Read Gifted Online

Authors: Michelle Sagara

Tags: #contemporary, #wishes, #genies

Gifted (2 page)

When he heard the shout, he turned. The
streets were empty, or almost empty, and the noise carried easily.
Curious, he drifted westward, following the wind and the old
woman’s tracks.

She was there, and indeed it had been her
voice that raised the shout; her words came again, less strong and
less distinct. Surrounding her, like a pack of feral dogs, were the
angry young men. Their voices were muted but darkly cheerful;
violence was the taste of their dream.

He stopped when they became clear and
distinct from their background, and watched. The young men chose
not to see him, or chose not to care. But the old woman, struggling
on all fours like a child learning to crawl, looked up. Blood, from
a triangular cut in her forehead, dripped and fell into the folds
of her skin; her glasses were shards and wire on the sidewalk, and
it was obvious that she could not see clearly.

But her eyes found his nonetheless, widening
and narrowing in turn. “Please,” she whispered, as a foot caught
her ribs. “Help me.”

The young men turned and saw him. They looked
back at the youth who was obviously the pack leader; he shrugged
and spit to the side.

“Get lost.”

The Genie tried to take a step backward, but
found himself transfixed. Before he could even speak, his arms were
in motion—a motion that was completely foreign and more natural
than breath to a human. Smoke and light billowed up from the ground
in shades of graduated red; a plume of fire touched the suddenly
slack faces of the boys, responding in kind to their anger and
their choice.

They screamed; he felt, distantly, their
sudden pain and their desire to be free of it. But their wish had
no power over him now, and they fled his fire and his magic.

The old woman lay against the thin ice,
bleeding into the snow. She was no longer conscious. In horror, he
drifted to her side and touched her; she was warm and solid. He
lifted her gently, keeping the cold at bay, and stared in angry
fascination at her broken face.

Years he had watched and kept his
distance—and in one night, in a way that he did not understand,
with no more control than the youngest of his kin had ever showed,
he had made his choice; had found his one.

The pettiness of the wish that had cost a
third of his life caused him to weep in the silence.

* * *

He knew where she lived, of course; she was
his chosen and the knowledge could not be stopped from coming.
Although age had made her heavy, the magic was now upon him—with a
simple gesture and a bit of concentration, he, she and her forlorn
purse were suddenly transported into the darkness of a small room.
He could see, with perfect clarity, the outline of her bed; with a
lift of two fingers, the sheets rose and dangled a moment in the
air, waiting until he had removed her coat and boots. He laid her
down, snapped his fingers, and caught the soft cloth rag that
appeared, in mid-air, before him.

Gently and slowly he began to wipe the drying
blood from her face. She stirred, but did not wake, and when at
last he’d finished his ministrations, he stood back, in a darkened
corner, to wait.

But the moon was out. Curious, he pulled back
the shades and let light reveal—and shadow—the lines of the old
woman’s face. History marked her and aged her, and he viewed each
wrinkle as if it were a chapter of a novel in a foreign, unknowable
tongue.

He had known all his life that the chosen one
would be special—but he had never dreamed, as he hid and avoided
the making of the choice, that he would find an old, impoverished
woman beautiful. What he felt he did not know, could not name—but
this new and peculiar warmth he attributed to the beginning of his
brief reign as an almost-god.

He was afraid, but thought that he finally
understood why fear was not the only thing his brothers-in-thrall
had shown.

* * *

She woke just after dawn—started beneath the
sheets life a frightened animal and sat up with a cry. Then, as
sunlight made the safety of her bed clear, she relaxed and fumbled
at the small table to her side. Her fingers scrambled against the
hard wood for a moment before he realized what she was searching
for.

“They were destroyed,” he said softly.

She froze. Very slowly she turned herself in
the direction of his voice, her hands white now where they clutched
at linen.

“You wanted help,” he continued, in a steady
voice. “I answered your call.”

“W-what are you doing here?”

“Don’t you remember?” He took a step towards
her, and she shied back against the headboard, which creaked
unsteadily in response. “You wished for help. I answered.”

