The Ending

The Ending

By Elizabeth Motes

It was eleven o’clock at night and Jade was on her second cup of coffee. Not that it was doing much good—at this point the caffeine boost was working solely to keep her eyes open. To the right of their booth window, snow fell outside, drifting until sudden gusts of wind sent it hurling against the glass. But a beam of sweat had formed on Jade’s forehead regardless, so she shrugged off her jacket and laid it beside her.

Mitch sat across from her, sipping on his now almost empty milkshake that he’d insisted on ordering despite the cold. His eyes wandered over the pages of Jade’s script strewn across the red table, though it was all upside down to him. The pages were littered in various notes and highlights, vague ideas of things to cut or expand on.

“I think the ending is good,” Mitch said.

Jade couldn’t help but wince at the words. “You don’t want to leave a play thinking it’s good,” she explained. “Good is just being polite. You want…” She gestured with her hands as she searched for the words. Just then, her phone buzzed, and she picked it up as if it would have the right ending to her script.

But it was just a text from her mom. Is it snowing there? Be safe! Stay off the roads. A pause, and then a follow-up text. But also be careful walking. Head injuries are no joke. Then a final: Love you!

Jade put her phone back on the table. Mitch was still waiting on her answer, his brows raised in anticipation. She continued, “You don’t want an audience to leave a play thinking it’s good. It should change them, make them think. You almost want silence at the end. Like everyone just has to sit there and take it all in before they can even say anything.”

Mitch smiled. “Applause wouldn’t be so bad, either.” He got to work digging the cherry out from his shake.

She didn’t tell him that applause was obligatory. Assuming she got her play far enough to be performed, applause didn’t determine whether or not it was good. What she was after were the moments right after the curtain fell, in the breath before the applause, where the emotions were raw and real. Not something to be heard but felt in the air.

Jade adjusted her thick glasses and continued studying the third-to-last page of her script. It was the last good thing she’d written. The ending, she thought, was predictable and underwhelming. The problem was she couldn’t just change the ending without adjusting the rest of the story. So her problems could be at the beginning. Or worse—at the very concept of the play.

Mitch held his head in his hand, slumped with drowsiness. “They’d probably let you edit it after it wins,” he said in his soft voice. His brown hair was spiked from running his hand through it. “Isn’t that what rehearsal is for? Tweaking and fixing shit?”

“It has to be the best it can be before I turn it in.” She had to win the playwright competition first before anything else, assuming she didn’t scatter the pages in the snow before the night was over.

“Are you all done with that?” A waitress startled Jade from her thoughts, gesturing at Mitch’s

empty glass. Her curly red hair was tied up in a ponytail, with only the bright red of her lipstick drawing attention away from it.

“Yeah, thanks.” Mitch handed the glass to her, then looked at Jade’s coffee cup. “You done—”

“I’m still drinking this.” Jade smiled at the waitress. “Thanks.”

The waitress took Mitch’s glass, and Jade wondered how she appeared. Her frizzy hair hadn’t been washed in days and she hadn’t had a good night’s rest in the last week.

Mitch gave a wry look toward Jade’s coffee cup. “Guess you’re not sleeping tonight.”

“I wouldn’t either way.”

“Look.” He scooted toward her, still leaning his arm against the table. “The play is great. Really great. I’m not just saying that for the sake of your ego. You’re just letting your — your whatever get in the way.”

“Ambition?”

“Perfectionism.”

“Perfectionism makes winners,” she said without as much conviction as she would have liked.

“Thought you didn’t care about winning.”

“I don’t in theory,” Jade said, crossing her arms. “But in this case, winning means making more art and changing the whole world.” Or hopefully changing the few people who would show up for a student-written play. “In a perfect world, we’d all make our art and there wouldn’t be a stupid competition.”

Mitch shrugged. “Yours is gonna be the best whether it wins or not.”

Jade gave him a small smile and re-examined her work, hoping the break had replenished her mind with ideas. “Okay. So mom and son reunite. The audience is meant to understand that their relationship will continue to get better after the play’s over.” She looked up at Mitch. “So why does it suck?”

His head stayed in his hands. “I think you need a final battle.”

