"Miss Morgan?" the nurse said quietly. Julie turned in response, her face pale as she sat between the two hospital beds holding her parents, both in comas.
"Yes," Julie said, her voice rough.
"Dr. Terrance would like to speak with you, and I'm sorry to say that visiting hours are over." The nurse, Alia Easton, spoke very gently, trying to be as kind as she could to the young woman sitting between the beds. Jim and Ilsa Morgan had been recovered from the site of their plane crash, for what good that did. Both of them lay comatose. To make it worse, their brains had survived just enough for basic functions. They breathed on their own, their hearts pumped blood through their bodies, and IVs kept nutrients in their systems, but they would never wake up. And poor Julie, thought Alia, she comes every day.
"Thank you," said Julie. She stood, gave each of her parents a kiss on the forehead, and walked out of the room. Dr. Braydon Terrance was waiting for her, going over a chart at the nurses' station. "Doctor?" she inquired. He gestured her over to a chair in the waiting area.
Dr. Terrance felt badly for this young girl. He'd rarely seen a more faithful visitor, even for patients that were conscious and alert. He was guessing that guilt of some sort was driving her, in addition to the love he knew she had for her parents. She sat before him, her dark blonde hair pretty but untidy, her grey eyes surrounded by dark circles. He wished very much she had a sibling or other relative to share the burden, but it seemed she was alone.
"Julie," he said. She raised her eyes to him. "I've made arrangements to have your parents transported to a hospice."
"But..." she started to say, then stopped. She had no idea what to say anyway, and decided she should hear the doctor out. Some reflex had made her protest, she guessed. After all, hospices were where people went to die.
"It'll be a much nicer atmosphere, there," he continued. "Certainly cheerier than here. They'll be in a room together, with windows and fresh air, and you can see them whenever you like; the visiting hours will be much more flexible. The staff there can provide any necessary medical care, and there are always doctors on site and on call. There's really no reason to keep them here." He didn't want to mention that the hospital staff simply couldn't baby sit her fairly healthy but unconscious parents.
"All right," she said, somewhat dully. It made sense. Her parents simply lay there, taking space away from people who were probably more seriously ill and had a chance of recovering. It would be nice not to come so often to the hospital so often. The staff were all wonderful, people like Dr. Terrance and Alia tried very hard to keep her informed, to make her comfortable, to work around a rule or two if it helped. But it was a hospital, with sterile white hallways and sheets, the hydraulic beds and that antiseptic smell that you simply couldn't escape. Perhaps a hospice would do some good for her, too. Perhaps if she were in a place where death was prepared for, instead of avoided, she could cope a bit better.
Dr. Terrance gave her a small smile. "We will move them over the weekend, probably Sunday when it's a bit quieter. Here's the number of the hospice." He handed her a card that said Fleming Hospice Center, with an address, phone number, and the name of the hospice director. "Give Josie, the director, a call when you have a chance, and mention my name. She's very friendly and would be happy to have you over for a tour and answer any questions."
"Thank you," Julie said. "I really do appreciate it." Dr. Terrance nodded.
"I have to go," he said, patting her hand, "but don't hesitate to call me if you need anything." He stood up, grabbed some charts, and left to do his rounds. Julie stared at the card in her hand for a few more moments and then stood as well, putting the card in her pocket.
Alia came over before she could go. "Are you all right?" she asked, knowing how inane the question sounded.
"I guess," said Julie. "I hoped it would get easier, I suppose, but it doesn't seem to be. Maybe a change of scenery would help." She didn't sound as though she believed it.
"It will." Alia squeezed the other woman's hand gently. "It's a nice place. We took my grandmother there when her cancer became terminal. It's amazing how a place like that can help you. Now, go on home and rest up. I know you have to go to work tomorrow."
"Thanks," said Julie. She sighed and made her way through the brightly lit hallways, down to the dim parking garage. She found her little blue Dodge Neon, and drove home.
"Come on, Julie, let's get a coffee." Julie held a finger up to indicate she'd be ready in a minute, typed a few more keystrokes and saved her file.
