Run, whispered the monkey part of Andrew’s brain. Scramble back the way you came.
His head only reached up to the djinn’s nipples, although the creature sat in a mockery of the Buddha pose: a mound of flesh rising in the warehouse’s center. Those sausage fingers, Andrew thought, could crush a spinal cord as easily as they would a moth. Yes, there were chains which snaked toward the walls and coiled round two concrete pillars. Yes, a good twenty feet separated him from the djinn.
Rays of dusty sun crossed on the giant torso, accentuating folds of fat which spilled over the chains. From under the eyelids, irises glimmered, frozen, into space.
Turn around. Run. But Andrew licked his lips and took a step forward, and another. And then a wave rushed over him, as though his brain, tired of making him sweat, decided to try a fresh trick. It was hard to feel sorry for the djinn—bald as a newborn baby, too alien, too monumental—but still, those chains dug trails in the skin.
Lagoa, he reminded himself, Portuguese beach. The postcard in his pocket, a house by the sea, a new life.
The man in the ‘office’—a makeshift room in the warehouse’s corner, big enough for two people, with a wood veneer desk and an overripe orange of a straight-from-the-sixties Naugahyde chair—had quoted him the maximum sum he could ask for. No ‘what do you want,’ simply an amount in dollars.
Andrew coughed. “How do you know what I . . .”
The fellow reached for a round object wrapped in tinfoil. A burger. For a moment, the reek of McDonald’s drowned out the odors of an old building, of caked dust, of termite-infested wood.
“Three types of people come here.” Munching. “The ones who can’t wait to fuck someone, the ones who have someone ill at home, and the ones who think they need money. The first two, you know, there’s usually life in their eyes.”
Try it, Andrew thought, go try living my life, pal. A cubicle in an office with paper-thin walls, printer’s grunts puncturing the day with that regularity which produces psychopaths, a boss who’s ten years younger than you, and, finally, the reward: an evening in a two-room flat overlooking the yard with the trash bins. Waking up the next morning with a woman whom you still love, but also hate for the paths and forks you’ve taken from her.
Even if he himself didn’t deserve a second chance, Margaret did.
The man studied him from behind the horn-rimmed glasses and repeated the sum.
“You tell the djinn your wish. Then he’ll start saying stuff.”
“Stuff. Don’t matter. He pauses, you respond positively.”
“What do you mean by ‘respond?'”
A sigh. “He’ll say things. Once he stops, you say: ‘yes, great.’ ”
“So what you’re telling me is, he’ll actually talk to me?”
“He’ll talk bullshit.” The fellow fiddled with the burger. “They’re not as tasty when cold.”
“Listen, the djinn talks bullshit, okay? No one knows why. No one cares. What we do know is, you need to answer positively.”
“What if I don’t?”
This warranted another glance from behind the glasses. “Well, you’ve already paid for the service.”
He had indeed. His whole year’s bonus.
“What I’m saying is . . .” The man crumpled the tinfoil into a ball. “You’re welcome to try, of course.”
That was all the introduction he’d received.
Something dry cracked under Andrew’s boot, and at that moment the djinn opened its mouth and coughed. And that came out so human—simple and mundane like the bleached sunlight through the panels in the warehouse’s roof—that Andrew stumbled and flapped his hands to prevent himself from falling.
Two diamonds between the eyelids rolled, left to right, and rested on him.
Chill crept up his back. There you go, it’s time, he said to himself. Come on, spit out your wish. But instead, thoughts pushed their way into his head about the burnt omelette he’d had for breakfast, and also a radio slogan he’d heard on the bus: ‘First, Best, Live.’ First. Second chance.
He pulled the postcard from his chest pocket and tried to imagine the watercolor sun warming his fingers. That bungalow on the picture—in his imagination, it was him and Margaret standing on the front porch.
“Lago . . .” He cleared his throat. “Lagoa. I want money to buy a house on the Portuguese beach. I want . . .” He said how much.
The silence swung, spilled, pushed at his eardrums—and then, without warning, popped with a rolling basso. “Cold grapes in the morning.”
“I beg your pardon?” Andrew said.
