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Loudest One Is Mine

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Honestly, it’d been going just fantastic for Jeremy up till he tapped on the ‘What’s New?’ button in his Spotify application.

His day had been going great. He’d done pretty good on his Math finals, aced his Literature class, and the play rehearsals with Mr. Reyes and Christine were doing well. Then he’d hung out at Michael’s and played video games together with his best friend.

All in all, it hadn’t been such a bad day.

Jeremy now frowned at his phone screen, pushing his headphones up a bit to avoid them slipping. “Be More Chill, original cast recording?” he mumbled to himself.

That was an… interesting name for a musical. A musical that was apparently, according to the small intro Spotify gave him, going to Broadway. Jeremy raised an eyebrow- it was a small wonder that Christine hadn’t told him about it. They’d been talking a lot more, even after they broke up. The relationship wasn’t going to work out anyway.

Jeremy froze as he continued reading the description. Something about it was… hauntingly familiar.

And by familiar, he meant- why did the main protagonist have his name? And why did the love interest have Christine’s name? Why was the…

A chill went up his spine as he stared at the five-lettered word he tried to not think of ever since the school play last year- it’d been six months, and he’d made considerable progress. All his friends also tried to pretend that it never happened, especially Rich.

The one person who didn’t openly taboo the subject was Michael. He’d expressed that he thought it was healthier if everyone would talk about it, but the squad was firm on their beliefs.

Jeremy, in particular, hated to even think about it.

But curiosity won out for him, and he laid down back on his bed, scrolling through the soundtrack list absentmindedly, scanning the song names. More Than Survive, I Love Play Rehearsal… He winced as he saw The SQUIP Song, but kept reading. Two-Player Game…

Unable to resist, Jeremy tapped on More Than Survive and listened to the chords starting out. It was a pretty nice, catchy electronic beat, combined with a voice singing… wait. Was that him?

“C- c- c- c’mon, c- c- c- c’mon, go, go!” a male voice chanted, his tone light and thin. It sounded high, liable to crack at any second, and it…

It sounded almost exactly like Jeremy.

The teenage boy held his breath, waiting to see what the first lines of the song would be-

“I’m waiting for my porno to load,” the actor sang, and Jeremy couldn’t help himself- he snorted. He was getting more and more convinced that someone had secretly recorded the whole fiasco, and turned it into a musical. They even got his old morning routine right.

Jeremy skipped a bit in the song- he could go back and listen to it later anyway. He stopped when a loud, swinging beat started playing, and sat back.

“Michael!” he heard himself exclaim in the song, and Jeremy started. Michael?

Of course he was in the musical. Michael Mell had been such an integral part of Jeremy’s life, he couldn’t imagine going a verse without him.

“Jeremy, my buddy, how’s it hanging, lunch is banging, have my sushi, got my slushie, and more!” another voice sang, and Jeremy nearly fell off his bed. Not only was that almost definitely what his best friend would say, but that was Michael‘s voice coming out from the headphone speakers.

Jeremy’d never explicitly heard Michael sing before. Sure, the occasional hum-along to Marley, but never full out, clear lyrics before. He’d have to ask his friend to do it someday- damn, Michael sounded good in the song.

“You’re listening to Bob Marley again, aren’t you?” actor-singer-Jeremy said in the song. Real life Jeremy shook his head as he heard his friend’s joyous yell, and then the following lyrics.

“Goddamn,” Jeremy muttered, scrolling back up in the playlist, too eager to finish the song, even though he’d love to listen to his best friend singing. He picked Two-Player Game, definitely not just because it sounded like a real video-gamey kind of song. “Oh, yeah.”

It was a song with him and Michael, starting off right with a couple of quick rap-style verses, eight lines somehow perfectly summing up their normal fight strategy. Then-

“Dude, you are cooler than a vintage cassette,” the actor playing Michael sang. Damn, the dude had talent. If Michael wouldn’t sing, then at least Jeremy would have this guy as an acceptable replacement.

Jeremy checked the artist names- Will Connolly and George Salazar. Scrolling down the playlist more, Jeremy tried to identify who played who.

