From the author of the Hugo-winning “Six Months, Three Days,” a new wrinkle on the old story of three wishes, set after the end of the world.
This short story was acquired and edited for Tor.com by senior editor Patrick Nielsen Hayden.
Thanks to Gordon Dahlquist for the advice on theater stuff!
Marisol got into an intense relationship with the people on The Facts of Life, to the point where Tootie and Mrs. Garrett became her imaginary best friends and she shared every last thought with them. She told Tootie about the rash she got from wearing the same bra every day for two years, and she had a long talk with Mrs. Garrett about her regrets that she hadn’t said a proper goodbye to her best friend Julie and her on-again/off-again boyfriend Rod, before they died along with everybody else.
The panic room had pretty much every TV show ever made on its massive hard drive, with multiple backup systems and a fail-proof generator, so there was nothing stopping Marisol from marathoning The Facts of Life for sixteen hours a day, starting over again with season one when she got to the end of the bedraggled final season. She also watched Mad Men and The West Wing. The media server had tons of video of live theatre, but Marisol didn’t watch that because it made her feel guilty. Not survivor’s guilt; failed playwright guilt.
Her last proper conversation with a living human had been an argument with Julie about Marisol’s decision to go to medical school instead of trying to write more plays. (“Fuck doctors, man,” Julie had spat. ”People are going to die no matter what you do. Theatre is important.”) Marisol had hung up on Julie and gone back to the pre-med books, staring at the exposed musculature and blood vessels as if they were costume designs for a skeleton theatre troupe.
The quakes always happened at the worst moment, just when Jo or Blair was about to reveal something heartfelt and serious. The whole panic room would shake, throwing Marisol against the padded walls or ceiling over and over again. A reminder that the rest of the world was probably dead. At first, these quakes were constant, then they happened a few times a day. Then once a day, then a few times a week. Then a few times a month. Marisol knew that once a month or two passed without the world going sideways, she would have to go out and investigate. She would have to leave her friends at the Eastland School, and venture into a bleak world.
Sometimes, Marisol thought she had a duty to stay in the panic room, since she was personally keeping the human race alive. But then she thought: what if there was someone else living, and they needed help? Marisol was pre-med, she might be able to do something. What if there was a man, and Marisol could help him repopulate the species?
The panic room had nice blue leather walls and a carpeted floor that felt nice to walk on, and enough gourmet frozen dinners to last Marisol a few lifetimes. She only had the pair of shoes she’d brought in there with her, and it would seem weird to wear shoes after two barefoot years. The real world was in here, in the panic room—out there was nothing but an afterimage of a bad trip.
Marisol was an award-winning playwright, but that hadn’t saved her from the end of the world. She was taking pre-med classes and trying to get a scholarship to med school so she could give cancer screenings to poor women in her native Taos, but that didn’t save her either. Nor did the fact that she believed in God every other day.
What actually saved Marisol from the end of the world was the fact that she took a job cleaning Burton Henstridge’s mansion to help her through school, and she’d happened to be scrubbing his fancy Japanese toilet when the quakes had started—within easy reach of Burton’s state-of-the-art panic room. (She had found the hidden opening mechanism some weeks earlier, while cleaning the porcelain cat figurines.) Burton himself was in Bulgaria scouting a new location for a nano-fabrication facility, and had died instantly.
When Marisol let herself think about all the people she could never talk to again, she got so choked up she wanted to punch someone in the eye until they were blinded for life. She experienced grief in the form of freak-outs that left her unable to breathe or think, and then she popped in another Facts of Life. As she watched, she chewed her nails until she was in danger of gnawing off her fingertips.
The door to the panic room wouldn’t actually open when Marisol finally decided it had been a couple months since the last quake and it was time to go the hell out there. She had to kick the door a few dozen times, until she dislodged enough of the debris blocking it to stagger out into the wasteland. The cold slapped her in the face and extremities, extra bitter after two years at room temperature. Burton’s house was gone; the panic room was just a cube half-buried in the ruins, covered in some yellowy insulation that looked like it would burn your fingers.
