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another part of me

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The moment Michael Mell saw Jeremy Heere, he knew he’d never stop watching.

They were kids when they met: little four-year-olds with scuffed elbows and knees plastered with colorful plaster patterns, Jeremy’s sneaker laces untied and ready to trip him up onto the rubber of the daycare playground, Michael feeling pretty special with his sneakers, no laces in sight, with velcro straps in place.

Michael wasn’t used to being around a bunch of other kids; being an only child, he liked his alone time, watching cartoons or playing with his toys. This was something else. Other kids were everywhere! All different sizes and shapes, haircuts and skin colors, some kids even looked way older than him, towering up high above, heads in the clouds.

He felt his belly flutter, uncomfortable, and his chest felt funny, and he squeezed his mom’s hand tightly and looked up, ready to weasel his way out of this and just stay home, instead.

But then he saw a boy.

He was skinny and small, with the palest skin he’d ever seen on a person, sitting in the shadow of the big, long slide with his knees drawn up to his chest. Every time another kid went down the slide, the dark brown curls on his head frizzed up, some strands attracted to the charged yellow plastic, before flopping back down in the entirely wrong way.

He didn’t look very happy to be here, not like everyone else. In fact, he kinda looked the way Michael felt inside: messy, uncomfortable, too scared to be here but too scared to do anything about it.

When his mom looked down at him and he opened his mouth, he didn’t try to beg or plead to leave this loud, chaotic place. Instead, he said, “I love you, Nanay, I’ll see you later,” and took off towards the boy under the slide.

Maybe this whole day care thing wouldn’t be so bad together.

“Hi!” The boy jumped a little, bumping his head against the underside of the slide, and turned to face Michael, eyes wide. “I’m Michael, what’s--” Michael stopped.

Closer now, he could see finer details he hadn’t before: his skin wasn’t just pale, it had freckles, and not just the kind on his cheeks like were in cartoons. They were reddish-brown and dotted all over, from his chin to his forehead and over his nose, and not very many or very even at all. His nose was long and his eyes were round, and even in the shade, or maybe because of it, they were this weird color. Muddled all into one specific color, like he’d pooled his finger paints together, part green and part gray and part blue, and Michael knew his colors pretty well but he didn’t know a word for a color like that.

“Your eyes are pretty,” he said, confident as any four year old could possibly be.

The boy turned red and he looked down at his knees, but he was smiling, and that was enough. “Thanks.” He fidgeted with his fingers, twisting them around each other, tugging at the cuffs of his jacket. “Um. I’m Leah.” He made a face. “I like Jeremy more.”

Why a boy had a girl’s name, he had no idea, but Michael thought he liked Jeremy more, too. “Wanna be friends?”

“With you?” Jeremy blinked.

“Well, yeah! Things are a lot more fun with a friend, right?” Michael watched as Jeremy’s smile faded, twisting downward, and for a split second, he doubted. He doubted his idea to come right up here, to this strange boy, away from his mom, away from his one chance to stay safe and happy inside. His belly felt sick. “I mean, you don’t have to…”

Suddenly, Jeremy’s eyes were back on him, bright and happy and hopeful, and he still felt sick, but a little different, this time. “No, you’re right! We’ll be friends!”

Michael smiled back, and reached out to grab Jeremy’s hand, pulling him out into the sunshine. “Best friends!”

Jeremy’s eyes weren’t any different out in the light, and Michael still couldn’t understand the name or his sick belly, but as they ran off, still holding hands, figuring out what to play first, Michael found he didn’t mind.

He had a best friend.

They played dinosaurs, because Jeremy really liked those, and when Michael picked a dinosaur name out of the ones he heard in The Land Before Time (Threehorn, because that just sounded cool and he kinda liked Cera being super brave and all), Jeremy laughed and said triceratops .

Way cooler than Threehorn.

It was time to go home before he knew it, and his mom was there with the grown-up in charge of all of them, and a whole bunch of other grown-ups, too.

Michael whined when he finally slogged up to his mother. His legs felt heavy and sore from running around, and he longed to not be on his feet anymore, but the moment his mom lifted him up into her arms, it would be the end. “Already? But I just started telling Jeremy about the new Transformers!”

“Jeremy?”

Michael nodded, turning to point at Jeremy, standing with a bearded man and a blonde woman. His skin was bright red under his freckles and the woman was clucking over him, rummaging around in her bag for something. “He’s my best friend ever!”

His mother smiled. “I’m glad you made a new friend! See, not so bad, right?” She took Michael’s small, chubby hand and began to lead him back to their car.

It was a trick! Michael pulled his hand out of her grip. “Can I stay? I just wanna tell him about the Transformers, and he said he wanted to try to make a secret handshake, so we gotta do that, too, and--”

“Mikey,” and Michael frowned, because he hated being called Mikey, “Jeremy has his own home to go to. It’s almost time for dinner.”

Michael didn’t budge.

“I’m making macaroni,” his mother tried, and even the thought of cheesy pasta with ketchup-- and everything was better with some ketchup-- didn’t sway him.

“I wanna play with Jeremy,” he grumbled.

His mother did that thing she did sometimes, closing her eyes and taking a deep breath. “You’ll see him tomorrow, I’m sure.”

Michael looked at her, squinting suspiciously. “...Really? You promise?”

“I promise.”

Michael watched for a few seconds more, trying to see if this was one of those Mom Lies, but it looked like she was serious. “Okay,” he said, slowly, still not completely sure she meant it. “Lemme go say bye, first!”

He ran as fast as his short legs could carry him, skidding along the pavement so he didn’t bowl Jeremy over into a tackle hug instead of a regular one.

“Michael!”

He ignored his mother’s shout, and he ignored the shocked noises of Jeremy’s parents standing above them. Instead, Michael squeezed his arms around his best friend’s neck, pleased when a scrawnier pair of arms hugged him back, a little hesitant, but soon just as tight.

“My nanay says I’ll see you tomorrow!”

“Awesome!” Jeremy pulled back a little, eyes shining, skin still a bright, angry red. “I’ll bring some dinosaurs!”

“And I’ll bring some robots!”

Michael could hear his mom closer now, talking to Jeremy’s parents, but it wasn’t anything important, as far as he cared. He was busy making plans.

Tomorrow would be a great day.

 


 

Jeremy continued to be there.

Every day of daycare on that sunny playground, he burned under the sun, skin just as pale when the burn finally subsided.

Every day of kindergarten, when he licked a blue glue stick because he thought it was a push pop, and Michael laughed so hard at his disgusted, betrayed expression he peed his pants and had to borrow a pair of extra ones from the nurse until his nanay could bring him another pair.

On his eighth birthday, Michael’s parents were busy. Both his nanay and his papá loved him, he knew that; he didn’t have any brothers or sisters, so he got plenty of love and attention all to himself. He had good clothes, warm food, toys, everything a kid could really need or want.

But they were busy.

It was an adult thing, because of course it was. Michael was old enough by now to know they had other things to do than be with him all the time, and that was fair, because he didn’t really want to share all his time with them, either.

But his nanay asked him to take the bus to school. She gave him lunch money instead of his cool Pac-Man lunchbox, and when she shooed him out the door to the awaiting school bus, she told him that Mrs. Heere would be taking him home, instead.

Michael hated the bus. It was so terribly loud, and full of kids older than him who would pick on the younger kids and shove everyone around, and not leave Michael alone when he felt like shouting at them that everything was just too much and to go away . If he ever did speak up, they mocked his squeaky voice and pushed him, either against the window or off into the grimy, filthy aisle between the seats. Jeremy didn’t take the bus.

Michael hated having lunch money. Not just because school lunches were gross and probably made of toxic slime, but because of the other kids who looked at the coins and bills like they were solid gold and they were like pirates, and he ended up sitting next to Jeremy, who was munching away at his celery and peanut butter, with no lunch at all. Jeremy passed him half of his sandwich, and let Michael drink out of his Capri Sun pouch, which Michael thought was awfully generous. The carrots pushed his way, though, were a given-- Jeremy really did not like carrots.

(Jeremy later laughed until he cried when Michael showed up, halfway through fourth grade, with thick, black-rimmed glasses. “Carrots are supposed to be good for your eyes,” he gasped, and though Michael’s skin was too dark to show a blush like Jeremy’s could, he felt his face heat up.

“Yeah, well,” he said, but found he didn’t mind too much, now that Jeremy’s entire face, freckles and tears and lashes and all, was clearer than it had ever been.)

Michael… well. Michael didn’t hate Mrs. Heere. He absolutely loved Jeremy, because they were best friends forever, of course, and Mr. Heere told fun jokes and was just as weird as his son, which was just fine in Michael’s book. Mrs. Heere, though, wasn’t so nice.

She’d never been really nice. Mr. Heere was glad to have Michael over, sometimes invited his nanay or his papá inside to talk when they dropped Michael off for a playdate. Mrs. Heere just smiled, said everything was fine, and shut the door in their faces, turning to Michael with such a bitter look on her face that Michael couldn’t help but think he’d done something wrong, even though he’d just gotten there. Any time he spoke a word of Tagalog or Spanish, because those were part of him, just like his love of Pac-Man and robots and cool old music, she’d get that same look.

“Michael, dear,” she’d say, sweetly, “English, please. Leah doesn’t know what those words mean.”

Michael would correct her, “Jeremy,” but pause, face burning at the reprimand, and do the sentence over in pure English.

Today, Jeremy was in the room when she did it.

“I do too know what he said,” he argued, and then he translated whatever little word he’d managed to learn from Michael through enough repetition, like nanay or chamarra. “And gago means--” He paused and turned red, looking from Michael and his mom, both stunned for slightly different reasons. “Um. A butthead.”

Despite the embarrassment clear on his face, Jeremy’s eyes were bright and determined, focused on his mom, standing up for Michael against her pinched, pale expression, and Michael could not stop staring .

“Well,” Mrs. Heere said, finally. “Even if you do know, those words aren’t to be used here. While you are in my home, you will speak English. Understood?”

It was more of a statement than a question, and with Jeremy’s momentary bravery gone and Michael’s ingrained guest politeness, neither were going to stand up to an upset adult again. They nodded yes to Mrs. Heere and trudged back up the stairs to Jeremy’s room.

They played video games together, pressed up close enough on his small bed that they’d definitely have bruises from elbows to the ribs later. Michael loved playing with Jeremy; he laughed loud, teased, joked, gloated when he won and grumbled when he didn’t. But every hour that passed, at least today, he wondered when his parents would come back and get him.

It was his birthday, and when he sat down to dinner with the Heere’s, his parents weren’t there, and the meal was normal, every-night kind of stuff, not a birthday meal. No one sang to him, no one gave him a gift, and part way through, as Michael was picking at his broccoli, Mr. Heere cleared his throat.

“So, Michael,” he started, doing that thing where parents try to be cheerful but you can tell they aren’t at all. It was Mr. Heere, though, and the awkwardness shone through twice as clearly. “Would you like to have a sleepover with Jeremy?”

Mrs. Heere’s face soured.

Michael looked up at him, eyes wide. Instead of stabbing through the piece of broccoli on his plate, he glanced it with the tine of his fork, sending it skidding onto the table to rest by Jeremy’s cup. Jeremy snorted.

“What?”

“A sleepover,” Mr. Heere repeated. “You can stay the night here and your parents will come by in the morning.”

Stay the night? Here? As in, he could stay here, with Jeremy, and not have to leave? Michael’s heart pounded and he looked over at Jeremy, who grinned widely. “Yeah!”

He was so excited by the idea that he didn’t even realize until much later, long after bedtime, that it was because his parents wouldn’t be home tonight at all.

“Michael?” Jeremy whispered, but it was too much for the dark and quiet of the room and rang in his ears. The soft gold light of the bedside lamp flicked on.

From his spot on the air mattress on the floor, he looked up at the pair of blue-green eyes peeking at him just over the side of the bed. “Yeah?”

“I just remembered I didn’t give you your gift yet!”

Michael sat up, something uncomfortable in his chest, and he listened to Jeremy get out of his bed and rummage around through his drawers and bookshelf.

“Here,” Jeremy announced, coming around the side of the bed with something small in his hand. He scrambled onto the air mattress, pushing blankets out of the way so he could sit right next to Michael. “It’s not wrapped at all, ‘cause it’s so small, so I hope that’s okay?”

Michael took the object from Jeremy’s fingers, hands shaking. It was a Magic the Gathering card, but not one from any of the sets he’d poured over in catalogues, looking longingly at in the store, or even the small set Jeremy already had. It wasn’t just that he had never heard of this card; even if he had, no real MtG card would have Jeremy’s scrawling doodle of the two of them where the creature portrait was. An Instant worth one mana of any color: Player Two.

 

Tap any time for backup

from your player two!

 

“Happy birthday, dude!” - Jeremy

 

“Well, do you like it?” Jeremy’s voice floated in from the side as Michael continued to stare at the card. “I worked hard to make it-- well, I mean, I used that site that lets you make cards but it was on regular normal paper, so I used one of my cards glued to it to make it feel more real.”

Michael, against his wishes, burst into tears.

“Oh no, Michael!” He heard Jeremy move around again, felt the bounce of the air mattress as he got off, which only made the tears worse. He’s leaving because I ruined it, crying over something he made for me. Michael snuffled and sniffed, clutching the card like a lifeline, and brought one sleeve of his borrowed pajama shirt up to dry his face and nose. And now I’m messing up his clothes!

A hand grabbed his damp arm, not minding the gross still covering the fabric, and pushed a box of tissues into his hand. “Please don’t cry anymore,” Jeremy whispered, and he sounded as upset as Michael felt. “I’m sorry. I thought you’d like it, since you like my set so much, and I know you want one.”

