“What happened to his face? Did he fall on a cheese grater?” the kid said, laughing. Terry didn’t know him; he was Rudy’s friend.
“Geez, keep it down, he’s right there,” Rudy mumbled to the boy, averting his gaze from Terry’s own. “He was in a fire.”
“They forgot to turn him over halfway,” the boy said, ignoring Rudy’s request and smirking ear to ear. He didn’t bother to avert his eyes from Terry. No, he glared as if at some zoo specimen.
Out of the corner of his eye, Terry felt the boy’s stare. He could’ve sworn he felt the weight of the boy’s eyes on him as they swept over the scarred half of his face. And it was half too, pretty much perfectly so. Every look in the mirror reminded Terry of what he had lost. And what he still had.
He let it go, let the boy stare and ignored his remarks. It wouldn’t have helped to say anything. He had tried that in the past, in similar situations. It had made it worse; young boys are mean, pouncing on any sign of weakness. Terry had gotten used to it.
Besides, the scars didn’t bother him and he was just happy to have been invited to Rudy’s sleepover. He wasn’t sure but he thought Rudy liked him, even if he only occasionally acknowledged Terry’s existence. There was the off chance that Rudy’s mom had insisted he invite Terry — their moms were friends.
Actually, he noted as he looked around the basement, Rudy was the only boy he knew. That made sense, Rudy went to a private school. Which also explained his classmate’s rudeness; in Terry’s experience, the rich kids at private schools were often the meanest of all.
Terry had no worries about attending such a school. He and his mom weren’t rich, or even close to being so. But, by some strange trick of geography and demographics, he and Rudy — whose family was what his mom called upper middle class — lived only a street apart. So, while they didn’t attend the same school, their mothers had crossed paths and, as a result, so had they. Terry wouldn’t have called Rudy his friend, and the other certainly wouldn’t have done so, but they were something. Maybe Rudy felt sorry for him. Lots of people did.
“What have you got?” one of the kids across the room asked another boy next to him. Several of the boys were gravitating to him. This new development, whatever it was, was removing attention from Terry, Rudy and the rude boy.
The kid being questioned had an object in his hands, something metallic. Terry followed the other boys but hung back, hovering around the fringe of the activity.
At the other kids’ beckoning, the boy with the metallic object lifted it above his head. The boy wasn’t very tall but it was still visible to Terry from where he stood at the back. He saw that it was a lamp, an old fashioned one you would use with oil; whale oil or some other icky thing like that. He vaguely remembered his dad telling him something about that when he was younger. What caught his attention most of all was the shape of it. It looked like something straight out of an old movie about Aladdin and the lamp. One where a wish-granting genie appears. Terry felt a slight chill run up his spine. He didn’t think a genie was going to fly out of the lamp, but he was very curious why the boy had brought it to a sleepover. His question was answered when one of the boys piped up.
"Where did you get it?"
"At a pawn shop, yesterday. I went there with my dad. It just looked like something out of Aladdin, so I had to get it. I really like that movie…" He trailed off as he heard the words he was speaking. "When I was a little kid I mean. My mom loves it. She always made me watch it."
"Sure, made you," one of the boys chimed in. There was a travelling snicker of laughter throughout the room. No one was buying his story. A few others, feeling brave, offered that they liked the movie too. Pretty soon there seemed to be about an even split among the preteen movie critics. Terry ignored all this. His heart had sunk a little, for a moment, at the mention of the boy’s father. How he wished his own dad could take him to a pawn shop.
"Anyway," the owner of the lamp offered when the murmurs had died down, "it just reminded me of that and I thought I’d bring it over and show you guys." He looked down at his feet as he continued, wondering how what he was going to say would go over. "And, maybe, we could rub it and see if a genie comes out." When he finished he looked up sheepishly, evaluating the faces of the boys surrounding him.
"A genie? Come off it!" hollered one boy. "What are you, a little biddy baby?"
Uproarious laughter erupted around the room.
"Yeah," chimed in another kid, spurred on by the laughing, "that’s all just made up."
"So?" asked the lamp owner, his face crimson. "I know it’s not real but it could be fun." He paused and then added the coup-de-gras that settled things. "Unless you’re afraid it is real."
