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paper rings

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The hot night air was filled with the distinct scent of grease and fried foods, the door to a small diner opening to freezing air as Callum walked into the restaurant. Pop music blared from a tiny, antique jukebox in the corner. The floor was stained a gross yellow color from years under a harsh artificial lighting.

He scanned the area, his eyes locking onto the figure of a girl sitting in the corner, her silver hair tinted gold and a half-filled cup of cheap black coffee sitting on the table in front of her. A large textbook lay open, papers scattered around her and blocking off the aged wood. Salt, pepper, straws, and an assortment of artificial sweeteners were pushed haphazardly to the side, nearly falling off and onto the booth bench as Callum moved across the diner to sit in the seat across from her. The ceiling was short and sloped here, dark oak covered in old newspaper clippings and stained from steam and splattered food.

“No sleep tonight?” he asked as a waitress passed by them, setting a second mug of black coffee down in front of Callum.

“I have a midterm tomorrow.”

“The diner closes in less than an hour.”

That statement caught the girl’s attention, and she lifted her head slightly to look at the boy.

“Rayla, it's 10pm. How long have you been here?”

“I got here around four hours ago.”

“What, is your dorm room not good enough?”

“My roommate was sleeping when I left, and my dorm room doesn't have free refills on coffee.”

As if to confirm her statement, Rayla took a single sip from her mug. She grimaced slightly at the bitter taste, before starting to gather up the scattered papers and closing them into her textbook.

Callum smiled as she turned her attention to him.

It was a sort of agreement they had. No overworking yourself when the other was present.

It was a very nice agreement.

Rayla slipped the book into her bag before resting her elbows on the now clear table, her eyes scanning over the boy. She looked like a mess honestly, dark circles consuming her under eyes and hair pulled back into what looked more like a jumbled up knot than a braid.

“Studying does you no good if you can’t even stay awake for the exam.”

“Which is why you found me, right?”

Callum laughed, reaching across the table and brushing a stray lock of hair behind her ear, “I’m hurt, what if I simply wanted to see my beautiful girlfriend?”

“Because you worry too much.”

The jukebox switched to another song abruptly, and Callum found himself turning his attention to the person changing it. It was an old woman, one that Callum recognized as the co-owner of the diner.

“The owners have been together for over fifty years, right?” Rayla asked.

“Yeah… and we’ve been together for almost seven years now.”

“You were fourteen when we first started dating, if I remember correctly. If two 9th graders going to see cliché rom-coms counted as actual dates.”

They sat in silence for a long moment, before Rayla spoke again.

“I still don’t understand how we became a thing. You had the biggest crush on Claudia, it seemed hopeless for me.”

“If it helps any, those feelings are long gone.”

“I know.”

Callum looked across the table, his hands reaching to where a cup of straws sat. He picked two from the bundle, carefully slipping the white paper coating off of the plastic, setting the straws to the side. He began twisting the paper ends together into a loop.

“What are you doing?”

He didn’t answer. All of his attention focused on the thin, cheap paper.

After a long, silent minute Callum seemed to finally be satisfied.

“Give me your hand,” he said, holding out his own to Rayla.

“Why?” she asked, complying regardless.

Callum didn’t reply immediately, instead he carefully slipped a ring of paper onto her finger. He did the same with his own hand. A bulky, twisted ring of uncomfortable material against his skin.

“You were never really one for things such as promise rings, and I’m positive we wouldn’t even be able to afford them… but I hope this is a suitable substitute for now?”

“Paper rings?” Rayla looked down at her hand, a smile gracing her tired features.

Callum stood, taking her hand into his as he stood.

“If it means anything to you, the sentiment is the same.”

Rayla pulled herself to her feet, grabbing her school bag and following Callum out onto the streets.

Pop music faded to the sound of passing cars, and Rayla squeezed Callum’s hand. He pressed a single kiss to her forehead as they began the long walk back onto their school’s campus.

Rayla’s reply was quiet, and barely more than a whisper.

“I like shiny things, but I’d marry you with paper rings.”