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I'm Still Heere

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I notice everything.

I notice how the GoPro attached to the back of Dustin Kropp's backpack is always on and recording everything that goes on behind him, prepared for whatever fistfight or drug deal or juul trick is waiting to be recorded (though Dustin himself is usually the one doing said drug deals). I notice how Ryu Atborough has that one dread longer than the others, the one with the two white beads at the end, which doesn't even look good, it just looks messy. I notice how Thalia Salazar's sweater loses an eye or a tooth every time she wears it, so that now it doesn't even resemble a monster anymore, just a sad pre-teen vampire.

I notice when people give me weird looks while I'm walking down the hallway. I notice when people point and laugh at me in Mr. Gretch's class and I notice when people whisper about me, because my ears do this thing where they tune into any conversation that seems to be even slightly related to me, because even though most of the time it's just my anxiety manipulating my brain into thinking someone I've never talked to before is insulting me, there are those times where people call me names when I'm right there because they think I'm not listening. But they're wrong. I'm always listening. I'm wired.

Like that one time, when Jenna Rolan told everyone sitting within ten feet of her that I wrote this girl Lucia a love letter, because she overheard me once complimenting her shirt, back when I still had the self-confidence necessary to do that (it wasn't in an awkward trying-to-make-a-move way, either, like she made it seem. Her shirt had the solar system embroidered on it. It was cool). So everyone called me a stalker and Lucia wouldn't even look at me in the hallways and smile at me like she used to, even though we were never really friends, but instead she glared at me like I was getting too close to her, even though we were on opposite sides of the hallway, which stung like a bitch.

Or that other time, when she told everyone that I would eavesdrop on everyone's conversations during class and write them in a notebook, when in reality I would only tune in if I thought I heard my name or some nickname commonly associated with it. I would only write something down when it was a tally next to one of the categories on the Humiliation Sheets I used to have when I was fifteen. Obviously, I burned almost all of them after Jenna started those rumors, because I couldn't figure out whether being the victim of a shitty rumor or telling the whole Sophomore grade that I documented every time someone insulted me in an old notebook was more horrible for me to endure.

I'm floating through the bright and alive hallways of Middle Borough High School at 11:15 in the morning, running on two hours of sleep and (so far) three cups of coffee, which is just making me feel really sick, but hey, at least I won't pass out in Ms. Green's class during a lecture on the American Revolution or whatever. Because if you pass out in Ms. Green's class, she'll yell at you in front of everyone, and that is definitely not what I need right now, considering how bad my day's already going (we had a pop quiz in Mr. Reyes' class that I completely bombed, because I couldn't remember shit about that story we read yesterday).

I carefully navigate through the dangerous halls, keeping my eyes glued to the red Converse shoes on my feet, which are brand new, so I'm usually staring at them anyways, because I don't want them to get all fucked up yet, or ever, really, because I really like them. I glance up every now and again, just to make sure I don't bump into anyone (specifically Ryu, because if you bump into Ryu, you will lose your life). Speaking of Ryu, he's standing in his usual spot, right by the bathrooms, with his group of friends. He's adjusting his thick, black, shoulder-length dreads, the one long strand very visible among the rest, an inch or two longer than the others with those ugly white beads on the end. It's hideous, but for some reason he thinks it's cool, which means that the majority of the school thinks it's cool, which means that it is cool. Despite how ugly it is.

He's standing next to Mark Jackson and Jackson Marks, who probably have the most unfortunate names in the world considering they're friends, and Dustin Kropp, who's bopping his head along to the beat of some My Chemical Romance song that's blasting through his earbuds so loud I can hear it from across the hall, which kind of defeats the purpose of what earbuds are supposed to do, but whatever. Dustin never really talks to Mark or Jackson or Ryu, even though he's technically in their little friend group, which I guess makes sense if you pay attention to the way they treat him. I overheard Ryu saying that he only kept Dustin around for weed, which sucks, but I'm not about to be the one to tell Dustin that he's only being kept around so his "friends" can get a cheap high out of his drugs.

I turn the corner before they notice I'm staring and start heading for my locker, adjusting the straps on my backpack so they aren't completely straining my shoulders and re-fixing my gaze on my shoes. I look up once I start to near my locker and stop dead in my tracks almost immediately.