Everything out there was white, like snow or paper, except powdery and brittle, ashen. She had a Geiger counter from the panic room, which read zero. She couldn’t figure out what the hell had happened to the world, for a long time, until it hit her—this was fungus. Some kind of newly made, highly corrosive fungus that had rushed over everything like a tidal wave and consumed every last bit of organic material, then died. It had come in wave after wave, with incredible violence, until it had exhausted the last of its food supply and crushed everything to dust. She gleaned this from the consistency of the crud that had coated every bit of rubble, but also from the putrid sweet-and-sour smell that she could not stop smelling once she noticed it. She kept imagining that she saw the white powder starting to move out of the corner of her eye, advancing toward her, but when she would turn around there was nothing.
“The fungus would have all died out when there was nothing left for it to feed on,” Marisol said aloud. “There’s no way it could still be active.” She tried to pretend some other person, an expert or something, had said that, and thus it was authoritative. The fungus was dead. It couldn’t hurt her now.
Because if the fungus wasn’t dead, then she was screwed—even if it didn’t kill her, it would destroy the panic room and its contents. She hadn’t been able to seal it properly behind her without locking herself out.
“Hello?” Marisol kept yelling, out of practice at trying to project her voice. “Anybody there? Anybody?”
She couldn’t even make sense of the landscape. It was just blinding white, as far as she could see, with bits of blanched stonework jutting out. No way to discern streets or houses or cars or anything, because it had all been corroded or devoured.
She was about to go back to the panic room and hope it was still untouched, so she could eat another frozen lamb vindaloo and watch season three of Mad Men. And then she spotted something, a dot of color, a long way off in the pale ruins.
The bottle was a deep oaky green, like smoked glass, with a cork in it. And it was about twenty yards away, just sitting in one of the endless piles of white debris. Somehow, it had avoided being consumed or rusted or broken in the endless waves of fungal devastation. It looked as though someone had just put it down a second ago—in fact, Marisol’s first response was to yell “Hello?” even louder than before.
When there was no answer, she picked up the bottle. In her hands, it felt bumpy, like an embossed label had been worn away, and there didn’t seem to be any liquid inside. She couldn’t see its contents, if there were any. She removed the cork.
A whoosh broke the dead silence. A sparkly mist streamed out of the bottle’s narrow mouth—sparkling like the cheap glitter at the Arts and Crafts table at summer camp when Marisol was a little girl, misty like a smoke machine at a cheap nightclub—and it slowly resolved into a shape in front of her. A man, a little taller than she was and much bigger.
Marisol was so startled and grateful at no longer being alone that she almost didn’t pause to wonder how this man had appeared out of nowhere, after she opened a bottle. A bottle that had survived when everything else was crushed. Then she did start to wonder, but the only explanations seemed too ludicrous to believe.
“Hello and congratulations,” the man said in a pleasant tone. He looked Jewish and wore a cheap suit, in a style that reminded Marisol somewhat of the Mad Men episodes she’d just been watching. His dark hair fell onto his high forehead in lank strands, and he had a heavy beard shadow. “Thank you for opening my bottle. I am pleased to offer you three wishes.” Then he looked around, and his already dour expression worsened. “Oh, fuck,” he said. “Not again.”
“Wait,” Marisol said. “You’re a— You’re a genie?”
“I hate that term,” the man said. “I prefer wish-facilitator. And for your information, I used to be just a regular person. I was the theater critic at The New York Times for six months in 1958, which I still think defines me much more than my current engagement does. But I tried to bamboozle the wrong individual, so I got stuck in a bottle and forced to grant wishes to anyone who opens it.”
“You were a theater critic?” Marisol said. “I’m a playwright. I won a contest and had a play produced off-Broadway. Well, actually, I’m a pre-med student, and I clean houses for money. But in my off-off-hours, I’m a playwright, I guess.”
“Oh,” the man said. “Well, if you want me to tell you your plays are very good, then that will count as one of your three wishes. And honestly, I don’t think you’re going to benefit from good publicity very much in the current climate.” He gestured around at the bleak white landscape around them. “My name was Richard Wolf, by the way.”
“Marisol,” she said. “Marisol Guzmán.”
“Nice to meet you.” He extended his hand, but didn’t actually try to shake hers. She wondered if she would go right through him. She was standing in a world of stinky chalk talking to a self-loathing genie. After two years alone in a box, that didn’t even seem weird, really.
So this was it. Right? She could fix everything. She could make a wish, and everything would be back the way it was. She could talk to Julie again, and apologize for hanging up on her. She could see Rod, and maybe figure out what they were to each other. She just had to say the words: “I wish.” She started to speak, and then something Richard Wolf had said a moment earlier registered in her brain.
