by Dahlia Adler
Lissa Haynes is pissed.
I settle into my seat at our lunch table, chin in hand in classic I’m listening pose, as I watch her storm over, the edges of her dark bob smacking her chin with each step. Lissa has two modes—syrupy sweet (when she wants something) and missionary from hell (when she didn’t get it)—and there’s only one thing my best friend wanted badly enough to warrant the way her hazel eyes glimmer with lightning. “Tell your bestie all about it,” I say, patting the seat next to me.
It takes no other prompting to get her to spill. “Bridget Miller is such a bitch.” She punctuates the statement with a slam of her tray, and I hold back a wince. She sounds so angry that, for once, Divya Kumari curbs her speech on internalized misogyny and its terminology.
Such a good heart that girl has. It’s why she’s only allowed to sit with us twice a week.
“I take it this means you weren’t on the list,” Div says carefully instead, tugging on a strand of her thick black waistlength hair.
“Brilliant guess. Must be why you’re captain of Model UN and actually get to go places.” Lissa snaps into a carrot stick like it’s Bridget Miller’s femur, her sharp white teeth making quick work of it. “Meanwhile, some of us get screwed out of NPCHS despite being the literal best coder in the class because Bridget Miller’s daddy convinced Mr. Roy that she’s Wheeler’s answer to Steve Jobs. And since only one junior gets to go, ta-da! The girl who’s spent all of one summer at programming camp gets my spot.”
“That is extremely fucked up,” I agree, both because it is—the National Programming Contest for High Schoolers is something that Lissa’s worked toward for years and should absolutely be hers to attend—and because it would be the only right answer with Lissa even if it weren’t. But my words don’t seem to have any calming effect; the porcelain skin of her cheekbones continues to flame with heat, two poison apples in a sea of cream. Her jaw remains set, sharp as a shard of glass. The feeling of failure simmers in my bones.
I do not fail. Especially when it comes to Lissa.
“I’ll take care of it,” I say airily, stabbing a fork into a cucumber to make clear violence will be part of the job if necessary. It won’t be necessary—the beginnings of an idea are stirring in my brain already—but Lissa’s one of those girls who gets horny over bloodshed, and I’m one of those girls who gets horny over Lissa, so.
Her expression relaxes as much as it ever does, features still sharp but less feral—the face of a girl who never, ever lets her guard down. How she knows the background to Bridget getting her spot is beyond me, but that’s Lissa; don’t let her hooded eyes fool you, because they are always wide fucking open.
And she’s not alone in that. We’ve been best friends since sixth grade, when social lives got more strategic and like called to like in the natural way it does. Of course, she hasn’t yet figured out that “best friends” isn’t meant to be our final destination, but that’s fine. I’m patient. And I know she’ll get there eventually.
But first things first.
Fun fact: Lissa Haynes is not the best coder in our class. She thinks she is, and until Bridget Miller’s daddy got to his old frat brother Mr. Roy about Bridget, everyone else did, too. But that’s fine. Lissa’s happy when she thinks she’s the best, and I haven’t exactly struggled to put my talents to good use.
Her C in English that magically became an A-minus? Yours truly. Her seven absences reduced to three? Also me. Every permission slip she’s ever forgotten to get signed magically fixed by an email from Dr. Olivia Bradley-Haynes’s personal account? Come on. Who do you think?
But I don’t need the recognition, or to be Queen of the Computer Nerds. If my parents found out that my sibling Miriasha has taught me everything they know, I’d be held prisoner in my room until I had pristine applications completed for Stanford, MIT, and Carnegie Mellon.
Besides, Lissa’s favorite thing to do when she wins coding competitions is to celebrate in her hot tub with her BFF, too much champagne, and wandering hands, so like. Whatever the coding version of an Emmy Award is, she can fucking have it.
The thing is, Bridget Miller is also definitely not the best coder in our class; last I snooped she was barely scraping by with a C. But I’ve seen her dad and Mr. Roy shoot the shit at fundraisers, and it’s clear the two of them are so buddy-buddy that he could make this happen if he wanted to. Which means Bridget is probably shaking in her last-season boots right now with the competition approaching.
