Chapter 1: slow night, so long
"I became a journalist to come as close as possible to the heart of the world,” Alice starts, beginning her lecture. She puts down her newspaper, adjusts the tortoiseshell glasses that have slid a millimeter down her nose. “Elizabeth, do you really suppose that when Henry Luce wrote that he was talking about rock journalism?”
Betty puts a miraculous amount of effort into not openly rolling her eyes. “Shockingly, I’m not overly concerned with what Henry Luce would think of me, mom,” she replies, taking a sip of her orange juice. “Considering he died in 1967.”
“I’m just saying, Elizabeth!” Alice continues, undeterred. “There is a perfectly good opening for you at the Register taking over the local sports column. I just want to see you putting your college education to use.”
“By taking your nepotism?” she shoots back before she can stop herself, slight waver betraying her exhaustion at the tired argument. “I want to make it on my own, not ride off of you and dad for the rest of my life.”
Alice sighs, an age-old, disappointed gesture, the one Betty’s been on the receiving end of for as long as she can remember. “Just remember what happened with your sister-”
“Polly’s a flight attendant, not dead.”
Her mother waves a hand like the distinction is unimportant. “Just remember that there are countless girls who would be grateful to be in your position, dear.”
Betty succumbs to the drawn-out temptation and sinks her nails into her palm, four clean, sharp points of pain. The shot of adrenaline it draws out is stabilizing, refocuses the small luxuries of their middle class kitchen, bowl of apples on the table and lace drapes. She exhales slow and places her glass in the sink, wiping away the four tiny smudges of red with her thumb.
“I can’t have this argument again,” she says after a moment, a proverbial white flag. “I’m going to be late to the show. I’m writing a story for Creem.” And it’s a big fucking deal she wants to add, but doesn’t. Alice doesn’t understand the miracle this assignment is, the sliding chain of favors she called in to even get it. An assignment like this could be the launchpad for a real career as a music journalist. She wants it so badly she can feel it echoing in her teeth, thrilling and sickening all at once.
“Be back before eleven,” Alice says as Betty slings on her denim jacket, thrifted and covered in patches that her mother finds distasteful. She grabs her messenger bag and slides on a pair of beat-up white Van like she’s slipping into disguise. No longer Betty Cooper: Riverdale’s Finest, but something different; some girl with dirty sneakers and a jean jacket advertising riot grrrl music. Someone tougher, someone’s who’s really seen the world. Really lived through things, not just read about them in the pages of a small town newspaper.
“The show starts at 10:30,” she reminds her mother diligently.
“And don’t do drugs!” Alice adds, either not noticing or not caring that Betty has spoken. Betty gives herself one last up and down in the hall mirror and then steps out the door to inhale the California evening air.
The club is within walking distance, only half an hour from Riverdale, a tiny suburb just barely on the outskirts of San Diego. The sun is just sinking into the far horizon and Betty feels the thrill of anticipation as she makes her way past well-manicured streets and into the grit of downtown, skyscrapers glittery with lights and everything coming to life. She hums a little to herself, a song from the band she’s covering tonight, The Archies. Up and comers, more pop than rock, and with a lead singer with the sort of face begging to be plastered on tween girls’ bedroom walls all across America.
She got the job from Kevin’s dad, who had a friend who knew a guy who turned out to be Lester Bangs, the single most important rock journalist of the day and her personal hero. It had taken her some serious begging to Mr. Keller, four letters, and an article about Siouxsie and the Banshees for her to get into his office, and even more persuading from there for Bangs to give him a chance.
“You know, you’re a real pain in the ass,” he had informed her the second time she had convinced his secretary to schedule her an appointment, drawing on his cigarette and flicking through the stacks and stacks of records lining of the walls of his cramped office.
“So I’ve been told,” she had replied, folded primly from her seat.
He had thrown an album to her, Betty nearly dropping it in her surprise. Joni Mitchell, Blue.
“Well, as long as you know,” he had said, and then gave her the assignment: attend the show, find out if The Archies are the real deal or hacks with good hair, and then write it all down.
Be honest and unmerciful she mouths to herself, holds the advice inside her brain like a directional and spitballs adjectives, turns of phrase that could alchemize the peculiar magic of music and turn it into words, neatly stacked lines of text in a newspaper. Honest and unmerciful. The thought alone is like breathing water for a child who grew up in the Cooper household.
The club is called The Paradise, the name spelled out in the seedy blue neon lights that curl over the marquee sign. Betty observes the crowd trailing out the door, miniskirt clad girls and scraggly haired boys, all exhaling smoke from their cigarettes and and talking with an anxious, adolescent excitement. She tightens the smooth knot of her ponytail and takes a deep breath, skirts around the bouncers and crowd of waiting concert-goers to find the back entrance, where they let the band in.
She slips quickly under the chain link fence blocking it off, and then she’s alone in a ghoulish expanse of parking lot, empty under the abandoned flicker of streetlights. Betty keeps her pace casually brisk as she circles the building, satisfaction sparking in her in her chest when she spies the nondescript black door.
She raps her knuckles three times on the cold metal, straight to the point. It wheezes open after a moment, and the bouncer lobs her an apathetic glance. “Pass?”
Betty smiles her best I was a straight A student smile, dialing up the Cooper charm to the maximum degree. “Hi,” she begins, “I’m Betty Cooper, and I’m here from Creem Magazine to interview The Archies.”
“Can I see your pass?”
She exhales. “That’s the thing,” she says carefully, “I’m on freelance, and-”
The door slams in her face without warning, blowing the baby hair back from her face. Betty tenses her jaw and knocks again, clicking into a mode of one track mind, the kind that stops at nothing.
“If you want, I can call my editor, and he can explain-”
“No pass, no entrance,” the bouncer repeats, bored. “Go wait on top of the ramp with the other girls,” he instructs, and then slams the door again in her face. Betty screws up her face up in aggravation, blows out an irritated breath. “Fuck,” she swears under her breath.
She decides to do as instructed for once, and wait at the top of the ramp while she brainstorms a new plan to get in backstage. The metal stairs are unsteady under her feet as she jogs up, and she steps out into the ramp in question, the high up air whipping at her face. There’s a throng of slender girls already up there, all hugging and chattering madly, shrill and obscene laughter bubbling into the night air.
“Who are you with?” asks a voice, and Betty starts. She turns and faces the girl who’s spoken, a little apart from the rest of the group. She has hair a startling shade of red, glossy like blood and spilling down around her elbows, held back by a satin band printed with cherry blossoms. The air is chilly so high up but she doesn’t appear to notice, dressed in a red silk robe cinched tightly around her waist.
“Sorry?” Betty asks, not getting the question.
The girl rolls her eyes, annoyed. “Who are you with?” she repeats, petulant. “What band?”
“Oh,” Betty says. “I’m here to review The Archies. I’m a journalist. I’m not a-” she cuts herself off abruptly, silently cursing her lack of forethought. “Not a- you know.”
If possible, the girl’s eyebrow arches even more. She looks poised with an acid rejoinder, but another girl appears next to her before she can say anything, walking slowly up to examine Betty.
“Not a what?” says the newest stranger, dryly amused. She removes her clear lavender sunglasses slowly, like a movie star, and Betty examines the ostentatious fur trim on the mysterious girl’s jacket, something that would look ridiculous n anyone else but she carries off as glamorous.
“Not a groupie,” Betty says, embarrassment pricking at her, and both girls groan in aggravation.
“Sorry,” Betty adds quickly, digging her nails into her hand. Shame wells like the tiny pools of blood in her palm.
“This is Veronica Lodge,” says the redhead grandly, like Betty is supposed to recognize the name. The girl in question steps closer to Betty, throwing all her focus onto her.
“Groupies sleep with rock stars because they want to be near someone famous,” intones Veronica, somber like a well-practiced speech. “We’re here because of the music. We are Band Aids.”
“She used to run a school for Band Aids,” Cheryl adds on, equal parts disinterested and condescending, like a particularly bitchy babysitter.
“We don’t sleep with the band members,” Veronica continues. “We support the music. We inspire the music. We’re here because of the music.” She pauses, gives Betty another long look. “It’s really not so different from what you’re here for.”
Feeling thoroughly chastised, Betty nods and ducks her head, twists her scuffed sneaker into the ground. She feels awkward and ungainly standing next to this crowd of elaborately made up girls, all wearing platform heels and bright lipstick, long necked like swans.
“Anyways,” Veronica says, picking her monologue backup from the silence like its a forgotten thread. “I’m retired now. I’m just back visiting some old friends.” She has an elegant, disaffected manner about her, like an old movie star, and Betty wants to capture it in print, the cinematic glow of the moonlight on her dark hair.
“It’s all happening!” chimes a voice, and then another girl saunters up onto the platform, teetering in her rocket-high heels.
“Josie,” greets the redhead, sharp gaze softened by what seems to be genuine affection. “You made it.”
“Wouldn’t miss it for the world,” the girl breathes in response, tugging at the taut, rubbery material of her absurdly tiny miniskirt. “A solo tour isn’t enough to stop me from a reunion with my best girls.”
