Sarah Cross Sarah Cross

Kill Me Softly book cover"After the Ball" is a short story set in Beau Rivage, a city where fairy tales come to life, and ancient stories are played out again and again. You can read more about the cursed fairy-tale characters of Beau Rivage in my novels Kill Me Softly and Tear You Apart.

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“After the Ball"

story by Sarah Cross © 2012

illustrations by Oona Pohjolainen © 2012

Midnight arrived, on the third and final night of the ball, and Dusty’s enchanted gown started shedding flowers.

Flowers fell from her dress as she ran down the hotel staircase. She lost one of her golden shoes, but didn’t go back for it, because the prince was behind her, yelling “Wait!” in that desperate, confused way that didn’t sound like him at all. The golden strands of her hair were reverting to their natural black, and as she ducked into the waiting limo, she covered her head with her hands, as if she could hold on to her disguise.

After the Ball illustration by Oona Pohjolainen

The flowers trailed her all the way to her bedroom in the attic, where she curled up on the floor, panic racing through her. What had she done? How had this happened?

The prince wasn’t supposed to have feelings for her. It was too fast, they were too different, he wasn’t her type.

And maybe that had felt less true while they were together … but that was the magic, making everything seem special. She’d been caught up in the moment. They both had.

The dolls from her dead mother’s doll collection regarded her with their cold, plastic eyes. Kewpies and Barbies and American Girl dolls. Hearty porcelain toddlers in faux-velvet coats. Dusty let her gaze move from one doll to another, to the cardboard boxes stacked in the shadows, and the dingy clothesline that served as her closet. The familiar decrepitude of the attic made those three nights at the ball seem like they’d happened to someone else.

She was hidden now, safe. She didn’t have to face him, or decide anything.

Dusty turned the gold shoe over in her hand, idly brushing dirt from the sole, and froze when she saw the message her fairy godmother had written there:


Her address: better than breadcrumbs.

Dusty gripped the shoe until the metal edges bruised her fingers.

There had been strings attached to those gorgeous gowns, the slippers of glass and gold. The fairy had been playing with Dusty and the prince like they were dolls—and now she planned to mash them together in her vision of wedded bliss.

No, Dusty thought. You do not get to decide this.

Eventually, Dusty’s stepmother and two stepsisters, Pixie and Fair, came home. Their voices carried up to her through the floorboards: complaints about how tired they were, how the prince hadn’t looked at anyone but the mystery girl, how it had been a waste to go to the ball and not even get to talk to him. They made all the noises that went along with discarding their formalwear and going to bed in bad moods. Bedroom and closet doors slammed. Shoes were kicked off, expensive dresses flung onto chairs. Dusty could picture it perfectly because she knew what kind of messes they made—she was the one who always had to clean them up.

When the house phone rang a little after 1:30 a.m., Dusty dashed for the extension and pried the phone out of its cradle. She heard his voice—the first time she’d heard him on the phone.

“Is it you?”

She didn’t answer. He waited a moment, then said they needed to talk—he was coming over. “We can’t just leave things like this.”

He hung up, and she had the urge to run, like she had the past three nights. But she couldn’t. Not now that he knew where to find her. Destiny was backing her into a corner. She had to find another way to disappear.

Dusty went to her stepsister Pixie’s room and crawled onto the king-size bed. Her enormous, silk-and-flower dress billowed over the edge, petals fluttering down like she was dragging a magical spring forest behind her. Pixie was making little whistling noises. Sleeping peacefully—until Dusty yanked the pillow out from under her head.

“Hey!” Pixie whined. “What is your problem?”

Dusty was never the aggressor in their relationship—normally, she kept her head down and kept quiet; just popped the tabs on Pixie’s Diet Cokes so Pixie wouldn’t ruin her manicure, and ran up or down stairs to fetch Pixie’s cell phone or whatever random thing Pixie was too lazy to do herself.

Tonight was different.

“Get up,” Dusty said. There was a hardness in her voice, an authority born of desperation, and Pixie didn’t argue.

While Pixie struggled out from under her covers, Dusty reached behind herself and awkwardly began to undo the tiny hooks on her dress. The delicate gown had been impossibly strong at the ball—but now the seams threatened to split each time she moved. The magic that held the dress together was dying.

They didn’t have much time.

After the Ball illustration by Oona Pohjolainen

The prince didn’t know who Dusty was; he just had her shoe. And he wouldn’t recognize her, not right away. He’d seen her with gold hair, not black, and she’d been wearing a couture gown—there would be a disconnect, when he saw her now. She could do this.

Pixie was rubbing makeup from the corner of her eye when she finally noticed the dress. “You stole that dress. There’s—there’s no way you were there. No way that was you.”

Dusty held out the gold shoe, and tried to look calmer than she felt.

“Here’s your chance to be a princess. Do you want it?”

