When I told Blake I was pregnant, he handed me a blank check and told me to ‘take care of the problem’. He wasn’t the prince I’d thought he was. I took the check but didn’t follow his implied instructions. Instead, I moved to a quiet town in Texas to start a new life with my daughter Sarina.
Life wasn’t the fairy tale I’d been hoping for. Reality doesn’t pull punches. Romances end, and daughters don’t always know their fathers. Although I tried to pretend everything was rosy, deep down I knew it wasn’t. Life leaves a mark.
Even so, I was determined to live happily ever after. My heartbreak was secondary. Sarina became my world. Years passed, and I threw myself into the role of a single mother. The money dried up fast, but we got by.
I never told her about her father, that truth was too painful for a child. I wouldn’t let one cruel “prince” stain my worldview, or hers. I tried to spare her… that was my mistake. She was young enough to believe the fairy tale, young enough that she didn’t need to know anything else.
The first time she mentioned Daddy Prince, I was curling her hair. Sarina loved curls, she called them ‘princess hairs’— and I was happy to indulge her. I was sitting on her bed, wrapping her long, dark hair into foam rollers. As I snapped the final curler into place, she sighed and hung her head.
“What’s the matter, Sarina?” I pulled back the covers so she could slip under them, walking over to the bookshelf to choose a bedtime story. As my fingers brushed across bent spines of well-loved books, she sighed again.
“When are we going to live with Daddy Prince?” I froze in surprise and turned to look at her. I wasn’t prepared to hear her say ‘daddy’. My throat tightened and my eyes started to burn, but I forced a smile.
“Who is … Daddy Prince?” hesitation came with every syllable. Sarina didn’t seem to notice; her hazel eyes were shining bright.
“He’s my daddy of course. He wants us to live with him in his castle.” she pointed towards her wardrobe; it was castle shaped with a crenelated parapet and engraved doors. The closet was the crown jewel of her princess-themed room. I’d found it on the curb, abandoned in one of the wealthier neighborhoods.
“Mommy, why don’t we live with Daddy?”
I knew a day would come where my daughter would need answers. Unfortunately, I wasn’t ready to give them to her. Not yet. My internal prayer smoldered in my chest, but I pushed the thought away.
Instead of facing what might have been a pivotal moment in our relationship, I changed the subject:
“Which story should I read?”
Her sour face told me that she knew exactly what I was up to. She flung herself back into her pillows, crossing her arms stiffly. Redness flared across her forehead as a tantrum brewed, barely restrained.
“How about Aladdin?” I suggested. Princess Jasmine was her favorite, but this wasn’t enough to cool her temper; she shook her head.
“… Go to bed, Mommy. I want Daddy to tell me a story instead.” Her lips quivered, but she kept her eyes fixed on the castle closet instead of looking at me.
The rejection stung. I leaned over to give her forehead a kiss, which she sullenly accepted. When I made it back to my bedroom, I broke down in tears and let the mascara run into my pillow. As I calmed down and began to drift off to sleep, I heard my daughter laugh and incoherent bits of one-sided conversation.
“Daddy… why … castle… when… mommy…”
I woke up to Sarina’s grinning face, her hands behind her back. “Good morning, mommy!” she sounded so cheerful. Groggy, I returned the greeting and offered a sleepy smile as I threw off the covers and swooped down to hug her.
My hands met something cold and wet. Reflexively, I let go and looked at her closely. The little girl grinned sheepishly and showed me what she was holding. A handful of small, purple flowers; a large clump of wet dirt clinging to the roots.
“A present from Daddy!” she declared proudly, holding them out to me. I didn’t recognize the flowers, spiky and wet, but it looked like she’d dug them out of someone’s garden.
“Sweetie, did you go outside before I woke up?” I asked.
“Not me, the prince.” Sarina immediately corrected. “To cheer you up. You seemed sad.”