"All right, I'm ready, I could use the caffeine," said Julie as she stretched. She stood up, grabbed her purse and caught up with Mindy, who was already walking to the elevator. Mindy Rogers was a gorgeous Latina with silky dark hair, lovely eyes, and a name that belied her heritage. She'd never figured it out, she told Julie. Her mother, so traditional in so many ways, somehow decided her daughter looked like a "Mindy" when she was born. Could be worse, Julie had told her. You could have looked like a Bertha.
"So how are you holding up?" Mindy asked as they sat at one of the outdoor tables with their drinks. Julie noted with amusement the countless admiring looks Mindy received from nearly all the men in the vicinity, and Mindy's obliviousness of them. It kept her mind off of other things, such as the answer to Mindy's question.
"I'm all right, I guess," she said, then shrugged. "What's to say? They're each in a coma and God knows they most likely won't come out of them. It's a strange waiting game." She stared down at her coffee, then took a sip. "The hospice is nicer than the hospital, I'll say that. It's a less oppressive atmosphere, certainly a lot quieter. Luckily the insurance covers it, at least for now."
"I have something for you," Mindy said. She reached into her large handbag and pulled out a gaily wrapped box.
"My birthday was last month," Julie said, eyeing the package warily.
"I know. It's not for your birthday. Go on, open it." Mindy pushed the box toward her friend.
Julie took it and slowly unwrapped it. It was tall and rectangular. When she finally got through the ribbons and paper, she opened the box and found herself holding an antique bottle of some sort. Was it wine, she wondered? Finally, she said, "It's lovely, Mindy, but what exactly is it?"
Mindy smiled widely. "It's a genie in a bottle."
Julie smiled in return, figuring her friend was trying to lighten things up a little, and she appreciated the gesture. "Thanks, then. It really is beautiful craftsmanship. I'll find a place for it when I get home."
"No," said Mindy, shaking her head. "I mean it. It's a genie in a bottle. It's been in my family for ages."
"You have got to be kidding me," said Julie. Mindy shook her head again. "You mean, this is a bottle and if I rub it or something, someone will come out of it dressed in harem pants and tell me I have three wishes. Min, it's great of you to try to make me feel better, but come on..."
"Just try it when you get home," Mindy said. "I don't know about the harem pants, or exactly how many wishes you get, but there's a genie in there, honest to God."
"Have you seen it?"
"No, but my grandmother has, and my mother."
Julie narrowed her eyes at her friend. "You're serious." Mindy nodded. "Fine, I'll take it home. It's lovely. But I'm not going to be making any wishes."
"But, Julie," Mindy protested. "Think of how you could make things better. You could wish for your par--"
"No," Julie cut in, more sharply than she'd meant to. "I mean, thanks, but no. I don't believe in making wishes." Mindy looked about to say more, but Julie pointed out the time and they hurried back to the office.
Julie cleared a spot over her fireplace for the bottle she'd received from Mindy. It was the size of a wine bottle, with a light blue tint, but with a body sort of like a snowman -- three globes stacked on each other. There was lovely etching and other decoration on the glass. She wondered how old it was, and figured it had to be at least fifty years old, if it dated back to Mindy's grandmother. Genies, she thought, right.
A couple of weeks later, Julie was cleaning the house. It wasn't her favorite thing to do, but it had to be done and it kept her mind off her parents, still sleeping -- it was hard to think of it as anything else -- in the hospice. She would go over later, as she did nearly every day, but she needed a break. She wanted to believe that they heard her when she talked to them, discussing the mundane details of everyday life, but she didn't, not really. She couldn't, not when she knew there was no higher brain function happening in either of them. Still, she visited, not sure what else to do.
Mindy had been after her constantly, asking if she'd rubbed the bottle to bring out the genie. Every time, Julie gave her a dour look and changed the subject. How could Mindy believe that, she wondered. Sure, perhaps her grandmother was into mysticism, and had told it as a bedtime story. Her mother passed it on. But Mindy was adamant. Julie considered that she might have to rub the bottle while Mindy was there if only to show her how ridiculous it all was.
