Jess had never given much thought to how he would die. Or, well, that was only half true. Ever since he was around seven years old, he’d had this growing realization that he was never going to make it past thirty. Not that he wanted to die, he actually enjoyed quite a few things in life. Books were nice. As was smoking, people watching, good music, all the works. But it seemed like life itself was hellbent on making every year Jess spent on the planet a total hellscape, and with each month that passed by, a new challenge would enter his world and make it harder for him to get by. Jess just didn’t have the stamina or strength or luck to survive long enough for a retirement plan.
If you asked him how he imagined dying though, he wouldn’t give you a well thought out answer. “In a ditch somewhere,” would probably be it, although what ditch and how he would end up perishing in it was unclear. There were plenty of people you could ask instead of Jess, who had plenty of detailed ideas about how he’d go. Lung cancer. With his head split open by some convicted killer while in jail for petty crimes because he had the nerve to pick a fight with said convicted killer. Drunk driving or roadkill from drunk drivers. Falling off a building while high off his ass. Stabbed in some alley by armed robbers because that would just be Jess’ luck.
But no one would ever think Jess to be the kind to die in the place of someone he loved. Not Jess either. He didn’t think some snotty asshole who skulked around Washington Square Park would ever have the means and opportunity. But as far as dying goes, Jess wouldn’t mind that one. In fact, as he was lying on the ground, blood seeping slowly out of his body and pooling under his clothes, he felt like it was the best way to go.
But he was getting ahead of himself.
Part 1: Sunset
He wasn’t going to miss his mom, but Jess was definitely going to miss New York. The hole in the wall music stores, and book shop owners who’d raised him on classics and counterculture alike. The towering metal cylinders that’d shaped his daily view. Fran Lebowitz and pizza and picking apart Scorsese’s movies for what was and wasn’t authentic. But Jess wasn’t going to regret leaving New York, not when he had no other choice. It was either leaving with Liz on her soul-searching journey with a renaissance fair troupe or get shipped off to some random small town in Connecticut with his uncle. He was hoping the latter didn’t have any affinity for colorful tights.
Uncle Luke picked him up outside the building where him and Liz’ former apartment now stood empty. Not that there was a lot of space to cover. Jess was sitting on top of his book-boxes and taking a drag off a cigarette, half of it already turned to ash floating to the ground like polluted snow, when the Chevrolet Custom Camper found a parking spot right in front of Liz. His mother jumped into a gruntled Luke’s arms and repeated the same bullshit speech about how thankful she was to get Jess somewhere ‘safe and stable’ – like she wasn’t just happy to get him off her hands. Jess breathed the nicotine in one final time and dropped his cigarette, stood up from the box and crushed the little thing with the sole of his shoe.
“Jess.” Liz’ brother positioned himself awkwardly in front of Jess. He had a blue baseball cap on his head and his flannel shirt was covering a grey tee. He had bags under his eyes that looked like they belonged there, but the gaze itself was clearly uncomfortable. “Luke,” Jess replied stiffly as he sized up his relative. It looked like Luke was about to say something when they both felt the scrutinizing eyes of Liz from the side. “Okay! So, uh…” his uncle tried but trailed off quickly. Luke pointed to the boxes and said “I’ll, uh, take that.” “Cool,” Jess answered and swung a green duffel bag with his essentials – toiletries, sentimental shirts, his top twelve paperbacks, etc. – over his shoulder and stepped into the passenger seat.
In the state of Connecticut, under an everchanging seasonal climate and in a constant cover of forest, there’s a small town called Stars Hollow. Foundation: 1779. Population: 9973 people. Number of stores selling porcelain unicorns: 12. This was where Jess was moving. With an uncle he hadn’t seen since he was seven. And with nothing but a plan to save up enough money to buy a car and get out.
