In their eyes, I am no longer human. The girl I was before, the girl I can't remember for the life of me, is gone. But as the seconds tick by, oblivion inevitable, I go over what I know. But even that is dwindling. I can almost sense myself seeping away, leaving nothing in my wake. All I know is her name; Betty. Her last name is lost. She is twenty years old, a Gemini. She had a dog called Layla, a sister called Polly. Betty had brown hair, green eyes, and pale skin. That's who I am. At least, that's who I used to be. Now I am nameless. I am now nothing but a slab of meat ready to be processed. They don't want me to be Betty. They want me to be Elizabeth. And I have no choice in the matter. If I did, I wouldn't be here- stuck.
Stuck to a cold metal table, waiting for them to determine who I will become.
Blinking up at two bright lights shining in my eyes, I struggle to hold back tears. Because I'll be punished if I cry. Tears are flaws. Tears are a form of weakness, they said. If I cry I am Betty. Not Elizabeth. So with a heavy heart and a twisting gut, I keep my tears to myself. The steel surface I've been forced onto is cold. I feel it writhing down my naked back, ribbons of ice sliding into my bones, solidifying my blood. I'm so cold. But I can't move. My arms are trapped by my sides, bound to the table with rings of metal, which restricts my torso and ankles. If I could, I would. I would lunge up in a matter of seconds and wriggle off the slaughter table and run for my life. I would run so fast, so far, they would never find me. And when I find what I'm looking for, what they took away from me, stripped from my memory so I am nothing but a blank slate. I would hold onto that something for as long as I could. And I wouldn't let go. Because all I know is that I am Betty, I am a Gemini, I had a dog called Layla, and a sister called Polly.
That's what I hold onto. Because everything else has been taken away. I murmur the words like a mantra, barely moving my lips, so they won't catch me. Betty. Gemini. Layla. Polly. But even what I'm trying to hang onto is dispersing. There's a tumour in my mind, eating away everything in its path, leaving no memory mercy. After several disorienting seconds I struggle to remember- what was it? My dog's name- my sister's name! What are they? Struggling through my foggy thoughts, I battle to keep hold of them and my breath catches in my throat, my chest aches when I am unsuccessful. Betty. My name is all I have left, and I grasp onto the name with all I have. My name is Betty.
Sucking in a deep breath, I blink away colourful prisms pulsing behind my eyelids from the intense golden light bathing my face. But there's no warmth, no relief from the cold. There are two figures looming over me, shadows dancing in the back of my mind. They're dressed head to toe in light blue hospital scrubs and masks, and all I can glimpse are steely grey eyes and thick eyebrows when one of them leans over me, studying me. The other is holding a clipboard, lightly tapping a ballpoint pen against it. "Get rid of this," Eyebrows gruffs. He has a heavy British accent which makes me cringe, the hairs on the back of my neck standing up. I try not to flinch when he grips hold of my ponytail, strands of chocolate bleeding through his pulsing knuckles.
Eyebrows rags my hair and I bite back a squeak. If I make a noise, I'll be punished. So I keep my mouth shut, despite the stinging pain in my scalp. "I want this turned blonde. Sun kissed," he says, before his gaze travels down my body. I try not to squirm.
"Pen," Eyebrows demands, and Mask nods, producing a red marker. Eyebrows snatches it off him and marks something on my forehead, then my nose and lips. The nib on my skin tickles and I hold back a hysterical burst of laughter. "Her nose is far too pointy," Eyebrows murmurs, before moving the pen to my lips. "And her lips are too thin. Fillers, please. I want work doing here, here, and here." He emphasises his decision with the pen, and I struggle to follow what he means. His pen traces my face like a toddler with a crayon, marking every inch of my face. "Take notes. Look. Here." Another stab.
"Her ears. Too big. I want them smaller. The freckles need to go too. They're far too noticeable." His grip on the pen tightens and the nib sinks deeper into my skin. I wonder if my freckles were ever significant to me. Did I like them? Hate them? I'll never know. "Also, her skin. Make it a lot darker. She is far too pale. God, she looks like she'll burn if she goes out in the sunlight. I want wonderful olive skin, perfectly tanned."
Eyebrows curls his lip, narrowed eyes zeroing on something I can't make out. "Get rid of that," he growls, stabbing the pen into my chin. "Her skin must be perfect, do you hear me? I don't want any moles, spots, or birthmarks. Get rid of it all."
"Uh-huh." Mask nods along with the man's words, scribbling on his clipboard.
"Open your mouth," Eyebrows orders, and I oblige before he gets impatient. Eyebrows hums, pulling out a steel rod and sticking it in my mouth. It clinks against my teeth, and I try not to wince, try not to show that I'm in pain. "Her teeth seem fine. Though we might need a little whitening. Oh, and straighten her two top incisors, they're looking a tad wonky." When he removes the steel rod, I close my mouth and he smiles down at me.
"You need a lot of work done, don't you, sweetheart?"
