The big door with the ornate handle was forbidding enough to make a lesser person quail. But I gathered my courage and pushed into the silent room, my eyes scanning the darkness for signs of Dill as my fingers gripped the door in tense anticipation.
He wasn’t there. I breathed a sigh of relief and made my way towards the shiny black casing of the D-Mach. It wasn’t that I was afraid of Dill, exactly. He and I were friends – or at least, I enjoyed the company of the eccentric old scientist and it seemed like he was fond of me too in his own way. But the D-Mach was a sore subject between us. The one time I had dared to ask him if I could enter it, his eyes had gleamed out under his scraggy white brows, and I could hear the irritation in his voice as he said, ‘Young lady, you have no idea how dangerous this thing is’.
Dangerous? What was he talking about? Dill was creating a machine that could transport us into the world of imaginary stories, except they weren’t really imaginary. According to Dill, every story actually did take place in a parallel universe, in its very own sphere of reality that exists alongside the world we see as real.
And Dill’s Machine (or the D-Mach, as I called it) could cross the barriers between those spheres and plunk us right in the middle of any story. The only hitch was that the transportation was an exchange – to maintain balance in the two worlds, one member of the other world had to appear into ours the exact moment one member of ours went to theirs. All of which sounded very exciting to me and not in the least bit dangerous.
And so, here I was, sneaking in at night, letting my curiosity get the better of me. The doorway of the D-Mach stood in front of me, its cavernous yawn beckoning me in. I stepped inside, and then pressed the black button I knew would power the machine. A procession of dancing, flickering images appeared on the screen – snapshots in time from countless stories and legends and movies Dill had uploaded into the D-Mach’s memory. I knew which one I wanted to choose – it was the simplest story of all, the one most kids had learnt of by the time they were ten. It was also the one least likely to be dangerous – I would show Dill he could trust me to choose wisely.
When the right picture came, I touched the screen, sat back and closed my eyes tightly, waiting for the rumbling and spinning and flashing lights to begin. One minute. Two minutes. Nothing happened. I opened my eyes.
Staring back at me, two inches away from my face, was a rat. I yelled and scrambled away and hit a chimney behind me. In the ensuing shower of soot and dust, he disappeared. Coughing, I got to my feet and looked around. As far as I could make out, I was in some sort of grimy brick attic. Suddenly, I heard a scuffle behind me, and I turned quickly. Standing before me was the most beautiful creature I had ever set eyes on. Her dark curls were swept back into a prim bun, but that couldn’t hide the cornflower blue of her eyes, or her skin the complexion of milk and roses, or the deep dimples in her cheeks.
The girl sank into a deep curtsy, and when she came back up, I saw she was trembling. ‘Please Ma’am’, she said, ‘Are you my fairy godmother who has come to help me?’
I hadn’t heard of any fairy in any story appearing amidst a cloud of soot and dirt, but I decided not to enlighten her.
‘Who are you?’ I asked.
‘I’m Ella, just a poor miserable orphan.’ It was only then that I realized she was dressed completely in rags. ‘I live with my stepmother and two stepsisters, but they don’t treat me well. I only want to go to the royal ball, dance with the prince, make him fall in love with me, marry him, live in his castle and become a princess (she stopped to take a breath here) but my stepsisters make fun of me and say that I am overambitious. But that isn’t true, dear godmother, is it? It’s not wrong to have a simple down-to-earth dream, is it? After all, isn’t a dream only a wish that your heart makes?’
I desisted from comment.
‘Couldn’t you, oh godmother, help me go to the Prince’s ball?’ Her blue eyes pleaded up at me. I had to break her heart.
‘Look, kid, I’m not your fairy godmother. I don’t have the power to conjure up carriages from household vegetables, or turn rodents into horses. But even if I did, I wouldn’t have helped you. First of all, have you even met this prince you want to marry? Is he responsible? Does he respect women? Have you verified that he’s straight? Is he selfish in bed? Will he give you financial freedom? Is he the type to cheat? You need to find all that out first.’
I expected her to be dazzled by this new perspective, but she merely blinked at me in a dazed sort of way.
‘Well?’ I prompted her.
‘But he’s a Prince,’ her eyes widened innocently. ‘All princes are noble, kind, handsome young men.’
I stared at her, my mouth agape. ‘Do you believe in Santa Claus too? Never mind. Don’t answer that. Listen to me, Ella. Most princes are terrible people – inside and out. Especially out. Inside because power tends to corrupt, and out because too much wealth has a direct correlation with a life of dissipation – which translates to a beer belly, eye bags from heroin and flab from $300 beefsteaks. And in your world where princes are a dime a dozen and – Would you please drop that disgusting thing?’
She jumped in shock, and dropped the white mouse she had picked up and was caressing absent-mindedly.
‘But these are my friends’ she said. ‘They sing with me every morning. This is Jaq and Octavion, and that’s Gus by the grate’
‘Jaq and Octavion and Gus are going to be the cause of this year’s outbreak of the plague if you don’t stop cosseting them so much, do you understand? Whether or not they sing with you every morning. Now for heaven’s sake, pay attention. I know you think your dreams will just sort of happen if you continue to wish very hard and sit around being miserable long enough, while taking absolutely no action. But all that’s going to get you is a cell in the mental ward before long.
You’ve got to stop cleaning and scrubbing for your step family, stop getting bullied by them and get some independence. I hear you sing very well. Why don’t you become a professional singer? Or invest those formidable sewing skills of yours into running a boutique? Or you can dance, you can design, or you can become an animal trainer and shower your affection on some hygienic animals for a change. But the important thing is to stand on your own feet and get a life. And not depend on some prince to buy you your miserable happily-ever-after life.’
I like to think I glimpsed the dawning of a whole new future in her eyes then. But the very next moment, I had a split second’s warning when a green light blazed out all around me, then I was back in the D-Mach’s cold black metallic inside just the way I left. The only difference was Dill, who was standing in the doorway looking furious.
‘I told you it was dangerous, remember? Have you any idea what you’ve done?’ His voice was deceptively calm.
‘Dill, it was okay.’ I strove desperately to reassure him. ‘Look, I chose the Cinderella story and…’
‘I know what you chose. In fact, the whole city knows. Would you like me to tell you how? This is how.’
He switched on the news and my heart gave a sickening lurch as I scanned the screen.
‘Mysterious night woman calling herself ‘fairy godmother’ causes traffic disaster. 2 dead, 25 injured’ screamed the captions. ‘Nations financial centers on verge of collapse. Situation traced to elusive woman roaming in Bay Area’
I had sent Ella’s godmother to take my place, thinking she couldn’t possibly do any harm. But apparently, Miss fairy godmother had spent the night walking down the road and asking every random person she met what they wished for. And when they told her (those that didn’t think she was a lunatic, that is), she granted them all.
So every car driver wished to be the fastest on the road, and to be able to escape the red light. What do you think happened when she let them all come true?
Every other person on her way wanted to be rich beyond his dreams. So she granted them their wish. What do you think happened to the country’s currency value then? It plummeted.
It was Dill who figured all this out and sent back the rampaging do-gooders to wreak havoc in her own world and leave ours alone. And it was my unenviable task to soften Dill’s anger.
An hour later, Dill and I stood in front of a magnificent wreck that was once a shiny black metallic machine. The D-Mach would never work again, and Dill’s workshop remained danger-free ever after. I mean, happily ever after.