There are two best things about Worry Nights.
One is getting to stay up late. It's not that Ellie's mommy doesn't know what time it is. She just doesn't notice when bedtime passes. Ellie is coloring, and she keeps quiet, hoping her parents will forget she's there at the kitchen table while they talk softly in the living room. Finally, but not until it's really truly dark outside, Daddy remembers and takes Ellie in to brush her teeth and put on her pajamas.
And Ellie doesn't argue the way she does some nights, because bedtime is the time for the other best thing about Worry Nights, the best best thing: Mommy tells stories.
Usually, Mommy and Daddy take turns with bedtime stories. Daddy reads the picture books from Ellie's shelves. He lets her turn the pages and points to the words that she knows so she can read along with him. Mommy doesn't use Ellie's books; she tells funny stories about why giraffes have long necks and how little animals can help big ones. Ellie loves making up those pictures in her head.
But on Worry Nights, it's always Mommy who comes in, and the stories she tells are different from the others. They're always about the princess and the prince and the knight.
After prayers Daddy says, "Just go to sleep, Ellie. Mommy's tired. You can have a story tomorrow." Daddy always says that on Worry Nights. He kisses Ellie and turns on the nightlight; that's his job, because Mommy doesn't always remember that Ellie needs it.
"Sweet dreams, lima bean."
Ellie waits until Daddy's footsteps go down the hall, then sits up straight in bed so she won't fall asleep. She thinks about the knight and wonders what adventures he will have this time. She closes her eyes, just for a minute, and when she opens them again her parents are standing in the doorway, turned toward her but talking quietly to each other.
Mommy shakes her head. "No, nothing, no word."
"Why don't you just call?" Daddy asks.
"Who would I call?"
Daddy shrugs. "Good point."
Ellie shivers. It must be a very Worried Night if Daddy gave in so quick. He didn't even try to make a joke. Then he says, "Let her be; she's half-asleep anyway."
Ellie sits up even straighter and opens her eyes as wide as they'll go. "I am not! Not even a little bit."
Mommy says, so quiet that they must think Ellie can't hear, "I have to do this. Ellie needs me."
"You need her."
"Maybe I do." It is the first time all day Ellie has heard a smile in her voice, and it makes Ellie proud, to think Mommy needs her.
Daddy puts his hands on Mommy's shoulders and bends down to kiss the back of her neck, and they look just like the prince and princess. Ellie doesn't really know why Mommy worries so much. Things will turn out okay, just like in the stories.
Because of the stories, she reminds herself, and settles back into the pillow, cozy and warm under the quilt. Because of the stories, the worry goes away. Most of the time. Sometimes the knight gets hurt, and those are times Ellie doesn't like at all. Mommy never puts those parts in her stories.
"Ellie?" Mommy's voice is all floaty in the sort-of-dark, and when Ellie opens her eyes, Daddy's not in the doorway anymore.
"I'm still awake." Ellie struggles to sit up, pushes the quilt down off her shoulders. "I have to stay awake. It's a Worry Night."
Mommy stops at the foot of her bed. "A what?"
Ellie goes very still. She's never told anyone about her name for these nights, but she thought Mommy knew what it was anyway. "Did I break the spell?" she asks, and her heart is pounding. If she's broken the spell, what will happen to the knight?
Mommy shuffles to stand next to Ellie, feeling for toys on the floor with her foot. But Ellie always picks up her room before Mommy comes in. "What spell, sweetie? What are you talking about?"
"It's a Worry Night. You always tell me stories to make things okay when he's..." She can't think of the right word, because she doesn't know exactly why Mommy's worried. "When you're worried. And you've been worried all day."
"Oh, baby." Mommy reaches out and smooths Ellie's hair, and Ellie can still smell the spaghetti sauce they had for dinner on her hand. "I didn't mean to scare you. How did you know?"
Ellie gets up on her knees and traces the narrow ridges on Mommy's forehead with one finger. "Your face is all wrinkly, like my blanket when I don't make my bed. And you forgot to put sprinkles on my ice cream."
"My goodness, Ellie..." Mommy sounds funny, like there's still a big lump of that ice cream stuck and melting in her throat. She rubs her thumb on the little phone she carries, as if that will make it ring. But only the story can do that. "I guess you can call it a Worry Night. I didn't know that you knew."
