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"One wish," the genie said , and just like that- every regret, every mistake I'd ever wished I could take back, bobbed up in my mind and tangled together like a river choked with weeds. Everything I could think of seemed insufficient. As if no one wish would be enough.
"I wish," I said, the golden lamp heavy in my hands. "I wish... "
"I wish I could go back in time and change the biggest mistake of my life," I said, the words spilling out of me.
I closed my eyes. "My biggest mistake. Whichever one it was."
"As you wish, O Mistress," the genie said, and there was a rush of air, my ears popping, as I tensed and felt the world reverse around me.
I let out a breath, and opened my eyes.
"Wait," I said, and blinked. I was standing in the exact same spot, the lamp still in my hands, the genie floating in front of me. For a moment I wondered if anything had happened, if I had just slipped into some fugue state for a second.
Then the genie nodded to me. "Your wish, O Mistress?" he said.
"Wait, fuck," I said. "You're screwing with me. You - Did you just take me back in time to before I made my wish to go back in time?"
The genie made a little shrug. "As you say, O Mistress. I am but a humble genie. If my future self sent you here, I am yet to know of it."
"Oh fuck this!" I said, "You know what this is like? This is like that guy who gets to ask one question to the smartest guy in the world. So he asks, 'What is the best question I could ask you, and what is the answer to it?' And then the smartass says, 'That was the best question you could have asked, and this was the answer to it.' That asshole!"
I flung the lamp down anyway with a resounding clang, and it bounced off the ground, dented. The genie flinched, and looked at it sadly.
"That was my home, O Mistress. I shall still have to live in it."
"I don't care!" I yelled back. "I wanted -" There was something crazy bubbling up in my chest. "I thought I was going to be able change my biggest mistake! I - I thought I had a chance, you piece of shit!"
I swung at the genie and there was a burst of sparks, and the sensation of all the little hairs on my arm being singed off.
"Fuck! Fuck!" It felt like an open wound dipped in alcohol. "It's all this recursive, pseudo-philosophical bullshit! And the real answer is: fuck you, you're a fucking idiot for trying! You're an idiot for trying to be better than yourself! You're an idiot for actually trying to do some good for once!"
My eyes were stinging. "Here's your answer: I'll spit in your face and pretend I'm being wise!"
"Ah," the genie said, and reached for my arm. I kept it cramped up, holding it tight, but finally relinquished it to him. His massive hands were warm, like heating pads, and somehow drove the stinging down. "I believe I understand, O Mistress." He looked at me hesitantly.
"What?" I said. "So what? So spit it out already."
"That was no rebuke, O Mistress," he said. "That was simply the truth of your wish."
He released my arm and spread out his hands and grew like a bonfire, like a forest fire. Like what Moses must've seen at the burning bush. He'd been holding my hand. I collapsed, expecting to be swallowed whole.
"I have been gifted the boundless capacity of the universe," he said, his voice echoing like a bell. "And pressed into service of mortal souls. I am limitless potential. I am a heart's desire. I am the burning wish of humanity made manifest." His burning eyes met mine. "And now I am made yours."
He cooled, still bright as an ember, and once more took my hand, helping me up. "No matter what you have done previously, no matter your greatest regret, it pales in comparison to what you have yet to achieve. If you were to waste your one wish on mere regret, that would indeed be your greatest mistake." He released my hand and floated backwards, arms folding into position. "That mistake has yet to be made. Your wish remains intact."
I swallowed hard, and so as not to look at him turned my eyes to the discarded lamp. I picked it up, turning it over, seeing the ugly dent I had made. "I - I'm sorry about your lamp."
"A moment's error," he said, "and now it has passed, and still you remain." He laid his hands over mine and pressed his fingers into the soft gold, smoothing it out.
"You see? Nothing that cannot be fixed." He met my eyes and smiled. "Now, are you prepared to make your wish?"
I held his lamp, rubbing my thumb over the newly-smoothed surface, seeing my own reflection looking back at me.
"No," I said. "I'm not ready. Not quite yet."
Skyler, who has a city in Alaska tattooed on his palms, plays a procedurally-generated video game where he spends most of his time building houses for tiny clergy.
They call him "Nome hands" Sky, No Man's Sky gnome mance guy.
One night in a bar, Lucy saw a girl with a shaved head and expensive black platform heels and asked why. She gave her the number of Mr. Keefer, a day-time tax attorney. The shows weren’t illegal but not everybody did it, so they might as well have been.
Two hours later at lunch with Greta on the patio of the Belle Garden, over frittata and fruit salad, she decided to bring it up.
“ I’ve never done enough for sick people.”
Greta bit into her frittata. “What’s that mean?”
“Well, my grandmother died sick.”
“So does everybody else’s grandmother.”
“Yeah, but there’s sick because you can’t handle shit and sick you’re dying. She had no hair there at the end.”
Greta gesticulated to all the people, older couples drinking water out of Mason Jars. “Your manners could use work.”
“I’m donating my hair.” She pointed to her hair: black, straight, a bit over her shoulders.
Greta blinked a few times. “What?”
“I’m shaving my head bald. For cancer patients.”
“To one of those charities?”
“My uncle worked for one. They sell all the hair that isn’t “pretty”. What if they think you have ugly hair? Which you don’t.”
Greta fished through her purse, pulled out a cigarette case with a black cartoon cat on a sky-blue background, and offered a handrolled cigarette to Lucy.
“Do you think you’ll be able to be fine being bald for so long, love?” She affected her stage brit voice.
“It grows back. Always has, always will. Besides,” Lucy reached across the table and grabbed a strawberry Greta didn’t eat and put it in her mouth. “I might look good.”
“You say that now.”
Lucy never understood uptown’s logic. Both uptown and downtown had hair shows. Only downtown told you you weren’t a weirdo for trying to set one up.
