Ned’s mom doesn’t always function.
It’s not all the time, and it’s not anything he thinks she does on purpose, but when things aren’t going too well for her or life gets a little too stressful, sometimes it has a way of just swallowing her whole. Rather than getting up early to send them off to school and work with forehead kisses and cups of coffee, she’ll lie in bed for hours. In the evenings, the kitchen will grow cold and empty, no longer filled with the usual aromas of simmering sinigang soup or fried pancit palabok. The orders will pile up for the small herbal supplement business she runs, her laptop continually pinging with unanswered emails while reruns of the Kardashians and The Price Is Right play before her eyes on the glowing TV screen.
Ned knows it’s nothing she can help. It’s fine. It is what it is. He fixes his own dinners, tries to stay on top of his school work, and keeps his room extra neat, not wanting to give her any more reason to stress.
Whenever Ned or his family tries to interact with her, she’ll shrug them off and turn back to her TV programs and four-hour midday naps, lost in her own world of all-consuming sadness.
Maybe that’s why Ned’s always been good at functioning. Someone’s gotta do it.
“So I just found out there’s this cybersecurity internship with Roxxon Corp. and I think I’m gonna apply for it,” Ned says as he slides into the school cafeteria lunch table with his tray. “The application is like fourteen pages and you have to submit this essay about your greatest strength or whatever, but if I get it it’ll look great on my college applications.”
“Yeah, that’s awesome, man,” Peter agrees distractedly. He’s shoveling in pizza with one hand and hurriedly copying down Ned’s chemistry homework answers with the other.
“Only problem is the deadline is in like two weeks, so I’m getting kinda down to the wire,” Ned goes on. “But I should be able to crank out a few pages tonight.”
(After he makes dinner, that is. And answers a few of his mom’s emails for her. He’s getting pretty good at working her order system, though it would be nice if she jotted her notes down in English rather than Tagalog. He’s a little rusty these days.)
“Yeah, I’m sure you’ll manage,” Peter dismisses. He frowns at the worksheet and points at one of the problems. “Hey, what’s your answer for thirteen? I can’t read your handwriting.”
Ned huffs out a laugh, both from the comment and the fruitlessness of trying to have a conversation with Peter at the moment. “Yeah, it’s pretty bad,” he agrees. “My dad keeps saying I should forget the computer science major and go to med school instead. I’ll fit right in.”
(That much is true, though not for Ned’s lack of penmanship skills. His dad’s reasoning has more to do with future job prospects and the potential increase in financial compensation. But that’s not as funny.)
Ned squints at the paper. “Uh… I think it says ‘valence electrons’,” he deciphers. “That or it’s ‘useless citrons’...”
Peter laughs, then winces and presses his fingers to the lump on the back of his head. The reason he’s copying the work is that he was out of school yesterday, recovering from a wicked concussion sustained in the line of duty (though the attendance office has the official reason for his absence marked down as ‘low-grade fever’; Ned’s curious just how many “sick days” Peter will be able to pull off this semester before the school investigates further).
“How’s your head?” Ned asks, keeping his voice as casual as possible. If he’s going to be Spider-Man’s official Guy in the Chair, he’s going to have to prove he can deal with his friend’s occasional injuries.
Peter shrugs. “It’s alright, just hurts a bit,” he admits. “Nothing like yesterday.”
Pushing down the twinge of worry in his gut, Ned forces a grin. “Are brick walls still public enemy number one?”
Peter giggles lightly and whacks Ned’s arm with his chemistry folder. “We agreed we weren’t gonna talk about that.”
Yeah, and you agreed you were going to be more careful on patrols so I wouldn’t have to worry myself sick every other night, Ned wants to retort. But he figures that a good dose of guilt is just about the last thing his friend needs at the moment, so he laughs instead.
After jotting down the final answer, Peter slides the worksheet back to him. “Thanks, man. I owe you one.”
“It’s fine.” Ned shrugs him off.
Because it is. It always is.
“It’s my body and my life!” his sister cries, her voice shrill and echoing all the way to Ned’s room. “I’m eighteen—you can’t tell me what I can and can’t do anymore!”
Ned is sitting on his bed, his open computer on his lap. He’s been on page three of the Roxxon application for the last two hours; it’s awfully hard to concentrate with Malayna and his parents carrying on as they are downstairs.
“We can when you are under our roof!” his mom retorts. “You’re not ready for something like this! Tell her, Keoni,” she pleads.
