Chapter Four

As Cinderella broke our embrace, I wiped my tear-soaked cheeks off with my sleeves again. “Heh,” I scoffed with a smirk as I gazed down at them. I then muttered, “My sleeves are getting soggy.”

Cinderella shrugged. “You had quite a lot to let out; I can tell,” she said kindly.

She continued frowning concernedly, however, as she commented, “You’ve really never had any friends before… and your life hasn’t been terribly easy, either…”

Taking a deep breath, Cinderella concluded, “To be honest, I’m surprised you turned out as well as you did.”

I raised a brow in confusion. “What do you mean?” I said.

Seeming to be worried that she’d offended me, Cinderella quickly clarified, “I mean- with everything that you’ve been through, I don’t think it would be reasonable to expect you to be anything more than a recluse. Or a gibbering mess. I’m just surprised that you’re as sane as you are, considering that most anyone else would likely have become so psychologically damaged that they’d have to spend the rest of their lives in a mental hospital, after living through the things that you have.” With a smile, she added, “It’s a compliment- in other words, the strength of your will and mind are quite extraordinary.”

I returned her smile. “Thanks,” I said.

I then looked away, however, as I muttered, “But actually, you are right.”

Cinderella blinked. “About what?”

Swallowing and trembling slightly with nervousness, I replied, “You’re right in assuming that my psyche was damaged by my… childhood trauma. Quite badly.”

For an instant, I saw a sliver of the same fear in Cinderella’s expression that had been present in the eyes of every other person who had ever looked at me before. “What do you mean?” she said softly.

Steeling myself for the possibility of driving Cinderella away again, but determined to soldier through this in order to establish with complete certainty whether or not this friendship could last, I took a deep, shuddering breath before pointing at my temple and saying, “As of right now, I am currently diagnosed with several psychological disorders; including high-functioning autism, clinical vampirism, and borderline sociopathy. Among others. In other words, I am quite far from sane.”

Cinderella blinked, and was silent for a few moments. However, she then grinned and shrugged, saying, “Well, I think your autism was fairly obvious just observing your behavior. I don’t think it’s a ‘disorder,’ anyway; I think you’re just the psychological equivalent of left-handed. As for the other two, how do they manifest?”

I gazed silently at Cinderella for a few moments, stunned at how well she was taking this revelation. “Really?” I said disbelievingly. “Your not bothered at all by any of those?”

Cinderella shook her head. “Not really,” she replied casually.

“Why not?” I said.

“I’ll tell you in a moment,” Cinderella reassured me. “But please go on first.”

I blinked, then shook my head and said, “Well, when I say I have clinical vampirism, it means that I literally thirst for blood. I love how it tastes, and I have an intense longing to taste it; to drink it. Seeing blood being spilt fascinates and excites me just as much as it horrifies me.”

Cinderella looked slightly disturbed, though evidently not enough to abandon me. “So do you drink blood?” she said. “Quite often?”

I looked up for a moment, then shook my head. “Not really,” I said. “I mean, I don’t go out of my way to do it; but whenever I receive a wound that draws blood, I’ll lick some from it if it’s been cleaned. My mother says I’ve always done it; when I got vaccines or scraped my knee as a little kid, I would always either directly lap blood from the wound or, if I couldn’t reach it, lick it from my fingers. All she could convince me to do was to make sure I washed my dirty wounds before drinking from them.”

Cinderella scrunched up her face and stuck out her tongue. “Yeah, that’s… really gross…” she muttered in disgust.

I softly chuckled. “Yeah, but I can’t help it. I enjoy the taste and… I don’t know… the sensation far too much.”

Cinderella’s expression became a touch concerned as she asked, “But you don’t drink others’ blood, right? Or deliberately harm yourself to taste your own?”

I shook my head. “No, I don’t,” I replied. “But I want to sometimes…”

Cinderella blinked. “Which one?” she said.

“Both,” I replied.

Cinderella was silent for a few moments, then she sighed and said, “Well, assuming you’re telling the truth, you still don’t, even if you want to. I guess that’s all that matters, in the end.”

Quite stunned again at how she was taking it, I said astonishedly, “It still doesn’t bother you?”

Cinderella shrugged. “We all have our own demons we must face,” she muttered. “And though yours might be quite unusual, you still seem to have tamed it rather well. Your desires aren’t the things that matter; what matters is what you do about them.”

I made a small smile, though it was short-lived; I then frowned again as I said, “What about my borderline sociopathy, though?”

