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A Modern Cinderella Story with Personal Choice of Ending

by Annemarie Berukoff 5 months ago in Short Story
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The path of awakening is not about becoming who you are. Rather it is about unbecoming who you are not. Albert Schweitzer

prettysleep1 from Pixabay

Melodic buzzes from her cellphone on the night table woke Anna to face an unthinkable attack on innocence soon enough. Her bleary eyes snapped open to the light blue screen with these stark words:

Your daughter needs help. Meet us at Mcmason’s house on Boyer’s Road asap. Sorry. It was sent by Ralph. The clock said 11:05.

Her face jerked up. “Which daughter? My pretty stepdaughter who seldom goes out or my other daughter who takes risks to follow her frizzy friends. What kind of help for what trouble? What can I do?” Her eyes opened wider at unknown apprehensions.

This was Saturday night and she assumed both girls had left on separate dates. Sarah, her stepdaughter, was 17 years old who was more studious thinking about a health care future and easy to trust. Anita, her step- sister, was 15 more interested in talking on her cellphone about her needs, dreams and changing acquaintances of the week.

“Really not unlike my teen years. I was a real selfie princess then competing with all the selfie queens,” thought Anna, with a sad twinge of a smile.

Now one of them needed help but which one and what kind of trouble at that isolated location. Anna’s heart began to beat faster, scary thoughts clouding the possibilities. Why weren’t the police or ambulance called first? Was it drugs or a fight? Or was it something so horrible she couldn’t imagine?

She quickly checked the girls’ bedrooms glancing at the mirror as a habit, a mindful note again that at least she was thin enough even if not pretty enough.

Scrambling, she found a russet-colored sweater and faded denims, grabbed her hobo bag and car keys, glancing at the hallway mirror by habit, noticing just long enough the slight wrinkles around the corner of her eyes. The old Chev car started grumpily, the best she could afford working at the Axel Hardware Store in town. Again, common traces of thoughts slipped through as she wheeled out onto the roadway about how her life really didn’t match her teenage vision of expectations with a question mark.

“Whose fault was that?”

She got her first cellphone when she was 14 years old for safety reasons her mother explained. But how quickly that tool became an addiction controlling her interests without realization of its power. How quickly did she fall under the alluring Selfie spell to dress, talk and mimic the rich and beautiful? What wonderment to her young brain of association, competition and envy within her fingertips? And then the rush of being “liked” followed by the other side of depression and disappointments of failure of non-acceptance or criticism.

But what chance did she have to stand up against this teenage addiction that couldn’t turn off the phone's Siren call or the Selfie's lure to look special to any mirror that was opened to the whole world's judgment? Now older, the parameters were different that she had ignored her own boundaries to please other people.

She loved both her daughters. Her stomach knots tightened, one of them was in trouble. It didn’t really matter which one, did it? Pretty doesn’t determine love, of course not; in what kind of broken society could it be so?

Her attention focused on the car’s headlights rounding a couple curves, slowing down to obey the town’s speed zone even without night traffic, signaling to turn left onto Boyer’s Road. A few tall streetlights spotted the darkness that showed a town existed as a silent testament to quiet country lives at rest, more a cemetery of broken aspirations for her. Again, she wondered why she couldn’t help but feel repressed about missing out on the excitement that lay beyond this horizon as illuminated on her cell phone daily within her grasp still even now at the age of 35.

Boyer’s Road was a short cut to the texted address where ticking of time could be a danger of being too late to help. Who was in trouble; could it be possible that Sarah, always careful, could make a mistake or was it headstrong Anita who somehow had overstepped her risk invincibility?

More panic set in as the driving slowed down on a dirt road that wound through a forest, shadowed by specters of trees with mounds of bushes hunkered down ready to pounce in front of her car.

She loved both her daughters unconditionally, perhaps more so if her life could be worth something by showing how to avoid her mistakes to make their futures better. Depressing darkness surrounded her with only the beams of yellow headlights showing every pothole and larger rocks to avoid.

She smiled wryly at the thought that there were no beams of light that helped to guide her through the rocky terrain of teenage years to end up herself now. It was common understanding how crucial this handful of years were to physical, emotional and social development for self identity. Growing up were rites of passage like constructing a road into adulthood to last a lifetime. And what were her beacons to light the way except her Selfie identity as her guidelines to post, compete with others, gain attention or lose out?

“My girls,” flashed in her brain but which girl was in trouble … the less pretty daughter who loved the online Selfie world as much as she did at her age or her stepdaughter, though prettier, who wasn’t attracted to parading herself for virtual applause.

“What’s wrong that the word “pretty” comes up when I think about my girls,” she muttered. “Who cares? Not me,” not able to glance in the mirror to see the truth in her eyes. But the discussion was common enough with Anita who felt her stepsister was cuter and more popular because of her attractiveness.

