I’d never won anything before in my life. Well that isn’t exactly true. What I mean is that I’d never won any prize this extraordinary.
I’d been restless. I didn’t realize it until my husband used the word. I wasn’t miserable. But I wasn’t quite content either. I definitely wasn’t happy. I’ve been happy. I know happy. I wasn’t happy. But happiness is a luxury. I was good. No complaints. But I was restless. I wanted to do something more. Or be something more. I wasn’t sure. Or I was sure, but what I wanted wasn’t possible.
Sometimes you have a dream that can’t come true because what you want isn’t a part of reality. Example. Say you’re a ten-year-old girl, and you love unicorns, and your dream in life is to see one, maybe touch one. But at least see one. A real unicorn. Your dream can’t come true, because there is no such thing as a real unicorn. You realize that eventually. You are saddened, or maybe not. Maybe you grow out of it. Maybe you just move on naturally because your longing is diverted toward something that does exist in reality.
Maybe you are pleasantly surprised on a rare occasion when it turns out that an impossible dream was possible, probable, actual. I had once longed for true love. Then I got older and more experienced (not wiser though). I realized that true love was real, but it wasn’t meant to be for everyone. I accepted that it wasn’t meant to be for me. I felt sad, then free. I moved on to other longings. Then I met the man who would become my husband. I resisted…with extreme prejudice. I wasn’t a fool, after all. I wouldn’t be toyed with. Evidence of true love was all around. It was a part of reality. But it wasn’t a part of my reality. Not after I’d given up on it.
But then Jason came along, and my reality changed.
If my reality could change once, maybe it could change again. Maybe not. That’s what made me restless.
Jason, my husband, proposed the typical ideas. Maybe I should take up a sport, volunteer, start a blog, learn how to play piano. Work on my bucket list.
One night, I was aimlessly watching game shows and got caught up in one called “Never Say Never.” I don’t why. I’d never paid much attention to it before. It wasn’t new. It wasn’t old. I just got sucked in. It wasn’t the game itself. It was the prizes that caught my attention. There was the usual cash, cars, and trips, if contestants chose to go that route. Then there was the “Never prize.” The prize the winner never thought he or she could ever have.
The game show prided itself in giving the winning contestants what they really wanted, their deepest desires, their most desperate wishes…their truest dreams. That which they thought they could never have. There was a second reason it was called the Never prize. The winner who chose it was never allowed to reveal what he or she had asked for, at least not in the episode in which they won.
At the end of each show was the most popular segment. The Never prize revelation. The host followed up with a former Never prize winner one year later, so the person could reveal what he or she asked for and speak to whether or not the show had kept its promise. One year was the maximum time the show allowed itself to keep the promise of the prize.
There was the woman who’d been struggling with her weight all her life. She had tried all manner of diets and programs. She’d spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on personal trainers, gyms, retreats, doctors, therapies, hypnosis, you name it. Yet she remained obese. She went on the game show as a last ditch effort. She won. A year later, she came on the show slimmer and fitter than she’d ever been, bragging about how much weight she could bench press, how she didn’t take a single medication, and how her hair was silkier than before. She shared how she’d lost some false friends and solidified relationships with true friends and faithful family, including a husband who was tired of hearing about how gorgeous his wife now was because he’d always thought she was gorgeous, but was grateful now that she was healthy and happy.
Then there was the dancer whose career was cut short because of an injury. She wanted nothing more than to dance again. She won. The show found a doctor who performed an experimental surgery that had a very narrow margin of success. But the surgery was successful along with the post-operative procedures and care that went beyond healing to restoration. She was able to dance again and a year later had joined a troupe.
If those examples weren’t amazing enough, there was the sixteen-year-old girl who wanted to learn how to speak and write in twenty-five languages, including languages that involved learning new characters. She returned a year later. She spoke of looking forward to college and the host joked about how she could be a student by day and a languages professor by night. She demonstrated her understanding of every single one of the languages that were on her list. She wrote in kanji. Sanskrit. Cyrillic.
I marveled over the girl at dinner and decided to apply to be a contestant.
“If I get on and win,” I told my husband, “I’m going to ask for the Never prize.”
“I thought I was your heart’s desire,” Jason said. He was not so much hurt as very obviously elated that I was animated and excited about something again.