Cinderella snorted. “Are you serious?” she said as she suppressed further laughter.

“Absolutely,” I replied annoyedly. I was a little angry now. I frowned as I said sternly, “I’m always serious.”

“Just making sure,” Cinderella said, grinning widely and rolling her eyes.

“It is serious,” I insisted somberly. “You really shouldn’t make light of it; insanity is… dangerous.”

“Aren’t we all just a little bit mad, though?” Cinderella replied, narrowing her eyes coyly as she continued grinning and gazing sideways at me.

I replied with glaring silence. Cinderella laughed again, then she said with still-cheerful but earnest sincerity, “Come on, Aaron; you’re obviously not a sociopath.”

My glaring frown melted into a frown of surprised confusion. “What?” I said quietly.

Cinderella gave me a light punch in my upper arm. “Just think about it, sweetie,” she said. “A sociopath is, by definition, incapable of empathy. Or compassion. I doubt people fitting this description even exist, but I know for an absolute certainty that you don’t.”

Rubbing my arm and blushing more intensely at having been addressed as “sweetie,” I muttered, “And how is that?”

“Because you felt the need to warn me that you were,” Cinderella answered. “Hard to spin that as anything other than concern for my well-being, innit?”

My mouth opened slightly as Cinderella leaned forward, supporting her weight against the swing’s chains by her elbows, and continued, “Whoever diagnosed you as a sociopath is a right proper idiot.”

I shook my head. “They didn’t,” I said. “They diagnosed me as a borderline sociopath.”

Cinderella frowned at me. “What the hell does that mean?” she said disdainfully.

“It’s sometimes extremely difficult for me to empathize with others,” I replied. “In addition, I have an almost pathological lack of fear.”

Cinderella seemed quite confused. “Huh?” she said.

“I don’t respond rationally to dangerous situations,” I clarified. “For instance, if you point a loaded gun directly at my face, I won’t immediately flinch or try to get out of its path. It’s not that I’m suicidal, or that I don’t try to preserve my own life, but… the prospect of my own death doesn’t really frighten me at all.”

Cinderella looked equal parts shocked and impressed. “You have no fear of death whatsoever?” she said quietly.

I shook my head.

Cinderella looked as though she was going to say something in reply, but evidently decided against it. She looked out into the distance for a few moments, then she softly asked, “Why do you suppose that is?”

“I don’t really know,” I replied with a small chuckle. “I mean, I don’t want to die, but the idea of dying isn’t scary to me. I guess I just see it as nothing more than lying down and falling into a dreamless, eternal sleep. As true a rest as anything you can possibly have. I just hope that I can live my life in such a way that when that time comes, I’ll be ready for it, and I can welcome it with a sense of relief.”

Cinderella nodded in agreement. “A sound and reasonable philosophy, to be sure,” she commented. “However, I don’t think your fearlessness in the face of your own mortality makes you even a borderline sociopath.”

“Why not?” I said.

“Because you still experience fear,” Cinderella answered. She held her palm up as she continued, “You might not fear death, but you’ve shown fear towards other things. Cruelty. Pain. Loneliness. I think it’s fairly clear that you fear those things.”

“Yeah,” I casually replied. I cracked a small smile as I said, “But I don’t think it’s possible not to fear those things. After all, since we’re social animals, it’s only natural that aversion towards isolation or suffering is one of our most fundamental inherent traits.”

Cinderella nodded. “What would you say is your greatest fear?” she said.

Thrown off a little by this fairly unexpected question, I looked up towards the clouds in the bright blue mid-morning sky for a few moments before answering, “That I don’t fear death. In the face of physical danger, I fear nothing, and that scares me.”

“Why’s that?” Cinderella said.

I looked down at my grasped hands, careful to keep my watering eyes out of Cinderella’s sight. “Because it’s not normal to not be afraid of death,” I said. “It’s how humanity has survived. That I don’t have something that every other human being has… it must mean that I’m broken. That there’s something fundamentally wrong within my psyche that makes me a danger- not just to myself, but to the others around me. Add to that my misanthropy, my stunted ability to empathize, and my literal blood-thirst, and I’d say it wouldn’t be unreasonable to worry that I might become something truly… monstrous.”