* * *

In Beau Rivage, a princess didn’t rule a kingdom. She wasn’t even the sort of princess who wore T-shirts that said I am a princess. All girls are. She was a princess in the fairy-tale sense, and there were dozens of them in the city.

Princess meant status, wealth, special treatment from fairies. Certain bloodlines were considered royal, and Pixie wanted to be a Royal more than anything.

That was why Dusty went to her. Not because Pixie deserved to get what she wanted, but because Dusty had a prince to pawn off, and she knew Pixie would take him.

It would be the first helpful thing her stepsister had ever done. Wickedness ran in Pixie’s family, just like blue eyes and caramel-colored hair.

It was her stepsisters’ constant harassment that had driven Dusty into the attic in the first place—just so she could have some peace, and not be tortured every second. She’d started wearing old, ugly clothes around the same time—clothes Pixie and Fair wouldn’t be caught dead in—because if she owned anything nice, her stepsisters would ruin it. She even let them call her Dusty instead of her real name, because it satisfied their need to insult her, and kept them from doing anything worse. So long as they thought she was miserable, they mostly left her alone.

Dusty’s stepmom, on the other hand, was never satisfied. When Dusty’s dad (whose charm had an expiration date) started blowing money, disappearing for days at a time, and worse, Dusty’s stepmom started taking it out on her: assigning new chores until Dusty barely had time for anything else, and screaming at her every time she screwed up.

Her stepfamily didn’t want her there. They said she was a leech—and Dusty felt like that was sort of true. She was a mouth to feed—and a constant reminder of her dad’s bad behavior, since she was there even when he wasn’t. So she did whatever her stepmom told her—and only complained when there was no one around to hear.

From age twelve to twenty she lived as a servant in her own home, and tried not to think about what she was missing. But sometimes she was tempted by her destiny.

Beau Rivage was a city of curses, of magic hidden in plain sight, in dark alleys and darker forests. And that magic had come to Dusty when she was ten years old. A fairy had appeared, shortly before her mother died, and marked her, cursed her and given her a destiny.

The mark—the sign of her Cinderella curse—made Dusty’s skin itch late at night. When the world got quiet, when all she heard were the creak of the house settling and the sighs that slipped from her own throat, she wanted more. She wanted to be that princess her curse promised she could be.

And she wanted to take her stepsisters’ dreams, and crush them the way Pixie and Fair had crushed her.

There was a boy her stepsisters both wanted. His name was Max, and he was a prince. He’d been a senior in high school when Pixie was a freshman, Fair was an eighth grader, and Dusty was a sixteen-year-old housekeeper who’d been forced to quit school by her stepmom.

Max had been a star athlete in high school, was also rich, and hot, and had a tendency to get naked at parties as soon as he was drunk. He’d gone to college out of state, and only came back during summers and holidays, but Pixie and Fair continued to stalk him online. They knew he’d come back eventually. All the Cursed came back.

Dusty had never met Max; she’d just seen him in photos his friends posted, which Pixie and Fair collected: mostly candid party shots, or blurry pics of Max jumping naked into a pool. There was a photo of Max wearing nothing but a pair of boxers and a tinsel-covered Happy New Year crown that Pixie used as her laptop wallpaper.

Dusty didn’t lust after him like her stepsisters did—he seemed like kind of an idiot. But she could recognize that he was also a prize. And it was no secret that he had a Prince Charming curse—he’d been naked in public often enough for everyone to know about the mark on his back.

So when Prince hot idiot’s family threw a three-day fancy dress ball to celebrate his college graduation, Dusty made up her mind to go. But first, she needed a dress.

* * *

On the first night of the ball, Dusty had waited until her stepmother and stepsisters left, then went out to visit the hazel tree in the backyard.

The hazel tree was supposed to be magic. It was one of the fairy-tale conventions—part of the Cinderella curse—that if Dusty ever really needed something, all she had to do was go to the tree and ask for it, and her mother’s spirit would find a way to give it to her. But she’d never tested it until that night.

Standing before the hazel tree, Dusty tried to remember the words from the fairy tale.

“Shake and shiver, little tree … throw gold and silver down to me?”

After the Ball illustration by Oona PohjolainenShe squinted up at the branches, half expecting a blocky silver shoe to tumble down and hit her in the face. But nothing happened. The little bird helpers who were supposed to do her bidding weren’t there. She gave the branches a few hard shakes, and finally knelt down in the dirt and thought about dead puppies until tears dripped from her eyes, hoping some Cinderella-tears would jolt the tree into action.


Sighing, Dusty lay down in the dirt and made a mental inventory of her stepsisters’ old prom dresses. As she was trying to decide what to borrow—one of Pixie’s skintight shiny dresses, or one of Fair’s Betsey Johnson cast-offs?—her fairy godmother appeared.

* * *

Fairies had different ways of presenting themselves to the world. Some chose to go around in disguise, making themselves look like old hags. Some liked to pass as normal humans. And some—like Dusty’s fairy godmother, Lorelei, whom she’d only met once, when the fairy had cursed her—went the all-out magical Barbie route.

