It’s Up to You

 “Laila, hurry up! We’re going to be late!” Mrs. Margot Hart yells to her daughter upstairs. 

“Coming! The princess has to be rescued before we leave!” six-year-old Laila responds. She is surrounded by all of her toy figurines that she has precisely set up. She holds a dragon in one hand and a knight in the other, while the princess is kept “locked away in a tower,” more commonly referred to as the bathroom drawer. “You must protect me from the toothpaste monster, my prince!” Laila wails, impersonating the princess. Her mother barges into her room in a hurry, stumbling over the setting which Laila has created.

“Darling, we need to leave now. Otherwise, your father is going to be very angry with me.”

“But mother, the knight was about to save the princess, and they were going to fall in love.”

Mrs. Hart shakes her head at Laila’s fantasy world that Laila always seems so consumed by. 

“Whatever you say Laila… just hurry up!” 

“I’m sorry, Mr. Knight, but we will have to finish the story later,” Laila tells her dolls as she drops them on the floor and springs up. She grabs her mother’s hand as they hurry to meet her father.

“You know sweetie, when I was young, I loved fairy tales just as much as you. I would sit outside for hours creating my own stories and acting them out with sticks and leaves. I never had the fancy toys that you get to play with now. My adventures were confined to my imagination until my parents got me my very own storybook for my sixth birthday.”

“What story was it, Mommy?”

“It was the story of Cinderella. I would spend hours a day reading it over and over again. Sometimes it even felt like I was actually in the book. Eventually, I got too old for fairy tales.  Now it’s tucked away somewhere in the attic.”

Laila’s eyes get wide, “You mean… it’s here? Can we find it, Mommy, pleeease?”

“Laila, we haven’t got the time for such nonsense. You need to focus on more important things like school work anyway.”

Mrs. Hart’s answer does not discourage Laila’s determination to find the book. As everyone knows, whenever you tell a six-year-old “NO,” all they hear is “GO!” 

Later that night, after Laila returns from visiting her father at work, she begins to think about the storybook again. Her father works as a doctor and is rarely home. He leaves before the sun rises in the morning and doesn’t return home until hours after Laila is asleep. Her mother is home more often; however, she is always consumed by her new business. This means Laila spends the majority of her time at home alone, finding ways to entertain herself, often in her mind’s fantasy world. She spends the whole night thinking about her mother’s storybook and imagining how much fun she could have with it, just like her mom did when she was a kid. After plotting how to find the storybook, Laila opens her door and scans the long hallway for any movement.

“It’s a go,” she says to herself. She walks carefully on the hardwood floor to make sure she doesn’t make a sound. She makes it to her mother’s study, where her mother is talking on the phone. Laila peeks her head in and waits until her mother isn’t looking. Laila darts across the doorway and lets out a big sigh of relief that her mother didn’t notice her. She finally makes it to the attic entrance in a room towards the back of the hallway. A thin rope opening the attic hangs down about three feet above Laila. She jumps up as high as she can, trying to catch the rope. After a few tries, she begins to feel as if maybe her mission was too ambitious.

She imagines that she is in one of her fantasy worlds. “I’m brave like a knight. And the princess I am rescuing is the storybook.” Laila looks around the room, searching for something she can stand on to reach the rope. She spots an old, wobbly chair and drags it over to the center of the room. Carefully, she puts one foot on the chair and waits a moment to catch her balance. She holds her breath and boosts the other foot up so that all her weight is on the chair. The hardwood floor underneath her creaks at the sudden change. Laila squeezes her eyes shut and says a little prayer that her mother didn’t hear the noise. The chair gives her just enough height to grab the rope when she stands on her tiptoes. She pulls down the attic door, and a ladder shoots out. She steps off the chair, and then is hit with a sudden wave of fear as she looks into the dark, unknown room ahead of her. She takes a deep breath and slowly climbs up the ladder and into the attic.