Cinderella gently placed her hand under my chin, causing me to widely open my eyes and make a small gasp of surprise. Cinderella softly turned my head to face her, and I saw that her expression was every bit as caring and concerned as it had been before my confessions. “Aaron, you’re not dangerous,” she said. She smiled and laughed as she added, “In fact, paradoxically, the fact that you’re so worried that you are a threat to others is how I know you aren’t. Aaron, you are honestly and truly one of the single best friends I’ve ever had.”

I felt tears welling up again as I smiled bitterly and replied, “You haven’t even known me until yesterday.”

“I don’t have to,” Cinderella replied, firmly but still sweetly and kindly. She smirked as she added, “Trust me; I have dealt with far enough people to know who is a danger and who isn’t. I have seen many cruel, fraudulent, and insincere people, and a few kind, compassionate, and utterly genuine people, and so I feel quite secure in conclusively assessing you as being one of those rare treasures that is a true friend.”

Cinderella gave my cheek a gentle, prolonged stroke before she shifted back to place her full weight on her seat once again. She then said, “Let me tell you a story now. I’m almost certain that you’ll be convinced of the high quality of my sense of judgement by its conclusion.”

After a moment of hesitation, I nodded. “Alright,” I said. “I’m listening.”

With a pleased smile, Cinderella gazed forward, out into the distance, as she began, “I was born in London in the morning of an Easter Sunday thirteen years ago. My mother was fourteen when she had me, having been compelled to conceive and bear me by the state.”

My eyes widened. This meant that Cinderella’s mother had refused to abide by her civic duty and bear her required two children, and had been subsequently forced by the World Hegemony to conceive Cinderella on pain of arrest and life incarceration for defiance of the state’s law.

Every fertile girl over thirteen years of age was required to make at least one attempt at conceiving a child per year, either through artificial insemination or unprotected vaginal sexual intercourse. Any fertile girl who had not conceived a child by her eighteenth birthday was then taken into temporary state custody until she became pregnant, and was then released back into her home community. Likewise, if a girl had not conceived her second child by the time she turned twenty-one, she was likewise put under temporary arrest until she again became pregnant.

When the World Hegemony first implemented this law, the Board Of World Leaders released an accompanying statement that they regretted having to enforce it, but that they had to in order to keep all of civilization alive and flourishing. They pointed out that if they simply allowed women to bear as many or few children as they desired, there would either be a communal workforce shortage due to women deciding not to have enough children to replace the dying senior population, or that there would be so many new people every generation that the world population would soon outgrow what the Earth could sustain, as very nearly happened immediately before the International Unification of Nations a thousand years ago.

The BOWL stated that though this was undeniably an unequal burden on the world’s women, they argued that it was also an honor, because the women could perform a necessary task that a man never could. In addition, they attempted to mitigate the apparent sexual imbalance this created by making artificial insemination publicly and freely available to all girls thirteen years of age or older, as well as pointing out that even the female World Leaders were required to abide by this law and command, just like all civilian women were. This included none other than the current Hegemon Chairperson of the Board Of World Leaders: Whitney Beatrice Shamroque, who had performed her societal duty and bore two children herself despite being the most powerful human being- man or woman- in the world.

However, in the event any girl or woman over the age of consent refused to abide by the reproductive commands of the World Hegemony, she would be arrested and presented with an ultimatum: she must either allow the state to impregnate her by any means it deems necessary, or she must forfeit her freedom and be forever removed from society. If she relented, the offending woman no longer had any say in how she conceived her child; at the discretion of her Monarch Secretary, she would either be forced to undergo artificial insemination, or otherwise be compelled into sexual activity with a man her Monarch Secretary selected for her.

Though I didn’t dare voice it, I privately viewed this as unjustifiably barbaric. After all, even if the offending girls technically were criminals who had legally partially forfeited their freedoms, it was still virtually impossible to view the state-mandated coercion they underwent as anything other than simple rape. This is why I was determined to work to change it if I ever became a World Leader.

I said hesitantly, “Did she- well, your mother, I mean- um… did she, ah… did she have to…?”

“Yes,” Cinderella replied somberly. “She was considered to be extremely beautiful, so she was made to service all of the men charged with her custody. Including the then-King Secretary of Britain. One of them is my father, though I’ve no idea who. Nor do I care.”

I nodded softly. “I don’t blame you,” I muttered.

Cinderella gave me a small smile, accompanied by a short, bitter laugh. I then said cautiously, “I hope you don’t mind my asking, but… do you know why your mother was so… rebellious?”