Sarah was taller, naturally thinner, with long blond hair, a perky nose with large blue eyes and perfect oval face.

Anita was shorter, naturally stockier with a broader nose and a flat rounder face with thin lips.

They had different fathers that claimed their particular looks as she rationalized her sad history of broken relationships. She had moved in with Sarah’s dad, Tom, and his parents into the house where she still lived now …an approved lifestyle on social media following graduation versus college. At that time Tom was a college student who was also a single father after a random girlfriend left him when their baby girl was a year old. Anna fell in love with the handsome man along with natural instincts to easily adore the little girl named Sarah much to the relief of his parents who liked her quiet stepmom nature and moved out shortly after she moved in. In younger days people said she was cute with the right makeup and hairstyle, making an attractive couple but time came for Tom to move to a bigger job leaving the house for Anna and Sarah to live with occasional money for basic needs.

Anita’s father started as a hookup on a dating site who called her “my princess” often enough as reason to come out to visit a small-town country girl. He was a shorter stockier man with a big mouth and an unctuous way of false flattery to get his way and lazy enough to live off the small wages of his new girlfriend. However, when he heard that Anna was pregnant, he disappeared faster than a gopher down a hole, leaving Anita to be born to a single mom and a stepsister.

“Watch the road,” she cautioned herself in the darkness swallowing its narrowness and permeating her thoughts about the mistakes she had made … not wantonly but in the course of finding social validation as she was conditioned to accept.

“My beautiful girls, where are they? Why a private call with no police? Was it her fault? Did she do something wrong? What if she couldn’t imagine the worst thing that could have happened to hurt one of them?”

Around the next corner she stopped on what looked like the front lawn of the McMason mansion where a few cars were parked. The headlights against the night illuminated the large wooden house with open porch and two upper gables with broken windows, an isolated, wooden temple once built with strong promises. Everybody knew the one-time homesteaders who grew a market garden and sold various animals. When they left, their vacant house became a calling card for occasional vagrants, or more often than not, the location for young people’s gathering in a large room to party or seek some privacy in small corners.

She read the text again: Your daughter needs help. Meet us at Mcmason’s house on Boyer’s Road asap. Sorry. Her body felt a shudder; within minutes now she would face what she couldn’t imagine… the unimaginable attack and loss of innocence.

Walking through the heavy door past the porch, she saw half a dozen or so young people, some familiar town kids, dressed in their Saturday night look-at-me outfits, multicolored, form-fitting for girls, baggy for boys. A short table held a typical assortment of food snacks, liquor bottles, soda pop and plastic glasses. Along the ceiling floated a greyish haze redolent with cigarette smoke and unknown vapors. Cellphones glinted like eyes looking for outrageous comments.

“It’s Anita’s mom,” said a young girl with dangling earrings. “Tell her she’s here.”

For a second, Anna felt she knew the problem text was about Anita as she might have suspected.

“Where's Anita?” she asked. “Is she alright?”

In less than a minute Anita appeared, her dark hair frizzed out, dressed in her midriff top, short denim skirt and boots with chunky high heels.

Their eyes locked but before Anna could wrap her arms safely around her, Anita said quietly, “I’m so sorry, Mom. We didn’t mean anything bad to happen to Sarah.”

“Sarah? Sarah! What did this have to do with your stepsister? Where is she?” gasping in confusion.

“Sorry, Mom, we didn’t want anything bad to happen. She may have overdosed.”

Sarah didn’t do drugs; Anna’s brain screamed silently. Yes, but then what does any mother know about the private lives of her children?

“Sarah? Drugs? Is she OK … what's wrong?”

“I know she doesn’t, so sorry, so sorry,” Anita repeated leading her mother through a dingy hallway to an open bedroom with a bed in the middle. On it, lay a young woman with arms folded, palm over palm, feet together and long blond hair spreading around her face … a sleeping beauty that looked like Sarah. Anna approached, gasping, and then screaming a wailing sound when she saw what had been done to her face.

Her lips were broadly smeared with thick dark red lipstick messily encircling her mouth. A light blue powder with iridescent silver highlights covered her eyelids where a black eyeliner traced her eyelashes, extending them upwards to her forehead. A dark brown cream pencil had thickened and streaked in her brows into a large semi circle within the sweep of the eyeliner. Large spots of bright pink blush sat on her pale cheeks.

She was a beautiful princess turned into an outrageous circus clown face, serene and unmoving, except for the ever-slight signs of breathing. A Cinderella who went to a party where the Prince Media defaced her innocence. The fit wasn’t about an impossible tiny glass slipper; but fitting into a small cellphone screen.

Anna clasped her limp hand feeling a wrist pulse. “Thank God, you’re alive,” raising her head to stare at Anita as more kids crowded around.

“This is so crazy wrong! Who made Sarah up this way? What drugs?"