“Josie, meet our journalist friend,” Veronica says, gesturing to Betty. “Journalist friend, meet Cheryl Blossom and Josie McCoy. And you are…”
“Betty,” she says, thrusting out a hand to shake. It rings flat against the exotic glamour of names like Blossom. “Betty Cooper.”
Josie takes her hand to be polite, shakes once, bony and soft-skinned. Betty prays that there’s no visible blood from the inside of her palm.
The door bangs open once more, and another girl appears. “It’s all happening!” she screeches, and Betty marks the repeated use, some sort of catchphrase or inside joke so old that it doesn’t even ring odd to them. Josie and Cheryl bounce down the stairs, heels like staccato gunshots against the metal, and Veronica grabs Betty’s wrist, tugs her after them.
The new girl slaps passes on their arms, half empty bottle of champagne clutched in one manicured hand. She hands one to Betty without even seeming to notice that she’s a stranger. Bingo, Betty thinks to herself, giddy with relief.
She slides in with the crowd of girls, trying to be nondescript, but a hand circles her bicep before she can get in the door.
“Oh no,” says the bouncer, “Not this one.” He slides the door jamb out, preventing her from getting inside.
Veronica flashes a glossy smile. “She’s with us,” she explains, grabbing Betty’s hand and attempting to pull her through the door. The bouncer grimaces, muscles Betty back out the door. “She wasn’t with you before,” he says, voice unamused.
“Are you going to turn this into a thing?” Cheryl asks, sounding bored by the concept, and Betty flinches, manners prickling at the thought of inconveniencing them.
“All of you can wait outside!” the bouncer snaps, done with the discussion, and Betty pulls her arm back from where she’s been keeping the door open.
“I don’t want to cause any trouble,” she explains, well-bred Cooper charm shining through. “I’ll wait.”
“I’ll take care of this,” Veronica promises, eyes dark and serious as the door slams shut. “If I can!”
Betty doesn’t slam her palm into the metal of the door, but it’s a near thing. She sighs and runs her fingers through the soft waves of her hair, yanks it all back up into a tight ponytail. New plan, Cooper she thinks to herself, trying to puzzle out the feasibility of getting in through the fire escape. Everything she wants is on the other side of that door.
An engine revs then, and Betty pivots on one heel to see a tour bus pulling up at the top of the ramp, spilling out four scraggly, dark-haired boys and a girl, muscling their instruments out of the storage and laughing. The Serpents Tour 73 reads their tour bus, and the pieces click together in her brain. The opening band. She digs through her memory until she can remember their names, gleaned from some small write-up in a local newspaper. There had hardly been anything- just a logo, a snake tangled up with a crown, dark and menacing. A strange opening pick for the clean rock that The Archies sell so well.
The five of them look weary and a little unkempt, all beat up leather jackets and hair that is less artfully tousled and more put through a natural disaster. Still, under the single lightbulb they’re a live action album cover, standing in formation like it’s second nature. The girl, absurdly tiny compared to the four boys, is talking loudly about something- “We would have been on time if Jones hadn’t insisted on rewriting the bridge for the third fucking time in as many days.”
The tallest boy presses the buzzer on the door with the nose of his guitar case. It goes unanswered, and an older man steps forward, bangs harshly on the door. “Let us in, we’re the Serpents!” he hollers. “We’re on the show!” Manager, Betty thinks, taking in the frown lines and well aged contempt.
This is her moment to strike. “Hi,” she says, injecting her voice with the sort of breathless naivety that always seems to work on boys in the band. “I’m a journalist, I write for Creem Magazine.”
“The enemy!” says the tallest boy, sneering. A tattoo of a snake curls up his neck, fangs catching under the choked light. “A rock writer.”
“I’d like to interview you, or someone from your band,” Betty continues, undeterred.
“I’m sorry but could you please fuck off?” the girl says, weaving past Betty to slam her tiny fist against the door. “We kind of have bigger concerns right now.”
The lead singer- Sweet Pea , she thinks his name is- steps forward, wound up now. “You guys never even fucking listen to our records,” he begins. “Do you even know what your magazine said about us? So caught up in its own deceit that it stops being clever!”
Betty is unable to help herself. “Actually, it was Rolling Stone that said that,” she says.
“Yeah, okay. Fuck off anyways,” he says, turning back.
“We play for the fans, not the critics,” adds someone, and Betty turns to see the drummer straighten up from where he’s slouched against the doorway. He’s more slender than the other two, and prettier too, angular and elegant like a Modigliani painting. She notes the drumstick he’s twirling between his long, narrow fingers, a nervous tic. There’s a dark electricity about him, something emanating off the edges of his sharp silhouette.
“Why can’t someone be both?” she asks, stubborn. The drummer rolls his eyes, doesn’t reply. Betty takes a deep breath, tries to come up with one last play.
“Sweet Pea. Toni. Fangs. Jughead,” she says, praying she’s remembering the names correctly. “I love your band. I think the latest album is a big step forward for your sound. Producing it yourselves was definitely the right move. Good luck with the show.”
She turns and starts to walk away, teeth sunk hard into her lower lip, making her way up the ramp. There’s one, two, three beats of silence.
“Well, don’t stop there!” Sweet Pea yells, good natured, and Betty pauses, turns back to the band.
“Yeah, come back here,” Toni adds, appraising Betty with a new gaze. They wave her back, and she obliges, smiling. The door opens, finally, and a redheaded boy sticks his head out, instantly charming, all-American. Archie Andrews, frontman of The Archies.
“Hey, guys,” he says, and he and Jughead clap hands, throw their arms around one another in a way that suggests deep history, old lore. “Ready for the show?”
“Always, Andrews,” drawls Sweet Pea. He turns to Betty. “Archie, this is the enemy. Enemy, this is Andrews.”
“Betty Cooper,” she corrects, extending a hand, and Archie shakes it. “A journalist?” he asks, and she nods.
“Very cool,” he says, sounding entirely genuine. “Alright, well, we should get in.”
Betty braces herself for round three. The band herds her in with them and the bouncer immediately spots her, squares off for a confrontation. “Not this one,” he says.
Archie claps the guy on the shoulder. “Don’t worry, she’s with us,” he says easily.
“She’s not with you,” the bouncer exclaims. “She’s not with you, she’s not with them, she’s not coming in.”
Sweet Pea, craving confrontation, moves closer to the bouncer, intimidates him with the sheer force of his height.
The bouncer glances at Betty one last time. “Enjoy San Diego,” he says, sour, and Betty grins hard as she finally, finally gets inside.
Backstage is tumultous with lights, sound, smoke floating up from the different machines. Betty can feel her heartbeat quicken in her chest, taking in the various crowds of people, the music that seems to rile people up. There’s something kindling, an anticipation she can feel building up, something that makes the hair on the back of her neck prickle.
She hustles to keep up with the band, walking briskly as they careen down the hallway, catching up with the various roadies and band geeks cluttering the hallways. The Serpents sweep into a small dressing room, and Betty somehow finds herself inside, caught in the riptide of their celebrity.
She perches on the dressing room table, sticky with old hairspray and hot under the vanity lights, and clicks on her recorder, the telltalle hum kicking in.
“Why rock and roll?” she asks, aiming the question as Sweet Pea but leaving the question open to the room. He takes a palm of shaving cream and rubs it into his mess of hair, some sort of makeshift mousse.
He shrugs. “Angry kid, wrong side of the tracks,” he explains, leader singer confidence almost covering his discomfort. “Rock was an escape.”
“That’s how it was for all of us,” Toni adds, taking a swig of the bottle of Jack Daniels dangling between her fingers. “We met in detention in high school, believe it or not.”
“And now?” Betty prods. Fangs tunes his guitar, ripping through unamplified guitar licks.
“It’s not what you put in it,” Jughead says, breaking his silence. He’s sitting backwards in the cheap metal chair in the middle of the room, drumsticks still in hand, tapping a quiet, frenetic beat onto the dressing table. “It’s not what you put in, it’s what you leave out.”
“What do you mean?”
“Rock is a declaration of who you are,” he says, a little showy but so genuine that Betty can see it shining in his face. “It’s like- listen to Marvin Gaye. A song like What’s Going On. That single woo at the end of the second verse. You know?”
Betty smiles, amused. “I know the woo,” she says, warmed despite herself. Jughead’s face is rapturous, devout, the face of a true believer.
“That’s what you remember,” he says. “There’s only one, and it makes the song. That’s what makes it great. That’s rock and roll.” He takes a drag off the cigarette smoldering in an ashtray and blows smoke, looking pensive. Betty holds the microphone steady, tries not to focus on the artful curve of his neck, the hungry gleam in his expression.
Sweet Pea looks impressed. “Man, we used to talk about this stuff more,” he says.
Toni flicks a look at her. “This is the most honest we’ve ever been in an interview,” she says, suspicious. “You’re the first press guy we’ve ever made friends with. And you’re supposed to be the enemy” It’s not a compliment, but Betty is flattered regardless, trying to mentally take down every detail in the room.
