The Third Parent

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The Third Parent

Angela Joyce

Once there was a princess who was born with three parents- a lovely mother, a wonderful father, and a third who was neither. The princess lived with her mother and father in a humble but charming little castle near the sea. The third parent lived inside the princess's head.
The princess did not realize the existence of this parent for quite some time. It had hidden itself deep in her psyche, biding its time, waiting for precisely the right moment. It fed on her secret fears and weaknesses and grew strong on them. It watched her true parents stealthily through the princess's innocent eyes, waiting for them to look away for just one moment. They seemed unlikely to do so, as the princess was greatly cherished and well cared-for. In the princess's ninth year, however, the moment arrived. It was not the true parents' fault. They were only human. Still, it was rather unfortunate.
The princess was, by nature, a blithe little soul. She loved to sing and dance and play in the courtyard with her younger brother and the royal pets. When not at play in the sun, she was equally happy retiring to her sunny yellow bedroom, where the curtains were laughing daisies and baby animals romped on the walls. There she would rest with a stack of books given her by the Old King, her father's father, and read contentedly for hours.
One day the young king and queen had to face a sad matter, and for just one moment their attention was turned from their daughter. The princess came into her room one day to find her mother weeping. When told the reason why, the princess wanted to weep too, but could not. In that moment when her deepest fear had been realized, the Third Parent reached its full strength.
"No crying," it said to her. "And no talking." It shooed the queen out of the little yellow room and, using the princess's own hands, locked the door behind her. There the princess remained as a prisoner to the Third Parent.
The animals on the wall ceased their romping. The daisies no longer laughed. The sun disappeared from the window and the air grew heavy and still.
Numbly, the princess crossed the darkened room to gaze into her mirror. She felt so cold and strange, she had to see if her appearance had altered. She looked hard at herself and saw no difference except for her eyes. There was something... She leaned closer to the glass and beheld the unpitying gaze of the third parent. Her eyes narrowed with hate as she gazed at herself. She wasn't sure what it was she hated, but it was vile and it was part of her. In a sudden passion she tore the lashes from her eyes, hoping to hurt whatever it was that stared out from them. It only hurt her. She could hear the Third Parent's mocking laughter as she turned from the mirror and sank down in a dark corner of her room.
"This is what you deserve," it said to her. "And there's no way out of it. This lock has no key." The princess believed the Third Parent because children often believe what they are told.
For days upon days the Third Parent worked to destroy the princess's joy. It was not too difficult. She was isolated from the people she loved, she could no longer see the sun, and all day she heard the cruel voice in her ears and saw the coldness in her own eyes. The princess could hardly stand against such adversity. She was only a child after all. Every day, all day the Third Parent feasted on the girl's sorrow and doubt, growing fat on it, confident that soon it would wear the princess down entirely. It grew terribly strong, for it had taken into its bloodstream all the power of a child's imagination. Over the years it had become expert at recognizing every thing that caused the princess to fear. It had savored her every nightmare, even the ones she didn't remember. It had lapped up her tears.
Yet it had not reckoned on something. It had made no allowances for the imagination of others.
One day, sitting listlessly in her corner, the princess happened to glance upon her long-neglected stack of books. The Third Parent was complacently snacking on the girl's fear of rats and failed to notice. Tentatively, the princess reached for one of the books: Anne of Green Gables. She looked at the pretty green cover with the red-haired girl on it, and a little smile formed on her lips.
The gluttonous Third Parent stopped chewing for a moment. What was the little brat doing, it wondered...
The princess opened the book and held it to her face. The ink and paper smelled good to her. The edges of the paper were like velvet on her fingers. She liked it. Her smile blossomed as she turned to the first page.
The Third Parent drew in a sharp breath, but a rat's tail got lodged in its throat and it began to choke. By the time it was able to breathe again and opened its mouth to scream at the princess, an iron gag clamped over its mouth. The princess had begun to read. While she read, the Third Parent could not speak.
After many hours, when the princess's eyes had grown tired, she put the book down and the Third Parent's gag fell off. It began to screech at her.
"You ugly, stupid, bad little girl!" it raged. "If you do that again, I'll make you sorry! Everything you do is a waste of time!"
The princess bit her lip and lowered her head sadly. Then she remembered that people had spoken to Anne Shirley that way, too, and she liked Anne. Suddenly she didn't feel quite so bad.
The princess was, in fact, not stupid. It didn't take her long to figure out that reading a book was a sure way to silence the cruel Third Parent. When she read, she forgot to be afraid of anything at all, which meant that the Third Parent went without supper on most evenings. Soon it was missing lunch and breakfast as well, only grabbing desperately at the merest scrap now and then, when the princess read a ghost story. It was hardly enough to live on.
As the princess pored over book after book, she knew only what she read. She could not hear the Third Parent's hungry groans. She could not hear that the daisies were starting to giggle again, very cautiously. She did not even hear her true parents trying to pick the lock outside.
One day the princess set down Little Women- the longest book she had ever read- with a contented sigh. For a fleeting moment, she waited for the Third Parent to say something cruel to her in its weak, wavering voice. Then she decided she simply didn't care what it said. At that moment, the Third Parent dried up and crumbled to dust, losing its form entirely. Bits of it remained inside the princess, but would never be solid again and hence could do little harm. The princess felt it disintegrate and ran joyfully to the mirror. Her eyes were innocent and clear and her eyelashes had grown back. As she smiled at herself, the door burst open and her parents, the King and Queen, gathered her into their arms.
From then on, the princess lived happily enough and impressed everyone with her expansive vocabulary. Though she was never quite the same carefree child again, her experience had made her more thoughtful and wise, which was not such a bad thing. She began to think of writing stories herself- it seemed a noble occupation. And just in case the evil Third Parent had any hope of returning, she kept on reading.



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