The Truths and Lies of Happily Ever Afters

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Chapter One

All of my life I’ve been fascinated with fairy tales. I know, manly, right? Don’t worry, my step-family does a great job of pointing that out to me. Repeatedly. Like, on a daily basis.

I don’t really know what it is about them that draws me in so much. Maybe it’s the familiarity. There’s a comfortable pattern to all fairy tales. Good always triumphs over evil, the bad guy always gets his comeuppance in the end, and the hero and heroine always fall madly in love and live happily ever after. God knows high school is hardly the place to cultivate consistency; mundane, mind-numbing boredom on occasion, but not consistency.

Maybe it’s got more to do with the optimism of it all. Things get hard. The forest always gets darker before it gets lighter. The story always reaches that terrifying point when you think that maybe, just maybe, the bad guys will win this one, and then everything gets fixed. No matter how close that wicked witch gets to putting you in a boiling pot, there’s always going to be a magical fairy who comes to save you at the last second. Optimism - another thing that doesn’t much show up for teenage nerds.

Or hell, maybe my step-father’s right and I’m just a pussy.

Whatever the reason, I love fairy tales and I often times find myself imagining that my own life is one. It’s not that far a stretch, really. As I mentioned before, I’ve already got the evil step-family that’s essential to every good fairy tale - one enormous ogre of a step-dad and a pair of trolls for step-brothers.

And apart from the fact that I happen to have a Y chromosome, I match up pretty well with that classic daydreamer heroine profile you see in every Disney movie. I think I’d be that chick from Beauty and the Beast, the one who’s always carrying around books. You know, if she was a mop-haired, spectacled beanpole with what I’ve been told is an unhealthy love of cardigans. (Hey, this is Washington and it’s always cold. Cardigans are totally justified.)

I’m getting off track here though. Because you see, my love of fairy tales is what led me to writing. Writing is what led me to web blogging. And blogging - well that’s how I met her and the fairy tales started bleeding into reality.

It’s the end of spring break in my senior year of high school, and I’m sitting at my computer struggling to write a new blog post. I’m trying to take advantage of the relative silence in the house to get something done but my brain isn’t cooperating. It rarely does so damn early in the morning, especially when I worked the late shift at the diner last night.

My eyes slide out of focus for a minute and I find myself staring down my reflection on the computer screen. It’s not much to look at. Everything about me is incredibly average, really. That should be my tagline - Incredibly Average Jake. Even my name is standard and boring. I’m a little above average height and a little below average weight. Brown hair that curls a bit out of control, brown eyes. Nothing all that distinctive about my face apart from the black-framed glasses that are slipping down my nose. I frown and see a pair of furrows that curve from the outer edges of my nose down to the corners of my lips like parentheses. Weird, never noticed that before.

Shaking my head, I turn my attention back to the blank Word doc on the screen. I lean forward and awkwardly drum out a paragraph.

I think everyone can agree that high school is sort of a prolonged existential crisis. You spend four years having people force-feed all of the possible futures down your throat until you’re drowning in a pool of “Oh my God, what am I going to do with my life?” Some people are lucky and are basically born knowing what they want to do. He’s always wanted to be a doctor. She wants to be a jet mechanic. But for the rest of us, high school is an endless stream of maybes and what ifs and struggling desperately to figure out just what niche you could possibly fit into, while the countdown to graduation steadily ticks away the time you have t

I jump slightly at a loud honking from outside and glance up at the clock, surprised to see that school starts in twenty minutes. Hastily saving the draft, I grab my backpack off the floor and shrug on my sweater before heading for the stairs down from my loft above the garage. (Great for privacy, terrible for insulation. Not to mention it always smells just a little bit like exhaust fumes.) I jump the last four steps onto the back lawn and then jog around to the front of the house, where I’m greeted by the sight of an ancient, turquoise jeep sitting at the curb.

