Fuck Cinderella

It was so long ago now, Laurette couldn’t remember it in detail. She was young, eleven or twelve, full of optimism and an ignorant glee. The world was better then, in her eyes anyway. Less frightening. Less empty. It was happier, it had more light and goodness. That was before she arrived, the girl who would turn their little, modest family upside down.

Spring. It was spring, that she knew, at least. April. She could remember, albeit faintly, the grass being bright, bright green, and she remembered too that the color matched her eyes, the girl she’d been introduced to that miserable, terrible day. The beginning of the end, she called it now. But then, back then, it was innocent, and she was blind. She didn’t know what was coming.

“Ella,” that girl—and she was a child then too, around Laurette’s age—had stated, in a tone that implied a snobbish, inflated sense of self. She extended her hand and shook Laurette’s in a brief manner, as if fearing she’d catch something. She shook the hand of Laurette’s twin, Lucinda, in much the same way.

She’d turned to her father and huffed out an indignant, “Daddy, I’m bored.

Perhaps Laurette’s expression had betrayed her dismay, because at that very moment, her mother walked over and stood beside her, letting her hand rest gently on Laurette’s shoulder. She squeezed it as if to say, Give her a chance, please. You know how much it would mean to me.

So she did. Lucinda, too, though their efforts at being open-minded were frequently put to the test.

“I’m hot, Daddy, open the window,” Ella would bark, as she stood three feet away from the very window that caused her distress. Her father would come running, eager to open it and appease her. A moment later, as soon as he walked away, she’d bemoan, “Daddy, now I’m cold! Shut it, shut it!”

It was always something with that girl, her bright green eyes foreshadowing a jealousy like nothing Lucinda or Laurette could’ve anticipated. Lucinda’s locket, for instance, was a frequent source of scorn for Ella. It was one of a kind, a family heirloom, and therefore Ella couldn’t have one quite like it. Her father bought her ten different lockets, each more expensive than Lucinda’s, each objectively prettier—they were real silver, some encrusted with diamonds, one engraved with Ella’s initials. Each one she rejected with a simple, dismissive flick of her wrist and the comment, “That isn’t Lucinda’s locket, now is it?”

Eventually, their mother approached Lucinda and, while anxiously wringing her hands, she asked, “Would you be so generous as to give Ella your locket? You know how much she loves it.”

Laurette couldn’t take it. “She doesn’t love it! She just wants it because she can’t have it, because it’s Lucinda’s! The second she gets it, she’ll grow bored of it, too, like everything else he buys her.”

“Laurette, you know Ella’s mother died not too long ago. She’s growing through a difficult time. You should try to be more sympathetic.”

“I’ve been as sympathetic as I possibly can for the past several months,” Laurette argued. “I’m at my wit’s end. The girl’s a terror.

“It’s all right,” Lucinda said softly. She put her hand on her sister’s arm. “Really. I’ll give her the locket.”

“No, you—”

“Would you really?” their mother interrupted, smiling, her eyes getting misty. “Lucinda . . . your kindness is beyond compare. This will make Ella so happy. I’m proud of you.”

Lucinda gave a thin smile and handed the locket to her mother with an expression of dreary resignation. Laurette was furious, but she said nothing. She was trying, for her mother’s sake. They both were. Really, desperately trying.

Their mother’s marriage to Ella’s father had been difficult from the start. They hadn’t seen it coming, had never even heard her mention him before that day, when suddenly she announced they’d be getting married and told them he had a “nice little girl around your age called Ella—I’m sure you’ll like her.” The words stung with a bitter irony now.

Sometimes they discussed her late at night, from the privacy of their room.

“She’s quite ghastly,” Lucinda said as she brushed her hair. “Cruel and inconsiderate.”

Laurette described her in simpler terms: “She’s a spoiled brat.”

With a giggle, Lucinda nodded, but then she added, “But her mother did die recently, and she may just be grieving. We should remember that.”

“How can we forget? We’re reminded of it all the time.”

“Well, Mother wants to make sure that we keep it in mind and show her the compassion she doesn’t show us. And we should,” Lucinda said, setting down her hairbrush. “Don’t you agree?”

“Yes, of course. And we’ve been doing that for months.”

“Yes, well, no one said it would be easy—or quick,” Lucinda pointed out. “At least it can’t get any worse. Why, I’m sure any day now, she’ll see the error of her ways.”

“I hope you’re right.”

It didn’t get better, however. Ella’s disdain for the girls became ever more apparent, in addition to her lack of manners and spoiled tendencies. She’d order around her father and make fun of the twins in the same breath. She took to calling them the “ugly stepsisters,” though only when their parents weren’t around. She’d frequently drop Lucinda’s locket in mud puddles or “accidentally” step on it whenever Lucinda was in view, then would say, in a sugary sweet tone, “Be a dear and fetch it for me, won’t you, Luci?”

“I can’t stand her,” Laurette would rage any time they were alone. “She’s a nightmare!”

“Worse, even,” Lucinda agreed. Slowly she came around to the idea that maybe Ella would never change, maybe she was just the way she was regardless of her mother’s death, and maybe that was something time—or compassion—couldn’t fix. “If she drops my locket one more time, I swear I might start crying.”

“Don’t—that’s precisely what she wants.”

“I know.” Lucinda sighed and put her head in her hands. “What are we going to do, Laurette?”

Before she could respond, the door to their room burst open and Ella came sashaying in, unannounced and unwelcome. Both of the twins’ faces turned red with guilt, wondering if she’d overheard them. But she seemed oblivious, glib and smug as usual, her long gold hair wound in tight curls and dotted with ribbons. “Hello, ugly stepsisters,” she sneered, laughing as she fell onto Laurette’s bed. “I’m so bored today. Entertain me.”

“And how do you propose we do that?” Lucinda asked, trying to keep her anger contained. But there was a slight wobble to her voice, an irritated glint in her eye.

Ella shrugged. “Start coming up with ideas and I’ll tell you when you’re close.”

“We’re busy,” Laurette snapped.

“Too busy for your own stepsister?” She frowned. “Wait till Daddy hears. He won’t be pleased. Neither will your mother, I’d imagine.”

“Don’t you have a violin lesson?” Lucinda asked. Ella was masterful at the violin. She’d been taking lessons since she was four. She spoke three languages, played four instruments, and could sing like an angel. And truly, it amazed both the twins that someone as beautiful and smart and talented as Ella could also be so wretched.

“It was canceled,” Ella said. “Why else would I be here, requesting entertainment? Surely you could come up with something . . .”

“Not today, Ella. Please.” Lucinda looked at her, desperate, exhausted, just short of putting her hands together in prayer.

Ella pressed her lips in a thin line, eyes narrowed, and responded with a clipped, “Fine.” She stood up from Laurette’s bed and pushed past them, out of their room. They watched her go, breathing a mutual sigh of relief once she’d disappeared from view.

“She’s insufferable,” Lucinda said.

“Insatiable.”

“Unstable.”

“Unequivocally horrible.”

“Yes, that,” Lucinda agreed. “Exactly that.”

~

Ella hated those two.

They were so . . . so lucky. Without a care in the world, it seemed. They had a doting mother, nice jewelry, easy smiles. She had no jewelry, her mother’s belongings having been sold off by her greedy, unsentimental father long before she’d even had the chance to wear them.

The sisters weren’t anxious like she was, didn’t spend much of their time pondering who they were or what the future held. She did. Always had. Sure, she hid it well—behind a smirk and a mystique that alluded them—but that was an act, and she wasn’t really so comfortable with herself or her surroundings. Truth be told, sometimes it hurt to get out of bed.

And they hated her, too. She knew that. She knew that since she first met them, when she had, due to crippling fear and nerves, pouted, pretended, established herself as being from a different class. She’d shown them she was special and demanded to be treated as such. Sometimes—rarely—she had a moment of bright and painful self-awareness, wherein she’d stop and think, “Did I really just do that? Say that? Am I really treating my own father this way, my stepmother, my stepsisters?” But the moment would pass and she’d remind herself, You have no other choice. You’re an outsider here and always will be. This is your one defense.

But she was falling. She knew that, too. Falling down a deep, dark rabbit hole, unable to stop herself from reaching an ending she couldn’t see but could almost feel coming. If I keep falling down, if I keep going this way, she’d think, something bad will happen.

And she was right. Of course she was right.

~

Lucinda rarely felt pretty. Laurette, to her credit, didn’t concern herself with such matters—”physical beauty means little,” she’d say—but Lucinda didn’t have her sister’s precise sensibilities. She hadn’t always worried about it, but Ella had a habit of bringing things to the forefront, issues she’d rather not analyze. And really, one can only be referred to as ugly so many times before it starts to get to them, gnawing away like a creature buried in their minds and feeding off their low self-esteem.

Ella was beautiful. Ella had a figure like a proper lady already, at age thirteen, with a naturally teeny tiny waist that always looked corseted and light hair and long eyelashes. Lucinda’s hair was dull and flat, her lashes stubby, her figure square and slim and—like the rest of her, it seemed—uninteresting.

“Can you stand it?” she’d ask, staring at her reflection as the minutes ticked by.

Laurette, nearby (always nearby), would squint. “Stand what?”

“How she makes you feel. How she makes you see yourself.”

Laurette sighed. “Not this again . . .”

“I can’t help myself.”

“You’re perfectly pretty, Lucinda,” Laurette insisted, before adding, “Not that such things even matter.”

