Chapter 1: After School
It started out like any other school day. I checked my beanie before heading out the door to make sure the three-sided pin was tucked safely away. Yes, it was still there, behind the fold, near the other pins, out of sight. Secure.
Typical lunch, too. We all took our usual table: Me, Veronica, Kevin, and Riverdale's very own power couple, the couple of destiny, Archie Andrews and Betty Cooper. I sat across from the love birds, torturing myself as per usual. And Veronica "innocently" tortured Betty as well with all of her "Archiekins" this and "Archiekins" that, playfully never letting her best friend forget that she had had her man first. Even though I knew Veronica didn't intend to be that much of a bitch to Betty, and probably would have stopped if she knew how much it pained her friend, I had grown to hate her for it. I felt like I was really the only one who knew what was going on with Betty. She was still trying so hard to be perfect, the perfect girlfriend to the boy she had always wanted. And it wasn't easy on her.
But this was our routine. Me, pining silently, invisibly, for the girl I had lost; Veronica trying to work out her jealousy in the guise of fun; Kevin being well, Kevin; and Archie and Betty doing their very best to redefine the term "perfect couple." They were the do-gooders of the school. They always seemed to have some injustice to right, some cause to fight for. Long ago, that cause had been my dad, but now he was squarely off their radar. I missed those days . . . the days when Betty had been mine.
No, everything was normal until after school. I had stayed late. It was a burden on my foster family to even let me keep attending school at Riverdale, since the school buses obviously didn't go out of the district to pick up students, and I often had to wait over when "Mom 2.0" (I loved calling her that, it made her smile) had to work later than planned. Like yesterday.
When I saw Ethel.
I was walking around the back of the gym – why she chose there of all places is anyone's guess – when the billowing of her ubiquitous black skirt caught my eye. I glanced up, squinting against the sun behind the building. She was on the roof.
Instinct took over. I dropped my backpack and bolted. I was on that roof in a flash and had Ethel tackled in mere seconds, safely away from the ledge.
I lay there on top of her panting. Poor girl, I had knocked the wind out of her.
"Ethel, hey. Don't panic. It will come back in time. Your breath. Just let it."
Tears were swimming in her eyes. Still unable to take a full breath, she pushed me off of her.
She sucked air in, instead of out, so that she could form one word. "Why?"
"Why? Ethel, what kind of a question is that?" I furrowed my brows. "I don't want you to die."
She slowly rolled up into a seated position. She crossed her legs, tucked her skirt under her knees, and then just let her hands flop dejectedly into her lap. Looking down at them, she said, "But I do."
"Ethel, no. Don't say things like that."
"Why? Why don't you want me to die?"
"Because Ethel, you're a sweet girl." I clucked a finger under her chin, so she would look me in the eye. "And there are so few good people around here. We don't want to lose another one."
We both sat glumly for a second, remembering Fred Andrews.
Juggie – where are you, sweetie? You're not in your usual place. I can't find you. – a worried text from Mom 2.0 interrupted us.
Looking at the text, I could easily read the anxiety between her words. Had I been a normal teenager, I might have found her tendency to fret a bit annoying. But I'm weird I guess. It only made me feel safe and loved. I was finally happy that someone cared about what happened to me on a consistent basis. I knew my dad loved me as fiercely as I loved him, but being locked away in jail, even if he maintained sobriety, he just didn't have the resources to regularly check in on my well-being. Not even with the Southside Serpents at his disposal. I had never experienced anything like it in all of my broken childhood, but I found that Mom 2.0's worry over me was something I had needed for years.
"Oh, Ethel this is –" I hesitated, looking at my phone again. "I should go."
She nodded and looked down, resuming staring at her open palms laying in her skirt. It made me think of Betty's scarred palms. Without thinking I touched the three sided pin, hidden in my cap, by sheer instinct.
"Uh, Ethel. Do you want to come home with me? For a while?"
Ethel looked up at me questioningly.
"Mom 2.0 makes a mean spaghetti. Perfect comfort food." I grinned.
Almost despite herself, she gave me a small grin back. "Okay, Jughead."
When we got back home and Ethel went to use the restroom, I pulled Mom 2.0 aside, and spoke to her quietly.
"Hey, uh, Ethel just tried to kill herself."
"Uh, yeah. I kinda stopped her. Tackled her on the roof of the gym before she could jump."
Mom 2.0 reached up to touch my cheek and smiled with pride in her eyes. "Oh, you're such a good boy, Jughead."
"Not according to my Serpent jacket," I joked.
We both shared a laugh as her hand dropped from my face.
"Well, you own it, it doesn't own you. We've talked about this now." Mom 2.0 delivered a little bit of sternness before going soft again. "Do you know why she wanted to die?"
"No, but I'm hoping to find out over dinner. See if I can help her with all this. She's a nice person. Whatever's eating her up inside, I know she doesn't deserve it."
"Spaghetti then? With all of the fixings?"
"Yeah, that would be great." I smiled.
"I'll break out my best Prego!" Mom 2.0 enthusiastically bustled back to the kitchen. She loved to cook and that was a good thing – 'cause I loved to eat.
Chapter 2: A New Friend
Ethel and I had talked while we both devoured Mom 2.0's spaghetti, finishing it all before the rest of my foster family arrived home in time for their own dinner. Ethel talked about how her parents were back to fighting ruthlessly since her dad had recovered from his suicide attempt last year. They had lost their house – lost everything – and were subsisting on the charity of relatives. Her story sounded a lot like mine, except for the charitable relatives part, because I had to subsist on the charity of strangers now, like Mom 2.0 and the rest of my foster family. She slipped me a card surreptitiously while I listened to Ethel. The card had a suicide hotline number on it.
"Ethel, you know I'm always here if you ever need to talk, okay? I've been through some of this myself."
She nodded, her red curls bobbing, "Thank you, Juggie. I'll keep that in mind."
"Good." I smiled and patted her hand.
I never gave her the card. I figured I was enough. I was someone she could talk to when things got too bleak. That's all she needed, right?
The next day at school the usual crowd was seated at our table. I sat next to Kevin, with Veronica, Archie, and Betty right across from us. The whole school had been abuzz with the news of a new Blossom that was moving to town, a cousin of Cheryl's.
"Do you think she'll have red hair?" Veronica inquired excitedly as if it was the most important question to be asking, even though the answer was obvious.
"What do you think?" I responded sarcastically, almost rudely, with a tilt of my head.
Betty kicked me lightly under the table.
"Jughead?" Suddenly Ethel was hovering about my shoulder, balancing a small tray of cupcakes in one hand. They were wrapped carefully in Saran wrap.
"Hey, Ethel," I looked up at her and scooched over, making room for her to sit next to me.
"I made these for you, as a thank you," she said and sat down.
I saw Veronica silently mouth "thank you for what?" to Betty, who gave an almost imperceptible shake of her ponytail in response.
"Ethel, these look really good," I said as she set the tray before me. "May I?"
"Sure, go ahead. They are for you afterall." Ethel gave a shy little shrug of her shoulders.
"So, what did Jughead uh . . ." Veronica let out a little cough as I pulled a cupcake from the platter. ". . . DO for you, Ethel?"
"Ronnie!" Betty hissed.
Ethel turned bright red.
"Yeah, not cool, Veronica." I snapped.
Veronica put her hands up in defense. "I'm just asking because I've never seen you come around with a girl before, Jug."
I wasn't having any of this. I stood up and held out my hand to Ethel, "C'mon, let's go eat somewhere else today."
