Nameless by Zoe Coats

Her fingers were cold as frost-bitten glass. They twitched nervously in her lap, which was absurd because she had nothing to be nervous about. The doctor ushered her toward a chair, “Ms. Oswald, you might want to sit down for this.”

She arched an eyebrow, “Just spit it out, young man. I don’t need to be coddled.”

“You have lung cancer,” the doctor announced like it was Christmas day.

“The hell I do.” Ms. Oswald waggled one threatening finger at him.

“Ma’am, you’ve been smoking since you were 16. You haven’t been to the doctor in over 5 years, so there is little we can do for you at this point. You have a year at most.” He almost added Have fun dying, but that felt too unprofessional. Still, she did this to herself, and the doctor found it hard to have any sympathy. His dad had died of hepatic cancer, so of course he had difficulty warming up to people who chose the risk of cancer through their own stupid decisions. His dad never got a choice. The 72-year-old woman across from him just burst into a fit of hysterical laughter. The doctor checked himself—he wasn’t usually the type that inspired laughter. “Ms. Oswald, I don’t see how this is funny.” Tears began streaming down her cheeks as she cackled. He knew nervous laughter was sometimes used as a coping mechanism, but she seemed to be laughing with actual mirth.

Ms. Oswald took several deep breaths, though her face was still red with merriment. “Don’t worry, my dear, cancer can’t kill me.”

“I appreciate your optimism, and I realize this must be difficult for you, but you must see things realistically. We will do all we can to keep you alive, but you have to acknowledge that death is a distinct possibility.”

Ms. Oswald’s lips became a thin line, all laughter gone. “Listen up, Dr. O’hare—though I’m not convinced you’re a real doctor. Doctors these days, you’re all either phonies, liars, or lawyers in disguise. I’m not sure which is worse. One time, I met this doctor who walked fast enough to give a frail old lady an aneurysm. Good thing I do cardio.” Dr. O’hare didn’t bother to explain that that’s not at all how aneurysms work. “At any rate, I’m going to tell you a story that I have told no one else. It is my story, so it is not for you to repeat. Yes?”

At this point, the doctor just decided to go along with it—denial was, after all, the first stage of grief. “Fine, you have my word.”

The dying woman began her tale. “You’re probably thinking I shouldn’t have been such a smoker in my day. Well, once you hear my story, you might understand a bit better. I found the bottle at an old estate sale. It fit into the palm of my hand and was covered with ornate golden filigree. Upon further research, it appeared to be one of those Arabian perfume bottles. The previous owner was a rich businessman who collected souvenirs from his travels abroad. He’d died suddenly of lung cancer and had no family to inherit his knickknacks.

That bottle only cost me fifty cents, fifty cents I tell you, though now it’s probably worth more with inflation and all that nonsense. I’m not sure why I bought it—perhaps it was a piece of another world I would never get to see. Anywho, I’m glad I did. When I got home, I opened the bottle to see if there was any perfume left. It had a strong musky smell, with undertones of jasmine. I only know that because I drink jasmine tea—it’s supposed to help you lose weight, you know. I almost didn’t notice how the fire in the grate sparked to life—keep in mind this is the middle of the summer—until I heard his voice. ‘Stupid, stupid, what were you thinking, opening my bottle like that? I was having a nice long—say, is that tea?’ The little man looked at me hopefully. He was about the height of a malnourished 12-year old, with the kind of weary eyes that would scare off any old fingersmith. And he was made entirely of living flames. He stepped out of the fireplace and stomped his little feet, leaving a dusting of ash on the floor. He made his way over to the table and drank the rest of my jasmine tea.

I blurted out the first thing that came to mind: ‘Are you a devil?’ Eloquent, I know. The devil rolled his eyes in the manner of someone who got that question a lot and said he was not, in fact, a devil. ‘I’m a jinni,’ he claimed. ‘You mean a genie? Do you grant wishes?’ I asked. The floor at his feet began to smoke, ‘You Americans, you’re always trying to rewrite other people’s stories. No, I’m not a genie. Genies don’t exist, except as a figment of your imagination. I am a jinni, and we don’t give away wishes for free. I am, however, willing to make you a deal.’

At this point, I was beginning to doubt my sanity. I poured myself a glass of brandy to settle my nerves.” Dr. O’hare coughed slightly, and Ms. Oswald looked up from her story. “Ah, you think I was drunk. I assure you, I was not. When you’re drunk, memories usually get hazy, but this memory is remarkably clear, even after so many years. That’s how I know it was not a hallucination. I also have this,” here she reached down her shirt front and pulled a chain from around her neck. Ms. Oswald held it out, and the doctor took it. Attached was a small metal sphere. He handed it back, and she put it to her lips, whispering, “Carpe diem.” Seize the day. She was left holding an empty chain, a scintillating, golden butterfly now hovering in front of her. With another, “Carpe diem” the butterfly returned to sphere form. Ms. Oswald explained, “The jinni gave me this, said it was my ‘proof.’ Then he went on yammering about how no one believed in magic anymore, they all wanted hard evidence, yada yada yada.

