Archie walks the length of the waiting area for the ninth time since he arrived ten minutes ago. It’s not really a waiting room so much as it is a narrow hallway with three wooden chairs and a water cooler crammed into the space before a set of doors. “Cramped” would be a generous descriptor, not that Archie’s letting it slow his pacing any.
The office nearest him opens and Archie gets a facefull of door. He staggers back, dazed, while a blond woman rounds the door, jaw dropped open as she babbles out, “My goodness, I’m so sorry!”
Archie blinks a few times and rubs the tender spot on his forehead he’s sure will be turning colors before too long, “You’re fine, I shouldn’t have been standing right in front like that.”
She gives the waiting area a once over before turning her attention reluctantly to back him, “You wouldn’t happen to be Archie Andrews, would you?”
“Dr. Harper?” Archie guesses.
“That would be me. Not my finest introduction.”
She smiles apologetically at him. He expected her to be older for some reason, but she looks a little younger than his mom, with a round face, aquiline nose, and her hair held back with a navy blue headband that matches her skirt. And she has kind eyes.
“You can come in now, if you like,” she gestures to the still-open door behind her.
He glances back out of the waiting room, still hoping Mary will show up and tell him she’s changed her mind about him needing to be here, but she doesn’t.
He follows Dr. Harper around the door and into her office. It’s small, but it’s not as tightly packed as the hallway outside. A minimalist bookshelf rests against one wall, which has a few technical-looking volumes on it as well as a number of small pots containing succulents. There’s two seats, both ugly brown leather but they look comfortable at least.
Dr. Harper gestures for him to sit and he does, resting his arms on the armrests and tapping out a rhythm as he watches Dr. Harper collect her clipboard off her desk and settle across from him.
She balances the clipboard over her lap and leans in, “So, you’re Archie Andrews. You’re seventeen, high school senior. Your mother scheduled this appointment for you because you’ve been dealing with some pretty traumatic things over the last few years and she thinks you could use the support.”
“That sounds like what she’d say,” he says, noncommittal and uneasy as he tries to imagine what Mary would’ve filled out on those intake forms. She means well, he knows that, but everything about this feels personal and she doesn’t even know half of the things that happened.
“How do you feel about that assessment?” Dr. Harper asks. “This is your appointment. Tell me about where you’re at right now.”
“She’s just-- I’ve been through some bad stuff, that part’s true, but I think I’m doing okay,” Archie explains, as he’s tried repeatedly with Mary in the last week (to no avail). “I told my mom I’d try this out and I’m going to try. I’m not gonna not try, but I don’t need drugs to make me feel better and I’m not crazy, so I’m not really sure what I’m doing here.”
“I think you’ll be happy to know that I can’t actually prescribe medication. I’m not a psychiatrist. And to your other concern, therapy isn’t just for ‘crazy people,’ Archie. It certainly can be helpful for people experiencing psychosis, but that’s not its only use. I’ve been practicing in Riverdale my whole career and I’ve seen people from all walks of life in this office.”
“I take it you’re not convinced.”
Archie shakes his head.
“That’s alright. How about you tell me a little bit about yourself? Or what you think is bringing you to this place in your life?”
He’s in bed, gasping, throat raw and tears running down his cheeks, and there’s a figure above him. To drag him off to another fight , his mind supplies, and panic takes hold: he shoves himself upright, drawing a fist back, while his eyes adjust to the dim lighting enough to recognize--
“ Archie !”
Fear flashes across Mary’s face and she throws a hand up, stifling her cry of alarm. Archie drops his fist, but she’s already staggering back from him, trips over his guitar, and goes sprawling onto the floor.
“Sh-shit!” he has to gasp between words, his heart racketing in chest, each thump so intense it hurts to breath, “Mom-- I’m--”
Archie struggles out of his tangle of sheets and braces himself up against his headboard. Mary recovers, looking helplessly up at him, and he swallows down the panic in his throat, gets his voice steady enough to choke out, “Mom, I’m s-so sorry.”
Mary starts crying. Really crying, an ugly sob that gets caught in her throat and tears that won’t stop until her cheeks turn red. She doesn’t get up and Archie’s still shaking too much to move to the floor, so they stay where they are, both crying. Archie wants to keep apologizing, but his throat won’t open up again.
At last, Mary takes a shuddering breath and rises from the floor, carefully. All her movements are slow and measured and she approaches Archie like he’s a volatile animal and not her son. She eases herself onto the edge of his bed and looks at him, takes his shaking hand in hers.