Some boys mumbled their approval. They all looked at the two boys who had spoken out against the possibility of magic being real. Being young boys, retaining enough imagination that magic could, potentially, be real, they didn’t argue. One of them said, "Whatever."
"Well, why don’t we just give it a try, then. That’s all. Just take turns and see if anything happens." And, like that, it was agreed.
Each boy in his turn took a moment to rub the side of the lamp. And, when nothing happened, he passed it on to the next boy down the line. Finally, it came to Terry.
The boy who had made fun of Terry earlier, having learned nothing in the interim, said, "If there is a genie it’ll be too scared to come out for you anyway!" Rudy, sitting next to him, actually punched the guy on the arm. It was a small gesture but it made Terry feel better.
Terry took the lamp in both hands. He ran one hand back and forth against the tarnished metal, expecting nothing to happen. And, at first, nothing did. Then, thrust outward by some invisible force, every bit of dust that had collected in the nozzle and along the cover exploded into the air. It filled the small basement rec room and set the boys coughing.
"What did you do?" Rudy asked.
Terry said, "I rubbed it, that’s all. Just like everyone else."
Before anyone could argue that what had happened was not like what everyone else had experienced, a violet flame sprang to life at the tip of the nozzle. If it had been blue it might still have seemed familiar — most of them had seen cutting torches or Bunsen burners — but the purple was off-putting. Its spontaneous arrival was worse still. It filled the dim basement with an otherworldly light that danced in the shadowy corners. Then, as quickly as it came it was gone. But an instant later, in the odd flame’s wake, a form appeared.
It was a genie.
Terry stared, trying to accept what his eyes were seeing. His brain told him that, no, it couldn’t be a genie, they weren’t real. And, yet, there it was, rising above the lamp. But, it didn’t look like a genie, at least not like the ones Terry had seen in movies or books. No, this creature looked more like a monster, more like what he thought the devil would look like. It had horns and a reddish hue to its body. It was vaguely human; it had arms but no legs. It didn’t end, it kind of disappeared, bit-by-bit as Terry’s eyes travelled down its torso. And there were no legs of wispy smoke, no vestige of a body. No, it just evaporated into nothing and floated there above the lamp.
"Who summons me from my slumber?" Asked the genie monster. Its voice echoed and boomed throughout the room, seeming to come from everywhere at once.
Terry didn’t know what to say, hoped actually, that someone else would answer instead. But he knew, as he was the one who had rubbed the lamp last, that he would have to answer. Yet no words came to him.
“It was you,” the voice said, raising an ethereal finger — much too long to be a human digit. It pointed at Terry.
“Y-yes,” Terry managed. He wished he could blend into the crowd but knew that, out of all of them, he would have the hardest time doing that.
The genie nodded. “Of course, you have scars that run much deeper than those on your face. You are worthy. And, as a gift for freeing me, I will grant you what you desire.”
“That’s okay, I don’t need anything,” Terry said, desiring only to be anywhere else.
“You’re young, you don’t know what you want, what’s good for you. I know what you want.”
The genie snapped his fingers. There was no sound, which was unsettling, but there was also no other sign that anything had happened. In movies, it’s always a big deal when magical creatures do things like that. There’s always a loud noise and flashes of light. Now there was only silence as the boys watched the floating apparition. And Terry.
“Holy… what happened to your face?!” asked one of the boys. He was staring at Terry.
“What? Nothing… I,” but Terry knew then that something was different. He raised his hand to his face, feeling for the familiar raised texture of the scars. All he felt was continuous, smooth skin. “What did you do?!”
“I gave you what you want,” the genie said.
“No, it’s not what I want.”
“Silly child, be happy with my gift. If you are not grateful let’s see if these others are.” The genie rotated in the air, taking in the room. “Who would like their heart’s desire?”
“No, me! I want to be tall so I can play basketball.”
Terry barely heard them plead for the things they always wished they could be or could do. His attention was focused inward, fuming and trying to come to terms with what had happened.
His scars were gone.
Who was he now? Who would he be without them to remind him? He had never forgotten the day it happened. But, without the scars, he was afraid he would. Would he forget his dad too?
“Give me back my scars,” he muttered, to no one in particular.
There was no reply. The genie and his new entourage had shifted a little to the side, leaving Terry alone. He looked over to see one boy grow almost two feet taller. The kid’s arms and legs grew longer while his torso extended. Terry found himself thinking that it must hurt to grow so fast. And, as if on cue, the boy shrieked.
