This story is one of the September Writing Challenge entries chosen to be a featured story.
The clock strikes twelve. Midnight.
The beautiful girl freezes and looks up, a butterfly caught in a spider’s web. Her ocean eyes find the huge grandfather clock at the head of the room, and she gives a tiny gasp. She curls out of the beautiful man’s embrace and gathers the folds of her skirt up to her chest. They billow and puff in her arms like a cloud might at the moment before the sun burns it away, the point of no return.
She snaps. Breaks into a sprint. The crowd gasps as one as the girl who has been its epicentre tonight flees like the dogs of hell are biting at her heels.
I glance around and find my sister in the swelling mass of people rushing for the door. Her eyes are as wide as mine must be.
Our eyes are not the unfathomable ocean of the beautiful girl’s. They are muddy, like our hair, like our spirits. We don’t shine. Not even in these layers of chiffon and silk and powder that mother can barely afford. The coins she spent to decorate us sparkled more than we do. Her finished products.
People are shoving me from all directions as they surge for the windows. The girl must be outside now, still pursued by the beautiful man. His father is ordering his minions about, the only sign of anything out of place being the crooked angle of the crown on his head. He wants the beautiful girl found. She will make beautiful grandchildren.
That girl. She ruined everything.
“Catch his eye,” mother had said. “Smile, but not too much. Tilt your head so that he doesn’t see that ugly mole.” Then she had shaken her head at me, at my sister too, as though asking the powers that be what she had done to deserve such useless daughters.
It wasn’t my dream, to capture the eye of the beautiful man. It was hers.
But my dream was for her to look at me without a miserable sneer tugging down her once lovely face. When she looked at me…it was as though there were strings at the corners of her mouth and eyebrows, weighted down by the leaden freight of my failures.
So I curtseyed tonight. And I smiled without showing my bottom teeth (“So crooked” she would tut whenever I laughed and they showed). And I kept my chin up and my shoulders straight even when my corset felt like it was going to squeeze out my insides and shatter my ribs. And I danced with the right people – when they didn’t reject me – and didn’t wince when their hands wandered. And I tolerated the sneers and the whispers and the giggles hidden behind silk gloves. And I tilted my head the right way when the beautiful man glanced in my direction.
And still I failed.
In the depths of my strained heart I know, I know that I never had a chance. Still I cannot help the burning, poisonous, seething hatred when I think of the beautiful girl. The one who waltzed in on shoes like diamond, gazing around with the impish wonder of a child in a sweet shop. The man – the only one here whose beauty matched her own – had been besotted.
The worst part is, I didn’t blame him.
My sister seizes my arm and pulls me to the nearest window. This event will dominate the gossip trail for weeks to come, and to be a first-hand witness is priceless. My gaze snags on one of the huge, gold-framed mirrors lining the walls. My skirts are rumpled and there is a red stain on my teeth from the ghastly lip paint. I turn away before the mirror can shatter the last of my self-worth.
I can see the beautiful girl. She is tearing down the steps of the palace, hair streaming behind her like molten gold. Cold jealousy hits its mark once again, twisting into the depths of my consciousness and seeding dark thoughts that can do nothing but grow and invade.
The girl trips. A woman beside me gives a pantomime gasp and places her laced hand on her chest. My own hands curl into fists.
The crowd is murmuring now, for the girl is running again but has left something on the steps. A sparkling token that the beautiful man now picks up tenderly. Like it is his own heart in his hands.
My fingernails rip my gloves. Cinderella will have to mend them. It’s all she’s good for.
The last toll still echoes in my ears as an impenetrable darkness unfurls between them.