ONCE UPON a time, there was a young boy. He had two loving parents and a nice house, and he was happy. But when his mother died suddenly, his whole world turned upside down. His father told him through his grief and tears that he would never marry again. He loved the boy’s mother so much that

Hart paused, his fingers skimming over the keys on his laptop. He didn’t know what he was doing; this was awful. Why did he even try? He looked down at his stubby fingers, the cuticles ripped and the edges of his fingernails ragged where he chewed them. The ring his mother had given him glinted as he wiggled his fingers. It shone in the light that filtered through the dusty window, the blue stone dimly sparkling against the silver of the band. He took it off and set it down next to the disposable camera and the blue silk bow tie that waited for him. He stretched his fingers and tried to type, but his eyes didn’t want to focus. His finger felt bare and itchy as he glanced at the ring on the table. He felt naked without it.

so much that he decided to always remember her as his first and only wife. And he did, for a while. But then

“Hey, champ!”

Hart hastily grabbed the ring and held it tightly in his fist as he turned around. His dad strolled up to him, seeming relaxed and excited, but Hart could tell his nerves were getting the better of him. He glanced down at his father’s hands. They were shaking slightly, his muscles betraying his calm exterior.

“Hi, Dad.” Hart turned back to the laptop and quickly saved his document—Fairy Tale 3rd Period English.

His dad sighed. “You almost ready, kiddo?”

“I guess.” Hart closed his laptop and picked up the bow tie before getting up to stand in front of the mirror. He fumbled with it for a moment before his dad put a hand on his shoulder and took over.

“This is going to be a really good thing for us, son.”

Hart didn’t say anything. His father always did this when he was nervous. Hart wished his dad would call him by his name instead of son, kiddo, or champ.

“You know this isn’t just about me, right?” Hart’s father straightened the bow tie and patted his son on the shoulder. “This is about us. We’re a family, bud, and now we’re becoming a bigger family.”

Hart wished that were true. He felt the ring in his fist, warm from the heat of his sweaty hand.

“I promise if you give them a chance,” his father told him, bending down and placing a hand on Hart’s cheek to look him in the eyes, “they will surprise you. We can be happy together.” Hart managed a smile but had no time to say anything in response, as his uncle entered the room at that moment to collect them for the ceremony.

Hart looked down at the ring in his hand as his father headed for the door. He slipped it onto his finger and turned the stone in toward his palm, picked up the disposable camera, and walked after his father.

But then he married a wicked enchantress who had two evil children of her own.



STEVIE SCRUNCHED up her nose in distaste. “Ellis, look at this.” Her brother peered over the top of Hart’s laptop.

“What’s he doing?” Ellis asked, obviously not to Hart.

“I think he’s—” Stevie paused for effect. “—studying.”

“I’m writing,” Hart told them. His small voice was firm and guarded, and he did not look away from the screen as he wrote.

“Harlan, it’s Saturday morning,” Stevie informed him, pushing the laptop down.

“Hart,” he corrected her. His mother had always called him Hart. Nobody called him Harlan except his snobbish grandfather.

“Are you writing for school?” Ellis asked, looking at him with a mixture of interest and doubt.

“Yes,” Hart responded. Stevie made a small “hmph” noise of surprise and sat back down on the couch. Ellis continued to stare at Hart while he tried to work.

The twins were proud and rude, and they made the boy’s life miserable. They taunted him and teased him, not as friends but as bullies. Not long after their families united, the boy began to feel trodden down.

It had been one thing after another since their family had moved in with Hart and his dad a few months before the wedding. Now that their parents were actually married, they had gone on their honeymoon, leaving the kids with the twins’ aunt. Ellis’s favorite pastime was taking Hart to the soccer field and forcing him to stand in the goal while Ellis kicked the ball directly at his head, threatening to tell his aunt Hart had stolen something if he didn’t. Stevie preferred to make Hart clean her room for her or she would tell her aunt that he’d peeped on her while she was changing. Hart knew that for as long as the honeymoon lasted, the twins would have nothing to stop them from being generally horrible to him.

The twins’ aunt was not very attentive and spent most of her time in the garden, which belonged to Hart’s new stepmother. Hart knew if any trouble arose, he would be at a huge disadvantage, as the aunt would believe her niece and nephew over him.

“Hey,” Ellis said one day, “do you want this jacket? It would look really good on you.”

Hart was confused. “Um, sure? Thanks.” Ellis tossed it at him, and Hart began to hope things would change between them. Maybe they could be friends once their parents got back. He put the jacket on his desk chair and left to go help Stevie with her homework.

When he returned to his room, the twins’ aunt was standing in the doorway with her hands on her hips.

“Harlan,” she said in a stern voice, which was hard to take seriously because of the gardening gloves she was wearing. They were patterned with peacocks that vaguely matched her hairstyle, the back sticking up like feathers. She held up the jacket Ellis had given him in one gloved hand.

“Did you take this from Ellis?” she inquired. Ellis, he realized, was standing behind her with a smirk on his face. She turned to him, and his face instantly became a mask of woe. “He says you stole it from his room.”

“I didn’t,” Hart said, his suspicions about Ellis confirmed. His heart sank as he looked up at the frowning woman. “He gave it to me.”

