Zinnia Gray, professional fairy-tale fixer and lapsed Sleeping Beauty is over rescuing snoring princesses.
We’re thrilled to share an excerpt from A Mirror Mended, the second installment in Alix E. Harrow’s Fractured Fables series, out from Tordotcom on June 14.
Zinnia Gray, professional fairy-tale fixer and lapsed Sleeping Beauty is over rescuing snoring princesses. Once you’ve rescued a dozen damsels and burned fifty spindles, once you’ve gotten drunk with twenty good fairies and made out with one too many members of the royal family, you start to wish some of these girls would just get a grip and try solving their own narrative issues.
Just when Zinnia’s beginning to think she can’t handle one more princess, she glances into a mirror and sees another face looking back at her: the shockingly gorgeous face of evil, asking for her help. Because there’s more than one person trapped in a story they didn’t choose. Snow White’s Evil Queen has found out how her story ends and she’s desperate for a better ending. She wants Zinnia to help her before it’s too late for everyone.
Will Zinnia accept the Queen’s poisonous request, and save them both from the hot iron shoes that wait for them, or will she try another path?
I like a good happily ever after as much as the next girl, but after sitting through forty-eight different iterations of the same one—forty-nine, if you count my (former) best friends’ wedding—I have to say the shine is wearing off a little.
I mean, don’t get me wrong, I worked hard for all forty-nine of those happy endings. I’ve spent the last five years of my life diving through every iteration of Sleeping Beauty, chasing the echoes of my own shitty narrative through time and space and making it a little less shitty, like a cross between Doctor Who and a good editor. I’ve rescued princesses from space colonies and castles and caves; I’ve burned spindles and blessed babies; I’ve gotten drunk with at least twenty good fairies and made out with every member of the royal family. I’ve seen my story in the past and the future and the never-was-or-will-be; I’ve seen it gender-flipped, modern, comedic, childish, whimsical, tragic, terrifying, as allegory and fable; I’ve seen it played out with talking woodland creatures, in rhyming meter, and more than once, God help me, with choreography.
Sure, sometimes I get a little tired of it. Sometimes I wake up and don’t know where or when I am, and feel all the stories blurring into a single, endless cycle of pricked fingers and doomed girls. Sometimes I hesitate on the precipice of the next story, exhausted on some fundamental, molecular level, as if my very atoms are worn thin from fighting the laws of physics so hard. Sometimes I would do anything— anything at all—not to know what happens next.
But I spent the first twenty-one years of my life being Zinnia Gray the Dying Girl, killing time until my story ended. I’m still technically dying (hey, aren’t we all), and my home-world life isn’t making headlines (I pick up substitute teaching shifts between adventures, and have spent the last couple of summers working the Bristol Ren Faire, where I sell the world’s most convincing medieval fashion and ephemera). But I’m also Zinnia Gray the Dimension-Hopping, Damsel-Saving Badass, and I can’t quit now. I may not have much of a happily ever after, but I’m going to give away as many as I can before I go.
I just skip the after-parties, that’s all. You know—the weddings, the receptions, the balls, the final celebratory scenes before the credits roll. I used to love them, but lately they just feel saccharine, tedious. Like an act of collective denial, because everybody knows that happily is never really ever after. The truth is buried in the phrase itself, if you look it up. The original version was “happy in the ever after,” which meant something like “hey, everybody dies and goes to heaven in the end, so does it really matter what miseries and disasters befall us on this mortal plane?” Cut out two little words, cover the gap with an –ly, and voilà: The inevitability of death is replaced by the promise of endless, rosy life.
If Charmaine Baldwin (former best friend) heard me talking like that, she’d punch me slightly too hard for it to be a joke and cordially invite me to chill the fuck out. Primrose (former Sleeping Beauty, now part-time ballroom dancing instructor) would fret and wring her pale hands. She might remind me, bracingly, that I’d been granted a miraculous reprieve and ought to count myself lucky! With an audible exclamation point!
Then Charm might casually mention my five years of missed appointments with radiology, the too-many prescriptions I’d left unfilled. At some point the two of them might exchange one of their looks, ten thousand megawatts of love so true its passage would leave my eyelashes singed, as if I’d stood too close to a comet.
And I would remember sitting at their wedding reception while they slow danced to that spacey, ironic Lana Del Rey cover of “Once Upon a Dream,” looking at each other as if they were the only thing in the only universe that mattered, as if they had forever to look. I would remember getting up and going to the bathroom, meeting my own eyes in the mirror before I pricked my finger on a shard of spindle and vanished.