Ethel didn't need any kind of inquiry into her private life right now. I wanted to protect her from the prying eyes of the Archie gang. Betty watched me take Ethel's hand curiously, but it's not like I held onto it. I was just helping her out of her seat.
And she was still curious enough to approach me about it later.
"So, Jug, what's going on with Ethel?" Betty ambushed me at my locker. Thankfully it was just her and Mr. Perfect Boyfriend wasn't with her.
I looked at her carefully, the golden light of the afternoon sun streaming through the windows, lighting up the fringes of her ponytail. Her blue eyes were open and inquisitive without any sign of the hurt I would sometimes see swimming in them when I would catch her watching me. Although I had been seeing that less and less as time went on. Much less, actually . . . In fact, when was the last time I had seen it? Months ago?
She was finally over me, no doubt. Past this. Past us.
But could I still trust her? Yes. Staring into her blue eyes I knew I could trust her. Just like always. Nothing had changed there. But could I trust her with someone else's secret?
I thought for a moment and decided . . . yes.
"Look, Betty, Ethel tried to kill herself and I kinda . . ."
Her eyes went wide and she leaned forward a bit, "You saved her, didn't you?"
"Oh poor girl. Why did she – " Betty stopped herself and shook her head. "No, that's her business. I won't ask. I'm sure you're being a supportive friend to her. It's what she needs right now."
She reached out and stroked my shoulder.
"Yeah, something like that."
She smiled, dropped her hand, and walked back down the hallway to Archie. My eyes followed her the entire way and my fingers started moving to touch the hidden pin in my cap. Almost did, too. But I stopped myself just short of doing so.
Chapter 3: Cherry Bombs
Ethel brought me new treats every day. Usually stuff I really liked. How did she know?
"Silly," Betty said kicking me lightly under the table as I pondered this aloud. "She's paying attention."
"Every time you mention even the littlest thing . . ."
Veronica jumped in, "Yeah, like when you mentioned that you really liked the barbeque sauce Pop's uses on their burgers? Remember the very next day she brought you some wings and pointed out that the barbeque sauce on them was the very same."
"Right." Betty's ponytail bobbed in assent.
"Huh." Mind . . . blown?
Ethel sauntered over to our table looking distracted.
"Uh, hi guys," she said quietly as she sat down.
"Hey Ethel," the girls sing-songed. Kevin didn't even give her a passing glance. What a dick.
"You okay, Ethel?" I asked her quietly once the attention was off of her.
"Not really," she said meekly. "Can we talk about it later?"
I saw tears swimming in her eyes and my brows furrowed in consternation. What could be upsetting her?
I nodded. "After school?"
"Thank you," she grasped my hand briefly and then went silent.
It took me a second to realize that she hadn't brought me any food. Something must be seriously wrong.
But I didn't have long to ponder that because soon Archie was at our table, by the side of the World's Most Perfect Girlfriend. He kissed her as he sat down. I always instinctively looked away at that even though it didn't really bother me anymore. Veronica looped her arm in his and welcomed her "Archiekins" with a peck on the cheek.
And then . . .
Well then Angelica Blossom happened.
If Cheryl was a bombshell, well then Angelica was the whole nuke. When she walked into the cafeteria holding hands with her cousin it was if time stood still and everything went silent. For Archie at least.
Betty had been talking to him about one of their pet projects – trying to get his input – and the second that girl walked into the room his head whipped away. He didn't even attempt to hide his distraction from her. He gulped, pulled at his collar, and looked like a lovesick puppy, just staring at her, mesmerized. It was so obvious that even Veronica noticed and turned her head to see what he was gawking at.
After a couple of futile attempts to get Archie to even acknowledge her questions, Betty put on her stoic face. I knew she was curling her fists under the table, digging her nails into her palms in her unspoken distress.
"Betty," I said quietly and reached for one of her hands. And yes, I was right, it was curled into a tight fist.
She jerked it away and looked up at me with shocked eyes. The violation registered with me. I shouldn't have done that.
She excused herself from the table and left calmly. Icily.
"Ethel, I'll meet you after school, okay?" I said and excused myself from the table. I didn't need to witness what would likely be an epic Blossom meltdown in the cafeteria and I felt compelled to talk to Betty right away.
Chapter 4: Confrontation
I found Betty where I knew I would – in the offices of the Blue & Gold. She was pacing.
"Jughead, hey!" she said when she saw me.
"Hey," I shuffled my feet a little bit. "I wanted to talk to you about what happened back there."
"What? Cheryl Bombshell and her A-Blazing cousin?"
"They're going to set the whole school on fire," I quipped.
"Don't give them matches."
"Low blow there, Cooper. Low blow."
We shared a chuckle over what shouldn't be funny – my juvie record for playing with matches. I had been accused of trying to burn down my elementary school.
"Hey," I said once we calmed down. "I wanted to talk to you about your 'beast within'."
Instinctively, she curled up her fingers and wrapped her arms about her, like she was trying to hide that aspect of herself. But she couldn't. I already knew. We even had a nickname for it.
"Does Archie know?"
"Oh God no." She looked mortified, her blue eyes going wide and her ponytail shaking from side to side.
"Why haven't you told him, Betts? You two have been together longer now than we were."
"You don't understand. It's different with Archie."
"What? It's so different that you can't be yourself? That you've got to be this 'perfect girlfriend' that your mother probably convinced you that you needed to be?"
"What's that supposed to mean?"
"He's well . . . he was the boy I always wanted."
That hurt. I knew that already. But it still hurt.
She wasn't looking at me as she continued. "I want to be my best for him."
"So you're only allowed to be yourself when you're slumming it with me, eh?"
"You know, I liked you just fine as you were. No, I loved you, Betty."
There was that word just hung in the air between us, so presently in the past tense.
"But you don't anymore." Her quivering lip made her look almost . . . vulnerable.
"That's not the point."
"Then what is the point, Jughead?"
I rushed to her, took her hands, opened up her palms to show her.
"This is the point, Betty. He doesn't love you."
"Yes, he do –"
"Do you even let him get to see you, the real you?" I shook her hands for emphasis.
She just looked down at them.
"No, you don't Betty." I shook my head and then thought about something. "But why would you want him to anyway? He takes you for granted."
"He does n–" she started to protest.
"Really?" I gently ran my finger along a ridge of crescent marks in her left palm, so freshly made. "Really now, Betty? These don't lie."
She snatched her hands away.
"How many times are you going to make those marks as he checks out other girls?"
Betty crossed her arms, fuming. Defensively, she said, "He has never, and I repeat never, cheated on me."
"He doesn't have to. The damage is done."
I gave a brief, knowing incline of my head, and left.
Coming Next: Serpents
Chapter 5: Serpents
Where are you? I texted Ethel because she was nowhere to be found after school.
NM. I don't want to bother you. She texted back after an awfully long wait.
I didn't really have a chance to reply because just then my phone rang. It was McGrady, one of my dad's associates, calling me in his place because he was still in jail. Sounded like someone needed a ride.
I snuck back into the house quietly and slipped off my Southside Serpents jacket as unobtrusively as I could. I knew it pained Mom 2.0 to see me in it. She didn't want me to follow in the ways of my father, yet understood my loyalty to his people. She was torn. I was torn.
The jacket dangled from my fingertips as I crept down the hallway. I stopped dead in my tracks when I heard her on the phone, pleading.
"No, please don't take him away. He's been a good boy in our care, I promise."
What? Ice encircled my heart and I felt like I couldn't breathe for a second.
"Just because he was seen in that jacket . . . yes, and riding his dad's motorcycle . . ." she started sputtering. "It doesn't mean he did anything wrong. I know Jughead, he wouldn't commit a crime."
