January 21st: Fairy tales
, by Nikki Vogel

Pepper absently flashed her transit pass to board the bus while reading a text message from her best friend. Brigitte was recommending an App called Mirror, Mirror. “It will cheer u up,” the text read. “U say ‘mirror, mirror in my hand’ to it and it says nice things back.” What a crock! But Pepper downloaded the app anyway. While it was downloading Pepper realized she’d gotten on the wrong bus. Shit. Shit. Shit. She peered through the window trying to figure out where she was. Burbland. There were a slew of roadside signs, the kind with neat, metal strips into which one could slide letters, spell out messages for passers by. “Two for One Tuesdays” and “Get Your Summer Tan Started” made sense, but others were contextually strange and sounded portentous: “Reclaim Yourself Here” and “Day Camp–All That’s Missing is You.” Excuse me, I left myself here somewhere. Do you have an extra copy? What about an upgrade? Version 2.0 perhaps? The original is full of errors, needs to be rebooted all the time. Pepper got off the bus.

Standing in the bus shelter on the other side of the street Pepper remembered a time a couple of months ago when she’d stood in a similar bus shelter crying hard enough that the other occupant, a woman dressed for yoga, had handed her a tissue and asked if she was okay. “I’m fine,” she’d answered. “It’s just a hang-over from the humiliation of calling my portion of the guest list to let them know that the Big Event was cancelled.” The bus had arrived in the nick of time to save both Pepper and the tissue-issuing stranger the awkwardness of having to discuss Pepper’s personal-life tragedy.

She checked her phone. Still no response from Anton. She’d sent him a text: “Hey, do u want to hook up tonight? We could meet for drinks.” The words seemed casual enough, but she’d purposely chosen the words “hook up” so that he’d understand that sex was within the realm of possibilities. He’d flirted with her aggressively at Beans, the coffee shop she managed, while she’d been engaged and when she’d raised her right hand to display the diamond ring he’d answered, “It will be our little secret, no?” He had a sexy French accent. Trish, one of her best baristas, had witnessed the exchange and said, “Don’t be fooled by that one. He prefers women who are already taken so he doesn’t have to make a commitment.” The bitterness in Trish’s tone told Pepper that she must have fallen for Anton’s charms. Perhaps Trish was right and Pepper’s new datable status was a deterrent as far as Anton was concerned.

Sitting on the bus heading back in the other direction Pepper tapped the icon for Mirror, Mirror to give it a try. The screen became a mirror-like surface that showed Pepper her reflection. Yikes! Eyes = bloodshot. Hair = ratty and red.

Though she felt stupid talking to her own reflection in public Pepper said, “Mirror, mirror in my hand.”

The phone answered, “You’re a fantastic person. Today is your lucky day.”

Oh, please. What had Brigitte been thinking?

Pepper got off at her stop and went into the corner store thinking about chocolate and ice cream and potato chips. There was still the possibility of sex with Anton, however, so Pepper decided to forgo the comfort of junk food – a moment on the lips, forever on the hips and all that. Instead, she took a lottery ticket form and began choosing numbers. As her hand passed over the columns of numbers it was as if a voice in her head said, yes, that one. When she tried to fill in the dot for 21, a number she habitually played, Pepper could have sworn she heard no, no, no inside her head.

Home in bed, propped up against pillows, Pepper flipped channels. Normally she could not abide the tedium of watching the numbers being drawn, nor would she have been home in bed at that hour, but that night she thought, what the hell, went to her handbag and withdrew the lottery ticket. Each number called matched a number on Pepper’s ticket.

* * *

“Thank you so much.” Pepper tipped the cabbie generously and closed her apartment door behind him. She began moving the bags to her room, lastly wheeling in the new luggage. The phone light was blinking and when she pressed in the code a robotic voice told her that the voice-mailbox was full. She should have gotten a lawyer, or maybe an accountant, when she’d found out she’d won, someone who could have helped her navigate the chaos that followed when your name was published as a lottery winner. A knock sounded at the door. Had she left something in the cab? Pepper looked through the peephole. It was Jeff! Even taking into consideration the distortion caused by the tiny lens, she could see that Jeff was totally jacked. His biceps strained the armholes of his t-shirt and his veins bulged. He hadn’t been so over-muscled when they’d first met. Pepper had come to believe that he’d gotten bigger to make up for the fact that she was an inch taller than he was. He hadn’t figured out that the bigger he got, the shorter he looked.

“Pepper? Pepper? Please answer the door.”

In the clutches of a dark curiosity she wondered if he knew she’d won the lottery.

“Pepper. Please!”

