I had a clean rag in my hand that I had just used to wipe the tears from my cheeks. The burning in my nose was subsiding. Without thinking, I began to rub the side of the lamp with the rag. If I was hoping to shine it up, it wasn’t going to work. I needed some cleaning polish or something. But, instinctively, I kept rubbing the lamp, as if I expected… expected what? Come on, that’s just an old tired fairy tale, I told myself.
But, I continued to rub and, as I did, the room seemed to expand, as did the lamp. A silver mist slowly streamed from its spout. The mist grew more and more dense, now emerging as an emerald green. Soon, there was a cloud filling half the room, shapeless at first, then suddenly morphing into a giant figure, at least 9 feet tall, wearing a silver tunic and emerald green trousers.
“I am the Genie of the Lamp!” he thundered. “Who are you to have broken my slumber?!”
“Noah! Noah! Geez, do I have to do all the unpacking?” Taylor stood in the doorway looking at me holding the lamp and a cloth. “What are you doing with that?”
“It was in this box,” I replied lamely.
“That’s a STAY box,” she said, walking over and bending the top flap to see the labeling. “S-A. Hey, this can’t be here. I helped Mom sort out all the storage boxes and stack them in the spare bedroom. All the S-A boxes were together in the corner.”
“Well, I’m pretty sure one of them isn’t there right now,” I observed.
“Smart-ass,” Taylor observed right back, punching my upper arm.
I was about to return the favor when a voice from the doorway stopped me. “What the—” Mom had a box in her arms but set it down in the hall. “What are you doing with that?” Her voice was quiet but not calm. When neither Taylor nor I replied, she said louder and higher, “Where did that box come from?”
“The movers brought it up,” I answered carefully. Something was clearly upsetting her about this. “I wanted to see what was in it so I’d know where to put it.”
She didn’t even bother to call me on the BS. “We left that box in Arlington. I made sure.” That’s what she said, but she was staring at the lamp in my hand, not the box.
Taylor stood with her arms crossed and that irritating I’m a Grown Up Now expression when she said, “What is weirding you out about this? You were acting funny in Arlington, too.”
Mom hesitated, then took a big breath and said, “All right, have a seat.” At the moment, that meant “sit on the floor,” so we did. “Do you remember when we used to have this lamp out in our house?”
I shook my head and Taylor was trying to remember. “I can’t picture it anywhere in our house.”
“Oh, of course not,” Mom said. “Duh, it would have been back two or three houses. The Cairo house was the last time it was out. Noah, you were barely walking and Taylor, you must have been, what? Four, I think? I got it when we lived in Saudi Arabia that first year we were married.”
“Like in one of those bazaars,” Taylor suggested.
“No. Actually it was something I found on… sort of an informal dig.” She smiled at our expressions. “Another story for another time. Anyway, you should have seen it when it first came out of the ground. It had been perfectly sealed in a metal container and it shone like new. It was SO incredibly beautiful. But it was also incredibly old and it didn’t take to our modern air. All brass tarnishes, but it was like the lamp was making up for lost time. I tried polishing it, but I could never find a cleaner that would work on it.”
“So, is that why you stored it away?” I asked.
“Not really. Technically, I shouldn’t have kept it, so we were pretty low key about displaying it. But, I loved it and would keep it on a shelf in the office or the bedroom. Someplace. No, see, things started…happening.”
“Like what?” we both said together.
“Well, a few times I came home and the lamp would have moved. At first, I thought I was imagining it. But, then I began to pay attention, to make sure I placed it in exactly the same spot. Sometimes, it would have slid two or three inches, sometimes more. Once, I found it on the floor. No one else had been in the house.”
“Earthquake or tremors?” Taylor suggested.
“Other things would have been displaced, too,” Mom said, shaking her head. “And it wasn’t just that. Sometimes, either Christopher or I would be home alone and then be suddenly aware of another presence– a sound, a movement of the air, something. I wasn’t imagining things,” she suddenly protested. “Your father felt it, too.”
Hey, I thought, no problem here. Imagining things is a sign of mental health and intelligence as far as I’m concerned.
“The final straw,” Mom continued, “came after you were born, Noah. I came in one morning and found the lamp on the floor next to your crib.”
Taylor’s eyes widened and I felt the hair rise on the back of my neck.
“I boxed up all our Saudi stuff that afternoon.” It was obvious she had more to say, but was struggling to say it.
Taylor was so agitated, she got up on her knees before speaking. “But the lamp. I don’t understand why you didn’t just get rid of it. Give it to Goodwill, to a museum, anything. Why the hell did you keep it?”
Mom swallowed a couple of times and spoke in a whisper with her eyes latched onto the lamp, which I still held. “It wouldn’t let me.”
My sister was on her feet now. She didn’t swear often, at least not in front of our parents, but I recognized the look on her face that always accompanied a few good ones, including an occasional f-bomb. Fortunately, Mom went on before Taylor exploded.
“I told you I shouldn’t have kept the lamp after digging it up. The truth is, I did try to return it. I decided the best and safest thing would be for your father to take it to a Saudi professor he trusted at King Saud University. They would figure out a good cover story for getting it to the National Museum or the right academic department. We put it in its sack, and stuck it under a towel in Christopher’s gym bag and off he went.”
She went quiet for a few seconds. Taylor and I looked at each other, then at Mom and almost yelled together, “AND–“
“And, when Christopher went into the professor’s office, he explained that we had ‘found’ something on a hike and would appreciate the professor’s help seeing it ended up in the right hands.”
Another prolonged pause. Another joint “AND–“
“And, your father opened his gym bag, found only the towel, quickly mumbled something about picking up the wrong bag at home, and beat a hasty retreat.”
“He didn’t pick up the wrong gym bag,” I said, getting it right away. “The lamp was back at home.”
Mom nodded. “I don’t know at what point it happened, but somehow, by the time Christopher got to the University, it had left the bag. When he got home, he told me what had happened. We walked into the spare bedroom we used as an office and there on its shelf was the lamp, still in the cloth sack.”
“Whew,” Taylor whistled, “Da-da-da-da, Da-da-da-da.” That’s the intro to the old Twilight Zone series. Dad was thrilled to find it available again through streaming. Taylor finds it too dated, but loves to do that Da-da-da-da thing whenever something is strange enough. Me? Do I like a show with great writing and loads of imagination? Yeah, Dad and I watch it together.
“I know, right?” Mom said quietly. “Then, we tried once more. Only this time, I double-checked the gym bag when we put it in the car, then waited in the spare bedroom to see if and when it reappeared. And Christopher promised he would look to see if the lamp was still in the gym bag before going into the professor’s office.”
Taylor swallowed and asked, “So, what happened?”
But, I felt certain of the answer. “You saw it reappear, didn’t you?”
“Not exactly,” Mom laughed.
“What do you mean?” I said. I had been so sure.
“I mean it didn’t reappear in the bedroom. I figured, when your dad came back, he had been successful returning it this time. He was surprised when he came in and I told him it hadn’t shown up. We went back over everything as we went into the kitchen to start dinner. The lamp was sitting there on the counter, still in its sack.”
Taylor was slowly shaking her head. “Da-da-da-da, da-da-da-da.”