“Your hair’s longer,” Luke grunted from the driver’s seat as they passed the cheery welcome sign to town. The ride from New York had been dead silent and agonizingly slow. Jess had wanted to just grab one of the books at the top of his bag and disappear into it for the time being, but every time he was getting to focusing on the words on the page, Luke’s nervous eyes would bore into the side of him. Jess didn’t lift his head or look up as he responded: “Cut it two weeks ago.” “Oh,” Luke let out, fidgeting with his grip on the steering wheel. “Guess it grew out again.”
They drove around a square with an old wooden gazebo in the middle, and Luke stopped the car in front of a corner diner. There were two signs at the top: one large spelling out “WILLIAM’S HARDWARE”, and one small and round coffee cup shaped sign sticking out on the side with “Luke’s” written on it in some cooky font. As they exited the car, Jess pulled the duffel bag over his shoulder, and Luke grabbed a box before entering the diner. There was a “Closed” sign on the door, and Luke struggled with the keys until he could turn the lock and open for Jess and himself.
“So,” Luke started as they entered the establishment. “This is my diner.” “Huh,” Jess noted, looking around at mismatched tables and baby blue walls. “It belonged to your grandpa,” Luke added, looking at Jess like he was after something more emotional from his nephew. Jess tensed up and nodded, letting out another “Huh.” They stood still in awkward silence, Luke with his hands on his hips, until the man bowed his head in defeat and started moving.
The apartment was through a set of stairs hidden behind a curtain behind the counter and up into what looked like a repurposed office. Inside was a studio that could compete with Jess and Liz’ last place in size, with the kitchen and dining by the door, a bed to the right and a door in the left corner to what Jess assumed was the bathroom in a corner. “Well, here we are!” Luke exclaimed as he closed the door behind them.
Jess had never been there, but as a kid he would spend at least two weeks every summer with Luke, going on fishing trips a little further out in the state. He’d learn to tie bait and read the stars and how to maintain run down cottages from Luke’s upkeep and random manuals strewn around the property. But this place didn’t smell like pinewood and fish – it smelled like coffee and fry oil.
“It’s pretty simple,” Luke said with a wide shrug. “Ya know, this is the room.” He turned to the sleeping area and started pointing. “That’s my bed, that’s your, uh-” he stopped at the air mattress tucked at the foot of the bed. “-bed, for now, but the sheets are new.” Another turn and point: “There’s the bathroom, there’s the closet, there’s the dresser…” Turn. “Phone,” Turn. “And over there’s the kitchen.” He stopped, and Jess could feel his eyes on him as he dropped his hand. “I’ve got Frosted Flakes.” Jess turned around to meet a grin that made his skin crawl. “Wow, that’s grrreat,” he replied tensely. Luke brushed it off with a passive aggressive nod. Then came yet another point, but this time towards Jess. “So, you need some help?” Jess looked down at his duffel bag and subsequently walked over to the air mattress to empty the thing. “Nope.” “Okay, uh,” Luke said with his hands on his back. “I have to get back to the diner.” Jess scoured through the pile of his prize possessions and found The Grapes of Wrath. He stood up as Luke continued: “I’m gonna close up at ten tonight, so I thought-” “See ya at ten,” Jess noted with a salute. “But wait, you need keys,” Luke proclaimed behind Jess as he reached the door. He almost smirked. “No I don’t.”
As he exited the diner, Jess was forced to take in the town center for the first time. Jolly townies were putting up fall-themed decorations as children did cartwheels and middle-aged women carried flower arrangements over the streets. A mother and daughter were even dressed head to toe in the exact same sickening shade of hot pink. This is hell, Jess thought to himself and shoved Steinbeck in his back pocket as he went out into the crossing, hoping to find some corner that burned a little less.
Jess had been through a lot of first days over the years, but his first day at Stars Hollow High was already competing for a top three spot in ‘worst first impressions’. Right off the bat he had to do the pledge of allegiance in six different languages, pull through recruitment attempts to both the lacrosse team and hockey team (which looked a whole lot like the exact same team), and suffer through terrible townie teens treating his geographical origins like a circus oddity.
