Once, when Jughead went to a movie theater for the first time, across the river in Greendale, he came home to his house with his mom and his dad and his sister and felt moved to write about it. It’s like being in church, wrote Jughead, on the back of some receipt on the kitchen table, because he didn’t own a laptop. Rows and rows of soft red pews, and feeling things you could never feel alone. Watching a movie is like… falling in love.
The next morning, the television F.P. had bought and owned for exactly twenty-nine days had been returned and fully refunded by the electronics store, and the receipt was gone.
Thornhill burns down – Cheryl Blossom burns down Thornhill. Spring comes. The air is flat and thin and dry. The sheriff discovers Grandpa Blossom’s bomb shelter when firemen brush away what’s left of the basement. Inside, it is very wet and soft, like a second underground Thornhill made out of tongues. There’s a half soil-filled den with a fat television, a long sunken rectangle that used to be a pool. Cheryl contemplates that – green pool water, her father taught how to swim or else kicked into the deep end by his father, smudged black-and-white pictures on the tv, anti-radiation foil in the drywall. A secret house for the atomic age.
Then Cheryl burns that down too. This time the fire goes from down to up instead of from up to down. Black mud seeps up through the ashes, staining the bottom of Cheryl’s really excellent pair of kitten heels. Firemen brush away more of what’s left – the sky goes from bright blue to blurry and white. The sheriff furrows his brow at the double Thornhill mansion, aboveground and below ground, all gone.
Cheryl’s mother is away, bathed clean of soot and of Cheryl, taking restorative naps in the second Blossom estate out near the mouth of the river. From there she can’t recommend Cheryl be put away in private school to get rid of her feminine psychosis, so Cheryl doesn’t go to school and instead takes long restorative walks in the woods.
On one of these walks the sun is a white disc, high up, burning its way through strings of clouds disemboweling themselves across the sky. The strange spring light edges around the leaves poking their way out of the joints of trees, curling and uncurling like fists. Cheryl finds a cluster of maples and sits between them. She admires the way the lace piping on her skirt looks as it settles down around the roots, like dripping sea foam. She lets her eyes close.
“Cheryl,” says a reedy voice. Cheryl unglues her eyes – it’s Jughead, crouching in front of her. The sun is low and behind her, and it lights him up into a series of points: the tips of the triangles on his hat, the shoulder seams of his fleece-lined denim jacket, his knees, pointing out on either side of him like a frog. The toes of his black sneakers. Despite the light, everything about him is still dark.
“What,” says Cheryl, sounding more scattered than she’d like. She clears her throat and tries again – “What do you want, F.P. Junior?”
It sounds considerably less biting than she’d like.
Jughead looks back at her with his black eyes. Cheryl sees him writing something frothy and romantic in his head, probably with the words beautiful and enigmatic and maple syrup princess/heiress.
“I don’t have to – want something,” says Jughead. “I was just out walking Hot Dog after dinner.”
Cheryl squints. Suddenly, it seems like, there’s a dog by Jughead’s feet, sniffing around her. Big, dark, vague thing. She holds a hand out to it. Him. Her. The dog sneezes on her. Cheryl inspects her hand distastefully.
“Early dinner,” amends Jughead, looking at the sky, which is still bright.
“I’ll join you,” she says. Jughead blinks in reply. His face is ridiculous – sharp, smooth, moled everywhere. Moles by his brow, by his mouth, by his ears. Lashes thin but long, fast like insect wings. She looks but can’t find the usual wry twist of his mouth.
Maybe this is what it’s like to be Betty Cooper, Cheryl thinks. To see a wry twist-less mouth, always. She allows herself to feel envy for a second, then stands up and brushes off her hips. Her leather bodice hasn’t slid from her waist – she adjusts it anyway.
“Okay,” she announces. The dog laps sloppily at her ankle. Jughead pulls firmly on the leash and turns and starts walking. She follows.