“I see.” I didn’t. “Well, make sure he asks the neighbors permission before going into someone else’s garden, and let me know so I don’t worry.” I didn’t believe her, but I felt so guilty from the night before that I couldn’t bring myself to call her out on her lie.
“Okay!” she agreed immediately. I took the flowers, they were in bad shape; soggy, sad little things. I decided to let them air out by the kitchen window and told her to wash up. My little girl had mud up to her elbows! She skipped off while I busied myself making waffles. I pulled the rollers out of her hair when she returned, mud-free, before we sat down to enjoy breakfast.
“Did you like the flowers?” she asked, looking attentively at her waffle as I poured the syrup; she wasn’t satisfied until every square was filled.
“Of course, sweetie. Any gift from you is special to me.” I didn’t like the flowers, but I appreciated the gesture. You aren’t supposed to be completely honest with children.
Sarina nodded with satisfaction. “He said you would! Now can we go live with him?” I nearly choked, setting down my fork and looking at her. Apparently, this conversation was going to happen, whether I was ready or not.
“I’m sorry honey. We’re going to stay here; this is our home. We can’t move in with him.”
“Why?” I paused. Like most parents, I was accustomed to the whys of children; that single syllable was the epitome of frustration and dread, but… I’d do my best to answer, as gently as I could.
“Because I’m not married to him.” I tried to keep it simple. My little girl nodded but was undeterred. Her smile came back.
“Okay. Well, then get married to him.” in her eyes, this was an easy fix. I shook my head.
“He never asked me to marry him.” I admitted, “But that’s okay, sweetie. We have everything we need here. I have you, and you have me.”
“He just has to ask?” the hopeful look on her face broke my heart. It wasn’t that simple. Blake didn’t want kids; he’d made that abundantly clear. I wasn’t about to reach out to him after all these years.
“Maybe,” I said. Saying ‘no’ seemed too harsh. “But I like things the way they are right now.”
“He told me he wants to already.” she insisted, “and he gave you a present.” my stomach twisted with a weird flutter of discomfort. Her insistence was genuine, and I found the fantasy disturbing. Do little girls typically dream up princes for their mothers?
Well, maybe the ones without fathers do.
“Sweetie, he didn’t propose.” suddenly, I was tired again. I wanted to go back to my room and hide under the covers. I couldn’t deal with any more questions, not even one. As though she sensed this, my daughter went back to her room. I could hear her playing, leaving me to scrub syrup off the table.
When I went to check on her later, she was standing in the dark and lightly knocking on the castle wardrobe. Tap tap tap, then pausing as if she waited for an answer. Naturally, she didn’t get one. Sarina saw me looking and smiled bashfully.
“He said he sleeps during the day.” she explained, “but I wanted to tell him the good news.” I assumed she meant ‘Daddy Prince’.
“What good news?”
Sarina didn’t say anything, staring so intently at the closet doors that I thought she must not have heard me. I flicked on her bedroom light, which got her attention.
“Don’t! He doesn’t like the light on.” I decided to humor her and turned it back off. I was a little concerned about the prince character she was concocting. What sort of prince preferred the dark? Then again, she’d said he was sleeping. Kid logic is irrefutable at that age, so I let it go. You learn to pick your battles as a parent.
Leaving her to her to play, I sat at the kitchen table to pay bills and balance my checkbook. I lived paycheck to paycheck and had to pay things strategically. I could afford to pay late on some bills, but not on others. How nice it would be, if there really was a prince ready to sweep in and take care of my problems. If only.
Sarina kept to her room. When I went to get her for lunch, she was still sitting in the dark. She’d changed into one of her costume dresses; mint green satin and tulle, with a plastic crown and ribbon-wrapped scepter. Her subjects were strewn about the room, face down: barbies, mostly, but also a few stuffed animals. Normally, I wouldn’t think twice about a scene like this… but it was a little odd when the lights were off with the curtains closed.