“I’m sorry, Mom, I'm really sorry. We thought it might be a good joke,” answered Anita with quiet murmurs from others.

“A joke? A joke … to harm your sister, even kill her! What have you done? What sense does this make at all?

“We wanted Sarah to have an Instagram account to show how pretty she is, but she didn’t want be on Instagram so we thought we could pose a crazy picture to get attention,” blurted Anita.

“Mom, everybody has to have an Instagram account to stand out in the crowd. She is so pretty, and acts stuck up.”

“So, this clown makeup is her public image for life?” Anna was stunned by the stupidity.

“Stranger stuff would get her a lot of followers quickly and then she can post normal pictures,” said Anita with the illogical meanderings of an adolescent mind addicted to social media performances.

“So, you drugged her to do as you wanted to deface her,” Anna struggled with such illogic, even lunacy.

“My friend, Ralph, had some date rape drugs from his friend so she only drank orange juice, probably too much so she could relax.”

“Did anyone touch her physically; I mean her body?” She didn’t dare ask the foremost question if this defamation was videotaped for posterity.

“No, although Sam did have the idea to dress her in something sexier, so he did bring his mom’s teddy,” with a little giggle.

Anna was trying to register, blow by blow, this rationale of abuse against a human being against her will. What kind of monster could usurp any values except public exploitation?

A thin grey spittle trickled from the corner of Sarah’s smudged lipstick. More questions could wait.

“We must get her to the hospital to pump out her stomach now! Now! I’ll call 911,” Anna cried, knowing the nearest hospital was 40 minutes away.

“Maybe she’ll get better. Nobody wants to make this a big issue in town,” said a blond teen girl.

“No! ... just on the online world to inflame and burn real people’s lives…just shred them into infamy,” glared Anna.

“At least, we could try and wipe off some makeup …. it does look pretty ugly … guess we kind of went overboard on it … we thought it was funny,” added a teen boy.

“Don’t touch my daughter every again!” Anna lashed out. “She’s not a public toy.”

“Don’t want the police involved … nobody really got hurt that a little water can’t fix,” said Anita.

“No, just your reputation … the one thing in your life that makes you unique,” exclaimed the mother, patting Sarah’s hand, “It’s ok, sweetie, Mommy will protect you. I’m calling 911.”

The time on the cellphone showed 1:15. The call was answered in a few anxious minutes.

“We have a young girl with an emergency overdose at McMason’s Place …. please hurry.”

“Make her comfortable, make sure her head is elevated, if she starts to choke on her vomit turn her on her side and clear her mouth,” were common enough instructions for any drug overdose.

“She’s my daughter. Please hurry,” Anna's words sounded hollow knowing the time and distance to travel here and back again.

She slumped in the chair by the bedside controlling the sobs welling inside her from fear of such assault or miscomprehension how public media wanted such outrage.

A teen couple spoke up, “We’re going to leave now. Sorry, nothing we can do about this.”

“Nobody moves! Nobody goes anywhere until we hear some answers.” Instantly Anna felt her strength as the only adult in the room.

“There’s nothing the police can do. Can’t be taken to court. Teenagers often lack representation in a legal sense,” said a taller teen called Ralph.

“Well, let me set you straight that goes for all of you girls and boys, too young to know better when someone could have stopped this outrage. Perhaps the courts won’t listen about serious damage happening on social media that ruin their children’s lives, but this parent does seriously and will take a court’s questioning here and now. So, you can turn off all cell phones, no rings … try to exist for 40 minutes without them.

And, Anita, I want you to be the main witness. Everybody, just stay in your spots and perhaps the police won’t be charging anyone with assault.” She looked sheep faced, shuffling awkwardly in her high boots looking out of place as someone older.

“You will be judged by our Sarah as she is in real life not a fantasy for public perversion. And you better pray that the ambulance gets here in time.”

Anna stood as tall as she could knowing her maturity would win or lose this case about what possible motives would make normal teens disrespect self this way.

“So, Anita, did you ask Sarah to come out tonight … it’s not usual for you to hang out together.”

“Yes, Mom, I invited Sarah because my friends had heard so much about her and wanted to meet her. Ralph and I picked her up. Everyone seemed drawn to her … so very pretty, yet shy, and everyone commented why she didn’t do Selfies … you’re a natural Selfie to post on Instagram … you’ll get instant likes and followers. Don’t you want to be popular? She smiled a lot, kept bowing her head.”

“So, at what point, was it suggested to take charge of her life to do the unthinkable to ruin her character?”

“A group of us decided it might be fun to play dress up, put on makeup and take a photo. It would get a lot of attention to add to a real profile later. She was the only one drinking juice, so it was easy to spike it.”

“Then what happened?”

“She felt faint, nauseous, so we said to lie down and soon she wasn’t moving. There was no harm intended … that’s the truth.”

“What’s the purpose of grossing up the makeup?”

