Ashlyn lay awake in her bed listening to her mother and father. They were in their room with the door closed, fighting as usual. She was supposed to be asleep a long time ago, but she couldn’t because of the bickering and yelling. They were always arguing about something, or at least it seemed that way lately. As soon as her father got home from work, the looks would start. Evil eyes would glance back and forth, but words wouldn’t escape their lips until they were behind the closed door where they thought no one could hear. They didn’t think that a six-year-old girl would notice such things, but they were wrong. Ashlyn noticed the looks, and though the shouting was muffled through the walls, she could make out some of the things they were saying to each other. Not all of them were very nice.
Ashlyn was a smart girl, mature for a six-year-old. She knew this because she had heard Nana say it many, many times. But she hadn’t seen her in a really long time, not since before last Christmas. Nana had got sick and died, but Ashlyn still remembered her, and she wished upon her favorite star that she could be there with her right now. She wished Nana could be with her for the longest day in the world like she’d promised. It would be a magical day when dreams would come true and everything would be perfect, just like it was when they had taken her to the circus, only better. Nana would play with her all day, and when it finally turned night, she would hold her and sing their favorite songs until she fell asleep. But Nana was wrong. Wishes don’t always come true, and she was no longer there.
Trevor, her dad, didn’t like it when her mom, Linda, drank. He thought she was an unfit mother after a few glasses. He never actually said those words, but Ashlyn could tell by the things that were said that he felt that way. He continued shouting, “All you do is sit in the chair with your head buried in that bottle!”
“Is that what you think I do all day, Trevor?” Linda shouted back. “You don’t know the half of it, mister! You try sitting in this house day after day, dealing with what I have to deal with! You wouldn’t last an hour!”
“Alright,” Trevor interrupted. “You want out of the house? Get out of the house! Call Charlotte and go out shopping. I beg you to, please. Go out and spend some money! Do girl things! It’s not like we don’t have money for crying out loud! You have a new car, so get in it and go if it will help bring you back to life!”
Ashlyn pulled Brady Bear close to her. The nightly shadows of the tree outside danced on her pale pink wall like the bony fingers of ghosts, but she wasn’t afraid. Nana had told her that nighttime wasn’t a time to be scared. It was a magical time when wishes and dreams become reality. She had told her favorite granddaughter this many times while sitting at the foot of her bed. She taught her important things like how to wish upon a star and pretend those scary shadows were actually dancing fairies. They didn’t glitter because they didn’t want to keep her awake.
Speaking of fairies…
Ashlyn sat up in her bed and whispered across the room, “Tin Tin, are you here?” She waited in anticipation, looking at the closet door standing slightly ajar. No one came. “Tin Tin, where are you?”
“Hey there, girly girl. I’m over here.”
He came into view from the darkest corner of the room. He was a freckle-faced boy, dressed in green, almost like Peter Pan but without the hat, and he didn’t fly. He was cheerful most of the time, but his eyes weren’t playful at all. They were dark as marbles.
“I knew you would come,” she smiled.
“Of course, I always come for you, my dear,” he said with a smile and a servant’s bow. He looked over his shoulder at the door leading into the hallway.
“They’re at it again, huh?”
Ashlyn snarled. “Will you stay with me just for a little while?”
Tin Tin laid his pointy finger on his chin in thought. “Hmm, I don’t know. It’s awful late, and you have to get to sleep.”
“Just for a minute, pleeease?” Ashlyn begged.
Tin Tin smiled. “Okay, but only for a few minutes.” He sat on the foot of her bed and looked at her thoughtfully.
“Tin Tin, why do grownups fight all the time?”
“Well, that depends. Sometimes it’s because they’re angry at each other. Sometimes it’s because they are hurting, and shouting is the only way they know how to deal with the problem.”
Tin Tin looked around the dark room in thought. “Well, grownups have problems that we little people don’t always understand. We just have to try to not let it bother us.”
“Oh,” Ashlyn said shortly. She squeezed Brady Bear tight.
“Hey, you better watch out,” Tin Tin said. “You’re going to break Brady’s back.”
Ashlyn didn’t respond. She stared down at her strawberry covers with pouting lips while the distant lashing of adulthood continued down the hall.
“I said I would only stay for a few minutes. I have to go.”
“No, don’t go!” Ashlyn rose back to life. “I’m not asleep yet.”
Her blue eyes glimmered in the dim light coming through the bedroom window. Tin Tin smiled gently. “Want me to tell you a story before I go?”
The little blonde girl’s smile stretched across her face. “Yeah!”
“Okay, but you have to lay back and close your eyes.”
Ashlyn fell back on her pillow, eyes closed tightly. Tin Tin watched as she slowly peeped from one.
“Hey now! I said that you have to close your eyes, and I mean keep them closed!”
