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Name Your Wish, Grant a Curse

Inspired by a writing prompt.

By andy liliesPublished about a month ago 18 min read
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A bell charmed when He Xin entered.

Low-hanging lights cast a warm amber around the restaurant. He Xin walked over to the menu propped up on a stand while she scanned the bar situated at the back. Besides a lone customer sitting at her own table, the restaurant and even the bar were empty, which was just what He Xin needed. She looked down to flip through the menu.

“Fuck me, are they trying to rob their customers?” He Xin muttered as she scanned, her gut twisting at the thought of spending even more money on food she desperately needed. She’d just lost her job, ran out of government funds for the month, and her car broke down during a long trip back to her family. She weighed her options, cursing silently.

After uselessly looking through several more options, He Xin turned to leave.

“May I help you?” a deep voice behind her asked.

She whirled around, taking in the man who had seemingly materialised at the front of the menu stand. “Oh! Nah,” He Xin huffed an awkward laugh. “No thanks; I was just about to leave.”

The man—an attractive one at that—took in her dishevelled appearance with a concerned gaze and, in a warm voice, asked, “Are you alright?”

“I’m fine, thanks,” He Xin forced out, wondering why this random dude was still talking to her. “I was just thinking of grabbing a bite and then leaving,” she said, stepping back. The man gave her a questioning look.

“You are allowed to sit here for a while. This restaurant allows stragglers and the homeless to stay for the night,” the man mentioned while tilting his head to the wooden wall beside her. He Xin took in the sign above her head that said exactly that.

“A-ah! No worries, dude, I’m just passing by here,” He Xin said while taking another step back. Her stomach growled. Reminded of her hunger, she turned to open the door and step into the freezing night when the man then slowly asked, “... Would you like something to eat?”

She turned to stare wide-eyed at him. “What? It’s free?” He Xin blurted.

The man brightened up at that and said, “We offer it around this time of the month. Cars break down easily here when the road’s rough and the weather's rougher.” He Xin took in that apparently well-known fact while the man continued breezily, “We can still offer you a wide variety of choices based on a special menu. Would you like to come in?” The man stepped to the side and gestured to the restaurant behind him with a wave.

He looked back at her hopefully, a silent question.

The warm atmosphere of the restaurant glowed behind him. He Xin could still feel the frostbite on her toes. The decision was made for her. He Xin shut the door firmly behind her.

“Alright. Thanks. I’ll look at the menu,” He Xin said, following behind the man who started walking to the front of the bar. She sat in one of the seats while the man placed a new menu in front of her, and she scanned her options.

Not bad food choices, and right next to each description, it said, ‘Free.’

She couldn’t believe her luck. “How is this real?” He Xin looked up while asking, and was met with wry amusement. “What? This place seems like a ghost town; I haven’t seen anyone for miles. Sorry that I’m suspicious you give people food for free,” He Xin said defensively.

“Well, we do have a few sponsors who help us, and this restaurant has been established here for a while,” the man said, picking up a few empty glasses and wiping them with a clean cloth. “It’s more of a community contribution. Unlike the city people, we have a heart,” he added cheerily. Then his whole posture relaxed, and he smiled back up at He Xin. “I was in a similar situation, and that’s why I’m here, helping.” The man turned to put the glasses back on the shelves behind him.

He Xin was baffled. There was no way. “Right,” He Xin said slowly, “And do they pay you well here?” The man huffed a laugh, and He Xin watched his shoulders rise and fall. He turned back around to look at her, dark eyes sparkling playfully, and said, “Well enough! although I wish they would give me more free food like in the old days.” He smiled brightly at her again, and He Xin felt herself withdrawing back into her shell. She was suspicious of his confidence. Then, the man nodded to the menu and said, “Take your time picking; I’ll be back with some water.” He turned to leave.

He Xin looked through her options. Once the man was back with a glass of water, she told him her order. He nodded and smiled again, then disappeared back into the kitchen. He Xin dug out her phone from her pocket, swiping to see incoming messages. There was no signal.

“Hardworking fellow, that one,” a gruff voice said behind her.

He Xin turned to look at the lone straggler sitting at one of the round tables. Her hair was grey, and her clothes were old. Her eyes were milky white. “He never stops working, always here at the restaurant that one, busy, busy, busy,” the straggler chimed, her smile showing a few crooked yellow teeth.