Michael took a tissue, blew his nose, then took a couple more to dry his cheeks. “No, dude, I love it. It’s just,” he hiccuped, “I thought you forgot, too.”

“Forgot?”

“My birthday. It’s today.” Michael looked up at the clock on Jeremy’s nightstand, the harsh blue less now that the lamp was on. 11:34 pm. “Not for much longer.”

Jeremy looked at him, as though offended at the very idea. “I would never forget my player one’s birthday, Michael,” he said, deadly serious. “Not now, not ever. And what about your mom and dad? They always give you cool gifts and stuff!”

“Not today,” Michael mumbled, squeezing the tissues still in his hand. “My pa--” He stopped, as if Mrs. Heere would be right around the corner to catch him. “My dad wasn’t anywhere this morning, and my mom just told me to take the bus and come here after. And your mom and dad know my birthday! They’ve come with you to all the parties I’ve had, or at least your dad has, and today they were just…” He trailed off.

When he looked up at Jeremy, he was surprised at the look on his face. Normally, Jeremy was a little nervous, a little shy; even in his earlier defense of Michael against his mom, that uncertainty was still there, questioning his own decision to backtalk his mother. This time, his eyes were angry, edging towards stormcloud gray, brows furrowed, mouth downturned.

“How could they forget you,” he said, finally, righteous fury in an eight-year-old container. “You’re like the coolest, best person I know! You should have a great birthday, with cake, and games, and… and-- well, whatever else you want!”

Jeremy looked at him suddenly, making direct eye contact, and there was not one shred of doubt in his eyes as he said, “Michael Mell, I will never, ever forget you.”

Michael had finished crying already, but that one sentence made his eyes burn and well up all over again. He threw the tissues on the ground, setting the Magic card sideways on the ground in front of him, and launched himself at Jeremy, squeezing him tight around the middle. He could feel Jeremy hug him back, arms slung around his shoulders.

“You tapped the card already? With what mana?”

“Tissues,” Michael replied, muffled into Jeremy’s pajama shirt.

Jeremy laughed above him, and Michael felt his face press into his pillow-mussed hair.

When Mr. and Mrs. Heere came upstairs to wake them on Saturday morning, pancakes ready downstairs for a surprise belated birthday breakfast, they found both of them clinging to each other like moss on a tree, asleep on the deflating air mattress.

They let them sleep a little longer.

 

Michael didn’t know why his parents were so distant that day until Saturday evening, when his nanay came to get him. She looked exhausted, with red-rimmed eyes and messy dark hair. The drive home stretched out longer and longer, and he knew they were going the wrong way, but maybe they were going to get dinner to bring home.

They arrived at the hospital, instead.

His papá was in bed, dark skin ashy, dark eyes sunken and tired. He didn’t look right, and Michael told him so, asked when he’d be better and come home.

His parents looked at each other, and back at him, then scooped him up in a hug tighter than the one Jeremy gave him the previous night.

Michael’s papá was gone within the week, of something the doctors kept saying but wouldn’t translate for him, but his nanay said something about his heart.

The only thing Michael knew about hearts was that people said they could be broken. He hoped that he didn’t die of a broken heart. He couldn’t imagine a worse way to die.

Jeremy sat with him after the service, once again not minding if Michael cashed in his tissues for a hug.

 




From the ages of twelve to fourteen, Michael kind of had a revelation crisis. To the tune of one earth-shattering thought per year, something would flip everything he knew on its head, and he’d have to deal with that along with all the other pressures of being in his early teens.

When he was twelve, he realized:

 

Mrs. Heere called Jeremy “Leah” for a reason.

 

Michael had heard about it from the older kids.

It was disgusting, horrifying, and-- above all else-- incredibly embarrassing .

And, it was mandatory in order to graduate from middle school.

Health class.

It was fine. It would have been fine, anyway, if it was the cutesy, basic organs-with-faces and songs type of situation digestion had been back in grade school, or the neat rhymes to help you remember how many teeth or bones you have and what kind. It would’ve been fine, when they talked about nutrition and diseases, viruses and bacteria that could make you sick, basic things about genetics as a primer to high school biology and anatomy.

But that wasn’t it. Not entirely.

It happened on the board, first.

The teacher-- one of the gym teachers with a free period this hour who didn’t have other things to do like grading tests and worksheets like all of the other teachers did-- wiped off the dry-erase marker labelling tomorrow’s lesson as “The Brain” and wrote, in thick, blocky green letters:

PUBERTY AND REPRODUCTION

Michael wasn’t dumb. Michael had internet access at home, and was a curious twelve year old, and was kind of freaking out about his legs hurting and needing to change his sheets sometimes even though he totally peed before bed.

He knew what those things were. He knew how the latter thing happened, kind of.

And being Jeremy’s best friend, he told Jeremy everything . Which meant, Jeremy knew, too.

Michael didn’t need to look over to know that Jeremy was red as a tomato, sinking lower into his seat.

“Alright, I know you’ve all seen this,” the teacher said, capping the marker and pointing toward the words he’d just written. “Go ahead and get your giggles out of the way now.”

The class, predictably, whispered to each other and tittered.

“All finished?” The teacher didn’t wait for an actual response before taking two stacks of paper off of his “desk”-- just a longer one of the tables in the cafeteria, folded out and squeaky-- and heading around the room. “There will be pictures and there will be videos, and normally, I’d just give you all the same ones and that’d be that. But,” he trailed off, continuing to give to boys from one stack and girls from another, “the school says you need to be seperated to learn this stuff nowadays, so. On your papers, you’ll see the room you’re meant to go to this period tomorrow. They are different for girls and boys. You’ll be learning different things. Have your parents look and sign, because you’ll need that signature to be part of that class.”

He continued to talk. As he passed Michael and Jeremy’s own long table, he gave Michael a sheet from one pile, then turned to Jeremy. The teacher paused, as if thinking hard about something, before giving Jeremy one from the other pile and going on his way.

“Wh-- dude!” Michael leaned over to look. His page was fine, talking to the parental audience in the way all school-sent papers do about “their son” and how he would learn all about… that. Jeremy’s, however, though the same paper and font, definitely talked about girls, not boys. “He gave you the wrong paper.”

Jeremy looked at it, and the flush on his face turned splotchy and angry, more in line with the blemishes starting to pop up on the pale skin of his chin and forehead. “Oh, yeah. He did,” he said, flatly.

“I’m sure it happens.” Michael shrugged, but Jeremy still looked unhappy. “Hey, I’ll get you the right one, okay? Don’t want you going to the wrong room.”

Just as he raised his arm, starting to call for the teacher, Jeremy grabbed him by his raised elbow and pulled , almost toppling him out of the chair. “Sorry, dude, but don’t ,” he hissed.

Michael frowned, bewildered. “Why not?”

“Just… you know how he gets when he’s on a roll. And I don’t wanna be the guy to interrupt.” Jeremy shrugged and let go, looking down at the paper on the desk in front of him miserably. “I’ll talk to him about it after class. Less eyes then, y’know?”

That made sense. Michael leaned over to bump Jeremy’s shoulder with his own. “Sure, man. Just don’t leave me to suffer through it alone, okay?”

One corner of Jeremy’s mouth twitched up into a half-smile, but his shoulders were still tight for the rest of the class.

 

The next day, after Michael made it to the room printed on the page and handed over his permission notice, he couldn’t see Jeremy anywhere. Granted, they didn’t have the same class right before, but they always met up before class. He’d been there at lunch, once again passing over his carrots even if Michael had his own meal to eat.

He hoped he didn’t have some emergency, of course, but to leave him to face the sheer awkwardness alone was kind of rude.

Even when the film half of the class started, he didn’t show, ducking between desks and students in an attempt to get his lanky, clumsy self over to Michael’s seat. When the presentation half started, Michael was too stunned and vaguely horrified to bother to look for Jeremy.

He walked out after the bell rang, shuffling his feet, in the same disturbed trance a handful of the other boys were in. Though he was only twelve, he was certain that hour had taken years off of the end of his life.

Jeremy was at his locker, looking extra pale and as freaked out as Michael felt.

“So, you did ditch me,” Michael started, but there was no real heat to it.

Jeremy jumped. “Wh- no- I was just- I-- uh.” He fumbled with his books, determining which to take home, before loading all of them into his bookbag, anyway. “I wouldn’t just ditch you, dude,” he said, finally.

“Well, you weren’t there for the hour from hell,” Michael shot back, and though Jeremy barked out a short, uncomfortable laugh, he shrugged a shoulder. “I guess your mom didn’t want you seeing it, huh.”

“Yeah,” Jeremy exhaled, nodding emphatically. “That’s it. I don’t get it, but she said no, so I just,” he paused, and grimaced. “Went to the library.”

Michael slung an arm around Jeremy’s shoulders-- which was kinda difficult now, since he had some weird early growth spurt that left him taller than most every other boy in class-- and steered him down the hallway to freedom. “Well, not to worry. Every last second was seared into my brain, so you, my friend, will get a moment by moment, slow mo, high definition recap.”

“Oh, god,” Jeremy whined.

 

At Jeremy’s house, Michael stood awkwardly by the stairs as Mrs. Heere and Jeremy argued.

“He is not going up to your room, Leah!”

Jeremy bared his teeth. “ Jeremy , and what’s the big deal? We’ve been friends since daycare and you were fine with him being here a month ago!”

“Did you not pay any attention today?” Mrs. Heere moved forward, more into Jeremy’s space, and pointed at Michael. “Now that both of you are that age, you’ll start thinking things, and I know he already does!”

Michael blinked. Mostly, all he thought of were video games and 7/11, which, though not the healthiest things in the world, weren’t enough to cause a meltdown this size.

“Yeah, mom, boys think about things . It’s almost like we’re humans and have brains, too.”

“You are not a boy , Leah.”

Everything stopped.

Mrs. Heere continued, as if Jeremy wasn’t in front of her, frozen solid, as if Michael’s entire worldview hadn’t tilted on its axis. “I’ve put up with this boyish phase for years, because your father wouldn’t let it go, but you’re growing up and becoming a woman, and it’s not right for a girl to act the way you do.”

Both she and Jeremy had the same splotchy red flush, and as they stared each other down, Michael could see the similarities. Long nose, curly hair, lanky bodies. The furrowed brows had the same angle.

But the moment broke, and Jeremy turned, and his eyes were all Mr. Heere, mixed up and round and, now, brimming with tears. “Come on, Michael,” he muttered, bitter and cold. “We’ll go to your house, instead.”

Michael watched after him, for a split second, torn: to watch the woman who hurt Jeremy, who stood there as if this entire argument was Jeremy’s fault, who changed everything he ever thought in a moment, in one fell swoop, or.

Or to follow his best friend for eight years, his player two, who was crying, who never let him down, who needed him right now the way he’d always been there for Michael.

It wasn’t a difficult choice. He glared back over his shoulder at Mrs. Heere and followed Jeremy out.

 

Michael’s mom was out at work, but since he turned eleven, she’d let him stay at home alone, provided he memorized the emergency numbers she’d left him on the fridge door. He’d memorized it in a night, then promptly forgot most of them. Honestly, the only important ones were 911 and Jeremy’s number.

But they didn’t go inside. Instead, Michael led them through the back gate, slumping down with his back to the trunk of the old, gnarled tree still hanging on to life. Jeremy slumped beside him, curling his knees up to his chest and burying his face in his arms.

Michael didn’t know what to say, really. He wasn’t sure what there was to say. His best friend for years had been a girl the whole time, but he’d said he was a boy so confidently. He got upset when his mom called him a girl. His head swirling, jumping back and forth between ideas, he stared out over the green grass of late April, listening to the passing cars, ruffling leaves, and Jeremy, breathing next to him.

“Michael.” His voice cut through, and Michael looked over to see Jeremy, eyes red and cheeks damp, looking up at him. “I’m so sorry, Michael. I didn’t want you to find out, or not like that, anyway.” He sniffled, an awful, wet sound that sent a shiver down Michael’s spine. “I-if you don’t want to be around me anymore, because I’m just some freak, then--”

“Don’t say that,” Michael snapped. “You aren’t a freak. You.. you’re…” He frowned, thinking hard. Who was Jeremy? What did that mean? For Jeremy, himself? For Michael? For everyone else? “You’re Jeremy Heere. You still like dinosaurs, even after eight years. You like to sing along to musicals, if you know them, or try to hum if you don’t. You hate carrots. You get cold super easy and wear all kinds of sweaters and hoodies and stuff. You put up with my weird music tastes and try whatever Filipino dish my mom makes when you stay over.”

As Michael spoke, Jeremy uncurled a little. He still looked like a mess, snotty and damp and red in the face, and his hands still did that nervous tic of twisting in the cuffs of his jacket. But his eyes weren’t shadowed anymore, and a small smile grew on his face.

“Listen, man,” Michael continued, having exhausted everything he could think of, “you’re my best friend, my player two. If you say you’re Jeremy Heere, and if you say you’re a boy, then I’m right behind you.”

Jeremy snorted. “Wouldn’t that make you player two?”

“Don’t push it,” Michael replied, but he poked at Jeremy’s shoulder teasingly. “So, were you really at the library?”

Jeremy grimaced again. “...No.”

“You saw the other one?” Michael’s eyes grew wide.

Jeremy nodded. “It’s probably a lot grosser than the one you saw.” Michael looked doubtful, so Jeremy leaned in to tell him.

“You’re gonna do what ?!”

 

(Later, Jeremy was supposed to have something called a bat mitzvah, because he was going to be thirteen and that’s what Jewish girls had. Michael didn’t know too much about Judaism or Jeremy’s feelings about the whole thing, but when Jeremy turned thirteen he got a bar mitzvah instead, and though Mrs. Heere was pissed and didn’t even show up, both Jeremy and Mr. Heere looked really happy.)

