’d always been too busy. There were simulations to run, project meetings to attend, and countless e-mails to answer. She’d prided herself on being dependable. A responsible adult with a good job and a bright future.

It hadn’t been enough for Garrett. They’d dated for almost a year before he’d dumped her last Thursday.

“It’s just not working, Mary. I need someone more impulsive. Someone who likes to live on the edge.”

“I can be more exciting,” she’d promised him. “Spontaneous, even.”

“Mary, the only spontaneous thing you’ve ever done was buy whole milk instead of two percent.”

And even that had been an accident. Mary’s stomach twisted at the memory of their break-up. Her only consolation was that it had been easy. There wasn’t another woman; he’d simply been bored.

They’d never moved in together, so there was no furniture to move, no locks to change. Not even a single dirty sock left behind. Here one minute, gone the next. Why then, did she feel so awful, as though he’d been her last chance for a real relationship?

“Are you all right?” her seatmate Harriet asked. Besides herself, Harriet was the next youngest member of the tour group. She was seventy-five, widowed, and wore her white hair styled in a large pouf. “You don’t look well.”

“I’m fine. Why do you ask?”

The older woman handed her a pack of tissues. “You look as though you’re considering throwing yourself off the bus. Or in front of it.”

Mary glanced at their tour guide Neil, who was trying to lead the passengers in a chorus of “Kum Bah Yah.” Reaching for a bottle of Motrin, she nodded.

“Always a possibility.”

Harriet beamed and opened her tote bag, revealing several bottles of alcohol from the last hotel’s mini-bar. “Here. Choose your poison.” For herself, the older woman selected a bottle of Jack Daniels.

Mary doubted if they were supposed to drink while on the tour, but Neil’s perky singing was enough to drive anyone to overindulge. She reached for a bottle of Disaronno Amaretto. “Sláinte.”

The two tiny bottles clinked together, and Harriet offered a toast. “May the wind at your back always be your own.”
Mary choked, coughing at Harriet’s remark. The alcohol burned her throat, and she took another swig. It was beginning to mellow her out. “Sorry.”

“Did you make a wish, then?” Harriet asked.

“No. Should I?” Wishes were for birthday candles and shooting stars. Not for contraband bottles of mini-bar alcohol.

“Of course. Ireland is a land of magic. You never know when your fondest dream will come true.”

Mary was about to add a sarcastic remark, when she suddenly glanced at Harriet’s face. The stubborn glint in the older woman’s eye suggested that she wasn’t going to let this one go.

“Don’t scoff. You can’t say you don’t believe in something, just because you’ve never seen it. Even scientists know there are some things which can’t be explained.”

True enough. “It doesn’t mean I expect to see leprechauns hiding in the break room.”

“The bastards are more likely to be raiding the Coke machines,” Harriet retorted. She took another sip of her whiskey. “I’m speaking of the fairies. You’ve heard of the Irish superstitions, haven’t you?”

“A little.” She’d heard tales of babies snatched at birth, changeling tales. Myths of selkies and other fey creatures. “I know you’re not supposed to offend them.”

The old woman’s expression turned darker. “No. You’re not.” She stared out the window at the road, which had grown narrower. Hedges lined the left side of the road, and below it, the sea roiled with gray waves and white foam.

Harriet rested her chin on her palm, eyeing the wild landscape. Gorse and heather bloomed on the sides of the cliffs while sheep grazed in the grass.
When they reached a series of stone huts on the side of the mountain, the tour bus rolled to a stop. Mary wasn’t exactly in the mood to view prehistoric beehive huts, but perhaps the sea air would clear her head.

Harriet stopped her before they got off the bus. “I’ll tell you this, Mary Samson. Make a wish, when the time is right. It might come true.”

Not wanting to offend her seatmate, Mary nodded. “All right.” She didn’t know what Harriet was talking about, but if it made the woman feel good to give advice, there wasn’t any harm in smiling and going along with it.

The gray skies rolled a fog off the sea, cloaking the Dingle Peninsula in a low mist. It was cooler outside, and Mary buttoned up the pullover sweater she’d bought at the last tour stop. As she trudged up the path, following the guide, Harriet’s words came back. Make a wish, when the time is right.

Some people would wish for a winning lottery ticket. Maybe a house in Bermuda or a job promotion.

I want a family, she thought. Her parents had been dead for ten years, and there was no one left. No aunts, no uncles. Not even a grandmother. It was loneliness that had made her register for an online dating service. And though her gut had warned her that Garrett wasn’t Mr. Right, she’d hoped he could be Mr. Almost-Right. She had been willing to settle, to mold herself into the woman he wanted. And how pitiful was that?

Stepping into the grass, she sat upon a large limestone boulder, watching the sea from her vantage point. The tour group continued on without her, and she rested her hands on the rock, letting her thoughts drift. At her feet, the grass swayed with the gusts of wind.

She realized her tennis shoes were squarely in the middle of a circle of mushrooms. A fairy circle, so the legend went.

Funny. Perhaps that was what Harriet had meant. All right, she was game for anything. Superstitions didn’t mean a thing, but why not make that wish?

I wish a man would love the woman I am, not the woman he wants me to be. And I want to have a family.

She looked up and saw the old woman rushing towards her. “No!” Harriet cried out. “What have you done?”

Mary frowned, not understanding. It was just a circle of mushrooms. A common gardening problem, nothing more. But her heart began to quicken with an unnamed fear. “What is it?”

The old woman reached her side. “Get out. Get out, before it’s too late.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about. It’s just-”

A blinding migraine seemed to strike out of nowhere. A pulsing, swollen pressure that pressed against her brain.

“Those who step into an empty fairy ring, die at a young age,” Harriet breathed. “It’s forbidden, didn’t you know that?”

“Don’t be ridiculous.” Mary tried to stand up, but a wave of dizziness seemed to pull her down. “It’s just a bunch of mushrooms.” Probably the Amaretto, coming back to haunt her.

Harriet grabbed her hand and pressed something soft into it. “Take this. And whatever you do, don’t let go.”

It was a piece of brown bread, left over from breakfast. What on earth?

“It’s an offering. It might pacify the fey.”

A strange music seemed to emanate from the ground, the faint sounds of harp strings. “Do you hear that?” Mary leaned forward, trying to make sense of it.

Harriet was mumbling under her breath, her hands working upon a strand of rosary beads. Prayers. Mary wanted to smile and tell her not to be silly. It was going to be okay.

But before she could speak, her knees buckled beneath her. She stumbled onto her hands and knees inside the circle.

Grass tickled her face, and pressure rose up inside her skull to an unbearable pitch. She gripped her head, but the agony kept building and rising.
A small pop, and she was ripped free of her body, her spirit hovering above the fairy circle.

Some wish, Mary grumbled. She wasn’t supposed to die, for heaven’s sakes. That was her last thought before her spirit was torn through the fairy circle and across to the other side.

From the short story “A Wish to Build a Dream On” in the book The Mammoth Book of Time Travel Romance.
Copyright © 2009 by Michelle Willingham
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The edition published by arrangement with Constable & Robinson Publishing. U.S. edition by Running Press.