A voice that sounded similar to the one that had guided her choice of lottery numbers said, Don’t be an ass. Ignore him.

Pepper did not heed the voice of what ­– wisdom? reason? she opened the door.

“Can I come in?” Jeff gave her the full, big brown sad hound dog eye treatment that he always used when she was rightfully pissed at him for something but he wanted make-up sex. He was really pouring it on.

“I guess.” Pepper could have sworn she heard the sound of teeth sucked in disgust.

The twisted part of her, the part that picks at scabs and tongues a sore tooth, wanted confirmation that Jeff was the jerk her inner voice said he was. Pepper unhooked the chain and let him in.

Why don’t they ever listen?

Where is that coming from? And in a strong Brooklyn accent?

Damn it. Her eyes welled up. Ugh, no more sniveling. She wanted to find out what had brought Dickwad back to her apartment after he’d pulled the wedding dress right out from under her.

“Pepper.” Jeff took her hand, which she forced to remain limp, and led her to sit beside him on the sofa. “I was afraid and I made a huge mistake. I don’t know why. I’ve been trying to figure it out. I’ve been meeting with a shrink every day trying to sort out my feelings. Even as I called the wedding off, I knew it was the wrong thing to do.” He kept gripping her hand, seeking some return pressure, some sign of life.

The guy is thirty-five and he’s still sorting out his feelings.

The voice again. Pepper looked around surreptitiously. No need for Jeff to realize that she was hearing things.

Right here, this is your problem.

Pepper listened. If this was the voice that had won her the lottery why not listen? Perhaps it was the voice of her intuition?

You choose defective models.  Jeff never wanted to hold your hand in public.  Did you ask yourself why? No, you didn’t.

There was the sound of a cigarette being inhaled and then exhaled. Her intuition smoked?

How many times did he tell you he’d always dated petite blonds before he met you?  Remember hockey season, followed by football season, followed by baseball, basketball, curling, cycling, swimming, rhythmic fuckin’ gymnastics…any sport on TV was more interesting than you, and you were about to marry this asshole.  And before Jeff there was Steve.

 There was another inhalation accompanied by the distinctive sizzle of a drawn upon cigarette. Exhalation.

Steve broke up with you to become a Catholic priest.  It was devastating. You questioned yourself.  But, come on.  In hindsight can’t you see that he was conflicted?  How could you miss it?

Inhale. Exhale.

And before Steve, there was Matt.  It’s embarrassing to even talk about him, so I don’t think I will.  Another defective model. 

There was one more cycle of burning inhalation, but this time the expulsion of breath was followed by the sound of a cigarette being stubbed out.

The real problem is your choices.  The kind of men you’re attracted to.  Needy.  Standoffish. You like the challenge.  Can you heal them? Can you break down the walls they’ve built against communication and intimacy?  Can you make them whole? Improve them? Have some self-respect.

“Hey, where did you go with that thousand yard stare?” Jeff snapped his fingers in front of her face.

Pepper repossessed her hand. “You called off our engagement because you had been two-timing me for months with Felicia, the blond-bombshell type you have told me so many times you are most attracted to, and, though this is just a guess, it is an educated one, she probably fellates felicitously.  Her name, after all, sounds remarkably like both fellatio and felicity.”

You go girl.

Jeff didn’t deny the accusation. The expression on his face was perfect for one of those credit card commercials: wedding dress – $2500. Silver on blue invitations for 100 people – $750. Busting your ex-fiancé as the cheating bastard that he is ­– priceless. Pepper was not even sure fellates was a word, but Jeff knew what she meant, and judging by the husky laughter so did The Voice.

Jeff knelt at her feet. “Please.  Please.  Please.  Forgive me.”

He was still trying the eye thing on Pepper, but no matter their wet earthy brownness, they did nothing but infuriate her.

Is this putz actually kneeling at your feet?

Ridiculous. She kicked him, not too hard, in the chest. She wanted to knock him over. Falling down at her feet hardly measured on the humiliation scale compared to what she has suffered at his hands, but Pepper would accept small increments in hope that the scale might someday come to balance.

Jeff pressed his hand to his chest. “You bitch.”

This here is the real Jeff, front and center.

Pepper nodded to The Voice, inhaled all the air she could hold and shouted, “GET OUT.”

He crab-crawled away from her.

Pepper pursued him. “GET OUT.”

Jeff was on his feet.


At the door he risked his foot, placing it in the path of the slamming door, so that she would hear what he’d really come to say.

Now we get down to business.  Mmmm hmm.

“Pepper, you just won a bundle.  More than one person can ever need.  Give me half.”

