When I make my way down to the parking lot, Ray is already in the jeep and waiting for me. I hurl myself into the passenger side and slump back into the seat, panting.
“So,” Ray prompts as she steers us out onto the street. “How’d it go? Did you find out who she is?”
“It’s Miranda.” The jeep suddenly swerves as Ray twists in her seat to stare at me in awe. “Ray, road!” I remind her, clutching at the dashboard in terror.
Ray quickly rights the jeep, putting us back in the proper lane. “Wait, Miranda Blakewood?” she asks. “Like super bitchy cheerleader Miranda?”
“Yeah,” I agree, still struggling to process it myself. “She’s this whole other person underneath. We talked about everything. We really connected, you know?” I say, staring wistfully out the window. “And then she found out who I was. That look on her face when she recognized me...” I trail off glumly.
“Well it’s her loss then,” Ray says firmly. “But it’ll be alright, Jakey, at least you gave it your best shot, right? It may have been a crazy idea but I’m proud of you for trying.” The jeep whips around a corner faster than necessary and then stops at the curb in front of Doug’s house. I move to get out but Ray stops me. “If it gets too bad in there, just leave, okay?”
“My mom’s stuff,” I remind her.
“It’s taken care of,” Ray finishes and gestures to the back seat. There’s a cardboard box on the seat, half-covered by her coat. My heart leaps.
“How?” I ask.
“Nicked it from his office,” Ray says and grins. “While everyone was at the dance I snuck down there. Sorry I couldn't get the actual box because I figured he'd notice that, but I doubt he's going to check to make sure everything's still in it. I’ll keep it all at my place for you, that way he can’t get to it again. So remember, Jake, he doesn’t control you. Do whatever you gotta and I’ll back you up.”
I lean across the gearshift to hug her tightly. “Thank you, Ray-ray. For everything.”
“I’ll put it on your tab,” she says and kisses my cheek. “Alright, Prince Charming, get in there before the Slug gets home. I’ll see you Monday.”
I give her one last smile before I jump down out of the jeep and run toward the house. The smell of paint is still heavy in the air inside, a thick, humid stench. Most of the furniture has been put back where it’s supposed to be, drop cloths draped over everything. I’ve just finished checking all the rooms when I hear the garage door start going up.
Panicked, I run out back and up to my room. I strip out of the tuxedo and toss it on the bed, and then throw on a pair of sweatpants before bolting back downstairs. I swipe paint over several spots on my skin and pants and have just managed to put a fresh swipe of paint along the kitchen entry before the front door opens.
Doug walks in and looks around with his lips pursed. He’s trying to hide it but I can tell he is surprised the painting is actually finished. “You got it done,” he says flatly.
“Barely finishing up but yeah,” I say and rub the back of my hand over my cheek wearily, smearing green paint over it. “Just doing the edges. Midnight already?”
“Yeah.” Doug squints his eyes and looks around, like he’s expecting to find someone lurking around the corner. “Get all this crap cleaned up, would you? I’m going to bed.” Doug turns and walks up the stairs, still peering around suspiciously.
The moment he’s out of earshot I let out a breath of relief and slump back against the wall, although I immediately straighten up again when I feel the paint I just brushed there stick to my back. I can’t believe we actually pulled it off. Grinning at my victory, I get up and start cleaning away all of the leftover paint supplies. After that’s finished I scrub as much of the green paint off my skin as I can and then retreat back to my bedroom.
Now that I’m not rushed I take the time to hang up the tuxedo and stash it in the back of my closet. I take off my paint-splattered sweats and then collapse on the bed. It has been an exhausting day. Between the hours of manual labor, the preparations for the dance, and then the actual event, I feel like I’ve run a marathon. And not even a marathon where I won, unfortunately, but more like I’ve passed out a quarter mile from the finish line. After all that work my mystery princess is no longer mine.
Still, while it lasted, it was definitely one of the best nights of my life.
Sunday passes in a blur of chores and homework, and before I know it it’s Monday morning and I’m sneaking the tuxedo, wrapped in a trash bag, down to Ray’s jeep. I jump into the passenger seat and lay the tux down in the backseat. “Subtle, I like it,” Ray says teasingly.
“Shut up,” I say, sticking my tongue out at her like a preschooler. “I don’t want Doug to see what it was. He’s been breathing down my neck all weekend and he still hasn’t given me my computer back. I think he suspects something and he’s just waiting to find some proof. This way if he asks what I was carrying I can tell him it was just a school project or something.”
