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I was in the weeds. I'd only been working for two hours, but Mike's Bar and Grill was packed. My father had named his restaurant after himself, but everyone called it "Mephisto's." With Dad's red hair he looked like the devil, and his burgers were good enough to lead anyone down the path to Hell. Tonight, I felt like I was halfway there, myself. I should have chosen an easier career path. I never should have become an actress. Dropping off a round of Cold Spring Ale to one of my tables, I barely resisted the urge to crash my tray against a customer's creeping fingers. I had to mind my manners, even if he didn't. He was a director. He might cast me in a play one day. Me, or my boyfriend, Rob Cornell. Speaking of whom… I craned my neck to find Rob in the crowded dining room. The only other waiter that Dad had scheduled to work that night, Rob had spent most of his time serving customers in the private rooms at the back—the Shakespeare Room and the Mamet Room. Frustrated by my demanding patrons, I was ready to quote some choice Mamet lines myself. Before I could put together a string of perfect curses, though, Rob emerged from the curtained party space. My annoyance immediately turned to a smile, an automatic response to Rob's unruly black curls, to the banked fire of his cobalt gaze, smoky even across the crowded room. Without conscious thought, I raised a hand to wave at the only guy I'd ever kissed. He had the power to make my entire disastrous night one hundred percent better, if only I could lure him into the pantry for about thirty seconds of stolen kisses. Rob ignored me. I'd like to say that he didn't see me, but that was impossible. He'd been staring right at me. And let's face it—my flame-red hair makes me sort of hard to miss.
No, the kid I'd pushed down the slide when we were both three years old, my grade school sweetheart, my high school boyfriend, my college beau, Rob pretended that I was nowhere in the room. Just as he had when he came on for his shift. When we'd passed each other going in and out of the busy kitchen. When I'd caught him talking with Dad at the restaurant's bar. Before I could name the knot tying itself in my stomach, I turned toward my father. I was surprised to see his features creased into a frown. Mephisto Mike never frowned. He never had a care in the world. Except, tonight he did. He gestured me over with a flick of his head. In response to my questioning look, that rare frown turned into a scowl. A scowl that was tinted by something…sadder. "Kelly." He sighed. "Something tells me you're going to need this." Before I could respond, he set a cardboard box on the edge of the bar. Chapter Two
I turned on the overhead light in the pantry, looking over my shoulder as if I had something to hide. Dad had shoved his cardboard box into my hands, telling me to take it back here, to the closest thing the restaurant had to a private space. Sighing, I pried open the flaps of the box. Crumpled newspaper nestled around a gleam of metal. Puzzled, I lifted out a brass lamp. Its sides swelled gently, tarnished in the light from the bare bulb. The spout was delicate, almost fragile. I held the oil lamp above my head, looking for some mark, some explanation, some reason that my father would have given me such a gift. Before I could find anything, though, the door to the pantry opened. Without conscious thought, I shoved the lamp onto a high shelf, hiding it behind a row of industrial-size canisters of salt. Rob ducked in. "Oh," he said. Trust me. He's usually much wittier. "Hi," I said, suddenly feeling like we were back at the eighth grade Harvest Dance. Except I didn't have braces. And he had grown into his comically huge puppy-dog hands and feet. And there was something wrong, something way beyond typical tween embarrassment.
"Your father sent me to get a bottle of Grey Goose." I wrinkled my nose, more at my father's interference than at Rob's gullibility. "This is a hamburger joint," I pointed out. "Dad doesn't stock Grey Goose." Nevertheless, Rob seemed determined to find the vodka on the shelves. He looked intently at every horizontal surface in the pantry. Looked intently, in fact, at everything but me. I stepped toward him and settled my fingers on his wrist. Maybe it was my imagination, but his pulse leaped like a team of wild horses. "Hey," I said, forcing myself to smile. "It's okay. Whatever's wrong, it's me you're talking to." "That's the problem," he said, and he didn't need to use his superb acting ability to convey the fact that he was miserable. Honestly, totally miserable. A shiver crept down my spine, as if someone had opened the door to our first Minnesota blizzard of the season. "Rob, are you all right?" "I'm fine," he said immediately, with the same gruff disregard for his own well-being that had served him so well in our high school production of South Pacific. He had played Emile de Becque (with a lot of makeup.) I had played Nellie Forbush. "What's going on, then?" I forced myself to sound like the incarnation of reason. "Kelly." He finally met my eyes for the first time. "I am so sorry." He raised a hand to my cheek. I knew what his palm would feel like against my skin. I knew exactly how he would cup my face, just before he leaned in for a kiss. He shook his head, though, and backed away, dropping his hand awkwardly to his side. "You're going to hate me for what I have to say." Chapter Three
"What is it?" I asked, my voice sharp. Rob's grim look alone would have frightened me. But combined with the stress I'd seen on my father's face? And the strange brass lamp that Dad had given me? What was going on here? Rob took a deep breath, counting to five before exhaling. The action was achingly familiar—I'd seen him do it hundreds of times, warming up for a play. I half expected him to launch into one of the tongue twisters we used to further loosen up. "Tomorrow-morning-I-leave-for-New-York-to-play-the-lead-in-New-Day-Dawning."
