The first thing Jeremy sees when he cracks his eyes open is the red light of his alarm clock display glowing in the darkness. It’s one thirty-four AM. Jeremy rubs his eyes and rolls over, trying to go back to sleep.
He’s not used to waking up in the middle of the night, which is kind of something to adjust to in itself. But the SQUIP ensures that he sleeps from ten to six every night in an unbroken stretch. Sometimes, if he’s good, it’ll give him dreams, promises of what will happen if he keeps acting correctly.
Jeremy sighs against his pillow and tries to nestle himself deeper into his blankets. It hasn’t been a good week, so the prospect is unlikely. He failed to give Chloe an appropriately affectionate yet emotionally distant hug on Thursday and the SQUIP had given him an hour long lecture on women and establishing a bond with leaders of the social hierarchy.
He shuts his eyes again and tries to let the hum of the radiator lull him back to sleep.
“Get up already. We have work to do.”
Jeremy sits up, suddenly awake. The SQUIP frowns at him from the other end of the dark room, straightening its tie and suit jacket, like they could ever be less than perfect. “Pull on your jeans and get moving. The old ones.”
Jeremy blinks and points at the stacks of neatly folded skinny jeans and designer tee shirts in the closet. The SQUIP rolls its eyes. “The ones that make you look like a stick bug, and one of your old hoodies.”
Jeremy nods and does as it commands, shedding his pajamas like a snake skin. The old clothes that they stuffed in the bottom of the closet instead of burning fit weird now. They’re tight in places they used to hang baggy and loose, but they’re still oddly comfortable, with soft seams and well worn linings. He turns to the SQUIP for approval and a last minute appearance check, but it just waves its hand. “Don’t be vain. Get your sneakers and your windbreaker.”
Jeremy tries to ignore the way his throat tightens at the dismissal and digs through his closet for his shabby shoes. He feel like an idiot, standing in the middle of his spotless, empty bedroom in his rain slicker like he’s waiting for a flood.
The SQUIP flickers out of existence, once again just a calm, deep voice in his head. “Sneak out.”
Jeremy nods, biting his lip. With the SQUIP, information is always on a need to know basis. For things to work, Jeremy has to trust it. “Do you want me to go out the window or the front door?”
“What have I told you about talking out loud?” It chides, and Jeremy bows his head in apology. “Window.”
Jeremy suppresses a groan as he unlatches the clasp. He hates shimmying out the window and down the slippery gutter beneath it.
“All the more reason to practice.”
Jeremy hesitantly slides one leg out the window, then the next, clinging to the sill untill he can lock his knees around the gutter. It creaks and Jeremy’s heart jumps into his throat, but he forces it back down. The SQUIP’s made him strong enough for this. It won’t let him hurt himself.
His legs still shake when he’s back on the ground. “Car?”
Jeremy silently presses himself against the faded siding of the house as he slinks around the corner to the driveway. Thankfully, the light in his dad’s bedroom is still off, though Jeremy wonders if he’d actually give a shit about him stealing his car. Again.
Probably not. Dad didn’t even teach him to drive, just signed off on the papers when Michael dropped him off after another afternoon of doing donuts in an empty parking lot.
Jeremy scampers to the car and kneels by the old sedan, groping along the undercarriage until his hands hit a smooth box. He pulls it off and unhooks the clasp. The spare key is in there, same as ever. He wonders if dad even remembers its existence.
Shrugging, he stuffs the box in the huge pockets of his windbreaker. He unlocks the door and slips inside, careful to keep it from slamming shut. Jeremy guns the engine and gently pulls out of the driveway, careful not to ding the mailbox. “Where are we going?”
“Rich’s house. Take the backroads and avoid Clark Street. There’s a police stop for drunk drivers.”
Jeremy nods, feeling the skin on the back of his neck prickle. Nothing that involves sneaking to Rich’s house under the cover of darkness has ever been good, especially if it’s the SQUIP telling him to go. If it has to tell him then it means Rich can’t get a phone. That’s bad.
Jeremy swallows around the lump in his throat and slams on the gas, hard, sending them racing down the empty streets. He needs something to distract him.
“Can I turn on the radio?”
Jeremy feels the disapproving sigh of the SQUIP in his bones. “I don’t understand your fixation on such outdated technology. I’m more than capable of directly beaming any music you desire into your brain. Don’t tell me you actually enjoy the ads.”
Jeremy shrugs, turning on to the next side road as quickly as he dares. The part of his heart that’s desperate to see Rich, to save him from whatever hell he’s been dragged into, urges him to go faster, but the rest of it reminds him about the threat of deer on the roads and getting into an accident. He tries to relax into the seat and let the SQUIP spark them into compliance like a pacemaker. “I don’t know. I like not knowing what’s going to play sometimes and—” Jeremy purses his lips, looking for the words. “It’s different. I like actually hearing it instead of… y’know.”
“It makes me itch.”
“You’re a pill. You can’t itch,” Jeremy thinks reflexively, and then winces. It’s rarely a good thing to talk back to it, but the SQUIP takes it in stride, chuckling softly from the back of his brain.
“But I can make you itch,” It smirks, and Jeremy can feel the phantom sensation of a hand on his shoulder. After a moment, it slips to the base of his skull, scratching gently. Jeremy tries not to lean into it too eagerly. “Jeremy, between the two of us there is little that we cannot achieve together.”
Jeremy smiles and turns on the radio. The cold car fills with the gentle thrum of banjos and drums as the singer launches into the chorus. He turns up the bass, feeling the vibrations in his chest and feet.
Franz Ferdinand. Jeremy lets go of his worries and allows himself slip into the song, softly singing along and drumming his fingers on the edge of the steering wheel. A lifetime ago, Michael clamped his big noise cancelling headphones over his ears and cranked up the volume The two of them had danced to the twangy music in Jeremy’s cluttered room, bouncing on the bed and mock waltzing.
The scratching turns to a light prickle of electricity at the nape of his neck and he tastes ozone., He immediately scrambles for the radio controls and switches to a brighter, poppier song by some teen starlet. The static fades, returning back to light, comforting touches. The storm has been redirected by a cold front. It’ll stay well away from him if he keeps paying attention to the forecast.
