The realisation of this hits you with the kind of uneasiness usually reserved for things unrelated to self-reflection, but that doesn’t change the basic fact that you’re scared. You’ve been scared for so long, it twists your insides, makes you feel an intense, dizzy-kind of sick that colours every waking moment (and all your dreams.)
It’s been over a year since you first heard the name Jack Wright, and over a year since you realised why he mattered. It’s been over a year since you watched your best friend break, and over a year since you thought you’d lost him forever.
It’s been over a year since Emily decided you were worth loving back, and it’s been over a year since you decided that Sammy needed that reassurance too.
It’s been over a year, and you can’t shake the fear that everything’s going to fall down around you. That everything’s going to be for nothing. You’re so afraid for all the people you love, and all the ones you don’t, and it’s so much so that you aren’t even afraid for yourself anymore because you’re too consumed by the absolute terror of - of.
Debbie, Emily, Jack, fire. Death, loss, destruction. Books. Frogs. Himinists and radio stations and rainbow lights.
They spin circles around your mind, as you blindly reach for some sense, some sort of comfort, a solution. You never find one, it doesn’t help.
You love Sammy with your entire being, more than you’ve ever loved anybody or anything - Sorry Betty - and you have to make him whole again (because if he’s not whole, you’re not sure you can be either) but he’s not budging. He goes to therapy, and reluctantly takes his prescribed pills. He drinks water, and sleeps a lot, but he’s still broken, and it hurts. You know bringing Jack back won’t fix it, but you want to anyway, because it’ll make him smile, bring some comfort. You’d do anything to make him smile.
And so you need to break his trust. He’s half heartedly searched for the book - the one that started all this, the centre of all your fears. The book that Emily nearly disappeared for, the one that Jack did. He hasn’t found it - or so he says. He’s got a list of items, organised, checked off. Yet, you’ve seen the box he keeps in his closet. Noticed the thick layer of dust coating the sagging folds, the layer that’s still there. Untouched. Even now, Jack-hopes be damned.
You think he’s probably scared too. Scared of what he might find, or what he won’t. You’re not sure, but you think you can help. You hope you can help.
He’s visiting Dwayne Libbydale this afternoon, for what you’re not sure. But you have time. You have time and a chance, and so you take it.
It’ll break his trust, but you take it.
It’s worth taking it.
He’s stopped locking his door at your insistence - his mind is healing, but you’re still worried, and it helps you both sleep at night, makes the nightmares more bearable - and so you slowly push it open only minutes after he leaves.
His room is neat, tidy. He’d never had many things in King Falls, and that hasn’t changed. There’s some books Emily has lent him strewn about on a small wooden desk, next to a deck of cards and a half drunk bottle of water. There’s a small framed photograph of the two of you from your first Christmas together, and a navy sweatshirt laying across the red comforter of his bed. There are half a dozen souvenirs from various businesses in town, including a small Kingsie plush that Ron had given Sammy when he was at his absolute worst. Sammy had always helped Ron - been there for everybody, and Ron couldn’t help him back, but it was the thought that counted. Always the thought.
The walls are yellow, he’d insisted. Your switch is charging on the floor, the pink joycon flashing dully, but that’s it really.
You know it’s the room of an empty man, and if you could fill it with all the reasons why you love him, and why he’s worth loving, you would. You can picture Jack, sitting on the bed, with a soft smile on his face as he gazes out the window to the sunflowers Lily had quietly planted on the adjacent area one afternoon not long ago. It’s the only way this room will ever feel like home to Sammy, and you want so desperately to make it feel like home.
You shake your head, determined once more. The closet is slightly ajar, Sammy’s neatly organised clothes peeking out. He has six sweaters and twelve t-shirts, all in varying shades of blue. You push them aside, and see the box. The box still covered in the layer of dust.
You tug it out with little hesitation. If he’s going to notice, he’s going to notice, and the box is slightly heavier than you would have envisioned. His name is printed on the side in thick, black marker, an you sneeze once, twice, as the dust settles once again.
You sit on the plush beige carpet, and peel back the discarded layers of your best friends life.
