The first tree stood tall on the edge of the high cliff, and another one – slightly taller, rose up next to it. One by one, tree by tree, Ben populated the skyline with the pixelated oaks, and with a frown and a few swipes he took them all down. And the cliff, too. He wasn’t in the mood for Minecraft, but it was an adequate distraction from his family who had gathered downstairs for his thirteenth birthday.
“Ben!” His mom’s voice called from downstairs. He pretended not to hear her, but when echoing footfalls on the hardwood staircase announced her ascent to his room, he knew she meant business. He tucked the iPad under his pillow and grabbed a book from the stack on his nightstand just as his bedroom door swung open.
“What are you doing up here?” She asked as she walked in and sat at the edge of Ben’s bed.
“Just reading,” Ben said.
“Couldn’t you be a little more social? Everyone’s here for your birthday.”
“Hey, kiddo,” Ben’s Uncle Bobby appeared in the doorway and looked around Ben’s room. Ben could tell he was scrutinizing the lack of sports memorabilia on the walls. Ben’s older brother, Brad, was a huge sports fan and his room was covered with pennants, posters of his favorite players, and trophies from his own sporting achievements. Ben’s walls had a Larry Elmore print, the periodic table of the elements, an X-Men poster, and shelves overflowing with books.
“Reading, eh?” Uncle Bobby plucked the book out of Ben’s hands and frowned at the cover. “I was hoping you’d come outside and throw the ball around a little with me.” Ben was usually able to dodge Uncle Bobby’s requests because Brad was always more than happy to catch the ball, but now that Brad was away at college the burden of playing catch with Uncle Bobby fell on Ben. Uncle Bobby went to college on a football scholarship, which he liked to mention every chance he got. He had three daughters who were completely uninterested in football, so whenever he could wrangle some other family member into tossing the ball around, he took advantage. Ben had reluctantly obliged him ever since Brad went away to school, but today he felt like something was different. He was thirteen now: it was time to stand up to the tyranny of forced sports.
“I’m kind of into this book right now,” Ben replied.
“You’d rather read than get outside?” Bobby said, making no effort to hide his incredulity. “Come on, kiddo. It’s a beautiful fall day. What’s this book, anyway?” He flipped through a few pages. “Some kind of Dungeons and Dragons thing?”
Ben ripped the book out of his uncle’s hands. “No,” he said. “It’s about King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. It’s good.” Ben felt like he was on the verge of a pout.
“So, basically Dungeons and Dragons,” Bobby laughed. “Come on, let’s go outside and blow the dust off of you.”
Ben looked at his mom, hoping for some backup, but he knew better. She was never one to get in between her brother and sports. “You have about ten minutes. Then we’ll have cake,” she said.
Ben sighed and followed Uncle Bobby downstairs and out into the backyard. Bobby had a football ready and was already tossing it in the air when Ben walked out. “It’s a shame your brother couldn’t make it back for your birthday,” he said. “He’d love to get out here and throw the ball around. Go long!”
Ben ran into the yard and tried his best to catch the ball, but it slipped between his hands. “It’s okay, it’s okay,” Bobby called. “Good hustle, Ben. Toss it back!”
Ben lined his fingers up on the laces like he remembered Uncle Bobby showing him the last time that he was pressured into a game of catch. He pulled back and threw the ball as hard as he could. It wasn’t a bad throw, not for Ben, at least. Bobby caught it low to the ground and nodded his approval. The first catch was Ben’s only lucky one, though, and as his hands got colder from the chill in the autumn air his fingers grew stiff and they stung when the ball bounced off them. He had never been so grateful to hear his mom’s voice as when she called them inside for cake.
“Not bad out there, Ben,” Bobby said. Ben could tell he was lying. “When you play in school, just remember: take a deep breath, aim low when you go in for the tackle, and keep your head down.”
Ben nodded. Like he’d ever be tackling anyone, ever.
