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September first, 1984. First day of seventh grade.

Veronica counts herself as one of the luckiest people in the world for the simple fact that her dad can drive her to school and she doesn’t have to take the bus. She looks at the sea of students pouring out from the small buses and she wonders how they all fit in there. Boys jump over and around one another while girls hurry through the school gates in bundles of three or four, giggling hysterically while they share gossip from the summer break.

While she watches the mass of kids making their way inside, all while sitting safely on the wall, she notices Heather Mac, Heather Chandler and Heather Duke strolling past, arms linked, Chandler laughing at something MacNamara says and Duke trying to copy her. She’s never been close to them; despite being in the same class since kindergarten. In recent years, she’s not sure if she’s said more than five sentences to all three of them combined. Still, she gives them a wave, and while Duke and Chandler regard her with a nod, MacNamara waves back.

“Veronica!” an unmistakable voice greets. Veronica turns her head away from the rest of the student body and sees Martha, her long-time best friend, standing in front of her, her cheeks rosy and smile wide and hair in a high ponytail.

“Hey Martha,” she replies, jumping off the wall and letting Martha take her by the hand.

“Oh my gosh I have so much to catch you up on!” Martha tells her.

“I saw you last week!”

“I know, but thing is my sister came back for the weekend and she-”

While Martha continues babbling, she and Veronica exchange smiles and waves and high-fives with passing classmates. They pass Ram and see he got braces over the summer. Veronica still can’t see the appeal but Martha still blushes when he reaches over to high-five them only to swipe his hand away with a too-loud laugh.

They take their seats, third row from the front as usual. Another thing Veronica has to be thankful for is that the teachers haven’t bothered with alphabetical seating since second grade. Then Martha could probably get stuck next to Heather Duke and she’d end up all the way at the back. She turns and takes a look at where she would be sitting, most likely second from the back in a nice little spot where the sun can hit her directly in the face, and her eyes land on possibly the most amazing event ever to happen in Sherwood, Ohio, and certainly in their school; a new kid. His dark hair falls over his face and and he wears a dark leather jacket and faded t-shirt. He doesn’t make eye contact with anyone, just keeps his eyes trained on the book on his desk, tapping out some rhythm with his chewed nails.

“Do we have a new kid?” Veronica asks as she takes her seat next to Martha. Martha turns around and looks in Veronica’s direction.

“I guess,” she replies. She cocks her head to the side while looking at him. “That’s weird. We never have new kids.” Veronica hums in agreement. “He’s kind of cute.”

“Is he?” Veronica asks, leaning over in her seat and lowering her voice. Her mom likes to joke that Martha grew up before Veronica; Martha has fallen down the rabbit hole of boys while for Veronica, they barely register with her. She could listen to Martha go on about cute boys in their grade (mostly Ram if she’s being honest) but so far, not one boy has managed to make Veronica’s head turn.

Until the new kid’s eyes flick up from his book and catch hers and he smiles slightly and she feels something flutter in her chest.

No, she tells herself. She doesn’t like boys and certainly not ones who might have smiled at her from across the room.

Ms Murphy strolls into the room with far too much energy than she should have had given both her age and the hour of day and commands everyone’s attention. Ms Murphy may have a smile on her face but the kids know better than to mess with her. Her reputation precedes her, older siblings often use scary stories about her to scare kids going into seventh grade.

“Welcome back, class,” she announces. “I hope you’re all ready for another year.” She is responded to with begrudging murmurs and half-formed “yes”es, not to mention Kurt and Ram’s snickering and Heather Chandler’s perfectly obvious eye roll. She straightens her back and adjusts her thick-rimmed glasses. “Now, I’m sure you’ve noticed that we have a new student in our class this year.”

Veronica, along with her entire class, turns around and sees the new kid shrink into his jacket. He manages against all odds to avoid the twenty six pairs of eyes on him and keeps a scowl on his face.

“Why don’t you stand up and tell the class a bit about yourself?” Ms Murphy asks and Veronica feels her heart go out to him. She can’t think of anything more mortifying than having to stand up and say “your name and a fun fact about yourself”.

“I’m okay thanks,” he replies with a chuckle.

That sends the whole class off. Veronica claps her hands over her mouth as her sides shake with laughter. Martha is red in the face, her mouth dropped open as she looks from him to Ms Murphy. Around them, some kids sit in slack-jawed awe, some laugh, and even a few applaud. Kurt and Ram holler from their seats. Even the Heathers come out of their little bubble to react, Chandler covering her laugh with her hand while Duke’s jaw is on the floor and MacNamara is on the edge of her seat waiting for the fallout.

