Wishing Can Make it So
by Anne K. Edwards
Martha Smith plodded along Fifth Street toward the Toplite Theater, passing Christmas lights that seemed to have lost their sparkle. So many of the old stores were gone and the surviving ones no longer decorated to celebrate the season when few shoppers were hard pressed for money to spend for holiday extras.
At the corner where she waited for the light to change, Oona Gilchrist stopped beside her. "Martha Smith?" she asked. "I hardly recognized you. It has been months since we last saw each other."
"It has been a long time, Oona. It's good to see you," Martha replied. "How are you keeping?" She was one of the few people remaining from the old days,
The woman smiled, a genuine smile. Martha couldn't remember the last time someone had smiled at her, truly smiled. Mostly what passed for a smile these days was a lifting of the upper lip, resulting in something much like a sneer.
"I'm doing well," Oona said. "My oldest boy, David, and Bets, his wife, have moved in with me. Of course," she gave a little sigh, "I don't have the privacy I did before. Their son, Ralphie, stays over too when he has leave from the Navy."
Martha smiled. At least Oona wasn't alone. Envy reached out to touch her.
A woman wearing a too-tight, too-short red skirt and fur jacket brushed past them as they stepped off the curb.
"That's Nell Dolman. She lives in my building," Martha told Oona. "I think she works at the Yellow Dollar Strip Club."
Oona made a noise in her throat. "She looks like a street walker." She shook her head. "Remember the old days when such people didn't come here? It was safe for kids."
Martha nodded. "There are so many strangers now. I hardly ever see anyone I know. I think most of these new people are girls who work at the Yellow Dollar or men who drink too much. It is worrisome. I'd move but the rents are too high in better neighborhoods."
"That's the way a lot of us feel. Not only are a lot of strangers moving in, but they've made it unsafe for people." Oona tsk-tsked. "Marilyn MacKay told Bets there was a disappearance last week. From inside that old theater."
"The Toplite?" Martha asked. "That's where I'm going tonight. What happened?"
Oona shrugged. "Bets said it was George Helmes. He went into the theater and must've been sitting in his seat when it happened."
Martha frowned. "George Helmes? Why he was a friend of Sammi Dowes. You know, the girl who jumped off the bridge just after we graduated high school."
"He never did marry. Went into the Army and came back when he retired." Oona shook her head. "Well, he went to the movie and just vanished. They don't think it was foul play--that's what the cops call murder--they found his jacket and hat on a seat with his box of popcorn. Bets said Marilyn believes he went and jumped off the bridge like Sammi did. The same one. She said he was awful depressed."
"I guess it could happen," Martha said. "Getting old isn't fun."
Oona shook her head sadly. "Change that comes with age is hard to take. Like old Mrs. Gaines' big yellow house being torn down. Her daughters sold it right after the funeral. Neither wanted it. Said it was too big and too old. I remember playing with them in the parlor on rainy days."
They reached the corner where Oona took her leave of Martha and headed home. A pity we don't see more of each other, thought Martha.
She shivered, not knowing why. Maybe it was the talk about George. He'd been alone so might have just wanted to end it. Maybe some sad movie was playing and he got to thinking how life wasn't worth much anymore.
She understood that. The years went by too swiftly. Once she'd dared to dream of a home and family and waited to meet the right man. Like Oona did. It just never happened. Homely, fat girls became lonely old maids. Like me.
Her bleak thoughts of the past were thrust aside as she reached the theater. Three old films to fit the holiday were listed. They were the same movies they showed every Christmas Eve. One about Santa Claus, one about a miracle and one about a family coming together.
Martha couldn't remember how many years she'd been coming to this theater for Christmas Eve. It was something her parents had started when she was a child. They said it was a way to spend time together before Santa Claus came.
She recalled those happy times with a pang. It had been over twenty years since Mom and then Dad had passed on, leaving her alone.
Tears lurked behind her eyes. She blinked them away and got into the ticket line. It wasn't really a line, just two people ahead of her. One was an elderly man who carried a brown paper sack. He'd drink himself to sleep during the first film, she knew. Old Mr. Henderson. The other person was Angie Riley who was one of the unfortunates walking the streets at night the rest of the year. They were alone too, Martha thought, looking for a warm place to spend Christmas Eve. Then, when the movies were over, like her, they'd return to their solitary lives.
"How many?" the girl in the booth window asked.
"One, please." Martha passed the money into the slot and received a blue ticket.
Jack, the tall old man whose last name she never knew, stood inside the door. He took her ticket, tore it in half and gave her back the stub. Shoving it into her pocket, she stepped to the refreshment counter for a small box of buttered popcorn and a cherry crush, her favorite soft drink. Both were reminders of happier days.
The lights dimmed as she took a seat in the center section. She always sat two in, the way she'd sat with her parents--Dad on the aisle, Mom next and her in the third seat. For a little while she could pretend they were with her and she was young again.
