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The story so far..
The Mind Traveler

by Lois June Wickstrom

copyright 2004

Benny ran across the fog-filled playground. She was late. Wanda and Liz were counting on her.

She ran past Nessa, the girl who always wore plaid. Nessa was sitting cross-legged beside the fence, bouncing a small red ball. A large iridescent cockroach sat beside Nessaís colorful jacks, almost looking like one of them. Nessa scooped it up as she collected the jacks.

How gross can you get? Benny wondered. Her stomach tightened. She ran faster. She didnít want to be near Nessa when she discovered what she had in her hand. Besides, Nessa was rumored to go out into the woods and sit on the edge of the quicksand pit, just staring into it. Maybe even tipping her toes into it, just to tempt fate. The quicksand pit was over an underground stream that surfaced at the edge of the woods. All the kids except Nessa were afraid of it.

As Benny hurried past the swing set where the little kids played, she heard, "Push me!"

Susie, one of her most lucrative babysitting charges, sat stalled on the far swing, her ringlets curlier than ever in the damp air.

"One push!" whined Susie, waving her over.

"Iím in a hurry." Impatiently, Benny adjusted her backpack and grabbed the chains on both sides of the swing.

"I know." Susie giggled. "Youíre going to your secret hiding place behind the temporary building."

"Guess itís not very secret," said Benny, pulling Susie up as she stepped back. She let Susie go, swinging high.

"The teachers donít know," said Susie. "And I wonít tell them if you give me another push."

"Blackmailer," laughed Benny. Susie stuck her feet out and Benny gave her another push.

"More!" shouted Susie. The chains that held her swing squeaked against the support bar.

Benny resumed running through the cool fog toward the shadow behind the tan metal temporary classroom.

"Perg," as the kids called the temporary classroom, sat right next to the running track. Nathan was rounding the bend. His long legs moved as smoothly as the gears in her grandfatherís clock. Benny liked to watch him run. His olive skin and dark brown hair qualified him for Lizís list of tall dark and handsome. Benny didnít see him that way. He was just Nathan, good friend and great runner.

"Wish me luck!" called Nathan.

"Luck!" called Benny. She swung her maroon backpack off and plopped it on the asphalt beside Lizís pink backpack and Wandaís black one

"There you are!" called Liz. Liz held one end of the pair of double-dutch jump ropes . The other end of the pair was tied to one of "Pergís" door handles. Liz had carefully arranged her blonde hair to lie neatly along the collar of her coat, tied in place with a perky pink band that almost matched her face. Liz was always trying out new hair products. She even made money styling her momís friends hair, instead of babysitting.

Wandaís kinte cloth shirt, and hair barrettes bounced as she jumped. She chanted:

Miss Lucy had a baby

She named him Tiny Tim

She put him in the bathtub

To see if he could swim.

Wanda mimed swimming. Her dark brown arms glistened in the fog.

Benny lifted the turning rope from the door handle, trying to keep up the rhythm.

Wanda tripped. "Now I have to start over!"

Benny looked at her watch. "We have time." She and Liz lifted their arms to start the first rope swinging again. They brought their arms down and started the second. A rope slapped against Wandaís ankles.

"Wait for my count," said Wanda, sharply.

"You shouldnít have gotten problem 5 wrong!" Liz scowled at Wanda. "You made me look really stupid up at the chalk board in front of the whole class!"

"You mean in front of Brad," teased Wanda. The barrettes on her tightly braided cornrows jiggled as she bounced on her heels. "Come on. Start again. One... Two... Three..."

"Not Ďtil you apologize!" Liz shook her hair, and held the rope still.

Benny watched her friends argue, the ropes loose in her hand. How were they going to win the double-dutch competition if they didnít practice? She gently swung the ropes side to side. A rope tapped Wandaís shoes.

"What for?" asked Wanda. "Youíre the one who copied my homework."

"I took the rap for your mistake!"

"Itís not like I got it wrong on purpose!"

Benny looked at her watch. She was the responsible one. "The bell rings in six minutes." She swung the first rope. This time Liz swung, too. And Wanda jumped. A barrette fell off as she bent down to pick up a mock bar of soap. She grabbed the barrette."And how was I supposed to know youíd raise your hand?" Liz sped up her rope turning. Wanda chanted:

He drank up all the water

He ate up all the soap

He tried to eat the bathtub

But it wouldn't fit down his throat.

