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Jeremy’s hands are shaking. He’s not sure when that happened, so entangled in his own thoughts, but he doesn’t feel panicked, or upset, or nervous. His face doesn’t feel hot. His stomach is calm. His pulse is normal, not thumping wildly. Jeremy is, for all intents and purposes, completely fine. So, he can’t figure out for the life of him why he’s trembling so badly. A voice, cool and sharp, sounds in the back of his mind.

“Don’t kid yourself, Jeremy, you’re terrified. You’re just suppressing it. I’m sure it’ll all hit in a few minutes.”

Jeremy flinches and keeps his eyes trained on what he’s doing. Pick up an article of clothing, inspect it, decide if it’s useful, throw it either to his left or to his right, repeat. No, too dirty. No, too heavy. No, too uncomfortable. He manages to fall back into the routine, ignoring both his shakes and his SQUIP, before he’s once again interrupted.

“Ignoring me now, are we? I’m inside your brain, Jeremy, you can’t ignore me!” It materializes in front of him, looking just as smug and just as much like Keanu Reeves as ever. Jeremy sighs, throws the shirt in his hand to the left, and glares weakly at the SQUIP.

“What do you want?” He bites out, but he knows it’s a useless question. The SQUIP wants what it always wants. To make him cool. To make him popular. To hurt everyone around him and destroy all his friendships. Though, that last part was mostly Jeremy’s doing. All Jeremy’s doing.

“It’s not too late to fix everything, you know,” it says, almost soothingly. Jeremy huffs and turns away — he’s heard this before. He gathers the relatively small pile of clothes to his right and crams it the black and white bookbag the SQUIP had him buy, empty now that he’s gone back to using the one that Rich had scribbled on, if just to match with Michael. The thought of his best friend makes butterflies dance in his stomach just as strongly as it makes him sick with guilt. Jeremy wonders if, after the message he left, Michael will hate him. That is, if he didn’t already. But, no. He pushes him from his mind. Now’s not the time for that; he needs to focus on what he’s doing. Jeremy scoops up the snacks he’d stolen from downstairs and puts them in the bag, too, along with a few bottles of water. He shoves all the money he has at the very bottom of the bag, for safe keeping. He zips the bag up and slings it over his shoulders. He takes his phone from where he tossed it after his call earlier, makes sure it’s completely turned off, and pockets it.

Jeremy looks around his room for anything essential he’s forgotten. He sees his favorite blue cardigan peeking out from under all his clothes, and his heart sinks just a bit. It was comforting and soft — the perfect sweater — and he wears it all the time, especially when he’s anxious or nervous. Leaving without it feels almost unnatural. But that was exactly why it had to stay. It’d be easily recognizable, and he knows if he takes it he’ll wear it constantly for its familiarity. Jeremy can’t take any chances. He can’t be found. He looks away from it, and the next thing to catch his eye is the blank sheet of paper sitting on the desk, a pen laid neatly next to it. Reluctantly, he makes his way over to it and slumps down in his desk chair.

He picks the pen up and starts absently tapping the end of it on the desk. He knew this was going to be the hardest part. What can he possibly say that would make this okay? What can he say to make them forgive him for his cowardice?

The SQUIP, apparently, thinks Jeremy wants an answer, because he glitches to his side, an almost-real hand on his shoulder. “You keep saying you don’t want to hurt them, Jeremy, but here you are! Leaving them to deal with the mess you created. How selfish. How disgusting!” He can hear the self-assured smile in it’s voice. Jeremy wants to scream. He wonders if he’ll be missed (“Of course not,” the SQUIP says in his ear), wonders how hard they’ll look for him before they give up (“Waste their time on you? Please,”). He wonders if anyone will cry. He wonders, once school starts back up, if they’ll have some bullshit assembly for him, where everyone will pretend they knew him, prattle on about how he was such a great guy, about how he was so nice to them, so quiet but so sweet. Or, if everyone will continue on like he never existed. He deserves that, he thinks. He deserves to be forgotten and discarded. He almost ruined everyone’s lives for his own gain, after all. And now that the thing that helped him do it keeps coming back, keeps whispering in his ear, well, there’s no telling what might happen this time.

