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On the Other Foot

Jeff is an assistant professor of English at Briar Cliff University in Sioux City, Iowa. When he is not writing or teaching, he roams the Loess hills, cherishing its open space. He treasures language and creativity in all its forms. His stories have appeared in Daily Science Fiction, Every Day Fiction, Flash Fiction Magazine, and The Arcanist.

So, it's quarter to closing at Royals Shoe Emporium, and this orange Mustang sweeps into the parking lot, scattering dead leaves and field mice. The car's subwoofers toss a bass line carelessly at our window, and our mannequins tremble with every slap and thump. I can't hear all the words, just enough to know someone wants to smack his ho.
Parked across two empty spots, the doors pop open and out steps Prince Charming. I won't tell you his real name. Frankly, I'm more than a little embarrassed that I still say it aloud in my sleep.
Ana and Zella smoke joints in the stockroom. Verna wilts across the front counter, propped up by a cash register and the last remains of a latte. We play rock-paper-scissors with our eyes. I lose.
"Your customer." Verna yawns.
Prince Charming strolls down the runway between his Mustang and our doors, his best friend, Stewart, floating two paces behind on the fumes of his greatness. Even I must admit Prince Charming looks good in chinos and a linen shirt. I wish I could be that cable-knit sweater clinging to his collarbone.
His reappearance in my life reminds me of that boy from seven years ago, the one in the tuxedo who kept glancing at his shoes so he wouldn't step on my feet. I can still feel his warm, eager hands on my hips, his fingers testing the Chiffon fabric. My dress was made from daydreams and speculation, beads of steam gathered on a bathroom mirror.
A lot has changed since then. I no longer dye my hair blond or wear blue contacts. I've given up on the compulsion to shave, bleach, pluck, and starve myself into perfection.
My breath catches as he flings open the door. Will he recognize me? Will he ask me how I've been? Will he ask me when my shift ends?
Instead, he doesn't make eye contact. He thumbs his phone.
"Suede Bluchers," he says.
"What size?"
"Whatever fits."
I lead him into the labyrinth of boxes and knee-high mirrors. He sits on a padded bench, as I stoop to remove his Espadrilles. There is no sign of wear or tear on the soles, not a single pebble caught in the tread.
My fingers tremble as I slide his perfect foot onto a metal scale and adjust a few knobs. I memorize his numbers. Most of his qualities can be converted to numbers: waist circumference, inseam, weight, height, IQ, GPA, financial worth, hotness. I cast this knowledge into the furnace of regret that fuels my fantasies, but songbirds pluck the digits from the ashes.
Does he still think of that night, of how we were thrown improbably together as King and Queen for three glorious hours? Does he remember how I fled the dance floor, equally afraid of my parent's curfew and his attention? Does he keep his plastic crown in a shoebox on the top shelf of his closet? That's where I hid my tiara, but even buried in scrapbooks and old sweaters, it shines brilliantly behind a closed door. Like its counterpart--the dress stuffed under my bed--its memory emerges every homecoming.
Stewart nudges Prince Charming and shows his master a video on his phone. The two chuckle, and Stewart's eyes meet mine. Surely, he must recognize me. He hit on me as Prince Charming got us drinks. His creepy stare penetrated layers of lace and taffeta. I hugged myself to provide an extra barrier between myself and his lecherous intentions. Will he say something to Prince Charming tonight?
No. Stewart throws an arm around his highness and poses for a selfie. He takes his time selecting the best filter and caption.
"Is this going to take long?" Prince Charming asks me.
"I'll have you out the door before you can say, 'bibbidi-bobbidi-boo.'"
I pull a few boxes from the shelf and show him our meager offerings. He shrugs off most of my suggestions before picking our most expensive brand. I shuck the tissue paper and entomb one foot. He takes a few steps, then frowns.
"Too tight."
"It's the largest size we carry. The suede will loosen up once you break them in."
"No good. I need them tonight. What else do you have?"
If he were a woman, he'd endure blisters, sore calves, and throbbing arches. If this shoe meant the difference between potential happiness and certain neglect, we'd cut off our own heels, chop off our longest toes. We'd walk in a puddle of our own blood for the rest of our lives and smile through the pain.
"That's all I have."
He waits for me to remove the offending shoe, then says, "Your loss. I guess I'll just take my business somewhere else."
"I'm sorry."
Prince Charming pockets his phone. He looks at my name tag, then my face. My heart chimes like a distance clocktower announcing midnight. Every beat hammers pitted bronze, sending tendrils of sound floating on electric currents that run into my fingers and toes.
"You look familiar," he says. "Have we met before?"
The clocktower bell's last toll echoes in my blood. Heat gathers in my feet, which point unconsciously toward the door. My shift is finally over.
"No," I say.
But Prince Charming has already left. Stewart's jackal laugh tickles his ear as they share another video. I try not to stare longingly as the orange Mustang swerves out of the parking lot.
Tonight, when I get home, I will retrieve the Chiffon gown from under my bed. I will toss it in the fireplace, soak it in lighter fluid, and scratch out a match. I will hold the flame until it licks at my fingertips. Then I will drop it onto the dress. If any songbirds try to rescue the dream, I will swat them out of the air with an old broom.
I'm keeping the tiara, though. I fought hard for that glittery piece of plastic.
The End
This story was first published on Wednesday, October 27th, 2021

Author Comments

I had been reading a lot of fractured fairy tales, and I awoke in the middle of the night after having a strange dream about shoes. Shoes reveal a lot about our lives, and I've always found it interesting that the prince reduces Cinderella's identity to a single glass slipper. I wondered how she would approach his footwear and what his shoes would reveal about his character.

- Jeff Gard
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