Joan smiled gently at her little brother as she tucked him into bed. He squirmed and pulled his blankets up to his chin, then said, "Good night, Joan."

Her brother, Charles, smiled up at her. When her mother was unable to handle the bedtime rituals, Joan always helped her five-year-old brother to bed. It seemed that of late, her mother seemed . . . busy more and more often, which meant Joan spent many an evening helping her little brother sleep. "Good night, Charley," she said.

She stood and turned to exit the room, but behind her, Charles whimpered. She knew what he would say next, and sure enough, he asked, "Will you read me a bedtime story? I promise I'll be really good, and I won't bother you at all. Please please please please pleeeeeeeeease?"

Joan would have liked to say no, but when she saw the adorable face he made, she knew she had to give in, even though she was well aware that he wouldn't be really good, and that he would bother her when the next day came. As soon as she turned around, Charles knew that she'd won, and began to thank her repeatedly. Joan walked to the nightstand, and took one of the books she'd checked out from the library.

"It looks like we'll be reading the story of Princess Lovelina," Joan said, reading the cover and taking a seat in bed beside Charles so that he would be able to see the pictures while she read. It was a very familiar fairy tale, and Joan was sure that Charles knew the story practically by heart after hearing it so many times, but she knew he would complain endlessly if he couldn't see the pictures.

"'Once upon a time, there was a beautiful princess,'" Joan read, opening to the front page, which had a picture of a girl with long blonde hair to her feet and wearing a pink dress standing in front of a mirror. Joan had never really liked that particular picture, and always imagined that she would have drawn the princess doing something useful instead of just staring at herself in the mirror.

"'This princess had long, lovely, blonde hair that reached all the way to her feet, and sparkling blue eyes that no prince could look at without immediately falling in love,'" she continued. "'Everybody loved the princess because she was so beautiful. Even when she was born, her parents knew she would grow up to be lovely, and so they named her Princess Lovelina.'"

The next page showed the princess seated on a bench, now wearing a blue dress. One finely dressed gentleman knelt before her, holding her left hand while her right touched her chest in a gesture of surprise. Two other men stood to the side, and they appeared to be discussing the scene.

"'Not only was the princess so beautiful that everyone who ever saw her fell in love, but many princes from far off countries fell in love at the mere description of her beauty. Bachelors traveled from all around to propose to Lovelina, but she could never choose whom she wanted to marry. One day, three brothers came and asked for her hand in marriage. Lovelina was unsure whom to marry, so she told them that she would choose one brother. Each did all that he could to prove his love to the princess, showering her with gifts, and writing poems to her.'"

Joan made a noise deep in her throat. She'd never liked the story of Princess Lovelina- what sort of mindless idiot would choose her husband based on who gave the best gift? It was Charles's favorite story, though. At least some day he would grow out of the fairy tale. Charles giggled at her reaction, as he always did, and Joan turned the page.

The next page showed two of the brothers in the midst of a sword fight. The princess watched vapidly from the other page, her hands to her mouth in a gesture of helpless horror. "'Finally, Princess Lovelina chose to marry the youngest brother,'" she read. "'The middle brother was so angry, he started a fight with the youngest. Princess Lovelina was afraid for both of their safety, so she used her magic to turn the middle brother into a white bird so that he couldn't carry a sword or threaten anyone.'"

Charles eagerly turned the page for Joan, and she smoothed it out to reveal a large page of one of the men wielding a sword and facing a back dragon with green claws. The dragon's neck wound around the page, encircling the words. Once again, Princess Lovelina stood far from the action, looking frightened and horrified.

"'Then, the oldest brother became angry, and he kidnapped Princess Lovelina and kept her locked away in a hidden castle in a far off land. There he kept her, until one day a wizard turned him into a dragon for his evil deeds.' Don't you think that if the wizard was so concerned with what the brother was doing, he would just rescue the princess?" Joan asked suddenly.

"Keep reading!" Charles insisted.

"All right, all right, fine," Joan responded. "'The dragon stayed at the castle, guarding Princess Lovelina for days and days and weeks and weeks and months and months, until finally, one day the youngest brother rode in on a white horse to rescue his princess. He fought against the dragon in a terrifying battle, but finally, he slew it.'"

Joan rolled her eyes, but said nothing about the various problems with that page. Instead she turned to the last page, which showed the princess in a wedding dress and veil. The prince stood beside him, holding the princess's hands. Charles adjusted his weight beside her, settling down to where he couldn't see the pictures any longer. He looked comfortable.

"'The prince took Princess Lovelina back to his home, where they held a great celebration for her rescue. They got married in a grand ceremony, and lived happily ever after. The end.'" She closed the book. "Wasn't that a good story?" Charles nodded. "Are you ready for bed?" He nodded again.

"Good night," Joan said, kissing him on the forehead after rising out of bed. She turned off his light, allowing his nightlight to illuminate his room. His breathing was steady as he drifted to sleep, and Joan walked into the kitchen, so she would see the book in the morning and remember to drop it off at the library.

The kitchen stank of the all too familiar stench of alcohol. Dreading what she would see, Joan peeked into the living room, and saw her mother asleep on the couch. Drunk again.