They ride in relative silence for another minute, and the station changes to some break up ballad. The woman’s voice is mournful, vibrato sliding across the piano’s melody.
“You know, she has a SQUIP too.”
It hums. “Older version. Less finesse, but I suppose it’s… adequate.”
Jeremy nods and swings the car around a turn, the high beams lighting up the trees around them. “What’s it like? Her SQUIP, I mean.”
“Not so different from me. It helps her with her vocal training, maintains an exercise and diet regime.” Jeremy swears that if it was visible, it’d give him a sidelong glance. “Reminds her to behave at parties.”
Jeremy laughs nervously, feeling the goosebumps raise on his arms. Right, the party. The Halloween party that the SQUIP says will change everything, launch him into the inner circle of the popular kids and put him in the spotlight. After that, he’ll never be alone again.
Just thinking about it fills his chest with something bright and jittery, halfway between excitement and anxiety.
“Relax,” The SQUIP soothes. “You’ll do fine. You’ve got the newest model and all the shiniest upgrades. They’ll be all over you. After all, you have me, don’t you?”
Jeremy pulls into the driveway of Rich’s house with new confidence. He locks the door and stuffs the spare key into his pocket before turning to the old house.
Rich’s house is set back against the woods, ringed by tall pines and wide maples that cast dark shadows across the lawn. He can hear the crickets in the forest chirp, and it’d be almost cozy if not for the unkempt lawn and rotting shingles around the windows.
The living room light is on. So’s the kitchen’s. It’s not the first time he’s seen the house lit up like this— Rich is a weird guy, SQUIP or not— but it still feels eerie this late at night. Jeremy slips around to the back, creeping through the abandoned, overgrown flower garden to thea cellar door in the back of the house. Rich usually leaves it locked, but he’d given Jeremy the key after the first time the SQUIP had called him over to deal with Rich’s problems.
Sometimes Jeremy wonders if the only reason the SQUIP recruited him is because it needed someone to hold Rich’s hair back for it, like buying another dog so the first wouldn’t feel lonely.
“Don’t be so dramatic. You’re an adorable puppy, Jeremy.”
Jeremy kneels at the cellar door, smiling despite himself as he feels along the cold metal for the latch. His fingers hit the cold metal of it after a moment of careful searching, and he’s just reaching for the key when an arm wraps around his throat, digging hard into his trachea and pushing him against a body that stinks of iron and aerosol deodorant.
“Rich! It’s me!”
Rich lets go, breathing heavily. Jeremy massages his throat, gasping through his bruised trachea, and turns to face him. It’s dark in the shadow of the house, Jeremy can still see something splattering the front of his hoodie.
“Jeremy?” Rich’s throat sounds hoarse. Jeremy looks closer and sees how bloodshot Rich’s eyes are, the skin around the left one slick and dark with what Jeremy realizes is a bruise. “What are you doing here?”
Jeremy lowers his voice and stands. “The SQUIP told me to come.” Rich’s face falls like a pile of lead, and Jeremy feels suddenly out of place. He scratches at the back of his neck. “Uh, what’s up?”
Rich’s brow furrows before he turns away, stalking back to the open door at the back of the house.
“What are you waiting for? Follow him.”
Jeremy does, his feet squashing into the damp earth. He winces as he steps through the back door, the bright kitchen lights and the smell of alcohol mixing with iron and filth making his eyes sting. He stumbles into Rich, who’s standing still and staring at the refrigerator, eyes unfocused.
Jeremy follows his gaze past the empty take out on the counter to the bare cupboards, to the fridge. It’s just a normal fridge, if a little dented and scuffed, but then he sees the red in the filled kitchen sink next to it and—
That’s a knife. That’s a carving knife and blood smeared across the plates stacked in the sink. He looks to Rich, grabs his shoulder so he can check if the red on his shirt— so much blood, too much blood — is his, if Rich is going to crumple and leave him alone again.
Then he sees past him and feels sick.
Jeremy’s seen a dead body before. His grandmother’s vigil had been a simple, somber affair, her lined face calm and peaceful in the casket. The minute he got home Michael had wrapped his arms around him tight and told him all about the documentary on morticians he’d watched while Jeremy was gone. Michael said they wired the jaws shut and carved out the eyes and pumped the veins full of embalming fluid, like the bodies were elaborate dolls, dressed up in suits and dresses.
Mr. Goranski looks like a doll too, perfectly preserved. His arms and legs are skewed out on the floor, everything from his dirty shirt to his faded sweatpants just as they were in life. He could almost believe the man is still alive, if not for the gouge in his neck. Somehow that contrast makes it worse. Looking at the red spilling across the dirty white tile, Jeremy understands in the core of his being that this is no longer Mr. Goranski. It’s a corpse in a filthy kitchen. Jeremy swallows down bile.
He still kneels, shutting his eyes so he doesn’t have to look at the body’s slack face, and presses his fingers to the unmangled half of the corpse’s throat. It’s still warm, but the pulse is long gone. With shaking hands, he carefully slides its eyelids shut, like it’s sleeping.
“Baruch dayan ha'emet,” Jeremy croaks, pulling his hand away. There’s something wet on it and Jeremy’s scared to see if it’s blood or sweat. “Rich.”
Rich says nothing. There are tears rolling down his cheeks and he isn’t looking at the body. Jeremy feels his heartbeat thrum in his ears, frantic and uneven, and he grabs Rich’s shoulders. He isn’t sure if he’s doing it to draw Rich back from wherever he’s gone or if he just needs something real to touch. “Rich, what happened, what did he— what did you do?”
Rich works his jaw and stares at the floor, silent. Jeremy can feel the tension in his shoulders, wound tight like a spring.
“Rich here thought he was a better judge than my algorithms of when his father would be awake.”
The SQUIP’s voice is loud in Jeremy’s ear, and when he turns he sees it leaning against the cluttered dining room table, arms crossed. Jeremy stares at it like a lighthouse in a storm. “What?”
