Violent assault and murder, blood, bodily fluids
Cinda begins the worst afternoon of her life by hiding in a closet.
It’s spring break of her senior year of high school, and she’s rented a cabin with four friends using money she saved from her job at the bookstore, and it all feels terribly grown-up: the long drive into the mountains in the passenger seat of her boyfriend Travis’s car; the box of condoms Paulina not-so-secretly tucked in the glove box; the case of cheap beer and freezer bag of weed that Wally stowed in the trunk; the excursions and activities that Maeve carefully planned.
According to Maeve, they’re supposed to be hiking right now, an easy trail with a waterfall at its end, but a sudden thunderstorm has them stuck inside. Paulina suggested hide-n-seek as a way to break up the boredom, the tension, the way everyone got kind of snappish once the clouds blew in. Cinda thought it was stupid, juvenile, but once she’s curled up in the pantry, her eye pressed to the keyhole, she realizes that the childishness is half the fun. All she has to do is sit here and wait, and she’ll either be found or she won’t, and it doesn’t really matter either way.
“Ready or not, here I come!” Maeve calls from the living room, and Cinda watches the narrow strip of the kitchen that she can see through the keyhole and waits.
• • • •
Maeve finds Wally first. He’s contorted inside the washing machine—Cinda caught a glimpse of him cramming himself into the drum before she scoped out her own hiding place—and she has no idea why Maeve thought to look there but she hears her friend cry out “Aha!” from the laundry room. Hears Wally ask for help getting free, then exaggeratedly groaning as Maeve pulls him out. Hears them . . . kissing? Kissing and laughing, and then they’re in sight of the keyhole and Cinda doesn’t need to look anymore.
So she has to scramble to fit her eye back against the keyhole when she hears Maeve scream, the sound grating and long. Cinda hears the axe come down before she’s got her eye lined up, so for a moment it’s just a hacking sound that she can’t place, and then the whole scene comes into view: Wally, covered in a spray of blood; Maeve, the head of an axe embedded in her shoulder; a man in a pig mask on the axe’s other end, his dark clothing dripping from the rain, both hands around the handle as he pulls it free.
The axe comes loose with a sucking noise. The man in the mask swings it around over his head before he brings it down again, aiming for Maeve’s neck this time, and Cinda is too scared to move, too scared to even blink.
She watches Maeve’s head tumble off her shoulders. She hears bare feet slapping the tile floor—Wally’s taken off running. Good. Maybe he can get help, Cinda thinks. She’ll just stay right here, hiding, Cinda thinks. She’ll watch, and she’ll wait, and she’ll come out when she knows for sure that it’s safe. Until then, she won’t make a sound. She won’t move a muscle. She won’t even close her eyes.
• • • •
The man drags the axe behind him across the kitchen, leaving a smear of blood on the tile floor. “Olly olly oxen free,” he calls in a gleeful, childish voice. He stalks out of view, but Cinda keeps her promise, keeps her eye pressed to the keyhole.
She hears the soles of his shoes squeak against the wet floor. She hears Wally—“Man, what the fuck, let go of me!”—and then that hacking sound again.
The man puts Wally’s head on the kitchen counter, propped up against the spice rack. Wally’s eyes are still open, his glassy gaze angled forty-five degrees off of Cinda’s line of sight. Blood drips from the stump of his neck, pools on the countertop, then begins to run down over the cabinetry. Cinda startles at the sound of the first drop hitting the tile, a slow and syrupy plop, an echo of the rain pounding staccato against the windows.
• • • •
The man tosses the next head underhand into the kitchen. It arcs past the keyhole, too fast for Cinda to really see it, then hits the floor hard enough that she feels the thump where she’s crouched.
Was it Travis? It must have been—she’s always teasing him for the fact that his football coach had to order him a special extra-large helmet. It must have been Travis, and the thought of this stranger taking her boyfriend’s head off his shoulders makes Cinda clench both of her fists. What good is she doing, hiding here while people she loves are massacred?
She breathes in, breathes out, tries not to make a sound. She’s protecting herself, she thinks. And if Travis couldn’t outfight this attacker, what makes Cinda think she’s got a chance?
