One day, as I sat on a bench near the statue of General Leo J. Frankwater, an odd idea popped into my head.
I thought to myself, "Wouldn't it be neat if I had a picture that was actually a window into a secret world? It would be a two dimensional image, just a bit of cardboard; but I could step into the world seen in the picture, and it would be a full three dimensional world, just for me. And I could hide in there, safe from all harm, for as long as I wanted, taking up no space at all in the real world. Boy, I wish I had that."
"Granted," said a voice.
I jumped into the air, spilling on the ground the bag of popcorn I'd been tossing to the birds. "Who said that?" I shouted.
"I did," said the voice. I turned around, and noticed for the first time a tiny man sitting on General Leo J. Frankwater's tarnished bronze arm. "I like your wish... so I will grant it."
"How did you know what I was thinking? And how could you possibly grant my wish? And how come you're so small?"
"Questions, questions," said the little man. "I'm a Genie, of course."
"Oh sure, you're a Genie," I said. "Right. And get off of that statue! It's against park regulations to climb around up there!"
"Oh, so you're a park ranger now, eh?"
"No, but... Hey, I thought Genies lived in bottles and stuff. How come you're just hanging around like this?"
"You watch too much Television, young man. Genies have occasionally been imprisoned in bottles, yes. But what happens to them when they're freed? They give out the standard three wishes, and then what?"
"Gee, I don't know. I always figured they went back into the bottle, or something."
"You moron! Why would they want to do that? Let's say you're a Genie. You've been trapped in a bottle for a thousand years, right? Some bozo comes along and lets you out. You're so happy you give him three wishes, out of gratitude. What do you do when he cashes in his wishes? Go back into the bottle? NO WAY!"
"So what do you do?"
"You live it up! FREEDOM!"
"Oh. Um... what exactly do you mean by 'living it up'?"
"Well, you know, I do what everybody does for fun. Go see a movie, eat out in a nice restaurant, maybe watch a little television when I get home..."
"What are you talking about? With the magic powers of a Genie, you watch television?"
"Which is exactly my point. Even with powers as great as mine, you run out of ideas. Once you stop thinking up fun stuff to do with your magic, you get lazy."
"Alright, alright, what about me? Why do you want to give me a wish?"
"I'm bored. When I've got nothing better to do, I look around for someone with a wish that's interesting enough for me to bother granting. And yours is mildly amusing."
"Um... which wish exactly was it that you heard?"
"The one about the two dimensional world."
"Oh. I was hoping you meant the one about that redhead over there."
"Well, I heard that one, too, but it was boring."
"Maybe for you..."
"Look, I'm losing interest in this whole thing right now. Do you want the wish, or not?"
"Well, yeah, why not? What do I do?"
"First you describe to me the picture you want as the gateway. Then you sign this form."
"What's the form?"
"It's just a release that keeps me from being held responsible if anything goes wrong with your wish. It's a standard legal document."
"Ok." I signed the form with a black fountain pen the Genie supplied for me.
"Now," he said, "what should the picture look like? Remember, only what you see in the picture will exist in your world once you get there. If the picture shows only the top half of a big building, then that building will have no basement or ground floors, and will thus defy all the laws of gravity, you see?"
"Yes, I see. Hmm. Ok, I want a picture of a great big castle, on a high cliff near the ocean, with a-"
"No, no, no... you'd have to import servants to keep the place clean, and there'd be no running water or heat or anything since there'd be no adjoining city to supply these things, and you know how cold and drafty those castles can be in the winter..."
"No, I don't."
"You don't? No, I guess you wouldn't."
"Alright then, I want a picture of a luxurious building in a big city, with a suite of private rooms just for me..."
"If you have a city, then you'll have people too, with crowds and crime and stuff like that - why have another world? It'd be just like this one."
"Ok, I know what, I want a little house on a tropical island, where it's always warm, with a fresh water spring and fruit hanging off the trees, and lots of exotic plants and flowers growing all around, and a warm beach and a boat in case I want to go sailing, and no other islands for miles around, and no one else on the island, unless I bring them with me, of course, and-"
"Now you're talking!" said the Genie. He reached into the pocket of his vest and took out a small pile of postcards. He handed one to me. "How's that?"
The postcard showed a rich color photograph of the place I'd just described, down to the last detail, details I hadn't even finished telling him. On the back it said "Tropical Island, somewhere in the South Seas" and "Printed by the ACME Printing Company" and "Place Stamp Here."
"Who's the ACME Printing Company?"
"Anything produced by a Genie bears the company name ACME. ACME Fishing Rod Company, ACME brand automatic inflatable raft, ACME Corporation electric can opener... it's all magically produced by Genies. Well, have fun! I must be on my way."
"Thanks!" I shouted after him, as he faded slowly away.
I took the postcard home to my drab one bedroom apartment on the edge of the city. Halfway home I realized he hadn't told me how to actually step into the image, but I shrugged it off, thinking I'd be able to figure it out, and not really believing anymore that the whole thing had actually happened.