As she began to move items on the mantle to dust it, her elbow hit the bottle. It teetered in what seemed like slow motion, then fell into the bucket of water Julie had next to her. Relieved there was only water on the floor, and that the bottle wasn't broken, Julie retrieved it and used a towel to dry it.
Suddenly there was a small flash of light, a strange little sound, and a man was standing next to her. Startled, Julie backed away and nearly tripped over the coffee table, saved only by the stranger grabbing her arm.
Tact deserted her. "Where the hell did you come from?" she demanded.
A soft chuckle came from the stranger. He was tall and lean, which made him look even taller. His hair and eyes were dark brown. His nose was ... Roman? Not just Roman, Julie thought, but Roman like the pictures of Caesar on ancient Roman coins.
"I came from the bottle," he said, gesturing at it.
Julie stared at him silently for a few minutes. "I'm hallucinating," she said, finally. This brought an outright laugh from the man.
"No, no, you're not, although I can understand the reaction," he said, after he had settled down.
"Let me guess: you're a genie." Julie took short-lived refuge in sarcasm.
He nodded. "Yes, I am." This woman was quite something, he thought. Very different from most people who came into possession of his bottle. She was, perhaps, the first one who did not really think there was a genie inside it. This should be interesting, he thought.
"You don't look like Aladdin," she said, realizing how ridiculous it sounded even as the words came out.
He simply nodded again. He was wearing blue jeans, a white t-shirt, and a denim shirt, unbuttoned, over that. His feet were bare. "Yes, that's true. But Aladdin wasn't the genie in the lamp, you know. He was just a street waif who got lucky."
"Do you have a name?" Julie asked.
"Marcus. Marcus Antonius."
She stared at him again. "Marcus Antonius. Marc Antony. Like Caesar and Cleopatra, that Marcus Antonius?"
"Well," he said, looking a bit sheepish. "I did admire Marc Antony. He was quite nice to me when I was a young soldier in his army. So after a while, I took his name, I liked it better than my own." He paused. "I never did meet Caesar or Cleopatra, although I did see her from a distance. She was quite a woman."
"I need to sit down," said Julie, letting herself collapse on to the sofa.
"It's hard to take in, isn't it?" he asked, moving over to sit in a chair opposite her.
"Oh, no," she said, waving her hand dismissively and affecting nonchalance. "I run into people who are thousands of years old, named after famous Roman generals, who claim to be genies all the time. You're the third this month."
Marcus laughed once again. He liked her spirit. He could tell she was trying to digest it all, and that the sarcasm was her attempt to do so, not a means to offend him. "I can prove this to you," he said. "Or at least, I can perhaps do something that would lessen your doubt." Julie nodded cautiously. Marcus held his hand out towards the flowers on her kitchen table. She'd bought them nearly a week ago and they were starting to brown and wilt. As Julie watched, a soft light surrounded them like an aura, the brown faded and the flowers came back to life.
"So Mindy was right," Julie said in almost a whisper. "Her grandmother really did see you..."
Marcus nodded. "Oh, yes. Miss Guadalupe was a wonderful woman. She never abused the privilege of her wishes."
"I need a drink," said Julie. She went to the kitchen and got herself a drink of water. She had considered some wine, but figured that wouldn't help. Hallucination or not, she wanted as clear a head as possible.
"So, I get three wishes?" she said, returning to the living room. She didn't sit, instead leaning against the wall, arms crossed over her chest.
"Well," said Marcus, admiring her as she stood by the wall, "there's no real limit on the wishes. It's more to do with the quality of them. At least, I think so. Anyway, there are rules, of course. No wishing for mountains of gold, or world peace, or that sort of thing. Each one must be prefaced by 'I wish... ' I can tell you before hand if your wishes are grantable."
Julie shook her head. "There's no need. I don't make wishes."
Marcus stared at her. "What?"
"I don't make wishes," she repeated.
"But, but... ," Marcus groped for words. Never before had he encountered someone who wouldn't wish. Some had been greedy, others amazingly altruistic, but none had ever refused outright. "But that's not possible. Everybody wishes for something."
"I don't," she said firmly.
