Sparkle pink sneakers. Ruffled ankle socks. Tulle skirt and lace top. Now for the hair. Rich, her daddy, sat on the third staircase step. Em sat two stairs below, between his legs. He ran the brush through her blond curls, formed a high pony tail and then placed the tiara. Emma was ready for her cousin’s seventh birthday party.
Just the day before, Rich and this princess had been down to the creek, hiking along muddy trails, fishing in shaded pools and looking for frogs. Those days were easy for him. Jeans, ball caps and boots. Frilly skirts and bows really made him dig deep, tap into what Maisy would do if she hadn’t died last year. Emma helped him figure out the clothing stuff. The hair? That had taken a lot of practice. He missed his wife with every twist of a hair tie.
It was a backyard barbecue with just family. Em had a half dozen cousins around her age, all of them boys except for Em and the five year old Stella. Rich looked on at the kids playing, amazed at his girly-girl scampering up the jungle gym. A tomboy in glitter.
Mitchell, the oldest cousin, decided they should play truth or dare around the sand box. They sat on the edges as Mitchell explained the rules. Since he was the elder, he would pick the first person to choose to either tell the truth about something embarrassing or take a dare of unknown risk.
“I pick Emma,” Mitchell jeered. “Truth or dare Cuz?”
Em sat up straight. “Dare,” she said bravely.
Mitch dug in his pocket and held out a plump, dirty earth worm. It curled up reflexively in his palm. “I dare you, Emma Clark, to eat this worm!” Stella gasped. The other boys nudged each other and fake gagged.
She and Daddy walked in the woods yesterday. He told her she was almost old enough for them to go backpacking and camp out for a weekend. Maybe next summer, if she grew stronger and could hike with her own gear. He’d get her a pair of real hiking boots, like Mama’s that were in the front closet. As they walked along the trail, Daddy showed her what berries she could eat and not get sick. He knew what mushrooms wouldn’t make your tummy hurt. Daddy even knew you could find food in a dead tree. He smashed the rotted trunk with his boot, and crawling inside were big, ugly grubs. Pink and squirming. Daddy popped one in his mouth. “Tastes like McDonald’s,” he said to her, making her laugh.
Emma took the worm from Mitch’s palm and swallowed it. “Tastes like McDonald’s,” she told her awed crowd.
“Truth or Dare, Mitch” she challenged. Mitch, needing to regain stature, picked Dare.
Emma took off her tiara and took out her bow hair tie. “Mitchell, put these on Stella and make her a princess, like me.”