“What’s it like living in the Big Apple?” some dopey looking asshole named Rich asked Jess before the bell rang in history class. “Busy,” Jess answered with his face hidden in Lorca’s Blood Wedding, hoping Rich would get the hint. He didn’t. “Say something New Yorkerly.” Jess’ face cracked, and Rich picked up on it. “Come on!” “Like what,” Jess said without looking away from the page. “Something classic! Like, you know: ‘I’m walking here!’” Rich said with overpronounced vowels, his right hand closed and waving around. Just one day, Jess thought to himself. One day and then I’m giving up on this trash bin. He knew Luke wouldn’t take kindly to school skipping, but Jess had experience in slipping away unnoticed and being present for enough tests to pass, which was all his uncle needed to keep score of Jess’ sorry excuse for an education. He just had to get more familiar with the town and find some decent spots to pass time doing productive stuff like finishing all the Brontës instead of whatever torture this ‘establishment’ had for him.
Jess looked up with a deadpan and said: “I’m walking here,” as naturally as suited him. Rich clearly wasn’t satisfied. “No, not like that! Like a real New Yorker, come on please!” “Rich, you can’t just say stuff like that,” some blonde girl sitting next to them said. She was finally turning around after having stared at some giant lanky guy with a mop of brown hair on his head. “I’m just joking, don’t be so sensitive!” Rich was starting some rant only to trail off awkwardly when he realized no one was listening to him. “I’m Lindsay,” the girl said as she leaned in closer to Jess with a supposed sympathetic smile. Jess mustered an acknowledging grunt and returned to Leonardo’s introduction.
The blood-soaked Bride had just appeared as Jess was reading in the cafeteria when he heard footsteps approach and seize right in front of him. After giving it about thirty seconds, Jess looked up slowly from his book and locked eyes with some black-haired four-eyed girl in pigtails and a Know Jesus, Know Peace T-shirt. Her expression was intense. “That’s Siouxsie and the Banshees,” she said in astonishment. Jess looked down at his shirt – black with the frontwoman’s silhouette screen printed in white on his chest. “I had no idea,” he muttered quietly. The girl put down her tray of food on the table between them hard. She stayed there with her weight on straight arms and her eyes on Jess. Jess was surprised by how much authority it gave her. Her eyes narrowed. “The Smiths or Joy Division?” she asked sharply. “Joy Division,” Jess found himself answering without thinking. Was he seriously going to play along with this? “Blur or Oasis?” she asked. “The Verve,” he replied automatically. Okay, so he was doing this. “Queen: musical heroes or overrated?” the girl interrogated. “Heroes, how is that even a question?” Jess responded, a spark of intrigue in him as he studied her sizing up his choices.
A massive smile grew on the girl’s face as she pushed herself off the table. “Oh, we’re friends now.” She clasped her hands together and bounced. “This is amazing, you have no idea how much you’re saving me here! I thought I was going to have to sign up for cheerleading and break a hip on the pyramid just to have a social life again,” she exclaimed dead serious. “Do I have a choice in this?” Jess asked worried. He was not about to have some random Christian chick with surprisingly good music taste force him to learn small talk. “Not really,” she replied with a guilty grin and sat down across from him. She stuck out one hand and motioned to shake Jess’ hand.
“I’m Lane,” she declared. Jess eyed the hand and her face. “Jess,” he said cautiously. “I know. News travel fast here and new kids make the headlines,” she commented and crossed her arms on the surface of the table. “You’re from New York, right?” “Yeah,” Jess muttered in response, expecting another impersonation request. “Have you ever been to CBGBs? I’m dying to go there one day, it’s the first three points on my bucket list.” Jess let Lorca dangle in his hand. «Not yet, but I’ve passed it on the street a lot.” “That’s so cool,” Lane said hunching her back. «Is that serious or…?” Jess used his book to point at Lane’s shirt. She sat upright and looked at her own top. “Sadly, but not by choice.” Jess raised an eyebrow. “I come from a family of Seventh Day Adventists and if churches had a ‘believer of the month’ competition my mom would be reigning champion for fifteen years in a row.” “Huh,” Jess noted. “Does she know about your fling with Brit Pop and Freddie Mercury?” “God no, and God willing she never will,” Lane replied immediately. Jess smirked in response and directed his eyes to his book again. Only for Lane to lean over and grab a fry from his tray. Jess was about to glare at her when he found her reaching for a fry on her own plate and offer it to him. “What?” Jess asked genuinely. “To seal the deal. Of our comradery,” Lane answered with smiling honesty. Jess gave her a judging look. “Us freaks have got to stick together,” she argued, dangling the fry in front of him. He thought for a minute, trying to figure out if this was going to bite him in the ass sometime in the future. Then again, he was bored in a small town with few options for entertainment. “Fine,” he finally said and accepted the fry. As he chewed, he continued: “But the second I see Kool Aid mixes I am out.”