"Because for one thing, I'm sure there's a catch. If I asked for a raise at work, someone would be fired so I could have it. If I asked for a new apartment, someone would be kicked out of theirs."
"You've read The Monkey's Paw too often," Marcus told her.
"Maybe." She shrugged. "But whatever you may think, I don't wish for things anymore."
"But why?" Marcus was still baffled.
Julie was getting angry. "Because," she snapped, "the last time I wished for something -- and there wasn't even a genie around, mind you -- I wished for my parents to get back in time for my birthday. Next thing I know, they're being retrieved from the site of a small plane crash, and I got to spend my birthday in the hospital with them while they were each in a coma." She had to fight back tears now, and took a deep breath.
"I'm very sorry," Marcus said softly. He wanted very much to put his arms around her, to let her rest on him for a while, but he didn't. She wouldn't appreciate it, he was sure, and he couldn't quite figure out where the impulse came from. Genies obeyed their masters, of course, and there was often an implicit love in the situation, but this was different. He found that for the first time in centuries, he genuinely cared about someone. It was a bit unsettling.
"So," she continued, staring past him at the far wall, "if I were to ask for them to be home, they'd be home in the same vegetative state they are now, with no prospect of recovery. If I were to ask for them to be better, the question would be 'better relative to what, ' and I would probably end up with zombies who could function but not talk, or something like that. I'm not clever enough to phrase things to prevent a loophole. So, no, thank you for the wishes. It would only come back to hurt me." The words all came out in a rush, and when she was done, she found she was out of breath.
"It doesn't have to be like that," Marcus said, after considering her words. "I mean, I can't work miracles, but really, Poe had the wrong idea."
"Every action has an equal and opposite reaction," Julie said. "There's a price for everything. I won't chance it."
"You're going to make my job very difficult," he said, "if you won't wish."
"I'm sorry," she said. "I could give the bottle back to Mindy, perhaps. She could wish for things."
Marcus shook his head. "It doesn't work that way. You released me, you have to wish. I can't leave or go to anyone else until you do."
"Can't I just pass?" Julie asked, feeling a little desperate. She didn't like having Marcus beholden to her when he hadn't done anything. It smacked of slavery and made her very uncomfortable. "Can't I just refuse? Isn't there a time limit or something?"
"No," Marcus said gently. "Look, why don't you leave it be and think about it. Perhaps you'll find small things to wish for, that you'd be comfortable with."
"And in the meantime, what?" she asked. "You're my roommate?"
He grinned. "I suppose so."
"Do you need a bed, or do you stay in the bottle?" she asked, dryly. I give up, she thought. Maybe I'll wake up in the morning and find out this is all a dream.
"Either," he said. "You can make that choice, if you want."
"Can you cook?" This time it was Marcus who nodded warily. "Good, you can do that to earn your keep."
"Are you serious?" he asked, incredulous. "You've got someone at your disposal who's hundreds of years old, with magical powers, and you want me to cook?"
"You bet," she said. "I've had a hell of a last couple of months. I'm exhausted and I can barely think. I've been living off of Starbucks and store-bought sandwiches. It's not doing much for my physical or mental health. So, you can cook." Besides, she thought, if this is my dream, I might as well go for the things I'd really want. What she really wanted, even though she hated to admit it to herself, was someone to rely on, someone to take care of her. Mindy was being as supportive as possible, but there was only so much even a best friend could do.
"How do you know I can even use your cooking appliances?" he asked.
Julie gave a short laugh, and Marcus found that it warmed him. She should laugh more often, he thought. The sadness, the depression that he saw in her was not the way she should be. "For one thing," she said, "you called them 'appliances, ' so you've at least seen them. You're wearing jeans, which tells me you're not unacquainted with some of the more modern aspects of the world. Besides, I can show you how it works. Surely with all you've experienced, you can adapt to a gas stove."
"All right," he said. "Show me where everything is."
Julie cocked her head at him, raising an eyebrow. "Really? You'll do it?"
"I don't have much of a choice," he said. "You're my master, or mistress, or whatever you'd like to call it. Aside from granting your wishes, I'm at your command. I'll do what you tell me."
