Dan read his daughter a bedtime story while sitting on her bed. But Phoebe kept on fidgeting. He closed the book, marking his place with a finger.
“What’s wrong, kiddo? Don’t you like ‘Hansel and Gretel’?”
“It’s kind of boring, Daddy.”
“What do you mean? I always read from ‘The Little People’s Book of Fairy Tales’.”
“Is that the same one, when Little Red Riding Hood makes friends with the wolf?”
“Wolves are an endangered species, honey.”
“But so was Little Red…”
Dan cleared his throat. “What’s wrong with Hansel and Gretel?”
“Pro’bly the ending. But so far, isn’t the step-mother supposed to be evil?”
“All step-mothers aren’t evil, kiddo.”
“I know. But it’s the story, Dad. I don’t think Jane is evil.”
“She’s annoying sometimes. But that’s just her trying to be a real mom. I liked that she didn’t want them to give Tommy that Ritalin stuff.”
Phoebe’s older brother, Tommy, rolled over in the bed across the room. He snored lightly.
“Tommy can be annoying too. But I don’t want him shooting up a school like those kids did.”
“No one wants that. How do you know about those other kids?”
“You’d be surprised what you can find on the computer, Daddy.”
“But, like in that Harry Potter book, when something doesn’t have a brain and it orders you around, you have to wonder.”
“Right. You shouldn’t spend too much time on the computer. What about Hansel and Gretel?”
“So far, Gretel seems to be the only one doing anything. Why is Hansel even there?”
“What do you mean?”
“He just stands there until Gretel tells him what to do. Or the witch.”
“They’re supposed to be in danger. Why doesn’t he help? Aren’t they a team? They should do what they can. He’s such a tool.”
Dan chuckled and then got serious. “Word is, Pheebs, girls are the future.”
“I don’t think Tommy knows that. So, there won’t be any boys? Who will we have to make fun of?”
Dan looked at the alarm clock on Phoebe’s bedside table. “Uhm… Back to…”
“Right… And the gingerbread house. Why isn’t it covered with ants?”
“Later in the story, they explain the witch used a low calorie sweetener to bake…”
“Oh… No offense, but Jane would lose it if I left one cookie on the counter.”
“Some things work in stories that aren’t so realistic.”
“I get it. So when the birds eat the bread crumbs? You know, that they left on the path?”
“Are the bread crumbs gluten free?”
“They might be. I hope so.”
“I wouldn’t want Hansel and Gretel to poison the birds.”
“Of course not.”
“So, does this story end with the evil witch being, not really evil? Does she turn out to be a kindly, dear old, long lost aunt or something?”
“Let’s read and find out.” Dan glanced at the clock.
“But wait. If it turns out that way, it’ll be so stupid.”
“Why? Don’t you want them to find their dear, long lost aunt?”
“Of course I do. But that’s not the point.”
Dan sighed. “What is the point, Pheebs?”
“I know this is a fairy tale, Daddy. But are fairy tales supposed to be completely disconnected from reality?” Phoebe felt good about getting through that sentence in one breath.
“Well… Phoebe, where is this coming from?”
“I mean, not everyone is a dear, lost aunt.”
“Not all wolves can be pets.”
“Sometimes, we meet people who truly are evil.”
The clock ticked. “Sometimes…”
“Maybe there’s magic, and elves. But it has to feel true.”
Daddy, if everyone in the story is nice, then where is the story? It’s not very exciting.”
“Maybe the book wants to show there are ways to solve problems that don’t involve pushing people into ovens.”
“Is that how it ends? Cool.”
“I don’t think in this version…”
“Oh. But Dad, if everyone is nice…”
“Wouldn’t that be…”
“But wait, if everyone is nice, then why have Hansel and Gretel at all?”
“Couldn’t they learn to be nice, too?”
“They’re already nice. We’re rooting for them. Aren’t stories supposed to show us how to beat the bad guys? They need to do something.”
“Yes, but… I don’t want to frighten you, Phoebe.”
“Thanks, Dad. But scaring me, in a story… Isn’t that better than something really scary?”
“I don’t want you frightened of anything, ever.”
“But that’s why kids like roller coasters and scary movies. To face our fears.”
“Okay… You are pretty fearless.”
“Kids need to learn to defend themselves. And not be victims. Some things are scary. They just are.”
“But, you’re six. You’re too little…”
“I won’t always be six.”
Dan swallowed. “…Yeah.”
“And there won’t always be grown-ups around to protect me.”
“Believing everyone is my secret, lost aunt, pro’bly isn’t the best way to face the world.”
“Well… Probably not.”
“I know you want to protect me, Dad. But it’s all around us, if you look.”
“What do you mean?”
“I saw a dead butterfly today, on the sidewalk. Nobody cared. It was so sad. I put it on a leaf so no one would step on it.”
Dan turned away from Phoebe and wiped his eye.
“A bug flew into my eye.”
Phoebe touched his arm. “It’s okay, Dad.”
He turned back to his daughter and smiled shyly. “Thanks, Pheebs.”
They looked at each other for a moment, without talking. Dan returned the book to the shelf.
“You know what, Pheebs?”
“I think our little talk turned out better than any story I could read you tonight.”
“You’re a smart kid. You know that? You could write stories.”
“Maybe I will.” Phoebe smiled at her father, showing the gaps where her baby teeth had been.
Dan tucked the covers around Phoebe and kissed her on the forehead. He checked on Tommy, who slept through it all.
“Good night, kiddo. I love you.”
“Love you too, Daddy. Good night.”
Dan turned out the light at the door.
Phoebe called out. “Daddy?”
“Tell Jane, I love her too.”
“Will do. Go to sleep now. It’s late.”
“Okay.” Phoebe turned on her side and closed her eyes as the door shut behind Dan.
A little later, Dan lay next to Jane, in their darkened room. He couldn’t sleep. His imagination ran riot. Fiendish faces leered from the cracks in the ceiling. Eyes wide open, Dan watched them morph in the gloom as he stared into the darkness.
His Daddy wasn’t there to chase them away.
Time passed. A prayer drifted through Dan’s mind, forgotten for decades. He mulled the phrasing.
In a little while, he slept.