“The heart doesn’t desire just one thing, love.”
“What’s your dream prize then?” Jason thought he already knew. I was trying to be an entrepreneur, get a business up and running so I could be my own boss, work for my own company, instead of someone else’s.
He would have thought I was crazy if I told him the truth. Because what I truly longed for was impossible. I couldn’t even say it to myself, much less to him. But I would have to write it down as part of my application.
I kept wondering, if I believed that what I wanted was impossible, why was I so nervous about asking for it?
They chose me. I hadn’t forgotten about it, but I’d pretty much given up on hearing back from the show. Then they contacted me. We made travel arrangements. I came on the show. I thought it was a good challenge. Not too easy. Not too hard. But I hardly remember what happened during the actual show given what happened after I won.
Part of me wondered if I should be practical and ask for the money. We were still saving up to buy a house. We would shave at least five years off our original timeline. It was the responsible thing to do. Take the money. Get a house. Our debts and savings were good, so invest the rest. Jason told me that if I won, I was the one who had the right to decide. He knew I wanted the Never prize.
“Be careful,” he said just before he went off to get seated in the audience. “If you opt for a car or boat and a lump sum of cash, we’ll have to deal with taxes and all kinds of stuff. A prize isn’t always a prize, you know.”
He was right. Even free things bore a cost. But if the show couldn’t give me the prize I wanted, within reason, within agreed upon conditions, and within a year, then I would get the generic prize. It was a win-win situation for me. I imagined myself bringing home a lot of bacon in a year in the form of an oversized check. There was no risk in asking for the Never prize.
Then I won and the host asked me to choose my prize.
“Alan,” I said, addressing the host with my exaggerated game show enthusiasm, “I will take the Never prize.”
The audience reacted. Hoots. Hollers. Fist pumps. Applause. Pleas to reveal what I would ask for. They didn’t know what my prize was. They wouldn’t know until a year had passed. It was driving them nuts. Gratification delayed for an entire year. They couldn’t stand it. They loved it.
The focus shifted. The audience’s need to know would soon be fulfilled, not by me but by another. The spotlight returned to the show host, as he announced that it was time to revisit a former winner.
After the show was over, I was separated from the other contestants. The former winner was backstage and she shot me a thumbs-up and a smile through pressed lips as I was rushed away. I’d hoped to meet her, but I was probably being shuffled away to sign more paperwork assuring the show that I would stay mum about my Never prize.
I shared the elevator with “the lovely Sarita,” the elegant and beautiful co-host who rarely spoke and whose antiquated purpose was to stand beside the generic prizes and dazzle the audience, the contestants, and the host alike with her array of gorgeous outfits and hairstyles.
It was rumored that she was a silent producer on the show. When she directed me off the elevator, I took it that she was also involved in some aspect of the Never prize.
“Congratulations again,” Sarita said as she led me into an octagonal room whose walls were lined with mirrors. There were black velvet ottomans arrayed against the walls. There was a chandelier hung with clear crystals and delicate little electric bulbs in the shapes of candle flames. The ceiling was domed and the dark red carpet felt thick under my sensible shoes. It was a strangely opulent chamber.
I started feeling the butterflies in my stomach. The moment of truth had arrived. I just assumed that my heart’s desire was impossible. I felt a bit disappointed. I had a feeling this was when the show would try to steer me toward a wish it could manage to fulfill, but one that was still extraordinary. I’d even made a short list, and my business was on it.
I breathed out as Sarita walked to the middle of the room and turned toward me.
“What next?” I asked.
Sarita clasped her hands together. Her dark red nail polish gleamed in the hazy lamplight of the chamber.
“There is an additional challenge,” she said in a voice that was deep and smooth like dark chocolate. “To gauge if you are sincere about your heart’s desire.”
I blinked. “What? I don’t understand. I haven’t won yet?”
“You have, but the prize you have won is among the most precious of prizes. I will set three challenges before you. Your responses will dictate how your prize will be granted.”
“I see.” But I didn’t see. I didn’t understand what she meant. My head was spinning. “Wait, what is happening?”
Sarita turned on her black-and-white oxford heels. She gestured to a darkened doorway I hadn’t noticed before. It stood between two mirrors. “You will pass through that door and the challenge will begin.”
