Started a new short story series that I’m calling The Essence Series. Each short story is a futuristic/sci-fi retelling of a fairy tale. And we begin with Cinderella…
I didn’t grow out of my lisp until I was nearly ten. This was the year my father was forced to marry my stepmother, a woman named Cilla. She was only eighteen at the time and hadn’t loved my father either, but she was the essence of wicked stepmothers, bred to be a villain by the goliath.
Nobody dared question the goliath.
Cilla didn’t seem wicked though. “Call me Cilla,” she said the day she came home. “And these are your stepsisters, Polly and Dolly. I can see they already love you.” She drew my attention downwards to the two calico kittens that were already rubbing fondly against my legs and purring.
I tried to curtsy, as I had been instructed to do, but it was hard when the kittens were purring so ferociously. “My name is Shoo-sanna Hsu.” The lisp came out before I could stop it, and my cheeks burned. I still messed up some words, especially my name. My first name and last name sounded so similar, they were like a tongue twister. “I’m sorry.”
“Unfortunately, Susanna’s lisp is still a problem,” my father sighed. He was a severe man, and anything short of perfection was not good enough.
Cilla smiled. “Problem? I don’t think it’s a problem at all. In fact, I find it endearing. Susanna dear, do you know what nicknames or pet names are?”
“I think so,” I nodded. “In history class, we learned the old humans sometimes had shortened versions of their birth names.”
“Yes indeed,” Cilla said. “You are a smart girl. Nicknames can also be affectionate forms of address, or to show closeness. If you do not mind, I’ll call you Shoo.”
“Shoo,” I repeated after her. And the name stuck.
Two years later, my father passed away, leaving Cilla and I with nothing except our house, but no way of supporting ourselves. This fact added to the goliath’s algorithm about my true essence. I was to be a Cinderella essence, not a Snow White.
Cilla remained optimistic and kind, continuing to work hard with me to earn our living, even when the goliath threatened to kill her for it. They wanted her to be cruel to me. They wanted her to be lazy and to make me work. It was how the Cinderella fairy tale went, after all, and as the essence of Cinderella, I had to endure hardship before I discovered true love.
But to me, Cilla seemed more like the essence of Cinderella, and the goliath were like the wicked stepmothers. And I—I was just Shoo.
The goliath made us learn our history lessons well. Over two centuries ago, we humans had almost become extinct. War, famine, and disease had killed off most of the population. The goliath discovered our planet just in time to save us.
Though they were aliens from a different galaxy, their species was almost genetically identical to ours. This must have been why they took an interest in us. They claimed they wanted to adopt us and learn more about us to further not only their own scientific knowledge, but to benefit the human race as well.
We were genetically modified to be as tiny as our original ancestors’ thumbs. The goliath were amused by a fairy tale about a girl named Thumbelina who had been born out of a flower.
The story was one of many in The Book, a collection of stories containing moral lessons and memorable characters. It was one of the few books left of whatever world we’d lived in before we’d killed ourselves. Out of their labs, we were born. Seven kingdoms, each reigned by a goliath king or queen.
And the goliath determined that every human had the spirit, the essence, of a fairy tale character. We were destined to live as they had.
We were their source of entertainment.
As I walked onto school grounds, the hem of my bedraggled dress dragged on the ground. Not that it mattered, as my clothes were always smeared with dirt and ash. I was not at school to learn, but to sell lunch boxes to the students. After Father had passed away, Cilla and I had sold most of our possessions to start up a small restaurant in our home. As our restaurant grew in popularity, word got out to the goliath. They were not pleased at all, especially when they learned Cilla was the mastermind behind the business.
However, after a bit of debate, they agreed if I did all the work from now on, we could continue. They bought Cilla new clothes and jewelry and ordered her to maintain a life of luxury that I would have to support. Meanwhile, I was forced to wear rags everywhere I went. I woke at dawn to prepare lunch boxes and bake bread, which I would deliver to the kingdom’s school promptly at noon. When lunch was over, I’d return home to prepare for the dinner hour, and when guests arrived, I served them too.
Cilla tried to help me as much as she could without getting caught. She worked behind the scenes, cleaning dishes, preparing vegetables, and greeting customers. But I wouldn’t allow her to do more than that. If the goliath found out she was helping me do even the simplest of tasks, they would take her away from me, and even worse, imprison or execute her. I wouldn’t let that happen. She was all I had left.
I’d reached the school now and pushed my cart into the courtyard, where I usually waited for the lunch hour bell to ring. Many of the students in Kingdom Raindew belonged to Generation 3.0, the third generation that had grown after the revival of the human race. I also belonged to this generation, and had gone to school with most of them until the goliath forced me to withdraw.
I already knew most of them and had also come to recognize the majority of those I didn’t know. Within each kingdom, there were no duplicate essences, so I could guess which fairy tale essence a person was based on personality alone. It had become sort of a game for me.
The bell rang, and the students filed out of class to form a line by my cart. I exchanged smiles with each of them.
Annabelle Lou had her face stuck in a book, but she made sure to put it down as she came to the front of the line.
“What are you reading today, Anna?” I asked.
“An old classic the goliath restored from the old world,” she said, still sounding mesmerized by the story. “It’s about this poor girl named Jane Eyre. You’ve got to read it, Shoo. She kind of reminds me of you.” Her voice lowered to a whisper so only I could hear. “I’m almost done. I’ll drop it in your mailbox today after school.”