But when she replays the memory of the head soaring past her hiding spot, isn’t it followed by a tail of blonde hair, the way dust follows a comet? Maybe it wasn’t Travis after all, but Paulina—Paulina, who’s a terrible bitch but whose cousin owns the cabin and gave them a discount. Paulina, who’s one of Cinda’s best friends even though they don’t like each other very much at all, because high school can be awful and complicated.
Cinda wishes she could just open the pantry door a crack and take a look, and then she’d know for sure.
She doesn’t dare. She waits.
• • • •
Cinda hears Travis’s voice, but it doesn’t sound like him at all. He’s screaming, pleading, and then there’s the sound of a blow and he goes silent, save for two pairs of footsteps.
The masked man frogmarches Travis into the kitchen, the axe held at his back. Travis’s sock feet slide in Wally’s blood on the tile floor. His jeans are dark where he’s wet himself and Cinda feels sorry for him, because he’s going to die without even a crumb of dignity, and she feels sorry for herself, because she can’t possibly look away now.
She doesn’t know how long she’s been in the pantry. She doesn’t feel like she has a body at all anymore, though she’s distantly aware that her feet are asleep. It’s like she’s in here just to watch.
So she watches as the man in the pig mask forces Travis to his knees, wedges the blade of the axe under his chin, and says, “Oink.”
Travis says, “Please.”
The man swings the axe.
• • • •
He puts the axe down on the counter next to Wally’s head. He turns on the tap, pushes his mask up onto his forehead, and bends so that his mouth is under the stream of water.
Cinda wiggles her toes, tries to remind herself of the existence of her limbs, because she’s decided all at once that she’s going to swing open the pantry door and . . . do something. It’s not just about protecting herself. It’s about protecting whoever’s next, because surely the man in the pig mask won’t stop here. Once you’ve killed four kids on vacation, what’s one more? What’s even more than that? She has to move before he finds her, or before he moves on.
And she has the advantage: he thinks he’s alone in the house. The axe is just out of his reach. His back is to her. Maybe he’s not as cruel without the mask pulled down over his eyes.
Cinda makes her move.
She shoulders open the pantry door, stumbling on numb feet, and snatches up the axe before the man can react—the handle is sticky-slick with drying blood, grooved in the shape of his grip.
Cinda knows that if she hesitates, her adrenaline won’t carry her through this. There is no room for mercy. The man is beginning to turn towards her.
She slams the axe into the side of his head, cleaving his skull down the middle. She feels the crunch as the blade drives through bone, then the squish as the axe-head settles into his brain.
She finally, finally allows herself to scream.
• • • •
Then come police and paramedics. Shock blankets and statements, and the winding drive back down the mountains in a squad car.
Then come interviews, television appearances, GoFundMes for funeral expenses. Cinda becomes the face of the massacre, and she never uses the phrase, never describes herself as the final girl, but she doesn’t have to: everyone is already thinking it. She survived when her friends were butchered. She saved the day, and she saved it too late.
• • • •
The day after her high school graduation, Cinda gets a message on Twitter from a woman named Jessamine: Hey! Sorry if this is weird, but I’m Jessamine Hayward, the sole survivor of the 2016 clown massacre. I’m a moderator of a group of girls/women who have been through similar things to you and I wanted to extend an invitation, but no worries if you’re not interested, followed by several heart emojis and a link to a Discord server cheekily called Final Girl HQ.
Cinda figures it can’t hurt. She joins the server.
• • • •
The women in the Discord—Jessamine, Betsey, and Liza—tell their stories, and then they tell them again:
It started on prom night . . .
It was Halloween and I had a bad feeling . . .
It was the weekend I pledged Sigma Gamma Rho . . .
Cinda chimes in: (We rented a cabin for spring break . . .). She tells the final girls about the man in the pig mask, about Wally, Maeve, Paulina, Travis—but after the first telling, it feels contrived.
“This is how we keep their memories alive,” Jessamine says. “Our friends didn’t make it. We’re all so fucking lucky to be here. This is how we remember them. This is how we remember what we’ve been through.”
They spin the same traumas over and over every Wednesday night on voice chat, the details growing more lurid each time, as summer creeps by. The colors get brighter; the smell of blood gets stronger; the screams grow louder.