“Was I supposed to—I didn’t know about this.”
“Do you wish to decline and opt for the default prize?”
“Then you must complete this challenge. It won’t take long. And there is no studio audience. I will observe and assess your results.”
I got a hold of myself. I had momentarily flashed back to my young self, the one who obeyed and sought to please. But I had learned over time that there were situations in which one had to question and stand one’s ground. Sarita’s declaration of an additional challenge had a bait-and-switch feel to it. She was trying to put one over on me somehow. Or…was that the challenge? Was I supposed to go along with it? Or was I supposed to fight her on it? I needed more information.
I pointed to the doorway. “What’s in there?”
“Three scenarios will unfold. One after the other. Do what you judge to be best. You may hear me intervene if you need help or guidance. Or you may not. It depends. If you feel overwhelmed, you can leave the scenario and forfeit the prize. The door will always be behind you.”
I frowned. “I won the game fair and square. You confirmed that I won. But you’re not going to give me my prize unless I face another challenge.”
“That isn’t fair.”
“Life isn’t fair.”
“No, but the game should be.”
“The game is a part of life.”
“None of the other Never prize winners mentioned this extra challenge when they came back.”
“We ask them not to. They have so far complied of their own volition. If you get your prize and return next year, you will be free to speak of it. I hope you won’t. But I won’t stop or penalize you if you do.”
“Every prize we give comes with a burden. Every wish we grant bears its own responsibility. What you ask of us, well, for one thing we will need to discuss specifics. And we will need to make sure that you are prepared to carry both the burden and the responsibility. For everyone’s sake, including your own.”
I knew some of the general conditions of the Never prize. You could ask for anything so long as it didn’t involve hurting any living thing, including yourself. You couldn’t ask for a prize on behalf of another. So there was no wishing to end war or hunger. The rules didn’t say, but I assumed that one couldn’t ask for superhuman powers like flight, invisibility, telepathy, the stuff of fiction. I assumed because I’d never seen any winner return to the show demonstrating such powers. Though…one might call a sixteen-year-old girl’s ability to speak, write in, and fully understand twenty-five different languages a superhuman ability.
“Is what I’m asking for even possible? Can I know that much before I decide to walk through that door?”
Sarita gave a serene smile. “Yes. It is possible.”
My heart leapt and my gut dropped all at the same time. I huffed out a breath.
“It’s safe,” Sarita said. “I will not let you come to harm. But it will not be easy, because what you ask of us is not easy. It is your choice.”
I walked through the door and into darkness. After feeling a flash of wooziness, my eyes adjusted to the darkness and a scene appeared. I was on a platform. There were train tracks to either side. In front of me, the platform tapered off and the tracks on either side of me merged into one. I heard the whistle of an approaching train. I turned to my left. There were six people there. Not on the platform. They were on the track, and they were held there somehow. They were trying to move, but they couldn’t. Six people. I noted a man in a business suit, an old lady dressed in a red raincoat, a little boy holding his mother’s hand. I heard crying. To my right. There was a bundle on the track to the right. A powder-blue bundle and a little hand popped up from the bundle.
The situation was familiar. It was from a psychology test or something. I couldn’t remember the source, but I remembered the scenario. A train was approaching. It would hit a group of people on the track. There was a lever nearby that would divert the train to another track. Anyone asked what they would do in that scenario would, of course, divert the train. But there was an alternate scenario with a terrible twist. The other track had a baby on it. One life for several. But that life was a baby. I couldn’t remember, nor did I care what either choice said about the person making the choice. I knew what I was seeing wasn’t real. It couldn’t be. It was a challenge.
“Sarita,” I called out. “Please tell me this isn’t real.”
There was no answer, but I already knew it wasn’t real. It just felt real. I glanced to the left and there was the lever that would divert the train. I had an idea then. I had to act quickly before the train arrived. I would divert the train, then jump down and fetch the baby before the train arrived. Maybe I’d die, but at least I would die knowing I tried to save everyone. I pulled the lever and stepped forward and that’s when I found that my hand was restrained. I looked down and saw that my right hand was chained to a nearby post. I could reach the lever, but that was all. I glanced around, trying to see if there was a way to slow the train in time for the conductor to see and stop. I pushed the lever so that the train would go to my left again. If I could find some way to slow the train, the six people would be easier for the conductor to see than the baby. The train came closer. I saw it now. It was barreling relentlessly toward me. But it wasn’t me it would strike. I was desperate. I couldn’t think. I couldn’t see a logical solution. I closed my eyes, but opened them again when all I heard was the crying of the baby and the screams of the people.
