The Truths and Lies of Happily Ever Afters

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Chapter Nineteen

Even though Miranda offers to drive me, I decide to walk across town to Ray’s house. I want the extra time to think, to plan out just how I’m going to say this. Also I have a feeling showing up at the house of the girl you’re about to confess your love to in your ex-girlfriend’s car is probably not the most tactful way of going about things. I might be an idiot about these things overall but even I know that’s a bad idea.

It’s an unnaturally warm day out for Washington, the sky mostly clear and summer in its full glory. Everyone seems to be out enjoying the good weather and it lifts my spirits as I make my way into the neater residential part of town. Surely nothing bad can happen on a day like this. Maybe I can even convince Ray to go to the beach with me, and for once I can admire her bikini without feeling ashamed and uncomfortable.

I spot the turquoise jeep before I can make out the house and I smile eagerly. Good, she’s home. My pace picks up just slightly and it doesn’t take long at all before I’m mounting the steps in front of their house. I take a minute to smooth out my appearance – flatten my curls, straighten my glasses, rub wrinkles from my shirt – before I finally lift a hand and knock.

There’s a minute of quiet and then some shuffling and murmurs. The door finally opens and to my great misfortune, it’s Ray’s dad. All six-plus-feet, rippling muscles, and Easter Island unibrow of him. He’s wearing a wife-beater with his jeans and somehow that manages to make him look even more terrifying.

“Uh, hi Mr. Nejem,” I say, not able to keep up the same enthusiasm I had under his heavy gaze. “I was looking for Zarayha. I need to talk to her. It’s important.”

Mr. Nejem’s evil eyebrow curves down in the middle like the villain from an old melodrama. “Oh is that so?”

“Yes, sir,” I say, and then before I can lose my nerve I plow on. “Look, I know I screwed up with her. There’s really no excuse for that. I was confused and scared, and it was just really bad timing. But I’m not anymore. Confused, I mean. I love her and I need to tell her that. Please just let me talk to her.”

It’s frightening just how little expression shows on the man’s face. His frown never flickers and he’s so still I wonder if he might be frozen. “She’s gone.”

“What? No, please, sir,” I beg. “I get that you’re trying to protect her but I’m serious.”

“No, I mean she’s really not here,” Mr. Nejem interrupts. Confused, I glance sideways at the turquoise jeep parked in the drive. A red For Sale sign in the passenger window makes my eyes widen. “We drove up to the airport in Seattle last night.”

“Where’d she go?” I ask even though I already know the answer.

“New York,” Mr. Nejem says. My stomach drops. “She’s already got an apartment squared away. She’s even got a few auditions lined up.”

“No, no, this can’t be happening.” I curse, kicking the doorstep in frustration.

“Can I give you some advice?” Mr. Nejem says, his voice still perfectly calm and controlled despite my outburst. “I like you, kid.” Well that comes as a shock. I’ve lived under the impression that he’s hated me all this time. If that’s how he is with people he likes, I’d hate to be on his bad side. “And I know how much my Ray cares about you, so I’m going to be straight with you. Leave her alone.”

I stagger back like he physically hit me. “What?”

“Ray is in a bad place right now,” Mr. Nejem explains slowly. “She’s got a lot she’s trying to figure out. So my advice is leave her alone, give her some space, and when she feels better she’ll come to you if that’s what she still wants.”

“And if she decides I’m not what she wants anymore?” I ask.

Mr. Nejem’s frown softens ever so slightly, so much I almost wonder if I didn’t imagine it. “You never know what that much time and space will do to you, boy,” he says. “Might be it works out for the best. Either way, there is nothing to be done but wait and see.” With that he nods and then steps into the house and closes the door.

I stand on the front porch for a few minutes in a state of shock. The conversation is playing on repeat in my head and I reevaluate every sentence, every word, for some other way to make sense of it. Anything but the terrible truth that is staring me in the face.

After a while I start walking, hoping that maybe the motion and the rhythm will help me clear my head but I come up with nothing. I move on auto-pilot, letting my feet carry me along the now familiar path. Before I know it I’m back at Eric’s house, curled up on the sofa I just vacated not all that long ago. And with the halt in motion comes a halt in my thoughts. Reality bowls me over like a bulldozer.

I’ve lost her.

After everything, all of the hell I’ve gone through, it ends like this.

