Once upon a time there lived a young woman named Ciderella who shared a 700 square foot apartment with her two petty roommates. Unrivaled in shade-throwing, the pair had leased to our heroine the smallest room – a glorified closet – with lighting so poor not even a Snapchat filter could improve its luminescence. Ciderella had left the sunny skies and congested highways of California to be closer to her godmother in the notheast, though her new situation proved quite unfortunate. Her days were filled with unfamiliar chores: replacing empty cartons of almond milk when they became the hollow talismans of an abandoned diet, wiping away the slippery coat of coconut oil from the bathroom faucet, chopping an obscene amount of avocados without the justification of a guacamole recipe.
It came to pass quite unexpectedly that the warmth that had followed Ciderella from the west relented, and leaves leapt from trees to blanket the ground beneath her sandaled feet. Her world had become the color of pennies and plaid. Her iced coffee order made her a pariah, but she knew not why. As if it were borne of her discontent, Ciderella’s charmless roommates announced they would that weekend be attending the Fall Ball.
“What’s the Fall Ball?” Ciderella asked, provoking the most wicked laughter in these LaCroix-drinking demons.
“What’s the Fall Ball?! Is she serious right now? I can’t even,” the crueler of the two snapped.
“The Fall Ball is a festival where we celebrate the beginning of autumn. There are scarecrows, a corn maze, caramel apples…”
“But the most important thing,” her counterpart, recovered enough to even, interrupted, “are the fall outfits and the Instagrams they inspire.”
This revelation awakened a hidden avarice in Ciderella that she had never known. While her housemates were far from congenial, there was no denying that they both had cultivated cozy Instagram aesthetics worthy of envy. Every photo was the visual equivalent of borrowed hoodie fresh out of the dryer, as if in the background of every scene there was a fire being tended in a wood-burning stove and a warm mug of tea steeping on the counter, waiting to find itself between two cold hands. Perhaps, she thought to herself, if I went to the Fall Ball, I, too, could take a selfie with a bale of hay.
“Could I come with?” Ciderella asked. “You won’t even notice I’m there! I could help you take staged candid pictures.”
The two women exchanged a silent look before casting the first stone in the form of a glance at Ciderella. Their eyes waned mercilessly, coating her from bottom to top in their disapproval. She couldn’t help but cross her arms as they suddenly felt like heavy furniture that needed to pushed aside to give their condemnation more room to dance.
“What ever would you wear?” the more charitable half of the pair asked, skepticism hanging from each syllable like an infinity scarf.
Though many of life’s most precious virtues happily circled Ciderella like a halo – honesty, patience, a unique appreciation for the Amazon Prime commercial with the Golden Retriever – her wardrobe was simply unfit for a basic fall. The poor summer child had not one chunky knit sweater to her name. Oblivious to the deficiencies of her wardrobe, Cinderella sprinted off her to her luggage picking out her favorite black romper with a pair of metallic gold flip flops, an outfit that accumulated 23 likes just last month. Dear Ciderella strutted back into the living room, naively expecting to convince the bitter hens she was a suitable companion.
“Those rags?!” one gasped. “Surely you don’t expect us to be seen with you wearing that!”
Ciderella looked to her gentler counterpart for mercy, but their disgust was mutual.
“I’m sorry, Ciderella,” she said. “We would let you borrow something, but we plan on wearing every fall item we own in layers.”
She was disappointed of course, more disappointed than she was last week when a couple on Fixer Upper decided to use the extra $3,000 in their budget for a shiplap pergola instead of a main floor powder room, but she knew she oughtn’t dwell. In the days that followed she busied herself with her chores and prepared to receive her godmother, who was paying her a visit the evening of the ball.
Another woman would have given herself over to jealousy and spite, but not Ciderella. The evening of the ball, she helped her roommates get ready without so much as an unkind glance. She easily executed the impossible YouTube tutorial braid that eluded her housemate for months and helped her companion heave her leather boots over her bulky calves. When she was done, they both looked like wounded equestrians using plaid blanket scarves to conceal their neck braces.
