The Genie

The Genie

When I was nine, I believed I found a magic lamp. But before we get lost in Disney curses and the night-people who occupy your home, you need to understand that for most of my life, I had little-to-no recollection of this event. Which is sort of my point.

There’s this part of brain development theory called “amnesia of early childhood.” It basically says that as an infant, your brain is constantly remaking itself, and with each iteration you remember very little from the former. It’s like thinking of a baby as an entirely different person week-to-week, month-to-month. It’s why after twenty years of iterations, you have no working memory of eating baby food. But the theory is supposed to stabilize at age four. Regular memories form, and the changes slow, become gradual, no longer exponential.

I mention this because maybe you’re probably thinking, You were a kid. Kids forget stuff all the time. But when I found the lamp, I was nine. Fully-formed. Functioning. And however casual I may seem about all this, the belief that I’d found a goddamn magic lamp seems like something that’d stick. Even if it was a kid’s passing delusion. I should remember believing the delusion.

I haven’t thought of this for years. Then Sophie texted and the memory was right there, complete with Disney curses and night-people in my house. Delusions, but ones I remembered. Which in a small way, makes them more real.


The Genie Memory, pt. 1.

I’m nine. That age where you’re a functioning human, but only just. Dumb in that endearing kid-way adults love. Like, think of your favorite Steven Spielberg movie where a kid has a speaking role. I was exactly that old.

Anyways, I’m nine, in the backyard digging up my mother’s flower bed with my next-door neighbor, Joshua Gibbons. Josh (who moved in fifth grade) was one of those sickly, always-sneezing kids with the perpetually-sticky hands. It was gross. To this day, I have no idea if Josh had a legitimate medical condition or why he didn’t take some vitamin C or at least walk around with a tissue. It’s a little inconsiderate when you think about it.

Also, in the interest of honesty, I’m saying all this so you’ll forgive what happens next. What I did to Josh.


Listen. This memory nonsense, it matters. I mean, can we agree that we all fictionalize the past? Sometimes purposefully? I mean, there’s been loads of research about lapsed memories and forgetfulness and how easy it is to plant false memories. Take one famous study, in which participants were shown a photo of themselves on a hot air balloon ride as a child. 80% of participants recalled the memory. They gave details about who was in the balloon and where the ride took place. The most common locations were California and rural Virginia (which interestingly have very different topographies).

You see where this is going. The photo was faked. Which meant their memory was total bullshit. Given a crumb of fiction, people misremembered the whole thing. Almost like they wanted to.

It gets even worse with shared memories. Take something with lots of cultural baggage, like high school. Or worse, prom. Specifically, your prom. You remember. The glitter (pink). The lights (strobe). The (presence or absence of) booze. The dancing (embarrassing). The punch (red). All of it. Now, compare that memory to a popular movie with a prom scene from the same decade. Like the kid in the hot air balloon, you’ll be shocked how much your memory overlaps.

Call it whatever you want. Fiction. Culture. Downright lies. Over time, memories fade, combine, gaps get filled. Little pieces of fiction pepper reality. Or vice-versa.

(Admittedly, I suck at explaining this. If I had a PhD, I could probably do better. Graphs and all.)

Anyways, that’s how I always explained the genie to myself. A false/planted memory. Nothing. Whatever. I hadn’t thought about it in years, assumed it was a placeholder for some repressed memory or a TV show I’d dreamed myself into.

(The latter sees more likely. I watched a lot of TV.)

Then I get this text from Sophie. Well, from Sophie’s Mom, Laura. Sophie is six. She doesn’t have a phone.

Anyways, the text:

“Happy Birthday, Dad. 40 is OLD!!”

And suddenly, the memory is right there. The genie. Joshua. The dirt. The house that night. The certainty of being somewhere I didn’t belong. All of it. It doesn’t feel repressed or planted or any of that. It feels tangible. Real. Every detail right there as if it happened yesterday.

My phone buzzes again.

And the memory fades.

This time it’s Laura texting:

“Next weekend is yours, Anthony. Make it a priority. Your daughter needs structure. If you can’t offer that then…”

But the phone is already in my pocket. I don’t pack a bag. Don’t think. I just get in the car and start driving.