Lorelei looked like a cross between the Blue Fairy from Disney’s Pinocchio, Marilyn Monroe circa Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, and the old Lady Lovely Locks dolls from Dusty’s mother’s doll collection. Her voluptuous figure was encased in a body-hugging, powder blue satin dress; she wore white, elbow-length gloves; and her flowing, platinum blond hair was decorated with pastel-colored woodland creatures: squirrels and lizards and birds in every marshmallow color of the rainbow, who clung to the fairy’s blond locks like living barrettes.

“You look so precious in those rags!” the fairy exclaimed. “Such a charming urchin!”

Dusty pushed herself up so she was no longer lying on the ground. In her bleach-stained T-shirt and ripped jeans, she did look a little like an urchin. She hadn’t combed her hair in two days.

“I just want a dress,” she said. She felt crushable and small next to the fairy, even though they were the same size. “And maybe some shoes.”

“But of course,” the fairy said. “A dress and shoes—that’s the bare minimum!”

As Lorelei waltzed closer, her glass wand tick-tocking back and forth, Dusty felt a strange tingling on her skin. Her clothes began to transform, cotton stretching like taffy, faded denim spilling down her legs as lustrous white silk.

Dusty put her hand on the hazel tree to steady herself. Her clothes were changing shape, too—billowing in some places, cinching in others—and as the bodice of the new dress squeezed the breath from her lungs, she fainted.

The fairy caught her before she hit the ground.

When Dusty came to, a web of gold embroidery draped her body, hanging like a second skin over a dress of shimmering white silk. Her shoes were white silk trimmed in gold.

Dusty’s black hair had changed as well. Before, it had reached her shoulders; now it hung to her waist in shiny golden locks, and it had the same metallic sheen as the dress. She tugged on her hair, expecting it to feel like tinsel and to come away in her hand—but it was part of her.

“What—what did you do?” she asked. When she blinked, newly long eyelashes smacked her cheeks. And there was a scent coming off her—a scent she had first thought was the fairy’s—but no, it was wafting from her skin: a perfume that reminded her of honey and fresh, buttery cake.

Tears glistened in the fairy’s eyes. “You’re going to make such beautiful babies! Now run along. There’s a limo waiting out front. You don’t want to be late!”

Dusty had thought the fairy was joking about the baby stuff. But no—she meant to play matchmaker.

And she lived for “happy” endings.

* * *

That first night, Dusty had just wanted to go to a party. To dance, have fun, be noticed.

Now, she wanted to reverse all that.

Pixie stared warily at the golden shoe. Her hair was mashed against her face on one side. “I can’t believe you’re the girl he couldn’t get enough of. You’re so”—she scrunched her nose—“ugly.”

Dusty tossed the shoe at her. “See if you can get your foot in there.”

“I don’t understand you,” Pixie muttered, trying to work her foot into the unforgiving shoe. The gold didn’t bend or stretch; you had to fit into it exactly. “I thought you—no, correction: I thought the glamorous princess you were pretending to be liked him. You seemed to like him enough when you were making out with him.”

“Yeah, well, that was then,” Dusty said, struggling to undo the rest of the hooks on her dress. “We’re not compatible.”

When she finally got the dress off, only ripping the silk in a few places, Dusty gathered the gown in her arms and dumped it on the bed next to Pixie. “Put this on,” she said. “If he sees you in the dress, he might not care about the shoe. But hurry up. He’ll be here any minute.”

While Pixie wrestled with the flower-shedding gown, Dusty threw on a pair of Pixie’s jeans and a college sweatshirt Pixie had stolen from an old boyfriend. Then she headed downstairs to find a roll of duct tape, some scissors, and a stick of butter—maybe they could butter Pixie into the shoe. She was snipping off little pieces of duct tape to repair the torn dress when there was a knock at the door.

Dusty froze. Her heart rose up from its normally peaceful spot in her chest and thumped between her ears. The knock came again, and this time she hurried to answer it, a strip of silver duct tape stuck to each finger on her left hand.

When she flung open the door, he was there.

Max. Her prince.

He was standing on the porch, still in the tux he’d worn at the ball, but it was rumpled and so was his dark brown hair—like he hadn’t bothered to comb it after she’d run her fingers through it.

Don’t think about that, she told herself. It was a fling—that’s all.

Max was holding her missing gold high heel in his left hand. His fingers curved around it protectively, like it was a football or a baby kitten. He raised his eyebrows in that charming way the other girls liked so much.

“I’m looking for the owner of this shoe,” he said. “Is she here?”

Dusty ran her hands over her no-longer-golden hair, casually brushing away any dust from the attic. She needed to look like the wicked stepsister now, not the poor unfortunate urchin.

