The wet sand felt good on his toes as he trundled along the shoreline lost in his own thoughts. He’d left his car back about a mile or so, took off his shoes, rolled up his pants legs, and had just started walking. The sun was low in the west and it was starting to get nippy as he hunched his shoulders against the offshore breeze that was creating a few whitecaps. As the shore break washed up around his legs, he didn’t care. He had bigger problems than wet pants, problems he just couldn’t seem to shake off. Maybe a walk on the beach would help.
It was right about then that the bottle hit his right shin, spun about, and floated inland a few feet, stopping as the water around it receded. He looked down to see if he was bleeding, and he was, a bit. Stooping down to wipe a trace of blood away from the tiny scratch, he caught something in his peripheral vision, something in the bottle that was out of place. He turned and saw what appeared to be a face in the bottle looking out at him, its mouth moving in apparent speech.
He stood up abruptly, looked around and seeing no one else, approached the bottle with caution. The closer he got, the clearer the face in the bottle was, and the clearer it was that it was trying to say something. Taking a deep breath, he knelt down, picked up the bottle, stared at the face, and then held the bottle up to his ear. Sure enough, he could hear a muffled voice. It was saying something like, ‘Open up the bottle! I will grant you one wish if you do!’
He looked around again and found that he was still all alone on the beach. It would be so easy to just throw the bottle back into the sea and continue his lonely walk, but something told him that he should take the chance. He carefully removed the cork from the bottle, waited, and then heard a voice, ‘Oh, god, thank you. I wasn’t sure what language you spoke, so I took a chance on English. I think the baseball cap gave you away. I’m Jerome, by the way. Who are you?’
“Bob. I hear you but I don’t see you. Is this a dream or something?
“No, Bob. It’s very real. You, my friend, are now in a position to have one wish granted. There are some restrictions, of course, but that’s the deal I made with you. And you held up your end. So, interested?” Jerome explained.
Bob breathed in deeply and asked, “One wish, huh?”
“Yep. But before we go any further, let me explain the restrictions. There are four of them. So, you ready, Bob?” Jerome continued.
“Sure. Do I need to write these down or something?”
“No, they’re pretty simple, Bob. Here goes. First, once your wish has been granted, you need to be careful about how you live your life going forward. You have to live a good life.”
“Uh, what happens if I slip up and fall off the wagon, Jerome? I’ve got sort of a track record with that sort of thing going back quite a way. I’m just saying, Jerome. It’s a real possibility,” Bob confessed.
Jerome wasted no time in answering, “We’ll get back to that question in a few minutes, Bob.”
“Okay, I understand. What’s the next restriction, Jerome?” Bob wondered, lighting his last cigarette.
“Your wish can consist of only four words, Bob.”
“So, if I said, ‘good health for life’, that would work?”
“That’s right, Bob. That would be just four words and you would get it.”
“Okay, I understand that restriction, too, Jerome. What’s the next one?”
“Your wish cannot last beyond your natural life, Bob. So, once you’re gone, whatever you received through your wish disappears also. Got that, Bob?” Jerome inquired.
“Ah, so what you’re telling me is that I can’t ask to live for more than my allotted time as that apparently is baked into the cake. So if I die lying on a stack of money, that money vanishes and none of my heirs benefit from anything I had during my life. That’s it, Jerome?”
“Okay, what’s restriction number four?”
“You cannot dictate what happens to you after you die, Bob. This sort of blends in with restriction number one. So, you can’t ask to go to Heaven, but if you live a good and moral life, that might happen just as a matter of course, Bob.”
Bob took a puff on his cigarette, exhaled, and concluded, “So, I got all these restrictions to keep in mind when I’m making my wish and afterwards. Now, here’s my questions again. What if I mess up on any one of these restrictions, Jerome? What happens then?”
Jerome’s voice changed slightly in tone as he answered, “Then, Bob, you and I change places. I become the old you, walking forlornly on a beach, and you take my place inside this bottle, floating around until somebody picks you up on a lonely beach somewhere.”
Bob responded with a low grumble as he flicked his cigarette butt into the water’s edge. “Hmmm. Lots to think about, Jerome.”
“Yes, Bob, lots to think about. I’ll give you a minute to decide. Then, you either tell me your wish or I disappear back into the bottle and you continue your life as if you never met me.”
Bob checked his watch, nodded his head, and started to think. After about a minute, he said, “Okay, Jerome. I’ve got my wish. You ready?”
“Yes, Bob, go ahead. I’m listening.”
“Uh, one question first, Jerome. Is ‘wheelbarrowful’ one, two, or three words?”
“‘Wheelbarrowful’ is one word, Bob.”
“Then my wish is for a ‘wheelbarrow full of love’.” As he waited for his wish to be fulfilled, Bob thought he heard Jerome sigh a few times. “Is there a problem, Jerome?” Bob asked, checking his watch. “It’s starting to get cold out here and I have to get back to feed my dog.”
“I’m thinking, Bob, I’m thinking, okay. Just give me a minute or two, will you, please?” came back the voice, a bit perturbed.
“Sure, sure, Jerome, take your time. But look, if it’s too hard a wish to fulfill, I can come up with a simpler one. Really, it’s no big deal,” Bob explained, trying to move things along.
“A deal’s a deal, Bob. I’m no welcher, okay. It’s just that your wish is so different from any of the others we’ve fulfilled that I’ve had to kick your request upstairs and I’m waiting for their reply. Be patient, please.” Jerome sighed a few more times, then excitedly responded, “Okay, Bob, they’ve approved your wish. Go back to your car and your ‘wheelbarrowful of love’ will be waiting for you.”
“Gee, Jerome, thanks for all of this. I really appreciate it. Hope this doesn’t cause any problems between you and the guys upstairs.”
“It’s nothing, Bob. Now, just pop the cork back in the bottle and give it a heave back into the surf, okay? And, Bob, have a great life, will you?”
“Will do, Jerome,” Bob replied, “You, too.” And with that, he sent the corked bottle flying out into the surf far and headed back towards his car and his ‘wheelbarrowful of love’.
His back now to the wind, Bob felt his spirits lift as if a great weight had been removed from his shoulders. He wasn’t hunched over anymore nor lost in his own thoughts. Instead, he was walking upright, a broad smile on his face and a spring in his step. He didn’t feel trapped by his problems, but instead looked ahead with a newly found freedom.
As he approached his car, he saw that it was still in the askance position he’d left it, taking up three parking spots. But there weren’t any other cars around, so he didn’t see the problem. There was, of course, no ‘wheelbarrowful of love’ or anything like that, Bob realized, still smiling broadly.
It always took a long walk on the beach for his meds to kick in, and today was no exception. Perhaps he took one pill too many today. Maybe that would explain Jerome and the rest of it. But anyway, who knew what a 'wheelbarrowful of love' would even look like, Bob mused, as he got into his car.
But that still didn’t explain the tiny scratch on his shin.