The Genie Memory, pt. 2

So it was me and Josh in the backyard. My trowel (we were too young for shovels) struck something in the dirt. Something hard and fragile-sounding, like porcelain or glass. I pulled the dirt away with my fingers. And then I saw it. The lamp.

(At this point, I’d like to again point out this is a memory from when I was nine. It’s no different from a memory of an imaginary friend. Having said memory doesn’t make your imaginary friend real. The lamp was just like that. In the memory, I believed I’d found a magic lamp. A genie. The reality? I’d probably found a broken vase left behind by the previous tenants.)

Needless to say, my heart was racing.

Jesus, I thought. Treasure. Real treasure.

At my back, Josh said, “What did you find, Tony?”

I didn’t say a word. All I thought about was Joshua and his snot hands and my lamp. I knew what I had to do.

I picked up a clump of dirt, and I thew it at Joshua’s head.

“Anthony! Fuck!”

Joshua had just learned the “F” word the previous week. And what he lacked in nuance, he made up for in repetition. And gusto.

“My fucking eyes!”

I felt terrible about throwing the dirt right away. I mean, there wasn’t any blood or anything, but Josh was pretty worked up about the bit in his eyes. So, seconds after throwing the dirt, I ran over, tried to make sure my friend was okay. Isn’t that crazy?

(This isn’t some sympathy-grab. I was a kid, and kids are capable of cruelty followed by remorse and then hours of pure joy. It’s a little psychotic when you think about it. Maybe psychotic isn’t the right word. But like I said, I don’t have a PhD, and I don’t want to pretend otherwise.)

Anyways, I was feeling pretty shitty. About throwing the dirt. About not sharing the lamp. And I still felt that way as Joshua ran home. As he rounded the fence. As his screen door slapped shut behind him. But once Josh was inside, I was back to the flower bed, reburying the lamp.

(Like I said, kids are psychopaths.)

I knew I’d get in trouble. So I raced to bury the lamp before Josh’s mother came out and started yelling at me. I tucked the dirt first tight, then loose so as not to draw attention. I laid the trowel at the back of the flower bed, directly behind the lamp so I could find it later. Later, I’d come back, dig up the dirt, and make my wishes.

I’d just bent my knees to stand when I heard the voice.

The words were muffled. Heavy. The lamp was half-covered in dirt, after all.

“Tony. Is that you?”

I laid the final handful of dirt over the lamp, and the voice evaporated.


I can’t help but smile at the memory. At the joy of finding “buried treasure.” At believing a genie spoke under the dirt of my mother’s flower garden. Hell, I even miss Josh a little.

I shake my head. I know it’s just nostalgia, but it changes nothing.

I mean, my God. Life was easy back then. Buried lamps. Genies. Friends.

So easy.

I call Mom once I get on the interstate. She doesn’t ask why I’m driving home. She’s happy for company after Dad moved to the retirement home. Then, out of nowhere, she says it’s my birthday tomorrow as if I might’ve forgotten. And I feel the question coming before she begins.

“Don’t you have plans with Laura? Should I set three for dinner? Is this a surprise I should know about? Is Sophie coming?”

I remind Mom again that Laura and I are divorced.

Mom doesn’t react to that. Just says we were always a lovely family.

There it is. Another kind of memory-lie. The willful-ignorance kind.

Yes, I know I’m going on about memory a lot. I’m probably a little defensive. It’s natural to wonder: You had a magic lamp and never looked into the possibility of finding a wish-granting demon?

It’s true: I have a memory of a wish-granting demon-thing. I ask you, as an adult, what the hell am I supposed to do with that information?

Correct. Nothing. Not a damn thing.

All the same, here I am. Driving. Because whether the memory is real or not doesn’t matter. What matters is that I’m remembering it now. Today. Because as much as I go on about memories, about how they aren’t strictly real or any different from delusion, I remember my second wish. Someone doesn’t forget a thing like that.