When she got into the cab, the cabby asked, “Where you going?”
She rattled off the address. She wondered if cabby’s hands ever sweat during the day, gripping the wheel for so long.
Uptown was full; families eating dinner and dates feeding each other popcorn from striped red cardboard buckets. The place was a brownstone between a Chinese buffet and an eyeglasses place. When the car stopped and she prepared to get out, the cabby looked over.
“Sorry I don’t ask where you were going or any of the other cabby stuff.”
“Oh! It’s okay.”
“I dropped people off here the other night. They said they were coming here for a show.”
Lucy swallowed. “That’s different. I’m just meeting someone upstairs,” then remembered what she was wearing.
“It’s fine.” He told her the fare and then said, “You look nice tonight, by the way.”
“Be careful, you hear?”
She stepped into the night, into the street, thought about how at the end of a fairy tale, how the cabby would propose, and then walked into the brownstone.
Awful green stringy carpet with bare spots covered the floor and the walls were peach. Keefer, smiling and his mustache thin, wore a lavender dress shirt open at the chest waved to her. He stubbed out his cigarette.
“Let’s get you upstairs.” They began walking up the stairs. “This place used to be a flop-house.” He said, proud.
“Feisty. I like that.”
He took her in one of the two rooms, spare, with only a full sized bed covered by fitted sheet and a bedside table with a lamp. There was only a window into a room and she could see a couch. At least there was a bathroom. “You got 15 minutes set up before we turn on the lights. Clippers are in the bathroom.” He shut the door.
She went into the bathroom and wet her face, grabbed the clippers and walked to the bed and laid down. She wondered if there was a dead body under the box spring. The whole thing hit her, like the ceiling was caving in on her, her dead in her silver dress like Snow White, except surrounded by sheetrock and wood.
She looked up a second and saw in the other room the door swing open and two men in suits walk into the other room with Keefer, and she laid back down. The light came on.
One man, with a reedy voice, like he was forced to explain why he was there, thanked Keefer. All Lucy thought was he looked like a crane posing as a person, with spectacles on the end of a beaked nose. Another man stood behind them, a fat man with a baritone voice.
The baritone said: “Well, happy birthday, Harry.”
She heard Mr. Keefer. “You sick bastard.”
Harry, with the reedy voice, said, “Thanks, Keef.”
“Yeah, fine. How’d this even become a thing for you, anyway?”
“Saw it in a movie when I was a kid. I walked in the living room, some girl’s head being forced to be shaved, and it stuck with me. Of course, by this point, I’ve experienced pretty much everything.”
“Is that how this got started?” The baritone asked.
“The shit you see as a kid develops your tastes later. Somebody had to have seen it.”
“I guess that’s why I have to see someone strangled to get hard.” Keefer said. Everyone but Lucy laughed.
“So, Keef. You know the girl? What’s she using the money for?”
“If she’s smart, D-Cups and a nose job.” Lucy wanted to throw a lamp through the glass. From where she was laying things looked alright; now she hated her body just a little.
She rolled off the bed and covered herself in the fitted sheet, now laying in the floor in a lump.
She heard muffled protests on the other side of the glass. Someone got up.
“Harry,” said Mr. Keefer, “Sometimes they get shy.”
"Fuck this, man." Harry knocked on the door. “If I wanna see someone in a hajib, I’ll go to fucking Pakistan.”
Lucy stood up and let the fitted sheet fall from her body. She stood there for a second and wondered what to do. She puckered her lips and kissed the window. Keefer looked confused, and Harry was beginning to calm down. The man with the baritone voice had a repulsed look on his face.
Harry leaned back in his seat. Lucy walked back to the bed and shot a look over her shoulder to see the baritone man getting up.
“Where the fuck are you heading, Clarence?”
“I need to get home to the wife.” His voice broke.
“It’s your money.”
“Fuck this, man. This is sick.”
“Bag your ass. This ain’t your birthday party. It’s mine.”
She turned on the clippers and heard them buzz over the chaos on the other side of the glass.
“Guys,” Mr Keefer said.
Clarence was still standing. “Fuck both of you. I’m going home.”
Before he could leave, she took the clippers to the left side of her head, each clump fell to the fitted sheet around her. Her eyes darted between the three men. Clarence hurting, Keefer bored, and Harry enthralled. She buzzed each strand. It was over quick.
A young boy came back inside and took the fitted sheet full of hair. Keefer watched.
“You gave them a good show. The little touches you added, Harry loved them.”
She watched the young boy dragging away the fitted sheet with all the hair in it. She stood in her dress and went inside to see her face in the bathroom mirror. She didn’t mind how she looked.
Keefer stood. “Well, in case you never seen $1500 dollars in cash.”
He passed her an envelope. She always thought more money weighed more. This could have only been a pound at best.
“Is it all there?”
“You want me to count it?”
She sat on the bed and stacked the 30 sheets of paper. “It’s all here.”
She put them in the paper bag. Keefer nodded. “In a couple months, you want work again, your hair gets long, let me know.”
“Sure,” she said.
She walked down the stairs and into the street, where she saw Clarence crying with Harry and Harry patting his back half-assed.
When she sat down, she hoped that small silence she kept about her most of her life would keep her invisible to these three men. A cab came up, one she had arranged for this time before she came, from a different company.
She started to walk in and stood one last to look at the two men.
“Did you like it?” She asked.
“Fuck you, skinhead.” Clarence shouted.
Harry bust out laughing. She got inside the taxi, with the light paper bag. The cabby looked at her.
“Nice cut you got.”
“Just get me out of here.” Lucy said. The brown stone receded but what Clarence said sat next to her the whole way home, more a passenger than the money.
Seen by ○ on Wednesday at 3:22am
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