Silence. Frozen irises.
“Okay. Cold grapes, right.” What had the guy told him? Respond positively? “Yes . . . Grapes are tasty, yes.”
“Sun through the clouds.”
“Strong wind. Hurricane.”
Andrew ran the tip of his tongue over his lip, but the moisture only coated his skin. He didn’t consider a hurricane a good thing by any measure, but perhaps, if seen as a pure force of nature . . .
“Great,” he said. “A hurricane is . . . awesome.”
“Tsunami . . . Tsunami’s wonderful, too.”
“Ruined houses, drowned bodies, non-functioning household items under the water.”
Somewhere overhead, a plane rumbled.
Andrew glanced back at the anteroom’s door. Next to it, an opaque glass window revealed vague shapes and colors. Was the guy still there? Had he gone to the bathroom? Wandered out for a smoke?
What the hell am I supposed to say to that? Andrew wanted to ask him. But then again, the fellow had already given him the answer.
Lagoa. The beach. Margaret.
“That’s great,” Andrew said.
“Burnt cities. Charred flesh.”
He drove his nails into his palms. These are words, simply words.
“People suffering from nerve damage. Muscle damage.”
Andrew didn’t hear his own response.
The mound of flesh in the warehouse’s center paused. The thick lips parted in what, on a human face, could’ve been taken for a smile. “A girl in Santa Fe Children’s Hospital, in the blue room behind door 27, dying of melanoma.”
Andrew gasped and stared at the djinn.
Sibling streets, featureless concrete underfoot, house under graphite clouds, door, broken elevator, stairs, another door. Home.
He bent to unlace his shoes, but straightened again, afraid he would throw up. “A bit late today,” Margaret’s voice said from the living room. He didn’t answer and stumbled into the kitchen.
The cup of coffee he hadn’t had the time to finish in the morning still stood on the table. The evening seeped through the windows, turning the cup and the oilcloth and the magnets on the fridge into pieces of evidence, accusations on a decayed film stock. Where have you been? What have you done? Andrew sat and squeezed his left wrist to stop his hands from shaking.
Light steps: behind his back, Margaret stopped in the door frame.
“Hey. Has something happened?”
“Nothing,” he said, staring before him. “Nothing out of the ordinary.”
“All right, you don’t want to talk—you don’t have to. I’ll make tea if you don’t mind.”
Clink of the teapot’s lid—bubbling of water—gentle clop against the gas ring. The sounds clothed him, allowed his thoughts to flow. The shaking subsided.
He said, “You know what people say, like the words . . . The words are tangible.”
“Well, some are. You keep playing cold fish, you might get a kiss from the frying pan—that’s tangible, for sure.”
He rose his eyes at her: Margaret studied him, leaning against the stove, grinning. Jokes degrade with life, Andrew thought; they had laughed at Monty Python sketches when they’d first met.
“What’s going on, Andrew?”
He licked his lips. “Do you know if there’s a children’s hospital in Santa Fe?”
“Oh boy. What’s gotten into you today? How should I know?”
“Santa Fe—it’s on the Mexican border, isn’t it?”
Margaret sighed and turned to the whistling teapot. “Santa Fe’s in the northern part of New Mexico. Nowhere near the border. Whether they have a children’s hospital—well, who knows. Perhaps they do.”
She put another cup in front of him, and he breathed in the tea’s bitter steam.
When she took her place across the table, he grabbed her hand. “Forget it. Everything will be all right. We’ll be all right, that’s what matters.”
“What’s going on?”
“Life,” he said.
“What’s happened? Did you cheat on me, Andrew?”
“No, no, no! Of course not! I mean this.” He waved around the kitchen. “We need to get out of this, this . . . Away from this flat, from this oilcloth.”
She circled her cup’s ridge with her finger. “I thought you liked the oilcloth. We bought it together, remember?”
“I mean it metaphorically, Margaret. You know I mean it metaphorically.”
On the window sill stood a vase with fresh flowers. Yellow spots against the glass—narcissi, but these weren’t her favorites. She had probably bought whatever was available at the marketplace two blocks away. It bothered Andrew he couldn’t recall what Margaret’s favorite flowers were.