“How did you get in here?”

“By magic.”

Her eyes were wide, troubled and undecided.
He stayed in the corner, but thought to bring both of his hands,
palm up, to show her. She squinted, and it became clear that she
couldn’t see them. Minutes passed.

“You were attacked by young men,” he began
again, his own voice betraying confusion. “Last night. You gave me
coins. Here.” He called and they came, jangling in mid-air.

“You—you’re the bum!” The lines on her face
contorted and then relaxed into a frown of suspicion. “So—did you
go through my purse to find out where I lived?”

“No.” He shrugged. “I know where you
live.”

“How?” She was frightened again.

“I told you: Magic. You wished for help, and
I answered that wish. You were unconscious; I returned you to your
place of residence. You are my chosen mistress, and I must grant
two more of your wishes.”

“Magic, is it?” She snorted, and tossed the
bedclothing aside. “Did you take any money out of my wallet?”
Without waiting for an answer, she stalked over to a large dresser
and pulled open the slim, upper drawer.

At a loss for words, the Genie shook his
head.

“Magic.” She snorted again. “What will you
young folk dream up next? I’m old, dammit, I’m not senile.” So
saying, she pulled a small, leather case out of the drawer, and
from it, an old pair of glasses. These, she perched upon her nose
with great authority.

“Well,” she said, still squinting, “you don’t
look as bad as you did last night. And I’m grateful to you for
saving my life.” She came a little closer.

“But—but—”

“I can probably give you a little more money,
for food or whatever. But you can’t stay here.”

“But—but Mistress, I
am
a magical
creature! I am—I am the last of the Genies!”

“I don’t care if you’re the last of the
Mohicans. You aren’t staying here, and that’s final!”

* * *

The horrible bitterness of the brew that the
old woman called tea was a new experience—and not a pleasant one at
that. He took the opportunity to mix cream and sugar with it until
the entire liquid was a syrupy, horrid concoction. The scones and
the lumpy butter were at least a little more familiar, and he
played at eating them while he sat in one of the two rickety chairs
at the tea table.

“Look, son, why don’t you just tell me what
your real name is?” She poured herself another half-cup of the
unpleasant liquid, and busied herself making it palatable.

“I don’t have a name,” he replied. Then,
although he knew the answer, he asked for hers.

“Mine?” She laughed. “Didn’t read the old
driver’s license very carefully, did you?” But her smile was
good-humored, and she hadn’t snorted in at least two minutes. “I’m
Mrs. Susan Clarkson. Sue.” She buttered half a scone, and reached
for the jam, before suddenly looking up to meet his eyes. “Don’t
you ever blink?” As usual, she gave him no time to answer. “I want
to let you know that I’m grateful for what you did out there.”

He shook his head, bemused.

“But I’d feel more comfortable if you’d admit
to the truth.”

It was pointless to argue his case, but he
felt compelled to it. “Mistress—”

“Sue.”

“Sue, then. I am the last of my kin. I am a
Genie. I grant wishes. That is my purpose in life. What can I do to
prove it to you?”

She snorted; he knew she would. He had never
heard of anyone disbelieving a power they had called upon before.
One third of his life had been given and granted—and it earned him
mockery and the oddest twinkle of a human eye.

“You can grant wishes, eh?”

“Yes.”

“Could you make me young?”

“Yes.”

“Could you make me rich?”

“Yes.”

“Could you take me back to the town I grew up
in?”

“Yes.”

She laughed. “Could you make it summer, you
funny little liar? Could you bring back the dead?” And at that, her
face grew still, and her laughter became a heavy silence.

“Yes.”

“That’s enough, boy. It’s not funny anymore.”
She pushed her tea aside with such force it splashed out onto the
lace cloth beneath it.

“But I am trying to tell you, Sue—I’m not
joking. This isn’t a game—it’s my life. Test it, if you will. Make
a wish, and watch it come true. Shall I bring back the dead for
you?” He raised an arm, and felt a tingling warmth that made him
dizzy.

