Jamie stood looking at her counterpart. Lily’s posture was bold and aggressive, flawless. She really was Jamie’s masterpiece.
“I’ll ask again, Jamie,” she leaned in with her arms crossed, “…what are you doing?”
“He.. he wants me.”
“What about Cole?” Lily asked.
“Cole?” Jamie laughed a little. “Is that what this is about?”
Lily cocked an eyebrow. She was waiting for a better answer.
“I mean… Rob Denhart or… Cole Sheldon?” She gestured like she was weighing the names in her hands. “Who cares?” she laughed again.
“Don’t I what?”
“Don’t you care about him?” Lily was maintaining intense eye contact.
“No,” she scoffed, “I didn’t even really like him.” she said to her feet.
Heat rose up in Jamie’s face, she started to panic. Why was Lily here? Asking about Cole of all people?
“You almost slept with him.”
“Yeah, well I didn’t.” she said defensively.
“HE COULD HAVE BEEN ANYONE!” Jamie screamed and the noise was deafening. Her words echoed into the distance.
They stared at each other. Jamie stood in shock, she hadn’t meant to say that. Lily seemed startled too. Like an actor in a play where someone had said something decidedly off-script. Her posture turned inward, she held her arms and turned away from Jamie.
Is that right? Jamie thought to herself. It couldn’t be…
Clouds had grown overhead and rain started to fall gently. The edges of the field began to blur more closely and the low hum grew louder. But Jamie took no notice. She was lost in thought. She remembered that night with Cole, how she had cried so hard she threw up. And the next day when she returned his bag, he wouldn’t look at her. After that she had gone home and written some of her most intense stories about Rob, including the one that drew his response.
It didn’t seem like the actions of someone who didn’t care. And yet she had been right. She had no feelings for Cole whatsoever. He was a dull, fumbling boy with no passion for anything except Counterstrike and comic books.
So why… her thoughts were interrupted by a crash of thunder. It was pouring now. Water was dripping off her nose. She had no idea how much time had past. Jamie strained to see Lily through the sheets of torrential rain. Some distance away, she now sat crouched, hugging herself in the grass.
Jamie came toward her in the rain, “Lily?” she yelled over the thunder.
She was facing away but Jamie could see her arms jerking wildly. The blurred edge was only a few feet away now and hum was making her head pound. The dream was unraveling. Jamie’s shoes were sinking into the mud as trudged over to Lily and looked her. She could hear her crying.
Lily’s face was red. She had clawed her eyes and torn the skin straight down to her chin. Jamie reeled back but her shoes stuck in the ground and she fell into the muddy grass.
Her face… her beautiful, perfect face! Jamie looked on horrified. But having seen her Lily finally straightened up. Her legs had sunk into the mud, she looked like a disembodied torso. She lunged forward and grabbed Jamie’s foot as she began sinking farther. Jamie shrieked and kicked as hard as she could. But she couldn’t shake her. They both sunk deeper as the rain came down until everything went black.
Jamie woke up with a start on the bus.
It was empty. The passengers and driver gone. They had pulled over onto the side of the road into a gas station. She grabbed her bag and walked down the aisle. The front door was open and Jamie stepped down. Something was wrong. The station was empty. It was completely deserted and looked like it had been for years. Two rusty pumps stood in front of a desolate looking office. Weeds had sprouted out of the cracks in the cement.
A cold panic ran down her body, she had been abandoned.
“Hello?” she called out. No response but her own echo.
How long has she been asleep? She pulled her phone out to check the time. 2:37pm. She had been asleep for two hours, meaning she was too far away to walk back.
“Shit shit shit…” she scrolled to her mother’s number, but hesitated. What would she say? Could she even find the words to explain what she was doing? 2:30pm. Her mom would have started drinking at about eleven. She may not even pick up. Even if she did, she wouldn’t be able to drive out here. No, she decided. She stuck her phone back in her pocket.
She looked down the highway. There were buildings in the distance. Not her destination, but probably somewhere she could rest and get some food. Her stomach growled loudly as if on cue.
Screw it, I’ll walk. She picked up her bag and headed out onto the roadside.
I could use the exercise anyway.
Her cheek felt warm as she walked. It must have been from sleeping against the window of the bus. Then she remembered her dream. How Lily had been exactly how she imagined and then so…
Jamie shivered at the memory.
Crazy. She thought. That’s how she looked. Completely mad. And that stuff about Cole? That night had seemed forever ago. Now it felt like it happened yesterday.
She kept walking.
… Had she meant it? When she said, “he could have been anyone”? Looking back she had only had a few conversations before, mostly involving school. If they hadn’t been lab partners they probably may have never hooked up.
