"Once upon a time there lived a beautiful young girl named... Claudia.”
Ashlyn made a very inelegant snort. I’d forgotten there was a girl in her class she didn’t like that was named Claudia. I gave her a pointed look. Our rule was, if she wanted a made-up story, she wasn’t allowed to interrupt. She gave me innocent eyes, lifting one shoulder and pretending to twist a key on her lips, so I continued.

“Claudia dreamed of a happily ever after. She believed the fairy tales she’d read, and every night wished upon a star for her prince to rescue her from the evil witch that was her captor. The years went by and Claudia developed into a striking young woman. She didn’t recognize her own beauty, though. She’d spent too many years being bullied by the evil hag that was the only family she’d ever known. Still, Claudia hoped, wished, and prayed for her dashing prince and her happily ever after. Eventually, the evil hag departed from this world, and Claudia was left all alone. Claudia left the only home she’d ever known to seek out other people, hoping to one day find her handsome prince.

She walked for days in a seemingly endless forest until she could no longer take another step. Curling up against an old oak tree, she prepared for her final sleep. For the first time in her life, she felt true bitterness as she gazed up at the stars. She couldn’t understand why the girls in her stories got their happily ever after, while she was destined to die alone after living a secluded, miserable life. She cried herself to sleep that night. 
The next morning, Claudia awoke with a start. In place of the gnarled roots of the old oak tree, a down pillow cradled her head. She opened her eyes and took in the room around her. Directly to her right sat the most handsome man she had ever seen. As soon as their eyes met, they fell in love. And, as in any good fairy tale, they married and lived happily ever after.”
“Aunt Tash?”
“Yes, Ashlyn?” I said with a suppressed smile. I knew what she was going to say before the words even left her lips.
“Your stories really stink. You missed out on all the adventure of the prince rescuing the princess from something really bad. Can you try again?” Her big blue eyes pleaded with me. It was our last night together before I left on my vacation, and I knew we were both feeling the sting of the imminent loss.
“Well, quit asking me to tell them if I’m so bad at it,” I replied with a chuckle. “I lost my ability to tell stories long before you were born. If you want to read one of your stories before bed, you can go ahead. I’ll try to have a better story for you when I get back, okay? I love you very much.” I kissed her forehead as I tucked her under her princess sheets.
“Love you, too. Night.” She yawned, revealing the gaps in her mouth left by teeth that still hadn’t filled in. She was snoring softly before I reached the doorway.
I closed her door so that only a crack of light showed through. She was still young enough to be afraid of the dark, but old enough to think that a night-light was for babies. I made my way to my room to make sure I was all packed for my trip. I didn’t live with Katie and Ashlyn, but for the three days that Katie was at work, I stayed with them. It was easier on them, and allowed me to develop a closer bond with Ash than I would have if I only saw her on occasion.
I couldn’t help but wonder again, as I had many times before, why little girls treasured fantasy stories so much. How did girls in today’s society still grow up hoping for the elusive happily ever after? After everything, why was I still hoping for it?
As I finished up packing, I mentally went over the story I’d told Ashlyn. The portrayal of ugly, disfigured women as witches or shape-shifters that are evil incarnate was not an idea I wanted to promote. It caused girls to believe that beauty is the most important thing to possess. According to stories like the one I’d told Ashlyn, it doesn’t matter if a woman is smart, strong, rich, or powerful; if she’s not beautiful in society’s eyes, she’s destined to live life as an ugly, lonely old hag. Part of me regretted telling my sweet niece these stories. Another part of me yearned to keep Ashlyn young and innocent for as long as possible, believing that one day her prince would come and rescue her. Her mother and I knew better.
I hadn’t been on a vacation since before our parents died. Even when they’d been alive, we’d gone as a whole family. This was my first solo trip. Hell, it was my first solo anything. The nerves tied my stomach in knots and I knew I wouldn’t sleep tonight. Grabbing one of my photo albums, I went downstairs to grab a glass of wine and relax.
This book was filled with pictures of Ash, as most of the albums in this house were. I flipped the pages until I came to a rare photo in which she was smiling. More often than not she was pulling faces at the camera. God, I loved her.
“Hey, what are you looking at?” Katie’s whispered words interrupted my reminiscing.
“Oh, God! You scared the crap out of me. What are you doing back so early?” I said. I picked up the album that had slipped from my grasp.
“Sorry.” She smirked. “We were actually overstaffed tonight, and since everyone knows you’re leaving tomorrow they let me go home early. How are you doing?”
I shrugged. “I don’t know. A part of me is so excited I wish I were on the plane now. A bigger part is terrified. We’ve never really been apart.”
“I know what you mean. I’m so excited for you—this is a trip you’ve been dreaming about for as long as I can remember. But I also want to be selfish and keep you here with Ash and me forever. It’ll be weird not having you around for every little thing. Ash is going to drive me bonkers.” She settled herself on the other end of the couch so we could whisper-talk without waking the little monster.
