The stars twinkled and sang softly as they fell in the far-off distance, painting streaks of light in the midnight sky. People young and old from all around the world have a fascination with the great beyond, finding meaning in constellations, and even wishing upon falling stars—a rather beautiful thought for what is actually tiny bits of rocks and dust in space falling into this planet’s atmosphere, going out in a fiery blaze. Humans are fascinating.
I’ve worked at the Wish Upon a Star organization for as long as I can remember. I can’t recall any other life I’ve had; no one here can. This is our life. We operate discreetly, helping wayward souls with their desires ever since humans first came up with the idea of wishing upon the stars. Some would say we are gods. We don’t consider ourselves as such, but we’re honored that humans would categorize us as such.
If someone were to ask why we do this, I’m not sure that any of us at Wish Upon a Star would have a clear answer. We do not require wages, and we certainly do not wish for recognition; I guess one could say that we are merely compelled to grant wishes. If one of us is unable to grant the wish, there is always another who can and will step in.
I do not follow the passage of time. Days meld into weeks, weeks into months, months into years, years into decades… I could not say how long I have been doing what I do. I only know that I’ve done it for as long as I can comprehend, and I will continue for as long as the universe wills it.
One evening, I was sitting at my desk in my completely-white office, empty for everything except for a table and the computerized device upon it which assigned me my next task. There are many dissatisfied humans in the world, and there are only so many of us, so there is rarely downtime. I waited what felt like only a short while before the screen turned on and showed me a young adult male. He was sitting at his desk, his laptop open in front of him, while he stared outside at a meteor shower. The lights were turned off in his room. He had dark brown hair, thick eyebrows, and swollen under-eyes. Next to him was a small bed in his small room. Posters of musical groups and popular movies hung on the wall above his bed.
Displayed on my screen next to the live feed of this boy was his information. His name was Emil. He was 18 years old. He was in his first year of college. His parents were both alive and living many hours away from his school. He was an only child. When he was young, he’d enjoyed playing soccer; in high school, he’d become withdrawn and afraid to stand out.
The speakers at my desk picked up his wish as he said it internally:
“I wish I were dead.”
When you live as long as we do, “firsts” only come so often. But this was a first for me.
It was the first time I didn’t know how to grant a wish.
I met with my colleagues one by one, asking for their advice. They advised me to arrange accidents or to take advantage of the wisher’s health conditions. Some fulfilled the wish immediately, while others set up events down the line. However, we all followed one policy: We are not to arouse suspicion that our work is anything more than the work of coincidences.
To the humans, our wishes are meant to feel like a natural turn of events. Some claim them to be miracles from God, and other people think of it as a coincidence. Others insisted it was the result of their own hard work. Let them think as they will. It does not change what we do.
However, I must admit that I had no idea how to address my client’s request.
I observed him for a few days to determine whether it would feel sufficiently natural enough to arrange a traffic accident for him. He did not appear to have any physical health problems, but I discovered the boy had been dealing with depression for years, and it had first come to a head in high school when he was bullied—and then became a bully himself. His parents called his cell phone repeatedly, and over my few days of observation, he answered them zero times. They moved on to contacting him digitally, asking him about his studies and how his grades were. He left messages read but unanswered.
His college was a small, private one—in other words, there were very few roads on which cars were allowed to drive, and the cars that were present often belonged to the college, and the maintenance workers were careful about driving safely around pedestrians. Emil rarely traveled outside of school. It would be difficult to arrange for fate to place him at the scene of a traffic accident severe enough to lead to his death.
Emil attended his classes—usually. As I continued my investigation further, I discovered he would occasionally have a bad day in which he wouldn’t get out of bed. If his roommate tried to rouse him, Emil would ignore him. The boy ate his meals alone at the dining halls. Whenever he had a particularly bad day, he stayed inside his room and ate snacks instead of venturing into the cafeteria.
When in class, Emil was quiet. Most of his classes were large, so it was easy for him to blend into the crowd, take notes, and then leave as soon as class had concluded. In his smaller literature-focused seminars, he wouldn’t volunteer answers, but he would certainly give them if a professor asked him specifically. However, his answers were hesitant, and if classmates appeared to disagree, he’d make a self-deprecating remark with a laugh.
