Ashley Ella's name reminded her in a strange way of Cinderella. She had the Ella part, and cinders and ashes were the same thing, weren't they?
"Mom," she said one day, "I'm like Cinderella. Don't you think so?"
Her mother gave out a cackle of laughter. "What makes you come to that bizarre conclusion?"
"Well, cinders and ashes are the same thing. I'm pretty sure of that. And I have Ella as my middle name. So Ashley Ella is like Cinderella."
Her mother stared at her. "And that means what? That you'll be cleaning the fireplace before long? You're fifteen. Wonder why I didn't think of that before. I want you to clean the fireplace today. It's filled with ashes. Or cinders. Whichever you prefer."
That was not quite what Ashley Ella had in mind.
"No back talk, hear? I think that cleaning the fireplace is the right thing for a girl with your name."
Ashley Ella obeyed. Cleaning the fireplace became a weekly chore, even when the fireplace wasn't being used.
"Mom, we haven't used the fireplace in months. No ashes."
"But there's dust. Everywhere there is dust. Dust is the curse of the human race. We can't escape it. Just like we can't escape death. And we even become dust when we die. Dust and death, they go together. So if the people in this house want to escape death, we have to clean the fireplace, and everywhere else there's dust."
Ashley Ella was not totally convinced of her mother's logic, but she complied. She had always been an obedient child. Not that she had much choice.
One night, after she had finished cleaning the fireplace, Ashley went back to her room and turned on her laptop. What would Cinderella do? Nothing. She would just do her chores and wait for her fairy godmother to show up. She didn't know who or what she was waiting for. Maybe Cinderella didn't even know that she was waiting.
Ashley Ella went to a search engine and asked a question. "My name is Ashley Ella. It's a lot like Cinderella. Where can I find a fairy godmother?"
She was about to delete her question when an answer came. First there were several ads advertising fairy godmothers for rent. As if, she thought. And then there it was: "Looking for your fairy godmother? Call Fairy Godmother Central, 888-111-FAIRYGO. Or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org."
Ashley Ella stared at the screen. Could this be real? She could hear her father's voice in her head: "Ashley, we've got to move with the times. That's why we bought you this laptop. Make good use of all its features. Learn a lot!" So maybe it was too old-fashioned for a fairy godmother to just show up with a magic wand and poof! appear in the middle of the room. That was so three hundred years ago!
Ashley Ella had to send an email.
She began to type: "Hi. My name is Ashley Ella. My name is close to Cinderella as you probably can see. You know, ashes, cinders. Anyway, I would like to meet my fairy godmother. I am tired of doing chores. I am really tired of cleaning the fireplace, even when it doesn't need cleaning, which is most of the time."
Ashley Ella sent her email and waited for a reply. Soon there was an answer. "Hello, Ashley Ella. Please fill out the attached questionnaire and we will get back to you soon." Almost afraid to open the attachment, Ashley decided to be brave. There it was, a form asking for her name, age, address, education, and the reasons why she thought she needed a fairy godmother. They also asked if she had a human godmother. She didn't really know. Maybe. Her answer: Unknown.
She wondered whether she had to use her mother's credit card, but no one seemed to be asking her for money. Not yet at any rate. Before long she had sent back the form. Nothing happened. Maybe they needed time to find the right fairy godmother.
The next day was Saturday. Ashley Ella was given the job of sweeping the front steps. She was down to the sidewalk when a bright red Volkswagen bug pulled up. The old woman inside waved and crooked her finger. Ashley Ella walked to the driver's side of the little car.
"Ashley Ella, my name is Felicia. I'm your fairy godmother, but just for today."
"Just for today? I thought a fairy godmother was forever. Do I have to pay you by the hour?"
The woman gave a loud laugh. "No, no. We are a charitable foundation, funded by a wealthy anonymous donor. You don't have to pay us anything. Isn't that just magical?"