His hands are still trembling. He writes the first thing that comes to mind. ’I’m so sorry. This is really for the best. I love you all. I’ll miss you.’ It’s shaky, but legible. Jeremy can’t bear to sit still anymore, can’t bear to think about what he’s doing. He just has to do it. He stands quickly and leaves his room, flicking the light off and not looking back. He treads softly, careful not to wake his dad down the hall. He doesn’t look where he’s going, letting memory carry him downstairs and to the front door, because Jeremy knows if he lingers, if he thinks about how this should be the last time he’s ever in here, he won’t be able to leave. He’ll rush back into his room, dump out his bag, trash the note, turn his phone back on.

Jeremy pulls the front door open, quietly, and allows himself just a second of hesitance. Before he can freeze up in fear and regret, he steps through the threshold, shuts the door behind him. It’s locked from the inside. He has no choice now. He leaves his house, his friends, his family behind him as he makes his way towards the freeway just on the edge of town.

Jeremy Heere has run away.

 

***

 

Michael Mell wakes up at 5:37 AM. He blinks blearily at his alarm clock — surely, he’s reading it wrong. Why in the hell is he up so early? He listens for any noise, but silence rings in his ears; he’s comfortable, not too hot or too cold; and he hasn’t woken up before 9 o’clock all summer. But then the memory of that afternoon hits him: sending Jeremy home after he slept over, playing Mario Party and Pokemon Snap for an unreasonable amount of time, then getting absolutely blasted and passing out at 7 PM. So, yeah, waking up at five in the morning checks out. For the ungodly hour, Michael feels stupidly awake. He huffs — guess he’s not going back to sleep — and blindly reaches for his phone and his glasses on the bedside table. After poking himself in the eye no less than twice, his glasses slide on and he turns on his phone, temporarily blinding himself in the process. Man, he’s pretty dumb in the mornings. It’s a good thing Jeremy is a freaky morning person, Michael thinks, otherwise he’d be pretty screwed.

Speaking of Jeremy, he has a voicemail from him. His heart picks up. Late-night calls were almost never a good thing, usually following a nightmare and several frantic, borderline unreadable texts. But, this time there are no texts, and there’s only one call instead of dozens trying desperately to wake Michael up. And the voicemail itself is strange, too. Instead of relaxing, nerves coil intensely in Michael’s gut. He unlocks his phone in record speed, opens up the voicemail, presses play, and holds his phone close to his ear.

There’s a few moments of static before Jeremy says, “Michael,” and his voice isn’t heavy with sobs and wheezing. It’s just… normal. Maybe he was freaking out too much, he thinks, maybe it’s just a stupid joke. Jeremy continues.

“I… I’m really not sure what to say.” He laughs, but it’s awkward and a little nervous. “Listen, I-I’m gonna… I’m gonna run away, Michael,” he says, and that strikes Michael in the heart, and he goes from relatively calm to freaking out again almost instantaneously. He’s about to yell, to say something to derail Jeremy’s train of thought, reassure himself that ‘hey man, you’re just joking, right?’, but he remembers that it’s a recording and snaps his mouth shut. But he can’t just lay in bed anymore. He listens carefully to the message as he dresses himself and gets ready to speed over to the Heere’s house.

“I know you’re probably freaking out right now, or, I don’t know, you don’t think I’m serious, but Michael, please, listen to me,” and the desperation in his tone makes Michael pause, one leg in his pants, shirt on backwards. “The SQUIP it-it won’t go away. It keeps coming back no matter how much fucking Mountain Dew Red I drink, a-and,” he starts to get emotional, voice wobbling, “I don’t know what might happen this time. I don’t know what I might do. I have to leave, Michael. I-I know this sounds selfish, like I’m just running away from my problems, but. I don’t want to hurt anyone else again. I don’t want to hurt you again!” And Michael wants to scream ‘you’re already hurting me, you’re leaving me again, Jeremy, please’ but he stays quiet, stays still.

