Cinderella is when someone waves a wand and makes it happen.
Cinderella is when you win the big game, even though you’re the worst team in the league.
Cinderella is when the clock strikes twelve and bam, you’re a pumpkin.
Cinderella is when, even though you’re wearing your worst sweats and have black stuff all over your face and haven’t washed your hair in a week, someone brings you a glass shoe and thinks you’re beautiful anyway.
My dad was a TechnoGod, creator of three cult platform games, but then he wrote this smoking-hot piece of software designed to manage bits and wrangle bytes and solve world hunger and the payout was big. We got a new house and a new life and a new family.
Mostly, there was Barbara, a soft-drink heiress, sweet and bubbly. She wasn’t smart, but she loved my dad. And despite all her couture purses and her teacup poodles, he loved her back.
And Caitie and Camille, twins—the fake kind they make in a lab, using precise measurements and freeze-dried parts, because the first Mr. Soft-Drink wasn’t so adept in the baby making department. They were soft and colorless with pale hair, a little horsey in the face, but who can be critical, when you’re comparing that to a surly girl with no chest and bony knees? A girl whose body runs straight up and down, and whose hair is limp like twine and who hardly ever leaves the house if she can help it.
The invitation was tied with an embroidered ribbon and printed on this really expensive paper. Everyone at Chauncy Prep was talking about who’d gotten one, who hadn’t. But Kylie Bertram is a sycophant, and she only invited me because my dad is loaded.
Caitie and Camille spent days at the tanning salon, basking in UV rays so they’d look appropriately slow-roasted. I sat in my room with the shades down and poured virtual bullets into virtual alien life forms and ravening zombie hoards until my eyes burned and my fingers went numb.
“Go,” Barbara said, holding up a shiny dress with too little room in the waist area and way too much in the boob. “Go to the party and have fun and just let yourself be a normal kid for once in your life, okay?”
I didn’t answer or let her know that I’d heard. Stonewalling is a subtle art. The trick is not to look aggressive. I spotted a zombie shambling along a catwalk and popped its head off.
“It’s the perfect opportunity to get out and socialize, maybe spend some time with a special boy. It says you’re allowed to bring a guest.”
I might have been more receptive if she hadn’t said special boy. I might have nodded and taken the dress, tried it on and smiled for the mirror. But probably not. I just looked at her.
“Oh, for the love of God,” Barbara said, throwing the dress down on my bed and walking out.
I went back to my bunkers and my bullets, thinking about my special boy.
Victor was a bored prince behind a glass counter.
When I first started coming into the store, he would disappear in back and leave someone else to help me. I got wise fast, started coming in early or late, because if he was the only one there, he couldn’t ignore me. At least, not forever.
He said things like, What? And sometimes, Can I help you with something? like it was patently obvious there was no way he could help me with anything, ever, not in my whole life, not in cold, icy, quietly-freezing hell.
But after I showed him my collection of old NES titles and told him who my dad was, we started talking normally, like I was a boy. A boy, or else just not a girl.
When I went to ask Victor to the party, I brought a stack of three Japanese survival horror titles as a peace offering. Or a bribe.
“Are you sure you want to sell these?” he said. “I mean, they’re rare. They’re out of print. They never even got distribution over here.”
I nodded. I shoved them across the counter and held out the invitation. “Do you want to go with me to this asinine New Year’s Eve party?”
He squinted and rubbed his chin. “What?”
“This.” I tapped the invitation. “This—this primitive form of human sacrifice. My stepmother’s making me go, and I need someone to watch my back.”
“Um, I don’t know. Maybe. I guess so. Hey, are you going to want to reserve Ice Storm IV? We’re getting the first shipment next week.”
I didn’t tell him that my dad was best friends with Jory Hansen and I’d had a promotional copy for two months and beat it three times. Once on Hard and twice on Insane. I just put the invitation back in my messenger bag and thought about that stupid shiny dress.
On the night of Ritual Torture, Barbara zipped me in and explained about appropriate undergarments, and how tiny waists aren’t really tiny waists and sometimes womanly charms are really padding or these clear plastic packets filled with gel, and legs only look long because they’re canted up on four-inch heels.
“That’s cheating,” I said, but she just waved her magic wand and made my hair curl and my breath smell minty. She did a little dance and there I was, gleaming in the marble bathroom, with a tiny silk bag and shoes made of something that looked like melted asphalt. I took a cab down to the Corrs Gallery to meet Victor.
He was standing by the Gothic double doors with his hands in his pockets, looking bored and too old for the party. He had on a tux—a real one that looked like it had been made for him, not rented off a truck—and I realized that I’d always just assumed that because he worked in a gaming shop, he couldn’t be a private school kid, too.
He took in my wobbly height, my artfully coiled hair, my fairy-godmothered makeup, but he didn’t say anything. I took his arm when he offered it and we went inside with the silence like a cord between us, pulling us tighter and tighter until it was clearly going to snap. We stepped into the ballroom like total strangers, with absolutely nothing to say to each other.
The party was flanked by ice sculptures. There were wandering musicians, and waiters with trays of canapes that tasted like pureed shrimp and too much garlic.
We sat on a flower-festooned bench, saying inane things, killing time like it was killing us. Victor’s hair was combed back hard from his face. It made him look like a dead maestro.
Finally, it was midnight. Everyone shrieked and cheered and confetti rained down. All around us, people were kissing. I looked up at Victor and waited, but he didn’t bend over me.
He said, “No. Hell no.”
For a second, he just stared at me. Then he scowled and leaned close. “Who was the girl who used to come into my store? What happened to her?”
I stuck out my chin. “Nothing. I’m right here. What is wrong with you?”
“You look ridiculous, is what’s wrong. You look like a complete tool.”
“So do you,” I said, and yanked off his cufflink. It was black jade or obsidian. Something expensive.
He pulled the jeweled comb out of my hair, and the whole mass of curls came down, spilling into my face.
I glared and ripped off his tie. He reached out a hand and there went my silk evening wrap.
Collar studs, gone. Color-coordinated pocket square and gold monogram necklace, gone. I yanked off my glossy shoes and my stockings, threw down my tiny purse. We stood in a pile of thrown clothes. He was in his black tux pants and his undershirt. I was barefoot in my shiny dress.
“Do you want to go to Denny’s?” he said.
I nodded and grabbed his hand. I pulled him toward the door and we took off running, shoving through the crowd and out to the busy street and the cold sidewalk and the world. He was laughing and holding my hand and it was like something out of Ico. Or something in real life. It was perfect.
Because Cinderella is when midnight comes and everything goes back to normal.