She’ll probably need some help.
And lucky her, I know the perfect person for that.
Create new account. I could always use something like CodeMaster69—it’ll work just fine for my purposes—but it’s so lowbrow. I give myself a moment and choose LanaGintur, which sounds just enough like a real name to drive her nuts and make her think I can be Internet-stalked while actually just being an anagram of Alan Turing.
And okay, yes, I add a 69 at the end, because I’m only human.
LanaGintur69: I heard you got the junior spot on the coding team.
Then I wait. It takes a few minutes, but I finally get my expected response.
UnderTheBridge: Who is this
Does Bridget know how slutty that name sounds? She must, right? “Under the Bridge” is like a terrible pun that’d be made in the boys’ locker room by a losing soccer team.
Honestly, it’s kind of brilliant.
LanaGintur69: Someone who knows that you have no idea what the fuck you’re doing.
Silence. Every now and again, an “UnderTheBridge is typing” followed by a promising ellipsis, and then . . . nothing.
She doesn’t respond again that night, but that’s fine.
The best part is watching Bridget glance furtively around herself the entire next day, like a chipmunk trying to protect its precious trove of acorns from encroaching squirrels. Of course, Lissa notices, too. Her laser eyes have been following Bridget almost as closely as mine have. “What’s up Miller’s ass today?” she asks with a snort as we reapply our lip gloss at the bathroom mirrors after third period. “Is it just me or does she look a little feral?”
There’s no small amount of glee in her voice, and it takes everything in me to tamp down my smile with a sharp tooth to the lip that immediately demands reapplication of my Watermelon Wish. “She’s definitely . . . something.”
“I hope everything’s okay,” Divya murmurs instinctively, lavishing her own lips with the berry purple she wears just as loyally as Lissa sports her blood red. Then she catches us both glaring at her. “I mean, if she’s going to steal your spot, she better not screw it up.”
Not perfect, but better. Lissa looks mollified. I know Divya has one foot out the door on this friend group, and that’s fine—I don’t need to share. But a little respect, please.
“Maybe she’s having a breakdown.” Lissa runs her hand through her hair, and I watch the dark silk trail through her fingers. “Serves her right. The first in-school competition is this Friday, and she’s going to tank. She’s gotta know she’s in over her head.”
That’s what I’m counting on.
“Definitely,” I say, watching Lissa apply one final coat of Dragon’s Blood to her lips and blow a kiss at the mirror. “She is definitely in over her head.”
Bridget cracks before the day is even over.
UnderTheBridge: Who are you
LanaGintur69: That is beside the point. Do you want the help or not?
UnderTheBridge: Who says I need help?
LanaGintur69: That would work a lot better if you weren’t here replying to a stranger who was offering it.
UnderTheBridge: Out of the goodness of your heart, I’m sure
UnderTheBridge: What do you want
Now, that’s a good question, Bridget. Because I absolutely do want something, but we’re not there yet.
I have a much better use for this question.
LanaGintur69: Just the satisfaction of putting Lissa Haynes in her place will be fine, thx
There’s another minute of silence, and I know three things are happening right now.
- Bridget’s suspicion that Lissa was behind this account has now been torn apart.
- Bridget actually believes she has an ally against one of the most powerful girls in school.
- Bridget isn’t using this time to think it over; she’s already decided to take me up on the offer. She’s just trying not to sound too eager.
UnderTheBridge: Well, it’s hard to argue with that
UnderTheBridge: What do I need to do
I send her an invite for a video chat under a dummy account, turn on my voice changer, and keep my screen on a shared presentation. For three hours that night, I walk her through the first three problems from last year’s competition, which took me a grand total of twenty minutes on my own. Bridget’s not a quick study, that’s for sure. I may be better than Lissa, but Lissa’s miles better than her, and every now and again I have to keep myself from screaming about the power of nepotism and shitty boys’ clubs.
