He hears the same way as everyone else: the news. From over by the pool tables Fangs yells, “Yo, Lugs! Unmute the TV!”
“—body of the man authorities believe to have committed the so-called ‘Black Hood’ murders was found at around 7pm this evening in an abandoned house near Fox Forest. The body was discovered by a young woman whose identity has not yet been released. The Sheriff's office has declined to make a statement at this time until further details—”
The reporter stops and touches her ear piece.
“And some breaking news for you. The young woman who was found with the body was local high school student—”
All the sound in the room drops out as Jughead stares across the bar at the TV and already fucking knows.
So, yeah. He hears the same way as everyone else. He never forgets how that feels.
Jughead doesn’t remember leaving the Whyte Wyrm. He’s just sitting on his dad’s bike with his phone in his hand.
He texts Archie, Veronica, Archie, Kevin, fucking Cheryl, Archie and Veronica and Betty, Betty, Betty, Betty, Betty—
Is she ok?
Is she ok?
Is she ok?
Is she ok?
Is she ok?
Are you ok?
Are you ok?
Are you ok?
He calls Archie four times and Veronica twice and Kevin and—
No one picks up.
He sits there hunched over his phone. The street light reflects off the broken bottles tossed at the big red circle still there on the brick wall of the nextdoor pawn shop.
Almost an hour later Archie texts back: no but she’s alive.
At some point he must drive back to the trailer, because he’s there when Veronica texts at midnight: Did you know?
Know what? he replies.
Twenty minutes of nothing and he texts again: What didn’t I know?
Veronica never responds.
Starting at 2am, Jughead watches and rewatches the eight-second clip someone posted on Twitter that shows Betty being helped into the backseat of a car in the hospital parking lot. She holds up her hands to block her face from the overlapping flashes and circling cameras. White bandages are wrapped around both palms and her left wrist. Her low, messy ponytail gleams in the jagged bursts of light.
Sometime around viewing number six, he notices the small bloodstains on both cuffs of the jacket she’s wearing, that pale pink one she likes so much.
He’s found three other versions online, two from news stations and another shot on a smartphone, but that first eight-second clip is one he keeps on watching.
—Miss Cooper! Betty Cooper! What can you tell us about the Black Hood? Why did you—Miss Cooper! Betty Cooper! What can you tell us about the Black Hood? Why did you—
That looping audio track follows him into his dreams.
The next morning the first round of interviews spin into motion as Alice Cooper asks for privacy for her daughter who has gone through so much and who always had the best interests of the people of Riverdale in her heart. Alice Cooper puts repressed tears into her voice as she pleads with the public in front of the hospital Betty must have already left late last night, but she stares into the camera like she could reach through the glass lens and rip your throat out.
No one is seen coming into or out of the Coopers’ house. The news vans camp in the driveway and block most of the street. Jughead watches as Archie and Mr. Andrews come and go on TV, ignoring the questions yelled at them. Already, Archie has shoved back reporters twice and broken three cameras. Small town justice means Archie can break all the cameras he wants as long as they’re shoved in his face first.
Mr. Andrews stares into the cameras with those tired, disappointed eyes and quietly says, “No comment.”
Scattered details appear that first morning after.
A local Riverdale High student was found with the body.
Miss Cooper called the police.
An unnamed source close to the investigate claims Miss Cooper’s phone contains hundreds of calls from an unknown number over several weeks. Numerous disturbing photographs were also recovered from her phone.
Jughead keeps texting but Archie doesn’t reply. Still nothing from Betty.
Her voicemail is full when he calls. Her phone must be evidence by now.
No one picks up when he calls the Coopers’ landline.
Jughead considers all the times he could’ve texted Betty before but didn’t. He’d told himself it was because wasn’t going to be that guy, the one who wouldn’t leave a girl alone.
But now he makes himself remember how buying that stupid fucking bus ticket to Florida had felt. He hadn’t even been going to tell her, tell any of them.
He was just going to be gone.
Jughead has never wanted to consider why, in the midst of all the shit that went down that night, the thought of not telling anyone and letting them figure it out had made him feel just a little bit better.
Around three in the afternoon, he puts on his warmest fleece-lined coat and goes out to sit on the top stair with a can of Red Bull.
He stares across the trailer park and replays that afternoon, how he’d touched Archie's shoulders to pull him close or maybe to shove him away. Replays as much as he can remember over and over and over. Each time still feels like a hand shoved up between his ribs because Betty dumped him, cut him loose, told him to stay away.
He makes himself raw with remembering—that afternoon, and the day before, and their last weeks together, and the numb, blurred out slide of all the weeks afterward. He searches for the escape hatch he missed the first time around.
He’d done what Betty told him she wanted.
But sometimes the opposite of a mistake is just another mistake.
Go ahead and pick your poison. Jughead knows he did.
Late that night Toni texts him a link to an op ed whose headline reads: Accomplice or Real Life Final Girl?