And hey, before you get the wrong idea, this isn’t a love triangle thing. If it were, I could simply say “throuple” three times in the mirror and summon Charm to my bedroom like lesbian Beetlejuice. I’m not jealous of their romance—they love me and I love them, and when they moved to Madison for Charm’s internship, they rented a two-bedroom apartment without any discussion at all, even though the rent is ridiculous.
It’s just that they’re so damn happy. I doubt they’ve ever lain awake at night, feeling the bounds of their narratives like hot wires pressing into their skin, counting each breath and wondering how many are left, wishing—uselessly, stupidly—they’d been born into a better once upon a time.
But that’s not how it works. You have to make the best of whatever story you were born into, and if your story happens to suck ass, well, maybe you can do some good before you go.
And if that’s not enough, if you still want more in your greedy, selfish heart: I recommend you run, and keep running.
All that said, this particular happily ever after is a real banger. It’s another wedding reception, but this one has tequila shots and a churro cart, and every single person, including the bride’s great-grandmother, is dancing me under the table.
I showed up two weeks ago, following the distant, familiar echo of a young woman cursing her cruel fate. I landed in a palatial bedroom that looked like it was stolen straight from the set of a telenovela and met Rosa, whose one true love had choked on a poison apple and fallen into a coma. The apple threw me, I’ll admit, and it took me a while to get the hang of this place—there are more sudden betrayals and identical twins than I’m used to—but eventually I smuggled Rosa past her wicked aunt and into her beloved’s hospital room, whereupon she kissed him with such passion that he snapped straight out of his vegetative state and proposed. Rosa stopped kissing him just long enough to say yes.
I tried to bail before the wedding, but Rosa’s great-grandmother slapped the spindle out of my hands and reminded me that her wicked aunt was still out there seeking revenge, so I stayed. And, sure enough, the aunt showed up with a last-second plot twist in her back pocket that might have ruined everything. I locked her in the women’s room and Rosa’s great-grandmother put a ¡CUIDADO! sign out front.
It’s after midnight now, but neither the DJ nor the dancers are showing any signs of quitting. Normally I’d have slipped out the back hours ago, but it’s hard to feel existential dread when you’re full of churros and beer. Plus, the groom’s second or third cousin has been shooting me slantwise looks all evening, and everyone in this dimension is so dramatically, excessively hot I’ve spent half my time blinking and whispering, “Sweet Christ.”
So I don’t run away. Instead, I look deliberately back at the groom’s second or third cousin and take a slow sip of beer. He jerks his chin at the dance floor and I shake my head, not breaking eye contact. His smile belongs on daytime TV.
Ten minutes later, the two of us are fumbling with the key card to his hotel room, laughing, and twenty minutes later I have forgotten about every single dimension except this one.
It’s still dark when I wake up. I doubt I’ve slept for more than two or three hours, but I feel sober and tense, the way I get when I linger too long.
I make myself lie there for a while, admiring the amber slant of the street light across Diego’s skin, the gym-sculpted planes of his back. I wonder, briefly, what it would feel like to stay. To wake up every morning in the same world, with the same person. It would be good, I bet. Even great.
But there’s a slight tremble in my limbs already, a weight in my lungs like silt settling at the bottom of a river. I don’t have time to waste wanting or wishing; it’s time to run.
I pick my clothes off the floor and tiptoe to the bathroom, feeling for the handkerchief in my jeans pocket. Wrapped safely inside it is a long, sharp splinter of wood, which I set beside the sink while I dress. I can and have traveled between dimensions with nothing but a bent bobby pin and force of will, but it’s easier with a piece of an actual spindle. I’m sure Charm would explain about the psychic weight of repeated motifs and the narrative resonance between worlds if I asked, but I don’t ask her anything anymore.
I don’t travel as light as I once did, either. These days I carry a shapeless backpack full of basic survival supplies (Clif Bars, bottled water, matches, meds, clean underwear, a cell phone I rarely turn on) and the useful detritus of forty-eight fairy tale worlds (a small sack of gold coins, a compass that points toward wherever I’m trying to go, a tiny mechanical mockingbird that sings shrilly and off-key if I’m in mortal peril).
I sling the pack over my shoulder and glance at the mirror, knowing what I’ll see and not really wanting to: a gaunt girl with greasy hair and a too-sharp chin who should definitely text her mom to say she’s okay, but who probably won’t.
