This story is by Sandy Juker and was part of our 2022 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
The first time happily ever after came knocking at my door, I was a college sophomore bent on finding Prince Charming. Like a princess in a fairy tale, I was sure he would make all my dreams come true. Birds would sing, flowers flourish, and even rainy days would be brightened by rainbows.
I should have been forewarned when, on the first day I met Jethro, he said, “You can call me Jet. That’s what the football team nicknamed me ‘cause I’m so fast.”
He was fast alright. Two years after wedding bells shuttled us down the road toward bliss, he slept with his best friend’s wife.
Kaboom, the dream collided with reality. The birds fell out of the sky, flowers shriveled and rainbows turned gray.
He begged. “Forgive me, Mackenzie. It meant nothing, Mackenzie.”
I forgave him, but when it happened again, I raged. “That hussy is ruining my life. She can’t have him, he’s mine.” But then I realized I’d made a mistake. “Hell, she can have him. He is not Prince Charming.”
So, I swallowed my pride and admitted leap number one was not my happily ever after. Filled with new hope, I set off in pursuit of my dreams with Bryce, the most adorable little boy you ever saw, bouncing on my hip.
My son was almost three when a tall, dark, and handsome man in uniform delivered a package with a wink and a promise to return. After three months of dancing and picnics and candlelit dinners, Lance delivered a velvet box with a brilliant diamond and a vow to love me forever.
Leap number two glowed with hope for the future until promised devotion turned to jealousy. Lance’s moods fluctuated. One instant, hatefulness spewed from his mouth, his eyes dark and evil. Then, just as quickly, the charmer I married emerged.
At first, I clung to the dream, believing the devoted charmer would prevail. But darkness, like a storm cloud, always returned, shrouding every rainbow. Too ashamed to face another failed marriage, I lived on high alert, sheltering Bryce and managing my volatile husband, until his rage became physical.
With a make-up covered black eye, I took the joy of my life, who was now five, and moved in with my parents.
Convinced Prince Charming only lived in fairy tales, I focused on being the best mom ever. My next five years, volunteering and biking and hiking, were rewarded with a sparkle in Bryce’s eyes that warmed my heart and made my parents proud.
Leap number three was a surprise. Bryce introduced me to a widower named Nolan, and his twelve-year-old daughter, Anna. After months filled with fun and adventure, my son asked, “Mom, why can’t we be a normal family?”
I looked into his wishful eyes, swallowed my fears, and took the leap. Together, Nolan and I faced the challenges of a blended family, my belief in happily ever after restored.
Bryce was in his first year of college, and Anna, happily married and fulfilling her own dream, was seven months pregnant when Nolan, diagnosed with terminal cancer, passed away. Poof, the dream took flight.
I had thought the first would be my only leap, but hadn’t accounted for infidelity, abuse or cancer. With past relationships stacked in a heap of failures where birds did not sing, my life’s goal became fraught with vultures feeding in a wake of disappointments. Determination to achieve that blissful state was as pointless as the achromatic rainbows shadowing my world.
Grief blinded me to the colors of happiness.
EIGHT MONTHS LATER, I opened my eyes, but they clamped shut reflexively, a shield against blinding light. I lifted heavy hands to cover my face and strained to open my eyes.
Each shallow breath barely reaching my lungs as I spread my palms an inch, two inches. I pulled my hands away and squinted at a white curtain hung with wire rings from a rail on the ceiling. Am I in a bathtub? Or a morgue?
Rhythmic beeps, mechanical wheezes and muffled voices calmed my erratic breathing. I relaxed and the comfort of darkness returned.
“Mackenzie, are you ready? Your grandparents are waiting for you.” Like a warm breeze, a woman’s voice flowed over me.
Without moving my lips, my voice resonated. “Where are we going?” That was weird.
I tested the sensation. “Old McDonald had a farm.” To the woman I said, “I hear my voice, but I’m not talking. What’s going on?”
