No one ever suspected the Fool. Henry danced his way through life. His attention span was no longer than a beach chicken in a parking lot, chasing discarded fries and empty hamburger wrappers. Henry ignored the naysayers and the gossip. He spent a month singing for coins in the subway of a big city but discovered he was tone deaf. Next he slung coffee and donuts at a diner like it was his mission to over sugar and over caffeinate the population. That lasted six weeks. Henry bounced from apartment to couch to cheap motel. He could never seem to cross that finish line over into the land of success and stability.
One day he was on an elliptical at the local gym and was staring at the words spray painted on the wall. It was the mantra of that gym. ‘Good things come to those who sweat.’ It was so ridiculous that Henry got off the elliptical and walked out the front door with his gym bag slung over his shoulder. He was done. Henry walked all day until he was free of the city. As he walked, a small white dog joined his parade of one. The little dog would yap and leap up at Henry’s gym bag. Henry kept walking and ignored the little creature. The lights of the city began to fade behind him and he realized he had never truly seen the stars. He continued North and was astounded by the dazzling lights that hung in the inky sky. When he got tired, he curled up in the pine trees beside the road. The dog slept behind his legs and Henry slept fitfully with only his gym bag as a pillow.
The morning dawned brightly. In the daylight he realized he was sleeping in someone’s backyard. He wasn’t free of civilization yet. Onwards he went. He stopped at a roadside diner inside an abandoned subway car. How it wound up in the woods of the suburbs was unknown. The sign read: Emerald Diner. Even the name made no sense as the subway car was painted bright yellow. The bell over the door chimed as Henry walked in. The waitress in a blue gingham uniform immediately yelled, ‘You can’t have that dog in here!’. Henry looked down, surprised that the small mutt had followed him. He gently nudged the dog out the door and quickly shut it without letting the pup back in. The dog sat down and gave a sad puppy stare through the glass door.
The waitress led Henry to a booth by the window. He slid into the worn orange pleather seats. The waitress walked to the back of the diner before he could ask for a menu. She spoke quietly to a man sitting half hidden in a booth. Then she went through the swinging door to the kitchen. Henry was looking around at the interior. Each booth was a different faded color and shape as if they had been collected from twenty different diners. The walls were mismatched tile. It was by far the ugliest and most intriguing little diner he had ever sat in. The waitress dropped a platter in front of him loaded with eggs, bacon, and homefries. A carafe of coffee was placed next to the upside down gray coffee cup and saucer. Henry looked at her in surprise. “I didn’t order this.”
She sighed. “It’s a gift from the Wizard, but there’s a catch. You have to speak with him for five minutes after you’ve finished eating.”
Henry looked around. The only other person in the diner was the man in the last booth. “Who is the Wizard?”
The waitress smiled and Henry was unsettled by the whiteness of her teeth. “That’s a bigger question than I am willing to answer. He is sitting in the last booth over there. If you refuse this gift, he will trouble you no more.”
Henry’s mouth began to water at the smell of the bacon. A conversation was a small price to pay for filling his stomach without emptying his wallet. “I accept.” The waitress nodded and walked over to the Wizard. She spoke quietly for a moment and then disappeared through the swinging door to the kitchen. Henry flipped his coffee cup over and grabbed the carafe. He gasped when the handle pinched his hand. There was a small figure eight shape under his thumb where the handle pinched him. He picked it up more carefully and poured a cup of coffee. Then he started eating. The bacon was crispy and the homefries were perfectly seasoned. Henry left a piece of bacon and a scoop of eggs for the dog that had followed him. He wiped his mouth on a napkin and stood up with the plate in his hand. The dog still sat outside the door. Henry stepped outside with the plate and put it far enough from the door that the dog stayed with the plate instead of trying to slip inside.
The Wizard looked up at Henry when he slid into the opposite side of the booth. Henry assessed the Wizard. He wore a rumpled pinstriped three piece suit that was straight out of an old gangster movie. His hair was brown speckled with gray. He wore a pair of 80’s oversized glasses. The Wizard cleared his throat. “You done checking me out? Your five minutes starts now.” Henry just nodded. There was something mesmerizing about the wizard’s voice. “I don’t even need the full five minutes but here goes. Are you done fooling around?”
Henry looked at him. “Fooling around?”
The Wizard sighed. “Yeah. You’ve bounced from job to job and slept your way through every friends couch. You’re out of options. Are you done foolin’?”
Henry felt a finger of fear stroke his spine. How did this old man know this about him? He hadn’t said a word to the waitress about himself. He was miles from the city and everyone he knew. “How do you know that?”
The Wizard laughed and Henry stared at his too white teeth. “You think I got a name like the Wizard because I’m a fool like you?” He didn’t wait for Henry to respond. “I have a task for you. I’m gonna warn you, it’s dangerous. I’ve asked a hundred people over the years. Only two people took me up on it. Only one of them survived. Neither of them finished the task.”
Henry tried to scramble out of his seat but he found that his legs had gone numb somehow. The Wizard laughed and put an hourglass on the table. “You are going anywhere til this sand runs out. That was the bargain.”
“Survived? How did they die? What task?”
The Wizard smiled and now Henry had a whole hand full of fear fingers stroking his spine. He shivered. The Wizard nodded. “That fear is a good thing. That fear might help you survive. If you choose to take my challenge.”
Henry shook his head. “I want to leave. Let me go. Please.”
The Wizard shook his head sadly. “She’s always telling me I should start with the reward to hook more champions. That my sales pitch is upside down.” The Wizard shrugged. “Oh well. Do you want to know what you’ll get if you complete this task?”
Henry sighed. “Not particularly, but I get the feeling you are going to tell me anyways.”
The Wizard smiled. “Smart boy. You’ll get a wish. Anything your heart desires.”
Henry stopped fidgeting and went still. “A wish. You expect me to believe you can grant wishes from this shitty little diner in the middle of nowhere?”
The Wizard laughed. “No. I don’t grant wishes. But you’ll earn one if you complete the task. Are you in?”
Henry looked at the hourglass on the table. There wasn’t much sand left in the top. He could be free soon. But he was also done. Done with floating through life with no direction. Maybe a well phrased wish could finally give him what he needed to find success. He stared at the grains of sand as they fell in a steady stream. Soon there were only a few left in the top. The Wizard spoke. “When the last grain of sand falls I need your answer. Not before.”
Henry couldn’t believe the answer that waited on his lips. He was going to do this crazy thing and probably get killed. The last grain of sand hit the bottom of the hourglass and he spoke. “I will do it.”
The Wizard smiled and unrolled the silverware sitting next to him. He grabbed the steak knife and handed it to Henry. “You’ll need this. Go through the doors to the kitchen and kill what’s on the other side.”
Henry stared at him in shock. “Wait. Kill? What???”