 




When Michael was thirteen, he realized:

 

He really, really liked boys.

 

“Hey, Mell!”

Michael looked up from his backpack, one hand still inside and searching for his pencil case, to see a group of guys looking over at him from their group of desks.

“Uh…” He blinked, because people didn’t actually talk to him, ever. “Yeah, that’s me?”

A couple of the guys snickered, but one of them, already getting taller and broader with not one hint of acne or a squeaky voice said, “You got a crush on anybody? Since we’re talking about it, and all.”

Michael honestly hadn’t been paying attention at all. “Not that I know of, sorry,” he replied quickly, finally pulling out the case to set next to his textbook.

“Please,” the guy scoffed. “Everyone does. There’s gotta be some girl, right? Just look around.” He even gestured around the classroom, still filling up from the doorway.

He didn’t get the appeal. Sure, girls could be nice and super pretty, or whatever, but he never looked at one and felt anything other than normal social awkwardness. Michael shook his head and shrugged.

“Guess I’m just an exception.”

“Whatever,” the guy said, and turned back around to his friends.

Still, the conversation stuck with him, all through his classes, through lunch, and out until he was sat in the basement of his house with Jeremy, flipping through channels on the old TV he and his mom had wrestled downstairs.

“Jeremy?”

Jeremy looked up from stuffing his face with potato chips. “Mmph?”

“Do you…” Michael trailed off, somehow finding the idea of what he was about to ask incredibly uncomfortable. “Do you like anybody? Like, any girls at school?”

Jeremy coughed through the chips, spraying crumbs over the admittedly already-messy carpet. “Where’d that come from,” he wheezed, taking the bottle of Mountain Dew Michael passed him to wash everything down.

“I dunno, it just came up today?” Michael fiddled with the remote, still pressing the next button. “And you’re a guy, so.”

“I mean…” Michael looked over, and Jeremy was.

Jeremy was blushing .

Before Michael could say anything, Jeremy sat up and scooted closer. “Okay, I’ll tell you, but you can’t tell anyone else , got it?”

“Who would I tell?” Michael sounded faint to his own ears.

“Right.” Jeremy nodded, licked his lips, looked around as if anyone else were in earshot of the conversation, and nodded again. “Okay. So, I like Christine.”

“...Christine?” Michael didn’t know a lot of people, but the perks of being a quiet loser meant you picked up on a lot. He rifled through the names he’d matched to faces through middle school. “Canigula?”

Jeremy shouted yes, then shoved his hands over his mouth, as if that would take everything back.

Christine Canigula. Michael kind of knew her, at least in passing. Super cheerful, all over the place, talkative, but short and cute and sweet to just about everybody. Jeremy couldn’t have picked someone better.

His stomach churned, and he set the soda he was opening aside.

“Huh. Well, hey,” Michael said, turning to clap a hand on Jeremy’s shoulder. “Congrats, man. Good luck, and all that.”

As Jeremy started to go on about all the reasons he liked Christine, Michael continued to channel surf. It wasn’t that he didn’t like to hear Jeremy talk about stuff he was passionate about-- because Jeremy could go on for hours about dinosaurs or another, more recent obsession and Michael would hang on every word-- but he wasn’t feeling great. Yeah.

He flipped by a channel, paused on the Home Shopping Network, and went back one.

It was local news, some human interest story near the end of the hour always put there to end on a brighter note, about this kid in a middle school a few towns over. Michael didn’t really know what the kid was even being covered for, but.

The boy was cute .

He had smooth dark skin, curly hair, and talking about whatever it was he was doing brought this kind of spark to his eyes, letting him talk smoothly and quickly about it, like talking to a reporter was the easiest thing in the world.

“Are you really interested in recycling, or something?”

Michael jolted, hitting the next button and putting them back on the woman attempting to sell necklaces to viewers at home. “What? No. I.”

“Because you were watching for a while,” Jeremy continued, and the jerk just had to look amused, “and, hey, recycling is great, but that guy was kinda going extreme.”

“No. I was just listening to you and zoning out.” Michael shifted in his seat. “You know.”

Jeremy didn’t look convinced. “So, what was the last thing I said?”

Crap . “Something about… Christine looked nice today?”

“Yeah, you’re right, she did,” Jeremy sighed, and went right back into obsession mode, leaving Michael flustered and confused, but now paying attention in case he decided to pull another pop quiz on him.

 

It didn’t end with that kid on TV. That was only the start.

From then on, it was like some gay Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon, and it totally was, because everywhere Michael turned, a cute boy was just. There. Being a cute boy.

He went out to grocery shop with his mom, and there was a boy in the store with long brown hair and a hoodie, with a long nose and sharp, but still kind of handsome, features.

At school, a shorter boy with glasses and a flannel nudged his friend with a smirk on his face. His friend, taller, blond, chuckled nervously and pulled at his polo.

There was a boy in the ice cream shop, and a few at the library, and some in the park when he went with Jeremy.

There were boys in movies and TV shows.

There was the first boy, who had asked the question in the first place. Michael had felt kind of proud of his ability to notice people, given him guessing Christine Canigula on the first try, but he shouted into his locker as he realized that boy was Jake Dillinger.

There were girls, too, everywhere. They were pretty.

But the boys made him stumble over his words, made him trip in the hall, made him sweat and blush and feel nervous, but in a good way.

It was a big deal, and not in the way it could’ve been if he had sworn up and down all his life that he was straight. It was a big deal in that Michael had never even thought about it before. He’d just assumed he was straight and waiting for something to come along, or maybe he just wasn’t anything and would go through life living off of video games and Jeremy.

But he wasn’t, and the one time thinking about it became several times thinking about it.

And it was becoming a little bit of a crisis.

Because what would everybody think?

Michael had heard things. Kids being hurt, or bullied, or disowned. He was glad Jeremy hadn’t gone through any of that, as far as he knew, but being a boy and liking boys were two different things.

What if his nanay hated that? What if Mr. and Mrs. Heere hated it?

What if Jeremy hated it?

Michael wasn’t sure he could stand Jeremy hating him, for anything.

So he hid that thought, and all the thoughts surrounding it, and kept them pushed down, thought to be locked away tight.

Until the night after middle school graduation, late enough to really be morning, when a combination of sleep deprivation and his own overactive head spilled the beans for him.

They were in Michael’s room, the first sleepover of the summer, and Jeremy had abandoned the air mattress on the ground in favor of clinging to Michael like a koala. Honestly, Michael thought everyone should know better by now, since he’d been Jeremy’s personal teddy bear for the past four years.

“Hey, Jere?”

Jeremy didn’t say anything, but he moved his chin to Michael’s shoulder and nodded, curls brushing Michael’s ear.

“I like guys.” Jeremy continued not to say anything, so Michael just. Went for it. “Like the way you like Christine, I mean. I think boys are really cute, and I’d like to hold their hand, or go out, or something.” The last words trailed off into an embarrassed mumble.

A few moments of silence passed, and Michael was ready to stumble into an apology when Jeremy finally spoke up.

“Okay.”

Michael craned his neck to actually look at Jeremy the best he could. “Wh- okay ? That’s it?”

“Yeah?” Jeremy shifted, blue-green-gray eyes close in the dark. “Oh, and congratulations. It wasn’t really a surprise.”

“I agonized ,” Michael started, and Jeremy burst into wheezy, quiet giggles against his shirt. “I thought about this for months , and you just say okay and-- it wasn’t a surprise? What?”

“I’ve seen you stare at boys for months, dude, it wasn’t hard to figure out.” Jeremy paused. “Did you really think I was gonna be mad at you for it?”

“Yes?”

Jeremy blinked at him, frowning, but mostly unimpressed. “I’m a little hurt. You really thought I’d react like that? Come on, man,” he dropped his head back to Michael’s shoulder briefly to nudge him affectionately. “You’re my best friend ever. Whoever you like, I’m okay with that.”

Michael swallowed, throat suddenly tight. “What about--”

“My parents? They can deal,” Jeremy snorted. “Your mom?”

“Yeah?”

Michael wasn’t prepared for full on howls of laughter right in his ear.

“Your mom is dating a woman, Michael!”

“Listen, how am I supposed to know how she feels about other people?”

 

In short, his coming out went perfectly fine all around. Even if his nanay, her girlfriend, and Jeremy laughed at him about it.

 




When Michael was thirteen, or perhaps becoming fourteen, and maybe the whole realization took months, instead of happening all at once, he realized:

 

He might, kind of, a little bit, have a crush on Jeremy.

 

That same summer, the one Michael came out, Michael had a plan.

He was a research kind of guy, and he’d spent the week after final exams pouring over websites and forums to make absolute sure he knew what he was getting into. It even involved a vaguely mortifying-for-both-parties questioning with Mr. Heere. It was something important and worth doing and, damn it, he would do it well.

Considering he had nothing to do all summer, except for playing video games and complaining about the New Jersey heat, he got as many jobs as his mom and state law would let him.

And he kind of made some serious bank.

He woke up early, the sun only just starting to turn the sky to the east light, to throw out newspapers, even though no one really used newspapers anymore.

In the morning, he went from house to house in his and surrounding neighborhoods, looking for any odd jobs an adult had no time for, or just would rather pay a neighbor kid to do. Tending gardens, mowing lawns, washing cars; he never went inside the houses, because he wasn’t naive, but he thought about it. The extra cash from cleaning houses wouldn’t have hurt.

In the afternoons, he walked dogs, or cleaned garages or garden sheds.

Once a week, he took all the bottles and cans from both his and Jeremy’s house to recycle for change.

Michael wasn’t doing it for money’s sake. He had a point to all of his hard work. Finally, in the middle of July, sweltering and long, Michael made enough money to enact his plan.

He gave the money to his nanay, because one, she was in on the plan from the start, and two, she was the one with the card, not him, and ordered what he needed to.

The week-long wait felt like an eternity of checking both the mailbox and his front stoop, just in case, and deflecting questions from an increasingly-frustrated Jeremy on why he was acting so antsy.

“Just a few more days,” he pleaded, one day. “You’ll know in a few more days. It’s a good thing, I promise!”

Michael could tell Jeremy didn’t quite believe that, from the furrow in his brow and degree of his frown, but everything would be worth it.

Finally, the package came, and the moment Michael saw it, waiting on the front porch, he grabbed it and raced to Jeremy’s house.

When it came to each other’s houses, they didn’t bother with knocking anymore. They lived close enough to get there on foot, and knew where the spare keys were: Jeremy in the cracked, loose stone of his front step, Michael in a real flowerpot, caked in dirt and tucked between the roots of a plant he couldn’t name.

So when Michael came in the front door, yelling for Jeremy, a box under his arm, neither Mr. nor Mrs. Heere were particularly shocked to see another kid suddenly in their home.

“Michael!” Jeremy came down the stairs, though nowhere near as fast as he would have before. Recently, he’d taken to holding his arms across his chest, hunching his back a little, and though everyone knew the reason why (Jeremy was apparently a later bloomer than other kids), it didn’t make anyone more comfortable, least of all Jeremy, himself. “What’s that?” He nodded to the box.

“Remember when I was super fidgety and I wouldn’t tell you why?” Michael held out the package, grinning. “This is it! Come on, let’s go up to your room and open it.”

Mrs. Heere opened her mouth from her spot in the living room, but a look from Mr. Heere kept her quiet. It didn’t stop the sour, displeased look from crossing her face.

In Jeremy’s bedroom, Michael waited until the door was closed behind them, then passed the package to Jeremy, who just looked at it.

“Uh, you want me to open it?” At Michael’s nod, Jeremy reached over to his desk for his school scissors, ripping through the tape and pulling open the flaps of cardboard. As he did so, pulling out the fabric inside, Michael began to explain.

“I want you to know I did tons of research for this, okay? Like hours, every night. And I paid for them myself. That’s why I was so busy for a while, I was working.” Jeremy didn’t speak, still staring at the garments. Michael continued. “I know you’re uncomfortable, and I don’t want you to be, ever. Maybe it won’t fix everything. Maybe you don’t even want them, or want something else, and that’s okay, so long as you give them back within the return date,” he laughed, weakly.

Jeremy had two binders in his hands, fists clenched so hard his knuckles turned white, and when he looked up at Michael, his eyes were wide, watery. “Michael…”

“Do you want to put one on? Just to see?”

Jeremy looked back down at them, as if he thought they would disappear and was shocked to find them, solid and real, in his grasp. Slowly, he nodded.

Michael turned around, pushing his glasses to the top of his head and covering his eyes for triple protection. Just because they’d seen some glimpses of each other before didn’t mean they were comfortable just stripping, and especially now. Besides, who just watches their friends put on their underwear?

He heard the rustling of fabric, grunting as Jeremy pulled the binder on and into place, and Jeremy’s soft footsteps as he approached the wall mirror next to his closet.

Then, he heard sniffling.

“Oh, shit, Jeremy, I’m--” Michael turned around, ready to apologize, but he couldn’t get a word out.

Jeremy’s back was to him, but Michael could see over his shoulder, into the mirror, and though tears were gathered in Jeremy’s eyes, he looked so happy . He caught Michael’s eye, and before he knew it, Jeremy had him in an actual bear hug.

“You’re welcome, I guess,” Michael laughed, and returned the hug, one hand on the back of Jeremy’s head, the other around his back. They didn’t hug like this often, and not just for the obvious reasons. They were more casual, one-arm hug kind of people, save for some occasions, and, well. This was certainly an occasion.

Eventually, Jeremy let go of him to look back at himself in the mirror, and Michael decided to blame feeling cold on the blasting AC.

“Dude,” Jeremy breathed, turning from side to side, back to the front, back to Michael. “This is too much, man, you didn’t-- but just look!”

“I am looking!” And Jeremy still looked like Jeremy, only even skinnier than before, but that wasn’t what caught Michael. What caught him was Jeremy .