I don't answer. If I do, I'll scream at him. And if I was free, I'd wrap my hands around his throat and squeeze until the breath was choked from his lungs. I would never give him mercy, never give him a chance to explain himself, to sputter senseless apologies.
I would kill him without a second thought.
He moves onto my eyes next, pulling a face. "Ahh, the green doesn't seem like it would catch attention and turn heads. Especially on press days. They're incredibly dull," His forehead creases. "Fuck it, make them blue. The bluest you can without making them unnatural. I want them to shine. You hear me? Everyone loves a girl with blonde hair and blue eyes. I want her to look innocent, sweet, and naive. Her colour will be white."
I want, I want, I want. His voice grates on me. He is the one deciding what is done to me, and I have no say in it. My freedom of speech has been taken away, my human rights. I might as well be an animal ready to be slaughtered. Next he observes my breasts and stomach. I hate the way he looks at me, steel eyes widening, lips puckering like I truly am nothing but a piece of meat.
"She has a good curvy figure, but I want breast implants. You can never be too careful. Oh, a tummy tuck. Make sure to note that down." Eyebrows pinches my stomach and I bite my lip against a scream. He chuckles. "I wouldn't say she's fat, but just in case she slips on her diet, I want her figure absolutely perfect." Eyebrows glances at Mask, his eyes narrowed into slits. "Do you understand me?"
"Yes." Mask says, scrawling something down. The sound of the pen scraping against paper makes my stomach turn. Eyebrows nods with a smile. "As for her voice, you know what to do. Just like with the others. I want it smooth and sweet, like silk. Not too high, and god, last time you fucked up with Stella. She sounded like she was on fucking helium."
More intense writing from Mask. "Of course, sir."
Finally, Eyebrows beams. "I think we're done here."
The lights get brighter, and I try not to squeeze my eyes shut against the cruel glare. Eyebrows cocks his head. "Is she empty?" he asks Mask. I shiver at his words. Empty. Like all it took was tipping me upside down and shaking me, so everything I am, or was, drains out of me. "We need her ASAP, Tom. So if you could hurry up the whole process, that would be grand. US weekly is on my ass about this new cast member, and I need her in the limelight as soon as possible. Evie Knight needs to be seen."
Mask nods, though he doesn't look convinced. "It's a slow process, sir," he says. "I think she's still clinging on." His blue eyes almost look sympathetic, though maybe I'm imagining things. I stare up at him blankly. I try and remember my name. Though there's just a cavern of blank nothing in my mind. I try and remember my family and friends, who I was- who I wanted to be. Did I have any aspirations and prospects?
Did I deeply love or hate anyone? I rake my waning mind, but there's nothing. Instead there is a name slowly coming into fruition, no matter how hard I push her down.
"She's still fighting," Mask says. "I believe the girl is still lingering. The Neurological Barrier should take effect in a few minutes, it's just taking a while."
Eyebrows folds his arms. "That's a pity," he mutters, before turning and walking away. His footsteps get further and further away, before I hear the sound of a door opening. I don't dare turn my head. "Like I said, Tom. I need her at the earliest by tomorrow. Get it done." The door slams shut and my chest clenches. I'm left alone with his colleague.
Mask, or Tom, nods to himself, and I close my eyes. This time I allow myself to cry, and it feels good, tears dribbling down my cheeks, salting my lips.
"No." The doctor clears his throat and wipes them away with a gloved finger. His touch sends electric shocks down my spine. "Don't do that, Elizabeth."
Elizabeth, I think dizzily. Is that my name? No. The thought comes like a wave, crashing over me. No, it's not my name. Something sharp is inserted into my arm, a prick I barely feel. My head swims, and I try and cry out. But I don't know who I'm crying out for.
There's just blank- nothing.
I don't want to lose myself.
I don't want to be Elizabeth.
I don't want to lose...him.
The doctor gets to work, flitting around me like an out of control pinball machine, and all I can do is watch him with flickering eyelids as he runs his hands down my body, a slow smile spreading across his lips. I can hear my heartbeat in my ears, a frenzied pulse I can't ignore. All at once it's like something has hold of me, phantom hands grasping onto my ankles and yanking me into darkness. I try and fight it, try and keep my heavy eyes open. But all I see is the doctor, his sickening grin as he takes out his pen and marks an X on my stomach. A soft whimper seeps from my lips and I stiffen against the restraints, trying to struggle. The doctor only chuckles, steel eyes glittering.
"Elizabeth Cooper." He strokes my hair, his fingers trailing over my forehead, my cheeks, then my lips. His filthy touch makes my blood boil. I open my mouth to scream, but no sound comes out. Instead my scream is inside my head, and it deafens me, crashing against my skull. The girl who they took away is throwing herself against the barrier.
"Don't be scared," he says. My eyes must show fear. I try and hide it, but he's already seen it, already pounced on my vulnerability. His satisfied smile makes my stomach turn.
"Isn't this what you've dreamed? To be a star?"
Not like this, I think feverishly. I don't have memories to look back on. But I couldn't have wanted this. A life of being a doll. A thoughtless, mindless, picture perfect doll.
