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THE WISHING HOUR
by Romie Stott
Nira was indeed pregnant, belly an albino watermelon and nipples like dormant volcanoes. When she walked, she waddle-stomped, and when she walked, she burped. She waddle-stomp-burped down the stairs and up again to collect a package from Omaha.
Congratulations on your purchase of auction lot 74, the note read. We hope you find satisfaction in this antique brass teapot, and we hope you will rate us highly in your online feedback. The pot was lightweight and slender and smelled of salt. Nira buffed it with a dry palm and sure enough the kitchen filled with purple smoke and a genie appeared.
“Three wishes,” said the genie.
“Ah, but I’m two people,” said Nira. “Six.”
“One and a half people. Four and a half,” said the genie.
“Ah, so half-wishes can be wished,” said Nira. “And since a wish could encompass the world, to ask for a working toaster would be such a small fraction of the universe it would be almost no wish at all; a thousand such wishes would still round to zero.”
“If one were inclined to think so,” said the genie, who loved haggling as all genies love haggling. For what is wish-granting but a negotiation with the world as it is, convincing the world to sweeten a bargain?
“You are going to get in trouble,” said Nira’s sister Gazelle, trying to ignore the genie—trying to sidle around him to get to the lemonade in the fridge. “It’s greedy, these deals. I’m sure the smoke is bad for the baby. You should set him free and then when your son is born you can tell him you set a genie free and it will be a good moral lesson.”
“Madam,” said the genie, “this is my job. This is my profession. I should drive a cab, be a concierge?”
Gazelle sniffed and opened a window. “You are going to get in trouble,” she declared in retreat.
“So, what did you want a genie for,” asked the genie. “What’s your strategy?”
“I don’t honestly know,” said Nira. “I’m really quite comfortable. It just seemed like you were going for cheap, if you’ll excuse me. As a teapot. I can’t pass up that kind of deal.”
“I understand,” said the genie. “Perhaps you would like to become a genie?”
“Perhaps,” said Nira.
At the grocer’s Nira went through a pile of spaghetti squash one by one, turning them in her hands, thumping them. Beneath her dress, her belly pulsed like simmering custard—softly, briefly peaking without pattern, as if it too were being thumped from inside. The tenth squash, Nira hoisted in her basket. She moved to onions. None of the tomatoes was worth her time.
“You know,” said the genie, “it would take no effort at all to make the perfect onion. A man wished for a box filled with whatever food he desired when he opened it. This was a few thousand years ago. Destroyed in a war. Averted a famine, probably. And you already own a refrigerator. I could fill it right now, forever. It’s not even the smallest part of a wish. It is a grain of sand in the Sahara. It is parsley on a steak. I’d view it as a professional courtesy.”
“Yes,” said Nira; “I guess I don’t have to work anymore, or get my hair cut, or write thank-you cards.” She turned a head of lettuce for inspection, shaking off water droplets to prepare it for the bag. “Do you eat shellfish?”
“I take your point,” said the genie. “It can be socially isolating, as you might imagine, being a genie. The dedication to the work. We have conventions sometimes. I suppose there’s something about access to the miraculous that can hold one apart. I hadn’t thought of the application to wishers. But then, most people have three wishes, if that. Usually two, really. Do you mind if I get some cereal?”
“Knock yourself out,” said Nira.
The genie returned a dozen aisles later, near the dairy case, bearing a box of strawberry-filled Mini-Wheats. “They don’t make them anymore,” he confessed, “but you know. So many choices in the cereal aisle.” Nira made a face.
“As long as you like cereal,” said Nira.
The genie carried the groceries on the walk home. He pointed out a three-legged stray dog. “All right, heal the dog,” said Nira. The genie looked pleased. The dog vanished.
“I sent him to a farm,” he explained, “because it seemed to me he also needed healing of spirit. He is now living with a nice family in the country, with all his legs. They frolic.”
“I’m sure,” said Nira. “That’s where all the hurt dogs go.”
The genie paused. “Is your life truly perfect?” he said.
“It would be nice if I didn’t have to pee so often,” said Nira.
“Done,” said the genie.
Nira and the genie sat on the front stoop, covertly monitoring the kid across the street, known to them as Skateboard Kid, as they had done most evenings for three weeks. Skateboard Kid was, they guessed, between 11 and 13 years old, and had spent those weeks unsuccessfully practicing a curb jump. Nira and the genie had started with a gentleman’s wager on how long it would take, but after so much time and so little improvement the bet was mostly irrelevant, the watching a combination of habit and stubborn insistence that it was engrossing human drama, a certainty that although he was not aware they watched, Skateboard Kid would feel them missing. They had a side bet on whether, if Skateboard Kid fell and broke his arm, he would or would not continue to practice. Absent this likely injury, they did not bet that Skateboard Kid would give up on the trick. Such a thing was unthinkable. Skateboard Kid was their sports team.
“You know,” said the genie, “we need to start thinking about a game plan eventually.”
“I know,” said Nira.
“Not,” he hastened to say, “that our time together has been unsatisfying. Not a bit. I have valued every moment. But it is of course unsatisfying.”
“Yes,” said Nira.
“I have infinite life,” the genie said. “But opportunity cost. I do like being a genie.”
“And at some point the universe ends,” said Nira.
“Does it?” said the genie.
Skateboard Kid went inside, but reemerged with a sports drink. He took a rakish swig, straightened his cap, and again failed to make the jump. He looked at the genie and Nira, but they were careful to busy themselves pulling weeds from a crack in the concrete. Nira scrubbed a blade of grass against the walk to scrawl a yellow-green smudge.
“It’s about potential, isn’t it?” she said. “Just knowing it’s possible to birth something great and terrible, to choose simple things like tomatoes for dinner or an explanation for the blue sky, and maybe it will mean nothing to anyone, or maybe it will be everything. Maybe it’s a future doctor-lawyer-teacher-hobo-artist-zealot-killer, and maybe it’s just someone looking back at you and making some of the same decisions in thirty years. Maybe that’s the closest you get to the best of all possible worlds: a world someone else would choose.”
The genie nodded. “It is pleasant to hold the dice before you let go of the dice. Although after a point, holding onto the dice is like holding no dice. If you like dice-rolling.”
“True,” said Nira, slapping her belly. “But for a little while.”
“For a little while,” agreed the genie.
A door opened and closed and Gazelle plopped down with a plastic fork and a Styrofoam container.
“Aunt Teeny called five times today to say how much it would mean to your uncle—”
“Your uncle too,” said Nira.
“To have a godson, especially with his doctor telling him he can’t eat sugar anymore, and would I mention it casually and do I know if you have named the baby yet.” Gazelle waved her fork. “So see that I am mentioning it casually. I stay out of things. I pass on.”
“Not yet,” said Nira.
Across the street, Skateboard Kid drew up for another approach.
Romie Stott is poetry co-editor of Strange Horizons. Her writing has appeared in Arc, Reflection's Edge, She Nailed a Stake Through His Head, Superficial Flesh, and the Toasted Cake podcast. As a narrative filmmaker, she has shown work at the Dallas Museum of Art, the National Gallery (London), and the Institute of Contemporary Art (Boston). Her portfolio is online at romiesays.tumblr.com.