Of course she knows. She's known ever since she was a little girl, and now she's five and not stupid at all. She knows it because the princess is her mommy and the prince is her daddy and the knight is her uncle. Ellie pats the mattress where she wants Mommy to sit. "Tell a story. It always works."
"It does, does it?" Mommy sits down, tucks one leg under her and leans back against the headboard. She puts the little phone on the nightstand and wraps her arm around Ellie's shoulders.
Ellie nods, and then, just to make sure that Mommy knows, reminds her, "You always tell the stories about the knight on Worry Nights."
Mommy laughs a little. "Do you think the knight's worried?"
"No, but the princess worries about him. Because he does Brave Deeds to protect the kingdom and the prince and princess and their little girl, and because he's her friend."
There is a funny cough. Daddy is back in the doorway, watching.
"Call me when the news comes on," Mommy says softly. Daddy frowns and opens and closes his mouth. Ellie used to think he did that because he didn't know what to say. Now she thinks he knows what he wants to say, but doesn't know if it's right to say it.
Everybody's worried tonight.
But Daddy smiles and winks at Ellie before he leaves.
"Is the knight in trouble?" Ellie asks. She does not say his real name out loud. It might break the spell. Mommy might not tell the story, and if she doesn't tell the story, they might not be able to save him.
"I'm not sure," Mommy says, and she has her worried face again.
"He's doing a Brave Deed?"
"If you tell the story, he can come home safe."
Ellie is sure this is true. The times her uncle, the knight, got hurt, there were no stories. The time he had to go to the hospital there weren't stories for nights and nights. Ellie didn't like that at all. The hospital smelled bad and Mommy cried and her uncle didn't look like a knight, not even a little bit. His arm was bandaged white and one eye had purple all around it and even though he smiled at her and let her draw a kitty on his cast, she felt a little scared of him. She doesn't want to feel that way again. "Please, Mommy, tell it."
So Mommy tells the story of the Alligator in the Moat, and how the knight had to feed it fried chicken from the castle feast to keep it from biting a visiting princess. Ellie is glad because that one always makes her laugh, but it's too short, and the phone doesn't ring at the end.
Mommy tries to tuck Ellie in, to pull the blankets up higher, and now it's Ellie who's worried. It isn't time to sleep. She has to keep Mommy there, so she asks a question about a story Mommy's never told, a true story.
"When I was lost at the store, was that a Worry Day?"
Mommy's mouth opens and closes--just like Daddy's. She sinks back down on the bed and looks like she might cry. Ellie is terribly afraid that she's said the wrong thing. Finally Mommy says, "You are just full of surprises tonight, Miss Ellie." Then she says, "Yes." Her voice is very quiet. "That was the Worriedest Day of all."
"But I didn't know to worry, not at first." Ellie closes her eyes and she can see the store, with the boring pans that Grandma was telling Mommy about, and the bright balls and blocks that she could just barely see, a few aisles over. She had told Mommy and Grandma she was going to see the toys; she still remembers that she said so. But they never heard her. "I just went to look at the toys. I didn't know I was lost."
Not until she couldn't remember the way back to the pans and a man tried to help her. He took her hand and then something inside her got very scared, even though he had a nice face and said he was going to take her to her mother. But Ellie knew that they were getting farther and farther away from Mommy and going too fast, and his hand got tighter and tighter on her wrist and she was too dumb and too scared to yell like she should have. The man with the nice face kept smiling his scary smile with too many teeth in it, like an alligator's, and saying everything would be all right.
But then her uncle was there and he was pulling on her other hand and yelling at the scary man, who said that her uncle couldn't be her uncle. Then Ellie did yell, to tell him he was wrong and she was scared and he should let go of her. She started crying so hard that at first she couldn't make the police lady who came understand that her uncle was good and was trying to rescue her. The police lady made them both let go of Ellie, and the scary man's face got all scrunched up and he said that he was just trying to help, and then he said again that Ellie's uncle couldn't be her uncle, because he was white and Ellie wasn't. That didn't make any difference, Ellie knew it didn't, because Mommy and Daddy had always told her it didn't, but she couldn't tell the police lady because she was crying too hard.