She was getting agitated.
"I don't know what he was doing out in front of the sheriff's office dressed like that! It doesn't mean anything, I swear."
Damn, what had I been thinking? I should have told Kevin to meet me someplace else.
"We've given him a good home, stability –"
"He wouldn't do something like that."
No I wouldn't. Whatever it was, I wouldn't. Mom 2.0 had faith in me. I would never betray that . . .
"Please don't take him from us." She broke down and started crying.
Quite unexpectedly, the ice around my heart melted and bobbed up to my throat, threatening a sob of my own. I had to get out of there. But I didn't want to leave what felt like . . . home.
I stormed back to my bedroom and slammed the door, flinging the jacket to the ground. It coiled into a heap of black and green leather.
I had only been trying to help . . .
Joaquin De Santos had been in hiding for a very long time. He had spent many months away from his boyfriend, Kevin, and they hadn't seen each other since he had to go to ground and lay low, catching a bus on the San Junipero route far out of town when the shit hit the fan with my dad and the Serpents following Jason's murder.
And now Kevin was on my bike – or rather, my dad's bike – behind me as I drove him to a little rendezvous with Joaquin among a den of Serpents in hiding. I was a regular Friar Laurence. Hopefully Kevin and Joaquin's relationship wouldn't suffer as dire a fate at the hands of my machinations as his. As we pulled up Kevin looked a little nervous.
"It's okay," I tried to reassure him. "We don't bite."
"We?" Kevin looked confused for a second.
I shrugged. It was too complicated to explain to this dufus.
We got off the bike and headed inside. The usual suspicion greeted me even though I'd been here countless times before, because no, I didn't have the tattoo that would have branded me as a Serpent for life. I wasn't there yet. Like I said, it was complicated.
And as per usual, I wasn't allowed to pass until someone yelled out from the back, "Hey that's FP Jones' kid. Let 'em in."
As we wandered into a tavern filled with cigarette smoke and not much else, I placed a hand on Kevin's shoulder and announced, "Precious cargo for Joaquin."
"Right, I'll go get 'em," someone growled from behind the bar and then disappeared up a flight of stairs. Kevin was nervously rocking on his feet and cracking his knuckles as he waited to see Joaquin. When we caught sight of him at the top of the stairs, I teasingly whispered to Kevin, "Go get him, Romeo."
The look on his face was rapt, as if Joaquin was an angel descending upon us. The whisper caught in his throat as he corrected me, "No, I rather think I'm Juliet."
Joaquin had the biggest smile on his face as he looked upon Kevin, "I missed you, preppie!"
Kevin looked like he was going to cry.
And then, well . . . an embrace that begs the onlooker to shout 'get a room.' I restrained myself though, instead just smirking a little and making my way to the one Serpent who never failed to recognize me – a man who had grown up with my father. Kevin and Joaquin found their way to that proverbial room for some privacy . . .
Joaquin must have done something really important in the service of my father to be rewarded like this. A rendezvous with your lover who's also the son of the Riverdale Sheriff is not exactly laying low. And God, it was obvious how much Joaquin loved that little snit, Kevin. Lord knows why. But there it was.
It seemed like Joaquin missed Kevin as much as I missed Betty sometimes. No wait. I didn't miss her anymore. I was past that now . . . she was just a memory. An achy one, but still.
I reached up to make sure the hidden triangle pin was still in my cap.
Mom 2.0 cracked open my door. I saw her looking nervously at my Southside Serpents jacket on the floor.
"Jughead, honey. We need to talk."
I had been lying on the bed when she came in and I just curled tighter into myself. I would say it was a fetal position, but I was almost 17 now, and I was too tall and gangly to truly make that happen.
She sat down on the edge of the bed. It creaked with her weight.
"Social services called today."
Dread formed a small coil in my stomach and I found I couldn't talk.
"Juggie . . ." she choked up a little. "We almost lost you."
I still couldn't look at her – this was too painful. The inevitable was too painful – she was going to lose me. I didn't want to get any more attached to her than I already was. A stable home. Hah. I knew better. I had fallen for false hope yet once again. Fool.
"I know you love your father, Jughead, and the Serpents have been good to you, taken care of you – they really have – even I can see it. But it's just too dangerous for you to be running with them."
I stayed silent. I couldn't promise her that.
She was quiet for a while too. I think she knew.
"Jughead, there's something else. In case we do lose you . . ."
The coil in my stomach tightened even more.
"Social services has been pressuring your mom . . ."
My throat went dry and I barely eked out, "My mom?"
"Yeah they've been pressuring her to take custody of you. And they've been making good progress."
"What?!" This was entirely news to me. I sat up.
Mom 2.0 had tears swimming in her eyes. "You have a chance of being reunited with Jellybean again, Juggie. I know how much that means to you."
"Yeah, but . . ." My head was swimming. I looked back up at Mom 2.0 perplexed. "My mom? Does she even want that?"
"Well . . ." Mom 2.0's hesitation wrenched my gut in just one word. We both knew the answer.
Mom 2.0 enveloped me in a hug I didn't want. Tried to give me the comfort I needed despite that. But she needed me too, so I didn't resist even though every inch of my being wanted to pull away.
As she held me I reflected upon how no one really wanted me in the end. Dad cared but always seemed to be in some kind of trouble or was otherwise too drunk to be of any good. Basically, he didn't care enough about me to get his life together long enough for it to matter. Betty . . . well the fact that she didn't really want me had been illuminated for me long ago. Really bitter about that. And Mom? She was the last person I wanted to be thrust upon. She had never wanted me in the first place. Ever. She had proved it time and time again. And not just when she abandoned me in that trailer with a father so sick with drink he couldn't take care of himself, let alone me. Fleeing into the night with my little sister when I was just a kid.
Mom 2.0 started crying, so I concentrated on her, not me. I knew that I needed to withdraw from her affection soon so that the inevitable wouldn't hurt so much. But she had been good to me – I felt I should at least give her one last hug.
Next: Baby Carrots
Chapter 6: Baby Carrots
I didn't see Ethel until lunchtime the next day. I think she was avoiding me.
"Hey Ethel!" I called out and waved her over when it looked like she wasn't going to join us at our table.
She hesitated for a bit, but then came over.
"Hi guys," she said meekly.
"Hey, there Muggs. Always good to have you with us," Veronica greeted her. "Now why did you ever think we'd let you sit anywhere else?"
Veronica had always been good to Ethel, but she always treated her like a project. I wonder if Ethel even noticed, or if she was too blinded by the glory of Veronica's attention being shined upon her. Girls like Ethel didn't usually have friends like Veronica. Then again, girls like Betty didn't usually have boyfriends like me. And that had happened. Riverdale was a strange place.
Ethel plopped out a bag of baby carrots from her purse. They just sat there on the table looking pathetic in their ziplock bag for a second. She didn't make a move to open the bag or anything, just stared at them forlornly.
"So Ethel, you brought carrots for Jughead today?" Kevin quipped. "That's kind of weak, if I do say so myself."
"Shut up, Kevin," I said and snatched the bag up, opened it, and popped one in my mouth. Between chews I said, "These are good. Thank you, Ethel."
It took me a while to notice, but . . .
"Wait. Ethel, where's your lunch?"
"You're eating it," she replied.
"Huh? These?" I held up the bag of baby carrots I had been devouring. There were only two left. It had been a measly bag anyway. Even for carrots.
Oh my god.
"Here, Ethel. Have some of my burger." I slid my lunch tray over to her.
"No, thank you."
"No, I'm good."
"Oh, what do we have here? Two lovebirds sharing a burger?" Cheryl had come upon us, her cousin Angelica in tow.