“Probably.” She tapped her pen against the table. “What if it’s not a happy ending?”

“It’s barely a happy ending as it is,” he argued with a frown. “They go through so much shit. And it’s only implied that they’ll get better, like you said.”

“We have to leave some room for the imagination.”

She glanced out the window again. Snow glittered in growing banks along the side of the building, illuminated by the diner’s lights. If the forecasts were right, by the morning the snow would begin to melt away. Then there would be nothing but wet streets and piles of sludge left behind. A few more days and no one would think about the snow, not until it grew hot outside and they were all nostalgic for the cold.

“Jade?”

“Hmm?” She turned back to him.

“I think you should get some sleep,” Mitch said. “You can work on it in the morning. Or by then you’ll realize it’s fine as it is.”

Not fine. “It has to be better than fine,” she said, capping and uncapping her pen. “And I told

you, I won’t sleep either way.” She noticed the bleariness in his eyes. “You still hanging in there?”

He stretched out his arms. “I knew what I was signing up for.” He put his arms back down with determination. “You’re looking out for your art. I’m looking out for you.”

That was the way they’d always done it. She met Mitch through a required biology class, and their shared, unapologetic confusion fostered their friendship. Ever since, they tagged on each other for odd projects. Last weekend she went to his apartment to help him build a cabinet. The year before, Mitch would give Jade rides before she’d finally gotten her license.

“After one o’clock tomorrow,” Jade said, uncapping her pen, “I will take a nap.”

She spent the next hour reading over the script again and again, the last pages unrelentingly staying the same. If it was something in the middle segment that was wrong, maybe she could stand to leave it—not likely, but maybe. But this was the ending. The part that would leave a taste in the audience’s mouth no matter what else she wrote. It was like a stain that she couldn’t ignore.

As of now, the ending was quiet. The rest of the play was filled with arguments and words that couldn’t be taken back, so it needed a soft ending. But soft endings were tricky.

Her eyes drifted and her focus was dwindling. She couldn’t tell if it was the script or her exhaustion that made the words seem unfixable. She moved up her glasses and rubbed her eyes, then checked her phone again for the time. Half an hour past midnight. Mitch looked half-asleep, leaning against the table and scrolling through his phone.

He glanced up at her, noticing she’d briefly diverted her attention from the script. “You know it’s okay?” he asked, his voice worn with sleep. “If you can’t figure out the ending. Or even if your play doesn’t win. It’s all gonna be good.”

Jade leaned back in her seat. “I don’t know what I’m going to do if this doesn’t work out.”

“Yeah, you do,” he said. “You’ll keep going. Submit it somewhere else or write something new.”

“I can’t just write something new,” she argued. “I mean, I will, but not now. I care about this

play.” She put a protective hand over the script.

Mitch nodded. “I get it,” he said in defeat. He rubbed his forehead. “Look, I gotta go. I’m literally gonna fall asleep if I stay any longer.”

Right. No reason to drag him along any further. Still, she liked his company.

“Want me to give you a ride?” he offered, though the look on his face said he knew the answer.

She shook her head. “I need to finish this.”

He shrugged and grabbed his jacket from beside him, pulling it on. “The roads are gonna be snowy,” he said. “If you’re really tired, call me and I’ll pick you up.”

“I’ll be careful,” she promised. She glanced out the window to check on the snow, watching a few stray snowflakes drift without wind to usher them along. She looked back at Mitch. “The next time we talk—”

“You’ll have your ending?”

“Either that or I’ll have thrown the whole thing away.”

He stood and grabbed his keys from his pocket. “Hopefully you’ll have the ending, then.” He took one last look at her side of the booth, the white script sticking out against the red of the table.

“Don’t stay up too late, okay? Seriously.”

“I won’t,” she said. “Thanks, Mitch. Really.”

He shot her finger guns, contrasting the complete lack of energy in his eyes. He walked out and she looked out the window to see the headlights on his car turn on and watched him pull out of the lot.

In the next hours, every time she tried reading over the script she found herself looking back out the window. Maybe it wasn’t even worth it. Why turn in something she wasn’t proud of? Maybe the script was a hot mess that needed more effort than she was willing to put in. No, not willing. More effort than she was capable of putting in.

