This week’s flash fiction challenge: “Fairy Tale Upgrade” is courtesy of Chuck Wendig. I hope you will enjoy my modern-ish version of the Ugly Duckling.
The orphans lined up along the street, begging for food like they did every morning. It was Sunday, and the few churchgoers had been only slightly more generous than on any other day.
Cici looked down at the small pile of coins in her hand. It might be enough. Enough to buy something warm to eat and maybe even something to save for later. It was never enough to buy everything: a safe home, a warm bed, enough food to fill her, and someone to look out for her.
Still, she had learned to get by on only a little. There wasn’t much else that a girl with her looks could hope for.
It was still hard sometimes. Especially in the winter, when the bitter winds blew across the land. The crawl spaces under wooden porches were her favorite shelters – they were sheltered from the snow and the wind, and whatever piled up on top of the porch only helped to keep her warmer. It wasn’t glamorous, but it kept her alive. The Jones were the nicest folk she had found. Either they didn’t mind her sleeping underneath their deck every night or they didn’t notice. Both suited Cici just fine.
It wasn’t winter yet, though. She could feel it in the air: a nip in the breeze that blew across the flatlands. And her only blanket was worn and tearing. Cici would have to find another, somehow.
It would be hard to get the money that she needed by begging. There was always theft, but that always made Cici feel a little more ashamed of herself. What would her sisters think of her waltzing into the general store and hiding a blanket underneath her skirt? Not that they likely thought of her, but the thought still managed to stop her cold. It seemed like she would always be trying to model proper behavior for sisters she hadn’t seen in two years.
Not that they would have listened to her anyway. It had been painfully obvious to everyone that Cici wasn’t the prize of the bunch. Far from it: she had a long nose that might have been better suited on a hound and her hair was thin and lank and dark, certainly not the golden curls that her mother had so praised in her sisters. Her teeth were uneven and yellow, and her hips were too thin. Most young men at home had looked away and whispered to each other when she passed. It had taken her years to figure out why.
It was the same reason her begging results weren’t as good as some of the others’. Cici was ugly, there was no getting around it.
When she had been little and still only homely, her mother used to tell her and her baby sisters stories. They always ended the same way: the prince saved the princess and they lived happily ever after. “There’s a prince out there for all of you, duckies,” she would say as they drifted off to sleep.
Cici had once thought that her prince would find her someday, but as she aged, she had come to the sad realization that it was not to be. She would be alone, until the day the Jones’ porch didn’t provide enough shelter to get her through a winter.
Most days she was okay with that. Today, though, it only made her sadder, as she slunk through the door into the tavern. There was a pot of something delicious smelling on the fire, but she headed straight for the bar for two loaves of yesterday’s bread. It didn’t smell or taste as good, but the price was right.
The tavern was unusually busy, so she lingered near the fire for as long as she could before the innkeeper’s wife ran her off. There were no free tables, but she didn’t much care: near the fire was by far the warmest place in the room. Most of the clientele seemed to be from another state, perhaps drawn here by the promise of a busy harvest. Cici didn’t pay attention to the farms, only to the weather and the sheriff’s rules. Growing things didn’t interest her.
Singing, though, did and she softly joined in on the tune that filled the room. It was a pretty song, though she didn’t know all the words. Instead, Cici made up her own. Whispered at first they grew louder as she got the hang of the tune. Unfortunately, it wasn’t long before someone noticed the girl singing a drinking song.
“Hey, you by the fire. The one with the beautiful voice. C’mere.”
A boy. He was maybe two years older than her and seemed harmless enough, with a soft wavering gaze. At least he wasn’t staring at her budding breasts. Cici debated for a minute but finally joined him at his table. If she was lucky, she might wheedle a coin or two from him for another song. “Yes, sir?”
“That was beautiful. Do you sing often?”
“Whenever I can. It’s hard when I’m not in the right mood though.”
“Your husband must love it when you sing his babies to sleep.”
Cici flushed. “Oh, I’m not married.”
“A beautiful woman like yourself? I find that hard to believe.”
“I’m just a girl, sir, and far from beautiful.”
“I find that very hard to believe.”
“Can’t you see for yourself?”
“No…” His hands reached towards her, fumbling against her shoulders and sliding up her neck to her face. The questing hands felt her chin, her forehead, and her nose and finally came to rest on either cheek. “To the contrary. With a voice like that and a soul to match, anyone would find you incredibly beautiful.”
She blushed. He smiled.
“What’s your name?”
She cast her eyes demurely towards the ground just as she realized that he wouldn’t see the response anyway. “Cecilia.”