“It’s from the fighting ring, isn’t it?” she asks. When Archie nods, her expression darkens, a glint of anger in her eyes. And then it’s gone. She leans in, pressing a kiss to his forehead, “You’re safe here, kiddo. Try to get some more sleep.”
She seems like she wants to hug him, but she doesn’t and instead runs a hand through his sweat-damp hair and looks seriously at him, kindly, before she gets up and slips back to the hall, leaving his door slightly ajar, light streaming in from the hallway. Archie crawls out of bed and closes it all the way, then gets back under the covers. He lies awake until the glow of morning starts to creep across his room.
“Dad stopped waking me up,” Archie tells her while he’s pouring himself a bowl of cereal the next morning. “One time, I didn’t remember where I was in time and I-- I actually did hit him.”
He gauges Mary’s reaction, wonders if she’ll be scared of him, considering last night.
She looks sad , which is a different kind of awful.
“He was okay,” Archie amends, “but we figured out it’s better to just let me sleep through them.”
“Don’t you want to be woken out of it?” Mary asks. “You sounded so scared last night.”
“I don’t remember them most of the time,” Archie says. “Anyway, this is why you should just let me go back to staying at the El Royale at night.”
“You’re not sleeping in a gym , Archie.”
And that was the end of it.
“My mom sent me here because my nightmares freak her out.”
Dr. Harper scribbles on her clipboard, then looks up to meet his eyes when she asks, “How long have you been having nightmares?”
“Seven, eight months? They started while I was in juvie.”
“And these nightmares, how are they affecting you?”
“I just don’t like bothering other people. It’s hard to sleep in the same house as my mom when I know if I fall asleep, I’m just gonna wake her up.”
“So they interrupt your sleep?” Dr. Harper suggests.
“Yeah, I guess.” They make him not sleep in the first place, so it’s hard to call them interrupting, but that gets across the general idea, he supposes.
“And you said they started in juvie. That was mentioned in your intake paperwork. You were at the Leopold and Loeb detention center, right?”
“Yeah. It was shitty.”
“How was it shitty?” Dr. Harper asks. Archie’s surprise at hearing her repeat his cursing is quickly replaced with irritation at her for wondering how being in child prison was shitty.
“I was in juvie ,” he says indignantly, “Why would it be anything else? And it was worse than that. It was all over the news a few months back, the underage fighting ring, with guards betting on inmates. I was in the middle of all of it.”
“I may not have phrased that correctly, I apologize. I wasn’t trying to question how you felt, I just wanted to know what specifically about it was shitty to you. Although you sort of answered my question.”
“Oh,” Archie relaxes a little.
“I’m just wondering if there was a specific part of it that was especially difficult for you. Or if there’s something you’ve found yourself thinking about or dreaming about more frequently.”
There’s a lot about L&L that was shitty. Not seeing his friends or family, falling behind in school, any of the beating he’d taken from other kids or the guards, the beatings he’d been forced to give out.
“The food sucked,” he says, which is true. Dr. Harper lets out a bark of laughter and he can’t place where she finds the humor. If she knows he’s understating it or just genuinely thinks bad prison food is funny.
“Alright,” she says. “Fair enough. Have you talked to anyone about what happened to you while you were there?”
“Uh, not really,” Archie says, “Munroe, kind of.”
Archie’s been sleeping at the El Royale at least three nights a week, curled up in a corner of the locker room, even though none of the guys from L&L are crashing anymore and he has a perfectly usable bed in his own house across town. The sleeping bag and pillow he brought from home would indicate to anyone paying enough attention that he’s doing it on purpose, even if he pretends it’s responsibility that keeps him there when Fred starts to ask. He always has a reason. A beer with the guys after winning a match and he couldn’t drive home. Too tired after a workout and since exhaustion causes seventy-two thousand car crashes a year in the United States, he’s just being responsible. Rain late at night making it not feel safe to drive. Fred probably knows better, but he seems to be willing to pretend Archie’s excuses aren’t bullshit.
The nightmares don’t stop while he stays at El Royale, at least he doesn’t think they do because he still wakes up with his heart pounding, his throat raw, cold sweat sticky on his skin.
On the nights when he is home (and every night before Archie started sleeping at the gym), Archie wakes up to find Fred hovering over him, worried, wanting to ask, but scared of the explanation he’ll get. The last thing Fred needs is another stressor; his heart is still weak from the gunshot wound last year. Archie can’t do much to stop the nightmares, though not for lack of effort. He tries to sleep with the light on or with the door closed or he tries to drink something warm before he falls asleep, but it’s been a pretty consistent routine these days of waking up crying with his father by his bedside.
