drove down Highway 6 in near pitch-black darkness. It was
after two in the morning. Driving south from Waco to College
Station on a Wednesday in the middle of spring break, the highway
was even more deserted than usual. Gone were the endless SUVs
filled with drunken revelers going up to Dallas or down to Padre.
He had the narrow highway to himself to ponder what a complete bitch
Sheryl was being.
like he had cheated on her. If he had, he’d deserve everything
he was getting, and more. But he hadn’t. He’d gone on
one lousy date! Was that enough to treat him like a
dog, making him beg and scrape?
the one lousy date was with his ex, but that didn’t really mean
anything. He hadn’t even kissed her… except just once.
No, it didn’t mean anything at all. He shouldn’t have even
told Sheryl about it. He was just too honest. That was
for his Spring Break with Sheryl. He was driving back to his
apartment on Northgate, where his two roommates were long gone back
home to their families. This was just the lousiest vacation
At the peak
of Ronnie’s self pity, he heard an explosion. He felt the
Wrangler shimmy dangerously. He backed his speed down from
a marginally illegal sixty-five to a sedate forty. The shimmy
remained. Ronnie had felt this before.
to the shoulder, slowed to a stop on the gravel, and flipped on
his hazards. If there was one thing Ronnie never liked to
do it was change a flat. If there was a second thing Ronnie
never liked to do it was drive on one of those undersized spares.
That’s one of the reasons he got the Jeep in the first place.
a little bit of starlight; the moon wasn’t up yet. He couldn’t
stand the flashing red tones of the hazard lights. He rummaged
around in the back of the Jeep. He knew he had a flashlight
back there somewhere: one of those big halogen jobs with a battery
the size of a coffee can. He found it, grimed with dust from
his many drives up and down Highway 6. He rubbed the front
of the lamp a few times to clear it up.
coming out of the lamp didn’t look right. It was sparkling,
like water shining off the ocean. It seemed to only shine
in one place, next to the Jeep. Ronnie shook the lamp.
He noticed that the switch wasn’t on. The shimmering white
light grew brighter as it seemed to take the shape of…
The weird light show was gone. Standing in front of him was
a guy in a cream-colored suit. He had his white shirt collar
undone, with no tie around his neck. He was tall, taller than
Ronnie, and thin. The suit hung off of him almost comically.
The guy’s face brought to mind visions of terrorists from the Middle
East: dark complexion, black beard. The hair didn’t fit, though.
His hair was long, draped over his shoulders in a cut that would
have looked better on a woman.
glanced around at his surroundings, took a deep breath, and turned
to Ronnie. When he spoke, his voice was soothing. Ronnie
could imagine this guy recording lullabies for a living.
“I am the
genie of the lamp. I grant you two-and-a-half wishes.”
or not, the voice also carried a certain amount of boredom.
was all Ronnie could manage to say. He flicked on the halogen
and pointed it at the man’s face, in a strange way expecting the
more run-of-the-mill light to make him vanish. The man blinked.
down,” he said. Ronnie obeyed.
He couldn’t say it. This didn’t make any sense at all.
He looked at the lamp in his hands again. “This is a halogen—”
mean to rush you, but could we move this along. If it makes
you feel better, you should assume this is all a dream.”
that idea. He had fallen asleep while driving, and…
Fallen asleep while driving? That didn’t sound good at all.
“Am I dead?”
What’s your first wish?” Under his breath, the genie mumbled,
“as if I didn’t know.”
I had a million… No, make that a billion dollars!”
happened. Ronnie suddenly became very worried. He’d
read a story once where a genie would grant wishes, but he’d grant
them in a way that would really screw over the guy doing the wishing.
He had just asked for a billion dollars. This genie might
make a billion dollar coins fall on him and kill him. He looked
up at the sky fearfully. Nothing but stars and the moon, just
cresting the horizon to the east.
“So, I don’t…”
pulled a folded sheet of paper from the breast pocket of his jacket.
He handed it to Ronnie. Ronnie unfolded the sheet and saw
three columns of numbers.
the account numbers and passwords for fifty savings accounts in
banks around the world. I gave you their phone numbers, too.
Each account has twenty million dollars in it. Enjoy.”
Ronnie didn’t know if this really was a dream or not, but a billion
dollars is a billion dollars. He was overjoyed. He didn’t
need Sheryl. He didn’t even need Vickie, his ex. He
wish?” This was one impatient genie. “Let me guess.
You’re going to wish for a woman.”
a guy. It’s usually money first, woman second. I’ve
been doing this for a long time, you see.”
You’re right. I want to marry… Who do I want to marry?”
Really? You sure you don’t just want—”
to settle down. I need stability. Particularly with
all this money.” Ronnie ran through the catalogue of actresses
and pop stars he found particularly hot. Finally, a face cut
through the fog.
model. She does Victoria’s Secret catalogues and—”
held up a hand. “Forget I asked.” He pulled another
sheet of paper from the same jacket pocket. “This is a phone
number for an old friend of yours.” Ronnie looked at the name.
It was a kid he knew in middle school. He hadn’t thought of
that guy in years. “Call him. You were thinking of old
times, whatever comes to mind. He’s going to invite you to
a party. Accept. She’ll be at the party. Talk
to her. In no time, you’ll be tying the knot.”
no guarantees on how this marriage will fare… But you’ll have
Okay. So, I have three wishes.”
more money than he could ever spend. He was going to have
the most beautiful woman in the world on his arm. What more
could he want? He didn’t have a clue.
ask for more wishes, can I?”
on the genie’s face as he shook his head made it clear that he’d
heard that question a few thousand times.