The older man from outside appears again, and in better lighting Betty can see that he’s clearly related to Jughead- same dark hair, same moody eyes, same uneasy, restless posture. His walkie talkie crackles at his side, and he takes a swig of beer.
“Ten minutes till showtime,” he calls, voice authoritative. “Anyone who isn’t the band needs to get out.”
Betty clicks off the recorder and slides from her perch on the table, swept out in the chaos of a pre-show ritual. “Thanks again!” she calls, and Sweet Pea points at her while someone tries to dab at his face with makeup.
“Find us after the show!” he calls, and Betty nods, thrilled.
She wanders until she finds the backstage steps, out of the way but with a good vantage point, and sits down there. She drops her messenger bag and digs the notepad out of her pocket, starts to scribble frantic notes down before she can forget.
“I got you a pass,” says a voice, and then Veronica drops onto the stair next to her, backstage pass held in one hand.
“Thanks,” Betty says quickly, distracted with finishing a sentence. “I got in with the opener.”
Another band is tuning up onstage, and Veronica tips her head back to listen, eyes falling shut. “How did you get started in all this?” Betty asks, curious despite herself.
Veronica smirks at her, velvet smooth and rum sweet. “It’s a long story,” she says, and slides her purple sunglasses up the bridge of her nose. “How did you get started in all of this?”
Betty pauses the franic scratching of her pencil. “It’s a long story,” she says, wry, and Veronica laughs. The brunette sits up and leans into where Betty is sitting, reading her cursive messy notes.
“Ah, The Serpents,” she says, her smile knowing. “They’re always more fun on the way up.” Betty is about to ask her what she means, but she’s cut off before she can say anything.
“The enemy!” calls a voice, delighted, and Betty twists and sees Archie, guitar slung across his torso and grin lighting up a face, all high school quarterback and kid on Christmas morning.
“Hey, Archie,” she says, and Veronica turns to dig through her little beaded purse, fumbling with a pack of Parliaments. “This is Veronica Lodge,” she introduces, sweeping a hand. Veronica’s shoulders tense, but she turns, something guilty lingering around the edges of her smile.
They look at one another, Betty in between them like a barricade, and the air changes, seems to hum with something strange, threaded with a common history. Oh, Betty thinks, watching as Veronica elegantly slides back up in her chair, offering a well-manicured hand.
“Pleasure,” she says, sly, and Archie looks a little dumbstruck as he reaches out to take her hand. “Veronica Lodge,” he says, teasing, “Like the real estate magnate?”
“Have we met?” she counters back, breathless. Their hands are still loosely linked in the space between their bodies, and Archie takes his other hand and uses it to tuck a lock of ink dark hair behind her ear.
Veronica places a hand over her face, fingers splayed, and for a moment Betty thinks there are tears shining in her eyes. But she laughs instead, and Archie smiles at her, fondness and something like pride folded up in his expression. They pull their hands back at the same time, finally, and Veronica brushes at her face, smudging the glitter on her cheekbone.
Betty feels invisible in the wake of such a moment, undone by the longing in a singular glance, and it’s the best feeling, the journalistic kind, like melting into the surroundings and still being aware, watching the story as it unfolds in front of you. She bites the tip of her pencil, clocking the flush of Archie’s neck, the way Veronica drops her gaze and smiles at the floor, the nearest to earnest Betty’s even seen her.
“Archie!” calls Dilton, their bassist, from across the backstage, voice terse and wheedling. “We’re doing soundcheck!”
“Yeah, just a minute!” Archie calls, not looking, gaze fixed on Veronica. He swallows hard. “Will I see you after the show?”
Veronica grins, and suddenly she is back in control, mask screwed on so tightly Betty can hardly remember the temporary lapse. “I’ll see what I can do,” she teases, coy, and finally takes a drag off her cigarette, burned down nearly to the filter. Archie nods, and then jogs over to where the rest of his band is, all with well-coiffed hair and pretty boy smirks, well polished like plastic.
“Come on,” Veronica says, standing suddenly, a little off balance. “You’re going to want to watch the opener. They’re something else.”
“The Serpents?” Betty asks, nose scrunching as she follows Veronica’s silverquick threading through the rowdy clumps of people.
“Ladies and gentleman,” calls a loud, gruff voice from the stage. It’s the manager, the one related to Jughead, looking younger under the boiling lights of the stage. “Please help me in welcoming The Serpents to the Paradise!”
Betty can feel her breath high and tight in her chest, pulse thrumming quick in her wrist with a dizzying sort of anticipation. She watches from backstage as the band tunes up their instruments- Fangs and Sweet Pea tossing guitar picks at one another and talking shit, Toni swigging from a bottle of whiskey. There’s something building in the anxious stirring of the audience, like thunder from a distant storm, and Betty has her pencil pressed to her notepad hard enough to leave an indent, ready to scribble frantic notes.
The music starts like the first crack of lightning, like a giant turning in its sleep, and the blistering throb of it knocks the air clean out of Betty’s lungs, shock running through her fingers.
Slow nights so long howls Sweet Pea into the microphone, his teeth flashing sharp and white under the sticky pink neon and smoke, microphone curled in one hand in drink in the other, close up to his face. But it’s Jughead Betty watches, tapping the pedal constantly like an unerring heartbeat.
“I told you they were something else,” says a cool, amused voice in her ear, and Betty startles out of her reverie, glances over to where Veronica has appeared next to her. She exhales a lungful of smoke, smiles her Cheshire Cat grin, the one that promises something illicit.
“That’s one way to put it,” she agrees absently, gaze still fixed on Jughead, his dark hair and white t-shirt, body curled over the drumkit like the audience isn’t even there. He glances suddenly up and catches her stare, meets her eyes like tipping back the barrel of a gun.
Betty swallows hard and he winks at her, dark eyed and sly, never missing a beat as the band slashes through the final, brutal chords of the song. She can taste ozone between her teeth. Something wicked this way comes she thinks to herself, and it’s a promise.
Chapter 2: king of the rodeo
They’re so loud and so good for an opener that Betty can’t quite believe it, all four handling the melody like it’s hurting them. Taper jean girl with a motel face Sweet Pea sings, so raw it hurts, and Betty wonders if everyone in the crowd can feel it too, feels filthy and buzzed and understood, desperate for the release only the drumline can offer. Cigarettes and songs with a winter’s chafe.
She starts to take down dutiful notes- the way the stage lights fracture the bubblegum pink of Toni’s hair, Sweet Pea pretending to trip over the microphone wire and flashing a wink at Josie with frontman charm to spare- but Veronica flicks her pencil neatly out of her hands before she can even begin to get her thoughts down.
“What the hell?” she asks, squinting through the flash and burn of the stage to see where her only writing utensil has fallen.
“Live in the moment,” Veronica advises, shouting to be heard over the music, and then neatly plucks Betty’s notebook out of her hands, flicking the cover shut and handing it back over to her.
Betty rolls her eyes and huffs a sardonic laugh, but sticks the notebook in her back pocket all the same, letting the music crawl into her bones and settle there. She can feel the pulse of the drums in her chest, thumping quick and unnatural, and it’s strangely intimate, makes her feel larger than just her body alone.
They slide into another song, messy, no time for pause, Sweet Pea snarling I know you love me I’m the chosen one, and they are still young as a band, imperfect and not quite all in sync, but there’s some sort of raw alchemy there that Betty can feel all the way through her spine, a magic that hums in her veins.
It ends too quick, and Betty is surprised by the sting of disappointment when the last song of the twenty minute set ends and they’re all plunged back into reality, the band unplugging amps and hauling things back offstage, Archie getting ready to go on for the main show.
Betty and Veronica watch the process of breaking down and rebuilding the stage for a few beats of silence, collecting themselves. Betty tracks the band’s movements as they wind down- Sweet Pea clapping Fangs on the back, Jughead pulling his t-shirt up to wipe the sweat off his face. Veronica offers Betty a cigarette, which she declines, and then lights one for herself.
“Boys are best when they’re still trying to prove themselves,” Veronica says, pensive around an exhale of smoke, watching Sweet Pea, and then, flicking her gaze down to Betty’s notebook. “You can quote me on that.”
Betty laughs, but the line sticks with her, makes her evaluate again the hungry gleam in their eyes, barely sated by the live show that’s just been played.
“I’m going to go find Cheryl,” Veronica says when the air has started to return to normal. “I want to catch up with her before Archie goes on. Come with?”
“I’m good,” Betty replies, tactfully not mentioning the changing of The Archies to just Archie. “I really do need to write some of this down.”
“So studious,” Veronica teases, but there are no hard edges to it. “Have fun, then.”
Betty waves her off and pulls her notebook back out, starting with the technical notes- the order of the set, the layout of the stage. She likes the precision of good journalism, the technique to it, the part that reminds her of what must have drawn her mother to it years before. She’s busy detailing the make and model of the band’s instruments when she’s interrupted again.