“Wait a minute,” she said. “What did you mean, ‘Not again?’”
“Oh, that.” Richard Wolf swatted around his head with big hands, like he was trying to swat nonexistent insects. “I couldn’t say. I mean, I can answer any question you want, but that counts as one of your wishes. There are rules.”
“Oh,” Marisol said. “Well, I don’t want to waste a wish on a question. Not when I can figure this out on my own. You said ‘not again,’ the moment you saw all this. So, this isn’t the first time this has happened. Your bottle can probably survive anything. Right? Because it’s magic or something.”
The dark green bottle still had a heft to it, even after she’d released its contents. She threw it at a nearby rock a few times. Not a scratch.
“So,” she said. “The world ends, your bottle doesn’t get damaged. If even one person survives, they find your bottle. And the first thing they wish for? Is for the world not to have ended.”
Richard Wolf shrugged, but he also sort of nodded at the same time, like he was confirming her hunch. His feet were see-through, she noticed. He was wearing wing-tip shoes,that looked scuffed to the point of being scarred.
“The first time was in 1962,” he said. “The Cuban Missile Crisis, they called it afterwards.”
“This is not counting as one of my wishes, because I didn’t ask a question,” Marisol said.
“Fine, fine,” Richard Wolf rolled his eyes. “I grew tired of listening to your harangue. When I was reviewing for the Times, I always tore into plays that had too many endless speeches. Your plays don’t have a lot of monologues, do they? Fucking Brecht made everybody think three-page speeches were clever. Fucking Brecht.”
“I didn’t go in for too many monologues,” Marisol said. “So. Someone finds your bottle, they wish for the apocalypse not to have happened, and then they probably make a second wish, to try and make sure it doesn’t happen again. Except here we are, so it obviously didn’t work the last time.”
“I could not possibly comment,” Richard Wolf said. “Although I should say that everyone gets the wrong idea about people in my line of work—meaning wish-facilitators, not theatre critics. People had the wrong idea when I was a theatre critic, too; they thought it was my job to promote the theatre, to put buns in seats, even for terrible plays. That was not my job at all.”
“The theatre has been an endangered species for a long time,” Marisol said, not without sympathy. She looked around the pasty-white, yeast-scented deathscape. A world of Wonder Bread. “I mean, I get why people want criticism that is essentially cheerleading, even if that doesn’t push anybody to do their best work.”
“Well, if you think of theatre as some sort of delicate flower that needs to be kept protected in some sort of hothouse”—and at this point, Wolf was clearly reprising arguments he’d had over and over again, when he was alive—“then you’re going to end up with something that only the faithful few will appreciate, and you’ll end up worsening the very marginalization that you’re seeking to prevent.”
Marisol was being very careful to avoid asking anything resembling a question, because she was probably going to need all three of her wishes. “I would guess that the job of a theatre critic is misunderstood in sort of the opposite way than the job of a genie,” she said. “Everybody is afraid a theatre critic will be too brutally honest. But a genie . . .”
“Everybody thinks I’m out to swindle them!” Richard Wolf threw his hands in the air, thinking of all the tsuris he had endured. “When, in fact, it’s always the client who can’t express a wish in clear and straightforward terms. They always leave out crucial information. I do my best. It’s like stage directions without any stage left or stage right. I interpret as best I can.”
“Of course you do,” Marisol said. This was all starting to creep her out, and her gratitude at having another person to talk to (who wasn’t Mrs. Garrett) was getting driven out by her discomfort at standing in the bleached-white ruins of the world kibitzing about theatre criticism. She picked up the bottle from where it lay undamaged after hitting the rock, and found the cork.
“Wait a minute,” Richard Wolf said. “You don’t want to—”
He was sucked back inside the bottle before she finished putting the cork back in.
She reopened the bottle once she was back inside the panic room, with the door sealed from the inside. So nothing or nobody could get in. She watched three episodes of The Facts of Life, trying to get her equilibrium back, before she microwaved some sukiyaki and let Richard Wolf out again. He started the spiel about how he had to give her three wishes over again, then stopped and looked around.
“Huh.” He sat and sort of floated an inch above the sofa. “Nice digs. Real calfskin on this sofa. Is this like a bunker?”
“I can’t answer any of your questions,” Marisol said, “or that counts as a wish you owe me.”