I feel the doctor's fingers gently closing my eyes for me, and I'm left to stare into the backs of my eyelids, waiting to fall. He sighs. His tone drips pride, and I want to scream. I want to cry. I want to choke him until his eyes have rolled back into his head, until that plastic grin has been carved from his lips. "You will be magnificent."
"No." With growing confidence, I manage to push a cry through numbing lips.
The doctor ignores me.
"A truly perfect role model." He chuckles. "All little girls dream to be princesses, to have their face on the cover of every magazine. To be talked about and loved. They dream to have a fan base and people screaming their name at the tops of their lungs."
I take a breath, my chest tightening. Suddenly it's so hard to breathe, and I struggle to suck in a breath.
Breathe in. Count to ten.
"Isn't that what you want?"
No. My lips curve around the word, and his answering laugh twists my gut.
"It's far too late to back out, sweetheart."
With his words echoing in my skull, and my own scream reverberating, a relentless cry begging to be heard, trying to force its way through my unresponsive lips, I topple backwards in my own mind. I'm teetering on the edge of a cliff with hungry, tumultuous waves crashing below me, waiting to swallow me up. But there's no anchor to grab onto. My thoughts are being whipped away, it's getting progressively harder to think clearly.
There's a second prick, this time in my wrist. The waves are suddenly towering over, crashing down on me, suffocating me, pulling me down, down, down.
And I have nothing to hold onto.
Nobody to cry out to.
So I fall.
"It's been a year since Jac Hunter's death. The twenty-one year old, who was well known for his role as Noah Price in popular teen drama "Shadow Falls", reportedly took his own life. He was found in his Los Angeles apartment on Thursday, 24 April 2018 by a family friend. His family reported that the young heart-throb had a history of mental illness, and had been battling depression-"
The news report caught Jughead Jones's attention automatically, dragging him from reverie, where he's been listening to the monotonous dull thud of base from a car in the lane next to him. The radio crackled, a low buzz of noise writhing in his ears when the news reporter's voice collapsed into a senseless screeching, ringing in his head. Keeping one hand on the steering wheel, he reached forward, toying with the dial on his old beaten up stereo. It wasn't surprising that the damn thing barely worked, what with it being an old truck. He twined the dial and the radio flared back to life, the woman's voice seeping back to fruition for a moment, before falling away into hissing static. "-co-star Elizabeth Cooper lead the online campaign to bring the show back, with-"
"God dammit," he grumbled, beating the thing with his fist. But it continued hissing at him, worsening his already sour mood.
Sitting up a little straighter in his seat, Jughead let out a heavy breath. Outside, late morning traffic wound it's way down the road like a great angry snake, tires hissing over steaming concrete. It was far too hot, and Jughead was starting to regret wearing jacket. He could feel it sticking to his clammy back, heat radiating through his seat. Thanks to the humid July heat his sandy blond hair stuck to his scalp, beads of sweat running down his forehead. A quick glimpse in the car mirror make his stomach twist; the guy in his reflection had lips that were curled into a scowl, green eyes glaring back at him, olive skin shining with perspiration. He ran a hand through his hair, hoping to tame the unruly locks he'd managed to straighten earlier that had bounced back into their usual natural frizzy curls in the heat. Jughead bit back a yell, flexing his fingers around the steering wheel. Bad hair days always seem to strike him at the worst times.
Thanks to being stuck in relentless LA traffic for the last half hour, he was a sweaty mess. Which wasn't going to be the greatest impression at his first ever job. He tried not to think about that. It was his first ever gig as a professional photographer for a proper event, and it was Comic Con. Jughead could live out his geek dream while earning money. His dream job. Since dropping out of college, he'd gone freelance, but it turned out to be harder than he thought to live off earning money from his passion.
Then came the job of a lifetime, and he looked like a swamp monster.
Kevin Keller who was sitting in the back, finally looked up from his phone, his eyebrows furrowed. If Jughead had a best friend, Kevin would probably be that person. The two of them had met in college and dropped out at the same time to both pursue photography. Though Kevin hadn't been lucky enough to get the Comic Con gig. Jughead was taking him as a plus one. The brunette had been glued to his phone almost the whole car ride. Though Jughead wasn't surprised. His favourite show was Shadow Falls, and from Jughead's knowledge, the boy was following the cast's every move. Jughead was fairly sure if he managed to crash the car, Kevin still wouldn't look up from his phone.
Though thanks to the news report, Kevin had been yanked him out of his own little world. Ever since one of the main leads of the show had died, Kevin had been caught up in his own little bubble, joining the nation mourning his favourite actor. In the initial weeks when the news broke, Kevin hadn't left his apartment. Jughead had to force him to eat, and it had taken him nearly a week to get a word out of his friend. The news admittedly had been pretty shocking. Jac Hunter didn't exactly strike him as a struggling actor. He was only twenty-one, the same age as Jughead. Though news outlets had reported that he'd been struggling for months before his death.
