“Thank you so much, again, for agreeing to do this.”
“Hardly,” Tessa said. “You didn’t give me much of a choice, Emily.”
Maybe that was harsh. Tessa knew her sister was home sick and needed help today. She took a breath and said with less malice, “What else are twin sisters for?”
“See? That’s the spirit.”
Tessa checked her makeup in the mirror again, shocked at who was looking back at her. Giant eyes framed by thick, brunette curls, and large yellow pearl studs on her ears. She need only look down to see the most inconspicuous part of the outfit— the enormous, daffodil-colored dress.
“I promise I will make it up to you,” Emily said in her high-pitched, nervous voice. Always nervous. “Merry Magic thanks you!”
“Yes, I’m sure it does.”
Merry Magic, Emily’s princess company, specialized in “Bringing the magic to you!” Her character actors would show up and sing songs for kids who somehow believed they were real princesses.
Like most twins, Tessa and Emily were identical in looks only. Both had brown doe-like eyes, high cheekbones, and a heart-shaped face, but in every other way the two were complete opposites. While Emily had embraced dance class and tutus growing up, Tessa abandoned all of the bows when she learned that playing in the mud and wearing pants were far more enjoyable.
Right now the company was going through a rough patch, and Emly was barely hanging on. Gigs coming in for the company had been slow these days, and now most of her performers were hung up with the flu. Emily, included. Even though Tessa was not inclined to flouncy outfits and pageantry, she had the same expressive, cartoonish face as her sister. This meant she had to say yes when Emily asked her to cover for her. She just happened to love Emily more than she hated dresses and lipstick.
She was regretting that right about now.
Violent coughing echoed through the telephone line, then a wild gasp for air. “Ok.” Another cough, “let me know how it goes. Make sure you smile. The ‘Storybook Princess’ should be thrilled to be there!”
“Oh, she is,” Tessa replied.
“Stay in character the whole time. Even with the adults. Especially with the librarians.”
Emma blew her nose, the sound of it causing her sister to gag involuntarily.
“I know. And I know how to be fake, Emma. We both went to the same theater camps growing up.”
“Right, and you’re so good at it! So try to have fun!”
She grumbled at her sister’s dismissive optimism. Emily was even worse than usual right now since she was high on cold medicine. This bitter princess just had to get through the next couple of hours. Read a story for ten or twenty children, take pictures, and get out of there.
“Ok, bye. Please don’t die.”
“I have the flu, not ebola,” Emily said.
“You sound like you have Tuberculosis.”
“And you sound like you’re stalling. Au revoir!”
Tessa threw her cell phone in her center console and grabbed a pair of elbow-length, yellow satin gloves. Her hoop skirt was waiting in the back seat, ready to add even more size to the huge ball gown. After a few more irritating touch-ups to her outfit, she looked in the reflection of the car window and gave a delicate, pretty smile.
“Jesus Christ,” she said.
With the story books in hand, she made her way to the eager, grubby toddlers.
The whimsical sign for the library came into view, similar to the album artwork for Tea for the Tillerman. A poorly designed poster celebrated today’s event: “Join us for story time with a real Princess reading this Saturday morning! Free admission.”
This library was struggling far more than Emma’s princess company, so clearly they needed each other. Emma’s company wasn’t 50 years old like this place, but it made sense for them to support each other by increasing exposure. The likelihood of the library folding was both depressing and plainly representative of the times.
A short woman with wispy silver hair located Tessa (she was a little hard to miss) and opened her mouth wide.
“There is our guest of honor!”
Tessa breathed in deep and grinned. “Oh, bonjour everyone!. It’s so lovely to be here. Thank you!” A smile raked onto her face and made her glow like the dress. She knew exactly what to do with her voice to make it sound just like she had stepped out of the Disney cartoon. “I've been so looking forward to this!”
The space was old, but welcoming, and the floor was littered with little kids. Some were wreaking havoc amongst the bookshelves, their parents too consumed with other things to care. Others were clinging to their adult like they would be killed if they stepped away from their guardian.
And then they all saw Tessa.
“Mommy, mommy, it’s BELLE!” Shrieked a girl, her Ls sounding more like Ws. Her Ice Queen outfit was a cheap Amazon dress, probably made by emaciated, underprivileged sweatshop workers. “It’s BELLE, mommy!”
Forty inches of rugrat slammed into Tessa’s large skirt, toppling her off balance. With impressive patience, she gained her footing and threw her arms up like she was on the most enjoyable roller coaster. Then she sunk down into a squat to get on the child’s level.
“And what is your name, princess?”
The girl’s eyes widened in disbelief. She was not so brave when royalty was up close.
“Kara,” she whispered.
“Kara,” Tessa said, placing a delicate hand on her own heart. “Would you like to read some stories with me this morning?”
“Yes,” the girl mouthed.
“Come. I love to read. But, of course, you know that!”
