From the editor:
Maddie makes ends meet playing a princess in a theme park. It’s an easy enough gig—except when she’s trying to put on a happy face for a terminally ill kid and her family. But when a mysterious tiara turns up, she learns wishes may actually come true... at a very steep price.
Carrie Vaughn is the author of several bestselling fantasy and science fiction novels and more than 80 short stories. Her work has won the Philip K. Dick Award and been nominated for two Hugo Awards. After a nomadic childhood, she put down roots in Boulder, Colorado.
From the author: Being a magical princess has its price...
The worst part of my job is the terminally ill kids. The ones without hope, who get a wish from some charity or other, and they and their families come here. Sometimes, it's a little girl who wants more than anything to spend her special day with her favorite princess. That's way too much pressure to put on a twenty-one-year-old aspiring actress in a hoop skirt. I shouldn't be responsible for making a dying child's dream come true.
I've done it twice now. The first was two months ago. Elizabeth, age ten, suffers from the final stages of a rare blood disease. Her mother just sent the park a letter saying she's in the hospital again and keeps a picture of the two of us by her bed to cheer her up.
The second is Abby. She has leukemia. She's already had a bone marrow transplant, and it didn't work. The cancer relapsed, and the doctors aren't hopeful. Her family made the request to visit the park, and she asked to spend part of the day with me. Rather, I happened to be on shift the day that she asked to meet my persona. That's all it is, luck of the draw. It kills me, because I have to shut down that part of my brain that knows this kid is dying and wants to burst into tears at the unfairness of it all. I have to smile my princess smile until my cheeks hurt and pretend like everything's going to be okay. And this kid smiles back at me and I think, how can you be so happy? How can seeing me dressed up in a blue satin gown and blond wig make you so happy?
But of course, that's not what the kids see. They see Cinderella stepped out of a fairy tale, and they believe that dreams are real. I wonder, do they ever dream of staying alive?
Abby is like any other nine-year old girl. When I step onto the sidewalk, her eyes light up and she gasps in delight. I've seen a whole crowd of girls gasp at the sight of me, and I'll admit it goes to my head sometimes. It's what keeps me here, when I ought to be spending my days at cattle calls in Hollywood.
I've been told her name ahead of time, so it seems like magic when I kneel by her wheelchair and say, "Hello, Abby."
She's bald as an egg, thin as a skeleton, and still she smiles, beaming so hard her face will surely break in two. Her brown eyes seem too large for her head, and they are gleaming.
"What would you like to do first?" I say. "Would you like to see the castle?"
She nods vigorously, and we go to see the castle, walking up the pathway, a whole crowd of us surrounding her wheelchair. Her family--parents, grandparents, aunt and uncle--follow behind us, Dad pushing the wheelchair, and all of them are smiling like this really is the happiest day of their lives. A park photographer runs alongside, snapping pictures. One of the pictures will sit by a hospital bed, no doubt. Abby holds my hand.
This is so exhausting.
I have a break at dinnertime. I've promised to return to watch the fireworks with Abby, and she'll remember the moment for the rest of her life, however many weeks of it the doctors say she has. She'll remember the moment through the needles, pain, and fear, and that's what keeps me going. That's what gets me through when what I really want to do is run screaming that I can't do this, I'm not a princess, I'm not a dream come true, I'm just a kid myself and I quit college because I thought I could be an actress and my boyfriend just broke up with me and I'm in a thousand family photos with a thousand little girls, smiling like a Barbie doll. But Abby will think of me when she's afraid, and maybe it will help, and maybe, just maybe, the magic is real sometimes.
After my break, I come back through the Cast Members Only door and find Christine, Abby's aunt, sitting on the ground behind a trash can, sobbing. Christine, Abby's mother's younger sister, is in her late twenties, young and smiling herself, though today her smile is the plastic one people wear when they really want to burst and scream. Most of the adults around Abby have worn that smile for at least part of the day. Christine has cheerfully pushed Abby's wheelchair and carried bags much of the time so Abby's parents could be close to their daughter, hold Abby's hand, and ooh and ahh with her at some new wonder. Christine is support staff. I understand the role.