“I know, I know, it’s just . . .”

Suddenly their mother appeared, as if from thin air, and Lucinda was grateful for her presence. Both were; they stared at her with silent admiration, a quiet kind of reverence. Her silver slippers clacking against the wood floors, she walked over and put her hands on Lucinda’s shoulders, meeting her eyes in the mirror. “You might feel that way every now and again. Most of us do. But you are beautiful. Here,” she said, pulling from her bun a jewel-incrusted hairpin, “I want you to have this. It always makes me feel beautiful. It’s small, a little meager, but it has a certain sparkle to it that makes it stunning—to me, anyway.”

“It’s beautiful.” Lucinda held it in her hands and stared, awestruck, moved by the gesture. Carefully, she put the pin in her hair, the rubies catching the light coming through the windows and glinting.

“It really is,” Laurette agreed.

“I hope, in some small way, that makes up for the locket.” Their mother’s voice was soft, wistful, bordering on sheepish. Like she was ashamed of what she’d asked Lucinda to do.

“It does. It’s better than the locket,” Lucinda assured, and her mother smiled, and for a moment, it seemed like everything would be all right.

They didn’t see Ella, watching from the doorway. They didn’t know she was there, listening, spying, plotting. No, they didn’t have the faintest idea what they’d set in motion.

~

The next day was tense right from the start. Ella burst into their room just after six, as the two girls dozed; the sound of the door being thrown upon woke them up with a start, and soon her equally loud, unwelcome voice followed: “Where is it? Where is it?

“What on earth are you talking about?” Laurette asked, sitting up in her bed with a weary expression.

“The hairpin!”

The two girls shared a look. “Ella, perhaps you should sit down and breathe for a moment—” Lucinda started.

Tell me where it is!” she shrieked. Her voice was so loud and ghastly that Laurette’s hands, as if of their own accord, clamped over her ears.

“Be reasonable!” Lucinda pleaded. “I’ve already given you my locket!”

“It’s not enough. It’s never enough,” Ella growled. And then she began searching the room, throwing open their wardrobe and tossing their dresses over her shoulder, opening every container placed on their vanity, including their antique music box, which, after searching it, she tossed to the floor without a second thought. She looked under the bed, and she even yanked her fingers through Lucinda’s hair in the hopes she was still wearing it (she wasn’t).

“Stop it this instant!” Laurette said. She stood up, grabbed Ella by the arm, and pulled her away from Lucinda, who was, by this point, in tears. “You have no right!”

“You can’t keep it from me! I’ll find it! I’ll take it from you! Daddy will get it for me.” Her eyes narrowed into slits. “I’ll see to it.”

“Leave. Now.” Laurette pointed to the door. Turning on her heel, Ella stormed from their room. They could hear her stomping down the hallway, toward the stairs.

“I’m afraid of her,” Lucinda whispered.

“I know. Me too.”

#

By the afternoon, everyone in the house was familiar with Ella’s newfound obsession with the hairpin, though no one had given in just yet.

“Don’t worry,” their mother had told them, “you already gave her the locket. You’ve been quite kind. I won’t ask you to give her anything else.”

“Maybe it would be easier to just let her have it,” Lucinda said. She found the hairpin in the pocket of her apron and clasped her fingers around it, touching each jewel individually. She didn’t want to part with it, but bearing the brunt of Ella’s rage seemed a far worse fate.

“No,” Laurette said. “She doesn’t deserve it. You do, Lucinda. We can’t let her always have what she wants.”

Their mother agreed. So, as the day wore on and the girls tended to their chores, the hairpin remained in Lucinda’s pocket, a constant reminder of the unwitting battle they found themselves in. For a time, they felt proud, finally able to stand up to the spoiled witch of a girl. But the pride would be short lived.

It happened at dinner that night. Ella sat on one side of their long dining room table, beside her father. On the other, Lucinda, Laurette and their mother. Ella, with those chilly green eyes of her, glared at them throughout the entire meal.

Their parents made halfhearted attempts at conversation, dancing around the elephant in the room. But no one could escape the tension and the strangeness of that meal, and for much of it, there was only silence.

It was toward the end, having barely touched her steak, that she said the first words she’d spoken since late that afternoon: “Daddy, why won’t you get it for me?”

“I told you, darling,” he started nervously, “that I’d find you one just as nice somewhere in town.”

“I don’t want one that’s ‘just as nice’—I want hers.” She jabbed her finger in Lucinda’s direction, a pleading whine to her voice. “Get it for me, Daddy, please.

“You already have that very lovely locket of Lucinda’s,” their mother spoke up. She attempted a smile. “Surely that’s enough?”

Ella grabbed the locket from around her neck and yanked it, breaking the chain, then threw it as hard as she could to the floor. Lucinda drew in a quick, audible breath as the necklace collided with the ground, a look of horror on her face.

“I hate that locket!” Ella screamed. She stood up from her seat and turned her attention back to her father, standing over his chair. “You’re the one who got rid of Mother’s jewelry. You took it from me!”

“Ella, I had no choice. We had no money. It was our arrival here, joining this family, that saved us from poverty. Don’t you understand that? And now I can buy you all the jewelry you’d like!”

“Not my mother’s. You took her from me.” She was speaking softly now, almost whispering. Almost crying.

Laurette and Lucinda shared a glance, communicating wordlessly. Their mother grabbed their hands beneath the table.

“Get me the pin,” Ella demanded. “Now. Get it for me, Daddy, I want the pin, I want her hairpin.”

“You already have the locket—”

Their mother stood up then, dropping the girls’ hands, and hurried over. She stood behind her husband’s chair, one hand resting on his shoulder. “Let’s just calm down a moment and think clearly on things, yes? This has all gotten a bit out of hand . . .”

Ella turned suddenly and grabbed the steak knife beside her plate. When she spun back around, she began her rampage as Lucinda and Laurette watched, screaming.

It wasn’t clear who she’d been intending to strike, her father or their mother; she had her eyes closed and took a frantic, spur-of-the-moment slash first, which missed, then a hard stab just as her father was hastily standing up. That one landed—right in his chest.

When she opened her eyes, she saw the blood pooling through his shirt, the foggy look on his face, and she realized, slowly, that she was witnessing his death. She was seeing the light leave him, she was seeing the effects of what she had done.

She dropped the knife. She stumbled back, grabbing her chair for support. She watched him fall to the floor, collapsing on his knees. The girls’ mother threw her hands over her mouth as a scream escaped her, and soon the tears followed. Across the table, Laurette and Lucinda were frozen to their seats, too afraid to move.

For a time, it was silent.

Then it was screams, and sobs, and someone shouted, “He’s dead!” Laurette couldn’t remember who. Her memories were fuzzy after that. But she did remember that eventually, she willed herself to get up, feeling sick, and she grabbed her sister and the two ran to their bedroom. When they got there, they pushed the vanity in front of their door so she couldn’t come in and then, and only then, did they allow themselves to fall apart, to hit the floor. “I should’ve given it to her,” Lucinda sobbed. She walked over to the potted plant on their bedside table and dug around in the dirt for where she’d hid it, that stupid, awful hairpin—then she threw it against the wall, hard as she could, furious at the wretched creation.

“She killed him,” Laurette said. “She really killed him.”

“What about Mother? Oh, God, Mother . . .”

“I can’t believe she did that.”

“I always knew,” Lucinda said, pacing their room, crying into her hands. “I—I always knew she’d do something!”

“She’s pure evil.”

There was a knock at the door. They jumped, Lucinda’s sobs growing louder. “It’s me.” Their mother’s voice, familiar and comforting and wonderful.

Laurette jumped up and pushed the vanity out of the way. Their mother stumbled inside, pale as a ghost. She shook her head, in sorrow or shock, they couldn’t quite tell. “I’ve placed her in the attic for the time being. And locked it,” she added. “You don’t have to worry. She can’t harm you, either of you.” Her eyes drifted to the floor, to the hairpin. She let out a bitter, humorless laugh. “It seems silly. But you must remember it wasn’t about the hairpin. It was never about that.”

“He’s dead,” Laurette said. Her voice was hollow.

“Yes, he is.” She paused a moment before adding, “We’re going to say it was a suicide.”

What?”

She rushed to explain herself: “If we don’t, if we tell the truth, they’ll take her away to an asylum. We can’t let that happen. All he would’ve wanted is for us to take care of her, look after her . . . and I want to do that. For him.” Her voice cracked. She started to cry. The girls watched her in stony, baffled silence.

“Mother . . .” Lucinda started.

“Don’t try to talk me out of it—I’ve already made up my mind,” she said. “They’re coming now to take care of the body. If you’re asked anything, you tell them you saw him take the knife to his own chest, all right? I’ve already told Ella to say the same thing.”

“If you let her out of that attic to talk to them, she’ll—”

“She won’t, she won’t. Besides, it’ll be brief. She won’t have access to any more knives.” She let out a breath. “This is the right thing to do. I know it is.”

“I’m scared,” Lucinda whispered.

“It’ll be all right. We’ll be all right.”

But neither of them believed her.

