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Genie in a Bottle
My glass prison trembled beneath my fingertips. I willed spider-web-like fissures to replace the translucent impressions of my thumbprints and – when no such cracks started to form – I proceeded to create an o shape with my right pointer finger and thumb before flicking at the glass wall that stood frustratingly intact before me.
I held my breath for one second. Two seconds. Three.
Nothing more than a tremor passed through the cylindrical crystal-clear wall that surrounded my meager living space. The exhale that left my mouth resembled that of a sigh as I wearily leaned back on the scratchy, woven carpet that my father had gifted to me eons ago. I pressed my slender palms against the prickly ends of the rug, remembering the day I had graduated from Grant Academy: how the many aromas of spring – blossoming lilies, rainwater and honey – filled me with such a feeling of euphoric glee and hope; the look of my father’s proud smile as he officially stepped down from his position as Grand Genie and theatrically handed the metaphorical – and literal – crown to his only daughter; the feeling of his firm grip on my shoulder after the ceremony as he lectured me for the one thousandth time about the responsibilities and duties of being Grand Genie, how it was a privilege yet a sacrifice, an ultimate test of will and patience not to be handled lightly…
The swell of arrogance that overtook me as I swept away his calloused hand and told him in my surest tone of voice, “I’m ready,” continues to haunt me to this day.
I wasn’t ready.
I never was and I never would be.
I saw that as clearly as I could see the dismal gray Void that my Bottle – my humble abode - was suspended in for all eternity.
That is, until someone decided to make a Wish.
Well, that’s not exactly how it worked. It wasn’t like all someone had to do was stumble upon a random, dusty bottle from their great-grandmother’s attic, rub it clean and incredulously pinch themselves as a mystical being with blue-green skin and a tight ponytail magically appears before them and offers them a generous selection of three wishes.
First of all, I always preferred to leave my hair down – much to my father’s annoyance.
Secondly, only one Wish was granted to every Chosen and we Genies could only present ourselves if the person was deemed worthy.
And a person could only be deemed Chosen if he or she displayed honorably good intentions and a moral and wise character that would never purposefully allow for a Wish to cause chaos to ensue across the Mortal Realm.
Needless to say, the Bottle was picky with who it Chose.
Hence why, in my three billion years as Grand Genie, I had yet to Grant a single Wish.
Well, two billion, nine hundred fifty-eight million, seven hundred and four years.
But who was counting?
I was. I was counting.
After every Sleep Cycle, I would engrave a short line into the glass of my Bottle with one of the only belongings I had brought with me on this lengthy assignment - an HB pencil (although, nowadays, I was down to a pathetic stump of lead that threatened to crumble between my fingertips whenever I so much as picked it up).
Despite my initial thoughts of comfort in such a cramped living space – which I had the gall to refer to as cozy the day I arrived – I became frustrated with the limited room around the same time the reflective lines on the wall started to overlap.
It was also around the time I filled the one sketchbook I had brought with me.
See, Grand Genies had a reputation of packing light not only due to the unfortunate amount of space, but to the fact that it usually didn’t take long for someone somewhere to find your Bottle and be deemed Chosen.
I suppose mortals with pure intentions have become a rare breed over the centuries.
I believe the moment that I began to doodle on the (surprise!) glass floor of my Bottle was when I really started to lose it. It was when I began to look back on the life I had Before – a life filled with permanent, summer days, clear, starry nights spent laughing with friends (who I barely recall the names of now) and fields of flowers of every kind where I would go to draw and paint until the sun set in a gorgeous display of oranges, pinks and purples – and think to myself how could I let that all go?
And, Genie Almighty, I missed those sunsets. I missed the Sun. The trees. To be completely honest, I missed anything that wasn’t glass or grey – two things that seemed to have taken over my life in a way I never could have foreseen.
Sometimes, I found myself forgetting little memories from Before…and I panicked. I threw a bloody tantrum (sometimes literally): I flipped over my small cot, tore some of my only blankets to pieces, shredded the clothes on my back, ripped out invaluable sketchbook pages, snapped pencils, hell, one time I bit into my own flesh just to see how it tasted. I didn’t do it out of necessity – all Genies were put in a Stasis that halted any mortal, bodily functions such as eating, drinking, aging and the need to relieve oneself – however I had just woken up from a mouthwatering dream of soft fudge halvah, scrumptious baklava and divine almond ghoriba and had a difficult time coping with the almost-dry, bland taste in my mouth.