Once she finds the lightswitch, Laila looks around and sees box after box stacked on top of each other. She makes her way to the back of the attic, hoping she will have the most luck there. She begins to dig through different boxes and finds Christmas decorations, yard tools, pots and pans, everything except the storybook. One box is filled with old pictures of her mother and father when they were kids. Sure enough, Laila finds pictures of her mother playing make believe, just like Laila does. After a few moments of looking at the photos, Laila moves on to the next box. This one is filled with clothes that look about a decade old. She holds up an old dress and shudders at the thought of anyone wearing such a thing.

After unpacking at least a dozen boxes, Laila starts to feel discouraged. She sits down to take a breath and looks around the attic. She sees an oddly-colored box over in the corner. It’s not brown like the others, but it has a more golden tint to it. Laila opens the box and is taken aback when she sees an old toy doll staring back at her. She slowly unpacks the rest of the box, and, at the bottom, she finds a large book with the title Cinderella in big, cursive writing.

“This must be it! I found it!” Laila screams. She quickly covers her mouth, remembering that she can’t let her mother know she has snuck into the attic. She flips through the pages of the book that tell the story of a young girl whose Fairy Godmother sends her to a royal ball. Once the girl arrives, she meets a prince, and they dance all night long, until the clock strikes midnight. As she’s running away she loses her shoe, and then… the story stops.

“WHAT! That can’t be the end.  Fairy tales always have a happy ending!” Laila flips the page back and forth, hoping each time she turns it over that the rest of the story might appear. She turns to the very back of the book and finds a mysterious note attached to the back cover. The front of the card reads, “Handle with Care.” For most, this would be a warning, but it only makes Laila more curious. On the back is a rhyme that reads, “I wonder, I wonder, yes I do. I think, I think, it’s up to you.” 

“That has nothing to do with Cinderella!” Laila exclaims. “I just want to know how the story ends.” She slams the card down in frustration, and suddenly the writing changes. Now, the front says “Read aloud for the reveal.” Laila is stunned by what she has just witnessed, “Was that real magic?” Again, the writing changes, and the word “Yes” appears on the front of the note.

Laila’s mouth drops. She picks up the card again and reads the rhyme out loud. “I wonder, I wonder, yes I do. I think, I think, it’s up to you.” 

Before she can even finish, the room starts to spin. The boxes around her disappear, and the pages of the book start to flip back and forth. The light flickers on and off, and Laila is pushed off her feet by a large gust of wind. She hits her head on the floor of the attic and loses consciousness. 

 

Laila wakes with a sharp pain in her neck. She sits up, only halfway conscious, rubbing her head and regaining focus. As she looks around, she realizes she is no longer in her attic. “Whoa! Where am I?” Laila thinks to herself. She stands up, amazed at this new, vibrant world she has been transported to. The sun is shining down on a huge field of tall grass. A cool breeze comes along every so often, and the grass sways in tune with it, almost like a scene from a movie. 

Suddenly, Laila hears a rustling sound in the distance and wanders towards the bush it is coming from. As she gets closer, a small creature darts out. It has the body of a bunny, but the head of a… 

“CAT!” Laila screams aloud. “Okay, now I know I’m nowhere close to home anymore!” The creature is so startled by Laila that it scurries away in the other direction. Laila runs after it without paying attention to her surroundings. Her curiosity takes over, and she follows the creature deep into the woods until they come to an old townhouse. The building is tall and covered in vines. Laila notices that the lawn looks well kept and the garden is blooming. “There must be people living here,” she tells herself. Making as little noise as possible, Laila slowly creeps up to the window and peeks her head high enough to see into the house. For a few moments, there is nothing but silence, but then she hears a large bang, followed by a scream.

“The dress is mine, NOT yours!”

“No, it’s MINE! It was made to fit ME! Green doesn’t look good on you anyway.”

“Well, who said it looked good on you?”

Laila is so startled by the argument between the two girls in the window that she starts to leave, but then she hears another voice.

“Now, girls, stop fighting this instant and finish getting ready! I need you both looking your best for our trip to the palace.”