But there were no signs though. Nothing to suggest Jac Hunter truly was having a hard time. He was compared to other young celebrities who died young because fame had gone to their head, but Jac wasn't exactly Kanye West. He wasn't alive long enough to have a long lasting presence. Kevin had said in the months after his death, cast members had slowly started to come out, talking about unhappy he was. But- Jughead couldn't see it. Jac seemed happy. In every interview Kevin forced him to watch with the whole cast, he was always smiling and cracking jokes. It was too early on in the series for him to be on drugs, or to have some kind of problem. There had only been one season of Shadow Falls, and it was a hit. Though why wouldn't it be? Jughead wasn't an avid watcher of it so he didn't completely understand the story. But it was just another Vampire Diaries, another dark drama centring around a small town, a supernatural presence, and overly attractive kids in their early twenties pretending to be sixteen years olds in high school.
"Wait, are they talking about Shadow Falls?" Kevin's eyes were wide, his lips stretching into an excited grin. A grin Jughead couldn't help rolling his eyes at. "Jug, turn it up!"
Continuing to grapple with the old hunk of junk, Jughead let out a frustrated hiss. "I'm trying! The radio keeps fucking up." Though as soon as the words left his lips, the station was back, still hissing, but coherent enough for both boys to understand.
"-The writer and creator of the show, Felix Moore, told US Weekly that he's currently searching for a new Noah, after fans started a petition online for the show to continue, which reached over one million signatures in just a couple of days. And with Hunter's family's blessing, the search for the new Noah Price begins! I'm Haley Summers and you're listening to Smash Hits Radio! It's a scorcher outside today! And we're bringing you all the biggest hits including Katy Perry's new one! Coming up next!"
"No thanks," Jughead muttered, quickly switching the station, though an equally irritating pop song burst through the speakers. He didn't switch it again, turning his gaze to the road ahead, blinking in the sun's cruel gaze. It sat in a perfect blue sky like an unspoiled egg yolk.
At the corner of his eye, Kevin was still sitting bolt upright in his seat, his eyebrows furrowed. Jughead frowned. He nodded his head to the song halfheartedly, his fingers tapping a frenzied beat on the steering wheel. Signs for the convention were popping up already, and a coil of nerves began to unravel in his gut.
Kevin was still quiet. Jughead glanced in the mirror. "You okay?"
The boy blinked, shaking his head of brown curls. "Yeah, I was just thinking about Shadow Falls."
Jughead snorted. "When are you not thinking about that show?" he smirked, and Kevin kicked his seat.
"Hey, what do you expect? They're actually bringing it back! Oh my god, when Asher, Stella, Evie, and Noah come back on screen, I'm going to freak out!"
"Why though?" he couldn't help asking. "Don't you think it'll be weird without Jac?"
Kevin shrugged. "Yeah, it'll be different. But if they find the perfect replacement, he can carry on Jac's legacy." The boy chuckled. "How about you?"
"Don't bother." Jughead rolled his eyes. "We've had this conversation before, I look nothing like him."
"Are you kidding? You're perfect! You could easily pull off a brooding, narcissistic loner."
Kevin's eyes sparkled with excitement. "I saw a tweet that they're considering Shawn Mendes. Like, the literal Shawn Mendes! In Shadow Falls!"
"Is he even an actor?"
"Yeah! Well, he was an extra on “The 100” for like an episode where he played piano, but I count that as acting." Kevin pressed his face against the back window, eagerly looking outside. "Holy shit, look how many people are here!"
He wasn't wrong. There were hundreds of people polluting the streets, and Jughead had to be careful, navigating through both traffic and pedestrians. He glanced at the time on his dashboard; 12:05. The event started at half past. He had to be there for quarter past to get photos on the red carpet, and then shots of fans meeting cast members.
Jughead sucked in a breath, following the plume of traffic and teenage girls. He didn't need Google Maps when they were leading him straight to the front entrance. There was a separate way for staff, but Jughead had been told as long as he wore his STAFF lanyard, he could get in right away. He idly played with the tag around his neck. It displayed his name, department, and a shitty photo of him glaring at the camera.
Jughead searched for a parking spot, landing one quickly, sidling neatly between a black Sedan and a coach. He switched off the engine, the pop song screeching through hissing static cutting off abruptly. A throbbing pain had started to crawl across the back of his head. "Jug!" Kevin was pounding on the window, his expression lit up with excitement. Jughead forced his best smile, his stomach cartwheeling. He hopped out the truck quickly, straightening his jacket the best he could. He ran a hand through his hair again, smoothing down his plaid shirt and righting his lanyard so it sat over his chest. He'd spotted journalists amidst the crowds of people all looking smart, wearing casual jeans and T-shirts. Jughead wore a plaid shirt and jeans with a Levi's jacket wrapped around, which was his version of smart. He just hoped it was good enough for their standards.
Kevin was grinning at him as he slipped his camera over his neck, his fingers sliding through the thick grey ribbon. It was an old fashioned Canon, and his baby. It had been a present from his late father for his seventeenth birthday. It was only a year later when FP Jones had been slammed off the road by a drunk driver. Since then Jughead had mostly lived independently. His mother had left when he was twelve and took his little sister, so it was just Jughead, his camera, Kevin, and a hell of a lot of counselling.