And she's broken. She hid herself away behind hedges and trash cans so she could break. I think of walking away. Let her put herself back together, rejoin the group, and pretend her eyes aren't red and puffy.
But I kneel by her and put a satin-gloved hand on her shoulder. "Are you all right?"
"What? Oh--it's you." She looks up, startled, sniffles loudly, and scrubs a sleeve across her face. "I'm sorry, I just had to get away for a minute."
"You can only pretend to be happy for so long."
She nods, and I see the family resemblance with Abby, an earnestness that comes through in the gesture.
"It's just. . .this place. It's so amazing, but everywhere we go they talk about dreams, and they sing about dreams, and at every step they tell you that dreams come true and that people live happily ever after. Well – it was my sister's dream to have a baby, to have a beautiful little girl and watch her grow up. Then this happens. I look at Abby, and she's so happy, and her dream has come true, and how can this place be so real and so impossible at the same time!"
The words come in a rush and she's sobbing again, tears streaming, her back hunched, shuddering. My own floodgates are opening, the actress-brain that manages to keep it locked away failing.
I turn my face away, close my eyes, and take a deep breath. "Stop it," I say quietly. "My make-up's going to run."
Christine's sob turns into a laugh. "Oh God, I'm sorry! And your dress, you shouldn't be on the ground like this! You know, for just a minute I forgot you're not really Cinderella."
The tears start all over again. I'm sitting beside her by this time.
"I can't do this anymore," she says. "I can't go back."
I know exactly how she feels. I put my arm around her shoulders. She hugs me back, her face pressed to my shoulder, and cries it all out. I hold her and whisper nonsense. That everything is going to be all right. Like I am really Cinderella, like I really can make everything better.
After closing, after the fireworks have faded and all the lights are out, I go into the park. We're not supposed to do that. I'd said goodbye to Abby and her family, and I wonder how long my picture will sit by her hospital bed.
For a long time I stand on the bridge before the castle, looking up at its parapets, its gilded filigree confections. Wearing jeans and a tank top, I'm not a princess anymore. Under that fairy tale façade is nothing more than wood and concrete. Just like we'd all put on a good face today, to make this the happiest day of Abby's short, short life. When underneath we'd turned to ash.
I am a rank, despicable liar.
I want to make a wish of my own, but I have too many choices. Blue Fairies, stone wells, godmothers, evening stars. The smog and haze is such that I can only see one small star, shining faintly, right above the castle. A stray bit of firework that has forgotten to fall back to earth. It almost seems like an omen.
Tonight, I choose the wishing well for my late-evening ritual. I only do this sometimes, because to do it every night would spoil it, make it ordinary. Only days like this when I have a sick girl's short future weighing on my shoulders. I find the wishing well and put my hands on either side, leaning all the way over the edge, calling down inside so my voice echoes.
For happiness, unspecified. I don't know what I want anymore.
A week later, I receive a letter from Elizabeth's mother. My supervisor wore a grim smile when she handed it to me. Elizabeth slipped into a coma and passed away quietly last week. She talked about her trip to the park right up to the end. Thank you, thank you, and thank you, her mother writes. For what? I ask myself that more and more. I wonder how Abby is doing.
How can such a little piece of magic be so strong in the face of that immense tragedy? I fold the letter and secure it in my purse.
That evening I find a tiara at the bottom of my locker. I don't recognize it from any of the costumes. All the usual tiaras are glittering, decked with rhinestones, visible from miles away so no one will mistake their wearers for anything but princesses. This is different, plain, a half-circlet of gold with a clear, faceted gem mounted in the center.
A slip of paper is tied to one of the arms. I pull the note free of the string that ties it.
One line of handwriting reads, I can't do this anymore. I pass it on to you.
The writing looks like a woman's. The words are clean, but the paper is wrinkled, as if whoever wrote it crushed the note, then smoothed it flat again. I look around the locker room for someone who might be watching me, who might have snuck the tiara into my locker then lingered to see my reaction. Only the usual bustle fills the place, dancers peeling off tights, character actors laughing in the showers as they wash off the smells of their plush suits.
