Means of Escape
J. David Harper
Margie found the bottle in the wall of an old house when she hammered through the drywall to make room for a new door. She looked around for her brother, but he was sawing off plywood in the garage. She snatched up the bottle and stuffed it in her lunchbox beneath a cold baloney sandwich and a half-eaten bag of chips.
As soon as she snapped the lid back in place Tommy came around the corner, still holding the saw.
“You taking lunch early?”
“Nah,” Margie said, scooting the lunchbox back into the corner with her foot. “Just getting a drink of water. Not sure what the pipes are like in this place.”
Tommy looked her over for a minute.
“You alright? You look like you crapped on the fine china.”
Margie picked up her hammer and turned back to the wall. “Yeah, fine. You just snuck up is all.”
Tommy wiped his head with the back of his arm. “I was thinking I’d head over to the DLD for lunch, since it’s close. You want anything if I go?”
“Nah, I got a good sandwich in there. Some chips. You know.”
“Ok,” Tommy nodded. “Well, I guess this place ain’t gonna remodel itself.” He looked at her a second more, shrugged, and headed back to the garage.
Margie picked up her lunchbox and peeked beneath the sandwich. The bottle shined up at her. She snapped the lunchbox closed and set it between her and the wall. Anyone who wanted to touch it would have to go through her. And her hammer.
Romy knew the bottle had been found. He stretched out of bed with a yawn. The bottle was being moved around. The motion wasn’t pronounced inside the bottle, but he could sense it the way a bird senses a storm three days out.
He wondered how long it had been since his bottle was last found. How long since he last granted a wish. Time was different inside. They called it liquid time, because inside the bottle time slipped through your fingers like oil.
He donned his pantaloons, puffy shirt, and driving cap. He thought about his boots, but they always made his feet sweat.
Margie’s time had come. Her brother could go crap in a lake. He was such a smug little jerk.
He had always been smug. Since they were kids. Always the best at everything. Always mama’s favorite. Always got the bigger slice of cake, always got the praise of mama and the preacher.
Not Margie. Always getting slapped for spilling things or knocking things over or dragging her feet when they walked through Dillon’s grocery store to buy the week’s rations. Always getting half of what Tommy did at suppertime.
“You’re too fat,” mama said at almost every meal. “That’s why you’re always running into things and knocking them over. Your butt is too big.”
Tommy would snicker. Her da, bless him, would come to her aid. “You shut your cackling, boy,” he’d say. And to mama, “She ain’t too much of nothing. She just is how she is. Ain’t nothing wrong with being what you are.”
“It is if what you are is fat and clumsy.”
Tommy would snicker again. Margie’s lip would start to tremble. “Can I go now?”
“Ain’t you gonna eat the rest of your food, fatty fatty fatso?” her brother would say and laugh.
Then she’d run to her room. Soon enough her da would come in with some food and tell her it was ok and he loved her and they’d hug and he’d read her fairy tales until bedtime.
Then one day da wasn’t home for supper. And there wasn’t any food on the table. Mama sat like a stone in her old rocker. Tommy hid away in his room.
“Mama, when’s dinner?”
Mama didn’t say anything. Just sat there and creaked the old chair back and forth while she stared at the air.
“Your da is dead,” she said. She kept rocking and didn’t look up. “He got caught in a cave-in down to the mine. Was working a double shift to make enough money to feed your fat face.”
Margie ran out of the house and didn’t see Mama or Tommy again until the funeral. Mama didn’t even acknowledge her.
Tommy came and stood next to her at the rear of the small crowd. The preacher droned about grace and mercy and the sanctification of the believer. He never mentioned her da’s name.
“Jeez, Margie. Where you been?”
“Been staying in town. With Jenn’s folks.”
“Well. I guess that’s ok then. They got a little more money. They can afford to feed – “
“To feed what? My fat face?” she yelled. The preacher stopped and everyone turned to look. Poor little Margie. Fat and clumsy and now she’s lost her da. So stupid even her own mama can’t bear to have her around. Has to live with a family ain’t even her own.
She started crying in great sobs and heaves, and ran down the slope of the cemetery to the nearby woods.
She didn’t see Tommy again until she was twenty-three. He came out to the county jail where she was serving time for shoplifting and violating her probation.
“Mama died,” was all he said.
She nodded and went back to her cell.
The day she got out of jail for the third time, Tommy was there to pick her up. “I can walk.”
“Yeah,” he said. “I see you can. I’m just trying to do something nice for you.”
“I don’t need you to be nice to me, Tommy. I need you to leave me alone.”
“Yeah, because you’re doing great on your own. Jeez, Margie. You go to jail one more time they probably ain’t gonna let you out.”
“I like it there, anyway,” she said. “Three squares and all that crap.”
“What if I had a better way?”
She snorted a laugh. “Oh man, Tommy. Are you about to tell me you got religion? Are you about to tell me to open my heart to Jesus? Where was Jesus when mama was slapping me around and calling me a fat moron and you were laughing at me? Huh? Where was Jesus when I about starved myself to death just trying to get mama to love me and you to leave me alone?”
