Chapter 1: Happily Ever After? I Got This.
1 Happily Ever After? I Got This.
Prince Charming surveyed the sea of hopeful courtiers dispassionately, unaware that, at that very moment, his destiny was speeding toward the castle in the form of a pumpkin carriage. Inside the erstwhile pumpkin, Cinderella marveled at her sudden change of fortune… and footwear.
Meanwhile, the fairy godmother, disguised as a parlor maid, was two-handed stress eating French pastries as she watched the minute hand on the clock tower.
But that last part never gets included because nobody cares. It’s not her story. So nobody gives a magical mouse turd about the fairy godmother’s problems.
Except for me.
I know exactly what that chick was going through because, right now, Coach is preparing to start the Poms tryout without Carmen. The ball is on, and my Cinderella is nowhere in sight.
Carmen texted fifteen minutes ago that she had a flat tire. But having a legitimate reason for missing the tryout is not going to get Carmen on the squad. Coach is hard-core about starting on time. If we’re even thirty seconds late for practice, we have to stay after and do wind sprints. But if you’re late for the tryout, you’re just out of luck.
What we need is a delay.
With a wink, I launch a mental nudge at Coach, magically knocking the location of her clipboard out of her mind. She begins to wander around the gym, looking flustered. My right hand immediately gets pins and needles but, hey, worth it.
Come on, Carmen, I silently plead as I watch Coach flounder. We are not flushing six months of work down the toilet because of a flat tire.
The clock ticks to 3:02.
The nudge wears off. “Aha!” Coach says triumphantly to no one in particular, picking the clipboard up from the bench, where it’s been sitting in plain sight the whole time.
I desperately wink another nudge at her—a sense that the sound system settings need to be checked. She gives her forehead a little massage, feeling the strain of too many nudges. I feel it too. My whole right arm is asleep now, all the way to my shoulder. It’s super annoying.
But it buys us a few more minutes. She goes to the control panel and ponders the knobs and sliders, inputs and outputs.
“Uuuuuugh!” Scarlett Okumura groans from the spot next to me, her knee bouncing a hundred miles an hour. “What is the problem? Coach never starts late.”
Scarlett’s the team captain and obviously feeling the tension in the room. I nudge her a little calm, wishing I could do the same for myself.
“It’s only 3:05,” Gwen Strope replies from her other side. She doesn’t look up from her phone screen to deliver this information, and her face is entirely obscured behind a halo of tight black curls.
To my undying relief, the gym doors open, and Carmen comes skidding through them in compression pants and a crop top, a black smudge clearly visible on her forearm. She doesn’t stop to catch her breath but takes her place in the second row. She scans the bleachers, and when our eyes meet, she gives me a tiny nod. I nod back—you got this.
With a sigh of relief, I let myself relax a little, rubbing my arm to try to realign my chi or whatever.
A few seconds later Coach says, “Okay, sorry for the delay. Let’s get started.”
The dancers set, the sound system crackles, and I am in knots again. This is it. Carmen’s whole Happily Ever After hinges on this two-minute routine. I sit in the bleachers with my Poms squad mates, composing my features into a perfect mask of indifference, while mentally juggling glass slippers at the stroke of midnight.
Next to me Scarlett whispers, “Who do you think is going to make it this year?”
Electro house pumps out of the gym’s sound system, saving me from having to answer. The forty or so new Poms squad hopefuls do a quick series of moves: head snap, ball change, flex kick, punch. Carmen hesitates on the kick. I bite the inside of my cheek because the tension has to go somewhere. The triple fouetté turn is coming up. With every neuron in my brain, I will Carmen to stick it.
That wasn’t some kind of nudge, by the way. Carmen is an awesome dancer. Her problems were lack of confidence leading to general social awkwardness. Whether it’s fair or not, making the Poms squad is about more than dancing. You’ve got to project that all eyes on me vibe. I’ve spent the past six months teaching Carmen how to walk into every room like she owns it. I clandestinely taught her this tryout routine weeks ago. She’s been practicing nights, weekends, every morning at five.… She deserves this.