~

She stayed in the attic the remainder of the night. She stayed there the next day, too, and the day after. Weeks drifted past and she remained sequestered, hidden from sight. Sometimes they’d hear her walking to and fro, back and forth and back and forth, the floorboards creaking. They’d be at dinner—Laurette, Lucinda, and their mother—and they’d be chatting, laughing, when all of a sudden they’d hear, in the distance, the sound of Ella singing to herself from the attic. A strange, haunting melody. They couldn’t make out the words, just the hazy lilt of her voice. It was enough to silence them all at once, and an eery quiet would fall over the dining room—the same place where the incident had occurred, no less. It took days for them to even return to that room.

They didn’t like to discuss it. They fell into a pattern immediately after it happened, where their mother would take meals to Ella three times a day—armed always with a weapon of some sort, “just in case”—and they’d keep as far from the attic as they could, never talking about her, even amongst themselves. They didn’t talk about her father much, either. Perhaps in passing, a while after his death. Nothing more than that.

And as the days slipped into weeks and the weeks into months, and Ella remained in the attic, the two began to wonder if they’d ever see her again.

“I’ll give her credit,” Laurette said one night, the only time she’d mentioned Ella in . . . ages, it seemed. “We really don’t hear her all that often. You’d think, knowing her, that she’d be throwing herself against the attic door, screaming at the top of her lungs, doing anything in her power to both free herself and to drive us batty.”

Lucinda was quiet a moment. “I think she’s punishing herself. I think she feels, after what she did, that the attic is a fitting form of comeuppance.”

“Oh, I doubt that. She’s too selfish and self-centered to ever have that level of awareness,” Laurette said. “Or consideration.”

“She did love her father.”

“Did she? I never witnessed that.”

Lucinda shrugged. “It’s just a thought. Let’s not talk about her, anyway. Makes me nervous.”

“Fine by me.”

~

Ella, meanwhile, spent her days staring at the ceiling, or out the lone, triangular window. She’d practice her dancing, or practice her singing; she requested her violin—in a small, meek, desperate voice, not like her own; she hardly recognized it—weeks after she first arrived in the attic, and her stepmother obliged. So then she’d practice that too, but mostly she read. Her stepmother brought her books once a week, and she’d devour them quickly, tearing through the pages even though she knew, when she reached the end, she’d feel terribly bored.

Still, she did not complain. That, too, wasn’t like her, but the weeks and months after the incident had her feeling not quite herself. She questioned everything, even more than she had before, and sometimes the constant self-doubt and worries would leave her unable to do much of anything—not read, not sing, not dance. Other days left her wanting to do all of that and more, if just to keep herself distracted. And she had much to distract herself from.

If ever she did think about what she’d done—really, really think about it—the emotions were overwhelming. So she tried not to, she tried to pretend her father was alive and well, downstairs somewhere, waiting for her. Or sometimes, she’d tell herself that yes, what she’d done was awful, but look! She was paying the price now, and she’d continue to do so, and maybe that made it all right. Really, she’d have said anything to relieve some of the guilt.

She ate crusts of bread and cheese, or plates of leftover sausage and potatoes; she’d listlessly chase peas around her plate, or eat quickly if it was something special—say, a small portion of roast beef on Christmas with a plop of candied yams on the side, the condensed, watered-down version of the feast they were enjoying downstairs. And she did not complain, whether to punish herself or just because she didn’t have the energy. Rarely did Laurette and Lucinda even cross her mind, at least in those initial months.

And then, one day, she started to feel better. Brighter. She’d say please and thank you more often, every time she requested a certain book or her stepmother dropped off a plate (the way her own mother had taught her, once upon a time, years and years ago now). She’d inquire about her stepmother’s day too, and offered her a smile every now and again. And her new attitude did not go unnoticed.

One day, a year after the incident, she decided to ask—because, she figured, how would she get anywhere, how could she make any strides, if she didn’t ask?

“If you allow me to come down from here,” she began, “I promise to be very, very good. Not like before. Not like that at all. And I’ll do Laurette and Lucinda’s chores for them. I can clean the house, top to bottom, every day.”

“Really? You’d do that?”

She nodded.

Her stepmother looked thoughtful a moment, drumming her fingers against her jaw. “Well,” she said, “I guess I could allow a probationary period where, if you really do the girls’ chores and really are on your best behavior, you could move back downstairs more permanently and resume life as normal. How does that sound?”

Beaming, she enthused, “It sounds perfect.

~

Laurette and Lucinda were less keen.

“But Mother,” Laurette argued, “she’s dangerous.

“I don’t think she is—not anymore.” Their mother let out a breath and ran a hand through her hair. She looked tired, twenty years older. Ella’s fault, Laurette thought, righteous in her indignation. “Listen to me: Everyone deserves a second chance. She’s been very obedient and level-headed these past several months. I can feel her guilt, and it’s crushing. It’s with her always. And she hasn’t asked to come down, not until today. Hasn’t broached the subject once before. I think she’s ready. She knows it and I do too. All I ask is you give her a chance.”

“She’ll really do our chores?” Lucinda inquired.

Laurette glared at her. “You can’t possibly be considering this!”

“I was just asking. Honestly, I’m not sure how I feel.”

“I don’t blame you two for being hesitant,” their mother said. “It’s good to ask questions. It’s good to be cautious. Anyone would be, in your shoes. What Ella did was unforgivable.”

“So then why are you forgiving her?” Laurette sneered.

“I’m not. But it feels wrong—cruel—to lock her away in the attic with no end in sight. Like I said, everyone deserves a second chance, and Ella has changed. Really.”

“We don’t have a choice, do we?” Lucinda asked, quiet, contemplative. Not accusatory. Not angry. “Even if it makes us uncomfortable, you’ll extend her this branch regardless. Is that right?”

Their mother shifted from one foot to the other, her gaze falling guiltily toward the floor. “Well . . .”

“You can’t be serious!” Laurette raged. “She’s a murderer! She takes precedence over us? Your own daughters?”

“Stop it this instant. You’re being selfish and spoiled. In fact, you’re acting just like—” She stopped herself.

Laurette arched a brow. “Ella? I’m acting like Ella?”

“Let’s not fight, please,” Lucinda whispered. “I don’t like it when we argue.”

“You can’t leave us alone with her,” Laurette said, “at the very least.”

“Fine.”

“She’ll really do our chores?”

“Yes. And she’ll go back up to the attic afterwards.” Their mother squeezed Laurette’s shoulders and gave a thin, exhausted smile. “I’m here for you, and Lucinda. I promise it’ll be all right. I wouldn’t put you girls in any danger.”

And with that, she disappeared upstairs to fetch the wretched beast. Laurette and Lucinda paced the floor of the parlor.

“Maybe she’s right, maybe Ella’s changed,” Lucinda offered.

“Or maybe she’s wrong and maybe the girl’s plotting her revenge on us as we speak.” Laurette paused long enough to gesture toward Lucinda’s neck. “You better hide that.”

The locket. Her mother had retrieved it from the dining room and returned it to her soon after the incident. It was perhaps a bit worse for wear, but intact. She hadn’t been able to so much as look at it for the first couple of months, but eventually she decided to slip it on, as much out of bold defiance as fondness for the item.

Her hand instinctively flew toward her neck and she clasped the locket in her hand, a flash of worry flaring up. “You think so? Yes, yes, you’re probably right . . .”

Then, suddenly, they heard footsteps descending the staircase. They hurried over, the locket forgotten, eager to catch a glimpse of the ostracized cretin.

And there she was. Ella, the first time they’d glimpsed her since that night. She was paler and thinner now, and looked perhaps a little sickly—you could tell she hadn’t gotten any sun—but still frustrating beautiful, her gold ringlets retaining their shine, her eyes their (perhaps devilish) sparkle. She glanced over at them, her gaze falling straight to Lucinda’s locket, and both the girls and their mother felt a fresh wave of anxiety . . . but she said nothing.

When she did finally speak, her tone of voice was sheepish, embarrassed: “It’s nice to see you two. And I’m sorry.”

“I’m sure you are,” Laurette mumbled. Her mother glared at her.

“It’s all right,” Lucinda said (though it wasn’t). “You look nice.” Nicer than me. Always nicer than her, even when she’d been locked away in an attic for months and months. There was something aggravating about that, something horribly unfair.

“Thank you.”

For a brief, tense moment, it was silent.

Then their mother cleared her throat. “Well! Why don’t you wait on the steps here and I’ll fetch you an apron?” She didn’t wait for an answer, just hurried off.

Leaving Laurette and Lucinda alone with the girl.

It wasn’t long before Laurette chased after her. Lucinda, with a polite-but-forced smile and wave to Ella, followed suit.

“You said you wouldn’t do that to us,” Laurette said, once they caught up to her.

“Oh. Right, yes. I forgot.” She had the apron in her hands. It was Lucinda’s, white with pink trim. She was staring at it, lost in thought. “It’s all a bit overwhelming,” she admitted after a moment. “Even to me.”

Lucinda put her hand on her mother’s arm. “It’s going perfectly well. You probably did the right thing.”

“No she didn’t,” Laurette snapped. “It should be hard. You’re making a mistake.”

“Laurette, please!” Their mother shook her head. “I’m already worried enough on my own, I don’t need you adding to it.”

“What are we even doing here? You realize we just left her alone?” Laurette’s eyes went wide. “Oh no. She could be headed for the kitchen, the knives . . . oh God.

Their mother moved past them swiftly and headed back the way they came, through the parlor, to the staircase. They exchanged a glance before darting after her.