Cinderella grinned. “Not at all,” she replied. She looked up as she answered, “It wasn’t that she didn’t desire to have children. Quite the opposite, actually. But she also believed quite strongly that it would be cruel to leave her children alone with no one to watch them for long stretches of every day.”

My eyes widened. “Y-you mean, she…?” I stuttered.

Cinderella gazed expectantly at me, waiting for me to finish my question. I swallowed before blurting out, “Did… did your mother desire to have a husband…?!”

Cinderella smiled, then shook her head. “Not at all,” she said.

I sighed relievedly, noting that I had been trembling and flushing with fear. It would have been very bad if Cinderella’s mother had been actively seeking a man who would marry her; after all, marriage was a fundamentally religious practice, and was therefore outlawed as a highest-tier crime of treason and endangerment to civilization along with all other religious rituals, sacraments, and rites when the World Hegemony was founded nearly a thousand years ago.

In many ways, it was religion and the ills it brought that had led to the conception and creation of the World Hegemony in the first place. A millennium ago, just before the International Revolutionary War occurred, the Earth seemed to be on the brink of destruction; the world was bursting with unsustainably large populations, crime and warfare seemed to ravage every street, man-made natural disasters rendered the faces of many nations into apocalyptic wastelands, and the world’s superpowers all seemed poised to unleash weapons upon each other wielding such destructive capabilities that they could easily reduce the entire planet to a mound of dust.

Worst of all, mankind seemed to welcome its own imminent self-annihilation. As utterly insane as this was, the widespread delusion that humanity’s extinction was something to be desired was largely the result of the teachings of the world’s most widespread religious traditions, which convinced their followers that the world must end so that our pain-riddled, sinful world could be washed away and replaced with an eternal, spiritual paradise of the afterlife. Furthermore, each major religion claimed that its own adherents were the only ones who would be admitted into this paradise, and so all non-believers must therefore either be converted into their own way of life, or otherwise be utterly destroyed.

Naturally, these extreme and irrational dogmas led directly to conflict, which only grew in scale and destructiveness as mankind’s secular knowledge of the world simultaneously also accumulated. For the vast majority of history, it was the most religious, irrational, and primitive examples of humanity who ruled the world’s lands, and the enlightened men- the rational, the educated, the intelligent– were either put to death for daring to question the madness of their lords, or otherwise made to serve those lords as designers of their weaponry or strategists of their military campaigns.

With the advent of industry and mechanical technology, it seemed as though mankind had finally realized the error of its ways; there was a great era of science and rationality, the majority of nations implemented systems of democratic republics so that the people could choose better leaders than the autocratic, hereditary monarchs of ancient times, and religion seemed to be slowly dying off.

However, we humans gravely underestimated our own foolishness and our irrational greed; though reason, democracy, and secularism had brought untold prosperity and stability to nearly all peoples, the common masses were still not content with all they had. Though even the poor men of the first global civilization lived far better than the richest emperors of medieval times had lived before them, they still desired but more wealth and more luxury. Of course, since they were enjoying as high a quality of life as it was possible to have, they began seeking to attain impossible degrees of luxury and indulgence, which is what still-living religious traditions promised them.

As such, despite living with undeniable proof of the value of reason and the emptiness of religion all around them, the world’s nations seemed to regress in their cultures and ideals to those of older times; back to the primitive ways of tribalism, dogma, and warfare. Mankind democratically elected the same sorts of fools for leaders that democracy had been specifically designed to prevent from obtaining power, and mankind came to the brink of complete self-destruction, armed simultaneously with the destructive miracles of secular science and the suicidal madness of religious belief.

However, just before humanity could obliterate itself with the horrors civilization had crafted with its own hands, a new movement began. This movement, which began with a small collection of scientists, philosophers, artists, aesthetes, and other nonreligious intellectuals, came to the realization that it was ignorance that was the root of the threat of destruction that civilization faced. They realized what was, in retrospect, a ridiculously obvious truth: that it was absurd to entrust the common man with his own self-preservation, in the exact same way it is absurd for a parent to do the same with their young child. The fact was that most humans were fools who did not, and could not, know what they truly needed. They could not select competent or capable leaders for themselves, any more than an infant can select a mother for herself who is well-suited to raising her. Furthermore, there was no training required to become a nation’s democratic official; you simply needed to have enough charisma to rally a majority of your countrymen around you. Why did we not train our leaders, and carefully filter out all those with incapable minds from that training, in the same way we diligently selected and trained our physicians or teachers?