Chloe Valentine, the hottest and most popular girl in school (according to gossip, of course) is leaning right against my locker, her skinny arms crossed as she rants to her friends, "So! Jenna over here said that Madaline Monroe and Jake Dillinger were hanging out over the weekend, and when Jake started hitting on her, Madaline said, 'I'll only have sex with you if you beat me at pool!'" Chloe imitates Madaline with a really high pitched, overly French voice as she flips her hair behind her ear to show off her ridiculously huge hoop earrings (seriously, how are those even practical? Surely they would hurt your ears or something. They literally rest on her shoulders they're so goddamn big).

"And then, like the fucking slut that she is, she lost on purpose! Like, she's such a liar! First, the thing about her being French when she's clearly Italian, and now this! Losing on purpose to get dick!? What the hell, am I right?" Chloe lets out a long, dramatic sigh. "Sometimes, I almost feel bad that Jake dumped me. Now he's hooking up with cumdumpsters like Madaline to get his kicks... it's a shame, really..."

Chloe loves to talk about how stupid Jake Dillinger was for dumping her, and even more so likes making fun of every single girl that says more than a few words to him, or looks at him for more than two seconds in the hallway. Now that I think about it, Chloe never talks about Shawn Mendes or the AMA award outfits or something cute her dog did in the morning or the ins and outs of procuring concert tickets, like most girls do. Just about how stupid Jake Dillinger was for dumping her (and how much of a slut Madaline Monroe is, apparently).

Brooke Lohst, the second hottest and second most popular girl in school, twirls a strand of her wavy blonde hair between her two fingers and sighs, looking up at the ceiling and it's many cracks. I'm pretty sure that's some kind of safety violation. "That is... so awesome..."

"Brooke!" Chloe yells, stepping forward so that Brooke's cornered against the wall. Brooke actually yelps. She reminds me of a scared puppy sometimes.

"Oh! Um, not awesome. I meant... slutty?" She pulls the strand of hair in front of her mouth and looks down, nervously tapping her foot against the floor. She almost looks scared of Chloe, even though they're supposed to be best friends, which just reinforces the fact that Chloe is the most popular and Brooke is only second most popular. That kind of stuff is very important to Chloe, from what I've seen.

Jenna Rolan (who's probably only like, sixth or seventh on the popularity scale) excitedly jumps next to Brooke, her purple curls bouncing on her shoulders, "Oh, oh! And THEN, Madaline was all like--"

"Um, Jenna?" Chloe says, snapping her gaze onto Jenna's face. "I'm telling the story, not you, okay, honey? So shut your trap and let me finish."

Jenna literally sinks down a little bit, even though she's standing up and not leaning against anything. She rubs the sleeve of her neon, leopard-print fur jacket, which is probably the most obnoxious article of clothing I've ever seen. "Oh... okay."

I don't really know anything about Jenna's personality, since she never talks about herself. Literally never. The only times I've heard her talk are the many instances of her spreading usually fake gossip around my homeroom class about how this girl Elizabeth swallowed a whole used condom or some other ridiculous, gross story that's sure to get a reaction, because Jenna lives on reactions to her stories. You can always spot her walking down the hallway, though, because she's got a really extreme sense of fashion and always has something neon and flashing on her body at all times. She dresses like a raver on crack. Not to mention her purple makeup and huge, dark eyeliner wings.

Chloe's blue eyes drift away from Jenna until they land on me. She turns around and gives me a weird look. I realize I'm staring as I feel my cheeks burn as I look down and stuff my hands into the pockets of my blue cardigan. Not exactly the most popular choice of clothing in Middle Borough, but if it isn't the warmest, most comfortable thing in the world, I don't know what is.

"Oh my God, do you see that guy?" Chloe whispers just loud enough for me to hear. "He's, like, totally getting off on that! God, I swear, New Jersey is full of creeps... yuck."

Chloe runs her white acrylics through her bleached blonde hair and walks away, Brooke and Jenna following close behind as if they're baby ducklings following their mother. I wait until they're a safe distance away before slowly walking up to my locker, reaching up with my shaky fingers to spin my combination into the dial. I barely begin to swing my backpack off of my shoulders before my locker slams shut in my face. I let out a terrified, girly yell, which just makes my face burn. I feel someone grip tightly on my wrists before spinning me around, slamming me backpack-first into the lockers. I nervously bite my lip.