Her expression made him recant. “Ok. No. No.  You’re right.  That’s too much.  Not half.  Some.  A million.  Just a million.  You’ll never miss it.”

Just a million.

Pepper threw herself at the door, and close it she did. As she engaged the deadbolt she heard, “Ouch. Shit.” And, “Shit, shit, SHIT.”

She soothed herself by watching him limp to the elevator through the peephole.

She thought, “I hope I broke his foot.” And, “I am not a good person.”

Girl, nothing wrong with a little righteous anger.

Had she really almost married a man who, at regular intervals, pointed at his naked crotch with both hands in the two fingers thumbs up gangsta approximation of guns and said, “This is the package. Brrrra. Brrra.”

Pepper picked her phone and began a text conversation with Brigitte ––

 I think I just broke Dickwad’s foot.

He broke ur heart, hardly a fair trade.

I just want someone in my life.

You need to be patient. Kiss a few more frogs.

That’s easy for u to say ur married. Everyone is married except me.

GTG drinks later?


Pepper put the kettle on. Tea with lots of honey would calm her nerves. She picked up her cellphone to cancel drinks with Brigitte, but tapped the wrong icon. Mirror, Mirror booted up and instead of Pepper’s reflection there was a middle-aged woman, very tanned, with excessively teased and highlighted blond hair.

I’m your fairy godmother and we have a shit-load of work to do.

It was the owner of The Voice! Pepper squeezed her eyes closed and blinked hard several times. Was she hallucinating? She looked again. The woman wore a tank top more appropriate to a biker bar than fairy godmothering, with clearly augmented breasts bulging some mighty cleavage.

“Um, fairy-godmother? The app is called Mirror, Mirror. Shouldn’t you be, like, my evil step-mother or something?”

Oh, great. A literalist.

Pepper watched her light a cigarette, inhale deeply and then blow two thick jets of smoke out her nose.

I could have come to you in any one of your phone apps. You happened to download Mirror, Mirror.

“Oh.” Pepper couldn’t think of anything else to say.

There’s someone I want you to meet.

Man o man. Pepper was certain she had lost it. The dumping. The money. It had all taken a toll.

But first we have some work to do.

Pepper was gobsmacked. She had read the word before and never really understood what it meant, until then. The woman – her fairy godmother? – continued to talk though Pepper had lost the ability to absorb one more thing. She turned off the phone.

No.  No.  Wait.  I’m still talking he….

“I need to sleep on it,” Pepper said to the blank screen of her powered down phone.

* * *

The limo driver was giving her the hairy eyeball, probably because she appeared to be talking to herself. Pepper had turned off the phone earlier because FG kept inserting non-sequiturs into her phone conversation with Brigitte. She’d wanted to say ‘au revoir’ to Brigitte before she left for France and it was a real struggle not to come across as balls-out crazy while trying to monitor two conversations, one of which only she could hear. When she’d turned the phone back on in the limo FG had looked pissed.

You know I can just choose someone else to give my services to.  I don’t need you.  You need me.

“Sorry, but it’s distracting to have you jab–, you talking to me when I’m trying to behave like a normal person.” FG spoke directly into Pepper’s mind when her phone was on, but since Pepper did not possess fairy-godmother telepathy herself, she had to answer FG aloud.

Why didn’t you just say so?  I’ll keep that in mind.

“You know I have to turn the phone off when I’m on the plane right?”

No worries.  I have a date anyway.

* * *

At Charles de Gaulle airport Pepper was to be met by a driver. She looked around for someone holding a Ms. Hirushja sign. The crowd thinned and Pepper finally spotted the sign. The man holding it was quite short and it had been difficult to spot him among the average height crowd. She walked up to him, bent at the waist and held out her hand. “You can call me Pepper.”

“Doc,” he answered.

You cannot be serious.

Pepper couldn’t help the snort of mirth that she quickly tried to disguise as a cough.

* * *

After Paris Pepper went south to a villa she’d rented for several months. There was a staff who saw to her every need – Sarah, Ted, and one man whose name she thought might be Elliot, but he was a soft-talker and Pepper had “whated” him so many times that she’d become embarrassed and didn’t clarify. He seemed to take care of the grounds and the pool so she really didn’t need to talk to him anyway. Within a few days of arriving Pepper caught a terrible head cold; the worst one she’d had in years.

“We should have gone further south. Bali maybe.”

It’s a virus, Pepper. It has nothing to do with the weather. Wash your hands more, for crying out loud.

Miffed at FG’s lack of sympathy, Pepper turned off the phone singing salagadoola mechicka boola because it irked FG. FG didn’t think much of the Disney movie portrayal of her job – No style. The woman had no style. Short. Dumpy. Didn’t bother with hair color. And that pink bow at her neck –– ‘Nuff said.