“In this state of being, you can see, say and hear anything you want, with thought.” That soothing voice again.
“Well, I can’t see… Oh, there you are. The waterfall behind you is beautiful, but I don’t hear… Oh, now I hear rushing water.” With thought, she said. What if I think about birds? “Wow, I just thought up a host of twittering sparrows.”
“Like I said, anything you want. As long as it’s within this realm.” The angelic blonde’s mouth did not move.
So stereotypical. Why not a black-haired vixen? The woman morphed. “Whoa. Do I control what everything looks like?”
“No. Your grandparents will appear as they did when they arrived, only more vibrant. As will Nolan. Are you ready to go to them?”
Grammy and Pappy appeared in the distance, looking just as I remembered. I gasped and, in a rush of thought, said, “I want them to meet Bryce.” I looked around. “Why can’t I see my son?”
The woman, angelic again, said, “Once you choose to stay in this realm, you can no longer see the world you left behind.”
My thoughts burst out at the woman, whose voice suddenly seemed cruel. “What? I didn’t choose to come here.”
She purred, “But you can. By staying in this realm, you leave the pains of that world behind. Life here is eternal happiness where you wait for your loved ones to join you.”
My grandparents’ and Nolan’s gleaming smiles were drawing near. I wanted to run to them, to be swept into the comfort of their love, but I braced against the urge.
“No! I can’t stay. Bryce and Anna and her baby need me. I’m not finished. I have to go back.
“I have to go back!” Darkness and silence enveloped me.
Metal scraping on metal, a swoosh of air, followed by a gentle pressure on my hand. Then, “Hello Mom. I was on my way home from class and wanted to tell you—”
I forced my eyes open, squinting against the brightness. “Brraa… Braa…” A guttural moan caught in my throat.
Bryce leaped forward, his eyes wide and searching. “Mom? Mom! You’re awake.” He turned his head and yelled, “Help! Nurse.”
White coats swarmed around me, checking my vitals, silencing beeping machines.
When the commotion diminished, Bryce clasped my hand and explained. “Three months after baby Nolan was born, you suffered a traumatic brain injury in a car accident. You’ve been in a coma.”
I rasped, “How long was I out?”
“This is day seventy-nine.” He raised my hand to his cheek. “I’ve been here every day, Mom.”
I ran my fingers through his dark hair, reminded of when we showed up on my parents’ doorstep. At five years old he’d clung to my hand and said, “It’s okay Mommy. I’ll take care of you.” My vision blurred as I stroked my little boy’s stubbled face.
Suddenly, Anna burst into the room. “Oh, Mama!” She thrust Nolan into Bryce’s lap and hugged me, long and hard. Then, turning toward her son, she said, “Look, baby, Grammy’s awake.” The giggling child turned to look; his flexing hand outstretched toward me.
A familiar scent wafted into the air as Bryce placed baby Nolan in my arms. Anna said, “Every week, he’s napped on your chest while I read stories.” A pudgy hand batted at tears that streamed down my cheek.
THREE WEEKS LATER. The sun was brighter, the sky bluer than I remembered. A lilac scented breeze caressed my face as I brushed freshly cut grass from my husband’s headstone. I sat on a sun-warmed bench, and accompanied by Wrens churring in the shrubs, told Nolan about the coma and the kids.
“Anna is a wonderful mother and baby Nolan is such a delight. I’m adjusting to my new name. Grammy. Can you believe it?” I shook my head. “Bryce has changed his major. He wants to become a neurosurgeon. I’ve never seen him so excited.”
I traced the letters of Nolan’s name with my finger. “I know you are happy and waiting, my darling, and for that I am thankful.”
I raised my face to the sun and, knowing the fairy tales were wrong, I basked in the chance to experience leap number four. I reminded myself that happily ever after is not about romance. It’s about joyful moments, and lessons learned from painful moments, and all the sweet memories that will forever color my life.