“Don’t wait up for us, Ciderella,” wonder calves called. “I got some more avocados from the Farmer’s Market to keep you busy tonight.”
Ciderella sighed, sinking to the floor in defeat.
“But why do you need so much avocado?”
She laughed. “What ever will I put on my toast and salads without avocado? How will I get my healthy fats?” But for a moment – perhaps only Ciderella had noticed – she paused, as if she herself was questioning her Rube Goldberg machine logic.
“We’re going to be late,” her twin called from the doorway. And then they were gone, leaving Ciderella alone with the avocados and the apple orchard scented candles in the apartment.
As she split the seventh avocado, the buzzer rang. She hurried over to the intercom.
“Hello? Who is it?”
“It’s your godmother, dear.”
She held the buzzer to the count of three Mississippi and propped open the door. From the stairwell at the end of the hall her godmother finally appeared. She was shorter than she remembered, and in their time apart the red that once tinted her hair had all gone to her cheeks.
Ciderella hadn’t realized how meager her accommodations were until her godmother stood in the doorway tutting. She wordlessly untied the floral scarf concealing her silver hair, clutching it in her right hand as if it she might wave it in surrender at any moment. She passed through each room, making a stop in all four corners as if her very presence was the burning sage to cleanse the space.
In bathroom, she finally spoke: “Is this a bath salt???”
She was holding a neon blue, yellow, and pink orb, smaller than the size of baseball. She cautiously gave it a sniff before passing it off to Ciderella.
“No godmother, that’s just a bath bomb. It colors and perfumes the water when you take a bath. More importantly, they make for great Instagram posts.”
Her godmother made one final revolution in the small bathroom, the orbit of adult concern, before making her way back to the living room.
“Whatever helps you ignore the mildew, my child. But what you have done with Heckle and Jeckle? I was looking forward to meeting them.”
“Oh, them.” Ciderella flung herself onto the loveseat, because when you’re an upset woman in a story, you can’t ever sit down with any measure of composure. “They’re at the Fall Ball,” she pronounced the last two words in the same mocking tone as a mother reciting the secret password to enter her teen daughter’s bedroom.
Her godmother’s expression changed then, became more thoughtful. It was as if she was remembering something she hadn’t realized she’d filed away in her mind for this very moment. She was also realizing that she had forgotten to eat, and by all empirical indications, the young women here lived only on avocados.
“Well, why didn’t you accompany them?”
“I don’t have anything to wear,” Ciderella admitted.
“Nothing to wear? Nonsense!” her godmother scolded, rifling through the purse still hanging from her shoulder and pulling out a one-hundred-dollar bill. “I want you to take this and go to Starbucks and bring me back a Pumpkin Spice Latte.”
Ciderella slowly folded the bill in half twice. “My, but godmother, isn’t this too much?”
“You’ll use most of that. Take care not to look too surprised when they tell you how much it costs. Now away with you! We’ve a ball to prepare for!”
For the entire walk to Starbucks, Ciderella wondered what her godmother had up her sleeves, aside from a faded rose bracelet tattoo, a permanent reminder of the powers of tequila. Could she really help? She didn’t want to get her hopes up.
Starbucks was swarming with customers at this time. There were groups of intimidating teens drinking Frappuccinos and perpetually laughing at their phones, college students leeching off the WiFi instead of writing a paper due in their nine a.m. class the next morning, and line of people in desperate need of a little caffeine to make it to wherever they’re headed next.
“What can I get started for you?” the barista called over the whir of fancy coffee machines.
“Can I just get a pumpkin spice latte?”
As soon as she uttered the words, the room fell silent. It was as if she had spoken an incantation only the people of Starbucks understood. She gave her name and paid in a trance, for she had left behind the world she’d known for this new one. People that hadn’t took notice of her before were smiling. Even the barista nodded approvingly. Was this feeling, this undeniable harmony–
“Pumpkin spice latte for Chrysanthemum!”