Wanda mimed swallowing a bathtub.

"Thatís the last time I copy your math homework!" Liz turned the ropes faster.

Wanda mimicked dialing a phone. "Slow down."

"Youíre the best at hot peppers!" Liz turned the rope even faster.

Benny hated to hear her friends argue. She continued the rhyme and Wanda jumped.

Miss Lucy called the doctor

The Doctor call the nurse

The Nurse called the lady

With the alligator purse.

"It would be cool if we had some more girls to run in under the rope and be the doctor and nurse and lady with the purse," said Wanda.

"Way cool," said Liz. "Weíd be the only team with four jumpers in at once. I wish we could have boys in our group."

"Not until next year," said Benny. "When weíre twelve."

"I can hardly wait," said Liz, glancing over at the running track where Brad had joined Nathan.

Benny chanted:

In walked the doctor.

In walked the nurse

In walked the lady

With the alligator purse.

Wanda jumped. Nobody spoke for a while. Then Benny said, "Yeah, weíd look great with four jumpers, wearing costumes. Iíll bet Lizís mom has an old alligator purse."

Wanda laughed. "Is there anything your mom doesnít have in your attic?"

"Quit making fun of my mom!" Liz turned the ropes even faster.

"Keep time with the chant," insisted Wanda:

"Measles," said the doctor.

"Mumps," said the nurse.

"Nothing," said the lady

With the alligator purse.

"What gestures can we use for those lines?" asked Liz.

"Pictures," said Wanda. "Pictures on both sides of poster board. The doctor carries the picture of red-spotted Tim. The nurse shows Tim with big cheeks. And the lady with her purse snaps it open to show that itís empty."

"My mom will love that. She always says doctors get paid for nothing. Folks get well all by themselves." Bennyís elbow started to cramp. She looked at her watch. "Almost time for the bell."

Wanda jumped. Her barrettes bounced as she kicked in time with the chant:

Miss Lucy kicked the doctor.

Miss Lucy kicked the nurse.

Miss Lucy paid the lady

With the alligator purse.

Rrrrriiiinnnngggg! The bell startled them. Liz dropped her end of the ropes. Benny began reeling them up.

Les, the school bully, poked his shaved head around the corner of the temporary building. "Hiding from the teachers are you?"

Before the girls could respond, Les picked up Bennyís maroon backpack and walked away, not really running, but fast enough that he had a good head start.

"Donít chase him!" whispered Liz. "Thatís what he wants."

Benny stood poised to run. Liz was usually right when she predicted what other kids would do. But that was her backpack, with her lunch and her homework. But if she did manage to catch Les, he was unpredictable and violent. Heíd been beating up on her and the other shorter kids since kindergarten. Les stopped running and stared at her.

"Donít you want your backpack, Chubby?" called Les from about 20 feet away. He waved it back and forth as if it were a toreadorís cape and Benny were the bull.

Benny didnít answer. She stood her ground and stared at him. Yes, she was plump, but everybody said sheíd outgrow it when she got her growth spurt. She hated being called Chubby.

"Donít say anything," whispered Liz.

"Okay," said Les. "I guess you donít want it." He ripped the straps off the pack. Then he opened the zipper and dumped out her books and pens and lunch sack.

Benny didnít move.

"Since itís mine, I can do what I want with it." He squatted down. Benny remained silent and stood her ground. Les tore the books, and broke the pens. Benny continued staring. He ripped up her homework and let the strips flutter to the damp playground. Watching her things being destroyed hurt as much as a being hit.

Les picked up her lunch sack, pulled out the apple, polished it on his shirt and took a big smacking bite. He flung the remains of her backpack on the playground and walked away with her lunch sack. "Thanks for the grub."

Benny felt hot tears well in her eyes.

Wanda put a hand on her shoulder. "If you could have any wish, what would you wish for?"

This was one of Wandaís favorite games. Benny had never taken it seriously before. She wasnít going to waste a wish on something small like getting her lunch and backpack back.

While Benny pondered, Liz was quick to answer. "I wish Brad would ask me to the dance. Heís so cute, I just know heís a good dancer."

"I wish for a bigger allowance," said Wanda. "And a skateboard." She picked up her black backpack and slung it over one shoulder.

Benny could have guessed those wishes without asking. She finished rolling up the jump ropes.

"Whatís your wish?" asked Liz asked Benny, softly.

Benny still hadnít figured out her wish. She blurted, "I wish you two would stop arguing!"

