I twisted my mouth to one side, and stared at the coin that I held in the middle of my palm.
“There’s a scientific explanation for it,” my sister said.
“For what?” I said, glancing up at the fountain. We were standing three feet away from it.
“For the wishes coming true.”
My brother, who was standing between us, cleared his throat. “They call it the ‘unseen fish theory.’ Because we can’t see them—“
“Though there is some debate about why we can’t see them,” my sister said.
I sighed. It was a good thing I had already decided what my wish was going to be.
Both my brother and sister had thrown coins in the fountain and made wishes—according to the rules. And both of their wishes had come true, just like everyone else’s wishes—everyone who followed the rules.
I gazed into the fountain. “How did they get in there?”
My brother crossed his arms and leaned over to look past the stone rim. “The fish? I don’t know. I think they’re trying to trace the water back to its source.”
“What’s the deal with the water?” my sister asked.
“So, I read that the water was tested after the fountain was turned on. They do microbial tests every week minimum, or more if they see some growth or if shoppers are getting sick.”
“Growth, eww,” I said. I curled my fingers around my coin. I didn’t want to throw it in the fountain if there was going to be…growth. I turned to my brother. “What’s ‘growth’?”
My brother turned to me. “Bacterial growth.” Then he turned back to my sister. “They’re saying that someone must have released something into the water. The security cameras caught something. A suspicious looking person wearing way too many clothes for the season—“
“Wait…too many clothes?” my sister said. “What is too many clothes for the season? Who decided that?”
“I don’t know, man. Mall security?”
My sister half-sighed and half-groaned. “Continue.”
“Okay, so from what I read, a woman released water containing a small population of the unseen fish—like a breeding population, I guess. And then a couple of sources said she also threw in some powder.”
“Fish food?” my sister asked.
“That’s the working theory.”
“Why did she do it?”
“Siblings!” I finally said.
My siblings both looked at me.
I uncurled my fingers and tilted my hand to show them I still held my coin.
My brother and sister said nothing. But they turned to face the fountain and stood up straight and stayed quiet.
I cupped the hand holding the coin in my empty hand and brought them close to my mouth, so I could whisper my wish to the coin.
Then I tossed the coin in the fountain. This was the part I was most nervous about. I wasn’t normally bad at throwing things. But I was bad at doing normal easy everyday things during important serious moments.
The coin arced up and over the edge of the fountain. It flipped a few times, catching the light and flashing it back at me, and then it splashed into the water and sunk softly to the bottom.
“Well…that’s that,” my brother said. He put his hands in the pockets of his blazer and twisted around. “Let’s go get frozen yogurt.”
As we walked away from the fountain, I felt the urge to turn around, or at least turn my head. But I resisted. That was against the rules. My wish wouldn’t come true if I turned around and looked.
I had spoken the wish. I had tossed the coin. Like my brother said. That was that.
My sister and brother were quiet for a few minutes while we walked. My brother kept clearing his throat though. And my sister kept breathing loudly.
“Why can’t we see the fish?” I asked, glancing from left to right. I was the one in the middle now.
“They’re near-invisible,” my brother said. “They reflect almost all light, and that’s why they’re unseen. So, they’re nourished by the minerals and metals that come off the coins that we toss in the fountain. The fish secrete some chemicals that act as natural antibiotics to keep the water clean. In some stories I found, people say the fish eat our wishes and then turn them into reality. But here’s where science comes in. So, in addition to antibiotic chemicals, they also secrete hormones that are sprayed up into the air. What is that called?” He glanced over at my sister, who shrugged. “They become…air-bound?”
“Aerosolized,” my sister said.
My brother snapped his fingers. “That’s it. They become aerosolized—the hormones—and they trigger all these chemical pathways in the human brain, positive ones, so the person walks away from the fountain feeling calm and confident, and they keep feeling that way for a while. Long enough to make good things happen in their lives.”
My brother looked over at me as if he was expecting some exact response. But I didn’t know what I was supposed to say. Mostly because I didn’t understand all of what he had just said.
“It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy, get it?” he said.
I didn’t get it. Not exactly. But I just nodded.
“That’s not it, bro.”
I turned to my sister.
She raised her right hand, and with her other fingers curled, she extended her thumb and forefinger and held them about an inch apart. “The fish are tiny,” she said. And she brought her thumb and forefinger together, closer and closer, until they were touched. “So tiny it would take a magnifying glass to see them, or better yet, a microscope. The reason wishes come true is that the coins cause a wake—do you know what that is?”
I shook my head.
My brother stepped in to explain. “It’s when something that’s moving through water leaves a track. Stuff that is much smaller than that thing can get pulled in to that wake as that thing passes by.”
“Oh, okay,” I said. I thought I understood.