He caught sight of a few more songs that tightened the dread in his stomach. Be More Chill, parts one and two- that probably wasn’t a good sign, judging from the evil wintergreen Tic-Tac’s catchphrase, and Upgrade- also a major part the SQUIP had played in Jeremy’s junior year.

Then a specific song caught his eye- Michael In The Bathroom.

Jeremy read the artist name- this was George Salazar, for a solo song with Michael. So Will Con-whatever must’ve been playing one socially-inept Jeremy Heere. Then Jeremy read the song name again.

Michael In The Bathroom?

It was right after a song named Halloween, which Jeremy could only assume to be the traumatizing party Jake Dillinger had thrown last October. A lot of things had happened during that party, but Jeremy couldn’t put his finger on his best friend… in a bathroom.

Oh.

Oh, god.

Voices yelling, harsh lights shining off marble tile. “He’s in a mental hospital. Totally lost it.”

“And I thought Chloe was jealous.” Blunt words, rushed breath-

Desperate tone, raised voices. “He went crazy trying to get it out!”

“Move it.” Quiet, calm, too calm, too calm-

Equally calm. Fighting fire with fire. Silent resignation. “Or you’ll what?”

Don’t say it, don’t say it, don’t say it- “Get out of my way. Loser.

Jeremy couldn’t look Michael in the eye after saying that. He’d just stormed directly out of the bathroom, leaving his best friend of twelve years in there alone.

Jeremy had reasons for what he did, of course. He’d just escaped having forced sex with Chloe Valentine, due to the SQUIP controlling his body motions. He’d been panicked, grasping, hiding out in the bathroom from Jake when someone had leaped out of the bathtub and scared him shitless.

He hadn’t been in his best state of mind.

But that gave him no excuse to say what he did.

Oh, god.

Against all his sense, Jeremy tapped on the song, and listened with dread as the opening notes drifted into his ears.

“I am hanging in the bathroom, at the biggest party of the fall,” the actor started off, and Jeremy already felt his heart tighten. “I could stay right here or disappear, and nobody’d even notice at all.”

Fuck. Michael- he had his reasons for feeling that way. If most his life, his only friend had been an equally nerdy geek with a lack of social skill, and suddenly the other had upgraded, leaving no one left…

Before Jeremy could continue his train of thought, the song continued with a fresh wave of lyrics, all with a light, soft swinging beat behind the vocals that subtly reprised what Michael’s intro music had sounded like in the first song.

“I’m a creeper in a bathroom, ‘cause my buddy kinda left me alone.” Even though it was just an actor, the guy had completely managed to pull off the emotions. Jeremy closed his eyes, not knowing what to do. “But I’d rather fake pee, than stand awkwardly, or pretend to check a text on my phone.”

Michael had social anxiety.

That was one thing that Jeremy had almost forgotten, and he immediately hated himself for doing so. Of course Michael had social anxiety. The two of them had always hung out together, often electing to skip all the social events- and when they did go, they’d always go together, so it was more bearable.

Leaving Michael alone at such a large social event, a party, no less, and yelling at him a few moment before…

“Everything felt fine,” the actor sang, dragging out the ‘fine’, “when I was half of a pair. Now, through no fault of mine… there’s no other half there.”

At least Michael had known that it wasn’t his fault. The last thing that Jeremy would have wanted was for Michael to blame himself for the stupid mistakes Jeremy had made. But- half of a pair. That was Jeremy. And he hadn’t been there for his best friend when he needed it.

“Now, I’m just…” The actor seemed to exhale the next few words. “Michael in the bathroom, Michael in the bathroom at a party.”

Jeremy shut his eyes tighter. They were burning behind his eyelids.

“Forget how long it’s been,” actor-Michael sang. “I’m just- Michael in the bathroom, Michael in the bathroom at a party. No, you can’t come in.”

Jeremy’s next breath was shaky. He knew what Michael was feeling. God knows how many times he’s been like that at a party, or something else. But every single time, without fail, his best friend had been there for him.