When I got home, I stuck the postcard to my kitchen cabinets with some magnets, and stared at it. I looked into the image for several minutes, hoping that by merely concentrating on it, I would somehow be transported into it. Nothing happened. So I touched it again, but this time, it felt soft, like sticking your finger into a bowl of pudding, rather than a piece of cardboard. The next thing I knew I was tumbling through space and landing with a dull thud on a soft, sandy beach. The sun was shining bright in a cloudless blue sky, and I blinked my eyes repeatedly as they adjusted to the sudden change in lighting. And I suddenly realized that it had worked. I was here! On my own private island! Wow!
But as quickly as the excitement hit me, so too did a fear - could I get home again? I looked around, and behind me was a window, hanging in the air. It was about the size of a television screen, and hung, free and unsupported, about two feet in the air above the beach. Behind the window was a zone of nothing. Just nothing. On either side of the nothing, ocean water rolled in on the golden sand. But directly in front of me was a window, and nothing.
The window showed the view into my apartment, as might be seen by a fly perched on my kitchen cabinet. I stuck my hand into the window, and tumbled through it, into my kitchen. I landed on the floor, bashing my arm painfully against the sink. But at least I was back. I stood up, and studied the postcard on the cabinet again. I touched it, but it seemed normal; I found that I could only enter the image by concentrating on it for awhile before touching it. I went in again.
This time, I explored the island. There were beaches all around the perimeter, with dense overgrowth beyond. Near the center of my island was the fresh water spring, and up the path from this was the house. The house was small, but comfortable and well-appointed; it could have been found in any suburban area. The main difference was the large solar panels on the roof, which supplied a presumably limited amount of electricity. Also, for the toilet there was a septic tank.
I noticed that everything bore the ACME name. Wood panels and beams had "ACME Lumber Company" burned into them. All of the appliances were ACME brand appliances. There was a small supply of food and canned goods in the pantry, with names like "ACME brand artificially flavored instant chocolate pudding mix" and "ACME brand cream of chicken flavored soup". Even the bathroom plumbing, traditionally manufactured by American Standard, bore the proud name of ACME.
Beyond the house was a hammock strung between two palm trees. I swung into the hammock, and dozed off into a nap, dreamily thinking about my good fortune. When I awoke, I tore off my clothes and swam in the warm ocean, and ate fruit straight off the tree. Then I decided I should go home.
Again I bruised my arm as I fell onto the kitchen floor. I took the postcard down, and mounted it on the wall above my bed with a thumbtack.
For the next several weeks, I found great pleasure in my private retreat. I went to work in the days, and spent the evenings on my island. But as those weeks went by, I became more and more frustrated with the tedium and sourness of my job and the gray city. I looked forward more and more to my relaxing life on the island. So I began moving my belongings to my island. I found that I could take almost anything with me - I could hold big objects in my hands, and stare at the postcard, then touch it with my forehead and I was through. As I became more skilled, I could go through with very little initial concentration, and could emerge from either side on my feet.
So I moved from my drab city apartment to my house on the island.
Once everything was in, I could go anywhere in the real world, and as long as I had my postcard with me, I also had in my possession all of my personal belongings and a place to sleep at night. So I quit my job, told my landlord that I had moved out, and began travelling all around.
When I wanted to go home, all I had to do was position the card in a place where it would be safe and undisturbed, and enter it while no one was looking. Once inside, I could also sit on the beach, and watch what was happening in the real world, through the window on the beach. By sneaking into private places, positioning the card on a shelf, and then entering my world, I was able to watch all sorts of interesting events and activities.
Naturally, my thoughts also wandered to crime. I could, quite easily, leave the card on a shelf in a store, go into my world, and wait for the store to be closed and locked. Then, after hours, I could emerge and take what I wanted into my world. In the morning, or even days later depending on the crime, I could safely emerge, pocket my postcard, and depart, unnoticed and unsuspected. I did this sort of thing a number of times, and stocked my island home with everything anybody could ever want. And though I did sometimes feel guilty about it, I simply could not resist. The main deterrent to crime is the fear of getting caught; for me, it was so easy that this fear vanished.
It was all so easy, in fact, that it soon became rather dull.
But then one day, just as I was getting quite bored with the real world, and spending almost all of my time relaxing in peace on my island, something terrible happened: I lost the postcard.
I'd been carrying it around in a paperback book, to keep it from getting too badly bent or damaged. (I may have been needlessly concerned; damage to the card seemed to have no effect on my secret world.) I decided to have a bite to eat in a coffee shop downtown. The book was in my back pocket - sometime after eating, I realized that the book, and the card within it, was gone. They must have slipped out of my pocket while I was sitting on the barstool at the counter. I ran back to the coffee shop, but by then, the book was long gone.
Where is it now? I can only guess. Perhaps it wound up in the trash, and is now only ashes in an incinerator. Maybe it's for sale in a junk shop somewhere. Or maybe someone else found it, and learned the secret to entering my postcard world. Perhaps even now they are living on my tropical island in the south seas.
Maybe someday I'll recover my postcard, or I'll find again the Genie who gave it to me. But in the meantime, I am searching the postcard stands of the world for cards printed by the ACME Printing Company.