If I hadn't known the guy for more than twenty years, I might not have been able to pick out what he'd said. As it was, I could discern the words, but I couldn't grasp their meaning. Rob was going to New York? Tomorrow? For a play? Without me? Without even mentioning it to me? "But New Day Dawning closed last week." He stared at me miserably, his eyes darkened to indigo. "Our production did. But Randolph is picking it up for New York." Gerry Randolph, legendary Broadway producer. The man who had come to see us—Rob and me—as we debuted New Day Dawning in a workshop production at the prestigious Twin Cities Rep theater. We had fallen into the show—Rob had worked with the director the year before, and he'd wrangled an invitation for me to audition. The entire production staff had been struck by how well Rob and I worked together, how smoothly we handled the perilous emotions of a husband and wife on the brink of divorce. Weeks of rehearsal had brought us closer as a couple, annealed us into better actors than we'd ever been before. The play had garnered great reviews, and I'd let myself believe that we could choose whatever roles we wanted next—maybe even perform at Minneapolis's world-renowned Landmark Stage. Except, I'd miscalculated. Rob had been catapulted to whatever role he wanted. Randolph had chosen him. And Rob wanted New York. But that wasn't the real problem. That wasn't the real surprise. I forced myself to say the words that spun through my head like a carousel out of control. "You accepted Randolph's offer, without even talking to me first?" "He said he couldn't wait! He had to know, right then. Besides, we've always supported each other's careers!" He had the words ready, but he couldn't look me in the eye. "'Support' doesn't mean making final decisions! You should have asked me. We should have talked." I thought about the sympathetic look Dad had given me. He had known what Rob was going to say. Rob had talked to my father before he'd told me. Twenty years of growing up together, of being in love, and he hadn't spoken to me first. "Kelly, be reasonable."
I said the most reasonable thing I could think of. "Get out of here, Rob! Go to New York! Alone!" Chapter Four
I knew I was being unreasonable, but my feelings were hurt. This was the guy I loved, the guy who'd always said he loved me. Not only had he decided to move halfway across the country without even telling me, he was moving for a job that would advance his career. Advance him far beyond my own pathetic hopes. Without me. "Kelly," Rob said. He sounded so miserable that I almost reached out for him, almost slipped into the familiar circle of his arms. Arms that were going to be 1,500 miles away, come tomorrow. "Leave me alone!" I curled my fingers into a fist, hoping the motion would stop my voice from shaking. "We should talk." "Now you think we should talk?" I whirled toward the pantry shelves behind me, fumbling for the nearest solid object—a canister of salt. This was eerily like New Day Dawning; I was slipping too easily into the role of jilted wife. Not that Rob and I were married. Yet. In the play, I threw a book at my onstage husband. In real life, Rob ducked out of the pantry before I could find out if I would actually throw something at him. Even as the door slammed closed, I shoved the salt back onto the shelf. The motion jostled the brass lamp that I'd hidden away. I barely caught it before it could clatter onto the floor. I hadn't realized I was crying until I saw a tear shimmer on the tarnished brass. I bit my lip and scrubbed at the metal, trying to eradicate the watery proof of my emotion. My fingers buzzed as they connected with the lamp. Pain jangled up my arm, burning like a thousand bee stings. I swore and dropped the metal, not caring as it clattered on the pantry's bare floor. A cloud began to pour from the brass spout. Glints of light swirled in the air around me— sapphire and topaz, ruby and emerald. The shimmer spun in front of me, coalescing into a sparkling mist roughly the size of a human being. Astonished, I blinked. And when I opened my eyes, I was staring at a ballerina.
She was six feet tall, and her body seemed carved of alabaster, long and lean and strong. Her hair was pulled back in a severe bun, framed by a diamond tiara that shone even brighter than the jeweled cloud. Those diamonds were echoed in the severe lines of her leotard, in the froth of her tutu. The classic perfection was offset by an unlikely tattoo around her wrist—a brilliant wreath of flames. "What—" I started to say, but I couldn't finish the question. The dancer looked around the pantry and arched one eyebrow in wry amusement. "So now I am trapped in a grocery store?" Her words were heavy with a Russian accent. "Who are you?" I managed to choke out. "Jaze," she said, extending one perfect hand. "I am your genie, molodaya devushka." Chapter Five
"Genie?" I gaped. Under other circumstances, I'd have thought I was crazy, that the stress of Rob's sudden announcement had pushed me over some mental precipice. I would have believed that I needed a serious mental health evaluation. Or at least a good, stiff drink. (Forget the Grey Goose—Stolichnaya suddenly seemed more appropriate.) But I had to accept what I was seeing. My father wasn't the practical-joke type. He'd known the bombshell that Rob was going to drop on me, and he'd seen fit—somehow— to help me through the shock, to introduce me to this…genie. The ballerina—Jaze—waved her tattooed wrist through the air and produced a sheaf of papers. Another swipe, and she held a jeweled pen that looked like it had been rejected by the Fabergé egg factory for being too gaudy. "Now we sign the papers, da?" What else could I do? I took the pen. Jaze flipped through the document, muttering Slavic curses as she perused the minuscule type. A half dozen times, she indicated where I should initial key clauses, all written in English. On the last page, she showed me where to sign my name. I had no idea what the papers said. But, really, why should I care? I mean, it wasn't like I had any bargaining power. This was just like being an actress, hoping for a role, desperate for a lucky career break. Ultimately, powerless. Or at least, dependent on others. Jaze snapped her fingers and made the pages disappear. "Your first wish, then?"
