He had to get away, escape from everything in his life, and watch the roads go by, the houses and fields merge from one to the other and back again until he reached a place he could stop and not think.
The highway crossed a river and he swung the car onto a frontage road, driving until he found a safe place to park, leaving the car behind to scramble down to the bank. The river wasn't particularly large but it was beautiful, the ripples on its surface indicating a strong current beneath, mature trees and green growth surrounding it.
Taking off his shoes and socks, he wiggled his toes in the water, wondering why he wasn't happy. He had no reason to feel so restless and unsettled on a Friday night, no justification to be dissatisfied with a full, productive week as the public relations director for a successful aerospace firm. He had a great job, a job that used all his communication and technical skills, a job where he was an acknowledged master of translating geekspeak into simple laymen's language, the consummate go-between for two different worlds. But no matter how good it was, he lived daily with the knowledge that it wasn't his dream job.
His dream had been to be an astronaut, to be one of the precious chosen few who could soar into space and look down on Earth, but he'd failed in that dream. With so few opportunities available, there were people like him, who were competitive, and then there were the others, who were Competitive in big glowing capital letters.
So not the childhood dream but still a damn good job that challenged his analytical mind, a reasonable boss who respected his work, friendly fellow geeks as co-workers, not too much nonsensical bureaucracy, or at least, none he couldn't work around with a little finesse. His personal life was good: healthy parents enjoying their retirement, an older sister who'd popped out an adorable niece and nephew for the family to spoil, a house in an excellent neighborhood, an environmentally responsible car for his commute and his beloved beater truck for weekends, really great friends… Everything he'd wanted.
He sighed and wiggled his toes some more, the muddy silt oozing between his toes, water drops flicking at his trousers. How could he have everything and still feel so…wrong?
A bit of debris drifted out of the current, coming to rest softly against his toes. Despite the dirt encrusting it, he could see patches of a deep red material. Curious, he squatted down to swish the object in the water, washing off the outer layer of grime.
He whistled in surprise as he held it up. The object was a bottle, about six inches tall, seemingly fashioned of an intense red stone with carved markings on it. It felt warm, even though it had come from the cold river. He rubbed on the markings, chipping the dirt out with his fingernails trying to decipher the pattern, and then stumbled back, his butt hitting the muddy ground. The lid popped off with the loud explosion of a badly opened champagne cork and steam began wisping out.
The wisp became a waterfall, the steam pouring out of the bottle and flowing down to the ground, growing into a dense pillar of gray particles that packed themselves closer and closer together, finally coalescing into the figure of a man.
A very unusual man, towering over Ben's 5'10" height, with broad shoulders and slim hips. His long hair was brown and gray, a portion pulled into a ponytail on top of his head, the rest falling to his shoulders. He was dressed like a refugee from an Arabian nights party, with a gauzy black vest open to reveal his muscled chest, and black harem pants clinging low to his hips, low enough to reveal that his belly button was an innie. The vest and pants were accented with gold coins that matched the gold necklace around his neck, and the gold hoop earring in his right ear. The rings on his fingers were also gold but studded with different colored stones, while the rings on his toes were plain gold, etched with intricate designs.
"I am the genie of the bottle, and I am yours to command, Master," the figure announced in a baritone voice with an accent like smooth velvet stroking over Ben's skin, and bowed, bending so low that the ponytail flipped toward Ben.
"Excuse me? You're what?"
The figure straightened and repeated, "I am the genie of the bottle, and I am yours to command," before giving the same deep bow, his head hanging almost to his knees.
Ben laughed, amused and knowing instantly that he was the victim of an elaborate practical joke. He put his hand out, surprised when it connected with the figure's very solid head. Well, not Dexter and his new holographic experiments then.
The hair under his hand was unexpectedly soft and silky, and he pulled the ponytail through his hand before letting it fall. "Very cute and very well done. You've got me baffled. Who put you up to it? Joe? Nick?"
"Put me up to it?" The genie straightened to look at him with a perplexed expression on his handsome face, a face made even more distinguished by the slightly crooked nose, the one element that added reality to perfection. "Magic is magic. I have been bound to the bottle since my creation, countless years ago."
"Yes, of course. I'm not famous, so this can't be 'Punk'd.' Some new version of 'Candid Camera'?"
"I do not understand these words, Master, punked or camera. They did not exist when I was created, and I have not learned them since."
Ben grinned. The genie was doing a great job. His words were subservient, but there was a touch of crankiness behind them, as if the genie disliked being ignorant.
"Of course not. No cameras countless years ago. So now you're mine to command? My three wishes for fame, fortune, and glory?"
"If those are the terms you desire, then yes. I am yours to command until your troubles are solved, Master."
Whoever arranged this prank had done amazing work making the genie appear from the bottle, a technological trick that pointed to a work buddy, but the genie's attire screamed of one of his gay friends at the club, probably Adrian. Maybe they'd gotten together, one to handle execution, the other design? But why, and why here? His friends weren't normally practical jokers. Were reality shows getting this extreme?
"My troubles?" Ben stepped close to the genie, this incredibly attractive man with the virtually see-through costume and settled his hands on his hips, feeling silky fabric and even silkier skin under his fingers. "I know one trouble you can help me solve," he said suggestively, rising up on his toes to take the man's mouth in a lingering kiss, figuring such boldness would end the masquerade and make the perpetrator reveal himself. No one who knew Ben would expect him to accost a stranger.
The genie was awkwardly, almost shyly returning his kiss, and Ben didn't care about why or how, only that his lips were exploring a mouth that tasted of exotic spices and his arms were full of big, warm male. Undoubtedly, the "genie" was a hired performer, and he was doing a bang-up job. Ben lost track that this kiss was to end the charade, thrilled to experience more of the sweet, spicy flavor of his mouth. He stroked his hands around the genie's waist and up his spine, the skimpy vest no deterrent to his explorations. He was going to be so embarrassed if this kiss got loaded to YouTube, but this man was irresistible.
For someone who pretended not to know how to kiss, the genie learned fast, his tongue and mouth so enticing that Ben finally broke the seal of their lips, to try to gain some control, wiggling his toes into the muddy earth to ground himself. He collected air back in his lungs, breathing harshly while he rubbed his cheek on the genie's smooth cheeks, the contrast between the skin and the roughness of the genie's beard framing his chin sending an erotic tingle through Ben's already sensitized body. "So … do I get a private performance? Does this come off?" he asked, toying with the low waistband, wondering how far this "genie" would allow the activity to go, before someone leaped out with a camera and they all had a good laugh.
"If you desire," the genie responded, "though I have never helped anyone like that before. Are you sure this would ease your troubles?"
It would definitely help the erection straining against the fly of his pants. And so what if it was unwise? He'd been cautious and studious all his life, attributes that had only left him trailing behind when bolder people took bigger risks and advanced. "Positive. Absolutely positive. But let's go to my place, okay? It's a little muddy here." He kept his eyes on the genie, playing with the joke, trying not to search for the hidden crew.
"As you wish."
Then Ben felt the genie dissolve in his arms, his body turning to steam. Not just watched it this time, but felt it in his arms, and how the hell could that be done? The steam floated gently, then faster and faster, pouring back into the bottle where Ben had dropped it on the ground. The red top sprang out of the mud and sealed the bottle shut with an explosive noise to equal its opening.
And for the first time, Ben wondered if this was more than an elaborate practical joke.
Ben set the glass bottle on the coffee table, then checked his place, running his fingers over surfaces, lifting objects, searching for hidden equipment. He was as unsuccessful in his home as he had been by the river, and the craving to determine the truth was increasing exponentially with every second. If he was being filmed, the cameras were really well hidden or long-range, he thought, drawing all the blinds.
He perched on the edge of the couch, and Gus leaped into his lap. Stroking the gray tabby, he said, “Abracadabra!”
“Shazam! I have the power! Speak friend and enter!”
Nothing happened except Gus butting his head harder into Ben’s hand, demanding more serious stroking, which Ben gave absentmindedly. The beautiful bottle remained obdurately a beautiful bottle, blood red with a wide, curved lower half narrowing into a thin top half. He looked around the room, saying, “Cute joke, Adrian. How did you do it?”