His smile was wide, unrestrained; he stood tall (even with Michael’s growth spurt, Jeremy was still almost his height); his eyes were wide and round, the color of the Atlantic in the summer, brimming with tears, yes, but joy, confidence.

Michael had seen Jeremy at his worst; it came with the territory of being best friends for almost a decade, and even then, he would have no problem telling anybody who would listen that he loved Jeremy Heere.

But this was Jeremy at his best, and Michael?

Michael couldn’t stop looking.

 

It didn’t really hit him until later, in the most cliche way he could have ever thought possible.

Partway through freshman year, Michael may have stumbled upon a particular past time: one that involved Dustin Kropp, a hidden alcove in the back of the school, and a good chunk of the money he had saved up from his summer jobs and his allowances.

It was a lot of money, actually, but he liked it. So, the next time he had enough cash, he did it again. And again.

Not all the time. He wasn’t addicted, or anything. Just every couple of weeks, when he needed to unwind.

Once, brain hazy, only just starting to come down, he thought: Jeremy might like this .

And then he was sat in his basement, with Jeremy, holding out a half-smoked joint, trying not to laugh his ass off at the look on Jeremy’s face.

Half ‘How has my life come to this?’, a little bit ‘What the actual hell, Michael’, the tiniest sliver of actual interest, and the rest being everything he learned in D.A.R.E. coming back to haunt him.

It was kind of impressive. And ridiculously funny to an already slightly high Michael.

“Well, dude?” He wiggled the joint between his fingers, thankfully avoiding flicking ash onto his carpet. “You only have to do one. If you don’t like it, then I won’t make you do any more.”

Just because he wanted to help Jeremy try new things didn’t mean he wanted Jeremy to do things he was uncomfortable with consistently. He wasn’t an asshole.

Michael waited as Jeremy held a staring contest with the still-smoldering blunt. He didn’t reach out to take it. At all. He just watched, until Michael was ready to shrug off the whole thing as a failed experiment and started to pull his arm back.

“Okay!” And Jeremy reached out, took it, put it to his mouth, and just. Inhaled.

Michael realized, fuzzily, that it probably wasn’t a good idea to tell someone with no experience to just go for it. “Wait, dude, you gotta--”

It was too late. Jeremy had taken a great big lungful, and quickly, and only a moment into holding it, he started coughing, smoke puffing out of his mouth in great clouds.

Normally, Michael wouldn’t laugh. Sober Michael would shake his head, maybe pat Jeremy on the back, maybe offer him something to drink. Sober Michael would have told him beforehand how to do it.

Michael was not sober, and he laughed, flopping onto his back as Jeremy continued to splutter.

“It’s not funny!” The attempt at talking just sent Jeremy into another round of coughs, and Michael rolled onto his side, clutching at his belly. “Stop-- fucking laughing, Michael!”

Michael didn’t stop laughing until Jeremy got his breathing back under control. “Okay, man, do you wanna try it again,” he gasped, wiping at his eyes.

“I’m just gonna cough again,” Jeremy grumbled, but he was already raising the joint back to his mouth.

“I’ll tell you how to do it this time, I promise.” Michael placed his hands on Jeremy’s shoulders. “Okay, now, go slow. Savor it, you aren’t out of breath. And don’t take too much,” he added. “You’re still new. You’ll get there.”

Jeremy looked so serious following his instructions Michael almost started laughing again, but he held it together. This drag was much shorter, still a little rough, but smoother.

“Now, hold it. Gotta let it steep. Don’t try to talk,” Michael warned, “you’ll just cough again. A few more seconds, and… out.”

The smoke still billowed out, but this time in ribbons, streaming along with the exhale, and Jeremy’s eyes widened as he watched it go. At the very end, he coughed a little, but nowhere near the lung-wrenching hacking it was before.

“Huh,” Jeremy said, blinking slowly. “Thanks.” And then he did it again, without Michael’s prompting.

Michael wanted to tell him that he’d had his two in a row and not to hog the whole thing, but considering the first one wouldn’t have gotten him anywhere, and it was his first time, he let him have this one.

Jeremy let go of the smoke, watching it lazily, and Michael looked at him through the haze. His face was soft, still flushed a little red from his coughing fit. His eyes still tracked, but they looked unfocused, less guarded and nervous, deep as the ocean but more familiar than his own home. Some of his dark curls had fallen over his forehead, and Jeremy reached up to push it back into place, long fingers catching on the occasional snarl.

His shoulder was touching Michael’s, because at some point they’d stopped trying to sit apart, and he was warm and comfortable against Michael’s side. His mouth turned up into a loose, content smile, and, again, he said, “Thanks.”

“Yeah,” Michael breathed, because through the haze of his high, his blood was electric, something warm settling into his stomach as he just watched , and didn’t stop. It was good, this moment was good, Jeremy was good, and everything Jeremy did, everything Jeremy was was--

Oh.

The blunt was gone, and the buzz wore off, but everything he felt about Jeremy didn’t go away, even after Jeremy fell asleep and even after he went home the next morning.

It was everything he’d ever felt about another boy before, but different. A cute boy might make him blushy and nervous, butterflies in his stomach and shaking hands. Jeremy was his comfort, a place he could slot into and just feel safe and right and happy , and there was nothing to be nervous about, because Jeremy already knew him.

It didn’t feel like a crush.

It felt like something else.

He didn’t say a word to Jeremy, not the next day, or the next after that. Not the next week, or month, or year.

Some secrets you don’t spill. Not even to-- or especially not to-- your best friend.

 




At 8pm on a Wednesday night, the summer before junior year, Michael got a text.

The sound of Apocalypse of the Damned’s theme tune didn’t quite match up with the mix he had going through his headphones, but only one person had that message tone on Michael’s phone, and he gladly dropped the mess he was trying to work through in FL Studio in favor of Jeremy.

Player 2

H

“Oh, shit,” Michael muttered, unlocking his phone to shoot a quick ‘omw’ back.

(It was a thing they’d done, back in middle school: while it wasn’t the most clever or interesting code, an ‘h’ alone (whether it be in sign language or morse code, scribbled by hand or texted, like tonight) meant ‘help, emergency’.

‘Something awful happened’.

‘I shouldn’t be alone right now’.

“I just think it’d be a good idea.” Jeremy shrugged. “You don’t keep the card on you all the time, y’know. We need a signal.”

Michael brightened a little. “Like, sign language, or something?”

Maybe he’d been into spies and codes for a while. Sue him, it was cool.

They tried phrases, but neither of them had the patience or attention span to learn something much longer than a few letters.

‘H’ was easy. Four quick taps or a couple of pencil lines, two fingers held parallel to the side. One letter to send through text, faster than trying to explain, fast enough to count, just in case.)

He shoved his phone into his pocket, disconnected his headphones to loop around his neck, and grabbed his hoodie. Sure, it was the middle of summer and a nice 70 degrees outside, but a comfort object was a comfort object, and Jeremy somehow stayed freezing like it was his job to do so.

“Where are you going?”

Michael paused at the bottom of the stairs. Both his nanay and his stepmom were watching him from the couch, curled up together watching some movie he couldn’t be bothered to place.

“Jeremy’s,” he said, simply, and at her raised eyebrow, he wiggled his phone. “Emergency. I think it might be…”

Michael trailed off, and judging by the look his moms shared, he wouldn’t need to finish the sentence.

“Be careful,” his stepmom replied, softly. “If they need anything at all--”

“You’ll be right there, I know.” Michael nodded.

After a chorus of ‘love you’s’, he was on his way, and within minutes, Michael stood in front of the Heere household.

Every light was on, and the front door was wide open. Only one car was in the drive, and judging by the harsh black tire marks skidding onto the road, his guess hadn’t been too far off.

For once, when Michael entered Jeremy’s house, he knocked. “Jeremy? Mr. Heere?”

“Michael.” Mr. Heere stood in the doorway to the kitchen, and Michael had never seen him so dishevelled. His clothes were rumpled, what was left of his hair was messy, and his eyes were red. A strong, sharp scent clung to him, and Michael could guess that it was alcohol.

Michael swallowed. “So, she…?”

Mr. Heere nodded.

“Is there anything I can do?”

Mr. Heere paused, mouth pressed into a grim line, then nodded jerkily towards the stairs. “She said some things to him. Things I won’t dare say, not even to explain.” He took a shaky breath through his nose. “Go see him. I need. I need to think.”

With that, he trudged back into the kitchen. Michael made a note to check on him later.

Jeremy’s door was closed when Michael made his way down the hall. “Jere,” he called, softly, because more loud noises would be the worst thing he could do. “It’s Michael. Can you open the door for me?”

Something moved behind the door, but the knob didn’t turn. Quietly, Michael heard four short taps. ‘H’.

“Okay. Uh…” Michael leaned into the door, wracking his brain for something to help keep Jeremy grounded. “Right. What can you see? Can you tell me a few things?”

Jeremy didn’t say anything for a long time, long enough for Michael to second guess his choice, but he finally croaked out, in a voice thick and raspy from either a shouting match, sobbing, or both, “The door. My bed… I have weed socks on.” He laughed, but it was weak.

“What about sounds?”

“You,” Jeremy said, immediately, and Michael squashed down his stupid lovesick self, because it wasn’t the time. “Um. Cicadas. They’re bad this year.”

Slowly, Jeremy’s voice stopped sounding so strangled, and the pauses between his answers took less time. Finally, the door opened. Michael, having sat with his back to it, almost fell into Jeremy’s legs.

Jeremy looked worse than Mr. Heere. His shirt was actually torn, showing the black edge of his binder, and he had the extra-pale skin and shaky limbs of someone fresh off of an anxiety attack. He looked as though if Michael said a single word, he’d fall back apart.

So Michael didn’t say anything. He just got to his feet, entered the bedroom, and let Jeremy shut the door behind him.

The hug wasn’t unexpected, though it did make Michael’s heart rate skyrocket. Jeremy didn’t really seem to notice, just burying his nose in the collar of Michael’s hoodie, fingers twisting into the soft, excess material at the back, and Michael let him, rubbing over Jeremy’s back and through his hair. He wasn’t gonna be the one to let go first.

Jeremy, though, didn’t let go, and didn’t let go, and minutes and minutes passed. Michael’s legs cramped, and as close as they were, he could feel Jeremy’s breaths become shallow. Hesitantly, he touched at the rip in the collar, where his binder peeked through. “How long has it been on?”

Jeremy didn’t answer immediately, but his fingers tightened a little, before: “... this morning.”

“That’s not healthy,” Michael commented, not harshly.

Jeremy nodded into the crook of his neck. “I just. Don’t want to. I’m.”

“We can talk about that later. Or, hell, never, if you want.” Michael wouldn’t mind never thinking of Mrs. Heere ever again. “But you gotta take care of yourself, man.”

Finally, Jeremy pulled back. Michael, dutifully, turned around, listened as Jeremy breathed deeply and coughed. His arms were crossed back over his chest when he turned around, once again curled into himself.

“...Wanna wear the hoodie?”

Michael surprised even himself by asking.

“Your hoodie? Are you sure?” Michael shrugged, and pulled it off, feeling a little exposed and weird without something covering his arms, holding it out to Jeremy.

“To cover up. Besides, it’s cold in here and you’re too skinny to handle this much AC.”

Jeremy punched his shoulder, but there was no heat at all behind it. “Thank you, Michael,” he said, quietly, and slipped the hoodie over his own shirt.

Half of Michael wanted to die instantly, cursing him for such a mistake. Michael, now, was taller by a few inches, and quite a bit heavier. Though Jeremy didn’t quite drown in the fabric, it looked awfully cozy and comfortable on him. Not to mention the whole wearing Michael’s clothes thing, which. He would address later, in his own time.

The rest was just relieved, seeing color back in Jeremy’s cheeks and a little of the panic and hurt melted away. That was the important part.

Later, sat on the bed side by side in the quiet, just enjoying each other’s company, Michael spoke up.

“Do you really want to talk about it?”

Jeremy tensed a little, looked up at the old glow in the dark stars on his ceiling, worked his jaw. He took a breath. Something hardened in his eyes, and Michael readied himself for the storm.

“I’ll say something, and this is the only time,” Jeremy started. “After tonight, I’m never talking about it again.”

Michael nodded once. That, he would agree to.

“She always said such awful things about you. Tita and Ina and your dad. You know that. You heard it. ‘Don’t speak anything other than English in my house’, like, who the fuck did she think she was? Because I totally learned the Torah and practiced it in English, not Hebrew. My best friend, and she thought you weren’t worth anything because you weren’t white like her. You and your family are worth ten of her, Michael. A hundred of her.”

Michael couldn’t speak, and even if he could, he didn’t think he’d want to. Instead, he watched, as Jeremy bared his teeth and rolled ahead.

“And fucking-- I came back inside earlier, just because I heard her car pull up, and she was just going off. Yelling at my dad. Like he doesn’t do anything at all for the house, or me, or her. Like he likes to drink too much, which, I haven’t seen any alcohol in our house? And I’m the one who takes out the trash and the recycling, so I think I’d know if we had any. And then,” he snorted, and it was a bitter, angry noise, “when she noticed I was there, going off on me just sitting here this summer. Like, okay, it’s summer? I do all my chores, I already finished my summer reading stuff, it’s not like I’m doing nothing . I’m too anxious to get an actual job, and what, do all the paperwork using my deadname? Get called ‘Leah’ all the time? No thanks. What does she want?”

The rant petered off a little, and after a few moments of silence, Michael spoke up. “Did she… do that? Because of...” He nodded towards Jeremy’s shoulder, hidden under red fabric, where the collar of his shirt lay ripped.

