The room was smaller than Betty remembered. It was on the upper story, and the ceiling sloped down diagonally either side of where she and Polly were stood in the middle of the room. She couldn’t help but think the angled corners where the the ceiling met the floor created a waste of valuable floor space. The curtains, at least, were open though. There was just enough light beaming through the window to give the room a pleasant glow, the lighting allowing glimpses of flecks of dust in the air.
"I cleared out the wardrobe for you."
Betty looked over at Polly and smiled. "Thanks," she said. She meant it, but somehow it didn’t quite sound right. It was hollow. Betty walked over the the window. "Can I open this?"
She was going to open the window anyway, but since Polly was just standing there in the middle of the room surveying everything, it seemed prudent to ask.
Polly looked slightly taken aback. "The window?" She glanced around the room briefly. "If you want. But the aircon is running. So it likely won't make much difference."
That couldn’t be further from the truth. It would make all the difference in the world. Betty knew she couldn't cope in this tiny little room without some source of fresh air. She was scared of stale air, scared of stale thoughts. Scared of becoming stale herself. She needed to let the air in.
Betty fidgeted with the latch, and pressed on the window. It clearly hadn’t been opened in some time because it was stuck. She wondered if it had been painted shut at some stage, and she wanted to ask as much, but Polly was clearly not going to be interested. She was busy fluffing the pillows on the spare bed and avoiding Betty’s gaze, be it incidental or intentional.
Betty leaned a little more heavily on the window, offering more of her weight. This time it popped open, suddenly, and somewhat to her surprise. She had to brace herself against the window frame to stop her forward momentum. Cool air rushed into the room, and Betty let out a sigh of relief. It permeated the small, musty room, infiltrating the darkest corners of the room and perhaps even the dustiest corners of her mind.
She turned and smiled at Polly again. "I'm happy now."
Polly looked underwhelmed. Like this was unnecessary in the face of all she’d apparently been doing in preparation for Betty’s arrival. Like this was little.
It was little. That was the thing, though. If Betty had learned anything, it was that it was all about the little things. The things that kept you on the straight and narrow, that paved a pathway for your everyday. The things without which you would struggle to maintain some semblance of normality.
The things that stopped everything from seeming so complicated.
Polly did not offer a response, instead staring at the small collection of suitcases and bags gathered at the entrance to the room. “You didn’t bring very much stuff.”
It was a statement rather than a question. And it was almost accusatory, as if Polly presumed Betty to have compacted the last five years of her life into too few suitcases, neglecting to bring with her things that others might. But it felt good to Betty to be able to pack most of what she owned into those few suitcases. To feel like she had the freedom and the control and the independence to go wherever and whenever she wanted. Having too much stuff just weighed her down. It added to that suffocating feeling, the one that made her feel like she was at the liberty of other people and other things.
“I keep it pretty minimal these days,” Betty shrugged.
Polly looked like she wanted to comment further on this, but seemed to think better of it. She brushed her hair back out of her face. “Well,” she said, more as an ending than a beginning. “I’ll let you get unpacked. I’ll just be downstairs with the kids if you need anything.”
Betty nodded. She wouldn’t need anything, but she nodded anyway. Sometimes that was best.
Polly turned on her heel. Her footsteps were audible, disappearing out into the corridor and down the stairs. Betty sat down cautiously on the edge of the bed. It sank down slightly under her weight, enough for her to be able to rest her feet flat on the floor. The bed was made up with fresh linen. Betty recognised the duvet cover as being one her family had once had in their spare room when she was younger. She searched for a moment for some trace of nostalgia, but was unsurprised to instead just find emptiness. Betty ran her right hand lightly over the fabric, tracing the stripes with her finger tips.
She’d thought she was more stubborn than this. More stubborn than to be so easily convinced that, upon completing her final year of college, the best option was to return to her hometown and stay with her sister for a time. That said, the only other alternative had been that she retreat back home to their parents house - in the same hometown. And as hard as it was going to be to live with her older sister and niece and nephew, it would be even more difficult to reensconce herself back in the family home and live with her parents.
It hadn’t been her idea. The concept had been put to Betty under the guise of Polly needing help with the twins. There was no doubt Polly would appreciate an extra pair of hands, particularly in the wake of her recent divorce. But Betty felt certain none of the parties involved in formulating this arrangement would have done so if they didn’t think Betty would benefit from it too.
It wasn’t that Betty couldn’t cook, per se, so much as that she just didn’t like doing it. It was tedious, and it irked her relentlessly that it was an activity that required such frequent attention. It didn't matter whether you'd had a bad day, you still had to eat, and to eat you had to have cooked. That said, there had been a time where she enjoyed it. When it had been something she was good at, and something she enjoyed doing for other people. When she didn’t have a million other things she should or could be doing instead. Before it was a want and not a need.
It was one of many things Betty found herself fighting against on a daily basis, struggling to understand why nobody else seemed especially bothered by it. And yet, here she was; cooking.
Not long after Betty had finished unpacking and Polly had finished commenting on it, Polly had announced she was taking the twins to their music lessons. Betty wasn’t sure there were too many six year olds enrolled in music lessons, but these kids were part Blossom. Betty typically liked to use that as an explanation for all things atypical about Polly’s lifestyle.
Betty hadn’t disliked Jason, as such, but his family had always been somewhat controversial within the community. Born and bred from many generations of old money, they held their own status in the highest regard, and their reputation underlined virtually everything else. Betty should probably have assumed all along that Polly’s kids would emerge, aged six, as musical geniuses who demonstrated excellent academic progress and promised endless sporting potential. Even in the wake of the divorce.
Divorce was messy. Of that much, Betty was now certain. Although, it had served in some way to offer something other than Betty herself as a topic for her family to talk about. The only thing more alarming than having a daughter caught in a perpetual state of cognitive dissonance about life, was having the other daughter suddenly embroiled in marital problems.
It was almost over all too quickly, though. Because already Polly seemed to have made a remarkable recovery. She was coping admirably and was, if nothing else, financially set up for life. Now, the attention was back on Betty. Betty, for whom everyone had had such high expectations from such a young age. Betty, who had ploughed through college, against all odds, and finally made it through to the other end, only to emerge with no real semblance of a future plan. Betty, whom everyone was watching over and waiting for and praying she not slip back into the murky waters off the deep end.
She slid the roasting dish into the oven and closed the door. She crouched down to peer through the glass. The oven illuminated by one of those tiny light bulbs that no student ever bothered to get replaced, but that all fully functioning adults seemed to have. Odd, Betty found herself thinking, to be able to look inside so easily and see so clearly.
If only all of life was like that.
She left the oven to do its thing. Small mercies included things like roast vegetables being able to be left to cook largely unassisted. She ventured, for the first time since arriving, into the living room. Several children’s toys were scattered across the floor and the couch cushions looked a little rumpled. But largely, the room was clean and orderly. The decor was ornate and somewhat dark in tone. Betty knew this to be the work of a Blossom associated interior decorator, because she and Polly had both grown up in the same pastel coloured house with the same pastel colour sweaters, and that kind of thing didn’t leave you of its own accord.
She did feel a little bit nosy, though whether this was justified she wasn’t sure. Afterall, she lived here now too. At least, she would for the next wee while. There were framed photos throughout the room, but a more concentrated cluster of them sat on the sideboard. Betty approached the sideboard gazed at them. She recognised most of the individuals. Her parents, her niece and nephew, Jason, and some members of Jason’s family. Friends, some acquaintances, and the occasional more distant acquaintance. Betty herself featured in a couple of them, but not many, and not particularly prominently in any of the more recent ones. Instead she was tucked away in the back, lurking in the shadows, wearing something of a grimace. Avoiding confrontation, avoiding mere conversation.
Photos were for happy people. People for whom smiling was easy.
Betty peered more closely at one of the older photos featuring her and Polly and their parents. There she was, not more than ten years old, beaming happily. The weight of the world not yet bearing down on top of her. She was wearing one of those pastel sweaters, and there was a soft pink ribbon was tied in her hair. Betty squinted and then blinked several times, on the off chance the image would change. It didn’t, of course. She remembered that photo being taken. She remembered being instructed by her mother that she dress up accordingly. She remembered standing there, the comforting weight of her father’s hand on her shoulder, smiling widely as the photographer snapped picture after picture.
What she couldn’t recall, though, was the feeling associated with a smile that real.
Betty felt a sudden pang in her chest, the kind that made you feel like it could rise up through your chest and suffocate you if you didn’t try hard enough to stop it. She reached out and took the photo frame off the sideboard. She pulled her sleeve over her fist and wiped the dust off the glass. And then she opened one of the side board drawers, slipped the photo inside out of sight, and closed the drawer.
It was a strange feeling to be back in Riverdale.
She couldn’t shake it. Betty couldn’t tell if it felt regressive, or if she was relieved. But as she perched on the steps of the wrap around porch the next morning and ate her breakfast, it was at least pleasant to bask a moment in the sunshine.
Considering it was once a home shared with a Blossom, Polly’s house was located in a surprisingly understated area, surrounded by equally understated neighbours. It was decisions like this that had lead Betty, to soften her view of Jason somewhat, back when it had first become apparent that he and Polly seemed to be something of a given. It was almost comforting to sit there on the porch and feel that this wasn’t so very far removed from the upbringing she and Polly had themselves. She felt it boded well for her niece and nephew.
Betty heard movement behind behind her, and turned around to find Polly standing in the doorway. “How did you sleep?” Polly asked.
Betty finished her mouthful, and put her bowl and spoon down next to her. She nodded. “Well, thank you. That’s a really comfortable bed.”
“It is, isn’t it,” Polly said, absentmindedly, as she walked across the porch and stood next to where Betty was sat, staring out at the garden. “What have you got planned for today?”
Betty didn’t have a plan, and she knew that to be foolish - in part, because that opened her day up for Polly to formulate a plan of her own, but also because Betty knew she needed a purpose. She knew this. If she was going to get through this period of unregulated freedom and indistinct future plans, she was going to need a purpose.
“I thought I might go have a look in town,” Betty said. It sounded lame when she said it out loud. But this was Riverdale, and that was almost inevitable. She was more concerned it sounded like she’d made that up on the spot, because she had.
If Polly realised this, she didn’t say anything. “That’s a good idea,” she agreed. “It’s been a while since you’ve really been home.”
It had been longer than a while. In fact, it had been several years. You could avoid something as long as you wanted, but it would never go away.
Betty knew that now.
“You need me to pick anything up from town?” Betty asked, choosing not to acknowledge Polly’s reference to the passage of time.
“I don’t think so. But I’ll text you if I change my mind.”
Out of the corner of her eye, Betty saw Polly turn and disappear. And then there was silence again. She picked up her bowl and resumed eating her breakfast. Her corn flakes were soggy by now and unappetizing, and she didn’t want to go back inside to get more and have to explain something so mundane to Polly. It seemed childish to tip them in the garden.
She stoically finished them.
The brief walk into town some time later was uneventful. Having not resided on this side of town growing up, she was unfamiliar with the area. But oddly, it still looked like home. It even felt a little like home.
The feeling grew stronger as she reached the centre of Riverdale, such that it was. The town seemed to hum quietly, even though nobody was really there to listen to it. She half expected to see someone she once knew, and for them to walk straight past her, but it didn’t happen. Instead, she found herself meandering along the main street without any real intention. She didn’t really want to look at anything, she didn’t want to buy anything, and she definitely didn’t want to see anyone.
The only other option left, really, was to eat or drink something.
There had been a degree of change since she left Riverdale five years ago, but it wasn’t hugely apparent to the untrained eye. What was noticeable, however, was the extent to which Pop’s appeared not to have changed at all. Betty could have sworn time hadn’t passed at all in this particular corner of town.
She wondered if Pop might be around. Having thought she didn’t want to see anyone, now that she came to think about it, seeing Pop wouldn’t be altogether bad. He’d been nothing but nice to her throughout her adolescence spent both dining and working there. But when Betty reached the counter, girl who served her seemed to be the only one on duty.
She was almost tempted to order a milkshake, just for old times sake. But it felt weird. It almost felt like an inability to move on - despite Betty proving countless times she was always more than ready to move on. Instead, she ordered a coffee, because that was what well adjusted, fully functioning grown ups did. Or so she’d heard.
It wasn’t busy, and there weren’t many people there. Betty still went to the farthest corner and chose an empty booth. Away from the thick of things, just in case someone arrived, caught sight of her, and felt like they had to pretend to care about the last five years of her life. Or worst, actually care, and end up disappointed by an anticlimactic story.
Betty flinched at her name the sound of the voice. She immediately wondered if she’d imagined it. But when she looked up, she knew that she hadn’t. There was a guy sitting in the booth across from hers. He was staring at her inquisitively over his laptop. He had dark hair, and it was partially obscured by a beanie that Betty would recognise anywhere. A collection of empty coffee cups were grouped on the table next to him.
Betty was taken aback. This kind of thing was exactly what she’d been avoiding - the awkward high school rendezvous. But he was still staring at her, almost expectantly, his eyebrows slightly raised.
Suddenly, Betty felt rude. She cleared her throat hastily.
She waved awkwardly in his direction, conscious there was a distance of two booths between them. “How are you?”
He looked surprised, like this wasn’t quite the response he had been expecting. She didn’t really blame him. It was hardly the most natural question to ask of someone you’d not seen in many years. Additionally, it had come out in an interestingly nonchalant singsong voice, that voice that seemed only to come out when she was nervous.
“I’m good, thanks,” he said eventually. “So, you back now?”
Was she back now? Kind of. Perhaps. WIllingly? Not so much. It was a complicated question.
“Just for a bit, yeah.”
He nodded in response, but didn’t query this further.
They sat there awkwardly, separated by two booths, five years and what could only be a plethora of contrasting experiences. When Betty’s didn’t say anything further, he sighed exaggeratedly and closed his laptop. Betty watched him arrange the collection of empty coffee cups into a neat group, and then he stood up.
“I’m actually heading off,” he said, somewhat unnecessarily.
Betty couldn’t tell if she felt relieved that this awkward encounter was over, or guilty about possibly having made it so awkward he felt leaving was unavoidable. Either way, it was over.
“I guess I’ll see you around, yeah?” he said lightly, shuffling out of his booth, laptop in hand.
Betty smiled. “Yeah,” she said tightly. “See you, Jughead.”
Betty awoke earlier than normal for the second morning in a row. It had everything to do with the way the light was streaming in under the curtains, setting the room aglow at some ungodly hour. There was audible noise coming from downstairs, too. The kind of childlike shrieks that seemed to indicate a conflict of sorts. Betty rolled over and pulled her pillow over her head, blocking out the light, the noise and the day ahead.
She’d gotten better at coping with this over time, that feeling when you woke up in the morning and the mere thought of interacting with another human being seemed like too much - having to purport a good night’s sleep, having to agree it was a nice day, having to concede there were too many things to get done. But this morning, with the prospect of having to face a trio of varying ages and varying levels of personal investment in her life, it seemed all the more difficult.
Her whole body ached.
It felt heavy, arising not out of over exercise or overexertion, but lack thereof. Sleep wasn't supposed to cause listlessness, but for reasons she could never understand, it did. For all she wanted to stay in bed, she was too restless and too uncomfortable to do so. She was going to have to confront the day. Another day, another battle.
She got up.
Bleary eyed and still only just awake, but fully dressed, she found Polly in the kitchen.
“How many eggs?” Polly asked. The frying pan was already on the stovetop, breakfast ingredients scattered over the bench.
“Ahh,” Betty mumbled. “I think I’ll just have some cereal.” She didn’t want to go into it, but it was just easier for her to start the day the same way. She liked the certainty and the familiarity of it. It was just so much easier not to have to make those decisions first thing. More to the point, nobody should have to justify themselves.
Polly turned to face her, raising her eyebrows. She gestured to the frying pan. “Bacon? Tomatoes?" she offered, not prepared to let the matter go.
“No thanks,” Betty repeated. It was with more apprehension that she added, “I don't eat meat anymore.”
Polly froze, the packet of bacon still in her hand. Betty felt a sudden shift in the mood, as if the entire morning had come to a grinding halt. “You what?”
“I don’t eat meat anymore.”
“Within the last couple of months.”
Polly looked at her skeptically, struggling to comprehend what Betty had just said. “So… this is like, temporary...right?”
Betty frowned, and shook her head. “No. I decided I wanted to make some changes and stick to them.”
Polly just stared at her.
Betty chewed nervously on her lip. She shouldn’t have brought this up. She knew it would be contentious. As far as she was concerned, it wasn’t up to anyone else, but that didn’t make it any easier to deal with the resistance.
“Well, I’ll have to cook separate meals for you, then,” Polly said eventually.
Betty couldn’t believe she’d only been here two days, and already something so insignificant was on its way to being such a Big Deal. There were surely very few people in her world who could stir up such controversy by eliminating a source of protein from their diet.
Betty summonsed as much calm as she could before responding. “Don’t worry about it. I can fend for myself.”
It was her mantra. All she really wanted was to be allowed to fend for herself. To be granted a little time to figure it all out, without multiple people standing over her, breathing down her neck. But if ever there was a place she wasn’t going to find that, it was here.
“I wish you’d have told me." Polly fixed her stare on Betty for a few moments longer, and then retreated to her pantry.
I'm telling you now, Betty thought, breathing out slowly. She went about preparing the cereal she’d fought for so resolutely, before taking it outside and into the sunshine, crouching down to perch on the steps of the wrap around porch.
