A woman tucks in her towheaded son. The boy asks her to read him a bedtime story, but she doesn't have a book on hand, so she makes one up.
Once upon a time, in a land called Orange, there lived a young genie named Marty who was very smart and clever and nice but was always getting into trouble. In school, for example, instead of paying attention to his magic lessons, he would read comics and books about science. He would also use his powers to play tricks and practical jokes on his classmates and even some of the teachers--nothing cruel or spiteful, just disruptive. His poor mother would be called in and told all about his misbehavior, but she loved him too much to punish him.
One day she summoned Marty to her chambers and said: As you know, tomorrow is your one hundred and thirteenth birthday, which means the time has come for you to become a real grown-up genie and to fulfill all the responsibilities of geniehood. Tomorrow you will receive your own lamp, as well as your own supply of wishes, and soon you will meet your first mortal. I am proud of you, my dear son, and though I've been too lenient with you and your unruly ways, I know you will do a wonderful job.
And then she gave him a hug, and he promised to be good, and he meant it this time.
The next day, Marty's relatives--aunts, uncles, grandparents, long-lost cousins, the whole blue-skinned clan-- came from far and wide to attend his genie bar mitzvah. Oh, what a gathering it was! Balthazar, Iblis, Jinn, Solomon, Shazam, Tony--some of the most illustrious and renowned genies in all the realm showed up, and they were all there to witness Marty become one of them.
What about Aladdin, asks the towheaded boy. Aladdin was the prince not the genie, his mother explains. Oh, the boy says.
That evening, after the all-important Ceremony of the Flying Carpets, the assembled guests gathered around Marty to offer him congratulations and bits of advice. They presented him with jewels, tapestries, and other extravagant gifts and feted him with songs and poems. Then they brought out his golden lamp, shiny and brand new, and urged him to pop inside for a look around. The inside of the lamp was as beautiful as the outside, sumptuously decorated with silk curtains, Persian rugs, and divans.
When Marty came back out and declared how happy he was with his new home, everyone clapped and cheered. Then the real party began. Flute music filled the air, and the servants laid out the evening's feast. Everyone ate and drank their fill, and by the end of the night, all the guests agreed it was the best genie bar mitzvah ever.
Now Marty was a full-fledged genie, and all he needed was a mortal, a lucky mortal to find his lamp and give it a good rub.
Why would anyone rub a lamp, asks the boy. Because there might be a genie inside, his mother replies.
Marty bided his time, and one afternoon his patience was rewarded. He was hanging out in the lamp's living room when he heard the unmistakable sound of rubbing, which, from the inside, sounded like a flock of geese taking off. He knew that he was about to meet his first master, and he wanted everything to go right, so he put on his best turban and his most dazzling pants, and though it wasn't required, he made his entrance in the most theatrical manner possible, appearing in a cloud of billowing smoke and proclaiming his greatness.
In the midst of his excitement, however, he forgot one of the first lessons he should've learned in genie school. While introducing himself to the mortal, a short, stumpy man who looked like he could really use some magical wishes, Marty neglected to mention the ground rules that the High Genie Council had established many centuries ago, which were intended to keep all this wish granting from getting out of hand. It only took one wish, the man's first, for Marty to realize his error. In a quavering voice, the man asked for a million wishes, and Marty, aghast, couldn't refuse. In an instant he became bound to this man whom he knew nothing about and who could very well be wicked or evil.
The towheaded boy is curled up on his side with his eyes closed, but he is not asleep. Can't the genie just kill the evil man, he asks. Oh, no, that would go against the genie code, his mother says, besides, the man is not really evil.
It turns out the man is just shallow and petty and not very bright, and as a result his wishes followed the pattern of his nature. He wished for anything that came to mind, any whim no matter how small, and he never had to worry about wasting a wish, because he had a million to spare. For instance, when he wanted to take a nap, he would wish for a pillow, and then a slightly larger pillow, and then a slightly softer one, and then a red one and a purple one and one for his feet--on and on until his whole bed was covered with pillows of every shape and size. Finally, he would announce that he was going out for a walk and wish all the pillows away. If he was hungry, he would wish for an apple and a pear and a watermelon and a bowl of strawberries, and then he would eat a slice of the watermelon, a bite out of the apple and the pear, and a couple strawberries, and the rest would go to rot.
Well, naturally, Marty was miserable, but there was nothing he could do except grant every one of the man's wishes. And the worst part was the man never wished for anything special, anything that any genie worth his salt couldn't have conjured with a snap of his fingers. Marty longed for a challenge, something that would put his abilities to the test, but the man was too stupid for that and too stupid even to wish himself smarter.
The woman peers at her towheaded son, listening to his soft breaths. I'm still awake, he assures her in a voice tinged with sleep.
Time passed É years. At first Marty hoped for an escape from his fate. Even though the genie code forbade him from harming the man, there was one loophole. If the man happened to make an ill-advised wish that led to his own demise, Marty wouldn't be held responsible and would thereby be freed from any further obligations. And on several occasions, this almost came to pass.
The first time was when the man wished for a Bengal tiger as a pet. The tiger promptly mauled him, but before it was too late he was able to wish the ferocious animal gone and all his wounds healed. The next time was when he wished for a winged horse, because he thought it would be a splendid way to travel. Predictably, on account of his poor equestrian skills, he slipped off during his first ride, but in midair he was able to wish for a heap of feathers to cushion his fall. Still another time, he nearly perished when he transported himself to a distant planet, which he believed was a nice vacation spot but which, in fact, had a limited atmosphere. With his last breath, he was able to transport himself back.
Time and again, the man survived, and eventually Marty grew reconciled to his apparent destiny to serve the same master for eternity. But then, slowly, a glimmer of hope emerged. The man, he realized, was on the verge of running out of wishes. It had been so long ago that he had probably forgotten that his original wish was for a million, not infinite, wishes. Or perhaps he had never considered the difference--that even a million wishes would someday run out. In any event, the man had only about a dozen left.
And so, as he drew closer and closer to his release, Marty's anxiety mounted. Finally, with just one wish remaining, he became convinced that the man had been keeping count this whole time, that he would replenish his stock of wishes at this last opportunity. But the man's final wish was as trivial as all the rest. Returning from the beach, he wished for the sand to be removed from his shoes, and Marty, grinning widely, granted it instantly and vanished without a word or wave of goodbye.
The full moon shines through the window, and the woman's shadow climbs the bed where her towheaded son is asleep. The boy and his mother stay in their places for a moment. They live happily ever after.
Bram Shay received an MFA in fiction from NYU and worked as an editorial assistant for One Story and for several years as the editor of online content at Poets & Writers. In addition, he regularly volunteers for PEN, Housing Works Bookstore, and Rooftop Films. His stories and poems have appeared in Harpur Palate, Fourteen Hills, Washington Square, Offcourse Literary Journal, Merge Poetry, Slow Trains, and SFWP.