If this is what being a final girl means, Cinda thinks, maybe she doesn’t want to be a final girl anymore.
• • • •
Sorry I’m just really busy and don’t have time to check this server as much, Cinda says, and it’s true. It’s her first week of college and she’s moved across the country, hoping her story hasn’t made as big of a splash here. She’s tired of being recognized, all the expectations that come with it, all the dumb questions and assertions. She’s tired of being the canvas at which strangers throw their hopes and fears alike.
So it’s three weeks later and she’s drowning in coursework when Jessamine texts her: We’ve got a new final girl joining tonight. Do you have time to say hi to her?
Cinda ignores the text. Her new life feels shiny and precious, like a TV with the plastic film still over the screen. She doesn’t have to be that Cinda anymore: the Cinda that survived the impossible, the Cinda that watched her friends be slaughtered, the Cinda that cleaved a man’s head open with his own weapon.
She still feels claustrophobic when it rains, like she can hear Wally’s blood sliding down the cabinetry to the floor. She reminds herself that she never has to go back there. She never has to live that day again. She doesn’t have to be that Cinda.
Midterms are ramping up when Cinda’s roommate—a bubbly white girl named Melissa who reminded her, in those first days, of Paulina—says, “Oh my God, I’ve just realized where I know you from! You’re that Cinda McIntyre, aren’t you? The one from the, you know, the murders out in Vermont?”
Her new life doesn’t feel so shiny anymore. She can’t run from what happened to her: the story has followed her across the country. Nothing is safe.
Cinda’s gotten very good at breathing through panic, but her ribcage feels pinched tight as she says, “Yep, that would be me.” She shoves her laptop and notebook into her backpack. “Actually, I totally forgot—I told some friends I’d meet them in the dining hall to study. I’ll see you later.”
She doesn’t come back until she knows her roommate is asleep.
• • • •
The media attention has long blown over, but true crime enthusiasts still reach out to Cinda on Twitter every so often. They want the story—never mind that she’s already told it on the local news, never mind that her original police report is public. There must be some detail, they say. Some gory gem she’s keeping private.
Did she know it was coming? Did she enjoy her singular act of violence? Does she miss them? Does she regret it? Was she scared, then? Is she scarred, now? Would she do it again?
She deletes her account.
But she misses the mindless scroll, laying in bed and poking at trending topics on a bright blue screen in a dark room. She misses celebrity fluff, the kind of nonsense that has no bearing on her daily life, and maybe it’s a bit hypocritical to read shitty tabloid headlines when she holds so tightly to her own privacy, but Cinda doesn’t think too hard about it.
She’ll make a new account, she decides, and keep it heavily anonymized—nothing that could lead back to her. What’s more, she’ll hide behind a fake name.
If she could be anyone, she asks herself, who would she be?
She calls herself Nathaniel.
• • • •
There are rules, Cinda decides, for being Nathaniel.
The first is obvious: she doesn’t bring too much of herself to the screen. Nathaniel isn’t a final girl—Nathaniel isn’t even a girl at all. Nathaniel is pure sunshine and unadulterated escapism. Nathaniel is easygoing and fun, unmarked by trauma.
The second is that she’s only Nathaniel at night, scrolling under the covers; without this rule, she would spend all day with her head down, pretending to be someone else.
And the last rule, made because she needs a clear demarcation between herself—Cinda, the final girl—and her other self—Nathaniel, never had a bad thing happen to him in his life—is that she only gets to be Nathaniel on Twitter. This personality does not get to spill into her daily life, into the social media platforms she checks more often. Nathaniel is for memes and the occasional bit of witty political commentary, and nothing more.
The second two rules don’t survive for very long.
It’s just so easy, is the problem, for Cinda to live the life she wants behind a keyboard. Nathaniel’s mutuals think he’s funny. Nathaniel’s badly Photoshopped meme goes somewhat viral, a lightning strike of luck and timing. Nathaniel gets added to group chats and Discord servers, where he’s lauded for his hot takes on utterly toothless fandom drama.