Still, I press on, but Bridget’s clearly fading, not even trying anymore. It’s a good thing there’s no way she’s actually going to the competition, because it’s two hours longer than this and she would absolutely die. Finally, when I can tell I’ve fully drained her will to live, I let her go.
LanaGintur69: Tomorrow. 4 pm.
UnderTheBridge: I can’t at 4, I have choir practice.
LanaGintur69: Tomorrow. 4 pm. You don’t show up then, I don’t show up again at all.
LanaGintur69 has signed off.
I’ve always hated her voice anyway.
The next day, Bridget’s walking around with dark circles under her eyes, so I guess being stupid is exhausting. I’m tempted to suggest she bring coffee to our programming lesson this afternoon, but, of course, that would give things away, so she’ll just have to figure it out on her own—it’s gonna be a long night.
We do an hour of algorithm challenges as a warm-up. Then an hour of puzzles. Then another hour of problem-solving. She tries telling me her dad’s home and she has to leave for dinner, and I gently remind her that her father is the reason she’s in this situation in the first place and maybe she should point that out to him if he gives her any trouble about using this time to practice for the first in-school meet this Friday.
She doesn’t ask how I know that. After the first two hours, she’s also stopped trying to guess my identity. If she had any brain space left after all these lessons, I might be worried, but I know it’s more likely she’s just dead on her feet.
I let her go at ten.
LanaGintur69: Same time tomorrow.
UnderTheBridge: Thanks, but I think the last couple of days were really helpful, and I’ve got a lot of other work to do.
UnderTheBridge: I can take it from here.
So fucking lazy. Lissa would probably jump at the chance to spend this many hours coding. Maybe when this is all over, I’ll come clean about everything, but this is not, in fact, over.
LanaGintur69: You sure?
LanaGintur69: Because I’d hate to think about all the rumors that would spread about how you got onto the team if you crash and burn as hard on Friday as you definitely will if you don’t put any more time in.
I almost hope she tries it. Lissa and I would have so much fun spreading her “secrets” like wildfire. It’s exactly the kind of plot we would form while sprawled out on her couch, sharing her favorite roasted chickpeas from a bowl small enough to force our fingers to brush against each other every now and again.
But at least for today, Bridget’s ironically too smart for that.
UnderTheBridge: One more day. That’s it.
I debate pointing out that she’s really not in control here— not when I’m the one holding all the cards and giving her a much-needed education—but decide I’d rather let her believe she has some semblance of power.
LanaGintur69: See you at 4.
It isn’t one more day, as we both knew would be the case, but at least the lessons have paid off—Bridget comes in first in the practice competition on Friday, which, ironically, seems to prove her father right. Lissa is pissed, as I knew she would be, but I know she’ll be happy when she witnesses a much larger crash and burn.
“It’s just luck,” I assure Lissa. “Don’t worry. She isn’t going to make it to the real thing.”
“And how would you know that?” Lissa demands, fire lighting up her eyes.
“I told you to trust me. So trust me.”
Slowly, the anger melts off Lissa’s face and her lips curve into a Dragon’s Blood smile. “Of course I trust you.” She leans over and leaves a red imprint I can feel on my cheek. “More than anybody.”
I keep that with me going into one last evening with Bridget.
UnderTheBridge: We really did it. I can’t believe it. Thank you, I guess.
You guess? Oh, honey. Whatever guilty feelings I might’ve had about what I’m doing to you would’ve been gone with that, if they’d ever existed in the first place.
LanaGintur69: You’re welcome.
LanaGintur69: Now it’s time to get ready for the big show.
UnderTheBridge: Did you see my results? I crushed my entire team.
UnderTheBridge: And Lissa was definitely not happy
UnderTheBridge: We both got what we wanted
UnderTheBridge: We’re done here
LanaGintur69: Oh, are we?
LanaGintur69: So I guess you don’t want to take a look at the NPCHS challenges together.
