Connor and Zoe had been talking about the things going on in their heads, which was extremely rare. It was only because Connor had been told to talk to someone about the things he regretted doing, so he immediately went to his sister to apologise. However, it got awkward so they went a little off-topic and began talking about someone else instead. Someone who had helped the both of them realise that they’re not alone and they can move on, even if that’s really hard and painful to do.
Jared and Alana had only been half listening, the latter trying to make Jared at least seem interested in doing some form of work. She was failing miserably, telling Jared that he would be likely to fall behind and to that he rolled his eyes, but the two fell silent at the mention of Evan’s name.
Now, between the four of them it was common knowledge that Evan had just as many problems as the rest of them, maybe more than they realised. The only thing that bothered Jared was that Evan hadn’t been in school for a few days and he was beginning to get mildly concerned.
Keeping himself turned away, he motioned for Alana to follow suit and pretend they were working and not eavesdropping on a possibly private conversation. Only a few words managed to register in Jared’s head, but the tone of voice they used said everything that their words didn’t. Then, partial conversations with Evan came to the forefront of his memories, his mind’s eye going over the small details he had initially missed when they really were talking. Evan being quieter than usual, seeming to be more tired and generally having worse anxiety. Jared saw that Evan had been flinching more recently, reacting to miniscule things that before he hadn’t noticed.
One more word caught his attention and his head slowly turned to face the Murphys. They were deep in conversation now, a few of the old traits showing through that brought to light their annoyance with each other, but they were making it work, focused on that one specific topic. Jared just stared, not quite sure whether he should interrupt them or not. If he did, he knew he wouldn’t say what he was thinking, glossing over it with a joke or a sarcastic comment.
Alana was sat opposite Jared and wondered why he was so interested. She had been listening in anyway, but she couldn’t hear the same triggers that Jared could because she hadn’t known Evan as long and they were really just close acquaintances so she didn’t talk to him as much because friends do that and she wasn’t really his friend –
But then, she watched as the colour drained from Jared’s face, the boy obviously realising something that scared him. Jared was never scared, as far as Alana knew. She hadn’t seen much in terms of real emotion on his face, what with him usually hiding how he felt by snide comments and mean words, but seeing how he reacted made her, in turn, feel concerned. Jared was even more of an acquaintance than Evan so she didn’t understand what was going on. Alana was, once again, out of the loop.
Jared had never felt his heart drop so fast. It left his chest feeling numb, tight and hollow, and made his fingers tingle, pulsing once, twice, three times before dulling to a weighted pressure in his hands. The next few moments were slow, seconds passing by with agonising dread as the importance of his realisation hit him in full force.
Evan hadn’t fallen out of a tree, and he most certainly hadn’t been doing what Jared joked he’d done.
Oh no……no, no, not THAT! Jared’s breathing quickened as his brain searched for where Evan could be. Even though he hadn’t been coming in to school, he had at least been answering Jared when he texted, with some half-baked excuse that he was sick, but when Jared probed further, he’d shut the conversation down by changing the topic, insisting that “oh it’s not that bad, mom just wants me to stay home.”
The worrying thing was that today, Jared didn’t get a reply. Ok, fine, Evan might have become a
lot little annoyed at the constant “Skipping again?” message he would send every morning, but the guy at least had the polite decency to respond with either a “Yes, sorry” or a “Maybe, I don’t know.” Today though, there was nothing. Evan hadn’t even seen the text.
That wasn’t right. Evan always, always looked at any notification he had, a nervous habit so that he didn’t miss out on anything important in his not-too-eventful life. Knowing this, Jared started to panic a little. He didn’t notice that Zoe, Connor and Alana were watching him with varying degrees of concern and he didn’t realise until he was past the road that he had even started to run. Somehow, without even thinking about it, he knew where Evan would be.
