“Are you sure we are allowed in here?” Beth’s own nervousness intensified when she noticed Mark’s hands shaking. He tried unsuccessfully to swipe his security pass through the electronic lock.
“Sure Beth!” he straightened his shoulders. “you are always hassling me. They trust me, they gave me a pass so I am using it! Besides, this is the only chance you will get to see the collection before it opens. It is booked out for weeks. Don’t you want to see it?”
Mark always managed to twist things so Beth had to make the decisions. Her shoulders slumped. He didn’t notice. Beth was so sure Mark would get them into another sticky situation just like he had since they were preschoolers. She had to give him credit though, this was his first serious job and he had been really keen to show her how much they trusted him.
“Yes Mark, I do want to see it. You know that.”
“Cool! Here we go then.” The door swung open and he smiled his sunshine in Beth’s direction. His eyebrows lifted and his familiar lopsided grin made her smile too. They stepped into the cool interior of the gallery and walked through the rear storage area past crates and canvas wrappings. Beth had never been in this part of the building and was fascinated by the odd tour.
“It won’t be open until Friday. We completed most of the displays this morning. Everyone has to wear special gloves when they touch the artefacts and the whole place has special air conditioning. Some of these are ancient, like really old. I got to put up some of the paintings and I even helped move some of the display cases.” Mark prattled on about the work and couldn’t keep the pride from his voice. Mark had only been working in the gallery for a few months but he really liked it and wanted to impress Beth. She smiled at her brother.
“I was so glad to hear about this collection. It will add some interest to my history assignment. We are studying ancient Egypt at the moment.”
“Here goes then.” With a mock bow, Mark swung open the side door of the main gallery. Beth stood in awe, gazing at the beautiful and strange display. The whole room was made to look like the interior of a pyramid with the walls angling up to a point. Hieroglyphs adorned the walls and cleverly drew the eye to focus on each artefact or artwork.
“Wow! You guys have done a fantastic job.” Beth walked slowly through the room, trailed by Mark wearing a huge grin. “Oh look at this.” She gazed delighted at one display and another, losing complete track of time.
“Beth, lunch break is almost over. I will get in trouble if they catch you here. Come on.” Mark sounded worried.
“Typical mark. I thought you said you were allowed to bring me in here?” Annoyance coloured her tone and she turned her back to look at something glinting in a shaft of light.
“I said I was allowed to use my security pass. Come on Beth you have to go. Sorry. Hey don’t touch that!” Mark shouted.
Beth had picked up a slim elegant bottle with intricate golden patterns etched into the glass. She fumbled it in fright, almost dropping it. Her heart caught in her throat as it landed heavily on the unfinished display stand. A cracking sound echoed over loud in the huge chamber. Mark grabbed Beth’s wrist and dragged her toward the door.
“I told you not to touch anything. I told you everything had to be handled with special gloves. What the hell do you think you were doing? Damn it Beth! I will get killed if that thing is broken.” Mark pulled Beth at breakneck speed along the corridor, his angry outburst masking his own fear.
“I’ll lose my job. Oh shit!” Mark moaned and skidded to a halt. He pushed Beth behind a large packing crate.
“Stay down and keep quiet, the boss is coming.”
Mark picked up a nearby broom and started sweeping the floor. Beth’s heart was pounding in fear at being caught. A sense of horror settled on her in her cramped hiding space as she realised what she might have done to the bottle. She hoped the cracking sound wasn’t something dreadful. She had been mesmerised by the bottle, it was so beautiful and seemed almost to lure her to where is was laying. What a stupid idea, Beth shook her head. Realising that Mark had disappeared from the corridor she eased herself out from behind the crate and found her way to the rear exit. She pushed open the heavy door and blinked in the bright sunshine, taking a moment for her eyes to adjust.
“Hello.” A deep smooth voice spoke in her ear. Beth yelped, assuming she had been caught; her instincts were to protect Mark from getting into trouble so she ran for it. She sprinted across the park not looking back, lengthening her stride across the street and leaped over the fence of the junior school. She weaved her way through the playground shrubbery, intent on losing her pursuers. She ran through the back gate and turned down the alley behind the supermarket, jumping over boxes and dodging stray cats. Reaching forward as she ran her hand light post at the end of the alley using it as a pivot to launch her into the main street where she slowed her pace and glanced behind her. With no sing of anyone she didn’t already know, she slowed to a walk and slipped into Barber’s Cafe.
“Hello Beth, you look like you just ran a marathon. What can I get you dear?”
“A glass of water please, Mrs. Barber.” Beth panted
“Here you are dear. I won’t be retiring on the money I make from you now will I?” Mrs. Barber handed Beth the glass of water and walked away chuckling. Beth lifted the glass and glanced in the mirrors behind the counter. She could see in the mirror a reflection of a man in very strange clothes sitting in one of the corner tables. He smiled, raised his eyebrows and waved his fingertips at her.
