Old Cyrus had seen many things during his seventy eight years, but he had never seen anyone walk out from a twister before. It was the damnedest thing. He was sat outside his dry goods store, polishing a cheap old lamp, when he felt the wind get up. A tumbleweed rolled past and then it happened. The sand twister came spinning down the dry, dusty path that ran through the little town and as it reached his store the stranger stepped out.
The twister continued down the track but the stranger stayed put, studying his new surroundings. After a few moments he glanced down at himself. He was wearing a rancher style hat, Texan boots, jeans and white t-shirt. He seemed to approve of the attire for he allowed himself a nod of satisfaction.
Cyrus watched him for at least a minute before the stranger showed any sign of noticing him, then suddenly his piercing blue eyes turned in his direction. The stranger smiled and walked over.
He stopped at the store’s porch, running his eyes over the black, crinkled face of its owner. He tipped his hat and said something, but in a language Cyrus had never heard.
‘Sorry young feller, or whatever you are,’ the old man replied. ‘We only speak English around these parts. Sometimes Spanish.’ The stranger’s eyes widened as comprehension lit his handsome features,
‘Ah,’ he responded. ‘The language of the Angles and Saxons; the greatest knights to fight for Christendom. You must forgive me; It has been a long time since I have walked amongst the world of men.’ Cyrus’ face was blank, for all he knew the man might as well still be talking in a foreign language. The stranger looked down at the cheap tin object Cyrus had been polishing,
‘Are you the owner of this lamp?" he asked. Cyrus gave a shrug,
‘Guess so,’ he said gazing at the hunk of metal in his skinny hands,
‘Old widow Larkin gave it me when she couldn’t pay her food bill. To tell the truth, I didn’t really want it, but she and May, that’s my late wife, were such good friends that I couldn’t in good conscience say no. She’s a good woman, just fallen on hard times is all.’ The stranger nodded gravely,
‘The world is full of injustice my friend,’ he rejoined.
Cyrus leaned back in his rocker and put the lamp down by his side. He took a crushed pack of cigarettes from his shirt pocket, removed one and tapped it lightly on the arm of his chair.
‘Sure is,’ he said. ‘Had my own share as well. Guess like most folks.’
‘I do not doubt it Mr …’
‘Call me Cyrus,’ the old man said. The stranger nodded,
‘Your words carry a great and eternal truth to them Cyrus. Life is indeed full of tragedy. But, strange as it sounds, I can change all that for you. If you let me.’
Cyrus produced a lighter and lit his cigarette. He blew out a stream of smoke and studied the figure from behind a cloud of tobacco.
‘How exactly?’ he asked. The stranger placed a boot on the porch,
‘I have certain … abilities.’ Cyrus squinted at him.
‘You saying you got magic powers young fella?’ he asked, illustrating the question with a magic wand motion of his cigarette. The stranger nodded.
‘I am indeed,’ he answered. Cyrus rubbed the white bristles on his chin,
‘So then, you’re a kind of angel?’ he asked, his voice matter of fact. The stranger shrugged,
‘In a way,’ he replied. ‘I’m a Djin, and you summoned me here by rubbing that lamp.’
Cyrus frowned, the expression causing his white, bushy eyebrows to meet in the middle.
‘You’re an ‘Injin?,’ he asked. The stranger shook his head,
‘No, I am a Djin, or maybe, as you translate the word, a Genie.’
Cyrus gave a weak, rasping chuckle that brought on a bout of coughing. The stranger folded his arms indignantly.
‘You don’t believe me?’ he asked. Cyrus shrugged his bony shoulders,
‘Not necessarily. A man who travels around by twister should be given the benefit of the doubt.’
‘Then why do you laugh?’ the stranger demanded,
‘Timing,’ the old man replied. ‘Just timing.’ The stranger looked puzzled,
‘I do not understand,’ he said. Cyrus took another draw on his cigarette and sat forward, engaging his visitor more fully.
‘When I was a young man,’ he began, his coal black eyes taking on a far away look, ‘more years ago than I care to remember, I had dreams. Believe it or not I used to be one of them ambitious types, yes sir. And one of them ambitions was to build up this little business here into a chain all over Texas, maybe even the whole USA. I wanted to be a millionaire.’ His watery eyes narrowed accusingly,
‘I could have used your help then Mr Genie.’