I thought of my prize. If I had it, I would have, could have, saved everyone. I imagined my shackle breaking free. I imagined the baby levitating safely into my arms as the train whizzed by. I imagined jumping down to free the people who were still stuck on the track before another train arrived. But I couldn’t do any of those things. I held my breath as the people on the track were struck. I blinked. All was dark and silent.
There was light again. The floor was concrete. I raised both my hands and saw that they were free of restraints. Ahead of me, there was someone lying on the floor. Jason. My husband was lying on the ground. Above him stood a man holding a knife covered in blood. A pool of blood had formed under Jason. His shirt was soaked through. He closed his eyes. His hands, which were clutching his stomach, fell away. I noticed then that by my feet there was a gun and a cell phone. The man with the knife looked up. He saw me and ran away. I rushed to Jason and fell to my knees. His blood started to soak through my pants. I wanted to hold him, but I was afraid to touch him. I didn’t know if he was still alive. I checked for a pulse, but I couldn’t tell if I’d found one. I couldn’t find it. Then I found it.
“Jason,” I called, but I could only manage a weak whisper.
I couldn’t tell where he’d been stabbed. I couldn’t help to staunch the wounds. I grabbed the cell phone and dialed.
Everything went dark again. In the darkness, I knelt and bawled. I cried out. I knew it wasn’t real, but it was cruel. Jason had been in the audience. I didn’t know for sure if he was safe and sound.
She didn’t answer.
“Sarita! I give up! Please, I just want to see him.”
“He’s all right,” a disembodied voice said. It was Sarita. “There is only one more challenge and you will be reunited with him. Keep going.”
I knew I’d already lost. I hadn’t figured out how to save everyone from the train, how to save Jason. I just wanted to leave. I would take the path of least resistance and just let whatever happened in the next scenario happen. I had no choice. Or rather, I’d made the wrong choice.
I was in a hospital ward full of children. Very sick and badly injured children. Some were missing limbs. Some were wafer-thin and had caps covering heads that were bald from chemotherapy I guessed. Wheelchairs. Feeding tubes. Monitors. The kids were cheerful and bright-eyed mostly. The ward was splashed with color from poster-painted pictures. The kids were happy to see me for some reason.
There were a few kids who weren’t mobile enough to get out of their beds. I moved toward them and noted that there were no nurses, doctors, or orderlies around.
One of the bedridden children started seizing. I froze. I couldn’t take it anymore. Suddenly, I heard a voice, not disembodied. It was in my ear, like in an earpiece. I thought it must be Sarita, but it didn’t sound like her.
Lay your hand on her head. You can stop this.
I was scared to touch the seizing girl. I called for help. But no one answered. No one came. I stepped forward and lay both hands on the girl’s head. The seizing immediately slowed. Her shoulders twitched again, gently, once, twice. Then it stopped.
Don’t let go. You can heal her.
I didn’t even know what was wrong with her. But I felt some energy draining out of me, weaving, mending, building, creating with the help of the girl’s own body. The girl rolled her gaze toward me, looked me in the eye. Her eyes were blue, dark blue, and their expression changed from tired and distant to alert and present. At last, I felt the energy ebbing and I pulled my hands away. That little girl took a deep breath and sat straight up in bed. She had a look of triumph on her face. She chuckled and thanked me, offering her hand. I shook it. It was strong, that handshake.
I felt strong too. My tears had dried. I took a deep breath and moved on to a girl who said she’d lost her limbs in an accident. I lay my hands on the girl’s limbs just above the stumps. I watched them grow. She squealed and giggled, struggling to stay still, claiming it tickled. When I was done, I felt drained and woozy. But I was also exhilarated. The children gathered round me, reaching to me. I lay my hands on two of them at the same time. But nothing happened. It didn’t work. I shook my head noting my observation.
