Deep breath. “…and they lived…”
I can do this. It’s not as if I didn’t sense it coming. After all, I can smell an H.E.A. (Happily Ever After) a mile away—or, in this case, twenty-four pages glued between cardboard covers that feature the requisite princess surrounded by cute woodland creatures. And there are the words, right where I knew the cliché of an author would slap them, on the last page in the same font as those preceding them. Deceptively nondescript. Recklessly hopeful. Heartbreakingly false.
“Aunt Bridge,” Birdie chirps, “finish it.”
I look up from the once-upon-a-time crisp page that has been softened, creased, and stained by the obsessive readings in which hermother indulges her.
Eyes wide, cheeks flushed, my niece nods. “Say the magic words.” Magic?
More nodding, and is she quivering? Oh no, I refuse to be a party to this. I smile big, say, “The end,” and close the book. “So, how about another piece of weddin’ cake?”
“No!” She jumps off the footstool she earlier dubbed her “princess throne,” snatches the book from my hand, and opens it to the back. “Wight here!”
I almost correct her initial r-turned-w but according tomy sister, it’s developmental and the sound is coming in fine on its own, just as her other r’s did.
Birdie jabs the H, E, and A. “It’s not the end until you say the magic words.”
And I thought this the lesser of two evils—entertaining my niece and nephew as opposed to standing around at the reception as the bride and groom are toasted by all the happy couples, among them, cousin Piper, soon to be wed to my friend Axel, and cousin Maggie, maybe soon to be engaged to her sculptor man, what’s-his-name.
“Yeah,” Birdie’s twin,Miles, calls from where he’s once more hanging upside down on the rolling ladder I’ve pulled him off twice. “You gotta say the magic words.”
Outrageous! Even my dirt-between-the-toes, scab-ridden, snot-on-the-sleeve nephew is buying into the fantasy.
I spring from the armchair, cross the library, and unhook his ankles from the rung. “You keep doin’ that and you’ll bust your head wide open.” I set him on his feet. “And your mama will—
”No, Bonnie won’t.
“Well, she’ll be tempted to give you a whoopin’.”
Face bright with upside-down color, he glowers.
I’d glower back if I weren’t so grateful for the distraction he provided. “All right, then.” I slap at the ridiculously stiff skirt of the dress Maggie loaned me for my brother’s wedding. “Let’s rejoin the party—”
“You don’t wanna say it.”Miles sets his little legs wide apart. “Do ya?” So much for my distraction.
“You don’t like Birdie’s stories ’cause they have happy endings. And you don’t.”
I clench my toes in the painfully snug high heels on loan from Piper.
“Yep.”Miles punches his fists to his hips. “Even Mama says so.”
My own sister? I shake my head, causing the blond dreads Maggie pulled away from my face with a headband to sweep my back. “That’s not true.”
“Then say it wight now!” Birdie demands.
I peer over my shoulder at where she stands like an angry tin soldier, an arm outthrust, the book extended.
“Admit it,”Miles singsongs.
I snap around and catch my breath at the superior, knowing look on his five-year-old face. He’s his father’s son, all right, a miniature Professor Claude de Feuilles, child development expert.
“You’re not happy.” The professor in training, who looks anything but with his spiked hair, nods.
I know better than to bristle with two cranky, nap-deprived children, but that’s what I’m doing. Feeling as if I’m watching myself from the other side of the room, I cross my arms over my chest. “I’ll admit no such thing.”
“That’s ’cause you’re afraid. Mama said so.” Miles peers past me.
“Didn’t she, Birdie?”
Why is Bonnie discussing my personal life with her barely-out-of-diapers kids?
“Uh-huh. She said so.”
Miles’s smile is smug. “On the drive here, Mama told Daddy this day would be hard on you. That you wouldn’t be happy for Uncle Bart ’cause you’re not happy.”
