Joy nearly got lost on the root-knotted red dirt path off of Highway 99, losing sight of the gaps between the live oaks and Spanish moss that fanned across her hood and windows like fingertips. Driving back to her family’s cabin twenty years later reminded her that the woods had rarely been restful for her. Once, Dad had made her play outside instead of sitting on the couch with her Virginia Hamilton books, and she’d stepped in an anthill up to her shin. She howled so loudly from the vicious stinging that Dad and Mom heard her all the way from the lake, and when they reached her they expected to find her half dead. She’d never forgotten that wild, frightened look in their eyes. No, Joy did not like the woods.
If she’d started her trip closer to dark, she would have had to turn around and wait out the night at the overpriced Hampton Inn off of I-10. (Like her father, she didn’t want to sleep alone at her parents’ main house in the ashes of her childhood ten miles back toward civilization.) But her father’s old Bronco finally appeared in the glare of orange dusk light fighting through the treetops, parked in front of the cabin.
And the cabin looked so, so small—much smaller than she remembered. The trees and wildly growing ferns dwarfed it, with no obvious path to the door from the red-brown dirt driveway. She’d imagined that she and her brother might fix the cabin up as a rental one day, but in real life it was puny and weather-beaten and sad, more relic than residence. Their great-grandfather built this cabin in the 1920s to hide from lynch mobs roused by their envy that a Negro businessman could afford a shiny new Ford Model T.
Every inch of the cabin was sagging a hundred years later, weary of standing. The slanted roof had collected a thick blanket of dead leaves at the heart of the L shape that separated the cabin’s main room from its single bedroom. The bathroom her parents had added in the rear in the ’90s wasn’t in great shape, Jesse had warned, but it was better than the outhouse she still saw a few yards beyond the cabin, its wood blackened with age.
How had Dad been living there alone for two months? Maybe longer, if her brother’s theory was true: that he’d moved into the cabin soon after Mom’s funeral a year ago. Almost to the day.
“How?” she said aloud.
Gaps between walls’ wooden slats gaped like missing teeth, so the cabin probably had no insulation just when the weather was getting cold. Joy was wearing a jacket and it wasn’t dark yet. North Florida wasn’t New York, where she lived now, but it wasn’t South Florida either. The temperature was dipping to the forties at night. Jesse had warned her to bring extra blankets to supplement the coal stove, which was still the main heating source.
The cabin looked abandoned. But dim light bled through the threadbare curtains she recognized in the window, the ones with patterns of fish Mom had found at a garage sale with Joy a million years ago. Or yesterday. Time was a mystery and a lie since Mom had died.
Joy was glad that Dad wasn’t waiting outside, since she might have forgotten to prepare herself to see him look smaller too. Thinner. More frail. Grayer. Jesse had warned her what to expect after his visit a week ago—the reason she was here—but she might have forgotten if the cabin had looked anything like she remembered it.
Joy checked her cell phone: NO SIGNAL. Shit. No wonder Dad never picked up his cell phone. Jesse said he’d made an appointment to install a land line, but the technician couldn’t come for another thirty days. She wished she could call Jesse now; she was a year older, but he was a better fit for this job. He’d been deployed in Afghanistan most of Mom’s last year with cancer, so Joy was the one who had cleaned and fed her and raged at negligent nurses. They both knew it was Jesse’s turn now. She could not have faced another round of nursing home applications and medical assessments on her own, not so soon. Jesse had already taken Dad to a neurologist in Jacksonville to confirm the dementia they already suspected before Mom died.
But Jesse’s last visit had worried him so much that he’d promised Joy he would drive from Jacksonville to stay with Dad in the cabin every weekend. He just wanted to be sure she didn’t think Dad needed more than that. All he’d asked from Joy was one weekend.
“Stay there in the cabin with him a couple nights,” he’d said. “Observe his life. Let’s compare notes on what we think we should do.”
Then Jesse had held her forearm and stared her in the eye. “But he loves it out there, Joy. He really wants to be in that cabin. That’s the only thing that makes him happy.”