“I don’t think anyone here owns a shoe like that. But … maybe I could try it on?” She gave him her best impression of one of Fair’s flirty looks—even more inept than Pixie’s, guaranteed to turn him off. She propped the door open wider and winked. “Please?”

“Uh … all right,” he said, stepping inside. “But I’m looking for someone a little more …”

She watched his face while he hesitated, wondering what he was trying not to say. Gorgeous? Not that it mattered.

“Just let me try,” she said. He gave her the shoe, and she made a big show of trying to cram her foot into it, grunting with annoyance when she failed.

Max gazed at the wide staircase that led to the second floor. There were flower petals scattered on the steps. “There must be someone else here,” he said. “Not that you’re not …” He coughed. “It’s just that … I spent a lot of time with her. The girl who wore this shoe. So I’m pretty sure I’d know if it was you.”

“It was worth a try,” Dusty said, flipping her hair over her shoulder, Pixie-style.

“So … is there anyone else?”

“There’s my little sister, but she was with me the whole night, and I know she wasn’t wearing gold shoes. We were both there.” She put on her flirt face again. “I don’t know if you saw us.”

“No, I don’t think I did … sorry.”

Dusty sighed. “If you want to get technical, there is one other girl who lives here. But she didn’t go to the ball. Our mom wouldn’t let her. She’s dirty and she dresses in rags. I can get my little sister if you want,” she said quickly. “She’s really cute. Like me.” She angled her body toward him. Max took a step back.

“Uh—you said there’s another girl here? Someone less fortunate? A … Cinderella type?”

“Well … she does clean our house and cook for us. But she didn’t have time to go to the ball. She was here, picking lentils out of the ashes.”

Sorting lentils—that was so old-school Cinderella. Maybe that was pushing it.

“Lentils? Really?” Light came into his eyes. Light, and confusion. “Could I talk to her?”

Dusty shrugged. “I guess.”

Please let this work, she thought. Please let this work …

* * *

The first night of the ball, it had taken a while to get his attention. Dusty had glided in, expecting to catch every eye as soon as she entered the room, like Cinderella did in the movies. Hell, like any gorgeously transformed heroine did in the movies.

But people were distracted, busy talking, drinking, dancing—it wasn’t like all eyes were on the door, or like she was a real princess who got announced when she arrived.

After the Ball illustration by Oona Pohjolainen

But when the other guests saw her—when they finally noticed, turning toward her one section of the ballroom at a time, they looked at her in a breathless, astonished way. She was fairy-tale beautiful in an enchanted gown, too delicate to last, and her hair shimmered like real gold under the light from the chandeliers. Once people could breathe again they breathed her in, and her perfume enchanted them anew.

It was pretty magical, and she almost would have been happy to go home right then. But she wanted to dance in the arms of the boy her stepsisters fawned over—and she wanted them to see this perfect creature dancing with him, and be painfully aware that it wasn’t either of them.

When Max finally saw her, he interrupted the conversation he was having, handed his drink to a friend, and made his way over to ask her to dance. She felt like she was a movie in slow motion. Everyone was watching, and everything felt frozen before it happened—but she wasn’t worried, or scared. When his fingers twined with hers and he guided her onto the dance floor, her skin tingled with the same feeling the fairy’s magic had given her.

They danced together for two dances—two songs she couldn’t remember now—before slipping away to get to know each other better. And all the things she learned about Max could fit into a man-shaped box. She’d kept her identity a secret, and they’d kept the talking to a minimum.

So … if he was in love with her, it wasn’t like he loved anything real. She just hoped he didn’t know her body well enough to know that Pixie was a different girl.

* * *

When they reached Pixie’s bedroom, Dusty held her finger to her lips to mime shhh, then held up another finger to say wait. Max nodded, and she stepped into the room and shut the door behind her.

Pixie had managed to get into the dress, and to fasten most of the tiny hooks—but she was lying facedown on the floor, and a pool of blood had spread out on the carpet beneath her foot.

Dusty clapped a hand to her mouth to stifle a scream. She moved closer—and almost blacked out when she saw the butcher knife sticky with blood. Red spatter marked the path between the knife and where the severed toe had ended up, a few feet away.

Pixie had cut off her big toe to fit into the shoe. Just like in the Grimm’s fairy tale.

The taste of vomit surged in Dusty’s throat, and she had to look away to get control of herself.

The prince gave a light tap on the door.

“Just a minute,” she said. She needed to hurry. If Fair or her stepmother woke up and found Max in the hall, they’d ruin this out of pure stupidity.

She grabbed Pixie under the arms and hoisted her up, dragging her backward toward the bed and streaking bright red blood in their wake. She dumped her onto the bed and tried to stop the bleeding by holding a wadded sheet around Pixie’s toes, but the blood just kept coming until the sheet was soaked, and it was impossible to tell if she was helping. Pixie’s injured foot was also greasy-looking and smelled like freesia. She must have rubbed lotion all over it, trying to get it into the shoe.