He should’ve talked to her before going to the djinn.
She said something, but he didn’t hear her, feeling for the postcard in his chest pocket.
They drank tea, they ate, then she left the kitchen. From the living room came a gentle staccato on an iPad. Andrew circled the kitchen table. It was a matter of few clicks to check his bank account: his smartphone lay on the edge, but he didn’t dare touch it, as though the thing were hot, as though he’d really cheated on Marge and she would catch him in the act of scrolling through a lover’s message.
He’d wanted to take the initiative, to buy them a new life. Now it all turned into something else.
He wasn’t afraid the djinn hadn’t delivered, he realized. He was afraid it had, because that would mean the words in the warehouse could carry significance, that somewhere in Santa Fe, a man in a white coat could be scribbling in a notebook the bends and curls of a diagnosis. Or a little human being was already lying on an operating table, white sclera, sticks of hands stretching from a hospital gown.
In bed, half-wrapped in sweaty sheets, the breathing next to him slurring into an occasional purr, he couldn’t sleep. Each time he was ready to close his eyes, a car’s lights x-rayed the room through the blinds. A group of guttural voices crept down the street, up again; somewhere, perhaps behind an open window, a woman coughed regularly, as though prompted by an invisible machine.
I could set a watch by the fucking sounds, Andrew thought.
He reached for his phone.
In the bathroom, he sat hunched on the tub’s edge. The screen’s rectangle glowed, dimmed, brightened, dimmed, glowed again. He puffed out air and opened the bank’s online interface, only to close it seconds later.
Then again, money doesn’t magically appear on one’s account, and even a djinn might be a slave to business hours.
He turned off the screen, then turned it back on and googled ‘Santa Fe.’
A bottle-green building came up, a brick lined with steel plates. Rows of windows squinted dead-eyed at the camera, reflecting the gray of the street, the clouds, something else. The blue room behind door 27, Andrew remembered. Must be the second floor—and, for a moment, an impression washed over him that should he pinch his fingers apart, the picture wouldn’t blur, wouldn’t dissolve into pixels, that he would see a face behind the window.
He refined the search with ‘melanoma,’ but the only new results were photos of brown spots eating the skin.
“Thank you for visiting us on such a short notice.”
Andrew’s account manager wore a perpetually tired look and a red tie Andrew imagined to be a pipe through which Mr. Dijkstra’s superiors were draining blood from his face.
A glass wall separated the whitewashed room from the bank’s main hall, and there was a plant in the corner, of that sad office variety that can survive in the desert.
The phone had rung at eight a.m., and Mr. Dijkstra hadn’t really explained why he was calling: he conversed in a fluent business speak, juggling necessities and deadlines. It could mean anything, Andrew thought, picking at the cuticle on his thumb. For the first time, it occurred to him that financial institutions might have a problem with his particular method of wish fulfillment.
The possibility, however, prompted a twinge of relief, as though bureaucratic hurdles would absolve him of any guilt. Then he thought of the postcard and imagined white sand spilling between his toes, his hand holding Marge’s.
Marge deserved compensation for all the years in the flat overlooking the trash containers.
“Sorry for calling you so early,” Mr. Dijkstra said.
“It’s fine.” Andrew coughed and stifled the impulse to put his hands on his legs.
“Would you happen to know a certain Mr. Dieter . . . erm . . . Dieter M. Clarkson?”
“No. No, I don’t think so.”
“Former stockbroker, died around a week ago?”
“Nope. If there was a problem with his death, shouldn’t the police . . .”
“Oh no, that’s not what I meant. Not at all.” Mr. Dijkstra shuffled through a few sheets of paper, taking them from one pile and putting them on top of the other. “He made the news two years back, during the Herbalife collapse. I just thought you might’ve known him.”
“I have absolutely . . .” Andrew breathed in to get his heartbeat under control. “No idea who the guy is. Was.” Here it comes, whatever it is.
“Well, apparently, his will included a very peculiar clause. Yesterday, we’ve selected twenty accounts at random and transferred a portion of his savings to them.” Mr. Dijkstra raised his eyes. “Yours was one of them. Congratulations, sir.”
