It was said that if you wished very, very, very hard for something, and the Fates decided your wish was something vital to your well-being, your wish would be granted. Most people wished for love, or money, or a house, or food, or for their sickness to be gone so they could spend more time with those they loved.
No one understood why some wishes were granted and others were not. It was said that only one wish could ever be granted in a person’s lifetime. Others said that the wisher had to be in good graces with the Fates, so many wishers left gifts at the temples and churches. Some said that the wisher had to be pure of heart and mind, and so many wishers never got their wishes granted. Those who were fortunate enough to have their wishes granted received a mark, a small tattoo, as a sign of their worthiness.
Children rarely got their wishes granted⎯nearly all of the wishers who did receive their tattoos were adults.
It didn’t stop the children from wishing, and even the one boy who no one believed would ever wish for anything (he was strange, anti-social, withdrawn, too intelligent, eyes too piercing) wished for something.
That boy, that strange, lonely (something he would never admit to but in the deepest of his heart of hearts) boy, Sherlock Holmes, wished for a friend.
Of course, he didn’t quite understand that he was wishing for something, but still, he spent every moment since he conceptualised the idea of friendship wishing for someone as understanding as Badger, Ratty, and Mole to appear in his life (Sherlock’s mother read him The Wind in the Willows from a very young age, and the book made quite an impression on Sherlock, who fancied himself most like Badger). So, every night, before he closed his eyes, he wished for a Mole or Ratty of his very own, and then went to sleep, Bear tucked up close to his chin.
And then, something extraordinary happened. Well, it was extraordinary to young Sherlock, who could see the friend he’d been wishing for for several months now. No one else could see his friend, and his friend didn’t talk. In fact, for the first year, the friend was a rather ghostly figure, more a wisp of smoke than a ghost, who appeared and disappeared at random times. He (or at least Sherlock was nearly certain it was a he) tended to coalesce when Sherlock needed company the most (when Mycroft went off to school after that one long summer when Sherlock was but five and didn’t understand why Mycroft had to be gone for so long) or when Sherlock was at his lowest and highest points. As he got older, Sherlock started keeping track of when his friend would appear, for how long he would stay, appearance, and other little details only Sherlock would notice. He kept this data hidden away in little notebooks Mycroft bought him, and those notebooks were preserved and updated well into his adulthood.
When Sherlock was seven, he finally named his friend.
Sherlock was racing about the Holmes estate wearing a pirate hat fashioned from yesterday’s newspaper and brandishing a cardboard tube the gardener had helped him paint silver. He wore an eyepatch that Mummy had made for him from an old eyemask, and he was running away.
Well, not away away, but to his secret place down deep in an old, disused part of the garden (the gardener, knowing of young Master Holmes’ penchant for hiding there, deliberately left it unkempt, with Mrs. Holmes’ permission) so that he could be alone and away from the heavy, oppressive feeling the house stirred in him sometimes.
His friend appeared almost as soon as Sherlock pushed aside the low branches that partially concealed his secret place.
“Hello,” Sherlock said, looking carefully at his friend, who was more solid and real than he had been before. His eyes were a slate blue, and his hair was a dark blond. He watched Sherlock with interest, eyes tracking his every move, even as he himself remained rooted in one spot. Sherlock circled the small clearing, cataloguing out loud the differences he found since he’d been there just last week. Once he returned to his starting point, he looked his friend up and down, fingers itching for his notebook so he could write down the nuances of his friend’s changing appearance. Now, his friend was wearing a striped jumper that was slightly too big for him and a pair of denims that nearly covered the tops of his bare feet. Sherlock tilted his head and said, “Do you know why I came down here?”
His friend watched him, silently.
“I came down here because Father’s sick, and he won’t get better. And Mummy called Mycroft to come home from school, so it..it…has to be bad. I’ve been reading about cancer. And the pancreas. The books say survival isn’t likely. And then Mrs. Moberley tried to give me sympathy today at school, and it was awful. I don’t want to think about it. I don’t want to know what I know.” He swallowed back the tears that were threatening to choke him, and then swiped angrily at his eyes.