"I guess so. So how does this work? Are you going to find me a ball I can go to and get me a fancy dress and a coach made from a pumpkin?"
The woman laughed again. "No, my dear, we are much more modern than that. Let's see. You're fifteen, right?" Ashley Ella nodded. "Well, you are much too young to find your Prince Charming. The prince will have to wait until you're older, and these days and especially in this country we have to substitute real men for princes. Let's begin where you are. You are in high school, a first-year student, and there will be a dance in just a few weeks. Do you have a date?"
Ashley Ella frowned. "No. That's one reason I could use a fairy godmother. And the chores. I'm tired of cleaning the fireplace and sweeping the steps."
"Yes. I fully understand. However, this is the United States, and young people should expect to do some chores. Perhaps you could suggest an alternative chore to your mother. For example, you could say something like this: 'Mom, I'd like to clean the bathroom today instead of the fireplace.' I'm sure that would impress your mother."
"Wow. On second thought, I'll stay with the fireplace. But you were talking about the dance at the high school."
"Ah, yes. Let me see what I can do. Must be off now." And the woman hit the gas pedal and was gone.
When Ashley Ella walked back into the house, her mother started to quiz her. "Who was in that little car? You seemed to spend a lot of time talking to him."
"Not him, Mom. Her. It was just someone asking directions to the resale shop."
On Saturday night Ashley Ella had a cryptic email message. "Live in hope. Things will get better." The writer signed the message YFG, which Ashley Ella assumed meant Your Fairy Godmother. On Sunday night there was another message: "A surprise awaits you tomorrow. Live in hope." Again it was signed by YFG, but both messages were of the Do Not Reply type.
On Monday Ashley Ella spent more time than usual getting ready for school. She chose her clothes carefully and made sure her shoes were shined and her hair was curled. She practiced her smile in front of the bathroom mirror.
Her mother noticed. "Why are you so dolled up today, Ashley Ella? Do you have a boyfriend?"
"No, Mom. I just felt like starting the week with my best foot forward, as you often like to say."
"OK. Not sure I believe you."
Ashley Ella groaned.
At lunch Ashley Ella got her food and sat at a table in the cafeteria with a view of the street below. She wondered if any of her friends would sit with her, not that she had all that many friends. Then, suddenly, she heard a male voice.
It was Josh from her algebra class. "Hi."
OK if I sit down?"
He put his tray down on the table with a bang and sat opposite her. "So, Ashley Ella, are you going to the dance?"
"No. Yes. I don't know."
"Which is it?" He had really blue eyes, she noticed.
"I don't know. No guy has asked me, and I haven't decided whether I should do the asking."
"Would you go with me?"
"I guess so. Sure. But I don't think we've ever spoken to each other."
"No, we haven't."
"Do you usually ask girls you don't know to go to dances?"
"I feel I do know you."
She cocked her head to one side. "Why would you say that?" She started to take a drink of milk.
"I had a phone call from your fairy godmother. At least that's who she said she was."
Ashley Ella started to choke on her milk. She stared at Josh.
"Of course, I didn't believe her, but she knew a lot about you and you sounded like someone I would like. The woman on the phone mentioned the dance, so here I am. So will you go?"
"Yes. That would be fine. I wonder who in the world that could have been."
"Your fairy godmother." He smiled at her, and Ashley Ella blushed.
Her parents were excited that their daughter had a date. Josh's father drove his son to Ashley Ella's house on the night of the dance, and her dad insisted on taking pictures before they left. Then Josh and Ashley Ella had a good time stepping on each other's toes.
A few weeks later Ashley Ella turned sixteen. She wanted above all things to get her driver's license and dutifully studied the Rules of the Road and paid attention at the driver education classes the high school offered. However, the students were encouraged to take private lessons in order to prepare for the all-important driving test, not the written part which seemed like a breeze, but the hard part, the part that involved real driving.
"Mom, can I take some private lessons before my driving test? Our teacher said that was a good idea."