Ms Murphy rolls her lips into a thin line. New Kid is already on her radar. He rolls his eyes and stands, hands up to admit defeat, but the smirk on his face shows clear as day she’s not won anything of note. Veronica wonders briefly who will crack first; New Kid or Murphy.

“My name’s Jason Dean,” he introduces. “Or JD, if you want. I moved here from Boston and…” He drums his fingers on the book on his desk, puffing out his cheeks as he blows air out of his mouth. “I like books. And I look forward to learning as much as I can with you over the next six weeks until I leave you all.” Apparently, he’s nothing if not dramatic, since he gives a small bow before sitting back in his chair and saluting Ms Murphy.

“Well, we’re glad to have you in our class, Jason,” she says stiffly. As she drones on with morning announcements and another run about the code of conduct (which has a special emphasis on respect for teachers this time around), Veronica sneaks another glance over her shoulder at Jason, or JD. He’s leaning on the desk, still reading his book, like the rest of the classroom isn’t even there.

He looks up slightly when Ms Murphy moves on to the portion of her speech about paying attention and brandishes a ruler like she wants to throw it at his head. He laughs to himself and looks over just enough to look at her. She gives him a smile, trying to give him a warm welcome. He smiles back and she turns quickly before he can see the pink spread across her cheeks.

Okay. Maybe she might like one boy.

Amid the unruly jungle of the cafeteria, Veronica and Martha manage to find a semi-quiet table near a corner. They, along with Betty Finn, who tags along with them, drop their trays on the table, swing their legs over the seats and begin catching each other up on classes they didn’t have together and recapping what classes they did share.

“Math this year looks awful,” Veronica complains. “I’m never going to get any of it.”

“Sure you will,” Betty says with a bright smile. Veronica and Martha share a glance across the table. Betty is eternally optimistic about this kind of stuff, the cheery, all-American ‘you can achieve anything’ kind of mindset. While it’s cute on Betty, Veronica isn’t so sure about it. “And anyway, the books we get to read in English this year seem super cool.”

“That new kid JD is in our English class,” Martha adds, leaning over her lunch like this was some big secret. “He’s even worse in class than he is in homeroom.”

“What do you mean?” Veronica asked, pretending to be more interested in her sandwich. She hadn’t even thought about JD since that morning, the buzz of the first day of school overwhelming her. And yet here she is now, talking about him and putting the image of his smile out of her mind.

“He’s like… really smart,” Martha answers. “But he kind of acts like he doesn’t care. But then Miss Parker asked him a question and he just rattled off this like… SAT worthy answer.”

“I mean, he would be. He’s been reading that book all day,” Betty reminds them. “He even had it on his lap during class.”

When another lunch tray is put down, right at the end of their table, a phrase her mom likes to use comes to Veronica’s mind. Speak of the Devil, he appears.

JD has seated himself at the far end of their table, on Veronica’s side. Just six seats away from her. He picks absent-mindedly at the lunch on his tray, continuing reading, his book flat on the table, his head propped up on his fist, his elbow resting on the table while he uses his other hand to turn the page.

When she looks back at Martha and Betty, they look nervously at one another and then to Veronica, like some wild animal has sat at their table. After a bit, Martha shrugs and smiles weakly. She pushes her ponytail off her shoulder and takes a deep breath, almost like she is giving herself a small pep-talk.

“We might as well make him feel welcome,” she says before turning her body so she faces JD. She looks to Veronica and Betty for encouragement. Betty doesn’t do anything but press her hands together and look warily in his direction, but Veronica nods. Martha breathes out sharply and puts on a broad smile.

Martha Dunnstock, the girl whose huge heart outweighs her nerves. No wonder Veronica loves her.

“Hi,” she says, just loud enough so he can hopefully hear. After a beat, nothing happens and Martha’s face begins to fall. Then he frowns, picking up on the lack on a response and looks up tentatively at the three expectant faces watching him. Well, two and Betty looking at her lunch tray.

“Greetings,” he replies, lazily saluting them with two fingers. Martha nods, still smiling, but Veronica can see her tense shoulders, her sleeves covering her joined together hands. Huge heart, not so huge confidence.

“You’re Jason, right?” she says. Martha shoots her a grateful look.

“Or JD, if you prefer,” he replies. Something about his tone of voice tells her that it’s very much what he prefers.

“I’m Veronica,” she introduces. “Veronica Sawyer.”