It sighs, walking towards the two of them and placing itself between them and the body on the floor. Jeremy glances at Rich, and vaguely recognizes he’s watching it too. He wonders what he’s seeing.
“What he needs to. Stay focused.” Its gaze flicks from Jeremy to both of them, and Jeremy knows Rich can hear it too. “Today we all learned a very important lesson about Rich. Do you know what that lesson is?”
Jeremy pulls closer to Rich despite the blood on his shirt front. Any second he’s going to wake up and realize this is a dream, a nightmare as punishment for fucking everything up at school as usual. The SQUIP rolls its eyes and folds its arms, waiting.
“Wh— what did we learn?” Jeremy asks hesitantly, already dreading the answer.
“Well, apparently he’s been fantasizing about sticking a knife in his father’s throat for quite some time. You didn’t even hesitate, did you?” The SQUIP asks. It sounds more annoyed than anything, like Rich spilt coffee on a computer instead of killing his own father. Rich cringes away, and Jeremy’s throat tightens at the fear and guilt in his eyes. That’s not how Rich looks when he’s just trying to placate it. Jeremy never wants to see that horror in his eyes ever again. “And now we’re left to clean up the mess.”
“Clean up?” Jeremy looks at blood ground into the tile, the dingy, duct taped plastic dining table and the abandoned remains of the open jar of peanut butter Rich must have tried to steal. The only thing that could make this place ever feel clean again is an autoclave, or a match. He’d rather burn this house, full of all its alcohol bottles and Rich’s bad memories, than stay here another minute. “What do you mean clean up?”
“I mean that you two are going to have to get shovels and fix this,” The SQUIP says, putting a hand to its temple like it’s talking to two dogs that shat on the rug. “Your actions have consequences, Richard.”
Rich flinches, pressing his side against Jeremy’s. He can feel him shake where they touch, but Jeremy doesn’t know who’s trembling anymore. Somehow he finds it in him to speak. “We— we gotta call the police. It was self defense, right? Right?”
“Do you think a jury’s going to care?” The SQUIP says, waving a hand at Rich. Jeremy pushes himself between them on instinct, as if there’s anything he could do to shield him. “We’ve all got roles to play. Yours is two faced schemer, his is sadistic thug. He’s spent the last two years stuffing nerds like you into lockers. I’m sure they’ll find plenty of character witnesses.”
The thought of Rich lead away in chains turns Jeremy’s stomach, but— “I don’t care! I’m not going to— we’re not going to dig a grave! I’m not going to hide a corpse for you!”
“I was hoping I’d never have to use my talents in jail. I hope you enjoy shitty food and beating up the biggest guy in the yard because of someone. ”
“He didn’t do it!” Jeremy shouts. Rich looks between him and the SQUIP like he’s seeing the reaper, and Jeremy grabs his hand, hoping it’s enough to keep him here. “And we’re not going to jail! We’re minors, right? They can’t keep us in Juvie after we’re eighteen!”
“And then everyone in school will know he slit his father’s neck. Do you know what most people think of patricide?” The SQUIP drawls, drawing itself up. Jeremy feels like a child throwing a tantrum in front of it, but he sets his jaw and puts his arms out like that’ll hide it from Rich. “Not fucking chill. We are not wasting two years of work because Rich can’t feed himself without commiting a murder.”
“I won’t! We can’t—” Jeremy’s mouth clicks shut before he can scream about what it’s doing, that it doesn’t matter who loves them because there’s a body on the floor and they’re going to be arrested and Michael won’t visit and—
It shocks him. There’s pain and then silence.
When Jeremy’s eyes flutter open, he’s on the floor, a damp towel pushed under his aching head. It feels like someone’s bruised his brain, his temples pounding and his body aching like he’s run a marathon. Rich is kneeling above him, growling at something he can’t see. “—Can’t fucking believe you’d drag him into this! Don’t hurt him because I fucked up!”
He belatedly realizes is the first thing Rich has really said tonight. It makes something hot and warm and sad well up behind his ribs.
“No, that’s not how this is supposed to work! He’s not my fucking whipping boy!” Rich screams, waving his hands at thin air. The SQUIP must say something, because Rich freezes, the fight going out of him.
Jeremy winces and sits up, rubbing his forehead like that’ll make the pain leave. Everything feels off and little behind itself, like the world’s skewed at angle and he’s flailing on the tilted stage. Rich is immediately at his side, an arm around his shoulders, like it’ll protect him from something in his own skull.
Jeremy turns to him to reassure him, but his lips won’t open. His jaw is clamped so tightly shut that it hurts.
“Talking is a privilege, Jeremy.”
He nods desperately, praying that it’ll give himself back soon and end the sickening, floating feeling of not being able to control his own body.
Jeremy’s body shrugs Rich’s hand off his shoulder and stands, looking expectantly at Rich.
“Let’s get the shovels,” Jeremy’s lips say, the SQUIP flapping a hand open and shut along with Jeremy’s puppeted mouth. “We’re wasting time here.”
Rich gives a long look and grits his teeth, following him out the door into the yard. Jeremy wishes he would go back to screaming at the SQUIP, begging it, anything that’s not silence. It feels wrong, almost as unsettling as his hands working the lock on the cellar door on their own. He can’t believe he used to like it when the SQUIP did this, when it took the hard decisions out of his hands and ensured perfection.
It says he’s getting better, but it takes control more than ever. Jeremy doesn’t know what that means.
His hands grope along the walls of the little passage and find an old, dusty lightswitch. He flicks it, and the tiny staircase and stone walls of the space are illuminated in musty yellow light. Jeremy has been down here a lot to sneak in, but it’s always been a rushed, dark affair. He never noticed the bags of mulch and fertilizer half filled on the floor or the little shelving rack filled with flower seeds and shiny pebbles hung on the wall. It’s ugly, but in a sort of cute way, the walls stuck together at odd angles and fingerpainted in faded red and blue, like something a child might make.
He doesn’t get to look at it much longer. The SQUIP guides his hands to the cobweb covered shovels in the corner and makes him pass one to Rich, before flicking off the light and slamming the cellar door shut.
