“You’re kidding me, right?” Ben stared dumbfounded at the woman for a moment, then shook his head. “Look, lady, whatever gag you’re trying to pull, just move on, okay?” He sidestepped a couple paces down the sidewalk, shifting the bags full of his purchases and the antique basket to his other hand. He then made a show of intently studying a display of flower planters in front of the thrift store. ‘Why did all the crazies seem to find him?’ he thought.
“Don’t blame me, Ben,” the woman said as she stepped right along with him. She waved to the antique basket he had just purchased. “You’re the one that let me out. Now tell me, what do you want?”
“This is insane!” he cried, waving his free arm in an exasperated fashion. “What I want is for you to go awa…” He stopped. In his annoyance, it had taken him a few seconds to realize the stranger had called him by name. “How do you know my name? Are you… stalking me?”
The woman rolled her eyes. “No. I’m not stalking you. I told you, I’m a genie. Phenomenal cosmic power and all that. Come on. You watched that movie something like a hundred times as a kid. Drove your mom crazy.”
Ben stared at her again. “That’s just a movie, a cartoon,” he said. “Stuff like that isn’t real.”
She sighed in an obviously exaggerated fashion, then poked him in the chest with her finger. “See, now that’s the problem with people today. They get a little science and they completely lose the ability to use their imaginations.”
She drew in a breath and puffed herself up, putting her hands on her hips. It gave her a ‘high and mighty’ air, but in that obviously mocking way that people do. “Oh, look at us! We’re so smart! Science and magic can’t possibly both be real. We know better now!”
Ben couldn’t be sure, but it seemed like she had gotten a few inches taller as the tirade went on. Finally, she stopped, got a broad grin on her face and stuck out her tongue. Her shoulders slumped and she appeared to shrink back down to her normal size. She tilted her head slightly and looked almost wistful. “How is it,” she asked, “that people 2500 years ago were so much smarter that people today?”
“Riiiiiight,” Ben smiled. “Now I’m supposed to believe you’re 2500 years old?”
“No, silly,” she replied with a wry smile. “I’m 4500 years old. But 2500 years ago was about the high point for intellectual thought in humanity. It doesn’t get much better than Plato, or Aristotle. It’s pretty much been all down hill from there.”
‘This was beyond ridiculous,’ thought Ben. “Uh…, yeah, okay,” he said. He shook his head once more and decided he’d had enough. “I’m sure the guys in white suits will be along soon. Have a nice day.”
He turned and walked into the parking lot, carrying his purchases to his car, parked about 10 spaces up the row. As he put the bags and the basket into his trunk, he looked back towards the thrift store. The woman was there on the sidewalk, right where’d he’d left her. She just stood there looking at him, an innocent smile on her face.
‘Good,’ he thought as he climbed into the driver’s seat and hit the button to start his car. ‘Time to get out of here,’ he thought and reached for the gear lever.
“So,” she said from the passenger seat next to him. “Heading home now?”
If he hadn’t had his seatbelt on, Ben probably would have leapt through the sunroof and clear out of the car.
“That’s…. that’s impossible,” he managed to stammer once he the initial shock had passed. There was no way she could have crossed that distance so fast, not to mention get into the car itself. He’d only unlocked the driver’s door. He was sure of that. He looked to see the still-locked passenger door beyond her.
“Genie,” she shrugged with a smile. “You let me out. Now I’m going to grant you a wish.”
Taking a moment to collect himself, Ben sat still and silent in his seat, staring out the windshield. ‘This really can’t be possible,’ he kept saying to himself. ‘It’s not real. Stories like this are just fairly tales. She’s probably a serial killer just waiting for her moment to kill me. But if she is, why am I still sitting here?’
His internal discussion went on like this for nearly three full minutes. But what came out of his mouth was just “not real… not real… not real… not real…”
The woman made no movements and said nothing further as she watched Ben work through things in his mind.
“Prove it,” Ben finally said, turning to look at her. “Prove you are what you say you are.”
She raised an eyebrow. “What?” she said. “Teleporting instantly across the parking lot and into your parked car wasn’t enough?”
“Maybe…. maybe you have a twin sister and she was over there and you were already in my car.”
She looked thoughtful for a moment, then nodded. “Ben, that was actually a very well reasoned argument,” she said. “OK, I’ll prove it.”
She turned her head this way and that as if looking to see if anyone was around. Ben tensed up. ‘This is it. They’re going to make their move. I’m dead!’ He closed his eyes in panic, waiting for the knife or gun or whatever was coming.
“Open your eyes, silly” he heard her say.
Ben slowly opened one of his eyes, then the other. He still fully expected this to be the end. What he saw, however, he could not explain. He was still in his car. He was still sitting in the drivers seat. But the car was no longer in the parking lot.
