If I allowed color anywhere in my world it would have been in this sliver of a space—a galley kitchen in a tiny one-bedroom apartment full of beige carpet, white walls and white banker boxes. Perhaps it would have been safe to let the Honeycrisp apples tucked in the refrigerator crisper sit on the kitchen counter cradled in a sunlight yellow bowl.
But, no. It wasn’t. Color was too much a reminder of home—climbing red roses twisting around a white column, the gold flicker of a lightening bug at dusk, the bright orange of mashed sweet potatoes on a white Corelle plate rimmed with blue cornflowers.
Color? Color was a temptation I could not afford.
Yet when I came into the kitchen that evening, a yellow bag of cheese puffs slumped against a green two-liter bottle of ginger ale on my kitchen countertop in my very white, very beige, very brown life. They looked like I’d just taken them out of my roller bag after grocery shopping and hadn’t put the food away yet.
The only problem was I didn’t know where they had come from.
They hadn’t been there that morning when I’d eaten my breakfast of oatmeal, tuna and half a grapefruit. Nor were they there when I’d paused my tablet earlier during my Saturday afternoon binge watching session to grab a glass a water. They had shown up, however, when, after watching Max and Kyle on Living Single finally kiss, I said to my empty apartment, “I wish I had some cheese puffs and ginger ale.”
It was a wish. Just something you say to the universe. You don’t expect the universe to answer back.
So I walked into my kitchen, expecting to settle for a snack of an apple and peanut butter. What I found instead was exactly what I’d wished for. When I say exactly, I mean exactly.
The cheese puffs were my favorite. They weren’t the day-glo orange kind I’d eaten as a kid. No. These were light yellow, more like the color of parmesan cheese. I could eat them without leaving orange fingerprints as evidence.
Their sudden appearance didn’t concern me much, though. You could find the puffs in any Rite Aid, CVS or even Whole Foods. If they’d been sitting on my counter, I’d guess it was some Freeman cousin who’d magicked me a present on their way through Maryland headed to Philly. My love of cheese puffs was legendary in my family. Presents from cousins, while unexpected, were fine. They did not come with expectations. They did not come with strings.
The ginger ale, however, was a problem.
The two-liter bottle of ginger ale was Vernors. I’d developed a taste for it when I lived in Detroit. Vernors had a kick to it. I had to hold my breath before sipping it or else I’d end up coughing. Vernors was not something you could find in a Rite Aid, a CVS or a Whole Foods. If you wanted Vernors in Maryland, you had to look for it.
While my love of cheese puffs in my family may have been legendary, there was only one person who knew about my love for that particular beverage. And she was at the age where she didn’t like to leave town.
I hovered over the snacks for a closer look, my forearms heavy on the kitchen counter. The lines of the bag were blurred, like they were slightly out of phase. So, it was magic. No surprise there. The question was only what kind.
I reached out to grab the bag when a beige hand appeared out of the air and smacked mine away.
“Opening the gift before I arrived? I taught you better than that.”
I turned. A cloud of glitter rained down from the ceiling in front of the small dining area outside of the kitchen. Usually it only contained a brown card table that doubled as my kitchen table and desk. Now it was obscured by falling cobalt blue and silver glitter to reveal the shape of the woman I used to spend Saturday afternoons with, back when I jumped into raked leaf piles in the fall. My nose tickled with the telltale whiff of something burning. There it was – the smell of family magic, the smell of home.
Once the glitter stopped, there stood my Gramma Ida dressed in head-to-toe cobalt blue, wearing a suit whose skirt went clear down to her ankles, almost touching the matching flat shoes she wore. She fancied herself as Glinda The Good Witch, Miss Lena Horne edition, which explained why, when she did travel, she did so in a glitzy style.
She opened her arms wide. “Come on in.”
I went inside her open arms. I felt her bones too easily so I loosened my hug. It wasn’t the strong one that used to greet me on Saturday mornings, but a cautious one. The light scent of gardenias met me. At least that was the same no matter how other things changed.
