The Truths and Lies of Happily Ever Afters

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Chapter Nine

I’m floating on air through the rest of the afternoon, even while I’m making my mad dash toward The Funk for my evening shift. Yeah, that’s right, even a night full of greasy food and ornery old people can’t blow my mood. For the first time in, well, ever really, there is actually a smile on my face as I walk out of the restrooms in my ridiculous bellbottoms.

“Table four needs to order, Sugar,” Brenda says from behind the counter before I even get to say hello, so I grab a paper pad and head for the table she dictated. There’s a chatty old man at the vinyl booth with a wrinkled newspaper spread out across the tabletop and we exchange pleasantries before I take his order back to the kitchen.

“Hey there, Eric,” I greet, sticking the slip of paper to his order board. Eric points to my smile and raises an eyebrow. “What, a guy can’t be happy without getting the Inquisition?” I joke. “I see how it is. What kind of world do we live in?”

Shaking my head in mock shame as he huffs at me, I slip back through into the dining room and just about run into Brenda, who is on her way into the kitchen. Through a feat of serious training and balance, she manages to save any of the glasses on her tray from tipping over.

“Sorry about that,” I say quickly.

“No worries,” Brenda says and flashes a smile. “Oh and table six just sat down, grab the dear a water, would you? She looks like someone from your school I’ve seen in here before.”

With a nod I step out of the way for her and then turn to table six. My heart stutters for a second when I recognize the sheet of blonde hair visible over the booth’s seat. I fight down the broad grin that is threatening to spread across my cheeks and walk over. “Hey there, groovy lady, can I start you off with a drink?” I ask.

Miranda glances up and although her smile is stifled, the dimples in her cheeks still make an appearance beneath the playful sparkle in her eyes. “What would you recommend here?”

“Our strawberry milkshakes are pretty awesome,” I offer, remembering that she’d gotten that the last time she was here, when I made a bid for the title of Least Graceful Human Being Ever. To my surprise, she makes a face of disgust. “But personally, I prefer the plain old vanilla ones. Can’t mess with a classic.”

“I’ll have that then,” she says and hands the menu back to me. As I take it our fingers brush slightly and my stomach does a strange lurch, sort of like the flu only without the projectile vomiting. I clear my throat to hide my embarrassment and see her small smirk out of the corner of my eye before I turn and go back into the kitchen to make the milkshake.

As I set up the blender for the milkshake, Eric whistles for my attention. I glance over my shoulder at him and he’s grinning. With a pointed look, he gestures at his cheeks. I can still feel the heat burning along my cheekbones and I know what he’s hinting at.

“It’s nothing,” I say, unconvincing even to my own ears. After a quick mental debate, I add, “I’ll tell you later once it slows down, I promise.” Eric seems content with that and he turns back to the grill, leaving me to mix up the milkshake and take it out to Miranda. She thanks me softly when I set it on the table but I don’t get any time to talk to her because the geriatric afternoon rush is picking up and I have to hurry to help Brenda with the extra customers.

Over the next hour I entertain myself in between customers by sneaking glances at Miranda. She sits at the booth and drinks her milkshake, reading a paperback book intently although she occasionally looks up when I glance her way and offers me the smallest smile before turning back to the book. At some point when I’m in the back room collecting orders she slips out, but when I go to clear off the table I find a note pinned beneath the empty glass that says:

I’ll be back at closing - M

Grinning, I pocket the note and go back to work with my fantastic mood still intact.

Since it’s Monday night, the dinner crowd starts to thin early and by eight I’ve gotten enough free time to escape to the kitchen for a few minutes. I offer to help get the dishes caught up and, as if somehow magically conspiring against me, suddenly both Eric and Brenda are in the room and giving me questioning looks.

“It’s just this - there’s this girl,” I start and then groan at how incredibly cliché that sounds. Eric’s eyebrows shoot upward and Brenda lets out an almost frightening sort of squeak as she claps her hands in front of her face. “Don’t freak out, crazies. But I found the girl from my blog.”

I immediately regret admitting this when Brenda’s squeak turns into a full-fledged squeal. I cringe at the sound and put a finger to my lips to shut her the hell up. “Jakey, why didn’t you tell us?” she asks, sounding incredibly put out. “How did it happen?”

Bracing myself, I recount the story in as few words as humanly possible. Despite my discretion, they are both beaming like idiots and the flush on my cheeks has grown to a level where it’s actually sort of charring my skin a little. I busy myself with scrubbing a plate to distract myself from the embarrassing situation.