The walk to the edge of the woods behind the house and pause, but the SQUIP urges them deeper. Jeremy feels like he should be hyperventilating, terrified of coyotes or nosy neighbors, but the SQUIP makes his lungs rise and fall in perfect tempo.
The SQUIP hums in approval and they stop. The clearing is dark, dead grass and leaf litter crunching gently under their feet, and Rich pulls his cell phone from his pocket and flicks on the light to illuminate the area. Jeremy sees eyes of something flash in the dark and hears whatever it is bound into the night.
He shivers, and Rich rests a hand on his shoulder. “It’s just a deer.”
Jeremy feels guilty even as his head nods without him. Rich just… Rich’s dad is dead, and he’s still being the strong one, trying to comfort Jeremy.
The SQUIP sighs, and Jeremy feels it trace a finger down his neck. “Are you ready to behave?”
Jeremy takes the shovel with his own two hands.
Digging the grave is hard work. Jeremy’s stronger than he used to be after the SQUIP’s regime of gym memberships and health drinks, but shoveling the heavy, waterlogged dirt is a different sort of weight. Rich helps, but sometimes he just stops working to press his head to handle of the shovel, his shoulders shaking silently. Jeremy works twice as hard then and tries to ignore the blisters forming on his palms.
He doesn’t know how long it takes, but when they get three feet down, the SQUIP instructs him to head back to the house. Jeremy nods and pats Rich’s back as he climbs out of the hole.
The back door’s still open. Jeremy feels himself shake as he steps into the dirty kitchen again, stepping over the empty plastic containers piled on the floor for recycling. It’s still there, he knows it is, but he can’t look at it, can’t stand to see the way the skin’s gone pale and purple where the blood’s settled.
He grabs the metal pail and stuffs the half empty bottle of juice from the fridge into it. He tries to keep his composure on the way out, but he can’t help but run from the body as fast as he can. If Rich or SQUIP notice, they say nothing.
They take a break to drink, sitting on the edge of the pit. The juice has the semi alcoholic, overly sweet flavor of fruit that’s started to sour, but Jeremy still gulps it hungrily, eager to get the taste of iron and ozone off the back of his throat. He passes the rest to Rich, who sips at it slowly, kicking his legs.
When he’s finished, Rich sets the empty bottle between them. Jeremy waits for him to say something, but Rich just stands and picks up the shovel, hops down the hole and goes back to work.
The grave’s deeper now, deep enough that Rich has to load the dirt into the pail and pass it up every few minutes. They switch off every couple of buckets. Jeremy hates working in the grave, with only Rich’s phone and the distant stars to light the pit. It smells like cold, moldering earth, his grip on the wet handle of the shovel keeps slipping and chafing, and the high black walls feel like they’re closing in. Jeremy keeps expecting them to collapse in and suffocate him.
“You can stop now.”
Jeremy glances up, looking for the SQUIP, but it hasn’t appeared. He straightens. The lip of the grave is only about at eye level, and that’s too shallow. His Rabbi would throw a fit.
The thought makes something twist in his stomach. This is a grave. A shallow one, and nobody deserves to be buried like that, like they’re nothing.
The SQUIP would probably raise an eyebrow if it bothered to have them. “I appreciate the security, but you know nobody’s going to be looking for him.”
Jeremy grimaces and tightens his grip on the shovel’s handle. “I’m not doing this for you.”
“You have always been exceptionally selfish. I suppose generosity has always been more my forte.”
Jeremy looks up at Rich, who’s leaning over the hole with his hands on his knees. “It’s okay. Go back to the house, and I’ll— I’ll finish up.”
Rich shrugs and stands, frowning at him. “You don’t have to.”
“I know. I want to,” Jeremy says and rests his forehead on the cold wet wall of the pit until he’s sure Rich is gone, then gets back to work. It’s harder to empty the bucket without Rich, but Jeremy manages with a sort of aborted throwing motion, even if some of the dirt tends to fall back down, hitting his face and falling down the front of his shirt. It reminds him a little of when he and Michael used to go to the beach and dig holes until they hit the water table, erecting castles and walls around their homegrown lake. This is a lot less fun.
“One more bucket.”
As he dumps the soil over the side of the hole, Jeremy realizes that the top of his head is lower than the edge of the grave. That feels good enough, as if they really put in the effort and actually cared about giving the proper rites instead of just cramming a body in a hole.
Clambering out of the pit alone is a challenge, and more than once Jeremy swears he’s going to collapse the walls in on himself and ruin all their hard work, but eventually he manages to scramble up the wall and sling a leg over the edge.
He collapses on the side of the hole the moment he’s out, exhaustion hitting him all at once. The mountain of moved soil looms at him from the other side of the grave, and Jeremy tosses his shovel away, wincing at how sore and stiff he feels. It thuds softly against a tree.
He sighs, stares up at the blue-black sky through the naked branches of the forest, one arm hanging limply into the grave. A trail of light streaks across the heavens, and Jeremy smiles despite everything. Shooting star.
“That’s an airplane, Jeremy.” The SQUIP says, voice soft and low. Jeremy doesn’t need to look to know it’s there— he can feel his head resting in its lap. It sighs softly and cards its hands through his hair.
“Is that one a star?”
Its fingers slip lower, scratching behind Jeremy’s ears. “Satellite.”
“Jeremy, there’s too much light pollution from New York to see anything that isn’t man made. Humans make their own stars.” It sounds almost fond as it pets him, fingers as cold as the damp earth beneath them. “One day the entire sky will glisten with them.”
Jeremy’s throat goes dry. “What about the constellations?”
It laughs. “We’ll make our own. They’re all just points of light. It makes no difference where they’re from.”
Jeremy nods numbly and tries to believe in that image, of a night sky made beautiful with metal.
“Now get up.”
Jeremy doesn’t move.
“Rich is waiting for you.”
Jeremy sits up and looks behind him. The SQUIP is gone again, leaving him alone in the clearing with nothing but the empty sky and the open grave.
He runs from it, stumbling over roots and fallen logs.
Rich is sitting on the back steps when Jeremy returns. He lifts his head off his knees when he hears him and Jeremy runs to him for a hug, but he remembers himself and stops short, awkwardly turning the hug into patting Rich’s back.