Now Julie reddened and bit at her bottom lip. Marcus wondered why her demeanor changed so suddenly.
"I didn't realize that," she said. "I don't want to take advantage of you. You don't have to cook. I'll try to figure out what to do to end your obligation as quickly as I can."
Marcus was stunned. No one -- no one -- in all the time he'd been a genie had ever not taken advantage of this situation. Julie's concern for his well-being, his captivity and freedom, touched him as nothing had before.
Julie turned to go to her room. She was mentally drained and needed to rest. Needed to close her eyes and try to clear her mind. This was all too much, and she had the suspicion that she was, in fact, not dreaming. She hated the idea of having this kind of control over anyone, genie or not. It wasn't right. She liked her relationships to be equal, or at least as equal as possible. Most relationships were a little unbalanced, she realized, but there was no reason to consciously abuse the difference.
"You, um, you can take the guest room, if you'd like," Julie said, not looking at him. "I don't know how comfortable that bottle is. I guess ... I guess feel free to do what you need or want to while I'm work and at the hospice. I'm going to lie down for a bit now, I..." but she ran out of things to say and began walking slowly towards her door.
"Wait." Marcus swiftly crossed the space between them. He wanted to lay a hand on her arm, but was afraid of being too forward. "Thank you," he said earnestly. "I can explain more about this, later, if you want. But I don't mind cooking ... as a genie, it's in my nature to help wherever I can, or do whatever I'm told. In fact, I'd like to. You're the kindest master I've had in I don't know how long. Thank you."
"You're welcome," she whispered, then dashed into her room and shut the door, leaving Marcus to stare after her and try to make sense of his new situation.
A few days later, Julie sat with Mindy at the same coffee shop. She chose a table outside even though it was cool, because no one else was outside. She'd finally accepted that Marcus was real, that he was a genie, and that she had to figure out what to do. She hoped Mindy would be able to help.
"I told you so," Mindy said, teasingly. She was so excited. Julie had had such an awful time lately, and Mindy was sure that the genie was the key to fixing everything.
"Yes, yes, I know," said Julie. "I believe it now, okay?"
"So what will you wish for?" Mindy asked.
"I told you, I don't make wishes," said Julie. "That's why I need your help. I thought maybe your mother or grandmother would have an idea. He says he can't go to anyone else until and unless I make my wishes. But I don't want to. There has to be a way out of this."
"You're kidding!" Mindy couldn't believe this. The answer to Julie's problems was at her disposal -- at her command -- and she was refusing it. "You aren't going to wish for your parents to be healed?"
"Absolutely not," Julie said firmly. "I told Marcus and I'm telling you, there would be a catch, a price that I'm not willing to pay or have anyone else pay on my behalf. So I need to find another way out. I can't wish him free, that's against the rules. There's no time limit, so he's here indefinitely."
"Is he cute?" Mindy asked. She winked. "My mom said he was terribly handsome."
"What does that have to do with anything?" Julie asked, amazed. Mindy simply waited and she sighed. "Fine, he's very good-looking."
"So why don't you wish for him to sleep with you?" Mindy asked. That seemed like an easy enough way out of it.
"Because I don't want anybody that way. If he -- or anyone else -- wants to sleep with me, I want that to be their own genuine desire." Julie surprised herself with the honesty of her answer, but Mindy's question had startled her and she had replied without thinking.
"Do you think he wants to?"
"I don't know. I haven't asked. And I won't."
"So what is he doing, anyway?" Mindy asked, sitting back and sipping her coffee.
"He's cooking," said Julie. "I told him he didn't have to, but he said he liked to, so..." she shrugged. "Beats having subs all the time."
"I'll ask Mom and Nana," Mindy said, "but I really think you're stuck with having to make wishes."
"I know," Julie grumbled. "But I need to explore all the options."