Looking back, I guess I should have tried to do something amazing with Jaze's magic. Created world peace. Eliminated poverty, or at least starvation. Invented a free, clean energy source. But those possibilities honestly never crossed my mind. Those things just couldn't be possible. After all, Dad would have done them with his own wishes, right? I certainly hadn't noticed any major changes on the international front, so I had to assume that Jaze's magic worked on a more…personal scale. And what could be more personal than saving true love? As soon as my thoughts fell back to Rob, I knew what I had to wish for. "I wish that Rob would stay," I said. Saying the words out loud, I felt selfish. He was an actor. New York was his dream. Our dream. There would be lots of other shows, other chances at New York. New Day Dawning wasn't a fluke. It was the launch of a brilliant career—our brilliant careers. We'd forget about manipulative Gerry Randolph. We'd create even better opportunities. Together. After a little joint planning. Jaze's stare was as sharp as the diamonds on her tiara. She was clearly asking me if I was certain, if I knew what I was doing. Shoving down my apprehension, I caught my lower lip between my teeth and nodded. Jaze raised her fingers to her earlobe, making her tattoo flames flash. She tugged twice and said, "As you wish." Chapter Six
Four hours later, the electric jangle had finally disappeared from my fingers, just as Jaze had disappeared from my life. She'd said that she was allowed to gallivant around town while I considered my remaining wishes. I could get her back by pinching my thumb and forefinger together, saying her name out loud. Faint tattooed flames on my hands argued that she was playing fair. Which was more than I had done with Rob. He was waiting for me after work, ready to drive me to my tiny apartment, apparently prepared to overlook my anger in the pantry. As soon as I saw him in the parking lot, I
was swamped with remorse about my wish. I had to tell him everything that had happened. I had to tell him about Jaze. I had to confess my wish. But the words caught in my throat. I couldn't say Jaze's name or mention the lamp. I was knocked mute each time I tried. Rob sighed at my spluttering inarticulateness and shoved his key into the car's ignition. Halfway home, I realized that Rob's sigh hadn't been about my inability to speak. He had something to say, himself. Something that made him nervous, if the raking of his fingers through his curls was any sign. "Go ahead," I finally said, after he'd pulled into the loading zone outside my apartment building. He stared straight ahead, as if the Saab in front of us was the most fascinating vehicle in the world. "Rob?" I finally prompted. "You were right," he said at last, each word rasped over sandpaper before it left his throat. "I should have talked to you before I accepted Randolph's offer." "Thank you," I said, relief and gratitude swirling uneasily into the pool of guilt excavated by my wish. I shoved aside my conflicting feelings and leaned across the gearshift, ready to bury our argument with a kiss. Rob shook his head, though, and I realized we weren't through talking. "I should have talked to you, but you should have supported me. You should have realized what the opportunity meant to me." I edged away from the queasy tangle of guilt his words roped around my belly. "Meant?" "I'm not going to New York." Yes! My wish had been granted. But Rob went on. "I don't know enough about Randolph, about the show he's staging. It might all be pie-in-the-sky. A disaster." "It could be," I said, flooding the words with relief. I covered his right hand with my left and squeezed, giving him a goofy leer. "Why don't you come upstairs? We can talk about the next step that's right for both of us." He shook his head. "Kelly, no. There isn't any 'us.'" "What?" I felt like I'd forgotten how to speak English.
"You heard me." He gritted his teeth and leaned against his door, putting as much distance between us as his ancient Corolla permitted. "We're over. Through. I'm breaking up with you." Chapter Seven
A lot of couples fight. They say terrible things to each other, rant, rave, break up a dozen times a year. Not Rob and me. We always just…agreed. We thought the same about all the important things, and we shrugged off the myriad tiny details that didn't matter. And so, I had no idea how to respond to his breaking up with me, no clue what to say. My mind was reeling as I collapsed onto the couch in my apartment. I pinched my thumb and forefinger together and said, "Jaze!" I poured all of my anger and fear and shame into the single syllable. Immediately, colored motes swarmed in front of me. Copper swirled around silver; gold dove beneath bronze. I caught my breath at the intricate dance, and when I exhaled, I found myself facing a football player. Not a ballerina. A linebacker, complete with shoulder pads and helmet. And a football. Oh, and he was huge. The only familiar thing about the guy was the tattoo that glinted on his wrist as he drawled, "No need to shout." "Um, Jaze?" I asked. "You expectin' somebody else?" He settled his fists against his hips and looked around, as if I might actually have some other brass lamp lurking in my apartment. "No, it's just…" I trailed off, wondering what I should say. "I told you I was gonna check out what's happenin' in town." He sounded exasperated, as if he were talking to a stubborn child. "But as a football player?" "You got somethin' against football players? What, you think we're all stupid or somethin'?"
"No, it's just…" I couldn't figure out where he'd been, dressed like that. But what did it matter? What did I care, what my genie looked like? So long as he could make things right. "Jaze, I need to take back my wish." He snorted in amusement. "Yeah, right." "Come on! It's only been, what, four hours? Five, tops?" He stared at me, narrowing his eyes as if he were weighing the possibility of throwing me downfield. "Haven't you read any fairy tales, girl? You don't get a do-over on wishes." "But everything happened so fast, back at the restaurant. You took me by surprise! I didn't have time to think things through!" He sighed in obvious disgust. "I've got a schedule to keep, girl. Goals to meet." He produced a scrap of paper from thin air, waving it in front of my face so vigorously that I could barely make out the tangle of arrows and Xs and Os. "There's a plan for me, y'know? A pattern." I'd never understood football. Rob didn't watch the game. It was one reason that we got along so well. Had gotten along so well. "Please?" I begged, horrified to feel tears welling up. Another one of those deadly stares. Then, through lips as tight as his uniform pants, Jaze announced, "Three. You have three wishes left. Don't make any more stupid mistakes." Chapter Eight
The following afternoon, I stood before a stainless steel table in the kitchen at Mike's Bar and Grill. Dad always made lunch for the waitstaff before the evening shift. Once again, Rob and I constituted the entire staff. But Rob hadn't shown up for lunch. Dad pretended to be surprised. I wasn't astonished, but I had hoped, dreamed, wished with all my might that Jaze's retraction of my magical misstep had patched things up between Rob and me. I should have cut to the chase and wished for Rob to love me again, to love me as simply and easily as he had for all the rest of our lives. Having failed to use my genie to my best advantage, though, even on a second try, I’d have to take matters into my own hands. I'd win Rob back with a Tower of Love sundae.