Ignoring her, He Xin turned back to look at the shelves before her, scanning the gins and alcohol on the shelves. Weird old lady. He Xin tried to distract herself by continuing to look around.

The whole restaurant seemed very modern and new with a rustic tinge, yet this place had been here for a while. Paint chipped off the sides of the walls, and underneath, the brick walls seemed ancient. The wooden floors creaked. The lights looked newly attached. The man seemed young, maybe mid-20s, and yet she had not seen a soul around here who was either passing by or going on to their 60s. He Xin had doubts.

But more importantly, she wanted to eat and then find a place to rest before continuing her journey in the morning. And she’s dead sure she’s not resting here. That would be owing this restaurant another debt.

When the man returned with her meal, He Xin had a question at the tip of her tongue, but it was promptly forgotten by the smell of roasted beef, mushrooms, and fries. The man placed her simple hamburger meal in front of her, then shot another one of his winning smiles and said, “Enjoy! I added more lettuce to that, so don’t tell my boss.” He winked at her.

He Xin felt her stomach growl again. She picked up the burger with both hands and immediately took a huge bite into it—and then another. She wiped her mouth with a napkin and finished swallowing before saying, “It’s so good, thanks, man.” She gave him an approximation of a smile.

The man leaned against the counter and shrugged, saying, “Like I said, community contribution.” He gave her a mischievous look. “Or maybe I just know how to make good food. I’m pretty skilled with my hands,” he said lightheartedly. Those hands in question were folded, and the man had an elbow propped up against the counter while facing He Xin from the side. His voice was so warm.

Another time, He Xin would have taken the bait. She would have flirted back. But right now, He Xin couldn’t care less. She had places to be, this man talked too much and was too easily entertained, and this place felt weird. Something about it was off. She just wanted to eat this burger and leave before he changed his mind about free food.

While He Xin continued to finish her meal, the man lulled her into a conversation seemingly out of sheer force of will, with him mainly carrying on about the restaurant, when it was built, and how it was maintained. He seemed to know a lot. “I’ve worked in craftsmanship before and dabbled in architecture, so these things interested me about this restaurant,” the man prattled on, and tapped the wooden counter with his finger. “This house holds a lot of memories.”

The lights flickered. The man looked up and sighed, “Ah, calm down, will you? I’ll fix you soon.”

Weird. This whole place was weird. He Xin halted her chewing and asked, “You talk to inanimate things, too?” The half-joke fell flat with her tone, but may it be recorded down that she tried.

The dark-haired man snorted and said, “I’d argue that inanimate things like to talk to me.” He glowered at the offending bulb above him.

He Xin stared at him for a while, then shifted her eyes away while giving an awkward laugh. “Oh, that’s right, why didn’t I think of that?” she muttered. He’s definitely crazy.

The man, undeterred, shot her a grin. “I wouldn’t blame you. This house is old, and I have been here for a long time. I tend to think of this restaurant as a part of me.” He tapped his chin in mock thought. “Or I am a part of it,” he mused.

“Right… That sounds loony to me,” He Xin said flatly.

“You do get a bit loony once you stay around here long enough,” the man easily agreed. “The others just happen to be loony and old. So I’m currently the freshest face in town! Until you came along.” The wink he gave her was conspiratorial this time.

He Xin was starting to be put off by his antics. “And… How old are you?” she asked.

The man fixed her with a lopsided grin. “Why, you want to know my age? This soon? I’m flattered,” he crooned. He Xin stared at him.

“I’m older than I look, but please, don’t be afraid to ask more questions,” the man said, amused.

“Nah, nah, I think I’ll stop,” He Xin smiled while her tone did not convey the same humour. “You don’t seem keen to answer them.” She was definitely getting out of here. The man kept avoiding her question, which was fine, but it was just dodgy.

“No, no! I am very keen,” the man laughed. “It would just be considered rude if I ask for your age back.”

“Yes, sir, it would. You’re not getting anything out of me,” He Xin said, again drawing up her defences.

“Oh? Just for your age? May I ask how you got here then?”

“No, and fuck off?” He Xin said blithely, putting down the rest of her food. Was he making fun of her? She was confused.

