At first, there is nothing. Just nothing, stretching on and on and on. Nothing but nothing.
Then, all at once, there is pain. A sharp pain that starts as a single pinprick of existence but quickly spreads outwards, exploding into a cascade of colours, each sharply brighter than the last, resolving at last into a smooth, curved surface in a bright copper colour.
All at once, she is aware of herself, though she knows not who she is. She blinks, trying to clear the copper colour from her sight. It refuses to leave, insistently surrounding her in a tight, smooth curve. She feels as if it’s closing in on her but after a few minutes realises that it’s not moving, just much too close. She pulls her knees to her chest and squeezes, trying to make herself smaller so she’ll have more room. To her surprise, it works.
Once she has more breathing room, she looks down at herself. She’s wearing a filmy sort of purple garment. Her tanned arms are covered with gold bangles. Her legs don’t seem to be fully there. She concentrates, and her legs appear, covered by more of the filmy purple stuff. That doesn’t feel right. She concentrates harder, and she’s wearing jeans. That’s more like it.
The copper curve of the wall, now that it is larger (or now that she is smaller, really), functions nicely as a mirror. She approaches it, slipping only a little on the similarly curved floor. Though she cannot remember what she looks like, she recognises the face that peers back at her through inquisitive eyes. Her hair, which she is somehow sure is supposed to be short, is long and pulled into a slightly off-centre high ponytail, which serves to highlight her high cheekbones and stubborn jawline.
She grimaces. She hates ponytails. She yanks it out and shakes her head, letting the hair settle around her. That’s better. Now she feels more like herself.
But who am I? How did I get here? And what is this place?
No sooner does she ask the questions than her missing memories bloom in her brain, bringing with them a headache worse than any she has ever experienced before. At first she cannot make any sense of them, for they are jumbled together, all vying for attention at once. She begins to sort through them, putting them in order, and the headache starts to dissipate.
As a human child, Jenny was a very stubborn girl. Her earliest memories were of throwing tantrums as a toddler because she didn’t want to eat her peas, or because she didn’t like the clothes her mother had dressed her in, or because her neighbour had a toy that she wanted. Jenny would scream and scream and scream until she got her way. As Jenny got older, she found other ways to get her way. If her brother Sol had something she wanted, she would do everything in her power to get it. When Jenny was five and Sol was three, he got a toy train for his birthday. It came with its own track and drove on its own. Jenny decided immediately that she wanted it. None of her dolls moved on their own. She spent two nights and one day explaining to Sol why the dolls were actually better and persuaded him to trade. Then the train broke and Jenny grew bored with it. She spent an entire week explaining to Sol why the trade wasn’t valid and they had to trade back. Sol was reasonably stubborn himself, but nothing like Jenny. The episode with the train repeated itself in one way or another throughout Jenny’s childhood. When trading toys didn’t work, Jenny thought of other ways. She was more stubborn than anyone else she knew, and she would talk, whine, or plead until the other person gave in just to make her stop.
Jenny remembered when Michelle had moved in next door. She had been twelve at the time. She had seen the moving-van pull up in front of her house and had been excited. “Mother! Someone’s moving in next door.”
“Suppose they’ve got kids?” Sol asked, and Jenny had to agree that she hoped they did. It was one of the rare times when Jenny and Sol agreed on something. She and Sol leaned over the back of the old, falling-apart sofa to peer out the window, watching with interest and excitement as the movers carried out various boxes, assorted armchairs, a coffee table, and a piano. Jenny decided right then and there that she would learn to play the piano. She went over that afternoon to introduce herself and get started.
A girl around Jenny’s age answered the door. It was Michelle. Jenny barely managed to get the introductions in before she said, “I saw your piano. I’m going to learn to play.”
“I can already play,” Michelle bragged. “Want to come in and see?”
Jenny did. Michelle brought her into the house, past piles and piles of half-unpacked boxes and up to the piano, which sat in a corner of the living room. Michelle played beautifully, and Jenny was determined that she would be even better.
It was the most difficult thing Jenny had ever undertaken, but Jenny was more stubborn than she’d ever been before. Jenny began spending long hours at Michelle’s house every day to practise, and the two became fast friends.
Michelle was the one who’d first introduced Jenny to fantasy novels. Before Michelle, Jenny had been as practical-minded as she was stubborn.
“Come on,” Michelle had said one day as Jenny practised her scales up and down the length of the piano. “Take a break! You’ve been doing that for hours. I’ve just finished a great book, and I think you’ll like it.”
Jenny glanced at the cover of the book in Michelle’s hand. “Fairies? Wizards? Dragons? Please. That stuff’s not real.”
Michelle laughed. “Come on! Haven’t you ever had an imagination?” she teased.
Jenny stopped playing her scales. “I used to have one,” she told Michelle with a straight face. “But my imaginary friend got run over by an imaginary truck when I was six. I haven’t had an imagination since.”
Michelle blinked. “That’s morbid.”
Jenny nodded and went back to her scales.
“You’ve got to get it back, then. I’ll help you.” Michelle opened the book and began reading aloud, and Jenny listened as she played. Before the end of the first page, she was hooked. For about two years after that, Jenny read every fantasy novel she could get her hands on. She discovered that she loved reading about witches and cauldrons, about dragons and treasure hoards, about genies –Michelle insisted she should call them djinn, but Jenny was nothing if not stubborn– and magic lamps, about pixies, elves, mermaids, gryphons and any other kind of magical thing, person, or creature.
Then Jenny’s parents got divorced and her father moved away. Jenny tried everything she could think of to get her parents back together. She pretended to be her father and wrote letters to her mother. She pretended to be her mother and wrote letters to her father. Her mother saw right through the letters and sent her to a therapist to help her “work through the divorce”. She never knew if her father even saw the letters. There was no reply from him.
