Heaven One Mile
Hope ignored the loud voices, laughter and music of her mother's party as she sat with Ben before the large window overlooking the tree lined street nine stories below. She held a treasured snow globe in her hands, a gift from Aunt Gabby. Aunt Gabby's gifts were the fourth best thing about her.
Hope slowly turned the treasure upside down. Flurries of snow swirled around the miniature silver castle inside the glass ball. A forest of towering pine trees, each no bigger than Thumbelina's leaf size boat, surrounded the palace. The tiniest princess appeared in the tower's window, staring out over snowy winter land. A sad light shrouded the girl in mystery.
"Aunt Gabby is late," Hope said.
"Better late than never," Ben told her.
Hope caught Ben's game as soon as it started. The bear loved playing clichés, a favorite diversion. "Sometimes clichés are just the thing," she said. "In fact some clichés should be written in stone."
"You're right as rain," Ben agreed.
Outside real snow fell in the same thick flurries. No moon shone tonight, but the streetlamps glowed eerily onto the snowdrifts. The world looked as cold, lonely, and barren as Narnia under the terrible rule of the White Queen, but Hope suspected this was only because Aunt Gabby was late.
"What if Mom forgot to tell the doorman to let Aunt Gabby in?"
Anxiety flared in Ben's eyes. "Oh no!"
Fueled by a sudden urgency, Hope and Ben maneuvered through the towering adults, carefully avoiding spilled drinks and backward stumbles. They finally found Hope's beautiful mother, drink in hand as usual, her head thrown back with laughter. The sound of her merriment never changed the sadness in her eyes.
Aunt Gabby once explained Hope's mother's love. "Love is the biggest word in the dictionary. Each person's love is unique in the same way that sand footprints and rainbows are all one of a kind. Your mother might not love you in the way that your father loved you, or the way that I loved first your father and then you, or in the way Ben loves you. with our whole being and every breath, but your mother loves you as best she can right now, which is all anyone can do."
"I look like my dad," Hope said.
"I know," Aunt Gabby said.
"It makes my Mom sad, the way I look like my Dad."
"Someday it will make her happy."
"I promise," Aunt Gabby said.
Hope and Ben waited patiently for her mother to notice them, but somehow they became invisible during parties. Finally, spurred to desperation by her concern, Hope politely, but insistently knocked on her mother's red velvet pants and caught the brief prize of her mother's otherwise fleeting attention.
"Yes Hope? What is it?"
"Did you remember to tell the doorman to let Aunt Gabby in?"
Perplexity clouded her mother's face for a moment, as though she had forgotten about Aunt Gabby altogether, which was impossible of course. "Aunt Gabby?" Her mother cast her eyes heavenward and sighed. "The doorman was told to let everyone in tonight for the party."
"Good," Ben said, relieved. "We were worried because Aunt Gabby is late."
Hope's mother never heard Ben of course. Only Hope and Aunt Gabby heard Ben's voice. That Aunt Gabby stood in such exclusive company with Hope was the third best thing about her.
"Who's this Aunt Gabby?" someone asked, curiosity piqued by the unusual tones bouncing between mother and daughter.
Hope's mother directed the question back to Hope. "You explain it, darling."
"Aunt Gabby is my Dad's special Aunt. She's been in our family for centuries."
The circle of people registered the surprising words and laughed.
"Centuries?" A man question incredulously. "That would mean she's hundreds of years old?"
Hope nodded. "But I think she lies about her age."
"That would explain it," the man chuckled.
"It would explain a lot. You see she has the best stories about King Tut, Jesus, and Abe Lincoln." Hope whispered conspiratorially, "It's like she knew them."
The adults erupted into laughter once more.
"This is what I have to put up with," Hope's mother said.
"She's adorable," a woman responded. "Right own to those bright red boots."
"Aunt Gabby wears red boots, too," Hope declared with a superior air. "They're always in fashion, especially during holidays."
Hope's mother shook her head. "She refuses to wear anything else. It drives the maids crazy."
"She looks just like Ben," another woman remarked.
"Don't I know it," her mother said before swallowing her drink whole. "Tell them what you named your teddy bear, Hope."
"Ben," she said. "After my dad."
"How sweet," the woman said, laying her hand over her heart.
"She hears him talk," her mother said, sighing again, as if Hope's special talents were her mother's particular burden.
The conversation predictably turned away from Hope. Her mother's friends' attention rarely lasted longer than a few words. Ignoring the new discussion, Hope thought that her mother should call down to the doorman just to be sure. "Better safe than sorry," she whispered to Ben.
Hope looked up to mention the idea to her mother, but found a group of strangers instead. She and Ben became lost in a forest of colorful holiday dresses and dark trousers. Her mother's red velvet pants appeared nowhere among them.
They returned to their lookout post at the window.
After several minutes, Ben asked a question looming large in his mind. "Is Aunt Gabby so very old, Hope?"
Hope nodded solemnly. "That's why she knows everything. Aunt Gabby will know what happens to you when your stuffing falls out, if I should be worried."