I handed her the usual chicken and rice she ordered, and she gave me the money.
“Thanks Anna, I really appreciate it.”
Annabelle was the nicest girl I knew. She was the essence of Beauty. I meant that both literally and figuratively. She had flawless porcelain skin and long, ember hair that reached her knees. We had been best friends until the day I left school, and the goliath had ordered her to keep a distance. Annabelle was as smart as she was nice, and the goliath hadn’t wanted her to teach me anything she learned in school. But Anna knew how to get around that and still snuck me a book or two whenever she could.
My next customer was a boy named Slate Pierson. I thought he was a bit of a shady character and always seemed to be following Annabelle. But it was fitting, as he was a villain, the essence of The Wolf. He grunted at me as I gave him his usual burger.
Following him was Phi Lavender, the role reversed essence of Briar Rose, meaning though male, he was still the most fitting Briar Rose of Generation 3.0. And after him was Drew Mason, who was the cheerleader captain, and the essence of the villainous Red Queen.
The rest of the crowd came and went, all sidekick essences, and most of whom I had not yet been able to guess their essence.
But the one boy I missed was Brad Dulith. Everyone knew Brad because he was our kingdom’s prince, in every way. He was a genius with photographic memory, athletic in every sport, and beautiful. He was a pretty boy with golden locks as soft as the snow attributed to the original character that was the essence of his future wife, who at this point, was still unknown. He might be the essence of Snow White’s Prince Charming, but so far, I had no located Snow White’s essence within Raindew, which meant the goliath would make him travel to one of the other kingdoms to find her.
Brad had been adopted by Raindew’s goliath king. As goliaths had lost the ability to procreate, it was a common practice for them to adopt human children. In King Gorman’s case, he had to adopt Brad because the boy had been the essence of a prince.
As I walked home, I passed by the mansion where Brad lived. King Gorman was rarely at home, so Brad usually lived alone. But that was not the case today.
It was clear from Brad’s angry expression as he hopped over the front gate that his father had come on one of his infrequent visits. The goliath only drank Alice Shrinking Serum when it was necessary for them to shrink to our size and deal with some crisis. But once the crisis was taken care of, they drank Alice Growth Serum to bring them right back to their original giant size.
Brad was so distraught that he very nearly collided into my cart.
“I am so sorry,” he exclaimed. “I didn’t see you.”
I was used to that. “No need to apologize. It was my cart that almost hit you.”
“I almost wish you had hit me,” he muttered. “My life is pretty much over anyway.”
Goodness. He was a bit of a drama queen.
“But sorry, I just met you, and I haven’t even asked for your name.” He finally looked at me closely for the first time, and recognition lit up his face. “Oh, you’re the girl who sells lunch boxes. Again, I apologize. I never caught your name.”
He raised an eyebrow. “Interesting name. Is it because you like shoes?”
Apparently, he hadn’t seen the sad state of the worn and torn pieces of thread that barely remained hanging onto my callused feet.
“No, it’s short for Susanna and sounds like my last name, Hsu.”
“Well Shoo, I’m—”
“You’re Brad, I know. Everyone in the kingdom knows of you.”
“Of course they do,” he sighed. “So anyway, I’m guessing you’re a Cinderella essence.”
“What gave me away? Was it the lovely dress I’m wearing or the non-existent diamonds around my neck?”
He almost laughed. Maybe he would have, had he not been in a pissed off mood. At least he smiled.
For the first time now, I noticed the backpack slung on his shoulders. “Are you going somewhere?”
“I just need to get out of the house for a bit,” he sighed in frustration. “I’m sick of how my dad controls my life.”
“Well, it’s not as though the rest of us have it any easier,” I said. “The goliath run all our—” I realized who I was speaking to and bit my tongue. “Sorry, I didn’t mean that.”
He waved it off with a flicker of his hand. “Don’t apologize for speaking the truth. King Gorman may be my adopted father, but in name only. Things need to be changed. The goliath need to be overthrown.”
I almost gasped at his rebellious words, wondering if he dared speak these things in front of his father. If he did, he was lucky Gorman hadn’t thrown him in prison already.
He eyed me mockingly. “Don’t deny that you haven’t thought the same thing. At least I have the guts to say them.”
Was this a trap? If I agreed with him, would he tell Gorman, and would I be punished?
“Your father’s the king,” I said, as though that explained everything. “We obey the goliath because we want our happy endings.”
“Cut the crap, I’m not going to turn you in. The goliath decide everything we do now and in the Ever After!” he burst out angrily. I’d never seen anyone more passionate. “They decide who we marry, what we do, who we are. Don’t you ever get sick of it? Don’t you ever wish you could decide your own life?”
“We should be allowed to have the freedom to choose who we fall in love with and what career path we would like to pursue. What if Snow White and Sleeping Beauty’s prince fall in love, and Sleeping Beauty is in love with Cinderella’s prince? If Beauty and the Beast have nothing in common except that they’re supposedly a match based on fairy tale algorithms, then don’t you think they might not be fit for each other after all?”
I tried to interject, but the prince was on a roll.
“If The Big Bad Wolf is a kindhearted soul who loves small animals, he should be allowed to own a pet shop. If a Prince Charming is a heartless soul who preys on innocent maidens, he should be locked up for the rest of his life. And if Snow White’s Prince would rather never marry ever and become a celibate monk instead, he should be allowed that choice.”
