The following is a censored version of the original text. All strong language or curse words have been blanked out. Part 1 Another Night Another Dream Prologue: A Pendant"So I thought for sure with my weak stomach that I would absolutely hate the cruise, but you know what, Margaret and I actually ended up having a wonderful time together. It was so beautiful to be just sailing around the Caribbean, and then we got the chance to try all sorts of fun activities...."Jake Meier's uncle Thomas went on for quite a while telling him all about his adventures in the Caribbean. The young man in his late 20s did his best to politely listen as the older man rambled on and on about all the exploits he and his wife had on their recent cruise. With his own wife, Clarice, busy engaging in girl talk with the other ladies at the party, Jake felt he had little other choice than to humor his uncle.As he listened to his uncle he took the opportunity to look around the house. Jake's Uncle and Aunt lived in one of the many residential subdivisions that dotted the countryside of Lebanon, Illinois. While the couple would never ever use the loaded words rich or wealthy to describe themselves, one look at their home with its high ceilings and classy furnishings certainly gave off the impression they were people who were well-off and more than proud to make it known to the world. His uncle, for example, never missed an opportunity to show off the gargantuan ultra high definition TV they kept in the living room."Have you and Clarice ever been on a cruise," asked the uncle after he finally exhausted his recollections of the trip."Me and her have probably floated the possibility at least once, but no we've never done it," answered Jake, snapping back to full attention now that his uncle was finally done reminiscing. He took a moment to smooth over his short blonde hair which had become rustled over the course of the evening."You two should really consider it. You guys are still a young couple. I'm sure you guys will get way more out of it than me and Margaret did.""Yeah I definitely think it's something me and her will consider. We've talked about going on a trip sooner rather than later..."Before Jake could continue, his uncle's wife Margaret walked over to their corner of the room."Tom, could you come here for a sec? Jeremy wants to know more about that position you said just opened up at your job.""Oh, of course. Coming dear. Well, I'll talk to you later Jake," said the uncle as he hurried along with his wife. Leaning his thin frame on the wall behind him, Jake took a moment to just relax. Despite being large enough to be considered a small mansion, the home of his Aunt and Uncle was still jam packed with people. It was his younger cousin Nadia's high school graduation party, and he'd spent the evening talking to this person then that person in what felt like a never ending conveyor belt of small talk. As an introvert, he was exhausted.Looking across the room, he could see Nadia talking with some other relatives. While he couldn't make out what they were saying he assumed like so many others at the party they were congratulating her on a job well done. He, for one, was proud of her; genuinely proud of her. All throughout her school years she had studied, worked hard, and he figured would do much the same in college. With confidence, he foresaw a bright future for her."What'cha looking at cuz," asked a voice close to his left side.When he turned to look he saw none other than Nadia's older sister, Kate, suddenly at his side. Around the same age as him, she was also of thin frame but a few inches shorter than him. Her lengthy black hair appeared more disheveled than usual as if she'd just gotten out of bed."The lady of the hour. Who else," he replied.She looked over in the direction where his gaze had been fixed."Ah yes, the honor student and graduate."Looking back at Jake, she flashed him a grin."Now you know right now she's all yes Mom yes Dad I'll study and behave myself, but when she goes off to college and experiences all that independence and freedom she's gonna change. She's not gonna be so obedient and innocent. That's the same way it was with me."Jake took a second to seriously ponder Kate's prediction. Having grown up alongside the sisters, he felt more than qualified to make his own assessment. After all, he understood well enough the pressures the sisters faced growing up. While Nadia and Kate's parents never failed to lavish them with all the material goods an upper middle class lifestyle could provide, they also had high expectations for their performance in school and other areas of life. They were strict. Their parents, particularly the father, strove to keep them walking on the straight and narrow. They succeeded to a certain extent in doing this with Kate until she went through a rebellious phase in her college years. Ultimately, while she did eventually find her way in life it was through a path much longer and winding than the one her parents insisted she take. Nadia, he predicted, wouldn't be like her sister. Although he was much closer to Kate due to their similar age, he still felt he knew enough about Nadia to know she was fundamentally different from her sister. Specifically, she possessed a temperament and personality inherently more reserved than that of her more daring older sibling. He thus felt confident in disagreeing with Kate's assessment.Playfully rolling his eyes, he replied, "Yeah, but Nadia isn't you. She's got her head on straight unlike a certain someone."Shrugging her shoulders, Kate mused,"Hmmm, I don't know. She is my sister so she's bound to be like me in more ways than one.""In any case, " he said, eager to change the subject to something less controversial, "Where have you been? I swear this is the first time I've seen you all night.""That's because it is the first time you've seen me all night," she replied as she tried to smooth over her unruly hair, "I've been up in my room taking a nap. I flew in yesterday, but I'm still so tired. I swear traveling from Qatar to here then back again never gets easier. It's bad enough I can't manage to fall asleep on the flights, but the time zone change is always a real ----- too."Several years ago, eager to get out of Southern Illinois and away from her parents for a change, Kate took a job working as a government contractor in Qatar of all places. By all accounts she enjoyed her career and the opportunity to experience things beyond what her hometown had to offer. On the surface, Jake was happy for her. Deep down, however, he regretted the fact that one of his favorite people in the world now lived almost half a world away. Although they video chatted regularly and she made sure to fly in at least once a year, nothing could replace the time when a quick ten or fifteen minute drive was all it took to be physically in her company. Gone were the days when he, Kate, and Nadia hung out together almost daily."Oh actually speaking of Qatar I got you something," said Kate as she proceeded to pull an item out of her front pocket.Living abroad, Kate was always bringing back home various trinkets and souvenirs. Some were of great delight to Jake. Others were barely above garbage."What is it," Jake asked, staring at the trinket she pulled out of her pocket and dangled before him."It's a pendant," she exclaimed, " A very special pendant."For a few seconds, Jake looked at the pendant. He examined it for any signs of the specialness Kate confidently stated it possessed. To his disappointment he saw little evidence which would back up her claim. The piece of jewelry dangling before him was nothing more than a silver chain from which a small round crystal hung. It was pretty, to be sure, but not extraordinary by his reckoning."What's so special about it," he asked at last, having given up trying to find the answer for himself."So this pendant was actually a gift someone gave me for helping them out. Now, it may not look like much, but according to them there's a bit of folklore about it.""Really," Jake asked, now a little curious as to where this could be going."Yes, according to the person who gave it to me this pendant houses a spirit who every one hundred years grants a wish."Kate said all this with a delightful smile which only aggravated his incredulity. He laughed at her."Wow, some gift this person gave you. They basically handed down a cheap piece of jewelry to you and told you it was magical. I mean where to begin? Did you actually try to make a wish with it?"Having anticipated his disbelief, Kate took no offense at his mockery, but simply replied, "I did actually. I tried to wish for a new boss but it didn't work." She giggled a bit then continued, "It didn't work, but then again maybe it hasn't been a hundred years since it last granted a wish."Continuing to hold up the pendant in front of Jake's face, she then asked, " I know you don't believe in folklore or magic. Neither do I, but there's something just something about it. I can't put my finger on it. I don't know what it is, but it's there. I mean just look at it. Do you really not sense anything?"Taking up her offer to reexamine the pendant, Jake found himself undergoing a subtle, yet significant change in judgement. Somehow on second glance, he did indeed perceive something uncanny about it. A force attracted him, but like Kate he was at a loss to describe it."Just take it, Jake. At the very least it's a nice piece of jewelry you can give Clarice."He stopped looking at the pendant so he could turn his gaze back on her."But if it really is magic don't you want it? Aren't there things you want to wish for? Like a new boss maybe?"With a good humored smile she said, "Yeah, there are I guess, but there'll always be something."Her tone and facial expression became more contemplative as she continued, "Honestly, I think you need something like this more than me. You're always so uptight Jake and since I'm usually not here to lighten things up I figured maybe you could use a bit of magic."Jake sensed a subtle note of guilt in the way she spoke. Although they never talked about it directly, she was well aware of how her moving abroad had affected the loved ones she'd left behind, especially her favorite cousin, Jake. She was constantly in ways little and big, trying her best to minimize the void she'd left behind. Not wanting to risk hurting her feelings, Jake accepted the gift without further protest.The two spent the rest of the night talking and catching up together. When speaking to Kate, Jake held little back. He told her almost everything going on in his life. Certain key things, however, he opted not to divulge to her not because he felt she wouldn't understand or appreciate, but because he didn't want to disturb the fun, light atmosphere between them. It wasn't everyday he got to enjoy her company again. As when they were kids, he wished to be happy and carefree with her.On the drive home from the graduation party, Jake couldn't resist asking his wife the question, "Honey, have you ever considered taking a cruise?"Sitting shotgun to her husband as he drove, Clarice turned her head to look at him. The young couple had been married for six years now, but still a warm sensation came over Jake whenever he knew her hazel eyes were upon him.He continued, "You know we're always taking trips to see family or friends but I think it would be nice if we took a trip just the two of us and I know neither one of us has been on a cruise so I thought maybe it would be something worthwhile."After thinking it over for a few seconds, Clarice replied, "Yeah I would actually love to. Where would you want to go?"For a good ten minutes as they made their way to their home in Swansea, Illinois, the couple discussed various places they could take a cruise to. In merely discussing the possibility of a cruise with his wife, Jake felt a certain exhilaration come over him. He was already imagining this future adventure, and taking delight in thinking of the numerous possibilities before them. It was wonderful to contemplate a future which seemed so clear and wide open. Section 1: O’Fallon, ILChapter 1: Charlie and Co. Arrive"Just miles and miles of cornfields and pure nothing ," said Jackson Clarke commenting on the Southern Illinois landscape which zipped past him as he and his friend made their way down the highway. Seated in the passenger seat of his friend's ride, the young Australian opened the window allowing a rush of air to both cool him down and tussle his smooth, brown hair. Beads of sweat poured down his smooth face and dripped from his hairless chin. As much as he liked his friend Andrew, Jackson already found himself wondering if it was really worth it to travel all the way from Australia just to visit him in some town called O'Fallon."Well this is about exactly what Andrew told us to expect," replied Charlie White as he sped his car toward their destination. He'd been driving all day. Jackson arrived in America three days earlier landing in Florida where the two took about a day and a half to just hangout before finally making their way towards Illinois where their friends Andrew and Kaya awaited them. Like Jackson, he couldn't say he was thrilled by the idea of visiting some random town in Southern Illinois. His expectations for this trip were low. Nonetheless, since Andrew had taken the time to visit him in Florida he felt obligated to do the same.The oppressive summer heat didn't help the mood of either man. For whatever reason, the car AC unit which he trusted to get him through the Florida summers broke down on the way to Illinois. This left him hot and eager for the long drive to end. Sweat soaked into his ample facial hair. Moreover, it made a mess of his otherwise flowing locks of silky, black hair which rested on his shoulders. Whatever this week away from his home in Florida had in store for him, Charlie didn't care. He just wanted to get out of this ---- car. ***Until two years ago, Andrew Wagenheim had never heard of the MidWestern suburb of O'Fallon, IL. A career opportunity opened up, however, and before he knew it he found himself getting acquainted with the sight of soy fields, corn fields, and all the other peculiarities of the Southern Illinois region he now called home. He didn't hate life in the area, but he couldn't imagine staying for more than perhaps two more years. For a young man who desired variety, excitement, and an abundance of interesting things to do, the region was too tranquil for his taste. Life in the suburbs struck him as comfortable, quiet, but rarely much more. Eventually he hoped to go to someplace less Midwestern, less Middle America, but for now he was alright.In the weeks prior to his friends visiting, Andrew naturally worried himself over how best to entertain them while they were here. They would be coming long distances to visit, so he felt extra pressured to make their journey worthwhile. He had a few activities lined up. Ultimately, however, he hoped the opportunity to hang out in real life instead of online would prove enough."---- , what happened to you guys? Is that sweat or did you guys get caught in the rain or something," said Andrew the moment Charlie and Jackson showed up on his doorsteps. Lying on the sofa in the living room, Kaya Orsan, the fourth member of the group turned his head to see the two sweat soaked men make their way into the house. Having only arrived the day before from Germany, Kaya was still struggling to adjust to the time change. In spite of this, he couldn't help but laugh a little at the expense of his two friends. With their arrival, the gang was all there.For the four friends, doing something together usually meant doing something on the internet. All four men were active internet personalities. Among other things they did a podcast together called, "The Official Podcast". Charlie was perhaps the most active of the four. Going by the moniker MoistCritikal, he regularly streamed on Twitch and posted videos on YouTube. The plan for the coming week, however, didn't involve any of that. Instead it involved the four young men enjoying what they hoped would be a relaxing vacation spent in each other's immediate company. Chapter 2: Best Friend JakeThe first thing Rolo Baez did when he got home from work around 5pm was change out of his stiff work clothes, and into some shorts and a loose t-shirt. As an office worker at one of the government offices located in the Southern Illinois region, he was required to wear business casual clothes which were stifling in the summer heat. Sweat coated his brown skin. Just putting on less restrictive clothing made him feel more relaxed after a long day. He couldn't relax for too long, however. His best friend, Jake, would be over in a short while, and he was eager to clean up the house a bit before he arrived.Located near the center of O'Fallon, IL, Rolo's house was nothing special, but it was probably as nice a place as a white collar professional with a middle income job in his late 20's could afford. It had a garage, two stories, a basement, and more than enough living space for one person. The day he moved out of his parents' house and into his own was one of the proudest days of his life. His parents were overjoyed at his having reached this milestone and so was he. Eventually, Jake arrived.Rolo and Jake had been friends for over ten years. They met in college and stuck with each other through the at times awkward, difficult transition into full-blown adulthood. Meeting together on a random weekday served as a chance for the two to chat and hangout. They would watch some TV, occasionally play video games, and generally enjoy each other's company.Rolo anticipated his friend staying for at least a while. As the hours ticked by, however, he became concerned. It was a Tuesday night. They both had work in the morning and it was getting late. Eventually he had to say something."Jake, aren't you going home soon?"Seated on one of Rolo's couches, Jake suddenly sat up. They'd been watching Netflix all night and it was clear Jake was growing sleepy, but he didn't go home."Oh yeah sorry, I guess I just lost track of time. Yeah, I should definitely be going."Groggily, Jake stood up, gathered his things and prepared to head out the door. To Rolo's amusement, he'd been laying on the couch for so long his usually well-kept short blond hair looked more like a bird's nest. This would usually be the part of the evening where the friends called it a night without much fuss. Jake, though, still seemed reluctant to go."Is everything alright? You don't really seem like yourself," asked a concerned Rolo."No, I'm fine man thanks. Just a little off today that's all."Jake thought hard about admitting to his friend the true reason behind his reluctance to go home, but at the last minute he settled on something much easier to talk about."I, uh, I was gonna ask you what you wanted for your birthday."Rolo gave his friend a somewhat puzzled look. While it was true that his birthday was coming up later this month, it still surprised him that Jake of all people would ask him what he wanted for it since on more than one occasion he'd made clear his general apathy towards birthdays, specifically his own. Some time ago he'd even admitted, "I don't know what it is, but things like birthdays just don't seem to matter to me anymore. As a kid I used to love them and really look forward to them, but now as an adult they just seem like another day.""I don't know. If you really want you can just get me something. I don't care too much.""It's your thirtieth birthday, though, don't you want something special?""No,no, honestly you don't have to get me anything at all, or if you really feel you have to just get me something that's not too much trouble. ""Okay, if you change your mind just let me know man.""I will," he replied as he ushered his friend out the door. The two said goodnight and finally parted ways.Just about any other night, Jake would have been eager to head home to his house in Swansea, IL where his wife no doubt awaited him. Tonight, though, was not any other night. Driving away from Rolo's house, he didn't take the usual turn to get to his house. Instead he took the turn to get to the Super 8 Motel nearby. Section 2: Just a WishChapter 3: SleeplessOnce Jake left, Rolo wasted little time getting ready for bed and another day's work. He went upstairs to his bedroom where after going through his nightly regimen settled down on his bed to sleep. Sleep, however, didn't come. Instead a restlessness took hold of him.This restlessness confounded him. It seemed that after all he did throughout the day ,specifically at work, he was worthy of a good night's sleep. Regardless of his opinion on the matter, he continued to lay in bed awake unable to fall asleep.With little better to do, he made his way back downstairs and turned on the TV. He resolved to wait out his bout of restlessness. As he waited for sleep to finally overtake him, he decided to watch some YouTube videos. *** To his friends and family, Jake was a happily married man who lived with his wife in a fine one story house in Swansea, Illinois. None of them knew that for the past few nights he hadn't once been with his wife or even gone to the house. Instead he'd been staying at a cheap motel on the outskirts of O'Fallon.Time spent outside his motel room could distract him; help him not to think about why he was sleeping here instead of at home with his wife. This was why he endeavored to spend as much time outside the motel room as he could. However, the moment he walked into the room his mind couldn't stop. He had to think about it.As it had for the past few nights, his mind cycled through the same thoughts without ceasing. Every thought and emotion held at bay by the day's activities now resurfaced. This included all the ones he wished would stay down. Once more he was seized with the desire to make sense of a ten year relationship in the span of an evening; to figure out when and how it had all gone wrong.With his mind running on all cylinders it was difficult for him to get to sleep. In fact for the past few nights he had struggled to fall asleep. This night seemed like it would be much of the same. Instead of letting his thoughts continue to torment him, Jake began rummaging through his stuff in an attempt to organize it. He had a few boxes of clothes and other items to sort through. While his motel room didn't exactly have oodles of space to work with, he did as best he could. It was in going through one of his boxes that he stumbled upon it."Wait a minute this is..." he pulled out a pendant; the very same pendant Kate had given him about a year ago."Of all the things to keep," He thought as he examined it.Chapter 4: Favorite YouTuber Meanwhile at his house, Rolo possessed no idea of what his friend Jake was up to. Instead lounging on the couch, he was focused on deciding which YouTube video to watch next. The YouTube algorithm threw up an assortment of videos as potential candidates. At first none really piqued his interest. Then he saw it. It was a new upload from his favorite YouTuber, MoistCritikal.Rolo's enjoyment of MoistCrtitikal's content began innocently enough. One day while passively watching YouTube videos while he worked, he stumbled upon a video parodying the latest internet punching bag; the Juicero. He found the video so hilariously enjoyable that he spent the rest of the workday binge watching MoistCritikal's videos as he completed his work. By the end of the day, he was a fan.At first, Rolo's interest in MoistCritikal was purely for his content. Although it varied from day to day, in general his content consisted of reaction videos, gameplay clips, and