I take a deep breath and look down, almost immediately recognizing the person holding my wrists against the cold metal doors of the lockers most people don't even use.

It's Rich Goranski.

"Hey, Tall-Ass, what did I tell you about creeping on other people's convos?" he says. Rich is almost a full head shorter than me, but he's freakishly buff and has muscles bigger than most of the football players. His blonde hair is slicked back with barely any gel so that some of the strands are poking out, and there's this streak of bright red down the middle of it, like a rooster. Plus, he's got a bunch of tattoos on his arms and stretches his ears, which makes him twice as threatening. He squeezes harder on my wrists. It almost feels like he's stopping the bloodflow that's supposed to be going through my veins, he's squeezing so hard.

"I-- ow! I wasn't--" I try to make out as Rich digs his nails into the flesh on my wrist. They're surprisingly sharp.

"Didn't I warn you last time?" Rich says, spitting through his teeth with every word. "Mind your fucking business, punk. Don't make me punch you again."

"I...I wasn't eavesdropping, Rich," I say, my voice shaking at every syllable. Rich squints and glares at me as he slams me against the lockers again.

"Don't fucking lie to me," he yells. My breath hitches out of fear.

"I'm not, um... n-not lying," I say, curling my fingers into fists to try and stop the shaking.

"Hey!" Rich yells, pulling me down to his level. "What the fuck did I just fucking say?! Don't. Lie. To. Me."

"I... I, u-uh..." I never know what to say in situations like this. My whole body kind of just freezes up. Especially around Rich, who probably has more muscle mass in his left kneecap than I do in my entire body.

"Y'know what..." Rich mumbles, shaking his head. He pulls me back from the lockers and spins me around, slamming me face-first right back into them. Ow.

I try to squirm away, but immediately stop once I feel Rich's hand grip my backpack, "Don't move or I'll cut off your fingers."

Rich grips the material of my backpack and starts fucking with it, before letting go and spinning me around again. I'm dizzy.

He grips the collar of my striped shirt and pulls me up, nearly lifting me off the ground he's so strong. "You wash that off, you're dead."

He shoves me away, making me trip and fall right on my ass. Rich runs away, his manic cackling echoing through the halls as he sprints towards the cafeteria. My cheeks feel like they're burning off I'm so humiliated. I can feel dozens of eyes staring at me as I get up and squeeze the straps of my backpack and walk away from my locker (even though I didn't get to put anything away), nervously biting my lip and staring at the ground. I brush the hair out of my eyes and start walking towards the cafeteria.

I walk through the arches and into the zombie fluorescent lighting in the cafetera, where it's about ten degrees colder than the rest of the school. I rub my eyes and let them adjust for a moment, before getting in line for food. The food isn't even good, but I'm so hungry by now I'm willing to eat almost anything. Having nothing in your system but anxiety medication and an ungodly amount of coffee doesn't exactly fill you up.

I put my earbuds in and put my playlist on shuffle as I wait in the short line for food . I notice a group of emo kids (or goth kids, I can never really tell) next to me all glance over at me and point before laughing. I look away, rubbing my arm.

I nearly jump out of my cardigan when I feel someone grab my shoulder and shake it, like they're trying to mix up the contents of the school's expired chocolate milks. I pull out my earbuds and turn around to see none other than Michael Mell, my best friend. He smells like weed and roses, like he always does.

I shove him, "Fuck you."

He giggles and reaches his arm over to me, pulling me into a warm side hug and rubbing the shoulder he just grabbed. I lean my head against him. But I'm still mad.

"Aw, I'm sorry!" he says through giggles. "I didn't mean you freak you out. Well, at least not that bad."

"You're such a dick, you know that?" I say, and it's true. But Michael's a good dick. Wait, no, not like that. I mean that he's still really sweet, even when he's a dick. Which is really often, because I'm easy to scare and he knows it. But I still love him. Not that I'd ever tell him that.

