This story is by Stephanie Arttus and was part of our 2017 Summer Writing Contest. You can find all the Summer Writing Contest stories here.
I look back to see Gabbi sitting safely in her car seat. “Yes…” My throat tightens, the rest of my words lost. For outside my daughter’s window stands a magnificent white horse. Its coat so white and pure that it shimmers in the morning sunlight; but it’s the shine of the large crown like object on the top of its brow that catches my eye.
Whipping my head forward I see the light in front of me is now green. My foot slams on the gas, the tires squealing in protest as they propel the old dusty Buick forward. Lifting my head to look in the rear view mirror, my body relaxes. I shake my head, trying to refocus my thoughts. It must have been a reflection. That’s right. A reflection of Gabbi’s favorite toy, a white unicorn named Tahlia. My eyes drift back to the rearview mirror. A smile forms as I see Tahlia in her usual place held tight in my daughter’s arms.
Tahlia is the reason this day is even possible, Gabbi’s first day of school. After years of home schooling I thought this day might never come; and now I wish it hadn’t. How could my little girl be ready for this? Am I ready for this?
Gabbi was diagnosed with Autism as a toddler. But the violent tantrums began to get worse and the scratches and bruises on my arms, from trying to restrain her, were becoming permanent features. Something needed to change.
Salvation came in the form of a letter. A letter offering a full ride scholarship to Equine Therapy, a horse camp designed for children with special needs. Children like Gabbi. At first I was hesitant; I had not even applied for the scholarship, nor had I ever heard of their program. However, they insisted that their ‘Guardians’ found Gabbi, and scholarships were only offered to those found by a ‘Guardian.’
In the end, it was Gabbi who made the decision, insisting that she wanted to go, needed to go. Tahlia had been a gift from Equine Therapy this past summer. And Gabbi continues to go back every weekend. The improvements have been dramatic, progressively becoming better with each visit. Now when I see the shift in her demeanor, a shift that experience tells me an episode is on it’s way, she simply pulls Tahlia closer.
My knuckles turn white on the steering wheel, My eyes shifting toward the rear view mirror once more. “Are you excited for school?”
Gabbi merely nods, her body slowly starting to rock back and forth, her arms flexing as she pulls Tahlia closer. Her anxiety twists my stomach into a knot. What if something goes wrong, what if she has a violent tantrum? Despite talking with the teachers and touring the classroom, it’s not home, and it’s certainly not me. I know that I can’t be there forever, but does forever need to start today?
“It’s ok to be nervous,” my voice quavers slightly. It takes every bit of will power to not turn the car around.
She nods once more. It’s normal for my daughter to be quiet, yet somehow her silence now makes my heart thump louder.
“I bet you’re going to have a lot of fun,” I offer, trying to ease her tension and mine.
“Are you going to stay with me?”
I blink my eyes furiously, trying to keep the tears at bay. “Not this time, sweetheart.”
Gabbi’s shoulders go rigid as she covers her face in Tahlia’s hair.
“It’s going to be alright,” I promise; though I am not sure who it is I am trying to reassure.
“Tahlia can come, right?” she asks, peeking through Tahlia’s silvery strands.
My eyes drift once more to the animal in her arms. “Of course sweetheart,” I say wishing beyond all reason that I too, could stay with her always.
The car slows as I pull up in front of the school, just as the first bell rings. “Do you want me to walk in with you?”
Gabbi shakes her head. “I remember where to go.”
My heart both sinks and swells with pride. Unsure if I am ready for her to leave, but at the same time happy to see her brave enough to do it alone.
“Have a good time at school sweetheart. Mommy loves you.”
“I love you too Mommy,” Gabbi says, reaching between the seats, her arms wrapping around my neck in a tight embrace. My arms mirror her movement as we both hold on longer than normal.
It takes all my strength to keep the tears from rolling down my cheeks as she pulls away and opens the car door. But at the sound of the door closing, the tears start to fall in earnest. I watch her walk to the front door, ignoring the beeping horns of impatient parents behind me.
My heart sputters as I see her hesitate, her body tensing as if signaling the start of a tantrum. My hand immediately begins unbuckling my seat belt as my eyes stay transfixed on her rigid form. Then her grip on Tahlia tightens, her body shifting ever so slightly. As I stare, a pure white horse walks up next to her, the same horse from before. Within seconds Gabbi’s body relaxes, her feet begin to move.
But instead of watching Gabbi, my eyes stay transfixed on the shimmering white horse. It turns its head around to look me straight in the eye; I gasp. It’s no horse at all. The glittering horn emanating from its noble brow marks it for what it truly is, a unicorn. It is Tahlia.
Tahlia holds my gaze a moment longer before dipping her head, as if to promise Gabbi will be safe. Overwhelming relief spreads through me, leaving my body free of the tension that has plagued me these past weeks. I know that Gabbi will be alright. Tahlia, her guardian angel, will be there to watch over my precious child.