Now, to the important part of the story. The jinni offered me a deal: if I could find his true name, he would grant me a wish. He claimed to have lost his true name centuries ago, and was unable to change forms without it. That was why he lived in a bottle—so every time someone opened it, he could make them a deal in exchange for his name. 

Of course, no one had been able to find it yet. I didn’t want to know what grisly end found those who broke the deal.

Obviously, my first guess was Rumplestiltskin. The man just shook his head, grumbling ‘Damn Rumplestiltskin, always stealing my thunder. He’s my second cousin twice removed on the European side, not even a jinni. Smarmy little bastard if there ever was one.’ After that, I figured he probably had one of those newfangled made-up names parents use to make their children feel special. I could never guess all the made-up names, but I had one last card to play. I asked, ‘What if I gave you my true name instead?’ He just stared at me. ‘I hadn’t thought of that. It could work. Of course, it wouldn’t be your name anymore, it would be mine.’ And so I gave him my name in exchange for a wish. You look skeptical, doctor.” The doctor did, indeed, look skeptical. “Dr. O’hare, do you remember seeing my first name on the paperwork?”

“Yes,” the doctor answered.

“What was it?” Here the doctor paused. What was her first name? He was certain he’d seen it, but he couldn’t remember it. He pulled out her file, but the name swam in his vision, and he could not read it. Ms. Oswald gave a knowing look. “As you can see, my name is gone. It is his now. Even I can’t remember what it was. When it came time for the wish, I knew what I wanted: immortality. I want to know so much more than you can learn in a lifetime. I want to see life on other planets, to see the miraculous medicines we will create and the technology we will design. Life is a story, and I want to know how it ends.

The jinni snapped his fingers and said I was immortal now. It was all very anticlimactic. I took to smoking after that—after all, what’s the harm? I even jumped off a bridge once, just to see what would happen. I broke both legs, but I survived. Of course, that was before I realized that I’d asked for everlasting life, not everlasting youth. I grew older and my body began to wither. Now I can never escape the arthritis,” she gave a bitter laugh. “Everyone believes they’re immortal to some degree. They think they’ll live on through their ideas, their creations, their legacy. They think they’ll live forever in the afterlife, or be reincarnated. The difference is, I actually am—immortal, that is. Long story short, I won’t die of lung cancer.”

“So what happened to the bottle?” was all the doctor could think to ask.

“The bottle—oh, the perfume bottle. Well, I kept it. The jinni was gone of course, but it was still a cool bottle. I’m not sure where it is now, I haven’t been able to find it. Must be in the attic somewhere…”

The doctor almost laughed hysterically. Was he supposed to believe her story? She certainly seemed to believe it herself. Then again, there was the butterfly. And the name. What was he supposed to do now? If the patient refused treatment, he couldn’t force them into it. Dr. O’hare wondered if she had some sort of mental condition. Perhaps he should have her evaluated. But the butterfly… Ms. Oswald gave one last smile and walked out of the office.

It was months later, and Dr. O’hare had almost forgotten the strange woman who’d come to his office. There was a knock at the door. “Enter,” he called. A man in a black tux stepped inside.

“Dr. O’hare, I have come on behalf of Ms. Oswald.” The doctor merely blinked at him. “She left you this in her will,” he pulled out the necklace with the strange metal sphere on it from his briefcase. Dr. O’hare stared.

“Her…will?” The doctor asked. He’d never stopped to consider why she had made a will if she thought herself immortal.

“My apologies, I assumed you knew of her death.”

“Her death?”

The man gave a strange look. “Yes, she passed away last week. She had lung cancer. I heard you were the one who diagnosed her.”

“Yes. Yes, I was.” The man set the necklace on the desk. Dr. O’hare examined it for a minute, then stood up. He had to see this for himself.

The funeral was open casket. There were no friends or family there to weep for her, only the doctor and the man in the tux—her lawyer. Ms.Oswald looked much the same in death as she had in life, her skin waxen. The doctor wondered what they would write on her tombstone. Nameless Oswald. Crazy old bat. Beloved by no one. That seemed like a good fit. He reached out a hand to touch her. Her fingers were cold as frost-bitten glass.

 

Biography: Ever since I was little, I’ve been in love with stories. I spend most of my time either reading or creating, and my creations are often inspired by the stories I read. I don’t like to be tied to one medium in particular, but rather I engage in a variety of artistic expressions, including writing, painting, drawing, and crafting. Stories are how I communicate, and I’m always looking for new mediums to convey the stories that float around in my mind, vying for attention.