Marcus adjusted the heat on dinner -- a simple but filling chicken soup, and fresh biscuits -- while he waited for Julie to return home. He found the cooking to be quite fun. The appliances Julie had were amazing -- the blender, the food processor, and his favorite, the toaster. So much easier than doing everything over an open fire. Julie had taken to coming home for a meal after work before going to the hospice to spend time with her parents, so he tried to have things ready to eat when she got home. He laughed at himself, too, for that. In his time, it certainly wasn't the men who had to worry about having dinner ready.
Although Marcus didn't begrudge Julie the visiting -- he couldn't even if he wanted to -- he found that he wished she would stay home one night. He wanted to talk to her, to get to know her. That was happening slowly, since you couldn't live with someone for over a month and not learn some things about them. But he hoped that one night she'd simply stay in so that they could talk. He imagined how he could massage her shoulders, or her feet, to help reduce her stress. Then he sighed, wondering at the irony of a genie wanting to make wishes.
He heard the door unlock and reached into the cabinets for soup bowls and plates for the biscuits. Julie came in and he heard the familiar sounds of her purse dropping to the floor and her keys to the tray on the small table she kept in the entryway.
"Hello," she said, stepping into the kitchen.
"Hi," he said, giving her a smile. Julie smiled back. She had discovered that Marcus' smiles always made her feel warm inside. They made her feel special. Then she would shake her head at herself. Surely, with all the experiences Marcus had had, there had been women, and no doubt that smile had been used on many of them. Still, it was a killer smile, and she didn't mind having it directed at her.
"Dinner smells delicious. Thank you." Marcus found that her gratitude for his efforts gave him the same warm feeling as her laugh. He loved it.
"I hope you like it," he said. "I kind of made it up as I went along. Based it on what I had sometimes in the army."
"So I'm eating an ancient Roman soup, made by an ancient Roman?" She gave him a small, teasing smile.
"Well, I guess so," he said, setting a bowl in front of her, "although I have to say, it sure dampens my ego to think of myself as ancient."
"They say you're only as old as you feel," she said, breaking off a piece of biscuit and dipping it in the soup broth. "This is wonderful."
"In that case," Marcus said, sitting down with his own bowl, "I guess I feel no more than, say, four hundred years old." As he'd hoped, that won a laugh from Julie. At first, she'd had to tell him to sit and eat with her, and finally had told him that it was silly for her to say it every night. He'd been uneasy the first night he'd sat down without her gentle permission, but his discomfort lifted as he saw that she meant it. This was the first time, he realized, that he'd had a relationship. In the army, he'd been a low-ranking soldier, with no real hope of rising to the officer ranks. Then he'd become a genie, and that meant that every relationship had him in the inferior position. Until Julie.
"Are you going to the hospice tonight?" he asked. She nodded. He was silent, working up the courage to ask his next question; he'd thought of it only moments before she'd come in. He didn't think Julie would take offense, but centuries of following orders made it difficult to ask questions. "Could I ... could I go with you?" He held his breath, waiting for her reaction.
Julie stopped eating, leaving her spoon in her bowl. "You want to go to the hospice?" Not even Mindy had offered to do that.
"Only if you want me to," he said, suddenly very interested in shredding his biscuit. "I just ... I guess I'm kind of curious ... and it must be hard for you to go alone all the time ... and like I said, it's in my nature to want to help..." He stopped as he started babbling.
"Thank you, that would be very nice," said Julie. He looked up to see tears glistening in her eyes. "It is hard."
Once more, Marcus fought the urge to pull her into his arms. He'd gotten this far, but he didn't want to push. He smiled and touched her hand, then went back to finishing his soup, although he didn't taste a drop of it.
Julie laughed as Marcus explored the car as best he could. He'd never been in one before, but she began to think there must be something inherent in men that came out when they were around cars, even if the man himself pre-dated automobiles. She had to look away before she laughed too much as he nearly twisted himself in knots trying look around in the back.
"Really, Marcus, all of the gadgets are up front here," she said, gesturing at the dashboard and console. "The only thing in the back seat is the back seat."