“It’s how Instagram works, Mom. The crazier you are, the more people follow you.”

Anna closed her eyes. What kind of reality likes to applaud insanity? What is fame based on shame?

“But, Mom, you were young once. You showed me pictures of your most popular Selfies. You said you were depressed if you didn’t look right, always dieting, always checking the mirror. You said you must look good to build your self-esteem to be a somebody. Nobody wants to be a nobody, you said. Well, today, you must be a Selfie to fit into being somebody. Tell me that’s not the truth.”

Anna felt the slaps against her past and present, her regrets like painful hornet stings, her cellphone conditioning leaving permanent scars affecting her self-esteem permanently.

Anita was still figuring out, “Why was Sarah so special that she didn’t care about Selfies or want the public to admire her? She was so pretty.”

There was that word again “pretty” to qualify for acceptance. For a few moments her face slumped into her hands her mind retching. “Pretty” is this what it’s all about? Your physical beauty put on a scale to be judged on degrees of hotness or you’re a loser chump conditioned to disown your true self for someone's false equivalence.

But in the moment, the starkness was brutally real that her brain had been configured by this final decree of prettiness then and now. It was her immature adolescent brain that had been hooked to seal her fate in this Selfie culture … the vanity, materialism, celebrity worship that still filtered through her life. Nobody had a chance to stand up against it. Who was at fault?

Anita placed a hand on her mom’s shoulder. “I’m so sorry. I wish we had the chance to redo this night. This would never happen again.” She couldn’t look at her stepsister’s ugly public face.

“But you can’t … that’s the issue. Regrets will haunt you all your life. And that’s the infinite pain you can make mistakes when you are young and foolish that will stay part of your life’s journey. And that’s the pity when social media sets its brands on teenagers because you are so vulnerable.”

“Do you have regrets, Mom? We never talked about that.”

Anna focused on the word “honesty” to answer this question for the first time publicly.

“Of course, I have regrets. It’s part of growing up to challenge your independence where choices aren’t always the right ones. We are permitted to ask forgiveness and learn to try better. As a teenager I grew up with unrealistic expectations based on somebody else’s images. The mirror on my bedroom wall didn’t matter because my Selfie had to look pretty for everybody else or my real mirror hated me. I regret not trying to do better at school, to look for a man’s support rather than get an education.

Once I wrote a poem about Spring to post on Instagram, but it was ridiculed so badly that I didn’t try to write again. Who can forgive my teenage foolishness trying to fit into a world I didn’t belong in? As an adult I’m sorry for my mistakes but who can I blame?”

She raised her hand to continue speaking,

“Perhaps this is what Sarah realizes instinctively to live her life away from public amusement to be her best self on her terms. She wants to live her life offline where it is more normal to enjoy real friends, hobbies, activities with genuine people.” She took a strangled breath. “Now she lies besmirched to appeal to a sensational, ravenous public called Social Media. Think about it. Her innocence assaulted forever after.”

Some awkward jostling by the group who said not a word as if in a court room but who or what was on trial? Where were the prosecutors to complain of internet attacks? Where were the defendants to claim their online benefits and rewards? Where was the judge to pass final verdict other than Sarah who was victimized because she saw values beyond social media?

“Good God,” said Anna, “we still have 20 minutes to wait for the ambulance.” Her lips touched Sarah’s face avoiding the smears made up for hyperbole. “Stay strong, I love you.”

Anita asked quietly, “Let me wipe off some of the makeup before being seen in public.”

“Don’t touch her! Let her be the spectacle you believe the public wants,” Anna flared, trying again to avoid the mental thread that this defamation had been videoed into a rampant stream on social platforms where lost innocence was spiked into infinity.

Not a move, not a sound, not a fricking ring tone, the air was dense with anger and irretrievable regrets. The silence only allowed more reflection on who or what was on trial here.

What role did this powerful media play in society both for herself and her children?

How does a Selfie fulfill self-worth or emotional needs when in competition? What if, the feeling is not never good enough?

How can ignorance and lies be acceptable and valid as screen images?

How can real life be normalized and respected if living in a false reality?

And so, dear reader, you can decide how this spectacle ends with a group of teenagers, a stricken mother, a teen girl prepared as an Instagram presentation lying in a coma waiting for an ambulance to arrive in time.

The ending depends on your choice of judgment:

If social media is benign and benefits moral values and culture, then Sarah will be treated in time and her story will act as an example of fun and popularity gone amiss.

If social media is malignant and manipulates new norms and unrealistic expectations, then Sarah will die in a coma representing the innocence of youth misdirected and misguided by powerful media forces against which they have no defense.

Short Story

About the author

Annemarie Berukoff

Experience begets Wisdom as teacher / author 4 e-books / social activist re education, family, social media, ecology, and changing cultural values. Big Picture Lessons are best ways to learn.

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