The account manager named the sum.
“Like I said, it was only a part of his savings, of course. Apparently . . .” Mr. Dijkstra did the paper sheet trick again. “. . . he’s been very satisfied with the services the bank has rendered him. A decade-long client, you know. Such people . . . When they die, they leave a void . . .”
“You said he’d died more than a week ago?”
“Yes, erm . . . Eight days, to be precise. He was ninety-two, so no wonder, so to speak.”
“It’s a huge transaction, Sir. Now that we’ve talked, I can release . . .” Mr. Dijkstra turned to his laptop and rapidly hammered in something that could’ve been a small poem. “There you go, Sir.”
The room flowed before Andrew’s eyes. “Anything else I need to do, any papers to sign?”
Mr. Dijkstra blinked. “No, I’ve transferred the money, everything has been taken care of. Happy to have you as our customer.”
Andrew nodded and rose, and Mr. Dijkstra jerked to his feet to shake his hand.
“Thank you,” Andrew said.
His gaze landed on the office plant. Fungus blemishes marked half of the leaves.
Brown spots, eating the green.
He shuddered and turned to the red tie. “Goodbye, Mr. Dijkstra.”
It was only after he’d taken a seat on the bus that he allowed himself to realize what had happened. The djinn had delivered. This was it. Minus the breath-stained windows and the creaking of the engine and the reek of worn leather, this was the moment he’d been imagining for the past six months.
It didn’t feel the way he’d thought it would.
He took out the phone and looked up the properties in Lagoa, only to find himself blindly scrolling the page. Non-functioning household items, charred flesh, and Santa Fe, the girl in Santa Fe—he had said those horrible things, even if he only responded positively. Yes, back at the warehouse it all seemed surreal.
A thought floated up in an opposite of free fall: the money’s in your account, old sport, so is it real enough for you now?
Was he responsible for Mr. Clarkson’s death, too? Had his wish killed the girl with melanoma?
Andrew shook his head, the page on his phone came into focus, and that’s when details began to stick out. Here, his favorite villa in the Algarve district. Now that it was within his reach, he realized how small the bedroom was: a carefully selected photo angle made it look bigger, but in reality, the room must compare to his kitchen.
He googled ‘Lagoa,’ and a picture popped up of the same stretch of coast that had gotten him all fired up half a year ago, when he’d passed the shield in a travel agency’s window—only now it was a wider angle, a different time of day. Gone were the golden glow and the cerulean blue, replaced by brown, gray, in a uniform, plain sunlight.
There were probably empty beer cans in the sand.
With his fingertip, he traced a circle inside the sweaty stain on the bus’s window. Everything returns to its starting point; he would be taking Marge from one row of trash bins to another.
Door, broken elevator, stairs, door.
“Is it you, Andrew?” Margaret’s voice said from the living room.
“I thought you’d left for work, Marge.”
She walked into the doorway. “I’m leaving now—I’ve been working from home since morning. I told you yesterday, don’t you remember?”
She wore a cocktail dress, her hair in a neat chignon, a woman looking five years younger than her age.
“Power outage at the office, Andrew?”
“Do you fancy our flat?” he said.
She licked her lower lip. “Darling, you do realize you’re behaving weirdly, right? I don’t remember—have you ever come home at twelve? Are you all right?”
“Do you fancy our flat?”
“Yes. Yes, I actually do, if you so want to know. It’s homey.”
“But doesn’t it bother you that the windows overlook the trash?”
“Only half of them.” Margaret reached for the shoes. “The other half look out onto the street.”
“Yes. A noisy one, too.”
“You remember how they threw a street festival last year, and we sat on the sill?”
He remembered. Autumn evening, sky breathing cold, white picnic tables strewn with glowworms of lanterns.
He also remembered Marge saying—faint smile, listening to jazz chords flowing—’Don’t you love our place?’
Did she? Was Lagoa all him, his dreams, his own escape?
She said, “We can do it anytime, you know that, right? Doesn’t need to be a special occasion. Why don’t we do it today? Sit on the sill, drink some coffee. Maybe look for faces in the clouds.”