“You want to become a celibate monk? Why?”
His cheeks heated as though he’d accidently revealed some secret of his, but he didn’t take it back. “Well, I would like the option. And I definitely don’t want to be forced to marry some girl I don’t love by the end of this year.”
“The Interkingdom Ball is in a month,” he said. “This is the third year I’ve been forced to attend. For the past two years, all the other Snow White essences paired up with other Prince essences. According to my father, this time the last Snow White essence of Generation 3.0 will be of age to attend. She’s from Kingdom Hillylock and just turned sixteen. Since we’re the only Snow White and Prince Charming essences left in our generation, we’ll automatically be paired together.”
“Wait a minute,” I said, “I just turned sixteen.”
“Then you’ll be getting an invitation to the ball too,” he said, making a face.
I glowered. “You haven’t by chance met my Prince Charming’s essence, have you?”
“Several, actually,” he said. “At least you’ll have some options. Boring gentlemen, in my opinion. They’ll never appreciate your wit.”
“If they at least allow me to read, I might be able to stomach the Ever After,” I said. “It’ll at least be better than what I have now.”
He looked at me long and hard. “That’s the problem with everyone. We’ve all become complacent with this life. But Shoo, we’re meant for so much more than just tolerating whatever fate the goliath choose to deal us. Don’t you think we should fight for it?”
“I don’t know. I’d rather not provoke the wrath of giants who could end our lives any time they want.”
“So you’d rather live this life of yours, forced to work hard and forbidden to touch a book until the goliath force you to marry some idiot who can’t think for himself.”
I shrugged my shoulders nonchalantly. “If that keeps my loved ones and I safe, then yes. The only thing I care about is making sure my stepmother is taken care of when I get married.”
He paused for a moment, taking that in and shook his head sadly. “You just don’t get it.”
“What don’t I get?”
“You think by living passively under the goliath’s radar, you and your stepmother will be safe. But that isn’t true. Your stepmother is the essence of an evil stepmother, a villain.”
“She isn’t evil at all. She’s the nicest woman I’ve ever known.”
“The goliath don’t see it that way. Only heroes get happy endings. Villains get punished in the Ever After, even if they are nice in this world. I overheard my father say that the essence of the evil queen from Generation 2.0 was executed by an injection of poison, a punishment that is reflective of how the fairy tale queen poisoned Snow White with the apple. So do you really think the goliath will allow your stepmother to continue living peacefully with you after you are married?”
I felt like he’d punched me in the gut. I didn’t want to believe him. But part of me knew he had to be telling the truth. I’d heard things about what happened to the villain essences once they reached the Ever After, but I had tried to ignore it all in an effort to believe Cilla could have a better fate.
“I can tell you know I’m right,” he said. “If you want to save your stepmother, the only thing to do is find a way to defeat my father and the rest of the goliath.”
“How do I know you’re not just some spy for the goliath?” I questioned. “You are the son of a goliath. Why would you want to run away and go against your father?”
“You love your stepmother even though she’s a villain essence. Well, I have someone I love too. A villain with a heart more pure than anyone I know.”
It dawned on me then. This was why Brad didn’t want to marry his Snow White. “You’re in love with a villain essence? Who?”
He didn’t answer, but now my mind was remembering past encounters with Brad and the other students. Brad’s best friend.
Slate Pierson, the Big, Bad Wolf. Now I knew why Brad said he didn’t want to marry and would rather be a monk. Slate and Brad were best friends, but everyone knew that Slate had an obsession with Annabelle. I’d always thought the guy had been a stalker.
“Does Slate know?” I asked.
Brad didn’t seem surprised that I’d placed it together. “No. And for your information, Slate isn’t a stalker.”
Damn, I must have said that last bit out loud. “He’s always watching Annabelle though.”
“He’s in love with her. Unfortunately, Beauty gets paired with the Beast, not the Wolf. The Beast is a redeemed villain essence, but the Wolf is not. Slate knows this, so even though he loves Anna, he’s never told her. She probably doesn’t even know he exists. But trust me, Slate is a good guy.”
“And a villain essence who doesn’t get his happy ending.”
We both looked at each other, and I felt this sort of bond form between us.
“You should join me,” he said. “I could use some help finding a way to stand up to the goliath.”
“I can’t leave my stepmother. And besides, the goliath would only find us and make us return. We can’t fight someone who is twenty times our size.”
“Being small has its advantages. We could hide easily. We just need to find the Growing Alice Serum. Once we drink that, we’ll become the size of the goliath, and then we’ll be able to fight.”
He was being delusional. “Two against hundreds of them?”
“If we train other humans to fight, and we all drink the Growing Alice Serum—”
“First of all,” I said, “if you can’t even convince me to join your cause, what makes you think you can convince others? And second, I don’t know how to fight.”
“I can teach you,” he said. “I’ve been trained by the best goliath masters. My father never thought I’d use my education against them, but I’ll do anything for the sake of freedom.”
He was the most tenacious boy I’d ever met. He would even go against the man who raised him to save his friend. Yes, his goliath father wasn’t much of a father, but it still must be a struggle to fight someone who was supposed to love you.
“If it turns out you’re right that I can’t keep my stepmother safe from the goliath, then I promise I will not rest until the goliath are defeated. But until I see no other option, I’m not leaving to this kingdom. And you shouldn’t either.”
His mouth turned down grimly and stubbornly.