Ben’s cousins, his uncle, and parents were gathered around the birthday cake. It was a chocolate sheet cake with chocolate frosting and a Star Wars overlay on top. Ben hadn’t been into Star Wars for years but he wasn’t about to complain. It could have had My Little Pony on it and he would have loved it – his mom mad the best cakes.
“Head of the table, Ben,” his father said, gesturing to the empty chair closest to the cake. His father pulled a lighter out of his pocket and lit the thirteen pastel birthday candles, one by one.
“Ready to sing, everyone?” His mom asked as she dimmed the lights.
“Guys,” Ben protested. “You don’t have to sing.” His cheeks flushed bright red. He felt silly enough having a family birthday party. He was thirteen, for pete’s sake. Singing Happy Birthday would just be embarrassing.
“Nonsense, sport,” Uncle Bobby said. “It’s your day. You’ll miss having these someday.” Before Ben could protest any further, they all began signing. His father predictably sang the loudest and purposefully off-key, which was sort of a family tradition. Ben smiled in spite of himself when the song ended.
“Make a wish!” His mom said.
“No,” Ben shook his head. “That’s for kids. And I don’t know what to wish for.”
“What? No way, buddy,” Uncle Bobby said. “I still make wishes. You’ve got to make a wish.”
Ben smirked. “Fine,” he said. He closed his eyes tight, took a deep breath, and blew.
And the whole world went black.
He opened his eyes and there were no candles. There was no cake, no family. Nothing.
Darkness. And then, fear.
“Hello?” Ben called. “Mom? Where is everyone?” He looked around but the darkness was impenetrable.
A red light appeared in the distance and then went out. It blinked on and off again and again, each time getting closer until finally it was just a few feet from Ben’s face. “Who’s here? Where am I?” Ben’s voice quavered as he spoke.
The light went out and didn’t come back on. Then, just as suddenly, an overhead florescent hummed to life. Ben found himself in a small, white room, furnished only with the blue folding chair he was sitting on. A door swung open and a man in a white labcoat entered. He wore big, black-rimmed glasses and carried a clipboard.
“Hello, um…” the man paged through some sheets on the clipboard. “Benjamin White. Happy Birthday. It says here you are thirteen. Wait, is that right?” The man let out a low whistle.
“Um. Yes. Where am I? What happened to my family?” A bead of sweat rolled down Ben’s back. He tried not to look as terrified as he felt.
“Oh, they’re fine. They’re back at home waiting for you to blow out your birthday candles. They won’t miss you during this little interlude while we take care of business.” The man never stopped smiling as he spoke. Ben found it unnerving.
“What business? What are you talking about?”
“Oh, well. I should introduce myself. I’m sorry, I’m just not used to dealing with older kids. We usually take care of this much sooner and the little ones don’t really ask questions. I’m Barry, with the Make a Wish Organization. I’m going to assist in getting that birthday wish taken care of.”
“Make a Wish Organization?” Ben frowned. “I’m not sick.”
Barry sighed and shook his head. “You’re thinking of the Make a Wish Foundation. That’s not us. We get that all the time. The trademark suit has been pending for ages, but, well, I won’t bore you with that. I’m with the Make a Wish Organization. We make sure that every kid gets one birthday wish granted.”
Ben scrunched up his nose and crossed his arms. “Are you serious? I’ve never heard of that.”
“Yes, well,” Barry said, scratching the back of his head. “We try to take care of it when kids are much younger. The little ones are far less aware, and their wishes are easy to grant. Usually they just want a clean diaper, or an extra piece of cake. Once in awhile we’ll get a precocious one asking for a pony, but those are relatively easy wishes. I’m not really sure how you got away from us all these years. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a thirteen year old here. But, no matter: let’s see what that wish of yours was.” Barry paged through more papers on his clipboard and for the first time, his smile disappeared.
“Ben?” He asked quietly. “You wished that you were a knight?”
“Um,” Ben felt his cheeks burn. “Yes. I’m reading this book about the Knights of the Round Table. They have all these great adventures…” his voice trailed off.
“Are you sure you don’t want a Playstation 4? I have a few of those in the back.”