The locker next to me belongs to Audrey, who plays Sleeping Beauty in one of the stage shows. I sometimes don't recognize her, because her short black hair is so at odds with the blond wig she wears for her character.
"Audrey?" She turns to me, inquiring. I show her the tiara. "Do you know whose this is?"
She shakes her head. "No, sorry. I don't even recognize the costume."
"Yeah, neither do I." The front of the locker room has a lost and found box for stray bras and sneakers and the like. I hate to just leave it there.
"Some of us are going out for dinner. Want to come?"
I'm tired. The exhaustion settles on me like a warm blanket. The letter about Elizabeth hasn't improved my mood. I shake my head at Audrey. "Not tonight. I'm beat."
"Maybe next time." She slings her bag over her shoulder and heads out with some of the other girls.
I hold the tiara in both hands, and it feels warm against my skin.
I slip it into my backpack and take it home.
The studio apartment in a not so nice part of town is good enough, because I'm hardly ever there, between work, auditions, classes and scraping together enough to get by. Ramen noodles or pasta await my leisure, but I don't make dinner. I leave my backpack by the front door, after taking out the tiara.
Holding it, I sit in the middle of the floor and wonder. Just a bit of strangeness, maybe even a bit of magic, like the well, like being a girl's dying wish.
I put the tiara on. It settles comfortably above my ears.
I close my eyes and see a room, a studio apartment like this, but worse, with peeling paint, holes in the carpet, and soiled furniture. A family of six lives there, a mother and five children. Father in prison. A girl, the oldest of the kids, sits at a kitchen table doing homework, not minding her siblings screaming around her, her mother's scolding, the noise of a television. Her pencil scratches math problems, and she works through to the end of the page. Then she digs a history book out of the stack and reads. She wants to go to college, the thought comes over me like an electric shock. But she'll never get there without help.
So I grant her wish. Just like that, because I can, because the girl is working so hard and I want her to succeed, I want this little bit of magic to work. One day she checks the mail and finds a letter telling her about the full ride scholarship she's won. She won't just pull herself out of poverty, she'll pull her whole family. I see it all, it will happen. The certainty is as wondrous as the wish come true itself.
I could float before her on fairy wings, waving my magic wand, and it would be the same.
My hands shaking, I remove the tiara. The gold holds the warmth from sitting on my head. Maybe I've imagined it. Maybe it's all in my head. I've been working at that place too long. It's starting to make me think I can change the world.
For a week, I put on the tiara every night. I see the wishes, I know their outcomes. I help a girl in the suburbs find her lost cat. I convince a middle-aged woman to walk out of her abusive marriage. I find a winning lottery ticket for a harried mother of three. Another girl wins a beauty pageant. I see the scenes play out as if I stand in the middle of them. I am invisible and omniscient.
Better, I move through my days like I believe. Yes, I can make a difference. Yes, dreams do come true. I believe in fairy godmothers. I think back to my own life, to the dream that made me drive to L.A. with nothing more than what I could fit in my trunk and pushed me through the door of every audition. Each step of the way there'd been a little voice whispering, you can do this.
I thought it had been ambition. Maybe there'd been something more. Something to explain why I'd taken the steps and my friends hadn't. I wear that tiara and I hear that same voice whisper, you can do this.
A doctor marries the artist her wealthy family disapproves of.
A lawyer in Manhattan quits her job and moves to the Bahamas to be a tour guide.
And one little girl gets a pony for Christmas.
I wave my magic wand and shower the world with stars.
"Maddie, are you okay?"
I blink at her, aware suddenly that Audrey has asked the question several times. "Yeah, I'm sorry, I guess I was daydreaming."
"I couldn't tell," she says with a wry grin. "A bunch of us are going out, you want to come?"
"No, thanks. Too much to do."
"Come on, you haven't been out with us in weeks."