“Don’t be like that.” Richard Wolf ruffled his two-tone lapels. “I’m just trying not to create any loopholes, because once there are loopholes it brings everybody grief in the end. Trust me, you wouldn’t want the rules to be messy here.” He rifled through the media collection until he found a copy of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, which he made a big show of studying until Marisol finally loaded it for him.
“This is better than I’d remembered,” Richard Wolf said an hour later.
“Good to know,” Marisol said. “I never got around to watching that one.”
“I met Tennessee Williams, you know,” Richard said. “He wasn’t nearly as drunk as you might have thought.”
“So here’s what I figure. You do your level best to implement the wishes that people give you, to the letter,” Marisol said. “So if someone says they want to make sure that a nuclear war never happens again, you do your best to make a nuclear war impossible. And then maybe that change leads to some other catastrophe, and then the next person tries to make some wishes that prevent that thing from happening again. And on, and on. Until this.”
“This is actually the longest conversation I’ve had since I became a wish-facilitator.” Richard crossed his leg, ankle over thigh. “Usually, it’s just whomp-bomp-a-lula-three-wishes, and I’m back in the bottle. So tell me about your prize-winning play. If you want. I mean, it’s up to you.”
Marisol told Richard about her play, which seemed like something an acquaintance of hers had written many lifetimes ago. “It was a one-act,” she said, “about a man who is trying to break up with his girlfriend, but every time he’s about to dump her she does something to remind him why he used to love her. So he hires a male prostitute to seduce her, instead, so she’ll cheat on him and he can have a reason to break up with her.”
Richard was giving her a blank expression, as though he couldn’t trust himself to show a reaction.
“It’s a comedy,” Marisol explained.
“Sorry,” Richard said. “It sounds awful. He hires a male prostitute to sleep with his girlfriend. It sounds . . . I just don’t know what to say.”
“Well, you were a theatre critic in the 1950s, right? I guess it was a different era.”
“I don’t think that’s the problem,” Richard said. “It just sounds sort of . . . misanthropic. Or actually woman-hating. With a slight veneer of irony. I don’t know. Maybe that’s the sort of thing everybody is into these days—or was into, before the world ended yet again. This is something like the fifth or sixth time the world has ended. I am losing count, to be quite honest.”
Marisol was put out that this fossil was casting aspersions on her play—her contest-winning play, in fact. But the longer she kept him talking, the more clues he dropped, without costing her any wishes. So she bit her lip.
“So. There were half a dozen apocalypses,” Marisol said. “And I guess each of them was caused by people trying to prevent the last one from happening again, by making wishes. So that white stuff out there. Some kind of bioengineered corrosive fungus, I thought—but maybe it was created to prevent some kind of climate-related disaster. It does seem awfully reflective of sunlight.”
“Oh, yes, it reflects sunlight just wonderfully,” Richard said. “The temperature of the planet is going to be dropping a lot in the next decade. No danger of global warming now.”
“Ha,” Marisol said. “And you claim you’re just doing the most straightforward job possible. You’re addicted to irony. You sat through too many Brecht plays, even though you claim to hate him. You probably loved Beckett as well.”
“All right-thinking people love Beckett,” said Richard. “So you had some small success as a playwright, and yet you’re studying to be a doctor. Or you were, before this unfortunate business. Why not stick with the theatre?”
“Is that a question?” Marisol said. Richard started to backpedal, but then she answered him anyway. “I wanted to help people, really help people. Live theatre reaches fewer and fewer people all the time, especially brand-new plays by brand-new playwrights. It’s getting to be like poetry—nobody reads poetry any more. And meanwhile, poor people are dying of preventable cancers every day, back home in Taos. I couldn’t fool myself that writing a play that twenty people saw would do as much good as screening a hundred people for cervical cancer.”
Richard paused and looked her over. “You’re a good person,” he said. “I almost never get picked up by anyone who’s actually not a terrible human being.”
“It’s all relative. My protagonist who hires a male prostitute to seduce his girlfriend considers himself a good person, too.”
“Does it work? The male prostitute thing? Does she sleep with him?”
“Are you asking me a question?”
Wolf shrugged and rolled his eyes in that operatic way he did, which he’d probably practiced in the mirror. “I will owe you an extra wish. Sure. Why not. Does it work, with the gigolo?”
Marisol had to search her memory for a second, she had written that play in such a different frame of mind. “No. The boyfriend keeps feeding the male prostitute lines to seduce his girlfriend via a Bluetooth earpiece—it’s meant to be a postmodern Cyrano de Bergerac—and she figures it out and starts using the male prostitute to screw with her boyfriend. In the end, the boyfriend and the male prostitute get together because the boyfriend and the male prostitute have seduced each other while flirting with the girlfriend.”
