Aster hastily wiped the tears from her eyes when she saw Paul getting out of his truck. He slowly walked over to her car, which she had parked on the side of the road near the outskirts of Squahamish.
"What are you doing here?!"
Her words made him take a couple of steps back. The anger in her voice was palpable. He resumed his approach, more careful than before. He'd been driving for hours trying to find her, there was no way he'd turn back now.
Paul took a knee right beside the driver's seat where Aster sat, her eyes starting to well up with tears again. "Aster, I'm so sorry."
Aster covered her face with her hands, as if trying to stop the tears from falling. All of the events from that morning was overwhelming. And as if trying to deal with the disappointment of discovering that she was misled by Paul and Ellie wasn't hard enough, her father relentlessly berated her as soon as they got home about what happened. He was so concerned about what everyone would say or feel after witnessing the commotion--Trig, Trig's family, the church people --everyone except his own daughter, it seemed.
"Paul just go away, please," she pleaded, her words a bit muffled. The tears have stopped flowing, at least for now.
"I know you're mad at me and that's fine, I won't bother you anymore after this," he answered. "But please don't be mad at Ellie. She doesn't deserve it."
Aster finally removed her hands from her face and placed them on her lap. Ellie. While the whole ruse made her angry at Paul, it was the fact that Ellie was involved in it that really hurt. She had always felt like she could trust Ellie, despite there being not much evidence why. She just felt like she could.
"You came all the way here just to tell me that?"
Paul's eyes were somewhere on the road beside them as he tried to figure out how to respond. He spent the entire drive there thinking of how to explain himself to Aster, but he was never good at talking. Words were Ellie's turf and she was miles away, probably at the train post, most likely crying. In that moment, it was the thought of Ellie that helped him find the words.
"Well, that's what people do for people they care about, right? They put in effort even things are hard. I mean, Ellie helped me get to know you and be with you. That couldn't have been easy. Driving for a while to help her is nothing."
Aster had been staring at her hands the entire time Paul spoke, and now she raised her head to face him. "If any of you two cared for me the way you made me think you do, you wouldn't have played me like a fool."
"I know," Paul answered, letting out a huge breath. "But I was desperate then, and I think Ellie only agreed because it was the closest she could get to telling you how she feels."
Aster's mind suddenly raced with all the words she'd once, albeit hesitatingly, attributed to Paul. It was only then it truly hit her: all superficial details aside, Ellie didn't write those letters pretending to be Paul; she wrote them as herself. This was why she thought there were two sides of Paul -- the one who wrote her letters and the one she spent time with in person. The side who wrote those letters, the side she felt a very different level of attraction to, was Ellie.
Paul looked back at Aster and felt like she'd come to some form of realization. He smiled slightly at her. "You should hear her talk about you, Aster," he said. He put his hand on the car door and pushed himself up. "Take care on your drive home."
The tears had completely stopped falling by the time Paul's truck was out of Aster's sight. She knew she had to go back home, too. Back home to deal with her family, Trig, and most importantly, herself.
Aster's shift at the café had just ended when she noticed her phone buzz.
SmithCorona: I'm outside
The message surprised Aster. It had been two weeks after the incident at church, and after that conversation with Paul, she didn't see or hear from either him or Ellie. It had also been two weeks of trying to drag Trig out of his denial after she told him that she didn't want to marry him and that she, in fact, wanted to break up. In the end she reluctantly agreed to Trig's family's request to not let anyone know about their breakup, at least until they know he was "stable" enough to handle the community's reaction.
She stepped out of the café and saw Ellie standing by the sidewalk, looking at her feet with both her hands jammed inside her jeans pockets. "Hey," she greeted, causing Ellie to look up.
"Hi," Ellie said back. "Can we talk?"
"Sure." Aster started walking down the sidewalk and Ellie followed suit beside her.
"I just wanted to apologize for what happened at the church," Ellie started. "I hope you didn't get into much trouble with your father. Haven't seen you at church the past couple of weeks." She nervously looked at Aster after every few words, checking for her reaction.
Aster smiled back, much to Ellie's relief. "It's ok, I've just been busy."
Ellie nodded in acknowledgement. She wanted to ask what Aster had been busy with, but figured she can ask later on. Right now she had more important things to say.
"I also wanted to say sorry about pretending to be Paul. I knew it was a stupid idea right from the beginning but he's a good guy and he really likes you so I helped him. We shouldn't have done it."
Aster realized that Ellie didn't know that Paul told her about how Ellie felt. "I have to say I wasn't that surprised, it really felt like I was talking to two different people," Aster answered. She approached the bench across where her car was parked and pulled Ellie to take a seat beside her. "Ellie, I wanted to ask you something about that... About what happened."
Ellie visibly swallowed hard but still nodded, inviting her to continue.
"When you wrote those letters and sent those messages, how much of that was actually you?"
Ellie looked into Aster's eyes and held the gaze. At any other point before that moment that she would think that she'd freeze upon getting that kind of question from Aster Flores. But right then, her answer came immediately and with certainty.
"That was me. I wasn't pretending."
Aster was about to answer but Ellie interrupted her "I know you're probably getting married and there's virtually no chance at this, but you might as well know," she continued, almost passively.
The truth was, Aster hadn't completely figured out how she felt about Ellie. She knew for certain they had a strong connection, but a lot of how she felt was intertwined with who she thought Paul was, and her confusion over her then failing relationship with Trig. She didn't have an honest response to offer Ellie, although it didn't feel like Ellie demanded it.
Their silence was broken by the sound of Ellie's phone coming off from her pocket. Aster recognized the sound as the one for the ghost messenger app they both used.
"SmithCorona stirring up trouble again?" she said teasingly, as Ellie fished her phone out of her pants.
"This girl from class I met at the recital party is asking me to hang out," Ellie said as she read the message on her screen. She was only able to absorb what she said after she said it, and immediately felt awkward saying it in front of Aster.
"Are you going to say yes?" Aster asked, her voice still teasing but also a bit cautious. She watched Ellie put her phone back into her pocket without sending a response.
"I don't know yet. Maybe?" Her answer sounded more like a question for Aster than an actual response.
Aster didn't say a word. She looked at her watch and stood up, remembering her curfew. "I have to go now, Ellie Chu."