These educated secularists then realized that it was the common masses who held them back from obtaining this ideal technocratic civilization; they came to see that the uneducated simpletons that made up the majority of the world’s peoples feared and hated them, as they knew in the deepest reaches of their suppressed minds that the so-called “intellectual elite” really were their superiors in every way. It was the educated who had created civilization and all of its wonders; it was achievements of the mind such as writing, art, philosophy, diplomacy, science, mathematics, and reason that had made the world’s civilizations into glorious, advanced bastions of flourishing prosperity, and it was not the result of the overly-glorified wars and savage brutality that mediocre minds liked to imagine had made their homelands great.

With this newfound discovery, in addition to the knowledge that humanity’s lesser minds would never peacefully accept this new world order due to their own willful, proud ignorance and spiteful jealousy, the enlightened minority of mankind came together and formed a coalition known as the “Secular Military State for the Formation of a Single and Unified International Government,” which was colloquially shortened to the “Atheistic State.” Though the Atheistic State was smaller and less populous than every other power on the world stage, they quickly rose to become an overwhelmingly mighty superpower due to the superiority of their advanced technological weaponry and unparalleled strategic brilliance. Though the rest of the world’s nations quickly divided themselves into other allied superpowers in a frail attempt to defeat or even slow the steady conquest of the Atheistic State, they all inevitably crumbled and fell before their unstoppable might.

Once they had secured the unconditional surrender of every other nation, the commanders and officers of the Atheistic State officially founded the World Hegemony, then built a new capital for this unified international government. This capital, Central City, was founded upon the ruins of the great metropolis New York City, which was a center of world trade and diplomacy that had been destroyed in battle during the International Revolution. Intelligence tests were then administered to each person on the week of his or her thirteenth birthday; the brightest and the best were then made to be doctors, scientists, and government officials from that day forward. The highest government officials, which consisted of the six Emperor Presidents of the Earth’s six inhabited continents and the Hegemon Chairperson of the entire World Hegemony, installed themselves in the capital as the ultimate ruling body of the Earth: the Board Of World Leaders, who were tasked with overseeing all the world’s nations and maintaining peace in every land.

The BOWL then issued their first major order; after officially criminalizing the teaching or practice of religion in any form or capacity, they commanded the law enforcement of every nation to purge all dissenters who refused to completely renounce their irrational beliefs in the supernatural. In the process of eliminating religion completely from civilization, the BOWL also outlawed all rituals and practices with fundamentally religious roots, including prayer, sacraments, marriage, and wedding ceremonies. As such, any person who was found to have participated in or seeked to engage in marriage was sentenced to lifelong removal from society for endangering civilization.

Nonetheless, though the BOWL had strictly enforced its forbiddance of marriage for an entire millennium, there were still occasional occurrences of isolated lunatics attempting to secretly engage in religious rites- including marriage- which were routinely unearthed by the World Hegemony’s police forces. Fortunately, these were an increasing rarity; such incidents always appeared in the international news, and the gaps between them were slowly growing increasingly lengthy. Nowadays, it was considered an anomaly to see more than one or two reported during any given year, and the individuals involved were always viewed by the world at large as tragic cases of mental illness who almost certainly couldn’t be cured.

I had been worried, after hearing Cinderella describe her mother, that Cinderella herself might have been raised by such a mental case. That might have been quite dangerous, so it was with great relief that I learned it wasn’t so.

Cinderella wasn’t done, however. “My mother had no desire for a husband,” she said. “However, she did desire for the father of her children to act as her partner in raising them.”

My concern returned a little. “So… so she wanted a… boyfriend?” I said.

Cinderella nodded.

I frowned with confusion and a tinge of worry. Though cohabitation didn’t have the ritualistic, dogmatic sanctions that made marriage dangerous, it was still widely viewed with suspicion and distain by society. After all, it was common practice for those who still engaged in marriage even during the BOWL’s prohibition of it to present themselves as mere cohabitative couples to the outside world in order to keep their felonious unions secret. In addition, voluntary monogamy was widely viewed as a sign of personal weakness and evolutionary unfitness; if you cannot reproduce with a wide variety of partners, the thinking went, then you are ultimately a biological failure as a sexually reproductive animal. To be monogamous was to declare to the world that you and your chosen partner were both too unattractive or lacking in social skills to live up to your natural instincts; therefore, all voluntary monogamists were viewed as shameful embarrassments.