"This is amazing!" he exclaimed. "I've heard about them, of course, and I've seen them, but I've never been in one before." He had unintentionally delayed their departure as he started randomly fiddling with knobs, and Julie had stopped him to explain what everything did. She showed him the radio, the CD player, the AC and the heater. She also pointed out things like the hazard lights and noted that he should not touch any of them, especially when the car was in motion. Luckily, she had the foresight to demonstrate the volume knob before they started off, or he would have probably blasted both of them out of the car.
"Do the armies have these?" he asked. What a way to move troops! So much faster than horses.
"You bet," said Julie. "They have all kinds." She did her best to explain trucks, jeeps and tanks, before moving on to helicopters and airplanes. Marcus was about to press her for more information on airplanes when he remembered what she had said about her parents and how they had come to be in the hospice, and decided it was better not to. Besides, she had begun to show him how to use her computer to find information on all kinds of things. He could learn about airplanes there.
She grew quiet as they reached the hospice. Marcus took in the building. It was one story, with a brick front. It looked like a house, but much larger. It reminded him vaguely of some of the larger villas he'd seen in Rome. There was even a fountain in the front courtyard, something only the richest nobles could have afforded back then.
"Are you sure you want to come in?" she asked him. He turned, startled. He still wasn't used to Julie asking for his opinion, checking on his desires. She misread his hesitation and continued. "I mean, I know it's probably an odd place for you, and it's hard to be around people who are all here to die, so if you want to wait in the car..." She hoped he didn't. She really wanted his company.
"I do," he said, reassuring her. "I was just taking it in. There was nothing like this when I was growing up, and most of my past masters didn't exactly want to take me sightseeing. But this ... this seems like a good idea. I've lived a long time, but I know that death is a part of the life cycle. It's better for it to be accepted, to help prepare people, than to just shove them away in asylums or something."
"Come on, then." They stepped out of the car, Julie smiling slightly as she allowed Marcus to use the keychain to engage the keyless lock. She led him into the building, signed the registry, and began to walk down the hallway to her parents' room. Unconsciously, she reached back and took his hand. Surprised, Marcus said nothing, but let her continue to keep his hand in hers as they walked. He couldn't remember any previous master doing anything like this ... even such a common display of affection felt intimate to him. He really didn't know what to do about the fact that he was falling for her.
Those thoughts went out of his head when he saw the two people lying in the beds as Julie opened the door to the room. He'd never seen anyone in this state before. Julie had explained how except for things like breathing, their brains no longer worked. That was difficult to accept, even for someone like Julie, he realized, who had grown up in this time and was accustomed to such things. Spying a chair in the corner, he sat down, watching as Julie pulled a chair up between the hospital beds and began talking to her parents as if they could hear and understand.
She might have fooled anyone else, but Marcus was a genie. He was a magical being, and as such was attuned to more than just what he saw and heard on the surface. He could feel the guilt gnawing at Julie. He could also feel the spirits of her parents, as though they were tethered to the beds. They wanted to go, to move on, but Julie wasn't ready, and so they stayed. Their love flowed out of them, but he didn't think Julie could feel it; she had closed herself off from it, thinking herself unworthy. But if only she knew how worthy she was, he thought. How much her parents loved her, how proud they were, and how very much they wanted her to be happy.
Julie began speaking to her parents as she always did. Hi, it was a dull day at work but here's what happened, you'll never guess what Mindy wants to do ... but her heart wasn't in it. Not that it had ever fully been, but tonight ... tonight she wished she had stayed home with Marcus. She'd become quite used to him, although she'd chided herself for it, and reminded herself she was supposed to be looking for a way to free him, it was difficult. She was still opposed to wishing, but her vehemence was fading, probably worn down by the sheer futility of coming to the hospice for so long.
Marcus had been, aside from Mindy, the best friend she'd ever had. He never made demands, and always tried to help. Even though she knew that was his nature, she sensed that it was also his genuine desire to be helpful to her. The idea of spending an evening with him, talking to someone who could talk back, was amazingly appealing.
She didn't realize that she had let her talking trail off, nor that Marcus was watching her closely. I can't do this anymore, she thought. I just want them to be at peace, but I don't know to make it happen. Then a little voice popped in and said, yes, she did, she just didn't want to.