If she’d realized what Jesse really meant, she would not have come alone.
Joy heard her father’s terrible cough before she reached the door.
For a couple of years, Joy had a friend during their family visits to the cabin. It turned out that a white family lived in a lake house only a quarter mile away, an easy walk if you knew where to look. The two kids were miraculously close to their ages: a daughter, Natalie, who was ten like Joy, and a son, Nate, who was only a year older than Jesse. For two summers and two winters, Joy and Natalie had tried every way they knew to entertain themselves in the woods. Collecting tadpoles. Tracking butterflies. Kicking over ant mounds in vengeance. Whittling figures from fat twigs. Smoking cigarettes Natalie stole from her mother. Anything that wasn’t fishing.
Natalie was the one who told her about the Wishing Pool, which was midway between their properties, nestled between two ancient live oaks that bent toward each other as if to hug. It was more like a puddle than a pool, Joy had always thought, maybe six feet across, so shallow that the green-brown water only reached their knees—although Natalie cautioned against ever touching the water.
“It’s for wishes,” Natalie said. “Touching the water ruins them.”
For their first wish, they kept it simple. They wished for a dog.
They didn’t think it through, exactly. They didn’t live together or even see each other outside of short visits, so they didn’t have a clear picture of what that joint dog ownership would look like. But the next morning, when Joy was arguing with her brother over who had to wash the dishes piled in the cabin’s tiny sink, she heard a happy bark outside. She rushed to the window and saw Natalie with a grin that filled her face. A black and white dog, coat a bit muddied (as if, just maybe, it had crawled out of the Wishing Pool), was running in circles around Natalie. Just like that, they had their dog.
Dad said it looked like a terrier mix of some kind, one hundred percent pure mutt, and filthy at that, but they were ecstatic. No collar identified an owner who might be looking for him, so the dog was theirs. They named their dog Lucky because—well, the obvious. Lucky fetched sticks no matter how far they threw them, helped them sniff out rabbit holes, barked protectively at any strange rustlings, and generally made everything they did ten times more fun. They washed, combed, and groomed him until he looked like he belonged on TV.
They worked out a joint custody arrangement with their parents: Natalie would keep Lucky until the Christmas visit to the cabin, and then Joy could take him until summer.
But none of that happened. The day Joy was scheduled to go home, Natalie knocked on the cabin door teary-eyed and said Lucky had crawled out of her house and wouldn’t come when she called. From the first time she heard, Joy knew the dog was gone. She wasn’t surprised to learn, on her next visit, that Natalie had never seen Lucky again. She decided their wish had not been specific enough: they should have said they wanted a dog to keep.
Natalie had changed in the six months Joy had been away, a bit thinner, not smiling as much, bored with tadpoles and butterflies. The Wishing Pool had shrunk too, only half its previous size, the water more brown than green. Joy assumed they would wish to bring Lucky back, but Natalie just shrugged and said she didn’t want a dog anymore.
“My wish is for my parents to get a divorce,” Natalie said.
That wish was unimaginable to Joy, but Natalie said her parents fought so much that she’d rather they split up and get separate houses. She’d mapped it all out: two Christmases, two summer vacations, guilt presents. So Natalie threw the shiny penny in the pool, closed her eyes, and said, “Please let my parents split up.” Joy was both scandalized and thrilled. The secret felt better than smoking. But the wish didn’t come true. At least not right away.
The next summer, when Joy knocked on Natalie’s door, a tenant answered and said they had sold the house after the owner was killed by a drunk driver. “Natalie?” Joy had said, hardly able to speak. The tenant soothed her: “No, honey, the little girl and her mom are fine. They lost the daddy, though.”
Please let my parents split up, Natalie had said.
As an adult, Joy told the story often with a breezy air, never confessing how she’d walked far out of her way to avoid the Wishing Pool ever since. How maybe it was the Wishing Pool, not the boredom of fishing, that had soured her on visiting the cabin with her parents after she graduated from high school. How the Wishing Pool had ended her childhood.