"Thatís it? If you could have any wish? Come on Ė name something wonderful and impossible that you really want." said Wanda.

Suddenly Benny knew what she wished for. "I want to kiss the elephant at the circus when we go tomorrow night." Benny surprised herself with how intense she sounded.

"Eeeww!" said Liz and Wanda together.

#

Grey clouds blanketed the sidewalk. The forecast predicted storms for the afternoon. Benny didnít care. Afternoon was a long ways away. And it didnít matter if the rain fell at night because the circus was under a tent. Now it was morning, and she loved the cool tingle of fog droplets on her skin. The scent of damp blooms on the rose bush caressed her as she walked Wookie, her shaggy mutt-dog, who shook his damp fur spraying her with cold droplets. Benny smiled. Eggs, toast, and a glass of orange juice waited for her on the red and white checked table cloth covering the kitchen table. Wookie pulled on his leash. Hurry. Hurry. But she didnít want to hurry. Her mind was on the fog. Fog surrounding her. Fog entering her with every breath. Becoming one with the fog.

She kept thinking about wishes. Last night browsing the internet, sheíd found a website that promised: If you picture what you really want for five minutes every day, youíll get it. The website wasnít selling anything. It even said if you werenít good at picturing things that it works just as well if you cut out a picture and look at that.

Benny had cut out a picture of an elephant from the circus brochure. And a picture of herself. And pinned them together on her bulletin board. She had looked at that picture and imagined herself kissing the elephant.

Wookie stopped and squatted. She pulled some old newspaper out of her pocket and picked up the poop. When they returned home, she threw the newspaper in the trash can at the end of the driveway, put Wookie in the fenced yard, and opened the kitchen door. Wookieís dish of dog food was already beside his dog house. Mother always said, "Dogs eat first."

Mother bustled about the warm well-lit kitchen in her high-heeled shoes and business suit. "Did you do your homework? Is your laundry put away?"

Benny barely paid attention. Butter was melting on her hot toast. She loved to watch the liquid butter travel across the bread, filling in the holes. She loved the burnt smell of the toast mingling with the orange from her juice.

"How about a nice cup of hot cocoa?" asked her mother.

Benny didnít answer. She was trying again to picture herself kissing the elephant. She thought about its rough grey wrinkled skin. Its smooth ivory tusks. What would it smell like?

"Hey, daydreamer!" Her mother laughed. "Donít forget to come straight home from school today, so you can take a nap before we go to the circus."

"Iím going to kiss the elephant," said Benny.

"Sometimes you say the strangest things." Her mother poured cocoa into her elephant mug Ė the one with the elephant trunk painted on the handle. ".

Benny looked at the clock Ė no time for cocoa. She used her knife to hurry up the butter. Then she picked up her toast, took a crispy warm bite and walked out the door eating.

As she passed along the row of maple trees in front of her house, scuffing the red and yellow leaves, the fog became chilly. Benny wished she had that cocoa. She could imagine nothing more delicious than bitter-sweet hot cocoa warming her...she pictured it, she imagined the steam on her face, the warm liquid going down her throat...

Nearly bare branches rustled overhead. Car sounds from Lincoln Way were loud this time of year, without the leaves to muffle them. A siren blasted through her reverie. Beams from headlamps scattered like hoards of tiny fireflies as they reflected of the fog. Nathan would be waiting. Nathan would know the reason for the siren. No matter if she was early or late, Nathan was always at the corner of Lincoln Way and Hayward Avenue, waiting for her.

Nathan had a big race that afternoon. He would want her to encourage him, remind him how good he was, how he was sure to win.

The little yellow box that made the lights change clicked loudly in the fog. Benny watched the colors change from green to yellow to red. The siren faded away. She kept walking toward Lincoln Way, enjoying the fog.

 

"There you are!" Nathan appeared out of nowhere at the corner of Lincoln Way and Hayward Avenue. He was holding two paper mugs steaming with hot cocoa, and gave one to her.

Did I get this cocoa by wishing for it and picturing it? Benny accepted the cup with a mix of wonder and gratitude.

"I sure hope the sun comes out for my race this afternoon!" Nathan rotated his shoulders and elbows like he did when he ran. He moved so smoothly, so symmetrically, it was hard to believe he was human.

"Picture it. Imagine everything about it. The warm sun bathing your body, the medal going over your head onto your shoulders," said Benny. "I saw it on a website last night. Picture it for five minutes and itís yours."