The garden was in full bloom. Betty knew this wasn’t Polly’s doing - she’d been unable to keep so much as a gerbera alive while they were growing up. That meant that the Blossoms had likely commissioned someone of aptitude and surprisingly good taste to put the front garden together. It was reassuring knowing Polly and her children hadn’t been forced to move on, even though everything else had changed for them. She hoped it in some way allowed them to feel settled.
Despite the slightly overbearing nature Polly had developed in recent years, and arguably there were reasons for that, Betty wanted nothing but the best her sister. Somewhat strained though their relationship had become, and difficult though the next few months may turn out to be, Betty would never be able to let go of the tie that was family. Nor would she want to.
Betty was unnerved to discover that in the midst of this early morning contemplation, Polly had appeared behind her.
“Do you think you could do me a favour.”
Betty couldn’t see Polly, but Polly could see her. So she nodded.
“I need you to please go to the grocery store.”
They’d been through this yesterday morning. Betty's offer to pick up provisions had been declined. She didn’t want to make the offer again, but she could see that she had little choice.
Such was the way of benefiting from others’ hospitality. Even if it was that of your own sister.
Betty didn’t recall frequenting Riverdale’s local grocery store much during her childhood. While it had available the majority of what the Cooper family might have required, her mother had always claimed selection was too limited and produce overpriced. As such, typically the Coopers had conducted their grocery shopping a little further a field.
Polly had clearly abandoned this notion altogether at some point during her ascent to adulthood and independence.
“It’s about investing in the local economy,” she had proclaimed when Betty pointed this out.
That seemed unlikely. Betty suspected it was more about convenience. But seeing as it looked like she, the boarder, was about to be delegated the task of regular grocery shopping, Betty wasn’t about to object. She wasn’t hugely keen on the possibility of bumping into people she’d once known, but there was no doubting it was more convenient than driving across to the neighbouring town. Besides, as demonstrated by her recent run in with Jughead, there really was no hiding in Riverdale. It was starting to look like that was a plain truth she might just have to start dealing with.
She would add it to the list.
The store wasn’t especially busy, not that one would expect it to be mid week at midday. She was grateful for that, because she had a distinct preference for conducting her shopping in peace. She liked lists, she liked perusing the aisles in an organised fashion, and she particularly liked not having to wheel her shopping cart around obstacles. Like people. And their offspring.
Call her intolerant, whatever.
Polly’s list wasn’t entirely easy to follow. (Betty wasn’t sure what kind of a grocery list listed milk alongside fruit and vegetables, but she supposed not everyone could be perfect.) Accordingly, Betty seemed to spent an inordinate amount of time doubling back to find things she’d missed in passing. It was frustrating.
What was also frustrating was the unreasonable height of the shelf on which Polly’s preferred type of cereal as stacked. It was the last thing on Polly's inadequate list. She jumped up and down a couple of times in the hope of at least touching the box, but her attempts were fruitless. Betty couldn’t understand why there was no one immediately available to help, and realised that she’d kind of wished that state of isolation upon herself.
She seemed to be having that realisation a lot lately.
“Which one are you after?”
Betty flinched in surprise, now realising she was actually no longer alone. She turned to smile gratefully at the person, only to realise it was Jughead.
“Oh,” she said, slightly flustered. “Hi.”
Jughead looked amused by this. “Hi.” It was faint, but there was a trace of a smile there. “I said, which one are you after?”
Betty remembered now. This was about cereal. “Ahh, the larger box.” And then as an afterthought, because she felt bad, added a ‘Please.”
Jughead reached up and grabbed one of the boxes of cereal easily, and dropped it in the shopping cart. Betty watched slightly taken aback, trying to remember if he’d always been that tall, or at least if he’d been that tall the last time she’d seen him. Probably not. It was hard to recall.
“There you go,” he said.
The silence was awkward, and Betty couldn’t tell who’s fault this was. She also couldn’t tell why this was always something she needed to figure out, the apportionment of blame for awkwardness. It was likely both of their faults, but she was probably going to lay most of the blame on herself anyway. That was always such a good way to deal with social interaction.
In the absence of conversation, Jughead seemed to stare for an unnecessarily long time at the contents of her shopping cart. “Looks like you’ve got a few people to feed,” he said eventually.
“Yeah, I’m staying with Polly and the twins.”
She didn’t think he was going to query it further. She thought maybe her awkward demeanor was sending out warning signals already. It usually did. It was clear to her now that people picked up on things like that. What was less clear was whether she’d developed this as a defense mechanism. It was almost interesting to think about if it wasn’t something that affected you directly. But then he went on.
“Not with Alice and Hal?”
“No, not right now.”
It was now that Betty realised Jughead was only carrying a litre of milk. Who was unorganised enough to only pick up a litre of milk? She wanted to ask him, but couldn’t work out how to do so without sounding rude. Besides, it wasn’t even important. Surely there was something else she could find to ask him. Or better, a reason she needed to hurry along.
“Why are you here?” she asked, as if that was somehow less rude. She hadn’t meant it to be harsh, but somehow her choice of phrasing had been a little off.
“Here...as in the grocery store?”
“No, no,” Betty said hastily, his conclusion even worse than the one she thought he might draw. “I meant why are you back in Riverdale?”
“Oh. I’m just here for a couple of months while until grad school starts.”
Oh. The foundation of all good conversations, Betty thought. And then, because he looked like he expected her to explain the same, she said, “Me too.”
It wasn’t so very far off the truth.
A couple more people seemed to have filed into the aisle, now, and Betty suddenly became aware that she was kind of blocking the thoroughfare. She herself had become a grocery store obstacle. It was a travesty.
Jughead pulled gently on her arm to encourage her to step out of the way. That in itself was unexpected. If she hadn’t been regretful about causing a minor traffic jam, that might have resonated with her a little more than it did. Instead, she just stepped well clear and leaned against the shelves of breakfast cereals in order to let the people pass.
They did. And now she was going to have to think of something else to say.
“Is it strange to be back?”
He looked surprised that she'd asked this of him, and perhaps understandably so. It wasn't as if she'd been particularly inquisitive up until this point.
“Yeah. A bit.” He gave the matter a little more thought. “I mean, it still looks the same. But the people are different.”
She wasn't sure if he meant that the people themselves had changed, or rather that many of them had left, leaving a new generation in their place.
Maybe a bit of both.
Betty learned on her shopping cart as they made their way down the last aisle towards the checkout.
“Are you working?” Jughead asked.
He laughed. It was kind of short and dry, but oddly familiar. She hadn’t heard that in a while.
“How are you coping?”
“What?” She countered quickly, suddenly on the defensive.
He frowned a little at her reaction. “With all this spare time,” he said simply.
She needn’t have overreacted afterall. But in her defence, she'd been asked that a lot lately.
“Well I'm only on day two. So, adequately, for now. But we’ll see how that pans out,” she smiled.
He looked amused, again. It was an odd feeling for Betty, knowing that he had once known her well enough, at least her previous self, to predict she might struggle with this much spare time. She'd spent so much time trying to separate her adolescence in Riverdale from the person she'd gone on to be at college. Trying to create a divide, trying to start anew. That had been unhelpful, though. Because now she was just out here stuck on her island.
People kept telling her she had to let others in. Betty still didn't really believe them. She also wasn't sure what seemed more daunting - reopening the door to the past, or starting afresh.
But here she was, standing in the Riverdale grocery store with someone who seemed mildly interested in her life. And already things seemed moderately less awkward than they had to begin with. She had two choices. She could walk away pretend it had never happened. Or she could take a risk, and consider this a potential for friendship.
“Maybe we should hang out sometime.”
Betty waited for him to respond. He'd just reached the front of the checkout queue they'd lined up in. He looked faintly surprised for a moment by her suggestion, and then seemed to catch himself.
He nodded. “Yeah, we should.”
She couldn't tell whether he'd just agreed out of politeness. Betty was never sure where this doubt came from, this feeling that wherever she went and whatever she did she was burdening people. It plagued her every interaction. But maybe it didn't matter.
She watched him thank thank the checkout assistant and take his solitary litre of milk and head out. He waved vaguely in her direction as he left.
“See you later?”
She nodded. “Yeah.”
Thanks for the interest :)
It was such a futile thing to be aggrieved about, but even days later, things were still a little tense with Polly.
Not that this was uncommon. Sisterhood was inherently complex - at least it was between Betty and Polly - and it was made even more so by the way things had unfolded over the past year. Betty knew her sister meant well, but oftentime her actions served only to make Betty feel more misunderstood. The adjustments to her lifestyle she’d been trying to make were far reaching, and taking a little more control over her diet had been only part of that. It was about making changes for the better, and and even more so it was about following through with them. Sticking to something, so she didn't become stuck. It didn’t help when those around her seemed conditioned to overreact, whether out of concern or disagreement.
The reality was just that she and Polly just dealt with things in very different ways. Although, everyone did really, Betty supposed. The divorce meant that Polly, too, had spent the past year battling things way beyond her control, and yet her reaction had been entirely different. Instead of shutting the world out and refusing to admit the problem to herself, let alone anyone else, Polly had acknowledged her struggle, addressed it, and had now reverted to making progress and operating independently in the world. And she had done so with with the added responsibility of two young children.
Betty was reassured by Polly’s ability to bounce back, but couldn’t help but carry the weight of the comparison. What she wouldn’t give to let her parents pretend both of their daughters were happy and healthy.
But it wasn’t true. There was only one of those, and it was not Betty.
She brushed this thought aside, and stood up. She'd been sitting around inside all day. She needed some fresh air, to stretch her legs. “I’m going for a run.”
Polly smiled in acknowledgement, and Betty knew that this at least had gained her approval. It was what people always said, after all. You’ll feel so much better if you do a little exercise.
Betty was no longer naive enough to believe this was true. It remained frustrating that the implication was still there, coming at her from all directions, but at least it meant she could get out a little without having to justify herself.
In all honesty, running was just a part of her broader target of positive change. Her attempts at habit formation - the good ones, anyway. At one point in time, although not any time recently, it had been her primary coping mechanism. It was something she was good at, and she’d always liked the regularity of taking time out to go for a run. And what they said was true inasmuch as it did help clear the mind. The problem was, there reached a point where the mind lacked such clarity that no amount of running could help you escape.
How one made it through this unpleasant haziness and succeeded in reforming a habit, Betty was still unsure. But she was certainly trying.
She laced up her runners looped a firmer hair tie through her ponytail and set off. The nice thing about being back in suburbia was not having to compete in anyway with the rest of the population. There were no throngs of people clogging the sidewalk, no traffic lights at which to wait, and no noise. God, she’d always detested the level of noise in New York. As if there wasn’t enough of that in her head already.
Making slow but steady pace through the outskirts of Riverdale and alongside the perfect picket fences and neatly mowed lawns, Betty wondered if a little Riverdale air was what she’d always needed to breathe life back into her running regime. There had been so many false starts; the occasional week where she’d make it out onto the pavement several times, interspersed with months of inability to do more than the bare minimum. Where trying to battle the internal listlessness inside of her seemed the very height of impossibility. Where making it out of her apartment and just going to class was deemed a success. Where anytime she didn’t sit on the couch staring into space was deemed productivity.
Who was to say this time would be any different? No one, not least herself. She supposed the crucial thing was to keep trying, and maybe one day it would stick.
Betty veered off the sidewalk and made her way along the track that followed the river. For all her lack of familiarity with the area Polly now resided, this track at least was well within her comfort zone. Back in the day, she’d paced this track more times than she could count. She loved the feeling of running alongside the river's’ edge, trying to keep up with the current. It never stopped, though. Kind of like life. She could never keep up with that either. But somehow this felt different. The river at least allowed her some semblance it would carry her along for a little, even if she found she got stuck. Even if she found she couldn’t make any further progress. No matter how hard she tried.
She didn’t stop until making it to the very end of the track. Breathing heavily, but feeling more alive and alert than she had done in quite some time, she perched on a fallen log by the river's’ edge and watched the current. She picked up a small stick and tossed it as far as she could muster. There was no weight to it, and as such it didn’t make it far through the air. It’s arc fell shorter than she’d envisaged, but it didn’t matter. It still splashed lightly into the river and floated away with the current.
She and Polly and her father had spent hours at the River during her childhood. Sweetwater River ran in the veins of the people of Riverdale. She’d forgotten how much it felt like home to her.
She'd forgotten what home felt like at all.
An then she felt the first drop of rain of rain on her bare arm, and looked up. The sky had clouded over, shrouded in ominous clouds. Luckily she’d exerted herself enough that she was still warm enough not to feel the drop in the air temperature. The vast majority of the track alongside the river was covered by trees, so no matter how quickly the rain set in on her way home, she would probably be fine.
All the same, it was time for her to head back.
The light rain was rather less light by the time she exited the track. In fact, it was raining fairly heavily now, and she no longer had the benefit of being undercover. That said, she found she didn’t mind too much. It was oddly calming. She’d never been as opposed to the rain as she was to other elements. The wind drove her crazy. It whipped through her hair and prickled at her eyes. It made her squint, raised the already high level of tension in her body. But rain was different. She slowed to a walk, letting the it wash away the sweat from her run, and enjoying the faint smell of petrichor.
She sincerely hoped she wasn’t going to encounter anyone in passing. She probably looked crazy.
No sooner than this thought had crossed her mind than a car slowed down alongside her. Had she been anywhere else, this development would likely have set her nerves on edge. But this was Riverdale. She new these people. And even if she didn’t want them to, these people knew kind of still knew her.
She glanced uncertainly at the car as the passenger window rolled down.
“Are you crazy?”
It was Jughead.
Why did this keep happening to her? If it had been anyone else, she might have been slightly alarmed at the frequency and the inevitability of it all. But this was Jughead. Betty stopped, and took a step closer so he could hear her. He stopped and put the car in neutral, the engine idling.
“No,” she said. “I was just out for a run.”
Jughead didn’t looked all that convinced. She didn’t blame him. Irrespective of context, that particular line of denial seemed to be a hard sell these days.
“Do you need a lift?” he offered. He was nice like that. He always had been.
“Oh no. I’m fine.”
“Are you sure?”
She was pretty sure. She was nearly home, she’d actually been enjoying this, and that sounded like a proposition where she might be required to actually engage with someone.
But then again, she had resolved she’d try and make more of an effort on that front. She’d even suggested they hang out, and he’d agreed. The thing about having things sprung upon you was that you didn’t have time to overthink them. That couldn't hurt. Furthermore, Betty had been vaguely aware that one of them was going to have to reach out to make this coming together happen, and yet, neither of them had. Seizing this opportunity would at least eliminate the need to cross that particular hurdle.
“Actually… yeah. That would be good. Thanks.”
Jughead leaned over and unlocked the passenger door. “Lock’s broken,” he mumbled as Betty climbed in.
She closed the door and searched for her seat belt, eventually untangling it and securing it.
“I’m sorry, your seat might get a little wet,” Betty said apologetically.
Jughead laughed slightly as he took the car out of neutral and pulled back onto the road. “A little? You look like a drowned rat.”
Betty spluttered in indignation, suddenly feeling decidedly less apologetic.
“It happens to the best of us,” he shrugged. “Everyone gets caught in the rain every once in awhile.”
Again, if it had been anything else, she might have struggled to let go of the ‘drowned rat’ thing. But it was probably true, and it was slightly to the detriment of his passenger seat, and she’d once known him well enough to know that his sense of humour was always fairly dry.
The irony of this was not lost on her.
“So where does Polly live these days?” Jughead asked.
Betty suddenly remembered that she didn’t actually have a plan. She supposed she could just go home. Maybe he’d want to come in. Maybe he wouldn’t. Either way, Polly would be out ferrying the twins to their extra curricular activities, so it was as good a place as any to retreat to.
“Same house,” Betty said carefully. And then, just to test how much he really knew, she added, “Jason moved out.”
On both counts. This seemed to indicate he was aware that Polly and Jason had separated, and she also figured he would remember where Polly lived. She’d spent enough time at Polly’s in her last few years of high school that he and Archie had surely done so on occasion too. She hadn't really thought about that recently, though. The details were hazy.
Sure enough, Jughead navigated his way back to Polly’s without clarifying further direction. It wasn’t far, but it was long enough for Betty to feel awkward about the fact she didn’t really know what to say to him. When he pulled up outside Polly’s house, she knew the time had come to broach this.
“Thanks,” she said gratefully, conscious she was still completely drenched by the rain. It had to be a bad look.
She paused a moment. “Are you doing anything this afternoon? Would you like to come in and have something to eat?”
Jughead looked sufficiently surprised that Betty knew this wasn’t what he’d expected. She was going to have to work on being less guarded.
Not that she didn’t already know that.
“Ahh,” he said, floundering for a moment.
“I mean, I was the one that suggested we hang out, but if you don’t -- ” Betty added.
“No, no,” he interrupted quickly. “That sounds good.”
There was another slightly awkward pause, and then Betty opened the passenger door and stepped out.
Betty hadn’t really thought this through.
She’d invited him in and offered him lunch. But really, before she even attempted that, she needed to have a shower and dry off. As he had bluntly stated, she did look like a ‘drowned rat’.
She dropped her phone and keys onto the kitchen counter.
“Ahh, Jughead,” she began.
He turned around slowly, still taking in the room.