“Oh Sugar, we’re so happy for you,” Brenda says and surprises me by giving me a bone-crushing hug from behind. “This is so wonderful. Our little baby has found his true love. Oh happy day.” She then rambles off in her native language, murmuring to herself as she wanders around the kitchen.

Eric chuckles and shakes his head, and then taps a finger against his palm to get my attention on his hand. I've learned the alphabet in sign language, so I can follow along as he slowly shapes out T-H-E-O-N-E and then gives me a questioning look.

“Is she The One? Yeah, I think so,” I say. “She’s amazing, man. I never thought I’d get along with someone so well, but it’s like magic.” Eric smiles and claps me on the shoulder before he gets distracted by the grill sizzling, and our conversation mercifully ends before I can get embarrassed too much further.

Brenda handles the dining room while I wash up and put things away. It’s a comfortable sort of night. I like the early half of the week because it generally stays less busy than the rest of the week. I’m busy cleaning down all of the vegetables to use tomorrow when Brenda pokes her head into the kitchen with a peculiar look on her face.

“Sugar, that girl of yours, does she happen to be that pretty blonde one who was here earlier?” she asks curiously.

“Yeah, why?”

Brenda smiles. “She’s been sitting out here at the counter for the last twenty minutes, just drinking water. Says she’s waiting for someone,” she says. “I think it’s you she’s waiting for, honey.”

“Oh geez,” I say and hastily shove the rest of the vegetables back into the fridge. I comb a hand through my hair in an attempt to make myself look better and then slip out into the dining room as casually as I can. Miranda is sitting at the counter, stirring her water glass with a straw. She catches my eyes when I come out and I nod in reply. I grab a cleaning cloth so I can look natural and then walk over to where she’s sitting.

“Anything I can get you?” I ask.

“No, just killing some time,” she answers. “How much longer is this place open?”

I glance around the room at the sole other patron and then shrug. “About another twenty minutes unless someone else shows up.” I lean my elbows on the counter and add in a whisper, “You know, I think we’re safe to talk here. The only other person here is Mr. Perkins and he’s got dementia so bad he’ll forget he was here before he makes it back to the rest home.”

“What about the waitress?” Miranda asks. “She keeps giving me weird looks.”

I laugh. “She’s harmless, I promise,” I assure her. “Brenda and Eric here are sort of like my family - the good kind of family - they won’t go spoiling anything. I mean it, we’re okay here.”

“Thank God,” Miranda says and she leans across the counter to kiss me, sending a bolt of electricity straight down my spine. “I’ve been waiting to do that all day,” she says with a grin. “This whole secret thing is harder than I was expecting. I mean, I know it’s necessary, and it’s kind of fun sneaking around, but it sucks too.”

“Tell me about it,” I agree with a laugh. “So you don’t like strawberry, huh? That surprised me. That’s what you got last time you were in here with your friends.”

Miranda gives a dry sort of chuckle. “No, that’s what Matt got for me,” she corrects. “I didn’t really get any say in the matter. I’ve always hated strawberries.”

“Why didn’t you tell him?” I ask in confusion.

“I did, quite a few times,” Miranda says and shrugs. “That doesn’t mean he listened. You know how jocks are, they don’t really like to pay attention to anyone but themselves.” I nod in understanding, because that for sure is something I know quite well. “So you work here every night?”

“Weeknights, yeah,” I say, waving to Mr. Perkins as he leaves the diner with a vague smile on his face. I hope he makes it home tonight - last week the police had to give him a lift when he was found wandering around the grocery store at three a.m. “And every other weekend, and half the holidays. It sucks but I’ve saved up enough money so far to at least put down the payment on a cheap apartment when I get out of this town. What about you?”

“I feel awful for admitting it after you say that,” Miranda says, smiling awkwardly. “My grandparents set up a fund for me when I was little. I was just going to use that. Does that make me horrible, that I don’t even have to work for it like you do?”

“No, it’s fine,” I say and laugh. “I mean, you work for it in school unlike me. My grades are shit. And it’s awesome your family can help. If my mom hadn’t died, she’d probably have helped me save up so I could do that too, but it didn’t quite work out that way with the Slug. I’m pretty sure the moment she went, Doug took all the money she’d left for me.”

