This short story is based on the June 2021 image prompt for Writers Unite! Write the Story’s project. I hope you enjoy it!
D. A. Ratliff
My earliest recollection of Aunt Estelle was in the summer of my sixth year. My parents took my younger and annoying brother and me to visit our grandparents in a small south Georgia town.
We lived in Los Angeles, and the trip was memorable as it was my first time on an airplane. My grandparents had visited us until then so that my parents didn’t have to lug two small children—did I mention my four-year-old brother was annoying—through airports. Or so I overheard them saying.
Cameron and I—I’m Samantha—were excited about being on the plane. Although Cam did get scared on takeoff and cried, I loved how the plane went faster and faster until it lifted from the ground. Seeing the trees and roads and tall buildings of LA get smaller until I could no longer see them was exciting.
The flight was long, and Cam became fussy, but the captain came to the passenger cabin and calmed him. Our father was an Air Force pilot, and he and the captain had served together. Cam and I finally fell asleep a couple of hours from the Atlanta airport, and it was dark when my parents woke us. As we walked through the nearly deserted airport, I wondered if we had arrived in another world. Funny how that thought would come back to haunt me.
My dad rented a car, and off we headed to my grandparents’ farm. Cam and I fell asleep again, and I vaguely remember arriving at the farm a few hours later and my grandfather carrying me into the house. He smelled of Aqua Velva aftershave, and I felt safe in his arms.
The following morning my grandma cooked the biggest breakfast I ever had, and afterward, we headed outside to play in the yard with Nutter, my granddad’s Labrador Retriever. That big black dog was only about a year old then and became our best playmate over the years. As I write this, Nutter’s great-great-grandson, Sirius, is lying on the deck beside me. And no—I named him after the star and not a wizard from a fiction story.
Later that morning, we were playing, under the watchful eye of our father, on a trampoline that grandpa had put up for us when our great-aunt Estelle arrived carrying a basketful of something that smelled quite tasty. We stopped jumping as she approached. Holding out the basket, she removed a cloth napkin, revealing a pile of cookies. She had our attention.
She hugged my father and then us. “Children, I am your great-aunt Estelle. Let’s go inside and have some milk and cookies.”
We needed no further prompt. Cam and I climbed down from the trampoline with our father’s help and followed her into the kitchen. It’s funny now, thinking back on those days. We knew so little then and now—well, now it’s only my story to tell.
We spent two weeks on the farm, wandering the peanut fields, pecan groves, and the acres of watermelon and cantaloupe. Cam and I feasted each day on a watermelon that our grandpa would pick for us. He always whispered to me in the morning after breakfast, want to pick something pink and green? That phrase became one he whispered to me until he died. Cam’s favorite treat was grandma’s soda biscuits with butter and honey from beehives on the farm. I liked watermelon better.
Aunt Estelle was my grandfather’s sister, and she lived in a cottage just a stone’s throw from our grandparents’ home. The path to her house led from my grandma’s flower garden to a wrought iron gate set in a hedge and into a flower garden in Aunt Estelle’s yard. At six and for many years later, I imagined I was walking through the world of the fairies when I visited her, and we would imagine fairies in the garden and tell each other stories.
We spent a lot of afternoons at Aunt Estelle’s house during that first visit and later ones. She loved to play games with us and taught us to make kites. We would take the balsa and silk kites to the peanut fields and run between rows to watch our colorful creations fly. She took us walking through nearby groves of trees and taught us about plants and birds, and over the years, Cam and I became quite the ornithologists and botanists. And did I mention, she made the best cookies ever.
There was, however, one item in her house that always intrigued me. On a cabinet in her living room sat an old-time radio. My mother called it an art deco piece which I didn’t understand then, and she marveled at how beautiful the radio was. It was shiny black with gold trim and in pristine condition as if she had never turned it on. She once asked Aunt Estelle if it was a reproduction and my aunt just smiled. “Oh no, my dear, it’s an original.”
It wasn’t until my tenth year that I felt something was amiss. We had come for another summer visit, and it was the first time Aunt Estelle did not meet us with a basket of cookies. We didn’t see her until the third day after we arrived. My grandma said Estelle was traveling, as I had learned she often did. When she came to see us, she was carrying two large boxes wrapped in shiny paper and ribbons and a basket full of chocolate chip cookies, our favorites.
“Children, I am so sorry I wasn’t here when you arrived. However, I have a surprise. I was in Germany, and I brought each of you a present.”
Excited, we opened our gifts. Now eight, Cameron was the proud owner of a tree fort with tiny platforms, branches, a staircase, ladder, a bridge, elf-like figurines, and a crow’s nest on top. After seeing his gift, I was anxious to see my own but carefully untied the ribbon and peeled away the paper. Inside the box was a miniature fairy village. There were five houses, patterned like an acorn, honeycomb, tulip, pinecone, and mushroom, along with five fairy girls and five fairy boys.
“Aunt Estelle, I love it. I have just the place in my room for this.” I hugged her, and she squeezed me tightly.
“My darling, I wanted something for you to treasure and remember me and our fairy walks by in years to come.”
Her eyes glittered as she looked into mine. I would remember that look as even then I realized there was more to Aunt Estelle than I knew.
Wonderful memories filled the years to come. When I was fourteen, I begged my parents to spend my school vacation in Georgia. With Cam going to camp, my parents allowed me to spend my summer at the farm. Looking back, it was the best summer of my life.
My grandmother, Aunt Estelle, and I made jams and jellies, relishes, baked cakes and cookies, and tended the personal garden. Thank goodness I had taken up running, or I would have gained a hundred pounds. We wandered the countryside, visiting antique shops, and had lunch at quaint little cafes. I fell in love with the area and the two women sharing the experience with me.