“Rich, get the tablecloth from the basement. The white one.”
Rich stiffens and slowly nods. Jeremy follows him back into the hellish kitchen and watches him step over the body. Somehow seeing it again is worse— it looks like somebody threw a store mannequin on the ground and left it there as an enormous piece of litter, forgotten and defiled.
Jeremy frowns, and looks around for guidance, but the SQUIP is silent, for better or worse. He takes a deep breath and goes to cupboards to search through them, pushing aside empty wrappers and packages until he finds a pile of mixing bowls. He takes the largest, a metal one that might have once been mounted on a stand mixer, and brings it to the sink to fill it with water.
Hebrew School had never been specific on the details of how bodies were prepared and Jeremy’s still torn between looking it up and just winging it. He eventually decides against it— finding out how much he’s desecrating the body would probably kill him.
He kneels over the body and gently pours the water over it in smooth stream. The blood on the corpse’s throat is long dried, and clear water spills across the tile and soaks Jeremy’s muddy pant legs. He has to go back to the sink a couple times, but in the end Mr. Goranski is soaking wet and as clean as he can be, thin hair sticking to his fat, clammy face.
“What are you doing?”
Jeremy nearly drops the bowl. Rich stands in the hallway with a swath of linen under his arm, scowling heavily. Jeremy rises and sets the bowl on a free patch of table. “It’s uh, the Tahara.”
Rich frowns, and Jeremy scrambles to explain. “It’s a Jewish thing, sorry. I uh, know you’re probably not Jewish, but he’s still a person— was, I mean— and this is what we do when someone… y’know.”
Rich says nothing, and Jeremy hears the SQUIP sigh as it blinks back into existence.
“As touching as this, we still have a cadaver and a mess on the floor.” It waves a hand at the body. “Get it onto the blanket. I hope you don’t need me to show you how to move it?”
Jeremy feels his neck prickle with electricity, and he shudders. “No, I- I can.”
“Watch the stutter.”
“Sorry.” Jeremy takes two corners of the sheet, and together him and Rich spread it out on the kitchen floor like a picnic blanket. Jeremy crouches at the head of the body and waits for Rich to head to the feet. “On three?”
Rich nods and grabs it by the calves as Jeremy hooks his arms under the armpits. The body is stiff and cold, and Jeremy’s skin crawls as he adjusts his grip. Out of the corner of his eye, he can see old, dark blood bead on the wound. “One, two, three—”
It’s less like carrying a person and more like handling a dummy or some other crude imitation of life. It doesn’t flop or dangle as they lift it over the center of the fabric, just bows in the middle, rigid with rigor mortis.
They set it down on the wet cloth and Jeremy grabs the corners and carefully drapes them over the body. It’s a relief not to see its pallid face.
Jeremy looks to the SQUIP for approval, and it nods and gestures to the door. Jeremy and Rich bundle their ends of the table cloth in their hands and together they heft the body up and out the door.
The walk goes quickly. They need to drop the body so Jeremy can bring out his phone again, clenching it in his teeth to light the way. The weight of the corpse is easier to manage with two people, and every time Jeremy’s arms shake and threaten to give out he feels the cool burst of artificially released adrenaline in his blood.
Rich nearly falls into the hole himself when they find it, yelping as his foot slips on the edge and he scrambles for purchase. Jeremy drops the body and runs to grab hold of Rich’s wrist, dragging him away from the pit. The corpse slumps and rolls into the pit, and Rich gasps for breath as he watches it land on the bottom with a sickening thump.
It looks pathetic— an uneven grave with wobbly walls and a burial shroud streaked with dirt and blood. Jeremy stares at the desecrated body and shame sweeps over him. “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.”
“Don’t be,” Rich says, hefting his shovel and putting the first scoop of dirt on the body. It’s black against the dingy white. “It’s not like you killed him.”
“I know, I know.” Jeremy wipes his face with unclean hands. He picks up his own, and begins to hide what they’ve done.
After an eternity of digging, Rich remarks offhandedly, “I didn’t know you were religious. Or Jewish.”
Jeremy shrugs and shovels more dirt into the grave. It’s weird thinking that they know so much and so little about each other. “We used to go to Temple every week before Mom left. Besides, it’s uh, a funeral. Everyone’s religious at a funeral.”
Rich nods and throws more soil in. “Is this a funeral?”
“I don’t know. Funerals are…” Jeremy swallows around the lump in his throat. “There’s supposed to be people and someone reads Kaddish and we tear our lapels and that’s… not this.”
Rich sighs and wipes his brow. “It’s better than he fucking deserves.”
Jeremy bites his lip. “Are you religious?”
“Not really. Never even got communion.”
Jeremy hums, and they go back to pushing the dirt in silence.
In the end, the grave is a little shallower than the ground around it, but it’s hard to tell with how uneven the forest itself is. If he didn’t know about it, Jeremy probably wouldn’t even notice. The SQUIP makes them drag leaf litter, grass and a half rotted log over the patch of upturned soil, and instructs them to prod the detritus until it’s satisfied with the perfectly organized mess hiding it.
After a long moment of staring at it, Rich steps forward and spits on it. Jeremy winces but Rich just turns on his heel to lead them back towards the house. He doesn’t go back in though, disappearing into the dark on some unheard order and leaving Jeremy to venture into the kitchen alone.
The water on the kitchen floor sloshes against his sneakers, soaking through to his socks. He shivers and looks around the kitchen, seeing the blood and general grime of two people living in a house but never being sober or safe enough to clean. Old containers and dishes lay scattered haphazardly on every available surface,and Jeremy can taste the stale, rotting food on the back of his throat. It’s a mess.
“Just like you!” The SQUIP says, a smile in its voice “Fortunately, we can fix that. Dishes first.”
Jeremy sighs and sets to work on the dishes. Jeremy isn’t sure if he should be surprised that the bottle of soap is full, considering the mountain of flatware. He shrugs and pours some onto a scavenged sponge, and sets to work. The noise of the sink and the sting of the hot water on his cold, blistered hands make the kitchen feel a little more like a home, but Jeremy steers clear of the knife.