Ned can’t hear whatever his dad says in reply, but he isn’t expecting to either. That’s how it always is when the three of them argue. His sister, dramatic and emotional; his mom, passionate and tearful; his dad, quiet and passive.
(Ned, personally, hates conflict.)
“You have no idea the sacrifices it takes to raise a child, Malayna!” his mom cries. “You are too young, you understand? No education! No job! This baby will ruin you!”
“Oh, like we did to you?” Malayna shoots back. He can hear the tears she’s choking out. “Did you even want us, mama?!”
It’s the third time he’s overheard the same argument this week, ever since his parents found out last Sunday. Malayna is six weeks along.
They’ll go on like this for an hour or so until something snaps. His sister will storm out to stay with her boyfriend and his dad will wearily climb the stairs to get a couple hours of rest before his alarm goes off the next morning and he drags himself off to work again.
And that’s when Ned will slip downstairs to silently brew his mother a cup of tea while she sits at the kitchen table staring blankly straight ahead, the fight having all run out of her.
“She loves you, mama,” Ned will whisper in her native tongue as he passes her the steaming mug, the words feeling clumsy but familiar in his mouth. But his mom will cry anyway because it’s what she needs to hear. “We all do.”
But that’s for later. For now, Ned just slips in his headphones and cranks up the overly upbeat music. From the open bag beside his leg, he fishes out another handful of M&Ms and pops them into his mouth—he’s learned that the pretzel ones give the loudest crunch—and effectively drowns the voices out.
He starts page four of the application.
“Wait, so she’s keeping the baby?” Peter gapes at him.
They’re sitting at their usual lunch table in the crowded cafeteria. MJ is a few seats over with her nose in a book.
Ned forces a grin. “Yup! I’m gonna be an uncle now. Probably have to pick up a weird hobby and start wearing socks and sandals to all family gatherings,” he jokes. “I’ve been debating between model trains, fly fishing, and monster trucks.”
Peter huffs out a short laugh. “Nah, I think you should start collecting snakes.”
Ned shudders and makes a face. “Ugh, don’t even say that, man. I hate snakes.”
“Exactly.” Peter grins. “So you can conquer your fears, one danger noodle at a time.”
Over their laughter, MJ glances up from her book, her brows knitting into a frown. “Your sister is still in school, right?”
(Leave it to MJ not to take his bait.)
“Yeah, this is her senior year,” Ned replies.
“Is she still gonna graduate?” MJ asks. “With the baby and all that?”
Ned hesitates a second. Malayna was never into school like he was. She got held back in first grade, so she’s always been the oldest one in her class. But she’s smart in her own way—social, pretty, athletic. She goes to the public high school two blocks from their house, the same place Ned would be if he hadn’t qualified for Midtown.
“Uh… well, I know the school district has a program for expectant mothers,” he says finally, recalling the school website he scoured the night previous when he was too distracted to work on his application. “They have like, support groups and stuff.”
“Oh cool. That’s awesome, man,” Peter pipes up.
(Ned doesn’t tell them what else he found—that only forty percent of teen mothers graduate high school, and less than two percent will get a college degree before their thirtieth birthday.)
Instead, he changes the subject. “Hey, you know how some schools make you carry around those fake babies for a health class project? Like, it’s a doll but it can actually cry and you have to pretend to take care of it and change its diapers and stuff?”
At his friends’ nods of understanding, Ned goes on. “Okay so...” He leans in conspiratorially. “Like, five years ago, my cousin got assigned to take care of one of those babies, right? But the thing must have been defective or something because no matter what he did, it would just cry and cry. And eventually he got so fed up that he put the baby outside. Then it rained, like, this crazy thunderstorm, and he totally forgot about it.”
“Oh god...” Peter groans while MJ just shakes her head slowly.
A grin spreads across Ned’s face. “Totally ruined the voice box. I swear, that thing sounded like a demon from the pits of hell. It was like…”
He gives his best impression of a horrifically robotic-sounding wail and suddenly Peter is doubled over laughing and MJ is covering her face with the back of her hand, trying to hide her smirk, and whatever tension had existed in their group at his sister’s uncertain future is suddenly released.
Because Ned’s nothing if he’s not funny.
The next day, Malayna moves in with her boyfriend.
It’s to be expected, Ned supposes. Devon is two years older and has an apartment which he shares with a couple roommates. It’s small, dingy, and crowded, but it’s a place separate from either of their parents’ reproach.