And there she was. Ella, on the steps, her hand grasping the railing—and it was shaking. She was shaking, she was frail and fragile and holding on to the banister as if for dear life. Laurette was the only one who noticed. Lucinda and their mother, preoccupied with their own thoughts, didn’t realize, didn’t see. But Laurette noticed her hand straightaway, and, for the first time, Ella was, in her eyes . . . human. An actual, breathing person, not a doll, not a beast, not a distant, hazy nightmare. She was real, and in pain, and—in her own way, for her own reasons—as scared and nervous as they were.

Laurette didn’t know what to think.

“Here it is,” their mother said, handing off the apron. Ella took it in her still-trembling hands and hastily put it on. Lucinda offered to tie it, to their mother’s surprise.

When the apron was on, they all stood still for a while, staring at one another, wordless. Finally, their mother handed Ella a list. “These are the chores. Think you can manage?”

She nodded as she looked it over.

“I’ll be with you the whole time, at least today—so if you have any questions, well . . .”

She nodded again. Laurette wondered if she was having trouble speaking, or perhaps was worried her voice would wobble if she dared try—or maybe she was on the verge of tears. The flustered look on her face, the way her hands shook, seemed to support such a theory. She felt bad for her, which was quite strange, really. Sympathizing with the enemy. Ella was a spoiled brat, demanding and cruel, a murderer. She didn’t deserve anyone’s sympathy.

And yet . . .

“If it’s all the same to you,” Lucinda said, “I think I’d like to excuse myself to my bedroom now.”

“That’s fine. I will be here, with Ella, should you need me.”

Lucinda moved toward the stairs, but paused as she approached Ella. Slowly, reluctantly, she slid past her, then raced the rest of the way to the top. When she got to the landing, she stopped and glanced down, making eye contact with Laurette. She mouthed something, gestured for Laurette to follow after. It wasn’t until Ella stepped off the staircase that she finally did so.

“That was a challenge,” Lucinda admitted, once they were back in their room. “I still find her immensely unnerving. There’s something dark about her, some kind of indefinable quality that scares me. Did you see how she looked at my locket?”

“I saw.”

“I’m not entirely sure what Mother’s thinking. I trust her, I do, but . . . it’s just such a risk.

“I know.”

“She may’ve changed—I don’t know. But I’m a bit frightened all the same. Unsettled, more like it. I’m trying, I am. It’s just hard, is all.”

“It is.” Laurette, wringing her hands, finally decided to say it: “Did you notice that she was shaking?”

“Shaking? No, I, uh . . . hmm. Was she really?”

“I’m certain. Saw it with my own two eyes.” She laughed just a little—though more a singular chuckle than a proper laugh. “I wouldn’t have believed it if I hadn’t.”

“How very peculiar. What do you suppose that means? Was she frightened, intimidated?”

“Intimidated? By us? I could hardly fathom such a thing.” Laurette paused, then began to stroll around the room, pacing as she mulled it over. “It’s hard to say the precise cause, of course, but it did make me see her in a different light, I must admit. A more flattering, sympathetic one. She is just a girl—like you, like me. Like Mother was, once. She is young, unfamiliar with the world, unthinking at times perhaps . . . but could we say, with certainty, that we would’ve acted differently if we were in Ella’s shoes? If we were raised as she was, with those parents, those circumstances, that lifestyle? We don’t really know her, and we haven’t made the most honest attempt to change that, now have we?”

“I suppose not.” Lucinda cocked her head to one side, not fully comprehending. “You truly sympathize with her? Based solely on her hands?”

“Oh, don’t be dense, Lucinda. The hands are mere symptoms of a much larger matter. And, as Mother would say, everyone’s deserving of a second chance. In Ella’s case, we barely gave her a first.”

“That’s easier said than done,” Lucinda replied. “I can’t forget what she’s done. And I can’t stop myself from worrying she’ll do it again.”

“Me neither, but still. We ought to at least try this out, if only for Mother’s benefit.” Laurette went to the door, opening it and stepping out. But she paused just long enough to look over her shoulder and add, “Consider what I’ve said, Lucinda. You may feel differently in the morning.”

~

And Ella, to the sisters’ surprise, did seem like a changed girl.

For the next several weeks, she went about doing their chores without complaint, cleaning and polishing and making everything sparkle as her eyes did. She was well-behaved, offering feeble, shy smiles to the girls and their mother, saying good morning and good evening. At dinner, she sat quietly while the others chatted, and on the occasions when her stepmother asked her a question (in some small attempt to involve her in the conversation), she’d reply shortly though politely. Much of the time was spent keeping to herself, keeping out of their way, straining to go unnoticed. Though, in doing so, her stepmother did notice her as being considerate and well-mannered, and as the weeks went by, all began to blithely believe she would never again return to her attic imprisonment.

“It’s really quite strange,” Lucinda mused one night, as she brushed her hair. “I never would’ve imagined she could be so . . . unassuming. Almost mousy. She does her work, says little, never speaks out of turn or offers a cruel word—”

“She’s like a whole other person,” Laurette agreed. “It’s wonderful.”

“Yes, it is. I only hope it lasts.”

Laurette did, too. Odd though it was, she found herself rooting for Ella. She wanted her to get better, to be better. To become the stepsister they’d always wanted. And she was well on her way to achieving that—now it was just a matter of staying low and keeping quiet, as to not spoil things.

It was while Ella was hanging their clothes to dry out in the yard that word first reached them of the ball. It was to be an extravagant occasion, in celebration of their kingdom’s prince, and everyone was welcome to attend—so long as they dressed for the occasion.

“Oh, how exciting!” their mother said as she read to the sisters the invitation. “You know, I’ve heard the prince is seeking an eligible maiden to take as his wife.”

“How fortunate such a maiden would be,” Lucinda said, sighing dramatically. “Living at the palace, becoming queen . . . oh, can you imagine?”

“Perhaps it will be one of you,” their mother said, looking between the two with a prideful grin.

“Oh no, not us,” Laurette replied. “The prince could have any maiden he desired. And, truth be told, he’d almost certainly prefer a girl who looks like—well, like Ella.”

Meanwhile, Ella, unbeknownst to them, had taken a break from the chores and was eavesdropping from the kitchen, her ear pressed against the door. Upon hearing her name, she felt excitement bubble up inside her, so much so that she disregarded all thoughts of proper etiquette and flew out of the kitchen, surprising all three of her housemates.

“I couldn’t help overhearing—a ball? For the prince? Oh, please could I go? I’d ever so like to attend a royal ball. In fact, it’s always been a dream of mine!” She looked to the stepmother hopefully, eagerly.

But the stepmother just stared. “Well, Ella, as nice as that would be, I’m not sure it’s wise to bring you. After, well, everything that’s happened . . . you must understand that I have to be reasonable, and bringing you along right now, when you’ve only just returned from the attic, seems like an unreasonable idea.”

Ella’s face fell, her shoulders drooping and excitement seeping out her in a rush. She’d never felt so disappointed in her life. If she were to have said the first thing that came to her mind, it likely would’ve been an insult; harsh words delivered with only bitterness and no understanding. But she knew lashing out would be a mistake, especially on as fragile ground as she was, so she swallowed her sadness and said instead, “Yes, I understand. Well, perhaps some other time.”

“Perhaps.” The stepmother gave a tight smile. The air was so tense and uncomfortable that Ella quickly excused herself and returned to the chores, a few tears leaking out as she attempted to hang the remainder of laundry.

“I know it’s silly,” Lucinda said later on, as the two sisters convened in their room, “but I feel absolutely awful for Ella.”

“I must admit that a part of me hurt for her, as well.”

“Did you see the look on her face?”

“Sheer devastation,” Laurette said, wincing slightly. “It was painful.”

“I can only imagine how she must feel, hearing all of us discussing it, getting so excited . . . knowing we’ll be going to the palace, perhaps even meeting the prince—I really can’t blame her for being disappointed. Who wouldn’t want to attend?”

“Any girl would.”

“Especially one as pretty as Ella.” Lucinda sighed. “She’d look so lovely in a nice gown, under the palace’s crystal chandeliers . . .”

“It is a pity, Lucinda, but Mother’s already made up her mind,” Laurette pointed out. “She thinks it would be a mistake, and you know Mother has very good judgment.”

“True. I just can’t stop thinking of how sad she looked. And she has been on her very best behavior lately—you noticed it, too.”

“I did. But—”

“She deserves a nice treat, in exchange for all the improvements she’s made. You know, how pleasant she’s become. And anyway,” Lucinda said, with an earnest smile, “it could be just the kind gesture we need, to thaw the iciness between us and become true friends with one another. There’s still such tension and darkness hanging in the air of this house. Wouldn’t you like to change that?”

“Of course. But do you really suppose we could befriend her now? After all that’s happened?”

“I don’t see why not. She has changed, after all. And I’ve decided to forgive her, let bygones be bygones. Haven’t you?”

“Well, yes, I suppose . . .”

“So she should come. We should use the ball as a chance to make amends, express our forgiveness, and get to know this girl who’s been living with us for such a long time.” Lucinda nodded, convinced this was the right thing to do, though still glanced at Laurette for an opinion. “What do you think?”

“I think—as I said before—that Mother’s already made her decision.”

“Well, I’ll ask her to change her mind. She’s a very forgiving person, you know that. I’m sure she’d be willing to listen to me.”

Laurette looked up at the ceiling, toward the attic, now forever linked to Ella in her mind—Ella’s attic, she called it. She considered her sister’s words for quite some time before finally speaking. “If you truly think she’s earned it, and can get Mother to agree, then I won’t argue.”