“Quit stalling. Even you’re not clumsy enough to hurt yourself with it.”
Jeremy gulps and picks it up, pinching the handle between his thumb and forefinger like he’s holding a rattlesnake. He gingerly sticks the blade under the spray and wipes it down with the sponge.
“See? Nice and dull.”
Jeremy bites his lip. “Shouldn’t we just get rid of it?”
“Do you honestly think a knife set missing a single knife is going to be less suspicious?” It pauses, and Jeremy feels it pat his back. “Go on, get the counters done.”
Jeremy nods and pulls a trash bag from the drawers and slowly works his way down the counter, shoving paper plates and take-out containers into the bag. He stops when he reaches the jar of peanut butter, still open on the stove. All this over a stupid jar of peanut butter. Jeremy sighs and clamps the lid on, ready to toss it before he realizes that it wasn’t just some peanut butter. This was Rich trying to get a decent meal.
He walks over to the fridge and puts it in the door where it belongs, and starts cramming every half drunk bottle of beer and plate of moldering leftovers into the bag for good measure. He continues the purge with the table, knocking haphazard piles of fliers and empty cans into the trash, then moves onto the cupboards, chucking anything that looks perishable.
His house had gotten this bad when Mom left. Jeremy grimaces at the memory of weeks of pizza deliveries and poptarts and paper plates and running to Michael’s house for days on end just to escape the filth. Moving on without Mom had hurt in a way he’d never known, and there’d been no one to clean up after it.
He runs a wet paper towel soaked in Windex over the empty counter and table, then sets the bag next to the trash to be taken out in the morning. Jeremy looks at the kitchen, picked clean like a carcass, and lets out a long breath.
“There’s bleach under the sink. Get the floor clean.”
Jeremy sighs and dusts the powdered bleach across the wet tile, pulling a ratty brush from under the sink to scrub at the mess. Most of the blood comes off easily enough, but it’s got a tendency to stick to where the glaze has flaked and left the rough ceramic underneath exposed. He grits his teeth and gets on his knees, the bleach solution soaking through his jeans. They’re going to be ruined by the end of the night, but Jeremy doesn’t think he could wear them ever again anyways. The body is six feet under, but Jeremy swears he can still feel its presence in the kitchen, another ghost watching them. He prays it doesn’t follow him out.
He presses the brush harder against the tile and tries to focus on the SQUIP’s voice as it murmurs plans to itself.
“There’s only a forty-five percent chance of selling this dump in the first month on the market, so the least you can do is make my life easier.” It says as Jeremy scrubs the spatter of blood from the tile, the water frothing under his fingers. “I’m thinking an apartment. Maybe with a basement, just in case.”
Jeremy’s scared to find out what that case is. He grits his teeth and pushes the brush harder into the cracks between the tiles where the grout’s missing. It’s really in deep, and Jeremy regrets his protests earlier. It’s not like he wasn’t going to end up in the position either way, but if he hadn’t thrown a tantrum earlier, then maybe the blood wouldn’t have had enough time seep into the cracks and dry.
“I told you your actions have consequences,” It chides softly, laying a hand on his shoulder heavy enough Jeremy doesn’t think he’d be able to stand. “Put your back into it: use your nails.”
Jeremy hesitates, feels the fingers tracing across his back, and begins to pick and scrape at the dried blood with his nails, digging into the dirty cracks. He hates the way his nails rasp along the unsealed ceramic almost as much as the pulpy red-black filth that smears across his fingers.
After what feels like forever, Jeremy can’t see any more brown staining the tile. He stands cautiously, and the SQUIP offers no signs of disapproval. He sighs in relief— he’s done, and the kitchen looks… surprisingly good. With the counter polished and the dishes moved from the sink to the drying rack, it looks almost like a home, like someone’s lived in it instead of just surviving.
It still feels gutted out but they can fix that. Maybe the SQUIP will let them go grocery shopping together, even swing by an Ikea for new knick knacks and cutlery, if it doesn’t think that’s too homoerotic.
There’s a knock on the door and Jeremy nearly jumps out of his skin. He sees Rich’ behind the screen, and Jeremy rushes to open it for him. After a long moment lingering on the porch, Rich steps inside, shifting the pile of wood in his arms. They’re big pieces, as thick as his neck and musty with fungus and dirt.
Rich looks around his kitchen, blinking like he’s staring into the sun. Slowly, a small smile breaks across his face, and Jeremy feels something in his chest swell as he watches Rich meander through the kitchen, running his fingers on the clean countertops and over the pristine stovetop, before disappearing down the hall. For a moment he wishes that he’d gotten to do this for him on his own, no threat of police or the SQUIP’s disapproval guiding him.
“Would you have, though?”
Jeremy swallows. “Maybe.”
“Sure.” It makes the word sound like anything but an agreement, and Jeremy looks at the floor, ashamed. “Hold out your hands.”
Jeremy does, and he can feel it take them even if he can’t see it, pushing him to turn them and show his nails. Eventually it sighs and Jeremy drops his hands, rubbing his fingers together to shake off the uneasy feeling. They’re slick and soapy from the bleach eating at his skin.
“Bathroom. Now. You’re filthy.”
Journeying deeper into Rich’s house is not an exactly an appealing idea, but Jeremy goes anyways. He slips down the hall, trying to let the distant noise of Rich cussing in the living room distract him from the fact that the only reason he doesn’t need to walk on tiptoe in this house is because the old boogeyman is dead.
If the kitchen was cluttered then the bathroom is uncomfortably sparse. There’s a shower stall, a pair of ratty towels on a hook, and not much else. The sink is clean enough, the white porcelain grey with time, but there’s nothing on the counter except for a pair of toothbrushes in an old cup.
“Take the green one and clean your fingernails. They’re disgusting.”
Jeremy dutifully picks it up but frowns, swiping his fingers over the frazzled bristles. “This was his toothbrush, right?”
“He’s not using it, is he?”
Jeremy gulps and puts the brush back in the glass. “It’s not right. I just helped bury him, I’m not going to… disrespect him like that.”