“Patience,” I said to myself. I lay my hand on one girl’s cheek. The cap on the girl’s head shifted and fell off as a mass of bright auburn curls sprouted from her head and spilled over her shoulders. Her pale cheeks filled with a blush of color.
Overwhelmed, I started crying again, but these were tears of triumph and joy. A child wearing sunglasses wrapped his hand around the elbow of a friend, who led him to me.
“Who am I to judge?” I muttered to myself. “Being blind or missing limbs doesn’t make a person inferior. Who am I change them? But isn’t it better to have all your senses? Isn’t it better to see and hear? Isn’t that what he’s asking for?”
The boy stood before me. I removed his sunglasses and covered his eyes with my palms. When I moved my hands away, he blinked against the bright lights overhead. He glanced around the room at all his friends. He gaped and he looked up at me, his expression victorious.
That’s enough. It was the voice in my ear again.
“I’m not done yet. There are three more of them.”
You’re draining the life out of yourself.
“I’ll get it back.”
But as I was healing the last of the kids, my vision faded. My ears began to ring. The ward felt stuffy all of a sudden. I felt hot, so hot.
Everything went black.
I felt an intermittent waft of air hitting me. I opened my eyes. Sarita was hovering over me with a peacock feather fan. I sat up.
“Easy,” she said. “You overexerted yourself.”
I felt cool and calm, if a little drained.
“Weren’t you supposed to keep me safe?” I asked, noting I was back in the octagonal room, lying on a couch I hadn’t noticed before.
“You are safe.”
“Your husband is waiting just outside. I’ll let him in once we discuss the results of your challenge.”
“I know the results.”
“After what you just put me through, if you told me I had won, I would have chosen to go home empty-handed anyway. But I failed after all, didn’t I? Except the last one. I made the wrong choice in the first challenge. I should have sacrificed the baby. Not knowing who any of them were. Save six lives.”
“Both choices were wrong. For both choices led to untimely death. Death undeserved.”
“But there was no other choice.”
“If any decent person was given another choice, the choice to save everyone on the tracks and everyone in the train, that person would take that choice every single time.”
“Of course. So why didn’t you?”
I hesitated. “How? I didn’t know it was possible.”
“That’s your problem.”
“The world has limitations. That’s just how it is.”
“It does. But those limitations can change. Those limitations depend on many variables.”
This was a trick. It had to be a trick disguised as a lesson, a nasty trick using kids and my husband to scare me away because I had asked for too much. “There must be limits to what you can do,” I said.
“Of course there are.”
She had claimed she could grant me what I asked for, but I had failed her challenge, so it didn’t matter now. “I failed,” I said, “because I declared that I wanted to give up.”
“But you didn’t give up.”
“I had no choice. I couldn’t find the door.”
“You knew it was always behind you. I had told you so.”
I raised my brows. I had actually forgotten all about that. “So…I didn’t fail? I can still claim my prize?”
“You can. And if you do, I’ll explain why I judged you worthy of it among other things.”
“You’ll give it to me? Magic.”
“What’s the catch? What are the strings?”
“Your acceptance of your victory is the catch. Your fear is the string, the string that binds you, holds you back from claiming what’s already yours. If you don’t think you deserve your prize, we won’t give it to you. And of course, your particular prize requires work and you will have to do that work. But we will assure that you succeed.”
“All we see on the show are the reasonable requests,” I said. “The people who want to lose weight, or pursue their dream careers. Even the so-called ‘miraculous’ prizes, like people in wheelchairs who want to walk again, or that blind man who wanted to see again, even their prizes are reasonable in this day and age of advanced technology.”
“There have been many who’ve asked for superhuman abilities.”
“And you weren’t able to deliver.”
“Oh, we delivered.”
“Then why hasn’t the world heard about it?”
“All such prizes were either returned or the winner declined to come back to the show.”
“As I said before, a prize can be a burden, if you are not truly prepared to receive what you are asking for. Unwanted attention, for example, would follow from displays of extraordinary abilities. Those who can bear the burden of such abilities tend not to want attention.”
“Okay, then, let’s go.” I sat up straight and braced myself. “I want magical powers.”
“Can you be more specific?”
“How do you define ‘magic?’”
