In an effort to distract myself from the horrible sadness that always falls upon me right about…NOW… every Christmas, I decided to check the sites that refer other people to my blog. It’s not something I really pay attention to very much because, well, obviously it’s kind of boring. But occasionally, it’ll lead me to some rad blogs I didn’t know existed.
Today, though, it lead me somewhere else.
Back to my very own about.me page.
You don’t know what an about.me page is? Me either. Not really. But I saw someone on The Twitter talking about it a couple of months ago and I was all IMMA GET ME AN ABOUT.ME PAGE, YO to my mirrored reflection. I didn’t know what it was then (it was in beta, which I think means “super awesome”) and I had to wait until this week to be told, “your about.me page is ready, yo.”
Then, I was all, I GOT AN ABOUT.ME PAGE, YO, and everyone was all, what the hell is an about.me page, Aunt Becky? And I was all, *shrugs* I don’t read fine print. I thought I’d figure it out when I got there. Which is my motto for life.
About.me was all, look at these other deep/meaningful profiles to help you make yours, Aunt Becky, except they weren’t like actually talking to me because that would be awkward. So I did, because obviously, and I was all, UGH, really? Because I am anything BUT deep/meaningful. And frankly, if you want someone to click on your profile, you should probably put something fucking INTERESTING on it. Calling yourself a “social media anything” is decidedly not interesting.
Anyway, it’s clearly not something you should ever take seriously.
So I signed up and mostly forgot about it. I’ve been excruciatingly busy this week (year) and really, I couldn’t figure out what to do with it beyond open it and laugh.
Upon checking my referrals, though, I noticed something FRIGHTENING. About.me had more referrals to my blog than “John C. Mayer,” “sweater kittens,” “boring things,” and “sweater boobs,” COMBINED. I swear to you, Pranksters, I haven’t laughed that hard in weeks. Somehow, people are landing on my about.me and finding their way here.
Sometimes, I really, really love the Internet.
Merry Christmas, Pranksters. From my about.me page.
And this guy:
And who could forget this lovable chap?
Why, it’s Mr. Sprinkles, my fake dead cat! That charming scamp! That lovable lout!
And speaking of charming:
Alex and his Cupcake shirt, FOR THE WIN!
Benner and his picture smile.
And my daughter, Amelia, who has reminded me that even in the darkest darkness, there is always light.
I saw a request for hopeful stories a while back and thought I could write a post. I’m in a pretty good spot lately. Holidays can be dicey for me emotionally, but I’ve largely reclaimed them and have enjoyed them in my own way the last several years. When I was a teen that was not the case.
My parents & step parents had all had their own issues, and holidays were not a joyful experience for many years. There was fighting, too much drinking, domestic violence, emotional abuse and lots of crap. So I really did not look forward to them at all. My stepfather had narcissistic personality disorder and when I was around, I was often the scapegoat. There was a lot of pressure to do things exactly “right” and that just didn’t go well for me (not that walking on eggshells goes well for anyone).
When things got really bad, my mom and I would go to a double feature at the movie theater & hope that he had calmed down by the time we got back home. My dad was often in manic episodes or hospitalized during the holidays and he spent a few years in prison, so, while he was by nature a very kind person, he just wasn’t there for me during those years.
Holidays got a lot better for me once I moved out on my own. I have tried really hard to make my home a safe, stable, and peaceful place to be. I’ve been through some bouts of depression, some great therapy, and many hard years of figuring out how I feel about stuff and how to set boundaries with my family. For me, things got a lot better when I decided to no longer have a relationship with my stepfather. There was a lot of guilt and hard feelings involved, and years of pressure from my mom, but I knew this was the right decision for me. I had an awesome therapist to help me see the guilt trips and gaslighting. Unfortunately, my decision made it hard to maintain a relationship with my mom. Some family members just thought I was making a big deal out of nothing (for the record, they never lived with him).