One week, in late July, my grandparents traveled to Chicago for the wedding of a close friend’s grandchild, and they decided I would spend the days they were gone with Estelle. That was the week my journey to my present life began.
The first evening, Aunt Estelle, after dinner and yes, cookies, took me outside. There were no security lights in the area, and the sky was midnight blue and sprinkled with glittering stars. We settled into reclining lawn chairs, and while sipping peach tea, Estelle took me on a tour of the Milky Way spanning the sky above them.
She spoke of the constellations Sagittarius, Scorpius, Ophiuchus, and Scutum and the wandering comets glistened with ice in the reflected light of distant nebulas. She described them as if she had seen them with her own eyes, and her words filled me with wonder.
I had always had an affinity for space and excelled in science as Cam did. Now, listening to my aunt, I felt a growing need to learn more about space and the wonders it contained. It wasn’t until the second night that I discovered a secret about my aunt, and that secret sealed my fate.
We had remained outside until nearly one a.m., and then Aunt Estelle shooed me to bed. I was too excited to sleep, and thoughts of my future spun in my head. I sat, legs beneath me, on the window seat in my room, staring out at the night sky. When I heard a whining sound, I worried my aunt was in trouble. I rushed from my room and down the stairs stopping on the landing to see into the living room. Estelle stood before the radio with only dim light from a single lamp illuminated the room. She wore a pale green gossamer scarf over her head and held a small metal disk in her hands.
I knelt on the landing, peering through the banister, afraid to move. My body became rigid, and all I could do was watch.
Aunt Estelle touched a dial on the radio, and it began to glow. Within seconds, a voice spoke from the radio. Unlike any I had heard before, a voice spoke in a sing-song language as though it was part music and part speaking. Stunned, I watched as Estelle spoke into the metal disc using the same language. The conversation went on for several minutes before Estelle touched the dial again, and the amber light faded. It was then that Estelle turned toward me, and the room went black. I wouldn’t remember the radio incident from that night for a long time until she allowed me to remember.
My high-school years were a blur. I only saw my grandparents on the holidays as I spent my summers in science camp. My attention was solely on science and my desire to attend the Air Force Academy and become a pilot or an astronaut. The day I received my acceptance letter from the Academy, I called Aunt Estelle after I celebrated with my parents and my still annoying brother. She was as excited as I was.
“My darling Sam, I felt your connection to the stars from our nights gazing at the sky. I had a feeling you would want to visit the Milky Way.”
“You instilled that desire in me long ago when we sat in your front yard under the stars.”
“I did, didn’t I? And for a good reason, it is where you belong.”
I ended the call full of wonder and something else, an awareness of Aunt Estelle’s sing-song voice. I wondered why I had never noticed it until that day.
Five years later, I was an Air Force Academy graduate with a physics and aeronautical engineering degree, and I could fly aircraft. I had just come off a training mission when word came that Aunt Estelle had died. My heart shattered as my family and I left for Georgia.
We spent sad days there, as so much had changed. My grandfather had suffered a minor stroke only a few months before Estelle died. After the funeral, my parents talked him into selling the farm and my grandparents moving to California with my parents, including two handsome dogs that were the late Nutter’s offspring.
The day before I left to return to Nellis Air Force Base, my grandmother told me that something was waiting for me in Aunt Estelle’s cottage. I walked the path between the gardens, now lusher than when I was a child. Memories of fairies and twinkling stars fill me with nostalgia.
I walked into her home for likely the last time, and tears streamed down my face. I loved all of my family, but Aunt Estelle filled a piece of my heart that I knew would now remain empty. I found a package wrapped in shiny paper and ribbons. My heart pounding, I sat on the couch and opened the box.
I gasped at what was inside and, with trembling fingers, lifted the beautiful clock from the box, along with a strange metal disk and a letter. Day turned into night as I sat in Estelle’s home, processing what she had written.
Now, years later, I pulled the letter from a zippered pocket on my uniform and read it once again—my heart both breaking and full of love simultaneously.
My dear Samantha:
First, I must tell you. I am not dead. The body I left behind was a non-animated clone. I knew this day was coming from the moment I met you, and I will admit I refused recall until you graduated from the Academy and your future set. You see, Sam, I am not truly your aunt. I am not from Earth. I am from a solar system that your planet has yet to discover. Our sun is much like yours, and my planet is very similar to Earth.
We have visited Earth for many generations, but we are not little gray beings, as we look very similar to you, only requiring minor alterations. We observe your species by becoming part of your family for a while. Then we leave and erase the memories of our existence from those we interacted with but not with you. I petitioned for the right to remain in contact with you as I was certain that you would reach for the stars one day.
You will not be able to discuss me with your family as they will no longer remember me. In a matter of days, they will not remember me at all—but you will. As you might have guessed, the radio is a communications device, and the metal disk is how to operate it. There will come a time when we talk again.
The one thing I did leave with you was the fairy village, as the myths of fairies are common in your world. They are also common in mine. A love that we shared from our childhood.
Samantha, whatever life brings you, remember I will be with you. And we will meet again when you are among the stars.
I wiped the tears spilling from my eyes. As Estelle faded from my family’s memory, it was so difficult not to scream she was here, she was real, but it was futile. I gazed across the cramped captain’s office where the fairy village sat on a shelf, the radio on the shelf below. I had refused to leave Earth without either item or Sirius. Earth Space Command had given in, they wanted me, and I wanted Sirius and Estelle with me.
The comm crackled. “Captain, helm informs me that we are about to cross the boundary of our solar system.”
“Thank you, Commander.”
I scratched Sirius’s head and rose. Before I stepped onto the bridge, I touched the radio, still shiny and new. “Don’t worry, Estelle. I will be calling soon.”
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