This story is by Justus Kessler and was part of our 2019 Summer Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
A flash of fire and thunder and he was spinning, spinning, still clutching the three-hole punch, a flurry of paper dots and pencil shavings swirling about his feet. The remains of a report fell from his arm and spread fanlike across the floor.
Shaken and cold, he swept a quick look around the curved and glowing walls. This was his five hundred thirty-second year at the Principalities Office (preceded by an even longer stint with Antiquities), and this wasn’t the first time he’d been on the receiving end of an office prank. But who’d sprung it on him this time? Probably Asmodeus, that camel, who soaked up petty grievances like a hairy dromedary even while chatting it up with you at the cooler. There was no reasonable motive for it though. Unless, well – the thought hit him like sand in the eye – Oh. He winced.
The office clerk would come for him eventually if no one else did. There would be no compensation, though. And three weeks paid vacation long gone, plus sick leave! The pile on his desk was already smothering.
He sighed. A great, blustery breath that made his lips blibber, pbb-bb-bbt! There was nothing for it, then. He would just have to wait.
Loosening his tie, he smoothed his suit. He tugged at his belt and tucked in the paunch which had grown there, quite without permission, over years of commutes and late-night masala. He took in the room: a dowdy couch beside a three-legged table, a set of painted panels on the wall, a caged bird with a yellow shock of feathers above its bobbing head. That would be just Asmo’s touch, he grunted. Walking to the couch he slumped into it, watched the dust puff into the air then settle lazily in the light. He gripped the table edge and felt his thumb brush a wad of hardened gum. Watermelon, he could tell, from the lingering smell.
The bird chittered. He strummed his fingers on the table.
Tucked between the cushions he found a stub of yellow pencil, a half-eaten pitted medjool, and a crinkled copy of Teen Vogue — slightly sticky. He opened to the middle.
“Life after graduation,” the article began. He skimmed three pages and stopped only when the text ran abruptly through a torn advertisement — half an ad now, for eyelash extensions. Who does that? He wondered. But he knew how it ended. Or rather, how it would if he’d written it… He rubbed and closed his burning eyes. But that was the problem, No? He had not written anything. He’d dried up at the Office instead. Mother once told him he’d be a great journalist someday, that he’d rival the best, but his father insisted he finish school and then there was the internship with the Bureau, then loans to pay and a mortgage on the citadel in Susa. Any creative shoots had long since shriveled like grass on a Baghdad summer day.
He sank further into the cushions. Three weeks a year is a fine thing, he grumbled aloud to the tufted bird. When you’re worked to the nubs. Even last year’s holiday, spent bobbing about the wide Aegean, carried along by the breeze and a head full of aspirations — Now look at you, he thought. He ventured this room was barely three inches wide.
If it wasn’t for the bird stepping about its cage, nibbling seeds and preening its silly gilded pompadour, the room would be entirely quiet. Except for an odd thrum in the walls that pulsed in sync with a bright blue light from the walls. It seemed warmer now than when the rude maelstrom had swept him roughly from the copy room. Moments ago he’d gone to run a set of copies for Operations, arranged his stack of originals neatly in the tray, pressed the green button, and POOF here he was – another prisoner of the lamp. Not the Arabian Nights variety, of course, that was the stuff of yesterday’s d’jinn. The brightly glowing lamp inside the copy machine.
His eyes half-opened and fell on the trio of painted panels above: a dog on a leash, a horse in a bridle, a rodent on a wheel. Stuff your cliché’s, Asmodeus, he thought dimly. The bird burbled on its perch. The faint hum thrummed softly through the walls. The dust sailed about the stillness, wafting like tiny flying carpets on the warm currents. His eyelids were like stones. If he could keep a wish for himself, he mused, as his chin tipped toward his chest, he knew just how he would use it.
He woke with a start.
There it was again, a muffled voice outside. He sat upright, eyes bleary. Someone was about to run the copier.
He looked to the floor and saw his feet turn to mist on the carpet, start to swirl like sand circling a drain. He blew a great bubble of watermelon chew, fft-fft-fft–POP! He knew the rules: three wishes to grant. Then maybe freedom, if Aladdin were standing there. A burned-out, modern jinni should be so lucky.
The suit jacket and tie draped over the couch. Fluttering about the room with a confetti wake of paper dots, the bird hollered as the pompadour bobbed wildly. The three painted panels lay face down on the table, their whitewashed backs gleaming like fresh parchment. He poised the stubby pencil.