At that time, the memory of my proud father as he watched his sole daughter be Crowned was the only thing that stopped me from chewing a portion of my arm off.
But, lately, the thought of doing so no longer felt shameful.
Sometimes, it felt right.
Despite the violent bouts of madness that I experienced throughout my sentence – as I had so fondly come to think of this assignment over the millennia – glimpses of the old me, the sensible me (excluding the decision to accept the task of becoming Grand Genie in the first place), came through. I found myself envisioning the Book of Rules – an ancient text that all Genies at Grant Academy were required to study and memorize by heart. While it had been eons since I had sat at those mahogany desks reading by the light of the setting sun that filtered through the splendid, stained-glass windows, a select few of the hundreds of thousands of rules came to mind whenever I summoned the image of the leather-bound, dusty volume.
And, I must say, of the rules that did come to mind, there were a couple that almost never failed to grab my attention:
10051. Grand Genies differ from Genies in that a Genie has the power to withdraw from their duties as early in their long lives as they wish – whether they have Granted a Wish or not - but a Grand Genie must see to it that they Grant, at the very least, a single Wish before declaring their retirement.
200563. Wishes may be used whenever the Chosen sees fit – whether that be a moment after a Genie is summoned or a lifetime.
And, we cannot forget the last, most important rule – the only thing that seemed to be keeping me alive the past three decades (apart from the Stasis):
999999. Never let yourself be kissed by a mortal – a mortal’s Kiss will mean immediate banishment from the Genie Realm.
And, just to make sure all readers got the picture, a bullet point beneath the furiously-scrawled rule read:
--- If a Genie is Kissed or Kisses a mortal – Chosen or not – they will be stuck in the Mortal Realm for all eternity.
“All eternity”, huh?
Nowadays, the idea didn’t seem nearly as scandalous as the Scriptures made it out to be.
See, I had always been fascinated by mortals and their Realm – even as a child. I would find myself singing combinations of mortal nursery rhymes with local, Genie nursery rhymes, I would stay up late to read mortal literature that I may or may not have illegally obtained from the Forbidden section of the Grant Academy Library and, in the months before being Crowned, I had woken up at the crack of dawn to try my hand at baking mortal desserts which, again, may or may not have been discovered through prohibited texts. My mild obsession with mortals - combined with my somewhat-obnoxious academic attitude that many mortals might’ve referred to as “nerdy” - had always set me apart from the other Genies at Grant: Kissing mortals - so much as mingling with them - had always been a source of taboo back at the Academy. It was the kind of thing you may discuss in hushed, secretive tones with a professor, but it was almost never mentioned outside of the classroom.
Which was why I couldn’t imagine my father would ever in a million trillion years be pleased with what I planned to do.
I let out yet another great big sigh, wondering for the thousandth time if the gut feeling I had since I had Awoken was just another bout of wishful thinking…no pun intended.
Alas, it wouldn’t be the first time.
But, by the grace of the Almighty Genie Himself, I heard it. It being the sound I had been dreaming of for almost three billion years.
It being the sound of magpies cooing and cawing from the depths of the Void.
Okay, I didn’t imagine my Signal to be quite this sudden (or loud): I envisioned a perfectly-content newly-Crowned Grand Genie scribbling away in her sketchbook being snapped out of her placid daze by the sound of a warm, crackling fire or perhaps the blissful rustle of flower petals floating in the breeze.
I didn’t picture a disheveled Grand Genie at the absolute end of her wits being startled to death by the clamorous noise of magpies.
However, the longer the Signal went on, the more the noise seemed ominously appropriate.
Magpies, one of the many creatures I had taken quite a liking to during my extensive studies of mortal biology, were known to symbolize opportunity and possibility.
They were a sign for good things to come.
I couldn’t quite help the smile that snuck its way onto my face - the expression feeling so foreign after eons of nothing, nothing, nothing – as I prepared myself for Ejection.
I stood up, feeling giddy on hope for the future and the desire to leave this wretched Bottle, and smoothed down the torn-up blouse and shredded harem pants that sat pathetically against my body, although there was no point in fussing over my appearance as I knew I would be getting a full-blown makeover quite momentarily.
