The Cardboard Prince
“Must I scrub the floors too?” said Sylvie with a dramatic roll of her eyes. “Perhaps you would like to throw lentils into the fireplace, and have me pick them out for you?”
“Sylvie, it’s just the dishes. And it’s your turn.”
Sylvie sighed the all too familiar, all too dramatic sigh, of a 12-year-old going on 20. She slammed her fork onto her plate and stared at her mother across the table.
“Not tonight, Sylvie. I’m tired. I’ve worked. I’ve cooked. It’s your turn.”
Sylvie brutishly pushed the chair away from the table with her body, grabbing her plate and placing it a bit too harshly in the sink. They both heard it crack and there was silence between them. Sylvie kept her back turned to her mother at the sink and slowly heard the chair slide out from the table, tired footsteps moving away.
“I suppose the evil stepmother will punish me for breaking one of her dollar store plates?” Sylvie said it under her breath, not thinking her mother would hear her, but still hoping she would. The footsteps stopped and there was a great sigh.
“I wish you would stop calling me your evil stepmother. I wish you would stop calling me stepmother.”
Sylvie was silent and listened as her mother walked away.
There really weren’t many dishes, and Sylvie wasn’t sure why she was being so combative. She just didn’t want to do them, it was a waste of her time.
She threw away the broken dish, finding a bit of satisfaction, knowing she had been the one to break it, did a quick wash of her mother’s plate and the two forks, rinsed out the glasses, and set them on the drying rack. All that was left were the two pots–one for pasta and one for sauce– and the pan for the garlic bread. She hated the way the sauce clung to the inside of the pan, it made her want to gag.
She hadn’t done a good job, but it was done and she really didn’t care. She turned and made a point of stomping as she moved through the kitchen and then the front room where the TV was quiet and dead. She stomped past her mother’s door, making a point to slam her feet harder onto the floor.
She stomped up the old stairs and heard the creak of her mother’s door. Sylvie kept her back turned but stopped mid-step.
“Sylvie, do you have…”
“I KNOW! I’m doing my homework!”
“I love you.”
Sylvie chose not to respond.
“I remember when I found out I was pregnant with you. I was so excited to meet you.”
Sylvie turned and stared again at her mother.
“I didn’t ask you to have me.”
Her mother looked down at the floor and slipped back into her room.
Sylvie continued up the stairs and threw herself onto her bed, looking over at the cardboard prince standing in the corner.
“I bet you never had to wash dishes and do homework, did you, Bradley.”
The cardboard prince was a life-sized cardboard cutout from that stupid princess movie that had come out last year. But it had starred Sylvie’s favorite actor, Brad Hastings. She found it in the dumpster behind the theater when the movie had been a flop. It was lying on top, a little bent up, not really damaged. She’d drug it home and he’d stood in the corner ever since. Her mom hadn’t said a word when she’d carried him through the house, tucked up under her left arm. Her mom had continued to ignore him every time she came into Sylvie’s room.
Sylvie lay in bed for a few minutes before getting up and grabbing her backpack. Seventh grade was the absolute worst, she thought. The boys either all looked like babies or had weird squeaking voices. The girls all talked about each other behind their backs but were generally very sweet face-to-face. Sylvie knew the truth; she was nice to people’s faces too and then said horrible things to anyone who would listen. It made her feel better to be mean.
She scribbled through her homework, not really caring what was right or wrong. If it wasn’t finished, she’d get sent to detention, so she did it. But they couldn’t punish her if it was all wrong, she’d just play up the idea that she didn’t understand it and it was too hard. They wouldn’t give her detention for being dumb. Maybe they would even pity her.
She threw her books back in the bag and went to brush her teeth. She changed into her dad’s old t-shirt, torn and stretched. They hadn’t heard from him in years, neither she nor her mom had any idea where he’d disappeared to. She went and stood in front of the movie cardboard cutout, looking up into Brad Hastings’s pale green eyes.
“Goodnight my sweet prince,” she said, standing on her toes and giving him a kiss on his cardboard lips.
She crawled into bed and fantasized about high school, where the boys didn’t squeak when they talked and they all looked like some variation of her Brad, with light green eyes and dark hair. Soon she was fast asleep.