Anyways, that’s where my mind’s at. The backyard. The voice of a genie. Wondering if I shouldn’t try and look up Josh on Facebook or whatever. See how much he remembers of that day. Also, just see how the guy is. If he ever got his sinuses under control.

I’m so lost in thought that I’ve been driving for forty minutes before I realize I’m going twenty over the speed limit.

I take my foot off the accelerator. Put the car on cruise. Take a breath. I can’t speed the memory back. Can’t drive it back into focus. Because that’s the truth. The memory was there when Sophie texted, but it’s already fading. Graying at the edges. Blurring details. And that’s just reality. I can’t outrun forgetfulness. Passing on the shoulder. Running yellow lights. None of that will help.

I mean, there’s no real reason to hurry.

There’s nothing waiting for me in that backyard.

No one.


The Genie, pt. 3

That night, I laid awake until my parents fell asleep. As expected, I’d gotten in trouble for the Joshua-dirt incident, and I’d been up there for hours. Waiting. Just waiting.

I have no idea what time it was when I finally got out of bed. Midnight? Three in the morning? It all feels the same as a kid. Dark. So dark. And silent. Your home somehow becomes unfamiliar, and a little frightening for it. Shadows where light should be. Sounds without source. When you’re that little, there’s this feeling of being caught that you can’t explain away by something as simple as your parents. It’s as if you’re trespassing through someone else’s home. Some night-family who lives in your home and wears your clothes and eats your food, and in the dark has just as much right to your life as you do.

I pushed open the sliding glass door. Walked across the lawn. I remember the grass underfoot. Prickly. Dry. It was summer in Arizona and they’d started water restrictions. In the daylight, everything was brown and sickly or dead. But in the night, there was no color. Just the dark and nothing in my head but the thought of my mother’s flowerbed and the trowel.

So for the second time that day, I dug.

And there it was. Exactly where I left it.

The lamp.

Let me mention this now. Outside of the voice I heard while burying the lamp, I have no memory of an actual genie. No billowing cloud of smoke. No glowing eyes. No blue-green jets of fire or whatever. None of that. At most, there’s this fuzzy impression of someone standing across the yard in a pool of light. But that sounds crazy. A misplaced memory no different from the hot air balloon and prom. Nothing. Memory isn’t real.

Anyways, I remember the voice speaking to me from under the dirt. And knowing with absolute certainty what I’d found. A lamp. A genie. Knowing with all this kid-certainty that the magic would be ruined if I questioned it. If I tried to explain it away. If I made one wrong move or thought, the lamp and the wishes would vanish. Because that’s the thing with magic. It’s fragile. Finite. Barely exists at all. As an adult, that sounds like a rationale towards a break from reality. A step down the path of insanity. But as a kid, it feels like a test. Believing was half the trick.


I’d found real magic. And magic meant three wishes.

I remember thinking about that again and again.

Three wishes. Only three. Only three…

And I remember my mistake.


Mom asks how work is. She asks how the apartment is holding together. Then she doesn’t ask any more questions. She just sits there, plate empty, fork in-hand like she’s expecting something. Someone to fill her plate. Me to say something. I have no clue what.

“I think I’ll just turn in early,” I say.

“Wait, Anthony.”

I don’t mean to frown. But Mom sees it, and I feel more than a little guilty for that.

It’s not like I hate my mother. It’s just bad timing. Whatever she’s expecting, I don’t want to deal with it tonight. Don’t think I even could. My mind is a hundred miles away. Years in the past, going over every detail I can drag out of myself of a memory that’s slowly slipping away.

All the same, I try to keep my voice level.

“What is it?”

Her expression is unreadable. She just keeps watching me.

“Nothing. Happy Birthday, Anthony.”

I smile. Tell her thanks and head to bed.


The Genie, pt. 4

So I’m in the backyard. Holding this apparently magic lamp. And this is what I think about.

Disney. And Aladdin. And my cousin Roger.

You can’t blame me. Anyone with a TV post-nineties would think the same thing. For better or worse, that’s our collective genie reference. Aladdin.

