I was probably rewatching a lot of old Twilight Zone episodes around the time I wrote it, because I have a clear mental image of Joseph Ruskin, in character as the genie from “The Man in the Bottle,” sitting in that armchair, chuckling wryly as yet another human sowed their fate and then reaped it in nearly the same breath. That inspiration left a heavy stamp on what I wrote then, but no matter how many “Monkey's Paw” retellings I've read, I maintain an inexplicable fondness for each new one I find (or write).
“I don’t want much,” I said. “I don’t want power. I don’t want to rule over others. I don’t want love. I don’t want anyone dead. I don’t even want to hurt anyone.”
The genie smiled blandly.
“All I want is a healthy retirement fund,” I said. “And I want it without any tricks.”
“Without tricks!” The genie rose to his full height, taken aback. “I am no magician! Tricks indeed!”
I said, “Well, you know what I mean. Without…you know, strings attached.”
“Without consequences, you mean? There can be no such thing.” The genie smiled broadly without using his eyes, and he once again settled into the armchair. “There are simply natural outcomes you must expect from any good fortune.”
All right, I figured—so long as no one gets hurt. I get to decide the terms. That much the genie had made clear.
The genie asked, “Have you decided?”
“Yes,” I said, “all right. I’ve decided.”
The genie fixed me with his eyes and waited.
“I want a million dollars…”
The genie smiled.
“…in United States dollars, tax-free…”
The genie’s smile widened.
The genie’s smile widened more, his eyebrows lifting in expectation.
“…which will actually be available to me, and to me alone…”
“Yes?” the genie crooned.
“…without anyone having to lose anything for me to gain it…”
The genie’s smile somehow grew still more.
“…and without anyone getting hurt.”
I began to wonder whether anything I said could possibly disrupt the genie’s unflappable sangfroid. None of my conditions had so far seemed to ruffle him in the slightest.
He asked, “Will that be all?”
I mulled it over, trying to think if there were some possible way this could backfire, and I could not think of anything. “Yes, that’s right. That’s what I want.”
“Very well,” the genie said, seeming to suppress glee. “Nothing could be simpler.”
I waited expectantly. I wondered whether I was supposed to close my eyes or something. After looking around, I asked, “Well? What now?”
“I’ve granted the wish, just as you asked,” he said.
“Really? How? Where?”
“It’s being deposited into your checking account. I thought you might find that convenient!”
I picked up my phone and opened my banking app. I didn’t know why I was so tremulous. Maybe I was overwhelmed with the unreality of what I expected to find. I pulled up my balance, and it looked unchanged.
I sighed and said, “I don’t understand. There’s nothing here.”
“Of course there is! It’s being deposited as we speak.”
“Being deposited…?” I looked at the transaction list, and I noticed a handful of new credits—each for only one cent.
“Yes,” the genie said, “do you see?”
“But these are for one cent each,” I said.
“Precisely! You never asked for the amount now. Indeed, you mentioned a ‘retirement’ fund. I merely took it on my own initiative to amortize the funds over the rest of your life, and that is precisely what you will receive: one cent every twelve-point-oh-two-five-six-eight-three seconds. Over the span of the rest of your life, it will total exactly one million dollars, in U.S. currency, tax-free! Quite as you asked.”
The genie laughed in a dry, inward way.
At that moment, a new deposit arrived. My phone’s banking app showed that it was another cent. So far I had six cents out of my million. He was right—the genie had granted my wish in the most frustrating, useless, and maddening way possible.
Then my initial frustration fell away, as if through a trap door into a bottomless terror, as I realized what the genie had actually given me. This wasn’t just a million dollars. Each cent was like a grain of sand falling through the hourglass timer of my newly circumscribed life. A simple multiplication would reveal the exact moment of my death.
I looked down at my phone as another cent rolled in. When I looked up, I saw that I was alone.