“I’m waiting it out ‘till it’s time to leave.” The actor sounded pained, exactly like how Michael would sound if he were to admit that he was defeated. “I’m picking at grout, as I softly grieve, oh, I’m just- Michael, who you don’t know, Michael flying solo, Michael in the bathroom by himself.”

All by himself.

Jeremy tilted his head back. The music was beautiful- the bridge at ‘as I softly grieve, oh‘ gave him actual chills. But he couldn’t shake the meaning of the lyrics. ‘Michael flying solo’…

“I am hiding, but he’s out there, just ignoring all our history.”

He did. The moment Jeremy had chosen to call Michael a loser, to shove him aside and step out of that bathroom, Jeremy had chosen to throw their friendship aside. To ignore the twelve years of cumulative history that they’d gathered over time.

“Memories get erased, and I’ll get replaced, with a newer, cooler version of me.”

Replace him? Jeremy was appalled that Michael could even think that. But then he realized- that’s basically what happened to Jeremy. He’d been replaced by himself with himself, a ‘newer, cooler’ version of himself. So who was to say that Jeremy wouldn’t had just… replaced Michael, with a cooler friend?

The actor’s tone changed, a bit of upbeat recognition creeping into their tone. “And I hear a drunk girl, sing along to Whitney through the door- ‘I wanna dance with somebody!’- and my feelings sink, ‘cause it makes me think, now there’s no one to make fun of drunk girls with anymore!”

Jeremy winced. It was true that every time he and Michael went to an event where there’d be alcohol, they’d point out their wasted classmates and crack jokes about them. There’d been that one hilarious time when Brooke climbed onto Dustin Kropp’s back and yelled ‘yeehaw’ in the most unbelievable Texan accent…

But when he’d thrown aside their friendship, Jeremy had also thrown aside their habits. Of course, there’d have been no more making fun of drunk girls with Michael- because that’s what the SQUIP had commanded him to not do.

The actor repeated the chorus, but this time with a, “I’ll wait as long as I need, ‘till my face is dry, or I’ll just blame it on weed, or something in my eye.”

Jeremy blinked, his eyes opening and his vision blurry. He was crying.

Now he and Michael matched.

The music escalated, the beats dropping to form a synchronized rhythm. Jeremy squirmed uncomfortably- he should just pause the song. Pause it, end it now, and forget about it. But he didn’t.

The song proceeded to have Michael sing the rhythm of people knocking on the door, and Jeremy bit his lip, because he knew what this was- he’d experienced it first hand, but never without his best friend. This was worse, because not only did he know what caused Michael to be this way, Jeremy also couldn’t do shit about it.

Michael Mell, alone in a bathroom, with the panic and loneliness building up… Resulting in a bona fide panic attack.

The knocking built up to banging, and actor-Michael’s tone increased in urgency and desperation. Jeremy couldn’t help the tear rolling down the side of his face as he lay there and listened to his friend suffer.

“And I can’t help but yearn,” actor-Michael sang softly as soon as it seemed like the worst of the panic attack was over. “For a different time. But then I look in the mirror, and the present is clearer, and there’s no denying, I’m just…”

The actor cut himself off with a shaky inhale, like a sudden realization. With a jolt, Jeremy realized that the stuttered breath, the small, quiet chokes- those were muffled sobs. And suddenly, it felt even less like a song, but more of a slap in Jeremy’s face.

Michael was there for you.

He tried to help you.

You pushed him away.

You left him there, alone.

He’s crying because of you.

He’s panicking because of you.

It’s all because of you.

Jeremy bit back a sob of his own, and reached up to tear his headphones off, to cut short the actor’s pained voice, when a new verse began and, despite all his inner protests and common sense, Jeremy lowered his hands to listen.

“I wish I stayed at home in bed, watching cable porn,” actor-Michael began softly- then his tone turned vehement, self-loathing, as he continued, “Or wish I offed myself instead, wish I was never born!”