“I thought it would be hard when you married Alex, and I was with Keith, but we’ve never gone a day without speaking to one another. I wish you would come with me. You know I’d have more fun with you and Ash there.”
“No. Tash, this is for you. You need to discover who you are without us. It’s important that you do things for yourself—and maybe try to create a family of your own.”
I glared at her. This was a conversation we’d had repeatedly. “You know how I feel about that, Katie.”
“At some point, you have to let him go. I know Keith hurt you, but there are other men out there.”
“He didn’t just hurt me, Katie. He destroyed any ounce of desire I had for a marriage, any belief I had that there was such a thing as a soul mate. Disappearing two weeks before our wedding? What kind of messed-up shit is that? Don’t give me that look, she’s asleep, she didn’t hear me swear.” I glared at her, knowing where this conversation was headed, and secretly glad for the distraction from my traveling nerves. “Relationships aren’t worth the heartache. You think everything is fine, then bam! He leaves. No notice, no warning, no excuse. Just gone. And I think I’d have been okay, had he not gotten married so quickly after.” I needed to stop, or I was going to start yelling. Even after all these years, talking about Keith made my blood boil. “And then, every freaking time I run into him, the butterflies start right back up, like I’m a hormonal twelve year old, with an insane need for him to notice me. All I want to do is scream at him, make him feel the same way he made me feel, but instead I end up making pleasant conversation and wishing him well. It’s been years! I should hate him. I should, but I don’t. Truth be told, if he knocked on our door right now and asked me to give him another try, I don’t think I could say no. It’s been eight years, Katie. I hate being so pathetic.”
“He was a jerk. ere’s no denying that. And you’re not pathetic. There are other people out there, Tash. Don’t let him define your future happiness. I believe you’ll get married one day.” Katie gave me a hesitant smile.
“I don’t know how you can stay so positive after how things ended with Alex.”
“Tash...” Katie sighed.
“Convincing you to have a baby when you specifically told him you didn’t want children? Then leaving you while you were pregnant? He was an asshole and you know it.”
“He did what he felt was necessary for him. I wouldn’t change a second of it; Ashlyn was worth every moment of pain, physical and emotional. I know I didn’t want kids, but she makes me wish I had more.” Katie’s eyes were fixed on her lap, her voice thick. Katie had never forced her ex to have a relationship with Ashlyn, and he certainly never requested custody or visitation rights. It was one of the quickest, most amicable divorces I’d ever seen.
“How can you seriously expect me to believe in happily ever after with everything we’ve been through?”
“I believe there’s someone for everyone. I still believe Ash’s father will play a part in her life when it’s time. In the meantime, I try to enjoy my life with you and her. I’ve started doing things for myself again, too. I’ve been going out with friends while she’s in school, and getting back in touch with the things I used to do before I even married Alex. It’s nice to know that I still have a personality outside of being a mom and a nurse.”
“I do love work, and my bike.” I grinned at her, and she rolled her eyes. Shortly after my hell-year, as I liked to call it, I’d gotten a motorcycle. It was fast, sleek, and made for trouble. It had been one of the only things apart from Katie and Ash to truly bring me joy.
I had dreaded the moments in between work and watching Ashlyn. My bike gave me a reason to get out of my empty apartment. I had always been able to lose myself in my job, too. Katie had gone into the side of healthcare that dealt with people, I ran straight to the beakers. Her side dealt with the emotional and spiritual side of healing, whereas mine dealt with the tangible, thought provoking, results-oriented side of healing.
“What kind of science fiction are you cooking up in your lab now? And will it cause us to flee to a hotel again?”
“That only happened once, and you know it wasn’t my fault.” A few years ago, one of the lab assistants had monkey-napped one of the monkeys we were testing on. He was a member of one of the animal activist groups and we didn’t realize it until it was too late. He’d leaked our personal information to the activists and released all the animals throughout the building. It was chaos. When the group realized I was heading the research, they started harassing me at home. They had thrown rotten fruit at my windows, and had even spray-painted my car with vulgar expletives, all in the name of getting me to halt research. It got so bad, I was worried about them finding out where Ash and Katie lived, too. I had asked them to stay at a hotel for a few weeks, until things calmed down again.
“Security has gotten a lot better since that happened. And it was just some rotten fruit and spray paint. Not a big deal at all.”
“We have some new medications we’re testing. If all goes well, it should revolutionize the way we treat people. Genetically specific medications, isn’t that crazy?” I knew she could appreciate this, it had been my passion since graduation, and I was finally able to start working on it. “It’s another reason I’m having doubts about this vacation. We nally have the green light from our boss, and I’m leaving. We’ve been isolating different codes to see how manipulations affect the specimen. In another decade or so, we should have genetically specific treatments for patients suffering from anything from cancer to the common cold. It’s groundbreaking work, and I’m just supposed to waltz out in the middle of it?”
