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all the days we never lived

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i.

When the queen becomes ill, the king makes a visit in person to Mother Gothel. He’s heard about the miracles she performs for the sick and injured but also how much she asks for in return.

She’s a pretty woman, younger than he’d imagined, but with something dark and old stirring in her eyes, a flash of coldness and cruelty that makes him fear she will turn him away. But she does not. He explains the queen’s condition, and she leaves him waiting in a front room while she disappears deeper into her cottage. When she returns, she bears a stone the color of gold which she wraps in cloth.

“No one must touch this but the queen,” Gothel says. “It will heal her the moment that she lays her hands on it.”

The king is overjoyed. Gothel names a price that could empty the palace’s coffers in a meager year, but he arranges to pay it.

Gothel’s word is true. His daughter is born healthy and smiling, with a thick crop of his brown hair and eyes that shine like her mother’s. He sends an envoy to thank Gothel, but she has gone, every corner of her cottage swept bare.

Rapunzel grows up strong and kind. Her father tells her stories of her birth, and sometimes she wonders about the woman who saved her life. She dreams of a tower and does not know why.


ii.

Mother Gothel sighs but says, “All right.” Rapunzel is more excited than Gothel has ever seen her be, and she keeps giving her mother enormous hugs in between packing her things. Gothel does not smile and she does not hug her back. She makes Rapunzel sing the song to her three times that day and another three the next, and though she looks as young as ever, she is tired, tired in her bones, tired in every joint of her centuries-old body.

The two of them descend the tower steps together on the morning of Rapunzel’s birthday. They keep to the deep woods where Gothel knows that no one else will travel, and they hardly speak. Rapunzel gasps in wonder at each new sight (the animals she’s never seen before—the mighty river—the view of a distant mountain) and Gothel shushes her each time.

They arrive at dusk on the shore of the sea. They wait as darkness falls, and then the sky fills with light.

Rapunzel is radiant in the lantern-shine, more beautiful even than when her hair glows with its healing power. She opens her arms as if she could embrace the sky and she dances with abandon in the sand underneath a thousand points of light.

Gothel sits on the dark ground, chilled through her cloak, staring down into the water. She will never be young again, she suddenly realizes, never young as Rapunzel is young. The obsession that has consumed her for years slips away in an instant, and these words pass through her lips:

“They are for you.”

Rapunzel looks at her with wide startled eyes, and as the last lights fade into blackness, Gothel tells her the truth. She does not ask for forgiveness or understanding. She tells Rapunzel that she is free to go where she wishes now, that she may return to her parents.

Rapunzel is a shadow as she slips her arms around Gothel’s shoulders. “You are my mother,” she says.

They return to the tower. Gothel ages years in a day and will not let Rapunzel’s magic rewrite her body. In one last gasping, hollow breath she says, “I took what I wanted, and I am glad.” She dies with one knobby claw wrapped around a golden lock of hair.

On the princess’s next birthday, the king and queen are surprised when Rapunzel asks them to send the lanterns up. “They were meant to bring you home, and they did,” they explain. But Rapunzel insists. Stranger still, she does not stay in the city to stand at the center of the light. Instead she walks to the mainland alone to watch from a tiny stretch of beach. When all of the lanterns have disappeared into the black sky, she lights one final lantern and sends it into the air alone.

“I love you most,” she says.


iii.

The frying pan comes away bloody.

Gothel drags the young man’s body far into the forest and leaves it for the king’s guards to find.

Rapunzel does not ask to leave the tower again.


iv.

Rapunzel holds the crown out to Eugene, and it sparkles and flashes in the light of the lanterns. He takes it from her, his fingers lightly brushing hers.

Her eyes are wide as she waits for him. He was so sure, once, that this crown would make all his dreams come true, that he could float away to paradise and never want for anything again. Now he knows that the crown was meant for her. It always was.

“Besides Flynn Rider,” he says, handing the crown back to her, “my other favorite story to read as a kid was about a princess in a tower.”

She does not believe him at first. But they’ve both seen the murals in the city, and he convinces her to let him row her to shore.

If he’s wrong, this will be the greatest con he could ever hope to pull, and the royal family will probably give him a private island out of gratitude.

And if he’s right, then he will prove to himself forever that stories can come true.


v.

She stands alone in the half-light of her tower, reflected in a hundred pieces of shattered mirror. She steps away from the pool of blood that seeps toward her. Eugene’s body lies silent and unmoving. Mother has gone forever.

The only two people in the world that she loved have taken everything from her.

She runs a hand through her lifeless brown hair, her fingers sweeping through it and out again in a shorter time than she had ever imagined possible. Her cut hair is piled around the room, powerless, useless.

Pascal crawls to her and climbs up on her shoulder. He nuzzles against her, and she pats his head, finding no comfort.

She packs her books and paintbrushes into one of Mother Gothel’s sacks and descends the tower stairs. The tower is no longer hers. She knows now that she has a different home, where her parents still wait for her to return. Yet she does not know if she can become part of a new family now, so soon after losing the only family she had.

Night falls as she sets out through the curtain of moss that hides the tower, down the forest path, towards the Snuggly Duckling. The thugs there do not recognize her. She takes a room.

The morning dawns bright. She can’t pay for the room, and when she tells this to the barman she’s afraid for a moment of what he’s going to do, but he just sighs and says, “I guess I’ll put you to work in the kitchen.”

Rapunzel has never seen so many dishes in her life, and she spends hours scrubbing, but she’s strong and finds that every movement is hundred times easier without so much hair.

The barman is astonished at how quickly she works, and he asks her if she’d also repaint the sign out front. “I’ll let you stay another night if you do,” he says.

She’d planned to move on, to go to the shining city and meet her parents at the castle, to seize a new life there. But the word “no” sticks in her throat, and instead she says, “I like to paint.”

She paints. She stays. The barman is kind to her and even makes her laugh once. After a week, she thinks that perhaps she doesn’t have to become a princess just yet.