Jeremy was frozen in place as the words continued to trickle into his mind, wave after wave of heart-wrenching lyrics boring a way straight to his mind, straight to his heart. He couldn’t move. He could only lie there, and take it. Endure as the memories, stirred by the lyrics, pushed their way to the surface of his mind.

Michael, who’s a loner, so he must be a stoner- “We need to get stoned in my basement!” Michael exclaimed, his words practically vibrating with excitement. Jeremy stared at him, his Eminem shirt itching against his skin, like it didn’t belong there.

Rides a PT cruiser, god, he’s such a loser- “Get out of my way, loser,” Jeremy spat, as he shoved by his best friend and stormed for the bathroom door, slamming it behind him.

Michael flying solo, who you think that you know- “Sometimes, I think you’re the only one who gets me, Jere,” Michael slurred, his verbal filter and tongue dulled by the weed they were both breathing in. Jeremy was leaning back comfortably into his beanbag, enjoying the high. “Seriously. You’re the only one who knows me as who I really am, y’know?”

Michael in the bathroom by himself.

Jeremy violently shoved his headphones off his ears, unplugging them as well for good measure. He grabbed his phone and, with shaky hands, managed to open his texts with Michael.

michael

michael are yout here

can yo ucome over

please

ims os orry

After hitting send on the last message, Jeremy threw his headphones across the room and watched as it hit the wall with a gratifying bang. Then he curled up on his bed and pulled his jacket hoodie over his head, closing his eyes and trying to shut out the voices in his head.

-

“Jeremy?”

Jeremy cracked an eye open, and was met with blackness. He was still curled up in an upright fetal position, arms crossed over his eyes and his forehead pressed up against his knees.

It’d been ten, twenty minutes, since he’d texted Michael. He’d felt his phone buzz near him in response, and he knew that Michael would come. He was always there for him- unlike Jeremy.

“Jere?” Michael hollered, and from the sound of it, he was right outside his bedroom door. “Okay, I’m coming in, so whatever you’re doing, I’d be very glad if you put it away.”

Jeremy heard the door creak open, and someone step in.

“Jeremy?”

He didn’t offer a response. He didn’t know what to say.

“Je- Jeremy? Are you okay?” He heard his friend getting closer, and he couldn’t help it- he stifled a violent sob, and he felt Michael freeze.

“Dude. Look at me.” Jeremy felt Michael sit down next to him on the bed, and a second later, there were hands around his arms, lifting them away from his eyes. “Jeremy.”

Having no other choice, Jeremy flicked his eyes up to meet Michael’s gaze. He knew that his eyes were probably red, a few tear tracks running down the side of his face. He knew that he probably looked pathetic- and he wasn’t even the one who had a panic attack in a bathroom.

“Hi,” Jeremy managed. It was all he could think of. Michael stared right back at him.

“’Hi’?” Michael demanded. “I get a few messed up texts from you, I come here, and you’re curled up, crying, and all you give me is ‘hi’? What happened?”

Jeremy shrugged helplessly, gesturing to his phone. Michael frowned, picking the device up and unlocking it- of course he knew Jeremy’s password- revealing the texting interface they used. “Yeah?”

“Spotify,” Jeremy mumbled.

“If you’re in such a mess because of another random song you found,” Michael started to say, but trailed off when he saw the album name and song playing. “What the fuck is this?”

Jeremy started to say something, but cut himself off. “I… Just listen to it. Rewind it.”

Michael raised an eyebrow, but did as instructed. The music started playing from the small speakers on Jeremy’s phone, and the two of them sat there, staring at the screen.

“I am hanging in the bathroom, at the biggest party of the fall,” a voice started to sing. Michael nearly dropped the phone in shock, his eyes widening.

“Is that- was that-” he stammered. Jeremy nodded mutely.

“I could stay right here, or disappear,” the much more musically-talented Michael sang, “and nobody’d even notice at all.”

“I-” Michael started, but Jeremy gestured to the phone. Keep listening.

So Michael did. And after a while, sweat started running down the side of his face.

The song sounded unsettlingly familiar. And after a few more verses, it dawned on Michael.

It was him.

