This is the final chapter of Happily Ever After, Ltd. Thanks to everyone who has read it, and thanks to those who have commented. I'm really interested to hear what you think, so feel free to comment, or post a review.
Mid-twirl, Cinderella seemed to evaporate. The salty air became stuffier, the sunlight faded into a dull fluorescent tube above Ryan’s head, and the ground hardened and levelled out beneath his feet. Walls went up on all sides and, for a few seconds, he didn’t understand what he was looking at. He stood there blinking, adjusting back to reality. A takeaway coffee cup with lipstick smudged around the edge, rolled-up shirt sleeves bunching around elbows, the smell of body odour, someone’s phone beeping. It took Ryan a while to realise that he was being stared at by a number of people – real people, with splotchy uneven faces – none of whom he’d ever seen before.
“Ryan.” He came towards him but then hesitated, self-conscious. He looked as though he hadn’t slept in days.
“Dave, I ... I ... um ...” Ryan didn’t know where to begin, not knowing at that point that Dave knew more about what’d happened than he did. “I’m so sorry. I didn’t ditch you, I promise. I, um ...”
A pale Chinese man looked up from a computer. “The original Cinderella has recommenced. Is the Core Book running?”
“Yes!” said a young woman, standing at a large book in the centre of the room. “Once upon a time,” she read out, “there lived a beautiful girl, named Cinderella ...” She turned the page. “And … yes! We’ve got Prince Charming again. We’re back on track!”
“Yes, but the damage is done,” said a stern-faced woman. “Hundreds of thousands of children still read what happened over the last three days.” She stepped forward and shook Ryan’s hand. “I’m Dorothy Weaver,” she said. “I’m the manager of Cinderella.”
“Oh.” Ryan swallowed nervously. “Hello.”
Dorothy Weaver was too young to be the Stepmother and too old to be either stepsister, but she could’ve passed as a step-relative. She wasn’t unattractive, but her face was all hard lines, a clenched jaw, a thin mouth, every strand of hair tightly pulled back. Two nights without sleep hadn’t helped her mood.
Dorothy led Ryan into her office.
“First of all, I want to apologise on behalf of Happily Ever After, Ltd,” she said. “You were only intended to be a thirty-minute replacement while we rebooted, but unfortunately that didn’t go to plan. Secondly, you are to be commended on your quick-thinking throughout the Ball and during most of Shoe Day. Thirdly, we understand and appreciate that this rather unusual situation may have caused you some inconvenience and anxiety.”
“Yeah, a bit,” Ryan said.
“Even so,” she said, “what you did this morning was not only foolish, it was extremely dangerous.”
Ryan looked down at his hands, his face burning. He felt like he was eight years old again, in the headmaster’s office with Doug, being reprimanded for carving penises into the fence behind the playground.
“It wasn’t my idea,” he mumbled.
“What wasn’t your idea?”
“To, you know ... run away.”
“Well, yes.” She softened slightly. “We know about Bjorn Berger. Our security team are working with the techs to extract him as soon as possible and he will be prosecuted.”
“Oh, good,” Ryan said, but wasn’t sure if he believed her. If it had been that easy, they would’ve removed him much earlier. Ryan had a feeling that Bjorn would be difficult to get out of the story and even more difficult to apprehend.
“But, regardless,” Dorothy said. “If you had married Cinderella this morning, it would’ve been much simpler for us, and for you. I think you knew that at the beginning, but clearly Mr Berger brainwashed or hypnotised you into doing otherwise.”
Ryan looked up, surprised. “No, he didn’t,” he said. He remembered, then, that he had done what he did done for a reason, and that reason was not Bjorn. From the moment they had met, Ryan had been convinced Bjorn was a madman, and his first impression had never really changed. No sane adult would go to such extreme lengths, no matter what they believed in. But, earlier that morning, standing alone in the bedroom looking like a daisy, Ryan had realised that the only thing worse than running away would have been trying to go through with the wedding. He had tried to follow the story from the moment he’d arrived at the Ball, but he couldn’t. He was genetically incapable of falling in love with a girl.
