Monday morning dawns gray and humid, heavy clouds hanging ominously in the sky. I’m exhausted. Despite the fact that I spent most of Sunday in a half-conscious daze, I hardly slept at all last night and it’s left me fuzzy and disoriented. Not to mention my broken hand is killing me and I can’t take any of the pain pills because I have to work.
It takes less than five minutes from the moment Eric and I arrive at the diner before Brenda has gone into full-on mother hen mode. She obsesses over my injured hand and then she demands I tell her everything that happened over the weekend. I wind up spilling everything in that dingy diner kitchen, telling her and Eric both about the fair with Ray and the fight with Doug. By the end my eyes are burning and I rub them fiercely with the inside of my wrist.
“Oh Sugar,” Brenda says and she engulfs me in a hug. Even though she’s a full foot shorter than me I crumple so my head falls on her shoulder and let myself just take in the comfort for a minute. Brenda gives great hugs. “If there is anything I can do to help, just let me know, okay sweetie?”
“Thanks, Bren,” I say gratefully. I may not have a family at home, but as I look across at the mute short-order cook and the pudgy single mother, it’s good to know I have a family here.
Brenda glances at the clock and we all realize it’s nearly time for the diner to open. We all rush through getting everything ready and the diner only opens ten minutes late. The morning goes by in a blur. I have the hardest time keeping up with orders, partly from exhaustion and partly because I can’t carry the tray very well with my hand in a cast.
The skies open up around noon and dump rain on the city. Business slows down as everyone heads home to get out of the weather. I take advantage of the lack of customers to sit down at the counter and indulge in a large cup of coffee loaded with sugar. I’m just making a second mug when the wind chimes above the door make me look up.
Even with her hood pulled up against the rain, I recognize Miranda as she jogs into the diner. I quickly turn away, trying to be subtle even as part of me wants nothing more than to kiss her senseless. I need to get her a message to meet me later because I’m dying to talk all of this over with her.
So while I’m busy trying to be secretive, it obviously comes as quite a surprise when Miranda spins me around on the barstool and says, “What the hell, Jake?”
“What?” Jesus, I really need to get some new material. I feel like that’s all I’ve said for the last forty-eight hours. I glance around the room at the handful of diners sitting in booths around the room and wonder what she’s playing at. So much for being sneaky.
As if she’s reading my mind, Miranda says, “What happened to keeping this thing quiet?”
“I could ask you the same thing,” I point out. Her exclamation has drawn a bit of attention and a couple of people are watching us curiously. Miranda seems to realize this and lowers her head. “C’mon, we can talk in the back,” I say. I stand and lead the way back through the kitchen, giving Eric a significant look as we go. He nods in silent understanding and goes back to cleaning the grills.
Once we’re safely tucked away in the little hall leading to the owner’s seldom-used office, Miranda immediately turns on me. “What the hell happened this weekend? Everything’s fine when I leave and then I come back to a million texts asking me about us and if it’s true.”
“Look, it wasn’t me,” I say, shrugging. Even while I’m trying to act calm and nonchalant, something about this conversation is setting me on edge. I thought we agreed that it didn’t matter if people found out. “It’s complicated.”
“Not really,” she bites back. “You know what’s complicated? Trying to explain to your parents why you’ve been dating a guy in secret for the last four months. But this story isn’t complicated, I’ve already heard it from a dozen people. Your friend had a total conniption and outed us in front of half the city. I knew you shouldn’t have told her.”
“Yeah well it’s a little late for that, isn’t it?” I snap.
Miranda makes an agitated noise and tosses up her hands in frustration. “Seriously? That’s all you’re going to say?”
“I don’t know what you want me to say, Miranda,” I respond. “Frankly people finding out about us is the least of my concerns right now. Who cares? We knew it was going to get out eventually. Well it’s out. What more is there to say?” I catch a flash of something on her face and the truth - that knowing doubt that’s been lingering at the back of my mind all along - comes out and hits me like a right hook in the chest. “You never meant for anyone to find out about us.”
