My submission for Round 2 of the NYCMidnight short story competition. The criteria this round – fairytale genre, theme of utopia and a park ranger character.
SYNOPSIS: Sometimes you have to do the right thing and not worry if it upsets the status quo.
“The lights on the northern perimeter are playing up again.” The walkie-talkie crackles in my ear.
“Roger that. Ranger One here, I’m on it.” I take a shortcut through the park to reach the faulty junction box. The park is deserted. Citizens are forbidden from loitering in public spaces after dark. I like it best in these hours, the quiet aftermath of day when the ground releases its tension, and the air is heavy and still. They set the rain sprinklers to come on for two hours every night. Everything washes clean and resets by morning.
I see the flash and flicker of the electric barrier in the distance. The wall between us and them. It keeps us safe, shows only a reflection of our world in its mirrored surface. Third time this month the fencing is short circuiting. Could be rabbits digging through a cable, or birds on the overhead lines. I should report recurring issues like this to head office, but that means extra paperwork, and an inspection, and reports to file. Better if I can fix it on my own.
The faulty unit is sparking and spitting. I need to shut down the power to this section to fix it. That’s always tricky – they swarm when the wall is down. I trip the circuit breaker, and the wall disappears, no electric hum, no reflection, just the vast black of the Outside.
Work fast. It can’t be down for long. Too dangerous. Whispers and footsteps. They see Inside and it draws them like moths to a flame.
They’re coming. Firefly eyes, tiny pinpricks in black velvet. Blinking and bobbing closer. My hands shake as I work faster. The barrier needs to be up and functioning. Can’t let them in. I hear chatter and a sharp intake of breath that’s not mine. Hurry, hurry! Before they say the words.
“Mirror, mirror on the —.”
I twist the wires into place and flip the ‘on’ switch. The motor thrums into life and the barrier is back, its mirror-like surface shows my startled face and the park behind me. The Outside is banished again.
She’s wearing a red cloak and carrying a basket, looking lost as she walks through the park. I should report her, but that means more paperwork. I shine my torch at her face and look stern.
“It’s past curfew,” I say.
She’s crying, her big eyes look up at me through thick lashes. “I’m sorry, my grandmother is ill.”
‘Where are you headed?’
“The woodcutter’s cottage.”
That’s on the far side of the park and through the woods. Over twenty minutes walk from here. She’ll be stopped again, and the next ranger might not abhor paperwork as much as I do. I have to do my rounds and I can detour a little, take that route. “I’ll walk you,” I say.
“Thank you,” she says as she wipes away her tears. “Here, for your trouble.” She pulls an apple from her basket. She polishes the fruit against her breast and offers me the shiny side. I smile and take a bite and the juice drips down my chin.
My walkie-talkie hisses.
“Escapee from J Block. Do not approach.”
I swallow my mouthful. “Roger that.” I turn to the woman and a wave of nausea washes over me. I clutch at my stomach and double over.
“Don’t fight it,” she says as she hits me over the head.
I wake up in a cage in a small hot room that smells of sugar and spice. My captor has her back to me. No longer wearing a red cloak, she’s dressed in black, her hair pulled into a bun. She turns and her face is blotchy, her eyes piggy. There is a family resemblance, but this woman is much older. She shuffles towards me and sniffs the air.
‘You’re awake,’ she says.
“What do you want with me?”
“A means to an end. No hard feelings.” She pinches my arm and pokes me with a bone. Chicken, I hope. Now she’s closer I see her eyes are wrong, cloudy, and I doubt she can see well. It surprises me. I’ve never seen a person with eyes like this before. They adjust all ailments at birth and I can’t fathom how she has avoided treatment for so long.
“You’re a park ranger. You know how it works.”
The door opens and a funny little man skips in and saunters over to inspect me. No taller than my waist and thickset, he’s not like anyone I’ve met before. He peers at me through the bars and giggles.
“Watch him for a while will you, Rump. I need herbs for my brew.” The old crone picks up a basket and puts on her pointy hat.
“Sure thing,” Rump says as he shakes the bars of my cage, testing them, and annoying me.
“Do you know my real name?” he asks. I shake my head.
He laughs again. “You will. You will.” He produces a piece of parchment and a quill from his breast pocket and passes them through the bars.
“I’ll dictate, you write,” he says.
“Our demands are one hundred barrels of gold and silver and the dismantling of the perimeter fence—.”