I nodded. “So that’s where the real catch is. You make people define their desire so specifically that a lot of people probably doubt themselves and change it, or back away from what they really, really want, is that it?”
“It’s true that many don’t really think about what they want. They spout their desires as if they know, but when pressed, they don’t really know. It is dangerous to wish for something when you don’t really understand what it is you are wishing for.”
“So you want to know what? How I’ll wield these powers? Through a totem, like a wand? Or through my body? What specific powers I want to have? The power to manipulate matter? What kind of matter?” I thought about the challenges. “Healing? Levitation?” I felt that surge of exhilaration, just a tickle’s worth, at the memory of healing all those kids. I couldn’t believe I was actually taking it seriously. “Wait, what about a year from now, if I return?”
“The world will see you return to the show and perform wonders.”
“But they’ll think it’s fake. Sleight of hand. That kind of thing.”
“So you’ll try to talk me out of returning, won’t you? No, you’ll talk me out of asking for this. You’ll talk me into saying what I really want is fabulous vacations for life. I wanted to travel badly when I was young. Not so much now.”
Sarita sighed. She raised the glass of water that was sitting on the stand beside the couch.
“Look at the water in this glass. Focus your attention and make it rise up out of the glass.”
I stared at her. “Is this another challenge?”
“Please, do it.”
I did as she asked. I felt a familiar pulling and weaving of energies. It was different from what I’d felt with the children. It was easier, almost effortless. The water burst up and out from the glass, spraying evenly in all directions.
Sarita delicately wiped her face with the back of her hand and smiled.
My eyes widened. “Was that real?”
“When you got through all the challenges, you were granted your prize.”
“Wait, what about the kids? Was that real?”
“No, everything that happened beyond that door was an illusion. What just happened now was not.”
“How could I tell?”
“You have much to learn. And by asking for this prize, you have pledged to learn it.”
I closed my eyes and exhaled as a wave of dizziness hit me.
“The wielding of magic takes energy,” Sarita said, peering at me, “in the same way that running a machine takes energy. That energy would come from your body, unless you learn to channel it from another source.”
“Now you tell me?”
“I gave you that information to demonstrate to you why you must know what you are asking for. Had I given you the ability to cast magic with no other guidance, and you went about casting it, then it would have drained your life energy.”
“If I don’t learn, what happens to my powers?”
“You’ll still have them, but we’ll lock them. To make sure you don’t hurt yourself or others.”
“Sounds fair enough. But then again, if someone asked for a car and you gave them a car, you wouldn’t require that they have a license, would you?”
“Actually, we would. But you don’t have to have it ahead of time. We provide the lessons and training. Lessons and training actually add value to your prize.”
“Yes, it does.” I frowned, still wondering what the catch was.
“You still think there’s a catch? That I’ll trick you?”
I sighed. “I don’t know what to think right now. Who are you, even?”
“You have a longer way to go than many of our winners,” Sarita said. “Magic is your deepest longing. But you have never really tried to pursue it.”
“Because I didn’t know it was real.”
“Excuses. When that woman asked for her prize to be that she attained her goal weight, she knew exactly what she was asking for, because she had spent a lifetime attempting to win that prize in many, many other ways. The same can be said for our other winners. They had been chasing their respective prizes all their lives. They had failed for many different reasons. Lack of money. Lack of resources. Lack of time. Lack of expertise. The list goes on. But the one thing they succeeded in was believing that the thing they wanted was real.”
“That’s where I’ll have to begin.”
“Yes, you have magic right now. Magical powers, just like you wanted. But if you don’t believe you have them, what’s the use of having them?” Sarita set down the now empty glass and crossed her arms. “If you don’t know how to define and focus what you want to do, how can you do it?”
I thought about the challenges. They weren’t just challenges. They were the first lessons. Even the way they were presented, as illusions, was a lesson. I had just met Sarita, but I had the feeling it was just the kind of thing she would do. I had a feeling I already knew the answer to who she was to me.
“Still want your prize?” she asked. “The prize you thought you could never have?”
I had never won a prize so extraordinary. I wasn’t yet worthy of it. I rose up off that couch. I steadied my legs and I steadied my gaze. I answered the woman who as of that moment became my teacher.
Copyright © 2016 Nila L. Patel