Ashlyn laughed, closed her eyes for real, and the story began.
It was 6:00 a.m. when Ashlyn’s door opened. As the hallway light angled into the room, Tin Tin vanished from Ashlyn’s bed like vapor.
Trevor stood in the lit hallway with his hand on the doorknob. Ashlyn’s eyes opened, but she was facing the opposite direction from him. She was glad. She could feel his stare, but she didn’t feel like talking to him right now. He had said some terrible things to her mommy. She closed her eyes and pretended to be asleep. Several seconds later, the light began to shrink on the wall, and the door clicked shut.
At noon, Linda woke with a splitting headache. She staggered downstairs toward the kitchen and pressed the start button on the Coffee Chef. There was a buzz from the machine, and moments later, she could already hear the perking.
She glared at the whiskey bottle resting on the counter near the sink. She had opened it sometime yesterday evening, and now it only had a small shot of its amber liquid left. Maybe Trevor was right. She had been hitting it hard lately. The words came out loud and alone for no one else to hear, “But what does he know?” Linda lifted the bottle with her bandaged hand and killed the remainder. She dropped the bottle into the sink and rested her palms on the kitchen counter, looking out the small window into the sunny afternoon of a world she once knew. It didn’t last very long. The brightness of it hurt her eyes and made her headache throb. She pulled the blinds and twisted the rod until the noonday sun disappeared from the room. She took the bandage off her hand and began to clean the long scar that had once been an open gash that nearly severed her main artery.
Upstairs in Ashlyn’s room, a tea party was going on. Her little doll, Molly, and Brady Bear sat in the little white chairs at the small tea table. Tin Tin sat across from Ashlyn.
“Now, Molly, you eat that cookie! Don’t you make me tell you again, or you’ll be in big, big trouble. Do you understand me?”
The rag doll, with buttons for eyes, sat motionless, slumped over in the chair.
“Leave it to Molly to be a party pooper,” Tin Tin said. “Will you please pass the sugar bowl?”
Ashlyn sat, not hearing his request.
Tin Tin cleared his throat, “Ugh hmmm.”
Ash looked up at him.
“I ask again, madam, will you please pass the sugar bowl?”
Ashlyn’s bottom lip pouted outward. “I don’t want to play anymore.” She got up from the table and walked toward the bedroom door.
“Umm, excuse me, miss. Where might you be running off to at such a fine hour for tea?”
“I want to check on Mommy.”
Tin Tin got up and rushed to her. Taking her shoulders into his grip, he turned her toward him. “I don’t know if that’s a good idea right now, kiddo.” His voice was no longer disguised with a playful English accent. Now it was serious, the voice of one who was concerned about what she would find if she went down the stairs. “Why don’t we play tea party some more, huh?”
Ashlyn shook her head.
“Well then, how about we play house? Molly can be in school and-”
His words cut off when Ashlyn turned and opened the door. He watched as she walked out of the room into the hallway. “Kiddo?” he said softly to unhearing ears.
Ashlyn stood at the bottom of the stairs, looking at her mother through the open archway leading into the kitchen. She looked sick, sitting there in her housecoat with her hair plastered all over her head like a bird’s nest as though she hadn’t showered in a long time. Her head was resting in the palm of her hand. Her elbow was being used as a prop, and her eyes were closed.
“Mommy?” Her voice was soft and unsure.
Linda’s eyes opened but showed little interest as she glared through her daughter. She got up from the table and stood, once again, next to the kitchen counter, staring at the closed blinds.
Ashlyn walked softly into the kitchen and stood next to her mother, looking up at her. Finally, realizing that she wasn’t going to acknowledge her being there, she gave a slight tug at her mother’s housecoat. Linda looked down at her with blood-stricken eyes. A single tear escaped one of them, and her lips began to quiver. She burst into tears, resting her face in her folded elbow on the countertop. Her body shook with every breath as she wept uncontrollably.
Ashlyn walked back into the living room and sat on the bottom step as she listened to her mother’s moans echo throughout the house. She looked up toward her room and saw Tin Tin sitting on the floor, his face pressed between the stairway rails. The expression on his face was like none that she’d ever seen from him before.
“Come back, Ashlyn. Come back up here and play with me.” His voice was shallow.
“Tin Tin!” she said with sudden excitement. Come downstairs! I want you to meet my mommy!”
Tin Tin backed away from the edge of the steps. “No, Ashlyn. I’m not supposed to go down there, and you shouldn’t either.
Oh, why not, silly? You can cheer mommy up just like you do me!”
Ashlyn’s smile was bright as the sunshine that had been shut out from the kitchen window minutes earlier.
“No, Ashlyn! I can’t!” Tin Tin went back into the bedroom, and the smile disappeared from her face.
“Fine then, snotty! I’m staying down here with Mommy!”