Two hours later, Jess was lying on a bench in the school yard, taking in the early autumn heat and counting down the seconds until the day was finished and he could return to Lorca and solitude. The sun was nowhere to be seen, but he could still feel its presence behind the clouds that had been hanging over the town ever since he entered its limits. Lane sat next to him, still trying to talk holes into his head just to fill the silence. Her newest approach was to play tourist guide.
“Over there is where I live,” she said and pointed above Jess’ head. He did not bother to follow where it led. “My mom runs an antique shop, kind of Lovejoy… Or maybe not at all. And over there…” She moved her arm. “-is Miss Patty’s ballet school. I wouldn’t stick too closely around hers, unless you like getting ogled by older women.” Jess lifted his head. “Where?” “Over there,” Jess followed Lane’s pointer towards a wooden one-floor house over the street. It looked like it used to be a barn. The doors were wide open, and inside he could make out the shapes of tiny children in leotards practicing pa-des-bourrées as a red-haired woman wrapped in a giant black shall sat by the entrance and directed them with her cigarette holder. “Noted,” Jess said with the ghost of a grimace on his face.
Just as he was about to dip out again, a silhouette blocked the ballet entrance as it rushed past. It was a girl with dark brown hair let loose over a blue and white private school uniform, carrying an open box with stationery sticking out. “Who’s that?” Jess asked before he could stop himself. Lane did a quick take on Jess to follow his gaze and found the girl. “Oh, that’s Rory- Rory!” Lane shouted and the girl turned around in jumpy surprise as Lane waved her pointing arm wildly. The girl shot Jess a confused glance before smiling at Lane and giving her a small wave from under the box, then turned around and returned to her journey away. “Weird, I thought she’d gotten everything last week,” Lane noted to herself, then looked at Jess’ stupid ass staring. She leaned towards him, dropping her arm. “She’s my best friend. We’ve known each other since kindergarten, but she just got accepted into this really prestigious school in Hartford.” Lane’s voice was both proud and sad, but Jess was too busy looking at this Rory for as long as she was visible to really notice. “Which is a great thing, of course! But it’s kind of bad timing too, I think you two could be friends if you’d moved here earlier… Then again, it’s never too late – I mean she still lives here! We could get something going, Three Caballeros style!”
It wasn’t like Jess turned into some 40’s cartoon wolf by the mere sight of a cute girl – it wasn’t even like the one who had just passed him was particularly unique-looking, at least not from afar – but something about her felt… magnetic. Like he knew she was going to matter in some way. Jess wasn’t sure if it intrigued him or put him off. All he could reply to Lane was: “Uh-huh.”
When the last bell rang out, Jess had already grabbed his jacket and risen up to leave. He was the first through all the doors, and with each step he took that was farther away from the school, the more he felt like he could breathe. Roger Waters was certainly on to something. Because teenage hormones or not, Stars Hollow High had been insufferable.
There were plenty of things Jess wanted to do right now. He wanted to grab a baseball bat and smash all the windows of the first building he came across. He wanted to crawl inside a tree with his duffel bag library and read ‘til winter. He wanted to run to the furthest outskirts of town and plant himself by the highway, begging for a lift to anywhere that wasn’t here. Maybe New York. Maybe Luke’s cottage. Maybe somewhere entirely new. Just not here. But more than everything Jess was hungry. And the only realistic cure for that was located in his uncle’s diner. So Jess sauntered over to
William’s Hardware Luke’s and opened the doors.
