Gray smoke billowed from the broken glass ornament, and from the smoke emerged a face. The chin appeared first—a sharpened cone with a beard, pointed like pencil lead—then the grin, wide and bright, two parallel rows of pristine teeth. The eyes blinked, then opened, circles of clear water with tight blue orbs for pupils. The genie pitched its head back and laughed, a raucous sound, like boulders racing down a cliff.
“Come!” it said, its voice rumbling and welcoming. “Surely you know what I am. There have been stories of my kind as long as there have been stories! Surely you must know, or must I tell you?”
The man shook his head. He was a short and plain man. He spoke with a meek but clear tone and the hasty cadence of an uncertain salesman. “No need to explain. I know what you are.”
“Well then, come! Wish! Surely you’ve dreamed of this moment. Do not be overwhelmed, and do not doubt this is real. Come, make your first wish!”
“Why the rush? Are you in a hurry?”
The genie chortled. “Are you not? Your dreams await you, dear man. Come!”
“Yes, yes, ‘come make my first wish.’ I only get the three, don’t I? Isn’t that the rule?”
“So why the rush? Wouldn’t it be wise for me to take a moment? Be sure of what I want to wish for?”
Another avalanche of laughter. “Trust me, dear man, I’ve met many of your kind. You’re all interesting in your own way, and yet you all have an unbelievable talent for outsmarting yourselves. The wish you should speak is whatever has lived in your heart the longest. Whatever you’ve dreamed of wishing for in this very moment, which I know you’ve dreamed of, as all of your kind has. Happiness is not born of mind, but of the heart! What you think you’ll want, you’ll come to regret. What you’ve yearned for is what you’ll cherish.”
The man shook his head, removed his glasses, and rubbed his eyes. “You really are all the same,” he said.
The genie narrowed its eyes. “What was that?”
The man put his glasses back on and stepped forward. “You want my wish, here it is. I wish for you to answer any question I ask you with absolute, unambiguous honesty.”
A brush of wind seemed to pass through the smoke, scattering the djinn’s face into a scowl.
“I’m not sure I understand. You wish for me to—?”
“I won’t repeat myself,” the man said. “You heard me. You’re suspicious, too. It’s an odd wish. But it is what I want. I won’t reconsider or rephrase. Now grant what I’ve wished for as you are meant to do.”
His last words held no true sway, but as a reminder to the djinn of its role, they were effective as a command. The genie composed itself, regained its humanoid presence, and nodded. “Granted,” it said. Then it forced a broad smile worthy of a devil that had come upon a trove of unclaimed souls. “So what questions do you have for me, little man?”
“If I were to be careless in how I phrased my next wish, would you use that as an opportunity to turn my wish against me?”
“What precisely do you mean by turning your—?”
“You know precisely what I mean.”
The genie remained silent, though its wraith-like face appeared to harden around one eye. Small gray pustules budded where its smoky countenance had solidified.
“You’re going to make me elaborate,” the man said. “Fine. If I were to ask for a sum of money, but didn’t specify how the money should come to me, would you take the liberty to provide the money in a way that you know will bring me harm? Let’s say, give me the money due to an accident. I do have insurance that covers me for death and dismemberment. I didn’t specify that I’d have to live to enjoy my money. Or that I’d have to remain physically intact. Or perhaps the money would come to me by illegal means for which I’d soon be convicted. Rich men go to prison all the time, where their money’s no good to them. But that wouldn’t be your concern. You’d have held up your end, right? At least technically.”
The pustules under the genie’s left eye had clustered and grown so thick that they forced the eye shut.
“Those possibilities are all dependent on your definition of careless,” the genie said.
The man sighed. “You’re dodging the question.”
“No, I’m telling you the truth. That is what you asked for.” The malformations sprouting in the genie’s face began to fade and the genie could not mask its relief.
“No,” the man said, “I asked for honesty, not truth. The truth is merely factual, and facts can be used to deliberately deceive. Honesty is truth that is free of deceit. I wished for you to be honest. You’re violating that wish.”
A convulsive snarl curled half the genie’s mouth. It fought to remain silent, to remain as it wanted to appear, but the infected pustules reformed on its face, migrating and ballooning into larger deformities. The pain was soon apparent, but the genie continued to fight to defy its calling, deny a granted wish, until one of its eyes snapped open like a snake’s mouth and revealed rows of bent needle-thin teeth within. The genie emitted a short scream that could have sheared iron. The man plugged his ears, winced. Then he laughed.
“Outsmart ourselves,” the man said. “That’s what you think? Well, who’s being outsmarted now?”