"And I suppose you have to buy a special talisman or donate to some cause..." Nathan was sarcastic.

"No. The website didnít ask for money."

"What did you wish for?" asked Nathan.

"To kiss the elephant at the circus."

"Well, that was a dud. There is no more circus. That siren you heard was for the tents. Itís all gone. The animals are safe. But there wonít be a show tonight."

Liz joined them, her hair up in princess braid. "Is she still talking about kissing that elephant?"

"Never mind about that," said Nathan. He made a mock bow. "Will you come to the dance with me?"

Benny felt stung. Nathan was her friend. Liz wanted to go to the dance with Brad. She hadnít wanted to go to the dance. But she hadnít thought Nathan was going either.

Liz blinked a few times, then said, "Yes, Iíd like that."

#

"You canít take credit for the wind," shouted Brad.

"Why not?" asked Nathan pretending to be casual. "I pictured a sunny afternoon for our big race. And now hereís the wind, blowing the grey clouds away."

"Nobody controls the wind." Brad huffed.

"Better get to the line-up," said Benny. She thought, if he can have a sunny afternoon, maybe I can kiss the elephant. But something went wrong with Lizís wish. Sheís going to the dance with the wrong boy.

The runners lined up at the white stripe on the track. Nathan, tall, his olive skin dark against his white t-shirt, was on the outside of the track. Then Wanda, her cornrows in rubberbands Ė she said the barrettes distracted her when she ran. Les crouched next to her. Then Brad. Half a dozen more 6th graders all poised to start. Coach blew the whistle.

At first the runners all moved together, like a pack. Then Les pulled ahead. Wanda stumbled, but picked up speed. Les pulled ahead again. Liz shouted, "Go Nathan!" Benny shouted, "Go Wanda!" Then she added, "Go Nathan!" Nathan pulled even with Les.

Brad pulled up close behind Wanda. His sandy hair slicked down with gel. Les said something to Nathan and he sped up.

The 6th graders were nearing the finish line. Les blew a kiss. Nathanís foot crossed the finish line. Then Les. Then Wanda. Then half a dozen other runners.

And just as she had told Nathan to imagine it, the coach placed the blue ribbon with the medal over Nathanís head. The golden disk glittered against Nathanís white t-shirt. He waved at Benny and mouthed, "Thank you."

#

After a race, Nathan always met Benny at Reedís Drug Store, next to the barbershop with the red, white and blue spinning cylinder out front. Reedís was the only drug store in town that had a soda fountain, and a counter with stools where you could sit and talk and sip.

Benny was the first to arrive at Reedís Drug Store. That was normal after a race. Nathan took a shower, changed his clothes and did some guy rituals with the other runners in the boysí dressing room. She put her new math book on the counter, ordered a soda, and began doing her homework. After a while, she looked up at the round clock with the wooden rim on the wall over the stainless steel microwave. It was nearly 5 PM. She should be heading home. But it wasnít like Nathan to be this late. Benny worried.

Her last sip of soda gurgled around the straw in the bottom of the glass. Nathan usually paid for her soda after he won. But Nathan wasnít here. She paid her tab, left a 25 cent tip on the counter, put her book and papers neatly back into her backpack, and headed back towards the school gym.

When she turned the corner at the chain link fence, she saw Nathan limping, stumbling. His fingers clutched the fence wires for balance. She ran toward him, her sneakers scuffing against the dry leaves on the sidewalk. Nathanís face bled above his left eye. Dirt caked on his light blue t-shirt.

"What happened?" she asked.

"Les," he spat.

"Anything broken?"

Nathan shook his head.

"You can wash up in the drug store restroom."

Benny helped him limp across the street and past the plate glass display windows of the hardware store with the snow shovels and wooden sleds stacked up against fake snowmen, and then the barber shop with its swirling red white and blue cylinder, and finally into Reedís.

When Nathan came out of the restroom, Mr. Reed, the owner, helped him onto a stool at the counter. "Bullies. I see he took your medal. You ran a good race."

"Yeah," said Nathan.

"Iíll bring you a cup of hibiscus tea." Mr. Reed stepped behind the counter, but remained within earshot, as he put teabags into two thick ceramic cups and covered them with steaming hot water from a clear glass carafe.

"I suppose every school has bullies," said Nathan.