“Nah.” Jeremy shook his head. “This shirt’s old as hell. And she got over that phase ,” and he grinned a little, smug, “months ago.”

(It was something Michael never would have seen coming. Mrs. Heere had been shitty about Jeremy being a guy forever, especially once he started puberty, but he’d figured that he and Mr. Heere would be enough to at least make her keep her mouth shut about it, until Jeremy was old enough to get out.

Then, Jeremy called him.

“What’s up, man?” Maybe he had to put off doing dinner dishes in order to answer and he’d get an earful later, but.

“So… we had a. Family talk?” Jeremy sounded a little off-kilter: faint, shocked, a little disbelieving.

Michael grimaced, though he knew Jeremy couldn’t see. “And? Wait, did she start in with that shit again, because dude I will--”

“No, no, no, Michael, dude,” Jeremy talked over him. “Michael. She called me Jeremy.”

“Uh, what?”

“She apologized? And called me Jeremy. She had this big speech about doing research and introspection, or whatever, and apologized.” Jeremy’s voice grew softer, quieter. “She was crying, and she doesn’t cry. She meant it.”

Michael was stunned.

“She said we could look at-- like, we could get started on--”

And as Jeremy continued on, gradually tearing up as he recounted the entire conversation, Michael found he wasn’t quite as forgiving.)

“But.” The grin fell from Jeremy’s face, and he looked down to the sleeves he had twisted around his fingers. “The things she called him. Things she called me.”

“Hey,” Michael interrupted. When Jeremy looked over, he spoke again. “It doesn’t matter what she said. Whatever shitty thing came out of her mouth, it doesn’t matter. Because you’re Jeremy Heere, and she left.”

Jeremy was quiet for a moment. “...Is that a pun?”

“Not on purpose, but if you want it to be?” Michael grinned.

“I really don’t.” Jeremy laughed, anyway. “But you know what? Fuck her. I don’t have to talk to her. I don’t have to be near her. You can come up to my room and stay the night here, and say whatever Tagalog or Spanish you want, and she can’t say anything or make that awful face anymore. We’re better off.”

“Feel better?” Jeremy shrugged.

“I don’t know yet. I don’t know about my dad. I don’t know what we’re gonna do on our own.” Still, he grabbed Michael’s hand, and everything went quiet.

“But I’ve got my player one, right?”

Michael looked at their hands for a second, then squeezed. “And I’ve got my player two.”

“Good.”

Jeremy let go of his hand, and Michael tried not to miss it.

He cleared his throat. “... Do you want to play some AotD?”

“Hell, yeah. We’re almost to level 9.”

 




The first half of junior year were some of the worst months in Michael’s life.

It didn’t start that way, exactly. Even if Jeremy felt more comfortable in his own skin on his own, in being a guy, it didn’t get rid of his anxiety, of his desire to belong. Even if Michael spent nights looking up ways to cope with being overwhelmed by the sheer amount of everything high school was, either for himself or Jeremy, it didn’t stop him from being the guy with one friend who listened to music 90% of the time.

Rich still picked on them at school. The boyf riends incident wasn’t the first instance of backpack vandalism.

(Once, he’d managed to make an artist’s rendition of what he thought was going on behind closed doors. Mortifying content aside, Michael was kind of impressed. Rich had some skill.)

People ignored them or jostled them in the hall. Their grades were fine . Sort of.

It was the same as it had always been.

And then Jeremy got some stroke of bravery from somewhere , and signed up for the play.

He could hide it all he wanted, but Michael knew that he wasn’t just in it for Christine. Sure, he’d been crushing for three years and it was a better attempt than writing a letter and flushing it, but. He’d seen his Spotify playlists. Jeremy loved his musicals.

And then he listened to Rich , of all people, and as they sat, attempting level 9 for the millionth time, Michael couldn’t even begin to process.

“Some magic pill that just turns you cool?” He scoffed, twirling the joystick to move his character back down the corridor during a lull, only managing to get stuck walking into a wall. The joys of being one of the first 3-D games on the system: tank controls. “Really? He’s scamming you. Super weirdly, too.”

“But what if he isn’t?” Jeremy was having much better luck with the controls. Michael would have been jealous, but he had the better sniping skills, so. “All I have to do is give Rich six… hundred…”

Michael gave him a look.

“Yeah, he’s scamming me.”

The next wave of zombies surged up ahead. “Listen, man, in a couple years, high school won’t matter. None of it will. We’ll be off in college, doing our own thing.” Michael lined up his sights and fired, sending up a satisfying spray of digital zombie blood.

“But a couple of years isn’t now .” Jeremy’s character was moving ahead impatiently, shooting when the next corpse was a little too close for comfort. His index finger hovered over the right bumper, and with a few rapid presses, switched over to the cricket bat.

“Sure, but right now?” One of the shambling dead was creeping up in Jeremy’s blind spot. Michael took it out with one bullet. “You’re the coolest person I know.”

“I’m the only person you know,” Jeremy teased, whacking through the horde like he wasn’t exposed from every single side.

“Rude and also untrue. I know Dustin.”

“Because he deals you weed.”

“I still know him.” Michael pressed the trigger, and the rifle gave a mockingly empty click. “Shit,” he hissed, and scrolled through his inventory for something else.

“Dude, you’re idling, keep up!”

“You manage your inventory and run at the same time!”

“Michael, beside you! Uh.. three o’clock!”

Too late. In a rather grisly death for a game that came out before either of them were born, the zombie tore into Michael like he was a loaf of bread. Distracted by the death, Jeremy was soon overwhelmed, as well. They both sank back into their beanbags with a groan, the red GAME OVER glaring on the screen. Michael didn’t particularly feel up to trying again so soon.

Jeremy spoke up. “... He said it was at Payless, right?”

“You are not actually considering this.”

“What if we just check it out? Listen, just to see if he’s right. If he is, great. If not, I won’t end up giving my bar mitzvah money to a bully.”

“Alright.” Michael turned to face Jeremy properly. “So, let’s say we get to the mall, go in this back room, and there’s this wonderful, perfect computer. You get it, you vore it--” (“Michael,” Jeremy groaned, though he knew Michael said it to annoy him.) “-- and then? What, you’ll be too cool for m--”

Me. Us. Twelve years of friendship, most of our lives spent together, just a waste of time.

Maybe he was feeling like another attempt, after all. Michael swallowed, picked up his controller, and pressed continue. “...Video games?”

The split screen showed them back at the last checkpoint, and Michael pushed on, back through the empty corridor. Jeremy’s character didn’t move at all.

The pause screen appeared, and Michael looked down to see Jeremy’s hand, pressing the start button on Michael’s controller. “Hey,” he said, soft. “Look at me, man.”

For once, Michael kind of didn’t want to, but he did.

Jeremy had that look on his face. The one he did when they had serious Emotion Talks, where his face opened up and his eyes were wide and gentle, but he had that little crease in his brow that screamed worry to anyone who knew what it meant.

Jeremy knew what he’d meant to say.

“You’re my favorite person, Michael. Ever. No matter how cool I am, I’ll never leave,” he paused, half smiled. “Video games behind.”

And damn him, when he said something like that, when it made Michael feel warm, like he could do anything so long as Jeremy was there.

So Michael did what he’d learned to do whenever his big, mushy Jeremy feelings threatened to swallow him up whole and he couldn’t shove them away. He joked.

“Weawwy? I’m yew favowite pewson?” And he leaned in, with the cheesiest grin he could muster, to lay his head on Jeremy’s shoulder.

It got him a middle finger and a brief shoving fight, but Jeremy wasn’t looking at him like that anymore, and that was enough.

 




The dude at the Payless was weird.

He looked way too old to be a stockboy, for one, and wore sunglasses in the dark back room, and spoke in this overdramatic voice, which, Michael guessed added to the suspense of the whole thing. The reverb effect he added somehow was kinda cool, though.

Jeremy got what he came for. Just minutes later, they grabbed a table in the food court.

Michael bought him chili fries. Considering the bulk of the money Jeremy had managed to save up over the years was now gone, and a good portion of Michael’s money, too, Michael could at least get him some delicious, comforting junk food for when the whole thing turned out to be a load of bunk.

The squid-thing, or whatever, didn’t look very impressive, laying in the palm of Jeremy’s hand as they stared it down. A dull, pale gray, about the same size as any average pill, the shell vaguely shiny under the sun coming through the skylights above them. They exchanged a look.

Jeremy scratched at the back of his head. “Should we split it?”

“Nah, you’ll just owe me later when you’re super cool,” Michael joked, and for a second, he wondered. Even if the story wasn’t true at all, who knew what could be in the little capsule? What if it was some stronger drug, something he’d only ever heard of, or something else, something dangerous?

He didn’t get a chance to voice that fear. Jeremy swallowed the little gray pill down, chasing it with Mountain Dew, and in the end, Michael was right.

It was just a scam. Four hundred for a Tic-Tac.

He left Jeremy to his chili fries, because he’d asked for this Crystal Pepsi months ago, and he was not gonna let that little shit in the flannels swipe it from under his nose. He’d grab it, go home, and he and Jeremy were going to try their damndest to beat the Cafetorium, or die trying.

When Michael came back to the food court, box tucked under his arm, he looked for Jeremy. The table next to the wonky fern was empty of both Jeremy and his cardboard boat of chili fries, but he didn’t panic immediately.

Anyone who guessed otherwise had no idea of the speed of Jeremy’s digestive tract.

So, Michael sat down with his case of old, discontinued soda, and waited.

He shuffled through mixes on his phone.

He attempted to play a game of Solitaire.

He watched mall security, then stopped because that felt like a really sketchy thing to do.

Jeremy didn’t come back.

 

Player One

Dude where are you

 

Player One

The fries didnt mess you up that bad did they

 

Player One

Do you need medical assistance pls press 1

 

Maybe his phone died? Rare for Jeremy, being a living ball of anxiety, but not impossible.

Did he decide to look for him at Spencer’s? Michael made the trek all the way back, box on his hip, because he would be damned if he left his prize behind, but between all the vulgarity and jokes in poor taste, he couldn’t spot Jeremy and his cardigan-wearing ass anywhere.

Once again, he wasn’t at the food court when he got back.

Now, Michael started to panic.

 




Jeremiah Phillip Heere had some explaining to do.

First, he wasn’t even at home when Michael decided to stop over after the mall, a full hour after he completely disappeared from the food court.

(Mr. Heere was no help, slumped in the living room in his bathrobe and no pants whatsoever. Michael left him with a cup of water and an awkward but still sincere pat on the shoulder.)

Because he actually had things to do other than freak out about Jeremy going ghost on him-- read: his nanay caught wind, quite literally, of his pot stash and, with the whole not angry but disappointed thing, grounded him, and it wasn’t even like he smoked that much-- and his father, Michael went home.

Bless Ina for not telling his mom about the mall trip.

Curse Ina for extra chores in exchange for the silence.

Then there was homework, and Michael may have been smart and fairly confident about that little aspect of himself, physics kicked his ass and he needed all the time he could get to struggle through the concepts.

And Jeremy didn’t call him, or text, or message in some other way.

Not a word, or a meme, or even just a letter.

Not when he went to sleep, way later than was probably healthy, and not when he woke up, hair every which way because he was a morning shower kind of guy, and he couldn’t get it just how he wanted it without inordinate amounts of gel.

Michael didn’t catch sight of Jeremy until he got to school, and there he was, tall and lanky, heading down the hall with his backpack slung over his shoulders, but.

He didn’t look right.

Jeremy slouched, and curled in on himself a lot. (“It makes everything,” and Jeremy gestured to all of himself, “less obvious.”)

He always wore some kind of jacket or cardigan. (“It’s like I’ve got white toothpicks instead of arms, man.”)

He didn’t like Eminem. (“Have you heard the kind of garbage he says? I don’t care if everyone knows the raps and it’s like, the voice of a generation, or whatever. He’s shitty.”)

And Jeremy, for absolute certain, avoided interaction with almost everybody at school that wasn’t Michael.

But Michael watched him go, back straight, head high. Michael saw the Eminem shirt clearly, because there was nothing at all to cover it up. Michael watched him wave to the most popular girls in school, chat with Rich like the guy hadn’t been bullying them for over a year.

“Dude,” he said, as Jeremy approached his locker, just a few down from his in the same block. “Is everything okay? I haven’t heard from you since the mall.”

Jeremy.

Didn’t say anything.

He didn’t even look at Michael.

It was like he hadn’t heard him, which wasn’t entirely out of character for Jeremy; all of the anxiety buzzing in his head got a little loud, sometimes.

“Jere? Hey, buddy, everything good?” Michael even waved a hand in front of Jeremy’s face.

Jeremy just exchanged stuff from his locker and walked on, like Michael didn’t exist.

And it happened every passing period.

Every class they had together.

Even during lunch, when Michael scarfed down a sandwich, because he wasn’t made of the kind of money necessary for sushi every day, even if it was from 7/11, Jeremy ignored him. He didn’t even sit at the same table with him.

Michael sat alone, and watched the doors for any sign of Jeremy, and felt...

Worried. Sad. Upset.

Angry?

As the thought crossed his mind, the sheer impossible idea that he could be truly angry at Jeremy, Michael couldn’t finish his sandwich, the bread and meat and cheese caught in his throat.

At the end of the day, the tightness in his chest and throat only condensed, a big knot of negativity making it hard to concentrate. He needed to unwind.

And finally, on his way back from his little exchange, stuffing his wallet and a little baggie of weed into his backpack, Jeremy acknowledged him.

“Michael?”

Michael almost made eye contact. He wanted to. He wanted to look and see Jeremy’s face and make sure that this was just some freak day, that Jeremy was still with him. That he wasn’t being ignored on purpose.

Instead, he glanced, caught sight of Jeremy’s posture, of his clothes, so wildly different from what they’d been before, and turned on his heel to walk away.