Nathaniel gets asked to hop on voice chat, where his new friends are talking shit while marathoning Studio Ghibli films. Cinda falters. She doesn’t know why she feels like she’s been punched in the gut, a fist driving up sharp beneath her ribs.
It’s not at all unlike the way she feels winded when someone brings up the man in the pig mask, the blood on the axe, her feet going numb in the pantry.
She slams her computer closed, thinking maybe she’s given Nathaniel too much of herself.
• • • •
Cinda opens Final Girl HQ and dismisses months of unread notifications—it’s spring semester now, coming up on yet another wave of midterms, and the final girls still talk every Wednesday night. She holes herself up in her dorm’s basement study lounge, which is largely unused, and joins the voice call at eight p.m. on the dot.
Jessamine, Betsey, and Liza tell the same stories again, the tales grown taller with time, the details stretched like shadows at sunset. Cinda fumbles through hers as quickly as she can. Then it’s the new girl, Ellie’s, turn.
“It was the night of the talent show at Camp Rawhide,” she begins, and Cinda flinches because she remembers that mass killing from last summer—she heard about it on NPR while she was packing for her cross-country move. But isn’t Camp Rawhide an all-boys camp? Acres of young men doing woodsy stuff, shooting rifles and fishing in ponds and hacking down trees.
Ellie answers Cinda’s unasked question in short order: she knew she was a girl because these kinds of things only happen to girls—who’s ever heard of a final boy? She was relieved, she said, in a complicated sort of way. “All my friends were dead. I had no one I could talk about this with, until I had all of you. But it—Every bad thing that happened, it gave me permission to be myself.”
Maybe it’s the comedown of her own retelling, like she’s gotten her fingernails under a scab and come away with her fingertips coated in blood, but Cinda’s ribs feel tight again. She takes her heart-rate, then does the breathing exercises she learned in therapy to try and bring the number down.
She hears Jessamine’s words under her own pounding pulse: “This is how we remember them.” But Cinda doesn’t want to remember, doesn’t want to feel like it’s happening over and over again, and she can’t fucking breathe.
She disconnects from the voice call, curls up in a far corner of the room, and opens Twitter on her phone.
Having a bad day. Send cat pics? she tweets as Nathaniel. It’s just so much easier to be him—at least for now, Cinda tells herself.
• • • •
On Friday, Melissa’s getting ready for a party when Cinda asks if she can tag along. She just needs to get out of her head, she thinks, and off of her goddamn phone. None of her college friendships feel as vibrant as the strangers she’s bonded with on Twitter, and shouldn’t it be the other way around?
She wasn’t much for parties in high school, but Paulina was, so Cinda knows this game. She knows how to play second to a vibrant, beautiful woman: keep the drinks coming; offer commentary on what the other girls are wearing or doing; flirt with boys enough to seem likable, but not so much as to pull all the attention, and never the most attractive boys.
Cinda does her makeup, and it feels like camouflage, like warpaint—something she’s technically good at, but only really does to fit in. She borrows a tight mesh top from Melissa and pairs it with a lacy bralette and denim shorts. She looks in the mirror and finds herself pretty in a way she doesn’t recognize; the kind of beauty she would admire if she spotted it in the wild, but that looks wrong mapped onto her own face.
She wonders if Nathaniel goes to frat parties.
Melissa’s friend group is welcoming, already halfway to wasted. There are five of them total—Cinda included—and she can’t help but project her dead friends onto them. There’s Wally, stoned off his ass, and there’s Maeve, checking her phone to see if her latest comparative literature paper’s been graded. Paulina is so obviously Melissa. Travis is Dalton, with his broad shoulders and freckles from hours spent in the sun, the ends of his hair bleached with it.
“What’s your sport?” Cinda asks over the pounding music, popping the tab on her third can of truly noxious beer.
“Crew,” he says. “Wanna go smoke?”
She shrugs and God this is familiar, easy enough that it’s almost boring. “I don’t know, you could convince me.”
“What if I asked you nicely?”
“Who said I wanted you to ask nicely?”
Dalton grabs her by the wrist and tugs, like he’s still feeling out if this is how she wants it. Like he’s a bit shy, and Cinda thinks she likes that.