From the other side of Scarlett, Gwen leans in and says over the music, “Second row, third girl from the left. Do I know her?”
I think, You’ve gone to the same school for three years, but you’ve been looking right through her. Outwardly I shrug. “I think her name is Carmen?”
“Carmen?” Scarlett visibly scans her vast mental catalog of the JLHS who’s who. “Wait. Carmen Castillo?”
She looks at me for confirmation. I give her a that sounds kinda familiar face.
She grunts, “She’s different.”
“Yeah.” I put a studied measure of surprise into the syllable. Carmen does a stag leap.
I want to cheer for her like one of those superfans who go to football games in full body paint. It’s almost a miracle that I can stay reclining on the bleachers. But the fairy godmother thing is strictly black ops. It has to be. People feel cheated when they find out somebody else got an assist. Plus I’d never get a rest. People would be begging me to grant wishes 24/7, and that’s really not how it works. That’s why all my Cindies are sworn to secrecy.
Carmen lands the toe touch, then pops back up. The recruits all freeze in an asymmetrical second position with their arms crossed on top of their heads. The last beat of the tryout song echoes off the gym walls.
Ultimately, Coach will decide who gets on the squad, but Scarlett is obviously spellbound by Carmen’s transformation, and she’s already whispering Carmen’s name to half the team. Only a hint of a smile betrays the proud-mama thrill that’s like fireworks in every nerve of my body. This is the first moment of Carmen’s Happily Ever After.
But of course—I glimpsed it.
You want to know why a few lucky people get a fairy godmother while everyone else is stuck slogging it out on their own? It’s the glimpse. Sometimes, out of nowhere, I get a glimpse of someone’s deepest wish, and I know my job is to help them get there. The picture is always quite clear, and, not to brag, but I can make it come true 100 percent of the time.
Six months ago Carmen brushed past me in the parking lot, watching her feet as she walked, huddled into herself like she was trying to be invisible. And I got a glimpse:
She was here in this gym, standing in the exact pose she is now. She was sweating and panting and smiling, and the whole Poms squad was cheering for her. Then Coach put a little star next to Carmen’s name on her clipboard.
So I pulled her aside and offered her my assistance. She accepted, obviously. And here we are. Making it real.
Scarlett whips out her phone. She snaps a photo just before the dancers drop their final pose. “I’m posting this,” she says to no one in particular, and then mutters her caption. “All the hopefuls for JLHS Poms… Carmen Castillo killed it!”
Scarlett loves breaking news. She loves it so hard. Especially if she’s the one who’s breaking it. I think she has FOMO on behalf of the entire Jack London High School student body.
Meanwhile, Gwen puts her phone in her lap and starts slow clapping. The rest of us join in, and the applause gains momentum. Coach touches her pen to her clipboard before she waves her hand for us to cut it out so she can make her end-of-tryouts speech.
“Thank you, ladies. You’ve all worked really hard this weekend, and you should be proud of that. Unfortunately, we only have spots for four of you. The roster will be posted on the gym door tomorrow morning.”
As soon as Coach stops talking, the bleachers erupt with chatter like a science project volcano. It’s all predictable trivialities—love your earrings… did you see the Fresh Prince reboot… so much homework… who gives a test on a Monday… blah, blah, blah. A few people have a long enough attention span to talk about the tryout, but mostly everybody’s already over it.
I spend 3.8 minutes dutifully chatting everybody up before making my way out of the gym. Carmen is waiting for me outside the double doors, amid a few other lingering hopefuls. I want to go in for a full-on hug-and-squeal, but for the sake of propriety, I make it a purposefully awkward “Um, good job in there. I’m sure Coach is going to pick you. Carmen, right?”
She bounces on her toes, sweat still gleaming on her exposed skin, a victorious “whoop” poised on her lips. I need to create a space cushion before she blows our practically strangers cover story.
But impressively, she manages to limit herself to a loaded “Thanks, Charity. For everything.” She makes a you know what I mean face. So not subtle. Then she leans in conspiratorially, which is even worse, and whispers, “How did you stall Coach after I texted you about the flat tire?”