“Great,” my sister said. “So the tiny, tiny fish are pulled behind the coin as it falls to the bottom of the fountain, and they hear the wish in the vibrational patterns left on the coin when the person—the wisher—spoke the wish to the coin.”
Speaking the wish to the coin before tossing it in the fountain was one of the many rules of the wish-making.
“In the splash-back,” my sister continued, “a lot of these same fish get sprayed up into the air in droplets so tiny, we can’t see them with our naked eyes. Again, we’d need a magnifying glass, or better yet, a microscope. I mean, they’re so tiny that some estimates say at least a million fish are swept up in the wake, and maybe a quarter to a half of them are thrown back up into the air. Once they’re airborne, they float out into the world, and they remember the wish, so they end up directing the little bubble of water they’re floating in to land in places where they could guide the world into making the wisher’s wish come true.”
We all stopped walking, because we had reached the food court. I turned to my siblings.
My brother smirked. “Wait, if the fish are that tiny, isn’t that just called…bacteria?”
My sister tilted her head and smirked back. “No, they are slightly bigger than bacteria. Well, much bigger actually. But still microscopic. Well, actually some of the biggest ones, some of the females, might be big enough to be seen by a high quality magnifying glass.”
“Maybe you’re both right,” I said. “The fish could be super-tiny and could also be invisible.”
My brother’s forehead crinkled. “I don’t know about that.”
My sister narrowed her eyes. “Yeah, why would they need to be invisible if they’re so tiny? Or why would they need to be tiny if they’re invisible?”
I sighed, letting my cheeks and lips puff out.
“Don’t be discouraged by what we say about it,” my sister said.
“Yeah, it’s good that you’re thinking,” my brother said. “I like that.”
He turned to my sister, who nodded.
We split up to go get food, had lunch, had some frozen yogurt, and then went to do the thing we actually came to the mall to do. We went to the store our mom told us about, the only place where we could get some antique calculating machine that she said my dad wanted. She’d been worried about how expensive it would be. But it wasn’t. It was way, way cheaper than getting him a new phone. She had already called and ordered it and paid for it. She assigned us to pick it up and get it wrapped.
I kept thinking about the fountain, and the unseen fish, and my wish. I couldn’t help it. I kept picturing millions of tiny fish floating around me, remembering my wish. And then I would switch to thinking about hormones—which I pictured as almost-invisible fish—swirling through hundreds of curling tubes in my brain that were all connected to each other. I couldn’t tell if anything felt different, if the fish were working on my wish.
I also couldn’t help doubting myself, wondering if I had done the wish-making right. I went through all the rules—making sure the wish was not selfish, making sure I stood three feet away from the fountain, making sure I didn’t wish for anyone to get hurt or to do things they didn’t believe in, making sure the coin I used was one I had earned, and on and on. And even after all that, I wasn’t done. After my wish came true, I would have to toss another coin into the fountain, thanking the fish for their help. That second coin had to be one that I had been given as a gift.
My brother, sister, and I picked up our dad’s present, got it wrapped nicely and securely, and we went home.
That night, when we were having our weekly family dinner, my dad asked me about the fountain. We had told him that’s why we went to mall, to hide our real mission.
“What did you wish for?” he asked.
“Don’t tell, honey,” my mom said, “or it won’t come true.”
My brother shook his head. “Mom, that’s birthday wishes.”
My sister nodded. “You can talk about your fountain wish, unless you don’t want to.”
I grinned at my siblings. “I wished that you two would get along.”
My sister frowned. “What? Why do you think we don’t get along?”
My brother waved a fork at her. “Because you’re always arguing with me.”
“I don’t argue. I only point out points. And only when you’re wrong about stuff and refuse to admit it.”
“Or when you’re wrong about stuff and you refuse to admit it,” my brother said.
My sister pointed to him with her fork. “I’d like to examine that sometime.”
My sister smiled. “I’m in.”
My brother turned to me. “See, we’re getting along.”
I set my fork down. “Maybe it’s because my wish worked.”
My brother started frowning and my sister started laughing.
And that’s how dinner went. My parents watched my brother and sister “get along.” None of us gave away anything about dad’s present. And I kept wondering what the unseen fish were doing about my wish.
After dinner, my dad and siblings started sorting through our collection of tabletop games to figure out what everyone felt like playing. It was my and my mom’s turn to clear the table and wash the dishes.
When I was finishing up drying the dishes, my mom crossed her arms and leaned against the kitchen counter, looking at me. I looked over at her and she tilted her head. She was smiling, and her eyes were twinkling.
“What did you really wish for?” she asked.
I laughed a little. “Well, I didn’t exactly wish for them to get along. But I wasn’t lying either…not exactly.”
My mom gave me one of her “I knew it” nods. “Then what exactly did you wish for?”
I dried the last dish and put it away.
“World peace.” I shrugged. “Why not, right?”
