In preparation for moving away at the end of the summer - even if I still haven’t decided where I’m moving to - I wind up taking on extra shifts at the diner. When Amelia has her baby the first weekend of June, I take over half of her shifts so I’m working full time. Any time that I’m not at work or doing chores at home is divided up between Ray and Miranda. In that fashion, June and July both go by pretty quickly and before I know it, the first of August has rolled in and I’ve got precisely three weeks to get all my shit figured out.
Needless to say, my stress levels are pretty high.
It’s the middle of the night on the first of August when Miranda lets herself into my room. I glance up from the copy of Wuthering Heights she lent me and grin. “Hey ninja,” I say teasingly. Once she decided to stop knocking on my door - for fear of my stepfamily hearing it from in the house - I discovered that years of gymnastics and cheerleading left her with a scary light tread. More than once she’s made it all the way to my bed before I even realized she was in the room.
“Doing anything you can’t drop?” she asks curiously, perching on the edge of the bed.
I hold up the book and grimace in response. “I don’t know why you love this one, it’s not that great,” I say, tucking a post-it note into the page to mark my place. “This Heathcliff guy is pretty much the least relatable character of all time.”
Miranda snorts. “And here I’d thought you’d love it, the big romantic you are,” she says. “Well if you’re not preoccupied then, I thought we could go out and do something.”
“Do something?” I echo in surprise, looking up at the alarm clock on my bedside table. “It’s two in the morning.”
“The perfect time for sneaking around, don’t you think?” she says with a wink. I can tell by the way she’s fidgeting her fingers, tapping out staccato rhythms against her bare thigh - damn those are some short shorts - that she’s anxious about something. She might be trying to hide it, but she’s clearly got something on her mind.
“Okay, I’ll bite,” I say, tossing the book up onto the pillow and sitting up. I pull on a pair of sneakers and let her drag me out of the house, around the block to where her Volvo is parked against the curb outside the Kilpatricks’ house. She always parks somewhere different, in front of any one of our neighbors houses, so Doug doesn’t get suspicious seeing the same car hanging around all the time.
I have to say, we’ve gotten pretty damn good at this sneaking thing over the last few months.
Once we’re safely cruising south along the main road, a top forty station playing quietly in the background, I glance over at Miranda. The windows are cracked and thin tendrils of gold hair are twisting into elf knots in the rush of night breeze. “So, where’re we going?” I ask.
“It’s a surprise,” she admits with another grin, this one just a little bit mischievous. It’s a really sexy look on her, the kind of look that makes me wish we were back in my bedroom.
I look out of the windshield at the signs for the marina and beach, and I can’t stop the sardonic grin that twists up my lips. “Hardly a mystery, really,” I point out.
“Shut up,” she says playfully, batting my arm. “That’s not the surprise.” She pulls the car into a parking spot and cuts the engine. We both climb out of the car and she walks around, taking my hand, warm in the cool night. “Just play along, okay? I put a lot of work into this.”
I laugh but nod. “Okay, lead the way, princess,” I say obligingly. She flushes pink in the light of the near full moon but turns and starts walking up the rock trail above the beach. It’s obvious she’s leading me up to my mom’s train car but I don’t say anything, humoring her.
When we’re just about to reach the clearing she stops and faces me. “Cover your eyes.”
“Seriously?” I ask in amusement.
“C’mon Jake,” she says, pushing her lower lip out in a pout that she knows I can’t resist. “For me.”
“I feel like I should be concerned about how easily you can manipulate me,” I respond, lifting a hand to cover my eyes. She snatches my glasses out of the way at the last second, making sure I’ll be completely blind. Then she takes my hand and guides me forward, gently trying - and failing - to warn me of things I might trip over.
“Okay, stop here,” she says and then turns me by the shoulders. I can hear her rustling about, climbing in and out of the train car twice, before she walks back over to me. “And open.”
I lower my hand but without my glasses there’s nothing but a blur of colors in front of me. She slides my glasses back into place, narrowly avoiding stabbing out my eye in the process, and the scene finally comes into focus. There’s a blanket laid out on the floor of the train car with two tapered candles illuminating the inside of the boxcar. A bowl of chocolate covered strawberries sits in the middle beside an over-large cupcake with a tiny, flickering candle stuck in the top at a slight angle.