The night on Halloween- the night he warned Jeremy- the night Jeremy called him a…

“Is this…” he started to say, but faltered.

“I… I think so,” Jeremy muttered.

Michael sat back against the back of the bed and closed his eyes, listening intently. He listened as the lyrics spilled out of the speakers, recreating his very thoughts from that damned night. The music lifted, dropped, and painted the image of Michael in his CREEPS sweater, hair disheveled, water dripping from his face as he stared into the mirror at his own reflection, at who he finally realized he was- Michael Mell, loser, stoner, alone.

He listened as the lyrics were sung with more force, as the beats formed a rhythmic knocking, as the Michael in the song had a panic attack, calming down and facing the truth. Ragged breaths punctuated the pauses in the song, and Michael knew that that was when he was crying, not wanting to face the truth.

“This is a heinous night,” Michael whispered along to the song. He didn’t know how he knew it was written in there. Jeremy stared at him, his skin pale.

And finally, Michael listened as he sang out his thoughts of killing himself, his final self-deprecating lines in the song capturing his night perfectly. When the song ended, he reached out and paused the playlist- and for a few brief moments, the room was silent.

“Is it true?” Jeremy whispered, after a few moments. “That you- that you wanted to…”

He couldn’t finish it, but Michael knew what he was talking about. “Yeah,” he admitted. “I was overreacting, probably, but at the time? I couldn’t wait to get home so I could find my mothers’ pills.”

Jeremy winced, a few more tears rolling out of his eyes. He brushed them away harshly with the back of his hand- why was he crying? “I- I’m so sorry,” he tried, but he knew it wouldn’t be enough. If I’d had known, I’d have ripped it from my fucking brain.

Michael stayed quiet for a moment. “I’m not going to say it’s fine,” he started slowly. “I’m- I don’t think it’s fine. I forgive you- I forgave you a long time ago- but what you did… really wasn’t cool.”

Feeling tears welling up in his eyes again, Jeremy closed them. “I- I know,” he said quietly. “I… I was messed up that night, too. I’m- I wasn’t thinking straight. But that- I’m not- it’s no excuse. I’m not trying to justify my own behavior. It’s just-”

“Woah. Wait a second.” Michael held out a hand, softening his face. “You were messed up?”

“Not- I’m not saying that I was worse-”

“No,” Michael interrupted firmly. “Tell me. What happened that night, Jeremy?”

Despite it already being half a year, Jeremy hadn’t told Michael about what had happened at the party with Chloe and the SQUIP. He didn’t think he needed to. Everyone had plenty of their own problems already. “I- It doesn’t matter,” Jeremy managed.

“I’m not mad at you, Jeremy,” the Filipino boy said. “I know… We both know that while you leaving me in there alone after calling me a loser wasn’t exactly wise, I wasn’t exactly in the clear either. I should have noticed that you were- that you were unhappy. I should have helped.”

“It’s not your fault-”

“But I can help now,” Michael finished. “So tell me what happened.”

And with a deep breath, Jeremy did. He told his best friend about being baited upstairs by Chloe, and being pinned down by the SQUIP and being forced to make out with her. Not only that, but he also told Michael how he’d always felt inconsequential, unimportant, useless, like a nobody. He kept it brief, though- the last thing he wanted was to treat Michael like some kind of data-dumping center.

And when he was finished, Michael stared at him incredulously. “So the evil wintergreen Tic-Tac pinned you down and made you make out with Chloe Valentine?”

Jeremy flinched. “Ba- basically, yeah.”

Noticing his friend’s wince, Michael toned it down a bit. “And… and that- with the whole ‘feeling like a nobody’ thing- how long has that been going on for?”

“Since middle school began,” Jeremy mumbled.

“Oh, shit,” Michael muttered to himself. “And I never fucking noticed.”

“It- it’s not your fault-” Jeremy started to say again.

“Sure, Jere,” Michael said flatly, “and it’s not your fault that I had a fucking panic attack in Jake Dillinger’s bathroom.”

That shut Jeremy up.

“Face it, we both made mistakes,” Michael added, stumbling over his words.