I pull away from him as I punch my code into the computer to pay for my lunch (one of those salads with rubber lettuce and cold chicken, which is the only chicken I can eat without vomiting). Michael throws his arm back around me as we walk towards our table, which is the one in the very back corner of the cafeteria, away from all of the popular kids' tables. I drop my backpack onto the floor next to his and sit down.

Michael takes a long sip from his slushie, pulling the sleeves of his red hoodie over his hands (I made him that hoodie for his birthday last year, and since then he's added two dozen patches to it and wears it at least twice a week). He runs his fingers through his thick, curly hair and adjusts his headband, pulling his headphones down from his ears and leaving them resting around his neck. You can spot Michael from a mile away when he's wearing those headphones. They're big and white and the wire coming off of them is spiraled like an old retro phone cord. Ever since I gave them to him for Christmas in freshman year he's worn them almost every day. It's his trademark.

Michael gives me a warm smile and flashes the peace sign (another one of his trademarks), "No offense, dude, but you look like literal ass. What's up?"

Another thing about Michael. He can tell you're having a shitty day just by looking at you, which is both reassuring and unnerving at the same time.

"I dunno," I say, picking at the salad on my tray. It's literally rubber. "It's just been kind of a rough day."

"How come?"

"A lot of reasons," I say, dropping my plastic fork onto the inedible lettuce. "Chloe Valentine thought I was creeping on her and her friends while they were talking shit about Madaline Monroe, because she lost a pool game on purpose to hook up with Jake Dillinger or something."

"To be honest, I'd lose a game of pool on purpose, too, if it meant I'd get to sleep with someone as hot as Jake," I punch Michael in the shoulder.

"Oh my God, shut up, you crackhead," I say, shaking my head. Michael just laughs, taking another sip of his slushie.

"But seriously. I don't get why she can't just let shit like that go. Like, they broke up in fucking July."

"I know!" I say, opening the bottle of off-brand soda sitting next to my food and take a sip. It came flat but tastes flatter. "And then, Rich came up to me and yelled in my face because I was eavesdropping or whatever, and everyone in the fucking hallway saw it. So, y'know."

"Aw, Jere," Michael twirls his finger around the spirals on his headphone cord. He does that a lot. "You care way too much about that stuff. Like seriously. Do you really think, when we graduate and get into college, that Rich and Chloe are even gonna matter?"

"Well, no, but we're not in college," I say, sinking down a bit to lean my head on his shoulder, because it's comforting and not because it's gay. "They matter right now. I... it's like they think it's fun to mess with me or something. And I get that maybe later they won't remember me, but... I don't know. It's still shitty."

Michael gives me a warm, comforting smile and pulls me into another side hug. It actually relaxes me a little bit. "Jeremy, I know. They're horrible people and the way they treat you sucks dick. But for reals, you just need to try and ignore it. Just remember that one day, you're gonna be... I dunno... a famous Broadway actor, probably. Or maybe an artist or somethin'. And you know what Rich Goranski's gonna be doing? Working at a gas station, because he dropped out of college and lost all his friends because they finally realized how much of a dick tumor he is. So seriously. Try and at least not get so upset about it."

The sides of my mouth curl into a smile without me even telling them to.

"...dick tumor?" I laugh, raising an eyebrow at Michael.

"They're real, you know, and Rich Goranski is one personified. A real bitchin' one, too." Michael motions to Rich's table, which is on the other side of the cafeteria, where him and Ryu are screaming at each other while Jackson records it and Dustin watches from against the wall, his hands buried in the pockets of his way-too-fucking-big hoodie, clearly not wanting to get involved in whatever's happening over there. I can't blame him. Sometimes I wonder why Dustin even hangs out with guys like that. He deserves better friends.

I laugh, "You know what? I think you're right."

"Jeremiah, you know I'm always right," Michael says. I elbow him in the side. He fakes being hurt and pulls away from the hug, clutching his ribcage in mock pain. I laugh.

"But seriously, dude, thanks," I say. "For what you said."

"About Rich being a dick tumor?"

"You know, I don't have to thank you."

"It's a serious question, Jeremy."

We both laugh, because even though we're sixteen year old high school Juniors we still find shitty dick insults like that funny. It's really nice having a best friend like Michael to listen to all my teen angst bullshit, because, honestly, if I didn't have someone to complain and vent to all the time, I'm pretty sure I would have literally exploded by now.