“So, what did you think?” asks a voice, deep and gravelly, and Betty looks up and sees Jughead standing in front of her. He’s still sweaty from the show, his hair in even greater disarray than before, drumsticks sticking out of his back pocket, one snapped clean in half.
Betty tries not to gape at him. I thought it was brilliant she almost says and doesn’t, remembering who she is and what she is here to do.
“I think the songwriting sometimes teeters on the verge of too self-aggrandizing, and that you need to look at the pacing on the bridge of that last song.” Jughead quirks an eyebrow at her, but she continues, undaunted. “You need to balance the rigor and the ruthlessness. But- you’re excellent. I mean, really excellent. The American Gothic influence works, and once you get into your stride, I think you’re really going to do something.”
Jughead looks at her, shocked out of his devil may care composure. He laughs once, sharp. “Has anyone ever told you you’re awfully honest for a journalist?” he asks.
“Has anyone ever told you you play like you’re a man drowning?” she tosses back, easy as a loaded gun.
There’s a beat of silence, a mutual ceasefire. Jughead lights a cigarette and inhales long through his fingers, Marlboro slanted like he’s still holding a drumstick.
“Touche,” he says at last, dragging a hand through his hair, making the tangles in the back stick up even worse than before. There’s a constellation of moles on his cheek that Betty cannot stop staring at. The Archies show starts all too suddenly, like a door being kicked in, and Betty tips her head back to listen better, just stop your crying it’s a sign of the times.
Archie’s voice is clean and clear and sweet, apple pie and popsicles in the summer, so different from the brutal force of The Serpents that Betty’s ears ring with the cognitive dissonance.
She’s expecting Jughead to leave, to go find his bandmates and join the natural disaster of a party already starting around them, girls younger than her sprinting around in their perilously high heels and screaming along with the music, the heady smell of weed that makes her eyes itch. Instead, he sits down next to her, in the same spot Veronica occupied just an hour before, a different tenor to his presence than there was to hers.
“Archie wrote this one the day after he left P.U.R.E,” Jughead says, head cocked, listening. He’s referencing Archie’s start in a wildly successful boy band, plucked from oblivion and then rocketed up to the top of the pop music charts in a few short years. Archie wasn’t the first to leave the band, but it was his closing bow that marked the end of P.U.R.E and the breaking of a million adolescent hearts. The Archies were announced a scant few months later with the midnight release of a self-titled album, and the rest was history.
You can’t bribe the door on your way to the sky Archie sings, plaintive, and Betty takes the new information and lets it filter the song for her, adjusting the lens until it clicks into place.
“Interesting,” she says, and Jughead smirks at her like he knows what she’s thinking, can see the clockwork of strict machine that is her mind. She suppresses the impulse to write the new information down in her notebook.
They spend the rest of the set like that, Jughead giving Betty anecdotes and insider information about The Archies, funny stories about the ex-girlfriends behind certain songs, the drumline that came from one of Reggie Mantle’s one night stands humming as she made coffee one morning. She asks pointed questions and he answers about a third of them honestly, evading the rest with clever one-liners and even more clever sarcasm. It becomes a game after a while, to see how much she is able to pry out of him, what he is willing to give up.
Betty takes the scraps and tidbits of information, lets it coalesce into a greater picture in her mind, a forming image of an up-and-coming band trying like hell to make it big, burdened by the hedonism of American boyhood.
“So, where do you come in?” she asks finally, the question she’s been trying to puzzle out since their first interaction. “How did you and Archie meet?”
Jughead smiles in a way that looks more like a grimace, all sharp white teeth. “Our mothers were best friends,” he says. “We grew up in the same hometown for a bit. Childhood best friends, all that.”
“What happened?” she asks, and Jughead’s gaze flicks down to the recorder, instantly suspicious.
“It’s off,” she reassures, holding it up for him to examine. “You’re off the record. Scout’s honor.”
“Like hell you were in the Boy Scouts,” Jughead says, relaxing.
“No, but I was in the Girl Scouts,” she replies primly, and Jughead laughs. “Now, stop dodging.”
His demeanor shifts, becomes more serious, somehow weightier, tension in the sharp line of his jaw. “I moved when we were ten,” he says. “From upstate New York to Ohio. I became close with Toni and Sweets and Fangs, and Archie and I lost touch for a while, the way little kids do. We reconnected when both of us started getting traction in the industry. Then, after he left P.U.R.E, we got signed to the same label, and management thought it would be in our mutual best interests to tour together.
Betty absorbs the information quickly, trying to envision a young Jughead with messy hair and skinny limbs, a young Archie with the same ease moving through the world, and finds it both a better and worse origin story than what she was imagining. She’s going to say something, but before she can Archie appears, sweaty and beaming, pushing back the messy peaks of his hair. She hadn’t even realized the show had ended.
“You like the set?” he asks Betty, draping an easily affectionate arm around Jughead, who tolerates the contact with only mild displeasure.
“You were great,” she says warmly, noticing as cases are being shut and rolled out to the trucks. She catches Sweet Pea saying goodbye to Josie like a sailor heading off to port, dipping her in a lingering embrace.
Archie scratches the back of his neck, smile wide and honest. “Glad to hear it,” he says. “Listen, you should come up to L.A, we’ll be at the Riot House all week.”
“The Riot House?” she asks.
“The Continental Hyatt House,” Jughead says, mood suddenly dour. He lights another cigarette, looking moody. “It’s on the Sunset Strip.”
“Right,” Betty says, adjusting. “I’ll see if I can make it.”
“Good,” says Archie. “And hey- tell Veronica to call me. Tell her it isn’t California without her, that we want her around like last summer.”
Betty laughs a little, amused. “I’ll pass the message along,” she promises, and Archie ducks his head, pleased.
“We’re under the name Harry Houdini,” Jughead adds, blowing smoke from the side of his mouth. “Staying on the third floor.”
Sweet Pea walks past them, arm already around another girl. “The enemy!” he calls. “Hey, come to L.A, we’ll talk some more!” Betty salutes him, grinning, and the other two boys rise, finally ready to leave for the night.
“We’ll see you down the line,” Archie promises. Jughead casts her one last glance, sloe-eyed and appraising. “Good luck with your story,” he says, and Betty is charmed despite herself. She nods, and the two boys disappear into the fray, coasting along the energy of a good show that hangs in the air like salt off a sea breeze.
Betty starts collecting her things, ready to head home for the night and unspool her brain, but Veronica appears, breaking away from a crowd of girls to come talk to Betty.
“You just missed Archie,” Betty says, trying to gauge what the other girl’s reaction is going to be. “He wanted me to tell you that he’s at the Riot House all week and to call him. He’s under the name Harry Houdini.” She pauses. “Do you know about the Riot House? ”
If Veronica is fazed she doesn’t show it, just flicks the ash on her cigarette and blinks just once. “I think I’ve heard of it,” she says lightly.
“Right,” Betty continues. “Anyways, he had a message for you. He said it isn’t California without you, and we want you around like last summer.” Veronica smiles, a private thing.
“How well do you guys know one another?” she asks, and Veronica just blows smoke, quirking an eyebrow. “Right,” Betty says, clicking back out of journalism mode. “Long story. Got it.”
She stands and pulls her messenger bag over her shoulder, wishing she didn’t have to leave, didn’t have to return to her same small world, so different from the dirt and glitter of backstage. Veronica walks with her, flashing their backstage passes at the bouncer as they make their way out onto the exit ramp.
Veronica takes Betty’s notebook, still clutched in one hand, and scrawls down her phone number with an eyeliner pencil, handwriting loopy and elegant. “Call me if you need a rescue,” she says, surprisingly warm. “We live in the same city, after all.”
Betty laughs a little. “I think I live in a different world,” she says, and Veronica flashes her a grin.
They stand in the night air for a minute, the parking lot quiet now, tour buses gone for the next great adventure.
“Speaking of the world,” Veronica says. “I’ve made a very important decision.” Her voice is hushed in the way of a secret. “I’m going to live in Morocco for one year.” She looks almost melancholy for a moment, glancing at Betty. “I need a new crowd.”
Betty nods, and Veronica gives her another look, almost appraising. “Do you want to come?” she asks.
“Yes,” Betty says, before she can even consider the offer. It’s mad to even think about- her mother would never let her take a semester off college to go to Morocco with a slip of a girl she met backstage at a rock concert of all places. Yet she cannot help but consider it, seeing a new country without the unrelenting pressure of her mother’s secondhand ambitions.
“It’s a plan,” Veronica says, like it really is all that easy. “You’ve got to call me.”
“I will,” she replies, and Veronica waves and disappears into the night with a gaggle of her friends, until she is illuminated only by the orange light of her cigarette. Betty watches her go with a strange feeling in her chest, the byproduct of what has been the strangest and most thrilling night of her life.
She sucks in a long breath and exhales it slow, trying to wrap her mind about the strange chain of events that have brought her here. With one last long glance at the building, the people still trickling out in a lazy stream and music pulsing from the windows of passing cars, she starts the walk home, the sky disorderly with stars overhead.