Instead of dwelling on my disconcerting reflection in the glass walls of my Bottle, I furiously went over the plan that I had so meticulously crafted during my imprisonment, combing it for flaws and praying that all of the unknowns would come to work in my favor.
Just when I felt as ready as I’d ever be – the finality in my tone of voice as I told my father I’m ready still echoing in my mind - the magpies ceased their insistent cawing and my surroundings started to shimmer and dissipate into thin air, first gradually and then all at once until I was nothing but a floating body in a light-grey Void, wondering if the person my Bottle Chose for me would be the one to finally set me free.
Amal Ali scrounged through his pile of keepsakes in the cramped attic space above his bedroom, numb with shock by how fast his life has gone from almost-perfect to out of control.
More like out of my control, he thought bitterly as he stood up abruptly to take in his chaotic surroundings, running his hands through his thick, dark hair as he wondered how in the hell he was going to sort through this mess before nightfall. The sun was already starting to dip below the horizon, casting a glow of orange light across the splintery, wooden floor of Amal’s personal storage room through the small window that overlooked his and his family’s well-maintained farm as well as the beautiful town that he had grown up in. The young man stepped towards the window feeling an ache in his heart as he thought about what was about to become of his beloved village.
For the thousandth time that week, Amal thought back to his life only a few short days ago, when he was oblivious to the unfortunate state that his hometown was in: hanging out with his friends in the Market and at parties, helping around his family farm as well as learning the ins and outs of the family business which he – unlike many of his friends – was actually excited and eager to get into. After graduating high school, Amal finally felt like his life was clicking into place as he was able to spend more of his time with family and friends as well as learn more about his passion for farming, which he knew he was fortunate to have due to the fact that he was his parents’ only child and, therefore, would be the only person to take over the family business once they were gone.
It was funny how quickly a person’s hopes and dreams could turn to dust in the matter of one night.
Amal had just gotten back from another one of his friend’s graduation parties – flushed with euphoria and more-than-a-little tipsy – when his mother and father, who stood forlornly in front of the time-worn staircase that led to the boy’s room, demanded that they all sit down and have a talk.
Amal’s first thought was uh-oh, I’m in trouble, but this assumption was quickly debunked when his father put a firm, calloused hand on the boy’s shoulder and said remorsefully, “Your mother and I have decided to sell the farm and this house. We’re moving, son.”
Those last three words, “We’re moving, son”, sent a spike of emotion through Amal as his mind instantly cleared and he asked what seemed like hundreds of questions all at once.
His father was unusually patient and explained it all to him: the city in the Far East was cutting the funding of important businesses in their village - such as schools and many integral administrative programs – and the community was struggling to survive with such little financial support. It wasn’t as if this was some minor reduction in funds that could be rectified by merely cutting the art program at school, it was the rich folk’s way of saying there aren’t enough people living in your village and therefore we cannot spare another cent on your survival (even if they most definitely could). Schools and shops were going to shut down, which would lead to less and less jobs and educational opportunities for the next generation. This, in turn, would cause many families – some who had just started out here and some who had resided in this village for centuries – to travel to a land with more promise.
And, apparently, the Ali family would be one of hundreds to migrate to the city in the Far East.
At first, everything in Amal protested this insane idea to sell their property - everything that his family had ever worked for – and turn their backs on the village that had treated them so well for decades. However, the more his father talked - as his mother stared despairingly at the splintering wall in front of them - the more it began to make sense, even if Amal could never swallow the idea of leaving his friends and his home behind.
What sickened Amal the most out of it all was the fact that he had noticed some of the things that his father was mentioning: the post office closing, leaving the village to exchange all news by word-of-mouth; many shops in the Market – a lively place where shop owners and vendors alike came to sell their goods – beginning to close, much to Amal’s initial bewilderment, as well as the news that one of his best friends, Halil, was going to move away with his family, much to both boys’ dismay. Amal had noticed all of this and more and yet hadn’t taken the time to ask questions or act or do anything to stop the inevitable, aka the ultimate desertion of Amal’s beloved home.