Not true! Not that I’m thrilled with our brother’s choice of bride, but…come on! Trinity Templeton? Nice enough, but she isn’t operating on a full charge, which wouldn’t be so bad if Bart made up for the difference. Far from it, his past history with illegal stimulants having stripped him of a few billion brain cells.
“She said your heart is”—Miles scrunches his nose, as if assailed by a terrible odor—“constipated.”
“That you need an M&M, and I don’t think she meant the chocolate kind you eat. Probably one of those—”
“I am not constipated.” Pull back. Nice and easy. I try to heed my inner voice but find myself leaning down and saying, “I’m realistic.”
Birdie stomps the hardwood floor. “Say the magic words!”
“Nope.”Miles shakes his head. “Constipated.”
I shift my cramped jaw. “Re-al-is-tic.”
Pull back, I tell you! He’s five years old. “Just because I don’t believe in fooling a naive little girl into thinkin’ a prince is waiting for her at the other end of childhood and will save her from a fate worse than death and take her to his castle and they’ll live…” I flap a hand. “…you know, doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with me.”
Isn’t there? “It means I know better. There may be a prince, and he may have a castle, and they may be happy, but don’t count on it lasting. Oh no. He’ll get bored or caught up in work or start cheatin’—you know, decide to put that glass slipper on some other damsel’s foot or kiss another sleeping beauty—or he’ll just up and die like Easton—” No,
nothing at all wrong with you, Bridget Pickwick Buchanan, whose ugly widow’s weeds are showing.
“See!”Miles wags a finger.
Unfortunately, I do. And as I straighten, I hear sniffles.
“Now you done it!” Miles hustles past me. “Got Birdie upset.”
Sure enough, she’s staring at me with flooded eyes. “The prince dies? He dies and leaves the princess all alone?”The book falls from her hand, its meeting with the floor echoing around the library. Then she squeaks out a sob.
“No!” I spring forward, grimacing at the raspy sound the skirt makes as I attempt to reach Birdie before Miles.
He gets there first and puts an arm around her. A meltable moment, my mother would call it. After she gave me a dressing down. And I deserve one. My niece may be on the spoiled side and she may work my nerves, but I love her—even like her when that sweet streak of hers comes through. “It’s okay, Birdie,” Miles soothes. “The prince doesn’t die.”
Yes, he does, but what possessed me to say so? And what if I’ve scarred her for life?
Miles pats her head onto his shoulder. “Aunt Bridge is just”—he gives me the evil eye—“constipated.”
“Yes, Birdie.” I drop to my knees. “I am. My heart, that is. Constipated. I’m so sorry.”
She turns her head and, upper lip shiny with the stuff running out of her nose, says in a hiccupy voice, “The prince doesn’t die?” I grab the book from the floor and turn to the back. “Look. There they are, riding off into the sunset—er, to his castle. Happy. See, it says so.” I tap the H, E, and A.
She sniffs hard, causing that stuff to whoosh up her nose and my gag reflex to go on alert. “Weally happy, Aunt Bridge?”
“Nope.” Barely-there eyebrows bunching, she lifts her head from Miles’s shoulder. “Not unless you say it.”
Oh dear Go—No, He and I are not talking. Well, He may be talking, but I’m not listening.
“I think you’d better.” Miles punctuates his advice with a sharp nod.
“Okay.” I look down at the page. “…and they lived…” It’s just a fairy tale—highly inflated, overstated fiction for tykes. “…they lived happily…ever…after.”
Birdie blinks in slow motion. “Happily…ever…after. That’s a nice way to say it, like you wanna hold on to it for always.”
Or unstick it from the roof of your mouth. “The end.” I close the book, and it’s all I can do not to toss it over my shoulder. “Here you go.”
She clasps it to her chest. “Happily…ever…after.”
Peachy. But I’ll take her dreamy murmuring over tears any day. Goodness, I can’t believe I made her cry. I stand and pat the skirt back down into its stand-alone shape. “More cake?”
“Yay!” Miles charges past me.
Next time— No, there won’t be a next time. I’m done with Little Golden Books.