An ugly brown chair had been placed at the far end of a circular rug, which resembled the Earth. Green and blue shapes made up the design, with little, diverse children holding hands around the border of the globe.
As Tessa took her seat, small humans came out of the woodwork, some having abandoned their parents, and others getting cozy in someone’s lap. The librarian welcomed everyone and thanked them for coming. A baby in the back of the small crowd immediately began to wail, but the librarian raised her voice and didn’t pause her spiel. Tessa was not listening to what was being said, too distracted by the commotion around her. Mothers in the back were gabbing away at each other, tittering like teenagers. And each kid seemed to have the same, wet cough that made their lips pucker and their tongues stick out. Tessa wondered why children cough in such a disgusting way as she suppressed her gag reflex again.
Tessa opened her large picture book with a flourish and began to read in the loveliest princess voice she could muster.
“Once upon a time, a handsome prince lived in a huge castle. The prince was lovely on the outside, but conceited and selfish on the inside. One day, an enchantress called upon him…”
The banal tale went on. At first all of the kids were listening, but within ten minutes half of them were complaining, fidgeting, and vexing their grownups. One of the girls who had been wandering the bookshelves unsupervised was now fighting her way to the front, pushing kids aside and stepping on little fingers.
Without interrupting her performance, Tessa was able to try and locate this child’s mother. The woman was nowhere in sight. The girl advanced all the way up to the lavish gown and plopped down on it. Up close Tessa could see how chubby she was, and when she sat on the skirt Tessa was forced to bend forward in her chair. The girl’s wandering hands pulled at the dress, tearing at threads and picking off sequins.
“Oh, no thank you,” Tessa said kindly, having to halt her narrative.
Because this dress is a thousand fucking dollars, she wanted to say.
“Angel, quit!” A woman, probably the mother, yelled from across the room.
Tessa spoke to the girl, Angel, at the same time her mother stomped over to the rug.
“Could you sit on the rug, sweetheart?”
But Angel couldn’t hear her, because the mother had reached her arm across 6 other children and grabbed the girl’s upper arm.
“Little shit,” she growled not too quietly, and Angel screamed at an impossible pitch as she was dragged across the planet rug.
Yes, wonderful, thank you for…that.
Annoying kids and bitchy mothers. Somehow they always went hand in hand. But Tessa couldn’t blame her, she was about to backhand the girl herself.
Tessa really was good at faking it, because she soldiered on to the end of the fairytale through it all. Even as some children ran off, others (like Kara) were totally enthralled. Though they coughed and sneezed on her repeatedly. Interjections like, “Hey. Hey. Hey. Hey. My mommy wear makeup,” or “Why do you have boobies?” did not stop her from keeping up the show.
At last when she had finished, she closed the book with a poised smile, and braced herself for the pictures.
A handful of kids did not want to sit on the princess’s lap. This did not stop the persistent mothers from thrusting them into her arms and encouraging her to restrain their flailing bodies. Stranger danger never counts when it comes to Santa or anyone in a costume.
Some girls, and even a few boys, disarmed Tessa with their adorable charm. Their eyes were all so big, their innocence too authentic for her to be bothered. She was even allowing herself a moment of delight when a woman’s hot coffee splashed onto the bodice of her gown, scalding her chest in the process.
A scream, one very much not in character, escaped her. Somehow her mouth avoided making curse words, though just barely.
Looking up, Tessa found the guilty party, who was staring in silent horror. Her face said it all.
“Oh no,” Tessa cried, recovering. “No, don’t worry at all! The Beast has made messes far worse! I’m used to it.” She giggled and rolled her eyes at a pretend memory.
Ouch fucking ow that is so fucking hot.
The librarian ran to get a towel. Luckily, most of the guests had gotten their pictures and hugs, so Tessa was free to run off and beg the dry cleaners to somehow work their own magic.
She was going to snap at any moment and she knew it. She had to get out of there. Emily owed her a lifetime’s worth of margaritas. Tessa would never have kids, and if she did she would never let them watch these idiotic movies. The narratives of happy endings were a cruel lie, further embedding into young girls’ minds that their worth is contingent on societal beauty standards. Let a man save you, fix their emotional dysregulation by being kind and non-assuming. What bullshit.
Tessa thanked the librarian one last time, and even offered the poor woman who had spilled the coffee a generous smile. Her sister was going to be furious about the dress, Tessa knew. Emily might be sweet, but her charm turned to mania when she was stressed. There was nothing she could do, really. Pretty, sweet, princesses didn’t demand recompense for stained garments.
Her hand was on the door when the brat from earlier grabbed her hand. She’d escaped from her mother once more.
“Belle,” she said.
Tessa cleared her throat, forcing out five more minutes worth of princess.
Little arms wrapped around Tessa’s shoulders, and the little girl drew her close with surprising force.
“Thank you,” she said, and squeezed.
Tessa’s eyes hurt. She hugged the little girl back, confused by the pain in her chest.
“You’re… welcome,” she said.