I stepped away from her. My t-shirt and shorts were dotted with glitter. I didn’t mind.
“Well,” she said, her blue eyes opening wide, “How did you like my present?”
It made sense. The time frame between the arrival of the snacks and her arrival were too close together. “You’re responsible for the snacks?”
“That’s what you chose? Miranda!”
She looked around me to the galley kitchen. A gasp escaped her mouth when she caught sight of my favorite snacks on the kitchen counter. “Of all the things you could have had, you chose fake food and sugar water?”
“What do you mean, ‘of all the things?’”
“Did you get my letter?”
“You sent a letter? You. Sent a letter. Through the mail?”
“No.” She waved toward the computer. “Through that contraption.”
“You sent an email?” Telepathy was more her thing. More natural. Don’t get me wrong: Gramma was a Freeman through and through; hence my not being surprised that she could just pop in when she wanted. She was old enough to be in that power sweet spot. Right before you lose your power, it doesn’t matter what line of the family you were born into; you’re able to do it all: infuse emotions into objects like a Hart and read minds and speak into them like a Path or create matter from the formless like a Freeman.
In Gramma’s case, great power came with preferring to talk telepathically rather than with a telephone. That way she knew she could get you. No ignore button in your mind.
“Come on, Gramma. Email is not your standard operating procedure.”
“Well, I am seeking to honor your wishes of not using magic, no matter how misguided they are.” She took in a deep breath like the kind Judy Jacobs takes before wailing into Days of Elijah, the type of gospel song that makes folk stop thinking about what meat and three spot would be the least crowded after service and pay attention. Then she exhaled. She always was theatrical. “I know you young people want to go your own way, do your own thing and I am trying to respect that.”
She sounded so put upon. It was too much. “Respect that with magical snacks?”
“You’re abstaining from magic. Not me. Besides, I thought maybe you would make an exception considering you just had an important birthday—”
“Thirty-five is an important birthday?” No one had extra special birthdays for thirty-five. Oh, I take that back. Thirty-five is the birthday when your doctor tells you all the wonderful tests you’re going to have to take if you ever decide to have children. Joy.
“Well,” Gramma said. “You can pull the email up now.” She waved her hand like a queen granting the request of a subject.
“Can’t you just tell me what it said or whip it up or something?”
I dislodged a speck of silver glitter that had landed on my arm. “The glitter was a bit much.”
“Miranda Elizabeth,” she said in the same tone that took me back to getting caught as a kid eating the last piece of strawberry pie.
There was no arguing with The Voice.
I grabbed my phone and searched for emails received a week before my birthday. There it was—from Junebug57.
Why was she using that name? I shook my head as I opened it up.
Good morning Granddaughter,
In honor of your illustrious 35th birthday, I am granting you three wishes.
Wait. Three wishes? I gripped my phone harder. Who had Gramma been meeting up with? I kept reading.
You may use these wishes any way you want. When they’re spoken aloud I will be summoned so I can witness your joy. Best birthday evah!
Evah? Maybe I needed to give one of the cousins a ring and have them start monitoring her Internet usage.
I put down the phone on the beige counter.
“Well?” she said.
“You gave me three wishes. Can you even do that?”
“There are limits, but I just wanted you to have something nice. It doesn’t seem that you ever do anything nice for yourself, Miranda. So, this is a way that you have to do something nice for yourself. I do wish you’d been more careful with your first wish.”
“I didn’t know it was a wish.”
She waved her hand with a flourish again. “No matter.” No. Matter. “You have two more. What would you like? To go to Paris? The perfect job? No, it’s never the job; it’s always the supervisor. Money? You’re good with money. You can have anything you want.”