“I didn’t run away because Bjorn wanted me to,” he said. “I ran because you wouldn’t have gotten your happy ending that way. Nobody ever could.”
Dorothy opened her mouth to reply but then she suddenly thought of herself, on the day the refrigerator had broken, the phoney smile she gave, the words that came out of her mouth that she did not mean.
“Cinderella world was a crazy place,” Ryan said. “You can only live happily ever after in the way you’re told to. But what Bjorn did make me realise is that Cinderella world isn’t just in a book. This is Cinderella world. We’re living in it. All that pressure to grow up, get married, and procreate. The way guys trick girls into thinking they’re princes. It’s the same story everywhere, that all your problems will be fixed if you fall in love. It sets everyone up to fail.”
Words were rising up in Dorothy’s throat. She was about to say something that she would never be able to take back.
“And I know that that’s probably inevitable,” Ryan went on. “We’ll always be brainwashed in one way or another. But that doesn’t mean that it’s okay or that it shouldn’t be challenged. Cinderella is messed up. It messes people up. It even messed me up, a little bit.”
“Oh, for God’s sake,” Dorothy said, “it’s just a story!”
There it was. Dorothy even felt her voice crack as she said it. But, as soon as the words were out, she knew that this was something else she had been in denial about for a long time. It was only a story, nothing more than words on a page. How had she let it take over her life?
Ryan was staring at her. She quickly regained her composure.
“It’s been a difficult few days for everyone,” she said. She took a folder from her drawer. “I’m going to ask you to look over these papers and, if you’re happy to, to sign them. They can be voided within a fourteen-day period if you want to get legal advice, but I’m going to ask you to sign a confidentiality waiver preventing you from talking to the media, the police, or any of our competitors. I’m also going to ask you to consider signing a liability waiver.” She slid the documents across the desk. She had drawn little X’s where Ryan needed to sign. “The waiver allows for monetary compensation to be negotiated. You can get legal advice as to your rights about that, too.”
Ryan took a pen. “That’s fine. I’m not going to go to newspapers or anything. Would anyone even believe me?”
“Naturally the company would do everything possible to discredit you,” Dorothy said.
After Ryan had signed along all the dotted lines, a security guard came to escort him down to the foyer. Ryan looked back at the office from the door.
“You’ve got a great view from here,” Ryan said.
Dorothy turned and looked behind her. It was overcast but there was something pretty about the greyness of the city, sea and sky.
“Yes,” she said, distractedly, to herself. “I suppose I do.”
For the first time, Dorothy was not afraid of Patricia Le Quant. This was in part due to Dorothy’s extreme state of exhaustion. She was so tired that she all could focus on was stringing her sentences together. She didn’t notice that Patricia Le Quant had a bottle of champagne and two glasses on her desk, nor did she notice that, although Patricia’s face remained mostly unreadable, her mouth was occasionally twitching at the corners.
“And so,” Dorothy concluded, “for the company’s biggest disaster to date, it could have been worse. I think getting the happy ending was a major win.”
“The French village was beautiful,” Patricia said. “It was lucky you had an architect locked in your office.”
Patricia leaned back in her chair, her hands resting on her belly. “Of course, the real issue now is damage control. We’ve been inundated with complaints. First thing tomorrow, we’ll have to issue a press release, with all the information we have about the terrorist. But that’ll raise questions about how he managed to infiltrate in the first place.”
“I can assure you that security is all over the breach,” Dorothy said.
“Do you suspect anyone?”
“The only two staff in my department with that level of access, besides me, is my assistant Maria and, of course, Liam.”
“Do you think either of them could have done it?”
“I would be very surprised,” Dorothy said, “but it’s a possibility.”
“Well, we’ll leave that to the security department for the time being. Now, I suspect you’ll want to a day to recuperate before damage control starts?”