But why Cole? He was a tall, lanky boy. With a small chin and short blonde hair. But his eyes were green, like Rob’s eyes, she remembered that. Round globes of forest green. She stared into them and something touched her deep inside. Rob’s eyes…
“Your eyes are green, I never noticed before.” she had said. It sounded familiar now that she thought about it… It was a line from a TV show she had seen as a child. It was one of those soft core, romantic skit shows that were always on late night cable. The woman had seemed hesitant at first, even scared. But the gentlemen was persistent enough. She might have gotten in trouble if she was ever caught watching them, but no one ever came in, so she never did. They had shared a moment, and then kissed just like in the show. But the similarities ended there. The woman in the show didn’t get rebuffed and humiliated at school the next day.
She had a feeling that everyone knew. None of them would ever talk to her, so Jamie didn’t know why it mattered. But it did. It mattered a lot. The thought of going back to school and facing all their smug faces for another day made her stomach twist up. Seeing them whisper and laugh.
“Did you hear about Jamie? She couldn’t even make it with Cole Sheldon!” she thought. In a way she almost wished they would say something like that. But the pretty girls never said anything about her.
The pretty girls with their pretty hair. Their goddamn hair! How the fuck did they get it to do that anyway? It’s not that they teased her. They ignored her. The bathrooms at school would be full of them, giggling and gossiping. Jamie would sit on the toilet and just listen to the chatter. They talked about people she didn’t know, shows she didn’t watch. But the moment Jamie would walk out of the stall everything came to a halt. They would smile absentmindedly at her through the mirror and then out the door they went. As far as they were concerned Jamie Ann Bentley was another fucking species. An alien at the watering hole. Fuck them.
Up ahead she could see another gas station, but this one was open. There was a diner attached and it looked busy. Good, she thought. I’ll feel better once I eat and get some directions.
She kept walking.
She wondered if she could turn this little adventure into a story. One only Rob and herself would know the secret of it’s origins. She smiled. How romantic…
Jamie had never written much before becoming part of the Xcute fandom, but once she started she found she loved the whole process. Everything in Storyland had a purpose. Nothing was random, everything made sense. In Storyland, she was Lily von Eades. No one could resist her charms, especially Rob, who had fallen for her in a dozen different stories. More if you counted the one where he got amnesia. Writing soothed her. Whenever a day had been especially bad Jamie would go home and write. Taking the stairs two at a time- bypassing her mom’s couch- she would shut herself away in her room and write. It felt… powerful.
Jamie had made it to the diner called “Pammy’s”, it looked like a 50’s retro place but from the aged look of it, she thought it was authentic. She took this as a good sign. Back when her family would take road trips, her dad used to say old beat up joints were the best.
“Well they’re still here aren’t they, JamJam?” he would say. Jamie missed her dad.
She pulled the glass door open. Red booths with duct tape patches, a rotating display of pies and country music playing on a tinny radio. Another day she might have rolled her eyes, but after the weirdness of the morning she found these All American stand-bys deeply comforting. She took a deep breath and smelled french fry grease. Yes. She thought.
“Booth or bar, hon?”said an waitress with graying hair pulled back in a bun.
“Oh, uh bar please. It’s just me.”
She had a seat at the bar and unfolded the large menu in front of her. Didn’t matter, she knew what she wanted” hamburger and french fries with a Coke.
She ordered and stared at the counter for a while. Her feet hurt, it felt good to sit. She normally took the bus to school and couldn’t remember the last time she had walked this far. Her mind wandered…
The nightmare had felt real. More real then any nightmare before. She could smell the water and grass, feel the wind and rain on her face. When she had woken up she was surprised her clothes weren’t soaked. And Lily… God. She remembered the very real slap when Lily had grabbed her leg in the mud. Jamie had never been so afraid in her life. Why had she done that? She remembered they had spoken, but the details had faded. Something about… Rob?It was gone.
Her food came. A juicy hamburger and krinkle cut fries with a Coke in a tall blue glass. She had never been so happy to see a burger in her life. She tucked in and her spirits lifted.
She had decided to put Cole behind her. The nightmare had just addled her, stirred up her emotions. It seemed ridiculous to be thinking about Cole when Rob was within her reach. Ungrateful, even. She figured she should start rehearsing what she would say when they met.
Jamie looked to her right, an older man sat next to her at the bar. He was slim with dark, graying hair, a bulbous nose. He had left one stool between them. Their eyes met just as Jamie had taken a huge bite out of her burger, she smiled awkwardly and gestured a sorry. He chuckled. She swallowed and said,
“Sorry, just happy to see food. I walked here.”
“Did you? Grace, bacon cheeseburger, please.” he gestured airily to the waitress. His voice was bright and neighborly. She nodded.