Sitting on top in a plastic green case is a CD - not the kind you’d buy in a store, but one that had obviously been copied from another at some point.The cover is cracked in three different places, but the scrawled title printed on the disc is of a song you recognise because it’s one of Betty’s favourites. ‘Your Song.’ She used to play it and cry in the kitchen on nights the two of you weren’t doing well, and you would crawl out of bed and into her lap, and hold her whilst she shook and left wet patches on your pikachu pjs. She’d never say anything that wasn’t an apology, and you’d wish you could take the pain away from her - you always want to take the pain away.
You so rarely do.
You place it aside carefully, and reach in again. There’s a tangled rainbow slinky, barely big enough to slip around your wrist. A small statue of a pouncing ginger cat. A tiny sealed jar of blackberry jam that you’re sure has got to be out of date by now.
There’s a dark skinned china-doll with a slightly cracked face that you stare at curiously because it reminds you of Lily, somehow. Lily would never be caught in a dress of that colour, but maybe something about the dark, full curls, the twisted smile, and the dull gleam of it’s eyes. Usually you would find something like this abhorrently creepy, but instead you place it gently on the floor, against the box. There are a pack of animal crackers, and a few sticks of cherry-flavoured gum, and a bright red sweater you’ve never seen that smells like a sickly sweet nostalgia-filled combination of salt-water taffy and fairy floss.
There’s a grey (original) xbox controller, that has a unicorn sticker below the left directional pad There’s a small unsigned postcard for the Eiffel Tower, the front of it proclaiming ‘wish you were here’ in tiny, neat cursive through the centre of dazzling, cloudless sky. A tiny black watch.
The pile of things that mean absolutely nothing to you, but maybe everything to Sammy is growing steadily larger, but you’re giving up hope of finding what you’re after. Maybe Sammy wasn’t lying - you should’ve trusted him. He’s your best friend, you’ve got to trust him.
There’s a small batman keyring that makes you smile thinking of The Dark. There’s probably more to Sammy’s disdain for The Dark than he’s been letting on. The final thing in the box, is, well, another box.
Monopoly, the cover proclaims.
You roll your eyes, and smile softly, remembering a conversation that feels lifetimes ago. You know Sammy probably let Jack win as well.
You have a sudden idea, and scoop up the battered monopoly box, which is when the bottom collapses and out tumbles a compact, velvet covered book.
Your heart soars, and you grab for it with the kind of eager exuberance you’re known for, and rip open the pages.
And out fall a dozen movie stubs, and an old, wilted flower.
It’s not the book you were hoping for.
Your heart drops, and you sink back to the floor in defeat. Maybe this really was a lost cause after all.
You move to tuck everything back into the box, and pretend like you’ve never been there at all, when something about the book makes you reconsider. You pick it up again, gingerly, and examine the first page.
There’s a tiny inscription on the inside cover, in handwriting you don’t recognise, but that can’t be anybody else’s but Jack.
To my best kept secret, and the best home I’ve ever known.
It’s signed with a small, wonky heart and a handful of x’s, and your heart drops even further in your stomach. You notice the slight dark stains, and the way some of the letters are smudged together in a way that could only mean one thing.
You flip through slowly, a small frown marring your features. The pages have the kind of creases and worn out quality in them that suggest they’ve been turned a thousand times before. You’re sure if you could tear your eyes away, you’d find the spine would be cracked. The same tear marks as the cover stain some of the pages, and you understand why almost immediately.
The small book is an album, full of photos of Jack.
Sammy, too. And other people you don’t quite recognise, but you’re sure you would know if you heard their names. The photos mostly look about ten years old, judging by the lack of silver in Sammy’s cropped, clean hair. His eyes are shining in all of them, although he still has the same ‘I can’t believe i’m doing this’ look that he has in every photo you’ve ever tried to make him take. His smile seems relaxed, comfortable - the kind of smile you see more often now, but only in your most intimate moments.
You know he’s hiding something - the biggest something - but still, he doesn’t seem to care. Because of Jack.
You’ve seen photos of Jack before, of course. Reluctantly pulled out photos, crumpled at the edges, pulled from news articles, on websites when googling his name. But these are different.