“That sounds very familiar,” says Laila. “Where have I heard that?” She finally realizes where she is at the same time the voice in the house screams, “CINDERELLA!”

Laila ducks down behind the window, now trying to comprehend what has happened to her. “I can’t really be in the story of Cinderella … can I?” She walks around the house to get a different view inside. This time, she peeks in another window, and, sure enough, Cinderella is standing right there! Except she hasn’t gone to the ball yet. She is still covered in soot and dust from cleaning and sleeping by the fireplace.

“Now, Cinderella,” the woman says in a mocking tone, “we are headed to the ball, and I want the kitchen spotless by the time we come back.”

“Of course. There won’t be a speck of dust.” Her gaze is focused on the floor, but Laila can tell that Cinderella has an angelic face. 

The woman walks out the front door accompanied by the two girls who were fighting over the dress. Cinderella is left alone in the house, and, just as expected, she begins the long list of chores that was left for her. The woman left a crack in the door, so Laila quietly invites herself in, trying not to startle Cinderella. Once again, Laila’s curiosity takes over, and she starts to roam around the house, exploring the different paintings and admiring the large mirrors hung on the wall. Cinderella ends up being the one to startle Laila, accidentally bumping into her on the way to dump out the dirty dish water.

“Oh, I’m so sorry. I did not see you. What’s your name?” asks Cinderella sweetly.

Laila stands wide-eyed, looking at Cinderella. She has the most perfect voice Laila has ever heard and a smile that could outshine the sun. “A-a-are you a… princess?” Laila stammers.

Cinderella giggles a little and responds, “Far from it; I’m only a servant girl.”

“But I’ve read about you in my book before. You are a real princess with a beautiful dress and can attend a ball and everything.”

You must be thinking of my sisters. They are going to the prince’s ball tonight, but I’ll be here finishing my chores,” Cinderella says with a slight smile on her face. “If I don’t, I’ll never hear the end of it from my stepmother. Besides, I don’t have anything to wear.”

Cinderella’s kindness surprises Laila. For someone who has been treated so poorly, she sure knows how to treat others with respect. All Laila wants to do is help Cinderella. “Well, that’s what your Fairy Godmother is for!” Laila says excitedly. “She’s going to turn you into a princess!”

Cinderella giggles again and her eyes squint up. “Well, now wouldn’t that be just lovely! A little magic could solve many problems in this world. Unfortunately, many of us are just left with courage and kindness to get us through.” Laila is astounded by the quiet, soft confidence Cinderella possesses. It seems as if Cinderella has accepted her fate and has decided to make the best out of a bad situation. 

Not long after Cinderella denies the existence of her very own fairy godmother, there is a noise out in the garden that catches the girls’ attention. They make their way out to find a strange woman standing in the middle of the flower bed. She brushes dirt off her long dress and frantically fixes her hair. She turns around to see Cinderella and Laila standing in the doorway, confused.

“Oh! My dears, what a pleasure it is to see you! Cinderella, I’ve known you awhile, but who are you, little one?”

“Ummm, my name is Laila,” Laila responds hesitantly.

“That’s curious, I wasn’t aware that you were a part of this story.” The woman stares at Laila for a moment, and then she shrugs her shoulders and brushes off her presence. “Now, Cinderella, I am your Fairy Godmother, and it’s time to get you ready for the ball.”

Laila gives Cinderella a look that says “I told you so.” Cinderella understands the message and looks back at her Fairy Godmother. “The ball… you mean… I can actually go!” Cinderella perks up at the idea of finally receiving her perfect night at the ball that she has dreamed of for so long.

“That’s what I’m here for. First, we need a carriage to escort you there.” The Fairy Godmother looks around, searching for something to transform, Her eye is caught by a large pumpkin in the garden. She yanks it off the stem and places it a foot in front of her. She raises her wand in the air and begins to wave it around.Without warning, she yells the words, “Bippity-Boppity-Boo!” At just the right time, Laila jumps into the flower bed, out of the way of the magic spark. Where she once stood sits a dazzling carriage finished with crystal vines. Laila’s mouth drops at the amazing transformation. She remembers reading this scene in the storybook, and it was one of her favorites. Cinderella and her Fairy Godmother start to transform other garden creatures into the footmen, horses, and guards. Laila stays hidden in the flower bed, hoping to be able to observe more of the story.