There were about five years when my relationship with my mom consisted of very brief meetings at restaurants after several hours’ drive and her trying to bully me into seeing him, saying he had changed and was doing better. I’d say I was happy for him but that I still did not want to see him. Part of me would have loved to reconcile, but a wiser part of me knew that he would never be able to change enough for me to have a healthy relationship with him. After 20 years of second chances, my heart could not take any more manipulation.
We did not talk on holidays, and sometimes she just wouldn’t show up at all and wouldn’t answer her phone. There was a time that I didn’t see her for two years and we don’t live that far apart. I understood that she was in a very challenging relationship, but I still felt rejected and heartbroken. My life was moving forward, but each time a new milestone passed, I felt that rejection come right back in. During this time I stumbled across Band Back Together, and I drew so much support from the posts and resources here.
These days, my relationship with my mom is in much better shape. My stepfather passed away almost three years ago. I am not saying that is a good thing, because I would never wish him or anyone harm, that is just what happened. It has been very hard on my mom, who is aging and now lives alone, but the silver lining for me is that I get to have a relationship with her again.
There are still lots of difficult feelings there, but she acknowledges that the way he treated me was not okay and he didn’t start to get his shit together at all until I was at least 30. I try not to talk about him.
Now she takes time to visit me (and other family members), and she isn’t worried that he is going to blow up on her for spending time with other people. We are still cautious about holidays. We’ve tried two Thanksgivings together and they went well. We may not be picture perfect, but we do enjoy each other’s company. I’m almost 40 and I still feel like I’m constantly working on boundaries. I still have challenges with anxiety/depression. Sometimes life makes me want to crawl into a blanket cave for a week.
I love that being an adult, I can choose how and who I will spend a holiday with. I am genuinely grateful for the opportunity to have a relationship with my mom. This one thing is going well and I am grateful for it.
I am depressed. Very depressed. So depressed that I would like nothing more than to stay in bed all day drifting in and out of sleep. Thoughts of suicide have flitted across my mind. But don’t worry, I am in no danger of staying in bed all day or committing suicide. I have children – two little boys that I love very much.
My children are the reason I get out of bed every morning. They are the reason that I will never commit suicide. I get up partly because I have to go to work, that place that sucks forty hours from me every week and ensures that I can support my children. The other reason that I get up is because I usually have a small (almost three!) child yelling for me to do so. He’s rather hard to ignore.
The reason I will never commit suicide (other than my dislike of knives, guns, ropes, and overdosing on meds) is that I want to watch my boys grow up. I want to see what kind of men they will become, the people with whom they will fall in love, what kind of babies they will have. I also realize that the only person that suicide “helps” is the person who committed it. Everybody that cared about that person is affected. I don’t want my little boys to grow up without a mom.
So, I’m not going to stay in bed all day, and I’m not going to commit suicide. I’m glad we covered that. So how else could my depression manifest itself? Cutting? Nah – I don’t like pain or blood. Anorexia? Nope, unless giving up all food but cheesecake and chocolate counts, and then I might reconsider… Bulimia? I can’t make myself throw up, but tequila helps (please know that I believe eating disorders are very serious, and am in no way making light of eating disorders or people who have them, I’m just trying to explain why I would not go down that path). And speaking of tequila, what about becoming an alcoholic? I have enough liquor in the house (I think my husband is trying to tell me something). While I have gone out drinking due to depression in the past, I was young and single. I didn’t have children who needed me sober. So that’s out, too.
So what do I do, other than just be depressed all the time? Well, I’m very irritable, I’m tired all the time, I lack motivation to do things I used to enjoy. I want to spend all my free time clicking mindlessly on Facebook (hey, my frontier/city/cafe/island/farm/mafia are all extremely important, they need me). I have stacks of magazines and books I haven’t read. I’ve gained weight. I’m uninterested in sex. I get headaches a lot (including two migraines so far, which are a new development).
I’m exercising and counting calories. I’m depressed that despite my hard work, the scale isn’t really budging. I’m on medication, which I don’t think is working. I see a therapist every other week but I haven’t really delved into my issues, and instead focus on my relationship with my oldest son (which is material for at least a few posts).