“That was the other thing I wanted to say,” Dorothy said. “The fact this was all the work of a terrorist will go some way to reducing our responsibility but it’ll still leave us open to a lot of scrutiny.”
“It will,” Patricia said.
“I think it would be best to attribute any negligence on the company’s part to one person.”
“I agree.” Patricia raised her eyebrows. “But who might that one person be?”
Patricia’s face was unreadable.
“I’m saying that I will accept full responsibility for the oversight and resign,” Dorothy said.
After a long silence, Patricia spoke. “Fine.” She turned away, to her computer. “Given the circumstances, I’ll accept the resignation effective immediately.”
Dorothy made her way back to the elevator. She stepped inside.
“Oh, and Dorothy?” Patricia called out, as the doors were sliding shut. “I knew you’d make the right choice.”
Patricia checked her reflection in the mirror for the tenth time. She patted down a stray strand of hair. She reapplied her lipstick. She buttoned, unbuttoned, then rebuttoned the top of her blouse. She dabbed another drop of perfume on her wrists, before panicking that it might make him think she was trying too hard, and quickly wiped it off with a tissue.
Was this going to be awkward? Was he even going to remember her? She’d been watching him so closely over the last two months. She’d watched and rewatched his dalliances with each of the Queen’s ladies-in-waiting. What if he’d developed feelings for one of them?
Finally, she knew she had to stop procrastinating and get it over with. She sat down in front of her computer. She opened folders within folders, like Russian dolls, until a message appeared with a red exclamation mark.
She typed in the password.
A second prompt appeared. EJECT SUBJECT NOW?
She took a deep breath, then clicked Yes.
Immediately, Bjorn Berger appeared in the middle of Patricia’s office. For a few moments, he swayed, unsteady on his feet, and had to shield his eyes while he adjusted to the surroundings.
“Ah, reality,” he murmured. “I need a minute.”
Then he looked up and saw Patricia in front of him.
“Welcome back,” she said, nervously.
“Oh, Patty,” Bjorn said. “Look at you. I don’t need a minute.”
Patricia had bought expensive champagne for the occasion. She popped the cork and quickly filled two glasses.
“Welcome back,” she said again.
She handed Bjorn a glass, but he did not take it. He put his arms around her neck.
“You look so beautiful,” he said.
Patricia felt uneasy at the compliment. “Even after you’ve been with all those ladies-in-waiting for the last two months?” she said.
“Oh, shut up. You know not one of them ever compared to you. Come on, I’ve missed you ... your mouth ...”
He leaned in to kiss her. Suddenly feeling like a panicked schoolgirl, she squirmed away and spilt some champagne. “Oh, look what you made me do!” she said, feeling light-headed.
“Put down the glasses,” Bjorn said, and this time held her against him firmly. “So, tell me, am I busted?”
“Of course you are,” Patricia said. “Dorothy Weaver may be stupid but she’s not that stupid. But she wasn’t even close to thinking I had anything to do with it, so there’s no way she’ll actually find you. Not that Dorothy Weaver matters anymore – she was just up here to resign.”
Bjorn smiled. “You’ve missed me, Patty. I know you have.”
Patricia rolled her eyes theatrically. “Missed you? That’s presumptuous. Over the last two months, I think we’ve managed to redefine the term Long Distance Relationship. You’ve been inside a book. I’ve had to hold a magnifying glass over the pages to get a glimpse of you.”
“It was worth it. It couldn’t have gone better. The boy you found for them was the perfect replacement. I’ll never be able to thank you enough for everything you did, Patty – putting your entire career on the line …”
Patricia reddened. “Well, not really. I mean, you know I was always planning to push the blame onto an idiotic subordinate – and I projected the damage – Cinderella sales will dip temporarily but we’ll recover—”
“Let’s not talk anymore Cinderella tonight. Two months in there was more than enough. I missed you, Patty. So, so, so much.”