Angelica said, "How appropriate that it's not a veggie burger. Jughead only desires real cows it seems."
Veronica snapped, "What do you WANT, Red Wonder Cousins?"
Cheryl looked pained for a second.
"What, too soon to riff on the Wonder Twins for you, Cheryl?"
Cheryl fled. She had only gotten worse after the death of her brother Jason. For a time, Veronica had been convinced there was hope for her redemption, but those days were long gone.
"What we want . . ." Angelica sauntered behind Archie and started rubbing his shoulders. He and Betty had been holding hands and she snatched hers away immediately. I don't think he even noticed.
"Hey there," he said softly to Angelica, barely in protest, always a sucker for a pretty girl, no matter how evil. Although somehow he had resisted Cheryl's charms. But that was probably only because he knew her well enough to know that she was also batshit. But Angelica? She was new. Unknown. Mysterious. Total kryptonite to my best friend who could be such an idiot sometimes.
I shook my head and looked over at Betty.
Her eyes were purposefully blank, yet she held my stare for a very long time. I hope she could read the concern in mine, remembered what we had talked about. I knew she was making little crescent moons on the landscape of her palms under the table, out of sight. She had to be.
"Hey, Arch!" I caught up with him between classes, at his locker. "Got a second to talk?"
"Sure, Jug. About what?"
I looked around the hall quickly to make sure she was nowhere in sight. "It's about Betty."
"Is everything okay?" concern registered on his face as his brows pulled together. "Is something wrong with Betty? Has she said anything to you?"
"No, it's not that, man." I took a second to think. How to word this . . . ? "It's you."
"Arch, you gotta treat her better."
"Jug, I –"
"Remember when I told you she wouldn't do anything if she thought it would hurt you? Ever?"
"Well, you're hurting her now, dude. It's not right." I put up a hand. "It's not fair."
"What? What am I doing? What did she say?"
"She didn't SAY anything Archie. But I know you're hurting her."
"How do you know she's upset if she hasn't said anything?"
"Look, I just know. I –"
"You think just because you used to date her, Jug, that you understand everything that's going on with her now?"
I stared at him defiantly, my arms crossed. Yes.
"Look," Archie said. "I've known her practically our whole lives. She's lived next door to me since we were kids. I think I know Betty better than you."
I nodded, acquiescing to his logic. "Be that as it may, she's still hurting Arch. She's just keeping it from you. And doing a damn good job of it, obviously."
"Okay Jug," he said tiredly, bringing a hand to his brow. "What am I doing wrong?"
"It's the chicks, man."
He just looked perplexed, so I elaborated.
"Chicks. Other chicks. Any pretty girl that crosses your path."
"What are you talking about?" he looked a little angry. "Are you implying that I'm cheating on Betty? Cause I'm not – and frankly I'm offended by your accusation."
I put up my hands. "No, I know you're not cheating on her, Archie. But your wandering eye . . . ?"
"What, I can't look?"
"It's hurting Betty."
"I'm a guy, Jug. You know, a healthy teenage boy, complete with raging hormones? How could I not look? Hell, even my dad always checked out the scene, old as he was. You couldn't have been a saint yourself, Jug. You must have noticed other girls when you were with Betty, too."
No. I only had eyes for her.
"Maybe you can try, Arch. For her." I looked at him sadly, knowing I was asking him to go against his very nature. "She dies a little every time you ignore her just because some other pretty girl is in the vicinity."
"That doesn't happen, dude."
"Sure, it doesn't."
Archie slammed his locker shut and stormed off.
Next: Breaking Point
Chapter 7: Breaking Point
I bumped into Ethel after school as if by accident. Literally. She was on her cell phone and I backed into her somehow. Mom 2.0 was going to be a little bit late again picking me up so I had taken to my usual weird-ass wandering around the school. It was good for the soul.
Ethel was crying and yelling into her phone. She seemed pretty upset, so I stuck around until the call was over. I didn't want to leave her alone.
When she hung up, she just plopped down onto the stairs, put her head in her hands, and bawled. I sat beside her and rubbed her back. I knew pain. Especially this kind of pain. The pain of a family breaking apart. Poor Ethel.
At one point she stopped crying so hard and looked up at me, but she was still choking and gasping on her tears.
"It's okay, Ethel, it's okay," I said soothingly, still rubbing her back. "I'm here for you, okay?"
She nodded and wiped at her cheeks.
"My dad – " she took a ragged breath in. "He . . . he –"
"He what, Ethel?"
"He's gotten so mean lately."
"What did he do?"
"He's been telling me I'm useless – that I have no worth as a female – that I'm a disgrace to my sex . . ."
"Because I'm ugly. Too fat." She started crying in earnest again, yet she was still able to get the words out through her tears. "My legs are too big. My freckles are ugly. My hair, too. I'm gross, slovenly."
"Oh, Ethel –"
"I inherited that stuff from him, you know. The legs, the freckles." she said angrily. "HE gave those to me and now he thinks I'm worthless. He says no one will ever love me."
I took her hands firmly. "Ethel, listen to me."
She stopped crying and started shaking a bit.
"The right person WILL love you someday. You gotta believe that."
And then . . . the worst possible thing happened.
She kissed me.
"Betty, I need to talk to you. Where are you? Are you busy right now?"
"Way to just dive into a conversation there, Jughead."
"Betty, I'm serious. I need your help with something."
"I can't get away. But I can talk if –" I heard some muffled sounds in the background. "Hold on a sec."
After an agonizing wait, "Okay, I'm back. What's up?"
"Ethel kissed me."
There was a bit of a pause.
"And I rejected her."
"My timing wasn't the best, Betty, and now I'm really concerned about her well being."
"What exactly happened?"
"Well, she was telling me all about how her dad has been picking on her lately for being fat and even told her that she'll never find anyone to love her because she's so ugly and all that nonsense. Damnit, I was just trying to comfort her," I sputtered a bit, "and then the next thing I know she's kissing me!"
"I can see why your timing was so bad."
"Yeah, the worst. Plus, she's already in a fragile state, remember? She just ran off and hasn't been returning any of my messages. I'm so worried about her."
"How did you leave it?"
"What do you mean?"
"You said you rejected her. What exactly did you say?'
I thought for a minute in silence, trying to remember the exact words I had said to Ethel when I pulled away from her kiss, but Betty interrupted me before I could answer. "Did you tell her your heart belonged to someone else?"
"No. Why would I say that?"
"Yeah, Jug. Um, yeah. Well, I was just wondering that 'cause it would have softened the blow."
"That helps? To be rejected for someone else?"
"Yeah." She laughed a little. "You're not a girl, Jug. I don't think you understand how hurtful it is to be rejected outright for nothing more than being yourself. . ."
Oh, I think I have some idea, Betty. I reached up and gave the pin hidden in my cap a little twirl as she continued.
" . . . like there's something wrong with you and there's no other reason for the break."
"So, what do I do now? After what she told me about her father, being rejected by me was probably the worst thing that could have happened to her. I feel so bad, like I somehow reinforced what he said, but I also feel like if I try to fix it, I'm only going to pull an Archie you know? Make it worse."
That got a laugh out of her. "God, he really knows how to mess things up sometimes, doesn't he? What a goober."
"Yeah, he does." I said softly thinking of how he was messing things up with her right now.
"No worries, Juggie, Ronnie and I have got this!"
"Veronica? Wait, Betts, she doesn't know about –"
"It's fine. Ethel's secret is safe with me. Ronnie will be none the wiser – there's no reason for her to know anyway. Veronica loves Ethel, Jug. She and I will help her to heal. What are girlfriends for if we can't commiserate together over awful boys?"
