Jughead passed by the table in the den and spotted it. The present his father had brought for him, tied up with a big red bow. He ran his hands along the blue wrapping paper littered with haphazard letters making out “Happy Birthday” all over it. Did he have time to . . ?
Betty was still upstairs, saying a final goodbye to Veronica before the two of them were to head out. They’d mostly made up after having such an epic fight that he had been ready to give up on them, but there was still more talking to do, a few more things to resolve. He’d convinced her that was best done over milkshakes at Pop’s - someplace away from what remained of all the chaos that had been his disastrous 16th birthday party.
Jughead decided that he did have time to see what his father had brought him, because even if Betty interrupted him, he could just share the moment with her.
Off went the bow, then the lid of the box . . .
“Oh,” he whispered reverently as he lifted the dish from the box.
Betty had appeared, but he didn’t see her. She hung back and watched him stand there with a kidney-shaped glass bowl in his hands, running his fingers along the rim almost lovingly while the softest smile played about his face.
He ran his finger along the bowl – around the entire rim five times. Five, because he was five. He was on his knees and perching over a coffee table in the lobby.
“What’s your name, young man?” An elderly woman with stark white hair pulled back into an old-lady bun had just taken a seat. She looked kind.
“Jughead,” he said.
“Jughead?” her brows knitted together. “Really?”
“That’s what the kids at school call me.”
“Well, that’s not very nice.”
“No, it’s not,” he agreed, but didn’t want to get too sad thinking about it, so he shrugged it off, like he would learn to do with so many other disappointments in life. “But that’s my name now.”
“Well, my name’s Miss Grundy.”
“That name’s not any better,” he said sardonically.
She just laughed at his precociousness.
His attention went back to the bowl on the coffee table that was full of jelly beans. Now that he had run his finger around it five times and marked it as his own, it was time to sort them. He dove in and got a big handful. There were no “real” adults around (like his mom) to tell him not to make a mess. Mom was busy in some room down the hall and dad was helping. That was all he knew.
“What’s your favorite flavor Miss Grundy?” he asked.
“Popcorn,” she said definitively.
“Popcorn? They make popcorn jelly beans?” his face scrunched up trying to comprehend that.
“Of that brand they do.”
“Oh.” Jughead knew it was obviously a brand they couldn’t afford or else he would have already encountered these magical popcorn flavored jelly beans. He loved jelly beans.
“Why so sad?”
“I’m not sad,” he said defensively, reflexively. He grabbed a huge handful of jelly beans and plopped them into Miss Grundy’s hands. “Here, help me find the popcorn ones!”
She pulled a couple out of the mix and showed him. “See these? Kinda yellow, kinda white? And all mottled?”
“See how the yellow and white are splotchy? Like little daubs of paint?”
“Splotchy? Daubs?” Jughead got excited just hearing all of that. He thought he might have just learned three new words in quick succession – some of them might even be big boy words - like the kind you’d find in real books. He nodded, because he understood, he really did.
“Yes, young man, those are the popcorn flavored ones!” Miss Grundy said, almost as excited as him.
“Ooooh.” Jughead dove into the candy dish, digging around for all of the mottled white and yellow jelly beans he could find. There weren’t many of them.
“Well, that’s a paltry stash,” Miss Grundy said when she saw all of the popcorn flavored jelly beans he could find in the glass candy dish now lying out on the coffee table beside it. She dug around in her purse.
Paltry? Likely another big boy word. But what did it me -?
“Here!” Miss Grundy exclaimed and held out a bag of candy - a full bag of nothing but popcorn flavored jelly beans she had miraculously found in her purse. She smiled, wiggling it. “I told you they were my favorite.”
Jughead stared at her, bewildered.
“You can have these,” she said and held the bag out to him, suddenly transforming in his overactive five-year old imagination from a kind old lady into a creepy witch with just that one gesture.
His hackles went up. And it was more than just being taught not to take anything from strangers . . . His distrust of the situation quickly outweighed his desire, as would often be the case for him well into adulthood, and he declined.
“No, thank you,” he said definitively.
Before Miss Grundy could react, his father was at his side, “Hey, little buddy.”
He could smell him before he heard him. It was nice his father came with a warning system like that. Archie’s father didn’t, and often caught him doing stuff and he would get in trouble because he couldn’t react in time. But, Archie was really bad at sneaking anyway.
“Hi, Dad,” he replied and scooped up all the popcorn flavored jelly beans he had culled. He'd been so busy interacting with the now creepy Miss Grundy that he hadn't even had a chance to try them, so he popped one into his mouth once he had them in his hands.
WOW! Intense . . . it was really really good. Just yummy. Miss Grundy’s intentions may not be trustworthy, but she had good taste in jelly beans.