FG was clearly annoyed, though this didn’t stop Pepper from baiting her a bit when she turned the phone back on. “I think what you’ve told me is bullshit. You can’t leave me. Somehow you’re stuck with me. What? Till I’m ‘fixed?’ Married? Till I’m not in jeopardy of another Jeff?”

Did FG make the smallest of winces?

You treat me like shit, and after all I’ve done for you. You’re like a daughter to me and I just want you to be happy.

Pepper felt guilty for behaving so ungratefully and changed the subject. “How was your date the other night?”

FG made a face and lit up a smoke. He was right up your alley – a defective model.  Kept going on and on and on about his magical beans and his great big stalk.  And he wasn’t talking about a plant, if you get my drift.

“Do I ever.  Sorry to hear it.  But, hey, if you have no better luck than I do at finding a man, how are you supposed to help me?”

Pepper, that’s not how magic works.  You just have to trust me.


And besides, the date was just to make my boyfriend jealous. Let him know that he could lose me. Hurry him along to the next step. FG lifted her hand with a dipped wrist and waggled her ring finger. Never hurts to keep them guessing.

The doorbell rang and Pepper stayed comfortably seated in her chair by the fireplace. There was a staff, after all. Ted or Elliot? could get it. Ding-dong.

Where was everyone? Pepper tried to shout, “Hey Ted, the door,” but the effort to raise her voice stirred the great pot of mucous that she’d become and she ended up in a meltdown hack attack.

Maybe you should get it.  It might be important.  First time anyone’s come to the door.

It might have been her post hack attack watery eyes but to Pepper’s mind FG looked sly.

“For Pete’s sake.” She didn’t feel well and knew she looked terrible. Plus she was still in her robe and PJs.

Pepper tried to stomp to the front door but the stone floors were hard through her slippers. She tweaked something in her foot and had to limp the rest of the way. She tried to yank the door open so that whoever was on the other side would realize her irritation, but the door was one heavy mother and opened slow as damned molasses. So much for the dramatic. She could hear FG’s mirth and wished she had turned the phone off.

There was an absolute hunk of a man at the door, what Brigitte would have called a muffin. Gorgeous. He had to be six foot three. His hair was blond and he looked fit, and his smile, my god, what a smile. Pepper almost started to flirt with him and then remembered how she looked. She ducked her head down into the collar of her robe trying to imitate a turtle.

He waited, probably to see if she would speak, which apparently she could not, and took the bull by the horns. “Hi. I’m John. I own the villa to the south.” He handed her a basket of flowers. “These are from my garden.  Welcome to the neighborhood.” And he had one of those panty-stripper English accents.

The gift of speech had left Pepper’s building and she stood there like a giant dumbass holding the basket with her neck scrunched into her bathrobe.

“Well, I can see I’ve caught you at a bad time.  There’s an invitation in the basket.  I’m having a party in ten days and I really hope you’ll come.  You can meet some people while you’re here in France.”

Not until he’d turned to leave did Pepper finally reclaim the ability to speak. “Thanks.  I’ll definitely be there.”  Of course this sounded like, “Thags. Ol definitely be there” because of the head cold.

FG was laughing her ass off.

“Bitch.” Pepper walked over and turned off her phone and then rooted through the flowers to find said invitation. She opened the envelope and read, “John Charming cordially invites ––.”

“You cannot be serious!” Shouting started another hacking fit. Pepper turned her phone back on.

“You cannot be serious.  John Charming.  Why isn’t he Prince Charming?”

You’re so cranky.  Why don’t you go take a nap?  Turn the phone off so I can go shopping and find you the right outfit for this party.

Pepper followed her advice. While the phone powered down she climbed the stairs to her room. How does it work, she wondered. The logistics. What does FG do? Jump from phone to phone until she finds one in the right store? Pepper made a mental note to ask her the next time the phone was on.

* * *

On the day of the party Sarah served her breakfast as she usually did and Pepper tried to eat it as slowly as possible. The day was going to be torturous ­– lots of waiting combined with ‘the preparations,’ as FG had taken to calling them. Primping had never been Pepper’s forte, and had been the subject of many of FG’s lectures over the past several weeks. She’d given Pepper a lot of advice, much of which she was hesitant to take. The teased hair and cleavage that were part of FG’s daily appearance did not suit Pepper’s MO. She would feel horribly uncomfortable to sport so much breast tissue in public, besides which she didn’t have quite the set of knockers that FG did, though she supposed with her wealth silicone enhancement was not out of the question.