“Oh good. I’ll ask Mother about it tomorrow.” Lucinda reached over and squeezed her sister’s hand, much the way their mother has squeezed Laurette’s shoulder when Ella had first arrived. “Don’t worry. I just know this is an act of good will we need to make.”

~

Their mother—who also felt terrible about how disappointed Ella had been—quickly converted to Lucinda’s side, and they decided to include Ella after all . . . though no one told her that.

“We should wait until just before the ball, and only extend her the invitation if she has, in the meantime, continued to do her chores and behave well,” their mother reasoned. The girls agreed, and as the days ticked by, Ella—who did indeed complete her chores and mind her manners—was none the wiser.

When the day of the ball finally arrived, the girls stood at the top of the staircase and watched with great big grins as their mother descended the steps and reached Ella, who stood at the bottom, sweeping the foyer.

“Ella,” she said lightly, placing one hand on the girl’s back, “I wanted to let you know that I’ve changed my mind. At the suggestion of Lucinda, I’ve decided that, if you can finish all your chores in time and make sure the house is nice and clean, you may attend the ball with us.”

Ella’s eyes filled first with incredulity, then with a look of utter gratitude and awe. “Thank you,” she breathed, as if she couldn’t quite believe what was happening. The broom almost fell out of her hands, she was so stunned.

Her stepmother laughed. “You have Lucinda to thank—it was all her idea.”

Ella looked over toward the top of the stairs, meeting Lucinda’s gaze. “Thank you,” she repeated. “I . . . I don’t know what to say.”

“You’re welcome.” Lucinda shrugged, as if it were nothing. “You’ve been very nice lately, doing our chores, being polite . . . we’re very appreciative of that, you know. All of us.” She smiled. It was a sincere smile, warm and full of grace. Strangely, it made Ella ache.

She wanted to say sorry. Sorry for how she’d treated them, what she’d put them through, all of it. But she couldn’t find the words. She felt on the verge of tears as it was, and she didn’t know why—was gratitude alone enough to provoke tears? Or was it her guilt flaring up again, telling her she wasn’t worthy of such a gesture? She couldn’t tell.

So she just said the only thing she could, once again: “Thank you.”

Then she brushed her eyes with the back of her hand to squelch any tears, smiled at her stepmother and stepsisters with a look of sincerity all her own, and returned to her chores. She finished quickly, wanting to allot herself another time to find something to wear. As soon as she was done, she rushed up the stairs to go through her dresses, passing Lucinda and Laurette on the way. “I’m so excited,” she told them, unable to suppress her grin. Her mind was full of pleasant thoughts, of meeting the prince, of seeing the palace, of dancing and laughing and finally forgetting all her worries, all her troubles, if just for the night.

She searched through her dresses in a frenzied hurry, desperate for just the right one. She found a lavender gown tucked away behind all the others, the most formal dress she owned. Her father had bought it for her shortly after his remarriage, when Ella had complained about how he’d sold off all her mother’s clothing. “I know this isn’t your mother’s ballgown,” he’d said, “but I hope you’ll accept it as the next best thing.” Seeing it now made her feel tremendous grief, for both her parents—but she knew it was the right thing to wear.

After slipping it on, she looked in the mirror and smiled at her reflection. She reminded herself of her mother, standing there, wearing what had been her mother’s favorite color.

Next she tended to her hair, carefully arranging it and then weaving flowers she’d picked from the gardens throughout; since she did not have any rouge, she pinched her cheeks to give them color, and rubbed ink on her eyelashes to make them stand out. When she was done, she emerged triumphant, feeling like a new person. She could hear voices downstairs and hurriedly descended the steps to join the others, realizing it was almost time to leave.

Lucinda and Laurette stood by the door, each fussing with the other’s dress. Their mother watched, laughing and chatting with them. When they heard Ella approaching them, they turned to look—and quickly, each of their expressions changed. All three looked stunned, mesmerized. Lucinda had to cover her gaping mouth with her hand; Laurette’s eyes were the size of saucers.

“Oh Ella,” their mother said, beaming, “you look beautiful.

“Absolutely breathtaking,” Lucinda agreed.

“All eyes’ll be on you—guaranteed.”

“Thank you,” Ella said. She had a bright smile on her face, but it didn’t last. It fell away as soon as she saw Lucinda’s hair—because there, smack at the base of her drab brunette bun, was a familiar pin.

Ella was overtaken by several different emotions. The first was anger. What nerve, wearing that godforsaken pin, an accessory that had led to the death of Ella’s father and the beginning of Ella’s year-long imprisonment. How dare she.

The second was a feeling she’d been repressing for quite some time, the red-hot resentment toward the stepmother and her daughters—something Ella had foolishly believed she’d moved past. Not quite. It was still there, it had just been buried and hidden away. But now, it came back to the surface, bubbling up with a renewed intensity. This family was the cause of her grief, her guilt, the physical manifestation of the ruination of her own family. Suddenly she remembered why she despised them, all of them.

The third thing she felt, standing there, glaring at that hairpin, was envy. Cold, clear envy. That hairpin should’ve been hers. Lucinda and Laurette already had everything—why did they need more? What right did they have? She was the one who’d witnessed her mother’s belongings being sold off, who’d been imprisoned in an attic, who did their chores without complaint. She was the one who deserved the hairpin. And anyway, it would look so much better on her.

“Give it to me,” she said, her eyes never leaving that pin, as shiny and beguiling as ever.

“What?” Lucinda looked surprised, then saddened. She reached up and touched the hairpin reflectively. “Ella . . .”

“I want it. And if anyone’s going to wear it, it should be me.” She looked from Lucinda to Laurette to their mother, searching for someone who would agree. “All right?”

“That’s Lucinda’s hairpin,” their mother said, in the soft, slow voice one might use when explaining something basic to a child. “I gave it to her. It’s not yours, Ella. And your hair looks lovely as it is, with all those pretty flowers—”

“I don’t want the flowers, I want the hairpin!” she shrieked. She started pulling the flowers from her hair with both hands, yanking them out and throwing them to a floor, till a mound of petals formed at her feet.

“Ella, please, don’t do this. Not again.”

“I deserve it! That hairpin belongs to me!” She stormed over to Lucinda in long, swift strides, reaching for the pin. The stepmother moved toward her, but she dodged her with ease, zeroing in on the stepsister with a look of complete determination. She grabbed the pin before anyone could stop her, pulling it roughly from Lucinda’s hair, who squealed in pain. Then, just as swiftly, she took the sharp side of the pin and dragged it down Lucinda’s cheek, digging in as hard as she could. A trail of blood was left in its wake.

“No, don’t do that!” their mother cried, struggling to pull Ella away.

Lucinda was screaming, sobbing; Ella barely noticed. Laurette pulled her sister away, attempting to console her in between shooting glares at Ella.

The stepmother tried to grab the hairpin, but Ella chucked the blood-covered thing over her shoulder before she could; it landed in the distance with a resounding, metallic clang.

“You horrible, horrible girl!” Laurette shouted as Lucinda sobbed into her shoulder. Even with her face hidden, it was clear Lucinda was bleeding profusely—already, Laurette’s shoulder was soaked through with crimson.

Ella looked up at the stepmother and for a single, solitary moment, they just stared at each other. The stepmother’s face was contorted into a look of confusion, betrayal, and fury; Ella’s was calm, expressionless. Eerily so.

Then the stepmother grabbed Ella’s shoulders and led her away, up the stairs and down the hall, up more stairs, all the way to the attic. Once there, the stepmother shoved her toward her bed, no longer caring about being gentle or kind. There was a darkness in her eyes now, a rage that hadn’t been there before, and a void where her sympathy had been. “You can forget about the ball,” she said stonily, staring down at Ella with her hands on her hips. “You’ll stay here, in this attic, for the rest of eternity.” With that, she turned around and stalked away, slamming the attic door behind her.

Ella looked toward the door, through the lightless dark of the attic. She could hear Lucinda crying downstairs. Then voices. It wasn’t till a while later that she heard them leave. A silence fell over the home, tense and strange. She rocked back and forth on the bed.

She wanted her parents.

And it was this latest desire—to visit with her parents—that made her walk to the window, curl the blanket of her bed around her fist to soften the blow, and punch straight through it. She watched the glass shatter, the sound oddly satisfying. Then she leaned out, crawled over to a nearby tree, and pushed herself onto one of its thick, strong branches. She climbed all the way down the tree, to the yard, then came around the front of the house and slipped away by cover of night.

~

She didn’t bother to glance back as she took off down a dirt road to the town cemetery. She knew just where it was; after her mother’s death, she’d gone there many times, at first with her father and later by herself. She’d stand over the grave and talk to her sometimes, until she came to the gloomy conclusion that her mother couldn’t hear her, that speaking to her tombstone was child’s play. She stopped going altogether soon after.

She wasn’t entirely sure why she needed to go now, or what she hoped to gain. But if she could not go to the ball, she’d do something, at least. She’d get out of that house, that attic, and she’d make the most of her evening, even if all that meant was paying her respects to a slab of stone.

When she arrived there, it was dark and rather eery, a flat piece of land filled with statues of angels and crucifixes among the headstones; the neighboring forest’s towering trees loomed above her, judgmental and regal all at once—like the prince, I’d imagine, she thought drearily, though I guess I’ll never know.