Nothing seems to be working. I’m depressed and it isn’t getting any better. There’s nothing in my life that is really a cause for my depression. My marriage is fine, my children are healthy and smart and beautiful, I have a good job, a nice house. So why, why am I so unhappy?
It could be the fact that it’s hereditary (special shout out to my parents). It could be the fact that it’s winter, and a lot of people get depressed this time of year. It could be that despite nothing being really “wrong” or “bad” in my life, nothing is really great, either. The one bright spot is my youngest son, who is totally a mama’s boy, and his hugs and kisses and love is often the only highlight of my day.
I’m so tired of being depressed. I want to be happy.
I’ve found a sitter for my kids and left the house to keep my big feelings away from them. Flipping through my phone contacts…I don’t see anyone I haven’t bothered with my drama in the last few days so I give up. Who needs to talk anyway? They don’t really want me to call; they just put up with me and my need to process everything out loud.
I need to stop blocking this out; I’m going to explode if I keep shoving this down.
I find my Rage Music Playlist – a lot of Disturbed, KMFDM, Nine Inch Nails, some Slipknot and Linkin Park. I get inside my head. I let go and allow myself to cry, hating every second of the pathetic sound and hating more how stupid I feel when I let it go. I shut back down when all of the thoughts whisper…worthlessguiltysinneruglybadmotherbadwifebadchristian…too wrapped up in my own drama to be useful to anyone.
Too self-centered and overwhelmed to be a good mom. Too angry and bitter and cold and hard-hearted to save my relationship.
I drive fast and scream out the lyrics. The bass hitting my body is therapeutic. The guitar chords resonate deep inside…my mind wanders and the self-loathing thoughts kick-up again: I am not worth fighting for. Who I am is not good enough.
I hate where I am. I hate who I have turned into. I hate how barricaded I have been for so long. I hate the choices I have had to make.
“You’re going to deny her now? After all this time, you’re going to turn hard and cold like she was?” the mighty oak asked without any thread of judgment, watching the rise and fall of the princess’s ragged breath as rolls of thunder began to crash in the distance and droplets of rain fell in soft pitter-patters to the ground. “You’re going to pretend as though she’s something ‘other,’ like a whipping boy that you can pin your transgressions on and escape? You could leave her here to die, knowing that she is as much you as you are her?”
“You’re a liar,” the princess hissed bitterly, and her younger selves recoiled as though they’d been slapped. Her eyes widened in shock when their eyes filled with glassy tears and their small, fragile fingers closed once more over each half of the key.
“It’s not a lie,” the elder of her younger selves insisted quietly, looking as though she were going to be sick. “And unless you accept her the way she is, for what she is–the apex predator that you created to survive in a world that couldn’t protect you from shame, humiliation, and fear–we’ll all disappear.”
Not-Her’s life flew behind the princess’s eyes in a wash of vibrant color and dull, sickly gray.
Not-Her crouching in the corner of the young prince’s room while he bawled in anguish, fury igniting in her face like the flames the dragon king used to set her own face ablaze so many times.
Not-Her comforting the queen as she grew sickly and frail, tormented by the guilt of not being able to protect her children until her heart turned to black ice.
Not-Her finding brief solace in meaningless moments that were gone in flashes of fabric and hastily closed doors.
Not-Her fitting an old, ornate key into a separate compartment of the enchanted cabinet where she found the rotting remnants of a frail, furious heart and careful etchings of a young dragon king isolated and bruised and shamed into nothingness, feeding a growing self-hatred that burned with raging fire.
Not-Her stirring mindless mayhem that would take would-be friends the princess had loved dearly from afar and banish them on white horses into the sunset, never to return.
The battered, broken form of Not-Her whispered something that was consumed by the growing wind and steadily pouring rain, and the trees looked on, saying nothing. Something shiny gleamed on its face–the queen’s mirror mask, the one the princess had traded so long ago to restore the parts of herself that she severed when they became too ugly and weak to protect the ones she loved. She briefly saw her own face reflected in the mask before its mouth moved and shifted.
The princess crouched next to Not-Her and inclined an ear toward its twisted lips.