Did he want
to be powerful? Smart? Tall? Did he want some
sort of super power, like Spider-Man maybe? This was going
to be tough.
kid. What’s it going to be?”
big, think huge, think… cosmic. Does that help?”
studying engineering at A&M. He was one semester from
graduation, so he’d taken more than his share of math courses.
One thing about math always bugged him. You can’t divide by
zero. Why not? Why have numbers and division if you
couldn’t use it.
to divide by zero.”
tilted his head. For the first time, he seemed intrigued by
to divide by zero. I’ve had teachers tell me over and over
I can’t. So I want to do it.”
paused to think about that for a second. He raised his eyebrows
in surrender and nodded. Ronnie pulled the sheet of paper
with the account numbers out of his jeans. He checked his
pockets, but couldn’t find a pen.
pulled a pen out of his breast pocket.
set up the long division on the paper. He divided 0 into 1.
He got the answer: four and a third. He smiled up at the genie.
the genie said. Wait for what?
was getting brighter. Ronnie checked his watch. It was
only about 2:30. Dawn shouldn’t have been breaking yet.
But it wasn’t the sun. It was the stars. They were getting
brighter. And there were more of them. As he
watched the sky, the black spaces between the stars gradually filled.
There were stars everywhere. The sky was white with
them, and they were only getting brighter.
he could feel their light. It was hotter than the sun
on a summer day. It was burning him. He shrieked in
fright and dropped to the ground, the star light baking into his
back at a thousand degrees. He scurried under the Jeep, but
that didn’t spare him. He could feel the light pounding on
him from between the wheels, through the body of the Jeep itself,
up through the earth below him.
universe had turned into a microwave oven, and he was the chicken
come out now,” the genie said.
What was that?”
see, if you can divide by zero, then there’s no limit on the speed
of light. You were just hit by every photon of light generated
by every star in the universe that happened to be traveling in your
peered out from under the car. He glanced to the heavens again.
There were just the normal number of stars again… but they seemed
like they were in the wrong places. He couldn’t find the Big
Dipper. He was looking at the stars as they were now,
not looking at them as they appeared the dozens or hundreds of years
earlier when their light left for the long journey to Earth.
so much,” the genie cautioned. “That blast of radiation just
killed every living being in the universe. Except for you
and me. I was able to do that much. You’re welcome.”
still clutching the ground for comfort, looked across the road.
In the light of the moon, accented by the blinking idiot lights
on his Jeep, he could see the trees well enough. And they
were indeed all dead, cooked down to black hunks of charcoal.
The grass was burned away to nothing. A sickening cloud of
smoke hung over everything.
The genie didn’t seem very concerned. Ronnie immediately got
angry. This was one of those tricky genies who try
to twist your wishes into curses. He jumped to his feet to
yell and flew off the ground into the sky. He looked down
and saw his Jeep, the hazards still stupidly blinking. The
genie watched Ronnie fly away for a moment, then kicked off from
the ground himself.
happening?” Ronnie asked in a panic.
gone, too. Division by zero shows up all over the place, it
seems. The atmosphere of the whole planet is bleeding off
into space right now. The oceans will be gone soon, too.”
“But I didn’t
want…” Ronnie was tumbling end over end. The genie steadied
him so they could continue to talk as they drifted away into space.
moon caught fire. One second, it was hanging in the sky in
its normal, safe, familiar way, a slim but bright crescent of white.
The next moment it was a full circle of red, burning and churning,
streams of moon dust shooting off the “dark” side. It cooked
like that for a couple of seconds before exploding in a flash of
red hot rock and superheated white gas.
Ronnie was having trouble breathing. He wasn’t sure if it
was panic or the steadily dissipating atmosphere. He estimated
he might be a half-mile above the Earth by now.
gravity to hold it together, the sun exploded a few seconds ago.
An expanding wave of fusion-driven hydrogen and helium just hit
the moon and destroyed it. All the other stars are doing the
them now, blinking out one by one in the sky. Each little
point of light would flash bright for a millisecond, then go dark.
the genie continued in his lullaby voice, “the entire universe will
be a smooth, uniform, cold expanse of elementary particles as the
molecules and atoms themselves slowly dissolve. You won’t
have to worry about that, though. The shockwave from our sun
will be here momentarily.”
it on the horizon – a horizon that was noticeably curved
at this height. A planet-wide line of yellow-white death broke
over the edge of the world and headed their way. It didn’t
simply burn the surface of the Earth, it tore it to shreds.
The tectonic impact was already obvious below them, as the ground
trembled and groaned – audible even at this great height – and tore
to pieces. Ronnie watched in horror as chunks of bedrock flew
past his head, shoved into the air by the pressure of the red-glowing
magma beneath. Sheaves of dead plants, shards of broken asphalt.
A Buick lazily floating a few feet away made Ronnie unaccountably
nostalgic for his Wrangler.
the white-hot fury of the sun’s destruction advanced, making the
monstrous earthquake beneath them look like child’s play.
it back! I take it back!” Ronnie cried, never more sure of
anything in his entire life. He had ventured too far.
He had asked for too much. He should have been happy with
what he had. He had tempted fate by interfering with the nature
of the universe itself, and this was the result. He’d learned
humility. He didn’t know if that was the lesson he was supposed
to learn, but he learned it anyway.
opened his eyes, Ronnie was laying on the ground, next to his Jeep,
the hazards still blinking. He sat up too quickly and got
a head rush. It was all a dream. The flat tire?
That was real. He could see it right there. But there
was no genie. That was just stupid.
himself to his feet, and saw the man in the cream-colored suit leaning
casually on the hood of the Wrangler.
that last one was your half-wish, huh?”