“Daddy, wait,” I pleaded, pulling the delicate string on my nightstand lamp to counter the darkness in the room. “What about a bedtime story?”
He stood in the doorway, his hand still on the doorknob. The warm glow of the lamp illuminated his face in such a way that he appeared more tired than I knew he was, but he wouldn’t say no to me.
“Okay,” he said. “But just one.”
He sat down at the end of my bed, which my tiny toes couldn’t even reach at the time. I sat up just slightly—if I’d sat up too much, he would’ve left the room and insisted I go to sleep. He thought for a moment, took a deep breath, and then began:
“Once upon a time, Lucy McLaren was in a limousine with her father. At first, she had been very excited to go with her daddy. After all, what little girl wouldn’t want to dress up in a knee-length, red suede dress with a satin ribbon tied around the waist, and white pearl earrings that shine like a full moon on a dark winter night, with her sweet, blonde, shoulder-length hair formed into loose curls, and a couple of hairs pinned back in a large white bow? Oh, and who could forget the polished white shoes with the slight heel which she had been dreaming of since she learned what the word “shoe” meant? And then to be escorted to an opera in a limousine? Why, she couldn’t be more content! Except for one small thing: the missing heart-shaped locket.
“The locket had been a gift from her mother, which she received at birth, though she obviously didn’t wear it until she was much older. Inside the locket was the only picture of her mother she possessed. She wore it all the time. Every day and every night…until this night. When she was bathing, she always took the locket off to protect the metal. But on this night, when she had finished drying herself and was properly dressed, she went to fetch the locket from where she had left it, but it had disappeared!
“Her father would not give her time to search because he didn’t want to be late to the opera. But she would not be happy without the locket around her neck. She needed it! She needed her mom.”
I could relate to that.
“So, to protest her father’s uncaring timeliness, she complained about everything. Everything from her beautiful dress to her white pearl earrings to the perfect curls in her sweet blonde hair. Everything she had loved minutes before suddenly she hated with a burning passion. She fussed and whined and shouted and cried and did everything she could to irritate her father. She thought if she tried hard enough, maybe he would take her home to search for the locket. But as hideously annoying as she clearly was, Mr. McLaren would not turn around. They were going to the opera.
“Once they arrived, Lucy cooled down a little bit, amazed by the theater’s magnificent marble pillars, which seemed to touch the stars, and the infinite steps, which felt as though they were leading to an emperor’s throne, and finally, the fantastic red carpet, which she was just meant to walk. It was as if the Lincoln Memorial had been repurposed as a theater—all that was missing was the pool.
“Inside, the building was even more astounding! More steps on either side of the lobby led to the auditorium itself. A man in a white tailcoat tuxedo with black pants and a black bow tie gave Mr. McLaren a program and guided him to the stairway on the left. Mr. McLaren and Lucy—who was now completely quiet—walked to the very top of the stairs, which opened up to a balcony overlooking the entire auditorium. Behind them were two red curtains, which another man in a white tailcoat tuxedo closed after they had been seated. Even at her young age, Lucy quickly realized that they had the best seats in the house.
“Before the show began, Mr. McLaren whispered to his daughter, ‘Keep an eye out for the woman in the orange ball gown.’
“‘Why, Daddy?’ she asked curiously.
“‘You’re going to meet her after the show,’ her father replied.
“‘Really? What’s her name? Is she famous? Is she the star of the opera? If I meet her, does that make me famous? Ooh, can I wear her dress? I want her dress, Daddy. Oh, and—’ she rambled on and on. It was amazing she could breathe considering how quickly she was spewing out questions. Her mouth never stopped moving!
“Her father never answered any of her questions, not that she would have let him get a word in if he wanted to. He just stared at the stage, searching for the woman in the orange ball gown. Finally, the opera began.
“And there she was. A stunning vision of what the word ‘beauty’ could mean. As she entered, the theater fell silent, desperate to hear even the slightest whisper from her lips. And then she sang. Oh, how she sang! Nobody cared for the language or the words, but the sound—why, she was an angel!
“Other actors entered the stage, but they were different. When they sang, they didn’t sing. No one could match the absolute elegance of the woman in the orange ball gown, and Lucy caught on to this.
“She whispered to her father with her eyes still focused on the woman, ‘I can’t wait to meet her, Daddy.’
“He didn’t acknowledge her remark, and quite frankly, he probably didn’t hear her. His mind and soul were completely absorbed by the opera.
“And then the show was over. A final bow signaled the curtains, and suddenly the stage was empty and the lights were on. Mr. McLaren seemed confused at first, like a man just waking from a trance—disoriented. But at the sound of the red curtains opening behind him, he regained his consciousness, and he and his daughter left to go see the woman in the orange ball gown.
“They entered her dressing room. She wasn’t wearing orange now, having changed from her costume, but she was still the most beautiful woman Mr. McLaren had ever seen. Lucy almost agreed, but then she remembered the heart-shaped locket. No woman could ever be more beautiful than her mother. And just like that, the woman standing before her was riddled with imperfections. Her auburn hair was messy, despite the well-styled updo; her skin was frighteningly pale, despite all of the blush and makeup; and her light blue eyes were…icy. Yes, icy. Each glance was making Lucy more and more uncomfortable.