“Bring back the dead?” She muttered. “To
this? He’s in heaven, he is. He’s happy. You think he’d appreciate
being dragged back?” She made a joke of it, and hollow though it
was, it was still strong. “Tell me something, Gene. If you can
grant all of this stuff, you must know a lot.”

“I do.”

“Is there a heaven? Is that where he is?”

But of course the Genie could not answer.

* * *

He tried to tell her that he had no need for
sleep, but wasn’t surprised when she called him a liar. She shoved
blankets into his arms, and made him pull apart the chair that she
called a couch. To his surprise, it became a bed, of sorts. He had
seen them often, but had never used one before. She told him to lie
down, and because she was his mistress, and he her servant, he did
as she ordered.

There, in the darkness, he stared at the
ceiling and counted the broken springs beneath his back. He did not
understand this odd woman, with dreams buried so deep they could
hardly be reached at all. He didn’t understand why she wouldn’t
believe him, because he was thrumming with magic and power so
strong he felt that they must be visible. He closed his eyes, and
tried to sleep.

When the lights returned, he knew it was not
dawn, and sat up at once. Sue stood in the doorway between the two
bedrooms, and stared down at him. “Gene,” she said quietly, “do you
ever get lonely?”

“Yes. All of my brothers are dead.”

She held out a hand that shook in the light,
and he understood that she meant him to take it. He did, and it
trembled.

“I want you just to be with me,” she said,
and her eyes were filmy with longing and shame. “That’s all,
nothing more.”

And the last of the Genies, with power that
could have turned time or death at her behest, felt the second wish
strike him deeply in what could have been his heart.

* * *

He stayed with her, of course. And every day
she began by telling him that he would have to leave soon. He
attended her in silence, and grew used to her complaints, her
amusements, and the strict adherence she had to daily routine. He
helped her dress in the mornings, when she needed the help at all,
and accompanied her everywhere. She became accustomed to his help,
and once in a while would entrust him with her purse.

But she thought him simple, that much was
obvious. She taught him about money, taught him about food, taught
him about clothing, and even tried to buy him some. She called him
Gene; it was her joke, and her private name, and as she was
Mistress, he answered to it.

She talked, slowly, of her life, and he was
amazed at the endless detail, the endless memories, that so short a
span of years could produce; in the evenings, tea in hand, she
would regale him with stories of a youth so long gone he could hear
it only in the wistful tone of her voice.

“I could make you young again,” he would say,
but she would only shake her head and smile.

“And what would happen if I were young again,
eh? What would happen if you made me young?”

“I would die,” he replied.

She laughed wickedly. Always the laugh. She
would slap him on the back, shoulder or thigh—whichever happened to
be closest, and say, “Gene, you have made me young again!”

* * *

She took him to the ballet. She took him to
the movies. She took him to the Salvation Army, and made him work
with “real” bums, as she called them. She took him to church, where
he met with a priest who talked about an after-life and heaven.
Heaven was important to Sue, and she spoke of it with both longing
and fear. He didn’t understand it.

But he grew to understand her, and he was
happy, in his way; as happy as he had ever been in the millennia
that preceded these few years. He forgot what loneliness was
like.

But Genies are immortal until they grant the
last of their wishes; humans are not. One morning, just before the
glint of dawn, he felt her shake in her sleep. She was hot; he had
not realized how dry and tight her skin had become. When she woke,
she coughed and shuddered horribly. He took her to the
hospital.

There, he waited in a room that smelled of
vile chemicals. People came and went and he ignored them; they had
become unreal. Only Sue was real, and Sue was someplace beyond him.
She had ordered him to wait, or he would have been at her side at
once.

The doctor came out to greet him. “She’s got
pneumonia, Gene,” she said quietly.

“Will she be all right?”

“I don’t know. She’s old.”

“And if I made her young again?”

The doctor winced. “I think she’ll be fine,
though,” she said lamely. “Why don’t you go to her? She’s asking
for you.”

The Genie didn’t have to be told twice. With
a gesture of crossed arms and a wrinkle of forehead, he was at her
side. She was crossed and tied with tubes, or so it first appeared,
and her skin was very pale.

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