“Nice to meet you, Veronica Veronica Sawyer,” he says, making her laugh. He smiles back at her, easy and light. His eyes move to the seat beside him, but the doesn’t move.

“I’m Martha,” Martha adds. Her voice is quieter than usual, but JD still hears and gives her a nod.

“Betty Finn,” Betty says, her voice small. She her hands clasped in her lap and avoids eye contact with him. JD smiles at her too, but it’s tighter and his gaze moves back to Veronica and Martha.

“So what brings you to Sherwood?” Veronica asks, hoping to clear up the tension.

“My dad’s work,” he sighs. “Yeah, um… Wherever he goes I go.” He spread his hand on the cover of his book and drummed a beat out with his fingers, rolling his lips into a thin line.

“Boston sounds cool,” Martha says. “I’ve never been there.”

“It was, I guess,” he says. “Then good old Dad decided we needed to pack up and move out before I could try out for the soccer team.” He lets out a low chuckle, his smile barely reaching his eyes. Veronica shifts in her seat and looks to a nervous looking Martha and Betty.

“Are you trying out for soccer here?” she asks, fully aware of how ridiculous she sounds, but she’s almost desperate to keep this conversation going.

“Nah,” he answers. “I’ll be gone by the time practice starts up. Not really good for the team if one of them disappears, ya know?” He grimaces slightly and looks down, avoiding their eyes, while Veronica searches for the right words. What exactly can she say to that?

“Oh,” is what she ends up saying. He shrugs and leans back in his chair, pushing his hair away from his face. “So you’ve moved around a lot?”

“A bit,” he answers. “Before Boston was LA. And before LA was Chicago. Planning on getting a fridge magnet in every state I live in. The one day when I own a fridge I can put them all up.” He laughs to himself, the sound dark and flat and humourless. “Sorry, I just realised I forgot to get one before I left Boston. Guess I’ll have to circle back some time.”

“You lived in LA?” Betty asks, her eyes beginning to light up. “That’s so cool, I’ve always wanted to go to LA. I mean, I’ve only seen it on TV, but it looks awesome, beaches and celebrities and all that.”

“Don’t believe everything you see on TV,” he replies. “I did live near a beach but… You know, never got time to go down before we had to leave.” He picks at the foot on his tray and pops a fry into his mouth, shrugging. “Food was better in LA, though.”

Veronica laughs and opens her mouth to tell him that frankly, this is cafeteria food at its best, how they always make an effort at the beginning of the year, and what he should remember if he wants to get the good stuff, until two painfully familiar figures show up at the end of their table, matching jackets and haircuts, one brunet and one blond, and Martha’s cheeks turn pink. Ram and Kurt. Westerburg middle school’s resident Tweedledum and Tweedle-just-as-dum.

“Hey,” Ram says, smacking JD on the back of the head. He blinks but otherwise doesn’t react; he just keeps looking straight ahead.

“Ram, buzz off,” Veronica says. He looks at her like he wasn’t even aware she was sitting there and rolls his eyes.

“Hey, no need to be like that, Ronica,” Kurt says. “We’re just here welcoming our little Jackson Dean here to Sherwood, Ohio.”

“Jason,” he reminds them.

“What?”

“Jason Dean is my name, I said it only three and a half hours ago and somehow I doubt anything else went in your brain in that time.”

You could hear in a pin drop in that cafeteria. JD keeps staring straight ahead, but there’s a smirk on his face now. She should hope nothing else happens and Kurt and Ram’s brains work for the first time in twelve years and they walk away, but then again, a small part of her hopes for something else.

Ram’s eyes narrow, his shoulders tense and he leans on the table, far too close to JD’s face than she can imagine he likes. In one swoop, he knocks his book off the table. JD’s eyes follow it as it skids across the floor and slides to a halt in the middle of the cafeteria. He finally moves and looks up at them, his expression far too tense. His moth is set in a thin line and everything about his face looks like a carefully constructed mask that is far too easy to break.

“You’re very lucky I marked my page,” he whispers. He pushes himself up from the table and goes to pick it up, his sleeves hanging over his hands, his steps controlled and fast, pushing his way past people and keeping his eyes down, avoiding everyone looking at him. He picks it up slowly, brushing dirt off the cover and goes to sit back down, but Kurt and Ram decide to meet him in the middle.

Veronica can see what’s coming. They’re twice his size and obviously outnumber him, not to mention have been the star athletes of their class since second grade. He doesn’t stand a chance.