Jack shines with the kind of energy you’ve always heard. His smile lights up all the photos, even the black an white ones, making him the focus of each even if he’s not front and centre in them all. You understand with an uneasy violence how accurate descriptions of ‘sunshine’ and ‘fire’ had been.
There are some photos of the two of them obviously in a recording booth, microphones and headsets and smiles all over the place, giant posters advertising various radio shows tacked up in the background.
They touch in some of the photos, but Sammy looks less certain in those, as though he’s been caught out doing something wrong, as though everybody would know his darkest secrets, and hate him for them. But Jack’s arm around his shoulder, leaning into his neck with easy laughter makes you once again feel a burning rush of affection for this man you’ve never met, but hope so desperately to meet someday soon.
There’s a page dedicated entirely to Sammy and two small dogs. In one of them, Sammy looks much younger, but the defiance on his face is unmistakable. In another, Jack and Sammy sit like proud parents, cooing over the ball of fluff that could only be theirs.
There’s a photo that looks to be Sammy on a skateboard and another of him looking thoroughly ruffled on the floor in the minutes directly afterwards.
There are a handful of photos of Jack holding colourful drinks with tiny umbrellas and grinning at Sammy who is uncertainly sipping a beer or seven. You find this odd, because as far as you knew, Sammy didn’t drink alcohol - ever. Although he looks older here, and you think that perhaps this is just Shotgun instead.
Jack has a ridiculous fluffy hat with purple cat ears, and you have the stifle the giggle that threatens to escape.
There’s Sammy, and Jack and Jack and Sammy and Sammy and SammyandJack. So many iterations of the two of them, so obviously, stupidly in love. Too afraid to show it, too afraid not to. Jack has a variety of comical expressions, and graphic t-shirts and wild poses, and you can almost hear his voice screaming from the pages.
You’re not sure which hurts the most.
The photos that you find, still tacked into the book, but that have clearly been attacked with an angry red marker and some scissors, that you can still make out to be photos of Lily.
Or maybe it’s the dozen photos that are carefully cropped. Two hands intertwined, and the same but with shining golden rings. An arm full of roses. Jack’s lips pressed upon a surface that surely belonged to somewhere on Sammy’s body.
Stab after stab to your heart, because of course.
Sammy and Jack would’ve wanted to document how fiercely they loved each other, but that was impossible.
You think of your instagram, which has become a shrine to Emily, and Lily and Sammy and all the other things and people you love, and Sammy can’t even have that - couldn’t have that.
Then you suddenly have an idea, and it’s worth the risk.
If Sammy had noticed you rifling through his things, he didn’t say anything. Not the hours after he came home from seeing Dwayne, and not the days that followed. Not that you really have a chance to talk about it anyway, and was that the kind of thing you even would talk about? You talk about most things, but. Maybe not enough.
Lily is happy to help, tentative and uncertain as she is. She’s trying, and you love her for it, even if she’s still a little abrasive around the edges. You’re reluctant to tell her about the red drawn-on marks, but she understands, because she’s a little more perceptive than anybody gives her credit for.
Emily’s on board too, of course. She’s willing to do anything for you, with little question, but her eagerness in this - in anything about Sammy, really - just endears her to you all that much more. She’s perfect, and you don’t deserve her, but you’re so glad she chose you anyway.
Troy and Mary and Herschel and even people like Archie chip in too. Dwayne Libbydale has a strange gleam in his eyes when you approach him about it, he’s a real strange dude, sometimes.
It’s a whole two weeks later before you’re ready. Lily’s vacated the building to spend some time with Maggie, of all people, and it’s just you and Sammy that afternoon. The two of you cook an early dinner before the show, of twirly pasta with chicken and mushrooms, and Sammy laughs in unabridged delight as you dance around the kitchen to music only in your head. You try to get him to join in, but he refuses and you poke your tongue at him, and he shakes his head and flips you off, and you love him more than anything, you really do.
Your mind wanders through the meal, as he mumbles about something work-related, waving his hands around as he speaks. You take a big bite of garlic bread and sigh before he asks what’s wrong, a concerned look colouring his pale face. He’s talking about The Dark, you realise, and the fact you haven’t joined in is unusual in itself.