Dusty gave her stepsister’s cheek a light slap—she didn’t want to hurt her. “Pix!” she hissed. “Wake up! You’re almost there!” She honestly didn’t know if the missing toe would do the trick. An open wound against the hard metal interior of the shoe? The pain would be excruciating. They might squeeze Pixie into the shoe only to have her pass out again.

Maybe it was best to try to get her into the gold shoe now—while she was still unconscious.

Dusty found the shoe—slippery and smelling of flowers—and swallowed the urge to throw up. Her vision was going black around the edges and her head felt too light, but she sat down next to her stepsister, seized her bloody foot by the heel, and then …

She forced it into the shoe. It was a little like trying to shove a square peg into a round hole, but she made it fit—and it did, just barely. Pixie’s damaged foot was now tightly encased in the shoe, the skin mottled with blushing blood smears, pressed red and then dead white where the metal sides of the shoe met her skin. Dusty did her best to wipe the skin clean. The part that was visible, anyway.

“Wake up, Pix,” she whispered, nudging her stepsister. “You’re wearing the shoe. We’re good. Wake up, wake up, wake up.”

Pixie’s eyelids fluttered open. She looked blank and sick from the pain. “Celeste,” she said, using Dusty’s real name. “I … I …”

“It was stupid, but it worked,” Dusty said quickly. “Just … take deep breaths. I’m going to … uh, clean up the mess and then let him in. Just breathe.”

There came another tapping at the door. Maybe there had been more, and she’d missed them. She didn’t deal well with severed appendages. Severed anything.

Dusty ripped huge armfuls of Pixie’s clothes from the closet and scattered them over the carpet, hoping to hide the blood. Then she balled up the stained sheets and stuffed them in the back of the closet. It wasn’t perfect—there was no way they’d get Pixie’s other foot into the shoe Max had brought—but it would have to be enough.

Dusty opened the door, and this time she didn’t have the flirty expression on her face. She could barely manage a smile.

“You were right,” she whispered as she ushered him in. “I was wrong. I found her like this.”

“I was right?” He fingered the shoe. He was sweating a little. He looked nervous. And then he stepped into the room and his nostrils twitched.

“It smells like blood in here,” he said.

“It’s freesia. Body lotion.”

“No.” He shook his head. “I can smell that flower scent, but it smells like blood, too. Can’t you smell it?”

“It’s cheap body lotion. She’s an urchin, remember?”

Dusty turned away from him, heart pounding, feeling like she couldn’t breathe. She was doing a bad job of hiding—of pretending to be someone other than herself—and though she’d turned on the charm and sexiness at the ball, and the dress had definitely helped, she was afraid he would somehow see through to the real her, and recognize her, even with the black hair and borrowed clothes, and she didn’t know what to do if he did.

Max went to shove some of the scattered clothes out of the way, and Dusty grabbed his arm to stop him. “You can walk on them. They’re just rags.”

“They don’t look like rags.”

“Well, they are,” she insisted, clutching his arm more tightly and steering him toward the bed.

Pixie was lying on her back, panting a little, but she looked deliriously happy when she saw Max hovering over her. “You came,” she said. In the low light, her caramel-colored hair could almost pass for gold. Her voice was sweeter and more romantic than Dusty’s, but maybe he wouldn’t notice. Most of their conversations had taken place with loud music in the background. Mostly she’d breathed his name and whispered things like kiss me.

Dusty bit her thumb, tasted Pixie’s blood on her nail, and clasped her hands behind her back. Then she decided to make herself useful, and pulled the long skirt of the couture gown above Pixie’s ankles, so Max could see the gold shoe lodged firmly on her foot.

“You were right,” Dusty said again, feeling ill that she’d started this. She’d never meant for Pixie to do something so extreme. “She must have snuck out and gone to the ball anyway. I’ll have to double-check those lentils. She probably did a crappy job sorting them.”

“I love you,” Pixie gasped, the look of happiness lingering on her face before her eyes rolled back in her head and she passed out again.

Dusty adjusted the gown so it covered Pixie’s feet. She couldn’t be sure more blood wouldn’t start leaking out.

Max sighed. He sank down on the bed next to Pixie, the gold shoe still cupped in his hand. “I don’t know what’s going on.”

“It’s freesia,” Dusty said.

“Not the freesia. This is all wrong. That’s not her. It’s her dress, and her shoe, but … it’s not her.”

“Maybe she had a fairy godmother,” Dusty said. “She couldn’t have afforded that dress on her own. Maybe the fairy godmother improved her looks a little. Maybe she was hotter at the ball. And it faded after midnight. Are you saying you only liked her for her looks? Because if so, that reflects pretty badly on you. That makes you more like … Prince Jerk than Prince Charming.”

“It’s not her looks. They’re different, but … all of her is different. She said I love you.”

“I guess she loves you.”