commentary videos on various topics. Rolo enjoyed his brand of vulgar, off-kilter humor. None of the initial videos he saw actually showed MoistCritikal's face. One day, though, he did happen upon a video which showed his face, and from that day forward things changed.In the age of the internet and globalized media, it is not uncommon for the person one finds the most attractive to be a celebrity, movie star, singer, or social media personality one has little chance of ever actually being in close proximity to. The biological mechanisms which govern human attraction are the result of evolutionary developments which could have never predicted the internet or any other sort of technology which allows humans to view the appearance of someone who physically may be thousands of miles away. Consequently, modern man is more than liable to find him or herself powerfully drawn to people they have little realistic possibility of ever seeing in real life. Such was the case with Rolo when it came to MoistCritikal. ***Jake did not believe in magic. He did not believe it when first given the pendant, and a year later he still did not believe it. As a child he used to love pretending magic existed, but as a grown man he felt it was more than a little unbecoming to even entertain such fanciful notions. Nonetheless, the more he stared at the pendant the more something stirred within him."It's just like she said. Even if it's not magic there's still something about this pendant," he thought.In his bored, sleep deprived state he genuinely pondered trying to make a wish with it. "I know for a fact it won't work, but still what could be the harm in just playing along for a bit?" *** Still lounging on his couch waiting for sleep to come, Rolo began watching MoistCritikal's latest video. As usual, MoistCritikal was looking into the camera, reacting to the most recent trending internet controversy. One YouTuber had done some bull---- which led another YouTuber to do some more bull---- until they both lost millions of subscribers. It was nothing Rolo frankly cared about at least at this time of night. Staring intently at his TV screen, what most interested Rolo was not the words coming out of MoistCritikal's face, but his actual face.In plain terms, he thought of MoistCritikal as the most unbelievably gorgeous human being he'd ever seen. Every time he saw those silky black locks of hair which flowed down his neck before finally resting on his shoulders combined with that rugged beard, Rolo's mind was blown. He often found himself asking, "How....how is it possible for that much sexiness to be crammed into one person?" It was a genuine mystery to him. Whatever the answer, it likely would do nothing to diminish the enjoyment he gained from simply admiring his appearance.From watching his videos, Rolo knew he and MoistCritikal lived not only hundreds of miles away from each other, but also lived their lives amongst very different social circles doing very different things. The quiet government bureaucrat could never imagine broadcasting his thoughts and opinions to thousands possibly millions of people on a regular basis. Furthermore living in Southern Illinois whilst MoistCritikal lived in Southern Florida, Rolo held no expectation of somehow even bumping into him while going about his day to day life. None of these realities, though, presented any obstacle to his occasional daydreaming and fantasizing of the incredibly gorgeous man he knew only through videos posted on the web. One of the benefits of the human mind, after all, is precisely its ability to enjoy possibilities it acknowledges as far out of physical reach. In this sense, Rolo entertained an idle fascination with MoistCritikal.Eventually the sleepiness he'd been seeking slowly crept up on him. Not even the promise of seeing more of MoistCritikal's face could prevent his eyelids from drooping. He started drifting off to sleep. Chapter 5: The Wish and the FantasyAs Rolo dozed off, back at his motel room Jake continued pondering what to do with the pendant. Having thoroughly convinced himself that there could be no harm in using it, he preoccupied himself with the issue of what he was going to wish for. He put little thought into this."Eh, how about Rolo's birthday? I'll wish something for Rolo," recalling the conversation he had not too long ago with his friend.Pendant in hand he uttered the words, "Hey spirit of the pendant or whatever please give my friend Rolo something that he wants."Jake waited for a second. Having uttered the wish, he fully expected his skepticism to be confirmed. As second after second passed with nothing happening, a proud sense of vindication came over him."See I knew nothing would happen. Eh, I guess it passed the time at least."Just as he was preparing to set the pendant down and forget about it once more, a bright light began emanating from the pendant's crystal. Its light filled the entire room in an instant. Jake dropped it and in shock tried to crawl to a corner of the room. After a few seconds of this, the light dimmed and a figure suddenly appeared in the room."Oh ----. Oh ----," was all Jake could think as the apparition loomed over him. ***With the TV still on, Rolo dozed off on his couch. He could never spend an entire night there. Usually, when the urge to sleep grew too overwhelming he would spend a few minutes there lingering between wakefulness and full blown sleep before finally rousing himself and formally heading to bed for the night. It was in precisely this state that his mind unshackled itself from the chains of conscious thought that held it firmly in place during the day. For a little while at least, he was able to escape the forces and constraints of reality which hemmed him in throughout the day and enter a world where the only limit was his imagination. He started dreaming.In an instant, his mind transported him from the couch he knew so well to a fantastical world so different from the one he was used to. For one, he was standing not on dirt and soil, but on white, fluffy clouds. They easily supported his weight, and were so very soft to stand on. Up above, the stars twinkled across the night sky with a breathtaking vividness. A full moon gently illuminated all around him. As it was, the whole world he now resided in was beautiful and wonderful. Then he heard a voice behind him.He turned to look and to his shock it was him. It was MoistCritikal standing there in his familiar white t-shirt and shorts. Before Rolo could so much as say his name in surprise, he took him by the hands and swept him away. The two danced amidst the clouds of this wondrous scene. Chapter 6: Wish Granted All was chaos for Jake back at his motel room. His mind struggled to make sense of everything that had just occurred."Okay, okay so there was this flash like from a flashbang or something. And then and then that entity came out of the pendant. Then it said that the wish would be granted....Then it disappeared. Yes, it's gone now. It's over?"Still huddled in a corner of the room, Jake could recall every detail of what had transpired only a minute or two ago. Remembering wasn't the problem. The problem was in comprehending the unbelievable. In an instant, so much of what he knew about reality was shattered and left lying on the cold hard ground. The room itself bore little evidence of the extraordinary events that had taken place. Perhaps the only hard evidence was the pendant. When he went to pick it up he instantly noticed the once glimmering crystal jewel was now dull; its shine unmistakably diminished."It, it was real...In which case, what have I done?" *** Charlie White went to sleep soundly that night. After a whole day of driving, sleep came easy for him. The modest one story house Andrew owned in the center of town didn't have a separate room for each of his three guests, so Jackson and Charlie had to share a spare bedroom. The small portable mattresses Andrew provided weren't particularly comfy, but they sufficed. For a good hour or so he was finally able to close his eyes and rest. Then he was awoken.In the middle of the night, something compelled him to open his eyes. When he did he saw a strange figure floating above him. He instinctively tried to cry out, but before he could the entity seemed to steal his voice away. Try as he may he could say nothing. Staring up at the apparition, he felt paralyzed powerless to do anything. Terror filled him as his mind raced to figure out what this being had in store for him.To his bewilderment, the apparition reached a hand down towards his head. He shuddered as he saw the hand approach. Then the moment the hand touched his forehead he saw something. The image of a brown skinned man with short black hair flashed across his mind's eye. Moreover he heard a name. Both the man and the name were things he did not recognize, but the apparition forced them into his mind. Having implanted these two things in Charlie's mind, the entity vanished as quickly as it had appeared. As its final act it induced him to return to sleep the moment it left. ***In his dream, Rolo was still dancing amidst the clouds. It was just him and MoistCritikal alone together. He was able to gaze into his eyes as he gazed back. At some point their faces started inching closer together. Just when they were close enough to kiss, the dream abruptly ended.By the time Rolo snapped out of the light sleep he'd enjoyed on the couch, it was late. One moment he was up in the clouds with MoistCritikal, the next he woke up alone back in his own home. It took him a second or two to readjust.Although like most dreams it left no discernible mark on his life beyond memories, that did not prevent Rolo from appreciating it for precisely what it was; a pleasurable, wonderful escape from reality. He sat on the couch for a minute or two indulging in recollections of the fantasy his mind had conjured up. Eventually, however, he recalled the busy day he had tomorrow.He finally turned off the TV, lifted himself off the couch, and started preparing to actually go to bed for the night. Fortunately, the afterglow from the dream helped put him in a better mood for sleep. All the while he was blissfully unaware of all that had transpired that night with Jake, Charlie a.k.a MoistCritikal, and the Pendant. Section 3: The Day AfterChapter 7: The Next MorningThe next morning Charlie woke up with only the faintest remembrance of last night's visitation by the apparition. He could recall being disturbed in the middle of the night, but that was all. Any actual details were either blurry or forgotten. It was thus easy for him to explain away the entire incident as some sort of vivid nightmare or sleep paralysis episode. He reassured himself that whatever happened it was all in his head.Abetting his certainty that it was merely a figment of his imagination was the fact he could detect no discernible evidence of anything unusual having occurred. All his and Jackson's stuff was exactly where it was when they went to bed. Further, the room bore no signs of forced entry ,or any indication something entering the room that didn't belong. Altogether the world around him seemed normal."Morning," said Jackson as he entered the room. Jackson had awoken extra early, and so wasted no time hitting the showers to start preparing for the day."Hey, morning," Charlie replied, still groggy from having just woken up.A part of Charlie wanted to ask Jackson about last night, but ultimately he decided not to. He had settled on the night's extraordinary events being some random creation of his mind, and did not wish to disturb this comfortable explanation. Nonetheless, he did notice Jackson giving him a pensive look."Charlie, did you sleep well last night," Jackson finally asked as he finished dressing himself."Yeah, I slept well enough. Why?"As if trying to figure out the best way to put things, Jackson hesitated a moment before responding."Well, last night I heard you say something in your sleep.""Wait, what? When and what did I say," asked Charlie now, fearful that his easy, simple explanation of the previous night's events would be taken from him."It was in the middle of the night. I woke up to go to the bathroom and when I came back I caught you mumbling something in your sleep. You said it out of nowhere. Honestly, it sounded like a name. I think it was... Rolo Baez?"For a moment, it seemed as if mentioning the name sparked something within Charlie. His eyes widened as if in sudden recognition. Then, however, the spark quickly faded."Is that someone you know," asked Jackson, noticing his friend's immediate reaction."No, no it isn't. I...I honestly don't know why I would say something like that. It must have just been something random I said in my sleep that just sounded like a name. I slept fine last night."Jackson didn't know what to make of Charlie's reply. Although not entirely convinced by his explanation, he ultimately decided not to make a big deal out of something that may very well be nothing at all. With little else to add he dropped the matter and the two friends resumed going about their morning. ***Rolo woke up to the sound of his alarm blaring at him. At first he dutifully pulled his blanket off him then tried rousing himself out of bed. He couldn't do it. Instead, after a long night where he stayed up way past his usual bedtime he was overwhelmed by the desire to stay in bed and sleep more. Hitting the snooze button he fell back into bed."I need just like two more hours. Two more hours, that's all I'm asking," he thought to himself as he hugged his pillow and nestled his head on it.Unfortunately, he didn't have two hours. In fact, he didn't even have thirty minutes. The clock read 6:15 A.M. and he needed to be at work at 7:00 A.M. Since the commute to his job took him about fifteen minutes and he needed at least five minutes to adequately dress himself, he had at absolute best twenty five minutes to catch some more Zs. He knew all this. Nonetheless, he remained in his bed hoping on hope that the inevitable would somehow not come.Thinking about what the workday would likely have in store for him made him even more reluctant to get out of bed. Some people fear automation taking away their jobs. Rolo didn't. On the contrary, every time he read a futurist blog he found himself secretly longing for the day when some advanced A.I. system would free him from his office job. This state of the art system would liberate him from the burden of redoing a report over and over and over again to make sure the minorest detail of font, indentation, or page margin was correct before handing it in to his superiors. Since this machine, if designed properly at least, would be incapable of boredom, it could process the mountains of invoices that showed up regularly on Rolo's desk without the existential dread of watching its life slip away doing menial work. If the coming A.I. overlords were intent on taking his job they could have it."Do I really have to get up? Do I," he asked himself. Clinging to his pillow, he wanted to stay in bed forever and never go to work again."Rolo," came a voice from deep within his psyche as he was just about to once more shut his eyes, "You can't do this. You can't just skip out on work. You can't!"This voice, which one could call his sense of responsibility, did not let either the coziness of his bed or the discomfort of his sleep deprived state dissuade it from reminding Rolo of the necessity of his going to work. It reminded him of bills which needed to be paid, and a comfortable standard of living that required a steady stream of income in order to be maintained. In other words, it forced him to remember the overarching truth that like a railcar his life had to stay on track lest it become derailed. Deviations had consequences."Fine, fine, fine" thought Rolo as he finally got himself out of bed.Once out of bed, he promptly dressed himself. Then he went downstairs, brewed some coffee to go, and eventually headed out the door. *** Jake could barely sleep at all that night. His mind raced with images of things and events which couldn't possibly be."That couldn't have actually happened," he thought to himself looking once more at the pendant. Even as he tried to dismiss whatever happened last night, the dullness of the once glimmering crystal jewel suggested something had indeed occurred.His processing of the previous night's events occurred in stages. First came the initial shock when so much of what he knew about the world was blown away in an instant. Then came the denial phase."No, that couldn't have happened. Things like that don't happen. I live in the real world where things like that just don't happen."He spent the entire night in the denial phase and was still very much deep into it by the time he had to get dressed and prepare for work."But what if what happened last night was real. Then what," a stray thought flashed through his mind as he began the commute to work, "What did I just do then? That spirit or thing said the wish would be granted, but what exactly does that mean..." Such speculations dogged him as he pulled into work. Unable to stop himself from thinking over the potential ramifications of last night, he came into work that morning in a thoroughly distracted frame of mind he could hardly afford to maintain if he was to make it through the day.As he settled into his office, he thought of something. Being a therapist, Jake was knowledgeable in the science of human psychology. Desperate to make some sense of the previous night's occurrences, he used what he knew about psychology and reality in general to arrive at an explanation that seemed to offer him a way to explain the experiences he so vividly remembered while also denying any unsettling ramifications. "Okay, maybe something did happen last night, but, but, it was all in my head. Yes, I was sleep-deprived and emotionally distraught so it's possible, just possible that I had a temporary, very temporary, break with reality."This explanation gave him much satisfaction in the way it took the prior night's extraordinary incident and subsumed it into a mundane understanding of the world; one he was far more used to dealing with. It easily settled something which otherwise would have troubled him so greatly he wouldn't be able to focus on his work. Drinking his early morning coffee he felt even more certain of his explanation.Just as he felt prepared to start the workday, his phone beeped. It was a text message. He looked to see who it was from and what it said. To his chagrin he found himself faced with a new problem; one that couldn't be so glibly explained away. Chapter 8: Maybe Something’s WrongOn their second day in the Greater St. Louis region, the four friends Charlie, Jackson, Andrew, and Kaya decided to take a day trip to visit the city of St. Louis. They were determined to spend the whole day trying all sorts of activities and eating at the various restaurants the Midwestern city had to offer. Few would call St. Louis the greatest city in the world. It was a city caught in a slow, steady spiral of decline stretching out decades. Signs of urban blight and decay marred its visage. Nonetheless , Andrew hoped it would offer some amusement for his friends."Oh wow guys, look. The St. Louis Arch is a big metal arch! Who knew," remarked Kaya as the group walked towards the city's most famous landmark. He was clearly unimpressed. Walking beside him, Andrew took no personal offense at this comment but simply rolled his eyes.Despite the occasional and expected sarcastic remark from Kaya, Andrew was enjoying himself. As his friends saw sights and places he'd already been to, Andrew's joy was precisely in experiencing these places anew. His friends gave him new perspectives even on locales he'd long gotten used to. Exploring the city with them was as much an adventure for him as it was for them."Charlie, are you okay," asked Jackson as he walked beside him."Yeah man, I'm fine. What's up," Charlie reflexively responded."I...I don't know. You just seem really off today. Is something on your mind? Are you sure you slept okay last night?""Yeah, yeah...well, maybe not. I mean those beds weren't too comfortable."Jackson laughed a bit."Yeah, they definitely weren't."As the four friends continued their journey within the city, Jackson kept his eyes on Charlie. Something about his friend's behavior troubled him. Observing his friend he noticed every now and then at seemingly random points in the day he seemed lost in thought about something. Charlie remained physically present with them, but his attention seemed divided between being mentally present with them and thinking about whatever was now preoccupying his mind. Although he consistently denied anything was amiss, Jackson increasingly suspected such was not actually the case. He had no clear evidence to back up his suspicions, but he couldn't let them go either. ***Jake worked as a therapist. His day consisted of perfect strangers pouring their hearts out to him and he doing his best to assist them through the thicket of their own emotions. On a regular basis people came to him with issues they've dealt with for years or intransigent problems which their support systems found difficult to handle. Most sessions were a difficult slog. Therapy is a marathon not a race he would often tell his clients during their initial session. Occasionally, however, the fog within someone's life would clear, and with some justification he could claim a role in improving the life of another human being."You were right. You were absolutely right," said Sally Wates, beginning to recount her recent emotional epiphany to Jake as she sat in his office. Sally was a pretty woman in her thirties with kids. What brought her into therapy was a tumultuous childhood characterized by traumas she had difficulty expressing to others, especially her Mom. Over almost a year's worth of therapy, Jake had counseled her on ways she could effectively communicate her feelings to loved ones. Over several months he assured her of the need to be honest with those close to her about the struggles she was facing. He preached to her the value of expressing herself to those who cared for her instead of choosing to face life's difficulties alone."It was scary. I was so nervous talking to my Mom about things she had no idea about, but it was worth it. It was worth it, because I feel like the moment I stopped pretending things were okay, and just admitted how much I was hurting was the moment that we were able to talk at a level that I don't think we've been able to do for years," tears began flowing down her face, "And I just gotta say thank you...for everything thank you."With professional modesty and coolness he replied, "You're welcome Sally, but just remember this is more your doing than mine."For the rest of their session, Jake talked with Sally about her other remaining issues. Her recent breakthrough didn't magically solve all her problems, but it did represent an undeniable milestone. Leaving his office, she thanked him profusely yet again.With her gone, he had about half an hour to himself. Sally's appointment ended earlier than scheduled so in a rare occurrence he actually had time to spare between now and his next client. Sitting at his desk, he started thinking over things.Normally a session like the one he just had would have left him with a feeling of deep vindication. After all, helping people in impactful ways was the whole reason he became a therapist. Sometimes it was easy to forget that. Not all clients successfully went through therapy or experienced a true genuine breakthrough catalyzed by his therapeutic guidance. He should have felt accomplished.Instead he couldn't stop