A heart can only bleed for so long before hardening. A cheek can only be turned so many times before turning red. Compassion is not a bottomless pit. It was never supposed to be.
Cindy sat in a crumpled heap on the front stairs of the house that loomed above her. It always loomed, or towered, or cornered now. Once, it had been a place full of love. Of her love, of her mother’s love, and of her father’s love. Then her mother had gone, and then, slowly, like water slipping through cracked glass, her love had vanished. Then her father had gone. His love had lingered a little, but not nearly so long, because the woman he had brought into the house – along with her two stepdaughters – were so antithetical to love that they sucked it all up and puked it out in the backyard.
Cindy’s stepmother loved herself, and loved her daughters, and that was all the love she had. Worse, the negative spaces of her emotions were not filled with like or dislike or neutrality or nothing at all. They were filled with hate. All three of them were only capable of love or hate, and they certainly didn’t love Cindy.
She had tried to love them anyway, the way her mother would have wanted her to. She had tried to get along with them, the way her father had wanted her to. As she cried herself to sleep at night on her little cot with its threadbare blanket and no pillow, she had told herself that she could teach them by example. Love them and teach them how to love. Give them smiles for all their sneers and eventually their crooked faces would turn out right.
But now, tonight, as she wept openly on the stairs of her home that had been turned into nothing short of a prison, as she felt the cold of the stone steps through what remained of her dress…no, not just her dress, her mother’s dress, the only thing she really had left of her mother. And they had known that! And it hadn’t made them stop, no, it had made them go about their terrible work with such disgusting glee, the happiest she had ever seen her stepsisters since they had met. Cindy was surrounded by shreds of fabric, tufts of torn tulle, and across the drive and into the grass sparkled pearls that had flown out into the darkness when they had given one final, grabbing tug.
The malice in their eyes. The gleeful hate. The joy at destroying what little she had. That had been it. The final push. Cindy finally, regretfully, understood.
Her weeping had run itself dry, nothing more than hard, cold sniffles, when a star in the sky above detached itself from its frigid confines and lazily swooped and swayed its way down to her. By the time it was hovering no more than a few feet in front of her it was roughly the size of a pumpkin. Cindy watched all of this with nothing more than a detached curiosity. She had cried out all of her emotion and would need the night, at least, to recover.
The ball of light resolved itself into an old woman in a fine dress and surrounded by delicate wings. There were little sparks around her, like fireworks, and a cold rush of air. The old woman looked at Cindy as though expecting some sort of response. A smile. Applause. Relief.
Cindy only sat and waited.
“Aren’t you going to ask who I am?” the woman asked with an eyebrow raised.
“Who are you?” Cindy asked obediently. She didn’t have the energy in her to argue, and the sooner this nonsense was over the sooner she could crawl back inside to her little cot and cry some more.
The old woman pulled a thin wand out of nowhere and waved it back forth, trailing silvery light in the darkness for a bit before bending into a professional curtsey.
“I am your fairy godmother,” she said. Finally.
“Oh,” Cindy said. “That’s nice.”
“That’s…that’s nice?” the fairy godmother repeated, crossing her arms in front of her. “Here I am coming down from the heavens and performing a little magic, and all you’ve got for me is that’s nice?”
“I’m sorry. It’s just…I’ve had a bad day.”
The fairy godmother looked Cindy over and tutted. “Yes, I’d say you have. I supposed you’ve earned the right to be a little upset, haven’t you? And in fact, that’s why I’m here.”
For the first time all night, Cindy felt something besides anguish and sorrow and numbness as the warmth of hope filled her chest. “It is? You’re here to help me?”
“Of course!” the fairy godmother said. “Honestly, why else would I show up? So, tell me, what’s the one thing you want more than anything else in the entire world?”
Cindy wondered if this was a time for brutal honestly as she worked her hands in and out of fists. The first word of her title was ‘fairy.’ And fairies did have a bit of a reputation. Honestly, this might be Cindy’s only chance.
“Well, up until about twenty minutes ago I would have said it was going to the ball tonight. But now I think the thing I want the most is for my stepmother and stepsisters to be dead.”