“Stop it,” the princess demanded, her breath catching in her throat as she fought to keep tears at bay. The coursing rain stained her cheeks anyway, bitter wind whipping her now-tangible hair into her face.
“Ugly. Lazy. Manipulative. Dirty. Disgusting. Annoying. Insecure,” Not-Her continued tonelessly as though reciting a well-worn list, one that it had memorized over years of careful repetition that fueled its nightmarish quest.
“I said STOP IT!” the princess screamed, grabbing Not-Her’s shoulders and shaking them roughly, but the memories only poured more clearly into her head as she maintained contact, and Not-Her gripped one of the princess’s hands with its own, its knuckles slowly turning white.
“I CAN’T!” Not-Her wailed back. Its caustic voice was magnified by the storm, catching on the bitter winds and throwing the same vitriol into the sky that had scarred the princess so deeply for so long. “PETTY. LOUD. DECEITFUL. WASTEFUL. SHAMELESS. RUDE. CHILDISH. CHURLISH. WRONG. RUINED. DAMAGED. BOASTFUL. BROKEN. POWERLESS,” it finished in a muffled, ragged scream, completing the riddle at last. The mirror mask, once bonded to Not-Her’s face to pay the price for the princess’s transgressions until she could no longer recognize herself, melted the way the princess’s own face once had to reveal a horrid, hideous combination of self-pity and self-righteousness.
The younger of her two selves had dissolved into frightened tears and panicked cries. She stuffed her fingers in her ears and screamed like the young prince had when he bore the weight of the princess’s sins, and the elder of her younger selves looked squarely into the princess’s face with eyes much older than she was, her tone quite direct.
“You’re just going to let her keep talking about us like that?”
“What choice do I have?” the princess asked miserably, feeling very annoyed when the elder mirrored an expression back to her that had likely once aggravated the queen.
“You always have a choice,” she said flatly. She held out her hand with half of the key, and the younger held out the other. The princess took the younger self’s half, but the elder’s closed tightly into a fist as the princess’s hand grazed her knuckles.
“But I’m still invisible. I’m powerless,” the princess whined, and the elder rolled her eyes, crouched down, and tucked a lock of the princess’s increasingly wet, bedraggled hair behind her ear as Not-Her took shuddering, wheezing gasps that rattled in her fractured ribcage.
“You’ve always had the power, my dear. You had it all along,” the elder quoted sagely, as the princess wondered when the wisdom of children had so eclipsed that of “adults” like her.
“Do we at least get the red sparkly shoes?”
The elder of her two selves snorted, rubbing Not-Her’s back in small circles as it dissolved into unintelligible whimpers and Not-Her’s right hand broke off with a snap, crumbling to dust that was quickly caked into the dirt.
“Are you going to wait until it’s too late?” the elder asked matter-of-factly, as the trees held their collective breaths and bore witness. “Or are you actually going to take responsibility for her and purge all the poison she’s got lodged in her gut? You can’t keep calling her ‘Not-Her,’ you know. It’s pretty dehumanizing.”
“She isn’t human,” the princess insisted in one final plea. One last denial.
“Then neither are you,” the elder replied, shrugging. “Or me. Or the other younger you. We can’t have it both ways. Of course she’s human. She just hasn’t acted like it; she played the victim until her victims played her. Now she’s played out. She’s done. Are you going to forgive her, or are you just going to keep pretending our whole life never happened?”
Not-Her’s left hand fell to the ground with a soft thud, and the princess realized with some bitterness that she was right. She couldn’t call it “Not-Her” anymore. Not-Her was a stubborn, brash, brazen anti-hero who believed her own inflated hype, and she was everything that the princess despised, banished from herself and enabled into armor like a vindictive, writhing mass of self-pity who got tired of taking the fall and the blame for the emotions the princess didn’t want to admit had consumed her like a black hole, leaving her vacant until she could accept that Not-Her was her after all.
“I’m sorry,” the broken specter wheezed in a frail breath that was quickly stolen by the crash of lightning and howling wind. “I tried.”
