Timmy Fell Down the Well
By M. Frei
“Timmy Stamos fell down the Well.”
Mrs. Lin makes the proclamation at the town meeting as she bursts in, panting. There’s a collective intake of breath, and for a moment, the room is devoid of air.
“It’s about time,” says Mr. Caleb, our town chancellor. He stands behind the podium, surveying us with a look somewhere between a pre-school teacher and a god. “Bit late in the season for it.”
Mom sits pressed against me, her leg jiggling so rapidly it takes my foot up with hers. Everyone has braced for a tough discussion, and Mrs. Lin’s news leaves us with nowhere to put the energy.
“I’m sorry about Timmy. His sacrifice is noted,” Mr. Caleb calls to Mrs. Stamos, who sits with a face like crumpled paper. She looks at her lap and nods in acknowledgment of the applause. At least nobody whistled this year.
“Casting season is open! Revelation is to happen in three days.” With the dramatic declaration, Mr. Caleb limps off stage. Every year, he wishes for a new leg, but the Well never chooses his coin. Mom stands up and catches his eye. Mr. Caleb smiles at us, all teeth, and Mom sits back down until I pull at her sleeve.
December wraps its hands around my throat as we walk out into the brisk air. I can hear the Well churning, a sound like a tide coming to collect.
“Will you Cast tonight?” Marcella Jacobs asks Mom as we stand in line at the diner. Mom’s face tightens. “Oh right. The permit,” Marcella says, her voice twisting over the word. Marcella is on her third husband; she keeps losing them to Wishes.
I pay for our food and carry the bags out of the store while Mom walks behind me, a stringless marionette.
“Stella Lou,” Mom says, tugging her skirt down. “Can you take the food home? I need to check on our permits.” It’s the first words she’s said all night.
“Good luck,” I call, but she gives no indication if she hears me.
We didn’t always need permits. Normally, only Well orphans, kids whose parents got their wishes and abandoned them, required permits. The board says it’s because the Well has a nasty sense of humor, and desperate people make dangerous wishes. Nobody knew what to do with us because Dad left in the middle of spring, months before Casting season.
“I heard you need permits because your Mom would wish for your Dad to die,” the girls at school say.
“Tell your Mom to wish for me.” Liam’s breath is hot and oniony on my neck. His father left three years ago but came back when he blew his Wish for a new liver on more alcohol.
I look away and say nothing, even when Liam pinches my lower back.
Everyone is tense during Casting season.
Two hours later, Mom comes home with the permits. She drops them on the kitchen table and runs to shower. She emerges, cheeks pink from the steam and scrubbing then sits too close and hands over my papers. A smear of dark red lipstick is pressed like a secret in one corner.
I know she wants me to say, “don’t worry, Mom, you can have my wish.” But I don’t. Instead, I hand her a plate, and we eat dinner while watching the news.
“Timmy, a sweet seven-year-old, fell in around 5 p.m., according to Mrs. Lin. Board members found his bike near the scene and returned it to his mother.” The reporter plays some swelling music as Timmy’s name is added to the list of sacrifices. “Now Brenda,” the report continues, “how is Casting weather tomorrow?”
Mom folds her permit into a fan over and over.
Almost everyone else Casts before us. Some days the line winds down the hill, and the air is so full of arching coins you can’t be sure if yours landed. We don’t take chances.
“Here’s a coin,” Mom says, handing me one. I tell her to keep it and find my own at the foot of a tree in our yard. The branches are low and tired, buffeted by wind, and ready for winter. They stab at me as I bend to pick up the coin. We clean our coins and choose markings. I draw Mom’s profile in the same dark red as her lipstick.
“Try not to breathe deeply,” she says as we walk over. This close to Revelation day, the air in town smells like fire. Not quite fire, but sulfur. A smell that catches in your throat and chokes you.
The Well itself stands halfway up a hill as if nobody could be bothered to carry its parts the rest of the way. The guard reads our permits and waves us through. The Randall family is close behind us, but the guard doesn’t stop them, doesn’t trail his eyes up Mrs. Randall’s body, holding his hand just out of reach, so Mrs. Randall needs to lean forward to give him the permit.
We wait until the Randalls toss their coins and leave. Mom takes a few steps away from me, her shoulders shaking. My coin pulses as I watch her. I throw it, a neat arc in the sky.
Revelation day arrives with the embrace of slow drowning.
Only the Jeffords kids are at the Well before us. We chat, sharing sandwiches on the cold ground.
“It’s starting,” the youngest one keeps saying until Mom gives him a candy bar and tells him to shut up.
The town gathers around us. Finally, as the sun sets low and fat, the Well sputters and begins to gurgle in earnest. The Mayor stands up and speaks for a while about how she hopes nobody wished for a car because there are no more parking spots available, but then the gurgling intensifies, and she sits back down.
“Looks like it’ll be a fast year,” Mom whispers. Once, the Well took five hours before spitting out Mayor Gingrich’s coin. He left town the next day, and his wife moved back in with her mother.
The gurgling in the Well picks up again.
Then it stops as suddenly as whiplash.
The pail disintegrates first. Dark royal blue fades to light blue and then to grey until blowing away like ash. The wood handle twists before splintering to the ground. Bricks grow ivy, which wilts and dies. Crumbling from top to bottom, the Well melts rather than breaks. The scent of sulfur gives way to fire as the ground closes up and puckers like a fresh grave.
And, where the Well used to be, lies a small rough-edged burnt coin with a dark red smudge.
About the Author:
M. Frei is currently finishing up a law degree but often procrastinates studying to write or read one more page. Otherwise, she can be found fighting the urge to buy more books or researching travel ideas.
Her Instagram handle is miri_frei.