Ned is sad to see her go—the two of them were always pretty close—but his mom is absolutely devastated. She holes herself up in her bedroom for the next several days, only emerging when absolutely necessary and always with tears in her eyes.
Ned’s dad starts staying later at work. He says he’s making up for some of the lost income from the herbal supplement business, but Ned’s pretty sure he’s just doing what he always does when there’s conflict; hiding.
The Roxxon application makes it to page eight.
“Okay, so…” Ned looks up from the notebook pages he has spread out in front of him. “Jayden”—he points his mechanical pencil across the table at one of the members of his group project, who is one-handedly scrolling through his phone under the table—“did you do the slides for historical origins?”
“Nah not yet, but I’ve got some time tonight,” Jayden assures without glancing up. “I’ll get it done. No worries.”
“But you got the research started at least, right?” Ned clarifies.
Jayden shrugs. “I mean, I looked at some stuff.”
Translation: I skimmed the Día de los Muertos Wikipedia article for thirty seconds, Ned thinks to himself.
He plasters on a smile. “Sweet. Just let me know when you get it done and I’ll help you format it.”
Jayden throws him a mock salute and Ned turns to his second partner. “Did you finish your part about the sugar skulls?”
Clarissa blushes a bit. “Um, so last night we had the student council meeting and then a band concert, and that went kinda really late. I would’ve totally done it in study hall this morning but my chromebook was dead, so…” she trails off. “But I’ll get it done tonight!” she promises, then frowns a second later. “Or, wait, tonight is cheer practice and then my friend’s birthday party. Um...”
“Yeah, okay, no problem,” Ned tells her, trying hard to keep his tone light. “It’s just that this presentation is kind of a big portion of our grade.”
“Right, I know, and I’ll get it done!” she promises. “Just maybe it’ll be over the weekend? But it will be ready by Monday for sure!”
Ned doesn’t even bother asking Peter—the final member of their group—given that he is currently laying with his head down on the desk and wincing at the sound of every chair skidding across the floor or loud burst of laughter from the other groups surrounding them. It’s been four days since his concussion now, but the intermittent headaches he gets don’t seem to have let up much yet and it’s honestly kind of freaking Ned out.
“Alright, and I guess I’ll just keep working on the ofrendas section,” Ned throws in, marking a note down on his sheet.
“The what?” Jayden questions.
“The altars for the dead people,” Ned clarifies. “You know, for the gifts to the souls in the afterlife?”
(Okay, maybe he didn’t skim the Wiki article after all.)
“Ohhh right right,” Jayden says. “Gotcha.”
“You know, I’m really glad you’re in our group for this, Ned!” Clarissa gushes. “It’s gotta be pretty easy for you, right? Because it’s Mexican?”
Ned blinks at her, at first sure that she’s joking. But her smile doesn’t waver. “Uh, I’m actually Filipino and Hawaiian,” he corrects with a small laugh.
“Oh! I just thought…” Clarissa’s gaze falls to his bare forearm, but then quickly shoots back up again. “Sorry.” She quirks her head. “But it’s close though, right?”
“Um…” Ned doesn’t really feel like giving a lesson on the history of Spanish colonialism (or geography, for that matter), so he just shrugs. “Something like that.”
She gives a relieved smile.
The bell rings to signal the end of class. Peter raises his head at the sound, squinting in confusion while the other students quickly clear out. “Wha…?” he mumbles. “What’d I miss?”
Ned sighs. “Nothing really. C’mon, dude,” he says, grabbing his friend’s backpack for him as he gets to his feet. “I’ll drop you off at trig.”
“Oh. Okay, thanks…” Peter breathes.
As the two make their way out of the classroom, Ned silently adds Peter’s portion of their presentation to his own to-do list.
MJ isn’t always the most tactful friend.
Most of the time, Ned likes that about her—she’s honest, sarcastic, funny. But then there are other times when it stings. For instance, when Ned comments about his dad’s new work schedule during art class that day:
“At least your parents are still together,” MJ says bluntly as she sketches out the next shape for her Zentangle project. “My dad left when I was three.”
An instant pang of guilt hits Ned. Between the crowded apartment she shares with her mom and three half siblings, and her biological dad’s array of new girlfriends (some of them only a few years older than MJ herself) who constantly filter in and out of her life, Ned knows her home life isn’t the best. He’s got no right to complain, especially to her.
“Yeah, that’s true,” Ned agrees, then forces a small laugh. “And on the bright side, I haven’t had to suffer through his horrific attempts at cooking—it’s been leftover pepperoni pizza for the last three nights.”