But Gus’s purrs were the only response. He picked up the bottle, cupping it in one hand, noting again its warmth, tracing the patterns carved in the stone with the fingers on the other hand. They resembled Arabic writing, mysterious with elegant slashes and curls, but he could find nothing that might be an electronic trigger. He flinched as the top exploded from the bottle, smoke pouring out again. Gus meowed indignantly and leaped off his lap in a huff as the genie formed, appearing as incredibly handsome and magnificent in Ben's living room as he had on the river bank.
“I am yours to command,” he said, bowing low.
“Erm…have a seat.”
The genie sat on the carpet with his legs crossed in front of him, hands resting on his bent knees.
Ben pushed the coffee table aside, and sank to the floor in front of the couch, eying the black and gold figure, copying his pose. “So… you're a genie?”
“I am the genie of the bottle. I was created many years ago by a great wizard.”
Could this possibly be true? It seemed ludicrous, but the way the genie had first formed into a solid body, then dissolved back into the bottle, was beyond what any of his friends could achieve, and the joke was going on way too long to be a reality show. “What is your name?”
“I am the genie. I have never needed a name.”
“And you exist to help people? Give them three wishes, granting their fondest desires?”
“I exist to help those in trouble, to help those in need fix the problems in their lives. And then I return to the bottle until I am found by the next person who needs me.”
“Excuse me? Are you saying you only help pathetic individuals?”
“A person with troubles is not pathetic, merely troubled. It is the task that the wizard gave me, to assist such people. My bottle floats through this world, finding them.”
“I don’t have a troubled life!” Ben heard his voice rise, resenting being labeled.
Apparently undeterred by Ben's protestations, the genie asked with sympathy, "How are you troubled? In your life's work? Your wives? Your wealth?"
"I am not troubled!" He denied what he had been thinking earlier, what had driven him to stare at the river. He was accustomed to taking care of people, to having them lean on him, a loyal friend and loved brother and son. He'd always been a responsible person with a neatly organized life. Not someone who needed a total stranger to fix him.
“Then you would not have found me.”
The genie’s confidence infuriated Ben. Who was this stranger, to walk into his world and announce he was troubled? Why wasn't he here to grant him fame and fortune, like any normal genie out of a standard tale ought to provide? But no, this genie gazed down his large crooked nose and wanted to fix Ben's problems. "I love my job. And my family. And I make a very good living."
"Then it is…" the genie's eyes paused on Ben's crotch…"A problem in your erotic life? Is that why you kissed me?"
“Oh, get back in the bottle,” Ben said crossly, standing up. Just because his relationships never tended to last long only meant he had high standards, not that he had a problem in his 'erotic life.' He was tired of dealing with this insanity.
“No, Master. I am not ready to return to the bottle.” The genie was completely calm, and absolutely stubborn.
“You said you would obey me!”
“I will obey you, Master. When you give the right command.”
In the morning, Ben decided the entire experience had been a mad albeit very realistic dream. He skritched Gus under the chin and yawned, reluctant to get out of bed. Gus purred and licked at his fingers, agreeing that sleeping in was a wise decision. The silent evening of eating his TV dinner, reading his email and watching the "Best of Both Worlds" from his Star Trek DVD collection had surely happened without the presence of a very large genie padding around his house, examining his possessions and asking questions that Ben stubbornly ignored or answered briefly.
Couldn’t have happened. Didn’t happen. Genies didn’t exist except in Disney films and fantasy novels, and while the genie was as majestic as Gandalf, he was nowhere near as funny as Robin Williams. Ben made himself believe as he pushed Gus off his chest, got out of bed, and used the toilet. But reality – or extremely solid fantasy – intruded when he entered the kitchen and bumped into the very large genie, wearing pink and cooking breakfast.
“Argh! Don’t give me a heart attack!”
“Good morning, Master,” the genie answered cheerfully, apparently not at all disturbed by a startled Ben in only his briefs. "I'm making breakfast. How do you like your eggs?"
"What are you wearing?" His attire was similarly styled to yesterday's – a skimpy vest that revealed much of his firm chest and abdomen, with harem pants that hung low on his hips, billowing around his legs before being gathered to end just above his ankles – but the colors were decidedly bright pink with touches of vibrant red. It was the classic "I Dream of Jeannie" outfit, only Barbara Eden never displayed a belly button as cute as his.
"Is this not the proper attire for a genie in this time and place? I saw it on the box with moving pictures and hoped you would find it reassuring."
"A male Barbara Eden in drag in my kitchen isn't reassuring," Ben snapped. "Change back."
"Then black and gold are your favorite colors?"
"No, blue and silver are. But not pink."
"Blue and silver it is then, Master." The genie crossed his arms in front of his chest and jerked his head back and forth briskly one time, clearly having watched too many reruns. The pink blossomed into sapphire blue and the red accents shimmered into silver. The jewelry stayed shiny gold, and the genie was as stunning in this outfit as he'd appeared in the others. If only finding a genie wasn't such a supremely bizarre and unbelievable fantasy, Ben could be extremely happy to have someone like him sharing his house, even if temporarily.
"Much better," he admitted grudgingly.
"Thank you. Your eggs?"
"Oh - scrambled is fine."
"Is that your favorite way?"
"My favorite way is Eggs Benedict, but scrambled is fine. It's easiest."
"Eggs Benedict it is." The genie turned back to the stove, a bowl with Hollandaise sauce appearing in his hands.
"Hey, that's not one of my wishes, is it?" he yelped. "Because I did not wish for Eggs Benedict to solve all my troubles."
"No, Master. I can use any of my minor powers as I wish while waiting for you to reveal your troubles and fondest wishes."
Great. Back to being a pathetic individual then. At least one who would be served a great breakfast. Ben yawned as he made coffee, his taste buds watering at the thought of the creamy rich sauce. He might as well enjoy this madness.
Not sure what to do with the genie, Ben decided to take him on his usual Saturday morning errands. He drove slowly through his neighborhood, glancing at the yard sales until a wooden bureau caught his eye. The genie did not follow directions to stay in the car, but stepped out and followed him. Even though the genie desired to be helpful, subservience wasn't strong in his nature. At least he'd willingly bobbed his head and transformed his clothes into ones similar to Ben's, gray shorts and a blue polo shirt.
The genie was not impressed with the quality of goods displayed on the lawn. And said so, several times, commenting on scuff marks and worn areas and why anyone had selected such unpleasing patterns in such unattractive colors. Ben finally dragged him to one side, under the shade of a large oak tree. "You've supposedly spent eternity helping people with problems. Can't you be a little gracious about used items?" he hissed.
"You deserve better, Master. You deserve the finest wonders of the land. Anything you wish to ask for. Not another person's leavings."
The compliment caught Ben off-guard and the titters from a teenage girl who'd heard the genie's title for Ben flustered him. He shot a glare at her, which only earned him an eye roll. "We can discuss good environmental practices later. For now, if you can't say something nice, don't say anything at all. Can you obey that command?"
The teenage girl tittered again, and Ben really wished he'd waited to have this conversation in the car, but he hadn't predicted the genie's refusal to mute his glorious accented voice.
"Stay here," he ordered, before engaging the homeowner, bargaining for a reduced price on the dresser. The wood was solid under the nicks. Some refinishing and a little TLC, and it would make an excellent dresser for his nephew's bedroom, and a good match for the bed frame that Ben had refinished for him last year.
The genie was at his side after he paid for it, helping to lift it into the back of his pick-up truck. After they got into the cab, the genie asked, "Can you explain good environmental practices now?"
"Our society discards a lot of valuable items, both people and things, but the resources of this world are limited. Garage sales help items get reused instead of being dumped in a landfill. The wood in that dresser is excellent. It was made when furniture was built to last. It can look like new and be useful for years.
"Besides," he added, "my sister and her husband don't have a lot of money. They get embarrassed when I try to help them. This way I can do something useful for them but they won't feel as obliged."
"It satisfies you to do this work?"
"Then this part of your life is good."
"All my life is good."
"It cannot be, or I would not be here."
Ben gritted his teeth, focusing on his driving and the other cars on the road. He snapped the radio on, but flicked it back off as soon as he heard Christina Aguilera lamenting about a genie in a bottle. What drove him so insane when the genie told him his life was troubled? He knew it was. Wasn't it the lack of *something* that had sent him to the river?