Miranda cocks her head to the side and her blue eyes narrow slightly. “What happened to her? I mean, if you don’t mind my asking, of course.”

My chest twists uncomfortably at thinking about my mom and I look down at where Miranda’s hand is resting on mine before I answer. “Car crash,” I explain. “Hit and run as she was leaving work and walking to her car. She died at the hospital before I even got to see her.”

“Oh Jake.” She doesn’t say anything more than that but she curls her fingers through mine and squeezes supportively. I glance up at her and the compassion on her face makes the aching in my chest soften. “I’m sorry.”

“Me too,” I say. “I just - I hope she didn’t suffer much. And I kinda wish she had better taste in men.”

“Well at least you turned out alright,” Miranda says. I chuckle nervously and look away as the fire spreads through my cheeks again. Damn it, why do I blush so easily?

The wind-chimes over the door ring and both of us glance over just as Zarayha bounces into the room, her multi-layered skirt twirling around her. She looks to be in a particularly good mod, which I take to mean that play rehearsal went by without anyone making a slight against her beloved Shakespeare. “Hey babe,” she calls and then abruptly freezes as her jaw quite literally drops a bit. Her eyes flick from me to Miranda and then down to our conjoined hands. Miranda follows her gaze and quickly pulls her hands away.

“No, it’s fine,” I tell her. “Ray already knew, she’s the one who helped me set everything up to meet you.”

“Although I was under the impression that this whole thing had ended,” Ray adds, walking over to the counter cautiously, like she’s afraid of the floor disappearing from beneath her. She clambers up onto the seat two over from Miranda and regards her curiously. “Jakey, you wanna catch me up?”

“It was a misunderstanding, that’s all,” I say. “We worked everything out. But we’re keeping it quiet. We don’t want all the rumors and stories to ruin it for us.”

Ray nods, her mouth slightly open, and then shakes her head like a dog getting water out of its ears. “Okay then, glad I’m filled in,” she says. She still sounds stunned but I feel a sweeping relief that she isn’t objecting to the situation. “Well, my news sounds incredibly unexciting after all this, the whole you finding your mystery princess and all that.”

“No, Ray, what’s up?” I ask. As I take a half-step to face her better I feel Miranda’s hand slip back into mine and I can’t fight a small smile.

“First rehearsal where I didn’t try to kill someone for being an absolute moron,” Ray announces proudly and I snort in amusement. “Also I scored you a ticket for opening night. Sorry, if I’d known you two had worked things out I would’ve grabbed another. I can try and get another, if you want.”

“That’s okay,” Miranda says. “I’ll already be there, covering it for the school paper. Besides, that’s too public for us to be seen together anyway.”

“That’s right,” I agree, nodding. “Too many people from school and their families there. We don’t want this getting out just yet.”

“Secret romance,” Ray says pensively. “How charming. It’s really like something out of a story, isn’t it?”

“Sugar, you wanna wipe down the booths out there and then you can go home for the night?” Brenda asks. “Oh, hello there Zarayha.” She glances over her shoulder and laughs. “Oh, Eric says he’s got some sliced veggies back here that need to be eaten before they go bad.”

“Ooh yay!” Ray cheers like someone offered her cookies and practically jogs into the back room. I laugh to myself as I grab a cleaning rag and head for the nearest table. Miranda trails behind me casually.

“She’s quite the character, isn’t she?” she asks, glancing at the kitchen door.

“Ray? Yeah, she’s something alright,” I agree. “But she’s been my best friend since I moved to Tickuma. I’d be lost without her.”

“She’s Yasmine’s sister, right?” Miranda asks and I nod, preoccupied with scrubbing a spot of dried ketchup off the tabletop. “You know everyone’s always thought there was something between you two? I mean, at least the people who didn’t think you’re gay.”

I wince. “I get that a lot,” I admit grudgingly. “A guy has a little respect for women and suddenly he’s gay.”

“I think it’s more the sweaters,” Miranda says.

I glance up to defend myself when I see the grin on her face. “Rude,” I say, realizing she was joking. “What’s wrong with my sweaters?”

“Nothing,” she says, twisting a strand of hair around her finger thoughtfully. “I think they’re cute.” She looks over at the kitchen door and back. “So, you and Zarayha never...?”