There was a forest that the two had visited when they were younger nearby, about a five minute drive from the school, which translated to a twenty minute walk. It was cool, with tall, tightly packed trees that blocked out most of the light even on a bright and clear day. Jared ran on muscle memory, treading the same path they had walked along countless times before, when Jared was nicer and Evan was calmer and life wasn’t such a confusing, messed up thing. There was one tree that Jared knew Evan always liked the best. The tallest one, right at the back in the thickest cluster of the whole forest, stretching for miles. Evan had said that it made him feel safe, which Jared hadn’t understood until now.
He nearly slammed into the tree he was looking for, stumbling over a tree root and stopping short. He looked up, blood roaring in his ears as he shouted up at the tree.
Jared waited for a while, fearful eyes watching the branches. His vision was patchy as he stood with one hand flat against the trunk and when something small and solid hit his head, it jolted him out of the slight daze he was in. Whirling around, he noticed an acorn on the floor and his brain tried and failed to come up with a solution as to why it had hit him. Somewhere in the distance, he faintly heard Alana behind him and he realised that he was panting. Hard. Somehow, he’d run so fast that Alana Beck was struggling to keep up. Jared wasn’t the most athletic person in the school, so that fact really didn’t make sense and as he called for Evan again (wishing that the falling acorn wasn’t just a squirrel or that he’d got the wrong tree in this forest or that Evan wasn’t already – ) he found that he could taste the metallic tang of blood at the back of his throat, which felt scratchy at best, and it was slightly painful to gulp the large amounts of air that his body demanded he needed.
Just when he was about to lose all hope, the leaves rustled above him. Jared’s head shot up, waiting and watching. A couple moments of silence hung in the air, suspended on a thin wire that could be snapped by the smallest of sounds, until he saw movement coming slowly towards him. He watched with bated breath as Evan emerged from the tree, sitting on the lowest branch right by the base of it so that he didn’t fall.
Fall…no, he wouldn’t fall…
The two boys observed each other for a moment, until Jared broke whatever barrier was between them.
“What….the actual fuck, Evan?”
“W-What do you mean?” Evan’s eyes were wide with fear, but similar to how Jared’s usually were, they were guarded. Jared’s eyebrows rose slightly.
“What do I mean? You’re in a tree!”
“I like trees…” he mumbled, looking away and running his fingers over the rough surface of the bark. Jared couldn’t believe what he was hearing.
“I know how you broke your arm Evan…You didn’t fall out of a tree.”
The shock on the other boy’s face was only there momentarily before he hid it behind some emotion that Jared couldn’t be bothered to figure out.
“I d-did though. I, uh, I told you I fell while w-working and um, no one came to get me so I just, like, waited thinking ‘someone will find me’ or something…” Evan trailed off as Jared stared at him, silently telling him to stop spinning whatever tale it was that he was using as a cover.
He swallowed, finally able to breathe somewhat as he stood at the bottom of the tree.
“Can I…sit with you?”
A quiet nod was all he got in response and Jared cracked a tiny smile, climbing up to join Evan in the tree. Even though it was the lowest branch, the two could see quite a way out and Evan somehow managed to push himself even closer to the tree trunk so that Jared could sit on a sturdy part of the branch and not have it break under him. That wouldn’t be healthy, for either of them. It looked as though Evan was uncomfortable with him and if he thought about it, Jared would be able to see why. However, he didn’t think about it and just watched Evan, making the other boy shift nervously and focus on the tree even more, fiddling with the hem of his shirt.
They sat in silence for a while, Alana's voice just barely reaching them as she slowly made her way through unknown territory to try and find where Jared had run off to. They knew it would take her a while and that she could just give up, so they didn’t move.
“W-Why, um…why are you h-here?”
Evan was looking at Jared now, eyes showing a storm of conflicting emotions and thoughts from over his shoulder. Jared continued to stare out over the trees for a moment, adjusting his glasses before he spoke. He couldn’t bring himself to look at Evan, so he refused to turn his head.
“I wanted to know where you were.” That's a shit answer Jared, come on, he'll see through that, he’s not a fucking idiot-
What!? Jared was stunned. He glanced at Evan in disbelief, noting how he was looking back down at the forest floor. Taking a deep breath, Jared clenched his hands into fists and turned his head to properly face Evan.