The trees get thicker and deeper green the farther they go. The sun is still low, about to seep beneath the faraway line of mountains, but it seems to be fixed there. Nothing moves: not the air, not the leaves, not the light. It wavers but does not change. The ground does change. It shifts from the forest grass, thin and thirsty from the tree-blocked light to a slick, flat coat of drying leaves to, somehow, the thick, lush grass of Riverdale lawns to a soft mass of rotting fruit. There the ground seems to make up its mind.
Jughead takes a wrapped cheeseburger out of his pocket in one hand and holds the leash out to Cheryl in the other.
“You’re welcome,” says Cheryl, taking the leash. She watches Jughead unwrap his burger, then place it ungracefully in his mouth. He chews noisily.
Cheryl feels something squish between her toes and looks down. She isn’t wearing any shoes – was she wearing any when she fell asleep? When she burned down the second Thornhill? She decides she doesn’t remember or care and looks back up again, at Jughead and his burger.
“What do you write about me?” she says, tugging Hot Dog away from where it’s about to eat either a chunk of dog shit or a half-rotten plum. It’s a bigger animal than she realized – sharper around the edges, more fully-realized. Heavy.
“What?” says Jughead, when he’s swallowed an enormous mouthful of burger. He sounds cautious, like Cheryl’s a wild animal or a psychotic homeless person or something. Cheryl feels a little annoyed at this, and then remembers she slapped him, so it’s probably that. Then she feels a little sorry, but not regretful. Never regretful. Also Jughead is most likely probably homeless, so he probably is not afraid of homeless – people – whatever –
“I said, what do you write about me? In your novel or whatever it is you’re always typing up mournfully in booths at the diner.”
“Oh,” says Jughead. “Uh.” He swallows again, flits his eyes away. Then looks back. “Usually red things. Imagery. I associate you with the color red. Like, Catherine Earnshaw. Gothic. Towers.” His eyes slide down. “Dramatic. Long dresses.”
Cheryl follows the line of his eyes to the bottom of her skirt, which is wet and very soil-stained. The lace still looks excellent, if ragged.
“Hm,” she says. Good. “I’m sorry I slapped you.”
“But I think I was wrong,” says Jughead, meaningfully. “I don’t think you’re even as dramatic as – as Archie is.”
Cheryl snorts at this.
“You just – know,” he continues. “What it’s like. To know what you look like. From the outside. And you use it.”
He moves his eyes back up. They’re sloe-black, bright. A lock of his hair curls very excellently over his brow. He shrugs his jacket up his shoulders, licks at something at the corner of his mouth. He always looks like he’s in the shadows, the anti-hero – no. He always dresses like the anti-hero. Cheryl closes her eyes for a second and then opens them again.
“Well,” she says. She tugs at the leash again, half-heartedly, and moves closer to Jughead. The dog chews whatever it’s chewing. She presses the leash into Jughead’s hand and pulls the cheeseburger out of his pocket. She unwraps it and takes a bite, puts it back. Steps back again. Leads the way.
The sky stays the same color; the sun burns the same alien light. It stays where it is, an inch above the mountains. The mountains push up at the sky like great palms of hands. The trees grow closer to each other, a deep, deep black green. The dirt seems to get thicker and more alive.
They keep walking. Cheryl looks down sometimes, to remember why she’s there, why she’s where she is, with him. She lags behind Jughead. The dog is steadfastly and reliably there, sniffing, sinking its claws into roots, standing stock-still when it hears the heartbeat of a rabbit. The edges of it are unsure, then surer and surer, the lines of a dog, the muscle and fat and black fur of one. So big it’s almost bear-like in size.
For a second the dog blurs out and is replaced with something reddish, something Jason-like in shape and warmth. And then Cheryl is like: am I fucking insane?