Jeremy wiped at his eyes again. “I- I just fucked up a bit more than most.”

The other paused for a second, then shrugged. “Yeah, you kind of did.”

They stayed in silence for a few more moments. Finally, Michael shifted uncomfortably. “Do you… do you want me to go?”

“No!” Jeremy blurted. “I mean- if you want to… but could you…?”

Michael couldn’t help but give him a small smile. “Stay?”

“Please,” Jeremy agreed.

Michael nodded, and leaned back against the bed post. “So… entire musical about the SQUIPcident, huh?”

Jeremy grimaced. “It seems like it.”

“Wow.”

A few seconds later, Jeremy choked out, “I’m so sorry, Michael.”

A pause. “I know.” Another pause. “I am too.”

“It’s just- sometimes they get too loud,” Jeremy blurted. “And they say things, and you believe them, because they’re- they’re true. It’s true. I- I’m not- I’ll never be… I’ll never be the leading guy. And they keep saying it, and they convince you, a- and-”

Michael turned. But instead of giving Jeremy a concerned look, he reached over and put an arm over the other boy’s shoulder, a steadying, comforting presence. “They- meaning…” Michael used his free hand to tap his own temple a couple of times. Jeremy nodded.

“After the SQUIP,” Jeremy whispered, his first time using the name in five months, “They just… they got louder.”

“Do you need more Red?”

“No. It’s… they’re just the…” Jeremy racked his brain to think of a good word. “Never mind.”

Michael had picked up his friend’s discarded phone, and against his common sense, was scrolling through the playlist of Be More Chill (what kind of a musical name was that, though?). He stopped his movements when a song title caught his eye. The last song in the entire musical.

He tapped it, and some cheerful upbeat chords started them off. Michael skipped ahead a bit- not knowing what he was doing, but just going along with his instincts. He stopped, about half a minute in.

“And there are voices in my ear,” came actor-Jeremy’s voice from the speaker. The real Jeremy jolted, and sat up straighter, listening. “I guess these never disappear.”

Michael smiled, pulling Jeremy closer.

“I’ll let them squeal, and I will deal- and make up my own mind,” the actor sang, his voice steady, different from what Jeremy had been listening to in the first song. “There might be voices in my head, but now they’re just the normal kind.”

“This song’s called Voices In My Head,” Michael said to Jeremy, and the latter managed a weak smile. Weak, but full of something that Michael couldn’t place. Another round of dialogue started in the song, and the Filipino tapped the screen, skipping ahead yet again.

This time, when the lyrics started, everyone was singing. Michael caught the undertones of Brooke, Chloe, and Rich. He heard himself, and Christine. But mainly, he heard Jeremy.

“And there are voices in my head,” came from the phone. “So many voices in my head. And they can yell and hurt like hell, but I know I’ll be fine.”

When Michael glanced over at Jeremy, he was crying. And, inexplicably, so was Michael.

“Still have voices in my head,” the song continued. “Yeah, there are voices in my head.”

And then it was just actor-Jeremy singing. “Of all the voices in my head, the loudest one is mine!”

The real Jeremy flinched as the SQUIP’s voice came on over the song. “Jeremy,” it taunted. Michael didn’t know what he was expecting the SQUIP to sound like, but he made a mental note to flip Keanu Reeves off the next time he watched the Matrix.

Actor-Jeremy didn’t even hesitate. “Loudest one is mine,” he sang, steady and confident.

“You can’t get rid of me that easily,” the SQUIP persisted.

Real Jeremy frowned, mouthing along to the words this time.

“Loudest one is mine,” he said, in barely a whisper. But it was there.

Michael let the song finish playing- Jeremy recognized the ending as a fitting reprise to the first song’s opening chords. When it was over, they both sat there in the same silence they endured after listening to Michael In The Bathroom.

But this time, the silence was refreshing.

Jeremy looked over at Michael, and the other looked back.

“Of all the voices in our heads,” Jeremy started to say, his tone soft and hesitant.

Michael grinned at him. “The loudest ones are ours.”