“I just… I think… I kinda need to go get changed.”
He stared at her, seemingly confused by the apologeticness in her tone. “I don’t think anyone could argue with that,” he shrugged. “I’ll be fine.”
Of course he would be fine. But that didn’t make it any less weird.
As an afterthought, he added, “Want me to make some food?”
Yes! She so did! Anything to grant her a bit more time.
“Actually, yeah,” she said, already feeling less awkward. “That would be great. Help yourself to whatever’s in the pantry. I’ll be back soon.”
She bolted for the stairs, climbing them two at a time in an attempt to distance herself from the social and culinary disaster she’d somehow orchestrated. She now wasn’t sure if she was grateful or regretful that Polly was out. If she’d been home, at least there would be someone to assist in this truly awkward reassembling.
Whatever. What was done was done. If this didn’t work out, and at the end of the day she was still looking at several months of isolation in Riverdale contemplating life beyond graduation, at least she could say she’d tried.
When she reemerged from upstairs, freshly showered and looking decidedly less dishevelled, Jughead was still in the kitchen. He looked up from his preparations and smiled as she entered the room.
Betty smiled back. “I don’t know,” she sighed. “I invite you over and then trick you into making me food.”
Jughead laughed, and for this Betty was grateful. It wasn’t, afterall, far from the truth. But at least he found it amusing.
“Sounds about right,” he mumbled.
Betty wasn’t sure how to interpret that. “You make it sound like this was commonplace, ‘back in the day’,” she said, sketching quotation marks with her fingers.
“It was not!”
Jughead shrugged, still grinning. “I mean, there’s always gotta be someone in charge of ‘organisation’,”. He mimicked her quotation marks.
“Look,” Betty began, now frowning.
Jughead raised his hands in innocence. “Hey!” he said lightly. “It was a joke...”
She stared at him a little longer before conceding. “I know.”
Or at least, she should have done. But she’d forgotten what this was like, the kind of light-hearted banter one conducted back and forward with really good friends. She hadn’t had that in a while.
If nothing else, it did indicate he didn’t find this as awkward as she did. Or if he did, he was astute enough to pretend not to. That was kind of reassuring. Betty stared at the sandwiches he’d prepared. They seemed pretty substantial considering it was was late afternoon, such that she wasn’t able to not ask what came next. “Have you not had lunch?”
“Of course I’ve had lunch. I just didn’t know else to make. You weren’t very specific.” He handed her one of the sandwiches on a plate. “Plus, you’ve been running,” he added. “I figured you were probably hungry,”
She kind of was. Betty took it from him. She contemplated whether they should go into the living room, but that seemed oddly formal. Instead, and only because Polly wasn’t home, she lifted up herself to sit on the kitchen counter, and set the plate down beside her to make a start on her sandwich.
Jughead didn’t seem to be brave enough to sit on the kitchen counter too. She could kind of understand that. It wasn’t as if that had been an acceptable practice in Alice Cooper’s kitchen when they’d been growing up. But he seemed content leaning against it.
“So when did you get back to Riverdale?” she asked, for want of something better to say.
“And where are you staying?”
“At Dad’s. He’s not there at the moment, though.”
That didn’t seem like a line of conversation they should be pursuing. She definitely wasn’t about to ask the question that might logically follow that statement.
“So you still do a lot of running?” he asked.
This seemed as much like a change of tack as it did a genuine enquiry. Betty shook her head. “Not recently. I’m trying to get back into it. But it’s hard. It’s nice being able to run along the river, though. I’d forgotten how nice it is down there.”
“It is,” he agreed. “Do you run up or downstream?”
This afternoon was not going at all how she’d planned. That was a distinctly weird question, and her eyebrows narrowed accordingly. She wasn’t sure why it mattered. “Both, I guess. I go along the track and then come back.”
Jughead chewed his sandwich thoughtfully. “Maybe you should start at the other end. Try running upstream, and then coming back downstream.” He tapped his nose knowingly. “Free ride home.”
That made no sense. Maybe if she was rowing. Or kayaking. Or taking part in some other activity that actually entailed actually being on the river, at one with its current. Although, that said, only earliwe today she had noted that feeling of it pulling her along. Maybe he was right. Maybe she could benefit from a bit of uplift on the way home. Maybe it was all in the mentatility. Everything else certainly seemed to be.
“I’ll think about it,” she concluded.
“I think you should.”
Betty finished the last bite of her sandwich in silence. And then, as she did so, she suddenly realised with horror there’d been ham in it. “Oh my god,” she said, raising her hand to her mouth. “That had ham in it. I am the worst vegetarian ever.”
Jughead looked bewildered. “You didn’t have to eat it if you didn’t--”
“You forgot that you’re a vegetarian?”
It was hard to keep track, sometimes. Except, actually, it wasn’t really. She didn’t normally have trouble remembering. Normally she was so wrapped up in her own thoughts that, amongst other tireless things, it was all that she could think about. New beginnings, trying to make changes, trying to move forward.
But somehow it had completely escaped her notice. She’d been a vegetarian two and a half months, only to abandon it without even realising it, curtesy of a ham sandwich with Jughead in Polly’s kitchen. Did it matter? Not really. But it was the principle. There it was, another false start, whooshing freely over her head.
She supposed it wasn’t the end of the world. No one was perfect - or so people kept telling her.
Betty looked back at Jughead, who was still leaning against the kitchen counter, though now looking immensely perplexed. Even if she’d ruined one new start, she thought, at least she’d countered it with the beginning of another.
Nobody could possibly have beeen more surprised by this than Betty, but as it turned out, she'd actually really enjoyed spending time with Jughead the other day. After her initial apprehension waned, it had become easier let things unfold, and she'd found that he was actually very easy to talk to.
She wasn't sure why she was surprised by this. He'd been easy to talk to in the past, so there was no reason that might have changed. Still, she was grateful. As far as making headway and trying to be more open to social interaction, her decision to do so with him had proved to be a good one.
They’d vaguely agreed to see each other again within the next week. After all, both of them were somewhat at a loose end.
Until then, though, she first had to get through dinner with her parents. And Polly, and the twins. It was no mean feat. She’d been relegated to the back seat for the drive over there, and was sandwiched between Charlotte and Henry’s car seats. It was a fairly short drive across town to Elm street, and the distance itself was insignificant enough for her to not be hugely bothered by this demotion. She was slightly more bothered about the fact that she’d had to relinquish the passenger seat just so Polly could transport a large potted plant back to their parents house.
Surely that could have waited for another day. Betty could see the the green leaves of the plant poking up above the seat. They swayed back and forward slightly with the movement of the car.
“Betty?” Charlotte said.
Oh no. Not this again. Betty would never not be able to associate that six year old rising inflection with a successive string of questions. “Yes, Charlotte?”
“What are we going?”
“We’re going to visit Grandma and Grandpa.”
Betty closed her eyes briefly and then reopened them. “We’re going to have dinner with them,” she said patiently.
Betty caught sight of Polly’s eye in the rear view mirror. Polly rolled her eyes, and Betty smiled slightly. “Because it will be nice to see them.”
It would be nice to see them. At least, she hoped as much.
Betty sighed inwardly. Though there were no doubt other complications for Polly, for Betty twins just meant twice as much interrogation. “Yes, Henry?”
“Why are you here?”
Blunt. But at least he was prepared to vocalise what everyone else wondered. She certainly found herself wondering that at times too.
When Betty didn’t immediately answer, Polly interjected. “Henry, that’s rude. Betty is our guest.”
“What’s a guest?”
Polly interjected again. “That’s enough Henry. We’re nearly there.”
Trust a six year old to come closest to asking the questions that actually needed answering.
They pulled up outside the Cooper house, at which point Betty realised she was stuck. There would be no escaping from her middle seat until such time as either Charlotte or Henry had gotten out first.
She waited patiently.
And when she was finally at liberty to extricate herself, she was promptly assigned the responsibility of removing the large potted plant from the passenger seat. Betty hastily brushed stray flecks of dirt off the seat, and then carried the pot plant in her arms up the steps of the Cooper home. She popped it down by the entrance, and then stared at the door bell for a moment.
When Betty didn’t do so immediately, Polly reached out from behind her and pressed it. Betty heard it sound from somewhere inside, and then heard further footsteps come to the door as she brushed some of the dirt off her jumper.
The door opened.
“Hi Mom.” Betty stared at her mother resolutely, refusing to break eye contact.
“Hi Betty,” Alice breathed.
There was a long enough period of silence that Betty felt certain that one of the twins was going to ask a question. But it was almost as if they too sensed the tension, because it never happened. Instead Betty stepped forward, one foot across the threshold, and wrapped her arms around her mother. She heard Alice’s sharp intake of breath, and then felt her relax a little, and reach out to hug Betty back. Tears prickled at Betty’s eyes, and she blinked them back furiously.
Betty leaned back to look her mother in the eye. Her eyes were wet too.
“You’re back,” she whispered.
Betty nodded. And then she let go and stepped back, moving aside slightly to offer Polly and the twins as a segue into something less heavy.
The Cooper household looked exactly as she remembered it. As with much of the rest of Riverdale, there was little evidence of change. Greeting her father had been slightly less heavy, and she was grateful for that. There was only so much she could take in one evening.
At one point in time, Betty had thought she might never come back here. But that was at her very darkest, when Riverdale and home seemed like a concept so intrinsically linked with the origins of her struggles that she never wanted to return. It was multifaceted, though, because part of her also associated this community and this family home with a time before everything had started slowly started to seem overwhelming. She hadn’t wanted to taint those memories with what had become the reality of her present. In recent years, her parents had visited her in New York, but she had always refused to come back home.
And yet, here she was.
The twins, in all of their cuteness, did offer a wonderful distraction. Betty found herself happy that they seemed to want to accompany her around the house, because it meant the attention focused directly on her was limited. But they couldn’t stay glued to her side all evening. Eventually there did come a time where it was just Betty and her mother in the kitchen, and she knew she was just going to have to deal with what came.
Betty focused more intently on gathering the piles of plates into her arms to carry out them to the dining room table. She didn’t look up, but she did acknowledge her name. “Yes?”
Alice paused a moment before continuing on. “How are you doing?”
“I’m doing okay.”
It was true. She was doing okay. ‘Okay’ might not have been the loftiest of goals, but to her it felt realistic, and the progress she’d made felt like an achievement.
“Are you happy to be finished with school?”
“I am,” Betty said simply. She imagined most of her peers were, too. The academic slog took it out of even the most put together people she knew. And while her experience of that had been profoundly more so by comparison, she knew she probably was not the only one taking some time off.
“When do you get your final results back?”
Alice seemed to hold her breath in anticipation of this answer. Betty understood why, but it never made it any easier to swallow. Herein lay part of the root of the problem. This insurmountable expectation, the neverending pressure to deliver something she wasn’t even sure she wanted. To be haunted by this possibility of failure that seemed to have hung over her head so perpetually since she’d gone out into the big wide world. She’d been told it wasn’t uncommon, to exist under this heaviness for so long you forgot what life was like before you’d started carrying it around with you every you went. But that didn’t make it any easier to admit, to accept, and to move on from.
“A few weeks.”
“Do you have any ideas about what you might do next?”
She didn’t. She had no ideas, no clear way forward. That was kind of the problem. That was what she was trying to figure out. It didn’t help to have people vocalise it to her over and over again. It only added to her confusion, this hazy, detached nothingness and all consuming confusion she was trying so hard to escape.
But it was one thing to finally admit things to yourself, and quite another to admit them to someone else.
“I’m still thinking about it.” Betty looked up, meaning her glance to be reassuring. “Really, I am.”
Alice seemed to accept this, because even though she smiled tightly, it reached her eyes, and she didn’t prod any further. She picked up the roasting dish in two oven mitts and carried it through to the dining room.
Betty was left to collect her thoughts.
In the wake of the family dinner, Betty’s relationship with Polly had become a little less strained. Betty half suspected that, in her absence, she had been the topic of conversation between Polly and her mother at some point that evening. The feeling was uncomfortable. Irrespective of how much calmer she felt when Polly wasn’t hovering around her anxiously, to this day her one of of the things that aggrieved her the most was having become the person that everyone talked about. The one that seemed to bring everyone together with the sole intent of brainstorming ways to help her.
But she didn’t have time to worry about that now. She’d agreed to meet Jughead for a milkshake at Pop’s. This time, presumably, neither of them was going to abruptly leave.
Not that she would stop him if he wanted to. Perhaps they would run out of things to talk about? It wasn’t impossible. She felt somewhat perpetually like she’d run out of things to talk about. Like she had nothing to say for herself.
“You’re meeting Jughead Jones?” Polly repeated when Betty told her, apparently astonished by this announcement.
“When did you last see him?”
“Well, before I came back here, probably around the time I left for college.”
Polly paused a moment to think about this. “Huh,” she said, apparently unsure what to make of it. “Well that’s nice,” she went on. “You two used to be such good friends.”
They did. The very best of friends. In fact, she recalled sitting at Pop’s in that furthermost booth, the one she’d found him the other day. She remembered drinking milkshakes with him and Veronica and Archie, and collectively promising that they would never lose touch. She remembered thinking it didn’t matter that they were all to head their separate ways, and telling them so and believing it.
But life didn’t work like that. No matter how important high school felt at the time, things changed, and people moved on, and suddenly it was all but a memory. Even for those who didn’t get a little lost.
“I’ll see you later?” Betty said, backing towards the door.
Polly waved vaguely in acknowledgement, distracted by Henry’s proclamations of hunger, and Betty slipped out.
Pop’s was a little busier than it had been the previous week, but it was hardly thriving. Betty made a mental note to try and come more frequently - if there was anywhere in Riverdale that deserved the support of the local community, this was it.
In an unexpected turn of events, Jughead had arrived before her. This was rare, and she knew that he knew it was rare because he looked a little smug as she approached the booth.
Jughead shrugged. “A bit. I know you don’t like ‘lateness’. But I was perhaps a little overzealous.”
There he went with those air quotations again. She wondered how long it would be before she started to find that irritating again.
“Well,” Betty said, sitting down, “I appreciate the consideration.”
“I ordered you a strawberry milkshake.”
Betty was taken aback by how touched she was by this gesture. That he’d remembered. “Thank you,” she said, with a smile she hoped conveyed the the extent of her appreciation.
He looked unabashed.
Betty shuffled around to get comfortable in the booth, eventually deciding to copy him, stretching her legs out along the length of the seat and leaning back against the wall.
She turned to him. “ At least this is less awkward than last week.”
“Why was it awkward last week?”
She often wondered this, the extent to which her perception of things could be distorted. On multiple occasions, now, she’d been corrected of her assertion that things were more uncomfortable than they really were. It all came down to your mentality, she’d been told. Your outlook on life. Perhaps Jughead really didn’t find it that awkward that they hadn’t spoken in around five years, and were now breathing life back into what was once a mutually happy friendship. Maybe other people didn’t just automatically assume the worst. Maybe they were able to adopt a slightly more rational approach in the face of confronting something that made you feel little uncomfortable. Maybe other people just didn't feel this inhibited all the time.
And maybe now was not the time to be overthinking this.
“I don’t know,” Betty said airily. “It’s just been a while.”
“There’s no time like the present,” Jughead replied. “And other such cliches.”
Betty knew he didn’t like cliches, and she knew he only used them ironically. But again, now was not the time to get too caught up in over analyzing that.
“So are you going back to Chicago for grad school?” Betty asked, smiling at the waitress as their milkshakes arrived.
He frowned, “Ahh, nope. I’m moving to NYC.” He paused to drink some of his milkshake, and then looked back at her in mock admonishment. “I assumed you knew that. Did you delete me on Facebook, Betty?”
“Are you sure?”
Betty laughed at his feigned offence. “I don’t follow anyone on Facebook,” she said.
“I unfollowed everyone on Facebook. They’re all still there, still friends, and we can contact each other if we need to. But it just means I don’t spend my whole life scrolling through my newsfeed.”
“Huh,” he seemed slightly baffled by this, although not entirely unaccepting.
She wasn’t really sure why she was telling him this. It was a bit much. Nobody’s social media habits needed to become a topic of conversation in person. But as it had come up, she probably needed to elaborate a little. “I just felt like I was spending too much of my life comparing it to the highlights reel of others. I don’t think it was very good for me. It's not real.”
Jughead seemed to think about this for a while. “You’re probably not the only one,” he said eventually.
“I know. I just didn’t seem to cope with it particularly well.”
If he had further questions about this, he didn’t ask. Instead, he said simply, “That’s actually quite a good strategy.”
She smiled. It was a good strategy. She knew this.
“If a little insular,” Jughead added.
This time it was her turn to frown, but she choose to interpret it not as judgement, but rather a display of openmindedness. Perhaps he found there to be more benefits to social media than she did. Who was she to judge?
“Anyway,” she said heavily. “So no, I haven’t deleted you. I just haven’t really been keeping up with everyone’s goings on. Sorry.”
He shrugged. “Well, but for grand the announcement I’m moving back to New York, you’re probably not missing much.”
He had the most disarming way of being self deprecating but self-assured all at once. She didn’t recognise it, the self assurance. Couldn’t place it. He’d been such an outsider when they were growing up, always hovering on the outskirts, often a little reluctant to engage. She couldn’t help but observe that the tables seemed to have turned a little. That now she was the one, watching from the fringes. In all the ways her college experience had felt suffocating, had taken academics - the one thing she’d known she could excel at - and shattered it, his seemed to have brought him out of his shell.