She lets him pull her in until she’s on her toes, their noses nearly brushing. “You can be rougher than that. I won’t break,” she says.
“Well, maybe you should put your drink down first.”
Cinda hands her beer to Melissa, who looks so much like Paulina in the low light. Melissa tips her head back and chugs, crushing the can in her fist.
Dalton laughs, and for a split second Cinda hears Travis’s laugh echoing underneath it, but then he’s got Cinda tossed over his shoulder and he’s carrying her out to the deck and she’s laughing too, and she drops the memory, or maybe the memory drops her.
• • • •
“You can stay the night, if you want,” Dalton says, later. “My roommate’s gone for the weekend.”
The two of them don’t fit nicely in a twin XL bed, but it might beat walking across campus at—Cinda squints at his alarm clock—three a.m.
But she’s mostly sober now, thinking she was never that drunk to begin with, and she’s itching to check Twitter, to be Nathaniel again. She can’t very well do that in this sweet boy’s bed.
“I had a lovely time, but I should go.” Cinda kisses his cheek and roots around in the dark for her borrowed clothes. She makes it as far as the stairwell before she unlocks her phone and picks through her notifications.
Texts from her dad (miss you, buttercup. call when you get a chance.), a returned grade on an assignment (not her best work), missed messages in Discord, and a new Twitter follower—which is what catches her attention. Eleanor Wilson, with a trans flag and a knife emoji in her display name. Her bio just says FINAL GIRL.
Cinda stands on the sidewalk outside of Dalton’s dorm building and zooms in on the profile picture. It’s Ellie, the newest member of Final Girl HQ.
Cinda follows her back.
• • • •
She decides to be a final girl for the final time.
Wednesday night, eight p.m., Cinda joins the voice call. She listens as Jessamine, Betsey, and Liza tell their stories—listens closely and looks for why they do it. Why they recount the same trauma week after week, why they stretch the details, why they insist that this is what healing looks like, as if you can heal from something like this without ever moving on.
Jessamine is describing the glint of light off a killer clown’s red nose when Cinda catches it: it’s the pleasure of being empathized with. The joy of being believed. The knowledge that Jessamine could say anything, as long as she doesn’t deviate from the core facts, and her audience will listen with their hearts open to her through the server.
When it’s Cinda’s turn, she tells her story: Maeve’s scream, the moment their game became a massacre. Wally’s dead gaze from the counter. The comet’s tail of Paulina’s hair. Travis saying, “Please.”
The beats are different, but the women on the call have all lived the same story. The claustrophobia, the adrenaline, the powerlessness of watching their best friends picked off one by one. The guilt, the aftermath.
Cinda feels deeply understood, and she gets it, she swears she does. But it doesn’t feel nearly as right as being Nathaniel, as sprinting in the opposite direction of her trauma altogether, which is something none of the final girls share with her.
Still, when Ellie tells her story, Cinda listens hard for the moments that any other audience would find ludicrous, improbable—things Cinda knows are true, or at least contain truth, because the world can be cruel in ways that really do defy belief, because being a final girl means going up against that cruelty and winning. This is where Ellie brings her whole self, and she deserves the honor of being heard.
And those parts of Cinda that she can’t share with Final Girl HQ? She’s realizing that those deserve the honor of being heard, too.
• • • •
It’s a week and a half later, walking home with Melissa after another party, that Cinda sends the DM. She’s drunk—she’s broken all the rules of being Nathaniel, but this transgression is one she would never commit sober—and it’s not like it’s an impulse decision. She’s been thinking about it for exactly a week and a half. Nine slow days of waiting, wondering, feeling a bit panicked whenever Ellie liked one of her tweets.
Hey, can I tell you a secret?
Ellie responds immediately: If this is some chaser bullshit, I’ll post the screenshots w/o cropping out your name
Cinda laughs softly at the screen, and it’s almost a relief to spill the truth after that. I’m really Cinda from Final Girl HQ, she says, before she silences her notifications and crawls into bed without taking her makeup off.
• • • •
In the morning, Cinda is disappointed by Ellie’s reply: Sometimes you just need to be someone else, followed by a shrugging emoji.
She doesn’t know how to find her way into the conversation she wants to have, and her head feels hangover-foggy. She deletes the message.