“Hear me out. You’ll do better here than anywhere else. You have an advantage through your dad.”
It was his turn to give me a puzzled glance. “What do you mean?”
“You are the prince, the son of a goliath, and therefore, you can spy on your father, gather information by asking him a casual question or two.”
Brad seemed to be taking me seriously, now that he was a little more clear-headed. “You may be right about that. But you’re wrong if you still believe you can keep your stepmother safe without fighting the goliath. The only way to save our loved ones is to defeat the goliath.”
“We’ll see,” I said.
“Yes, you will see. Sooner than you think.”
His words were ominous, making me wonder if he knew something else he hadn’t told me.
Before I could ask him, he turned to go. Then as an afterthought, he looked back at me. “Listen, what I told you earlier. About Slate. I’d prefer if all of it remained just between us.”
His deep, dark secret. Of course I wouldn’t tell. “Who would I tell anyway? It’s not like I even have time to talk to anyone when I’m always working.” I gasped in sudden realization. “Shit, what time is it?”
“A quarter to two. Why?”
“I’ve gotta go! I was supposed to be back at the restaurant ten minutes ago!”
And without another word, I took off.
I was finally able to close the restaurant at a quarter after ten. Business had been great, as usual, but by the end of the night, I always just wanted to curl up by the fire and sleep. Cilla had stayed out of sight for most of the evening, as we’d had several goliaths come in for dinner.
I was about to wash up and go to bed when I remembered that I hadn’t gotten the mail yet. I couldn’t wait to do it tomorrow, as Annabelle had said she would drop off a book for me. I couldn’t take the chance that a nosy goliath might discover it first. Then not only would I get in trouble, but Annabelle would too.
As promised, a pretty red book lay in the mailbox. There were several letters as well. Most were addressed to Cilla, so I paid no attention to those and turned to look at the cover of my new book. As I eagerly flipped open the cover, I accidently dropped one of the letters. I stooped down to pick it up and saw that the envelope was ornately decorated, embellished with curlicue handwritten characters.
And it was addressed to me.
A sinking feeling settled in my stomach.
I went back into the house before I opened it. Sure enough, it was an invitation to the Interkingdom Ball.
Susanna Hsu, hereby being of age, along with her stepmother, Priscilla Jenkins-Hsu, are both cordially invited to attend the annual Interkingdom Ball on the thirty-first of October. This marks the beginning of the Ever After, where heroes are rewarded, and villains are punished.
Villains are punished. The words echoed in my mind, along with Brad’s warning. Once I crossed into the Ever After, I wouldn’t be able to protect Cilla from the goliath.
What was I going to do?
Maybe I could delay crossing into the Ever After. Yes, that might work to buy me some time. Then I could work with Brad to find a solution other than fighting the goliath. We could find a way to ask the goliath for exceptions so the nice villains could exist peacefully.
But how could I delay the Ever After?
I looked at the invitation and then at the fireplace. Maybe I could pretend I’d never received the invitation. Then if the goliath asked why I didn’t go to the ball, I’d have an excuse, and I wouldn’t have to attend until next year.
A year was going to go by quickly, but maybe, just maybe, it was enough time.
I flung the invitation into the fire and watched it burn.
Brad was waiting for me as I pushed my cart into the schoolyard.
“Do you ever go to class?” I asked.
“What can I say—senioritis is an actual illness,” he said. “I figured you may have changed your mind since yesterday after getting the Interkingdom Ball invitation.”
“How did you know about that?” My eyes widened, before remembering my lie. “I mean—what are you talking about? I never got any invitation.”
He eyed me meaningfully. “Please don’t tell me you thought you could pretend you never received it in an effort to not cross into the Ever After.”
I refused to incriminate myself.
“I didn’t think you were that dumb,” he said. “You know very well the goliath have a way of knowing things. You won’t be able to fool them. You will attend that ball.”
Our discussion was cut short as the lunch bell rang, and the students filed out from their classes.
But on my way home, Brad caught up with me again. “We’ve got a lot of work to do. October thirty-first is in a month. We don’t have much time.”
“What are you talking about?”
“Whether you like it or not, you’re going to this ball. And that means you need to save your stepmother sooner, rather than later. Let me teach you to fight.”
I finally gave in. Although I still wanted to find a peaceful resolution to this mess, it wouldn’t hurt to learn how to fight in case I had to throw a few punches to defend Cilla. I hoped I wouldn’t have to.
In the month that followed, it felt like I never got more than three hours of sleep. When I wasn’t working, Brad was teaching me how to fight.
I had to admit though strict, he was a good teacher. Then again, he had won every championship imaginable. He’d gone against princes and villains from other kingdoms and emerged victorious. His trophies were showcased at Raindew School and at his home.
Not only was he a great fighter, he was also brilliant. He had a photographic memory. He told me about the scientific discoveries the goliath had made and how he had tried to duplicate some of those same experiments in secret. He told me one day that he’d been trying to duplicate recently were the Alice Serums.
“I thought about the day you said I’d have a better advantage staying in Raindew,” he said. “I had intended on searching for the fairies in the other kingdoms.”
“Fairies?” My mind was blown. “You mean they’re real?”
There were rumors that back in Generation 1.0, some of the goliath had bred with the humans to create fairies. Fairies had the gene to grow and shrink at will, and they did not age. The goliath had used them to develop the Alice Serums, which came from their saliva. But to prevent the humans from getting their hands on the serums, they had exiled the fairies to some marshland and now only produced the serum in labs only accessible by goliath. Then they had prevented their people from being able to reproduce ever again so that no more fairies would be born.