“She doesn’t. When I said it to her—tonight, at the ball … she ran away.”

Dusty swallowed. That much was true. “Maybe she changed her mind.”

“Did she?”

She hadn’t. She hadn’t loved anyone since her mother died. She wasn’t going to start now, after knowing him for three days, no matter how good she felt when she was with him. She’d seen too many embarrassing pictures of Max. She’d made up her mind about who he was years ago … and the connection she felt, the chemistry … it didn’t make sense and it wouldn’t—couldn’t—last.

Max was watching her carefully, like he’d seen a flicker of someone else and was trying to confirm.

“When I told her,” he said, “she looked like she was going to throw up. Kind of how you look now.”

“I’m sure she didn’t look like that,” Dusty said. “Maybe it was almost midnight.”

Max glanced at Pixie again, unconvinced. “That’s not her.”

* * *

On the second night of the ball, when Dusty had believed she could disappear from his life forever, she’d wanted to see Max one more time. She could have stayed home and put an end to the affair right then, but she’d felt like she was just getting started.

The fairy produced a second dress, this one pale pink and dripping with pearls, and clear glass high heels that Dusty was miraculously able to dance in.

After the Ball illustration by Oona Pohjolainen

Apparently Max’s parents had lectured him about disappearing during his own party—they were angry that he’d vanished the night before. So on the second night of the ball she and Max were good: they danced for a long time, and he made the rounds with the mysterious golden-haired girl at his side. And then halfway through the ball the two of them disappeared into the game room of the hotel, and made out against the pinball machine for fifteen minutes, everything buzzing and lighting up.

They played a round of air hockey to cool off, then spent the rest of the night giving each other secret looks while Max diligently played host.

Dusty played the mystery girl. When anyone asked her name, she just smiled. And when Max swept her past Pixie and Fair on the dance floor, she took a long, satisfied look at their angst-filled eyes, leaned in, and kissed him—and felt the dual pleasure of both kissing Max and trampling her stepsisters’ hearts. That was for all the names they’d called her, all the tricks they’d played … all that and then some.

After the Ball illustration by Oona PohjolainenOn the third night of the ball, she’d craved seeing him again. There wouldn’t be a fourth night, so why not enjoy a third? She wore the silk dress covered with fresh flowers, and the gold heels, and even though her clothes were heavy, she moved as if they were made of air.

They danced until eleven, drawing imperceptibly closer with every turn on the dance floor, and then snuck away to the privacy of the hotel bar, where she sat on his lap and they fed each other cake with their fingers. She wouldn’t talk about herself, and he didn’t have to—she knew about him, everyone knew about him.

When the cake was down to crumbs, she leaned against him and said, “I feel sick.” But it was a contented kind of sick. And he laughed oddly and said, “I wish you hadn’t said that.” And when she asked why, he said, “Because it’s not a good lead-in to what I’m about to tell you.”

He took her hand and said, “This is going to sound crazy, but …”

* * *

I love you.

He’d said more than that—tried to explain it, to make sense of how he could feel that way after just a few days. And she’d felt the sudden weight of their time together like so much cake. It had been delicious while it lasted, the craving seemingly endless, until she hit a point when she had to think about tomorrow, and she realized she should have stopped sooner, maybe she didn’t like the flavor enough to risk this dangerous, treacherous, too-sweet feeling that suddenly made no sense to her.

“I have to go,” she said.

The clock read 11:55; it was time to leave anyway. She scrambled to her feet and he stared after her, as if in shock. Then he gathered himself and said, “Wait!” And she took off running, moving as swiftly in her golden shoes as she would have in bare feet, through the hotel and out the door and down the staircase, shedding flowers as she went.

On her way to the waiting limo, she tripped over a sprinkler set into the lawn and one of the gold shoes popped off like a bottle cap. She turned back to get it, but couldn’t find it in the dark; and then she saw him, hurrying after her, wanting answers, and she raced to the limo and threw herself inside, figuring: okay, she’d lost the shoe, but maybe that was the way a Cinderella curse was bound to end, and it wasn’t like he could search every house in the city to find her, the world wasn’t like that anymore, she’d never see him again …

* * *

Dusty glanced sideways at Max, at where he sat on Pixie’s bed, cupping the shoe, like maybe that was all that was left of that night.

“I think you’re wrong about her,” she said, nodding at Pixie. “About her not being the same girl. I think you should give her a chance.”

“And why would I do that?” Max asked.

Because she loves you. Or thinks she does. Because she chopped off her toe and I don’t know what to say to her if you leave without her. She searched for something she could actually say, and came up empty. Nothing felt right.

“She’s not the person I’m in love with,” Max said.

His eyes lingered on the parts of her that remained the same—her eyes, her mouth. Dusty felt herself flushing, as if she were back in the game room, watching herself. It wasn’t that she’d been pretending, exactly. It was more like she’d let a part of herself out. A part she didn’t know very well.

