“What you got over there?”
He caressed the top of the cardboard box, which was painted black, the sides of it glistening with silver stars. “You wouldn’t be interested in this.” He ran his hands through his auburn hair, which matched the stubble on his chin, visible only in the right light. Johnny was always trying to teach me things. He said it would help when I got older, like when I got to high school or something, like him.
“Come on, tell me.” I stared at the wind-up red handle attached to the side of the box, which he steadily tapped with his fingers.
He turned his head, carefully squinting down each side of the empty street. But no one looked back; we were surrounded by the same houses with the same patchy front yards. He motioned me closer. In my ear he whispered, “Right here, old buddy, old pal, I got myself my very own God Machine.”
Before he continued, he licked his lips, forcing the small hairs under his chin to sway back and forth. “You can’t tell nobody about this, not even her.” He pointed inside.
My mother was in the kitchen window, hanging over the sink. She always seemed to be washing dishes. She once asked me why Johnny didn’t hang out with kids his own age. I told her Johnny had plenty of friends. I didn’t like lying to her. I knew Johnny was weird, but he chose to hang out with me and that counted for something. As I looked back at his thin face I told him, “I’m not going to tell her.”
I crossed my heart and met his extended pinky until we were intertwined, moving our hands up and down. “So is it old?”
With a gleam in his eyes he said, “It’s ancient, goes back to the Greeks some say.”
“What’s it do?”
“What do you mean?” He chuckled. “It does everything, anything.”
“Yeah right.” I shook my head, but Johnny simply stared back. I found myself stepping closer, but he put his hand on my chest. “Come on, I want to turn it.”
Wagging his finger at me, he said, “You even know what you’re asking for, little buddy?” I shoved him back. I could feel my face turning red. His voice softened. “Whoa, I’m sorry.” He sounded scared, which made me feel bad. “I know you’re not little.”
“Listen, once you turn that handle, there’s no going back. You take responsibility.”
I nudged him aside. It looked so simple, but there was something about it, even in the sunlight it seemed to be a beacon calling me forward.
“It’s dangerous!” he yelled. Then we heard a ringing bell. My heart dropped before it raced. It was her, Beth Swanson, flying down the sidewalk on that fluorescent pink bike, her blue eyes focused on the path ahead, her golden hair flowing with the wind; perfection.
Her silver bell glared in both our faces as she zoomed by. She smiled slightly as I slowly raised my hand to wave as if frozen in time. I stomped on the ground. And just like that, she was gone.
I exhaled. Johnny stood in front of the machine, looking away, his mouth squirming as he tried to contain his laughter. “Come on, get out of the way,” I begged.
He controlled his face and let out his own sigh like he understood. “There’s no turning back.” Johnny hesitated. “You know you’ll do this again. So will I, I guess.” He turned to look at the coming sunset on the horizon. “Over and over.”
He grinned. “When you turn it you got to focus on the thing you want, otherwise, it’ll go haywire.” I shifted back. The thing I wanted? I wanted not to freeze in front of Beth, so for just once she could see who really I was. I wanted Mom to stop doing dishes and for Dad to come home. I wanted to play with Johnny. I wanted an endless supply of wishes. But I knew better than to ask for that. They never let you get away with that one. School was starting in a week. But what if summer never ended? Then I could figure out how to get Beth to like me. I could play with Johnny. And I could help Mom more.
Johnny moved aside. The sun shone directly on his face, making it too bright to look at, as if it could be anyone’s face.
I cranked the handle of the God Machine, turning the brick red knob round and round. The smooth gears chimed together in one easy effortless motion. Something was happening in there and I knew it would work. It just had to. “All right, that’s enough,” Johnny said as he tapped my shoulder.
I opened my eyes, even though I didn’t remember closing them. I studied the landscape. Mom was still doing the dishes. Johnny still grinned and Beth’s ringing bell echoed in the distance. The row of yellow Bruins spinners by the mailbox whirled in the breeze. “Nothing happened.”
Johnny shrugged. “God works in mysterious ways.”
“What does that mean?”
He picked up the God Machine, holding it in his arms as he walked away. Over the shouts of my mother calling me in for dinner I heard him say, “It means this is a cardboard box, regardless of what anyone tells you.” He stopped and looked back at me. His eyes were peaceful in the evening light. “It means we never get what we want.”
Ajit Dhillon is a writer living Philadelphia. He plans to attend an MFA program in Fiction in the fall. You can follow him on Twitter at Ajit_Dhillon.