Jack was excused from school for the rest of the week, which left me on my own to face Jennifer. I dreaded seeing her that morning, but I never did. Instead I trudged along the halls by myself, killing time before first period. I felt lonely, and longed for a friend; with a sinking feeling I realized that I had no one, no one but Jennifer and her "gang." I was starting over in more ways than one in leaving her for Jack. I knew in my heart that it was what I wanted, what I needed and deserved, but at the moment it was a bit much to take in all at once.
In the library, Mrs. Kim bombarded me with questions about Jack's surgery and the results of the operation. I answered her in an indifferent tone with flat phrasing that left her looking confused. I was afraid she might have thought that I wasn't happy for Jack, so I said, "I've never seen him look so alive. I really envy him, in a way. I can't imagine going through something so tragic, and then having to bear the burden without knowing if I'd ever see release. He's been so strong; I've never known anyone to be so resilient. I'm really proud that he asked me to be with him through it all."
"Well, it's good to hear things went so well! I'm glad you two have become such good friends." She seemed at least a little relieved. "...Did he say what caused his blindness?" she asked suddenly. "I'd heard that there was an accident, that he wasn't always blind, but I never learned what happened."
After a quiet moment, I shook my head slowly. "Jack told me, Mrs. Kim, but I don't know how he'd feel about me telling anyone else."
She nodded quickly. "I understand, Ged." She patted my hand from where she sat across the study table from me. "Ged, is anything wrong? You don't seem terribly perky today."
I sighed. "I just...don't understand women, I guess, is the problem."
Mrs. Kim chuckled. "Honey, show me a man who does!"
I grinned at her half-heartedly. "So I'm not supposed to? That's just great. I wish I could say it makes me feel better, but I'm afraid it doesn't."
"Have you bought your prom tickets yet?" she asked.
"Yes," I admitted grudgingly. And therein lies the problem.
"Well," Mrs. Kim said thoughtfully, "if I had invited the wrong person to prom before I'd met the right one, I might be inclined to ask for my ticket back."
The bell ending first period sounded before I had a chance to react. Mrs. Kim gave my hand a gentle squeeze, then left me at the table and walked over to her desk. She lifted an armload of VCR tapes and went into the back room where the educational videos were kept, closing the door behind her.
I went through my morning classes in a daze. Some people asked me about Jack; I told them they could see for themselves how he was doing when he returned to school next week. And I couldn't keep what Mrs. Kim had said to me out of my head. What did she know, or think she knew? Would it actually be feasible for me to ask Jennifer for her prom ticket back, even though for some unknown reason she still thought we'd be attending the dance together? What made Mrs. Kim think I'd invited the "wrong person" to prom? Would Jack want something I'd given to Jennifer first, even if it was just paper?
At lunch time, I fed a dollar bill into the soda machine in the hall for a Coke, then went into the cafeteria to grab a burger and some fries. I'd just finished handing over another dollar to the lunchroom cashier when I felt a tap on my shoulder.
I turned around and found Rachel standing next to me. "Um... Hey, Ra--"
"Let's talk," she said shortly, and I trudged behind her to a table, feeling like I was walking underwater. This couldn't be good.
We sat down with our trays, but neither of us spoke or made any move to eat. I cleared my throat after a moment, then asked, "So...where's Jennifer?"
"That's what I want to talk to you about," she said, staring straight into my eyes. "She seems to be confused about something, though I don't know how she possibly could be, so I'm asking you to tell me the truth."
"The truth about what?"
"About Jack," she said, her eyes flickering away momentarily as though she were embarrassed to breach the subject.
I shrugged. "What do you want to know?"
Rachel looked down at her hands on the table, examining her nails for a moment in silence. "Look," she said at last, "I drove Jenn down to the park yesterday to meet with you. It was my idea, really--to get you guys alone together, away from school. But she came back to the car crying and said you'd broken up with her, that you were seeing someone behind her back. She said you told her--" She suddenly broke off and looked around, then dropped her voice to a whisper. "She said that the person you'd been seeing was...was Jack. And that you told her you're gay."
