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Need You Baby (Like I Breathe You, Baby)

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1.

When the final bell rang, the usual clamor of students echoed through the halls of Riverdale High. Kevin was stowing his books away in his locker when Jughead joined him.

“Want to get a burger after school?” He asked without preamble.

Kevin shook his head, giving him a chagrined smile. “Sorry, but I’ve got to go home and finish my homework before swim team practice tonight, and then I have to get the student government posters done.”

Honestly, he could make the time if he wanted to. He hadn’t slept well the past few nights despite feeling absolutely fatigued. If he truly desired, he could complete both his homework and the posters after practice; it was better than being stuck with insomnia, tossing and turning and worrying that there was something he was forgetting, that he was going to fuck up and make a mistake for everyone to see.

Jughead shrugged, already turning away, and Kevin realized his response was expected.

“Okay,” Jughead said. “Maybe some other time.”

“Yeah,” Kevin agreed, hoping the cheerfulness in his voice didn’t sound as forced to Jughead as it did to him. “I should have finished my megalomaniacal takeover of Riverdale High by then,” he joked.

Jughead laughed with him, then said a quick goodbye and departed, moving through the throng of students milling about the hall.

Wondering if Jughead knew he was deliberately putting him off, Kevin watched him until he vanished around the corner. It wasn’t that he didn’t like Jughead or didn’t want to hang out with him. Quite the opposite, actually—they were best friends, and Kevin was interested in Jughead in a way that went beyond platonic. And if Jughead’s continual invitations were anything to go by, which persisted despite Kevin always having another obligation elsewhere, he felt the same. But it was just as well they never got together.


While “it’s not you, it’s me,” was one of the all time clichés for ending or preventing romantic relationships, Kevin couldn’t help but feel it sincerely applied to himself and Jughead.  

Kevin’s social success wasn’t so much that he was good with people as much as that he was good at manipulating people. As someone who had unwillingly moved across the country as well as to different countries on a regular basis, he knew that a good reputation was an essential tool for surviving in a new community. Which was why he began signing up for student government, sports teams, and various clubs the moment he set foot in Riverdale. Image was everything, and he had to cultivate the ideal picture of himself, a person the people around him would not only accept, but admire and appreciate. In a way, he wasn’t so much an individual as he was a brand that he constantly needed to market to everyone around him.

Everywhere he went in Riverdale, Kevin found himself playing a role. At school, he was the all-American: junior class president, top athlete, national honor society leader, governor and member of numerous other clubs, and just generally a nice guy. At home, he played the role of both parents, as they were off travelling for work more often than not, and the sole caretaker of his younger sisters. As much as it exasperated him at times, being forced to take on adult responsibilities while he was still in high school, it was better than the alternative. Kevin didn’t particularly like his parents, and he doubted they liked him, so he preferred that they stayed away and left him alone.

He wasn’t anything else because he couldn’t be anything else. He did what he did because he needed to get by, not because he wanted to.

One of the reasons he so readily gravitated toward his set of friends from the very beginning, was because they didn’t seem to care very much what others thought of them. Well, Veronica and Reggie both did and didn’t. Veronica wanted to own the latest fashions and accessories, to be recognized as stylish, as a trendsetter, but it didn’t matter to her if people called her spoiled or snobby along the way. Reggie wanted to be on top, to be declared the ultimate winner, but didn’t seem bothered if he had to step on others along the way.

But no one’s opinion ever seemed to bother Jughead, and Kevin admired him for his unflappability. He didn’t appear to have many goals beyond eating, sleeping, video games, and just was utterly content with his existence to the point that Kevin couldn’t help but envy him. He wished he could have spare time where he didn’t feel consumed by a feeling of wrongness, that the universe must be out of alignment if he didn’t have some task or another to plan and complete.

Despite his lackadaisical efforts in school, Jughead was much more perceptive than most gave him credit for. He had a gift for looking at people, observing their behavior and pinpointing their strengths, weaknesses, and attitudes.

If Jughead and Kevin were to begin dating, he would undoubtedly uncover the truth: beyond his dozens of activities and playing single father to his little sisters, Kevin was absolutely devoid of any meaningful personality. He had restructured his character and demeanor so many times during his family’s frequent moves that there was no true identity left, just an empty facade.

Being found out for his inadequacies was Kevin’s greatest fear. Beyond that, he valued Jughead’s friendship, his humble, nonjudgmental companionship, too much to risk being discovered as a fraud. And if it meant rejecting Jughead, then that was what he had to do. Besides, Jughead deserved better than some shallow con man, anyhow.


2. 

The arrival of Jughead at his library table distracted Kevin from his fruitless attempts to coordinate his schedules with his younger sisters. Either Denise was going to need to start biking to volleyball practice, or she would have to carpool. There was no other way to swing it, not when Kevin himself was in both indoor track and swim team.

“Hey, Kev,” Jughead greeted him with a smile. “How’s it going?”

“To be honest? Not spectacular,” Kevin responded, only giving Jughead a quick glance before returning to his task. As his best friend, Jughead was well aware of Kevin’s nonstop activities, particularly because Kevin was always trying to rope him into them.

Jughead nodded at the hodgepodge of notes, flyers,and invitations on the table before him. “What are you doing? Codebreaking?”

“That would be easier,” Kevin said with a sigh. “I’m trying to plan my schedule for the next month. From the looks of it, I’ll be lucky to eat, never mind sleep.”

“Sounds horrifying,” Jughead offered.

“Well, it’s no picnic.” Kevin grimaced. He and Denise both had their end-of-season sports banquets on the same night, and their parents never bothered with those type of events. He would have to make an appearance for Denise at her dinner, then rush to his own.

“Maybe you need to take some time to relax, stop stressing about everything,” Jughead suggested.

“Not likely,” Kevin replied, purposefully keeping his tone absentminded. Talking about this particularly topic with Jughead always made him uncomfortable. Though never spiteful, Jughead made no secret of his opinion that extracurriculars were a waste of time, and the idea was a little too close to the truth for Kevin’s liking. He could never quite ignore the feeling that even with all of his projects and accomplishments, he had never truly achieved anything.