"Hey, Jeremy?"

"Yeah?"

"What's a Boyf?"

I look up at him, "A what?"

"A Boyf," Michael says, looking down at something on the floor. "Is it, like, one of your aesthetic hipster bands or...?"

"What the hell's a Boyf?"

"I don't know man, why'd you write it on your backpack?" Michael grabs the strap of my backpack and pulls it up onto the table. Sure enough, the word "BOYF" is written in thick, messy Sharpie right on the front pouch.

"Oh my fucking..." I mumble to myself, clutching a clump of my hair in between my fingers. "Rich must've wrote that in the hallway... what the fuck does that even mean?"

"I don't know. Slang?" Michael asks. His eyes widen. "Wait."

Michael reaches down and grabs his own backpack, flinging it up from the floor and slamming it on the table right next to mine. He examines the backpack like it's the DNA of some newly discovered cryptid, before pressing it right next to mine. The word "REINDS" is written in the same, thick Sharpie on the checkered print of his backpack.

"Well. Huh," he says, reading it. I groan and bury my head in my arms. "That's a word."

"Oh my God. Boyfriends?" I say into my sleeves. "I hate this school. It's not even spelled right."

"Well, Rich Goranski isn't exactly of the smart variety, Jeremy. Remember when he got drunk in Ms. Green's class because he 'wanted to feel free'?" Michael says, smiling and resting his hand on my shoulder. I chuckle a little bit at the memory. I remember him trying to give me a genuine hug during calculus while he was wasted. He's a strong hugger. Michael literally threw him off of me because he thought I was about to get into a fight or something. He's really protective over me for some reason.

Then again, I'm pretty sure if I ever did get into a fight with someone, they would probably break every bone in my body without any force at all, so I'm actually glad that he is.

I groan, "I hate Rich so fucking--"

"Jeremy, remember what I said," Michael says. "Just try not to think about it. Think about this instead: I saw on Discovery that humanity's stopped evolving."

"Really?"

"Yeah. We're, like, evolutionary flat."

"Huh. That's... good?"

"I guess? Y'know, evolution is survival of the fittest, right? But now, thanks to technology and shit, you don't have to be strong to survive. Which means there's never been a better to be a loser!" Michael smiles, making a rainbow with his hands to accentuate the word loser. "So, basically, what I'm trying to say is, own it! Fuck what they think, Jeremy! Why try to be cool when you could be, I don't know, getting stoned in my basement? Being cool takes too much work, dude. So just ignore their shit."

I sigh and pick up my tray of uneaten food, along with the soda bottle, and get up to go throw it away, "I'll try."

Out of nowhere, I feel someone slam the tray out of my hands, sending it crashing down to the floor, the food flying off of it, landing on the floor in every direction. I jump when I hear Jake Dillinger's unmistakable loud, booming laugh echoing through the cafeteria from right in front of me.

Jake leans down and lets out a long and loud "HAAA!" right in my face. I jump back.

Jake Dillinger is the most popular guy in school. He's freakishly tall and muscular and smart.

Oh, and hot. Jake is hot. Like really, really hot.

Basically, he's everything that I wish I could be, but I'm not.

But he's also a huge dick. So.

There are so many things I've heard about Jake I honestly don't really have that much of an opinion of him. Yeah, I don't like him, because, like I said, he's a dick. That's the one part of his personality I actually know. Everything else is pretty much just speculation. Jake, being the most popular kid in school, is constantly the subject of Jenna Rolan's rumors, because she knows people are gonna listen if they hear it's about Jake fucking Dillinger.

One rumor I heard about him was that his parents are hiding in the Bahamas because they laundered a ton of money by selling houses that they bought with drug money or something, which I guess would explain how he's able to throw huge parties every other weekend. Another one was that he had sex with a Czechoslovakian model over the summer that used to be dating his dad, which I honestly believe completely. Jake can do anything.

Jake's still laughing, and at this point, some other people are, too. Ryu and Mark are lurched over laughing, while Jackson is chuckling along with a confused expression. I doubt he even knows what he's supposed to be laughing at, he was so focused on Rich and Ryu's fight. Speaking of Rich, he's skipping over to us (literally, skipping), stopping for breath every few steps because of how hard he's laughing. I look down at the tray that's now at my feet to avoid eye contact with anyone.