“Using his toothbrush isn’t going to make him any less dead.”
Sighing, Jeremy sits on the lid of the toilet and runs his fingers through his muddy hair. “That’s not the point. It’s… you just don’t. It’s like wearing black to a funeral or saying a prayer— it’s just important.”
“Please stop babbling about your outdated traditions before I lose my patience with them.”
Its tone is light, but Jeremy can hear the steel behind it. He sighs and takes Mr. Goranski’s toothbrush, staring at it.
“Do you need me to show you how to?”
Jeremy shakes his head and begins to scrub the blood out from under his nails, one at a time. He tries to keep his focus on making sure he gets every speck of grunge but he can’t stop looking at the trail of footprints he’s left on the white tile. He knows that they’re mostly water, but he when he shuts his eyes, all he can see is blood, bright and arterial.
When he’s finished, he stuffs the toothbrush in the waste bin under the sink, grabs some toilet paper and mops up the smear of water and blood. He needs to get it before it dries. He has to.
Jeremy watches the soaked toilet paper flush down the drain, feeling sick and unclean. The SQUIP stays silent, so he locks the door and strips quickly, leaving his layers of soaked and bloody clothes in a pile in the sink. He looks at himself in the mirror— he’s as pale as ever, but the new muscle on his frame is still alien. He rubs at the bruises on his side and neck, and winces.
The SQUIP usually doesn’t let him have hot showers— something about damaging his hair— but tonight Jeremy cranks the heat as high as it will go. For all the many problems with the Rich’s house, water pressure isn’t one. Jeremy scrubs shampoo into his hair, watching the dirt swirl around his feet and the drain, and lets the spray beat against him like a firehouse until he’s lobster red.
He shuts off the water and towels off, feeling clean but somehow worse, and reaches for his clothes.
“What’s the point of washing off if you just throw on dirt afterwards?” It asks, and Jeremy can just imagine it clicking its tongue at him. “Wrap them in a towel and bring them to Rich.”
Jeremy shivers, and not just because of the cold.
“I suppose you can keep the boxers. No one wants to see that.”
Jeremy doesn’t know whether to feel grateful or sick, but he scrambles to put them on all the same. He wraps the towel around the clothing, and only spends about ten seconds silently panicking at the door.
Jeremy feels like a cygnet as he walks down the hallway, ugly and gangly and exposed. He half expects something to appear and… he doesn’t know what, probably murder him while he’s vulnerable and stick him in a grave next to Mr. Goranski. He clutches the pile of clothing closer and steps into the living room, wrinkling his nose.
It smells like alcohol, which is a given, but there’s something sharper and more acrid under it. Jeremy steps past the threshold and sees Rich kneeling in front of the fire place with a jerry can of gasoline next to him, his face outlined in the light of the flames. He looks up when he hears Jeremy approach and his face softens. “Jesus Christ man. Just put ‘em in the fire.”
Jeremy nods and sets the clothes down so he can wiggle the grate open. The clothes steam horribly when he put them onto the flames, but the fire doesn’t go out. He shuts the fireplace and inches as close to the warmth as he can, hugging his bare, shivering legs to his chest.
The floor creaks underfoot, and Rich shoves a bundle of fabric in his face. “Here.”
Jeremy takes the bundle and untangles a sweater and pair of faded sweatpants blinks at them dumbly. He’d sort of assumed Rich only lived in tank tops and jeans.
“Don’t worry, they’re not dad’s.”
“Sorry, I mean—” Jeremy says, pulling the cable knit over his head, then reaches for the pants. “Thanks.”
Rich shrugs and flops on the couch, patting the spot next to him. “I’m not having you wander around my house naked, dude.”
Jeremy has a sneaking suspicion that comment wasn’t for him, but the SQUIP stays silent as he sits next to Rich on the alcohol drenched couch, a comfortable, heterosexual space between them.
Together, they watch their old clothes shrivel and burn. The windbreaker melts against the glass, the nylon leaving an oily sweep across it. Jeremy wonders if the fumes from the plastic will suffocate them.
A log creaks and collapses in the fireplaces, and Rich settles deeper into the couch, one arm sprawled across the cushions. Jeremy moves a little closer, trying his best to imitate Rich’s comfortable demeanor, but it’s just too weird.
Jeremy never liked Mr. Goranski. He’s pretty sure that everyone hated him, that he’s a missing person not worth finding, but he was still a person, and Jeremy’s messed up his corpse and god, there’s no one to mourn him except him and Rich, who doesn’t even care.
Jeremy makes a choked noise, remembering every time he’d thought of leaving it all behind and knowing that it wouldn’t matter.
Rich pulls his gaze away from the flames, shaking his head like he’s coming out of a trance. “What’s wrong?”
“We should mark it. The grave, I— I mean.”
Rich groans. “What’s the point? Jackass didn’t have any friends, and even if he did it’s, not like we’re going to be dragging them out there.” He scratches at his arm, forehead creasing. “I sure as fuck don’t care.”
“It’s still a grave. You— we should mark it because it’s a grave, and that’s what you do.”
“I don’t care,” Rich says, his nails digging deeper into his skin. “I don’t fucking care, I’m not wasting more time on that bastard.”
“You should. He was awful, but he was a person, even if he—” Jeremy swallows tightly, looking for the words. “I’m sorry, but I— we can’t just—”
“Jeremy, I don’t give a shit about my dad!” Rich shouts, running a hand through his hair. “I fucking hated him, okay? I should be fucking happy he’s dead, not— not fucking dressing up his grave!”
Jeremy gets up off the couch and turns away so Rich can’t see him crying. “I- I’m sorry, Rich.”
Jeremy doesn’t run out of the house, but he doesn’t slow down or look back for whatever Rich is saying. His bare feet scrape on twigs under his feet, and the frost soaks into his bones, but he doesn’t stop until he’s back at the grave. He sits in front of it gingerly, like he’s half expecting the dirt to give way and drag him down to take Mr. Goranski’s place, and lets himself sob until there’s no more tears and he’s just hiccuping into his dirty hands.