Fred cries too, sometimes, when he thinks Archie’s fallen back asleep. Archie will be hovering on the edge of unconsciousness when he hears his father’s muffled tears, feels Fred’s hand stroking his hair like he used to when Archie was little and had come down with the flu.
Archie wishes what was wrong with him could be fixed with some chicken noodle soup and a capful of Motrin, but it can’t, so he sleeps at the gym because it doesn’t make sense for both of them to suffer through this. He can do this much for his dad at least.
He wakes up early, gets the gym open, and then sneaks back home to shower with decent water pressure. Some mornings, Betty and Jughead will appear to beg a ride to Pop’s off him, and they’ll meet Veronica there. They still all hang out with each other, even Veronica. Archie was worried, at first, but she and Betty have a friendship that will take a lot more than an uncomfortable break up to shake. And he and Veronica are still friends; he hasn’t lost her despite her everything.
This morning, though, it’s Munroe’s voice drifting across the locker room, “You’re here early.”
Archie hurries to finish shoving his sleeping bag into his locker, hoping Munroe won’t have noticed, “Wanted to make sure everything was ready when we opened.”
“Do you ever sleep?”
“Yeah, obviously ,” he says, nodding emphatically. “Why wouldn't I be sleeping?”
He starts across the room but Munroe steps into his path, concern etched across his face, “I was kidding. You okay, Red?”
“Okay,” Munroe lets up, “You wanna spar for awhile? It’s six now, the kids don’t usually start crawling in until closer to eight.”
“Let’s do it.”
They get a few rounds in that mostly turns into laughter because Munroe keeps comically over-exaggerating his punches, to which Archie responds by staggering backwards to the opposite side of the ring, and soon they’re laughing too hard to keep fighting.
They wind up sitting on top of the desk in the office, side by side, eating a breakfast feast consisting exclusively of cereal since that’s the only thing they ever have on hand. The minifridge in the office holds a delightful assortment of soda, cheap beer, and single gallon of milk.
Munroe keeps the conversation going and they chat about the upcoming school year and Archie’s weird friends and the trouble Munroe’s little brother has been getting into. It’s nice like this. Easy. They don’t talk about L&L, but they don’t need to say it by name. It’s there in the undercurrent, when they both feel the weight of the time they’ve missed and the disconnect between the people they’re around now and where they all were a year ago.
“He’s a friend,” Archie says and finds it hard to look directly at Dr. Harper now, so he stares at her bookshelf and fixates on the texture of the plants while he talks, “We were in L&L together and we’ve been through a lot of the same stuff. He understands it, but he’s also been through it longer than me.”
“That sounds like it would be a good friendship for you to have after what you went through.”
“Yeah. He’s a good guy.”
“Do you have other support systems in your life? Besides Munroe?”
“Yeah. Yeah, I guess. I have three really good friends, but it’s-- it’s been harder than I thought. After L&L, I thought I’d be able to just pick up how things used to be and then I couldn’t, really.”
He feels like he’s barely fallen asleep before Veronica’s shaking him awake, whispering something soft in his ear that he doesn’t catch right away. She’s tucked in behind him, has both arms wrapped around his chest and she’s rocking them back and forth. He’s been manhandled far too much in the last year to feel safe in the touch, but he doesn’t want to upset her. She’s trying . He can hear her now, soft and warm, “Shh, shh, it’s just me. You’re safe. We’re camping with B and Jughead. You’re safe, lover, I’m right here.”
He tries to steady his breathing, but Veronica’s arms around him are still too restrictive and he can’t calm down with her holding him like this. He takes her hands as gently as he can manage and pulls them away.
“I’m okay, j-just let me up.”
Her arms retreat and Archie sucks in a lungful of air, scrambling to the opposite side of the tent.
The moonlight barely reaches the tent between the trees overhead, casting bizarre outlines across the space. He can make out Veronica’s face in the mix of shadows, a beam of light falling across her worried eyes as she watches him.
“Did I wake anyone else up?”
“No, I don’t think so,” she says quietly. “I woke you up as soon as you started-- When I heard you.”
She’s gotten good at that part. Fred almost never wakes up anymore.
