As the money floated for a split moment, I squeezed the tiled fountain ledge, and watched it spiral down and join the hundreds of other glittering coins. Would I ever forget the familiar odor of lobby system air fresheners mixed with chemical-laden disinfectant? Some people call it clean; I call it hospital.
“Hello.” A boyish voice interrupted my brooding.
I glanced up to see a kid in a wheelchair rolled up to the fountain.
“Hi,” I answered, hoping he could hear me over the white noise of the spraying water.
“Did you make a wish?” he asked.
I took another chug of Mountain Dew. How could I tell him I’d just found the two pennies under the vending machine? And worse, that I’d been standing here imagining how many Big Macs could be bought with all those coins?
The kid thrust a hand at me.
“My name’s Joey. What’s yours?”
I stepped over and grasped his hand with a slight shake.
“Nice to meet you, Joey. I’m Nick,” I said, trying to ignore the clear oxygen tubes that looped under his freckled nose.
“How old are you?” he asked.
“Guess.” I replied with my “cool” smile.
Joey stared at me intently for a moment and then stated confidently,
“Wow. Dead on, dude.” I slapped him a high five. “I’m impressed.”
“Do you want to guess how old I am?” Joey asked eagerly.
“Well,” I began, noting how big his fire engine T-shirt looked on him. “I’m guessing you’re younger than my little brother; he’s seven, so—”
Joey’s laugh interrupted me.
“I’m eight and a half,” he boasted. “Mommy says I look littler because I’ve always had this tiny hole in my heart. But don’t worry, she said it’s going to be okay.”
That explains his purplish-blue lips. I thought.
“Have you ever played the waiting game?” Joey asked.
“Yes,” I answered. “It’s my little brother’s favorite game—well, he’s my step-brother, but he’s a great kid. I think you two would get along great.”
“I wish I had a brother,” Joey said wistfully. “What’s his name?”
“Matty.” I answered, thinking back to when his random headaches had suddenly turned into nightmarish migraines last year. The tumor they’d found wasn’t cancerous, but it had been a dangerous operation.
“Is that why you’re here?”
I nodded glancing up again at the big Tweety Bird clock. My wait was going on two hours.
“It looks like you’re playing that waiting game now,” Joey said with a sly grin.
I laughed. This kid was good at getting my mind off of the fears that had been resurfacing since Mom’s call this afternoon.
“So what is he waiting for?” Joey asked.
“I’m not sure,” I said, feeling my smile dissolve. “We thought we were done waiting after his brain surgery last month, but Matty suddenly got another migraine today, so they brought him here to get it checked out.”
Hoping to steer clear from the foreboding thoughts of Matty in pain, I asked, “So are you waiting for them to fix your heart?”
“No, I’m getting a new heart,” Joey said brightening.
“Is that why you’re here?” I asked surprised.
Joey shook his head with a scowl and explained, “We come every month for a check-up.”
“How long have you been coming here?”
“One and a half years.” Joey replied in a matter of fact tone.
“That’s a long time.”
Joey nodded, and I noticed the first rain clouds blow across his young face.
“It’s getting harder to wait, and now I hardly ever feel good.”
I sat my empty can on the damp fountain ledge.
“Sometimes I wonder if I’ll ever get a new heart,” Joey continued. “One time I heard Mommy telling my aunt Sarah that there’s a really long waiting list for hearts. She cried—and I don’t like to make anyone cry.”
Then he tried to put on a brave smile, much like the one Matty had given me right before he was wheeled into surgery. Joey cocked his head like a question mark.
“Have you ever had a wish come true, Nick?”
I cleared my throat, and stammered, “I—I don’t think so.”
“Do you think God hears our wishes?”
“Probably,” I answered, avoiding his restless grey-blue eyes.
I felt trapped. I couldn’t tell him I didn’t believe in wishes.
Joey’s hand dove into his pocket and fished around for a moment.
“Maybe you need a shinier one,” he said waving a new penny. “My first one was really old and dull, so I don’t know if God saw it. But I’ve been saving this one. Daddy says it’ll take a miracle to get a new heart—that’s why he gave it to me.”
I followed Joey’s glance across the lobby to the waiting area where a couple—probably in their early thirties—were talking to a pink scrub-clad nurse.
Joey continued. “Mommy says we have wishing-wells so God can see all the wishes collected in one place. That way he doesn’t have to search for them and they can get answered faster.”
“I see,” I mumbled, frustrated. Why do they have to have things like wishing wells to get these young kids’ hopes up? It just isn’t fair!
I watched as Joey took a deep breath, squeezed his eyes shut, and sat very still. He stretched his thin arm out over the liquid surface with his penny grasped in his hand, palm down. His thin lips started to move—then suddenly he closed his mouth and opened both eyes to look up at me.
“I want you to have it,” he said thrusting his penny toward me.
“No, Joey,” I tried to push his hand back. “I can’t take your wish.”
“No, take it,” he insisted. “You were here first and I want you to have a go at your wish.” He grabbed my reluctant hand with both of his and pressed the warm coin into my palm.
“Anyways, I always ask for the same wish when I’m here,” he said. “I’m sure they can all add together to equal one shiny penny. Besides, your other ones weren’t shiny at all.”
I looked down at the piece of copper and then back up at Joey with a strange feeling in my throat.
“Go ahead,” he coaxed. “But don’t tell me the wish or it won’t work.”
I held the penny above the water feeling self-conscious as the fountain lightly sprayed my skin.
“Make sure you give it an extra big splash when you drop it,” Joey whispered anxiously.
I closed my eyes and thought of little Matty while spots of light reflected off of the glittering miniature tiles in the water.
I found myself whispering into the dark turmoil of my heart.
“God, if you’re there, please, let me see a miracle,”
The water received my penny with a splash-like gulp, and I held my breath until the shimmering coin rested on the mosaic design of a red heart.
“Thank you, Joey,” I said quietly as a calm welled up inside of me.
We were both silent for a few minutes.
“So what do you want to be when you grow up?” I asked, picking up my soda can and fidgeting with the tab.
“A firefighter,” Joey answered enthusiastically. “I want to save people.”
I smiled, but felt ashamed. Once I had wanted to be a marine. Now I was taking pride in perfecting the art of spinning pizza dough at Bambino’s.
“What do you want to be?” Joey asked.
“Batman,” I said seriously.
Joey looked at my unsmiling face for a moment. My mouth twitched, and we both burst out laughing.
Suddenly, an exclamation from across the large lobby caught our attention, and I saw Joey’s mom digging in her big purse while trying to clutch at her husband’s arm. They’re eyes swept the room until they found us. Then they were running toward us, waving a beeping pager.
“Nick.” I spun around hearing the desperate tone in my Mom’s voice as the laughter died in my throat.
Her lips seemed to be moving, but I couldn’t understand her as she collapsed into my arms and clung to me sobbing.
Dread clawed at my heart, and I struggled to breath as if I were drowning. Helplessly, I looked at the nurse who was now standing at a respectful distance fingering her clipboard.
The green frogs on her scrubs seemed to jump and swim in front of my eyes as my Mom’s choked words hit my gut like a sinking ship.
Did she just say something about an aneurysm?
Joey’s excited voice dove into my numb mind, reviving me for a moment.
“Nick!” He was twisting around in his chair and waving at me ecstatically as a nurse was wheeling him away. His mom kept trying to kiss him and his dad was talking animatedly on a cell phone.
I couldn’t see him through a sudden blur, but Joey’s words rang in my mind as he disappeared behind the swinging white doors.
“God has to be real, Nick! My wish came true! I got a new heart!”