Anything I want? Anything I want. An apartment with a bigger kitchen would be nice. This one was so small, I had to stand to the side when I opened the oven door and no sunlight to speak of. But why stop there? Forget an apartment. Maybe a house? No, Miranda. No. I took a step back, deeper into the sanitized kitchen. “I want you to reverse this thing.”
“I can’t do that.”
“Use it for one of your other grandchildren.”
“I thought you would be happy about this. But then, I don’t know what you like these days since you haven’t been home much.”
Gramma Ida was a pro when it came to guilt. Good thing I was a pro when it came to resistance. “I was just in South Carolina a couple of months ago.”
“You didn’t say much. You just sat in a corner. Your mother is worried.”
“Did she say anything?”
“She doesn’t have to. I’m a mother; I can tell. Anyone can see how you’re living. You’re not exactly happy here, are you, Randy?”
My heart softened at the nickname, but I needed to stay strong.
“I’m fine,” I said. “I said that I could make it on my own and so I will.” And then I thought of something. “Is there an expiration date on these wishes?”
“No. And they have to be for something you want in your heart. Hmm, strange how you wasted the first one.” She squinted, taking a closer look at the two-liter bottle. “Is that Vernors? Are you sick?” Her forehead wrinkled in worry. “But you don’t need cheese puffs if you’re having stomach problems. You’ll need saltines and then go and lay down.” She looked into the living room. “Too bad there’s no colors to pull energy from, not even a quilt from one of your Hart cousins.” She sighed. “Really, Miranda. You should be more careful with your health.”
“I’m not sick and we’re getting off topic. Are these wishes a way of getting me to dip my wand in the magical pond?”
“There’s no reason why you’re acting like this,” she said. Then she looked up and off to the left. “Oh. I’ve got to go. Cousin Thigpen said she’d ding me when lunch was served for the Women’s Day Luncheon. It’s a buffet even though I suggested plated. But no one listens to me. If I wait too long, only the green salad will be left.” She grabbed my hands. Hers were wrinkled and thin from age. I could almost feel her bones, which reminded me that I wouldn’t have her around for long. “Think about it,” she said.
I did what any good, dutiful granddaughter would do: I lied. “I’ll think about it, Gramma.”
She pressed her lips to my cheek, leaving a bit of her behind—a smudge of coral sunset lipstick along with a sprinkle of Beige #2 powder and the fading scent of gardenias. I was left with a mess of glitter in my kitchen and something I wanted, but I definitely didn’t want.
I thought about sweeping the mess up for a moment until I remembered that I’d have glitter trailing from the broom bristles as I swept my kitchen for the next month. I grabbed my cordless vac.
The cheese puffs and ginger ale sat on the counter staring at me as I vacuumed.
Gramma Ida meant well. She did. And everyone had been good about letting me have my way. That’s what the family called my saying no to magic, by the way: “Let Miranda have her way.”
I looked down after my first sweep of the vac. There were still some silver glitter specks that I’d have to get up on my own, probably on my hands and knees with a wet paper towel. I promised myself that I would make do. I would make do because I wasn’t going to convert my frustration into a breeze to whip the glitter up from the floor and dump it into the trashcan.
I took out the bag from the front of the little vacuum and started emptying it in the trash. It wasn’t like I was a telepath. I had a choice of whether or not to use my magic and my choice was not to use it.
As for the snacks, they were going to have to go. Eating them would mean admitting that forgoing magic had been a mistake.
I dumped the lovely, fizzy goodness down the drain before I could stop myself with rationalizations. Then I stuffed the empty 2-liter bottle and cheese puffs package in the garbage. Apparently, I had to be careful making wishes for the rest of my life. I would find a way around that. Later.
I tied the twist tie, hauled the bag from the garbage can and dumped the garbage in the giant green dumpster out back. That took care of that. It had been an interesting day, but with that taken care of, now was time to find out if Max and Kyle were finally going to get together or if the kiss was just a one-off thing.