“See? Perks,” MJ says with a smirk. She turns back to the drawing and shrugs. “You’re not missing much. Most dads suck anyway.”
Ned laughs a bit at that. Then he resolves to try harder to keep his petty issues to himself.
Ned is in the kitchen on Saturday night, helping his dad put away the dinner leftovers (his mom declined to come and eat with them again) when they get the call. It comes in on the landline phone, which should be evidence enough that something is amiss. No one calls the landline anymore.
Ned scoops the remains of the beef stroganoff Hamburger Helper into tupperware while his dad answers the call. He watches his dad’s lips press together tightly as he listens. His half of the conversation is short:
“Hello?... Yes… Yes… I see… Yes…. No… When?... I’ll be there.”
He hangs up the phone with a deep sigh. Then he runs a hand tiredly over his face before turning back around to his son.
“What is it?” Ned asks. “Who was that?”
“It was your Aunt Marie,” his dad answers simply. “My father just died.”
The news is not shocking. Ned’s grandpa was old and sick, having been battling pancreatic cancer for the last three years. No one in his family was close to him—not even Ned’s dad, since his own parents had split back when he was eleven. Ned doesn’t know what to feel.
His dad flies out to Kalaoa the next day to help with the funeral arrangements. He offered to take Ned out of school for a few days so that he could come along—let him have a final goodbye, pay his respects, see some of their relatives for the first time in nearly a decade. But it would be awkward and Ned can’t justify the cost of the plane ticket. Not when he barely even knew the man.
Ned feels strangely hollow all day Sunday. It’s not quite grief—if anything, he’s sad that he doesn’t feel more sad. But that’s just stupid. He didn’t know his grandpa—he has no right to be sad.
When he arrives at school on Monday morning, Peter immediately pulls him into a hug.
“Hey. I’m so sorry, man,” Peter whispers. “We’re here if you need anything, okay?”
“Yeah, definitely,” MJ agrees. She’s hovering nearby, tugging at her sleeves in the way she always does when she’s uncomfortable. “That really sucks.”
For a second, Ned wants to talk about it, to see if they know what it’s like to feel guilty for feeling too much and not enough all at once. But then he remembers how Peter lost both of his parents and his uncle who’d become a second father to him, all before the age of fifteen. How MJ’s step-brother died the year before from a drug overdose and how she’d been so upset she’d barely spoken for the next month. This isn’t the same at all.
“Um, thanks guys, but I’m really okay,” Ned assures, forcing a small smile. “We weren’t even that close. I think the last time I saw him, I was like six years old? It’s not a big deal.”
His friends still look unconvinced, so Ned goes on, “Hey, that actually reminds me… did I ever tell you about that trip? How I nearly burned down Hawaii before I even graduated first grade?”
“What? No!” Peter balks and MJ huffs out a laugh, so Ned launches into a rather embellished rendition of how he and his uncle set a bonfire in his grandparents' backyard and six-year-old Ned burned a hole in his Scooby-Doo velcro sneakers and got to meet the Kalaoa city fire department.
When Ned gets home that evening, he types up the slides for both Jayden’s and Clarissa’s parts of their presentation (they haven’t replied to any of his messages and the first draft is due tomorrow). Peter had apologetically given him some handwritten outlines earlier (screens and concussions don’t mix well, evidently), but they’re so messy and misspelled that Ned finds it easier to just write his own than try to decipher them.
He wonders idly if his family would have cared more for his grandfather’s departed soul if they were from somewhere that celebrated things like Day of the Dead. Something tells him probably not.
Then Ned sits on his bed and eats pretzel M&Ms until he doesn’t feel anything, except for a bit sick.
The week passes, both too slow and too fast.
While Ned’s dad is away, his mom shuts herself in her room most of the time. Ned brings her a cup of tea and a protein bar every morning before he leaves for school. He sets them on her bedside table, usually earning him a grunt in response.
Malayna starts sending him long, angsty texts every other night, venting her frustration over their parents’ lack of support, her pregnancy woes, her boyfriend… everything. Ned’s not entirely sure what his sister needs from him, so he replies with occasional words of encouragement interspersed with memes and uncle jokes, but it must be right because she keeps messaging him back. Or maybe she’s just lonely.
Peter’s headaches continue to come and go and Ned spends most of his downtime over the weekend on his computer, anxiously scanning WebMD and Mayo Clinic articles for reassurance that this is typical following a concussion. Naturally, all the internet research backfires and leaves Ned swallowing down the fear that his friend could be experiencing anything from intracranial pressure, to a traumatic brain injury, to an actual tumor.