“That book good?” Ram asks.

“Yes. I’d let you borrow it when I’m finished, but it might be a little above your brain capacity for now.”

So long, JD, it was nice knowing you, I will always mourn the fun we could have had, Veronica thinks when Ram readies himself to take a swing at him. Kurt grabs him from behind and Veronica feels her gut twist at the injustice of it all. She should, and frankly wants to, march over there and give Kurt and Ram a piece of her mind but she feels rooted to the chair, trapped inside her own body.

But as it turns out, he doesn’t need her help.

He wrenches his arm free and smacks Ram across the face with his book. He stumbles back, clutching his cheek while JD looks at him with a mile-wide smile. He twists and gives Kurt the same treatment, causing him to let him go. When Ram takes a run at him JD lands a kick in a very painful place and whips around to kick Kurt in the shins. Ram continues lying in pain on the ground, biting his lip to keep himself from screaming, while JD decides to ditch the book and takes a swing at Kurt with his bare fists, all while the cafeteria waits with a collective held breath.

 Veronica should not be interested in this crap. She’s seen boys fighting before, out in the yard, mostly athletes kicking the snot out of each other for fun or kicking the snot out of each other over some stupid argument. It’s dumb, immature and messy. She should not be interested in this kind of stuff, she never has been.

But with this kid?

Well, damn.

He can punch real good. She kicks herself for underestimating him; she thought he’d be done for in two seconds, but he may well walk away the victor, especially with Ram currently immobile and Kurt having the seven hells beaten out of him. If he can take on them, she imagines he can take on anyone he wants to.

With everyone’s eyes fixed on Ram and Kurt getting their asses handed t them on a plate, Veronica reaches into her bag and gently lifts her diary out. She keeps her eyes on the scene in front of her; JD punching a stumbling Ram in the jaw, knocking him back onto the table behind him.

Dear diary she writes. I know pretty much nothing about this new kid. Other than he likes reading and might not like moving around. But…. She pauses and takes a look up at him. A teacher is storming across to them. In a few minutes, the fight will be broken up and all three of them will be dragged off to the principal’s office, and then the nurse’s office for two of them. He’s still going, landing a punch in Kurt’s gut. He doesn’t show any signs of stopping, either he’s crazy, or fearless. But… I think I want to know him a bit more. I think he could fight for me. And I’d fight for him. Just if he fought for me first.

She looks back and sees one teacher dragging JD away from the fight by the arm. She yells something at him, but whatever it is, Veronica doesn’t catch it. She keeps looking at him, thinking the unthinkable; imagining him with her, standing in front of her, shielding her from the horrors of middle school, taking down the people she can’t.

All of which, of course, would have to happen after he gets dragged off and handed out however many detentions and lectures from the principal.

If he’s still alive she adds.

                                                                                                ******

She doesn’t see JD again after that. She sits in her geography class, trying to distract herself by focussing on the formation of rocks, which surprisingly doesn’t work. She silently calls herself stupid for thinking so much about some boy she barely knows, some boy who really should be considered trouble by pretty much all accounts. And yet…

The teacher excuses herself for a moment, getting a call from the office, instructing them to keep working while she’s gone.

Yeah, right.

“Dude, I saw that kid JD knock Ram out cold with one punch!” someone insists.

“Kurt started crying,” another girl says. “Like, real actual tears.”

“I thought it was kinda hot,” a third pipes up. “You know, swinging fists and stuff.”

“Veronica sure thought it was hot.” The unmistakable voice of Heather Chandler. Veronica feels her stomach drop slightly and her hand goes to her cheek, hoping she’s not blushing. She opts to ignore her, scribbling down labels on a diagram. “Hey, hey Veronica. Veronica. Veronica?”

“What?” she sighs, painfully giving in to the Queen herself. She turns and sees Heather leaning forward on her desk next to Heather Duke, two desks behind her.

“Come on,” she says. “You liked that new kid. Everyone saw you. He sat at your table.”

“I barely know him,” she replies. “Yeah he sat at our table but just because no one else was there.”

“And yet you started talking to him,” Duke reminds her. Chandler side-eyes Duke but remains silent, more interested in watching Veronica squirm.

“I was being friendly,” she explains. Not that you would know what that’s like she thinks.

“Oh get over yourself, you should have seen the way you were drooling over him,” Chandler insists.

“I don’t drool,” she fires back. At least she hopes she doesn’t. “Anyway I don’t even know that much about him.”