I couldn't remember which of us had been the first to build a Tower. Our special dessert was born out of the sad-but-true fact that most people don't know how to make a proper ice cream sundae. Most people prefer hot fudge. A few choose caramel. Almost everyone uses vanilla ice cream. Rob and I were the only people we knew who preferred strawberry sauce, mixed with pineapple. Over coffee ice cream. With slices of barely-ripe banana and mounds and mounds of whipped cream. No nuts. Definitely no nuts. Don't knock it till you've tried it. We'd shared Towers when we'd been cast in the plays of our dreams. When we'd missed out on treasured roles. When we'd buried our geriatric childhood pets, Fluffy and Mittens and Rex. I was adding the final dollop of whipped cream when Rob came into the kitchen. His curls looked like they'd braved all the winds of the seven seas, and his eyes were bloodshot. I was willing to bet that he hadn't slept the night before. Neither had I. "Rob—" I said. "Kelly," he said, at the same time. I edged the fluted sundae dish toward him. I'd already placed it on a saucer to catch the inevitable spillover of sauce. I stared at him steadily. "I'm sorry," I said. When he didn't reply, I held up a pair of spoons. He closed the distance between us with an urgency that made my heart pound. He snatched the spoons from my hand and clattered them onto the table. Before I could say anything more, before I could react, he clutched my arms, pulling me close. His mouth on mine was hot, and I was startled by his urgency as he tangled his fingers in my hair. He leaned into me hard, and I felt the metal table, cold against my spine. Shocked, I finally remembered to kiss him back. And kiss him. And kiss him. And then, without warning, he stepped away. I saw the look in his eyes—shock at what he'd done. Remorse. I felt the bitter knife of disappointment before he said a word. "I'm sorry," he gasped, casting a wild glance at the already-melting Tower. "That was a mistake. Kelly, I shouldn't have—I mean…goodbye." And before I could stammer out something, anything, he was gone.
I had just dumped the entire ice cream, syrup and whipped-cream mess in the industrialdepth sink when my father came back to the kitchen. I tried to pretend that I wasn't crying, but he knew me too well. Silently, he tore off a length of paper towel and passed it to me. I continued lying to myself, pretending that the sound of running water could drown out my sobs. Ever the good father, Dad didn't contradict me. Instead, he waited until I was ready to wipe my eyes, to blow my nose, to return to some semblance of normalcy. "Dad?" I croaked like a dying frog. "Hmm?" He busied himself with setting up his cooking station, laying out plates, checking the temperature of the fat in the fryer. "What did you use your wishes for?" Aha! Jaze's magic didn't keep me from asking my father about the genie. He was already in on the secret. Dad topped off a massive pepper grinder, taking a long time to screw the gadget back together. When he finally looked at me, his jaw was set, stubborn with the same determination I'd often seen in my own mirror. "Some things should be kept private, Kelly." I thought about my mother, halfway across the country after she'd discovered that she preferred living on an Oregon commune to raising four girls in Minnesota. I thought about my younger sisters, making their own ways through the jungle of the Twin Cities theater scene. When had Dad made his wishes? How long had he kept Jaze's lamp a secret, waiting to pass it on to me? Years? Months? Only a few days? I sighed and fished my notepad out of my apron. I might as well see if we had any customers. Dad wasn't going to say anything more about our genie. But I was wrong. "If I had one wish left…" He sighed. I whirled to face him before he could let the thought drift away. "Yes?" I prompted.
"I didn't get around to asking for help with the restaurant. Business was fine, back when I was making wishes—I never thought about asking Jaze for help here. But now, with the economy the way it is… I worry about staying open. And I worry about keeping jobs available for all you actors around town." "Oh, Dad," I said, giving him a quick hug. He'd always had a soft spot for us idiots foolish enough to pursue theater as a career. Nearly all of my acting friends had survived on a Mephisto paycheck at one point or another. He sighed and flashed me his famous devilish grin. "So, how many wishes do you have left?" He obviously wanted to change the subject. I glanced at the door to the dining room, knowing that Rob was waiting out there. Rob, who had taken the brunt of my first ill-planned wish. "Three," I said with firm resolve. "But I think I know what to ask for next." Chapter Ten
This time, I braced myself for whatever identity Jaze adopted. I hardly blinked as I summoned my genie, pressing my fingers together, calling out his, her, whatever's, name. I was prepared for the swirling colors. I was braced for the coalescence into a living, breathing apparent-human. And I barely skipped a beat when I realized Jaze was getting in touch with her feminine side. Her very feminine side. That leather corset would have had trouble covering up her…assets, even if it didn't have those slashes that bared her rib cage. Fishnet stockings had to leave her legs freezing in the October wind. At least she had a blanket of tattoos to cover her exposed flesh—she sported so much ink, I barely recognized the flames around her wrist. I wasn't sure if she was supposed to be a street walker or a refugee from some downtown nightclub, but I was determined not to let her appearance derail our conversation. "I'm ready to make a wish," I announced. She tossed her mane of dyed black hair out of her eyes, pausing to pick something from between her teeth, using one of her scarlet talons. "I'm all ears." Well, that was obviously a lie. Jaze obviously had a lot more than ears. For some reason, I felt like I needed to justify myself. "I know I got in trouble with my last wish because I was being selfish. But I really did mean to help someone else. To help Rob."
I swallowed hard, determined not to think about the restaurant shift I'd just finished, the longest eight hours of my life. Rob had said nothing all night long. Well, nothing of consequence. He told me when I picked up his black-and-blue burger for table seven by mistake. And he let me know we were out of Cold Spring. But he certainly didn't mention the kiss that we'd shared in the kitchen. I shuddered, determined not to think about that as our last kiss. Grimly, I pulled myself back to the conversation at hand. "I want to do something for someone else." Jaze's sharp features twisted into a grin. "Any particular someone?" I nodded. "My father." My genie's eyes slitted with the shrewd suspicion of a hooker—or a party girl, for that matter. "Giving up on your boyfriend?" "No!" My shout was loud enough to surprise us both. "I—I just need a little time to patch things up there." "Patch," Jaze said with a leer, and I didn't even want to think about whatever she was imagining. "Uh-huh." "Look, I'm ready to try this wishing thing again, okay?" "Oh, yes," Jaze said with a suggestive wriggle. "I'm yours to command." She was a hooker. Definitely. I'd thought this wish through. I'd measured out the implications. I wasn't going to get blindsided, the way I had the first time. "I wish that Mike's Bar and Grill would become the most successful restaurant in the theater district." Chapter Eleven
I'd expected restaurant success the moment that Jaze said, "As you wish." I thought that I would walk into a full dining room the next afternoon, that Dad would have hired a dozen actors to wait on full tables, to manage the line of eager patrons that already stretched halfway around the block. Not exactly.