"How do I look?" Jughead tried to smile but it fell flat when he remembered his hair was a tousled, sweaty mess sticking to his forehead.
"Like a modern James Dean," Kevin replied. "Honestly Jug, if you weren't straight, I'd ask you out on a date."
Jughead rolled his eyes, but couldn't resist a laugh. Admittedly, he wasn't sure of his sexuality. He liked girls, but there were a few guys he'd had crushes on over the years. Kevin was a huge one. Especially in college. "You flatter me, Keller."
The two of them headed inside, joining herds of people pushing into each other. The event was held in the Los Angeles Convention Centre, a monster of a building made entirely of glass. It was oblong shaped, and when Jughead looked up, the glare of the sun reflected off the checker-board windows, blinding him. There were several automatic doors blocked by barriers where people were queuing. Panic struck him for a moment, before he saw a group of journalists happily showing off their staff tags.
Kevin was practically vibrating with elation next to him. He stood on his tiptoes, straining to see any famous faces beyond the doors. Jughead grabbed his arm and dragged him past the queue, trying to ignore the complaints from fans. He quickly flashed his lanyard at a security guard, pulling Kevin along with him, and was nodded inside. They were ushered into the foyer, and Jughead couldn't keep the grin off his face. He didn't think that would work, and now they were inside, and holy shit, this was happening.
Jughead pulled out the letter he'd received, granting him his staff lanyard and instructions. They were laid out for him in bullet points. His heart was pounding in his chest and he had to keep licking his lips. He really needed a drink. Holy shit, this was it. He was actually going to be photographing television stars. "Okay." He peered at the map, trying not to act like Kevin and unleash his inner fanboy. But the hyperactive cacophony of chat and laughter was pushing his anxieties away, making way for an almost dizzying excitement. Plus, Jughead was 99.9% sure he had glimpsed the familiar glimmer of sun kissed curls flash in the crowd. A blink and you'll miss it moment. Kevin had showed him enough cast interviews on YouTube for him to know who it was.
Elizabeth Cooper was known for her role as Evie Knight in Shadow Falls. But also - her hair. It had every girl across the world wanting to desperately copy her lush, bouncy blonde curls. Elizabeth Cooper was on the front of every teen magazine, every Vogue; huge blue eyes following him along the LA strip. it was hard not to notice her. Even if he was sure every picture he'd seen of her was photo-shopped, because nobody could be that perfect. Though despite that, Jughead had developed a small crush on her during Kevin's initial obsession with the show. She was hyperactive in interviews and seemed like a down to earth, sweet girl.
Elizabeth was there, and then gone, whisked away in a glimmer of glitter. When the screams started up, Jughead knew he was right. "Kev!" he yelled over the excited squeals, but his friend was already jumping up and down, trying to get a glimpse of the girl.
"Did you see her?" Kevin was breathless. "Did you see Elizabeth?"
"Yeah," he replied, attempting to keep his own inner fanboy low-key.
"I think I saw, like, a glimpse of her hair. It was glorious."
If Kevin could detect his sarcasm, he didn't react. The boy was in his element. Jughead was rolling his eyes at the boy, smirking, before he felt a tap on his back.
Turning around, he was surprised to see a flustered teenage girl with long red hair. It took him a moment to realise she was cosplaying as one of the Shadow Falls characters. But the girl wasn't smiling, her eyes were wide, lips gaping.
"Oh my god, you- you look just like him," she said, before someone grabbed and pulled her away. Jughead was left feeling shaken.
Kevin watched her go, before shrugging with a smile. "She's right." His eyes glittered. "From the right angle, you do look like Noah."
No I don't. Jughead's cheeks burned. Noah had dark hair. Though admittedly, he could see his resemblance- slightly- with the character.
It wasn't hard to reach the main hall where autographs and meet ups were taking place, and when Kevin let out an audible yell, Jughead followed his gaze, and then frantic pointing finger. He could just about make out the poster for Shadow Falls looming over twitching heads. The mass of people crowding the room resembled cockroaches, falling over each other to get to their desired line. Though even the lines were frenzied, guards in bright green struggling to keep order. Teenage girls would fight tooth and nail to see their favourites, and if they had to fight their way to the front, they would.
According to his schedule, Jughead was supposed to start in Hall M where he was now, and move around, gradually weaving through the Stranger Things panel, followed by The Originals, Doctor Who and Sabrina The Teenage Witch. That would take him back to the main entrance. He took a deep breath. Here goes.
"Kev, I'm gonna go get some pictures!" He had to yell again over the relentless screeching, which was starting to collapse into white noise in his ears. Jughead winced. Kevin nodded eagerly, giving him a thumbs up.
"You've got this, Jones!" Kevin looked like he was about to spontaneously combust.
"Dude." He couldn't resist a laugh. "Go and stalk the Shadow Falls cast."
"Seriously?" Kevin's eyes widened. "I thought you wanted me to tail you!"