I draw my eyebrows together in feigned confusion. “What are you talking about? You texted me?” I glance at my phone like it’s been misbehaving and, when I look back up, give the tiniest shake of my head. We don’t know each other.
Carmen backs up, searching my face. I assume she’s looking for a sign—did we really have a phone fail, or is this more subterfuge? I give away nothing. She’ll have to draw her own conclusions about what happened here today.
None of my Cindies know about the glimpses or the nudges. All they need to know is that they got their wish. No use complicating things by oversharing about the magic.
Let’s be real: the wow-factor of my magic is basically zero. My powers seem pretty underwhelming most of the time. But I do appreciate their subtlety. Nudges are much easier to hide than, say, turning rats into horses or flying around in a red cape. Ever lost your sunglasses and then it turned out they were on your head? Sent your phone into lockdown because you messed up your password so many times? Tripped over your own feet? Wandered around a parking lot looking for your car? I’m not saying you were fairy godmothered. But I’m not saying you weren’t.
Carmen looks like she wants to ask more questions, but I nudge the words out of her head. Then, with buzzing fingers, I pretend to check my phone as a few of the other hopefuls pass by in a clump, nervously jabbering to each other about how they think they did. They exchange a few “good jobs” and “see you Mondays” with Carmen as they pass.
And now we’re at the part of Carmen’s story where I fade into the background. It’s bittersweet. In some other reality we could have been good friends—we’ll both be on the Poms squad, and she’s got a huge heart.
But I’m not her friend. I’m her fairy godmother. My Cindy’s transformation is complete, and she no longer needs me. We both have to move on now. With one last farewell finger wiggle and a “See you around,” I stride away, careful to project carefree confidence.
I pour my post-wish endorphin rush into making pasta primavera and bruschetta for dinner. My mom comes home from San Diego tonight. I expect her around seven. By 6:58, the table is set, dinner is ready, and there’s nothing left to do but wait.
We live in the Inland Empire of Southern California—that’s all the towns without a coast and no more than the average silicon. It’s a two-hour drive from San Diego. Every few minutes, I do a mental calculation: If she left at seven, she’ll be here any minute.…
The pasta gets cold and waxy-looking.
If she left at seven thirty, she’ll be here any minute.…
The bruschetta begins to shrivel around the edges.
When I get tired of watching the food decompose, I wander to my bathroom and dye my hair mulberry. It’s bright enough to celebrate today’s triumphs, but with a deep-purple undertone that feels right.
Two years ago, out of boredom, I dyed my blah brown hair for the first time. Peacock blue. It inspired a ninety-second conversation in which my mom was looking up from her computer the entire time. I believe her exact words were “Exploring your inner mermaid, Charity?”
I accepted that for the huge compliment it was. Mom is the executive director of the Marine Conservation Coalition, so she spends every waking moment thinking about ocean life.
When I sent a peacock-blue-haired selfie to my sister, Hope, I got the fastest text back in recent memory: Nice. Bernice loves it.
Bernice is an elephant. Hope is in vet school and has spent the past three summers in Thailand giving trauma care to elephants with PTSD. I’m not kidding. That’s a thing.
But who am I to judge? I’m a fairy godmother with a whole closet full of hair dye. And that’s a thing too.
Fairy godmothering has been passed through the women in my family for generations, but it skips around like freckles or red hair. My grandmother has the magic. I have it. My mom and sister don’t. But being a fairy godmother isn’t just about magic. It’s about a deep need to fix things. It’s a calling.
Here’s the deal: If somebody’s worthy—and if there’s something they long for with their whole heart—then the Universe puts me on the case. I get a glimpse of the Happily Ever After moment downloaded directly to my brain. And then my job is to make sure all the stars align in their favor, to grant the wish they maybe didn’t even know they had.
At least, that’s what I pieced together from the family history passed down from my grandmother, a bunch of crusty fairy tales, and my own experience. I grew up on the stories of my ancestresses back in Europe granting wishes, solving problems, kicking butt, and taking names.