I don’t remember the first time I watched the movie. I remember liking it in the way kids like things that are sugary and full of color. Also, there were talking birds and half-naked princesses and a lot of catchy singing. I don’t remember a time it wasn’t part of my life. But what I do remember is watching it for the first time with my older cousin Roger. I must’ve been seven or eight. Roger was fourteen, babysitting me and my younger sister. Also, Roger was a total asshole.

“You guys know the Monkey’s Paw?” Roger asked.

It was the scene where Aladdin rides into the palace with all the elephants and giraffes and whatnot. There’s singing and tons of animals and Jasmine is wearing that bikini-top ensemble. I barely heard my cousin.

“Wishes are actually curses,” Roger said with a grin. “Always.”

Roger had my attention then.

“Are not,” I said.

“Are,” Roger said. “Even in Aladdin. This wish? Aladdin wants to be a prince to impress Jasmine. But it doesn’t work.”

I remember trying to think. Trying to undo his argument. But I couldn’t. So I jumped to other wishes.

“But the genie gets Aladdin out of the cave,” I point out. “And the ocean. And in the end, the genie gets set free.”

Roger smirks. Waves me off. “You’re just a kid. You don’t get it.”

So there I was, holding this lamp in my backyard. And that’s what I was thinking about. Worried out of my mind. Because at the time, I didn’t know Roger was an asshole. A fourteen-year-old who just learned the magic of shitting on things others enjoy. He was fourteen. Ancient. He knew things. Which meant there was a chance he was right. Wishes were actually curses.

The thought scared the hell out of me.

I just stood there in the dark, looking at this lamp, trying to think of a test. Something to see if the magic was real or a curse. Something that couldn’t go wrong no matter how hard a (possibly) wicked genie tried.

Options included:

Wish for the wind to blow.

The problem: Might create a hurricane. Next.

Wish to be taller.

The problem: How tall? I was just a kid. I didn’t want to be a six-five nine-year-old. But if I wished to grow two inches, would I never grow again? Would I be four-two for the rest of my life? No good.

Wish for a million dollars.

The problem: Don’t get me started. Inflation. Stolen money. Arrest. Jailtime. etc.

Or, go for broke: Wish for world peace.

The problem: Would I go inside and my parents would be missing? My family? My friends? Strangers? Everyone? Would the whole world disappear? Could that be a genie’s sick idea of a peaceful world: Make a nine-year-old the last of humanity?

Some of this is obviously adult rational. But like I said, memory is a recollection of the past in the present. It’s easy for time and perspective to get confused.

Point being, I was stressed. Becoming irrational and certain that I might end the world. And I was starting to get a little emotional about it. I mean, Jesus. Freaked out is an understatement.  My chest was racing. My eyes started to well.

And then it hit me. The perfect wish.

I pulled the lamp against my chest. Pressed it against my heart. It seemed like the thing to do. So the genie could sense that I wasn’t all bad. That my heart was good, even though it’s a little greedy to ever make a wish. A little dirt rubbed on my chin when I whispered.

“I wish you aren’t an evil genie.”

And then, just to be safe.



I smile at the memory. At a time when that was the scariest thing I could imagine. Evil genies. And for the hundredth time that day, I wish I could go back there. When the magic was real and the only fear in my head.

Then I turn in my too-small bed, and the smile fades.

Spending the night in your childhood bed is never comfortable. It makes you nostalgic and sentimental and just plain weird. It’s a bit like time traveling without any of the interesting stuff. You just lie there and try to think up some verifiable way to prove you’re different from the person you used to be. The boy. The teenager. Even past-adult versions of you. The college-you. The married-you. Whatever I am now. And then you start wondering why you want to prove it so badly. You’re the only one in the bed. Always has been. And that’s a little unsettling.

There’s probably a thought experiment which would explain all this for me. Something to do with time and some obscure law in quantum mechanics that proves I’m uniquely alive and conscious and verifiable. About how mathematics doesn’t distinguish between past and present, that events like childbirth or divorce or prom always are happening. You could take any event and look at it like the constant on the graph, the zero on an axis. You’re always moving towards and away from it, but it’s always there. You never leave the graph. That’s how I’d like to think time works. How you’re always you, even when you’re different. Everything could be explained like that. Trauma. Friendship. Love too, I suppose.