"I've already taken you to the fairgrounds, and you did fine. I don't need to spend more money on you, Missy."
Ashley Ella went up to her room and started to wonder if a fairy godmother would offer driving lessons. Well, why not? Why should a fairy godmother be limited to getting her a date for a dance? Once again she typed in email@example.com. Then she changed her mind, because she wanted immediate results, so she called 888-111-FAIRYGO.
"Hello. This is Fairy Godmother Central. How may I help you?"
"You really helped me out a lot when I needed a date for a dance at my school."
"How lovely. Did you just call to give a testimonial?"
"Oh yes, but there's something else."
"There usually is." The woman laughed a silvery laugh.
"The driver-ed teacher told us to take some private lessons before we have our driving test. My parents won't pay for the lessons, so that's why I called you. Can you help me?"
"Well, let me check our files to see if we have ever offered such a service. Now, even if we have never done that, it might still be possible for us to assist you. Let me see. Hmm. Ah, yes. Elvira seems to have done that in the past. I will email you when to expect her and her car at your doorstep."
Suddenly Ashley got scared. "But what do I tell my mom?"
"Oh, that's quite easy. Just tell her that the school decided to provide free driving lessons to certain superior students. Will your mother believe that?"
"Well, I guess so. I think so. She likes it if someone at school gives me a compliment. Not that it happens that often."
The woman laughed her silvery laugh again. "All right then, watch your email."
Later that evening there was an email. "I'll be at your house at 4 p.m. tomorrow for a driving lesson. I'll give a honk." It was signed Elvira.
And it happened. At 4 p.m. there was a honk. "That's for me," said Ashley Ella to herself. Her mother wasn't home. She quickly scribbled a note explaining about the "free" driving lessons and she was out the door.
A small elderly woman was in the driver's seat. Rolling the window down, she called to Ashley Ella. "Come around to the driver's seat, and I'll take the passenger's seat."
Ashley Ella did what she was told. They both fastened their seatbelts. "Well, in which state would you like to go driving?"
"Huh? I mean, excuse me. I don't understand."
"This car can fly, so if you would like to drive in Utah or Kansas or California, just let me know. The flying controls are on my side."
Ashley Ella wondered about Elvira's sanity. She decided it was safer not to try to fly in a very small car. "Well, since I live in Ohio and I'll be taking my driving test in Ohio and I'll be driving in Ohio and maybe once in a while in western Pennsylvania, I think we should stay in Ohio."
"Smart girl. A wise decision. I wasn't sure we'd have enough gas to fly very far, and I do so dislike having to use the parachutes."
Ashley Ella knew that she had entered another world. "Are you a real fairy godmother then? I wasn't sure about the first one I met."
"Oh yes, we are all real."
Ashley wasn't sure what Elvira meant. She was certainly a real woman sitting next to a real girl. But could the car fly? She wasn't going to test that possibility.
Soon they were driving along the picturesque roads of Ashleyville, Ohio and out to the county fairgrounds for some good practice on starting and stopping and signaling. Then Elvira told Ashley Ella to stop the car so she could place orange cones in one of the fairground's parking lots. That was the hardest part: doing parallel parking with orange cones as her guidelines. But she did it, and before long Ashley Ella was back home.
Her mother was standing at the front window holding binoculars. "What kind of driving instructor was that? She looked like an old woman."
"Yes, I guess she is, but I had a good lesson. We went to the fairgrounds and I practiced parallel parking."
"And where do you do that at the fairgrounds?"
"The teacher had some orange cones in the car."
"Hmm. That car's pretty small. You'll have to use my car for your test."
"Sure, Mom, thanks."
"Are you sure those lessons are free?"
"Free. Right. Provided by the school."
After two more lessons Ashley Ella was ready for her test. Her mother sat in the office while Ashley Ella waited for a state official to join her in the little car.
"Hello, Ashley." It was Elvira.
"Elvira? Why are you here?"