• • • •
The semester ends and Cinda goes back to Vermont for the summer. She works part-time at the bookstore, where nothing has changed. Everyone here knows her, or knows of her. That poor girl—even if they aren’t saying it, Cinda can practically hear them thinking it. She’d rather be a final girl than a victim; really, she’d rather be Nathaniel and put the whole mess behind her.
On slow days, which are most days, Cinda scrolls Nathaniel’s Twitter feed in between setting up shelf displays. So it’s through Nathaniel’s eyes that she sees the slew of tweets from reporters on the ground: a mass killing in progress, the suspect a man wearing a red plaid shirt and a pair of antlers, an unknown number dead, unclear how many hostages, more to come as the story develops.
She snaps back into being herself, like a rubber band stretched to the point of breaking, but there’s a moment—a sort of halfway moment—where Cinda’s trauma response is buried inside of Nathaniel’s virtual presence, a merging of who she is and who she pretends to be, who she wants to be, and her ribs hurt, and Cinda can’t tell what’s real and what’s fake.
She takes her pulse, then focuses on bringing the number down.
• • • •
That night, Ellie messages her—messages Nathaniel—You prolly have Final Girl HQ muted but a bunch of us are on discord rn if you just want space to talk about it. I know this one was triggering for a lot of us, sending love!—and Cinda tries to remember being a person whose mood was improved by talking about it. Twenty-two people were slaughtered today, and their deaths feel abstract, just faces and names on a screen, but those faces and names make what happened to Cinda feel sharp and real, and she doesn’t want to fucking talk about it.
She doesn’t respond.
The next day, Ellie sends three pictures of cats: one black, one orange, one calico. Or maybe this is more helpful?
Cinda heart-reacts. What are their names?
It starts a conversation. Not the conversation that’s been bubbling up in Cinda since the midpoint of spring semester, but it’s small talk that she can run with.
She edits a silly caption onto one of the cat photos and sends it back to Ellie the next day. I SCREECHED, Ellie replies. She types for a long time—Cinda watches the ellipsis—before she says, Just to be clear, do you want me to call you Nathaniel?
You don’t have to, Cinda types out, before she deletes it.
She pulls in one hard, deep breath before she answers: At least here, yes.
• • • •
Her childhood home is full of photographs, Cinda peering out through frames at all ages. Awkward school pictures, stiff family portraits, candid shots taken on a playground and blown up. She’s wearing dresses in most of them, braids woven with beads and ribbon, makeup as soon as she was old enough. She liked it, is the thing. How it felt, the attention it got her, the reactions from her parents and peers.
She was—is—a girl.
She was—is—good at being a girl.
And that’s not how Ellie, who is the only transgender person Cinda knows, felt about it.
June’s blurred into July and the two of them have progressed from Twitter DMs to texting. Ellie doesn’t bring it up often—being trans—but sometimes she makes little jokes about it.
I was so bad at being a boy that I just gave up altogether, she says.
I respect women so much because I was meant to be one, she says.
On a more somber evening she says, I’ve always been me, even when I didn’t know it yet. I just hate that so much had to happen before I could realize. I wonder if things would’ve been different, you know?
Cinda does know, and she doesn’t. She doesn’t know at all.
• • • •
“Why do you want to cut all your hair off?” Cinda’s mother asks. “It’s so beautiful, and you put so much time into growing it.”
“Mom, I go to school in Arizona. All it does at this point is make my head hot.”
She looks in the mirror at the salon afterwards, curls piled on the floor around her, wondering if she’s made a mistake. Is her face too round? Her nose too big? Her chin too small?
The beautician, a distant cousin on Cinda’s father’s side, says, “You know what I tell women when they get a short cut and aren’t sure if they can pull it off? I tell them that every man—basically every single one of ’em—is expected to have short hair, and no one ever tells them they don’t have the features for it.”
Cinda laughs. She tips nearly fifty percent.
When she gets home, her mother looks at her and cries.
• • • •
Mid-August, Cinda’s packing to go back to campus. She stops at Target—“I need a couple last-minute things,” she tells her mother, but she doesn’t even have a list. Mostly she just wants to get out of the house.