Bitterness on his tongue, as though after gulping down green tea. What would he tell her? That he didn’t deserve what she was offering, that he’d tried to fix their life and possibly killed a child in the process?
“I have a headache, Marge. Sorry. That’s why I’m back home. I can’t concentrate because my head’s trying to split itself in two.”
“Oh.” She stopped putting on the shoes and straightened. “Oh. Is it your migraine again?”
“I don’t know. Don’t think so. Just a regular hellish headache, don’t fret about it.”
“I’ll see if we have anything for the pain.” She turned toward the kitchen, but he caught her by the arm.
“Marge, it’s okay. Really. I’ll take a nap, wake up a new man afterwards.”
He held his palm on the door after she’d closed it.
It took almost a whole day for the train to crawl from Kansas City to Santa Fe—flying would’ve been easier, but Andrew hated flying. He hadn’t told Margaret the truth; in her world, he’d gone on a business trip to California.
He shared the compartment with a chunky fellow in shabby jeans and a T-shirt that said ‘Super Rider.’ The guy had the eyes of a sad puppy and seemed to exist on the border between sleep and wakefulness, and he snored—or so Andrew thought until he heard him produce the same sound while staring out the window. Maybe he had nose problems. Or maybe these weren’t snores at all but grief, parceled into spasms, pushing itself out.
The phone stirred in Andrew’s pocket. Marge. Marge shouldn’t hear the engine noise. He could wait for the next station to call her back—but who knows how short the stop would be, how long the conversation.
‘Sorry, in a meeting now.’ A green bubble popped up in the SMS chat, one more step down the rabbit hole he’d dug out for himself.
Balding hills darted by, occasionally a carton of a house or flaking telephone poles. At some point he dropped into the warm bowl of drowsiness and dreamed that the fat guy stood and took off his shirt, revealing chains under folds of flesh—and suddenly it was the djinn, sitting cross-legged on the train berth, and Andrew kept repeating ‘melanoma, melanoma’ to him, only this time the djinn silently begged him to stop, shaking its head, snoring-weeping.
The fat guy looked in the opposite direction when they crammed themselves into the train’s sweat-reeking vestibule.
Santa Fe didn’t register with Andrew. The city existed as though behind a membrane, trees and cinnamon houses, dogs and people joining each other in a strange choreography where he didn’t know the steps.
But the green brick of the hospital was real.
The lamps smoldered, throwing sterile light onto the brown-gray of the walls and the linoleum. Nobody had stopped him—the nurses’ station stood abandoned.
On the second floor, two women trudged past him, the older one covering her mouth with a tissue. Somewhere ahead, a baby cried in a counterpoint to a baritone.
Door 27 had the wood pattern of a ribcage; his hand froze an inch from the faded faux-gold knob, and he licked his lips.
More voices, clear now, rolled at the end of the corridor. “. . . know where Christine is? Is she at the ambulance station?”
That was it, all the time for deliberation he’d been given. Andrew touched the doorknob, breathed in, and pushed.
The door opened into an empty room. No toothbrushes or tubes of paste lining the sink’s edge, no sheets on the bed, no pictures framing the salad walls. No household items. White rectangle of the single window, creating more shadows than light. In the draught, curtains fluttered, caressing the radiator, a relic with dust caked permanently into its wrinkles.
Maybe his memory had pulled up the wrong number, maybe it was the wrong room; the djinn had said ‘blue.’ But the next second, Andrew’s gaze landed on the towel hanging by the sink. He walked up to it and lifted the cloth with his fingers, and then the only thing he could see was the picture embroidered into it, of a dinosaur, a blue dinosaur kicking a soccer ball.
He bent over, and all the unfulfilled ambition, all the feverish anticipation, all the shame and the doubt, the good things and the bad, round and edgy, plain and salty, poured out of him in dry sobbing. The blue dinosaur smiled at him as though Andrew were a child, as though, by the virtue of taking the towel in his hands, he had become the next of the room’s residents.