UnderTheBridge: We already did that.
LanaGintur69: We looked at last year’s, not this year’s.
Silence. Sweet, sweet silence. I send a quiet thanks to Miriasha for sending me the problems from last year’s international collegiate competition when I told them I wanted to help a friend study; Bridget isn’t going to be able to tell the difference.
Miriasha did make me promise it wasn’t Lissa I wanted them for; they’re not exactly her biggest fan. And technically, they’re not for Lissa. The fact that this whole thing will also help her in the long run is just a nice coincidence.
But really, isn’t everything I do to help Lissa in the long run?
My big sib should know this.
Even if no one else does.
UnderTheBridge: How do you have this year’s questions
UnderTheBridge: Who are you
LanaGintur69: How did I know your daddy got you onto the team?
LanaGintur69: How did I know you had no idea what you were doing?
LanaGintur69: How do I know your name is Bridget Alma Miller, you live at 4 Timothy Lane, you’re allergic to cat hair and strawberries, you lied about hooking up with Ben Bandy on the class trip last year, and you told your parents you lost the necklace from your grandmother but actually sold it on eBay?
LanaGintur69: I just know things.
UnderTheBridge: Seriously, who the fuck are you
LanaGintur69: Tomorrow, 4 pm.
LanaGintur69: Fuck choir practice.
LanaGintur69 has signed off.
She lost her solo after skipping two practices last week to meet with me, so really, she’s not missing much.
I give her two problems the next day and cut her off by six. She’s better, but not that much better. I knew what questions were going to be in the practice competition, and that’s what we studied; it’s pretty much the sum total of what she knows, and it isn’t nearly enough.
UnderTheBridge: What about the rest of them?
LanaGintur69: Like you said, you got it from here. And I’m sure you can learn Python on your own.
She absolutely cannot learn Python on her own. I’m not sure she even knows what it is. I do know she’s screwed without it.
LanaGintur69: You’ve already won once. Of course, that contest was just practice, but who cares if you come in dead last in the real thing?
LanaGintur69: At least you get to go.
LanaGintur69: You’ll be fine.
LanaGintur69: I’m sure your dad won’t be humiliated.
LanaGintur69: And no one will wonder if you cheated the first time and how you possibly got on the competition team.
LanaGintur69: Good luck.
I give it thirty seconds, and that’s all it takes.
UnderTheBridge: I still need your help
Why, yes; yes, you do.
LanaGintur69: The price has gone up.
UnderTheBridge: What do you want?
Now, that is the correct question. But I suspect she is not going to like the answer.
LanaGintur69: Your spot in the competition.
UnderTheBridge: What the fuck? Obviously I’m not giving you that
UnderTheBridge: That’s the whole point of this
LanaGintur69: No, see, you got off with making it look like your daddy isn’t a liar. You’re welcome for that.
LanaGintur69: But that’s all you’re getting.
LanaGintur69: That spot isn’t yours, and you aren’t keeping it.
LanaGintur69: And if you try to, I will make you pay.
UnderTheBridge: What the FUCK
UnderTheBridge: I did pay. Lissa is miserable, just like you wanted.
UnderTheBridge: And so am I.
UnderTheBridge: I’m behind in all my classes, got dropped down in choir . . .
UnderTheBridge: I have paid. I don’t have anything else for you.
LanaGintur69: Did I stutter?
LanaGintur69: You. Have. The. Spot. I. Want.
LanaGintur69: Give it up.
UnderTheBridge: Even if I gave it up, it’d go back to Lissa, not you.
LanaGintur69: Now you’re catching on.
UnderTheBridge: IS THIS FUCKING LISSA
LanaGintur69: No, it is definitely not fucking Lissa.
LanaGintur69: And if you tell Lissa how she got her spot back, I will end you.
UnderTheBridge: If you really expect me to believe this isn’t Lissa, then tell me
UnderTheBridge: You asshole
In a perfect world, I’d love for Lissa to know how brilliant I am. And I’d love for her to know we have this passion and talent in common. But I know that won’t work for her, that she won’t take it well. She doesn’t like sharing any spotlights, and that’s fine.