“WOW! Dad, these are really yummy,” he said and looked up at his father who was staring down at the excess jelly beans scattered across the coffee table with one hand behind his neck.
“Fore, look at the mess you made, bud. This is a hospital – a public place. You can’t be doing that.”
“But – “
“No, buts. You need to put all those jelly beans back in the dish. Pronto.” His dad shook his head nervously and looked back down the hallway. “She’s going to be pissed if you miss this though . . .”
Jughead tried to put them all back, but in his nervousness – he didn’t want his mom to be upset either, more and more keep falling off the table. His father got down on his hands and knees and tried to help him, but he was even less coordinated than his five-year-old son due to his current level of inebriation.
“Fuck it,” his dad muttered under his breath, and Miss Grundy said “oh my” at his dad’s use of a curse word. “Come on, Forsythe, time to go meet your sister.”
His father hiked him up onto his hip in a flourish and carried him down the hallway, leaving a mess of jelly beans all over the lobby in his wake. Jughead could easily walk by himself, but his dad was obviously in a hurry. His parents had told him he would get a sister today.
Halfway down the hall, he was unceremoniously plopped down into a room that had a crying baby noise coming from inside of it. Where’s that coming from? He spied his mom in a bed near the window and she looked really sleepy. “Mom?”
She just gave him a listless wave.
“Did we miss it?” his dad asked a nurse.
“No, we waited for you.”
“Cool. Little Forsythe should see this.” His dad hiked him up onto his hip again and walked to the other side of the room so he could easily view what was on a little table below them.
Upon it was a pink, squirming, crying baby – it must have been a girl baby because of the pink cap on her head. When she was lifted into a silver bowl thingie, his dad showed him how the numbers on a scale above it changed. They recorded her weight! Then, when they pulled out a large ruler and begin to unswaddle her some, her pink cap fell off and she bellowed. Jughead grabbed for it quickly and put it back on her head. He said to his father, “She was cold.”
He understood that caps kept you warm and protected you from the elements.
Then they unswaddled her enough to expose the tiny little toes of her left foot. When Jughead saw it he gasped. Her little pinky toe . . . He knew without a shadow of a doubt that this was HIS SISTER now . . . the adults weren’t pulling his leg . . . her pinky toe was in the shape of . . .
He held up one of the popcorn flavored jelly beans that he was still clutching. Held it out to her toe for comparison. The shape was undeniable.
“JELLYBEAN!” he screeched.
“Whoa, calm down there, little buddy,” his dad said. “No need to scare the baby.”
“She’s not scared, look!” Jughead pointed down at the infant, still being measured, who had stopped crying along with his outburst. With tears of joy in his eyes he said, “She’s my sister. She’s my sister, Jellybean. . . And I’ve wanted her forever!”
He gave his dad a big hug and then released him.
“Yes, she’s your sister alright, but your mom and I have named her Forsythia.”
“NO!” Jughead said adamantly. “It’s Jellybean. I will never ever call her anything else.”
“And I won’t stop you. . . but your mom will still probably want to call her Forsythia.”
“That’s a dumb name. As dumb as mine,” Jughead said grumpily.
“What? You prefer Jughead?”
Jughead stared defiantly back and crossed his arms with an “oomph.”
“Son, you understand ‘Jughead’ is a derogatory name, right? The kids call you that to make fun of you. Although, Lord knows why . . . there’s nothing wrong with you.”
“They think I’m weird.”
“And that’s okay, son.”
“I know. That’s why I’m Jughead.”
Betty joins him at the table in the den and places her fingertips on top of his. They trace the rim of the bowl together for a while in silence. Finally she breaks it, “Gift from your dad?”
“Yeah, I didn’t realize he’d gone back and got it. Sentimental bastard.” He shakes his head.
“But it’s important to YOU.”
“Yeah, it is.”
“Then sentimentality aside, he did the right thing.”
He nods and wraps it carefully back up in the voluminous tissue paper it came with and puts it back in the box for safekeeping. “You ready to go to Pop’s?”
As they head out into the night he takes off his hat and says to her, “I think I might have met the real Miss Grundy a while back.”
It may be cold, but he doesn’t need protection from the elements anymore. Even though they almost broke, he knows he can trust Betty with anything now.
And even though it’s the first time she’s ever seen him without his hat and knows that's a big deal, she doesn’t miss a beat. “Really? Do tell.”
On the way to Pop’s he tells her the story of how his sister got her name and why he chose to go by his degrading childhood nickname instead of fighting it. Once there, he plans to tell her why he’s been so afraid of what’s been happening between them. And he doesn’t plan to put the hat back on.