The man gave a deep-throated laugh. “So suspicious already,” he mused. “But, in the end, I think I know exactly how you got here,” he said strangely.

He Xin felt off-centred. Wrong-footed. “You don’t know anything about me, and you’re not going to,” she said slowly, her tone turning unsure.

“And why is that?” The man honed in, his face mock serious. He leaned forward— “Have you got something to hide?” he asked. He leaned back and laughed again, with the same strangeness to it.

He Xin felt a twinge in her gut. “Oi, back off. What are you talking about?” she warned.

“Sorry, I’m having lots of fun answering your questions!” the man replied. “It’s only fair if I ask some back.” The man smiled broadly. “You didn’t have to ask them, by the way, but I could tell you wanted to know,” he said, eyes twinkling.

“What?” she could only utter.

“This restaurant! Or this building, for that matter. You found it uncomfortable,” he stated matter-of-factly. “I talked a little about it, but the truth is it has a much deeper history,” the man said while shrugging his shoulders. “Not that you care to know. You just want to know when I’ll stop talking so you can leave.”

He Xin froze. “What the fuck?”

“I can see it from your expression! Surely you knew,” the man said brightly. The lights were dancing in his dark eyes. He leaned forward again, and He Xin jerked back.

“Is it because,” he teased, a smile playing on his lips. “This seems familiar?”

He Xin slowly sat up straight and planted one foot towards the exit. “You are being really fucking weird,” He Xin said.

“We did establish that I am loony,” the man nodded in agreement.

He Xin stood up from her swinging chair, not turning her back to the man. “Fuck off,” He Xin bit out.

The man laughed again, but all the previous humour in it was gone. He folded his arms on the counter, and his eyes tracked He Xin’s movement towards the exit.

“You’re more serious than I remembered you,” he said, almost playfully.

That was enough for a chill to settle beneath He Xin’s spine. She fully turned around and ran to the door. She tried the door handle. It was as solid as stone.

“Then again, it was a long time ago, I don’t expect you to remember,” the man continued, unaffected. He strolled out from behind the counter and leaned against where she was sitting moments ago. “How could I? You’re hardly as old as you were when we first met,” he added.

“You’re a fucking psychopath, and you’ve got the wrong person,” He Xin said harshly, back straining against the doorframe. “Somebody help! Please! I’m stuck!”

“Bold words,” the man said, suddenly serious, “For somebody who never once helped when I said the same thing.” His tone was ominous. He Xin fixed her gaze on him, paralysed.

“You haven’t asked the most important question though,” the man continued, his softer tone belying the anger beneath his words. “Do you know who I am?”

He Xin cast her gaze wildly around the restaurant. There were stairs, but where did they go? The man blocked the kitchen, and besides the chairs, she had no weapon.

She just had to get this door open. She rammed her weight against the door, but again, it refused to budge. She screamed for help again, but no one was coming. “Listen, I don’t know what you’re talking about, but just let me go,” He Xin begged. “My family is waiting for me; they will know when I don’t arrive.”

“Your family doesn’t care, He Xin,” the man stated coldly. He Xin nearly stopped breathing. She could only stare at him.

“It’s just like in the past, isn’t it? They left you out in the cold. You were half-dead when you found my well and made a wish,” the man said, tilting his head to the side.

“I don’t know what the fuck you’re talking about,” He Xin shook her head wildly. She could feel herself starting to cry. A knife point pain seared into her brain.

“It was a stormy winter night, just like this one. You had dragged me out of the well and demanded I take you somewhere warm. Does that ring a bell?” the man asked. His eyes had her locked in place, a predator stalking prey. “Do you really not remember?”

“I swear, you got the wrong person!” she cried desperately. The pain in her skull only grew.

“No, I do not,” the man said easily, utterly indifferent to her distress. “You’re being just as stubborn as the last time.”

Almost out of reach, a distant image began to unfold in her mind’s eye. He Xin shook her head. “You’re fucking crazy,” He Xin sobbed.

“I’m crazy? May I remind you who has memory loss right now?” The man questioned. He stood up straight and slowly started walking towards her. Stalking her. “Should I jog it some more then?” he asked. “You took in a boy— a creature, as you called me— and raised him to become your servant.” His eyes were hard. “You made him do everything you wanted him to do.”