What had she been saying? Oh yes! This magnificent unity was unlike anything she’d felt since she left home. It was overwhelming in its warmth and she wondered—
“PUMPKIN SPICE LATTE FOR CHRYSANTHEMUM!!!!!!!!!!!”
What had been holding her back? Everything she needed was right here. These beans. These people. This pumpkin spice whipped cream. It was all she could—
“Excuse me? Anybody home? Did you order a pumpkin spice latte?”
“Well, yes,” she began. “But I’m not Chrysanthemum.”
“Yes, you are now.” He set the cup down on the counter, shaking his man bun in disapproval.
Back at the apartment, Ciderella’s godmother had been busy: She was finally going to finish Stranger Things, because even though the apartment was poorly-insulated and the water pressure was shot, they had Netflix. Her goddaughter was taking longer than expected, but time doesn’t matter in the upside down.
“I got it!” Ciderella called after she heard the door squeaking open. She turned off the TV, and Ciderella set the coffee down in front of her slowly as if she had talked the beverage into sacrificing itself and didn’t want it to change its mind.
“That’s for you, dear,” she told her.
Ciderella looked disappointed. “Oh, I just—I thought you might turn it into something. Like a carriage I could take to the ball.”
“Oh sweetie, no, the only thing that’s going to turn into is diabetes or cancer, maybe a pound or two if you didn’t tell them to hold the whipped cream. You’re going to have to get an Uber. You see that PSL written on the cup? That’s your ticket in. That’s for you to carry around in your hand at all times. Even when it’s empty, imagine you’re a kid with a juice pouch and continue to pretending drink it. Now go into your room and change into what’s hanging in your closet.”
Ciderella wandered into her bedroom and hanging into her closet was the finest outfit she’d ever seen: A pair of black leggings and a black and red flannel shirt. She blinked back tears as the leggings clung to her body like a second skin and marveled at how the addition of the flannel gave her the sophistication of a chic lumberjack. She ran back out into the living room.
“Oh, godmother! It’s perfect!”
She gave her a careful look before saying, “There’s just one thing missing.”
Ciderella waited anxiously as she reached into her purse. What could it be? She imagined an oxblood beanie or some fingerless gloves or a pair of glass slippers that didn’t seem practical but hey! What her godmother produced instead was even better: Her very own Ugg boots.
“Oh! They’re exquisite!” she said as she pulled them on, mummifying her feet in sheepskin. “Did you make all this while I was gone?!”
“Surely not. I thought you’d need some fall clothes, so I went shopping last week. Now you’re ready for the Fall Ball,” the kind woman advised.
Ciderella glanced at her phone; it was a quarter to seven. “How much time do I have, godmother?”
Already settled back on the couch, her benefactress only but seven minutes left of the last episode.
“If you make a habit of those lattes? Probably 40 good years give or take. Medicine has really come a long way. Get rid of this microwave and…”
“I mean for the ball, godmother. Must I be back before midnight?”
“Well, those clothes are from Forever 21 so midnight is probably as long as they’ll hold up, but use your discretion.”
The microwave clock says it’s 11:58, but time is relative on the microwave clock. It could be five minutes or ten minutes slow. After evading them all evening, Ciderella knows her roommates will be home any minute, so she needs to hurry.
Back in her bedroom she sheds the flannel and peels off the leggings. In the bathroom, her hair gets coated with enough dry shampoo to neutralize the smell of bonfire smoke and her foot gets a quick wash in the sink. She lost one of her Ugg boots in the corn maze; it had gotten stuck in a patch of mud. With her phone’s battery at 7 percent, she hadn’t the time to pull it out and find her way out of the maze, so she left it behind.
Ciderella barely makes it back to the kitchen counter when she hears, “We’re home! And we have company.”
She abandons the avocado she was pretending to cut and finds her roommates in the living room with some guy. He’s handsome, yes, but you can tell by his haircut he probably mentions Hunter S. Thompson in conversation whenever he can, but none of that mattered terribly, because hanging at his side was a muddy Ugg boot. Could it be?