You love him so much.
You start to explain. About the room, and about how you trust him, but you didn’t. About how you’re scared, and about how you want to stop him from hurting, and about how you want to bring Jack back, too. You don’t want him to hate you, but it’s okay if he does because it’s unforgivable but you love him. You explain, and ramble, and pace and throw your hands around.
It’s twenty minutes before you let him get a word in, and your dinner is long-cold. The only word he can manage is ‘what?’
You sit back at the table, across from him, and grab his hand. He’s not allowed to hate you. Well, he is, but he won't, but part of you is still scared he will.
You’re sorry, and you tell him so, and then you shyly present him with the thing you’ve been working on.
It’s another book.
This one is a soft yellow, like sunshine and daisies and the walls of the bedroom where he spends most of his time. Like promises, and forevers and unspoken words. Lily had found it, and insisted.
He pauses for a moment, and picks it up. His large hands shake slightly, hovering over the cover, before he hesitantly opens the first page.
In your neatest writing, in the metallic silver pen Emily had produced is a tiny inscription.
It’s no secret that we love you, but just in case you have trouble remembering.
Love always, your brother Ben.
You’ve stopped watching, focusing your eyes on anything but his face, because part of you is so afraid.
The first page is simple, just a photo from Rose’s of the two of you looking much younger, a lot less tired, and a lot happier. There’s a half eaten plate of pancake puppies sitting between you, and you’re both squished into the same side of the booth despite the fact that means you’re basically sitting on his lap. You’d insisted it was warmer, comfier that way, and his expression has been caught mid-eye roll as you laugh and look up at him, and the expression is so full of love that even looking at it tugs at your heart strings.
The next, you know, has a photo of Sammy and Lily. They’re tucked under the red comforter, Lily’s fallen asleep on Sammy’s shoulder, and they both look utterly at peace despite the pile of drool you know was probably covering his shirt. She’s written something you’d promised not to read, but you can imagine what it says.
Following those are photos and messages from at least thirty others in town - the people who love him, his family. The people who love and appreciate him, and want him to know. Emily and Troy and Mary of course. The Dwayne and Kirk Libbydales, and the Tim’s and Ron’s and even the Pete’s. And all the others. You still haven’t looked at him, and he’s completely silent, but you’re ready. Ready for the frown, and the annoyed lecture that you’re sure will come.
Except it doesn’t.
You’re shaking when he whispers your name, and you’re startled for a moment, before you look up and lock eyes and you’re a little surprised to see he’s crying. His face is patchy and red, and he’s trembling all over.
You try to explain again. About the notebooks, and death by damnation, and Emily and fear and the box and Jack and the secrets, but it all comes tumbling out of you in a swirling jumble because you’ve never been this stressed before and you just want him to stop crying. You apologise. You apologise. You can’t stop apologising. You tell him it’s okay if he wants to leave, or move out (you don’t mean it) because you’ve broken his trust and that’s okay. You tell him about the blank pages at the end - all the blank pages you’ve left for Jack. For when Jack is back. For when Jack is back and you can take photos of their future together, the one they’re going to make and that you’re going to document properly this time because he doesn’t have to hide or pretend or keep secrets because you love him no matter what and you meant it you always meant it. The best secrets are the ones you get to share with the people you love, and you tell him that over and over and you’re yelling at him through sobs now, because you’re so afraid he doesn’t understand.
You don’t notice the strangled sounds he’s making, but you do notice when he launches himself across the table, and tackles you to the floor. You do notice the kisses he’s placing across every part of you he can reach. You do notice the uncharacteristic tears leaking into your hair and onto your face as he whispers your name over and over.
You know exactly what it means hours later when he throws a pillow at you when you ask about the blackberry jam, and you know you’re gonna be fine (even if he makes you promise not to snoop through his things anymore.)
You’re still afraid, it’s unavoidable, but you trust each other, and you love each other, and you know that when it comes time to face those fears and fight, you’re going to do it together - and that’s the most powerful weapon of all.