Relax. You’re going to have fun.

“I’m trying to believe you, but don’t you think it’s impossible to recover from that first impression?”

When you see how you look when I’m through with you, and when he sees how you look, he’ll forget you were the same woman who answered the door.

But Pepper wondered.

“And you think he’s the one for me? It seems a little too good to be true. I mean the guy is living in a villa.”

Pepper, you’re living in a villa too.

“I suppose.” She hadn’t quite adapted to her changed circumstances, felt like an imposter.

It will work out and then you can live happily ever after.

“If you say so.”

Just trust me. Trust the makeover. You’re not going to believe how good you look.

And FG hadn’t lied – the results were amazing. FG dressed her in a cashmere tunic – soft pink – that just covered her bum, and leggings and low-heeled thigh-high boots.

You have legs that go up to here so you might as well show them off.

There was a knock at Pepper’s bedroom door. It was Belle, a hairdresser and makeup artist. She would tame Pepper’s frizz into curls and “accentuate without overwhelming” Pepper’s features.

Pepper had never looked the way she looked when Belle was finished with her. Hair product should be listed as the 7th Wonder of the World, screw the Great Pyramid at Giza.  As Belle was leaving a UPS truck pulled into the front courtyard and Pepper signed for a flat oblong box.  FG had bought something for her from Daniel Prince, which turned out to be a jeweler.  Inside the box was glass bead necklace with matching drop earrings.  It was very modern and resembled art as much as jewelry.

A one of a kind.  Just like you.

The colors that swirled in the glass complimented Pepper’s hair color, her eye color, the color of the tunic, hell, they complimented just about everything.  It was a truly gorgeous set.  She was afraid to find out how much it had cost her.

The final accessory was a small clutch bag, large enough for Pepper’s cell phone – I want to come along. I swear I won’t speak a word – and a tube of lipstick.  FG had drawn an X over her heart and then held her hand across her mouth to emphasize her sincerity.

When the primping was complete she asked Ted to take a photo, which she then messaged to Bridgette. Then Ted escorted her to the garage where he held open the door of a Mini Cooper.

“Sorry, miss, the Renault is in the shop. We’ll have to take my car.”

“No worries, Ted.”

The Mini Cooper’s fan belt squealed all the way to John Charming’s villa. When they arrived Ted turned off the engine, mercifully ending, at least for the moment, the sound of a ululating guinea pig. In the blessed silence that followed Pepper could hear music coming through the open front doors. There were already a lot of people inside. Suddenly nervous, Pepper started to get back into the car.

I don’t think so, girlfriend.

She took a deep breath and walked toward the door. In her head Pepper repeated the affirmation that FG had taught her: I am caring, smart, supportive, loyal, and fun to be with.  I am caring, smart, supportive, loyal, and fun to be with. I am caring, smart, supportive, loyal, and fun to be with.

John, like a good host, was just inside the door of the castle’s enormous foyer waiting to greet his guests.  Pepper walked up and stuck out her hand.

“Hi. I’m Pepper Hirushja. Your next door neighbor.”  She held his hand longer than necessary, leaned in and whispered in his ear. “Hirushja means Cinderella in Albanian.”

John stayed there with his head bent as if listening, and then, as though he had finally made up his mind, he kissed her neck.

The languor of sexual attraction flowed through Pepper.

He pulled away and said, “I’m really glad you came. You look fantastic.” He looked into her eyes in a way no man had previously done, like somewhere in them all the answers to his questions waited.

“There’s a bar set up. If you head straight in you’ll see it on the left. When I’m done greeting my guests I’ll come find you.”

I know a lawyer who’s a genius with pre-nups.

Pepper moved into the belly of the party and took her phone out of her purse. FG winked at her. She was all gussied up as well, hair teased to unseen heights, and a truly alarming amount of cleavage bursting over the top of her dress. Pepper tipped her head to one side, and cocked a hip. In response to this posture of deep consideration, FG’s rather smug smile slid off her face to be replaced by a look of consternation.

“You know, I think I’ll just have a little fun with John. I’m a wealthy woman now. No need to rush things.”

You ungrateful little bi….

Pepper held her finger over the off button silencing FG before she could finish.

“Bibbidi bobbidi boo,” Pepper said, and dropped her phone into a glass of water that had been left on one of the many tables set up for the party. Another woman, walking by at just that moment, said, “You go girl.”


Nikki Vogel is being held captive in her office by a bunch of pushy stories that want to be told. When the control-freaks let her out, she plays tennis or works on her thesis project for UBC’s MFA Creative Writing.

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