Oh, God, she thought to herself, feeling her heartbeat speed up in panic. I almost made a wish. I can't do that. I can't use Marcus like that. But, oh, it was so tempting. Tears welled up and began to fall down her cheek.
In a blink, Marcus was next to her. "Julie, what's wrong?" He cupped her face in his hands, lightly brushing the tears away. "Please, tell me, please, what is it." She stared into his dark eyes for a moment before finding her voice.
"I almost made a wish," she whispered. "I'm so sorry."
"You don't have to be sorry for that," he told her. "That's why I'm here. That's what I am."
"No." She shook her head. "I can't. I won't. It will go horribly wrong, I know it."
"Julie," he said, forcing her gently to look at him. "I know what you want. I can tell you this -- your parents are here. They love you. They are sorry to leave you, but they are ready to move on. They are waiting for you to be ready. If you wish for it, I can help you and them. I promise, no one will be hurt."
"They're here?" she asked. He nodded. "They can see me?" He nodded again. "Can they hear me?"
"Yes, they've heard every word," he told her. She watched as he closed his eyes, as though he were concentrating on something. "They want to me to tell you they're sorry. That it isn't your fault." Her eyes widened.
"But I wanted them to come home..." she said.
"They had already planned to come back early and surprise you. One of their friends advised against it, but they decided to go anyway. It was their mistake, not yours. Nothing to do with your wish. It was all just a terrible coincidence in timing." Julie listened intently, wanting desperately to believe him. Her hands gripped his, savoring the strength and warmth in them.
"I don't know if I can do it," she said. For now she knew she was afraid for them to be gone. She had told herself that they were, that these bodies lying in the beds were mere shells. The important parts of them were gone. But part of her clung to them being here. She didn't want to lose her parents, and said so to Marcus.
"You won't lose them," he told her, brushing her hair away from her face. "You'll be helping them. And they will always watch over you."
She swallowed. "Do you promise?"
"I promise," he said, placing one hand over his heart. Then he placed both hands over hers. "It's all right, Julie. Just wish."
Julie closed her eyes. I wish my parents could be at peace. Then she waited.
A calm feeling gradually swept over her, taking away her fears and sadness. This was right, she suddenly knew. It was time to let her parents go. Of course she wanted them to stay, but it wasn't to be. For whatever reason, this was their time. She opened her eyes and for a moment, saw her parents, or at least their presences, hovering in the room. They reached out with gauzy hands and caressed her face; she closed her eyes and felt a cool sensation run over her cheeks. She opened her eyes again. Her mother and father smiled, then faded slowly away. When she could focus on the present again, she looked at the beds and saw that both figures were no longer breathing.
She looked down to find Marcus still holding her hands. "That's it?" she said softly.
"Yes, that's all," he replied gently. "They're at peace now."
The next couple of hours until they arrived home were a blur for Julie. The nurse came in, and then the doctor. There were questions to answer, papers to sign, cards and papers to take home and phone numbers to dial later. Marcus stood quietly aside while she attended to the details, but she never felt that he was abandoning her. He just knew there was no place for him at that moment, and so stayed nearby but out of the way.
Julie drove them home carefully and quietly. She wondered at one point if Marcus was using his magic to keep her from being distracted, or to keep them out of danger while she drove. She'd have been worried if their positions had been reversed; after all, to say her mind was occupied was an understatement. At last they arrived, and she welcomed the warmth and comfort of the house when she stepped inside.
"Are you all right?" Marcus asked, after she dropped her purse to the floor and locked the door. She looked up at him, nodded. Without warning, surprising herself as much as him, Julie wrapped her arms around him and held him tightly. Startled, Marcus slowly let his arms come up to her back, pressing her gently against him.
"Thank you," she said. "Thank you so much." She buried her face in his shoulder, trying to keep her tears at bay.
"Thank you," she had said. Marcus was dumbfounded. She'd said that before for so many other things, but this was different. No one had ever really thanked him for fulfilling a wish before. But then, he wondered if any previous wish had benefited someone else, as Julie's had her parents. Certainly no one had ever hugged him like this. He never wanted her to let go.
"You're welcome," he finally said.