“Hardly,” I say. “She doesn’t even believe in serious relationships. She thinks they’re impractical for art types like us, probably ’cause of all the celebrity marriage drama you hear about on TV. I can’t say I understand it but it seems to work for her so who am I to judge?” I watch the way the tension leaves Miranda’s mouth and smile. “You’re not jealous of her, are you?”

“Oh God no,” Miranda says quickly and then immediately looks horrified. “That sounded terrible, didn’t it? I’m sorry, I didn’t mean it like that, I swear.” I laugh at the rambled apology and she stops, her cheeks flushed as she smiles. “I guess in a way I’m jealous of her because she’s known you for so long. I wish I’d known what a great person you are and we wouldn’t have wasted all this time.”

“That’s how these things go I guess,” I answer and shrug, moving on to the next table. “I never would’ve expected this either, if that makes you feel better. I had no idea you’re so complex and deep and nice. I mean, not that you’re mean or anything. Oh shit, now I’m the one who sounds like a dick.”

“It’s okay,” Miranda says and laughs. “I know I don’t always come across as a really nice person. That’s just sort of the way it is, I think. Besides, people have that stereotype of cheerleaders being these cruel bitches and we all see what we expect to see. And most of us don’t do a very good job of countering those opinions.”

I hesitate for a second and then say, “I’m not sure if I can agree with that without getting myself into trouble. That’s sort of a dangerous statement.”

Miranda laughs. “I know how they all are. I am most of the time too. I guess I just want to be better. More like you.”

“Like me?” I ask, this time thoroughly thunderstruck. “How is being like me an improvement?”

“You don’t care what other people think about you,” she says. “You don’t change who you are just because someone expects you to act a certain way. So you write poetry and have a best friend who’s kinda weird and you work for your dreams, even though everyone thinks you’re crazy. And I like that about you. I like that you’re not afraid to want to be more than this stupid town thinks you are.”

I twist the washrag through my hands as I think over what she said and then a genuine smile breaks out over my face. “I think that’s about the nicest thing anyone’s ever said to me,” I tell her. “Which is sort of sad because when you think about it overall that didn’t exactly sound like a compliment at first.”

Miranda laughs and throws her arms around my neck, planting a quick kiss on my cheek. “Well I’m glad then,” she says. “Because you make me want to be a better person, Jake Barnes.”

I grin back. “Well you make me feel like a better person, Miranda Blakewood. And like maybe being me isn’t such a bad thing, which is a pretty impressive feat, really. You should be proud.” And while she’s still smiling, I lean forward and kiss her. It’s another amazing kiss, much like that first one on the rooftop the night of the dance. It’s a happily ever after kiss.

“Sugar, if you’re just going to kiss instead of clean, just go on home and we’ll close up without you.” Miranda and I break apart and I look over at Brenda guiltily as she stands in the kitchen doorway.

“No, sorry, I’ll help,” I say hastily.

“It’s okay, I’ve got to get home anyway,” Miranda says. “My parents will start wondering what I’m doing if I’m out too late. Good-night Jake. I’ll see you tomorrow.” She kisses me one more time and then turns and leaves, stopping at the doorway to toss a short wave at me over her shoulder. I grin as I watch her disappear passed the window and I don’t look around until Brenda clears her throat.

“Oh, right, sorry,” I say, flushing scarlet as I start scrubbing the tables again. I can hear Brenda laughing as she goes back into the kitchen.

“So, you and Miranda, huh?”

I don’t even look up from the booth seat I’m wiping down as Ray wanders over. “Yeah, surprised me too,” I admit. “But she came and found me on the roof while I was cutting math and we talked through everything and - God, Ray, she’s just so amazing. I can’t believe this is really happening to me.”

“I’m happy for you, babe,” Ray says, perching herself on the table I just cleaned. I give her a reproachful look and shove her so she slides off onto the seat. “But you cut math?”

“I didn’t want to face her and Sly after what happened,” I explain.

She purses her lips but nods. “Still, doesn’t help your grades, mister,” she points out. “You’re already barely clinging on in that class.”

“I know, I know,” I say, batting away her nagging as I move on to the next table. “I’ll just put in more work this week to get caught up again, it’s not that big a deal.” Ray gives me an odd look and comes over, pressing the back of her hand against my forehead. “What are you doing?”

“Checking to see if you’re sick,” she answers. “You’re not stressing about your math grade. That never happens. Seriously, are you sure you’re okay?”

I laugh, wrapping an arm around her shoulders affectionately. “Trust me, Ray, I’m freaking awesome.”

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