One week later and Betty is perched in front of her Smith-Corona Galaxie, the soothing click of typewriter keys lulling her into a trance. It’s meticulous, tricky work- winding the tape recorder back over and over, untangling the overlapping and barely discernible voices- and yet Betty loves it, lets the detailed work of the task pull her out of her constant and prickling anxiety.
“Elizabeth!” calls a piercing voice from downstairs, her mother’s sharp reprimand. “You’re going to be late!”
Betty rolls her eyes but slides back in her chair anyways, ignoring the protesting shriek of the floor. She stands to examine herself in the full length mirror on the back of the door, analyzing her high rise jeans and silky tank top with a critical eye. Her hair is loose around her shoulders, silky blonde waves that fan out around her face. It’s nothing like Veronica’s exotic glamor or Cheryl’s bombshell red hair, but she supposes it’ll have to do.
She jogs down the stairs, her trusty messenger bag over one shoulder, and finds Alice sitting at the kitchen table, sipping on a mug of tea.
“Have fun at Kevin’s, dear,” Alice offers, and Betty nods as she weaves through the kitchen, feeling the lie hang in the air.
“See you tomorrow!” she offers, and her mother smiles absently, gaze fixed on her book. Alice’s attention is an interrogation light, focused intently on only one thing at a time. Betty doesn’t let herself fully register in her mother’s consciousness, just slips quickly out the door.
Veronica is already waiting for her down the hill when she gets outside, perched by her canary yellow Vega, so ostentatious and glamorous a car it could only belong to a girl like Veronica. She cups her hands and yells up to Betty to get her attention, trademark fringe coat slung over one elbow.
“Betty!” she says, and she grins despite herself, slipping on water plants as she hikes down the hill still damp from sprinklers.
“Veronica,” she says, just as enthused, and the brunette flicks her cigarette into the wet grass. She’s wearing jeans tonight, and a silky white top tied up above her belly button, topped off with a floppy hat that exaggerates her film noir features.
Veronica gestures to the passenger seat, and then crawls into the driver’s side, car already running. The radio is blaring too loud, Dancing Days, and Veronica sings along under her breath as she navigates out of the manicured lines of Betty’s neighborhood. I got a woman who knows, she murmurs, turning a hard left while blatantly ignoring a turn signal.
The ride passes in a comfortable sort of quiet, both of them reverential to the music that pours through the speakers, Betty admiring Veronica’s amazing, subversive cache of music. Veronica is a quick but excellent driver, navigating the twisting roads until they’re coming into the proper part of the city.
She turns onto the Sunset Strip and the whole world pivots on its axis, changes right in front of Betty. The huge billboards lighting up are advertising albums instead of beer, and the sidewalk crowds with people, dressed up and smoking on streetcorners, music pouring out of the other passing cars. Betty moves her head to the side to take it all in, to catch every bit of the geography that she can. Veronica catches her wonder and smiles at Betty, does her mocking impression of a tour guide.
“The Continental Hyatt House,” she says, gesturing to the hotel in front of them, bright with neon. “Otherwise known as the Riot House. Every band stays there, at least all the ones that matter. The Who. Zeppelin. Alice. Bowie.” Veronica’s didactic tone takes on a dreamy edge. “Everyone there knows one another. Twenty four hour room service, parties that go on until ten in the morning, you name it.” She takes a swift turn into a secret parking space
“And we’re not gonna hang out with Archie,” Veronica says, voice resolute. “You can if you want to, but I will not be.”
Betty huffs out an exasperated laugh. “What is it with you and Archie, anyways?” she asks, but Veronica is already is already out of the car, Betty quickly unclicking her seatbelt to follow.
Veronica grabs Betty’s hand and adjusts her hat with the other, the two of them darting across the busy street, Veronica stumbling a little on her precarious platforms. They weave in and out of the humming tour buses, making a surprisingly good team.
The two of them blast in through the front door, into what is at first glance is a nightclub- a swirling mass of roadies carrying Halliburton briefcases plastered with tour stickers, drugged out partyers slumped in chairs with shades on, groupies with their crescent moon smiles. The atmosphere is illicit, intoxicating, and yet strangely communal, like a secret community of rock and roll. Betty’s heartbeat kicks up in her chest, and Veronica links their arms together, pulling her close.
“It’s all happening,” Veronica says lowly to her, and then, more serious- “And I’m about to use you as protection.”
Betty is going to ask what she means when a roadie with impressively unkempt facial hair approaches.
“Veronica Lodge!” he says, and Veronica grits a charming smile, nails dug into Betty’s forearm.
“Those guys are with Alice Cooper,” she says, and there’s a split second a double-take where Betty thinks Veronica is talking about her mother. “I’m going to pretend I don’t know them.”
“Veronica!” says another, catching sight of her. “Does Alice know you’re here?”
“I’m just showing my very dear, very wonderful writer friend around,” Veronica says, gesturing towards Betty. “She’s a very important writer- she knows Lester Bangs. I’m responsible for her moral conduct.” The roadie casts a leering look at Betty, and she manages a tight, impersonal smile.
Another man arrives then, catching sight of Veronica from across the room. “Veronica Lodge!” he says, mock drama. “God’s gift to rock and roll!”
“I’m retired,” Veronica insists, accepting a cigarette from one of the men and blowing an effortless smoke ring, like a cartoon character.
“Again?” asks the first, flashing a grin at her, and Veronica just blows smoke in reply, charming and dismissive all at once. Betty realizes with a start that Veronica has four men circling her in under a minute, a shark swimming in a fish tank.
“I’ve made a decision,” Veronica says grandly. “I’m going traveling in India for one year. Then I’m going to learn how to play the violin. Then I’m going to go to college.” Betty sidles a glance at her, perplexed and a little hurt. Veronica had sounded so earnest when she talked about Morocco.
“There’s nothing they could teach you in college,” says the second man, and Betty examines the lust hanging like a curtain over his gaze. He leans forward, voice dropping down to a whisper, too intimate for the rambunctiousness of the room. “Call Alice. He’s under the name Bob Hope.”
Veronica just smiles sunnily, no promise in her expression. “I heard you were with Archie Andrews,” says the first one, laughing around a swig of beer. Veronica’s face tightens, almost imperceptibly.
“ Please,” she says easily. “I always throw the little ones back.”
Cheryl suddenly appears, long-legged as an ibis and with her impossible spill of red hair swinging down her back.
“Marc Bolan is a fucking asshole!” she shrieks, making her way effortlessly into their circle. Her lipstick is a perfect shade of pomegranate red, no smudges on her poreless skin.
“Cheryl,” Betty says, and Cheryl barely registers her, too busy ranting to Veronica about rock stars and their fucking wives. Betty goes to the house phone in the meantime, almost shouting over the din. “Harry Houdini, please,” she says, and the woman on the other end of the line informs her that it’s room 333. Betty likes the symmetry of the number, the symbolism of it. She discreetly pockets the notepad and pencil next to the phone, some memento of the evening.
Veronica sidles up next to her, flicking her gaze down to the phone. “Okay,” she says. “Time to put on the lampshade.”
Veronica and Betty make their way up to the room, Cheryl in tow behind them. The doors down the hallways are flung open, each one opening like a portal to another world- couples twisted up in bed, people having sing-alongs, stoners passing around massive and elaborate bongs.
They finally hit 333, and the door is already open, music and smoke bleeding out the entryway. Betty turns the corner inside and there’s a party in full swing in the small room, boombox cranking a James Brown song. Archie is at the center of the party, jabbing out the chords and playing along on guitar.
Veronica swings back her shoulders, like she’s steeling herself, and then swings into the party, arms extended.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” she sing-songs, in a pitch-perfect impression of a flight attendant. “Please extinguish all smoking materials and notice that the captain has turned on the No Smoking sign.” She plucks the cigarette out of Sweet Pea’s mouth and stubs it out on the coffee table, earning her a scowl. “Your seat and tray table should be locked in their full, upright positions. In the unlikely event of a water landing, the seat below you will serve as a-” she breaks off into laughter, giving up the bit. “Oh, the hell with it.” There’s a standing ovation as she takes a bow, instantly the life of the party, and she flutters around the room, chatting with people.
Betty grabs a bottle of beer for posterity, more interested in analyzing the room than drinking, the scattered blend of musicians and entourage, the girls with mascara eyes and pirate smiles and the boys holding instruments like they’re an afterthought. She sees Jughead from across the room, no drink in hand but smoking fervently, his eyes dark and downcast. There’s a feeling low in her stomach that she cannot put a name to.
Veronica’s small hand creeps onto her knee, suddenly next to her again. “He was looking at you,” she says, her voice low, and Betty feels the color rise in her cheeks. She flicks a nervous glance upwards, and Reggie is punching him in the shoulder, his gaze flying away.
“He wasn’t,” she says quickly.