The day was about to go from bizarre to worse, Ben could tell as he drove back to his condo and saw Sean sitting on the lawn. Sean never dropped in for a casual visit. He wanted something – or more likely, wanted him to do something. Ben waved at him, acknowledging his presence, as he parked the truck in his driveway.
"You know this man, Master?"
"He’s a co-worker. And a friend. Please, no 'masters' while he’s around."
"As you command, Master."
"As I request." Sean was waiting by his door at he opened it, looking as if was ready to pour his heart out, or perhaps emote bad pretentious poetry. His long black hair was unrestrained, seemingly hanging loose, but with enough gel to ensure a swath dangled over one eye, and he wore skintight black jeans and a black mesh t-shirt, an outfit that looked stylish but ridiculous, given the warm temperature. It was really becoming one of those days. "Hi, Sean."
"Ben, thank God you're here. Who's your hot friend?" Sean seemed torn between distress over whatever brought him to Ben's place and lust for the genie. Keen observation of other men was one of Sean's strong skills, even if he was incredibly erratic about relationships, falling in and out of entanglements faster than the beat of a dance song.
"Oh – this is the gen – Gene. He's a friend."
"Gene Jeannie? Where have you been hiding him?" Sean practically prowled over to the genie, offering his hand with more panache than a southern belle. "I'm Sean."
The genie seemed bemused by Sean's hand, taking it gingerly, and Ben wondered how many people who found the bottle ever bothered associating with the genie. Did they demand their three wishes and toss the bottle back in the river? Give me a fortune, kthxbi?
"I am – Gene."
"So how long are you in town? Ben didn't tell me he was having company this week."
Sean's flirting bothered Ben for reasons he didn't understand. Sean flirted with everyone, even women. It was simply a part of his nature. And Gene – the genie – was a countless-years-old wizardly creation destined to move along soon, as soon as Ben convinced him he wasn't needed. "Gene, can you give me a hand? Sean, did you need something?"
Gene helped Ben lift the dresser and carry it into the garage. Sean followed behind them, talking nervously, explaining one of those long complicated stories that were always difficult to follow, full of too many unclear pronoun references and overly dramatic people who needed a severe reality check. People like Sean.
"Hold it – you want me to pretend to be your boyfriend?"
"Isn't that what I just said?" Sean sighed with exasperation. "Just for tonight. At the club."
"So the hot guy – "
"The hotter guy," the genie corrected, bringing in the rest of the groceries.
"Thank you! At least someone listens." Sean draped one arm over the genie's shoulder, leaning on him. Like Ben, Sean was several inches shorter than the genie, which made it look like they were cuddling.
"Fine, so the hotter guy will think you're not a pathetic loser?" Perhaps Sean was the one who should have found the bottle. Maybe its GPS needed an upgrade.
Sean brushed his long black hair out of his eyes for the umpteenth time. "Not a pathetic loser! I didn't say he thought I was a pathetic loser. I don't look like a pathetic loser, do I?" he appealed to the genie.
"You look like a most attractive young man," the genie answered. "But I do not understand. If you desire this person, why do you not have a family member or emissary approach him with a proposal? Someone to speak to your good qualities and the worthiness of your character."
"Wow." Sean blinked. "I didn't know your friend was a comedian."
"Because it would be too rational to just talk to the fellow," Ben noted, putting groceries away in the refrigerator, thinking that while the genie's approach sounded old-fashioned, honest communication wasn't a bad idea.
"I tried talking to him, did you not hear that part?"
"I got a little lost in which he was which," Ben answered honestly.
"Look, you don't need to understand. Just be there and dance with me. Wear something hot. Look possessive. You can do that, can't you?"
"I have company," Ben said happily. Perhaps having a genie around wasn't such a bad thing. He fixed breakfast, he helped with the shopping, he provided useful excuses to avoid getting drafted in his friend's dramas.
"He can come too. Do you like dancing? I bet you look marvelous on the dance floor, even if you just stand there and look hunky and sway."
The genie looked momentarily taken aback at the suggestion. "I was not created to dance."
Sean bumped his hip against the genie's. "Not all of us were born to dance, darling, but I bet you can learn. And try not to talk about retro nonsense like emissaries."
"An emissary would present your best qualities without having to resort to deception."
Sean mugged a face at Ben, like 'why is this hot guy so weird?' "It's not deception. It's just a little spice to make sure he'll get interested." Focusing on Ben, he badgered again, "You will come, won't you?"
"I'll try. It depends on how the day goes." Ben kicked himself even as he made the semi-promise. Sean had been trying to drag him into trouble or embarrassing situations for years. Why couldn't he say no? Because Sean was his friend and he hated to let a friend down. Loyalty could be such an inconvenient virtue.
"I'm counting on you. You're my wingman. Be there." Giving him and the genie kisses on both cheeks – longer ones for the genie, Ben noted with irritation – Sean bounced out of the house. Great. Wake up with a magical genie in the house and watch the day get better and better.
"Do you wish food, Master?"
Ben lifted his arm off his eyes and stretched his body, getting comfortable on the couch. "I thought you were here to fix my troubles, not be my own personal chef."
"You will not let me fix your troubles, Master."
"One of them walked out of the door and you could very easily have helped me out of participating in tonight's fiasco," Ben noted pointedly. "Instead of weirding him out by talking about retro-ideas like matchmakers."
"An emissary is very different than a matchmaker, Master. Are they not used at all? They seem much simpler than these coy masquerades."
"Sean doesn't like simple. He's not that kind of person."
"But you are, Master."
The genie might not understand modern society, but he was observant about Ben. It was an interesting thought – did the genie always do what people asked, or did he observe and wait for the 'right command,' as he had suggested? Had the wizard gifted him with empathy? "Yes," he sighed. "I'll call him later and get out of it. I guess I'm a bit of a pathetic loser," he admitted with reluctance. "I always try to help people, even when I think they're making bad decisions."
"If this is that distressing for you, I will correct my error immediately." The genie crossed his arms and started to bob his head, but Ben swung to a sitting position, yelling, "Wait!"
The genie paused mid-head bob. "Master?"
"What are you going to do?"
"I will go to your friend and say that we will not dance tonight."
"And how will you get there?"
"I will go as genies do."
"And that is?"
The genie finished his bob, and vanished. "As genies do."
Ben whirled his head to see the genie on the other side of the room. "Okay – no. You can't go popping in and out of thin air."
"Then may I take the vehicle? I can drive."
Ben had a sudden vision of 'Starman,' and Jeff Bridges' calm, "Green means go. Red means stop. Yellow means speed up." Or however that line of dialogue was phrased. "Please – don't worry about it. I can call later or something. Or we can go. It's okay."
"I am here to solve your troubles, Master. Not to see them continued."
"Really, please. Sean's always like that. He can be a great guy. He's just luckier in lust than love. This isn't worth using a wish, because you can't fix that trouble unless you change his personality. You can't, can you? Change a man's personality?"
"I can change how people feel by making them more aware of other people or their own emotions. Open their eyes, I believe it is said. It is how I make people fall in love, when that wish is requested. But I cannot change their entire personality."
"Well, that's the only effective long-term solution for Sean, and then he wouldn't be Sean any more."
"May I ask you a question, Master?"
"Yes, of course."
"You and Sean discussed this club and dancing with other men. Will no women be there?"
Could a genie be homophobic? "No, Sean and I are both homosexuals. We're attracted to other men, not women, and we go to clubs where other men with similar tastes gather together."
The genie seemed to ponder Ben's explanation. "Then you do not wish for a wife and family?"
"I wish for a partner, a male partner to share my life. I do not want a woman. As for kids – these days it is possible for two men to adopt or hire a woman to have a baby for them. I'd like it if something like that happens. But I won't be devastated if it doesn't. It's a difficult thing to organize. But what about when you were created? Did men never love other men?"
"Yes, Master, men did love other men. The wizard included this in my understanding. But it was first and foremost important that a man married and had children to carry on his name and take care of him in his old age. The love of other men was for distraction only."
"I like my time better."