The restaurant looked the same as ever as I tied an apron around my waist. Dad was back in the kitchen. Rob was making himself busy in the Shakespeare Room, obviously still avoiding me. Same old, same old. Until I seated David Golden. The David Golden. Restaurant critic for the Minneapolis Star Tribune. I smiled and led him to our best table. He ordered an Angry Planet Pale Ale. After a quick study of the menu, he asked for a burger, bacon and Swiss, and a side of sautéed mushrooms. I barely made it back to the kitchen before squealing in excitement. Rob looked up from the plates he was balancing on one forearm. "What?" "David. Golden. Out. There. Now." My father clattered a basket into the deep fryer. "In my dining room? This I've got to see!" "You can't!" Rob and I said at the same time. "Just cook up your best burger." I said. "Give him fries and onion rings." Dad nodded and settled into his role. He didn't dig in the back of the fridge, seeking out perfect mushrooms. He didn't slice into a new brick of cheese. He didn't hand-pick strips of bacon. He just cooked. Like he always did. When I turned back toward the dining room, Rob was waiting for me. "Ready?" I asked. He nodded. I ducked behind the bar and pulled Golden's beer, making sure that it had a perfect head of foam. Rob stopped by the critic's table with a flawlessly casual greeting, setting down fresh bottles of ketchup and mustard, adding extra napkins. I gathered up some of the magazines that Dad kept behind the bar for slow afternoons. Pasting on my best stage smile, I approached and asked, "Would you like something to read while you wait?" I thought that Golden's twitching eyebrow was a gesture of approval. Like magic, everything fell into place.
Dad's burger looked like a work of art and smelled like heaven. Every fry, every onion ring had a perfect golden glow. The tables next to the critic remained open, giving him peace and quiet to enjoy his meal. And enjoy, he did. He polished off every bite—every crumble of bacon, every fry and onion ring. He ate with the gusto of a man who has a standing appointment with his personal trainer. Golden paid in cash, leaving behind a twenty percent tip. As the door closed behind him, I realized that Rob and I were standing next to each other, side by side, close enough that I could feel the heat from his body. I felt calm. Accomplished. Victorious. Rob sighed and said, "There's only one thing wrong." Chapter Twelve
"What's wrong?" I asked, concern fogging my voice. Rob sighed. "You're going to take this the wrong way." "No, I won't. I promise." When he stayed silent, I settled a hand on his arm. "Rob, we talk to each other, right? We're boyfriend-girlfriend." Whoops. Technically, we were still broken up. Sure, he'd given me the kiss of my life, the afternoon before. And we'd just proven that we could work as a team, in front of the most demanding audience in the world. But he cringed when I said those stupid two-syllable words. "Come on, Rob! Am I the only one who takes twenty years of dating seriously?" Again, with the sighing. And the hand through his curls. And those incredible eyes blinking. "That's the thing, Kel. It's all too serious." "What do you mean?" "Everything I say, everything I do, it's all loaded with too much meaning. We serve a customer, and it's make-or-break for Mephisto's. I kiss you, and it's like I'm proposing. I worry about what to say to you, every single word. It's too serious. Too hard. I want things like they were before we fought. Before Randolph offered me the play, before I changed my mind."
"But we've always made serious decisions together, without any problem. We decided to go to the U together! We decided to live a block apart from each other. We've balanced our audition schedules, rehearsal calendars, even our shifts here at the restaurant!" He refused to look at me. Instead, he spoke to his beat-up Converse All-Stars. "Don't you see? We avoid the difficult stuff. If we really trusted each other, trusted our relationship, wouldn't we have tried different schools? Or wouldn't we have moved in together, instead of keeping separate places? Wouldn't we have let our careers move ahead, without worrying about who has the lead in every single production?" I was stunned. His questions made sense. I understood what he was asking, what he was saying. But I disagreed, with my entire body, mind and soul. We hadn't done those things precisely because we were right for each other. Because we belonged together. Because we didn't have anything to prove to anyone. To ourselves. Except, now we did. The silence stretched, and I finally said, "What did you mean just now? What's the one thing wrong about Golden reviewing Mephisto's?" Rob still talked to his shoes. "He's going to say it's amazing. You know that. And the place will be busy again, busier than it's ever been before. And you and I will work harder than we ever have before. And a year from now, two years from now, five, I'm going to look back and say I was the best damned waiter Minneapolis ever saw." He finally looked at me. "That's the problem. I don't want to be a waiter, Kelly. I want to be an actor. With or without you, I want to—I need to—succeed in the theater." Chapter Thirteen
With or without me. Those words ran through my head the entire evening shift. The entire drive home. The entire time that I stood beneath a steaming shower, washing away the scent of burgers and fries and onion rings. The more I repeated those four words, the more I realized that Rob hadn't actually been talking about his success in theater. He and I could work out professional goals. We could figure out ways for him to achieve his theatrical dreams. No. Rob was questioning me. Us.