Likely sensing my wariness at her mother’s socially contrarian nonconformity, Cinderella continued, “My mother was a gentle, withdrawn introvert. Furthermore, she viewed kindness and chivalry more highly than anyone else I know; she desired that her children have the chance to inherit these traits from whoever their father was, and that they could know their father, so that they would receive twice the attention, wisdom, and love they could from her alone.”

My eyes widened, and my mouth opened slightly, as I realized surprisedly how sensible and intelligent these desires were. After all, as much as I loved my mother, there was still only so much she could do for me; she still had to put bread on our table and live her own life, even while doing everything in her capabilities to aid me with my own problems. If I had another parent, I realized, our lives would be significantly easier; some of the burden of raising me would be lifted from my mother’s shoulders, I would have another counsel in my learning and growing, and the both of us would have another ally and confidant to rely upon.

I allowed myself a small smile, then said, “Now that you put it that way…”

Cinderella grinned. “My mother was also incredibly cautious and guarded. She was very sensitive, and was uncomfortable with personal vulnerability, so she desired a physical relationship only with someone she was good friends with, and could trust would show respect and consideration to her and her wishes, rather than simply doing as they pleased to satisfy their own desires.”

I smiled and looked down at my hands. “She sounds like me…” I muttered softly.

I flinched as I realized what I’d just said, though relief quickly washed over me when Cinderella then giggled, “I agree.”

My smile faded as I asked, “I presume your mother never met such a man?”

Cinderella shook her head sadly. “No,” she said. “All the men she spoke to were completely uninterested in whatever she had to say or happened to think; all they saw was a pretty, shy girl with a voluptuously sensuous body and a sweet voice.”

I blinked. “Did she happen to look like you?” I said.

Cinderella grinned, obviously flattered. “She did,” she replied. “Her hair was a shade darker, though, and she had green eyes and a freckled face. But otherwise, yes, we are almost perfect mirror-like images of each other.

“At any rate, because she was still a virgin and hadn’t made any attempts at conceiving by the time she was fourteen, my mother was arrested and taken to the British Capital Building in London. There, the King Secretary of Britain gave her a choice: to either offer her own body to him and any of his policemen who paid him the monetary price he set for a taste of her, or to be permanently removed from free society.” Cinderella’s eyes began watering. “She was terrified, but she had no choice; she didn’t even have an idea of what would become of her if she refused. She chose to be violated until she could be set free again.”

Cinderella wiped some tears from her cheeks with her fingers. “They restrained her, and took turns to use her. Every day, the King Secretary of Britain tested her to see if she was pregnant, then she would undergo another round of rape by him and his guardsmen. My mother didn’t remember how many days this went on.

“When she finally tested positive for pregnancy, her restraints were removed and she was sent back home. However, she was warned by her King Secretary that if she intentionally miscarried, she would be forced to endure that same fate all over again.”

The both of us were silent for a few moments, and I slowly absorbed the shock of all Cinderella just told me. Cinderella then took a deep breath, turned to face me with a gentle smile once again, then she said, “Trust me, Aaron; I know. You are probably the least dangerous or untrustworthy boy I’ve ever encountered.” Cinderella laughed as she added, “Hell, not even my own father could hope to be half as noble as you are, whoever he is.”

Cinderella then reached over and took my hand, causing me to flinch and intensely blush as she concluded, “I promise, Aaron; you are my absolute best friend. I’d stake my life on it, so certain am I.”

Cinderella then leaned forward and kissed my cheek.

While I was motionlessly paralyzed for a few moments, Cinderella stood up from her swing and stood in front of me. Leaning forward, she said, “Will you allow me to take you somewhere, my sweet friend? To show my gratitude?”

My face blazing, I made a small smile and nodded very slightly.

Cinderella giggled, took my hand again, then pulled me onto my feet. We began walking through the park, and I was utterly silent for about a minute, even as the bystanders we passed turned to stare at us between the trees and flowering bushes.

However, once my blush had subsided, I said, “Cinderella- can I ask you one more thing?”

Cinderella turned and grinningly nodded at me. “Of course. What is it?”

“Your mother,” I said, “she- … w-what’s her name?”

Cinderella’s eyes narrowed. “It’s obvious, isn’t it?” she said coyly.

At my puzzled silence, Cinderella giggled. “My mother, her mother, and her mother’s mother have been Disney’s biggest fans as long as we can remember. My name is Cinderella, my grandmother was named Aurora, and my great-grandmother was named Belle. Naturally, my mother’s name was Alice.”

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