I almost dropped the flask when the genie swirled out. Purple, green and gold smoke shifted and shimmered, forming sleek, masculine features with high cheekbones, full lips and a small goatee beard. He was naked save, thank goodness, for a pair of baggy, golden trousers and a large ruby ring on his right hand. His bare feet hovered a few inches above the ground.
He wriggled his toes.
I coughed on the smoke, realised my mouth was still open and pressed my teeth together. With some difficulty I dragged my eyes away from the apparition and looked behind me.
My cramped office, with its stained whiteboard and bowing shelves haphazardly stuffed with books, papers and dead flies, was still there.
The small, grimy window still displayed its picturesque view of the building works across the road. There definitely weren’t any spiders crawling out of the walls or anything, not like that time back in the seventies. Still… I gave the three empty coffee cups on my desk a suspicious look before turning back to the genie.
“Hail, Mortal!” he said in a voice that invoked images of colliding tectonic plates. “What Is Your Wish?”
My eyes dropped to the flask of dusty, green glass in my hand.
The genie folded his huge, bare arms and looked down his nose at me. “What Is Your Wish?” he repeated.
I stepped towards him and prodded his upper thigh. Solid. I looked at the flask again. “Bloody hell”, I muttered.
The genie’s right foot began to tap the air. “Mistress, I Grow Weary Of This Game! What Is Your Wish?”
My brain kicked into gear. “Never mind wishes! How the hell did you fit in here?” I asked, waving the flask at him. “Have you come from some sort of alternative universe? Wow. I was talking to someone in Physics about the many-worlds interpretation the other day. I don’t think anyone seriously thinks communication between parallel universes is possible though. You know, outside of a single ion or something. Blimey, if this is real it’s Nobel prize-winning. You are real, aren’t you?”
“What Are You Talking About?”
“This is amazing!” I said, pushing my wire-rimmed glasses up my nose. I shoved a pile of partly-read papers on my desk out of the way and grabbed my iPad. “Do you mind if I take a photo?”
“A photo. You know,” I waved the tablet at him. “Like a camera.”
“What Is A Camera?”
“Gosh, how long have you been in there? It’s, um, a magic box that makes pictures. Look.” I pressed the camera icon, took a picture and turned the iPad around, lifting it up so that he could see.
The genie stared. “What Sorcery Is This?”
“It’s nothing these days, everyone’s got one.”
“Well, maybe not everyone. Some people buy other makes, but then they usually realise they’re rubbish and end up buy–”
“Enough Of This!” thundered the genie. “What Is Your Wish?”
He stared at me with eyes of distant, long-dead stars. “What Do You Mean, Hmm?”
“We-ell, you know,” I said, thinking quickly. “I’ve read the stories. I know how this goes. I wish for something, you deliberately mess it up, I have to unwish it, you disappear, and we all end up back where we started. Seems we could save time and skip the wishing bit. I might just get Simon over here from Physics to check out this flask.”
“There Is Nothing You Wish For?”
“There’re things I’d quite like to have, but, WISH for…” I mused, “I’m not sure. I mean, say I wished for money. Money would be nice, but the bank would want to know where it came from. You hear stories of them shutting down people’s accounts for fraud just because they innocently received a transfer from their nephew in Nigeria. That would be such a nuisance. And at the very least, HRMC would on my back next April asking difficult questions about my tax return.”
I sat down on the edge of my desk. “I can’t see much use for a handsome prince and besides, people would wonder where I found him. If I wished for a house, I’d want somewhere fairly close by, and then the planning department would give me all sorts of grief. It’s a devil getting planning permission anywhere near here.”
I drummed my fingers on the desktop. “No, it’s difficult to think of anything that wouldn’t be more trouble than it’s worth.”
There was silence. We stared at each other.
I wrinkled my nose. “Is that sulfur?”
“Oh, don’t apologise, you’ve been in there a long time.”
The genie pressed his lips together and looked around the room. “What Of This… Nobel Prize Of Which You Spoke?”
“If I wish for that, the press will be on my case asking me to explain what I got it for. Those bloody science journalists are tenacious.” I pointed the iPad at the genie and pressed the camera button. “Besides, I probably only need to document all of this and cook up some equations with Simon…” I reached into the pocket of my jacket and pulled out my mobile. “I’ll just phone him.”
I stopped. “Why?”
“You Cannot Tell Anyone Of My Existence!”
“The Wish Will Not Work!”
“Ah, but I don’t want wishes.”
The genie sighed and rolled his eyes. “I Will Be In And Out Of That Flask Like A YoYo.”
“No offence, but that’s not my problem,” I replied, looking at my phone.
My eyes drifted to the ceiling.
“Well… okay…. look, tell you what. How about we come up with one really good wish, and you promise not to screw it up or somehow twist it around? In return, I’ll seal up the flask and bury it in a big hole somewhere. Or,” I added, remembering something, “I could wish for your freedom?”
“Freedom Is Overrated. I Will Be Happy With Peace And Quiet,” said the genie. He paused for a moment. “I Believe We Have An Agreement. What Is Your Wish?”
My shoulder bag was hanging off the back of my torn and stained office chair. I rummaged around, pulled out a piece of paper and waved it at him.
“Super Squillions Lottery ticket. It’s a double rollover this weekend. Never mind what that means,” I added, as the genie opened his mouth, “basically, I need the numbers on the little coloured balls that pop out of the machine to be the same as these. Can you do that?”
“And that,” I said to Simon from Physics as I sipped from a glass of Pinot Grigio in the pub in a few weeks later, “is how I won the lottery, and that’s how I can afford to take a year’s sabbatical.”
“Amanda, you really are a brilliant storyteller,” he laughed. “I can’t wait to read your novel. Hey, you didn’t actually win the lottery, did you?”
I smiled into my glass. “No, afraid not. My great-aunt died. I was her only relative. It’s not a fortune but it’s enough to keep me going.”
“Oh, I’m sorry.”
“Don’t be, I really didn’t know her. I’ve only met her once. The only thing I remember about her is that she had this ridiculous fake ruby ring. It looked like something out of a cartoon.”
He drained his beer. “Your students are going to miss you. Another drink?”
“You get them, I’ll pay,” I said, giving him a twenty. He grinned and headed for the bar.
I thought of the flask, sealed in a metal tin and dropped into the foundations of the new Astrophysics building opposite my office.
With a smile, I picked up my iPad and carried on deleting photos.
I wrote this story for The Chronicle Flask, and people said they quite liked it. So I moved it to a blog all of its very own. Hopefully it’ll have some friends to keep it company soon. In the meantime, enjoy!