I stared hard at her. "...And?"
She looked too surprised to say anything. "And...I--I don't understand!"
"I wasn't trying to hurt Jennifer," I said sincerely. "I told her that. I told her that things just kind of happened, that nobody planned it this way, but this is who I am, and this is where I want to be. It wouldn't be fair to lie to her anymore, and it isn't fair to me, either."
"But what about the prom?!" she cried.
"Fuck the prom!" I said more harshly than I'd intended. I saw a few people staring, so I evened my voice and lowered it a little. "Look, I'm really sorry I can't go to the prom with Jennifer. It just wouldn't feel right, and it wouldn't be fair to Jack, either."
"But you've already bought the tickets! And Jenn's already bought a dress and shoes and everything!"
"Is that all girls think about?" I couldn't help letting slip. "She can wear the damn dress next year, and I'm the one who paid for the tickets, so all I have to do is ask her to give hers back to me."
"Wait a minute--just wait a minute! You're seriously not going to the prom with Jennifer?"
"No!" I said. "What do you think we've been talking about, homecoming?"
She looked completely mystified. "But Jenn just talked to you about things last night, and I heard you two make plans for after prom, and--"
"You were there?" I asked incredulously.
"Yes! Ged, Jenn had a sleepover last night. We were all sitting in her room studying for a geometry test, when our friend Laura changed the topic to the prom, and everyone wanted to see Jennifer's new dress. You should have seen her; she almost started crying right in front of all of us, but the girls kept pushing and pushing, and she finally went and tried the thing on for us.
"Then we started talking about--you know, after the prom--and the girls wanted to know where the two of you were supposed to be staying, and then she just... I don't know. She started saying all this stuff about you spending a fortune on buying her roses and renting a limo, and I guess things just kind of got carried away."
"A limo? Is she crazy? I couldn't afford that!" I huffed. "And roses? She just told me that she wanted carnations!"
"I didn't say anything because I wasn't sure if I'd missed something between the end of school and the start of the slumber party or what, but I guess she made it all up."
"Damn straight!" I said. "What the hell's gotten into her, anyway?"
"Oh, Ged! Her heart was just broken yesterday, so I can't blame her for not telling the truth at the party. It would have been just too painful for her."
"So I have to suffer, too?" I snapped.
She looked angry. "You are the one who cheated," she said coldly.
"And that gives Jennifer the right to drive me out of my mind?" I shoved my tray away from me with disgust. "Well, what am I supposed to do now?"
"You tell me," Rachel sighed. "I don't think she's going to let go of you so easily, especially not when her reputation's at stake."
I thought again about the stupid things girls worried about, but this time I didn't say anything. I might need Rachel's help getting Jennifer off my back.
"Can't you talk to her or something?"
"No! What would I say?" she cried. "She doesn't even know I'm talking to you right now."
"You're her best friend; hook her up with someone else or something."
"You want me to do what?"
I'd felt bad as soon as I said that. It sounded like I was trying to pawn a problem off on somebody else, but Jennifer had been my loyal companion for two full years--my best and only friend. I'd be lying if I said I wasn't lonely without her, that I didn't miss her. And the thought of her being with someone else even made me feel a twinge of jealousy. "Just... Oh, nevermind," I said. I knew I couldn't keep both Jennifer and Jack; remaining on good terms with both of them seemed like a contradiction to me, and I just didn't see it happening.
I found Jennifer and a group of girls flocking around my locker at the end of the school day. I sighed inwardly, and weighed my options. I could play it cool and just wave hi, grab my stuff and be on my way. But that probably wouldn't work, considering Jennifer was obviously waiting to see me, or to be seen with me. I could call her bluff, but that would probably just embarrass us both, and hurt her unnecessarily. Maybe I could make up an excuse, tell her I wouldn't be able to make it to prom because of an illness in the family. But that wouldn't make me any better than she was for lying.
I finally decided to just go with the flow and see what happened. I ignored the whole gang of them, pushing right by and undoing my combination lock.