“It’s dark in here, honey. Are you sure you don’t want it on?” The only light came from the hallway, a yellow square of light that fell across my daughter’s small form. She beamed at me, clearly having a blast with her game.
“I don’t want the lights.” she said, “Can I eat in my room? I’m not done playing.”
“Alright. Come get it. Don’t forget to rinse your plate when you’re done.” Sarina was usually a bit more energetic, ripping through the house and demanding near constant attention. I was a little unnerved, but also relieved to have a small break. Her preoccupation would enable me to finish my errands and get the house in order, no small feat with a young daughter.
Sarina skipped into the dining room, grabbed her plate, then paused suddenly. Her dark eyes fixed on the table for a moment, before she looked at me in confusion.
“Where are the flowers? You said you liked them.”
“They’re drying out, princess.” I smiled at her, gesturing towards the window. “They were a little wet.”
“Oh.” she looked disappointed but didn’t say anything else. Plate in hand, she went back to her room. I heard the door close behind her. For some reason, I wanted to cry. I ate my lunch alone at the table, then went to retrieve the flowers. I brought them to the sink; the stems were tangled. Carefully, I worked them apart and rinsed away the clump of dirt holding them together.
A metallic clink caught my attention. Something had come loose from the dirt and fallen into the sink… a ring? A muddy, tarnished ring. I picked it up, then held it under running water. It was missing a stone, and the filigree band was slightly bent… with a little love it could be beautiful again.
It looked very old; I didn’t know if it was valuable or not, but it was probably important to someone. I slipped the ring onto my right ring finger so I wouldn’t lose it, intending to find the owner later. I couldn’t help but think about the conversation I’d had during breakfast.
“Looks like he proposed after all.” I laughed, amused by the coincidence. Of course, my daughter found the flowers with a ring tangled in their roots. I dropped the flowers in a bowl on the table, making a sad excuse for a centerpiece. I didn’t add water; they were wet enough already. Apparently, Sarina’s Prince Charming lived in a swamp.
Sarina stayed in her room until dinner. By then, the house was tidy, and my errands were done. When I went to get Sarina, the door was closed, and the lights were off. I knocked lightly on the door before opening it, to find my daughter standing at the castle wardrobe. The double doors were open, and she was leaning forward, peering inside.
I turned on the light, causing her to glare at me. “Turn the lights OFF, mommy!” I didn’t, not liking the tone she was taking with me.
“Go wash up for dinner. Now.” when she didn’t start marching, I began to count. “1….” she crossed her arms, “2…” she stomped her foot, but before I could get to three the stormed past me– slamming the door behind her.
The wardrobe was still open, so I walked over to close it. The carpet was wet, soaking through my slippers, squishing with every step. As I moved to close the closet, I saw something. A pale face, crowned with golden curls and forget-me-not eyes.
But my ex was not crouching in his daughter’s closet. There was nothing there, except a selection of dress up clothes and plastic jewelry. The face was gone almost as soon as I’d seen it, leaving a hollow ache in my chest. I closed the doors and stood there for a long moment in silence.
Dinner was cold by the time I ladled it onto our plates. I didn’t even remember walking back to the kitchen. Sarina pushed noodles around with her fork but didn’t eat them. We didn’t talk. I felt like some part of me had checked out.
“Mommy?” her voice pulled me back. I looked up to see her smiling at me. Relieved that the storm had passed, I smiled back.
“What is it, sweetheart?”
“You’re wearing the ring.” I looked down at my hands, and suddenly remembered the sorry little thing I was wearing on my right hand.
“Oh, only for safekeeping.” I answered, “I need to find the owner. I didn’t want to lose it.”
Sarina giggled. “You’re the owner, silly!”
“I’ll hold onto it, for now.” I answered, reaching over to tousle her dark curls. Her hair was damp, which gave me pause.