“I know,” the princess murmured sadly. “I thought I needed to be stronger to be saved, and that strength looked like you. But I was wrong. I learned. That’s all we can do, right?”
“I don’t want to go,” the specter whimpered, her voice suddenly vulnerable and childlike. “I’m scared. Nobody loves me. Nobody’s going to miss me when I’m gone.”
“I know you don’t want to go,” the princess repeated, finally torn to shreds by this last bitter defeat, this last abject failure, and realized that it was perhaps one of the first true triumphs of her entire life. “And you’re wrong. Sometimes, when I’m too afraid to rule our kingdom one day, I will miss you. And you are loved. I love you. We just never knew what love was until now. I just never thought anyone would love me if they saw this side.”
“I’m so tired,” said the ugly, battered, beautiful specter who sighed into the damp grass as she closed her eyes. “Am I good enough yet?”
“You were always good enough,” the princess said in a hushed voice, giving both halves of the key to the elder of her two younger selves. “I’m just sorry I never knew it. I was so busy searching for a prince to save me like the ones I read about in all of my story books that I didn’t realize I never needed one. I fashioned you into a knight equipped with vengeance, not forgiveness. That was my fault. You can rest now. I’ll take care of us from now on.”
As her delicate specter crumpled and faded away, the princess lifted the veil over the empty space where she’d once cut out her own heart rather than face the pain, humiliation, rage, shame, fear, failure, and remorse that spun inside her like a wheel and threatened to crush what was left of the parts of herself she loved most.
At least, the ones she thought she loved most.
“Strong. Worthy. Smart. Important,” she whispered, and the tears that spilled from her eyes mingled on her cheeks with the rain. She wasn’t afraid anymore. “Healthy. Beautiful. Productive. Empowering. Clean. Worthy.” She still had plenty to account for, but in the past, she was so sure that such a reckoning would ruin her the way she nearly had been as a child–until she realized that she was already destroying herself. “Engaging. Secure. Kind. Assertive. Honest. Frugal. Accepting. Polite. Mature. Unruffled. Curious. Rebuilt. Restored. Humble. Fixable.”
“Powerful,” her elder self finished, taking the younger by the hand and enveloping the princess in a tight hug.
“That’s the spirit, dear,” one of the trees said kindly, and they laughed.
The princess delicately took the compartment that they had fetched from the enchanted wardrobe with both halves of the key fixed tightly in the lock. Her younger selves skipped away from the clearing, laughing. Joyful.
The princess watched them for a moment, pensive. She realized she missed the false self she’d allowed to supplant her for so long as she dwindled away in cowardice, but she was glad to see her go. To find peace.
“Is that the route we’re going, dearie?” another crooned as a chipmunk scampered quickly up its trunk. “Order us around and use us up until our corpses are sucked dry and then move on to the next castle? The next dark forest? It’s a pity this isn’t Transylvania; you’d have more friends of your kind there.”
“I don’t have any friends, and if you don’t help me, I never will. Please help me hide this key,” she pleaded, feeling her specter growing closer as the sun set and the shadows grew long.
“I’ll take it,” a delighted childlike voice piped up, and behind her stood the embodiment of her slightly younger self, twirling in the breeze without a care in the world. “I’ll hide it somewhere safe.”
“No, pick me!” said another, looking up from the picture book she’d been reading beneath a tall oak tree. The child looked identical but even smaller, hunched on the ground as though trying to take up as little space as possible. “I know all the best hiding places.”
The trees fell silent and watchful, and the shadows lengthened ever further into the clearing. A bright, sinister laugh caught in the wind as the shadows coalesced into a her that was her and wasn’t her at the same time. Not-Her flashed an impish smirk, and its lifeless, dull eyes fell from one child to the other.
“Can’t you just go away?” the princess snapped, loathing Not-Her and the slimy, fetid aura which left lingering trails of filth in the devastation that followed its noxious path.
“Oh, darling, once you decided to offer your heart to a stolen child–whichever you choose in the end–you let me out to play and now I’m here to stay.” The sing-song lilt of the Not-Her’s rhyme took on a malicious edge, and it was true–when the princess looked down at the key in her hand, its edges had become translucent, and Not-Her began to solidify.