She found her father’s grave beside her mother’s, just as promised. Seeing their names inscribed in the stone made her ache. It all felt too real, suddenly. She wondered if she’d be there some day, her body buried next to theirs. Did she even deserve that?

She wanted to say something but she didn’t, worried they wouldn’t hear, worried that they would. Anyway, she didn’t want to act a fool, not then, not when she already felt that, if she tried to speak, she’d be reduced to sobs. And she hated to cry.

So instead, she stood between their graves, her head lowered in solemn appreciation. She was vaguely aware of, but not all that concerned by, another person in the cemetery; this was a girl a few years older than Ella, and she was on the way to the ball, it seemed, dressed in a pale green gown and long gloves, standing over a grave and bowing her head in a like manner. Silent. They were the only two living souls anywhere in sight, and it was peaceful, right then, if melancholy.

Ella stayed like that for a while—wordlessly paying her respects—until she heard footsteps behind her. They came nearer and nearer until, finally, she could ignore them no longer and turned around to see who was approaching—

Her eyes went wide. The woman was . . . no no, she wasn’t quite Ella’s mother, her bone structure and features were harsher, her eyes more curved and amber instead of blue, and she was taller and gaunt—but the resemblance was striking. It took Ella’s breath away.

She smiled as she walked over, taking her place by Ella’s side. She put a hand on Ella’s shoulder, who then, in turn, pulled away—”what are you doing?” she asked. “Do I know you?”

“I guess you could say that.” The woman smirked. Even her smile was like Ella’s mother. “What if I told you I’m a friend? And I’m here to help?”

“Tell me your name first.”

“Unimportant,” she replied, waving the request away with a flick of her hand. “And you needn’t tell me yours, Ella.”

She squinted. “How do you know—?”

“You want to go to the ball, don’t you?”

She didn’t think, just answered honestly: “More than anything.”

“Good. I wish to assist.” There was a glint to her eyes, a devious spark, flickering like candlelight.

“You’re a witch, aren’t you?” Ella whispered. She was afraid of the answer.

The woman leaned in close and seized Ella’s head in her hands, turning it with a harsh yank and putting her lips against Ella’s ear: “Tonight, you are not just Ella, the spoiled brat, the murderer, the ingrate. Tonight, you are a tragic victim, a maiden trapped in a tower, a charming, martyred beauty. Do you understand?”

She tried to nod but the woman’s grip on her made it difficult. “Let me go,” she said, “please.

“Please! Good! That’s precisely what a tragic victim might say.” She released Ella’s head. “See? It’s already going well for you.”

Rubbing at her aching jaw, Ella asked, “You mean to say I should become this . . . this character, and—?”

“You know what I mean.” That smirk again. “Oh, the prince will adore you.”

“I can’t go to the ball,” Ella said. “Look at me. I’ve nothing to wear. I tore my dress on the walk over, and I don’t have any nice slippers like yours . . .”

“Think nothing of it.” The woman leaned forward and felt around behind the grave of Ella’s father. She produced, as if from thin air, a pair of jet-black slippers that sparkled like glass. “These will suit you just fine.”

Knowing better than to question this good fortune, Ella took off her current pair and put on the woman’s—or the witch’s—version. “They’re stunning,” she mused, twisting this way and that to admire them.

“Aren’t they? Of course, there’s still the matter of your dress . . . and you see, sometimes, we have to make our own luck. If you’re really determined to get to the ball, I’m sure you won’t mind.”

Ella cocked her head to one side. “What do you mean?”

With that same frightening glint in her eye, the woman bent down and picked up a long branch that had snapped off from one of the nearby, towering trees. She handed it to Ella. “Use this,” she said. “Don’t even think twice.”

“I don’t understand—”

Her,” the woman said, exasperated. She jutted her chin in the direction of the only other person in the cemetery, the young girl standing by the grave, quietly crying into her gloves. “Isn’t her dress lovely? It’d fit you perfectly.”

Ella’s eyes went wide. “You can’t be suggesting I take it from her.”

“Yes, actually, I am.”

“But she’s wearing it! How ever would I—?”

“The branch, the branch. Must I spell it out for you?”

Ella looked down at the tree branch in her hands, then back toward the girl. She did want to go to the ball . . .

“So it’s settled then,” the woman said, as if reading her mind.

“Even if I do take the dress, how will I get there?”

“Your horse, naturally.” The witch nodded behind them, toward the trail Ella had used to get to the cemetery. There, smack in the middle, was a shining horse. Quite eerily, the stallion resembled her childhood Friesian, the horse her father had been forced to sell when their money had dried up; only this horse didn’t look quite normal, for lack of a better term—at first, it was hard to discern why, but upon closer inspection, his eyes were red (bright red, startling and reminiscent of hellfire), and his large dark body wasn’t quite there, it seemed to fade in and out, and if you stared closely enough, you could almost see straight through him.

“Until the stroke of midnight, and not a moment later, that horse—and everything else—is all yours,” the witch said. “Even the girl’s dress. All you have to do is—”

“—reach for it and grab ahold.” Her mother used to say the same thing, about life, about opportunity. The words made a chill creep up her spine.

“But what if—” she started, but when she turned, the witch had vanished. Gone in a flash. As if she was never there to begin with.

She turned to glance at the girl, minding her own business at the other side of the cemetery. With the branch in hand, she approached her.

~

The dress really was lovely. And her hair was long enough to cover the bloodstain at the back of the collar, so that was good. Seeing that flash of red, she almost felt bad—it’d been so easy, too easy really; the girl had never even turned around and one hit with the branch was all it took, though she threw in another two for good measure . . . but Ella deserved the dress. And the ball. It was hers for the taking, and she wasn’t one to let opportunity slip by.

So she rode the frightening, red-eyed black horse to the ball. The animal, by some strange magic she didn’t understand, knew the way; all she had to was climb on and tap her heels against it, and off the horse ran, speeding at a fast clip toward the palace.

She felt wonderful, as though she’d a won a game that had been rigged against her. And things only got better once she arrived. The palace was something to behold even from just the outside, luxurious and stunning, straight out of one of her novels. It towered above the kingdom as though it were too good to even be on the same level as peasants’ homes and the drab little shops. It was white with gold flourishes, including row after row of shiny gold steps leading to the entrance, where townspeople and visiting royals were flocking. She looked up at with wide, awestruck eyes, amazed she was really there, about to enter; it all felt surreal.

She climbed off the horse and left it at the edge of the wood, wandering toward the palace in a stupor. The edges of her mouth ticked up in a small, gleeful smile. There was not a word to adequate enough to describe how she felt, though enchanted came to mind, or perhaps even bewitched.

I want to live here, she thought as she climbed the steps, her hand sliding along the rail. I deserve it.

She thought back to her mother’s words: Reach out and grab ahold, Ella. You can have anything you want in this life if you only try.

She licked her lips, a determination like none before sinking in.

Everyone turned to stare at her as the guards waved her through, as she entered that palace, as regal and mighty as anything she’d ever seen. She did look quite striking, her hair fashionably windswept from the ride over, falling in waves down her back. And the dress was better than the plain old lavender thing she’d planned to wear.

Now all she had to do was avoid the stepmother and her wretched daughters, find the prince, and leave behind an impression strong enough to grant her all her wildest wishes.

How hard could that be?

~

Lucinda spotted him, from across the ballroom. The prince himself, in the flesh, dressed in white and gold and with dark hair coiffed quite neatly. She sucked in her breath at the sight of him, suddenly feeling nervous and unworthy.

“Laurette,” she whispered, leaning toward her sister, “look!

Laurette gazed at him but said nothing. When she did finally speak, it was just to say, “You really needn’t whisper, he can’t hear you from all the way over here.”

“I know, but—”

“Lucinda, I want to feel excited to be here, but I can’t seem to get past what happened. Ella won’t leave my head. She’s insidious, that one.”

Lucinda reflectively touched her cheek—you could, if you looked closely enough, see the mark where the hairpin had cut her. She flinched slightly at the memory. “The whole incident’s still with me, also. But I’m trying to keep her at bay.”

“Yes, that really is the best course of action. We can’t let her ruin any more of this night, after all.”

“Precisely.” She paused. “Do you think I should approach him?”

“The prince?” Laurette’s eyes widened. “I never would’ve guessed you could be so bold!”

“Well, I can’t exactly wait the entire night for him to approach me.” She straightened her dress, her eyes never leaving His Highness. “I’ll do it if you say I should.”

“It’s your decision, Lucinda. Don’t ask for my guidance.”

“Why? Would I dislike it?”

“Perhaps.”

“You don’t think I stand a chance, do you?”

“It’s not that,” Laurette said quickly. “It’s just . . . he’ll meet so many girls tonight, all of them more beautiful than the last, and rather than fight for the attention of one prince you’ve never met, perhaps you should find a different boy—one who’s really, truly interested in you, and just you.”

“Yes, but Laurette, this is my only chance to speak to him. I can’t help thinking that maybe, just maybe . . .” She trailed off. Her eyes were still fixed on him across the room, and there was a hunger and a desperation to her words.

“You should go, then.” Laurette’s voice was flat, like she was making a concession.

Finally, Lucinda looked at her—her brows raised high up onto her forehead, lips forming a small O of surprise. “Really?”

“Yes. It’s what you want. It is, like you said, your best chance.” She nodded. “Go. Don’t let me stop you.”

