Maybe that was for the best. Even if she looked good in the second-hand dress and expired makeup she had upstairs, she’d ruin it by donning her bike helmet and pedaling over the puddled streets. Then she’d spend the night hovering near one conversation after another, forcing laughs so someone would smile her way.
Bethany shuffled to the front step and sank down on the shattered concrete. She was like Cinderella, toiling for crumbs, sleeping in the ashes. If fairy tales were anything to go by, her fairy godmother would appear right now on the lower step. She’d give Bethany a dress made of moonlight, slippers that sparkled like diamonds, and a golden carriage to whisk her away. When Bethany swept through the double doors of the gym, the dancers would go as still as statues, transfixed. From across the room, her prince would spot her. They’d lock eyes in a perfect moment that would feel like forever. Then instead of making a new home from a cardboard box on her 18th birthday, she would get married and live happily ever after. Bethany sighed. As if. She couldn’t even get a date.
As she propped her head on her hands, a shard of concrete jabbed into her leg. Bethany winced and shifted, then paused. Something peeked out from the crevice between the concrete and the lawn. She reached for it, and it tumbled farther down. Bethany reached farther into the hole, grimacing as she felt the wet roots and wriggling worms in the crumbling concrete. She grabbed something smooth, and pulled out a small, narrow wooden box. It must have fallen off the step. A soiled note was taped to one side: For Bethany, you need this more than I do. The fosters left her a key. Her evening was saved!
She cracked the lid open. The hinge creaked faintly as it lifted, releasing wisps of ancient dust. Inside, a sunken bed of velvet cradled a tarnished hat pin. The pin’s point stabbed through a bunch in the lining, emerging to be cuffed by a metallic cap. Under a crown of glinting rhinestones, a delicate ivory mask shrouded the pin’s head. Fine lines in the ivory curled into eyebrows. Violet embers watched from within shadowed eyes.
That was not a house key. Why would someone give it to her? She tilted the box and read the calligraphy scrawled under the lid:
Is your path lonely?
For this night only
Challenge the fates
One strike of the pin
One drop to begin
Your lover awaits
Set guards on your heart
Your paths lead apart
On hearing the bell
Ere twelve the clocks shift
Pass onward this gift
Say your farewell
Heed lest you forget
The mask claims a debt
That soon comes due
To rekindle the eyes
For eternal reprise
The task falls on you
This had to be a joke. Someone thought if they left her a fancy poem and something pointy, she’d stick herself a dozen times while they got a good laugh. Maybe it was that kid that glared at her in history class or one of the coworkers that flicked fries at her back. Bethany stood up and glanced around, searching for the jerk who left this for her. The street glistened in silence. The surrounding houses were dark, the ragged lawns empty. She was alone on the deserted block. If this was a trick, the trickster was long gone.
Could this be her fairy tale?
No tales were told about people who did nothing. Aladdin didn’t have to use the lamp. The little mermaid didn’t have to bargain with the sea witch. If they hadn’t taken a chance, they would have lived unremarkable, miserable lives. This was Bethany’s chance. Maybe it was a chance to mess up, but she couldn’t be picky. In a couple months, she’d turn 18 and the fosters would kick her to the curb. She’d hate herself if she didn’t try it. And if it was fake, so what? She wouldn’t lose anything.
She stroked the box, smooth and hinged like a little coffin. She pulled the pin from its resting place, staring down the glittering eyes and the sharp, tarnished point. Was it a good idea to poke herself with it? She could get tetanus. She licked the end several times. Maybe that would get rid of tetanus, or whatever caused tetanus. Well… now or never. She scrunched her eyes as she poked the tip of her finger. It bit hard, and she sucked in a breath. Her eyes sprung open.
A pearl of blood bloomed from her finger: bright, deep, beautiful. The closer she stared into the scarlet pearl, the more it glowed. Jagged fragments flashed and whirled within: a coded secret forever beyond her grasp, a power waiting for her command. She could delve deeper into her flesh, usher forth a river from her beating wellspring, but she did not need it to summon her companion. She tipped her hand, and the pearl splattered on the soiled concrete.