"It is a most different time. Perhaps I am here to make this happen for you. A man to love and children to raise."
Could that be why the genie found him? Is that what would fulfill him? "It would be a little difficult to explain a ready-made family, brought into life in an instant."
"But not impossible. I could fulfill this wish."
Did he want a family? Something inside Ben recoiled at the idea of living with genie-made people, like living with dolls without souls. "I'll think about it," he promised, which seemed to make the genie happy as he smiled, his eyes a stunning blue. "So… lunch?"
"Yes, Master. I will make you a dish you will find very pleasing."
Ben hadn't meant that as an order, but considering the excellence of breakfast, decided to let it stand. He watched the genie pad back into the kitchen, realizing how much he'd accepted this crazy situation. He had a genie living in his home. A genie who wanted him to be happy, in any fashion he could make possible. Ben had wanted to be an astronaut and failed, but somehow he'd become Captain Tony Nelson.
What were the limits of a genie's powers? How different could he make things? And why had Ben been so stupidly offended at the genie's assertion that he was troubled that he hadn't asked this question? Moral indignation was stupid when it led to ignorance. Ben went into the kitchen, watching as the genie mixed ingredients, did a few head bobs, floated a few pots and utensils in the air, and in minutes, a plate of food landed on the table.
"Do you need to eat? Do you want to eat with me?" He should have asked at breakfast.
"I can eat, but it is not necessary that I do so."
"I'd like you to. Please."
The genie nodded, and another plate of food landed on the table.
Ben tentatively took a few bites of honeyed chicken, wild rice, and vegetables cooked with interesting spices. "This is superb."
"Thank you, Master."
"So I should have asked earlier. What can you do for me? To grant my wishes?"
"I can do anything within my powers to help your troubles."
There was that lack of precise communication again. What was within his powers? "And you do actually help? It's not a monkey's paw thing?" He didn't believe the genie would be deliberately harmful, but if he was going to start taking this seriously, he should confirm the genie was sincere.
"A monkey's paw thing? I am not familiar with this term."
"There's a famous short story where people are granted three wishes by getting a magical monkey's paw, but the wishes backfire in disastrous ways. For example, they ask for money, so their son is killed and they receive his insurance money.
"Or there's an episode of 'The X-Files' where Mulder – that's the lead character – asks for peace on Earth, so the genie makes everyone disappear. Without people, there's peace."
The genie's thin lips were tight with displeasure. "These are not the work of genies. Or perhaps genies created by bad wizards. I will do you no harm."
"Can you turn back time?"
"Of course, Master. Do you wish to redo a moment in your life?"
Did he? Everything would change. "Possibly," he answered slowly, trying to decide on the best moment to make sure his dreams came true. "Would I remember that my life had restarted?" After all, he'd need that knowledge to do better the second time around.
"If you wish, Master."
If he went back to high school, did it better… or maybe college? Did he want to go back to a time before Ipods and wireless laptops? Should he go back even further? Sometimes it seemed like 13 had been the deciding age, but he couldn't imagine repeating the horror that had been junior high school. He didn't want to revisit being mocked for his lack of height and acne, or go through the stress of accepting his homosexuality. "Or can you change things now, put me in the profession I want to be in?"
"Of course, Master. Where do you wish to be?" The genie already had his arms crossed, which Ben was sure he hadn't been doing before watching 'I Dream of Jeannie' reruns. He'd have to keep him away from the box with moving pictures for the rest of his stay.
"Would I be trained? Would I know what to do?" It would be senseless to become an astronaut and crash the space shuttle out of ignorance.
"Of course, Master. You would not be happy otherwise."
"That's just…" overwhelming. The ultimate do-over or do-differently. To have everything change, to be in a different place with new skills and knowledge. Even better than winning the lottery, which was only money. How many people had been granted this opportunity? "How many people have you helped?"
The genie shrugged with indifference. "Hundreds, perhaps. I have not kept track. Sometimes I am found quickly. Other times I float in my bottle for many years."
"Do you ever go back? Find out if the people you helped remained happy?"
"I cannot. I am tied to whoever owns the bottle. But they have received their greatest wishes, why should they not be happy?"
So the genie did give people whatever they asked for? That answered whether he was empathic. He'd been being difficult when he talked about the 'right command.' How odd that a being so old didn't realize many people don't really know what they want. Sean knew he wanted that guy tonight, but he'd want some other guy tomorrow. Most people assumed money would fix their every problem, but Ben had read about too many bankrupt lottery winners to believe that fallacy. The doorbell rang and he glanced out the window, seeing his sister's station wagon parked in front, his sister, niece and nephew standing on the porch. "It's my sister and her kids. No masters, okay? No genie powers in front of her. You're a friend from work, that's all."
"No masters," Ben hissed as the doorbell rang again. Opening the door, he smiled, his expression faltering as he saw her unhappy face. "Beth?"
"Ben." She burst into tears and launched into his arms.
Aaron tugged on Ben's shorts. "Mommy's unhappy," he confided. Deirdre tucked her thumb in her mouth and sucked loudly.
"Yes, I can see. Come on, come inside." He maneuvered his still crying sister and her two small children into the house. At least he didn't have to worry she'd ask awkward questions about the genie.
"So… what's up?" Ben asked softly, his gaze on the kids, being entertained by the genie in the backyard, fortunately with simple tricks that could be interpreted as sleight-of-hand. And perhaps were – Ben couldn't tell. Maybe the genie had non-magical tricks to go with his fantastic powers.
Beth leaned forward in her chair, petting Gus. "Hi, Asparagus. Sweet kitty."
"He's not named after a T.S. Eliot poem," Ben protested, as he always did. "He's named after Gus Grissom."
"He looks more like a theater cat than an astronaut, don't you kitty?" she crooned, and Gus, that traitor, purred loudly, arching his back into her hand.
"Sis," Ben said with exaggerated patience, and Beth sighed at him, but stopped petting the cat, instead twisting her hands in her lap.
"Craig's cheating on me!"
"Really?" Ben asked doubtfully, shifting in the patio chair, looking at his sister. She seemed weary, her skin washed out from lack of sleep, her golden hair tied back too severely. Her eyes were the same color as his, that weird gray-green-blue that was so hard to describe, but they lacked their normal sparkle.
"Yes, really! Do you think I'd make this up?"
Gus's ears twitched, as if he didn't like the shrillness of her voice, and he sauntered away.
"No, of course not," Ben replied automatically. "But perhaps you misinterpreted something?"
"He's getting calls from a strange woman on his cell and he goes into the other room to talk to her."
"Perhaps it's someone from work?"
"And then he's evasive about it!"
"Perhaps he thinks it would be boring for you."
"He always used to share with me." Beth looked on the verge of tears again, so Ben squeezed her hand reassuringly, which seemed to calm her. "He came home one night, smelling of perfume. He said one of the women at work hugged him because a project had gone successfully."
A scent seemed flimsy evidence, but Ben was sure Beth wouldn't appreciate him saying so. Though they'd had their share of squabbles growing up, they'd always been close, and Ben knew Beth hated to be doubted. Her surprising streak of insecurity always made her snappish whenever he questioned her too strongly.
Deirdre gave a particularly loud giggle, catching their attention. She clapped her hands at the genie, laughing more, as he brushed a red rose against her nose and cheeks. The genie was wearing short sleeves, Ben thought with alarm. Pulling quarters from behind ears was one thing, but Beth was likely to wonder where he was hiding flowers.
"God, he's hot," Beth said enviously.
Or maybe not. Her attention seemed to be focused in other directions.
"You said you work with him?"
Why did both Sean and Beth have to admire the genie's looks? And why did Ben have such a temptation to order them to stop looking? Their admiration hardly impacted Ben's wishes. He'd been the one to find the bottle. "Yes. Not very closely. He's new. I haven't known him long." He couldn't risk pretending they knew each other well in case someone asked the genie questions that he couldn't answer. And now he needed to keep Beth away from Sean, since he'd given a different explanation for the genie's presence.
How had Tony Nelson survived all those years?
"He's older than your normal dates."
"He's not a date. He's just a friend."
"If I didn't have Craig, I'd be tempted." Beth's lips trembled. "That's if I still have Craig and he doesn't leave me for that other woman."
