Sunshine and Shortcake
Sleep and I have always had a fickle relationship. In fact, I suspect she would have left me long ago if she could have. But on the rare nights we do come together, it’s absolutely glorious. Which is why I swore loudly when I was jolted from my slumber by something that can only be described as a train wreck.
I say that because it was, in fact, a literal train wreck. The train I had been sleeping on had crossed paths with a pickup truck, the driver of which thought getting to his destination three minutes earlier was more important than a whole host of other things, including not driving like a dumbass.
If you’ve never experienced a minor train wreck before, you’re not missing much. I wasn’t jolted awake by some dramatic, crushing impact. I was jolted awake by whatever a train’s version of ‘slamming on the brakes’ is, and the actual impact was so small I hardly even noticed it.
I looked around the train car and saw that while I was probably the only one who had swore, at least I wasn’t alone in being yanked out of sleep’s sweet embrace. A few people got up to look out the window; a fruitless attempt, seeing as it was pitch black outside. I’d imagine they got a good view of the dark, but that was about it.
As I was musing, I felt a light tap on my shoulder. When I turned towards the aisle, I was greeted by the sight of what can only be described as a cartoon character.
I don’t say that because she was, in fact, a literal cartoon character, but more because she was so over-the-top adorable that she couldn’t possibly be real. She was tiny, even for a girl of about 6. She had long shiny brown hair with a pink ribbon headband, and the only thing bigger than her giant blue doe-eyes were her dimples. She was standing in front of me holding a comically large bowl that looked like it housed a very shaken-up goldfish. She was so cute that I could hardly stand the sight of her.
I opened my mouth to growl, “Whaddya want, kid?” but she opened hers faster.
“Hey, Mister! Do you think Freddie’s gonna be okay?”
Of course she had a squeaky little voice with the slightest of lisps. I sighed and put my chin in my hand and propped my elbow on my knee, so I was a little closer to her eye level.
“I’m guessing Freddie is the fish?”
“Well, Shortcake, Freddie just went through something pretty traumatic. His whole world got all shaken up. Sometimes it’s hard to recover from that sort of thing. You get me?”
Shortcake nodded again and looked at her friend, tentatively swimming around in his bowl.
“If I had to guess, though, I’d say that Freddie was going to be just fine.”
She looked up at me and grinned, and I noted that I had correctly predicted she’d have a gap from a recently missing tooth. The cutest ones always do. Then she completely surprised me by setting Freddie down on the seat next to me and climbing into the one across from us, sitting down and looking at me expectantly.
“Well, are you gonna do it?” she asked.
“What are you talking about, Shortcake?”
“Are you gonna tell me what Freddie wants most out of life?”
Shocked, I looked at Freddie. Then I looked at Shortcake. Then back at Freddie. Finally, I looked at Shortcake again.
“What? Where’s your mom, kid? I could get arrested for fishnapping, not to mention kidnapping, and that’s not on my agenda today.”
I crossed my arms and looked at her defiantly.
She giggled. It was disgustingly delightful.
“My mom’s still sleeping. And fishnapping isn’t a word. And Freddie told me you help people figure out what they want most out of life.”
I looked down at Freddie again. This time, he was looking back. I shook my head as if to clear my vision, and moved the fish bowl a couple of inches away from me.
“Listen, kid, I hate to burst your bubble, but fish don’t talk.”
I leaned my head back against the head rest and closed my eyes, hoping she would get the hint.
“Of course fish don’t talk in real life. Freddie visits me when I dream.”
My interest was officially piqued, but I tried not to show it. I peeked at her with one eye still closed and said, “Oh yeah? And what did Freddie say in your latest dream?”
“He said to find the man who looked like he was secretly trying real hard to blend in with all the regular people.”
I opened my other eye just in time for the conductor’s voice to come over the train’s PA.