“I was…..I was worried, ok? You, y'know, hadn’t come into school and you usually see my texts but you didn’t so I just kinda….panicked.” He had to force the words from his mouth, make his brain co-operate for once as he watched the boy beside him. Evan looked confused but almost relieved and he actually shuffled a little closer to Jared, who was staring off to the left of the other's head.
Jared’s eyes snapped to Evan’s and he swallowed thickly, nodding with a hum of affirmation.
Jared turned away, sighing in frustration. He wanted all of it, didn’t he? However, Jared knew himself well and he knew he couldn’t tell Evan. It just wasn’t possible. Their friendship (if it could even be called that) was a tentative one and had only recently been restarted. Yes, he hadn’t fully forgiven Evan and he was still hurt by what happened, but he wanted his friend back. His one and only friend. He had told people that he had a lot of friends and he always made sure that he was always seen with a group. But for Jared, that was all a lie. The people he hung around with didn’t really like him; they thought he was annoying and a bit odd but a couple of his jokes made them do that thing where when you find something slightly funny you’ll blow air through your nose. Yeah, that was the only reason they tolerated him. They mostly just ignored him, so when Evan practically disowned him as a friend, it hurt him more than he wanted to admit.
“Is it b-because I….you know…” Evan went quiet but the answer was clear by the way Jared reacted. He squeezed his eyes shut for a short while, elbows resting on his knees and hands covering his eyes, glasses lifting up slightly. Evan let out a soft breath, mumbling an apology and opting to sit on his hands so that he didn’t pull all the stitching from his shirt. The two boys sat in a tense, awkward silence, listening to the wind through the trees before Jared sat up and sighed, almost holding out his hand to Evan. He only didn’t do that because Evan was sitting on his hands and looked a little preoccupied.
Evan nodded, but his eyes told a different story. His feet were locked together, swinging below him as he chewed on his lip. Jared shifted a fraction closer, noticing tears in Evan's eyes and a slightly faster breathing pace than usual. Oh no, he thought, leaning away slightly as he saw Evan’s eyes follow an invisible path in his mind.
Jared had seen Evan have panic attacks before, but there were adults around the first time (where he had been told to go away because ‘Evan can’t play right now’) and the other couple of times, Jared had watched Evan leave whatever room he was in, disappearing for at least half an hour and sometimes not coming back for part of the day.
Despite this, he wasn’t exactly skilled in knowing what to do as he continued watching Evan’s breathing quicken.
The boy in question flinched slightly, his eyes moving towards Jared’s general direction. What he could see didn’t make him feel any better. Evan was clearly freaking out over something, but Jared was apprehensive, unsure as to whether he should try and ask what the problem was or just wait until he worked it out by himself.
Jared gripped the tree branch firmly, the tips of his fingers going white at the force of it. Steeling himself, he focused on Evan again, trying not to let his own panic override the things he knew would help. Or at least, what he hoped would help.
“Evan? Can you, uh…breathe slower?”
He really had no idea what he was doing, but he kept his gaze on Evan and waited until there was a small, shaky nod. Jared shifted closer, fingertips brushing gently, making them both pull back as he found a hazy memory of a breathing technique he had overheard Evan’s mom use. He repeated it to him, doing it as well to not only give Evan something to focus on, but also to calm himself down.
It took a while, both of them as tense as each other, but eventually Evan managed to even out his breathing, shooting a gentle smile to Jared and pulling his hands out from under his legs with imprints of the bark on the backs of his hands. They looked a little red, but Evan just rubbed over them with his thumbs, murmuring something about how they’d “go away soon.”
They sat for a few minutes, closer than before but still not talking, until Jared suggested they get down from the tree because it was later than he realised and they probably should head home. He made Evan climb down first and once he was sure that he was firmly on the ground, he followed, jumping the last few inches and checking that his glasses were still on his face. It wouldn’t be ideal if he were to break them, although he wouldn’t tell his mom that it was from jumping down from a tree. That would definitely not paint a good picture.