“I don't know, maybe? I just thought it would be easier,” she says. “No rumors, no gossip. And with me leaving for California so soon, it shouldn’t have mattered. I figured it was for the best.”
I lace the fingers of my good hand through my hair, trying to process what she’s saying while the throbbing in my head redoubles. “And that answers my question of whether you actually wanted me to come to California with you. So what, this was just some fling to tide you over until you left for your big city dreams?”
“It’s not like that,” Miranda says, leaning against the wall of the narrow hallway. “I mean, it might’ve started out that way but things changed.”
“Oh really? What changed?” I ask sharply. “What, pray tell, was this magical epiphany that made me suddenly more than just a diversion to you?”
“You!” she says, her voice raised to match mine as she shoves up to her feet again. We square off in the corridor in silence for a moment and then her scowl falters. “You changed things, Jake. I liked things the way they were before. I liked the anonymity and the secrets. I had this person who didn’t know me, but who understood me. You were my secret friend. My best friend. And I never wanted to meet you.
“But then I got waitlisted and we found out we go to school together and I thought this was my chance. When I agreed to meet you, I expected to find some deep, poetic, angsty guy. I only agreed because I knew it would make a good article - this undiscovered literary genius hidden away in a tiny little harbor town - and maybe it would help get me into Berkeley.”
“That’s what you were saying that night, when you said I helped get you into Berkeley,” I conclude as pieces start coming together. “You wrote an article about me?”
“Your life makes for a beautiful human interest piece,” she says unashamedly. “You’re all about passion and romance and dreams. You take all of these bad things that have happened to you and you turn them into this amazing writing. The sweet boy with the tragic backstory who finds a way to create good from the darkness. It’s classic. I wrote about you and it was the best thing I’ve ever written. It’s what got me off Berkeley’s waitlist and into admissions.”
“So that’s what I am to you,” I say darkly. “A story for the paper.”
“No. No, you’re not and that’s the problem,” she says. “It started that way and it was supposed to stay that way. I never thought that friendship we had online could ever turn into anything real. But then I got to know you better and you’re so charming and sweet and romantic. I was supposed to just be able to leave as soon as I finished my article but I couldn’t bring myself to do it. First it was just because I could tell you genuinely liked me, but then - then I fell in love with you.”
“I can’t believe this.” I put some distance between us, turning my back on her so I can focus because I can’t think with her looking at me like that. She looks the way I feel: heartbroken. “Are you seriously trying to tell me this now? That all this time we were just some sort of experiment to you? That you let me fall for you so you could write some stupid paper?”
“Jake, please.” I hear Miranda take a few shuffling steps but I walk forward another couple feet to keep the distance.
“What about the last year?” I press. “What about all of those emails? We’ve been talking almost every day for the last year. Damn it Miranda, I was in love with you before we even met. Was any of that real or were you just playing me then too?”
“Of course it was real. Everything I said I meant it.” Miranda sniffles. “I’m sorry, Jake, I really am. I never meant for things to go this way. I never wanted you to get hurt.”
“Well I am hurt,” I retort, spinning around to face her. “I’m hurt. All this time I thought you wanted this relationship because that’s what you let me believe. I just lost my best friend because my relationship with you, and now you’re telling me it wasn’t even real? How else am I supposed to feel about that?”
Miranda’s hands are trembling and covering her mouth, but I can see the tears glimmering in her eyes. A wave of guilt floods into me. Damn it all, I really can’t stand to see a girl cry. The boiling rage inside me fades to a simmer and I let out a heavy breath.
“I really am sorry,” she stammers out, her voice thick as she tries to hold back the tears.
“I know,” I say, sighing. The tension subsides and my shoulders slump as all of the anger is replaced by pain and exhaustion. “I know. I’m sorry too.”
Miranda crosses the distance between us in a flash and wraps her arms around my chest, burying her face in my shirt. I hold her, resting my chin on top of her head as I try to level out everything in my mind. I’m still mad at her but I’m starting to get tired of being mad at everyone.