Perhaps there really was such a thing as peaking too soon.
“How about you? Are you staying in NYC?”
His question interrupted this unnerving thought, but also inadvertently referenced it all at once. She took a deep breath. “I actually haven’t applied for grad school.”
“No.” Betty paused. “I’m still figuring out what I’m going to do.”
Her words hung heavily in the air. She could tell he was confused - everyone always was. The Betty Cooper that everyone saw, that she’d tried so hard to maintain, had always been destined for Great Things. Or at the very least, was perceived to have some idea of what that Great Thing might be.
“I think that’s a good thing,” he said eventually, to her surprise. “Sometimes it’s good to take a step back. Not to rush into anything.”
But if you hadn’t been rushing? And what if you hadn’t taken a step back? What if you didn’t feel like you were moving at all? Like you hadn’t moved in years, like you were just drifting along, trying to make it look like you had it all together. Until suddenly you just couldn’t keep doing that anymore.
Presumably because she hadn’t said anything, he did. “What do you think you’ll do in the interim?”
“Well,” she said, seizing this new and somewhat less harrowing topic, “I’m trying to get back into running.”
“In the rain.”
“No, not just in the rain,” she smiled. “And I seem to be earning by keep with a bit of babysitting.”
“That is my worst nightmare,” Jughead said.
“How’s the vegetarianism going?”
This time she laughed. “It’s not. Thanks for that, by the way.” She was unable to suppress her sarcasm at this point. Somehow he just brought it out of her. “I love trying to commit to things, only for them to be foiled.”
He grinned and raised one hand in a shrug.
And then, a little more seriously, he asked, “Is that hard? Committing to things?”
Following through on everything was hard. And although it was getting easier, it still required constant attention. It needed practice. Practicing making decisions of her own accord. Practicing being nicer to herself. Practicing letting go of the word ‘should’.
Betty chewed nervously on her bottom lip, wondering how, in the time it had taken her to finish her milkshake, he’d already pinpointed this. And then she wondered why she wasn’t more uncomfortable about it.
Thank you for the comments, I really appreciate them <3
I note that there seems to be a degree of confusion about where this is heading. While that has been intentional, if it helps, I can assure you the narrative (lol narrative) won't include anything distressing. Rather the intent is to reflect how easily one's thinking can distort reality, and the tone will ultimately be that of reassurance. With a happy ending (however unlikely that might seem right now).
For the first time in as long as Betty could remember, she began her morning by making her bed.
Not the metaphorical bed she’d been lying in over recent years, but the little double bed with the striped linen duvet in Polly’s spare room. Betty smoothed the sheets, and straightened the covers.
She wasn't sure quite what had changed over the last few weeks, but somehow everything felt a little different. She could feel it in the morning when she woke up. She saw it in the way Polly seemed to grant her a little more breathing room. Sometimes she thought she heard it in the trees, heard it in their rustling in the wind when she was out for her run.
She and Jughead were kind of friends now. In the weeks that followed their first milkshake at Pop’s, they’d returned for several more. They’d also made Plans. Amongst other things, they were going to go to Sweetwater River at some stage. There was a move afoot to go to the Twilight Drive-In one evening - which seemed to have been revived in recent years, and of which they both had fond memories.
Betty was reasonably sure that constituted friendship. That said, she’d also reminded herself on several occasions that, like her, Jughead wasn’t exactly spoilt for choice when it came to finding company in Riverdale. Such was the way of small town, and there was a chance he’d just elected to spend his free time with her, rather than spend it by himself.
But whatever they had, she was going with it.
It was funny to think back to the last time her life had looked like this. When she’d had this much freedom, and this little responsibility, and all but certainty about the company she might keep. Back to when everything was so simple, but she’d still had the audacity to complain it was complicated. But what teenager didn’t think their life was complicated? The travesty, Betty supposed, was that nobody could appreciate simplicity until it wasn’t there anymore. Kind of like happiness. Happiness didn’t mean anything unless you were sad sometimes. It was all about perspective. And the thing about perspective was that the more you gained, the less you felt you understood.
With a final flourish, Betty fluffed the pillows and ran a swift hand over the cover to straighten the last of the wrinkles. She stepped back to admire the effect, and then headed downstairs.
The house was empty, and she assumed Polly must already have left to take Charlotte and Henry to school. It was nice to have the place to herself. She liked the silence. The way it infiltrated her mind, and the way it proffered crystalline thinking if she could only work out how to harness it.
Her phone buzzed just as the the toaster popped. It was Jughead. Pick you up in 10?
She replied with a simple Yep, even though that proposal seemed unrealistic. She was going to have to down her toast a little faster than she’d originally planned.
In light of having a little too much free time on her hands, Betty had decided it best to seek some form of part time employment to see her through the next couple of months. Coincidentally, Jughead too had reached this conclusion around the same time. And quite by chance, he’d discovered that the local plant nursery was seeking fixed term employees over the summer period. Having spoken to the manager, he’d successfully secured both of them some casual work. Today was to be their first day.
Betty couldn’t believe her luck. Temporary gainful employment was not an easy thing to come by in a town as small as Riverdale. She had no doubt the novelty would wear off fairly quickly, but for now she was just pleased to have something fixed on her agenda. She even thought it might be good for her.
Her mother had proved a little more difficult to convince.
“Oh, honey. Is that really necessary?” Alice had said when Betty shared this news.
“I think it’s a good idea.”
“You don’t want to be doing too much. You should use this time to rest. You need a break.”
Betty didn’t need a break, though. She needed a purpose. Something to occupy her mind, something to create a little structure in her life beyond running and babysitting and visiting Pop’s on occasion. Something to stop her sinking. This was her choice, and it felt like a good one.
True to his word, Jughead showed up within ten minutes of having text her. The front door bell rang just as Betty was stacking the last of the breakfast dishes in the dishwasher. She grabbed her bag and a sweater, and half jogged down the hallway to the front door.
“Hi,” she said, slightly flustered. How she was ever going to let go of the guilt associated with holding people up she would never know. She shut the front door behind her.
Jughead looked unconcerned. “Hey. You sorted?”
When she nodded, he turned and jogged down the steps, leading her down the garden path and out the front gate to where his car was parked. The distance between Polly’s and the Riverdale Plant Nursery was short enough that, had he not offered her a ride, she would happily have walked. But since he’d professed not to mind the short detour, she’d accepted his offer. Given they were going to be spending several hours outside during the heat of the day, and the day was already panning out to be one of those unpredictably hot summer days, she was hardly complaining.
“Did you ever think you’d be using your degree to water plants?” Jughead asked as he pulled out onto the road.
Betty laughed, because he was joking, but the remark cut a little too close to home. Wasn’t that the overarching fear for many graduates? That they’d end up overeducated and underemployed, saddled with student debt and with no chance of working within their major? Perhaps it didn’t bother him, but these were the kind of things that kept her awake at night. He was headed to grad school in the fall, and watering plants in Riverdale was but a short term arrangement. A way to fill time.
For all Betty thought this was a good idea, the reality of there not being a concrete endpoint to it once she’d started did hang over her head somewhat. All she could do was hold on tightly to the idea that it was better to do something than nothing.
“Is that really all we’re doing?” she asked him. “Watering plants?”
Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Jughead shrug. “I don't actually know," he said. "But I guess we’ll find out.”
It turned out to have been a fairly astute prediction.
For now, at least, they really were just watering plants. It swelteringly hot out in the heat of the day, and Betty’s shirt was sticking to her back. The humidity was having an interesting effect on her ponytail, and she kept having to brush frizzy flyaways out of her eyes. But for the first time in a while, that was her biggest concern.
Betty didn’t recall ever visiting the nursery before. Given the carefully maintained state of the Cooper family’s garden, Betty felt certain certain her mother must have retreated here at some stage. But if she had, Betty had never gone along with her.
The nursery housed many more types of plants, of trees and of shrubs than Betty could ever have imagined, and they all needed to be tended to. It took them a while, but she and Jughead eventually developed a system that allowed them to work methodically through the rows without accidentally watering the same plants twice. They didn’t say much, but she found the mere act of quietly working alongside him to be oddly comforting.
It was Jughead who eventually raised a new topic of conversation.
“Have you seen much of Archie and Veronica?”
She thought this was an odd question. Betty knew that Archie and Jughead still kept in touch. Though their lives may have meandered off in different directions, their tie was stronger than that of friendship, with Jughead having spent extended periods of his adolescence living with Archie and his father. She would have thought that Archie and Jughead might have mutually acknowledged Betty’s absence from their lives - and Veronica’s too. But perhaps not.
Betty settled for the simplest answer she could give. “No. I’ve not seen much of anyone since I left for New York.”
She watched Jughead finish watering one rose, and then move onto the next one. The logical follow up question, she supposed, was why not?
But, predictably, he wasn’t that predictable.
“Do you think you’ll see them again in the future?”
This caught her off guard. Truthfully, she couldn’t envisage that happening. Archie’s father had long since moved from the house next door to the Coopers that he and Archie had lived in when Betty was growing up. Veronica’s family had long since relocated back to the city. The promises of staying in touch and reconvening after the left high school had long since fallen by the wayside. Too much time had passed.
For a while, Betty had been sad about that. It was harder to move on when you weren’t sure where you were going. Especially when everyone else around seemed to do so with such ease. You could watch it happen these days. The internet allowed you to scroll through a virtual world and watch people drift away before your very eyes. You could watch people you’d once known so well develop new interests and find new friends. It hardly made any sense, Betty thought, that something that served primarily to connect people could warp into a portal that showed just how very disconnected everyone had become.
But then, she hadn’t thought she’d see Jughead again. The thought had barely crossed her mind. Yet here they were. Life was unpredictable.
“I’m not sure,” she said truthfully.
If Jughead was surprised by this answer, he didn’t show it.
When she he didn’t say anything, she felt compelled to query this further. “Did you think you were going to see me again?” she asked.
For the first the first time since he’d brought this up, he shifted his focus from his work and met her eyes. “I just eventually figured you were off taking over the world. Doing great things. I dunno. Kind of seemed like you’d slipped away. But I think that’s often what happens after high school. People leave, they move on. They evolve.”
Betty laughed, but it was laced with derision. “I don’t know why people always think that. That I’m off ‘doing great things’.”
“It’s very believable. And people believe what they want to believe.”
“What, so you wanted to believe I was ‘doing great things’?”
Jughead looked hesitant, like he wasn’t really sure where this conversation was going. “Only in so much as I thought that was what you wanted.”
This conversation was actually going nowhere. It was no clearer and offered no more substance than her thoughts. Betty had lost focus on her watering, the stream of water from her hose now simple running over the the ground. “That’s not what I want, though,” she said. “Why do people always think they know what I want?”
There was a long silence, during which Betty continued not to water anything other than the dry dirt. Jughead adjusted his approach slightly while she stood there dumbly, and he took over watering her plants too. She wondered if he could hear the accusation in her voice.
“What do you want?” he asked simply.
“I just want things to be different.”
“Different from what?”
Betty exhaled. “Different from how they are in my head.”
“Well,” he said slowly. “It’s never too late for change.”
She’d heard that before. A part of her even believed it. What was difficult was actioning it, though she supposed that was true of many things. But stood here in the searing heat, with nothing else to worry about other than ensuring she not water a plant more or less than once, it seemed almost simple in its conception.
Betty jumped at the sound of her name. She turned around to find their supervisor stood behind them, staring slightly admonishingly at the puddle of water at Betty’s feet.
“Betty, you need to water the plants. Not the ground.”
“Oh yes,” she said hastily, quickly refocusing her efforts. “Sorry.”
She offered the supervisor a weak smile, who in turn smiled back, although slightly reluctantly, and then moved on past them.
After the supervisor had moved out of earshot, Jughead turned and smirked at her.
“You’re such a rebel these days, Betty.”
And just like that, everything was light hearted again. Betty gave him an exasperated look and rolled her eyes.
But she was holding back a smile, and she could tell he knew it.
By the time their shift had ended, Betty was feeling a little worse for wear. It was the heat that did it. It had sapped all her energy and depleted all of her resources. At mid afternoon, all she could think about was how much she wanted to lie down out of the sun.
Jughead seemed fairly exhausted too. On their way back to his car, his trudge was a little heavier, and his demeanor far from upbeat. Betty was grateful for their collective forward thinking this morning in parking his car in the shade.
“Don’t you feel accomplished?” she asked Jughead as she collapsed heavily into the passenger seat.
He didn’t look entirely convinced, and his answer seemed to confirm as much. “I guess. A bit.”
“We watered so many plants today, though. And now that we’ve finished doing things we don’t want to do, we can do whatever we like.”
“That’s slightly too optimistic an outlook,” Jughead replied.
Betty laughed. “I don’t think anyone’s said that to me in years.”
Given there were still several hours of sunshine left, they’d decided to to stop off at Sweetwater River on the way home. While neither of them had any desire to spend any more time in the sun, the thought of sitting in the shade beside the river and water the current run along was appealing.
Despite the glorious day, there were very few people at the precise spot along the river that Betty and Jughead selected. Betty lay down in the shade, and felt the coolness of the grass press against her back. She lifted her arms and folded them over her head, blocking out the light.
Jughead’s voice came from somewhere on her left. “Do you remember we used to come here after school in the summer?”
They seemed so very long ago now, those memories. They made her feel old, however absurd that was for a 22 year old. The nostalgia was oddly easy for her to capture, and she supposed that had something to do with being right here, right now, with the right person.
“Yeah?” she said, her voice still muffled by her arms.
“I know I said I didn’t really expect to see much of you again…” Jughead paused. “But I’m really glad I did. I’m glad you came back.”
If several weeks ago someone had asked Betty if she would go on to be content to be back in Riverdale, her answer would have been no. Except she would have been reluctant to actually vocalise it, so she’d probably have just skirted around the question. This time, when she thought about her answer, she found that she didn’t really need to think to much about it at all.
When Jughead arrived, Queen Elsa was experiencing some inner turmoil.
Betty had been privy to this before. Frozen seemed to be on a constant loop in Polly’s household. Betty wouldn’t go as far to say she especially enjoyed the repeat viewing experience, but it was innocuous enough. And it could surely only be doing good things for Charlotte and Henry’s alleged musical abilities.
She was pleased when the doorbell rang, granting her an excuse to leave them to it. When she opened the front door, Jughead was leaning casually against the wall.
He smiled. “Hey.”
Betty opened the door further and ushered him inside. He hadn’t been here since several weeks ago when he’d driven her home from her run, but things had changed somewhat since then - they’d worked together at the plant nursery almost every day over the past week. This time when Jughead had suggested they hang out over the weekend, it hadn’t seemed awkward. Furthermore, when Betty had remembered she’d agreed to babysit the twins for Polly, and had gone on to suggest he come over and spend the evening with them, that too had seemed to make sense.
It was an oddly welcome development.
“Can I take your coat?”
Jughead handed her his sherpa jacket, and Betty hung it on a hook by the door, before leading him down the hallway and out into the living room. Charlotte and Henry were still engrossed.
“Didn't they watch Frozen last time you babysat?” he said under his breath.
Betty gave him a pained look. “Yep.”
Jughead raised his eyebrows in amusement. “Interesting.”
She didn’t pretend to understand all of Polly’s parenting techniques but, all things considered, Betty thought she was doing a reasonably good job. And if Frozen kept the twins entertained and prevented arguments, she wasn’t about interfere.
At this point Charlotte, who tended to be rather more outspoken than her brother, turned around and stared at Jughead. “Why are you here?”
Looking somewhat taken aback, Jughead reached up and adjusted his beanie slightly before answering. “I, ahh, I heard Betty was making you guys pizza tonight.”
“She is,” Charlotte said matter-of-factly. And then, as an afterthought, she shuffled over to make some room on the sofa. “Do you want to watch too?”
Betty held back a smile. Jughead undoubtedly did not want to watch Frozen. She was about to tell Charlotte as much and grant him an excuse when, to his credit, he agreed. He even did an admirable job of accepting this offer without looking too regretful. Betty watched as Jughead sat down in the empty space between Charlotte and Henry, and listened as Charlotte enquired of his Disney viewing regimen.
(No, he had’t seen Frozen before, and nor had he seen Moana).
Feeling somewhat guilty about leaving Jughead to deal with this, but remembering her preparations for dinner, Betty ventured back out to the kitchen, calling behind her, “I’ll be right back.”
Charlotte and Henry had specifically requested pizza for dinner. Given the ease with which this could be achieved, Betty was happy to comply. Pizzas, afterall, barely constituted real cooking. She’d briefly spent some time during the afternoon preparing bread dough to make the bases and left it to rise, her loose idea being to allow each of the twins to make their own mini pizzas.
Keeping them busy was essential, Betty had been discovering lately. Otherwise, the potential for outright commotion was just too much.
The pizza dough had risen sufficiently that Betty thought it time she make a proper start. After kneading the dough and separating it out into four portions, she gathered the necessary toppings from the fridge. She set about slicing the tomatoes and onions and peppers, and grating the cheese. In the interests of cleanliness and efficiency, she arranged each of the toppings onto different plates and then stepped back to admire her handiwork. There was undoubtedly still going to be some mess, but hopefully her reasonably thorough advance planning would serve to minimise it.
When Betty returned to the living room, she found all three of them still seated on the sofa, apparently still engaged in the movie.