Jenny refused to go to the therapist and had a long talk with her mother instead. Her mum had made hot cocoa to try to make it easier for Jenny, and Jenny had burned her tongue. Dad had always known to put milk in it to cool it down.
“You’ve never had a problem with Dad before,” Jenny had tried to argue. Maybe if she talked enough, Mother would call Dad back and they’d get married again just to make her stop. It had worked before, with smaller things.
“Yes, I have. We’ve been fighting on and off for years.”
Jenny couldn’t believe it. “I would have noticed.”
Jenny’s mother told her that she thought she had noticed, she’d thought that was why Jenny had been spending so much time out of the house lately, and a lot of other things that Jenny barely listened to. The conversation finished with her mother telling her, “Honey, nothing short of a magical spell is going to make your father come back. We’re just not right for each other anymore.”
Jenny, not knowing what else to do, decided to look for a magical spell. She looked online for any proof that magic was real, for any way to access some, but found nothing. She even asked the research librarian, the one she was scared of, for help, but there was still nothing. Jenny gave up on her imagination for a second time. Her stubbornness and all the magic of her books had failed her.
Years passed. Jenny started and finished high-school and started college. She chose to major in accounting because it was as far removed from magic as anything she could think of. One night, her college friends convinced her to come along with them on a shopping trip for a costume party. “I don’t believe in dressing up,” she had told them.
“You don’t need to dress up,” they told her. “Just come along for the experience.”
She hesitated, but they were insistent, and she didn’t have any other plans for that night, so she went with them to the mall.
“Ooh, look at this headband,” Marci exclaimed, pulling a cat-ear headband off of a rack. “It would be so cute with a black cat-suit. I could be a cat burglar!”
She acts like she’s never seen a headband with cat-ears before. Jenny was so through with the costumes store. “I’m gonna go find the ladies’ room. I’ll catch up with you guys later.” She left the store and started to wander around the mall. A strange little shop called “Magic & More” caught her eye. “It’s probably all stage magic,” Jenny said to herself, but she found herself going inside anyway.
Inside, the store was like something right out of one of the fantasy novels Jenny had forsaken six years ago. The walls were draped with brightly coloured velvets. There was a rack near the door which might have held postcards in a normal store, but here it was covered in leather-bound books and journals. A sign hanging over them read “Grimoires- used and new”. Stacks of shelves held cauldrons, fake wands, and strange things in vials which another sign proclaimed were “potion ingredients”. A bunch of brooms were propped against one wall. Instead of a check-out, there was a small table with a crystal ball on top. An old woman perched on a stool behind the table, her hands outstretched above the ball.
“Can I help you find something, dearie?” The old woman croaked.
Jenny gestured at the crystal ball. “You tell me.”
To Jenny’s surprise, the old woman took her seriously, waving arthritic hands above the ball and staring into its swirly depths. “You seek to right an ancient wrong,” she intoned.
Jenny’s mind immediately flashed to her parents’ divorce, which was not surprising, given how that was the last time she’d thought about magic, had tried to make it real, even. She would hardly call it ancient, though. She probably says that to everyone, Jenny cautioned herself. It’s all just a hoax, after all. “Suppose I do. How would I do it?”
“Ah, my child. Sadly, you cannot. The wrong you wish to right would take great magic indeed to fix. How much are you prepared to risk?”
I’m not your child. Don’t call me that! Jenny still didn’t think the woman knew what she was talking about. After all, her replies were generic enough that they could have meant anything. Still, some small part of Jenny wanted to believe. She wanted to believe that if she were stubborn enough, anything was possible, even getting her parents back together after six years of separation. She didn’t, though. Not for one second. After swearing off imagination not once, but twice, Jenny refused to allow herself to believe this charlatan. She kind of wished she could, though. For one reckless moment, Jenny allowed herself to do something she hadn’t let herself do in a long time. Jenny allowed herself to dream.
I wish this lady wasn’t a complete and total fake. I wish she'd give me the power I’d need to make Mother and Dad regret separating. I wish magic was real.
“Are you sure?” The old woman asked, so softly Jenny thought she was imagining it. “Do you really wish that? You only get three, you know. And you will have to pay it forward.”
Had Jenny wished aloud? No. She hadn’t. Jenny was sure of it. Which meant either this woman was a very convincing hoax who was good at pretending to read minds, or she could actually read minds. Jenny had to find out which one. Worst case scenario, she would look like a fool. Best case scenario, she might be able to fix everything. Jenny opened her mouth and said the two words which were to change her life forever. “I’m sure.”
As the last memory falls into place, the last of the headache dissipates. Looking around herself, Jenny recognises the strange room for what it must be- the inside of an old-fashioned lamp. She can see the way the wall curves away at one point to form what is no doubt the spout.
Jenny’s wishes have come true. She now has immense amounts of power. She can feel it inside her. If she wants to, she can use it to make her parents get back together, but she no longer feels the urge. Instead, she wants revenge. Not only on her parents but on the world- the world that hid magic from existence, not letting her learn of it until much too late. She wants to create chaos and watch the world squirm.
She has read enough books to know how the magic works. She must stay in the lamp until called upon by an outsider. Then she will have to pay the magic forward, as the old woman told her. She will have to grant three wishes to the next person who comes along. After all, she got her wishes.
Her wishes may have come true, but not in any way she would have expected. And not in any way she would have chosen for herself. When the time comes to pay it forward, Jenny has every intention of twisting the next person’s wishes, and the next, and the next. She can use others’ wishes to further her own goals, like the old woman before her.
The curved copper room starts to tilt. Jenny feels a soft buzzing, then watches, fascinated, as her body begins to turn to smoke. As she feels her smoky self pulled upwards towards the lamp’s spout, Jenny is filled with glee. This is going to be fun!