“That’s exactly what I was thinking, and of course you can’t go to the ball dressed like…wait.”
The fairy godmother was once again pushed out of her routine, and for a few seconds could only stare at Cindy like she was some new kind of fish.
“What?” she finally said.
“Not necessarily dead,” Cindy said. “Just, like, so very, very far away from me. If you can’t kill them, can you just take me away? Anywhere, I do not care at this point where I go.”
“Ah, yes, yes!” the fairy godmother said, recovering herself. “That’s why you must go to the ball! You never know who you might meet-”
“Um…no, thank you.”
“I don’t want to go to the ball anymore. They are at the ball.”
“Yes, but…what I’m trying to say, dear, is that if you go to the ball, you might meet someone, and that someone could take you away from all this!”
But Cindy was already shaking her head.
“Why would I want to meet someone when I know those three are only going to try to take him away?”
The fairy godmother waved her hands. “Don’t be silly! They wouldn’t-”
“They would.” Cindy stood up, brushing off some of the dirt from her ruined dress. “All I wanted to do was go to the ball and meet some people. You know, I didn’t even care about meeting the prince? It’s so far outside the realm of possibilities that I never even thought about it. I just wanted to meet people, literally any other human being besides those three awful women. Maybe friends. Maybe someone to date and fall in love with! I don’t know! But certainly no one they would care about. No one they could see as a threat. Except they would see him as a threat. Whoever I brought home, he could be a farmer’s son or a barkeep or some half-deformed ditchdigger from the graveyard. Whoever I met they would try to take them from me because that’s what they do.”
“Look at my dress!” Cindy said, holding up the tatters. “Even before they destroyed it, it wasn’t very nice. No, wait, it was nice. It just wasn’t nearly as nice as what they were wearing. If the four of us had walked into the ball together no one would give me a second glance before they were fawning all over the three of them, but they are so filled with hate for me that they wouldn’t even risk that first glance. I can’t have them in my life anymore. I won’t.”
Shifting uncomfortably, the fairy godmother tried to come up with something to say.
“My dear,” she finally said. “I was sent down to help you as a reward for your kindness, and your patience. Saying something like this…”
Cindy shrugged, completely over it. “I’m sorry, fairy godmother. Maybe if you had come earlier. Sometime in the last ten years as they tormented me every day of my life. Maybe if you had come before they broke me. I can still feel kindness. I can think of others and imagine all the wonderful things I’d like for them. But when I think of my stepmother and my stepsisters all I think of is the never-ending parade of hate they sent my way, and how much I’d like to send it back to them.”
“Doesn’t everyone deserve kindness?” the fairy godmother asked.
“That’s what my mother taught me.”
The fairy godmother smiled.
“But she was wrong. And I’ve been wrong, too. Everyone deserves kindness up to a point. But if that person never gives you kindness back…if all that person does is show you anger and hate…then I think you can stop giving that person anything at all. Besides the finger and your back as you walk away.”
“But by showing kindness, you become the bigger person!”
“Why does that responsibility always fall on the victim?” Cindy asked, taking a step forward and noting the way the fairy godmother took a step back. “I’ve spent ten years being the bigger person and where has that gotten me?”
“Well, as a matter of fact, it got you me! I was going to dress you up and send you to the ball! You were going to meet the prince and dance with him all night and fall in love!”
“I already told you what would happen if I met anyone tonight.”
“It’s not even worth the risk? The chance of true love?”
Cindy sighed. “No. It’s not. Not anymore. Help me leave this place for good, or help me kill them.”
The fairy godmother straightened up, her eyes sad. “I can’t do that.”
“Well,” Cindy said with a shrug. “I guess we’re done here.”
The fairy godmother hesitated, as though she knew she shouldn’t leave. But her hands were tied. She had come with one mission and one mission only. And now that was ruined. She left as she came, turning into light and fading off back into the stars.
Cindy watched the sky for a while, as though perhaps another, more amenable fairy would come down and help her. When no one came, she turned back into the house, heading for the closet under the stairs that held the rat poison.