Sylvie’s alarm didn’t go off the next morning. She was awoken to gentle pressure on her lips. She was coming out of a dream, a dream where she was being kissed by Brad Hastings. She didn’t really want to wake up and so tried to stay in that in-between world as long as possible. The pressure on her lips didn’t change. If anything it became stronger, the pressure more intense.
Sylvie slowly opened her eyes to find a shadow over her, its face pressed to hers.
“Woah! Wait a minute! Stop, stop, stop!”
Sylvie found herself scrunching lower into the hard bed, twisting away from the shadow while also pushing whoever it was away with both hands. The figure stumbled backward, awkwardly, when a golden beam of light traveled across his face.
“Brad? Brad Hastings?”
The figure froze, the light shining off the brilliant green eyes and shiny black hair.
Sylvie realized she was absolutely not in her bedroom. The brick walls surrounded her in a circle and the ceiling was peaked. There was a single door that stood behind the young man and a single tall narrow window to his right. It was open, without glass. It reminded her,… but that was silly, she thought. It reminded her of a room at the top of a tower.
The bed she lay in was hard, like laying on top of a cardboard box. The sheets felt like paper. And when the boy who looked like Brad turned his head, Sylvie screamed. He was flat. Flat as a cardboard cutout.
The Cardboard Prince put out his hands as if to show he was no danger to her.
“Please, sweet princess, do not be afraid.”
“You, you,… you’re flat!”
“Whatever do you mean?” he responded and stepped towards her.
“Stop! Stop right there.”
He did as she said.
“Who are you, why were you kissing me, and where am I and why do you look like Brad Hastings, and am I dreaming?”
Her words, rapid type, fell in the silence of the room.
“Well, say something.”
“To answer your questions,” he said, “if I can remember them all. My name is Prince Bradley. Prince Bradley of Hastings and I am here to rescue you! Because I love you and want to make you my princess.”
“I don’t know you!”
“Well no, of course not. We’ve never met.”
“Then how in the world do you love me? I’m 12!”
“Because you are a princess, in need of saving!”
“I don’t need anyone to save me!”
“You have been stuck in this tower, and so I traveled through the magical grove and through the poison underbrush to battle the dragon that has kept you for so long in this tower. With a single stroke of my sword, I cut him down.” And he pulled his cardboard sword from his cardboard sheath, reenacting the battle.
Sylvie watched him twist and turn, appearing to disappear when he would turn sideways, and yet fully there when he faced forward. Finally, his pretend battle won, he returned his sword to his hip.
“Why did you kiss me?”
“Because you were asleep, and that is the proper way to wake a princess.”
Sylvie found herself sliding out of the backside of the bed, the paper blankets tangling around her shoes. Shoes? Sylvie looked down at her feet and saw that she was wearing cardboard high heels bedazzled in plastic gems. Her dress was thick paper, printed like fabric.
She pressed herself against the brick wall and realized that the brick was only printed on and flat and smooth under her hands. She moved sideways against the wall, sliding to the window. The Cardboard Prince stood in the middle of the room watching her, but he did not move.
She passed the window and saw that the wall was only as thick as a single sheet of corrugated cardboard. She moved to the door, the Prince turning and watching. She saw that his fingers folded like the bend of a box and that as his head turned, it twisted like paper. He remained as thin as a cutout.
Standing next to the door, Sylvie saw that the stairs were made of cardboard boxes that twisted down and out of sight.
“Thank you, Prince Bradly, but I have to go now.”
She turned on her cardboard heel and began to run down the stairs which spiraled around and around. The shoes were terribly uncomfortable and rubbed against her heels, but Sylvie didn’t want to stop and allow the prince to catch up. She could hear a patter from above, and so continued her downward escape.
Suddenly the heel of her right cardboard shoe punched through the cardboard stairs and Sylvie found herself stuck and tipping forward. She lost her balance, her foot pulling free of the shoe, and she tumbled the few remaining stairs.
Being of cardboard, they dented and caught her fall, and she found herself sitting on the floor of the tower, slightly dazed. In front of her stood an open drawbridge, painted to look like wood with the brown cardboard showing through. She still wore the left shoe, but the heel had crushed and her feet were red and tender. She tossed it into the corner.