Her mind drifted toward George Helmes for a moment. Where had he been sitting on his last visit? She hoped he wasn't lonely now.
Several advertisements flashed over the screen before she put thoughts of George aside. She leaned back and inhaled the aromas of the old theater--musty seats, a faint smell of some man's hair tonic, vanilla based perfume from the woman two rows down, popcorn and the sweetness of her cherry crush. She shrugged out of her coat and patted her hair into place as the first movie began.
Names in bright letters scrolled down the screen while Christmas carols serenaded the few moviegoers as they ceased rustling and coughing. The story of how Santa might not come to this family went from sad to happy as the father found a new job in time to buy gifts. Then mysteriously there were gifts they hadn't bought, proof that Santa had visited them. Martha envied the children their joy at the pile of gifts under the tree and the warmth of the family gathered around it. Unaccountably, she began to weep softly into her handkerchief as music swelled, becoming lively and joyous. The family disappeared into happily-ever-after as the film ended.
Martha dabbed her eyes as other moviegoers used the break to move around or change seats. They resettled as the second film began. This one was old, set in the biblical days with angels singing and prophets telling of the birth of a king. It ended with a chorus welcoming the baby.
This had been her Mom's favorite movie, but Martha thought it needed more plot. She harbored doubts about angels and prophets. No matter, it was a lovely story which was why her Mom had liked it.
She stretched her legs and shifted in her seat, pulling her coat around her shoulders. For some reason, the theater always cooled down by the beginning of the third film. A good thing she wore a sweater under her coat.
The last film was black and white. It was older than the other two, set in an English college town outside of London in the pre-World War One era. The father was a professor of history at the college where he was well liked by his students. His wife was a sweet faced, plump woman who, with the help of an aunt and her mother, ran the large establishment that included a few poorer students who resided with them. The college boys blended in well with the five lively children. The house was also home to a retired nannie and housekeeper. It was a place filled with warmth and laughter.
As usual, Martha's heart ached with longing. This was her favorite era of history. She inserted herself into the story where she was one of the family planning their holiday with a large tree, gifts and what food they'd have. There would be friends and family coming to visit or stay, with much switching about in bedrooms to ensure all had a place to sleep. It was like a visit home, a place where she wasn't alone.
The scene Martha loved best began. Mrs. Coldon was planning the Christmas dinner and laughing at the antics of the dog dancing about the table legs, hoping for a treat. The large stove behind her held steaming pots while a baby in a cradle gurgled contentedly to itself, and a maidservant checked the oven contents and stirred the kettles. Oh, to belong there.
Martha closed her eyes for a moment, seeking to pull the joy of this moment into herself so it would last through her lonely days ahead.
A hand came to rest gently on her shoulder as someone whispered in her ear, "Welcome home, Aunt Martha. We've been waiting for you."
Startled, Martha opened her eyes to tell the speaker she shouldn't bother people who were watching the movie, but no words came. She tried to rise, but couldn't. Her knees had turned to rubber.
She couldn't take it in. She was in the kitchen from the movie. It was in color. Impossible! Her daydreaming had invaded her reality. She was going out of her mind. There couldn't be any other explanation.
The lady who had spoken to her wore a long full-skirted, blue-print dress and an apron. Mrs. Coldon! The mother in the movie! Martha tried to ask what had happened but her lips refused to form the words.
Shaken, Martha looked around. These were people from the movie. "What has happened to me? Am I dead?" she finally found her voice.
"No, Dear Auntie. You aren't dead. You've come home. That's all."
"But that's not possible. I was watching you in the theater. You aren't real. It's all make believe." She clasped her trembling hands together, hoping her fear didn't show. Perhaps this was a dream. She must've fallen asleep.
The large man who played Professor Coldon entered. He smiled at her, his wire rimmed glasses reflecting the light so that he looked like an owl with bright yellow eyes. "Don't be afraid," he said kindly.
He bent toward her. It was then she realized she was seated in a rocker by the stove. "Why my dear Aunt Martha. We are very much alive." He reached toward her. "Take my hand."
Hesitantly, she touched his hand. It was warm and firm. "You do seem real." she conceded. It wasn't a dream. She was awake.
"We are," he said and drew a chair to her side. "You must not be afraid. Your loneliness touched our hearts, and we knew your wish had to be granted. No one should be so sad on Christmas Eve." He gestured in the direction of a window. "If you look out that window, you will see into the theater where you were sitting. They will find your purse, shoes and coat and that is all."
Do I dare hope this isn't a dream? she wondered, getting to her feet. Why, she had on a long dress too. Hesitantly, she touched the fabric. Not the wool she always wore in winter, but a heavy blue cotton. They'd thought of everything to make her feel one of them.
The window did look into the theater. Through the flickering light of the film, Martha could see the moviegoers. Some slept, some stared at the screen and a single pair of young lovers necked in a quiet corner. She spotted where she had been sitting. It was true! She put her hand over her mouth as she stared at her empty seat.
