The Truths and Lies of Happily Ever Afters

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Epilogue

Five Years Later


“To Alice, please,” the teenage girl on the other side of the table asks. I nod and pick up my pen before accepting the book she’s handing my way. For a second I just admire the cover. The Cinderfella Blog, by Jacob Barnes. It’s got a bit of a cheesy design, a laptop screen with a pixelated heart on it, but my editor said that it would help draw in the young female demographic. Since the new editions of the book are coming out with New York Times Bestseller printed along the top edge, I can’t argue with her expertise.

I flip open to the first page and hastily sign the dedication sheet before passing it back to her. “Here you go,” I say, offering her as winning a smile as I can manage. Considering I’ve been at this for the last two hours, it’s not much of one. Thankfully the girl doesn’t seem deterred as she chirps a thanks and scampers off with her cluster of friends who all just had their copies signed.

Leaning back to the woman who’s hovering behind me, I ask, “Jen, we nearly done?”

“Only a few more,” my agent and publicist, Jennifer, answers. “I’ve already had them stop the line, there’s just a handful left.”

Putting my smile back on, I straighten up and reach out to take the next book. It’s another hour before the last person in line finally saunters off and I let out a breath of relief. “My hell that was a long line,” I say, standing up and stretching out my back which is sore from sitting in one position so long.

“What can I say? New York loves you,” Jennifer says with a shrug, already tapping away on her smartphone. “I’m just going to go out front and talk to the store manager and then we can go, alright honey?”

“Thanks Jen,” I say and start pacing in a small circle to get the feeling back into my legs. I hear the door shut behind me as I look around the little bookshop we’re in. It’s kind of nice to be in a little shop again after so many signings at Barnes and Nobles. I like these smaller ones better. The people are friendlier and often times they like the book more than the people who just show up at the big chain stores because someone will be there, whether they’ve read the book or not.

I am just helping myself to another glass of water when I hear Jen come back into the room. “Jake, honey, I know you’re tired but we’ve got one more,” she says. “I really think you should sign this one.”

“Right, okay,” I agree even as my right hand cramps up in terror at the thought of having to sign my name one more time. The people who buy and read my book are the reason I’m doing as well as I am now, so even though I’m exhausted and want nothing more than to get back to my tiny New York apartment and have dinner, I sit down at the table and wait for the last person to come in. Probably some little kid, if Jen thinks it’s so important they get an autograph. She's got a soft spot for kids.

My phone buzzes in my pocket and I’m in the middle of checking it when footsteps approach the table. A book slides across the wood surface and before I can look up, “Make it out to Zarayha, would you?”

My head snaps up so fast the muscles in my neck seize. There she is, standing across from me in a bright blue dress. The colors are gone from her hair, which hangs halfway down her back now, but the colorful bangles and necklace made of bottle caps give her away as much as the familiar features of her face. “Ray,” I say in surprise, bolting to my feet. The chair I was sitting in clatters to the floor behind me and I wince at my obvious eagerness.

“Hi, Jake,” she says and smiles. Dear God, I’d forgotten what a pretty smile she has.

“What’re you doing here?” I ask. It’s probably a rude, tactless question but we haven’t spoken to each other in five years. Not since the day she told me to leave her alone and I let her go off to her dreams on Broadway without a fight. We haven’t had any contact in all that time, and yet here she is, standing in front of me at one of my book signings.

“I want an autograph, obviously,” she says, laughing as she taps the cover of her copy of my book. “That and I wanted to ask you a question. See I’ve been performing in this little show down on Broadway.”

“Congratulations,” I say, even though I already knew this. She’s starring in a revival of West Side Story. I’ve seen it three times already and she’s absolutely amazing.

“Thanks,” she says. “But see, I get flowers from fans every once in a while. It’s nothing all that weird. But then last night I got these roses but they came with something a little funny.” From the pocket of her jacket she pulls out a little plastic sack of gummy bears and I bite my lip to hide an embarrassed smile. “I thought, who do I know who is a resident expert on gummy bears, and you were the first person who came to mind. I was wondering if you knew what this meant.”

“I’d imagine it means that someone who used to be your best friend really loved your show,” I say with a shrug, trying and probably failing to seem casual. I fidget with my glasses for a second before pushing them back into place. Taking a deep breath, I power on. “And that he wanted you to know that even after all this time, you’re still his best friend and the best actress he’ll ever know.”

“And this?” she asks, lifting up her copy of The Cinderfella Blog.

“What do you mean?” I ask in confusion.