Veronica tucks a strand of fine blonde hair behind her hair, and then leans in, gin and expensive perfume and cigarettes. “Boys never understand women,” she says, her voice disembodied. “Sometimes you have to shock them out of their world.” Betty’s heart is a staccato grande in her chest, a violent drumming against her ribs. “Do you trust me?” Veronica asks, and Betty nods, willful and wild and startling awake.
Her eyes flutter shut, and Veronica closes the gap between them, kisses Betty surprisingly soft, one hand at her jaw and the other in the loose waves of her hair. Betty swallows hard and it’s over, Veronica smirking at her with something dangerous in her eyes. “Now look up,” she says, voice low.
Betty looks up and Jughead is staring straight at her, his mouth slightly ajar in a way that makes him look terrifyingly young. Her head pounds, dizzy with all the feeling, and he is looking at her like there is nobody else in the world, like there never has been, and her heart is speeding down the freeway with no cops to stop it and there is a feeling in her spine that she cannot explain. There are girls sprawled around them like Veronica is their queen, handmaidens or ladies in waiting with their drawn on eyelashes and glittery lipstick, and it doesn’t matter, not at all. The air is too charged for comfort.
“I’m going to get some ice,” she says, breathless, and Veronica just smiles at her, cool and unimpeachable.
“It’s down the hall to the right,” she says, gesturing out the door, and Betty nods and stumbles up to her feet. The air is too hot, sticky where her hair clings to the nape of her neck, and she weaves through the crowds of people, thick with smoke and music.
The ice room is blessedly empty, and Betty finds a random plastic solo cup, holds it under the lever and waits for the cranky machinery to start back up. She presses her forehead to the cool surface, wishing for her heartbeat to settle back into her chest.
“You left quick,” drawls a voice, and she flinches, turns fast on her heel. Jughead is leaning in the doorway, holding her forgotten beer, the condensation soaked label picked apart by her anxious fingers. She takes the lukewarm bottle from him and sets it down, shockwaves running through her when their fingers brush. He has musician hands, long and slender, bumpy with oddly places calluses.
“I had to get some ice,” she says, the clunk of the machine emphasizing her point. She presses the plastic cup to her cheek, hoping to cool her flushed face.
“You a stare a lot,” Jughead says, but it’s not an indictment, just mild observation. His t-shirt is threadbare, the material so thin she can see the planes of his collarbone. She bites her lower lip, and his eyes darken.
“I just pay attention,” she says, raising her chin to meet his gaze head on. “It’s my job to notice the things that other people don’t see.”
Jughead casts his gaze up her, slowly, and she feels raw, exposed, like her skin’s been peeled away, exposing the nerves running underneath. He takes another step forward, and Betty’s back is pressed against the ice machine, blowing cool air down her spine. “Can I ask you a question?” he says, and her mouth quirks into a smile.
“You already did,” she points out, wry. “But sure.”
Jughead opens his mouth to speak, but she cuts him off before he can. “ If,” she adds, pointing a finger at him. “If I can ask you one, too. Truth for truth.” He considers the offer for a beat, and then nods.
“You drive a hard bargain,” he says, and then holds out a hand for her to shake. She takes it and tries not to shiver at the contact, palm to palm. His fingers skim the inside of her wrist as she pulls back, and Betty wonders if he can feel the frantic stammering of her heartbeat, blood running blue in the veins of her wrist.
“Okay,” Betty says. “You go first.”
Jughead looks at her, mouth quirking at the edge. “Why are you here tonight?” he asks. Betty crinkles her eyebrows.
“I told you already,” she says, laughing. “I’m working on a story.”
Jughead looks strangely triumphant. “You already published your story,” he says, and her stomach drops. “It was in last week’s Riverdale Tribune- Serpents and Secrets: My Night with Two Up and Coming Rock Bands, byline B. Cooper.”
“You looked up the story?” Betty asks, shocked. It was barely even five hundred words, crammed in the back of the paper in the human interests section.
Jughead shrugs. “I wanted to see your full report,” he says, easy. “So. Why are you back?”
Betty tilts her head, glances up at him. “There’s always another story to be found,” she says, voice saccharine sweet. She doesn’t give him time to brace himself. “Who does the writing for your songs?”
“It’s collaborative,” Jughead says, voice short, almost nervous. “We all work to bring it together.”
Betty presses her advantage while she still has it. “I don’t believe you,” she says, and steps even closer. They’re barely half an inch apart, and she can see the rise and fall of his chest, his fingers flexing at his side. She has to tip her head back to look up at him, and she shivers at the heat radiating off him, like he’s running a fever. “The lyrics are too distinctive, the sentence structure too specific. There’s not a shot in hell it’s wholly collaborative. Maybe you critique one another, but only one of you is doing the brunt of the writing. Who is it?”
Jughead exhales, a ragged thing. “It’s me,” he says, and satisfaction sparks up in Betty’s chest, like a match has been struck across her rib. “I do a lot of it.”
“Interesting,” Betty says, and they finally step apart, Betty picking her plastic cup back up from where she’s set it down.
Jughead arches an eyebrow at her, sizing her up. “Well,” he says. “Pleasure doing business with you.” He holds out his hand to shake again, like it’s a dare.
Betty grabs his hand and shakes it firmly, doesn’t flinch at the prickle at her spine. “Likewise,” she says, just as easy, and then ducks out the room around him, keeps walking down the hallway and doesn’t turn around once. She tries not to imagine Jughead’s gaze on the back of her neck, watching her go.
Chapter 3: taper jean girl
Desire is no easy thing. Betty returns into the coiled, tense heat of the living room, people getting sloppier now, alcohol running quickly through the veins of the party. There are a mess of feathers floating through the air from a busted open pillow and she shudders when one lands on her shoulder, a barely there flicker. There’s a dark, molten heat in her stomach, kindled by Jughead’s burning eyes and bartered out truths. She spies Veronica in the corner and aims straight for her like a lifeline, her only anchor in this strange underworld full of trickster fairies and pomegranate seeds.
“B,” Veronica greets easily, exhaling a perfect smoke ring. It wobbles through the air for a moment before she stabs at it, like a petulant child. “How was the ice room?” She glances down at Betty’s cup, full of half melted ice.
“Fine,” Betty lies quickly, accepting the slosh of vodka and diet soda that Veronica tips into her cup. She takes a sip and fights the wince that puckers her mouth.
“Oh, I’m sure it was,” Veronica teases, glancing to where Jughead is making his way back into the room, flushed high in his cheeks and looking irritable, cigarette dangling from his elegant mouth. Betty swallows another sip of the vodka, letting it sink like an anchor to the bottom of her stomach. He’s so untouchable here in the middle of all these people, a proper rock star with girls lining up to lend him a lighter. She can hardly believe it was her just ten minutes ago, trying to outwit him in some small and dim ice room.
There’s a game of chicken going on in the middle of the party, drunken middle school sleepover style, Toni perched on Sweet Pea’s shoulders and Cheryl up on Archie’s, the two girls wrestling through their giggles, Archie and Sweet Pea jabbing one another in the ribs and still holding their beers in one hand. The cheering from the partygoers drowns out the previous sound of the music, sex and violence given to them all at once, delivered in a neat package.
Betty catches as Veronica looks at the scene in displeasure, mouth twisting as she watches Archie’s large hands wrap around Cheryl’s calves, keeping her in place as her and Toni exchange friendly blows, both of them laughing tipsily as they go. Toni gains the sudden advantage and knocks Cheryl back, the redhead sliding off of Archie’s back and onto the couch to raucous applause. She flips Toni off good-naturedly and the other girl blows her a kiss, sarcastic.
Sweet Pea gives Toni a piggyback ride as they do a victory lap of the room, swaggering and posturing around their mouthfuls of beer. Betty watches the spectacle and doesn’t realize that Veronica’s disappeared into all the commotion until Cheryl flops onto the seat next to her, only looking a little put out.
She’s still a shock to look at, so pale she seems to glow under the low light of the room. She plucks Betty’s cup out of her hands and takes a long swig of it, swallowing as easily as if it were water.
“You want to see something?” she asks, voice hushed and dramatic. Betty nods, rapt with attention. Cheryl ducks her head to the side, beckoning her to look at something.
“Act one,” Cheryl says, dark grin fixed in place. “In which she pretends she doesn’t care about him.”
Betty looks to where she’s staring and sees Veronica talking coyly to Reggie Mantle, rubbing a hand over his bicep to admire a tattoo. Reggie looks awed and vaguely dumbstruck, covered by a thin veneer of cockiness. Betty puts it together a second before Cheryl continues.
“Act two,” she continues, with the dramatic flair of a Shakespearean actor, “In which he pretends he doesn’t care about her .” Betty’s gaze flits over to Archie, talking with a couple girls but surreptitiously glancing at Veronica every moment or two, as if he cannot bear to look away. “But then goes straight for her.”
True to form, Archie breaks away from the conversation not a minute later, floats easily into Veronica’s orbit like it’s a gravitational pull leading him there. Betty wants to laugh at Cheryl playing at oracle, but finds herself too transfixed, watching as the two circle one another, like they are the only people in the world.