"Oh, we fairy godmothers get around. I just wanted to make sure you did well on your test so I convinced the regular tester that I could do it."
"How did you convince him?"
"Apple pie. It works every time. Sylvester and I go way back."
And before long Ashley Ella had her driver's license and was driving her mother home. "So who was your tester? That Sylvester guy, who seemed to be in charge, was eating apple pie in the back room. Didn't even offer me anything. Funny that they didn't have any other customers. Slow day, I guess."
Ashley Ella was beginning to think that she had the key to success. All she had to do was contact Fairy Godmother Central and she could get a date for a dance, a driver's license--and what else? What else could she ask for that the fairy godmothers could get her? Wealth? Prince Charming? Admission to college even though her grades were not so good? She had to talk to someone. Who? She couldn't tell her mother or father about the fairy godmothers. They would probably take her to a psychiatrist. Her friends Katie and Connie? They would just laugh at her. No, there was one person who might believe her, the person who had had contact with the first fairy godmother: good old Josh.
They met at the ice cream store, Dottie's Dairy, with the permission of their parents, of course.
"Thanks, Josh, for meeting me. Listen, this treat's on me. Order anything you please!"
"A banana split sounds good. How about you?"
"I think I'd like a chocolate sundae."
Soon they were enjoying their treats. Then Josh, his spoon poised in the air, said, "So any more fairy godmother news? Without that call, we wouldn't have gone to the dance together."
Ashley Ella finished her spoonful of chocolate ice cream and whipped cream. "Josh, promise you won't laugh at me. It is about the fairy godmother. I mean the fairy godmothers. So far I've had two."
Josh seemed to be trying not to laugh. "Wow! Where did you find them?"
"Where you can find just about everything. On the internet."
"So that first woman that called me up was from some fairy godmother website?"
"Yes. And she did her thing. She got me a date to the dance."
"My pleasure. So what about the second one?"
Ashley Ella told him about the driving lesson and then the miraculous driving test.
"Wow. That's amazing. So what are you going to ask for now: a lot of money, Prince Charming, maybe admission to your favorite college, even though we're only freshmen?"
Ashley Ella was licking chocolate sauce from her long spoon. "How did you know?"
"Was I right? Guess I just thought about things I'd want myself, except I'd ask for Cinderella."
Ashley Ella blushed and said nothing.
"Sounds like you, doesn't it? Cinders are the same as ashes."
"And my mother makes me clean the fireplace. Because of my name and the fireplace cleaning I decided to look for a fairy godmother."
"Wow!" Josh said for the third time.
They looked at each other for a minute, then worked away at their ice cream. "You know, Josh, in a lot of fairytales and in those myths we had to read in English class, people have to be careful what they wish for. Remember King Midas and his gold?"
"Yeah, that wasn't so good."
"So I should probably be careful about what I wish for. A date to the dance or a driver's license, that's pretty tame. You have to be careful when it comes to money or Prince Charming. Hmm. If I married someone named Prince Charming, would my name then be Ashley Ella Charming? Sounds weird."
"Maybe you would just be Princess Ashley Ella."
"That sounds better. But listen, I'm serious. I could ask for something spectacular."
Josh looked around at the other customers who were enjoying spectacular treats, then turned back to Ashley Ella.
"Something spectacular sounds great, but maybe you're asking for too much. Like King Midas."
"I know. I'll ask for a quick trip around the world. Maybe on a weekend, so I don't miss any school. I could tell my mom I'm staying at Jen's house."
"What if she calls Jen's house?"
That night she made arrangements with Fairy Godmother Central. "Your fairy godmother for this weekend is Alexandra. She'll meet you around the corner from your home at 4 p.m. tomorrow."
That sounded like a good arrangement, since Jen's house was within walking distance of her own home with its dreaded fireplace.
The next afternoon she said goodbye to her mother--her father was still at work--and walked around the corner. There stood a little gold car, and inside was an old woman with long, white hair.