Michael steps in front of me, "Hey! Pick that up, right now."

Jake's smile fades as he steps up to Michael, "Excuse me?"

I hide behind Michael like the coward I am, digging my nails into the sleeve of my cardigan again, my hands shaking like mad. Michael, on the other hand, doesn't seem nervous in the slightest. Sometimes I wish I had his confidence.

"Are you really, actual talking to me?" Jake says, leaning down to meet Michael's eyes since he's about seven inches taller than him.

"My buddy Jake just asked you a question," Rich comes onto the scene from behind one of the pillars as he jumps onto Jake's back, like an annoying toddler asking his dad for a piggy-back ride. He does this a lot, to the point where Jake seems to consider it a normal thing (then again, there are a lot of things me and Michael do that would be considered weird to other people, so I guess I don't have any right to judge them). Jake and Rich lock eyes for a second, before giving each other a quick nod as Jake hooks his arms under Rich's legs to keep him from falling.

"Yes, I am," Michael snaps. "I wanna know why you decide to pull this shit on people who haven't done anything to you. Seriously, what gives you the right to pick on my friend? You act like you're better than everyone when in reality you're literally one of the shittiest people on the school, get over yourself!"

Rich lets himself fall from Jake's back, before walking up to Michael. Michael doesn't bat an eye. He stands exactly how he would if he were waiting for me to get out of english or something. Meanwhile, I'm terrified.

"You know what, bitch?" Rich says, doing his best to get up in Michael's face. Michael just stands on his toes whenever he tries to get level with him, which pisses Rich off. "Shut your fucking mouth, queer. You can't say shit. Nobody even likes your gay ass."

Michael crosses his arms and raises an eyebrow, "Is that the best you could think of?"

Jake walks up again, grabbing Michael by his hood and pulling him up almost off the ground. Michael's expression doesn't change.

His face is an inch away from Michael's as he drops him back onto the floor, "Shut your fucking mouth before I make you shut it. Fag."

Jake and Rich run away laughing, while Michael just lets out a long sigh and picks up the tray from the floor, kicking the food under a nearby table, and throws it in the trash for me.

"I'm sorry," I say, stuffing my hands back into my pockets and looking down at the gross cafeteria floor.

"For what?" Michael asks, turning back towards me.

"For not doing anything," I shuffle my feet. "You know, when they were, uh... yeah."

"Jeremy, it's fine," Michael says, walking up to me and bending down to meet my eyes, which are locked on the toes of my Converse. "Really. Don't get upset. I don't like them and they don't like me, so honestly, I don't give a fuck about what they say to me. What I do give a fuck about is how they slapped your tray out of your hands for no fucking reason."

I look up at him, "But--"

"Hey. Remember, just stop caring," Michael says. "I did and, to be honest, I feel a lot less shitty now compared to Sophomore year."

"I know, Micah, but it's hard to stop caring about stuff like that," I say, looking back over at their table, where Rich and Ryu have apparently forgotten about their screaming match and are now hysterically laughing at something Mark said. Jackson and I make eye contact and I look away. "Especially when it's coming from them."

"Jeremy, you seriously need to calm down," Michael says. "If they say you're a weirdo, you're not, because I said so. And that goes for any other insult they call you. Or me. End of discussion."

He motions for me to come sit next to him again. I do.

"So, um..." Michael hesitates, probably trying to think of a conversation topic or something. "Are you joining theatre this year or what?"

"What?"

"Come ooon, you've gotta join this year, Jere!" Michael says, pointing to the sign-up sheet on the wall. This cute, tiny girl with short black hair and a red skirt and striped knee-high socks is signing her name.

"I don't know," I say, looking away before she thinks I'm staring at her.

"Oh my God. Jeremy. You've been obsessed with that kind of shit since you were, like, twelve," Michael says. "Just fucking join."

"I don't know. I don't really think that theatre's my thing." That's a huge lie. I've always wanted to join theatre. It's literally my dream to be the leading man in a musical. The thing is that I have literally zero confidence and my body also does this thing where it shuts down whenever too many people are watching me do something. So basically I'll probably die if I join theatre. Plus, theatre doesn't exactly help your reputation. Joining theatre is basically an open invitation to being called gay, which is a really lazy insult, but it's one of the ones everyone laughs at (as evidenced by why it's Rich's go-to insult when it comes to Michael). Which sucks.