Except, I wasn't one of those awful boys . . .
Was I, Betty?
My finger found the pin in my cap again.
Next: The Party
Chapter 8: The Party
Something's a little different . . . if you look for it.
Betty contacted me as soon as she and Veronica had found Ethel to let me know that everything was okay. She hadn't tried to harm herself or anything, she was just really upset. I breathed a sigh of relief. Then she told me the three of them were going to throw a party and that I should come.
"Betty, you know parties aren't really my scene . . ."
"Yeah, well Ethel will be there and I think it'll break her heart if you don't come."
"Come on, Jug. You asked me to help, remember? Well, I'm helping. She needs this. We're all trying to help her heal, remember?"
Fine. Guilt me into it.
"Okay Betty, I'll come."
When I showed up, it was a pretty low-key party, so at least there was that. At one point Veronica called it 'inner-circle only' and I cringed, remembering that term from my own sixteenth birthday party when that 'inner-circle' had blossomed into all nine layers of hell upon the arrival of Cheryl.
Unfortunately, 'inner-circle' also meant Kevin. "Hey Jug, there's some prime grade A beef waiting for you in the kitchen in case you're hungry."
I knew he meant Ethel. I cut him off just as he started to moo. "Why do you always have to be such a dick to her, Kev?"
He stood up from the couch and walked towards me in challenge. I crossed my arms and looked back at him defiantly. Veronica jumped up between us. "Boys, boys. Now settle down."
I turned on her. "Ethel's your friend too, Veronica. Are you going to condone this behavior?"
She rubbed Kevin's shoulder. "Well, Kev's been a little bit on edge ever since Joaquin –"
I suddenly realized that Veronica didn't give a shit about Ethel. Never had. Whatever she had going on with Ethel was just to glorify herself. It made me sick. And Kevin?
"You JUST saw Joaquin, Kevin. I took you there, remember?"
"But it's so hard, being without him," Kevin almost whined as Veronica gave him a sympathetic little pout and rubbed his back.
I shook my head in disgust.
"Having a broken heart – which you shouldn't even have, by the way – at least he still loves you, you're not separated by choice – " I held up my hand, I was getting off-track. Taking a deep, steadying breath, I focused on making my point. "Having a broken heart is a piss poor excuse for being a dick."
"Amen to that," I heard Betty say under her breath.
"It's okay, Jug," Ethel said from the doorway of the kitchen. I wondered when she had appeared. "I'm okay."
I looked over at her and nodded.
"I made some stuff for you. Come see." She smiled tentatively and waved me in.
I followed her into the kitchen. She had put out an array of really cool party food, mostly based on stuff I liked. I took in the bounty and my heart sank.
"Ethel, you shouldn't have."
"It was no big deal," she said, smiling.
I think she missed my point.
"No, Ethel, I mean you really shouldn't have. Not for me." I gave her a serious look. But the hopeful expression on her face made me realize that I probably needed to explain exactly what I meant. But how to do that without being a dick?
Just then, Betty and Veronica burst in, and excited smiles broke out on their faces.
"Check out all that Ethel made for you, Jughead," Veronica said and linked arms with her.
"Yeah, Juggie, isn't it nice?" Betty asked, linking arms with me.
So . . . this had been some kind of setup. Suddenly uncomfortable, I unlinked my arm from Betty's. "Uh, yeah. It's nice."
"I told you the way to a man's heart is through his stomach!" Veronica exclaimed.
"Especially Jughead's, right Betty?" Ethel asked.
"Right," Betty said and laughed lightly, a little nervously.
When she turned to look at me and her eyes met mine, she froze and the laugh died on her lips. I was staring at her through slits. Yeah, you could say I was pissed. What the hell were the girls thinking? What was Betty thinking?
"Can I talk to you?" I said to her, not even bothering to hide my anger.
"Jug, don't be mad," she said when we were away from the rest of the party.
"Don't be mad? You and Veronica are trying to teach Ethel how to 'win my heart'?" I spat out and then grumbled, shaking my head. "Whatever that means."
"Well, she's really lonely Jug, and you're nice to her."
"SO?" I threw my hands up, exasperated. "I told you I rejected her when she tried to kiss me. Doesn't that tell you something?"
"Well, that's not quite how she told it."
"Well . . . " Betty looked down and shifted her weight from one foot to the other. "She said you didn't actually reject her, that you kinda . . ."
"That I kinda what, Betty?" Okay, I was really pissed now. "You know what? Forget it. You've known me for how long now? And I mean REALLY known me. And how long have you known Ethel? You're telling me that you're going to believe Ethel's fanciful misinterpretation of our encounter over the cold hard truth of my feelings?"
"I don't like her, Betty. Not in that way. Can't you tell?" I was almost hurt. Didn't Betty even know me anymore?
Her blue eyes got a little moist as she reached out for my arm and stroked it. "I'm sorry, Juggie. V and I shouldn't have . . ."
We stood there in silence for a bit, her hand just moving up and down my arm. I couldn't reach out to her in return. I wanted to, but I wouldn't let myself. I was too afraid of what may pass between us. I finally had to look down. "Yes, you shouldn't have. But it's okay, Betty. I forgive you."
"I only did it because I want to you to be happy, to move on."
My head snapped up.
"What!?" My eyes formed slits again.
". . . and Ethel seems nice . . . " she continued. "And you guys get along so well . . ."
"Wait." I put up a hand. "To prove to you that I've moved on, you need to see me with somebody else?"
"You seem so lonely sometimes, Jug."
"Are you kidding me right now?" My voice got really loud. "You can't tell that I've moved on? That I'm just fine without you? How do you not know that?"
She flinched away from me. Grabbing an elbow tightly across her body, she looked away and muttered, "I guess I do know that. All too well . . ."
But I wasn't finished. I jerked my hand out, pointing back towards the party. "You somehow think that I'd be 'happy' in an arrangement like you have with Neighbor Boy over there?"
"Yeah. You call that a relationship, Betty?"
"Of course," she said defensively.
"It's a farce. He doesn't even know who you are. Who you really are."
"But I love Archie," she protested, slashing that knife so deftly through my heart.
"But do YOU love Archie, Betty? The real you? Or do you only love him with the heart you wish you had? As the person you will never be, because she isn't THE TRUTH."
"And who will love that truth, Jughead? You?"
"You keep pushing for me to show it to him – show him everything inside of me – all of the darkness. But you know what, Jug?"
I just stared at her.
"It didn't work for you."
Yes, it had.
"Not even you. Because even all of me – the dark and the light, every facet of who I truly am – wasn't enough to keep you." She hung her head. "So, you know what? I decided to be the person I WANT to be instead. I'm going to be my very best and not wallow in the darkness anymore. Yours or mine."
"Betty –" This time I did reach out for her. I couldn't stop myself.
"No one wants me when I find myself in that place." She tore away from me before I had barely even grasped her. "Not even you."
And so she returned to him. To the life she wanted. Leaving me, and us, and our common ground of darkness and pain far behind.
It wasn't the first time someone had abandoned me for a better life.
I removed the three sided pin from my cap.
Chapter 9: Coming Home
When I got home I didn't speak to anyone, not even Mom 2.0 who sat up in her chair expectantly, waiting for a response from me after she'd welcomed me home.
I slammed the door to my room, then slammed the pin I had removed from my cap down onto the dresser. I rotated it under my fingers, banging all three sides into the wood, over and over again, staring at the words written upon each side as it slammed down. One. Word. Per. Side.
I wondered . . . What had happened to hers?