Jughead folded his arms, cocking a brow. "Do you seriously want to go around with me taking pictures of fans when you could be talking to Archie Andrews and Elizabeth Cooper?"
The boy didn't answer, only grinned wildly before hurrying off. Jughead took a breath. Cool it, Jones, he thought. He plastered a professional smile on his lips before heading towards the press section. There were hundreds of photographers snapping photos, and when Jughead joined them, he realised something was - off. There were no flashes. Which seemed ridiculous at a press event. He was almost used to seeing the familiar flashes when he watched these kind of events on TV. Flash photography was a given. With growing confidence he politely tapped a pretty girl with dark skin and long silky hair, on the shoulder. She looked around his age, most likely a freelancer like him. When she turned, she was already smiling. The girl was using her phone as a camera and eyed his Canon like it was a severed baby head, her bright green eyes flashed with amusement. When Jughead glanced at her tag, the name "Josie McCoy" was in bold capitals.
Jughead smiled back. He leaned closer to her so she could hear him, and caught a whiff of sweet vanilla. "Where are the flashes?"
"What?" Josie laughed, and Jughead's cheeks burned with embarrassment. Before he could stammer some kind of explanation, the girl nodded in understanding. "Oh! You mean the cameras? Yeah, we're not allowed to use flash photography," she yelled back.
"Really?" He couldn't help laughing. "Why?"
"No idea!" The girl rolled her eyes. "Look around you. They're pretty strict about it."
Jughead followed the girl's gaze, and she was right. All around him, there were pretty intrusive posters stapled to boards bearing the words: "NO FLASH PHOTOGRAPHY."
"Huh," he murmured. But the matter didn't linger in his mind for long as he lost himself taking pictures.
He snapped shots of cast members when they came out, waving at the crowd, and the girls screaming at them. Then when the others moved forward and began to spread out independently, he went straight to the meetup section, hoping he'd spot Kevin. But it was impossible to find anyone in the writhing crowd. He ended up spending an hour snapping photos of fans meeting the cast, before he spotted Josie who had managed to get up close and personal with the Shadow Falls writers. She was inches from the Shadows Fall kids, snapping photos. Jughead felt his chest tighten at the thought of meeting a star. But it was his job, right? Before he could hesitate or stop himself he shoved his way through the crowd. But a security guard quickly got in his face.
"Line up, kid." The man was mostly bald, cheeks crimson, probably from fighting over-eager teenage girls.
Jughead shook his head. "I'm staff," he said, swallowing the urge to add; "And I'm not a kid."
The man rolled his eyes before stepping away, and waved him passed the barrier. Suddenly he was overwhelmed. The cast were right in front of him. Archie Andrews, the star responsible for Asher Michelson oozed confidence and charm. He was much taller in person, that mop of curly red hair which drove Kevin crazy, contrasting perfect pale skin. The boy's signature colour was white, and damn, he knew how to flaunt it. Archie wore a loose white shirt and black pants. So simple, yet he turned every head in his vicinity.
The boy was gorgeous, Jughead had to admit. He found himself starstruck, his gaze stuck on the redhead. A girl jumped into Archie's arms, squealing, and he hugged her with a grin. Cute. Jughead lifted his camera, ready to snap a photo. His finger hovered over the capture button, but seeing Archie in person, and being so close to the boy, something was coiling in his stomach and he wasn't sure what it was. Jughead shook his head, trying again. But there was something about Archie's sparkling smile that made him feel strange.
Lowering his camera, Jughead took a stumbling step forwards, momentarily losing his balance.
His breath shook as he attempted another photo, but every time he tried to, he couldn't. There was something about the boy's grin, brown eyes staring straight into his lens, a plastic smile that sent his heart racing. Jughead gave up after several tries. He swiped at his forehead with his sleeve. It was the heat, it must be. But he didn't linger around Archie, moving to the other cast members. There was something prickling in his gut, a long suppressed thought dancing in the back of his head. Jughead knew what it was automatically.
Familiarity. But not just that. Everybody in the room recognised him, of course they did. He was Archie Andrews for god sake, who didn't know him? But this was different. This was the kind of recognition that hits you when you see an old friend, or a neighbour- a kid from childhood. That was the type of familiarity that crashed over him. But how? How could he know a nationwide television star?
He didn't, Jughead decided. The heat was getting to his head, and he'd barely eaten or drank anything. To distract himself, he captured photos of the others, his mind picking out their characters in the show. Veronica Lodge, who was Stella Gomez and Reggie Mantle, who played Ryan Poser. They were nice enough, laughing along with fans who chatted animatedly with them. He barely took notice of the actors, his head in a daze trying to figure out how the hell he could know Archie Andrews. That was when someone nudged him, rather violently.
"Are you press?" a short blonde woman was suddenly shouting in his face, and he managed to nod. "Right! Can you get some close ups of Elizabeth by the wall?" When Jughead blinked at her, the woman sighed. "Just over there, by the curtain! We need close ups!"