“And act three, in which it all plays out the way she planned it.” Cheryl tips her head back as she laughs, revealing her milky throat, her rusty hair pooling around bare shoulders.
“We have to stop them,” Betty says, concerned, remembering Veronica’s warnings and the old, dull hurt that lingered in her eyes when Archie offered her his hand to shake the other night. She knows Veronic can take care of herself and worries regardless, heeding her earlier warnings.
Cheryl laughs again, meaner this time, the high, vindictive cackle of a high school mean girl. “Stop them?” she asks, and takes another pull of vodka and diet coke. “You were her whole excuse for coming here.”
Betty feels the betrayal pool lowly in her stomach and she looks up, watching the tableau with a sharpened gaze.
“I need ice,” Veronica says to Archie, parroting Betty earlier, and then meets her gaze across the dim light of the room, winking at her, an inside joke. Betty tries to hold the resentment in her chest but it melts away despite her, dissolved by her fondness for Veronica. She’s as impossible to be angry with as a fictional heroine or mythical goddess, something like Cleopatra or Tinkerbell, lovely and clever, disappearing into smoke and mirrors. She doesn’t have to abide by the rules of everyday people, not when she’s made a myth of herself.
She slides out the door and Archie is tugged along after her, entranced despite himself. Betty’s eyebrows raise, and Cheryl adjusts her collar fondly, plucks a hair off of Betty’s blouse.
“I just worry about her,” she says, tone shifting suddenly, becoming more honest. “Veronica is one of those creatures that tends to bring the good out in everybody, n’est pas ? It makes her easy to be used. And what to do all the vultures ever do for her?” Cheryl shakes out her hair, lights a cigarette with a studied grace. “Life kills me, baby journalist. Do you have any pot?”
Betty shakes her head, mute, and Cheryl sighs again, red lips trailing smoke. One of the roadies for the band, Moose, she thinks his name is, appears in front of them, proffers a beer to Cheryl with his boyish grin. The redhead stretches indolently for a moment, like some sort of predatory cat, and then stands on her pale, coltish legs, teetering in her precarious heels,
“Forgive me father, for I may sin tonight,” she whispers to Betty with a wink, and then disappears under Moose’s arm, her grin merciless.
The party is starting to empty out now, people disappearing into a litany of bedrooms, only the hanger-ons left in place. Betty tugs out the notebook she nicked from the hotel lobby and starts to write down the surroundings, outlines the characters and the flow of the scene, the instruments that clutter the room like so many props. It’s an easy abstraction, one that allows her to pull herself out of the scene and into the shadows, as unnoticeable as the music that plays unattended to.
She tries not to wonder where Jughead has gone, whether he is in some dark alcove with a girl prettier than her, swapping secrets until the tension winds them into one another. Her stomach twists unpleasantly at the thought, her brain creating a gallery of scenes that could be playing out at the very moment, blue painted fingernails trailing along his bicep or someone else’s hands carding through his hair. I don’t care she tells herself sharply, snapping the lead of her pencil with the force of her handwriting. I don’t care. Her handwriting runs jagged, skewed across the page. She’s not here for him. She’s here for the story.
She’s left to her thoughts for only fifteen minutes before Veronica reemerges from the ice room, her coat slung over one shoulder like a spoil of war. She grins coquettishly at Betty, flushed high in her cheeks like she’s just run a mile. Archie doesn’t follow.
“I’m about ready to bounce,” she says lightly, slumping down on the seat next to Betty. “You?” Betty considers getting angry and decides against it, lets Veronica lean her head on her shoulder, glossy hair running silky under her fingers.
“Ready whenever you are,” she replies, agreeable, prim Betty Cooper, never angry, always understanding.
They disentangle themselves from the couch and Betty stretches long, legs stiff from so many minutes spent curled up tight and observing like an interloper on a private world. She yawns, eyes itchy from the smoke that hangs like a cloud through the room.
They start to weave through the lingering crowds, Veronica affecting exhaustion to excuse herself from the various afterparties she receives invitation to. Betty glimpses at Jughead, collapsed sideways in an armchair in one of the bedrooms and still wearing that omnipresent beanie. She realizes with a start that the cigarette dangling between his fingers is actually a pen, that he has a notebook propped open on his lap. His brow is furrowed, serious as he takes a moment to write something. There’s a soft and desperate part of her that wants him to be writing about her.
Her and Veronica are quiet as they walk to the car, caught up in their own thoughts. Betty’s mind spins as she tries to process the influx of information to her brain, another take on the twisted cast of characters she’s only read about in the pages of magazines. She wants to know all their secrets, wants to find the narrative thread and tug on it until it all makes sense.
Veronica unlocks the Vega and slips into the passenger seat, Betty following, and they sit in the thickening dark for several seconds, not speaking, just listening to the ebb and flow of the city around them, heads full. Betty realizes with a start it’s the first time she’s seen Veronica not performing, and it’s jarring, to see her without the gleam of stardom, no wink or sleight of hand. She lights a cigarette, finally, and Betty accepts when Veronica offers her a drag, more because it seems like the proper thing to do than any urge for nicotine.
Betty brings it to her mouth, inhales a deep lungful of smoke and promptly proceeds to choke on it, coughing violently. She expects Veronica to laugh, make a joke about rookies, but she doesn’t, just rubs Betty’s back until the worst of the coughing fades. Betty takes another drag and feels wildly dizzy, like she’s just gone on an amusement park ride, unsteady in the parked seat of the car.
“You’re fine, the worst will pass in the second,” Veronica coaches, nearly maternal.
She passes the cigarette back to Veronica with shaking fingers and she props it in the corner of her mouth, inhaling like a detective in a film noir as she starts the car, finally. My mother would kill me if she knew what I was doing Betty thinks with a terrorized, giddy thrill.
Veronica spins the dial up on the music, humming along with the music, I’ve been a miner for a heart of gold. She rolls down the windows, letting in the warm summer breeze, and the world feels suddenly full of promise. Betty drapes her arm out of the car and watches as her hand turns red and blue and purple under the neon lights of the signs.
I crossed the ocean for a heart of gold they sing along at once, a little out of key, and then dissolve into laughter, linked together by the music and its jittery magic.
Veronica flicks ash out the window and drives one-handed, sidles a sudden glance over to Betty.
“So,” she says, not bothering with pretense. “How was the ice room?”
Betty laughs at her uncharacteristic lack of tact, doesn’t quite know what to do with her hands. “Nothing like that,” she says, blushing, unsure how to characterize the interaction. “We just- talked.”
“Uh huh,” Veronica says, grinning widely. “I’ll bet.”
“What about you?” Betty asks, trying to level the playing field.
Veronica makes a sharp left turn, a chorus of honks floating up behind her. “Nothing like that,” she deadpans, glancing at Betty. Silence falls again.
“You know,” Veronica continues after a moment, “There’s something I always tell the girls.”
Betty has a knee jerk resistance to being characterized as one of the girls but she stays quiet, waits for the advice.
“I always tell them to never take it seriously. If you never take it seriously, you never get hurt. If you never get hurt, you always have fun.” There’s a pause. “And if you ever get lonely, just go to the record store and visit all your friends.”
Veronica cuts off, something hanging in the air. It’s a good soundbite, clever and a little scathing, but she can tell Veronica isn’t saying something.
“But?” Betty prompts.
Veronica lights a fresh cigarette off the end of the old one, tosses it out the window. “But,” she says, “you already take it seriously, don’t you?”
Betty laughs to hide her discomfort, jarred by the sudden and serious turn. She wonders if this is one of Veronica’s tests or games, but the other girl seems completely genuine, not looking for confirmation or denial.
“I wouldn’t be here if I wasn’t,” she replies finally, voice stilted. It would have been so much easier, to go into sports journalism or small town news like her parents, to accept the Cooper model and follow the path so meticulously groomed for her. But there was something about music, something about it’s unfiltered rage and constantly changing face that drew her in, made it so that there were no other options, not really. She couldn’t not take it seriously, not when music was the one steady thread of her life, through the messy wake of Polly deciding she no longer wanted to be a member of their family.
They pass the rest of the ride in silence, cityscape eventually giving away to the lush, manicured spread of the suburbs. Betty watches the streetlights pass and thinks about everything she would give up to be back at the Riot House, to stay in that same world that everyone else gets to occupy.
Riverdale is a jarring return, though she’s only been gone for a night. Betty wakes up to the smell of pancakes, her mother’s puttering down in the kitchen, like it is any other morning from her adolescence. The house is quieter now that Polly is gone- the smallest movements become magnified, echoing through the hollow space. It disquiets Betty, sends a prickle through her spine.
She sits up in bed and stretches her arms up above her head, winces at the smell of old smoke that hangs in her loose cloud of hair. She can feel the imprint of last night on her like a bruise, tender and dark, and she tries to hold every bit of memory in her brain, the sticky heat and magic promise of something new.