“The rumors are all true,” Brad said. “I’ve read my father’s correspondences. The goliath are afraid that the humans will locate the fairies and have access to the key ingredient to developing Alice Serum. But I was thinking, since I have access to my father’s files here, and he has no idea just how smart I am to hack into his secret information, I could figure out how to make Alice Serum on my own.”
He was determined to do it. Whenever he wasn’t teaching me, he was in his lab, somewhere in his mansion. His father was away again, so it was easy for Brad to conduct his secret experiments. I doubted his father even paid attention. The goliath underestimated humans, even the ones they’d adopted as their own children.
The month flew quickly, and soon it was the day before the Interkingdom Ball. I still had no intention of attending. I’d heard Brad’s father was going to be in town again to make sure Brad didn’t skip out on the ball. Although I now knew how to fight well, thanks to Brad, I still had no intention of using them to help Brad lead a rebel army against the goliath. My plan was to ask Brad if I could talk to his father. Maybe I could ask the king to allow my stepmother to be my servant in the Ever After. That might be enough of a punishment to appease the goliath, and then Cilla could continue living with me as we had been. Nothing would have to change.
“You’re a natural,” Brad said, as we finished our sparring session. “You’ve learned so much in such a short amount of time. You’ll be ready in time.”
“In time for what?”
He grinned proudly. “I was able to synthetically create fairy spittle.”
“You mean you’ve made Alice Serum?”
“Isolated the key compound last night. I have both the growing and shrinking serums. All that’s left is to test them out. They will be ready before the ball, and then we can implement my plan.”
I looked at him suspiciously. “What plan?”
“During the Interkingdom Ball, we can use the serums to grow ourselves and shrink the goliath kings. We’ll force the kings to change the rules. They won’t be able to refuse when they’re the ones at risk of being squished like bugs.”
“Wait, I never agreed to this! I don’t want to squish anyone.”
“Don’t worry, we just need to knock them out and trap them. They just need to know that we are willing to fight for our freedom. Even if they don’t agree, they’ll take us seriously when we recruit our army against them.”
“No, I can’t do this, Brad.” I shook my head furiously. “I never wanted to fight.”
He looked at me in disbelief, anger growing at my refusal. “Then why the hell did I waste my time training you?”
“I wanted to find another way to save Cilla,” I tried to explain. “I thought I could ask your father if she could be punished by being my servant the rest of her life. That way—”
“That way nothing changes!” he burst out. “You stupid girl! You still don’t get it. The goliath won’t be dictated to. They determine all of our fates. My father won’t even give you the time of day.”
“Then I’ll plea my case to another king!” I shouted back. “One who will listen to me.”
“None of them will listen! And you have no more time for this stupidity. The ball is tomorrow.”
“I don’t intend on going tomorrow. I burned the invitation, so as far as the goliath know, I can say I never got the invitation. That give me another—”
“You what?” Brad no longer looked angry. He was completely pale. “You burned it?”
“Yes?” My voice squeaked.
“Shoo, what have you done? This is not good.” He grabbed my hand and began to drag me. “We’ve got to get to your house. Cilla is in danger.”
I started running with him, panic rising. “Why?”
“Burning the invitation is an outright refusal to attend the ball,” he said. “An act of defiance. You are no longer a hero essence. You have become their enemy as well, and they will destroy everything you love if you do not apologize.”
We came to my house too late. It was on fire, already burning to the ground. Out in the garden, the only thing left was an ugly pumpkin. And on that pumpkin was a note.
“The goliath expect our Cinderella at the ball tomorrow, or her stepmother dies a terrible death.”
I turned around to find that Brad was gone. I was alone.
Tears wouldn’t even come. The house my father had built was nothing but ash now, and the one person left in this world who I loved had been taken by the goliath. If I didn’t show up to the ball, they’d kill her. But if I did show up, they’d also kill her. There was no winning this battle.
I didn’t know what to do.
Suddenly, I felt something furry brush against my legs and looked down to see Polly and Dolly.
“Meow, meow!” they cried.
“You’re still alive!” I hugged Polly tightly, and she protested, trying to get away from my hold. Thank God for the resourcefulness of cats.
But what was I supposed to do with two house cats? The three of us were useless at our size. Brad had the Alice Serum of course, but he probably never wanted to talk to me again. I should have listened to him, took him up on joining his cause. I’d been so foolish to believe the goliath would allow an exception and spare Cilla. They didn’t care about us humans. All they wanted was to use us for their entertainment. Brad was right. The only way to get our freedom was to fight for it, to fight the goliath and their bogus rules.
They’d polluted the very fairy tales they claimed to adore.
The sun began to rise, and I shivered, realizing for the first time that it was freezing. The raggedy dress was barely enough to shelter me from the wind, and I’d been outside sitting on the cold ground the entire night.
I jumped as a blanket fell on my shoulders and looked up to see Brad beside me.
“I thought you left.”
“Just for a moment,” he said. “I needed to go home to get something.”
I saw that he had his backpack with him. He unzipped it, drawing out new clothes—black leather.
“First, a change of clothes. Put these on.”
He averted his eyes as I began to change. I was too cold to protest. Any clothes would have been better than my rags at this point.