Lucinda gave her sister a quick hug before walking into the crowd, toward the prince; she rolled her shoulders back and tilted her chin up with pride, feeling, for a rare moment, completely content with herself. Sure, there was a faint, barely-visible cut on her face from Ella’s attack, and maybe she didn’t look as pretty as some of the other girls in attendance—but she was pleased nonetheless, with her dress, with how her hair was styled, with everything.

The prince was standing among a gaggle of girls, each vying for him with tight, practiced smiles and wide eyes. He was looking between them with a confident smirk, speaking in a hushed voice. Each girl was objectively prettier than Lucinda—she recognized this but did not let it deter her. Growing closer to the group, she could feel the nerves kick in.

“Your Highness?” she said, in a soft, mousy voice.

He looked away from the group of girls and met Lucinda’s gaze—and quickly, his smile faded. “Oh,” he said, sounding distinctly disappointed.

“I’d like to introduce myself.” Her voice wobbled—his reaction was not exactly what she was hoping for. “I’m Lucinda, one of your townspeople.”

“Mm. Charmed, I’m sure . . .” He sounded bored. Turning back toward the girls flanking him, he whispered in one of their ears. She giggled in turn.

Lucinda’s cheeks turned a bright shade of red. “I—I wanted to ask if you’d like to dance?” It was not customary for the girls to ask the boys, and normally Lucinda wouldn’t dream of such a thing, but the moment presented itself and even though he had so far been . . . less than charming, she felt she had to try.

“No,” he said, quick enough to make it clear he needn’t have given it any thought. He gestured toward the girls—his girls, it seemed. “You must understand that I have immensely high standards in all aspects of my life, not least of which the girls I choose to grace with my presence.”

Now it was her turn to say “oh” in a disappointed voice. She stood there and watched wordlessly as he turned back toward his group, and began telling them some type of exciting story—with them hanging on each word.

When Lucinda did not walk away, however, he stopped abruptly and turned to glare. “Well? Is there anything else you feel compelled to say?”

The girls giggled. Lucinda’s face grew redder.

She stuttered out some sort of apology, then turned and ran away, back toward Laurette. There were tears in her eyes.

“Lucinda! What happened?” Laurette asked, but Lucinda just shook her head.

“It’s too awful . . . I feel so embarrassed.” She shook her head, her hands covering both eyes in hopes no one would notice she was crying.

Laurette looked at her with pity. She didn’t need to hear exactly what happened—that much, she could figure out on her own. “I’m so sorry.”

Lucinda let out a small sob, and the two girls hurried away to the rear of the ballroom, where Lucinda could cry in peace.

~

Ella bided her time for a long while before finally seeing the two horrendous stepsisters fleeing to the back of the ballroom. Now was her chance, and she wouldn’t waste it.

She walked toward the prince with delicate, ladylike steps, careful to make herself seem as though she were floating. He was surrounded by girls, she noticed, but none were as pretty as her—they didn’t even come close.

As she arrived in front of him, he was deep in the midst of recounting a story, and though it was likely fascinating (he was a prince, after all—surely everything about him was fascinating), she didn’t care to hear the end. She cleared her throat, demanding his attention as subtly as she could.

He stopped. He looked up. He saw her, and his face gave away exactly how impressed he was.

“Oh—” he said, unable to finish the thought. He looked utterly stunned, as if he’d just seen an angel.

She smiled, pleased with his reaction—it was even better than she thought it would be. “Hello there, Your Highness.”

“Forgive me for saying so, but you are the most beautiful girl I’ve ever seen.” He stepped closer to her, forgetting about his others girls in an instant; they stared at his back in dismay, silently pleading to be noticed. Surely they know they can’t compete, Ella thought smugly, offering the prince a faux-shy smile.

“Thank you, Your Highness. I’ve never been so flattered in my life.”

“Would you like to dance?” he asked her, a tinge of desperation to his voice.

She paused a moment as though thinking this over, determined to make him wait. “Well, I suppose I could, if you’d like.”

“It would be an honor.” He grinned and offered his hand.

They took to the center of the ballroom, all eyes squarely on them—some envious, some awestruck. Ella had never felt better.

. . . of course, a part of her was a bit worried, concerned their prominence—standing right in the middle of the room, the crowds having parted to make space for them, with everyone staring—would catch the attention of the stepmother or sisters. And she couldn’t have that—they’d spoil all the fun.

Still, she was not going to allow them to ruin her night.

“You’re almost unbearably beautiful,” the prince said. They began to dance—slowly, though not stiffly. “Look at how everyone stares at you.”

“Well, some of them may be looking at you, as well.” (Though she doubted that.) “You’re quite a nice dancer.”

“Thank you.” He paused a moment before adding, “Who are you? I must know.”

“Me? Oh, I’m . . .” She thought back to the witch’s words in the cemetery. A fictitious, tragic backstory began to take shape in her mind. “Well, you see, I’m really Ella, but I’ve been going by Cinderella for quite some time now. I have a wicked family—a stepmother and two ugly stepsisters, corrupted by envy—who make me clean their home top to bottom each day. The sisters began calling me Cinderella as a mocking term, as I would clean out the fireplace cinders. Sad to say the name’s stuck.” She looked away dramatically, mustering up a few fake tears and biting her lip as though to keep from crying. “The past few years have not been so kind to me. They’ve locked me in an attic and treated me terribly. I’m not sure how much longer I can stand their cruelty . . .”

“You poor thing,” the prince said. “How could they ever bestow such indecent treatment upon someone as beautiful as you?”

“I ask myself that every day.”

“Evil beasts, all of them. To hide away your beauty is a crime against humanity.” He reached out and touched her face, wiping a stray strand of gold hair behind one ear. She was surprised, though not entirely bothered, by his forwardness.

“Let’s go outside,” he said after a moment, “away from this place and these prying eyes. Wouldn’t you prefer some privacy?”

“Why yes, I would.” She smiled up at him as he led her out of the ballroom.

There was a chill outside, but he wrapped an arm around her to keep her from the cold. As they strolled past rosebushes and lollipop trees, he continued to extol her beauty (albeit by use of odd nature comparisons and silly wording): “Your eyes, they’re as green as fresh-cut grass! Your hair is like a yellow waterfall! And that waist—I don’t think I’ve ever seen a waist smaller than yours!”

“Thank you,” she replied to each compliment, until she’d said the two words so often that they began to lose all meaning. She opted then to shift the conversation back to her tortured home life: “I was almost unable to come tonight, you see. My stepmother and stepsisters forbade it. Thank goodness  I was able to escape! Otherwise, we would never have met.”

“And what a tragedy that would’ve been,” he said, shuddering at the thought. “You’re the most beautiful girl I’ve ever seen.”

Yes, you’ve said so a million times, she thought (but didn’t dare say). “Thank you.”

“We need to free you from that wicked house, free you from that wicked mother and her daughters,” he announced.

Finally! She smiled, pleased he had said, at long last, exactly what she’d wanted to hear. “Yes, we really must, mustn’t we? But how?”

“You will come here, to the palace, and be my wife.”

She paused. The idea, of course, wasn’t a bad one—living at the palace was precisely what she wanted—but it did, in practice, all seem a little . . . fast. After all, she knew nothing of the prince beyond the fact that he thought she was beautiful, and any sane person in the ballroom would’ve said the same thing.

“Well, yes, that could work,” she said. “Perhaps we could marry in a few months, or a year—”

“No,” he said. “Now. We will marry before the week’s end. I must have you.”

She suppressed the urge to cringe and smiled blithely instead. (She could always kill him after they married.) “All right,” she said. “If you save me from that wretched attic, I will be yours. But there’s something else I want.”

“I can’t deny someone as beautiful as you anything short of the moon.”

“I don’t just want to leave my step-family behind—I want them to suffer.” She tilted her head to one side. “Can I make them suffer once I’m your wife?”

“Of course!” he said glibly, disturbingly undisturbed by her plans.

“Oh, wonderful! Then alert the palace bakers, they have a wedding cake to prepare.” She looked up at the starless black sky, feeling victorious. It had all been so surprisingly easy that she couldn’t help wondering if—

She noticed the clocktower suddenly. 11:57. Her stomach dropped—what was it the witch had said? That she must return by the stroke of midnight? She didn’t know what would happen if she didn’t, but she also knew she didn’t want to find out.

“I—I have to go,” she said, rushing back toward the ballroom.

“What? But we’ve all just gotten engaged!”

“I know, but—I’m sorry, I can’t stay . . .”

He grabbed her arm, holding her back. “Tell me why.”

“It’s a dreadfully long story, and it wouldn’t make much sense to you anyway.” She pulled her arm away. “If you really want me, you’ll come find me.”

With that, she fled back through the ballroom, out the entryway, and down the gold steps. She thought she could hear the prince scrambling after her, but she did not stop to look.

When she reached the last step, one of her shoes fell off. An idea occurred to her suddenly.

“You there,” she said to one of the palace servants, who stood idly by the stairs. “Take this shoe and give it to the prince. Tell him it’s a token of Cinderella’s affection, and that he can find me at the other side of the wood, the big house a short ways from the town cemetery. All right?”

The servant nodded, taking the shoe and promptly running up the steps to deliver the message. Ella, satisfied with herself, climbed atop her demon horse and rode back the way she came, grinning all the while.

~

Shortly after two in the morning, the stepmother peered inside the attic. She was seemingly unaware Ella had ever left, and thankfully it was too dark for her to see the broken glass of the window on the floor.