In a high school you will always find that one person who seems to go out of their way to break every convention and social norm that can be placed upon a teenager. You know, that one person who doesn’t follow any of the usual fashions and doesn’t even try to comply with the typical stereotypes, and clearly doesn’t give a rat’s ass what anyone else in the world thinks about them. Well at Tickuma High, that person is Zarayha Nejem: a theatre geek with multi-colored feathers woven into her short hair and a mad love of leggings and disproportionately large scarves and brightly colored tunic dresses.

She also happens to be my best friend.

Bowing my head against the constant Washington rain, I run for the curb and jump into the passenger seat of the jeep. “Hey Ray,” I greet cheerfully, shaking water from my hair.

“Hey, watch it,” she says indignantly, shielding her face from the spray. “What are you, a dog?”

“You’re not going to melt from a bit of water,” I tease. I take off my glasses and dry them on the hem of my shirt. “And if you are, you’re living in the wrong place.”

“Har har,” she replies sarcastically and shifts the jeep into drive, pulling out onto the road. “Sorry I’m late, by the way. Yas was parked behind me and took her good sweet time moving.” She pulls an over-exaggerated face of annoyance while I chuckle. Although born practically identical, Zarayha and her twin sister Yasmine couldn’t be less alike if they tried. And boy do they try - hard.

“It’s alright, I was working on a new post anyway and I wasn’t paying attention to the time,” I say dismissively, shoving my glasses back into place.

“Ooh, fun! What about?” Ray asks enthusiastically. She is one of only a handful of people I’ve actually told about the blog and she’s an avid follower. In times when I doubt my writing skills, her faith in me never wavers. It’s encouraging to always have someone at my back.

“At the moment it’s just sort of a word-vomit freakout about graduation being so close,” I admit.

“Oh I know, right?” she says, turning to glance at me so quickly that the neon green feathers that are her current hair accessory pinwheel around her head. “Two months. That’s insane! I can’t wait.”

“I keep switching between excitement and nausea, honestly,” I say, combing my mass of curls back off my forehead. Ray raises an eyebrow questioningly. “Well it’s all good for you, you already know what you’re going to do. You’re going to move to New York and become a famous Broadway star.”

“You’re going to be a writer, Jakey, we both know that,” Ray responds unconcernedly. “You’re coming to New York with me and finishing that novel of yours and you’ll be a Times bestseller.”

I snort. “Yeah, it sounds so easy when you say it like that.”

“No, it probably won’t be,” she agrees. “But neither will getting onto Broadway. You’ll have to listen to me complaining about fielding dozens of small bit parts until I make it big. And I’ll help tidy the place when your scribbled out drafts are scattered all over. But we’ll make it work, Jakey. Promise.” She holds out her pinky finger and I laugh, shaking my head.

“Aren’t we a little old for that?” I ask skeptically.

Ray gasps dramatically. “You’re never too old for pinky swears,” she says firmly, still holding a hand aloft. “Especially with your best friend.”

“You’re mental,” I say but I hook my little finger through hers. “Now would you keep your eyes on the road, mad woman?”

“Someone’s cranky this morning,” she says with a smirk but she turns her focus back to the street ahead of us and rights the jeep, which had been drifting incrementally toward the center median.

“Do you blame me? After a week off school I have to go back to math.” I kick my backpack where it sits on the floor in front of me. “And freaking Toth gave us a ton of homework. What kind of douchebag gives out homework on spring break?”

Ray laughs as she steers us onto the road in front of the school. “Oh so that’s why you’re grumpy. You put it off to the last minute and had to do it all last night.”

“I was up ’til three-thirty,” I lament and she laughs harder.

“You’d think you’d have learnt by now,” she says, shaking her head tragically. “Who am I kidding though? You’ll be the last person to show up for your own funeral.”

“Well I learned about dramatic entrances from the best,” I say, nudging her shoulder. Her only response is to roll her eyes, preoccupied with pulling into a parking space at the back of the lot. We race into the building, sheltered from the rain by our backpacks, and have just enough time to hit our lockers before the warning bell rings.

“See you at lunch,” Ray says brightly and she stands on her toes to give me her customary kiss on the cheek before we go our separate ways, her to history and me to math.