“Very resourceful, I’m impressed,” Ray says. The jeep’s motor grinds as she shifts it into drive and takes off for the school. “So how are you holding up?”
“I’m fine,” I say immediately. Ray glances over at me and raises her eyebrow skeptically. “Alright, so I’m insanely disappointed,” I admit. “I mean, it was going great, it really was. And then when she realized who I was she had this look on her face like she’d seen a ghost. But whatever, I’ll get over it. We’re still going to move to the city and meet tons of fabulous people and then it won’t matter anymore.”
Ray smiles and reaches over to squeeze my hand. “That’s right, babe, and don’t you forget it,” she says.
“I never asked you about your night,” I say suddenly. “How was it for you? Steal any guys away from their dates when you weren’t committing breaking-and-entering?”
“A couple,” Ray says with a flirty smile. “Danced with a couple guys, got some dirty looks from a couple girls. Mr. C eyed me in a really creepy way that makes me grateful I’m not in his class anymore.” I make a disgusted face and shudder; Mr. Checovich is one of those teachers who tries to be a little too buddy-buddy with his students. He thinks he’s being friendly but mostly it’s just uncomfortable. “It was a fairly decent night overall.”
“That’s good,” I say. We drive the rest of the way to the school in casual quiet and then Ray takes the tuxedo to sneak it back into the auditorium while I head off for my first period math class. I’ve only gotten halfway down the hall before I realize that I really don’t want to be there today. Miranda is in that class. What if she calls me out in front of everyone? Sly is in that class too. If he finds out I was at the dance and he tells Doug, I’ll never get the end of it.
I immediately turn around and head the other direction. There is no way I’m going to deal with that right now. Not first thing in the morning. I take the same path I followed the night of the dance, weaving my way up through the back stair to the roof. It’s a warm, crisp morning, and in the distance I can see fog still lingering along the coastline. I settle down on a low concrete ledge that used to be a skylight until a storm shattered the glass and the school decided to just cement it over. Then I dig my notebook out and start writing aimlessly.
The first couple starts are nothing more than random drabbles that I end up scratching out and start over as I wait for inspiration. I gaze out at the horizon, where the masts of sailboats in the marina stand out bright white against the blue water, and with a smile I get to work.
The ghostly patterns of white pillars were strong against the dark background of the turbulent ocean. Flags flickered in the breeze above the gnarled pines that dot the coastline...
“I thought I might find you up here.”
I jump at the voice and pivot around so quickly I nearly fall off the skylight. Miranda is standing in front of the roof door, watching me with her head cocked to the side. When I meet her gaze she gives me a timid smile.
“Miranda,” I say. “Hi. You were looking for me?”
“Yeah, you didn’t come to class,” she says. “And you left so fast the other night, I didn’t get to give you this back.” She holds up the white mask I wore to the dance.
“Oh right, I forgot about that,” I admit with an awkward laugh. Miranda walks over and hands it to me, and I finger it in my lap nervously. “Uh, thanks.”
Miranda hesitates for a second and then sits down next to me. “Look, Jacob,” she starts.
“It’s Jake,” I cut in quickly. “My family and teachers call me Jacob, but I prefer Jake.”
“Okay,” Miranda says and nods. “Jake. I know I didn’t really react the way you were probably expecting the other night...”
“A little less outright horror would’ve been nice,” I agree offhandedly.
“I wasn’t horrified,” she protests.
“Really?” I ask. “Because that’s sort of the impression I got. The look on your face was pretty, ‘Oh God, did I really just kiss that loser?’”
“It wasn’t like that at all,” she says. “I was just surprised. And maybe a little horrified at myself, if anything. It’s just - it was a shock to realize that you’re this guy that I see practically every day, and I had never really given you much thought before. And I felt terrible that there was this sweet and charming guy right under my nose all this time and I never even noticed.”
I feel my cheeks turn bright pink and I look down at my hands in a weak attempt to hide it. She thinks I’m sweet and charming? “So you’re not disappointed it’s me then?”
“Of course not,” Miranda says. “Why would I be disappointed? You’re every bit the sweet, artistic, soul I hoped to find. What’s disappointing about that?”
“That the artistic soul is wrapped up in the body of a nerdy little nobody instead of a big strapping jock,” I supply.
Miranda laughs wryly. “Jocks aren’t all they’re cracked up to be,” she says and shrugs. “You should know, you live with the king of them after all.”
I grin. “Touché.”