Jughead traipses on, on, on. Cheryl walks beside him now, the lace at the bottom of her dress trailing along the ground like the bottom of a Halloween ghost. She feels her hair swinging down her back, smooth, red. Jughead adjusts his jacket again, or coat, maybe, hair curling under his hat. Once in a while they make eye contact, and Jughead is both there in his dark eyes and also not. Cheryl feels a little jolt of confused warmth at this, that even when he lives something he is already ahead of it, thinking back, remembering, putting it into words. Writing.
Albeit probably with preachy metaphors and uncreative imagery, reflects Cheryl. She’s not romantic about it, about him. She’s heard the boy talk. He talks like an audiobook narrator.
The fruit beneath their feet thins out, turns from rotten to whole and hard and then to regular pinecones. Then the pinecones disappear and it’s the ragged knife-edges of maple leaves, the sticky sap-soaked dirt of maple trees. The trees close in. Suddenly Cheryl is gently terrified.
Her toes get wetter and muddier – she knows where they are. Near the river. Rocks, currents, somewhere parts of Jason: little bits of his skin and hair, far below the surface of Sweetwater. Her other Grandma, the Not-Rose Grandma, used to say that underneath the water, there ran an entire layer of syrup, sickly sweet and thick. Like blood under skin. Like poison. Cheryl remembers being below the ice: the whole world a slow, wobbly thing of layers. The layer of ice. The layer of water. The layer of the scent of death, of Jason below her, hands reaching out. Below that, the imagined layer of syrup, thick and pulling at her toes.
“Hey, let’s get away from here,” says Jughead, voice thick and weird. She looks away from the river back to him, then back to the river. She had forgotten what it looked like after winter: green water. A house for the atomic age.
Everything under everything else, like a watery underbelly of the whole town. Where the river runs underground – estuaries, natural tunnels, where Grandpa Blossom dug into the earth beneath Thornhill to make a pool. The sheriff said it was truly of the nuclear age. He had googled it. You swim through a tunnel into the house and the water pulls away the radiation from your skin. Anti-contamination. Green water.
She looks back at Jughead again. Thinks about the cycles – the water flowing through the earth and up and out and down the falls and back under again. Taking the blood of her father with it, of the Blossoms with it. Of F.P. Jones having a son that looks exactly like him.
The dog is lapping at a pool of water between the rocks, flashing in and out of an outline of Jason again and again.
Then the dog is Jughead – Cheryl imagines him thrown against the rocks. F.P. then Jughead then F.P. again. Two F.P.’s. A cycle of them, forever. Every one of them with hair blacker than the last.
Or, her father, and her, and her mother. Every one of them with smooth, red hair – a layer of lace, of course, between her father’s scalp and his Blossom hair. Cheryl wraps her hand around a lock of her own. Pulls at it. Sighs absurdly in relief.
“Aren’t you glad your dad’s in jail?” She says, suddenly. “Now you can finally stop waiting for it to happen.”
“Are you – are you glad your dad’s dead,” says Jughead, reedy voice sharp. His eyes are guarded but soft. He’s afraid too. The dog wavers at the edges again, grows big. Massive. Keeps drinking from the river. Jughead, realizes Cheryl, really is not like F.P. at all.
“Yes,” says Cheryl. “No. Yes.”
Anyway he did it himself.
Cheryl opens her eyes between the maple trees, with her hands dug into the earth. She gasps and pulls them out, swinging backward and pressing against the bark with the momentum. Jughead is still above her, the dog now just a dog and beside him, and she blinks until he slides from blurry back to clear, until she can see the moles on his face individually. She stands up shakily. Takes a deep breath.
“Cheryl,” he says.
She cups her palm where his neck meets his jaw. He swallows beneath her – a shudder. She kisses him on his strange, thin mouth, eyes open and looking into his. Moves back, lips still parted, moves her hand away. Half of her lip pencil is smeared on his mouth, deep red. Something else is smeared where her fingers were – deeper, redder. She looks down at her hands. At the blood on them.
She’ll get it off in due time.