Except, the thing is, it’s not me in the mirror.
It’s a woman with high, hard cheekbones and hair coiled like a black silk snake on her head. Her lips are a startling false red, painted like a wound across her face, and there are deep pink indents on either side of her brow. She’s older than most sleeping beauties—there are cold lines carved at the corners of those red, red lips—and far less pretty. But there’s something compelling about her, a gravitational pull I can’t explain. Maybe it’s the eyes, burning back at me with desperate hunger.
The lips move, silent. Please. One hand lifts to the other side of the glass, as if the mirror is a window between us. Her fingertips are a bloodless white.
I’ve been in the princess-rescuing game long enough that I don’t hesitate. I raise my fingers to the glass, too, but there doesn’t seem to be anything there. I can feel the heat of her hand, the slight give of her skin.
Then her fingers close like claws around my wrist and pull me through.
You might think interdimensional travel is difficult or frightening, but it’s usually not that bad. Picture the multiverse as an endless book with endless pages, where each page is a different reality. If you were to retrace the letters on one of those pages enough times, the paper might grow thin, the ink might bleed through. In this metaphor, I’m the ink, and the ink is totally fine. There’s a brief moment when I’m falling from one page to the next, my hair tangling in a wind that smells like old paperbacks and roses, and then someone says help and I tumble into another version of my own story.
This time, though, the moment between pages is not brief. It’s vast. It’s a timeless, lightless infinity, like the voids between galaxies. There are no voices calling for help, no glimpses of half-familiar realities. There’s nothing at all except the viselike grip of fingers around my wrist and a not-insignificant amount of pain.
I mean, I don’t know if I technically “have” a “body,” so maybe it’s not real pain. Maybe my conviction that my organs are turning themselves inside out is just a really shitty hallucination. Maybe all my neurons are just merely screaming in existential dread. Maybe I’m dying again.
Then there are more pieces of story rushing past me, but I don’t recognize any of them: a drop of blood on fresh snow; a heart in a box, wet and raw; a dead girl lying in the woods, pale as bone.
The fingers release my wrist. My knees crash against cold stone. I’m lying flat on my face, feeling like I was recently peeled and salted, regretting every single beer and most of the churros (although nothing I did with Diego).
I attempt to leap to my feet and achieve something closer to a woozy stagger. “It’s alright, it’s okay.” I hold up empty hands to show I mean no harm. The room is spinning unhelpfully. “I’ll explain everything, but if there’s a spindle in here, please don’t touch it.”
Someone laughs. It’s not a nice laugh.
The room settles to a slow lurch, and I see that it’s not a lonely tower room at all. It looks more like the apothecary in a video game—a small room stuffed full of stoppered bottles and glass jars, the shelves loaded with books bound in cracked leather, the counters strewn with silver knives and pestles. If it belongs to a wizard, there are certain indications (a yellowing human skull, chains dangling from the walls) that they are not the friendly kind.
The woman from the mirror is sitting in a high-backed chair beside a fireplace, her chin lifted, gown pooled around her ankles like blood. She’s watching me with an expression that doesn’t make any sense. I’ve met forty-nine varieties of Sleeping Beauty by now, and every single one of them—the princesses, the warriors, the witches, the ballet dancers—has looked surprised when a sickly girl in a hoodie and jeans zaps herself into the middle of their story.
This woman does not look surprised. Nor does she look even slightly desperate anymore. She looks triumphant, and the sheer intensity of it almost sends me to my knees again.
She studies me, her brows lifted in two disdainful black arches, and her lips curve. It’s the kind of smile that doesn’t belong on Sleeping Beauty’s face: sneering, languorous, strangely seductive. Somewhere deep in my brain, a voice that sounds like Rosa’s great-grandmother says, ¡CUIDADO!
She asks sweetly, “Why, what spindle would that be?” which is when I notice three things more or less simultaneously. The first is a small silver mirror in the woman’s left hand, which does not seem to be reflecting the room around us. The second is an apple sitting on the counter just behind her. It’s the sort of apple a child would draw, glossy and round, poisonously red.
The third is that there is no spinning wheel, or spindle, or shard of flax, or even a sewing needle, anywhere in the room.
Somewhere deep in the bottom of my backpack, muffled by spare clothes and water bottles, comes a tinny, warbling whistle, like a mockingbird singing out of key.
Excerpted from A Mirror Mended, copyright © 2022 by Alix E. Harrow.