“This suit is made out of a strong material that is also flexible and durable. Perfect for the quest we’re about to embark.”
I noticed now that he was wearing a similar suit.
“What are we doing?” I asked him.
“Today’s the day, Shoo. Today, we fight the goliath and make them leave our loved ones alone. Don’t you worry, we’ll get your stepmother back. I know where they took her.”
Now he turned back to me, revealing two vials in his hand. “Alice Serums,” he said. “Time to test the growing serum out.”
He looked around and spotted the pumpkin. “Test subject.” Then he sprinkled just a drop on the gourd. Nothing happened for a second, and then it began to shake. And then it exploded, growing to the size of an automobile.
“It works!” he shouted, victorious. “Now we need ferocious felines double the size of that.”
Before I could stop him, he’d placed several drops on both Polly and Molly. They expanded and quadrupled in size. Their meows had become roars.
“Now for us,” he said.
He sprayed his backpack and both our heads with serum, and I felt myself soaring towards the heavens.
I looked around at the clear bird’s eye view. Everything below us was so small. But everything around us was…different. We were standing on a gigantic manmade habitat inside a laboratory. The seven kingdoms were below us, and they looked more like a three dimensional map than the world in which I had lived all my life.
But before I had the chance to take this in, the sound of shattering glass alerted me to my cats. They were jumping around and knocking things over. But that wasn’t the problem. They were double our size.
Brad flashed me an apologetic look. “I may have sprayed them a little too much, but this might not be a bad thing. As warriors, we need ferocious beasts to fight alongside us.”
“Polly and Molly hardly qualify as ferocious beasts.”
At the sound of their names, the cats tried to head butt me playfully, almost knocking me to the ground. Molly was soon distracted by Brad, who she wanted to turn into her new play toy.
“Someone tell their claws that,” he shouted, dashing away as Molly’s paws nearly stabbed him.
“Molly, stop that!” Of course, she didn’t listen to me. And now Polly wanted to play too.
“Maybe I should have thought this through!” Brad ducked again, reaching for serum.
He sprayed just as I protested, “Don’t make them any bigger!”
However, he’d sprayed them with the Shrinking Serum. The cats returned to their normal size, or rather, bigger than they had been before, but proportional to us now. We were all giants now, the size of the goliath.
“We’ll let the cats play with the goliath later,” he said, sounding entirely too gleeful.
I now looked around the lab and to the seven kingdoms.
“I can’t believe I’m actually seeing this,” Brad said. “This is the goliaths’ headquarters.” He pointed to the exit. “Outside those doors, things are gonna get rough. Are you ready to find your stepmother?”
He stomped his foot impatiently, hissing. “Shoo, we don’t have time to wait. Don’t tell me you’re going to argue again.”
“No, it’s just that…” I pointed to the worn rubber soles on my feet.
“Oh that. I forgot.” He reached into his backpack, and fished something out of it. Combat boots.
They smelled new and sturdy. I put them on, and they fit perfectly.
We snuck through the building, mindful to keep out of sight of the security cameras. Brad had stolen the blueprints from his father and studied them extensively for this very day, so he knew his way around the place. We’d shrunk my cats even more so they fit into my pocket and wouldn’t wander around. I had already apologized to Molly and Polly for the numerous size adjustments I’d made them suffer and promised I would only use them on the goliath as a last resort.
“Where are they holding Cilla?” I whispered to Brad.
“Holding cell in the basement,” he said. “They grew her to their size. That’s what they do to any human they intend to use as a test subject.”
“Villain essences are used to further their scientific advancements.”
I knew to read between the lines there. The goliath told us the villain essences deserved punishment, but that was only to try to justify themselves when they experimented on human lives.
I would not let that happen to Cilla.
“We have twelve minutes to return to the Seven Kingdoms Habitat,” Brad said. “Twelve minutes for them to react to the alarm we’ve already set off.”
I hurried after him, already hearing the security bells and panicked voices overhead.
We climbed down flight after flight of stairs, and out of breath, I almost stumbled into Brad as he came to a sudden stop. We had reached a locked door.
He took something from his pocket, a black object, and I gasped. “Is that a gun?”
He didn’t answer, only used it to shoot the lock. I half screamed at the noise as it reverberated in the stairwell.
The door fell open, and we burst inside. What met my eyes was worse than I’d ever expected. Grotesque and mauled up body parts of former humans lay on the table and on the floor. Three people were chained to the wall, some obviously ailing, others battered and broken. One man had bear claws, another woman, the tongue of a snake, and a person, I didn’t know the gender, looked like a humpbacked gargoyle.
And there in the last chamber, I saw Cilla.
“Shoo!” she exclaimed in relief. “Thank goodness you’re safe!”
“Did they hurt you?”
She shook her head. “Not yet.”
Brad pointed his gun at the chains. “Brace yourself.” Then he fired. Cilla jerked away from the wall, coming to embrace me.
“We need to get out of here,” Brad said. As we headed for the door, I heard the mournful cries of the others who were still imprisoned.
“We need to free them too.”
Brad gave me a pointed glare. “Are you serious? We have exactly six minutes to get back.”
“And you’re wasting time talking. Shoot those chains.”
He wanted to make another snide remark, I could tell, but he decided against it, and put his time to good use to free the three prisoners.
Then we all took off running.
It was when we’d reached the hallway leading to the lab when we ran into two goliath guards. It struck me then just how similar they looked to us. They could have been our neighbors, minus the guns aimed at our heads.