“I thought you looked like you had t a lot on your mind,” he said, sounding vaguely Southern. “Looks like it was just your appetite.” he smiled.
She paused for a moment and drank her Coke.
“Well…yeah, I guess I do. Um, I’m Jamie” Jamie said and stuck out her hand.
He shook it and nodded, “Pete”. When he faced her head on she saw his right eye had a milky cast to it and looked away quickly.
“I’m in here a lot, it’s on my route. Never seen you before. You new to the area?”
“Oh no, I’m just passing through. I’m uh, meeting my boyfriend.” It was a stupid lie. Pete hadn’t given off any of what the girl’s called “creeper signals”, he was old enough to be her dad, but it was just habit.
“He the one given all that grief?” the waitress, Grace, joined them and refilled Jamie’s soda.
Jamie laughed. “Ha, no. That was…forever ago.” she waved her hand dismissively.
She had intended that to be the end of it, but the two paused as if waiting for her to say more. It looked like Pammy’s was the type of place people came to unload.
“We were… on a date. And I guess I got rejected.” Jamie shrugged casually and ate her fries. That was as close as she could get to explaining to two strangers.
“Aw, hun.” Grace patted her hand and Pete nodded thoughtfully. He seemed to understand despite Jamie’s vague description.
He leaned in conspiratorially to them, “When I was about fourteen, I asked this girl out to the movies. Georgeous girl! Annie Nelson, I’ll never forget. I had like her since we were kids. Anyway she said yes, right? I told her I would meet her there. But when she showed up…”
The two women waited for the punchline.
…”I was so scared I hid in the dumpster.”
Grace and Pete erupted in laughter. She slapped the counter and walked away. Jamie smiled.
“She was probably really confused when you didn’t show up.” she said finally. Her voice sounded more strained than she had intended.
“Thing you got to remember about boys is this: they’re jest as scared as you.” he said.
Jamie looked at him for a moment, confused.
“…you think he was scared?”
“Sure, boy your age? Probably nervous as Hell.” he said and ate some fries.
Jamie thought back to Cole’s face. The scared, deer-in-headlights look he got when she pulled out the condom. She had replayed the scene a thousand times in her head and it still made her stomach drop.
Her phone suddenly sprang to life with the newest XCUTE ringtone. She pulled it out of her pocket. It was a text, the number was unfamiliar. It was the address of a hotel with the message:
“I’ll be here all weekend. Drop by if you can -RD”
R.D. Rob Denhart! Jamie felt electrified. She couldn’t stop smiling, she had been so caught up in things she had almost forgotten where she was going. She was going to meet her idol, her muse, and possibly her true love. He was going to change her life. But her happiness was short lived.
“Your bill, miss.” a woman’s voice from behind her. Jamie looked up and nearly choked on her Coke.
It was Lily. She was dressed like a waitress and holding a pot of coffee, but it was Lily. Her auburn waves were pulled back in a ponytail, her face was still gashed from her eye to her chin, dried blood had crusted on her cheek. Her cool blue eyes were staring right at her. A fictional character of her own invention. Right there, in the flesh.
“Whenever you’re ready.”
Jamie was frozen in shock. Her heart was pounding so hard she thought the burger she just ate might come up. She jerked herself to her feet, scrambling for her bag as she backed away from the waitress, toward the door, never taking her eyes off of her face. It was frozen, emotionless. Just two blue eyes staring right into Jamie’s soul. Other customers were beginning to stare too. But at Jamie.
Grace called out, “Hon, your bill?”
Pete craned his neck to see what was happening, “It’s okay Grace. I’ll get it.” he called out to Jamie, “You okay, sweetie?”
Lily raised a perfect eyebrow, “Something wrong, miss?” she took a step toward Jamie.
“GET AWAY FROM ME!” Jamie shrieked and she bolted out the door. She ran down the side of the highway, looking behind her as she ran. No one was following her, although quite a few people were looking at her out the Pammy’s front window.
She ran out of breathe quickly and slowed to a brisk walk, but she kept looking behind her. Waiting for Lily to come out of the door. To follow her. Or appear in front of her when she turned back to the road. Lily could contort backwards and scuttle after her like a human crab for all she knew. Nothing would surprise her after what she wad just seen.
Rob. She thought. She could call the number back and have him come get her. Maybe he would send a car. Deciding this was the best option, she felt her pocket for her phone.
Nothing. No way. She thought. There’s no fucking way.
She checked the rest of her pants and her bag too. She didn’t have it, meaning it was sitting on the counter back at Pammies.
Jamie looked back towards the diner window. She thought she could still see the figure of Lily, still holding the coffee pot. Staring back out at her.
There was no way she could go back now.