The first thing he saw was Rory. She was sitting at the table right in front of the entrance, across from some woman with the same hair color. Her box was on one corner of the table, pushed to the very edge by a mountain of junk food: fries, burgers, chicken wings, coffee mugs, a couple muffins for good measure. She looked up at Jess as he entered, ripped away from some happy-looking conversation. As the door closed behind him, Rory’s smile turned into a face of horror. She pulled a hand to her nose and covered her mouth, holding her breath. Her eyes doubled in size. They were pitch black.
Do I reek or something? Jess tried to keep his calm but still gave her a confused stare before he walked over to the counter. He reached for the muffin tray and popped off the lid. As he raised his arm, he felt the need to subtly smell his arm pits. Nothing. At least not out of the ordinary, and ordinarily he never got complaints. He used his free hand to grab a donut when Luke came out from the kitchen with a Caesar salad in his hand. “Hey, don’t take that! Those are for paying customers,” he said exasperated. Jess shot him a deadpan stare as he took a bite out of the dough, putting the lid back on the tray at the same time. “We have food up-stairs,” Luke argued. “I’m not sure Froot Loops fits any category on the Food Wheel.” “That’s not what we-” Luke started and groaned.
Behind him, Jess heard someone get up rapidly and crash with chairs. He turned around just in time to see Rory push through the doors, turn a corner and run past the windows; all with her hand still over her mouth. What’s her damage? Jess thought to himself and looked at the woman Rory had left behind. She looked eerily similar, with dark curls and pale skin, except her eyes were clear blue. Cinderella’s dress blue. The woman looked up at Jess with an apologetic smile that just made him feel even more confused.
“Jess!” He heard behind him and turned to Luke again. “Hey, good, I’d like you to meet someone,” he said, starting to move again and putting the salad down on a table by the windows behind the woman. “Hey,” the woman said with a now polite smile, even bigger than before. “Hi, I’m Lorelai.” Jess put one hand on the book in his back pocket and looked up, trying not to roll his eyes. This must be the girlfriend. “I just wanted to meet you before Luke had a chance to fill your head with all kinds of little lies about me.” “Hi,” he said with a blank stare. “You know, I would introduce my daughter, Rory, but she…” Lorelai looked towards the windows again. “Just had a fire she needed to put out.” She turned back to Jess. “But she’s about your age. She could show you were all the good wilding goes on.” Her eyes widened at the ‘wilding’. Jess wondered when that word had last been trendy. He nodded firmly, waiting to be relieved. “Okay,” Lorelai said tensely with a little hand gesture. “Well it’s nice to meet you. I hope you like it here.” Another nod. “So class dismissed.” Finally. Jess turned and climbed the stairs up to the apartment.
The second he’d closed the door behind him, Jess let out a groan. This town was going to need years to get used to, and he did not want to stay long enough for that to happen. Between the weird townies and the annoying ass classmates and scary picturesque streets and complete lack of anything to do and anywhere to go, Jess felt trapped. Like Dumbo in the circus. And with no racially insensitive crows to keep his spirits up. So far he had no way to cope, much less break free. Sure, that Lane girl had been a decent conversationalist, but nothing to write home about (wherever home was now). And the one cute girl he’d spotted had ran off after thirty seconds of being within the same building as him.
But as embarrassed as Jess felt, he couldn’t shake the image of her as she had smiled, to her mother and to Lane. She’d seemed so real in a way he’d never experienced before. Not like she was the one person with integrity in a town of phonies – like she was just more visibly detailed than others. Like she existed on a clearer level than everyone else; Jess included. The way the lamps lit her hair, the way the blue sleeves laid over her light cream-colored hands. Like one big perpetual closeup.
Jess knew nothing about the girl, but somehow he could just tell that she was someone worth knowing. Be it fate or wishful thinking. This could be a good thing, Jess inexplicably told himself. I think.