The stranger looked over the old, dilapidated shop, then back at the old man.
‘But it is not too late,’ he replied. ‘I could turn this place into a chain of super malls like that,’ he snapped his fingers to emphasise the point. ‘You’d be richer than you could imagine.’ Cyrus thought for a moment, then shook his head,
‘What would I want with a business empire now?’ he fired back. ‘I’m an old man, soon for my box.’ He sighed as he added, ‘Ready too.’
The stranger shrugged,
‘But your age does not present a problem. A Djin grants three wishes. With your second one I could make you young again.’ Cyrus, much to the figure’s consternation, still looked far from impressed,
‘Nope, that aint no good neither.’
‘Why?’ the stranger gasped, an incredulous look on his face.
‘Because,’ Cyrus answered, ‘being young aint no use to me if I can’t be with May. Lost her eight years ago, and to be honest I’m kind of counting the days before I’m with her again. Now,’ he pointed his cigarette at the stranger, ‘If you’d of come when she was dying with her heart you could’ve done something. Unless you’re telling me you can bring the dead back to life again.’ His old eyes challenged the stranger to say he could.
‘Well’, the stranger muttered, gazing down at his boot. ‘I can’t exactly do that.’ Cyrus gave a humph to indicate he had thought as much. He put the cigarette to his lips and blew out a series of smoke rings, watching them expand and disappear into nothing,
‘You see Mr Genie. You come a bit too late to help me. Twenty years or so earlier, maybe I would of been interested.’
The stranger rubbed his square chin, a troubled look on his face. His self assurance was taking a beating, and he was silent for a moment as he ran the problem through his mind.
Finally he raised a forefinger to indicate he had come up with a solution,
‘I have an idea Cyrus,’ he announced with a satisfied look. ‘How about I send you back in time for your first wish? That way you could be with May again. For your second wish I could make you young and for your final wish you could be rich.’ He folded his arms triumphantly, his face beaming with pride. ‘That would take care of everything, wouldn’t it?’
Cyrus nodded, finally impressed. Not many people could tell from his laid back, easy going exterior, but an hour never went by without him thinking of his May. They had had only one child together, long ago, but she had died while still a baby. All he had now was the store, and that was no more than a shack that got three customers a day if he was lucky.
‘Well, what do you say?’ the stranger asked.
Cyrus’ cigarette hovered at his lips as he stared at the stranger beaming up at him,
‘I’d be as spry and as full of hope as I used to be?’ he asked. The stranger nodded,
‘Of course,’ he answered. ‘The second wish, the one to make you young again, will take care if that. I’ll even put you in your twenties.’ He gave Cyrus a wink. ‘May will be the same age. Think about it.’ Cyrus gave a wheezy chuckle,
‘And I’ll be one of them millionaires?’
The stranger nodded,
‘The last wish.’
A broad, nearly toothless smile broke out over the old, black man’s face,
‘Okay Mr Genie,’ he said. ‘You got me interested. I’ll take those three wishes. So clap your hands or whatever you do and let’s do this.’
The stranger bowed,
‘Very well,’ he said. ‘Just one thing first.’ Suddenly, from nowhere, a piece of paper appeared in one of his hands. Cyrus eyed it curiously,
‘What’s that for?’
‘Oh, nothing really,’ the stranger answered. ‘I just need you to sign your name at the bottom, that’s all.
‘So, it’s kinda like a contract?’
‘I suppose you could say that. But it’s no more than a formality really.’ He handed the paper to Cyrus and the old man noticed that the cigarette he had been holding had changed into a pen. He started to read it, mumbling over the words.
‘You don’t need to study it,’ the stranger cut in. ‘There’s nothing to it really.’ Cyrus held up a hand,
‘If there’s one thing you learn being in business, is that you always read a contract.’
The stranger held his breath, anxious, as he watched the old man. Cyrus was going to read it all, every damn word. When he finished he lowered the paper to his lap and scratched the back of his balding head,
‘Tell me, what does it mean when it says my ‘unseen self?’, he asked, tapping the relevant part of the contract.’ The stranger looked uncomfortable,
‘It means, err, … well, all it refers to is your non physical body. The part you can’t see. That’s all.’ He said all this very quickly.