“I did not!” Ellis cried. “He said I didn’t deserve it and that he should have it! That was my father’s jacket.” He had begun sniveling, and his aunt patted him sympathetically.

“I think,” Stevie said from the doorway, “that Ellis should get to have something of Harlan’s, since he stole something from Ellis.”

“That seems fair to me,” Ellis said, still feigning his distress but seeming mollified.

“All right,” the aunt said, waving her hand. “Harlan, I hope this teaches you not to steal from your siblings again.” With that, she left the room to return to her gardening.

“Stepsiblings,” Hart corrected her under his breath, glaring at her through the window.

Hart watched with his fists clenched as Ellis surveyed his room for something to take. This wasn’t fair. He wished his father were home. In every argument with Stevie and Ellis, it was their word against his, and he was always outnumbered. Ellis selected a hat that had been Hart’s mother’s, a brown newsboy cap that Hart loved. Jamming it on his head, Ellis smirked at Hart, whose stomach dropped through the floor. Snickering, Ellis and Stevie left the room. Hart sank down on his bed and hid his face in a pillow.



THANKFULLY THE twins were not in all of Hart’s classes, so he did get to enjoy a break from them during the school day, however much the lunchroom had become a minefield. Trying to put ninth-grade social politics out of his mind, Hart sat in his English class with a renewed interest in anything that kept him in school and out of the warpath. The teacher was giving a lecture on theme in fairy tales, but Hart was only half listening. He was watching Cody Reid, the cute boy who sat by the window. Cody wasn’t paying attention either but instead was gazing out the window with a pensive look on his face.

Hart looked away quickly as Cody’s head turned. He couldn’t be obvious. When he chanced a look back a moment later, his eye caught Cody’s, and Hart felt like a deer in headlights. Cody started to smile, but the teacher called out Hart’s name at that moment, and Hart had no idea what she had just said because his heart was pounding. He tried to ignore the snickering of his classmates and stammered something halfway intelligible until his teacher was satisfied. He didn’t dare look at Cody again but opened his notebook to a new page and started writing. Every now and then, he crossed something out viciously, feeling the power of the pen and wishing he could use it to solve his other problems.

He saw the prince across the village town square while doing his many chores. He would have taken off his hat (had his stepsibling not taken it) and bowed low, but he felt too nervous to do anything. After all, the prince was royalty. What was he the boy? The son of a peasant.

Hart jumped at the sound of the bell, and he grabbed his things quickly, rushing in order to avoid a confrontation in the hallway. He only hoped he could make it home first after school let out later that day. He fumbled with his notebook, and what seemed like half his notes fell out and spilled onto the floor. He scooped them up, his face turning scarlet, and ran from the room.



THE BOY’S stepbrother was cruelest, but his stepsister was the cleverest. Together, they made the boy into a dirty and unappreciated creature, forcing him to sleep outside by the fire and to do their chores. They manipulated their guardian with ease, and soon everyone was against the boy. One day, he began visiting his mother’s grave as a respite from his home.

Hart closed the laptop and stood up, shivering. They had locked him out again. They’d stolen his key in the first few days of the honeymoon and had taken to locking him out of the house until their aunt noticed and let him back in. It was only October, thankfully, so it wasn’t too cold, but he was miserable and tired of sleeping on the dirty porch. After he was let in, he spent the rest of the night doing their homework. He couldn’t get away from them at school, either, because they had started spreading nasty rumors about him after becoming surprisingly popular. He tried to brush the dirt off his clothes, but it wouldn’t come out, so he gave up and hoisted his backpack onto his shoulders before trudging off to the bus stop. He saw them standing with a group of his friends, laughing at something. He figured it was probably him. They eyed him with an expression of satisfaction as he arrived at the bus stop in his rumpled and stained clothes.

After school that day, he did go by the graveyard to visit his mother’s headstone. He knelt in front of the flowers placed there and ran his fingers over the engraved words.

“Miss you, Mom,” he murmured.

He sat there for a long while, telling all of his troubles to the unresponsive stone, imagining his mother’s kind face before him. Before long, tears began to fall on his hands and the soil beneath his knees. They splashed onto the wilted flowers, and he made a mental note to replace them even as he cried. He was glad no one could see him.

When he stood up and headed back toward home, he wished desperately for someone to help him. He had somehow gotten this far, but he didn’t know how long he could take it when nobody believed him.

“Hart,” he could almost hear his mother say, as she often used to when he felt down, “you are strong, and you can do anything.” He took courage from this on his walk back to the house. When he arrived there, he saw his stepaunt baking through the kitchen window, and when he joined her inside, she allowed him to lick the bowl. Maybe things wouldn’t be terrible today.

After dinner it began to rain, and the twins’ aunt took up residence on the couch in the living room, so they could not torture him that night. He had a shower and then locked himself in his bedroom with his laptop to get away from them. An e-mail alert reached his ears as he opened his computer, and he clicked on it to see a flyer for the school’s upcoming Harvest Fest. It was an all-day festival held that Sunday, ending with the annual dance. He began to get excited at the prospect of some genuine fun, maybe even away from his stepsiblings.