For the first time since we'd started fighting, I truly understood. Rob didn't know if he wanted to spend the rest of his life with me. I'd thought that pushing him down the playground slide had bound us together for life. He wasn't convinced. Hadn't been convinced, despite high school homecoming. Despite college graduation. Despite two years in the outside world. He didn't know if he loved me. Without making a conscious decision, I tugged my terry bathrobe tighter around my waist. I straightened the towel that bound my hair, pressed my thumb and forefinger together and called out, "Jaze!" This time, he was a clean-cut lawyer, freshly shaven, wearing a navy pinstriped suit and carrying a briefcase. As soon as he saw my robe and towel, though, he giggled in a most unlawyerly way and exclaimed, "Oh, goody!" He tugged twice on his ear, and the courtroom attire was replaced by a robe of sumptuous white linen. A snowy towel draped around his neck like a terry cloth cravat. "Ready for a sauna, girlfriend?" "Jaze, cut it out. I don't want to play your games." He cocked his head to one side. "Really? What do you want?" I sighed. "I want Rob to love me. You can do that, can't you? Grant my wish and make him love me forever?" "Stop right there!" Jaze held up a hand, as if he were conducting traffic on Lovelorn Freeway. "I don't usually say this to a human, so listen carefully—that would be a terrible wish to make." I was astonished by his vehemence. "Why?" "Been there, done that, girlfriend. You'll end up hating yourself. And him. And me." "It seems like such a simple solution!" He shook his head so hard, I thought his towel was going to fall off. "It isn't. If it were simple, I'd let you make it, and I'd be one step closer to the Garden." "Garden? What are you talking about?" He sighed. "I thought you were on such a roll, I wasn't going to have to tell you about it." He muttered to himself, "Two wishes in twenty-four hours…I figured we'd be done in
record time. You'd be happy, and I'd be that much closer to the Garden. But no. You stall out, two wishes down. Goodbye, Garden!" "I have absolutely no idea what you're talking about." Jaze raised buffed fingertips to his earlobe. "Brace yourself. It's easier to show you, than to tell." Chapter Fourteen
One moment, we were standing in my apartment. The next, we were nowhere. Nothingness stretched as far as I could see. I glanced down, and my bare feet were planted on a colorless floor. The air wasn't hot, wasn't cold, but goose bumps rose on my arms. "Jaze?" I called out, my voice quavering. His voice came from behind me. "Over here, silly!" I whirled to face him. I was strangely relieved to find that he still wore his linen robe, that his towel still hung around his neck, slightly askew. At least my genie hadn't transformed into something hideous and unknown in this bizarre place. Jaze curled his hands around something in front of him, invoking the presence of a fence with the most perfect bit of mime work I'd seen since a theater workshop Rob and I had completed in college. "Ah, the lilacs are out! Don't they smell wonderful?" If he was pulling my leg, I wasn't in any sort of mood to play along. "Jaze, I don't smell a thing." "Damn!" He turned to face me. "I thought that maybe, just possibly, you were one of the Perceptives." I shook my head. "I have absolutely no idea what you're talking about." He sighed. "You know that genies can grant wishes." I nodded. "Genies who grant enough wishes are rewarded with a trip to the Garden." He waved at the empty space behind him. "It's beyond this fence, just through this iron gate. A tiny fraction of the humans we serve are able to perceive the Garden. They can hear the nightingales, smell the freesias, feel the sunlight dappling through the trees. They can truly understand why we genies work so hard to grant wishes. To get inside."
And, for just a moment, I did understand. Oh, I still couldn't see the flowers. For all the birdsong I heard, the Garden might have been stocked with off-key crows. We could have been surrounded by cardboard, if my nose was any guide. But I heard the pure longing in Jaze's voice. The desire. The uncomplicated love that he felt for the Garden, for life beyond those invisible iron posts. There were rules, of course. Jaze couldn't take shortcuts. He needed to grant all of his wishes before he could enter. And I couldn't take shortcuts with Rob. I couldn't force him to love me; even Jaze, wanting to get into the Garden, thought that was a terrible idea. And he was right. I'd never trust Rob, never know if he stayed with me because I'd bound him through magic. Jaze said, "I brought you here because I thought you might be Perceptive." I shook my head. "Sorry," I said, smiling ruefully. "Not the way you mean." He sighed and looked over his shoulder. "I don't suppose I can convince you to make two other wishes? Really quickly?" "Not yet." I shook my head, but I vowed that I would figure out what was worth wishing for. Really quickly. Chapter Fifteen
Two weeks later, I was no closer to making my two remaining wishes. I was just too busy to concentrate on what my genie could do for me. Determined to carve out a theatrical life independent of Rob's, I'd gone to two auditions. One was for a production of Anna Karenina. When I found out it was a children's theater production, I left. I couldn't imagine how they were going to stage the tempestuous affair, much less the train wreck of an ending. By contrast, the other show was Alice in Wonderland. I quickly discovered, though, that the director wanted to build an adult audience for the classic—and he was going to do that by having us all perform in the nude. I ducked out before the Red Queen could shout, "Off with his head!" So much for my flourishing independent theater career.
At least business at the restaurant was busier than ever. As Rob had predicted, David Golden's review was a rave. Dad wasted no time hiring extra staff, all actors. I knew most of the folks, but one guy was new to me: Drew Myers. Drew's tousled hair was dark blond, brightened by perfect golden streaks. His dark brown eyes sparked with green highlights. He was gorgeous, and funny, and easy to be around. And he was dumb. He forgot half his orders before he got a chance to write them down. He auctioned off food at the tables, not even attempting to remember who had requested what. He was zealous about keeping glasses full, but he regularly topped off diet pop with regular, and vice versa. I quickly realized that Drew wasn't going to last in Mephisto's hectic atmosphere. But he was fun to look at, while he stuck around. I wish that I could have written off Carmen Rodriguez as easily. Carmen's thick black hair and creamy complexion made heads turn. Her lilting Venezuelan accent cajoled customers into supplementing their orders; she sold more appetizers and desserts than the rest of us combined. She wore her jeans tight and her Tshirts tighter, and she made sure that she reached across male customers' tables early and often. As if to prove that the universe is never fair in distributing its gifts, Carmen was a genius as well. She had a master's degree from Yale Drama. All of which I could have ignored. After all, Carmen was just a coworker. She'd stay at Mephisto's for a while, and then she'd land a starring role in some blockbuster play. Or so I thought. Until I stepped into the kitchen after one particularly long night spent correcting Drew's countless mistakes. Until I saw the freezer door standing open in the kitchen. Until I saw a sundae bowl sitting on the counter. Until I heard Rob say, "I know it sounds terrible, Carmen. But you have to try it! Strawberry and pineapple sauce over coffee ice cream. Bananas, but no nuts. And lots of fresh whipped cream." Chapter Sixteen
I didn't wait until I got home. Instead, I tugged on my winter coat and hurried out to my car. The temperature had dipped well below freezing on this late October night, and my breath fogged up my window as soon as I slammed the door closed. I was so furious, I barely felt the chill. I squeezed my thumb and forefinger together. "Jaze!"