“Michael, oh my god!” A hand wrapped around his shoulder. “I’m so glad to see you, man, I--”

Everything just kind of boiled over.

“Oh, so you didn’t mean to ignore me all day?” Michael wanted to say he tried to keep the hurt out of his tone. That would have been a lie.

“What? But I haven’t even seen you!” And, oh, that was funny . And it was funnier, still, when Michael finally looked up at Jeremy’s face, and found him just spacing out, looking off to Michael’s left, past his ear. Like he couldn’t even be bothered to pay attention to the conversation for more than a few seconds.

“Really? Because I’ve seen you, all day. I’ve tried to talk to you. I slammed your math book closed in front of you to try and get a reaction, man, and I know you hate loud noises!” Jeremy still didn’t answer, looking into the middle distance, and the hot ball of anger turned cold. “Jere? You’re kind of freaking me out.”

Nothing, still.

“You can tell me anything, man; you’ve been acting all weird since…” Michael trailed off, really looking at Jeremy for the first time that day. That was Jeremy: pale, freckled, breaking out from stress, a little sweaty.

But his eyes were off. Tracking on something, focused, not the kind of glazed over Michael expected. Not that Atlantic, muddled mix, but trending towards blue, just a little bit too light to be normal.

“Wait a minute, it worked, didn’t it?” Well, color him shocked and amazed; Rich had been telling the truth the whole time. Michael clapped his hands on Jeremy’s shoulders, grinning, and Jeremy’s eyes flicked over to him.

The little nod and half-smile was the best thing he’d seen all day, even if Jeremy looked back to whatever he’d been watching so intently before.

“Dude! We gotta celebrate!” Michael spun around, thinking about the applications. “Listen, I just got back from Dustin. That fresh shit, you know. Tomorrow, we start helping you rule the school.”

There were no footsteps behind him as he rounded the corner, and Michael peeked back around the brick wall. Jeremy stood exactly where he had been, and his eyes were back on Michael.

For the first time in Michael’s life, he couldn’t read Jeremy’s expression.

“Jeremy? You coming, or what?”

For the first time in Jeremy’s life, he chose ‘or what’.

Michael walked home alone.

 




That was the last time Jeremy had spoken to him, at the end of August.

It was now the middle of October.

Michael spent part of that time being angry. He wanted to be, a little. After twelve years, going through absolute hell, sleeping over, telling each other everything (except for his mad gigantic feelings, of course), Jeremy dropped him like it meant nothing, and. It hurt.

It hurt a lot.

School was harder, without his best friend. There was no one to vent to, no one to listen to him ramble about his last Discovery Channel binge, no partner for projects. Reducing his friendship with Jeremy just down to his own needs wasn’t right, of course. Michael knew that.

But, fuck, if he didn’t miss him.

Though Jeremy continued to act as though Michael never existed in the first place, rising up the rungs of the school social ladder like some god damned simian gymnast, Michael still watched him in the halls. Watched how, though his arms gained a little bit of muscle (not a bad sight, in all honesty), his already-skinny self looked thinner than ever. Watched as his smile grew perfect and balanced and his eyes became glassy, blue like the sky, electric, light. Shadows under his eyes, a jolt through his whole body if he relaxed his spine for just a moment.

After all, what could train your perception better than being an anxious social outcast?

And once he noticed, once the changes grew too much and pushed through his bitterness at being alone for the first time in years, Michael worried.

When Michael worried, he thought.

When Michael thought, he grew determined.

Even if this stupid thing was working, getting Jeremy everything he ever dreamed of having, it was hurting him in the long run. Michael would not stand by to let his best friend get hurt, even if said best friend barely felt like it, anymore.

And he had extra free time, now.

So, Michael did what he did best. He set himself up at his desk, headphones on, focus mix playing, with plenty of snacks and vintage soda to keep him going, and did some research.

It took him a long time to find anything at all. Rich hadn’t been entirely wrong about how top-secret the supercomputer really was; any webpage even remotely related to the topic of AI development he bookmarked, ready to compile later, though half of the ones he came back to were wiped, turning up missing errors, and the rest were flimsy at best: dingy little corners of the Internet more focused on the theoretical and conspiracy than any solid, useful info.

Not that Michael wasn’t convinced of a conspiracy, because this whole deal was shady as shit and absolutely, one hundred percent, a conspiracy.

And it wasn’t just a one-and-done delve like when he looked up everything he could about Operation Nifty Package or Boston marriages. Every night, after everything he needed to do was done, he spent hours at his computer, well into the wee hours of the morning. Sometimes, many times, he looked up from the screen to the siren-sound of his alarm, or sunlight trickling in through his window.

His sleep schedule was fucked beyond all repair, and for what amounted to nothing at all.

There were some things, however, the people who created the SQUIP didn’t account for: MMORPG’s and Michael being a sleep-deprived, miserable idiot with a tendency to overshare with his guildmates.

Michael, in turns, both loved and hated other gamers, and the communities they circled in. Some of the foulest, blackest bits of the human psyche came to life while you were playing virtual gun simulators, somehow.

But god damn, if they didn’t come in clutch, sometimes.

After a particularly abysmal attempt at support during a raid, he got a Skype message.

 

caryon

what is going ON with u man

if u arent gonna heal literally what kind of priest are u

 

mellsbells

the really chill kind

sorry i was up all night

 

caryon

again?

 

mellsbells

my friends going thru some shit

like

BIG

 

caryon

like?

 

And Michael thought, well, what is there to lose?

 

mellsbells

ever heard of a SQUIP?

 

caryon

fuck

that is. big.

 

mellsbells

wait you actually know about them?

 

caryon

my brother

u kno he was tanking school

the worst grades ud ever see

got that stupid fucking pill

straight to harvard

 

mellsbells

im guessing theres more

 

caryon

hes in a mental hospital

he told me when he was doped up

said he could finally talk about it

the shit it said to him

he almost died trying to get it out

 

mellsbells

shit

how?

if you dont mind

 

caryon

self inflicted

listen

michael

u have to make him get rid of it

find some way to do it

i wish i couldve

 

Michael hoped he could, too.

 




Of course Michael knew about Jake’s Halloween party.

No need for his amateur espionage; Jake practically told every kid he saw about it, and loudly, because Jake did nothing by halves.

Everyone was going to be there. Including Jeremy, because Jeremy was cool now. Jeremy was a popular guy.

Michael was not.

Still, if you managed to bring in some alcohol dressed in something that covered your face well enough, you could get into just about any teen party.

There were other people everywhere: sitting on couches, counters, draped over the banister, milling around, all with red Solo cups in their hands, because Jake was cliche and, again, did nothing by halves.

The air was hot and thick, smothering him, and smelled of alcohol and pot, sweat and perfume and that god-awful spray deodorant. Michael boiled as he made his way through the crowd, looking for Jeremy; wearing a sweater under a big trash bag with few air holes wasn’t his best plan.

The music pounded, and people yelled, and asked for it to go louder. Though no stranger to loud music, the sheer noise of everything and everyone reverberated through Michael’s skull, teeth rattling until he clenched both his fists and his jaw, wishing for his headphones, and then, to just not be here .

But he had to try to get through to Jeremy.

He sipped at beers as they were handed to him, usually by someone already too far gone into party mode that they didn’t bother to ask who he was and why he was there, but the alcohol didn’t help the tight feeling of anxiety. Three cups in and he felt a little woozy; he wouldn’t find Jeremy while he was trying to either not a) throw up or b) have an anxiety attack, so he slipped into the bathroom and climbed into the empty bathtub.

It was kinda grounding. Big enough to fit him and the clanky costume with room the spare. Cool and solid. The little skid protectors on the bottom were a surprise, but they felt good under his fingers, a textured change from the smooth white porcelain. Michael pulled the shower curtain around, enough to hide him from sight if someone decided to barge in, rested his head on the edge of the tub, and tried to chill.

The walls didn’t do much to hide the music, the yells, Rich-- the cause of everything-- shouting urgently about Mountain Dew Red. His headphones would have worked much better.

The showerhead and faucet weren’t even remotely wet, or dripping. Michael wondered the last time they’d been used.

This house was weird.

The door opened, and Michael opened his mouth to say ‘occupied’, but it died in his throat.

Jeremy, dressed in some monstrosity of a close-fitting body suit, shut the door behind him, firmly, and turned to sit, bracing his hands on the edge of the tub. Through the little gap in the curtain, Michael could see his face in the mirror. He looked freaked. He looked uncomfortable. He looked out of place.

Michael reached out to touch his arm.

Fuck !” Jeremy’s voice broke on the scream as he fell down, skidded backwards, whipping his head around to see Michael, propping himself up to see properly over the edge. For a second, it felt good to see him startled, like he deserved it, before the guilt surged in to battle with everything else. “Michael?”

Michael waved. “Sup.”

“You…” Jeremy blinked, bringing himself back to his feet with the help of the bathroom counter. “I didn’t know Jake invited you? Or, uh, anyone did?”

“They didn’t, hence…” Michael gestured to his literal trash costume, pooling around his legs in the bottom of the tub. “So,” he drawled, pulling himself up and out of the tub, out of the costume, “SQUIP decided you can finally talk to me again, huh?”

“It’s.” Jeremy waved a hand. It shook as he brought it back to his side, and Michael faintly recognized it. If he wasn’t having a panic right now, Jeremy either just came out of it or was about to start. “Off?”

“Of course.” So Jeremy wouldn’t space out on him for this. Michael took a deep breath, pushing his glasses back up the sweaty bridge of his nose. “So, I’ve been thinking about this for weeks, right? What I’m gonna say, right now, in some stupid cheesy monologue. After, what, twelve years of friendship, you just up and leave me, like you always--”

Jeremy wasn’t spacing out at all. He was watching Michael, intently, and the look on his face-- soft, happy -- made Michael falter. He looked like he’d been lost for years and Michael was the first sign of safety, like Michael was his best friend and lifeline and player one; eyes big and bright and painfully adoring.

Blue-green-gray. The ocean in the summer.

Michael swallowed, and choked out, “What?”

“It’s just… really good to see you, man,” Jeremy breathed.

And.

Michael wanted. He wanted to forgive Jeremy. He wanted to scoop him up and keep him close, hug him tight until the whole thing was over, back to the way it used to be. He wanted to hold Jeremy’s face in his hands, count his freckles nose-to-nose, maybe lean in and kiss him, tell him that he’d loved him for years, and that he hadn’t stopped falling once, ever since middle school.

But he remembered where he was, and why, and the feelings receded back into that little corner he always forced them in.

“I found some things out,” Michael started. “You know, about your…” he tapped his temple, and Jeremy frowned.

“How? There’s nothing on--”

“The Internet? Weird, huh? Because everything’s on the Internet.” Michael stepped closer. “But I dug around. For hours, for days.”

And he proceeded to tell Jeremy everything. From the deleted pages, even on the deep web he’d gone through a million proxies and safeguards to access, to Cary’s brother, locked away somewhere in Washington, wishing he were dead.

And Jeremy-- fucking Jeremy, stubborn, oblivious Jeremy-- argued with him.

Maybe Cary’s brother was happy and successful. Maybe he got lucky. Maybe Michael was jealous.

“This guy tried to kill himself to stop it, Jeremy! He lost his god damned mind trying to remove that shitty little circuit board in your head! I’m trying to help --”

“Maybe I don’t want your help,” Jeremy snarled. “Maybe I don’t want it out. Something is finally going right for me, and I’m not gonna let you ruin it!” He moved for the door, twisting the lock, and Michael stepped in front of him before he could turn the knob.

“We have to talk about this,” he said. “You can’t leave.”

“Move.”

“Or you’ll what?” They needed to make a plan, he needed to save Jeremy before this got too far, before he lost him for good.

Jeremy looked him dead in the eye, any of his earlier affection gone, and ground out, “Get out of my way.”

What was he going to do, move--

Loser .”

Jeremy’s eyes were cold, sharp, angry. Like the ocean, not the sky.

And he shoved by Michael, slamming the door behind him.

Later, he could recall more detail, like stammering out excuses to the people banging on the door, or just why his sweater sleeves were wet when he stumbled out of the house, searing heat at his back, his eyes stinging.

Later, he would regret yelling at someone on the verge of a panic attack, just because he was angry, would regret not trying harder, would regret not having a better plan.

In the moment, it was all he could do to breathe.

Loser, loser, loser. That’s me, that’s Michael. Loser because he only drives with his nanay in the car during the day, loser because he acts like a stoner and barely gets high, loser because he can’t keep his best friend from ruining his own god damned life.

Something was dripping down his face.

A loser who can’t tell his best friend he’s in love with him.

A loser who dreams of making video game music, of all things, as if that’s important.

A loser, and a failure, and an idiot high school dropout because what’s the point in going back if he’s never going to amount to anything at all?

His chest hurt.

A loser so codependent and anxious he can’t keep his cool at a fucking high school party when his friend isn’t there.

A loser whose friend abandoned him because he was so needy and attached.

A loser whose ex-friend never needed or wanted him in the first place.

A loser hiding in a bathroom instead of just going home when he’s not wanted.

A loser who thinks he’s cool because he doesn’t try to be, who thinks he’s hot shit because he eats eel and listens to music on vinyl.

Everything was so loud.

A loser who should just off himself now, before he manages to ruin anything else.

A loser with no hope, no future, and no friends, because his last one got sick of his shit, took a little pill, and dropped his ass like he was on fire.

And then there was fire, and smoke, and his face and sleeves were wet, and it was hard to breathe, though he couldn’t tell if his throat hurt from tears or not.

He found it in himself to drive home, as the firefighters turned up, and stumbled right upstairs to curl onto his bed, because his parents weren’t up to question him. He stunk like smoke and beer and B.O., and his body hurt, and his face felt sticky, but he didn’t take a shower.

