AUNT Joyce, something's keeping me awake.'' I opened my eyes in the summer darkness and found myself blinking into the face of my four-year-old niece. As a guest in her house, I was sharing her bed for the night. The excitement of my visit and the warmth of the evening were proving too much for Ren'ee. Sleep was an impossibility.
``I'm too hot,'' she said. ``I better go to the other end.'' The bed rocked as she picked up her pillow and hiked on her knees to the opposite end of the mattress, where the breeze from the open window blew across the room.
``I'm back!'' Ren'ee shoved her face close to mine. Her breath was warm on my skin. ``Something's keeping me awake. I don't know what it is.''
Thoughts of the long day ahead filled my mind, and I began to grow impatient.
``Be still and maybe you will go to sleep.''
``Could you tell me a story?''
``We just did `Jack and the Beanstalk.' ''
``I mean another story.''
``I don't know any other stories.''
``Maybe because I don't have any kids.''
My laughter destroyed the stern appearance I was trying to project. ``I'm not even married.''
``Because you're not big enough, are you,'' she said matter-of-factly.
``Yes, I'm big enough.''
``You could have me. Would you like that?''
``Yes, but I think your Mommy and Daddy would miss you. Now please go to sleep.''
The night insects sang outside in the heat.
``Aunt Joyce, I just can't sleep.''
I searched my memory for some game to keep her quiet. That, I knew, would be the first step in getting her to sleep. ``OK. Why don't you try saying the days of the week -- silently, you know, in your head.''
``Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday,'' she said in one breath.
``You left out Thursday, and you had an extra Sunday.''
``There are two Sundays in my week.''
``OK. Try again, but this time say them to yourself.''
She clamped her eyes shut in concentration. The skin wrinkled up on her nose. I congratulated myself on my cleverness.
``Aunt Joyce, I can't hear myself in my head because I'm not saying anything with my mouth.''
``You don't have to say anything. Just think it. I can hear my voice in my head without saying anything.''
``Well, I can hold my one eye open like this while my other eye's shut,'' countered Ren'ee. ``See?''
``No, I can't see. It's too dark.''
``I can see you, Aunt Joyce. I can feel you, too.'' Ren'ee grasped the tiny hairs on my left forearm and tugged.
``Ouch! Hey, don't do that. Please be still and go to sleep.'' She giggled.
The minutes ticked by and Ren'ee lay silent. I opened my eyes expecting to find her asleep. There in the darkness, in the feeble light from the hall, she was dancing her fingers in front of her face. Her silhouetted hands took on magical shapes. In a flash I recalled lying in bed as a child and playing the same game with the darkness.
``We're both girls, aren't we?'' she said before I could speak.
``But we're not the same size, are we?''
``Are your fingers bigger than mine?''
``Yes, they are.'' Ren'ee held up my left arm and put her tiny fingers into my palm. She let my hand drop, rolled over, pushed her face next to mine, and peered at me.
``Your nose is too big.''
I gasped for air amid the laughter. ``It just looks big because you're so close.''
``What's Rosie's name?'' Ren'ee asked.
``Rosie who lives next door.''
``I don't know. I don't know Rosie.''
``Brain,'' she said slowly.
``Brain,'' she repeated. ``Rosie and Bill Brain.''
I laughed again. ``Are you sure that's their name?''
``Yes,'' she said. ``That's a funny name, isn't it?''
``Yes, it is, and you're funny, too.''
``Yes, I know.''
She stretched out a round little hand with its delicate fingers and rapidly patted my shoulder.
``Good night, Aunt Joyce. I love you.'' She rolled over on her back and closed her eyes.
I looked at her in the darkness, and realized I wouldn't have missed that moment and our conversation for anything, not for all the sleep in the summer's night.