Once upon a time, when my father was my age, I was three.
I realize this as I pass a banshee couple in the streets. Their young daughter trails behind, comically dragging a bagged loaf of bread.
She is wailing. It is so loud I can smell it.
An unfortunate young woman runs passed, ears and one eye bloodied. She stumbles, smashing into a nearby shawarma stand.
There is more glass, more wailing, more blood.
I am glad I brought my headphones today.
I duck into a side alley and find myself walking straight through a boy of about fifteen. He is naked.
“Ah!” I cry, feeling my own body.
I turn back, the kid is there, a sad look on his face. I slip off my headphones.
“Uh–?” I try, but can’t think of what to say. Instead I hold out my hand and it passes right through the kid’s torso. I back away.
“I’m not a ghost,” he says, reassuring. I nod in response, my voice slowly climbing its way back into my mouth.
“I’m sorry,” I say, finally.
The kid shrugs, he turns to walk away. I frown after him. “Wait!”
“What?” he looks back.
I rub the side of my neck. “Uh, are you alright?”
He shrugs again and sighs, “I suppose I’m always alright.”
I raise my hand again to try and touch him. He frowns at it.
“Could you not?” he asks.
I put my hand down, sheepish. “Sorry, I just–what are you?”
He rolls his eyes. “I’m just a kid.”
“A naked kid who passes straight through people?” I clarify.
He shrugs again. “It was my mother.”
I raise an eyebrow.
He elaborates, “she wished for me to never be harmed. Please, it’s fine, just keep on your way.” He starts heading for the mouth of the alley.
“Wait!” I jog up next to him. “What do you mean wished?”
He gives me a thoughtful look. “If I show you, will you help me?”
I think about it, “why not,” I decide.
He smiles, he walks back through me toward the other end of the alley. I follow. We pass two courtyards before finding a thick metal door.
“Key is in that pipe over there,” he says before walking straight through. I walk to the pipe–find the key.
Through the door is dark. I turn the flashlight on my phone and find a light switch. When I flick it I see the kid standing in the middle of the room. He is looking around, his face ecstatic.
“I haven’t seen this place in months!” he cries.
I look around, it isn’t much. Old furniture, shelves, a few books; something stinks. The kid holds his hand an inch above the couch; he closes his eyes.
“Have you always been this way?” I ask.
He opens his eyes, “yeah,” he says sadly. “Mother said everything can hurt you.”
“Geez,” I mutter, walking further in. “How’d she do it?”
The kid looks to a set of stairs. He smiles, sadly. “I don’t know. She keeps it upstairs. I’ve never been able to climb stairs.”
He looks about to cry. I take a breath.
“Alrighty,” I say, taking the stairs two at a time. There is a switch at the top–light. I choke on a scream. There is only one room, only one bed and only one corpse.
“Everything alright?” the kid calls up to me.
I stare at the woman, at least her eyes are closed.
“No,” I call back, but move forward. The smell is so strong I can feel it wetting my ears. As I move inward I see something else, something on the woman’s chest; a great big rotted fish. It looks up at me. It blinks.
“Hello!” it says. I stumble backwards into the wall. The pressure of it causes me to vomit a little onto the floor. From the bed I hear a grunt. “Gross,” the fish tells me.
I get my bearings and run for the door to the stairs. I get halfway down. The kid is standing at the bottom, looking up, hopeful.
“What was it?” he asks.
I hold my stomach. “A fish, a dead, dirty–eck, talking fish.”
“A magic fish!” the fish calls from the bed, offended. Then adds, “if you put your finger in my mouth I shall grant you a wish!”
I look at the kid, he looks up at me with eyes soul-crushingly hopeful. “Please,” he whispers. I look back the way I came, sigh and then climb back up. I get to the side of the bed.
“Just–” the fish begins but I’ve shoved my pinky finger in its mouth.
“I wish that kid was a normal kid again who can be hurt by stuff!”
There is a still moment, then the fish bites my finger. I pull my hand back, cry out.
I back to the wall.
“What!” I hear before panicked footsteps come crashing up the stairs. I look up to see the kid standing in the doorframe. He looks at me, wide eyed then down at his own feet.
“I’M UPSTAIRS!” he cries. “I’M UPSTAIRS!” he starts to dance, then stops, looking at the bed. “Mother?” he says, taking a step back. I try to call out, but he’s already falling.
Forgetting my pain, I run to the door and look down. The kid is lying motionless at the bottom. I turn back to the fish but all I hear is watery little chuckle.
I wrap my finger in the end of my shirt and leave the way I came.
“Yeah–not ready to be a parent,” I tell the cold afternoon, “not a bit.”