‘It’s not important though. You’ll be young again, young, rich and with May. You won’t even miss this unseen self. Just think of it.’
Cyrus frowned, doing just that. He rocked to and fro for a good minute on his chair as he considered the offer. A couple of times his eyes fell on the stranger and when they did he grunted to himself, as if trying to make up his mind about something.
Suddenly he stopped, let out a soft chuckle and much to the stranger’s consternation shook his head,
‘No deal,’ he said, his voice firm.
‘What do you mean?’ the stranger asked, regarding Cyrus as if he had gone mad. ‘You actually want to pass up my offer?’
‘Yep,’ the old man replied.
‘Why?’ the stranger shot back, throwing his arms up in disbelief. Cyrus looked back at him with cool, dark eyes,
‘Cause, I reckon you aint no Genie,’ he answered. ‘And this,’ ‘he picked up the lamp and rapped on it with arthritic knuckles, ‘aint nothing but a piece of tin.’ He indicated an inscription on the base,
‘This old thing was made in Mexico. It used to be used for pouring out tequila or something. There aint no magic in it and I’m dang sure it didn’t call you here.’
The stranger opened his mouth to protest but no words came out. Cyrus chuckled,
‘I found you out good,’ he said. ‘You know, I never went to Sunday school, and I aint been the best of Christians neither, but … I know enough to realise who you are. My momma, God bless her, used to warn me about you. You and your temptations.’ The stranger’s jaw fell open as he listened to this.
Cyrus stared out at the mountain range in the distance,
‘My time’s nearly up,’ he went on, ‘and I’m ready to go. You were just putting thoughts in my head that plain don’t belong there.’
The stranger’s features hardened. Cyrus noticed that he did not look so handsome anymore, but he would have been hard pressed to say what exactly had changed in his appearance.
‘You’re making a mistake,’ he said in voice much deeper than before. He pointed a finger at the old man,
‘You are old, rotting away. Soon you will take your last breath, and you may very well end up with me anyway.’
Cyrus was unruffled,
‘If you was so sure of that you wouldn’t have tried to trick me in the first place.’ He shook his head,
‘Maybe I aint been the most pious of folks but I’ve led a good life, never hurt no one, always tried to do the right thing. When I do die I’ll be back with my May sure enough. I know it.’ He challenged his tempter with his almost toothless smile.
‘You aint got nothing to offer me. Now scat, and worse luck next time.’
The stranger glared at Cyrus, malice in his eyes.
‘Stay here then and rot, old fool,’ he cried. He looked ugly now, and his lip curled back on one side to reveal large sharp teeth. He looked as if he wanted to tear the old man apart but Cyrus wasn’t scared, he’d signed nothing, the stranger had no power over him.
The stranger raised his hands and with a cry of rage disappeared amidst a cloud of smoke, leaving only a strange odour behind. Cyrus supposed he had had his first whiff of brimstone.
The old man gave a shrug and looked down. The paper had gone and his pen had turned back into his cigarette. It had almost burned down to nothing.
‘Never liked salesmen anyway,’ he muttered to himself as he took his final draw on the cigarette. He leaned back in his rocker, closed his eyes and gave a weary sigh.
Later that day, Mrs Price, a big woman with just as big a heart, came by for her weekly supplies. She found Cyrus as she often did, sat in his rocker, dozing the hot afternoon away.
‘Cyrus,’ she called. ‘Wake up lazy bones. It’s your best customer.’ But Cyrus didn’t move. With anxious movements the woman mounted the porch and bent over him. He looked asleep but …, she felt his face, it was cold and the muscles beneath the skin were stiff. She felt the pulse on his neck to be sure.
‘Well, Cyrus,’ she said in a voice full of tenderness, ‘You was just saying the other week how you still missed your May, and now I’m sure you’re back together again.’
The smile that lingered on the old man’s face suggested she was right.
James McCormick is from Manchester, England. He has lived in the Cheq Repubic, Taiwan, and now Japan where he is a teacher. He has two unsold novels and several screenplays.
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