Her slender hands shook as she ran her fingers over the floorboards, desperately seeking out the familiar groove. Oh please, oh please. She prised away the loose board, barely noticing the splinters that cut into her fingertips.
Oh, thank you, God. Thank you. She silently mouthed a prayer as she lifted the book out of the dusty crevice, cradling it close to her chest as her heart flooded with relief. Her hiding place, though cliché, was effective. She had seen the men ransack the house, searching urgently for the book on the Leader’s orders. There would be repercussions for them, no doubt, but for once she didn’t care. She had the book, her precious book, the only escape she had from this hell hole.
She sat cross-legged, balancing the heavy book precariously across her knees. Carefully, she turned the fragile pages, gazing at the elegant illustrations. Snow White, Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Rapunzel. All young, beautiful women, unfairly locked away from the world, waiting for a prince to come and lift them out of their despair. A tear rolled down her cheek, falling onto the page below. Her heart cried out as she read the stories, I am one of you! I feel your pain!
But I am still waiting for my prince...
After all this time, she should have given up hope. She had lived in the cult for twelve years of her life, each passing year bleaker than the last. There was no chance of escape, not that she hadn’t tried. The walls were impenetrable, and the entrance gate, the only way in or out of the compound, was heavily guarded. And yet, in the hidden depths of her heart, she still held onto that glimmer of hope. Maybe one day, in the distant future, Prince Charming would ride into her life on a shining white stallion, sweep her off her feet, and gallop off into the sunset with her in his arms.
But until that day came, she was stuck here, name-less, joy-less, life-less.
‘Is anyone home?’
She gasped, and quickly thrust the book back into its hiding place, sliding the floorboard silently into place. She scrambled to her feet, brushed down her drab brown dress, and hurried out of the room to greet her mother.
‘Good evening, Sister.’ She stretched her face into a bright smile, standing primly with her hands clasped behind her back. ‘Did you have a nice day?’
Her mother glanced at her, nodding curtly before busying herself in the kitchen. ‘Did you make dinner?’
‘Yes, I did, Sister. It’s in the fridge.’
‘Good. I’m going out tonight, I’ll take it with me. Make something else for yourself. Your sister’s in bed, I hope?’
‘Yes, Sister. Whose house are you going to?’
‘That’s none of your business.’ She sniffed. ‘But if you must know, I was invited to the Leader’s mansion.’ The note of pride in her voice was unmistakable.
‘Oh, that’s nice.’
‘Yes. I’ll be home around midnight.’
And with that, she was out the door, leaving behind a faint trace of perfume and the daughter she no longer loved.
‘Sister?’ I staggered out of my bedroom, yawning and holding the door frame to keep myself upright. ‘Sister, did Mummy come home?’ I rubbed at my face, squinting as my eyes accustomed to the bright light. ‘Sister?’
She sat at the table, hercheek resting on the book of fairytales, her shoulders heaving with silent sobs. Tears streamed down her face and pooled on the book, which was open to a double-spread illustration of Snow White and her Prince caught up in a romantic embrace.
‘Sister, are you okay?’ I ran to cuddle her, my arms clasped tight around her waist. She started, as though she had forgotten I was in the house. ‘Oh, sweetheart...’ Her sobs suddenly ceased, and she wiped at her face in vain. ‘Oh yes, of course, darling. Don’t worry about me, I’m just being silly.’ She smiled at me, but for the first time in my life I didn’t believe her assurances. I reached up to stroke her face, catching a tear on my thumb.
‘I’ll get you a drink.’ I quickly scampered off to the kitchen, reluctant to leave her. I rummaged in a dingy cupboard and drew out a glass, which was still slightly dirty. Wiping it on the cuff of my sleeve, I stood on tiptoes and reached for the tap, turning the faucet. A short burst of brown water gushed out, before drying up to nothing.
‘Sister, the sink is broken again!’ Hearing no reply, I wrenched open the fridge, and poured her a glass of milk. She smiled again as I brought it in to her, taking it gratefully and letting me clamber up into her lap.
‘Why were you crying?’
‘It was nothing, baby.’
‘Did Snow White make you sad?’
‘Did Mummy make you sad?’
She fell silent, taking a small sip of her milk. ‘A little.’
‘Oh.’ I cuddled into her shoulder, feeling her blonde hair tickle my face. ‘Well, you still have me to make you happy.’
She laughed, putting down her drink and wrapping her arms around me. ‘Yes, yes I do.’ She kissed my cheek, tucking my hair behind my ear.
‘You and me, baby, are just two girls trapped in a fairy tale.’