“Joya!” Dad said, the nickname he’d made up for her. He grinned, his teeth unchanged, stripping thirty years from his face. That would be her happiest memory of this visit: his eyes bright with surprise and delight when he called her by the name that belonged to him alone.
Then another cough came, terrible, swaying him until he steadied himself against the door frame. He sounded winded despite the canula in his nostrils, tubes snaking to rest heavy in a pocket of his robe. He was wearing piss-stained long underwear and a threadbare robe.
Joy wanted to burst into tears. Somehow, she didn’t, leaning in for a casual hug. She was relieved that the nape of his neck smelled the same. She clung to every grace.
“Surprise, Dad!” She hadn’t realized how good an actress she was.
Jesse hadn’t told her the most important thing: Dad was dying. Maybe Jesse was hiding it from himself. She’d seen plenty of death up close with Mom, so she knew it when she saw it. The shriveled frame. The dark shadows beneath his eyes. That cough. How could Jesse have left Dad like this even for a day?
If she’d had a phone, she would have called for an ambulance already.
“Well, why the heck didn’t you call when you got to town?” Dad said. “I’m a mess. I would’ve…” —he surveyed himself“…done better, pumpkin.” He coughed a river of phlegm.
She took his arm—so thin!—and led him back inside, nudging the door closed with her heel so no heat would escape. The coal stove glowed golden orange through the grate, but it must be burning embers. The front room was cold, so his bedroom must be frigid. She wanted to take out a notebook and start making a list of the urgent things he needed.
Chronicling it in her head dispassionately kept her lip from trembling.
“I’ll help you put a few clothes in your bag. Then I need to take you to a doctor.”
Dad waved an impatient hand over his shoulder before he opened the stove’s door and stirred the dying coals. “I’m not gonna talk about that.” Joy’s silence finally wore him down. They had always had a kind of telepathy, weathering Mom and Jesse’s emotional storms with telling glances. “I’ve already seen the doctors, Joya. There’s nothing I can do. It just has to play out. That’s that. Ask your brother. We’re not gonna’ talk about it.”
So Jesse did know more, probably had heard a diagnosis. She’d fought so hard not to be irritated at Jesse, but now she was furious. Jesse was doing it again. He was hiding behind her.
Dad’s hands had been waving above the coal bin so long that she realized he had forgotten his task. “Let me light that,” Joy said. “It’s freezing in here, Dad.”
She’d sounded scolding, like Mom would have. They both heard it. The enormity of Mom’s absence rocked through them.
Dad looked down at the coal, hiding misty eyes, and shrugged. “Not cold to me. But do what you want. Jesse was always cold too. Jesse was just here, you know. Few days ago.”
“He told me.” That was almost all he’d told her.
“Anything you want to know, ask him. Jesse’s got it…under control.” He coughed with a mighty struggle for breath.
“Dad, don’t talk. You’re wearing yourself out.” She helped him sit down in the wobbly wooden chair at the table, cupping his elbow. The ritual evoked a vivid image of helping Mom sit down to eat her last meal before they took her to the hospital she never came home from.
Joy’s hands shook less when she dug into the coal bin and savored the rough texture of the coal, which was running low. The puzzle of finding the matches. The miracle of flame.
A thought made her nearly gasp with hope. “Is the phone hooked up?”
Dad reached into the pocket of his robe to pull out his cell phone, as shiny as new.
“Not your cell, Dad. Jesse said he called the phone company.”
“Don’t know… anything about that,” Dad wheezed.
“I’m sorry—don’t try to talk.”
She checked his cell anyway, but it was dead. She wondered when he’d last charged it and decided it was probably ages ago—because her father had dementia. Hope, once spent, had exhausted her. Her situation flared into harsh focus again.
“Okay,” she said in a down-to-business tone that made her own ears prick, eager to hear the plan. “First we need to warm it up in here. Then I’m gonna’ bring in my bag.” Dad had a stack of newspapers piled on one end of the sofa, but she could clear it to sleep. She’d forgotten to bring extra blankets, but she could probably find some. If she meditated, she might be able to sleep. Eventually.
