‘What is it, Mum?’ Emily Smith, 14 looked up from her book.
Gilly, her mother, said, ‘A parcel from Uncle Augustus.’
‘Who is Uncle Augustus?’
‘I don’t really know. Someone on your father’s side. Do you remember the man you said looked like Gandalf? At Ben’s funeral?
Emily nodded. She had wanted to speak to him but there hadn’t been a chance on that awful day.
Gilly went on, ‘He said he’d be in touch with a little something.’ She pulled open the letter attached to the parcel.
‘What’s he say, Mum?’
Dear Both. I’m so sorry to miss you this Christmas but I’ve had this curio for a while, waiting for the right home. Perhaps Emily can find out its secrets.
Emily moved to her mother’s side as she ripped off the paper. In moments they were staring at a dark wooden box, two feet square and six inches deep. On one side there were 24 little knobs in 3 rows of 8 but none moved. Gilly said, ‘It’s like an Advent calendar but woith one square missing. She left Emily trying to work out how it opened.
Three days later, 1st December, Emily woke with a start; her alarm said just after midnight. Had she heard a noise? Lying in the dark, straining to hear, she realised she was extraordinarily thirsty. She needed a drink and soon. Pulling on her dressing gown, she crept down to the kitchen.
As she gulped down the cold water she leaned back against the sink. Uncle Augustus’ present sat propped against the backdoor; it looked like her mother intended to throw it out. Emily put down her cup and went to retrieve it.
It was as she picked it up she noticed that, just above the first knob, a gold ‘1’ had appeared. It looked like fresh paint. Emily smiled. Her mother had worked out the secret and painted on a ‘1’. She wondered what was inside.
She had no intention of opening it then and there, but a surge of curiosity made her run her finger down the ‘1’. Immediately the drawer sprung open. Inside was a small wooden brick on which was written: Make a wish
Emily’s smile broadened. ‘Get you, mum. My bodyweight in chocolate, of course.’
She had barely said the word ‘chocolate’ when she heard thumps outside the kitchen window, like someone was throwing something against the glass. Nervous now, she pulled up the blinds. Rectangular packets hit the glass and bounced onto the flower bed and lawn just outside the kitchen.
Surprised rather than frightened, she hurried to the back door and threw it open. Something caught her on the cheek and dropped to her feet. It was her favourite bar of chocolate. All around dozens of bars of chocolate lay and more feel from a murky, weirdly lit sky. It was quite literally raining chocolate bars.
Emily didn’t stop to wonder how her mum had arranged this or the damage the bars were doing to the sodden lawn and flower beds. She knew she had to start collecting her prize. A flash of light drew her gaze to her right; the wheelbarrow. Of course.
It took her a sweaty forty minutes but, eventually she had collected them all. She thought about bringing the barrow inside but it was then she saw the mud on her slippers and pyjamas and the damage done to the garden. Quickly she wheeled the barrow to the shed, pushed it inside and covered in in an old blanket. She’d sort out a better home tomorrow.
Back inside Emily was overcome with tiredness. She couldn’t even make it to bed and, anyway, she knew she was far too filthy to go any further into the house. She sat, her back against the door and, clutching the box, fell to sleep.
‘Emily? What are you doing here? And why are you so muddy?’ Gilly looked furious. She pulled Emily away and opened the back door. ‘What on earth…?’
Emily knew before she looked; the garden was a wreck.
‘You are in so much trouble.’
Emily looked at the box, about to explain but the number ‘1’ had gone and the drawer didn’t open.
Emily hated her mother. Her punishment was to work in the garden rather than go to the shops with her friends. After two hours Gilly took off her gloves. ‘I’ll make us tea. Why don’t you grab us two chairs?’
‘Can’t I go out, mum?’
Emily went to the shed; inside she saw the blanket and she remembered the surreal rain. Pulling back, the blanket she gasped: there it was, her bodyweight in chocolate. On top sat the box. Emily glared at it and stopped. How had it got there? She was sure she was holding it when she fell asleep. She thought her mother had taken it but then she’d have found the chocolate and wanted to know where it had come from. Emily knew now it hadn’t been her mother.
When she picked it up, she saw the second knob had ‘2’ by it. She touched the drawer and it sprang open. Another wooden brick with Make a wish on it appeared. She really didn’t want another sweet based disaster. Breaking off a piece of chocolate she looked up to see her mum coming across the grass. She glanced at the brick. ‘You might make her friendlier,’ she thought.
‘Hi Ems. You got chocolate? Sick.’