"Of course you still have Craig," Ben responded, trying to sound soothing. "I'm sure this is all a misunderstanding."
Beth smiled, though Ben could see she was making an effort for him. "You always say the most reassuring things, even when you know they're all lies. Even though I'm the big sister."
Ben bit his lip because she was right. He was diplomatic, even though sometimes he had to blur the truth. Perhaps he should share the secret of the genie with her, to distract her. Maybe she would have some interesting perspective on his dilemma. But… if he went back to redo, or switched his life now, would his changed life impact his sister's? Not that they'd been joined at the hip growing up, but would holidays, family vacations, the hours she'd spent teaching him to drive be affected? How much would everything change? His life hadn't been lived in isolation. Would she still have met Craig, married, had those kids? Great. Sure, sis. You still have Craig. Unless I rewrite our family history. Then who knows? Maybe you'll end up a nun. That would really help her turmoil.
He had to talk more with the genie before he made any decision.
The children ran back to the patio, followed by the genie, saving him from responding. Deirdre leaned against her mother's leg. "Mommy, I'm hungry." Aaron clutched her other leg. "I'm hungry too, Mommy."
"I will feed them, if this is allowed."
"Um, sure." Damn. It seemed wisest to keep the genie away from his sister, but casual work friends simply didn't offer to make lunch for other people's kids in modern America.
"Good." The genie shepherded the kids into the kitchen.
"He is so not just a friend," his sister hissed. "Friends don't make themselves at home to feed your niece and nephew."
"He's not my boyfriend! It's just – complicated, okay?"
"Fine. I want to watch this." She went back into the house, Ben reluctantly following. At least their conversation stalled as they sat at the table, watching the genie make peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, and slice apples for the kids. Not standard slices of course, but charming curlicues that delighted them. Aaron and Deirdre were outgoing and seemed comfortable with the genie, and Beth frequently glanced his way as the genie demonstrated his excellent hosting skills.
The kids finally took their food and settled at the coffee table in the living room, with the Cartoon Network to occupy them and Gus purring between them. As Beth fussed over making sure the kids had everything they needed, Ben felt grateful for the reprieve of his sister's knowing looks. Then the genie got them glasses of iced tea – minty iced tea, which had not been in Ben's refrigerator until the genie reached in for it – and sat at the kitchen table with them, asking sympathetically, "Why are you troubled?"
Beth poured out her fears again, and the genie nodded, listening raptly and intently. She finished finally with a rushed, "Ben's humoring me. He thinks I'm letting my imagination run wild."
"Beth, I'm not – "
"Yes, you are," she insisted. "He's always been good to listen, but he gets that look, like he's evaluating and deciding what's truth and what's not. You should have been a judge," she added, directly to Ben.
"I do not think you are imagining a possibility that does not exist," the genie inserted, "but I do not understand the difficulty."
"You what?" Beth squeaked, and even with his knowledge that the genie had significantly different cultural mores, Ben felt his jaw drop.
"He is a man. It is not unusual for a man to have a wife and mistresses. It is regrettable that he is not honest with you, and leaves you to wonder. He should tell you the truth."
"Ben?" Beth asked calmly. "Is your friend insane?"
"You are his wife, and the mother of his legitimate children. These protect your position, and are the important considerations." The genie nodded sagely, as if his words should reassure her.
"My husband can't cheat on me!"
The genie frowned. "I do not understand why you say he cannot cheat on you, if indeed you believe he is. Clearly he can."
Great, what a time for the genie to display a love of logic. Beth had never shared his interest in sci-fi, and was not likely to appreciate the genie channeling Spock.
Indeed, she didn't. Beth rose, grabbing her purse off the floor. "I cannot believe you would condone infidelity," she said icily, and Ben could see he didn't have to worry about her finding the genie attractive any more.
"Sis, he just comes from a different culture," Ben tried to soothe her.
"Yes, that's strikingly obvious. We're going home now."
"Beth, don't – " He grabbed her by the arm, and pulled her out of the kitchen, into the hallway, facing her and holding her with a loose grip. "Please don't go away angry."
"I can't accept his cheating on me. Or your friend thinking that's fine and dandy."
"You don't know that he is. Don't assume the worst. Please just talk to him. The kids can stay here, if you want some time together."
She shook her head and leaned forward, letting Ben hug her tight. Her body relaxed, the anger dissipating as she accepted Ben's comfort. "He's working today anyway. We'll go home and let you spend time with your – friend. I'll talk to Craig tonight, after they've gone to bed."
"If you're sure."
"Yes." She smiled, though it looked forced. "He's quite interesting, your friend."
"You don't know the half of it," Ben muttered, which made her laugh.
"I expect stories."
"Deal," he agreed, even as he wondered if the choices he made would impact his ability to be honest with her.
She gathered up the kids, who insisted on hugging him and the genie before they could be ushered out the door. When they'd left, Ben laughed hollowly, banging his head on the door.
"I did not mean to cause distress to your sister," the genie offered, hovering in the hallway.
"That was really normal when you were created? Mistresses?"
"Yes, of course. Is it not now?"
"We're more into monogamy these days. Or at least, we do a good pretense."
"I will remember that."
Ben wandered into the living room, sprawling on the couch again. "Who knows, you might have helped Sean and Beth. This could be a three-fer."
The genie sank gracefully to the floor, his legs falling naturally into sitting cross-legged. "Why do you say this? I wish to help. It is my purpose. But they did not seem pleased with me."
"We all get a little – " Ben brought his hands in front of his face, sliding them back and forth as if outlining a tunnel, "narrowly focused. You're very – you – and present a rather unique perspective. It can be good for people to have some different input."
"I hope so."
Either that or he'd hear about his wacky co-worker/friend for weeks, but if he was an astronaut, he'd deal. Maybe he should have taken the genie seriously last night, and made his choices without any introspection. Which reminded him, he'd meant to ask more about the impact of his wishes on others' lives. Instead, he asked, "Have you ever been in love?"
"I was brought from the kiln, enchanted with all the knowledge I would need to fulfill my purpose, and put in my bottle. I have been wandering ever since."
"Do you ever wish to love?"
The phone rang. Ben swore at the interruption, but habit made him answer. "Hello?"
"Ben – oh thank god you're home."
His mother sounded incredibly distraught. "Ben, it's your father. He's had a heart attack. He was clutching his chest and he couldn't breathe and I called 911. The ambulance is on its way."
"I'm coming right over."
"No, just meet us at the hospital. We'll be gone before you can get here. I need to call your sister – "
"I'll take care of it."
"Good." His mom's voice was still shaky, but she seemed calmer.
"There's been bad news," he said starkly to the genie. "Dad's had a heart attack. The ambulance is coming to pick him up. I need to call my sister and go to Emergency." He was dialing even as he spoke, reaching his sister on her cell phone. "Are you still driving?"
"Look, pull over somewhere and stop."
"Ben, what is wrong with you?"
"Pull over somewhere and stop."
"I'm in the grocery store, Ben. What's going on?"
"Dad may have had a heart attack. He and Mom are going to Emergency."
"Oh god, oh god," his sister cried, and in the background he could his niece starting to cry in response to her emotion.
"Calm down," he said sharply. "You need to stay calm and meet us at Emergency."
"Okay, yes," she answered, her voice steadier. "We'll meet you there."
They hung up, and Ben glanced at the genie, wondering what he would think of modern medicine. Something unexpected, undoubtedly. "Let's go." If ever there was a good time for a miraculous wish, this could be it.
Ben arrived at the hospital before Beth and her kids, and since they only allowed one family member to enter the emergency area, he left the genie with strict instructions to stay in the waiting room and tell his sister where he'd gone. He found his parents in one of the small treatment rooms, his dad wearing a hospital gown with a needle for an IV inserted in the back of his hand, his mother sitting on the visitor chair. His dad looked gray and his mom on the verge of breaking into tears, but both of them were holding it together, waiting for the test results. There was barely space to maneuver in the room, so after a brief conversation, Ben returned to the waiting room, to find Beth, the genie, and the kids sitting on the uncomfortable plastic chairs.
"Ben." They hugged each other. "How is he?"
"They're waiting for test results. You should go back and let them know you're here. Room 15."