“Oh, come now, it’s a small inconvenience to have what you want,” the genie intoned.
The boy moved away, stumbling, trying not to bang into the objects in the basement. Another child took his place at the head of the cue.
“And what do you desire?” the genie asked.
“To get all the attention that my little brother gets now.”
“Are you sure?” the genie asked. There was something in his tone, something anxious. He was almost salivating, wanting the boy to say yes.
“No!” Terry heard himself cry.
A few boys looked his way for a moment but the genie paid him no attention. He kept his eyes focused on the boy in front of him. “So? You want this, don’t you?”
Terry knew what would happen. He didn’t know how he knew but he was sure that he did. The boy’s brother was going to die.
“Don’t say yes!” Terry screamed, as useless as before. This time not even one of the boys turned his way. The genie, however, rolled one eye in his direction and Terry was sure he saw malice in its cold stare.
“Yes,” the boy said.
“Done!” the genie said.
“Done?” the boy asked, unsure what that meant.
The genie nodded. “When you get home you’ll get all the attention." It grinned. "Well, after a few days.” The genie shot a knowing glance in Terry’s direction.
A wide smile grew across the boy’s face as he moved away, behind the queue of boys still waiting their turn.
Terry had to do something. His father would want him to, had taught him that it was what you did. You saved people, no matter the cost. His dad would know, he had paid for Terry’s life with his own. Every day since then Terry climbed out of bed and walked to the mirror, studying the raised lines of his scars. It reminded him of the sacrifice that had been made so he could live, of the love that his dad had had for him. His father had died from smoke inhalation shortly after carrying Terry from their burning house. He had been young but Terry remembered, still saw the look of contentment on his dad’s face. His father died knowing he had succeeded in his promise to keep his son safe.
Terry could do no less.
He pushed toward the genie, elbowing a couple of boys out of the way. “No, this has to stop. What you’re giving are not gifts!”
“You are an annoyance. And ungrateful on top of it. Leave us be, these young ones want what I’m offering.”
“And what is that? What is the price you’re charging?”
The genie shrugged. “There is always a cost.” He paused. “You know that better than most.”
“Give me back my scars.”
The genie shook its head. “No little one, I paid the debt that was owed.”
“I didn’t want it!” Terry yelled.
“Too bad.” The genie turned back to the boys. “Now, who’s next?”
“No!” Terry ran around grabbing one boy after another by the shoulders and shaking them. “It’s not a gift, you’ve gotta pay. He’s not giving you anything. Don’t trust him!” He realized something then. “Why do you think he was locked up?”
Many of the boys didn’t react, seemed almost catatonic. But a few of them blinked and looked around at each other, coming alert, as if from a dream.
“Enough!” the genie bellowed, shaking the room. Had Terry made him angry? He had incited it with his revelation. “Leave them be, they are mine now!”
“No, they aren’t. Not while I’m here.” What was he doing? What could he do? And yet his resolve was true. He would do what he could, whatever that was.
“You?” The genie laughed, deep and long. It was an evil chuckle that dripped with vile contempt and hatred. Terry was certain he saw the horns on its head grow then, turning inward and getting sharper. And did its face get longer and sink in around the cheekbones, growing more emaciated?
“Yes! Me!” Terry stood his ground, planting his feet and raising his arm. He pointed his finger at the genie. “You’re going to give me back my scars and then you’re going to leave.”
“Am I now, boy?”
“Give me back my scars!”
“Never!” The genie’s face twisted and cracked, his jaw warping and extending almost to the floor in rage. It looked like he could swallow Terry whole.
Terry wasn’t phased. He thought he might die but he wasn’t afraid. No, he was doing what was right, what needed to be done. His dad was with him, every day, all the time. Nothing could change that he realized, scars or no scars. Yet he missed their presence.
“Give! Me! Back! My! Scars!”
The genie answered with a burst of ear-shattering static and violet light that made Terry clamp his eyes shut. Then he felt hands, many of them, closing on his arms and legs.
“Never! Never!” the genie bellowed. “I’m free and I will do as I please. Get him, my slaves! Hold him.”