Standing on bare feet, she ran out onto the middle of the bridge and looked up. Far at the top of the cardboard castle, she saw the Cardboard Prince looking down at her. His head was resting on his cardboard folded hands and his expression was pained.
Sylvie turned to continue her escape before turning back and yelling up to the Cardboard Prince, “Thank you for trying to save me! I just didn’t need saving!”
The Cardboard Prince gave a half-hearted wave and disappeared back into the cardboard tower.
On the other side of the cardboard bridge, Sylvie found the remains of the dragon, flat and painted, torn to bits. Cardboard flames lay next to a cardboard eye, the size of her head. Bits of cardboard scales lay about; shredded pieces and brown dust.
Beyond the dragon was what Sylvie supposed was the poison underbrush, but it was simply cardboard that had been cut into points and the tips had been painted red. As Sylvie crawled under the bramble, the cardboard bent and moved away at the slightest push of her hands.
When Sylvie finally pushed out from the underbrush, she found herself surrounded by tall cardboard trees; what the Cardboard Prince must have called the Magical Grove. It didn’t look so magical to Sylvie.
Each of the trees had a cardboard cross at it’s base which allowed it to stand with stability. The trunks were printed with bark and the leaves appeared to be green photographs placed together in a collage. A cardboard squirrel chattered to Sylvie from a branch. A path had been worn into the cardboard ground which led Sylvie into the trees. She followed it for a bit until the trees gathered closer together and the ambient light began to darken.
It occurred to Sylvie that she had not seen a sun and was unsure where the light was coming from. It darkened quickly, more like someone turning a dimmer switch than the natural progression of the sunset.
Sylvie found herself in the darkness, unsure where to turn. While the trees were thick around her, she could see pinpricks of light in the sky. To her, they looked like a black sheet of paper in which pins had been stuck through in an unnatural pattern with a light shining on the opposite side. It allowed her to make out the shapes of the trees, but nothing more.
Noises began to fill the dark air and Sylvie slowly walked deeper into the forest, unsure of where she was headed but also afraid of the sounds and what would happen to her if she stopped. In the distance, she heard what sounded like the howl of a wolf. She began to mourn the comfort and safety of her bed, although she gave her mother very little thought.
Far into the distance, Sylvie thought she saw the shimmer of light. It was off to the right and so she headed in that direction.
Soon she came to a little cardboard house, lit up from the inside, windows cut all around. It was surrounded by a broken cardboard fence and what appeared to be tufts of the tops of vegetables in a garden. She trailed her fingers along the top of the fence, thin to the touch, until she found the gate. It folded open like a book page and a plain cardboard path led to the front door.
Despite the darkness, Sylvie could see that this house seemed undecorated in its entirety. It looked like roughly cut cardboard with no care for decoration; no patterns or paint adorned its surface.
She knocked at the door and the sound was very hollow, the cardboard bending beneath her hand. There was no answer. She peeked in the window next to the door, there was no glass, only empty space, and could see that the inside walls were as unadorned as the outer walls; just plain brown cardboard.
The lights appeared to come from wires that stuck through holes cut through the peak. In the center of the room sat a long cardboard table, with three paper bowls on each side and one at the head; seven bowls in all. The bowls appeared to be steaming and Sylvie’s tummy rumbled. She wasn’t sure how long it had been since she had eaten.
She knocked again and waited.
“Is anyone home?” she called out. There was no response.
She tried the door and it pushed open on it’s cardboard crease. The room was empty other than the table, the bowls, and the lights.
Sylvie walked to the bowl at the far head of the table. She hovered her hand over it and could feel its warmth. She lifted the heavy paper bowl to her nose. It smelled familiar, but she couldn’t figure out why. Her stomach grumbling, she lifted the bowl to her lips and drank.
Sylvie spit the gruel back into the bowl. It tasted like paste. Paste and paper, mashed together and heated to a coagulated lukewarm mush.
“What is this?” came a low growl to Sylvie’s left. She jerked her head upward from the gruel and saw a face, low at the base of one of the open windows. It’s teeth were long and pointed and it’s eyes were painted red. Its flat face seemed to be painted with cheap tempura.
The door burst open and there stood another. It had a long cardboard beard, dirty and gray and it wore a little red cap on it’s head. It stood maybe three feet tall and carried a cardboard axe.
