“And they lived happily ever after,” I say, finishing the story as the room lights up. Trying to get out of her bedsheets, Elle gives me a round of applause for a happy ending. It’s not like I would read her anything that ended any differently. I want to keep her light alive.
“Another! Another!” Elle exclaims enthusiastically, clapping louder so the sheets fly away from her.
I shake my head, frowning. “I can’t. It’s getting late, and it’s way past your bed time. Another story and we’ll both get in trouble,”
Bedtime is the worst. I love playing with her dolls, coloring pictures, and reading stories with Elle because, out of everyone I’ve ever met, her light shines the brightest. Being around her gives me hope.
Finally, I get her to settle down. Her tiny mouth yawns widely and her small finger reach out to clutch her fluffy bear. Mr. Bear fits neatly next to her nicely now that she has settled down. Despite the massive yawn that escapes her mouth once more, she keeps her eyes open defiantly.
She won’t go to sleep until I make her a promise.
“Tomorrow is Friday. I’ll come by after school, so we can go outside and play.” I say, hoping that will satisfy her.
“You promise?” Elle asks while rubbing her eyes with her free hand. The golden glow emanating from her skin produces new shadows on the wall with every small movement.
“Yes. I promise,” I whisper before turning off the lights, even though, to me, the room is still as bright as ever.
Elle’s skin shines bright even in the dark. The rest of the house is dark in comparison, but it’s a relief to my eyes. For most people, it is a feat to get their light to shine at all. She has a small smile on her face as she closes her eyes and I leave the brilliant room.
I’ve kind of known what the lights are for as long as I remember. It’s like how I knew the leaves on trees fell in the autumn and would come back in the spring. I didn’t know why it was happening. I just figured that’s the way the world worked. I didn’t realize no one else could see them until I was about 5, when I complained about my eyes hurting from all the bright lights even though it was a rainy day. I didn’t realize how important the lights were until I was 14, when my friend committed suicide.
Her light began to dim when we started high school, and it was gone by the time her birthday came around. At first, I didn’t think much of it because over time everyone’s light dims. High school students are always the worst. They never have an especially brilliant light. Everyone around me, friends, family, and even strangers, fluctuate in brightness. In the morning my mom’s light glows enough to brighten up a room, but by the time she gets home it’s no more than a flickering candle. The light of the guy I kept seeing on the bus early Saturday mornings dimmed with each passing week until one day it was bright again, and I never saw him ride the bus after that. Everyone’s light fluctuates, but they never stopped shining. Everyone except for Haley.
I told myself that she was always smiling so it didn’t matter. She was fine. I would even ask Haley if she was okay. She’d reply, “I’m fine,” and give me a smile for assurance. I know now she only kept the smile on when she thought people were looking. When she was alone, sadness took over her features, making her entire body sag the weight of the world balancing on her shoulders. Looking back, I can’t believe that I didn’t notice the pain behind her smiles. It was too obvious.
A dark cloud started to take over her body, engulfing the light. It happened slowly at first. Until one day, I looked up, and I couldn’t see her light anymore. It was still there, but something much more powerful had taken over.
The day before her birthday Haley committed suicide.
That’s when I figured out what the lights truly meant. They are the manifestation of people’s innocence, thoughts, and most importantly, their hope for the future. Haley had no innocence left, no happy thoughts, and no hope for her future. So she left this world for someplace better. Somewhere she will be appreciated for her compassion, empathy, and love for adventure. At least I hope.
The lights I see aren’t equivalent to someone’s soul. It doesn’t emanate from any specific part of the body. To my eyes, people’s bodies glow as if you could see the heat escaping from their pores. But, pictures are dull and TV is boring because neither capture the essence of a person.
Children are always the brightest. Babies even more so. The brightness of adults varies but for the most part the darkness of the world threatens to consume them instead of their light threatening to enrich the world they inhabit. I’ve taken up the habit of wearing sunglasses inside when I’m baby sitting Elle; otherwise it’s hard to look at her. She has this unprecedented cheeriness about her, and despite any pitfalls that she faces, she always seems to find the best of a situation. I wouldn’t be able to name anyone else who does that. Her light is infectious and pure.
I sit on a couch in the living room and turn on the TV, waiting for Elle’s parents to come back from an anniversary dinner. The TV is filled with flat boring objects with none of the liveliness of real people. I can’t tell if the figures shine or not and that terrifies me more than anything. But I hold back the terror, watching the flat people spit out the awful news from today.
“What’s that on TV?” Elle whispers, sticking her head around the corner.
“Nothing,” I answer quickly, hitting the mute button, and putting back on my sunglasses. “What’re you doing up?”
“I want some water,” She answers, her voice slow showing signs of the sweet dreams that are to come. I pour a glass of water and hand it to her, trying to get her back to bed before she sees the TV, but it doesn’t work.
“Who’s that?” Elle points to the TV where the news anchor shares the screen with a picture of the killer whom everyone has been talking about all day. He has oily black hair, pale skin, and slightly crazed eyes. I don’t need the aid of the lights to know he would not shine at all. If it were possible, he would emanate a pitch black glow.
“He’s just a bad man,” I say with a sigh, leading Elle to have a seat with me on the couch. “He did something awful today and everyone is furious about it.”
“What did he do?” Elle asks. Even behind my sunglasses, I could tell her mind was going to the most terrible scenario she could think of, but I hope no sane mind could ever fathom his actions.
“Well,” I start, thinking of how to frame his murders in the best light possible. “You know how in our stories there is always the prince, the princesses, an evil villain, and a hero? Well that man you see up there is the villain, and he killed a lot of little princes and princesses for no reason. But all of the police are the good guys and are using all of their resources to find him so no one else gets hurt.”
“So he’s going to get caught and there will be a happily ever after right?” Elle says hopefully, her eyes wide and light bright.
“Of course.” I answer halfheartedly.
“You promise?” Elle asks softly, her head resting on my lap, her eyes growing heavier and heavier.
“Yes. I promise. Now off to bed for real.” I gently push Elle off of my lap and towards her room.
Elle and her light, shining as bright as ever, disappear around the corner and behind her door. I know I can’t stop her from catching glimpses of the dark world we live in, but I can keep her from being swallowed by it.