His friend’s face softened, and he shifted his weight, licking his lips as if to speak. Sherlock watched him, waiting to see if his friend for the past two years, the one who he spoke to even though his friend never answered him (deep down, that made Sherlock more sad than anything), would speak for the first time. But his friend just shook his head sadly. Sherlock reached out to meet his friend’s outstretched hand, but his solid hand passed right through his friend’s, as if it were made of smoke and air. His friend vanished as suddenly as he appeared, a look of shocked surprise flickering across his face.
Sherlock sat down on a stump and waited to see if his friend would come back. Sometimes he did come back shortly after disappearing, but Sherlock hadn’t tried to touch his friend before. He didn’t know what would happen now. Would he disappear forever? Sherlock didn’t think he could handle having two people he cared about leave him forever, and his eyes welled up again at the thought. He dropped his cardboard sword and buried his face in his hands, letting himself cry until he was spent.
When he looked up again, his friend was hovering right in front of him, a worried frown across his face. Sherlock blinked away the last few tears still clinging to his lashes and said, rather stupidly, “You came back.”
His friend smiled and nodded, as if to say, Of course I did, silly.
“Will you always come back?”
At that, his friend’s features twisted a bit as he shrugged. He looked upset, and Sherlock quickly decided he didn’t want to see his friend look upset ever again. Seeing that expression made something deep in Sherlock’s chest twist a bit, and he didn’t like that feeling.
So, he hopped off the stump, rubbed his nose on his sleeve, and then declared, “You’ll be my first mate, won’t you?”
His friend looked over shoulder to see if there was anyone else Sherlock could be talking to. Realising they were still alone, his friend looked back at him and pointed one finger at himself, one eyebrow raised inquisitively.
“Of course, you. See, I’m a pirate captain⎯” he pointed to his hat, “⎯and all captains need a first mate.”
His friend nodded, grinning a bit as Sherlock picked up enthusiasm.
“Come on! Let’s go search for buried treasure!” He started to run out of the clearing, but he stopped and looked back over his shoulder at his friend, who was just behind him. Sherlock turned around to face him and looked him up and down before declaring, “You need a name. All first mates need one, and you’ve been my friend for almost two years now and I haven’t given you a name yet. All things need names and naming, that’s what Mummy says⎯names are important and can give you power over them. I don’t want to have power over you, so I’ll just give you a first name. You can pick your middle and last names.” He stopped, pursing his lips for a moment before he nodded and said, “John.” He felt a little shiver run through him as he made his pronouncement. “Is that okay? Do you like it?”
John’s grin, if it had been real, could have lit the clearing. Sherlock grinned back and yelled, “Come on, then, John! We have treasure to find!”
They played together nearly every day for seven weeks, until John suddenly disappeared again and didn’t come back. The day after he left, Mummy, her voice high and tight and so, so fragile, called Sherlock and Mycroft to their father’s bedside. He squeezed their hands as tightly as he could, but no matter how much Sherlock and Mycroft pleaded with him, Father didn’t open his eyes.
The funeral was four days later. Sherlock sat in the front pew of the church, listening to the priest speak. Mummy was sat next to him, Mycroft on his other side. Mummy was gripping his hand so tightly that Sherlock could feel his bones squeezing together. Sherlock spent the service wishing desperately for John to arrive so that the two of them could lean their heads close and Sherlock could pour his sorrow and his anger and all of his confusion (why did it have to be Father?) into John’s ear. But John was not there, and he was not there when they left the church, he was not there when they left the cemetery, he was not there at the lunch everyone only picked at when they gathered back at the estate.
John was not there when Sherlock went to bed that night, but when he woke in the early hours of the night, his pillow was wet and John was suddenly there, watching him with sad eyes. Sherlock gulped down air and made himself lie back down, facing John, who scooted down the bed to lie facing Sherlock. If John was flesh and blood (I wish he was really real. I wish I wish I wish⎯I gave him a name I want him to be real), their hands, foreheads, knees, and feet would be touching. But instead, Sherlock had to keep just a bare millimetre between them so that John would not inadvertently disappear. They stared at each other for a long time, John’s eyes saying everything he physically could not, until Sherlock finally fell asleep.
When he woke, John was nowhere to be found.