‘Mum? You sound weird.’
‘Hey it’s Gilly, silly.’ Her mum giggled. ‘Gilly-Silly. That’s soooo neat. BFFs right?’
‘I just came to say gardening is sooooooooooo boring. What about we go to the new nail bar and then go and buy those sick shorts you saw Thursday? Where did you get that chocolate mountain.’
Gilly fell to her knees and buried her hands under the bars. ‘OMG, like I’ve gone to heaven. I lurve milk choc.’ As if she’d not eaten in a week she began cramming chunks into her mouth.
‘Stop it, Mum…’
‘Boring. Bet I can eat more than you.’ She watched Emily out of the corner of her eye as she rammed another piece in her already full mouth, brown liquid oozing out the side. Gilly wiped her face, smearing it everywhere and then used her chocolaty hands to make palm prints on Emily’s jeans, laughing as Emily jumped back. Gilly turned back to her eating, ignoring. Emily backed away and left her too it, wondering what she should do.
At five when it had got dark, Emily took a torch to the shed. Her mother lay on the blanket, groaning. She was surrounded by wrappers. ‘I’m dying.’
‘Come inside Mum.’
It Emily an age to half carry her, half drag her mother indoors; on the way she threw up over the roses and giggled and then vomited again. Emily made her some hot water and lemon and helped her to bed, where she lapsed into a sort of coma. Emily washed off the worst of the sick and made sure Gilly was on her side with a pillow behind her back and went to bed.
Emily slept badly and once again woke with a start just after midnight. Something made her go to her mother’s room. Glancing in, she could see her mother clutching the Advent calendar to her chest. She still wondered how it got there because the last time she’d seen it it was in the wheelbarrow. As she eased it out of her mother’s grasp, she saw a gold ‘3’ glowed from the third drawer. She touched the number. Clutching the make a wish brick, she said, ‘I want my old mum back.’ She stared at Gilly. After a moment she began snoring; Emily sighed; mum was back alright.
Gilly looked awful at breakfast. ‘I had the weirdest dreams, about you and me and chocolate.’
‘Shouldn’t eat cheese late at night, Mum.’ Emily forced a smile and promised herself she’d leave the calendar alone.
All that day and the next she thought about the calendar. She awoke again, at just after midnight and saw the box had appeared at the end of her bed. She refused to go near it. The next night she got up and looked at the drawers. The ‘4’ had gone but the ‘5’ had appeared and it seemed the paint was even brighter. The urge to tap the number and make a wish was so strong. Could she think of a wish that it wouldn’t misconstrue?
The next night the ‘6’ had replaced the ‘5’. Seeing it she had to look away; it was so bright it burnt her eyes, like if you look directly at the sun. She knew she couldn’t let it get any brighter so went to the bathroom and splashed water on her face. As she did so, she saw, with horror, a large spot had erupted on her chin. That would do it. Turning quickly, she went back to the box, tapped the number and held the make a wish brick. ‘No more spots please.’ She added, ‘On my face.’
She touched her skin as she returned to the mirror. The spot had gone but her face felt odd. She soon saw why and reeled back. Instead of her usual pale complexion her face was covered in red and white diagonal stripes. Tears sprung to her eyes. She hated this calendar. She hadn’t asked for stripes so why did it chose stripes in place of spots?
Her mother was horrified at the sight of her daughter, asking her if she used some new cosmetic that had caused such a bizarre reaction. Emily told her she had and asked to stay off school, which her Mum agreed to, reluctantly. She wanted to take Emily to the doctors, but Emily made her promise to wait a day.
She drifted off into a strange sleep and woke as if poked at midnight. The ‘7’ glowed softly. Emily hurried to tap it, took out the brick and wished her old face back, spot and all. Her fingers touched the zit on her chin; never had she loved any blemish as much as she did this one.
By now she knew it was dangerous to leave the wishes. But if things went wrong she hated waiting a day to be able to correct it. For brick ‘8’ she set her alarm for 11.30. Sure enough, the ‘8’ still glowed. Taking a deep breath, she tapped it, took the brick and said, ‘Please make me happy.’
For the next thirty-two minutes she felt she would explode. Laughter couldn’t escape quickly enough. Her throat hurt and her eyes ached. She saw the ‘9’ appear and laughed louder. Somehow she wrestled the box to the floor as hysterics overwhelmed her and threw her against the table. Almost by accident her finger touched the number, the drawer opening and a brick tumbling out. She wished herself back to her old self and immediately fell asleep.
