The lights flicker off, and I adjust my perch on Hanna’s nightlight.
“Hot!” I mutter much louder than intended, clasping a hand over my mouth; I know better.
Rubbing my scalded foot, I move to a safer position on the edge of the lampshade.
I had to watch my mistakes closely, I’d already been written up once in the past month for inappropriate conduct, and I couldn’t let it happen again. Twice in one year and – I gulped just remembering the warnings from the training sessions.
Hanna sighs in her sleep as if her childhood problems weigh heavily on her chest. She rolls over, her tiny fist clasping Esmerelda, a tired and worn but tremendously loved rag doll.
I definitely needed to watch myself; I would miss Hanna too much if they took me off field duty. I’d miss all my kids, actually, but Hanna held a special place in my heart.
I’d overstayed my welcome the previous evening, watching as she doctored the doll night and day, voicing her concerns that Esmerelda’s fever may be terrible enough to require a trip to the emergency room.
Hanna’s mother had begged and pleaded with her daughter to let her doll rest so Hanna could get her schoolwork done. She’d locked Esmerelda in the closet, but when Hanna stopped eating and responding to basic instructions, Alice had been forced to return the doll to her rightful owner.
The six-year-old had stroked Esmerelda’s matted yarn hair and rubbed chubby fingers over her cheeks. She’d changed the doll’s clothes over and over again, since every time she applied a wet towel to her patient’s forehead, the extra liquid would dribble down onto the miniscule overalls and tee shirts.
In a state of pure exhaustion, Hanna had finally drifted off into a well-deserved sleep, and I watched her eyelashes whisper across her cheeks as her lids fluttered with secret dreams. One hand remained latched on Esmerelda’s arm, while the other bobbed up and down in her mouth, a childhood vice she hadn’t yet relinquished.
She used to say her thumb tasted like M&M’s. Now, she denies ever sucking on her thumb, but I know better, and so does her mother.
Alice slips into the darkened bedroom and removes the damp wash cloth draped over Esmerelda’s hair. She traces her fingers through Hanna’s tangled mass of curls, and then I see it. I see the dollar folded neatly in her hand as she monitors her child for signs of waking.
I put my head in my hands to stop myself from shaking it so hard. Parents; they never learn. Control freaks, the lot of them. If they’d just let me do my job.
One tooth fairy messed up sixty-eight years ago, and the rest of us have been paying for it ever since. Haven’t these people ever heard about second chances? Besides, the tooth fairy who’d forgotten her delivery day had been fired for drinking on the job.
But no, now the rest of us have to suffer. All I want to do is deliver the reward to the deserving children and get out of there. If parents keep taking our jobs like this, I don’t know what I’ll do. Lord knows I’d go nuts working in a cubicle at Corporate.
But I can’t blame Alice for wanting the best for her child; that’s why they all do it, after all. She’d feel terrible if Hanna woke up with a tooth still under her pillow and no money. Where’s the magic in that?
I sigh because there’s no magic when the parents do it, either. Just deception, albeit kind-hearted, but lies all the same.
Alice slips the dollar under the pillow and brushes her lips against her child’s forehead. My heart clutches a bit, I never tire of seeing a parent watch their sleeping child at night. There’s something about the peaceful expression on their face that gives my heart a little ping.
It’s always sad when a child loses their belief. Our life spans are much longer than the average human, so I’ve seen a lot of children in my day, and still I dread the day that the child decides there’s no tooth fairy like it’s the first time. It hurts over and over again; the pain doesn’t lessen.
I hope Hanna sticks it out for a few more years. She’ll be seven in a few months, and it’s pretty iffy after that. Kids in school start to talk, sometimes it’s the older brothers and sisters – but I hold out hope for Hanna. As the oldest of three, she has maintained innocence for longer than most. She denies her love of Barbies, but I see her quietly singing to them at night, brushing their hair when she thinks no one is watching.
Hanna will last, I tell myself. She has to.
With one last look at her daughter, Alice turns at the door and closes it tightly. At the click of the knob, I see a flash of movement.
Hanna’s eyes whip open, her gaze straight ahead and steely.
No, no. No – no – no. It can’t be.
Hanna lifts up her pillow and peers at the dollar bill with a sad expression. The devastation is palpable, and I want to fly to her and caress her hair, rub her back, tell her everything will be okay. That I’m here, and I’m real, and though your mother is only trying to help, she is instead taking the magic away.
But I can’t do that, of course – the whole code of conduct business has got me in trouble with HR one too many times and I’m on probation.
Hanna lets Esmerelda fall to the floor, forgotten and alone. She’s never let her doll fall before.
I should leave now, I have other visits to make tonight, but I’m drawn in, rooting for her, hoping she’ll go back to sleep and remember everything as nothing more than a quiver of a dream whose meaning she can’t quite grasp.
Each pitter patter of her feet clad in footie pajamas heading for the bedroom door sends the message home. It’s over for Hanna.
I follow her to her parents’ bedroom – a total breach of ethics – but I don’t care.