“No. I don’t want a Playstation. I thought it would be cool to be a knight. A hero, you know?”
Barry chewed on his lip and said nothing.
“I’m not getting my wish, am I?” Ben felt foolish for getting his hopes up. He was thirteen – much too old to believe in wishes.
“Oh, no. You are,” Barry replied. “You are entitled to your wish. I just need to do a few calculations.” He pulled a tablet out of his pocket and furiously prodded it with his index finger while Ben sat silently. “Yes. Now then: are you ready to go?”
“Wait, what? Now?” Ben asked. “Will I come back? What about mom and dad? We’re in the middle of my birthday party.”
“Don’t worry about them,” Barry said. “Time has stopped completely on their plane. You’ll be gone exactly one hour, and when you return you’ll find them exactly as you left them. Not a second will have passed on the clock in your kitchen. But of course, you need to return at the appointed time.”
Ben frowned. “Why wouldn’t I return?”
“Well,” Barry said, lowering his voice. He leaned forward until he was barely an inch from Ben’s face. “You chose a rather dangerous wish. Life in the middle ages wasn’t exactly easy, and if you die during your wish, you die. Forever. So,” he took a step back and put a big smile back onto his face. “Let’s not do that. I try not to lose my wish clients. It’s bad for business, you know?”
“Yes. No. What?” Ben was having a hard time keeping up with it all.
“No matter. Okay, then, some rules: you’ll have one hour as Sir Benjamin the Small. Hopefully you won’t land on a very eventful day – traveling through time involves a lot of estimating. With any luck you’ll end up in a peaceful meadow somewhere with nothing but fields of flowers around you. No pesky plagues or wars or anything like that. You can enjoy your knighthood for a bit and once your hour is up, you’ll be transported back home, and back to your party. How does that sound? It isn’t too late to change your mind, you know. I could even throw in an XBOX One with that PS4 if you’d like.”
“No!” Ben cried. “This is what I want!” He pictured himself in knight’s armor, helm on his head, sword on his hip and trusty steed between his legs as they rode over verdant hills.
Barry sighed. “I knew you’d say that. Well, since this is a special sort of wish, I’m sending a chaperone with you. On three then: three, two—”
“A chaperone? Who?”
“One.” Barry snapped his fingers and everything went dark again. The air became thick, like a static discharge, and suddenly Ben felt very hot. He pressed his eyes shut tight.
When he opened them, he was lying on his back in tall grass. The sun shone bright and hot overhead. The air was clean and crisp, and a gentle breeze brushed his cheeks and he smiled. And then he became vaguely aware of shouting all around him.
“M’lord! M’lord, take my hand.”
Ben tried to turn his head but it wouldn’t budge. His arms and legs felt leaden. He pressed his eyes tight shut again and this time when he opened them he found a man peering right into his face. Ben screamed.
“Tis me, M’lord. Oh dear, you must have taken quite the hit. Here.” Ben felt himself being pulled to his feet. He looked down and saw the reason he was having a hard time moving: he was dressed head to toe in heavy armor. “Come along, don’t just stand there!” As the man pulled him along by a gauntleted arm, Ben became aware of his surroundings. An enormous bank of benches adorned with silken sashes of blue and gold rose up in front of him, each one holding a score of men and women shouting, cheering and jeering. The women among them were dressed in all manner of clothing, from plain shifts to brightly colored dresses. The men wore tunics and simple hats. Nearly everyone had either food or drink in hand, and many had both. Ben stopped still to take it all in. He really made it! He was a knight in the Middle Ages! A horse broke his wonderment as it sped behind him, missing him by mere inches.
“M’lord, I beg thee!” The man pulled hard on his arm again, this time pulling Ben’s ear close to his face. “I’m Tom, your chaperone-dash-squire for the day. Barry sent me with you to keep you safe. Follow my lead, please!” He urged. Ben nodded and hurried after him to the stands.
At least, it felt like a hurry to Ben. It took a huge effort just to move in the cumbersome armor. He focused on planting one foot in front of the other until finally he reached a bench where he collapsed, exhausted.