“Hello” he said in the same deep voice she had heard at the gallery door. Beth choked on the water. How had he made it to the store before her? She knew the town better than any stranger could.
“What a marvellous sprinter you are. If you had been a man in Roman times they would surely have wreathed you in laurels.” The sound of the town’s only police car sped past with its siren wailing. Beth ran to the door and watched it turn down the gallery street. She had a bad feeling about that.
“Thanks Mrs. Barber.” She called to the back of the store. Ignoring the weird man Beth sidled out the door and sprinted for her flat.
Beth squealed in fright and flattened herself against the the kitchen wall.
“Who the hell are you and what are you doing on my kitchen bench?”
A slim tanned man wearing yellow pantaloons, red slippers with gold embroidery and curled up toes, a blue fez and a hand embroidered purple waistcoat with gold trim sat cross legged on her kitchen bench. He smiled a broad gleaming toothy grin. In a deep voice she was becoming eerily familiar with, he introduced himself.
“Few of your kind can pronounce my name so I answer to genie. You may call me that too if you wish to. I don’t have to dress like this but it fits the stereotype and makes my appearance easier to accept.”
He waved an elegant hand along his almost bare torso indicating his attire.
“Accept what? A loony on my bench! Get out or I will call the police.” Her voice trembled.
He looked at her with chocolate brown eyes, shiny as marbles. He turned his palms down in a non threatening gesture.
“Hey, hey it’s okay. I won’t hurt you. I can’t hurt you.” His voice had become a soft croon designed to calm her. “You are my master and I am here only to serve you.” He leaped lightly from the bench and swept the floor with his fingertips in a deep elegant bow. “you are so difficult to catch up with.” Beth barely caught the last exasperated whisper.
“You have been following me?” Beth looked for a way to escape, sliding along the wall and backing slowly through the doorway. “Stay there okay. Just stay there.” She raised her hand palm toward him in a placating gesture.
“Your every wish is my command oh master!” he lifted himself back on to the bench. Beth stopped moving, her fear ebbing slightly as he made no dangerous moves. Puzzlement overcame her fear.
“Why do you keep calling me master? I am no ones master.” Her social conscience raised its proud head. A bottle appeared in his hand. An Egyptian bottle with gold etching.
“Oh my God it is the bottle from the gallery. Where did you get that?” Beth’s fear returned as she realised she must be facing an expert thief. He must have been in the gallery when she and mark were there and walked out behind her. The police will think we helped him. What if our fingerprints were on the things? Beth was frantic. Where was mark? Was he okay? What did he tell the police? She was distracted by that deep smooth voice.
“This is mine. It is my home and you my dear opened the door. That makes you my master and I, your humble servant.”
“What the hell are you talking about?” She could feel anger swamping her fear.
“It is so obvious. You picked up my bottle and cracked the seal on the lid. A little rough I must admit but effective none the less. I am the genie from the bottle and you who opened the bottle are now my master. I know it comes as a shock being the owner of an incredibly handsome and magical creature such as myself but I am sure you will get used to it. Now if you could be so kind as to make your first wish, I am a little rusty so start small. Wish away and we will build up to big things.”
Beth shook her head, completely at a loss for words but her thoughts tumbled over each other. A genie? Is he an escaped lunatic or a criminal or both? Oh goodness I am in big strife. Maybe if I humour him I can make my escape or keep him busy until mark gets home.
“Okay if you are a genie then you have the wrong master. I can’t make wishes as I am totally against slavery in any form. I will simply set you free.” Beth’s youthful ideology sent a warm flush through her. She didn’t expect the reaction of the genie.
“Don’t be ridiculous!” he sputtered angrily. “I don’t want to be free. Why would I give up what I have for what you call freedom? You smug little fool, no one likes change, least of all a genie. Why would I give up my powers for hormones, ageing and death?”
“But everyone wants to break free. People are always dreaming of ways to break their bonds.”
“it is all lies little master. No one really wants to move out of their comfortable little realities. Real adventurers are so rare. The ones who truly taste what the universe has to offer. I only met one as master and he wished for...never mind, he left me behind damn him,”
“Well what are your powers? I mean how do they work?” Beth wasn’t sure she liked the way this was going.
“Oh that’s easy. We genies come from a time when reality wasn’t set in concrete like it is now. We know that the universe is made of innumerable little particles floating around while some of them clump together to form what you see as solid realities, there are plenty left around to play with. So, you simply wish for something and I draw those particles through your memories and hey presto, I guide them into formation. Let’s start with a banquet of all your favourite foods shall we?”
“Favourite foods? You can’t make my favourite foods.” Beth felt sure of herself now.
“Why not?” he looked bemused.