He texts back: Fuck you.
Missed your moment there, Jones.
The rest of the week after the last murder slips past him in flashes: school and the Whyte Wyrm and packages to drop off that he never opens and long nights in the trailer, sitting in his dad’s chair in front of the TV with his laptop, dividing his attention between the two screens.
It’s nearly two in the morning and the 24-hour news is regurgitating and digesting the same footage of the abandoned house on the edge of Fox Forest, the blood splatters on the windows and the fluttering yellow crime scene tape, intercut with motionless exterior shots of the Coopers’ white middle-class home when he gets the text from an unknown number.
Would you be willing to meet me at pops?
This is Riverdale so he wants to text this mystery person back: Are you planning to kill me? But he’s not sure which way that would impact his decision to attend.
A few seconds later, his phone vibrates again.
This is Betty
Jughead stares down at the text and thinks, of course I will. But it’s the way he can’t stop himself from tacking an always onto the end of this thought that drags up the confused anger he no longer knows where to direct.
He texts back: Yes, of course. When?
Jughead thinks of her hands wrapped in those white bandages held up over her face and adds, I’ll be there. Are you ok?
Betty doesn’t reply until hours later and he doesn’t see her message until he wakes up the next morning with his neck sore from falling asleep in the chair.
I don’t know
Jughead has nine hours to kill. Sheer fucking indifference with how he spends the interim washes him up at school. At lunch he sits in the cafeteria with Sweet Pea and Toni and Fangs and—
Yeah, he’s got time to kill. He kills it at school.
Jughead can always see where the word Death was painted over on the front of Pop’s since the paint colors don’t quite match. But the difference is small enough that everyone gets to choose whether or not they want to see it.
He parks his dad’s bike in the empty lot and trades his helmet for his beanie. The chimes rattle as he pushes open the door. Pop glances up and tilts his head towards the end of the diner.
Betty is at the very back, one seat beyond where Mr. Andrews was waiting right before he was shot. Strong slants of afternoon light pull all the color out her hair and skin and pastel-colored clothing until she looks insubstantial. Like you could put your hand right through her.
At the chime, Betty looks up and just—
All Jughead can think is, Fuck. She looks like she hasn’t slept in days and all the angles in her face stand out more sharply than he remembers.
Betty watches him as he walks over to her booth and, at her tiny nod, he sits on the opposite side. Her left wrist is still wrapped up in a white bandage that peeks out at him from the cuff of her baby blue jacket.
“What happened there?” he says by way of hello, glancing at her wrist and then back to her face.
Betty turns her arm wrist up on the table and stares down. Her palms are a mess, but scabbed over and healing.
“It's a long story. Call it a game of chicken.” She shrugs one shoulder and looks up. “How are you?”
The question is automatic and neutrally polite. Jughead gives a scoff that's tight and a little mean because Jesus Christ. Coopers.
“Sorry,” Betty says while he just thinks it.
She keeps touching her phone, glancing little points of contact, the same way he's seen her tap her fingers against the sides of a coffee cup that was too hot to drink—compulsively checking and a nervous tick all at once. Jughead feels his chest go tight with what he tells himself is anger out of habit. But he catches himself. Another brittle layer of regret settles over him.
Her shoulders pull back and she sits up straighter in the booth.
“I'm sorry.” Betty says again but he can tell she means sorry about something else.
Silence crawls out between them. Jughead is not exactly sure what she’s apologizing for. Betty’s hand creeps out for her phone and her fingertips skitter along the edge. She glances out the window and across the empty parking lot though the glare must be blinding.
“I have something to tell you,” Betty tries again and she sounds so tired he feels another of those suffocating waves tug at him.
“Little late for that, isn’t it?” The words sound like a joke in his head till he says them outloud and hears the anger that he doesn’t want to feel right now. His hand shifts forward on the table towards her, but stops short of touching her. “Sorry.”
Betty closes her eyes. “I had this whole speech planned. I wrote it down. I've run through it over and over.” Her eyes blink open, pale glass bottle green in the slanting afternoon sun that pours in. “I've been working on this speech for weeks, Jug, ever since—I thought if I could just make this one thing perfect.”
She stares at him and he’s pulled back to that moment, sitting next to her at the counter a dozen feet and a lifetime away, where all she wanted was for him to not hurt anyone or get hurt himself. Her face looks broken open just like that.
Betty blinks hard a couple of times. “There are a few things I need you to know. Here.”
She pulls her faded blue backpack up from the floor and digs out a battered notebook. She flips the back cover up and slides it to the middle of the table.
“Please, Jughead, read this and then I'll go.”
“Betty. I didn’t mean it like that. I don’t want you to—”
She reaches across and opens the notebook. “Just read it, Jug.”
He looks down at the lines and lines of her neat handwriting.
I understand that you—and the rest of the sentence is crossed out so many times there’s a tear in the paper.