Jughead shrugged. “Well, anyway, I was going to head to the movies this weekend. Wanna come with?”

The offer was tempting—Kevin really would like to just escape reality for a few hours. But he had heard nothing from the rest of the gang about a movie, and going by Jughead’s phrasing of I not we, it would just be the two of them. The two of them alone together—that was too much like a date for his comfort. And dating held too much of a risk of revealing who he actually was—or wasn’t.  

He couldn’t ruin his friendship with Jughead. He couldn’t be found out as a fake. Most of all, Kevin couldn’t handle Jughead’s rejection once he discovered what an empty shell he actually was.

“I’m really sorry, Jug, but I can’t,” Kevin lied as sincerely as he could. “I’ve just got too much to do with the National Honor Society faculty breakfast coming up, and not nearly enough time to do it.”

“S’okay,” Jughead said amiably, rising from the chair. “Didn’t think you could. Just thought I’d ask.”

Kevin nodded. “I appreciate it. Thanks for understanding.” And he did, for what little that it was worth. True, declining every invitation filled him with guilt for his refusals, longing to accept, and dread for Jughead’s reaction. But he was grateful that Jughead found him worthwhile, wanted to spend time with him. Secretly, he was amazed that Jughead bothered even with him at all, let alone continued with his offers.

He knew the honorable course of action would be to sit Jughead down and talking to him openly and honestly, telling him outright that they had no chance of a relationship together. But truthfully, Kevin didn’t want Jughead to give up—he wanted to date Jughead, even though he knew he couldn’t. He just wanted the possibility of being with Jughead, even if he knew it would never happen. It couldn’t happen.

With a wave, Jughead walked away, joining Archie and Betty at their table, and with a sigh, Kevin returned to his scheduling dilemma. As certain as he was that he had done what was best for both Jughead and himself, he couldn’t help but feel thoroughly awful for it.


 “You must hate your parents,” was a common joke in response to Kevin mentioning that his family had moved to Riverdale just before the start of his junior year. Every time, he laughed it off and never replied one way or the other.

Honestly, he didn’t hate his parents for moving their family all across the United States and sometimes Europe. He didn’t even hate them for leaving him in charge of his sisters, Denise and Patty, all of the time. He couldn’t. His primary memories of his childhood were of his parents arguing with each, their raised voices preventing him from sleeping. His mother was staying at home full time to raise them, leaving his father as the only breadwinner. Their positions put a strain on the family, both financially and personally, as his mother hated to “stuck with the kids” while his father “had the glamour of travelling.”

“You think this is easy for me?” his father bellowed. “Knowing that we’re screwed if something goes wrong, if I get hurt or die out on a job?”

“You think I have it easy?” his mother shouted in response. “I’m home all day! I don’t get a break! You don’t know half of what I have to put up with from your children!”

Things only got worse when Patty was born not much later. Kevin hoped that Denise couldn’t remember the constant yelling and screaming, the viciousness of the arguments, but as she was only two years younger than him, it seemed more likely that she did.

When Patty started first grade, their mother returned to her career, and with two parents working full time, their financial worries vanished. Luckily, their marriage and temperaments also seemed to stabilize. Several promotions later, they moved to Riverdale, where their parents assured them they would stay until Kevin graduated. Neither Kevin nor his sisters believed them; that promise was first made two high schools ago.


3.

With all of the perishable leftover food packed away in the fridge, and all of the nonperishable food neatly arranged and covered out on the table in the faculty room, Kevin surveyed the teacher’s lounge. All other remnants of the faculty breakfast had been cleared away. With the bell for homeroom ringing any minute now, the staff had left, as had the rest of student government. But Kevin, as class president, wanted to be absolutely certain that every aspect of his work was complete.

He should make a sign, Kevin decided. One that read, “Please help yourself,” so the staff would know it was acceptable to indulge in the remaining refreshments.

No sooner had he withdrawn a notebook from his backpack to make the sign than Jughead slipped into the room.

“I’m not too late for leftovers, am I?” Jughead asked hopefully.

Kevin gestured to the box of doughnuts. “Help yourself. There’s jelly, angel cream, bavarian cream, peanut butter, crullers, and glazed.” For the first time in weeks, he felt like he was actually making someone happy. One of the reasons he loved Jughead—as a friend—was because of the joy he took in the simplest of things.  

“Kevin, you’re a gentleman and a scholar.” Jughead happily dove into pastries, emerging with three in one hand while munching on a fourth with the other.

“Thank you.” Kevin smiled, not his polite, general smile, but his actual happy one. It felt foreign on his face.

“Speaking of desserts,” Jughead said, his mouth full. “There’s a pie festival in Greendale this weekend.”

“Is there?” Kevin concentrated on his penmanship for the sign. He didn’t want to assume anything, after all. Kevin Keller was much too nice to ever assume. “Sounds stellar.”

“You pay a flat fee of twenty bucks, and then you get as much pie as you like,” Jughead told him. “There are ballots where you can vote on your favorite pie, with different categories and divisions. I was planning on going, and y’know, you could come along if you’d be interested.”

Satisfied with his sign, Kevin capped his Sharpie, and began packing up his bookbag. “I’m afraid not. I have junior engineering league on Saturday, and then I have to finish my science fair project.” He could shift his schedule around and squeeze in the festival if he tried. But he wasn’t going to try. The pressure was just too much, a chokehold, not to mention the risk of Jughead finding out about him.

“Yeah, I thought you’d be busy,” Jughead remarked. “You usually are.”

Kevin shouldered his backpack. “Well, I think it was very nice of you to ask. I’m grateful for the invitation, I really am, but—”

“You don’t have the time,” Jughead finished for him. “I get it.”

“Thanks.” Kevin smiled, willing the expression to look genuine. “I’m glad you understand.”


Truly, Kevin didn’t hate his parents. But resent? That was another story entirely. Did he resent his parents for their expectations that they could move three thousand miles away at a moment’s notice and be completely fine? That he had to give up some of his social life to run the household for weeks at a time in their absence?

Absolutely. And he made sure to take revenge on them in little ways, ones that they couldn’t hold against him.

When doing the weekly grocery shopping at the supermarket, he encountered Mrs. Andrews, Archie’s mother, and inquired about her recent holiday party that his parents attended. Kevin hadn’t; he had a swim meet and then indoor track practice.

“Did you enjoy the cinnamons rolls?” he asked with a smile. Be nice. Be polite.

“Oh, they were divine!” Mrs. Andrews exclaimed. “I’ll have to get your mother’s recipe.”

Kevin chuckled. “Oh, those were mine. I started baking those back in middle school. They always seem to be hit no matter where I bring them.” Be the person they’ll want to believe. Not that he was lying.

“Oh, really?” Mrs. Andrews’s eyebrows shot up.

“Yeah.” Kevin gave a casual shrug. “But don’t worry. I’ll make sure to give you that recipe.” And he did, sending Archie home one day with a plate of freshly baked pastries and the recipe neatly typed out, complete with a list of baking tips. It was a gesture that would undoubtedly cement himself as such a nice boy in Mrs. Andrews’s eyes.


At Parents’ Appreciation Night during the last home swim meet, Kevin’s parents weren’t there, as usual. So he just brought the carnation pins over to Mr. and Mrs. Cooper, who were there to cheer on Betty.

“My parents aren’t here,” he told them, making sure to laugh self-consciously and give a what-can-you-do shrug. He handed them the corsages. “Do you mind receiving two of these?”

He didn’t miss the exchange of glances that passed between them, but he pretended he did.

“Of course not!” Mrs. Cooper rushed to reassure him.

“We’d be proud to wear them,” Mr. Cooper added as he pinned on the second flower.

That’s right , Kevin mentally urged them as he walked away. Wonder why my parents aren’t here. Wonder why I’m so used to it.


When the swim team banquet rolled around at the conclusion of the season, Kevin arrived late, having already attended Denise’s volleyball banquet earlier that same evening. He had wanted her to have some sort of family member with her even if their parents weren’t there.

The only table with open space was the one reserved for the coaches, and, after a brief moment of hesitation, Kevin joined them there.

“Stuck in traffic?” Coach Clayton asked him with a smile as he sat down.

Kevin offered them all a hapless smile. “My younger sister’s volleyball banquet was tonight, too. I had to stop there first.”

“We can have more chairs brought in for your parents,” Mrs. Clayton offered kindly. “Are they parking the car?”

“Thanks, but my parents are out of town,” Kevin told them with calculated reluctance.

“They’re not coming?” Coach Clayton looked extremely taken aback, as did Mrs. Clayton.

“They have to travel for work.” Deliberately inserting a slight hint of dissatisfaction into his voice, Kevin added, “I’m sure they would be here if they could.”

Before either of the Claytons had a chance to respond, Coach Pacer announced the year’s MVP: “Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Kevin Keller! Kevin, congratulations!”

Kevin gave his best effort at an embarrassed shrug (because he was modest and nice and humble and he never presumed) to the Claytons as he reached into the pocket of his tailored suit jacket and removed his prepared speech. “Gotta go.”

Striding up to the podium, Kevin took his place in front of the crowd. “Good evening, everyone. I hope you’re having a terrific night. I would like to first thank my teammates and coaches for all of their hard work this season. After all, the success of a team is never due to just one person. I would also like to thank my parents, who, unfortunately, are unable to attend tonight’s event.”

A few murmurs ran through the crowd at that acknowledgment; MVPs were known well in advance of the banquet and told of their award t the season’s conclusion in order to for them to prepare a speech.

Kevin gave them a few seconds to quiet down (wonder) before he continued. “And, of course, I would also like to thank all of the families and fans who came out to support the team this season. We really appreciate your time and encouragement . . .”

He went on, but the rest of the speech didn’t really matter. He had already achieved his two goals for the night: make his parents look bad, and make himself look like a highly driven teenager who was modest, nice (ever so nice), and unloved by his parents.

Mission accomplished.


4.

Absolutely nothing had gone right that morning. He had spilled his cup of coffee because he hadn’t sufficiently tightened the lid of the travel mug. Denise delayed their arrival to school by taking too long getting ready. Then Patty made them even more late by forgetting her lunch, necessitating a trip back to the house. By the time Kevin dropped off Patty at the elementary school and Denise at the middle school, he was already late for the two meetings he scheduled. Luckily, Moose, his first appointment, easily accepted Kevin’s apology and the carefully constructed list of tutoring dates and times.

“You’ll notice that I carefully planned around all of our activities, including wrestling for you and science clubs for Dilton,” Kevin said. Patty had taken her inhaler with her for basketball, hadn’t she? Thinking about it, when was her prescription last filled? “With both Dilton and I tutoring you from now on, we can maximize efficiency, with one of us checking your work while the other teaches you the material. Not a second wasted.”

“You really think you two will be able to help me pass precalculus?” Moose asked dubiously.

Privately, Kevin was uncertain, but once he had volunteered as a student tutor, both Dilton and Coach Kleats had approached him personally to ask him to help Moose. Since Moose and Dilton were his friends and Coach Kleats had never caused any trouble for him, Kevin agreed. After all, he was Kevin Keller, student leader and all-around nice guy. Who was he to ever say no to anyone for anything?

You never have problem saying no to Jughead, a voice in the back of his head reminded him. Kevin ignored it. As far as he was concerned, he was doing what was best for Jughead.

“I think a great deal can be accomplished with good effort, positive thinking, and an optimistic attitude,” Kevin replied smoothly. “Anything else?

Moose shook his head, hefting his backpack. “No, but thanks. It’s really nice of you and Dilton to help me out.”

“No problem,” Kevin said, walking with Moose to the classroom door. To his surprise, he realized he was looking forward to tutoring Moose; he had forgotten how much he enjoyed helping others when his aid wasn’t taken for granted. “I’ll see you at the library during lunch, okay?”

They exchanged goodbyes and parted ways, Moose going back to hang out at the cafeteria before classes began for the day, and Kevin hurrying to the East staircase to make it to the history club meeting. Granted, his talk with Moose made him fifteen minutes late, but he should at least put in an appearance.

Should he call his parents and ask about Patty’s inhaler? While it was doubtful they would have the slightest idea, at least it was a beginning of a (long and complex) resolution to the problem. But Kevin was jolted from his musings at the sight of Jughead waiting for him outside Mr. Adams’s classroom.

“Joining the yearbook staff?” Kevin called to him, grinning. Maybe there was a way two of them could spend more time together after all.

“Pfff, no thanks.” Jughead waved a hand dismissively. “Actually, you’re the guy I wanted to see.”

“Oh, really?” Kevin smiled politely, but inwardly howled with impatience. He had a meeting to go to, and he was already late, and he needed to do something about the inhaler because of his useless parents. God, it wasn’t even eight o’clock in the morning, and he had already screwed up a dozen times. “Must be a big deal, if you’re willing to get to school early instead just wandering in at the last minute.”

“Not that big of a deal,” Jughead said casually. “Just wanted to see if you were up for a Josie and the Pussycats concert. They’re having a show on Friday.”

The instant the invitation was conveyed, Kevin immediately formed his courteous decline. “I—”

“Can’t,” Jughead interrupted.

“Yes.” Kevin frowned. Was he that predictable? “Because I have—”

“Some sports and/or club thing that needs doing,” Jughead interjected boredly. “I know, I know. I just thought I’d ask.”

Suddenly, Kevin was overcome by anxiety and filled with the need to prove himself to Jughead. “I know I’m a flake, Jug, but I’ll never be able to manage it. Trust me, I’m not trying to avoid you. I’m just swamped right now.”

“Like always,” Jughead said, but his tone was matter-of-fact rather than passive-aggressive.

Not that Kevin would have blamed him for the latter, honestly.

“I have this meeting . . .” Kevin gestured at the classroom in a rare instance of awkwardness. He hated it; Kevin Keller was poised, self-possessed, and confident. Never awkward.

“Go ahead.” Jughead began ambling off down the hall, giving him nothing more than a backwards wave in farewell.

Struggling with his conscience, Kevin was tempted to reach out, to call after him, but he realized that he couldn’t. Were he to do either, he would have to admit something was wrong with his actions, his choices.

So he strode into the classroom instead, his pulse racing, his heart pounding. No matter what he did, it looked like with any move he made, he was going to end up losing Jughead regardless.

Still, he wasn’t ready to admit anything just yet.


If there was one aspect of his relationship with his parents that Kevin unquestionably hated, it was their insistence on assuming malice on his behalf when there was absolutely none. With them, he could never make mistakes, never be forgetful, never just have circumstances spiral out of his control.

Instead, to them his errors were always deliberate acts of malevolence. To his parents, he was not a human with flaws who sometimes made mistakes, but a villain intent on destroying any type of goodwill.

For years, Kevin had enjoyed comic books. His parents never understood why, and so to help them understand his hobby, he had tried to show them the first X-Men movie.

“Tried” being the operative word. Because Kevin forgot about the opening scene of Magneto in the concentration camp. While he was in the kitchen unwittingly making popcorn, his parents were becoming enraged by his choice of movies. By the time Kevin walked back into the room, the scene of Rogue and her screaming parents was playing, and his own parents were shouting at him.

“What is wrong with you?” Kevin’s father demanded.

“Why on earth would you show us that?” His mother looked at him in disgust. “We just wanted to have a nice time together, not be miserable!”

Rather than endure their vocal disapproval, Kevin apolgized and then shut himself away in his room for the rest of the night. Now, during the rare occasions his parents were home and declared family movie nights, oblivious and uncaring toward the plans any of their children might have, Kevin did everything he could to procrastinate. He washed the dishes, loaded the dishwasher, scrubbed the pans. Boxed up leftovers, washed off the table, swept the floor. The less time he had to spend watching movies with his parents, the better.

Since then, Kevin always jumped at the chance to prove to others that people were three dimensional, that they could make mistakes or have faults while still being good people. Really, he relished in the opportunity.

So, after indulging in a one-night stand (a very, very rare vice he only allowed himself extremely occasionally) with Jason Blossom, Kevin made sure he was dropped off at the front of his school. The cafeteria windows looked out to the front entrance of the school, and so did the teachers’ lounge, if he remembered correctly from the faculty breakfast. Everyone would see him. Everyone would wonder and speculate. To the layman, the sight might have seemed counterproductive to his carefully crafted good-and-nice (ever so nice) image. But Kevin viewed it as an opportunity to demonstrate that he was three-dimensional, that he had layers.

Also, a part of him enjoyed shocking people, showing that even good-and-nice Kevin Keller had a bad boy side to him.

“Thanks for the ride,” Kevin told Jason, opening the door and swinging his feet out of the sleek sports car. He couldn’t help but admire how his legs looked in the borrowed black leather pants he wore, which matched the ubiquitous black leather jacket. Both items were snug on his body—they had been left in Jason’s room by a previous girlfriend—but they fit his slim form well, and suited his black work boots and white Smashing Pumpkins T-shirt quite nicely.

“No problem,” Jason told him with a cocky smirk. “Call me if you’d like to do this again sometime.”

“Hmm.” Kevin didn’t confirm or reject the request, but he gave Jason a long, deep kiss prior to exiting the car and walking up the steps to Riverdale High. Behind him, the sports car roared away, and even as happy as he had been with the sex, Kevin couldn’t help but feel relieved. One less person he had to worry about pleasing.

With no qualms, Kevin strode into the teachers’ lounge. As a student, he technically wasn’t allowed into the room, but the faculty had exempted him from the usual rules due to his position as student body president and officer of various school clubs.

“Morning, all,” he said brightly, the smile on his face natural for the first time in weeks. He pretended not to notice (Kevin Keller was always tactful) that the various Riverdale High teachers were either frozen in shock or double-taking his attire. His clothes weren’t just pushing the limits of the dress code; he was familiar with the majority of the faculty from his high volume of interactions with them. Yet here was always nice, always friendly Kevin standing before them, dressed like a delinquent who had a motorcycle flung across the “Reserved for the principal” parking space, or a rock singer who had copious amounts of cocaine and groupies awaiting him backstage.

Without missing a beat, Kevin began distributing materials. “Coach Pacer, here’s the money from the track fundraiser. Ms. Grundy, here’s the yearbook photos. Mr. Adams, here’s the letters I wrote for Amnesty International.”

Frozen with his coffee mug halfway to his lips, Mr. Adams seemed too shocked to speak at Kevin’s appearance, while Ms. Grundy was apparently dismayed beyond words. Only Coach Pacer, one of the youngest of the staff, responded to his greeting, accepting all the items for the three with an uncertain smile and a polite, “Thank you, Kevin.”

“Oh, it wasn’t a big deal,” Kevin assured them cheerfully, a reminder that while he might have been wearing clothes they had never seen him wear before, clothes that they probably thought a nice boy like him would never even think of donning, he was still responsible, reliable Kevin Keller.

Zipping over to the table where Coach Kleats sat with a collection of other faculty members, openly gaping at him, Kevin handed him a piece of paper.

“And Coach, here’s the tutoring schedule Dilton and I worked out for Moose. We should have his GPA rising in no time. I hope you find it satisfactory, but let me know if you have any questions.” He gave Coach Kleats a friendly clap on the shoulder (nice, amiable, approachable Kevin Keller), but neither he nor the others teachers seemed reassured.

Spotting a pile of mail on the table, Kevin grabbed the envelopes and rifled through them, checking the names as he glanced around the room, noting that none of the teachers receiving mail were present.

“I’m on my way to Mr. Flores’s room for chess club,” Kevin informed them. Smile. Be friendly. Be convincing. “Most these teachers’ rooms are on my way there. Would you like me to deliver their mail to them?”

For several seconds, no one responded. Mr. Kroskut hurried to sip his coffee, Ms. Crouton glanced back and forth at her coworkers as if wondering if she was being pranked, and Coach Kleats just blinked, staring at Kevin wordlessly.

But Ms. Kandinsky managed a strangled, “That would be very nice of you.”

“No problem.” Kevin hefted his backpack, turning and walking toward the door, giving a parting wave. “Have a good day, everyone! Take care!” He sent them all another unassuming smile as he exited.

Though he reached his locker without further incident, just as he finished exchanging his, Coach Clayton and Mr. Howitzer rounded the corner, deep in conversation. But their talk halted the moment Kevin sensed their eyes land on him.

He didn’t bother with pretense. “Good morning, Coach, Mr. Howitzer. Beautiful weather outside, especially for February, isn’t it?” He shut his locker and moved toward the pair, giving them a congenial nod as they stared openly at him. Howitzer’s gaze was entirely disapproving, but Coach Clayton’s eyes held a mixture of concern and confusion.

On his way toward the stairwell, Kevin was only a few steps past them when his phone rang.

“I fucked my way up to the top

This is my show

I fucked my way up to the top—”

The caller was Jason Blossom. Kevin grimaced; Jason hadn’t struck him as so clingy to call him less than fifteen minutes after they exchanged goodbyes. If there was one trait he hated in his dates, it was a need for constant contact with him. With a sigh, he mentally struck Jason off his list of potential boyfriends.

Jughead would never be clingy, a voice whispered at the back of his head. He’s laid-back, and nothing ever bothers him.

Kevin ignored the voice and rejected the call as soon as he could. But the use of his phone, and likely the contents on the song lyrics, did not go unnoticed by the teachers nearby.

“Kevin!” Coach Clayton exclaimed, his tone somewhere between reprimanding and shocked.

Fixing an embarrassed smile on his face, Kevin turned to the two adults to offer his most sincere apology. “Sorry, Coach. Sorry, Mr. Howitzer. I just haven’t turned off my phone yet since the school day technically hasn’t started.”

Howitzer shook his head in exasperation, but Coach Clayton just sighed.

“Just . . . make sure you turn it off before your classes begin,” he warned him. There was a reluctant note in his voice indicating that he wanted to say more, but he didn’t.

“Yes, sir,” Kevin said smoothly, turning and continuing to the stairwell, reveling in that he could still feel their eyes on his back.

That’s right, he mentally goaded them. Look at me. Look at me.


5.

Something was wrong. Kevin was sure of it. He was forgetting something—he just couldn’t remember what.

Rolling over in bed, Kevin reached out and fumbled for the flashlight and typewritten schedule of his activities for the weekend that he kept on his bedside table.

Saturday, 8AM: Debate tournament (Debate team)

Saturday, 4 PM: Grocery shopping

Saturday, 7 PM: Laundry/housework

Sunday, 9 AM: Animal Shelter volunteering (Community service club)

Sunday, 2 PM: Organize Amnesty International bake sale (Amnesty International)

Racking his brain, Kevin tried to remember the missing activity. What was left? What else was there to do?

He lay there trying to relax, hoping the answer would to him if he was sufficiently calm.

It didn’t.

He was forgetting something. Something important. Something people were counting on him for, relying on him, and he was going to disappoint them. They would look at him with disgust and disapproval and hate him for making mistakes—

He could feel himself shaking as the question remained, even though his brain kicked into overdrive trying to resolve the doubt. The uncertainty hovered, but then ensnared him, wrapping tightly around his shoulders and paralyzing him down to his knees. Panic gripped him, and without warning, his lungs couldn’t take in enough oxygen, leaving him struggling to breathe.

For an instant, Kevin was sure he was going to die there asphyxiate in his own bed for no other reason other his own stress and inner turmoil. It was a petty, worthless way to die, but it matched the petty, worthless life that he lived.  

But in a flash it was over, and the alarm that had overwhelmed him just seconds ago vanished, leaving him gasping and trembling. He clenched his fists, vaguely noticing his fingers were icy cold.

The vibration of his phone seemed like an air raid siren in the stillness of night, and Kevin pulled it out from beneath his pillow. He always kept it there when he was sleeping (or attempting to) to at once ensure he never missed an alarm (please) and could always respond to text messages right away.

Squinting at the brightly lit screen (goddamnit, it was already past four), Kevin opened the text message.

Jughead: Want to get breakfast this morning?

Well, at least he wasn’t the only one still awake. Kevin fired off a reply automatically.

Kevin: Can’t. Debate team tournament in Midvale from 8—3.

Admittedly, it was a terse reply, but he was fucking sick of always having to be unfailingly nice, so considerate, so thoughtful all the damn time, even when life sucked for him. Even if he wanted to convince people he was nice all the time. Even if he was supposed to want to convince people he was nice all the time.

Jesus, it wasn’t even five AM, and he already could feel weariness all the way down into his bones.  

Throwing back the covers, Kevin rolled out of bed to get dressed and head downstairs. If he wasn’t going to get any rest, the least he could do was prepare a hot breakfast for his kid sisters.

He ventured downstairs in his pajamas, a rare event in the Keller household. By the time any of the members of their family left their bedroom, it was expected they would be dressed and ready to face the day. Lounging around in pajamas through breakfast was considered by their parents to be lazy and sloppy, a sign of a slob. After years of this idea being reinforced, Kevin and his sisters continued to follow the rule to the letter, despite their parents not even being home. But today, Kevin was too tired to care.

Opening the fridge, Kevin guiltily contemplated its limited contents. He was going to go shopping for groceries later today, after the debate competition, but he probably should have gone beforehand. Still, he was able to locate enough ingredients for a frittata, baked oatmeal, and even a minimalist fruit salad.

Reasoning that the oatmeal could bake in the oven while he worked on the other dishes, Kevin concentrated on that recipe first, making sure to include chocolate chips for Denise and Patty. As he didn’t like sweets that much, he prepared a batch of apple oatmeal for himself, even though he didn’t think he would be eating much in the next few days. Whenever he was this stressed, swallowing always gave him trouble.

Preparing the food was soothing, though. The familiar routine brought him a sense of order and calm. Since he entered high school, Kevin had been tasked with preparing meals for the family, even before he turned sixteen and his parents decided they could leave him on his own with Patty and Denise.

Still, Kevin couldn’t shake a sense of loneliness and isolation as he moved throughout the kitchen. The sky was dark, the night evident through the large windows, designed to provide as much natural light as possible. It was a reminder that he was awake while the rest of the world was sleeping peacefully. Once again, he was the one working while other people rested.

Kevin’s gaze landed on his phone, recalling the text from Jughead only a few minutes ago. Well, at least he knew one other person was awake. Someone who loved to eat and would most definitely appreciate the food Kevin was preparing.

Adding the cinnamon into the mixing bowl, a scene drifted into Kevin’s mind, of himself baking for one of his parents’ parties or one of his club’s bake sales. The kitchen would be sunny, light streaming in through the windows, reflecting on the white cabinets and marble counters. Delicious aromas would waft pleasantly through the air as he removed a tray of cookies from the oven, and then Jughead would walk through the door.

“Whatcha cookin’, good-lookin’?” He would tease, waiting for Kevin to put down the cookie tray before grabbing him and twirling him around into a kiss.

“Just waiting for you to come by and destroy all of my hard work,” Kevin would reply saucily when they separated.

Jughead would reach for a cookie from the tray on top of the stove, but Kevin stopped him and directed him to a tray of cookies that had already cooled.

“Sweets from a sweetheart, to a sweetheart,” Jughead would say, munching on a cookie as Kevin playfully rolled his eyes. “Thanks, Kev.”

The beeping of the oven completing its preheat cycle interrupted Kevin’s imagination, and he obligingly returned to his cooking.

He and Jughead being together was just a fantasy, and right now, reality was enough to cope with.


+1.

“Thank you so much for the ride, Mr. and Mrs. Cooper,” Kevin said gratefully as he unbuckled his seatbelt. “It was so kind of you to give me a ride.” They had taken him and Betty to the debate team championships over in Midvale, a distance of some length. Though Kevin normally would have driven himself, it had been a demanding week and he didn’t trust himself to be capable of making the long journey twice in one day.

“No problem, Kevin,” Mr. Cooper told him cheerfully.

“It was delight to have you,” Mrs. Cooper added. “You and Betty and all the other team members did a wonderful job today!”

Before Kevin left, Betty gave him a fierce hug. “You really were spectacular today. We might have lost to Pembroke this year, but we’ll get them back next time!”

Kevin returned the hug with a smile. “Thanks, Betts. And I can’t take all of the credit. You were phenomenal during the matches, too.”

Exiting the car and waving goodbye, Kevin followed the front walkway leading to the spacious French provincial style house. With a frown, he noticed that his car was gone. Instead, his mother and father’s cars were parked in the driveway.

“Honey, I’m home,” he called out unenthusiastically as he entered through the front door, striding into the kitchen. Crumbs were scattered across the cloth on the table, coffee rings dotted the counter, and dirty dishes covered every available surface but the sink, all signs of the elusive mater and pater.

A pair of combat boots clomped down the staircase, and then Denise joined him. “How was quiz bowl?”

“It was debate team, and we took second place overall, with Pembrooke winning.” Kevin began collecting dishes and bringing them to the sink. “I take it Mom and Dad are home, then?” He tilted his head to indicate the general chaos surrounding them.

“If you think this is bad, you should see the laundry room. It looks like a tornado hit it, and of course, they expect us to clean up after them.” Denise tugged on a long strand of red hair in annoyance. “And they were home. They’re gone again, now. But you know, I like them being gone better than them being here.”

Though Kevin shot her a disapproving look, he understood her reasoning. At fourteen years old, Denise dressed like a walking Hot Topic advertisement, and her choice of dark attire and dark makeup was a continual source of contention between her and their parents. Honestly, Kevin thought they just should lay off. After all, he couldn’t care less about her decision to dress like she just slinked off the set of an Evanescence music video, and he saw more of Denise than both of their parents combined.

“Where’s Patty?” he asked, opening the dishwasher and loading up the silverware.

“Crying upstairs in her room,” Denise told him. “Mom and Dad were really mean to her. And I feel bad for her, but it’s nice for someone else to be their ‘shoot to kill’ target instead of me.”

“Sounds like they were their usual charming selves.” A thought occurred to him. “Do you have any idea why Dad’s car is here while mine isn’t?”

“Oh, yeah, that’s right.” Denise meandered over to the fridge. “The inspection is expired on both of their cars, so they took yours. They want you to have at least one but preferably both of the cars inspected by Monday when they come back.”

Exasperation flared within Kevin. “Dammit, I’m so screwed. I left all my textbooks and notebooks in the backseat, and I have two tests on Monday. And just where the hell am I supposed to get a car inspected on the goddamn weekend? No auto shop is open!”

Denise shrugged before wandering off. “Don’t shoot the messenger.”

“Yeah, God forbid someone else besides me is ever inconvenienced.” Kevin muttered, rubbing at his temples. If it was just a matter of having the cars fixed, he could probably beg Betty for another favor. But a half hour of scrolling through webpages of all of the listed auto body shops within a fifty mile radius told him what he already knew: no car garages nearby were open on weekends.

Any attempts to call his parents and relay this obvious information to them proved futile; both of their voicemail boxes were full, forcing him to resort to send them several texts begging them to call him as soon as possible. But as hours passed with no communication from either his mother or his father, Kevin found himself growing angrier and angrier.

Finally, when the clock struck seven in the evening and there was still no response from his parents and his search for a repair shop that operated on weekends proved entirely fruitless, Kevin decided he need to get out of the house. He was angry, and really, he should have used his anger to work out or go for a run, his usual coping methods. But he was tired, both mentally and physically, too tired for exercise. Besides, he hadn’t eaten anything the entire day besides  a single low-fat granola bar at six in the morning, so he had nothing to feel guilty for.

Denise was sashaying down the stairs as he was pulling on his coat.

“Are we going to eat dinner tonight, or what?” She asked.

“It’s self-serve tonight,” Kevin informed her. “You’re fourteen years old. You can manage to operate the microwave or the stove.”

She put her hands on her hips. “We barely have anything to eat. You forgot to go grocery shopping.”

“There’s cereal in the pantry and milk in the fridge,” Kevin retorted. “Have a blast. Watch Patty until I’m back.”

“When will that be?” Denise demanded.

“Sooner than I’d like,” he snarled. “Don’t give me attitude, Denise. I need a break, too, sometimes.” He stepped out the front door, but stuck his head back inside a half second later. “And if Mom or Dad calls, tell them to call me right away.” He shut the front door firmly behind him, uninterested in hearing more of Denise’s protests.

Guilt surged through Kevin as he stalked to his father’s car, glanced at the expired inspection tag, and unlocked the door. Usually, he was much nicer to both of sisters, trying, if unsuccessfully, to make a stable home situation for them. But every once in a while, he needed someone to cut him some slack. He couldn’t be giving everything his all every second of the day. Once in a blue moon, he just needed someone else to step up to the plate instead of leaving it to him all of the time.

That was the problem with ever-so-goddamn-nice Kevin Keller, he mused as he pulled out of the driveway. People took it for granted that he always would be nice, always be reliable, always come through for them, always be a motherfucking miracle worker. He knew it was a self-inflicted hell, because he was the one who created the image, the persona, but fuck if people ( his parents ) weren’t salivating over the chance to imprison him into it.

Even though he had always enjoyed driving at night, this evening he found himself barely able to concentrate on the road. The headlights of each passing car brought him to shield his eyes or else become dizzy, and his attempts to squint through the shine left him seeing spots. Too often, he found his attention wandering from the road and completely forgetting that he was driving at all as he worried about his parents’ response to his inability to achieve the tasks they had assigned.

Almost unconsciously, Kevin found himself heading toward the downtown area of Riverdale.

What would his mother and father say to him when he wasn’t able to have the cars inspected? What would they tell him?

Unfortunately for drivers, downtown Riverdale was designed for pedestrians. There was a long line of stoplights along the central streets to slow traffic. Just Kevin’s luck for the first light to change to red the moment the car ahead of him made its turn.

His parents would be angry. They would be disappointed. They would be accusatory and probably be convinced he could have found a way to complete the inspection, but was too lazy to do so. Or that he didn’t have the cars checked just to spite them.

Finally, the light changed, and Kevin pushed forward to the second traffic stop of the line, already anticipating he would get stuck with another red light. He did.

They always assumed the worst of him, without fail. In addition to being the designated nanny and housekeeper of the family, he was also the default devil. The more he tried to prove himself to his parents, the less they liked him.

The light switched to green, letting him move forward to the next stop—not even three hundred yards away, and that light had already shifted from green to orange.

Fuck, he was exhausted. Just fatigued inside and out. His head ached, his eyes felt dry and strained, and his shoulders could have been carved from lead. His stomach ached from not eating for more than twelve hours, but he knew he would be able to stomach any food until he relaxed. Really, he just needed the world to slow down every so often and let take a rest.

The traffic light ahead of him changed to red, but Kevin barely noticed. Breathing was becoming difficult, and panic began to overwhelm him once more.

He couldn’t breathe.

The traffic stop loomed ahead of him, the red light glaring, but Kevin didn’t even think of slowing down, too seized by the anxiety that had been lurking around him like a shadow all day.

His car barreled through the red light as horns from the other vehicles blared around him. Barely aware of what was happening, the situation didn’t register with Kevin until he spotted a figure in the crosswalk dead ahead.

Stomping on the brakes, Kevin braced himself for the sickening crunch of bone being crushed beneath metal, but it never came. Miraculously, his car slammed to a halt not five feet in front of the person in the crosswalk. The pedestrian was a boy carrying a skateboard who looked about middle school age, not much older than Patty and but younger than Denise.

For a moment, Kevin sat frozen in place, staring at the boy who stood still before his car, caught in the glare of the headlights. For a second, Kevin was struck by the urge to rush out to the boy and apologize, to check that he was unhurt, but a blast from one of the cars stuck behind him brought him back to reality.

The noise also appeared to startle the boy in his headlights; he jumped and then scampered back to the safety of the sidewalk. Shaking and overcome by nausea, Kevin cautiously continued forward, but pulled his car into the first parking lot he spotted: Pickens Park, so named for a Riverdale war hero.

Still gasping for breath, Kevin turned off the engine, stumbling out of the car and locking it behind him. To his relief, the park appeared deserted, but then, few others would want to be outside on a cold February night.