Beth told the kids to be good and hurried off. "Uncle Ben, what's a heart attack?" Aaron asked.
"Is grandpa going to be okay?" Deirdre seconded.
Ben knelt by the children, squeezing their shoulders. They'd both needed to visit Emergency before, Aaron a couple of times, Deirdre only once, for fevers and bad scrapes and broken bones. It had been nerve-wracking and frightening every time. Kids were so vulnerable. But none of the adults had been hurt or gotten sick during their young lives. "Grandpa is going to be just fine. He wasn't feeling well, but the doctor is looking after him. I bet it turns out to be nothing at all. Now I need to talk to Gene, okay? You guys watch television for a few minutes, okay?"
They nodded solemnly, and Ben drew the genie to one side, where the others in the waiting room couldn't overhear them. "He looks like hell. Can you fix him? Heal my father?"
"If that is your wish, yes."
"Yes, it is my wish that you heal my father. Only don't make it so miraculous that it gets reported to the press. Just – heal his heart. You can make it look like bad gas or something, right?"
The genie crossed his arms, lowered and raised his head slowly. "Your father will recover. His heart is strong again and will last many more years."
Ben leaned into the genie, hugging him fiercely in relief. "Thank you. Thank you."
The genie's arms circled him loosely. "It is your due. You have the bottle."
Hearing the acknowledgment that the genie helped only because required, not out of affection or friendship, gave Ben a weirdly distasteful feeling, but he gave the genie another firm squeeze. "Thank you."
Even knowing that his father would be fine, Ben couldn't blithely waltz out, so they settled in to wait. The kids rapidly grew bored with the tabloid show on the television, so the genie encouraged them to sit on the floor by him, and began telling them a story about a powerful wizard who created a magical genie to help people. Ben listened as intently as the kids, though less obviously. Craig's arrival distracted the kids from the story, and they ran to him excitedly, hugging him close. Squeezing them back, he looked over their heads at Ben. "I got Beth's message. How is your dad?"
"We think he's going to be okay," Ben replied. He'd always liked Craig, even if Beth's hooking up with him had been a little surprising. She'd always been immensely popular and pretty, while Craig was part of the geek squad, average in appearance, with hazel eyes and brown hair. He'd matured since becoming a father and looked better, filling out a little so that he was no longer thin enough for a breeze to blow over, and he'd ditched the thick eyeglasses for contacts.
"You are the husband of Beth?" the genie asked.
"Yeah," Craig answered, frowning a bit at the formality, and Ben gave a quick, "This is my friend, Gene. He was visiting from out of town," he added, wanting to smack his forehead immediately after the words came out of his mouth. In his haste to explain why a stranger would hang around Emergency, he'd forgotten that Beth thought Gene was a co-worker.
No wonder Tony Nelson always looked so harried. He'd have to say that the genie was a co-worker from one of their satellite offices, if his sister followed up on what he told Craig.
"We should talk," the genie said firmly. Even in his casual gray shorts and blue polo shirt, the genie's height and distinguished looks made him command attention, and Craig automatically instructed the kids to go watch television.
"I don't think – " Ben started to say, but Craig and the genie were already pulling to one side.
"Why do you leave your wife in doubt of your affections? Do you not understand her importance as the mother of your children?"
Craig stared. "Who are you and what are you talking about?"
"Gene, Beth didn't give us permission to talk to Craig. That conversation was in confidence," Ben hissed.
"What conversation? I want to know what's happening. What's my wife been saying?"
"I must help where I can, Mas – Ben," the genie announced firmly, and wasn't this a great time for him to decide his arena of authority extended beyond the owner of the bottle? "Your wife is most distressed. She is convinced that you are associating with another woman."
"That I'm associating with another woman?" Craig repeated blankly.
"She thinks you're cheating on her." Now that the subject had been brought up, it wasn't going to be easy to stuff it back into the bottle, so to speak, so might as well discuss it and get it done. "You've been talking to some woman on your cell phone and you come home smelling like perfume."
"She does not understand," the genie inserted earnestly, "that men have needs and that it is your prerogative to have a mistress. You should tell her the truth of your affairs, and make sure she understands her importance as the mother of your children."
Craig stared at them, flummoxed, which wasn't really an attitude Ben could fault. The pair of them probably sounded insane. "I'm not – she's just a – it's not my prerogative to have a mistress!"
Ben frowned. "What do you mean, she's just a? Just a what? Is there a woman?"
"There's a woman at work. She's just a friend. She's been having a hard time, that's all. I wouldn't cheat on Beth," he insisted, glaring at the genie. "I love my wife."
"Oh don't tell me you've bought that," Ben hissed because how could Craig be that stupid? "Some woman is coming to you for comfort? Did she ask you not to tell your wife?"
"She didn't want Beth to misunderstand."
"That is one of the oldest lines in the history of relationships. Broken relationships," he added pointedly. Oh, good god, Beth had been right and Craig really was that stupid. Though from the flush on Craig's cheeks, he'd known that not telling Beth about 'comforting' the woman had been questionable, even if he was trying to pretend that everything was above board. Ben should have trusted Beth's instincts.
"There's nothing going on!"
"Craig!" Beth was almost bouncing as she came through the big double doors that led to Emergency and threw herself into her husband's arms. The kids came running, hugging their parents. Smiling, Beth looked at Ben. "They think maybe Mom and Dad overreacted, that it was just a bad gas attack." She hugged her kids, reassuring them, "Grandpa's going to be fine."
Ben curled his fingers around the genie's hand, giving him a grateful look. The genie's face was serene as he returned Ben's look with a small smile. Robin Williams' genie would have been flourishing 'Applaud' in big neon letters over his head, but Ben decided he preferred his genie.
"Mom said you should come back and see them again, Ben. She said Dad's looking a lot better than when you were back there."
Ben was nervous about leaving all of them, but Beth was leaning against Craig, still smiling happily, and the expression on Craig's face – well, Ben guessed he'd had a good reality check. Hopefully the two of them would have an honest discussion tonight. The genie was already coaxing the children to sit down again for more of the story, so Ben headed back, wanting to see the genie's miracle confirmed by his own eyes.
The Saturday afternoon deluge had started, the treatment rooms filled and ill people on stretchers beginning to line the hallway. Children, middle-aged people, senior citizens, some stoic, some obviously in pain, all waiting for their turn. Had he been thoughtless to ask for only his father to be healed? Had he wasted a wish that could have been used more globally?
His father was sitting up on the bed, healthy and energetic, appearing better than when they'd returned from their last vacation. "Lots of nonsense and bother," he proclaimed.
His mother's lips were thin. "It didn't seem like a lot of bother when you couldn't breathe."
"It's good to be careful," Ben said, belatedly realizing the problem with not revealing the genie's intervention. His father always hated to admit ill health, so now would pass it off as his mother overreacting, an unfortunate consequence. With the genie around, nothing worked out quite as he'd expected.
Even with the miraculous cure, leaving emergency took several hours, as the doctor insisted on running a number of tests before releasing his dad. Unsurprisingly, Ben felt exhausted as they left the hospital, giving hugs to his family, and then hopping into the car with the genie. "Thank you," he said gratefully.
"It is my duty, Master."
Ben started the car. "Could I have asked for more? To have you heal everyone in emergency?"
"No, Master. I can only help you with your troubles."
That was reassuring but also generated a certain amount of guilt. The genie's wishes were for him, his family and friends. Even if he'd thought of the others in Emergency that day – and he hadn't, he had to admit to himself – he couldn't have helped them. What made him special? Why was his father the one to be saved? "Do you ever wish it wasn't? Ever feel…burdened by all that you have to do? Or by what you can't?"
"No, Master. The wizard created me to serve one purpose, and that is what I do. It is what is meant to be."
"I'm starving," Ben said as the genie's answer nagged at him. "I'm going to stop at Mama's. I could use some fettuccine."
Risking quick peeks at the genie's profile, Ben could see nothing but serenity. His expression was calm, face relaxed, long hair perfectly combed, nothing to indicate he'd been dragged around a stranger's life all day and performed a miracle. "There's nothing you ever want for yourself? There is, isn't there?" Ben asked triumphantly, because he'd caught the genie's start of surprise, the subtle twitch of one corner of his mouth, at the question.