Tom leaned down and whispered into Ben’s ear. “You’ll need to get back up there on your horse. This is a jousting tournament in honor of your upcoming nuptuals. You’re scheduled to wed the King’s daughter this afternoon, and the King has his eye on you. I’m afraid to find out what would happen if his daughter’s betrothed was to give up after the first bout.”
“Wed his daughter?” Ben asked, horrified. He wasn’t sure what sounded more terrifying: riding a horse in a jousting tournament or marrying the King’s daughter.
“Yes,” Tom whispered. “She’s watching you right now.” He nodded toward the royals’ box above them.
A plump, red-faced woman with a crooked nose looked down at him and waved her handkerchief. She sported a field of knobby warts on the larger of her chins, and an unfortunate birthmark shaped like a horse’s backside on the lesser chin. Ben was about to gesture up to her to indicate that she had something under her nose when he realized that it was actually a thin, dark strip of facial hair. He suppressed a shudder and nodded back politely. “Where’s my horse?” he asked Tom out of the corner of his mouth. Perhaps he would be fortunate enough to be crushed to death before the wedding.
“I’ll help you,” the squire offered as he hefted Ben to his feet. With his assistance Ben was able to clank over to an enormous gray stallion. It was outfitted in blue and white with a sun in splendor emblazoned on its regalia. The idea of climbing on the horse seemed reasonable from far away, but when Ben stood next to the monstrous beast it appeared to be ten feet tall.
His squire read his mind. “I’ll boost you. Just grab the saddle as best you can and hang on.”
Ben nodded. He glanced over at the King’s daughter who was still waving to him. He took a deep breath, reached up to the saddle, and with a mighty heave, a grunt and a forcible shove his squire boosted him onto the horse. As he sat high in the saddle Ben summoned all of his horsemanship knowledge and found that it encompassed only a single pony ride at the county zoo and the carousel at the state fair. His squire shoved a long, wooden lance into his gloved hand. Ben grasped it tightly. He was surprised at how light it was.
“Now what?” He hissed down to the squire but before he could get an answer the man slapped the horse’s flank and it took off like a shot across the jousting field. Ben secured the lance against his hip and held on to the saddle for dear life. After a little fumbling he found a reasonable grip on everything, and for just a moment things didn’t seem all that terrifying. And then he made the mistake of looking ahead.
A knight dressed in head-to-toe black mail mounted on a black horse was barreling toward him like darkness incarnate. A completely unmanly shriek exited Ben’s lips and he closed his eyes, gritted his teeth and braced for impact.
The ringing in his head sounded vaguely like his alarm clock, and for a moment he instinctively tried to reach out to hit the snooze bar. Gradually he became cognizant of his surroundings and for the second time that hour he found himself lying face up in a field, although this time he was acutely aware of the pain radiating down his legs and back. Tom hoisted him to his feet and with one strong arm around his waist helped him back to the sidelines again.
“That really hurt,” Ben said. He wiggled his fingers and toes gingerly and while nothing seemed to be broken he wasn’t sure that he’d be able to stand up under his own power again.
“You were so close there, Sir Benjamin. So close!” Tom said too loudly. “You’ll surely get him on the next bout.”
“Ye haven’t had enough yet, have ye?” A fat, bearded man in a richly embroidered maroon tunic and navy pantaloons approached and thumped Ben’s shoulder with a meaty hand. A bejeweled crown sat perched on his head. “No future son of mine gets unhorsed like that. Get back out there before you disappoint my fair daughter.” His voice was friendly and he wore a smile beneath the bushy beard, but his words struck terror in Ben’s heart: future son of mine. He swallowed hard and suppressed a gag as he looked up the King’s fair daughter. She thumped her fist against her chest and let out a belch that echoed over the din of the crowd.
“He’s a bit dizzy,” the squire said. “But he’ll be up on the horse in no time, M’Lord.” The King nodded his approval and ambled back to his daughter’s side.
“I can’t do this, Tom,” Ben pleaded. “Any of it! I certainly can’t ride his daughter, and I sure can’t marry the horse. Wait…” Ben frowned. His head was still ringing.
