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red lights & bookshelves

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“Jess is gone.”

Rory couldn’t help thinking actually being punched would have hurt less. Would have been easier to breathe after, would have left him slightly less winded and disoriented and lost. But it wasn’t shocking. He’d known that something was wrong with Jess. He’d known for weeks. He knew she wasn’t upset with him about what happened at the party—that wasn’t her, throwing a tantrum and being a jerk about the lack of sex in their relationship. Something had been bugging her for a while. No, Rory wasn’t shocked that Jess left. But he had never felt this kind of stinging, empty, dull hurt in his life. It was hard to breathe, hard to nod, hard to listen as his mother kept talking. But he heard himself speak. Something about not thinking Jess would be back.

Then it happened. The blow faded, and the burning began. It was in his throat and eyes and heart and stomach. He wanted to be sick and scream and bludgeon anything nearby with whatever he could get his hands on. But mostly Rory just wanted to cry. He wanted to sob, and he never wanted to stop. He couldn’t see anything anymore—not the road, not his mother, not the car, not the books in his lap or the letter from Chilton naming him Valedictorian of their class that suddenly seemed so irrelevant and far away and stupid. His eyes were too blurred and pained. The only thing he could see was that yellow sign up ahead that he knew to read “Luke’s.” And he looked into the diner windows as best he could from where they sat at the light, and he held his breath to keep the strangled sob from escaping his swollen, aching throat when he didn’t see that curly head of long, dark hair behind the cash register.

“You okay?”

Rory could feel his mom’s eyes on him, and he could hear from her tone that she knew the answer to her question already. He didn’t have to answer. But if he just sat there that would be the truthful answer, and he couldn’t tell the truth. Not right now, maybe not ever. Not about Jess. Not about how he felt in this moment, sitting at this red light, holding evidence of what he’d worked his entire life to achieve but appreciating none of it anymore because he couldn’t see Jess cleaning up the diner alongside Luke. So he lied.

He nodded. “Yeah.”

That lie wouldn’t have fooled anyone. His voice was choked, and he barely whispered the word. Lorelai muttered something Rory couldn’t make out, then she took his hand and ran the red light. Rory made himself keep his eyes on the hands clasped in his lap—the hands that were somehow holding him together, the grip that was giving him a focus to keep the tears and vomit and anguish away.

Jess was gone. She’d left town. She’d left Luke. She’d left school.

She’d left Rory.

And in that moment, even while his mom argued with the police officer about the ticket she didn’t deserve, Rory couldn’t help drowning in the aching emptiness eating at him.

She’d left him, and she’d taken everything with her.


 

The mattress sucked. But at least it was something. Jess hadn’t been sure she’d get anything out of Jimmy out on the boardwalk. She wasn’t so surprised about Sasha. The lady liked taking in strays after all, and Jess was nothing if not a stray. She pulled the quilt around her shoulders, turning into the pillow and burying her face in the down. The house was quiet, except for the snoring of the dogs in the kitchen and outside. Sasha and Jimmy’s door was shut, and God only knew where Lily was. If she popped out from behind some shelf or under some table Jess might not be able to stop herself from reacting again.

But this room, Jimmy’s room… It wasn’t a bad place to want to hide. Jess understood, even though Lily was a little bizarre. The minute she stepped into Jimmy’s room, the second she smelled books and vinyl and saltwater, everything made sense. If there was a place for Jess in a home like this—a little hideaway with colorful walls and vintage pictures and more dogs than plates—she imagined it would in that room. She wanted to check the titles of the dozens of shelves of books. She wanted to pull out the records one by one and check out the albums and artists. She was glad Sasha set up the mattress in this room. The quiet of the house was terrifying and exhausting—no stereo or CD player or headphones here, so no music to chase away thoughts and fears and ghosts, and God only knew how many of those Jess had now—but the wonderful clutter of the perfect room provided some comfort and distraction.

Also if she shut her eyes and pretended hard enough, Jess might be able to convince herself that the dog snoring the loudest outside the window was Luke. She pulled her stuffed bear to her chest—that stupid little white thing Rory won her at the carnival, flattened and missing an eye and smelling like Rory and the diner and funnel cakes—and thought about what she’d tell Rory in the morning.

“I finally figured out where all my taste comes from,” she’d say. “He’s got a wall full of records, and another two walls lined with shelves full of books. Guess I’m not the family fluke, after all.”

But then reality reminded her that she wouldn’t be talking to Rory in the morning—she’d probably never be talking to Rory again. He had to hate her. He had to be agreeing with everyone in town about her now. Maybe he was even calling up Dawn to tell her how sorry he was to have dumped such an amazing, perfect girlfriend for the trashy, stupid screw-up. That’d be best for Rory, and Jess wouldn’t blame him. She’d never deserved someone like Rory. Everyone knew it.

Everyone except for Rory.

He was the only one besides Luke who’d wanted things to work between them—really work between them. He’d loved her, and she’d left him. How sick was that? She’d lied, and she’d left him. And she could have told him goodbye, could have explained on the bus before he got off at his stop. But he was heading to class at Chilton, then jetting off to Europe and then Yale in the fall. And Jess was homeless and pathetically chasing after the father who’d never wanted her. She let Rory get off the bus without a word, and then she’d cried for three hours straight.

She choked on a tiny sob. She burrowed into the pillow and blanket even further. But then she remembered that Luke and Rory, the only two people who really and truly gave a damn about her, were thousands of miles away, and no one else would be listening for her tears.