Michael didn’t think he could stand to be in a bathroom.

 




After, Michael felt hollow.

Like, everything important or alive had been scooped out of him, with just a hint of bitterness left behind to make his body move.

He went to school. Trudged through the halls, took notes in class, ate a few bites of lunch before retreating with his headphones, on, but silent.

He did his homework, and chores at home. Quickly, quietly, because his phone had no messages to distract him and he didn’t dance around in the middle of vacuuming or cleaning his room.

He stopped getting slushies, or just about anything from 7/11. The magic was gone.

Everything was gone.

But only for a few days.

One night, after staring up at his ceiling, waiting to hopefully fall asleep, and expecting to just lay awake until four AM, Michael sat up in bed.

Mountain Dew Red.

That sounded familiar.

Rich asked for Mountain Dew Red, and if Michael wasn’t Michael, he would have just assumed he meant Code Red.

But Michael was Michael, and he’d seen the kitchen, in between beers, in between looking for Jeremy and hiding in the bathroom; Code Red had been on the counter, in plain view, and Rich hadn’t touched a drop.

He didn’t mean Code Red.

So, at midnight, Michael sat in his computer chair, typed into the search bar, and researched.

 

Released only in 1988, Mountain Dew Red saw a test release in regions of Alabama.

Discontinued after one year.

Fruit punch flavored, rare, sells for $100 or more.

 

Which wasn’t a lot, or even helpful, but there had to be something to it. There had to be some reason Rich, one of the most popular, coolest guys in school, knew about this soda that never went anywhere.

What did Rich have that almost nobody else did?

Why would this specific soda be so expensive and sought after, and why shut down so quickly?

Hell, what was the opposite of green?

Maybe they were big leaps of logic, Michael could tell that, at least. Maybe none of this meant anything. Maybe Rich was just drunk and babbling (he hadn’t touched a drop), maybe Michael was sleep deprived (he slept all day), maybe he was desperate (he couldn’t argue there).

And maybe Michael didn’t care about Jeremy anymore.

Maybe this was just to satisfy his own curiosity.

Maybe this was to help others.

Because if there was a dealer, if there was Rich, and Jeremy, and Cary’s brother, there had to be more people. Victims of a nasty little computer invading, corrupting their brains.

There had to be someone else who knew.

There was a chance someone could tell him the truth.

There was a chance for the information to get out there.

Four days after the Halloween party, Michael sat down to research. Two days later, never straying far from his computer, bouncing from chatroom to forum to server to webpage, making deals, scouring every corner of the web he could reach, Michael found the truth of Mountain Dew Red.

And he spread it to everyone he possibly could.

 

caryon

mountain dew red?

 

mellsbells

yep

shuts the whole script down

its hard to find but

if you can find it

 

caryon

dude

thank you michael mell

now can u actually heal us for fucking once in ur LIFE

 




His little underground hero moment aside, Michael didn’t feel too much better about everything.

He was still alone. Jeremy ignored him still, and he hadn’t even bothered to text him or approach him, because he’d made his feelings perfectly clear on Halloween.

And it was a bad day, once he’d finished spreading the cure to everyone he’d found, because everything was still shitty.

So, he’d gone to Spencer’s, because if he wanted to drown his sorrows in vintage soft drinks, he would.

(As his contact turned to grab a six-pack of Surge, because everyone loved Surge and so it was almost always on hand, for some gut-instinct reason he couldn’t quite explain, maybe just for the bittersweet, self-mocking punishment of you could have solved everything , he asked.

“Got any Mountain Dew Red, by chance?”

Against all odds, he did. Michael left it in his cupholder.)

Vintage soft drinks still contained caffeine. Cleaning his room with the resulting energy-high, vigorously vacuuming the carpet free of crumbs and whatever else had been unfortunate enough to still be there, he’d knocked the shoebox from his bookshelf. It was old, and beaten up, a little, and the brand had faded from the plain brown cardboard, but what lay inside was as wonderful and new and precious as ever.

Or. Would have been.

Pictures. Mementos. Little things capturing a near-lifetime of happy memories.

All evidence that, at one point, Jeremy Heere had been Michael Mell’s… well. For a while, everything.

Michael stared at it, laying on the ground, a couple scraps of paper spilling from the open top, and.

He felt sick. Betrayed. Angry. Everything, all at once, roiling in his stomach, and he wasn’t sure if it was going to come out as a laugh, a sob, or whatever he’d managed to eat of his toast that morning.

If Jeremy was gone, really gone, for good, then there was no point in keeping all of this stuff. It would just make him feel worse.

If Jeremy could move on, so could Michael.

Later, sitting on his front step in the growing dark, he sat the shoebox next to him. His fingers trembled when he reached for the lid, so he brought them back, fumbling for the lighter in his pocket. He needed to unwind.

Michael lit the joint and took a drag, taking another soon after. He let each pull of smoke settle in his lungs for a while, as long as he could stand it, and the tension gradually melted out of his hands, his spine, his jaw. He was floating; whatever was in the box didn’t matter, so long as he was up in the sky, head in the clouds.

He pulled out the first picture.

(The beach, when they were seven; arms wrapped around each other, each in a pair of swim trunks, t-shirts, hair damp and wild from the sea and the wind. Michael was grinning cheesily, eyes closed because he had no sense of timing for pictures. Jeremy was bright red in the picture already, though the timestamp in the corner put it at eleven AM. He peeled for days.)

Into the ash can it went, and Michael flicked the ash over it, let it burn a bit before moving on.

(A little red feather from a cardinal. Jeremy found it while they were lounging in the backyard, enjoying spring and the mild temperatures before everything swung to extremes again.

“It’s your favorite color,” he said, holding it out, grinning.

Michael tried to find a blue jay’s feather, just to make it even, but he never found one good enough.)

He wasn’t sure if a feather would burn, but he dropped it in, anyway.

It did.

The Magic card was next, and Michael hesitated, taking another hit. The printed paper front was peeling away from the real card backing, and the doodle had faded dramatically over the years. He could still make out the red and the blue, though. He ignored the little heart.

Tap any time for backup from your player two.

Michael Mell, I will never, ever forget you .

He dropped it in.

Michael almost knocked the can over in the middle of burning the Weird Al ticket, because Mr. Heere turned up. In his underwear, because of course he was. His joint was still burning in his hand, mostly gone.

He hid it behind his back. “Mr. Heere?”

“Michael, we need to talk about Jeremy,” and nope , not tonight, thank you. Michael wanted to turn away, but he was not going to look anywhere but Mr. Heere’s face. Either way he would die of mortification, but he was not going out looking at a grown man in his underwear.

“Sorry, we’re not friends anymore, so--”

Mr. Heere interrupted him. “Do you love him?”

What in the fuck . “Wh-what,” Michael stammered, because what. He was high, and getting over Jeremy, and exhausted, and just trying to get over all of this in peace, and Mr. Heere came over to drop this huge fucking drama bomb, and.

Mr. Heere was still talking, about putting his pants on, which, thank god, but Michael was too busy thinking about this question that Mr. Heere just dropped and moved on , like it wasn’t a big deal. But it was a big deal, because however angry Michael was, however hurt and upset and exasperated he was.

Jeremy was still everything.

Jeremy was still oblivious, and short-sighted, and stubborn, and so full of teenage angst and anxiety it was maddening; Jeremy was still smart, and kind, and funny, and the most beautiful person Michael had ever met, at least in person.

He had broken Michael’s heart completely, and Michael.

Michael loved him, and it hurt, and maybe it wasn’t quite healthy, or sensical, but there it was.

Mr. Heere’s speech faded back in. “You can’t sit here burning incense,” and Michael almost choked, “while he’s in trouble. I need you! He needs you!”

“I’m not what he wants,” Michael muttered, but it was already sounding weak to his own ears.

“But you’re what he needs.”

The look on his face reminded Michael of Jeremy, all open and honest, and their eyes were basically the same, and god damn it, shit, fine .

“Okay, but I can’t be everything. You’re his dad, I’m a kid. You actually need to be there and take care of him, and that starts with,” Michael grimaced and gestured vaguely downward, still not looking, “going to Kohl’s and getting some pants. Seriously.”

He wasn’t sure either he or Jeremy could last much more bathrobe-and-boxers.






Michael didn’t know if it was because he was high or not, because this was actually really good for a school play.

Like. Really good.

(Getting in was the most surreal and anticlimactic moment of his life. He strolled up to the little closet they made into a box office, because they couldn’t afford a real box office, hood up, glancing around like he was gonna get caught.

“How many?” The kid they’d roped into managing the whole thing didn’t look very impressed.

“Uh. One?”

He slid across ten dollars, they slid across a ticket, and they just let him in , like he wasn’t on a high-stakes mission with a ten ounce bottle of contraband stuffed into his hoodie pocket, ready to take down the whole establishment.)

The adults around were enraptured. So were the other kids.

Michael frowned. It was too good.

He got up out of his seat and pushed down to the end of the aisle, muttering apologies and excuses, like he was just gonna go pee instead of undermining an insidious conspiracy right here in the school, and booked it backstage.

It was very dark, and he banged his knees into probably every prop they had, cursing and kicking all the way. The noise he made didn’t appear to matter, though, as he peeked through scaffolding to see Mr. Reyes, eyes electric blue, stiffly shambling away from Jeremy; Brooke drinking from a flask, green eyes flaring the same color Mr. Reyes’ had before joining him on stage.

And then Jeremy, in the middle of an animated conversation with… himself?

No. Michael’s fingers clenched around the edge of a beam. His SQUIP.

It would’ve been hilarious, if Jeremy’s face wasn’t drawn and sweaty, frightened in a way Michael hadn’t seen in years, and then:

Jeremy dug his phone out of his pocket, jerkily, fighting his own body, screaming into it desperately. “Michael! Call Michael!”

A part of Michael, one he’d pushed deep down for weeks, felt touched. His phone buzzed in his back pocket, because this mission was all about stealth and also not turning it at least to vibrate when in a theatre? Not okay.

Jeremy’s arm jolted, as if shocked. The phone dropped to the floor with a crack, screen going dark. And then Jeremy flung himself dramatically across the stage, coming to a stop near Michael’s position.

Okay, it probably wasn’t actually Jeremy doing it, but if the fucking pill in charge was gonna go full ham…

Michael makes an entrance ,” Michael shouted, because he was a) still pretty high and b) not gonna be outdone by a microprocessor, and then, “oh, fuck ,” because he clipped Jeremy with the toes of his sneakers as he jumped over him, almost sending him flat on his face. “Sorry, man.”

Jeremy didn’t seem to care, because the second Michael turned around to face him, he had an armful of Jeremy, latched onto him as if Michael would disappear in a second.

And a lot of Michael was pissed at him. A lot of Michael felt hurt, and abandoned, and petty, because now he wanted Michael, when everything was going to hell, after the party and after weeks of no contact. Some of Michael hated himself, for still running after Jeremy, for being predictable and devoted enough that Jeremy noticed, for being pathetic enough to come whenever Jeremy called.

The part he’d been ignoring and pushing away swelled up, roaring above everything else, and Michael hugged Jeremy right back, face buried in the crook of his neck, one hand tangled in his hair.

“You didn’t have to call me, man, I was already here,” Michael mumbled, because Jeremy wasn’t pulling away. “They’re doing way too well out there. Everyone squipped?”

“You came to see me?” Jeremy sounded a little choked and watery, but it could’ve been because Michael was squeezing all the life out of him. Michael loosened his grip a little.

“Uh, yeah? And you would not believe the snack bar prices.” He pulled one arm free, rummaging around in his hoodie pocket. “Got munchies somethin’ bad, so I had to bring my own.”

“That’s.” Jeremy stepped back, wide-eyed, looking at the little bottle in Michael’s hand. The label was sun-faded, a little ripped, peeling away from the plastic, but it was full of bright red soda, bubbles building up below the cap. “Mountain Dew Red? You have some?”

“Jeremy.” Michael looked at him seriously. “I always do my research.”

Jeremy laughed. It was short, a little disbelieving, and something about it reached in and pushed all the fuzzy feelings back down, deep down, letting everything else come rushing back in. Jeremy reached for the bottle. “Great. Give it here, dude!”

“Sure.” And a split second before Jeremy touched the cap, before he could drink it and all of this could be over, Michael pulled it away, curling it under his arm and behind. “Actually, no. Because--” and Jeremy looked hurt, but there was something else just below the surface, “-- I need an apology.”

Jeremy blinked at him, incredulous. “Wh- now ?”

It wasn’t the best time. Michael knew that. This was the worst time to be petty, to let his feelings come before the rest of the school and-- possibly-- the world, to not just get everything done and over with. “ Yes , now. I think I deserve one, don’t you? After you ignore me when I try to help, abandon me the second you get the chance--”

“Fine!” And Jeremy didn’t look sincere, didn’t look ashamed, like Michael had halfway hoped. He looked angry, annoyed. “I’m sor--”

It trailed off into nothing. His eyes were blue.

“What, you can’t even say sorry? Really?”

“I think the SQUIP thing is kinda more important, Michael!”

And there it was. The lesson of the last few months, boiled down into one easy sentence: the SQUIP is always more important. “Of course it is! You can’t even do this one--”

“It’s a word !”

“It’s a gesture , and it’s important to me!

And then Jeremy was swinging his arms, and the knuckles of his right hand caught the edge of Michael’s glasses, knocking both them and the entire world askew.

Jeremy had never actually hit him before. Not for real, not like now. Michael wanted to hit back.

Instead, he backed away, stuffing the Mountain Dew Red back into his pocket and straightening his glasses. Something warm dripped down the bridge of his nose.