The Roxxon application sits untouched.
“Just tell May, please?” Ned begs on Tuesday morning when Peter shows up looking exceptionally awful. “She can take you for a scan or something—make sure it’s nothing more serious.”
“No, I’m okay,” Peter protests. “I just haven’t been sleeping enough lately. Sometimes when I don’t sleep, it throws off my healing.”
It’s finally during lunch when Peter just lays his head on the table, the pain causing him to feel too dizzy and sick to eat anything, that Ned gives up trying not to worry. He texts May that she needs to come and pick Peter up before practically dragging his friend down to the nurse’s office.
“’s nothing…” Peter mutters. He’s squinting in the fluorescent lit hallway as he stumbles along beside Ned. “Jus’ need some time to heal. Don’t have to worry May...”
So you thought you’d just come to school half-dead and worry me instead? is what Ned wants to say. Instead he just argues, “Then you shouldn’t be in school, you should be resting.”
The nurse fusses over Peter a bit and then has him lie down on a cot in the back of the room while he waits. May arrives just as the period is ending and Ned is preparing to head to his next class. She gives his shoulder a squeeze of thanks before whisking her mildly betrayed-looking nephew away to urgent care.
During seventh period, Ned’s group presents their Día de los Muertos project. Jayden and Clarissa turn out to be decent speakers at least, reading Ned’s cue cards with undeserved confidence and bubbly enthusiasm, respectively. It’s only Ned who trips over his words, his mind distracted with worry.
Several hours after school lets out, May texts to inform him that Peter’s MRI results came back clean—it really is just post concussion syndrome and it should improve with time and rest. Part of Ned feels guilty for forcing Peter to go, but a more bitter part of him can’t help but think getting checked out is the least his friend could do after all the stress he put Ned through.
Ned knocks out three more pages of the application before crashing into bed.
Wednesday is a Bad Day™.
It’s nothing extreme, just one not-great-thing after another stacking up on top of each other. Ned wakes up late with a runny nose and scratchy throat, just enough to make him slightly miserable but not quite enough to classify him as sick. He forces down a cup of his mom’s herbal tea before heading out the door into the drizzly November morning and is half-way to school when he remembers he left his chemistry homework sheet on his desk.
Peter is still home from school, and MJ is unusually quiet and sulky, which Ned can only assume is related to her upcoming visit with her dad. He knows he should try to ask her about it—see if she wants to talk, if there’s something he can do to help, even just make some jokes to lighten the mood. But he lacks the energy to make the first move and she doesn’t reach out, so he’s just left feeling like a shit friend.
Malayna is having some kind of crisis. She texts him six times during first period and eleven times during second. Ned’s phone buzzes endlessly against his leg as she complains about everything from her morning sickness, to how behind she is with school work, to her boyfriend’s overbearing mother, to the quality of the paper towels in the girl’s bathroom. By third period she announces that she’s planning on dropping out of school.
Ned’s in the process of drafting a lengthy reply to her when his teacher confiscates his phone for the remainder of class. Honestly, part of him is relieved that it’s gone.
During his study hall, Ned logs into his mom’s work email to a flood of complaints about the most recent shipments. It takes him most of the period to realize that he mistranslated one of the herbs on the order forms—it should be ‘sinta’ instead of ‘sambong’ leaves. He’s going to have to process six customers’ replacement orders when he gets home tonight, and he’s got a research paper due for world history at midnight. Not even to mention his application, which is rapidly approaching the deadline.
By the time he gets home that evening, he’s exhausted and run down. He microwaves himself a can of soup for dinner and shuts himself in his room to try to get his work done, but his homework and the essay and emails seem to swim before his eyes until his vision is blurry.
His phone pings again with another text from Malayna which he can’t bring himself to open, followed by one from his dad:
I’m on my way back from the airport. Can you make sure to take out the trash tonight?
Ned leans back against the pillows on his bed, his head throbbing. He’s even out of fucking M&Ms.
Tears start sliding down Ned’s cheeks and for about a minute, he just sits there, letting them. Peter’s words echo in his head: We’re here if you need anything.
But they’re not here—not really. Peter’s been sentenced to bedrest and MJ is staying over at her dad’s apartment in Brooklyn tonight, and anyway, nothing is really wrong with him. He’s just being stupid and dramatic.
He scrubs the tears roughly from his cheeks and resumes his history paper.