“Of course. Is that so hard to believe?”
“Coming from you, it is.” She wondered why she had already started attacking him, when he hadn’t even been back for two minutes. She forced herself to smile. “I only mean that you’ve never believed in romance of any sort.”
“No, I just don’t believe that people can live happilyever after,” Bjorn said. “But realistically, yes. A realistic ever after is the best anyone can hope for.”
“But we are happy,” Patricia said. “You always say the world’s so miserable all the time but we’ve had our moments. We’ve been happy for the last two years. In our own way.”
He kissed her. She finally allowed herself to sink into the moment, and kissed him back.
“Take off your shoes,” Bjorn whispered, lowering her onto the sofa. “I’ve missed your toes.”
“You’re such a freak,” Patricia said.
“Aren’t we all?”
The office had been Dorothy’s for two years and the building had been her home for eight, but now it was all being stacked into the boxes or tipped into the rubbish bags that Maria had brought up from the basement. Dorothy had never felt this type of sadness before in her life. It felt as though a hundred paperweights were hanging from all over her, from the tips of her fingers, from her insides, everything felt so heavy. But Dorothy wasn’t sad to be leaving. She knew it was what she had to do. She was sad for much bigger reasons than leaving a job, reasons that she was a long way from being able to explain.
There was a tap on the door. Burnham was standing there with a large crate under his arm.
“I’ve got the security tapes for you,” he said. “To clear my name.”
“Oh, Burnham. I’m so sorry. I don’t need to see them.” Dorothy had completely forgotten what she’d said and felt appalled at herself, and ashamed. She knew it was only one of many things she’d done over the last few years that she was going to need to apologise for. “I know you never would’ve done anything like that in a million years.”
Burnham put down the crate on Dorothy’s desk. “Maybe you were right to be suspicious. I was angry back then. But I would never have let that affect the job.”
“We were both angry,” Dorothy said.
“Were we ever.” Burnham laughed. “I thought that was it, like we’d be that angry for the rest of our lives.”
“Well, it’s difficult to stay angry. It takes too much time and energy.”
“You’ve always been efficient like that,” Burnham said. Then he noticed the empty shelves and boxes on the floor. “Hey, what the hell’s all this?”
“The Dragon demoted you?”
“Then what? She didn’t fire you, did she?”
“No,” Dorothy said. “I resigned.”
“What? You quit? Are you crazy?”
“I don’t think so. I think I’m actually saner than I’ve been in a while.”
“But you can’t quit,” Burnham said. “You love your job. I’ve never met anyone who liked their job as much as you.”
“I did like it,” Dorothy said. “But I don’t anymore.”
“What? Why? Is this because of the last three days? That’s crazy. You still managed to get a happy ending.”
“No, it’s not because of that,” Dorothy said. “It’s hard to explain. I know that I need to leave. I think it’s more for me than for any other reason. I need to take some time.”
“Time? Time to do what?”
“I don’t know. But there’s no hurry, I can afford to take a bit of time off. Maybe I’ll have a bit of a rest, or at least try to.” She gave a sad laugh. “Something tells me I’m never going to be very good at relaxing.”
“Yeah, remember when we went to the Goldilocks Retreat?” Burnham said. “It was meant to be so relaxing – hunting bears and having porridge baths every morning – but you hated it.”
“The Retreat is horrible,” Dorothy said. “You’re only there for three days but for the first two nights, the mattresses are uncomfortable and the meals are either served cold or so hot that they burn your taste buds off.”
“But the third night is always perfect.”
“I couldn’t stop thinking about work the whole time,” Dorothy said. “You slept like a log but I lay awake, I couldn’t turn my brain off. I was worrying about Snow White developing a resistance to the poisoned apples. I really regret how much I worried about such silly things. I never wanted to be that type of person.”
“Really? Then who did you want to be?”
Dorothy started to reply but stopped herself. “It doesn’t matter.”
“Are you talking about ... I mean, Dorothy, you signed the papers.”