At the start of summer, when they’d struck up their relationship up again, Veronica took to staying with him. At first she snuck in through the window, always a little giddy over the classic teen rebellion trope (and more than once had commented with pride on their subversion of gender roles). After Fred caught them together one morning before Veronica had left and didn’t seem to mind either way, she started coming in through the front door like she owned the place. All smiles and “hello, Mr. Andrews” before trotting up to Archie’s room. On more than one occasion Fred had quietly wished them both goodnight before heading to bed himself. He never seemed resigned to it either. In fact, he seemed almost pleased. Archie wishes everything was as easy as his dad seemed to think.
“Archie,” Veronica says. “Things haven’t been getting better, have they?”
Archie shakes his head.
“I know it takes time to come back from something like that, but you’re almost the same as you were when you first got out of L&L. Am I doing something wrong? Or do you need us — me, Betty, Jug — to do something different?”
“No, it’s not you.”
“Well there has to be something,” Veronica says, arms crossed. She wants to figure out a solution to something that isn't solvable the way most of her problems are. A band or a dinner or a party, those are easy to fix and she's truly a miracle worker, but Archie's shit isn't like that.
“Maybe there isn't, though. Maybe this is just me now. I’m not a project you can wave your Veronica wand over and magically make better, you know.”
“I never said you were a project. You’re my boyfriend, I’m trying to help.”
Trying being the key word because she isn't helping. “Every night, you stay over, you sleep in my bed, and you never even asked if that’s what I needed.”
“I was being there for you. You didn’t tell me to stop.”
“I didn’t know how!”
Veronica flinches back and a beat of silence follows before she says, quietly, “I won’t stay over anymore then. I’m sorry, I didn’t know.”
The momentary unburdened relief he feels is immediately quashed by a rush of guilt. Veronica looks close to tears on her side of the tent, drawing her legs up to her chest and pulling the sweater she borrowed from him more tightly around her.
“You shouldn’t wait for me to get better,” Archie says. “You deserve a boyfriend who’d be thrilled with you staying over to take care of him.”
“No, don’t do this again.”
“I have to. I can’t do this-- us-- right now.”
“Okay. But then it’s over for good,” Veronica says insistently, more anger in her voice than pain now. “I won’t do the on-again/off-again thing anymore. No Ross and Rachel crap. It’s not a break, it’s over.”
“And I really don’t want to be right now,” she says. He can see the tears oncoming and he knows he can't be here for that. There's nothing he can say to make it better, so he murmurs an apology and makes himself scarce.
Which is how he winds up in Betty and Jughead’s tent at three in the morning. They both wake up at the sound of the zipper and peer blearily at him before exchanging a look with each other.
“Well, come on then, pal,” Jughead says, jokingly moving over to make room for Archie between them, an act that earns him a slap on the arm from Betty.
“Sorry, I-- I just can’t be in the other tent right now,” Archie says.
“Do I need to go check on her?” Betty asks, rubbing the sleep from her eyes and wiggling out of her sleeping back.
“Okay; I probably won’t be back then. You can sleep here with Jug,” She kisses Jughead on the cheek and crawls out of the sleeping bag, patting Archie on the shoulder as she clambers past him through the tent flap.
“That went way faster than I expected,” Archie says, still standing in the entrance of the tent.
“Yeah. Well. I owe her twenty bucks now, so.”
“What was the bet?”
“Whether we’d get woken up with loud sex or someone trying to come sleep with us post-breakup. She was obviously team breakup, she’d guessed you guys were on the rocks before we left.”
“It’s not our finest moment,” Jughead admits.
Archie’s too tired to lecture him about it and he’s not sure how much moral high ground there is to be had when he just dumped Veronica for being too supportive of a girlfriend. He drops into Betty’s empty spot next to Jughead, rolling onto his back and staring up at the ceiling of the tent.
“I ended it. I had to, Jug. It’s been bad ever since I got back.”
“Veronica’s made of tough stuff; she’ll be fine,” Jughead says lightly, and then, in a more serious tone, “Are you okay?”
“Yeah, I’m good.” A lie. Jughead knows it too and Archie’s sure if he looked over at him, he’d see the worry in his eyes. But he doesn’t look. He closes his eyes and shifts in the sleeping bag, hoping Jughead will think he’s falling asleep. He’s too wired for it in reality and even if he wasn’t, the thought of accidentally waking Jughead up if he has a nightmare is mortifying.
Jughead’s breathing starts to get heavier beside him and from the other tent he can hear Betty and Veronica talking in a warm, even murmur. He wants to run in to apologize to Veronica. And he wants to roll over to ask Jughead if they can sleep holding hands like they used to whenever they shared a bed when they were kids. And stronger than either of those is the desire to slip out of the tent and take off sprinting into the woods.
