Once upon a time there was a princess, whose heart shattered into a hundred pieces when her mother died.
The stories you know usually start like this – with a princess, and a dead mother. There is an absent king and an evil stepmother, who locks the princess in the top of the tallest tower. The princess waits there, until perhaps one spring day, in the middle of a soft snowfall, she is rescued by a handsome prince. Together, they find the pieces of her broken heart.
Except that is not what happens, is it? What happens, is:
It is the New Year, which means a new start. This is what your father says when you move house. But you shut yourself in your room when your stepmother and the baby arrive a few days later. The loft conversion wasn’t supposed to be for you, but you pestered your father about it for weeks. You said it would be horrible if they put you downstairs next to the baby who cries at night, that you wouldn’t sleep well, that you’d do badly at school, and then what would be the point of that expensive education he always goes on about? Your father gave in.
You wait there, up in your room. The freshly painted walls are blank and smooth and enclose you with your secrets. One of these secrets is your boyfriend, who avoids you at school but texts you later. Another is a small piece of broken glass in the top drawer of your bedside table. And the most important secret, the flyer for an art exhibition in London, hidden underneath your mattress. You count down to the opening night by crossing off the days on your calendar. You do this neatly, an identical black cross in every box. Equally neatly, you score very short, very shallow lines on your skin, and as your blood beads you feel as blank and smooth as the glass in your hand, as the walls of your room.
The night before, it is snowing. You lean out of your window to make a phone call, the curtain behind your back a shield against the constant noise downstairs. The air is cold. The light from the streetlamps is diffused by the drifting snow and every cottony surface, so that the whole street glows orange. You could be on another planet. Your breath puffs out into this glowing strangeness. The phone, held tight to your cheek, rings six times before your boyfriend picks up.
“You’ve got to be joking,” he says.
“Hello,” you say. “Can you still drive me to London tomorrow?”
“Are you – we broke up,” he says, putting emphasis on each of the last three words. You hadn’t really seen it that way, hadn’t thought that was the conclusion of your last argument. It doesn’t need to change your plans though.
“Does that mean you can’t drive me?”
“I just,” he says, and stops. You hear the sounds of other boys in the background, a shout, laughter. You hear him shout something back, and then suck in his breath, and then let it out slowly. “I don’t think I can get the car now, you know?”
“Okay,” you say. “Fine.”
“I just don’t,” he starts, but you hang up.
You think about calling one of your friends. But then you remember their faces when you first told them your idea, the looks they’d given each other. They worry about you because you don’t deal with stuff in a normal way, sometimes. Their words, not yours. Can’t you, like, be normal about this, they’d say. That wouldn’t be any good.
Everything is so still, and so quiet. You marvel at the blanket of snow on the rooftops and the trees. The gentle, orange glow of it.
You wake the next morning to sounds of your father, your stepmother, and the baby playing in the garden. You make a small gap in your curtains and look down. The baby is wearing so many layers that he is almost spherical, a beach ball, bright against the white ground. He laughs at the snowman your father is making – a misshapen, grubby thing. Your father’s face is flushed and he looks different. Maybe younger.
You grab your rucksack, which you packed days ago, and while they are distracted you descend silently from your sanctuary and let yourself out. The snow on the main roads has already turned to slush. You board a bus and lean away from the condensation worming down the windows.
It is loud on the bus and even worse at the railway station, a discordant meeting of families tripping over luggage and children shrieking and sliding on the wet floors and groups of men in striped scarves and hats shouting abuse at the football on a screen. You find it difficult to concentrate while you search for a train to London, the platforms all look the same, the fresh cuts on your hips sting where your jeans rub, there are too many people. Then someone taps you on the shoulder.
“Mind if I tag along?”
You stare. It’s your stepmother, with her embarrassing pink coat and her flyaway red hair, clutching two hot chocolates.
“Hello,” you remember to say, warily, but you don’t want to be rude. She sighs and forces one cup into your hands.
“Put it this way. Either I come with you, because I’ve told dad we’re in town for the rest of the day, or I phone him now and we go back.”
“Did you follow me?”
“You left this on your desk, pet.” She holds something out to you. Then, with one of her strange expressions, “Maybe you meant to?”
You look at the crumpled flyer in her hand. You tuck it into your pocket carefully, and you don’t say anything, but you let your stepmother put an arm around you when you board the train together.
The stories never tell you that the princesses don’t always feel like princesses. They never say that, on some days, she feels more like the monster in the woods.
The princes are not sullen and immature. The king and the stepmother are never simply enjoying their own lives, their newly discovered, surprising happiness. And the queen? She is always dead, always. There is no story where she has moved away, back to her own people, a different palace, where there is no king or young princess to worry about. But that is the real story. They should tell that story.
What happens next? You should know. You have played it over and over in your head since the new year. Or perhaps you have played a few different versions. Your stepmother has not featured in any of these, but it is easy enough to factor her in as you sit together, sipping hot chocolates and watching the pale white fields rush past outside.
In the first version:
You and your stepmother walk into the art gallery. You scan the room for your mother. You don’t see her, though the flyer said there would be a talk from the artist. It is just like every other time you have expected to see her and she has not appeared. Your father has explained that she is very busy, and does want to get to know you, but maybe it’s best to wait until you’re an adult. She herself has never explained any of this. You look at the delicate glass sculptures on display, which are nice enough but don’t mean anything to you, and then you step back out into the damp, slushy evening.
In the second:
You and your stepmother walk into the art gallery. You see your mother, who you haven’t seen since you were seven years old, which was the last time she visited. She read to you back then, bedtime stories of heroes and monsters, of princesses and castles, and you never quite remembered them because you would fall asleep in the middle and wake to find her gone. Now she wears a glamorous dress and is speaking to the crowd gathered around her, thanking them for their support. You look at the delicate glass sculptures on display, which you don’t understand at all. You catch your mother’s eye as she finishes speaking, and she steps forward. Then you reach out and push one sculpture off its pedestal. It seems to fall slowly, to drift like snow, but when it hits the ground it shatters into a hundred pieces.
Tian works as a lawyer in publishing and writes short fiction. Her work has recently appeared in Visual Verse. She has lived in China, Hong Kong, and New Zealand, and is now based in London where she is about to start an MA in Creative Writing.