Instead, the car was sitting in his garage, at his house. It just wasn’t possible. All he could do was keep turning his head, looking back and forth. ‘How could this be possible?’ he thought. Was it possible?
“So?” she said. “Believe me now?”
“I….” He couldn’t say it. The evidence was clear, but he couldn’t say it. He just couldn’t say it. He opened the door and climbed out of the car. The woman, genie, whatever she was, climbed out the other side.
Ben watched her get out. “Why would a genie open the door?” he asked.
“Would you rather I do this?” she asked, suddenly standing next to him and startling him once again. Then she shrugged. “I find people tend to get uncomfortable if I don’t do things like a normal person. And, to be honest, I find a certain comfort and relaxation in the manual labor.
“You’d think being able to instantly have almost anything you want would be great,” she went on. “But people tend to value something less if they haven’t worked for it. Genies feel the same way. Well, some of us do anyway.”
“‘Some of us?'” he repeated. “How many genies are there?”
She shrugged. “No idea. We do have conclaves every hundred years or so, but….” She paused, as if searching for the right explanation. “It’s like the annual work Christmas party. Not everyone shows up. Others quickly pop in and out. Faces change. New genies are created, others die, and some are off doing genie things.”
She seemed almost wistful for a moment, lost in a memory. After a moment, she perked back up. “The last conclave was in 1973. There were 26 of us there. Who can say how many actually exist?”
Ben figured that there probably was someone who could actually say, but he didn’t press the issue. “So,” Ben asked after a moment, “how does this whole three wishes thing work?”
“Gah!” she cried, startling Ben and making him cringe and shrink back a bit. “No, no, no! Not three wishes. Damn that Galland! Maher told him how it really worked, but noooooo! Galland said it made for a better story it if was three. Stupid authors and their artistic license!”
She followed that with what Ben assumed was a string of curses of various sorts, but it wasn’t a language he recognized.
After a few seconds she stopped, taking in a deep, cleansing breath. “Sorry,” she said once she had calmed herself. “I just get tired of explaining it sometimes. Galland changed the story, and then Disney went and perpetuated it. Now it’s ingrained into everyone’s heads. Come on,” she said, grabbing Ben’s hand, “let’s go inside and I’ll explain it all. You could use a drink.” ‘She was right about that,’ Ben thought as he let her lead him inside.
A few minutes later, they were sitting on the couch, drinks in hand. “So,” Ben said, “do you have a name? What should I call you?”
She blinked at that. “No mortals bother to ask me that once they learn what I am. They just want to know what I can do for them.” She took in a deep breath and her eyes focused off into the distance for a moment. “If you wish, you may call me Atet. That was my name in mortal life, before I became what I am now.”
“Atet,” Ben nodded as he repeated the name. “Atet. A beautiful name.”
She smiled at that. “A fairly common one for the time and people of my birth. But that’s a story for another time. Now, about the wishes. Being a djinn is both a blessing and a curse. We are bound to an object, imprisoned within it, until such time as a mortal releases us by some means. That part everyone knows thanks to the story of Aladdin. After that is where the stories diverge from the truth.”
She took a deep breath before continuing. “Once released, we have 7 days of freedom, more or less, before we are sucked back into our prison. Then we cannot be released again until the day after the full moon, six moons hence.” Her shoulders slumped a bit and she looked rather resigned to her inevitable fate.
“Tradition holds that the djinn grants the mortal a wish in gratitude for their 7 days of freedom, and most of us still honor that tradition. Those who don’t tend to find themselves not getting released again. If we so choose, we can grant more wishes. But I’ve never found anyone worthy of receiving more than one, so don’t ask,” she added hastily.
“Now,” she said, going on, “there are a few rules, things which are beyond our power. First, we cannot bring back the dead. If you want to talk to the dead, find a priest or a seance. Second, we can’t interfere with free will in any real way. So, no wishing for people to fall in love with you or obey your every wish. And we can’t force your teenagers to clean their rooms or listen to you. Even djinn can’t do the impossible.”
“But I don’t have kids…” Ben replied, the sarcasm going completely over his head.
Atet wanted to make a comment, but decided to just move on. “Next, there will be no wishing for anyone to die. Ties into that whole denying free will thing. And last of all, you can’t go all altruistic and wish for my freedom. That’s pure cartoon bull. It’s not within our power to grant. Being turned into a genie is a prison sentence. It’s not within your power to grant us reprieve or parole.”
Ben nodded sagely, though it was clear he didn’t understand it all. He sat in silence for several minutes, pondering all she had told him.
Atet watched him silently. ‘He was a curious one,’ she thought. Though she was impatient to grant his wish and get on with her 7 days of freedom, she was careful not to impede that thought process. She’d learned from bad experience just how stupid and destructive wishes could be if a person were rushed into a decision.
