Fairy tales aren’t supposed to end like this.
They aren’t supposed to end at all.
Happily ever after shouldn’t have an ending.
And especially not an ending like this.
There’s a certain age you reach when you realize that fairy tails aren’t real. They never were, and they never can be. It’s not when you become a teenager or when you get married or even after you have your first child. Fairy tales are still alive at that time, and you’re full of dreams.
No. It dies when you reach a point that you realize this is all there is to life, whether it’s true or not. Not even the magic in your children’s eyes can offer life support to the fading magic within your own.
The funeral had ended hours ago. Emily Winters stood with her son and daughter, and a dog they barely knew, in front of a freshly covered grave. A new marble headstone in the shape of a cross marked it. They had watched the ceremony from their van as the storm clouds gathered overhead. The rumbling storm was a fitting end to an already depressing morning. Once it began, the rain fell in a constant gloomy drizzle.
Emily stared at the grave, holding her umbrella over her and her son. Everyone was silent. Her beloved husband was supposed to come home today. Instead, he had arrived in a casket a few days earlier. Emily’s gaze traveled up to the marker, with his name coldly etched into it. Jonathan Winters. He was never coming home again.
She would never hear his voice or see his beautiful happy face. She would never see him helping their daughter with her homework. She would never see him hiking with their son. That was nevermore. Jonathan liked using that word.
Nevermore would there be any sweet kisses or mornings waking up to a smiling face and mussed up hair. Nevermore was there that kind, warm love they shared. There would only be cold, stormy days and a life of darkness missing her husband’s light.
Emily sighed, her shoulders sagging under the weight of her new, unwanted life as a single mother. She had been too sad, angry, and embarrassed to attend the service. Emily didn’t need to hear, ‘I am sorry for your loss’ a hundred times. She would not have been able to make it through that ordeal.
Everything they had planned together, Emily now had to do alone. The dog, Mariposa, lowered her head and whimpered. The Belgian Malinois had arrived on time. Without Emily’s husband. The dog had a bandage over the right side of her head, hiding where her right ear should have been. There was an already healing burn scar running down her neck and side. Emily made sure she was covered so she wouldn’t get wet.
Mariposa tugged at the lead, whining at the grave. She knew. Dogs knew these kinds of things. And then she began howling. Emily pulled at the leash. She knew dogs but hadn’t had one in her life in years. Raising a family meant Emily didn’t have time for a pet too. And now she had one that was broken and barely functioning. It wasn’t Mariposa’s fault. None of it had been her fault. Emily sighed. “Mariposa. Come.” There was a flash of lightning, followed by a far too close crash of thunder.
The dog cringed up against Emily’s legs, tail between her hind legs. She immediately peed where she was. “Lovely.” Emily sighed. Hopefully, the rain would wash it off between here and their car. “Come on, let’s get to the car.” Emily knelt to run her hand over Mariposa’s shoulders. This dog was a shadow of the proud, confident animal she had been. Jonathan had been so happy she was going to retire with him and live out the rest of her life with his family.
When Mariposa arrived, Emily had forgotten entirely about her. She and her family were packing the small rented trailer for moving to their new home. The dog came in her traveling crate. What was she going to do? Turn the dog away? She was no longer qualified for active duty, and she was lucky even to be alive. Emily would deal with her. After all, she had lost her master, who had trained her and depended on her mission after mission. Mariposa was a part of her husband.
Emily glanced over her shoulder one last time at the grave, then at her children. They were walking with their heads down, trying to hold back the tears. But they were sniffling and wiping their eyes. Emily had shed enough tears. They were fighting to return, but she had a long drive ahead of her.
The kids got into the van, with both going into the first row of seats. Mariposa’s kennel was jammed into a space behind the first row against the back seats. The dog crept into her crate when told to, turned, and laid down. She fixed Emily with her sad brown eyes. Then she began whining.
Emily started the car in silence. She ran a hair through her short auburn hair and stared ahead into the rain. Mariposa whined pitifully while Emily’s children sat in cold, unmoving silence. They were not interacting or looking at each other. They didn’t have a phone or a game out — not even a book. Emily adjusted her mirror and gripped the steering wheel. If they survived the drive, it would be a miracle.
Mariposa whined as the van moved forward, pulling their entire life in one small trailer. They had never had much, but they had always had family.
The trip was miserable. Driving through dismal, cold rain was tiring. The trip would take several days of constant driving. They stopped at cheap hotels to spend their nights. Then they returned to the road early in the morning. Emily was in no better spirits the second day, but her kids were beginning to wake up.
Harper, her oldest, would be 13 in a few months. She took after her father with his same fair skin and dark blond hair. It had been almost white when she was a baby. Harper had her father’s blue eyes. She was a smart girl and typical for her age.
Mason was ten and looked more like his mother. He had short auburn hair and green eyes. He was a quiet, thoughtful boy who loved to read and explore.
Mariposa thankfully stopped whining as much the second day. She settled into her crate and slept. They stopped on occasion to stretch their legs and walk her. Emily was sad to see how depressed the dog looked. She crept more than walked. It wasn’t her fault. Her husband had not died because the dog had failed in her job. Someone else had done the deed.
Emily sighed and pushed her thoughts back to the road. She could not dwell on things there was no way to go back in time to fix. Her husband was gone. She had two children she had to take care of, and a new life to begin.
The terrain began changing from day to day. Flat land turned into rolling hills. Trees gave way to large open spaces. Then there were trees again — different kinds than they were used to seeing. Mile after mile and down winding roads, they traveled.
“Mooom,” Mason groaned from the back seat. “Are we there yet?”
Emily smiled. It was the first sign of her normal son she had heard in days. “Soon, Mason. We’ll be home tonight.” Home. That’s where they were going. A home she hadn’t seen since she was a child. It was her family’s ancestral home, and she had inherited it a year ago. She and her husband had planned to move there at the end of his deployment. They were going to fix up that old home and raise their children in the charming, small town of Blackwood.
“It will never be home.” Harper snapped at her brother, scowling at him. “Not without Dad.”
The car’s breaks squealed in protest ad Emily swung it into a stop at the side of the road. Harper and Mason went completely silent, with Harper pursing her lips. She had said the wrong thing.
Emily stared ahead at the road. Her hands gripped the steering wheel so tight that her knuckles were white. She closed her eyes and scowled, staring angrily ahead. “Of all the selfish things to say, Harper. You’re old enough to know better than to say things like that.” Then Emily rested her head on the steering wheel and began crying.
Harper lowered her head, feeling ashamed for what she had said. Mason glared at his sister. Neither wanted to hurt their mother. They had been mostly quiet for that reason. They had not wanted to bother her, but after days of silence, they had to talk.
“I’m sorry, Mother. I didn’t mean it like that.” Harper sniffled. “I love you.”
Mason unbuckled his seat belt and got up to lean around the front seat and hug his mother. “We’re sorry.” Emily sat for a moment longer, regaining her composure. It was difficult remaining strong when you didn’t have anyone to lean on but yourself. She thought a prayer for comfort, then smiled at Mason and Harper.
“I’m okay. Get back in your seat. We’ll be there soon. It’s been a long week, and we have many more to come, but we have each other, don’t we?” Emily pushed a smile forward. “I love you too.” Usually, when Emily was feeling down, forcing a smile helped. Today was not one of those days, but she had to do it anyway.