Now - only a few short hours away from his and his family’s departure (as traveling at night, his father assured, would be a much easier feat than doing so under the rays of the desert sun) – it was much too late for Amal to save his village from becoming a desolate ghost town, as he often dreamed of doing when he wasn’t tossing and turning in bed, racking his brain for some sort of easy remedy to this seemingly hopeless situation.
Amal sighed wearily, turning away from the window as he contemplated leaving the task of sifting through his mementoes until after he had actually packed his necessities.
However, just as he was about to lean down and pry open the small door that led to a rickety ladder, he flinched as his bare right foot hit a cool, hard object.
The item rolled across the hardwood floor, hitting the wall in front of him. After rubbing the dull ache out of his toe, Amal curiously bent down to inspect the object, finding that it was some sort of miniature, curved glass bottle sealed with a cork, reminding the young man of the strangely-shaped flasks that the ladies at the Market would use to store their spices.
The mere thought caused a lump of emotion to form in Amal’s throat and he furrowed his eyebrows in confusion, questioning how this quaint little bottle had found its way into his stash of trinkets.
The young man stood up, intending to throw the bottle back with the other mysterious knickknacks in his collection, when he stopped short as a beam of light struck the glass in his hand, revealing a faint engraving at the neck of the bottle:
Property of whom? Amal wondered as he caught sight of the incomplete text. Instinctually, he tried to rub his thumb against the bare space where the owner’s name should have been, thinking that there might be a smudge covering the name…
Suddenly, the vial became burning hot in Amal’s hands and the young man yelped in surprise and pain, dropping the bottle on the floor as a stream of something gushed out of the small crack in the glass.
Amal stepped back as a form began to take shape before his eyes: one second there was just a shimmering mass floating in the middle of the cramped attic space and then, not a heartbeat later, a person – a girl - materialized in front of him.
She had thin, long brown hair with the front pieces tied up in the back that created a sort of braided crown around her head. She wore a flowing maroon blouse with peach-colored loose-fitting harem pants that hung gracefully around her bare ankles. Amal was startled - not only by the girl’s magical appearance - but by the fact that, even without any shoes, the girl was at least a full head taller than the young man. Her face was long and dark, with a pointed nose and lips that came together thinly, making her seem anxious - almost wary - of her new surroundings. While the young woman looked to be about Amal’s age – eighteen or nineteen – something about the faraway look in her piercing, amber-colored eyes made Amal believe that she was much older than anyone on this Earth.
It can’t be, Amal thought to himself, although, before he could elaborate on his own racing thoughts, a startled look suddenly passed over the girl’s face as her eyes widened in shock and she promptly collapsed onto the wooden floor, making strangled noises and hurried gestures toward her throat as she seemed to struggle for breath.
Without thinking twice, Amal fell to his knees beside the girl, feeling grateful that neither of his parents was home to hear the ruckus from upstairs.
“What’s wrong?” Amal asked her, although he knew there was no point to his question as the girl didn’t seem to be able to speak. Instead, she made a guttural noise before her darting eyes rolled up in the back of her head and her arms fell limply to her side.
Amal’s heart skipped a beat as he bowed his head to listen for the sound of breathing, the girl’s lips gently brushing against the young man’s ear. After five seconds had gone by without the faintest of movements in her chest, Amal pressed his right hand against the girl’s lithe frame and tilted her head back with his left before pinching her nose closed and pressing his lips against hers, blowing air into her seemingly-lifeless body.
Not ten seconds had passed before the girl’s eyes shot open and she gasped, startling Amal as he flew to his feet, staring down at the mysterious, revived girl.
Amal’s back straightened, suddenly craving answers as the young woman calmly and slowly got to her feet.
“Who are you?” the young man asked cautiously.
“I was going to ask you the same question,” the girl answered, with a startlingly rich voice that sent a jolt through Amal as he, again, thanked the Heavens that his parents had decided to do some last-minute shopping for their upcoming trip.
“Me? My name is Amal Ali and I want to know who you are and what the hell you are doing in my house,” he responded with slight uncertainty, refraining from adding how the hell she had gotten into his house.