thinking about the problem which had arisen earlier this morning. His cousin Kate had sent him a text message confirming that she would be coming back to Southern Illinois on Friday. Normally, this would be cause for celebration. His current domestic situation, however, made this a cause for anxiety.Over the last few days he'd managed to keep the true state of his personal life hidden from those around him including loved ones, but Kate's arrival would complicate things."She'll find out. She'll figure it out, because she'll want to see Clarice or she'll want to come to the house and then... She'll find out. I know she will," he thought to himself, "Why can't you just tell her? Just talk to her, she'll understand. Heck, you can probably do the same with your parents or with Rolo. These people care about you. You know they do."He tried to imagine the relief he would feel upon sharing his recent struggles with Kate or any of his other loved ones; attempting to use the very psychological techniques he’d so effectively utilized on Sally to help himself. It didn't work. Instead it only made him more painfully aware of what held him back. He grew agitated."I need a drink," he thought to himself, at last settling on a quick, easy way of temporarily relieving his agitation that, at least in a professional capacity, he would almost certainly never recommend to one of his clients. He decided, at that moment, to go to a bar after work so he could relax for a change. Especially after whatever happened the night before he felt he needed a drink. ***Arriving home from work at around 5pm, the first thing Rolo did after changing out of his stiff work clothes was turn on the AC then collapse into bed for a nap. After a little over an hour he woke up. He felt rested yet disappointed.While his primary purpose in taking a nap was to dispel the sleep deprivation which had dogged him all day, a small bit of him closed his eyes in the hopes of having a dream as vivid and alive as the one he had last night. It didn't need to be about MoistCritikal; it just needed to be something which would wash away the drudgery of the day. To his chagrin it didn't happen. In a most mundane fashion he went to sleep and then sometime later woke up.Whatever disappointment he felt wasn't enough to distract him from the fact that he had plans to meet his friend Alex at a bar soon. Without skipping a beat he roused himself out of bed, put on casual clothes, got into his car and started heading towards his destination. Chapter 9: The Hut That evening the four friends returned to O'Fallon, IL. Having spent the day exploring the city, their feet were paying a heavy toll. If they weren't outright exhausted their feet at the very least were definitely hurting. They decided to take it easy that night."So what do you guys want to do now? Do you guys want to just go home or do you want to maybe stop at a bar or something," Andrew asked."Eh, I vote for just going home," said Kaya."We should stop at a bar," answered Jackson.With Andrew not caring what they did, the deciding vote was Charlie's. Initially he was inclined to side with Kaya, but just when he was about to utter his opinion something within him made him want to go to the bar instead. He had this sudden feeling that he needed to be there."Let's go to the bar.""Okay bar it is. If it's okay with you, Kaya, we won't be there long.""Sure, it's fine."The bar the group ended up going to was called The Hut. Sitting on the outskirts of O'Fallon's downtown, The Hut was an unassuming little bar that offered, among other things, cheap drinks and food. Settling down near the bar's pool tables, the group ordered some drinks and proceeded to lounge around. Everyone was enjoying themselves except for Charlie.He kept thinking about Rolo Baez. That name, if it was in fact a name, sounded so strangely familiar to him. Recalling it again and again throughout the day, he could've sworn he'd heard it somewhere before."Was it last night," he asked himself more than once today.At times he tried remembering what happened last night, but his memories were vague and only growing more so as the day proceeded. Moreover, despite the sense of familiarity the name elicited, he was still certain he didn't know anyone by that name. He had no clue regarding who this Rolo Baez could possibly be or if he even existed at all. More importantly, he couldn't explain why this name stuck out so much to him. No matter what he did on his first full day in the Southern Illinois region, it was never too far from the forefront of his mind. Ultimately, all he could do was try to act normal and hope whatever was up with him would simply blow over of its own accord. ***After his long day at work, Jake arrived at The Hut ready to have a couple drinks and take it easy for a little while. Although he usually didn't drink alone at the bar on a weekday, he was going through some special circumstances and he certainly didn't want to drink alone at his motel room. He ordered a beer which he took casual sips from as he slumped in his chair. It didn't take long for the comfortable, chill atmosphere of the bar to seep into him. A mellowness came over his mood."It's been too long since I felt this relaxed," it dawned on him.For the past few weeks and even months he hadn't been able to have a moment of tranquility like this. Some worry or concern always festered in the back of his mind. No matter where he went or who he was with, his personal troubles seemed inescapable. Now, though, sitting in this bar he finally had it. It was a feeling so greatly missed that he couldn't resist surrendering to it.A killjoy piece of him, however, still felt uneasy about how he was avoiding his problems instead of dealing with them. It wasn't just the fact that he was deliberately not telling any of his loved ones about the momentous changes occurring in his life. More than that, it was his general reluctance to even think about the future or how he was going to live in light of things already in motion. He had no good answers for these issues. For now he just wanted to finish his beer in peace. ***"Why am I even friends with this guy," asked Rolo of himself as he sat in his car. Literally, right as he pulled up into the The Hut parking lot, Alex texted him saying he couldn't make it. Yet again he had canceled.Alex was someone Rolo met at an office party about two years ago. Since they were the closest in age at the party, they somewhat hit it off. Eventually they made it a habit to meet up with each other every now and again. While usually reliable, Alex did on occasion irk Rolo by canceling at the very last minute. In frustration, Rolo would sometimes question the value of continuing his friendship with him, but invariably he chose to maintain it. After all, besides Jake he didn't have many other people he could hangout with after work."Well, I'm here now. I might as well go in and get a burger or something." With that Rolo made his way into the bar where he quickly encountered someone he was not expecting to meet."Hey Jake, surprised to see you here," said Rolo as he approached his friend who was seated in a fairly secluded corner of the bar."Oh ----," thought Jake the moment he saw Rolo walk in. Like virtually anyone keeping a big secret, he was paranoid about even the slightest possibility of discovery. In his mind, he scrambled for a reasonable excuse as to why he was here."Hey man, what are you doing here," Jake managed to ask first.With an annoyed sigh Rolo responded, "Well I was supposed to meet my friend Alex, but he had to cancel so I decided to come in anyhow and get something to eat or drink. How about you?""Oh, I got a phone call today, and it turns out I got that job I applied for a while back. It's a big raise, and just such a huge step forward for me that I uhh wanted to celebrate."No one would mistake Jake for an actor. Regardless, he did his best to sell his cover-up. It wasn't entirely untrue after all. Some time ago he did apply for a position which he was recently interviewed for, and he felt the interview went well enough that he was somewhat confident he'd get the job. He studied Rolo's facial expression to see if his excuse stuck."Jake, that's so great to hear. Congratulations. Happy for you man," said Rolo with genuine joy at his friend's good news. Since he had no reason to doubt the word of his best friend, Rolo wholeheartedly believed him.Sensing his ploy had worked, Jake continued, "Yeah you know I'm just so relieved that it worked out and I'm moving forward with my career it seems like."Having dodged a bullet, Jake felt relief coursing through him. Without any further hesitation, he invited Rolo to join him at his table. It wasn't a bother to have Rolo sitting with him now. If anything it was a boon since he would no longer be drinking alone. Feeling the same, Rolo sat down at the table and the two began hanging out.The only immediate concern still bothering Jake was the issue of the pendant and the wish. He couldn't quite fully dismiss it from his mind. At some point as he sat with his friend, it occurred to him that if anyone would know if a wish had in fact been granted it would be Rolo. After all, he made the wish on behalf of him.The urge to pee afflicted Rolo before he even stepped into the bar. Before long, he got up to head for the restroom. As he prepared to leave, Jake suddenly asked him a question."Hey wait. Before you go, can I ask you a real quick question?"Although Rolo's bladder was near bursting he politely waited for his friend to ask him his question."Sure, what's up?""Have you seen or experienced anything weird or out of the ordinary since last night?"Bladder on the edge of capacity, Rolo still took a moment to genuinely ponder. Besides Jake's strange behavior at his house, he could recall little to nothing out of the ordinary occurring since last night. If anything for him the day went along a perfectly predictable course."No, not that I can think of. Why?"" I...It's nothing. It's just I've heard from coworkers, clients, and others that ummm certain things have been happening recently but it's really nothing," replied Jake trying to cobble together an explanation as to why he asked in the first place. In a rush to leave, Rolo barely paid any mind to his hastily constructed reply and sped off to the restroom. ***At some point during the evening at The Hut, Charlie made his way to the bathroom. While there he not only used the restroom, but also took a moment to reflect on things."Seriously who is this Rolo Baez," he asked himself as he looked into the bathroom mirror. He proceeded to splash his face with cold water."Ya know, maybe this Rolo Baez person is just someone or something I randomly dreamed up in my sleep. I know something weird happened last night, but I just can't remember."Still unable to make heads or tails of his situation, he walked out the restroom without giving the matter another thought. As he walked out, however, he received a text from Andrew letting him know the guys were headed out and were already waiting in the car for him so they could leave. With his focus momentarily distracted, he naturally ended up bumping into someone. Looking to see who it was so he could properly apologize, he couldn't believe his eyes. It was him."Rolo Baez," he involuntarily uttered. Part 2: A Wish GrantedSection 1: Run-In Chapter 1: Bumped Into "Rolo Baez," said an all too familiar voice to Rolo. He heard the words and saw the person who uttered them, but he still couldn't believe it. No way was it real."MoistCritikal," he replied back in a tone of disbelief. For a moment, he no longer felt the urge to use the restroom as strongly as he had before. The lights, sounds, and view of the Midwestern bar around him receded far into the background. In the foreground was the immediate image of the man who stood before him, and a recollection of that dream he experienced only a night prior.Charlie's reaction upon bumping into Rolo was no less intense. In fact the moment he laid eyes on the short, unassuming man he'd just run into, something incredibly weird happened to him. Somehow, someway he immediately recognized the man standing before him as the Rolo Baez he'd inadvertently been thinking about all day. He was inexplicably sure of it. The strangeness did not end there.Finding himself suddenly face to face with this mystery man, he felt his face breakout in an unmistakable blush. His heart raced. Moreover, he suddenly had butterflies in his stomach. He couldn't even look away.It was like time stopped as the two stared at each other in shock that the other was there; physically present right in front of them. They would have stayed stuck in place for a while if not for the assistance of a kind stranger."GET THE ---- OUT THE WAY. YOU'RE BLOCKING THE RESTROOM AND I HAVE TO TAKE A ----," whispered the kind, friendly voice of someone standing behind Rolo.They both stopped looking at each other so they could turn their attention to a clearly drunk man yelling at them."MOVE ------," he once more whispered in an even more polite, calm and friendly voice when the two didn't step aside. They both finally did. In a huff, the drunken man walked past them. There was nothing quite like the harsh shouting of some middle aged drunk to send both men back to an awareness of their present surroundings."Wait, do you know who I am," asked Charlie, still trying to get his bearings. He'd heard Rolo say his screenname, and so suspected this mystery person might be a fan. After a whole day of speculating as to who this man could be, this was the only lead he had."Ummm, yes," uttered a bewildered Rolo.The experience of bumping into anyone would have flummoxed the shy Rolo. It certainly didn't help that the person he bumped into was someone so unexpected who, at least in his view of the world, seemed so out of place here in his everyday Southern Illinois life. Added to this he still very much had to pee. With the restroom so tantalizingly close, he could feel the floodgates of his bladder about to give way at any moment. Under these circumstances, it was not only difficult to think straight but impossible. He stared his favorite YouTuber in the eyes, but lacked the presence of mind to even appreciate it.In this situation, Charlie faced a choice. On the one hand, his friends were already in the car waiting for him. The normal and sensible thing would have been to quickly apologize to the mysterious short man in front of him then promptly join them. On the other hand, he had finally encountered the man who'd inexplicably been on his mind all day and who ,for whatever reason, he felt powerfully drawn to. He wanted to know who this person was. Phone still in his hand he took the only course of action he felt he could. ***"Well at the very least, I was able to confirm that nothing came of the wish I made for Rolo. I mean I'm sure if something way out of the ordinary happened, if his wish, whatever it could possibly be, was actually granted then I would have heard about it by now. In any case, I should probably throw away or sell that ---- pendant when I get back," thought Jake to himself when Rolo left. He tried to resume sipping his beer and enjoying the chillness of the moment.Just then his phone beeped. Almost instinctively, he pulled it out to see what it was. It was a text message. Whatever inner peace he enjoyed sitting at the bar, flew out the window the moment he saw who the text was from and what it said."When are you coming by the house to pick up the rest of your stuff," read the text from his wife, Clarice.Jake slumped in his chair. Just when he thought the reality of his ordeal could be delayed a little while longer there it was again. There really was no escaping it.When it rains it pours. Before he could even begin processing his wife's text, Rolo came back. One glance at his face and Jake could discern he had something extraordinary to tell."So," began Rolo settling back down into his chair, "you remember how you were just asking me if anything out of the ordinary happened today?"Trying his best not to seem too fazed, Jake answered back, "Yeah, well did something happen?"Barely able, himself, to believe what had occurred only a few minutes prior, Rolo finally said, "On the way to the restroom, I not only literally bumped into my favorite YouTuber, but he asked me for my number and," he paused for a moment as he tried to absorb the magnitude of what he was about to say, "I gave it to him. I gave him my number.""Oh....cool," said Jake as he took a big gulp of his beer. Chapter 2: Later That NightAfter returning from the bar, the group of four stayed up a while longer. Eventually, however, exhaustion overtook them and so the four friends readied themselves for bed. It was in the midst of these preparations that Charlie stepped outside. He wanted to be alone for a bit. Taking out his phone, he looked at the unfamiliar number he had only recently acquired."I asked for his number," he thought as he recalled the incident at the bar, "But what for? What am I going to do with this?"As had been the case throughout the day, his own thoughts, actions, and reactions continued to baffle him. Remembering the image of the man he bumped into earlier, he was more certain than ever he'd never seen him before in his life. It didn't make any sense then that he not only knew his name beforehand, but was able to somehow instantly recognize him upon first laying eyes on him. Perhaps more importantly, he couldn't explain the intensity of his reaction to the mere sight of this mystery person. With some embarrassment, he remembered how his heart leapt and his face became flush. Virtually everything involving this Rolo Baez perplexed him.More than ever he wanted to unravel the mystery about this person who over the last twenty four hours had somehow become his obsession. Although he had his number, he didn't know what pretense or excuse to come up with to meet him again. He didn't feel he could just break away from his friends without arousing unwanted notice. Vexed by the issue he resigned himself to going back inside."Hey Charlie, do you mind helping me with the dishes for a sec," asked Andrew as he prepared to load the dishwasher. While the other two members of their group were in their respective rooms, Charlie and Andrew were alone in the kitchen."Sure," said Charlie."So, what did you think of St. Louis," asked Andrew as the two put the dishes away in efficient coordination."It was fine," replied Charlie, still in a somewhat troubled state of mind.The flat tone of Charlie's response left Andrew more than a little frustrated. Like Jackson, he also noticed Charlie's distracted behavior and overall lack of interest during their time in St. Louis. Unlike Jackson, however, he suspected boredom lay at the root of it all. He feared his worries were coming to pass; his friends weren't enjoying their time visiting him."So, I was thinking," began Andrew again, "That after the long day we had today that tomorrow we would just chill out around here for a little while. Ya know, just relax. I was also thinking of inviting some people over for a little house party later in the day. What do you think?"Andrew did not expect much of a reaction out of Charlie. In fact, he fully anticipated another muted response from him. To his surprise, though, the moment he mentioned the house party something seemed to click within his friend."Hey, so about this house party tomorrow is it okay if I invite someone to it," asked a now alert and interested Charlie.Charlie's reaction to his suggestion of a house party startled Andrew on at least two levels. First, it constituted an instant yet dramatic break from the muted, flat tone he exhibited only a minute or so ago. Instead his voice was filled with an unexpected excitement. Second, he wondered as to who this person could be who Charlie was so interested in inviting over. "Did he meet someone here already," thought Andrew to himself."Ummm, well I mean who is this person exactly," Andrew asked, staring at Charlie in plain bewilderment."It's...It's uhhh ya know, someone I met online who happens to live here and uhhh yeah I was just thinking this would be a great opportunity to finally meet them," said Charlie doing his best to come up with a plausible story.Normally, Andrew would have pressed further. He would have asked more questions about this mystery person Charlie insisted on inviting into his house. In this case, however, his eagerness for his friend's happiness exceeded any lingering concerns he possessed. If his friend trusted this person then he was keen to consider that good enough for him."Uhhh, sure yeah go ahead and invite them over," said Andrew after only a few moments of deliberation. He imagined not too much trouble could possibly come of this. ***For the last few days, Jake avoided grappling with the big long term questions which arose from his current domestic situation with his wife. He tried not to think of where he was going to stay, how he was going to break the news to his loved ones, or even what his life would look like in the near future. Even beginning to think about these things struck him as overwhelming and exhausting. Delay and denial of the inevitable were much easier. One text from his wife, though, reminded him of the impossibility of indefinite procrastination.Returning from the bar, Jake looked around his motel room. As it stood, the dinky, dingy room could barely store all the stuff he'd initially brought with him from the house. If his wife was insistent on him taking the remainder of the things he'd left behind then there was no way it could all fit in his motel room. Unless he wanted to pay for both a storage unit and a motel room, the reality was he would have to think of some place to live with himself and his stuff. He would have to think of the future which was coming regardless of his preparedness for it; would have to ponder all the new circumstances which would undergird his life shortly."