"What?" Jughead was still stumbling over his words when he realised Elizabeth Cooper was being ushered towards him. And he lost his breath. She was exactly like she was on the covers of magazines. She resembled an angel, wearing a long silver dress that clung to her figure, perfect pale skin and a crown of gold curls spilling down her back. Elizabeth smiled brightly at him, striding towards him in her heels. The exact same blue eyes that teased him through magazine covers were blinking at him. Jughead remembered thinking her eyes couldn't be that blue. But they really were; Her eyes were the colour of a newly bloomed bluebell from the valley, enchanting, delicate. Sweet and innocent.
Though now the girl was standing directly in front of him with starry eyes and a glittering smile, he couldn't resist having that same feeling he'd had with Archie. It spread through him, an unwelcome burst of unease tightening his chest. No, he thought strictly, wanting to scream at himself. No, there was absolutely no goddamn way-
"Hi!" Elizabeth cut off his thoughts, giggling nervously. "Sorry about Jess." She inclined her head to the woman who had yelled in his face. "She's on a tight schedule."
When Jughead didn't reply, the girl cocked her head, a strand of gold straying in dazzling violet eyes. "Is here okay?"
"I- what?" Jughead managed to shake off the discomfort, though it was still there, dormant. He snapped out of it, forcing a smile. But he couldn't stop staring at her, his gaze subconsciously searching for something that wasn't there. There was nothing on her face that he'd be looking for, so why couldn't he stop staring at her?
Act professional and freak out later, he told himself. Taking a deep breath, he smiled brightly at Elizabeth.
"No, by the curtain is fine." He nodded at her and she smiled in agreement, following him to the wall by the curtain. Jughead took a few shaky steps back and lifted his camera. Elizabeth smiled directly at him, and something in his gut lurched, bile burning the back of his throat. He snapped the photo quickly to get it over with, but when the familiar blur of white light flashed, he realised his mistake. Something seemed to abruptly change in her demeanour. Her smile disappeared and she blinked twice before staring forwards in a daze, and maybe Jughead really did have heat stroke, but he could have sworn the girl's eyes dilated before flickering to a bright, vivid forest green "Oh." Jughead let out a soft breath. "Sorry about that. I- I'm not supposed to use flash."
He looked up to apologise further, but the girl had stumbled back behind the curtain, her arms shooting up to shield her eyes.
Shit, had he blinded her?
"Hey, sorry about that!" Jughead cursed. But Elizabeth didn't come back. Panic shot through him. Oh fuck. He was following her behind the curtain before he could think logically, finding himself in a backstage sort of setup, covered in boxes, props and cardboard cut-outs of characters. "Elizabeth?" he started to call her name, before he spotted the girl sitting in a pool of silk and glitter on the floor. Her pale shoulders were bouncing up and down and at first he thought she was laughing, but when the girl looked up, Jughead's head swam dizzily. The girl was crying, tears streaking down her cheeks. Her eyes were wild, lips twisted almost ferally at him as if he was about to attack her.
When he started forwards, her eyes widened almost comically, her mouth popping open in a mute cry.
Jughead held his breath.
"I- I'm not going to hurt you," he whispered. But Elizabeth shook her head, her lips mouthing words that weren't hitting the sound barrier. Which seemed crazy, because the girl was speaking just minutes ago and laughing. Now she was a hysterical explosion of gold, glitter and tears, tearing at the dress clinging to her frame. Her lips were curled with disgust, eyes burning with fear, pain, anger-
Elizabeth mouthed something to him and her eyes widened, her pale, slender fingers going to graze over her throat, before more tears trickled down her cheeks. She raked her fingernails down her face, screaming mutely.
No! she was mouthing, stumbling around, trying to- find something. When her hands finally grasped what looked like a piece of reflective paper, she stared at herself before dropping it abruptly.
"Elizabeth." He could barely breathe, watching the actress lose herself, tearing at her hair until strands were sticking to her fingernails. She was glaring down at tufts of it, pawing at her herself, staring wide-eyed. Before her eyes found him.
Elizabeth's mouth moved to form words, and Jughead wasn't good at reading lips, but he could make out her words.
Help me. She was saying it over and over again, stumbling around, disoriented. Every time she grabbed at her dress she tried to tear at it. He attempted to follow her, staggering back when she turned and snarled silently at him.
"What's wrong?" he managed to get out. "I- I'm sorry, I don't understand what's happening."
She stabbed at her throat with her fingernail, her bottom lip trembling.
"You can't speak?" Jughead watched her, his feet now glued to the floor.
He couldn't move. His voice was shaking, and after a moment she nodded solemnly.
"Should I call someone?"
An exorcist? He thought, slightly hysterically.
No! her lips screamed, eyes widening frantically.
Jughead nodded, pulling out a notepad and pen.
Stay calm, he told himself. But Jughead was so close to freaking out just like her.
"Okay then, uh- oh fuck, do you want to write it down?"
Elizabeth nodded, snatching the pad and pen.
But before she could write anything, a voice startled him, ice slipping down his spine at the curl of a British accent.
