Roland went to see the Wishbelly when his family finally ran out of money to give the doctors for his sick father. Not that the doctors were helping, but they did provide Hope, which is a key ingredient to Life, as his grandmother said.
The week after the money was almost all gone and it was clear that no more doctors would come, Roland saw something like a veil cover his father’s eyes, as if they were already staring up at the inside of a coffin. That night, Roland got a bottle of water and an apple and went outside by himself. This was a huge deal for a five-year-old.
Roland had heard of the Wishbelly from other children in his neighborhood. None of them knew what he looked like—he was the kind of legend your brother’s friend swore he knew—but they knew where he lived: in the abandoned factory across the rushing creek and through the phalanx of rusting farm equipment that was a Tetanus Superstore, as Roland’s mother always said.
He opened the front gate and stepped out onto the shoulder of the rural highway, a tiny boy in a huge, monstrously dark world. He knew the way, even in the dark, but the blinding white beams of a car that rushed past gave him enough light to avoid stumbling over the guardrail and falling into the stream.
After the stream, it was a fifteen-minute walk up the highway and then down a narrow dirt track next to a fallow meadow. The tall blades of grass bent and waved in the breeze, rustling and whispering to him.
“Roland, Roland,” they murmured. “Such a little boy. What’s he doing out at this hour? Wishbelly will eat him for a midnight snack. Such a little, little boy.”
This almost made Roland stop and go home. He had always thought of Wishbelly as being good and wanting to help, but now the idea came into his mind that maybe he was a terrible creature who ate children foolish enough to come visit him alone at night.
The voices were spreading. The wind had lifted it into the trees and bushes and now all around him, Roland heard the mocking pity. “Poor Roland. So young to die. Such a little boy.”
He was about to turn back when he heard one voice among the others. “Go!” it said. “Go. You can make it, Roland.” It sounded so different from the others that he planted a small boot resolutely in front of him and continued on until the sighing voices of the grass and trees were behind him.
But now there was a greater obstacle in front of him: one made of terror and decaying metal spikes showing black against the thinly-veiled moon. Roland shuffled forward, groping in front of himself. Almost immediately, a corroded steel fang reached out and tore his jacket, almost scratching him. He wished he had brought a flashlight.
He was almost considering going back to get a light when he noticed a dot of pale green luminescence off to the left. He went towards it instinctively and noticed another. They were appearing more frequently now, one every few feet. Roland felt pieces of metal brush past him on both sides, but he kept his eyes on the dots. After a hundred feet, the glowing dots spread out in a carpet and in their midst sat a dark figure.
The figure was seated with its head down. Roland took a step further and it spoke, soft and raspy. “Yes?”
“I want to see Wishbelly,” he said, his voice shaking.
The figure laughed, a low, dusty chuckle. “Wishbelly, is it? Why?”
“My father is sick.”
“That is not what Wishbelly does.”
“Oh.” Roland started to turn around, but stopped. “Why not?”
“He can only do things for the people who come see him. If your father came here, Wishbelly could make him better then.”
“But he’s sick! He can’t come.”
“That is not Wishbelly’s concern,” the figure said. Roland could not see his face. “You are here, so what can he do for you? You took the leap of faith to come. You made it past the obstacles.”
“Did you put the obstacles there? Did you make the grass mock me?”
The man shrugged. “There are always naysayers and obstacles in life, especially when you are doing something important.”
“And what about the encouraging voice, and the glowing path?”
“Everyone who truly searches will find.”
“Are you Wishbelly?” Roland asked.
The figure chuckled. “Possibly. But you haven’t answered my question. Do you want to be smart? Strong? Would you like to be forever happy?”
“Can he . . . can you make me able to heal my father? That’s all I want.”
“All you want is to help him?” the figure said. He stood up and Roland saw that it was an old man with bald head and silvery skin that glowed slightly, unless it was reflecting the moonlight.
“Would you still want that if none of your own wishes could come true? If you could only help others? I wasn’t the first Wishbelly, you know. There were others before me who passed on the gift. So this is what I will do, Roland, conqueror of fears, asker of audacious requests.”
He touched Roland on the head. “All who seek, find, but they often find much more than they could ever have dreamed of. You are Wishbelly now. You wished to help others and you have that chance now. You can wish nothing on yourself, but I hope that helping others makes you happy.”
“Who are you?” Roland asked.
“Just an old man now,” the man said, smiling. “And in need of some rest.”
“How does it work?” Roland asked. “How can I make my father better?”
“He must want it,” the man said. “He must ask. That is the only way. It may be difficult, but I wish you luck. Now go on home and get some sleep.”
Roland walked back along the luminous path through the Tetanus Superstore and through the sighing grass and trees. The pitying voices had gone silent. All he heard was the one small voice.
“Courage, young Roland. The hardest is behind you, the longest is ahead. Courage.”