"Ashley Ella? I'm Alexandra. Just put your things in the back seat, and we'll be off."
"Where are we going?"
"Where did you say you wanted to go?"
"Around the world."
"Not enough gas. Do you know how much gas it would take for this car to fly around the world?"
"Here's the thing. If we run out of gas while flying over the Atlantic, where do we stop for gas? Oh sure, Greenland, Iceland, but what if we aren't there yet?"
"Now don't sound so disappointed, Ashley Ella. Fairy Godmother Central hasn't disappointed you yet, have we?"
"No. Not yet. But somehow I think I'm not going to get my wish."
"Well, just wait and see." Alexandra took off and drove to the Ashleyville Hospital and stopped in the parking lot.
"Why are we here? Are you sick?"
Alexandra laughed. Did all fairy godmothers have a silvery laugh? "No, my dear, but this is where it all started. This is your life, Ashley Ella. Your parents were so happy when you were born. You were a beautiful baby. At first your father wanted to call you Cinderella, but it seemed too odd, so your parents settled on Ashley Ella."
"No one told me. My mom acted as though she had never seen a connection between my name and Cinderella."
"Your mother can be very gruff, shall we say, but she loves you. I think she feels thwarted. She doesn't have enough to do."
"Maybe she should get a job."
"Maybe, but what I think she should really do is go to college. And she has a secret that she's never shared with you. Well, on to the next stop."
Soon they were at the Ashleyville Cemetery.
"Why are we in this creepy place?"
"Let's get out of the car. I have something to show you."
Then Alexandra took Ashley Ella to a group of gravestones. Everyone had the last name of Eaglethorpe.
"That's my last name. Who are these people?"
"Your grandmother, your father's mother. Her name, as you see, was Edwina. Then there is your grandfather, Bertram, your father's father. Now take a look at the small tombstone."
Ashley Ella read the inscription aloud. "Robert Eaglethorpe, 1999-2000. Rest in peace, our beloved Bobby."
"Who was he?"
"Your brother, my dear. They all died together in a car accident."
"Oh, no! Why didn't anyone tell me?"
"I think it was too hard for your parents to talk about Bobby. You were born the very next year after Bobby's death. They so wanted another child."
The two stood at the graves in silence. "What next, Alexandra? Do you have more sad things to tell me?"
"No, my dear. I could show you more places in Ashleyville that have to do with your life. Where shall I take you now?"
"I think I'd better go home."
"Fine. But could we have a nice ice cream sundae first? My treat, of course."
And there she was, back at Dottie's Dairy, this time not with Josh but with an old woman who said she was a fairy godmother. And during their time together Ashley Ella made some decisions.
"Alexandra, I think that from now on I'm not going to rely on Fairy Godmother Central. Don't get me wrong, you guys were really great. But I need to grow up a little and I need to be nicer to my parents. I had no idea they went through that. Thank you for telling me. I wish I had known Bobby, and that there was a Bobby."
Alexandra reached out and patted Ashley Ella's hand. "Well, are you still going to Jen's house for the weekend?"
"Oh, Jen doesn't even know I was planning to come. I'm going to call home." She reached for her cell.
"Hi, Mom. I'm not going to Jen's. Just wanted to make sure you were home. I have something to tell you. No, it's nothing to worry about. See you soon. Love you!"
Alexandra looked worried "Surely, you're not going to tell your parents about Fairy Godmother Central. Please say you won't."
Ashley Ella laughed. "They wouldn't believe me anyway. No, I think I'll tell them that I wandered into the cemetery and found the graves. Then I will ask about Bobby. I think it will be good to get all this out in the open."
"It seems to me that you've learned a thing or two in the last few days, my girl. All right, let's go back to my car. I'll drop you off at the same spot where I picked you up. And remember, if you ever need the help of Fairy Godmother Central, you know where to find us."
Ashley Ella gave today's fairy godmother a winning smile. She was sure that from now on her life was going to be a lot better. And a lot more real.