It had been half a month since Rich was let out of the hospital, a month since the fire, and over two years since he took the Squip.
His first week back was bad, one of the lowest points he’d ever been at in his life. He avoided everyone, wouldn’t talk, and tried to make himself as unnoticeable as possible. He wore an old, oversized gray hoodie with the hood always up, never turned off his music or took off his black headphones, hid himself from everyone, and did everything alone. Couldn’t focus in class. Ran away when things got too crowded, loud or stressful. Ate lunch in the bathroom.
That is, until Christine showed up at the beginning of his second week. Rich was sitting in the boys’ bathroom, obscuring himself with two chairs that were in the corner for some reason, which he used to hide from most people’s view, his hood pulled down, trying to ignore the burn scar on his hand as he slowly ate his lunch.
Footsteps approached and Rich tensed up. He had heard them behind him every so often when he was walking to the bathroom, and they were back.
He didn’t know what he expected, but it certainly wasn’t Christine Canigula. Yet there she was, standing outside of Rich’s chair fort, staring in at him. He didn’t look at her.
She knocked on the chair. Out of pure instinct, he knocked back and when she giggled he found himself smiling a little.
“Can I move this? Is that okay?” She asked. He pushed the chair away and she sat down next to him.
“Why did you follow me?” He asked.
“You seemed lonely.” She shrugged. Rich nodded. “Like, everyone’s being nice to me and all, but it’s just all out of pity. Either that or they’re not actually concerned for me but just want to seem like a good person. And don’t get me started on the kids who don’t even try.”
“Like the jerkwad who wrote on your locker?” She asked, looking like she wanted to murder whoever had done that. Rich nodded and scoffed.
“Oh, um, Rich,” She said, changing the subject suddenly, “if you want-”
A stall door slammed.
“You’re not supposed to be in here!” A boy yelled, pointing at Christine.
Christine gasped dramatically.
“Danny Devito? I love your work!” She exclaimed, chasing the boy out of the bathroom. Once he was gone she came back and sat down, struggling to stifle her laughter.
“Danny Devito?” Rich asked.
“Eh, don’t worry about it. That tends to work better on girls anyways. But, uh, if you want, you could always come sit with me at lunch. You could start today, if you’re up for it.”
Rich didn’t want to get his hopes up, but that did sound nice. While he did really want to just be alone and isolated from everything until he could process it all, there was a part of him that desperately wanted to have friends again.
“Who do you sit with?” He asked cautiously.
“Jeremy and Michael and Jake.” Christine answered.
A pit formed in Rich’s stomach.
“...Jake?” He repeated. Christine’s smile faded and it was replaced by a soft, worried expression.
“Yeah, Jake. You know he’s not, like, upset with you, right? He knows all about the Squip thing and everything, he said you two kind of made up in the hospital-”
“I know, I know, I know, I know, I know, I know.” Rich repeated, talking louder and louder until she stopped. “I just….”
“He’s been really worried about you.” She interrupted. Right. Rich had forgotten how persistent she was, especially when trying to make a point. “He hasn’t seen you since you got let out of the hospital, he’s worried something happened to you, he wants to know you’re okay.” Christine put her hand on Rich’s shoulder. “He really cares about you.”
Rich didn’t know what to say. It was a huge relief to know Jake cared about him, but he felt bad for worrying Jake. And he still felt awful for destroying his house. And on top of all that, he wasn’t sure he was ready to face Jake again. He wasn’t sure he’d ever be.
Not when he was still dealing with the Squip. He wasn’t ready for any more stress.
“Come on,” Christine said softly. “It’ll be fine. I promise.”
That was the first genuinely good day he’d had since freshman year.
It didn’t help much, though. Too much damage had already been done and Rich was too scared to let anyone help.
Some days were fine. The days where he got red flannel of Jake’s that was a size too small for him to replace the old gray hoodie Rich had been wearing that had started to fray and rip in some spots, where he came to school with the tips of his hair dyed blue, where he and Christine hung out after school, sitting on top of buildings at parks with soda and snacks, talking about life and school and stuff. Those days he could be normal and happy and keep his mind off the Squip and how awful all of that had been and how he had almost destroyed the school and how much damage it did to him and…
Then there were the bad days. The days where he’d hide in his red flannel or wear the old gray hoodie again, where he’d either be silent at lunch or wouldn’t even show up, where he wouldn’t even bother pretending to not notice the residue of the sharpie on his locker, where he’d literally make himself physically sick with anxiety and dread from thinking about it, if he got yelled at for any reason he would have a panic attack, where any mention of the Squip or anything even mildly related to it broke him.
But what was worst was the sudden flashbacks. Never provoked by anything, just a sudden memory and a voice in his head. That’s all it took to destroy him.
The first time it happened, he was with Christine, sitting on top of the dugout at the park’s baseball field. Christine was rambling about some musical that was going on Broadway in a few months, and all of a sudden something hit Rich.
His Pepsi bottle fell out of his hand and rolled off the roof.
Look at what you did. You ruined yourself. You ruined everything. You ruined everything and it’s your fault it happened. It’s all your fault.
The sound of the bottle hitting the ground alerted Christine that something was wrong. She sat up and examined him.
“Are you okay?”
“Yeah, I’m fine,” He managed, though his heavy, labored breathing and the tears in his fearful, hurt brown eyes made it obvious he was lying.
“No, you’re not. What’s wrong?” She persisted. Rich didn’t answer, though it was clear he was trying to. He was repeating something over and over but he couldn’t seem to get the words out, whatever he was mouthing Christine couldn’t make out. She took a wild guess, the thing that seemed most probable.
“Is it the Squip?”
Rich nodded. Christine’s eyes widened.
“Is it reactivating? I can call Michael and Jeremy if-”
“Nonononono, don’t worry,” Rich cut in. “It’s not. I just… It just keeps coming back… I dunno.”
Rich sighed shakily, pulling his knees closer.
Christine looked at him, worry riddling her face. She hadn’t fully understood what he had meant but she figured it had something to do with memories of the Squip.
“Are you gonna be okay?” She asked.
He shrugged weakly.
“Do you want me to take you home?”
Rich looked at her and nodded slightly. Christine didn’t think she’d ever seen anyone look more hurt and tired and afraid and scattered.
“Alright, let’s get down then,” She said.
Once they had both climbed down, Christine grabbed Rich’s shaken-up Pepsi.
“I recommend you don’t try and open that,” Christine joked. Rich nodded dejectedly, chuckling a little bit, and took the bottle from her. He looked emotionally exhausted.
Christine couldn’t shake the thought that she’d somehow done something that had triggered this, but she knew it wasn’t the time to think about that. Right now, Rich needed to be more important than the voice in the back of her mind asking if she’d done something wrong.
Rich weakly shut the door, enough that it shut all the way but not enough to slam it. He set his Pepsi down in the cup holder and began rocking back and forth, staring out the window.
“Hey Rich?” She asked. Rich jumped and turned to her.
“Has this ever happened before? Like, anything like this?”
“No,” Rich lied. Christine examined him, looking for any signs of lying, but decided she believed him. Her doubtful expression faded and she turned on the car.
Rich sighed in relief.
After that incident, Rich decided to never let anyone know about his “problem”. He didn’t want to be a burden on his friends, especially when his problem stemmed from something that was entirely his fault. They didn’t need that weight on them. He could bear it on his own.
He learned to function through flashbacks, how to ward off panic attacks, mask overstimulation, make excuses, lie easily.
It had been over a month since Rich was let out of the hospital, two months since the fire, over two years since he took the Squip, and sixteen days since he learned to hide his trauma.
He could never let his guard down.