PILOT POINT, Texas — The dreams of a 9-year-old girl were cut short in Pilot Point, Texas with her sudden death three years ago. But thanks to her parents and a team of authors, illustrators and publishers, she is reaching for the stars just as she always promised she would do.
Her name was Vail Annalise Johnson. She was a softball player, an avid equestrian — and always a writer.
"She was a fun, silly, witty child. She loved to laugh. She loved to run around and tell jokes," her mom Susan Chance said. "She would just spend hours writing these little stories and they were all witty. They just had her wit and humor in them."
But Vail left her family suddenly. She'd suffered seizures as a younger child, but she died in the middle of the night on August 31, 2016, from what doctors diagnosed after her death as a rare form of myocarditis, an inflammation of the heart muscle. Her older sister Jade found her first.
"Just went to bed like every normal night," her stepfather Chad Chance said. "A little after 5 a.m., Jade runs down, and she's gone. You know, just that quick."
"You are in shock," Susan Chance said. "You just don't think this is ever going to happen. Or it doesn't even feel real."
It has been painfully real for her parents who, for these three years, have kept Vail's room just as she left it.
"It just keeps me close to her," Susan said. "For me as a mom, it's like I don't want to forget what she smelled like. She was so sweet and fun and it's so many good memories it's like we don't want to let that go. For now, it just keeps her spirit alive in this house."
And Vail's spirit was still with them in one other way too. She was a writer. She wrote stories and verse all the time: stories about horses and mermaids and stars. And she talked about a dream.
"She talked about it a lot but particularly the day before she died," her mom said. "I'll never forget it. She said, 'Momma, I want to have my books published one day.' And she said to us, 'I want to be an author when I grow up.'"
At a home in suburban Atlanta, Ga., they found someone willing to help that dream come true.
"I thought her writing was very deep for someone her age," said Ed Payne, a children's book author Vail's parents found through a family friend.
"This is something that's very precious to this family," Payne said. He agreed to see if something so precious might be turned into something more.
"And it's become precious to me as well but they were entrusting me with something that probably couldn't be any dearer to their hearts."
With the help of Britt Sekulic, an illustrator from California, they created "Vail's Tales." The book, with four of Vail's stories, features a girl on the cover wearing a pink cape and riding through the sky on a yellow star.
"Essentially a superhero," said Payne. "You've got a girl with her cape and her ponytail up in the air riding a star through the cosmos. That's pretty cool stuff."
Payne turned Vail's stories into verse. Sekulic illustrated each one. But Vail's original artwork and her original stories in her own handwriting are included too. The book includes a story called "A Good Friend," a story a teacher discovered at Vail's school after she died.
"I know friendship is fragile," Vail wrote. "True friends like you for who you are, not what you look like. So you also invited the other kid to play," she wrote toward the end of the story. "Now that's a good friend."
"I feel like she left us that letter because we needed that to go forward without her here," Susan Chance said. "I just want to tell her, 'This is what you wanted, this is your dream. And it has come true.'"
"It's like, wow! How can you not love that?" Payne said.
"Vail's Tales" is now a popular children's book and part of her family's attempt through their "Friends of Vail Foundation" to promote childhood literacy. The logo for the foundation is on her headstone. It is also tattooed, with Vail as a butterfly, on her dad's left arm.
"It makes me happy for Vail. It makes me happy for Susan and I and for the people that enjoy the book," Chad Chance said. "But to say that it makes it any easier that she's not here, I can't. Because I do miss her a lot."
"It just makes me so proud and humbled that, you know, I got to be her mother," Susan Chance said. "That's what makes me the happiest. Is that it's not just Vail's book. But it is an awesome book! And it is inspiring whether you're her mom or not."
They are a family still grieving and still clinging to an empty bedroom, but also celebrating the little girl in the pink cape riding that star through the cosmos sharing her gift, and her dreams, for all the universe to see.
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