“So, what color dress would you like darling? I’m thinking… pink!” exclaims the Fairy Godmother while freely waving her magic wand around. “Oh. or blue! Let’s do blue!” Before Cinderella has any time to respond, the Fairy Godmother says the magic words “Bippity-Boppity-Boo” again, and Cinderella is surrounded by a blue cloud of magic dust. When the cloud settles, a marvelous, royal-blue dress is revealed. Cinderella looks down and gasps in amazement. The collar is lined with butterflies that lead into the most beautiful skirt. She turns in a circle, and the flowing dress spins out in the most graceful way. The skirt swooshes to her side, and she notices the glass slippers on her feet.

“This is perfect! I couldn’t have asked for anything better!” Cinderella thanks her Fairy Godmother.

Laila sees the sparkle return to Cinderella’s eyes when she steps into the carriage knowing her night at the ball awaits. The footmen signal the horses to start their journey to the Prince’s castle. Laila is so wrapped up in the magic she just witnessed that she almost gets left behind. At the last moment, she grabs one of the crystal vines hanging from the carriage and uses it to pull herself onto a small bench on the back. Once she is safely aboard, Laila sits down with her legs crossed for the rest of the trip and imagines what a real ball might feel like.

  The carriage begins to slow down as they approach the palace gates. Cinderella looks out the window to see a castle bigger than she ever imagined. Carriages from near and far have come to drop off guests. Princesses, princes, dukes, and duchesses make their way into the ball.

Cinderella’s carriage arrives at the door, and she is escorted inside by a royal guard. She walks into the grand ballroom with a long staircase right in front of her. The ballroom is lit by a large chandelier, and the room is filled with the music of waltzes played by violinists. Cinderella is so amazed by the venue that she barely notices that every head in the room is turned to her. Once she notices that all eyes are on her, she feels herself blush ever so slightly, and she starts to walk down the staircase to the dance floor.

In the background, Laila stays outside so she won’t be seen. As the doors open and close, she catches a glimpse of the inside of the palace. She knows that she must get inside and explore to quench her curiosity. While the guards are escorting guests inside, Laila runs to the back of the palace where she finds an unlocked door. She slowly opens it and finds herself in the middle of the kitchen. A few kitchen maids come running through but thankfully don’t notice her. Further inside, she finds a long table full of delicious food and refreshments for the guests at the ball. The most delightful smelling roast turkey seems to be the main dish accompanied by roasted vegetables and a refreshing raspberry sorbet for dessert. The head cook comes rushing into the room and runs right into Laila, mistaking her for a kitchen maid. “What are you doing here?” says the cook.“You’re supposed to be out there serving the guests.” 

It takes Laila a moment to realize the cook is speaking to her. “O-oh yes, of course,” Laila responds. 

The cook throws an apron at Laila to put on. “Now go!” she yells. 

While walking out of the kitchen, Laila ties the apron around her waist and stands in a group behind the other kitchen maids. She wiggles her way to the front of the group to get a better view of the ballroom. The floor is a beautiful marble tile that compliments the paintings on the wall. The guests are all dressed in ball gowns and suits, just as Laila had imagined. A group of guests form a circle in the middle of the floor and they gracefully dance to the music in the room. Others congregate in clusters around the room and mingle with each other. Laila looks up to the ceiling and notices a small balcony that overlooks the floor. As she looks closer, she sees that the prince and king are sitting there on their thrones, watching the guests. 