“So what’re you writing?” she asks, glancing at the notebook in my lap.
“Just scribbling,” I answer embarrassedly. “It’s just a rough description of the view. It’s what I do to clear my head.”
“This is good,” Miranda says enthusiastically, scooting closer as she reads. She is pressed right up against my side and for a minute my brain feels really fuzzy, like when you drink a soda too fast and all the carbonation goes straight to your head. “I mean the details - they’re just so beautiful.”
I turn my head to look at her and a split second later she returns my glance, her face mere inches from mine. All I can see are those enormous blue eyes and her breath is warm on my face, almost bitingly against the chill seaside air. Her eyes flutter shut, hiding behind those thick lashes. As she leans in toward me I’m pretty sure my brain is about to explode. I drop my eyes and move to close the gap. Our lips are only centimeters apart when -
Miranda and I both jump away from each other, startled by the school bell as it echoes out over the roof. I groan and let my head fall back. “Figures,” I mutter and from my right I hear Miranda give a hollow chuckle.
“We should probably get going,” she says. “I mean this close to graduation we really can’t afford to be cutting too many classes.”
“Yeah, you’re probably right,” I agree dully, shutting my notebook and jamming it into my bag irritably. “It sucks, but you’re right.”
“I wish we could just stay up here forever,” Miranda says. She sighs heavily and turns away from me. “I don’t want to go back down there and deal with all of them. Up here, things can just be simple, you know? Once we go down there, they’ll just ruin everything.”
“What? No, no they won’t,” I say and I twist her back to me by the shoulders. “We won’t let them ruin this for us. You can’t ruin things like this, right?”
“But they will,” she says earnestly and tosses her hands up in exasperation. “You know how they are, Jake. The gossip and rumors and name calling. I mean, I just broke up with Matt like two weeks ago and they’ll say you’re just a rebound. Or that you’re using me, or I’m using you. They’ll never believe we’re real. They won’t understand and they’ll do everything they can to break us up.”
“Break us up?” I ask, my brain momentarily short-circuiting. “Wait, so are we, like, together?”
Miranda blinks at me and then a small smile forms beneath the agitation. “Well, I mean, I hoped so,” she says. “If you wanted. I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have just assumed, I just thought-”
“No, it’s fine,” I say quickly, cutting her off before she can somehow talk us out of this. “It’s way more than fine. Fantastic, really.” Miranda beams and stands on her toes to kiss my cheek and I’m struck by a sudden idea. “Well if they’re the ones who will ruin it, we just won’t tell them.”
“What do you mean?” she asks curiously.
I’m momentarily sidetracked by the way her nose wrinkles up when she’s concentrating. “We’ll just keep us a secret,” I explain. “At least until graduation, and after that it won’t matter anymore. That’s just a little more than a month now. So until then, we just won’t tell people about us.”
“Do you think we can do that?” Miranda asks hopefully.
“Sure, they do things like that all the time in the stories,” I say with a shrug. “We’ll just only see each other away from the school or in private places like this. No one needs to know any better. They can’t break us up if they don’t know we’re together, right?”
“Jake, that’s amazing,” she says eagerly. “You’d be willing to do that?”
“If it’ll make things easier on you, of course,” I say fervently. “Besides, it’s probably best for me if we keep things quiet for a little while too. It would just give my family one more thing to try and destroy for me. It’s for the best for now, and after it’s all over we’ll show them just how wrong they are about both of us. It’s perfect. Like Romeo and Juliet, only without all the dying stuff.”
Miranda abruptly throws her arms around my neck, giggling in my ear as she hugs me. “You’re so wonderful,” she says. “This will be great.” I barely get the chance to return the hug before she’s dropped down to her feet. “Meet me back up here after school?”
“I can’t,” I say, frowning. “I’ve got work tonight.”
“No problem,” she says unconcernedly. She bolts through the door down into the school after a kiss so quick that she’s gone before I even realized what just happened. I stare at the doorway in awe for a minute and then a huge grin breaks out over my face.
“Yes!” I shout, jumping in the air with an exuberant whoop. I do a wild sort of happy dance that involves a lot of flailing arms and hopping until the bell ringing wakes me up from my excitement. Grabbing my bag from the old skylight, I run down the stairs into the building. I’m three minutes late for my English class by the time I’ve gotten my textbook and half-jogged across the school - dodging into a bathroom to avoid the hall monitor midway - but I honestly couldn’t care less.
Turns out I can get my happily ever after, after all.