It started out like any other school day. I checked my beanie before heading out the door to make sure the three-sided pin was tucked safely away. Yes, it was still there, behind the fold, near the other pins, out of sight. Secure.
Typical lunch, too. We all took our usual table: Me, Veronica, Kevin, and Riverdale's very own power couple, the couple of destiny, Archie Andrews and Betty Cooper. I sat across from the love birds, torturing myself as per usual. And Veronica "innocently" tortured Betty as well with all of her "Archiekins" this and "Archiekins" that, playfully never letting her best friend forget that she had had her man first. Even though I knew Veronica didn't intend to be that much of a bitch to Betty, and probably would have stopped if she knew how much it pained her friend, I had grown to hate her for it. I felt like I was really the only one who knew what was going on with Betty. She was still trying so hard to be perfect, the perfect girlfriend to the boy she had always wanted. And it wasn't easy on her.
But this was our routine. Me, pining silently, invisibly, for the girl I had lost; Veronica trying to work out her jealousy in the guise of fun; Kevin being well, Kevin; and Archie and Betty doing their very best to redefine the term "perfect couple." They were the do-gooders of the school. They always seemed to have some injustice to right, some cause to fight for. Long ago, that cause had been my dad, but now he was squarely off their radar. I missed those days . . . the days when Betty had been mine.
No, everything was normal until after school. I had stayed late. It was a burden on my foster family to even let me keep attending school at Riverdale, since the school buses obviously didn't go out of the district to pick up students, and I often had to wait over when "Mom 2.0" (I loved calling her that, it made her smile) had to work later than planned. Like yesterday.
When I saw Ethel.
I was walking around the back of the gym – why she chose there of all places is anyone's guess – when the billowing of her ubiquitous black skirt caught my eye. I glanced up, squinting against the sun behind the building. She was on the roof.
Instinct took over. I dropped my backpack and bolted. I was on that roof in a flash and had Ethel tackled in mere seconds, safely away from the ledge.
I lay there on top of her panting. Poor girl, I had knocked the wind out of her.
"Ethel, hey. Don't panic. It will come back in time. Your breath. Just let it."
Tears were swimming in her eyes. Still unable to take a full breath, she pushed me off of her.
She sucked air in, instead of out, so that she could form one word. "Why?"
"Why? Ethel, what kind of a question is that?" I furrowed my brows. "I don't want you to die."
She slowly rolled up into a seated position. She crossed her legs, tucked her skirt under her knees, and then just let her hands flop dejectedly into her lap. Looking down at them, she said, "But I do."
"Ethel, no. Don't say things like that."
"Why? Why don't you want me to die?"
"Because Ethel, you're a sweet girl." I clucked a finger under her chin, so she would look me in the eye. "And there are so few good people around here. We don't want to lose another one."
We both sat glumly for a second, remembering Fred Andrews.
Juggie – where are you, sweetie? You're not in your usual place. I can't find you. – a worried text from Mom 2.0 interrupted us.
Looking at the text, I could easily read the anxiety between her words. Had I been a normal teenager, I might have found her tendency to fret a bit annoying. But I'm weird I guess. It only made me feel safe and loved. I was finally happy that someone cared about what happened to me on a consistent basis. I knew my dad loved me as fiercely as I loved him, but being locked away in jail, even if he maintained sobriety, he just didn't have the resources to regularly check in on my well-being. Not even with the Southside Serpents at his disposal. I had never experienced anything like it in all of my broken childhood, but I found that Mom 2.0's worry over me was something I had needed for years.
"Oh, Ethel this is –" I hesitated, looking at my phone again. "I should go."
She nodded and looked down, resuming staring at her open palms laying in her skirt. It made me think of Betty's scarred palms. Without thinking I touched the three sided pin, hidden in my cap, by sheer instinct.
"Uh, Ethel. Do you want to come home with me? For a while?"
Ethel looked up at me questioningly.
"Mom 2.0 makes a mean spaghetti. Perfect comfort food." I grinned.
Almost despite herself, she gave me a small grin back. "Okay, Jughead."
When we got back home and Ethel went to use the restroom, I pulled Mom 2.0 aside, and spoke to her quietly.
"Hey, uh, Ethel just tried to kill herself."
"Uh, yeah. I kinda stopped her. Tackled her on the roof of the gym before she could jump."
Mom 2.0 reached up to touch my cheek and smiled with pride in her eyes. "Oh, you're such a good boy, Jughead."
"Not according to my Serpent jacket," I joked.
We both shared a laugh as her hand dropped from my face.
"Well, you own it, it doesn't own you. We've talked about this now." Mom 2.0 delivered a little bit of sternness before going soft again. "Do you know why she wanted to die?"
"No, but I'm hoping to find out over dinner. See if I can help her with all this. She's a nice person. Whatever's eating her up inside, I know she doesn't deserve it."
"Spaghetti then? With all of the fixings?"
"Yeah, that would be great." I smiled.
"I'll break out my best Prego!" Mom 2.0 enthusiastically bustled back to the kitchen. She loved to cook and that was a good thing – 'cause I loved to eat.