“But Mr. McLaren didn’t notice Lucy’s discomfort. Or maybe he simply didn’t care. Either way, it didn’t matter. Mr. McLaren was happy as could be, the love of his life standing just before his eyes, and Lucy was feeling small.
“The woman rushed over to Mr. McLaren. ‘So, what’d you think?’ she asked excitedly.
“‘It was wonderful!’ he praised. ‘You have a beautiful voice!’ He then kissed the woman on her cheek and handed her a bouquet of red and white roses, which made Lucy silently furious.
“The woman was grinning ear to ear, her red lipstick unbearably bright for Lucy’s little eyes, when she finally noticed the small child.
“‘Oh! And you must be Lucy!’ she exclaimed, bending down to the child’s level. ‘It’s a pleasure to finally meet you!’
“Lucy stood quietly, considering the word ‘finally.’ Her father had met this woman before? He wanted them to meet? As the puzzle started to piece itself together, Lucy felt sick. She wanted to go home, curl up in her bed, throw a pillow over her head, and block out the rest of the world. She wanted her mom. And then…
“‘I hope you don’t mind,’ the woman began, pulling out a small gift box. ‘I got you a little something.’
“She opened the box and pulled out a necklace, which she then held up for Lucy to admire. It was a heart-shaped locket! It was her heart-shaped locket. She snatched the precious item and quickly opened the charm… The picture was gone!
“‘Well, Lucy, wasn’t that nice?’ Mr. McLaren commented, oblivious to Lucy’s fright. ‘Now, what do we say when someone does something nice?’
“‘It’s my locket,’ Lucy stated plainly, shocked.
“‘It is now!’ the woman enthused. ‘Here, turn around. I’ll do the clasp for you.’
“Her bright red smile was both frightening and sincere. This troubled the poor girl further.
“‘No!’ Lucy shouted, stepping away from the woman. ‘Stay away from me! You stole this! You stole my picture! I’ll never let you touch my locket again!’
“‘Lucy, that’s enough!’ Mr. McLaren yelled. ‘Now, you get over here and say thank you for the generous gift,’ he commanded.
“‘Joe, what picture is she talking about?’ the woman asked, standing at her full height, plus an inch from her shoes.
“He ignored his love and turned to Lucy. With a stern voice and a steel look, he repeated, ‘Come thank her now.’
“‘No!’ Lucy shouted with childish determination.
“Mr. McLaren paraded over to the little girl and yanked the locket right out of her hands, holding it up high so she couldn’t reach to grab it.
“‘No!’ she cried sadly, hopelessly grasping the air, searching for the necklace’s chain, tears rolling down her cheeks.
“‘Joe!’ the woman shouted, still standing a few feet away. ‘Joe, stop this! What are you doing?’
“‘She needs to move on,’ Mr. McLaren declared, almost snarling. ‘I have.’
“Then the world came crashing down. The woman froze, her eyes wide with realization. She looked at Lucy. ‘Your mother,’ she said softly. ‘The picture was of your mother.’ Then, in a blind rage, she turned on Mr. McLaren. ‘How could you?!’ she screamed. Mr. McLaren lowered his arms and faced her, stunned. ‘You stole your daughter’s locket, removed the picture, wrapped it in a fancy box, and delivered it to me so that I could give it to her as if it were some sweet, innocent gift? How cruel and disgusting are you?’
“He tried to save it. ‘No, listen, it’s not what you think,’ he pleaded.
“‘Name one thing I’ve said wrong,’ she demanded, her face completely cold.
“He opened his mouth, but no sound came out. He couldn’t think of anything. He had done all of the things she said. He was acting like an animal, like a monster. He stood up straight and fixed his coat and tie, which had come loose in his rampage. After composing himself, he said,
“‘You’re completely right.’ He turned to his daughter, who he just now realized must’ve been completely horrified by the night’s events. ‘I’m sorry,’ he said. ‘To both of you. Neither of you deserved this.’
“They stood for a moment in silence, and the room became quite calm. Then Mr. McLaren approached the woman, kissed her gently on the forehead, turned, took his daughter’s hand, and left. He and his daughter went home in the same limousine without saying a word to each other; though, the two were comfortable the whole way. Upon their return, he gave Lucy back the picture of her mother—which he stared at for a long while—and fastened the locket around her neck.
“It took a thunderstorm, but the clouds did eventually part. The end.”
Daddy began to get up from my bed, but I was confused. “Daddy,” I quickly said. “I don’t understand.”
He sat back down. “You don’t understand what?”
“Well, was it a happy ending or a sad ending?” I asked.
“Hmm. That’s a good question. How about this? Tomorrow, you’ll tell me.”
“What do you mean? What’s tomorrow?”
“We’re going to the opera.”