"That's bull. Half of your room is musical merchandise," Michael says, raising an eyebrow at me and smirking. "And, you have a folder on your computer with, like, two-hundred broadway bootlegs in it. I ain't forget. Don't act like you don't have a fetish for this kind of stuff."

"I don't think 'fetish' is the right word," I say. "I mean, I guess I wanna join, I just... I don't know if I'll be any good. You know, at acting and stuff."

"Dude, are you kidding? Remember when you acted out that one scene from that one play about, like, Jehovah's witnesses or something? You'd be fucking amazing, shut up."

"First of all, it was the Book of Mormon, and second, I was high."

"Yeah! And if you can act that good while you're high, imagine how good you'll be when you're not."

"I..." Michael cuts me off by putting up his hand, before wrapping his arm around me and dragging me to the pillar where the sign-up sheet is. There's only three names on it so far, and I don't recognize any of them.

Michael hands me the pen, "Sign it. Come on."

He hands me the pen, and I hold it in my hand for a few long seconds, glancing at it and the three names on the sign-up sheet over and over again, like they were on a loop.

Michael leans against the pillar with his arms crossed, "You know I'm not gonna force you to do this, Jeremy. But I'm gonna keep annoying you about it until you do. And I know you want to do it. So you might as well. You're like, the best actor I know."

I smile at Michael with an eyebrow raised, "Seriously?"

"Seriously. Sign the paper," Michael gives me another warm smile. I smile back, lift up the pen, and sign my name right under the last girl's with a shaky hand. I drop the pen, which swings back to its place on the side of the pillar, dangling from the cheap yarn it's tied to.

"FAGGOT!" I hear Rich's voice yelling from his table, causing everyone around him to explode into laughing fits (well, everyone except Dustin, who looks just as out of place as he always does). I look down, avoiding eye contact with anyone and anything. Michael grips my shoulder, flipping off Rich and everyone who's laughing as the lunch bell rings and everyone stands up and start to rush out of the arches before they get too crowded.

"Just ignore them, dude," Michael says as we walk back to our table to get our backpacks. "Rich has, like, seven brain cells left. Don't let him ruin your day."

"I won't," I say, except that's a lie, because every time Rich says something like that to me I dwell on it for the whole day instead of moving on like a normal person.

I swing my backpack over my shoulder and walk with Michael down the hall to my class, keeping my gaze on people's shoes in the hall to avoid eye contact (particularly Michael's, since they're those huge white sneakers that have rainbow LED lights around the bottom that people stopped wearing when we were in middle school, but Michael still wears them because he thinks they're cool. And I think they're cool. But nobody else thinks they're cool, which basically means that they aren't cool). Michael gives me a quick hug before he disappears into Mr. Gretch's room, who's already yelling at this kid Jude for taking selfies with his tongue out, since he has a tongue piercing and likes to flaunt it, and apparently that's somehow too suggestive towards the girls in class, which is stupid because no girl in the whole school finds Jude even somewhat desirable. But that's probably because everyone knows he's gay. I'm pretty sure Michael and him dated for a while back in middle school, actually.

I walk the rest of the way to Ms. Green's room by myself, glancing nervously around the hallways, trying to find something to focus on that isn't another person, which ends up being Jenna Rolan's boots, since they're purple and sparkly and have flames on them and a huge heel that makes her seem three inches taller. They don't match her jacket at all.

I walk into class and fall back into my seat, which is at the way front of the room in the corner, right next to the windows and right in front of this grungey kid named Casey, who I'm pretty sure is actually Jude's boyfriend, who rides around school on a skateboard and has bigger lips than most of the girls. Ms. Green's writing down a bunch of notes on the board already as Jenna Rolan walks into class blabbing to her friend about how this girl Claudia dyed her whole head blue which for some reason makes her a bad person, which is ironic because half of Jenna's head is purple.

I put my earbuds in and hide them behind my messy hair as Ms. Green starts her lesson, watching the clock as the minutes tick down until class is over.