I am so, so sorry. I needed to keep you safe. I never meant to hurt you. The Black Hood said he would kill you if—
Jughead stops breathing. His hands and feet go cold. He's hit with that too-many-missed-meals wave of white-edged unsteadiness.
wanted me to cut everyone out
he would hurt people when I didn't
I understand I hurt you and I don't expect it to be easy for you to
said he wanted me for himself
He starts flipping back through the pages and pages of versions. The editing marks he's seen all over his own writing wrap around the words.
only way I could protect
the best way I could think of to protect
doesn’t change what I did but I just wanted to protect
Her familiar note of WORDY shows up in the margins. AVOID INTENSIFIERS.
The notebook curls inward at the edges like she's carried this out in the rain. A half-dozen pages in, the red-brown streaks start showing up. Some pages are so smeared that whole sections of her apology are illegible where she had to wipe away—
He glances up at Betty. Her eyes are like fragments of glass catching the light. She reaches out to get the notebook back but the gesture stalls out when he slides it a tiny bit nearer to his side of the table, closer to his chest. She lets her right hand rest on the table between them. Her left hand with the bandaged wrist is next to her phone, just her pinky pressed against the bottom corner.
Jughead flips the notebook over to the beginning.
The list goes on for pages. White male in his—
By page six, she started noting the date, time and duration of each call.
Monday. 7:02am - 3 minutes. (discovered flashlight signals)
Monday. 3:57pm - 1 minute.
Monday. 10:02pm - 4 hours 12 minutes (demanded speaker phone, BH did not talk, wanted to hear me in my room alone, likes to listen)
Less than a week after the breakup.
He flips through page after page after page of calls with meticulously tracked times and dates and instructions, fragments of guesses and gathered clues.
“I never meant to hurt you, Juggie.”
She slides the notebook out from under his hands, folds it closed and drops in into her backpack. She’s shaking.
“Betty—” he tries again.
“Whatever you've been telling yourself,” she stops and closes her eyes, leaning her bandaged wrist into the edge of the table. Her arm tenses, pushing down. “I know you. But everything you thought was just—”
He grabs her wrist, which is so small his thumb wraps back over his own fingers even holding on loosely.
“I'm sorry,” she repeats. “I know I hurt you. But I never would have tossed you aside like that. Never.”
She tugs her wrist back gently and he lets go. She re-zips her backpack.
“I hear that you and,” she changes tack mid-sentence. “Be happy, Jug. You deserve that.”
Another of those horrible waves crashes into his chest that he could once have called anger but he's been lying to himself for so long now, to Betty, to anyone who’s ever given enough of a damn to listen.
“Toni and I broke up awhile ago, Betts.”
A few tears slide down Betty’s face at that but she gives no other reaction. Like you could stick pins into her and she’d just stare back with those broken-glass eyes.
“I'm sorry to—” her posture shifts back to that Cooper stiffness. “I’m—”
I'm sorry to hear that. That's how the Cooper script goes. Jughead can feel her try to grind out what she's supposed to say.
“Hey, don’t. Don't be sorry. I wasn’t.”
Rebound. Never got over you. Damaged goods. Lied to her, too. She deserved better just like you deserved—
Jughead shoves that particular mixtape back down because he needs to think about Betty first like he hasn't in forever.
He moves his hands closer until the backs of his fingers almost brush against her knuckles. “Tell me what happened to your wrist.”
“Near the end, the Black Hood...” Betty gives that same one-shouldered shrug. “He reached a point where he felt he couldn't do this without me. That gave me another point of leverage.”
For a moment, Jughead can’t bear to put the pieces of that together.
“Why didn't you tell me?”
That’s it. That’s every question rolled into the one big question. That’s the piece that hurts worse and worse the longer he thinks about any of this.
Betty stares back at him, sad and unflinching.
“I was so scared. I was already so scared for you even before all this.” She wets her lips and her gaze jumps to just over his shoulder. “I made mistakes, Jug, and people died. I made choices and people died.”
“You should have told me. We could’ve figured out something. I never would’ve let you go through that alone if you’d just told me.”
Hypocrisy, Jughead thinks, staring at Betty in the bright slant of spring light, can go fuck itself.
Betty slides her hands forward just enough that the backs of their fingers touch. “I’m sorry for a lot, I can’t sleep with how sorry I am. But the Black Hood didn’t hurt you. Which means, in all this, I did something right.”
Betty looks up from their hands and a slow, sad smile lights up her whole face. Just from thinking about that.
Jughead stands. Betty’s smile gutters out and her eyes go wide with hurt in the moment he’s sliding out before he steps around to her side of the booth. And then her head is tucked under his chin and his arm is curled around her shoulder and she’s shaking again or perhaps it’s him that’s shaking and he thinks, maybe, just maybe—
He presses his mouth to the top of her head and breathes her in.