“How’s Elsa?” Betty asked, standing behind the sofa, and enquiring this more of Jughead than anyone else.
“She’s struggling,” Jughead said, still watching intently. “Things aren’t going well,” he went on. “I’m not sure I’m a fan.”
Charlotte cast him an indignant look.
“Maybe you should write to Disney. Voice your concern,” Betty suggested.
“Maybe I will.”
Betty smiled. “Is anyone ready for pizza?”
Charlotte and Henry lost remarkably rapid interest in Anna and Elsa’s quest and leapt off the sofa in excitement. Betty almost felt tired just watching them. She struggled to understand how anyone could have this much energy at any given time. Jughead took it upon himself to pause Netflix, and then got up and followed Betty into the kitchen.
Betty had been right to assume this would be a messy activity. In fact, it was possible she had granted the twins a little too much creative license, because within mere minutes of allowing them into the kitchen, the counter, and indeed the floor, was already a shambles. As it turned out, it was actually really helpful having Jughead there to assist with the more technical aspects of the process. Six year olds really had no concept of rolling out a pizza base evenly, and between the two of them, a little intervention was necessary.
“It doesn’t have to be perfect,” he’d murmured at one point, glancing across to meet her eyes, and holding her stare until she gave in and smiled a little.
Once this was done, imperfections aside, Betty spent a solid five arguments arguing with Jughead about the intended toppings. She hadn’t realised he harboured such a strong opposition to vegetables.
“No broccoli,” he insisted, grinning as he warded off the plate of vegetables she was offering him with one hand, and covering his largely empty pizza with the other.
“Jughead, tomatoes aren’t even vegetables. That’s not a balanced meal.”
“Don’t talk to me about balance,” he laughed. “Your pizza’s only vegetables.”
Betty rolled her eyes and gave up.
“How’s that vegetarianism working out for you?”
She chose to ignore this, and then turned back to Charlotte and Henry, who had been watching this exchange with interest. “Don’t listen to Jughead,” she said, sprinkling plentiful broccoli over their pizzas. “He’s being very childish.”
Charlotte chose this precise moment to ask, with an air of innocent inquisition only a six year old might possess, “Is Jughead your boyfriend?”
Betty laughed slightly, and then stopped when she realised she was the only one doing so. She tried to catch Jughead’s eye, but he had suddenly become very interested in adjusting the temperature of the oven.
“No, Charlotte,” she corrected.
“Then what is he?”
“He’s my friend,” Betty explained patiently.
“Like how I have friends at school?”
Betty paused, and then smiled. “Exactly like that.”
Betty managed to get the twins to retreat back to the living room so could clean up. Shortly after finishing this task the oven timer signalled the pizza's were ready
Jughead, leaning casually against the kitchen counter as he watched her take the pizza’s out of the oven, cleared his throat. “So, we’re friends now?”
She did want to be friends with him, as foreign a concept as that had become to her in recent years. In fact, she kind of wanted to spend the vast majority of her time with him. And every now and then, though it was sporadic, she found herself watching him carrying out some mundane, mindless activity, and felt an sudden, unexpected surge of fondness.
Betty maintained her focus on the task at hand, suddenly a little overzealous in her efforts to avoid burning her hands on the hot trays. “Yeah."
“Well. I can’t pretend not to realise you seem to call all the shots in that regard. So that’s good to hear.”
“What?” she said. “I do not.”
This was a blatant lie, and Betty knew it. But she was unnerved by how easily he seemed to have, first detected, and furthermore somewhat broken down some of that carefully constructed wall.
“Yes, you do.” When Betty didn’t say anything in response to this, Jughead went on quietly. “I kind of perpetually feel like you’re hiding something I haven’t even asked about.”
Betty didn’t respond immediately, but when she did her voice was tight. “I’m hiding from myself." If nothing else, that was honest. She sliced one of the pizza’s into quarters. “But isn’t everyone?”
Jughead stared at her for a moment, and then shrugged. “Maybe. I guess running from shit is a normal part of growing up.” He paused. “As long as you make it back eventually.”
Betty put down the pizza slicer and turned to face him. She crossed her arms. “But what if you can’t find your way back? What if you get stuck?”
There was an even longer silence, and then, like it was the most simple thing in the world, he said, “I guess you gotta ask for help.”
For all the struggles involved in actually crafting them, the pizzas had gone down well. Both Charlotte and Henry had been delighted by both the process and the actual consumption part, and Jughead had happily polished off all the leftover pieces.
All in all, it had probably been one of her more successful child minding ventures.
Jughead successfully extricated himself from viewing the last part of Frozen. Given both the twins seemed particularly taken with him, Betty wasn’t quite sure how he’d managed it, but she was happy to have a little extra assistance to finish cleaning up.
Betty had also decided, since Polly was absent from the house, now was the time to make her sister a birthday cake. She’d made what she felt was a prudent decision, and omitted to tell the twins this. Sometimes, if you wanted something done properly, and for it not to become a full-scale event, you just had to do it yourself.
What she hadn’t counted on was Jughead hovering around, eyeing the cake mixture with interest. He’d commented at one stage that she seemed to be having a particularly domestic evening, she then later she'd turned around to spot him dipping a spoon into the batter.
“Jughead!” she reprimanded. “We don’t eat the cake mixture.”
He at least had the conscience to look guilty. “But that’s my favourite part.”
“Your favourite part? How often do you bake cakes, exactly?”
Jughead shrugged. “Not often.” He caught her eye. “Probably not since helping you for those school bake sales.”
Betty was disarmed by this. She raised her eyebrows, unsure what the correct response to that might be, before eventually saying, “Oh.” She temporarily forgot that she’d already cracked three eggs into the bowl, and accidentally added a fourth.
This cake was going to have an interesting profile.
“Don’t make me send you back out there to watch Frozen,” she warned, regathering herself.
Jughead pulled a grim face, and then hopped up to sit on the kitchen counter out of the way. Betty could feel him watching her as she went about preparing the cake tin.
“You know,” he began, sounding oddly pensieve. “I kind of had a reasonably substantial crush on you at school.”
Betty felt her heart skip a beat, and the colour rise in her cheeks. She didn’t look up. “Kind of?”
“Yeah.” He was still watching her. “In case you couldn’t tell,” he joked.
Betty smiled. “I could tell.” She rifled through the kitchen drawers in search of the spatula. “I’m sorry I was so aloof.”
Out of the corner of her eye, she saw him shrug.
“We were kids.”
They had been kids. What expectations could one really have about kids figuring everything out? Betty had been trapped in her own head even then, like a monkey with arms outstretched through the bars of its cage, begging for someone to let her out.
The key was probably buried underneath her all along.
She remembered wondering how Polly could feel so certain that she had everything worked out at that age, certain enough to marry her teenage sweetheart and approach teenage pregnancy with strength and resilience. It had bared no resemblance to Betty’s frame of mind at all. It was probably lucky her momentary foray in the world of teenage relationships had come to a halt as abruptly as it had - rejected by Archie before it even began.
Then again, all that Polly had been so certain about was all over now. So how was one to ever know?
“Do we even get to eat any of this cake?” Jughead asked abandoning this unexpected topic almost as abruptly as he'd broached it.
Betty gave him an apologetic look. “Sorry, no.”
“That’s a bit heartbreaking.”
“It’s okay, I’ll find some dessert after the kids have gone to bed.”
He seemed satisfied with that, and continued to sit up on the kitchen counter watching proceedings.
There weren’t unlimited chances in life at the things you wanted, Betty herself thinking, but perhaps sometimes you were granted at least a second opportunity.
It took Betty over an hour to get Charlotte and Henry to go to bed. No sooner than she’d tucked Charlotte in, Henry decided he needed a glass of water. Naturally Charlotte then requested an additional bedtime story, and so it continued.
Exhausted from her efforts, Betty collapsed back down on the sofa next to Jughead and stared vacantly at the television screen.
“I feel like that whole process should be getting easier, not harder,” she sighed. “But they just get smarter.”
"You’re too nice, Betty. You need phase in Aunt Elizabeth. She wouldn’t stand for any of this nonsense.”
Betty giggled. “I can’t do it. They’re too cute.” She sighed. “Is this Parks and Rec?” she asked, peering more closely at the television screen.
Betty shuffled around to get comfortable, eventually following Jughead’s lead and stretching her legs out and resting her feet on the coffee table. It was unexpectedly relaxing, she thought, given she wasn’t someone who was usually able to enjoy watching television or films. There was something about the inertia that always made her feel a little guilty. Like there were always other more worthwhile, more constructive things she could be doing with her time.
But right now, she kind of felt like everything was okay.
“Do you want ice cream?” Betty murmured, not taking her eyes off the screen.
“I definitely want ice cream.”
Had that even been a question worth asking? Of course he wanted ice cream. Betty hauled herself back up off the couch and headed back to the kitchen. She located spoons and bowls, and retrieved the ice cream from the freezer.
Jughead hadn’t moved when she returned. He was still slumped back against the sofa, feet crossed on the edge of Polly’s coffee table. He looked a picture of nonchalance, carried an aura of contentedness. Was this how the other half lived? Those who weren’t perpetually plagued by what should have been or might have been, or what could still come to be. Those who lived in the present, who knew there was no point in carrying their past with them.
The past had passed. You couldn't change it.
Betty served two bowls of ice cream and handed him one, and immediately his attention shifted. The show continued to play, but Betty wasn’t really paying attention anymore either. She was now acutely aware how closely they were seated next to each other. The distance between them couldn’t have been more than a few centimetres, and if Betty shifted slightly, her side would have brushed against his.
It was making her hairs stand on end, giving her the faintest trace of goosebumps. Betty almost couldn’t understand it, but equally on some level perhaps she could. She found herself wondering if Jughead was aware of this too, aware of this nervous hum that seemed to never quite quiten.
For the first time in quite some time, Betty realised she was thinking not of yesterday or tomorrow or the day after, all at once. Instead, she was just present.
Jughead finished the last of his ice cream and leaned forward to deposit the empty bowl on the coffee table. When he sat back, the distance between them closed incrementally, just enough that she could feel the light pressure of him next to her, feel his warmth radiating. In the days to come, she would never be quite sure how she'd summoned the nerve. But as she too finished her bowl, she sat it on the arm of the sofa, and then leaned slightly to her left and dropped her weight against his side.
He didn’t flinch. She wasn’t sure if she’d expected him to, but it was gratifying that he didn’t all the same. Betty had lost all trace of understanding of what was happening in Pawnee in this particular moment, but it made a nice change from her inability to decipher what was happening in her own head.
A further two episodes played, during which time neither of them moved. Betty was a little worried his shoulder might have gone to sleep, but at the same time, she wasn’t really worried at all. And when he eventually did move, and announced he’d better be going home, she felt a little dismayed at the loss of contact.
It was noteworthy for someone who’d spent so long avoiding contact of any kind.
“Gotta get up and water those fucking plants again, tomorrow,” Jughead grinned.
Betty closed her eyes at the thought. For all the exhaustion associated with manual labour in the heat of the day, she still appreciated the structure that job gave her. Even so, she couldn’t help but agree with him about this sentiment on some level.
He stood up, and as he did so, picked up a nearby blanket. “You want this?” he asked.
Jughead unfolded the blanket and lightly dropped it over her with a flourish. “I’ll show myself out."
“See you tomorrow?” Betty asked.
Jughead looked slightly conflicted, and for a moment Betty almost thought he was going to say no. But then he smiled and nodded, waving vaguely in farewell as he backed out of the room.
Betty heard his footsteps disappear down the hall, heard the creak of the door as it opened, but didn’t quite hear it close.
Perhaps he had forgotten something.
Then sure enough, she heard his footsteps approaching again.
“Forgotten something?” Betty inquired, glancing over her shoulder to see him re-enter the room.
Jughead stared at her a moment, his expression unrecognisable. “Yeah,” he said. He walked over to the couch looking unexpectedly resolute.
As he leaned down, Betty realised what was going to happen, even though she couldn’t quite fathom it. She felt his fingers comb loosely through her hair, and one of his thumbs brush gently against her cheek, and her eyes closed he pressed his lips lightly against hers.
It was so fleeting that when he pulled back, she almost wondered if she’d imagined it. She gazed up at him, caught somewhere between disbelief and exhilaration. And then he stood back up.
“I’ll see you tomorrow,” he said softly, looking almost as dazed as she felt.
Betty listened to him disappear down the hallway again, this time her heart thumping loudly, forming a syncopated rhythm with his footsteps.
It was a crystal clear morning, the kind that promised a crystal clear day.
Betty ran and ran. She felt the light breeze whip through her hair, felt the give of the earth beneath her feet, damp from the early morning dew. She felt good. This was how running was supposed to feel. Like it was getting easier. Rhythmic and mentally energising, even in the face of physical exhaustion.
As Jughead had suggested all those weeks ago, she’d recently adjusted her normal route to take a track that ran alongside the river in the opposing direction of the current. He’d been right. She did feel the pull of the current helping her home. It was like running downhill. People always said if something wasn’t working, you had to try something new. That, of course, was easier said than done. She made multiple attempts at that over the years, to little avail. But in this case, for whatever reason, she seemed to have made somewhat of a breakthrough.
It didn’t pay to question these things, to overthink or overanalyse them. Sometimes there really was no reason.
It had taken her Betty a couple of attempts to get Jughead to come with her, but this morning he’d finally agreed. As she’d suspected, he wasn’t quite as fast as her. He was just managing to keep up with her pace, but he was a little red in the face and fairly out of breath. Betty focused on the uneven terrain of he running track, embracing the opportunity to clear her head.
Over a week had passed since Jughead had kissed her goodbye that evening. Betty was still slightly thrown by it in as much as it had been unexpected, yet unsurprising at the same time. His admission of having had a crush on her was also hanging over them - though given she had always kind of known this, not quite to the same extent. They had glossed over both of these interesting developments the next morning when he’d picked her up to go to work. Or rather, she had, and he'd seemed to have followed her lead. It wasn’t that she hadn’t intended to address it at all, but the days had kind of slipped away from her in the way that they always did when you were putting something off.
She didn’t even really sure why she was putting it off. It wasn’t like it had been unwelcome, and she was at least fairly certain that he knew that. But there was something resolute about acknowledging it, and knowing that, once they did, everything might change going forward.
“Race you to the end of the track?” she propositioned.
Jughead, glanced across at her, and she smiled at the disbelieving look on his face. “Is that so very necessary?” he gasped.
Betty laughed easily. “Come on, we’re nearly there.”
She picked up the pace a little, surging ahead of him. Although plainly weary, Jughead seemed to do so too, trailing behind her only slightly. Betty saw the end of the track come into view, and gritted her teeth. She pushed through the burning sensation that was tingling in every one of her muscles, embracing the adrenaline pumping through her veins.
This was what it felt like to be running towards something, rather than running away from it.
The end of the track drew nearer and nearer, and just as she’d almost reached the finishing point when she felt a lanky arm slink around her waist. He slowed her momentum, drawing her back slightly. Betty felt her back press against Jughead’s chest as he all but brought her to a halt. Betty giggled slightly, realising immediately her attempts to break free were futile. She struggled in vain for a moment, and then both of them lost their footing, tumbling to the ground at the end of the track.
Betty gasped as her knees connected with the ground, what was left of her momentum propelling her forward so she collapsed into the grassy clearing. Jughead landed inches away from her, still breathing heavily. But for the cicadas in the trees, it was all she could hear. That and the sound of her own pulse beating resoundingly in her ears. She propped herself back up on her elbows and looked over at him. Jughead rolled over and lay on his back, eyes closed and still breathing heavily, one arm resting lazily on his stomach.
“I didn’t realise you were so fast,” he gasped. “I’m never coming running with you again.”
Betty giggled again. “You’re a sore loser.”
“Don’t pretend like that’s new information.”
Betty rolled over onto her back too and lay beside him in the grass. Heat radiating from her body, she unzipped the light layer she’d been wearing over her crop top and let the cool air kiss her skin. She stretched her arms above her head, loosening her muscles and joints, and welcoming the ensuing feeling of relaxation.
A short time later, Betty sat back up. She plucked several strands of grass and threw them lightly in the direction Jughead was still lying. They fluttered down, settling on his t-shirt. Eyes still closed, he didn’t notice.
She sprinkled several more over him, until one of them fluttered down and landed lightly on his face. He flinched at the tickling sensation and opened his eyes.
“That,” he said slowly, brushing the grass off his t-shirt as he too sat up, “is very immature.” He cast her a disapproving look, seeming to struggle with maintaining her eye contact.
Betty remembered that she’d unzipped her top, and that the entirety of her midriff was exposed, but couldn't find it in herself to care. She didn't look away, didn't want to.
And then her phone buzzed. She reached into her pocket and pulled it out, swiping the screen to unlock it, and opened a new received email.
Her eyes darted quickly back and forward across the screen, taking the words in. She blinked, and then read through it again. An overwhelming sick feeling coursed through her body, vanquishing whatever endorphins had been pumping through her body in the wake of her run.
Betty shoved her phone in her pocket back in her pocket and stood up.
She held out a hand to Jughead. “We have to go,” she said briskly, conscious of the sudden and palpable change in her demeanor.
Jughead looked confused, but took her hand, allowing her to help haul him up. “Everything okay?”
“Yup,” she said, smiling tightly. “Everything is fine.”