"Thereís different kinds of bullies," said Mr. Reed, placing a white ceramic cup of red steaming tea on the counter in front of Nathan, and another one in front of Benny. "Some fight with words, some with fists."

"Iíll take words any day!" said Nathan.

"Thereís times Iíd take a good quick punch and get it over with," said Mr. Reed. "Words can sting for years." He handed Nathan a warm wet washcloth and a bowl. "Youíll be good as new in few days."

The sour red tea made Bennyís lips pucker. "May I have some honey, please?"

"Honey will mask the sour taste, but youíll still know itís there."

"Like fighting with words instead of fists?" asked Benny.

"Exactly," said Mr. Reed, handing her the honey. He leaned close and said, "You can change how things look, or taste, but you canít change how you feel inside."

Did Mr. Reed know about the wishing game? Benny felt uneasy talking about it. Not even with Liz and Wanda. She changed the subject.

"Are you going to the circus, tonight?"

"Oh yes," said Mr. Reed. "I love to watch the elephants."

"I want to kiss one," said Benny.

"Eeww," said Nathan. "Itís a good thing I asked Liz to the dance instead of you." But he smiled.

"Were you going to ask me?"

"I was just about to when Liz showed up with her hair in that fancy braid. I really donít know why I asked her."

Benny knew it had something to do with Lizís wish to go to the dance with Brad. But she couldnít say how.

Storm clouds gathered, darkening the sky prematurely.

"Youíd better head on home," said Mr. Reed.

#

When Benny arrived home, the answering machine was blinking. She pushed the button.

Her momís voice greeted her, "Benny dear, Iím so sorry. The circus tent has burned down. But there will be a parade. So weíre still getting our evening out. Iíve checked with Wanda and Lizís moms. Weíll all meet by the Afghan Elephant Ear Pastry stand. Take your nap and Iíll be home by six."

Benny looked at the clock. 5:55. Her mom would be home in 5 minutes. She ran to her bedroom and threw herself onto the bed, just as she heard her momís key in the lock.

She rolled onto her side, facing away from the door and tried to look sleepy. But she kept seeing Nathanís bruised and bleeding face. And hearing Mr. Reed say, "Thereís different kinds of bullies."

Her mom opened the door to her room. Benny startled.

"You werenít napping." Her mother sounded disappointed.

"No. I was thinking about bullies."

"Get your raincoat. Itís time to go. Itís still clear, but the skies could open up any minute."

"What about dad?" Bennyís dad always made the circus more fun. He knew stories about every kind of animal.

"He called me at the office. He picked up an extra shipment and wonít be home Ďtil the weekend. I hope he doesnít have to drive in this storm."

Benny grabbed her coat. Her mom changed her heels for sneakers.

The sky was dark. Street lamps made the red and yellow leaves glow like embers as they hurried down Hayward Avenue. The parade would be on Lincoln Way. Porch lights came on. A few porches already had early plastic pumpkins out. The wind lulled. Not a leaf rustled, except under foot where there shoes scuffed. Drums. Trumpets. A calliope broke the silence.

"I love a circus parade!" said her mother, running faster.

Wanda and Liz were already at the Elephant Ear stand. Liz was holding a big box. Both girls were munching the deep-fried pastry. Benny and her mother each bought one. Then her mother went to join the other mothers. The girls crowded their way to the curb, and sat down in front of a street lamp.

"Guess whatís in the box," said Liz.

"Something from your attic," said Benny and Wanda together.

"Yes. Itís a skateboard. Wanda, your wish has come true. Now itís time for Bennyís."

"Here come the elephants!" boomed a loudspeaker.

The girls strained to see. Large dark shadows swayed and glittered at the end of the block. The elephants were wearing spangled blankets and headgear, sparkling under the street lamps.

"Are you really going to kiss one?" asked Liz.

Benny had only planned to watch the parade, not rushing into it. She had imagined kissing the elephant, her arms around its warm wrinkled trunk, but she hadnít pictured where. Still, this would be a good time, an easy place. The elephants were so close. She could feel the sidewalk vibrate under her feet. She felt a trill of anticipation as the elephants came nearer.

"Do it!" said Wanda. "Then weíll all get our wishes."

She surprised herself by shouting "Yes!" Her head nodded.

The elephants were right in front of her now. They smelled of damp hay. She stepped into the street.

"No! little girl!" shouted the man with the microphone. He ran towards her.