“Who are you, and what business do you have here?”
They blinked and looked not quite at us, almost like they were going blind.
“Ah, so you’re among The Diseased,” Brad said. “Vision’s not quite what it used to be, is it?”
“Shut up, whoever you are!” One of them waved his gun around the vicinity of Brad, but it was clear now he couldn’t see well.
“An epidemic that’s spread through the goliath population, slowly killing you off, first blinding you, then cutting off your other senses,” Brad continued, trying to distract them, and now I knew why. He held a vial behind his back, waving it at me.
Alice Growth Serum. Now was the time to use it.
I took it from him and opened it.
“Though the goliath are genetically similar to humans, only the goliath are susceptible to these disease,” Brad said. “For some reason, humans are immune. And you want to know why. Is that why you’ve been experimenting on us for a century?”
“I said, shut up!” The guard fired, and Brad fell, just as I poured Growth Serum on myself and the cats.
Polly and Molly sprang, hissing. The guards didn’t even have time to scream before the cats clawed them to bits like crickets.
Other guards had come into the corridor, but now I was even bigger than the giants themselves. Their bullets felt more like pellets, and though they hurt, they were not life threatening. I knocked them over like bowling pins.
I scooped up my friends, and my cats, purring contentedly for having caught their prey, jumped on my shoulders. And we broke into the lab.
Time was running out. I hadn’t thought this plan beyond saving Cilla, but the goliath would not let this go unpunished. They would pull all their resources to find us. However, it would be difficult to locate us when we were small again, hiding among thousands of people the size of their thumbs.
I located Raindew among the kingdoms and shrunk everyone, including my cats, down to size before returning them home.
Only I was left now. But time had run out. The guards piled through the door, just as I sprinkled the last of the Shrinking Serum on myself. One of them pulled off my left boot, and I tumbled into Kingdom Raindew, leaving the puzzled guard with nothing but my shoe.
Brad was bleeding badly, but fortunately, the bullet had only grazed his right shoulder. Cilla helped sterilize and dress the wound. We hid in a cave in the forest between Kingdoms Raindew and Moondance.
Our new friends, though grateful for being free, were of no help to our survival. I’d told them to go their own way, as they would have a better chance. But for some reason, they stayed with us. Scion was the man with bear paws. He’d been experimented upon for five years as punishment for being the essence of an evil sorcerer. Lilith had the snake tongue inserted because she’d been the essence of Briar Rose’s evil godmother. Then there was Polt, who was so psychologically scarred, he couldn’t remember anything about his previous life.
After a week of hiding, I knew we needed to get supplies from town. We were running out of food.
Brad was against it. “I have an idea.”
I didn’t know how he did it or what he did, but the next thing I knew, Slate Piersen snuck into our hideout. I nearly killed him when he entered.
“Stop, it’s me!” he barked. “Where’s Brad?” His demanding tone was surprising, considering I’d never heard him speak louder than a mutter before.
“Here,” Brad groaned. He was still hurting a lot, but at least the wound hadn’t festered. “Did you get us some food?”
“You’re so stupid,” Slate said, throwing some wrapped sandwiches and water on the ground. “I told you not to go through with it. Now the goliath are looking for you and her.”
He pointed at me.
“I did what I had to do,” Brad said unapologetically. “There’s no going back. We need to recruit an army to fight the goliath.”
“Why couldn’t you just leave it alone?” Slate growled again. “Things are the way they are, and we can’t change it.”
He sounded a lot like me before all this had happened.
“I never asked anyone to endanger themselves for me,” Slate went on. “I made my peace knowing I’d be punished in the Ever After.”
“Not only punished, but tortured and experimented on,” Brad yelled at him. “Look at them!”
He indicated our three friends, and Slate almost flinched at Polt, who was cowering in the corner, as though monsters were about to attack him.
“They were going to experiment on my stepmother,” I said. “We needed to save her.”
“And now we need to get everyone else in all seven kingdoms on board,” Brad said. “They can only save themselves by fighting the goliath. I was hoping to use the growth serum on those willing to fight.”
“That may have worked before, but not now,” Slate said. “Everyone is afraid. The goliath have a combat boot left behind by a suspect who freed dangerous villains. Until the owner comes clean, the goliath are threatening to kill every villain essence that remains in Raindew before sunset tomorrow. Even children. There is no more unity among us. Humans have turned against each other, telling the goliath their neighbor is the boot’s owner.”
“The goliath are doing that on purpose,” Cilla said. “They know we have an advantage since we have the Alice Serum. Since they could easily pull DNA off the boot to match Shoo’s DNA, they are only doing this to cause disharmony and fear among humans.”
All of us looked at her in astonishment that she would know about DNA and Alice Serum.
“A mother’s intuition,” she shrugged. “I listen to everything you say. So what do we do now?”
“Obviously you can’t turn yourselves in,” Slate snarled. “So I guess I’ll tell them it’s me. If it saves Annabelle’s sister, I’ll do anything.”
“No, you can’t!” Brad burst out in horror.
“Anna’s sister is the essence of an evil stepsister,” Slate said. “She’ll be executed along with other children if someone doesn’t do something.”
“Just wait,” Brad said. “I’ll come up with a plan.”
“Sunrise tomorrow,” Slate said. “You have a solid plan by then. If not, I turn myself in.”