Not knowing that this choice would cost her sweeping graveyards of friendships that chipped away in small pieces at the soul she’d worked so hard to keep whole, the princess closed her eyes and felt two small hands close over hers. When she opened them, the “stolen children” –eerie echoes of her past selves whose playful laughter remained even after their departure– had taken the key with them.
The wind whispered through leaves that shook on their branches and Not-Her cocked its head to one side as though trying to decipher the words. Already some of the imperfections had smoothed; the raised red bumps vanished from its skin, its face was no longer brittle and broken, the pockets of baby fat she’d loathed had disappeared from its waist, and a dark twinkle shone from its eyes.
“What does that mean?” the princess asked slowly, watching in growing horror as her own skin grew luminous and she could see the dewy grass sharpen behind her rapidly vanishing hands.
“Haven’t you ever heard of irony?” Not-Her asked in an imperious tone, staring down at the princess as she shrank and faded while the sun sank behind the trees into an explosion of golds, pinks, and purples that washed over the sky until they were streaked with falling darkness. “You can’t exist while I’m out walking around, stupid. After all these agonizingly boring years of biding my time and waiting for you to expire on your own, I’ve finally come alive–as was always meant to be–and you’ve dwindled down into so much insignificant nothing. Sucks to suck, don’t it?”
“That’s not what I wanted!” the princess cried, the leeches tightening their enclosure around her throat as the last of her voice came out in a long, keening wail. “This isn’t fair! It isn’t right!”
“You’re pathetic,” Not-Her sneered, finally sauntering over with a spring in its sprightly step, tucking the princess’s hair behind her ears and preening its own shining locks with long, polished, perfect nails. “Didn’t anyone ever teach you to read the fine print before you sign on the dotted line, moron? All those years of reading and not an ounce of common sense, even after all those sycophantic nobles went prattling on about how you had so much ‘potential’ and ‘promise.’ What a waste. You would have ended up a failure anyway if it weren’t for me. And the best part?”
Not-Her got even closer as the princess had nearly disappeared, bending over and leaning in close as if to share a priceless secret. “Nobody will even know you’re gone.”
The princess clutched the cavity where her heart used to be, her fingers skimming over the infinite infinitesimal gashes that scarred her nearly transparent flesh. Her mouth opened in a silent scream, and Not-Her threw back its head and laughed hysterically as though it were the funniest joke it had ever heard, sashaying out of the clearing without a backwards glance and, if the princess wasn’t mistaken, with a raised middle finger.
“You know, dear,” one of the trees murmured, shifting uncomfortably, “she didn’t tell the whole truth. It’s not like you’ll be gone forever. You’ll still watch like a silent passenger–as she did for so many years, fed on a steady diet of selfishness, recklessness, insecurity, instability, and rage–and there’s still a chance you can take her place.”
“How?” the princess mouthed in a final frantic plea as her two younger selves peered around one of the trunks on opposite sides, the younger looking at her with something akin to confusion blossoming over her face as the elder’s was a mask of pity, eyes brimming with unshed tears.
“Well, that’s the hard part, you see. You’ll have to watch everything she does with your eyes wide open, and one day, when you’re strong enough again to withstand your own erasure and confront the truth, you’ll have to hold yourself accountable for her transgressions. She was born from you, you know,” it finished reproachfully, as though this was obvious information that the princess should have already known.
And perhaps she had.
She just hadn’t wanted to believe it.
Her elder younger self walked over and took the princess’s vanishing face in her small, unblemished hands. “I forgive you,” she whispered, as the last of the princess faded against the inky expanse of sky that glittered with stars. “It was selfish and mean, choosing to hide. Locking up the last part of you because you were too scared to face her alone in the darkness. But you were only trying to protect us. You didn’t know. And if you hadn’t, she would have poisoned us with resentment and bitterness and numbness, and then we really would have been gone. This way, we just kind of… fade. Until you can defeat her.”