Benny stepped right up to an elephant, placed her hands on its trunk and kissed it. She could hear the manís footsteps coming closer. She didnít care. Sheíd done it. Sheíd kissed the elephant. It was warm and alive. It was majestic. Lightning flashed. The elephant squealed and trashed its trunk. Benny lost her grip. The elephantís trunk shoved her into the gutter. The man with the loudspeaker grabbed the elephantís chain and pulled him away from her, back into parade formation.

Benny tried to get up. Something stabbed in her chest. She couldnít move. Thunder roared. Street lamps blinked The elephant bellowed. And the man with the loudspeaker was lying beside her in the gutter. Her mom leaned over her. "Benny!"

#

She awoke in the hospital with tape around her chest. A vase of red and pink carnations sat on the table beside her. And Nathan stood at the foot of her bed, holding a comic book. The fresh scabs on his face and arms looked ghoulish under the fluorescent lamps. But he was in better shape than she was. He was standing. She could hear rain beating on the window beside her bed.

"Your momís just down the hall," said Nathan. "She has to sign some paperwork. Liz and Wanda are here, too." Nathanís clothes were spattered with large water drops.

Benny tried to talk. No sounds came out. She nodded.

"I brought you a comic book." Nathan took a few steps toward her. "But Iím not sure itís okay for you to laugh."

Benny felt fuzzy-headed. Had she been drugged? How long had she been here? She looked around the room. It didnít look the way sheíd imagined a hospital room would look. The walls were yellow. Paintings of balloons and flowers adorned the walls. The curtains and bedspread bore a matching circus print, with big elephants, their trunks raised. Benny nodded again. She reached out for the comic book. Again something in her chest stabbed.

"Youíve got a broken rib. It punctured your lung. They put some kind of super glue inside your lung to heal the tear. You can go home in a few days.."

It wasnít like Nathan to talk so much. But then usually, she was part of the conversation. It was interesting being quiet and just listening.

"If all these elephants bother you, I can ask them to get you different curtains and bedspread."

Benny shook her head. It felt bruised, sore. She lay back against the pillow.

It wasnít the elephantís fault. It was just scared by the lightning and thunder. She had kissed an elephant. Her wish had come true. Again, Benny felt a wave of gratitude and wonder. So she had to be in the hospital for a few days. . .

"Your rib will take about a month to heal. You canít jump rope until it does. But you can turn the rope."

Benny wanted to ask Nathan how he knew all this, and why he was being so bossy. But she couldnít talk. She nodded and looked at the comic book. The cover picture was a red blimp with zizzle-zots coming out of it. She smiled. Of course. Heíd been at the foot of her bed. Heíd read her chart. She must be drugged to be thinking this slowly.

Footsteps echoed in the hallway. Plastic clicking. Wandaís barrettes. Her mother, Wanda and Liz walked quietly into her room, as if trying not to wake her. They hung up dripping rain coats on hooks beside the door.

"Hey, your eyes are open!" Her mother sounded like she was forcing cheerfulness.

Liz put a box of chocolate candies on her beside table beside the carnations.

Benny hadnít noticed before, but Liz was wearing a tight sweater. Liz was getting a figure. Her hair was still in that princess braid. Nathanís gaze had moved from her to Liz. He brushed a lock of hair over the wound on his temple.

"I brought your books so you can do your homework," said Wanda. She placed a stack of books beside the chocolate and flowers. "Do you hurt?"

Benny nodded.

"Iím so sorry," said Wanda. "I shouldnít have told you to do it"

Iím glad I kissed the elephant, thought Benny.

"She canít talk," said Nathan. He was being bossy again. Maybe he was still sore from Lesí beating.

"Letís make more wishes," said Liz. "I wish Benny will get well right away."

"Me, too," said Wanda.

"You can stay in bed just long enough to read the comic book," said Nathan.

Benny looked at them. What did she want to wish?

Nathan handed her a pad of paper and a pen. She thought. I wished for Nathan to win the race and Les beat him up. I wished to kiss the elephant and I wound up here. But Liz got a date for the dance and Wanda got her skateboard. I canít be sure my wishes caused any of this. What could she wish for that would be a good test, but still safe? The one wish that always turned out right.

She wrote "chocolate cake," and handed the pad back to Nathan. He laughed.

"Chocolate cake?" Nathan shook his head, the lock of hair fell away from his wound. Liz didnít seem to notice.

Benny nodded. Just then a nurse walked in with a tray carrying squares of chocolate cake.