By Thursday, Peter is back in school, joking and laughing as he always does and MJ has a bunch of stories about her dad’s eccentric new girlfriend to sarcastically share with them at lunch. Ned’s exhausted. He still comments and laughs at the appropriate moments, but it all just feels like going through the motions.
That evening Ned sits in front of a blank google doc, the cursor blinking at him mockingly. He rereads the prompt for the twelfth time:
Interns here at Roxxon possess a diverse set of skills and experiences that help to make our corporation run smoothly. In a 1-2 page essay, please identify the single greatest strength you could bring to our team.
What is Ned’s greatest strength? He’s good with computers, sure, but so is every other applicant. He’s hardworking, but that’s not very special either. Same with his grades; they don’t seem like much of an accomplishment when he’s competing against a whole pool of geniuses. He’s funny, he supposes, but that’s not really a professional quality.
His phone pings. It’s Malayna: What do you think of the name Kenneth for a boy??
Kenneth is cool, he replies. Then he turns back to the doc and begins to type:
My greatest strength is
The phone pings again. This time it’s his dad: Can you help bring in the groceries? There was a sale on diet Pepsi so I got 6 cases
Ned sighs wearily. Yeah, be down in a few minutes, he replies.
My greatest strength is
His phone chirps, but it’s the email tone this time. A customer is complaining about a recent shipment of sambong. He marks it ‘important’ in his inbox and asks Siri to remind him about it tomorrow.
My greatest strength is
Peter messages him: What did you get for prob 4 on the chem homework?
He’s just reaching for his chemistry folder when the phone pings again. Malayna: Never mind, Kenneth is a stupid name lmao. What about Jackson??
Ping. His dad: Also, the DVR is full again. Are you ever going to watch all these old episodes of Supernatural or can I delete them?
“Ned?” his mom’s voice hollers at him from downstairs. “Can you come help me with my computer?”
Ned covers his face in his hands and exhales a long, shaky breath. He thinks he might start crying.
Then all at once, an almost hysterical thought hits him. He barks out a short laugh as his fingers find the keyboard again:
My greatest strength is that I am low maintenance.
Ned ends up submitting his application with exactly eighteen minutes to spare before the deadline.
Thanks to quite a few years of English class BS-ing skills, the essay response is worded a bit more eloquently by the time he turns it in. He talks about his self-sufficiency, dedication, and willingness to be a team player. It’s far from his best work, and he seriously doubts it will land him the position, but at least it’s done.
He finally crawls into bed at one a.m. wondering why he can put effort into solving everyone’s problems but his own.
Friday morning, Ned wakes to the smells of sizzling sausage, fresh-cooked rice, and fried eggs wafting up the stairs. His mom is bustling around the kitchen, stirring pans and making coffee. The radio plays classic 80s music. He blinks at the sight.
“Come and eat, come and eat!” she greets, ushering Ned to the table. She pulls out his chair for him and nudges him into the seat. “You look tired, Ni!” she reprimands. “You need more sleep!”
While Ned eats, his mom babbles on, asking him about school, decathlon, and his friends, but then hardly waiting for answers between interrupting with the next question. Her words are rapid, shifting constantly between her two languages as though her tongue can’t keep up with her brain as she bounces up and down from the table, a flurry of activity.
Ned smiles when she pinches his cheeks and calls him her ‘good boy’, but there’s a lingering sadness below the surface. It’s been this way all of Ned’s life, his mother’s constant swinging from high to low, from up to down. Usually it’s a relief to see her like this—energized, excited, alive, but today all Ned can think of is how fleeting these moments of reprieve are and how he never knows how long they will last.
“Tell your sister to call me!” his mom orders as she plants a kiss on his forehead. “I call her phone and it rings and rings,” she says with a pout. “I’m making chicken adobo tomorrow. She can bring that boy of hers, okay? You will tell her, yes?”
“I’ll tell her, mama,” Ned promises as he slips out the door.
By all objective standards, Friday is a good day.
Ned’s mom is functioning again. Malayna is sending less angsty messages and more funny memes. Peter is all in one piece and MJ is her usual self. School is normal. The application is submitted. There’ll be chicken adobo tomorrow.
For once, everything is fine. Except for Ned.
It’s during second period English, as Ned pages through his copy of Fahrenheit 451, that the bad thoughts start swirling in his head.
That Roxxon application was crap. You’re never going to get that internship.
He inhales deeply and tries to tell himself it’s okay, it’s just one potential opportunity and he’ll have more.