“I am,” the genie roared before realizing the question had been rhetorical. But providing an honest answer released it from the torture of violating its purpose. Too much damage had been done for it to reassume its adopted form, however. It now stood naked before the man, a bipedal mass of huge gray worms melting into and devouring one another, consuming and expelling themselves. “What do you want?” the genie said.
“I want my initial question answered,” said the man.
“Yes,” the djinn rasped in a hundred voices, more a spasm than a response. “Yes. I’ll take any wish you speak, any dream you desire, and turn it into nightmare. Do you know what I am? Do you know the wrath you have provoked, little man?”
“Not any wish,” the man said. “But we’ll come back to that. For now I have more questions. Why would you want to turn a man’s dreams into a nightmare? What could you possibly gain from doing that?”
“Watching your kind suffer is its own gain,” the djinn said, and tried to laugh, but succumbed to a fit of retching instead. The throng of worms fell to the floor, growing arms to brace itself, its thin legs folding under the weight of its hopeless defiance. “It is . . . a delight . . . to watch you suffer—”
“Please stop. Save yourself the misery. You’re well past the point of impressing or intimidating me. For God’s sake, look at you. Look at what you were when you first showed up and look at what you are now. What you truly are. If I wasn’t so disgusted I’d be embarrassed for you. Do yourself a favor and just answer honestly.”
The djinn tried to stand and failed. A large, misshapen head sprouted from the top of its torso and flopped to the floor, the neck a wilted wet stem. A shiftless blue eye surfaced on the side of its head, blinking slowly, as if drugged.
“Answer the question,” the man said.
“I do it because . . . because. We do it because . . . stop this . . . please.”
The man smiled. “‘Because.’ That is your answer, isn’t it? You don’t really know why you do it. Twist people’s wants and hopes. There’s no point to it. It’s just what you do. Just ‘because.’ I keep waiting for one of you to give a more satisfying answer. But at this point I’m thinking you’re all the same.”
“One of us?” the genie said, its back and chest heaving, its arms trying to push its body upright. “One of us? How many? Who are you?”
The genie’s eye burned into a shade of red the color of pain. “How many of us have you done this to? Who are you? How have you done this?”
“I’m not finished,” the man said. “Next question: what is the one thing you fear most?”
The genie shrieked and shriveled, its limbs recoiling into its body. “Please! Please stop this! I’ll grant you any wish, and I’ll leave it a dream. I promise no nightmares, no corruption, only what you ask for as you want it, I swear. Please!”
The man stood over the djinn’s head, stooped to look into its eye. He knew he needn’t ask again, or coax the genie to answer. Its agony would compel it to do so.
“Alone . . . forever,” the genie said. “What I fear most . . . I cannot die . . . none of my kind can die. Ever. We exist . . . across . . . worlds. Can never die . . . and are always found. Always. But to be lost forever. Alone forever . . . that is . . .”
“It’s okay,” the man said, going down to one knee and lightly patting the genie’s head. “You don’t have to say any more. You’ve been very honest. And that answer is one I actually haven’t heard before. So thank you for that. Now I’d like to make my next wish. My last, in fact. There won’t be a third. But before that, there is just one more question I need answered. And remember, truth without deceit.
“Now, how exactly should I phrase my next wish to ensure that your worst fear comes true?”
Too weak to scream, the genie wept and simpered and tried to slither away from the man. But the resistance did not last very long. There were, after all, rules to obey, and a final question to be answered.
A week later, after a pleasant dinner with friends, the man returned home and treated himself to a glass of wine. One glass soon became four, which soon became an empty bottle, and looking into the empty bottle made him think of the first djinn he’d encountered. The one who’d given him a hard lesson in the danger of carelessly worded wishes. The one he was still acquainted with.
While the bottle reminded him of that first djinn, and all that he’d lost and learned with that first wish, it was the wine that inspired him to wonder if they really were “all the same.” Likely so, but perhaps not. Exceptions could exist, after all.
With this in mind, he went upstairs to the second floor of his home and unlocked the hall closet. Something on the floor—something shapeless and as thin as a day’s layer of dust—shivered to life and slunk away into the corner.
“Sorry, I know it’s a bit late,” said the man, leaning on the jamb, “but I was thinking I’d like to meet some more of your kind. I’d like to see if they’re any friendlier. Or see if they’re like you and all the rest I’ve met. Come on, you’re not really going to make me ask, are you? Okay, fine. Just remember: honesty.
“Now, where can I find another one of you?”
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