Mr. Toth’s first period Advanced Algebra class is exactly how I imagine the seventh circle of hell. The classroom is in the oldest part of the school that hasn’t been renovated since the sixties, and it’s so packed with desks to fit the growing class sizes that anyone with more than a thirty-two inch waist can’t move around without knocking into things. (Poor Mikey Publar never stood a chance.) The air vents don’t really function and all of the windows are painted shut, so it’s boiling hot in the summer and freezing in the winter.

And, worst of all, it’s a math class.

There is only ever one - count it, one - good thing about that class: Miranda Blackwood. She’s the girl that every other girl wants to be and every guy wants to get with. Comprised solely of blonde hair, blue eyes, and curves in all the perfect places a girl can have them, all wrapped up in a navy cheer uniform and a student body letterman’s jacket, she’s the glowing golden goddess of Tickuma High. Of course, as such, she came pre-installed with a bitchy ice queen forcefield around her so thick it’s generally difficult to be in the same room as her without gagging. Still, while I pride myself on being a more sensitive guy than most, I’m still a red-blooded teenager and she’s a hell of a lot nicer to look at than Mr. Toth while I spend forty minutes a day pretending I understand algebra.

The moment the bell rings, Mr. Toth stands up and clears his throat to get everyone’s attention - and since it sounds like the last noise a mongoose might make before dying, it generally works. “Alright class, hand up the assignments you did over the break and then start on the one on the board,” he says. Another reason I have a hard time in the class: the teacher doesn’t actually believe in, you know, teaching. Apparently that’s what the books are for.

I pry my backpack open and drag out the folder I’d crammed the stack of assignments into, passing them to the guy in front of me. He seems oddly surprised to actually get something from me and I can’t say I blame him. I have a terrible habit of forgetting to do my homework. Mr. Toth has to remind me on a twice monthly basis that I’m on the verge of flunking out of his class, and then I spend a frantic weekend getting caught up on all of the homework I’ve missed. To say that my GPA is clinging on by a thread would be an accurate description.

And in my general show of concern for this fact, I spend the rest of the class period ignoring the assignment and plotting out the rest of my blog post. Again.

My senior year of school isn’t technically all that difficult. I had at least had the forethought to get most of my required classes out of the way as an underclassman, so apart from the few core classes that I have to take every year, the rest of my schedule is just filler space; an art class that I suck in, a set building class Ray talked me into because it means I have to come to some of the play rehearsals and she likes having me tell her how good she is, and a class hour spent as an aide in the library, putting away books for the stuffy old librarian with a prosthetic leg. Not exactly intensive studying involved there.

No, the main problem is that, like the other two hundred and fifty-some-odd students in my graduating class, I’ve contracted a bad case of “senior-itis.” The fact that we’re all only two months away from finally getting out of the craphole school has turned us all into uninspired slugs who find it hard to even roll out of bed in the morning, let alone be bothered to pay attention in classes. Well except for that group of kids still striving for that perfect GPA about which my C-average has never even fantasized.

There are only two parts of the school day that I still find any pleasure in; the first is my honors english class, because I’m just that much of a nerd, and the second is my lunches with Ray. Although most of the seniors leave campus for lunch, we found a much more convenient solution to the cramped cafeteria. Late in our freshman year Ray had discovered that one of the doors to the auditorium doesn’t lock properly and, with everyone else preoccupied, the stage is left wide open and empty. Somehow, three years later, no one has bothered to fix the latch and our safe haven is left untouched.

After collecting my tray of food, I slip in through the broken door and wind my way through the moss green curtains and rope cables to the stage. Ray is already sitting on the edge of the stage, her purple-clad legs dangling over the edge and swinging to a tune she is humming under her breath. I grin at the sight of her, bathed in the weak ambiance of the strip lighting that hems the room as it makes the neon stand out more brightly against the dark tone of her Middle Eastern complexion. She’s kinda pretty, in a weird, artsy way.

“Took you long enough,” she says when she spots me and then pats the ground beside her. “Did you get lost?”