Her mother and father lay quietly talking in bed, Alice’s head rests on her husband’s shoulder, and the discovery channel broadcasts a show about killer whales in the background. I want to shut the TV off so I can hear better, but I don’t.
Alice stops speaking as she spots her daughter standing in the doorway. Hanna looks older, mature, the childlike gleam in her eyes fading faster than a setting sun. Instead of Esmerelda dangling from one arm, she clutches the dollar bill from under her pillow. There is a small wet smudge on the President’s face, the remnants of her M&M flavored thumb.
“I know,” Hanna whispers.
She begins to cry, but fights it as if it’s her last stand in a battle she knows is hopeless.
“Honey, come here,” her mother says, holding her arms out.
Hanna looks torn, glancing at the dollar bill, and then warily eying her mother. Alice gestures with her fingers and Hanna scurries over in the darkness, climbing onto the edge of the master bed.
“Why do you do this?” Hanna asks, laying the dollar bill sadly on the bedspread. I silently applaud Hanna. I’ve wanted to ask parents all over the world the same question for ages.
Her mother can’t come up with a response. Instead, she holds her daughter close, and when Hanna finally pulls away minutes later, there is a wet blob on Alice’s shoulder, a pool of tears.
“You’re growing up, honey,” Alice explains.
Hanna looks down, distraught, and refuses to make eye contact with her mother.
“But that means…” Hanna trails off, and she puts a finger into her mouth, thinking very hard about something. She mumbles around her finger. “Twenty-four.”
Alice looks confused, as am I.
“Twenty-four dollars you’ll have to pay me by the time I lose all my teeth.” Hanna’s shoulders slump with an onslaught of new tears. “I don’t think you should pay me anymore. You keep this.”
Hanna shoves the crumpled, mangled and damp dollar bill towards her mother. Alice’s eyes are kind, but slightly amused. I want to shake her a little, explain how hard this is for Hanna.
“It’s yours to keep, save it in your piggy bank,” Alice says.
“No,” Hanna says, and shakes her head vehemently. “I don’t want to make you guys broke ‘cause of my teeth. I promise you I’ll find a way to pay you back when I get my birthday money from Grandma.”
“No, no, no.” Alice places a hand on the back of Hanna’s head and holds it tight. “Thank you. But we’ll be fine.”
“No!” Hanna shouts. “Because if you consider me and my sisters, that’s...”
Hanna trails off and I can see her ticking off numbers in her head again. She mouths words. “Twenty-four times three is-”
She scrunches her eyebrows together. “It’s over seventy dollars.”
She eyes her mother, her tearstained eyelashes quivering under the glare of the TV show. The killer whales are now feeding.
Alice’s husband makes eye contact with her, trying to hide a smile.
“Wait,” Hanna wails. “Plus one extra because Meggie has an extra tooth.” She collapses into tears. Her back wracked with sobs.
Alice lets her cry it out, rubbing her back with the practiced ease that can only be attained by parenthood. Eventually, Hanna’s sobs subside and she takes a few shuttling breaths to steady herself.
“Hanna, listen,” Alice says. Her voice is soothing, and even I feel calmer. “You’re growing up into a beautiful young lady, and we’re very proud of you.”
“Sometimes life is really hard, and we find out things that aren’t so fun.” Alice pauses as Hanna runs a sleeve across her eyes.
“Yeah,” Hanna gulps. “Life is really hard.”
A single tear trickles down her cheek and Alice smoothes it away. “But you are kind and thoughtful, and you know what? Twenty-four dollars isn’t going to hurt our piggy bank because me and Daddy have saved up lots of money.”
“Yeah,” Hanna says again. “You’ve had lots more birthdays than me. Maybe like a hundred.”
The left side of Alice’s mouth turns up in a smile. “And someday you can do the same things when you have kids and become a Mommy.”
“Not for a long time, I hope,” the dad mutters under his breath.
Alice ignores him and keeps talking. “For now, can I ask you to be a big girl and help me with something?”
Hanna nods and pride fills her eyes. Her hiccups reside slowly, and she sits up a little straighter on the bed.
“I need you to help me make sure your sisters still believe in the tooth fairy because we wouldn’t want it ruined for them, right?”
Ruined for them. I shake my head. If the parents just had a little faith and let the magic unfold it wouldn’t be ruined for anyone.
“Right.” Hanna snuggles close to her mother. “You’re right.”
Hanna’s eyes droop lower and lower, her crying spasms exhausting her emotions.
“Now climb back in bed, okay? And what are you going to say in the morning?”
Hanna gives a sleepy grin and picks up the dollar. “The tooth fairy came and gave me a dollar.”
Alice gives her daughter a little pat on the bottom. “Do you want me to tuck you in?”
“No.” Hanna smiles and gives her mother a kiss on the forehead. “I’m old enough to do it myself.”
Hanna turns and strides out of the room, a new bounce in her step, chin jutted out at a defiant angle.
At the door, she turns to her parents and pauses. I hold my breath.
“It’s a good thing it’s only the tooth fairy, ‘cause I can’t imagine how much you guys would spend on Christmas presents if Santa didn’t exist.”