This story is by M MacKinnon and was part of our 2022 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Cinderella jerked and dropped her sponge into the dishwater. She wiped her forehead with the back of a rubber glove and forced herself to focus on the source of the noise.
“Where did you put my cape?” A petulant voice trailed from the bedroom. “I left it right here on the chair last night, and now it’s gone. I’m going to be late!”
She sighed. Damn it, couldn’t the man do anything on his own? She took a deep breath and schooled her face into an expression of loving concern, something that was becoming harder by the day.
Philip had most certainly not left his cape on the chair—that would have been lovely. No doubt it had been tossed onto the floor as usual, waiting for a servant to pick it up. And guess who that servant is? She peeled off the gloves and took a deep breath.
“Perhaps if you hung your cape in the closet…” she trailed off. What was the use? How had so much changed in a year? She remembered their first dance as if it were yesterday. The love in his beautiful blue eyes, strong arms holding her close. The clock striking midnight, her wild dash from the ballroom, that long walk home to her place by the fire in stepmama’s house, the sorrow when she thought she’d never see him again. And then there he was, standing at the door with her glass slipper in his hand, and she had been swept away to live in a real castle. It had been just like a fairy tale.
Her thoughts returned to the present and she gathered her strength as her husband whined on. “Well, cleaning up is your territory, isn’t it?” There was a sneer in his voice. “After all, I had no clue what a gem I was getting when I married a commoner. You were so beautiful at the ball, how was I to know you weren’t royalty?”
“Well, finding me in rags with a mop in one hand and a bucket in the other might have given you a hint, don’t you think?” Cinderella replied sweetly. “After all, I wasn’t the one who insisted on trying on that shoe!”
No, Philip wasn’t strong on hints. The truth was, he wasn’t terribly bright. A pretty face and a grand title couldn’t disguise the fact that everything about him was superficial. In his defense, he’d been raised with unthinkable wealth, taught that he could have anything he wanted because he was a prince. And once upon a time, what he had wanted was her.
Not anymore. The passion in their romance had lasted three months at best, and then the poison of their vast differences seeped in. They fussed about mundane things, petty disagreements that escalated into screaming fights. He was a slob, she a bitch. A cycle of misery that never seemed to end.
Their fights resounded through the castle and the servants took to avoiding these rooms, happy to oblige when Cinderella volunteered to take care of the cleaning. The truth was, she liked cleaning. She’d done it all her life, first for her venomous stepmother and odious stepsisters, and now for her oblivious husband. She loved the smell of soap, the feel of a mop in her hands, the sparkle of dishes freshly washed. In an alien world, cleaning was something she could do well, the one thing that was all hers.
Philip emerged from the bedroom, handsome face twisted into a scowl of annoyance that seemed to be his resident expression these days.
“I’ll be late. Don’t wait up,” he said, without sparing a glance. And he was gone, leaving the door open. Apparently closing doors behind him was also her territory.
Cinderella felt tears welling behind her eyes. I can’t stand this anymore. I don’t like being alone all the time with nothing to do and no one to talk to. At least at home I had the mice and birds to keep me company. I hate this castle with its damp walls and ghostly echoes. I hate him.
There. She’d admitted it, the emotion that had been building over the last months of being ignored and belittled. She was tired of pretending. She couldn’t remember the last meal they had shared. He came home late most nights, shed his clothes like a snake and crawled into bed without even checking to see if she was awake. He was always in a hurry, always late for something.
Or someone. She sat up straight, eyes wide. Then she ran into the bedroom, where his clothes from the previous night lay in a heap beside the bed. In a frenzy, she rummaged through the pile, checking for anything that might alleviate or confirm the suspicion building in her mind.
And there it was. On the collar of his black cloak a spot of red leapt out as if to taunt her. She held the garment closer, ran a finger along the stain. Her finger came away with a greasy smudge of what she knew could only be lipstick. She held the collar to her nose. A faint scent, not the kind a man like Philip would be caught dead wearing.
Cinderella rocked back on her heels and stared unseeing into the fireplace, numb. Gradually her heartbeat returned to normal, and she began to look at the situation with new eyes. Why was she surprised? All the signs had been there: the absence of passion, consideration, affectionate conversation, the lack of—well, as to that, when was the last time? More often than not his words were laced with sarcasm and scorn, his expressions cold and distant. How had she allowed this to happen?
No. It couldn’t be. Philip loved her, and she him. They were going through a rough patch, like all newlyweds did, that was all it was. She just needed to work harder, to trust him more. It was as much her fault as it was his, and it was up to her to fix things.
“I’ll be late. Don’t wait up,” he’d said. Well, she was absolutely going to wait up, in her most alluring gown. She was going to seduce her prince once again, make him understand that he was hers alone, forever.
Hours later she sat on their bed, freezing in her thin lace gown, tamping down the anger and fear when it threatened to rise up and choke her. The wine was poured, the candles lit. Her makeup was perfection.
Boots sounded on the stones in the corridor, uneven footfalls accompanied by a stumble, a curse. A key rattled in the lock, fell to the floor, found the lock again. Philip tripped over the sill and came to a swaying halt ten feet from Cinderella.
“Wha th—?” he slurred. Then his eyes lit up and he shambled forward. “Hey,” he breathed, a stale odor of spirits enveloping her. “You look shexy.” He grinned, a wolfish leer that spoke of lust, not love. Then he was on top of her, pinning her to the bed as he fumbled for the ties on the gown. She heard a rip and felt cold air on her breast.
“Wait, Philip!” she cried out. “Don’t—”
“Am-el-ya,” he whispered into her ear. Cinderella froze. Amelia? Who the hell was Amelia?
“Shhhh,” he murmured. “Don wan th wench t’ know.” His broad grin, the one she had found so attractive at the ball, now seemed hideous, a clown-like parody of the man she knew. Had thought she knew. Wench? That’s what I am to him? She gave a great heave and rolled out from under Philip’s body, desperate to be free of the groping hands. The two came to their feet, panting. He lurched and reached for her again, and she backed away slowly, never taking her eyes from his. She reached behind her for the door handle, gave it a yank, and spilled herself out into the corridor.
Cinderella spent the remainder of the night in the stable, propped against the wall with her knees drawn up to her chest. Her thoughts cycled relentlessly through fury, grief, and self-recrimination. She cried until she was wrung out, and sometime before morning she made a decision.
Prince Philip came home that evening with a bouquet of wilted supermarket roses, to find an empty room and a note.
I am leaving, and I expect it will come as a relief to you. The truth is, we have both been unhappy for a long while, and now it is time to set each other free. I truly believe that we will find our happily ever after, just not together.
I will be fine-—I am opening a cleaning company. I think I’ll call it Ella’s Rags to Riches Cleaning Service—like it? Please do not call, I no longer do castles.
Yours once upon a time,
PS: I wish you well with Amelia.
PPS: You may keep the glass slipper as a souvenir.