“You done with that, sweetheart?”

The waitress gestured at her now empty coffee cup. Jade nodded. “Thank you,” she said, handing her the cup. More coffee wasn’t going to do her any good.

The waitress glanced over the pages of the script, and Jade felt embarrassingly exposed. She didn’t know how it read out of context, and her scattered notes made the whole thing seem incoherent. She asked, “So what’s all this that you’re working on? A movie?”

Jade shifted in her seat. “It’s a play script,” she explained. “I’m submitting it for my school’s contest tomorrow, so I’m doing final edits.”

The waitress lifted her thin red brows. “What’s it about?”

Jade rushed to give her the bare bones of the story, feeling guilty for taking up her time. For her part, the waitress listened and nodded attentively, and Jade finally caught the name on her tag— Rosie.

When she was done, Rosie’s eyes searched over the final pages again. “You’ve done a whole lot of work on it there.”

“Yeah,” Jade said half-heartedly. “I’m trying to fix the ending. I don’t think it’s as impactful as it should be.”

“Aw. I liked it. It was sweet.” Rosie put a hand on her hip and added, “Though I don’t know anything about writing. I’ve never known where to put a comma.” Jade smiled and Rosie shrugged. “But all it needs is to be yours, right? Your story, your work.” She gave her a long look. “Don’t take this the wrong way, sweetheart, but you look exhausted. I don’t think your play will get better if you don’t get some rest.”

Jade let out a tired sigh. She had kind of wished Rosie would have the secret to fixing the story. “Yeah,” she said. “I should probably get home.” She gave what she hoped was a kind smile and not a tight-lipped testament to her exhaustion. “Thanks for listening to…all of that.”

“Sure thing,” she said. “Just send me a signed copy once you’re famous, alright?”

She laughed a little and Rosie took her cup away.

Jade looked at her script again, the words practically meaningless at this point. It all felt meaningless—the notes, the highlights, forcing herself to stay awake for all of it. She had to wonder if she’d made herself stay up countless nights to actually improve the script or if she thought she had to suffer for her art to mean something.

At that thought, she pulled out her laptop from her backpack. She opened her email and found the file with the script. The pages with her edits sat stark against the table, and she wondered if there were any last second edits she wanted to make before sending the email. She shook her head to herself and attached the script to the message. The judges might be somewhat concerned with her emailing them at almost two in the morning, but she didn’t want to lose her motivation.

Sent. Done. Maybe not the best it could be, but it was the most she was willing to put in.

She felt a small relief at having that behind her, though it was quickly replaced with the dread of waiting to hear back from them and wondering if there was anything she could have done differently. Of course there was, but it was too late for that. So she gathered up her pages to put them back in her folder, then tucked it into her backpack, along with her laptop. When she stood, her legs thanked her for finally moving. She shrugged on her jacket and left an extra ten dollars on the table for Rosie.

It had begun snowing again without her realizing it, and the cold startled her as she walked to her car. She kept her head tilted down to keep her glasses from getting pelted with drops of snow. It wasn’t much warmer inside her car, but it wasn’t actively cold. She turned on her windshield wipers and grabbed her phone.

Heyyy, she wrote to Mitch. I’m heading back now. Sorry for keeping you up. But I turned in the script and tomorrow I am going to buy you food. If I am awake that is

He probably wouldn’t be surprised at the rambly tone of her message, so she hit send and tossed her phone onto the passenger seat without bothering to plug it in for music. She just wanted to get back to her dorm.

As she drove, her headlights illuminated the snowy road. Thoughts of the play drifted in her mind, even as she tried to let it go. If it won, then there would be time for more edits, and in the meantime, a break from it all would do her good—

There was a sharp turn she had to take to get back to campus, and she drove it slowly so as to avoid sliding in the snow. The other car that sped toward her didn’t take the same caution.

The impact was sudden, and in her few seconds of awareness, she felt a stinging on her face that at first she thought was from the cold. Headlights shone too brightly on her face: her eyes fell shut into darkness. But all she could really focus was the surprising amount of silence amidst it all.

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