Without further explanation, she turned on her heel and broke back into a run, hearing Jughead’s footsteps follow behind her. She focused on her breathing, inhaling steadily in and exhaling steadily out, eyes fixed firmly ahead of her. But no more than five minutes had passed before something in her chest tightened, and she knew all of this was no good. Betty felt everything slowly rising to the surface. She couldn’t suppress it any longer. She came to an abrupt halt and bent over, hands on her knees. Her breath came out in a strangled gasp, more closely resembling a sob than anything else.
He sounded concerned. She felt the gentle weight of his hand on her lower back as she stopped beside her. Betty stood up and turned to face him. He didn’t move, just stood there directly in front of her, watching her walls tumbling down. Tears pricked at her eyes, and she blinked them back furiously.
“You said everything was fine,” he said gently. “This doesn’t look like fine to me.”
Betty stared at him through teary yes. “I failed one of my courses at school," she whispered. "I’m not graduating.”
Jughead mouth dropped open a little, and then he seemed to catch himself. “Oh,” he said slowly. “Is that… is that all?”
Betty breathed out heavily. She folded her arms across her chest and turned to stare out across the river. “Yes. It’s not even a big deal. I mean, it is a big deal, but it’s not the end of the world.”
It shouldn’t have felt like the end of the world, but it did. Everything always felt like the end of the world.
“I don’t wanna have to go back there,” she went on, her voice trembling. “I feel like I’m the only person who truly despised my college experience, the only person who found it so hard. Did you hate college?”
She looked at him imploringly, but he shook his head slowly. “No,” he intoned. “But..." and he paused, as if uncertain about what he was about to say next. "I can imagine I might have if I put the amount of pressure on myself that you do.”
His voice was gentle, and Betty wondered if perhaps he was going to be the first person who actually got it. She reached up and ran her fingers through her hair. It was clammy with sweat. An shed then folded her arms across back across her chest and stared at him once more.
“What am I going to do?” she whispered.
Jughead didn’t say anything, he just stood there watching her cautiously. And then she felt a single tear escape and slide slowly down her cheek, and then another. He stepped forward and put an arm around her and hugged her gently. Betty swallowed a sob, and then unfolded her arms and wrapped them loosely around his waist. She buried her face in his shoulder, her own shaking slightly against him, then felt him encompass her fully in a hug that felt more intentional. It held her up and it held her together. She didn't want him to let go.
“It’ll be okay,” he murmured.
It was such a platitude it almost didn’t mean anything. But coming from him, in this precise moment, it wasn’t just anything.
It was everything.
They didn’t talk about it on the way to work, but that didn’t stop Betty thinking about it.
The email hung over her head all morning, weighing her down and dismissing all earlier promise she had felt about how things were going. She was going to have to tell Polly, she was going to have to tell her parents, and she was somehow going to have to come to terms with this herself. To make thing worse, they likely wouldn’t even be that surprised. That was the thing about admitting you were struggling. Once you’d done so, people almost started to expect it of you, even though they never really fully understood the problem.
Academics were supposed to be easy for her, after all. She was bright and diligent and hardworking. It made no sense to anyone that she should be failing courses, least of all herself.
She’d known she should have put more effort into that particular course, but hadn’t been able to summon the mental willpower. She just couldn’t do it. Perhaps she’d even known, on some level, that there was a chance what she had done wouldn’t be quite enough. But the harsh reality of having it all confirmed left her knowing that she’d been carrying around a little semblance of hope that everything would work out.
She and Jughead spent the morning repotting roses. It was messy work, and one had to be careful not to prick one’s fingers on the thorns. But if nothing else, it required a little more mental capacity than watering, and consequently Betty had fractionally less time to dwell on her problems.
It wasn’t until the afternoon that they reverted to their usual task of watering. God, she hated watering now. As she‘d anticipated, the initial novelty of of this activity had worn right off. The only small mercy was did have its advantages in the heat.
When neither of them had said anything for over an hour, Betty cleared her throat. “What are you scared of?”
Jughead frowned a little. He’d seemed slightly on edge since their run, like he didn’t quite know what to expect from her. Like has was concerned.
“Lot of things,” he said offhandedly. “Natural disasters. The cycle of poverty. People leaving.” He shrugged. “Why? What are you scared of?”
In every imaginable way, shape or form. But it was unimaginable to say it out loud.
Perhaps he already knew. “Failure,” she said airily, throwing all caution to the wind. “Failing things. Not doing things because I’m scared of failing. Doing things well once and then doing them worse the next time.”
Jughead nodded slowly, doubling back to water a plant she’d missed. “Vicious cycle,” he observed.
She glanced at him, and quirked an eyebrow. “But how do I get over it?” she pondered aloud. “I’m so tired of fighting the same things.”
“Heyyy, look at you. Asking for help!”
She rolled her eyes. It wasn’t as funny as he was making it out to be. Or was it? Maybe it could be, she didn’t know anymore.
He stopped joking almost as soon as he’d started. “I mean, I know I said it was important to ask people for help. But you also have to let people help you. Otherwise everyone’s just stuck at an impasse, and nobody’s happy.”
This seemed oddly accurate. She remembered telling her parents a little less than a year ago that everything had started to seem like it was spiralling out of control. That everything had felt like it had been building and building since high school, and that she didn't think she could handle it anymore. That she just felt confused, as if she was floating around aimlessly, desperately trying to figure out what was going on. That she felt nothing at all. If anything, though, that had made it all worse. The only thing worse than worrying about yourself was having other people worry about you too. Having other people trying to label what was wrong, trying to compartmentalise the issue and deem it rectified or not. No matter how well meaning they had been, it had only made things seem more difficult.
But you couldn't blame other people, and you couldn't blame yourself.
Betty didn’t know what to say. Instead, she turned back to him and said, “I hate this so much. It’s not fun anymore.”
“It was never fun,” Jughead pointed out. “It’s a temporary summer job." He paused. "Unless, you know, you fail your course at school…”
The audacity. It shouldn’t have been funny, but it kind of was.
Betty reached out and grabbed the garden hose off him during his brief lapse of concentration. She sprayed it in his direction.
“What the fuck,” he exclaimed. “Betty, stop it!”
She didn’t want to.
“Give me that,” Jughead said through gritted teeth, grabbing the hose back off her and, in turn, dousing her with the flow of water.
Betty struggled back, but she already knew based on this morning’s incident during their run that he was just significantly stronger than her.
They jumped apart. Betty feared the worst, and turned around slowly to see their supervisor stood behind them. Yet again. But this time, they were both saturated. Betty couldn't even remember the woman's name.
“Look, I’m sorry,” the supervisor said, not sounding sorry at all. “If you’re not going to take this seriously, I’m going to have to ask you to leave.”
There was an awkward silence. Even Jughead didn’t seem to know what to say.
“Are you going to take this seriously?” she repeated.
Betty felt rather like she was being treated like a small child, but then again, she’d kind of been acting like one. As such, she answered accordingly. “No."
The supervisor raised her eyebrows. “Well,” she said crisply. “In that case I think it would be best if you both see yourselves out.”
Jughead spluttered in indignation, but Betty smiled sweetly. “Okay,” she said, her tone that of complete indifference. It was oddly gratifying. She picked up her sweater, which had been lying on the ground next to them, and wrung out some of the water. And then she walked out.
Betty was almost back at the car by the time Jughead caught up to her. She stopped when she reached it, and turned and leaned against the passenger door, feeling the warmth of the metallic surface radiating through her and her wet clothes.
Jughead unlocked the car, and they both climbed in. They fastened their seatbelts and sat there in silence for a moment.
“Did we just get fired from a plant nursery?” Jughead said, unable to hide the amusement in his voice.
It was a rhetorical question, but Betty answered anyway. “Yup.”
He put the key in the ignition and started the car, and then paused to catch her eye. “Some day you’re having, huh?”
Betty felt a slow smile creep over her face until it was uncontrollable, and there was no hiding it. She smiled down at her hands in her lap. Jughead reached over and poked her on the arm.
“Just so you know,” he said, “I refute any responsibility for that incident. It was almost entirely your doing.”
“Lucky for you I won’t hold it against you.”
The whole thing was ridiculous. This whole day had been ridiculous. But for once, she wasn't here dealing with it alone, and that kind of made all the difference. Really, if she thought about it, she just didn't care.
And that had been a long time coming.
Betty extended her seatbelt a little so she could lift herself up out of seat. She leaned over the centre console, one hand still clutching the seatbelt, the other finding Jughead’s damp shoulder. Before she could have second thoughts, and because today seemed only to have shown her that it was time to reconcile the difference between what she felt and what she showed the world, she kissed him on the mouth. She lingered a moment, and his hesitation was perhaps only because he was so surprised. She pulled away a little, and opened her eyes only just enough to train them on his lips briefly.
And then Betty leaned back and sat back down in her seat, and stared straight ahead, swallowing her butterflies. Out of her peripheral vision, she could just make out the faintest trace of a smile where his lips had been.
She brushed her damp hair back out of her face. “Let’s go.”
There was something unexpectedly liberating about failing a college course and being fired from a temporary job all in the same day.
In the wake of these unfortunate occurrences, Betty found herself conceptualising various other disastrous situations in her head. All of them involved her failing to live up to expectations in some way, shape or form, but none of them seemed to quite measure up to what Jughead had taken to referencing as ‘Betty’s Bad Day’. They just didn’t quite hold the power over her they once might have.
Jughead had been right in deeming it a ‘Bad Day’. It was indeed a very bad day, the full consequences of which she was yet to face. She had not, for example, told Polly that she’d failed her course. Nor her parents, for that matter. She was reserving disclosing that piece of information until she’d made a decision about what she was going to do next, seeing as she was now not going to be able to graduate. Even though Betty was more prepared to concede these days that it was important to be able to ask for help, it was still equally important to have a little faith in yourself sometimes. Other people’s input, after all, didn’t always aide one’s decision-making process.
Betty had also not told her parents or her sister about being fired from the Riverdale Plant Nursery. That, however, had mostly been because it suited her. It was much easier to have Polly assume she was heading off to work of a morning than to field questions about why she was suddenly spending all of her spare time with Jughead. Because that was precisely what she’d been doing. They’d been back to Sweetwater River, they’d been to his Dad’s trailer, and they’d been back to Pop’s.
The obvious explanation for all of this was that Jughead was still her only friend in Riverdale. That had already been well and truly established. But if Betty was entirely honest with herself, and that was something she’d been trying to do more of lately, they were erring on the side of being more than friends now. They still hadn’t discussed this - nor had Betty kissed him again since doing so in the car last week - but it was irrefutably true. She could sense tension in the air when things fell quiet between them, she could feel his presence, and she always felt his absence.
He was also decidedly good-looking, she’d decided. She’d always been aware of this, but had suddenly found herself more consciously so now. She caught herself watching him, noticing little details she’d previously been remiss about. Like the way his whole face seemed to light up when he grinned, the sharp angles of his cheekbones and the way his hair always seemed to flop so casually into his eyes. He was so particular in the way he did things, all of his actions full of intent. Every now and then she watched the muscles ripple in his arms, and wondered how she’d missed it before. It seemed almost absurd to her.
Regardless of all of this, another day called for another adventure. And that was how Betty found herself sitting in the passenger seat of Jughead’s car once more. They were headed a short way out of town, aiming for a hiking trail Betty had identified on a website covering local outdoors activities. She was quite looking forward to it. She’d packed them some lunch, told Polly she wouldn’t be home until later in the afternoon, and Jughead had picked her up bright and early under the guise of taking her to work as per usual. It was a popular trail that lead to a set of waterfalls that were well-known in the area. Both Betty and Jughead had been along the trail previously, but it was many years since Betty had done so, and she was looking forward to going back.
Considering the popularity of the trail, Betty was pleased to note that there were very few cars in the car park when they arrived. Perhaps it had something to do with the early hour of the morning. Either way, she was not complaining. Embracing nature and the outdoors was always made that little bit more enjoyable when you could do so in peace.
“Got the sandwiches?” Jughead asked, about to lock the car door.
“Yup. In my backpack.”
“Are they ham sandwiches?”
Betty gave him a look. “Very funny.”
“I know,” Jughead replied, grinning at her.
Betty read the information sign thoroughly before they embarked on their walk, and was reminded yet again how some things just never changed. The map was the same as it always was, as was the information board and the photographs of the trail. And of course they were - it was hardly likely that they would have changed. But still. Betty registered these things with heightened awareness these days, perpetually conscious of the way nothing ever really changed, and yet somehow everything was so different.
Jughead fell into step along alongside her as they set off, the rise and fall of his breath keeping a steady rhythm. They both had very little to say, and while that might one have worried her, Betty was pleased to note the silence was comfortable. She listened the their footsteps, the birds in the trees and the gentle rustle of the wind. In fact, the silence between them was so comfortable Betty almost wanted to tell him so, but she thought he might already know because when she looked at him he smiled in such a way that made her feel like he understood.
Overcome with sudden overwhelming affection, Betty reached over and slipped her hand into his and squeezed.
He squeezed back.
And then he didn’t let go, and neither did she.
The trail was a little longer than Betty recalled, such that when they finally reached their destination, she was actually kind of relieved. They were rewarded for their efforts, though, for the waterfall was just as beautiful as she remembered. It down into a substantially sized pool of water, surrounded by lush forest and green moss and an aura of tranquility she couldn’t quite place.
Maybe it was because they were completely alone.
Betty watched Jughead crouch down at the edge of the water. He dipped a hand in, as if to test the temperature, and then turned to look up at her. “Chilly,” he said.
Betty raised her eyebrows in acknowledgement, but said nothing. Such temperatures were probably to be expected. It wasn’t like they had any intention of swimming. Instead, she unpacked the sandwiches and set them down on a conveniently flat surfaced rock. Jughead got up and came and sat next to her, and helped himself to sandwiches.
They ate largely in silence. It was a quiet kind of morning, and they were in a quiet location. All that was really audible of the sound of birdsong was the slight rustle of sandwich wrappings. Betty was acutely aware from the moment Jughead sat down next to her that he was close. Closer than usual; she could almost feel the warmth radiating off him. As they finished their sandwiches, it occurred to her that if she leaned over slightly to her right, her arm would brush against his. Something delicate that fluttered somewhere around her navel seemed to suggest this would be a good idea. And then, before she could act on this impulse, Jughead lifted his hand and rested it on her bare knee.
Her heart almost stopped, but then it didn’t. It kept going.
“How do you feel about swimming?” Jughead asked, finally breaking the silence.
This was an honest admission. She was not prepared for swimming in the slightest. She hadn’t brought her bathing suit, hadn’t had time to mentally prepare, and he’d just clearly said the water was ‘chilly’.
Jughead smiled, appearing to have expected this kind of resistance. “Oh, come on,” he encouraged.
His hand was still resting gently on her leg, and it was making her heart beat so rapidly it was hard to think straight. It was news to Betty that Jughead even liked swimming. She certainly didn’t recall him doing so when they were children, but perhaps he’d changed. God knows she had.
“I really don’t think so,” Betty reiterated, this time a little more firmly.
“But it will be great.”
“No, it will be cold.
“Cold, but great.”
This was not an especially effective sell. Betty knew he could come up with something more convincing if he wanted to, but was kind of hoping he wouldn’t. She always felt very guilty denying people, for reasons she didn’t care to examine too closely. There was something all-consuming about the feeling of letting people down that tended to weigh over her.
And then, when she didn’t answer, his hand shifted, and came to rest on her lower back. Betty picked a spot on the waterfall intently, suddenly not sure what would happen if she met his eye.
“I mean,” Jughead said gently, “we don’t have to. But it would be fun if we did.”
He did this a lot. Suggested completely random activities, and then casually mentioned they would be fun. For someone so calm and reserved, he seemed to spend a lot of time trying to get her to participate in things. Participate in life. Betty wondered what might have happened if she’d been able to convince herself to participate in life more actively a little earlier.
She let out a shaky breath. “I didn’t bring my bathing suit.”
Jughead shrugged. “Neither did I. Just swim in your clothes.”
“Then I’ll have to walk home in wet clothes,” Betty argued.
“I’ll give you mine,” Jughead said simply.
Betty looked over at him. He was watching her closely, waiting for her to make up her mind, but patiently so. Betty started trying to compile a list of all the other reasons she didn’t want to do this, and realised she didn’t really have any good ones.
Jughead’s hand, flat against her low back, shifted slightly. And then she saw him lean in towards her, eyes trained on her lips, and knew what was about to happen next. He paused there a moment, as if giving her an opportunity to stop him.
And then, when she didn’t, he kissed her.
His lips melded against hers, so gentle. When he pulled away and Betty opened her eyes, having not even realised she’d closed them.
“So,” he said softly, his face inches from hers. “Swim? It might be refreshing.”
There were butterflies tickling at Betty’s insides, but for some reason she still felt compelled to laugh. Maybe it was the way he was looking at her, mouth quirked up at the corners while he waited for her to reach a decision. Betty pressed her lips together and tried to hold back a wide smile, though only moderately successfully.
This seemed to buoy him, because he leaned in and did it again, this time his lips a little more certain. Betty reached out and placed a light hand on his shoulder as she kissed him back. She leaned into the kiss and felt his tongue swipe gently against her lips, parting them to finally let him in.
She let out a heavy sigh when they broke apart, and leaned down to rest her forehead on his shoulder.
“So, how about it?”Jughead murmured, his breathing slightly irregular.