The coffee cup shattered when it hit the hardwood floor. Ashlyn turned back toward the kitchen just as Linda collapsed.
“Mommy!” Ashlyn ran to her and fell to her knees. “Mommy! Wake up, Mommy!” Tears streamed down her cheeks as she wept.
Tin Tin heard the scream and ran back into the hallway.
The Next Morning
Ashlyn woke in her room, but she wasn’t in her bed. Daylight bled through the slits of the boards in the folding doors. Had she slept in her closet all night? She couldn’t remember going to bed or anything about the night before.
Brady Bear was nuzzled in her arms, but that went unnoticed. She climbed to her feet and pressed her small palm to the bend of the door. It popped open easily. She was in her room, only it looked completely different than before. It was empty. Her bed was gone. Her tea table and all four chairs were gone. The bookshelf that held all of her favorite stories was gone. All that remained was a small crayon rainbow at the bottom of the wall where her bed had once been. She’d hoped her mother would never find it and didn’t think that she ever would since she had crawled under her bed to draw it. Now it stood out like a real rainbow as the bright morning sun cast its rays through her bare window.
She could hear her parents’ voices downstairs talking, not yelling this time.
“Mommy?” She slowly walked to the door leading to the hallway.
“I know you’re right, Trevor,” Linda said. I just don’t know about leaving this house. We’ve been here ever since we were married.”
“Yes, I know. It’s a very nice house, but there are too many memories here, honey. We can’t go on the way we have been.”
“I know, but if you would have been here, you would have seen. She touched my robe. Honey, she called for me. I heard her. And when I went into the living room, I actually saw her! She was right there by the staircase! Honey, I saw her!”
“Sweetie, no, no she wasn’t.” He gently touched her temple with his finger. “She was right here. And she will always be with us right here.” He placed his opposite hand over his heart. “I think we need to move away from here and focus on where she really is.” He gently took the folded newspaper from her hand and let it fall to the living room floor. “A new life awaits, but we have to leave that behind.”
Tears filled Linda’s eyes. She pulled her coat together, and they walked out of the house, closing the front door behind them as they went.
Ashlyn ran to the stairs and looked down into the empty living room. The furniture was gone. All that was left from the pictures that hung on the wall were clean white squares. The coffee table, the shelves, the television, all was gone. She ran down the stairs, screaming as she went.
“Mommy! Mommy, come back! Don’t leave me!”
She stumbled as she skipped the last two steps and jumped directly to the floor. She grabbed the doorknob, but it wouldn’t turn. It was locked. “Mommy!” she screamed in a voice that broke into wailing. Tears flooded her eyes, and she screamed.
She ran to the living room window and hammered it with her palms. “Daddy! Mommy! Come back!”
Trevor and Linda stooped to get into the car and froze. Both looked back at the abandoned house and the dark, empty window leading into the living room. A moment later, they got into the car and drove away.
“Mommy,” Ashlyn whispered with all that was left of her broken voice. “Mommy, I’m still here.”
A hand pressed down on Ashlyn’s shoulder. She turned her tearing eyes to Tin Tin.
“Come on, kiddo. I have a cup of tea upstairs with your name written on it.” He smiled. “There are others up there waiting to play with you too.”
Ashlyn took his hand. She looked one last time over her shoulder at the empty street outside then followed Tin Tin to the stairs. At the top of the stairs they stood outside of Ashlyn’s room until the door opened. The light was bright, but it didn’t hurt her eyes. It was a warm light, a comforting light.
“Oh my goodness! Look who we have here!” Nana stood inside the light, holding her arms out to Ashlyn. “I haven’t seen you in forever! Come in! The Longest day in the world is perfect, just like I said it would be! Come, come. There is so much to do here, and we have so much to talk about!”
Ashlyn walked into the light, and the door closed.
6 Months Later
The young man carried his new bride across the threshold of their new home.
“Oh, it’s a mansion!” the woman shrieked in excitement. I can’t wait to see the upstairs. Come on! Let’s see where the baby’s room is going to be!”
The happy bride ran up the stairs toward the three waiting bedrooms. The groom, however, stood fast, eyeing the one bit of trash that the family before them had left behind. It was a folded newspaper lying in the middle of the living room floor. He picked it up to throw it away, but the headline caught his attention.
Fatal Ambulance Crash. Mother Loses Daughter
He read the story telling of a mother who had lost control of her car on icy roads. The car had slid into a telephone pole. Both she and her six-year-old daughter suffered only minor injuries, but while the ambulance was transporting them to the local medical facility, another motorist hit them head-on. Reports said that the other motorist was texting while driving. The result was serious lacerations to the mother’s right arm, but her little girl was killed instantly.
The groom shook his head, wadded the paper into his fist, and ran upstairs to join his new wife on the tour of their first home.