There was a knock at my door.
"Juggie, I really need to talk to you," Mom 2.0's voice sounded a little desperate.
But I couldn't deal with anything right now. Not with the mood I was in. The thought ran through my mind once again . . . What did she do with it?
"I just want to be left alone right now."
I heard a notification from my phone. A text. Probably from Betty. But it was tucked away and I didn't bother to retrieve it. Like I said, I was in no mood.
The door cracked open and Mom 2.0 didn't look desperate in the least even though she had just sounded that way. The woman sure knew how to turn on "strict Mom" mode when she needed to. And judging by the expression on her face, this was obviously one of those times.
"Juggie, sit," she pointed to my bed and I obeyed, tucking the pin away in the palm of my hand.
She sat down beside me, her weight creaking the bed like it always did. She sighed deeply, and rested her elbows on her knees, leaning forward.
"I'm going to lose you, Juggie. And it's going to be hard for me because I love you like you're my very own son." She hung her head in defeat. But after a moment she raised it and smiled. "Although what may be difficult for me, just may mean a bright future for you. So, I'm going to focus on that. Just that. What's best for you."
"And what is best for me?" My raging heart had quickly chilled. I knew what she was going to say and I didn't know how I was supposed to feel about it.
"Your mom's coming to take you, Jug. Tomorrow. After school."
I wasn't ready. I started to feel the panic rise within me. I wasn't ready to face . . . her. "I . . . I can't."
"We don't have a choice, Juggie. Social Services –"
She leaned over to hug me and I pushed her away. "Fuck Social Services! I want to stay here."
"I want you to as well, Jughead, but –"
"This is an opportunity to see your sister again. Not only that, but see to her everyday – like you did when you were kids. You can be a family again."
I didn't know how I was supposed to feel about that either, so I just gave in and nodded. But then I said quietly, gravely, "I really need to be alone right now."
Silently, Mom 2.0 got up from my bed and closed the door behind her.
This situation was the last thing I wanted. Could it get any worse?
The answer was yes.
I retrieved my phone. The text was from Betty.
I thought a lot about what you said today Jug, and realized that you're right. It's a farce.
My fingers trembled as I keyed in my response.
It doesn't matter anymore. It's too late.
I threw the phone down onto the bed roughly and opened up my palm to reveal the three-sided pin. But by that time, my eyes were so blurry I could only make out the word "Don't" etched upon one of its sides. I squeezed my eyes tightly shut and gave in to all of the emotions that that had been lying in wait. I just crumpled onto the bed and let them lay waste to me.
Next: Last Day
Chapter 10: Last Day
When I woke up that morning, I looked over at the dresser. It would be the last day I would use that piece of furniture. My last day at Mom 2.0's house. The three-sided pin was staring me in the face.
Should I . . . ?
I grabbed my beanie and placed the pin inside the fold, tucked away, out of sight, near the other pins. Where I had kept it ever since . . .
I heard Mom 2.0 rap her knuckles against my door, so I turned to open it. She reached in to hug me and wish me well on my last day of school. I was stiff. I just couldn't . . .
But as she pulled away, I found that I could muster up one last parting gift from my heart for her. "You know what?"
"Mom 1.0 sucked," I spat out. Her eyes widened a bit. Then I softened my tone. "The upgrade was much better. Needed. Thank you."
She almost started crying, but thankfully held it together until I left the room.
We drove the familiar route to Riverdale High in silence. I was done talking. I had said my piece. And now memories of what I had loved and lost came flooding back to me. By the time I got to the day it all started to unravel we were almost there.
"Juggie?" Betty had asked me, standing there at the door to the trailer as I tugged my Southside Serpents jacket tightly around me, feeling the easy fit with a smile.
I looked back at her.
It would be just mere minutes before we were alone again, our previous passion in the kitchen all but forgotten in the wake of her worry. She pleaded with me not to do this – not to just give up like this. And I promised her I wouldn't lose myself to the Serpents as long as she promised to never let me go. Yet still I had to –
"We're here!" Mom 2.0 smiled as bright and cheerily as she could.
I only grunted in reply, got out of the car, and slammed the door behind me. I stared up at the front entrance of Riverdale High, towering over me. My last day . . . Would anyone really even care?
I told no one what was going on with me. Not Archie. Not Betty. No one. I needed to cut all ties without generating any pity. And you know what? No one even noticed how quiet I was at lunch. How preternaturally quiet I was.
Betty might have tried to catch my eye at one point, but didn't bother to try again when I blatantly ignored her.
And then it happened. The scene in the cafeteria ignited by 'Miss Hiroshima' and 'Little Miss Nagasaki' blossomed before my very eyes.
Ethel was their target.
As soon as the two fiery cousins strutted into the room hand in hand, a chorus of moo's started up. Pretty quickly almost everyone joined in, even Kevin. I elbowed him harshly.
"Dude, what's your damage?" he protested.
"You're moo'ing at Ethel," I hissed.
"Archie?" I turned towards my best friend. Betty sat beside him, her mouth open, horrified. I knew Archie wouldn't be one of the ones moo'ing, and I was right. He knew how despicable this was – what needed to be done here for Ethel. We both nodded at each other.
And then Archie sprang from the table, getting right up into Cheryl's face. "STOP IT. Stop it now. Shut your mouth, Cheryl."
I raced to Ethel's side.
"Hey," I reached out to her, but she jerked away, not looking me in the eye.
"Not now, Jughead." She looked close to tears. "Not now."
"Or else what, Archie?" Cheryl let out another enthusiastic moo. But at that point she was the only one still imitating a cow. Archie had effectively shut up the entire cafeteria within mere seconds.
"Don't do this, Cheryl. Angelica." The newest Blossom just gave Archie a dismissive smirk and looked away. "It's cruel."
"You know what's cruel?" Reggie Mantle called out. He crudely grabbed two pieces of mystery meat off of some random sophomores' trays. He held them up and came over to Ethel and circled her, like he was appraising her, nodding every so often.
I didn't know where he was going with this, but it knew it wasn't going to be good. With all the menace I that had learned to muster from spending so much time with the Serpents, I said lowly, threateningly, "Back off, Reggie."
The idiot ignored my warning.
"What's cruel is . . . " he just kept going and jiggled the pieces of meat, getting inappropriately close to Ethel in the process, and dropping them almost to the level of her thighs. I forced my way in between them to protect her. "I said, back off."
Reggie just laughed lightly and turned away from me to address the crowd instead. Holding the meat up in the air he continued, ". . . subjecting us to the sight of your thighs, Ethel."
He jiggled the pieces of mystery meat. "Look how much they wobble? It's disgusting. You seriously need to start working out there, old girl." He tipped his head back towards Ethel and winked. Angelica snorted while Cheryl beamed triumphantly. Like a freakin' vampire, she fed off this stuff.
Reggie continued, "And you really should cover them up better so we don't have to –"
My fist made contact with that cocksucker's hard, chiseled face before he could even finish that sentence. Like the true milksop that he was, he dropped to the ground instantly and didn't get back up. Archie had bolted to my side to assist me, but it turned out I didn't need him. I could definitely handle that prick all on my own these days.
Out of the corner of my eye I saw Ethel bolt and I ran after her. And yes, I couldn't help but notice Betty's eyes following me out the door, too.
I caught up with Ethel in a deserted hallway. She was bent over and crying hard. And she hid her face from me as I approached. I surmised that she was too ashamed, too humiliated by what had just happened back there to look me in the eye. But I wanted to let her know that it would be okay – that she was okay – that she shouldn't be ashamed about what Reggie and the Blossoms had just done - they were just assholes. But I couldn't just say that at first.