The girl seemed to size up Amal - a flush of heat gathering at the tips of the boy’s ears as she lingered a second longer at his midsection – before she spoke, her voice seeming even fuller than before, “Forgive me, Amal, for intruding upon your home. I know this might sound crazy, and believe me when I say that it is, but my name is Eshe and I am one of five Grand Genies from the Realm of Raghba. You, Amal Ali, were Chosen by my Bottle to receive one Wish from me, your personal Genie. However, because you…saved my life, not only are you about to fulfill my purpose of Granting at least a single Wish, but you have also permanently freed me from my Bottle, my prison, which is a debt I know that no amount of Wishes will ever repay,” her declaration sounding somewhat-interrupted by the almost hesitant tone of her voice when referring to her brief period of unconsciousness.
Upon hearing this, Amal knew that - without a doubt – this girl was lying.
And he knew it wasn’t about being a Genie.
The young man, while impressed by her words, couldn’t help the small smile that tugged at his lips as he nonchalantly asked her, “So, you being free has nothing to do with the happenstantial event of my lips touching yours as I ‘saved your life’?” he said with more-than-a-little amusement in his voice.
The enjoyment of this exchange only heightened as Amal noticed the girl’s - Eshe’s - cheeks become redder in hue as her gaze fluttered to her bare feet – the sudden shyness in the girl’s striking figure seeming almost laughable – as she said in a much-smaller-yet-still-sure-tone of voice, “It might have something to do with that,” a smile also tugging at the corners of her mouth.
Before Amal could stop himself, a chuckle erupted in his chest and, feeling bold, he said, “You know, if you wanted me to Kiss you, I would’ve gladly done so had you simply asked,” his laughter feeling even lighter as Eshe began to giggle melodically, the sensation of happiness as the two laughed together feeling so foreign after days of nothing, nothing, nothing.
Eshe recovered from her bout of laughter rather quickly before looking at Amal with a mixed expression of surprise and awe as she asked, “Wait…did you know I was a Genie before I, uh, collapsed?”
“Well, it was quite apparent from your magical entrance,” Amal said with a teasing smile as he wiped a tear of joy away, “Besides, I, uh, have always had a sort of interest in Genie legend and lore,” Amal admitted, motioning to the pile of Genie paraphernalia behind her – stacks of ancient texts, collections of various Genie nursery rhymes as well as trinkets that the ladies at the Market had claimed would “guide the Genie spirits” to him (the trinkets never seeming to work, much to the dismay of his thirteen-year-old self).
If only that boy could see me now, he thought as he stared at the real-life Genie before him.
A ghost of a smile lay on Eshe’s face but her eyes seemed distracted, troubled even, as she carefully asked, still staring at the embarrassing pile of Genie merchandise, “If you knew all about Genies and our customs and you knew I was a Genie, why did you Kiss me? Why willingly free me?” she turned to look Amal in the eyes as she asked this last question, her gaze almost painful as the young man struggled to come up with a coherent answer.
After a moment of silence, he merely shrugged and said, “I wasn’t completely sure you were who I believed you were – it’s not every day you rub a Genie’s Bottle. Besides, when I saw you on the floor, something in me was triggered. I had to help,” he finished lamely, feeling flustered by how pathetic his explanation sounded. How could he explain that, from the moment he found out about Genies and their Bottles, he had always felt more-than-a-little sorry for them and, as a child, had sworn to himself that, if he were to ever come across a Genie, he would free them with no hesitation?
Until then, he had thought he had finally gotten over his silly obsession, but seeing Eshe had caused him to remember and, ultimately, fulfill his childhood promise.
Luckily, Eshe no longer seemed interested in his answer – causing Amal to feel both relieved and slightly offended – as she merely responded with a “Hm,” her eyes fixated on the golden-orange light of the setting sun. Not a second had passed before she began to walk towards the small window, almost trancelike.
Amal gave her a moment to behold the beauty of the sunset – one of the young man’s personal favorite pastimes – as he recalled the legends of Grand Genies – how they were held to much greater standards than that of regular Genies and sometimes had to endure even longer periods of solitude in their Bottles before they were finally Summoned.
As Amal eventually joined the girl at the window, seeing that her eyes were still transfixed on the horizon, he decided to ask the question that was on his mind: “How long were you in there?”
Surprisingly, she answered with little hesitation, “Eons,” she sighed.
The darkness behind that one word caused Amal to instantly regret the next question that tumbled its way out of his mouth, “Where will you go, now that you are free?”
