Fair Coin, the debut novel is from E.C. Myers, is about wishes, and the complications that come from getting your wishes granted. This is interestingly coincidental for me because just the other day I was talking to my daughter about “The Monkey’s Paw,” the short story in which one’s wishes are granted… badly. I was trying to explain to her that wishes have consequences. She looked at me like I was speaking Martian. Fortunately for you, E.C. Myers is somewhat better at explaining this concept.
“After a time, you may find that having is not so pleasing a thing, after all, as wanting. It is not logical, but it is often true.” – Spock, “Amok Time”
I’ve always been fascinated with stories about characters finding a magical item that grants their wishes. My favorite Disney movie is Aladdin. One of the most memorable books from my childhood is E. Nesbit’s Five Children and It, in which “it” is a Psammead, a fairy who grudgingly doles out a wish a day from his sand pit. And I’m a huge fan of The Twilight Zone, which is largely populated by hapless souls who strike deals with devils/djinn/angels/shopkeepers to get what they’ve always wanted.
Wish fulfillment stories are often predicated on the idea that you can’t get something for nothing, and they often feature surprising twists, even outside the far-reaching borders of the Twilight Zone. In Nesbit’s book, wishes only last until sunset, which is fortunate because they never turn out quite the way the children expected. Edward Eager’s Half Magic is about a coin that only grants wishes halfway. In stories like W.W. Jacobs’ “The Monkey’s Paw,” wishes come true in a dark and tragic way. If you wish you can turn invisible, as a guy did in one episode of The X-Files, you might get hit by a truck. Basically, you were probably better off before you made the wish.
These stories are cautionary tales about… What, exactly? The danger of wanting things? It’s not inherently bad to want something, but the point seems to be that everything has a price, and the going rate for wishes is pretty steep. Though most of these stories end in similar, even predictable ways, we continue to be fascinated by magic lamps, magic coins, wishing wells, shooting stars, angels, demons, wishbones, creepy wishing machines at amusement parks, and so on.
If a character is lucky enough to survive an experience with a wishing fill-in-the-blank, it’s likely because he or she realizes that lasting change only comes from within. The experience of getting what you wanted, living with it for a bit, and then losing or giving it up is better than having had the thing. You can go somewhere over the rainbow for a little while, but there’s no place like home.
In Fair Coin, the coin that Ephraim finds is just as tricky as you’d imagine. When he makes a wish and flips it, his wish comes true. If the coin lands on heads, his life becomes puppies and unicorns. But if it comes up tails, those puppies and unicorns bite. And they might have rabies.
But unlike wishes granted by the Psammead, the intended and unintended effects of Ephraim’s choices don’t go away at the end of the day. The conflict isn’t that he wishes for himself to change, but that the coin seems to be changing other people and the world around him to conform to his wishes. At first it seems harmless enough to wish that his crush likes him back, but soon Ephraim wonders: Is it wrong to alter other people’s lives this way? What kind of person does it make him? Ephraim struggles between his growing sense of responsibility and the unlimited possibilities the coin offers, as the differences mount and his problems spiral out of control.
The real danger in using an unknown object like Ephraim’s coin lies in the temptation to make just one more wish to fix everything that’s gone wrong. Magic can be a terrible addiction, right, Frodo? And of course, there’s a twist.
If I can play Rod Serling for a moment, ultimately, wishing is about hope, but hope is wasted if you don’t use it for encouragement, consolation, and motivation if your wishes don’t come true right away. (They seldom do.) We make idle wishes every day. “I wish I had a better job.” “I wish I had time to write.” “I wish I could help you.” “I wish…” Sometimes when you make a wish, you’re really making an excuse for not taking action.
We might wish for things we never expect to happen without magical or divine intervention, but that might just be taking the easy way out. There are plenty of things we have no control over in life, but we all have the power to grant some wishes for ourselves or others—no strings attached.
And what if your wishes could come true? I’m sure most people have thought about what they would ask for given the opportunity, and they’re certain they know how to game it so no there are no unwelcome tricks. You’ve probably heard the phrase “be careful what you wish for,” but is it possible to make a wish with a positive outcome? Perhaps, Disney tells us, if your wish is selfless. But even Aladdin’s last wish (spoiler!) to free Genie at the end of the movie had dire consequences: There were two dreadful direct-to-video sequels.