All she has to know is that I did exactly what I said I would, with some bonus life wreckage for Bridget in the process.
The how doesn’t matter. It isn’t important.
And yet, I can’t risk dangling the carrot, just for a little catharsis.
LanaGintur69: Tell you what.
LanaGintur69: You figure that out, complete with my full name, by noon tomorrow, and you can keep your spot.
It sounds risky, I know, but it isn’t. Even if she somehow figures out that it’s me, no one—not even Lissa—knows my legal name. And they never will. Considering it isn’t even on my birth certificate, I know I’m safe.
The fact is, at noon tomorrow, Bridget will be forced to give up her spot, Lissa will slide back in as if nothing happened, and I’ll be her hero, who happens to be ready with a celebratory bottle of sparkling cider (and one of champagne in my car for later).
It’s going to be a very good day.
My phone rings just then, and I smile at the picture of Miriasha that fills the screen. “Hey, Mir. Thanks again for those challenge questions. They came in super handy.”
“Dude. What the fuck is wrong with your voice?”
“Oh, shit.” I turn off the voice distorter I use for my sessions with Bridget. “Sorry about that.”
“Why were you using a voice changer?”
“Oh, it’s for . . .” Turns out, that’s a hard thing to make up an excuse for on the spot. “Um.”
They sigh. “Does this have anything to do with the questions you asked for? The ones that weren’t for your girlfriend?”
“She’s not my girlfriend,” I snap, hating how the very idea of the impossible brings heat into my cheeks. “And they weren’t for Lissa. I’ve been helping a girl at school who’s going to NPCHS and has no idea what she’s doing. Or at least she didn’t.”
“Is that so? You’ve been helping some girl who’s not Lissa out of the goodness of your heart?”
I think I’m offended. “I happen to be an excellent tutor, Miriasha Stilton.”
“I’ll bet you are—”
“Mir, if you use my full name I am going to pull out your tongue through the phone.”
“You know you didn’t have to let Mom petition for the name change, right? It was an absolutely deranged thing to do.”
“Yes, sorry that when I was a toddler, I didn’t think to stand up to our Twihard mother in defense of a name I didn’t even know how to spell yet.” I sigh, because it isn’t our first time having this conversation, and it won’t be our last, but come eighteen, I will definitely be heading back to court to fix that mistake. “Anyway, you rang?”
“Just wanted to see if the questions were helpful, but now I think maybe I don’t wanna know any more about what’s going on here. You still coming to see me next weekend?”
“As long as you keep my name out of your mouth,” I say sweetly. As long as everyone does.
We hang up, and I immediately open my messages to Lissa. Tomorrow, I tell her. You’ll have your spot back. Cafeteria at noon. It’s gonna be a good time.
I keep an eye out for Bridget from the second I walk into school, eager to see the anxious expression she’s been carrying around since the day I first made contact. She doesn’t look like a girl who’s about to be humiliated in front of the entire school, but then I suppose I can spare her that if she wants to go quietly to Mr. Roy and drop out that way.
But no matter how long I stare at my phone, waiting for an excited text from Lissa that lets me know she’s been reinstated, it doesn’t come. So I guess we’re doing this the hard way.
Okay, that’s fun, too.
The noon bell rings for junior lunch period, and I gather up my stuff and head over to the cafeteria, not even bothering with my usual pre-lunch freshening up. Honestly, the promise of getting to exact humiliation against Bridget and reap the gratitude from Lissa gives me a special dewy glow my bronzer can’t replicate anyway.
Expecting to be one of the first to the caf, I’m surprised to see Bridget already waiting at a table smack in the center. Guess her curiosity got the best of her. But of course, it also killed the cat, or whatever. I start to do an about-face to have a helpful conversation with Mr. Roy when a voice cuts through the room.
“Where are you going, Ren?”