I want to fight it, protest and pull with every muscle, to make it something different but I can’t. As much as I want things to be better between us, as much as I want that future I always privately dreamed of having with Ray, I know that I can’t. She deserves better. She deserves the time and space to figure everything out on her own without me adding my feelings to the mix.

So I make a promise to myself and to her that I will give her exactly what she needs, no matter how much it hurts me. For the first time, I’m going to be the one to give her what she needs.


It’s when I’m explaining my rationality to Eric that I finally break down. Honestly I’m a bit impressed that it took me so long. As previously stated, I’m not exactly the picture of testosterone. I’ve cried at my fair share of Disney movies and Of Mice and Men still gets me every time. So the fact that it takes me until this moment to finally crumple under the weight of it all is nothing short of miraculous.

So I sit on Eric’s sofa and try to be as manly as I can while there are tears streaming down my face. I keep wiping them away with my sleeve but they won’t stop coming. It doesn’t help that the comforting hand Eric places on my back feels really nice and then I’m crying because this mute cook is the closest thing I have to family in the world now. That brings on a whole new wave of tears. Then I’m crying out of pure frustration that I can’t stop crying and damn it all but I’m tired of being weak.

I look up when Eric taps me on the top of the head and he gives me a sympathetic look. Then he uses his free hand to sign and I have to blink a few times to clear my vision enough to read the letters. G-O-A-F-T-E-R-H-E-R.

“I can’t,” I say, shaking my head. I let out a heavy breath and slump back into the cushions of the sofa, which are so old and flat they hardly soften the blow of hitting the wooden framework. “Because her dad’s right. She deserves better.”

Y-O-U-L-O-V-E-H-E-R.

“And that’s why I’m letting her go,” I say with a shrug. “That’s what she needs. Now all I can do is hope that someday when she gets her head cleared, she’ll call me. If not, maybe she doesn’t really love me at all.”

For some reason that makes Eric frown and he gestures for me to wait a moment. He stands up and walks into the back of the house. I crane my neck to see what he’s doing but I can’t see him passed the bedroom door so I give up and relax back onto the sofa to wait. It’s several minutes later when I hear the creaking floorboards signaling that he’s coming back. When I see what he's carrying, my heart stutters.

It's a little cardboard box, and green glitter glue on the side spells out "Jake" in a painfully familiar script. Even without looking inside, I know what it is: the box where Ray hid all my mom's things that she stole back from Doug's office.

Eric sets the box on the coffee table and then passes me a piece of yellow legal paper. His sharp, all-caps scrawl covers the page at an angle, clearly written in a hurry.

THIS WAS ON THE DOORSTEP THIS MORNING BUT YOU WERE ASLEEP SO I JUST BROUGHT IT IN.

The paper crumples in my fist and with my other hand I reach out and brush my fingers over the flaky glitter. Even through everything, with how angry she is at me, she thought to bring me my mother’s things back. It was probably the last thing she did before leaving Tickuma.

I open the box and sitting on the very top of everything is a worn out picture, the edges faded and wrinkled with time and fingers. It’s a picture of my mother, during the time when her hair was long and her hands were always covered in paint spots. Sitting on either side of her are ten-year-old versions of Ray and I, speckles of green and red paint on our faces. We’re all three beaming and as I stare at the photo I can’t remember ever being happier than I was in that moment.

Feeling sentimental, my eyes still a bit misty, I start rifling through the contents of the box. The more I look, the more I realize that for every trinket that reminds me of my mom, there’s another that makes me think of Ray. The pebble shaped like a duck that my mom found for me while we were on a picnic; the birthday card Ray gave me for my eleventh birthday with a campy Shakespeare caricature on the front; my mom’s favorite bracelet with the little elephant charm; a pair of 3D glasses with the old red and blue lenses that Ray and I got from an old comic book we bought together in junior high.

Beneath a stack of photos from Christmases past, I find a little pink post-it note covered in Ray’s familiar loopy cursive.

Jakey, I’m sorry I couldn’t be the one but I know that one day you’ll find a real princess. Whatever you do, never give up on your writing. You really are brilliant. Love always, Ray.

For a long while I sit and stare at the piece of little pink paper and Ray’s last words to me. A strange sense of peace and acceptance settles over me. And then I reach into the bag that still holds all of my things and I pull out the little leather-bound notebook that Ray gave me for my birthday.

Eric taps my arm and signs O-K?

“Yeah,” I say, tracing my fingers over the J pressed in the cover. “Yeah, I think I am.”

I pick up a pen and I start to write.

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