“Richardson was late letting us out of class,” I explain as I drop and swing my legs over the edge of the stage. I lay my tray next to hers in the space between us and we immediately begin trading food. As a vegetarian, Ray takes all of my overcooked greens while I take all of the food she won’t morally eat. “One day that man will literally lecture us all to death and just keep going. He’s like that ghost teacher from Harry Potter.”

“God am I glad I don’t have him this year,” Ray says unsympathetically and I chuckle into my spoonful of whatever the entree is supposed to be; I think the sign said spaghetti but I’m pretty sure spaghetti isn’t supposed to be gray. “And f-y-i, I am so going to start wearing ear plugs in the locker room from now on. I now know so much more about Garrett Miller’s anatomy than I ever wanted to.” She shudders dramatically and I grimace. “Exactly. Although it explains his rage issues in one word: over-compensation.”

“Jesus, Ray, I didn’t need to know that,” I protest even as I laugh. Childish as it might be, it’s always satisfying to know that the popular guys aren’t perfect. It doesn’t make me forgive him for the time he shoved me into the girls’ bathroom, but it does ease the pain of having been pelted with purses a little.

“You told me about the time you walked in on your step-dad,” she counters pointedly, brandishing a forkful of wilted green beans in my face. “That’s infinitely more traumatic.”

“I was eleven,” I say in my defense but even I have to concede she has a point there. “I was freaked out, I had to tell someone.”

“Sometimes I wish you had guy friends,” she says, but the wistfulness in her voice is hardly convincing. We both know she loves being my best, and really only, friend.

“And when you ask my advice on clothes I wish you had girl friends,” I retort unconcernedly. “But beggars can’t be choosers.”

“Oh, speaking of clothes,” she says excitedly and I groan. She slaps my shoulder before continuing, “I found the perfect dress for the Senior Ball. Did you get the night off work for it?” When I prod the flaky brownie on the corner of my tray instead of responding she snorts in exasperation. “C’mon Jakey, in our entire high school experience, you haven’t been to a single dance. This is your last chance and it’s only like two weeks away. And it’s perfect for us. It’s a masquerade ball. We’re going to get dressed up to the nines and show this lame ass town just how amazing we are, and then they’ll spend the rest of their miserable lives regretting what they missed out on while we’re off being fabulous and famous.”

“You have this whole thing planned out, don’t you?” I ask in amusement.

“Please, Jake,” she says, ignoring my question. And then, because she is made of pure evil wrapped up in a quirky exterior, she gives me the puppy eyes.

“That’s not fair,” I inform her. Her only reply is the slightest twitch of her lips as she fights a smile. “Fine, just stop looking at me like that.”

“Yay!” she chirps and bounces in her spot energetically enough that I’m a bit worried about the possibility of her falling off into the orchestra pit.

“I don’t have the money to go rent a tux or anything for this though,” I remind her. “So my old slacks will have to do.”

“Don’t worry about it,” she says dismissively. “I’ve got it.”

I scrutinize her suspiciously. “You know it always makes me nervous when you say that. It usually ends with me getting into tons of trouble.”

“Does not.”

“Does too. Remember that thing with Old Man Kirke.”

Ray giggles as she starts peeling an orange into her lap. “Oh right. Point of fact, it would’ve been fine if you’d just run when I told you to.”

“I almost got arrested,” I say indignantly.

“Please, it was hardly a slap on the wrist,” she says, shaking her head. “And people think I’m the drama queen.” She pointedly ignores my reproachful look. “Besides, it’s totally different. Just trust me, Jake. This’ll be worth it.” She gives me a stare that suggests that she knows so much more than me - which I’m not too proud to admit that she usually does - and I raise my hands in surrender.

We pass the rest of the lunch period bickering playfully and the subject of the dance is completely forgotten. Or at least as forgotten as it can be when it seems like every girl in our grade is talking about it non-stop, and usually at a vocal pitch comparable to squirrels. And it remains there, in the back of my mind along with all of the other inconsequential information like my work schedule and what homework I need to do for math, for approximately five days and four-and-a-half hours.

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