Big dark eyes. A sunny smile. Laughter.

A memory flashed before her eyes.

“What the fuck was that?” He Xin covered her ears and dropped her weight against the door. “Stop it!”

“I did as you wished. I could only do as you wish,” the man continued on. His eyes were dark and bitter, glittering like black ice chips. He stopped in front of He Xin.

“And for a time, I wanted to.”

A winter storm. Dead trees. Snow under frostbitten fingers.

Freezing stone and brackish water. A death wish and a plea. A shivering creature.

“I’ve not done anything like that!” He Xin vehemently denied. “That’s not true!”

“They are,” the man said, unforgiving. “And you did. In a life before. You thought you could run away, but see, promises don’t work that way.” He smiled sharply. “You have to keep them.”

Warm food and a warm fire. Warm hands. A fluttering feeling like hope under the ribs.

Brick by brick. Wooden floors and wind chimes. The creature— no, the boy— working twice as fast and as strong as any adult man. His blooming smile at her praise.

A house for themselves, and then, a business. A bigger loft. Customers and the wafting smell of food.

Greedy, greedy hands and mouths. Lascivious looks and wandering eyes. A chance for enjoyment, and for profit.

He Xin could only watch her life, a past one, flutter by like pages in a book. Snapshots and feelings with attached, unwanted memories. The emotions, especially, lingered.

Her guilt, but overpoweringly, her want.

The boy, a teenager now, with rarer smiles. The bitter sting of disappointment. Mournful eyes and sweet pleas. Empty apologies, followed by grace given.

Grace was always given.

Then a man. Sweet actions and even sweeter words, but shifty eyes. A promise of the world; a warning unheard. Splintered wood and broken glass. Raised voices.

“I really thought you’d changed,” the man looked down at He Xin, who was now trembling against the door. “But you’re as cowardly as you used to be.”

There was nowhere left to hide. “What did you expect me to do? I had nothing! I didn’t know anything!” He Xin shrilled angrily.

“You had me.” The aura around the man grew dark and foreboding. His voice was iron. “And you used me, until I had nothing more to give. Then you trapped me here,” he continued viciously, “while you ran off with an empty promise. How did that go for you? Not well, it seems, judging by your short return.”

“How could I trap you? You’re a fucking wish!” He Xin shot back. “You were not supposed to live on. I thought you’d set yourself free,” she said bitterly.

The man went silent. The lights started flickering, and behind him, He Xin could see the paint and wood chipping off and splintering. The wooden floors groaned, trembled, and cracked. The house was alive with noise. At the back, the lone woman continued to sit, her expression morose.

“Do you really fucking think,” the man said slowly, “I would believe that?” He Xin's stomach dropped. “Your lies? Again? Did you ever truly think about me or care for me? Or were you only ever concerned about what I could do for you?” he bit out, his voice sounding more like a hiss. The walls started to shake. Splinters and plaster fell from all sides. He Xin whimpered against the door.

“I really don’t know! I said I don’t know! Listen,” He Xin cried. “I had no idea what I signed up for, alright?”

“I treated you like— “ the man cut himself off. “You did not follow through with our agreement. You promised,” he said, and it was a threat and a pained accusation all at once.

“I know. I’m sorry,” He Xin could only say. She had no other words to offer, nor excuses to give.

“You left me to die,” he snarled. “And yet, you know? Know what? That for as long as you don’t honour your word, I could not?”

“You could save yourself! You’ve saved me every time, and I’m grateful!” she nodded hysterically. “I swear I didn’t know what would happen to you!”

Everything stopped shaking.

The man’s expression had frozen in place. He Xin dared not shift her eyes away from him. The room was frighteningly still.

“You did not know what would happen to me,” the man finally intoned. “And yet you still left me here. When you knew there was nowhere I could go.”

Without your permission’ went unsaid.

He Xin could not look at him. When she tore her gaze away, the first thing He Xin noticed was all around; there were deep gouges against the peeled walls, with dark stains along the edges. Broken glass, rotting stairs, and smashed pillars littered the floor.

Everywhere she could see— the walls, floors, windows— were marked with frantic scratches and clawing.