Jeremy continued to advance, but his gait was weird. Stiff-legged, awkward, like he wasn’t used to walking. “Everything’s about you ! How cool you are, because you eat eel sushi and listen to records, and you don’t care about actually being cool!”

“I care! Of course I care, because you care!” Even awkward and shambling, Jeremy was fast enough to keep Michael pushing backwards. The arms swinging out towards the sides kept him caged in. “Listen, I just know it’s not gonna happen!”

A hand caught him on the shoulder. Not hard, but enough to smart for a few seconds. “So you’re upset because I try too hard?”

Michael didn’t expect to be having this kind of heart to heart right now, but if Jeremy was gonna drag it out into the open. “No! I’m jealous because you do!” His back bumped up against a beam on the other side of the stage, and Jeremy’s arms trembled as they just missed him.

I’m jealous you don’t!” Jeremy didn’t look angry anymore, but the combination of confusion and discomfort at bringing feelings into everything wasn’t much better.

Any time Michael went for a side exit, one of Jeremy’s arms narrowly missed him, sending him right back to the middle. “Then why the fuck are you trying to hit me ?!”

“I’m not!” Each punch seemed to take more effort, coming slower, and Michael finally ducked out of Jeremy’s grasp. “It’s the SQUIP!”

“So you weren’t just being dramatic earlier!”

“Michael,” Jeremy grit out, and he didn’t look well, at all. His clothes were drenched in sweat, more of it beading along his forehead and cheeks, and his whole body shook. “L- listen , I.” His teeth clenched, and, all in one rush, he said, “I need your help, okay, I’m sorry !”

Michael wasn’t sure if he trusted that. If the SQUIP could puppeteer Jeremy, or anyone it inhabited, who said it couldn’t add some ventriloquism to the mix? But even if it wasn’t genuine, this thing needed to go, and fast.

Handing Jeremy the soda to drink wouldn’t work. He’d have to go the stubborn pet approach. While Jeremy wasn’t flinging his fists at him, Michael flung his arms around him and, as gently as possible, given that he’d basically tackled his best friend, brought them to the ground.

Michael hit the ground hard, holding Jeremy on top of him, and Jeremy let out a screech like he hadn’t heard since they finally cleared level eight of AotD. He squirmed and fought, trying to bend his arms and legs to hit at Michael, who locked his arms around Jeremy like a seatbelt.

Michael then realized there was kind of an issue.

The bottle of Mountain Dew Red was in his hoodie pocket, now pressed into Jeremy’s lower back. His own arms were the only thing keeping Jeremy contained, and even gripping his own wrists tight, he was already getting tired.

Maybe if he…? No, curling his legs around Jeremy’s did not, in fact, help with the grip problem. It did, however, make the whole thing ten times more embarrassing and suggestive, which. Not the time. But. He’d come to that later.

But then Jake arrived. Big, strong Jake, on his crutches, clacking backstage in some god-awful costume Michael couldn’t make a lick of sense of.

“Jake! Hey, dude, Jake, this is gonna sound super weird but?” Michael shuffled, pushing Jeremy from one arm to the other, his head hooked over his shoulder, and pulled out the bottle of Red. “If I hold Jeremy down, will you make him drink this?” He shook the bottle a little, liquid sloshing around.

And wonderful, beautiful Jake said, “That doesn’t sound weird at all,” and caught the bottle one handed when Michael tossed it to him.

Jeremy went rigid on top of him, Jake’s eyes flashed, and he proceeded to dump out the Red onto the stage floor .

“What the fuck ,” Michael yelped, and watched as Jake tossed his crutches aside, narrowly missing the bottle of Red still rolling away, like they were nothing, like his legs weren’t in heavy duty casts and shattered into a million pieces.

Jeremy spoke for the first time since Michael pulled him to the floor. “It healed your legs?”

“No,” and then Jake-- cursed, cursed Jake-- proceeded to say the most metal, terrifying thing Michael had ever been witness to, “but I can’t feel pain!”

Footsteps sounded from the other side of the stage, and the curtain swished. Brooke and Chloe stepped out, and.

Okay, Michael wasn’t into girls, but he knew when someone looked good. These two always looked good. They also were always pants-shittingly terrifying on the daily.

Stalking toward Jeremy-- and, by proxy, Michael-- like a pair of wild cats after a scrawny, weak gazelle, eyes glowing electric blue, was a whole new level.

As they went on, chattering about how neither of them slept with Jeremy ( a very, very big part of Michael was incredibly glad to hear that, for multiple reasons), Jeremy leaned up towards Michael.

“The bottle still has some Red in it,” he whispered, and Michael looked. He wasn’t wrong; though the bottle was several feet away, a trail of red soda leading up to the mouth, a little puddle, not even a mouthful, settled on the bottom.

More bodies were shuffling in from behind the curtain, each stilted, each pair of eyes electric blue. Mr. Reyes, Jenna… all of them, moving right where Michael needed to go. “How am I supposed to get it? Look at them, man!”

“Level nine. The Cafetorium.”

They’d never beaten the Cafetorium. They’d never even gotten close. There were too many zombie spawns, too many blind spots, too little ammunition; in all, the whole level was impossible.

But Jeremy was looking at him, and his eyes were clear, and hopeful, and determined, and god damn it.

“Let’s do it,” Michael said, though he was-- quite frankly-- petrified, and he pulled Jeremy up to stand with him.

Their previous strategy had been thus:

 

  1. Michael hangs back, using stealth and ranged weapons as cover.
  2. Jeremy rushes in with melee weapons.
  3. Get overwhelmed by the sheer numbers.
  4. Game over.

 

It wasn’t a great strategy, and probably not applicable for a few different reasons, so Michael wasn’t entirely sure what Jeremy wanted him to do, here. But, hey, it was a better plan than turning tail and running.

It was hard to distance himself enough to push over Jake while Jeremy zoomed by, fully aware that, although Jake was being mind controlled and wasn’t exactly himself, it was still Jake there.

He wasn’t really a fighter, he thought, twisting between Chloe and Brooke, pulling on Brooke’s arm so that she toppled into Chloe with a really unattractive squawk.

As he threw an elbow into Mr. Reyes’ side with enough force to make him drop the back of Jeremy’s shirt, he realized he really didn’t want to go up against a teacher.

But he did those things, and as Jeremy stood back, facing off against the rest of the zombies, shaking off whatever he threw at them, he scooped up what remained of the Red. “Got it!”

“Oh, Michael.” A hand grasped the back of his hoodie, firm, and another one landed on his shoulder. “I know what you’re doing,” Jenna Rolan said, sweetly, and he didn’t need to listen for the faint reverb behind her voice to tell she was squipped, too. “I know what everyone’s doing, all the time.”

A blind spot.

The rest of the squipped cast turned to face him, marching by Jeremy-- who swung his fists, who yelled, who grabbed at them-- to swarm around Michael, pulling at his clothes, dragging him down to the floor.

This game was up to Jeremy, now.

Michael prayed his hand-eye coordination paid off in the real world, gripped the bottle, and chucked it. “Jeremy! Catch!”

And for once in his god damned life, Jeremy wasn’t clumsy. He caught it, and held it to his chest, and he didn’t drink it . “Michael!”

The zombies had him, but they weren’t trying to kill him at all, or even hurt him. They just held him on the floor, pressing down at his shoulders, his chest, his legs. Jenna held the sides of his head, forcing him to look up at the ceiling, instead of at Jeremy, talking to himself beyond the wall of bodies.

Michael could hear Christine, running backstage, chattering happily to Jeremy. Brooke reached into her costume and pulled out the beaker from earlier. Under the rubber top, a little bit of the green liquid remained, and suspended inside were tiny, gray shapes.

She pulled off the stopper.

Oh, fuck , no. Michael kicked and struggled, thrashing under the weight of several bodies, but he was tired. A diet of junk food and video games wasn’t great fuel-wise, and holding down Jeremy earlier didn’t help. He clenched his jaw shut tight.

“Jeremy,” Christine said, from the side, and Michael twisted his head to look. “I love you.” Her voice was sweet and light, and though Michael barely knew her at all, she sounded wrong.

Though she wasn’t quite facing him, Jeremy was, and Michael caught the electric blue light on his skin. Wait, did he know? What that meant? “Jer--”

Something glass shoved into his mouth, and a gush of something carbonated and chemical covered his tongue. Before he could try to spit any of it back out, a hand pinched his nose shut, and the other covered his mouth.

“She’ll do whatever I want?”

Oh, god, that idiot . Michael couldn’t breathe, and kicking around wasn’t helping his oxygen levels. One of them was pressing down on his chest, hard.

Nothing answered Jeremy, but he nodded, smiling, as if he’d been given everything he’d ever wanted, and, well. He kind of had, hadn’t he? Popularity, Christine. Ruling the school.

Jeremy cupped the back of Christine’s head, bringing their faces close. Black spots fizzled in Michael’s vision, chest aching.

“If you just drink,” someone said, silky smooth and quiet, breath ghosting across his ear and cheek, “it won’t hurt anymore.”

The soda crackled in Michael’s mouth. Someone’s hand was on his throat. He wanted to drink. He couldn’t breathe, and he watched Jeremy between someone’s arm and someone else’s side, and.

Jeremy glanced at him. Quickly, so fast that if Michael hadn’t been so focused on him, he would have missed it. Looked away from the girl of his dreams, from the electric blue promise of everything, and at Michael, half a second away from being taken, himself.

His eyes were the Atlantic ocean.

“Drink this,” he whispered, and Christine did, and everyone screamed.

 




Michael didn’t actually need to go to the hospital.

When everyone seized, screaming along with Christine, he rolled away and spat out the drink, wiping his mouth on his hoodie sleeves, gasping for air and hoping that he hadn’t swallowed anything.

He might have had a little bit of an anxiety attack, in the back, where everyone lay on the floor, still and silent. Someone must have called for help, because there were people in uniforms pulling bodies onto stretchers, draping a blanket around Michael and trying to talk to him.

It was all too much, but he managed to stutter out enough to convince them that he was fine, just scared, which. Sure.

He crawled into the back of his car, took half an hour to calm down, and drove home to pass out in his bed.

The next morning, he went to Beth Israel. No one was awake, except for Rich, miraculously inhabiting the same room Jeremy was.

Their first conversation consisted of:

“Uh. Hi.”

“Hey.”

“So, you’re Jeremy’s…”

“I guess?”

“Cool.”

Michael didn’t bring up Rich’s full body cast or his never-before-heard lisp; Rich didn’t bring up Michael sneaking in at all hours looking exhausted and lost, sitting at Jeremy’s bedside like he didn’t know what to do with himself.

It was an okay almost-friendship situation.

And then Rich decided to spill the beans, three days after everyone had been admitted.

“...he’s been here a ton. What is he, like, your boyfriend? Not judging, man, totally bi.”

And fuck you, Richard Goranski, even if he did just come out.

“Someone will sure be lucky to have you, Rich,” Michael said, and, glaring around the corner, pulled the curtain divider closed. Jeremy was watching him, dazed, when he turned around.

“What happened? Everyone screamed.”

“This is actually pretty cool, man,” and it was, despite being some of the most intense, terrifying moments of Michael’s life, “they were all linked. A real eusocial hivemind, like bees or termites, talking to each other. Which is super advanced for AI right now, so like, I really have to commend Christine on her range, because that frequency--”

“Michael.” Jeremy had his eyes squeezed shut, one hand massaging his forehead. “Please, my head hurts, like, a lot.”

“Oh. Yeah, right.” Michael cleared his throat, slouching into the same chair he’d been in for the past several hours. “You only had to destroy one. Since they were all connected, they just.” He made a bursting motion with his hands.

Neither of them spoke for a while. Michael couldn’t make himself look up at Jeremy, so he busied himself with his fingers, drumming on his jeans or picking at dirt under his nails.

“Hey…” Jeremy spoke up, and Michael risked a glance. Jeremy looked pale, as usual, but his skin was clear. Not of the freckles, but his acne was gone. He sat up straighter. His hair was a wild, curly mess from the hospital pillows. His eyes were clear, not a trace of unnatural blue.

He looked uncomfortable. He looked like Jeremy.

“Um.” Jeremy looked down at the bed. “I. There’s.” He sighed, frustrated, then started again. “You came back for me. After I abandoned you, and ignored you, and hurt you, you were there. Why?”

He looked right into Michael’s eyes then, and it was hard to speak. Michael could have said a lot of things. He could have said any one of them.

Because you’re my best friend. Because you’re my player two. Because I’ve been in love with you for years. Because you mean everything to me. Because you weren’t you. Because you are you. Because I don’t think I could take much more of this without you. Because I can’t let you go. Because.

Instead, he choked out a laugh, reaching up to scratch the back of his head. “I, uh. Can’t take all the credit. Your dad’s super persuasive.”

And Mr. Heere came in, pants and all, and took all the attention off of what Michael could have said, what he wanted to say. Instead, Jeremy was grounded, and they talked about Christine, and Michael just enjoyed having his best friend back.

 




Michael didn’t tell Jeremy about all of it.

In the middle of junior year, with everything still fresh and painful, with nightmares on each of their ends, it didn’t feel right to confront him about being shitty. It didn’t feel right to sit down with him and hash out all the awful things that happened, digging up everything from both sides and making everything worse because they weren’t okay enough to start healing.

It didn’t feel right, to tell him, during a sleepover just past the start of the new year, that he should just ask Christine out already.

That one, he did do, and he gave him as much advice as he could, given his limited-- non-existent-- expertise.

Because after everything, Jeremy deserved a little bit of happiness for once.

Maybe Michael did, too.

Even if it stung a little, even if he worried that he might be forgotten again.

Seeing Jeremy happy was enough.

Michael Mell saw Jeremy Heere one sunny day when they were both four.

And he never stopped watching.