Walter slid the milkshake forward too far, then watched in horror as it tipped over the counter’s edge and splashed to the floor. “You dumb idiot!” The kid on the other side of the counter, a boy his own age, jumped back too late to avoid the splatter.
“Walter!” Mr. Delaney, owner of Delaney’s Deli, rushed over. “How many times have I told you? This was your last chance. A two-year-old could do this job better than you.” Mr. Delaney’s eyebrows wiggled furiously, two writhing caterpillars run amok. “You bring out the worst in me, Walter. Do you wreak havoc everywhere?”
Walter didn’t know what to say. Try as he would, he did things wrong. Ice cream scoops toppled from their cones. Cokes sloshed over the rims of cups into the laps of elderly women. Sandwiches burned on the grill, their charred odor permeating the deli. Mr. Delaney had almost fired him three times, but each time Walter pleaded and his employer relented.
When the boy with the milkshake-soaked shirt stalked off, Walter pleaded again, and Mr. Delaney relented again. “I’m too soft-hearted. I’ll give you one more chance, but I can’t afford another mistake,” the deli owner warned.
Walter’s heart soared as he returned to the whir of the milkshake maker and the sizzle of hamburgers on the grill. He had to keep his job, but it wasn’t because of the money. It was because of Isabella.
She arrived each day at Delaney’s Deli with a different boy: on Monday, Steve Simmons, 12th grade quarterback; on Tuesday, Mark Pascal, senior class president; on Wednesday, Denzel Johnston, 11th grade track star.
Walter’s inability to dribble a basketball through a maze of arms and legs; his thin, sallow face pitted with the markings of an extended adolescence, forced him to confront the truth that Isabella was way out of his league. But that didn’t squelch the hope and despair that rose simultaneously in his chest.
“Walter.” A voice sliced through his thoughts, tugging them from Isabella.
“What can I get you, sir?” Walter turned to a man he had never seen; a short, round man with a shock of hair the color of wheat straw.
“You can’t get me anything, Walter. I’m here to get something for you. What I am about to reveal will sound absurd, so you must put aside your preconceived notions of how this world operates; open your mind to possibilities thus far unexamined in your limited range of experience. My name is Fife,” the stranger continued, “and I am your guardian angel.”
Walter, alarmed, started to summon Mr. Delaney. But the man called Fife interrupted. “I see you do not believe me. You mortals with your insular minds, your inability to grasp what is not within the confines of your meager existence, are always clamoring for proof. So I will oblige.”
Before Walter could respond, Fife raised chubby fingers, snapped three times, and the deli vanished.
Walter found himself in a garden unlike anything he had ever seen. Roses spilled over white trellises. Impatiens flourished in the shade of spreading poplars, weeping willows flanked a pond crammed with floating water lilies and purple wisteria draped a bridge arching over a babbling brook. Fife, sitting on a smooth, white bench, motioned for Walter to join him.
“Is this heaven?” Walter’s voice, a hoarse croak, barely rose above the din of tropical birds twittering overhead.
“No, but similar. Heaven is real. This haven of flowers and birds is strictly a product of my imagination, created to prove that I speak the truth.”
Walter, searching frantically for Mr. Delaney, said, “ Why are we here?”
“That’s more like it. Ask sensible questions and I will respond with sensible answers,” Fife replied. “I have come to grant you one wish. This is highly unorthodox, but due to my persistence, the Almighty has deemed it appropriate for me to intervene in your life.
“Most angels do not like to bother with interventions, since their efforts so frequently go unrewarded. You humans remain skeptical in the face of the most blatant and astonishing miracles, chalking it up to imagination, dreams and what not.
“But back to my point. I pestered the Almighty for one opportunity to put you on a somewhat more equal footing with the rest of humankind; something to compensate for the deficiencies that have thus far defined your life.” Fife crossed his arms and stared expectantly at Walter. “I have been given authority to grant you one wish. What will it be?”
Walter sank back, almost falling into a thorny rosebush. “You mean I can wish for whatever I want?”
“Anything,” Fife nodded. “I intreat you to think wisely and wish for something that will carry you happily through your years here on earth. However, I anticipated some indecision. If you like, I will give you 24 hours. Tomorrow you may make your wish.”
“That’s awesome, Mr. Fife…” Walter, his head whirling, began to speak. But Fife had vanished, along with the bench and the garden. The babbling of the brook became the hum of activity in Delaney’s Deli.
“Walter, you look a million miles away!” Isabella and her Thursday boyfriend stared at Walter, who was still reeling. Under her brown-eyed gaze, Walter felt a crimson blush steal up his neck across the bony ridges of his cheeks. But today he held the knowledge of Fife’s visit like a bright bouquet. He could wish for Isabella if he wanted her! Or he could wish to be more handsome than her cadre of ever-changing boyfriends.
Confidence washed him like a tide. He smiled at the pretty girl and the six-foot two quarterback hovering beside her.
After Isabella and her boyfriend had left, the hours crept by. Whenever Walter tried to think of his wish, a customer interrupted with demands for ice cream or caramel lattes. Finally the long day ended and he was free to go home, where he could reflect on the details of this amazing day.
His first idea was to wish for looks. All Isabella’s boyfriends were hot. Good looking people got what they wanted without being witty or charming or especially smart. But Fife had advised him to wish for something that would carry him happily through his years on earth. Everybody got old if they lived long enough, so being handsome wouldn’t last forever.
“I’ll wish for intelligence,” Walter thought. “If I’m smart, I can make a lot of money. I could even be president someday. Isabella wouldn’t be able to resist me.” But Walter had a sudden, devastating thought. Some of the smartest people didn’t amount to a hill of beans, and some of the dumbest ones got to be president. Intelligence didn’t seem to be a criterion for success.
“I’ll wish for the money outright,” he decided. “I’ll wish for a million, or maybe a billion dollars. Then it won’t matter if I’m smart or dumb or handsome or ugly.”
It seemed like the most promising thing to wish for, until Walter considered wealth without looks, brains, charm, or any other attribute that would win Isabella’s undying love. How could he narrow his desires to just one wish?
But by morning, Walter had decided. Sometime during the long, restless night, a wish had come to him.
Walter dashed to Delaney’s Deli in a fever of excitement. He wondered how he would summon his guardian angel.
“You do not have to worry about summoning me. I’m a timely chap. It’s one of my attributes.” Fife said, appearing as suddenly as a lightning bolt. “I trust you have decided on your wish.”
“You want me to wish right now?”
“Of course, boy. Speak up! The world is yours!”
“I…” Walter paused, his voice trembling with the weight of his decision. “I wish for the characteristic, whatever it is, that will make Isabella love me the most.” Walter leaned forward expectantly. What attribute would he receive, and would it arrive suddenly, in one big windfall, or gradually, in increments?
An inscrutable look flickered across Fife’s face. “Okay, my friend. Your wish is granted.” With a snap of his fingers, Fife vanished, and Isabella, as if on cue, strolled in. There was a new hesitancy about her. Walter saw with surprise that she was alone; no hovering jocks or class presidents trailing like lap dogs. She approached the counter and stood uncertainly, twisting a strand of her long, dark hair.
Walter waited, scarcely breathing.
“I’ve come to tell you something Walter,” Isabella began in the throaty voice that had always intrigued him. “I’m attracted to you. I have been for a long time, and I think it’s because of your indifference. Other boys follow me like shadows, but you don’t pay me a bit of attention. Don’t you like me, Walter? Do you think we could get together sometime?”
And suddenly Walter was indifferent to the silly girl. He looked frantically for Fife, but the little man was gone.