By: Donna Cooner

“School’s a lot of work,” Mario says.

I laugh. “You’ve got a long way to go. What’s your favorite part?”

“I liked the letter C.”

“More than the letter A?” I ask, smiling.

“A was boring. We had to eat apples.”

“And what did you eat for the letter C?”

“Chocolate candy.” He grins. I grin back.

“We sing a lot in kindergarten. I like that.”

“I liked that part of kindergarten, too,” I say.

Valerie clutches her best friend Keisha’s hand and swings it, making all the brightly clipped pigtails on Keisha’s head fly about wildly.

“Ever, it’s story time!” Valerie proclaims. Keisha nods furiously and giggles.

“Cinderella. Cinderella,” they chant like the mice in the Disney movie version.

I settle into a special setup of three wooden chairs, which they have already lined up to hold me. And I begin.

“Once upon a time there was a girl named Cinderella,” I say.

“No!” they scream in anguish. “Sing it!”

I know the lyrics by heart. Just like I know almost all the lyrics to any musical by heart. It’s a well-guarded secret that only a select group of poor five-year-olds have somehow coaxed out of me. I sang Cats last week and bits of Wicked the week before, but they always come back to their favorite, Cinderella. But I don’t sing. Not yet. If there’s anything I’ve learned about telling stories to kids, it’s to keep them in suspense.

Mario says he’ll be the prince, but only if he can be the Phantom next time. The two girls agree, and the three of them dance across the block-strewn carpet with gusto.

“Tell me the part about the prince again.” Keisha pulls away from the rest of the group and pushes her way into my lap, snuggling in like my body is some kind of floppy blanket. She’s still breathing hard from the dancing, her tiny pink T-shirt moving rhythmically up and down over her chest. Mario stops to make a flourishing bow in front of Valerie. Keisha leans back against my chest to pop a thumb into her mouth as I speak.

“And they danced and danced until the clock struck midnight,” I say, as Mario and Valerie waltz wildly among the scattered blocks.

“And they were happy?” Keisha asks.

“They were happier than they’d ever been in their whole life,” I say. For some reason the words bring tears to my eyes. I don’t know why. It isn’t a sad story.

The dancing five-year-olds end up in a giggling pile of bodies in the middle of the home center.

“Now sing,” Mario commands. But I don’t because Valerie jumps up suddenly, grabbing between her legs.

“I gots to use it!” she declares and gallops toward the bathroom. It’s hard to argue with that. Cinderella’s ball stops.

I see Rat standing in the doorway, tall and serious, watching me. He shifts uncomfortably from one foot to the other. I’m not sure how long he’s been there.

“I have to go,” I tell the kids.

“Nooooo,” they squeal, grabbing my arms and begging me to stay. Valerie returns to join in the begging.

“Just one song,” she pleads, stamping her tiny tennis shoe on the red ABC carpet for emphasis.

“Sorry. My ride is here.”

“You mean your carriage?” Mario asks with a rare smile.

I look up at Rat and grin. He smiles back and pushes his glasses up on his nose.

“He thinks you look ridiculous.” Skinny is back. Lately, she’s started to do Rat. I don’t like it.

“Let’s go.” I push past him, the smile gone from my face.

Chapter Three

My stepsister Briella is already at the kitchen table when I walk in the door. Meat loaf and mashed potatoes sit untouched on the plate in front of her while she texts frantically in her lap.

“Eat your dinner, Briella,” my stepmother, Charlotte, says from the kitchen.

My mom, my real mom, was an artist. She illustrated children’s books. Fairy tales, picture books, animals. She was amazing. Sometimes I would fall in love with one of the illustrations, and she would give it to me. I kept them in her old portfolio in my closet. Bears with clothes on, kids going to school, but the one I kept on my wall — my very favorite was an illustration of Beauty dancing with the Beast. She painted that one when she was pregnant with me.

“I told you no gravy,” Briella says, not looking up from her phone. She’s wearing a black pleated miniskirt and a soft, bright blue sweater that hugs her fifteen-year-old curves. I know without looking under the table that she’s also wearing black Ugg boots. The miniskirt and the sweater I covet, but those black fur-lined boots with all that room left around her tiny calves make me absolutely livid.

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