“This is your conductor speaking. We have collided with the tail end of a pickup truck who thought he had more time to cross. Luckily, nobody was injured, but we’ve got a bit of a wait ahead of us before we can continue on. The nearest police station is about an hour away, and we can’t leave until they’ve filed their report. Then, the train has to be inspected to make sure it’s safe to continue our travels. Sorry for the delay, and thanks for riding with us.”
I looked over at Shortcake. She was fluffing out her little skirt around her, settling in for a long wait. I sighed.
“Are you telling me that I’m stuck on a train with Bambi incarnate and her clairvoyant goldfish? Because that sounds ridiculous and I’m going to need more sleep before I believe it.”
Shortcake smiled sweetly. “Okay, I’ll wait.”
I woke up what felt like 10 minutes later, but judging by the color of the sky was actually a couple of hours. We were moving again, thankfully.
Shortcake was still sitting across from me, watching me, as if she hadn’t moved an inch the entire time.
“You talk and wiggle a lot in your sleep.” She said matter-of-factly.
“Yeah, don’t I know it, kid.”
“Why do they call you Sunshine?”
I gaped at her.
“Been talking to Freddie more, have we?” I asked, glancing down at the slightly sloshing bowl next to me.
“He says you help people, but only most of the time. What does he mean?”
I snapped my head up.
“Hey, Shortcake, you tell Freddie that I have a very specific set of rules that I follow, and sometimes that means I have to do things that might not make sense to a lot of people, but they make sense to the universe and that’s what matters.”
Shortcake’s bottom lip trembled and I realized that I had forgotten I was talking to a 6-year old.
I softened my face.
“Listen, kiddo. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to snap at you. It’s been a tough month.”
My hand went instinctively to my shirt pocket, which held a faded sienna photo of a young, laughing woman.
“As you get older, you’ll learn that sometimes you have to make tough decisions. Sometimes, none of your options are happy ones. And sometimes, you just have to bite the bullet, get it over with, and move on with your life. It’s a tough truth, but it’s the truth.”
I studied Shortcake carefully.
“So, why does Freddie need to know what his purpose in life is? Goldfish have it pretty easy. Most of them have the same purpose. Swim around, eat some food, bang into the walls of the bowl. It’s a very simple but fulfilling life.”
Shortcake avoided eye contact with me for the first time since we met, and I suddenly figured her out.
“Oh, I get it. Freddie doesn’t want to know what his purpose in life is, does he? He told you to ask what yours was.”
Her eyes impossibly got even wider and she looked at me as if she was afraid that I would give her an answer.
“Well, tell Freddie that you’re too little for me to tell yet. I don’t work with Shortcakes. Too many variables. In my experience, if someone is at the age where they still think eating crayons is a good idea, their only purpose is to somehow figure out how to survive long enough to become miserable. Then I step in. Got it?”
Shortcake looked relieved. She grinned her missing-tooth grin at me and nodded.
“Now, go find your mom before I get arrested for fishnapping, which is a word because I say it is and I’m older than you. And tell Freddie to quit freaking you out and let you be a kid a little while longer, Shortcake, because when it’s gone, it’s really gone. You’ve got a whole lot of years ahead of you to worry about figuring out what you’re meant to do.”
She turned and started skipping away and I called after her, “Hey! You left Freddie!”
I swear those dimples could hold a gallon of water each.
She said, “Freddie told me that you needed him more than I do. He said everything would be okay and that I wouldn’t even miss him for very long. I trust him. He’s yours now. Take good care of him.”
She turned again and I couldn’t help but call after her one last time, “Hey, Shortcake?”
She looked back at me and said, “Yeah?”
I mustered my best grin.
“They call me Sunshine because I bring so much light and happiness to the world.”
She returned the grin, giggled, and scampered off. I looked down at Freddie, and he looked back at me. I sighed and closed my eyes to once again chase the elusive mistress I called ‘sleep’. As I drifted off, I swear I heard a tiny voice coming from the direction of his bowl.
It said, “We only lied to her a little bit.”
As of that moment, I knew that Freddie and I were going to get along just fine.