Just before I settled into my recliner, something told me to check the kitchen. There on my kitchen counter sat a two-liter bottle Vernors ginger ale and a bag cheese puffs. The bottle was full. The bag of cheese puffs didn’t even have a wrinkle.
This was not going to be as easy as I thought.
Magic is an addiction. You can lean on it too many times. I realize that we all have to take advantage of whatever assets we have. I understand. But I wanted to see if I could make it on my own. I needed to see it. When/if I was ready to go back to practicing, I wanted it to be intentional, not because I lacked self-control.
Maybe the snacks could leave the same way they arrived … I closed my eyes to help with my focus and set my intention. I took a deep breath and blew it out between pursed lips. “I wish they would go away. The cheese puffs and ginger ale.” I opened my eyes. They stayed.
I could swear the cartoon character on the bag even winked at me. What in the world had gone wrong? I had said it with my heart. I really wanted them to go away …
Well. Just because I didn’t want them didn’t mean that someone else couldn’t have them. A plan started forming as I paced the length of my kitchen. If you don’t know magic exists, then you wouldn’t be able to see the hazy aura around them. That would work, right? Yes.
I could take them to work, except everyone in the office seemed to be on a perpetual diet.
Hmmm. In the lobby of my apartment building was a brown table that was used for folks who wanted to give stuff away. I could drop them off there. Items there rarely lasted a morning, let alone an afternoon.
I stopped right in front of the tempting snacks. Cheese puffs and ginger ale were going down!
The next morning, I dumped the ginger ale and cheese puffs on the table on my way out to work. I went on with my day, thinking that it was done.
But I was tempted.
I started thinking about them while I analyzed data, making sure that performance standards actually had some semblance to reality. Double checking numbers and methodologies held its own magic even if it wasn’t the fireball-throwing, wall-building magic my family had survived on.
And that right there was the problem. We chose safety. We chose hiding. It’s something I understood, but which bothered me. Our ancestors looked at the rules, looked at the world, and decided that they couldn’t take it on. So they built walls.
What did we really owe a people who would probably call us witches, who would probably reject us? But we didn’t even try.
My roommate in college said something off-handedly that I never forgot. She said that all Black families have Klan stories—stories where someone was killed by the Klan, raped by the Klan or run off by the Klan. Except my family doesn’t have a Klan story. We sat behind our walls and let the world burn, only coming out when the world was safe. Well, safer.
I wanted to see if I could hack it—if I could survive the world without using the little something in my back pocket. I needed to know.
I saw the items through the clear double doors of my apartment building even before I entered. They were in the same place as I had left them. Same hazy aura as ever. I buzzed myself in and walked up to the table.
I picked the cheese puffs bag up. They crunched under my hand.
The door buzzed. It was Miss May, who lived on the second floor. She was the oldest person in the building. I dropped the cheese puffs and went to open the door for her. The thing was heavy and I was at least thirty years younger than her.
Miss May walked in, hunched over. She looked like she was a skeleton covered with skin. It made me think of my own grandmother. What the heck was she doing here by herself?
That really wasn’t any of my business, but maybe I could help her a little bit.
“Miss May,” I said. “Do you want those cheese puffs and soda? I can carry them to your apartment.”
She looked right at me. “What are you talking about, dear?”
“The cheese puffs and soda on the table.” I moved so she could see them.
“Where?” she asked, squinting.
I went over and picked up the package, making sure that she could hear it crinkling. The sound would work even if her eyesight wasn’t that good.
She shook her head. “I still can’t see them. Probably my eyes, dear.”
I looked back at the cheese puffs. I didn’t know the rules about wishes, obviously, but maybe it was time to find some things out.
I let my magically ill-gotten gains hang out on my counter and just looked at them while I dug into my breakfast oatmeal—another thing that would probably freak my family out if they knew. It was grits at home.