She wanders through racks of clothing, running her hands over soft fabrics. She tries on oversized denim jackets in the men’s section, thinking maybe she’ll finally find one that’s perfect to cover in pins and patches. And then she’s facing down the boxers and it’s such a mundane thing, just underwear, but her ribs feel like they’re pressing inward.
They’re basically just shorts, she tells herself.
I’ll wear them to sleep, she tells herself.
She pays at self-checkout. She sneaks the package into her suitcase unopened, under a pile of socks.
• • • •
On the airplane, Cinda sits in the window seat, her father in the seat beside her. She has her headphones on and she’s looking at clouds, half-asleep, when she hears the tail end of a sentence (“—get you, sir?”) and her father nudges her arm.
She drags her headphones off her head and turns toward the stewardess in the aisle. “And what can I get you to drink, sir?”
“Just water, please,” Cinda says, not pressed about it at all. Why would she bother correcting someone she’s never going to see again?
As she puts her headphones back on, her father nudges her arm again. “She thought you were a boy,” he whispers, rolling his eyes.
Cinda chuckles, forced. “Funny, huh?”
• • • •
She rooms with Melissa again—in a proper apartment this time, instead of a single cramped room—and falls back into the same rhythm with Dalton: they aren’t dating, but they go to all the same parties, and there’s maybe a sixty percent chance that they go home together. It’s fun, and it’s explicitly not exclusive, and Dalton is actually nothing like Travis once he gets to talking. It’s enough nostalgia to warm her, but not enough to burn.
She talks to Ellie almost every night, about anything and everything. Well, anything and everything except for Dalton. That’s private, she thinks. It would just be . . . wrong, somehow.
It’s winter break, the night before Cinda’s flight home. Melissa is already gone and so is Dalton, Ellie’s busy, and Cinda’s lonely, and she doesn’t have a good reason not to download Tinder. Just to see what happens, she figures.
What happens is Matthias. He’s in Arizona to visit family, probably feeling just as bored and alone as Cinda—she doesn’t let him get too far into his life story, and he seems disinterested in the telling. They were both very clear about what this is.
When she’s done with him, Cinda pulls on a tee shirt and a pair of green plaid boxers. Matthias looks at her for a long time, his eyebrows doing something that she can’t quite parse.
“How often do people mistake you for being trans?” he asks.
It’s so far from the question that Cinda expected. “What, because of the boxers? Plenty of girls wear boxers to bed.”
Matthias shrugs. “I mean, there’s the haircut, too. And don’t take this the wrong way, but you have a very masculine way of carrying yourself.”
He’s on his way out the door and Cinda wants him gone. Still, she considers the question. “Given the givens,” she says, “not often enough.”
• • • •
She doesn’t tell Ellie what Matthias said, though she thinks about how she would word it if she did. What details would she emphasize, and which would she elide? What’s the story really about, anyway?
• • • •
Cinda’s family has never really done much for Christmas, firmly of the opinion that winter is for hibernation, not loud gatherings and elaborate gifts. So she’s surprised that there’s a small tree, barely two feet high, on the coffee table in the living room, a single box underneath it wrapped in glossy red paper.
On Christmas Day, she sleeps well into the afternoon, until the smell of something baking lures her downstairs. Her father’s at the kitchen counter slathering icing onto sugar cookies cut into the shapes of snowmen and stars. He puts three onto a plate for Cinda.
“I got you a little something,” her mother says. “Would you like to open it?”
Cinda doesn’t see the point in acting surprised: she suspected that the lone present under the tree was for her. She tears into the paper.
The box contains an eyeshadow palette, three tubes of lipstick, and several pairs of dangly earrings. All gorgeous things, all things that suit her, so there’s no logical explanation for the way that Cinda feels trapped, like she’s looking out at her life through a picture frame, like she’s one of those past selves that populate the living room walls.
“Oh,” she says. “Thank you.”
Her mother hugs her hard, like she’s making sure Cinda is still entirely here.
• • • •
Cinda practically grew up on the internet, so she’s heard every cautionary tale about inviting strangers she’s met online into her home. But Ellie’s not a stranger anymore, not even a friend—she’s past that, something closer than the word can convey.
