Alex awoke to the sound of his grandfather coughing. It sounded terrible. Alex's bedroom was next to the bathroom, and his grandfather was in the bathroom, coughing. The noise of the coughing had a porcelain echo, as if he was sitting on the floor next to the toilet. Perhaps he was also vomiting. It sounded to Alex like his grandfather was going to cough up his lungs. Alex rolled over in his bed and wrapped a blanket around his ears. His stomach twisted itself into a knot.
After a while, Alex heard his grandfather flush the toilet. A bit after this, he heard the sound of his grandfather's slippers sliding along the floor as the old man shuffled back to the guest room.
It was still dark. Alex looked out of the window at the dark black sky. He got out of bed and went to stand by the window. Actually, the sky seemed dark blue, not black. Morning was approaching - slowly, and from far off - but on the way nonetheless.
Alex turned on the bedside lamp. He took the little black pouch out of his dresser drawer and dumped the black tiles out onto the bed. He puzzled over them, wishing to unlock their secrets but not knowing how to go about it. He picked up each of the tiles, examining their strange, mystic symbols.
"Maybe they're wishing tiles," he said aloud to himself. "But if they are, how do they work?" Alex thought about other times you wish for things, and what the rules for wishing are. With a wishbone, two people wish, and then pull on the wishbone to make it break, and the person who gets the big end gets their wish. But who figured that out? How did they know that pulling on the wishbone was what started the magic? And what about blowing out the candles on a birthday cake, or wishing on a falling star, or dropping a coin into a wishing well? Who figured out how those things work? Everybody knows that you can't get your wish if you don't do the wishing correctly... but how do you figure out the rules for wishing if you don't know them?
He decided that he'd just have to try everything he could think of until he got it right. But what should he wish for? He decided to wish for a million dollars. He gathered up the tiles in his hand and held them tightly against his forehead. He clamped his eyes tightly shut. "I wish I had a million dollars," he said. He slowly opened one eye, then the other, hoping to see stacks of money surrounding him on his bed. Nothing seemed different.
"Well, that wasn't it," he said. Next he arranged the tiles in a circular pattern on the bed, closed his eyes, and made his wish. Again, nothing happened.
He tried arranging the tiles in all sorts of patterns. He lined them up in a straight line, with all of the symbols pointing the same way, then with the symbols pointing in alternating directions, then with some face down and some face up. Each time he made the wish, but nothing ever happened. Looking out of the window, he noticed that the sky was pale, that the sun was rising.
He tried doing other things with the tiles. He tossed them all up in the air, making his wish as the tiles clattered on the floor. He put the tiles into their pouch and held the pouch under his pillow. He stacked the tiles up in a stack, he stood them up in a small, Stonehenge-like structure, he balanced the tiles on his head, and he put them all into his mouth. But nothing he tried was right. The rules for wishing on the tiles evaded him.
Downstairs, he heard noises. Dad was awake and getting ready to go to work. Grandpa was also up and around. He could hear him coughing. Suddenly, Alex realized he was wishing for the wrong thing, and decided to start wishing for something different. He tried standing all of the tiles up on their ends, lining them up like dominos, so that when you knocked the first one over, it knocked over all the rest. He spoke his new wish just as he started the chain reaction: "I wish Grandpa wasn't sick anymore." All the dominos fell over, but nothing else seemed different. Alex frowned. "Now it's hard to tell if the wish worked," he said to himself. He sat still, listening, waiting until he heard Grandpa cough again. When the coughing came, it sounded worse than ever. "Six months!" said Alex. "I gotta make this work!"
Alex tried a variety of other arrangements, but the correct wishing rules continued to evade him. After a bit, he noticed that the sun had risen, that it was daylight outside. He decided to take a break and have some breakfast. He went downstairs to the kitchen.
"Good morning, Alex!" said Grandfather and Dad, almost in unison.
"Good morning," said Alex vacantly. His mind was still on the tiles.
"You awake yet son?" asked Dad. "You seem kinda groggy."
Alex said that he was awake, and got out the cereal and the milk.
Grandfather looked at Dad and said quietly, "Busy day, yesterday." Dad nodded knowingly.
Alex ate two bowls of cereal, thinking constantly about the tiles. Then, just as he was drinking up the excess milk, by holding the bowl up to his lips, Alex had a sudden inspiration. Unfortunately, in his hurried attempt to set the bowl aside, he spilled milk on his pajamas.
Undaunted, Alex ran back upstairs. There he set the tiles out on the floor in a certain, special way. He again said "I wish Grandpa wasn't sick anymore." And then suddenly, to Alex's amazement, one of the tiles vanished!
He'd been looking right at them. He was sure about that. He'd been looking right at the tiles, and one of them had just disappeared. Alex knew exactly where all nine of the tiles had been, and suddenly one of them was just gone. Alex counted the tiles. Now there were only eight.
Alex ran out of his room and down the stairs. He stopped in the hallway outside the kitchen. He heard his grandfather talking to his dad.
"This is very strange," Alex heard his grandfather say, "My coughing has stopped. Even when I'm not coughing, I always feel like coughing. But now I don't. My throat feels clear."
"Well, that's good, isn't it?" Alex's father asked.
"Well, yes, certainly," said Grandpa. "But it's also strange."
Alex ran back to his room, tingling with excitement. As he ran up the stairs, he suddenly remembered his new sled, and decided to wish for snow. As he ran into his room, he suddenly realized that he had only eight wishes left, since a tile vanished with each wish. And as he knelt on the floor in front of the tiles, he was disheartened to discover that with one tile gone, the particular arrangement that had been needed to grant his wish was no longer possible.
He spent the next hour arranging and rearranging the tiles, trying to figure out the pattern that was needed to make the magic work with eight tiles.
Finally, at ten minutes after nine that morning, it began to snow. At first it was only a few flurries, but the snow became increasingly heavy, and by noon it looked like a full-fledged blizzard was in the works.