Sylvie dropped the bowl and stumbled backward. Arms came through a window behind her and wrapped around her elbows. The fingers were thin and flat, but they were strong. She pulled away and heard the sound of paper tearing and a scream of anger and pain.
Sylvie looked to one of the open windows, hoping for an escape. At each window, there was a face. Their eyes glowed and their teeth were long. Some appeared old with scraggly flat beards and at least one had no beard, his cheeks a rouged red. They growled and threatened and Sylvie thought that perhaps this was the end for her.
The old flat dwarf at the door slowly began to walk towards her, the table in between them. Behind him appeared another, this one shorter and fatter and carrying a pickaxe. Together they split and began to walk up each side of the table.
Sylvie could only see the one exit with the dwarves descending upon her. She ran straight forward and climbed up on the table, the two flat dwarves swinging their axes at her at she ran down the center. She could feel the cardboard hitting her legs and she could feel the sting, but she continued forward.
She jumped off the end of the table and just as she arrived at the door, another dwarf stepped in to block her. She pushed with all her strength and he bent over backward, a bend in his neck, so that his head hung upside down.
Sylvie ran into the dark forest, avoiding the silhouettes of the trees until her lungs screamed at her and her legs refused to move. She heard the dwarves yelling through the forest. Soon, however, it became quiet. She found a large tree and curled up between the sections of the cardboard stand. Her legs stung from the strikes, but soon she fell asleep.
When she awoke, the light was bright. Her legs still stung and she saw that the paper dress had been torn and her legs had thin red cuts.
“Papercuts?” she said. She traced her finger over the thin scrapes only to stare at her hands in horror.
“No,” she said, almost under her breath; turning them back and forth in front of her eyes. While they still had some roundness, they were starting to flatten. She realized that the cuts on her legs were more like drawings than actual scrapes and that her feet were narrowing.
Sylvie began to cry but the tears did not feel wet as they rolled down her cheeks. They seemed to fall with a plunk on her lap, and she saw that she could pick them up. Perfect little cardboard teardrops.
“No!” she cried out.
From a distance, she heard a voice call back, “Everything okay?”
“Umm, yeah, I’m fine!”
From between the trees, a boy appeared leading a flat white cow. He had reddish blonde hair and freckles on his nose. He didn’t look much older than she did. He was flat and cardboard and had a very simple smile.
“Hello,” he said.
“I heard you crying, is everything okay?”
Sylvie noticed that while he looked only a bit older, his voice didn’t have the squeak she had become used to in junior high.
“It’s just, I got lost. And I don’t know where I am. And I seem to be changing.”
“They say people change in the Magical Grove. My name’s Jack, what’s yours?”
Jack held his hand out to her as if to help her up. When Sylvie reached out, she saw that her hand had flattened further. She gasped and began to pull it back.
“What’s wrong?” asked Jack.
“Nothing, I suppose,” said Sylvie. She reached to him again and allowed herself to be pulled to her feet. Her skin felt tight and dry; papery.
“I was just heading to market, hoping to sell some fresh milk from my best cow. Would you like to join me? Perhaps I can help you on your way?’
Sylvie looked down at her paper dress and her cardboard shoes. She was thinner, flatter, and her movement more rigid.
She looked at the boy and sighed, “I suppose.”
Dragging her cardboard feet, she followed Jack to market.
The Cardboard Princess
The alarm sounded, a horrific sound, completely unexpected. The Cardboard Princess had anticipated a kiss; probably by the horrible Prince Bradley of Hastings. But she was a princess and had been raised to be a queen–raised to marry the first prince who told her he loved her.
She looked around for the terrible sound and saw that it came from a little black box next to the bed. She picked it up, turned it over in her hands, shaking it and hitting it against her palm. Finally, it stopped making that horrible noise, although she wasn’t exactly sure why or how.
There was silence and the princess had a moment to think. The bed was warm. She had never known what that meant. Her hands felt different. She held them up to her eyes and saw that they were round and soft.
Then she gave a little squeal–there was someone standing in the shadows in the corner. She pulled the sheets back up over her head before peeking out. Whoever it was, they weren’t moving.
She slipped out of bed and found that her feet were bare; she’d only ever felt uncomfortable heels. Her round feet felt the soft texture of the carpet between her toes.
