“A million dollars?”
“Very well. It’s mundane, so I’ll grant it. But . . . let’s make it interesting. I’ll also kill someone.” The genie that had sprung from the antique lamp pointed out my window, and in the window across the way a woman was dusting; she looked like a cleaning lady. “Her. I’ll kill her.”
“What!? No! That is nowhere in the wish I made! I didn’t ask for anything like that!”
To be fair, I had kind of been surprised when a human form billowed out of the lamp. It was like a silly fairy tale. But after I spent half an hour crawling around my kitchen counter as a cockroach, I was ready to believe. It was either that, or risk some new torment.
“Who cares? The terms of your wish are fulfilled.”
“No. Take it back. I don’t want it.”
The genie floated on a cloud of mist, ignoring me. “Funds will be deposited in your account by six–”
I threw the lamp. It passed through him, his form swirling like smoke before reforming. “I said take it back!” I was screaming now. I wasn’t a killer, dammit. This wasn’t me!
“Well. I might be convinced to refrain. But you’ll have to entertain me, mortal. Squirm on the hook a little. Wriggle, worm.”
“What are you talking about!? You can’t just kill people!” I couldn’t hit him, I couldn’t stop him, I couldn’t do anything but shout. Someone in a neighboring apartment thumped on the walls.
“Oh, I can. And nobody will ever know. Heart attacks are a dime a dozen. Even the healthy could have one. But like I said, I might refrain. I’ll give her the money instead, and give the death to you.”
I froze. “You can’t possibly . . . you can’t expect . . . ”
He rolled on his cloud of vapor, stomach-down now, folding his hands under his chin to watch me. His hair was pure white, like cotton, and his form childlike. His eyes on me, though, were those of an old man. “I expect you to squirm. I expect you to decide. I expect to feast on your struggle, manling. Take the money, and you may as well have killed her yourself.”
I turned away, planting my hands on the cool tile of the countertop. I’d never considered myself a great altruist. I always wondered just how cold I was. I didn’t donate to anything, didn’t have a great cause. But could I just let someone die? I shook my head. I was looking at it wrong. Someone would die. Someone would certainly die. The question wasn’t, ‘would I let someone die’, but ‘who would I choose’. I looked out the window and felt my resolve harden.
I was an architect. I made things, dozens of people were employed to support my work. She was a cleaning lady. I doubted she supported more than herself. I stood up, looking out the window, my decision ready. I heard the genie’s childish voice pipe up behind me. “Ooooooh, here it comes!”
I saw a second cleaner walk into view, carrying a trash bag. She was younger, probably still in high school. The older lady bent to her, and began wrapping some small hurt, then kissed her on the brow. A daughter. The girl laughed, pushing her mother away, too old to have boo-boo’s kissed better, but she laughed, she smiled.
I looked around my apartment. The entertainment center, the Playstation with one controller plugged in, the single microwave dinner on the table, the empty beer can. Part of me began to die inside, just then. That part of me so assured of my worth, the part convinced that I was valuable to the world. I turned back to the genie, whose blue eyes met mine.
With a heart that felt like a lead weight in my chest, I announced my decision.