It took her much longer to respond to this question, long enough for Amal to be almost hypnotized by the gradual setting of the sun, how the various oranges, yellows, reds and purples seemed to blend together into a singular dark, navy blue color just as the top of the sun dipped ever-so-slowly below the skyline…
“I suppose I’ll traverse this Mortal Realm,” she whispered, as if afraid to disturb the solemn peace of that moment, “Visit the places I had read about billions of years ago in ancient Mortal texts that never ceased to haunt my dreams during my…imprisonment,” she spoke this last word with such bitterness that Amal was almost taken aback by the force of her words, despite the fact that he understood her resentment - who wouldn’t regret eons of wasted time spent in isolation?
She turned towards him then, just as the last spectacle of colors from the lingering sunset were beginning to fade into the night sky, and added somewhat-casually, “Of course, I will always be at your beck and call whenever and wherever you choose to make your Wish.”
The Wish. Amal had almost forgotten about it among the craziness of the last half hour!
I could Wish for anything…I could Wish for the village’s financial stability…for my friends and family to stay here…for everything to go back to normal… a tirade of possibilities flooded Amal’s subconscious and he felt his eagerness get the better of him as he asked, “Could I make my Wish now if I choose? I know in my heart what I would like and, this way, you can travel the world in peace knowing that you fulfilled your purpose as Grand Genie,” he added this last part in a rush of impatience, knowing the moment he saw the small smile on Eshe’s face fall that he had said the wrong thing.
Eshe covered up her disappointment swiftly, however, as she said, “Yes, you may make your Wish now, if you like. I’ll understand if you don’t wish to see me again,” despite the small smile at her own play on words, Amal could hear the underlying sadness beneath her tone and he seized the opportunity to apologize:
“Forgive me, that wasn’t what I meant. I am just eager to make my Wish because I know what my heart desires. Also, I don’t want to be some sort of…burden to you as you enjoy the rest of your life and see the world,” he added truthfully.
Eshe nodded thoughtfully but her eyebrows furrowed in slight confusion as she stressed, “I assure you, Amal, you will never be a burden to me. You freed me, after all,” she said with a genuine smile.
Amal smiled back but not without a hint of nervousness: not only did he worry that his parents would be home soon, he dreaded the moment Eshe would Grant his Wish and leave, the sound of her voice saying his name suddenly feeling weirdly comforting.
Before she should ask him to make his Wish, however, Amal spotted the Bottle from which the Genie had sprouted from on the hardwood floor, picked it up and, without thinking, said, “I assume you will want to keep this with you during your travels?”
A shadow crossed over the girl’s face as she responded gravely, “No. It reminds me of my darkest times,” she anticipated Amal’s incoming apology and held up her hand, “It’s okay. I’d like for you to keep it. To remember me by,” she cupped the Bottle and, in turn, Amal’s large hands in her dark, slender palms and the shock of her touch - combined with the almost hopeful look that her alluring amber eyes were giving him - sent a wave of unfamiliar emotions through Amal.
The two were drawn to one another as they instinctually took steps to close the gap between themselves, the height difference between the boy and girl no longer feeling quite as embarrassing to Amal as he gently tucked a stray piece of Eshe’s hair behind her right ear, causing both Eshe and himself to blush furiously at the touch.
Despite Amal not wanting to ruin this moment, he whispered, “When will you return?” feeling more-than-a-little anxious of what her answer might be.
Eshe responded with a tender smile and the same hushed tone of voice, “Soon,” she assured Amal, causing the young man to let go of the small breath he didn’t know he was holding, “This place…something about it reminds me of home - somewhere I can never return but will always remember fondly,” to Amal’s surprise, she said this last part with almost no remorse and he couldn’t help the smile that crept its way onto his face at the optimistic sound of her promise: “Soon”.
“You mean, even if I make my Wish now, you might still come back?” he asked somewhat-incredulously.
Eshe smiled big, her thin lips revealing a set of perfectly-straight, white teeth, as she spoke softly yet confidently, “As long as you wish to see me again, like I do with you, I most certainly will return.”
Her sureness – combined with the distant sound of his parents’ rummaging from downstairs – gave Amal the courage to press his forehead against hers – stepping on the tips of his toes to do so and causing the two of them to melt against each other with such an intimate gesture – and say the words that his childhood-self had always dreamed of uttering: