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The Ghost of Connor Murphy has got a pink rubber SuperBall and he won’t stop bouncing it off the ceiling. 

Evan’s been trying to be patient and ignore it because, okay, he probably owes Connor a little bit. Only it’s almost three am and Evan has spent the last several days in a manic state of trying-to-hold-things-together. And now that things are decidedly Not Together and Evan’s spent the night sobbing on his mom’s shoulder, he is tired but more importantly he’s terrified that his mom is going to come investigate the rhythmic thuds of the ball against the ceiling and she’ll realize he’s seeing ghosts and rush him to the ER and then he will miss school on Monday and everybody will think it’s because of- because of-

The ball ricochets off a wall, smashes against Evan’s closed bedroom door with a thud that has the door rattling in its frame. Connor laughs. Evan flinches. 

He had hoped that SuperBalls being wielded by ghosts were also insubstantial through some, like, ghostly transitive property. But then Connor ‘accidentally’ threw the SuperBall at the mobile of paper-mache planets that Evan still has hanging in the corner from a science fair in the third grade, causing both Evan’s hopes and a paper-mache Pluto to come crashing down.  

Evan supposes the mobile is more scientifically accurate now that Pluto is gone, but-

“Fuck you,” says The Ghost of Connor Murphy. “Viva La Pluto.”

Oh my god. The Ghost of Connor Murphy can hear his thoughts. 

“Nah,” says The Ghost of Connor Murphy, “you’re mumbling, dude. And stop calling me that.”

“Sorry,” says Evan immediately. “But- But you are-” he winces “-I mean, a ghost. You are a ghost. Right?”

“Am I?” Connor considers this. The SuperBall hits the ceiling at a perfect 45-degree angle, bounces against the wall, and lands in Connor’s hand with a satisfying snap. 

“Aren’t you?”  

“I think I’m more, like,” Connor pauses to bounce the SuperBall against the wall, setting Evan’s solar system rattling once more, “a physical manifestation of your guilt.”

“Of- of my-“

“Guilt,” Connor repeats mercilessly. “For coopting my suicide into a seat at the popular table and a date with my little sister, for starters.”

Evan’s eyes flinch closed, but he’s already remembering Zoe’s face. The way she’d looked at him today. 

“I- I didn’t-“ He stammers. “It wasn’t like that- I mean, not at first- I-“

The SuperBall hits the wall above the headboard, an inch to the left of Evan’s head, rebounds into Connor’s hands. Evan flinches like he's been struck. Connor shrugs. 

“Hey, I’m in your head. I’m not saying anything you’re not thinking.”

Evan doesn’t disagree. He puts his face between his knees for a minute, wonders if he’s about to have a panic attack, and finds he doesn’t really have the energy. He feels like he’s done nothing but cry for days and days and days, like he’s emptied out an ocean and now there’s just this big, dry cavity where all that water used to fit. There’s a pit of self-loathing in his chest and it’s consuming everything. He can feel its tug in his fingertips, in the weary bow of his shoulders. 

Connor keeps bouncing the ball. Evan wonders why the physical manifestation of his guilt has a little rubber ball. 

“I bought it in one of those grocery store machines for 50 cents,” says Connor. Evan’s head shoots up, but Connor just shrugs again. “Mumbling.”

“Would you just- Could you maybe stop with the ball for-“

Evan winces as Connor misses a rebound and the ball goes crashing into the collection of junk on Evan’s bureau — the horribly expectant pile of scholarship applications his mom keeps leaving there, the old picture frames, the participation trophy from the tee-ball league Evan played on in second grade. His mom let him quit after his dad left, because he’d been the one who signed Evan up while she was the one who had to drive him to the games every Saturday morning while he cried and begged not to go and puked in the car. 

“Oops,” says Connor with satisfaction. He stands up to retrieve the ball, returns with a sheaf of papers. He holds one up, squinting in the dim light, and then reads aloud, “Discuss a mistake you’ve made. How did this mistake affect you? How did you learn from this mistake? If you found yourself in these same circumstances today, how would you behave differently—“

“Those are just- Can you please not- Those are private,“ Evan chokes. 

“Private,” Connor echoes. “Right. Wouldn’t want to pry. Wouldn’t want to barge into someone else’s life, now would we-“

He throws the ball at Evan again. This time it hits the wall an inch to the right of his head. Evan visibly flinches. Connor laughs, catches the rebound, and goes back to the scholarship essays. 

When does the end justify the means? Do good intentions justify harmful actions? Discuss in approximately 1000 words-“

The ball thuds against the ceiling, the floor, the wall, and narrowly misses a window. Evan is positive he hears a floorboard crack. His mom is going to wake up and come in here and find him talking to a physical manifestation of his own guilt with a SuperBall and she’s going to make him go to the emergency room and then she’ll be tired at work the next day because of him and she’ll mix up some important medication and accidentally kill some rich old white guy—

“Oh, this one’s good. If a tree falls in a forest and there’s nobody around to hear it, does it make a sound? In 1000 words or less examine the way a person’s actions make an impact, seen or unseen, in the world-“

“Stop. Stopstopstopstop-“ 

“There are many differing theories on the possibility of time travel and a person’s capacity to explore or alter the past. In at least 500 words, explore the inherent paradox in the idea of changing the past-“ 

“That one can’t be real.”

“You’re not real.”

“If you’re in my head, why can’t I control you?” Evan despairs. 

“Just ‘cause it’s happening in your head doesn’t mean you can control it,” Connor says scathingly. “You of all people should know that.”

Evan stops arguing. He puts his head back against the headboard and tries not to flinch as the ball ricochets against the ceiling and nearly hits him in the nuts. Connor’s hand snaps out at the last minute to save him. 

“Besides,” Connor adds, sitting up on his knees, tossing the ball from one hand to the other, “I’m not totally sure I’m in your head, now that I think about it. I think it’s like a-“

“You don’t know?”

“Time isn’t the same once you’re dead,” Connor says. “I’m still getting my sea-legs. I think it’s more like a Ghost of Christmas Past type thing, you know?”

Evan does not know. 

“I’m Jewish,” he says finally. “Or- I mean, technically I guess I’m probably agnostic but I’m culturally Jewish. I mean I don’t go to Temple or anything but I think my dad and my stepmom-”

“Don’t care,” says Connor. “God is fake. I’m dead and there’s nothing here. It’s from that Dick book. A Christmas Carol by the Dick guy.”

“Charles Dickens-“

“I’m here to, like, show you what could have been and what will be or might be or some shit,” says Connor, ignoring this and pegging the ball at Evan’s solar system. Jupiter crunches, sways, but doesn’t fall. “Like I said, time is weird now.”

Evan watches him stand, cross the room to retrieve the fallen SuperBall. There’s no reflection in the bureau mirror when Connor moves to stand in front of it, sifting through the scattered papers. 

“I think,” Evan says finally, feeling the familiar rattling sensation in his lungs of panic, “that I need to wake up my mom. I’m having a psychotic break or- or a bad reaction to my meds or-“

“If you could do it all again,” Connor reads aloud, “would you? Discuss in 500 words-“

“There’s no way that’s a real prompt.”

“Hey,” says Connor, turning, “were you on the Tee-Ball Tigers, too?”

“What?” says Evan, and then he yelps because Connor’s thrown the SuperBall right at his face, and then he yelps again because it never hits him. 

Time goes funny. 

And then it’s morning and Connor is gone. 

There’s a knock at the door. His mom’s already in her scrubs and her hair’s pulled back and she looks tired, yeah, but not more than the usual working-the-late-shift-and-taking-evening-classes-and-making-sure-Evan-doesn’t-kill-himself levels of tired. Evan is relieved to see last night’s ghostly visitor and his SuperBall don’t seem to have kept her up. 

“So you just decided not to eat last night?” she asks, smiling a little with this kind of tired frustration that Evan knows all too well. It makes him well with such a feeling of guilt, of self-loathing — look what you’re doing to her — that it takes him a second to absorb her words. 

“What?” 

“You’re a senior in high school, Evan. You need to be able to order dinner for yourself if I’m at work. You can do it all online now-“

“Wait,” he says again, “what?”

“This is what you’re suppose to be working on, Evan-“

“Mom, we- You were here last night,” he says. “You were- I was upset about the- We- What?”

His mom drops her forced smile, letting her face fall into concern, well-worn. “Honey, no, I switched shifts with Gina last night, remember? I left you money on the counter to order pizza.”

“No, I-“ Evan starts, fingers starting to twitch with anxiety, with the inability to say what he means. “I-“

And that’s when he notices the cast. 

When he jumped from the tree- Well, really, right after he jumped from the tree, when he hit the ground, right before he realized he was still alive and very much Not Dead, there had been this funny, odd moment where everything had gone white and it felt like all the sound had been sucked away. And Evan thought ‘Oh, is this what being dead is?’ and then the sound rushed back in, like a tackle from behind, and then his arm started to hurt and Evan realized he was horribly, inescapably Not Dead and-

Anyway Evan thinks about that for a second as he stares at the clean, blank cast that binds his arm. Oh my god.

And then the sound rushes back in. 

“-an appointment with Dr. Sherman for this afternoon. Evan, honey? Is everything okay? Have you- Are you okay on refills? I know it’s the big day back and you’re probably nervous, but- Honey?”

Evan finds his breath, somehow. Clenches his fingers until he can’t bear the pain. Looks up and musters a sickly smile. 

“Yeah. Sorry. I’m- I’m just nervous, but I’m- I’m gonna be a lot better.”

She looks at him for a second, eyes worried, and then she relaxes into smile. He can see her gripping his words, allowing herself to believe them.
“I know. I know you are! Hey, have you been writing those letters Dr. Sherman wants you to do? Dear Evan Hansen, today’s-“

“Yes!” he cuts her off, flinching at the words. “Yes, I-“

“Oh,” she says, and her voice is all happy — real-happy, not forced-happy. “You already started one!”

She’s gesturing to the laptop that’s open on his lap and her face is softer with relief and Evan thinks, for the millionth time, all you do is make her unhappy she'd be so much happier if you just- 

"Yeah," he says finally, small. "Yeah, I'll finish it at school." 

She's proud of him already. She thinks it might be fun if he asked the other kids to sign his cast. He accepts the sharpie wordlessly. Is he okay on refills? He says yes. She checks anyway. And it's all- 

It's all the same. 

He doesn't let himself look down at the screen until she's left, and even though he's expecting to see those words there, they still hit like a gunshot, like a SuperBall, like the ground coming up to meet you as you fall. 

Dear Evan Hansen, Today's going to be an amazing day and here’s why: because today all you have to do is just be yourself-

...

Chapter Text

...

One of the problems that arises with being Evan Hansen is- Well. Okay. Let's revise, because honestly most days being Evan Hansen is the problem. Evan Hansen is a problem. 

Dr. Sherman thinks this is Not A Productive Line of Thinking, Evan, and always encourages him to regard these problems as, like, challenges. Video game levels. Achievements he just hasn't unlocked yet. Evan appreciates this metaphor, but he's always been bad at video games. He's got shaky hands. 

Anyway Evan's never been very good at swimming against the current, metaphorically. He's a guy who lets stuff happen to him, and sometimes that spirals into $50,000 worth of lies about dead best friends. Evan can still remember the feeling of sitting in the principal's office as Mrs. Murphy cried, wanting to say wait just hold on hold on you're making a mistake and instead not saying anything. 

That's how today is going. Alana is telling Evan about her productive summer and her three internships and her grandma dying and Evan doesn't say something is terribly wrong. 

Jared makes a joke about jerking off and Evan doesn't laugh and then he starts talking about all his camp friends, these elusive friends who he's always lorded over Evan, these friends - she's from Israel, you don't know her - that put a distinction between them, an endless reminder that Jared is not a friendless loser like Evan. Evan doesn't say this. He nods a lot and says "cool" when appropriate, and otherwise he stays quiet and stuff books into his backpack and blinks through the sirens sounding in his head, the flood warnings drowning out everything but the sensation of panic, of not getting enough breath. 

Something is terribly wrong. 

"Hey Connor, loving the new hair length! Very school shooter chic," Jared calls down the hall. 

Evan's head stops ringing. 

Connor is standing, tall and stiff, at a locker across the hall. He's got this ratty messenger bag slung across his shoulders and his eyes are slightly bloodshot as they stare blankly back at Jared and he's... not dead. 

"I was just kidding," says Jared, clearly already regretting the joke, backing down from his moment of stupid, nasty bravery. "It's a joke." 

"Yeah, no," says Connor, almost agreeably, "it was funny. I'm laughing, can't you tell? Am I not laughing hard enough for you?"  "Jared, don't-" Evan starts, but Jared's already getting defensive and calling Connor a freak and hurrying away and then Connor's looking at Evan instead and he is not dead. 

"What the fuck are you laughing at?" he spits. 

Evan stares back at him for a second, at the ratty messenger bag and the oversized clothes and the unwashed hair. "Are you- You're not a ghost?" 

It's not the right thing to say. Probably there isn't a right thing to say. Connor Murphy gets sharper and taller and meaner. Evan wonders if he's already made the plan. If it was a rash, spur-of-the-moment thing or a carefully realized plan, conceived with reverence, turned over and over in his mind like a stone, smoothing out all the edges. 

"A ghost?" says Connor, startled for just a second. And then, "What the fuck are you talking about? Are you laughing at me? You think I’m a freak? I’m not the freak. You’re the fucking freak-" 

And then, the same as before, he's shoving Evan and storming away.  Evan thinks he smells like pot and then he thinks he feels pretty solid for a ghost and then he thinks he's going to kill himself tonight

After a second, he gets off the floor. 

“Hey,” says a new voice, soft and a little rushed, “I’m sorry about my brother. I saw him push you… Evan, right?”

Evan’s hands twitch involuntarily. His eyes squint shut, hard, as if he’s flinching away from a blow. His body is blinking lights and anxious beeping. He turns around slowly. 

“Zoe,” he says. And then, “I mean, right. Right, yes, I’m Evan. You’re Zoe. That was weird. Sorry. Sorry.”

She blinks, beautiful and quiet and not-sweaty. “Why are you sorry?”

“Because I- Because you asked for my name and instead I said yours, which is like super, super creepy,” he starts, and then stops. He has kissed this girl. He has lied to her. He has made her hate him. He takes a breath. “Sorry. I’m- I’m fine. Don’t worry about Connor. I know he’s-“

“A crazy person,” Zoe says bitterly.

“Troubled,” Evan finishes, wincing. “Sorry.”

“You apologize a lot.”

“I’m sorry. I mean. Don’t worry about- It’s okay. Really.”

She smiles a little at him then, readjusts her backpack like she’s already moving away from this conversation, from another obligatory cleaning-up-Connor’s-mess, and she doesn’t know. She doesn’t know what he’s going to do tonight. “Okay, well I’ll-“

He’s sitting in the principal’s office and Mrs. Murphy is telling him that Connor is dead and she’s reading Evan his own words back to him, a suicide note, and he is thinking wait just hold on hold you’re making a mistake

“You should- Is he doing okay?” Evan blurts out. “Do you know?”

Zoe stops in her tracks. “What?”

Oh, god. Evan swallows thickly, tries to keep his voice confident, casual. 

“Is Connor- I just mean maybe you should check and see how he’s doing, how- To make sure he’s not, y’know, planning to hurt himself or-“

It’s the wrong thing to say. It always is, isn’t it. Zoe’s eyes go very wide, and then narrow. 

“What did he say to you? Did he threaten you? Because-“

“No,” says Evan immediately, trying to backtrack, “nonononono I promise, no. I just meant that-“

The hallways are starting to thin. The bell will ring in a minute and Evan will be late to class and everyone will look at him when he walks in late and he can already feel his armpits starting to sweat, but- But Connor Murphy is going to kill himself tonight. 

“I just meant that it seemed like maybe something was bothering him or-“

“Look,” says Zoe, getting impatient, “I’m sorry he shoved you, okay? He’s a dick. He’s a- He’s a crazy person. But I can’t deal with his feelings on top of all his messes, so-“

“Right. Right, right, right. I didn’t mean- I just meant-“

The bell rings and Evan is late and Zoe is impatient, maybe uncomfortable, and her hands are moving up to grip the straps of her backpack and she’s moving away, mumbling apologetically about being late to class. Evan lets her go. As usual, he’s only managed to fuck her life up more. And Connor Murphy is going to kill himself tonight. 

Evan goes and sits in the nurse's office for the next three periods and drinks water out of paper Dixie cups until the nurse starts talking about calling his mom. He says thank you politely and goes back to class.

He thinks about going back to the nurse's office and going home and taking a Xanax and going to bed. Not going to the computer lab after school. Not letting Connor sign his cast or find that letter. Just going home, sleeping, and letting the world keep happening on the other side of the glass. 

He thinks about killing himself, but only in the abstract, normal kind of way. Not with any real intention, just the undeniable knowledge that all of this would go away if Evan was just Not Alive. 

Then, of course, he thinks about Zoe. The way the Murphy's living room smells. The basket of apples they always have on the kitchen counter that nobody eats and the Britta pitcher of cold water they always keep in their fridge, because only poor people like the Hansens drink tap water. How kind they were and how fractured by their grief. The desperate way they wanted Connor once he was gone. The way they looked at him when he told them the awful truth. 

He thinks, If Connor doesn't kill himself today, none of that happens. All of that goes away. 

So he doesn't go back to the nurse. He sits blankly through his classes and then after class he goes to the computer lab. Sits. Waits.  

He thinks about writing himself a letter, but in the end he can't get past the words Dear Evan Hansen without his fingers twitching and eyes squinting shut like the facial tick he used to get in fifth grade, back when they thought maybe he had a gluten allergy and not an all-consuming anxiety disorder that would cripple his adolescence and take over his actual personality.

He used to like trains, he thinks, and that Discovery Channel show about crocodiles. Now he is just a sum of his anxieties, consumed by his twitches. 

There are other kids in the computer room still and they're giving Evan and his facial spasms sideways looks, so Evan closes the Word doc without saving it. Instead he googles how to help someone who may be suicidal, but all the websites just tell him to call a hotline and Evan doesn't know how to explain to Google's search engine that he cannot talk on the phone without writing down exactly what he's going to say first, and even then he gets so panicked and sweaty that he spends the whole call worrying that the phone will literally slip out of his hand because that's how sweaty he is. 

He prints a couple resources in case he suddenly and miraculously gains the ability to, like, exist but he doesn't feel too optimistic. Evan can hear the rumble of buses outside as the computer lab starts to clear out and he's running out of time. 

He tries googling I'm reliving the worst day of my life and nobody else seems to notice, but then he just gets some sketchy time travel blogs and a plot synopsis for an episode of Supernatural. He closes that tab and does some more deep breathing, but he doesn't think it's working so well because everything's getting a little swimmy and Evan doesn't know why he ever thought he was capable of keeping someone else alive when he can barely keep his own body breathing and maintaining a steady heartbeat-

"So, um," somebody behind him starts, and then stops. "Hey, are you okay, dude?" 

There's a smell of stale pot. Evan starts to wheeze. 

"Oh, shit," says Connor and then he pounds Evan on the back a couple times, like maybe he thinks Evan's choking. It does not help, just jars Evan's arm and that hurts fuck fuck fuck and the pain helps a little bit, somehow. Evan's breathing steadies. He went right up to the peak, but he hasn't tipped over. He opens his eyes. Connor thumps him on the back again. 

"Please stop hitting me," Evan chokes out. 

"Oh, shit," says Connor again, and then he's taking like three giant steps backward. "Sorry."

"Nonono, I'm sorry," Evan chokes, trying to discreetly blink tears from his eyes. "I was- asthma- I- I'm sorry-" 

"Okay, don't apologize for fucking asthma." 

"Sorry. I- sorry." 

"Jesus," says Connor, but he keeps standing there, shifting uncomfortably, going up on his toes slightly and then back down. It's funny. Evan has spent so much of the past few weeks talking about Connor, thinking about Connor, writing about Connor, but he’s somehow still an unfamiliar presence. His voice is higher and thinner than Evan remembered it or- or imagined it, really. Because that's all it was, in the end. "So, um, what happened to your arm?” 

Evan’s face wants to twitch. He wants to close his eyes, flinch away from the awfulness of that question and the awfulness of its answer. He fights to keep his face straight, voice still choked when he responds. 

“Oh, I fell out of a tree.” “You fell out of a tree? Well that's just the saddest fucking thing I’ve ever heard, oh my god.”

Evan tries to laugh. It doesn’t go so well. “I know.”

A silence. Connor tips up onto his toes, then back down. He’s significantly taller than Evan, but he's holding himself like he's not. There’s something tentative about him. Evan thinks, with a weird sort of shock, he’s bad at this, too

“Um, no one’s signed your cast.”

“No,” Evan agrees. Then, realizing, “Do you want to? I’ve got a-”

He fumbles around for the Sharpie. Connor takes it, seizes Evan painfully by the cast, and starts writing his name in big, obnoxious letters. Evan stares at Connor’s tilted-down head. His hair is matted in the back, probably from being slept on, and generally unwashed. He died on a bench in a park on an unseasonably cold night. 

“There,” says Connor with satisfaction, drawing back. “Now we can both pretend that we have friends.”

“Good point,” says Evan. He has lived this day before. He knows the script. He can’t find any other words. 

“Is this yours?” Connor asks, then. He’s holding the sheaf of Suicide Hotline numbers out towards Evan and he’s got this kind of nervous smile holding his face tense. “I found it on the printer and you’re the only other person-“

“Yeah,” says Evan. “Yeah, they’re- They’re just for a- for a project for- for school-“

But Connor’s already looking down, already bringing the paper up close to his eyes, face slackening from smile to confusion to something darker. 

“It’s for a school project,” Evan says desperately. 

Connor looks up, sort of dull and blank. Evan wonders if his body already knows what's going to happen and is trying to cut corners, save costs where it can. It's running on fumes already, maybe. 

“You- you left this here because you knew that I would find it,” says Connor slowly, not angry but with this sort of odd, dull satisfaction. Like something has just been confirmed and he’s been right all along.

“No-“

“Yeah. You saw that I was the only other person in the computer lab, so you printed this out so I would find it. So I could- What, so I could read some bullshit about how life is worth living and freak out? Or cry? Did you think I was going to cry and then you could tell everybody that the crazy kid is also suicidal?”

“No-“

"Or were you gonna try and pull some do-gooder shit, talk me down, so you could put me on your fucking college applications?" 

"No, I-" 

Fuck you,” Connor spits and his messenger bag hits Evan on the arm as he whirls away, makes for the door. 

“No,” says Evan again, just quietly to himself. His arm hurts. It’s happening again. It’s going to happen again and he’s still standing here. His legs start working, finally, and then he’s running, following Connor out the door and into the hallway and the words are coming out so fast he’s practically choking on them. “No, Connor- No, I’m trying to- I just want to- Let me help you! Let me help you! Let me-

Connor doesn't even look back. 

He's the only one who doesn't look, though. A throng of drama club kids are staring. Someone pokes their head out from the chemistry lab down the hall. Evan can feel their gazes like a physical thing and his voice dies. 

It's happening again. It's happening again. 

"Dude," says Jared, suddenly at Evan's elbow, "what the fuck?" 

Evan shakes his head once, then can't seem to stop. He's got his fingers wrapped so tight in the hem of his stupid blue polo shirt that he can feel his pulse throbbing there. 

"I need to go. I need to-" 

"You need to chill," Jared advises, but he's surprisingly gentle when he prods Evan into turning away from the staring eyes and guides him down a less-crowded hallway and out a back entrance. "Way to fly under the radar, Evan. Nothing says 'don't bully me' like crying in the middle of the hallway on the first day of school." 

"I wasn't crying," Evan gasps, but it doesn't come out convincingly because he feels like he's breathing through a straw with a hole in it and his eyes are swimming with panicked, hysterical tears. 

"Is this like when we did the pacer test last year? Do you need an inhaler or something?" 

"I- I need-" 

They're at Jared's car now, and Jared opens the passenger door for Evan like a gentlemen - or actually, more like a police officer putting a convict into a cruiser, because then he's putting a hand on Evan's head and kinda shoving him into the car. 

"The entire cross country team is staring at us," says Jared in an undertone. He slams the door shut and crosses to the driver's side as Evan wheezes. He's, like, actively crying now, overwhelmed with panic and embarrassment and fear. Jared is yelling as he opens the driver's door and climbs in. "-y'know, everyone can see your junk flopping around when you run, idiots!"

Even though everything is objectively terrible and Evan is maybe dying, this still makes him laugh a little bit because Jared is still wonderful, comforting Jared, still a little bit transparent and a little bit shitty. 

"Do you need a paper bag?" Jared asks, sloppily reversing out of his parking space. Evan manages to shake his head, squinting his eyes shut. His heart is racing, racing, racing and his throat feels swollen. "A Xanax or something?" 

"Can you just- drive-" 

"Yeah, okay," Jared says, and he does. At one point he reaches over and fiddles with the air conditioner vents so that there's cold air blowing at Evan's face, which is such a quiet and thoughtful gesture that Evan can tell he must really be freaking Jared out. He can't make himself stop, though. He's been teetering on a peak all day, and he's finally tipped over the edge. 

And then the worst of it is over and Evan can hear again and his mouth is salty and thick with phlegm and the afternoon is disarmingly bright around him. It's only 4:30. They're in a McDonald's drive-thru and Jared is handing change to a girl in a visor. 

"Enjoy your food," says the girl. 

"Thanks, you too," says Jared vaguely. Evan wonders what it's like to live a life in which you can say dumb things to a girl at McDonald's and just keep driving, not immediately spiral into self-loathing and despair. 

"Here," says Jared, passing over a bottle of water. 

"Thanks," Evan mumbles, accepting it with his eyes turned down. He's an ugly cryer. His face gets blotchy red and he gets these weird indents between his eyebrows and sometimes he gets snot bubbles. 

"Sure," says Jared, pulling out of McDonald's one-handed as he eats an ice cream cone with the other. "You owe me a dollar-fifty, though." 

"Okay," says Evan. He's not thirsty but he drinks to clear the taste of salt and mucus from his mouth. "Are you listening to the Cats soundtrack?" 

Jared switches off the radio immediately. "No." 

"Okay." 

Evan drinks some more water. It sloshes uncomfortably in his stomach. He thinks about throwing up, but then dismisses the idea. He does some deep breathing until his heart stops feeling like it's buzzing. 

"So that was pretty fuckin' weird," Jared remarks finally. 

"Yeah. Sorry." 

"I mean, I knew you got, like, twitchy but-" 

"I have an anxiety disorder," Evan says as flat and fast as he can, because Jared should know this. Evan's mom used to come inside every time she dropped him off for a playdate - back when he still went on playdates - and explain in an undertone to the kid's parents that Evan had some anxieties and that they were off gluten or they were trying vegetarianism or that he had his inhaler with him and knew how to use it. Evan usually didn't get invited back after that, except when the parents were like the Kleinmans and felt guilty and tried to bribe their kid into being nice to Evan by paying for his car insurance. 

"I mean," says Jared, "yeah, I know that. I just didn't know it was that-" 

"Bad?" Evan snaps.

"Yeah." 

"Yeah, well- It is," says Evan, deflating. Jared nods, grimacing a little. 

"Should I drive you home?" 

Evan thinks longingly about going home and standing in the shower for an hour and then getting into bed and not getting up for several days or at least not until he can get his cast off, so he won't have to look at Connor's name every time he lifts his arm. He takes his time answering, screwing the cap back onto his water bottle. 

"I- I actually need to go somewhere?" 

 ...

Chapter Text

...

A Fun and Cool thing about being Evan Hansen is that his anxiety and depression are waging an eternal battle within him, like two opposing kingdoms that have been warring for a hundred years or something. Or actually, more like in the cartoons where there's an angel on one shoulder and a devil on the other, only in this case they're both devils and they're both trying to kill him because his anxiety is saying fun things like everyone is staring at you and his depression is saying nobody even knows you exist. 

And then once in a while his anxiety and depression team up for even greater thrills, like in the Fast and Furious movies when the good guys and bad guys join together to defeat an even greater evil, only in this case the greater evil is just, like, Evan. And that's when he starts doing fun and constructive things like climbing 40 feet into a tree and jumping and then Not Dying. 

Another cool thing about having both depression and anxiety is that Evan's brain won't let him be chill ever, for even a second, not even about his own death. So he has spent a lot of sleepless nights doing extensive research on just about every method of suicide. He could never settle on a method that met all his criteria - he wanted it to be quick, painless, foolproof, but also he didn't want anything that could result in an embarrassing corpse, and he wanted to ensure that his body wouldn't be found by his mom - and so he never made a plan. Climbing the tree that day was an impulse thing. 

Anyway the point is Evan's asshole of a brain knows a lot about suicide and a lot about Connor's suicide, specifically. So he knows Connor took a bottle of painkillers in a park late at night and they didn't find his body right away and the Murphys didn't even report him missing right away, because this was the kind of shit - Zoe's words - that Connor was always pulling, running away and then coming back. When he didn't come down for breakfast the next morning, Mr. and Mrs. Murphy argued briefly about it and Zoe left early for class, angry because of course her family couldn't get through one meal without arguing and wasn't it always fuckin' about Connor. 

When she told Evan that part, she laughed and then started to cry. He patted her on the back, still awed that he was allowed to touch her. 

Of course the one fucking thing he doesn't know is which park. 

"You realize this is the sketchiest thing I've ever heard, right?" Jared says once Evan has finally stopped stuttering out fragmented sentences of explanation that leave out, honestly, the sketchiest parts of all - the time travel and the ghost with the bouncy ball and Evan's incredible talent for lying. 

"I know," says Evan, "but I know I'm right. I am. I just- I just know, okay?" 

His voice does a horrible cracking thing, quivering like it can barely hold Evan’s earnestness. 

"You're reimbursing me for gas money," Jared warns. 

"Okay." 

"And I'm putting Cats back on." 

"Okay." 

They drive for another minute and then Jared says explosively, "Actually, no, I have more questions." 

Evan sighs.

"Don't sigh at me; i feel like I've taken this pretty fuckin' well so far. Okay, one, since when are you and Connor buddy-buddy enough to make suicide pacts? And two, why aren't we calling the police? And three, is this a gay thing?"

"It's not- obviously it's not a gay thing," Evan stumbles. "It's not a- And it's not a suicide pact. There's no suicide pact. I'm not- I'm not suicidal." 

"Right, because you're sooo mentally stable right now." 

Evan quickly untangles his fingers from the hem of his shirt and tries to stop his knee from bouncing with pent-up anxiety. Jared's implacable apathy just succeeds in making Evan feel more twitchy and frantic. They don't have much time. They don't have much time. 

"It's not a suicide pact and it's not a gay thing and- and- I just know, okay? I just know. I just know-" 

"Okay, don't start crying again." 

"I'm not crying. I haven't been- I'm not crying." 

"Why aren't we calling the police, though?" Jared persists. "If you're not crazy-" 

"I'm not!"

"-then shouldn't we, like, hand this off to the professionals? A troubled white loner who needs saving? The police will eat that shit up."  

"I didn't think about that," Evan admits, feeling troubled and surprised. 

"Thank goodness I'm here, then," says Jared smugly and reaches for his cell phone. Evan smacks his hand away. 

"Wait!" 

"What the hell, dude?" 

"You're not supposed to text and drive," Evan says defensively, snatching Jared's phone. "And I don't think- I don't think he'd want the police involved." 

"Okay, but to be fair, he is also going to commit suicide so maybe we shouldn't be taking Connor's desires into account?"

Evan defiantly throws the phone into the backseat as Jared makes another grab for it. The car swerves grandly and Jared gives somebody the finger when they honk at him. Evan sinks lower into his seat. 

"I just-" he says, feeling panicked and frenzied. "I just think if we can get there in time and bring him home, we could- We could just bring him home and let his family figure it out, like, privately. Like so that nobody at school has to bother Z- has to bother them about it."

"So we're just, what, gonna talk him down?  He's not gonna listen to us. One time I bumped into him in the hallway and he barked like a dog at me, Evan." 

"I don't- I don't know-" 

"Plus suicide is like- If we stop him this one time, it's not going to automatically cure his crazy. He's not just gonna go home and be like well I won't be doing that again-" 

Evan sinks lower in his seat. After the park ranger drove him home from the hospital, Evan went inside and heated up a can of Spaghetti-O's and ate them in front of the shitty air conditioner in the living room so that the air blew right on his face and the rattle of fan drowned out his thoughts. He spilled a little tomato sauce on his ranger uniform and so he had to go and put the pants in the wash right away so they wouldn't stain. He only had the one pair and he would need them the next day. He was already resigned to that, to the inevitability of the next day. 

"-and what is there even to say? Don't die, dude, you may not have much going for you but your sister's really hot-" 

"It's not about Zoe," Evan interrupts, rushed and choked. "It's not about Zoe. It's the right thing to do. He's a- he's a kid and he's got a mom and a dad and-"

"Okay," Jared says finally, giving him a long and considering look. It only ends when someone honks and Jared has to look back to the road. They swerve again. 

"No wonder you need your parents to pay your car insurance," Evan mumbles. 

"Watch it. I don't have to drive you anywhere." 

"You're right. Sorry. Sorry." 

"Look, here's the compromise," says Jared finally. "We call Zoe or her parents or whatever. And we let them decide if they want to call the cops. And we can go home-" 

"I've got to look for him," Evan disagrees urgently. "I need to- I need to help." 

"You need to calm down." 

"I'm-" Evan chokes on his words and has to catch his breath. "I'm very calm." 

Jared snorts. He parks sloppily on the outskirts of a shopping center, then sits and waits while Evan realizes (and subsequently panics) that he left his backpack and his cellphone in the school computer lab. Jared finds a paper bag, hands it to Evan, and then digs around in the backseat to find the cellphone Evan threw there.  

Around the paper bag, Evan tries to explain that he can't call Zoe - or anybody, ever - without first writing down a script of exactly what he's going to say, and even then his hands are going to get insanely sweaty, like freaky levels of sweat, like I didn't know the body held this much moisture levels of sweat, but Jared thankfully gets impatient or bored or maybe just takes pity on Evan, because he snatches the phone away and calls the Murphy's number listed in the school directory. Evan sits and bites the nails of his good hand as the number rings, and then goes to voicemail. 

"Voicemail, fuck," Jared mutters. Then, in an unnaturally bright and chipper voice, "Hi Mr. and Mrs. Murphy, this is a- a friend of Connor's calling. An acquaintance, maybe, would be the better-" 

Evan jiggles his leg faster and motions furiously at Jared. Jared sighs. 

"We're worried about Connor and we think he might try to hurt himself tonight. In a- We think he might be in a park somewhere? We're not 100% sure that-" 

Evan makes a noise of protest and swats at Jared. Jared dodges. 

"-And by that I mean that we're 99.999% sure, which is pretty sure, so-"

"The police, tell them to call the police," Evan hisses. Jared scowls at him. 

"We didn't want to call the police without talking to you, but-" another glance at Evan, and Jared's voice loses some of its weird false, bright energy "-but we really do think something's wrong and we're worried. So if you knew someplace where he might go, possibly a park? We want to make sure everyone gets home safe tonight. So- Yeah, have a- Have a great rest of the day. Bye." 

He hangs up. Evan stares at him. 

"'Have a great rest of the day,' Jared?" 

"Okay, nobody said you had the monopoly on social anxiety," Jared snaps, throwing his phone into Evan's lap. "It went to voicemail. I wasn't expecting it to go to voicemail." 

"Me neither," Evan admits. He's run out of fingernails on his good hand, so he moves on to the fingers poking out of his cast. "What if they don't get it until-" 

Jared sighs and swears. He reaches over, yanks Evan's broken hand away from his mouth, then starts the car. "I guess we've got to keep looking for him, don't we?" 

"Thank you," says Evan in a rush. "Thank you thank you-" 

"Don't start crying," said Jared nastily, but it's actually not really that nasty at all and when they make a sloppy turn out of the parking lot, he does that soccer-mom arm thing to make sure Evan doesn't jerk forward and hit his head or anything. 

"Thank you," Evan says again, meaning it ferociously. 

 ...

One of Evan's biggest anxieties when contemplating suicide is just, like, the weird fact that once you die your body is still technically there. He could never kill himself at home because then his mom would be the one to find the body. He could never take pills because sometimes then you puke and end up choking to death on your own puke, which is just about the most embarrassing way to go. (Well really the most embarrassing thing of all is falling from a tree in a forest and not dying.) 

Jumping in front of a car or a train would be selfish, because it left somebody else feeling like a murderer. And no matter where you died, there was the problem of somebody finding the body. Somebody suffering because of Evan.  

"Have you ever seen a dead person before?" he asks. 

They're parked across the street from the park near the school. It’s the biggest in town and there’s lots of benches and quiet, secluded areas and Jared says that sketchy teenagers like to hang out here at night and Connor is definitely a sketchy teenager, so here they are. 

There is, of course, the possibility that Connor is in some other park, maybe not even in this town, and so all this might be for naught and there’s also, of course, the possibility that he won’t even get here until well into the night and in the meantime Jared and Evan might be mistaken for sketchy teenagers and- and Evan’s feeling a little anxious, to put things mildly. 

Evan is too anxious to look away for a second, but Jared has settled in comfortably, determined to get ahead on homework. At Evan’s question, though, he looks up from the textbook he has balanced in his lap. “No, what the fuck?" 

Evan shrugs awkwardly. "Sorry. Never mind." 

"Actually, wait, yeah," Jared reflects. "I've been to funerals and wakes and stuff, and they're technically dead. They have makeup and stuff on, though. They're not, like, freshly dead." 

"That's a weird distinction to make." 

"I've never seen a dead person before they clean them up and stuff," Jared clarifies. 

“Me neither.”

A silence. 

“How’d you know about Connor?”

Evan shifts in his seat and sniffles and fidgets with the hem of his shirt. He wonders if Jared would laugh if he said a ghost told him, or if he’d just get condescending and worried and insist on driving him home. 

“I just- I just know.”

“And it’s definitely not a gay thing?”

“It’s-it’s not a gay thing,” Evan confirms. 

“Hmm,” says Jared skeptically. 

It gets dark. It gets cold. Jared lets Evan borrow a Mathletes hoody and then laughs when Evan can’t fit it over his cast. He has to wear it kinda draped around his shoulders instead, like in the movies when the man lets the girl borrow his jacket. It gets late. 

Jared pees behind some trees. Evan has to pee, too, but he starts envisioning himself getting arrested for public urination and Connor dying while Evan is in jail for public urination and then years from now Evan will not be able to find a job because at every interview he will have to disclose his past life of crime, in which he peed behind a tree while staking out park with his family friend because he has been tasked by a ghost with a rubber superball to prevent a teen suicide so. 

So, no, Evan is not going to pee behind a tree.

Instead he jiggles his leg furiously and shifts around in his seat until Jared tells him to stop being so “twitchy.” Evan can tell Jared is getting tired and bored, so he tries to stay very still after that so he won’t worsen Jared’s mood. It doesn’t work so well. He is so anxious he feels like his fingertips are buzzing and he really, really, really has to pee. 

Sometime past 11, Jared lets out a noisy sigh and reaches over to shut off the radio. Evan’s stomach sinks. 

“Look,” he starts, “I think I have to go home. It’s a school night. My mom is not going to be chill about this.”

Evan’s immediate instinct is to start apologizing, but he chokes it down. “What about Connor? What if he- And we knew we could stop it and we didn’t-“ 

Jared sighs, thinks, and then says, “I know you don’t want to, but I’m going to call the cops. That’s the best we can do.”

“We can’t! I can’t! We-“ Evan starts to sputter, anxiety chopping his sentences short, distorting them like static on the radio. “We’ve got to- I have to-“

“You’re not, like, personally responsible for him, dude,” says Jared, looking a little bewildered. “You know that, right? We’re doing the best we can.”

“It’s not. It’s not. You don’t- You don’t get it. I am- I am responsible. I-“

But Jared is dialing his phone and climbing out of the car, leaning against the hood and putting the phone to his ear. His shoulders are hunched defensively like he knows Evan’s gaping at him, like he’s uncomfortable with his own actions, but he doesn’t turn around. 

Evan sits in the car and Mrs. Murphy is crying and he is wanting to say wait just hold on hold on you're making a mistake and instead not saying anything. He can’t move at all. He’s laying on the ground, arm going numb, and realizing that it wasn’t enough. He’s still alive. He tried and it wasn’t enough. 

Jared gets back in the car, stalwart and a little bit shamed. 

“They’re going to send some people out to look,” he says, “and try to reach the Murphys. And I told them he’d be in a park.”

“Okay,” says Evan. Jared starts the car. 

“Want me to drive you home?”

Evan shakes his head. 

“I can walk from here.”

Jared hesitates. “I really don’t mind.”

“It’s the opposite direction. It’s fine.”

“Okay.” Evan opens the door. Jared opens his mouth, falters, and tries again. “Look, I’m sorry, dude. We really did try.”

“It’s fine,” Evan says, trying to mean it. He starts to close the door.

“Wait,” Jared says. Evan opens the door again, horribly hopeful for a second, but Jared’s just holding out his cellphone with a little grimace. “You shouldn’t walk home without a- You can give it back to me tomorrow. Don’t read my messages or look at my pictures or anything weird like that.”

“Okay,” says Evan blankly, “thank you.”

“Yeah,” says Jared. This time he doesn’t stop Evan from shutting the door. He reverses badly and doesn’t stop at the stop sign before he turns out of the park. Evan watches him go, and feels-

Defeated. Humiliated. Useless. Like he climbed forty feet into a tree and then didn’t die and now he’s laying on the ground thinking you can’t do anything right you can’t even die right. His arm hurts. It’s cold out. Evan thinks about Connor dying on a bench somewhere in this cold. 

A car goes by, a sudden flash of headlights, and Evan is suddenly reminded that it’s late at night and that it’s probably illegal for him to be here so late at night, and if a cop stops to investigate why Evan is loitering in a park so late at night, that’s one less cop out there looking for Connor. So then Evan is doubly responsible for Connor’s death and he’s getting arrested for loitering. He starts to walk home. 

He thinks about Jared saying you’re not, like, personally responsible for him, dude. They called the Murphys. They called the police. They sat in a parking lot for several hours. It’s not enough. Evan knows it’s not enough. 

As he crosses the street, he wonders if this is going to be one of those Groundhog Day situations where he keeps living the same day over and over until he gets it right. And Connor will just keep dying every day until Evan figures out how to stop him. Or maybe The Ghost of Connor Murphy will show up again tonight with his rubber bouncy ball and Evan will wake up in his own bed, in a world where Connor Murphy is dead and Evan Hansen is a Huge Fucking Liar.

He thinks about killing himself then, but only in a conceptual, scientific kind of way. Like, if you go back in time and then kill yourself, what happens to the future iteration of yourself that made the choice to go back in time in the first place? That would probably make a good essay question, Evan thinks, turning off the main road and into the dimmer side streets near his own neighborhood. In 500 words or less, discuss-

He swears that he hears somebody bouncing a ball, all of a sudden. He stops, swivels, following the noise down a dead-end street.

There’s a tiny little park about five blocks from Evan’s house. His mom jogs there sometimes in the summer and she always tries to encourage Evan to come along because exercise is supposed to be a good coping mechanism for anxiety, and then Evan has to explain that the idea of being out there in the world jogging makes him too anxious to even speak and also he looks terrible in shorts. It’s really just a patch of woodchips and a rusty old swingset that teenagers like to graffiti, but it’s technically a park. And there are benches. 

He can’t hear the bouncy ball anymore. It’s quiet and it’s still, except for one swing that moves slightly in the breeze. It’s cold for September.  

Evan breaks into a run. 

 …

Chapter Text

 Connor is there and Connor is slumped across a park bench and Connor is not dead, but he’s also not completely conscious. 

“Oh my god,” Evan says. “Oh my god. Connor, did you-”

Connor doesn’t answer. He blinks when Evan starts shaking him, but his pupils don’t focus. He’s cold and shockingly sweaty to the touch, although that could be Evan’s own sweaty hands betraying him. He can’t tell. He can’t breathe. His fingers leave behind slick, sweaty fingerprints on Jared’s phone as he dials 9-1-1. 

“911. What’s your emergency?”

“I have a- He took a bunch of pills,” Evan gasps. “He’s still alive but he’s not, like-“

“Okay, sir, I need you to stay calm. Can I get your location?”

Evan manages to choke out the address, trying not to wheeze. It’s cold. The air hurts his throat. Connor is shivering a lot, he notices vaguely, and he somehow manages to fumble out of the Mathlete’s hoody and pull it over Connor’s shoulders. His eyes open a little at that, and he blinks at Evan without recognition. 

“You’re going to be okay,” Evan says. 

“You’re not a ghost,” Connor slurs. 

“No,” Evan agrees. The 911 operator tells him to stay on the phone. He says that he will. 

“Try and keep him conscious and talking,” she instructs. “And it’s important to keep him off his back. If he vomits he could choke-“

“Choke, yeah,” Evan echoes, because he has spent dozens of sleepless nights on the internet researching this stuff. He knows about suicide. “Okay.”

“Try and keep him warm and upright. Keep him talking.”

Evan moves from the ground to the bench beside Connor, registering damp patches on the knees of his slacks. Connor is shivering furiously and breathing shallowly, sort of slumped on the bench like his strings have been cut. Evan tries to nudge him into a more upright position, but Connor mumbles and resists his efforts. 

“Sorry,” Evan says, which is a ridiculous thing to say to somebody as you’re trying to save their life. He gets an arm under Connor’s armpits and pulls him upright with more force. Connor’s pulse is racing- or maybe that’s Evan’s. They’re both very sweaty. “Sorry sorry sorry-“

“What-“ says Connor, disoriented. 

“Keep him calm,” says the operator. 

This is probably the worst possible job for Evan Hansen, teenaged anxious wreck, but he tries to breath through the shivers of panic.

“Okay. Everything’s okay,” he says. “Everything’s great. We’re- we’re going to the- to get you some help. But soon you’re- soon you’ll feel okay again and then we can- Maybe we could go to that- to the orchard you used to go to, remember that? The Autumn Smile? And afterwards we could- We could get ice cream at Ala Mode. Your mom said that-“

“I’m going to-“ says Connor with sudden coherence, and then he’s leaning over and puking all over their feet. 

“Oh my god,” says Evan. He fumbles for the phone with sweaty hands, pressing the cold glass against his cold cheek. “It’s- Sorry. He just puked. Is that-“

“That means his body’s trying to reject the pills. Make sure he’s upright so the vomit won’t block up his lungs. We’ve got an ambulance three minutes out.”

Evan wrestles Connor back into an upright position, trying to breathe through his mouth. Connor’s head lolls. He’s got puke in his hair, but he’s breathing. 

“Am I dying?” Connor asks, eyes closed. 

“No,” Evan chokes. “No, you’re- You’re going to be okay. We’re going to go to the orchard, remember? Your mom said you and Zoe liked it there. We can- I’ll tell you all about the trees. I know a- a lot about- about trees. I-“

There are sirens. Evan is 87% sure they are not just sounding within his own head. They are not far away. Connor is shivering a lot. Evan rubs his arm and his back, any parts of him that he can reach, trying to keep him warm. There are sirens. 

“It’ll- it’ll be a perfect day. I’ll get my cast off soon and we can- we can climb trees and-“

Connor pukes again. He’s not leaning forward enough this time and it gets on his shirt and the Mathletes hoody and Evan’s lap. Evan’s yelps but tries to stay calm, pulling back Connor's hair, gathering it at the sweaty nape of his neck. Connor gasps for air. He has puke on his chin. There are sirens. 

“Okay,” says Evan, positively panicking, “okay that’s- That’s okay. That’s okay.”

“I want my mom,” Connor says blearily. 

“She’s- She’ll be here soon,” Evan promises. “You just- you just have to stay awake, Connor, okay? Just- just- just-“ 

There are sirens from behind them. The swingset is lit up red, then blue, one swing still moving eerily. There are voices. Connor mumbles and sags again. 

“HELP!” Evan yells. “Help! Over here!” 

There are sirens. There are people. Evan’s got puke on his lap and dirt on his knees. He stands there in the woodchips by the swingset as the paramedics get Connor onto a stretcher. He’s aware, suddenly, that he is crying. 

"His name is Connor Murphy," he says, wringing his hands. "He's seventeen. He took a bunch of pills. I- I didn't get here in time-" 

"You did great," someone says. 

Someone else tells Evan to come with them so he can be treated for shock, but he starts shaking his head and then he can't stop shaking his head. 

"No, I- no no no I have to- I have to go home. My mom will- my mom-"  

"Heart-rate is dropping fast," someone says, and then there's another flurry of motion and doors are slamming and sirens are blaring and Evan realizes that he is going to have a panic attack or possibly that he's been having a panic attack for several minutes now. 

Nobody notices when he slips away. He doesn't make a sound. 

... 

Evan sits on his bed for several minutes until the Xanax kicks in and coats all his panic in dull, medicated calm. He gets up and changes out of his puke-covered clothes. He plugs Jared's phone in to charge. He realizes that his mom has been talking to him through the door for several minutes now and goes to unlock it. 

She's thrown off balance when he opens the door, but quickly rights herself, gripping the doorframe for support. 

"What the- Where have you been?" she demands, wide-eyed and panicked. Evan stares at her for a second, feeling distant and confused. 

"I was at Jared's." 

"You missed therapy. I was waiting outside the school for almost an hour!" 

"I-" He feels limp and rubber. "I forgot." 

"You-" She laughs a little bit, which means that she's really upset. "You forgot. You forgot?" 

"That's what I- that's what I just said, isn't it?" 

"I was calling you all afternoon." 

"Well- well I left my phone at school. I was with Jared," Evan presses. "We were hanging out. I lost track of time." 

"You were with Jared?" she repeats, less upset, more uncertain. 

"Yeah. We're-" Evan hesitates. "We've been getting along really well. I think we're becoming, like, friends." 

It works. It's what she wants to hear. He watches her face soften as she lets herself believe him. His brain whispers all you do is hurt her and hide things from her. 

"I told you!" she says. "I told you this was gonna be your year!" 

"Yeah," says Evan, showing his teeth, more grimace than smile. 

"Are you-" she moves for his nightstand. "Are you okay on refills?" 

"You checked this morning," he reminds her. She laughs weakly. 

"You're right. Sorry, I'm such a helicopter mom. I just-" 

She stops talking until he looks up, meets her eyes. 

"I just love you so much. You know that, right?" 

Evan tangles his fingers in his duvet and does not cry, does not think about Connor in the park asking for his mom. 

"Yeah," he mumbles. "Love you, too." 

She moves to kiss him on the cheek, then stops, nose wrinkled. "It smells a little-" 

"I threw up on the way home," Evan says in a rush. "I think I ate something at the Kleinmans."  

"Hmm," she says, cool hands moving to frame his face. "You do look a little pale and clammy." 

He has to look away from her soft, worried face and her pale eyebrows and her plaintive eyes, asking him to let her understand. It's all too big.

"Yeah," he says again. "I should probably- I should probably just get some sleep, right?"

She looks at him for another second and then she lets go of his face. From this angle, he can see the bags under her eyes. He is sucking the life from her. He is bleaching her white. 

"Good idea," she says, "and we can talk to Dr. Sherman tomorrow about rescheduling."

"Good idea."

She hesitates in the doorway, turns back, says "I love you" like a challenge or some kind of test. Like she's asking him for something. 

"Yeah, you too," he mumbles back. 

He turns off the light. He lays in his bed. He thinks he can hear sirens if he listens hard enough, but that might just be his own brain fucking with him again. 

He stares at the paper-mache planets in the corner. Pluto is still intact. He thinks about killing himself, but only in a detached, medical kind of way. Like something you picked over with a scalpel in biology class. Only horrifying if you thought about it that way.  

"You know, you think about a suicide a super not-normal amount, dude." 

 Evan finds that he isn't surprised. It's partially a product of the meds, but also he thinks he was expecting him, somehow. 

"I definitely wasn't talking out loud this time," he says accusingly. 

The Ghost of Connor Murphy shrugs. He's leaning against Evan's closet door and he's got that stupid superball in one hand. Mercifully, he isn't bouncing it, just gripping it with spidery fingers. 

"Okay, so maybe I am in your head. I don't know the fucking rules, man." 

Evan squints at him. 

"Did you just materialize or were you hiding in my closet?" 

Connor laughs at this. He pushes off the closet door and moves to the window, pushing aside the shades to look out. There's something unnatural and jerky about the way he moves, like those little cartoon books where you flip through the pages so fast it seems like the cartoon is moving. It's not quite real motion, just the appearance of it. 

"Something like that," he says. "Hey, have you ever climbed out onto the roof from here?" 

"No," Evan scoffs. "That's dangerous." 

"Trees, though," Connor says, turning around to point at Evan mockingly. "Totally different, right?" 

He's different than last night, less sharp and mean. Looser and hazier, somehow, a little bit confused. 

"Is this, like, one of those things where I'm going to wake up tomorrow and it's the same day all over again?" Evan asks, ignoring this. He feels okay, sorta dull and calm from the meds, except for the fact that he's talking to a ghost. 

"Oh, shit," says The Ghost of Connor Murphy, considering. "I don't know." 

"You don't know?" 

"I'm a ghost," says Connor, moving to perch on the windowsill like a ghostly, long-legged Peter Pan. His arms and legs make sharp angles. He tosses the ball from one hand to the other. "I'm in the mysterious afterlife. Things are fuzzy." 

"Hey, wait," says Evan, pulse suddenly picking up, "you're still a ghost. Is that- You’re dead. Did you- did you still die?" 

"Oh," says Connor, again surprised. He stops fiddling with the ball. "Uh, shit. I don't know. I don't think so?" 

"You're a ghost, though," Evan reasons, starting to feel sweaty and human again. "That means you're dead." 

"Yeahhhh," Connor agrees, drawing out the word like a piece of bubblegum, ”but I think I'm a different Connor?" 

“What-“ 

“I don’t know,” says Connor, looking a little uncomfortable now. “I’m not here all the time. There’s a lot of blank spots.”

"You're the worst ghost ever." 

"Shhh," Connor says, "I'm trying to remember." 

"I'm-" 

"It's not a Groundhog's Day thing," Connor decides finally, "I don't think." 

"Then when do I- When do I go back to present-day? Or do I just live here forever?" 

Connor pockets the bouncy ball thoughtfully. "I think you still have unfinished business. I don't think things go back to normal until you resolve that." 

"Unfinished business," Evan repeats. 

"Or maybe that's me. Maybe I'm the one with unfinished business. I can't remember." 

"But I- I saved your life," Evan protests. "Or- or I tried, anyway." 

"Different Connor."

"That doesn't," he despairs, "make sense."

"Yeah, welcome to teenage suicide," Connor says blithely. Then, more sharply, "Also, stay away from my sister."

"From Zoe?" Evan is disarmed. Connor rolls his eyes. 

"Obviously. Yeah. Stay away from her." 

"But-" Evan is getting sweaty again. "Is she- Is she my unfinished business? I saved you. Do I have to- to fix things with Zoe?" 

"No, no, the opposite of that," says The Ghost of Connor Murphy, except it comes out very sullen and boyish and not very ghostly at all. "Stay away from her, perv." 

"I'm not-" 

"She's too good for you." 

"I know," Evan says. "I'm not going to- I already ruined her life enough." 

"That's the spirit," Connor says encouragingly. "Really lean into that self-loathing." 

"Is that where you died?" Evan asks abruptly. He's thinking about Connor shivering and asking for his mom, asking if he's dying, only there's no one there to call the police or wrap him in sweatshirts and hold back his hair when he pukes. "That park?" 

Connor gets a little less hazy. He drops off the windowsill with an audible thump. He doesn't answer. 

"It was right by my house," Evan says quietly. "I didn't know that. 

"I don't want to talk about that," Connor interrupts. "Want to go on the roof?" 

"No," says Evan. "Connor, I'm really sorry-" 

"I'm going onto the roof," Connor says, and he opens the window and climbs through and doesn't come back. 

When Evan gets out of bed a moment later, peering out onto the slanted rooftop, there's nobody there. It's a cold night for September. After a minute, he shuts the window. 

...

Chapter Text

...

Time goes funny, but only in the sense that it keeps on going. Evan gives Jared back his phone at school the next day. He explains what happened to the Mathletes hoody. He sits in his chair and bounces his leg as Jared is called to the principal's office.  

He looks for Zoe in the hallways, but he doesn't see her. He looks for The Ghost of Connor Murphy in his closet, but he doesn't see him. He takes his meds. He goes to therapy. 

The local newspaper runs a feature about Local Teen Jared Kleinman and how he saved a classmate's life. The classmate remains nameless. Zoe comes back to school. She comes up to Jared and Evan at the end of the day and hands over the Mathletes sweatshirt, freshly laundered and folded so that the white lettering KLEINMAN stares up at them all. 

"This is yours, I guess," she says. She starts to walk away, then turns back. "How'd you know?" 

She's looking at Jared, obviously, because it was Jared's voice on the answering machine and Jared's name on the sweatshirt and Jared's phone that made the 9-1-1 call. Evan fidgets with the hem of his shirt and listens to the fluorescent lights humming overhead. 

"What?" says Jared. "I-" 

"On the message. You said you knew something was wrong. We- We didn't- How did you know?" 

"Oh," says Jared. "Uh- I guess just, like, knowing the warning signs, right?" 

She looks at him for a minute, frowning a little. 

"I guess," she says. 

"Thanks for the sweatshirt," Jared says. 

Evan doesn't say anything at all. Jared offers him a ride home, but he says he has therapy. 

The school holds an anti-bullying assembly and then, a week later, a Know The Signs assembly. Nobody mentions Connor. He has not come back to school. 

Evan gets his cast off. He takes his meds. He goes to therapy. He looks for The Ghost of Connor Murphy in his closet, but he doesn't see him. He thinks about killing himself but only in a normal, abstract kind of way. He says no, thanks, when Jared offers him a ride home. 

The school nurse comes into class on a Friday to talk about mental health. She has lots of pamphlets with smiling, diverse groups of teenagers to pass around. Evan takes one dutifully. There's lots of stuff about self-affirmation and the benefits of staying active and cyber bullying, but not really anything about what to do when your anxiety and depression are waging a Batman v. Superman-esque smackdown inside your head and they're knocking down a lot of buildings and throwing a lot of cars and causing a lot of collateral damage so that really your brain is the only loser in this battle. (And Evan. Evan is definitely a loser because he's comparing his mental health to comic book characters, so.) 

His phone buzzes and he checks it surreptitiously behind his pamphlet. It's his mom, obviously, because nobody else ever texts him. She's picking up an extra shift at work so would he mind taking the bus home? He texts back that it's not a problem and spends the rest of the class folding and unfolding his pamphlet, trying not to jiggle his leg because it makes his chair creak and that makes people look at him. 

He's been- Okay, so he's been avoiding Jared a little bit. He's just- There's been a lot- It's complicated. Anyway he's spent the past two weeks dawdling in the library after class until Jared leaves, then hurrying to his locker and rushing out to meet his mom. But today he's got to make the bus, so he sucks it up and makes his way to his locker after class, head down, fingers pulling at the hem of his t-shirt. 

Jared is at his own locker, unfortunately only a few feet away, and actually so is Alana. She's standing there and kinda discoursing at Jared and Jared's doing a lot of nodding mostly. Evan draws a little closer, but doesn't interrupt. This is somewhat out of politeness but mostly because he'd prefer Alana's high-intensity gaze stay directed at Jared and not at himself. He moves to his locker, head down, and tries to sort through his books quietly. 

"-call it The Jared Project," Alana is saying cheerily. "At first I was thinking The Connor Project, but it seems like his family is trying to keep this all anonymous, which is obviously totally respectable. Although it does make me wonder why our society is so intent on treating suicide and mental health in general as taboo. That's why I think this club could be a really important addition to the school because our mental health facilities are woeful at best. I mean, those pamphlets-" 

She breaks off with a tsk of disapproval. 

"Totally," Jared says weakly. “Woeful.”

"And you could obviously be the president, but I would be happy to take on a role as well-" 

"Hey," says Jared with the air of a drowning man. He reaches around Alana and clamps a hand on Evan's arm. "Hey, Evan, you needed a ride, right?" 

"Oh," says Evan. "Um-" 

"We've got to go," Jared tells Alana. "Sorry." 

"Oh," she says, deflating for maybe half a second and then rallying, ”okay. I'll message you on Facebook, okay? I think we should get some flyers out by Monday and start generating interest while people still, y’know, care. Not to be crude, but we should capitalize on this-“ 

"Sounds great," says Jared loudly, waving as he drags Evan down the hall. "Bye!" 

"You don't really have to drive me home," Evan tells him quietly as they turn the corner, but Jared just readjusts his backpack. 

"It's fine, dude. We have to-" he sighs. "We should talk anyway."

"Oh," says Evan, whose stomach is suddenly filled with rocks, "Yeah, okay."

He follows Jared to his shitty car, longing for a sticky faux-leather seat in the back of the bus where he can sit quietly with his headphones on. He wouldn’t really listen to music because Evan has this terrifying fear that his headphones aren't plugged into his phone properly and his music is playing out-loud for the whole bus to hear and he doesn't even notice, but at least headphones give the impression that his solitude is intentional. Nobody will try to talk to him. 

Jared pulls out of the parking lot. The radio isn’t on. Evan wishes it was, to fill the silence, but he can’t bring himself to ask. That might be rude. 

“Look,“ Jared says, “I’m-“

“I’m sorry,” Evan blurts out. 

“-sorry,” Jared finishes, frowning. “Wait, what the fuck?”

“I’m- sorry?”

“You’re- Why the fuck are you sorry?”

“Because-“ Evan feels bewildered and disoriented, like someone’s about to reveal that this has all been part of a prank show. “Because I- I mixed you up in all of this and brought all this attention on you and made you- made you lie and-“

He stops talking then because if Jared’s face gets any more incredulous it’s going to start hurting. 

“Are you kidding? I love attention.”

“I’m- No, I’m not- kidding. I’m not good at kidding.”

Jared laughs at this. Evan tries to laugh, too, but it comes out stunted. Like he said, he’s not good at this stuff. He’s still unconvinced this isn’t all leading up to a big You’re On A Prank Show reveal. 

“I thought you were mad at me!” Jared explains finally. “I thought you were- You literally saved a guy’s life and I’m getting credit for it, Evan.”

“I’m-“ says Evan, stunned. “I don’t care about that.”

It’s sincere. The only thing he cares about is that Connor isn’t dead and there are no not-suicide notes and no fake emails and nobody looks at him in the hallways. Nobody looks at him at all. It’s the safest he’s felt in weeks. 

“How can you- You don’t care?” 

Evan shrugs a shoulder. He would like Zoe to look at him, maybe, but actually what if she looked at him and then looked away? What if her eyes kind of just slid over him? That would be worse. He would like Zoe to never look at him ever. Jared doesn’t seem to understand. He is still stuttering. He’s driving in the complete opposite direction of Evan’s house, but Evan can’t bring himself to say anything. 

"And you don't think Connor will-" 

"He wasn't- like, conscious," Evan says quickly, flinching. 

“So you’re- you’re just cool with this?”

“I’m,” Evan says unconvincingly, “cool. Yeah.”

“Because I can call the newspaper and give them your name,” Jared says, a little reluctantly. “It’s no big deal.”

“Oh, no,” Evan says hurriedly. “No, you don’t have to do that. Actually please- please don’t do that.”

“What the fuck,” says Jared again, laughing. “You’re so weird.”

“I don’t like the- attention,” Evan explains, trying not to wilt. 

“Well, shit,” Jared says, with a dumbfounded laugh. “Works for me, man.”

Neither of them seems to know what to say after that. Jared gives another weird little laugh and turns on the radio. 

“I thought you were driving me home,” Evan ventures as they pull into the Keinman’s driveway. 

“Oh, shit,” says Jared. He doesn’t move to restart the car, though. Evan unlatches his seatbelt. 

“I don’t mind walking.”

“What, are your suicide senses tingling again? Last time I let you walk home, you found a body.”

“It was a living body,” Evan objects. “He wasn’t dead.”

“Lucky for us,” Jared agrees. “Or, well, for me. You really don’t mind walking?”

“No,” Evan says, and tries to smile to show he means it. “I like walking.”

“You’re so weird,” Jared says again, laughing. He doesn’t mean it in a bad way, Evan tells himself, but his spine still goes a little stiffer. He doesn’t really know how to take playful ribbing. He bruises too easily. 

“Thanks for the ride.”

“Thanks for the best college essay topic ever.”

They do a weird fist-bump thing. It’s weird for both of them. Evan wonders if they’re becoming friends. He wonders if his knuckles are sweaty. He tries to gauge their dampness against his cheek as he walks away, but his cheek is also pretty sweaty so he’s not really sure where the dampness is coming from. He thinks it’s probably weird for him to keep touching his face. He jams his hands in his pockets after that. 

He passes the little playground on the way home. There are little kids playing on the swingset and a bored-looking babysitter sitting on Connor’s bench. He watches for a minute, but he doesn't stop. 

... 

Evan spends a lot of time these days thinking about Zoe.

This isn't, like, a new concept because before Connor died -- or the other Connor died or something, Evan doesn't really get it -- he could spend hours thinking about Zoe, about the quiet look of concentration she got on her face when she played in jazz band, that turned-inward look that Evan was convinced he could recognize. He liked the way her voice turned every sentence into a question when she read aloud in class. She sat near him in the library once and her chair creaked as she jiggled her leg idly, like she didn't even notice, like there were things whirring and ticking under her skin. He thought he recognized her, somehow. He pinned all his hopes on her. 

This was, of course, before the suicide and the lies and the fake emails and The Kiss and the truth coming out and The Ghost of Connor Murphy and the time travel and the thwarted suicide attempt and the new lies. 

It feels invasive now, to see her in the hallways and be so familiar with the way she hitches her backpack up her shoulders. It feels stolen and unearned. He knows about her troubled relationship with her brother, how she hated him until he was dead, how eager she was to let him reconstruct Connor, to shape him into someone she could mourn. He knows the scrunchy she keeps on her left wrist and he knows the callouses on her fingertips from playing the guitar. 

She was going to hate him forever. He's taken that away from her. She is as ragged and unfinished as could be. 

But this Zoe doesn't know any of that and if Evan dropped his books in the hallway, she would probably stop and pick them up for him. She would probably smile at him if she caught him staring. This feels supremely and horribly unfair to her, in Evan's opinion, and so he stays away from her. 

He wonders if he's going to stay here forever. 

It wouldn't be so bad, maybe. Yeah, he's still lying about stuff but at least nobody is dead. The Ghost of Connor Murphy is leaving him alone. Jared is nice to him, mostly, even if it's only because Jared feels bad about taking credit for that night in the park. And Evan is safe and obscured and separate. 

And then, three weeks after that night in the park, Connor comes back to school. 

... 

Connor comes back to school on a Monday. It's a warm day for late September, but he's wearing at least three layers - a jacket, a hoodie, a t-shirt - and the way he wraps his arms around his torso makes him look like he's cold. Evan can't stop thinking about the bones in Connor's shoulders shaking as he shivered. His hands are sweaty and it takes him three tries to unlock his locker. 

"Are you going to say hi?" Alana asks Jared. 

She's standing between their lockers, impeccably dressed, perfectly poised, a little bit annoying and a little bit terrifying. For some reason she's decided to deign Jared and Evan with her friendship. Or, well. She's decided to consider Jared an acquaintance and Evan is mostly just standing next to Jared, so he's sort of an acquaintance by proximity, probably. 

"What?" Jared says, distracted and a little annoyed. 

"You should take him a flyer," Alana persists. "He might be interested." 

"Somehow I feel like extracurriculars are not his thing," Jared says. "Evan, did you do the trig homework?" 

"Kind of," Evan says. He is watching Connor fiddle with the combination lock on his locker. He's thinking about Connor dying on a park bench, Connor asking for his mom. 

"You saved his life," Alana presses. 

"Yeah, but I don't want to cash in my life-debt on some stupid club," Jared says. "What if I'm in mortal peril someday? Can I copy #8 from you?" 

"I didn't get #8," Evan apologizes. Connor can't seem to open his locker. Evan can see him fiddling with the dial, tugging at the lock fruitlessly, fiddling some more.

"It's not some stupid club," Alana begins hotly. 

Connor tugs on the lock again, then slams a hand against his locker in frustration. The metallic bang echoes down the hall. Jared and Alana stop talking. Everyone stops talking, actually. 

Connor looks like a ghost for a second, standing there under all those eyes. Like he could flicker out of existence at any second. His shoulders stiffen. 

And then Zoe is there. Zoe with her ponytail and her denim shorts and a textbook tucked under one arm. She moves around Connor, giving him a wide berth like she might get caught on his barbs, and quietly pulls the little combination slip from his hand, unlocks the locker. Evan can imagine her cool, not-sweaty hands moving the dial, precise and always right.  

She hands Connor a stack of books. He takes them, movements as sharp as his shoulders, and leaves without a word of thanks. Volume returns to the hallway as he leaves, murmurs and laughter and the rattle of lockers. 

"You should have helped," Alana is telling Jared. 

"I don't know his fucking locker combo," Jared says, offended. 

Evan watches Zoe watch Connor go. She looks small and defeated for a second, like she's been stepped on, and then her face goes tight. The hallway is loud again, but Evan swears he can make out the bang as Zoe slams Connor's locker shut, hard. 

She looks up. She catches him staring. Evan's instinct is to look away, but he finds himself frozen. After he got home that night and went to bed, an unknown number called Jared's phone 8 times in a row. Evan watched the shadows on his ceiling change as the phone lit up and went dark with every call he did not answer. He couldn't answer. 

Zoe looks at him for just another second, face complicated, and then she readjusts her backpack and just looks like Zoe again. She turns away.

Chapter Text

Connor is early to English class. He's already there when Evan walks in, and Evan is always significantly early to class because he hates feeling people's eyes on him when he walks into a room. Connor thankfully doesn't look up from his seat in the back of the room. He's got the hood of his sweatshirt up and his head down on the desk, face pillowed in his folded arms. 

Evan watches his shoulders move for a second, just to reassure himself that Connor is Not Dead, and then he quickly moves to his own seat at the opposite end of the room and buries his face in his book.  

They're reading A Separate Peace, which Jared says is about "beautiful love between two young boys“ and Alana says is being taught “so badly it's honestly a disservice to the author." Evan thinks it's an okay book, but reading is really difficult when your brain is preoccupied with, like, consuming its own tail. Also somebody falls from a tree and dies at the end, which. Seems a little too on the nose, thank you, universe. 

"Hey," says Connor abruptly, "you got your cast off." 

"Oh," says Evan, "um. Yeah. Yes. Last- on Friday." 

They're looking at each other from across the room. Connor's got a big red mark on the left side of his face from resting it on his arms. 

"Cool," says Connor finally, nodding. 

"Yeah, thanks," Evan mumbles. 

And they both turn away as the classroom door opens and students start to filter in. 

"Before we start class today, we have a quick student presentation-" the teacher starts, but Alana is already on her feet, marching to the front of the room. Her ponytail is perfect and she's dressed better than anyone else in the room

"Good morning, everyone," she says, and then stops to glare pointedly at Jared until he heaves himself from his desk and slinks to the front of the room to join her. Alana fixes her skirt, plasters her smile back on and starts again. "Good morning, everyone. I want to take a few minutes to tell you all about a new club we're starting here at school called The Jared Project." 

Evan sees Jared grimace just the tiniest bit, eyes flitting over to the back of the room where Connor’s got his head down on the desk. 

"The name is definitely not set in stone," he says. Alana ignores him.  

"This club was inspired by recent events during which my co-president Jared Kleinman saved a fellow student's life because he recognized important warning signs of suicide and alerted the authorities. Without Jared, this peer might have died."

Jared tries for an embarrassed smile, eyes round with panic, moving from Connor to Evan and finally to his feet. Alana barrels on, possibly without breathing. 

"The Jared Project is a student-run organization that aims to help educate people on mental health and to provide a safe space for people struggling. By building a community of caring and learning within our school, The Jared Project hopes to foster an environment where we can talk openly about things like mental health and suicide without stigma or shame. We don't want anybody else to feel like this student felt. And we want to make sure that if somebody is feeling that way, their friends and family know how to recognize the signs and get that person help." 

She has to stop then, to breathe. Jared jumps in somewhat reluctantly.  

"We're going to have an interest meeting after school today and we'll probably meet regularly on Wednesdays and Fridays. And it'll, y'know, look good on your college apps and stuff. It'll be chill." 

"We're trying to affect long-term change and openness about mental health at this school," says Alana, smiling so wide her face is practically twitching, absolutely Not Chill.  

"That, too," Jared amends. "That's, uh- That's it." 

He looks to Alana to confirm. She clasps her hands in front of her and smiles some more. 

"We've also started a Facebook page for The Jared Project where we will hopefully be sharing photos and videos from meetings, as well as important resources for if you or a friend ever need help. So please consider checking that page out and maybe following us." 

She writes THE JARED PROJECT on the board in neat, emphatic handwriting, all-caps. 

"And that's it," Jared says again, once Alana has turned around and nodded at him.  

There's some applause, led by their enthusiastic teacher. Alana returns to her seat with a little bit of a flounce, obviously proud, but Jared slumps into his seat and immediately begins to scribble on his notebook with great concentration. Evan claps along, feeling jittery. When he finally works up the nerve to look behind him, Connor isn't clapping. He's still got his face buried in his arms, hood pulled over his hair. He could be asleep. He could be dead. 

He’s not dead, Evan tells himself, but he spends the rest of the period sneaking glances into the back corner, reassuring himself that Connor’s shoulders are still moving under his hoodie. He can still remember the feeling of the bones of his shoulders shifting with each shallow breath, the surprising fragility of them. It seems odd now, to think of all the tiny little things fighting under his skin, keeping him alive against all odds, against all wishes.  

He looks back again, just to check. Just to be sure. 

Connor is looking right back at him. His face is still and mostly blank, but his mouth is parted a little bit, like he's about to ask a question, or like maybe he's just asked one. 

Evan looks away in a hurry, but the next time he sneaks a glance Connor has his head down again, like maybe Evan imagined his weird, still face. Like maybe he never moved at all. 

 ... 

“You’re coming to the interest meeting, right?” Jared asks, slamming his locker and swinging his backpack over a shoulder. 

“Oh,” says Evan. “Uh- I didn't think you'd want me to. Because of-" 

“You have to come,” Jared says, alarmed. “I can’t be the only one there when Career Day Barbie realizes nobody else is coming. What if she cries, Evan? She might short-circuit.”

“You’re mixing metaphors,” Evan mumbles. “Robot Barbie?”

“Sounds dope as hell,” Jared says immediately. “Focus. You’re coming to this meeting.”

“I have- a doctor’s appointment?” Evan tries.

“Bullshit,” Jared says immediately. “You only have therapy every other Monday. You had it last week.”

“It’s- weird that you know that,” says Evan, uncomfortable but weirdly warmed by the notion of Jared knowing his schedule. Are they friends? Is this what being friends is?  

“I’m asking for one afternoon,” Jared begs. “Nobody will come to the interest meeting and The Jared Club will die in a deep dark hole, may she rest in peace, and then we’ll never have to talk about this again. But I need back-up.”

“Alana’s not that bad,” Evan says, thinking of the ill-fated Connor Project and Alana’s disappointment in him, of her confession that she understood what Connor might have felt like. “She’s just-" 

"Got literally no life outside of school? Yeah." 

"That's not- that's mean." 

 Jared shrugs, but he looks a little penitent. "So you'll come?" 

"I'll text my mom," Evan concedes. 

Jared is wrong about the interest meeting. There's about eight people already grouped in a circle when Evan and Jared enter the classroom. Alana is passing around a clipboard and beaming. She hurries over to them. 

"I better get that pen back," she warns over her shoulder. "It's mine and I'll know if you take it." 

"Fuck," Jared says, dumbfounded, "people are here." 

"I told you!" Alana agrees, looking supremely happy to be right. "We should sit. Standing over everyone else gives the impression that we're in charge. And dictatorship is not in the spirit of this club." 

"No one would ever accuse you of being a dictator," Jared mumbles, but he sits. Evan does too, tucking his thumbs into the hem of his shirt and trying not to twitch. 

Alana, despite proclaiming her democratic intentions, is very obviously in charge of this club. She and Jared introduce themselves and reiterate the club's mission statement. Then Alana suggests they go around the room and introduce themselves. 

This is when Evan stops having fun because he hates talking and he hates group sharing and he hates the sound of his own voice. He can't think of a fun fact to share. He is not a fun person. Has he ever had fun in his life, actually, now that he thinks about it? 

He's rehearsing what he's going to say over and over in his head - hi I'm Evan I'm a senior and I broke my arm this summer - and thinking seriously about faking a phone call, escaping from this group-sharing nightmare, going home and sleeping or maybe dying, when the classroom door opens again. Zoe comes in, smiling apologetically, and following her is Connor. 

"Hi," says Alana. If she's surprised, she doesn't let it crack her winning smile. "Pull up chairs. We're just starting introductions." 

"Thanks," says Zoe shyly. Connor doesn't say anything. 

As they drag two more chairs to the circle, Evan glances at Jared, who is maintaining a somewhat sickly smile. He looks down at his hands, at the weird tan-lines his cast left on his arm. He's forgotten his fun fact. He is not having fun. 

"I'm Alana Beck. I'm a senior using she/her pronouns and my fun fact is that I did three internships and ninety hours of community service this summer." 

"That's not fun," said Jared. 

"I consider productivity fun," she says snootily. 

“Do another one.”

“Fine. I’m Alana Beck and I have vitiligo, which is a condition that causes patches of my skin to lose their pigmentation. Michael Jackson had it, too. I think it’s cool. Next?" 

"I'm Jared and I'm bad at fun facts."  

"I'm Dana P. and I'm new here." 

Evan stares at his hands and tries to think of a fun fact. He's getting too anxious now and he just knows his voice is going to crack because obviously his stupid fucked-up brain can't handle the tiniest of social interactions. He feels sweaty. He wonders if his forehead is visibly damp. 

"I'm Zoe and I'm a junior. My fun fact is that I play the guitar in jazz band, but I don't really like jazz that much. I just like playing the guitar." 

A couple people laugh at this. Evan tries not to flinch at the familiar lilt of Zoe's voice, a little self-conscious but clear and sincere. 

"Connor," says Connor after a long second during which Evan sees Zoe's converse aim a prompting kick at Connor's shin. "I'm here so that I don't have to go to a yoga retreat in Colorado." 

A couple people laugh like they're not sure what to make of this. Evan thinks about that night in the kitchen, watching the Murphys fracture, the things Zoe yelled at Mr. Murphy. All the fad diets and deep breathing retreats Mrs. Murphy was always going on. He feels sad and sweaty.  

It suddenly goes silent and Evan realizes that everybody's looking at him expectantly.  It's his turn. He can't remember his fun fact. 

"Sorry," he says, to buy himself a breath. "Sorry. I'm Evan. I'm- a senior." 

"Fun fact?" Alana prompts. Evan hates her fervently in that moment. 

"Oh. Fun fact. Sorry. I'm- I know a lot about trees?"  

"Fun," says Jared dryly.  

And then that's it. Nobody's looking at him anymore. Evan wipes his slick palms on his jeans. His brain tells him everybody's laughing at you and then nobody even knows you exist in quick succession. He waits until Alana starts talking again and then slips away to the bathroom. 

He splashes his face with cold water from the sink, but then he worries that the dampness just makes him look more sweaty. He dries his face with his shirt. He's learned his lesson about using the hand dryers. 

His mom has texted him back a delighted Sounds fun!!!! Tell me about it tonight? to his text telling her he was staying after school for a club meeting. He can only imagine her delight at the idea of him doing an extra-curricular activity. Or maybe that delight is feigned. Maybe she, like Evan, has gotten tired of optimism. Maybe she knows he always ends up in the bathroom, sweaty and panicked, no matter how hard he tries. 

Evan could happily stay in the bathroom for the rest of the afternoon, but he knows the longer he stays here, the greater the likelihood of Jared making a joke about what could have been taking him so long with a punchline involving either poop or jerking off. So Evan takes a couple deep breaths and resigns himself to another 20 sweaty minutes of social interaction. 

Zoe's standing at the opposite end of the hallway when he ducks back out of the bathroom. She's leaning against a locker, phone to her ear, with her back to Evan. 

Evan stares blankly for a second. He's stunned to see her, somehow. 

"-fine. I already said that, Mom. It's- I don't know how he's feeling. Why don't you ask him? He's an adult. I shouldn't have to- It's not- You're not listening to me. I'm not- I'm not saying I don't care, I'm just saying it's not my job to make sure he's- That's not what I was going to say. It's not. It's not-" 

Zoe tugs on her ponytail in frustration and stops talking, obviously having been interrupted. Evan realizes abruptly that he should not be standing here and he should not be listening to this. He tries to step back into the bathroom, but succeeds only in knocking painfully into the door and dropping his cellphone. 

Zoe looks up, startled. Evan stoops to pick up his phone. She gives a vague little half-smile and moves further down the hall, away from him. 

It's nearly enough to send Evan scurrying back into the bathroom, Jared's poop jokes be damned, but that will just look even weirder to Zoe. He tries to breathe at a normal pace. He lets himself back into the classroom. 

Alana is talking, of course. Jared is slumped next to her, struggling to appear aloof and apathetic and cool, succeeding only in looking miserable. Connor is picking at the hem of his sweatshirt sleeve, one leg bouncing furiously. He looks up like he can feel Evan looking at him. Evan fiddles with the collar of his shirt and tries to pretend he's been watching Alana raptly. 

"-a letter writing campaign," she is saying with enthusiasm. "Once a week, randomly assigned, totally anonymous. Just a way to remind each other that we're not alone. You can talk about your week or something you're passionate about or something you're struggling with. Or just include some nice words of encouragement." 

"What if we don't really know the other person?" Dana P. asks. "I'm new here."  

"The whole point is that we all don't really know each other," Alana says, impatient. "These letters are a way to bridge the isolation created by stigma and social media, to remind someone that they're not alone-" 

Connor laughs quietly - a short, abrasive, biting thing. Everyone pauses to look at him, but he doesn't look up. His hands are pick, pick, picking at the cuff of his sweatshirt.  

"Right," says Alana, undeterred. "So for now I thought we could each pick a name from a hat. Then next week we can pick new names."  

Zoe slips back into the room and sits down without making eye contact with anyone. She looks a little teary-eyed and flushed, like she's furious and doesn't know what to do with it. Evan looks away because he feels like it's rude to stare. He hasn't earned the right to know these things about Zoe. Even when she was the one telling him these things, it was a life he conned his way into. 

Everybody writes their name and their locker number on an index card. Nobody has a hat, so they pick names from somebody's brown paper lunch bag. All the slips of paper smell slightly of peanut butter. 

Evan gets Alana's name, written in her neat emphatic handwriting. Connor picks one, frowns at it, then puts it back. 

"I got myself," he says, when Alana glares at him. 

"Okay, pick again." She looks like she's unsure if he's lying, but she doesn't challenge him. Probably she's a little bit scared of him - of him or the enormity of the thing he was willing to do. Probably they all are. "I guess you can't exactly write a letter to yourself."

Evan grips the edge of his chair as hard as he can and refuses to let himself flinch, even as the muscle beneath his eye twitches violently. He stays that way, holding very still, until a shuffle of chairs and voices indicates that the meeting is ending. He gets to his feet gratefully. He is not going to come back. 

"And please remember to like us on Facebook!" Alana calls as the classroom empties. She turns to Jared and Evan, grinning triumphantly. "I told you this was a good idea."

"I didn't think anybody would come," says Jared. Evan can't tell if he's happy or disappointed. 

"People at this school are looking for reminders that they're not alone," Alana says confidently. "A club like this is long overdue. By the way, we should talk about-"

"I'm going to go," Evan mumbles quietly. He slips away unnoticed. 

Connor is sitting on the front steps, smoking a cigarette. Evan almost hits him with the door in his haste to get outside, away from Alana's pathetic expectancy and Jared's practiced apathy. 

"Sorry," says Evan immediately, because sorry is his default setting. If his brain had a text-suggestion feature, like some fancy cellphone, it would just be paragraph after paragraph of sorry. "Sorry. I didn't- see you." 

"Most people don't," says Connor. 

"I-" Evan doesn't know what to say to that. His brain helpfully supplies another apology and he grasps for it. "Sorry." 

"Stop with that shit," says Connor irritably. He exhales smoke. 

Evan bites back another apology. He digs his nails into his palms. He remembers Connor staring at him in English class, something intense and something questioning in the look, like he was about to ask something they both already knew the answer to. Did you fall? Or did you let go? He needs to leave.

"Pretty stupid club," says Connor dully. 

"Yeah," says Evan, paralyzed. 

"Pretty stupid name, too."

"Yeah," says Evan. 

"You don't have to agree with me, y'know," says Connor, suddenly irritated again. "I'm not gonna, like-" 

"Shove me?" Evan says, and then is immediately terrified by his own boldness. "I mean- Sorry." 

"I was having a bad day," Connor says, but his postures goes loose again. He coughs out a laugh. "Fuck it, I'm having a bad month. Are you gonna keep going?" 

When Evan blinks at him, confused, he takes a drag from his cigarette and gestures broadly, clarifying: 

"To the club. The Jared Project." 

He says it with such obvious disdain that Evan laughs a little bit. Connor doesn't laugh, but his shoulders are less tense when he exhales smoke. 

"I don't think so," Evan says. "Are- are you?" 

"I have to," Connor says bitterly. “It’s this or slow-breathing on a mountain in Colorado.”

"Oh," says Evan.  

“Do you know?” Connor asks abruptly, and he’s putting down the cigarette then and turning to look at Evan with intention.

“Do I- know?” Evan stammers.

"You don't have to pretend. I know you guys are friends." 

"F- family friends," Evan says automatically. 

"The whole school probably knows." 

"No," says Evan. "I mean- Someone said you were in juvi for killing your mom, but that was just- Sorry. Sorry."

"There's still time," says Connor. "I'm pretty unhinged." 

Before Evan can answer, the doors of the school swing open again, nearly hitting them both. Evan dodges. Connor hurriedly stubs out his cigarette as Zoe wrestles a big guitar case out the door.  

"I can smell the smoke, y'know," she says. Then, seeing Evan, "Hi. Is he being a dick to you?" 

"No," says Evan uncertainly. 

"We were just saying how stupid this fucking club is," Connor says, but his shoulders are tense, contradicting his bored tone, in a way they weren't before. 

"If he's being a dick you can tell me," Zoe says to Evan. 

"I would never be a dick to a fellow Jared Project alumni. God, that's a stupid name for a club." 

Zoe looks annoyed, but she ignores him and readjusts her guitar case. 

"Let's go. I have homework."  

"It's got a bad mouth feel," Connor says, ignoring her. "Jaaaa-red. The Jaaaaared Club." 

"It's named after him for a reason," Zoe says, pointed and cold. "I'm leaving. Bye, Evan." 

"Bye," Evan says back, startled. He gives an aborted wave. 

 Connor gets up and follows Zoe down the steps. He doesn't move like a ghost, just like a tall teenage boy who's still uncomfortable with being tall. His shoulders hunch a little. He stops at the bottom of the steps and turns to look at Evan, holding something quizzical and intense between parted lips, like a lozenge, like a stone. 

"I can think of better people to name a club after," he says. "Can't you?"

He doesn't wait for Evan to answer. Zoe is honking the horn. Connor leaves. If not for the half-smoked cigarette on the stairs, he might never have been there at all. 

...

Chapter Text

...

I think Connor knows it was me that night, Evan types. He reads the words over again. He deletes them. 

Connor said this weird thing about naming the club after someone other than you and it might have just been like a joke because I think Connor is not that good at joking? Or it might have been that he knows it was me that nihjt and not you so the club should be named after me? I mean I don't think that but I guess maybe he does? But Jared Project is a bettr name than the Evan Project anyway because vowel names don't sound as assertive as names that start w consonants anyway

A deep breath. He deletes the message. 

How come you remembered when my therapy session was? are you only being nice to me because you feel guilty that you're getting popular because of me or are we friends now? are we friends now? 

He deletes the message. 

"Hi," says The Ghost of Connor Murphy. 

Evan startles so badly he drops his phone and knocks a stack of books off his desk with a loud crash. 

"Everything okay?" Evan's mom yells from downstairs. 

"Fine!" Evan yells back. "I- fell." 

She's satisfied with this. He's a clumsy guy. He falls a lot, sometimes from great heights. 

"Hey" says The Ghost of Connor Murphy, "pay attention to me. I remembered."

Evan collects his schoolbooks from the floor, still feeling startled and out of sorts. His hands are a little shaky. "Remembered what?" 

"What it all means," Connor says dramatically, and then laughs at Evan's confusion. He is young and elastic tonight. "Just kidding. Nothing means anything. Religion is a scam and death is forever.” 

"You're still here, though," Evan points out. 

"Oh, shit, that's what I was supposed to tell you," The Ghost of Connor Murphy remembers. His face moves animatedly, but there's something not right about it. Like a drawing of a face without shadows or lights. Actually, no, the opposite. Like the shadows and lights fall in all the right places, but there's no real face underneath. Just the impressions of one. "I'm still here."

"Because of unfinished business?" Evan prompts. "My unfinished- or-" 

"No, no, no," Connor interrupts, waving with his hands. "No, okay, it's more like. I'm a possibility, right? I'm a- I'm the Ghost of Christmas That Could Be."

"I don't get Christmas metaphors," Evan says helplessly. "Can you make this more secular?" 

"Fuck you. I refuse to cater to this war on Christmas," Connor says scornfully, but he says it with delight and humor. He's having fun. He seems incredibly young tonight in an uncomfortable and sad kind of way. Like Connor in the photos on the Murphy’s wall, with short hair and dimples. “I’m a possibility, okay? I'm like- Okay, like the cat in the hat, right? As long as the cat's in there, it's both alive and dead." 

"It was a box," Evan says. "The Cat in the Hat is-" 

"Because you don't know for sure, right?" Connor presses on, unbothered. "You don't know for sure if it's dead 'til you check. So until you check it's both alive and it's dead." 

"So you're the- you're the cat?" Evan tries. 

"No, dude," says Connor, visibly excited "I'm the hat. I'm the- I'm the fuckin' possibility. As long as there's a possibility Alive Connor doesn't stay alive, there's a Dead Connor."

"You're the-" Evan tries to think. "So you're still here because Connor is still- might still-" 

"Shit, I guess I am the cat," Connor says. "Maybe you're the hat?"

"It was a box," Evan says again. "Schrodinger’s- Wait so you're saying he's still not safe? He could still die?"

"I remembered," The Ghost of Connor Murphy says triumphantly. 

“You did,” Evan agrees. “So Connor is- You’re still-“

“Not me. The other Connor. Alive Connor.”

“He might still-“

“Don’t look so surprised,” says The Ghost of Connor Murphy. “It’s not like you’re doing so great right now. Totally bounced back from this summer, huh?”

“I’m-“ Evan protests. 

“Oh, right, sorry. No. You fell.”

Evan flinches, cradling his arm to his chest instinctively. He tries to pass it off as a shrug, but The Ghost of Connor Murphy barks out a laugh, eyes sharp and intense, mouth expressive. It reminds Evan of Connor — the other Connor, Alive Connor — staring at him in the back of English class today. Asking a question or answering a question. A surge of anxiety makes Evan’s chest tighten. He sinks down onto his bed. 

“The other Connor, Alive Connor- Do you- I think he knows. About- That it was me and not Jared.”

“Oh, shit,” Connor says comfortably. “Really?”

“I- I don’t know. Sorry. I- was asking you, I guess?”

“Different Connor, dude,” says Connor, unapologetic and slightly bemused. “Different cat. Sucks for you, though. You really can’t stop lying, huh?”

Evan ducks his head and pretends to be very interested in the hem of his t-shirt. It's one thing to hold these thoughts in your head and another entirely to have someone say them to you, even if -- actually, especially if the person saying these things is the ghost of a boy who isn't actually dead currently. 

“I didn’t mean to-“ he starts, but then there's a knock on the door. "What-" 

"Hi, honey," says Evan's mom. "Is someone- Is Jared over? Did I forget or-" 

She glances around the room. She's dressed for her work shift in Evan's favorite pair of scrubs, patterned with The Rainbow Fish from the children's book. Her eyes do not linger on The Ghost of Connor Murphy, despite his height, despite his jarring and flickering presence. 

"Oh," she says. "I thought I heard-"

"No," says Evan quickly. "No, I'm-" 

"She can't see me," says The Ghost of Connor Murphy, with surprise and interest. 

"I'm practicing for a- for a presentation," Evan lies, feeling ill. "For- for Jared's club. For- I said I would help." 

Her face does that unfair, heartbreaking thing where it suddenly gets soft and light and happy, and really emphasizes how tired and unhappy her resting face really is. He doesn't realize how heavy he weighs on her until he lets go and she bobs to the surface. She smiles big at him. 

"You are? You did?" 

"I'm just-" 

"You'd think you would be better at this," says Connor. "Lying, I mean."

"I don't- Don't get your hopes up," Evan says in a rush, feeling resentful and barraged. "I'll probably end up freaking out and not doing it." 

"No, I- I'm not," she starts, too eager, then stops and seems to compose herself. "I'll be proud of you no matter what. I’m proud of you for even trying. I don’t mean to pressure you-" 

"Sorry," says Evan immediately. "Sorry I didn't mean to- to-" 

"I'm just really proud that-" 

"I've just been feeling a little-" 

"-you're trying new things things and-" 

"What's your computer password?" Connor asks, chewing on a piece of his hair and leaning over Evan's desk, where his laptop sits ajar. His fingers are spread across the keys threateningly. "I already tried ILOVETREES so I know it's not that." 

When Evan looks back at his mom, she's looking at him expectantly, obviously waiting for an answer to a question he did not hear. 

"Um," he says, "what?" 

She sits down on the bed tentatively. Something about the careful way she's moving makes his stomach turn uneasily. 

"I saw something on Facebook about Jared," she says. "His mom shared an article about how he saved a friend? I didn't know that." 

The Ghost of Connor Murphy laughs. His face is hidden behind his hair as he leans over the laptop but Evan can imagine the nasty, bitter edge to his smile. 

"Oh," he says. "Yeah. That's what the club is about. I told you that."

He didn’t tell her that. He says it because he knows it will put her on the defensive. He observes this in a detached, vague sort of way and then thinks, from afar, you really can’t stop lying, huh?

"No, I know," she says quickly, looking guilty. "I just didn't realize- Did you know the- the student?" 

Connor doesn't laugh this time. 

"Sort of," Evan allows, "not really." 

He doesn’t know the answer. He does not know Connor, really. He knows what the absence of Connor looks like, the Connor-shaped hole punched into the drywall of the Murphy's home. He knows what Connor’s bedroom looks like. He knows what Connor looks like when he's dying on a bench in the dark. 

"Oh," Evan's mom says. "Well it was good that Jared was there. Really. That's- He really is a hero." 

"Yeah," says Evan. 

"I just think- Because of him, that kid has another chance,” she says with a weird energy, tucking hair behind her ears “That kid’s parents get another chance. I just think sometimes how lost and alone someone would have to feel to- You know I’m always here, right? If you ever want to talk. If you ever feel-“

“No, I know. I know. I know,” Evan stammers. This is a question they don’t ask each other. Out of politeness, maybe, or out of embarrassment. “I know. I-“

“Sorry,” his mom says at once. “Sorry. I just love you so much, you know that? I just wanted to make sure you knew that.”

“I know. I mean, I know that,” Evan says, unable to stop his eyes from drifting to the stiff line of Connor’s back. He has not turned around, but his fingers are not moving on the keys of the laptop. “You don’t have to worry about me.”

She laughs a little bit at that, at this hilarious joke he’s cracked, but she stands. She looks down at him. 

She’s young for a mom. He never used to notice that about her, but now he thinks about it a lot. Last year, when she told Evan she was thinking about going back to school, she brought home a pizza and a liter bottle of Sprite and watched him eat anxiously until he was convinced she was about to tell him she had been diagnosed with some terrible terminal illness. Had her hair been looking thinner lately? She was definitely skinner than she used to be. When she told him about school, he was so surprised she was not dying that he just stared. She took his shock for skepticism and rushed to explain herself, about how she had been on her coffee break at work, dead fucking tired, and she just thought to herself is this what you’re going to do for the rest of your life? And she had decided it wasn’t. 

(And he was happy for her and he was glad she wasn’t dying, but that night in bed he thought to himself is this how it’s going to be for the rest of my life? And he couldn’t find an answer at all. He couldn’t imagine a rest of his life, not feeling like this. Not existing like this.)

“Don’t let them work you too hard,” he says finally. It seems like something a normal son would say to his normal mom. The borrowed phrase sits funny in his mouth, but his mom smiles ruefully. She moves her hand like she wants to ruffle his hair or touch his face or something, but instead she turns to his nightstand, lets her hand rest on the little wooden box there. 

“Are you okay on-“

“Fine.” 

Her face falls back into its usual shapes, mouth a little bit tired as she checks her watch, straightens her ponytail, moves for the door. Her eyes focus on Connor’s back for a second and then she’s turning back to Evan. 

“I’ll leave money on the counter for dinner, okay? You can order online. It’s easy.”

“Okay.”

“Promise you’ll eat?”

“Okay.”

And then she hesitates some more, like maybe she asked another question and Evan didn’t hear it and she’s still waiting for him to answer. But before he can think of something to say, before he can supply whatever she’s searching for, she leaves. She forgets to close the door behind her, but Evan waits until her footsteps have faded down the stairs before getting up to shut the door. When he turns back, The Ghost of Connor Murphy is sitting in his desk chair, facing him. He’s a little bit translucent, maybe, in the harsh light of the desk lamp behind him. 

“What?” says Evan defensively. 

“She thought it was you,” says Connor. 

“What?” says Evan again, this time confused.

“She thought it was you,” says Connor again, equally incomprehensible. 

“Okay,” says Evan. “Hey, what happened to your Superball?”

“I think I lost it,” says Connor. Then, with a look of surprise, “Oh.”

The chair starts to spin just a little bit. And he’s gone. 

Chapter Text

...

"Hey," says Jared, banging a fist against the locker beside Evan's with a metallic slam and then laughing when Evan jumps and flinches. "You're too easy." 

"Fuck," says Evan, pulse racing in his throat so violently his voice shakes with it. "Shit. God."

"You're so twitchy," Jared says. "I can't help it." 

Evan does not say it's called an anxiety disorder and he does not say I thought you were Connor. He does not explain that he's spent the past week ducking into bathrooms and eating lunch in the library and hiding in the nurse's office, drinking paper cups of water and explaining that no, he doesn't need to call his mom. He just needs to stay here until Connor Murphy stops looking at him funny in the hallways. 

The nurse is surprisingly nice about letting him stay. Probably she thinks he's getting bullied. It's a fair assumption, because Evan is... well, Evan. He is skinny and moist and stutters. But he doesn't really get bullied because Evan doesn't really get, like, noticed. Nobody looks at him. 

Except Connor looks at him now, sometimes, squinty frowns from across hallways. Bold, blank stares during class. And then Evan has to go to the nurse's office and drink water and try not to rustle the paper cover on the cot and think, over and over again, he knows he knows he knows he knows. 

Anyway, Evan doesn't say any of that. He keeps stuffing books into his backpack, noting vaguely a neatly-folded piece of paper with his name on it, and says, "I haven't been sleeping good." 

"Too busy jerkin' it? Make sure you take it slow. You don't want to re-injure the old battle scars." 

Evan cradles his arm protectively to his chest. The unusual tan lines are not fading quickly enough. He shuts his locker and turns to Jared. 

"You know it wasn't- I hate that joke." 

"Which is why," says Jared grandly, leading Evan down the hall, "I keep making it. You ever play Call of Duty?" 

"What?" says Evan, surprised. Then, "Oh. No, I- I'm bad at video games."  

"Hmm," Jared frowns. "What about talking smack? Are you any good at heckling?" 

"Oh," says Evan. "Um, probably- probably not, no." 

"I didn't think so," Jared agrees. He sighs. "This dickhole kid down the street is always talking shit on X-Box Live. Maybe you can, like, tell him about trees." 

"About- trees?" 

"Nah," Jared decides. "You're too nice. He'll bully you mercilessly. And he gets really specific. Middle schoolers are mean as fuck." 

"Oh," says Evan, "good." 

They stop just outside the doors, Jared nodding towards the parking lot expectantly. 

"So are you coming or what?" 

"Oh," says Evan again, bewildered. 

He's been avoiding Jared all week. He can't decide whether or not to tell him of his suspicions about Connor. There was another newspaper article last night. Mrs. Kleinman shared it on Facebook. Evan read the comments obsessively — you must be so proud and the world needs more people like your son and now that’s a kid raised right! He doesn't think Jared has ever felt remarkable before. 

"I mean, I don't care either way," Jared is already saying, bristling with his apathetic armor. "But if you felt like it-"  

And Evan thinks, suddenly, that he would really really like to sit in Jared's basement and watch him play Call of Duty and verbally harass twelve-year-olds. It feels like something teenage boys do in movies, maybe. 

"Okay," he says, "yeah." 

"Cool," says Jared like he doesn't even care.  

"I just have to- my letter," Evan says, remembering. "Sorry. I forgot. I have to-" 

He’s also been avoiding Alana because the idea of going back to the next The Jared Project meeting is intolerable, but then so is the idea of letting Alana Beck down. Her insistent, vigorous enthusiasm is suffocating. It makes Evan feel sad for her, somehow. He's been trying to write his letter to her all week, but he couldn't get past the first sentence. She told him, once, that she thought she understood how Connor -- the other Connor, dead Connor -- might have felt. Now he wonders why that ever surprised him. 

"Hurry up," says Jared, but he seems unbothered. "God, this club is going to kill me." 

He says it grandly, though, with a sort of put-upon, harried pride. Evan, who understands Jared better than he used to, lets him have this. He hurries back into the school to slip the letter into Alana's locker. 

Dear Alana Beck, 

You are remarkable. Even if you never did anything big or important at all, you would still be remarkable. 

Sincerely, Me. 

It isn't enough and it isn't quite what he meant to say, but it's the only words he can find. He slides the letter under her locker door before he can second-guess himself again, and then leaves quickly. He does not want to see Connor. 

He's avoiding Connor, obviously, because Connor potentially Knows. And even if Connor doesn’t Know, Evan can’t really look at him anymore without thinking about the fuzzy, slept-on hair at the back of his head and his cold, sweaty skin and the way he asked am I dying? Mostly he can’t stop thinking about the other Connor, the Connor who actually died, asking that same question — am I dying — only there was no one there to answer him. 

He might try again. He might know. He might try again. 

"Finally," Jared says when Evan returns. 

"Sorry." 

Jared loses to the middle schoolers. Evan sits on the couch and watches it happen, no matter how much Jared swears and jostles around on the couch and shouts threats at the twelve-year-olds. Evan learns a creative new swearword from the middle schooler, which is nice. 

After that they play a different game and Jared lets them play on the Easy level even though he says it's "frankly insulting to my manhood." 

And Evan is spectacularly and hilariously bad, but he finds that he doesn't mind so much, and Jared laughs so hard that Sprite comes out of his nose. He runs upstairs to change his shirt, leaving Evan's character to keep running into the same wall over and over again, because Evan can't figure out which lever you're supposed to use to turn. 

"You can stay for dinner if you want," Jared says when he comes back down, still red-faced with laughter.

"Oh," says Evan, startled. "Really?" 

"I mean, do what you want. My mom said to ask," says Jared, careless. 

"Okay," Evan says. "Thank you." 

"Sure," says Jared. He flops back down onto the couch and resumes the game. "Fair warning, though, she's gonna be insufferable about the Connor thing." 

"About-"

"She loves to brag about me," says Jared. "It's awful. Her Facebook page might as well be the official Jared Project page, that's how much she posts." 

"That sounds nice," Evan ventures. "She must be really proud." 

"Yeah, well," says Jared, looking embarrassed. "This is the first time I've actually done something for her to be proud of. Or-" he stops, grimaces at Evan. "Well, y'know-" 

His characters throws a grenade in the game and blows them both up, putting Evan's character out of his misery and promptly putting an end to the conversation. They are both grateful for it. The conversation moves back to lighter things.

And Evan doesn't tell him about Connor in the back of English class or Connor smoking on the steps after school. He doesn't say I think he knows or I'm scared he'll try again because he might be wrong anyway. He is, after all, a mentally ill anxious wreck. Why ruin this afternoon with Evan's paranoia? Why remind them both that Evan is only here, that Jared is only tolerating him, because of the lies they're telling together? 

Afterwards, Jared drives him home. When they approach the little park with the rusty swingset, Jared's car slows down. The headlights catch on the swings, moving slightly in the wind, on the lumpy, overgrown bushes that slump like bodies along the perimeter of the playground. He says, "Is this where-" 

"Yeah," says Evan, but it comes out choked so he has to clear his throat and repeat himself. "Yeah." 

"Shit," says Jared, slowing down even more. 

"Please don't-" Evan has to stop and cough again. "Please don't stop. I really don't wanna-" 

"I'm not stopping," Jared snaps. "I'm just looking." 

But after a second he puts his foot back on the accelerator and changes the subject. They keep driving. 

Before Evan gets out of the car they do another awkward fist-bump thing. It's awkward and poorly executed, but Jared laughs and so after a second Evan does, too. Jared waits until Evan unlocks the front door to pull away, which probably doesn't mean anything but Evan thinks is a nice gesture anyway. 

...

As soon as Evan shuts the door and Jared's headlights pull away, he feels his mood start to shift. It starts with just the slightest twist in his stomach, like a check engine light flickering on, like a super fun reminder that Evan is Mentally Ill and that even when he is having a good day, he is still standing on a precipice. A breath of wind in the wrong direction is enough to set him toppling. 

It's just that the house is so much emptier than the Kleinman's house. Evan's mom is at class, as he is reminded by the post-it note smiley face and the twenty dollar bill on the counter -- please eat a healthy dinner!!! Love you! The Ghost of Connor Murphy is nowhere to be found. Evan is grateful for this, obviously, because it's not like he likes Being Haunted, but he's a little troubled by the Ghost's last visit and his weird, abrupt departure. 

Plus he thinks he might like someone to talk to. Even if it's just inside his head. Which is the most pathetically lonely thought Evan has ever had, maybe. 

He checks inside his closet, just in case, but it's empty. There's a sinking, tightening feeling in his stomach, but Evan tries to ignore it, or at the very least tries to get some shit done before he loses it completely. Like taking the laundry off the clothesline before a storm. He takes a shower. He does his homework. He tries to read the next few chapters of A Separate Peace but his brain is not cooperating, eating words without even tasting them. He gets through three pages and realizes he hasn't absorbed a single word. He closes the book. 

Just like that, the Bad Feeling he's been trying to ignore bares its teeth, puts its full weight on his shoulders, tells him Jared is driving home right now, thinking about how sad and small and moist Evan is, how obviously and pathetically happy he was to be invited over. It's all out of pity, out of guilt, because Jared thinks he stole this life from Evan. But Evan is the one who stole it in the first place. 

From there it blossoms outward, like some poison plant. Connor knows and Connor is going to tell. And then Jared will hate Evan like Connor already hates Evan and like Zoe should hate Evan. 

Connor doesn't know and Connor is going to kill himself and it will be Evan's fault, somehow, and he will live in this off-kilter life, this kaleidoscope version of his real life, forever and he will spend his whole life knowing that this is not real. And Connor will be dead. 

Maybe if Connor dies the whole world resets, like in that movie. Maybe if Evan dies this whole fucking thing goes away. Maybe there's an alternate Evan, an Evan who climbed a little higher before he let go. Maybe that Evan, Dead Evan, is bouncing a superball off somebody else's ceiling right now. Maybe that Evan somehow blessedly doesn’t exist at all.  

You need to take a Xanax, a voice in his head says through the panic. 

Actually, no. 

The Ghost of Connor Murphy repeats himself, "You need to take a Xanax or something, dude. Where's your-" 

Evan, who can't breathe, flaps a hand towards his bedside table. There's some fumbling, a crash, and then The Ghost of Connor Murphy is upending the wooden box into Evan's lap. There's his meds and his emergency Xanax and his inhaler and a dorky note his mom snuck in there one time that Evan liked too much to throw out.  

"What do you need-" 

Evan can't speak, but he retrieves his inhaler and fumbles the cap off with shaking hands. 

"I'll get water," says Connor. 

Evan takes his inhaler and when Connor dumps out Evan's backpack and finds a half-full bottle of water, he swallows a pill obediently. And then they sit there, silent except for Evan's horrible wheezing half-sobs, until the pill kicks in. The sharp edges of everything soften. Evan unclenches his fists and examines the crescent-moon marks on his palms, feeling like he has been pummeled to pulp. There's nothing left inside him. He's flat and flimsy, like paper, like that book about the boy who got squashed. 

"Flat Stanley," says Connor. 

"Please don't read my thoughts right now," says Evan. His voice is barely a death rattle. 

"Don't think so loud," says Connor. "Plus it's not like I've never heard this shit before. I'm dead."

Evan doesn't answer. Connor gets off the bed and starts sorting idly through the contents of Evan's backpack, which are now strewn across the floor. Seconds, potentially minutes, go by. 

"It's not a reset-button type thing, by the way."

"What?" Evan croaks. 

"This all," Connor gestures broadly with a piece of crumpled notebook paper, "doesn't reset if you or me dies." 

"If you die?"

"Other Connor. My bad. Drink your water." 

Evan obeys. The Ghost of Connor Murphy sits back on the bed, squinting at another crumpled piece of paper. 

"Sorry," says Evan. 

"Fuck off," says Connor, not looking up from his paper. "Drink your water." 

"I wasn't, like, dehydrated." 

"Water's good for you anyway, dick." 

"Okay." 

The Ghost of Connor Murphy disappears slowly this time, like maybe he’s trying really hard to stick around or maybe Evan’s brain is just too limp to hold onto him, like falling asleep while trying to focus on a tv show. He slips away in pieces, like waking up from a really vivid dream and finding that the harder you try to remember it, the faster the details slip away, until he’s just a feeling, a presence. And then even that is gone. The piece of paper Connor was reading so intently falls onto the floor. 

Evan stoops to pick the paper up on his way back from brushing his teeth, trying to rid his mouth of the thickness of panic, salt and phlegm. He frowns at the unfamiliar handwriting and then sits back on the bed, understanding dawning slowly that this is the letter that was left in his locker this afternoon. He reads it with something dull and cold prodding at his spine. It might be shock if it wasn’t blunted by his medication.  

Dear Evan Hansen,

I feel pretty weird about writing this letter. You’re not really the person I want to say these things to and it’s not your job to deal with my heavy shit. But I can’t actually say these things to the person I want to say them to and I guess I like the idea that somebody else out there knows how I’m feeling, even if they don’t know who I am. I never get to say these things out loud because they’re selfish and poisonous and small. I like the idea that SOMEBODY hears me saying them, even if you don’t know what any of it means. You don’t even have to read this, honestly. 

I’m so angry all the time. My parents are acting like we’ve been given this miracle, this second chance to get things right, but we didn’t make this decision for him. I’m angry that he made this decision and that he felt like he had to make this decision and Im angry that this decision hurts me at all. I hate that he can still hurt me. And I’m angry that I missed the signs and I’m angry that he is the person he is and that I’m the person I am. And I’m angry for all the stupidest, most selfish reasons. We’re off gluten now because sometimes gluten-free diets can affect mood according to Mom’s lifestyle blog and I fucking miss bread. I had to miss rehearsal last weekend for a family meeting with a therapist and now I have to skip lunch this week to make up for the missed practice time. We buy orange juice with extra pulp now, because that’s how he likes it. Like if he doesn’t get his ideal glass of OJ in the morning he’s going to try again. God. Just writing this down makes me realize how whiney and selfish I sound. You probably think I sound like a selfish brat. Actually you probably think I sound crazy (if you’ve even read this far) but I promise I’m not. Or at least, I’m not crazy by comparison. My problems are so much smaller than his. I get that. But nobody ever asks how I’m doing. 

I didn’t know. Why didn’t I know? How was I supposed to know? It’s not like we talked. We still don’t talk. 

For real, I’m sorry. It’s so not your job to get bogged down in all of my shit. I don’t know why I even wrote all of this down, but for some reason I felt like you might not mind. I think you see more than you let on. 

Sincerely, Me 

 …

Chapter Text

Evan goes back to The Jared Club on Wednesday despite everything. Despite his crippling social anxiety and despite Connor's weird staring in the hallways and despite himself, despite the dread that weighs at his feet and urges him to go home, to do nothing, to be safe. 

He'd like to think he goes back for a noble reason - because of Zoe's letter and because of The Ghost of Connor Murphy's warning that Alive Connor might not stay that way - but mostly he goes because he is very susceptible to peer pressure and Jared and Alana are both waiting by his locker at the end of the day that Wednesday. Jared is trying to act apathetic, like he Just Happened to lean against a locker that Just Happens to belong to Evan, but Alana makes no such pretenses. Her perfect posture perks up even more, somehow, when Evan turns into the hallway. 

"We were waiting for you!" she says, betraying Jared’s apathy.

“Oh,” says Evan, alarmed. 

Jared grimaces at Alana's enthusiasm - probably a reflex at this point - but he also seems a little excited about something. It radiates through his slouch. He's doing a bad job of looking bored. Evan fidgets with the hem of his shirt, feeling jumpy and unsure.

“We have,” says Alana, “a proposition.”

“Don’t say it like that.” 

"Okay," Evan says slowly.  

“The Jared Project caught the interest of a community member and-“

"So someone donated a lot of money to The Jared Project." 

"Don't say it like that," Alana says. "It was an anonymous donation." 

"It was the Murphys," says Jared confidently. "They said we should use the money for, like, outreach and fundraising and shit."  

“Oh, wow,” says Evan. 

“Yeah,” says Jared, and he’s actually grinning now, too excited to act bored. “They’re pretty fucking loaded, apparently-” 

“You shouldn’t say that.”

“-and so now we’ve got some money to, like, actually do shit-“

"I already have some great ideas for outreach programs-“ 

“-but if we're gonna be, like, a real club with actual money and fundraisers, we're required to have a treasurer who keeps the budget and stuff."  

"Normally I would volunteer," says Alana at once. "I'm in very advanced math classes. I used to help my dad balance his checkbook when I was little." 

"That's heartwarming,” says Jared sarcastically. 

"But I'm already swamped with extracurricular activities," Alana continues importantly. Her eyes go really big, as if to emphasis how very Swamped she really is. "So Jared and I want to offer you the position." 

"Oh," says Evan. Then, "What?" 

"We need you to be our treasurer," says Jared. "Because I'm shitty at math and Alana has too many other checkbooks to balance."  

"Oh," says Evan again, and he's not sure he ever actually says yes, but then he's being shepherded down the hall into the classroom where The Jared Project assembles and everybody claps politely when Alana introduces Evan as their treasurer, so he probably did say yes at some point, or at least he didn't actively say no. Which is honestly, truly how every thing that has ever happened to Evan — good or bad — has occurred. By him standing still and not saying wait please wait as everything rushes on around him. 

So now he’s in a chair in the circle in the second official meeting of The Jared Club. He does not feel very well. There’s a bunch of new people at the meeting, which expands their circle to about fifteen chairs. Alana suggests they go around the circle again and do introductions to accommodate all the new faces, and for a second Evan hates her with the kind of vitriol he usually reserves for people who litter and, like, for himself. He thinks about excusing himself. He thinks about the horrible, uncomfortable sound of his own voice. He thinks about how nice it would be to Not Exist.

“I think we should make a pass option, though,” says Jared abruptly. When Alana looks at him with surprise, he gives an uncomfortable grimace. “Not everybody likes public speaking. I think this should be a club, like, where people feel comfortable.”

“Okay,” says Alana without argument, which is almost as surprising as Jared’s earnestness. “I’m Alana. I’ll do a new fun fact. My fun fact is that I’m teaching myself ASL.”

“I’m Jared. My fun fact is that I have Heterochromia, which means my eyes are different colors.”

Evan sneaks a glance at Jared after he finishes, but Jared is looking studiously elsewhere. Evan feels a rush of affection, followed almost immediately by a walloping wave of embarrassment and self-loathing because Evan’s brain is, like, physically incapable of experiencing an uncomplicated, genuine Good Emotion. How visibly uncomfortable Evan must be, for Jared to notice. How pathetic and small that he can’t even introduce himself, can’t even say his own name aloud.  

My name’s Evan Hansen. I’m a senior. My fun fact is that I’m actually from an alternate reality and I was brought here by a ghost to try and prevent a suicide but I’m doing a pretty shitty job so far and also this club should be named after me. Or after Connor, at the very least. 

My name’s Evan Hansen. I’m a senior. My fun fact is that I’m so cripplingly anxious that I can’t even do simple tasks like introduce myself. Don’t ask how I’m going to survive college. I don't think I'll live that long.  

He is too enveloped in these thoughts to really take note of the new introductions. There’s a Sabrina and a Jackson and a Matt and somebody has a cat named Darth Vader and somebody works as a volunteer EMT and somebody is fluent in French, which is cool. Zoe says her fun fact about playing guitar in jazz band again and Connor says “pass” quietly when it comes to him and so does Evan, eyes fixed on the lopsided tan-lines of his bad arm. He cannot even say his own name aloud. 

My name's Evan Hansen but it doesn't really matter. I don't really exist at all.  

Connor doesn’t try to talk to him, so that’s good. He sits next to Zoe and doesn’t talk at all, just chips at the fingernail polish on his thumb. Zoe gives Evan a quiet, almost apologetic smile when their eyes meet. He looks away immediately, obviously, and then spends the next twenty minutes agonizing about how he didn’t smile back and now she’ll think he’s a weirdo and never smile at him again or, worse, she’ll think he read her letter and is judging her for it. But when he finally works up the nerve to lift his head, to smile back, Zoe is doodling on the cuff of her jean. Connor catches Evan looking, but his face doesn’t do the horrible, questioning thing. He just draws his eyebrows together so that the tiniest vertical line appears on his forehead, and then he goes back to chipping at his nail polish. 

So then Evan doesn’t look at anyone at all. It’s safer that way. 

“I think we have a really cool opportunity right now,” says Alana, “to shape this club into exactly what we want it to be. We get to decide what we need and what we want.”

“Snacks,” says Jared, “would be a good start.”

There’s some scattered laughter. Alana is undeterred.

“This club has the potential to impact the larger community and bring about changes within the school about how we deal with mental health. But I also think that within the club, we want to make sure we’re providing a space that’s safe and comfortable and hopefully host to some honest and open discussions about mental health on a less, like, abstract level. So that people can talk about how they’re actually, y’know, doing. That’s why I think the idea of sending letters is important.”

She looks at Jared then. He stares blankly back. 

“What? Was I supposed to prepare a few words?”

“No,” says Alana. “I just assumed you’d have something snide to say.”

“Oh,” says Jared. “No, I thought that was good.”

“Oh,” says Alana, pleased. “Thank you.”

“I like the idea of us going around the room and, like, saying how we’re doing,” says a very young girl, who in Evan’s opinion is the youngest freshman he’s ever seen. Her backpack has cartoon ducks on it. 

“I like that, too. And I liked the letters,” Zoe adds quietly, and several others mumble their agreement. "It felt really, like, cathartic." 

“Cool,” Jared says, surprised into sincerity. “This is really cool.”

“And as for outreach,” Alana continues, and she's smiling with genuine excitement, “we actually had a donation from a community member, which means we have a little bit of money to use for fundraising. Our thought was a school-wide assembly to generate interest, and then hopefully we can extend into the larger community with some sort of charitable event.” 

“We’re open to suggestions,” Jared says lamely, as it’s somewhat clear that Alana has already started making phone calls and probably spreadsheets, too. 

"So someone just, like, gave you money?" Zoe says suddenly. 

Evan hazards a glance across the circle. Zoe has stopped doodling on her jeans and is frowning at Jared. Her face is tight. 

"Yeah, basically," says Jared. 

"It was an anonymous donation from a community member with an interest in our goals and mission statement," Alana affirms. "It's enough to help us get started. That's all we can really say." 

"Hmm," says Zoe.

Connor is picking at his nail polish. Except for the repetitive scratch of his nails, he doesn't move at all. If he shares Zoe's skepticism it doesn't show on his blank face. 

"We're not gonna embezzle it, if that's what you're worried about," says Jared, maybe sensing Zoe's dissatisfaction. He gestures down the circle. "We're on the up-and-up. That's why we have Evan here to keep us honest."

And then everyone's looking at Evan and suddenly he is aware of his terrible posture and his clammy skin and his inability to keep eye contact. He feels like he is looking at his body -- skinny, hunched defensively -- from the outside. Discomfort and revulsion curls inside him. He gives a little wave and immediately hates himself for it. 

"So I was thinking about a walk-athon," Alana says, clearly as uncomfortable with being ignored as Evan is with attention. Everyone turns to her, thankfully ending Evan's torture. 

He stops listening after that. The meeting ends. Jared offers him a ride home but the idea of having to sit in a car with Jared and make conversation seems like something Evan cannot handle right now.  

"I already have a ride," he lies. It comes easy. He is practiced. "But thank you."

"Okay," says Jared easily, like he doesn't care at all. 

"You don't-" Evan starts, then stops. "You don't always have to- Like, you don't need to drive me home. I don't want you to feel like-" 

"Shit, am I that bad of a driver?" Jared laughs, but his shoulders go tight. "I was just offering." 

"No, I- That's not what I- It's really nice of you to- I just don't want you to feel like you have to-"

"Hey," says an unfamiliar voice that is always a little higher, a little thinner than Evan expects it to be. 

Connor has scratched all the nail polish off, Evan notes. His fingernails are ragged and anemic, softly purple down by the cuticles. They pick at the cuffs of Connor'a sweatshirt. He's wearing approximately seven layers. He's standing in front of them, curled-in at the edges, scowling. 

"Hi," says Jared, startled. 

"I'm supposed to-" Connor starts, stops, turns to glare down the hallway. Zoe is standing a couple of feet away, hunched under the weight of her backpack. She flaps a hand at Connor impatiently. "I'm supposed to invite you to dinner. If you want to come. To dinner. At my- our house." 

"Oh," says Jared. "Oh, I totally would, dude, but I've got- I told Evan I'd drive him home."  

"He can come, too," Connor says dully without ever looking at Evan. His fingers are picking at the cuffs of his sweatshirt. He must be hot under so many layers. Maybe his body remembers how it felt to die and is still fighting off those shivers. 

"I've got-" 

"It would make my mom happy and probably convince her to give more money to your shitty club," Connor adds in that same flat, dead tone of voice. 

Jared grimaces. "Touché." 

"Cool," says Connor, dead. "Fair warning - everything she cooks is shitty.”

"Cool," says Jared. "Should we just-" 

"You can follow us home," says Zoe. "It's not that far."

"Cool," says Jared again. 

And Evan doesn't say wait stop no, because he never does. He is just something that things happen to. And now he is going to the Murphy's for dinner. 

"Sorry," says Jared once they're in the car. "I owe you one, dude." 

"You owe me more than one," Evan says back. He immediately feels bad, but Jared just laughs a little uncomfortably and flicks on the radio. 

"Bet Connor eats his steak raw," says Jared, "from a dog bowl." 

Evan thinks of the horrible gluten-free casseroles and all of Mrs. Murphy's experimental cookbooks and canisters of flaxseed and weird types of flour. He remembers sitting in their kitchen and marveling that something as tragic and recognizable as Connor could have existed among the clean surfaces, the sharp edges, the healthy grains. He almost chokes on his sadness. 

He says, "I think they're vegetarians." 

"It was a joke," Jared snaps. After that they drive in silence.

...

Chapter Text

...

As they pull into the Murphy’s driveway, Jared whistles. 

“Jesus. They really are fuckin’ loaded.”

Evan feels uncomfortable. He feels like he’s walking into a haunted house in August. Like, pre-haunting. Before all the windows are punched in and before the walls start bleeding. Zoe and Connor wait for them at the door. Zoe’s holding her guitar case awkwardly as she fumbles with the keys. Evan wants to help, to offer to carry it for her, but he thinks it’s probably safer to pretend he does not exist. He does’t really want Zoe to look at him. 

When they go inside, Zoe and Connor both stop to take off their shoes. They do it naturally, like it’s a habit formed long-ago, and something about it makes Evan want to cry. Then again, a lot of things make Evan want to cry because Evan is Depressed, but still. Something about Connor and Zoe leading them into the kitchen in their socks feels small and tremulous and tragic to Evan. He and Jared linger long enough to toe off their own shoes, eyeing each other uncomfortably, and then they follow.  

“Mom,” Zoe says, “we’re here.”

Mrs. Murphy turns from a casserole dish with a gracious and genuine smile. She’s wearing an apron over her jeans, like the mother in every wholesome family movie Evan’s ever watched. Mrs. Murphy, whose son is Not Dead, is a brighter and cleaner version of the Mrs. Murphy that Evan knows. The Before picture. Evan, who has only ever known the After, stares a little bit. She dries her hands on a dish towel and comes forward to meet them. She stands straighter, even. 

“Jared! We’re so glad you could finally make it!” she says with excitement. “Connor says you’ve been really busy with this club.”

“Yeah, kind of,” says Jared, looking sideways at Connor. “Thank you for having us.”

“Thank you for coming,” she says, with so much sincerity it hurts, and then she gives Jared a big hug. He looks horrified. 

Evan looks at Connor, by mistake, and Connor’s looking back at him. He’s in his socks, a tragic and recognizable thing among the stainless steel appliances. They both look away. 

“Mom,” says Zoe again, “this is Evan.”

Evan is almost surprised to hear his own name. Or maybe just surprised that Zoe knows it. He hunches his shoulders and waves politely. 

“Hi,” he says, “thank you for having me. Sorry to tag along.”

“He’s in my English class,” says Connor, which is even more surprising than hearing Zoe say his name aloud. 

“Yeah,” Evan agrees weakly. 

“Oh! Well, we’re always glad to have friends of Connor’s,” says Mrs. Murphy warmly, and then she’s moving to give Evan a hug, which is really more than he can take. He thinks he might shrivel up, like pouring salt on a slug. 

“I’ll set the table,” Zoe mumbles. She moves away, blocking her mom from hugging Evan, and starts yanking open drawers with poorly-disguised aggression. 

“Evan’s the treasurer of The Jared Project,” Jared says. “He’s good at math.”

“Not really,” Evan says. 

“That’s great!” Mrs. Murphy says. She reaches over to pick a piece of lint off Connor’s outer layer of sweatshirt, but he flinches away. Evan sees the hurt well up in the lines of her insistent smile. “I think it’s such a wonderful idea. I wish I was as creative or thoughtful as you kids back in high school.”

“Oh, well,” Jared says, obviously uncomfortable. “It’s really a team effort.”

Connor moves to the sink and fills a glass with tap water. He drains it with his back towards them, shoulders sharp. Zoe slams a plate down onto the table. 

“You’re doing something really important,” Mrs. Murphy tells Jared sincerely. “I really mean that, honey. I don’t know a lot of high schoolers like you.”

“Jesus, Mom, reign it in,” says Connor, voice dead, still at the sink. “He’s underaged.”

“Connor, that’s- I don’t like that joke.“

“It wasn’t a joke.”

“Something funny happened in jazz band rehearsal today,” Zoe says loudly. “Mr. Bernitt was saying how-“

“Connor, put out an extra chair for Evan. No, Evan, don’t apologize, sweetie. We’re happy to have you.”

“I’ll help with napkins,” Jared volunteers. Connor doesn’t move from the sink. He fills his cup again.

 "I'm really sorry," Evan says. "I don't have to-" 

“-he used to be really into the grunge scene during the nineties and-“

 “Nonsense. We have more than enough vegetarian lasagna. It’s gluten-free, too. I hope you boys don’t mind that. I’ve been reading some really interesting studies on gluten’s impact on mood. It’s been linked to- Don’t make that face, Connor.”

“This is just my face.”

 “Connor, the nutritionist recommended that- Please try and have a good attitude about this, honey.”

 “Sorry. Maybe I accidentally ate some gluten and that’s why I feel super fucking bummed out about this shitty lasagna.”

 "Don’t use that kind of language, Connor.“

“I’m not hungry anyway.” 

“Stop being such a fucking dick,” Zoe explodes suddenly, slamming down a dinner plate so hard she sets the whole table rattling. 

 “Language!” 

“Mom! He’s being a total asshole! You can’t just let him-“

“Zoe, I really don’t need your-“

 Jared starts pretending to be preoccupied with making sure he folds his napkin just right, lining up each of the corners precisely and smoothing the creases with his thumbnail. Evan, itchy and starting to sweat, stares at the magnets on the fridge with every bit of concentration his broken brain has.  

“How is this my fault? You never-“

“Zoe, I don’t need-“

 The front door opens and Mrs. Murphy abruptly stops talking. She gathers her face into a tight smile. She smooths down her apron. 

 “Hi,” Mr. Murphy calls. 

“Hi!” Mrs. Murphy calls back. “Connor brought friends home for dinner!”

“Oh!” says Mr. Murphy. 

He says it with a horrible, accidental tone of surprise. Everybody goes stiff with embarrassment, like maybe someone's burped and they’re all just too polite to acknowledge it. Evan looks at Connor despite himself, but Connor just has a dull, blank sort of look on his face. He’s drinking another cup of water mechanically, folded inward under seven layers of sweatshirts. Probably he didn’t even hear. 

"Hi, boys," Mr. Murphy says, poking his head into the room. "Great to meet you. Let me run upstairs and change." 

"Nice to meet you," says Jared, doing a stupid little wave. 

“I’ll get forks,” Evan mumbles. It’s hard to look Mr. Murphy in the face without remembering what a crushing disappointment Evan was to him. He moves to the cutlery drawer and grabs a handful of silverware. 

“Everything smells great, Mrs. Murphy," says Jared, going back to very busily folding napkins. 

 “Thank you, boys,” she says, with this horrible edge to her gratitude that is almost as obvious and sad as Mr. Murphy's surprise was. Connor wasn't invited to a single bat mitzvah. Connor doesn't have friends over to dinner. “Connor, get the extra chair for Evan, please.”

Connor obeys. Zoe pours everyone glasses of cold water from the pitcher in the fridge with the Britta filter — only poor people drink tap water — and then she helps Evan put out the forks and knives. And it’s quiet. 

“What were- You were saying- about your jazz band rehearsal?” Evan asks quietly. Zoe shakes her head. 

“It doesn’t matter.”

They sit down at the dinner table with Mr. Murphy at the head and Mrs. Murphy at the foot and a bowl of salad in the middle and there's butter for the bread and the water from the Britta filter is cold, and it would all be very Norman Rockwell if it wasn't so weird and sad. Mrs. Murphy is smiling so hard that it’s a wonder her teeth don’t crack.

The lasagna is, admittedly, somewhat of a bummer. It doesn’t taste bad, really; it just doesn’t taste like lasagna. But Evan definitely owes Mrs. Murphy, like, some sort of moral debt. He lied about her dead son. She almost paid his college tuition for him. The least he can do is eat a second helping of her weird, pasty lasagna. 

“It’s really good,” he says as she scoops it onto his plate. “Thank you.”

Connor rolls his eyes. Zoe chases a carrot around her plate, mouth fixed downward. 

Mr. Murphy asks Jared and Evan lots of stern, Dad-like questions about school and college and what do your parents do and what are your plans for after college, but Jared is weirdly good at talking with adults and so Evan lets him talk. Mostly he just focuses on making sure that his mouth is literally always full of lasagna so that he can’t answer any questions. Zoe and Connor don’t talk at all. And it’s-

Evan has only ever been in this kitchen Post-Connor, before tonight. Maybe it shouldn’t surprise him how very Bad things are, but it does. Every night that he used to come here and eat dinner with the Murphys and do homework on Zoe’s bed and talk about Connor, he thought about the perfect family that Connor left behind and the senselessness of it, how hard Mrs. Murphy was trying and how perfectly Dad-like Mr. Murphy was. He was so envious of this perfect life, this life that Connor had not appreciated.  

But the lasagna doesn’t taste like lasagna and Zoe and Connor don’t talk — and really Mrs. Murphy doesn’t either. Evan chews and realizes that he has not really saved the Murphy family after all. 

“We were thinking about a school-wide assembly or something,” Jared is saying as he squishes lasagna through the tines of his fork. “To, like, raise awareness. And then Alana has some ideas about a fundraiser for the community. Maybe a walk-a-thon or something.”

"That sounds great," says Mrs. Murphy with energy. "Maybe you could rent the lot where they do the firemen's carnival. Or you know what would be great? The old apple orchard. Did you ever go there? Fall-No, autumn-" 

"I didn't go outside much as a child," Jared says apologetically. 

"Autumn Smile Orchard," says Evan automatically, then flinches. 

"That's it," Mrs. Murphy agrees. "We used to go there every fall. Remember that, Connor, Zoe?" 

"No," Connor says. 

"Yeah," says Zoe at the same time, "we used to fly planes-" 

"You don't remember?” 

Connor shrugs at his mother's wounded expression. 

“Smoking all those drugs probably killed my brain cells," he says apologetically. 

"Connor, don't be disrespectful to your mother-"

"Oh, shit, are you talking to me again? Or is this just a one night event so you don’t scare away my new friends-“ 

“Connor, language-“

“Connor, don’t start-“ 

"I've never been," Evan blurts, panicking. It's a mistake. Everybody's looking at him then. The lasagna is sticking to his esophagus like Elmer's glue. Every bit of sweat in his body has crept out through his pores, probably, and if somebody tapped him on the shoulder right now he would crumble into dehydrated dust. “To the- to the orchard, I mean. I've never been but I heard it's- that it used to be amazing there."  

It’s silent. 

"Evan's really into trees," Jared says. 

"Oh," says Mrs. Murphy, "that's nice." 

“Really,” Jared says significantly, “into trees.”

“Not really-“ Evan protests. “Just the- I like trees a- a normal amount."

Connor bursts out laughing so violently that everybody in the room startles, as if somebody smashed a glass or slammed a door. As if a ghost just appeared, maybe. Everybody goes tense. And then Jared laughs a little bit, too, awkwardly. Evan can’t bring himself to laugh, but he tries for a smile and gulps his water, averting his eyes. 

Connor, laughing, is something that’s hard to look at. It’s like watching a dead thing reanimate, or watching one of those time-lapse videos in reverse, watching something old become young again. He laughs with his mouth open and his eyes shut. His whole face screws up with the force of it. 

“What’s the joke?” Mr. Murphy asks, smiling uncertainly at Connor’s mirth. 

“Never mind,” says Connor, but the smile lines don’t immediately dissolve. He ducks his head and starts prodding at his food again. 

“Okay,” says Mrs. Murphy, a little bit looser, eyes devouring the laughter lines of her son’s face. “More lasagna?”

And Evan can’t say no, obviously, so he finds himself eating a third serving of pasty, limp lasagna. Connor goes back to silence, but his laughter haunts the room. 

 ...

After dinner, Evan offers to do dishes but he is shouted down by both Mr. and Mrs. Murphy, who assert that they are Just So Happy to Have You, Honey, and then stare meaningfully at Connor until he blinks blankly at them both.  

“What?”

“Why don’t you take your friends downstairs,” Mrs. Murphy says, “and you guys can play one of those awful video games or something?”

“I thought,” says Connor, “that I had lost that privilege.”

“Connor,” says Mrs. Murphy. 

“I actually have to go,” says Jared with an unconvincing air of regret. “I forgot that I was supposed to meet Alana for- about-“

“Oh,” says Mrs. Murphy, disappointed.

“Oh,” says Evan, starting to stand. His hip bumps the table and nearly topples Zoe’s glass of water. “Sorry, sorry, sorry- I- I guess I should- Thank you for having-“

“Oh, you don’t have to go, honey!” Mrs. Murphy protests, even more dismayed. “I made brownies!”

“I-“

“I drove him here,” says Jared, finally rescuing Evan. “He doesn’t drive.”

“It’s not that I don’t-“

“Well Connor can drive you home later!” Mrs. Murphy says, suddenly bright again. “No trouble at all!”

“I thought,” says Connor again, “that I had lost that privilege.”

“Jesus, Cynthia,” says Mr. Murphy impatiently. “Don’t make the kid feel like he has to stay.”

“I wasn’t-“

“She’s not-“

 “Thanks, Dad,” says Connor dully. 

“I don’t mind staying,” Evan hears himself say through the queasy panic that’s making his cheeks go hot and red. “Thank you. That’d be- good.”

 Jared gives him a funny look, but he doesn’t offer a life raft. He just hugs Mrs. Murphy and shakes Mr. Murphy’s hand and tries to fist bump Connor, which Connor ignores. He waves awkwardly at Zoe and Evan. And then he leaves. 

“I have homework,” says Zoe. She clears her plate and leaves. 

“Connor,” says Mrs. Murphy, “show Evan the basement. I’ll bring down some brownies in a little bit. I made them with chickpeas, Evan, but I swear you can’t tell. It’s a great substitute for flour.” 

“Sounds great,” Evan says as sincerely as he can. He follows Connor towards the basement door, stopping in the stairwell to turn back and smile queasily at Mrs. Murphy. “Thank you again for everything.”

 “No trouble at all,” she say with so much sincerity that he has to turn away. 

 The basement is freezing cold and all the furniture holds a slight, skunk-y smell of pot. There’s a big television and a drum set and a couple guitars — presumably Zoe’s — and a comfy old sectional that Connor throws himself down onto. Evan stands awkwardly at the bottom of the stairs. 

HIs phone buzzes with a text from Jared — dude wtf I was giving us an escape??? now you’re making me look like the asshole who had to skip dessert

“I can just drive you home now,” Connor says without looking at him. 

“I- Oh, okay,” Evan stammers. “Yeah, if that’s what you- Yeah.”

 “Just wait five minutes until she goes upstairs, so she won’t see us leaving.”

 Another text — can I do the dishes? Can I have fourth helpings of lasagna? jeez Evan who knew you were so good at getting parents wet

Evan shuts his phone and stuffs it into his pocket. 

 “I- Okay,” he says. “Or actually I could- I could just walk. Home. I mean. It’s not that- it’s not far.”

“It’s fine,” says Connor. “I’m not normally allowed to drive, so I don’t mind the excuse.”

“Okay,” Evan says uncertainly. 

 “Unless you- I mean, unless you don’t want to wait. I promise it’ll just be like five minutes. She usually showers after dinner.” 

Connor looks a little less dead-eyed and indifferent then, a little more uncomfortable and anxious. Evan remembers him tipping back and forth on his heels in the computer room, holding out the sheaf of papers, so obviously out-of-practice with reaching out. He feels something sharp and sad behind his ribs. 

“I don’t- I don’t mind waiting,” he says. 

“Okay,” Connor says, looking slightly unconvinced. “If you’re sure.”

“Yeah,” says Evan. He moves to sit awkwardly at the other end of the couch. The smell of weed is stronger. “Your parents are really nice." 

“The chickpea brownies taste like ass,” Connor says, ignoring this. “So don’t get your hopes up. Want to play Call of Duty or something?”

“I’m like- really bad.”

Connor shrugs. “I don’t care. It’s just a dumb game.”

“I have shaky hands,” Evan says. Connor looks at him oddly, and then he shrugs. He puts on South Park instead. 

When Mrs. Murphy brings down the brownies, she stops at the bottom of the stairs and looks at them for a second, head cocked, mouth in a happy-sad little smile like she’s looking at a piece of art that she doesn’t really understand. 

“Mom,” says Connor, eyes on the screen, “stop.”

“I have brownies,” she says, reanimating and getting bright and cheery again. She brings over a plate with napkins and glasses of milk. 

“Thank you,” Evan says at once. 

“No trouble, honey,” she says. “I’m sorry that they’re- You really don’t taste the chickpeas.”

Connor makes a skeptical noise. 

“I like chickpeas,” says Evan. 

Mrs. Murphy stops at the bottom of the stairs and does another happy-sad smile at them, squinting like the sun’s in her eyes. 

“Well I’m glad,” she says. “You’re welcome here anytime, Evan.”

And she goes up the stairs. 

Evan eats a brownie. It doesn’t taste bad, but it doesn’t taste good. The texture is grainy and odd in his mouth. He must make an expression of dismay because Connor cackles. 

“Told you.”

“It’s not bad.”

“It’s bad.“ He switches off the tv. “C’mon, I’ll drive you home.”

 …

 Connor is a better driver than Jared, but only marginally. Evan tries not to be obvious as he clutches the sides of his seat. It’s funny because you might think that being Clinically Depressed would make you, like, more inclined to take risks. Less regard for your own life, etc. But that would be too convenient, obviously. Evan spends every day watching his anxiety and depression play ping-pong with his thoughts, bouncing back and forth between the desire to be Not Alive and the paralyzing fear of being Dead, and frankly his neck is tired.  

“How come you can’t drive?” Connor asks, performing what would charitably be considered a rolling-stop at a stop sign.  

“I can drive,” Evan says. “I just don’t- like to.”

"I love driving," Connor says. 

“How come you can’t? Or- Sorry. If that's-too personal."  

Connor makes a turn without signaling. He does a little coughing laugh. 

“You've seen us scream at each other during family dinner," he says. "Doesn't get much more personal than that." 

"I- sorry again for-" 

"I invited you," Connor says rudely, "so stop with that shit." 

"Sorry." 

"I'm not allowed to drive because they don't like not knowing where I am." 

 "Okay." 

Connor doesn't say anything else. The silence is even worse than the forced conversation because it gives Evan time to think about that night in the park or that night on the steps. He knows. He's going to try again. He knows. He's going to try again. 

 He checks his phone, trying to appear comfortable with the quiet, but it’s a mistake because there’s another text from Jared — why were you invited anyway? no offense but I didn’t know you and Connor talked. 

Evan puts his phone away, feeling anxiety pulling his limbs tight like yarn, like puppet strings. He knows he knows he knows he knows— 

"It's actually pretty funny," he says, flailing to break the silence, "why I can't drive. Or- why I don't drive. Driving makes me, like, nervous." 

"You? Nervous?" Connor says flatly. 

 It would be a joke coming from a friend, but Connor isn't that. It hurts in a dull, uncomfortable way - like catching an unexpected glimpse of yourself in a mirror or a window reflection and realizing this is how strangers must see you, hunched and awkward. Evan emits a choking sort of laugh, miserable. 

"Every time I hit a pothole or a bump I get really paranoid that I actually hit someone, like a- like a person, like a pedestrian. And I have to turn around and go back and make sure there's nobody, like, there." 

"Jesus," says Connor. Then, "That's not really funny." 

 "No," Evan agrees. 

They turn into Evan's neighborhood. They pass the playground, headlights catching on the swings for just a second. Evan flinches, eyes squinting shut. 

"You're pretty fucked up, huh?" Connor observes. 

For some reason, Evan laughs. He wonders if he’s talking to a ghost. He wonders if ghosts can drive. If Evan was a ghost, would he still be too paralyzingly anxious to drive? Actually, the whole prospect of a ghostly afterlife is disappointing to Evan, because the appealing thing about being Not Alive is that you stop Being. He didn’t sign up to keep existing after death. 

"Sorry you had to come tonight,” says Connor, quieter. When Evan looks over at him, he’s looking straight ahead. The streetlight shining through the window catches in the messy, slept-on hair at the back of Connor’s head.

"I didn't mind," Evan says, looking away in something like terror. "It's a- a left up there, yeah." 

"I know the neighborhood," Connor says. "I used to take piano lessons from a lady who lived over here."

"Oh." 

"She had a lot of birds." 

 "That's- cool?" 

"Birds smell so fuckin' bad," Connor says. "Do I just go straight or-" 

"It's on the right over- Yeah." 

They pull into the Hansen's driveway. Evan is acutely aware, then, of how small and squat and dated it is. It’s been a chilly, rainy September and the yard really needs to be raked. Everything looks gray and soggy. He's glad his mom isn't home, at least, so their shitty car isn't in the driveway. 

 "Thanks for the ride," he says hastily, unbuckling his seatbelt. 

"Yeah," says Connor. “Thanks for coming.“ 

“Yeah.” 

Connor pulls away as soon as Evan reaches the front porch. The house is quiet and dark. No Mom. No ghosts of not-dead boys. There’s another text from Jared — what was the math hw? (when you’re done sucking the Murphy’s dicks, of course, take ur time dude)

Evan can’t tell if he’s actually mad or just joking or what. He’s bad at reading tone. Texts, according to the Anti-Bullying assembly they had a few weeks ago, are bad at conveying tone. Also Evan is bad at deciphering if people harbor ill will against him or if his brain is just fucking with him again. Tonight he is too tired to do anything but text Jared the math assignment — pg 171, all of column 2 — and then he takes a shower and gets into bed, because that’s what his body is programmed to do. 

His stomach hurts. Possibly Evan’s lifestyle of constant lies and intrigue is catching up with him and he’s developing ulcers. Possibly Evan’s physical form isn’t made to exist in an alternate reality and is starting to deteriorate. Possibly the unbearable sadness of the Murphy family is weighing on him. Possibly it’s just the three helpings of lasagna. 

There are no ghosts tonight, but it takes Evan a long time to fall asleep. 

 …

Chapter Text

...

On Friday morning Evan's mom announces that she's skipping class tonight -- she calls it "playing hooky" and smiles all mischievous every time she says it -- and that they're going to have a Family Night. 

"You can invite your friends," she says, "if you want!" 

Evan thinks about inviting Jared or maybe even Alana or, worse, Connor Murphy. He ducks his head and watches his cereal go soggy. 

"Yeah," he says. "Maybe." 

"I'm going to put everything in the crock pot this morning," his mom says, cutting carrots cheerfully, "and turn it on before I leave. It'll cook all day and when we come home the house will smell amazing. Pretty good, huh?" 

"Pretty good," Evan echoes. 

"And then maybe we can work on some of those scholarship essays," she says, trying to be casual. "I know we've both been so busy. I think we deserve a night off." 

"Yeah, okay. Yeah, sounds- Sounds good." 

...

Jared and Alana are waiting by Evan’s locker when he gets to school. Well, no. They’re standing at Jared’s locker, which happens to be right near Evan’s, so they’re standing in Evan’s proximity. He likes to pretend they’re waiting for him, but probably they would stand in that exact spot and argue, even if Evan’s locker was across the hall, even if Evan didn’t exist at all. 

“Hey, Evan,” Jared says abruptly, interrupting Alana to knock his knuckles against Evan’s locker door, “you need a mint?”

“What?”

“From all that ass-kissing,” Jared says, grinning. “Must be a hell of a taste.”

It’s a joke. Jared’s been full of them ever since Wednesday night. Mostly they’re good-natured, albeit slightly resentful. Evan tries to grin back because that’s the easiest way to diffuse Jared, but he is struck with the sudden panic that maybe his breath actually is bad. He can’t think of a discrete way to check. He’ll have to stop at a vending machine before class and buy gum, but what if his change gets stuck or what if there’s a line and then he’s late to class and-

“I still wish you’d invited me,” Alana is saying. “I’m co-president, you know.”

“I said I was sorry,” Evan mumbles to Jared, trying to smell his own breath. “I was just being polite.”

“It was a Guys Being Dudes thing,” Jared tells Alana. “You wouldn’t get it.”

“Sounds toxic,” says Alana. “Evan, your breath is fine. Stop doing that.”

“I’m not-“

“I was just kidding,” says Jared. “You guys can’t take a joke.”

“Jared was saying that the Murphy’s really liked the walkathon idea?” Alana tells Evan, but she phrases it like a question, like she doesn’t trust Jared’s word.  

They did!” Jared protests, a little impatient. “They even recommended the- what’s it? The orchard?”

“Oh, yeah,” Evan says. “Some orchard.”

“You knew it,” he persists. “The Orchard Smile?”

“Something like that,” Evan says. 

“Oh, The Autumn Smile Orchard,” Alana says knowledgeably. “We went there on a class trip in fourth grade. One of the girls broke her arm trying to climb a tree.”

“Sure it wasn’t Evan?” Jared says, jostling Evan in the side with his elbow. 

“Ow,” Evan says. 

“I think it’s closed down now,” Alana says. “The high school track is probably a better option.”

"Or," Jared counters, "we could put some of the auction money into fixing the place up." 

"What?" Evan says. 

"Didn't you check your email? I forwarded it to you," Alana chides. 

"I told you nobody uses email, dude. We're seventeen." 

"Well the principal uses email," Alana counters snootily, "and he emailed us -- well, me specifically -- saying that the school board chose us as the charity for this year's silent auction." 

"Oh," Evan says, "really?" 

"It's next week," Jared adds. "They pick a school-affiliated cause each year so the rich parents can get drunk and spend a ton of money on coupon books and couples massages. And half of it goes to a charitable club so that they can funnel the money right back into the school." 

"It's for charity," Alana disagrees. 

"It's sketchy, if you ask me." 

"Well luckily nobody did. Half of the money raised goes to The Jared Project! That is huge news! Think of the boost to our credibility!" 

"We're credible as fuck," Jared agrees, not quite succeeding in masking his enthusiasm. "We just have to give a quick presentation at the start of the silent auction." 

"I think Jared should speak," Alana says. "I know I'm the trained public speaker, but I think Jared will be more authentic." 

"Authentic as fuck," Jared agrees. 

"That's really good news," Evan ventures. 

"It is," Alana beams, "great news." 

“I can drive you home after the meeting if you want,” Jared tells Evan as they approach the classroom. He's barely slouching at all and for once he's not glancing around the room in disinterest, which means he is in a really good mood. "But I have to stop on the way home and buy bread.”

“Okay.”

“Don’t let me forget about the bread, for real. My mom will kill me.”

“Okay.”

The bell rings. Evan doesn’t get his gum and he spends the whole class with his mouth sealed shut, breathing through his nose, just in case 

Connor isn’t here today. He’s not in English, which should be a relief, but instead Evan has to keep checking over his shoulder, just to reassure himself that there is nobody there, no slumped-over figure in the back corner of the room. He is waiting for the jump-scare, for the hand to grab his ankle, but instead they take a vocab quiz and watch a movie. It’s raining outside. 

Alana is waiting at Evan's locker at the end of the day and she's got a small, pocket-sized marble notebook with her for some reason and when she sees Evan she flicks on a fluorescent smile and holds the notebook out towards him. 

"This is for you!" 

Evan flinches back a little bit. He stares at her. 

"What?" 

“For your treasurer work. I find that it's really helpful to have a pocket-sized notebook so you can carry it with you anywhere," Alana says with enthusiasm. "You never know when a budgeting emergency will arrive, especially now that we've got a lot of donations coming our way." 

"That's- true," Evan concedes. He takes the notebook. It's green. 

"My dad always used to keep a notebook like this for when he paid bills," Alana says. "He's a very organized man." 

"Yes," Evan agrees, which doesn't really make sense but makes Alana, who likes to be agreed with, happy. She smiles bigger at him.

"So you'll use if?" 

"Use- Yeah, yes. Thank you."

"It's no trouble! We’re glad to have you aboard,” she says importantly. Then, attention shifting, “Oh! Jared! I was looking for you.”

There’s a groan from behind Evan. “Can you be chill for one minute, Alana?”

Alana ignores this, moving away from Evan to talk rapidly at Jared. Evan packs his books with his head down, wondering if he has the guts to skip The Jared Project and just go home and take a depression nap. There’s a letter in his locker from the Project, written in unfamiliar handwriting. Evan thinks of the last letter, of Zoe’s loopy, girly handwriting, and feels a little queasy. He tucks the new envelope into his bag and slams his locker door. Jared is standing behind the door, closer than Evan expected. He yelps a little bit. 

Jared laughs unkindly. 

“Don’t do that!”

“You’re so twitchy,” Jared says, which is a pretty common refrain, but usually it’s delivered with a little more affection, or at least with a less obvious sneer. 

“You are pretty easily startled,” Alana agrees as they start towards the Jared Project classroom. “You should try to cut back on stress, Evan. Have you ever tried yoga?”

Jared laughs again, with that same nasty edge to it. Evan feels himself wilting, edges getting damp and curling in. 

“I’m not really- I just have a lot going on.”

“I don’t know, Evan,” Jared says. “It could be healthy. You could start really living your truth.”

“What?” Evan looks at Jared blankly. They’re standing outside the door of the Jared Project now, but Jared doesn’t move to step in. He’s giving Evan a funny, pinched-in look. This morning's cheer is completely gone from his posture. 

“Because you’re all about the truth, right, Evan?”

“What-“

“It was just a suggestion,” Alana says, bewildered. 

“We’re late,” Jared says, and shoulders past them both into the classroom. 

“That was weird, right?” Alana says. “I know I’m not the best at picking that stuff up, but-“

“It was weird,” Evan confirms. He feels like he is going to die, maybe. He wants to sit down before his legs buckle entirely.

Connor isn’t at The Jared Project meeting either. It should be a relief, but somehow Evan only feels worse. Maybe Connor’s dead. Maybe he’s been dead this whole time, and it was a ghost that drove Evan home on Wednesday. Maybe Evan is dead. Maybe he climbed ten feet higher in that tree this summer and maybe he hit the ground a little harder and all this has just been… the After. 

"This is a really incredible opportunity to raise the Project's credibility and profile within the larger school community,” Alana is saying, “and to start raising money. Any money we raise will either be donated or sunk back into the Project, to make the walkathon an even greater success. The only thing is that it's next week AN the principal asked for us to prepare a quick presentation at the start of the auction to explain The Jared Project's mission, so we need to get right to work. I think today we need to think about the message we’re trying to convey with our club." 

“In a non-preachy, non-Lifetime movie type of way.”

"Maybe everyone take a partner and do some brainstorming? And we can reconvene in like twenty minutes?"

"But in a fun, chill way," Jared adds, "not like homework."

A couple people laugh. Jared looks pleased. He will not meet Evan's eye and then he's pointing across the circle and asking Matt if he wants to partner up and Evan is suddenly aware that he doesn't have a partner because he doesn’t have any friends, really, just some people who stand next to him sometimes. 

"Hey," says a soft voice, "wanna partner up?” 

It's Zoe, obviously - kind, wonderful, Just Right Zoe. With her hands that are never sweaty and she's wearing a big old jean jacket that makes her look like she belongs in a Gap magazine or maybe on the cover of a John Denver album, but in a cute and endearing and shockingly pretty way. 

"If you want to," Evan says uneasily. 

"Cool," says Zoe, and then she's pulling her chair over like the most natural thing in the world. "How are you doing?" 

"Oh, uh. Good. I'm- thank you." 

"Do you have any ideas?" 

"For- Oh, for the auction? No, I- I'm not good at ideas."

"Well I bet that's not true," Zoe laughs. She twirls a piece of hair between her fingers while she's thinking. She frowns down at her notebook. "Maybe we could just, like, make a list of things we think are important to emphasize?" 

Evan agrees to this, obviously. Zoe puts her head down and taps a pen against her lip, so Evan immediately has to look away because it feels rude and invasive to look at Zoe's lips. Jared and Matt are sitting across the circle. Jared catches Evan's eye, gives him a weird frown, and turns away. Evan stares down at his notebook some more. 

Zoe isn't writing either, just doodling on the knee of her jeans. 

"Sorry for the super weird dinner the other night," she says abruptly, head down. "My family's a little-" 

"No, it was-" 

"-fucked right now." 

"I had a nice time." 

Zoe makes a skeptical noise. She scribbles a star on the corner of her notebook page. Evan writes down a few half-hearted notes. 

"Where's- Connor didn't come today?" he hears himself ask in a painfully obvious attempt at sounding casual. 

"No," Zoe affirms. "He had some doctor's appointments. He hasn't been- feeling well." 

She sits up a little straighter then and frowns at him. Evan feels someone pull a panic alarm behind his ribs. 

"Do you remember the first day of school? You came up to me and asked if Connor was doing okay."

"Yeah," Evan says, a pulse ticking in his eyelid. He has to grit his jaw to stop his face from twitching uncontrollably. 

"Why did you- I didn't know that-" 

"Maybe we should just work on the prompt," Evan says. Zoe looks at him for a second, a little wild in the eyes. Then her shoulders sag. 

"Okay," she says. She scribbles another star, a little more violently. "What is the message of the club?" 

"I guess being- like, reminding people they aren't alone. That they're being heard and- and seen?" 

"Okay," Zoe says, writing. "Because it's- What, because it's easy to feel, like- not seen?" 

"Lost," Evan says, despite himself. 

"Lost," Zoe agrees, eyes a little softer on his face. She writes the word lost in all caps in her notebook. "So the Project is saying- saying that you'll be heard, you'll be seen, you'll be-" 

"Found," Evan says. 

"You'll be found," Zoe repeats quietly. “Hmm.” 

She writes that down. She underlines it. She looks up at Evan and smiles encouragingly. 

"Okay. That's a good start. Keep talking, Mr. I'm Not Good At Ideas. I'll take notes." 

Zoe is a good listener and a fast writer. She takes notes, nods when Evan talks, and does this endearing thing where she nods even faster and widens her eyes when she especially agrees with what he's saying. She is a little bit hesitant to contribute at first, but everything she says is thoughtful and eloquent and right. Evan nearly forgot just how perfectly she fit. 

"This is, like, really good," she says, as the meeting ends. "You should give this speech." 

"Give it- What, like, to Jared? To-" 

"No, like you should speak," Zoe says, "at the auction. You should read this speech. It's really good." 

"You wrote it, too," he protests. 

"You said all the best parts. All the stuff about, like, being found. That was all you." 

She's looking at him with this bright, terrible energy, like she believes in him, in his ability to stand in front of a crowd and not immediately vomit. It makes Evan think of his mom, of the way her face lights up when he lies to her. It makes Evan think of sitting on Connor's bed, telling Zoe lies about her dead brother, shaping him into someone she could mourn. Evan is just really good at scamming people into thinking he's more than he is, apparently. This hopefulness never comes from a place of truth, really, and it never lasts. 

"I'm not good at public speaking," he says. 

"Think about it," Zoe insists, and then she's forcing the pieces of crumpled notebook paper into his hands. She kinda grabs his hands around the paper. There's a crinkling of paper. If Evan wasn't immediately paralyzed by her touch, he would flinch away. "You have important things to say. I- People like- People need to hear that they're not-" 

"Evan," Jared interrupts, "am I driving you home or what?" 

"Oh," Evan says. "Yeah, if- Sorry. You don't have to- Sorry." 

"I know I don't have to," Jared says, peeved. "Let's go." 

They don't talk the whole ride home. Jared forgets to stop and get bread and Evan is too anxious to remind him until they're pulling into his driveway. Jared swears loudly. 

"Sorry," Evan says again. He unbuckled his seatbelt and reaches for the door. "Thanks for- Thank you for the ride." 

"Yeah," Jared says. He pauses, then says, "I can't keep driving you home, though. I have homework." 

Evan's hand freezes on the door handle. His stomach does a cold, horrified swoop, then he's fumbling his way out of the car as fast as he can. He's such a fucking inconvenience. 

"Yeah of course- Don't even worry about- I'm sorry if I-" 

"Maybe you can ask the Murphys to drive you home, since you guys are such good friends now." 

This stops Evan entirely. He turns back to Jared. 

"What? I- I said I was sorry about the other night. I just didn't want to be rude-" 

"You said you were cool with this," Jared interrupts, suddenly furious. Evan stares. 

"With- what? With- I don't need you to drive me home. I can- I-" 

"Never mind," Jared cuts him off. "I have to go buy bread." 

"Okay, I- Sorry if-" 

"Bye." 

"Okay, bye."

Jared drives away before Evan even reaches his porch. 

Family Night is, frankly, a little bit of a bust. When Evan finally manages to unlock the front door, hands a little shaky and brain a little fogged, he drops his backpack at the door and goes right upstairs and puts his face in his pillow and thinks vaguely about the concept of being Not Alive and all the Fun and Exciting Possibilities that this concept would entail. He doesn’t notice that the house is not perfumed with the smell of chili that’s been cooking all day, as promised, until his mom gets home and makes a noise of dismay. 

“I turned it on and everything,” she says, distressed, prodding at the cold chili with a finger. “I don’t-“

Evan reaches behind the crockpot and silently holds up the cord, which has not been plugged into the outlet. 

“Oh,” she says, and it’s actually the worst and most heartbreaking thing Evan has ever seen. The deep and heavy unhappiness that’s been pounding in his chest all day like a bass gets heavier, louder, more gravely. He can practically feel it vibrating in his breast bone. 

“Plug it in now. We can have a late dinner,” he says, but she’s already shaking her head. 

“I have to go into work at eight,” she says. “I know I said we’d work on the essays, but the schedule got switched and-“

“It’s fine,” Evan interrupts quickly. 

“It’s not fine!” she wails. 

“It’s fine. We can order a pizza.”

“You shouldn’t eat so much pizza! All you eat is pizza! What kind of mother-“

“I like pizza,” Evan promises. “We can get a salad, too.”

She keeps standing there, shoulders slumped unhappily with a finger in the cold chili. Evan feels like if he doesn’t burst into motion and fix everything and make sure she never looks like this again that he legitimately might die. 

“Pizza,” he coaxes. “I’ll get the menu, but you have to call.”

She’s too deflated and upset to protest that Evan needs to learn to talk on the phone and yes she’s perfectly capable of ordering the pizza, but where is the learning and growing experience in that and isn’t Dr. Sherman always talking about growth opportunities, Evan? She dials the number and orders the pizza and goes to take a shower after apologizing five more times. Maybe being over-apologetic is hereditary after all. 

Evan spends the whole time she’s in the shower worrying that the pizza will come before she gets out of the shower and he’ll have to pay for the pizza and give the delivery person a tip and he doesn’t have any cash on him, which means he’ll have to dig through his mom’s purse for cash and it will take too long and he will inevitably make a joke that does not land and his hands will be sweaty when he hands over the money. He has to go take his inhaler and by the time he gets back the pizza is here and his mother is at the door paying for it. 

They eat. She apologizes some more. Evan says it's okay some more. She makes him promise to work on his scholarship essays, tells him to leave them on the kitchen counter or email them to her and she’ll read the during her coffee break, kisses him on the cheek, and leaves for work. 

Evan puts the leftover pizza in the refrigerator. He knows he should work on his scholarship essays, but he can’t think of a single thing to write about. He can’t think of a single thing worth saying. He thinks if he spoke aloud, nobody would hear it anyway. If he tried to put a pen to paper right now, it wouldn’t make a mark. 

He wonders if he’s a ghost. If he’s been a ghost all along. If the longer he stays in this life — this life that isn’t his own, that he stole — the less and less substantial he becomes. Maybe he’s been dead all along. 

He goes upstairs and looks in his closet and peeks out his window, looking for The Ghost of Connor Murphy, to ask him if someone could be dead and not know it, but he isn’t there. He finds a SuperBall in the corner of his closet and it makes him stomach turn a little queasily. He puts the ball on top of his bureau, so he can give it back if The Ghost of Connor Murphy ever returns. 

He reads his The Jared Project letter, but it's unfamiliar and insincere - I don't know you that well, but I think it's cool that you're helping Jared and Alana with this club - and just makes him think about last week's letter, from Zoe. He doesn't want to think about Zoe. 

He almost texts Jared — what did I do to make you hate me again? Or did you just never stop hating me and I didn’t notice? I’m sorry for making you drive me home — but stops himself. 

He very deliberately does not think about killing himself, thank you very much, not even in the normal hypothetical kind of way, because he thinks he might be in what Dr. Sherman calls a Destructive Headspace, Evan. One of those headspace where you don’t realize you’ve started climbing a tree until you’re halfway up and your palms are scraped bloody. He doesn’t trust himself right now. 

He tries to write a letter to himself, but it quickly devolves into self-destruction and makes him think of that first letter, that letter they thought was Connor’s, so he ends up crumpling it up and shoving it deep into his backpack where it will never resurface.  

He takes his meds. He checks in his closet one more time. He goes to bed. 

Sometime past midnight, he's woken by a rhythmic thud that he could swear is a SuperBall bouncing off his ceiling, but when he turns on the light there's nobody there. 

Chapter Text

Connor’s wearing the tie, the tie he was supposed to wear to all those bat mitzvahs, the tie that Mrs. Murphy gave Evan and that Evan wore the night his speech went viral. Only now Connor isn’t dead and he’s wearing the tie. It looks better on Connor, obviously, because Connor has a weirdly delicate neck and doesn’t radiate discomfort and moisture the way Evan does. He just looks disgruntled and cranky and angular, much skinnier now that he’s not wearing approximately seven extra layers of sweatshirt. He gives Evan a flat, questioning look when he catches him staring, but Evan can’t help but keep glancing over. He remembers that tie. He can’t stop looking at that tie. 

“How are we doing on programs?” Alana asks, whisking by, a whirlwind of efficiency and long hair. She’s in a floral dress and it makes her look a little more vulnerable than usual, maybe. Evan wants to tell her she looks nice, but is obviously too socially incapable. He consults the stack of programs in his hands, welcoming parents to the 17th Annual Charity Auction. 

“I think we should be good,” he tells her. 

“Great!” she says. “I have to go check out the sound situation. I know the AV club is supposed to be managing things, but they’re a bunch of stoners. I’m not an expert, but I know the basics. I’ve run sound for a couple of community productions.”

“Of course you have,” Connor says. 

It comes out surly, but Alana seems to take it as a compliment. She gives him a bright smile, aloft on her wave of accomplishment, and then she’s whirling away. They watch her go. 

“She should wear roller-skates,” Connor says. 

“I bet she’s really good at rollerskating, too,” Evan agrees, and Connor does another frightening and sudden laugh. It seems to take them both by surprise. They stop talking after that and go back to distributing programs to the parents as they stream in. 

Mr. and Mrs. Murphy arrive early, dressed like a perfect couple from TV. Connor tries to duck into the auditorium, but Mrs. Murphy spots him and hurries over to straighten his tie — the tie she bought him for all the bat mitzvahs he was never invited to, the tie she gave to Evan because her own son was dead — and make disapproving noises about Connor’s fuzzy, messy hair. Mr. Murphy stands a little bit apart from this, looking out of place. Evan feels sad in some deep part of himself. 

“Hi, Evan, honey. How are you?” Mrs. Murphy asks once she’s finished smoothing out Connor’s many rumples. 

“Hi, Mrs. Murphy.” He is startled, despite himself. “I’m- I’m good.”

“Well don’t you look nice-“

Mr. Murphy interrupts, frowning at Evan, “Connor, I told you you should have worn a blazer.”

“It’s not a funeral, Dad. Jesus.” 

“It’s- I think I’m overdressed,” says Evan. He can’t exactly explain that his dress shirt is a little too short at the arms and his wrists stick out the ends, bony and discolored. He can’t explain that if he takes the jacket off now he’s sure his pale blue button-down will be stained dark with sweat. He can’t explain that he’s always dressed just a little bit wrong, no matter how he tries. 

“Nothing wrong with a good blazer,” says Mr. Murphy with stiff, dad-like approval. He nods at Evan. “You look smart.”

Connor, behind his father’s back, seems to get sharper and spindlier underneath his rumpled dress clothes. Evan sweats beneath his blazer. 

“Thank you,” he says. “Do you want a program?”

“Yes, thank you,” says Mrs. Murphy. “Are your parents coming tonight?”

 “No, they’re- My mom has class. She couldn’t- make it.”

“Connor, where’s your sister?” Mr. Murphy asks. 

“Jazz band,” Connor says. “They’re playing during dinner.”

 “We should go find our seats. Connor, be good. Have fun. Evan, it was great seeing you again, honey. I was just telling Connor that you’re welcome for dinner any time. Just let me know ahead of time and I’ll make that lasagna again.”

 “Mom,” says Connor, strained. 

 She laughs, a little bit forced, like isn’t Connor’s faux-venom so charming and delightfully sitcom? But she takes their programs and kisses Connor on his pale, unwilling cheek and then the Murphys leave to find their table. 

 “God,” says Connor. 

 “Sorry about- I- The blazer is really stupid,” Evan says. “I shouldn’t have-“

 “It’s fine.” 

 “I’m overdressed. I look stupid,” Evan says. “Like, like, like it’s a wedding and not some dumb school-“

 “You look fine, dude,” Connor cuts him off. “Nobody cares. Nobody’s looking at you that close. Calm down.” 

Evan’s not sure if Connor means to be comforting or hurtful. It falls somewhere in the middle, but it does seem to work. He sweats a little less profusely after that. They hand out programs in silence until dinner begins. 

There’s a table for The Jared Project representatives in the back corner of the auditorium, about as far from the food and the stage as you can get. It’s mostly empty, with Zoe playing in the jazz band and Alana presumably up in the rafters, teaching the AV Club how to work a microphone, but Jared is sitting there. Evan is relieved to see that he is wearing a blazer. He’s got a half-eaten dinner roll on his plate, head bent over a sheaf of index cards that he is nervously shuffling through. 

 “How’s it going?” Evan ventures as they take their seats. Connor is already loosening his tie, shaking all his rumples and creases back into place.

 “Hmm,” Jared mumbles, staring down at his index cards. He takes a blind bite of his dinner roll, chews and swallows a dry mouthful. “Good. Yeah.”

“Are you nervous?” asks Dana P. 

“Why would he be nervous?” Alana interrupts, sliding into the seat beside Jared. 

“Uh, maybe because this is a big fucking deal, Alana?” he returns crankily.  

“You’re going to do great,” she dismisses him confidently. “You wrote a great speech. You have a really powerful story to tell. You’re speaking with authority and authenticity. People will love it.”

 Jared looks up from his index cards. His eyes flick uneasily to Evan, just for a moment. 

“Also,” Alana says, “you don’t have to worry about microphone feedback or anything like that. The AV Club has assured me that they’ll be attentive.”

 Jared takes another dry mouthful of dinner roll. His anxiety does not seem to have eased. Alana, sensing this, gives him a very professional pat on the shoulder.

 “Did you read the Ten Tips for Successful Public Speaking I emailed you?” she asks kindly. “I really think they’ll help.”

“Nobody uses email, Alana,” Jared grumbles, but his scorn for Alana seems to reinvigorate him a little bit. He drinks some water and stops shuffling his index cards so frantically. 

“It’s gonna be great,” Evan says quietly, but Jared ignores him. 

Evan and Jared are Not Really Friends Anymore, although perhaps they were never really friends to begin with. It’s complicated. Evan can’t be sure how much of the great rise and fall of their friendship was a fabrication of his fucked up brain. He’s very good at making things up, as it turns out. Can’t maintain a real friendship, no, but he’s really good at faking them. He just knows that Jared does not offer him rides anymore, nor does he laugh affectionately when Evan does something spastic or twitchy. 

“The jazz band sounds great,” Alana remarks to Connor. He looks alarmed to be addressed. 

“Yeah,” he says. “Zoe’s really good at guitar.”

“Can you play at all?” she persists. 

“No,” he says, visibly uncomfortable, “I played piano.” He stands. “I’m going to the bathroom.”

Jared has started muttering distractedly to himself again. Alana starts giving him well-intentioned, deeply unhelpful advice. Evan eats a very dry dinner roll. 

After dinner, the jazz band quiets and the principal approaches the podium. He starts thanking everyone for being here. Jared moans quietly to himself and puts his head down on the table, on top of the scattered index cards. 

“You’ll be fine,” says Alana again, seeming to mean it a little bit more, cheer slightly less manufactured.

Jared just groans some more and gets to his feet, looking clammy and unhappy, as the principal announces a local hero and founder of the Jared Project, this year’s charitable foundation — Jared Kleinman!! and the rich, kinda-drunk parents clap as he weaves his way through the tables and up onto the stage. He shakes the principal’s hand. He gives a cringing smile to the audience. He straightens his index cards and clears his throat, then winces at the microphone feedback. 

“I’m going to kill them,” Alana hisses. “I told them. I told them.”

“Thank you all for being here tonight,” says Jared. “I’m Jared. I’m co-president of The Jared Project. Uh, no relation. Different Jared.”

There’s some scattered laughter. Jared’s smile gets a little less pained. He adjusts his glasses and looks back to his index cards. 

“The Jared Project was started by students and for students. It is a place for anyone who feels lost or unknown. This is an age of hyper-connectivity and social media, but it’s also an incredibly isolating time to be a teenager. It’s easy to feel like nobody hears you or sees you. The Jared Project was created to say that you are not alone. Whoever you are, however you’re feeling, you are not alone. If you’ve ever felt like nobody was there, if you’ve ever felt forgotten, if you’ve ever felt like you could disappear. Like you could fall and no-one would hear you. Well the Jared Project is here to say that there’s a reason to believe you’ll be okay.  If you can reach out your hand, if you can just lift your head and look around, you will be heard. You will be seen. You will be found.”

Evan, head ducked, can feel that someone is staring at him. But when he finally musters the courage to lift his eyes from the tabletop, Connor’s chair is still empty. He hasn’t returned from his abrupt departure to the bathroom yet. The rest of the table is turned towards Jared, but Evan’s eyes move to the side of the stage, just beyond the reach of the spotlight. 

Zoe, one brightly-painted fingernail in her mouth, is staring right at Evan with a small frown, chewing. 

When Jared finishes speaking, there’s a standing ovation and applause that seems to go on for a hundred years. Evan stands when the rest of his table does. Alana gives a decorous little whoop and one of the boys Evan doesn’t really know whistles through his teeth. Jared, up on the stage, grins. Evan has never seen him so devoid of irony. 

“Thank you,” Jared says. “I think we’re gonna start the auction now. Thanks.” 

He starts back towards the table, but is immediately surrounded by parents trying to shake his hand or ask him questions. Alana stands at once, straightening her skirt. 

“I’d better join him,” she says. “I’m co-president. They’ll probably want to talk to me, too.”

“Okay,” Evan says. 

He takes another dinner roll, only to find that he is not at all hungry. He starts tearing it apart, vaguely noting that he’s getting flour on the cuffs of his stupid, too-formal blazer. He would like to be at home right now or potentially Not Conscious. 

“Hey,” says Connor, appearing out of nowhere in a jarring and ghostly fashion. “Wanna see something cool?”

“Hey,” Evan says back automatically. “Um- what?”

“Something cool,” Connor repeats, “outside. Wanna see?”

He’s doing that thing again, where he goes up on his toes a little bit and then rocks back down. In his dress clothes, not swathed in extra layers of outerwear, you can actually see his sharp elbows and the tentative set of his shoulders. Evan thinks of Connor standing in the computer lab, asking about his cast. He has to blink rapidly. 

“It’s- Isn’t it raining?”

It is. There's rain caught in Connor's hair and spotting the shoulders of his dress shirt. He shrugs. 

“Only a little. It’s really cool.”

Evan looks down at the cuffs of his jacket, powdered with flour, and the crumbled roll on his plate. Jared is still surrounded by parents, Alana standing a little bit off to the side, attempting to look chill with being ignored. The principal has returned to the podium as the jazz band clears the stage to make room for the auction. 

“Yeah, okay,” he says, and follows Connor outside. 

The ‘cool thing’ is a shitty old car in the parking lot behind the school that is covered, literally covered in bumper stickers. Like, Evan can’t tell what color this car was originally, because there isn’t a single bit of actual car showing from under all the bumper stickers. The bumper stickers all seem to refer to conspiracy theories that Evan is too uninformed to know about. Many express anti-government sentiments. One, which Connor points out gleefully, reads my rescue dog banged your Honors student. 

“Wow,” Evan says. He reads, “Ask me about my home-brewed apple ale.”

“Don’t do it,” Connor counters. He laughs. “That’s cryptic.”

The Walmart on Route 20A owes me $114. Ask me why.”

Bigfoot is real and he tried to fellatiate me. Oh my god.”

 “What kind of person drives a car like this?”

“Some fuckin’ crazy person,” Connor says with delight, blinking rain out of his eyes. He rounds the car and stoops to examine its other side. “Oh, this one has the cross-hairs of a sniper gun and then it says This is my peace symbol. Yikes.”

“I’m confused about what his stances are,” Evan says. Connor laughs. 

Hey, teens!” he reads. “Self-control beats birth control.”

“T-tell that to Big Foot, I guess.”

Save a chicken. Eat an Honors student. Jesus. He hates Honors students.”

I’d rather be reading Bukowski,” Evan counters. 

The more people I meet, the more I like my 1997 Dodge Dakota.”

“Lost your cat? Look under my tires,” Evan reads with horror. “Oh, no.”

“I’ve never felt so understood,” Connor says, grinning. He comes back to stand by Evan, squinting idly at a bumper sticker that implores them to Ask me about my trip to Lake Winnipesaukee. “Do you think he gets them custom made?”

“He probably has a- a bumper sticker guy,” Evan agrees. 

“Told you it was cool,” says Connor. “Much better than that stupid fucking speech.”

“It wasn’t-“

“Yeah, yeah.”

It’s started to rain a little bit harder, dappling Connor’s shirt with spots of darker gray. Evan opens his mouth and catches a raindrop on his tongue. It's only once he realizes Connor is watching him that he remembers that’s a super weird and childish thing to do. He closes his mouth and scrubs at it with the sleeve of his damped blazer. He’s glad for the stupid blazer now, because it’s kinda cold out. Connor shivers slightly and Evan’s whole face twists with the effort of holding back the memory of Connor shivering in the park. 

“We should go back inside,” he says. 

“Before this car’s owner comes back and fuckin’ murders us,” Connor agrees. 

“Good- good thing I’m not an Honors student.”

They start back across the dim parking lot, skirting a large puddle. From inside, there’s the muffled sound of drunk adults laughing. Outside, there is the skunky smell of weed and wet asphalt. As they approach the back door, Evan can see a couple people sitting on the steps, sheltered from the rain beneath the overhang. They start to fumble and get to their feet as Evan and Connor approach, but then a familiar voice cuts in. 

“Wait, it’s okay. It’s just Connor and Evan.”

“Zoe?” says Evan, surprised. 

“Shhh,” she says. “We’re hiding from Mr. Bernitt.”

The girl next to Zoe, who Evan recognizes as the jazz band’s bassist, takes a hit off a stumpy little joint and then passes it off to the drummer, an extremely skinny guy in a (possibly ironic?) bolo tie. Connor stares at his sister incredulously. 

“What are you doing?” 

“What’s it look like?” 

“You don’t smoke weed!” She stares at him, unimpressed. 

“I’m in a jazz band, dude.”

“You want a hit?” asks the bassist, a Korean girl with an eyebrow piercing. Evan is startled to find that she is addressing him. 

“What? Oh- No, I-“

“You don’t have to, Evan,” says Zoe kindly. “Come sit. You’re in the rain.”

Evan hesitates, but obeys. Zoe scoots over on the step to make room for him on the cold concrete step. She’s got her big, lumpy denim jacket pulled over her fancy dress, draped around her knees so only her bare legs stick out. Her earrings are shaped like dangling cherries. Evan thinks she’s wonderful.  

“Wow, poor Mom and Dad,” Connor says. “They have not one, but two stoner burn-out children.”

“I’m not a burn-out,” Zoe says. “Stop being a dick. Do you want a hit?”

Connor shrugs and comes to sit on the step below Evan. His legs stick out ahead of him, spindly and elongated, like a character in a Tim Burton movie. He accepts the joint when Zoe passes it to him and takes an effortless hit. 

“It’s really shitty weed,” says Possibly Ironic Bolo Tie. 

“It is,” Connor agrees. He takes another puff and hands it back to Zoe. She takes an inhale, coughs, and then hands it off to Eyebrow Piercing Girl. 

“Hey,” she says abruptly, turning to Evan. It’s dark, but he thinks he can see the weed’s influence in the slow blink of her eyes. “Hey!” she says again. 

“Hey, what?”

“Hey, as in — hey, Jared stole your speech!” She claps a hand down on his knee in indignation. He tries not to flinch. “That was your speech that he read!”

“Oh, I- Yeah,” Evan admits. 

“He stole your speech!”

 “No, I- No, the other day he was telling Alana he didn’t know what to say so I said he could-“

Zoe is frowning. Evan feels panicked and cold and rained-on. 

“I shouldn’t have done that. I- I’m sorry, I didn’t even think. It was your speech, too. I’m really sorry-“

“I’m not mad at you!” Zoe protests. “I’m mad for you. Like, on your behalf. You should have given that speech!”

“No, I- No, trust me,” Evan says, “it’s better this way.”

“Jared is a tool,” Connor says. “He’s full of shit.”

“He should have credited you, at least,” Zoe says, still frowning. 

Evan doesn’t know how to explain that, no, that would be worse. He can’t ever get on that stage again. He has been excluded from the narrative this time around, and he’s super fucking grateful for it. He doesn’t know how to explain that he thought maybe if he helped Jared with the speech, if Jared was just a little less stressed out, then maybe things would go back to- that maybe Jared would have time to drive him home sometimes. He can’t appropriately express to Zoe how truly pathetic he is. He feels panicked and cold and miserable.  

“I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have sent it to him without- I should have asked you. I’m sorry-“

 “Hey,” Connor interrupts, “Evan, take a hit.”

Evan blinks, suddenly confronted by Connor’s knuckle-y hand thrusting a mostly-smoked joint at him. He rears back a little bit in surprise. 

 “Oh, I- No, thanks.”

“It’s fun,” Connor wheedles. “It might help you chill the fuck out.”

“Don’t be a dick to Evan,” Zoe snaps. 

 “I wasn’t being a dick,” Connor protests, seeming genuinely offended. “I’m trying to be nice. Weed is nice.”

“Weed is nice,” agrees Eyebrow Piercing Girl. 

“You’re peer-pressuring him,” Zoe objects. 

“One hit of shitty weed is not going to kill him,” Connor says scathingly. He moves his hand closer to Evan’s face. “It’s fun. You’re all stressed out. You’ll feel better after.” 

“I’ve never smoked before,” says Evan dubiously. “I don’t want to- I might freak out.” 

“You won’t,” Possibly Ironic Bolo Tie says persuasively. 

Everybody is looking at Evan and he doesn’t think anybody has ever looked at him, on purpose, with intention, for this duration of time. Connor’s still holding the joint in his face and the smoke is making the back of Evan’s throat burn and he wishes Connor wouldn’t look at him at all, ever. Up close, Evan can see his fingernails are covered in chipped polish. It’s not black, like Evan has always thought, but a navy blue.  

“Okay,” he says. “But don’t laugh at me.”

“Nobody’s going to laugh at you,” Zoe says, but it’s mostly drowned out by Eyebrow Piercing Girl and Possibly Ironic Bolo Tie whooping in triumph. Connor just grins and hands Evan the joint carefully and then moves his fingers around until he’s holding it correctly. He’s moved up from the step below to sit right next to Evan.

“Breathe in for like a second,” he says, close to Evan’s face, “and then hold it in your lungs for as long as you can. Then breathe out. You’ll probably cough a lot, but that’s just because this is some shitty fuckin’ weed. So don’t be embarrassed.” 

“I’m always embarrassed,” Evan says by mistake, and at this point he’s already humiliated himself enough, so why the fuck not. He puts the joint to his mouth and inhales. 

It hurts a lot and he coughs, and then Connor’s taking the joint from his hands and Possibly Ironic Bolo Tie is handing him a water bottle and Zoe is patting Evan on the back. 

“See,” says Eyebrow Piercing Girl, “not so bad.”

“Pretty bad,” Evan wheezes. 

“Do one more,” Connor says from right next to him. “And then you’re good. You don’t need more than two hits if you’ve never smoked before.” 

“I don’t want to freak out,” Evan worries. 

“You’re not going to freak out,” Zoe says reassuringly. “We’ve got you.”

 Evan takes a second hit and he still coughs a little bit, but it hurts less this time. Possibly Ironic Bolo Tie gives him a big, cheesy thumb’s-up. 

“You’re already a pro,” he says, taking the joint from Evan’s hand. “Isley, Zoe, you want the rest?”

Zoe and Eyebrow Piercing Girl, whose name must be Isley, each take another hit and then stub the stubby remnants of the joint out on the concrete step. Connor kicks it out from beneath the overhang, and it’s immediately doused by the steady rain coming down. Evan is surprised to find that he feels okay, kinda heavy in a nice way, like having a weighted blanket over him.  

“See,” says Connor from next to him, close to his face, “it’s nice.”

“Now we’re all burn-out stoner kids,” Zoe says, raising an imaginary glass in the air like a toast. “To Luca’s brother’s ex-girlfriend, the shitty weed dealer!” 

“To Evelyn,” Possibly Ironic Bolo Tie agrees, raising his own arm in toast. “Sorry my brother broke up with you.” 

“To Mr. Bernitt!” Eyebrow Piercing Girl chimes in. “Sorry I fucked up the coda again.”

“To The Jared Project,” says Connor. “And its bullshit president.”

 “To Evan!” Zoe crows. “For writing a really good speech!” 

“To Evan!” Bolo Tie echoes. “Sorry for peer-pressuring you.”

“I can’t think of one,” Evan says, and for some reason this makes them all laugh and after a minute he laughs, too, because he feels shockingly okay right now and he doesn’t know what else to do. 

The door opens behind them and then Alana’s voice is saying, “There you guys are! I’ve been looking everywhere for-“ She stops. 

 “Hi, Alana,” says Zoe, transparently cheerful. “What’s up?”

There’s a long moment of silence and then a sudden noise as Alana lets the door shut behind her. She puts her hands on her hips and surveys them all suspiciously. 

 “You guys,” she says, “have been smoking drugs.”

“We have,” Connor agrees. Zoe and Bolo Tie burst into giggles. Alana doesn’t think it’s funny. Her voice is shrill.  

“You could get the whole Jared Project into a lot of trouble, you know.” 

 “We smoke out here all the time after concerts,” Eyebrow Piercing says confidently. “Nobody ever comes back here.”

I came back here. You all disappeared. Our entire table is empty.”

“No one will notice,” Connor says. “They don’t care about us.”

 “I don’t have anyone to sit with.”

“We’ll come back,” Evan says. Alana wrinkles her nose at him. 

“You reek of marijuana.”

 “We’ll stay outside until it wears off,” Zoe promises. 

“You’ll miss dessert.”

 Eyebrow Piercing makes a noise of loss. She pleads, “Could you bring us out a couple plates? I heard there’s tiramisu.”

“I can’t believe you guys,” Alana despairs. She doesn’t seem sympathetic about the tiramisu. “I can’t believe you ditched our own fundraiser to get high.”

“We got bored,” Connor says. 

“Well, I’m sorry you were bored but this night is a really big deal to some of us, y’know,” Alana says, voice raising in pitch. “We’ve been working really hard. Evan, I’m really disappointed in you. The rest of you I can understand, but- I thought this was important to you.”

 “I’m-" 

“Leave him alone,” Connor says. “We made him-”

“Actually,” Zoe interrupts, “I don’t think it’s fair of you to yell at Evan. Not after you got up there and stole his speech and didn’t even credit him.”

 “What?” Alana asks, looking a little less Righteously Furious. Her hands come off her hips. 

“Jared’s speech,” Zoe says. 

 “What about it? It went really well.”

“Leave it alone,” Evan says. “It’s fine.” 

“You guys are not making any sense,” Alana tells them snootily. “Probably because of the drugs.”

“It was just weed,” Connor grumbles. “You should try some. Maybe you would actually chill out for once.”

Alana stiffens like her feelings have been hurt. Evan’s mouth is really dry. He has to work hard to unseal his lips. 

“I’m sorry, Alana,” he says. “This was- It’s a big deal to me, too.”

 Alana’s mouth gets tight, and then it sags into a decidedly un-perky frown. She sinks down onto the steps behind them. 

 “I’m not your D.A.R.E. Officer,” she says. “You can do what you want.”

“Sorry,” Evan says again, feeling wretched. 

“Now you’re disappointed in us,” Zoe worries. “Don’t be disappointed in us, Alana.”

“I’m not disappointed,” Alana says, somewhat unconvincingly. “I’m just- I’m not having a very good night. The AV Club does not know the first thing about working sound.”

“I think it’s all been going really well,” Zoe says coaxingly. 

“I wish we weren’t missing dessert, though,” Bolo Tie says sadly. “Maybe we could just sneak back in and-“

“You reek,” Alana repeats, “of weed.”

“Nobody will notice us,” Connor says. “Everyone’s too busy jerking off to Jared fucking Kleinman.”

“You’re such a dick to him,” Zoe says wonderingly. “You know it’s because of him that-“

 “Don’t.” 

“Everyone is extremely enraptured with Jared,” Alana agrees, looking a little bit sour. “I’m the co-president, y’know. This whole Project was my idea.”

 “Jared Kleinman is always taking credit for other people’s shit,” Connor says, craning his neck and tilting his head backward to look at Alana on the step above him. “You’re better than him. Sorry I was a dick to you.”

“He’s a dick,” Zoe agrees. 

“They won't medicate me,” Connor says. “Fuck, I want dessert.”

“I can try,” Alana says begrudgingly, “to sneak some tiramisu out here for you.”

There’s a resounding cheer, led by Eyebrow Piercing Girl. 

But,” Alana adds sharply, “you guys have to promise to stay out here and be good. Don’t let anyone smell you. And don’t do any more drugs. I will not let you ruin this night for me.”

“You’re wonderful,” Bolo Tie tells her. 

“Thank you, Alana,” says Evan. 

“Hmmph,” says Alana, but she smiles a little bit and when she comes back she’s bearing an enormous aluminum catering tray of tiramisu, stolen from the kitchen. 

“That’s the sexiest thing I’ve ever seen,” Eyebrow Piercing Girl whispers. 

Alana’s also got a fistful of plastic spoons, but she won’t let anyone have a spoon until she’s sprayed them down with a scented body mist that she retrieves from her purse. 

“It’s passionfruit pear-scented,” she says. “In case I ever perspire while I’m speed-walking to class.”

 “Is it true that you got out of gym class by promising you’d power-walk to class?” Eyebrow Piercing Girl asks.  

“I’m not officially allowed to comment,” says Alana, but she’s smiling like she’s pleased. “Let me spray you.”

“You’re amazing,” Eyebrow Piercing Girl says. “Add me on snapchat.”

 “I don’t have one of those,” says Alana. “Here, take a spoon.”

So they all sit on the back steps, just out of reach of the rain, eating sloppy spoonfuls of tiramisu straight from the serving tin. Even Alana takes a few prim bites. Eyebrow Piercing Girl and Possibly Ironic Bolo Tie and Zoe do another round of toasts — this time to Alana, to tiramisu, to the entire Italian peninsula, and then to their band director Mr. Bernitt again — and then Connor shows them the Cryptic Bumper Sticker Car, which is met with great enthusiasm and wonder. 

Evan mostly stays quiet, laughing when everyone else does. He feels like everything is happening a little slower than usual, like watching a film at 95% speed, but in a nice way. He can actually interact with the things happening around him. The pane of glass that usually separates him from the world isn’t there. Or it is, but it’s less smudged and foggy than usual. He’s comfortable and the tiramisu tastes good and he’s too busy wondering if this is what being high is like to remember that he is cripplingly socially inept. So probably he’s pretty stoned.  

“You good?” Connor asks, bumping into him in a friendly kind of way as they troop back from the car to the steps and their half-eaten tiramisu. “You’re not freaking out, right?”

“No,” says Evan. “I think I’m okay.”

“Good,” says Connor. “I’d feel bad if I made you smoke and then you had a bad time.”

“No,” says Evan. “I’m having fun.”

“Okay,” says Connor. He bumps Evan again. “Good.”

“Good,” Evan repeats. He means it, he thinks. 

 …

Chapter Text

Time goes funny, but only in the sense that it keeps on going. The auction ends. Mrs. Murphy hugs Evan goodbye and invites him over for dinner next week. He says maybe. If she smells pot, she doesn’t say anything. 

Alana and Zoe are hugging everyone goodbye. Evan, bewildered, submits to hugs.

“Where’d you guys all go?” Jared asks suspiciously, but no one answers him.

“Bye,” says Connor in Evan’s general direction, no eye contact. 

“Bye,” says Evan in Connor’s general direction, no eye contact. Then, for no good reason, he says, “Thanks.”

 Connor looks alarmed. 

 “Yeah, uh. Sure,” he says. Then his mom starts fussing with his tie again and he says something mean and then Mr. Murphy says something sharp and then the Murphys leave. 

“Where were you guys?” Jared asks again. He seems unwilling to address Evan or make eye contact with him, but everyone else is busy talking so Evan doesn’t know who else he could be speaking to. 

 He imagines, for a minute, that he is a different type of person. The type of person who could pretend he doesn’t know Jared is addressing him and frostily ignore him and then continue on with life, unharmed, unbothered. Or that he is the type of person who could turn around and say why aren’t we friends anymore? what happened? and then get an answer to his question and go home and actually sleep, without a million worries and unanswered questions swinging overhead like a noose from his ceiling fan. 

 But he isn’t that type of person. He isn’t any type of person, really, just a sum of twitches and flinches, a completely reactionary creature. Something things happen to. 

 He says, “Outside. It was hot.”

 “Oh,” says Jared, frowning, looking troubled. 

 “Good speech,” says Evan, and then he goes outside to wait for his mom. And time goes funny, but only in the sense that it keeps on going. 

The next meeting after the auction, after Jared’s speech goes viral and they raise an unfathomable amount of money, is their most crowded yet. There’s too many people to fit into a circle now, so they sit in rows of chairs with Jared and Alana in the front. Evan slinks into a chair in the back, near the door, feeling uneasy and anxious, but then Alana motions for him to come stand in the front with them. 

“You’re our treasurer,” she reminds him.  

“Right,” Evan agrees unhappily. He moves to stand with Alana and Jared.

Jared seems to have shed all attempts at apathy, because he’s got an actual binder labeled TJP and he’s printed out paperwork about asking local businesses to help sponsor the walk-a-thon and he’s talking excitedly with a couple kids about the possibilities of a dunk tank and a bouncy castle at the walk-a-thon. He looks, like, happier — lit from within in a way that Evan hasn’t ever seen him before. He’s not slouching. He won’t look at Evan, though.  

“Looks like things are busy,” Evan says to Alana. 

 “Yes,” she says, but the sides of her mouth turn down a little bit. “Jared’s been getting a lot of attention for his speech at the auction. I don’t know if you’ve been on Facebook recently.”

 Evan has. He’s seen the posts, all the articles and interviews with local news stations that Mrs. Kleinman has been sharing. So proud! Guess I did something right with this one. Consider donating if you can! He scrolled through obsessively for a while, and then he made himself stop, thinking of playing video games in Jared’s basement and Jared saying that this was the first time he’d ever done something to be proud of. Or- Well, y’know-

“It was a good speech,” he says lamely. 

“It was,” Alana agrees. She looks like she wants to say more, but instead her eyes move to the door and she says, “Oh! Connor, hi.”

Connor jumps a little bit like he’s startled to be addressed. He’s by himself, curled in at the edges, hunched under the weight of his backpack. He’s buried under layers of sweatshirt again, but Evan can’t stop thinking about that tie, that horrible and tragic tie, around his brittle neck. 

“Hi?” says Connor. His inflection is off, like he’s sounding out an unfamiliar word.  

“I wanted to make cookies to bring tonight,” Alana begins apologetically, “but I didn’t have time.”

“You’re uninvited,” Connor says, distracted. He’s frowning at the crowded room, the rows of occupied chairs. “There’s a lot of people here.”

“Where’s Zoe?”

“Coming. She had to- do something. I forget. Why are there so many people here?”

“The auction was very successful.”

 “Hi,” says Zoe, hurrying into the room. “Sorry I’m late. Did we- Why are there so many people here?”

“There’s been a very good response to Jared’s presentation at the auction,” Alana says. 

Zoe makes a humph noise and eyes Evan pointedly. Evan quickly turns his eyes down. 

“I was telling Connor I didn’t have time to make cookies,” Alana starts telling Zoe. 

“Mom won’t care,” Zoe says. “She’s probably making weird chickpea desserts anyway. Are you coming, Evan?”

“Oh, I- I don’t think I- don’t have a ride,” he says, “for-”

“Just ride home with us,” Zoe says immediately. “Alana’s coming with us, too.”

“If you’re- I mean, if you don’t mind-“ 

“Mom’s making her shitty lasagna just for you,” Connor says. “No backing out now.”

“Oh. She didn’t have to- do that.”

“Tell her that,” says Connor. He looks around again, twitchy. “It’s too fuckin’ crowded in here.”

Evan silently agrees. It’s too crowded and the classroom is too hot and Jared and Alana are talking about fixing up the orchard for the walk-a-thon, about the Go Fund Me page they’ve started, about sharing events on Facebook and contacting local news stations, and Evan is having flashbacks to The Connor Project and the way everything went faster and faster and faster until it came off the rails entirely. There’s this horrible familiarity to it all. 

He can’t pay attention to the meeting. He wants to fidget, but he’s afraid if he shuffles too much people will start looking at him and Evan Does Not Want That. 

Zoe is scribbling something in a notebook intently, ponytail falling over one shoulder. She doesn’t seem to notice Evan looking, but he doesn’t allow himself to stare. Just because she doesn’t remember she hates him doesn’t mean he gets to stare at her. It’s like the one principle he hasn’t abandoned. 

Connor is slouched on Evan’s other side, gnawing at his cuticle. His posture is loose and careless, but one of his skeleton legs twitches with pent-up energy, like maybe he’s uncomfortable, too. When he catches Evan looking he withdraws his hand from his mouth and gives him the middle finger, torn cuticle welling red blood against his chipped nail polish. Then he reaches over and presses his bleeding finger to Evan’s leg, just for a second, just long enough to leave a dark crescent stain of blood on the denim. 

Evan stares at it blankly. Connor nudges his elbow against Evan’s side like they’ve just exchanged a friendly joke, then puts his fingernail back in his mouth and slumps lower in his seat. 

Evan stares at the stain for the rest of the meeting, bewildered. 

The meeting ends, kids filtering out in groups and stopping to sign the email list or to ask Jared a question, and Evan quietly helps Alana straighten the chairs and erase the whiteboard. She keeps glancing over at the cluster of people around Jared, frowning. Evan pretends not to notice. 

“I’ll meet you guys there,” says Jared, once the crowd has dissipated. “I’m meeting with the principal for a couple minutes to go over-“

“I didn’t know we were meeting with the principal,” Alana frowns. 

“I mean,” says Jared, “you can come if you want. He just emailed me, though, so-“

“I thought,” Alana says, “that nobody used email.”

“Don’t get all- I said you could come if you want, Alana.”

“No,” she says, “it’s fine. See you at the Murphy’s house.”

“Yeah. See you.”

Evan can tell that Alana’s feelings are hurt by the way she talks determinedly and brightly the whole drive home — first about their plans for The Jared Project fundraiser, then about the ten hours a week she is devoting to volunteer work, then about how she’s teaching herself ASL. She twists one of her braids through her fingers restlessly. 

Evan wants to reach over and maybe, like, pat her on the knee or something. Ask her if she’s alright. But as usual, he gets stuck in the build-up, trying to work up the nerve, imagining all the ways he could fuck it up. He has seventeen years of standing still weighing on him. It’s hard to suddenly start moving. Zoe beats him to the punch. 

“It’s pretty rude that he didn’t include you in his meeting with the principal,” she says, casting them a glance in the rearview mirror. 

“I guess,” Alana says dubiously. “If the principal contacted him, then that’s not really Jared’s fault. The Project is named after him, so I guess it makes sense he would be the leader. I mean, I was the one who said he should speak at the auction.”

“It was your idea, though,” Evan says. “The- I mean, the Project was your-“

“It was,” Alana agrees. She blows air out through her lips. “Sorry. I don’t mean to complain. I’m just not very good at letting other people take charge. You probably don’t know this about me, but I have some control issues. Some people have even called me bossy, if you can believe it.”

No one laughs, which Evan thinks is extraordinarily kind. 

“That was a joke,” Alana says, sounding defeated. “I didn’t mean it as- I know I’m bossy.”

“Not- Bossy is the wrong word,” Evan says.

“You’re good at getting stuff done,” Zoe corrects. “That’s why you’re a good president.”

“Co-president,” Alana says sadly. 

“It’s just a stupid club,” Connor says abruptly, turning in the passenger seat to face them. He’s pulled one of his legs up onto the seat, improbably long and skinny, and he rests his chin on his folded knee, a hunched and occult thing. “Fuck the club and fuck Kleinman. Why don’t you do something you actually care about? Get into knitting or something.”

“I already know how to knit,” Alana says. “My grandmother taught me this summer while she was in the hospital. And it’s not- I do care about this club. I think our school needs to make major changes to the ways it addresses mental health. And I- I think it was borne out of a really incredible thing that- that Jared did. So I don’t think I should begrudge him for getting the credit.”

Connor’s face goes blank. He doesn’t answer. Evan bites his fingernail, feeling ill. 

“But,” Zoe persists, “he shouldn’t take the credit for everything the club is doing. I mean, you’re the one who organized the entire auction. Evan was the one who wrote the-“

“It’s fine,” Evan interjects. He’s bitten his nail down to the quick and now it stings bitterly. He withdraws it from his mouth.

“You’re right,” Alana says, “but I think I’m being a little selfish. As long as the club is accomplishing good things, who cares how I feel, y’know?“

They pull into the Murphys driveway, but Zoe doesn’t immediately turn off the car. She’s gripping the steering wheel, hard. 

“I just think,” Zoe says, with an odd and restrained sort of passion, “that it’s really shitty when people get overshadowed. And I think there’s- there’s this idea that oh, my problems aren’t as big as his problems and so you’re not allowed to complain. Or, like, that it’s selfish if you want your own contributions and issues to be acknowledged, but that’s-“

“Fucked,” Connor supplies.

“It is,” Zoe agrees, not looking at her brother, “fucked. So I just think that- that you and Evan shouldn’t be forgotten. Isn’t that what the whole Project is about?”

“I appreciate that,” says Alana sincerely. She stops fiddling with her hair. When she smiles, it looks a little less like her teeth might crack. “Thanks, Zoe. You have a lovely home.”

Connor snorts. Zoe laughs a little bit. 

“I guess so,” she says. “We should go in.”

“Mom is going to love you,” Connor tells Alana. “Tell her the thing about knitting. She’ll lose her mind.”

Mrs. Murphy does, indeed, lose her mind over Alana. She’s heartbreakingly happy to have them here. She assures Evan that there are more of those weird gluten-free brownies in the oven. Connor grimaces at this, but Evan makes sure to say thank you as sincerely as he can. She purses her lips in this happy-sad little smile and gives him another hug. Evan tries not to flinch. 

She turns on Alana then, asking her questions about school and her involvement in The Jared Project and her plans for college. Alana has lots of intelligent and eloquent things to say about all of these topics. The rest of them stand awkwardly in the kitchen. 

“I told Alana I would show her my music stuff," Zoe interrupts eventually, looking a little pinched. “So we’re going to go. Okay?"

"I used to play the violin," Alana explains to a charmed Mrs. Murphy, "but I quit." 

"Too many other extracurriculars?" Connor says. 

"No," Alana says, surprised, "I was just really bad at it." 

This makes Connor laugh in an oddly genuine, not-caustic type of way. It startles them all. Alana grins back uncertainly.

"Okay, Mom?" Zoe repeats herself, louder. "We're going to go downstairs.”

"That's fine," Mrs. Murphy says, tearing her eyes away from the ghost of a grin that still creases Connor's face. "Connor, why don't you show Evan your room?" 

Connor gives her a look of utter disbelief. "What? What's there to show?"

“I don’t know, Connor,” she says, exasperated. “Your posters? Your video games? Or you boys can get started on homework.”

“I have like three posters,” says Connor, disgusted, as he leads Evan up the stairs. “And they’re all embarrassing.”

Evan, who has seen Connor’s posters, who has sat on Connor’s bed, who has kissed Connor’s sister on Connor’s bed, who has looked through the books on Connor’s bookshelf and tried to understand who this dead boy might have been, cannot respond. He ascends the stairs silently, following Connor’s skinny legs down the hallway to a familiar doorway. Then he’s surprised into speaking. 

“You don’t have a door,” he says. 

Connor gives an Extremely Casual Shrug that doesn’t quite mask how very uncomfortable he is with this fact. He tugs at one earlobe, shoulders curling like he’s suddenly conscious of how tall he is. 

“Nope,” he says. “It’s to, y’know, keep an eye on me.”

“Oh,” says Evan. 

Connor moves into the room and does a perfunctory sweep of the hand, indicating the clothes on the floor and the unmade bed and the generally dim aura of Depression Naps that Evan knows so well.  He sits down on his bed. 

 “The posters are from when I was, like, twelve,” he says, embarrassed. “I just never took them down.”

Evan nods. He studies the walls, trying to act like he hasn’t been here before. Like he didn’t stare at these posters and marvel that Connor Murphy, who was dead, had ever liked anything enough to tape it to his walls. 

“I like the- the Star Wars one.”

“You like Star Wars?”

Evan is genuinely taken aback by this question, by Connor’s tone of actual surprise. He blinks a little bit and then spreads his arms wide. 

“Okay, obviously I like Star Wars. I’m like- Look at me.”

Connor looks at him blankly. “What?”

“I’m like,” Evan endeavors, “not cool. Like- I don’t know, like the way I dress and-“

“The fuck’s wrong with the way you dress?” Connor asks, astonished. 

“I’m- I don’t- I mean, I wear khakis-“

“Nobody notices stuff like that, dude,” Connor says. “Nobody, like, gives a shit about you, y’know?”

“Oh,” says Evan.

A beat.

“I didn’t- I didn’t mean that in a mean way,” Connor says in a rush. “I meant, like- It was supposed to be reassuring.”

“It’s okay,” Evan says. 

“Like, nobody notices stuff like that except you because nobody-”

“-because nobody is looking at me,” Evan finishes, feeling dull. “Right.”

“In a- Okay, but what’s so bad about that?” Connor demands, reinvigorated. “I would fucking love it if nobody looked at me.”

“I don’t know,” Evan says, feeling defensive. He sits down in Connor’s desk chair. “I said it was okay.”

“There are worse things than nobody noticing you, you know,” Connor says angrily. 

“Okay.”

“I wasn’t trying to be a dick.”

“It’s okay,” Evan says again. He tugs at a string in the hem of his shirt. He thinks about going home and locking himself in his room, his room with its blank walls because Evan doesn’t really have likes or interests or a personality. Evan is just Mentally Ill. It’s all he can fit into his brain. When- If he were to die, it would take his mom like fifteen minutes to clear out his room. There wouldn’t be any marks on the wall from thumbtacks or discolored paint from tape. Just the stupid paper-mache planets in the corner, the dumb participation trophies, the bed. 

“I didn’t mean to- Fuck,” says Connor, flopping backwards onto the bed. He exhales quietly. “Sorry. My personality is broken. Obviously.”

“It’s really- It’s okay.”

“I don’t even have a fuckin’ door.”

“Hey,” Evan interrupts, noticing a small trophy on Connor’s desk, “were you on the Tee-Ball Tigers, too?”

“What?” says Connor, sitting up. He frowns at the trophy. “Oh. Yeah. My dad was really into me playing baseball. He’s, like, a ‘man’s man.’”

He does air-quotes and illustrates this further by jutting out his chin in mock-masculinity. Evan smiles a little. 

“Mine, too,” he says. “I don’t remember you being on the team.”

“Yeah, I was really shy. I used to cry in the car so they wouldn’t make me go.”

“Me, too,” Evan remembers. “I used to make myself throw up.”

This makes Connor laugh. 

“My poor dad,” he says. “He just wanted a kid to play catch with. It’s been a disappointing seventeen years for him.”

Evan has to grit his jaw to stop his face from twitching, to stop the smell of oiled leather from filling his nose. To fight back the image of Mr. Murphy standing in the garage, holding that baseball glove.

“Yeah,” he says, “same.”

“I didn’t mean it,” Connor says abruptly, “that- about nobody noticing you. I didn’t mean it like that. I really didn’t. I’m just not good at talking to people.”

He looks- One of the worst parts of Connor dying was the Facebook photos. The pictures, everywhere, of Connor as a little kid in a baseball uniform. Connor at the orchard, a squinty Peter Pan smile and a friendly arm around Zoe’s neck. Connor grinning, missing his teeth. Connor with his hair cut short so his ears stuck out goofily, his features still a little too big for his face. Looking at those pictures was like standing in Connor’s room after he died and looking at the posters he had taped to his walls, the things he must have cared about. 

He just looks young for a second. That’s really all it is. Just a second where his expression isn’t entirely closed-off. Where he looks a lot more like the kid in the Facebook photos than the Ghost that lives in Evan’s closet sometimes. It does something horrible and twisting and wrenching and sad to Evan’s windpipe. 

“It’s really okay,” he says. “I’m not- I’m the worst at talking to people.”

“You’re nice, though,” Connor says. 

“Oh,” says Evan, “thanks. But not- Not really.”

He wants to say I sat on that bed and lied to your sister about you. I kissed your sister on that bed. I looked through your bookshelves and touched your posters because you were dead and I was trying to pretend I knew you. I made your parents cry. I made you up in my head and I lied about you and I think I believed in you more than anyone else. 

Instead, he says, “What’d you think of the Star Wars prequels?” And Connor gives an extremely promising and expressive groan, and they talk about Star Wars until Jared’s headlights flare through the window and Mrs. Murphy calls that it’s time to eat. 

“How was your meeting with the principal?” Alana asks Jared politely, cutting her lasagna into neat little squares. “I’ll have to send him an email and apologize for not being there.”

“It was fine,” says Jared. “It wasn’t a big, like, thing.”

“Because I am co-president, you know,” she says, a little louder. “It’s not professional for a co-president to be missing meetings.”

“I’ll make sure to forward you the next email,” Jared says tiredly. “Happy?”  

“Or,” Alana says pointedly, “he could just email us both. That would save you the trouble.”

“I know you’re probably sick of hearing it,” Mrs. Murphy says to Jared, “but you really did such a wonderful job at the auction last week. You have a real talent for public speaking.”

“Thank you,” Jared says with an uneasy grin. “It was- Yeah. Thanks.”

“Yeah, Jared,” Zoe interrupts with sudden energy, “it’s amazing that you single-handedly wrote that speech. It was really powerful.”

“I didn’t totally- I mean,” Jared says, “it wasn’t just-“

“Are you planning to be a writer?” Mr. Murphy enquires. 

“Oh, like- For a career? I don’t- I’m not sure.”

“You should really consider it,” Mrs. Murphy says seriously. 

“I don’t know,” Jared flounders. “I’m not very good at, like, making stuff up.”

“Really?” Zoe asks with an exaggerated tone of surprise. Jared stiffens. 

“Evan was on the same tee-ball team as me, Dad,” says Connor abruptly. 

“Really?” Mr. Murphy says with interest. “The tee-ball… What was it, the tigers?”

“The Tee-ball Tigers,” Evan says. “I wasn’t very good.”

“Connor wasn’t either,” says Mr. Murphy, but he doesn’t say it like he’s disappointed. It’s more fondly, like he thinks it’s funny. “I think we let you quit halfway through the season, didn’t we?”

“Yeah,” says Connor. “I did piano lessons instead.”

“I was always a karate kind of kid,” Jared recalls. “Never got into baseball.”

“And bowling,” Evan says despite himself. “You were really into bowling.”

Connor laughs in an unkind sort of way at this. Jared’s shoulders hunch. 

“I had one birthday party at a bowling alley, Evan. I was not into bowling.”

“We should go to a game sometime,” Mr. Murphy says. “Me and Connor and you boys. You could invite your dads.”

“Mine doesn’t live around here,” Evan says automatically, and then feels bad. “I mean, not that- I’d like that. A lot. I just don’t know if he- if my dad would be able to-“

“Sounds cool,” Jared says. 

“I’d love to,” Alana says brightly. 

“I hate baseball,” Connor says. 

“You don’t hate baseball,” Mr. Murphy dismisses. “We used to play catch all the time.”

“We played catch like twice.”

“We should try that again. It could be good for you. Being active and being outside might really help turn your mood around.”

“Yeah, Dad,” Connor snaps, “fresh air is going to fix this mood.”

“Okay,” Mrs. Murphy says quickly, smiling like sticking on a bandaid. “No more sports talk. Zoe, how was your day?”

“You only ask me that when you’re trying to change the subject, you know,” Zoe says dully. 

“That’s not true. I want to know about your day.”

“It was fine. We watched a movie in English.”

“That’s it?”

“I quit jazz band.”

What?” 

Zoe shrugs her shoulders defensively and squishes some lasagna through the tines of her fork. 

“Now why would you do that?” Mr. Murphy inquires. 

“I just don’t like it anymore.”

“But you-“

“You love jazz band!” Mrs. Murphy protests. 

“No, I just like playing the guitar. I don’t like jazz band.”

“Since when?” Mr. Murphy demands.

“Since forever. I’ve been thinking about it all semester. It’s not my fault nobody pays attention to what’s going on in my life.”

“So you- quit?”

“It was pretty mutual, actually,” Zoe says. "I was gonna flunk out." 

“A lot of artists find success by going solo,” Alana puts in helpfully. “There’s more artistic license.”

“Yeah, well,” Zoe says, “Turns out I’m not actually that good at guitar. Mr. Bernitt said he was going to have to fail me if I kept skipping rehearsals anyway.”

“You’re skipping rehearsals?”

“I just don’t understand,” Mrs. Murphy frets. “I didn’t know you were unhappy in jazz band.” 

“It’s fine,” Zoe says. She’s trying to maintain that same flat, dull tone of voice, but it’s starting to wobble a little. She glares down at her plate. “I just decided I didn’t want to- to do that anymore. I’m not that good at guitar anyway.”

“Yeah, you are,” says Connor, weirdly angry. Zoe turns her head away from him, obviously fighting back tears.

“It’s fine,” she snaps. “I know my problems aren’t as big as- It’s fine.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?” Connor asks. 

"It means I'm not gonna go and- Nothing. It doesn't- it doesn't mean anything," Zoe says. She stands up and wipes her eyes. "I'm gonna go upstairs."

"Zoe," says Mr. Murphy. 

"Not gonna go and what?" Connor demands. He stands, too, and it sets the silverware rattling. 

"Nothing," says Zoe, less resolute. 

"Say it," Connor orders. "Say what you were gonna say." 

"I think we should go," Jared says quietly. He's standing and tugging at Alana, covering his mostly-full plate with his napkin. "We'll just-"

"You don't have to-" Mrs. Murphy starts to protest, but Mr. Murphy cuts her off. 

"That's probably a good idea."

"I just meant that who cares if I'm flunking jazz band?” Zoe starts to cry in earnest now. "Who cares?"

"Thank you for having us," Alana says. She grabs Evan by the arm and tugs him from the room. He is grateful for this, because he's not sure he could get his legs to work of their own volition right now. 

Their shoes are in a neat line by the door. It seems to take an eternity for Evan to wedge his feet into his shoes. 

"We care, Zoe," Mr. Murphy is saying. "Of course we care-" 

"All you care about is Connor," she sobs. "It's all about ConnorConnorConnor-"

"I didn't mean for it to be!" Connor yells. "I wasn't trying to-" 

"We all know what you were trying to do," Zoe spits. 

Jared slams the front door behind them. Alana's grip falters on Evan's arm for a moment, but then tightens again as she does not let go. Jared finishes tying his shoes on the front porch. 

"I'll drive you guys home," he says quietly once he's finished, standing. "C'mon." 

They don’t talk the entire drive to Alana’s house. Evan bites at his cuticles until his finger starts to bleed. 

“Thanks for the ride,” Alana says, once they’ve pulled into her driveway. 

“Yeah,” says Jared. “Sorry about the- Y’know.”

“It’s fine,” Alana says. “Just forward me the email next time.”

Once she’s disappeared into her house, Jared sighs and glances at Evan in the backseat. 

“You can come sit shotgun, you know. I’m not your Uber driver.”

“I can- walk from here,” Evan offers. “If you’ve got-“

“I said I’d drive you home, Evan,” Jared says, exasperated. “Don’t play the victim before I’ve even done anything.”

Evan grabs his backpack and gets out of the car, climbs into the passenger seat. He buckles his seatbelt. It takes him a couple tries. His hands are extra shaky today. Probably he’s going to have a panic attack tonight. It just seems on-par with how the rest of this day is going. 

“I’m not- I don’t meant to play the victim,” Evan says, once they’ve pulled down Alana’s street. “I just know you said you’ve got a lot of-“

“I don’t know,” Jared interrupts, “seems like you’re pretty fuckin’ good at it, Evan.”

“At- what?”

“You’re the one who wanted to do this,” Jared explodes. “You were the one who said you didn’t want to be a part of it.”

“I- What? I didn’t-“

“You said you were cool with this!”

“Is this because the Murphys invited me over?” Evan asks, beyond confused. “Because I- I think Connor does it just to- I don’t know, as a joke or something. I can say no next time. I didn’t-“

“You’re seriously gonna pretend you have no idea what I’m talking about?”

“Yes- I- I mean, I’m not- I’m not pretending. I don’t-“

“You don’t know anything about the letters. That’s what you’re saying to me.”

“The- letters-“

They pause at a stop sign. Jared turns and gives Evan a hard look. His eyebrows furrow. They accelerate again. 

“For the most awkward person ever,” he says, quieter, “you’re a class-act liar. I’ll give you that.”

Evan feels near tears. For some reason he can’t stop thinking about this time in second grade that they played Marco Polo in gym class and Evan was It, so he was supposed to wear a blindfold and stagger around the gym until he tagged another player. The gym teacher had picked Evan as the first tagger, maybe as a joke, maybe in some misguided attempt to get Evan out of his shell, maybe for no good reason at all. Only everyone kept yelling POLO POLO POLO even though they were supposed to wait until Evan yelled MARCO to respond, and there was noise coming from every direction and a couple brave kids even ran up and tapped Evan on the shoulder and then darted away as he turned in wild circles, completely disoriented, being buffeted by noise and confusion and panic. 

Eventually, Evan had ripped off the blindfold and started to cry and then he had to go to the nurse’s office and sit on the cot and drink water from paper cups until his mom came to pick him up and give him his inhaler, and the nurse asked his mom in an undertone if she had ever done any reading on anxiety disorders because I have a few pamphlets I can give you. 

He feels a little bit like that right now, paralyzed, disoriented, buffeted by sounds and feelings and tensions that he does not understand. He digs a fingernail under his torn cuticle, watches new blood well and run down his knuckle. 

“I’m not lying,” he says quietly. “I really don’t know what you’re talking about.”

Jared makes a frustrated noise and thrusts a hand blindly into the backseat, yanking his backpack onto the center console between him and Evan. The car swerves dangerously. 

“Front pocket, in the yellow folder,” he says tersely. 

Evan retrieves the folder obediently. The zipper seems indecently loud in the quiet car. 

“Don’t open it yet,” Jared says abruptly. “I’m pulling over. I want to see your face when you read them so I know if you’re lying.”

Evan doesn’t protest. They pull into the next available parking lot. If Jared notices that they’re parked in front of the playground where Connor almost died, he doesn’t acknowledge it. Just kills the engine and turns in his seat to glare at Evan with open suspicion. 

“Okay,” he says. “Go.”

Evan opens the folder. 

It’s just three letters, a little bit crumpled. One handwritten, two typed. Evan reads them blankly. 

 

            Dear Jared Kleinman, 

            Here’s the thing - I was there that night. You weren’t. 

            Sincerely, Me

           

            Dear Jared Kleinman, 

            Why are you lying?

            Sincerely, Me

 

            Jared, 

            You’re a thief and a liar. Stop taking credit for things you had nothing to do with. 

            Either you need to tell the truth or I will.

            Sincerely, Me 

 

Chapter Text

Once Evan takes two puffs of his inhaler and walks several laps around the car and then sits on the curb for approximately fifteen minutes with his head between his knees, wondering if he’s going to die because his pulse is racing so fast he can feel it in his eyeballs, Jared seems a little less furious. He puts the letters back in the folder and shuts off the car and then he comes to sit on the curb next to Evan. Evan tries to wheeze a little quieter, to be polite.

 “So I’m guessing you didn’t know?” Jared says dryly. 

Evan manages to shake his head. He’s not sure how effective it is, with his forehead pressed to his knees. 

“Are you okay? I don’t need to, like, call your mom, do I?”

He shakes his head again, gripping his fingers into the fabric of his jeans. His eye is pressed right near the dark, crescent-shaped stain of blood that Connor wiped there earlier.

“When did you- How long have you been getting these?” he wheezes out finally. “Are there more?”

“Just the three,” Jared says. He picks up a chunk of loose gravel and inspects it dully. “I got the third one today. They started before the auction. The Friday after we had dinner with the Murphys.”

“When you got mad at me in the car,” Evan remembers. 

“Yeah,” says Jared uncomfortably, “well. I thought it was from you. Obviously.”

“Not- That’s not obvious,” Evan sputters, sitting up. “Why would I- We agreed that-“

“Well, yeah, that’s what I thought, too,” Jared snaps. “Until Connor Murphy’s inviting you to dinner and you’re pounding gluten free lasagna and making me look like a dick for trying to duck out early-“

“I wasn’t- I didn’t-“

“And then all of you disappear at the auction for hours and come back all stoned and buddy-buddy, like the fucking Scooby Doo Mystery Gang-“

“We were just outside-“

“What was I supposed to think, Evan?” Jared demands. “Connor won’t even talk to me, the kid who supposedly saved his life, but you! You were on the same tee-ball team, isn’t that crazy? And I’m supposed to think you didn’t tell him?“

“But I didn’t!” Evan blurts out. “I didn’t! You should’ve- All you had to do was ask me and I would’ve told you I didn’t!”

“Then what the fuck is going on? You’re just- What, I’m supposed to believe that Connor Murphy just suddenly wants to be your best friend? What, ‘cause of your sparkling personality?”

He says it to be an asshole, Evan can tell, but that doesn’t mean it’s not true. He’s done it again. Once again, he’s willed a fake Connor into existence — a Connor who likes Star Wars and who comes to find Evan when he finds something cool, a Connor who shows Evan how to smoke and tells him not to be embarrassed, a Connor who wants a friend. Another sad invention. He wanted it to be true so badly, he almost started to believe it.

He looks down at the crescent-shaped blood stain again, thinking about Connor pressing it there, like a joke, like a friend. It feels less funny now, more like something else. Like a message, a letter, a threat. Everything that has happened since that night in the park is suddenly reframing itself in Evan’s head. 

“I- I mean, no, obviously not,” Evan says. “He must- I don’t know. He must know. He must remember.”

“You said he was unconscious.”

“He was- I don’t know. He was dying, Jared. It was- It was-“

“It doesn’t make sense,” Jared persists. 

“He’s said,” Evan admits slowly, “a couple weird things. A couple things like maybe he- knew. Or suspected, anyway."

“You did not tell me that.”

“You weren’t talking to me! And- and I’m- I have an anxiety disorder. It’s, like, my brain’s job to overanalyze social interactions. If I told someone every time I thought someone was-“

“Okay, okay,” Jared interrupts. He stands up then and does a tense lap around the car. When he comes back, he doesn’t sit. Just stands over Evan, hands twitching anxiously. “Then why wouldn’t he just confront us? Why wouldn’t he just say we were lying?”

“I don’t know.”

“Why’s he going along with the lie?”

“I don’t know.”

“What do we do?”

“I don’t know.”

“Swear the letters aren’t from you.”

“They’re not,” Evan says tiredly. “I don’t want people to know any more than you do.”

Jared groans and flops back down onto the curb. He kicks at a chunk of gravel. 

“If this gets out,” he says, “my life is ruined. My life is- it’s over. There’s, like, money involved, Evan. A lot of money. Our Facebook page is blowing up. I’ve done interviews for local cable. I got free garlic knots at Gia’s Pizzeria the other day. Everybody knows. If this gets out-“

“People will- will understand. Whether you- whether you actually saved him or not, the club is doing a lot of good-“

“This is the first time I’ve ever done anything for my mom to be proud of,” Jared says, obviously not listening. “This is the first time I’ve ever been important and it’s not even- It’s all a big lie.”

“Maybe you should-“

“Don’t say I should confess. I won’t confess. I won’t- My life will be over.

“I wasn’t going to, but- But maybe we should disband the club. Just, like- People will- People lose interest. If we cancel the fundraisers and disband the club, in a month nobody will even care what happened that night.”

“Connor will care.”

“Maybe if we just talked to him-“

“And Alana would never let us cancel,” Jared continues, shaking his head hopelessly. “Not without an explanation.”

“She might understand-“

“I’m not telling her,” Jared says, still shaking his head. “This is- this is the first time I’ve ever mattered.”

“That’s not true.”

“No, not- That’s not what I meant. I mean, this is the first thing I’ve done that matters, Evan. I’m not shutting it down.”

“But if Connor knows-“

“Who cares what he says?” Jared interrupts. “He can’t prove anything. It’s his word against mine, and he was mid-overdose.”

“But if he saw me-“

“You say you weren’t fucking there.”

“I don’t-“

“‘Cause if this gets out, it hurts you, too,” Jared continues. He stands again, turning and pointing at Evan in accusation. “You’re just as much a liar as me.”

“I never called you a-“

“How come you knew he was going to do it, Evan? Why didn’t you tell anyone sooner, Evan? Why’d you let Jared take the credit, Evan? What are you trying to hide, Evan?”

“Stop,” Evan says. “Stopstopstopstopstop-“

“Promise me you’re not going to tell,” Jared commands. 

“I- But the letters-”

“They can’t hurt us,” Jared says. “They can’t prove it. If you don’t tell and I don’t tell, they can’t prove it. Promise?”

“Okay.” 

“Okay,” Jared repeats. The tension goes out of him visibly, like air deflating. He sinks back down on the curb, not so towering and frightening anymore. Just Jared — barbed and insecure. “Do you need your inhaler again?”

“No,” Evan says. “I’m fine. Sorry about that.”

“It’s cool,” Jared says. They sit in silence for a little bit. There’s just the quiet squeak of the swings moving in the wind, but Evan refuses to look behind him. He’s afraid of what he might see. “Should I drive you home?”

“Yes, please.”

They get back in the car.

The next day - a Thursday - Evan does not go to school. He says he’s not feeling well and his mom does that Mom Thing where she smooths his hair back and puts her cool, comforting hand on his forehead and it feels so nice and motherly that Evan has to close his eyes to stop himself from crying. 

“Hmm,” she says, straightening, “I don’t think you have a temperature.”

“It’s a- I need a mental health day,” he says finally.

Her mouth pulls tighter in concern. She moves her hand from his forehead to the side of his head, like maybe by pressing her fingers to his skull she can unspool the tangled mess within, the knots of yarn and headphone cords and shoelaces and electrical wires giving off intermittent sparks. 

“Do you need me to stay?” she asks seriously, holding his head. “I can stay home.”

He almost says yes. He almost tells her everything - how it was almost good, how he almost fixed it. Almost. How horribly and enormously big it all seems. He almost asks her to tell the story about the truck in the driveway again, the story she won’t remember telling him. 

“It’s okay,” he says, shaking his head. “It’s just the- the normal stuff.”

She looks at him for a really long time, her other hand coming up to frame his face, to hold his skull steady so he can’t flinch away when she stares him right in the face. Her face is creased with concern. He is responsible for every worry-line on her face, probably. The only mark he’s capable of making. If he were dead, those worry-lines would be the only evidence he ever existed at all. He stares down at his feet, at her feet in her practical nursing shoes bracketing his own. 

"Do you want to talk about it?” she asks. 

"Not really.” 

"Evan-" 

"It's not- it's not anything. It's just the usual. The- y'know." 

"What about the letters? Are you still doing the letters, honey? They're supposed to help with this stuff." 

"I- Sometimes." 

"Why don't you do one today?” she proposes. "I think it might really help." 

“Okay,” he says, because it’s what she wants to hear. It’s the only thing he can give her. “I’m- Yeah. I will.”

“Good,” she says, eyes still searching his face. “Good. And- and you know what? I’ll skip class tonight and we can do something fun. Maybe we can make cookies. From scratch — like a stay-at-home mom.”

He smiles, because it’s what she wants. 

“Okay?” she asks, anxious eyes. 

“Yeah,” he says. “Yes. Okay.”

Once she leaves for work, Evan goes back to bed. It’s a mistake because he accidentally sleeps until two-thirty in the afternoon, until he can barely remember his own name, until he possibly starts to, like, fade from the fabric of reality. He examines his own hand, to see if it’s gone translucent, to see if he can make out the print of his bedsheet through his hand. 

Everything feels off-kilter and wrong. He doesn’t know how he’s supposed to keep on living, knowing that this is all just a big hypothetical, that it could snap back to normal at any moment. Like maybe he’s the cat inside the box. He’s not sure if he’s alive or dead anymore.

He wishes The Ghost of Connor Murphy would come back. He’s thought of more questions to ask — Is this a forever kind of thing? Do things ever go back to normal? Is there a reality in which I am not Cripplingly Mentally Ill? Or at least a reality in which I don’t exist? When you came up and talked to me that day in the computer lounge, did you already know you were going to die that night? Is that why you wrote your name so big on my arm? — but the closet is empty and Connor’s Superball sits untouched on Evan’s desk. 

He goes downstairs and eats a Depression Meal — several handfuls of dry cereal, straight from the box — and watches an episode of House Hunters International without absorbing a singe shred of plot. He feels like maybe he’s participating in an especially glitchy virtual-reality game, and everything he touches just sort of stretches and swells around him, fever-bright. He goes back to bed.

So, yeah, letter-writing doesn’t go so well. 

 

Dear Evan Hansen, 

You don’t even exist. You’re just a glitch in the television screen, the pixel that stays fixed and gray, no matter how many times you change the channel. 

 

Dear Evan Hansen,  

Nothing is ever going to get better, do you realize that? Because you never change and you’ll never address the things you don’t like about yourself and you’re just going to be something that things happen to for the rest of your life. you are something that people look through. 

 

Dear Evan Hansen,  

Climb higher next time. 

 

Evan’s phone rings several times before he realizes what is happening. He puts down his pen and blinks down at the crumpled notebook paper, at the words written there. Climb higher next time. His phone stops ringing, goes silent, and then starts to ring again. He answers it. 

“Hello- hi?”

“Hello-hi to you, too,” Alana says cheerily. “Are you home?”

“Oh- I- Hi. Yeah. I didn’t go to school today.”

“I know, Evan. That’s why I’m calling. I have your books. We have a Spanish test tomorrow and I thought you’d want to study.”

The idea that anybody actually noticed Evan’s absence is so foreign that he can only blink for a moment. 

“Oh-“

“Hello? Are you there?”

“I’m- Yeah, sorry. Thank you.”

“Of course. Now come let me in. Connor is smoking a cigarette in this car and I’m inhaling lungfuls of carcinogens, Evan.”

“Lungfuls of- Are you- You’re here? Connor’s- You’re outside?”

“Me and Zoe and Connor are sitting in your driveway,” Alana explains with exaggerated patience. “We have your books for you. Or- Connor says it’s your house. He might be lying.”

Evan peeks out the window and, sure enough, the Murphys’ car is parked in his driveway. He thinks about turning off the lights and maybe going and locking himself in the bathroom until they leave, the way he used to do when his mom left him home alone and somebody rang the doorbell.

“Oh, I see you!” Alana says brightly. “Look, I’m waving, see?”

She climbs out of the car, waving up at him. She’s wearing a cardigan with a cartoon fox on it. She’s holding a stack of schoolbooks and she noticed that he wasn’t in school today. Evan feels an abrupt rush of fondness for her. It shakes him out of his off-kilter headspace, spurs him into speaking. 

“Okay,” he says. “One second. I’ll let you in.”

When he opens the door, Zoe and Connor are standing with Alana on the porch. Connor is turned away, shoulders hunched, holding a cigarette to his mouth. Alana is wielding a determinedly bright grin and an alarming stack of homework. Zoe gives a sheepish little wave. Her hair is in braids. 

“Hi, Evan. Are you feeling better?”

“Hi,” he says blankly, trying not to stare at Connor. “You guys really didn’t have to-“

“We missed you at school today, so I thought we could start making the posters,” Alana says brightly. At Evan’s stare, she rolls her eyes. “Why do you even come to meetings if you just zone out the whole time, Evan? The posters for the walk-a-thon. I said we’d make some before the weekend.”

“If you’re feeling up to it,” Zoe amends. 

“I forgot,” says Evan, “sorry. I’m- I feel okay.”

“Great,” Alana proclaims, and then she is grinning and pressing inside and asking if she should take off her shoes and Zoe is following her and giving Evan another embarrassed smile and a shrug and Connor’s still standing on the front porch, something unsure in his stance. When he realizes Evan is looking at him, he lifts his cigarette. 

“I just want to finish,” he says. “Unless your parents are chill with you smoking inside.”

“No, sorry,” Evan says, and immediately winces. Connor does, too. 

“Just joking,” he says. “It’s cool.”

“Cool,” Evan echoes, and goes back inside. They are not friends, he reminds himself. They are not friends. 

Alana has stacked Evan’s schoolbooks on the coffee table and she’s produced a sheaf of posterboard from somewhere, as well as a handful of Sharpie markers, a ruler, and a bundle of neatly-labeled flashcards. She hands the markers to Zoe and the flashcards to Evan.

“I thought we could quiz each other while we work,” she says. “Maximum efficiency.”

“I- Okay.”

“Where’s Connor?” Zoe asks, uncapping a Sharpie and sniffing it. She gets ink on the tip of her nose and doesn’t seem to notice. It’s horribly endearing. “He didn’t want to come in?”

“He was finishing his cigarette,” Evan says. Zoe immediately scowls.

“Gross. He’s so cliche. He’s not even a real smoker. He’s just doing it to seem angsty. Plus he’s not eighteen yet so I don’t know who’s buying him cigarettes.”

“As opposed to real smokers?” Alana says teasingly. “Like you guys?”

“That was just weed,” Zoe mumbles, but she grins sheepishly as she sketches. “It’s, like, natural.”

“Hmm,” Alana says skeptically. “Evan, conjugate the verb bailar for me.”

Zoe interrupts before Evan has to bear the embarrassment of telling Alana that he does not know how to conjugate. She keeps her eyes fixed on her bubble-lettering, but her ears go pink as she speaks. 

“Hey, I just want to say- About yesterday.”

“Don’t worry about it,” Evan says at the same time that Alana says “We had a great time.”

“No, for real,” Zoe says, “I’m sorry about that. Usually my family isn’t- It’s been a weird couple weeks, but I’m not, like- I’m good. Just a little stressed about jazz band and- I don’t know, I’m probably getting my period.”

“It’s a product of our patriarchal society that women feel like they have to attribute their emotions to hormones,” Alana says crisply, uncapping a marker. “You don’t have anything to apologize for, Zoe. Evan, conjugate bailar.”

“I appreciate that,” Zoe persists, “but I just want to explain, like- I don’t want you to think I’m just, like, crying all the time.”

“Nothing wrong with crying,” Alana says. 

“Yeah, I cry every day of my life,” Evan says in what he hopes is a Light and Joking Tone. “It’s cool.”

“I- Okay,” says Zoe. “It’s just that- I mean, I don’t want you to think I’m some big drama queen. I don’t even really care about jazz band. There’s just some really heavy stuff going on with Connor-“

Connor lets himself into the house then, smelling vaguely of smoke. He toes off his shoes by the door, all sharp angles, and when he looks up he seems startled to find them all looking at him. Like he’s surprised to find that he is visible. 

“Hi,” he says. “Sorry. I wasn’t sure if I should knock or-“

“You’re fine,” Evan says, feeling equally and inexplicably startled. 

“You really shouldn’t smoke, you know,” Alana tells Connor. “It’s bad for you.”

“I don’t think there’s any science to back that up,” Connor says lightly. He comes and sits on the floor by the coffee table, folding up his improbably long legs. He smells like smoke. One of his knees bumps into Evan’s. Evan flinches away and he can tell Connor notices. He is not your friend. 

“It’s such a gross habit,” Zoe says pointedly. Connor gives her a bored look.

“You have Sharpie on your nose.”

“Fuck,” says Zoe. She scrubs at her nose. 

“Evan,” Alana says again, “conjugate-“

“I have to go get my notebook from upstairs,” Evan says, lurching to his feet. He thinks if he stays in this room any longer, he might Literally Die or do something equally awful like start telling the truth, like start asking Connor about the letters, about that night in the park, about the Ghost. “I’ll be right back.”

He bounds up the stairs, sinks down onto his bed and tries to do some of his breathing exercises, only - as usual - they just make him get hyper-focused on his breathing and then he starts to worry that if he stops consciously thinking about breathing, his lungs will just stop working and then he will Die. Which is somehow both the Best and the Worst Case Scenario at the same time. Fuck. 

“So, um-”

Evan startles violently. Connor, a jarring and ghostly presence in the doorway, winces and holds up his hands in a pacifying gesture. 

“Fuck. Sorry. I was- looking for the bathroom.”

“There’s a bathroom downstairs,” Evan wheezes. There’s a pulse ticking under his jaw. 

“Must’ve missed it,” Connor says vaguely, and then he’s stepping into Evan’s room and glancing around. He’s in his socks and he isn’t dead and he knows he knows he knows. “If you’re really sick, we can go, y’know. We can pry Alana away.”

“I’m okay,” Evan says, a lie. “I was just catching my breath.”

“Hmm,” says Connor. He moves to study Evan’s desk. 

Evan is suddenly aware of the bareness and sadness of his room. Everything limp and colorless and deflated. Just the paper-mache planets and the same old comforter he’s had for years and the piles of scholarship essays he hasn’t written. And the crumpled notebook paper on Evan’s bed. The letters to himself. 

He snatches them up hastily, crumpling them into a ball and then stuffing that ball into his backpack. Connor gives him a funny look. Evan’s face twitches. Either you need to tell the truth or I will. 

“Do you remember I pushed you that time?” Connor asks abruptly. Evan is alarmed. 

“Oh. Yeah. Kinda. It’s- don’t worry about it.”

“I’m not gonna do it again,” Connor says, exasperated. “You don’t have to, like, tense up.”

“I wasn’t,” Evan lies. “I didn’t think-“

“But you did,” Connor counters. “You thought I might shove you again.”

No, I thought you might call me a liar. I thought you might ask me to tell you the truth. I thought you might ask me how I knew you were going to do it. I thought you might tell me it’s my fault that you’re not dead.  

“I’m sorry-“

“It’s not your fault,” he scowls. “I did push you. I can’t blame people for being, like, scared of me.”

“I mean,” Evan tries, “to be- to be fair, I’m like- I have an anxiety disorder so it’s, like- I’m kind of always this flinchy. Twitchy. Y’know. Sorry.”

Connor seems surprised by this. His face gets a little less pinched. 

“I didn’t know that,” he says. 

“That I- well. Yeah. It’s kind of- it’s kind of obvious. I assume people can- can tell. Sorry. I didn’t mean to- to, like, unload on you. Like, hi I’m Evan and I’m Mentally Ill. That’s- that’s so weird. I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be sorry,” says Connor vaguely, like he’s not really paying attention. He moves to sit on the edge of Evan’s bed, posture uncomfortable. “Is that, like- you just call yourself that?”

“What?”

“Mentally ill.”

“Oh. I mean, I was kinda- I was kinda joking, but- but yeah. That’s, like- My mom likes to say it’s just like any other illness. Like, you’d rest a broken bone. You’d treat an infection. So you have to- Sorry. You don’t care about that.”

“Yes, I do,” Connor disagrees. “I asked, didn’t I?”

“I- Yeah. Sorry.”

“You don’t- Is the apologizing thing- Is that just me? Or is it, like-“

“No, it’s- it’s just, like, my default setting. It’s a product of, y’know. I’m supposed to be working on it.”

Connor nods, absorbing this. He says, “I thought maybe it was just me. Because of the- the pushing thing. Like, you were scared of me.”

“Oh,” says Evan, “no.”

I’m scared of your Ghost. It lives in my closet sometimes. I’m scared you’re going to try again. I’m scared you’re going to ask me to tell you the truth. 

“A lot of people are scared of me,” Connor continues, voice a little louder like he’s making a show of Not Caring. He keeps his eyes fixed on Evan’s paper-mache planets. “They think I’m crazy. That I’m gonna, like- shoot up the school or something.”

“Oh.”

“I’m not. Going to do that, I mean.”

“No, I- I know.”

It’s quiet. Connor shifts on the corner of the mattress. He tugs at his ear, oddly tentative. Evan almost forgets about the letters, looking at the anxious set of his spine. Connor says, after a while, “Sorry I called you a freak that time. Turns out I have anger issues. I mean, obviously. But now it’s therapist-official. Certified Freak.”

“It’s- don’t worry about it.”

“You don’t have to act like you’re surprised. It won’t hurt my feelings.”

“I don’t think you’re a freak,” Evan finds himself saying quietly. 

“Right,” says Connor, a little bit ironic. He does a finger-gun at Evan. “Mentally ill.”

Evan does a finger-gun back. It’s poorly executed and kinda a flop, but Connor politely ignores that. His face does the young, open thing. Just for a moment. Just long enough for Evan to think about the Facebook photos. The horrible, tragic tie around Connor’s brittle bird-neck. Mrs. Murphy reaching out to touch his face, and him flinching away. He has to swallow, hard. He is not your friend, Evan. He is not Like You. He’s something you made up inside your sad, fucked-up head. 

Connor gets to his feet. He moves to examine the lopsided paper-mache spheres, flicking at Jupiter and setting it rocking. He casts a shadow against the wall. When he passes the mirror, there’s a flash of messy curly hair and jutting chin. He is not dead.

“I like your planets,” he says.

“Thanks. They’re- I don’t know why I never took them down,” Evan says. “I’m not even, like, into space. It freaks me out.”

“Space?”

“It’s, like- too big,” says Evan, and then he can’t help but crack a smile. He is not your friend. “This is a- a conversation we need weed for.”

Connor laughs like he’s surprised by this. He sets Saturn spinning. 

“I’m actually trying to quit,” he says, voice light, always a little bit higher than Evan expects, face turned away. 

“Oh,” Evan says. “Sorry. I was just joking. I didn’t mean-“

“No, I know,” Connor says quickly. “I was just, like, telling you. I’m trying to stop smoking so much. It’s like a- coping mechanism thing. You know.”

“That’s- good?”

“Yeah, I used to- I don’t know. I’ll probably fuck it up,” he says frankly. 

“You won’t,” Evan disagrees. “Just try to- take deep breaths and- go on walks?”

Connor laughs again, but it’s in a nice kind of way. He turns away from the planets, poking around Evan’s desk. 

“Okay, so space is freaky,” he says. “Trees, though?”

“Trees are- Jared made it sound weird,” Evan protests. “I like them-“

“-a normal amount,” Connor finishes, but he says it in a nice way, like they’re both in on this joke. “Right.”

“I just think they’re, like- What are you- Please don’t play with that.”

Connor looks startled, like he’s not sure if Evan’s joking or not. He fumbles his catch and the pink rubber Superball thuds to the floor, bounces twice, and rolls under Evan’s bed. 

“I- sorry,” he says, big-eyed. “I didn’t realize-“

“It’s fine,” Evan says in a rush. He has to fight to keep his face from twitching, trying to hold back the image. He’s not your friend he’s not your friend he’s not your friend. He is not Like You. “I just don’t-“

“I should go back downstairs,” Connor says hurriedly. “I didn’t mean to- sorry.”

“It’s- fine. Yeah. The, uh- the bathroom’s down the hall.” Evan gestures limply. Connor’s eyes follow the movement. 

“Okay,” he says. He hesitates for another second, and then he’s leaving with another mumbled, “Sorry.”

“I’ll be down in a second,” Evan says. He starts to leave, then turns back and retrieves the Superball from other his bed, returns it to his desk. Just in case. He is just- He’s really lonely. 

They make posters for a while. Evan is pleasantly surprised to learn that he can learn to conjugate, if appropriately bullied into it by Alana. They make Connor read the flashcards for them, which he does willingly enough. Otherwise he stays quiet. He keeps his limbs to himself, knees and elbows tucked. 

There’s a sort of tentative politeness between Zoe and Connor. He passes her a Sharpie when she asks for it. She corrects his pronunciation on a couple Spanish verbs. Evan remembers the rattling silverware on the table last night and wonders if they’ve talked at all. He remembers sitting on the bed with Zoe, the eager way she received his lies, her desperate hunger for this fake Connor, this Connor they all wanted to believe in. He doesn’t know why he thought he could fix it all, this time, just by keeping Connor alive. As if it could ever be that simple. 

Around five, Heidi lets herself into the house. She starts to call Evan’s name and then breaks off, surprised, as she sees them all gathered around the coffee table. 

“Oh,” she says, “hi there. Evan, I didn’t know you were having friends over.”

Her real meaning — Evan, I didn’t know you had friends — is evident in her blank surprise, her unexpected joy. Evan never realizes how heavily he weighs on her until that burden lifts, even just for a moment. 

“They’re not- I wasn’t-“

“Hi, Mrs. Murphy,” Alana chimes in, getting to her feet. “I’m Alana Beck. Co-president of The Jared Project. I’m sure Evan’s mentioned me to you.”

“Sure,” she says uncertainly, allowing Alana to shake her hand. “Nice to meet you, Alana. Please, call me Heidi.”

“I hope you don’t mind,” Alana continues, politely pushy, “we stopped by. Evan and I have a Spanish test tomorrow and I wanted to make sure he was appropriately prepared.”

“That’s thoughtful of you,” Heidi says, and her bewilderment is quickly transitioning into delight. “Evan, I didn’t know you had such thoughtful friends. Are you all in the same Spanish class?”

“No,” Zoe says, a little bit shy, “just wanted to see how he was feeling.”

“Better,” Evan says quickly. “I’m feeling better.”

“Great!” his mom says, so fucking happy. “Well- great! I- It won’t be anything fancy, but I told Evan I’d skip class tonight and we’d make cookies and watch some bad tv. You guys are welcome to join us.”

“You don’t have to,” Evan says in a rush. “Like, don’t feel pressured-“

“I’m not pressuring anyone, honey,” she hushes him. “I’m just offering.”

“I’d love to stay,” Alana accepts graciously. “Thank you.”

“We’d love to,” Zoe says, exchanging a look with Connor, “but our mom’s really into this, like, family dinner thing right now. She’d probably freak if we missed it.”

“Oh, wow, that’s so sweet.” She gives an anxious little laugh. “Family dinner, Evan. We’re not so good about that, are we?”

“We’re- Mom’s working and taking night classes,” Evan explains, feeling defensive of his mother with her young, kind face and her scrubs with the jellyfish on them. “Plus its just us two so it’s not like-“

“We eat a lot of pizza,” she finishes apologetically. 

“We do, too. Family Night is only a recent thing,” Zoe says. “It’s a little bit-“

“Forced,” Connor says. 

“New,” Zoe finishes pointedly. “But thank you for the invitation.”

“Sure,” Heidi says, smiling at her warmly. “I’m just going to change out of my scrubs and then I’m going to make those cookies I promised you, Evan. Do you guys like chocolate-chip?”

“Yes,” says Zoe with enthusiasm. 

“Sounds great, Mrs. Hansen,” Alana says.

“Really, honey, Heidi is just fine.”

Alana gives her a tight grin that Evan interprets to mean that Alana is Supremely Uncomfortable with this concept, and will continue to cling to her formalities, even if it means calling his mother Mrs. Hansen with her dying breath.  

Once his mom’s footsteps have faded up the stairs, he explains, “My parents are divorced, so.”

“Oh,” says Alana, “I’m sorry.”

“Oh, it’s not like a- It doesn’t bother me anymore. You don’t have to be- to be sorry.”

“You realize the irony in you telling someone not to apologize?” Connor says. 

Evan starts to stiffen and apologize again, but then he realizes that Connor’s kinda smiling at him. There’s something tentative and open to it. It’s almost enough to make Evan forget about Connor standing there in his socks holding the Superball — a possibility, something both dead and alive, something he’s willed into existence. He feels sorry for yelling, even if Connor does know the truth. Even if he did write those letters. He allows himself to grin back sheepishly.

“Leave Evan alone,” Zoe says. She pokes Evan in the arm with a Sharpie. “Your mom is so cute.”

“Oh,” says Evan, “thanks? She’s- good.”

Zoe laughs fondly at this, and then Alana gives Connor a friendly kick and tells him to get back to quizzing us, por favor and they work on the posters until Evan’s mom brings them cookies. And it’s, weirdly, not such a bad day after all. 

Chapter Text

...

The problem with living in a Christmas That Could Be scenario, apart from being Jewish — or, well, culturally Jewish and spiritually agnostic — is that even when things are going right, there’s this horrible off-kilter sensation that none of this is Real. It’s all just a hypothetical. Like the build up to the math problem. Like living inside a cardboard box, waiting for someone to open up the lid and declare you alive or dead. 

This would probably be unsettling for anyone, but when you are Evan Hansen — damp, mentally ill, cripplingly anxious, constantly lying — and the threads holding your reality together are already somewhat worn, things get particularly Not Fun. Living with mental illness means living with a constant fear that your brain might be lying. Having that fear confirmed is like… the slow-train to Dissociation Station. 

(This is the fun kind of wordplay Evan’s brain has time to indulge in when it stops processing reality as reality and goes into sleep mode.)

He spends the next two weeks in a vaguely dissociative state. Like maybe he has a fever or maybe this is all a simulation — or maybe he’s the simulation. 

And it’s funny because things are going, like, okay? He has friends, possibly, maybe. Acquaintances, at the very least. And his mom is horribly, tragically overjoyed about this and she keeps telling him to invite them over for dinner again soon. And The Jared Project meets every Wednesday and Friday and there are new students at each meeting. They have to switch classrooms to accommodate the new numbers. They’re starting to contact businesses and distribute sign-up sheets and clean up the orchard. Every time Evan goes on Facebook, Mrs. Kleinman has shared a new article or local news interview with Jared. Eventually he has to stop going on Facebook. 

There are no more letters. At the end of every day Evan stands nervously, sweatily at Jared’s locker and fumbles with the hem of shirt and asks, “Are there any- I mean-“

And Jared says, hastily, “No, shut up. It’s fine.”

Things are good. Things are good. 

He offers to drive Evan home sometimes, but mostly Evan says no. He doesn’t want to sit in the car with Jared. He doesn’t think Jared really wants to sit with him either. He’s just a reminder of the lie they’re telling together. It just makes him think about the letters. It just reminds Evan that everything they’re doing is a lie. Everything good he has, he stole. 

But it’s fine. Things are good. 

The Ghost hasn’t come back and Evan doesn’t know what that means. Some nights he swears he can hear a ball bouncing against his ceiling, but there’s nothing there when he turns on the light. Probably it’s a good thing. Like, if The Ghost is the possibility of Connor still dying, then maybe The Ghost going away means that Connor is like… good? Fixed? Is that how recovering from a suicide attempt works? Evan wouldn’t know.

And yeah, every time he tries to write a letter to himself it turns out horrible and vitriolic and abusive. And yeah, he spends a lot of time thinking about killing himself, but only by mistake. In an absent-minded, unintentional sort of way — just glancing out the window during class, calculating how far from the ground he is. Pouring too many pills into his hand when he takes his morning meds and then holding them in his palm for a second, not even thinking, until they start to melt chalky-white and he has to pour back all but one. Pressing a finger to his wrist in bed at night, feeling his pulse flicker determinedly under the skin, thinking about the way it would race and then falter and then stop entirely. 

But then he catches himself and blinks that notion away, and then it’s fine. He is present. He exists. He is real and he is awake. Things are good. Things are good. Things are good. 

Evan stands sweatily by Jared’s locker, knotting his fingers together. He says, “Are there any- y’know-“

Jared stands quickly, says, “No, shut up. There haven’t been any in- like, two weeks. It’s fine. I think he stopped.”

Evan tries for a soothing inhale but does not succeed. His voice comes out choked. 

“Why would he- why would he do that? Why would he stop?”

“I don’t know,” Jared says. He slams his locker. “Why don’t you ask him? Since you’re best friends now.”

“That’s not- We’re not-“ Evan flounders, but it’s rendered somewhat useless because right then Zoe, Alana, and Connor round the corner. Alana waves at him expectantly. Evan waves back limply. Things are… good? 

“Right. It was a joke,” Jared says unconvincingly. He looks a little tired when he adjusts the straps of his backpack. He says, “Do you need a ride to the Orchard?”

“Oh,” says Evan, flicking a hand toward where his friends — friends? okay, at least definitely acquaintances — are standing, “no, it’s okay. I- I have a ride.”

“Oh, right,” Jared says flatly, eyes following Evan’s gesture, “The Scooby Doo Mystery Gang.”

“It’s- not,” Evan says. “Zoe offered me a ride.”

“It’s fine,” Jared says. “Jinkies, right? See you there.”

“Yeah,” says Evan. “See you there.”

It’s a beautiful day for mid-October. There’s a warm-yellowy hue to everything, like someone put an Instagram filter on this day. Zoe plays some weird mumbly indie rock music as she drives and sings along under her breath, following the easy turn of the road. Evan pulls a knee up onto the seat and rests his chin there and tries to convince himself to just be. He is present. He exists. He is real and he is awake. 

“Maybe we should’ve invited Jared to drive with us,” he says. 

“What?” Zoe asks, surprised. “Why?”

“I just think he might’ve- I don’t know. Wanted to be included.”

“He’s kinda been a dick to you, Evan,” Zoe says frankly. 

“Not really,” he protests. “That was- we talked about it.”

“He’s a dick,” Connor agrees. He is sharp and a little bit mean today, mostly sitting quietly with his shoulders tense, like a coiled spring. Now he turns in his seat to point a finger. “Even Alana thinks so. Look.”

“I don’t think that,” says Alana primly, and then very conspicuously changes the subject. “I like this song, Zoe.”

“Isn’t it good?” Zoe agrees, suddenly enthusiastic. She turns up the music, grinning at Alana in the rearview mirror. “It’s all super DIY, guitar-led stuff. I found her on Soundcloud. She’s only nineteen, isn’t that unfair?”

“You’re so normcore,” Connor says. “Poor Mom and Dad. Their kids are so weird.”

“Fuck off,” says Zoe without any heat. “I’m cool. She’s really good. Imagine being nineteen and being, like, talented.”

“I can’t even imagine being nineteen,” Connor says. 

Zoe keeps talking to Alana enthusiastically about how critics are saying guitar-driven music is dying, but how they’re totally wrong, because young women playing guitars are actually dominating the indie rock genre right now. Evan puts his head against the window and lets it vibrate against his forehead as they turn off the pavement, down a bumpy dirt road. He tries to put himself in this moment. He is sitting in this car, traveling down an unpaved road. He has a physical body and he can interact with the world around him. He exists. Things are good.

“We haven’t been here in years,” Zoe marvels as they pass a wooden sign, peeling paint welcoming them to the Autumn Smile Orchard. “Remember, Connor?”

“No,” says Connor, an obvious lie. It bothers Zoe anyway. She closes her mouth tight and takes the next turn a little too harshly. When she speaks, it’s strained and hushed, like she’s trying to keep her voice from traveling into the backseat. 

“I don’t know why you keep saying that. It just hurts Mom’s feelings and you know how hard she’s trying-“

“Why are you whispering?”

“Connor, can you please just-“

“It’s not like this is all some big fuckin’ secret.”

“Connor-“

“I’ve never been,” Evan says with effort, a little too loud. He exists. This is real. When he speaks, he makes a sound. “Is it different?”

“It’s really overgrown now,” Alana says, obviously just as eager to lighten the mood. “Jared and I looked around last week. It’s, like, nice. But there’s a lot of work to do.”

“You’ve never been?” Connor asks abruptly, turning in his seat to frown at Evan, who tries his best not to flinch away. 

Connor is not his friend. Or at least, he is not the Connor that Evan built for himself, cobbled together from the bookshelves and the posters of a dead boy. He doesn’t quite know what this Connor is. He has a disarming, direct way of staring at Evan sometimes, like this, like he’s forgotten that he is visible, like he’s forgotten that Evan can see him looking. 

“No,” Evan answers. “I’d never even- heard of it.”

“I thought you said you’d been,” Connor insists. He knows he knows he knows he knows.

“No,” Evan says, “I think that was Jared. I’m- I just heard it used to be, like, really cool.”

“Oh,” says Connor. He doesn’t immediately turn back around. Evan has to knot his fingers together to stop his whole face from twitching. There’s a muscle under his eye that wants desperately to spasm.

“Don’t worry,” Alana says. “It’s a lot of work, but in middle school I ran a profitable business where I raked my neighbor’s yards and did minor pruning, so I’m very experienced at yard work.”

This makes them all laugh, despite the tension in the front seats, despite Zoe’s unhappy mouth and Connor’s sharp shoulders. Alana smiles tightly, a little self-conscious, and looks around like she’s waiting for them to explain the joke, politely bewildered. 

“I wasn’t kidding.” 

“That’s what makes it great,” Connor says, face all screwed up with laughter, eyes squinty. 

“You’re so great, Alana,” Zoe agrees fondly. 

Alana continues to look confused, but also a little bit happier. Everything is a little bit better. She’s still smiling as she climbs out of the car and immediately starts ordering people around. The rest of them follow her more slowly, Zoe stopping to take a picture to send to her mother, Evan breathing in the smell of an abandoned orchard — rotting apples and damp wood and mulch. He immediately feels a little calmer. 

“Think you can hide your boner for all these trees, Evan?” Jared asks, kicking some leaves at him. 

“It’s not- I don’t have, like, a tree kink,” Evan protests, but Jared is already cackling and turning away. 

Evan joins the group of students that Alana is addressing importantly. There are maybe thirty kids, all dressed in work clothes, most already equipped with rakes and paper refuse bags and hedge clippers. Zoe’s friends from jazz band — Eyebrow Piercing Isley and Ironic Bolo Tie Luca — wave them over. Bolo Tie Luca isn’t wearing a bolo tie anymore, but instead has a pink terrycloth sweatband around his head. Again, the irony of the accessory choice is unclear. 

“Hey, music school drop-out,” Luca greets Zoe. She flips him off. 

“The walkathon is going to follow the main trail through the orchard, around the old cider mill, across the bridge and end back here,” Alana is saying loudly. “Ideally we’ll have a bunch of local businesses set up booths here with water and snacks and activities, and we’re going to have some local mental health organizations running workshops and handing out resources.”

“Matt’s EMT unit agreed to come and do some training workshops on how to recognize the signs and, y’know,” Jared adds, leaning on a rake. “And Sabrina’s parents have a pick-up truck, so we’re hoping to have some sort of hayride going on, too. I think there are some, like, permits and stuff for things like that. Alana’s working on it.”

“I’m working on it,” Alana agrees. “But today we’re just focusing on cleaning up. I need a group to stay here and clean up the main orchard. Then I need another group to follow the trail and make sure it’s all marked and not too muddy. There should be red markers along the trail, but we’ll need to add markers wherever we feel it’s unclear. Someone with some hiking experience should probably lead the way.”

“I don’t go outside much,” Jared says unhelpfully, when nobody else speaks up. 

“Well,” Alana says briskly, “I’m an Eagle Scout, so I guess I can take the lead on this one. Nine or ten of you, come with me. Jared will take charge of the orchard clean-up.”

Evan glances over to see that Zoe and her friends are peeling away to follow Alana. By mistake he looks at Connor, who shrugs at him. He looks tense and mean, but there’s not much energy behind it. Like he’s exhausted and has just fallen into his default settings. 

“You like trees, right?” Connor says. “Let’s go look at some trees.”

Evan doesn’t protest. He does like trees. They hurry after Alana, marching purposefully down the trail and into the thicker forest, where everything is cool and damp and smells of rot, in the best possible way. Evan takes a big, hungry gulp of air. 

“Aren’t Eagle Scouts for Boy Scouts?” Dana P. asks Alana as they walk. “Why weren’t you a Girl Scout?”

“I was, Dana P.,” Alana says impatiently. “I did both. I didn’t want any gaps in my civic education just because of gender.”

“She’s amazing,” Eyebrow Piercing whispers to Zoe. Then, louder, “You’re amazing.”

“Thank you,” Alana says graciously. “Try and keep up.”

“Hey, Alana,” Zoe says a while later, keeping her voice low, once they’ve stopped to prune back some particularly overgrown brush, “can I ask you, like- I don’t know. I feel weird about something.”

Alana pauses her clipping to raise her eyebrows at Zoe expectantly. Zoe rakes a couple more leaves and doesn’t immediately speak. She’s wearing a baseball cap backwards over her ponytail, but it doesn’t hide the way her ears go pink.

“Okay,” she says, “I know this is a fundraiser, so we want as many people involved as possible. But, like. Hay rides? Vendors? It feels a little, like-“

“Like a carnival.” 

Connor looks surprised at his own words. His face closes off and he goes back to hacking lopsidedly at a bush. Evan stares down at the leaves he is raking so that he can’t see the stiff set of Connor’s shoulders, because then he will think about that night in the park and then he will think about Connor’s pulse racing racing racing and then he will think about his own pulse racing racing racing and what it would feel like for it all to just. Stop. 

“Like a carnival,” Zoe agrees, eyes lingering on her brother for a second. “I don’t know, like kinda weirdly festive?”

“Oh,” says Alana, pausing, “well I wasn’t thinking of it that way. But I guess it sort of is?”

She looks troubled for a minute, clipping back a few more branches with her face screwed up thoughtfully. Then she puts her hands on her hips and turns back to Zoe, tone careful but a little more confident. 

“But really the object is to get as many people involved as possible so we can make money. This is the best way to do that. It’s not, like, celebrating mental illness. Just like Relay for Life isn’t celebrating cancer. It’s celebrating survivors and promoting awareness.”

“I guess,” Zoe concedes, face still unhappy, “but this is all a result of, y’know, one incident and-“

Connor’s clippers get stuck in a particularly thick branch. Evan watches his knuckles go whiter as he tightens his grip, shaking the shears in an effort to dislodge them. He forces his gaze back down on the leaves, remembering the feeling of Connor’s ribs shifting under his layers of sweatshirt, bones so close under the skin, this weird and jolting reminder that everybody just has, like, a literal skeleton inside of them. Just these fragile little bones stacked and wired together, like the dinosaurs in museums.  

“But it’s not about that one incident anymore,” Alana persists. “It’s about the wider community and the way we talk about mental health.”

The branch finally snaps and Connor’s shears go flying from his hand and land with a crunch among the leaves. It makes them all jump. Connor swears. 

“Jesus, dude,” says Eyebrow Piercing Isley with a laugh, brushing by them with an enormous armful of leaves, “careful. You’re gonna kill someone.”

“That’s the plan,” Connor mumbles, but he’s stooping to fumble through the leaves for his lost clippers and his face is turned away and maybe he actually never spoke at all. Evan lets himself believe that. Everything is fine. The Ghost is gone, which means that Connor is okay now. Everything is okay. Things are good. 

“What do you think, Evan?” Zoe asks, turning to him appealingly. 

He’s startled to be addressed. It’s easier to talk to Zoe now, now that he can recognize she is, like, a real person and not a mysterious solution to his problems. He likes her even better now that he knows that, but in a different kind of way. He thinks about her lips less. Still, it isn’t easy to ave her look him in the face like she’s asking him to tell her something good, like she’s asking him to tell her that her brother really did love her — really, underneath it all. 

“Um,” he says, a disappointment. “I don’t- I don’t know.”

“We can bring it up to Jared,” Alana offers, “but I think he’ll agree with me.”

“It feels insensitive,” Zoe persists. She turns to Connor. “Don’t you think-“

“I don’t want to talk about this,” Connor says dully, stripping the leaves off a dead branch. Zoe’s face screws up, stubborn chin jutting. 

“Okay, fine, but just-“

“I don’t. Want to. Talk. About-“

“I’m not trying to make you-“

“Fucking drop it, Zoe.”

Zoe’s face goes soft and hurt for a second, and then her eyes go hard, like they’ve been shuttered. 

“Fine,” she says coolly, and then she goes to help Bolo Tie Luca scoop leaves into a refuse bag. 

Alana frowns after her, looking conflicted. Then she looks back at Connor like she’s just remembered who he is and where they are and why. Like she’s just remembered he’s only a ghost. She pushes her hair back behind her ears and says again, defensively, “Jared will agree with me.”

Connor doesn’t answer. He finishes pulling the leaves off his branch and hucks it into the woods listlessly. 

“It’s okay,” Evan says. 

Alana puts hair into a ponytail, eyebrows furrowed like she’s thinking hard. She opens her mouth and then shuts it again, and then she goes to yell at Dana P. about something. Connor cuts some more branches, chopping at random angles, the motion a little bit savage. Evan thinks about quickening his pace, catching up with the group.

Instead, he says, “Want to hear a cool tree fact?”

Connor’s shoulders stiffen and then deflate like he’s wearing something really heavy around his neck. Like there’s a weight suspended from his windpipe and it’s pulling all his edges inward. He chops another branch and exhales a surprised, unpracticed laugh. 

“Yeah. Hit me with it.”

“Okay,” Evan says. “Um. Let me think. Okay. Oh, trees can be bisexual.”

Connor gives a surprised laugh. “No shit?”

“Yeah, well- I mean, like, they’re called that but they’re not really bisexual by the- It just means that they have both male and female organs,” Evan amends. “But they’re- There’s a funny story. So the state tree of Ohio is the buckeye tree, which is bisexual. And some guy in Ohio wrote a letter to the newspaper about how, like, shameful it was that their state tree was bisexual.”

“What a dick,” Connor says, scowling. 

“Yeah, well,” Evan adds hastily, “they didn’t- I mean, they didn’t change it, so. Go Ohio, I guess.”

“Go Ohio,” Connor repeats. “That’s cool.” 

“Keep up!” Alana calls from farther along the trail. “Don’t get left behind.”

“Sorry!” Evan yells back. They kick the remaining leaves out of the way and slowly trail after the group. Everything’s quiet and crisp and autumnal. For like five blissful seconds, Evan doesn’t feel like he’s looking at his life through a pane of glass. 

And then the trail takes a turn, and suddenly the bramble parts onto an open field, knee-high yellow grass framed with trees. It’s strikingly beautiful, like something you might make up in your head. Like a place you might dream up while you’re standing in a dead boy’s kitchen and his parents are staring at you and you’re imagining, for the first time, what it would be like to Have This. A place where you might have a perfect day. Evan has to stop in his tracks, eyes squinting shut without his permission. 

“Oh, shit, we used to fly kites here,” Connor says.

“It’s- really pretty,” Evan manages. 

“Let’s go,” Connor decides, and then he’s stepping off the path and wading into the grass. He turns back to Evan and every part of him is back-lit, just for a second, sun catching metallic-yellow in the frizz of his messy hair, and Evan wonders with a start how anyone ever believed in the limp, lifeless Connor he built. A sad invention. A pale imitation of this Connor standing in the grass, lit yellow, saying, “C’mon. Show me some trees.”

Evan looks towards Alana for help, hoping she’ll scold them into moving on, but she’s lecturing Dana P. about something and the group is already disappearing around the bend of the trail and Connor is standing there in the yellow grass, a little less stooped than usual, grinning. 

“C’mon,” he says again. 

“We’re going to get in trouble,” Evan says, but he’s already stepping off the trail. “Or get lost.”

“I was a Boy Scout for like two years,” Connor says. “We’ll be fine.”

“You- you don’t seem like the Boy Scout type.”

“I wasn’t,” Connor says blithely, stooping to uproot a handful of dried yellow grass as they walk. “I quit or got kicked out or something.”

“Or something,” Evan echoes. 

“Or something.”

They wade through the grass, sun warm on the back of Evan’s shoulders. Connor pulls up another handful of grass. Evan exhales and is surprised by how loud it is, even over the scratch of dried grass on denim. 

“Race you,” Connor says abruptly, and then he takes off running. 

“Wait- I- Oh, no,” Evan despairs, but he breaks into a reluctant run. Probably he looks incredibly stupid when he runs. Probably his form is all wrong and he keeps tripping over the uneven ground and his legs are short and stubby, not like Connor who is approximately 95% leg. 

“C’mon!” Connor yells again. 

“I hate this!” Evan yells back. 

Connor stops running as suddenly as he started, skidding to a halt underneath a warped, stumpy little tree. It probably once bore apples, but years of unattended growth have turned its fruit wild and shrunken. They scatter the ground beneath the tree, wizened and yellow, attracting bees and probably animals, too, judging from the many half-eaten crabapples. 

“Gross,” says Connor, inspecting one. He throws it against the trunk of the tree and it explodes into brown, rotting chunks. He repeats himself, gleefully, “Gross. Can we eat these?”

“Probably not,” Evan says. “Or, like- You wouldn’t die. But they’re really bitter. You’d get a stomach ache.”

Connor nods, accepting this. He kicks another crabapple and then moves to circle the tree, inspecting it vaguely. 

“How come you weren’t a Boy Scout? You seem like the type. In a- Not in a bad way. Just in a, y’know- The tree thing.”

“I never joined,” Evan says. He clears some fallen apples out of the way and sits down awkwardly in the grass. “My mom didn’t have time. But I- I really wanted to. I don’t know why because I was like- so shy. And I didn’t like activities. But I really wanted to be a Boy Scout. I used to- It’s so embarrassing, but I made myself a sash out of, like, paper towel. And I would draw on all these different badges in marker.”

Connor’s scuffling stops and then he’s rounding the tree with a weird something twisted at the corner of his mouth. 

“That makes me want to, like- hug you or cry or something,” he says, with this weird look on his face like he’s got a bad taste in his mouth and he’s trying to determine what it is. 

“Sorry,” says Evan. “I didn’t mean it as, like- It’s not my mom’s fault. She was just really- It was right after my dad-“

“No, I know,” Connor says. He flops down in the leaves across from Evan. “It’s just really cute.”

“I was- a weird kid.”

“Yeah, well. We definitely didn’t wear sashes, dude. That was Girl Scouts.” 

“Well you were- You were missing out.”

Connor exhales a laugh and stretches his arms behind him, cracks his back so loudly Evan flinches at the sound — bones realigning, slotting into place. 

“Sorry,” says Connor, watching his face. “I’ve been sleeping bad and it’s fucking up my back.”

“Oh, no, it’s- fine,” Evan says. “I’m really- I used to crack my knuckles, like, obsessively.”

“It doesn’t actually give you arthritis.”

“No, I know, but I- It was like a nervous tick. Thing. I would crack them even when they didn’t need to crack and it would- hurt. I don’t know.”

Connor makes a humming noise like he’s not really listening and pulls up some more grass, motions a little bit twitchy and distracted. His mouth pulls in tight, knotting and then releasing in a defeated exhale. He says, “Do you care if I smoke?”

“Oh,” says Evan, “no, not really. I thought you were quit-“

“I am,” Connor snaps, already digging into the pockets of his jacket. “Or I’m- I will. I just- need to-“

“It’s fine,” Evan says hurriedly. “I don’t mind.”

“Okay,” says Connor, shoulders sagging, and then he’s unearthing a battered package of cigarettes and tapping out a lumpy, hand-rolled joint. 

Evan tries not stare at the way all the tension seems to go out of him the second he inhales, like all the wires holding his skeleton together have been cut. 

“Sorry,” Connor says after a few more breaths. “Do you want a hit?”

“No, thank you,” Evan says politely. 

“Sorry,” Connor says again, illogically. He smokes quietly for a while and then stubs the rest of the joint out. His eyes are bloodshot when he lifts his face suddenly to glare at Evan. “I’m not, like, addicted to weed.”

“Okay,” says Evan, disarmed.

“That’s not a thing,” Connor persists. “You can’t get addicted to weed.”

“Okay.”

“So don’t, like- You don’t have to get all-“

“I’m not- Sorry. I’m not- doing anything.”

Evan must flinch back or maybe he lifts a hand defensively or something, and Connor’s posture goes slack again. His hand moves to his ear and he tugs twice, hard. 

“Sorry,” he says again. “I wasn’t going to- I wouldn’t-“

“No, I- I know,” Evan rushes. 

Connor picks up a half-rotted crabapple and hurls it past Evan, way over his head, to splatter in the field somewhere. He sinks back on his hands. Evan thinks of dinosaur bones, stacked and wired, delicately balanced. 

“It’s just, like, easier,” Connor says, “when I’m high.”

“What is?“

“I don’t know. Everything. Fuck,” he laughs. “I used to- Weed’s not so bad, you know. There are worse things to- It’s, like. I’m not mean when I’m stoned. I don’t act crazy.”

“Okay,” Evan says. 

“I just exist less,” Connor says, “when I’m high. I don’t feel things as much.”

“And that’s,” Evan hazards, “good?”

“It’s-“ Connor frowns and shifts and cracks his back. “It’s easier. I don’t know. Is that the same as good?”

“I don’t know,” Evan tells him truthfully. 

Connor picks up another fallen apple, softly green, and turns it over in his hands. Evan thinks of The Ghost of Connor Murphy’s hands moving over the Superball, but he also thinks of This Connor’s hands, uncapping a bottle, one hand cupping to catch the pills as the other hand pours. 

“Can you tell me another tree fact?” Connor asks, face turned down, hands moving. 

“Yeah,” says Evan, staring. “Um. Yeah. S-so in most trees, only like 1% of the tree is actually alive. Like the leaves and the roots and right under the bark is living, but rest is dead cells. So most trees are, like, 99% dead or dying at all times.”

“That’s relatable,” Connor says. “I’m 99% dead or dying.”

“Yeah,” Evan says, digging his fingernails into his stinging palms, “but they don’t ever die. That’s the best part. Like, unless they get a blight or bugs or humans chop them down or something, they keep on being mostly dead but never actually dying.”

“Hmm,” says Connor, face down. His hands stop moving. “That’s so goth.”

“Goth bisexuals,” Evan says. Connor laughs.

“A mostly dead bisexual going through their scene phase. Same.”

“See,” says Evan, and he’s surprised to find himself smiling. “I told you they’re- they’re cool. Trees.”

“Trees,” Connor agrees, and when he finally lifts his face he’s smiling a little bit, too. “Fuck.”

“And they, like- they change,” Evan continues, feeling lighter, “but they do it slowly. Not like people. You can- I don’t know, you can keep up.”

It’s obviously an extremely embarrassing thing to say, but Connor just nods and absorbs it quietly. Evan remembers he is clenching his fists and quickly relaxes his hands. His palms sting from where his ragged nails dug in, too short to properly break the skin. 

“Can you- Don’t tell Zoe about the- y’know,” Connor says eventually, tone a little hazy. He tears up some more grass.

“Oh, no. I mean- I wasn’t going to,” Evan says. 

“She’ll just give me shit for it. I’m, like, ruining her life,” Connor says frankly, but with something self-conscious in his tone that indicates how very Bothered this makes him. 

“I don’t think that’s true,” Evan objects. 

“No, like,” Connor persists, “I’ve been- I used to be. Worse. Than I am now.”

“Oh."

“I know, right? Hard to imagine.”

“That was’t what I-“

“Sometimes,” Connor says slowly, “I think she’d be happier if-“

He breaks off and tears up some more grass and tugs at his ear. He is recognizable, in that moment. Evan almost thinks he might know him. He almost says, she believed everything I told her. Not because it came from me and not because it was particularly accurate, but because she was so desperate to know you. She is desperate to know you. 

“I don’t think-” he starts. 

“I don’t want to talk about this anymore,” Connor interrupts, every part of him going sharp and tense all of a sudden. In the next instant he’s on his feet and he’s brushing torn-up grass off his jeans and he’s hurling his crab apple out across the field and he’s looking down at Evan expectantly. “Let’s climb a tree.”

“What?”

“A tree,” Connor says. “Let’s climb a tree.”

“I don’t know,” Evan says.

“It’ll be fun,” Connor insists. “Trees, remember?”

“Trees,” Evan agrees. He gets to his feet despite himself. “Can you climb a tree when you’re high?”

“Guess we’ll find out,” Connor says persuasively, and then he’s turning in a circle to survey their surroundings. “That one. Lots of low-hanging branches.”

“I really don’t-“

“C’mon.”

He starts across the field and after a second Evan follows. Of course he does. He keeps hearing the sound of Connor’s back cracking, over and over, bones snapping into place, realigning. He can almost feel the crack in his own bones. 

Connor has selected a good climbing tree. Lots of thick, low branches with plenty of knots and knobby bits to rest your feet on. Evan stands at its base and tilts his face back, watching the trunk stretch up and up and up. Connor takes off his bulky jacket and then he’s swinging himself up into the branches. 

“I don’t think I want to,” Evan begins. Connor takes off his hoodie and drops it onto Evan’s upturned face with a laugh like a cough. It smells like weed and laundry detergent. Evan folds it nicely and puts it by the base of the tree. He looks up at Connor and then he cracks his knuckles, feeling his bones pop into place, and starts climbing. 

As he climbs, Evan keeps thinking about Connor pouring out those pills, one hand cupped to catch the pills, the other tipping the bottle. The rattle it must have made. Did he have water to help swallow the pills? Evan doesn’t remember if there was a water bottle by the bench, but surely there must have been water to swallow all those pills. Did he take them one by one, or in great gulping mouthfuls? There is something very intentional about it all. Something very aware. Not like climbing a tree. 

Climbing a tree is an instinctual thing, a scrabbling ascent, feeling the way a branch bows under your weight and trusting it to hold you. Hands seeking out knobs and knots, brain working on autopilot to solve the puzzle, like moving a video game avatar from branch to branch, up and up. 

It was like that. There was never any intention to it. No plan. No pills pouring into hands. No decisive gulps. No swallowing. Just climbing a tree without thinking about it and not climbing high enough and then falling. Letting go. Jumping. Not quite any of those things, but he hit the ground all the same. 

A foot slips, just for a second, and snaps a twig. Evan’s heart lurches and catches itself. He grips the tree trunk harder and ignores the phantom pain in his arm, remembering its cracks. 

Connor, several feet above, looks down at the noise. The sun’s cutting through the fall leaves, burning him gold and orange. 

“Slow poke,” he says. “C’mon. I bet we can see the whole orchard from up here.”

Evan’s foot finds a better foothold, instinctive. He shifts his weight, hooks an elbow around a thicker branch, and keeps climbing. The dry leaves rattle in the wind and Evan thinks of pills rattling from a bottle, filling a cupped palm. His hand moves to the next branch. His arms are tired in a dull, distant sort of way. He’s getting splinters in his palms. 

He wonders if Connor is planning to jump.

The branches get thinner as they get higher. Evan has to stay closer to the trunk, putting his weight on the thicker, sturdier places where the branches meet. Connor has found himself a somewhat reliable seat in the ‘V’ of two branches, and he grins at Evan, swinging his feet merrily out into dead air. Evan tries to smile back, but it doesn’t come out right. His mouth is full of pills, dry, too many to swallow. If he opens his mouth to smile, they will all come spilling, rattling out. 

“There’s the mill,” Connor says, pointing. “They used to sell donuts there. And there was a corn maze. I don’t know where that went. Told you we could see everything.”

Evan hooks an elbow around the trunk, puts out a foot and tests the weight of the branch. It bends, but he doesn’t think it will break. He shifts his weight, frees a hand to reach for the next branch—

—and there’s a snap, like a bone breaking, like a rubber ball against a palm, like a branch giving way. 

Here is the truth — climbing a tree is an instinctual thing, a scrabbling ascent, an exercise in trust. But climbing a tree is an act of intention, of strategy. So is straddling a branch and peeking down at your own shoes below you, and then scooting on your butt, further and further out onto the branch and hearing the dead air below you, the scrape of denim against bark, not even the leaves rattling, just a final raspy exhale. A declaration of intention. And then the snap

He must make a noise or something, because Connor’s head whips around and in the next second he’s got an arm under Evan’s armpit, yanking him upward. Evan’s feet swing for one dizzying second, and then they find hold. Connor’s eyes are enormous and frightened, very close. 

“Holy shit, dude,” he says. “You’re really bad at climbing trees.”

“I did it on purpose,” Evan gasps, and then he cannot find any more breath. 

 

Chapter Text

… 

It takes close to fifteen minutes for Connor to shake Evan from his paralysis, to get his fingers to unlock and his eyes to stop squinting shut. It takes even longer to get back down the tree. It’s an off-kilter, shuffling endeavor, with Connor easing his way down the trunk, pressing hands to Evan’s back and his ankles and his wrists, mumbling instructions in Evan’s ear — put your foot here, shift to the left, wait don’t stand there, let me go first, ok dig your foot in here — and Evan obeying mechanically. He can’t breathe. His throat is full of pills. 

“Put your- left foot, yeah. There,” Connor says, from just below. “You’re almost- Yeah. There. Careful. Almost there.”

Even, mute, does what he’s told. Around him, everything fizzes. Like television static. Like a mento in coke. Evan can imagine himself fizzing too, like an alka-seltzer, drifting apart in fuzzy little bits until there’s nothing left at all. 

“What did you mean, you did it on purpose?” Connor asks, tapping at Evan’s wrist and gesturing at a branch. Evan moves his hand obediently, but he doesn’t answer. 

“Never mind,” Connor says. “Don’t- don’t worry about that. Put your foot- Yeah. There. You’re- you’re doing good.”

When they reach the ground, Connor gives a hoarse whoop of relief and sinks down into the dried leaves. He lifts a hand and examines it with vague, academic interest. He’s shaking very badly. 

“Huh,” he says.  

Evan’s knees give way and he slides to the ground, back scraping against the bark of the trunk. The pain is very distant. He is surprised to find that the rattling noise he keeps hearing is not the wind in the leaves, but his own lungs leaking air. He wheezes, rattles. He cannot breathe. He cannot breathe. 

“Shit fuck,” Connor is saying, getting to his knees. “Fucking- shit. Fuck. I shouldn’t have- I should never have made you do that. I didn’t think.”

Evan wheezes. Suddenly he is back in his own body, horribly present, and he is surprised to find himself crying quite a bit. Taking a breath feels like trying to sip soda from a straw with a hole in it. He can’t get any suction. He can feel his heartbeat so powerfully in his chest that he wonders how he never noticed it there before. All this time, it’s been working so hard and he’s ignored it.

“I don’t,” Connor is saying, “know what to do. You gotta- you gotta help me here, dude.”

Evan can only shake his head. He’s sobbing too hard and his throat is filling with phlegm and every time he tries to take a breath he chokes and his stomach lurches. He tries to speak and just gags. 

“Inhaler,” Connor is saying. “You’ve gotta have- Fuck. Shit. Fuck.”

Everything is feverishly bright and Not Real and probably Evan isn’t real either. Just television static. The possibility of a cat in a box. He can feel his heartbeat in his jaw, in his eyeballs, in the cracks of his mostly-healed arm. He thinks he might be dying and he is both terrified and relieved. His knuckles won’t crack.  

“Don’t- don’t do that,” Connor says hoarsely, and then he’s grabbing Evan’s hands, which have knotted together somehow. His knuckles won’t crack, no matter how he strains. His bones don’t fit like they’re supposed to. “Stop, you’re gonna- You’re gonna break your fingers.”

Evan wonders if it would even make a sound, if his fingers snapped. He can’t remember if his arm made a noise when he hit the ground. He isn’t substantial enough to break, really. 

Connor doesn’t really seem to know what to do, so he just keeps holding Evan’s hands and swearing. 

“You’re all splintered, dude,” he says, horrified, examining Evan’s palms. “Why’d you- You should’ve said-“

Evan realizes with a jolt that Something Bad is going to happen, and he jerks away just in time, gagging up a mouthful of phlegm and stomach acid and tears. He can hear himself wheezing, in a distant sort of way, just like he is aware that his hands are burning without registering any pain. He watches a string of saliva, thick with phlegm, fall in slow motion from his mouth to the ground. He coughs and sits up, scoots away. 

“I’m really sorry,” Connor is saying. “I didn’t- I’m so fucking stupid. You broke your arm in a tree, right? I didn’t even- I’m so fucking stupid.”

“Am I dying?” Evan says, which isn’t what he means to say at all, but it comes out choked and panicked and he’s genuinely unsure of the answer. He’s not quite sure what he’s hoping the answer will be. He puts his face against his knees so he doesn’t have to look at Connor. 

“Are you- No, you’re- you’re just having a panic attack,” Connor says unsteadily. “You’re not dying. Trust me. I-“

He puts a hand on Evan’s back like he’s not sure whether he’ll actually make contact, or just fall right through him. Evan can’t remember which of them is the ghost. He remembers heaving ribs and racing pulse and somebody dying on a bench, but he cannot remember which of them it was. Did it already happen? Is it happening now? 

“I get them, too, sometimes,” Connor continues, unsure, “and I know it feels like- y’know, like you’re dying. But you’re fine. You’re good. Promise. You just gotta breathe.”

Evan tries. He is shaking so badly he can hear the air trembling in his lungs. HIs knuckles won’t crack. His bones don’t fit. 

“Don’t do that,” Connor says again, sharper. He grabs Evan’s hands and pulls them apart, gripping him by the wrists. “You’re gonna break your fingers.”

“Sorry,” Evan says, and once he says it he can’t stop saying it. “Sorry sorry sorry-“

“Don’t be-“ Connor sounds strained. “Don’t be- I’m the one who’s sorry. I shouldn’t have made you- I’m such an asshole. This is just- I always do this.”

“Sorry,” Evan says again. Connor grips his wrists harder. Bone gripping bone. 

“For real, don’t- don’t say that shit. It’s- You’re fine. You’re good.” 

It’s getting quieter, now. Everything. The fizzing has stopped. Evan is mostly dissolved. 

“I need my inhaler,” he says, face against his knees, voice dull and muffled. 

“Yeah, we’ll- we’ll get it.”

“I’m having a panic attack.”

Connor laughs hollowly. “Yeah, no shit, Evan.”

“It’s in my backpack. In the car.”

“Okay. We’ll- we’ll go get it, but not yet. Not ’til you’re- feeling better. You gotta breathe, dude.“

Evan does his best. Connor keeps holding onto his wrists and he mumbles something about a breathing exercise, but Evan’s brain can’t really hold onto his words right now. He presses his face into his jeans and tries to stop hyperventilating. It’s mostly unsuccessful. His body is gulping air like an act of civil disobedience, a rebellion against the brain that’s trying to kill them all. A wheezing, rasping, gulping resistance. 

“Oh, shit,” says Connor abruptly, and then he’s letting go of Evan’s hands and sitting up. “I have a cell phone. What the fuck. I’m an idiot.”

“Don’t- I don’t want anyone to see-“

“Just Zoe,” says Connor quickly. “She’s seen me worse. Trust me. The inhaler’s in the car?”

Evan nods, head down. “In my backpack.”

“Okay,” Connor says. He stands and then hesitates, poking out a foot to nudge at Evan’s shin gently. “You okay?”

Evan shakes his head, forehead against his knees, air raking fingernails against his windpipe. “I don’t know.”

“You’re okay,” Connor repeats, more steady. He kicks Evan again, but in a gentle and kinda nice way. “Be right back.”

Time is moving funny, so Evan can’t be sure, but he thinks Connor comes back pretty soon and he sits down next to Evan with a loud exhale, back against the tree so their shoulders knock together, and he gives Evan an extremely awkward pat on the back and says that Zoe is coming, and Evan nods because what else is there to do. He doesn’t think he’s crying anymore, but everything has gone colorless and also his throat is possibly closing up.  

“What did you mean when you-“ Connor says, and then stops. He shakes his head. He gives Evan another awkward pat. He says, “Don’t worry about that, actually. Sorry. You’re good. You’re good.”

And then Zoe is there with her cool, not-sweaty hands and her voice that turns every sentence into a question, and she’s pressing an inhaler into Evan’s hands and asking what happened what did you do to him??? And Connor says something back, and he must get to his feet then because suddenly Evan’s right side is cold and exposed, but then there are more voices cutting in and an unfamiliar voice is telling Evan to take two puffs and then wait and then take a third

Evan obeys, then puts his face back against his knees as the rest of the world starts to bleed back in, oversaturated and off-kilter. The inhaler makes his heart race, which he hates. The doctor said that was Totally Normal It Means It’s Working, Evan but Evan doesn’t like to be aware of his own heartbeat. It becomes one of those things where he’s afraid to look away, to stop listening for it, in case it were to suddenly just Stop. 

“Why the fuck would you make him climb a tree?” Jared is asking angrily. “That’s how he broke his arm. He’s, like- sensitive to that shit. Why would you-“

“I told you not to bring everyone,” Connor snaps at Zoe, strained. “That’ll only make him feel-“

“Evan, you’re having a panic attack,” Alana tells him, crouching and putting a hand on Evan’s knee like she’s unsure how else to offer physical affection. “I know it feels really scary right now, but you’re totally okay. Matt is a volunteer EMT and I am First-Aid trained, so you are in extremely competent hands. We’re going to make sure everything is okay.”

“Are you high?” Zoe asks, somewhere far away. “Are you- You’re fucking high right now, Connor.”

“Evan, hi, I’m Matt. We have math together. I want you to focus on taking in slow breaths through your nose. Hold five seconds. Then blow the air out through your mouth and let it, like-“ Matt blows air out through his lips, a hazy presence in Evan’s vision. “Like blowing out a candle. I’ll count with you, ready?”

Evan obeys, because what is the alternative. He breathes because he is too cowardly to stop. He takes another puff from his inhaler when he’s told to. He holds up his hands and lets them examine his palms for splinters when they ask. His heart races in his throat, in his jaw, in the mostly-healed cracks of his arm. When Jared hands him a water bottle, he swallows obediently until his saliva is no longer thick with phlegm. When Matt asks if he feels okay to stand, he nods. When Zoe takes his hand, he doesn’t resist. 

“You’re okay,” Alana tells him, swatting the dirt off his clothes with clipped, painful little thwacks. She won’t stand still, which is somewhat disorienting, but Evan thinks it’s probably the only way she knows how to help. “Do you want more water?”

He shakes his head, doesn’t meet her eyes. Gravity is weighing on him more than usual, like maybe he’s still perched somewhere high. Like the ground feels cheated of a fall. He can feel its weight in the sag of his shoulders and the effort it takes to lift his feet, in the way it pulls his gaze downward. 

“We should go. We left the others back at the parking lot,” Jared says. He pauses, glares around at them all. “We didn’t- They don’t have to know about this.”

“Dana P. was with me when Connor called,” Zoe says dubiously. 

“Dana P. will keep her mouth shut,” Alana says darkly. “I’ll make sure of that.”

Zoe holds Evan’s hand the whole walk back, and he doesn’t even think to worry about being sweaty until they’ve reached the parking lot. Everyone is mostly too busy raking and bagging leaves to even notice their arrival, and Alana gives a death glare to anybody who glances their way, so they immediately put their heads back down and keep working. Evan stares at his feet. One of his shoelaces is untied. He feels extremely young, completely empty. 

“I’ll drive you home,” Jared tells Evan quietly, nudging their shoulders together. “Let me grab my keys.”

“His bag’s in-“ Connor starts. 

“I’ll get it,” Zoe says quickly, and she squeezes Evan’s hand before letting go. 

“You should really carry your inhaler with you all the time,” Matt tells Evan, “so stuff like this doesn’t happen. Do you think you’re allergic to pollen or something?”

“Yeah,” Evan mumbles, “maybe. Thanks. Sorry.”

“You should see a doctor, for real,” Matt tells him, then claps him on the shoulder and turns away. “Feel better, dude.”

It’s a friendly nudge, but Evan flinches anyway. He stares at his feet, at the ground, at his knotted hands. His knuckles won’t crack, no matter how hard he tugs at his fingers, bones aching dully.

“Don’t do that,” Connor says, and he tugs Evan’s hands apart. Then, in a rush, “Evan, I didn’t mean to. I didn’t think. I’m a piece of shit.”

Evan can’t stop his eyes from squinting shut, his mouth twisting painfully in a tick he can’t control. This is all he is, really, a sum of his twitches. It takes a couple seconds for his face to fall lax again. He tells Connor’s feet, “It’s not- Don’t worry.”

“I’m- shit. I’m a piece of shit,” Connor says again. 

“You’re not- I’m sorry about- Sorry. I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be sorry,” Zoe says fiercely, reappearing with Evan’s backpack and a mouth like a flat line. She won’t even look at Connor. “You do not have to be sorry, Evan.”

“It wasn’t-“

“I didn’t mean to-“

“Don’t upset him more,” says Jared sharply. He takes Evan’s backpack from Zoe and swings it onto his back, giving Evan a gentle prod. “C’mon, buddy. Let’s go.”

“Bye, Evan,” says Alana. She swats some more dirt off his shirt, and then gives him an impulsive and unpracticed hug. Her elbows are everywhere, but Evan chalks that up to inexperience. “Go home and get some rest. And don’t worry about missing class. I take very good notes and I’m happy to make duplicates. Just focus on feeling better.”

Evan wants to tell them to stop saying feel better like maybe he’s just got a stomach bug and a couple days of daytime television and microwaveable soup will fix him right up, solve the glitches in his brain, fit his bones back into place. He wants to tell them it’s fine, don’t worry, just give him a week and his brain will repress this all, and it will all just be another half-remembered trauma that will trigger the occasional facial tick in English class. It’s fine, don’t worry, I’ve done worse. Last time I had to walk back alone, afterward. He wants to say thank you and I’m sorry and please leave me alone. He wants to tell them it’s not Connor’s fault for making him climb the tree, it’s just that halfway up his brain came to the unfortunate realization that he tried to kill himself this summer On Purpose, not like some big Whoopsey-Daisy Mistake, and then he maybe tried to do it again. But he does not say any of that. He is too humiliated and too hollowed-out and too limp, flat, damp. 

He mumbles, “Bye,” and lets Jared lead him to the car and doesn’t look back to watch Connor’s shoulders bow.  

It’s a quiet drive home. 

He doesn’t tell his mom. It would just pull the wrinkles around her mouth tighter. He says the pollen in the orchard gave him an asthma attack and it was embarrassing but he’s okay and does she mind if he just skips dinner and goes to bed? And she says no, she doesn’t mind, and that she’s glad his friends took care of him and maybe they should make another appointment with the pulmonologist, and he says yeah, maybe, and then she lets him go. 

He takes his meds, one hand cupped to catch the pills as the other hand pours. They all rattle out at once and the noise of it startles him and his hand shakes and the pills spill all over his bedspread. He tries to scoop them all back up, deposit them back in the bottle, but he must miss a couple because he hears a few stray pills fall and skitter across the wooden floor as he gets under the covers. He ignores them.

He’s not sure he ever technically Sleeps, but he does something similar where he just lays in the dark until his eyes get too dry and start to burn, and then he has to remember to blink. When he opens his eyes again, he’s confronted with a pair of very skinny legs. 

“Hey there, champ,” says The Ghost of Connor Murphy, popping the ‘P’ like a mouthful of gum. 

“Oh, no,” says Evan. 

“Oh, yeah,” says The Ghost of Connor Murphy, without a shred of sympathy. “What’d y          ou do with my Superball?”

“It’s on the desk,” Evan says. “Can you just- You can do what you want, but I don’t- I don’t feel like talking.”

“Less than perfect day at the orchard?” The Ghost of Connor Murphy asks gleefully. He retrieves his ball from the desk and tosses it from one hand to the other, the smack of rubber against palm surprisingly loud, surprisingly substantial. “Learned some hard truths up there in the treetops?”

“Please don’t be mean to me right now,” Evan pleads. He turns over and buries his face in his pillow. It takes every bit of energy in his battered, flattened, popped-balloon body. 

“Mean is all I got, bud,” The Ghost of Connor Murphy tells him. There’s a thud as the Superball hits the wall over Evan’s head. “I’m, like, sustained by it. It’s my life-force.”

“You’re not alive.”

“Don’t be a dick about it. Death-force, then.”

“I’m trying to sleep.”

“All you do is sleep, dude.”

“I have depression.”

“Yeah, no fucking kidding.”

There’s a couple more thuds from various corners of the room. Evan knots his fingers in his pillowcase and squints his eyes shut determinedly. His knuckles ache. He’s still got splinters in his palms. 

“I don’t get you,” says The Ghost of Connor Murphy. “Why are you acting like this is some big revelation?”

“I don’t wanna talk to you.”

“So you tried to kill yourself. Whatever. Happens to the best of us.”

“I didn’t-“

“Plus you think about killing yourself all the time, dude.”

“I don’t- I think about-“

“Being dead,” The Ghost of Connor Murphy amends. “Fine, you think about being dead. You know that’s not actually any different, right?”

Evan doesn’t answer. He pulls his covers over his head. The Ghost of Connor Murphy yanks them back off with a laugh like rattling pills. 

“I thought you went away,” Evan despairs. 

“Nah,” says The Ghost of Connor Murphy. He tosses his Superball against the wall and catches it easily, over and over, a steady rhythm. “I’ve been around.”

“It’s been like three weeks.”

“No, it hasn’t,” says The Ghost of Connor Murphy, but he looks unsure. He fumbles a catch and the ball rolls under the bed. He follows after it, voice muffed. “Time’s funny now. I don’t know. I don’t exist all the time.”

Evan turns over in bed. He stares at the ceiling. “Does this mean that Connor- I mean, the other Connor-“

“It is dusty under here,” The Ghost of Connor Murphy announces loudly, reemerging from beneath the bed. He’s got dust caught in his hair and also in his skin and eyes and torso, specks of dust swirling and drifting gently downward like the inside of a snow globe. He never used to be this transparent, did he? Or maybe Evan just never noticed before. It’s a frightening sight. He doesn’t like to look.  

“Are you okay?” Evan asks, which isn’t what he means to ask at all. The Ghost of Connor Murphy is knocked askew by this. There’s dust filtering through his face, setting him blurry. 

“Am I- What?” 

Evan sits up, queasy. “Are you- I don’t know. Like, you seem- worse. Less.”

The Ghost of Connor Murphy’s face goes blank, swirling with dust, and then it contorts. His features make less sense, suddenly, smudging like pencil. He doesn’t really look that much like Connor at all. 

“Shut up,” he says fiercely. “Shut up. Don’t ask me that shit. What the hell is wrong with you?”

“I didn’t-“

“Fuck off,” snaps The Ghost of Connor Murphy, bigger and broader and less substantial. “Fuck off, you don’t get to- You seem worse. You’re the one moping around in bed because you tried to kill yourself months ago and fucked it up and, what, it’s only finally hitting you? You’re pathetic.”

“I didn’t-“

“Thinking about being dead is the same thing as thinking about killing yourself, y’know,” he spits, and hurls the ball. It slams against the headboard, inches from Evan’s head, and bounces back into Connor’s hand with a snap. “You’re just taking the agency out of it. Just because you don’t wanna confront it doesn’t mean it isn’t true. You did it on purpose.”

“I didn’t,” Evan protests, “mean to-“

The ball slams the wall by his head, bounces back. Thud, snap

“Yeah,” Connor says, “you did.” 

Thud, snap.

“I was-“

Thud, snap.

“You did it on purpose,” he sing-songs, in rhythm with the thud, snap of the Superball. “And when you try again, it will be on purpose. And if you die, it will be on purpose.”

“I won’t-“

“I say if,” Connor interrupts, “because knowing you, you’ll fuck it up again.”

Thud, snap. Thud, snap. Evan doesn’t speak. He’s too exhausted to have a panic attack, to do anything but let his eyes stream silently. He feels dim and diminished. 

“You can’t even die right,” Connor sneers. 

Thud, snap.

“Please leave me alone,” Evan begs. “I just want to- Please just go away.”

“It would be easy,” Connor says. He sits down on the bed, form suddenly compact and recognizable again, his Superball never faltering in its arc across the room, against the wall, and back again. The mattress sinks under his weight. It shouldn’t do that. Evan doesn’t know why this ghost has weight. “It doesn’t have to be a whole big thing, y’know. Just a couple gulps and then I’ll leave you alone.”

Thud, snap. Thud, snap. 

“I don’t,” Evan says, unsure, “want to-”

“Yeah, you do,” Connor says sadly, apologetically. “It’ll be easy. C’mon. Think about it. Everyone would be happier.”

Thud, snap.

“I can’t- My mom would-“

Thud, snap. Thud, snap. 

“She would be happier without you. You ruined her life, you know that? You’re ruining her life.”

“I’m not- Please go away. Please go away. Please go away.”

“I can’t,” Connor says, fist closing around the Superball, and suddenly he’s furious again, on his feet, improbably tall. “I can’t, you know why? Because of you! You fucking made me. You made me like this.”

“I didn’t mean to,” Evan falters. 

“Doesn’t matter,” Connor says. “You’re the one that made me. You lied and lied and lied and you made me like this and now I can’t even die. You couldn’t even do that. You couldn’t even die right.”

“Please go away,” Evan begs. “I didn’t mean to. I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry-“

“Stop saying you didn’t mean to,” Connor interrupts flatly. He throws the ball against the wall and catches it. Thud, snap. “Take some fucking responsibility, dude. Have some agency. You meant it. You did it on purpose. All of this.”

“Can I- How do I- How do I fix it?”

“You don’t. You can’t.” 

“Please-“

“You don’t.”

“I’m sorry,” Evan says again. “I’m sorry. I didn’t- I’m sorry. I’m sorry I made you like this. I’m sorry I- I’m sorry I wasn’t there that night. When you- I’m sorry I couldn’t stop you.” 

This surprises Connor, somehow. The dust floating in his form goes still. He turns to look at Evan, mouth an open and wounded thing. His hands go slack. The SuperBall hits the wall, bounces back, and punches Connor apart. The ball keeps going, bounces against the opposite wall, and rolls under the bed. Evan, nose running, chest heaving, watches the dust filter through the air and then settle quietly, formless, to his bedroom floor.

And eventually he goes to sleep, because he’s not brave enough to do anything else. 

Chapter Text

Connor is avoiding Evan.

This is, like, objectively a Very Good Thing. Evan did very recently have a full-on mental breakdown in front of Connor and possibly sorta-kinda admit to being suicidal, so maybe Connor is just being polite and looking the other way, like that day in the orchard is just a piece of spinach stuck in Evan’s teeth or something. Or maybe he thinks Evan is pathetic and limp and embarrassing and he never wants to speak to him again, now that he’s seen what a total mess he is. Evan doesn’t, like, blame him. He doesn’t know why it bothers him, but it does. Connor is avoiding him. 

Really, this is a good thing. The best thing for everyone, probably, would be for them to avoid each other until graduation. Well. Really the best thing for everyone, probably, would be for Evan to just give in to inevitability and kill himself, but That Is Not Productive Thinking, Evan. So he doesn’t think about that. 

Instead he indulges in other destructive, unproductive behavior like staring at Connor in English class over the edge of his textbook and thinking about The Ghost of Connor Murphy standing in his bedroom, mostly transparent, swirling with dust. Something wrong and unnatural to him. 

This Connor is opaque, hunched, brittle. Despite all Evan’s hours of staring, there’s still something startling about turning his head and seeing Connor Murphy, alive, messy, slumped. He has, Evan observes, a particularly fragile face. Like something made of ceramic. Even more breakable, in the last couple days. 

When he asks Zoe if Connor is okay, approaching her at her locker after a full afternoon of psyching himself up, she looks startled. 

“Yeah, he’s- I don’t know,” she says. “They’re adjusting his meds. It gives him migraines. Or maybe he’s just sulking because I told Mom and Dad about his pot stash. I don’t know and honestly I don’t really care. I’m not his keeper."

“Oh,” says Evan. “You’re- you’re right. I’m sorry. I don’t know why I- Sorry.”

“No,” Zoe says in a rush, cutting him off. “No, no, no, that’s not what I- Sorry. Fuck. That’s not what I meant.”

“Sorry,” Evan says again. “I wasn’t- I just wanted to make sure I didn’t. I don’t know. Do something.“

“Do something?” Zoe says blankly. 

Evan feels his face twitch, fights to stop his eyes from squinting shut. He knots his fingers in the hem of his shirt and tugs, remembering splinters in his palms, knuckles throbbing. 

“Evan, what happened in the orchard-“

“Don’t-“

“-was not your fault. Connor owes you an apology. Not the other way around.”

 “No,” Evan disagrees, avoiding eye contact, “that was- He didn’t make me do anything.”

“I know you think he’s, like,” Zoe starts, and then stops. She bites her lip and looks around, watching the hallways empty as students filter towards the buses and the parking lot. She starts again, “You’ve only really known him since the- I can’t really talk about it. But there was some shitty stuff at the beginning of the semester that kinda changed everything. And I guess I thought that, like- But before that he was-“

A locker slams. It makes them both flinch. Zoe’s voice gets higher, more self-conscious. 

“He’s not a good person, Evan. And maybe it’s not even his fault, really, but. He’s not.”

“Oh,” says Evan, stunned. Zoe makes an uncomfortable face. 

“I know that makes me sound- shitty. But I’ve been trying. We’ve been trying for a- a really long time, even before the shitty thing happened. And I think if he really- if he really was going to change, he would have already, y’know? Like- He’s had a lot of chances.”

Evan knots and unknots his fingers in the hem of his shirt. He does not let his face twitch. He says, “Okay.”

Zoe lingers, looking unhappy. She adjusts her backpack and says, “I don’t mean- I don’t want you to think that I’m-“

“I don’t,” Evan assures her, but her mouth stays tight and troubled. 

“Y’know, I don’t know if you remember, but- The last time you asked me if Connor was okay- Do you remember that?“

“Not really,” he lies. 

“No,” she agrees. “Never mind.”

“Sorry,” Evan says by mistake. 

Zoe’s whole face seems to sag with sadness and exhaustion. It makes him think of his mom. He is such a weight. Such a fucking weight. He is always falling and he is always pulling people down with him.  

“Don’t be sorry,” Zoe says. “Can I give you a ride home?”

“Oh, no, you don’t have to-“

“Don’t do that,” she cuts him off with a little smile. “C’mon. Let me give you a ride home.”

It’s a gray, ugly, drizzly kind of day. They do a half-hearted jog through the rain, skirting puddles. Connor is standing by the Murphy’s car, curled-in under the weight of his backpack, holding a crumpled paper in his hand. He’s in a hoodie, but he doesn’t have his hood up, like maybe he hasn’t even noticed it’s raining. Evan thinks if he looked close enough, he could see the raindrops falling right through Connor, drifting slowly downward like fake snow in a snowglobe. When Connor sees Evan accompanying Zoe, his hunch becomes more pronounced. He ducks into the passenger seat the moment Zoe unlocks the car.

“I told Evan we’d give him a ride,” Zoe says challengingly, starting the car and setting the windshield wipers aflurry. 

“Okay,” says Connor, and then doesn’t speak again as they pull away from the school. 

“Alana and I were talking about maybe going to a diner or something after the walkathon this Sunday, Evan,” Zoe says eventually as they stop at a red light. “Like, just to relax and eat shitty food. You should come with us.”

“Yeah,” Evan says, “maybe.”

“That was our after-show tradition in jazz band,” she continues, voice a little brighter. “After a show, we would go to the diner and get milkshakes and fries. There was this really hot waiter with a neck tattoo. I’ll miss that.”

“Oh,” says Connor abruptly, “I was going to- I found-“

He thrusts the crumpled paper he’s been holding at Zoe. She takes it, studies its wrinkled surface with no comprehension, and then her head comes up angrily. Her posture goes tight. 

“Don’t be a dick.”

“I wasn’t. You were just saying-“

“I’m not talking about this.”

“It could be cool. You like guitar. You like weird indie girl bands.”

“I don’t like guitar, actually.”

“You were just saying,” Connor endeavors, “that you missed it.”

“Yeah, I miss diner dates,” she snaps back. “Which I can’t go on anymore, because apparently my entire life revolves around babysitting you-"

There’s a honk from behind them. The light has been green for several seconds now, but Evan is too terrified to open his mouth and interrupt. Zoe swears, crumples the piece of paper, and tosses it pointedly into the backseat. She accelerates too quickly and Evan’s head bumps against his headrest.  

He stoops and retrieves the paper. It’s a flyer, crumpled and slightly dappled with rain, advertising an ALL-GIRL BAND SEEKING GUITARIST. TRY-OUTS NEXT WEDNESDAY. CONTACT EMMY IF INTERESTED. There are little tabs at the bottom that you’re supposed to rip off, but Connor seems to have elected to take the entire poster instead.

“I don’t miss fucking jazz band,” Zoe grumbles. “Jesus. The way you’re all acting, you’d think I was some prodigy, not a shitty amateur guitarist. Can everyone just leave me alone?”

“You weren’t shitty,” Connor says quietly. 

Zoe doesn’t answer. The windshield wipers scrape loudly against the window. Nobody speaks again until they’ve pulled into Evan’s driveway. He starts to get out of the car, hesitates, offers the crumpled flyer to Zoe. 

“Keep it,” she says, not turning her head. “Sorry for- y’know. See you tomorrow.”

“Okay,” Evan says. “Thanks for the ride.”

“Bye, Evan,” says Connor, eyes averted, voice muffled as his teeth work violently at his cuticles. 

“Bye,” Evan says again. He stuffs the flyer into his backpack and gives them a limp little wave and goes inside for a promising afternoon of Depression Napping. 

The last meeting before the walkathon is a Friday, and Alana has reached heights of Peak Alana previously unknown. She keeps starting sentences and then trailing off thoughtfully, eyebrows coming together like she’s checking off lists in her head. She shows up at The Jared Project meeting with an honest-to-God clipboard containing several color-coded lists. Jared’s eyes go very wide when he sees it, mingled fear and hilarity. 

“You realize you’re becoming a parody of yourself, right?” he says in greeting. 

“Hmm?” she responds vaguely. 

“The clipboard.” Jared nods down at her heavy armful. “That’s, like, next level. Even for you.”

“I’m just trying to stay organized,” Alana dismisses. “There are a lot of last-minute things that need coordinating. Evan, did you get the email I sent you?”

She fixes a very intense gaze on him, like she’s going to try and levitate him with her brain, like Matilda. Or like, transform him into a better and more efficient henchman. Evan doesn’t blame her. He’s Not Great at being a human in general, but the last couple weeks have been worse than usual. His brain is pretty much all glitch this point. He can’t focus long enough to get his homework done. He spends all day half-asleep and then goes home to lay awake in bed for hours, eyes bone dry and exhausted. Someone’s holding a thick sheet of cling-film in front of his eyes, and it’s turned everything warped and wavy. Like looking through 3D glasses from the bottom of a cereal box. Like living inside a snowglobe. So, no, Evan did not get her email. 

“Uh, no,” he says, eyes dragged down to his feet, hands fidgeting incessantly. “I didn’t- uh, get around to it.”

“Hmm,” says Alana disapprovingly. “Well the other t-shirt place just got back to us about prices. Their shirts are $1.50 more per unit, but they’re willing to give us a discount if we order more than 100.”

“More than 100?” Jared interrupts. “That’s, like- That’s too many.”

“People like t-shirts,” Alana disagrees. “And giving to charity.”

“Um,” says Evan, already starting to sweat, “didn’t we already-“

“Evan,” Zoe interrupts, approaching from behind with something nervous in her posture, hands tucked under the straps of her backpack. Her hair is pulled back with yellow clips, which makes her look very young and endearing. “Sorry to interrupt. Did you- This is dumb, but did you keep that flyer Connor found? About the- girl band, or whatever?”

“Oh,” Evan says, startled, “Uh. Yeah. It’s in my-“ He gestures to his backpack, sitting by the window. “I put it in there somewhere. You can dig around.”

“Cool,” says Zoe, “thanks.”

“We already placed an order with the other t-shirt place,” Alana launches back in immediately as Zoe departs. “But we only ordered 75 units and now I’m wondering if that will even be enough. Have you seen the RSVPs on Facebook?”

“Those are unreliable,” Jared disagrees. “I always say Maybe to everything, even if I know for sure I can’t go.”

“That,” Alana sighs, “is an extremely irresponsible abuse of the RSVP process.”

“I don’t like to be a sure thing,” Jared says. 

“I think it’s- I don’t know,” Evan says, with effort. He feels a bit like he’s underwater, playing that game to see who can stay under the water longer, kicking and fighting to keep his feet on the floor of the pool, to stop himself from drifting up to the surface. Staying fixed in this place, right here, right now, is incredibly difficult. “75 shirts seems like a lot.”

“Not if you consider that our whole club is attending,” Alana says. “That’s thirty people right there.”

“But we can’t make everyone buy a t-shirt,” Jared objects. 

“We can strongly suggest it.”

“I’m gonna-“ Evan shifts from one foot to the other. His arms are tired. He’s going to get a swimmer’s cramp. “So should I- I’ll cancel the other order?”

Alana blows the air out through her lips, considering. She says, “No, I guess not. I just hope we won’t run out.”

“We won’t,” Jared insists. “Can we get started?”

Alana starts crossing things out on her clipboard, still looking intense and distracted. Evan takes his opportunity to escape, hurrying back to his seat by the wall. Zoe’s sitting on the floor next to his backpack, smoothing out a crinkled paper. Connor is sitting a few chairs down, looking sharp and tense and twitchy. He catches Evan looking and glances away, putting his thumbnail to his mouth. Evan sits down, feeling staticky and prickled. He wants to be Not Here. He wants to be… Not This.

“Evan” Zoe says slowly, “what’s-“

“Okay,” says Alana briskly, raising her voice to be heard. The room is more crowded than ever before. There are several people sitting on the floor, like Zoe. “Welcome to The Jared Project! As you all know, we’ve got our biggest fundraising effort of the semester this Sunday, so if you haven’t shared the Facebook event already-“

Zoe’s hand shoots into the air. Alana glances her way, nods, and keeps talking.

“There’s also a Google Doc if you want to sign up to work at one of the beverage tables. And obviously if you want to participate in the actual walkathon-“

Zoe waves her hand more insistently. Alana smiles with vague confusion, makes a wait gesture. 

“So far we’ve had over 150 people pledge to-“

“I have something important to say,” Zoe interrupts. 

“Okay,” Alana says, less smiley now, “just one second-“

“I want to talk about the letters,” Zoe says, louder. “The anonymous letters we’ve been sending each other."

“Okay?” Jared says, grin going forced, something tight around his eyes. He glances at Evan. “Maybe we could-“

“We have a bullying problem,” Zoe says, and she stands up and that’s when Evan sees that her hands are full of sheets of notebook paper, crumpled, scrawled with familiar handwriting. 

“A bullying problem?” Jared repeats, frowning. 

Time is going funny. It’s looping, playing in circles like a faulty VCR. Climbing and letting go and falling and hitting the ground. 

Dear Evan Hansen,” Zoe reads from the crumpled paper in her hands, “You don’t even exist. You’re just a glitch in the television screen. These were in his backpack! There’s more, just- Hold on.”

“What?” says Alana. 

“No,” says Evan, a death rattle, “no, that’s not-“

Climbing and letting go and falling and hitting the ground. Sound is coming in waves, choppy and irregular. Too loud and then too quiet. 

Dear Evan Hansen,” Zoe reads, “climb higher next time. These were in his backpack. There’s like six right here. Dear Evan Hansen, you’re worthless and you’re never going to-“

Evan is sitting in the principal's office as Mrs. Murphy cries, wanting to say wait just hold on hold on you're making a mistake and instead not saying anything. He opens his mouth and nothing comes out. Everything is moving in fast-forward around him, and he’s just a dead pixel in the middle of the screen. He’s not anything at all. 

“Evan,” Alana says with horror, eyes big, “how long have you been getting these? What’s- Why didn’t you-“

“It was someone in the club,” Zoe says, hands crunching the paper. She turns to glare first at Jared, then at the throng of people circling the room. “It’s got to be. Who did this? Evan, do you know who-“

“No,” says Evan. His vocal cords are made of yarn, fuzzy and fraying and pulling apart, just broken bits of string. He’s choking on them. He’s underwater and he can’t get a breath. “No, you’re- No-“

“It was Connor,” says Jared suddenly, face going tight with understanding and anger. He starts fumbling in his backpack. 

“What?” says Connor, startled.

“Yeah,” says Jared, louder. He reemerges with a yellow plastic folder, which he brandishes furiously. “Yeah, they’re from Connor. I have- I’ve been getting them, too. Look-“ 

“You’ve been getting them, too?” Alana repeats in horror. “Why didn’t anybody-“ 

“It’s not- They’re not from Connor,” Evan blurts. “They’re not- It’s not-“

“Evan, it’s okay,” Zoe says. “I’m so sorry you’ve been getting these and- and that we didn’t know. You don’t deserve-“

“Nobody told me,” Alana says again, looking stricken. “I would have- We’ve been so busy with the fundraiser, I didn’t even think-“

“No,” says Evan, “no no no no- That’s not-"

“I didn’t write anything,” says Connor, hand tangled in his own hair, eyes big. “I wouldn’t-“

Dear Jared Kleinman,” Jared reads loudly, eyes hard and fixed on Connor, “You’re a thief and a liar. Look, it’s all the same. Just a bunch of lies. More bullshit.“

“Wait,” says Zoe, “no, that’s- Connor didn’t write that. I-“

“I didn’t- What the fuck is happening?”

“No,” says Evan, but every time he opens his mouth he gulps water by mistake. “Wait, listen- No-“

“He’s been terrorizing us both for weeks,” Jared spits. “Look, I have the letter right here-“

“I wrote that,” Zoe blurts. Then again, louder, “Connor didn’t- I wrote that.”

It goes quiet. 

“What?” Connor and Jared say at the same time. Evan can’t speak at all. 

Zoe is turning bright red. She bites her lip hard and crumples the papers in her hand a little more and says, defensively, “Yeah, I- I wrote that letter to you, Jared. About- I was mad about the- the auction. How you- You stole Evan’s speech and you were a dick to Alana and-“

“You wrote-“ Jared stops, starts. He shakes his head. “But the others were before that. You- you wrote about the night in the park? How did you-“

“What?” says Zoe, bewildered. “No, I only wrote- It was just the one time. I felt bad as soon as I did it.”

“But-“

“What are you talking about, the night in the park? Do you mean with-“

“Don’t.”  

“Connor-“ Jared starts. 

“Actually,” says another voice. Evan’s vision is going blurry and he has to blink a few times to make out Matt, the EMT kid who helped him in the orchard, getting to his feet. This doesn’t seem to make any logical sense, but then again this might all just be a hallucination. Evan has very little confidence that any of this is really happening. He’s lost sense of where the floor is, where the surface of the water is. “The other two were- I wrote those. But I didn’t-“

“What the fuck?” Jared yelps. And then, face draining of color, “Oh. You’re-”

“What is going on?” Alana demands, voice going shrill and a little bit hysterical. “Someone explain-“

“I was on duty that night,” Matt says uncomfortably. “I’m a- Y’know, I’m a volunteer EMT. And I was there when we- I was there and- you weren’t, dude.”

“I-“ says Jared.

“What?” Zoe says shrilly. 

“Jared didn’t save anybody,” says Matt, louder, voice flat. He turns and half-nods towards Evan. “It was Evan who was there. I saw him. And so I didn’t understand, at first, what was happening when started saying you were there and Evan didn’t, like- You were lying, and he didn’t try and stop you. That’s why I came to the first meeting, but- I don’t know. I think this club is doing good stuff, so I stopped with the letters. But I don’t think it’s- I don’t think it’s right. For you to say you were there.”

“What’s he talking about?” Alana asks, voice high. 

“You wrote the- But why wouldn’t you just-“

“Evan?” Zoe says quietly. 

Evan can’t say anything at all. His throat is full of yarn being pulled too tight, fraying and snapping and choking. He can’t move his head. You’re not supposed to move someone after they take a bad fall. You might do more damage than good. He might have a head injury. He might have broken his neck. He cannot be moved. 

“I wasn’t trying to- I wasn’t going to tell anyone,” Matt says, a little bit defensive but mostly staunch. “I just wanted you to tell the truth. I don’t think it’s- You were lying.”

“I don’t understand what’s happening,” Dana P. interrupts. “Who’s-“

“Shut up, Dana P.,” Alana snaps. She whirls on Jared. “What is going on? I don’t understand-“

Jared just shakes his head, mouth knocked open, face going gray. 

“What about Evan?” Zoe interrupts, ferocious, turning on Matt. “What about- Did you write those awful letters to Evan?”

“Evan? No, I-“ Matt shakes his head, raising his hands in innocence. “I wouldn’t. Evan was- Evan did a good thing. I just didn’t get why he was letting Jared- I wasn’t trying to hurt anyone. I only wrote those two letters to Jared-“

“Then who wrote the letters to Evan?” Zoe demands, something hysterical shaking her voice, almost like a laugh. “I don’t understand what the fuck is going on. Who-“

“It was- Connor?” Jared says again, but all the air’s gone out of him. 

“It wasn’t me,” Connor rasps. “I wouldn’t-“

“I did,” Evan interrupts, the words punching out of him with every bit of breath in his body. “I did- I- I wrote them to myself. I wrote them to myself. I-“

“What?” 

“It’s a-“ Evan stands and is surprised to find his legs obey him. The world is tilting a little bit sideways, like a picture frame hung not-quite-right. He tries not to let himself tilt with it. “It was a- it’s a therapy thing. I’m supposed to- to write letters to myself. Like, Dear Evan Hansen, today’s going to be a good day and here’s-

His voice cracks on the why, and he stops talking. His jaw won’t close right. It’s been dislocated somehow, maybe. He hit the ground too hard and everything shifted out of place. He’s off-kilter. 

“Why-“ Zoe says slowly. “Why would you- They’re so- mean.”

“I don’t,” Evan starts, and a horrible gulping sob-like thing erupts from his throat. It swallows up his words, so all that comes out is a rattle. An inhuman thing. He’s underwater. 

“What the fuck is going on?” demands somebody else. 

“I don’t-“ Jared says weakly. He slumps back against the wall. He knocks a whiteboard marker to the floor and does not seem to notice. “I think we need to- Just give us five minutes to- to talk this out-“

“Fuck this,” says Connor quietly, suddenly. He stands and every person in the room flinches back, for fear of catching on his edges, for fear of being cut. 

“Connor,” says Zoe, eyes very big and shiny. 

“Fuck. This,” says Connor, more venom, more intention. He swings his backpack onto his shoulder and is out the door in another instant, kicking an empty chair as he goes and sending it toppling. Dana P. yelps in alarm. 

“Connor!” Zoe says again, half a sob.  

“Evan,” says Alana, face screwed up in bewilderment. “I don’t understand- What’s-“

“Meeting’s canceled,” Jared says with sudden energy, weird vigor. “Meeting’s canceled. Everyone go-“

“Wait,” Alana protests. “Wait, we have a lot to-“

“Meeting is fucking cancelled,” Jared tells her. “Matt, we have to-“

Matt starts shaking his head. He grabs his backpack and backs away. “I’m not a part of this,” he says. “I just-“

“I don’t understand,” Alana says again. “You weren’t there? You weren’t- And Evan?”

“I have to go find Connor,” says Zoe suddenly. “He’s going to- I don’t know. Fuck. I can’t believe this. I can’t believe this-“

“Zoe,” says Evan, but she ignores him. Maybe he doesn’t even speak aloud. Maybe the water muffles his words. She rounds on Jared.

“What the fuck is wrong with you? What kind of fucking sicko lies about something like this?"

“I don’t-“ Jared’s mouth gapes open, then closed, like one of those singing plastic fish that you mount on the wall. Evan almost laughs at the idea, almost opens his mouth to tell Jared that he looks like the Filet O’ Fish fish, and then he realizes with a note of hysteria that he is having a panic attack. 

“I’ve got to go find Connor,” Zoe says again, and she’s rushing away. 

Evan is underwater. He can’t get back to the surface. He took swim lessons one summer as a kid, and they taught him the No Swimming After Eating rule in lessons one day. He was terrified. Even after his mom promised him it was a myth, he refused to get in the pool after eating without timing it exactly, to ensure that an hour had passed. It consumed him, like a twitch taking over his face. If he’d eaten that day, even breakfast hours and hours earlier, he was too terrified to get into the pool. They had to quit swim lessons. He had to start taking showers because baths became a source of fear. 

And it’s funny because all that time he was afraid of not getting back to the surface, and then he fell out of a tree. There’s something ironic and circular in that. Evan can’t hold onto it long enough to dissect it. He is, remember, having a panic attack. 

“Evan,” Alana is saying. “Evan, you’re-“

He jerks away from her hands, stoops and digs through his backpack for his inhaler. He finds the flyer Zoe was looking for, crumpled and pathetic, and then finally his inhaler. He takes a puff. He zips his backpack and stands up. 

“I’m gonna go,” he says, very clearly, and doesn’t allow himself to float back up to the surface, a dead thing, until he’s safely down the hall. 

...

Chapter Text

 

Evan walks home. It’s cold, but he’s gone a little bit numb so he doesn’t mind. He tries to unlock the front door and observes with a detached interest that his hands are shaking very badly. It takes several tries to fit the key into the slot. 

Zoe calls just as he’s finally succeeded in getting the door open. He stands in the open doorway, blank, and watches his phone light up — INCOMING CALL FROM ZOE — and eventually darken. He shoves it back in his pocket and closes the front door behind him. It goes silent, and then starts to ring again. His mom isn’t home. She’s working a double-shift tonight. There’s money on the counter to buy a pizza.

There’s a quiet thud-crash from upstairs. Evan flinches, but he lets his feet carry him up the stairs, back to his bedroom. Sure enough, The Ghost of Connor Murphy is standing in the middle of the room, ball careening wildly off one wall, then the other, laughing a crackly radio-static laugh. Evan stands in the doorway, tired, flattened. His phone starts to ring again. 

“Y’gonna get that?” The Ghost of Connor Murphy asks. 

“No,” says Evan. He ducks away from the ball, sits down heavily on his bed. It’s only once he sits that he realizes how close his knees were to buckling. He is a dried, rattling, shivering thing. He knows he knows everyone knows everyone knows he knows— 

His phone starts to ring again. He watches the screen light up — INCOMING CALL FROM ZOE — and The Ghost of Connor Murphy does, too. He says, sincerely, “I bet she hates you now.”

Evan doesn’t disagree. He can’t even feel it, really. It’s like when you go to the dentist and get injected with anesthetic and everything goes numb and rubbery. He is numb and rubbery. He reaches for the box where he keeps his meds, fumbling around for the emergency sedative he’s supposed to take to stave off panic attacks. If he goes to sleep, maybe he’ll wake up in his Real bed in the Real world where Connor died and Evan lied about it. Maybe he’ll wake up in another life where his brain makes the appropriate levels of serotonin. Maybe he won’t wake up at all. 

“I can’t believe,” says The Ghost of Connor Murphy with a crackling laugh, “that you let the exact same thing happen. Like, I gave you another chance and you still fucked it up. Like, dude!! You can’t do anything right.”

“I didn’t mean to,” Evan says. He feels very far away from himself, from the voice speaking and the hands working on the bottle of pills. “I don’t know how to-“

“You’re the problem,” says The Ghost of Connor Murphy slowly, almost like he’s having a realization. “You’re the problem. You can’t change and so nothing else can change. That’s why it didn’t work. That’s why things won’t ever get better.”

“I didn’t- I saved you,” Evan argues feebly. He can’t get the top off the bottle. His hands, rubbery and damp, won’t work. 

“You saved Connor,” corrects The Ghost of Connor Murphy. “Not the same thing. And now you fucked that up, too.”

When Evan looks up, alarmed, The Ghost of Connor Murphy flashes him an awful grin. It’s a two-dimensional thing. There’s no tongue or tonsils or throat. Evan can make out his bedroom wall, his paper-mache planets just beyond Connor’s teeth. His mouth is making the shape of a smile, but it’s not really a smile, just like Connor isn’t really Connor, just a Connor-shaped thing. A sad invention. 

“What do you mean-“ Evan starts. His phone lights up again, this time with a text. 

Evan it’s Zoe please call me back when you get this. Connors gone and I don’t know where he went and I’m really worried he’s going to hurt himself. please please please let me know if you’ve heard from him or know whre he might b going 

“Hmm,” Connor hums, gleeful, “that doesn’t sound good.”

“Are you-“ Evan’s face twists, contorts with the effort to stay present in his body. “Do you know where he is?“

No,” The Ghost of Connor Murphy says sharply. “Fuckin- I’m not the same as him. He’s not me.”

Jared calls next. Evan lets it ring. He can’t make his hands move. He knows everyone knows everyone saw—

“Are you gonna do it?” The Ghost of Connor Murphy asks eventually, blunt. Evan’s face contorts in another twitch, eyes squinting shut. 

“What?”

The Ghost of Connor Murphy reaches over, takes the bottle of sedatives out of Evan’s hands, and easily disables the Child Safety Cap. He rattles the bottle twice, like a cheerful maraca, and then hands it back to Evan. 

“I’m in your head,” he says. “I know you’re thinking about it. That’s why I’m here.”

Evan shakes his head, staring down at the bottle. “No, I’m- I’m not-“

“It would be easy,” says Connor. He sits down on the bed next to Evan, letting their shoulders bump. He’s warmer than he should be, somehow. The mattress moves under his weight, though it shouldn’t. He shouldn’t weigh anything. “Speaking from experience. It’s not as bad as you think. I mean, the choking on your own puke part isn’t great, but it gets the job done. You’re not really conscious for that part anyway. And then it’s- quieter.”

Evan’s phone is ringing. Connor reaches over, picks it up, and examines it — INCOMING CALL FROM ALANA. He switches it off, the buzzing abruptly going silent. Evan thinks he can hear his own breath, rasping against his throat like denim. 

“Quieter?” he repeats, by mistake. 

“It’s- It’s over, at least,” says Connor quietly. “That’s something.”

“Something,” says Evan, by mistake. 

“It’s better than being this forever.”

“I don’t want- I can’t- My mom,“ says Evan. It’s the only thing he’s clinging to. The tree trunk he’s hugging. He can’t die in this house. He cannot die in this house. He can’t let his mom be the one that finds him. He has hurt her enough. He’s carved enough lines into her face. 

“So don’t do it here, then,” says The Ghost of Connor Murphy. “She’ll be happier. You know she will.”

Evan stares at him, mostly unseeing. His vision is going foggy or maybe Connor is going foggy. 

“You ruined her,” says Connor. “You’re ruining her life.”

“If I die,” Evan says, trying to think, trying to bat through the layers of confusion in his brain, hanging like bedsheets on a clothesline, “what happens to you?”

“I don’t know. Probably I stop existing. You made me. You’re what’s keeping me here.”

“I-“ Evan shakes his head. “I can’t- I’m not- I can’t-“

“So, what?” Connor demands. He stands back up. “What, you’re just going to keep doing this for the rest of your life? You’re just going to keep being like this?”

“Like-“

“Like nothing,” Connor says cruelly. “Like something that things happen to. You don’t even really exist. It doesn’t even count as dying, really, when you’re barely alive to begin with.”

“I can’t-“

“Do something real, for once,” Connor challenges. He bounces the Superball twice against the floor. “It doesn’t hurt. I promise.”

Evan’s still holding the bottle of pills. He looks down, watches his hands shaking out of his control, rattling the pills in the bottle. It’s the sound of the wind in the dried-up leaves, forty feet up in the air. It’s the sound of Connor dying on a bench, asking for his mom. It’s the sound of his breath coming fast and uneven, scratching at the back of his throat with broken fingernails, always on the verge of giving out, never quite being brave enough to stop. He’s just. He’s so tired of existing like this. 

“You promise?” 

“Yeah,” says Connor, face soft, voice even softer. “I’ll even walk with you. C’mon. It’s no fun to die alone.”

Evan puts on a sweatshirt and stuffs the bottle of pills into his pocket and follows. He doesn’t think he’ll fuck it up this time. 

It’s a quick walk. Evan remembers to lock the door behind him. The pills rattle as he walks. The Ghost of Connor Murphy bounces his Superball against the pavement as they walk down the road together, mostly dead. 

Evan doesn’t think about anything. 

“I used to smoke weed here sometimes,” The Ghost of Connor Murphy says casually as they turn towards the park. “No one ever comes by. It wasn’t my first choice. I was going to- I didn’t want to die where a little kid might find me. I didn’t want to fuck anybody else up.”

Evan doesn’t answer. 

“But the grass gets mowed regularly,” Connor continues, conversational, “so I figured someone would come by in the next couple days. I didn’t want to, y’know, get eaten by a coyote or a bird or start rotting before somebody-“

“Please stop,” Evan gasps. He needs to be brave enough to do this. He can’t think too much. “Please- Don’t-“

The Ghost of Connor Murphy laughs cruelly. His next bounce of the Superball is too vigorous, and it rebounds off the pavement and goes arcing off the road, crashing into the brush. 

“Fuck,” says The Ghost of Connor Murphy, following after it and disappearing into the woods. 

Evan keeps walking. Behind him, a car goes by on the main road. The headlights cut across the playground just for a second, playing over the benches and the graffitied jungle gym and the swings, the sharp-shouldered figure sitting there. 

Connor is sitting on the swings. Evan stops short. 

“Hey,” says Connor. 

“Hey,” Evan says back, blank. 

It’s silent. The swing creaks a little. Connor scuffs one foot in the woodchips. 

“I’d ask if you come here often,” he says dully, “but I guess we both know.”

“Yeah,” says Evan. He keeps standing there. He has a bottle of pills in his pocket. He came here to kill himself. He doesn’t understand why there’s so much social anxiety involved in suicide. He thought it would be simpler than this. “You’re- Are you- Are you okay?”

“I took a Xanax,” says Connor. Evan’s stomach swoops. 

“Not-“

“Not- Just one,” Connor clarifies, scowling. “Jesus. Just one.”

“You promise?”

“Do I- Yeah, I fucking promise. They’re prescribed. For when I’m having a panic attack.”

“Oh. You’re- Are you- having a panic attack?”

“Well, I’m not doing great, thanks.”

“No, I- I- but you’re not-“

“I’m not going to OD, if that’s what you’re waiting for.”

“No, I-“ Evan stammers. “I know.”

He keeps standing there. Connor keeps sitting on the swing, rocking slightly. He’s gripping the chain above his head with both hands, elbows crooked. He casts an odd, angular shadow. Evan keeps standing there, breathing, not dying. 

“So you wrote those letters to yourself?” Connor asks abruptly. “Because that’s some pretty suicidal shit, dude.”

“I-“ says Evan. He’s got a bottle of pills in his pocket. He came here to kill himself, maybe. “I guess, yeah. Maybe. It was just- it’s hypothetical.”

“Hypothetical,” Connor says flatly. He drags a foot through the woodchips. He says, “Did I do anything embarrassing?”

Evan stares at him blankly. Connor rolls his eyes, clarifies: 

“When I was dying, dude. Did I do anything embarrassing?”

Evan, startled, asks, “You don’t remember?”

Connor squints at him, mean and disbelieving. “Obviously not. As we all learned today.”

“But you-“ Evan shifts from one foot to the other, wincing at the resulting rattle of pills from his pocket. Connor doesn’t seem to hear. “I thought you knew.”

“The letters were not from me,” Connor snaps. “You fuckin’ heard the EMT kid.”

“No, I- I know, but I- You said some things,” Evan falters. “I don’t- You didn’t. You didn’t say anything embarrassing. And you weren’t- You weren’t dying. You didn’t die, so-“

“Yeah,” says Connor. His mouth twists, sour. “Thanks for that.”

“I’m- sorry.”

It goes quiet. Evan keeps standing there. He’s got a bottle of pills in his pocket. He came here to kill himself, he thinks. Already his brain is erasing itself, pouring sawdust over the mess and sweeping it away, harried and efficient like a hostess at a restaurant. Except for the pills in his pocket, it might never have happened at all. 

Connor sighs. “You can sit, you know. I’m not gonna-“

“No, I- I know,” Evan rushes. 

After a frozen moment, he crosses the woodchips and sinks tentatively into the swing next to Connor’s. The metal is cold on his butt. He shifts uncomfortably and the pills rattle. Connor doesn’t seem to notice. He’s swinging idly, one toe nudging the ground to keep his momentum. A car goes by on the main road, a flash of headlights, and it lights Connor yellow for a second. Evan thinks of Connor in the field, haloed from behind. Connor on the bench, lit red and blue and red again in the lights of the ambulance. The words spill out of him like vomit, like pills. 

“I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I can’t- I don’t even know what to say. It was just- I found you and I didn’t know what to do and so I- and I didn’t mean for Jared to be involved at all, but the sweatshirt. And the- I had his phone and- And then it just seemed. Better. It seemed. I don’t know. I always do this. But I never meant to- I never meant to-“

“Which part are you sorry for?” Connor asks. “Lying about not being there that night or not letting me die when I wanted to?”

“I-“ Evan chokes. His feet scuffle in the woodchips. “The- the lying. I’m sorry I- I’m sorry I lied and I’m sorry it came out the way it did, in front of- in front of everyone. But I’m not sorry about- about you not dying. I’m not sorry you’re alive.”

Connor makes a skeptical noise. The chains of his swing rattle as he skids to a stop, standing still with his hands wrapped over his head, elbows out. 

“Yeah,” he says. “I’m still deciding if I’m mad about that one. I’ll let you know.”

“Okay,” says Evan, bewildered, very cold. 

“I knew Kleinman wasn’t there,” Connor says eventually. He sets himself swinging again, kicking up an arc of woodchips. “I mean, I didn’t know-know, but I knew. You know?”

“No,” says Evan. 

“I knew it was someone quiet,” Connor says. “I knew it was someone quiet. He’s not. He’s a dick.”

“He’s,” Evan starts, and then does not know what else to say. “It wasn’t his fault. It was- It was my fault. I made him go along with it. He didn’t- He was trying to help. If he’d been there, he would’ve- he would’ve helped, just like I did.”

Connor makes another skeptical noise. 

“You didn’t- You really didn’t know it was me?”

“No. I don’t remember it. Or I- I don’t know. My doctor said I’d probably, y’know, block it out. Trauma or whatever.”

“Oh,” says Evan, who has a bottle of pills in his pocket, who knows a lot about repressing trauma. “I just- You said some stuff after- Like, about the club name.”

“I’m always saying stuff,” Connor says dismissively. “Like I said, I knew something was up. I knew Kleinman wasn’t there.”

“But you were always- You kept inviting me places,” Evan says helplessly. “And talking to me. I thought you- I thought you knew it was me and you were trying to, like- let me know you knew."

“I’m not that smart. I don’t think about things that much,” Connor disagrees. “I invited you places because I have a weird stupid crush on you. You’re nice. You’re quiet.”

“Oh,” says Evan, dumb. 

“And I thought you were- I don’t know. You talked about being mentally ill like it wasn’t- like you weren’t letting it kill you. And you seemed like you were doing okay.”

Evan is so startled he accidentally laughs out loud. The bottle of pills in his pocket shifts, rattles. He came here to kill himself. 

“Yeah,” says Connor, rueful, something crackly around the edge of his voice that resembles a smile. “You had me fooled.”

“I think you’re the only person,” Evan says, still a little bit hysterical, “that’s ever thought I was coping well with mental illness.”

“You were supposed to be my mental health Yoda,” Connor says, almost smiling. Evan laughs. 

“Sorry to disappoint.”

“Yeah,” says Connor, sobering. Evan slows his swing, lets himself look at Connor’s face. His sharp nose and sensitive forehead and chin buried in the folds of his sweatshirt. He feels shivery and achey for a second, like maybe he’s getting a fever, and then he just feels incredibly sad. 

“I’m really- I’m really sorry,” he says again, so earnest his voice cracks. “I didn’t- I didn’t mean to hurt anybody. I didn’t mean for everybody to find out. I- I don’t know how to be- to be better than this. But I didn’t mean for- I’m really sorry.”

Connor doesn’t answer right away. He swings gently, one long angular leg tucked underneath him, pushing off against the ground. He says, finally, “I mean, it’s not like people didn’t know. People knew. They always- I could tell when they looked at me. I was a freak even before- y’know.”

“I don’t think that,” Evan disagrees. “I think that’s just-“

“Paranoia, right?” Connor agrees. “That’s what my therapist said, too. Not everybody’s out to get you, Connor. But y’know, it doesn’t help to find out that I’ve actually been part of a huge fuckin’ conspiracy for like two months now.”

Evan has to swallow hard. “I’m sorry,” he says again. 

“I mean,” Connor says fairly, “it’s nice to be proven right, I guess.”

“You asked for your mom.”

“What?”

“You- when you were- You asked for your mom.”

“Oh,” says Connor, quieter. His face closes off, somehow. “That’s- that’s embarrassing. You said I didn’t do anything embarrassing.”

“I’m sorry,” Evan rushes, face twitching, ticking, tightening and then releasing. “I didn’t- I don’t know why I said that. I’m sorry.”

Connor doesn’t answer for a long time. He swings with his face down, hands gripping above his head, shoulders slumped. Eventually, he says, “Did you mean what you wrote in the letters?”

“Oh,” says Evan. “I don’t- I don’t know. I- Probably. Yeah, I- Yeah.”

“And in the tree, that was-“

“Yeah,” says Evan. 

“Sorry for that. I really didn’t- I’m stupid when I’m high.”

“It wasn’t- it wasn’t your fault.”

“I mean, it’s a little bit my fault,” says Connor. “Technically all of this only happened because I couldn’t die right. Typical.”

“That’s-“ Evan’s throat seizes, lurches, like it’s remembering a mouthful of pills, swallowed dry. “That’s not true.”

“It’s not something I, like, think about all the time,” Connor says. “It’s just, like, it’s always there in the background. I don’t know how to- It’s really, like, exhausting to be me. I just get tired.”

“Yeah,” Evan rasps. 

“And I’m not- I’m awful,” he continues, “to Zoe. To my parents. It’s like- I just think it would be easier if-“

“No,” says Evan, who has witnessed the Murphy’s grief first hand, who has sat in Connor’s room and stared at his posters and wondered that this dead boy ever cared about anything enough to tape it to his walls. “Believe me, it’s- No.”

Connor exhales an uncertain, crackly laugh. “Are you giving me the It Gets Better Talk right now? Don’t do it, life is worth living?”

 “That’s what they tell me,” Evan agrees wearily. “I’ll let you know if it starts kicking in.”

Connor makes a huh noise, not quite a laugh, and pushes himself higher. Evan shoves his hands into his pockets, knuckles starting to ache with cold, and is almost startled to find the bottle of pills there. Already, his brain has mostly wiped it away. The bottle knocks against his phone and rattles. 

“Oh,” Evan realizes, with a sudden shock, “Zoe. Everyone’s- everyone’s looking for you. I think they thought- y’know. You were upset.”

“I was,” Connor agrees, voice mostly dead. 

“I’ve got to- I need to call someone and let them know.”

“I’m fine,” Connor disagrees, annoyed. 

Evan’s icy fingers fumble with his phone, turning it back on and somehow managing to find Zoe’s number. He calls before he can even think to be nervous. 

They swing quietly until Zoe shows up. It’s cold and the chains of the swing are so icy they burn Evan’s fingers. He wants to tuck his hands into his pockets to warm them, but he’s afraid of brushing his knuckles against the bottle of pills nestled there. It’s quiet. Connor sniffles occasionally from the cold, shivering a little bit. Evan doesn’t allow himself to listen to the shivering, to let his eyes slide over to the bench where Connor died. He came here to kill himself. 

“I wasn’t going to do it,” Connor says eventually. “I’m- I mean, I thought about it when I first left, but- I’m trying to get better. I know it’s- I really am-“

“I believe you,” Evan tells him, quiet. 

The Murphy’s car comes roaring down the road, way too fast for a dead-end street. They park illegally, leave the car running, and rush over to the swingset. Evan and Connor have to squint to see, half-blinded by the headlights shining directly at them. Mr. Murphy is in his work clothes and Mrs. Murphy has been crying and Zoe is furious. 

“Where the fuck were you?” she demands, storming across the woodchips. 

Mrs. Murphy lifts her head from where’s buried it in Connor’s neck, hugging him fiercely. “Zoe, don’t-“

“Connor, we’ve been very worried,” Mr. Murphy says, standing apart, a little bit stiff but truthfully looking Very Worried. “Where have you been?”

Connor looks around, gesturing limply with one hand, arms pinned to his side from the fierceness of his mother’s hug. “I’ve been here.”

“You should’ve- You should’ve told someone where you were,” Mrs. Murphy tells him. She has to wipe her eyes. Connor looks extremely unhappy. 

"I just went for a walk."

“You can’t- fucking- do that,” Zoe spits. “I thought- Mom and Dad thought-“

“I’m fine,” says Connor, suddenly going tense and sullen and curling inward again. He extricates himself from his mother’s hug. “Jesus.”

“Are you alright?” Mr. Murphy demands. “You’re okay? You’re not-“

“I’m fucking fine-“

“Language.”

“Connor, you can’t disappear like that. We thought- We’ve been looking for you all evening. I left work early to-“

“Sorry for the fucking inconvenience,” Connor snaps. His posture is angry but his face is enormously young, sensitive, hurt. “But I didn’t ask for anybody to-“

“That’s not what your father meant-“

“We’ll talk at home,” Mr. Murphy interrupts. He looks like Zoe in that moment, mouth hard and hurt. “It’s cold. You shouldn’t be outside.”

“I’m fine,” Connor grumbles. When his mother reaches to push his hair back from his face, he flinches away. “Stop- Stop. I’m fine.”

“Your father was very worried,” Mrs. Murphy tells him as Mr. Murphy slams the car door, disappearing behind the blinding white headlights. “He’s just not good at showing it. That’s all. But we’re so glad you’re okay-“

“Can we go?” Connor interrupts, voice flat and dead. 

“Yeah, baby. Evan, it was-“ Evan flinches, startled to be addressed. He has been floating above his body somewhere, mostly dead. Mrs. Murphy moves to grab his hands and squeeze them. Her eyes are full of tears. “Thank you for the call, honey. We’re just glad Connor’s safe and we’re- we’re glad he has such a good friend like you.”

Zoe makes a skeptical noise, arms crossed, face stormy. Mrs. Murphy wipes her eyes. 

“Let us give you a ride home,” she says. “It’s cold.”

Evan can’t unlock his jaw in time to refuse, and then he’s being hustled into the backseat of the Murphy’s car, where he sits hunched in the middle seat, acutely aware that his shoulder is knocking against Zoe’s very stiff and angry shoulder, that his leg is pressed fully against Connor’s leg, which is warmer than it should be, somehow. 

“It’s a- Yeah, a right here.”

“You used to take piano lessons down this way, Connor,” Mrs. Murphy says, voice strained in an effort to sound cheery, “remember?”

“No,” says Connor dully. 

When they get to Evan’s house, Connor has to get out of the car to allow Evan to climb out of the middle seat. He stands, curled-in, and doesn’t say anything. There’s a noise as Zoe gets out of the car, too, slamming the door behind her. She rounds the car to confront them both. 

“Are you really okay?” she asks abruptly, voice tight. 

“Am I- what?”

“Are you fucking okay?” 

“I’m- fine,” Connor says slowly, bewildered, and then Zoe is giving him a fierce and sudden hug. All his bones seem to go slack, like the wire stringing them together has been cut.

Just as quickly as she flung herself at him, Zoe is retreating, angrily swiping at her eyes and shoving her hands into her pockets. She turns on Evan, mouth hard, shoulders as sharp and mean as her brother’s. 

“Stop perving on other people’s tragedy,” she snaps. “And leave us alone.”

“Don’t-“ Connor starts. 

“Thank you for calling me,” she tells Evan, voice tight and controlled, shaking just the tiniest bit. “I appreciate it. But after this I want you to leave us the fuck alone.”

“Okay,” says Evan, tired, numb, rubber.  

“She doesn’t mean it,” says Connor. 

“Yes, I fucking do,” Zoe snaps, and she gets back into the car. 

"She really doesn't mean it."

"Yes, she does."

“Bye,” says Connor eventually, a little bit helpless. 

“Bye,” Evan repeats, blank. He starts towards his house, stopping when Connor says, suddenly, “Oh.”

“Oh, don’t forget- You left this,” Connor says, “in the backseat.”

He drops the Superball into Evan’s hands. Evan looks down at it blankly. 

“I did?”

“I mean, it’s not mine?”

“Oh,” says Evan, “yeah. Thank you.”

“Yeah,” says Connor, and then he gets back into the car and the Murphy’s drive away. 

Chapter Text

Time, improbably, keeps going. Evan, improbably, keeps being Not Dead. He hears his mom get home sometime past midnight and he gets out of bed and goes downstairs in his socks. She’s frowning down at the money on the counter, untouched, and she jumps when he appears in the kitchen doorway. 

“You scared me!” she says, putting a hand to her heart. With her eyes all big and shocked, standing there in her scrubs the color of an orange creamsicle, she looks so young and nice and Mom-like. Evan feels his face crumple. Her mouth goes soft, concerned. “What’s- Did something happen, honey?”

He shakes his head. Nothing happened. He came home and went upstairs and put the bottle of pills back in his box and put the Superball back on the desk for The Ghost of Connor Murphy to find and nothing happened. His heart is still beating. Nothing happened. He can’t say any of that, though, and so he just starts to cry.

“Oh, baby,” his mom says, and then she’s wrapping him up in her arms. She smells like the hospital and the hand cream she keeps in her car because she doesn’t like how the disinfectant makes her hands dry and cracked. “You should’ve called me.”

Evan shakes his head, unable to speak. He feels like everything inside of him is wrenching free, twisting and lurching and unlocking. His mom pets the hair at the back of his head. He cries until he can’t anymore. 

“Sorry,” he says eventually, once he can be sure his voice is not going to be swallowed in another sob. “Sorry. I know you’re- you’re tired. You can go to bed. I’m- I’m okay now.”

“Don’t worry about that,” she says firmly. She grips him harder. “Let’s make some tea. We can sit for a little bit, okay?”

“Okay,” he says. 

They drink their tea. Evan grasps both hands around his mug and lets it warm his fingers. He hadn’t realized how icy-cold they were, still locked around the metal chains of the swing in the park. His breathing is all shivery and shuddery, like the way the air smells after a rainstorm, but he feels okay for the first time in a very long time. He feels like he’s shaken everything loose. He let the cat out of the box, or some half-formed metaphor like that. Everything is less tight. 

“Okay?” his mom asks eventually. Her eyes are soft and concerned. It’s hard to look right at them without guilt and sadness pluming, curling in his stomach. 

“Yeah,” he says. Then, more truthfully, “I think I’ve got to- I have to talk to Dr. Sherman. About- about changing medications or- or something. I’m not. I’m not doing too good.”

His mom puts down her mug of tea, but she doesn’t ask any questions. Evan is grateful for that. She just pets the back of his head again and says they can make an appointment in the morning. And she will talk on the phone if he doesn’t want to. He says thank you. 

“Yeah, honey,” she says, eyes just unbearable. “Of course.”

Nothing is fixed, but for a second it’s not so broken. Evan goes right to sleep. 

The walkathon is Sunday. It is not being cancelled. 

Evan learns this from the text he receives from Alana that morning. It is brief and efficient and completely void of typos or abbreviations or emojis. 

HI ALL. JUST A REMINDER - THE WALKATHON BEGINS AT 11 TODAY. ALL VOLUNTEERS SHOULD REPORT BY 10:30 AT THE LATEST. PLEASE REMEMBER TO SHARE THE EVENT ON FACEBOOK IF YOU HAVEN’T ALREADY. THANKS! WE ARE IN FOR A GREAT DAY!

Then, a second text, just to Evan. 

I hope you will be there, as you did make a commitment to help clean up afterwards. It would be really irresponsible if you didn’t follow through. 

Then, a third text, less grammatically rigorous. 

Jared wont be attending. fyi. 

Evan reads the messages several times over, brain working slowly. Then he gets up and gets dressed. His mom is drinking coffee in the kitchen, with her hair in a ponytail and her pink running shoes on. 

“Ready to walk?” she asks brightly. She is doing everything a little brighter, a little cheerier, ever since Evan admitted that things are generally going Not So Good. He doesn’t blame her, obviously, but it makes him feel a little guilty, a little resentful. It’s another way he will inevitably disappoint her. She’s always putting things too high above his head and then getting upset when he cannot reach. 

“Yeah,” he says, grinning weakly, and tries for a fist-pump. It’s not very convincing. “Woo! Walking!”

She laughs, like she’s grateful he’s playing along. She plays Determinedly Cheery music on the drive to the orchard. 

“I signed up to help at the refreshment table,” she tells him as they pull into the parking lot. It’s already mostly full. There are people everywhere. Evan’s stomach turns a little bit. “I thought you’d probably want to hang out with your friends, y’know?”

“Oh,” says Evan, who is suddenly struck with the realization that he doesn’t have any friends. “Yeah, that’s- fine.”

Somewhere, sometime he started consider them all his friends — Zoe, Jared, Alana, even Connor — and now he’s realized how very wrong he was. How sad and lonely and alone he has been this whole time. It hurts like a toothache, so sharply he actually puts his hand to his jaw. 

“It’s really crowded,” his mom says excitedly, once they finally find a parking space. “You didn’t tell me this many people were coming!”

“I didn’t know,” Evan tells her truthfully, looking around at the crowds filling the parking lot, filtering towards the vending booths and the beginning of the trail. He hasn’t decided if he’s going to panic yet. He has to get all the information first. The day is still young, after all.

“There’s a news crew over there,” his mom says, pointing. “And there’s- That’s your friend, isn’t it? She kept calling me Mrs. Hansen.”

“Yeah,” Evan says, feeling ill. “Alana.”

Alana finishes talking to the news crew, shakes several hands, and then starts towards them. She’s wearing a THE JARED PROJECT t-shirt under overall shorts and a pink baseball cap and she looks weirdly young and girly and human, except for her pasted-on smile, strained and tense. When Evan’s mom waves, Alana waves back, fixes Evan with that plastic smile. 

“Hi!” she says, approaching, smiling mostly at Evan’s mom. “So glad you could make it!”

“It looks amazing!” Evan’s mom enthuses. “You kids have all been working so hard. Evan’s been telling me all about it. You must be so proud.”

“I’m very proud,” Alana agrees modestly. Her eyes move to Evan for a second when his mom says his name, then dart away. “We’ve had a wonderful turn-out so far. We’ve already sold out of t-shirts. I told Evan we would need more.”

“You were right,” Evan manages. He tries to make his face shape a smile. He’s not sure if it works. 

“I was right,” Alana agrees calmly. Another local news team emerges from the parking lot. She waves at them. “If you’ll excuse me, I’ve got to go meet them. Jared isn’t feeling well, so I’ve had to step into his role for the day. It’s a lot of responsibilities, but I’m handling it with aplomb.”

“You most certainly are,” Evan’s mom agrees, a little amused. She waves Alana away. “She is very intense,” she says, which is kind. 

“She just likes to do a good job,” Evan says, feeling protective despite himself, watching Alana shaking hands. No doubt she has a perfect grip, just a hint too firm. Probably she has practiced that handshake for hours, agonized over every last twitch of the finger. Evan understands her, in that way. 

“She’s definitely done a good job,” his mom agrees. 

Her eyes go wide as they follow the stream of people towards the main clearing, in front of the old cider mill. There are dozens of local businesses set up in booths. Evan can see a sign for HAYRIDES, THIS WAY! and another for YOU ARE NOT ALONE! WRITE A LETTER OF ENCOURAGEMENT, TAKE A LETTER OF ENCOURAGEMENT! and another that says KNOW THE SIGNS! WORKSHOP SESSIONS 11:30, 1:00, 2:30 TODAY!

“Wow,” says Heidi. 

“Wow,” Evan agrees. He tries to decide if he’s going to have a panic attack. He can’t tell yet.

“It’s a shame Jared isn’t here,” his mom says, turning in a circle to take it all in. “After all that hard work-“

“Yeah,” says Evan, something nudging cold and uncomfortable between his ribs. “Yeah. It’s- it’s a shame.”

It’s- weird, is what it is. It’s weird. There’s a bouncy castle and a dunk tank. There’s a team of paramedics teaching first-aid essentials. Matt is probably there. There’s a booth selling funnel cake. It’s like a carnival. Connor isn’t dead and Jared didn’t save him and there are middle-schoolers running around trying to dump cups of lemonade on each other. 

It’s weird. 

They wander for a couple minutes, until the heat and noise of the crowd starts to bear down on Evan’s shoulders, pricking him with sweat and panic. Dana P. and another girl from TJP are looking at him, then turning away. They know. His hands are going damp and warm. He should have stayed home. Why did he think he had the right to come here, after all this?

“I’m going to-“ he starts, searching for an exit. A hole to crawl into. A tree to climb. 

“Oh, there’s your friend,” his mom interrupts, voice going terribly happy and smiley when she says the word friend like she still can’t believe he has friends. He doesn’t, as it turns out, have friends. But he can’t tell her that. He turns. 

“Oh,” he says, “no, that’s- that’s Connor.”

But his mom is already waving and Connor is looking up from his lemonade, stricken, and then he is awkwardly waving back, like his skeleton fingers have never done something as banal and cheerful as waving at someone before. 

“I’ll go say hi,” Evan says. “You can- Don’t worry about me. If you want to walk around some more.”

His mom ruffles his hair and tells him she’s proud of him and gives him a shove towards Connor, who’s still kind of standing there looking uncomfortable. Evan can relate. He nearly trips twice, just walking over. 

“Hi,” he mumbles, “I’m- Sorry. You don’t have to talk to me if you don’t- I mean, don’t- It’s okay if you don’t want to-“

The words won’t come. Evan stutters to a halt, knots his fingers hard into the hem of his shirt to stop his face from twitching. He is glitching. 

“The lemonade is really good,” Connor says. It takes Evan several seconds of panicked blinking to process this information. 

“It’s- the lemonade-“

“It’s good,” Connor repeats. “It’s, like, the powder kind. They didn’t mix it right, so it’s all grainy. You can crunch it.”

“That’s,” Evan says, “like the opposite of what lemonade is supposed to be like.”

Connor lifts a plastic cup, swills his lemonade under Evan’s nose so he can see the yellow powder floating at the top, then takes a big sip. There’s an audible crunch of powdered sugar gritting between his teeth. Evan winces. 

Connor laughs at his wince, and then stops laughing. He’s wearing so many layers. Surely he must be sweaty. It’s warm for late October. 

“I didn’t-“ Evan falters. “I didn’t think you would come.”

“My mom,” Connor says in explanation. Evan nods. 

“Me, too.”

“Nothing like a carnival celebrating my attempted suicide,” Connor says, looking around with distaste, “to close off a- a fuckin’ stellar week. They can’t even mix the lemonade right.”

“Alana’s-“ Evan starts, falters, and finishes lamely, “Alana’s working really hard.”

“Yeah,” says Connor, tone heavy. “Is Kleinman-“

“He’s not coming.”

“Dick.”

“He’s not- Sorry. I guess I shouldn’t- But I just-“

“Finish a clause, dude.”

Evan squints his eyes shut, feels the muscles in his face tighten and relax, then tries again: “He didn’t mean to- It wasn’t just him. I was- I lied, too.”

“I know,” says Connor, mouth sagging unhappily. He swills his gritty lemonade.

“I’m sorry,” Evan says again. He doesn’t have anything else. 

“Yeah,” says Connor vaguely. 

There’s feedback from a microphone, which makes them both flinch and swivel. Alana’s standing on a little podium by the barn, smiling tightly and readjusting the microphone.

“Sorry about that,” she says. Then, louder, “Hi everyone! And welcome to the First Annual Walkathon for The- The Jared Project. I’m co-president Alana Beck, and I just want to thank you all for being here today. Today is a day of celebration-“

“I should at least get free beverages,” Connor says quietly. “A- I don’t know, a fuckin’ t-shirt at least.”

Evan gives an unsure laugh, because he can’t really tell if it’s a joke or not. Also because he hates crowds and he hates the feeling of panic creeping up on him, like the temperature of the air around him is getting just the tiniest bit hotter, slowly slowly slowly. Like how you boil a frog. You raise the heat so slowly he doesn’t even notice until he’s boiled. 

He doesn’t know why anyone would want to boil a frog. He thinks it seems unnecessarily cruel. He also thinks a frog is an apt metaphor for himself — jumpy, slimy, small. It’s very hot in this crowd. Every bit of air he’s breathing in is someone else’s exhale. It’s very hot.  

“As you know, this club was inspired by an incident that occurred within our own school,” Alana is saying. “But I don’t think- I think our club’s purpose has really grown beyond that. We are trying to foster an environment of openness and-“

Someone bumps Connor from behind and some of his lemonade sloshes out of his cup, spills in slow motion onto his and Evan’s feet. 

“Shit. Sorry,” he says. Then, squinting at Evan’s face, “You good?”

Evan manages to shake his head tightly. Some far-off part of him is despairing that he will ever get through an interaction with Connor without having a panic attack. 

“I hate crowds,” he manages. 

“Me, too,” says Connor. “I think I’m dying, actually. Can we- Let’s go somewhere else.“

“Yeah,” Evan exhales gratefully. 

Connor leads the way through the crowd because he has sharp elbows and a generally intimidating presence, which means people mostly get out of his way. Evan is less foreboding, and he lags behind, has to keep ducking around people muttering sorry sorry excuse me sorry until Connor reaches back and grabs him by the wrist and bodily hauls him to safety. 

“Thank you,” says Evan, who finds his lungs remember how to work once he is not standing amid a crowd, once he is not staring at Alana’s Dry Clean Only smile. He doesn’t think he’s going to cry which is, like, A Win these days. 

“Yeah,” says Connor. He lets go of Evan’s wrist and steps back, surveys the crowd, and then turns back to Evan with something heavy and miserable tugging at his features. “It’s kinda- Fuck this, you know?”

“Yeah?” Evan says, uncertain. 

Connor’s jaw moves like he’s having to work hard to produce words. Eventually, he says, “Half the people here don’t even- wouldn’t even like me if they- They’re here for some bullshit cause. They don’t know they’re here for some fuckin’ asshole school shooter kid.”

Evan is so startled, disarmed by the clench of Connor’s jaw and the vitriol of his tone, that he accidentally asks, “Would you rather nobody came at all? Or-“

Connor gulps the rest of his lemonade, biting down on the gritty powder between his teeth. He crunches his plastic cup and throws it at the nearest trash can, misses. 

“I don’t- I don’t know,” he says haltingly. “I bet if I- if I died no one would- Actually no, fuck that. They’d dig up some angsty art from sixth grade and pretend I was some kind of troubled artist type.” 

“I- I think people do- People- people would-“

There’s a sudden burst of applause as Alana steps down from the podium, grinning a little more sincerely. Evan thinks about her telling him, in another life, that she thought she knew how Connor - Other Connor, Dead Connor - might have felt. 

“I think,” he says slowly, “that people- people do care. Not- not everyone. But- but I don’t think The Jared- this project, or whatever. I don’t think it ever would have gotten off the ground if people weren’t- weren’t looking for help.” 

It’s a horribly embarrassing thing to say, only worsened by the fact that Evan is a Huge Fucking Liar. He, more than anyone, had something to gain by involving himself with Connor, with the Project. 

He ducks his head, embarrassed, and then gives in to his nagging anxiety and goes to retrieve Connor’s fallen plastic cup, dropping it into the garbage after determining that there are no recycling bins. When he gets back, Connor is looking at him blankly and bluntly, in the odd way he has, like he’s forgotten that he is visible. That Evan can see him looking. 

After a couple seconds, it’s Too Much. Evan isn’t used to people looking at him on purpose. 

“What? Is- Sorry, I didn’t-“ 

“No,” says Connor, shaking his head. “You’re just like- I don’t know.”

“Sorry. I’m-“ 

“Connor!” says Alana’s voice suddenly. She appears from the crowd, posture perfect, smile crisp. “There you are!” 

“There I am,” Connor agrees. 

“I wanted to-“ Alana cuts her eyes coldly towards Evan, and then shifts her posture decidedly so that she is obviously addressing Connor Alone. “I wanted to apologize for what happened in meeting on Friday. It was- I️ can promise you I knew nothing about it. But I’m still sorry it-“

“It’s fine,” Connor says quickly. “It’s-“ 

“Jared and I are going to disband the club,” Alana says when Connor does not finish his sentence. “We’ll have a more official discussion some time next week, but- We never should have started a club without your permission. And we never should have lied-“ 

“You’re- you’re disbanding?” Evan stammers. 

Alana’s eyes cut to him, then away. She doesn’t answer, jaw pointed stubbornly at Connor.  

“And I just want to say, personally,” she continues, tone a little more human, “that I’m so sorry for all of this. I didn’t- I didn’t know.” 

“It’s-“ Connor starts, stops. Something about him is startled, open, knocked askew. 

“Alana,” Evan manages, “I’m- sorry. I never meant to- We-“ 

She turns on him suddenly in a flurry of braids and angry eyebrows and hurt mouth. 

“You lied to me for two full months,” she tells him, “and you let me perpetuate lies and take people’s money and believe in it all so much. And I thought you were- I know I’m not- I know what I’m like, okay? I know I’m not fun to be around, but I- I try. I work really hard and I care about things and maybe I’m not the best at interpersonal relationships, but you took advantage of that and you took advantage of me.”

Evan can’t do anything except stand there with his mouth open, unable to take a breath. He doesn’t think he’s ever understood the praise got the wind knocked out of you until just now. The only thing left in his chest is a blooming, pulsing bruise. All his air is gone. 

“I’m sorry,” he wheezes. 

Alana turns back to Connor, eyes shiny with tears, and says tightly, “Again, I’m really sorry. We can talk more officially later. Enjoy the day, I guess.” 

And she leaves. 

“Fuck,” says Connor with a winded kind of laugh. “Jesus.”

Evan knots his fingers into the hem of his shirt, twists, releases. Knots, twists, releases, feeling the pulse in his fingertips. A muscle in his face wants to twitch, but he won’t let it. He makes himself breathe. 

“It’s- I deserved that,” he says. He makes himself breathe. He asks, dully, “Do you know if Zoe-“

“She’s not here,” Connor says. “She, like- I don’t know. I don’t think she super likes you right now, but also I don’t really- think it’s about you, actually? It’s like- every other thing in our shitty fucking family, kind of?”

“That’s- fair,” Evan says, breathing. “Can you tell her I’m, like-“

“We’re not really talking,” Connor winces. “It’s- Like I said, shitty.”

“Oh,” says Evan. 

“It’s just, like- bad. Right now. But it’s not- I don’t think she hates you or anything.”

“I wouldn’t blame her if she did,” Evan says. He tries for a smile, produces something limp and twitchy. “I’m actually- I’m actually surprised you’re like- you don’t hate me, too.”

Connor’s mouth does another unhappy twitch. He says, “Yeah, I don’t- I don’t know.”

“I mean,” says Evan in a rush, “I mean, maybe you- maybe you do. I shouldn’t- I shouldn’t assume.”

“No,” says Connor. “No, I don’t. Y’know what, I don’t really want to talk about it anymore?”

Evan swallows. It takes some work. “Yeah,” he says, “yeah, I totally understand- I can- I can go and help my mom with-“

“No, shut up, that’s not what I meant,“ Connor interrupts, frustrated. He tugs at his ear and makes an awkward, aborted movement with his hand, like he’s going to touch Evan on the arm and then doesn’t. “Like I said, fuck this. Let’s- I don’t want to think about any of this shit anymore. Can we- I don’t know.”

“We could walk,” Evan suggests in a small voice. “It’s a- it’s a walkathon, I mean.”

“Yes,” says Connor immediately. “Let’s- Let’s go look at some trees and not- not think about suicide for five fuckin’ minutes.”

Evan is surprised into a laugh. 

“I can- give it a shot?” 

They walk quietly for a while, following the trail away from the noise and the crowd. It smells like damp leaves and mulch and Evan can breathe a little better. He realizes his fingers are still knotted into his shirt, and untangles them. HIs fingertips are slightly purple. 

“Gross,” Connor observes. 

When Evan looks over at him, he’s pulling back his hair into a half-hearted ponytail and Evan can see his weird, pale ears and his weird, fragile neck and and the jut of his chin. Something about him continues to surprise Evan, weirdly human and off-kilter and unfamiliar. His voice is still just a little bit higher, thinner than Evan expects it to be. 

“How come you didn’t-“ Evan starts, then stops. 

“What?”

“Sorry. You said you didn’t want to talk about it-“

“Okay well. Now if you don’t say it, it’s gonna stress me out.”

“How come you didn’t tell your parents that- About. Jared. And- and me.”

“Oh,” says Connor, like he’s surprised. He tugs at his earlobe. “Um. I don’t know. I didn’t want-“

“Sorry,” says Evan. “Sorry. Don’t worry about it-“

“I don’t really,” Connor says, “like talking about it-”

“You’re right. I’m sorry-“

“-with my parents. They’re not- I don’t know. I can’t talk to them about- stuff.” 

“Sorry,” says Evan, “I already broke the- the one rule.”

“It’s cool,” says Connor quickly, head down, shoulders hunched. 

Evan knots his fingers into the hem of his shirt and squeezes ’til he can feel his pulse, ’til he can reassure himself that he is Not Dead. 

“Don’t-“ says Connor, and knocks Evan’s grip loose.

“I’m- Okay,” says Evan. “No more depressing talk. I have- I don’t have a lot of subjects of conversation. It’s- it’s mostly apologies and, I don’t know, tree facts. I’m, like, the most boring person ever.”

This makes Connor laugh, head coming up. 

“That’s not true,” he says. 

“It’s- kinda true.”

“Bullshit,” says Connor. He stoops abruptly, and when he straightens he’s holding a crunchy brown leaf. He thrusts it at Evan. “What kind of leaf is this?”

Evan looks at it blankly, then takes it from Connor. “Um- What kind of- It’s a leaf?”

“Yeah,” says Connor, with enthusiasm, “is it a good kind?”

“A good- Yeah, it’s a- a maple, probably?”

“See,” says Connor. He takes the leaf back from Evan. “Not boring.”

“Pretty boring,” says Evan dubiously. And then, cautiously, “Actually, do you wanna- do you wanna hear another story about Wannabe Boy Scout Evan Hansen?”

“Yes,” says Connor immediately. He drops his leaf to pay further attention. Evan laughs and has to look away because having Connor look at his face is disarming and Too Much. 

“Okay, I used to- Did you ever collect leaves and then, like, if you covered the leaf with a piece of paper and kinda scrubbed a crayon over it, you could make like a- like a rubbing of the leaf?”

“No,” says Connor, “I was an ADHD kid and my mom let me eat sugar cereal. I don’t think I ever sat still.”

“Oh,” says Evan, who considered Life Cereal to be ‘sugar cereal’ until he was like eight years old and slept over Jared’s house and they ate Lucky Charms and strawberry milk for breakfast and he broke out in hives from all the excess sugar. “Wow.”

“So you made leaf drawings,” Connor prompts him.

“Right,” says Evan, “yes. I- I would do a bunch of drawings of different types of leaves. And then I made a book of them, and my mom helped me make a, like a binding? Out of yarn? And then I labeled all the leaves with their scientific names and sent it to my dad for his birthday.”

“That’s-“ Connor’s face gets kind of soft and crinkling. “I would read a children’s book about Wannabe Boy Scout Evan Hansen.”

“You couldn’t sit still long enough to,” Evan disagrees, feeling smiley and bold, and Connor is surprised into a crackly laugh. 

“No,” he agrees, “I would only read Where the Wild Things Are. That was the only book I liked. I liked the ‘wild rumpus’ part. I was allowed to jump on my bed and yell when my dad read the wild rumpus part.”

“That’s-“ Evan fights off a surge of Awful Sadness, keeps grinning. “That’s really really cute.”

“I was the worst kid,” Connor disagrees, but he’s also smiling. 

“The- the kinda funny part,” Evan continues, feeling pleasantly overwhelmed, having to put his head down and study his feet some more, “was that it - the book - got lost in the mail. My dad never got it.”

Connor makes a wounded noise. Evan is startled into looking up, to find that Connor is staring at him again. 

“That’s, like- You have the worst understanding of what’s funny,” Connor tells him. “That’s just really sad.” 

“Oh,” says Evan, “sorry. I- Yeah, it’s not really-“

Fuck the U.S. Postal Service,” says Connor with energy.

“That’s- Those are- are strong words,” Evan protests, but he’s laughing and Connor is, too. 

“Where’s your dad live?”

“Colorado. He’s remarried. I don’t- I don’t see him that much.”

“When did you-“

“Oh, I was like- seven, I think.”

“Sorry,” says Connor. 

“Oh, no, it’s- Don’t worry. It’s fine. Me and my mom are- We’re good.”

“Yeah,” says Connor. He glances over at Evan for a second, mouth uncertain, and then away. “She seems really great.”

“She’s- yeah,” Evan agrees. “She’s- she tries really hard. We get along pretty- pretty good. I don’t know. It’s- hard.”

“Yeah?”

“Yeah, I don’t- Hard for her, I mean. I’m not- I don’t know. It’s-“

“I get it,” says Connor. “It’s like, she- my mom didn’t sign up for- for a fuck-up kid. For- She shouldn’t be at a- a fuckin’ Suicide Awareness Rally for her own fuckin’ kid.”

“Yeah,” says Evan, some of the buoyancy going out of him. “Yeah- It’s-“

“Not that you’re- I didn’t mean you were a-“

“Fuck up kid?” Evan finishes. He hunches his shoulders, tries to pass it off as a shrug. “It’s- You’re not wrong-“

“Is this a good leaf?” Connor interrupts, stooping again. He thrusts another leaf at Evan, this one papery and dirty-yellow. Evan blinks at it, trying to shake off the heaviness. 

“Um- yeah. Yes?”

“We can make a new book,” Connor says, putting the leaf in the pocket of his sweatshirt and most definitely crushing it irreparably. “Well, you can make it. I’ll watch and eat sugar cereal.”

“I don’t have crayons anymore,” Evan protests, but he finds himself smiling as they follow the trail further into the woods. 

Eventually they pass a group of The Jared Project kids, all in the TJP t-shirts, and Evan’s anxiety jostles up against his windpipe for a minute, choking and clenched like a fist, but Connor just glares at them with his Generally Frightening Demeanor and they pass in silence. 

“Is this a good leaf?” Connor nudges Evan and presents him with another leaf. It’s particularly crumpled and ugly, but Evan appreciates what Connor is Rather Obviously trying to do. He swallows around the anxiety fisted in his throat and summons a smile.

“No,” he says. “That’s a bad leaf.”

“Fuck you,” says Connor, “it’s a good leaf. Who are you to say?”

“I don’t know!” Evan protests. “You’re the one who made me the leading authority on leaves.”

“Disappointing,” says Connor, and stuffs the leaf into his pocket, undoubtedly crumbling it to pieces. Then, “Hey. You’ll hurt yourself- Stop doing that.”

Evan looks down, is surprised to find his fingers knotted painfully in the hem of his shirt, fingertips slowly purpling. 

“Oh,” he says, “sorry. I don’t even notice I’m- It’s just, like, a nervous habit.”

“Stop being nervous,” Connor tells him. 

“Oh,” says Evan with a weak grin, “wow you just- Anxiety cured.”

“It’s as simple as that,” Connor agrees, reaching over and taking Evan’s hand and knotting their fingers together so their bones interlock. It’s a simple and confident gesture, except that Connor’s posture is tentative and his lips are bitten white and his hands are a little sweaty.

Evan looks down blankly. He has spent a weird amount of time, somehow, thinking about Connor's hands -- unscrewing a cap and pouring pills into a cupped palm, picking nailpolish off his fingernails, pressing a bloody cuticle against Evan's leg, wrapped around a red Superball, around a tree branch, around the ice-cold chain of the swing -- and yet he is still surprised. Connor has bony knuckles and cold palms. 

“Can- can you do my depression next?” Evan asks, trying not to think about his own sweaty palms and his ugly bitten cuticles and the unexpected fragility of Connor’s finger bones. “Fix me.”

“Sure,” says Connor. They keep walking and their hands kinda hang between them, knotted. “Have you tried just, like, being happy?”

“Wow,” says Evan. He allows himself to laugh. 

“Also yoga and staying hydrated,” Connor says. His voice is light but his eyes slide anxiously over, mouth a little bit parted like that day in the back of English class — like he’s holding a lozenge between his lips, like he’s just asked a question and is waiting for Evan to answer.  

Evan, whose hands are decidedly sweaty, does potentially the bravest thing he’s ever done and doesn’t look away. He squeezes Connor’s hand a little bit, even though his own hand is horribly sweaty, and then they keep walking. 

“Also- also going gluten-free, right?” he tries. 

Connor groans at this. He squeezes back, just a little bit, also sweaty. He says, “I miss gluten more than- Fuck. I don’t know. Nothing. I miss gluten most of all.”

“We could- I think there’s a food-truck coming around noon,” Evan says. “I bet we could find you some- some gluten. If you- wanted.”

“It’s my Attempted Suicide Party,” Connor agrees, “I can eat gluten if I want to.”

“Extra-gluten everything,” Evan pronounces and Connor laughs and they keep holding hands because apparently this is Something They Do Now, even after they reach the end of the trail, even after they’ve left the forest behind them. 

 …

Chapter Text

The next day is Monday and so Evan goes to school. Despite the fact that everything in Evan’s life makes Absolutely No Sense — he is being haunted for example, and also he held hands with a boy and it was nice, and also that boy was Connor Murphy, and also on Friday he almost killed himself — it is Monday and so there is school. Evan goes because what else is there to do? Inertia is never on his side. 

There’s nobody waiting by his locker with a clipboard or a vaguely insensitive joke, which is mostly a relief but also slightly horribly lonely. He goes to class and jiggles his leg and picks at his cuticles and agonizes over raising his hand to ask for a bathroom pass. 

It’s funny because Evan’s anxiety doesn’t really know how to, like, prioritize. Just because he is being haunted and also existing in an alternate reality doesn’t mean that his brain suddenly becomes Cool with basic tasks like asking for a bathroom pass or borrowing a pencil when his breaks in the middle of a math test. It’s like his brain is an inbox and every single email he receives is marked Important. It’s also not that funny, actually. 

Between periods, EMT Matt stops him in the hallway and says, “Hey, Evan, wait. Can we-“

Evan flinches away from Matt’s hand and then feels bad as Matt’s eyebrows draw together like he’s hurt. He tugs at his fingers until his knuckles crack and says, “Hi. What’s- what’s up?”

“I wanted to say I’m sorry,” Matt begins. 

“Oh,” says Evan in a rush, “don’t- Yeah. Don’t worry about it. It’s- Don’t.”

“No, I’m sorry,” Matt persists. “It wasn’t my business to get involved. And especially- I’m sorry about the letters. Not the- Your letters, I mean. I’m sorry they got involved.“

“It’s fine,” says Evan again. He tugs at his fingers some more, even though he just cracked them. He doesn’t quite fit. “It’s- Yeah. It’s fine. Please don’t-“

Down the hall, Zoe slams her locker and swings her backpack over one shoulder, disappearing around the corner. 

“Well I just wanted to say I was sorry,” Matt says again. “And also- I mean, I know we’re not really friends, but if you ever needed to talk to someone-“

Evan inhales, accidentally swallows a gulp of air, and shakes his head all the more emphatically. He needs this conversation to end. On Friday he went to the park with a bottle of pills and that’s not something he’s really willing to grapple with right now. No thank you. Not today. He needs this conversation to end. 

“It’s- Thank you,” he says, slightly wheezy, “but I’m- I’m fine. It’s- Don’t worry about it.”

“It’s just,” Matt persists, “that those letters-“

“I have to go,” Evan interrupts, speaking loud to be heard over the sudden static filling the room, making everything crackly and muted. “I have to- Thanks, but I have to- I have class.” 

He eats lunch in the library. He presses his cuticle to a napkin when it starts to bleed, leaving little scarlet stains. He thinks about the crescent moon bloodstain Connor left on his jeans and has to swallow, squint his eyes, think about other things. He reads and rereads the email he received from Alana this morning:

HI EVERYONE! THANK YOU AGAIN TO ALL WHO ASSISTED AT THIS SUNDAY’S WALKATHON. THE EVENT WAS A HUGE SUCCESS, AND IT WAS LARGELY THANKS TO YOU! PLEASE STOP BY AFTER CLASS TODAY FOR AN EMERGENCY MEETING. THERE IS A LOT WE HAVE TO TALK ABOUT, AS YOU MIGHT HAVE GUESSED, AND I THINK WE NEED TO MAKE SOME DECISIONS ABOUT THE FUTURE OF TJP.

Jared is not in school. If people are talking about The Jared Project, they are doing it in whispers, and Evan’s anxiety is loud today. He does not hear them.

Connor finds him at the end of the day, approaching Evan’s open locker and rapping awkwardly against the door with his knuckles. He’s in his big, oversized jacket and it only makes the parts of him sticking out of the jacket — bony wrists, long legs — seem that much skinnier. Like if you pressed at his joints, sharp elbows and knobby knees, he would collapse like a folding chair. 

“Hey,” he says. 

“Hi,” says Evan, weirdly startled. The staticky, muted panic of the morning has ebbed, but he stills feels a little bit off-kilter. Every time he walks, he thinks he hears a bottle of pills rattling in his pocket. He probably looks like a weirdo, because he keeps having to put a hand to his sweatshirt pocket, just to make sure it’s still empty. He zips his backpack closed and straightens, tries to keep his hands still. “Hey.”

“Are you going to the-” Connor gestures vaguely in the direction of The Jared Project classroom, rolls his eyes expressively. 

“No,” says Evan, smiling despite himself at Connor’s visible distaste. “I’m- I have therapy, but also I- don’t want to.”

He cannot go back, not after the letters, not now that they know. They might just stare — eyes on his hunched shoulders and twitchy fingers — looking for the cracked or dented bits that make somebody write an abusive letter to themselves, that make someone want to be Not Alive. They might offer to help and print out those pamphlets, just like Evan printed for Connor — life is worth living! — and Evan would have to explain that he has no doubt Life and Living are very valuable and worthy. It’s he, Evan, that is the problem. He, Evan, is not really worth the effort. 

Alternatively, they might not look at him at all. They might just stare right through him, like there’s dust filtering through his form, like if he tried to open the classroom door his hand would just fall right through the doorknob. 

So, no, he is not going back to The Jared Project. 

“Me neither,” Connor agrees. “Is Kleinman even here?”

“No,” Evan winces. He hasn’t spoken to Jared at all since The Matt Thing. It feels too enormous, like a pill that’s too big to swallow. 

“Dick,” Connor pronounces.

Evan makes an unhappy face. “I don’t- It’s not-“

“Yeah, yeah,” Connor says. “He’s still a dick.” He hesitates, then shifts his weight, knocks his knuckles against Evan’s locker again. “So I’m- I won’t be around. This week.”

“Oh,” says Evan. 

“Yeah,” Connor says. He tugs at his ear. “My parents and I are going on this- retreat thing. I don’t know. I guess the thing on Friday freaked them out.”

“Oh,” says Evan. If he blinks, he can still see the white-bright headlights of the Murphys’ car, dark silhouettes running across the parking lot to throw themselves at Connor. “A retreat? Is that like a- a religious thing?”

This makes Connor laugh. Some of the tightness goes out of him as he says, “Fuck, no. It’s some bullshit communication thing. My therapist recommended it. It’s supposed to- I don’t know what it’s supposed to do. It probably won’t work.”

“It might,” Evan ventures, because he can’t stop thinking about that moment he saw Connor on the swing, upright, alive. He would like to maintain that moment. Connor’s mouth tugs, twists, goes slack. 

“It might,” he agrees. “I’m going to- I’ll try? I guess?”

“Yeah?”

“Yeah. Or- I mean. I’ll try if they will.”

“That’s-“ Evan makes himself tilt his head up, defying the heavy tug of gravity to look Connor in the face. He knots his fingers together and does not let his face twitch, says sincerely, “That’s really cool. Like. That’s a big- step? I- Not to sound- I didn’t mean that to sound patronizing.”

Connor has to look away, limbs knocked loose, mouth pulled tight. He pulls a hand through his hair and says, “Yeah, thanks. I don’t- I don’t know. I’ll probably fuck it up.”

“Or maybe not.”

Connor’s mouth goes softer. He shrugs. “Or maybe not.”

They keep standing there for a minute. Yesterday they held hands and it was Nice in a way that Evan did not expect. Two days ago they sat on the swings in the park at night and didn’t kill themselves. It’s all too big to understand, to swallow whole. 

“Oh,” says Connor, like he’s remembering, “I wasn’t just telling you that to be an over-sharing creep. I was saying- We’re leaving tonight and we’re coming back Saturday morning. So I won’t be around this week.”

“Okay,” says Evan. 

“Not that you’d be looking for me,” Connor says in a rush. “I didn’t mean- That was stupid.”

“No,” Evan protests. “I’m- Here, give me your- We can text or. Something.”

Connor looks so alarmed for a second that Evan starts to panic, but then he’s digging around in his layers of sweatshirt and producing a hugely cracked phone and after a blank second Evan does the same.  

They exchange numbers. It feels extremely weird and teenaged and normal. Yesterday they held hands. On Friday they sat on the swings in the dark and didn’t kill themselves. 

“It’s- We’re good, right?” Connor blurts out, then immediately scrunches his face up in obvious embarrassment. “I mean, I didn’t- fuck anything up, right?”

“No,” says Evan, startled. Then, “I mean, yes. Yes, we’re good. No, you didn’t- didn’t fuck anything up.”

“Cool,” says Connor, scowl losing some of its force. He straightens, adjusts his backpack, a sudden reminder of how tall he is when he isn’t drooping to hide his height. “I’ll- See you. Or whatever.”

“Or whatever” Evan echoes, feeling bewildered but also Not Bad. “Good luck with-“

“Yeah,” says Connor. “Thanks.”

Evan goes to therapy. He tells Dr. Sherman that the letters are Not Actually Working Super Great, Weirdly Enough. They agree to try some other methods of coping. He doesn’t talk about the Ghost or the time-travel or the alternate reality, but he talks about the tree. Climbing the tree this summer. On purpose. Letting go. On purpose.

He cries a lot. It’s embarrassing. Like, the actual act of crying is embarrassing because when Evan cries he just gets more hunched and more damp and his face twitches get way way worse. 

But it’s also just embarrassing to talk about, in a weird way, like when the teacher is talking in math class and everyone is nodding along like they understand and he is the only one who doesn’t. Like one time in P.E. in fifth grade when they had to run a mile, and halfway around the track Evan had an asthma attack and had to go to the nurse, and while he sat on the scratchy cot waiting for his mom to come pick him up, kicking his feet and sipping water from a paper cup, there was this turned-inward feeling of frustration and anger crushing his ribs. Everyone else can do it. Why can’t you? 

It can’t be that hard, surely, to just Be Alive. Everybody else is out there, doing it, and Evan just can’t seem to get the hang of it. Everyone else can do it. Why can’t you? 

Dr. Sherman thanks him for being honest. Asks him how he’s feeling now. He says he’s okay. They are going to talk about new medications. Increase sessions, maybe. 

Afterwards Evan’s mom takes him to the McDonalds drive-thru and they get vanilla milkshakes and park in a corner of the parking lot to slurp in silence. Evan always feels a little bit quiet and pummeled and quivery after he cries like that. He knots his fingers in his t-shirt and shakes his head when his mom asks gently if he wants to talk about it. 

“Baby, if you’re feeling bad I want to know,” she persists, stirring her milkshake with a straw. “I want you to be able to tell me things, even if they’re bad.”

“I- I know,” Evan says quietly. He sips at his milkshake, but it’s still too thick and it gets stuck in his straw. He pretends to be extremely invested in the condensation beading on the side of his cup until his mom stops looking at him with such horribly hopeful eyes. 

He went to the park on Friday with a bottle of pills and he locked the front door behind him, and he can never tell her that. 

Instead, he says, “I’m just- I’m too tired. Right now. To- to talk.”

There’s a quiet moment. Her eyes are fixed on the side of his face, but he won’t turn his head to look at her. He would just start to cry again, and that would only hurt her more. As much as she says she wants him to tell her things, what she really wants is for Evan to be Fixed. Every time things go bad, every time they have to start a new medication or try a new coping mechanism, Evan worries that this will be the time she understands how fundamentally Unfixable he is. 

“Okay,” she says finally. “That’s okay. Well- well any time you feel like talking, you come and find me, okay? No matter what. No matter what, you hear me?” 

He watches a car pull up to the drive-thru console and thinks about having a panic attack in Jared’s car, back before everything else. Before The Jared Project and before Connor Murphy puked on him and then later held his hand. Before he climbed a tree and then climbed back down. Before he went to the park on a Friday night with a bottle of pills and a Ghost. He sniffles and unknots his fingers and sits up a little straighter. 

“Yeah,” he says. “I- Yeah. Thank you. Um, do you think maybe you could drop me off at Jared’s? I have- I want to see if he’s feeling better.”

When Evan ventures down the Kleinman’s basement stairs, he finds Jared in his pajamas, spitting curses at the television, fingers moving furiously over his X-Box controller. He doesn’t look up. Evan cracks his knuckles anxiously. 

“Hi,” he says. 

“No, not- That’s me, asshole, you’re shooting at me! Are you an idiot? Fuckin- I don’t care if you have strep throat, Aiden, if you’re gonna play like a fuckwad-“

Evan doesn’t know what to do with this. He stands there some more, unsure if he should repeat himself. Maybe he never even said anything, maybe he just thought he spoke aloud. Maybe it was too quiet and Jared couldn’t hear him over the machine-gun roar of the X-Box. He stands there some more. He tries again. 

“Hi.”

Jared looks up finally, rolls his eyes, and sighs. 

“What, Evan?”

Evan locks his fingers together, tugs, and releases. He is not going to let Jared hurt his feelings because he, more than anyone else, knows what it feels like to be Jared right now. To build a lie so grand you start to believe in it. You start to like yourself, even. 

“I wanted to see if you were- if you were doing okay?”

Jared has gone back to his X-Box game. There are a lot of really loud explosions occurring on-screen. Evan can see the weird, plastick-y graphics reflecting off Jared’s glasses like a miniature television screen. It gives Jared a weird, blank look but it doesn’t succeed in distracting from Jared’s Very Obvious eye-roll. Evan’s stomach knots, despite himself. 

“I’d be doing better if my teammates weren’t a bunch of fucking casuals- What, just because you’re twelve you can’t aim a gun, Aiden?”

There’s a series of explosions. Jared shouts a couple swear words and some foreboding red words run across the page. Evan keeps standing there, awkward and paralyzed and So Fucking Annoying. An inconvenience. 

“Jared,” says Evan helplessly, “can we please-“

“What do you want me to say, Evan?” Jared demands. He yanks off his headset and turns his full attention on Evan, which isn’t Evan’s Favorite thing. He flinches backwards. “You want me to say you were right? You were right and I’m the asshole liar and you’re- fucking- I’m Kanye West and you’re Taylor Swift, is that what you want?”

“What?” says Evan, alarmed. 

“Because I stole your fucking glory and now everybody knows. I’m sorry, okay? Is that what you want?”

“I- No, not at- Not at all. I came here to- to see if you were okay,” Evan says, but already he is losing his resolve. Jared is glaring right at him and Evan is fracturing into pieces, stuttering and ineffective. He sits down on the couch and tangles his fingers. He is not going to get his feelings hurt. He is not going to get his feelings hurt.

“Bullshit,” says Jared immediately. Evan is taken aback. 

“What?”

“Bullshit, that’s what. You came here to do your sad puppy, stuttery thing until I apologized-“

“The- the stuttery thing is not on purpose. I have a- I just came to make sure you were- were doing okay. I-“

“Why wouldn’t I be?” 

“I- What?”

“Why wouldn’t I be doing okay, Evan?”

It’s an accusation. Evan has lost any bit of resolve he had. His thoughts are no longer linear. He’s underwater again, drifting constantly upwards, fighting with every bit of himself to keep his feet against the bumpy concrete bottom of the swimming pool. 

“Because of- because of what happened with-“

“Yeah, Matt the fuckin’ EMT kid,” Jared agrees, voice casual. He resumes his X-Box game, fixes his eyes pointedly on the screen. “Who knew, right? Self-righteous asshole.”

“I- I’m- I know the club meant a lot to you,” Evan tries again, voice shaky, fighting to string words together. “And you worked really hard and-“

“It doesn’t matter,” Jared says, voice light, eyes on his screen. “I didn’t really care about that bullshit club anyway. It was all Alana.”

“I don’t- think that’s true,” says Evan. He winces in apology. “Sorry.”

“It was Alana,” Jared says, shaking his head. “It was her idea. I just went along with it.”

“It’s- You know it’s okay if you- if you cared about it,” Evan says. “I know you put in a- a lot of work.”

“It was just a bunch of lies,” Jared says, flat, stubborn.  

“Maybe it started that way, but it- it got bigger than that. It-“

“Yeah, no kidding,” Jared snaps, fingers jamming buttons violently on his X-Box controller. “Now everybody in school knows I’m a big fucking liar. A pathetic weirdo trying to- to insert myself into situations that have nothing to do with me.”

Evan knots his fingers together, tugs, releases. For a second he can almost remember the wet, salty vertigo of standing in the Murphy’s kitchen, crying, nose running into his mouth. It all happened so fast and he never meant for it to get that big.  

“I know you didn’t mean for it to- Sometimes things just spiral,” he says. Sometimes things just spiral. Sometimes you let a boy sign your cast and the next thing you know you are being haunted. Sometimes you climb a tree without even thinking about how you’re going to get back down.

Jared shakes his head, mouth a hard line, fingers moving fast. “Why are you even here?”

“You’re- you’re my friend.”

“No, I’m not,” Jared says at once, eyes very pointedly fixed on the screen. 

“I’m-“ Evan protests, swallows hard, does not allow himself to register the hurt. You’d think at some point the anxiety — the incessant whisper of nobody likes you nobody likes you nobody likes you — would start to function like a defense mechanism, but it doesn’t. It still hurts every time. It’s still always a surprise, somehow. “I’m trying to be.”

“Bullshit,” says Jared again, eyes on the screen. “You haven’t been my friend in weeks. You’ve been too busy with your new best fuckin’ friends.”

“I’ve- You stopped talking to me-“

“‘Cause I thought you were blackmailing me!” Jared snaps, face getting flushed. He’s still ignoring Evan, eyes fixed on his video game, but he hasn’t pressed any buttons in a while and his character is loping in an aimless, ceaseless circle.

“But I- I wasn’t!”

“Okay, I know that now.” 

“I thought we were- I thought were were in it together,” Evan protests. “It was- We agreed we were- We were in it together. I told you- I told you-“

“There you go with the fuckin’ stuttery thing-“

“Please don’t make fun of me,” Evan pleads, accidentally sounding close to tears. It’s not his fault his brain is flipping through the pages too fast for him to make out more than a brief image, a couple unfinished phrases. “Please, it’s- You know I have an- an anxiety thing-”

Jared’s face unscrews just the slightest bit, repentant despite himself. Onscreen, somebody throws a grenade and another GAME OVER panel flashes. Jared doesn’t seem to notice. 

“Sorry,” he says finally. “That was a dick move.”

Evan doesn’t disagree. He says, finally, “I don’t mean to- to act like a victim or-“

“I know,” Jared says. “It’s just hard to be mad at you when you’re all- y’know.”

He gestures vaguely at Evan, who recoils defensively. He doesn’t know what specifically Jared is indicating, but he understands. He is sitting on the couch with his knee jiggling anxiously and his elbows locked and his fingers twisted together and his shoulders hunched protectively and his face turned away from Jared. A tightly-wound, spidery animatronic thing. You wind it up and watch it twitch and chitter across a tabletop. 

“Yeah,” he says. “I- get it. Sorry.”

“No, see, that’s-“ Jared makes a noise of irritation. “Don’t say you’re sorry. That’s what I mean. Then it just makes me look like a dick.”

Evan doesn’t say anything because if he opened his mouth a sorry would absolutely come out. He can already feel the shape of it under his tongue, solid and chalky like a pill, and so he just looks at Jared apologetically. 

“The weird thing is,” Jared says eventually, “I think I was jealous of you?”

Evan dry-swallows his sorry and nearly chokes on it. His face must do something comical and incredulous because Jared laughs caustically and nods. 

“I know, right? But it’s like- The only time anyone gave a shit about me, it was because of something you did. And even then, Connor and all of them- They still liked you better. And you’re- You’re not an asshole. And being around you makes me feel like an asshole, and then I-“

“I don’t mean to,” says Evan. 

“No, I know,” Jared says, annoyed, “And I mean, arguably I am an asshole. It’s not like you made me that way. I just never stop talking, you know? It’s like, why don’t I just stop talking? Remember the first day of school, when we- with Connor? Earlier that day, I told him he looked like a school shooter. And he wasn’t even talking to me or looking at me or anything. Just, like, of my own volition.”

Evan remembers. He remembers the way Connor’s whole frame had gone tense when Jared called his name across the hallway, a skinny, wound-up thing under his jacket, the slept-on hair at the back of his head.

“And then he went home that night and tried to kill himself. And I didn’t even have a troubled childhood,” Jared continues to lament. “Like, okay, maybe if I was some closeted gay lashing out against my identity or maybe if my parents were dead, but I’m just- a huge dick all the time.”

“I’m- That’s not true,” Evan manages. “I don’t think that.” 

“Yes, you do,” says Jared. “I’m mean to you all the time.”

“I-“ Evan starts and then stops, because he doesn’t really know what to say. Jared isn’t wrong. 

“And you’re just nice to me anyway. And then I just feel shitty so I’m worse and I just talk all the time, and most of it is just- bullshit. But it’s like, even before that. Even before I start talking, people don’t like me.”

“I like you,” Evan says. 

“No, you don’t,” he disagrees. “You just feel bad for me.”

“I- Why would I feel bad for you?”

“Because, Evan, the only important thing I ever fucking did? Was based on this huge bullshit lie. Okay? And I really fucking liked it. Getting interviewed and having people pay attention to me and- actually fucking caring about something? I liked it.”

“Yeah,” says Evan, heavier. He understands. 

“And it was nice to- I’ve never done anything, you know that? The best thing that happened to me this summer was winning a stupid color wars game at camp. I’m not good at- I’m not good at school. I’m good at video games. I’m good at CIT stuff. Bullshit stuff.”

“You were good at running the club,” Evan says. He doesn’t know why he feels the need to argue with Jared right now, but he can’t stop himself. He doesn’t like seeing Jared deflated. Normal Jared is an asshole aloft on fake self-confidence, but honestly Evan’s own inner monologue is routinely crueler than Jared’s insecure little barbs. And at least Jared’s brand of asshole is familiar and somewhat transparent. 

“Alana did all the hard stuff,” Jared disagrees. He puts down his X-Box controller, but he won’t look at Evan. “Is she-“

“She’s- mad. Like- She almost made me cry. That kinda mad.”

“That’s not saying much. You’re always crying about something.”

“I’m not crying right now.”

“You’re close, though.”

“I’m- I am not close.”

“Your chin is quivering.”

“It is not-“

“I’m not going to apologize to you,” Jared says abruptly, stubbornly. He knots his fingers in the cord of his X-Box and refuses to look at Evan, “for the Project. We both lied.”

“No, I- I know,” Evan hastens, weirdly startled. He has to work hard to make his mouth move. “And I’m really sorry I- I brought you into all of this. It was- That was my fault.“

“Yeah,” says Jared. “You never actually explained how you knew that-“

“It doesn’t matter.” 

“But it’s not a gay thing?” 

“It’s- I don’t know,” says Evan, because he doesn’t. He held hands with a boy yesterday and two days before that he tried to kill himself, so there’s not exactly a ton of Certainty in Evan’s life right now. It’s not not a gay thing, maybe. “It doesn’t matter.”

“Do the Murphys know?” Jared interrupts, posture suddenly heavier. Evan understands. Again, he has to swallow back the taste of mucus, the memory of standing in the Murphy’s kitchen and telling them the awful wrenching truth. 

“I- No,” he says, “they don’t. Or- Connor and Zoe do, but they’re not- Connor said he wouldn’t tell his parents.”

Jared nods slowly, head down. “But everyone at school knows.”

“Not everyone. Just- The Jared Project people know that- that something’s up. But I don’t think they understood the full- If you give it time, it’ll die down. It- it always does.”

Jared just keeps shaking his head wearily. His fingertips are going purple, wrapped so tightly in the cords of his X-Box. Evan watches them darken with a queasy interest.

“I’m dead,” Jared says. “My life is actually over.”

“I- Don’t say that,” Evan protests. “It’s- Connor isn’t going to say anything. And- It’ll blow over. It always blows over.”

Jared stays quiet for a while. He says, eventually, “Speaking of lives being over-“

“Oh, let’s not-“

“-what the fuck was up with those letters, dude?”

“It’s a-“ Evan closes his eyes, fights off the muscle in his cheek that wants to twitch, knots his knuckles together and thinks about wrapping his hands around the icy-cold chain of a playground swing, a bottle of chills rattling in the pocket of his sweatshirt. On Friday he decided to kill himself, but today is Monday and he’s not going to think about those things anymore. In a few more days, his brain will have erased that particular memory entirely — the rubber Superball bouncing and Evan locking the front door behind him, not intending to come back — and tucked it between the folds of his brain to dry and crumble, like a leaf. “It’s a therapy thing.”

“Didn’t seem very therapeutic.”

“It’s- We’re trying different methods.”

“Like weird sex letters?”

“It’s not- it’s very much not a sex letter.”

Jared makes a skeptical noise. Eventually he asks, a little heavier, “Do I need to- do I need to give you some it gets better life is worth living bullshit talk right now?”

Evan coughs up something close to a laugh, panic crinkling in his ears like plastic shopping bags. He says, hastily, “No, it’s- No. Don’t- don’t do that. I’m good. It’s- I’m good.”

“Sorry that I’m a dick to you,” says Jared suddenly, voice flat but something a little self-conscious to it. “I’m- just a dick. Generally. But I don’t mean to-“

“It’s okay,” Evan cuts him off, equally embarrassed, prickling with panic. “It’s- Yeah. It’s okay. Let’s not- We don’t have to talk about this anymore.”

“Thank God,” Jared exhales. “Now we can go back to repressing our feelings like men.”

“Oh,” says Evan, who has already cried twice today, “okay. Good.”

“Just kidding,” says Jared. “Masculinity is a prison. Want to play Call of Duty?”

The week goes by and nobody dies and nobody kills themselves and nobody spills any secrets. Jared is a dick, but only in his usual transparent way. Evan is an anxious wreck, but only in his usual tired way. He thinks about killing himself, but not on purpose and only until he realizes what he is doing. Then he squints his eyes hard and thinks about other things.  

He put the pills back in the box on his bedside table and he is not going to take them out again. 

The Jared Project is dead and if people are mourning, they do it quietly. Alana and Zoe are both avoiding him, but Evan understands that. There is something fundamentally wrong about him. He doesn’t fit, no matter how hard he tries to jam himself in. And eventually everybody sees that. This isn’t the only life he’s lied to them in, and truthfully every moment in this life that they were friends was a stolen one. 

But Jared will talk to him, which is nice, and on Wednesday Connor texts him an extremely blurry picture of a leaf and asks is this a good one? And Evan says yes that’s an extremely rare mythical Gen 1 leaf and Connor says I know that’s Pokemon stuff Evan I was not popular in middle school and Evan says gotta catch em all!! And so that’s nice, too. 

Connor is gone for the week and The Ghost of Connor Murphy seems to be gone as well, but Evan can’t quite relax and he doesn’t know why. Every time he rounds a corner, he’s expecting to see a tall, sharp figure in black — jarring and recognizable and occult. 

Everything has stopped going quite so fast, but the rest of the Bad Feelings don’t just go away because the fact is that Evan is Mentally Ill. He’s going to be Mentally Ill for the rest of his life, which is a frightening concept in itself because frankly Evan has a hard time picturing the Rest Of His Life. It’s hard to imagine a continued existence where he’s just… Like This. 

(But he’s not thinking about that anymore. He squints his eyes and thinks about other things. He put the pills back in the box on his bedside table and he is not going to take them out again.)

With every uneventful day that goes by, the Jaws theme song plays louder in his head, but that’s just his anxiety and he’s not going to listen. He put the pills back in the box on his bedside table and he is not going to take them out again. He goes to school. He bites his nails. He thinks about killing himself, but only in the gaps between actual, intentional thoughts. 

On Friday, Jared bangs on Evan’s locker and laughs when he startles. 

Please stop doing that,” Evan yelps, trying not to choke on his gum. 

“Sorry,” says Jared, unrepentant. “Hey, did you get invited to that party?”

This is such an unexpected — and frankly, very stupid — question to be directed at Evan that he actually just stands there for a minute and looks at Jared blankly, waiting for him to realize his mistake. That he’s talking to Evan. Evan, who can barely handle school assemblies. Evan, who starts hyperventilating in an especially crowded elevator. 

“Hello?” Jared waves a hand in front of Evan’s eyes.  

“I’m- No,” says Evan, “obviously- obviously not. I’m- me. What are you even talking about?”

“Never mind,” says Jared. “I just thought ‘cause you were friends with her-“

“With who?”

“Zoe, dude,” says Jared. At Evan’s continued incredulity, he continues, “Her parents aren’t home or some shit, so she’s having a party. Weren’t you guys all-“

“Oh,” says Evan, “no, she- She hates me?”

“Why?” 

Evan stares again. Maybe this is a Jared from an alternate reality. From a reality where Evan goes to parties and successfully maintains friendships and is not, like, this

“Because of- Because of the Connor thing,” he says slowly. “We- The lying- Do you not- Are you making fun of me?”

“No,” says Jared, looking confused, “I just assumed you guys were good again. What’s her deal?”

“What’s her- I lied-“

“Well, yeah,” says Jared quickly, flinching a little bit, hurrying his words like he wants to move past that uncomfortable truth, “I get why she doesn’t- Like, she hates me. That’s fair. But you also saved her psycho brother from dying? And all you did, technically, is not take credit for saving him. That’s not the same thing as taking credit for something you didn’t do.”

“Don’t call him a- I don’t- I don’t know,” Evan says, shaking his head and squinting. The whole situation is a horrible entangled metal thing, hooked into his ribcage and he doesn’t know how to untangle it without pain, without things ripping and tearing. “It’s- I lied to her. She’s- She’s allowed to hate me if she wants.”

“Okay, don’t go into the whole self-loathing spiral,” Jared says firmly, giving Evan a light kick in the shin. “I was just asking. If you’re not going to the party either, we could hang out. I’ll let you heckle that kid from down the street on X-Box.”

“I don’t want to heckle anyone,” Evan protests. He feels uncertain. There’s been a hint of anxiety buzzing at the base of his throat all day, a tightness in his lungs, like the beginnings of a cold. Part of him wants to go home and put a pillow over his face and be by himself, so that nobody can look at him and he can forget that he has, like, a physical form. So he can stop looking for ghosts in the back of his English class. So he can stop imagining there are pills rattling in his pockets as he walks. 

“Fine, I’ll heckle,” Jared amends. “We can order a pizza. My parents won’t be home so you can stay over if you want.”

“I- Okay,” says Evan slowly. “Um, if you’re sure-?”

“Okay, real talk, dude,” Jared says. He slams Evan’s locker and starts down the hall, so Evan has to do an awkward half-jog to keep up. “Literally no one else at this school will talk to me, and I wouldn’t blame you if you also didn’t want to talk to me. So stop acting like this is a pity invite.”

“Okay,” says Evan, confused, jogging. “I wasn’t-“

Jared sighs like he’s exasperated, but there’s something self-conscious about his movements as he stops, wheels around to confront Evan. He says, “I’m asking you to hang out because you’re my friend, Evan. Is that okay? Can we stop analyzing my motives now before I literally actually die?”

“Oh,” says Evan, weirdly warmed by this, “yeah, okay. Yeah. I’ll text my mom.”

“Cool,” says Jared, whose ears are red. He turns away again, opens the door to the crisp fall afternoon. “But no fuckin- No weird late-night loitering in public parks, deal?”

“Deal,” Evan agrees. 

They play video games and order a pizza, and Jared lets Evan stay in the basement when he pays the delivery guy so Evan doesn’t have to panic and try to make terrible smalltalk. Jared does try to convince Evan to sneak upstairs into the Kleinman’s liquor cabinet and steal the bottle of whiskey there — “It’s technically mine, my crazy great-uncle gave it to me for my bar mitzvah and congratulated me on my manhood so don’t think of it as theft, think of it as claiming my manhood, Evan” — but Evan refuses so instead they drink Sprite. 

They play a violent war game, which Jared very charitably sets to Easy Mode, but Evan doesn’t really like all the loud noises and sudden bursts of light. They make him feel jumpier than he already is and also thinking about death probably isn’t Super Healthy for Evan right now, so mostly he just jams at random buttons and tries not to visibly flinch at the racket of gunfire. Maybe Jared notices or maybe he just gets bored of watching Evan get blown up and regenerate, only to get blown up again, because eventually he unearths an old game of MarioCart and then they play that instead. 

Evan’s trying to focus on keeping his car on the road, trying to focus on Having Fun and Being in the Moment, trying to remember how to sit comfortably in his own bones, to exist without having to try so hard at it, and then his phone rings and he looks down and it’s Zoe calling. 

“Oh,” he says, and Toad swerves and goes plummeting off the side of Rainbow Road. 

“You’re just always falling off shit, dude,” Jared cackles. 

Evan doesn’t answer. He stares down at his phone which is proclaiming INCOMING CALL FROM ZOE and for one frozen, staticky second his brain cycles through every Bad Thing — I’ll take Worst Case Scenarios for 500, Alex — that could possibly compel Zoe to be calling him right now, past midnight on a Friday, and his brain lands on she’s calling to yell at you for ruining her life, then quickly escalates right into Connor is dead Connor killed himself and she’s calling to tell you that it’s your fault and then he makes himself answer the phone. 

“Zoe? I mean- Hello?”

There’s a moment of weird, loud noises and then an unfamiliar voice says, “Evan, right?”

“I- Yeah? Who’s-“

“This is Isley,” says the unfamiliar voice. “Uh, Zoe’s friend? We smoked weed that one time?”

“Oh, yeah, Eye- Isley,” says Evan. “What’s- Is everything okay? Is- Is Zoe-“

There’s a moment of confused noise. Music and shouting and laughter. Evan listens without comprehending, feeling worry collect in his fingertips like television static, prickly and needling.

“It’s- Do you think you could come over?” Isley says in a rush. “We kinda have a situation.”

Chapter Text

Evan has never been to a High School Party in his life, so it figures that the first time he attends one he is dead sober and wearing pajama pants and also was most definitely Not Invited. He can feel his pulse in his eyeballs as he and Jared jog across the lawn. 

The actual process of crashing the party is much easier than Evan expected. There are people Evan doesn’t know standing on the porch, but they’re too busy smoking weed to even look up, and the Murphys’ front door is just standing wide open so they walk right in. The foyer is all sludge-y with November mud and also probably spilled beer and Evan just stands there for a second, feeling weirdly sad, remembering following Connor and Zoe into the house and watching them take off their shoes, just a comfortable and homey habit. 

The party itself is, like, a nightmare. There’s music playing loudly and all the lights are out and there are so many people and everything smells like marijuana and sweat. There are elbows and shoulders everywhere, sharp angles and unexpected movements and sudden explosions of laughter and yelling. 

“Oh shit,” says Jared, crashing into Evan from behind. “This is crazy.”

“Is it?” says Evan, who is potentially already maybe going to have a panic attack. He tries for a nervous laugh, but he can’t even hear it over the music and yelling. Through the doorway, he can see somebody standing on the Murphy’s counter, dirty sneakers nudging up against the neatly-labeled jars of flax seed and granola and quinoa. “I’ve never been to a party, so I don’t-“

“I mean, me neither,” Jared admits, “but this is fuckin-“

“Hey! Evan!” someone yells from the stairs, and after a minute of confused searching, Evan spots Bolo Tie Luca halfway up the stairs, leaning over the railing, waving at them. “Hey! Up here!”

“I’m- I hate crowds,” Evan says to Jared, feeling suddenly as though his feet have been cemented to the floor. Maybe it’s all the spilled beer. He can’t get his feet to move and he’s being crushed on all sides by drunk teenagers. “I can’t-“

“You’re fine,” Jared tells him impatiently, but it’s not unkind, and then he grabs Evan by the elbow and hauls him through the crowd, crunching over fallen plastic cups and stepping on several feet, twice nearly entangling himself with couples who are obliviously making out. The stairs are also sticky, but it seems that Bolo Tie Luca is guarding access to the second floor because he is wielding a tennis racket and the upstairs hallway seems empty and mostly clean. 

“Hey,” he says to Evan. “They’re in the upstairs bathroom. Isley’s trying to get her to throw up.”

“Okay,” says Evan. “Thank you. Is she-“

Luca doesn’t immediately move aside, however. He’s frowning at Jared, still brandishing his tennis racket. 

“I didn’t know he was coming,” he says. 

“What, like you personally know every other person at this shit-show party? I’m Evan’s ride. And I don’t even know who you are,” Jared says, offended.

“He’s here to- to help,” Evan insists, trying to duck around Luca’s tennis racket. He needs to get off these sticky awful stairs. Everything is too loud and he is standing on a peak, perilously close to tipping over into full blown Panic. “Can I- Is Zoe okay? Should we call the- her parents? Or an ambulance or-“

“No,” says Luca finally, lowering his tennis racket, “no, she’s- She just needs to puke and go to bed, but we can’t get these assholes to leave and-“

“I’m guessing you don’t want to call the cops?” Jared interjects. Luca glares at him and he holds his hands up defensively. “I’m just saying! Simplest solution here!”

“Jared, you can go,” Evan says. “Just- You can go. I’ll get a ride home later. I’ll- Can I please just- Just let me-“

“Don’t be stupid,” Jared says. “Bullying my peers? Yelling at drunk cool kids? Give me a tennis racket. I’ll help.”

Luca doesn’t seem enthused by this idea, but right then somebody else walks through the Murphy’s open front door and that Somebody Else is wearing tights and a prim argyle sweater and she’s carrying a megaphone.

“Oh, shit,” says Jared, but it’s mostly drowned out by the awful mechanical shriek of Alana lifting the megaphone to her mouth. 

“Everybody out!” she yells. “Everybody out right now! This is private property and you’re all trespassing!”

“Oh, shit,” says Luca, with obvious delight. “Isley must have called her.”

“Everybody out! I see you, Ronny Kaplin,” Alana yells, “and I know for a fact that you are on academic probation right now because you skipped our last three tutoring sessions and I don’t think Coach would be happy to hear that you’re partying-“

“Oh, my god,” says Jared, “she’s going to get herself killed. I gotta- We gotta go help-”

“I’ll find you a tennis racket,” Luca says, and then he and Jared are rushing past Evan down the stairs as Alana yells about party culture and social host laws and the dangers of binge drinking. 

“Dana P.,” Alana blares, “get off that countertop right now. This is someone’s home-“

Evan stands there for a second, utterly overwhelmed, and then he digs his fingernails into his palms and squints his eyes shut and breathes himself down from the peak. He passes Connor’s door-less bedroom on his way to the bathroom, which is locked. He knocks, but it’s too quiet over the awful pounding music and the shriek of Alana’s megaphone and the disgruntled yells of drunk teenagers being thwacked with tennis rackets, so he has to knock again. 

“Go away!” Isley yells. “Go make out somewhere else!”

“It’s- It’s Evan,” he calls back, wringing his fingers. “It’s- Is Zoe okay?”

There’s a moment of confused noise and then Isley unlocks the door and hustles Evan inside. She is disheveled and there’s a big red stain on her top like somebody slopped juice down her front, but she looks relatively sober. Mostly just extremely panicked. 

“She’s- Yeah? Yes? I don’t know. Zoe, how’s it going?”

Zoe is slumped over the toilet, face pressed to the seat, knees and shoulders at odd angles. She opens her eyes when Isley says her name but she doesn’t answer, just makes an unhappy disoriented noise. She’s got makeup smudged down her face and, inexplicably, an unopened package of wonder bread on her lap. 

“She- She should be okay. She just needs to throw up,” says Isley, sitting down on the lip of the tub and patting Zoe’s head. “Right, Zo?”

“She’s- Maybe we should call an ambulance,” Evan frets. “Or- or the Murphys or-“

Zoe makes another unhappy noise, shaking her head.

“No,” says Isley, also shaking her head. “No, that would- that would just make things worse with her- family thing. You know.”

“Okay,” says Evan dubiously. He lowers himself awkwardly to sit on the tub. “I don’t know what to- How do I- Tell me what to do to- to help.”

“We need to get everyone out of here,” Isley says. “And we need to clean everything up. The Murphys are coming back in the morning. And we need to get Zoe to bed and- I don’t know. Fuck. This was such a bad idea. We are such shitty friends.”

“She’s- Does she usually-“

“She doesn’t even like partying usually,” Isley says. “I don’t know why we let her-“

“Jared and Alana and Luca are getting everyone out,” Evan says, trying to string his thoughts together, trying to breathe normally. He is not allowed to freak out right now. “They’re- It’ll be okay. Alana is scary. She has a megaphone. It’ll-“

“A megaphone? That’s rad,” Isley says, briefly distracted. “Do they need help? Should I- No offense, dude, but I’m definitely scarier than you and also if Zoe pukes I’m, like, also definitely going to puke.”

“Go,” says Evan, flapping a hand at her, throat too tight to hide his eagerness to get this person he Does Not Know out of here. “We’re good. I’ll- I can handle a little Murphy puke.”

Isley leaves. Zoe sits up a little straighter, retches to no result, and then slumps again. Evan hesitates, then moves from the tub to sit next to Zoe on the cold tile floor, pulling his knees in tight to his body so his legs don’t bump hers. He doesn’t feel like he should touch her right now.

“Do you- Are you okay?” he asks. 

Zoe, eyes closed, face mashed against the toilet seat, shakes her head and doesn’t answer. Her denim skirt is riding up and her legs are probably cold on the tile and Evan feels like he shouldn’t even be looking at her, not when she’s too drunk to remember how much she hates him, not when she can’t remember this whole other reality where Connor died and Evan kissed her on her dead brother’s bed. Evan reaches up, yanks a towel down from the rack, and spreads it awkwardly across Zoe’s legs. 

“It’s cold,” he says, in explanation. 

“Evan?” Zoe mumbles some time later. 

“Yeah?”

“I feel really bad,” she tells him, eyes closed. “Am I okay?”

“Are you- Yeah, Zoe. Yeah, you’re okay. You just have to- It sounds horrible but you’re probably going to- to throw up a couple times and then you’ll- You’ll drink some water and then you’ll be okay.”

“I’m okay?”

“Yeah, you’re- You’re okay.”

Zoe sits up a little straighter and her hands come up to grip the sides of the toilet bowl as she gags, retches. Evan winces at the sound and bravely reaches over, pulls Zoe’s hair back from her face. 

“Do you have a- a hair thing?”

Zoe doesn’t answer, body heaving as she throws up what smells like pure alcohol, so Evan reaches around and finds the scrunchy she keeps on her left wrist, gently tugs it free, and pulls her hair back into a poorly-executed ponytail. She sits back eventually, some of the tightness going out of her frame, and gasps for breath. She still has puke on her mouth and her makeup is running down her face in polluted streams and Evan has never really thought she and Connor looked alike until now, somehow. 

“That’s okay,” he tells her, because they’re sitting on the bathroom floor. They are not on a park bench or a swingset and nobody in this bathroom is going to die tonight. “That’s okay. You’re going to- to feel better. Do you want water?”

Zoe shakes her head, but Evan stands and fills a cup in the sink anyway. When he looks up from the sink he is confronted by his own reflection in the bathroom mirror, jarring and big-eyed and sweaty. He lets his face go tight, lets his eyes squint shut, just for a second, cold chain-links of a swing against his fingers, and then he is back in the bathroom and he’s moving back to Zoe, crouching beside her on the floor. 

“Here, drink some,” he says. “To get the- the bad taste out of your mouth.”

Zoe drinks with a limp, childlike obedience. Evan lets her have a couple sips and then balances the cup on the lip of the tub. Zoe sniffles, wipes her eyes, and spits thickly into the toilet. She flushes, then puts her face back against the toilet seat, slumped. 

“Better?” Evan ventures. 

She sniffles, shakes her head, answers with her eyes still closed, “I’m gonna have to again in a minute. I can feel it.”

“I’m sorry,” Evan says. 

Zoe doesn’t answer. Eventually she lifts her head, braces her hands against the seat, and throws up again. It’s a horrible, loud, gulping, sobbing process. Her shoulders are heaving with the effort and a distant part of Evan wants to press a hand to the knob of her back, to feel the bird-bones shifting there, every whirring ticking bit of her fighting to keep itself alive. Instead, he fixes the towel spread across her lap and knots his fingers together anxiously and shifts on the hard, cold tile. 

“It’s okay,” he says again, because it’s the only thing he’s got. “It’s okay. You’re okay.”

“This is so-“ Zoe spits, watches her saliva fall in thick strings from her mouth. She retches dryly, spits again, and then slumps back on her butt. She’s crying. “This is so embarrassing. I’m so sorry you’re- I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry.”

“No, don’t-“ Evan reaches out despite himself, finds Zoe’s hand and presses his own against it, an ineffective and sweaty gesture. “Don’t be sorry. Do you think I- You think I have something better to do on a- a Friday night?”

Zoe doesn’t answer. When Evan offers her the cup of water, she drinks and then slumps back against the wall and lets her eyes close. Her shoulders are rising and falling rapidly, breath coming in shuddery little sniffles. Evan wants to give her a hug, but he won’t.

“Are you cold?” he asks finally. “Do you want a-“

Zoe nods, eyes closed. Evan nods, starts to stand, and then hesitates. 

“I’ll only be- I’ll be one second. I’ll be right back.”

Another nod. 

He heads towards Connor’s room because it is closest and there isn’t a door and truthfully, there’s something invasive and wrong about letting himself into Zoe’s room or into the Murphys’ bedroom. He has already invaded their family, more than they could ever know. He has already fumbled through their lives, smudged his fingerprints all over their photo albums. He ducks into Connor’s room, dim and messy and lived-in, retrieves a gray hoodie that’s been flung across Connor’s desk chair, doesn’t let himself look at the posters on the walls or the books on the shelves. 

He stands in the empty doorframe for a second and remembers the rapid, animal in-and-out lurch of Connor’s ribcage under Evan’s hands as he died on a bench. The cold sweat on his skin and the puke on his shoes and the sound of his voice when he asked for his mom. He tangles his fingers in the fabric of Connor’s sweatshirt, tugs, twists, and releases. He squints, shuts those thoughts away like changing a channel on tv. He goes back to the bathroom. 

Zoe is sitting upright and eating a piece of plain wonder bread. Evan lowers himself back to the bathroom floor and offers her the sweatshirt. She takes it, hands him the piece of half-eaten bread, and clumsily maneuvers her arms through the over-long sleeves. When Evan offers her back the slice of bread, she shakes her head queasily and slumps back against the wall. 

“This is Connor’s sweatshirt,” she says eventually, eyes closed. 

“Oh, yeah,” says Evan, “it was just- the first thing I found. Sorry. I can- I can get you a different-“

She shakes her head. “It’s okay. I locked my door so nobody would have sex in there. Connor doesn’t have a door.”

“No,” Evan agrees. 

“It’s so he won’t try to kill himself again. Dad took the hinges off.”

“It’s- Yeah,” says Evan, “I- figured.”

“It’s fucked,” says Zoe blearily. “All of this is- fucked.”

“I’m sorry,” says Evan. 

“Yeah,” says Zoe. “Everyone is. Sorry sorry sorry-“

“You should- drink some more water?”

“I don’t want it,” says Zoe. “I don’t want to throw up anymore.”

“The water will help you feel better,” Evan persists, but Zoe shakes her head. 

“I wrote you a letter,” she says. “Did you know it was me?”

“Did I-” Evan hesitates. “Yeah, I- I guessed. Can you please- Just a couple sips?”

Zoe ignores him, scrubs at her mouth. “I never would have sent it if I knew- I didn’t know you knew about Connor. It was stupid. I’m so stupid. It was just- selfish.”

“No,” says Evan, “no, it was- I got it. I get it. I mean—“

“Oh, no,” Zoe interrupts, and she lunges back over the toilet just in time to get sick again. The overlong sleeves of Connor’s sweatshirt fold over her hands and the hood flops over her head when she doubles over. Evan scoots closer on his knees, pulls the hood off her head, rubs circles between her shoulder blades.

“It’s okay,” he says, trying not to wince as she retches. “You’re okay. It’s all going to- It feels bad right now, but it- it’s only for right now. Tomorrow will be better.”

Zoe dry-heaves a couple times, back bowing with the effort, and then slumps back against the wall. She’s quiet and still for a minute, and then her shoulders rise, fall, and she starts to sob. Her makeup is everywhere and her nose is running and there’s puke on her chin and on the hair falling in her face and she’s crying in this awful, recognizable way — big, gasping, wrenching sobs that come from the stomach and shudder through the whole body like seismic activity. 

“I’m sorry,” says Evan automatically. He reaches over and grabs Zoe’s hands, which are shaking badly, and he thinks about climbing down from the tree at the Orchard and Connor gripping his hands so he wouldn’t hurt himself somehow, so he wouldn’t pop his own knuckles out of place. “I’m sorry. I know it's- This sucks. I’m so sorry.”

“I hate this,” Zoe sobs. “I hate this- I hate- feeling like this. I-“

“I know,” says Evan, “but it’s not- It’s only for tonight- Maybe if you drink some-“

“It’s all the time. It’s all the time. I feel like- Everything is fucked and I’m- I can’t- I hate this I hate this I hate this-“

She breaks off, chokes on a sob, and then can’t seem to catch her breath. Evan, who knows a panic attack when he sees one, grips her hands harder and tries to keep his breathing steady. 

“Hey,” he says, keeping his voice tight and even. “Hey, Zoe, you gotta breathe, okay? Breathe with me. I’ll- Remember in the Orchard when I- Matt showed me how to- Yeah, like that. In through your nose and then out through your mouth, like- Yeah.”

Zoe’s shoulders are heaving and her sweatshirt smells like laundry detergent and pot and puke, and Evan is having a harder and harder time reminding himself that they are sitting on a bathroom floor and not a park bench, not a darkened swingset in the middle of the night. Or maybe all three of those things are happening, all at once. Time is funny. It moves in circles and elastic tugs, water dripping off-rhythm in the sink, Zoe’s breathing coming in gulps and then hiccups and then quivery, dry-leaf shivers. 

“I’m sorry,” she rasps finally, once her breathing has mostly steadied. “This is so- I’m the worst. I’m sorry.” 

“Okay, well that’s not true,” says Evan firmly. “Can you drink a little more water?” 

Zoe nods. Evan hands her the cup of water, then stands and fumbles in the drawers for a washcloth, runs it under warm water and then wrings it out in the sink. When he returns with the washcloth, Zoe has flushed the toilet and has moved to lean against the side of the tub, miserable and gross but appearing to be a little less disoriented. 

“Here,” says Evan, “for your- You’ll feel better if you’re not all-”

She takes the washcloth with a thin smile and buries her face in it, scrubbing. Evan refills her cup of water and then sinks down to slump against the tub next to Zoe. 

“I’m sorry,” Zoe says again, muffled by the washcloth. 

“Don’t be,” says Evan. “I’m- Remember when you and Connor made me smoke pot? And I was scared I’d freak out but you said not to worry because you guys got me? That’s like- It’s like that. So. So don’t even worry about it.”

Zoe shakes her head, wipes her eyes, throws the washcloth into the bathtub behind them. It hits the porcelain with a damp plop. She sniffles, says, “Not that. I meant- I’m sorry for being mad at you this week. Sorry for calling you a- a tragedy perv or a freak or- whatever I said.”

“Oh,” says Evan, stunned, “no, don’t- You don’t have to be sorry for that.”

“I don’t think you’re a- whatever I said. I was just scared about Connor.”

“No, I- I know. You don’t have to be- I’m sorry for- I shouldn’t have lied and-“

“I’m horrible,” says Zoe. She sniffles and unearths a piece of wonder bead from the package, takes a miserable bite. “I’m a- Everything is fucked and I’m just- making it worse. All the time. I just do stupid shit all the time because I’m- I’m so fucking selfish. My family’s at a- a retreat ‘cause Connor tried to kill himself and I throw a- a party. What kind of selfish teen angst bullshit?”

“Don’t- don’t do that,” Evan says. “That’s not true.”

She goes up on her knees, turns to look at him, and he has to work very hard not to flinch away from her sad, wet eyes and her runny nose. She points her half-eaten slice of bread at him accusingly. 

“You,” she says, pointing, “came up to me the day he- You knew. You could tell something was wrong and- I’m his sister and I told you I couldn’t- couldn’t deal with it.”

“You didn’t know,” Evan protests. 

“That’s the problem,” Zoe whispers, flopping back onto her butt. “I didn’t know. And it’s not like- We don’t talk. We don’t even like each other. That’s so- I’m so horrible. He tried to kill himself and I don’t even- I don’t even like him.”

“Stuff like this,” Evan says, swallows, stops. “Stuff like this isn’t easy. It’s not- It’s not a black and white thing. But you’re not- You could never be horrible.”

Zoe takes another listless, dry bite of bread. She chews, swallows, gags experimentally, and then slumps back against the tub. 

“I think I’m done throwing up,” she says. 

“Okay,” says Evan, “do you wanna-“

She shakes her head. “I don’t want to move yet.”

“Okay. That’s okay.”

They sit there quietly for what feels like a while, although time is a little bit unreliable at the moment. It might only be a minute. Evan counts the quiet drip of the sink and the quivery sniffles of Zoe’s breathing. There’s less noise coming from downstairs. Someone’s shut the music off. 

“Hey, Evan,” Zoe says finally in a small voice, “those letters- You really wrote those?”

It’s the worst thing she’s asked him, ever, in any reality. The worst thing. Worse than the questions about how her brother really loved her, after all. Worse than when she stood in the kitchen and asked him to tell her the truth. Evan can only curl smaller, hug his chest to protect his ribs, bend under the horrible heavy truth of it. 

“I- yeah,” he rasps. 

Zoe doesn’t answer right away. She sniffles and nods and finishes her slice of bread and zips Connor’s sweatshirt up to her chin. Then she scoots across the tile to sit next to Evan, to slump over and put her head on his shoulder. 

Evan freezes for a second, like maybe a bee has landed on his skin and if he just sits still long enough, it will fly away without hurting him. He doesn’t understand a single thing. The bathroom tile is cold and uncomfortable against his butt and he’s too dead-tired to have a panic attack right now and Zoe has read aloud his worst, most self-loathing thoughts and now she’s resting her head on his shoulder. 

“Is this okay?” Zoe asks, voice muffled. 

“It’s- Yeah, it’s- okay.”

“Do you- The letters- Is that how you feel all the- all the time?“

“I’m- Not- Not all of the time. Just-”

Just in the cracks between his actual thoughts. Just in the lapses. Just in the grout between the tiles. Just in the parts that stick everything else together. Just right when he falls asleep and right when he first wakes up in the morning and in the second after he flips on the lights in a dark room and his eyes have to readjust to the light. Just when he opens his pills in the morning and when he climbs the stairs at school and when he passes the little park with the swingset and when he shaves — somewhat redundantly — and the razor catches for a second against the bump of his jaw. 

“I’m sorry,” says Zoe. “I wish you never felt that way.”

“It’s not all the time,” Evan says. His face wants to lock and twitch and spasm. His shoulders want to sag, but he won’t let them. He doesn’t want to jar Zoe loose. She is sniffly and quiet against his shoulder, and it’s not like how it was when he couldn’t even think about her without his palms going damp. It’s not like how it was when he could barely look at her face for fear his eyes might accidentally drop to her lips. It’s quieter and nicer and simpler. 

“Do you want a piece of bread?” 

“Yeah, okay.”

There’s a crinkling of plastic as Zoe fishes a hand into the package and retrieves two slices of bread. 

“Thank you.”

“You’re welcome.”

He and Zoe each eat a slice of plain wonder bread on the bathroom floor in silence. 

“You’re one of my best friends,” Zoe tells him abruptly, “okay? I never- If you ever feel like- like how you said in those letters-”

She doesn’t say Connor’s name. They both hear it anyway, somehow. The bathroom has good acoustics, with all this tile. Things echo, even when they’re not meant to. 

“Don’t worry,” Evan says in a rush. “It’s not-“

“Okay?” Zoe says again, lifting her head from Evan’s shoulder to glare at him. She’s got veins of runny mascara drying all down her cheeks and a fierceness to her chin. Evan finds that he can look her in the face without fear, without panic, without anything in his chest going tight or painful or fluttery. He looks right back and the muscles of his face don’t tighten or tick. 

“Okay.” 

Eventually, Zoe gets up off the floor and brushes her teeth and pulls a bunch of spare blankets and comforters out of the closet and leaves them in a stack at the top of the stairs. It’s not until Evan stands up that he realizes how bone-achingly, ear-ringingly exhausted he is. The weight of the day falls on him suddenly, smothering. 

“You guys can crash here,” Zoe says. She’s still a little drunk and visibly drained. Evan knows how it feels to cry so hard you’re left feeling hollowed-out, dry, rattling. He refills her cup of water and nods when she tells him where to find the extra blankets and spare pillows and then nods again when she says, “Thank you, Evan. Really.”

Downstairs, everything smells like lavender air freshener, with a strong hint of pot underneath. Alana has put away her megaphone. Someone seems to have made tea because she and Jared are sitting at the Murphy’s kitchen table in slightly strained silence, hands wrapped around mugs. 

“Hi,” says Evan, blinking several times, “is everything-“

“How’s Zoe?” Alana demands, standing. “I’ve been researching the symptoms of alcohol poisoning and-“

“She’s okay,” Evan says quickly, shaking his head. “She’s- She’s better now, but she’s tired. She said we could crash here. She has a trundle and- Why does it- It really smells.”

“It’s to get the smell of devil’s lettuce out of the house,” Jared explains. 

“Devil’s lettuce?” 

“Keef,” says Jared. “Reefer. Bud. Gange. The Wacky Tobaccy. I’ve never smoked weed.”

“Obviously,” says Alana, but it’s not actively angry. Mostly she just seems very tired and a little more like an Actual Human Person with her hands wrapped around her mug of tea. 

“Did you guys clean all of this?” Evan wonders, glancing around. The jars of weird gluten-alternatives are lined up neatly on the counter. The basket of apples is sitting in the middle of the table, pristine.  

“Zoe’s weird jazz band friends helped,” Jared says. “They left like twenty minutes ago. Alana yelled at them for like half an hour.”

“I didn’t yell,” Alana disagrees. “I just told them it was really irresponsible of them to let Zoe drink like that when they know she is in a particularly vulnerable state.”

“Right,” Jared agrees. “You told them that. Through a megaphone. Are you cool with just crashing here, Evan? Because I’m definitely super high on Febreeze right now.”

“Okay,” says Evan, because he is too numblingly tired to do anything else. They put their mugs in the dishwasher and turn off all the downstairs lights and make sure the Murphy’s front door is locked and then troupe quietly up the stairs, distribute blankets and pillows, stare blankly at the door-less frame of Connor’s bedroom. 

“I’m going to go sleep in Zoe’s room,” Alana whispers finally, and she continues down the dark hall. 

“We’re gonna end up murdered in our sleep by some weird-ass toy mutants,” Jared gripes. When Evan doesn’t respond, he turns and rolls his eyes. “Like in Toy Story? Sid? The- the weird angry next-door neighbor kid who would experiment on the toys?”

“No, I got it,” Evan agrees. “I just think it was kind of mean.”

“Whatever,” says Jared, but he’s a little bit penitent. He marches into Connor’s room and throws his armful of bedding down onto the floor.

Evan follows hesitantly. They don’t bother turning on the light, just spread out their blankets and divvy up pillows in silence. By unspoken agreement, neither of them takes the bed. It would be too- Something. Evan shifts on the floor, rolls over to stare at the ceiling, tries to get comfortable. 

“You’re too close to me,” Jared complains. “Move over. Zoe’s gonna think we’re lovers.”

“She’s not going to think that,” Evan disagrees, but he scootches incrementally away from Jared, towards the gaping cavity of darkness under Connor’s bed. Everything about this room feels a little bit frightening, just like everything about this night feels a little bit unreal. He is tired down to his bones. 

“I apologized to Alana,” Jared says some time later.

“That’s good,” Evan says sleepily. Time is pooling in his palms, filtering through his fingers. He thinks Jared says something else, but his brain can’t hold onto the words. He falls asleep. 

It’s still dark when he wakes up and he’s unsure if he’s been asleep for five minutes or several hours, but before he even opens his eyes he knows that there is someone else in the room. 

The Ghost of Connor Murphy is standing over him, looking down. In the dark, Evan can only see the shape of him, but he can tell it’s not the Real Connor. This Connor is a smudgy pencil drawing of the Real Connor. He moves like a stop-motion cartoon character. He doesn’t smell like laundry detergent or pot or anything. When he grins, it’s a grey-scale thing. 

“You,” The Ghost of Connor Murphy greets him, “were supposed to kill yourself.”

Evan jolts upright, startled. His back tightens painfully. He’s already got back problems because of his Very Poor Posture and spending hours hunched over in the bathroom, followed by a night on Connor’s bedroom floor, has only aggravated the situation. He’s scared, despite himself. 

“Why are you- Were you watching me sleep?” he gasps. 

The Ghost of Connor Murphy laughs. He answers, “You’re a deep fuckin’ sleeper. I could’ve held a pillow over your face and you wouldn’t’ve ever woken up.”

Evan’s hand comes up to his face despite himself, to ensure that his nostrils are clear, that his mouth is uninhibited. He blows air through his fingers, just to make sure he’s still breathing. He can’t quite calm himself.

“Just kidding,” says The Ghost of Connor Murphy lightly. “It’ll be better when you do it yourself. Is this my room?”

He moves away from Evan then, stopping to skim his fingers down the spines on Connor’s bookshelf, to give Connor’s desk chair an idle spin, to fiddle with the things covering his messy desk. The floorboards don’t creak under his feet.

“It’s- I thought it wasn’t- I thought you guys weren’t the same,” Evan manages. His heart is still racing from being startled awake. He can’t seem to make it slow. 

The Ghost of Connor Murphy shrugs, frowns, leans against the desk. In the dim light coming from the hallway, Evan can see his face turn young and ugly, all shadows and hollows and contours. He’s more Ghost than usual. Or maybe it’s just more obvious that he’s not Real, now that he’s standing in Connor’s room, touching his things and speaking in an approximation of his voice. 

“We aren’t,” he agrees. He inspects something on Connor’s desk, lifts it to his face. In the dark, Evan can make out the shape of a crumpled leaf. “We’re not the same. I’m not him. He’s not dead.”

It’s curious, the way he says it. Almost envious. Almost childlike, in its sullen resentment. The Ghost of Connor Murphy climbs over the footboard to settle cross-legged on Connor’s bed, sharp and brittle like something folded out of paper. He’s still holding the leaf in his hand, and up close Evan can see that it’s one of the leaves he and Connor collected in the orchard. 

“Does he have my ball, too?” 

“What?” Evan asks, surprised. “Who, Connor? No, he’s- I have it. It’s in my room. You can have it back tomorrow.”

“You took it,” The Ghost of Connor Murphy accuses him. 

“No, I-“ Evan shakes his head, cracks his back, and glances over to see that Jared is sleeping soundly, mouth ajar, glasses folded up next to his head, ridiculous and decidedly Not Paranormal. His breathing slows a little bit. “You bounced it into the woods and went chasing after it, remember? And then you didn’t come back. Can you- I don’t feel like doing this right now. Can I go back to bed?”

“I came back,” The Ghost of Connor Murphy disagrees, shaking his head. “Only you were talking to him. And then my parents showed up and they’re all-“

“Oh,” says Evan, quieter. “You saw that?”

The Ghost of Connor Murphy shrugs, an approximation, a pen-and-ink rendering of a real person. He twirls the leaf between his fingers. 

“They wanted him to be alive,” he says.

“They- Yeah,” says Evan, disarmed. “Yeah, of course they- Of course they wanted him to-“

“It’s not real,” says The Ghost of Connor Murphy. “They’re not real. I don’t care. I just want my ball back.”

“Okay,” says Evan. A muscle tightens and twinges in his back. He shifts, winces. The initial fright of waking up to find a ghost looming over him is waning, and now he just feels achey and heavy with exhaustion. Connor, on the bed, is something sad and unfulfilled but not necessarily frightening. He feels sorry for him, almost. “I’ll give it back to you tomorrow. I’m sorry I took it."

The Ghost of Connor Murphy doesn’t answer right away. He’s hunched on the bed, twirling the yellow leaf between his knobby bone fingers. 

“Yet,” he says abruptly, right when Evan’s starting to settle back under his blankets, find a comfortable position for his stiff back. He shifts, frowns, winces at the tightness in his shoulder.

“What?”

“He’s not dead yet. I said he wasn’t dead and you said you knew. But I meant yet.

That first feeling of panic, of waking up and opening your eyes to find someone staring down at you, turns over in Evan’s chest and rattles, hums, like an engine grumbling back to life. He sits back up. 

“What?”

“I said he’s not dead yet,” The Ghost of Connor Murphy repeats, shrugs, but looks pleased with the reaction he’s incurred. He twirls the leaf between his fingers. There is the softest, raspiest whisper of dry skeletal things rubbing against each other. 

“You can’t do anything to him,” Evan says unconvincingly, heart rate picking up. “You’re just a Ghost.”

“I won’t have to do anything,” The Ghost of Connor Murphy says, voice light and not quite Connor’s. “Everything moves in circles, that’s all. And most of it’s not real anyway."

“What are you- What does that mean?”

“It’s just a hypothetical. I told you that.”

“That’s- You’re-“ says Evan. “That’s not-“

“Shhh,” says Connor. “You’ll wake up Jared.”

He stands, crumples the leaf between his fingers, and stops Being There. It takes a long time for Evan to fall back asleep, but eventually he must because the next time he wakes up, there are papery little fragments of dried yellow leaf scattered on the pillow case. 

The final hours of Evan’s night on the floor are confused and choppy, like someone’s sitting on the television remote and flipping through the channels too fast for him to catch more than glimpses, photo negatives — someone’s in a tree and he can’t tell if they’re climbing up or down. Someone is throwing a Superball at him and he is raising a hand to catch it or maybe just to protect his face. Jared is mumbling in his sleep or maybe Evan is? Or maybe The Ghost of Connor Murphy is trying to talk to him, only he’s faded too much to make noise. There is the occasional crack of a floorboard or maybe the radiator turning on or maybe somebody’s arm breaking. 

And then he must sleep, because the next time he wakes up it’s to Connor framed in the doorway, carelessly dropping a suitcase to the floor.

“Hey,” says Connor. 

“Hi,” says Evan automatically, scrambling to sit up. He has to blink a few times, feeling like the confusion of the night before is still caught in his hair, like maybe he walked through a cobweb.

“Shu- the fuck,” Jared grumbles, rolls over to bury his face in his pillow, and quiets. They both look at him for a minute. 

“This is weird,” says Connor finally. It’s the real Connor, not a ghost. Evan can tell, somehow. He moves differently. He wears his height differently — folding inward, not smudging outward. 

“I know, I’m sorry,” Evan says quickly. “It’s- Zoe told us we could- Sorry.”

“No, yeah, she warned me you guys were here. She’s, like-” He squints Evan. “She’s like super hungover or something, right?”

“For sure, yeah,” Evan confirms. He gets to his feet awkwardly, starts gathering his blankets. “Um- How was your-“

“You can just leave those,” Connor says, nodding at Evan’s armful of blankets. “It’s a garbage fire in here.”

Evan starts folding his comforter anyway. There’s a residual tremor to his hands, like maybe he’s still feeling the aftershocks of the night before. He wants to check under Connor’s bed, rifle through his closet, just to be sure. He wants to tell him to be careful of Ghosts. To sleep on his stomach, so nobody can press a pillow to his face while he sleeps and bear down. He doesn’t do any of that. He folds the comforter.

He asks, “How was the- the retreat thing?”

“It was okay,” says Connor. After a second of hesitation, he crosses the room to grab the other ends of the comforter. They fold it in haphazard tandem. “I’m not, like, cured.”

“Well, no,” Evan says. “That’s not how it-“

“No, I know,” Connor agrees. He puts the folded comforter at the end of his bed, and then throws himself down onto the bed to stare at the ceiling with a tired exhale. “I just thought it’d be- Being alive is hard.”

“Yeah,” says Evan. It feels weird to sit but even weirder to stand while Connor’s laying there, so after a second he joins Connor on the bed. He doesn’t think about The Ghost of Connor Murphy bent and folded on this mattress the night before, twisting a leaf and saying yet he’s not dead yet. He focuses on the distance between his knees and Connor’s knees, which is honestly just as confusing and treacherous. “I’m sorry it wasn’t- I don’t know, better.”

“Yeah,” says Connor. He huffs out a breath. “Maybe it- I don’t know, maybe it could have been good. I’m- My dad makes me- I ruin a lot of things, like, for myself? Y’know?”

“Sorry,” says Evan again. 

“Okay, well it’s not your fault,” Connor says, a little bit sharp. “It’s- I mean, unless you’re the one who fuckin- gave my repressed Irish Catholic dad no communication skills and a fuck-up disappointment son.”

“No, I- I meant it as,” Evan ducks his head, fights off a facial tick. He’s tired and he’s missed his morning meds, which means that everything will be Louder today and also he will probably get a migraine tonight. “I meant it as- Sympathy. Not an apology.”

“Right,” says Connor, quieter. “Sorry.”

“Sorry we’re-“ Evan gestures awkwardly. “Here. There was a- Zoe will probably tell you about it-”

“No, she won’t,” Connor interrupts, tone going serrated. 

“Oh,” says Evan. 

“We- don’t talk,” says Connor with an obvious effort to police his tone, face pointed at the ceiling. 

Evan doesn’t answer right away. His tailbone is still sore from a night on the floor, holding back Zoe’s hair as she puked. Once, he sat on this bed and fed Zoe lies about her brother while she pretended not to care. He thought he was in love with her and he did not know her at all. 

Once, he sat on this bed and willed a Ghost Connor into existence, flimsy and two-dimensional and nothing like the real Connor, the Connor sprawled on the bed, brittle profile and knobby knees and nails painted blue, not black. Evan did not know him at all. 

“I think she wants to- to talk,” he says finally. “You should ask her.”

Connor is quiet. When Evan works up the courage to turn and look at him, he’s still staring up at the ceiling. A stray wisp of hair has escaped his ponytail to rest between his nose and upper lip. It moves slightly with his breathing — flutters, then settles. Evan almost reaches out a hand to brush it away, but he decides he is grateful for the flutter, the proof that Connor is breathing. He knots his fingers and keeps his hands by his side.

“Sorry,” he says finally. “I know it’s not my- not my business.”

“Don’t- You’re doing the hand thing again,” Connor says, sitting up. He knocks his knuckles against Evan’s in a gesture similar to a Very Gentle Fistbump. “You’ll get arthritis.”

“That’s-“ Evan untwists his fingers but doesn’t immediately move his hand away from Connor’s. Apparently they are still engaged in this weird and tentative and kinda soft Thing where they touch each other sometimes. “You were the one who said that was a myth.”

“Cracking your knuckles, yeah,” Connor says. “Not this- You’re gonna dislocate something.”

His hair is coming loose from its elastic and he’s got pinched little bags under his eyes. Evan looks him in the face and feels, for a second, like he is sitting very high up in a tree. He wants to make Connor promise, right then, to sleep on his stomach. To make sure nobody can hold a pillow to his face while he sleeps. 

“Hey,” says Jared from the floor, “not that this isn’t adorably awkward — because I personally love the expository dialogue at the beginning of a porno — but if you guys are gonna start jerking each other off do you mind if I just, like, scoot first? See if I can get in on that trundle action in Zoe’s room.”

Connor’s shoulders go tight. Evan fumbles for a pillow and hurls it at Jared’s form on the floor with every bit of Weird Confused Energy in his body. Jared yelps in a satisfyingly wounded way. 

“Mom’s making breakfast,” Connor says finally, standing, the off-kilter softness gone from his posture. “I’m supposed to invite you guys to stay.”

“That’s- nice of her. If it’s- if it’s okay?” Evan stands as well. He tugs at his shirt, trying to fight off the surge of anxiety and weird tension. 

“Yeah, whatever,” says Connor, flat. “I’ll tell her you’re staying.”

“Thank you,” says Evan, but Connor is already out the door.

“You threw that hard, Evan,” Jared laments, still a writhing, lumpy pile of blankets on the floor. “All that jerkin’ it must really build muscle-“

“Shut up, Jared,” Evan says tiredly.

Chapter Text

...

Downstairs, Mrs. Murphy is flipping pancakes while Zoe, Alana, and Connor sit around the table in uncomfortable silence. There is still a strong smell of lavender air freshener, only succeeding in calling attention to the skunky undertones of marijuana. Evan tries to subtly breathe through his mouth, but already there is a heavy feeling of certainty in his stomach — gears clicking together and bolts falling into place, things cracking open. He doesn’t feel good. 

“Good morning, boys,” Mrs. Murphy says cheerfully. She is wearing an apron over her jeans. Her jars of granola and grains are in a neat row. Evan counts the jars, counts them again to make sure. They look fine. Everything is fine. He is fine. “I’m making pancakes. Is chocolate chip okay?”

“Chocolate chip is great,” says Jared with genuine enthusiasm. He has a weird red mark on his face from his pillow and a nervous energy to his vigor. “I’m starving.”

“Great! I’m sorry we don’t have more to offer,” Mrs. Murphy continues, moving to the table with a full platter of pancakes. “If Zoe had told us you’d all be coming-“

“I told you,” Zoe says crankily, face buried in folded arms, “it wasn’t a planned thing. We were just hanging out and it got late so I said they could crash here.”

“Sorry,” says Evan automatically as he takes his seat, things turning over and rattling to life in his chest. “We should have-“

“Don’t apologize, honey,” Mrs. Murphy immediately dismisses him. She presses a hand to his shoulder, squeezes in the most motherly way, and serves him an extra pancake. A twist of guilt begins to eat at the lining of his stomach. Or maybe he is just hungry. “We’re always happy to have you.”

Evan knows this isn’t true. He starts eating because he doesn’t know what else to do, because he is incapable of Doing Something. He never changes. Everything moves in circles, that’s all. And most of it’s not real anyway. It’s a wonder Mrs. Murphy’s hand doesn’t fall right through his shoulder.

“The trundle in your room is really comfortable,” Alana tells Zoe brightly. She cuts her pancakes neatly, because of course she does. “I like a really firm mattress normally, but that was perfect-“

Mr. Murphy comes into the kitchen then, tying a tie. He sits, transfers the pancakes on his own plate to Connor’s, says, “Just coffee for me, Cynthia, thanks. I’ve got to run over to the office for a few hours.” 

“It’s Saturday,” Mrs. Murphy says.  

“I missed a week,” Mr. Murphy says pleasantly. 

He pours his coffee and offers the pot to Connor. Connor ignores the gesture, instead standing and returning with a box of cereal. He pours himself a noisy bowl as his parents watch, his father in annoyance, his mother with hurt creasing parenthesis around her mouth. 

“I’ll take some coffee,” Evan says, even though he doesn’t really like coffee and also caffeine makes his heart race which means he’s almost guaranteed to spend all day with a thumb pressed to his jaw, anxiously feeling for his own pulse, perilously aware that he is only alive as long as the soft beat beneath his finger continues. He pours himself a mug anyway, tries to smile gratefully at Mr. Murphy. “Thank you.”

“Connor,” Mr. Murphy says, frowning, “your mother made a nice breakfast-“

“I’m following my feelings,” says Connor, face turned down, “and my feelings are that I want cereal.”

“I’ll take his pancakes,” says Jared, who is busily eating with his head lowered to the plate, probably to minimize the distance between his mouth and his rapidly-diminishing breakfast. Or maybe to avoid looking anyone in the eye. Evan knows how it feels to sit in this kitchen, a thief. 

Connor glares at Jared without much energy, slides his plate across the table to him. Then he slumps back in his chair and watches his cereal go soggy. Evan eats mechanically, vaguely automaton. The pane of glass separating him from the rest of the world is a little bit thicker today, fogged up around the edges. His back hurts and there’s a tired, grinding ache beginning at the base of his skull. He needs to go home and take his meds and check in his closet for Ghosts.

“Everything is delicious, Mrs. Murphy,” Alana says politely. She takes the coffee pot from Evan and pours herself a mug. “Thank you again for having us.”

“Call me Cynthia, honey.”

Alana’s smile is persistent but uncomfortable. She will, of course, never call her Cynthia. 

They eat in silence. Evan’s fork scrapes his plate and he is surprised to find he has finished eating. He puts his fork down. He is bobbing a little bit above himself. He needs to go home and take a nap, but he is also afraid of falling asleep and waking to a Ghost or to a pillow on his face or —worse— to nothing but Facebook notifications and a confirmation email congratulating him on The Connor Project’s successful fundraising campaign. Everything moves in circles, that’s all. And most of it’s not real anyway. He can’t stop thinking about that. 

“Zoe, you’re not eating,” Mrs. Murphy says abruptly. “Are they- I️ made them how you like.” 

Zoe has washed off the remnants of last night’s makeup and her hair is damp from the shower, but there’s no scrubbing away the purple rings beneath her eyes and the gray-green tinge to her face. She looks young and bruised all over. Evan can still remember the knobs of her spine under his hands, bones stacked and wired together, lurching and heaving. They were on a bathroom floor, he thinks, or maybe a park bench. 

“I’m just not that hungry,” Zoe says, but quickly shoves a forkful of pancake into her mouth. She chews for what seems like a hundred years and then swallows laboriously. Evan can see her throat working to keep it down. He swallows reflexively, ducks his head to the table. 

Alana quietly fills a cup of water, slides it to Zoe. Connor crunches his cereal loudly, kicks Evan in the shin under the table without ever taking his eyes off his food.

“You know, Zo,” Mrs. Murphy says, “you really should have come with us. There were a bunch of other families with siblings there. It might’ve been good for you.”

Evan kicks Connor back. Dimly, behind the fogged-up glass, it feels like the right thing to do. He holds onto that a little tighter, tries to pull himself back into his body. Connor crunches his cereal like he’s trying not to smile, mouth pulled tight.

“I didn’t want to miss school,” Zoe demurs quietly. She is raking her fork through her syrup-soggy pancakes, creating chocolate chip mush. “If I skip gym class anymore, Coach Gray says she’ll fail me.” 

“Why are you skipping gym class?” 

“Menstrual reasons, Dad,” Zoe shoots back, like she knows it will shut down this particular conversation. Jared helps himself to another pancake, resumes his hunched-over position over his plate. Connor slurps his cereal. 

“Speaking of gym class,” Mr. Murphy says casually, undeterred, “why are my nice tennis rackets from Grandpa Jack lying around?”

Jared, mouth inches from his plate, looks up guiltily. Evan gulps his coffee. It’s too hot and it burns the roof of his mouth, which means he will have a sore there for days and instead of letting it heal, he will prod at it with his tongue until it reopens and starts to bleed because even on the micro-level, Evan is relentlessly and helplessly self-destructive. 

For example - he is sitting in the Murphys’ kitchen again, a liar. He is always lying to the Murphys in this kitchen, no matter how many chances he gets. Time moves in circles, or maybe just Evan does. He does not change. He does not get better. He is something that bleeds, scabs over, and bleeds again. 

“We were- thinking about playing tennis,” Zoe says. 

Connor pours himself another bowl of cereal, face disappearing behind the box. He kicks Evan again. Mr. Murphy nods, laces his fingers together, perfectly fatherly. The heavy feeling at the back of Evan’s neck persists. 

“Doesn’t have anything to do with the text I got from Mr. Spier from next door? About if I knew there was a very loud party going on at my house last night?” 

“Larry, don’t do this right now,” Cynthia begins. 

“No, it’s cool, let’s do it,” Zoe says calmly. She pushes her plate back and glares at her father, face pale and young. “You left me home alone for a week. What did you think was going to happen?” 

“I would like,” Cynthia interrupts, jaw tight, sawing her pancakes into perfect triangles, “to get through one meal without having a fight in front of Connor’s friends.” 

“Nobody’s fighting, Cynthia,” Larry dismisses. He turns to his daughter, like every sitcom father ever. “We expect you to be more responsible than this, Zoe. This isn’t like you at all.”

“Like me?” Zoe demands, laughing a little bit. “What’s- What am I like? What am I like, Dad?”

“Zoe, why don’t we-“ 

“Just because I’m not your problem child, you don’t have to give me a second thought? Don’t worry about Zoe! Good old Zoe! What, I have to be perfect? I’m not allowed to-“ 

“You’re not allowed,” Mr. Murphy interrupts calmly, “to have unsupervised parties. And you’re not allowed to drink alcohol. This has nothing to do with Connor or-” 

Connor is pouring milk into his cereal and he has no expression on his face at all. You can almost see the dust swirling behind his skin, filtering downward. Evan stretches out a foot and kicks him underneath the table, just to reassure himself that they are both solid. To wake him up before somebody tries to press a pillow to his face. He doesn’t kick back. 

“It has- If you think this doesn’t have something to do with-“ Zoe spits. 

“I don’t think we need to talk about this right now,” Mrs. Murphy says more firmly. She is soundly ignored. 

”My brother- tried to kill himself -and you left me home alone- for a week,” Zoe says. It starts out quiet, calm, and crescendos into something hysterical and brittle, stretched-thin. It buzzes in Evan’s ears like a wrong note, like a snapped guitar string. “I’m- I’m having a hard time, okay?” 

“Oh, careful,” says Alana suddenly, and then there’s a quiet splashing noise as Connor’s bowl of cereal overflows, milk spreading across the table. He is still pouring. 

“Connor-“  

Alana tugs the carton of milk from his hand. Connor, face blank, does not resist. Something tugs, twinges, tightens in the back of Evan’s throat. He looks, for a second, like the boy he found on the bench in the park. Something mostly dead.  

“We’re going to go to the basement,” Alana says, standing, “to let you guys talk. Thank you for breakfast. C’mon-”

And then she’s prodding Connor and Jared to their feet and Evan is following them out of the kitchen, down the basement stairs, feeling confused and dull and shocked. The sinking-upward feeling is still there — of sitting at the bottom of a swimming pool, trying to resist the upward tug of the surface — but he can ignore it for now. He needs to kick Connor in the shin again, maybe, and rattle the shocked stillness off his face. Or maybe just put a hand to Connor’s mouth until he can be sure he’s still breathing. 

He doesn’t do either of those things. He sits down on the couch and presses his tongues to the burn at the roof of his mouth until it stings. He wants to leave and he wants to go upstairs and tell the Murphys about sitting on their bathroom floor while Zoe cried. He wants to cover his ears, politely pretend that he cannot hear the Murphys yelling upstairs. He’s not sure if it’s for Connor’s benefit or his own. 

“Are you having a panic attack?” Alana asks Connor, comfortingly business-like, like she might just be asking him if he’s got the time. 

“No,” says Connor uncertainly. He moves to the couch, sits down a little closer to Evan than strictly necessary, pressing their arms together. He frowns and shuts his eyes and flops his head back to thud against the wall. “I have milk on my jeans.” 

“Should we go?” Evan asks him, taking advantage of Connor’s closed eyes to turn and look at his face - the bridge of his nose and his tired mouth and the tension in the set of his eyebrows. He squints, shakes his head, doesn’t open his eyes. 

“Probably. If you want.” 

“My car keys are in your room,” Jared tells the couch, although his words are probably directed at Connor. He’s standing by the stairs looking anxious and uncomfortable. “We probably should just wait until-“

“I’m not saying it wasn’t stupid! It was so fucking stupid, is that what you want to hear, Dad? It was stupid! But you left me alone! You-“

“Is that a drum set?” Alana asks loudly, moving to inspect the set-up in the corner that is Very Obviously a drum set. She is a little too animated, a little too smiley. Evan doesn’t like to look at it. He stares at his knees. 

He feels embarrassed and rattled and tangled in all of this. Any second now, the Murphys might come down the basement stairs and yell at him, too. He sat on their bathroom floor. He sat on their dead son’s bed. He sat in their kitchen and lied to them, over and over and over, in every possible lifetime. 

“Yeah,” says Connor, eyes closed. “My parents thought it would help me channel my adolescent rage constructively or some shit like that. And then they got mad at me for being loud. You can use it if you want.” 

“No, that’s okay,” Alana says politely. “My violin tutor told me my sense of rhythm is dangerously underdeveloped.” 

Jared laughs at this, and then looks regretful to have called attention to himself. The basement falls quiet. Upstairs, Zoe is yelling. 

“Everything is so fucked up and it’s not fair. I feel like I’m drowning and nobody’s even looking at me and-“

Evan prods at the burn on the roof of his mouth. It stings. 

“Hey, general announcement,” Jared says loudly and suddenly. He is staring at the drywall and his posture is hunched, self-conscious. “I’m sorry. For. Y’know. Everything. I really am sorry.” 

Silence. Jared makes an unhappy face, shoulders following the slump of his frown. 

“You don’t have to forgive me or anything, because that’s- Okay. Valid. But I wanted to say- I’m an asshole and I don’t have an excuse. And I’m sorry so-“

More silence. Jared looks like he might puke or cry or crack a cruel joke, out of instinct. He fiddles with his glasses and grimaces and says, finally, “Okay?”

“Okay,” says Evan, because he cannot let that awful question — okay? — just dangle. He has cried in this house. He has made this apology. 

“Okay,” says Connor distractedly, eyes closed, head tipped back. He is breathing in a self-conscious, measured way like he’s counting seconds in his head, staving off panic. Evan can’t help but count along, accidentally matching his own breathing to the count, anxiously anticipating each next breath. 

“Thank you for saying that,” Alana says finally in a measured, cool kind of way. She has moved from the drumset to the bookshelf by the television, trailing a finger along the worn colorful spines there. “Oh, The Little Prince. I love this book! My dad read it to me when I was little.” 

“It’s my favorite,” Connor says. 

Evan didn’t know this. Which, like. Obviously he didn’t know this. The Connor he created was hollow and false and didn’t care about anything enough to hang it on his walls, let alone enough to to read and reread a book until the spine went veiny and worn. It makes him feel sad anyway. It makes him want to turn and look at Connor’s face again — in profile, eyes closed, peaky and pinched, unfamiliar. 

Alana doesn’t answer right away, just turns and looks at Connor, rifles through a couple pages, like maybe she’s experiencing a similar sensation of loss. Jared still looks a little bit miserable. He sits down on the rug and starts flipping through Connor’s stack of Xbox games. 

Evan kicks Connor in the ankle as gently as he can. Connor, eyes closed, kicks back just as softly. 

The basement door is flung open and Zoe comes storming down. She is teary-eyed but mostly just seems angry. Everyone flinches. Connor opens his eyes. 

“Don’t worry,” says Zoe with a half-hysterical laugh. Her eyes are shiny. “They’re not mad, just disappointed.”

She throws herself down on the opposite end of the couch, as far from Evan and Connor as she can get. Upstairs, there are raised voices. Mrs. Murphy sounds upset.  

“-don’t understand why that couldn’t have waited until-“

“-we have to stop walking on eggshells if we ever want to get back to normal. That means rules and structure and-“

“I’m really sorry about the tennis rackets,” Jared says suddenly. He’s still crouched on the floor by the TV, fumbling through a stack of video games, but his eyes are fixed on Zoe’s. “I totally forgot. That was stupid.”

Zoe shakes her head, pulls her knees to her chest miserably. “It wasn’t the tennis rackets that gave it away. Fucking Mr. Spier from next door. He just hates teenagers.”

“I hit his mailbox with my car once,” Connor says thoughtfully. Then, at Alana’s scandalized eyes, “Not on purpose!”

“Why does he need a mailbox anyway?” Zoe says viciously. “It’s not like anybody’s sending him mail. Just fucking Patagonia catalogues and magazines about breeding show dogs.”

“Landscaping magazines,” Connor adds. “How To Keep Your Fence As White as Your Suburban Neighborhood. Five Fun Ways to Spice Up Your Spring - Mow a Fucking Thin Blue Line Flag into Your Front Lawn.”

“Let’s go fucking hit his mailbox again,” Zoe says, standing. 

“Are you seriously going to leave right now?”

“I told you. I missed a lot of work for this retreat of yours-“

“My retreat? It’s my retreat now?”

“At some point, Cynthia, things have to go back to normal-“

Zoe keeps standing there. Her face crumples. The anger goes out of her. 

“This is pretty fucking embarrassing,” she says quietly, like the squeak of air leaking from a deflated balloon. 

“Fuck this,” says Connor abruptly. He kicks Evan in the ankle one more time, and then he’s standing too, moving swiftly over to the drumset in the corner. He says it again, louder, “Fuck! This!”

He can only find one drumstick, so he smashes the flat of his hand against a cymbal. There’s a metallic clatter, a staccato smack, loud. Jared jumps. For a second, there are no Murphys yelling. 

“-normal? Larry, we can’t keep pretending that-“

“We can’t keep living in crisis mode-“

Another flurry of noise. Connor’s abandoned his drumstick and is smacking the drums with his hands, with his knuckles, kicking at the larger bass drum with one socked foot. His mouth is tight but the vague transparence is gone. Evan can’t see dust anymore. 

“Fuck!” Zoe says tentatively, standing there. Then again, louder, with more intention, “Fuck!” 

“What’s happening?” Alana asks politely. No one answers. Jared fumbles around and retrieves the drum stick that Connor discarded, offers it to Zoe. 

Zoe isn’t looking because she’s climbing over the back of the couch, emerging with her guitar and a tangle of wires and also an inexplicable tambourine, which she tosses to Evan. He catches it out of instinct, stares at her blankly. 

“FUUUUCK this FUUUUCking FAAAAmily,” Zoe yells over the racket of Connor’s knuckles on the cymbals, and then she’s plugging her guitar into an amp and playing the loudest, most discordant series of notes Evan has ever heard. “FUck FUck FUCK.”

Jared is still holding the drumstick. He glances around awkwardly, then leans over and raps it a couple of times against the nearest cymbal. Connor doesn’t look up, but he also doesn’t tell Jared to stop. He just moves over, focuses his attention on slamming his palms against two of the smaller drums, and leaves the cymbals to Jared. 

“EVERYTHING IS SO FUCKING BAD!” Zoe sing-songs, loud and slightly hysterical. She plays another ugly chord. Connor and Jared are slamming on the drum without rhythm or purpose, the sound like an assault. 

It’s the loudest thing Evan has ever heard outside of his own angry head and he is bewildered by it. He keeps sitting on the couch, silent, trapped inside himself. When he looks over at Alana, she looks equally paralyzed. 

Zoe seems to notice because she puts down her guitar and moves to rummage through the cabinet beneath the television, knocking over stacks of video games before retrieving a bright pink microphone emblazoned with the words High School Musical: Sing It! It doesn’t seem to work because when she yells “SHIT SHIT BULL FUCKING SHIT” it does not amplify her voice, but then again she doesn’t really need much amplification. She dances over to Alana and thrusts the microphone at her face. 

“Oh, no thank you,” says Alana politely. When Zoe does not move, she sighs and rolls her eyes a little bit self-consciously, leans forward and lets out the tiniest, most demure little, “Fuck.”

Everyone whoops. Jared, who seems to have conquered his fear of standing next to Connor, gives the cymbals a celebratory crash. Evan rattles his Inexplicable Tambourine a little bit. He can’t actually hear it over the havoc of the basement, but it feels nice to be contributing to the noise. He is a Part of this. 

“Fuck!” Zoe cheers. “Fuck!”

“Shit!” Connor yells. “Fuck!”

“Shit!” Jared agrees. 

“Everything is bullshit!” Zoe yells into her pink High School Musical microphone over the thunder of the drums. “Fuck this family! Fuck this bullshit fucking family!”

Evan rattles his tambourine a little louder. It’s still too quiet to hear, but Connor turns and looks at him anyway. He is grinning or maybe grimacing, but either way Evan can see all his teeth. He points a finger at Evan then bangs his hands against the nearest drum, as if dedicating the furious, off-rhythm tattoo to him. Evan’s face wants to grin for some reason, so he lets it.

Zoe dances over to where Evan is sitting on the couch and pulls him to his feet. She pulls at his arms like he’s a puppet and she’s making him dance, jumping up and down in place, occasionally smacking her microphone against his tambourine and whooping. Evan is not sure he could produce a sound as uncomplicated and unselfconscious as a whoop, but he allows himself to laugh and that’s a noise, isn’t it? He is a part of this Noise. 

Connor abandons his drum long enough to pull Alana into the fray. As he passes Zoe’s guitar, lying abandoned on the couch, he leans over and gives it a haphazard strum, to great and cacophonous effect.   

“If you break my guitar I’ll fucking kill you!” Zoe yells at him. 

“Fuck you!” Connor yells back. 

“Fuck you!” she shrieks, only they’re both grinning.

Connor pulls Alana over to the drums. She resists at first, shouting something about her dangerous lack of rhythm, but then Jared hands her his drumstick and she rolls her eyes, grins self-consciously, and gives the cymbals a spectacular crash. Everyone cheers and laughs and Evan does, too. 

Zoe jumps up and down, yells another swearword, and then lets go of Evan’s hands to pick up her guitar and strum out another series of horribly loud, off-key chords. He rattles his tambourine and grins and when Connor thrusts the pink High School Musical microphone into his face, he puts his mouth close to the microphone and says quietly, “Fuck.”

He can’t even hear himself over the noise, but Connor seems to because he laughs and puts the microphone to his own mouth and says, louder, eyes open, right in Evan’s face, “Fuck!”

And then the microphone is back at Evan’s mouth, a challenge, and he’s swearing again — “FUCK!” — louder this time, and it keeps going back and forth like that, an escalation, until suddenly they are all screaming and swearing and Evan is yelling, too. His voice is a part of this horrible ugly Sound they are all making. He is the lightest he has ever been, maybe. 

Eventually Jared knocks into Alana and sends the drumstick flying and Zoe starts laughing too hard to yell cursewords anymore, and Evan’s throat starts to hurt — from prolonged lack of use, probably — and they all end up slumped on the couch, breathing a little too hard, like maybe they all need to stop skipping gym class. But when they fall quiet there’s no more arguing upstairs, just the hum of the dishwasher and their own exhilarated, heavy breathing, each exhale half a laugh, and then quiet footsteps. Someone knocks on the basement door after a moment. Mrs. Murphy says tentatively, “Everything okay down here?”

“Yep!” Zoe yells, face flushed and voice cracked from screaming.

“That was a- Things got pretty noisy, huh?”

Already the fragile, buoyant feeling in Evan’s chest is leaking and deflating. He kneels and begins collecting the scattered video games, watching his hands move, feeling himself curling inwards again. 

“We were communicating our feelings,” Connor says. “Isn’t that what you guys wanted?” 

Zoe laughs abruptly, presses a fist to her mouth like she’s surprised by her own laughter. She slides off the couch and crawls over to join Evan on the floor, stacking DVDs and shoving wii remotes back into the cabinet, still grinning and panting. 

“That’s good,” says Mrs. Murphy after a moment. She doesn’t descend the stairs, but she also doesn’t leave. Evan’s hears the stairs creak under her weight, her quiet inhale and exhale. “It makes me- I love to hear you guys having fun down here. And I’m- sorry about breakfast. Zoe, we’ll- Your dad had to go to work, but we can talk a little more tonight about consequences. We understand that things are-“

“It’s fine,” says Zoe, getting down on her belly to retrieve the drumstick from under the entertainment center, voice muffled. “It’s- I messed up. Whatever. You can ground me. I don’t have anywhere to go.”

Another quiet noise from the top of the stairs, out of sight. Mrs. Murphy says finally, quietly, “Well, we’ll talk about it later, baby, okay? Did everybody get enough to eat? I know breakfast got cut a little short.”

“Everything was delicious,” Alana says sincerely. She picks up the Inexplicable Tambourine and puts it neatly on the couch, brushes some imaginary lint off her tights. “I’m totally full. Thank you again, Mrs. Murphy.”

Still, she hesitates at the top of the stairs. “You’re sure?”

“Yeah,” says Jared, “we’re okay. Thanks.”

Chapter Text

 ...

Evan goes home, takes his meds, naps. When his mom knocks on the door and asks if he had a fun night he doesn’t have to pull on any puppet strings to summon a smile. It’s just right there. 

“I was gonna make some tea,” she says, face all lit-up and happy, like maybe somebody just set a birthday cake down in front of her and she’s getting ready to blow out the candles. “You want some?”

He says yes because he doesn’t want her to blow out the candles. He doesn’t want to see the light dim from her face. She’s in a good mood, humming cheerfully around the kitchen as she makes tea, nudging drawers closed with her hip and producing a package of Oreos with a conspiratorial grin. 

“Thank you,” he says, smiles back. The kettle whistles and she goes to pour the tea. 

“So you and Jared are good again, huh?” she says, once the tea is poured and she’s distributed milk and sugar, sliding him a chunky mug with a cartoon porcupine on it. He takes it, cupping his hands around the warm ceramic, surprised. 

“Yeah, we- I- Did Mrs. Kleinman say something to you or-“ 

“I pay attention,” she says, laughing at his surprise then tapping a finger to her head, wonderfully dorky. “I know things. But last night was okay?”

“Yeah, I- It’s fine now,” Evan says quickly. He taps a fingernail against the ceramic, . “It wasn’t ever- It was like a- misunderstanding. He’s-“

She comes to sit next to him with her own mug of tea. Wrapped around the chunky mug, her fingers don’t quite span the entire circumference. That makes something sad sound in his belly, like someone’s tugged a rope and rung a bell. 

“It’s okay,” she says, “I guess you guys are a little too old for me to start calling up parents and demanding that they make their kid be nice to my kid, huh?”

She smiles to show she’s joking, but a part of him shrinks back defensively. Probably around fourth or fifth grade, she had stopped insisting that he have a birthday party every year, probably just exhausted from the annual struggle. It wasn’t that nobody would come; there would be a respectable attendance and he would receive a wealth of generic, boy-themed presents — Lego sets and action figures and a few cards with money tucked inside. But he was too afraid to hand out invitations in class and he didn’t like crowds or organized activities and wearing a blindfold to play Pin The Tail on the Donkey gave him a panic attack. And so eventually she had stopped pushing. She had shrugged and they had left Party City empty-handed. 

It was the first time she seemed to surrender a fight, and he had been so muscle-achingly relieved on the drive home, and instead they had ordered pizza and watched Ghostbusters, and it was a very good birthday but also some part of him already understood that he was taking something away from her. She had given up on a tiny part of him. She had stopped fighting for him to be normal.

He protests, “No, it’s not- He’s nice to me. I’m- He’s nice to me. We’re friends.”

“Well, good,” she says, like it’s not exactly what she wants to say. She sips her tea. “I always promised myself I wouldn’t be a helicopter mom, but-“

“You’re not,” he assures her quickly. She twists her mouth unhappily. 

“Yeah, you’ve gotta be around to be a helicopter parent. I know I’m not- But I also want to be, like- You can tell me stuff, right? You know that? I want to know how you’re feeling.”

“Okay,” he says, a reflex, already looking away. 

He sips his tea so he won’t have to look at her, and the hot liquid makes the burn on the roof of his mouth sting sharply, a reminder that he is moving in circles again, spiraling eternally inward, only ever getting smaller. He gulps down the tea, too hot, and makes himself lift his head and look his mom in the face. 

“I mean- I’m okay,” he says. “I’m feeling- okay.”

She looks back at him, hungry, fingers tightening around her mug. Evan thinks of the creak of the Murphy’s basement stairs, of Mrs. Murphy hesitating on that top step, waiting for something. “Yeah? Just okay?”

“I’m- Okay is like- I meant it as good,” he falters. “Okay is, like, pretty good for me.”

“That doesn’t say much for your standards,” she tells him, but she smiles to soften the blow. 

“No, I- I know. Do you ever feel like-“

He pauses, presses his tongue to the burn at the roof of his mouth, tries to put a name to weight below his windpipe - hanging, hanged, hung. It’s not heavy, but it’s there.

“Do you ever feel like- Okay, like there’s so many people whose lives are so bad? And it’s like, your life isn’t that bad, which means the bad thing just hasn’t happened yet? And so you’re just waiting all the time for the bad thing to happen?”

His mom goes quiet, doesn’t answer right away. Evan stares down at his tea. 

“I don’t know,” she says finally. She speaks slowly but there’s still humor coloring the upward tilt of her voice. “I guess I kinda feel the opposite. I’ve had a lot of bad things. I think I’m mostly waiting for the good things to start kicking in.”

“Oh,” says Evan, with a sudden lockjaw certainty that he is one of the Bad Things. The Worst Thing, even. He drinks his tea.

“But also that’s not really how the world works, honey,” she adds. “It’s not like- tax returns or something."

“No, I know,” he says. “It’s just a- I feel like I’m always waiting for the Bad Thing.” 

She nods and doesn’t immediately answer, which he appreciates. Once every few months, she and Evan go to a joint session with Dr. Sherman to talk about communicating. At their last joint session, Evan had tried to explain how he he hated talking about his bad feelings, because his mother immediately tried to fix the problem. Only he couldn’t properly voice the feeling of being made small, watching her digging through her pockets and holding out answers — drink more water, take more pills, go for a run — like it was as simple as him reaching out and taking the solution from her hand. His mom has gotten defensive and a little bit sarcastic and he had gotten his words so tangled that they solidified into a hard little knot in the back of his throat, and then he couldn’t speak at all for the rest of the session, which wasn’t ideal for a discussion about communication. 

Anyway he thinks maybe his mom is thinking about that meeting as well as she sips her tea, stays quiet for a while, looks at him with serious eyes.

“I don’t know, Evan,” she says finally. “I think we’ve had enough bad things. I’d prefer to think we’ve got some good things on the way.”

“That’s okay,” Evan says. There is still a weight suspended from his throat, a ticking pendulum thing, a reminder that every moment his brain isn’t rattling with panic is stolen time. But there is also a pleasant hoarseness to his throat, the result of a morning spent screaming in a basement. There is a quiet ringing to his ears, like if he stood in a perfectly silent room he might still be able to hear Connor laugh-yelling FUCK directly into his face. “I’d like to- think that, too.” 

She holds her hand up and then looks at him expectantly until he realizes she is waiting for a high five. He complies, a little bit clumsy, and they both laugh at the gesture. 

“Good things are coming,” she tells him, “right?” 

“Okay,” Evan says, which is about as optimistic as his brain allows him to be, but he smiles back goofily and finishes his tea. 

...

He wakes up Monday decidedly Mentally Ill and spends his morning with his head ducked, holding something tight and heavy in the center of his chest. Maybe it’s a magnet because it seems to be pulling his gaze irresistibly downward. 

There is no particular reason why today is a Bad Day, except maybe to make up for the Okay-ness of the weekend. His mom says that good feelings are not like tax returns, but he is not quite as convinced. It’s more like a seesaw, maybe. You go up and you go down.

Or actually, it’s like building a tower of blocks higher and higher, up above your head, until you have to stretch to put another block on top, shaky and precarious. You can go for days — weeks, sometimes — of careful building and stacking, but the knowledge never goes away that the tower is eventually going to fall down. And the higher you’ve built it, the more likely you are to get clocked on the head when it does fall.

It makes it difficult to even enjoy the moments that his brain isn’t self-destructing, because the whole time he is flinching, waiting for the switch in his brain to flip and for the bad thing — whatever it may be — to happen. 

He thinks about going to the nurse and lying about having a stomach virus or something. Sometimes she has squat little cans of ginger ale for settling an upset stomach. Evan’s stomach isn’t upset so much as his entire body is made of paper and he is particularly aware of its fragility today, but maybe holding something cold in his hands will make him feel better. When he passes the nurse’s office, however, she is talking into the phone, looking particularly harried, while a janitor cleans up a puddle of something unfortunate on the floor. Evan keeps walking. 

He thinks about calling his mom or finding an abandoned classroom to hide in. He thinks about killing himself in the same way that you go to bed with a scab and wake up to an open cut, a little blood on the sheets. He never means to pick, but he is not good at letting things heal over. 

He goes the library to eat his lunch in obscurity. The idea of people looking at him, existing in this physical form, is especially unbearable today. He picks all the seeds off the crust of his whole wheat bread with his headphones in his ears, trying to make himself read. 

There’s a shuffle of movement and when he looks up, Connor is pulling out a chair and flopping down across the table. Evan pulls out an earphone. 

“Hi,” he says. 

Connor wraps his arms around himself, eyes down, elbows sharp and defensive. “You can keep listening to your music or whatever,” he says. “If I talk right now I’m gonna say something mean by mistake.” 

“I’m not actually listening to anything,” Evan admits, lifting his headphones to show that they aren’t plugged into anything. “I just put them in to- so it doesn’t look like I’m eating alone.” 

Connor laughs at this but the humor kinda drops off his face faster than usual. The table is creaking slightly from the way Connor is shaking his leg furiously beneath the table, a vibrating pent-up thing.  

“You’re still eating alone if you have headphones in,” he points out.  

“No, I- I know,” says Evan. “It’s more like- It looks like I don’t want anyone to talk to me if I have- I don’t know. It looks less sad.” 

“It’s kind of sadder ,” says Connor. “People don’t give a shit, y’know that?” 

Evan shrugs, defensive. “No, I- I know it’s stupid. I don’t-“

“Sorry,” Connor interrupts. “Sorry. See, that’s what I- I’m an asshole today. Put your headphones back in and ignore me.”

Evan starts to obey, and then stops as Connor twists his lip, tugs at his ear, and then open his mouth a couple times like he wants to say something. 

“I know it’s stupid,” he says again, tries for a smile. 

“Sorry,” Connor shakes his head. “It’s not- I didn’t mean that nobody- I just would always rather nobody was looking at me, y’know? Like, there’re worse things than being by yourself. At least nobody’s- I don’t know. Fuck. Sorry. You’re fine. Do what you want.”

He slumps back in his chair, shoulders hunched, elbows making sharp defensive angles. He looks tired and twitchy, like if Evan put a hand on his arm he would spring shut like a mousetrap. His face is still jarring, somehow, never quite how Evan expects it to be. His mouth is loose and unhappy. 

Evan puts his headphones away decisively and tries to pitch his voice over the dull drone of anxiety pulsing in his chest with the persistence and volume of a car alarm. “Well now I’m not eating alone, so I don’t need them. We can just like- You don’t have to talk. I’m feeling kinda-“ 

He stops, scrunches his nose, tries to think of a word for the feeling in his chest, like a motor sputtering to life and then dying, over and over and over. 

“Same,” says Connor, eyes moving across Evan’s face like he’s reading something there. His leg is still shaking furiously under the table and it’s making his entire frame vibrate, like Evan’s looking at him through a lens and he can’t quite get it to focus. “Mental illness, am I right?”

“Mental illness,” Evan agrees. 

“Lucky us.”

“Lucky us.” He tries for a smile but mostly just succeeding in gritting his teeth together. He looks back down at his book and his half-eaten sandwich, exhausted by the effort of looking Connor in the face. “Did you read for English?”

“Yeah,” says Connor. “The ending was bullshit.”

“I didn’t finish,” Evan admits. “I’m trying to skim now.”

“You can read,” Connor says, waving a hand at him. “Ignore me. I’m just gonna sit here and try to- not die. I don’t know.”

“That’s a- a good goal,” Evan tells him, tries to fit his teeth into another smile. Connor folds his arms onto the table, buries his face in his arms. Evan looks at the slightly mussed hair at the back of his head, stray pieces curling upward, and then goes back to his book.

He reads a few pages and then is dismayed to find that he has not really absorbed anything. His brain is too busy cycling through the usual patterns of intrusive thought — worthless worthless annoying you don’t even exist — to process written word. When he looks up, Connor is still slumped over and Zoe is standing over by the bookshelves with her hands clutching the straps of her backpack, chewing on her lip nervously. It’s the face that used to make Evan stare, the turned-inward look of concentration that convinced him things could be different, if only he could talk to Zoe. It’s so startling and familiar that he is waving at her before he can talk himself out of it. 

“Hi,” says Zoe, approaching hesitantly, “I’m meeting Alana and Jared here. Is it cool if we-“

“Yeah, of course,” Evan says at once, but Zoe keeps hesitating. She glances down at Connor’s slumped form. 

“Are you-"

“I’m not high,” Connor says, voice muffled but still decidedly tart, “if that’s what you’re asking.”

“No,” Zoe snaps, “I was just asking if you were cool with me sitting.”

“Oh,” says Connor. He doesn’t lift his head. “Yeah, that’s fine.”

Zoe pulls out a chair and busies herself, pulling out a notebook and a sandwich wrapped in parchment paper. She winces at the loud crinkling noise as she unwraps it, glancing around the library like she’s waiting for someone to reprimand her. 

“It’s fine,” Evan tells her. “Don’t- The librarian doesn’t mind if you eat in here, as long as you clean up after yourself.”

“I’m kind of hiding,” Zoe explains, glancing around again. She begins to systematically rip the crusts off her sandwich. “Everyone’s kind of- Because of the party on Saturday. I guess people are mad that we kicked them out early? And also because of the tennis rackets.”

“Are people being shitty?” Connor asks, sitting up. 

“No, not- I don’t know,” Zoe admits. “I’ve been hiding, like, preemptively. I don’t want to see anybody so I told Alana and Jared I’d help them figure out some stuff about ending The Bullshit Project, because I guess I’m a sad person who hides in the library to eat lunch now.” 

Evan’s eyes drop to his own sandwich. Sometimes he forgets that there’s a pane of glass separating him from the rest of the world, and then right when he’s starting to forget he hits the glass with a horrible smack, like a bird flying into a window. 

“Oh, I didn’t- That’s not what I meant,” Zoe says in horror, realizing her mistake. “I meant- Fuck. Sorry. Fuck. I’m such a dick.” 

“It’s okay,” Evan tells her, summons a smile like tugging on marionette strings. “I am a sad person- like, clinically. I’m literally always sad.”

“Dick move,” Connor tells Zoe, leaning over to steal her crusts. She glares at him, but slides the remnants of her sandwich over to him. 

“I didn’t mean it,” she says, turning in her chair and grabbing Evan’s arm. “I’m sorry. And I- Thank you for this weekend, okay? I mean it. I don’t think I said-“

It’s too hard to look at her. The magnet-tug of anxiety in his chest pulls his eyes downward to the table, to the hem of his shirt and his untied shoelace and the picked-over sandwich on the table. For a second he can’t breathe at all, swallowed whole in this horrible and sudden reminder of his awful, embarrassing existence. But then his head bobs up to the surface and he is able to lock his jaw into something smile-shaped. 

“No, I- I know,” he says. “Don’t worry.”

Connor kicks him under the table, hard enough to hurt, and Evan is grateful for it. He is able to tug his arm gently away from Zoe, turn back to his book, kick Connor. He flips back to the beginning of the chapter and tries to find the place where his brain stopped absorbing words. 

“Hey,” says Zoe quietly, folding her arms on the table and resting her chin there. She’s looking at Connor cautiously. “Are you gonna be okay with us- I mean, we’re just figuring out what to do with the money from the- They asked me because I think they thought you wouldn’t wanna-“

Evan can’t lift his eyes from the tabletop, so all he can see are Connor’s hands ripping apart the crusts of his sandwich. He turns a page, tries to orient his eyes on the page. 

“Yeah, it’s- I don’t care,” Connor says finally. “Embezzle that shit. Let’s buy a jet ski.”

“The Connor Murphy Memorial Jet Ski,” says Zoe. 

“He isn’t dead. He just loves remembering jet skis,” says Connor. Then, “But if Kleinman tries to talk to me I’m gonna fucking bark at him.”

Evan pulls his headphones back out and slides them across the table to Connor, giving him his best recreation of a smile. “Here. So nobody will talk to you.”

He can’t summon the energy to lift his eyes, to see if Connor is smiling back, but he watches Connor’s hand take the headphones, clumsy bony knuckles and chipped navy nail polish. 

“Thanks,” says Connor quietly, kicks him under the table. 

Alana and Jared find them a few minutes later, carrying backpacks and a strained air of politeness between them. Jared stays quiet, mostly, while Alana produces a little Ziploc bag of carrot sticks which she offers around. Evan looks up to smile, shake his head, say no thank you, and The Ghost of Connor Murphy is standing at the far end of the library. 

“You haven’t finished the book yet, Evan?” Alana chides, passing her carrot sticks to Connor. “The test is on Wednesday.”

“I’m almost done,” he mumbles, staring. A siren starts up behind his breastbone, throbbing and persistent. The Ghost of Connor Murphy isn’t doing anything, not even bouncing his stupid fucking ball. Just standing there, staring, a little bit vacant.

“The ending was bullshit anyway,” says the Connor who is sitting at the table across from Evan, tense and pulled-tight like a rubber band, chewing a carrot stick with one headphone dangling from his ear, Not Dead.  

“I thought it was a very good book,” Alana disagrees. One of the fluorescent lights overhead starts to hum. It dims briefly, flickers, and then goes bright again. And then The Ghost of Connor Murphy isn’t there anymore. 

“I didn’t say it wasn’t,” Connor retorts. “I just hated the fucking ending."

“That’s fair,” says Alana. She offers Jared another carrot, chews thoughtfully. “Anyway, Zoe, we’ve been talking about maybe-“

There is no Ghost. The library is quiet and well-lit and remarkably not-occult. Evan looks back down at his book and keeps trying to read and the words keep filtering through his brain like sand through splayed fingers. The Bottom of A Swimming Pool Feeling is getting stronger, an upward tug, a lung-aching pressure in his chest. 

The next time he glances up, The Ghost of Connor Murphy is sitting at an empty table a couple yards away, holding a book up to his greyscale face. When he catches Evan staring, he smiles at him, licks a finger, makes an elaborate show of slowly turning the page of his book. Here, under the humming fluorescents of the school library, he looks more Dead than Evan has ever seen him before. He grips the edge of the table, hard, and exhales shakily. Tries to blink the Ghost out of existence. 

“Evan,” Jared says abruptly, speaking for the first time, voice muted like he’s underwater, too, or maybe standing behind a thick pane of glass. “Evan, are you okay?”

He lets his face squint tight, then relax. Tight, then relax. The pressure in his lungs eases a little bit and he manages to nod his head. Not so much as an affirmation, but at least to indicate that he can hear Jared. 

“Are you having a- Do you need your inhaler?”

He shakes his head and manages a crackly inhale. Then an exhale. Inhale. Exhale. The lights overhead hum quietly. “I’m having a weird day,” he manages finally. 

“Weird how?” Zoe asks sharply, because she read aloud those letters he wrote to himself and two months ago her brother tried to kill himself. “Are you okay? Do you need to go to the nurse?”

Connor doesn’t say anything and Evan is physically incapable of lifting his eyes from the tabletop, from the white knuckle grip he is maintaining there, to look at him. He is afraid of what he might see. As long as he doesn’t let go of the table, he won’t float up to the surface. As long as he doesn’t look at Connor, he doesn’t have to think about how the Real Connor is dead and how this is all just hypothetical, the build-up to a math problem about trains meeting on a track. 

“It’s just a- I’m fine,” he says. “Sorry. It’s okay.”

“Is it because I brought up the test on Wednesday?” Alana asks. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to freak you out. Would it help if we- We could go talk somewhere else.”

He manages to shake his head. “It’s not you- Sorry. I can’t focus, but it’s not- My brain just isn’t working.”

Connor kicks him under the table very softly, hardly a kick at all. Just the softest nudge of his boot at Evan’s ankle, and then it’s gone. There’s the buzz of the overhead lights. A scuffle of pages turning a few tables down. Evan is afraid to look. 

“Maybe we can help?” says Zoe, the tilt of her voice turning everything she says into a question. “Do you want to talk about it?”

He shakes his head. He profoundly, wholeheartedly does not want to tell Zoe Murphy that he is being haunted by the Ghost of her dead older brother, who is currently alive and sitting at the same table as them. That he is living in a Christmas That Could Be scenario which could dissolve into dust at any moment, like a dried-up old leaf. That he’s been underwater so long that he’s lost track of where the surface of the water is, and exactly which Reality is waiting for him there. And yet he finds himself talking anyway, his voice halting and unfamiliar. 

“Do you ever get, like- Jared showed me one time. It’s like- You’ve been in a coma for 15 years and we’re trying to communicate with you. Please wake up. And it’s supposed to be, like- I don’t know. It’s a joke thing.”

“Please Wake Up,” Jared says. “It’s a Reddit thing.”

“I don’t go on Reddit,” Alana says primly. 

“You wouldn’t.” 

“It’s- It doesn’t matter,” Evan hurries. “I just mean, like- If you could trick your brain into believing that, then it’s like- How can you ever be sure that you’re- that you’re really awake and that this is your real life, y’know?”

“This is why I can’t ever talk about conspiracy theories with you, Evan,” Jared laments. “You take them too seriously.”

“I know it’s not real,” Evan protests. “I’m just saying that’s- That’s how I feel today. Like I could be in a coma or a- I don’t know. And I wouldn’t- I wouldn’t be able to tell.”

“Well actually,” says Alana briskly, “you can’t read when you’re in a dream. So that whole theory makes no sense.”

“You can’t?” 

“No, the whole area of your brain that has to do with language is much less active when you’re asleep,” Alana says. She slides her baggie of carrots over to Evan and lets her hand knock against his own for a moment, friendly and deliberate. “And you can’t tell time either. So there you go. Now you can test and make sure you’re awake.”

Evan eats a carrot, taking some comfort in the crisp snap of it under his teeth. He tries to steady his breathing. When he lifts his eyes, there’s no Ghost to be seen. The table The Ghost of Connor Murphy was sitting at is unoccupied. 

“That’s actually really cool,” says Zoe. “You’re so cool, Alana.”

Alana is so genuinely taken aback by this statement that Evan almost laughs, except that it’s also a little bit tragic. Her eyes go big and she smiles like she’s embarrassed, shakes her head, brushes some imaginary eraser dust off the page of her notebook. 

“I’m not cool,” she says. “I try, like, really hard. All the time.”

“Trying hard is cool,” Connor disagrees, startling them all a little bit. He points his carrot stick at Alana like an accusation. “Face it, dude. You’re cool.”

“Dude,” Alana repeats like she’s never heard the word before, still smiling as if bewildered by this entire conversation. “Okay. It’s not- I just read a lot of Wikipedia articles when I can’t sleep.”

“You should get a totem,” Jared tells Evan, prodding him with an elbow, “like in Inception. The fucking- the spinning top or whatever, to tell you when you’re awake and when you’re dreaming. Or worst comes to worse you just jump off something tall and if you hit the ground, that means you’re awake.”

It goes quiet. Evan, out of instinct, cradles his arm to his chest. 

“That’s not funny,” he says quietly. 

“Sorry,” says Jared, eyes going big. “Sorry. I didn’t mean it like- It’s just another- If you fall from a high place in a dream, you always wake up before you- Sorry. Fuck. Sorry.”

Jared sounds genuinely horrified, but there’s a quiet and dull ache starting in Evan’s arm and he’s not sure if it’s phantom pain from his healed-over arm or just, like, muscle exhaustion. He is so tired of existing like this, always kicking and fighting to stop from floating away, just existing between choppy waves of half-formed conversation, never quite understanding, never quite being understood, forever getting his feelings hurt. 

“It’s okay,” he says finally because he doesn’t want to argue. These people are his friends, maybe, even if right now they’re all watching him through a sheet of glass, making distant attempts to comfort him over something they don’t understand. “I know you didn’t mean it like that.”

“I don’t actually think it’s okay,” says Alana abruptly, tone a little less rehearsed than usual. “It’s- It’s- It’s-“

The bell rings, and they all jump. Evan is grateful for a reason to push back his chair, to turn his face down and focus on stuffing his books into his backpack. Jared hesitates by him for a second like he wants to say something, and finally settles for elbowing Evan gently in the side.  “Do you want a ride home?”  

Evan shakes his head, face turned away, hands moving busily. “I have therapy after school.” 

“Okay,” says Jared. He keeps standing there. “Sorry for- I’m a dick. For real, sorry.”

“It’s okay,” Evan says again, and then he pretends to be very engrossed in digging a pen out from the bottom of his backpack because he wants everyone to leave. He is tired of talking and being talked to. After another moment of hesitation, Jared leaves and Zoe and Alana follow, waving. 

“Bye, Evan,” says Zoe, voice a little bit higher-pitched than usual like she’s self-conscious. “Feel better.”

“Thank you,” Evan tells the contents of his backpack. 

“Here,” says Connor, blue nails and slim hands coming into view as he slides Evan’s headphones back across the tabletop. “Thanks for- Y’know.”

“Yeah,” says Evan. “You’re welcome.” 

“See you in English?” Connor asks, then amends, “If we haven’t died by then.”

He says it like a joke, but it’s a little bit Too Real for Evan who can barely get through a lunch period without seeing Ghosts, who can barely get through a conversation without thinking about killing himself. Today is a really really Bad Day, and objectively he knows that tomorrow will probably not be this bad, but right now it feels like this is how he will Be forever. Time isn’t as reliable as it used to be. 

“Yeah,” he says finally. “It’s a- I’d say it’s like fifty-fifty right now.”

He finishes zipping his backpack and follows Connor away from the table, towards the library door. As they pass the empty table where The Ghost of Connor Murphy was sitting, Evan slows despite himself. He’s looking for another crumbled leaf or a pile of pills or at least a ghostly chill in the air. Something foreboding carved into the tabletop, maybe. But the table is empty except for the book lying there. He has to stare at the paperback cover for several seconds before his brain seems to process the words —  A Christmas Carol, by Charles Dickens — and then he only feels worse. 

 ...

And then he goes to class and he goes to therapy and he is too anxious to order dinner after his mom goes to class, so instead he eats half a sleeve of graham crackers and gets into bed before he can do anything more destructive than retrieve the library copy of A Christmas Carol and read the first few pages — “Marley was dead: to begin with.”

But his brain won’t hold onto the words properly and the slightest noise has him glancing up from the page, looking around for a dead-eyed Ghost with a bouncy ball. This is just a Bad Day, he tells himself. Probably he should just go to bed and when he wakes up in the morning, existence will not be such a kicking-clawing-gasping struggle. 

But he is afraid to turn off the light because he can’t stop thinking about the Ghost in the library and he is afraid to fall asleep because he can’t quite shake the worry that he might wake up in the morning to a world where Connor died and Evan was so fucking lonely and pathetic that he accidentally lied a Ghost into existence. And so he lays in bed with all the lights on until his mom comes home, then feigns sleep when she cracks his bedroom door and peeks inside. 

She hesitates for a moment, floorboards creaking slightly under her feet, and for a second Evan thinks about turning around and saying, “Mom?” He doesn't know what he would ask her. He doesn't know what she would answer. But he thinks about Connor dying on a park bench, asking for his mom, and he thinks about Mrs. Murphy standing at the top of her basement stairs, and he almost turns, almost asks for help. Only then his mom reaches a hand inside and turns off the light. 

Chapter Text

On Friday afternoon, Evan is vaguely alarmed to find that Zoe is leaning against his locker at the end of the day, like she’s waiting for him, like the old days when he used to go home with her every day and eat dinner in the Murphy’s kitchen and brush his teeth in the Murphy’s bathroom, staring at the orange toothbrush in the cup that sat untouched, dry as bone. Once, as he and Zoe stood shoulder to shoulder before the bathroom mirror, she caught him staring at the orange toothbrush and her mouth made a horrible, twisted shape beneath a layer of toothpaste foam, and then she reached over and picked up the toothbrush and threw it in the trash.

They were both shocked by the sound of it and their eyes met in the mirror, wide and solemn. Eventually she leaned over and spat, swiped at her mouth with the back of her hand, and mumbled a quiet goodnight. He had let her go. 

He blinks until that memory goes away, like changing the channel on tv. Zoe sees him coming and straightens up, adjusts her backpack, waves at him cheerily. It makes him feel a little bit better. He waves back cautiously. 

“Hi.” 

“Hi,” says Zoe. “I have a question for you.”

She’s mostly smiling and her hair’s in a bouncy ponytail, so probably she isn’t about to ask Evan something horrible — how could you? or those letters, you really wrote those? — but his hands still move automatically to the hem of his shirt, like he needs something to hold on to. He tries to swallow and smile at the same time, but finds he’s not super good at multitasking. 

“Okay?”

“Do you want to have a sleepover?” Zoe asks.

This is so entirely unexpected that Evan coughs out a laugh. Zoe must take his laugh for skepticism because she holds her shoulders a little straighter and talks faster. 

“I’m serious! Okay, maybe not a sleepover — a slumber party. I think we- I know Alana’s still really sad about The Jared Project shitshow, even if she doesn’t want to admit it, and I think we could all- I don’t know.”

She wrinkles her nose, adjusts her backpack, avoids eye contact. 

“Tonight is the first jazz band concert since I quit, and after jazz concerts me and Luca and Isley always have a sleepover, and now it’s- I don’t know. Things are kinda shitty right now, generally? I think for all of us? And I would like to have a slumber party.” 

“Okay,” says Evan blankly. “I don’t- I’m not doing anything, obviously. That would-“

“It could be fun, maybe?”

“Fun,” Evan echoes. “Yeah, that’s- Yeah.”

Zoe brightens. Her nose crinkles again, but happily this time. “Yeah! And- Can we- Potentially can we hang out at somebody else’s house for once? Because I think it’s- I think we’ve all had enough awkward family dinners at the Murphy household, y’know?”

“They’re not- awkward,” Evan protests, but it comes out so limp and unconvincing that he has to crack a smile at Zoe’s unimpressed face. “They’re- Okay. That’s- We could do it at my house, if you don’t mind that it’s- small.”

“Your house is great,” Zoe says immediately, waving away this concern. She claps her hands a little bit. Evan loves her a lot, in this wholly new way where he wants to bump their shoulders together or maybe go on a very long car trip together where they sit quietly. He settles for grinning back. “You’re great and this is exciting. I’ll tell Alana right now. She said she would have to make sure she didn’t have any conflicts, but I don’t think she really meant it.”

She starts to turn away, aloft with purpose and excitement, and Evan briefly feels better than he has all week. Like, how could he be haunted when Zoe Murphy’s ponytail is bouncing like that? This Zoe is so much more Real than the Zoe Murphy he used to believe in, the Zoe who was going to fix all his problems and quiet all his twitches. Somehow, he loves her so much more, now that he can look her in the face without thinking about kissing her. How could this Zoe not be Real? 

“Wait,” says Evan with a sudden surge of boldness. She turns back and he speaks before the bad feelings can catch up with him. “We should- Connor’s invited, too, right?”

“Oh,” says Zoe, stopping, losing some of her certainty, “yeah, that’s- I was including him. You guys are like- friends, right? He’s part of the- I don’t know, the squad I guess. Is that okay?”

For a second, Evan thinks about the plastic thunk of the orange toothbrush against the garbage pail. He twists his fingers in his shirt and doesn’t think about holding Connor’s hand. “Yeah, we’re- friends. Okay. I was just making sure. And also- I think we should invite Jared.”

Zoe makes a face. “Ugh.”

“Ugh?” Evan echoes. 

“Ugh,” Zoe affirms. She adjusts her backpack. “I mean, it’s fine if you want to invite him, it’s just- I know you guys are friends and stuff, Evan, but he’s kind of mean to you.” 

“He's- We talked about it,” Evan says. “And he- I don’t think he means to be- the way that he is. But if you’re really uncomfortable with it, we don’t have to-“

“No, it’s fine,” Zoe begrudges. “It’s your slumber party.”

“It’s my slumber party,” Evan repeats, because that’s a sentence he has literally never spoken aloud before. “Yeah. Okay.”

It’s not until Evan asks his mom about the sleepover and her eyes go wide and tremulously happy that he realizes, with a horrible twisting surprise, that he’s never actually had a real sleepover before. Like, he used to sleep at Jared’s house sometimes when he was younger and his mom had to work double shifts. And last weekend he spent a night on Connor’s bedroom floor. But he’s never had people come here. He’s never had to ask his mom permission to have friends over before. 

“I just wish we had a better space for it,” she laments after she’s made Evan help her move the couch three different times before deciding it was probably best in its original position. “The rug’s not that thick.”

“I think it’s okay,” Evan tells her, still panting a little. “It’s-“

“Are you sure you don’t want me to skip class?” she asks again. “I could make popcorn or cookies or something?”

Evan shakes his head again, busies himself with fixing a corner of the rug that got flipped up during their Couch Moving Endeavors. He’s trying to hold onto the afternoon’s Good Feeling of watching Zoe get excited about a sleepover, but there’s a creeping annoyance bleeding into the edges of his good mood. He wishes his mom wouldn’t be so obvious. And then he just feels horrible for getting mad at his mom while she’s literally moving furniture for him, which makes everything feel a little more dim and thin and Bad. 

“I really think it’s okay, Mom. We can do pizza. That’s, like- We’re teenagers. We like pizza.”

“You’re right,” she agrees, pulls a wry smile and laughs a little sadly. “You’re right. I’m doing the- the helicopter thing again! You’ll probably have more fun without boring old Mom around anyway.”

“That’s not what I-“ he protests, but she laughs again and catches him in a brief, one-armed hug. 

“I’m kidding, honey. Don’t worry.” She lets him go with a final squeeze of his elbow, and moves toward the kitchen, calling back over her shoulder, “I’ll put some money on the counter for you, okay? Get a- Order a liter of soda or some snacks with the pizza, if you want. Don’t let your cool high school friends think we’re cheap-o’s.”

“I won’t,” Evan says. He nudges at the folded-over corner of the rug with his foot. It’s caught underneath the leg of the couch. He crouches down to try and tug it free. There’s movement in the kitchen, and then his mom’s voice sounds again from the doorway:

“Hey, Evan?”

The couch is too heavy to lift by himself, but if he braces his shoulder he can nudge it up maybe a centimeter, which is enough to work the corner of the rug free. He focuses on this task, face down. “Yeah?”

She hesitates for a second. “I’m proud of you, baby. I’m- I don’t mean to make a big deal of things, y’know? But I told you this would be a good year for us. Good things are coming, right?”

He frees the rug, avoids catching his fingers beneath the couch, and sits back on his heels. He lets out a breath and then turns and makes himself look his mom in the face. He feels a deep, plunging sadness for a second, for all the times he has disappointed her that her standards of Good could be so, so low. But she’s smiling and so he smiles back, and then he feels a little bit better. 

“Yeah,” he says. “Good things are coming.”

Alana arrives five minutes early, because of course she does, and she comes bearing a neatly-rolled sleeping bag and homemade cookies and a bottle of sparkling cider, which she hands to Evan with some obvious embarrassment. 

“My dad made me take it,” she says. “He’s- I don’t go to a lot of sleepovers.”

“Me neither,” Evan tells her truthfully. “Thanks for the cookies.”

Jared arrives next, bearing an enormous bag of toxic-colored Doritos and a pillow and literally nothing else. Alana eyes him skeptically. 

“I’m living that minimalist lifestyle,” he tells her. “I’m ready to go at a moment’s notice. Nothing to weigh me down.”

“Not even a toothbrush,” she notes. 

“It’s a sleepover,” he scoffs. “Nobody brushes their teeth at a sleepover.”

“I do,” Alana says. She hides it beneath a thick layer of disdain, but there’s a sudden uncertainty to the lift of her chin. To be fair, Evan doesn’t know enough about sleepover etiquette to take a side in this argument. “Dental hygiene is extremely important.” 

“Where are you going to sleep?” Evan adds. Jared shrugs, gestures vaguely towards his pillow. 

“I’ll figure something out. Roll up in the rug, maybe.”

“Dusty,” says Alana. 

And then there’s nothing else obvious to say, somehow, and a slightly strained silence falls over the kitchen. Evan goes and finds a bowl for the Doritos, just so that he has something to do with his hands. He’s just remembered why he never has people over and it’s precisely because of This. The silent discomfort and the shared knowledge that none of them want this to be happening. 

“Hey,” says Jared quietly as Evan fumbles in the cabinets, “um, I know I’ve kind of already said this but-“

“You don’t have to keep apologizing,” Alana interrupts him, voice careful and measured. “I know you’re sorry.”

“Okay,” says Jared, “but I just want to say-“

“Really, Jared,” Alana says, more sharply. “Stop.”

“Okay,” says Jared.

There’s a knock at the front door and Evan dives for it, eager for an excuse to leave behind the strained politeness of the kitchen. Zoe and Connor are laded down with backpacks and shopping bags and pillows and also weirdly they both have red cheeks and shiny eyes. Evan stares a little bit because in another life he had a girlfriend with a dead brother. He knows what Zoe looks like when she’s been crying. 

“Hi,” he says. “Is everything- Are you guys okay?”

Zoe smiles at him reassuringly, pausing by the door to toe off her converse. “Yeah, it’s- We just did a joint therapy session thing? My parents thought it would- Because of all the yelling, y’know?”

“Oh,” says Evan. “Was it-“

“It was good,” says Connor. He hands Evan one of the plastic grocery bags. “That’s for you.”

“It was fine,” Zoe agrees hastily. “I mean, it was weird and horrible and sad, but now I feel okay, I think. We brought cookie dough. Do you mind if I put it in the fridge?”

“Yeah, it’s-“ Evan gestures vaguely towards the kitchen, inspecting the plastic bag that Connor has handed him. “Is this-“

“It’s popcorn,” says Connor, almost enthusiastic as he watches Evan. Zoe disappears into the kitchen with the rest of the grocery bags. “The Boy Scout kind that they sell outside the supermarket. But that’s not the real- We just passed them on our way out and Zoe felt bad ignoring them and I remembered you were a wannabe Scout. The other thing is the real present.”

It’s a bumper sticker. Evan stares at it blankly and then is surprised into a horrible, embarrassing cough of a laugh. 

Big Clint’s Museum of Cryptozoology and Fly Fishing Equipment,” he reads out loud. “Just off Exit 17. Holy shit.”

“I bought it at a gas station on the way home from that bullshit retreat,” Connor says, grinning a little bit like he’s proud of himself. “I forgot to give it to you. Also I forgot you don’t have a car.”

“I guess I have to buy a car now,” says Evan. He is grinning and he doesn’t know what to do with this Not Awful feeling, so he stretches out a socked foot and gives Connor the tiniest, feeblest little kick to the shin. Just a nudge, really. “This is- Thanks.“

“Yeah,” says Connor, looking embarrassed. He kicks Evan back, just as lightly. “Can we eat that cookie dough raw or are you one of those people who’s going to start freaking out about salmonella?”

“I know you’re making fun of me,” Evan says, “but it’s not as uncommon as you think-“

They start for the kitchen, Evan bearing a tub of Boy Scout popcorn and a bizarre bumper sticker and this weird, warm buoyant in his chest, like a bathtub filled too full. As they pass through the doorway into the kitchen, Connor lifts up a hand and knocks his fist against the top of the doorframe, which is such a random and inexplicable and dumbly boyish thing to do that Evan’s stomach nearly drops with the weight of it, of how much he likes this Not Dead Connor. 

Everything is a little better, after that. Zoe is bright and happy and talkative, and she makes everything easier. Alana loses some of her polite stiffness and Connor laughs at one of Jared’s stupid jokes and Evan can smile without his jaw creaking from disuse. They divide the cookie dough in half — half to bake, half to consume raw with spoons while Alana and Evan look on in queasy disapproval. 

“Try one spoonful,” Jared wheedles, waving his spoon under Evan’s nose tantalizingly. “I promise you won’t die. Salmonella isn’t real.”

“Well that’s patently untrue,” Alana says, busily arranging cookie dough onto baking sheets. She’s found an apron somewhere or maybe she brought it from home. Alana is wonderful. 

“Just a little bit,” Jared persists. “I’ve been eating raw cookie dough for seventeen glorious years, and I’m still standing.”

“Yeah,” says Evan, “but all you eat it is, like, Mountain Dew and processed cheese. You’re- To be fair, your digestive system is already, like, radioactive.”

“Fuck you,” says Jared cheerfully. He retracts his spoon and makes a grand show of licking it clean, with lots of unneccessary cheek-hollowing and lip-smacking. Evan shoves him but Connor and Zoe laugh. 

“My mom left money for dinner,” Evan remembers as they’re putting the cookies in the oven. “So any time you want to order pizza or- whatever. We can do that.”

“Jesus,” says Jared, who has already moved to inspect the stack of bills on the counter. “Did she think you were having a kegger? This is a lot of money.”

“Don’t be an asshole, Jared,” Zoe tells him. “Don’t mess with other people’s money.”

“Oh, it’s- I don’t know,” says Evan, suddenly self-conscious. He takes the money from Jared, folds it small in his hand. It’s too many bills and it makes him feel sad and small and obvious. “It’s- I guess my mom was- I don’t know. I don’t go to a lot of- I’ve never actually had a sleepover before.”

“What?” says Zoe, right at the same time that Connor says, “Me neither.”

“What?” says Zoe again, equally surprised, whirling to face her brother.

Connor shrugs, busies himself with excavating a particularly big chunk of chocolate from the cookie dough, shoulders tense like he’s self-conscious. “I just haven’t.”

“Well me neither,” Alana admits. She stoops and peers into the oven busily, the picture of unbothered efficiency. “I didn’t have a lot of friends in middle school. Believe it or not, most middle school girls weren’t that into Jeopardy or Helen Keller.”

“Helen Keller?” Jared repeats, bewildered and delighted in equal turn.

“I thought she was very interesting!” Alana says defensively, but she’s laughing a little bit despite herself. “I started teaching myself Braille one summer for fun.”

“For fun,” Jared echoes. 

“Middle school Alana was fucking cool,” says Connor. “I wish we’d been friends in middle school, Alana. Maybe you could’ve turned my life around and I wouldn’t be the sad stoner I am today. You could’ve been my- What was the name of the lady? The one who put her hand in the water?”

“Annie Sullivan,” Alana says at once, and then laughs at her own promptness. “She was mostly blind, too, did you know that? They don’t talk about that enough.”

“Who’s they?” Jared demands, bewildered. 

“I can’t believe none of you have had a slumber party before,” Zoe interjects, refusing to be distracted by Alana’s expansive knowledge of Helen Keller. “That’s unacceptable.”

“I was- shy,” says Evan, which isn’t really what he means. But it’s simpler to say shy than to explain that at the time most kids starting forming friend groups and doing cute, whimsical things like having slumber parties, Evan’s life was mostly being consumed by mental illness, as all the weird little quirks he’d had as a kid suddenly swelled and ballooned and grew like weeds, choking out every bit of his personality until all that was left was Anxiety and dried, dead leaves. 

“I’m troubled,” says Connor. “And Alana was too fucking cool.”

“Okay,” says Zoe, “well obviously we have to fix that.”

“Fix my- Fix my shyness?” Evan says blankly. “That’s- You’d get along with my therapist.”

“No, I mean-“ Zoe waves this away, undeterred. “To make up for that. We’re obviously going to have to have the most stereotypical, girly, quintessential middle school sleepover experience ever.”

The Most Stereotypical, Girly, Quintessential Middle School Sleepover Experience Ever, as it turns out, mostly involves snack foods and bland movies and prank phone calls. 

“It’s actually mostly pretty stupid,” Zoe reflects, nose very close to Jared’s knuckles as she paints his fingernails a pale peachy-pink. The sticker on the bottom had read Sunset Sherbet! which was primarily why Jared had selected it. “And probably kind of sexist, if you think about it too much.”

“Most things are sexist if you think about them too much,” Alana agrees. She is working busily on Jared’s other hand, globbing on something that seems to be mostly glue and silver sparkles. “And prank calls are very rude and invasive.”

“Yeah, I guess,” Zoe agrees sadly. She shoots a glare across the coffee table. “Stop twitching, Jared.”

“I have to scratch my face,” he whines. “I get dry skin in the winter.”

“Gross,” says Connor without looking up. 

He’s tied his hair back so it won’t fall into his face as he carefully paints Evan’s ragged, bitten, torn-up nails an astonishingly bright shade of yellow. The sticker on the bottom read Sunny Side Up, Buttercup! which Connor had laughed at for like five minutes before tossing to Evan. 

“Sorry my nails are so gross,” Evan mumbles for like the third time. “You really don’t have to-“

“Shut up,” Connor tells him nicely, eyes intent on his work. He nudges at Evan’s thumb, angles it better to swipe the toxic-yellow brush along the very edge of his thumbnail. He gets a little bit of paint on Evan’s cuticle, scowls, and carefully wipes it away with his own fingernail. “I like doing this. I’m good at it.”

“Can I paint your nails after this, Connor?” Zoe asks, concentrating furiously on painting a tiny aqua heart onto Jared’s pinky nail. “There’s a really nice purple.”

“No,” says Connor, not looking up. “Evan’s mom only has bright colors and I only do black or maybe very dark blue.”

“Boring,” Zoe complains. 

“Committed to an aesthetic,” Connor corrects her, but he smiles a little bit. Evan watches until he has to look away. 

He turns to where Zoe and Alana are applying a final coat to Jared’s pastel fingernails, fumbles for something to say. “Would you really prank call people?”

“Yeah, sometimes,” says Zoe. “It was pretty stupid. We’d always end up laughing halfway through and have to hang up. Why, you want to try one?”

Evan shakes his head so hard that his entire body shakes. Connor smudges the nail polish and makes a noise of displeasure. “Sorry, I- No. I definitely, definitely don’t. I’m-“

“Evan doesn’t like talking on the phone,” says Jared. “Are you guys almost done? Those Doritos are calling to me.”

“I’m done. But you have to wait for it to dry before you eat anything,” Alana tells him. “Otherwise you’ll get Dorito dust stuck in your nail polish.”

“Avant grade,” says Jared, although he definitely doesn’t pronounce it right. He pries his hand away from Alana, lifts it to the light and frowns at it. “This isn’t very good, Alana.”

“I told you I wasn’t good at painting nails.”

“Yeah, but I thought you were just being humble,” Jared complains. “You’re good at everything.”

“I’m not good at everything,” Alana disagrees, shaking her head and smiling a little bit. She screws the cap back on the glitter nail polish. “I’m bad at lots of things. I just choose not to ever do things I’m bad at. Why do you think I talked my way out of gym class?”

“Bullshit,” says Connor. He caps the yellow nail polish and fumbles around for another bottle. “Bullshit, you’re good at everything.”

“I’m really, really not,” Alana says, but she smiles like she’s pleased and swats Jared’s glittery hand away as he reaches for the Doritos. She scolds, “Not until it’s totally dry, Jared.”

“Feed one to me,” he pleads. She ignores him and starts painting her own nails with glitter. 

“We didn’t ever actually talk on the phone, Evan, if that helps,” Zoe offers, still working on Jared’s other hand. “We’d just call the boy we liked and breathe into the phone until he hung up. So there’s that. Should we call each other’s crushes? No talking involved, just some some heavy serial-killer breathing.”

Evan looks at Connor by mistake, but Connor is scowling down at Evan’s thumb. 

“Shit,” he says, reaching for a q-tip. “I fucked it up.”

There’s a green blob in the middle of the yellow. Evan lifts his hand to inspect it, but Connor grabs him by the wrist and yanks it back down. 

“Don’t look yet. I fucked it up. The nail polish is runny. It was supposed to be a leaf.”

“Oh,” says Evan, oddly charmed, filled up again with that sudden warmth. He smiles down at his hands, lets Connor angle his thumb and dab at the green smudge with a q-tip. “Okay. I thought it looked pretty good.”

“A leaf,” says Jared suspiciously. He cranes his neck, trying to look across the coffee table. Zoe yanks him back. 

“Stay still, idiot,” she scolds. “I’m trying to fix this smudge.”

Jared does as he’s told, but he keeps trying to give Evan these weird Significant Looks like his eyebrows are trying to ask a question. Evan doesn’t like what Jared’s eyebrows are implying. He pretends not to understand and focuses instead on the top of Connor’s head, the somewhat lumpy green leaf he’s painting onto Evan’s thumbnail. 

… 

They do not make any prank phonecalls. They order pizza and Jared quietly takes the menu out of Evan’s hand and offers to call, like it’s not even a big deal at all. Evan forgives him for his Significant Eyebrows after that. They order pizza and a liter of soda and garlic knots. They come to the disturbing and unfortunate realization that Zoe Murphy has spent the past sixteen years of her life referring to garlic knots as “garlic nuts.” Even more unfortunate, Jared spends the next two hours repeating the phrase “garlic nuts” at odd intervals with quiet contentment. 

After dinner, they push the coffee table up against the wall, spread out blankets on the rug, and find a shitty movie on tv. Zoe gets up and turns off the lights — “for ambiance,” she says — and they sit quietly for a while. Evan peeks down at his fingernails every once in a while, fluorescent yellow with a smudged green leaf painted on each thumbnail. Apparently he is a person who wears nail polish now. He has just learned this about himself, and it’s mostly been a good surprise. 

“I’m going to get the rest of the cookie dough,” Jared announces after a while, untangling himself from the pile of blankets on the couch. Evan scooches over to allow him to pass, accidentally knocking arms with Connor. 

Connor glances over at him, crosses his eyes grotesquely and grins, offers him the tub of Boy Scout popcorn. Evan takes a handful even though he’s still pretty full from the pizza. It’s weird to think that he exists to people, even when he is not in the room. Connor and Zoe walked out of the supermarket and they passed the table of Boy Scouts and Connor thought of Evan. That is- That’s something. 

“Yo,” says Jared, reappearing with the cookie dough and also Alana’s bottle of sparkling cider, which he thrusts into the air grandly. “Who brought the good shit? Are we having an Adult Party?”

“Oh,” says Evan, “no, that’s- it’s nonalcoholic.” 

“My dad made me bring it,” says Alana, making an embarrassed face. “It was just sitting around.”

“Of course you just have celebratory sparkling cider sitting around your house,” Jared laughs. He flops down on the floor, cracks open the tub of cookie dough and offers around a fistful of spoons. Evan shakes his head, but Connor takes one. “Just waiting for the next time Alana Beck achieves something extraordinary! How many bottles do you go through in a month, with all the fucking shit you’re accomplishing?”

He lifts the bottle in the air again, like he’s about to make a grand toast, but Alana doesn’t laugh. She sits up, pulls a blanket around her shoulders like she’s cold or something. 

“It’s actually- If you must know,” she says snappily, “my dads bought it so we could celebrate when we reached our fundraising goal at The Jared Project walkathon. Only when I came home from the walkathon I locked myself in my room and cried and wouldn’t tell them why. So we never drank the sparkling cider and my dad said it would go flat if we didn’t drink it soon, so. So I brought it here and I know it’s dumb and embarrassing, okay?”

It goes quiet in the worst kind of way, for a really long time. Jared puts the bottle back down. He lodges his spoon in the cookie dough and awkwardly crawls over to where Alana is sitting primly with her blanket wrapped around herself, very stiff. He reaches out awkwardly, seems to catch himself halfway through, and finally settles for touching her briefly on the shoulder. 

“I’m sorry,” he says. “I shouldn’t’ve- I was being an asshole. Sparkling cider is really good. No joke. Sparkling apple cider is my jam.”

“It’s grape,” says Alana forlornly. 

“I love grape,” Jared says at once. “It’s- Look, I’m really sorry,  dude. For- Not just for the cider.”

“It’s okay,” says Alana finally. “It’s- I didn’t mean to bring it up.”

“Actually,” says Jared, “I think maybe we should- I think it’s something we need to talk about? Maybe?” He sits back on his heels, turns and looks at the rest of them, face a little bit queasy but entirely unironic. “I know I said I was sorry. But I think we- I think we need to- I don’t know.”

“Mourn it?” Zoe offers quietly. 

“Mourn it,” Jared repeats. “Yeah, I guess. Because it was-“

“I owe you two an apology, probably,” Alana interrupts, turning on her knees to look at Zoe and then at Connor. Connor’s arm, knocking against Evan’s, goes stiff. “Because even though my intentions were good, I tried to- I don’t know, I took something that was really, really personal to you guys and I made it a- I don’t know. A spectacle. An Alana Beck Project.”

“I don’t know,” says Zoe reflectively, voice quiet and tilting-upward. “It was- It was shitty in the end, yeah, but it was- It could’ve been something good, y’know? I think we needed something even if it wasn’t- Even if it wasn’t that.”

“I hated it,” says Connor frankly, voice rough, “but that’s- I hate most things.”

“I- I wanted it to be,” Alana says slowly, voice a little higher than usual, “something important. I wanted to-“

“Be important,” says Jared quietly. “Yeah.”

“Yeah,” says Alana, mostly a whisper. “Yeah. And I guess when it ended, I just felt like- Like you guys were lying to me about so many things, maybe you were just pretending to be my friends?”

Another instant of shocked quiet, and then Evan says, startled, “No!” 

“No,” Jared says, just as emphatically. He does another aborted elbow-touch. “No, that’s not-“

“Because I know what I’m like,” Alana hurries on. “I know I’m- I can be a bit- much.”

“Bullshit,” says Connor. “You’re just the right amount.”

“Just the right amount,” Zoe echoes fervently. She crawls across the floor, too, and gives Alana a hug. “And the club was- Even if it was- bad, in the end, I think it’s okay to be sorry that it’s gone. To-”

“Mourn it,” Evan says accidentally, the words heavy and round in his mouth like marbles. A very, very, very long time ago he cried on his mom’s shoulder on this same couch, over a club he hadn’t meant to start, a best friend he wanted so badly, a lie he hadn’t meant to believe in.

“RIP, The Jared Project,” Connor says dryly. He lifts the bucket of popcorn in the air. “My should-be namesake.”

“We didn’t want to call unwanted attention to you,” Alana explains. 

“It’s just a bad mouth-feel.” 

“That’s what you get for caring about things,” says Jared glumly. He lifts the bottle of sparkling cider again, tilts it like he’s going to fill a cup. “Pour one out, I guess.”

“That’s a good idea,” Zoe says abruptly. She rises up on her knees, snatches the bottle away from Jared. “Let’s pour one out.”

“What?” says Jared.

“Pour one out,” Zoe says again. 

“I mean,” says Evan, “it’s just that this is a pretty new rug, so-“

“Outside, obviously.” Zoe climbs to her feet, wraps a comforter around her like a cape, and beckons with the bottle of cider. “C’mon. We’ll go- We’ll give this fucked up club a proper send-off. This movie sucks anyway.”

They follow her out into the tiny backyard, the grass damp and shockingly cold under Evan’s bare feet. There’s a motion-activated light over the backdoor, but the bulb died a while ago and they’ve neglected to replace it, so it’s dark and unexpectedly freezing. It’s November, somehow. Time has kept going, somehow. Connor bumps up against him as they walk, barefoot, wrapped in several layers of sweatshirt and still gangling. 

“Someone help open this,” says Zoe, once they’ve gathered in a circle in the middle of the yard. 

She hands it to Connor and he fumbles for a moment, then undoes the cork. There’s a pop and a brief explosion of white, grape-scented foam. They all yelp except for Connor who rolls his eyes, even though he’s smiling a little, and hands the bottle back to Zoe. 

Zoe starts to raise the bottle, thinks better of it, and hands it over to Alana. “You do it.”

Alana looks startled for a second, but then her love for attention and Ceremony catches up with her and she takes the bottle, holds it aloft. 

“To The Jared Project,” she says. “I think our intentions were mostly good.”

“That’s about the best that can be said,” Zoe agrees, laughing a little bit. “To The Jared Project.”

“To The Jared Project,” they all mumble, even Connor, although he makes a face immediately afterward and mouths at Evan, “Bad mouth feel.”

They stand there then, silent, a little bit embarrassed by the weird ceremony of them all standing in this freezing cold backyard, barefoot, wrapped in blankets, bearing a bottle of sparkling grape juice. 

“Pour one out,” Jared urges Alana. When she just looks at him blankly, he sighs and takes the bottle from her, turns it on its side, and lets it pour onto the grass. 

“Kinda wasteful,” says Evan after a minute, watching the cider foam against the grass. 

“It’s symbolic,” Jared says crossly, but he stops pouring and peers into the mouth of the bottle, as if trying to determine how much is left. It’s evidently too dark to see, but he puts the bottle to his mouth and takes a big swig, hands it to Connor. 

“I don’t want your mouth germs,” Connor says. He passes it to Evan. 

The bottle is heavier than Evan expected and he just holds it for a minute, uncertain. His nails are bright yellow, even in the total darkness, and before today he never thought he was the kind of person who could paint his nails. And if he is capable of that kind of change then maybe he won’t be This Way forever. And that’s a new thought. That’s a thought he’s never been able to hold onto before, not without it sifting through his fingers like sand. 

He lifts the bottle to his mouth. He has to tilt his head wayyy back but then he gets a rushing mouthful of bubbly, too-sweet grape juice and he almost can’t swallow because he’s laughing at the ridiculousness of this all — of them. 

“Wait, I changed my mind,” Connor says once Evan has swallowed, reaching for the bottle. He takes a cautious sip, tilting his head back, throat working as he swallows. 

“What, so you can’t tolerate my mouth germs, but Evan’s mouth germs are okay?” Jared demands, offended or maybe just pretending to be offended. 

Connor swipes at his mouth, grins at Evan in the dark, hands the bottle to Zoe. “Yep.”

Evan grins back and Zoe takes a big gulp of cider, whoops cheerily, and hands the bottle over to Alana. 

“You get all our backwash, Alana, sorry.”

“It’s alright,” Alana decides. “I brought my toothbrush. I’ll just brush twice before bed.”

“Very responsible,” says Jared. 

Evan looks around at them all, at this circle standing in the dark, and with his feet in the wet grass so cold they are starting to burn, he is suddenly and newly confident that this is Real. He is Real. And it’s such a relief, to have his feet so planted, to finally lose that Swimming Pool Feeling, that he laughs out loud. And then they’re all laughing. 

It’s- Evan can barely swallow, he is so suddenly full. 

“Is your mom home?” Connor asks as they start back towards the house, once the cold gets to be too much to bear and the cider has been finished. “Is she going to think we’re in a cult?”

“No,” says Evan, “it’s just us. She won’t get back ’til late.” 

“Oh,” says Connor. He pauses for a second, glances up at the house. “I thought I saw-“

Evan stops, too, glances up. It’s just the boring, ugly back of the house. The light over the door that doesn’t work and the dark, blank-faced window of his bedroom. All the lights are off. 

“Never mind,” says Connor. He reaches over and grabs Evan’s hand and Evan grabs back. They follow Alana, Zoe, and Jared into the house. 

Things are quieter and warmer and better after that. They take turns sitting on the lip of the bathtub, soaking their frozen, muddied feet in the water. Then Evan finds towels and Zoe finds another shitty movie on tv and Jared and Alana disappear into the kitchen to bake another batch of cookies. Everyone is giggly and a little bit hysterical.

Sometime past midnight Zoe falls asleep on the couch and she snores a little bit, but in the cutest possible way, so they all feel too bad to wake her up. Connor tugs a comforter over her, and the rest of them spread out blankets and sleeping bags on the floor. Alana goes to brush her teeth, even as Jared tells her she’s violating the sacred rules of slumber parties, and Evan goes upstairs to retrieve a couple extra pillows from his bedroom, and everything is dark and quiet and he doesn’t even think to look in the closet. It’s the least Haunted he’s felt in weeks. 

Jared puts on another movie, but within minutes they’re all drifting off. The next time Evan wakes up it’s to the end-credits scrolling down the screen as peppy pop music plays in the background. He gets up, switches off the tv, and slides back into his sleeping bag. It’s darker without the tv on, just the faintly green light of the digital clock on the cable box. When he turns on his side, he’s surprised to find eyes looking back at him. 

“Hi,” he whispers.

“Hey,” Connor whispers back. 

“Are you- Did I wake you up?”

“No,” says Connor. “You’re good.”

“Okay,” says Evan. He is tired and weirdly comfortable and it’s easier to look Connor in the face when it’s dark. “Hey- thanks for- my nails. I really like it.”

“Yeah,” says Connor. “Sorry I fucked up the leaves.”

“I like them.”

I like you, maybe, Evan thinks. He wants to bite his nails but he doesn’t want to mess up the paint. He fiddles with the zipper on his sleeping bag. 

“Yeah?” says Connor. 

“Yeah.”

“Okay.”

“Okay.”

Connor crosses his eyes, makes a weird stretched-out and grotesque face. Evan laughs, then stuffs a fist in his mouth to muffle the noise. He tries to cross his eyes back and doesn’t quite succeed. Connor lets out this wonderful, crackly, weirdly high-pitched laugh. The time on the clock changes, the green light shifts over his face, and Evan can’t stop looking. 

The next time he wakes up, it’s to a different pair of eyes. The same eyes, maybe, almost. Not quite. Inches from his face. Evan jolts back despite himself, scrambling upright, shattering into consciousness so quickly it’s a wonder he doesn’t cut himself.

“Hey, dude,” says The Ghost of Connor Murphy, popping the word in his mouth like a piece of gum — duuu-duh. “Guess what?”

He holds something up, triumphant, childish, and Evan has to squint for a second, eyes readjusting in the dark, before he can make out a small rubber ball. The green light of the cable box filters through The Ghost of Connor Murphy slightly, casting him green and ghastly.

“You found it,” he says blearily, heart rate slowing. “Good. Where was it?”

The Ghost of Connor Murphy opens his mouth like he’s going to answer, stops, cocks his head, closes his mouth. “I can’t remember,” he says finally. “It doesn’t matter. Have I mentioned you sleep like a corpse?”

“Yeah,” says Evan. He lays back down, feet sliding back into the warm spot at the bottom of his sleeping bag. “Can you- Let’s not do this tonight, okay? I think I’m good. I think I’m- doing better.”

“I was here first,” says The Ghost of Connor Murphy.

“What?”

“Before- him,” says The Ghost of Connor Murphy, and the green light filters through his hand, through the finger he’s flung at Connor in accusation. “He’s just a- He’s not me. I was- I’m me.”

“Okay,” says Evan. “I believe you. Can we- I don’t want to wake anybody up.”

“You don’t really.”

“What?”

“Believe in me. You don’t believe in me,” says The Ghost of Connor Murphy. He’s not bouncing the ball, just holding it in his hand, grip going tight and loose, knuckles going white and whiter. “Do you?”

“Not- I guess not really,” Evan says finally. “Sorry. It’s- no offense. I think you’re kind of, just- in my head?”

“It doesn’t matter,” The Ghost of Connor Murphy tells him. He rolls the Superball between his palms. “It doesn’t matter if I’m in your head. Just ‘cause it’s happening in your head doesn’t mean you can control it, remember?”

“You’re being weird,” Evan tells him. 

“I am weird,” The Ghost of Connor Murphy says. “I’m a Ghost.”

“Okay,” says Evan again. “I’m going to- I’m going to bed. Go back to- my closet or wherever.”

“That’s not where I go.” 

“Okay. Can you just-“

“I don’t think I want to be here anymore,” says The Ghost of Connor Murphy. “I think I want to go now.” 

“Okay,” says Evan. He drops his head back onto the pillow, starts to close his eyes, only to open them again as a shadow looms over him, spindly and occult and tinted-green. “What are you-“

“I told you it wasn’t forever,” says The Ghost of Connor Murphy. “You should listen to me more, dude.”

“What?” says Evan, and then he yelps because Connor’s thrown the SuperBall right at his face, and then he yelps again because it never hits him. 

Time goes funny. 

Chapter Text

And then it’s morning and Connor is gone. The light filters through the blinds and stripes Evan’s vision, bright and brighter. He has to blink, lift a hand to his face to block out the light. His back aches from a night spent on the floor, except when he sits up he is in his bed, and when he lowers his hand, his fingernails are ragged, bitten to the quick, clean. 

No yellow paint, no blotchy green leaves on the thumbs. 

Evan’s brain has done a lot of repressing, a lot of burying painful Shit in packing peanuts and sliding them to the back of his brain, and he mostly doesn’t remember the tree — the climbing, the falling, the hitting the ground. But in that moment, he swears he can remember the sound his arm made when it hit the ground, just an instant before the rest of his body followed. A crisp, clean crack, almost musical in its painfulness. It’s the only thing he can hear — that hollow windchime crack — as he sits up in bed in his quiet, empty bedroom. He can feel the break in his arm, in his throat, right down to the tips of his clean, unpainted fingernails. 

He realizes he is cradling his arm to his chest and lets it fall to his side. In the corner, paper-mache Jupiter hangs crookedly, dented in the middle. Evan stares at it, something thrumming like a bass line in his throat. 

He bolts for the stairs. 

The living room is dark and empty and there’s a square of dust under the couch, like it hasn’t been moved in months. He swipes his finger through it, then sits back on his heels and stares blankly at his finger, capped in dust. The digital clock flicks, changes numbers. He has hit the ground so hard that the impact is still reverberating through his bones, through the crack in his arm, through the brittle tube of his throat. 

There’s a noise from the kitchen. His mom calls, “Evan?”

He can’t make his mouth open. The bones of his jaw have been wired shut, maybe. He stands up, wipes the dust on his pajama pants, and quietly ascends the stairs. 

He goes back into his room, closes the door, retrieves his computer from his backpack, moves to sit on the edge of his bed and tap a finger against the spacebar while he waits for the screen to load, but there’s something hollow and performative about it all. It feels like walking into a surprise party that you were warned about, like pretending to be afraid when a child yells BOO at you. He already knows what he is going to see. He has already moved past shock into something dreadful and heavy and hanging. 

Facebook is already open on his browser. His screen is covered in notifications, but he ignores them, clicks over to his home page. And there it is:

Dear Connor Project Community, 

Connor’s note is a message to all of us. Share with as many people as you can. Post everywhere! If you’ve ever felt alone like Connor, please consider making a donation to the Connor Murphy Memorial Orchard. No amount is too small. 

“Embezzle that shit,” says Connor’s voice. 

The Something hanging from Evan’s windpipe lurches, twitches, goes slack. He turns, but it’s not Connor. It’s only an approximation, a smudge, something loose and off-kilter about the ankles and the elbows, like he’s wearing himself inside-out. 

“You’re dead again,” Evan whispers. 

“I’ve been dead the whole time.”

“But you were-“

“Dead,” says The Ghost of Connor Murphy. He leans over, shuts the laptop with a click. “I’m dead. Or- He’s dead, I guess. If that’s what you care about.”

“No,” says Evan. “That’s not-“

He can still feel the freezing cold grass under his feet and there’s still a dull pain between his shoulder-blades from falling asleep on the floor next to Connor and he has all their mouth germs in his mouth, as familiar as the feel of his own teeth, and- And it was real. It was real. It was-

“A sad invention,” says The Ghost of Connor Murphy, rolling his Superball between his palms. “Wasn’t that what you called it?”

Evan moves his computer from his lap to the bed carefully, no feeling in his hands. The floor is tilting sideways under him, threatening to upend entirely. He doesn’t want the laptop to fall. He doesn’t want to fall. He fumbles for the footboard, for something to grip, to stop him from tilting, too. There are words in his mouth, chalky and dry as pills, and he’s choking on them. 

“I didn’t- I didn’t-“

“You did, though.”

“No, I-“ 

He accidentally looks The Ghost of Connor Murphy in the face, and both of them are startled by it, somehow. The Ghost of Connor Murphy blinks, which doesn’t seem like a very Ghostly thing to do, and Evan is struck again by how smudged and incomplete and insufficient he is. He speaks by mistake, just a hollow whisper.

“I didn’t want him to be dead.”

The Ghost of Connor Murphy’s face flickers, just for a second, and goes darker. He hurls the Superball at the wall, catches it with a snap of rubber against palm. 

“Me,” he says quietly. “It’s- You mean me. I’m- He’s me-“

“I thought you said-“ Evan starts, but then there’s a knock on the door.

“Evan, honey?” Heidi calls tentatively. “You up, baby?”

“Yeah,” says The Ghost of Connor Murphy, “I’m not him because he’s not real, asshole. He’s just-”

“But he-“ 

Evan wants to tug up the leg of his pajama pants, press his finger against the bruise on his shin. Surely there must be a bruise, from all the kicking. He wants to run downstairs and stand in the entrance to the kitchen, knock his knuckles against the top of the doorframe. Surely there must be a mark, some kind of mark, to prove Connor was there and alive and taller than you expected — taller when he wasn’t hunching his shoulders — and stupidly boyish. Surely if Evan knocked there, there would be an echo of knuckles against the top of the door. The weird, greenish cast of his face in the light from the cable box. 

“There’s nothing there,” says The Ghost of Connor Murphy. “I’m dead.”

“Evan? Can I come in?”

Evan is laying on the ground, arm beneath him, trying to determine where the pain is coming from. His entire body hurts and he can’t breathe and maybe he has a head injury. He’s afraid to move because what if neck is broken? The wire holding all his bones together has snapped, and if he moves they will all dissemble with a xylophonic crash. 

“Yeah,” he says quietly. “You can- Yeah, come in.”

Heidi’s in sweatpants and she’s carrying the chunky mug with the porcupine on it, a determined cheerfulness to the lift of her chin. She puts the mug down on Evan’s bedside table, hand resting briefly on the wooden box where he keeps his meds. She does not see the dead boy standing at the foot of the bed. 

“Good morning,” she says, puts a hand to his forehead like she’s feeling for a fever. “I thought I heard you moving around up here. Were you on the phone or something? I heard voices.”

Her hands are warm, probably from carrying the mug of tea, and they smell like the lotion she keeps in her glove compartment. Evan has to draw away, disguise his flinch as a shake of his head. He has taken a bad fall. He might have a neck injury. He shouldn’t be touched. 

“No,” he says. “I was- I was watching a video on my- I can’t find my headphones.”

“Oh,” she says, then gives an awkward little laugh. “Okay. Is it okay if I sit?”

“Oh- Yeah,” says Evan, slow to understand. 

His brain feels extremely distant from his body, from the vague shake of his hands and the ache of his back and the insistent pulse under his jaw. He scoots over, makes room for her to sit down beside him. The Ghost of Connor Murphy moves away from the bed, crossing in front of the bureau to tap a finger against Evan’s paper-mache solar system. He does not cast a reflection when he passes the mirror. He’s barely human at all, really. Barely Connor. 

“Fuck you,” says The Ghost of Connor Murphy, setting Saturn spinning. “You don’t even know me. You don’t even know what he was- what I was like.”

“How you feeling?” Evan’s mom asks cautiously. She nudges her knee against his in a friendly way. “The tea’s for you. I thought you might need- I don’t know, a little cheering up.”

“Thank you,” says Evan. 

“It’s pretty fuckin’ ironic coming from you, actually,” The Ghost of Connor Murphy continues, angrier, “considering you’re a fucking- At least I’m like something. You’re not anything. You’re just- It’s just this, all the way through-“

He gestures vaguely at Evan’s entire person. He shrinks back. His mom notices, touches him gently on the knee. 

“Evan?”

“Sorry,” he says quickly. “Sorry, I’m- I’m feeling- okay.”

“Okay?” she repeats, unconvinced. “Okay, well- I think we’re both going to stay home today, okay? No school, no work. I think we deserve that.”

He nods, does not flinch at the thump-snap of the Superball. Rubs at the sore spot on his back. It aches improbably, despite all evidence to the contrary. 

“She thinks you’re going to kill yourself if she leaves you alone,” says The Ghost of Connor Murphy. Thump-snap. Thump-snap

“And you- Evan?” She taps at his knee until he lifts his face and meets her eyes. She’s very serious. It’s hard to look at her. “You have to keep telling me when you’re feeling bad, okay? I mean it. We both need to do better about talking about things. I can’t- No more keeping secrets, okay? I can take it. I can take the bad stuff.”

“You’re nothing but bad stuff” says The Ghost of Connor Murphy. Thump-snap. “You don’t have anything else. You’re ruining her life.”

“I know,” Evan says quietly. He drops his eyes away from her face, from the parenthetical lines around her mouth and the tired sag of her eyelids. Thump-snap. 

“Okay,” she says, and still she hesitates. “Should we- I’m going to call Dr. Sherman this afternoon, okay? I think we should- I think we should try going back on medication, maybe. Or at least- I don’t know.“

“Yeah,” says The Ghost of Connor Murphy. “Yeah, and then you’ll be fixed, right? And then everything will be just great.”

“Okay,” says Evan. “That’s- Fine. Yeah.”

She still won’t leave. She touches him on the knee again. “I’m sorry, baby. I know it felt like- like maybe things were getting better for a little while. And I’m- I’m proud of you, okay? But I should’ve- I should’ve been paying more attention. I should’ve realized that something was-“

“Wrong,” says The Ghost of Connor Murphy. Thump-snap. “Fake. False. Bullshit. Pathetic. Sad. Made up. Too good to last.”

“I’m going to do better,” she says firmly. “And we’re going to talk to Dr. Sherman and we’re going to- We’re going to figure this out, okay? We always do.”

“Do you think there’s anything to actually figure out?” The Ghost of Connor Murphy asks, head cocked like he’s thinking. “Do you think it’s, just- like a ball of yarn. It’s just yarn, all the way to the middle. If you get rid of the mental illness, what else do you have?”

“Okay,” says Evan. “I think I want to just- I’m kind of tired.”

“Oh,” she says, taking a minute to understand what he’s hinting at. And then she breathes out like she’s disappointed or maybe she’s relieved. He wonders how she can even stand to sit in here, how she can breathe at all with the Ghost standing in the corner turning everything clammy and cold and damp. “That’s okay, baby. We’ll- I’ll be home, okay? We can hang out later.”

“Yeah,” he says. “Thanks for the- for the tea.”

“Of course,” she says. 

She stands, and for a second he almost wants to reach out and grab her hand and ask her to stay. Ask her not to leave him alone with a Ghost and a bunch of dented paper-mache planets, a bunch of pills. But he can’t make himself move. He’s suffered a bad fall. He might have a neck injury. He can’t determine the source of the pain and he can’t move his arms. 

“I’m not going to hurt you,” says The Ghost of Connor Murphy, like he’s offended. “I won’t make you do anything you don’t already want to do.”

“I’m really glad we talked last night,” Heidi says abruptly, turning back at the door and smiling in a horrible happy-sad way that makes Evan think of Mrs. Murphy, so fucking desperate for any bit of her son that he allowed. “I think that we- we needed it. We’re going to do more of that, okay? I’m going to- I’ll be around more.”

“Okay,” says Evan. “I’m- Me, too.”

She means it, probably. He can remember sitting on the couch and crying on her shoulder, but he can also remember falling asleep on the living room floor and climbing a tree and dying on a park bench and drinking sparkling cider in the backyard, and it’s so much harder to remember which of those moments were Real, suddenly. All he can focus on in the tired sag of her shoulders, the youth of her face and the sadness of her mouth. And he can’t ask her to stay. 

“Come down later and we can watch House Hunters,” she says, still hesitating. “I’ll skip class tonight and we can eat actual human food for dinner.”

She gives him a goofy smile. He smiles back, lets his eyes drop back to the duvet. He can’t look at his mom and he can’t look at the Not Connor standing in the corner, off-kilter and Wrong and Dead. 

“I’ve-” says The Ghost of Connor Murphy, coldly furious, “been- dead-“

“Yeah,” Evan says. “That sounds- yeah, good. I’ll- I’ll come down later.”

“Okay,” she says. “Good.”

She leaves and Evan keeps sitting there, bewildered. It’s hard to move. It’s like that paradox about how there’s an infinity of space between every inch on a ruler, and so movement should technically be impossible. The more he thinks about it, the less anything makes sense, the less movement seems possible. 

Around him, everything is fizzing vaguely. He’s a dead spot on the middle of a television, and everything around him is static. He can’t quite determine where the pain is coming from. His back hurts from sleeping on the floor. His shin hurts from all the kicking. His back hurts from sitting hunched in a bathroom. His arm hurts because he fell from a tree. He can’t remember which of those moments really happened. He can’t determine the source of the pain. 

“Take your meds, dude,” says The Ghost of Connor Murphy. He bounces the Superball against the floor with one hand, catches it with the other. “You’re freaking out.”

Evan mutely does what he’s told. He doesn’t have his customary water bottle next to the bed — he stopped needing it because he stopped taking his meds because he thought he was Fixed because it turns out he’s an even better liar than he thought — so he has scramble over to the bathroom with his Panic Pill tucked under his tongue to drink right from the faucet. 

When he straightens up, water dripping from his mouth, he’s startled by his own face in the mirror. His eyes are big and terrified and his mouth is wet and hanging slightly open and he does not know this face at all. He doesn’t like to look at it. He wipes his mouth, turns away, and yelps in surprise when he finds himself face to face with The Ghost of Connor Murphy. 

“Jesus,” says The Ghost of Connor Murphy. “Calm down.”

“You scared me,” Evan mumbles, face twitching tight and eyes squinting. He shoulders past the Ghost and crosses the hallway back to his bedroom, shutting the door behind him. Somehow, The Ghost of Connor Murphy is already sitting on the windowsill when he flicks the light on. 

“I’m a Ghost,” he points out. “I’m supposed to be scary, I think.”

“You think,” Evan echoes dully. He sits back down on the bed, pulls his laptop onto his knees and pulls up Facebook again, out of some inexplicable instinct, refreshes the page.  

He has fifteen new Facebook messages, 100 likes and 23 shares. 

Dear Connor Project Community, 

Connor’s note is a message to all of us. Share with as many people as you can. Post everywhere! If you’ve ever felt alone like Connor, please consider making a donation to the Connor Murphy Memorial Orchard. No amount is too small. 

He closes the window, eyes squinting shut and face going tight, then loose, then tight. He tries to breathe through the twitches, hands shaking slightly against his keyboard. 

“I’m not always clear on the rules,” The Ghost of Connor Murphy admits. “I didn’t, like, get a rule book.”

“Well neither did I,” Evan snaps once his face finally stops twitching. He is out of breath and possibly fizzling away into nothing. He watches his fingers shiver against the mousepad. Without his  permission, his hands refresh the Facebook page again. 3 new likes. 1 share. 

Dear Connor Project Community, 

Connor’s note is a message to all of us. Share with as many people as you can. Post everywhere! If you’ve ever felt alone like Connor, please consider making a donation to the Connor Murphy Memorial Orchard. No amount is too small. 

“I warned you,” says The Ghost of Connor Murphy. “I told you it was a hypothetical.”

“You did not-“

“It’s not my fault you keep believing your own bullshit,” says The Ghost of Connor Murphy, growing defensive. “I told you all along they weren’t-“

“You didn’t tell me anything,” Evan snaps. The Panic Pill doesn’t seem to have kicked in yet because all his emotions are still sharp and barbed and inexplicable. He can barely think, with everything fizzing like this. “They were- You told me- I thought-“

“What?” The Ghost of Connor Murphy demands. “What, you thought it’d just go on forever? You’d just- I’m dead, but you get to just start over? You get to make things better?”

Evan’s face goes tight. He has to ride out the twitches, force his eyes back open like willing yourself awake from a bad dream. He looks down at his laptop because he cannot look at this Off-Kilter Connor anymore, not without thinking about his knuckles knocking the top of the doorframe, not without thinking about him dying on a park bench by himself. He knots his fingers together, tugs until his knuckles crack, refreshes the Facebook page. 1 new like. 3 new comments. 

Dear Connor Project Community, 

Connor’s note is a message to all of us. Share with as many people as you can. Post everywhere! If you’ve ever felt alone like Connor, please consider making a donation to the Connor Murphy Memorial Orchard. No amount is too small. 

“I don’t know,” he says finally, helplessly. He can’t bring himself to look up. “You said-“

“I said it wasn’t real,” says The Ghost of Connor Murphy. “I told you it would end like this.”

“I didn’t-“

“The funny thing is,” he continues, louder, meaner, “is that you got a second chance? And you still- You still fucked it up, dude. You don’t change. You just- You just keep scabbing and picking and scabbing again.”

“I don’t get why- What was I supposed to- to do better?” Evan begs, finally tearing his eyes from the screen. “I tried- I-“

The Ghost of Connor Murphy looks at him without sympathy. He’s in constant motion, from the jitter of his hands around the Superball to the crooked way his mouth moves when he speaks, higher on one side, and he doesn’t smell like anything. Not like pot or laundry detergent or rot. Not like a boy, not like a corpse. Despite that, he is so horribly and undeniably Dead that Evan has to look away. There is something horrible and heavy swinging from his windpipe, solid and dead and undeniable. He doesn’t want to look. 

“I’ll do better,” he whispers finally. “I’ll- Please.”

The Ghost of Connor Murphy doesn’t answer. Evan can’t bear to look at him, and so he stares back down at his laptop screen. 

He wants to press refresh again, just in case. Maybe the post will have been deleted and instead of his suicide note being broadcasted across Facebook, there will just be some dumb recipe videos and maybe a stupid selfie that Jared took last night in the dark backyard. The flash of the camera left an odd glare across Jared and Alana’s glasses, and so they sort of looked like they were zapping everybody with their heat vision. Jared had laughed at it and immediately posted it to all forms of social media. Evan’s shoulders nearly buckle under the weight of how badly he wants it. That stupid fucking picture. 

“That’s the whole point,” The Ghost of Connor Murphy says eventually, quieter and less angry than before. “You’re not- You don’t get better. You stay the same. This is how you’re going to be forever."

He presses refresh again by mistake, somehow, and there are his own words again: Turns out this wasn’t an amazing day after all. This isn’t going to be an amazing week or an amazing year because why would it be?

And everything is the same as it’s always been. Those words. That feeling. When he clicks over to Connor’s Facebook page, it’s still the same. Hasn’t been updated in several years. Outdated, low-quality profile picture. Hundreds of messages written on his wall from names that Evan doesn’t know. 

“How do I- I can’t- How do I fix it? How do I-“

“You don’t,” says The Ghost of Connor Murphy, distracted. He’s fumbling through the papers on Evan’s desk with one hand, rolling the Superball between the ghost-white fingers of his other. “It doesn’t work like that, dude.”

“Then, how- How does it work?” 

“I don’t-“ The Ghost pauses, Superball stilling in his hands. Then he resumes his work. “It doesn’t matter. It’s- It wasn’t real. It doesn’t work like that.”

“You were- You were nice to me,” Evan pleads finally, “some of the time. You- You calmed me down one time when I was- You got me water for my pills. I don’t-“

“Did I?” He asks vaguely, still shuffling. 

“You don’t remember-“

“I don’t know,” says The Ghost of Connor Murphy. He keeps shuffling around, but there’s something self-conscious about the motion now. “I’m not the- I’m not here all the time. I have a hard time keeping track if I’m-“

“So maybe you could-“ Evan endeavors. “Maybe you could remember how to-“

“It wasn’t real,” The Ghost of Connor Murphy snaps, whirling on him. He knocks a sheaf of papers off of the desk. “It wasn’t real. Stop asking.”

The words get stuck in Evan’s throat. The pill is starting to kick in, finally, and it coats everything in a layer of safe dullness. It still hurts, but he can breathe through it mostly. He nods, finally, and slides off the bed to collect the fallen papers. The Ghost of Connor Murphy kneels down, too, and helps him collect the papers. 

“I just-” Evan says quietly, watching his hands move mechanically, “I don’t know what I’m supposed to- What I’m supposed to do now.”

“I think you do,” says The Ghost of Connor Murphy. 

Evan accidentally looks up and meets the Ghost’s eyes, which are hardly eyes at all, really. Neither of them says anything for a moment. His arm aches, like maybe it’s anticipating a fall. He swallows with effort. 

“I’m going back to bed,” he says finally. 

“I’ll be here when you wake up,” The Ghost of Connor Murphy tells him. It is not comforting. In fact, it is a threat, more than anything else. 

Chapter Text

There’s a moment of confusion when he first wakes up, a moment where he might be on his living room floor and a moment where he might be on the ground with his arm beneath him and a moment where he might be dying on a park bench by himself. But then he sits up and he is in his bedroom, and somehow that’s the worst of all. 

The Ghost of Connor Murphy is sitting on the windowsill and he looks up briefly, flashes Evan a deeply ironic peace sign, and then goes back to the Very Important task of ripping pieces of paper out of a spiral notebook, sheet by agonizing sheet. 

“Do you- Do you have to do that?” Evan asks, wincing at the shhhht of each perforated page. 

“Yeah,” says The Ghost of Connor Murphy. “I’m a force of malevolent chaos and you were asleep. I got bored.” 

Evan gets out of bed. His entire body aches like he slept on the floor or fell from a great height or like maybe he’s coming down with the flu. He can’t tell if the ache is real, or if it’s just another imagined symptom of his fucked up brain. It’s gotten increasingly harder to tell what’s real and what isn’t. 

“Are you gonna do it?” The Ghost of Connor Murphy asks, tearing out another sheet of paper. 

“Do what?” Evan asks wearily. He goes and finds a pair of socks, puts them on slowly. His feet are cold. He feels like he is a hundred years old. 

“You know what,” says The Ghost of Connor Murphy. He rips another sheet, lets it flutter to the ground. 

“No,” says Evan, “I don’t. I’m going to go watch House Hunters with my mom.”

… 

His mom makes more tea. Evan thinks she doesn’t really know what to do with him, with this sinking plunging bone-deep sadness that’s hanging off him like gravity. Normally, she pretends it isn’t there and goes briskly about her business, pointedly cheerful. Now that she can’t ignore it, she is tentative and unsure. She keeps making him tea. 

Evan drinks it obediently. He rests his head on her shoulder and it’s a little bit comforting for both of them. He warms his hands on the hot ceramic of the mug and thinks that this is probably reality. This is probably real, even if he wishes it wasn’t. 

“Original hardwood floors,” says The Ghost of Connor Murphy approvingly. “Nice.”

“This one’s my favorite,” Evan’s mom says. “But I bet they pick the one with the ugly fireplace.”

Evan nods. He doesn’t feel up to words right now, just achey and still a little bit drowsy from the meds and Not Quite Real. He keeps his eyes fixed on the screen, determinedly ignoring The Ghost of Connor Murphy who is sitting cross-legged on the ottoman. 

“It doesn’t work like that,” says The Ghost of Connor Murphy. “I won’t just go away. Not ’till you finish this shit.”

Evan doesn’t know what this means. He drinks his tea and closes his eyes, forehead pressed against his mom’s bony shoulder. 

“I don’t know,” says The Ghost of Connor Murphy. “I think you know what I mean.”

“Shit,” says Heidi when the stupid generic couple inevitably picks the house with the ugly fireplace. “Told you.”

“You told me,” Evan agrees. 

“Rich people have terrible taste.”

He nods against her shoulder. She rubs his arm gently. 

“Doing okay?”

She wants him to be honest, he reminds himself. She wants him to tell her when he’s feeling bad. When he’s feeling-

“It’s gotta get old,” says The Ghost of Connor Murphy. He gestures vaguely at Evan. “This whole thing. Don’t you think she’s tired? At some point, she’s gotta realize you’re just moving in circles.”

“Not- not amazing,” says Evan honestly. He squints his eyes shut, doesn’t listen to the Ghost in the corner of the room. “I’m-“

“She’s never going to graduate school,” says The Ghost of Connor Murphy, “because she thinks that none of this shit would’ve happened if she’d been around more. So she’s going to stop going to classes and she’ll never become a paralegal and she’ll put her whole entire life on hold for you. Because you’re never going to move.”

“I think maybe we should both take a few days off school,” his mom says carefully. “Just until the weekend, so we can talk to Dr. Sherman and- I don’t know, until things go back to normal.”

“No,” says Evan, “that’s not- I don’t want you to skip classes for- for my sake. I’m- I’ll be okay.”

“She never goes out,” says The Ghost of Connor Murphy. “She doesn’t have any friends, really, outside of work. And she never dates. Because of you. Because she has to come home every night and make sure that you didn’t kill yourself while she was gone. Or go off your meds and start telling lies about some random kid who killed himself.”

“I know you’ll be okay,” she says dismissively. “But I want you to be- more than okay. I want you to be happy, honey. I want to make sure you’re feeling happy.”

“The only times you’ve ever been happy,” says The Ghost of Connor Murphy, “it’s because you started believing your own sad bullshit.”

“It’s- I don’t know if I’m- Happy is a high bar,” Evan mumbles. He sits up, puts his empty mug on the table beside him, stares down at the print of his plaid pajama pants. 

“That doesn’t say much for your standards,” she tells him, with this look on his face like he accidentally just hurt her, really really badly.

“No, I- I know,” he says. “I didn’t mean it like- I just- Do you ever feel like-“

He pauses, tries to swallow. When he tries to speak, his voice cracks and he realizes that he is suddenly and perilously close to tears.  

“Do you ever feel like- Like, how can you even enjoy the happy moments when you know it’s just going to- When you’re just waiting all the time for the bad thing to happen?”

“The bad thing?” she echoes slowly.

“You are the bad thing, dude.”

“I mean, like- I don’t know- I don’t-“

“I don’t think I understand what you mean, honey,” she says. 

He stares down at his pajama pants and traces the navy line of his plaid. The seams don’t line up properly, and so the navy line is interrupted when it meets his inseam, like a road that got transposed by shifting tectonic plates. 

“Like-“ He traces, swallows, tries to hold the right words in his mouth. “Like, my default setting is- is this. And any time that I- Any time things get better for a little bit, it’s just a- It doesn’t last because I always end up back down at this- at the baseline. So it’s like, what’s the point of- Of even trying to climb higher if I always end up- end up back down here.”

“That’s some heavy-handed metaphor,” The Ghost of Connor Murphy snorts. 

Evan tries not to let his face twitch in acknowledgment, just keeps tracing the bumpy seam of his pants. He is afraid to look up, to see his mother’s crushing disappointment, to see the Ghost of a boy he never actually got to know. 

“Evan,” his mom says finally, quietly, like she’s so, so sad. Just his name, the saddest thing she could possibly say. She picked that name out of a book before he was even born, and now he’s sitting next to her on the couch, seventeen years old and wanting so desperately to be Not This Not Alive Not Anything. 

“Never mind,” he says, squints his eyes shut tight. 

“No, honey, I- I know that it seemed like things were going good, for maybe the first time in a while. And now that it’s- now that it’s not so good, it’s easy to feel like it’ll never feel that good again.”

“It wasn’t even that good to begin with,” says The Ghost of Connor Murphy. “It wasn’t real.”

“I don’t think it was real,” Evan says.

“You made a mistake, honey,” she says firmly, unrelenting but kind. “But that doesn’t change that you are- a fundamentally good, kind, thoughtful person. I know things have been hard for a long time. But we’re going to- We’re going to go back to Dr. Sherman, okay? We’ll try something else. We’ll find something that works. I don’t want you to think that- that you’ll feel this way forever. This isn’t forever. There are good things coming, okay?”

“Okay,” Evan whispers. He is trying very hard not to cry. 

“You know what?” she says, trying too hard, voice getting higher and goofier. “High school sucks, Evan. High school sucked for me, too. But it’s not forever. This isn’t forever. You have your whole- You have a whole life ahead of you, okay?”

She says it like it’s a good thing, like it’s the promise of something better, but instead it sprawls in front of Evan, monstrous and scabbed-over and empty. Just flight after flight of stairs, and his legs are so tired. Day after day of feeling like this. 

“Okay,” he says.

“A whole life,” the Ghost of Connor Murphy says, “of being like this. Staying the same forever.”

“I think we’ve had enough bad things,” his mom says. “I’d prefer to think we’ve got some good things on the way.”

“Okay,” Evan says. 

“The only time you’ve ever been happy,” says The Ghost of Connor Murphy, “was when you were lying. Or believing in a lie.” 

Evan doesn’t think that’s true, but he can’t seem to formulate an argument against it. He can remember yelling FUCK in a basement and he can remember sharing mouth germs in the backyard and he can remember lying on the floor and grinning at Connor in the dark, everything cast green in the light of the cable box. But none of that was real, maybe. He keeps believing his own bullshit. 

...

It’s some time past midnight and The Ghost of Connor Murphy has got a pink rubber SuperBall and he won’t stop bouncing it off the ceiling. Evan can’t sleep and he can’t think, what with all the bouncing, and he’s terrified that the noise is going to wake his mom. 

Connor is probably a Ghost and probably he’s invisible, probably insubstantial. But then again, yesterday — or a hundred years ago maybe, Evan doesn’t understand how time works anymore — Connor said he saw someone in the upstairs bedroom window. And so Evan isn’t so sure about what The Ghost of Connor Murphy is anymore. 

He’s terrified that at any moment his mom might walk into the room, asking about the noise, only to find a Ghost Boy sitting on Evan’s windowsill with a Superball. And once she saw the Ghost, too, it would be a lot harder to ignore. It would be undeniably Real, all of it, the Ghost and the Superball and all the horrible things he is saying. That Connor is dead and maybe Evan should be, too. 

“I’m not saying anything you’re not thinking.” 

“I’m thinking that I want you to go away.”

“I don’t think that’s true.” The Ghost of Connor Murphy bounces the Superball against the ceiling, catching it in his own palm with a snap. “If I went away, you wouldn’t have anyone.”

“You’re not anyone,” Evan says, feeling suddenly angry. “You’re not- You’re not anyone.”

“I’m Connor,” The Ghost of Connor Murphy says, bewildered. 

“No, you’re not,” says Evan, shaking his head. 

Connor knocked his knuckles against the doorjamb and Connor pounded Evan awkwardly on the back when he coughed and Connor puked on his shoes, asking for his mom as he died in the dark. And Evan can’t stop thinking about that. He can’t stop thinking about Connor standing in the yellow field at the orchard, backlit in sunshine, turning the tips of his hair gold. So far from the lifeless gray-scale Thing on his windowsill.  

He feels more substantial suddenly, a sudden burst of anger propping him upright like tent poles. “You said it yourself. You said you weren’t him. You’re not him.”

“No, I said he wasn’t me. Because he wasn’t real-“

“You’re not real either,” Evan argues. “You’re just what I made you to be. You’re- I made you. And now I want you to go away.”

“That’s not how it works,” says The Ghost of Connor Murphy again, but he fumbles his catch and the ball rolls under the desk. He has to stoop to retrieve it. 

“Okay,” says Evan, and then he gets out of bed and puts on a sweatshirt. 

The Ghost of Connor Murphy follows him down the stairs, stands in the foyer and watches Evan silently put on his sneakers. “What are you doing?”

Evan doesn’t answer. He closes the front door quietly on the dark foyer, tries not to flinch when he turns around and The Ghost of Connor Murphy is standing in front of him, washed-out and flimsy in the light of the porch. 

“Where are you going?”

Evan doesn’t answer. He shoves his hands in his pockets and trudges across the grass, follows the curve of the road into the dark. It’s colder than he expected. He can’t remember what month it is. Is it still November in this other life? Could it still be November when Connor is dead?

The Ghost of Connor Murphy catches up with him as they round the corner. It’s a quick walk. The Ghost of Connor Murphy bounces his Superball against the pavement as they walk down the road together, mostly dead.

“Oh,” he says, as they turn. “Wait, no. I don’t-“

Evan keeps walking, tangling his fingers together and resisting the urge to tug until he feels a crack. He focuses on the sound of his feet on the pavement. 

“I don’t want to go here,” The Ghost of Connor Murphy whines, but there’s something off-tune and crackly to his voice. “Why are we going here?”

“Because I want you to go away,” Evan answers finally, words clipped. He cracks his knuckles, cracks them again. 

“I told you,” says The Ghost of Connor Murphy, “it doesn’t-“

“Every time I’ve come here,” Evan interrupts him, “you haven’t followed me. And I want you to- I want to be alone. I have to- I have to think.”

It’s really dark. Behind him, a car goes by on the main road. The headlights cut across the playground just for a second, playing over the benches and the graffitied jungle gym and the swings, empty and skeletal. Evan breathes raggedly, sad right down to the throb of his knuckles. He hadn’t realized he was holding his breath until he watches the cloud of his own exhale filter in front of him.

“I don’t like it here,” says The Ghost of Connor Murphy. “Can’t we go somewhere else?”

“No,” says Evan. He knots his fingers together within the pouch of his hoodie, and steps off the road, onto the woodchips. He stands there for a minute, like he’s waiting for something to happen. 

“There’s no magic portal or some shit like that,” The Ghost of Connor Murphy says, “if that’s what you’re waiting for.”

The swings are empty and there are no bodies on the benches, living or dead. Evan breathes out, swallows.

“I thought you were going to go away. I thought you would- I thought it would make you go away.” 

“I’m not a vampire,” says The Ghost of Connor Murphy. “I don’t need an invitation to go places.”

Evan crosses the woodchips to sink down onto one of the swings. He doesn’t know what he thought he would find here. Connor, breathing shallow on a bench. Connor, kicking up wood chips on the swingset. A wooden cross, maybe, or one of those hearts made out of flowers. The kind you see on the side of the road where a fatal accident once occurred. 

The anger stringing his skeleton together is filtering away. He is going limp again. The swing to his right is empty. The metal chain is cold under his hands, squeaking slightly as he moves. 

“I thought you wouldn’t be able to follow me,” he admits.

“I can,” says The Ghost of Connor Murphy. But he doesn’t step onto the woodchips. He’s standing at the end of the cracked pavement, Superball held still in one hand, staring at a wooden park bench. “I just don’t like it here.”

“You’re the one who picked it to-“

“Yeah. I used to smoke weed here sometimes.”

“I know. You told me already.”

“Oh.”

“What do I- How do I make you go away?” Evan asks. 

“You don’t. Can we go?” He asks it like a child, plaintive and sulky. 

He is still standing in front of the park bench where he died. Evan wonders who found the body. He wonders how long it took. If Connor was still recognizable, still spindly and peaky and striking. He wonders if they found a water bottle. He never asked about that. There must have been a water bottle. It would be hard to swallow so many pills dry. 

“I picked it because the grass got mowed regularly,” The Ghost of Connor Murphy says. “So I knew somebody would find me before I started to-“

“You already told me that.” 

“Oh.”

Evan locks his fingers around the cold chain of the swing, resists the urge to crack his knuckles until something pops. “How come you can’t remember what you tell me? How come you’re- Sometimes you were nice to me. And sometimes you were- Not even there, kind of.”

In the dark, The Ghost of Connor Murphy’s shoulders move like maybe he’s shrugging. Or maybe he’s breathing hard because he swallowed a bottle of pills and now his body is shutting down. “I don’t think I’m linear. Like- I can’t always tell when I’m here and when I’m not.”

Evan nods, absorbing this. He prods his toe against the woodchips, sets himself swinging gently. He tells himself that he is in control of this situation. He controls what happens inside his head.

“Can we go?” The Ghost of Connor Murphy whines. There’s still that out-of-tune radio crackle to his voice, thin and distorted, and it makes Evan feel a little more collected. He is in control of this situation. He controls what happens inside his head. 

“No. I have- I have questions for you. I need to understand.”

He takes a breath, tries to prioritize — how do I get back how do I stop feeling like this how could you let me believe it might actually be okay — and settles for the simplest question he can fit in his mouth. 

“Are you- Are you a ghost or are you in my head?”

The Ghost of Connor Murphy considers, shrugs, considers again. Evan can’t see him too well in the dark, just the plastic pink of his Superball and the wire-hanger lines of his shoulders. He says, finally, “I don’t know. Both, maybe? I’m whatever you made me to be. I’m- You did this to me. You made me this.”

“I didn’t mean to,” Evan whispers. 

“Yeah, well,” the Ghost says, coughs on a laugh, “intentions are bullshit. So.”

Evan keeps his fingers locked tight, breathes out slowly and consciously so he can watch his breath cloud and then thin. He is in control of this situation. “But why aren’t you- Why won’t you go away?”

“Unfinished business,” The Ghost of Connor Murphy bounces the Superball once, catches it idly like he’s very caught up in thinking, “I think.”

Evan blinks, nods, breathes. “Mine or- or yours?”

The Ghost bounces the ball again, catches it. He says, slowly, “I don’t know.”

“Then what was the-“ Evan catches himself, makes himself breathe, but he can’t quite swallow back the desperation. It filters through his teeth as visible and obvious as the cloud of his breath. “What was the point of all of this? Of making me- Making me think I had a second chance. What was the point?”

“I told you,” The Ghost of Connor Murphy says. He recites the words in a dull, rehearsed sing-song, “To show you what could have been or what might be or some shit.”

“But what,” Evan tries again, voice going ragged and desperate, “was the point? To- to just show me that things could’ve been- could’ve been okay? And then to take that away?”

“To show you how wrong you got me,” says The Ghost of Connor Murphy. “To show you what I was, and then what you made me.”

“But it wasn’t-“ He’s breathing faster now and he’s not seeing as straight. His breath is clouding up his vision, maybe. “What was I supposed to do? To- to fix it? I’m sorry for what I- I’m sorry. But how am I supposed to-“

“You can’t.”

“Can’t-“

“You can’t fix it,” says The Ghost of Connor Murphy, angrier. 

He turns away from the bench finally to look at Evan in the dark. He’s not bouncing the Superball, just holding it in his hand, and the way he’s holding his shoulders is tooth-achingly, undeniably familiar. In the dark, just the shape of him and the twitch of him, he looks so much like Alive Connor that Evan can hardly swallow. There are pills or maybe teeth in his throat. All of this was easier when Alive Connor and Dead Connor didn’t look so much alike.

“I’m dead and so is he,” says The Ghost of Connor Murphy. “When are you going to get that? Everything moves in circles and nothing is going to change. Nothing will ever change as long as you’re alive because you never change. You’ll just keep falling for your own bullshit and sooner or later you’re going to end up back in a tree.”

Evan doesn’t answer right away. He swings slightly, unable to keep his feet planted securely on the floor. He is unsteady, off-kilter, unfinished. 

“I’d recommend sooner,” says The Ghost of Connor Murphy. He bounces his ball, catches it easily. “But I can wait. It’s not like I have anything else to do.”

Evan’s voice comes out steady, despite the fact that everything is tilting sideways. He’s been holding onto the chains of this swing so long that the metal has started to go warm with his body heat. He can hear someone breathing, raspy and insistent, and his eyes move to the bench in the corner like maybe he’s expecting to see a body there. But it’s just the Ghost and Evan in the park, mostly dead. 

“I’m the- Is it me?” he asks finally. “Am I the- I’m the unfinished business?”

“I’m cold,” says The Ghost of Connor Murphy, ignoring him. He pockets his Superball, kicks gently at the base of the wooden bench where he died. “I hate it here. Can we go now?”

“Okay,” says Evan. 

Chapter Text

The first few days after Evan broke his arm, he was so busy — doctor’s visits and learning how to shower with a cast and repeatedly assuring his mom that no, he wasn’t mad at her for not answering the phone right away and that no, she wasn’t a terrible mother — that it was easy to pretend everything was Fine and Good and Normal. But then things went back to normal and his mother went back to work and Evan had to sit on the couch with a broken arm and watch daytime television, and Not Think about the fact that he couldn’t even kill himself right. 

There had been a bottle of painkillers on the kitchen counter, and Evan had spent the whole morning staring blankly at the television, thinking obsessively about that bottle of pills. Every crackle of studio audience laughter, every tick of the prize wheel on The Price is Right sounded like a rattle of pills or maybe the cracking of a branch. He couldn’t stop staring down at the cast on his arm. He couldn’t even kill himself right. 

This time, there is no cast. Just this horrible, heavy weight hanging from Evan’s windpipe, a panicked, thrashing feeling in his ribcage like there’s something trapped there. He is trapped in this life and this body and these circumstances, and he can’t seem to think of a way out. Connor is dead and Evan is never going to stop feeling like this. It’s the first thing he thinks about when he wakes up and the last thing he thinks about before he falls asleep. He fucked it up again, somehow. 

He spends the weekend in a dry-eyed haze, obediently drinking the tea his mom brings him and watching daytime television. He refreshes The Connor Project Facebook page, but nobody has posted any scathing exposes. It seems like the Murphys have not told anyone. Not yet, anyway. 

The Ghost of Connor Murphy follows him around, mostly just being Vaguely Inconvenient and cackling every time he makes Evan jump. He doesn’t do anything especially threatening and he mostly doesn’t talk at all, just does annoying shit like changing the channels on the television or flickering the lights or knocking over stacks of books. 

Evan follows tiredly in his wake, cleaning up his messes. He refreshes the Facebook page. He finishes reading A Separate Peace. Connor was right. The ending sucks. 

He finds a copy of A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens on his bookshelf, and he doesn’t know how it got there. The Ghost of Connor Murphy just shrugs and snaps one of Evan’s pencils in half cheerfully. “You’re still here?”

“You’re following me around.”

“I just thought you’d have done it by now.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” says Evan, swallows away the chalky-pill feeling under his tongue. 

“I think you do,” says The Ghost of Connor Murphy cheerily. He snaps another pencil in half. 

On Monday, Evan goes back to school because he doesn’t know what else to do. He is someone who stands still. He is someone who does not change. Everything is moving in circles and inertia is not on Evan’s side, and so he goes back to school. 

It’s a Monday. There is a test in English on A Separate Peace and even though Evan actually did the reading, he cannot answer a single question. The words swim unfocused in front of his eyes. He keeps wanting to turn his head and look behind him, longing to see a hunched figure in the back of the room, scribbling swear words onto the desk. By the end of his class his neck is aching from the effort of Not Turning Around, throbbing like the feeling of vertigo he gets when he looks down from a great height. 

The hallways are plastered in anti-bullying posters and pamphlets about mental health — IF YOU FEEL LIKE LIFE IS SINKING, TRY POSITIVE THINKING! WHILE THERE IS LIFE, THERE IS HOPE! SPEAK UP AND REACH OUT! Sometimes, The Ghost of Connor Murphy is there and he reads the slogans aloud in a mocking sing-song. He flickers in and out of existence under the cheap fluorescent overheads. 

Evan walks with his head down, cracks his knuckles until they throb with his pulse, wonders if everyone is staring at him. He thinks he hears whispers - it was all a lie, he never even knew Connor- I heard they were gay for each other- no, I heard he lied about it to get into Zoe Murphy’s pants- but it might be inside his own head. He can’t exactly trust his brain to determine what’s real and what’s imagined anymore. He keeps believing his own bullshit. 

It’s not until fourth period that he sees Zoe.

Zoe, at the other end of the hallway, hands tucked under the straps of her backpack and shoulders hunched defensively in a way that makes Evan think agonizingly, tooth-achingly of Connor. He never used to think they looked alike. Zoe, with bags under her eyes like she hasn’t been sleeping well. Zoe, whose brother is dead and whose boyfriend was a lying tragedy perv. He held back her hair when she puked and he kissed her on her dead brother’s bed and he really thought she was going to fix him. 

She looks up then, mouth already pulling into a defensive scowl like she can feel someone staring and then she meets his gaze and for a minute they look at each other. Her eyes are hard and blank and she is the first to turn away, slamming her locker shut behind her. He watches her ponytail bob. 

He keeps standing there as the aisles begin to empty, students filtering towards their next class. The Ghost of Connor Murphy is standing next to him, although Evan isn’t sure if he just materialized or has been there the entire time. 

“She hates you,” he says. 

“I know,” Evan whispers, cracks his knuckles. 

“If it helps,” says The Ghost of Connor Murphy, “I’m pretty sure she hates me more.” 

When Evan turns his head, the Ghost is gone again. He doesn’t know what to do except swallow and hurry to his next class. It was all a lie, that’s the thing. It shouldn’t be a revelation, but somehow it still is. It hits him all over again every time he turns a corner and sees another poster about how life is worth living, because Connor killed himself and nobody tried to stop him. 

He sees Alana in the hall and she avoids eye contact, very conspicuously turns and hurries the other way. He eats lunch in the library and two tables over, there are girls whispering about that stuck-up bitch Zoe Murphy- I heard she was the one who gave him the pills he used to kill himself- and Evan can feel his pulse in his throat. 

He thinks about going to the nurse’s office, but he can’t bear to sit on the scratchy paper cot and stare at the stacks and stacks of pamphlets on the nurse’s desk about teenage suicide and mental health and cyber bullying, as if any of those flimsy generic pamphlets could’ve stopped Connor from dying alone on a bench in the dark, asking for his mom. 

He thinks about finding Jared, because Jared is weird and spends a lot of time on reddit and would probably know what to do about a possible haunting and also alternate realities. But then he remembers that Jared is angry at Evan and probably hates him, and that maybe he made up that other Jared, anyway. The Jared who yelled at the cross-country team and drove Evan around while he had a panic attack is just another sad invention.

He thinks about killing himself.

At first it’s out of habit, in the same way that his fingers fly to the hem of his shirt when he’s anxious, just something to pick at like an old scab, but once he starts he finds that it is nearly impossible to stop. The thoughts keep coming, insistent and tasting of copper. He catches himself staring out the second-story window, wondering how far he is from the ground. Beneath his desk, he studies the pale underside of his arm, still marked with odd tan-lines from his cast. He puts a finger to the thinnest part of his wrist and feels for a pulse. 

It’s just that- It’s inescapably Real, all of a sudden. This life is Real and it’s just going to keep on going like this forever. Connor is dead and the rest of them hate him. And Evan is stagnant, unmoving, damp, incapable of change or connection. The realization builds like pressure in his lungs, swelling and insistent. By the time eighth period ends, Evan can barely swallow around the pressure in his throat. He can’t do this anymore. He can’t keep being Like This. 

Connor is dead and maybe Evan should be, too. 

Right at the end of the day, his mom calls. He stares without understanding at his phone for a full two rings before he processes what is going on and answers the phone. 

“Mom?”

“Hi, honey, I- Don’t be mad. I know I’m supposed to pick you up for your appointment, but I’m stuck at work again. It’s- Fucking Erica called in sick again and I’ve already missed a lot of time-“

“Its fine,” Evan says automatically, phone pressed to his face, other arm hanging limply at his side. He is too far away from himself to register disappointment or sadness or anything. 

“But I texted Mrs. Kleinman and she said that Jared could give you a ride. So that’s all set, okay? And you can just go ahead and eat without me, because I won’t be home till late. I’m going straight from here to class. There are pizza bagels in the freezer, I think.”

“Okay,” he says. It goes quiet. 

“I’m really sorry, Evan,” she says again, voice going higher like she’s worried. “It’s- I know I just said. I just said that I was going to be around more, and I know this isn’t a great start. But I’ll try to- Maybe I can pick up some ice cream after class tonight and we can watch some House Hunters? If you don’t mind waiting up for me? I want to- I want you to tell me about your day.”

“Yeah,” he says, “maybe.”

“Was it- Did it go okay, honey?” 

“It was- Yeah,” he says finally, voice nearly cracking under the weight of the lie. “It was good.”

“Good,” she says, voice going light and silly like she doesn’t believe him, but she really really wants to. “Good. I’ll- Good things are coming, right? I think we could both use a few good things, huh? Oh shit, I have to run. I’m sorry. Bye, love you.”

“Bye,” he says into the phone, even though she’s already hung up. It feels important to say it. He keeps standing there for a minute, phone pressed to his face, other arm hanging. He keeps thinking about standing on the front porch in the dark with the bottle of pills in his pocket, locking the front door behind him, the weird finality of that act. He thought he was going to kill himself that night, except then Connor was sitting on the swings in the dark. 

Only Connor is dead and he has been all along. Evan pockets his phone, goes and sits in the computer lab and waits for something to happen. 

He thinks about writing a letter to himself — Dear Evan Hansen, today is going to be a good day and here’s why — but he feels very far away from the person who wrote that letter. He can’t think of a single thing to write. He feels like he’s been writing suicide notes for weeks now. What is there to say that hasn’t already been broadcasted across Facebook for Alana Beck and The World to see? 

He thinks about killing himself. Just getting up and going home, gulping down pills with mouthfuls of water straight from the faucet. Sitting on the bathroom floor and waiting for his hands to start shaking. Just walking into traffic, maybe. Or going back to the park bench where Connor died. Going back to the orchard and jumping. There’s something circular to that, and once the idea is there it won’t go away, no matter how hard Evan blinks his eyes and tries to do his breathing exercises. 

And then there’s a noise behind him. 

“Hey, asshole.” 

Evan turns, startled despite himself, and stares. It’s not Connor, dead or alive. Just Jared in a stupid button-up shirt and slightly smudged glasses, significantly shorter and somehow just as frightening. He must stare or make a stupidly startled face or something because Jared rolls his eyes, and everything about his posture makes Evan feel small. 

“Your mom called my mom about giving you a ride,” Jared offers, as if to explain that this is The Only Reason he is talking to Evan at all, “to therapy.”

“Oh,” says Evan, “right. That’s- You don’t have to.”

“Well, yeah,” Jared says, “I do. I don’t get my car insurance unless I’m nice to you, remember?”

He says it to be hurtful, voice barbed, and Evan remembers spitting these words into his face. The frenzied panic of things getting faster faster faster and Alana asking him do you know how easy it is to create a fake email account? And Jared yelling Fuck you, Evan! Asshole! He interlocks his fingers, wrenches at his knuckles until he can hear around the crinkling panic. 

“No, I know, but you don’t have to-”

“I do, actually,” Jared cuts him off flatly. “Because I said I would and I’m not a huge fucking liar.”

Evan swallows, winces because it’s what Jared wants. He mostly feels too numb to be hurt, tingling like a dead limb. “Okay.”

“Okay.” Jared keeps standing there. Then, sharper, “Hurry up. I have shit to do.”

“Sorry,” says Evan. He stands up, fumbles for his backpack. “Okay- It’s- Sorry.”

Jared doesn’t answer, just turns and leaves the room. Evan has to jog to catch up with him. They leave the school in silence, Jared swatting at a crooked LIFE IS WORTH LIVING poster as they exit. When he starts the car, the Cats soundtrack starts to play and he switches it off furiously. Evan doesn’t even have the energy to smile. 

They turn out of the school in silence. Everything is horribly familiar, wrenchingly different. 

“Thank you for-“ Evan says eventually. “Y’know.”

“Yeah,” says Jared, not turning head. His jaw is tight. “I consider it a service to the community. I mean, if this is you with therapy I’d hate to see you without. Who knows what kind of bullshit lies you’d start telling.”

“You have no idea,” says The Ghost of Connor Murphy from the backseat. Nobody turns their head.

“Yeah,” says Evan finally, quietly.

It’s not a long drive. Jared is still a very bad driver. He takes the turns too fast. Evan kind of wants to brace a hand against the side of the door, but he thinks that would make Jared angrier. He knots his hands into the hem of his shirt and twists, trying to think of anything that he might say to Dr. Sherman, any possible way to ask for help without explaining why. 

“So the Murphys haven’t-“ Jared begins a few minutes later, then cuts off as if he’s angry at himself for asking. They take the next turn way too fast. 

“No,” Evan says quickly, understanding. “They- I mean, they know. But I didn’t- I didn’t mention you.”

Some of the tension goes out of Jared’s shoulders, but he doesn’t relax and he won’t turn to look at Evan. “Okay.”

“Yeah,” says Evan. Then, faster, “I’m sorry for- for all of it? I’m sorry for getting you involved. And I’m sorry for what I said about- about you not having friends. I didn’t-“

Jared doesn’t turn his head. “What, now you want to talk? Now that this whole shit-show blew up and your girlfriend realized you’re a fucking-“

“I know,” says Evan, eyes squinting shut tight. He has to talk loud to be heard over the throb of anxiety going off in his head like a siren, like a flood warning. It feels important to say this. Like saying goodbye to his mom, like locking the front door behind him. “I know, it’s not- You don’t have to- You don’t have to say anything. I just wanted you to know I’m sorry. I didn’t mean for it to get this-”

“New rule,” Jared interrupts, voice raising. He reaches over and slaps the radio back on. “New rule. We don’t talk. No talking in this car.”

“Okay,” Evan says, but he says it too quietly to be heard over the music. 

They pull into the parking lot outside of Dr. Sherman’s office and Jared doesn’t say anything, won’t turn his head. Evan opens the door, reaches for his backpack, mumbles, “Thanks for the ride. Sorry.”

“Did you- The letter on Facebook,” Jared says abruptly. “That was yours?”

Evan stills, one leg out the door. He has to squint his eyes shut to fight off the memory of sitting in the Murphy’s bathroom as Zoe asked him the same awful question. “Oh. The- yeah.”

Jared opens his mouth, closes it, then irritably fiddles with the volume dial. He coughs out a sharp, bleating laugh. It's awkward but it's not spiteful. “You can’t blame them for thinking it was a suicide note. Fuck, dude.”

“I- No,” says Evan, bewildered. 

Jared nods, stares at the steering wheel, gives another weird and jerky laugh. There are gaping chinks in his irony as he asks, “I don’t have to- Do I need to give you some it gets better life is worth living bullshit talk right now?”

Evan laughs by mistake, panic crinkling in his ears like plastic shopping bags. He practically chokes on his words in his haste to get them out, to stop Jared from saying anything else, “No, it’s- No. Don’t- don’t do that. I’m good. It’s- I’m good.”

“Okay,” says Jared like he’s relieved but not convinced. 

He keeps sitting there. Evan’s not sure if he’s supposed to get out of the car or not. He thinks, for a second, about asking for help, about saying wait actually wait please remind me why life is worth living. He thinks about asking for Jared to just drive him home. Maybe they can stop for McDonalds and Jared will drive one-handed while he eats an ice cream come and he will reach over and adjust the vent so that there’s cool air blowing on Evan’s face, even if he will never say aloud that he cares about Evan’s comfort. Maybe they can go back to Jared’s and play video games in the basement like friends would, even if they will never admit aloud that they are friends. 

He thinks about the orchard. It’s not a long walk from here. An overhead alarm starts to chime finally, alerting them to the fact that the car is still running and the door is still open. They both jump. 

“Okay, well,” Jared says, with a weird forced energy, “go to fucking therapy. Obviously you- you fucking need it.”

“Yeah,” Evan agrees. He slides out of the car, puts his feet on the ground and stands up straight.

“Hey,” Jared calls, louder, “wait. What time do you- I can drive you home after?”

“Oh,” says Evan. He stoops to look back through the door, braces a hand against the roof of the car and thinks about stopping for ice cream or at least sitting in silence while Cats plays in the background. Thinks about delaying the inevitable. Thinks about just Not Dying today. “No, that’s- Don’t worry about that. I- My mom’s coming to get me.”

Jared grimaces, looks away uncomfortably. “You’re sure you’re good?”  

“Yeah,” Evan says, “I am. Thanks.”

“Okay,” says Jared. 

He pulls away, runs a stop sign and disappears around the curve in the road. Evan stands there and watches him go, feeling very quiet and still except for the tingle of anxiety in the tips of his fingers, the tips of his toes. He is standing in the middle of his therapist’s parking lot, and for a minute it feels like the world shifts sideways, off-kilter, and time unclocks itself and suddenly there are a hundred different versions of himself standing in this parking lot, trying to decide whether or not to go inside. 

It’s like the cat in the box that The Ghost of Connor Murphy kept talking about it. In this moment, unmoving, he is both alive and dead. 

He thinks for a second, as something weird and hysterical twists the corner of his mouth into a smile, that maybe there is another version of himself out there who would walk into Dr. Sherman’s office and sit in the chair and tell the truth. Just tell the truth for once in his short, stunted, stupid little life. The letters aren’t working and I don’t think the medication is either because all I can think about is killing myself and I think I need you to stop me

But then with another hysterical twist, he remembers that an essential element of Being Evan Hansen is inaction. He does not change. It’s the wire that holds his bones together. He will not change and sooner or later he will end up back in a tree. He will always end up back in the tree. And so the truth is that in every single universe, Evan Hansen turns away and crosses the parking lot, steps over the curb, and starts down the road towards the Autumn Smile Orchard. 

It’s not a long walk to the orchard. Evan had never been before Connor, but he passed it hundreds of times on the way to Dr. Sherman’s office. He walks at the edge of the road, where the cracked gravel meets the rocky ground, and The Ghost of Connor Murphy walks beside him. 

They don’t talk. They both know where they are going. There isn’t really anything else to say. 

The day last summer that Evan climbed the tree and jumped — or fell or let go, whatever — was not particularly significant or good or bad or anything at all. It was just a culmination. The Bad Days had been stacking up for a while, a precarious pile of wooden blocks, and that day just happened to be the day when it tipped. And he was the one who fell down. This feels a little bit like that. 

“I read the letter,” says The Ghost of Connor Murphy, bouncing his ball as they walk. His legs are much longer than Evan’s, but he’s slowed his stride so that their shadows line up, stretched out and elastic on the gravel ahead of them. Evan’s not sure Ghosts are meant to have shadows. 

“The letter?”

“The one I took from you in the computer lab,” says The Ghost of Connor Murphy. “I read it before. I mean, after I yelled at you. But before I died.”

“Oh,” says Evan, surprised under all the fizzing numbness. “You did?”

“Yeah,” says The Ghost of Connor Murphy. “I mean, it was in my pocket for a reason. It was- It was how I was feeling, kind of.”

“It was?”

“I mean,” says The Ghost of Connor Murphy, bouncing the ball with a spray of loose gravel, “it was some pretty suicidal shit, dude.”

Evan holds the words in his mouth like marbles, swallows with some difficulty around them. “I didn’t know that.”

The Ghost snorts, bounces the ball. “That you were suicidal?”

“No, that you- that you read the letter. I didn’t know that.”

“You didn’t know me,” says The Ghost of Connor Murphy fairly, “at all.”

Evan stares at the ground and keeps walking. It’s just his own shadow in front of him, elongated and alone. Ghosts don’t have shadows. It’s only been him, all this time. 

The orchard is quiet and overgrown. It smells like mulch and moisture and rot. There are no signs of a fair. No tire tracks, no discarded plastic cups of lemonade, no crash-landed model airplanes, no boys holding hands. Evan stands still for a minute, and then he starts through the knee-high grass, sneakers crunching over fallen crabapples. 

“I did always really like it here,” says The Ghost of Connor Murphy reflectively, following. “You were right about that part.”

“I really-“ Evan stops, looks down at his feet, prods at a partially rotted apple. “I really started to believe in you, I think. There was a- The yellow field with all the trees. It was like something right out of- I don’t know.”

The Ghost of Connor Murphy doesn’t answer. He stoops to retrieve an apple, tosses it lightly into the air, then catches it. He says cheerfully, “Gross. It’s all wormy."

Evan turns away, wading through the grass towards the tree with the red marker, indicating the beginning of the trail. It’s muddy and overgrown, and his jeans keep catching in the bramble, but he keeps walking mechanically. It’s quiet except for him the waxy slap of leaves against his arms, but when he glances behind him The Ghost of Connor Murphy is following, occasionally pausing to pull a handful of leaves off a branch. 

“You don’t have to follow me,” Evan says. “It’s- I know what I’m doing.”

“Just want to make sure you don’t mess it up this time,” says The Ghost of Connor Murphy, cheerily shredding a leaf. “Also, I told you I’d walk with you. It’s no fun to die alone.”

It takes longer than Evan remembered, especially with the branches clawing at his jeans and the mud sucking at his sneakers, making every step an effort. A deliberate action. He’s just starting to wonder if maybe it didn’t exist at all, if maybe that yellow field was just another invention of his desperately lonely imagination, and then the trail takes a turn, and there it is. 

An open field, knee-high yellow grass framed with trees. It’s strikingly beautiful, like something you might make up in your head. Like a place you might dream up while you’re standing in a dead boy’s kitchen and his parents are staring at you and you’re imagining, for the first time, what it would be like to Have This. A place where you might have a perfect day. Evan has to stop in his tracks, eyes squinting shut without his permission. 

“Oh, shit, we used to fly kites here,” The Ghost of Connor Murphy says, and then he’s stepping off the path and wading through the grass, casually passing his Superball from one hand to the other.

Evan doesn’t move right away. His knees lock without his permission. His bad arm presses to his chest like he’s trying to shield himself from a blow. He feels like he’s been climbing a very tall ladder for a very long time, legs exhausted and the back of his neck aching with vertigo, and now he’s gotten to the top rung of the ladder and there’s nowhere else to go. His legs are tired. 

The Ghost of Connor Murphy turns back to Evan and every part of him is back-lit, just for a second, in the late afternoon sun. The November sunshine filters right through him, something pale and flimsy, something mostly dead. Like a photograph of a reflection. A sad invention. A pale imitation of Connor, standing in the grass, saying, “C’mon. We’re not going to fuck it up this time.”

Evan steps off the path. 

He takes off his sweatshirt and leaves it at the bottom of the tree. It’s the only thing he leaves behind before he starts climbing. He doesn’t bother with a suicide note. It kind of feels like he’s already written enough of those. 

The Ghost of Connor Murphy stands at the bottom of the tree and watches Evan. The first couple feet are the hardest when climbing a tree, with the trunk at its thickest and the branches further apart. It takes Evan a couple tries to swing his feet up, right arm locked around a branch, but then he’s up and it’s much easier from there. He’s always been good at climbing trees. 

Another branch up, and he looks down. That’s like the one rule of climbing that Evan knows — don’t look down — but he feels like probably the rules don’t matter so much when the intention of the climb is to fall and die once you’ve reached the top. And he wants to see if The Ghost of Connor Murphy is still standing there. 

To his surprise, The Ghost is swinging up onto the branch behind him, long legs and spiky elbows. He looks up at Evan and frees one arm long enough to give him the middle finger, grimacing with effort. In the weird, yellow light of late afternoon his teeth look odd and chalky. Evan thinks about Connor pouring out those pills, one hand cupped to catch them, the other tipping the bottle. The rattle it must have made. Did he take them one by one, or in great gulping mouthfuls? 

“There are, like, five hundred easier ways to kill yourself, y’know,” The Ghost of Connor Murphy calls up to him through gritted teeth. He swings his legs up onto the branch, steadies himself against the trunk. “Say what you will about choking on your own puke, but fuck me-“

Evan looks away, looks back up. He finds his foothold, shifts his weight, and eases himself upward. A scrabbling act of intention. He asks, “Did you have a- a water bottle?”

“A what?” 

“A bottle of water,” Evan says louder. He hooks an arm around the next branch and locks his knee against the trunk. The dry leaves rattle in the wind and Evan thinks of pills rattling from a bottle, filling a cupped palm. He hauls himself up onto the next branch, arms protesting dully. “For when you- It was a lot of pills to swallow dry.”

“Oh,” says The Ghost of Connor Murphy from below. He’s quiet for a minute. “Yeah, I bought one on the walk over. I was actually going to- I was going to go somewhere else to do it. But I remembered I needed to buy a water, so I stopped at a gas station. And then the park was closer.”

“I didn’t see a water bottle,” Evan says, although he doesn’t know why. He doesn’t know why it matters. 

“That’s where I bought my ball, actually,” says The Ghost of Connor Murphy. 

His voice is closer now, like he’s catching up to Evan. For some reason, this makes Evan’s heart beat faster. The Ghost of Connor Murphy could just yank at his ankle and send him falling right now if he wanted to. He hastens for the next branch. A foot slips, just for a second, before he catches himself. He hears himself exhale, raspy and shaky. 

“Isn’t that weird? I went in there to buy a water bottle so I could swallow the pills faster. And then I bought a bouncy ball for 50 cents from a grocery machine like I wasn’t about to kill myself.”

Evan can’t answer. He is breathing hard from the effort of climbing and from the thought of Connor slotting fifty cents into the machine, turning the wheel, opening his hand and letting a little rubber Superball roll into it. He was on his way to kill himself. “Why would you-“

“I don’t know,” says The Ghost of Connor Murphy from directly below him. “Hurry up. I’m gonna beat you to the top.”

Evan obeys mechanically, hands automatically seeking out the next knot, sneakers scrabbling and then finding friction against the bark. The branches are getting thinner and they sway when he puts his weight on them, dried leafless branches knocking against each other like skeleton fingers, mostly dead, always dying. 

“If I’d-“ he stops, hooks an arm around the slimming trunk of the tree, starts again. His voice is muffled and weird and thin. He can’t tell if that’s a product of the altitude, of the strain of climbing, of the prospect of falling. “If I’d talked to you in the the computer lab that day, if I explained that the letter was- that I wasn’t doing it to make fun of you, would it have- Would I have fixed it?”

The Ghost of Connor Murphy’s head appears as he easily swings himself up into the ‘V’ of two branches, only a foot or so below Evan’s own perch. He doesn’t answer right away, looking at Evan like he doesn’t entirely understand the question. He starts to repeat himself, “Would it have-“

“I don’t know.”

“You don’t-“ Evan’s grip tightens with a sudden gust of wind, setting the leaves rasping against each other like pills pouring, like a death rattle. “You don’t know? Aren’t you- You’re supposed to- to show me what could have been and what might have been and- and that shit, right?”

“I don’t know,” says The Ghost of Connor Murphy again, sharper. His face goes sharp and mean and less familiar. “Stop talking. Keep climbing.”

Evan looks down, feels the back of his neck throb at the sheer distance from the ground. He never got this high the first time around. “Aren’t we- This is probably high enough, isn’t it?”

The Ghost of Connor Murphy is already reaching for the next branch, movements twitchy and off-kilter in the dying sunlight. His legs kick out, long and sharp and angular. 

“Another fifteen feet, just to be safe,” he says. “We’re not fucking it up this time.”

Evan swallows, distantly registering the ache of his bad arm, the sting of splinters in his palm. He tests the branch above him, tugging and watching the way it bows and flexes. It seems like it will hold him, and so he finds purchase for his feet and keeps going up. 

“What could I have- What could I have done different?” he asks, starting to wheeze a little bit. His body is protesting like it knows what he is about to do, like it doesn’t want to strain for its own destruction. “To fix it? To make it- to make it right?”

The Ghost of Connor Murphy is somewhere to his left, mostly visible around the curve of the trunk. They’re up so high that there are barely any leaves or thick branches left to obscure their vision. Evan stares at his own white-knuckled hands against the bark of the tree because if he looks anywhere else, he thinks his arms might just give way entirely. He doesn’t want to fall. He wants to- If he hits the ground, he wants it to be intentional. He wants that pathetic, feeble little shred of control. 

The Ghost of Connor Murphy doesn’t answer. Something tight and insistent and desperate in Evan’s throat makes him ask again. “What could I have done differently? It- Connor wasn’t dead. And the Jared Project was- it was bad but it wasn’t- it was starting to get- to get better. It was-“

“It was always going to be you,” says The Ghost of Connor Murphy finally. He’s ahead of Evan now, skeleton legs dangling and then swinging so that he’s straddling a precarious-looking branch, face turned towards Evan and back turned towards the rest of the world, towards the towering drop that awaits them. “You’re the unfinished business. This is the unfinished business.” 

“This,” Evan repeats vaguely. “You- You mean I have to die? That’s what it’s- That’s what it’s all been about?”

“Ding ding ding,” says The Ghost of Connor Murphy. The sun’s cutting through the bare branches, burning him pale yellow and translucent. When he grins, there is no tongue or tonsils or throat behind his teeth, just the crossed black limbs of the tree. “Told you we’d end up back here.”

Evan feels like something he has always suspected has been confirmed, but even as he begins to nod his understanding, the sharp pain in his arm sings its dissent. He doesn’t understand. He was getting better. In the grass in the dark in his bare feet and pajamas, he was maybe going to be okay. He doesn’t understand. 

“But,” he says, swings himself up to straddle a branch and stare back at The Ghost of Connor Murphy, “then what was the point of- of sending me back there. I saved you. I saved him or you or whoever- I stopped you from-“

“The point was,” The Ghost of Connor Murphy says, “to show you that it wasn’t real. You couldn’t save me because I- because I was supposed to die. Because things don’t get better. There wasn’t- I was always going to end up on that bench just like you’re always going to end up right- back- here.”

As if to punctuate his last three words, The Ghost extends a foot and kicks at Evan’s branch, setting it swaying and rattling. Evan has to lurch forward and hug the trunk of the tree to keep his balance, to stop from pitching over sideways and falling. 

“Don’t- But he was getting better,” Evan gasps. “He was- We both were. We were getting better. We were going to- to be okay-“

“I’m dead,” The Ghost of Connor Murphy says mercilessly, “and he is, too.”

“But I’m-“ 

Evan looks down and for a second he can’t breathe at the sight of his own dorky, off-brand sneakers hanging into nothingness. He is staggeringly far from the ground, and all of a sudden he can’t stop thinking about almost falling, about Connor catching him, about sitting on the ground and crying and Connor holding his wrists to keep him from breaking his own fingers. About Zoe holding his hand and Alana giving him an impulsive, unpracticed hug and Jared driving him home. 

He is sitting in the grass while Connor makes him breathe and he is lying flat on the ground of the forest with his arm at an awkward angle beneath him and he is sitting on the bathroom floor while Zoe pukes and he is crying onto his mother’s shoulder on the couch and he is sharing mouth germs in the dark and he is holding Connor upright on a park bench while he asks if he’s dying and he is sitting in the grass telling Connor about trees that don’t die, about trees that keep on being mostly dead but never actually die. 

None of it was real, maybe. None of them really existed at all, maybe. But Evan- 

“But I’m not dead.”

“Riiiight,” The Ghost of Connor Murphy drawls slowly, “which is why I’m here. So you can finish this shit.”

“No,” Evan whispers, and then shakes his head, says it louder. “No, it’s- I don’t think you’re right. I don’t think I’m- I’m not the unfinished business.”

“Someone needs to make sure you get it right this time,” The Ghost of Connor Murphy sneers. “You’re so pathetic you can’t even kill yourself right.”

Evan squints his eyes shut, lets his face twitch and then slacken, lets his sneakers kick into thin air, but he keeps shaking his head. “No. I’m sorry, but I think you’re wrong. I’m- I’m sorry you’re dead. I’m so sorry you died. I wish I- I wish I could’ve stopped you. I wish I could’ve known you because I- I think we could’ve helped each other be okay, maybe. But it’s not-“

“What the fuck are you talking about,” The Ghost of Connor Murphy snaps, but his face looks frantic and flimsy and transparent and he’s reaching out to kick at Evan’s branch again, to set him swaying. Evan locks his arm around the base of the tree and closes his eyes, shakes his head, keeps talking. 

“I’m sorry you died and that you- that you had to do it alone. I’m sorry nobody- nobody was there to help you, and that you didn’t get a second chance but I- I’m not dead. I don’t have to die. And it’s- I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m not going to jump.”

The Ghost of Connor Murphy looks at him, stunned, with eyes so big that for a second he might be Connor in one of the Facebook photos on Mrs. Murphy’s wall. Connor at the orchard with his arm around Zoe, missing teeth, goofy ears, who would die on a bench at age seventeen. 

And then he looks nothing like Connor at all, just a weird twist of light caught between the branches of a mostly dead tree like bubble soap, just the smudge of an overdeveloped photograph. The wind picks up and the leaves rattle like pills and The Ghost of Connor Murphy goes hazy, vanishes from existence. Maybe it was never there at all.

Evan breathes out, allows himself to blink. 

And there’s a snap, like a bone breaking, like a rubber ball against a palm, as the branch beneath him gives way. 

Chapter Text

 

Evan is on the ground and he’s been lying there for a very long time or maybe a matter of seconds. He can’t tell for sure. Time is funny. He thinks it might be leaking out of him, like the stuffing spilling out of a beanbag, time and blood leaking out of his nose and his mouth and the crack in his arm. His arm is tucked underneath his body and it’s aching in a fizzy-heavy-numb kind of way, and Evan can’t bring himself to open his eyes. There is a far-off smell of mulch and rot, and he’s been here before. He needs to get up. Nobody is coming to get him. He needs to get up. 

But he just keeps laying there, eyes squinted tight, paralyzed. He’s afraid to move his arm, afraid of the resulting burst of pain and realization, but he needs to get up. He needs to get up and go find help because nobody is going to come find him. He needs to stop waiting for somebody to come and help him. He needs to get up. 

“Hey,” says a voice from somewhere very far above him. “Evan. Hey. Wake up for a sec.”  

Someone is shaking him. When he rolls onto his back, there are no trees. There are no Ghost Boys leaning over him, fogging up with his breath. Just the dim green of the digital clock; it’s 7:03 am. Evan blinks at the clock, watches the digital green rearrange as the time changes. 7:04 am now. He sits up.

Connor, face cast green in the dim morning light, is crouched by his sleeping bag. He sits back on his heels, whispers, “Do you have more milk somewhere?” 

Evan blinks at him. For a minute it feels like the world is shifting sideways, off-kilter, and time is unclocking itself and Evan is sitting up on his living room floor and he is straightening up on a park bench and he is scrabbling to his feet in an orchard, dark patches of mud soaked into his knees. And then it’s just him on the living room floor, testing his weight against his bad arm. It tingles and aches, but only in a Slept On It Funny kind of way. 

“Milk?” he says, trying to understand. 

Connor scowls. “Never mind. Go back to sleep. Sorry.” 

Then he’s standing and he must leave the room but Evan doesn’t notice right away because the digital clock is blinking green at him and when he turns around Zoe is behind him on the couch, sleeping with her mouth partly open. Evan stares, suddenly aware of the sound of his own breath. 

It’s morning. 

He can’t bring himself to move. He feels a little bit like he’s standing at the peak of something. Like maybe he’s still straddling that branch and if he moves too suddenly he will tip. He will shatter this quiet, dim morning. So instead he just sits there and watches the time on the digital clock shift again. 7:05 am. It’s morning and Evan has just survived his First Official Sleepover. 

For some reason he wants to cry. He wants to brush his teeth. He wants to go and search under his bed and check inside his closet and refresh his Facebook page, just to be sure. He wants to- He needs to get up. He needs to go and just- just make sure. Evan fumbles out of his sleeping bag, every nerve in his body stuttering to life, arm still half-asleep and tingling. Please don’t be dead. Please don’t be dead. 

Connor’s eating cereal at the kitchen table with all of the lights off. He’s wearing a blanket around his shoulders like a cloak and he’s eating a mixture of Cheerios and Cocoa Puffs out of a soup bowl and he is Not Dead. He looks up as Evan stumbles into the room and he’s not dead. He’s not dead. He’s not dead.

“I finished the milk,” says Connor in greeting. “Sorry.”

For a second all Evan can do is stare. Over the past week — the week where Connor was dead again or maybe had been dead all along — Evan finally read A Christmas Carol and so he knows how this should go. He wonders, with a faint sort of hysteria, if there should be bells ringing. If he should go and throw open a window and yell at a boy on the street to go and buy him a very large goose. Evan’s not sure about the etiquette. He is, after all, Jewish. Well, probably agnostic but culturally Jewish. 

“It’s okay,” he says blankly, exhales. Under his feet, the floor goes sideways and then back again. He flicks on the kitchen light and they both have to blink and adjust. He has to make sure. “You’re not- Are you-“

You’re not a ghost. You’re not a ghost, right? Please don’t be a ghost. 

“You’re up early,” he says finally, moving across the kitchen and sinking into a chair before his knees can buckle. He’s had enough of falling down, thanks very much. 

“Yeah,” Connor says, grimacing. The set of his shoulders is brittle and one of his legs is jittering underneath the table, like a piece of loose machinery. His voice is flat, always a little bit higher than Evan expects. “I’m kinda a morning person. Sorry if that makes you like me less.”

Most of his hair has fallen out of its ponytail and it’s curling around his weird ears and tucking under the hem of the blanket he’s got wrapped around his shoulders. His eyes are a little more lidded than usual, like he hasn’t slept well, and he’s got that coiled-spring energy that Evan recognizes. But he’s painted in full color, not grayscale, and he is Not Dead. Evan is staring and Connor’s eyes go suddenly big, self-conscious. His scowl gets more pronounced. 

“Not- Not that you- I didn’t mean to say like-“

“It doesn’t,“ says Evan fast, breath knocked out of him. “Make me like you less, I mean. It doesn’t.”

“Okay,” says Connor. He goes back to his cereal, almost casual, but his shoulders lose some of their defensive tightness and his mouth twists around his spoon. “Good.”

“Good,” Evan echoes, bewildered. It’s the morning and nobody is dead. 

Connor eats his cereal, eyes cast down, the jitter of his leg shaking the table a little bit. Evan watches the movement shiver through the tabletop, through the milk in Connor’s bowl. He squints his eyes shut and opens them again. Pinches at the underside of his wrist. Examines his palms for splinters. Runs a hand along his cast-less arm. He’s afraid of waking up, of shattering this quiet moment, but he’s more afraid of believing in another Lie. He has to be sure. He has to know for sure. 

He has to look back at Connor then, just to reassure himself that Connor’s form is fully opaque, no smudges around the corners. There is no dust filtering through his skin, no flickering, twitchy, inside-out sensation when he moves his shoulders. He is tired and rumpled and a little bit on-edge, but he is There. Connor chews, swallows, points his spoon at Evan. 

“You’re looking at me.”

“Sorry,” says Evan automatically. He flits his eyes away, stares down at his unmarked palms. No splinters. His nails are fluorescent yellow and there’s a smudgy green leaf on each of his thumbs. He has to ask. He has to make sure. “You’re not a- you’re not a ghost, right?” 

Connor doesn’t laugh. Evan can tell he’s looking at him, but he can’t bring himself to lift his eyes. He’s afraid that when he turns back, Connor won’t be anything but a smudged replica, a photo negative, Connor Inside-Out. 

“No,” says Connor, “I’m not a ghost.”

Evan believes him. He fists his hands and then unclenches them, checks one more time for splinters. “Okay.”

It’s quiet. Connor’s cereal is probably going soggy, but his attention is still fixed on Evan. He’s doing that thing again, where he seems to forget that he is visible, where he makes no attempt to shutter his gaze. Evan tries for a laugh, compromises, settles for an odd little cough. 

“Now it’s- you’re looking at me.”

“I finished the milk,” Connor says immediately, like he was already holding the words in his mouth. “I have to eat something when I take my meds so I stole some cereal and then I didn’t realize ’til I already poured it-“

“Oh,” says Evan, bewildered. “Yeah, it’s- Don’t worry.”

“Your mom will be mad,” Connor insists, and his leg is moving faster under the table and his face is tight with- something. Concern. Anxiety, maybe. 

Evan shakes his head. He promises, “She really, really won’t.”

“It’s rude,” Connor says. He puts a finger in his mouth, biting down at a cuticle. His voice comes out muffled. “I’m a dick even when I don’t mean to be.”

Evan starts to protest but then Connor takes his hand out of his mouth and the cuticle of his ring finger is bleeding, and for some reason he has to stare at it. Something inside of Evan wrings itself out. He is not dead. He can bleed and so he is not dead. He stands, somehow surprised when the floor does not tilt or fall away, then sits back down and slides Connor the napkin. Then they sit in silence, like they’re both waiting to speak until the blood has stopped welling. 

“Sorry,” says Connor quietly. “I’m having a freak-out about milk. I’m, like, aware how batshit that is.”

Evan stares down at the little splotch of blood on the napkin, a vague and cloudy half-moon. He wants to put it in his pocket or tape it to his wall like a poster, like a reminder that Connor is not dead. He says, finally, “Do you want to go for a walk? We could- We can buy more milk before everyone else wakes up.”

Connor scowls down at the napkin, then up at Evan. “You don’t have to go along with my shit. I’m having a weird- I don’t know. Today’s bad. You can go back to sleep if you-“

He swallows and his throat moves and for a second all Evan can think about is the way his throat must have worked around mouthfuls of pills in the dark. But then, almost as quickly, he remembers Connor gulping down sparkling cider in the backyard, swiping at his mouth and then grinning at Evan in the dark. He tries to hold onto that memory instead. 

“No,” Evan says, rubbing at the phantom-crack in his arm. It doesn’t hurt, just buzzes slightly. “Sometimes it helps to just- do it and then you don’t have to think about it anymore. Let’s- I want to go for a walk. We can buy some milk and think of- ways to prank Jared. That’s a sleepover thing, right?”

“I wouldn’t know,” Connor says, but he stands and slurps the remaining milk in his bowl. 

Evan, still seated, has to tilt his head back to look up at him. He has to pinch at the underside of his wrist, feeling for the inexplicable pulse beating there. Somewhere over the length of the night or the week or the months where Connor was dead and Evan never knew him at all, he forgot how tall Connor stands when he isn’t hunching his shoulders. 

Connor squints down at him. “You’re doing it again.”

Evan cracks his knuckles, then cracks them again for good measure. He stands, feeling fidgety and unsettled. “Sorry. I’m-“

He does not know what to say. He’s recently suffered a bad fall. He’s woken up and things are Maybe Okay. He is… Fine? Okay? Lying? Dreaming? Good? Is he good? He isn’t dead, for one thing. That’s probably- He thinks that’s a good thing, maybe. He’s not used to thinking about being Not Dead as a good thing. 

“You’re being weird,” says Connor when Evan doesn’t finish his sentence. 

“I slept weird,” Evan says, rubs at his arm, searching for some sign of breakage. “I am weird. I don’t know.”

“You’re not that weird,” Connor disagrees. He puts his dish in the sink and then turns around, sets his shoulders deliberately. “Do you care if I smoke? While we walk? I need to- I don’t know. I need something.”

“That’s okay,” says Evan. “I don’t mind.”

Connor puts his bloodied finger back in his mouth. He says, “You don’t have to say yes just because-“

“I’m not,” Evan says. “I don’t mind.” He reaches over and tugs at the edge of Connor’s blanket, pulling his hand away from his mouth, and then is immediately bewildered by his own bravery. He steps back. “Let me just- I need a sweatshirt.”

He goes upstairs to find his shoes and a sweatshirt. He has to fumble around in the back of the closet because he can’t seem to find his favorite sweatshirt, the one he left at the base of a tree that he never climbed down from. Eventually he finds his old Junior Park Ranger sweatshirt and pulls that on instead. When he pads back down the stairs in his socks, Connor is waiting by the door. He’s still wearing the blanket like a cape. 

“You’re going to wear- Do you want to borrow a sweatshirt?” Evan asks cautiously as they start across the grass. It’s cold and the grass is wet, turning the hems of his sweatpants a damp gray. For some reason, he’s expecting to smell mulch and dying leaves and rot, but instead it just smells like rain and November and morning. 

“Nah,” says Connor. He pulls the blanket up so it covers his head and falls down over his face. “I’m a Ghost. Ghosts don’t get cold.”

His legs are sticking out the bottom of the blanket and so are his wrists, bare and bony, and he doesn’t look like a Ghost. He is just a skinny boy in a blanket. Evan reaches over and yanks the blanket down anyway, just to make sure, and then there’s another Weird and Inexplicable Moment where he’s looking at Connor’s face and Connor is looking at his face and his hair is all staticky from the blanket, and Evan is tooth-achingly glad he isn’t dead. 

“You’re- You’re not a Ghost,” he says finally, lets his hand fall from the blanket, allows himself to smile. “You look more like a Sith Lord.”

Connor considers this and then shrugs, readjusts the blanket, produces a cigarette from amid the folds. “I don’t know what that is.”

“A Sith Lord?” Evan repeats, bewildered. He stops in his tracks, wheels around to frown at Connor. “You- But you had a- You’re lying.”

“I’m not lying,” Connor protests. He cups a hand as he lights his cigarette so Evan can’t see his mouth, but his voice sounds like he’s trying not to smile. He exhales slowly, smoke ghosting through his teeth, and his shoulders slacken a little bit. “I’ve never seen a Star War. I was too busy being popular in middle school.”

“Oh, right” says Evan, “me too. Were you- I think I used to see you around. I ate lunch in bathroom stall three.”

“Bathroom stall one,” says Connor, lifting his free hand for a high five. “Practically neighbors.”

The sun is behind them as they walk down the road, casting long elastic shadows in front of them. These shadows do not waver. When they make a turn in the road, Evan’s shadow briefly overlaps with Connor. Neither of them is dead. He feels a little bit light-headed, teetering like he’s walking on stilts, because all of this is so improbable. Somehow he is back on the ground.

“Don’t tell Zoe,” Connor says after a while. “She’ll-“

“No, I know,” Evan says quickly. “It’s okay.”

Connor breathes out a long, quiet stream of smoke. He says, “It’s really hard to quit. Not- I mean, obviously it’s hard to quit smoking. That’s- Everyone knows that. But it’s hard to stop- stop actively trying to, like, hurt yourself. Y’know?”

“Yeah,” Evan says quietly, hands moving up and down the length of his not-broken arm, feeling for a crack, for a sign that this, all of this, is Not True. 

“And then it’s like,” Connor says with obvious frustration, jaw tilted like he doesn’t want to look Evan in the face, “yesterday was good. Yesterday was good. I did some therapy shit with Zoe and it was okay and then we came here and had fun and it was good. And then today I wake up and- Fucking have a panic attack about milk.”

“I’m sorry,” Evan says. 

“Don’t- It’s not your fault.”

“No, I know,” Evan fumbles. “It’s- like, sympathy. Not an apology. It’s okay if- It doesn’t have to be logical. You literally talked me down from a tree like a- like a scared cat or something. So I get it, I mean.”

Connor laughs a little bit at this. He says, “Not to be weird, but I’m really glad I know you. Like.”

Something in Evan’s chest hurts So Fuckin Bad just for a second. He’s thinking about the Facebook page and he’s thinking about the yellow field and he’s thinking about the first time he stood in Connor’s room by himself, staring at the posters on his wall and the books on his shelves and he’s thinking about The Ghost of Connor Murphy saying very reasonably you didn’t know me at all. 

He says, quietly, “I’m really glad I know you, too.”

And then it’s quiet again, but it’s a lighter kind of quiet. Almost nice, improbably. Evan keeps having to flex his fingers, shift his arm and search for the resulting pain. He keeps having to look sideways, to reassure himself that Connor is not smudged or Wrong. You are not dead. You are not dead. He is allowed to believe in this. He keeps saying it to himself but he can’t seem to make himself understand the significance of the words. It’s like when he was little and he used to stand in front of the bathroom mirror on his birthday and study his face, searching for signs of age. Like telling himself, you are another year older and trying to believe it. You are not dead. You are another day older. 

Then, abruptly, Connor grabs him by the wrist and yanks. It takes Evan by surprise and he yelps a little bit. “What-“

“Shut up shut up shut up,” Connor hisses, flapping a hand. He points. “Look.” 

Just beyond the reach of their stretched-out morning shadows, there is a large, dark brown shape moving slowly towards the road. It is extremely ugly and vaguely prehistoric and kinda weirdly noble looking. Evan just blinks at it for a moment, bewildered. 

“Oh,” he says. Then, trying to pitch his voice low, “It’s a snapping turtle. There’s a- There’s a pond behind the new development, I think.” 

Connor is still holding onto Evan’s wrist. He says, with a sort of intellectual interest, “What the fuck.”

Evan nods his agreement, but he’s distracted because the snapping turtle has just reached the edge of the gravelly grass and is venturing out onto the smooth pavement of the road. Evan Hansen was only ever a Wannabe Boy Scout and so maybe his Outdoors Skills are lacking, but he definitely knows that turtles are, like, notoriously slow. 

“Weird,” says Connor cheerfully, and he starts to walk again, then pauses when Evan doesn’t follow. “What’s-“

“It’s in the road,” Evan says somewhat redundantly, eyes still on the ugly, hulking brown shell. It is his turn to flap a hand uselessly when Connor just looks at him blankly. “It’s in the road. It’s gonna- He might get run over.”

In the dim morning, Connor is an equally odd, prehistoric shape with his collapsible limbs and his blanket cape. His mouth makes a twisty shape, eyes moving from Evan to the turtle and back again. He abandons his cigarette and steps out onto the road. 

“It’s early. There won’t be a lot of people on the roads yet,” he says, but he cranes his neck and looks both ways, searching for oncoming cars. “Also he’s, like, hard to miss.”

“He’s in the road,” says Evan again by mistake. He cranes his neck, too, squinting for headlights. Maybe he makes a noise of distress or cracks his knuckles or maybe his face twitches its way through a facial tick, because Connor moves back towards him and knocks their elbows together in a way that suggests he can sense Evan’s growing anxiety. 

“Okay,” says Connor. He swivels again, surveying the dim empty road and then the turtle’s slow advances. “What if I just, like, picked it up and moved it?” 

Evan is so horrified by this proposal that he forgets to be self-conscious or twitchy, and instead just stares at Connor with his mouth slightly open until Connor gets defensive, scowling and readjusting his blanket cape.  

“Just so it doesn’t get squished!”

“It’s- a snapping turtle,” Evan says slowly. Then, at Connor’s unchanged expression, “It’ll break your arm.” 

“But if I was fast enough,” Connor argues.

“Faster than a snapping turtle?”

“It’s a turtle! They’re known for being slow.” 

“No!” Evan says, because he’s just had this horrifying image of Connor with a cast on his arm. 

Evan does not want to sign his cast. Evan does not want to have to worry about how to sign Connor’s cast because that involves thinking about What Exactly Is Going On with Connor and would it be weird to sign the cast Evan (Hansen), just in case Connor is on cast-signing terms with another Evan? Like, would it be rude to just assume he’s the only Evan in Connor’s life? 

“No, we can- Let’s just walk him across the road. If there’s a car we can- They’ll see us and slow down and we can tell them to go around.” 

Connor scowls some more like he isn’t quite willing to abandon his Turtle Snatching plan, but then his eyes move to Evan’s twitchy hands, twisting at the hem of his sweatshirt. He adjusts the blanket on his shoulders and follows Evan out into the road, standing a few cautious feet away as the turtle moves slowly towards the yellow lines of the median. 

“Thank you,” Evan breathes in relief. It’s a cold November morning and he tries to focus on the way the chilly air makes his throat ache, on the turtle’s methodical and unhurried movements. “Sorry. I know it’s-“

“Okay,” says Connor, “if I’m allowed to freak out about milk. You’re allowed to freak out about turtles. Deal?”

“Full disclosure,” Evan whispers, afraid of raising his voice and startling the turtle into snapping or — worse — stopping in the middle of the road, “my freak-outs are super not limited to turtles. It’s kind of- it’s an extensive list. So, y’know, if that makes you like me less-”

“It doesn’t,” Connor says easily. He keeps his voice quiet, too, squinting down at the turtle. “Isn’t it too cold for turtles? Don’t they hibernate?” 

“I don’t know,” Evan admits. He turns, searching again for any glimpse of oncoming headlights. He thinks vaguely that it would be pretty funny — not haha funny but like Existentially Funny — if he survived a Haunting and finally came to the conclusion that he does Not want to kill himself and then survived a very long fall, only to get struck and killed by some passing car trying to protect a snapping turtle. 

“What,” says Connor, “you didn’t earn your Turtle Facts badge in Paper Towel Sash Scouts?”

Evan is startled into a laugh, surprised and a little bit too loud. The turtle pauses for a second at the sudden sound, and Connor and Evan stare at each other, big-eyed, until it commences its Very Slow movement. 

“Fuck,” says Evan, laughing quieter, warmed by the knowledge that Connor remembers stuff about him. He told a story and Connor remembered it. It’s like the smallest, most pathetic victory ever but Evan’s face feels warm with it all the same. “No, we didn’t- I don’t have any turtle facts. Maybe he’s looking for the pond. I don’t know, maybe he’s confused.” 

“Dumbass turtle,” Connor says. He pokes out a foot like he might prod the turtle’s shell with his toe. Evan makes an accidental noise of horror and elbows him away. 

“Stop trying to touch it!” he hisses. “It’s going to bite you!” 

Connor starts to protest some more but then a car comes into view, headlights bright against the early morning fog. It slows and after a series of semi-frantic, apologetic hand gestures by Evan - and a surly stare from Connor - it goes around them, skirting a wide path around the turtle and its bedraggled crossing guards. 

“Lucky we were here,” says Evan, watching the fading taillights, trying not to think about the turtle’s shell being crushed, scattered across the roadside. The noise it would have made, like a falling body meeting the ground, like his arm folded beneath him. 

“Dumbass turtle,” Connor says again, more fondly.

There are no more cars. They take very slow, very cautious steps and try to muffle their laughter until the turtle reaches the other side of the road and continues its plodding pace up the grass, into the threadbare tangle of trees. Connor whoops in victory and Evan lets out a ragged exhale of relief, and he finds himself fumbling for Connor’s hand, squeezing his fingers gratefully. 

Connor squeezes back, but then his hand goes suddenly slack. When Evan looks up at him, he is standing surprisingly motionless, blanket wrapped around his shoulders like a cape, mouth doing something funny. They are standing, Evan realizes, at the mouth of a dead-end street. Down at the end of the cracked old pavement is a sparse, shitty little playground. 

He drops Connor’s hand. For a second, he can almost hear The Ghost of Connor Murphy’s voice in his head. Everything moves in circles. He always ends up back here. 

Then, Real Connor’s voice says cautiously, “Would you wanna- Could we stop for a second? Maybe?” 

Evan has to swallow down the feeling of chalk. It is morning and nobody is dead and in the sunlight, it’s really nothing but a stretch of sidewalk leading to a swingset, a couple of benches. Like an X-Ray image, or a haunted house with all the lights turned on. The swings are spare and plain and insignificant. 

“Yeah, if- if you want,” he says, pinches the skin at the base of his wrist just to make sure.  

Connor opens his mouth and then doesn’t say anything. He turns and starts down the little dead-end road. Evan swallows convulsively once, twice, and then he’s following. He does not want to follow, but it would be worse to be left behind. He’s afraid of what might emerge from the bushes, clutching the lost Superball. He’s afraid he might turn back to find that Connor is gone and the swings are empty, moving slightly in some phantom wind. And so he follows. 

Everything moves in circles and here he is again, somehow. He pinches at his wrist. 

Connor sits down on one of the swings. His blanket cape is hanging into the woodchips, but he doesn’t seem to notice. Evan hesitates at the edge of the woodchips until he remembers The Ghost of Connor Murphy’s words again. There’s no magic portal, if that’s what you’re waiting for.  It’s the first time he’s been here during the day, that he hasn’t seen it all through snatches of passing headlights or the flashing red and blue of the ambulance. It’s just grass and woodchips and wooden benches, marked with old graffiti and birdpoop. 

He sits down on the swing next to Connor and pushes off with his toes, sets himself swinging. 

“I used to smoke weed here sometimes,” Connor says quietly, kicking out his feet. “That’s how I knew about it. And when I was trying to decide where to- The grass was mowed pretty regularly. Like, I knew somebody would find me before I-“

“Yeah,” says Evan hollowly. He looks down at his feet, at his dorky off-brand sneakers hovering just above the woodchips. For a second he can imagine he is fifty feet in the air, feet hanging into nothing, but then he plants his toes on the ground and swallows it back. 

“Sorry if that’s weird to say,” Connor says. “I shouldn’t-“

“The night after Zoe read my letters,” Evan says suddenly, too loud and too fast, neck suddenly throbbing with vertigo, “when I found you here on the swings. You remember?”

“Yeah,” says Connor. 

“I had a bottle of pills in my pocket,” Evan says. He is up very high and he can feel his height in the back of his neck, in the heavy pull of his own feet, “I was afraid you could hear it the whole time. Like, just rattling. I came here to- and then you were here.”

“Oh,” says Connor. Evan can’t look at him, can’t tear his eyes away from the ground below him, but he can see Connor’s feet come down, to slow his own swinging. “I didn’t know that. Sorry.”

“Sorry for-“ Evan squints his eyes shut, tightens then releases. He lifts his face and tries to make himself smile, or at least grimace. “Sorry for cockblocking me from killing myself?”

“No, sorry for-“ Connor’s mouth twists into a scowl and then a smile and then somehow both at the same time. He looks at Evan and then at his feet and then back at Evan again. “What’d you say before? Sympathy, not apology.”

“Yeah,” says Evan quietly. 

But Connor keeps looking at Evan, that same unguarded gaze like he doesn’t care if anyone sees him looking. Like maybe he’s searching for some dented part of Evan, some physical representation of how defective he is. Like maybe he’s understanding for the first time how very Fucked Up Evan really is. Evan tries not to squint, tries not to hunch his shoulders or let his fingers knot together. 

“I guess we’re even now,” Connor says finally, which is not what Evan expected him to say. He offers a slightly clammy smile, then sets himself swinging again with one toe. “I owed you, right?” 

“Don’t- don’t say that,” Evan says, shakes his head so much the chains of his swing rattle. This time he can’t fight back the tick, so he tightens his grip on his swing and lets his face tighten and then relax. “You don’t owe me. I was- I owe you, probably. Please don’t say that-“

“Okay,” Connor agrees, but he keeps looking at him. “Do you still want to?”

Despite the ambiguous wording, his meaning is clear. Evan doesn’t even pretend not to understand. This is something they’ve both thought about too much to ever misunderstand, probably. 

He says, as truthfully and quietly and bravely as he can, “Sometimes.”

It isn’t horrible, somehow. It’s not like when Zoe read his letters aloud in that crowded classroom or when she sat with him on the bathroom floor and asked him is that how you feel all the time, and it’s not like when Dr. Sherman nodded and pressed her lips together and asked if he still felt the way he did that summer. It’s not like sitting on the couch and telling his mom and crying into her neck until they were both almost laughing and itchy and sticky with tears. 

Connor looks at him and his face is very open and his mouth is slightly parted, and it’s that same horrible youth that Evan recognizes from the Facebook photos, but there’s also something quiet and knowing and tired about him that seems much, much older. He starts to say something and then chokes on it, and then he just nods a couple times. 

Evan says, “But I also want to do- I want to do other things, I think. I want to- I don’t know. It feels a little less, like, inevitable than it used to?”

It’s hard to say out loud, almost, because it shouldn’t really be an epiphany at all. Like, how ridiculous that the idea that he doesn’t have to die never previously occurred to him. As if it were as simple as deciding that instead of dying he’s going to, like, go for a walk or buy some posters to hang on his wall or look up some facts about snapping turtles. 

Connor still isn’t saying anything and Evan is starting to get anxious again, his own words starting to sour in his mouth, and so he fumbles for something else to say. 

“I don’t mean that I- I don’t mean that to sound braggy or- Or I don’t know, maybe I still sound super pathetic and suicidal because I know that’s, like, the smallest change. The bare, bare minimum but-“

“No,” says Connor immediately, and he puts out a hand and grips onto the chain of Evan’s swing, knuckles white. “No, that’s- I don’t think that’s small.”

Evan tries to catch his breath. “No?”

“No,” says Connor. He shakes his head some more and then he scuffs his foot through the woodchips. “I’m still- I know how hard it is to get there. I’m still- Turns out it’s really fucking hard to stop actively trying to self-destruct?”

“It is,” Evan agrees. He shifts his grip on the swing, nudges his hand down so that his fist presses against Connor’s. “Mental illness, right?”

“Mental illness,” Connor agrees, and then he closes his eyes for a second and his mouth crumples. Then he opens his eyes again. “Just to, like- For the record. I’m really glad I was here when you- I’m glad you didn’t-“

“Thanks,” says Evan, which isn’t quite what he means, but the best that he can do. “Me, too. For the record. I mean, I’m really glad that I was here when you-”

When you asked if you were dying. When you started to shiver and your skin got clammy and bumpy with the cold. When you asked for your mom. 

He cannot say that out loud, any of it, just like he can’t say when you tried to kill yourself. 

Connor blows out air and lets go of Evan’s swing, eyes darting away. He uses a toe to set himself rocking and rests his hands on his knees. He says, looking down, “Yeah, I’m still- I’m working on it. But I think mostly I’m glad you were there, too.”

It’s both extremely small and enormous. Evan understands its weight. He says, “That’s something.”

“I guess so,” says Connor. He blinks hard a couple times, but his voice still sounds normal. “I think it’d be easier sometimes if I’d- It would just be easier. I don’t know. Is that the same thing as good?”

“Probably not,” says Evan. 

“Probably not,” Connor agrees with a quiet laugh. He swings a little higher, kicks out his legs, and then like it doesn’t even matter to him he asks, “How’d you know? Like, you knew where to look but you also knew- In the computer lab. You were saying let me help you, let me-

Again, Evan is suddenly up very high. He can feel the big emptyness below him in the soles of his feet. Like hanging off a tree branch. Like having a perfect stranger read his suicide note aloud — because that’s what it was, even if he didn’t know it then — in the principal’s office. Like standing in the kitchen and allowing himself to believe he could Have This, believe it so hard his eyes well up. 

He always ends up back here. Except this time he finds himself breathing steadily, pulse beating hard in his throat. He finds himself saying slowly, “You’re going to think I’m lying, but I swear I’m not.”

It’s hard to know where to start, because somehow it’s all kind of circular. Time is funny and round and seamless. He can’t find a loose thread to start pulling. It’s the first day of school and you’re going to kill yourself. It’s my second week at Ellison State Park and my arm is broken and any second now somebody is going to come and get me. Any second now. It’s the fifth day of school and you’re dead. It’s the end of May or maybe early June, and we’ve just had the best day of our entire lives. It’s midnight and your Ghost won’t stop throwing a Superball at my ceiling and I’m afraid my mom is going to wake up. 

And then Connor interrupts. “I changed my mind. I changed my mind. I don’t wanna- I don’t think I want to know yet. I want to-“

Evan stares at him. “Oh. Okay.”

“Sorry,” says Connor. He scowls, more embarrassed than angry, then tugs at his ear. “Sorry.”

“It’s okay,” says Evan numbly, bewildered. 

“I think I-“ Connor makes another face and then he starts turning in his swing, twisting and twisting so that the chains of the swing wrap around each other and clink, muffling his voice. “I think I want us to be- Like maybe we could talk about- I don’t know, fuckin’ movies or books or something. Something that isn’t-“

“Okay,” says Evan. 

Connor keeps twisting his swing, keeping his chin down so that Evan mostly sees him in flashes of anxious shoulders and his white-knuckle hands and the chains of the swing getting more and more tightly entwined. Connor keeps talking:

“Sorry if that’s stupid or- I don’t know. Maybe it’s pointless to pretend it didn’t start where it did. But maybe we could be, like, kind of separate from that? I shouldn’t say we. I don’t mean we as, like-“

“Okay,” says Evan again, more seriously, turning his swing to face Connor. 

“I’m just so fucking tired of talking about suicide all the time, you know?” Connor finishes somewhat abruptly, and immediately he looks horrified at his own words. 

“I do know,” says Evan. It’s his turn now to reach out and grip Connor’s swing chain, to stop him from turning away again. The chain rattles a little bit under his grip from the effort of repressing a slightly hysterical laugh, from the fervor of how much he fucking Knows. “I really, really, really know. I’m- I would like that.”

Connor looks at him like he’s surprised. His hair is tucked behind his ears and they stick out just a little bit. His mouth hangs just slightly open, like he's about to ask a question or like maybe he's just asked one, holding something quizzical and intense between parted lips, like a lozenge, like a stone. But all he asks is, “Yeah?”

Evan shrugs as the rest of his anxious mind catches up with his brave, rash words. He ducks his chin and says, “I mean, I like books. I like movies and jokes and- I don't know.”

Connor laughs like he’s surprised. He says, abruptly, “Why did the turtle cross the road?”

“Probably it was going to hibernate,” says Evan, and then he sees that Connor is rolling his eyes. “Oh. I mean- Okay, why did the turtle cross the road?”

“To get to the other slide,” says Connor. He grins at Evan. “Get it? Because- Look, we’re at a playground. He was crossing to get to the-“

“No, I get it,” Evan agrees. “Just-“

“Shut up,” says Connor, starting to laugh. He shoves at Evan, setting his swing moving. “Shut up, shut up-“

“Something about shells, at least,” says Evan. He careens his swing back into Connor’s. “Like, shell station. He was going to the Shell station, get it? Like the gas station-“

“Fuck you,” says Connor, but he’s laughing. “Why is that any funnier than my fucking-“

“Because- Shell,” Evan says. He is laughing, too, and all he can do is repeat himself nonsensically. “Shell. Like the gas company. Because turtles have- shells.”

“Fuck you!” Connor says louder, furious and laughing. “Turtles don’t drive fucking cars! That doesn’t make anymore sense than my fucking-“

Evan leans forward and kisses him on the mouth, fast and kinda messy and there are teeth in weird places because both of them are laughing, and then he realizes what he’s doing and pulls back and lets go of where he’s gripping Connor’s swing chain and Connor, unmoored, is suddenly spinning and spinning as the chains of the swing unwind. 

“Sorry,” says Evan, before Connor’s even come to a full stop. “Sorry, I don’t know why I- Sorry. Sorry.”

Connor puts his feet down to still his rotation. He’s gripping his swing with both hands and his eyes are big and he looks a little bit dizzy. 

Evan says again, “Sorry. I shouldn’t have-“

Connor says, eyes big and mouth a little bit open, “That was fun. Do that again?”

Evan stares back and says, bewildered, “Which part? The spinning or the-“

“Both,” says Connor, and he starts twisting his swing around again. 

This time the kiss goes a little bit better, much less teeth. Evan’s palms are sweating really bad and he's at a weird angle, twisting his swing sideways to reach Connor, but he locks his fingers around the chain of Connor’s swing and tries not to think about it. Connor kinda holds his hands still like he’s not sure what to do with them, and for some reason that makes Evan feel a little bit better. 

Then they both pull back and Connor lifts his feet and Evan lets go of his swing, and Connor spins and spins and spins. His blanket-cape flaps around in his wake and it’s not even the slightest bit Ghostly. Evan thinks okay okay okay and while Connor is busy spinning, he puts his hand to mouth for just a second. His fingertips are cold from the chain of the swing. It’s November. He thinks, okay okay okay. 

Connor stops spinning, plants his feet, and then turns to point a finger at Evan. His fingernail is painted black. “Evan Hanshell. Is that something? Hanshell?”

“No,” says Evan, and his voice is a little bit choked from how big he’s smiling. Okay okay okay. “Not even- Not even a little bit of something.”

“Fuck you,” says Connor again, but he’s smiling really big, too, and he pushes himself sideways so that his swing crashes into Evan’s and knocks him crooked as well. “It’s definitely something.”

They spin until they are both too dizzy to swing straight, and then they kiss again and it’s the best one yet, and then Connor says, thoughtfully, “Is this weird?”

Evan stands immediately, panicking, apology wrenching its way up his throat. He hasn’t even gotten his mouth open before Connor is saying quickly:

“No, no, no, no- Not because- Because this is the place where I tried to kill myself and you did, too, kind of and- Is it weird to be, like, happy right now? Like-“

“Oh,” says Evan, fingertips still humming with panic. He tries to steady his breathing, tries to focus on Connor’s words. “I’m-“

“It’s not weird,” Connor has already decided. He stands, too, and retrieves his blanket, shakes off a few stray woodchips. “It’s not weird. It’s just nice. Nice isn’t the same as weird."

“Okay,” says Evan. They start towards the road. Okay okay okay. 

“Sorry,” says Connor after a second. “I didn’t mean to-“

Evan steadies himself and pinches at his wrist and then he kicks Connor gently in the shin and says, “Hey. My pet turtle died today. You know why I don’t seem sad?”

Connor says, “If you’re about to make a turtle joke I’m going to fucking kill myself.”

Evan says, “Too soon.”

“Too soon,” Connor agrees, pulling a face. He turns back to look at the playground, and Evan finds himself looking, too. The swings are still moving slightly, but that’s just because they’ve been recently vacated. The trees rustle and whisper a little bit, but that’s just because it’s a windy November morning. 

Then he has to turn his head, to check the bench. Just in case. Just to make sure. But it’s just a plain empty bench and there are no Ghosts, no dying boys, no Superballs, no crunched up water bottle to make the pills go down easier. Just a bench. 

Evan says, “Because I’m still shell-shocked.”

“What?” says Connor. Then, with true fury, “Fuck you. Fuck you-“

Evan is laughing and underneath his outrage Connor is, too, and their shadows — elastic, unwavering — follow them all the way home. It’s only once they’ve let themselves back into the house, toed off their shoes, and helped Alana dip Jared’s hand into a tub of warm water that either of them remembers that they forgot to buy milk. 

Chapter Text

After that, it’s hard to say. Maybe it all happens at once. Maybe it happens like slides in a projector, click click click. It depends how you’re measuring time. It depends whether you’re thinking about it chronologically or alphabetically or simultaneously. 

Maybe it’s this. They forget to buy milk and so they eat their cereal dry and Jared eats more cookie dough for breakfast and then pretends he hasn’t immediately contracted a stomach ache, just to avoid giving Alana the satisfaction of being right. Then Evan’s mom makes pancakes and Jared’s stomach ache mysteriously vanishes. 

Or maybe it’s this, zoomed out: Evan goes to school and he goes to Dr. Sherman’s and he goes to Jared’s house to watch him berate pre-teens over XBox Live. Click. He writes his midterm essay on A Separate Peace and after he’s finished, he’s surprised to find he kind of liked the book after all. Or maybe he’s just glad he’s finished it. Click. 

Or maybe it’s the revelation that November has an end after all. It is December, suddenly, and most of the LIFE IS WORTH LIVING posters have fallen down or been papered-over with advertisements for the holiday dance. A Christmas Carol is on TV sometimes, but Evan keeps flipping through the channels. He figures he’s gotten the gist of it. 

He takes his meds. Sometimes he paints his fingernails and even though he usually gets too anxious and chips it off on the car ride to school, he likes to know that he can, like. If he wants to, he can paint his nails. 

Maybe it’s this: Evan, like November, is capable of change. The slide changes. Click. 

The Murphys throw a fancy Christmas party at their house and Evan wears a horrible button-down and Connor wears that awful, tragic bar mitzvah tie and Evan keeps having to explain that he‘s technically Jewish but not, like, spiritually and then he has to tell Mrs. Murphy a bunch of times that it’s totally, totally okay and definitely not discriminatory that she wrapped his present in Christmas tree-patterned paper, and then Mrs. Murphy introduces Evan to her yoga friends as “Connor’s friend Evan” even though Connor has been holding Evan’s hand all night. 

Connor disappears into the kitchen to sneak alcohol and Evan goes and stands in the bathroom and watches himself breathe in the mirror, checking for sweat stains on his stupid scratchy button-down. 

But it’s okay in the end, because Zoe drags them outside onto the back patio and produces a small bowl from somewhere within her dress. They’re sitting in a circle on the freezing stone patio — Zoe, Connor, Jared, Alana, Isley, Luca, and Evan — and there’s a string of multi-colored Christmas lights overhead that turns everything soft shades of pink and yellow, and Zoe is wearing tinsel in her hair. Evan is so achingly glad to know her that he doesn’t even mind the immediate, insistent chatter of his teeth. 

Zoe turns to Alana with a questioning look, but Alana just rolls her eyes and says, “I’m not your DARE Officer.” 

Everybody cheers and Alana rolls her eyes again, lips pressed together like she’s trying to pretend she’s not pleased. Eyebrow Piercing Isley, who has been hopefully trailing Alana through mistletoe-laden doorways all night, cheers loudest of all. 

Zoe lights up and takes a couple hits. She turns to pass the bowl to Evan and then hesitates, smile freezing a little bit as she looks at Connor uncertainly. 

“It’s fine,” says Connor. When Evan turns to look at him, his shoulders are still tight from the hot crush of bodies inside, but he’s not avoiding eye contact or doing that thing where he tugs his ear. The Christmas lights overhead cast him in blue and green, catching in the highs and lows of his face. “I mean, I’m not gonna. But I don’t mind if you guys do.“

Evan shakes his head all the same, waving away the offered bowl, so Zoe and Luca — who has reprised his namesake bolo tie, accompanied with an extremely ugly Christmas sweater — pass the piece between them while Jared talks a lot of transparent, inflated shit about how he’s smoked soooo much weed before. But like, the super intense kind. Like probably this kind wouldn’t even do anything for him because that’s how much fuckin’ Kush he’s smoked before. 

Inside, there is a thunderclap of loud, masculine laughter over the twinkling instrumental Christmas music. Evan and Connor both flinch at the same time, and it makes them laugh. Their knees keep bumping together. 

“Why are you laughing?” Jared asks suspiciously, breaking off from another story about a time that he Definitely For Sure smoked weed. “What’s so funny?”

“Just high on life,” Connor deadpans. 

“Evan, take a hit,” Zoe wheedles, stretching out a foot to nudge at him. Her socks are patterned with Santas of various ethnicities. “It’s not as shitty as last time. Luca’s brother got a new girlfriend with better weed.” 

“She’s going to give me a stick n’ poke tattoo,” Luca adds. 

“That,” Alana says, “sounds extremely suspect.”

“It’s okay,” says Evan. “I’m-“ 

“I don’t mind,” says Connor quietly. He presses his chin into Evan’s shoulder so that when he speaks, his jaw digs in sharp and his throat vibrates against Evan’s shoulder, weird and brittle and vulnerable. “I don’t care if you- I’m good. I’m, y’know, high on life. High on Christmas spirit. Whatever” 

Evan is extremely cold and his limbs are still tight with anxiety from the party inside, from Connor’s striped tie and the Murphy’s rich friends, and Zoe is making wonderful and stupid faces at him. So he gives in and accepts the bowl. He’s not quite sure of, like, the mechanics and so he glances at Connor for help. Connor obligingly moves his fingers into place.

Luca and Alana are still arguing about the stick n’ poke tattoo. Alana has opened up her phone and is reading aloud a Wikipedia article about blood poisoning. The freezing cold air feels weird and dry against Evan’s throat and he coughs a few times. Connor produces a water bottle and presses it into Evan’s hand, passes the bowl. Evan scoots a little closer to Connor and lets their arms knock together. The cold of the patio stone is still bleeding through his slacks, but already he feels a little looser and warmer. 

“Yule,” Evan says.

“What?” says Connor. 

“Hit the Yule,” says Evan. “Like Juul. Is that something?”

Connor cackles. “You’re so stupid,” he says, still laughing. “You’re so stupid. I like you so much.”

Evan has to look down at his lap because he’s sure his face looks unbelievably goofy, smiling so wide. But he leans further into Connor and the next time the bowl comes around, he doesn’t cough as much. 

It’s bitterly cold and he is higher than last time, feeling slow and comfortable and weighted under the Christmas lights. Eyebrow Piercing Isley is trying to convince Alana to download Snapchat and Zoe has disappeared on a mission to steal a cheesecake from the dessert table, and Evan feels okay. 

He kicks out a leg, nudges Jared with the toe of his dress shoe, and says quietly, “You don’t have to if you don’t want. But you won’t look stupid if-“ 

Jared looks pained, flaps a hand at him. “Shut up. Shut up. I’ve just never smoked from a bowl before. I’ve- normally at camp we smoke- yknow-“ 

“Here,” says Connor suddenly, going up on his knees. He snags Zoe’s lighter and shows Jared how to hold the bowl, where to put his finger. “Breathe in for a second and then hold it in your mouth. Then breathe in again.” 

“This is weird,” says Jared suspiciously. He squints at Connor in the dark, Christmas lights overhead casting him yellow and then white. “This is weird. Are you coming onto me? Are you guys trying to fulfill some weird New Years sex resolution?” 

“That’s not a thing,” says Evan. 

“Fuck off,” Connor concludes, but with much less venom than he might have a month ago. “You want my help or what?”

“No, you’re trying to poison me or something,” Jared persists. “Is this laced with poison?” 

“Maybe you shouldn’t smoke if you’re already this fucking paranoid,” says Connor, but he lights the bowl anyway. 

After Jared is done coughing and gulping water and then trying to pretend like he’s Super Chill and Casual, Connor sits back down and unties his tie. He loops it loosely around Evan’s neck, but that makes Evan swallow a little queasily so instead he laces it around his wrist a couple times like a fancy bracelet. Connor laughs at this and then tucks two of his fingers under the striped silk so they rest against the pulse point in Evan’s wrist. 

Zoe gets caught trying to steal a cheesecake and they all come back inside reeking of pot, but otherwise it doesn’t go so badly after all. The slide changes. Click. 

And time keeps going, spooling outward or maybe circling steadily inward. It keeps being night, then morning, then night again. The green electric numbers on the cable box keep shifting. Evan writes scholarship essays and letters to himself and he buys two posters to tape on his wall, which feels like Something. He takes his meds and sometimes he checks in his closet, but he never finds anything. 

Maybe it’s this: Connor quits smoking. Then starts again. Then he lies about quitting and he and Zoe get into an extremely loud fight in the back of Jared’s car while Jared and Evan politely pretend not to notice and turn up the Cats soundtrack. Evan and Connor get into a smaller, quieter fight and Evan spends two slightly soggy nights watching HGTV with his head on his mom’s shoulder. And then they talk about it and it’s okay again. 

Sometimes, Evan wakes up and spends an unmoored minute staring at the ceiling, trying to remember where - or when - he is. 

Sometimes he has to turn on all the lights and open his closet door and put on headphones so that he can fall asleep without flinching, without searching for the sound of a rubber ball against drywall, for a reason to believe that this is not True. Sometimes he has to go and listen outside his mom’s door to make sure she’s breathing. Sometimes he has to text Connor and make sure he isn’t dead. He isn’t. There’s no such thing as ghosts. 

Connor goes back to rehab and Zoe and Evan spend a loud, angry afternoon in the basement shouting swearwords at the ceiling and beating their palms against the drum set. Zoe says that she wants to smash her guitar, but Evan stops her and she kinda seems glad he does. 

She’s writing music again, she tells him later as they crawl around the basement floor, retrieving fallen DVD’s and video games, casualties of their Angry Yelling Session. Both of their voices are hoarse, eyes a little wet. 

“Not jazz, though,” she says. “And not good. It’s more like- like this. Like yelling shit until you feel better.” 

“Screamo?” Evan suggests. She laughs and makes a rock on gesture with her hand, sticks her tongue out. 

“Exactly like screamo,” she says. Then, “Thanks for not letting me smash my guitar.”

“Yeah,” says Evan. “I’d be sad if you stopped playing.” 

“Me, too,” she admits. 

Later, with her face buried in the video game cabinet, she says, “Sometimes I think he’s never going to get better. Sometimes I think, like- I don’t know. It would be easier if we could just accept that.” 

Evan doesn’t answer. He rights a drum which has been knocked over. He digs his toes into the carpeting and stays on the ground. 

“Jesus Christ,” says Zoe. She sits back on her heels. “Sorry. I didn’t- Fuck. Sorry.”

“It’s okay,” says Evan because that’s what he’s supposed to say. 

“I didn’t mean it,” Zoe says, eyes big. “I didn’t mean it.” 

“I know,” Evan says because he believes her, because he knew her when she was The Girl With The Dead Brother, brittle-eyed and flat-voiced. 

They watch a movie and when he walks home, he crosses the street so he doesn’t have to pass the playground directly. It’s a bad night, but when morning comes he is startled at how glad he is to wake in his own bed. To wake at all. 

Connor comes home and Zoe pierces her nose and Evan’s closet is empty, and time keeps going. The slide changes. Click. 

Alana gets waitlisted from her first choice college and spends a week in the library, studying with furious intensity and walking around with a weird, mechanical hysteria to her posture. They show up at her house on a Friday and Jared brings a bottle of sparkling apple cider. 

He says, “Because you’re still worth celebrating or some shit like that. Stop- Shut up. Don’t make it weird. It’s just that I wasn’t going to waste my bar mitzvah whiskey on you people. That shit is my manhood-“ 

Alana gives him a hug and then starts to cry. 

“Don’t make it fucking weird,” Jared laments, but he hugs her back. 

“You’re the one who made it weird,” Alana sniffles. Then, “And don’t curse in the house or my dad will make you put money in the Higher Vocabulary jar. I’m not joking.” 

She’s not. Jared owes the Becks $4.35 by the time they leave that night. Connor owes a flat $12. 

Alana stops looking quite so manic after that, but once Evan starts thinking about college, about whatever is supposed to Happen Next, he can’t stop. His thoughts cycle and his fingers lock together and his knuckles throb. 

“Do you ever go on your roof?” Connor asks a few days later, perching on the windowsill and stretching out his legs. He looks like his Ghostly counterpart for a second, but only for a second.  

The evening light catches him from behind and he isn’t ghostly. He’s in his socks and he let Zoe pierce his ear last week and Evan is quietly and certainly convinced that the piercing is infected and that Connor will probably die of septic shock, but also Connor is reaching out a socked foot and prodding Evan with it, perfectly Not Haunted. 

“No,” says Evan. “I’m scared of heights.” 

Connor does not point out that Evan has historically done a lot of tree climbing, because they have done a lot of Talking about that particular subject. He shrugs and tugs at his ear, a familiar tick that now makes him wince. He keeps forgetting that his ear is pierced. 

“It’s gonna get infected if you keep touching it,” Evan warns him. 

“So I lose a lobe,” Connor says cheerfully. “We should go on the roof.” 

Evan protests for a while and then he gets up and helps Connor remove the screen from the window frame, follows him out onto the roof. It’s February and cold. Connor exhales visibly through his teeth like he’s missing smoking a little bit. Evan holds his hand. 

“Can I say something bad?” Connor asks. Then, at Evan’s immediate and obvious alarm, “Not that bad, Jesus.”

Evan forces his breathing to slow. He digs fingers under a piece of roof shingle and says, “Yeah. Maybe don’t lead with that when you’re- sitting on my roof next time.” 

“Sorry,” says Connor, making a squinty scowl face like he’s mad at himself. “It’s not that bad. It’s just like- you’re gonna be sad when I say it.” 

“Oh,” says Evan, not comforted. He sits up straighter and focuses on bracing his feet, heels and toes flat against the rooftop. “Okay.”

Connor forgets about the piercing and tugs at his ear, winces, lets his hand fall. “I was just thinking- because of Alana, I guess? I was just thinking how I don’t know what the fuck happens next. I can barely- I didn’t even plan on surviving high school, y’know?” 

“Yeah,” Evan says, watches the word cloud up in the air. He knows. 

“I don’t even know if I’m gonna graduate,” Connor says. “Between the- I missed like a month at least. And it’s- I don’t want to be here but what the fuck else am I supposed to do? I thought I’d be dead by now. I didn’t think I’d get this fucking far.”

“You could talk to-“

“That’s not the point.”

“Maybe Alana could-”

“That’s not the point. I’m-“ 

Connor stops and makes a face at his own anger, breathes out through his teeth like he’s wishing for a cigarette. He lines up his toes next to Evan’s, and the leather of his boots is nearly bleached white around the soles and his laces are ratty and frayed. They both look down at his shoes for a little bit. 

“Sorry,” says Connor. “I’m not mad at you, I’m just mad. But I shouldn’t-“

“It’s okay.”

“It’s just that even if I somehow manage to graduate, I don’t know what I’m supposed to do next. I’m not good at making plans. I can barely think past the- I don’t know, the day-to-day of not actively wanting to kill myself.”

Evan keeps looking at the line of their feet, because that’s easier. He doesn’t really know what to say and his throat hurts from the cold and from how achingly Seventeen Years Old he feels in this moment. He is crushed by it, by how fucking Young he feels — and at the same time, by how hard he’s had to fight to be here. He is Seventeen improbably, against all odds and his own intentions. 

He says, finally, “Is this something where you want me to come up with solutions? Or something where you just want me to say ‘this fucking sucks’ and hold your hand? Because I have like a hundred scholarship essays inside if you want.”

Connor laughs and it’s a very feeble sort of laugh. He says, “The second one. Fuckin’ definitely the second one. Don’t make me look at any essays.”

“Okay,” says Evan. He breathes out and watches his exhale fog and then filter away. Then he holds out his hand, palm up, and says sincerely, “This fucking sucks.”

“It fucking sucks,” Connor agrees with a crackly, tearful little laugh and then he smacks his hand down on Evan’s in something between a high-five and a hand-hold. 

They crawl back through the window and go downstairs and Heidi takes a look at Connor’s face and disappears to make tea and Evan finds an episode of House Hunters International for them to watch, and it doesn’t fix anything but the green numbers on the cable box keep shifting, which is something. 

Connor’s ear piercing gets infected and he has to take it out, and it is a Very Sensitive Subject that Evan is not allowed to bring up, because no matter how tactfully he approaches the subject, Connor always insists he is being smug. If Evan is smug, Alana is positively supercilious. The slides keep changing. Click click click. 

The thing is nothing is, like, fixed. 

It doesn’t just stop Being Hard. Evan feels like maybe the end of A Christmas Carol, where Mr. Scrooge buys a Christmas Turkey and resolves to just stop being a miser and Hold Christmas in His Heart and all that shit, was kind of over-simplifying the recovery process. When he voices this, Alana says he is “wildly misreading the book, Evan. Are you sure you actually read it?” 

But Connor agrees that Charles Dickens is “kinda wack.” They’re reading The Things They Carried in English class now, which Connor dubs A Fucking Bummer and then reads voraciously, marking up the pages and underlining wide chunks of text and even raising his hand in class one time. Evan still thinks it’s a kind of depressing book, but at least nobody falls out of a tree. 

He writes a couple of the scholarship essays but his mom keeps printing out more, and he hates the vaguely-worded prompts and the expectant, neatly-stapled piles and how hopefully she’s smiling at him. And then he hates himself for feeling this way because he’s supposed to be better now. He’s supposed to be better. 

Connor talks sometimes in English class now, even if it’s only to say that he disagrees with Dana P’s point about O’Brien’s intentions and hasn’t she ever heard of death of the fucking author? This earns him both a detention and an approving look from their English teacher. Alana brings in cookies for lunch the next day, but she swears it’s for unrelated reasons. 

But even with this occasional participation, Connor is quietly failing several classes and he doesn’t want to talk about it and the school is unsurprisingly Fucking Terrible at accommodating mental illness. Alana keeps offering tutoring sessions and Connor keeps saying no, words a little too sharp each time. 

“I don’t need you to show me how fucking smart you are,” he snaps finally. “You say it enough already.”

Alana’s mouth goes small and her posture gets better, her ponytail gets perkier, which means that she’s really hurt. She avoids eating lunch in the library with them for the rest of the week, claiming she’s too busy with the yearbook committee. Connor bakes gluten-free brownies, covered in icing and sloppy blue-piping letters sorry for being a shithead, and corners her in the yearbook room with brownies and an apology. He asks if she wants to take a look at his essay on the subjectivity of truth in The Things They Carried. She says okay. 

And time keeps going in a messy, inconvenient way where everything is on top of everything else, pictures superimposed over each other, and it’s all knitted so tightly together that Evan can’t ever quite separate the good from the bad. For example, Zoe streaks her hair with purple and then teal, and when Alana asks her politely if she’s having an identity crisis Zoe looks offended for a couple of minutes and then concludes thoughtfully that yeah, she probably is. 

For example, Jared’s parents go away for a weekend and they pass around his Manhood Whiskey and get drunk in his basement, and it’s fun right up until it isn’t. Evan and Zoe share a loaf of slightly-stale Wonder Bread on the bathroom floor, and Evan feels drunk in a panicked, out of control kind of way like he could float right out of his bones. He doesn’t get the swimming pool sensation so much anymore. Most of the time, he’s pretty sure that all of this is Real, but the bathroom tiles are swimming funny in front of his eyes and the air feels thicker than usual and he has to keep pressing his fingers to the nonexistent crack in his arm, keep feeling for damp patches at his knees.

After a while, somebody notices that he’s having a panic attack and then there are bottles of water and a cold washcloth and Connor holding his hand while Jared gives him an Extremely Stunted Shoulder Pat and graciously allows him to sleep on the couch, and Evan lays awake all night watching the numbers change on the cable box, waiting for a Ghostly hand on his shoulder or a suffocating pillow pressed swiftly over his mouth and nose. But in the morning he wakes only to a grinding headache and a basement that smells like puke and damp rug. 

For example, there are anti-bullying assemblies and calculus tests and therapy sessions and First Times and trips to therapy with his mom and mumbled conversations on the roof with Connor. The Murphys take Evan skiing and he nearly breaks his other arm. 

For example, Zoe cuts her hair short and sometimes she lets Evan read her Angry Girl Not-Screamo music and then one day she comes to lunch with a stack of flyers, still warm from the photocopier. 

“It’s not a big deal,” she says, tugging at her ear in a way that makes Evan think of Connor, that makes Evan think that this is, in fact, A Very Big Deal. “I just figured- I mean, fuck The Jared Project, but you weren’t wrong about this school doing jackshit about mental health.”

She slides a flyer across the library tabletop and Evan takes it cautiously. It’s printed in yellows and purples and blues, soft lines and shapes that Evan has come to understand as Zoe. The handwriting is neat and a little bit cramped, like the page can barely contain all the ideas. 

You Will Be Found.

“Oh,” says Alana quietly. 

“I’m partnering with the Health Club,” Zoe says cautiously, voice high and turned up at the end, half a question. “You know Matt the EMT kid? He’s been really helpful in getting me resources and- We’re not going to do any fundraising or anything. It’s not about that. It’s going to be, like- a support group. A place to talk. And a place to- I don’t know, go and lobby the guidance counselors about testing accommodations. Stuff that will actually help, not just cheesy slogans about, y’know, permanent solutions to temporary problems. I was kind of hoping you could help with that part?”

She’s looking at Alana mostly, but her yellow Converse toes are pointed towards Connor and her eyes move quickly around the table, catching over Evan’s face and Jared’s. Her leg is jiggling under the table like she’s nervous, but her face is excited and she’s got that secret little smile around her mouth like when she used to play in jazz band and Evan would sit in the back row and rub his sweaty palms against his knees and think that if only he could talk to Zoe Murphy, maybe everything would be different. 

“I think people need something,” she says, and her eyes are turned towards Connor like she’s pleading with him to understand. “I spent this whole year feeling like I was drowning. I think I need- something. Y’know?”

Connor doesn’t answer, eyes moving as he studies the flyer. Evan says croakily, accidentally, “Yeah.” 

“I would really like to help,” says Alana in a small voice, “in any way you’ll have me.”

“Yeah, uh,” Jared says awkwardly, pulling the crusts off his sandwich with a conspicuous level of concentration, “same here.”

Zoe’s smile widens but her toes are still tapping nervously under the table, pointed at Connor. “What do you think?”

“It’s still not a great mouthfeel,” says Connor finally. “But I guess you could change that.”

“I’m not changing the name,” Zoe says immediately. “The name is Evan’s, anyway. I should’ve asked if you-“

“It’s fine,” Evan says. “It’s- it’s really great, actually.”

She smiles at him like she’s saying thank you. He wants to say it right back, to say thank you thank you thank you to Whoever or Whatever decided he deserved a second chance at knowing Zoe Murphy. He settles for smiling back, offering her a grape. 

The slide changes. Click. Evan drives the car around the block at a lockjaw fifteen miles an hour, making slow and pained circles of the neighborhood with his hands white-knuckling ten and two on the steering wheel. The heat is rattling, and Jared leans over quietly and adjusts the vent so that it doesn’t blow right into Evan’s face. Otherwise, he stays still and lets Evan drive. 

Probably the leaves change color and drop and reappear in the orchard. Probably the trees grow, a steady and imperceptible ascent towards the sun. Evan doesn’t go back and so he cannot know for sure. 

He comes close, once. It’s March and Connor picks Evan up from therapy and he’s playing one of Zoe’s weird alt-rock girl group CDs and Evan likes the way he drives with his palms flat against the wheel, one finger tapping the beat, wonderfully boyish and mindless and stupid. 

Connor says very casually, “We’re near the orchard.” 

And Evan says, “Yeah.” 

They slow down as they cross the entrance, overgrown and lit softly green with March sun, but Connor does not stop the car. They drive back to school and sit on the curb of the parking lot, waiting for Zoe to emerge from the school where she’s meeting with the guidance counselors about the You Will Be Found Club. Connor uproots a fistful of dead grass from a crack in the pavement and deposits it on Evan’s lap, along with a healthy amount of dirt. 

“You’re an asshole,” Evan tells him nicely. 

“Can I ask you something?” Connor asks like he’s not really paying attention. 

“Okay,” Evan says, pulls his knees up to his chest in preparation. By now he recognizes that careful, bracing inhale. They have come close to this moment before. They’ve both been waiting for it, maybe. 

“Remember how I said-“ Connor breaks off, eyes going big, jostling to his feet and pointing out towards the street. “Cryptid car!” 

Evan lurches upright just in time to catch a glimpse of ugly, patchwork car whizzing by. 

“Cryptid car!” Connor says again, whole face crinkled in delight. “Shit, I thought we hallucinated it.”

“We’ve seen Cryptid Car twice and lived,” Evan says. “That’s gotta be- We should make t-shirts.”

“Maybe we’re cursed now,” Connor says happily. 

“Probably the Cryptid Car owes us, like, a favor,” Evan says. He sits back down on the curb and braces his arms behind him, lifts his face up to smile at Connor, at the tips of his hair lit yellow in the afternoon sun. “A boon.”

“I’m gonna ask for a jet ski,” Connor decides. He waves, then, as Zoe emerges from the school. 

“You were gonna ask me something?” Evan prompts, getting to his feet and brushing gravel from his butt. Zoe waves and he waves back, smiling helplessly at her big puffy winter coat and the blue ink doodles that travel up her whole left leg. 

“Yeah,” says Connor, and for a second his face closes off. “Not right now, though. I changed my mind.”

It keeps bobbing up to the surface, obstinately buoyant, and they keep nudging it back under. It catches at the back of Evan’s throat when he laughs like the beginnings of a cold. It lingers in the air like cigarette smoke on the Bad Days when Connor is quiet and folded-inward and sharp, this question that they are afraid to ask. There is no Ghost anymore, but there is this Question. It clutches at Evan’s ankles and weighs down his steps and drags behind. 

How’d you know? Like, you knew where to look but you also knew- In the computer lab. You were saying let me help you, let me- How’d you know?

They come close, a couple of times. That night they get drunk in Jared’s basement, Evan follows Connor up into the kitchen on a Snack Run and watches him forage in the refrigerator for grapes, a dark silhouette backlit in the refrigerator light, and he is almost drunk enough to tell the truth. 

Only Connor’s face goes tight and panicked and he says, “Not yet. Not now. Not- Wait until the morning. Tell me in the morning.”

And Evan loses his resolve and the grapes are too sour and they hurt his stomach and within the hour he and Zoe are locked away in the bathroom, vomiting, and the next morning Connor does not bring It up. 

How’d you know? Like, you knew where to look but you also knew- In the computer lab. You were saying let me help you, let me- How’d you know?

It is too big to swallow, too small to grip. Evan is afraid of it, or maybe he’s just afraid of saying it aloud. Maybe if he voices it — this is not how it was supposed to go — he will suddenly notice the cracks in this illusion, the flimsy tentpoles holding this reality aloft. Maybe Connor’s face will shift from shock to amusement, and when he opens his mouth to laugh there will be nothing behind his teeth but wall. 

But Evan knows what Connor’s voice sounds like now and he is familiar with the wonderfully awkward jut of Connor’s ears when his hair is pulled back and he recognizes the nudge of Connor’s toes at his ankle, and he doesn’t think his brain could maintain such an enormous lie, not for so long. He doesn’t think a Ghost could ever replicate Connor — in all of his rumpled, wonderful layers — so precisely. 

Evan has gotten better at planting his feet, maybe. He thinks he knows his own weight now. He can recognize the sound of his footsteps on the stairs. Sometimes, he forgets to be afraid of his closet; he goes to sleep with the closet door open and does not even realize until morning. Maybe that’s something. 

The runny-nose, thick-throated feeling of vertigo is still there, the feeling of standing on the peak of something terrible, the feeling of standing in the Murphy’s kitchen and finally telling the Truth, but Evan isn’t so afraid of it anymore. He thinks that if Connor asked for the truth, he would be able to give it. 

You’re going to think I’m lying, but I swear I’m not. I knew where to find you because you already died. I knew because I didn’t find you in time, the first time around. 

Only Connor will not ask. 

He comes close sometimes. Evan comes to recognize the catch of Connor’s breath, opening his mouth to ask a question and then closing his teeth around it, swallowing. They talk about everything else, but they will not talk about This. They pass the Orchard, they slow, but they do not stop. They walk past the playground and sometimes they go and sit on the swings, but never after dark. 

Evan lets the silence hang because he doesn’t feel like he has the right to try and lift it. It was a cold night for September and Connor tried to kill himself with a bottle of pills and Evan found him in an empty playground and promised him that he wasn’t dying. In another life, another cold night in September, nobody found him at all and then Evan lied and longed a new Connor into existence. In this life and in every other life, Evan has smudged his fingerprints all over that night. The least he can do now is be quiet, is let Connor set the terms. After that night at Jared’s, he does not try to bring it up anymore.

Instead, they play boardgames, patrol the parking lot behind the school for the Cryptid Car, heckle Jared’s twelve-year-old neighbors over Xbox Live. They sit at the top of the basement stairs and listen to Zoe practicing the guitar, mumble-singing lyrics under her breath until she realizes they’re listening and gets embarrassed and makes them leave. Click click click. April is sunny and they spend an afternoon on Alana’s back patio, dipping newspaper into a clumpy mixture of flour and water, constructing a series of extremely misshapen paper-mache solar systems. 

Jared’s planets all come out vaguely phallic and he makes several obvious jokes about Uranus. Zoe and Connor get belligerent when Alana dares to imply that Pluto is, technically, not a planet. Evan quietly sides with Alana on this subject, but he keeps it to himself and focuses on shaping his own planet, a perfectly spherical Jupiter to replace the one that The Ghost of Connor Murphy dented months ago. He drives home with plaster underneath his fingernails. 

He and his mom watch House Hunters and drive slow, painstaking laps around the neighborhood while the radio drones about the economy. They fight about college applications and they go to sessions with Dr. Sherman and then they sit in the McDonalds parking lot, eating ice cream cones and both crying just a little bit. Evan starts researching community college. He gets an interview at the Pottery Barn in the mall and he throws up in the mall restroom, but not until after the interview is over which Evan considers, like, a Victory. 

“So I can probably get you a discount on, like, overpriced home decor,” he tells the dim, empty road in front of him, the white ridges of his knuckles. He’s too nervous to take his eyes off the road, but Connor laughs from the passenger seat and puts his feet up against the dashboard. 

“Hell yeah,” he says. “You’re a businessman. Now I can fail out of high school and just be your, like, trophy wife.”

“You’re not going to fail,” Evan says. He puts on the blinker well ahead of the turn, glances in the mirror to make sure that there are no headlights behind him. “Also I’m making minimum wage, so.”

“I can trophy wife on a budget,” Connor says, voice muffled as he bites at his cuticle. “Only two fancy seaweed facial things a week, how’s that? I’m willing to sacrifice my luxurious lifestyle.”

Evan waits until he’s made the turn — very, very slowly and awkwardly — to say, “Haven’t you been wearing that same shirt for like three days now, though?”

“Probably,” Connor agrees. “That’s fucking luxury, dude.”

“Dude,” Evan echoes, risks taking one hand off the steering wheel long enough to find Connor’s hand, squeeze it hard. “They said I can ask for more shifts next month. Anything to keep you in- what’d you say, seaweed facials? That’s a thing?”

“It’s definitely a thing.” Connor squeezes back, fingers kinda wet from being in his mouth which is Objectively Gross but mostly Evan finds it Weirdly Endearing because it turns out he really fucking likes Connor Murphy a lot a lot a lot. “Cynthia Murphy loves a good seaweed facial.”

“She does have nice skin,” says Evan. 

“That’s a weird thing to say about my fucking mom, but okay.”

“But your dad’s skin-“

“Fuck off,” Connor yelps, letting go of Evan’s hand. “Let me out of this fucking car.”

“You’re about to lose your Friends and Family Discount at the Pottery Barn,” Evan warns, returning his hand to the steering wheel. “Where else are you going to get your decorative napkin rings?”

Evan’s mom is working late but she’s left a smiley face made of fluorescent-pink Post-It notes on the kitchen counter, another Post-It wishing him good luck at the job interview and informing him that there are pizza bagels in the freezer. She finishes the note with: I’m proud of you no matter what! Good things are coming, Evan. Promise.

Evan turns on the oven, unpackages the pizza bagels, and turns back to find Connor leaning against the counter, reading the note. Connor, sensing his eyes, looks up and pulls a comical little Sad Puppy face. 

“Your mom,” he tells Evan, “is so fucking good.”

“She is,” Evan agrees. “She’s good.”

Mr. Murphy spends an afternoon screwing Connor’s door back into place, talking the whole time about wood grain and screwdriver heads and Not Cutting Corners when it comes to craftsmanship. Connor and Evan sit in the hallway and pass him tools when he asks for them, although usually they pass the wrong tool by mistake. Afterwards, Mr. Murphy asks Evan if his dad ever taught him to play baseball and Evan swallows, knots his fingers against the slick, sudden sensation of oiled leather and shaving cream, and says that no, he’s not really a sports guy. 

And time keeps going. 

It’s a Tuesday night and it’s raining and Evan is having a Really Bad Day, in which nothing particularly bad has happened except that it feels like there’s an old-fashioned alarm clock rattling around behind his ribs and when he finally finishes a long and horrible shift at the Pottery Barn, he spends exactly eighteen minutes sitting in the front seat of his car with a foot on the brakes, unable to turn the key and start the car because he is So Fucking Anxious that everything around him is vibrating, and he’s pretty sure if he tries to drive home right now he’s going to crash. 

Only it’s raining and it’s nighttime and the shopping center parking lot is emptying out all around him, and Evan’s mom is not answering her phone. He has to keep hunching in his seat so that nobody will look at him, because the only thing More Terrifying than driving home right now is the idea that his manager might see him sitting here and offer him a ride. The windshield is slick with rain and the headlights all around him are just glowing, insubstantial blurs of light. Evan pulls his knees up to his chin, shins wedged uncomfortably against the steering wheel, and presses a fist against each eye socket until the darkness behind his closed eyes goes electric and colorful. He makes himself breathe, watching the time change on the dashboard clock. 

It takes Connor exactly fourteen minutes to pull into the parking lot beside Evan, and then it takes Evan another minute to realize that Connor is tapping at the passenger window. Evan has to fumble around to unlock the car but he can’t find the button in the dark and so eventually he just half-crawls onto the passenger seat and manually unlocks the door, so by the time Connor gets into the car he is extremely wet. 

“Sorry,” Evan mumbles, crawling back into the driver’s seat and jabbing himself in the gut with the gearshift. “Sorry.”

“Are you okay?” Connor asks at once. He reaches up to turn on the overhead light and then hesitates, hand hovering. “Can I turn on the light?”

Evan pulls his knees up onto the seat and says, “I don’t want somebody I know to see.”

“Okay,” says Connor, dropping his hand at once. He turns in his seat so his knees knock against the divider, pulls off his outer layer of sweatshirt, fusses with his hair like he doesn’t know what to do with his hands. “Are you okay, though? Like, do you need an inhaler or-“

Evan shakes his head, nose pressed between his knees. Connor touches him on the elbow. 

“Yes or no? It’s dark, dude.”

“I’m okay,” Evan says. He lifts his head enough to prop his chin against his knee. It’s too dark to make out Connor in anything but smudges, broad brushstrokes, but Evan is familiar with the stretched-out neckline of the t-shirt he’s wearing — emblazoned with a faded D.A.R.E. logo — and the floppy, damp curl that doesn’t quite fit behind his ear and keeps springing out again. “No inhaler.”

“Okay,” says Connor, shoulders relaxing a little. He pulls his knees up, too, and turns sideways in his seat to face Evan. He has to pitch his voice loud over the steady rattle of rain on the windshield. “Want me to drive you home?”

“I can’t just leave the car here.”

“We can leave my car. I’ll get it tomorrow.”

“I have to be able to drive,” Evan says, frustrated. He is close to tears and he isn’t good at eye contact right now, so he watches the rain coming down the window instead, trying to isolate one raindrop and follow its path down the glass. “I can’t just- I have a job. I’m gonna have classes. I can’t just-“

“Okay,” says Connor, “so you drive and I’ll sit here.”

Evan shakes his head some more. “I can’t. I can’t. I’m- I can’t. You can go. Sorry. I don’t know why I- I’m being stupid.”

“Okay,” says Connor again, like he’s not sure what else to say. He fidgets for a moment, and then he reclines his seat all the way back with a slight mechanical hum. 

“What are you doing?”

“Getting comfy,” Connor says. He finds his discarded sweatshirt and balls it up, tucks it under his head. “I’m not just gonna leave you here.”

Evan starts to protest, but Connor makes a shhhhh noise at him and sits up, slides open the panel covering the sunroof so they can see the speckled glass overhead, lit funny colors from the mall floodlights. 

“See,” he says, “it’s like a drive-in movie or something.”

“It’s- How is it anything like a-“

Evan gets distracted then because Connor is suddenly climbing into his seat and there’s a sharp skeleton knee digging into his side, and then he yelps as Connor yanks the lever and Evan’s seat reclines suddenly. The sudden drop jolts them both, and Connor’s chin slams really hard into Evan’s cheekbone and Evan’s teeth clack together violently. 

“Jesus fuck,” says Connor. “Sorry. That was- That didn’t go as planned.”

Everything in Evan’s chest feels so tightly-strung that somehow he finds himself laughing. His jaw hurts and Connor’s hair is dripping rainwater onto him. “We’re going to- We’re gonna get arrested for public indecency.”

“Please,” says Connor with dignity, “I’m not gonna make a move on you in the parking lot outside fucking Pottery Barn.”

Evan pulls at the drawstring of Connor’s hoodie until he leans down and kisses him briefly, clumsy angle and chilly lips. Then he’s pressing his thumb to the concerned line between Evan’s eyebrows affectionately and laughing, falling back into his own seat. 

“Nice try. We’re stargazing. Lay back and keep your hands where I can see them, perv.”

Evan rests his hands on his chest obediently, lifts his chin to inspect the blurry, rain-spattered light collecting on the sunroof overhead. The glass is too smudged with rain and light pollution from the floodlights to see any stars. He tries to point this out, but Connor tells him not to be smug. 

There’s not really anything to see outside, and so Evan closes his eyes. It’s quiet, just the steady rhythm of rain against the car, closing them in. His chest is still tight with an aimless, directionless, urgent anxiety and his face ticks at the sound of passing traffic. 

“Y’okay?” Connor asks after a while. “Is this helpful or stupid? I can just drive you home if-“

“It’s okay,” Evan says, letting his eyes squint tight and then release. “It’s helping.”

It’s helping, probably. He makes himself focus on the feeling of the fuzzy car interior under his fingertips, on Connor’s quiet breathing in the seat beside him, on the smell of his work polo — candle wax and sweat and rain. He’s hungry and he has to finish his homework and probably what he really needs is to go home and take a shower and wait for it to be Not Today Anymore. But he can’t bring himself to open his eyes and disrupt the closed-in quiet of the car in the rain. 

Beside him, Connor inhales suddenly. Evan opens his eyes, turns his head enough to watch Connor’s mouth open, form a question, and then close his teeth around it. The resulting silence seems to get bigger, expanding to fill the car and press against the windows, press inquiring fingers at the pulse under Evan’s jaw. 

Evan says quietly, “It’s okay. You can ask, if you want.”

Connor’s head turns and the watery light from the sunroof casts him smudgy and cautious. He looks at Evan with his mouth a little bit open, like he’s standing at the bottom of the steps after that very first meeting of The Jared Project, like he’s standing in Evan’s bedroom and asking how’d you break your arm?

Connor asks, “Do you believe in ghosts?”

The rain is coming down harder now and there’s a crashing whoosh as a faraway car rushes through a puddle. The numbers on the dashboard clock stand still, just for a minute, seconds pooling up on the glass and catching the light, turning everything smudgy and gold and blue. 

It’s not the question that Evan expected. He says, “Yeah.”

Connor presses his lips together and nods and doesn’t say anything else.

“That night,” Evan begins, “you asked me if I was a ghost. Right when I first-”

“I saw him,” Connor says. “Or me, I guess. Or- him.” 

Connor grimaces. He pushes a piece of hair behind his ear. 

“It wasn’t me. It was- It was after I took the pills, so I thought it was- He said he didn’t want me to die by myself.”

Evan does not move, except to blink as a sharp and sudden pain throbs down the healed-over crack of his arm. He says, “You saw-“

“I know how it sounds,” Connor says fast. “I know I was on a lot of drugs, but-“

“I believe you,” Evan says. “Listen, you asked how I knew that you were going to- how I knew where to find you…”

Evan tells the truth, possibly for the first time in his hunched, twitchy life. The drum of rain overhead seems to absorb his words and soften them, swallow any echoes. Connor doesn’t move except to blink and breathe quietly - in through his nose, out through his teeth - and that helps, too. The truth that Evan is telling is an improbable and impossible thing, but so is every breath that Connor takes. So is every impossible beat of the pulse under Evan’s jaw. A tiny resistance against enormity. 

“It’s okay if you don’t- if you don’t believe me,” Evan says. His voice sounds muted and distant to his own ears, partially swallowed by the sounds of the storm. “Or if you hate me for not- for not saying sooner.“

Connor shakes his head hard, mouth open and messy like he can’t find words. Evan wants to reach out and touch him, but he can’t get his hands to move. The hugeness of this Truth has expanded to fill the car, threatening to shatter the windows, to get down Evan’s throat and choke his words. 

He says, hoarsely, “You asked me if I was a ghost. When I found you, you said- You’re not a ghost. You said-“

Connor looks a little unsteady. He shrugs, although there is nothing loose or careless about the gesture. His eyes are big. “I only saw him that one time and I still don’t remember most of it. You being there, I mean. That’s why- I knew it wasn’t Jared but I couldn’t understand how-“

“You thought it was you,” Evan says, understanding. “But you never said-“

“I was overdosing,” Connor says. “There was a lot of- I wasn’t, like, lucid. I don’t remember. But he didn’t want to hurt me, I don’t think.”

The rain has quieted and somehow the numbers on the clock have changed when Evan wasn’t looking. Despite everything, time keeps going, beating relentlessly against the roof and under his jaw and in the pads of his fingertips. 

“He said I wasn’t going to-” Connor starts and stops, face squinted tight like he’s trying to remember. “He said it wasn’t  going to be like this forever.”

The wire holding Evan’s skeleton together is tighter than usual. He can feel every single one of his bones, somehow. He has to put a hand to his neck to make sure there are no hands pressing there. 

“Like what?”

“Like- bad,” says Connor finally, a little bit helpless. “Like, dying. Like feeling like I was always going to feel like that.” 

His eyes are big and something about his mouth is slack and young and anxious, waiting for Evan to tell him that he’s wrong, to tell him it’s all a lie. 

“You believe me?”

Evan presses his fingers against the phantom pain in his arm, against the knit-together bone, and wonders which me Connor is asking him to believe in. He doesn’t know when he started to believe that This Was Real. He can’t pinpoint the first night he fell asleep with his closet door open, unafraid. It happened slowly and impossibly and all at once. Like a broken bone wiring itself back together. Like the opposite of a haunting. Like healing. 

He nods, and then when that does not feel like enough, he says it out loud: “I believe you.”

And then suddenly that clutching, pressing, tightness seems to go away. He can breathe. The rain is nothing but a drizzle, a drum of fingernails against the roof overhead. 

“I thought I was fucking crazy,” Connor says. He rolls onto his back and exhales a laugh. It’s not really a laugh so much as a deflation, a sudden loss of tension around the shoulders. Some of the tightness behind Evan’s ribs softens. He is one hundred different Evans for a moment, and then he is just Evan in the car in the rain. 

“Don’t be insensitive,” he says weakly. “The correct term is mentally ill.”

This makes Connor laugh again, more humor behind it this time. He finds Evan’s hand and grips it hard and then they don’t talk for a very long time, just let Connor’s laugh drift in the silence. 

Evan says, eventually, “I’m probably okay to drive home.”

He drives home with his wipers groaning against the windshield, rain ghosting slowly through the headlights. Every time Evan looks in the rearview mirror, Connor’s car is following faithfully behind, Connor a dim shape behind the wheel, caught in shades of the red taillight. For a second, when he looks back, Evan thinks he sees a second shape in the mirror. And then he looks again, and it’s only Connor. 

The world does not end. Morning comes and the rain dries. It’s like Evan didn’t even realize he was high up, still ascending wearily, until that Truth was told. When he looks down at his feet now, they don’t dangle. Gravity stops pulling quite so hard. 

The film keeps rolling. 

They bake cupcakes in the Murphy’s kitchen for Zoe’s first official meeting of You Will Be Found. Well, mostly Evan and Alana bake while Zoe and Connor squabble about what song to play next and Cynthia Murphy hovers anxiously around, greasing baking tins and piling the table with sacks of gluten-free flour. 

While the cupcakes are baking, they sit in the basement and Zoe plays them one of her new songs. She plays with her face turned down, yellow-painted fingernails bright against the fret of her guitar, and she sings quietly like she’s a little bit self-conscious. Evan rubs his hands against his knees and watches her quiet, turned-inward smile of concentration, listens to her sing about anger and requiem and forgiveness. 

He loves her so tremendously he can barely fit the feeling behind his ribs. It sneaks out through his sweaty palms and his insistent smile, so goofy and obvious that Zoe laughs at him, pokes a finger at his cheek. 

“What are you, my dad?” she teases. “You’re so embarrassing.” 

“I just really like jazz band,” Evan says unconvincingly, still grinning, and then he lets her hug him Extra Hard when he leaves, a collision of elbows and ribs. He’s just really glad to know Zoe Murphy, to actually Know her. He didn’t think he’d ever get a second chance at loving her. 

Evan does not attend the You Will Be Found club meetings and Connor doesn’t either. They help pin up flyers and make cupcakes for the bakesale, and then after school they do other things until it’s time to pick Zoe up from meetings. They do homework at Evan’s kitchen table. Connor drops Evan off at therapy and then sits in the parking lot, painting his nails so that when Evan comes back the whole car reeks of acrylic. They go to the park and collect leaves. They go to the library so Alana can tutor Connor in calculus, and Evan finds himself writing for the first time in a Very Long Time. Not scholarship essays. Not letters. Not suicide notes. Just writing. 

He doesn’t know when that started happening. 

He can’t quite found an origin for this current of happiness, this steady beat of Forward Forward Forward. Time keeps going or maybe growing, opening wider and wider, a series of concurrent tree rings, mostly dead and never dying, imperceptible growth, time running in watery brown veins through the wood. 

And suddenly it’s the end of May and soon everything is going to change, but Today Is Good and here’s why: graduation is still two weeks away and Evan is driving and Jared has rolled all the windows down so they have to shout to be heard over the buffeting wind and the Angry Girl Guitar music that Zoe is blasting through the aux cord. Evan is driving at precisely the speed limit, no faster, but nobody is giving him shit for it. Maybe they are all, suddenly, anxious to slow down. To freeze-frame, just for a moment. 

Here it is, frame by frame, in its tiniest parts:

Alana’s arms wrapped tight around a stack of YWBF pamphlets to stop them from flying away, looking both ways when they make a turn, visibly fighting back the urge to Backseat Drive, rolling her eyes and then grinning wide when Connor points a straw at her like a microphone, singing along to the words she knows and bobbing her head agreeably to the words she does not. Click.

Jared fighting Zoe for the aux cord, queuing up an electronic remix of some meme that Evan vaguely knows of, cackling at the resulting cries of dismay and returning Connor’s middle finger gleefully, laughing too hard to remember that he’s Too Cool for all of this. Click. 

Zoe growing too impatient, switching to the next song before Jared’s selection has even concluded, still laughing too hard to sing properly so all her words come out at a half-yell. Zoe, hair chopped short, looking like Connor with her face so crumpled in joyful fury, furious joy. Click. 

Here it is, all at once, in all its enormity: 

Connor in the passenger seat, spitting hair out of his mouth, eyes teary from the wind, one hand braced on the back of Evan’s seat. It’s too hot for his many layers of sweatshirt and the wind ruffles his t-shirt, presses against the wonderful Boy Shape of his shoulders and his arms and his breathing ribs. Connor, knees knocking against the dashboard. Connor with his hands out the window and tugging at his ear and flipping off Jared and pressing briefly to Evan’s neck at the nob of his spine. Not Dead Not Dead Not Dead, the most Alive person Evan’s ever known.

And Evan’s hands on the wheel, still perched cautiously but his knuckles are not white and his bones are not broken.

At Jared’s urging, they stop for slurpees at the 7-11 and Evan makes the turn smoothly, pulls into a parking space on his first try. It’s a super fucking tiny victory, maybe, but Evan takes it. He and Alana lean against the hood of the car, metal burning hot against their legs, as Jared, Zoe, and Connor emerge laden with slurpees and bags of shitty junk food. 

“You know you’re just, like, drinking corn syrup,” Alana tells Jared, and he sticks out his tongue, stained a fluorescent and unnatural blue raspberry. 

“We love cheap consumerism,” Zoe says with a shrug. 

“Think fast,” says Connor cheerfully, and all of a sudden he is hurling a small pink superball at Evan’s face. 

Evan is standing in the parking lot of the 7-11 and for a second it feels like the world shifts sideways, off-kilter, and time unclocks itself and suddenly there are a hundred different versions of himself standing in this parking lot, squinting in the sun. And time goes funny, but only because Evan can suddenly see it all laid out before him like a film reel, time going and going and going on for forever. 

He reaches up and catches the ball.