The Wish

by Kevin Y.

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By the time he reached old age his mind was overflowing with so many false or incomplete memories that it was unreasonable to believe the encounter with the genie had ever really happened. His hand would settle on an empty hook where he could have sworn he had left his keys the night before, or he would crack open a book he knew he had read to find a cast of unfamiliar characters. He would think back to how he and his wife used to argue, good-naturedly, about the details of some movie they had both watched in childhood, only to find a copy, put it on, and laugh about how wrong they had both been in their recollections. And then he would wonder if those moments themselves had ever happened, or if his mind was scrambling old puzzle pieces into new material as it sought to keep the memory of his late partner alive. By this time in his life he was no longer bothered by the notion that he didn't live in quite the same world he remembered growing up in. It didn't surprise him when the name on the tip of his tongue turned out not to be the name of the acquaintance he was talking to, or when a familiar face actually belonged to a stranger. And yet, no matter how he tried, he could never bring himself to doubt that his memory of the beach, the moonlight, the sand-encrusted lamp, and his one wish was wholly and completely factual.

Decades ago he had accepted that his wish could be granted in a way that was different from what he envisioned. He had realized this not long after his twenty-sixth birthday, on a day when he looked in the bathroom mirror and saw a crease on his forehead that hadn't been there before. The crease, and the investigation that followed, led him to notice a number of other changes to his face and body, changes that had crept up slowly enough that he hadn't noticed them happening, but now that he was looking for them, marked unmistakably the time that had passed since that night on the beach.

Well, he thought then, it wasn't agelessness that I wished for. Not exactly.

At the time this realization aroused in him a note of resentment, but over the ensuing decades he had begun to believe that the genie had had his best interests in mind in interpreting his words in such a narrow sense. It wasn't long before he fell in love, and the passage of time suddenly seemed less of an enemy. The seasons and cycles of life became newly something to revel in, as he watched his partner change and grow, and changed and grew beside her. He would sometimes feel a pang of giddy relief when he let his mind drift to what an ageless life would have been like—the isolation, the suspicion, the disbelief and demands for explanation. Over decades they grew old together and had many friends. They were happy, and he was happy, aside from the occasionally twinge of guilt that would prickle at the base of his spine, usually late at night, to think of the people he would inevitably outlive, one by one.

Losing his wife was made no easier by the fact of how many friends they had already lost in the twilight years of their life together. She died expecting that he would follow soon, ignorant of his secret. It was better this way, he was certain of it. And yet he found himself wishing for just one person, one confidant who would listen with an open mind to his predicament and offer, if not answers, then at least sympathy and belief.

In a now empty house in which to spend innumerable days, he set about the lonely business of figuring out what, exactly, to do with all this time.

He still believed, as he had when he made his wish, that age brought wisdom, although he also noticed that age made thoughts harder to grasp, and whatever wisdom he had was becoming more and more difficult to make sense of. Playing any kind of leadership role in his community was out of the question, as was the endless traveling and adventuring he had envisioned when he was younger. Alone in his house, he would think himself in circles until his drooping eyelids would cause him to glance at the clock and take note of the late hour. Oh well, he would think, I'll have to figure this out later. I've certainly got time. He would laugh breathily at this private joke of his and shuffle off to bed. The next day, and the next, and the next, he assumed, would offer all the same promise.

It was with some surprise, then, that he found himself one afternoon flailing for a telephone and gasping for breath in his kitchen. Whatever this was couldn't possibly be life-threatening, this much he knew. Nonetheless, he thought it best to let an expert ascertain what exactly was happening, and so he dialed into the phone the three numbers he never imagined he would need for himself, and then dropped the receiver to dangle from its cord as he collapsed onto the floor. Time had long ago stopped moving at a predictable pace, but he found it even more difficult than usual to guess, as he lay on the floor flirting with

unconsciousness, whether it had been seconds, minutes, or hours. After some length of time he heard a knock, then a chime, and finally a crash as the door was kicked open and a small team made their way into his home. He felt hands and machinery on his skin and clothes, heard the rustle of uniforms, the beeping and whirring of equipment, hushed and urgent conversations, and what he thought were the words, "We're losing him." For the first time in his unnaturally long life, he felt in his heart the cold grip of doubt.

Had he really walked alone on the beach that night, stubbing his toe on the metal of the lamp and inadvertently shaking free the spirit that was imprisoned there? Come to think of it, he had no memory of how or why he came to be walking on a beach at all that night, but he remembered in perfect detail the damp grit of the sand, the symphony of smoke and colors, the dusky voice of the genie offering him one wish.

He knew the memory was true because it was so far beyond the scope of his imagining. His brain made things up all the time—it remembered keys where they had never been, affixed names to faces he had never met, but nothing like this. Never anything like this. How could something so impossible have been invented by so banal a mind?

Eyes closed, barely breathing, he ruminated over possible explanations. Perhaps there was an unintended meaning behind the words he had spoken to the genie. Maybe he had forgotten some caveat in their agreement and broken the spell long ago. Or maybe, when the genie granted him that yes, he could live forever, it hadn't meant his body, but some other aspect, something beyond the realm of the physical that wouldn't be subject to the same laws and as he thought this his heart stopped beating and he flew out of his body to stretch wider and longer than he could imagine.

The first sensation was the cool wetness of large, still bodies of water, then the patter of nearby rushing streams and rivers and waterfalls. Next came the tickle of grass and earth blown from side to side by the wind. All across him creatures were waking up and crawling and swimming and falling asleep and calling to one another and breathing their first or final breaths and decaying and feeding one another as the plates of him rocked and slid and occasionally collided to bring down towering structures and open canyons and birth mountains and as he reached back in his memory he discovered he had always been this continent, but that this knowledge had been somehow blocked from view in the tiny corner of land where he had lived and died. He exhaled smoke and rocks and lava and over a thousand years or ten thousand or maybe more, time didn't really work the way it used to, or had maybe never really worked any particular way at all, he felt the oceans blanket him from all sides and fill in the caverns and canyons he had opened up and wash away the surface of him until with a last gasp of fire from his tallest and mightiest volcano he drowned in the flood and awoke to the knowledge that he was an entire planet. He had always been this planet which was now a blue-brown and murky world where waves lapped at the shores of what had once been towering mountain peaks and creatures who had once existed only in the darkest, deepest corners of him suddenly, or maybe gradually, over some length of time or another came to have free rein to course across his entire surface, some of them swimming as he revolved to stay on his shaded side while others stayed put near the surface living over and over through the cycle of day and dusk and night and dawn until one day an inconceivable flash took him over from the light side to the dark and in an instant all the water boiled and was gone. All across him now, other stars were following suit, collapsing in on themselves, sometimes in a brilliant flash, becoming now the center of some new spiral, pulling in matter from all sides and careening through the emptiness in a grand reflexive arc toward the center of him, growing always somehow smaller and more massive, the dust of even his furthest outskirts gathering into bodies which, too, spun inward until they were swallowed and in his hunger he reached across a now empty expanse to devour other, smaller galaxies, reaching further and further until the unbeatable foe, some body more massive even than himself crossed an invisible horizon and drew him in weightily to its center where he succumbed to the welcome crush of nonbeing and found himself suddenly, or maybe it had always been so, more expansive, stretching infinitely from all sides into all directions at once, dark and brilliant, screaming with quiet, the stage across which the remaining galaxies played out their drama, drifting through space to find new matter, hungry and restless and growing in strength as many became few became one and even he began to feel the fabric of his infinite edges tingle with their influence and then fold inward, taking the everything and the nothing with them towards his hot, dense center and as the universe collapsed he flew outward and upward to still greater things.