The snacks were just too accessible. I set them up on top of the refrigerator. I couldn’t see them directly, but they were still out in the open. I could have put them in one of the cabinets, tucked away and out of sight, but that wouldn’t do. That wouldn’t do at all. It was another way of admitting defeat.
The phone call that ended my cheese puffs and ginger ale standoff came just after I had gotten home from work two weeks later. Gramma Ida’s name and number came up. I knew it had to be important if she was actually using a telephone.
“Hi, Gramma,” I said dumping my work tote and kicking off my shoes to put them on the mat next to the door. I slipped into my brown home slippers.
“You haven’t used your second wish.”
“No, ma’am,” I said and headed to the kitchen to grab some water. I needed to remember to pack a water bottle in my lunch bag. Metro was notorious for “unscheduled track maintenance,” which meant long waits in hot train stations.
“Why not?” she asked.
“You know how I feel about magic.”
“Yes. I know about you denying your heritage for no reason at all. I am aware of your foolishness but I had hoped that you would have gotten over it by now.”
It was an old argument and not one that I really wanted to get into. I opened the brown cabinet and took down my white, unbreakable mug.
She must not have liked the silence. “I thought you would really like it. I mean, everyone goes through this phase, but I thought you would at least come home some time. It’s good to come back home where folks can love on you.”
“I was just in South Carolina,” I said, reaching into the freezer to dump ice cubes in my mug.
“You used to come home all the time.”
“I’m old, Gramma,” I said. “Adult. Grown. Coming home every month is not normal. Not what adults do. That’s for college kids who straddle between adulthood and need their parents to foot the bill for the plane ticket. Folks who still figuring out what they are or who they want to be. Old enough for doctors to be giving me warnings about my biological clock. It’s time to stand on my own.”
Sometimes she just didn’t understand that things weren’t like the old days where the family lived on the compound and all went to the same church, where the big thing was to get enough land that was paid for, free and clear, and a garden out back. Times were changing. You didn’t need to stay close to be protected, though with the news coverage these days I didn’t blame her one bit.
I had a group text list that I sent out every time some wacko decided that they were going to try to attack the White House. It went out whether I was in DC or not because I knew my phone would blow up if I didn’t send it.
I turned on the faucet, letting it fill the cup. “I mean, I’m an adult now.”
Gramma sighed. She sighed again.
I started to wonder if this was really about three wishes. Yes, she had power, and that power was something that only grew as she grew older and had fewer and fewer people to spend it on.
Yes, there were the young ones to teach, but since Auntie Lila had been the first one to move away, we had formed enclaves in the cities where we settled—Atlanta, Detroit, Philly. And that was another reason for moving here. I knew in the back of my mind that it was one more place where my little cousins would be able to move to. The comment would be made—“Well, you know Randy used to live there,” and that would be it. It’s how I got to go to college in Atlanta. Thank you, Auntie Lila.
But there was a frail tone to her voice that I didn’t like. I was used to her being strong, to being able to start a fire with the snap of her fingers. This new version of her was one I didn’t know.
“I’ll come back home as soon as I can, Gramma. You probably won’t have time for me; you have so many people there already.”
“I would be there if you would just use your second wish.”
“Bye, Gramma,” I said.
“Good-bye Miranda Elizabeth Freeman.”
I clicked off the phone and downed my glass of water. It was cold and not like the hard water back home that left rust stains in the tub if you didn’t clean on a regular basis.
But something she had said bothered me. She used my full name. The full name was for trouble, but she hadn’t said it like that. She pronounced every vowel as if she was testing out the words in her mouth, as if they were unfamiliar in a way. Almost like a prayer. Almost like saying good-bye. But that couldn’t be it. Gramma’s life was full. She had grandchildren and my parents and her church friends. This was the woman who’d taken belly dancing classes last year—yet something didn’t feel right.
I thought of Miss May with her hunched back and frail hands. One more phone call wouldn’t hurt.
My mother answered on the first ring. “What’s wrong?”