There’s a brisk, perfunctory knock on the door, and then her mother whisks in, carrying a tray laden down with breakfast foods.
“Morning, sweetheart,” she chirps, studying Betty closely, searching for some sort of evidence of misdeed. Betty tugs her frothy comforter up to her chin, trying to look as neutral and innocent as possible.
“Morning, mom,” she says, gaze sweeping over the tray, stacked with pancakes and bacon and freshly squeezed orange juice, a lavish spread even for her Stepford mother. “What’s all this?”
“Well, I wouldn’t want you and Kevin to go hungry, sweetheart,” her mother says, a threat in her voice, and then Kevin slides in the door behind her, sheepish grin on his face.
“Right, of course!” Betty replies, cursing herself for forgetting she promised Kevin a breakfast date as repayment for being her cover. “I forgot to set my alarm!”
“Can’t blame you,” Kevin says, sinking down onto the bed next to her and folding himself cross-legged. “We watched The Exorcist,” he tells Alice, who clucks disapprovingly. “I was hardly able to sleep.”
“Well, I think that film is completely inappropriate,” Alice begins, but spares the lecture when Betty gives her sideways, pleading look. “Regardless, have fun you two. Elizabeth, I expect you to help with the gardening at three o’clock, sharp.”
“I’ll be there,” she promises her mother, taking a slice of bacon from the tray. “Thanks again for breakfast!”
The door closes shut and the two of them wait with baited breath for the sharp clip of Alice’s heels to disappear down the hall.
Kevin takes a pancake and tips the saucer of syrup over it, easing into the familiar routine of Sunday breakfasts. “So, spill,” he begins, crunching on a bite of bacon, dipped in syrup. “What happened last night?”
Betty smiles wide, eager to spill the fantastical details of the night before. Kevin has always been fun to tell a story to, reacting with all the appropriate gasps and snarky comments.
“Okay, so,” she begins, “Veronica- you know, the girl I told you about, the super cool one, she picked me up in her car to go-”
The phone suddenly rings, shrill and insistent, and they both wince.
“Elizabeth! Phone!” Alice calls from downstairs, as if they cannot hear it themselves.
Betty knocks over the saucer of maple syrup in her haste to answer it and swears quietly as it oozes onto her bedspread.
“Damn it, Kev, can you get that?” she asks, distracted, frantically dabbing at what is sure to become a stain, and he nods, picks her pink princess phone up off the hook.
“Hello, Cooper residence,” he intones, holding it away from his face so that Betty can hear.
“Hi there,” a male voice says with a studied sort of nonchalance, blurry with distance. “My name is Ben Fong-Torres, I’m calling from Rolling Stone magazine.” Betty’s heartbeat immediately kicks into overdrive, a shot of adrenaline pulsing straight down through her. “I was looking to speak with B. Cooper, is he available?”
Kevin looks flabbergasted, moves to hand the phone over to her, but Betty waves him off in a panic. “Pretend to be me!” she hisses to him, pressing the phone back to his ear.
“Ah, yes, this is he,” Kevin says, changing his voice to be deeper. Betty sits up on her knees, listening intently, syrup stain forgotten.
“Crazy,” the man says. “Listen, I’m the Music Editor at Rolling Stone magazine. We’ve got a copy of your stories from the Riverdale Register and Creem Magazine. This is the same B. Cooper?
Holy shit Kevin mouths at her, eyes wide, and Betty waves her hand again, urging him to answer. “Yeah, it’s, um, Bartholomew,” he answers, and Betty rolls her eyes, amused despite herself.
The man shuffles papers on the other end of the line, like he’s searching for something. “ Voice of god, howling dogs, the spirit of rock and roll...this is good stuff.”
Betty feels herself flush with equal parts embarrassment and pride, the feeling curling down through her toes. Someone from Rolling Stone read her writing, thought it was good enough to bother calling up.
“Thanks, thanks,” Kevin says brusquely, flashing a grin at her as he gets more into the persona. “What can I do for you?”
“You should be writing for us,” he says, and Betty’s heart plummets into her stomach so quick she can barely process it. “Any ideas?”
Her mind fuzzes white for a split second, and then Kevin flaps a hand at her urgently, prompting an answer.
“Serpents!” she tells him before she can think too much about it. “The Serpents!”
“How about The Serpents?” Kevin asks, voice goofily deep. What the fuck? he mouths, and Betty giggles a little bit, grabs his shoulders to listen closer. “You’re doing great,” she whispers to him, and he shakes his head at her, urging her to be quiet.
“The Serpents,” the man drawls, like he’s mulling it over. “Hard working band makes it big. Get ‘em to respond to the critics who have called the lyricism pretentious. Guitarist is the clear star of the band. Crazy. Let’s do three thousand words. You’ll catch up to them on the road. We’ll set up billing- don’t let the band pay for anything.”
Betty wants to dance for joy, wants to throw open all the windows, wants to scream with the unrestrained glee that pulses through her, better than any drug. Rolling Stone wants her to write for them. Wants her, her brain, her words, her opinion. The validation coils tightly through her chest, makes it hard for her to breathe.
“Sounds great,” Kevin says when she doesn’t feed him a response. His smile splits his face when he grins at her, like they are children again.
Ben continues like Kevin hasn’t spoken. “We can only pay- let’s see. Seven hundred dollars.”
There’s a stunned beat of silence as Betty and Kevin stare at one another, wide-eyed.
“Okay, a grand,” he acquiesces, “What’s your background, anyways? Journalism major?”
“Yes,” Kevin says emphatically. “Yeah.” The phone clicks suddenly, someone picking up on the other line.
“Honey, I need you to put the laundry in the dryer before you come down to garden,” Alice says, a familiar, maternal nagging, and Betty is momentarily paralyzed by fear.
“Well, I know how my lady gets when I don’t snap to it,” the man chuckles, and they exhale tandem sighs of relief.
“Crazy,” Kevin says, almost to himself.
“Crazy!” the man repeats. “I’ll let you go, then. Call me at the San Francisco office tomorrow, and we’ll iron out the details.”
Kevin hangs the phone back on its hook slowly, while Betty presses her face to her hands, shock running through her fingers. “Holy shit,” she says into the lattice of her fingers. Kevin grabs her by the shoulders, shakes her once, confusion and excitement all over his face.
“Betty,” he says. “What the hell did you just sign up for?”
She stands up on the bed, tugging Kevin up after her, still wearing her pajamas printed with tiny clouds. “I’m writing for Rolling Stone magazine!” she exhales, giddy and not quite believing it, and then they jump up around on the bed, narrowly avoiding the trays of breakfast foods, laughing wildly until Alice yells from downstairs to tell them to quiet down.
“Oh, god,” Betty says suddenly, remembering, stopping their spinning.
“What?” Kevin asks.
“Now I have to convince my mother,” Betty replies, suddenly struck by the immensity of the task.
Her and Kevin look at one another for a beat, and then burst into laughter again.
Four days later, and Betty is packing the last of her bags, a simple leather duffel that Alice lent to her with strict instructions to care for it like one would a small child. There’s a record spinning on her dresser, and Betty hums along with it as she folds shirts, now you keep on betting that the dice won’t pass. Nothing in her closet seems fitting for life on the road, however transient, so she packs all of it, shirts with high necklines and dresses more fitting for Sunday service than a rock and roll concert.
“Remember, I want phone calls twice a day, morning and evening,” her mother says behind her, and Betty twists, watches as her mother carries in a surgeon’s bevy of various medicines, meticulously labeled in their plastic sandwich bags. “And you promise me you’re not missing any tests?”
Betty laughs a little, accepts her mother’s concern. “I promise, mom,” she says. “You have all of the addresses, and I’ll only be gone for four days. I’ll be back before you know it.”
Alice frets, unconvinced, and Betty pulls her mother into a hug, lets herself be squeezed in a way that is only a little stifling.
“And no drugs, ” Alice says into her hair, and Betty laughs, squirms out of the embrace.
“I know,” she says, and leans back over to zip her suitcase shut, heavy with everything she is carrying of home. Pack light Veronica had advised when they last talked on the phone. It seems like too much stuff and still not enough, not a suitable anchor for the ocean she’s about to plunge into with no life vest, no swimming lessons.
“And,” Alice says, slowly like it pains her. “Have fun. Do good work. Tell the story as it needs to be told.”
Betty slings the suitcase over her shoulder, lets the nerves and excitement build in her stomach until the feeling is almost nauseating.
“I will,” Betty promises, and jogs downstairs, into the warm night air. There’s a tour bus already parked outside, ridiculous and shabby in their manicured neighborhood, The Serpents- ‘73 is spelled out across the front, and Betty feels her heart nosedive into her stomach as she takes it all in. Veronica leans half out the foggy window, waving with one hand and carefully holding her cigarette with the other.“The enemy!” she calls to a round of cheering, and Betty let’s the siren’s call of the open road guide her up the rickety metal steps, into the Great Perhaps.
What am I getting myself into she thinks only once, and then surrenders to the mystery.