Once Laila sees the prince, she can’t take her eyes off him. She has never met a real prince before, but she has always dreamed of finding her own Prince Charming. This prince has perfectly combed dark hair and eyes as blue as the sea. His smile makes Laila giggle to herself. He is even more enchanting than any of Laila’s toy figurines. She notices that he is focused on something near the staircase and follows his gaze. Sure enough, the prince is staring at Cinderella and jumps off his throne to meet her when she reaches the floor. He leaves the balcony and makes his way to the middle of the ballroom where he takes Cinderella’s hand and gently kisses it. Laila watches with the kitchen maids, feeling both happy and yet at the same time jealous of Cinderella. The prince bows to Cinderella when the violins start to play, and he asks her to dance. They join hands and lock eyes as they start to gracefully move around the room. Laila’s jealousy grows as she watches Cinderella live out her dream. Not thinking, Laila grabs a kitchen tray from the table and walks into the middle of the floor where Cinderella and the prince are dancing. She bumps into the happy couple, trying to get the prince’s attention. The collision doesn’t faze the prince, but Cinderella notices Laila. She gives Laila a quick smile and then continues in her dance.

Laila can feel her face grow hot with anger. She wants to be the one on the floor looking lovingly into the prince’s eyes. Suddenly, she remembers that this part of the story has been written, so there is no way to change it. She will have to wait until after the clock strikes midnight to make the prince fall in love with her instead of Cinderella.

After their dance, the prince leads Cinderella to the garden. Laila discreetly follows them to make sure the prince is in sight when the time is right. Cinderella and the prince stroll through the garden multiple times before they sit down on the terrace bench. They talk about things Laila can’t make out. She can see how the prince is looking at Cinderella, and Laila can tell he’s starting to fall in love more and more by the second. 

She hears the prince ask Cinderella her name right as the first strike of midnight rings. Cinderella has no time to answer and runs back into the ballroom. She weaves through the guests, trying to keep her balance while making it back to the carriage as quickly as possible. The prince chases after her, trying to find just one way to learn who she is. As Cinderella runs back up the long staircase, one of her glass slippers falls off. She turns around to grab it, but the prince is too close behind, and she knows that she is running out of time. She abandons the slipper and makes it back to her makeshift carriage just in time before the final strike of midnight.

Laila is following close behind the prince, trying to find a way to catch his attention. She spots the discarded glass slipper and realizes it’s now her turn to finish the story. This part was never written in the storybook, so it’s up to Laila to help create an ending. She grabs the glass slipper and hides it behind her back. The prince is so focused on catching up to Cinderella that he doesn’t notice Laila or the slipper. By the time he arrives at the entrance to the castle, Cinderella’s carriage is nowhere in sight. He turns around to fetch guards to find Cinderella and is suddenly stopped by Laila standing at the top of the staircase. In her hand, she holds the glass slipper, and she has a large grin on her face.

“See this?” Laila says to the prince, “It’s Cinderella’s shoe.” She raises the slipper up in the air, waves it around, and then smashes it onto the tile floor. The shoe breaks into a million tiny pieces that go everywhere. “Guess you’re stuck with me now,” Laila adds. 

Instead of a warm embrace from the prince, Laila is suddenly surrounded by a large cloud. She begins to feel the room spin again, and wind starts to blow, just like it did in her attic back at home. She feels small and catches one last glimpse of the prince’s face before the smoke surrounds her. The wind blows so hard that Laila can barely open her eyes, and all she can hear is the sound of paper rustling. She coughs and tries to fan the smoke out of her face.

Once she is finally able to open her eyes, she finds herself back in her attic with boxes all around her. The storybook is still open in front of her, but the pages are no longer blank. An illustration of Laila smashing Cinderella’s shoe fills a whole page, and the only way to find Prince Charming’s true love has been destroyed. Laila slams the book closed and puts it back in the box where she found it.

“Now I understand why my mother hid this book away so long ago. Maybe she’s right, I should start focusing on more important things,” Laila says to herself as she restacks the boxes, climbs down the ladder, and closes the attic door.

Laila returns from her adventures. Instead of the joy she expected to have from her experiences, she is left with jealousy. No fantasy could give Laila her perfect prince. She has learned that maybe fairy tales don’t always have happy endings.

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