"It doesn't matter, Master. I have my duty."
"It matters to me. Please, tell me the truth."
"Most people are not like you. They learn of their gift and quickly decide and I am back in my bottle to wait. I wonder…" the genie glanced at his hands, as if embarrassed… "what it would be like, to be human, to spend more time with people, to have a family, to hug a friend, to hold a lover. You are very lucky, Master," the genie added swiftly, his eyes dark blue with conviction. "Of all the people I have helped, I understand the least why you found my bottle."
In a way, Ben agreed with the genie, but felt compelled to note, "My father almost died today."
"Yes, but if he had, if I had not been there… he is of a good age, much older than most people lived when I was created. You are blessed with your parents, with your sister and her family, with your friends. You need a lover, Master. Children. That is what you need. This is what I wish I could know. It is the best of life."
Ben pulled into the lot in front of the restaurant, and shut off the car. He'd been so angry at the genie yesterday for telling him he needed assistance, but this felt right, true. Someone to love, to touch, to be with, through the good and the bad. "I can't imagine asking you to zap a husband into existence for me."
"But I could do this for you, Master. And children. Do you wish one of each, like your sister? Or only boys?"
Ben wanted to laugh and ask if he could choose eye and hair color and personality, and if they'd come complete with backgrounds and social security numbers, but the genie was too earnest, eager to be finally able to help. He couldn't diminish his excitement. "Let me think a bit more."
"But you will let me help you?" the genie asked eagerly. As Sean and Beth had noted, he was a very attractive man, and even more so when fully happy.
"Yes," Ben returned slowly. "I believe I'm beginning to figure out what I wish from you."
Ben took a quick shower, thinking of what he'd planned to do, and knowing it was the right course of action. Toweling off, he dressed in light blue flannel pajama bottoms and went searching for the genie. Seated on the living room floor, he was wearing a genie outfit again, gauzy blue and silver decorated with shiny gold jewelry, chin braced on his clasped hands, watching the news on Ben's wide screen TV.
"Do you find that interesting?"
"It is amazing, your news. All those things happening to other people and in other countries, reported so quickly by the storytellers."
"I guess that hasn't been normal most of your life."
"The wizard was very wise and knowledgeable, but even he did not have such information."
"There are advantages and disadvantages." Ben knelt by the genie, stroking his nose. "Why did the wizard make your nose crooked? Do you know?"
"He knocked me on a table when he put me in the kiln."
"It was a mistake?"
"He made me larger than he intended, but then he decided my size was fine, since I would be able to change it. When he lifted me to put me in the kiln, he knocked me against the table. He did not notice that my nose was slightly bent until after I had been fired. He decided not to break me and begin again. My appearance is not important."
"I think it's very important." Ben smoothed his fingers over the genie's nose, down his cheek, through the short, wiry beard. "Not that it is the most important part of you. That would be your caring, your kindness. But your attractiveness is…well, you're very attractive." Way to be articulate, Ben.
"No one has called me attractive before. You think of me in ways that no one ever has."
No, not precisely, but the admiration of Sean and Beth wasn't relevant now, only that the genie had served so long without receiving any wishes of his own. "They don't think of you, do they? Only of what you can give to them. But I would like to give to you in return."
"Give to me? What do you wish to give to me?"
How sweet it was, that the genie didn't understand. Most others would interpret their exchange as suggestive flirting, but for all he'd seen and done, the people he'd met and the miracles he'd performed, the genie was very innocent. "You said that you wished to know what it is to be human, to touch a lover."
"You would…" The genie rubbed his cheek against Ben's still outstretched hand, overwhelmed.
"I would be honored." Ben stood fluidly, taking the genie's hand. "Come. This is for you."
But the genie didn't rise, looking in astonishment at Ben.
"Unless you would rather not be with a man."
"I do not deserve to be with you. I was not created to satisfy my own desires."
"Do I have to ask for my second wish?"
"No!" The genie stood quickly, gracefully. "You should not waste a wish on me."
"Then come with me because you can, because you are allowed to make me happy."
"Show me, Master, please. Show me what it means to be human."
Tugging the genie behind him, Ben walked into the bedroom where he'd pulled the covers down to the base of the bed and left candles burning on the nightstand and dresser, creating a soft glow over the room. He turned to face the genie, admiring him in his blue and silver. He was, to put it bluntly, a hunk of a man, and for tonight, he was Ben's. To touch, to caress, to take, to love… Faced with such a blessing, he barely knew where to start. Slipping his pajamas off, he tossed them aside, letting the genie see what he would be getting, his hands still at his sides.
"You are magnificent, Master. Well-formed and exquisite."
It was on the tip of his tongue to ban 'Master' from the bedroom, but Ben's cock preempted that plan. Ben's cock thought 'Master' was quite hot and hopefully completely appropriate by the end of the evening. "You're the magnificent one," he said, beginning to undress the genie, removing the bolero top, the tie in his hair, the flimsy harem pants, leaving him clad only in his jewelry.
Coaxing the genie to lie on his back on the bed, Ben proceeded to do justice to the task he'd been given, the opportunity no one else had been wise enough to seize. He sprawled on top of the genie and taught him the wondrous sensation of skin on skin, and how to give and accept wet kisses, long and slow, kisses that made a man's cock stiff with yearning.
Ben circled the genie's shaft with his hand, feeling the strength and warmth, glad that the wizard had been consistent in his design. "You're as magnificent here as everywhere."
The genie breathed harshly. "Master, this is – I did not know that I could feel like this. I did not know why the wizard even gave me that organ."
"Thank god for accuracy," Ben answered fervently. It would have been most distressing if he'd stripped off the genie's clothes to find a Ken doll. He grabbed lube from the nightstand before shimmying down the genie's long body. "I think this needs immediate attention."
"As you wish, Master," the genie replied, dazed.
Ben wished very much indeed. Wished to tease the genie's impressive organ with lips and tongue, wished to taste the flavor of his pre-come, wished to listen to his sighs and jerky moans as he learned the delights of being sucked both gently and strongly. Lubing up his fingers, Ben introduced one patiently, then another, stretching the muscled opening while distracting the genie with the heat of his mouth. The genie began to writhe in desperation, caught between the ecstasy of the powerful suction on his cock and fingers exploring his channel, pressing firmly on his prostate.
"Give it up, give it up to me," Ben demanded, taking the genie's cock deep in his mouth, his fingers almost brutal inside the genie. With a cry of "Master!" torn from him like he were dying, the genie surrendered, and Ben drank voraciously, shuddering as the genie's thighs flailed around him.
"Master," the genie repeated weakly as Ben scooted back up, giving him sweet kisses, immeasurably satisfied and proud at his response.
"There's more you need to learn," he promised and voyaged to the middle ground he'd so badly neglected, teaching the genie of the more subtle pleasures that could be had from his nipples being sucked, the tonguing of his belly button, heated breath against the vulnerable skin of his neck, his elbows, the back of his knees.
"You have not experienced pleasure," the genie said, daring to stroke Ben's body. His big hands felt so good, large and strong. What would it be like, if he could coax the genie to hold him down, to pin him with his big body, to dominate Ben?
The thought made Ben shiver. He was enjoying being the Master, to teach and control, but turnabout would definitely be exciting.
"I would like to take you. To put my penis into your body. Will you allow this?"
Daringly, the genie curled his fingers around Ben's cock. "You would put this into me, as you put your fingers?"
"Then yes, Master, please. I wish this, desperately."
The genie was still loosened but Ben was careful to prepare him more, to add a third finger, to tuck a pillow under his hips, to stroke his thighs soothingly as he placed them on his shoulders. Time seemed to slow to the extent that Ben wondered if the genie was controlling it. Never had he lasted so long, plunged endlessly so many times, his balls slapping with each thrust. Never had he been able to watch so clearly the panting breaths of his lover, as his eyes darkened to midnight, how his sweat formed on his brow, strands of his brown-gray hair clinging to his skin.
Feeling the hot splash of come shooting on his stomach as he drowned in the ecstasy of flooding the genie, both of them coming in an orgasm so perfect that Ben could believe the genie had used his second wish.