But will you do any better on those, or will you bend over backwards to help everyone around you and do nothing to help yourself?
He lets the breath back out and shakes his head slightly to clear the thoughts. This is stupid and selfish. His family and friends need him far more than he needs that internship.
Or do they? Maybe you just need to be needed because you don’t know how to exist without being someone else’s support system. Who even are you if not everyone’s Guy in the Chair?
Maybe you need them more than they need you.
Pushing the thoughts aside, Ned swallows hard and turns the page. He doesn’t want to think about this.
That’s because it’s true and you know it.
“Please stop…” Ned breathes out.
The girl sitting next to him abruptly stops tapping her pencil on the desk. “Sorry,” she whispers.
“Oh, no, it’s fine, not you!” he quickly assures her. Feeling his face flush, he turns back to his book.
Nice going, Ned.
The thoughts continue to swirl in Ned’s head, leaving him moving through his day on autopilot as the different voices battle in his brain. He tries to ignore them, to focus on anything else, but they just keep coming. And they’re so, so loud.
You’re too invested in everyone else’s business. This is why you don’t even know who you are.
No, he’s being selfish for thinking that. And honestly, he’s not much help to them anyway. Peter still gets hurt, Malayna is still dropping out, his mom still struggles. He didn’t even go to Hawaii with his dad for the funeral.
Yeah, maybe dad wanted you there—did you ever think of that?
He pauses—where did that thought come from? He made that decision to save his dad money, not because he was being selfish.
Yeah but he asked you to come and you made him go alone. Maybe he wanted you there. You didn’t even ask him.
But shouldn’t that be his mom’s job? Shouldn’t she have gone to support her husband? Why do her neglected responsibilities always seem to fall to Ned?
That’s not fair, she’s sick. And it’s not like you’re paying the bills or anything. Loads of people have it worse. Stop feeling sorry for yourself.
“Hey. You alright?”
Ned blinks and looks up from his drawing to see MJ looking at him, her eyebrows raised. “You’ve been staring at that paper for like, ten minutes,” she points out. “It’s a bit creepy.”
No, I’m going insane.
“Sorry. Just zoned out,” Ned says instead.
And then as MJ shrugs and continues her own Zentangle, Ned slips back into his swirl of internal noise.
The thoughts only grow louder as the day goes on. Ned keeps functioning—trudging from one class to another, speaking when spoken to, working steadily. There’s decathlon practice after school, and Ned drags himself to that as well. He answers just enough questions not to arouse most of his team’s suspicion, but Peter keeps shooting him concerned looks.
You’re worrying him. Stop being so dramatic—nothing is even wrong. He has enough to deal with without your crap too.
By the time practice is over, it’s dark and rainy outside. Peter is talking to him, babbling on about something as they walk the two blocks to the train station, but Ned can barely hear him over all the noise.
As they approach, Peter turns and looks questioningly at him. “You good, man?”
Ned nods in response.
Look at you, lying without even opening your mouth.
The train arrives and Ned boards immediately, sitting down in a window seat toward the back of a car. Peter slides into the seat beside him, still looking skeptical.
He’s worried for you. You’re being a burden. Nobody likes a burden. He’ll resent you. Just like you secretly resent everyone.
The tears start sliding down Ned’s cheeks, hot and silent and totally uncontrollable. He turns his head to the side and stares out the window, desperately trying to stop them from flowing. That’s not true, is it? He doesn't resent them, does he? God, he's being so pathetic. Nothing is even wrong—why can’t his brain get that memo?
After a couple of minutes, Peter whispers, “You hanging in there?”
Ned nods, still staring at the window. The surrounding passengers are starting to shoot him strange glances and Ned’s throat is so tight that he can’t get a word out.
Peter hesitates a moment. “Do you want to talk about it?” he asks, keeping his voice low.
Ned shakes his head minutely.
“That’s okay,” Peter breathes. “Just, y’know… let me know.”
The more Ned tries to convince himself to stop crying, the harder the tears fall. His shoulders are shaking with the effort to keep his sobs silent as the relentless thoughts argue back and forth in his head to the point where Ned can’t even differentiate which side they’re on.
Every thought is conflicting—every choice is wrong. If he talks, he’s being pathetic. If he clams up, he’s being stupid. If he cries, he’s dramatic. If he keeps everything in, he’ll break. If he leans on his friends, he might hurt them. If he doesn’t, he’ll never get relief.