“You wrote about us,” she says. She flips the cover open and reads the summary printed on the dustjacket. “Aspiring artist Kristopher Green wanted nothing more from life than to find the fairy tale princess that a lifetime of Disney films had promised him. When he meets a charming girl who matches all the criteria online, only to find out she lives in his hometown, it seems like everything is lining up. But there’s something going on with his lifelong best friend and first love, Tanya, a quirky and outgoing musician. What is a boy supposed to do when he winds up with two princesses, and what does it mean for his happily ever after ending?

“Oh that,” I say and feel the back of my neck heating up. I hate that after all this time she can still make me blush. “Well they tell you to write what you know. Spoiler alert though, the book has a much better ending. When Tanya leaves, Kris follows her to New York with a whole portfolio of paintings and drawings he’s done of her over the years in secret, confesses his love, and they actually get a happy ending. My editor thought the original ending was a little too depressing.”

“How did it originally end?” she asks.

“Tanya goes off to fulfill all her dreams while Kris spent four years painting a masterpiece in his tiny apartment in the same stupid town he’d grown up in.” That’s a lie, the book always had the happy ending. But this fake ending is what happened in my life. I lived with Eric for another six months after Ray left before I finally got my own place, but I stayed in Tickuma, working at the diner while I finished writing the story of my life. It was only after I’d been accepted by my publisher and the first big royalties paycheck showed up in my bank account that I moved to New York.

“That is rather sad,” Ray agrees. She picks at her fingernails for a minute while we both try to think of something to say. I have to marvel at how alien this situation is; there was a point in my life when I could say any and everything I wanted to to her, and now we can’t even come up with a bit of small talk. Ray smiles, and as if she was thinking the same thing, she says, “It’s been a long time. You look good.”

“So do you,” I say. “I miss the colors in your hair though.”

She laughs and twists a bit of hair through her fingers. “So do I, but I had to take them out because of the show,” she says and shrugs. Then she glances at her watch and winces. “Which reminds me, I really need to get going. I’ve got a rehearsal to run before tonight’s show. We’ve been open for weeks and the stage manager still constantly wants to change the blocking. But we should get coffee sometime and catch up. Are you going to be in New York for a while?”

“Tour’s over, I’m back for at least a couple months,” I say. “Unless Jen pushes up the launch date for the international release, but even then I’m around for a bit.”

“Awesome,” Ray says and pushes her copy of my book across the table. “Now I think you still owe me an autograph. And if you just so happen to add a number, I can call it on my next night off.”

Grinning, I pick up the Sharpie I’ve been using to sign and turn her book to the dedication page. The single line of print “For her, always,” stares up at me from the stark white page. I uncap the marker and sign the page, printing my phone number underneath the sloppy signature. Hundreds of times later, my signature still looks like crap. When I close the book, I pass it back to her. Our fingertips brush as she accepts it.

“Thanks, Mr. Barnes,” she says, putting on the voice of a teenage girl and bouncing slightly in her spot.

“Oh please no,” I say even as I’m laughing. “I’ve just sat through hours of that. No more.”

She smirks mischievously but then sighs. “I’m really sorry, but I’ve got to go,” she says. “Mauricio will kill me if I’m late again. But I’ll call you soon, okay?”

“Go ahead, I’ll talk to you later,” I say, waving her toward the door. She opens her arms for a hug and leans across the table, and I hug her back. She surprises me by planting a quick kiss on my cheek and then she’s gone and out the door.

I watch her back as she passes the window at the front of shop until she disappears from my view. There’s a soft smile on my face and I touch the spot on my cheek where her lips had been just seconds ago. Jen walks back over and for once she’s looking up from her phone to actually meet my gaze. “How you doing?” she asks tentatively.

“I’m good, Jen,” I respond and my grin widens. “Great, actually.”

“That’s really her, huh? The girl from the book?”

“Yeah, that’s her,” I agree a bit dazedly.

Jen fidgets with her smartphone. “You guys worked things out?”

“Not yet,” I say. The list of things that are hovering between us is lengthy, a half decade of silence and a stockpile of old problems and angry words and unresolved fights. It all floats about the tenuous thread of our friendship like the blade of a guillotine waiting for the signal to drop and sever our relationship forever. There’s still so much at risk, but for the first time in ages, there’s something warm and alive in my chest. Hope.

It may not be a fairy tale ending, and there’s still a good possibility that happiness is not in the cards for us, but it’s something. And you know what? I’m okay with that.

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