"We had extra at the nursing station. Would you like some?" The nurse smiled and held out the metal tray.

"Benny, did you arrange this?" Her mom looked skeptical as she took a piece of cake.

Liz, Wanda and Nathan helped themselves.

Benny tried to shake her head, but it hurt too much.

"How could she? She canít even talk." Liz bit into her cake.

The nurse brought the tray over to Benny and handed her one. Benny licked the icing, her favorite part. It was good cake. The nurse busied herself taking Bennyís pulse.

Nathan brushed the hair over his wound again. Bennyís mom winced. "That was some pounding! Have you thought about taking Aikido?"

The nurse used an ear thermometer to take Bennyís temperature.

"Does that tickle?" asked Wanda. Benny wrote "a little" on the pad, and Wanda smiled.

"Donít Mom me!" said Nathan, glaring at Bennyís mother. "I get enough of that at home."

"You donít have to get mad," said Bennyís mom. "If you donít want to take Aikido, just say so in a nice voice."

The nurse poured water into a glass and set it beside Benny on the table.

"Iím leaving," said Nathan.

"Wait, and Iíll give you a ride," said Bennyís mom.

Benny looked at her friends. They had all made wishes. Somehow she knew that she, and she alone, had caused all these wishes to come true. Not them. They had wished for her to be well, but nothing happened. Only the wishes that she thought about worked. But why did extra things, unpleasant things sometimes happen?

"I think you should all leave now and let Benny rest," said the nurse.

Bennyís mom came over and kissed her on the forehead. Liz and Wanda squeezed her hands.

"I ordered you a radio-controlled blimp, like on the cover of the comic book," said Nathan. "Wookie will have fun chasing it."

As they left, Benny thought. What would school be like without Les? She pictured herself walking down the halls of Crawford Elementary. None of the boys had bloody noses. None of the boys were in clusters, comforting each other. No one swaggered down the hall shoving the smaller boys. That seemed simple enough. Nothing major was different. She snapped her fingers. Yes.

#

The next morning Benny overslept. Wookie was nowhere to be found. Perhaps her dad had come home in the night and was walking him. Her breakfast was waiting for her on a green and yellow table cloth covering the kitchen table. Must be a new one. But it didnít look new. Cereal with milk, and a glass of orange juice. She wolfed down her cereal while her mother asked, "Did you do your homework? Is your laundry put away?"

Between sips of orange juice, she asked, "Whereís Wookie?"

"Heís your imaginary playmate," said her mother. "If you donít know where he is, nobody does."

"Wookie is real. Heís my dog."

"Donít wolf your food."

"Mom, Iím running late!"

"We bought you an alarm clock. Use it!" Her mother sounded exasperated.

A boy, about eight-years-old entered the kitchen. He had sandy hair that stuck up in a cowlick at the back. He looked a lot like she had looked at that age. "Who are you?" she demanded.

"Stop teasing your brother," said Mom.

Benny took a last swig of orange juice, put the glass down on the table, swung her backpack over one shoulder and opened the door. Brother? Whereís Wookie? Did I do this with my wish?

"Donít forget your sweater," ordered her mom.

"Iím running late!"

"Better than a running nose!"

She went to the hall closet, grabbed her green cable-knit sweater, and again headed for the door.

"It wonít do you any good if you donít wear it," said her mother.

"I donít care!" she shouted. She ran out the door, slamming it before her mother could say anything else. The sweater streamed out behind her from the crook of her elbow as she ran down Hayward Avenue, past blooming rose bushes. Her sneakers scuffed against the soggy brown elm leaves on the sidewalk in front of her house. They clung to her shoes as she ran. She wondered, why are roses blooming in September? She loved their scent. It was as if they were there to cheer her up.

At the corner of Lincoln Way and Hayward Avenue, Liz was waiting for her wearing a tight pink sweater to show off her budding breasts. Benny felt uneasy looking at her.

"Are you really going to wear that to school today, Benetrice?"

Before she could answer, Wanda appeared, her hair in tight cornrows pulling at her face. "Watch your posture. And you shouldnít run like that." Benny knew it took eight hours in the beauty shop to make Wandaís hair look like that. Eight hours when she could be out playing. But sheíd never tell Wanda not to do it. Wanda continued, "Youíre a disgrace!"