(But, again, I don’t have a PhD. So instead of certainty, I have my thoughts for company. Which is a little depressing.)

I shake my head. Like I said. Sleeping in your childhood bed makes you weird.

Besides, I wasn’t going to sleep that night. And it wasn’t just the genie keeping me up. For two hours Mom’s shadow keeps passing just outside my door. I have no idea what she’s doing. (And a PhD wouldn’t tell me either.)


The Genie, pt. 5

Wish #1: No evil genies.

Okay. Off to a good start. I’d protected myself against Monkey’s Paw situations.

The problem? I was already down one wish.

Which freaked me out even more.

I tried to calm down. Told myself I only really need one good wish. The others are just tests. In Aladdin, he only gets the last wish right. To set the genie free. I tell myself I can figure this out. I had two tries. I had my whole life in front of me. I could do this. I could do this. I kept trying to tell myself that. I could do this.

I should mention I was crying at this point.

Because as all kids are painfully aware, I knew I was just a kid. Dumb. Unsure. Didn’t know anything, just like my cousin Roger said. Deep down, it’s why kids want rules. Structure. Kids screw things up. And kids know that better than anyone.

So there I was. Crying the backyard. Terrified I’d never find another genie again and that I was wasting my wishes. I was nine years old and I had a magic lamp. And like all kids, I just wanted to be old enough to know what to do. For my life to start making sense.

I tried bargaining with myself. I could wait three years, then make the wishes. That sounded fair. Back then, three years was a small lifetime. I figured that when I turned twelve, I’d have the answers. I would practically be an adult. I’d know what to do. All I needed was to get one wish right. Just one. And everything would be okay.

I bent down. Started reburying the lamp. Told myself in three years, I’d dig it back up and I’d be better at all this wish stuff.

“Sorry,” I whispered.

It felt wrong. Burying a living thing.

I said it again, “I’m really sorry.”

I was a kid. I was sentimental. Emotional. I didn’t want the genie to think I was cruel. But it changed nothing. I buried the magic. And deep down, in a place without words or conscious thought, I began to make a plan. A bargain. Because another truth of kids is we didn’t want to wait.

So I started thinking there had to be some way, some means to skip the in-between. To move past the years between childhood and maturity. A way I could know the right decision now. Here. Tonight. A way out.

I looked down at the dirt. And I remembered what I told myself. It’s like Aladdin. I only had to get one wish right.

I started digging again. Then I had the lamp in my hands. Pressed it to my chest so hard I could feel my heart beating against the porcelain. And I remember being young enough to wonder if the heartbeat was really mine, or what a genie’s might feel like.


That’s where the memory stops. Dead.

Laura texted again, and the memory disappeared. That’s it.

I have no recollection of setting the lamp down. Of the words for wish number two. And the third wish is lost to me entirely. But I remember the second. The idea at least. And that’s why I’m here, isn’t it? Why I came home. To try and prod the memory forward.

That probably doesn’t make sense. Remembering that I made the wishes but not recalling the memory? It’s another trick of time. Remembering the event and forgetting the details. It’s like the first time you kissed someone and meant it. You’ve forgotten bits and pieces. What you said just before. Whether their shoulders lifted or fell as your lips met. Whether their nose touched your cheek. Whether you went right or left. But you remember the kiss. It happened. And wishes are like that. It’s one of many things you can’t forget even if you’ve forgotten them, including:

My first kiss was Gwen Douglass.

My daughter was born with Laura’s eyes.

My wife divorced me on a Tuesday.

My father was sent to a nursing home during a dust storm. Mom held a cloth over his mouth as I wheeled him inside so he wouldn’t choke on the sand.

Wishes are like that. I made all three. I know I did. I just can’t remember them.

Also, let me be clear: I don’t expect to Freaky-Friday transform into my younger self. I don’t have any intention of going on some cosmic adventure with nine-year-old me. In fact, that sounds awful. If that happened, I think I would believe in the genie’s curse. I’m not insane. (I keep saying that, don’t I?) It’s not like I started digging up my mother’s garden when I got here. I’m not trying to make some wish. It’s the same as me lying in bed. I’m not the little boy in the memory. I’m a functioning adult. I don’t believe in magic. I found a lamp or vase or whatever it really was, and I told myself there was a genie inside. End of story.