“Why is your hair wet?” I asked. Sarina slouched in her chair and went back to moving food around her plate. “The carpet was wet too.” I added softly, keeping my voice quiet and non-confrontational. My little girl didn’t look up, keeping her head down.
“Can you tell me why?” she pushed her plate away, getting up from the table and running down the hall. I heard her bedroom door slam moments later. I buried my head in my hands and took a few deep breaths, giving myself a moment before I stood and walked over to the sink to rinse off our barely touched plates. Once the kitchen was clean, I grabbed the rag towels from under the sink so I could blot Sarina’s wet carpet.
Her door was closed, so I knocked before opening. Sarina was in bed, the blankets pulled up to her chin. The lights were off, the closet doors were ajar. My daughter was acting strange, with her eyes squeezed tightly shut. I could see her forehead furrowed from the effort as she pretended to be asleep.
“You don’t want me to read you a bedtime story first?” I asked her softly as I dropped the towels on the floor. Brownish, reddish stains spread across the rags– like murky rust. The smell was bad too, like mildew and rot. “…I’ll rent a carpet cleaner tomorrow. Try not to track in any more mud, it’s hard to clean.” I did my best not to sound angry, but there was a quiver in my voice. I wanted to cry.
I blotted up the mess as best I could, spraying down the area with carpet cleaner and ruining towels in the process. Muddy carpets shouldn’t have been a breaking point for me, but with my daughter feigning sleep only feet away… I was weak. Why was everything so hard? Every obstacle broke me. I was a bad mother; weak, broken and alone. As much as I pretended everything was alright, nothing was.
“Mommy.” Sarina spoke softly, startling me back to attention. “I want you to be happy. You’re sad all the time.” I looked up; she was sitting up in bed now. She looked past me, at the closet. The doors were still open, but I didn’t see any phantom exes peering back at us.
“I know sweetie. I’m sorry, I’m doing my best.”
“You’re wearing it on the wrong hand.” she answered, flopping back into her pillows and pulling the blankets up to her nose. I didn’t know what she meant, but she closed her eyes again. I stood up, kissing her on the forehead.
“Goodnight.” my throat felt tight but having a breakdown in her room wasn’t the answer. I needed to get some rest. I was tired, that’s all. I moved to close the wardrobe, surprised to meet resistance. The doors didn’t close.
“Leave it open. Daddy Prince likes to watch over me.”
I was too tired to argue and left to take a long shower. The stink of the mud was sticking to me, even when I used my most fragrant soaps. After I was done, wrapped up in the only clean towel, I passed my daughter’s room on the way to mine. As I peered inside, something stopped me in my tracks.
A white gloved hand, beckoning from the closet… and Sarina’s small hand reaching out to take it, before she was violently pulled into the wardrobe with a loud snap.
I ran into the bedroom just as the doors slammed shut. I pulled on the handles, alarmed by the deafening silence. My daughter didn’t answer my cries; she didn’t make a sound. When I managed to pry the doors open, the closet was empty. Even her dress-up clothes were gone.
I screamed, but no one answered. I knocked, but no one answered. I begged, but no one answered. I even crawled into that tight space, closing myself in…but nothing happened.
The prince in my daughter’s closet had stolen her away. I didn’t sleep, curling up on the wet carpet and waiting for something, anything, to happen. Then I realized something… and sat down to write my story. People will notice we’re missing soon; they’ll probably think I did something unspeakable because the truth is unbelievable.
The ring was on the wrong hand. She told me this, before the prince took her away. Maybe he was impatient for my answer. He asked me to marry him, after all. We’re going to live together in his castle. Sarina is waiting for me there; she couldn’t wait any longer.
I can hear her singing now, with a song that erases my every doubt:
Skin as white as bone,
Lips as red as blood.
Sitting on a throne
Made of sticks and mud.
Daddy Prince loves you,
Daddy Prince loves me.
…and I’ll love you, too
We’ll be family.
Don’t look for us.
But if you must… check the closet.