“Hm?” He turned his head to Evan, barriers slowly coming back up and settling into place. The other boy swallowed, wiping his hands on his trousers nervously.
“Th-Thank you…y’know, for uh…finding me.”
Jared nodded his head, acknowledging Evan as they started walking down that invisible path they knew would take them out of the forest. It was peaceful for a long time as they stayed silent in each other’s company, simply listening to the sounds around them. Jared kept his hands in his pockets and Evan kept changing the position of his arms, going back and forth between folding them across his middle and lifting his hands to his chest.
“Can you try and keep your arms still? It’s annoying.” Jared didn’t mean to sound so harsh, but it was a little distracting. What it was distracting him from, he didn’t know, but he sighed softly when he heard Evan’s whispered apology.
“You don’t need to apologise all the time either.”
There was a pause and Jared swore that he couldn’t hear Evan breathing. He stopped for a moment, pinching the bridge of his nose in exasperation.
“You were gonna apologise again, weren’t you?”
“No, well- yes, yes I was I- yeah…”
He sighed again, but shook his head in an amused fashion, walking away from Evan. It took a couple of seconds for Evan to realise that he was being left behind and so he sped up his walking pace, soon falling back into step with him.
The notification sound of a text that came from Jared’s pocket surprised them both. Evan, because he jumped at almost everything, and Jared because he didn’t know of anyone else that would text him other than either Evan or his parents. Bemused, he pulled his phone from his pocket and looked at the text. It was just a number, so he was going to ignore it. That is, until Evan pointed out who it was from, making Jared retort with a “don’t look at my phone.” Evan nodded in understanding and stepped back, looking away.
Jared didn’t want to upset Evan further, but he did look back down at the screen and double check.
3:15 – Where are you? You ran off ages ago and no one’s seen you since. Is it Evan? Is he ok? Why are you so worried?
This is Alana by the way, I got your number from the school office. Strange, I know, but I’m concerned. I shouldn’t be because we’re not exactly friends, but Evan is my friend (kind of) and I want to know. So if it is him you’ve run off for, what’s the problem? Connor and Zoe want to know too, but Connor’s pretending he doesn’t care. Zoe cares. She really does!
Tell me where you guys are, I’ll come find you. I think I saw you go into that forest nearby, but it’s really big and I didn’t want to get lost. I’ll be on a bench at the park.
Jared blanked for a moment, the gears in his head slowly turning and processing the situation. It was…Alana? Why would she be concerned about him? Evan he could understand and clearly she was worried about him too, but Jared didn’t think that her distress for him was necessary. They barely talked, except when it was about school work and even then he usually didn’t bother to answer or listen to most of what she was saying.
Shutting off his phone screen, the two made it to the edge of the forest. Evan looked around, almost like he was seeing the place for the first time.
“I-I remember this…” His voice was soft, nostalgia in every syllable. It was clear to Jared that Evan was remembering better times and his mouth turned up in a half-smile, nodding his head to say that he too remembered how the view looked from there.
“What did Alana want? I-If you want to tell me, I mean, she did text you n-not me…”
Jared shrugged, saying that she wanted to meet them at the park. Evan didn’t need to know everything and he wasn’t exactly lying. She did want to see them, just not in a ‘friendly meet-up out of the blue’ kind of way. Evan looked a little surprised, but he went along with it, following Jared once again.
As they crested the hill that led down to where Alana was waiting, the boys spotting her on a bench, Jared realised that he was happy. It didn’t take a lot of thinking for him to realise that it was because Evan was with him. Alive and talking.
Well, he wasn’t exactly striking up a conversation, but he had said that he was thankful that Jared had raced out of school to find him. Jared let himself be happy for a moment, before he realised that he had missed the last part of the school day. His parents had most likely been contacted and he inwardly groaned at the argument he knew was going to happen when he got home.
He blew out a long breath, tilting his face skywards. That’s going to be fun…