Sheila Perkins swings open her front door and is greeted by bright morning sun and a warmly familiar face. She’s tired, but the visit is most welcome.
“Morning, Vera,” she mutters.
Vera Par, her neighbour of forty years and a friend for longer still, reaches out a hand and places it on the door frame. Her laboured breathing is not in any way caused by her trip across two front lawns, of course. Or her recent hip replacement. No siree. “How’s she doing today?”
The two ladies turn around; at the other end of the antique-cluttered hallway sits a little girl, wearing a flowery dress and a head of messy blonde hair. The girl, no older than five, has her legs crossed, with a book in her lap, and Sheila’s only telephone in front of her.
“She’s still doing it then?” Vera asks, still panting slightly.
“Been up since six this morning, Ver,” Sheila replies. “Lord help me, I don’t know what to do.”
If Sheila’s daughter was here, she’d give her little girl a quick kiss on the head and promise her everything would be A-OK. And, what do you know, it would be. But she wasn’t here, not any more, and Sheila wasn’t sure it would be.
Vera pulls out a small handkerchief from her blouse pocket and hands it to her friend. “Poor child.”
* * * *
Claire plops the phone handset back in its mount. It’s much heavier than the one she usually uses when calling the Tooth Fairy and alike. She scribbles a line through another set of names and numbers in the book in her lap. She lifts back up the handset and dials the next number, tongue sticking out the side of her mouth as though reaching for one of her cheek’s many freckles.
The phone’s gentle ringing feels nice, like a soft, adoptive lullaby.
She waits, enjoying the sound, shifting her numb bottom on the hardwood floor. She reaches for a small glass of water which has been left next to her and takes a timid sip.
A click down the line.
“Hello?” Claire offers, her voice soft and weak.
A man’s voice replies, gruff and apparently very angry about something. “Yeah?”
Claire slams the handset back down before the nasty man can utter a second word.
She grabs her blue crayon and scribbles another horizontal line across the page. This time, however, a little sigh escapes from her throat. It’s been an awfully long morning.
She mumbles the next number to herself and dials the numbers, black digits on white plastic.
One ring and it’s answered.
“Hello?” Claire jumps in first.
“Hello there.” A female voice responds this time, much more welcoming than the last.
“Hello, my name is Claire. I live it Austin, Texas.” Her voice is all business now, still soft, but more matter-of-fact.
“Well hello there, Claire. I’m Jenny. How old are you my love?”
“I am four years old. I was wondering if you could please help me?”
“Do your parents know you’re using their phone, Claire?”
Claire glances around, where her Grammy is now talking to somebody in the doorway. “My Grammy does.”
“Well, OK then… How can I help you, lovely?”
“Have you seen my Mommy?”
“Have I,” Jenny pauses, “seen your mother?”
“Yes. Have you seen her?”
“No, I’m sorry, lovely. I’m not really sure I can help you.”
Claire hangs up.
Blue crayon meets white paper once more.
She places down the handset, waits a moment, lifts it back up and dials the next number.
It rings. She waits.
* * * *
“How long can you let her do this?” Vera stares over her old friend’s shoulder at the little blonde bundle on the floor.
Sheila sighs. An all too-familiar-nowadays sigh. “As long as she needs, Ver. As long as she wants to do it.”
“But the funeral, She. She’ll have to be told sooner or later.”
“I know, I know,” she turns and faces little Claire who is now speaking down the phone, “but look at the poor thing. I don’t have the heart to tell her yet.”
Vera steps forward and places a reassuring hand around her friend’s shoulder. “Oh, Sheila.”
* * * *
Claire pops the phone down once more and sniffles. She lifts the hem of her summer dress and wipes her nose on it. There was a time when she’d be told off for doing so. What she’d give to hear her mother’s gasps just one more time. “That’s not very lady-like!” or “Princes won’t marry Princesses who do that!” – anything but the silence which now surrounded her.
She pulls the handset to her ear and takes in the next number on the page. She hasn’t even pressed the first number when-
“Claire, baby, is that you?” a familiar voice breaks the silence and lifts a heart.
* * * *
Sheila and Vera watch on as Claire chatters away down the phone. Whoever she is currently speaking to seems to be raising her spirits. Sheila smiles – the first in quite a while – as her only granddaughter giggles, eyes suddenly wide and bright. Lord bless you, she thinks, kinds words for the stranger down the line.
Claire hangs up the phone and spins to her feet, her dress flowing in the air like a tiny, cotton carousel. She bounces down the hallway, carefully dodging her glass of water, and bounds into her grandmother’s welcoming embrace.
“Don’t worry, Grammy,” Claire whispers, “everything’s going to be A-OK.”