She blinked and glanced about. A drop of blood was on the step below. Did she just poke herself? Oh great, she’d gotten carried away by this weird pin with its weird gaping eyes… deep and black eyes, tunnels without end. She frowned. No, of course they ended. The little mask was casting a shadow over the eye sockets. Wait, hadn’t those eye sockets held gems?
“My, you are lovely.”
Bethany jumped. A guy stood on the step below, a guy with curling gossamer tresses framing a sculpted face. He had intense violet eyes and sharp brows. His sleek form was wrapped in the gentle folds of a silver tux, etched with classic black lines. He was taller than her, but the lower step put him at the perfect height to gaze into her eyes. He held out his hand and a smile warmed his face.
“Oh god!” Bethany pulled back. She hadn’t prepared for this. “You’re a swan, and I’m an ugly duckling.” She hid her face behind her jacket and breathed in hamburger fumes. “An ugly, stinky duckling.”
He raised his head and laughed, a friendly, full-throated laugh, like he thought she was witty. She inched out of her jacket.
He recovered and kneeled at her feet, his eyes twinkling. “Do you recall how the tale ends?”
“Oh.” Right, the ugly duckling became a swan.
He took her grimy hand and kissed it. His lips were warm silk, his breath a caressing mist.
Bethany’s stomach fluttered. “Are you…” It was a stupid question. “Are you my prince?”
“I’ll be what you want me to be.” He stood up, still holding her hand. “We have a ball to attend, correct?”
“Well, yes, but I can’t… I don’t have anything to wear. I’m sorry, guess it was stupid to summon you when I’m not even – ”
“Shhhh.” He lowered his finger from his lips and smiled sharply, revealing a row of sparkling teeth. Then he lifted her hand high, gently prompting her into a dance turn. She lifted onto her toes, moving so smoothly, as if she were still and the world turned around her. The motion was slow at first, then faster. The dark street and ragged lawns blurred into gushing rivers, an endless symphony of color and motion. The symphony bled out a scarlet rivulet that twisted around her. She was dragged by its current, trapped and struggling as it remade her. Then the rivulet faded, and the great waves dissolved back into the cracked front steps and the prince that cradled her hand.
Bethany wore a shimmering gown. Silver satin draped neatly from waist to hips, then fell in graceful curves to her feet. A black netting of intricate lace swooped over the bodice and curved around her shoulders. On her arms were long ebony gloves, and she held a small silver purse. She sniffed her shoulder cautiously. The greasy fumes were gone, replaced by the scent of blooming lilacs.
“I’m afraid it’s only borrowed.” Her prince gave her a sad smile. “It will fade shortly after I leave.”
“Like Cinderella’s dress.”
“I knew you’d understand.” He picked up the empty wooden box, closed it with a snap, then tucked it into her purse. “Keep this until it’s time to pass on the pin.”
“The pin?” She looked over the grassy walkway. “Where…”
He chuckled. “It’s securing the crown in your hair.”
“Oh.” She carefully touched her elaborate updo, finding the tiara and the pin that held it tight.
“Let no one else hold it.” He held his elbow out to her, his face intent. “Not until you’re ready to say good-bye.”
How could she ever be ready? She was living her dreams. She’d be pinching herself right now, except she didn’t want to wake up. She docilely took his elbow, and they descended the front steps. Before they reached the bottom, a silver limo turned onto her street. It pulled up in front of them. Had he conjured that too? Would it evaporate into bits of cloud, leaving her alone in her greasy apron?
“Are you well?” Her prince examined her as he opened the door.
“I’m fine.” She sunk into the seat of the limo; it hummed beneath her. This was real. A tinkling melody played on the speakers. Really real. “Actually, I’m wonderful.”