Ben's stuffing had begun escaping from a small rip in his seam. The rip somehow made Hope think of her lost father. She couldn't say why, but the tear and its escaping stuffing frightened her.
Was it a bad sign? Was it a very bad sign?
Hope didn't know, didn't know how she could know. She first pinned the rip, but it tore ever so slightly on both sides of the pin. The request for help had first gone to her mother: Would she help sew up Ben's rip? She remembered her mother had once sewed a button onto her father's uniform.
Not this time. Hope's mother had set down her drink, holding the phone against a bright orange sweater. "Hope, darling, do I look like a sewing type?"
It was one of those times Hope guessed the answer from the question. Still, what did a sewing type look like? She gathered sewing people looked nothing like her beautiful mother with the sad eyes.
"Ask one of the maids," her mother said, returning to the phone.
Hope asked Carla and Susan, but these busy women only added the chore to their great long list of things to do.
Hope and Ben knew all about how the great long list of things to do never ended—her mother kept adding to it. Tall, thin Susan, once an engineer and now a stress case, suffered from a disease called OCD. The nervous woman always spelled her disease to keep it a secret from Hope, but Hope, an expert googler, had learned all about it. Susan's disease made her love cleaning, dislike children and dream of getting to the end of the never ending list.
According to the shorter, stouter Carla, who loved soap operas, cooking and all things chocolate, not only did they never reach the end of the list, they never even came close. "If we worked a month of Sundays we'd still never get to the bottom of it."
"People's work is never done," Ben observed.
"Ben, what can we do?" Hope asked, fighting her panic.
Ben remembered reading a book about the secret, which turned out to be a key to success. "Wishful thinking in a positive way. It works like magic."
After a week of wishful thinking, Hope thought she needed a new tactic.
Another hole appeared on Ben's leg. The bear's stuffing began to decorate the apartment. More alarming, he grew thinner and thinner still. Hope hid her concern from Ben, not wanting to frighten him, but her worry grew as the bear's insides continued to drop inexorably to the ground.
One day after a rough and tumble grand ole' time in the park, as the sun finally sank beneath a cloudy sky and Hope and Ben turned towards home, she looked back to see the tiny specks of Ben's stuffing everywhere. Under the swings. Beneath the slide. Scattered all around the merry-go-round.
The sheer quantity of it brought sudden tears.
"Why are you crying, Hope?" Ben asked as they stepped inside the elevator in their building. Normally they fought over who got to press the number nine button, but the sadness rushed down Hope's face in streams. Lest they remain trapped in the elevator forever, Ben did the honor and pressed it, only to discover the fun vanished unless Hope raced him to it.
"I'm scared, Ben" she said, clutching him tightly to her chest.
"Because my stuffing is falling out?"
"Why is it scary?"
"It reminds me of my dad," Hope said.
"I would answer your letters," Ben said. "I would visit you."
"What if you can't? What if you're gone like my Dad?"
"But where would I go?" Ben asked, becoming a bit frightened himself.
"I don't know. No one ever says."
Seeing Hope's worry made his heart hurt. "Ask Aunt Gabby what will happen to me," he suggested. "I bet she knows the answer."
Hope called Aunt Gabby right away. Aunt Gabby said that this was another big question and that she would come over to discuss it. Could she come on the night of her mother's big party to keep Ben and her company?
Aunt Gabby promised to do just that and unlike other adults, "I always keep my promises! I can promise you that, Hope!"
The reassuring words echoed in Hope's mind over and over as her mother's holiday party appeared to be at full swing, the chorus of laughing and talking voices reached a crescendo, the holiday music blasted even louder, and a blazing fire and dancing bodies warmed up the whole apartment.
A wisp of Ben's stuffing sat innocently within arms reach. Hope picked it up and stuffed it back inside Ben. Hope's finger tickled the bear and made him giggle. Laughter being the most infectious agent on earth, Hope started laughing too. Ben's belly began to shake with merriment, which sent more stuffing popping out.
This stopped their giggles quicker than a strict voice and a pointing finger.
"Aunt Gabby will help us," Hope said. "She'll know what happens to you when your stuffing falls out."
"I hope it's not something sad," Ben said.
Aunt Gabby once told Hope that artists sometimes picture emotions as a painting. Hope put her sadness in a picture. She had to explain it to her mother. Drawn from a diorama of the old west in the Natural History Museum: "The picture is of my sadness is a large and empty desert. Sand spreads out from far away mountains. Everything would be brown and beige colors because they are not happy colors and I would even made sky the color of old pearls. Vultures circle over a dead animal, but you can't really see him, 'cause hungry coyotes are closing in. A rattlesnake hides under a rock, but you only see its long shadow."
Hope's mother didn't move for several minutes upon hearing this. She finally broke her stillness to pour herself a drink. She raised the glass to trembling lips, but she couldn't even swallow. She slammed the glass down on the counter and left the room.
Hope learned not to talk about her sadness.
She closed her eyes, banishing the memory. She kissed Ben's smooth head in the way that he loved. "Me too," she whispered. "I hope it is nothing sad."