Ben wasn't sure how much time had passed, only that lying on the bed, covers thrown off their naked bodies, sweat drying on their skin, his head resting on the genie's shoulder, was perhaps the most exquisite and relaxing experience of his life. Everyone should be privileged to feel this good once in his life. Except, of course, not with his genie.
The phone rang, and Ben groaned, checking the time on the bedroom clock. "That must be Sean calling from the club." The evening would be in full swing, multi-colored lights flashing across the room, bodies writhing and swaying to the beat of the loud music thumping from speakers in every corner. Normally, he loved to dance, to unwind and surrender to the sound, to feel the tension leave his body after a week of wearing nicely pressed clothes and being civilized, but now it all seemed too frenetic compared to the peace of being in this perfect moment.
"Do you wish to dress and join him?"
"I don't want to even move."
"Then let me take care of this for you." The genie slid off the bed, and Ben watched him pad out of the room, because naked genie was a sight truly worth ogling. And then he recalled the genie's conversation with Craig, and that the genie didn't always handle interpersonal relationships as Ben would. He leaped up and ran into the living room, but the genie was already snapping his cell phone shut.
"What did you say?" he asked in alarm.
"I said that you were very sorry that you could not help him tonight, but that you were engaged in the activities that he most enjoyed, and that you were sure he understood."
The genie had been bluntly honest again, but at least this time no one wanted to deck him for it. "And did he?"
"He asked if he could come over and join us, but I said he could not, that two people was quite satisfying."
"And how did he take that?"
"He laughed, Master, and said that he could forgive you but you owed him one. He did not specify one what."
Being left alone tonight was certainly worth whatever Sean might request later. After all, even if they'd gone to the club and helped, Sean would still have asked for more favors later.
The genie might not handle matters quite as diplomatically as Ben would have, but he certainly handled them well.
"Master?" Both of them were standing naked in the living room, and the genie seemed to be taking as much opportunity to examine Ben's naked body as Ben was looking at his. "Would it be permissible for me to practice what you have shown me?"
The formality lost Ben for a moment, but he quickly made the connection, his gaze flicking from the genie's nose to his hands to his cock, all wonderfully proportional, bless the wizard. He licked his lips, imagining that big sword plunging into him. "I would be honored for you to practice your new skills on me."
The genie smiled and walked to him, taking his hand, and they returned to the bedroom to experience more delights together.
Ben found the genie in the garden, sitting cross-legged on the grass, his big hands on his knees. "I thought you might wake up beside me. Sleeping in on a Sunday is one of the joys of being human." Gus had been there, curled on the pillow next to him, but the cat was a poor substitute for the genie.
"I need to think, Master, and I do not need sleep in the same way you do."
He sank down opposite the genie, copying his position. The sun was still low enough that the grass was dewy under his flannel pajamas. "I have thought of my last two wishes."
"That is good, Master."
"So I just let you know them, and you do them, and then what?"
"I will go back into the bottle, Master. Please throw it back into the river where you found me."
"You could leave me after what we shared last night?"
"It is my duty, Master. It is what I was made for."
"Duty can be overrated."
"It is what I was created for."
"I understand that. I wish I didn't. I've thought a lot about restarting my life or changing it now, and I realize I can't. I would have to change other people's lives for my desires, and that's not fair to them. So I do not wish to be an astronaut but I do wish to go to the moon. You can do that, can't you? Zap me up there?"
"Yes, Master. I can take you anywhere."
"Good. That'll be my wish."
"And your other wish?"
"I can't – I can't ask for my other wish. It would be wrong of me."
"I cannot believe that you would ask for anything that I cannot grant," the genie said, frowning. "You would not have found me."
"If I could ask for what I wanted most – I would ask that you set up an identity of a man who was born 45 years ago. I think he should be from Ireland, so he'll need an Irish passport and an American visa for permanent residency. And then that you make yourself into the person. Become human and stay with me." Ben's words were rushed, his voice low, but he didn't let it crack.
"You want… me?"
"I was by the river because I knew I needed something more in my life, even though I didn't want to admit it. And then I picked up a bottle and it's only taken me a day to accept that you were right, what I needed was someone to be with."
"I am a genie. I do not know your life, your ways. I upset your friend and your family yesterday."
"I wouldn't care. You are unique. I wish you could stay with me and be my lover. But I know you can't. You have a purpose you must fulfill. I think I could hate your wizard. He has made it impossible for me to ask for my greatest wish, and nothing else seems important if I have to lose you." Ben bowed his head, trying to control himself, to not rail at fate. He'd accepted that he wasn't going to make the space program. He could learn to live with this loss, which was a far greater one. "I will take the moon, as I know you are most insistent that I should use my wishes."
The genie clasped Ben's arms, tugging him around, until they were sitting, both facing the house, the genie holding Ben in an embrace. "I will fulfill your wish now."
"You know we can't – " breathe, he was going to say, but then he didn't, because he was breathing and sitting on the moon. On the moon, the one place he'd always dreamed of being, looking up at the Earth in the sky. "Oh my god. My god."
"It is all that you wished?"
"Oh, yes." Ben placed his hands flat on the ground, feeling the rocky surface. Real moon rock, and he was touching it with his bare hands. And the Earth – the Earth was so beautiful. He'd seen pictures, dozens of pictures taken from space, from the moon missions, from the shuttles, but pictures couldn't duplicate the reality of experience.
He didn't know how long they sat there, the genie letting Ben glory in his wish, but when the genie finally said, "Shall we return?" Ben answered, "Yes," feeling completely at peace.
As suddenly as they'd gone to the moon, they were sitting on the grass again, in Ben's backyard, Ben coming rapidly down from the high of having his dearest wish granted to the ache of knowing he had to return the genie's bottle to the river soon.
"I wish to sit here for a few moments, if I may."
"Yes. That would be fine." Ben swallowed against the heavy lump in his throat. "I'll be inside when you're ready to go." He stood up, leaving the genie's arms, and walked away from him. In the house, he was unable to focus, finally making toast and coffee to have something to occupy his hands, but then unable to swallow more than a bite and a sip. He peeked out occasionally but the genie remained sitting still. Finally, he wandered into the living room, picking up the bottle from the coffee table. As always, it felt warm, alive in his hands, and then… it didn't. Cold and empty, a glass shell. Ben froze, until arms circled him, holding out something that looked like a passport and a stack of paperwork.
"My genie clothes disappeared when I transformed into a human. I'm afraid your neighbor is most upset. She said people do not go naked in their backyards."
Ben didn't have to ask which neighbor, because only Mrs. Kravitz got up on her stepstool regularly to peer over the fence and into other people's yards. "You – what did you do?"
"I fulfilled your wish."
"But your purpose – your responsibility – " Ben didn't understand why he was protesting. He set the bottle on the coffee table, his hands trembling as he took the passport, flipping it open to see a picture of the genie inside. Gene McNamara, born 45 years ago in Ireland.
"McNamara is a Celtic name, meaning hero of the sea. I am not a hero, but I have come across many bodies of water to be with you. I thought it was appropriate. And your family all know me as Gene."
"You gave up all your power? For me?" The thought of what the genie had done was staggering.
"The wizard did not condemn me to a life of servitude. He allowed that I might find some new world in which to live. I only needed someone to love me so that I might stop my travels."
Whirling in Gene's arms, Ben wrapped his arms around him, kissing him passionately, both of them panting by the time their lips separated. "Poor Mrs. Kravitz. She's probably never seen anything as perfect as you are. I guess I'll need to go buy you some clothes."
"Yes, you will need to. I can no longer make them appear. But first…" Gene dropped the papers to the ground, scattering them, and Ben let the passport follow suit. "Let us celebrate my humanity."
Gene scooped Ben into his arms, causing Ben to laugh happily at his strength. He seemed different as he took Ben into his arms, stronger, more commanding, no longer only a servant but a man. Ben relaxed in his arms, kissing him back, wondering how his life would change, how Gene would adjust to being human, how his family and Sean would react when they found out Gene had moved in permanently. Oh lord, how he would reconcile the different stories he'd told.
And then he forgot all the consequences and ramifications to concentrate on the here and now, the beginning of his future with his very own genie, the man he would love forever. Wishes do come true.
~ the end ~