I was used to it by now—the glitter of magic dust, the swirl into a human shape. I barely blinked as I registered the outfit du jour: an Arctic explorer. Jaze wore a bubblegum-pink parka, and her matching moon boots barely fit in front of the passenger seat. She took off massive goggles and said, "You rang?" "I wish I had a perfect body," I snapped. Silence. "Did you hear me? I wished for a perfect body." "Oh!" Jaze exclaimed. "You're serious? I thought you were joking." "Ha-ha." I was in no mood for games. "No one agrees on what makes a body perfect." I thought about Carmen Rodriguez, eating my sundae. I pointed at my perfectly average chest and said, "Let's start with some double-Ds." "On your frame?" Jaze's laugh only tossed fuel on my rage. "Don't tell me—" "It's like outfitting a sled for the Iditarod," she said with exaggerated patience. "If you start with a lightweight frame, you can't expect to pack on—" "I am not a sled!" Wow. I hadn't realized how loud echoes could be inside a Ford Focus. As soon as my ears stopped ringing, I said, "And before you share any more nifty analogies, I need to lose about fifteen pounds." "Anything else?" "My hair needs to be longer. Twelve inches, I guess. With waves, extra body." Jaze nodded. "And my eyebrows need to be waxed." Why go to a salon, when I had a genie at my beck and call? "And my teeth. Can you bleach them?" "How about fingernails, while we're at it?" "Great idea! I've always wanted long fingernails." "Of course," Jaze said, rolling her eyes.
"What is that supposed to mean?" "A lot of men find long fingernails attractive. Brings out the animal in them." She growled suggestively. "I'm doing this for myself," I protested. "I deserve to be happy." "And this perfect body will obviously make you very happy." "Yes!" I wasn't going to let Jaze talk me out of this. It might be cheating to force Rob to love me, but I was allowed to be noticed, right? Especially with Carmen sucking all the air out of Mephisto's. "Come on, Jaze. You're the one who wants to get into your precious Garden. I'm ready to make my wish." "All right, then. No skin off my nose." She stripped away a mitten and found the tip of her earlobe. She stared at me, her eyes asking a silent question. "Do it!" I said. "As you wish." Jaze tugged, and my body was folded into a blanket of sparkling lights. Chapter Seventeen
A week later, no one had noticed the change. Sure, I'd caught Drew leering at me when I carried plates in and out of the kitchen. But I'd come to realize that he gave every woman a complete appraisal, his attention always lingering on her chest. He didn't seem to care what he saw—melons, oranges, or eggs. Fried. He just enjoyed the view. No, I was the only person who seemed aware of my transformation. I was the only one who noticed how hard it was to keep long fingernails clean. I was the only one who realized I'd purchased an entire aisle of hair-care products at Target. I was the only one who skimmed through People, obsessing that heavy eyebrows would come back. I was the only one who smiled, then became self-conscious about my blindingly white teeth. Over and over, I caught myself waiting for Rob to say something. After all, he'd been the first person to buy me caramels after my braces came off. He'd given me ladybug earrings to replace my gold piercing studs. He'd found a floppy hat for me on a spring break beach trip when my highlights turned out a little too…high. But he didn't say a word about my new body.
I suspected that the silence was a side effect from Jaze's magic, like my inability to talk about the genie. No one could realize that I'd transformed overnight, or the cat would be out of the magical bag. It didn't matter, I told myself. I hadn't made the changes for anyone else. For Rob. I'd made them for myself. To bolster my self-confidence. To make me happier. I didn't really believe that. But I felt marginally better than I would, admitting I'd made a mistake with yet another wish. Matters weren't helped by the fact that autumn was the slow season for auditions. It was too late for Christmas plays and too early for summer froth. Every theater in town seemed to be scaling back their casts. On the one hand, that was great for Mephisto's. Dad had his pick of hapless actors to hire as his restaurant business burgeoned. But for me, and my hopes of advancing my professional career? Not so great. I finally found a show to try for. Silent Stage was new to me, but they'd received a fair amount of press for their creative productions. The company mounted shows without spoken words, music or any other aural trappings. I couldn't imagine what they were going to do with The Music Man. But I had to try. I had to land some role. I made it down to the theater with plenty of time before the audition actually began. I was nursing an oversize coffee and giving myself the pep talk of my life. Marian the Silent Librarian was exactly what I needed to turn around my luck. I'd almost convinced myself. But then Rob walked through the theater door. With Carmen. Chapter Eighteen
I almost didn't recognize Carmen. Her hair was piled on top of her head in a prim bun. She wore some sort of shapeless broadcloth blouse, tucked into a hideous ankle-length skirt that looked like a refugee from the seventies. Her limpid eyes blinked behind granny glasses. She was the very embodiment of Marian the Librarian. And it wouldn't matter that her speech lilted with a Venezuelan accent. Not for Silent Stage.
Of course, she saw me immediately. She dragged Rob over so that she could deliver a cosmopolitan kiss on each cheek. "Cara," she purred, after I stammered out a greeting. "Will you excuse me? I see an old friend." Her smile was flawless as she darted over to the director. Rob and I watched her fall into animated conversation with the man who would decide our theatrical fates. "Hi," I finally said to my once-beloved, when the awkwardness had become thick enough to cut with my father's meat cleaver. "Hi," he said. Twenty years of constant chatter, and we were reduced to this. "There aren't a lot of auditions these days," Rob finally said. "No. There aren't." Sheesh. If I were a director, I'd throw both of us out, for being the most stilted, uncomfortable couple in the history of American theater. Not, um, that we were a couple anymore. I didn't know what we were. "You look great this morning," Rob managed, and I couldn't help but beam. "Did you cut your hair?" No! I wanted to scream. It's twelve inches longer. By magic! So much for wooing him back with my perfect, genie-created body. What a stupid idea that had been. And that's when I realized what I had to do. Dad had intended to help me when he'd passed along Jaze's lamp. He'd meant to get me through a rough patch, to comfort me when Rob went to New York as a brilliant theatrical success. But Dad wasn't responsible for the wreck I'd made of things. Truth be told, Jaze wasn't either. And Rob was totally innocent; he'd just been caught in the magical backlash. I could fix things. Now. Before they got any worse. "I'll be back in a sec," I said. Rob nodded. He knew that I always had to go to the bathroom before auditions. Rob knew everything about me. I saw the relief on his face. He was being spared more of our horrible, awkward conversation.