That was the simplest thing. His coughing had stopped, so it might not be the emergency she’d feared. The cabin was cold, but not frigid. The gaps in the planks had been patched with drywall; Jesse’s work, she guessed. A kettle and saucepan were on the stove and she saw a stack of soup cans in the cabinet, ordered by type with military precision. Jesse again. She always traveled with a bag of protein bars, so she had plenty for breakfast and lunch, enough to share. Maybe Jesse really did have it under control.
The idea of a night’s sleep, putting off tomorrow, elated her.
Then she saw the tears shining in her father’s brown eyes. “Dad? What’s wrong?”
He shook his head, staring at the bright orange glow of the stove. She waited, so he finally said, “I’m forgetting her. Your mother.”
“You’ll never forget Mom,” she said before she could think, and the look he gave her was a lashing, as if she had betrayed his honesty with lies. “Some part of you will always—”
“Horseshit,” he said. “I can’t remember a thing. If I took my meds. If I ate.” He spoke the final word painfully. “Have I bathed? I could take all of that, but… now it’s Patricia I’m forgetting. I can’t remember your mother’s middle name.” The confession wrenched him.
“Jesse probably doesn’t know it either.”
“That’s different,” he said. “He didn’t know her since she was sixteen. He didn’t grow up down the street from her. He’s not one of the only ones left who should know.”
Dad was so upset that he was shaking. His trembling loosed a coughing fit that made her doubt her plan to let him stay the night. His cough sounded like it needed a hospital.
“Her middle name is Rose,” Joy said—is, not was—and Dad closed his eyes like the name was a devotion. She rubbed his back—his bones felt so frail!—and his coughing eventually stopped. She was glad to see that the tiny kitchen’s faucet still worked. The well water tasted fresh when she tested a sip before handing him the glass.
“Yes, Rose,” he wheezed when he could speak. “Patricia. Rose. Bryant.” Mom’s name before she got married. He repeated it several times. He found a pad on his table and wrote with the pen tied to it with a rubber band: Patricia Rose Bryant in jittery script. She saw other words and phrases he’d written: Jaden and Jordan, Jesse’s children. 10-2-32, his birthdate.
She flipped the page and saw he’d filled the other side with his reminders. And the next page. He was harvesting his memories, collecting them one by one. Catching them while he could. Had he filled the entire notebook?
“Dad,” Joy said gently, “do you know that sometimes people die of a broken heart? It’s bad enough that we lost her, but you can’t do this to yourself every time you can’t think of something right away. Can you let yourself heal a little bit?”
“Heal.” He spat the word.
“You’re torturing yourself,” she said. “You can’t live like this. You’ve turned Mom into a kind of ghost haunting you. She wouldn’t want that. It’s all right to let some of it go.”
“Sometimes,” Dad said, “I can’t remember her smile, Joya.”
Then he buried his face in his arms on the tabletop and sobbed. Which led to a spate of coughing so severe that she was ready to carry him to her car if she had to. But then it stopped, and Dad went to his bed to sleep propped up on a mound of pillows, sitting up. But he slept.
Her cell phone told her it wasn’t even seven o’clock. The sky had not darkened yet.
Joy remembered the Wishing Pool.
She found herself looking for the trail with the powerful flashlight she kept in her emergency pack in the trunk of her car. Much of the woods were overgrown and unrecognizable years later, but she knew to veer right after the outhouse, so she waded through the underbrush and tried to find any hints of the trail.
She never did. But she did see the twin live oaks, still standing, eerily unchanged, their trunks colored bright gold in the waning daylight. A beacon calling to her, almost.
When she reached the trees, she was sure the Wishing Pool would have dried up. But it hadn’t. It barely looked like a puddle anymore, covered in leaves, but dark brown water still peeked through in that spot and only that spot. Joy wanted to test its depth with her foot, but she remembered what Natalie had about tainting it with touch. So she didn’t.
Thinking about Natalie was almost enough to change her mind. But not quite.