"Hi, Ged," a girl said. I didn't even know her name, but I recognized her face from Jennifer's usual crowd.
"Hey," I said.
The girls all giggled.
I tried hard to ignore them and just put my books in my locker, but before I knew it Jennifer had sidled right up against me and wrapped her arm around my waist.
"Want to grab a shake with the gang at McDonald's?" she asked.
I turned around, slamming my locker behind me. "No," I said pointedly.
Her false smile never wavered. "Sorry, girls; I guess Ged just want to be alone with me for now."
The girls giggled amongst themselves again, so I just pushed through their little flock and headed for the school parking lot, Jennifer hot on my trail. I shoved open the school's front double doors and followed the sidewalk around the building, and my supposed ex-girlfriend had to practically run to keep up with me.
I didn't try and stop her from getting into my car, and didn't bother starting a quarrel by arguing with her defiant front. I just drove, and eventually she seemed to relax a little from her stiff position in the seat. After a while, she asked, "Where are we going?"
"I'm taking you home," I said sternly. She let out some kind of sound of protest, but I wouldn't have it. "You're lucky I didn't drop you off on the side of the road somewhere," I snarled, "so don't."
Soon I rolled up in front of her house, and again I didn't pull into the drive but just kept my foot on the brake, waiting for her to get out of my car--out of my life.
"Why?" she asked then, turning to face me at last. "Why do you...hate me?"
I turned to look at her, and the hard expression I'd held for the past fifteen minutes melted in an instant. Her eyes were brimming with tears, and she had an expression of anguish and guilt on her face.
"Oh, Jennifer... I don't--I could never--"
"Then why, Ged?" she sobbed, hot tears rolling down her cheeks and dripping onto the car's leather interior as she leaned toward me. "Why don't you love me? Why won't you just be with me?" She pressed her face to my chest and cried hard.
I put the car in park and killed the engine. I wrapped my arms around her and held her to me, stroking her hair soothingly. I wanted to say something, but "It's okay," and "Don't worry, I'm here with you" both sounded too stupid and inappropriate. So instead I just held her.
After a while, she lifted her red face and gazed up at me pleadingly. "Let's just forget about the past few weeks, okay?" she said suddenly. "Let's just pretend this never happened. Let's forget about him--"
"Let's forget about all of it. It will all go away and then you'll be with me, and--"
"You know I can't do that."
"--I'll be with you, and why, Ged? Why? I love you. Ged, I love you! Please, please don't leave me!"
She was in hysterics again, and didn't show any signs of stopping. I didn't know what to do or say, so this time I pushed her away gently. She tried to reach and grasp for me, to cling to whatever was left of us, but I had to break it off for good, now or never.
"Jennifer, I just don't love you. I can't make myself pretend I do, not when I love someone else. I'm sorry I've hurt you, but I can't help it. I really am sorry."
I was shocked when she suddenly stopped. Her tears and pleas just ended without a whimper or a sigh, and her face went dead cold. She lifted her bookbag from the floor of my car and opened the door to climb out, slamming it behind her.
She hadn't taken her eyes off me the whole time, and her stare wasn't pretty. She was glaring at me now through the open window, and her gaze was ice. "You're a liar," she spat with fire. "You're not sorry yet, Ged Summers, but you will be!"
With that she turned on her heels, stalking up the path to her house and going inside, slamming the door behind her without a second look.
Shakily, I turned the key in the ignition.
Sorry it's taken me so long to churn out this latest chapter! It just hit me all of a sudden, and I sat down and wrote the entire thing without taking a break. I'd worked on the chapter many times before, but it never seemed to go anywhere until today, when I reread the previous chapters and just decided to scrap what I'd done and start anew. It did the trick, and it's about time, too! I wasn't really sure if I could go on with it anymore, but all your encouraging reviews have taught me otherwise! I truly hope you enjoyed, and I look forward to reading your thoughts and opinions. As always, reviews, emails, and PMs greatly appreciated. Thank you!!!