The police lady tried to talk to her but Ellie couldn't stop crying, not until her uncle knelt down next to her and she could wrap her arms around his neck and not be scared. He said, "Let's go find your mom, Ellie," but they didn't have to, because Mommy had heard them and she was there. She wrapped Ellie up tight and safe in a hug for just the two of them. The scary man was getting louder and scarier and he kept yelling about Ellie's uncle not being her uncle, even when the police lady put handcuffs on him. Ellie saw her mommy's face change from scared to mad to something else, something strong like a princess's, and then Mommy opened up her arms and hugged her uncle, too, with Ellie in between, all of them together, so that everybody knew that her uncle was really and truly part of their family and that the scary man was bad and That Was That.
And Ellie remembers that night, Daddy looking at her with his face twisted up all funny, but not in a mean way, and he said of course it wasn't when Ellie told him it wasn't Mommy's fault that Ellie had wandered away. He said sometimes bad people like to hurt kids, and it's not the kids' fault either, and that was why Mommies and Daddies worried so much, and why there were people like her uncle around, to help stop the bad people. "And you, too," Ellie told Daddy. "And Mommy." And he nodded and hugged her so tight she thought she'd be skinnier by the time he was done. And then Ellie wanted him to laugh, wanted it so bad that it hurt, so she told him his face would freeze that way, just like Grandma always says, and he did laugh, and Ellie was glad that she'd done the right thing, that she'd made her Daddy stop being scared.
She wishes that now, tonight, she could do the same thing for Mommy--who, when Ellie opens her eyes, looks just as scared as she did that day in the store.
So Ellie says, "Mommy, your face will freeze that way," and Mommy smiles, but not like Daddy did. Her smile is small and sad and flutters on her mouth and then disappears again.
Because it's a Worry Night.
"You remember all that?" Mommy strokes her hair. "You weren't even three years old when that happened."
But Ellie does remember. She remembers the man's hand tight around her wrist and how everybody's faces twisted up in different ways, and she knows that the stories Mommy tells about the knight are true, just like that story is true, because she knows what it's like to have a knight rescue her.
And she knows that she has to help rescue the knight, because sometimes Brave Deeds are dangerous. "Tell another story, Mommy. Tell it, or he won't call."
Mommy's face crinkles, and she sighs.
"Once upon a time," Ellie reminds her.
"Once upon a time," Mommy echoes, "the princess was entrusted with...with a treasure. She loved it very much; it was precious..." She runs out of words, still stroking Ellie's hair.
"A precious jewel," Ellie says.
"Yes. And she took it into town one day, and dropped it in the marketplace by accident. A man who wanted it for himself saw it, and picked it up." Mommy stops again, and her voice sounds funny.
"And squeezed it very hard," Ellie whispers. "So hard it hurt." She presses closer to Mommy until there's no space between them, no space at all, and it's safe. Mommy puts her face on top of Ellie's head and doesn't say anything. "But the knight came, Mommy. The knight came and made the bad man stop and then the sheriff came, and the princess too, didn't they?"
Mommy makes a sniffy sound, then she lifts up her head. "Yes, they did."
"And everyone was safe, the princess and the treasure and the knight?"
Before Mommy can answer, the phone rings. Ellie feels a fluttering in her chest.
"Finish it, Mommy!" she says, because they haven't come to Happily Ever After yet, and what if that's part of the spell, too, the part that makes everything all right?
"I have to answer the phone," Mommy says in the voice she uses when Ellie can't argue because she's not a Grown-Up. And she picks up the phone.
Ellie shuts her eyes tight. She can't bear to see Mommy's face if it's bad news. "Happily ever after," Ellie whispers, and clutches her blanket up under her chin. Casts the spell. "Happily ever after, happily ever after, happily ever after..."
And then Mommy says, "Oh, thank goodness, we were so worried," and she nudges Ellie and smiles at her and Ellie feels almost Grown Up. And Mommy asks all the usual questions: Are you all right, and Did you stop it, and Is everyone safe, and Are you sure you're all right?
She listens to the answers, and all the lines on her face get soft, then go away. "I'm so glad you called," she says. "There's someone here who wants to talk to you...yes, believe it or not, she's still up....Not funny," she says, even though she's smiling, a real smile this time. "Yes, I'll be in early tomorrow." She hands the phone to Ellie.
Her uncle's voice comes across the line, rough like sandpaper and kind like Christmas and warm like family, because he is part of her family. "Hey, Jelly Belly, isn't it past your bedtime?"
And Ellie changes her mind. The best thing about Worry Nights, the very best thing of all, is when they're over.
Happily ever after.
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