I had my first glimpse when I was twelve, the day after I got my period for the first time. That was a beast of a week, let me tell you. I mean, Memom had kind of explained about the glimpses, and Hope clued me in about the girl stuff. But nothing really prepares you, you know? Mom was on a whale-watching trip with some major donors. By the time she got back, Memom had already helped me deal, and it seemed kinda late to bring it up.
Okay, full disclosure: I tried to bring it up, but she kept changing the subject back to the whales and how majestic they are. So I decided, screw it, she doesn’t get to know. Ever since, we’ve been doing this dance where we both skirt around anything bordering on wishes, glimpses, nudges, or fairy godmothers. Maybe if she ever talked to Memom, she’d get the deets from her. As it is, we’re stuck in this weird “don’t ask, don’t tell” loop. Anyway, it’s been six years—it doesn’t even bother me anymore.
Which brings us back to the fact that I’m hanging out waiting for her to return from her latest ocean rescue mission. After drying my hair, I plant myself on the couch in the great room with a book. From here I have a good view of the door leading in from the garage to the kitchen at the other end of the great room.
Her electric Tesla Model S makes not a sound when she arrives close to ten. I leap from the couch when I hear the garage door open. The moment Mom walks through, dragging a carry-on-sized rolling bag behind her, we have a clear full-body view of each other. Rather, I have that view of her. She would see me, though, if she looked up from her phone.
She’s wearing a fitted black suit with a flouncy seafoam blouse to add a touch of femininity. Instead of heels, she’s wearing Skechers. A few hours ago she was perfectly made up, but now her choppy dark blond hair is limp, and the skin under her eyes is gray with melting mascara and eyeliner. She is texting furiously with one thumb.
“Hi, Mom. Welcome home.”
She doesn’t respond immediately, just taps her thumb on her phone a few more times before looking up. Then she smiles, and I think she’s really glad to see me. “Hi, sweetheart.”
Mom leaves her rolling bag in the kitchen, and we meet in the middle for a hug. After a few seconds she pulls back and fluffs my long mulberry waves with both hands. “This is new.”
I shrug like it totally doesn’t matter that she noticed. “Time for a change.”
She smiles brilliantly and shakes her head the tiniest bit, like, Silly girl. She takes a step back.
I say, “How was San Diego?”
Dramatic exhale. “I wouldn’t know. I spent the whole week in a conference room, slogging through board reports and budgets.” She goes to the cupboard and pulls out the Motrin. “The board liked the new fundraising initiatives and approved my ideas for generating more international, interagency cooperation. It’s everybody’s ocean, you know?” As she talks, she pops two Motrin and retrieves her luggage. She takes a few mincing backward steps toward the hall, as if maybe I won’t notice that she’s trying to get away from me.
I feel a childish desperation to keep her talking, to keep her here. I wish I could nudge her to ask about me, but unfortunately, nudging doesn’t work on her. Trust me, I’ve tried. So I resort to words. “Will you be working with that Dutch foundation?”
ICYMI, a guy in the Netherlands invented a way to collect floating trash out of the ocean a few years back, when he was like seventeen. He’s kind of a BFD in the world of ocean advocacy. Usually bringing him up buys me at least thirty or forty seconds of Mom face time.
But not tonight. She shoots me an apologetic look. “Hon, I’m sorry. I have a raging headache, and I have a videoconference at six a.m. Can we catch up more later?”
The classic “raging headache.” Nice out, Mom. I used to worry that she had a brain tumor. Now I just worry that she’s trying to avoid me. I swallow a feeling like gulping down sand and smile. “Sure, Mom.”
She calls, “Thanks for understanding. Love you. Lock up,” as she retreats down the hall.
Okay, so, yeah, my home life isn’t perfect. But honestly, I don’t have time to wallow.
I’m needed. Elsewhere.
My new Cindy appears in record time. Less than seventy-two hours after Carmen’s triumph, I’m walking down the math-and-science hall after Poms practice when I happen to see a girl bent over a textbook, all alone in Chem Lab A. Her hair is in a haphazard ponytail, and she picks at her face absentmindedly while she reads.