If I could remember the story.

And that’s the thing. I want the rest of the memory. Even if it’s false. Especially if it’s false. Because that’s what matters: The remembering over the memory.

I check my phone. It’s four AM. I’m not sleeping tonight. I climb out of bed to make some coffee. And I try to remember.


I flip on the kitchen lights. Mom still has those florescent tubes from the eighties which take twenty seconds to hum to life. Not that I really need to see. I’ve been drinking coffee in this kitchen off-and-on since I was fourteen. I cross the kitchen, fill the pot. Wait while the lights flicker and the pot gurgles.

Okay. The wishes. Wish one was to not have the genie be evil. Which was actually pretty brilliant for a nine-year-old. But let’s skip past that. My second wish? That’s the real reason I’m here.

I knew I was a stupid kid. I knew I’d make some mistake and never find another genie again. So I did the logical thing. I began to wish I was older. Smarter. Then I thought better. All I really wanted was to talk to myself. To know I was making the right choice. To know what sort of wish would make me happy.

You see where I’m going with this?

I wished to talk to my older self.

I wished I could make the wish as an adult.

And that isn’t what’s important. The wish, I mean.

What matters is that I remembered it today.

It’s like I’ve said. Memories aren’t real. They fluctuate. Change. Combine. And right now, I’m remembering that when I was a little boy, I wanted to talk to myself when I was old. Ancient. And whether it’s true or not, in my memory, I wanted to talk to myself at forty.

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that I remembered all this today.

On the kitchen table, Mom’s left a card that says, Happy Birthday, Tony. It’s in a red envelope. I smile, but don’t move to open it. I need to think clearly. Try to figure out why I’m recreating this memory today. I mean, I just remembered being nine and wishing I’d have the answers at forty. Today, I’m forty. If I had a therapist, they’d love that. And they wouldn’t be wrong. It’s like, I didn’t misremember wanting to talk to my twenty-year-old self. Or thirty. Or when Laura and I divorced or when Dad went to the home. Today, I made up a memory of wanting to talk to myself. At forty. Today. And if genies aren’t real and I didn’t really find a magic lamp, on some level, I’m trying to tell myself something. I just have no clue what.

I know how crazy this sounds. But shit. Can I be honest? I was going to spend my birthday in an empty apartment, thinking about my kid and ex-wife. Chasing some fantasy, some genie, some wish? That sounds a hell of a lot more productive to me.

So let’s assume there’s something I need to hear. Some wish I’m retroactively making. A memory I’m recreating as quickly as I’m trying to remember it. But by now, it’s four in the morning. And at some point, I have to accept I’m not going to figure this out. The memory was never real to begin with. So what the fuck am I doing here?

“I thought I heard you up.”

Mom’s in her robe, squinting as she comes down the stairs.

I smile, offer her a cup of coffee which Mom turns down. And I feel a little bad about dinner. About all this. It’s making wishes as a kid all over again. The childish selfishness replaced by an adult’s. It was silly to think sleeping in my old bed would trigger some false memory. Give me an answer. I’m over the delusion now. And frankly, I’m happy for the company.

“You should change these lights,” I say. “They’re terrible for your eyes.”

Mom blinks at the kitchen ceiling. “You’ve been saying that since you were a kid.”

“Doesn’t make it less true.”

Mom coughs. She nods towards the table and the card with my name on it.

“I mailed your real card last week,” she says. “I didn’t think you’d be here to open it in person.”

I look at the table. “What’s in that then?”

“A Christmas card from 2019.”

I laugh. “Thanks.”

Mom shrugs a little defensively. “I thought you should have something to open.”

“I mean it,” I say. “Thanks, Mom.”

Mom still thinks I’m giving her a hard time and waves me off. “Too early for me,” she says. “I’ll see you when the sun’s up.”

“Hey Mom?”

She stops.