“You can, and you will. Come on!” Tom yanked Ben’s arm so hard that Ben was genuinely surprised it didn’t come clean out of its socket. With a few grunts and a shove he was back up on his horse, fresh lance in his hand.
“You can do this, friend,” Tom called up to him with a smile before urging the horse down the field one more time.
Ben grabbed tight onto the lance and the horse, and he could hear his Uncle Bobby’s voice in his head: Deep breath. Dig deep. Aim low. Hit hard. Ben hoped that jousting was a lot like football. He hunkered down and braced himself. He felt a yell escape his lips. It wasn’t the high-pitched squeal of terror that he let loose earlier. This one started down at the bottom of his belly and welled up through his chest and out of his mouth. He couldn’t contain it. It was the yell of a warrior.
The impact rattled his body to his very bones, yet he stayed on his horse, and the cheers that rose up from the crowd told him that his opponent wasn’t so fortunate. He turned around to see the knight in black lying sprawled on the ground. His leg had twisted under him at a grotesque angle and it was clear his jousting days were over.
Tom ran out to the field to greet him and help him down. His eyes shone with excitement. “How did you do that? That was amazing!”
“I don’t even know,” Ben said. He was giddy with excitement as the crowd poured out of the stands to congratulate him. The sea of bodies jostled Ben and Tom as hearty thumps and heartfelt congratulations were offered. A hush fell over the crowd as it parted so the King and his daughter could make their way to the victor.
“You did justice to my Clara today,” the King said softly. “I will be pleased to call you my son.” He lifted a large pewter mug in the air. “Get this man a drink!” No sooner did he give the order than six mugs appeared around Ben, each filled with a foul smelling yellow liquid. Ben looked nervously at Tom. Tom opened his eyes wide and nodded to the glass. With all eyes on him, Ben had little choice. He accepted a mug and tossed the warm drink back. No sooner did it hit his lips than he felt his stomach turn inside out. He clapped a hand over his mouth and tried not to spray vomit all over the King and his daughter. Time seemed to stand still and the silence became palpable. Finally, he swallowed hard, and the King let out a loud, long laugh and the crowd followed suit. “Go on, boy. Get yourself ready for your big day.” He clapped Ben on the back one more time and made his way back to the stands.
The King’s daughter sauntered up to Ben and leaned in close. She brushed his cheek with her hand. Her fingers were greasy and smelled like chicken. “I have a kiss for the winner,” she said, and her wide smile revealed a spotty handful of browned teeth.
He put a hand up in protest, but she tore it away and brought her hirsute lips close to his. Ben turned his head and closed his eyes. Another static discharge shocked the air.
“Aw, you missed a candle!”
Ben opened his eyes and found himself back in his dining room, a single candle burning brightly on his birthday cake.
“I guess you won’t get your wish, sport.” Uncle Bobby laughed.
Ben blinked and looked around. His mom and dad were smiling. His little cousins fighting over who should get the first piece of cake. Everything was back to normal.
“Well,” Ben’s mom said, “as long as you aren’t going to get your wish, you might as well tell us what it was.”
“No, that’s okay,” Ben said, still dazed from his ordeal.
“Aw, come on, kiddo,” his dad teased. “I know: you wished that little blonde in your algebra class would talk to you.”
“Nah,” Ben blushed. “Nothing like that. I just wished for what every thirteen year old kid wants: A Playstation 4.”
Jenn Collins is what happens when goths grow up and get a job. She calls Waukesha, Wisconsin her home and her neighbors there know her as the weird girl who keeps chickens in her yard. She blogs at www.jenncollins.net and tweets at @jennyknox13. Every month she spends a day telling a short story via Twitter, 140 characters at a time (Check out #SantaDiesAtTheEnd for a little holiday cheer). She runs long distances to keep the crazy at bay and when that doesn’t work she writes horror stories. She has made all of the most important decisions in her life based on coin flips and song lyrics. So far, things have turned out well.