“Maybe you don’t know what love is, if you feel it that fast,” she said.

“I’m a spontaneous person,” Max said. “If I feel something, I don’t wait to be sure. I am sure.”

“I’m not spontaneous,” Dusty said, not sure why she was admitting this. “But she is.” She motioned to Pixie.

“I don’t know. I think you’re pretty spontaneous. I think you liked being that way, when you let yourself.” He shifted closer. “Did you not think of me all those nights when you went home afterward? Because I was thinking of you.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” she said, playing with her black hair—very obviously, so he’d see the color and be reminded: not her.

“Could you stop pretending to be someone else?”

Frustration spilled out of her. “Why does it matter? I was pretending at the ball. That’s not what I’m like. This is what I’m like.” She tugged at her sweatshirt. “Except usually my clothes are uglier than this. And I’m exhausted from cleaning the house, doing the laundry, whatever my stepmom wants done.”

“Why don’t you just leave?”

“I don’t know.” She bit her thumb. It didn’t taste like blood anymore—just faintly, chemically, of freesia. And she did know. She just tried not to think about it.

“Because I’m scared,” she said.

She knew how to live like this. She wasn’t happy about it, but she was used to it. There weren’t any fresh disappointments this way. Just the same ones over and over. And she’d found ways to cope with all of those.

“You didn’t strike me as the kind of person who lets fear stop them from doing things,” he said.

“It was the dress. And the hair. The fairy-godmother magic.”

But it was more than that. She’d felt like that night—like all three nights—were owed to her. And it had affected the way she behaved. She’d let herself be a different person, instead of repressing everything she felt, letting her fears control who she was. But that didn’t mean she’d stopped being afraid.

“Anyway, the shoe fits,” Dusty said, drawing away from the bed, crossing her arms over her chest. “And she thinks she loves you. She’ll probably worship you for the rest of her life if you guys get married. And she’s cute. You could do worse.”

“Are you insane? You think I fall in love too fast, but you want me to marry your sister, who I’ve never even talked to?”

“My fairy godmother is a little aggressive,” Dusty said. “I don’t think she’ll be satisfied if she doesn’t get a happy ending out of someone.”

Right on cue—or maybe a little late, considering Max already knew he hadn’t spent the past three nights dancing with Pixie—a pair of doves appeared in the room. They were the color of wedding mints: one pastel green, the other pastel pink.

“Coo, cooo, there’s blood in the shoe,” they sang in unison.

Max paled. He turned toward Pixie’s sleeping form. “Blood?”

“Dumb birds,” Dusty muttered. She swatted at them, hoping they’d dissolve into air, the same way they’d formed. Instead, the fairy appeared, still in her powder blue gown, an innocent smile on her face. In one hand she held her glass wand. In the other she held the bloody severed toe.

“Frightful!” the fairy exclaimed, before tossing the toe to the birds, who began to peck and snap at it, shredding the flesh with their beaks.

Max bent forward and buried his head in one of the pillows. Dusty rubbed his back, worried about him.

“Was that necessary?” she asked the fairy.

Lorelei shrugged.

“I have enjoyed these awkward confessions,” the fairy said. “They were entertaining, for a while. But now you’re supposed to reveal yourself in your full glory, and be happy that you’ve won the heart of such a charming young man. And you are making a complete mess of it! One might say you seem rather ungrateful. The other girls are disfiguring themselves to have him, and you’re not interested? Who are you to be uninterested? What an arrogant little wench!”

Dusty’s mouth fell open. “Are you threatening me?”

The fairy laughed. “What would I threaten you with, dear? What could be more pathetic than your life?”

Max pushed himself up off the pillow. He looked like he was trying very hard not to look at either Pixie or the flesh-eating doves. “Stop.” He held his hand out toward the fairy. “Please. It’s not going to end the way you want it to.”

“I was so sure you’d be good together,” Lorelei said. “You’re supposed to get married and live happily ever after—the wedding is the best part! Ah, well. Might as well make the best of it.”

The fairy stuck her fingers in her mouth and whistled, and the doves rose into the air, hovering for a moment before they swooped toward the bed.

Toward Pixie.

Too late, Dusty recalled what happened at the end of some of the Cinderella fairy tales: at the wedding, the birds pecked out the stepsisters’ eyes. And since there wouldn’t be a wedding …

Dusty dove across the bed, her body slamming into her stepsister’s. The pink dove’s beak grazed her cheek, and she felt a drop of blood slither down like a tear. Her fist smacked the other bird, and it exploded away from her in a flurry of feathers. She stayed crouched over Pixie, her fists clenched, not sure what to expect—and then abruptly, there was silence. No wings. No fairy.

A hand touched her shoulder, and she looked up.

It was Pixie. Her eyes had opened—both of them—and neither one was stained with blood. “What happened?” Pixie said. “You’re bleeding.”