“Who are you?” she asked.
There was no response and no movement.
Her eyes adjusted to the shadows.
“Prince Bradley of Hastings?” she asked in surprise.
He did not respond.
Tentatively, she made her way across the room, looking for any movement from Brad. When no movement came, she found herself standing in front of him, waiting for him to surprise her with declarations of love.
The Cardboard Princess had found Prince Bradley tedious at best, and so, when he didn’t move, she pulled back her arm and punched him in the face. The cardboard cutout fell backward against the wall, collapsing along his folds.
The Cardboard Princess, no longer cardboard, began to laugh.
She folded the whole thing in half and put him under her arm, walked out the door, and down the stairs.
Sylvie’s mother sat at the table drinking her coffee and looked up when she saw the girl.
“You’re up early.”
The princess was silent, not knowing who this was or how to respond.
“It’s too early for the silent treatment, Sylvie,” said the woman, a tone of exhaustion in her voice.
“Oh, um, I’m sorry.”
The woman looked back at her in surprise.
“I’m not sure you’ve ever apologized to me, Sylvie. Do you feel okay?”
“Um, I think maybe I just slept weird?”
“What are you doing with Brad? I thought you loved him.”
The girl looked at the folded shape under her arm.
“I definitely don’t love him,” the girl said. “And I definitely don’t want to look at his face.”
Sylvie’s mother looked surprised, but then she smiled.
“Getting too old for fairy tales?”
“Something like that,” the girl said.
“Tell you what, since you’re actually up when you are supposed to be, if you can go get dressed, I’ll drive you to school and we can pick up doughnuts on our way. I’ll take your prince out to the trash.”
The princess had no idea what doughnuts were. For that matter, she had no idea what school was, or what it meant to drive. But she was willing to learn.
“Thanks… I’m not sure what to call you.”
The woman’s face changed for a moment, and the defensiveness returned.
“Well, I’d like you to call me Mom, but clearly I can’t make you.”
“Oh! Mom! I just… honestly, I had a weird night.”
The woman’s face relaxed, and she smiled.
“Go get ready.”
The princess left her cardboard prince by the door and ran up the stairs. There were things piled on the floor that looked like clothes and when she opened the doors on the wall, she saw things hanging. She’d never actually had to put on clothes before, and it took a bit to figure out how.
As she came down the stairs, the woman looked up at her and her forehead wrinkled.
“Well that’s an interesting choice,” she said. “I’m not sure that I’ve seen you wear pink in years. I didn’t even know you had that in your closet.”
“Is it okay?” the princess asked, looking down at the pink dress.
“I like it. It gives you color.”
Together they walked out of the house and the girl saw the cardboard feet of the cardboard prince sticking out the top of the trash.
They both felt it.
Today was the first day of their happily ever after.
Our Prompt for This Week
3. Mash up two classic fairy tales into one story
Include: fireplace, sword, grove, stroke, underbrush, mourn, seven, friendship, cardboard, giver
My partner in words, read It Bearly Fits | Bridgette’s Tale for this week.
On the surface, this one seemed fairly easy until I got to the word “cardboard’. Cardboard??? In a classic fairy tale??? Cardboard was invented in China in the 15th century (seriously, you can read more about it here) and began production in England in 1817. The use of this one word throws off every single aspect of what to write because it automatically forces you into more modern times.
So then I had to consider, how can I use it in the past without throwing the reader out of the story. Or do I want to create a modern fairy tale in my mash-up? What I realized is that I needed to make the cardboard an actual character in the story. (This happened last week as well with The Rifle, in that the rifle itself was the important word that stood out and needed to be written about.)
So how do I get my character into this cardboard world, and how do I get her out again? Do I want to get her out again? And if I leave her in the cardboard world, what happens to her mom on this end? What’s the twist? I don’t want her to just wake up and it’s all a dream, that feels like cheating.
How would you have used the word “cardboard” in a mashup of a classic fairytale?
Did you like this story? Please share it with someone you think would enjoy it.
Next week’s prompt for the 52 week short story challenge:
4. A missionary in a remote village
Include: orchestra, finch, aim, development, ex, bold, old-fashioned, gut, brassy, sharp