“Happy birthday!” Miranda says brightly, pressing a kiss to my jaw. My mind takes a minute to process that since it’s after midnight, it is in fact my eighteenth birthday. “I didn’t know what to get you. And then I thought, you aren’t the sort of person who wants things, you want to do things. And you’ve just done so many sweet things for me, I wanted to give you something romantic like you always do for me. It’s not exactly the best, but I-”
I cut her off by kissing her. We’re both gasping for air when I finally draw back, resting my forehead against hers. “Miranda, this is the greatest thing anyone’s ever done for me,” I say. “Really,” I add when she looks skeptical. “The fact that you even went to so much effort...”
“It wasn’t that much,” she says. “Just some candles and a cupcake. I just, I know you prefer the little romantic stuff, so I thought maybe we’d enjoy some sweets, maybe take a nighttime swim.” The pointed look she gives me when she says that makes me suddenly grateful I remembered to put another condom in my wallet. “Just enjoy some time together tonight since I know we’ve both got plans tomorrow. Quiet and intimate, like you said.”
“Really, Miranda, this is amazing,” I say. “It’s perfect. You’re perfect.”
And the night is perfect. We split the cupcake, kissing frosting off each other’s lips and hands. We gorge ourselves on chocolate dipped strawberries. I experience the frigid delight that is skinny dipping for the first time and then we put that condom to good use even though we nearly drown in the process.
It’s nearly dawn, the earliest fishing boats heading out toward the horizon, by the time we are back in the boxcar, our clothes damp as we curl together on the blanket. I comb my fingers through Miranda’s hair, which has turned into sand-colored ringlets from the salt water, and she hums sleepily as she nuzzles her head against my chest. “Jake,” she says, her voice wavering just slightly from what I think is the cold. I make a noise to show I’m listening, wrapping my arms more securely around her to keep her warm. “I think - I think I’m falling in love with you.”
My heart soars into my head, making me dizzy and lightheaded I lift my head to look down at her but she’s worrying a button on my shirt, determinedly staring a hole in it. I take her chin and tilt her head up until she meets my eyes, her wide blue gaze open and vulnerable. She’s scared, I realize. “I love you,” I say, slowly and pointedly.
Her eyes light up like the sun that’s just beginning to creep through the trees, a beautiful glow that spreads across her face until she’s beaming. She presses a kiss to my chest and then settles her head back into the hollow of my shoulder with a yawn. Sighing contentedly, I lay my head back against the floor and pull Miranda closer against my side as the exhaustion finally begins to set in. “Best birthday ever.”
The first weekend in August is always the Summer Fair and Carnival in Tickuma. Normally that means I have to work extra long at the diner to make up for all of the people who are out and about and hungry after a long day of walking around in the sun, but since it fell on my birthday this year they’ve given me the weekend off. When I finally get back to the house after Miranda drops me off it’s well past noon and I immediately head for the shower to get the salt water and dirt from the boxcar off me.
Clean and walking on clouds, I head back into my room and don’t even jump in surprise when I find Ray sitting on my bed. She’s thumbing through the copy of Wuthering Heights with her nose wrinkled. “I can’t believe you’re reading this,” she says in lieu of a greeting. “I had to read this in class last year, it’s such a drag.”
“Miranda recommended it,” I answer with a shrug. “It’s okay. Not the best but I don’t hate it.” I run my fingers through my wet hair and then shake off the water clinging to my fingers. “So, did you just come over to criticize my reading material?”
Ray tosses the book down on the bed and fixes me with a patronizing look. “No, I came over because it’s my best friend’s birthday and he hasn’t been answering my birthday calls all morning.”
“Oh geez, sorry,” I say, crossing to the desk. My phone is sitting there, the missed calls light blinking at me. “I forgot it last night. Miranda kinda kidnapped me for the night.”
“Cute,” she says wryly.
“It was, yeah,” I agree even though she was clearly being sarcastic.
“Well grab your shoes,” Ray says. “We’re going to go check out the fair. Play some cheesy carnival games, eat some fried food, maybe check out the car show for the fabulous rides we will one day own.”
I’m laughing even as I tug my dirty sneakers on. “I thought New Yorkers didn’t own cars,” I say. “They all take cabs everywhere, don’t they?”
“They don’t drive them,” she says with a dramatic huff. “They just own them. Because they have the money to.”
“Seems a bit impractical to me,” I say. “Not to mention a waste of money.”