She texts Ellie: If I stay in Arizona over spring break, would you come out here and visit me?
And Ellie says: I was sort of hoping you would ask me that.
It’s a new semester and spring break is so far away and Cinda has that rubber band-tight feeling again. Like when she finally sees Ellie in three dimensions, something is going to snap into place, like that afternoon in the bookshop but different, better, because this time it’ll stick.
She waits and waits. She does perfectly fine in her classes, goes to parties on weekends with Melissa, and spends her downtime as Nathaniel online. She sends Ellie money for her plane ticket, thinking that if she gets scammed, it will have been worth it.
And then it’s the last week of March, finally, and Cinda’s standing on the stoop of her apartment building watching Ellie’s taxi pull up, watching Ellie wrestle her little suitcase out of the trunk, and Cinda feels like crying.
“Can I hug you?” Ellie asks, but Cinda is already pulling her in, clinging to her. When they finally separate, Ellie holds Cinda at arm’s length and looks at her with an intensity that almost makes her self-conscious. “Hi, Nathaniel,” she says.
There outside of his apartment building, holding tight to this woman who has come to mean everything to him, he begins to weep.
• • • •
It’s funny, Nathaniel thinks, that he and Ellie text each other every day but they still don’t run out of things to talk about. They lie side by side on Nathaniel’s bedroom floor and just . . . talk, and it’s so easy. It almost doesn’t feel any different from talking virtually, except now Ellie keeps touching him in little ways: her hand against his arm, her knees tucked against his thigh.
“I’m so glad you don’t live in my phone anymore,” Ellie says.
“Yeah, it’s hard being trapped in a little glowing rectangle,” Nathaniel answers. “Aren’t you a bit upset that I catfished you, though?”
Ellie props herself up on her elbow. The ends of her hair tickle the bridge of Nathaniel’s nose. “What do you mean? You’re exactly who you said you were. If this is who you are, then this is who you are.”
“But I—” He doesn’t know how to explain that this wasn’t always who he was, that it’s not like how Ellie was always a girl on the inside. He doesn’t know how to explain that this version of himself didn’t feel real until she called him by his chosen name.
He tells her about Matthias instead, and the Christmas gift from his mom, and the first time he cut his hair short. All those little moments where he should have felt it, should have known, but he wasn’t ready yet. Not until Ellie gripped his shoulders and said, “Hi, Nathaniel,” and the bifurcation of himself collapsed down into this. This is a becoming, growing into himself—and growing away from who he used to be. He’s not the girl that hid in the pantry anymore, nor is he the girl that swung the axe, but those people still live on in him.
Ellie listens quietly until Nathaniel talks himself out, and doesn’t protest when he abruptly shifts the subject by asking her if her ears are pierced. They are—she wears little silver studs, mostly hidden by the fall of her hair.
“I have an idea,” Nathaniel says.
• • • •
He’d stashed his mother’s Christmas present in the back of his closet, but he digs the box out now. Nathaniel sits on the edge of his bed with the makeup and jewelry arranged beside him, and Ellie sits in his desk chair—slightly below him, her face turned up.
“Is this okay?” he asks. She nods, worrying her lip between her teeth, and he taps her just below the mouth with a closed tube of mascara. “Stop that and let me work.”
Ellie’s face relaxes, her eyes slipping shut, and all Nathaniel can think is that she has a beautiful mouth. She was made for a red lip—it’s just a matter of finding her shade, and he knows exactly where to start.
Nathaniel paints her face. He pins Ellie’s hair back, making quick work of a braided updo that only looks complicated. He replaces the plain studs in her earlobes with garnet and gold. He’s good at this, but he doesn’t need to be anymore, doesn’t want it anymore, and he gives it over. He releases this part of himself to her.
He recognizes the look on Ellie’s face when he turns her towards the mirror: awe, relief, uncertainty. “It looks good on you,” he says, then bites his tongue. It feels self-aggrandizing to praise his own work, when Ellie herself is the real miracle here. “I mean, you already looked really good. But it looks—”
She kisses him, matte red lipstick tacky between them.
Nathaniel gives himself over.
Spread the word!