“That’s our roommate, Ciderella. She doesn’t talk much. Anyway, could I offer you an avocado wedge or some almond milk?”
He winced. “No, thanks. Didn’t you say you wanted to wash you feet?”
“Oh yes, of course. Ciderella! Come and help me.” She left her other roommate behind to entertain Boot Guy and dragged Ciderella by the elbow into the bathroom.
“Okay. I can’t trust you not to mess this up, so listen carefully. That guy out there? He found that muddy boot he’s carrying in the corn maze at the Fall Ball, and I said that it’s mine.”
“But you don’t–” Ciderella interrupted.
“SHH! I know. I told him I got scared in the maze when someone in a grim reaper costume started chasing me, and when one of my boots got stuck in the mud I left it behind and kicked off the other boot as I made my escape.” She took a breath, grabbing Ciderella’s shoulders. “Look. I know you’re jealous of me, and I forgive you for that, but please don’t ruin this for me. It’s so hard to meet men, and this one seems decent. He doesn’t have an iPhone, but he’ll do. Please, Ciderella. I’m begging you.”
Ciderella was quiet for a long time. If she told her the truth – that was her boot he had found – she wouldn’t have believed her, anyway. “Oh, I suppose I can go along with it,” Ciderella said, folding her arms. “But I’m not helping you wash your feet.”
“Ciderella, wait.” Her frenemy stood, sniffing around suspiciously and leaning in close to her face. “Do I smell pumpkin spice on your breath?”
“Pumpkin spice? Where ever would I have gotten that?” she said with a nervous laugh. “I’ve been here chopping avocados all night.”
The ladies emerged from the bathroom reluctant allies for the first time. Boot Guy was still holding that dirty boot.
“All done!” her roommate announced, showcasing her feet. “Ciderella, you’re being rude. Come and take that nasty boot from our guest.”
Ciderella wanted nothing more than to expose the truth, but she bit her tongue and went to collect the boot.
“Hey, wait. What’s that on your toes?”
Everyone lowered their eyes to Ciderella’s feet. In her haste earlier, she had missed a spot when she was washing her feet in the sink. Her toes were still a dusty brown. Boot Guy knelt to the floor, holding the boot like a lowly shoe salesman begging for his commission. Ciderella obliged him, easily slipping her foot into the boot as her roommates gasped.
“You!” was the shriek she was certain the neighbors heard. “You were at the Fall Ball! But how?!”
At that very moment, Ciderella’s godmother sat up from where she’d fallen asleep on the couch.
“Yes, yes. You were all at the ball. It was open to the public, was it not?”
Boot Guy rose to his feet, trying to make sense of the night.
“So what does this mean for us?” he asked, gesturing to the boot. Truthfully, Ciderella hadn’t thought of it. The whole evening had been so unexpected, so magical, so basic, she could hardly discern how the night could possibly get any better.
“Well, you’re betrothed, of course!” the deceitful roommate offered.
Boot Guy was silent for a moment, considering. There was so much to think about. So much that didn’t make sense. So much that smelled of avocados.
“In the words of Hunter S. Thompson: ‘The world is still a weird place, despite–’”
“Son,” Ciderella’s godmother interrupted. She must have gotten up at some point, and now she had curled her arm around his shoulders and was guiding him toward the door. “No man who trots out Hunter S. Thompson quotes is betrothed to anyone in this apartment.” She closed the door behind him, dusting her hands together. “Oh, dear. I forgot.” The boot was soon reunited with Boot Guy out in the hall.
Ciderella suddenly found herself quite fatigued and retired to her room for the evening. This life, this autumn, was so much different than she ever could have imagined. She knew not where she stood with her roommates or her godmother, or if the boot could be saved, but she was certain that Boot Guy was going to write a scathing Yelp review for the Fall Ball, and come morning, she would again find herself in line at Starbucks, waiting for a pumpkin spice latte to take the edge off a delightfully ordinary life.