Fortunately, the bathroom wasn't occupied when I got there. Everyone else was waiting to strut their stuff onstage. Every woman there was wasting her time, though. Carmen was a shoo-in. But that didn't matter now. Nothing mattered, except making my fourth wish. I raised my hand in the flickering fluorescent light, studying the almost-invisible flames on my fingertips. What would happen to them, after I called Jaze for the last time? There was only one way to find out. I pressed my fingers together and said my genie's name. Chapter Nineteen
"It's about time," Jaze grunted. He was a farmer. His plaid shirt was obscured by faded coveralls, and his John Deere cap had been green sometime in the distant past. His hands were huge. Fresh dirt was creased into his knuckles, rubbed into the tattooed flames that burst beneath the frayed cuff of his sleeve. Deep ruts set off his eyes, as if he spent most of his time outdoors, in the sun. Bits of straw glinted in his hair. I wondered if he'd been practicing for his time in the Garden. Somehow, I didn't think so. The place he'd described in that field of nothingness seemed much more refined. I shrugged. Jaze, and his farm, and his Garden weren't going to be my concern much longer. "I've chosen my fourth wish," I announced. "You sure rushed that. Just in time for the kale harvest." I thought he was being sarcastic, but I wasn't sure. I didn't know the growing season for kale. "Well, go ahead! Think I'm going to stand here till the cows come home?" I knew less about dairy farming than I did about raising kale. But what was I waiting for? I raised my chin and looked steadily at Jaze. "I wish that Gerry Randolph would cast both Rob and me in his New York production of New Day Dawning."
I was taking a risk. The play might flop. Rob and I might never regain our familiar footing. I might hate leaving the Twin Cities, abandoning my father and my sisters and the only home I'd ever known. But it was time to take a risk. What I had wasn't working. "Yup, that's a good one." Jaze raised one mammoth hand to scratch his neck before he narrowed his eyes. "That's your last, you know." "I know." He cocked his head to one side, and a sliver of straw spiraled to the floor. "You're sure?" "I'm positive." "All right, then." He took a step back, shifting his right hand to capture his fleshy earlobe. "As you wish," he said, and he tugged hard, twice. Once again, I felt the electric shock that had announced Jaze's arrival. Once again, the air filled with lights. Once again, I blinked. But this time, I opened my eyes to find my genie gone. I raised my tingling fingers, only to discover that my shadowy tattoos were missing as well. My days of debating about magic were over. I stared at my transformed self in the bathroom mirror and wondered why I didn't feel more of a loss. In the silence, my cell phone buzzed in my pocket. I'd set it on vibrate so that I wouldn't disrupt the Silent Stage audition. I fished it out and stared at the unknown 212 phone number. This was it. "Kelly Reilly," I answered. A woman's nasal voice twanged, "Hold the line, please, for Gerry Randolph." My heart started pounding as I waited for the famous producer to invite me to my future. Chapter Twenty
Rob was standing in the lobby. He snapped his cell phone shut, amazement widening his sapphire eyes. "I don't believe it," he said.
"I know." I glanced at the closed doors to the theater. We'd missed the beginning of auditions. I wondered who would play Professor Harold Hill opposite Carmen. I didn't really care. "I can't believe Randolph called me back," Rob said. "Not after I blew him off a month ago." "I guess he really wants you." "Us," he said, putting enough emphasis on the word that my breath came short. "He wants us." Before I knew what was happening, Rob closed the distance between us. His arms folded around me, pulling me close, and I realized that I'd missed him even more than I thought I had. I could hear his heartbeat, strong and steady, and I tried to remember how many times we'd stood like that, how many times I'd felt our breathing match, how many times we'd started to laugh at the exact same instant. How many times he'd kissed me with so much heat I thought my knees would buckle. His fingers were tangled in my newly luxurious hair when I forced myself to step back, to look him in the eye. "What about Carmen?" A flicker of doubt flirted with his lips before he frowned. "I don't know what I was thinking. I was angry with you. Confused. I'd wanted you to be happy for me, to support me—" "I should have—" I started to explain, but he cut me off with another kiss. When we could speak again, I said, "I'm sorry." "I'm sorry, too." I consciously changed the topic. "I can't believe they want us out there by Wednesday." "Your father will throw a fit." I smiled. "I don't think so. Somehow, I don't think this will be such a surprise to him." Rob glanced at the closed theater doors. "Ready to get out of here?" I didn't want to be the voice of reason, but someone had to be. "How will Carmen get home?" Rob shrugged. "She'll grab a ride with someone. She's friends with half the world." "The male half," I said. The words slipped out before I could stop myself.
Rob cupped my face with his palm. "You know, Carmen and I were just friends." "Yeah, right." My glib denial hurt, but not as much as I expected it to. "Seriously. I knew early on that she was never going to be the woman for me." "When?" I asked, curious despite myself. "The first night I tried to get her to eat a Tower of Love sundae. She said coffee ice cream was disgusting with the strawberry and pineapple. And she hates whipped cream." I laughed, even as my stomach rumbled with hunger. "Hey, let's go raid the freezer at Mephisto's! A Tower of Love would make a perfect breakfast." Rob pulled me close as we stepped outside, and his whisper was for me alone: "As you wish." THE END
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