“I’m so sorry,” she sobs into my collar. I shush her and rub her back until the choked sobs sink into watery sniffles, at which point she pulls back and looks up at me with her blue eyes red-rimmed and her nose disgustingly snotty. Crying is so gross.
“Look, let’s just not talk about it, okay?” I say. “I just - I don’t wanna think about it right now. Gimme some time.”
Miranda nods and steps back from me, rubbing her face with the insides of her wrists. “I’m sorry if I ruined things between you and Zarayha.”
“There wasn’t anything between us,” I say, slumping back against the wall. “At least I didn’t think there was. I never thought she liked me that way.” I groan and rub the bridge of my nose as my head throbs again. “Actually I’d rather not talk about that either, if you don’t mind.”
“Right,” she says. She reaches out and touches my injured hand gingerly. “What’d you do? Does this have anything to do with Coach Murdoch’s broken nose?”
“How’d you know about that?” I ask in surprise.
“I went by your house looking for you this morning,” she says. “He caught me coming out of your room. Told me you and your friends aren’t welcome at his house anymore. He yelled at me all the way to the car.”
“Sorry about that,” I say, grimacing. “We had a bit of a disagreement.”
“So you punched him?” she asks skeptically. “I never thought you were a violent person.”
“I’m not. Obviously,” I say and gesture to my broken hand. “I just got tired of his bullshit.”
Miranda frowns. “So what are you doing then?” she asks.
“Eric’s putting me up,” I admit wearily. “I’m crashing on his sofa until I can figure something else out for myself. I’ve got enough saved up I can rent a little apartment but I don’t want to sign a lease around here. I still want out. I just - it’s a lot to figure out on short notice.”
“And then I come along and mess up everything you did have planned,” she says.
“Yeah, thanks for the running commentary on my problems,” I say dryly. I know I’m being a jerk but at this point I feel like I’ve been through enough shit that it’s acceptable. I’m allowed to be pissed for a little while.
“Jake, this doesn’t have to change things,” she says and her hand slips into mine as she steps forward, pinning me against the wall. “I really do love you. And I’ve got a place all lined up in San Francisco. You could come with me.”
The derisive snort that comes out of me is a bit meaner than I intended, especially considering something inside of me leaps at her offer. As hurt as I am part of me wants to just run away with her. Disappear to a new city and start over fresh with someone who I really care about. But there’s something, a nagging, lingering feeling, that I just can’t get rid of. That’s pulling me away even though all I want to do is get closer. “I can’t.”
Miranda’s smile falters. “Because of her?” she asks, almost condescendingly.
“No, because of me,” I say, straightening up. “And because of you. Because the more I think about it, the more I think maybe it’s not me you’re in love with. I think maybe you’re in love with the idea of this relationship, of the secrets and the sneaking around and the star-crossed lovers. And you know, I think maybe I am too. That maybe I have been all along.”
“What are you saying?” she asks and her eyes narrow. “You don’t love me?”
“At this moment, I genuinely don’t know,” I say and it comes out half-hysterical. “I really don’t. And I think that’s why I can’t come with you to California. I think we need some time to figure that out.”
The noise surprises me a split second before the pain sets in. I stagger against the wall as I touch my stinging cheek, squinting at Miranda. She’s red in the face, her eyes watery again, and she has her hand raised like she might hit me again. “You’re an asshole, Jacob Barnes,” she hisses. Then she turns on her heel and rushes out of the diner.
I linger in the hall for a minute, rubbing my sore cheek. Well there goes the last good thing I had going for me. I’m torn between being angry at what she did and heartbroken that she’s gone. Despite what she did, I do love her, or at least I think I do. I really thought she was The One for me and that we had a real chance for a future together. How did it come to this?
A tentative knock makes me look up and Eric is standing at the end of the hall. He points at me and signs O-K, an eyebrow raised questioningly.
“Not really,” I admit and a weary smile steals over my face. “But maybe someday.”