Tommy opened the passenger door of his truck. “I wasn’t gonna tell you nothing about Jesus. I was gonna offer you a job.”
Well hoopty-friggin’-do. Her big brother was a business man. A right regular entrepreneur. And now he was gonna swoop down from heaven on high and save her soul from the devil of eternal poverty. Smug.
But what else was she going to do?
She drove east through the countryside with the sun setting behind her. The bottle sat buckled in the passenger seat. She had seen bottles like this before. On that stupid TV show where stupid people brought stupid stuff they found in grandma’s attic and some old fart with thin glasses on the end of his nose would tell them they could get a million dollars at some fancy auction outfit.
And how old was that house they were remodeling? Must be at least a hundred and fifty. That meant the bottle was an antique. All she had to do was shine it up a little and find some place where they knew about old bottles. Maybe down in Sanderson or Tuberville. Come to shove she’d go all the way to Hartford. She hated cities but this would be worth it. This bottle was money. A lot of money. She could feel it in her boots.
She looked over and patted it. “You’re gonna get me out of this, you hear me?”
A mile later she pulled off the road onto a dirt drive and parked in front of her trailer. The engine shuddered and died in a plume of blue smoke. Her nostrils flared from the scent of burning motor oil. She lifted her shirt to wipe the sweat from her face, picked up the bottle, and went inside.
She moved the stack of porno magazines off the chair and sat opposite the battered, cat-stained couch with the bottle and an old rag. She spat on the rag and started cleaning the bottle from the stem, working her way down towards the bulbous middle.
The bottle began to hum, and Romy knew it was time. The hum became a rumble. The air glowed a green that wasn’t green and a thin mist formed around him.
Margie could heard the hum and felt the bottle begin to tremble. She let out a yelp and threw it onto the sofa. The bottle glowed a color she couldn’t place as a mist seeped out and twisted around her.
Within minutes she was deep in heavy haze that pressed on her from all sides.
A shadowy form emerged in the mist. Margie yelped and fell backwards onto a cracked saucer smeared with the cat’s leftover breakfast. The figure stepped out of the mist. She crawled backwards, screaming.
Romy raised his hands. “I’m not here to harm you,” he said. “Only to grant a wish.”
Margie moved backwards and pressed herself up against a wall. The mist was gone, and she saw the figure for what it was. No taller than three feet. Dressed like a child’s idea of a pirate in green pantaloons and a puffy shirt. A tartan driving cap rested on its head. Ten gnarled toes sprang out of hairy feet.
Romy looked around the room. Dust glittered in the waning light that filtered through the west-facing window. The sun touched the horizon. Night was upon them.
The room looked like no one had lived in it for decades. Corners piled high with trash bags, weary furniture covered in tape, floors shimmered with layers of grease. Scattered beer cans accented a leaning stack of pornographic magazines.
“What is your wish?” Romy asked. “Would you like me to tidy up all of … ” he gave the room a sweeping gesture. “Whatever this place is?”
Margie squinted. Then her nostrils flared and she charged the little man with the pantaloons and hairy feet. Before Romy could react she had him by the throat. “This is my house, that’s what it is!”
“Ok,” Romy choked. “Would you like me to tidy up?”
Margie whirled, throwing him across the room where he landed in a crumpled heap. She charged again, glistening with sweat and oily skin. Her hair cast serpentine shadows on the wall. She smelled faintly of grass and beer and urine. She pressed a booted foot on his throat. “You calling me dirty? Huh? You saying I’m trash?”
“No, no!” Romy sputtered. He raised his hands in a gesture of surrender. “I am only here to grant a wish. What is your wish?”
The woman’s hard face cracked into a smile. Somehow the smile made her more frightening.
“What I want,” she said, “Is to be rich. Filthy rich.”
Romy looked her up and down. “Well you don’t need me for the filthy part.”
The foot came off his throat and connected hard with the side of his face. He saw a brief flash of light and tasted blood. Margie glowered down on him. “Nobody talks to me like that! Not anymore!”
She kicked him again and he scrambled across the floor, holding up his hands in self-defense.
“I can’t grant your wish if I’m dead!”
Margie stalked across the room and pressed her foot back on his throat. “So you’re gonna do it?” she asked. “You’re gonna make me rich?”
“Yes, yes!” he choked. “I’m going to make you very rich.”
The sun had long gone down when Romy finished cleaning the trailer. The trash was gone, along with the pornographic magazines. Furniture was set aright and repaired, dishes were shining in the plastic drying rack, and the floors were swept and mopped and disinfected.
He went into the kitchen and retrieved a newly washed bowl and spoon. At the stove he ladled himself some stew and then sat at the small folding table. He blew a little air over his first spoonful to cool it, then took a bite.
“Hmmm,” he grimaced. “I’ll need to add some water. I’ve made her far too rich.”