That long? I think about it and can't remember when I'd last been out with the group. I try to imagine going out with them now, sitting at the end of the table or bar, staring into space, barely eating. Not really belonging. I have better things to do.
"I'm afraid I wouldn't be very good company tonight. Next time for sure."
She gives me a look like she doesn't believe me.
Forcing a smile, I wave them off, then rush home, back to my real work.
During the day, I see the faces of a thousand children, and I don't see them anymore. I look for the stories, for the wishes hiding behind their eyes. When Paige--the small plump woman with the big eyes who wears a white wig and draws in wrinkles around her eyes so she can play the fairy godmother--waves her wand and asks the children to make a wish, what do they imagine, and is it something I can see? What will the tiara show me?
A family with children gets off the streets in time for Christmas.
An overlooked youngest daughter gets the lead in the school play.
A battered woman presses charges.
I move through my days like a ghost. No matter how many women and girls I see through the tiara, there are always more. The scenes never slow, never stop. I think if I do this enough, if I work hard enough, I'll make all the wishes come true.
It's bound to happen, sooner or later, that I see someone I recognize. Someone I know, at least a little.
The scene is a hospital bed. On the table beside the bed is a picture of a deathly sick little girl in a wheelchair. Beside her kneels a beautiful Cinderella in a blue satin gown, holding her hand, smiling brilliantly for the camera. That isn't me, I tell myself. That's a character. In the bed lies Abby, a ventilator protruding from her mouth and taped in place, a dozen wires trailing from her body. A monitor beeps, very slowly. Beside the bed sits her aunt, Christine, leaning her elbows on the mattress beside the wasted body, her hands clasped and head bowed in prayer.
Christine is making a wish: Please God, take me instead.
I grab the tiara off my head so quickly it tangles in my hair. Heart racing, I throw it on the floor, stare at it. A dryness makes my eyes hurt.
Afraid to touch it, I leave it on the floor for a week, giving it wide berth as I move around the apartment in the course of my day. My muscles ache with fear, even as some small sense tells me that the wish hasn't been granted.
It can't be granted. It's a terrible wish. Unless it isn't. If she's willing to make that wish, if I have the power to grant it, who am I to deny it?
I haven't been to an audition in months. Audrey's stopped asking if I want to go to dinner. Barry, who sometimes plays Prince Charming opposite me, has stopped asking me what's wrong after I tell him nothing a dozen times. His smile turns fake, and he stops talking to me at all. I only notice as a vague observation.
I only ever feel real when I'm Cinderella. But I still can't touch the tiara on my apartment floor. I wait for the letter telling me Abby has died. It doesn't come.
I wish. . .
And I realize how long it's been since I've even done that. I used to have lots of wishes. But I never see myself in the tiara.
For the first time in ages, I sneak into the park after closing and go to the wishing well.
Leaning on the stone wall, my chin bends almost to my chest, and my shoulders slump with the weight of the world.
"I don't know what to do." I whisper, but even then my voice echoes. The stone carries it down to the thin layer of water pooling on the concrete at the bottom. The nights are getting cooler. I shiver. I should bring my coat, if I'm going to come out here. I should go back, go home. But what's the point? I'd see that thing on my floor. I don't want to see it ever again.
What else do I have? I take stock: what else can I ever do in this world that would measure up to what I've accomplished waving my magic wand, making wishes come true?
I look behind me, assuming someone has snuck up, emerging from shadows. Security, maybe. If I get caught, I'll be fired. But no one's there.
"I'm right here."
The voice comes from the well. Androgynous, a soft contralto, echoing then dissipating. If I hadn't been sitting right in this spot, I might not have heard it at all.
"Oh my God," I murmur.
The wishing well chuckles. "Don't sound so shocked."
"But--" I close my eyes, shake my head. The well. Talking to me. That's it, I'm crazy.
"I know who you are. What you've been doing. You aren't really surprised at all."
It's right, of course. "If you know all that, then you know what's wrong."
"Yes," it says. It might even sound a little sad.
I lean forward. "You know where it came from, don't you? You know who gave it to me."