“It sounds great, Tash, but it also kind of freaks me out. I am glad it makes you happy though.” She yawned. “You’d think it’d be easy for me to stay up all night, every night, being a night nurse. As soon as I get home, though, I’m done. You should try to get some sleep, too.”
I nodded absentmindedly. I wasn’t going to sleep tonight, and we both knew it. I would, however, enjoy a nice, hot bath. I slowly uncoiled myself from the couch and stretched. A bath would be wonderful. I’d always loved the water. I found it unbelievably soothing. It was a wonder that I lived in the desert.
After my bath, I stretched out on my bed, the warm water had soothed my muscles, and despite my nerves, I drifted o to sleep. I’d had a recurring dream since I was a child about a strange land where people shimmered as though their skin was lit by something within. It was similar to the bioluminescence that deep-sea creatures have— an evolutionary trait that lures prey into a false sense of security before death. Everyone in my dream is beautiful, with their slight, simple glow. I’m never a part of the dream, always an observer.
Each time I’d had the dream it was the same. I’d feel myself drifting off, and suddenly I’d be standing next to a table in a large room. There are always many people walking around, giving the table I stand near a wide berth. Seated alone at that table is a man with long, inky hair, hunched over. He’s engrossed with what he’s working on, and never looks up. I walk around that table, trying to figure out what he’s working on, or to see his face, but all I ever see is the top of his head. Then I wake up.
The next morning Katie and Ashlyn walked into the kitchen as I was making breakfast.
“You ready for your trip, Tash? I still can’t believe I’m going to miss your 30th birthday.” Katie combed her fingers through her hair. “You need this though, and I’m so excited for you.”
“I think so, but I want to check my stuff again. I feel uneasy, like I’m forgetting something. Are you sure you guys will be okay while I’m gone?” I handed her a plate of egg whites, wheat toast, and organic OJ. She was such a health nut.
“I’m sure you have everything. You’ve been packed for days now. And stop worrying! We’ll be fine. Have fun!” She smiled and kissed Ashlyn on the forehead. “Hey pumpkin, eat up so we can take Aunt Tash to the airport. I don’t want you any later for school than we’re already going to be. What did you two get up to last night while I was at work?”
“Auntie Tasha made up a really lame fairy tale and told it to me. But we had cookie sandwiches and they were so yummy that they made up for the bad story,” Ashlyn explained.
“Ash, you stinker! at was supposed to be our secret.” I stuck my tongue out at her and crossed my eyes, she giggled.
“I hope you left some for me. You make the best cookie sandwiches. What time is it?” Katie glanced at her watch. “Crap. Ashlyn, go brush your teeth. Tash, do you need help putting your bags in the car?”
My sister and I are so anal retentive, we made it to the airport with plenty of time to check my bags, and make it to the security gate. Somehow, we managed to do it all without crying. I gave Katie and Ashlyn both hugs when they dropped me off and felt a mix of sadness and exhilaration. I wiped a tear away from Ashlyn’s cheek.
“None of that, I’ll be back in one week. I’m going to miss you both so much, but I’ll call when I arrive in Miami.” I kissed Ashlyn one more time and made my way to the line through security. They both kept up waving until I rounded a corner, and they were out of sight. I fought against a lump in my throat as I once again wished I’d convinced Katie and Ash to come with me. It was going to be very hard to be away from them, but deep down, I knew Katie was right. I needed to do something for myself. I hadn’t left their side since Ashlyn was born. It was past time I find some independence.
Once I was settled in my seat, I watched couple after couple march onto the plane as I sipped my glass of wine. I may have had to pay three times the usual price of a plane ticket for first class, but the perks were nice. It took three glasses before I decided I didn’t want to jump out of the plane. I was grateful that the seat next to me remained empty as the plane filled up so I didn’t have to endure an awkward conversation with some stranger, or even worse, have some strange person’s head on my shoulder.
Flying does weird things to people. One woman spent the better part of a minute trying desperately to shove her oversized bag into an already full bin, going so far as to move other people’s things—even though the flight attendant was trying to get her attention. I was glad that my carry-on consisted of the backpack that was stowed securely between my legs. I’d have gotten annoyed if it was my luggage she was being so disrespectful toward. On a plane, there seems to be this unwritten rule that you can’t get mad. Boundaries that are normally there seem to slip away as soon as your foot hits the entrance.
I slipped my headphones on and looked out the window as the plane took off. I loved watching everything turn microscopic. Seeing the cars inch by like ants made me feel a childlike delight, like change was in the air. I smiled and leaned back, reflecting on my life. Mostly, I thought about where I’d be if I’d made different choices in my life and if I’d still be so content.