“We talked about it.”
“I thought you thought we were terrible together.”
“I do. We were.”
“Dot, if there’s something you want to say ...”
“No. There’s nothing.” Dorothy smiled feebly. “I’m just tired.”
“But if you’re having doubts—”
“No.” The sharp edge returned to her voice. She swallowed it back, along with the lump in her throat. “Please, this conversation is pointless. We’ve discussed this. And I’ve got a lot to do here. A lot of loose ends need tying up before I go.”
He sighed. “Alright. If you’re sure.”
“I am. Good night.”
Burnham paused in the doorway and looked back at Dorothy, but she had turned away. When his footsteps had finally faded away, Dorothy reached into one of the rubbish bags. She retrieved the shredded remains of the photograph. The one of her and Burnham, her eyes half closed, smiling in a way that she had not smiled for many years. She was going to tape the pieces back together. She would keep the picture. It had been a happy memory.
Doug sat on the couch, sloppily eating a bowl of two-minute noodles, while Dave and Ryan took turns trying to explain the events of the last three days. Doug didn’t believe a word they said. At any rate, he hadn’t been terribly concerned by Ryan’s disappearance. He thought that Dave and Ryan had been in a hotel room the entire time.
“So,” Doug said, when Ryan had finished telling him the story, “what you’re asking me to believe is that you were Prince Charming.”
“Yes. For, like, the last forty-eight hours.”
“The thing is,” Doug said, sucking a stray noodle off his chin, “if you wanted to lie about what you guys were really getting up to, it needs to be way more believable.”
“It’s the truth!”
“Hey, all I’m saying is that I’d be a whole lot more convinced if you said you were filling in for the ugly stepsister.” Doug slurped the last of the noodle water from the bowl and stood up. “But look, your secret’s safe with me – whatever it is. I’ve got bigger fish to fry. I’m heading out, I’ve got a date with Vanessa.”
“That girl you met on the bus last week?” Ryan said.
“Wait, what happened with Alison?” Dave asked.
“Um, it didn’t work out,” Doug said.
“So she figured out your game?” Ryan asked.
“Yeah, pretty much. But whatever, my ego can handle the occasional rejection. So no hard feelings. And look,” he motioned to Ryan and Dave, “at least something good came out of it. But hey, why don’t you guys come with me to meet Vanessa?”
“No,” Ryan said. “I’m no longer going to be used as a pawn in your weird mating rituals.”
“No, it’s not like that at all. She’s hosting a domestic violence tea party at her place.”
“A what?” Dave asked.
“You know, like a fundraiser for refuges,” Doug said. “She bakes those tiny cupcakes, you know, the type you can fit about eight of in your mouth at once? And all you have to do is bring along a donation, which goes to, you know, domestic violence or whatever. Vanessa’s really big on it and it’d look good if I brought people along. She loves gay rights too, so she won’t be able to resist me if I brought not just one but two with me. Like, a complete set.”
“We’re not salt and pepper shakers,” Ryan said. “Besides, I’m tired. Being royalty was exhausting.”
“Come on,” Doug said. “There’ll be coffee to give you energy.”
“I don’t know ...”
“You don’t want to, do you?” Ryan asked Dave.
“Well,” he said, “we do still have five dollars left.”
“Yes, Dave’s in!” Doug said triumphantly. “Please come, Ryan. If you do, I promise not to fart in your bed tonight.”
“You better not!”
“Then say you’ll come.”
“Okay, okay,” Ryan said. “We’ll come.”
“It’ll be fun,” Doug insisted. “I promise.”
Ryan rolled his eyes apologetically at Dave. Dave responded with a grin and a wink that gave Ryan a little flutter.
Ryan really liked Dave. He was pretty sure Dave liked him, too. But they were technically still just on their first date. Who knew how they would feel on a second date or a third or, if they ever reached it, a thirty-seventh?
This wasn’t a happy ending – just a promising beginning.