Then, Ben caught her off guard. “Seven days of freedom every six months? That’s… very sad. And it’s been that way for thousands of years???” He shook his head slowly. Then, his whole expression changed to a bright smile as an idea clearly took hold. “That’s not a burden I would want to add to. So my wish is that you go and enjoy your seven days of freedom. Go and have a good time. Go be happy.”
Atet’s eyes grew huge in shock and she just stared at him, mouth agape. “You….” she started. “You just want me… to be happy? That’s your wish? That’s it?”
“Well, sure,” Ben replied a bit sheepishly. “Everyone deserves to be happy. At least a little.”
The djinn’s expression grew perplexed and she stared out the window. No one, not ever, had used their one wish just to wish for her happiness. Not in all her 4500 years had such a thing happened. It didn’t matter that she couldn’t technically grant his wish. You can’t force someone to be happy. It was that whole free will thing. But still, she wasn’t sure how to respond.
No one in all of her interactions with mortals had ever shown any concern with her before. As a genie, she was a tool, of no more personal value than the laptop computer on the end table next to her. Even when she was mortal, no one had really shown her any real concern, had they?
She’d been surrounded by people doing her bidding and fulfilling her every wish and need. She was a princess after all. But their only concern had been their own self interest. Serve well and be rewarded. Not one of them had ever shown any real concern for her. She didn’t know what to do with that.
She looked over at him. He was looking down at the floor, his cheeks flushed red. Who was this guy? she thought. And why on Earth would he wish such good things for a total stranger?
“I don’t….” she started, not really sure what to say. After all, it wasn’t a wish she could technically grant. But… the spirit of the request? What, exactly, did happiness mean to her? It wasn’t something that she had thought about in… thousands of years, really. As a djinn, she was a prisoner. Some would even say genies were little more than slaves. Happiness just wasn’t in the cards for her. It never would be.
Like most of her kind, the pattern to her seven days of freedom was always the same. Grant one wish, then party it up until the object to which they were imprisoned summoned them back. A few hours of servitude, six or seven days of pleasure, then 6 or more months of prison until the next hapless oaf of a mortal freed her.
Besides, what even was happiness? What did that word even mean to her? If she had ever known true happiness, it was thousands of years ago. She tried to clear the cobwebs from her mind and dredge up the far distant memories of the past. Her own mortal life was so very, very long ago. A princess of ancient Egypt, she had never wanted for anything. But what had actually made her happy?
She closed her eyes, reaching deep into those long supressed memories, trying to draw forth moments where she thought that she had felt happy. She could almost see it now in her mind. The young woman, just emerging into adulthood, sitting on the palace balcony. She looks out over the river Nile, spread out below her, listening to the lapping of the water against the bank as it flows past, ever reaching for the sea far to the north.
The scent of the burning incense floats just out of reach of her memory and her mind, taunting her inability to recall. Her mind fills in the void with the scents of lavender, long one of her favorite scents. She frowns slightly at her failure to remember the real scent, but quickly moves on to the point of the exercise.
There is a voice. Someone is speaking to her. It is a man’s voice, one that should be familiar to her, but she can’t quite place it yet. Seb… Sebek? No, that isn’t it. Her brow furrows in concentration. Se… Seb… Sebni. Yes! Sebni. That was his name. All at once, with the memory of his name, other memories flooded back into her mind.
Sebni had been her second cousin, once removed. But he had been more than that. Sebni had been her closest friend and confidant growing up. And he had remained so up until the time she had been cursed to be a djinn. Yes, that was where her happiness lay. When she imagined happiness in her mind, Sebni was there.
But what was it about their relationship that inspired feelings of happiness in her. They were friends and cousins, but no more than that. So what about Sebni made her happy. She iterated through all the happiest times she could find in her memories. Each and every one of them came back to the same thing, the one thing about her relationship with him that made her the happiest of all.
She hoped desparately that her expression didn’t betray the feeling of abject terror in the pit of her stomach. It was all clear to her now, where her happiness lay. She and Sebni could talk. They would spend hour upon hour and day after day talking. It didn’t matter the topic and their discussions had ranged across every concievable concept one could imagine. They could talk, and teach and learn from one another. He had always respected and listened to her opinion, no matter how much she could tell he would disagree.
She had not connected with another human being on that level since. And here she was, hoping beyond hope, that with Ben she might find another person that she could connect with, at least a little bit. Perhaps if she could, she might find a piece of that happiness that he had wished for her.
She opened her eyes. Ben was still conspicuously studying the floor. “Ben?” she asked quietly and he looked up at her. “Would you maybe want to… just talk with me… for a while?”
“Sure,” Ben replied with a broad smile. “I’d like that.”