She barely noticed the ride. Her prince was warm against her side the whole time, stroking her hands. She rambled at him while his violet gaze absorbed every word. He had a warm laugh for her quips and a concerned frown for her complaints. She confessed that time was running out before she’d be left on the streets. He held her closer, murmuring that he was her guardian, her protector. While he was here, she need not worry about anything.
When they swept into prom, her classmates went as still as statues, transfixed. She waved at a few of them. They stared at her blankly, and then their jaws dropped. Classmate after classmate came up to her to talk. Every time she failed to be witty, her prince came to her rescue. His chuckling made her funny and his remarks made her intelligent. The popular girls in their designer dresses leaned close to him and tried to make conversation, but he always directed the discussion back to Bethany: how lovely she was, how charming, how special.
Her prince stood patiently by her side as she giggled and gossiped. When she needed privacy, he fetched her punch and snacks. When she was tired, he found them a table, and when she grew bored, he pulled her up to dance. As they stepped onto the floor, Bethany wasn’t nervous at all, just dazed by his warm gaze and gentle hands. They locked eyes in a perfect moment that felt like forever.
Bethany had imagined prom every night, but nothing in her dreams compared to this. Dancing with her prince was like embracing a blaze in a curling cloud of smoke. The dark clouds veiled the gymnasium, the gaudy lights and tissue flowers melted away. Prom burned, until all that remained was the flowing waves of her prince’s hair, the precise arch of his brow, the flickering light in his eyes.
Then he glanced away from her. He was looking at something across the room, someone across the room. A girl in Bethany’s gym class sat alone against the wall, staring at her feet. The prince turned with Bethany, but his gaze followed the girl. The girl looked up, and their eyes locked.
“Who is the girl at the far wall?” he asked. “Could you give the pin to her?”
Bethany halted and tore away. “Are you saying you want to be with her?”
“No, not at all.” He grasped her hand and slowly pulled her close again, his other arm wrapping tightly around her back. They stood nose to nose, his breath warm on her face. The violet rings in his eyes widened, and his deep pupils reflected her ordinary face.
“Then why did you say that?”
“I must,” he whispered. “The pin compels me to suggest someone before midnight, and midnight approaches.” His voice held a hidden pain. “Please forgive me?”
She melted at his tone. “I forgive you. It wasn’t even you, it was your… your curse.” He was cursed! Of course he was cursed; he came out of a pin. And at midnight he would go back. That is, unless Bethany stopped it. In every fairy tale, curses could be broken. Why not this one? “How does it work?”
His gaze fell. “I’m not allowed to say.”
“But… you can be cured, can’t you?”
His eyes met hers. “Yes.”
“Then I’ll figure it out.” She had to, or he would fade back into his pin, and she would go back to the sagging cot in her foster home, until even that was taken from her. She’d toil until late every day: vacant eyes, grimy skin, greasy smell. Then she’d walk miles home to some cardboard box, watching everyone avert their eyes as she passed. No one would stroke her hand or laugh at her jokes like he did. She couldn’t let it happen, not any of it.
Bethany searched for the school clock. It was half past eleven. She didn’t have much time, but she was the star of this fairytale. She could find the key to his curse. “Has anyone ever kissed you since you were cursed?”
He smiled and began the dance again, resting his cheek against hers. “A few,” he breathed into her ear.
A shiver ran up her spine. She wanted to lean into him and close her eyes, but she couldn’t become distracted. She would spend every moment she had left finding the answer.
The remaining minutes ticked away as Bethany peppered him with question after question. Did he have a true, ugly form she had to accept? Nope. Or an apple caught in his throat? No. He hadn’t turned away a beggar woman or refused marriage to a witch. He didn’t begin his existence as a gorgeous marble sculpture that wanted to become a real boy, and he wasn’t a mermaid or an angel who’d made a deal to become human. He didn’t have a jealous stepdad, and he hadn’t eaten forbidden vegetables from an enchantress’s garden. Songs passed. Her classmates gathered their coats to leave.