"Ethel, hey. Come here." I took her into my arms and let her cry into my neck. I just held her and swayed with her for a bit, like a mother rocking a baby, even though we were almost the same height and she was bigger than me. Because absolutely none of that mattered. She needed to be nurtured right now so that she could recover. Just like I had needed nurturing my whole life but had been left out in the cold time and again.
Betty had been there for me – but it hadn't lasted. My relationship with her had been just another fool's dream. Too good to be true. Just like living with Mom 2.0. Oh, God, I hoped Ethel could heal. I squeezed her tighter and almost cried myself there for a second.
Ethel pulled away and looked me in the eye, "Juggie, what is it?"
"Nothing," I said, looking down at my feet. This was not the time to cry. Where was this coming from?
"Is it Betty?"
My head snapped up and I met her eyes in shock.
"No, Ethel. No, of course not," I stammered.
She looked at me as if she could see right through me – with complete understanding and . . . pity? She put her hand on my cheek and said sadly, wistfully, "There's no chance for us is there, Juggie?"
I didn't want to give her any shred of false hope. False hope was a soul crusher, I well knew. I took her hand off my cheek and said truthfully, "There never was."
The remaining light went out of her eyes.
Just then Mr. Weatherbee's strong hand encircled my neck and pulled me away from her roughly. "You're coming with me, Jughead."
Damn it, I hadn't wanted to leave it that way with her.
Next: The Fall
Chapter 11: The Fall
It was a long way to Principal Weatherbee's office. At one point, while I was still being dragged down the hallway by my neck, I felt the vibration of the first message come through. And once we got there, Weatherbee shoved me roughly into a chair, stood over me, and sternly pointed his finger down at me. "If you think you can –"
"Save it," I interrupted saucily. I had had enough of Weatherbee's harassment for a lifetime.
"Excuse me?" he asked, a bit surprised, withdrawing that degrading finger from my face.
I held up a finger of my own. "In a minute."
I fetched my phone and retrieved that text.
It's okay Jug. I know you'll never like me. Not in the way that I want.
"What do you think you're doing, young man?" Weatherbee tried to snatch my phone away, but I was too quick for him.
Just then another text came through.
No one ever will.
"You realize you're on your way to getting expelled here, son?"
That took me by surprise. I looked up at him and snorted. "Good luck with that."
"What? Social Services didn't call you yet?" I asked sardonically.
Now Weatherbee perched carefully on the corner of his desk, concern instead of anger lining his eyes for once. No, they obviously hadn't. "Are you having trouble at home, Jughead?"
"You could say that," I replied cryptically as another text came through. Weatherbee didn't even bother to try to stop me from looking at it this time.
"I gotta go."
I bolted out of the principal's office and ran outside to the front of the school. I don't know how I knew where she'd be, but I just did.
I heard the bell ring. Lunch was over. Students started milling about, walking over the odd strips of black fabric that were inexplicably lying around on the ground. Not even noticing them.
Torn, long strips of it – just lying on the ground in no logical pattern. They looked like Ethel's –
Suddenly, her shoe smacked me on the top of my forehead - hard - knocking me flat on my ass. My beanie went flying off to reaches unknown.
My face was smarting. There was blood. Things came in and out of focus. Suddenly, it was way too bright.
But I knew she was right in front of me – Ethel – her head askew at the most unnatural angle. Even in that bright light I could see her. But only her. Inexplicably, her skirt was just . . . gone. And one of her arms lay on the ground, stretched out towards me, her fingers slowly curling up in front of my very eyes. An invitation.
I grasped her hand as I heard the final breath leave her body.
And then her dead eyes turned glassy.
She was gone. And I was frozen.
I don't know who removed my hand from Ethel's, probably Betty. I don't know who had lifted me off of the ground in front of Ethel's body and carted me back to the nurse's office where Betty was just now draping a blanket over me. Probably Archie. I don't know who found my beanie – but I preferred that it was someone besides Betty.
Yet, she held it in her hands and was offering it to me now. I didn't move, made no indication of what I wanted, so she took a guess and went ahead and placed it on my head, tucking that one long, unruly strand of my hair up into my cap and behind my ear gently. Part of me vaguely hoped she didn't feel the three-sided pin I had tucked away inside it . . . but honestly, most of my thoughts were on Ethel in that moment.
"I loved her, Betty."
She took my hands and put her head on my shoulder. I winced. My right hand was still sore from punching Reggie.
"I couldn't save her. I thought I would be enough to protect her –" a burgeoning sob stopped me from finishing that sentence.
"Protect her from what?"
"From what just happened. From herself. From Reggie, Cheryl, Angelica and all the other bullies at this school. From her father. From her family fracturing apar –" I had to break again, gulp, and stifle yet another sob.
I took a deep breath and continued. "I guess I wanted to protect her from life, Betty. Ethel and I were so much alike - more than you could know – and I cared about her. I really did."
"I know," Betty said softly and gave my hands a little shake.
Next: Don't Give Up
Chapter 12: Don't Give Up
"Yes, Mrs. Moore."
I heard Betty's voice outside.
"Yes, I told you I think I know where he is, but you're going to have to give him some time. After what happened today at school –"
There was a bit of silence. I could almost picture Betty looking down intently, nodding a little as she listened.
"Why is it so important that he comes home right NOW?"
Because my mother was there apparently. Would Betty find that shocking?
"Look, if you won't tell me why, that's fine. But I can't guarantee that I'll find him, or that he'll even come home right away. Ethel's death was not easy on him."
I would have laughed or at the very least smirked to myself, because DAMN Betty could be fierce – fiercely protective of those she cared about – but I had just cried myself out and was empty. I had nothing left. But I wondered why Mom 2.0 had refrained from telling Betty that my mom was in town to retrieve me.
I heard the front door to my father's abandoned trailer open. Smart girl. She knew just where to find me. "Juggie? Jug?"
Betty made her way down the dark hallway to the bedroom. To where I was.
"Jug?" she said, standing in the doorframe.
I didn't make a sound, just lay there and looked up at her. I bet my eyes were as dead as Ethel's.
"Oh, Juggie sweetie," she said and bustled into the room, almost looking like Mom 2.0 in her worried movements. She reached to turn on the light.
"No," I said. "Please."
She stayed her hand.
"May I?" she asked, indicating a desire to sit on the bed with me.
I moved my legs to give her room and turned more onto my side to face her, tucking my elbow under my head. "I know why you're here, Betty, and I'm not going with you."
She looked down for a second, took her purse off of her shoulder, and placed it squarely in her lap. "Actually, that's not really why I'm here. It's just your foster mom keeps bugging me and I was actually looking for you myself, so she somehow thinks I'm on a mission to bring you home now. I'm not."
"Then why are you here?"
"I know you're not okay –"
I reached up and touched her back.
"And I thought you should have this." She pulled something dark out of her purse. "Something of hers . . ."
I sat up and practically snatched it out of her hands.
Rough cotton fabric made up a raven colored piece of cloth, looking even darker than it had when it had been lying in front of the school in the over-bright sunlight. Now it was only lit by the pale, sickly, waning moon, whose weak light was trickling in through a small window. The fabric was long and its lengthwise edges had been frayed – they were rough, torn. I ran it through my hands. It was long enough to go from the waist of a tall girl almost all the way down to her ankles.
I thought I had been all cried out, but I was wrong.
I crumpled that cloth, balling it up in my fists, and then I buried my face in it.
"What a waste what a waste what a waste," I murmured, shakily, rocking back and forth a bit, my shoulder grazing Betty's softly from time to time. I was so glad she was there.