“Well if, say you were to make my grandmother’s chicken roast. It wouldn’t be the same as having it at grandma’s house with all the smells and sensations of her house. A burger isn’t worth anything without my friends and the gossip and laughs. Popcorn at the movies never tastes the same anywhere else and a picnic at the beach is only good at the beach with sand in it and sun burning our noses. It isn’t the food, it is all the memories and scents and places that go with it. A banquet of food is just food and would be a waste of, of...particles.” Beth shrugged and the genie laughed.
“I can see you are going to be an interesting little master.”
“I am not your master. Stop calling me that.” Beth’s voice had a little hysterical note to it.
“You’re every wish is my command. Maybe I should call you Beth?”
“How did you know my name?”
“Part of the power of being a genie; as soon as I awaken I can speak the languages of the time. I know my master’s name and all about him or her and I am fully conversant with the socio-political climate of wherever I am. Anything I don’t know I simply ask the universe and the answer comes to me. Do you really think I would want to give up that? Here, I can even change my clothing to suit the local fashions.”
In yet another elegant gesture his pantaloons and fez disappeared to be replaced by a sophisticated grey suit over a vivid yellow silk shirt and purple hand stitched vest, designer dark glasses and imported Italian leather shoes. “You know, you people have the same powers but you don’t believe it. I believe you call it a leap of faith and none of you can leap very far. You all like to stay in your comfort zones.”
“That isn’t true. People can change. People are always changing.” Beth felt the need to defend humanity.
“You are deceived little Beth. They buy lotto tickets to escape poverty but they really don’t want to win. They just want a tiny bit of one one-one-upmanship on the neighbours but they don’t want to change. How many times have you heard of people winning only to be right back where they started in just a short period of time? Wars and revolution are simply exchanging one lot of masters for another lot exactly the same.” He smiled ruefully, shook his head and whispered “Wars and revolutions.” He stared hard at Beth and she squirmed under his intense gaze. “better the devil you know than the one you don’t, an old saying but quite relevant. People seem to be adventurous but the intrepid explorers and mountain climbers of the world have to keep doing the same thing, explore, explore, explore and more exploring because they don’t know how to do anything else and when they retire they write about exploring.
Look at the people out of work after twenty years doing the same job. They don’t know what to do, they are lost. A few retrain in a similar field, some die and many just waste away moping for the good life they left behind.” Beth felt herself nodding in agreement. His argument delivered in that melted chocolate voice was so convincing. “Why are there so many refugees and migrants who set up a mini homeland in their adopted country? Ah I see you have never asked yourself those type of questions have you?”
“I guess I haven’t. But isn’t it okay to want freedom for people? To rid the world of atrocities and cruelty, no more oppression and famine, free the slaves?”
“Beth you echo the tender heart of every woman and many a man but you are seeing only a tiny fragment of the picture. Of course those things should end but how are you going to convince the slaves and martyrs and the oppressed and starving that what you offer in exchange isn’t too much out of their experience? How are you going to ease them into thinking new things and who are you to decide what’s best for them?” he leaned his chin on his thumb and raised an eyebrow. “It has been done before but it is a huge takes, takes centuries and generations and even then it might not work and the tiniest thing could ruin all those years of hard work. I bet you think level playing fields are a good thing too.”
“Yes of course, everyone should have equal opportunities!” Beth was indignant.
“Ah I somehow knew you would say that.” He smirked.
Beth flared up.
“What’s wrong with that? Why shouldn’t everyone have the same?”
“If everyone lived a perfect life with exactly the same housing, food, clothing and income where would be the challenges to overcome? Where would be the magnificent art works created from the chaos of dreadful childhoods or lost love? Where would we find the super athletes we admire so much if there were no races to be won? Who would create magnificent music if everyone had to learn the same instrument? The reality you have created is through adversity humanity reaches its greatest heights. Levelling the playing field simply reduces the opportunities for learning what humanity is.”
“So you don’t believe everyone has the right to reach their fullest potential?”
“I didn’t say that Beth. Everyone has the right to reach their full potential but if we take away the challenges how will they get there? If everything is easy how will they overcome and be greater for it?”
Beth slumped into a kitchen chair. This so called genie challenged everything she believed and she didn’t like the turn her thoughts were taking, it was too uncomfortable.
“Okay genie,” she said in a quiet defeated voice, “or whatever your name is. I will make a wish. I wish I never picked up your bottle and you were safely sealed in it in the gallery.”
“Your every wish is my command little master.” The genie smiled and disappeared.
The clock ticked loudly in the quiet kitchen. Beth shook herself wondering how long she had been asleep. Her neck ached from snoozing in the chair. The front door opened.
“Hey Beth, you’ll never guess what happened at work today.” Mark tumbled into the kitchen.
“Whatever it was it couldn’t be as weird as the dream I just had.” Beth smiled and hugged her big brother listening to his words pouring over her in his excitement to tell her.
“ Someone stole a gold bottle from the display and the cops came and everyone was questioned and then just when I thought I was in real trouble for taking you in without permission, the bottle showed up.” He felt her stiffen in his hug and pushed her away to see her pale face.