-----, why is she in such a rush? Why can't she just let me be? Just give me time." An image came to his mind of his wife overjoyed to finally be rid of him while he struggled to come to terms with the cascade of changes which were now making themselves increasingly evident in his life. This only incensed his anger and frustration.A part of him wanted to think over the surprising incident Rolo told him about while they were at the bar; to ponder whether there was a connection between it and the wish he granted on Rolo's behalf yesterday. In his current state, however, he lacked the focus of mind to spare it a thought. His focus was almost entirely on the mess of his personal life. Going over to sort some of his stuff, however, he once more stumbled on the pendant still dull and lacking its usual glimmer. Exasperated, he tossed it towards a corner of the room.Chapter 3: Disbelief The first thing Rolo did when he got back home was check MoistCritikal's YouTube page to confirm the man he saw at the bar was indeed the MoistCritikal he saw on the screen almost everyday. To his eyes and remembrance it clearly was him. Nonetheless, the more he thought about it the more he doubted how it could have possibly happened the way he remembered it."I mean, how would he even know my name," thought Rolo recalling how the first thing MoistCritikal said was his full name, "I know his face and his name because I see him on YouTube all the time, but he wouldn't know mine. And c'mon it all happened so fast. One moment I bumped into this guy who looked so much like MoistCritikal, and then the next he asked me for my number, and in the heat of the moment I blurted it out to him. Afterwards, I went to the restroom and when I came out he was gone. It happened so fast that it's almost a blur to me. Maybe...maybe. I don't know."On top of the noted incongruities of MoistCritikal somehow knowing who he was, another impediment for Rolo was the general feeling he possessed that an event as extraordinary and unusual as the one he thought he'd experienced simply couldn't happen in his everyday life. To be clear, life in O'Fallon had its surprises. Occasionally, for example, he would bump into an old acquaintance, someone he hadn't seen in years, and they would talk for a few minutes before once more going about their now separate lives. To give another example, every now and then he would go to the grocery store and discover to his delight that they weren't sold out of that local brand of chips he liked. As a final example, typically once or even twice a year a winter storm would come along that left the roads so unsuitable for travel that work would call a snow day leaving Rolo to spend the day in the comfort of his own home as opposed to slaving away at the office. Such occurrences constituted about the extent of fortuitous, unforeseen things he believed daily life capable of offering him. It simply didn't seem likely or even possible that something as out of the ordinary as running into one's favorite YouTuber at some random bar in the Midwest could actually happen to him. More than anything else it was this ingrained sense of disbelief which prevented him from accepting what his own memories of recent events attested to be true.As it got closer to his bedtime, he attempted to drop thinking about the incident at the bar and instead give into thoughts about more practical concerns. In three weeks, his cousin had a wedding so he needed to order a wedding gift for her. Checking the fridge, he realized he was short on groceries and so would need to plan a trip to the grocery store sometime soon. On and on he went about making mental notes and taking care of little things around the house before he went to bed.Try as he may, however, to resume his life and move past the run-in at the bar, he couldn't entirely dismiss it from his thoughts. Amidst the mundane concerns which now preoccupied his attention, the idea he'd actually bumped into MoistCritikal was a delightful little thought he kept alive in the back of his mind. Even as he denied the possibility that it was MoistCritikal, something within Rolo was still excited by the idea of the unexpected and unlikely entering into his life even if only for a brief time. A small part of him continued to push back against the disbelief which otherwise held sway over him.Eventually, his bedtime arrived. He brushed his teeth, made his lunch for work, changed his clothes then got into bed. Just as he stood on the precipice of falling asleep, his phone beeped. Picking up his phone in annoyance, Rolo wondered, "Who is texting me this late? God, I hope it's not an emergency." It was a text from a number he did not recognize. As it turned out the day held one more surprise in store for him.Section 2: The House PartyChapter 4: An Unexpected Invite"I just want my life back," exclaimed Jorge Ramirez in the middle of his emotional outburst. The middle aged burly Latino and father of three kids wasn't the type for emotional outpourings. A macho man, he normally kept all the pains and frustrations of his inner world tucked away in a place which even his dearest loved ones had trouble reaching. Sitting in Jake's office, however, he let it all out.Jorge was going through a divorce. The mere process of severing a decades-long relationship would be traumatic enough for most men. Added to this was the wife's insistence on taking custody of their children. From all Jake could gather it was an absolute mess; more than enough to send this man's man into tears.As a therapist, Jake was trained to be an empathetic yet stoic listener to the emotional woes of clients. His clients could vent their hearts out, but as a true professional he was to remain calm and composed throughout the session. He had a responsibility to disconnect personal emotions from the performance of his work-related duties. It usually wasn't a problem for him. In fact, his stalwart professionalism was a source of pride; a secret badge of honor he held deep within his heart. Over the years he'd become practiced in maintaining his professional veneer even when dealing with the most disagreeable or troubled client. He fully expected to do much the same when listening to Jorge."It's not fair she gets to stay in the house we bought together while I have to sleep at some AirBnB," Jorge bitterly complained at one point during the session. Hearing these words, Jake thought of his motel room. His own bitterness coursed through him just thinking about how awful it was in comparison to the home he and his wife used to share."Sometimes it feels like she doesn't even care how I feel. She just wants to get rid of me. To throw me and our marriage away," Jorge continued. Listening to him, Jake felt a discomfort akin to what one feels when looking at one's own reflection and not liking it. For the sake of maintaining a professional appearance, he attempted to hide this growing unease."And the worst part of it all. The absolute worst part is that to be honest," Jorge's eyes looked downward at the floor as he prepared to admit something he felt abashed about saying aloud, "I don't know what to do. I just don't know. And I'm not used to that. I'm not." Jake bristled at these words. Flashing glances at the clock, he could no longer hide his eagerness for the session to end; to stop the torture of being so relentlessly subjected to words and emotions that struck so close to home."Are you okay,'' said Jorge, finally noticing Jake's discomfort."Yes, yes I'm fine Mr. Ramirez please continue," Jake replied, wishing to be a good therapist and urge his client on. Jorge did just that. As he did, Jake tried to not let slip again the degree to which Jorge's remarks struck a nerve with him. Eventually, the session ended.Jorge left the office and Jake breathed a sigh of relief. Sitting in his office, he checked his schedule to see what was next.Fortunately for him, his next appointment canceled which meant he had at least a good thirty minutes to do whatever he needed to do. Part of the time he spent productively writing out case notes and other paperwork. Finishing that early, he spent the rest in quiet contemplation."Maybe tonight I'll try to relax again for a change," he thought leaning back in his chair and recalling the fleeting tranquility he experienced yesterday at The Hut, "I told Clarice I'd be over tomorrow to pick up more of my stuff so for tonight at least I'll make an effort to take it easy." Just when he was about to think about things he could do tonight to relax, he remembered something."Oh, that's right. Rolo invited me to that house party today."Suddenly, he remembered Rolo's surprising late night texts. In those texts, Rolo described how that YouTuber he supposedly bumped into at the bar had out-of-nowhere invited him to a house party later today. Naturally, Rolo asked if Jake could come with him. Knowing how shy Rolo could be Jake surmised his presence would be much appreciated. Further, it was an opportunity to get out of his motel room."I mean it is quite the coincidence Rolo just so happened to bump into his favorite YouTuber at some random bar. Yes, it is also very unusual that said YouTuber out of the blue asked for his number. And yes it is even weirder that this YouTuber then invited him to a house party. Those are all very unusual things to happen in one night but...but...but none of those things are technically outside the realm of what's possible. Just because something's unusual doesn't mean it's due to magic. The pendant and the wish I made may still have nothing to do with all this."Last night after receiving the surprise text from his wife, Jake was too mentally exhausted to ponder the significance of the events Rolo described. Now, though, he had time. He continued trying to reason away the extraordinary significance of all these events happening to Rolo in one night, but try as he may he couldn't quite quell the concern growing in the back of his mind. Memories of Tuesday night's events swirled through his head. ***It had been several weeks since Rolo's boss stopped by his cubicle and asked with pleading eyes, "Now I know you have a lot on your plate as is, but do you think you'll be able to train and mentor the new summer intern when he comes? If you really can't that's fine I'll ask someone else, but I would really love it if it was you. You're such a diligent worker and model employee that I literally can't think of anyone more qualified."For the briefest of seconds, Rolo thought about rejecting his boss's request. As she correctly pointed out, he was already swamped with work as is. Like many people who are good at their jobs, his frequent reward for his hard work was more work. Extra tasks and special assignments seemed to gravitate to him in a way they didn't for his less capable coworkers. He pondered how it would not be entirely unreasonable for him to just this once say no."Yeah sure, absolutely. No problem," he ultimately replied. The power of habit made him unable to reply otherwise.A few days later the new summer intern arrived. Over the course of the ensuing weeks, the seventeen year old high schooler, who because of his schedule as an intern only came in three times a week, shadowed Rolo as he went about doing his job. With a clear eagerness to learn, the young man would pay attention to Rolo's every action, and ask all sorts of questions about the hows and whys of what he was doing. At first he didn't mind the addition of the intern into his typical workday. Having an intern follow him around all day was as innocuous as having an extra shadow. Then one day something dawned on him."I'm this kid's role model," it suddenly occurred to him as he noticed the intern paying particularly close attention to how he was going about his work, "I'm helping this kid learn how to be a responsible, mature, working adult." That insight alone wouldn't have been so bad if it wasn't for the question that almost inevitably flowed from it. "But am I worthy of that? Am I worthy of being a role model to him or to anyone? If I was his age again, would I want me as a role model?"Initially, it seemed obvious that the answer to all those questions was a definite yes. After all, as his boss pointed out he was regularly regarded as a model employee. Furthermore, when thinking of his life on a broader scale outside of work he considered the fact that he had his own house, maintained an independent life no longer reliant on his parents, and among other things managed his budget well enough to have a sizable amount of savings. From a certain conventional perspective, one he was particularly beholden to, he had done most if not all of the things expected of a mature adult and should be proud of his accomplishments. Somehow, however, thinking about his life didn't elicit the sense of self-satisfaction he thought it should.Instead the more he pondered the current state and direction of his life the more an unfamiliar and vexing unease took hold of him. This unease didn't take the form of some neatly defined objection to the way things in his life were going. On the contrary, it took the form of a sinking feeling resistant to any efforts to put it into a box and label it. Its indefinable nature frustrated him. An insight was missing to give it shape. All he could currently say of it was that it prevented him from giving the expected yes to the questions he now inwardly asked himself every time he caught the intern paying close attention to him.The day after the run-in at the bar, Rolo took the intern, Zach, with him to lunch. Although he usually ate his lunch alone sitting at his desk, lately he'd gotten used to taking the intern out with him. It was a chance to learn more about someone who at least until the summer ended would be under his care and guidance at the office. Over the preceding weeks, he'd grown to enjoy Zach's company. Common interests bridged the generational gap between them, so that outside of work they had things to talk about.Walking with him to a nearby fast food joint, Rolo fully expected Zach to launch off into a series of probing questions concerning work. To his relief, he didn't. Instead he brought up a topic much closer to both their hearts."Hey Rolo, guess what,""What?""Final Phantasy XX came out last night!""What?! For real? I thought that was next week.""No, it was this week. I downloaded it last night and it was so cool.""Oh really?""Yeah it was!"For the rest of the walk, Rolo allowed the intern to geek out about the latest installment of the video game series Final Phantasy. He listened as the intern talked with unbridled excitement about all the cutting edge graphics, game mechanics, and story elements which made it so awesome. Although it'd been a while since he last played a Final Phantasy game, he knew enough about the series to at least somewhat share in the teenager's enthusiasm. The Final Phantasy games had been an integral part of his own childhood. It lightened his mood to hear how much it was now a part of Zach's.As they sat down to eat, Zach explained how his plan for tonight was to stay up all night finishing the game with a couple of his friends. Being an intern who didn't work full time, he could very well do this without consequence."So what are you doing tonight," he asked, momentarily forgetting that Rolo wasn't on summer vacation like he was."Well I,uh, might be going to a party later today."The intern's eyes widened. "What? Really? You're going to a party?"Giving the intern a puzzled look, Rolo replied, "Yes, I'm going to a party. Why do you sound so shocked and surprised about it?""I mean, usually whenever I ask you what you're doing after work or on the weekends you usually say something lame like you're staying at home or working extra overtime. I never hear you doing anything fun or exciting."Flabbergasted by what he was hearing, Rolo swiftly responded, "That's not true. I do things." Rolo quickly scoured his memories in search of the last time he had done something which the average seventeen year old would describe as fun or exciting. It took more effort and time than he was willing to admit to the intern."Okay, if you say so," seeing he'd struck a nerve the intern decided to relent a little bit. "So anyhow, what's this party going to be all about? Like any special occasion?""No, not that I'm aware of. It's just a house party. Although, there's a bit of a story to it.""Oh" said the intern, his curiosity now piqued.Rolo proceeded to tell the intern about yesterday's run-in at the bar. The only critical detail he left out was the strangeness surrounding how the person he ran into, whether it was MoistCritikal or not, somehow knew his name and recognized him. He thought it too mysterious a detail to include in his casual retelling."Woah," replied the intern in astonishment after Rolo finished this section of his story, "So you bumped into your favorite YouTuber?""I...I guess I did," said Rolo, still harboring some residual disbelief."So then what happened?""Well, later that night just before I went to bed, I received some text messages from the guy who I bumped into at the bar. He confirmed that he was MoistCritikal then ,uhhh, then he invited me to a house party later today at the house of a friend he's staying with while he's in the area."Retelling the story of last night's events allowed Rolo to reexperience the surprise even shock they caused him. An otherwise ordinary day for him took an incredibly unanticipated turn."He asked if you wanted to go to a house party," asked the intern, maintaining the tone of amused astonishment he'd kept through most of the conversation."Yeah, he said he wanted to apologize for bumping into me earlier but mostly because he liked to meet his fans in-person. At least that's what he said.""Wow, that is quite a story. So are you excited about going to this party and meeting him? I know I would be."Like many people his age, Zach spent much of his free time following various social media personalities on Twitch, YouTube, and other social media websites. On video or in images posted to Instagram these people seemed so fun, interesting, and personable that he couldn't imagine time spent with one of them in-person wouldn't be worthwhile. The young teenager even occasionally entertained dreams of becoming a famous internet star. He imagined it would almost certainly beat some boring office job; a future his father but not he was insistent on him taking."I guess I am," replied Rolo after a moment of hesitation.Unlike the intern he did not take it for granted that the public persona of these people always matched up with who they were in-person. Over the years, he'd seen enough shocking exposés of YouTubers who seemed so put together online but were awful in their personal lives. Their supposed authenticity was manufactured and the displays of virtue were little more than red herrings."How much do I actually know about MoistCritikal," he asked himself as the intern paused the conversation to take a big bite out of his burger.A fresh appreciation of the uncertainty even risk of the coming meeting took hold of him."At least Jake will be there," he reassured himself. ***Not sure where he'd been transported to, Charlie looked all around him. Wherever he'd been taken to, it was a place where the stars twinkled across the night sky and the light of a full moon illuminated everything. He looked down at his feet and was shocked by what he saw. Instead of solid ground he stood on white, fluffy clouds. Somehow they supported his weight. Taking a few steps made him quickly realize just how soft they were to walk on. Everything about this strange new world took his breath away.Suddenly, he heard a voice behind him. When he turned to look his jaw dropped. It was the same man he'd bumped into at the bar last night, Rolo Baez. Before he could say anything, Rolo took him by the hands and swept him away. They danced amidst the clouds. At some point their faces started inching closer together. Just when they were close enough to kiss, the dream ended.Charlie awoke in a state of confusion and bewilderment. He looked around the room as if he was surprised to find himself there."Morning, Charlie," said the voice of someone entering the room.Recognizing the voice as Jackson's, Charlie turned his head towards him and groggily returned his greeting, "Morning.""Did you uhh, have a good night's sleep," asked Jackson, noticing how out of sorts his friend seemed."Uhhh yeah, yeah, I just had a really weird dream is all," said Charlie as he still tried to gain his bearings."Oh yeah, what did you dream," Jackson asked as he casually put on deodorant and socks.Charlie hesitated to answer. All the weirdness surrounding Tuesday night's events, Rolo Baez, the run-in at the bar, and now this dream were all things he wasn't ready to talk about with Jackson or anyone else for that matter. As little sense as they made to him, he imagined they would make even less sense to other people. He worried about alarming his friends over something that may still turn out to be nothing at all. They were supposed to be relaxing on this trip together, after all. Although it somewhat pained him not to be forthright with his friend, he ultimately decided a level of discretion was necessary."I don't remember much about it. I just remember it was weird.""Okay...," said Jackson, sensing Charlie was being less than forthcoming but unsure of the value of pressing further, "Well there should be breakfast out in the kitchen." With that he left the room.Alone again, Charlie thought about all the strange occurrences of the last few days. Try as he may, he could still make no rational sense of it all."Maybe I met Rolo Baez some time ago, but just don't remember. And maybe something about being here in Illinois where apparently he lives is reminding me of him. Is why I can't get him off my mind."Such speculations were the best he had to explain everything."Anyhow, I'll see him later today and I'll ask him. Just ask him if we've met before."A sense of calm came over him at the simplicity of this course of action. It gave him hope.Getting out of bed made him realize just how sore his feet were from yesterday. He was glad Andrew said they would be taking it easy today. Without further ado, he got dressed then joined up with his friends in the living room. Chapter 5: “Small” TalkThe two friends agreed to meet at Rolo's house first then drive together to the party. As the two drove along, they noticed dark storm clouds moving in. It had been a pleasant summer's day a mere two hours before with clear skies and radiant sunshine. Now, a thunderstorm appeared imminent."Well, that's an ominous sign," said Jake with a bit of a chuckle."Oh shut up, it's just Midwest weather," Rolo responded as he continued driving. Despite his dismissal, the sight of storm clouds didn't exactly calm his nerves."I just hope this goes well," he thought as they pulled up to the driveway of the address they'd been given. ***Andrew was in the living room when he heard a knock at the door."Hmm, did someone order something," he wondered as he went towards the front door.The moment he opened the door he saw two unfamiliar men standing there."Uhhh, hey," said the shorter of the two men with obvious nervousness."Can I help you with something," replied Andrew.For several seconds which felt like consecutive eternities, the short man in front of Andrew didn't answer. He simply looked up at him like a deer in headlights.Sensing his friend's loss of nerve, the taller of the two opened his mouth and responded, "Umm, we're here because we were invited to a house party or what not by a uhhh, Charlie I believe."Finally, realizing who they were, Andrew said, "Oh right, yeah, yeah, yeah."He stood aside and opened the door wider for them, "Well, come in. The name's Andrew by the way.""I'm Jake and this is Rolo," said the taller man once more speaking for himself and his shy companion as they stepped through the front door and into Andrew's kitchen."Okay cool, I'm gonna go see if I can get Charlie."Andrew had only taken a single step when suddenly someone exclaimed loudly, "It's Rolo!" ***Rolo was surprised to see Andrew answer the door. Although of the four members of the Official Podcast, he was only particularly enamored of Charlie he nonetheless recognized the other three."Does he actually live here," thought Rolo to himself as if it was somehow unfathomable that Andrew should abide in the same Southern Illinois milieu as him. Before his feelings of surprise had a chance to fade away, the voice of someone entering the kitchen exclaimed, "It's Rolo.""Steve, hey man," said Rolo with some relief when he saw it was Steve Dunham who yelled out his name."Oh, you two know each other," asked Andrew, now himself somewhat surprised.Approaching Rolo, Steve replied, "That we do. What's up man? Didn't expect to see you here."Steve's arrival made everyone else in the room feel relieved albeit for different reasons. For Andrew, the fact that his friend Steve knew Rolo made him feel even more confident about his decision to allow Charlie to invite him and his friend over. Jake was reassured he wouldn't need to babysit his friend the whole time since he at least already knew one person at the party. Finally, Rolo was just glad to see such a familiar face.That said, it still struck Rolo as jarring to see his former best friend Steve and his current best friend Jake standing side by side. While Jake was the image of the non-confrontational, non-threatening white bread suburban male, Steve with his piercings, tattoos, and dyed hair still seemed like someone eager to communicate his ongoing rebellion against suburban norms. He hadn't changed a bit.Steve and Rolo used to be best friends back in high school. They stopped being best friends not because of some dramatic fallout, but because as adults they lived separate lives now. Every few months or so they would bump into each other at the grocery store, a restaurant, or some other place, and attempt to catch up. In such instances, a mutually shared desire to hangout some time would be expressed along with cursory plans to do so. Their lives, however, proceeded on such different tracks that those plans pretty much never happened. It had been about a year since the two had last seen each other.As the two former best friends began making small talk with one another, Andrew went back to finding Charlie. Jake, not wanting to interrupt the two, found himself wandering into the living room."So, how do you know Andrew," asked Rolo once Jake and Andrew had left the room."Oh, I met him just one day at a party like this actually. We started hanging out and the rest is history. But, uh, what the heck's been up with you? It's been forever since I last saw you.""Not much," Rolo reassured him, "Just the usual. Work and everything else. How about you?"The second after he said it Rolo immediately regretted asking Steve the seemingly casual question, "How about you?" He already had an inkling of what Steve's reply would be.Steve shook his head before answering, "Oh man, let me tell you..."That statement began a tirade in which Steve listed all the woes and supposed hardships life had thrown his way in the year since they last saw each other. Rolo could barely stand it. It lasted only a few minutes, but felt like an eternity as he listened to Steve whine and complain.While Rolo didn't know every detail of the torrid tale, he knew a significant part of Steve's life since high school had consisted of a failed attempt at stardom. He tried to be an actor. People at their high school theater program had told him year after year how great he was, and so the idea grew in his head that the universe had destined him for such a profession. The long and short of it was that he moved to L.A. where the universe informed him the hard way of how very wrong he was. Whatever alignment of stars and chance circumstances separates successful actors from failed ones, apparently never happened to him. Eventually, he beat a hasty retreat back to Southern Illinois, and became a plumber.A plumber is by all means a respectable profession. Most people will need the services of a decent plumber at some point in their lives. Nonetheless, ever since his return to Southern Illinois it seemed every conversation with Steve made some direct or indirect allusion to the bitterness he felt about dashed hopes and dreams. His bitching didn't just annoy Rolo; it struck him as immature."Get over it. Just shut the ---- up and get over it. Most of the rest of us aren't living the dream either. Geez," Rolo wanted to say to Steve every time he went on one of these tangents.By the phrase 'most of the rest of us' Rolo was of course referring to the cohort of peers who'd graduated high school along with him and Steve. While Rolo didn't know the exact fate of every single person they went to high school with, he imagined their lives with few exceptions had all turned out basically the same way. Whatever dreams stemming from youthful inexperience they possessed coming out of high school were eventually tempered by the realities of adulthood into something far less grand, but at least much more realistic. Many of his former classmates had likely attempted to reach for the stars as Steve had, but had managed to quietly settle for whatever piece of comfortable mediocrity on Earth life had ultimately given them. Unlike Steve, they had done the sensible thing and moved on.Fortunately, Rolo didn't have to break out of his habitual politeness in order to get Steve to stop. Instead Andrew inadvertently came to the rescue when he shouted from the garage, "Hey, Steve get over here. Wanna show you something.""Coming," bellowed Steve in response, "Well, it was nice catching up with you man. Are you planning to stay awhile?""Yeah, I might. You know me. I never was one for parties or social gatherings in general.""I know. In any case, I'm hoping maybe we can hangout sometime soon.""Yeah man for sure. I'll let you know," replied Rolo more out of reflex than anything else.With that Steve went to go into the garage. This left Rolo alone in the kitchen. For some moments after his conversation with Steve, he was lost in thought. Despite the annoyance a run-in with Steve could cause him, it did have the distinct benefit of serving as an invitation to reminisce on days that even as they receded further and further into the past became more precious to him with each passing year. On most days Rolo simply had no good reason to bring up these memories. He usually kept them tucked away in some corner of his mind as things of immense sentimental value, but little practical use. Standing in Andrew's kitchen, he indulged in them like a guilty pleasure one was finally at peace to enjoy. It was the sound of footsteps behind him which broke him out of his reveries. ***Initially, Andrew tried to keep everyone in the party together. He wanted his local friends who he invited to meet and mingle with his visiting ones for at least a little bit so they could get to know each other. After basic introductions and small talk, he was pleased to find everyone getting along nicely. Eventually, the party reached a point where the various people assembled drifted off into separate groups. In the garage, Andrew, Steve, and Jackson formed a conversational trio. Greg, another local friend Andrew had invited, meanwhile chatted with Kaya. They too were in the garage, but were separate from the trio. Back inside the house, Rolo was of course in the kitchen. This left Jake alone on the living room couch with the only woman at the party."Wow, so tell me what happened next," exclaimed Bree, a third local friend Andrew invited, as she responded to a story Jake had just told her. Her fascination was genuine.Jake usually didn't care much for social gatherings in general. Although he didn't suffer from the social anxiety which afflicted his friend, he nonetheless possessed an introvert's prejudice against the sort of superficial small talk which was almost always a necessity at such occasions. So much could be said and to so many people, but all or most of it was of such little value that it felt like a waste to him. It was with some weariness that he ultimately agreed to go to the party with Rolo.To his good fortune, however, when he stepped into Andrew's living room, the first person he met was Bree. She was on her phone when he sat down at one end of the couch next to her. The moment he sat down, she stopped what she was doing to look up at him. An inadvertent blush came over him when she smiled at him and said, "Hey." She seemed nice enough. What occurred next was something Jake did not anticipate. After that initial "Hey" the two continued talking and an engrossing conversation developed between the two.He couldn't believe his luck. Exceeding his expectations, the discussion between them felt natural. It was less like forcing a boulder up a hill, and more like simply allowing it to roll downhill. He encountered none of the anticipated effort he dreaded. She had a genuine interest and affinity for what he was saying, and he reciprocated not because he felt obliged to, but because he wanted to. It was refreshing. As was typical, they started with easy, superficial topics, but at some point, neither could demarcate exactly when, they began broaching deeper subjects."So, if you don't mind me asking, are you seeing anyone right now," she asked hoping she wasn't being too forward.Jake paused. Up until that point, he'd been thoughtlessly enjoying himself. Whatever worries or anxieties he suffered in his personal life he was able to put into suspended animation. Now, though, they awoke in him once more. He also remembered that since at least last Sunday he'd stopped wearing his marriage ring which was undoubtedly why Bree felt she could ask him about his relationship status."Yes and no," he finally managed to say.When he said this he looked at Bree to gauge her reaction. Seeing her confused look made him realize how cryptic he sounded. It took a lot for him to say those words. He was admitting to a perfect stranger something he hadn't revealed to his closest loved ones. Somehow, though, it was easier to say this to someone who wasn't yet part of his life than it was to say to them. Unlike Kate or Rolo, Bree could hardly be disappointed or saddened by the news of what had happened.After another pause he continued, "I'm technically married right now, but my wife and I are separating. Separating permanently, so I won't be married for much longer."Jake admitted all this in a somber tone with a stilted delivery. He waited with some anxiety for her response."Oh okay, I get it," she said after making sure he had said all he wanted to say, "I actually went through a divorce myself two years ago, so I know what it's like."He looked at her stunned. It never occurred to him that this charming woman around his age could possibly have gone through what he was currently going through."You...you did," he asked with much hesitation."Yeah," she reaffirmed without hesitation."Oh wow, I uhhh I..." he struggled with what to say next. For some time now, he'd wanted a suitable person to talk to about his situation. He wanted someone to relieve him of the loneliness. Although she'd admitted to being divorced, he didn't know how much she wanted to talk about the experience."We don't have to talk about it if you don't want to. I didn't mean to bring up the subject," she said, noticing his reluctance to speak."No, no, no it's fine. It's fine. I just. I'm just not totally used to talking about it," said Jake trying to match her casual demeanor and tone. In doing so, he understated the degree of discomfort he felt discussing the subject."I get that," she said with a warm smile, "It took me a while too."The warmth in her smile charmed him, but also reminded him of a truth which only deepened his present angst."She's smiling. She can smile while talking about her divorce because it was a while ago," it inwardly occurred to him, "But how long will it take for me to be like that?" Imagining the weeks, months, and perhaps even years it would take to reach that point, Jake grew disheartened. Chapter 6: The Mustard StainThe first thing Charlie did when Andrew told him Rolo and his friend had arrived was go to the bathroom. He didn't have to relieve himself. Instead he went to the bathroom, because he felt it was the only place he could be alone with his racing heart and sweaty palms."Get it together Charlie. Come on," he told himself as he splashed cold water on his face.As with just about everything involving Rolo, Charlie couldn't explain why he felt so worked up and anxious about meeting him. A sense of anticipation had been building all day. In an effort to calm himself, he closed his eyes and concentrated on his breathing. When he opened his eyes he felt more relaxed. Then he looked at the mirror and saw it.On the lower half of his shirt was a mustard stain. It was a massive blob of yellow that stood out on his white t-shirt. He didn't know how he missed it. Wetting a towel and dabbing the affected area he tried to remove it, but he only managed to turn the bright yellow stain into a muted yellow one."Hey can whoever's in the bathroom get done quick please," said someone waiting outside the bathroom door.Wrapping up his clean-up effort, Charlie quickly headed out the door. He could have stopped by his room and gotten a new shirt, but in the heat of the moment opted not to. Instead, wanting to get this over with he headed straight for the kitchen. ***When he first heard footsteps approaching him from behind, Rolo initially thought it was Jake. Upon turning around, however, he was quickly proven wrong."It's him," he exclaimed to himself when he saw Charlie stepping into the kitchen. Any lingering doubt or disbelief was blown away by the reality of his standing there in front of him. Standing in the middle of the kitchen, Rolo stared at him dumbfounded.Having taken only a few steps into the kitchen, Charlie stopped and stared at Rolo. He returned Rolo's dumbfounded look with his own. The pent-up nerves he spent so long in the bathroom trying to alleviate returned to him with a vengeance. Somehow the short, rather unremarkable looking man in front of him caused his heart to race and his face to break out in a blush.They stared at each other. Neither could look away, but neither could say anything either. Instead they continued gawking at each other thus allowing a mutually shared feeling of discomfort to grow. Fortunately, nature intervened to break the deadlock.The developing thunderstorm Jake noticed on the way finally made its presence heard. A loud cracking of thunder nearby caused a rumble to course through the house. Glasses and plates clattered. Even the ground shook a little."Wow, storms in Illinois are really loud," said Charlie with a nervous chuckle. The second after he said it he had to resist the urge to facepalm himself. Out of all the things to say to break the silence he didn't know why he chose to say that.Rolo didn't immediately respond. At first he hesitated to speak to someone he was so accustomed to passively listening to. Someone he was used to seeing as pixels on a flat screen was now a three dimensional person standing in front of him. He became tongue tied. Then he saw it.Out of the corner of his eye, he spied the giant blob of a mustard stain on Charlie's otherwise white t-shirt. Covering his mouth, he stifled a laugh. Far from repulsing him, though, the sight of the stain eased his nerves. It allowed him to speak to Charlie as he would a normal person."I guess they are pretty loud," he finally managed to reply. He was still stifling a laugh when he spoke.At once remembering his manners, Charlie said, " Hey thanks for coming. I'm glad you could make it.""Oh umm, thanks for inviting me," Rolo replied, still a bit uncertain as to what to say or do next. He waited for Charlie's lead.Charlie took a seat at the kitchen counter which gave Rolo the motivation to take a seat as well. Although Charlie initially had thought of working his way up to the big question, he decided to broach the subject first thing and get it over with."So Rolo," he began, " Have we met before? Like at any point in time or any place? Because I saw you at the bar and I had a strange feeling that I've met you somewhere before. I just don't know where or when."Scouring his memory banks, Rolo searched for even the slightest possibility they'd ever met before."No, no I'm sure yesterday at the bar was our first time ever meeting. Yeah, I'm sure of it."Immediately, Charlie's expression became noticeably downcast. That was not the answer he was hoping for.Seeing the change in his expression, Rolo thought, "So that's it. It was a case of mistaken identity. He mistook me for someone he knew."It occurred to him that this was a better explanation for Charlie's sudden interest in some random fan he bumped into at a bar than any he'd come up with himself."Well it'd be too awkward to just leave now. I'm here now. I have to make something out of this," continued his thoughts."So yesterday was the first time I've met you in person, but I see you all the time on YouTube. I really like your videos," he said, hoping to change the topic of conversation to something that would not only improve the mood, but also carry them through the rest of the evening.While it disappointed Charlie to hear Rolo dash his earlier speculations by confirming they'd never met before yesterday, he didn't lose all hope. Instead he fell back on the idea that in continuing to talk to Rolo he might come across something which would explain the mystery of the last few days."Oh really," Charlie replied with a fresh smile.It was not a complete lie when he said he enjoyed meeting his fans. The reality of being a social media personality was that his career depended on people, at least a sizable number, liking his content. He enjoyed his work, but he was ever anxious of losing his audience and thus his livelihood. A YouTuber's audience could be fickle and prone to offense. Every time he uploaded a video he worried about people's reactions to it. It was thus almost always reassuring to meet a fan and be reminded of how much at least a few people on the face of the Earth liked his work."Yeah, I mean the first video I ever watched of yours was the one you did about the Juicero. That one was really funny," Rolo continued, glad to see Charlie's expression become more upbeat. For some time afterwards, the two talked about Charlie's videos, YouTube, and internet culture in general.As the conversation proceeded, Rolo became more relaxed. It started to become harder to remember why he had so much trouble speaking to Charlie in the first place. The more they talked the easier it was for him to continue doing so. Gradually, he started genuinely enjoying himself.Never the best at picking up on non-verbal social cues, subtle or overt, Rolo didn't notice or at least didn't sense the significance of the way Charlie was reacting to their ongoing interaction. He didn't quite catch Charlie's unwavering gaze filled with longing, the way he wouldn't stop blushing, or how he seemed to lean closer and closer to Rolo. Instead he continued to prattle on with blissful unawareness. The conversation would have continued if it wasn't for Rolo's phone suddenly ringing. It was his sister calling. Excusing himself, he stepped outside to take the call. *** In the living room, the conversation between Jake and Bree was abruptly interrupted by Rolo who walked in and said, "Hey Jake, sorry to interrupt but we gotta go. My sister just called and she needs help with something.""Okay, I'll meet you outside," Jake replied.At this, Rolo left the room.Turning towards Bree, he said, "It was...It was really nice talking to you."Although he felt this was a gross understatement, it was difficult for him to succinctly put into words how much their brief talk affected him."Likewise," she replied with a charming smile that made him blush.Jake got up to go, but as he did Bree stopped him by saying, "Wait, hold on."She then quickly pulled out her phone."I want to give you my number," she finished saying.Standing there looking at her, Jake didn't know what to say or do. Despite his marriage with his wife being all but legally finished, the idea of taking another woman's phone number still filled him with hesitation."Isn't this too early? Am I ready for this? Should I just take it," he wondered to himself.Perceiving his reluctance, she added, "It's just a phone number. I had a good time with you tonight, and if you want to I'd like to see you again. That's all."The relaxed tone with which she said this broke through his hesitation. They exchanged phone numbers. Then he left. Section 3: The Spirit Once Jake was in the car, Rolo explained the emergency which necessitated them leaving. His sister was out of town visiting in-laws, and she would be out much later than expected. The family dog had been left home alone. Her request was thus for Rolo to stop by her house as soon as he could and check up on the dog. Wanting to stay away from his motel room as much as possible, Jake agreed to go along with his friend. Since his sister lived in Troy, IL which was a bit of a drive to get to from O'Fallon, the two friends had the opportunity to not only talk about their respective experiences at the party but also to inwardly reflect on them.Thinking about the party, what struck Rolo the most was how uneventful his meeting with Charlie had been. He recalled their conversation in its entirety. Although the beginning was awkward the rest of their time together consisted of them talking about subjects they were mutually interested in and then once he got the call from his sister he thanked him again for inviting him over, and then left. That was it. While it was pleasant and enjoyable, Rolo couldn't help but feel somewhat disappointed.Over the course of the evening, he experienced something akin to watching a giant slowly but surely shrink down to the size of an ordinary human. The subconscious expectation he held that Charlie in-person would be as funny and amusing as the Charlie he saw on the YouTube videos hadn't held up. To be sure, in-person Charlie still displayed traces of the chill, entertaining personality Rolo had grown to become a fan of, but those qualities were less concentrated than in the videos. In all honesty, he didn't seem all that more hilarious than other people he'd encountered in his daily life. Even Charlie's appearance, which was Rolo's chief attraction to him, seemed less impressive up close. Although he still looked gorgeous, facial blemishes that weren't apparent on camera were more noticeable. With a suppressed chuckle, he recalled the mustard stain. At the very least, he was glad his fears of Charlie turning out to be an asshole weren't realized.Eventually the two friends arrived at the house of Rolo's sister. It was a modest one story house nestled amidst the residential subdivisions of the Southern Illinois landscape. Walking into the house, the first thing they noticed was that they were too late. The dog had already pooped and peed on the carpet."Hey man. I have pets too so I'll help you clean up," said Jake.With that the two friends let the dog outside, then proceeded to clean up its mess. Rolo took care of the urine stain while Jake cleaned up the feces.Even picking up dog crap couldn't stop Jake from thinking about Bree. Memories of his brief time with her left an inchoate glow in his heart."I got her number. I actually got her number," he thought to himself like a sixteen year old boy who'd just managed to score his first date. He didn't know what to do with it just yet but the fact that he managed to procure it at all was what mattered. Against the backdrop of the last week, it stood out as a much needed bright spot. It encouraged him.The two friends were in a good mood, and would have remained as such until Rolo remembered something."Ya know, I still never figured out how Charlie knew my name back at the bar," it suddenly occurred to Rolo. He had been so nervous speaking to Charlie that the issue had slipped his mind, but now he couldn't stop thinking about it. At first it continued to confound him. Then he recalled an important detail from yesterday's events at the bar. He remembered something that happened right before he bumped into Charlie"Hey Jake," Rolo began."Yeah," Jake answered as he finished cleaning up the poop stain."Yesterday at The Hut, why did you ask if I'd seen anything weird or out of the ordinary lately?"Jake grew noticeably apprehensive. "Oh nothing, nothing. I'm not totally sure why I said it. I uhh must have been a little tipsy when I asked. Why are you asking about it now?""Well, it's just that after you asked me that is when I ran into MoistCritikal so I was wondering. I just...I was curious if..." Rolo struggled with his words. He didn't want what he said next to sound like he was accusing his friend of anything."I was just wondering," he finally stammered out, "If somehow, someway there was a connection between the two."Stopping what he was doing, Jake promptly answered, "No, no, not that I could possibly think of."Even as he said this, however, memories of Tuesday night's events raced through his mind."Are you sure?" Even the usually aloof Rolo, observed his friend's growing agitation as he continued his questioning."Yes, I'm sure. I don't see how the two could possibly be connected."Jake's steadfast denial would have been the end of the matter if not for the intervention of something or rather someone. Unbeknownst to either Rolo or Jake, a being had been watching them from a realm imperceptible to human senses. This being, at once possessed of its own will and desires but as a wish-granting spirit bound to fulfill the whims of mankind, usually tried to resist the urge to overtly interfere in the very events its magic put into motion. Overhearing the conversation between Rolo and Jake, however, it sensed a prime opportunity to indulge in a bit of mischief by revealing what was really going on. It could no longer resist its ever present urge to cause a bit of chaos and thus sate its boredom. It decided to make an appearance.Instantly, a spectacular flash of light appeared in the middle of the living room. Rolo and Jake instinctively covered their eyes and cowered when it did. The light dimmed. When they opened their eyes, the two friends saw an apparition surrounded by a cloud of what appeared to be smoke. Fear paralyzed them. Eventually, the smoke cleared revealing a small three foot tall green imp now standing in the living room of Rolo's sister."Why hello there," said the being.The two friends uttered no reply. Although they had never encountered a supernatural being before, they hardly expected its first words to be "Why hello there." They stood there in shock."For real? You don't recognize me," it said, speaking directly to Jake.After rubbing his eyes, Jake managed to recognize the creature."Wait, it's you! You're that thing that came out of the pendant after I made the wish.""Yes, there ya go. I'm the Spirit of the Pendant. At your service," it said with a bow, " It seems there's a bit of confusion regarding recent events but not to worry I am here to alleviate that."A grin crept up on its face as it spoke.Still terrified, Rolo turned to Jake and asked, "Jake, what's going on?"Before Jake could even begin to respond, the Spirit of the Pendant piped up, "Well, it's really very simple. Your friend came into possession of a magical pendant which housed me a wish-granting spirit, and on Tuesday night he made a wish with it."The Spirit explained all this in a plain, matter-of-fact tone."What do you mean a wish? What wish," Rolo replied almost in a state of panic over what it would possibly reveal."Oh, nothing much," the Spirit continued, "Your friend made a really very broad, lazily worded wish on your behalf. I believe it was, 'Hey spirit of the pendant or whatever please give my friend Rolo something that he wants.' With a wish as vague as that I naturally had to do some interpretation. I had to peer into your mind to see what you might want. When I did I saw you were having that dream about MoistCritikal or whatever his name is, and so I came up with the idea that I would fulfill the wish by making him fall madly, irresistibly in love with you. So that's what's been going on these past few days."The Spirit's explanation of the events of the last couple of days floored Rolo and Jake. Their jaws metaphorically hit the ground. Both men reflected in alarm about recent occurrences. Observing their reaction, the Spirit took delight in the confusion and mayhem it had just caused. In its millennia of existence, the sight of stunned mortals never got old."You what?!" Rolo managed to say after almost a minute of being speechless.In response, the Spirit simply repeated what it had already said."But you...you...you can't do that.""Yeah, what he said," Jake added, feeling he shouldn't stay silent but should contribute to the conversation in some way."No," the Spirit began, " I'm pretty sure I'm a magical being and therefore can do all sorts of things and grant all sorts of wishes.""I mean I'm guessing that you can, but like you shouldn't!" Rolo retorted, feeling disturbed about having to explain such a basic tenet of conventional morality."Well, I did so that's that.""Well, can you take it back," asked Rolo with some boldness.The Spirit gave the question a second's thought before answering, "Yeah, I guess.""Then please do so," said Rolo trying to strike a balance between firmness and politeness."Yeah do it," added Jake.The Spirit of the Pendant thought for a bit about their request."No, I don't think I will.""And why not?""Because I used perfectly good magic to fulfill that wish. How would you like it if you did a hard day's work and when it was all done someone told you to undo all you did? C'mon.""Not comparable. Not comparable at all," said Jake finally getting a word in before his friend.Looking at the faces of the two men, the Spirit could see they were adamant in their rejection of the wish. The being at once found itself caught between its obligation to obey the desires of the humans who'd summoned it and its own desire to continue sowing more disorder for the sake of entertaining itself. It thought about what to do next. Finally, it decided on a course of action."Alright, alright I'll rescind the wish.""On what condition," Jake asked, not entirely trusting the Spirit's intentions."On no condition. I'll just take it away and bring everything back to normal. That's all. It's clear you don't like the way I granted the wish, and as a spirit whose job it is to grant wishes every one hundred years I feel obliged to give you guys a refund. Free of conditions!""So just like that you'll bring everything back to normal?""Yup, just like that. Sorry to bother you."Rolo looked at Jake for confirmation as to whether they should trust the being. Jake shrugged. He had about as much experience dealing with magical wish-granting spirits as Rolo did."Okay, fine. Then do it."The Spirit chuckled. "Will do, good sir. Will do. Have a nice evening." With that the Spirit left in a flash of light no less spectacular than the one it originally appeared in.Just like that the whole supernatural ordeal was over or so it seemed. Rolo and Jake looked around the room then at each other. Both wanted to speak but in their state of stupefaction the words did not come. The sound of the dog barking to be let back in broke them out of their state of paralyzed shock. Part 3: MisadventureSection 1: Daily Life ResumesThe morning after the house party Rolo woke up and the first thing he did was look all around him. After last night's supernatural encounter, he was relieved to find everything in his room in its proper place; to find nothing amiss in his immediate vicinity at least. He grabbed his phone."Maybe it was all a dream," he thought to himself.The idea that the incredible events he so recently witnessed could be little more than a dream greatly comforted him. As a man unaccustomed to magical pendants, wish-granting spirits, and the trouble they could cause, he found it preferable to regard yesterday's events as some sort of implausibly vivid dream rather than face up to the reality of what he'd experienced. Thinking about the coming workday made Rolo even more reluctant to accept that his encounter with the spirit of the pendant actually happened. He had a busy day filled with important meetings and deadlines, and he did not need concerns about the supernatural hanging over his head.At first he believed his own lie. Then he looked through his phone. When he did, he found the texts from MoistCritikal. They provided direct evidence that contrary to his hopes it was not all just a dream. He threw his head back and groaned."Now wait just wait," he thought to himself as an insight hit him, "That spirit thing or whatever the hell it was said he brought everything back to normal. Yes, he promised to bring things back to normal," Growing more hopeful by the second, he continued reasoning with himself, "If that's the case then all I need to do is just go about my life as if nothing happened. Nothing at all." With that reassurance, he deleted the texts then proceeded to go about his morning as usual. In the back of his mind, he brushed aside any concern he held about the Spirit's trustworthiness. He got dressed then went to work. ***That Friday, the day after the encounter with the Spirit of the Pendant, Jake went to his and his wife's house in Swansea, IL. He had promised her that he would stop by after work to collect more of his things. Along with some boxes he also brought along the pendant that had been the source of so much trouble this week. He brought it along only for the purpose of finding a good place to dispose of it so no one could find it. After apologizing to Rolo and explaining that the entire thing had been an accident, Jake agreed to get rid of it if not outright destroy it. One of the boxes he transported along with him to the house was explicitly labeled, "Stuff To Get Rid Of." He'd placed the pendant in there and later that night planned to determine the best way to discard it.A sigh escaped him as his car entered the house's driveway. It hit him that this house was no longer his home. In fact, it struck him that as of last week he no longer had one."Don't think about that," he inwardly chastised himself, "Just get in and get out. That's all. You'll...you'll think about that later."The house was empty when he walked in. His wife was out of town for the weekend, so he had the place to himself. Turning off his phone, Jake wanted to be truly alone. Whatever inchoate glow lit up his heart after his talk with Bree yesterday, dimmed when he walked into his former home, and was reminded of the difficult work ahead of him.He and his wife bought the house together six years ago. This meant Jake had to wade through six years of accumulated stuff. The difficulty of this task forced him to be methodical. Thinking it over, he decided a slow and thorough room to room approach would be best. Although he didn't have enough boxes or space in his motel room to take everything with him, he decided to take what he could. Starting with the living room, he made his way through the house collecting his things.Despite wanting to stay focused on the task at hand, the inconvenient nature of memory made this impossible for Jake. As he entered the kitchen to collect some silverware, he picked up the scent of half-eaten Chinese leftovers wafting from the trash can. It brought forth recollections of him and his wife's first post honeymoon dinner at the house.They'd just gotten back from their honeymoon so neither one wanted to cook. Instead they ordered Chinese takeout. Sitting at the kitchen table munching on Lo Mein, Jake occasionally glanced up at Clarice."She. She really is my wife now," it suddenly struck him. This truth hit him like a revelation. Yes, he remembered their wedding day when the officiate declared them husband and wife, but only now did he feel the implications and significance of that declaration. For the first time, it dawned on him that the woman before him was someone who would not only share big, grand moments like his wedding day, but also little insignificant ones like eating Chinese takeout on a random Thursday night. Yes, they would share their life. He had a wife now. With this realization came a vision of days, weeks, months, and even decades to come.For Jake, the day he became an adult was the day he looked at his new wife and for the first time fully recognized her as such. Viewing his then state in life through the familiar perspective of his middle class, suburban upbringing, made him proud at how well he'd done in checking off the standard checklist for adulthood. He had a job, a house, and now a wife. The only thing left was children, but that could wait. For the immediate future, he foresaw enjoying his new status in life. Now that he was officially an adult, life would of course go on. It would vary every now and again, but he felt certain that life as a mature adult would have a level of stability and reliability it did not have before. The turbulence inherent in the process of growing up could be left behind. With his new wife he envisaged himself settling down. Sitting at the dinner table eating dry, poorly seasoned Lo Mein, Jake saw his future rolling out before him like a paved road he need only continue strolling along on. He was happy.Brushing aside that memory and all the now vexing emotions it aroused in him, he tried to continue on with his task. In a house full of potential reminders, it wasn't long till he came across something else. A pair of hiking boots in one of the hallway closets brought forth the memory of that time he and his wife went hiking through the Grand Canyon.It was about two years ago. On the way back home from a visit to Jake's grandmother, the couple decided to stop by the Grand Canyon. They made a day of hiking and exploring. Jake loved it. Born and raised in Southern Illinois, he was used to plains whose flatness stretched out as far as the eye could see. Witnessing the heights and depths of the Grand Canyon filled him with the sort of transcendent wonder he didn't know nature could inspire in him.On the drive back home, he tried to talk about this experience with the one person he felt most appropriate to share it with; his wife. Clarice listened to him. To his surprise, however, the same trip which aroused such a feeling of awe in him didn't have anywhere near the same effect on her. In fact, she hated it. Reflecting on her own experience, she found the heat unbearable, the insects bothersome, and her feet ached from the hike. Whatever wonder and amazement Jake experienced, she did not share in. In those feelings, he found himself unexpectedly alone.This unfortunate disagreement between husband and wife would have amounted to little within the broader scheme of Jake's life. It disappointed him back then, but in the time since he'd almost forgotten about the incident. Remembering it now, however, caused him to color that experience with new significance. With the power of hindsight to connect disparate moments of one's life into a coherent story of the past, he now viewed this singular episode at the Grand Canyon as symptomatic of a larger phenomenon which ultimately led to the undoing of something he had admittedly hoped and expected so much from. Somehow two people who once wholeheartedly agreed to join their lives together found themselves drifting apart; diverging in outlook and opinion with greater frequency despite shared time and space. This occurred first at a pace too slow for either one to notice and become alarmed at. Then by the time it caught their attention it was too late. A gulf had formed between them. They tiptoed around this fact for as long as they could, but eventually that day came, only about a week ago, when she told him that she wanted a divorce , and he in a flustered panic left the house. ***It didn't take much for Rolo to fall back into the well-worn patterns of his life. By the time he got home from work, he was already thinking about how he needed to buy groceries and pick up some other items from the store. He quickly changed out of his stuffy work clothes and into his usual summer outfit of a T-shirt, sandals, and shorts. Then he headed out to take care of his errands. About an hour later he came back. Once he put his stuff away, he plopped down on the couch. After a long day at work and then errands, he felt he should be tired; ready to relax. Instead he found himself restless. He felt the urge to do something. The only question was what.Several times he thought about turning on the TV or getting a book to read. These activities were usually enough to assuage his occasional bouts of boredom."But I don't want to do any of those things," he thought to himself, "I want to do something. Like really do something. Maybe go out somewhere. I don't know."He lacked a well-formed conception of what he meant by 'really do something'. Nonetheless, this idea of wanting to really do something drove him to reject all the things he often did on a Friday evening. Pacing around the house he owned, he thought of what else he could do."Jake said he was busy today, Steve is usually unavailable. I could try Todd, but he's always so busy with his kids these days that he never has time for much else. Alex is out of the question too," thought Rolo as he ran down the list of people most of whom at one point in his life belonged to the reliable cohort he once regularly made plans with.Continuing to contemplate his current state of boredom caused a thought to jump into his mind."It's a Friday night," it suddenly occurred to him, "Was it always so hard for me to find something to do on a Friday night?"In some corner of his psyche arose the suspicion that indeed it had not always been the case that it was this difficult to find something to do on a Friday night or any other night for that matter; that years ago before he was an adult with a mortgage and career it had in fact been somehow easier.This suspicion in turn led to another realization which caught him even more off guard; one that came into his mind accompanied by that same sinking feeling he experienced whenever reflecting on his life in relation to his mentorship of the intern."I'm almost thirty."He didn't know why his mind chose now of all times to bring up that fact, but whatever the case it did. Somehow the weight of that truth made his boredom all the more palpable and insufferable to bear."I just wish that...," but before Rolo could finish that fanciful thought he remembered yesterday's events and considered it best not to go around casually making wishes."Maybe I should just watch some TV after all," he finally concluded. He turned on the TV. Not long after he did, though, he heard frantic knocking at his front door. "Who the hell is it," he asked himself. Getting up from the couch he imagined the mystery knocker to be some neighborhood kid causing mischief or something. He didn't expect much when he opened the door. Consequently, when he did finally open it he was stunned to find Charlie standing there.Section 2: Now WhatChapter 3: An Issue UnresolvedAs it turns out, after the house party things did not go back to normal for Charlie. In fact, they only worsened. The day after the house party he and his friends went to Carlyle Lake where they got to spend much of their time out on the lake courtesy of one of Andrew's local friends who owned a boat. While his friends enjoyed the lake, Charlie continued to struggle with his intensifying yet still inexplicable obsession with Rolo. Memories of the brief time he spent with the diminutive local caused his heart to race and inspired his passions. It built up over the course of the day. Eventually, his longing to again see Rolo and be in his presence overwhelmed any semblance of good sense he'd tried to retain since Tuesday night. He got in his car and drove to the one place his heart had been drawing him to all day; that place being wherever Rolo was."I love you Rolo Baez!" declared Charlie not long after Rolo opened the front door, " I don't know why but I do."Rolo had to take a moment to let the full effect and implications of Charlie's words settle on him. Under ordinary circumstances, a handsome man making an impromptu confession of love to him would have left him surprised but flattered. He may have even considered entertaining such a sudden declaration. These, however, were clearly not ordinary circumstances."How the hell did you find my house," exclaimed Rolo."I...I followed my heart I guess," Charlie replied, unaware of the force which since Tuesday night had in ways subtle and overt guided his actions, thoughts, and feelings"Yeah, that's not how hearts work," said Rolo who was starting to regain his bearings after the initial shock of Charlie's arrival. Thinking about the current predicament, it didn't take long for him to guess what could have caused it."---- it," thought Rolo as Charlie continued to stand in front of him, "That ---- Spirit thing lied. It didn't fix ----. ---- it. ---- it."In vexation, he facepalmed then thought of what he could possibly do about this situation. Looking at the very troubled man in front of him, Rolo concluded that perhaps the first step towards a solution would be an explanation."So Charlie," Rolo began with as much calm and clarity of tone as he could muster under the current circumstances, "I think there's been a bit of a mix-up..."With that he invited Charlie inside where he proceeded to explain to him the extraordinary details undergirding their unusual predicament. It's not everyday one is told they are under the influence of a magical pendant and an ill begotten wish. To Charlie's credit, Rolo believed he took it as best he could. After passing through the expected stages of shock, then initial disbelief, followed by more shock, Charlie finally managed to approach something resembling acceptance. He felt he had little choice. As fantastical as Rolo's explanation was, it did have the advantage of explaining the equally fantastical things he'd been experiencing lately."So what now," asked Charlie, "Isn't there a way to fix this?"Rolo feared he would ask that question."Well uhhhh," Rolo replied, as he rattled his brain in search of a possible solution, " Oh yes, my friend Jake. He should have the pendant and he'll probably know what to do."In truth, Rolo had no idea whether Jake would know what to do, but he didn't want to admit that to Charlie. He tried several times to call Jake."C'mon Jake, pick up," he thought to himself as call after call went to voicemail."Okay okay that's fine. That's fine. It's a Friday evening. I think he and his wife are usually home on Fridays. If I leave now I might be able to catch him at home."With this thought in mind, Rolo grabbed his car keys and prepared to make a trip to Jake's house. Lacking any other viable alternative course of action, Charlie agreed to go along with him in the hopes of being cured of his present affliction. Together they made their way to Jake's house. ***Expecting pure solitude as he rummaged through the remains of his married life, Jake jumped when he heard knocking at the door."Who the hell," he thought to himself as he approached the front door."Rolo?" Jake exclaimed when he opened the door and saw who'd been knocking."Oh thank goodness you're home," said Rolo as he stepped into the house, "I kept calling and calling but you didn't answer your phone.""Well my phone was off but," he was about to ask Rolo what he was doing here when Rolo interrupted him."Your wife isn't here is she? Like, we're alone right?""Well yeah she's not here," replied Jake, hoping his friend wouldn't notice the boxes haphazardly strewn about the house or that the wedding pictures of him and his wife had been taken down, "But what the hell are you doing here?"Normally, Rolo would have noticed all the aspects of his best friend's house which were out of place, but given the urgency of the situation they were facing he didn't bother."I'm here, because that ---- spirit lied to us. It didn't bring anything back to normal.""Wait what," asked Jake, more than a little taken aback by what Rolo said. Like his friend, he had also been quick to believe the magical mess of the last few days had been comfortably resolved."Well, how do you know it didn't bring things back to normal?"Rolo informed Jake of how Charlie showed up at his door, and Jake quickly understood the gravity of the situation."So what do we do now," asked Jake.It disheartened Rolo to hear him ask the very same question he'd driven all this way to ask."Honestly, I was hoping you'd be better at answering that," admitted Rolo."Well, I have the pendant with me. Maybe we can try summoning its spirit again. Maybe this is all a misunderstanding we can work out," said Jake, speaking like a true suburbanite more used to dealing with polite misunderstandings than cases of supernatural mischief.Quickly retrieving the pendant from the box he'd put it in, Jake along with Rolo tried to summon the spirit. Nothing happened."----, what else can we do? Do you know anything about the pendant that might help us," asked Rolo in exasperation."No, I even tried researching it after what happened on Tuesday night, but I wasn't able to find anything."The wheels of Rolo's mind turned double time as he thought of a way out of their predicament."Wait, who did you get the pendant from?"A spark lit in Jake's mind."My cousin Kate," He exclaimed, "She's in the area. We can talk to her. I got the pendant from her so she might know something."He tried calling her, but she didn't pick up.In frustration, Rolo fumed, "Ugh, first you now her. I swear what is up with people not answering their phones.""Okay, she's not answering, but like I said she's in the area. We might be able to go see her and ask where she got the pendant or if she knows anything else about it.""Oy, alright. I guess that's better than nothing," said Rolo as he hurriedly prepared to leave, "Get in my car then."The two left without delay. Charlie, who'd been waiting in the car this entire time, reluctantly agreed to go along with them. Once more given the circumstances, he felt he had little other viable alternative course of action. Chapter 4: So A Therapist And A YouTuber Get in the Same Car…In terms of the objective criteria of time and distance, the drive to the house of Jake's cousin Kate wasn't a particularly long one. Whenever she returned home from Qatar she always stayed at her parent's house located among the residential subdivisions of Lebanon, IL. At most it was only about a twenty minute drive. In terms of other more subjective criteria, however, the journey was one of the longest ones the three men had taken in their lives."Oh my God, what do I even say to him," thought Jake as he looked at Charlie, the man he'd inadvertently had a spell cast on. While Rolo drove, Charlie sat in the passenger seat with Jake seated in the seat right behind him. This placement gave Jake ample opportunity to stare at Charlie and wonder what was going through his mind. As a therapist, Jake was practiced in the art of putting himself in the shoes of other people. What was once a mere requirement of his job had over the years become a compulsive habit of his."Just think about it," continued Jake's thoughts, "He was on some trip with his friends until I had to go and use that pendant. I mean, sure it technically wasn't my fault. How was I supposed to know magic existed or that wishes can come true? For Christ's sake, I'm an adult going through a divorce! Still, this must be so terrible for him. I feel like I should say something at least. This silence among the three of us is unbearable. But what to say?"The more he contemplated it the more his heart sank and the more he fretted.While this was occurring in Jake's head, a different train of thought was at play in Charlie's."You know what, maybe this isn't so bad," thought Charlie who, having accepted the reality of his situation a while ago, was already trying to look on the brighter side of things.The idea of using his current affliction as a source of content for his YouTube channel didn't entirely relieve his distress, but it did comfort him somewhat. Yet another unfortunate reality of being a YouTuber was the never ending search for new content to feed not only the insatiable appetites of bored viewers but also to placate the YouTube algorithm. It could be a massively stress inducing endeavor. Charlie, like anyone, only had so many interesting stories and anecdotes from his own life that he could relay to his audience. He had to get new material somehow. Consequently, the magical predicament he found himself in seemed to be as good a fount of new material as anything."Yeah, I'm pretty sure I can get a couple videos out of this. Maybe even three if I really stretch it out," Charlie continued thinking to himself."So Charlie," Jake began nervously and with much hesitation, "What do you think of the weather here in Southern Illinois?"Conversations about the weather were Jake's go to when he didn't know what else to talk about. It was a safe and inoffensive topic; two qualities he very much appreciated."Uhh, it's good. It's hot I guess," replied Charlie doing his best to handle this impromptu conversation about the local weather."Yeah, summers here are really hot. They can be real scorchers," said Jake, feeling better already since at least the silence was broken.While that enlightening conversation carried on, Rolo kept his eyes on the road and his mind on things besides the weather. Remembering how bored he'd been only a short while ago at home he mused to himself, "Ugh this is what I get."Section 3: UnexpectedChapter 5: ArrivalPer her text message earlier in the week, Jake knew Kate was back in town. Furthermore since it was summer, Kate's younger sister Nadia was also back from college. Even with both of their children in town, Jake still expected to find his Aunt and Uncle's house quiet when the three arrived. Nearing retirement, the couple didn't go out much on the weekends. They certainly weren't the partying type. Jake was thus very shocked to find partying going on at their house as the three men neared it."Oh God, I know this is Kate's doing," he thought to himself.Although the night was young by the time they arrived, the raucous party already looked like it was in full swing. A long row of cars was already parked near the house and it was clear a large group of people had gathered. With the driveway and the curb near the house packed with cars, the three men had no choice but to park a fairly inconvenient distance from the house."Just stay here for now. We should be back soon," Rolo instructed Charlie as he and Jake made their way towards the house.The loud thumping of music which could be heard from well outside only became much louder the moment they stepped in. A throng of people, most of them college aged, were dancing, drinking, and generally engaging in the sort of debauchery and moral degeneracy their demographic tends to get up to when trying to have a good time on a Friday night. It was chaos."Jake! Jake," yelled a familiar voice just when Jake was about to despair of finding Kate amidst the crowd. Pushing her way through the thick mass of people, Kate embraced Jake the moment she reached him."Thank goodness. I'm so glad to see you. You don't even know.""Kate, what the hell is going on? What's with this party?"She scowled and rolled her eyes, "Oh it's Nadia's. She's the mastermind behind all this.""Nadia," Jake uttered in shock."Yes her, but before I tell you about that bit of drama let's go somewhere a little more private."Taking hold of Jake's hand she was about to lead him off to her room when out of the corner of her eye she finally noticed Rolo who'd been standing next to Jake the entire time. Over the years of Jake and Rolo's friendship, she had met him on more than one occasion, and so was well aware who he was. In fact, this wasn't even his first time in the house of Jake's Aunt and Uncle."Oh hey Rolo, do you mind if I borrow Jake for just a bit."Knowing how insistent Kate could be, Rolo judged it best to just go along with her request. With a reluctant sigh, he replied, "Sure, far be it from me to get in the way of family," turning to Jake he continued, "I'll be around so just text me."Fully entrusting things to Jake, Rolo went off in search of a tranquil spot to chill out for a bit. Meanwhile the two cousins went upstairs to Kate's room in order to get away from the crowd.Chapter 6: A Summer’s Night in Southern IllinoisIn search of some semblance of peace and quiet, Rolo pushed his way through the dense gathering of people in their late teens and early 20s. He felt more than a little out of place amidst their company. Although at 29 he was only at most barely a decade older than many at the party, it nonetheless felt as if something greater than mere years separated him from the seemingly carefree partiers.Eventually, he was able to find some limited solace in the backyard where a comparatively fewer number of people were lounging and loitering about. Within the spacious backyard, Rolo chose a relatively isolated spot to sit down and think on things."Yes, I guess this is what I get," he thought to himself as he once more ruminated on the fact that only earlier this evening he'd been bored out of his mind wishing for something to do, "What a mess."The longer he sat there the more his worries mounted."I just hope we're able to figure something out. Otherwise....I don't know."Within his mind, the wheels were turning but like car tires stuck in slick mud they went nowhere. His frustration grew. In the midst of his frustration, a cool breeze came and caressed his skin. On this warm night, the coolness of the breeze elicited a spontaneous break in his train of thought."It's summer," he thought to himself as if amidst the recent tumult he had somehow forgotten the fact that it was currently summer; his favorite season.Momentarily distracted from his immediate concerns, he looked out at the back half of the backyard and noticed fireflies twinkling amidst the grass. Even the background noise of the party couldn't diminish the serenity he felt watching the dancing glow of those little insects. It entranced him.Southern Illinois is not a land of ostentatious beauty. Its flat plains aren't home to sky piercing mountains, magnificent glaciers, or other natural wonders of such awe-inspiring scale that they regularly attract tourists. On the contrary, what beauty it does possess is mainly of a more private nature. It consists of small unassuming moments that at the right time, in the right place, or with the right person can suddenly manifest themselves. Admittedly, it had been a while since Rolo had experienced such a moment. Somehow in the midst of the misadventure he found himself in, he watched the fireflies dancing in the grass and felt his spirits lifted. For a moment he became like a child again; unaware of the need to always be mindful of one's responsibilities. His worries slipped from his mind. Suddenly, he heard footsteps approaching from behind him. Turning his head, he saw it was Charlie.Seeing the startled look on Rolo's face, Charlie was quick to state, "Relax, I just came here because I was tired of waiting in the car."In saying this, Charlie glossed over the fact that without consciously intending to, his footsteps had somehow guided him to Rolo's exact location. Choosing to remain standing, he fixed his gaze in the same general direction as Rolo's."That's fine. That's fine," replied Rolo as he tried to resume looking out at the fireflies. The fireflies were still there. In Charlie's presence, however, it became difficult to reenter that private moment of serenity he'd been experiencing only seconds before. He'd returned to the mindset of an adult marked as it often is by the relentless awareness of one's responsibilities. The worries returned."Sooo," began Charlie after almost a minute of silence, "Any news."With a sigh Rolo answered, "No, not yet I'm afraid."Another minute of silence passed."Sooo Rolo," began Charlie once more, "There's something I've been meaning to ask you."Hearing Charlie speak up again, caused Rolo to fret a little."I hope he doesn't ask me anything about the pendant or the wish. I don't know anything more," he thought to himself."Just go ahead and ask it," Rolo responded.With a bit of a chuckle Charlie asked, "How tall are you?"Immediately, Rolo turned his head to face Charlie. He glared at him.One trope of Charlie's videos was his occasional self-deprecating references to his height. At 5'6 he wasn't particularly tall for a guy. Consequently, he was used to being the short man in the group. It was rare that he found himself in the presence of a guy noticeably shorter than him hence his question."If you must know," answered Rolo, feigning more reluctance than he actually felt, "I'm 5'0.""Really? You're exactly five feet tall.""Yes, I'm exactly five feet tall. You can use me as a measuring stick if you need something measured out in five feet intervals."Charlie laughed a bit."Okay, cool. I was just curious."Regardless of whether or not he had intended to do so, the effect of Charlie's question about Rolo's height was to lighten the mood of both men. They resumed staring out at the field with its fireflies still flickering.For the first time in his entire trip to Southern Illinois, Charlie found himself enraptured by the landscape before him. A significant part of this state of rapture was unfortunately due to the spell cast over him that made every second he spent in the mere presence of Rolo irresistibly worthwhile. Not all of it, however, could be credited to that. Eventually, Charlie sat down."Look," said Rolo, deciding to break the silence after yet another minute had passed, "We'll figure out a way to get you back to normal. I promise."The impetus for these words stemmed mostly from Rolo's growing concern over how long it was taking for Jake to contact him with any news. It'd felt like it'd been ages.Absorbed in his own thoughts, Charlie was taken by surprise when Rolo spoke.A somewhat confused, "Hmm," was all he managed to say in response."I said we'll get you back to normal. We'll find a way," Rolo affirmed with even greater conviction this time."Oh yeah, right," said Charlie, still snapping out of the state of reverie he'd been in, "I'm sure you guys will."A few seconds after he finished speaking a thought occurred to him; one he ultimately decided to share."You know honestly, it's not all bad.""What isn't all bad," asked Rolo, a bit curious about what he could mean."I mean this situation we're in with the pendant and magic and ----. It's not all bad."Charlie would have stopped there, but noticing the slight confusion on Rolo's face he decided to elaborate."It's an experience. It's something way out of the ordinary I didn't expect to find during my trip here. I mean, who knew magic existed and things like this could happen. In that sense, it's kinda cool, and I imagine once we get it all figured out it'll be something we can look back on. Ya know?""I...I guess you're right," Rolo replied as he turned his head back towards the field of fireflies. This reply understated the degree to which Charlie's statement resonated with inner sentiments he'd been otherwise reluctant to acknowledge.They sat for a short while longer. During this time, the influence of the spell Charlie was under seemed to intensify. He could feel its sway over him growing stronger and stronger with each passing moment. It was only a matter of time before it led him to do something.Unaware of Charlie's internal struggle, Rolo continued looking out at the field and checking his phone with increasing frequency."Seriously, what is taking Jake so long," he thought to himself.Only a few seconds later he finally decided he'd done enough waiting and would instead see what his friend was up to. Wanting to inform Charlie of what he was going to do, Rolo turned his head to speak to him. When he did something rather unexpected happened. Charlie kissed Rolo. Chapter 7: ReassuranceWhen Kate brought Jake up to her room, the first thing she did was close the door in an attempt to muffle the sound of the throbbing party music. It worked to some extent. The walls of her room couldn't completely block out the cacophony outside, but they worked well enough that the two felt able to talk without shouting at one another.As was her habit, Kate wasted no time explaining to Jake the latest drama unfolding in her life. In breathless fashion, she described the origin of the party raging outside. It all started when Nadia returned home from her first year at college. Although she hadn't flunked out by any means, her parents still judged her academic performance as falling far short of their expectations. They made their disappointment clear. With unprecedented defiance, Nadia denied their claims that she was becoming unfocused, lazy, and irresponsible. From there, tensions only escalated. Trying to keep up with the breakneck speed at which Kate spoke, Jake gathered things had become so bad that when the parents left for a two week trip Nadia didn't think twice about deciding to throw a party in their absence.Taking a seat on her bed, Jake allowed his cousin to prattle on and on. He never forgot the urgency of the reason he'd come here in the first place. Nonetheless in the midst of a week characterized by disruptions in his life both natural and supernatural in origin, Jake couldn't resist the urge to indulge in this moment of normalcy. In any case, he was genuinely taken aback by the idea of sweet, little Nadia being anything other than the reserved young lady he'd known her to be. Minutes passed, but he didn't interrupt Kate. Eventually, however, his sense of responsibility caught up to his enjoyment of hearing his cousin gossip."Umm, Kate," Jake managed to interject."Oh, yes," she said, finally pausing her chatter."As much as I want to hear more about what's been going on, I actually came here for something. I, uhh, have to ask you about something."Her face broke out in an embarrassed blush at the idea she'd been in such a rush to vent about her own problems she forgot to consider Jake may have his own."Of course, yeah, ask away. What is it," she said as she sat down next to him on the bed."Well," began Jake as he pulled out the pendant which he'd been keeping in his front pocket, "Do you remember giving me this pendant about a year ago at Nadia's graduation party?"She examined the dangling piece of jewelry."Not really," she said at first then upon thinking about it more she changed her answer to, "Okay, yeah I think I do, but why are you bringing it up now?"Pausing for a few seconds, Jake thought how best to put things. He didn't want to tell her the whole truth of what he was currently dealing with."Well, I was wondering, just wondering, if you knew anything more about this pendant beyond what you told me that night? Like, just tell me what you know about this. Do you remember anything?"Eager not to disappoint her cousin, Kate did her best to recall all she knew about the pendant. Unlike Jake, however, Kate was quick to forget things; especially things she deemed no longer relevant to her life."No, I can't say I know much more than whatever I told you about it. To be honest, I don't even remember where I got it from. Sorry."Disheartened, Jake sighed and looked at the floor."Are you okay? Really, what's going on," she asked as she observed his dejected state."It's nothing. Forget I even asked anything. If you don't remember then don't worry about it," said Jake as a sense of despair settled in him.With concerned eyes, Kate continued staring at her cousin. She pursed her lips. Aside from the gossip about her family drama, there'd been something else she wanted to bring up to him. It was a matter even the usually uninhibited Kate found difficult to talk about. Seeing him look so downcast, gave her the motivation to finally say it."You know," she began with uncharacteristic hesitation, "I didn't want to say anything. I wanted to let you say it when you were ready, but I feel like I should bring it up now.""Bring up what," asked Jake as he raised his head to look at her.Kate got up from the bed and began pacing the room while she fidgeted with her fingers."You know how I said I just got to Illinois today? Well, that wasn't entirely true. I actually flew in yesterday," the uneasy expression that appeared on Jake's face made her apprehensive about continuing, but she pushed through this feeling, "I said I was arriving today because I thought it would be fun to surprise you at your house. So, yesterday I stopped by your house after I got settled here and when I did your wife answered."The uneasy expression on Jake's face turned into one of dread as sweat broke out on his forehead."When Clarice answered the door I asked if you were home. She said you weren't. So I asked when you would be back, but she just gave me an uncomfortable look and told me to talk to you. She," at this point Kate found herself choking on her words a bit, "She told me not to come back. Then she closed the door on me. I swear I stood outside that door for a good minute trying to make sense of what just happened."Having come to the crux of her story, she stopped pacing around the room so she could look directly at Jake as she asked, "Jake, is something going on? Are you and Clarice doing okay?"At once, Jake's mindset switched from worrying about the pendant to the old familiar subject of his divorce. He smacked his forehead."Of course this would happen," he thought.In a week where so much had gone awry, Jake reasoned that it only made some twisted sense that Kate would arrive early and by doing so uncover the truth about the state of his marriage before he was able to muster the resolve to tell her. He was cornered. It took him a few seconds to accept this reality."No, we're not doing well. Actually, we're getting divorced so that house isn't my house anymore."Like yesterday with Bree, he was surprised how easily the dreaded words slipped out of his mouth; this moment he'd been worried about for almost a week came and went, leaving him waiting on Kate's response.An entire lifetime of knowing his cousin should have made it effortless for him to anticipate her reaction to the news. Only the recently acquired fear of once again discovering something solid and reliable in his life was actually none of those things made the wait for her response unbearable to him. Like a criminal awaiting a verdict, he sat up perfectly straight and stiff.Acting on instinct, Kate immediately made her way to Jake and embraced him. Caught in the unfamiliar position of being the comforter instead of the comforted, Kate didn't know yet what to say or do next. Nonetheless, she hoped a hug would be a good start. Sure enough, the warmth and feel of her embrace relieved Jake's tension. It reassured him of something he felt guilty about ever doubting.Feeling that she should say something, Kate asked the only question she felt was worth asking, "Are you okay?"Unable to erect that façade of self-assuredness he habitually maintained at most times and with most people, Jake answered honestly, "No, not really."The sounds of the party combined with the feel of the pendant in his hand served to remind him of that night about one year ago when he drove away from Nadia's graduation party reveling in a future which seemed so clear and wide open to him."I don't know what to do," he admitted. Those simple words were the best he could come up with at the moment to express how the disappointment in one aspect of his life had dashed the firm sense of direction he once possessed regarding the whole of his life."Sure you do," she responded, hoping she was saying the right thing, "There's always a way forward. There's always a new path. You just have to be brave enough to take those first steps and you are Jake you are."While the cousins embraced and spoke to one another, something was afoot downstairs. A growing din could be heard. At first, the two cousins were too absorbed in the moment to pay it much attention. Eventually, however, whatever commotion was going on downstairs couldn't be ignored. They both got up and hurriedly walked outside the bedroom door to see what was going on.Chapter 8: The Fight Charlie kissed Rolo. It was the worst. In his zealousness to kiss Rolo, Charlie had forgotten to implement the very basic elements of a half-way decent kiss. For example, he didn't aim well. In fact, he almost missed Rolo's lips entirely. Moreover, he jutted his head towards Rolo with such force that it was in many ways less a kiss and more a lips-first headbutt. By virtually all objective standards and most subjective ones, it was an awful kiss. Nonetheless, it left Rolo thoroughly flummoxed."I'm sorry. I'm sorry," said Charlie moments after the kiss; once he'd started somewhat coming to his senses, "Are you okay?"Rolo didn't respond to his question. Instead he stood up, and like a drunk man seemed to sway from side to side as he walked towards the house."I'm...I'm gonna go find Jake," he said, as he proceeded to make his way back to the house.Afflicted with guilt, Charlie initially hesitated to follow him. Eventually, however, he gathered up the wherewithal to pursue him in the hopes of making clear his apology. ***Like many people who grew up surrounded by surplus wealth, Nadia and to a lesser degree Kate both suffered from affluenza. Affluenza being a condition principally characterized by an inability to properly consider the consequences of one's actions. The nineteen year old wasn't always cognizant of the ways in which the responsible adults around her, namely her parents, had shielded her from any negative repercussions stemming from her own willful choices. Instead it seemed to her that a sort of omnipresent serendipity reigned throughout her life. Moreover, like many her age, Nadia was prone to confusing the mere defiance of parental authority with actual maturity.What all this amounted to was that in conceiving the party, Nadia had given little thought to the actual logistics of who to invite or how to set up the party so it went on without a hitch. Her only concern was having a good time and of course getting back at her parents. She didn't think twice about posting the invite to her party on social media. Guided by the subconscious notion that things would just work themselves out, she gave little thought to the possibility of something going awry."Nadia," said Alicia, one of her friends, as the two lounged around in the kitchen, "There are a lot of people here. It's, uh, kinda getting crowded."With growing alarm, Alicia couldn't help but notice that a lot more people than expected had arrived at the party. Nadia's house was big. Nevertheless, it was already showing tell-tale signs of becoming overcrowded. She saw entire rooms of the house packed with people from wall to wall, intoxicated people bumping into each other with ever greater frequency, and an overabundance of the sort of people good suburban girls like herself tended to get really nervous around.Paying no heed to her friend's well founded concerns, Nadia continued to engage in the far more pressing task of trying to make her boyfriend jealous by flirting with the cute guy she just met. She was able to do this right up until the time a female scream from some corner of the house split the air followed by the unmistakable sound of a scuffle breaking out. Instantly, the party's carefree mood changed.No one knew quite what caused the fight to break out. Somewhere within the unruly crowd, an argument, undoubtedly over something petty and stupid, escalated from harsh words to fisticuffs. Messier still was the chain of events unleashed by the first punches. Once the original combatants started fighting their friends joined in and then their friends joined in and then people who weren't even involved in the original situation found themselves swept in. It quickly spiraled.In the midst of the very beginnings of this melee, a still somewhat disoriented Rolo continued trying to make his way through the crowd in order to get to Jake. Following not too far behind was Charlie. Unaware of how bad the situation would soon become, the two men continued pushing deeper and deeper into the mass of people; using their diminutive size to squeeze through.The chaos which began in one part of the house soon spread like an inexorable chain reaction. Poor decisions and actions taken on impulse compounded on top of one another till the entire house was caught up in the ongoing melee. Some made a futile effort to quell the brawl. Others tried to flee. The result was people screaming, running, and throwing punches in a maelstrom of violence that Rolo and Charlie managed to find themselves right in the middle of.Realizing the danger both he and Rolo were in, Charlie tried to grab Rolo by the arm and pull him out from the crowd. Before he could, though, someone was shoved into Charlie. The force of the impact slammed him against the wall of the hallway he was walking through. It hurt, but fortunately it didn't injure him. When he looked to see who'd been shoved into him he saw an imposing guy at least a foot taller than him and built like a football player. Instinctively, Charlie pushed him off. Upon doing so, however, the man turned and glared at him in a blind rage. He then raised his fist in preparation to punch Charlie's lights out."Stop it Tom, Stop," pleaded a young woman, who Charlie assumed was the man's girlfriend. Before the punch could land, she got in between Charlie and the man. Grabbing his raised fist, she continued pleading with him to calm down. Charlie used this opportunity to slip away.Meanwhile, Rolo found himself in the eye of the storm. His back was to the wall as a mess of people on all sides of him fought in a wild frenzy. Grasping the peril of his position, Rolo panicked. His breath became rapid and shallow while his eyes widened as he searched for any way to extricate himself from the midst of the combatants around him."Jake. Jake. He should still be upstairs. If I can just get to him. I'm so close," he thought to himself.Despite the thick crowds and now the ensuing chaos of a brawl, Rolo had managed to make it all the way to the front of the house where the staircase upstairs was located. If he could just make it through, he could go upstairs and get to Jake.Mustering up what courage he had in him, Rolo braved himself to try to make a push to get to the staircase. A second before he could, however, someone grabbed his arm and attempted to pull him away. Turning his head to see who it was, he saw Charlie."What are you doing? Let go of me!" Rolo shouted."Rolo, we have to..." Charlie started to say before something caught his eye.Immediately, he pushed Rolo down as a vase flew overhead and smashed into the back wall. Startled by what had just happened, Rolo stopped struggling to free himself from Charlie's grip. The two men huddled together in the relative safety of the corner they were in. Neither one could figure out a good way out."Oh my God, I think we need to call the police," said a panic stricken Alicia to Nadia. Nadia said nothing in response. Fear paralyzed her as she saw the once immaculate floors of her parent's house stained with blood. A growing dread came over her at the realization of how badly things had in fact gone wrong. The overcrowded conditions of the party made even the act of trying to get out of the house a dangerous one. A crush of people made their way towards the exits which were unable to accommodate so many people wanting to leave all at once. Horrified, Nadia felt herself becoming faint.Rolo, a man more used to spending Friday nights at home on the couch than in the midst of a raucous party, became more and more distressed with each passing moment. Yes, Charlie/ MoistCritikal was with him, but this was in no way any kind of wish fulfillment. This was a nightmare. He wanted to wake up. He wanted it to stop. He wanted out. A feeling of frustration welled up inside him until he couldn't contain it anymore. Closing his eyes, he proceeded to let it all out."STOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOP!"Rolo couldn't remember the last time he'd shouted like that; the last time he'd given such unrestrained expression to his emotions. It was an atomic yell that took him by surprise. He didn't know he had it in him. From a rational perspective, Rolo hardly expected a mere yell to solve his problems or get him out of this situation. Nonetheless, the moment after he shouted something strange and unexpected occurred.Chapter 9: Status Quo RestoredA blinding flash of light appeared in the center of the room. It saturated everything in light so when Rolo finally opened his eyes he couldn't see anything but the light. He closed his eyes again; scared to even contemplate what was happening now. Eventually, the light dimmed. As the light faded, Rolo noticed something.Up until that point, Charlie had been gripping his arm. When the light dimmed, however, he felt his grip suddenly disappear. Opening his eyes again, he discovered Charlie was gone. This alone would have been enough of a shock for him. Even more startling, however, was what he saw when he looked around him.The fighting had stopped. In fact, everything had stopped. Everywhere he looked people and things were frozen in place. Nothing was moving except Rolo. It was as if time itself had stopped. Observing all this, he felt a terrible feeling in his gut."Rolo, Rolo," shouted a familiar voice coming from upstairs. When he looked up he saw Jake yelling at him. He'd just come out of Kate's room and was just as confused, perplexed, and concerned as Rolo was about what could possibly be happening."Jake," he yelled back.Now that the fighting had ceased, he had no concerns about making his way towards the stairs and up towards Jake."What's going on," asked Jake as he met Rolo at the top of the stairs, "Everyone's frozen and the pendant; the pendant was in my hand just a moment ago, but now it's gone.""I have no idea. I have absolutely no idea. Charlie's gone too. He was just with me, but now he's gone and I don't know what the hell's going on."Unable to do anything else, they both gave each other the same bewildered expression. They would have likely remained stuck staring at one another if not for the assistance of a familiar non-human entity."What's up guys," said the Spirit of the Pendant as it appeared right behind Rolo. Watching everything from its own realm, the spirit finally determined that now was the appropriate, climactic point for it to intervene and make good on its earlier commitment. It had its fill of fun."Oh my ------- god it's you!" exclaimed Jake when he spotted the being grinning from ear to ear as it stood on the staircase."You're welcome. You're welcome," the spirit said with a polite bow."You're welcome?" said Rolo, becoming enraged, "What did you do? Where's Charlie?""You stupid thing. You lied to us," declared Jake as he moved towards the spirit with a level of anger even Rolo had never witnessed from him before, "You said you were gonna bring everything back to normal and you didn't. You..."Before Jake could complete his harangue, the spirit raised its hand and stated, "Relax, relax."As it stifled a chuckle, the being continued, "I said I was going to do all those things and behold I have! Maybe I took my time about it, but done is done."These words hardly comforted either Jake or Rolo."What do you mean? What have you done," Rolo asked as all sorts of terrifying possibilities came to his mind."Again, relax. I mean what I mean. I sent Charlie back to his friends, wiped his memory so he'll have no recollection of this little incident, and basically brought him back to normal as promised. I even took the pendant off your hands so you guys won't even have to worry about that. See? Everything back to the status quo."The Spirit of the Pendant said all this with a beaming grin and a glee it could barely conceal."And how are we supposed to believe you," Jake yelled even though he was at once cognizant of the fact that he and Rolo as two mere mortals were very much at the mercy of this being who apparently had the power to stop time itself.Aware of its position of power, the spirit answered, "Because you must, because I'm telling the truth, and because to make it all up to you I'll perform one last magic trick for you. Free of charge!""No for god's sake!" shouted Rolo upon hearing the spirit declare it was going to perform one more magic act, "Don't do anything, just..."He wasn't able to finish his sentence. Instead another blinding flash of light appeared right where the spirit stood. Once again the room was bathed in so much brightness that neither Rolo nor Jake could keep their eyes open. They could only shut their eyes and hope for the best. After a few seconds, the light dimmed. Warily, they opened their eyes. The spirit was gone."What happened," asked the voice of someone who'd recently been suspended in place but was no longer. A chorus of equally confused voices followed soon after; all wondering the same thing. Even people who only a little while ago had been striving to beat the crap out of each other, now found themselves too disoriented to do much of anything except ask themselves the same question everyone else was asking. The entire house came to life once more as time resumed its onward march. Looking around them, the resumption of time wasn't what most startled Rolo and Jake.In its wake, the spirit had not only restored time but also the damage caused by the brawl. Wounds were miraculously healed, broken furniture and décor was repaired good as new, and the house looked much like it did before the fight broke out. Even more extraordinary, no one except Rolo and Jake appeared to remember anything about the fight. The spirit had erased all memory of the recent melee so people were confused as to why they were, for example, lying on the floor or standing in a particular spot they didn't remember moving to. Where once there was fighting and panic now there was confusion and bewilderment over what had just happened. Rolo and Jake stared at one another, not sure just yet what to make of things. ***Back at Andrew's house, none of the three friends knew exactly what to do. Without any other contextual information, all they knew was that their friend Charlie, who'd been acting strange all day, suddenly got into his car and drove off to a destination he didn't bother telling them about. Since his abrupt departure, the gang had scratched their collective heads thinking about what they should do about it. At first they hoped he would be gone only a little while. As time passed, however, their worries grew. They tried calling and texting him, but he didn't respond. Collectively, they grew even more worried."Should we go out looking for him," suggested Kaya as night settled in."Maybe if he doesn't come back by tomorrow morning we should report him missing," said Jackson, unsure of what other viable options they had.They continued waiting for their friend's return. Just when they were reaching the ends of their wits, they heard loud, frantic knocking at the front door.Andrew raced towards the door followed closely behind by his other two friends. When he opened the door he found an unconscious Charlie lying outside the front door. The group was stupefied as to how he got there, and became even more surprised when they saw Charlie's car parked in the same spot it was when he left.Despite their bewilderment, the group immediately made an effort to rouse their unconscious friend. The moment they reached their hands out to try to shake him awake, though, a force like electricity went through their bodies. This force didn't harm them in any way, but it did do something rather peculiar to them. It wiped clean any memory they had of Charlie's weird behavior over the last few days, any memory of Rolo and Jake from yesterday's house party, and even their memories of the recent few hours they'd spent waiting for Charlie to return. In other words, they could recall no incident which had its origins in the chain of events unleashed by the wish."Guys," said Kaya looking to and fro as if trying to figure out where he was, "What are we all doing out here at the front door?""More important question. What the hell is Charlie doing lying on the ground? Charlie, are you okay," asked Jackson as he reached out his hand to Charlie who was now starting to wake up."I...I think so," replied Charlie as he took hold of Jackson's hand and used it to help himself up.With no memory of most of what had happened over the last few days, no one was as confused or baffled as Charlie. It took the four men more than a little while to reorient themselves. Once they did, however, their lives resumed their normal course.Epilogue-Status Quo ReconsideredBack at Kate and Nadia's house, the party started winding down soon after the Spirit of the Pendant unpaused time. The disorientation which stemmed from the magical being's actions turned out to be a major buzzkill. Many people decided it was best to just go home instead of trying to make sense out of whatever happened to them. This created a death spiral for the party. When one group of people left this inspired another group of people to leave until slowly, but surely the party died down. The once overcrowded house became emptier and emptier. At the tail end of this process, the only people left in the house were the two sisters Kate and Nadia, a few of their close friends, and the two best friends Rolo and Jake.Although the spirit's restoration of the status quo made it no longer necessary for Rolo and Jake to stay at Kate's house, they both found themselves in no rush to return home. Hours passed by as the remaining group of people played games and talked. To her delightful surprise, Nadia realized time spent in the company of a few choice loved ones was even more pleasurable than time spent in the midst of a rowdy crowd of loose acquaintances and outright strangers. While she possessed no memories of either the pendant or the brawl, Kate still recalled Jake's earlier admission of his divorce. Consequently, she was even more eager than usual for Jake to stay and enjoy himself. The group stayed up late into the night.At around 1 a.m. Rolo stepped outside. He'd stepped out on a whim, and had no plans to stay outside for more than a minute. Unable to resist the refreshing cool of a summer night, though, he lingered outside longer than he intended to.Standing alone on the front porch absorbed in his own thoughts, he couldn't help but recall the entirety of the evening's events. In fact, he brought to mind all the unexpected and unlikely events which had occurred to him over the last few days. Remembering them all at once, turning disparate incidents into a coherent story in his mind, he felt an emotion he rarely experienced or at least one which had become scarce in his life. He felt exhilaration. Even the otherwise harrowing experience of the brawl now seemed thrilling from the safety of hindsight. It was all part and parcel of the fascinating story he replayed in his head over and over again. More than that, however, he felt the beginnings of a renewed awareness of a wider world and variety of experiences than those he'd limited himself to as he matured into a conscientious adulthood."Hey man," said Jake upon opening the front door and discovering his friend Rolo outside, "I was just looking for you."Jake stepped outside and proceeded to join his friend as he stood out on the front porch."Are you ready to head back," asked Jake.The thought of going back home and officially putting an end to their little misadventure appealed to Rolo much less than he was willing to admit. At the mere mention of going back home, he felt that afterglow of exhilaration degrade into a sense of dejection that dragged his spirits down. The more he realized the inevitability and necessity of a return home the more this feeling of dejection settled in him."Yeah, I guess we can start to get going here soon," Rolo replied.Although he didn't admit it to his friend, Jake felt much the same way. The wish and all the trouble which resulted from it had been a distraction from the concerns, worries, and anxieties which otherwise would have dominated his life these past few days. Since everything regarding the wish now seemed resolved, he had no other choice but to refocus on the still unresolved difficulties in his personal life. He had asked Rolo if he was ready to head back more out of obligation and recognition of the inevitability of needing to go home than out of actual desire to do so. Despite both agreeing they needed to go home, neither man moved an inch. They persisted in lounging on the front porch. The longer they did so the more Jake felt the urge to blurt out something he knew he would have to say eventually."Rolo," Jake began in a voice plain and matter of fact, "I'm getting a divorce."At this, Rolo whipped his head around and looked at Jake. From his perspective these words seemed to pop out of nowhere apropos of nothing. One moment they were both enjoying the summer night. The next he was coming to terms with the news of his best friend's divorce. This could hardly be more different from Jake's perspective to whom the uttering of this statement came only after much internal debate and angst.Just as with Kate, Jake awaited Rolo's response with a not inconsiderable amount of anxiety. Fortunately, just as with Kate his fears turned out to be unfounded. As he should have anticipated, Rolo's primary reaction to the news of the divorce was concern for Jake."So, where are you staying at then," Rolo asked after Jake mentioned he was no longer living at the house in Swansea."I'm at a motel currently," Jake replied."How long are you planning on staying there? Do you have any other place to go long term?"A somewhat embarrassed Jake shrugged his shoulders and responded, "No, I don't. Not right now at least. I've gotta figure that out. I've gotta figure a lot of things out."In saying this, Jake reminded himself of all the ways his future was now unclear and undefined.For a few seconds, Rolo went silent while he inwardly pondered something."Hey," Rolo finally said, "You know, if you want to you could move in with me. I have plenty of space."This suggestion took Jake by surprise."Really, are you sure?"With even more confidence Rolo reaffirmed, "Yes, of course I'm sure.""Yeah, I mean but are you really sure," Jake asked again, "Are you sure I won't be a bother or that I won't be interrupting your life with what's going on in my life?"Rolo smiled before once more reaffirming, "Yes, I'm one hundred percent sure. Not a doubt in my mind. You can live with me until you get things figured out. Yeah, it'll be a change from living alone, but to be honest..."At this point, he paused as his mind caught hold of a realization newly happened upon."I could use a little more of that."A once dormant sense of curiosity inspired this reply. Although he did not know where it would lead him or even if its motivating power would last beyond a few days before the forces maintaining the status quo in his life overwhelmed it, that night in the afterglow of his recent supernatural misadventure he committed himself to following it.With this offer of a place to stay, the future which before seemed so murky to Jake now came more into focus. Like the first step in a long journey, it wouldn't take him all the way to where he needed to go, but it did nonetheless constitute definitive movement towards his destination whatever that would ultimately turn out to be."That's right. I do have incredible friends and family; people around me," he thought to himself as if this fact was somehow worthy of being called an epiphany.After he accepted Rolo's offer, the two lingered outside for a few minutes longer. Then they went back inside the house and said goodbye to Kate and Nadia. Finally, they went home.