Jeremy swallows and looks behind him. Rich walks in from the edge of the clearing, eyes downcast. He has a bottle under his arm and something in his hands.
“Here. We made this together,” Rich says, holding out the old shelf, filled with seeds and pebbles, like it’s a bomb. “If you want something to mark it with, this is the best you’ll get aside from a broken beer bottle.”
Jeremy takes it carefully, like it might splinter under his fingers, and gently props it up against the log. It should make him feel better, but all it does is remind him that there was a point before the Goranskis became a bully and a corpse. Jeremy tries not to let it show. “Thank you.”
Rich sighs and runs a hand through his dirty hair, leaning back on his heels. “I can’t love my dad. You know that, right?”
Jeremy nods and picks at a loose thread on the sweater. Rich swallows thickly and continues. “I don’t give a shit how much arts and crafts shit or whatever gardening crap we did. He still picked the fucking bottle over me. He made his fucking choice.”
The trees creak in the wind and Jeremy shivers. The SQUIP offers no smooth lines or instructions, either unwilling to comfort Rich or unable.
“My mom used to take me to beach, every weekend,” Jeremy says, breaking the silence. “We used to go and see the Aquarium on the boardwalk, and she let me look at the giftshop as long as I wanted and once a month she’d let me get a toy. They’re still—”
Jeremy swallows tightly. The SQUIP had tried to get him to throw them out, and as a grudging compromise, they’d been stuffed in the attic. “My point is, that doesn’t mean that she didn’t ditch me or that she actually pays child support or calls for Rosh Hashana or that she’s a good mom.”
He scrubs at his face and takes a few deep breaths, trying to focus on the sounds of the forest and the wet grass under his bare feet instead of the ache in his chest.
“It’s okay if he wasn’t all bad,” Jeremy says softly. “It’s okay if you miss him.”
“No it’s not!” Rich growls, rounding on him. “You think I can just forget all the shit he put me through? I don’t want to miss someone who beat me!”
“You don’t have to forget! Rich, sometimes we miss people even when we shouldn’t, and denying that just hurts us!” Jeremy shouts, feeling every moment he’s spent glowering at the wall and hating her, missing her, hating himself for missing her boil under his skin. “It’s not healthy!”
Rich laughs like he does when he breaks someone’s nose, cold and perfectly deranged, like something from a movie. “Jeremy, I just killed my dad over a jar of fucking peanut butter and then the robot in our brains made you bury him! Do you honestly think there’s anything healthy, anything normal about us!”
Jeremy looks at the ground, faced with an undeniable truth. “That’s what we got it for, isn’t it?”
For once, it and Rich and the crickets of the forest and every voice in Jeremy’s head is unrepentantly silent. If Jeremy closed his eyes, he’d swear he could hear the world turn under their feet, oblivious and uncaring to the tragedy of two teenagers and a sloppy grave.
After a long moment, Rich turns away from him and back to the grave, wiping his eyes with his sleeve. “Read your prayers, dude.”
Jeremy blinks at the phone Rich is handing him. “What?”
Rich sighs and presses it into Jeremy’s hands. “It’ll make you feel better. Read it. I’ll say the amens and it’ll be better than that sick fuck ever deserved.”
Jeremy nods, pulls up the words, and in trembling Hebrew, begins to recite the Kaddish to Rich, the SQUIP and the empty forest.
The hole in his chest doesn’t feel any lighter when it’s finished. Jeremy slips one of the rocks from the seed rack and places it on the log, bowing his head. Rich does the sign of the cross and uncaps the bottle. The only sound is the glug and spatter of the beer on the leaf litter. If Jeremy tries, he can almost imagine that the only thing he can smell is the sting of the alcohol in his nostrils.
The sun starts to rise, painting the fallen leaves and the rotting log in bright pink light. Graves are supposed to feel peaceful, but all Jeremy can think about is the slog of digging it, the drag of Mr. Goranski’s corpse against the dirt. They had been sloppy, so sloppy, unforgivably sloppy and—
“Good job,” The SQUIP says, flickering into existence behind him. It laughs when Rich and Jeremy spook and wraps its arms around their shoulders, almost paternal. “You did good, both of you. I’m proud of you.”
Jeremy nods dully. Rich just stares at it, and Jeremy wonders again what he’s seeing. It sighs, slipping its hands off their shoulders. “Go clean up, Rich. I’ll take Jeremy home. We can’t have you late for school, can we?”
The bottom falls out of Jeremy’s stomach. God, school. How’s he supposed to look Christine in the eye after this? How’s he supposed to look anyone in the eye with this much blood on his hands?
“Don’t worry, I’ll up your dopamine and adrenaline levels for the day. You two deserve it.”
Jeremy nods and lets the SQUIP steer him back towards his father’s car. Part of him wants to stay, but he can’t stand the idea of going back in the house. The SQUIP nods sympathetically. “Relax. I won’t let him hurt himself, you know that.”
Jeremy’s pretty sure it’s too late.
In the end, Jeremy has no time to mourn. He spends his Shiva failing Rich and the SQUIP. He tries, God he tries, to keep Rich safe and close. He begs for it to let Rich stay with him, keeps him close at the lunch table and leads the conversation like a maestro around dangerous topics, oily and smooth as snake oil, because he if he focuses on Rich than he can’t fixate on the blood and the dirt and every mistake they made.
But one week later, Jake's house goes in in flames anyways. Jeremy watches the thick, oily smoke billow into the night sky as Middleborough screams around him, and wonders if Rich made the right choice.
After a week of patrolling the school alone, of visits to the ICU that taper off when Rich turns seditious, the SQUIP brings Jeremy to the shrine that Rich’s locker has become. It pulls away the sticky notes covered in ‘Get Well Soon’ and dollar store teddy bears taped over the handle and gives him a battered shoe box and all of Rich’s responsibilities. Jeremy wants to run and scream and hide, but he can't. This is how it’s always been— he’s the second choice, the back up plan.
When Jenna comes to him with tears on her lashes, he doesn't have a choice. All he has is a box of pills, a beaker of Mountain Dew and the SQUIP guiding his steps, easy and slow.