A man peered in, frowning at the two of them. Jughead recognised him as one of the writers; a small, stocky guy in his mid forties brandishing a suit and dark curly hair sticking out from underneath a baseball cap. Elizabeth straightened up, her green eyes clouding with terror when she saw the man, and Jughead's heart started stampeding. She swiped at her eyes quickly, attempting to smile. But she didn't look like the celebrity starlet who had starstruck him earlier. She just looked like a terrified girl. The smile she was known for was none-existent, as well as her glittering blue eyes.
Instead they were green, and Jughead realised he preferred the colour they were now; irises the same color as the ocean on a stormy day, green with tinges of blue, grey and silver.
The guy cocked his head, an amused smile on his lips. "Ever thought of taking up acting? You look exactly like the kind of kid we're scouting for our Noah."
Jughead was speechless. A glance at Elizabeth, and the girl looked like she was going to lose it once again. Her expression was enough to tell him everything he needed to know. She didn't move, staying stock still. But her eyes screamed at him to run.
"I'm good." he managed. "I can't act for shit."
The man seemed to study him for way longer than he'd deem necessary. "Talent isn't exactly a factor we're looking for, young man. We have professionals in the business who can easily train you to be TV material."
What? Since when?
"I said I'm good."
"Right. Well, if you change your mind, feel free to talk to any of my people today. Tell them Felix sent you."
Jughead nodded. "If I change my mind, I'll make sure to tell you." he said stiffly.
Felix grinned. "Sweet. Now, you should get going. Elizabeth has a schedule she has to keep."
Jughead opened his mouth to speak, but he was suddenly rendered speechless like the girl.
What did he say? Did he demand why the girl couldn't speak?
"Thanks for the autograph." he said shakily, and the girl nodded, fashioning a smile on her lips, before handing him the pad back and following the man back out into the hall. She didn't look back, and when Jughead watched her go, he noticed a stumble in her step. She could barely walk, struggling in heels she had walked so effortlessly in earlier. It was like he was looking at a completely different girl.
When she was gone, Jughead let out a strangled breath. He slipped back through the curtain, back into the bustling crowd, stumbling clumsily. His throat was burning, nausea twisting his gut. There was a tinny ringing in his ears and his heart was galloping. Jughead stared down at the notepad, his gaze stuck to Elizabeth's messy handwriting on the front page. He was seeing things again, he tried to tell himself. But there was no way that whole experience could be some heat stroke induced illusion. Elizabeth Cooper, the girl he'd had several fantasies over through the years had broken down in a hysterical fit, lost her voice, and mutely cried out to him.
He blinked at the girl's scrawled handwriting.
It wasn't an autograph, though he didn't expect it to be. Instead, the girl had written in capital letters;
Before, in writing he could barely decipher; SWEETHEART.
Kevin. Jughead thought manically, lifting his gaze and scanning for his friend. Kevin would know what to do. Before he consciously knew what he was doing, Jughead was starting forwards, his head starting to spin. Sweat rolled down the back of his neck. Kev knew the Shadows Falls cast better than his own family, he'd know what was wrong. Surely.
"Kevin?" he cupped his mouth, yelling over the loud buzz of chat. But the boy was nowhere to be seen. "Kevin, hey!"
He was ready to call for his friend again, when a warm hand slid over his mouth, strong arms wrapping themselves around his waist and yanking him backwards. In a moment of terror and confusion, Jughead forgot how to scream. Instead, all that came out of his mouth was a startled yelp. He felt the silky brush of the curtain sweep over his face, before he started struggling violently. "Let me go!" he screamed into his attacker's hand, and to his surprise- they did, quickly retracting their hand.
After righting himself, Jughead looked up to see none other than Archie Andrews standing in front of him. And for the second time that day, Jughead was starstruck. But it only lasted a few seconds when he caught the boy's expression. Archie wasn't smiling. His red hair was a sweaty mess stuck to a perspired forehead, his brown eyes wide, lips curled into a scowl. The boy had an expression eerily similar to Elizabeth's - terror.
Before Jughead could speak, Archie, the literal TV star Archie Andrews, grabbed him by his collar before shoving him against the back wall, knocking the breath out of him. "Jug," the boy spluttered, and it took Jughead a few seconds to realise the actor was saying his name like he knew him. Like they knew each other. Archie was red faced, his eyes filling with tears, his voice a strained cry. "Jug?" he gasped out, tightening his grip. The boy blinked, as if to make sure he wasn't seeing things, and Jughead felt the bottom fall out of him. He could only stare back, baffled by the boy's words.
"Jug, what the hell happened?" Archie demanded in a hiss of breath. "Where am I? What- what happened to you?" he let go of Jughead abruptly, tearing at his hair, before his eyes darkened. Taking steps back, Jughead turned to run. To get away from the crazy asshole, but Archie grabbed him again, brown eyes wild. "You got away," the boy breathed, his fingernails biting into the flesh of Jughead's neck. Before he could reply, Archie shocked him with a hysterical laugh, which quickly collapsed into a sob. He stared back at the boy, trying hard not to scream. "Holy fucking shit, you got away, didn't you?"