Bethany checked the time. Midnight was only a minute away. Her stomach tightened; the questions weren’t working. Oh, of course they weren’t. Bethany’s fairy tale wasn’t a poor copy of some fictional story. Her prince had his own cure, something unique to him. Something she would never guess in time. She clutched at his sleeve. “Can’t I just keep the pin? You go back in, then come out later…”
“No.” He paused the dance and held her hands tightly. “Trust me in this; do not keep the pin past midnight.”
“The pin commands me to do many things, some of them…” He looked away. “I won’t describe it.”
“That’s terrible! I’ll… I’ll break it.”
“I believe that would kill me.”
A deep chime washed across the ball, shaking the glasses on the tables. The sound reverberated through the floorboards until it reached her feet, and then it climbed up through her bones. Her chest quivered. Where did the sound come from? None of her remaining classmates seemed to notice it.
“We have no more time together,” her prince said. “You must gift the pin to another, now.”
“No, wait!” She stared into his violet eyes. Another chime rang, washing them in vibrations. “I don’t know the details of your curse, but I want to free you. There has to be a way. Tell me!”
His eyes widened. “Are you certain you wish to put yourself in danger? For me and me alone?”
“Yes.” She would never give him up. “What do I do?”
Her prince stepped back and held out his hand. “Give me the pin.”
Well, that was simple. Bethany reached for the pin in her tiara and paused. Something about her prince was different. He waited with an expectant hand, eyes focused on her movements. His lips were straight. His eyes were no longer a gentle flicker, now they burned. What burned behind them? Was he thinking about staying with her? She didn’t know, but she had to do something. Her hand was still up on the pin, and her arm was getting tired.
A chime sounded.
“Give me the pin or it will be too late!”
How could she hesitate? This was her miracle, her escape from burger flipping and begging for shelter. She knew curses were always defeated by goodness and true love. And it was true love. He had to be her true love; he was everything she wanted. Her job was to be trusting and selfless. Anyone who wasn’t selfless in a fairy tale lost their happily ever after. At any moment, the chimes would stop, and she would lose everything. She had to take a leap of faith.
She pulled the pin from her hair and laid it on his palm. His hand curled around it. His shoulders relaxed, the corners of his mouth ticked upward. He stood still as the chimes rolled over them, each louder than the last, until they rattled her teeth and shook her ribcage. His lips moved with each one, silently counting down. Finally, the last note faded away.
“Is that it?” she asked.
“Not quite.” His smile widened, as if enjoying a private joke. “We must not forget your test.”
She straightened. “Will it hurt?”
“You don’t even have to prick your finger. Just tell me: what is my name?”
“Well, you’re… you’re my prince.”
“No, my name. I went by one, once.”
“Do I have three guesses?”
“No. You had all night to discover it; now you only have to say it.”
“But – ” she stepped back from his cold grin. “I don’t know your name.”
“Of course you don’t, you didn’t ask.” He stepped toward her. “All of those questions, and not one was for my name. You didn’t ask how old I am or where I came from. You didn’t ask how long I’ve been enslaved to the pin or even if it was my choice to be your escort.”
“I can ask now, can’t I?”
“It’s too late now.” He flourished his other hand; somehow it held the pin box. “If I was willing to risk my freedom, perhaps I could save you. But I’m not.”
“I gave you the pin like you wanted!”
“I told you the risk was for me and me alone. You said that’s what you desired, but you lied, didn’t you? You gave me the pin to keep me in your service. You liked that I did everything for you and nothing for myself. You accepted that I was a souvenir you had purchased. And like so many others, you never questioned the price. Now you’ll find out for yourself.” He opened the box, and stuck the pin inside.
“What do you mean I’ll find out?”
The box snapped shut; the clap echoed through the gymnasium.
Silence. Bethany glanced around. Lips moved but held no voice; glasses fell but gave no clatter. The world faded even as it grew, like mountains in mist. A wooden gate soared before her, opening to swallow her within. Its great doors were etched with calligraphy.
Heed lest you forget
The mask claims a debt
That soon comes due
To rekindle the eyes
For eternal reprise
The task falls on you
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