“That’s preposterous!” I refuse to write his crazy demands.
“Why? Sultan Ali can rustle up forty barrels on his own. There are more kings and princes with fortunes than decent working people on the Inside.”
“Not the money, I’m talking about shutting off the barrier. It would expose us all to danger.”
Rump scoffs. “Expose us to danger? The greatest dangers lie within the perimeter. The only thing it would expose us to is the truth.” He leaned forward conspiratorially. “Do you ever wonder who decides what remains within and what stays without? Who decides beauty or worth in this ‘one size fits none’ utopia?”
I confess I haven’t given it much thought. It is as it has always been.
“What’s wrong with the way things are?”
“What’s wrong?” The little man’s face turns purple with rage and he hops up and down as he shouts. “I have seven brothers banished to the Outside and what is their crime – they are too short. There’s the Beast, a lovely prince, but under a spell – too ugly. The woodcutter and his skinny children – too poor. Unless you’re royalty, you’re banished. And every house is a frigging palace, five hundred rooms and one poor girl to clean. Evil queens abound, vain kings and wicked step-mothers making their children’s lives a misery, and witches locking maidens in towers. What’s wrong with that? You tell me!”
There’s a flurry of static from my walkie-talkie on the kitchen table.
“Ranger One, report your status. Over.”
“They’ll come looking for me if I don’t answer.”
“Let them!” Rump thumps the table with his fist.
I think about Rump’s words, and his passion. About the reflection I see in the barrier each night. The voices on the other side that call out, the hoots and cries, they don’t sound so dangerous, many sound lost. Why can’t they come in, is it because they don’t conform? What would it be like to walk on the Outside? The thought scares and excites me, but I’d like to have the choice.
“I could help you,” I say. “I know how to disable the perimeter fence.”
Rump looks at me with interest. “Keep talking.”
“In return for my freedom. And a reward of my choosing.”
“Done. Now spill the beans.”
“There are small units on the perimeter, but they are just boosters. The main control box is at the top of a tower, but the only person who knows how to get up there is a crabby witch.”
The old woman with the milky eyes returns with her basket full of herbs.
“Hey, Ginger, does your sister own a tower with a room at the top?”
“Yep. She keeps her pet Rapunzel up there. Why d’you ask?”
“Think we need to pay her a visit.”
“Why should I? What’s in it for me?”
Ginger’s sister is not happy about letting us up into her tower. I stare at the glass-smooth walls without an entrance, and the tiny turret window at the top, and wonder how to get up there.
“What do you want, hag?” Rump asks.
She casts a lascivious eye over me. “Oh no,” I say. “I’m not part of the bargain.”
Rump sucks his teeth. “I could spin you some straw into gold,” he says.
“A big roomful,” the witch negotiates. Rump spits on his palm and shakes her warty hand.
The witch gives an ear-piercing whistle and a long braid of golden hair comes snaking down the wall.
“Up you go, if you can,” the witch cackles.
Climbing up a braid of hair is no easy feat. It’s slippery and gets more so as my hands get sweaty from climbing. There are no handholds or footholds on the wall, no spot to catch my breath. When I make it to the top, my arms and legs tremble like jelly and I can barely stand. Rapunzel pulls me in, over the windowsill and I collapse, gasping, on the floor.
Baby blue eyes stare at me. I focus on her cute up-turned button nose and inviting pink lips as I search for something pithy to say.
‘Water,’ I croak. “Show me your control box.”
I’m still dizzy from the climb and need to rest. Rapunzel takes me in her arms and carries me to her bed. I don’t complain.
Sometime later I locate the control box behind her bed-head. It takes less than two minutes to untangle and cut the wires. For good measure I pull the unit from the wall and throw it out of the window. There’s a sense of satisfaction as it smashes into a thousand tiny pieces on the rocks below.
From my vantage point, with my arm around my beautiful girl, I watch as the wall fails and a torrent of creatures swarm in from the Outside. I see Rump hugging his brothers and it brings a lump to my throat. Wolves, bears, pigs, ogres and trolls, appear in droves. There’s chaos as rangers rush to stem the tide, but they know they’re outnumbered and stand aside. No violence, no bloodshed, only joy.
From my pocket I take a silken rope Rump gave me and tie it to the turret window frame. With Rapunzel in my arms I shimmy down the tower. I claim my reward. The witch isn’t happy at all. I tell her to fill out the relevant paperwork.