I guess I didn’t call as much as I thought I did. “Nothing, Ma,” I said.
“You just usually text.”
“Well, yeah, but this was going to be too long for a text.”
“Can I call you back later? I’m just on my way to pick up Sammie from his swim lessons.” Sammie was my eleven-year-old nephew. Gramma insisted everyone in our family learn how to swim. Looks like it was Sammie’s turn.
“It’s just a minute. How’s Gramma?”
“Momma?” she asked. In the background I heard the sound of a car door slamming. “She’s doing fine. As much as she always is. Why?”
“I just … did you know she gave me three wishes?”
“I guess she was really serious about giving you your inheritance while she was here.”
“She said that?”
“You know Gramma. She’s a bit of a drama queen.”
“I’ve got to go.”
“All right, Ma,” I said. I clicked off the phone, staring at it. I knew a way I could see Gramma really easy. Quickly.
I rung the doorbell. Normally I would not have done that, ring the doorbell. I would have just bounced in like when I was a kid and when we lived just over the hill. It seemed like we were running in and out of each other’s houses all the time back then, but one scholarship to Spelman and I was gone. I learned about the world and never looked back. Atlanta-Detroit-Philly-DC.
Standing there on the white porch, I reached out to the red roses climbing against the left column. The rose’s petals felt like velvet. I leaned closer to inhale its sweet smell.
I let it go, then turned to survey the land while I waited for an answer. Driving up in the rental car, I thought how picturesque it was – flat green fields dotted with ranch homes. When I was a kid, the train ran right alongside this road. Now the tracks had been pulled up.
This was the place people drive to to ride bikes on the weekend because of lack of traffic. It was the place I would always know how to find my way back to even if I didn’t have a GPS snug on the dashboard of the rented Civic.
The rattle of a chain lock drew me back to the door. I saw Gramma through the sheer curtains, her movements slow but confident. No suit today—just a white v-necked blouse and navy pull-on polyester pants. She looked so small; smaller than what I remembered.
“What are you doing here?” she said.
“Just needed to check on you,” I said. I lifted the white plastic bag. “I brought snacks.”
“Cheese puffs and ginger ale?”
“Are there are any other snacks? Oh, yeah and The Wiz.”
She opened the door. “You didn’t have to do this for me.”
I stepped inside—hardwood floors and lace doilies on every possible surface. My nose perked up at the faint smell of bacon left over from that morning’s breakfast.
“How did you get here?” she asked. “I thought you didn’t like magic.”
“Oh, there’s the magic of Delta.” I nodded to my bag, the luggage sticker with the airport code GSP still attached. “I’ve got my own stash in the bag that I picked up at the Piggly Wiggly.”
“You didn’t get stopped at the airport with all that liquid?”
“They didn’t see it.”
I followed her into the kitchen. She grabbed the crystal bowl, opened the bag and poured the cheese puffs in. She held it as she settled on the blue-flowered sofa still encased with plastic. I ripped open my own bag of chips—Golden Flake Sweet Heat BBQ Chips.
“You’re not going to eat this?”
“It’s just a phase,” she said, popping a cheese puff in her mouth.
“Yes, ma’am,” I said. I took out the DVD, pushed it into the player and then got back into the sofa.
The music swelled as a spinning planet Earth filled the screen, then settled into the sound of a lonely harmonica before the orchestrations.
“What about the other two wishes?” she asked.
“I guess you’re just going to have to stick around to see how I use them.”
“Miss Lena Horne’s on the screen, Gramma.”
And yes, she actually stopped talking because Gramma Ida loved The Wiz and no one, and I mean no one, talks when Miss Lena Horne is on the screen.
Irette Y. Patterson is a native of Atlanta, GA. Her short fiction has been published in Strange Horizons, FIYAH, People of Color Take Over Fantastic Stories of the Imagination and the website of The Saturday Evening Post. You can find her online at iretteypatterson.com or on Twitter at @Irette.