When she left, Ella—who was, unbeknownst to the stepmother, lying awake in bed—smirked to herself. Just a little longer, she told herself. I only have to wait a little longer. Then my prince will come, and all of them will pay dearly.

She could hardly wait.

~

The next morning arrived as unassuming as any. Lucinda barely touched her breakfast, still miserable over her humiliating encounter from the night before. Laurette, who enjoyed parties but was never swept away by extravagance, would’ve felt largely indifferent if it weren’t for Lucinda, whose experience made her feel secondhand anger and bitterness.

“He had no right to treat you that way,” she said at the breakfast table. “No right at all.”

“I heard he met a girl last night, the most beautiful girl in the kingdom, and that they shared a dance. Did you see that?”

“No. Probably just a rumor.” Laurette chuckled. “You have to wonder how these things get started.”

Ella, meanwhile, stared at the attic ceiling, wondering how much longer she’d be stuck there. She wasn’t sure how much more of her step-family’s buffoonery she could stand. Still, it was nice, making preparations for her new life outside the attic. It was the first time she’d planned things in . . . years, it seemed.

She did not receive breakfast that morning, which annoyed her deeply. How dare she toy with me like that, she thought of the stepmother, scowling. It’s one thing to lock me in the attic, but to withhold food now, too? Because of the hairpin? She’s such a drab, bitter old thing . . .

As the hours melted away, Laurette and Lucinda talked endlessly—about the party, the prince, and eventually, Ella.

“I’ll never know what got into her,” Lucinda said, shaking her head. “She’d been making such progress, too! It’s astounding how quickly she ruined it all.”

“I should never have let myself trust her,” Laurette replied. “I knew better. Well, I won’t make that mistake twice.”

“Me neither.”

There was a knock at the door then, the very knock Ella had been anticipating all day. The sisters glanced toward it with mutual wariness.

“Mother, are we expecting someone?” Lucinda called.

From the next room, their mother emerged, wiping her hands on an apron. “Expecting someone? No.”

“Well, there was a knock—”

“Yes, I heard. How odd.” She walked to the door with a confused look on her face. “Who is it?”

A haughty voice replied that it was the prince and his men on the other side; the girls’ mother glanced over her shoulder to exchange with them a baffled expression as she opened it.

Sure enough, a small crowd of guards and other men in official palace garb stood on the other side. And there, among them all, sitting on a noble white horse, was the prince.

Lucinda’s hurt feelings toward him vanished in an instant as she ran to the door, desperate for a look. Laurette watched it all from afar, the only one with any shred of caution—a concern that would turn out to be quite justified.

“His Highness is seeking a young maiden who lives here,” the haughty-voiced man said. “He met her last night, at the ball. She wore this slipper.” He held up a single glossy black shoe; it sparkled as it caught the light. “She came to him and introduced herself early in the evening.”

“And she lived at this house? You’re certain?” their mother asked.

The man nodded.

“I introduced myself to the prince early in the evening,” Lucinda said, a bit sheepishly. “Perhaps I’m who you’re looking for?”

The men turned to the prince for confirmation. He gave a resolute shake of his head. “Definitely not.”

Lucinda’s face fell.

“I doubt she could even fit into that slipper,” he added, chuckling to himself.

The haughty-voiced man, perhaps taking pity, extended it to her. “Would you like to try?”

She stared down at it with wide, excited eyes. It was the most beautiful shoe she’d ever seen. “Yes, I would, actually . . .” Carefully, she slipped off the shoe she was wearing and the man holding the black slipper fell to one knee to help her put it on; she wiggled her toes around as she tried to squeeze her foot inside, but it was impossibly narrow and oddly constructed, as if made for a doll’s foot. Her face contorted into a look of frustration as she attempted to shimmy into it.

“Why on earth are we allowing this absurdity?” the prince asked. “It’s not going to fit. And even if it did, she’s most certainly not the girl I spent the evening with.”

A murmur passed through the group. The haughty-voiced man abruptly pulled the shoe away, causing Lucinda to nearly fall in the process.

And during all of this, upstairs in the attic, Ella was busy going quietly mad.

She’d heard the knock. She could hear their voices in the distance–even, she believed, the prince’s voice, once or twice. Certainly she heard the voices of Lucinda and the stepmother, familiar fiends that they were. And while all of them convened and chatted, she, the one the prince really wanted to see, was hidden from sight and trapped, pounding fruitlessly against the attic door. “I’m in here! I’m in here!”

It was no use; they would not hear.

She couldn’t see out, either, the single, newly-broken window of the attic overlooking the backyard rather than the front. All she had to go on was their voices, which were muffled and far away. Her mind went wild with possible scenarios—was the stepmother harassing the prince? Lying to him about Ella? Were the sisters vying desperately for his attention, throwing themselves at him like pitiful fools? Of course they stood no chance at winning his affections, but they were liable to scare him off. And that couldn’t happen—he was her one chance at freedom, and more importantly, revenge.

So she continued to pound her fists against the door. “Help! Help, I’m in here! Let me out!”

Back downstairs, one of the men approached the stepmother and queried her, “Do you have any other maidens living here?”

“Well, there’s my other daughter, Laurette. She also attended the ball last night.” She waved over Laurette, who’d been hanging back by the staircase with obvious hesitation. She slowly walked to the door and peered out—but the prince took one look and just as quickly ruled her out.

“Any other girls, then?” the man asked.

The prince piped up, “I believe the maiden I met said something about being a servant? Though it’s hard to recall; I was barely listening.”

The stepmother paused, considering this. “Well, there is one . . . but I know for certain she was not in attendance last night. It’s not possible.”

“We’d like to meet her,” the man replied. “Just to be sure.”

“That’s really not a good idea—you see, she’s dangerous.”

Lucinda pointed to the cut on her face, adding, “She gave me this just last night.”

“She’s very unstable,” Laurette added. “I would advise against trusting her, under any circumstance.”

“Well, I’m not searching for the most sane girl in the kingdom, am I?” the prince said. “I’m searching for the most beautiful. Now bring her to me this instant.”

But they didn’t have to—because, right at that exact moment, Ella appeared. She was a bit messy, having climbed down the tree to escape the attic in the same way she had the night before—but still, somehow, looked beautiful. “Your Highness?” she called, in a humble voice that sounded nothing like her.

His eyes lit up when she saw her. She walked right past the stepmother and sisters and out to the front of the house, standing before his horse and staring up at him admiringly. “You found me!” It took all her effort to muster up a smile and look of amazement. In truth, she found him quite unbearable—but who was she to question such terrific fortune?

He quickly climbed off his horse to embrace her, as the men of the palace and Ella’s stunned step-family looked on. “Of course I found you, Cinderella,” he said, drinking her in. “How could I let someone as beautiful as you just slip off into the night?”

Inwardly, she winced, but outwardly, she enthused, “Such a romantic!”

There was a moment of quiet, like the calm before the storm, as Ella and the prince stood gazing at one another. Then she turned toward Laurette, Lucinda and their mother with a suddenly businesslike demeanor, and said simply, “I want all three of them brought to your dungeon for their terrible behavior.”

“That won’t be a problem.” He gestured toward the step-family as he barked orders at his guards, and the shock on their faces as they were dragged away made all that Ella had to endure almost worth it.

Almost.

~

Two months later, Princess Ella—or Cinderella, if you please—walked down a long, narrow, darkened staircase to a series of equally dark jail cells.

It was icy cold there, in that basement dungeon, and usually quiet—unless the prisoners started to scream. They sometimes did, just to be annoying. Then again, she’d probably scream too if she were imprisoned there.

As she did each week, Princess Ella walked the length of the dungeon—clad in a special pair of inky black slippers—to the final three cells. In each one was a member of her step-family—the mother, Laurette, and Lucinda. They were by themselves but the cells were right next to each other, so they could speak—if not see—one another if they really wanted. She didn’t have to put them so close together, but Princess Ella was merciful that way.

Their stay at the palace jail didn’t appear to be agreeing with them—their faces were streaked with dirt, limbs bruised, hair a mess. Thinner than they had been, a bit underweight even. She might’ve pitied them if she didn’t hate them so dearly.

“Hello,” she said, with a beaming smile. They stared at her, their faces blank. “You do look rather awful today, don’t you? Well, no matter. I’ve just come to tell you that the palace is an absolutely wondrous place to live! It’s so big and grand—each day, I discover a new room I never knew about before. My life truly is a fairy tale, and you know the best part?” When they didn’t respond, she answered her own question: “I get to do absolutely anything I want—including enact my revenge.

“Now don’t look at me like that—you’d do the same thing if you were in my shoes. You know you would. Of course, I don’t plan on keeping you here forever—no, that would just be needlessly cruel, wouldn’t it? Complete and utter overkill. So, don’t you worry, as soon as I feel justice has been served, and you’ve been punished as much as you deserve, I’ll be putting you out of your misery—by having you executed. That should give you something to look forward to!

“I really must go now. Being a princess is quite busy work, especially with a needy prince of a husband to entertain . . . though, just between you and me, he won’t be around too much longer. Don’t tell anyone, all right? Not that they’d listen to you, anyway.” She giggled. “So I’ll be back here next week, as always. You can count on it.”

Then she turned around and marched back down the hallway. As she did, Laurette and Lucinda caught sight of something shiny in her gold ringlets.

It was a hairpin.