Opening the door to my great-aunt’s house, I felt that familiar rush of stale air hit me in the face. Then I braced myself and waited for the next impact. I let out an “OOF” as something small collided with my knees, sending me stumbling backward into the door frame. After righting myself, I looked down to find the source of the impact: a small girl with shining blond hair, huge green eyes, and a grin on her face that could power the sun for eternity. She squealed with delight as I picked her up and spun her around. When I put her back on the floor, she grabbed my hand.
“Let’s go color!” the little girl said enthusiastically.
“Sure, Mia,” I told my cousin. She pulled me, or pulled as well as a four year old can, toward her small bedroom. She ran to her wooden cabinet and pointed to it, jumping up and down on the balls of her feet.
“They’re in there, they’re in there!” she laughed. Her laughter was infectious, and I soon had a grin to match hers. I pulled the handle on the cabinet, and out poured a sea of crayons. Wading through the mess of colors at her feet, the girl pointed once again to the cabinet. I knew what that point meant, so I grabbed her favorite Mickey Mouse coloring book and shut the cabinet door. The green-eyed child was on the floor picking up the different shades of her holy trinity of colors: pink, purple, and red. After she had successfully sorted through the crayons, she stood up and ran to jump on her bed.
“Come on! Bring the Mickey and color with me!” she yelled, crayons falling out of her hand. I walked over to her bed and considered telling her not to jump, but just smiled and sat down on the edge. She plopped down beside me, making the assorted stuffed animals on her bed jump with fright.
“Okay, Mia, which one do you want to color?” I asked her, holding out the Mickey Mouse book. She quickly flipped to a random page.
“DONALD!” she screamed, “YAY!!!!” She dumped all her crayons in my outstretched hands, save one, with which she proceeded to color Donald Duck’s beak.
“Wow, Donald has such a pretty purple beak!” I exclaimed. Mia giggled and grabbed a hot pink crayon out of my hand. She made some lines across Donald’s vest, and proclaimed her picture finished.
“Yep! Let’s go show mommy!” Mia said happily, bounding up off the bed and sprinting toward the white bedroom door.
“Uh, Mia…” I said, trying to stop her from leaving the room. Mia ran into the living room where her mother was sitting on the floor and jumped around her in a circle.
“Look, Mommy! Look, Mommy! I colored Donald! I made it for you!” Mia said, still grinning. She ran past her mother and through the tiny corridor separating the wall from the back of the couch, jumping all the way. She stood behind the couch, and waved her picture in the air as if she had just won an Olympic gold medal.
“Stop running right now! I’m trying to do something,” said Mia’s mother in a sharp, commanding tone.
The little girl shuffled silently out from behind the couch. Her mouth was twisted in an about-to-cry shape, and her cheeks looked blotchy and red. She slipped away to her room, where she shut the door after sending a quick look in my direction. The mother went back to “doing something” without even a thought for her only child.
“Taylor,” I said, my lips pursed.
“Taylor, all Mia wanted was to show you her drawing,” I explained, glancing down toward Taylor’s seated position on the floor where she held her phone above her head, making a pouty face.
“She’ll get over it. I have to let my friends see my new designer blouse! Jenna got one exactly like it a few days ago, and she posted it all over Instagram. I can’t fall behind her in likes. You go see her drawing if you’re so worried about it.” She stopped taking pictures and shifted her body so she could look up at me.
“Well? Don’t just stand behind me! Go play with Mia or something,” Taylor said forcefully. Scoffing, I turned on my heel and walked toward Mia’s bedroom, not feeling like arguing with Taylor again. When I opened the door, she was sitting on her pink-and-purple sheeted bed looking at her feet. All the happiness she had when she first greeted me at the door was gone. I crossed the room and went to sit beside her.
“Mia?” She never glanced up from her feet.
“Come on, Mia, let me read you a story,” I suggested eagerly. “What about Curious George? I know that’s one of your favorites!” Her head continued to hang as she ignored me.
“Okay, Mia. What do you want to do?”
She slowly raised her head and looked at me with her big, green eyes.
“I want Mommy to read me a story.”
It was like a movie. One of those sad movies where the parents die, the part where it is so heart wrenching that the audience cries right along with the child, and the child is left all alone, wishing for her father to chase her around the yard or her mother to sing her a song again. But it was never going to happen because they were gone. They died. The saddest part of Mia’s story was that her parents were alive. Mia had never known what love was, because her parents never showed her any affection. Her mother wasted away on social media, preferring to interact with others through a screen. Taylor provided Mia with necessities like food and clothes, but poor Mia was left to fend for herself, learning on her own how to brush her teeth and hair. Her father was a TV addict who seemed more interested in watching motocross on television than spending time with his daughter. Mia spent her days playing with the family dog, waiting for someone to walk through the front door who would play with her or even smile at her.
I gave the little girl a hug and told her that I will always read her a story whenever she wanted one.
A slow smile creeped along Mia’s face and she said in a soft voice, “Thanks.”
* * *
As I was putting my coat on to leave, Mia came up to me. One hand behind her back, she tugged on my jeans and motioned for me to bend down. I got down on my knees so I could be at her level.
“What is it, Mia?” She didn’t say anything, but instead handed me the Donald Duck drawing.
“Mia, I thought you made this for your mom?” She waited for a few seconds before answering.
“I love you more,” she whispered. Fighting back tears, I gave her a big bear hug and told her I would be back really soon to play with her. When I stood up, I saw Taylor standing in the living room watching me. Still watching me, she called to Mia.
“Mia, now come give your mommy a hug! Grab your drawing and let’s take a picture of it so everyone can see what a beautiful job you did!”
Mia looked up at me and then back at her mother’s outstretched arms before running toward her bedroom and shutting the door. I resisted the urge to say something mean to Taylor, knowing she would relish my starting an argument. I did look at her, though. She had whipped her cell phone out of her pocket and was now hell-bent on scrolling through one of her many feeds, not caring about the pitiful scene that just unfolded. I walked toward Taylor and stood beside her, peering over her shoulder at her phone. She was flipping through the thousands of pictures she had. I watched her select a photo of her and Mia at a theme park. She tapped her social media contact list, typed the words “mother-daughter time!” and hit the “post” button.
“Taylor? Aren’t you going to go talk to Mia? She is your daughter, after all.”
Taylor stopped tapping on her phone. She didn’t look up at me, and I wondered if what had happened finally registered with her. She took a deep breath and raised her head.
“Nope. Honestly, I really don’t care.”
It was a fool’s hope. I couldn’t believe I thought that Taylor might actually be concerned about Mia. Finally, it was clear to me that Taylor was one of the numerous people who go through life staring at a smartphone screen, not paying attention to the world around them. There was someone in her house who would not simply like Taylor, but love her for who she was, not the girl she pretended to be on social media. Mia wouldn’t love her mother because of the blouse she bought or the pictures she posted. She would love Taylor unconditionally if Taylor would only take the time to look up and appreciate what was right in front of her.
It’s strange that a screen could replace a living, beautiful little girl.
I stared at Taylor for a while. She seemed to sense someone watching her, because she looked up from her phone. I made eye contact with her and smiled sadly.
“Why are you smiling like that?” Taylor quipped.
Not speaking, I opened the door to my great-aunt’s house. I felt the rush of wonderful fresh air flowing from outside. As I stood on the threshold, I noticed that the two types were mingling, the fresh air slowly eradicating the stale air from inside. I stepped backward out of the door frame, and walked down the steps toward my car, leaving the front door open. I couldn’t bring myself to shut the beautiful blond-haired girl inside, trapped with the person whose love she’d never fully receive.