He doesn’t know how long he sits there, frozen in place, tears streaming down his cheeks, but eventually Peter’s hand enters Ned’s field of vision. He’s holding out one of his earbuds.
Ned glances up and Peter gives him a slight nod of encouragement, so Ned takes it with shaking fingers and slides it in.
Peter slips the other earbud into his own ear, the cord suspended between them. Then he scoots closer to Ned until their sides are pressed against each other and cranks up the music on his phone until it drowns out everything.
And Ned just cries.
It’s a good ten minutes until the train arrives at their destination, and by that time Ned’s managed to stop the tears. They’ve served their purpose and he’s numb now. The thoughts still swirl in his head, but they’ve drifted to the background now and he can push them away.
The moment they step off the train platform and onto the sidewalk, Peter pulls him into a hug.
“Can I help?” he asks.
Ned shakes his head. “No, ‘s stupid,” he murmurs. He doesn’t even know where he would begin to explain.
Peter hesitates. “Is it something with your sister?” he guesses. “Your parents?”
Ned shakes his head. “No, ‘m okay…”
“Is it about your grandpa?” Peter tries again.
Ned shakes his head; if only it were that simple. But it’s not. It’s not one thing—it’s everything. And nothing.
Peter bites his lower lip. “Do you want to come over?” he offers.
Ned doesn’t really. But he doesn’t want to go home right now either. He doesn’t reply.
“C’mon,” Peter insists, the corners of his lips turning up into the smallest of smiles. “It’s Friday—I can probably get May to order us pizza.”
Ned can’t say what he’s thinking. He can’t say that he wants to talk, but he doesn’t even know where to start. That he can’t handle everything people keep throwing at him, but he doesn’t want them to stop coming to him either. Because what if they need him? Or is that arrogant of him to think that? Maybe it’s actually just him who needs them to distract himself from his own shit. Maybe no one actually needs him at all. How much help has he even been lately anyway? How can he—
“I don’t like pepperoni,” Ned blurts. The words are out of his mouth before he can stop them.
Peter looks confused. “Oh. Um, okay?” He quirks his eyebrow. “But I thought pepperoni was your favorite.”
Ned shakes his head. “It’s not, but it’s your favorite so I just eat it. It’s easier that way.” The words just keep tumbling out before Ned decides to say them. “But it’s fine—it’s the same at home too. We always get pepperoni because Malayna’s really picky and it’s the only kind she’ll eat. I’m the only one who doesn’t like it.”
Peter nods slowly, his brows knit together as he takes this information in. “So… you don’t like it, but you eat it anyway?”
“Yeah.” Ned’s heart is beating strangely fast in his chest. He’s not quite sure why, but it suddenly feels very important that he makes Peter understand this.
“Why don’t you just ask for something else?”
“Because…” Ned trails off, thinking back to all the times his family and friends have ordered food with him. “Because that would cost more and I don’t want to be a bother. And it’s fine—I’m not really that picky and it’s not like I’m allergic or anything. So it doesn’t matter.”
Peter gives him a strange look. “But it does matter,” he says, a bit firmer. “You don’t like pepperoni.”
Ned shrugs, feeling himself deflate a bit. “But everyone else does.”
“Yeah, but not you.” Peter locks eyes with him in a way that conveys this isn’t about pizza toppings anymore. “You know that you’re a person too, Ned, right?”
A lump settles in Ned’s throat and he has to swallow it down before he can speak again. “Yeah but… I can deal with it. Not everyone can. Like, Malayna won’t eat any other kind—if you give her sausage or something, she just won’t eat. I can deal.”
Peter shrugs. “Sometimes, maybe. But no one should have to all the time.” He pauses, then smirks and adds offhandedly, “...Y’know, eat pepperoni pizza, that is. They would get like, heartburn or something.”
Ned breathes out a single laugh. “Yeah, I guess they would.”
They both stand there another few seconds, the rain pelting down on the train station roof. Peter shifts his weight from one foot to the other. “Uh... so what kind of pizza do you like then?” he ventures.
Ned pauses for a moment, racking his brain. Finally, he admits, “I guess… I don’t really know.”
A small smile spreads across Peter’s face. “Then let’s find out, man.”
Nothing is solved that night.
The Roxxon application is still shit. His sister is still pregnant. His mom is still bipolar. His dad is still distant. Peter is still Spider-Man. MJ is still herself. Ned is still trying to figure out how to juggle his own life and being everyone else’s Guy in the Chair.
But that night, Ned learns that his favorite kind of pizza is barbecue chicken.