Joy reached into her back pocket for the change she’d shoved there after she broke a twenty at a McDonald’s on the road. A shiny penny gleamed in her flashlight beam. She pressed it between her fingertips until the copper was warm, her heart speeding up.
The last time she had stood in this spot, Mom had been alive, back in the cabin with Dad. How could this physical place still exist when the life it was tied to was gone?
“Please,” she said aloud to the night woods, “just let my father be healthy and happy.”
She tossed her penny into the murky water just beyond the edge of a drowned leaf and watched until it sank out of sight. She waited for the surge of certainty she’d felt as a child that magic was humming around her. Instead, while crickets whirred in a fever, she could only remember Natalie’s dead father and his salt-and-pepper beard. She wondered if Natalie had blamed herself for his death and felt certain she had. Joy wanted to plunge her hand into the puddle and retrieve her penny, but she told herself she was being silly, since wishes weren’t real.
Or she might ruin her wish if she touched the water.
The short walk to the cabin was harrowing because it got dark so fast, but Joy was grateful to return a warming room and the sound of her father snoring safely in his bed. No coughing. She touched his forehead. No fever. Could the wish that couldn’t possibly work be working already? She didn’t believe it—but wanting to believe made her smile at herself.
Smiling made everything easier. She cleared off the sofa, found fresh blankets in the cedar-scented trunk at the foot of Dad’s bed (beside two large oxygen tanks she tried not to notice) and chanced upon a package of Almond M&M’s she didn’t know she had in her purse. She was asleep as soon as she rested her head. The cold room only made her sleep harder, and she dreamed a kaleidoscope of her childhood: lively meals and talent shows and beach days. She woke up in the daylight feeling better rested than she had in weeks, swaddled under a mound of blankets.
The first thing she heard was the silence. No snoring. No coughing. No sound at all.
She kicked off her blankets and jumped up to look into the bedroom’s open doorway. Dad’s bed was empty, his blankets on the floor. She barely squeezed out the thought Where the hell is—
And then she heard a chopping sound outside, an axe splitting wood. She’d forgotten how Dad used to chop piles of wood, more than they needed since coal burned long. He said swinging his axe made him feel like John Henry. But now?
Joy ran outside barefoot, ignoring her cold toes and the prickling and poking against her bare soles. A pinecone stabbed her foot so sharply that she was sure it drew blood. She hopped the rest of the distance to find Dad in the shadow of the outhouse, the axe raised high above his head, his back turned. He arced his swing and cleaved the wood chunk in half.
Then he laughed. Not his polite chuckle he forced out to put her at ease—a deep belly laugh she was sure would make him cough. But it didn’t. He heaved in a breath before he swung the axe again, and his lungs sounded strong and clear. Healthy. He laughed again. Happy.
Adrenaline tingled Joy’s skin.
“Be careful!” she said. “Should you be exerting yourself like that?”
Dad whirled around, startled. His smile withered when he saw her. He stared, eyes flat.
“Help you?” he said.
But his eyes stayed flat. His smile stayed gone. Joy’s stomach cramped.
“It’s… Joy. Joya.”
When he heard his nickname for her, Joya, recognition flared in his eyes, but oh-so-tepid. He studied her features the way he would a painting in a museum. Mildly curious.
“Joya,” he said. He nodded. He took one step closer to her. Another. He spoke directly into her eyes. “Pleased to meet you. You remind me of someone.”
His smile returned, perhaps the one he’d flashed for her mother when he spotted her raking leaves in her yard that day he passed on his bicycle when they were both sixteen and he had just moved to her street. Or, perhaps it was the smile he’d worn the first day he held Joy in his arms, still slick from Mom’s womb. Soon, Joy couldn’t see his smile for her tears.
She only heard the sharp CHOP of the wood and her father’s strong huff of breath as his laughter and liberation rang in the treetops.
(Editors’ Note: “The Wishing Pool” is read by Matt Peters on the Uncanny Magazine Podcast, 41A.)
© 2021 Tananarive Due