Ray smirks. “That’s kinda the point.”
We banter playfully about whether or not owning a car is worth the trouble as she drives us to the city park. The fair has taken over completely and the open grass lot is littered with vendor booths, fundraising games, and questionably assembled carnival rides. Everything smells like heat and bodies and fry grease, and a local garage band of men with hipster beards suffering from midlife crises is playing classic rock songs on a raised stage.
Ray and I wander up and down the off-center aisles, browsing the homemade crafts on sale at the booths and munching on fry bread and churros. At a leather-workers booth she buys me a leather-bound notebook with a cursive J pressed into the bottom corner. “Happy birthday,” she says, presenting it to me with a flourish. “For your novel.”
“This is great, Ray, thank you,” I say, flipping through the pages and breathing in the scent of fresh paper. My hand is already itching to start filling the pages with words.
At the next booth an older woman is selling a bunch of handmade jewelry and I rifle through a bunch of necklaces made of woven wire. I find one with a scarlet stone pendant and my mind goes immediately to Miranda. Her birthday is coming up and this would make a great present.
“Never fancied you for a necklace kinda guy,” Ray deadpans.
“Ha ha,” I respond. I pull out my wallet and hand a folded bill from yesterday’s tips across the table to the older woman. “Actually it’s for-” I pause, glancing around before lowering my voice to a whisper, “Miranda.”
“Oh right, the secret girlfriend,” Ray says, turning her back on me as she peruses a rack of bracelets.
“Yeah, her birthday is in ten days and I thought she’d like it,” I say, tucking the necklace into the pocket of my jeans. “Which reminds me,” I say as we start walking toward the next booth, Ray fingering her new neon violet bangles, “I was wondering if you could help me with something. I want to do something special for her birthday, but I don’t know exactly what she’d like. And you’re a lot better at planning things like this, and you’re a girl, I was wondering if you’d help me come up with something to do for her.”
“No.” Ray stops short in the middle of the walkway, and a cluster of women grumble as they walk around her. Surprised and a little hurt, I turn to face her. “No, Jake, I’m sorry, but I can’t. I can’t keep doing this anymore.”
“Doing what?” I ask in confusion.
“I can’t keep up with all this pretending,” she says. “I’ve tried, I really have tried to just sit back and be happy for you, but I can’t do it anymore.”
“What do you mean?” I seriously think I must’ve somehow missed some very significant part of this conversation because I’m getting more lost with every second.
Ray lets out an aggravated sigh. “God, Jake, you are so naïve,” she says. “You really have bought into this whole fairy tale romance idea, haven’t you? Well she hasn’t. Once all of the excitement wears off, she’s going to drop you like a rock. Why do you think she won’t let you go public with your relationship if she’s so happy with it?”
“That was a mutual decision,” I say defensively. “We don’t want to deal with the gossip and the rumors, that’s all. You know that.”
“No, it’s because she doesn’t love you!” She’s actually yelling now and we’re drawing a crowd but I don’t care. Why is she being like this? “Miranda is not in love with you, Jakey. She’s using you and she’s going to hurt you.”
“No, she won’t,” I shout. “She loves me.”
“No, she doesn’t,” Ray screams back. “She will break your heart, Jacob, because she can never love you the way I do.”
That’s a gut punch from out of nowhere and I feel all of the air rush out of me like it was vacuumed out. Ray’s crying now, honest to God tears on her face, but that doesn’t stop her. “I’m the one who knows you, really knows you. I’m the one who knows all your dreams and your faults, and I love you anyway. I’ve been in love with you since we were twelve years old. And that’s why I can’t just sit here and pretend like it’s all okay.
“I’ve been trying, I really have. I’ve watched you moon over her and write stupid love poems and all I can think is that you’ve never done anything like that for me. As much as I want you to be happy, it breaks my heart every time you talk about her. It hurts me too much to be around you anymore. I won’t stand in your way if she’s what you really want, but please, dear God please do not ask me to help steer you into the arms of another girl. I just can’t do it.” With one last look that makes every inch of me ache, inside and out, she turns on her heels and marches away.
I can hear people around me muttering. I can see them staring. I can feel them pushing passed me as they start to head off again, the dramatic scene over and their attention dissipating. But none of it really sinks in. Quite simply, I’m in shock.
What the hell just happened here?