Terry opened his eyes and looked into the empty stares of the boys holding him. Around the edges of the room a few of the children looked on, their faces etched with dread.
“Help me!” Terry called out to them. There was no answer and no movement. Though they still had their free will they were frozen with fear. He was on his own.
Terry lashed out, trying to get an arm free, to land a blow on anyone and anything. Panic rose in his chest and adrenaline flooded his body. Fired by that chemical fuel he pulled harder, twisted more, but all to no avail. There were too many hands holding him.
“How weak are you, that you need little boys to do your dirty work?” Terry asked, realizing the answer as he asked the question. The genie was weak. He had power, of a sort, but there were still rules and laws governing the creature.
The genie said nothing but the red glow in its eyes told Terry that he had hit a nerve.
“You can’t do much for yourself, can you? You’re so powerful, and yet, you need us lowly humans.”
“I don’t need you!” the genie exclaimed. The glow emanating from its eyes erupted like lava onto its face. There it burst into flame as it made contact with the air.
Terry would see those flaming eyes for the rest of his life, every night when he lay down to sleep. And, yet, he held his ground, knew he was goading the creature.
“You did need me! Or would you rather be trapped still?”
The static returned then. It rose from a low rumble until it sounded like a waterfall was crashing from the ceiling. Terry couldn’t even cover his ears. Though the supernatural nature of the sound likely meant it wouldn’t have helped anyway. The lava poured from the creature’s eyes, dripping down its face and onto the floor. Its rage was evident, it had lost control of its temper. The flaming drops danced for a moment on the carpet before feeding on that material and igniting it too. A pool of flame sprang up around the genie. Smoke started to rise and spread throughout the room.
Hands loosened on Terry’s arms and legs. They still held but lacked the strength that had been there a moment before. Rudy was there, grasping his right elbow.
“Hey! Rudy! There’s a fire! Run, get out!” Terry yelled at his host, trying to get through the genie’s magic. But there was no need.
The light of understanding and clarity shone in Rudy’s eyes then. He let go of Terry. All the other hands did too.
“Run!” Terry screamed at them.
They didn’t hesitate, fleeing toward the staircase to the upper floor. Someone shoved Terry and he fell to the carpet. Another boy passed by. Terry watched as the boy’s booted foot came toward his face but he had no time to move away. The hard plastic edge of the boot grazed his cheek, sending needles of pain in a line across his skin. He brought his hand to his face, reeling with pain.
Sitting there on the floor, holding onto his face, Terry’s world stopped. Everything was quiet. Every footfall and cry was clear and plain. He noted every little sound. For some reason, the smoke alarm in the basement hadn’t gone off. But as soon as the smoke escaped into the house proper the alarm up there started to whine. Terry was pretty sure he heard Rudy’s mom ask him what was going on. Good, they’d get out. No one else would get hurt. The genie had done enough damage already.
Terry took his hand away and noted the blood there. His face was numb with the shock but he was sure it would hurt again soon. He got to his feet and started for the stairs. But he had only moved a couple of steps when he heard a feeble cry coming from the inferno behind him.
“Help me, I’ll give you anything you desire!” the genie cried to him, to anyone who would listen.
Terry turned around and walked toward the sound. He had to raise his arm to shield himself from the heat of the flames. The lamp lay on its side on the floor; the genie was still visible but weak. He sprawled among the fire, apparently fearful of its power. Terry looked down at the creature.
“I doubt the fire will hurt you,” he said to it.
“Not me, the lamp.”
Then Terry understood the very limited extent of the genie’s power. It had magic, yes, but it was a slave as much as those it ensnared with its power. The genie was trapped; without a human to carry the lamp it couldn’t escape.
“Help me! I’ll give you back your scars. Anything!” The genie pleaded, begged.
“Yes, anything, please, get me out of here! I’ll grant you wishes for the rest of your life.”
The smoke was starting to burn Terry’s throat and yet he couldn’t bring himself to leave yet.
Terry’s face started aching then. He brought his bloody hand up and felt along the welt that was rising there. It was on the formerly scarred side of his face — a new scar to replace the old. The old ones had been a memorial to someone else’s sacrifice. This one was all his, marking his own sacrifice. He earned it. His dad would always be with him.
“I’m good,” Terry said.
Then he turned and walked toward the stairs, covering his face to ward off the smoke.