Liz patted the perfect pleats of her plaid skirt. "I donít know why we bother with you. Youíre hopeless." She straightened the bow on her hairband. Benny wondered how Liz could have known the bow was crooked. She wasnít holding a mirror and they werenít standing close enough to a shop window to see a reflection.

"Completely hopeless," said Wanda.

Benny looked around for Nathan.

"Who are you looking for?" asked Liz.

"Nathan," she answered.

"What would Nathan have to do with you? Track stars donít have time for flat-chested nobodyís like you." Liz tucked her sweater into her skirt so that it fit her budding figure more tightly.

"Nathan is my friend. He meets me here every day."

"In your dreams."

"Too bad he lost the race yesterday," said Wanda. "He just doesnít run well when the ground is wet."

"Wandaís sweet on Nathan," sing-songed Liz.

"Youíre the one going to the dance with him," said Benny.

"Donít be silly. Iím going with Brad," said Liz. "Heís the cutest boy in our class."

Benny stared at them blankly. What had happened to Liz, and Wanda? Why werenít they busy perfecting their jump rope routine for the all-school competition?

She patted her rib. It wasnít even sore. Had she really kissed the elephant? Could she rely on Liz or Wanda to tell her the truth if she asked them?

"Bennyís sweet on Nathan," sang Wanda.

Liz joined in. "Bennyís sweet on Nathan."

"Heís just a boy," said Benny.

#

At recess, Benny selected a jump rope from the sports locker, and headed out towards the temporary classroom. There was no tape on her chest. It must be okay for her to jump. Nathan walked up to her, his unkempt curls sticking out like black flames around his dark olive face.

"You promised Iíd win the race. What happened?"

"I wanted you to win," said Benny. "But I couldnít have promised."

"Iíve seen you. You can make things happen!"

"Itís not like that," said Benny. "I wanted you to win!"

"You can do more than that!" insisted Nathan.

Benny stared at the rope in her hands. She had seen Nathan win. But that was before she wished for a school without Les, without a bully. In her old world Les had beat him up and stolen his medal. Could she tell him that? This Nathan already suspected more than the Nathan she knew. What would he do if she told him everything? But she wasnít sure just what everything was.

"I did my best."

"Why should I believe you?" asked Nathan.

Benny uncoiled the rope and began jumping red hot peppers. It didnít hurt. She was well. Had Wanda and Lizís wishes come true?

"Why should I believe you?" Nathan asked again.

"Why not?" Benny turned the rope faster.

"Make sure I win next time," Nathan walked away.

No good, thought Benny. Now what do I wish for? A world where Nathan won and got to keep his medal? A world where my friends like me again? A world where wishes donít cause things to happen?

#

Nothing seemed to be the same even though everything was the same. She glanced over at the fence. There was Nessa playing jacks. She put a smile on her face and walked towards her.

A hand clasped her shoulder. Nathan spun her around. "And donít make me disappear, like you did Les."

"I donít understand." Fear knotted Bennyís stomach.

"Yes, you do," said Nathan. "Les used to beat people up. Now even his desk is gone from the room and his name was never on the roll call."

"Does anybody else at this school remember Les?"

"If they do, youíd better find out who. And then maybe you should make them disappear before they do something youíll regret."

"If you didnít win, and Les didnít win, then who won the race?" Nathan walked off without answering.

Benny almost ran to get away from the sound of his voice, even though he had stopped talking. She kept playing his words over again in her head. Something youíll regret. She slowed down when she got near Nessa. Her shadow lay next to Nessaís jacks. There was that iridescent cockroach again.

Nessa looked up. "Youíre the fool who kissed the elephant. Get away from me!"

She had kissed the elephant. That meant she still had the power of wishing. Benny smiled with relief.

"I told you to get away from me!" Nessa scooped up her jacks and held them as if Bennyís shadow might hurt them.

"Donít you want any friends?" asked Benny.

"What for?" asked Nessa. "They just turn on you when they find out you arenít perfect."

The girls stared at each other silently.

"Go away!" Nessa repeated.

Benny felt a tug on her wrist. "I need a push!" It was Susie, dragging her towards the swing set.

"Okay," said Benny turning to follow Susie.

"You might be good for something," said Nessa. "I do need a lab partner for biology."

Susie tugged harder on her wrist.

"Okay," said Benny again.

"Meet me after school by the quicksand in the wods," said Nessa.

Benny ran after Susie.

When Susie was happily seated in the swing she asked, "Arenít you afraid of the quicksand?"