Betty nodded into his shoulder, her response almost imperceptible, but she felt him press a light kiss against the top of her head and knew that he’d understood.
“You go first.”
Jughead shrugged. “Okay.”
Betty watched him haul himself up from the rock they were seated on. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw him peel off his tshirt, and then looked away quickly when he made to pop the button of his shorts. When she glanced back he was stepping out of his shorts, wearing just his boxer-briefs. Betty focused intently on the waterfall, doing her best not to stare at him as he waded into the water.
It was when he was about waist deep that he paused, and turned back to look at her. “Coming?”
Betty smiled. “In a minute.”
Jughead waded a little further in, and then abruptly submerged fully in the water. Betty stared at the spot where he’d been visible only moments before, and found she was holding her breath in anticipation. He resurfaced no more than a few seconds later, shaking droplets of water from his hair, and treading water for a moment until his feet found the surface again.
There could be no further putting it off.
She stood up. Sumonsing all her courage, and doing her best to pretend Jughead wasn’t mere metres away, she reached for the hem of her top and discarded it, followed by her leggings. Stood there in her sports bra and underwear, she was grateful to see that Jughead had turned around and was swimming out further towards the waterfall.
Betty ventured to the edge of the pool.
He was right. It was indeed chilly. And usually Betty would have hovered uncertainly in the shallows for an extended period of time. But since she was keen to avoid any more time than necessary standing around in this state of undress, she pressed on, wading into the water and then pausing when she reached waist-level just as Jughead had done. She reached up and re-tied her pony-tail to keep from getting it wet. Peering down into the depths of the water, she realised she was clearly able to make out her feet on the surface.
Maybe everything was a little clearer.
When she looked back up, Jughead was swimming back over to her. “Water’s beautiful,” he said quietly, easily heard over the sound of silence. “So refreshing.”
Betty took a step backwards as he approached her. “Don’t splash me,” she warned, accidentally letting out a slightly giggle.
“I’m not gonna splash you.” He stopped in front of her and stood up. “C’mere,” he murmured, extending his hand.
Betty stared at it for a moment, and then surprised herself by reaching out to take it. He tugged gently, and she inched forward a little, gradually submerging more and more of herself, until she couldn’t quite reach the bottom and suddenly she was treading water next to him, just their heads above the surface. Betty let go of his hand.
“Not so bad afterall, huh?” Jughead prompted.
Betty rolled her eyes but smiled at him. It really wasn’t so very bad afterall. And it really was refreshing. She took a short breath, and ducked under the water. It wasn’t until she heard the echo of her own pulse underwater that she realised how rapidly her heart was beating. Everything was eery and still under water, and yet somehow it made her feel more calm, and more certain.
Maybe this was the end of everything and the beginning of everything else.
Betty broke the surface of the water again, this time touching her feet down beneath her. She combed her fingers through her hair, smoothing the strands that had fallen loose from her ponytail back off her face and into place. She brushed the water out of her eyes and opened them.
Jughead was standing there in front of her, gazing down at her with the softest smile she’d seen him wear yet. Betty blinked a little more water out of her eyes, and stared at him, not saying anything. And then she took a step toward him, and reached up and placed her hand on his bare shoulder.
Betty saw him glance at her hand, his lips parted slightly in realisation, and then he looked back at her. Betty took another step closer to him in the water, raised herself up on tiptoes, and pressed her lips against his. His reaction was almost immediate, lips parting further still to deepen her kiss, his hands reaching through the water and coming to rest on her hips. Betty leaned into him, closing what little space was left between them, and reached up to wrap her arms around his neck.
Pressed up against Jughead’s toned midriff, Betty was acutely aware of the lack of clothes separating them. And when one of his hands slipped down gently to rest on her ass, and she realised that was precisely what she wanted.
Betty broke the kiss momentarily to catch her breath, resting her forehead against his. His breathing was audibly heavier than it had been earlier, and Betty could feel it as he exhaled, light against her skin.
“I’ve kind of always wanted to do that,” he said, so quietly she doubted anyone else would have heard if even if they’d been present.
Betty felt herself smile. She lifted her head and opened her eyes to meet his. He stared back at her, unflinching, his features etched with doubt, curiosity and hope all at the same time. He was so close she could see every droplet of watching on his lashes, could probably count every one of the freckles sprinkled across his nose.
Was this something she’d always wanted herself? Perhaps. There’d been such an extended period of time where she’d thought she’d not wanted anything at all that it was hard to be sure.
But what she did know was that this was precisely what she wanted right now.
“I really like you,” she said honestly, and watched as some of the concern portrayed in his features dissipated. “I’m sorry it’s taken me so long to catch up. I’ve been a bit stuck.”
Jughead leaned down and pressed a featherlight light kiss against her cheekbone. “Don’t be sorry,” he murmured. The hand on her waist gently pulled her closer still against him. “I really like you too.”
Thank you for waiting so patiently, and for coming back!
Would love to hear from you if you’re interested in the rest of this <3
I think a lot about the way the World works.
I watch people go about their daily lives, and I wonder if their experience is the same as mine. I wonder if they’re waiting for something to happen. Something bold, or interesting, or novel. Or maybe just something simple.
I wonder if they’re not actually waiting for anything. Perhaps they’re content, or even happy. Perhaps they don’t question anything and everything. Perhaps they’re entirely unbothered.
Perhaps they’re not like me at all.
It does not do to dwell, but I do it anyway. I am 8 years old, and acutely aware of everything around me. Nothing escapes my notice, and everything piques my interest. I think forwards and backwards and sideways. I rise to the occasion, I exceed all expectations, and I hear all the praise. I live for it.
It’s endearing. I will go far, they say.
But a lot can change in a decade. And when I’m 18 years old, nothing is so simple. I’m haunted by my own self-awareness. It’s got me watching my own shadow. I’m on the precipice of paranoia. The weight of expectation weighs heavily on my shoulders. I know I have plenty to be grateful for, but when people tell me I am lucky, it stings. I am pretty and clever and charismatic, but I am paralysed. The say nothing is impossible, but honestly nothing feels possible. They tell me the World is my oyster.
I don’t even like oysters.
I can’t decide if I should listen to them. I am consumed by indecision and self-doubt. Everything scares me. I don’t trust myself to make choices. I keep secrets, and the world somehow becomes devoid of colour. I create a distance so vast I can barely see the mainland. I’m out here swimming by myself, and the waves are wild.
It’s easier to do things by myself, and it’s easier to hide from the World than it is to trust it. It turns out you can retreat to the darkest, dustiest corners of your mind, and life still keeps going. Time doesn’t stop for anybody.
I worry about everything, and above all, that people worry about me. But I’m fine. I’m my own prisoner, and I like it that way. I don’t have to explain myself to anyone. I don’t have to step outside the carefully construed limits of my own comfort-zone. I am an enigma.
This is how I live now.
For a while, it’s frighteningly sustainable. Time passes listlessly, and things just happen. I can keep going, and going, and going. There’s no current, and the water is murkey and stagnant. But I can keep going. I can keep up appearances.
But I’m not really living. I am 22, and I’m crying on the cold, hard floor of my dorm. Again.
When I capitulate and tell them that everything is too cold and hard, I believe it. And so do they. But there’s this misconception that talking about something will solve everything. That a problem shared, is a problem halved. That’s categorically untrue. Your problems are still your problems, and you still have what you have. You can talk and talk and talk, but nothing will ever change unless you change something.
Therein lies the paradox.
It's complicated. There is no easy path ahead. It’s one step forward, then one step backwards, and then one step sideways. But they’re steps - not thoughts - and that makes all the difference. They take you back to the beginning.
It took me a while to figure this out, but maybe things really do have to get worse before they get better. I think I'll live a lifetime learning to let things go and let the World in. But rockbottom is a sure and solid foundation, and there people and places and things in my life that are good and bright. I couldn't place that feeling at first, but now I know it's hope.
This is how the World works.
And everyday, things feel a little more okay.
“I don’t really understand."
Betty hadn’t really expected him to. She was only just coming to understand it herself.
It was what Jughead had said next that made her realise it didn’t matter either way.
“But I’m really glad you felt like you could tell me.”
Normal programming will resume from here onwards. x
Somewhat against her better judgement, Betty invited Jughead to come to her parents’ house for dinner.
She still hadn’t told her family that she wasn’t going to be able to graduate, and she still hadn’t told them that she’d lost her summer job. Seeing as Jughead was fully informed on both of these matters, the occasion had the potential to be a little delicate. But then again, was anything ever not?
When she told Polly about this, she asked, “Is Jughead your boyfriend?”
“No,” Betty said. “He’s an old friend.”
“Old friends make the best boyfriends.”
Be that as it may, it was still unclear to Betty what she and Jughead were. But she supposed it didn’t really matter, because he’d said yes when she asked him, so he was coming to dinner anyway.
She needn’t have really worried. Dinner was borderline uncomfortable, but at no point did the topic of conversation veer into something that had the potential to be controversial. Her parents were polite but awkward, and Jughead was awkward but polite.
Secrets aside, there was still much to be said for not having to justify her current circumstances, for not having to promise she wasn’t about to spiral and descend into madness. Once something of that nature had happened to you before, people expected it to happen again whenever something went wrong. That was the thing though. You didn’t necessary descend into madness because something went wrong. Sometimes you did so even though things were going right. That was the problem.
It was Polly that brought forth the most contentious question of the night. “Are you two dating now?”
Their father shook his head slightly, and made shushing sounds, as if they’d already discussed this and they'd collectively decided not to ask. But Jughead didn’t flinch. “We’re old friends.”
Polly looked him directly in the eye. “Old friends make the best girlfriends.”
When nobody responded, nobody seemed to know what to say, Alice asked if anyone would like anymore potatoes. No one did.
Later, they sat in Jughead’s car at the edge of Sweetwater River and watched the current flow under the moonlight. If Betty was anyone other than who she was, she almost thought they might have had sex in the warm night air. The evening just had that kind of vibe to it. Or maybe they would have driven back to his place, and made out in his couch before moving to his room. She might have woken in his bed the next morning, naked, with him pressed hard against her. But she was ever going to be able to do that.
They tried it anyway. They kissed under the moonlight, his lips gentle, and Betty found herself thinking she could get used to this. As her desire intensified, she climbed into his lap and straddled him, pressing herself against him. Her skirt bunched up around her hips as she wrapped her legs around his waist.
One of his hands slipped up her white t-shirt, coming to rest gently over her left breast, fingers stroking the lace of her bra. And then they slipping inside the cup, so soft against her skin. It felt impossibly good. She wanted this, and yet she couldn’t seem to relax.
“Just relax,” Jughead whispered gently, somewhere near her ear.
But she couldn’t. For reasons she’d probably ever be able to understand, she stilled. She stopped rocking against him, even though it felt like everything she needed, and she lifted her face from where it was tucked against his neck.
“I can’t do this,” she whispered, somewhere over his left shoulder.
Jughead let go of her immediately. “That’s okay,” he said automatically.
It made so little sense to her that she wanted him to ask her why not, but he didn’t. He just slid his hand out of her bra and smoothed her skirt down and said, “It’s okay.” Again.
So she guessed it really was.
She crawled out of his lap and instead sat in the grass next to him. She wondered if he knew how much she’d wanted to be with him, to feel his bare skin against her own. He might not ever know that, because no matter how much her body wanted something, her mind was there screaming otherwise. There wasn't even any reason for it to do so. No terrible tragedy had befallen her, no previous trauma. Just that of her own mind. Thoughts were just thoughts, but they could stop you from everything and hide you from everyone.
That night she went home to Polly’s and tucked herself into the queen bed in the little room with the window in the loft. When she slept it was the kind of deep but restless sleep one often sleeps after having had too much to eat.
She dreamed that she was at the swimming hole at Sweetwater River, naked, standing on the edge of the rock face. When she took a breath and jumped into the space between the rock and the coldest water, she became as light as air. She tried to stay like that, suspended in the air in stillness.
But her feet hit the water, and she went down.
Everyone's experience of anxiety was different, surely. Everyone's experience was unprecedented. You couldn't really ever know the extent of someone else's pain, couldn't ever feel what they felt. That was why it was hard to understand, and hard to explain, and hard to fix.
For whatever reason, some days were, inexplicably, better than others.
By the time Betty awoke the next morning, she could not longer fathom what had been prevented her from making her own choices the night before. She forwent her run, and instead went and knocked on the front door of his trailer.
There was no answer at first, but then she knocked again and heard the sound of movement coming from within.
The door handle turned from the inside, but didn’t open. She heard the key turn in the lock, and a then a further attempt proved successful. Jughead stood in the doorway, staring at her blearily. His hair was sticking up in every direction, and he was wearing a pair of swimming shorts he seemed to have only just pulled on.
“Hi” he said, his voice cracking through the single syllable.
He didn’t asked her why she was there, unannounced and uninvited, at 9am in the morning. He just stepped back a little and held the door open, a silent invitation for her to come inside.
Betty walked up the steps and crossed the threshold, but stopped in front of him. She reached out and placed a hand lightly on his bare waist, watching his abdominal muscles ripple in surprise at the sudden contact. And then she stepped in, and stood up on her tiptoes, and pressed a chaste kiss against his lips.
She pulled back slowly. He didn’t immediately react, and she thought that might have been because he was still half asleep, and entirely taken aback. She supposed he had every right to be. She'd not exactly been consistent of late. But she also thought he'd kind of understood all along that it was difficult for her to break down these boundaries, to let go and relax. To be present. He'd certainly been immeasurably patient with her; and she wouldn't have put it past him to expect nothing at all in return. She waited a moment, there in the doorway of his trailer, and then he leaned in and kissed her back, and Betty felt a bit like she was floating.
Jughead broke the kiss, pulling away slightly breathless. She could see concern in his eyes when they met hers.
"I'm sorry about last night," Betty murmured, hopeful she could alleviate some of his concern. "Some days are better than others. Sometimes it's easier to do the things I want do to. I don't know why."
Jughead shook his head. "Don't be sorry. I just... I wasn't sure what you wanted."
"You," Betty said plainly, simply, and suddenly entirely certain. "I just want you."
Jughead watched her a moment longer, and then leaned in and kissed her again. This time she felt him thread his fingers through her hair. His lips were slightly chapped, but they moved against hers so softly it didn’t matter.
“Do you also want to come in?” he asked eventually.
Betty was already mostly inside, but she nodded. Jughead closed the door behind them.
Betty waited for him to ask her why she was there, and then when he didn't she felt compelled to offer some form of explanation anyway. “I don’t want you to think I just showed up your house at 9am on Sunday to have sex with you.”
This was an uncharacteristically forward comment, and Betty could hardly believe her own daring. Accordingly, Jughead looked taken aback, but to his credit only mildly so. “I don’t think that.”
“I mean, if that's what you want..." he mumbled awkwardly, tripping over his words for the first time. "Whatever. Do you want some coffee?”
Betty didn’t even like coffee, but she hadn’t been sure what else to say. She watched in silence as he prepared it.
“Are we still old friends?” she asked eventually.
Jughead put down the coffee pot and turned around. “That depends.”
“Depends on what?”
“It depends on what you want,” Jughead repeated, now smiling. "At risk of sounding like a stuck record," he added.
Betty felt a dramatic and all consuming swarm of butterflies take over somewhere deep in her belly. She couldn’t really think properly, but maybe she didn’t need to. “Old friends make the best boyfriends,” she said, holding backing a smile.
“I hear they make good girlfriends too.”
Jughead had abandoned making coffee altogether now, and was leaning against the kitchen counter, one legged crossed over the other, hands resting on the counter on either side of him. He looked, for want of a better word, hot. He was so objectively attractive, and yet somehow his good nature and genuine manner seemed to overwhelm that entirely. Remembering that he'd said he liked her, and suddenly unable to help herself, Betty smiled at him. Throwing all caution to the wind, she said, “I know I said I didn’t want you to think I just came here to have sex with you, and that’s true. But we could actually do that.”
Jughead glanced around the room, apparently considering the suggestion. “I’ve never had sex in this trailer.”
“Well I’ve never had sex at all.”
He looked briefly surprised, but then he didn’t, and Betty knew he’d caught himself. He didn’t say anything.
The ball was in her court, though. He’d already said that, and it couldn’t have been more clear that this was about what she wanted. And so she went over and kissed him again, and this time his hands slipped down to rest over and then cup her ass. He pulled her closer to him, so gently that that she felt a little like she was melting, but close enough that she could feel him pressed up against her.
When he pressed kisses across her jaw and down her neck Betty let out a little giggle, and she felt his lips curve into a smile. She trailed her fingers lightly up and down his back, feeling his muscles ripples beneath them. Experimentally, she rocked against him, suddenly desperate for him to be closer.
Jughead’s breath tickled against her ear. “Do you want to go to my room?”
She did want to go to his room; she wanted that more than anything. “Yes,” she breathed.
Jughead let go of her and instead took her hand. He led her down the narrow corridor to his room, and to the bed he’d vacated, alone, no less than 20 minutes ago. It was funny how much things could change in almost no time at all.
However close Betty had felt to Jughead before, she felt infinitely closer now; now that she was in his bed, in just her underwear. Hovering over her, his hips between her legs, he stopped to ask her, “Are you sure about this?” and she said, “Yes.”