Polly woke me, jumping on my head. She was hungry. I whispered gently to her. “I’m sorry, baby, but there’s barely enough food for the humans. You’ll have to wait.”
She hissed at me, and I was thankful she was smaller than me at this moment, or she would definitely turn me into a snack.
I looked over the fire where everyone else was sleeping and jerked up. All were accounted for except Brad.
I got up to look for him and saw a note on his backpack. It was addressed to me.
I’ve decided to turn myself in as the owner of the boot. I am a prince and the son of a goliath king. They won’t do anything too bad to me. I can’t have you or Slate get in trouble. After all, I did start all of this. Just promise me that if I’m not there to finish what I started, you will be the one to finish it. You, Slate, Cilla…everyone deserves a happy ending. The goliath don’t get to take that away from us. Don’t be afraid to fight for what’s right. I’m glad we were able to become friends.
- The key to making more serum lies with Slate. Remember the history of the fairies. In case the goliath get their hands on this, I can’t say anything else.
Oh, shit! I grabbed Brad’s gun from his backpack and took off towards town.
Brad was going to get himself killed. When he said he was coming up with a better plan than Slate’s, this was not exactly what I thought he had in mind.
I realized something else then. I loved Brad. I was in love with him. And I knew that it was stupid for me to have let it happen. He would never love me in return, at least not in that way. But I couldn’t help it. He’d been the first one to tell me that I needed to fight, that I couldn’t let the goliath win. He’d given me a purpose. And he had been there for me.
He’d literally given me new shoes to fill. Shoes I never thought I’d wear. I couldn’t help but love him, even when that love would always remain one-sided.
I arrived at the marketplace to see a crowd had already gathered around a stage. On the stage was a display case that held my shoe. And Brad stood next to it.
“I don’t care what the goliath do to me,” Brad addressed his audience. “I am the owner of that shoe. But you all need to know what my father, what the goliath have been doing. They have only created heroes and villain essences for one reason. To divide us. To justify punishing villains so they can subject villain essences to scientific experiments.”
The crowd’s echoes reflected shock and horror.
“The goliath have taken away some of our friends and family from us just because an algorithm they created seemingly proves the same ones we love are somehow evil. Do you believe this is right?”
“No!” the crowd shouted angrily.
“No is right!” Brad bellowed back. “They have tortured our loved ones, using them as test subjects to find a cure for an epidemic that only gets them sick, not us. It’s to their benefit, not ours.
The people chanted. “The goliath deserve to pay! They are the true villains!”
Brad played to their enthusiasm. “They treat us worse than animals, and they must be stopped. We are not their entertainment. We are not to be used as test subjects. We must be allowed to make our own choices, to decide our own Ever After. Believe me, we can all rise together to defeat—”
A shot fired, and Brad fell. People screamed. The shot had come from the king’s own weapon. He walked on stage, his gun pointed at his son.
“You are a disgrace,” he shouted. “You think these people will fight? They are cowards! The goliath are bigger than all of you. You are bugs!”
He aimed, ready to shoot again.
But I had already made my way to the stage. “Put your weapon down, or I’ll blow your freaking head off!” My hand was trembling. I had never fired a gun before.
The king laughed in my face, calling my bluff. “You, a little nobody? You’ve never been even been trained to fight, and you think you can defeat me?”
His gun moved to me, and I knew he was going to pull the trigger.
So I pulled mine.
The king’s brains flew everywhere, and his body fell with a thud.
I was still shaking as I approached Brad’s body. Somehow, Slate had come up on stage too.
Brad had been hit in the chest. He took one last look at me and Slate, and his hands fell to his side. Slate closed his eyes for him.
I was too furious to cry. The goliath would not get away with this.
I rose, determined. From the display case, I took the shoe, and I looked to the crowd. They fell into a hush.
“Our prince, Brad, was the one to teach me to fight. And now, he’s telling all of you to join in this fight too. He gave up his life to tell us not to be scared. If we’re on the side of right, then we need to fight for it.”
The crowd began to come to life once more.
“The goliath deemed me a Cinderella essence,” I shouted. “Cinderella was an underdog going against the odds. We are all Cinderella now. We’re going up against the most formidable of opponents. But Cinderella worked hard to get her happy ending, and that’s what we need to do. We will fight to get our happy ending!”
Several goliath guards had come in, trying to subdue the crowd, but they were in chaos, fighting against them.
One of the goliath had slipped on stage. “Are you the real owner of that shoe? If you don’t answer me, I swear I’ll use Alice Serum and squish all of you like bugs.”
But the crowd saw him and the force of the masses was all too much. Somehow, they managed to take out all six goliath and stole away their vials of Alice Serum, crushing them beneath their feet.
I didn’t believe it was real Alice Serum anyway. The goliath would never have serum with them when they were with humans. They hid the serum in their own homes, far away from the masses.
One by one, the people in the crowd spoke. “I am the shoe’s owner.”
“I am the shoe’s owner.”
“The shoe belongs to me!”
I looked at them in amazement. There was no turning back now. The goliath would have to kill all of us if they wanted to catch the real owner of the shoe.
So I shouted at the sky, hoping they could hear me, hoping Brad could hear me.
“I never wanted to fight, never wanted to be your Cinderella.”
I remembered Brad’s sacrifice. And thought of all the people here.
“So if the shoe fits, then I’ll wear it.”
I shoved my foot into the boot, and it fit perfectly.