A few weeks passed, and I still had not decided how to address this dilemma. Furthermore, Emil had issued a second wish on a day where he happened to catch a rare sole meteor flying into the Earth’s atmosphere.
“I really, really wish I were gone. Because nothing matters.”
That’s when my supervisor pulled me into their office.
“X, would you mind explaining why this client had to issue his wish a second time? Are you planning on getting to it any time soon? I know you’re not working on anything else at the moment.”
I explained that this boy’s circumstances were difficult, and I needed more time to figure out how to grant the wish in the most efficient manner. The supervisor told me I needed to show some results within the next few days. At the end of this period, if I still had not designed a plan, the client would be reassigned to someone else at Wish Upon a Star organization. I agreed that this made the most sense.
But things were starting not to make any sense.
Emil grew up neither rich nor poor. His parents had to work to support him, but they were not particularly hurting for money. Emil was bright; he’d had good grades his whole life. He graduated high school at the top of his class. He’d dated a couple times, and even though each relationship was short-lived, the break-ups were never dramatic or particularly painful. Some classmates had mocked him for his weight, claiming Emil was “pig-like,” but as far as I could tell, Emil was healthy enough. He was not as physically fit as he used to be, but he neither under-ate nor overate. He was pursuing an undergraduate degree in English, which was a subject he had enjoyed a lot in high school. He was mostly keeping up with his coursework. And even though he wasn’t going out to parties or engaging in hook-ups like some of his peers, that seemed to be his choice—he wouldn’t likely enjoy those activities.
Why does this boy want his life to come to a sudden end when there’s still so much he has yet to learn and experience?
Is it right for me to fulfill this wish?
Sometimes when people wish for something, they actually want something different.
I still didn’t know exactly what Emil needed, but I was willing to try a few things.
First, the college’s health center had recently created some pamphlets about mental health. It was largely in an effort to help students who were stressing out about final exams arriving in a month’s time, but in general, it addressed anxiety and depression. Emil had never been to a counselor or a therapist, and maybe that was what he needed.
With some string-pulling, I placed a pamphlet in Emil’s path. In fact, I did so a few times. He ignored it, though. If it was on the ground, he walked right by it. If it was on a bulletin board he walked by, he didn’t give it a second’s glance. It was as if he was walking in a haze, all-consumed in his own thoughts. I heard his voice over and over.
“I’m not good enough here.
“Nobody likes me because I’m uninteresting and a lousy friend.
“My writing is garbage. I can’t let anyone see this. I can’t turn this in. I’d rather take the zero.
“Nobody would even miss me here.”
If any of my other colleagues had received this wish—if I had received this request even a short while ago—what would have become of Emil?
Then one day, a pamphlet fell in a clatter of papers in the hallway to his dorm room. Emil was the sort of person who always tried to clean his surroundings if he was there to watch it come undone. As he picked up the fallen pushpins and tacked advertisements and signs back to the bulletin board, his eyes lingered on the health center’s pamphlet. It looked silly and cartoonish with a sad yellow face crying on the front with the words “It’s OK to need help” printed below the image.
I held my breath while he hesitantly opened the pamphlet. He stood in place for a minute, scanning the words. I desperately hung onto the hope that something in that garish folded paper would resonate with him.
He didn’t have any particular thoughts or mutterings about it. He just held it in his hands and returned to his room, placing it on his desk, next to his laptop.
That night, he went to bed early and slept in very late the next day, skipping his classes with a hastily emailed excuse, “I think I got food poisoning overnight. I apologize for missing class again.”
The pamphlet wasn’t going to be enough.
That day, I arranged for a friendly classmate to cross his path on the way to dinner. The classmate asked Emil if he was feeling all right and if he’d like to borrow his notes from that day. Emil could barely remember his name, which made him feel terrible inside, but the classmate did not seem to mind in the slightest. He laughed and waved his hand, as if he were shooing away Emil’s guilt. The classmate’s name was Dave. He asked Emil if he’d like to come over and play games at some point.
To my delight, Emil agreed.
It turns out that a new friend cannot change someone in a matter of days.
My supervisor was already breathing down my neck and assigning me more clients as punishment for taking too much time on Emil. Fortunately, those other wishes were simple ones and much easier for me to work on when I wasn’t watching Emil’s life play out in front of him. I must admit that I was spending most of my time on the boy.