“They’re good friends. They try, even if they don’t get it all the time. They’re there when it matters.”
“I’m happy to hear that. And how are things with your mother?”
“We haven’t been close in years; she left when I was eight. She’s only back because my dad-- My dad died.”
“That’s recent, isn’t it?” Dr. Harper jots something down on the clipboard and looks up to meet Archie’s eyes.
“About a month ago. Car accident.”
“I’m sorry to hear that. That must be incredibly difficult to go through on top of everything else happening.”
“It feels like I can’t catch a break. One bad thing happens after another and it’s just over and over again. And this is-- It’s my dad . I almost lost him last year, I thought that was enough of a scare, but then there’s this too and it’s just-- It’s bullshit. I’m tired of bad things happening.”
“As you should be. Anyone would be exhausted after what you’ve been through. Losing a parent is an impossible thing, but your circumstances--”
“It’s too big. He was the thing I could always come back to whenever everything got too much and he’s not there anymore. Even when we were fighting, I knew he was going to be there. And now he’s just gone.”
“Have you talked much about your dad since he passed?”
“Yeah, all the time.” Over dinner, with his friends, in passing. Fred’s the only reason he’s doing anything at this point.
“That’s good. Some people have the tendency to shut down. But remembering our loved ones helps, especially with other people,” Dr. Harper glances down at her watch, “We’re just about out of time. Your mother scheduled this appointment and the next four. She also filled out some intake forms, but I’d like you to fill out some as well, just to give me a better idea about what’s on your mind or what might be helpful for us to focus on in our work together.”
He takes the offered manila folder.
“How do you feel about all this?” she asks.
“Not as bad as I was expecting.”
Dr. Harper nods, getting to her feet and motioning toward the office door, “Hopefully I can be helpful. That’s what this is for, so if there’s ever something I say or do that’s not helpful, just tell me. I’m not here to fix you, I’m here to help.”
“Thanks,” Archie says and thinks he even means it. He tucks the envelop under his arm and slips out of the office.
Mary’s practically waiting for him at the door as soon as he gets back home, smiling hopefully and forcibly casual when she asks, “How was it? Do you want to go back?”
“I don’t know," he answers truthfully. “But I’ll go until I’m through the first month of school, like we agreed. And you’ll sign my football permission slip?”
“Already done!” Mary slides the paper across the kitchen counter to him.
Archie adds it on top of the envelope, “You know you didn’t have to hold sports hostage to get me to go to therapy.”
Mary hides a guilty look by becoming engrossed in the spam mail on the counter and Archie’s a little satisfied at that.
Five days later, after Mary bugs him repeatedly about it, Archie sits at this desk to fill out the forms. As he peruses through them, he notes it’s mostly stuff like listing his family information, naming his family of choice (the phrasing of which makes him smile before he starts writing down Jughead, Betty, Veronica, Munroe), education details, what his mood has been like over the last two weeks. One of them asks him to list any significant events of the last year.
Classmate murdered. Jason’s death was sort of the catalyst for all this, after all. Saw film of classmate getting murdered. Saw dad get shot. Ex-girlfriend murdered. He stops, remembering Grundy and then going back and scribbling in near the top Affair with teacher.
Almost buried alive. Almost shot someone. Robbed at gunpoint with friends. Almost shot someone again. Falsely accused of murder. Spent 4 months in juvie. Illegal underground fighting ring. Shivved. He’d been kissed by a friend-- a guy friend right before, but was that really a “significant” event? Probably not, so he doesn’t write it down even though he stops to think about it for a solid five minutes. He keeps writing. Escaped juvie. Fugitive of the law/Ex-girlfriend’s dad trying to kill me. Mauled by a bear. Dad killed in a car accident.
He stares at the list and nearly laughs. It’s so long. Reggie’s voice enters into his mind, un-fucking-invited, No wonder you’re all messed up. Archie crumples the form into a ball and hurls it across the room without thinking.
He looks down at the other, completed forms and realizes the problem.
Hi Dr. Harper,
My dog Vegas ate the forms you sent me.
He glares at his phone and deletes the sentence, then tries again.
Hi Dr. Harper,
Can you send me a pdf copy of the forms from last week? I think I lost them at school.
Twenty minutes later he gets a ding from his email with an attachment to the forms. On the new page, he writes Four months in juvie. Dad passed away. and leaves it at that.