"I know," Betty whispered. "I know."
"Come here," I said roughly and threw down the piece of cloth and grabbed her, just grabbed her and held her to me. I cried hard into the back of her shoulder and rocked even harder.
With every moan that escaped my body along with a cry, she stroked my arm and said softly, "It's okay, Jug."
I know she was only trying to be comforting, but at one point I said forcefully, "No, it's not!"
Because it wasn't. It wasn't okay that Ethel was dead. Not in the very least.
I pulled Betty roughly onto my lap and then the next thing I knew I was kissing her. Harshly. If she had any lipstick on I would have smeared it all over her face, but it was too dark to tell. I dug into her, my hands gripping the side of her face, kissing her wetly, deeply. She kissed me back frantically as well. She was definitely not resisting me in any way.
No. This was wrong. Stop.
I broke from her, yet my hands clung to her face for a second. Just a desperate little second . . .
When I released them she looked . . . sad. Disappointed.
"This is wrong," I said firmly. "For so many reasons."
"No," she said just as firmly back. "It's not."
I laughed bitterly. "Oh, you know it is, Betty. For starters, what about Archie?"
"What about Archie? I don't want him, Jughead."
"Does he know that?"
"Not . . . yet," she said a little guiltily.
I waved my hand dismissively. "Doesn't matter."
"I said it doesn't matter," I spat. "You always go back to him. Your perfect little boy next door."
"How can you say that?"
"How can I not? Look at your track record, Betty. He's your default. The one you always wanted," I said, the venom rising I my voice. How could she have gone back to HIM after me? What a step backwards. What a colossal waste of time. But it was what she 'had always wanted.' How many times had I heard that? Before AND after us.
"But he doesn't really know me, Juggie. You've been right about that all along. And I don't want that anymore. I want someone that knows everything about me. The pain, the darkness." She put her hand on my cheek and I could feel the rough scarring of the crescent moon-shaped wounds on her palm. The ones that somehow Archie never noticed.
"I want someone who accepts me despite all that. And I know you did." She corrected herself. "Do."
She finally understood. I silently stared at her, waiting for her to say it. Willing her to say it. The words I had wanted to hear ever since our break. And she did.
"I want YOU, Jughead."
I let her kiss me. I wanted this moment. But . . .
I gently extracted her from me entirely and whispered, "It's too late."
And it was.
I don't know how it happened, but somehow we got tangled up in the sheets that night. Light kisses, caresses, bodies rolling under and over each other somehow led to immense passion. Each item of our clothing found its way to the floor. One by one.
Joining my cap.
Joining the torn fabric of Ethel's skirt.
"Betty," I breathed quietly, running my lips up her neck once we were both skin to skin with nothing else between us. My voice cracked. "I loved you so much."
"I want you to love me again, Jughead," she said firmly, digging her fingers deep into my hair and pulling me into her. Just like my father had warned me, she was a girl who knew what she wanted.
But what she said gave me pause, and I froze.
I just . . . couldn't.
"What?" she asked, concern in her eyes. "It is Ethel?"
That question took me out of the moment completely. "What?"
"You loved her too . . ."
Yet again I got that sinking feeling that Betty never really knew me and my lips drew into a frown. It was so sad. I thought she had. I reached up to tuck a lock of her golden hair that had fallen out of her ponytail behind her ear. "Betty, I've never loved anyone the way I loved you. Ever. Including Ethel. That was something entirely different . . ."
"Oh . . ."
I kissed her to make my uncomfortable feelings go away, especially the crushing disappointment. I kissed her because I was excited and thought maybe one last time with her would somehow bring me closure, heal the broken part of me that she had discarded and I could finally move on. I rolled her over and took her. One last time.
I stared out the window, just looking at that sickly moon, contemplating.
My mom was out there. The end was nigh.
Betty was sound asleep in my arms. When we coupled she always slept like a baby afterwards. I was never so lucky – my mind always raced with thoughts I wished would just go away.
I stroked her hair and her back softly, remembering the beginning of our end.
"Jug, you can't get a tattoo!" Betty exclaimed.
"Betty, I'm not saying I'm going to get one right now . . . I'm just telling you that I know it's all a part of the process of becoming a Serpent."
"But you're not going to join them, are you?"
I didn't answer at first.
"I may not have a choice in the matter, Betty."
"What are you saying? You promised . . ."
"I'm not sure I can keep that promise anymore."
"What? You can't give up."
"And you can't let go."
"I won't. Not ever."
I smiled ironically at her dogged determination. She really didn't understand. I was trying so hard to not give up . . . but there were forces beyond my control at play.
She took my hand and said, "Come on – We're going to get something better than tattoos. You'll see."
She had dragged me to an engraver that day, two small, beat-up, three-sided metal pins in hand.
And we made a promise to each other – etched in nickel.
But not long after that, it was all over. She had left me over something I found I just couldn't turn away from. Becoming a Serpent was a part of me – it was in my blood. It was part of my inevitable destiny. I couldn't halt my assimilation, only slow my descent.
And she never understood that.
She had rejected that part of me even though I had never rejected her darkness. I think deep down, a part of her had still wanted to be that perfect girl . . . while all of me had only wanted her.
Betty was right – it sucked to be dumped for nothing more than being yourself.
Next: Don't Let Go
Chapter 13: Don't Let Go
The sun looked like it was starting to rise. Betty was still sleeping peacefully in my arms. Out like a light. A lump on log. The sleep of the dead. I tried not to chuckle. She was so predictable. I had missed her.
I kissed her head.
Then I noticed something. Something silvery sticking out of the base of her ponytail. Silvery and sharp. I hadn't seen it the night before. It must have worked loose during our romp. We hadn't exactly been gentle.
I extracted it carefully without waking her.
Oh my God.
I almost dropped it to the floor.
. . . I love you Juggie, she had purred, and then bit into my collar bone enticingly . . .
. . . Deep inside her, sweat dripping from my hair she had moaned . . . I love you so much Juggie . . . please . . . and then she had reached up to stroke my face . . .
. . . And she had screamed out in her climax . . . Love . . . You . . .
Had she been trying to reassure me?
I held her pin in my hand. Our pin. Now I finally knew what she had done with it.
I looked at her carefully, an angel in sleep. Could it be possible? Had she never really let me go? Despite what it had looked like, what it had felt like, had she truly never stopped loving me?
Next: Beginnings & Endings
Chapter 14: Beginnings & Endings
I decided that no, there's no way she could have loved me all this time. I was just deluding myself because I wanted it to be true . . . Just like with my dad. How many times had I wanted him to get his act together so badly? Put so much hope in the littlest things he did? I placed Betty's pin on the dresser solemnly.
No, there was no way she still loved me.
If she had . . .
She wouldn't have been with Archie.
She wouldn't have pushed Ethel on me.
She wouldn't have left me because of the Serpents – because of who I becoming. And stayed away for so long . . . I had embraced her darkness, but she was afraid of mine.
These weren't acts of love.
False hope. I was done with it.
I extracted myself from the bed, careful not to wake her, and put my clothes on quietly. I retrieved my beanie from the floor and dug into the fold to remove my hidden pin. The one that said "Don't Give Up."
Well, I was giving up. Sorry.
I placed it beside Betty's pin that said "Don't Let Go" and made sure they were both angled in such a way that she would see them when she woke. So she would know my intentions.
And then I stepped out of my Dad's trailer and out into the stark, newborn light of the day. Off to start my new life living with my little sister and my Mom – yet another person in my life who I knew would try for a while, but in the end didn't really want me.
No one ever did.