Professor Coldon patted her shoulder. "They can't see us, only the shadows on the screen."
She shivered. Her heart lifted a little. "Do you really want me to stay?" This was everything she'd wanted since her parents had died. She'd never be alone again. These wonderful people would let her be part of their lives.
"Yes." There was only kindness in the word. "But it is up to you. If you stay with us, you will never be able to return to that life."
The joy she had longed to share could be hers. Forever. It wasn't a hard choice. "I don't want to go back."
Mrs. Coldon spoke, "This is now your home. You've exchanged your loneliness for a family."
Was it real? Martha couldn't believe it. "How did it happen? I never thought my wish could come true."
"My dear Auntie, you aren't the first person who wished to leave a dreary world for a place where they might find happiness. Another preceded you several days ago. He too was very unhappy," the professor said.
Martha gasped. "You mean George Helmes?"
"Yes. I saw him the other day and he is doing well. He wanted a purpose in life and now he teaches mathematics at one of the schools."
Relief filled Martha. "They think he committed suicide," she told the professor, adding, "back there."
"He knew they might."
Martha wondered aloud, "What will they say about me?"
Mrs. Coldon asked, "Does it matter? You are here now. With us."
After thinking it over for a moment, Martha smiled. "No, I don't think it does. I'm where I want to be." Looking at the professor, she added, "I'm sorry I interrupted you, but I felt I had to know if it was George."
"It's quite all right. I was telling you how you came to us." He took a deep breath and began again. "The movie you were watching was made by Jonas Freeman, a film maker who knew how lonely the world out there can be. As a young man he also knew what it is to have a wish and know it could never come true.
"Jonas came from a wealthy family of industrialists and inventors, but he hated the idea of spending his life in an office. Money didn't make him happy. He dreamed of living in the days before the western continents had been explored. He wanted to sail on those ships that people believed might fall off the edge of the world. It was his dream to be there when such ideas were proven wrong."
"It sounds as though he wanted adventure," Martha said. "But I still don't see how this relates to my being here."
Professor Coldon laughed. "It does relate directly," he told her. "Jonas knew he couldn't realize his dream, but he could try to help others. Movie making was pretty new so he started a company to make films that made people feel good. For a little while they'd be able to pretend to take part in the things they dreamed about."
With a sigh, Martha allowed him to lead her back to the rocker near the stove. She waited until he was seated at her side. "How did he make you come to life?"
"He didn't," Mrs. Coldon told her. "We were here all the time."
"I don't understand," Martha said, "but I'm glad to be with you all the same."
"I think it's easiest to understand if I just tell the rest of the story," Professor Coldon said. "Jonas didn't find the satisfaction he wanted in film making. He felt there had to be more he could do."
The fire snapped in the stove and the smells of apple pie filled the room as they settled in to listen to a story they all but Martha knew. Mrs. Coldon took up the baby to hold and smiled encouragingly at Martha. The maid stirred the pots, then stood silent at the prospect of hearing a familiar tale. On a word from his master, the dog lay grinning beside his chair, thumping his tail on the floor.
The professor continued, "Jonas sought out men he thought had the wisdom he needed. He read books and traveled the world in search of information about dreams being turned into reality. One trip took him a year and a day to reach a hidden temple that predated the Egyptian civilization by a thousand years." He leaned back a little, his eyes seeming to seek the story on the ceiling.
"He'd read about this temple in an ancient manuscript on myths he was given. No one knows how he found the place, but it is said the priests were very old wise men and reclusive. They told him it would not be good for most wishes to come true, that people should work for their dreams. They advised him to go back to school and study engineering to help him in his quest."
"And he did?" Martha couldn't help asking. "Go to school, I mean?"
"Yes." The professor nodded. "Jonas did. After his studies were completed, he built a workshop and hired some helpers. His film company had continued to make movies so he used that income to develop a special movie projector. According to his diary it emits some unusual vibration that is sometimes in synchronicity with thought waves of people who are feeling very unhappy. Like you, Aunt Martha. This time you were giving off very strong thought waves and they matched the vibrations of the projector. When that happened you were projected here." He blew out a big breath and sighed.
"We don't know more than that because Jonas disappeared during the running of one of the adventure movies he made. We like to think he found his dream, too."
Martha pulled the shawl she wore tight around her shoulders. "This is the last year the Toplite Theater will be showing movies. The owners have retired and sold the building to a developer who plans to demolish it," she said.
Mrs. Coldon nodded sadly. "Yes, we know."
The professor's eyes seemed to glisten. "That means the end of our connection to the plane you are from."
"Maybe not," Martha looked at him. "According to an article in the paper a few weeks ago, the projection equipment was sold to a film museum and they plan to use it there to show old films."
"Ah," said the professor, "ah." He smiled.
Anne K. Edwards writes in a variety of genres and enjoys the creative challenge in each. She lives on a small farm in south central Pennsylvania with several cats. Her interests include meeting people and reading for pleasure and review.
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