Five minutes passed, maybe ten—he wasn’t sure anymore. He stumbled back into the corridor. A group of children stood by the door, all school-age, six or seven or eight: the sounds must’ve drawn them out of their own tiny habitats. A boy, wearing a jeans romper suit, held a teddy bear to his chest.
“Do you know who was the last patient here?” Andrew pointed to the room. “Kids? Was a girl in there? Did you know her?”
They kept silent, staring at him.
“Why are you looking at me? It’s not my fault! Not my damn fault! I’m not guilty!”
He stomped his foot at them, but none of them moved. A girl with big gray eyes started silently crying.
Oh shit. “I’m sorry.” Andrew waved his hand. “Hey, little one, I’m sorry, I’m sorry.”
He reached out to her, but she took a step back, an unsure, wobbly step.
“Birgit,” said the boy with the teddy bear. “It was her room. Her mom came every day. She brought us ice cream cake once, with sprinkles.”
Andrew wiped his eyes. “Thank you. Thank you. I’m sorry.”
The lobby now had some life to it: a tall nurse stood behind the station’s counter, writing in a skinny logbook.
“Excuse me? Miss?”
She raised her head. Her eyes widened, and he thought, I must look terrible.
“I realize how weird this sounds, but I need to ask you. I . . . just need to know, you know? I need to. What’s happened to Birgit, Birgit, the girl from 27?”
“Sir, are you a relative or . . .”
“I’m not . . .” He shook his head. “I just need to know.”
To his right, fresh yellow flowers stood on the counter.
“Sir, you probably shouldn’t be here,” the woman said.
“I know. Listen, I know, I understand. But please, listen, I can’t . . . Please. Please, I’m begging you. You have to tell me what’s happened to her. Something happened to me three days back, too, and it may . . . Please.”
The nurse squinted and studied him in a strange way, as though trying to remember, but not quite being able to place him.
He said, “The girl, did she die of melanoma?”
She drew a long line along the logbook’s margin. “Birgit. Yes, she died of melanoma.”
Andrew exhaled, and his legs went soft; he had to prop himself against the counter. “When?”
“Two months ago.”
Two months. Two months, so way before his visit to the warehouse. Not his fault, then.
It’s not my fault, he said to himself, it’s not.
Little faces, rompers, hands clutching a teddy bear.
“How many children are in here?”
She named the number.
“Nobody stopped me on my way in. You’re understaffed.” He glanced at the lamps, the walls, the linoleum. “Does the hospital accept donations?”
She made a noise while he was writing the cheque, the same half-snore the guy on the train had made. Andrew raised his gaze to her: her eyes were red.
“So miracles do happen,” she mumbled. “I didn’t believe it would work.”
He opened and closed his mouth. “Miss?”
“Nothing. I’m sorry, it’s nothing.”
When she took the cheque and peered at the sum, her eyes widened again. “Oh. Oh my. Thank . . . Please, wait here. I’ll get someone—a doctor, or someone from the administration. Anyone. Thank you so much. I’ve never . . . Please, give me a second.”
Andrew caught her by the arm. “Did you say ‘miracle?’ Have you visited it? Is there one in Santa Fe?”
She stiffened like a mechanical toy whose winding had run down.
“Doesn’t matter,” he said. “Do you understand? It doesn’t matter. There’s nothing bad about it. If you visited a djinn, I’m happy. Doesn’t matter what you said in there. You’ve got your donation.”
She gave him a long stare.
“It’s fine,” he said and squeezed her elbow in an imitation of handshake. “What do you call these flowers?”
“Freesia. Thank you again.”
Outside, fresh evening wind sighed at him, flapped his coat’s tails, raised small whirlwinds of leaves at his feet. Before him, hives of bureau buildings stretched toward the dark blue, toward the clouds carrying the ochre tint, the same sky he’d seen on the day of the street festival. He took out the piece of cardboard from his pocket, threw the final glance at the bungalow, and tore the postcard up.
He smiled, remembering Marge and the frying pan. It wasn’t such a bad joke after all.
He kept smiling as he walked toward the train station.
I’ll buy her freesia, he thought, and then we’ll sit on the sill at midnight and look out into the yard, past the garbage containers, into the moonlight.