“I promised myself I wouldn’t let it control me and my life anymore. That I would be the loudest voice. But… I’m not sure how much I trust myself to keep that promise, y’know? S-so I’m not gonna wait for the other shoe to drop. I’m taking both of us away. A-away from all our friends, and everyone who ever had a SQUIP, so I won’t be able to mess with everyone, and it won’t be able to try and make it’s s-stupid hivemind, or whatever.” Jeremy takes in a deep breath. Michael can hear the tears, and it stomps on his heart.

“I’m telling you because I just want you to know that-that this isn’t your fault. This is all my desicion, Michael. And I-I’m so, so sorry for leaving. B-But it’s not because of anything you did, or anything about you, it’s all me. I have to do this. I’m so sorry, Michael. You’re my best friend. I don’t want to leave you,” Then don’t, Michael thinks, then stay, “but I have to. I love you so much, man. I’m sorry.” And then, Michael hears the click of the line going dead.

He wants to scream. At himself, at Jeremy, at that stupid computer, at anyone. He feels like a fucking idiot — how had he not seen this? How had he not noticed Jeremy acting weird, or saying weird things, or-or-

He rips the phone away from his ear, and checks the time the call was made. 3:50 AM. Almost two hours ago. He starts shoving his clothes back on, grabbing his phone and his keys, storming out of the house, slamming the door. If he’s fast enough, maybe he can call the cops, maybe he’s not too far, maybe they can still find him before he’s out of their reach. He dials 911 on his way over to the Heere’s, giving them Jeremy’s name, address, and that he ran two hours ago, before hanging up. And then, barely keeping an eye on the road, he tries to call Jeremy. Michael’s icon for him, a picture of the two of them grinning ecstatically with their faces smushed together, lights up the screen for a brief moment, before the robotic voice of an answering machine sounds over the speakerphone. Fuck. Michael hangs up and calls again. Then a third time, then a fourth, trying desperately for a ring, for anything, but it keeps going straight to voicemail. He must’ve turned his phone off, or maybe it was dead, or crushed to pieces next to Jeremy’s body, lifeless and bloody and cold— He swerves with a start, barely avoiding a raccoon trying to cross the road. Right. He was driving.

He spends the drive alternating between nervously tapping the wheel and gripping it so hard his knuckles turn white, trying not to spiral into a panic attack. He screeches to a stop by the curb outside Jeremy’s house, finding the cops haven’t arrived yet. He gets out of his car and tears across the lawn, almost-morning dew soaking him to his socks. With a heavy fist, he bangs on the front door hard enough he hears the window pane rattle. A neighbor’s dog starts to bark.

“Mr. Heere!” Michael yells, and then, more desperately, “Jeremy!!”. He pounds at the door again. He’s thankful Mr. Heere is a light sleeper — after a few seconds of thumping, clumsy footsteps, the door is thrown open. Jeremy’s dad is sleep-addled, but his eyes are wide with surprise and fear.

“Michael?” he says, “What’s going on?” But Michael has already pushed past him and is scrambling up the stairs. Mr. Heere follows after him, calling for an explanation, but all Michael can think about it Jeremy, Jeremy, Jeremy. He comes to his door, signified by a tacky Mario nameplate, with ‘& Michael’ scribbled under it in permanent marker, a joke from many years ago about how one was rarely home without the other. Michael opens the door and turns on the light.

There is a pile of clothes near the closet. The sheets are messy, as they usually are. There are posters taped all across the walls. There are pictures pinned to a corkboard. There is a single sheet of paper on a usually cluttered desk. There is no Jeremy.