Antonio couldn’t believe his eyes.
After having dinner at a café that always felt just right, he was walking in its vicinity, reminiscing walks from a few years ago. He could recall the tiniest of details every time he was there. Where the rainwater puddles were deepest. Where the rustling of the trees was loudest.
But most of all, he could remember having company. He remembered what it felt like to be lost in a conversation. Where all he could see was the pair of eyes across the table, and the rest of the world was a blur. And now all he did was look at other people – in his phone, or around him.
As he was approaching the rustling spot on the sidewalk, he noticed something shiny near a tree trunk. It was about the size of a shoe. He had to wait to get a better look, because a boy and a girl were holding hands right next to it, quite oblivious.
“Well, of course. They’re already holding what they treasure.” thought Antonio, with a hint of bitterness. After the couple finally decided to move on, he stealthily picked it up, and found a private corner behind a park bench, where he took a closer look.
It was dirtier than his formal shoes, and that was saying something. Too eager to reach for the tissue he pocketed from his dinner, he used his hands to clear the soil. And that’s when he realized he was holding a lamp.
“Surely not a magic one?”, he chuckled to himself. The lamp bore a startling resemblance to the magic lamps he had seen in cartoons. Probably a prop from some school play, Antonio mused. But a small part of him always wanted to believe magic was real. He’d even tried casting a web from his wrist a few times. Nothing had happened yet. (“Well why not? It’s not like I’m trying to fly like Superman. It only takes a second. And you never know…”, had always been his defense.)
So he couldn’t resist caressing the side the lamp with his hand, in a rhythmic horizontal motion.
Nothing happened. He tried again, and kept at it for half a minute.
The lamp jerked out of his hand, landed in the grass, and started to sputter, with vapors starting to emerge from the spout.
Antonio was too shocked to scream, and instinctively ran from the spot, thinking it was a bomb.
At the same time, he was far too curious to see what would ensue. So he stopped around 50 meters away, and watched. The vapor had become silver, and started to take shape.
Thinking nobody would ever animate a bomb like this, Antonio cautiously approached. The shape rose to a grown man’s height. Once he could make out the contours of an unshaven face, he had no other conclusion: this was a genie.
The genie looked groggy and irritable, as if woken up by a Monday morning alarm.
“Before you say anything, wait for a minute”, said a drowsy, middle-aged voice.
Before Antonio could reply, the vapor turned into a rectangle, and an Oppo Camera phone commercial began in B/W.
Thirty seconds later, the genie emerged again. He saw the mix of shock and awe on Antonio’s face.
“That’s going to happen every five minutes if you don’t pay.”
“Hello? Are..are you a…genie?”, croaked Antonio.
“Of course. I’m not a ghost, and you aren’t high.”
“So are you paying or not?”, the genie asked with a note of impatience.
“Pay? Aren’t you supposed to be granting wishes?”
“Who said I’m not ‘supposed’ to be doing anything? Look I don’t know what you’ve heard about genies, but this is a job. And the next commercial is the Airtel 4G one”, the genie added shrewdly at the end.
“Say no more. Do you take cash?”
“You got PayTM?”
“Yeah. Here, the QR code is on my butt.” The genie turns around and points on his left buttock. Sure enough, there’s a QR code. Antonio whips out his scanner and makes the payment.
“So that’s that. Now let’s talk business. You got one wish. I only have one rule: it has to be selfish.”
The young man closed his eyes, and let his mind wander.
He thought of the car he always liked. He thought of a house on the beach. And though the pictures in his head kept changing, the words never came to his lips.
Then he thought of the void. It was a feeling that crept up unannounced often these days. And he knew the void would only appear bigger in a car or a home.
“I don’t want to be so lonely all the fucking time.”
The genie’s eyes widened, as if he were the one witnessing something unnatural.
“What? That is your wish? You want a cure for loneliness?”
“Yep”, said Antonio with conviction.
“Um…don’t you want an iPhone or something? A sack of money? I can also guarantee you a 1000 likes on your next profile picture.”
“Good lord, no!”
“Because I don’t need an iPhone, and you can’t buy company. Well you can, but then it’s just a transaction. And that’s not what I’m looking for. I…I just don’t want life to be one long solo trip.”
The genie scratched his beard, and fell silent for a moment. The wish was highly unusual. But the pleading in Antonio’s eyes was genuine. It saddened him to realize that someone needed a genie to find companionship, and wondered how many more were there. He felt like hugging him, but then remembered he was just vapor. Powerful, yet so powerless.
“There is only one way this will work, Antonio. I will grant you your wish, but I cannot tell you the specifics. I cannot make anyone start liking your company, and vice versa. What I can do is create opportunities; more than usual that is, for you to bond with people. You cannot know when and where, you just have to be on the lookout. Good luck then.”
With those words, the genie vanished into thin air like deodorant, and Antonio’s calls were pointless. He was far from convinced. How could he spot these opportunities?
It reminded him of a puzzle commonly asked in aptitude tests: you have 27 coins. One coin is heavier than the rest. What is the least number of measurements required to find this coin?
He’d never known how to solve that puzzle. If it were up to him, he’d just pick each coin and see for himself. And so he decided to deal with the opportunities in the same way.
Was the genie even real?
As that thought was making way to an uncomfortable spot in his stomach, his smartphone beeped. It was a new email.
“Dear customer, kindly rate your experience with Genie62.”