Richard cringed on top of the sofa with his face in his insubstantial hands. “That’s terrible,” he said. “I can’t believe I gave you an extra wish just to find that out.”
“Wow, thanks. I can see why people hated you when you were a theatre critic.”
“Sorry! I mean, maybe it was better on the stage; I bet you have a flair for dialogue. It just sounds so . . . hackneyed. I mean, postmodern Cyrano de Bergerac? I heard all about postmodernism from this one graduate student who opened my bottle in the early 1990s, and it sounded dreadful. If I wasn’t already sort of dead, I would be slitting my wrists. You really did make a wise choice, becoming a doctor.”
“Screw you.” Marisol decided to raid the relatively tiny liquor cabinet in the panic room, and poured herself a generous vodka. “You’re the one who’s been living in a bottle. So. All of this is your fault.” She waved her hand, indicating the devastation outside the panic room. “You caused it all, with some excessively ironic wish-granting.”
“That’s a very skewed construction of events. If the white sludge was caused by a wish that somebody made—and I’m not saying it was—then it’s not my fault. It’s the fault of the wisher.”
“Okay,” Marisol said. Richard drew to attention, thinking she was finally ready to make her first wish. Instead, she said, “I need to think,” and put the cork back in the bottle.
Marisol watched a season and a half of I Dream of Jeannie, which did not help at all. She ate some delicious beef stroganoff and drank more vodka. She slept and watched TV and slept and drank coffee and ate an omelet. She had no circadian rhythm to speak of anymore.
She had four wishes, and the overwhelming likelihood was that she would foul them up, and maybe next time there wouldn’t be one person left alive to find the bottle and fix her mistake.
This was pretty much exactly like trying to cure a patient, Marisol realized. You give someone a medicine which fixes their disease but causes deadly side effects. Or reduces the patient’s resistance to other infections. You didn’t just want to get rid of one pathogen, you wanted to help the patient reach homeostasis again. Except that the world was an infinitely more complex system than a single human being. And then again, making a big wish was like writing a play, with the entire human race as players. Bleh.
She could wish that the bioengineered fungus had never dissolved the world, but then she would be faced with whatever climate disaster the fungus had prevented. She could make a blanket wish that the world would be safe from global disasters for the next thousand years—and maybe unleash a millennium of stagnation. Or worse, depending on the slippery definition of “safe.”
She guessed that wishing for a thousand wishes wouldn’t work—in fact, that kind of shenanigans might be how Richard Wolf wound up where he was now.
The media server in the panic room had a bazillion movies and TV episodes about the monkey paw, the wishing ring, the magic fountain, the Faustian bargain, the djinn, the vengeance-demon, and so on. So she had plenty of time to soak up the accumulated wisdom of the human race on the topic of making wishes, which amounted to a pile of clichés. Maybe she would have done more good as a playwright than as a doctor, after all—clichés were like plaque in the arteries of the imagination, they clogged the sense of what was possible. Maybe if enough people had worked to demolish clichés, the world wouldn’t have ended.
Marisol and Richard sat and watched The Facts of Life together. Richard kept complaining and saying things like, “This is worse than being trapped inside a bottle.” But he also seemed to enjoy complaining about it.
“This show kept me marginally sane when I was the only person on Earth,” Marisol said. “I still can’t wrap my mind around what happened to the human race. So, you are conscious of the passage of time when you’re inside the bottle.” She was very careful to avoid phrasing anything as a question.
“It’s very strange,” Richard said. “When I’m in the bottle, it’s like I’m in a sensory deprivation tank, except not particularly warm. I float, with no sense of who or where I am, but meanwhile another part of me is getting flashes of awareness of the world. But I can’t control them. I might be hyperaware of one ant carrying a single crumb up a stem of grass, for an eternity, or I might just have a vague sense of clouds over the ocean, or some old woman’s aches and pains. It’s like hyper-lucid dreaming, sort of.”
“Shush,” said Marisol. “This is the good part—Jo is about to lay some Brooklyn wisdom on these spoiled rich girls.”
The episode ended, and another episode started right away. You take the good, you take the bad. Richard groaned loudly. “So what’s your plan, if I may ask? You’re just going to sit here and watch television for another few years?” He snorted.
“I have no reason to hurry,” Marisol said. “I can spend a decade coming up with the perfect wishes. I have tons of frozen dinners.”
At last, she took pity on Richard and found a stash of PBS American Playhouse episodes on the media server, plus other random theatre stuff. Richard really liked Caryl Churchill, but didn’t care for Alan Ayckbourn. He hated Wendy Wasserstein. Eventually, she put him back in his bottle again.
Marisol started writing down possible draft wishes in one of the three blank journals that she’d found in a drawer. (Burton had probably expected to record his thoughts, if any, for posterity.) And then she started writing a brand-new play, instead. The first time she’d even tried, in a few years.
Her play was about a man—her protagonists were always men—who moves to the big city to become a librarian, and winds up working for a strange old lady, tending her collection of dried-out leaves from every kind of tree in the world. Pedro is so shy, he can’t even speak to more than two people, but so beautiful that everybody wants him to be a fashion model. He pays an optometrist to put drops in his eyes, so he won’t see the people photographing and lighting him when he models. She had no clue how this play was going to end, but she felt a responsibility to finish it. That’s what Mrs. Garrett would expect.
She was still stung by the idea that her prize-winning play was dumb, or worse yet kind of misogynistic. She wished she had an actual copy of that play, so she could show it to Richard and he would realize her true genius. But she didn’t wish that out loud, of course. And maybe this was the kick in the ass she needed to write a better play. A play that made sense of some of this mess.
“I’ve figured it out,” she told Richard the next time she opened his bottle. “I’ve figured out what happened those other times. Someone finds your bottle after the apocalypse, and they get three wishes. So the first wish is to bring the world back and reverse the destruction. The second wish is to make sure it doesn’t happen again. But then they still have one wish left. And that’s the one where they do something stupid and selfish, like wishing for irresistible sex appeal.”
“Or perfect hair,” said Richard Wolf, doing his patented eye-roll and air-swat.
“Or unlimited wealth. Or fame.”
“Or everlasting youth and beauty. Or the perfect lasagna recipe.”
“They probably figured they deserved it,” Marisol stared at the pages of scribbles in her hands. One set of diagrams mapping out her new, as-yet-unnamed play. A second set of diagrams trying to plan out the wish-making process, act by act. Her own scent clung to every surface in the panic room, the recirculated and purified air smelled like the inside of her own mouth. “I mean, they saved the world, right? So they’ve earned fame or sex or parties. Except I bet that’s where it all goes wrong.”
“That’s an interesting theory,” said Wolf, arms folded and head tilted to one side, like he was physically restraining himself from expressing an opinion.
Marisol threw out almost every part of her new play, except the part about her main character needing to be temporarily vision-impaired so he can model. That part seemed to speak to her, once she cleared away the clutter about the old woman and the leaves and stuff. Pedro stands, nearly nude, in a room full of people doing makeup and lighting and photography and catering and they’re all blurs to him. And he falls in love with one woman, but he only knows her voice, not her face. And he’s afraid to ruin it by learning her name, or seeing what she looks like.
By now, Marisol had confused the two processes in her mind. She kept thinking she would know what to wish for, as soon as she finished writing her play. She labored over the first scene for a week before she had the nerve to show it to Richard, and he kept narrowing his eyes and breathing loudly through his nose as he read it. But then he said it was actually a promising start, actually not terrible at all.
The mystery woman phones Pedro up, and he recognizes her voice instantly. So now he has her phone number, and he agonizes about calling her. What’s he afraid of, anyway? He decides his biggest fear is that he’ll go out on a date with the woman, and people will stare at the two of them. If the woman is as beautiful as Pedro, they’ll stare because it’s two beautiful people together. If she’s plain-looking, they’ll stare because they’ll wonder what he sees in her. When Pedro eats out alone, he has a way of shrinking in on himself, so nobody notices him. But he can’t do that on a date.
At last, Pedro calls her and they talk for hours. On stage, she is partially hidden from the audience, so they, too, can’t see what the woman looks like.
“It’s a theme in your work, hmmm?” Richard Wolf sniffed. “The hidden person, the flirting through a veil. The self-loathing narcissistic love affair.”
“I guess so,” Marisol said. “I’m interested in people who are seen, and people who see, and the female gaze, and whatever.”
She finished the play, and then it occurred to her that if she made a wish that none of this stuff had happened, her new play could be un-written as a result. When the time came to make her wishes, she rolled up the notebook and tucked it into her waistband of her sweatpants, hoping against hope that anything on her immediate person would be preserved when the world was rewritten.
In the end Pedro agrees to meet the woman, Susanna, for a drink. But he gets some of the eye-dilating drops from his optometrist friend. He can’t decide whether to put the drops in his eyes before the date—he’s in the men’s room at the bar where they’re meeting, with the bottle in his hand, dithering—and then someone disturbs him and he accidentally drops the bottle in the toilet. And Susanna turns out to be pretty, not like a model but more distinctive. She has a memorable face, full of life. She laughs a lot, Pedro stops feeling shy around her. And Pedro discovers that if he looks into Susanna’s eyes when he’s doing his semi-nude modeling, he no longer needs the eye drops to shut out the rest of the world.
“It’s a corny ending,” Marisol admitted. “But I like it.”
Richard Wolf shrugged. “Anything is better than unearned ambivalence.” Marisol decided that was a good review, coming from him.
Here’s what Marisol wished:
1) I wish this apocalypse and all previous apocalypses had never happened, and that all previous wishes relating to the apocalypse had never been wished.
2) I wish that there was a slight alteration in the laws of probability as relating to apocalyptic scenarios, so that if, for example, an event threatening the survival of the human race has a ten percent chance of happening, that ten percent chance just never comes up, and yet this does not change anything else in the material world.
3) I wish that I, and my designated heirs, will keep possession of this bottle, and will receive ample warning before any apocalyptic scenario comes up, so that we will have a chance to make the final wish.
She had all three wishes written neatly on a sheet of paper torn out of the notebook, and Richard Wolf scrutinized it a couple times, scratching his ear. “That’s it?” he said at last. “You do realize that I can make anything real. Right? You could create a world of giant snails and tiny people. You could make The Facts of Life the most popular TV show in the world for the next thousand years—which would, incidentally, ensure the survival of the human race, since there would have to be somebody to keep watching The Facts of Life. You could do anything.”
Marisol shook her head. “The only way to make sure we don’t end up back here again is to keep it simple.” And then, before she lost her nerve, she picked up the sheet of paper where she’d written down her three wishes, and she read them aloud.
Everything went cheaply glittery around Marisol, and the panic room reshaped into The Infinite Ristretto, a trendy café that just happened to be roughly the same size and shape as the panic room. The blue-leather walls turned to brown brick, with brass fixtures and posters for the legendary all-nude productions of Mamet’s Oleanna and Marsha Norman’s ’night, Mother.
All around Marisol, friends whose names she’d forgotten were hunched over their laptops, publicly toiling over their confrontational one-woman shows and chamber pieces. Her best friend Julia was in the middle of yelling at her, freckles almost washed out by her reddening face.
“Fuck doctors,” Julia was shouting, loud enough to disrupt the whole room.
“Theatre is a direct intervention. It’s like a cultural ambulance. Actors are like paramedics. Playwrights are surgeons, man.”
Marisol was still wearing Burton’s stained business shirt and sweatpants, but somehow she’d gotten a pair of flip-flops. The green bottle sat on the rickety white table nearby. Queen was playing on the stereo, and the scent of overpriced coffee was like the armpit of God.
Julia’s harangue choked off in the middle, because Marisol was giving her the biggest stage hug in the universe, crying into Julia’s green-streaked hair and thanking all her stars that they were here together. By now, everyone was staring at them, but Marisol didn’t care. Something fluttery and heavy fell out of the waistband of her sweatpants. A notebook.
“I have something amazing to tell you, Jools,” Marisol breathed in Julia’s ear. She wanted to ask if Obama was still president and the Cold War was still over and stuff, but she would find out soon enough and this was more important. “Jools, I wrote a new play. It’s all done. And it’s going to change everything.” Hyperbole was how Marisol and Julia and all their friends communicated. “Do you want to read it?”
“Are you seriously high?” Julia pulled away, then saw the notebook on the floor between their feet. Curiosity took over, and she picked it up and started to read.
Marisol borrowed five bucks and got herself a pour-over while Julia sat, knees in her face, reading the play. Every few minutes, Julia glanced up and said, “Well, okay,” in a grudging tone, as if Marisol might not be past saving after all.
“As Good As New” copyright © 2014 by Charlie Jane Anders
Art copyright © 2014 by Yuko Shimizu