“It’s nothing.” Dusty brushed a lock of hair away from Pixie’s face. Her stepsister’s skin was hot, like she had a fever. “Don’t worry about me. I’m going to get you some water.”

Dusty went into the bathroom and filled a mug in the sink. Max came up behind her. Their eyes met in the mirror.

“God,” she said, the word falling out like a sigh. “That fairy godmother. She was like an I’ll make you an offer you can’t refuse godmother.”

“I guess she likes weddings.”

“I guess …”

“We should probably get your stepsister to a hospital,” Max said.

“You’re right. She’s not exactly a surgeon.” Dusty pushed her fingers through her hair. She felt so tired. And she hadn’t even thought about how she was going to tell her stepmom.

Max wrapped his arms around her from behind, and she leaned against him, her hair bunching up against his cheek. It felt a little like it had when they’d been feeding each other cake in the bar, not worrying about what happened next.

“Maybe I shouldn’t have said that so soon,” he told her. “But you didn’t have to run away.”

“I did have to. It was almost midnight. I was about to change back.”

“I wouldn’t have cared.”

“No? If your pretty princess fell apart in front of you, you’d be okay with that?”

“I’m okay with her now.”

She didn’t smell like buttery cake anymore. She smelled like dust, the old-book smell of the attic, laundry soap, blood, and, beneath it all, her own skin—but he buried his face in her neck anyway and breathed her in. Her messy, very unprincesslike hair was in his face and he didn’t seem to mind.

She turned, and kissed him, and it felt the same as it had at the ball. It didn’t matter what she was wearing, what she looked like or how many stupid pictures he’d let people take of him—or how different their lives had been. It was just what it was, and it felt right, and she stopped trying to make sense of it.

* * *

Ten minutes later, Dusty found herself dragging a laundry bag full of her belongings to the curb. Her stepmother had kicked her out. The yelling, she’d expected. She’d even anticipated the harpy shriek of “get out get out get out!”—but she hadn’t expected her stepmother to be serious. Or to show how serious she was by pelting Dusty with shoes, a wine glass, and a pair of scissors in quick succession.

Her stepmother had given her five minutes to pack her things. Dusty had run up to the attic, and stuffed everything of value—material or sentimental—into a laundry bag: the enchanted gowns that fell to rags when she touched them, loose pearls that had dropped off the pink dress, a few of her mother’s old dolls, a photo album, and—for posterity—the glass slippers. She never wanted to see the gold shoes again.

She dragged the bag onto the front lawn just as the ambulance pulled up, and stood and watched while the paramedics loaded Pixie into the back. She doubted it was the first time they’d attended to this kind of emergency—Beau Rivage was filled with cursed girls: mermaids with slashed tongues; stepsisters who were desperate to fit into too-small slippers; girls whose feet were chopped off by axes, to save them from dancing to death in red shoes.

But Dusty couldn’t help but feel like a criminal when she noticed the crew checking her out, like they wondered if she was the one whose foot fit the shoe—the Cinderella who’d caused this disaster.

Dusty’s stepmother drove off after the ambulance, shouting out the window that Dusty had better never show her face there again. Fair stayed behind, standing guard in the doorway.

After the Ball illustration by Oona PohjolainenAnd when the ambulance was gone, and Dusty’s stepmother’s car had disappeared, and Fair had locked her out, Max was waiting for her, leaning against the silver Audi he’d parked across the street. The doors were open, and as she dragged her bag across the road, he took it from her and put it in the backseat. The moon was shining down on them, and the neighbors who’d come out to observe the drama were lingering on their lawns, as if trying to discern whether this was happily ever after.

Dusty turned her back on the voyeurs. She brushed a fluff of dust from her sleeve.

“So,” Max began. “I have an idea. I need a roommate. My apartment is too big. And I could get a dog …”

She raised her eyebrows.

“But I’m not really a dog person. And since we already know we get along … I think you should move in.” He dipped his head, his eyes saying please. He was very endearing when he was nervous. There weren’t any pictures of him like this in Pixie’s files.

Dusty climbed into the passenger’s seat. “Now I’m a substitute for a dog? I think I liked it better when you were just in love with me.”

“You had your chance to be happy about that.” His grin—free and unself-conscious—made her glad to be in the car.

She wondered what his apartment looked like. And what it would be like not to live in an attic, to be a regular person who could wander into the kitchen in the morning and make herself a cup of coffee without brewing some espresso concoction for her stepmom first.

The neighbors shuffled back into their houses—disappointed, perhaps, that there hadn’t been an earth-shattering kiss—and Max started the slow drive back to his apartment. One of his hands rested between them, and she curled her fingers around it and held it. There was no traffic in her neighborhood this time of night. Just the two of them, the darkness, and the car—and the refuse of her old life in the back seat.

“Max,” she said, just to mess with him, “what if I want a dog?”

“Then you can have a dog. But no birds.”

“No birds,” she agreed.

It seemed like a good place to start.

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