Like many human relationships, Dave and Emil’s petered out. Promises to meet each other and play games together led to nothing more than “Maybe next time!” and “Sorry, I’ve got homework to do tonight.” I had witnessed this on many occasions in my career. This is just how humans are.
Unfortunately, it forced Emil to plummet into a spiral once again, convinced that he lacked the ability to form solid relationships.
On a Friday night, Emil was alone in his dorm room, like usual. However, one thing was different this time: he had acquired a bottle of vodka from an upperclassman. Drinking straight from the bottle, scrolling through the endless abyss of social media, Emil drank in the the self-loathing, the self-hatred, and his own disappointment in himself. He shared messages about feeling alone, walling himself off on purpose with the hopes that someone would show that they cared, and then that feeling turned into disgust at himself for expecting other people to fix him. Whenever he almost figured something out, he spun it into something self-destructive.
Hours later, about halfway through the one-liter bottle, Emil was starting to nod off. He was lying in bed with his phone in front of him. He had stopped the social media browsing on his laptop only to resume it on his phone. The overhead light and desk light were turned off; only the smartphone’s lit screen illuminated his face. He wasn’t crying. He wasn’t happy. He was just existing, waiting for things to end.
He pulled up a text message conversation from his mother. She had been messaging him for weeks, and he hadn’t responded once. It must be so annoying to deal with me for a kid, he thought. I watched him, my eyes glued to my screen.
His fingertips began tapping at the letters on the screen, forming words and sentences—although not terribly coherent ones. He was intoxicated, after all.
Just when I went to get a better image of the screen, the phone fell out of his hands, face down onto the comforter. His head rested on the pillow, and his eyelids flickered. Gradually, he fell asleep.
He awoke to a flurry of phone calls from his mother the next morning. I was expecting the worst.
He silenced the ringer a few times, but his mother was insistent this time. Eventually he sat up, clutching his throbbing head, and accepted the call.
“What do you want?” he barked.
“What was with that text message last night?” she asked on the other side of the phone.
Emil didn’t respond. He appeared dazed and confused. His eyes wandered to the half-empty bottle of cheap vodka. The dots began to connect. He asked his mother to wait for a moment, and he pulled up his message history with her. Sure enough, he had sent her a message. He slapped his hand over his eyes and groaned.
For his privacy (which I understand is really rich for me to be speaking of, considering I’ve been watching him for weeks, but please respect that the boy was in a dark place and deeply embarrassed, and it’s not the words themselves that matter the most), I will not speak of what he wrote to his mother. However, I will say that it was enough to warrant her concern. He tried to brush it off, but without mentioning that he was drinking illegally, he wasn’t sure how to blow off such an alarming and deeply personal message.
He spent sixty-four minutes on the phone with his mother that Saturday morning. They talked of loneliness, mental health concerns running in her family’s genetics, and also of her regret of pushing high expectations upon him. I began to see a heavy weight slowly being lifted from Emil’s shoulders.
By the end of the call, he turned to the goofy health center pamphlet on his desk—the same paper that had been sitting there for weeks. Finals were in a few days. He wasn’t sure if a counselor would have any available sessions anymore.
I made sure a counselor was free to speak immediately.
My supervisor was initially unimpressed with the results. The client’s wish had never been fulfilled; however, I argued that he had withdrawn the request, meaning we no longer needed to grant his wish to the letter.
My colleagues excitedly asked me exactly how I had got his mother to encourage him to make an appointment with the therapist, but I shooed them away.
The truth is…I had nothing to do with that.
It truly was an accident. I hadn’t known he was going to write a message to his mother and then send it half-asleep. Judging by the horror on his face during her call, he clearly didn’t remember texting her.
I hadn’t helped the boy in the slightest.
Maybe the Wish Upon a Star organization isn’t always needed.
I wasn’t able to observe Emil much once he redacted his wish and I became busy with other humans’ wishes. However, even in the midst of my work, he never left the back of my mind.
You’ll never guess what Emil’s next wish was. (I unfortunately was not assigned it, but I was thrilled to hear about it afterward.)
“I wish I knew how to dance.”
What a delightfully normal wish.