As I was walking along the beach one cool spring morning, I stumbled upon an old bottle sticking out of the sand. The glass, once clear, looked cloudy with a sickly green tint to it. I picked it up, curious as I am about strange artifacts. There was something inside, obscured by the grimy exterior. I pried the cork off the bottle and dropped it in surprise as smoke issued forth from it.
As I backed away from the billowing smoke, it formed itself into a vaguely human form.
“I am the genie of the bottle!” the smoke announced in a booming voice. “What is your wish?”
I didn’t respond right away. Several seconds went by as I blinked and tried to convince myself this was just a hallucination. But the smoke genie persisted. I thought I could detect a little impatience in the way it billowed.
“A genie..” I managed at last, masterfully stating the obvious. “So…uhh..does that mean I get three wishes?”
I scratched at my scruffy beard, still trying to determine if what I was looking at was real.
The genie looked taken aback. “Three? Wherever did you get that idea?”
I shrugged. “That’s how it always is in stories.”
“This is no child’s tale,” the genie bellowed indignantly. “You only get one wish. That is all I can grant you. Now, what is your wish?”
Again, I didn’t respond right away. Only one wish to get whatever I wanted? That was tricky. What did I want? A better job would always be nice. Maybe just a ton of money without the job. A girlfriend. Maybe a wife? No, that’d be weird without the girlfriend part first. Peace on Earth? To be honest, that’s a bit broad, and would that really help me? Not to sound selfish, but it was my wish, after all. I hated having to think about big decisions like that. They always made me nervous, which just made me stressed. Any moment now, the panic attacks would start, and…wait, I knew just what I wanted.
“Happiness,” I said.
” Very well then. And what would make you happy?”
I blinked. “Well…I don’t know. Shouldn’t you know?”
The genie shook its smoky head. “I grant wishes. I don’t create them. If you know what can give you happiness, I can produce it for you. But I cannot predict what makes you happy.”
That was disappointing. What made me happy? There were all sorts of little things. Books and adventure films and good conversations. Chocolate chip cookies and dogs and the laughter of loved ones. But was that ‘happiness’? I didn’t know. I had no idea. What could make me truly, eternally happy was a mystery, as obscure and hard to define as the smoky spectre that floated in front of me.
I amended my wish and set the genie free. It was surprised. As it granted my wish, the smoke took on a more definite shape. An old man stood in front of me now, his face heavily lined, several eons of life etched onto it. The lines deepened as he broke into a smile. He thanked me for freeing him and walked away. He stopped for a few moments to admire the scenery around him, the pale sand strewn on the beach, the waves lazily approaching the shore before retreating. With a contented sigh, he kept walking until he disappeared into the horizon.
After a few moments, I resumed walking as well, feeling as empty as the bottle that lay half buried in the sand.