It looked like the place was torn up and upturned by a demon.

It looked like a feral animal’s cage.

And the place was ancient.

He Xin did not dare breathe.

The man heaved a terrible sigh. “Answer me,” the man said, and he sounded tired. “What is my name?” he asked, tone final.

And He Xin drew up a blank. She couldn’t think. Whenever she tried to remember, it was as if a cloud fogged her vision, and she came up short of an answer. A name continued to sit at the tip of her tongue. She couldn’t voice it.

She looked up at him, and from the look in his eyes, he knew.

“You know, I did expect this,” the man said detachedly. “But I am still disappointed. You really should be careful of what you wish for.”

“Please,” He Xin started.

“While you’re here, we can finish the agreement,” the man said while smiling, but his eyes were empty. “One that you started, and one I will end. Don’t think for a second that it’s a coincidence you ended up here.”

“Just stop. Wait. Please!” He Xin shouted once more and rammed her whole body weight against the front door. “Please just let me out of here!” she yelled.

“As you wish,” the man said simply.

The door suddenly flew open. He Xin toppled through head first, then her feet slipped. She fell through.

Down, down, down. She screamed as she fell.

It echoed.

The door slowly slipped shut. Then, silence.

The man stood frozen still. His eyes never left the door.

.

.

.

.

“Ah, little one, you gave her a better ending than I thought,” a voice said behind him. He took a breath, then breathed it out. “Other wishes like you wouldn’t have been so merciful.”

“She doesn’t deserve the effort,” the man said, but there was no real bite to his tone. Not anymore. He moved from his place stiltedly and turned to look at the blind woman behind him. He nodded, and his neck felt so stiff when he said, “But I thank you, for your help. For casting that illusion.”

“Ah, it was no bother! We wishes should be helping each other,” the blind woman said while waving him off. “I just thought you were such a poor thing— you went through a lot more than most of us, little one,” she said pointedly.

The man sighed and forcibly relaxed his posture. He ran his fingers through his hair. “It’s all in the past now,” he said after a breath, then huffed a laugh. “I will just think of how to repay you.”

“No need, no need, you silly boy! You’ve done enough for me,” the woman smiled, pointing at her milky eyes. “You’ve already helped with the ones who took these. I’m just repaying my debt.”

The man paused. For the first time in a while, he felt unsure. “Does this mean… I am free to go?” he asked, looking at her with his face tilted as if afraid of the answer.

The woman smiled again and stood up, hobbling over to him. “Ah, how would I know?” she asked, but her tone was humorous. “You’ll just have to walk out the front door and see!” With that, she continued hobbling over to the door and opened it.

The harsh, brilliant snow greeted her at her feet, and she turned to look at him.

“It is your own journey now, little one,” she encouraged, “Why would you obey me?” She turned away from him and hobbled on, disappearing beyond the doorway.

The door slipped back shut.

The lights around him glowed like warm embers. The man suddenly felt fidgety, and he shifted from foot to foot. He turned back around to head up the stairs, then stopped. His shoulders trembled.

He leaned forward, then back. He tapped his shoe against the wooden floors.

Should he pack? Where should he go? Should he stay here first, where it’s safe and known?

Or should he take a look first?

“Oh, fine,” he said harshly.

Then he ran towards the door, his eyes clenching shut at the last moment, his hand reaching out to grab the door handle and wrench the door open.

He stepped outside. And then he opened his eyes.

Dead, dark, beautiful trees and a twinkling night sky greeted him. A crunch sounded beneath his shoes.

He had not felt snow under his feet in a long, long, long time.

He looked out into the cold dead forest, and then beyond, with lights and roads he had never travelled, and a horizon he had yet to explore.

He let out a disbelieving laugh.

Then, a deep-bellied one, and he continued laughing and laughing until he doubled over, genuine delight and finally, finally, relief overtaking him.

Then he gasped a big breath, tears in his eyes and the winter chill biting his cheeks, before slowly standing up straight.

He smiled wobbly, dark eyes crinkling.

This time, it was reminiscent of a boy’s.

Short StoryMysteryMicrofictionHorror
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About the Creator

andy lilies

I'm a young university student who has always loved creative writing, but never finds the time to write it. This is me trying to find time to write it.

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