When he pressed his fingers gently against her underwear, and then slipped them beneath the lace and against her skin, she closed her eyes and let out a series of breathy moans she barely recognised as being her own. So careful and gentle, his fingers slicked over the spot that felt most good. It was impossible for her not to move beneath his touch. A feeling built deep within her, an elevated feeling so good that, when she let it all go, it felt like she was floating above everything and everyone and everything else.
He hovered uncertainly at her entrance before slipping all of himself into her. She waited for the pain, but it didn’t come. Instead, there was an unfamiliar feeling, an unfamiliar stretch. Moving slowly within her, it didn’t come close to how he’d made her feel with his fingers. But with her bare breast cupped in his hand, his breath escaping in hot bursts, and his lips pressing wet kisses against her neck, Betty felt what she’d started to feel a lot more frequently lately. Which was that this was good, but that it could only get better.
Afterwards, she lay in his arms in the sheets that smelled so much like him.
Betty didn’t know how long they napped for, but she awoke she felt rested in a way she hadn’t in a while. She felt Jughead stirring next to her and turned back to see his face smushed into the pillow.
“Hi,” he said, somehow having registered that she was now awake. “How are you feeling?”
She wriggled a little next to him, pulling the sheet up further. “Very good,” she said. “I actually feel very relaxed.”
“It was probably the orgasm.”
Betty felt the colour rise in her cheeks, and she giggled slightly. It probably was, but she wasn’t about to vocalise that.
When she didn’t respond, Jughead lifted his head and said, just as very matter-of-factly, “Would you like another one?”
Mortified, Betty pulled the sheet up over her face, hiding from everything that might make this more embarrassing that it already was.
Jughead dipped his head under the sheet too to meet her eye, resting his chin on her shoulder. “It was a serious offer,” he said, entirely seriously. “But only if you want it to be.”
Betty thought about it a moment, and then slipped one of her legs over his, pulling him closer. She rocked lightly against him. There was wetness between her legs already, and it felt impossibly good. But there was also an unmistakable sting, and a dull ache that made her pull back almost immediately.
Beneath the sheet, she saw Jughead’s eyebrows draw together in concern. “You alright?”
“Yeah,” she reassured. “Just a bit tender. We might have to wait a bit. But thanks for the offer.”
Jughead did not look any less concerned by this explanation, but he did lean forward and kiss her lips once, and then twice, and then a third time. She slipped her tongue inside his mouth in response and felt some previously unnoticeable tension leave his body as she kissed him back.
“I can still make you feel good,” Jughead told her quietly when he pulled back, watching the parting of her lips and the fluttering of her eyelids. “I’ll be gentle.”
Betty looked away, thinking she knew what this might mean, and wondering if she had it in her to continue.
Jughead propped himself up on his elbows. “Do you trust me?”
Of course she trusted him. There were very few people she truly trusted, but he was one of them. She thought she knew what was coming, and she was somehow apprehensive and excited and scared all at the same time. But she nodded.
Jughead folded the sheet back, uncovering them again. He leaned in a pressed a kiss against her collar bone sucking lightly, and then moved his lips across her chest and down her sternum in a trail of wet kisses. He came to rest bellow her left breast, nudging it slightly with his nose, and then tucking under to kiss the skin directly beneath it.His fingers fanned across the back of her ribcage and Betty arched her back beneath his touch. He lifted his mouth and moved up to close it around her nipple. Betty felt it harden in his mouth, felt the light friction of his tongue against it, and squirmed beneath him.
He shifted across to the other breast, and then moved further down. When the curl of his hair tickled across her stomach, she squirmed uncontrollably in response, and let out an unexpected giggle.
Jughead halted his descent and looked up questioningly.
“Tickles,” she explained, smiling town at him.
A smug grin spread across his face, and he dipped his head and brushed his hair back and forward over her stomach, this time entirely intentionally. Peels of laughter escaped her and she kicked slightly against the sheet and against him to escape the sensation until he stopped, the side of his face coming to rest gently against her bare stomach.
She reached down and ran her fingers lightly through his hair and against his scalp. She watched him close his eyes at her touch, and heard him let out a satisfied sigh. She lay there a while, felt the weight of him against the gentle inhale and exhale of her abdomen, and then he shifted once more and planted a series of kisses lightly against her hip bone.
He kissed down the line of her hipbone slowly, gliding over the top of her right thigh, before descending and settling between her legs, now splayed open before him.
Betty’s breath was short, its rhythm syncopated with his as he breathed over her, inching closer and closer to where she knew she wanted him. When she felt his lips press against her, and she let out a high pitched whine. Her hips rolled uncontrollably in an attempt to get both further away from him and closer to him.
He paused. “You good?”
Too good. So good she couldn’t think properly. But she didn’t need to think properly. All that mattered was here and now, and that he didn’t stop. Unable to articulate this, Betty nodded. He seemed to understand, because he dipped back down and picked up where he left off.
There was no ache now, just a glorious glow from somewhere deep within her that built through her ascent. When she got there, it was with all of herself, even the parts she didn’t like very much. Her body was humming, and Jughead’s curls were resting against her inner thigh. One of his hands was curled around her waist, his thumb stroking lightly up and down the side of her ribcage, holding onto her as she let everything go.
And now, now she was relaxed. A sleepy contentment washed over her as Jughead moved back up and settled under the sheet next to her.
Betty closed her eyes again.
Later, when they got up, Betty stood there by the bed. “I don’t feel any different so much as I’m just not floating anymore.” She paused. “My feet are on the ground.”
Jughead gave her a funny look. “Is this because just lost your virginity at 9am on a Sunday morning?”
Betty shook her head. “No. The virginity bit is just a social construct. But I think I did just inadvertently lose a lot of fear. And now I can feel the carpet beneath my feet.”
“Fear of what?”
“I don't even know anymore. Fear of other people. Fear of myself. Fear of letting people in, and letting them out. Fear of holding on, and fear of letting go. Fear of coming apart. Fear of having everything and then losing it.”
“That’s a lot of fears,” Jughead said soberly.
“It sounds hard.”
“It is. But you make it easier.”
Betty remembered disappearing to her appointments.
She went on trains and buses and cable cars. She walked or cycled. She didn’t really tell anyone about these appointments because, apart from it being embarrassing, that would necessitate telling them what the problem was. And she didn’t know what the problem was.
In retrospect, it was all in her head. All the worst things always were.
In much the same way one problem could multiply rapidly, from one appointment grew a branching network of other appointments. They always held promise. Sometimes the associated optimism was enough to overtake the guilt and loathing she felt at spending this much time, and this much of her parents money, trying to fix something that was perhaps as simple as getting over it.
Before she reached the office or clinic or practice, she always had it all articulated in her head. The problem to be solved stood tall and upright. But she was never as prepared as she thought, and with the very first question, it always seemed to all come tumbling down.
How are you feeling today?
She needed to be asked this question because she’d somehow unlearned what it was like to feel anything at all. And when she was unable to answer the question, she was given medication; a short-term crutch. It made her feel relieved, but empty.
Like she was always sitting on a slatted wooden bench.
She’d sat a long time on that slatted wooden. But when she finally got up, life went on. And so did she.
Summer drew to an end, and Jughead went back to school in New York. She’d known it was coming all along, and perhaps this made it all the more difficult. Good things didn’t last forever. But then, neither did bad things, it would seem.
After weeks of waking up in Jughead’s trailer, sleepy and content, it was an empty feeling to have to retreat back to the little room in Polly’s attic. Silence hung in the air, thick and heavy. There was an extended period where Betty found herself quite alone once more. But this time it was different. Besides, he’d be back for a visit in the not too distant future.
She’d re-enrolled to complete her final paper extramurally. Everything that had once seemed to hard about applying herself seemed to have lessened over the summer. Although it wasn’t exactly enjoyable to spend her days in the local Riverdale library, or hunched over textbooks at Polly’s kitchen table, the feeling of progress was there. And when it all got too much, she packed up her books, and her laptop, and retreated to Pop’s.
In the months since she’d first arrived in Riverdale, things had started to get better, without ever really being fine. They still weren’t really fine, but she was holding onto the idea that one day they would be. For now, she’d found a way to live with the way she was. You had to work with what you had.
The feeling of missing someone had, at first, been so foreign to her. But now she missed Jughead everyday, she missed the time they’d spent together, and she even missed the way things had been way back when, before she’d ever left Riverdale in the first place. It was the best kind of nostalgia, she’d realised. She missed everybody and everything, but perhaps that was human nature. Perhaps it was part of everyone
Betty woke gently on the morning of her 23rd birthday. Light streamed in through the gap in the curtains, setting the room aglow in such a way that she could see the dust particles in the air. If she closed her eyes, she thought she could probably drift back off in a peaceful sleep. But then a hesitant knock on her bedroom door sounded, and she knew this was not to be.
Betty heard the door open, followed by the pitter patter of feet across the floorboards. She braced herself for the oncoming impact, and, sure enough, Charlotte and Henry both launched themselves onto her bed.
“Happy birthday Betty!” Charlotte squealed, now jumping up and down with such vigour Betty was briefly concerned.
Henry, ever the more demure of the two, tried desperately to maintain his balance while presenting Betty with a wrapped gift. For the briefest moment, Betty didn’t react, instead staring at both of them in disbelief. She remembered moving into Polly’s on that very first day of summer, and the associated sense of hopelessness at having had to retreat home. It was almost impossible to connect that moment with this one, no matter the dichotomy. When she beamed back at Henry, and took the gift from him, she swallowed a lump in her throat.
Downstairs, Polly was preparing a cooked breakfast in the kitchen. She abandoned her duties briefly to turn around and hug Betty, holding on noticeably longer than usual.
“Happy birthday, Betty,” she said eventually. “I love you.”
]“I love you too.”
For now, there was no agreed upon end date for this arrangement. They hadn’t really talked about it, but Betty got the distinct impression she was welcome to stay with Polly for as long as necessary. Her stay had already far exceeded both of their expectations, both in terms of duration and success. Betty helped out with the twins here and there, cooked the occasional meal, and did a little gardening when she saw fit. In return, Polly largely left her to her own devices.
“Are you going to see Mom and Dad?” Polly asked as she cleared their plates away.
“Yeah, later this afternoon.”
Polly nodded in acknowledgement. “They’ll like that.”
Betty thought they probably would. Although still a little tense, her relationship with both of her parents had been improving steadily over summer. It wasn’t anything in particular that anyone had said or done, and the improvement couldn’t really even be attributed to one person more than another. Her mom still worried, and Betty still felt a little like the weight of it might crush her some days. But that aside, it felt like they were moving forward. Sometimes these things just took a little time.
The doorbell rang.
“I’ll get it!” Charlotte shrieked, climbing down from her stool and bolting for the front door.
Betty turned to Polly and raised her eyebrows. “You expecting someone?”
Polly gave Betty a slightly amused look, shook her head, and then went back the washing up.
Moments later, Charlotte reappeared. “It’s for Betty,” she said matter-of-factly.
Betty stared at Charlotte in bewilderment. “Well did you invite them in?”
Betty rolled her eyes, mildy exasperated. She hopped down off her own stool, and retraced Charlotte’s steps to the front door.
Her mouth fell open. There, on the front steps of Polly’s porch, was Jughead.
“Happy birthday,” he said calmly.
Betty stood there in the doorway, astonished. “But..” she stuttered, well aware that this was an inappropriate reaction, though too taken aback to do very much about it. “I thought you weren’t back from New York until...until next week?”
Jughead shrugged, and smiled the sort of half smile that she knew him to reserve for moments when he’d impressed even himself. “I know,” he said. “But it’s your birthday.”
When Betty still didn’t react, he reached out and took her hand in his, moving in closer. Standing a step below her, he was precisely at her eye-level. He leaned in and kissed her gently. His lips mere millimetres from hers when pulled back, and Betty could feel the warmth of his breath mix with hers. Finally coming to her senses somewhat, she looped an arm around his neck and pulled him in closer still, this time pressing her lips against his. He caught her bottom lip, and then slipped his tongue into her mouth, and she forgot everything entirely except the dull thud of his heart syncopated with hers.
When they broke apart, she was finally able to say what had been pretty clear all along. “I can’t believe you’re here.”
Jughead laughed quietly, thumb stroking the inside palm of the hand he was still holding. “I brought you a present.”
He gave her hand a little tug, leading her down the porch steps, and along the garden path. Beyond the front gate, she could see his car parked.
“Are we going somewhere?” she asked, having regained her grasp on reality, and now genuinely curious.
Jughead let go of her hand to unlock the car and open the front door. And there, sitting on the passenger seat, was a small, potted tree.
For the second time that morning, Betty’s mouth fell open.
“I just picked this up from the Riverdale Plant Nursery,” Jughead said, as if this was the kind of thing he did everyday. And then somewhat unnecessarily, he added, “It’s for you.”
Betty gazed at the tree, and then at Jughead, and then back at the tree. “Is that...is that an olive tree?”
“Yes!” he said, now sounding triumphant. “That’s exactly what it is.”
Betty felt her stomach do several backflips. He was giving her peace and friendship.
“Look, Betty,” Jughead went on, running his fingers through his hair, “I know you weren’t a big fan of that day we spent potting olive trees at the nursery. But I was. That whole day could have been so awful. It was so hot, there was no shade, and I was so hungry. But it didn’t really matter, because I still got to spend the whole day with you. And also, I’ve always thought there was something really beautifully simple about an olive tree,” he finished.
Something about this admission washed over Betty, and made her feel almost lightheaded. Tears pricked at her eyes, and she blinked rapidly in an attempt to hold them back. This was supposed to be a happy moment.
“Heyyy,” Jughead murmured, reaching for her hand again. “It’s okay.”
“I know it is,” Betty said thickly. “I know it’s okay. That’s the thing.”
It genuinely was going to be okay. She’d never been more certain of it than right now.
Everything felt very real. That was the simplest way Betty could find to describe things.
When Jughead had had not one but two helpings of Polly’s pancakes, they bid her and the twins farewell. Jughead had told them they had places to be. He wasn’t particularly specific, but Polly didn’t ask any questions.
Betty sat in the passenger seat, nursing her olive tree. “Where are we going?”
“It’s a surprise.”
She didn’t used to like surprises, and she knew he knew that. However, his presence alone seemed to indicate he was aware she was on her way to overcoming this.
It didn’t take her long to figure out they were headed for the trailer park. When Jughead pulled up and stopped the engine, he leaned over and pressed a light kiss against her temple.
“I thought we could plant the olive tree.”
Betty nodded. She wasn’t quite sure why, but it made sense. Of all the places they could plant it, this one felt right. It didn't matter that it was a place that didn't belong to either of them. Wherever they went, and wherever they ended up, the trailer park would always still be right here. And you could always go back to where you began.
“Did you bring shovel” Betty asked, as they hopped out of the car.
Ever prepared, Jughead procured a shovel from the back seat. Betty opted to make the first start. Digging the hole turned out to be rather more difficult than she’d anticipated. The earth was dry, making her efforts decidedly laboured. She persisted until her lack of progress started to frustrate her, and then passed the shovel over to Jughead who picked up where she’d left off.
Betty sat on the steps at the front door of the trailer, and watch him shovel earth, watched him make room in their lives for the olive tree, as he had already done for her. hen he’d finished, he disappeared inside briefly, re-appearing with a large bucket of water. Betty watched as he tipped the bucket’s contents into the hole.
They both watched the water level drop, the water slowly draining away, giving precious life to everything in its vicinity.
"You ever see the movie Holes?" Jughead asked.
Betty removed the tree from its pot, and placed it gently in the hole. They shovelled earth back over the tree, building a steady foundation. They pressed the earth down at the base of the tree, and then Betty filled the bucket of water once more, this time watering the tree itself.
She sat back down on the steps and watched as Jughead made some finishing touches as he saw fit. She watched him and wondered, wondered what was to come, and whether this would last. You couldn’t predict how things were going to turn out, or how people were going to change. Perhaps they would breakup in a years time, and all that would be left was an olive tree in a barren, barren trailer park. Or perhaps they wouldn't breakup at all, and them and the olive tree would instead grow old together. It was impossible to know.
That very thought used to terrify her. Sometimes she found herself spiralling into that way of thinking again. It was a vicious, swirling vortex, one you couldn’t ever truly escape. And it would always be there. But you could learn to recognise it, and stop it. You could learn to look up.
These days, when Betty looked up, she could see everything the light touched.
I started writing this over a year ago. If you've made this far - thank you <3
When I first started writing this, there was a lot of uncertainty about it. I set out to craft a narrative so vague that it embodied Betty’s state of mind, and evoked that uncertainty in anyone who read it. I wanted to gradually lose that feeling over the course of 10 chapters, so that by the very end you couldn't remember what it had felt like to be that confused.
I can't go without acknowledging the input of one of my all time favourite people. Just over a year ago I read a fic that made me want to start writing again. That fic was Something to Tell You, written by the much loved findingbetty. When I messaged Annabel last year to tell her I loved her fic, we got to talking about about my own writing plans. I hadn't written anything in a while so was extremely grateful to have her as a sounding board. This morphed into a more collaborative effort over time, and I'm now proud to call her my co-writer. She has a pretty distinct voice, which you may recognise in certain scenes!
Thanks to all the readers and commenters for helping me to articulate what it feels like to be lost in your late teens and early twenties. I know it won't have made sense to all of you, but for those that it did (and indeed those that it didn't) - LOVE AND HUGS. I would love if you could leave me a comment below!