My mom’s smile turned serious. “Doesn’t that break one of those hundred rules about what you can and can’t wish for?”
Mom had never made a wish in the fountain. She didn’t believe in wishing for things. She believed in hoping for things. But she also didn’t believe in making her kids believe in everything she believed in just because she was our mom.
“I’m pretty confident I followed all the rules,” I said.
“I don’t know, hon. Should we leave it to the fish to make that wish come true?”
“They don’t make the wishes come true. We do. They just help us along.”
My mom opened the cabinet and pulled out our comfort mugs. “How do they do that?”
“Well, there are different theories.” I took each mug as she handed it to me and put it on a tray.
“Which theory do you believe is true?” she asked.
I twisted my mouth to one side and bit my lip. “Well, I have my own theory.”
“There are no fish. The fish are…” I frowned, while my mom poured hot chocolate in all the mugs. I tried to remember the word I wanted to use. I breathed in the warm chocolate smell and remembered. “They’re a symbol, I guess. It’s our words that are real. And the rules to make sure that the wish is for the good of everyone. That’s what helps the wishes along.”
“Interesting. So where do you suppose the whole fish story came from?”
I shrugged. “Fish live in the water. And they’re cuter than words. And definitely cuter than bacteria, if it turns out to be bacteria. That’s my back-up theory.” I had looked up what bacteria were when we got home.
Mom chuckled again. She turned to me. “Just to be clear, I’m not laughing at you or your theory.”
“I’m impressed, actually.”
I scratched the tip of my nose and looked away. “And I think sometimes people don’t believe in themselves enough, so they have to make up a story. “
“And maybe it’s nice to think that we’re not alone in the world? If there are all these fish floating around helping us achieve our dreams?”
I looked at her again and nodded.
“Wow, after all those semi-scientific explanations your brother and sister having been touting all this time, I didn’t expect that you would come up with something even more practical and logical.” My mom picked up a mug and blew on the top. She took a tiny sip.
“Don’t worry, Mom. I still believe in magic. I just don’t believe we can sit around and expect it to work by itself. We have to make it work. Sometimes we just have to press a few buttons. Sometimes we have to use our muscles or brains, or both.”
I reached for a mug, but my mom shook her head. The hot chocolate was still too hot.
“If that’s what you believe,” she said, “then why not just make the wish anywhere? Here at home? Why did you need the fountain?”
“Well, I didn’t want to take any chances. Just because I can’t see any fish in the fountain doesn’t mean they’re not there.”
My mom held the mug in front of her face with both her hands. “World peace, huh?” She took another sip.
When the hot chocolate was ready, my mom carried the tray of mugs out, and I carried a plate of cookies. My dad and siblings had chosen a game and set it up.
My mom glanced over at me. I glanced back and twisted my mouth to one side in a half-smile.
I hadn’t lied to her. Not really. Not exactly.
My wish. My real wish?
I didn’t know if I should say. I thought it was a good one. But when I whispered it out loud to the coin, it sounded strange. Maybe it sounded dumb. No, if I said I thought I sounded dumb, my brother would tell me that no one is actually dumb, so I can’t be dumb. And my sister would tell me that we’re all dumb, so if I think I sounded dumb, I shouldn’t worry about it.
But I think…I think my wish was a pretty good one.
I wished that when people in the world disagreed, they would disagree the way my brother and sister disagreed.
I glanced away from mom and toward my siblings. They were looking at the instruction booklet for the game, while my dad rummaged through the pile of cookies.
“I’m pretty sure it means that the first character to recruit three ships in their fleet wins,” my sister said.
My brother shook his head and pointed to the booklet. “No, I don’t think so. After you recruit those ships, you have to wait until your next turn to declare that you have a fleet. Then you win.”
“That doesn’t make any sense. That’s like winning and then waiting a turn to say you won.”
My sister threw up a hand. “No, but why? That’s not what it says.”
My brother pointed to a tiny line on the booklet. “Right here, ‘Player must declare that recruited ships and their respective captains and crews are officially allies. Player is then appointed the title of Captain Prime of the nascent fleet.’”
“Yes, you do that in the same turn.”
“No, you can’t. Because you won’t have any actions left for that turn.”
My sister shook her head. “What does ‘nascent’ mean?”
“I don’t know,” my brother said, pulling out his phone. “Let me look it up. I’ll look up the rules about winning the game too.”
“Okay, but if it’s still not clear after you look it up, what rules should we go by so we can start playing?”
My siblings kept talking, and I reached over to grab my mug. My brain pathways felt activated. I felt calm and confident. I pictured a million tiny fish floating around our living room, cute and curious. And I pictured a million tiny fish floating out of our living room and into the world.
And I smiled, because I liked the wish I made.
Copyright © 2019 Nila L. Patel