I freeze in my tracks a split second before realizing it’s a mistake. Bridget Miller and I are not friends. She does not call me from across the room. She does not call me at all, and I certainly do not stop to answer.
But it’s fine. So she knows I’m Lana Gintur. What’s she gonna do about it? Reveal that—gasp!—I’m actually super smart and she isn’t? She isn’t holding any of the cards here, and I was perfectly clear on her needing my full legal name. “Ren,” which is what literally everyone but my mother calls me, isn’t gonna cut it.
I turn around and smile sweetly. “I was just going to have a fascinating conversation with Mr. Roy. Did you wanna come? Might be a little awkward, but . . .” I offer a helpless shrug.
“I’ll bet it will be,” she says, but instead of looking nervous, she looks . . . triumphant? Everyone’s watching us now, faces alight with curiosity, and for the first time since this whole plan began I feel a flutter in my stomach that things might not go my way.
But no, it’s not possible.
“I think I’ll stay here, though.” She steps up onto the center of the table in her delicate ballet flats. “What do you think of that plan, Renata?”
I snort. “I think that’s just fine. I don’t really need you around for this conversation anyway. But that was a nice try.”
“Was it, Serena?”
“Not really,” I say, tut-tutting. “But you did try. And as you were always meant to do, you failed.” I flash her a smirk. “I’ll let you know how the conversation goes.”
I turn on my heel and am almost at the door when her voice splits the air again. “I don’t think you will, Renesmee Carlie Stilton.”
I never understood what it meant to feel the blood drain from your face, but I do now. I feel my lifeblood seeping out of me, physically feel myself fading, as the rest of the room turns and gawks at me.
“Ren, what’s going on?”
I turn slowly to see Lissa standing behind me, arms crossed in her pristine white sweater, gaze traveling from Bridget back to me. “Why is that freak even talking to you? And did she just call you . . . Renesmee?”
“That is her name after all,” Bridget says gleefully. “Which means that thanks for all the help, Ren, but I really will be just fine without you.” She shifts her gaze to Lissa and narrows her eyes into a glare. “Nice effort, though.”
“Ren, seriously, what the hell is she talking about?”
My brain is whirring with possible answers, but somehow, Bridget’s morphed into someone who can actually think on her feet. “I’m talking about your girlfriend trying to blackmail me into giving you my spot at NPCHS, but for someone so smart—and she is so smart, by the way; did you know she’s better at coding than you are?—she’s awfully stupid sometimes.” She looks almost drunk when she turns back to me and stage-whispers, “Next time, computer whiz, you might want to sign out before you take a phone call.”
It takes everything in me to meet Lissa’s gaze, to search for a sign she knows I did this all for her, lied for her, got her what she wanted, but the only way to possibly read her expression is a cross between anger and disgust. The entire room has exploded into one giant shitshow, and it’s all just so much that I slam my foot hard enough to embed my heel into the linoleum.
If you were ever unsure how much lower you could go, try being forced to use both hands to unstick your foot from the floor while the entire room watches, your former best friend looks like she wants to puke for ever having been associated with you, and the girl you tried to blackmail into humiliation gets the last laugh.
As soon as my foot is free, I bolt.
I don’t know if Lissa ends up with the spot, or if Wheeler High wins or even places. Miriasha won’t let me look it up, won’t let me torture myself any further. They’re letting me stay with them, got me a coding gig, and promised that the minute I turn eighteen, they’ll drive me to the courthouse so I can pick any name I want.
I am definitely done with this one.
And truth be told, Lana Gintur has grown on me.
At Midnight: 15 Beloved Fairy Tales Reimagined edited by Dahlia Adler, out today
“Say My Name” by Dahlia Adler, based on “Rumpelstiltskin” by The Brothers Grimm. Excerpted from AT MIDNIGHT: 15 Beloved Fairy Tales Reimagined edited by Dahlia Adler. Copyright © 2022 by Dahlia Adler. Reprinted with permission from Flatiron Books. All rights reserved.