It would be many years before the princess would finally be ready to fight back. Just as she grew stronger by forcing herself to watch and suffer the humiliations that Not-Her concocted with arrogant glee, Not-Her did also by forcing herself to forget that the princess had ever existed through sheer force of will.
Not-Her led many would-be princes into bogs that would trap them like quicksand, basking in the praise of the dragon king and the queen as trophy cases piled with achievements that looked solid but felt hollow. Not-Her proved shamelessly insatiable, gobbling friendships like chicken wings and picking its teeth with the bones, filling endless trophies with the excuses for its behavior until it needed to earn more just to make space for the deflections and denials that stacked until they flowed onto the floor.
All the while, the princess watched, and over time, she tried to suspend her judgment. She rationalized the devastation that Not-Her created, gaslighting herself before she realized that a single match could send her up in a raging inferno.
She pined for each prince to save her, lamenting their slow, confused descent into the marshes in horror–one after another.
Surely one of them would see through Not-Her. Surely one of them would be strong enough to stand up to Not-Her, though the princess watched in a bizarre, sadistic commiseration as some of the princes turned out to be Not-Hims in disguise, twisting Not-Her’s own game around on her. The princess soon learned to spot them long before Not-Her, wishing she were a poltergeist who could shake sense into Not-Her and lock it back into nothingness.
She hated Not-Her.
She wanted nothing to do with Not-Her.
She was ashamed of Not-Her.
She, like ghosts around her who rose from the graves of friendships gone awry to watch the mindless devastation, harshly judged every move that Not-Her made until Not-Her stumbled into the clearing one day with arms bent at impossible angles, neck hanging awkwardly limp with its head twisted the wrong way, and once-proud eyes that had glittered with cold, calculating malice now cast down in humiliation and defeat.
“Oh, how are the mighty fallen,” the princess murmured to herself, tracing the skin around her own face that had somehow healed into something less brittle, something that didn’t flake into oblivion at the slightest breath of wind. Not-Her shuffled awkwardly to face away from the princess in order to look exactly where the princess was standing, its bloated head swollen under the weight of its poisonous pride. Not-Her had come into its own scales at last, and cheap copies of the dragon king’s that had once terrified the princess into submission littered its fragile skin like scattered tiles.
“Are you happy?” Not-Her wailed, its face caked with snot and crocodile tears that the princess didn’t buy for a moment. “Is this what you wanted when you tried to escape all those years ago?”
“All the education in the world didn’t teach you a damn thing,” the princess muttered, staring down at her hands in surprise as the delighted laughter of children rang like bells through the trees. Their last conversation rose to the surface of her memory, and she snorted. “Irony, indeed. You’ve been free for years, yet all you have to show for it is boundless intelligence and not an ounce of common sense.”
“Please,” Not-Her begged, and something in its empty eyes shifted. Remorse bled in dark rivulets from its pores, and if the princess wasn’t mistaken, it truly appeared to be…
“Please don’t let it kill me. It hurts. It hurts, and I don’t want this. I want it to stop. I want it to end. I can’t take it anymore,” Not-Her sobbed, and when its form collapsed unceremoniously into a misshapen heap on the ground, the princess nudged it with her foot and sneered.
“All high and mighty now, are we?” one of the trees twittered, observing shrewdly as the Not-Her faded slowly and the princess gazed down in disgust, wearing her years of silent observation like a mantle across her shoulders.
“What do you mean?” the princess snapped. “This… This thing has eaten over half of my life and left me for dead. It’s torched bridges, been reckless with hearts–including its own–and now it wants me to pity it on the same grass where it tricked me into sacrificing myself into nothingness.”
“Yes, dear, but you made the choice,” another tree reminded her gently. “No one forced you to the clearing. No one else ripped out your heart and hid it where not even you could find it so it’s never broken. You did all of that.”
“Don’t give me that self-righteous–” the princess began, but she gasped in horror as the outlines of her own hands began to fade once more and Not-Her became faintly opaque.
Silently, her younger selves approached from between two of the trees with the two halves of the single key she’d given them so long ago clutched tightly in their small, mighty fists.