Once upon a playground, a little girl named Emma twirled alone on a swing outside school. She pushed the toes of her pink Converse in the dirt, as if digging for hidden treasure. Nearby, squealing girls jumped rope and grunting boys chased a soccer ball; yet Emma sat quiet, her solitude palpable. Intentional. The vinyl unicorn mask she’d placed over her head flattened her long, red curls— hair spilled over her shoulders like waves of anger. Or shame.
Of all my students, I worried about Emma the most. She was the one pup in the litter who rolled over whenever a bigger dog bared its teeth. I watched the way she ducked from hurtful words flung her way, swift and deliberate as a dodgeball strike. How she bit her lip to punish the paralysis of a tongue desperate to lash back, never to find words.
Children could be the cruelest of creatures. Emma had shriveled so much under the harsh spells cast by others, she’d turned from any semblance of kindness, lest it burn her, too.
I often wondered about her home life; for once upon a time, long ago, I was a young girl like Emma. I hid my childhood pain and adolescent angst under a plastic smile, the lightness of my song illusory. My melodies rippled deep, echoing against a well resplendent not of wishes, but of emptiness. Mother had died when I was seven, and I wished that someone kind would whisk me from my lonely life to a happily ever after far, far away. Instead, I was raised by a wicked drunken stepfather whose hurtful words dwarfed the slightest vestiges of my confidence. And soon after I found my prince charming, I learned that he bit from the same poison-laden, bitter fruit my stepfather gorged upon.
It took almost forty years and a divorce for me to find my magic in the mirror—to discover my self-worth. I couldn’t leave Emma to the same fate.
“Emma, the mask?” I lowered myself onto the swing next to her.
Muffled. “Not taking it off.”
Her knuckles whitened as she squeezed the chains suspending her.
“Look at me, please.”
I reached over and tugged the horn; a mass of curls stuck to the vinyl as I lifted the disguise, revealing reddened eyes and cheeks. Beads of sweat oozed from her pores. She didn’t look up.
“What’s with the masquerade?”
“If they can’t see me, they can’t tease me, Miss Nowite”
Dirt caked her shoe as she kicked the ground, and I felt every blow she delivered to the earth as if it hit my own gut. Seeing this child crumble, I realized I’d failed her. I watched, and I worried—from a distance. But that was as effective as scrutinizing a thief scaling a castle wall, breath held, hoping he’d bypass the crown jewels and royal scepter left on display.
Emma’s bullies had already stolen so much. Just as my evil stepfather and ex-prince charming had taken from me.
I tucked the mask into my bag and reached inside to retrieve my silver compact—the last gift my mother gave me before she left Earth. The metal warmed at my touch, as it did whenever I channeled her. As she promised, it always would.
“I want you to look here.” I slid from the swing and knelt beside Emma, opening the latch of the compact.
“It’s a mirror,” she said.
“A magic mirror.”
She raised her eyebrows, forcing a frown. “There’s no such thing as magic.”
“You like unicorns.”
“That’s different,” she said.
“Mirror, mirror, in my hand—” I started.
“This is silly.” Emma folded her arms tight. “I’m ten, not two.”
I suppressed a hopeful smile at her attitude breaking through.
“—show Emma her true self, help her understand…”
Sighing, she fought the quiver in her lip. “I see ugly. Like they do. My fat moon-face with stupid freckles.” She pushed the compact away.
“They’re making you see something that’s not there. That’s what dark magic does.” I raised the mirror so she couldn’t avoid her reflection. “Let me help you.”
She turned toward me as I rested my hand on her back, her long hair tickling my skin. “I’m looking at a unicorn,” I said. “A once in a lifetime person. One so special that others cannot believe she’s real. They try to trick her into doubting her worth, dull her glimmer to make themselves feel stronger.”
Emma raised her chin, watching with wide eyes as star fire twinkled from the glass. The corner of her mouth twitched.
“Do you see?”
She nodded, smiling for the first time.
I recalled my mother’s words the day she died, when she’d placed the compact into my small palm. And her voice, resurrected when I found that compact stashed amid my stepfather’s belongings after his death. He’d taken it from me when I had nothing, in those formative years when I needed it—and my mother—the most. Finding it as an adult changed my destiny.
My mother’s spirit flowed through me as I repeated her words to Emma.
“Let your light shine,” I said. “Always.”
Gold flecks twinkled in the girl’s eyes. So much potential in that gaze—a suppressed strength, yearning for freedom.
“Like a unicorn’s horn,” she said.
“Just like that, Emma.”
Emma hopped off the swing. She squared her shoulders, growing taller as she imbibed the sweet springtime air. Her gaze turned toward two girls leaning against a preschooler-sized wooden play cottage, their camaraderie a hearth.
“Do you think they’d let me…?”
Emma left me at the swings. Clouds of glitter tickled the grass with each step she took; her grin a sunbeam as she sidled down next to the kind, welcoming children, finding her happily ever after.
At least, the fourth-grade version.
I glanced into the mirror at my mother’s silhouette, gleaming silver in the glass. She winked at me with crystalline lashes fluttering.