And I get hit with a glimpse. I stop and put my hand on the lockers to steady myself as the here and now spins away.
The girl is rocking a deep-red sari, standing in line with three other girls in formal dresses on the track that rims the JLHS football field. Vice Principal Martinez says, “Vindhya Chandramouli,” into a microphone before placing a silver-and-rhinestone tiara on her silky black hair. The crowd in the bleachers goes wild—cheering, pounding feet, banging cymbals.… Vindhya perches carefully in the back of the VW Bug convertible and waves regally as the car makes a lazy path along the track.
The glimpse dissolves as quickly as it came. I blink the present back into focus: this hallway, these lockers, Chem Lab A, Tuesday. The girl—Vindhya.
A familiar feeling of purpose and power sends my shoulders back and my chin up, as my personal problems fade into the background. There’s a Cindy in need. That’s what matters now.
I tap lightly on the open door as I step into the room. She glances up, sees me, and pinches her eyebrows together like my presence is suspicious. I offer a smile. “Whatcha reading?”
She tilts the book up so I can see the title: Talking to Humans: Coding for Dynamic User Interface.
“Looks riveting.” No hint of irony creeps into my voice.
She glances around—looking for an exit? Reinforcements? Then she retreats back into her coding book.
Still smiling, I pull up a stool at the lab table, facing her. “I don’t think we’ve really met. I’m Charity.” I raise my eyebrows, inviting a response.
She clears her throat. “Vindhya.”
The next part is always a bit touch-and-go. How does one broach the subject of secret dreams and deepest wishes—of life as you know it doing a sudden 180—without inducing panic or sounding like a wacko? The rip-off-the-Band-Aid method is my fallback. I’m a cut-to-the-chase kind of girl. “Would you like to be homecoming queen this year?”
She fumbles the book. “What?”
I say it again, word for word. Standard procedure for a first client meeting—lots of repetition. Lots of disbelief.
Vindhya laughs—one strained, unamused Ha. “Yeah. Right.”
I resist the urge to respond but don’t break eye contact. Sometimes an uncomfortably long pause is the thing that really draws people out.
After said pause she says, “Like I would even want to participate in the homecoming court thing. It’s objectifying and… and shallow.”
She hesitated. Even if I hadn’t glimpsed her true desire, I would know she’s fronting. She’s in denial now. Unruffled, I nod. “Yeah, it is shallow. But still…” I sigh. “Wouldn’t it be amazing to see the smart girl wearing the crown for once? Instead of the girls who play to every patriarchal, beauty-over-brains, pretty-princess stereotype?” Okay, that might have been a stretch. Last year’s HQ ran track and got into Pepperdine. But sometimes you’ve gotta sell it.
Vindhya’s back straightens and her eyes flash. “How would that ever happen in a million lifetimes?”
“It’s in you, Vindhya. I see it. And I’ll help you, if you’ll let me. Under one condition—no one can ever know I was involved.”
Vindhya’s eyes go wider and wider as I speak. When I pause for her response, she blinks twice rapidly and glances around the room again—maybe looking for a hidden camera. “Is this a joke?”
“No joke. No strings. Just a legit, onetime offer.” I hold out my hand to her. “What do you say, Vindhya? Do you want to be queen?”
She’s vibrating a little now. I hope she doesn’t pass out. That has happened a couple of times, and it’s just so awkward. Thankfully she stays lucid and I… I wait with my hand in the space between us.
In case you’re wondering, I won’t nudge her to agree to anything. It would be wrong to nudge clients into something that is going to change the course of their entire life. Besides, the effects of nudging are short-lived—usually only a couple minutes—so not very useful in swaying major life decisions.
She stares at me for another long moment. Finally releasing her death grip on the textbook, she reaches out in slow motion to seal the deal. As our hands meet, she mutters, “But… why are you doing this?”
I give her hand a reassuring squeeze. “Because I’m your fairy godmother.”