"I want to give it back. I have to give it back, find whoever gave it to me, wherever it came from, and give it back." I grip the wall, urgency firing my nerves. I can solve the mystery. I can be free. "Tell me where that thing came from."
It remains silent for so long, I start to think I've imagined it. The well doesn't speak, it's my own addled mind.
Then it says, "It came from me."
I stare into the shadowed space. "You?"
"It's the same magic, after all. Granting wishes."
"Then I'll bring it back, I'll throw it in--"
"Don't do that."
"It came from me, but it can't come back. I didn't give it to you."
"Then who did?" My voice is taut, nearly hysterical.
"The girl who left it in your locker."
It speaks in riddles. Of course it does. "I don't understand."
"The tiara came from me, but it's been handed down ever since, for more than fifty years now. From girl to girl to girl. From Cinderallas to Snow Whites to Sleeping Beauties and back again."
"But why? Why did it come to me? There's a dozen other girls who play Cinderella."
"But you believe."
I come to the wishing well. Been doing it all along. I'm marked.
"Then. . .then I have to pass it along, if I don't want it any more."
However enigmatic the well is, it seems kind. A voice whispering through a cave on a breeze. "Yes. The wishes aren't free, Maddie. Each one takes a little bit of you with it. You were never meant to sacrifice yourself for so long. I can even tell you who comes here to make wishes, who you can give it to next. Then you can replenish what you've given away."
"You have to remember your own dreams."
So. Time to write a note, tie it to the tiara, and hide it in a locker. Find the person who believes like I do, who sneaks into the park at night to make wishes at the well. Pass the burden on to her. And when she puts the tiara on her head, will she see Abby's aunt praying by the hospital bed, wishing away her own life? Will the next girl grant that wish?
"What's your dream, Maddie?" the well breathes. A chill air rises from it.
I stare vacantly at the stones on the wall, concrete painted with fake lichens. "I don't remember."
"It's not so hard to give the power up," it says, sounding frustrated now. "Sara, who plays Snow White in the parades. Choose her."
And while I wait, frozen, unable to decide, maybe Abby will die, taking the decision out of my hands. Then we, those of us still living, can all be miserable.
"It's very cruel," I say, "To grant someone power, then make sure it kills them."
"But that's the way of fairy tales."
I push myself away from the wall. Travel the cobbled path around the castle, run from the sound of rustling leaves, and flee the park.
Can the princess who wears the tiara ever see herself?
I stand in front of my bathroom mirror and put it on.
The scene has changed, but only a little. Abby looks worse, if that's possible. Her skin has a yellow cast to it, as if internal organs are in the process of failing. More tubes, more wires, more drip bags are attached to her. Her aunt Christine sits back in her chair, hugging a thick cardigan around her. Abby's mother leans on the bedside, clinging to the girl's hand.
The wish is still out there. I see it there, in the mirror in front of me. Mirror, mirror on the wall. . .
I touch the tiara, preparing to take it off again, knowing the well is right. This isn't my decision to make. The tiara has spoken. But I don't have to be the one to see it happen. Let Sara do that.
But I don't take it off. Blinking, I can bring myself into focus. I study the image: a twenty-two-year-old college dropout with shadowed eyes and gaunt cheeks. I look like one of those girls who starves herself to be thin enough for Hollywood auditions. I haven't realized I haven't been eating. Short hair, bleached blond. Pale skin. A crown on my head, its gemstone sparkling. A princess in the midst of her worst challenge, before the happily ever after finds her.
But I can't see that road before me anymore. I can't see how my story ends. I only know three things, the fairy tale three: I don't want Abby to die. I don't want Christine to die. This power I wear on my head has to be good for something.
I close my eyes and see the hospital room. I hear Christine, wishing in her mind, take me instead.
Granting a wish takes a piece of me, that was what the wishing well said. What do I have to give to grant a wish that saves a life? I look in the mirror again, see myself in the room, and think, with all the power of my life, No, take me.
Abby opens her eyes, and her gaze meets mine, sees me, just before I fall, and the world spins away.
This story originally appeared in Realms of Fantasy, February 2009.