The next day she woke with a start. Everything ached, and bruises were beginning to show on her arms. She stared at the box, once more perched on the table. Leaving it seemed to intensify the results but asking for anything was a disaster. What was she going to do? Once again, she left it the box; then, at 11.50 the next day she tapped the ‘10’. Taking a deep breath and holding the box as well as the brick, she wished her room to be decorated for Christmas. Instantly everything started to be wrapped in gaudy paper with lights emerging like snakes and twisting round her chair and table and then her legs. Baubles and tinsel were next. She gripped the box hard, trying to swell the growing panic, her finger pressed against the eleventh drawer. As soon as she felt it pop open she wished her old room back to how it was. She was in bed and falling asleep before the last of the glitter and paper had retreated. She was at her wits end and exhausted.
She dreaded the following day. As usual she woke at midnight and spent the next seven hours fretting over the ‘12’ that glowed at her. Tired and desperate she dragged herself to the kitchen. ‘You look awful. Are you going down with something?’
‘I’ll be fine Mum. I just need to survive until Christmas.’
‘Goodness that sounds dramatic. Shall I give you a lift to school? I need to pop to the shops after anyway.’
While her mother went to ‘warm her up’, Emily collected her books and bag. A noise brought her to her bedroom window. Her mother was standing by her car, red in the face and kicking the tyres. Emily went downstairs to find out what was happening.
‘Sorry love. Car’s kaput. Sounded terminal this time. Maybe we can get a jump from Mr Grumpy next door. You try and get it to start and I’ll go and speak to him. If that doesn’t work, I’m afraid you’ll have to walk. How on earth will we afford the repairs this time?’
Emily sat and stared at the dashboard. Her eye was drawn to the clock and the ‘12’ that stood out in gold. That wasn’t the usual colour. She glanced in the mirror to see if Gilly was coming and there, on the back seat was the box, the ‘12’ glowing brightly. It must have reflected off the box onto the clock. Emily twisted round and tapped the number. If the car was buggered as Mum said, what harm could this wish do, she thought? ‘Fix Mum’s car.’ Surely this can’t go wrong?
Emily stared as all the lights came on on the dashboard. The engine started and began idling easily. The windscreen wipers swished once, clearing the remnants of last night’s rain from the glass.
‘You been taking car repairing lessons?’ Gilly stood by the driver’s door, peering inside her car. ‘It even looks cleaner. Come on. Hop out and I’ll take you in.’
As they drove Gilly fiddled with the dials. ‘What did you do? The interior light and heated seats are fixed too. They haven t worked in ages.’
All day Emily wondered if the car would be ok. When she got home her mother held out a small package. ‘I don’t know how you did it, but that car is like new. You have miracle hands. Thanks love.’ Inside was a small silver necklace. ‘Early present.’
That night Emily lay awake. She had a mad idea but needed a test first. The next time she awoke, she touched ‘13’. ‘This had better not be an omen,’ she thought. Then, ‘Get rid of mum’s curly fringe.’ Gilly hated the way her fringe curled, whatever she did to it.
In the morning, Emily waited for her mum to appear. She seemed to be spending ages in the bathroom. When, finally, she came into the kitchen Emily said, ‘What have you done to your fringe, Mum?’
Gilly shook her head. ‘Nothing. It’s… straight. The curl’s gone. I’ve been wishing it away for thirty years and at last someone has listened.’
‘It looks great, mum. I must dash.’
Emily could barely contain herself. She now understood. Wish for soemthign for herself and it went horribly wrong; wish for others and it worked. She spent the day, workogn out what she might do with the remaining wishes. They couldn’t be dramatic, or people would have too much of a shock. Part of her wanted to wish her dad back to life but somehow, she knew that was going to be a selfish wish and she didn’t dare think how that might come out. Instead she helped her best friend’s mother with her backache, the homeless man with the dog that limped, the shopkeeper whose son had an awful skin problem.
The numbers came and went, and it worked. She actually felt excited. Eventually, the last drawer, number ‘24’ glowed on the box. She knew exactly what she was going to do. It was Christmas Eve, and as Emily went to bed, she touched the ‘24’. Taking a deep breath. ‘Give mum whatever she really wants.’
Emily slept soundly. On Christmas morning she awoke with a start. She heard her mum in the kitchen singing along to a Christmas song. Grabbing her dressing gown, she bounded down the stairs. ‘What did you get? What was it?’
‘Didn’t you get the thing you want most?’
Gilly looked confused and then smiled. ‘Silly I’ve got that already.’ She hugged her daughter. ‘You.’