“If you had one wish, what would it be?”

Mom shakes her head. “It’s too early, Anthony.”

“Really, Mom. I want to know.”

She turns. Thinks. “I should say another day with your father. With him and you and your sister all together. Everyone healthy for a day.”

“But that isn’t what you’d wish?”

Mom shakes her head. “I think that’d be too hard. To know I only had a day.”

I nod. Part of me wants to hug mom. It feels like the thing to do. But whether it’s the hour or the question, Mom isn’t feeling as sentimental as me. She’s already climbed the stairs, slipped into the dark.

“Goodnight, Mom.”

“Goodnight, Tony.”


I sit with my cup of coffee. It’s still dark out. October. Will be dark for some time yet. I keep turning my phone off and on. Wondering how soon is too soon to call Laura and ask to talk to Sophie. I tell myself it’s my birthday. If I want to call my daughter, I can. But still, I wait.

I reach across the table, pick up and open Mom’s card. And I laugh for a good five minutes. It’s a Christmas card from Monica Chen, a co-worker who retired around the same time as Mom. All the specifics are crossed out. The date. The names. The holiday wishes. And in their place, Mom’s scribbled, Happy Birthday, Anthony. I love you. Under the words, the Chen family stares up at me wearing red stocking hats.

And I should know better. I came here desperate for some answer, and thinking I’ve found one is just proof that of that: my desperation. But for once, I shut off my brain.

I turn the card in my hand. Think about what Mom said. About timing. And I think it’s probably a good wish. To not want to be somewhere else. It sounds perfect.

I stand. Start walking towards the living room. I’ll call Laura. Tell her to wake up Sophie. That seems so important. Just to hear my daughter’s voice.  It’s a moment that feels true and pure and unbreakable. But before I cross the kitchen, I freeze. And all the air escapes my lungs in a single breath.

I try to blink. Try to breathe. But the moment hangs and expands and lengthens as if refusing to retreat into the past. A living, breathing thing which exists the same as me. A life.

My heart skips a beat. Another.

Because there’s a little boy in the backyard.


The Genie, pt. 6

I have this memory from when I was a kid. Standing in the backyard. The night. The dry grass underfoot. But it’s colder than it should be. And the neighbor’s TV is bigger than I remember. But that doesn’t make sense, for a memory to feel wrong in the remembering. To have a memory of a hot air balloon and know its false inside the memory. Like a waking dream. But then, people misremember things. Memory is never just one thing. Part reality. Part fiction. But always unreachable once you’ve moved away from the past. No magic. No way for the graph to ever truly reach zero again.

But I’m holding to it. Holding to a memory where I was holding a lamp. A time when I believed in magic. A time I wished to be older because the world is frightening when you’re so little. And that fear is multiplied by holding the only magic lamp you’ll ever find and knowing you’re bound by its rules.

Three wishes. A single life.

I remember making the second wish and turning from my mother’s flower bed and seeing the man inside my house. The night house. The home that wasn’t mine in the shadow but belonged to the darkness and the family which made their home inside it. And I remember the fear which welled inside of me. Watching as the shadow watched me back. A sickening, pure fear I’d never known before or since.

The man moves. The shadows deepen, and something in my brain feels like it’s stretching to a breaking point.

I closed my eyes and I pressed the lamp against my chest and I prayed that whatever was inside could feel my heart. Could know I was trying. I was trying so hard.

I don’t know what I said. Can’t name the third wish, even in the memory. It’s possible I never spoke a word. Just held the lamp to my heart and wished.

When I opened my eyes again, the house was empty. The night was the same. The air was warm. The grass was wet. The sky was dark. And the lamp no longer felt quite so magic.

I was a little boy who had three wishes. I wanted so badly to get them right.

It was such a long time ago.


About the Author

Dozens of R.M. Cooper's short stories have appeared in and received awards from American Short Fiction, Best American Experimental Writing, The Best Small Fictions, Normal School, Prairie Schooner, Redivider, and many state and city Reviews. Cooper is the managing editor of Squestrum and represented by Yona Levin at UTA.


Photo by Louis Hansel on Unsplash