Making his way to a park bench by the duck pond, Kevin sat down and tried to control his breathing.

He almost killed someone tonight because he had been too absorbed in his own problems, his own angst and issues. A kid who probably went to Denise’s school. How could he be so irresponsible, so reckless?

Jesus, his parents were right when they told him he was selfish.

Reaching down to the seat of the bench, Kevin gripped the wooden slats as hard as he could, trying to steady himself, wishing with all of his might that he could be better, be stronger, be worthwhile.

Ever-so-nice Kevin Keller was a goddamn lie, and he hated himself for creating it, for sustaining it, and for failing to live up to it.

The barking of a dog close by caught Kevin off-guard, and he glanced around in alarm, only to find an enormous white sheep dog racing past him, charging after the ducks.

Hot Dog , Kevin realized. Which could only mean—

“Hey Kev,” Jughead said with an easy smile as he joined Kevin on the bench.

“Hey,” Kevin grated out, moving to face him. He sounded like a mess and probably looked like one, too, if both of Jughead’s eyebrows shooting up were anything to go by.

To his credit, Jughead tried to be tactful. “You doing okay?”

The question was one Kevin was anticipating, but nevertheless, a desperate laugh burst out of his throat. “No. No, I’m not.” To his mortification, tears suddenly stung his eyes, and he quickly looked away.

“Hey.” Jughead reached out gripped Kevin’s shoulder tightly. “Would it help to talk?”

Kevin shook his head miserably. “It’s just a mess right now, Jughead. I’m a mess.” His fists clenched and unclenched, and he felt himself begin shake again. “I don’t even know what’s wrong with me. I don’t know where to begin.”

Wordlessly, Jughead moved swiftness and certainty Kevin wouldn’t have thought he would have possessed, pulling him into a secure embrace, one that he found himself instinctively returning.

For several minutes, they simply sat that way. Kevin could not remember the last time someone had hugged him, or any time when such a seemingly minor gesture held such significance, such reassurance to him.

The wind picked up as Jughead held Kevin, sending frigid gusts of cold air their way, bringing the both of them to shudder.

“I’m on my lonesome tonight, except for Hot Dog,” Jughead told him. “I was going out to grab a burger. Want to come with me?”

Pulling away, Kevin looked at him directly. “Jug, let me ask you something. Why do you—”

“You don’t have to come if you don’t want to,” Jughead interrupted.

“—bother with me?” Kevin finished. He wiped away a traitor tear that was trailing down his face. “I just—” he broke off, shaking his head. “I’m not the person you think I am.”

Jughead blinked, looking surprised, and then shrugged. “We’re never the people anyone thinks we are,” he said simply. “No one know everything about anyone.”

Kevin swallowed. “I’m a little bit . . . complicated.” He couldn’t determine a better way to describe himself. “If you ever wondered why I could never hang out with you, it’s because I’m a fraud.”

His admission didn’t seem to particularly move Jughead. “I always thought it was because of your clubs and sports teams. And your parents being away all the time.”

“Well, that, too. But I—” Kevin exhaled deeply. “I’m not the nice guy everyone thinks I am. I do all these clubs and these sports, but for the most part I hate it. I participate because I want people to like me, but when they do like me, I can’t help but feel they’ve fallen for a lie rather than the real person. ‘Kevin Keller, he’s such a great guy’—right. That guy doesn’t exist. In reality, Kevin Keller is just a bitter martyr.”

“Hey.” Jughead slung his arms over Kevin’s shoulders. “I’m sure you’re more complicated than that.”

“Not really,” Kevin said flatly. “All of those times you tried to ask me out, I kept saying no because I thought you would figure me out and hate me for it.”

Jughead arched an eyebrow. “Hate you for what, exactly? Not actually liking yearbook? Being begrudging about Amnesty International? Did you think I’d petition to have you exiled if I knew you didn’t enjoy junior engineering league?”

Kevin couldn’t help but smile at his friend’s remarks, but he still wasn’t able to suppress his worry. “I thought everyone else would hate me for not being able to do it all, for being a failure. For being Kevin Keller: Normal Person, instead of Kevin Keller: Super Teen. But you?” he searched Jughead’s face. “I thought you’d hate me for lying about everything in the first place. For being a fake who tried to make everyone else believe in a fantasy. Most of all, for being someone who’s completely wrapped up in what other people think of him.”  

“So noted.” Jughead eyed him appraisingly for several seconds. “Okay, I’m going to ask you three questions. One: do you still like comic books?”

“I—” The relevant query caught Kevin off-guard. “Yes?”

“Good, good. Two: do you still like burgers?”

Kevin couldn’t hold back a chuckle. “Yes.”

“Phenomenal. Three: do you like hanging out with me and want to continue to in the future?”

“Yes.” Taking a deep breath, Kevin added, “I’d actually really like to date you, if you’ll have me.”

Jughead grinned. “Wasn’t quite expecting that answer, but I’m glad to hear it, so my response is a definite ‘yes.’ Unanticipated fourth question: would you be willing to lend me the money for a milkshake, should I require funds?”

Kevin smiled back. “I think I’ll be able to spare the change.” He grew serious once more. “But are you sure you want to be with me? Friends, or . . . otherwise?”

“Look.” Jughead’s tone was frank. “I wasn’t trying to ask you out based on your love or hatred of extracurriculars. You like yearbook? Fine. You don’t like yearbook? That’s fine, too. My interest in you isn’t going to vanish because you want to spend more time playing videos instead of entering debate competitions. I want to go out with you because I like the person you are, not because of your list of after-school activities.”

“You really want me, huh?” Kevin looked Jughead directly in the eyes.

“Absolutely.” Jughead returned his gaze unflinchingly.

“Than what do you say we go get that burger?” Kevin suggested. “It can be our first official date.”

“Sounds terrific.” Grinning, Jughead rose, calling Hot Dog away from chasing the ducks. He then extended a hand to Kevin to help him up as well.

At first taken aback, Kevin’s smile broadened as he accepted the hand. Neither of them let go as they walked down the path together.