When the classroom door opens, she says a silent prayer of gratitude. Chandler closes her mouth, the sly remark dying on her tongue, but she raises her eyebrows when she looks at who walked in.

Mr Matthews enters, leading JD in. He drags his feet slightly, scowling. Mr Matthews looks incredibly pissed as he leads him to his new seat. Just in front of Veronica.

“You all know Jason Dean, our new classmate,” Mr Matthews says. “Now, as we were. We were on the formation of sedimentary rocks…”

Veronica can practically hear Heather laughing at her. She almost laughs at herself the way her heart begins to beat faster when he sits in front of her. But the crazy thing is, only part of her cares. Part of her wants to fall back in line and forget about him. Make it through middle school, keep hanging out with her (still unpopular but at least acceptable) friends, fly under the Heathers’ radar.  And the other part of her wants to keep looking at him and keep getting to know him and maybe be driven even further underground with him.

When class ends, she goes to leave, but he touches her shoulder gently, toying with his paper schedule in his hands and a nervous smile on his face. He looks so different form the boy she saw in the cafeteria it’s dizzying.

“Sorry,” he says. “I was just hoping you could… do you know where Miss Firth’s room is? I have her next. History.”

“Yeah, I have that too,” she replies. “I can walk you.”

“I’d like that,” he says as they start walking. She expects to fight her way through the crowd, but they part for him. In fear or awe, she’s not sure.

“So… that thing you pulled in the cafeteria was pretty severe,” she tells him, hugging her diary to her chest.

“Well the extreme always seems to make an impression,” he admits. “Though it did earn me a week of detention. Apparently I got a light sentence given I’m new here. They’re phoning my dad, so that’ll be a nice dinnertime conversation.” He takes a deep breath, bites his lip and squares his shoulders before putting the smile back on.

“Oh, wow,” she says delicately, wondering what to say. “How do you like the school so far?”

“I’ll admit when I first started I wasn’t crazy about it,” he says. He looks over at her. “But I might like it more than I first thought.”

Okay, maybe this time she is blushing. Still no drool, though.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

“Thanks Mr Dunnstock,” Veronica says as she jumps out of Martha’s dad’s car. Martha climbs out of the front seat and thanks her dad too before she and Veronica run into the 7/11, the sun just going down behind the towering store. Movie nights and sleepovers had become commonplace for them since they started attending school. When they were five, it was Barbies and ice cream and Disney videos. When they were nine, it was make-overs and pillow fights and promising they’d stay up until midnight and falling asleep at ten thirty. Now they’re twelve, so it’s candy overloads and magazines and games of “would you rather”. And Disney. They always circle back to Disney. Nothing makes Veronica feel more at home than being half asleep on Martha’s couch with a crumpled chocolate wrapper on her stomach and Cinderella on the TV. And three weeks into the school year, with homework beginning to pile up, it’s exactly the break she needed.

They rush into the store, pockets bulging with their saved up allowances. Veronica drew up a careful plan in the back of science class; their combined allowances would get them each a big chocolate bar, a sharing bag of chips and one or two sharing bags of candy, and they’d still have money left over for a pizza to order when they got home. While Martha’s mom had insisted she could buy them a frozen one, they had politely declined. Pizza always tastes so much better coming from their own wallets.

Veronica runs over to the chips section while Martha starts looking at the bags of candy. She reaches up for the original flavour tortilla chips on the top shelf and makes a mental note to ask Martha if her parents have salsa and if not, hope she can make her money stretch towards a pot. She strains up onto her toes and stretches out her arm, her fingers just grazing the bag. She jumps a little, hoping to get it, but to no avail.

Curse her yet-to-come growth spurt. She’s still smaller than most of the girls in her class. Heather Duke towers over her, which isn’t fun when she’s trying not to be intimidated by her.

Beside her, someone takes it off the shelf and hands it to her. She takes it off them with red cheeks and looks up to thank them, expecting it to be an employee.

Instead, it’s JD, of all the people. Red slushie in one hand, the other in the pocket of his jacket.

“Thanks,” she says, holding them close to her chest.

“No problem,” he replies, toying with the straw of his slushie. “You doing something big tonight or just devouring that whole bag in one go?”

“Martha and I are having a sleepover,” she answers.

“Sounds fun,” he replies.

“Yeah,” she says, wiping her sweaty hand on her jeans and clearing her throat. She doesn’t pretend she doesn’t know why he has this effect on her; when he comes into class and takes his seat in front of her, she can’t keep her eyes off him, can’t will her heart to stop beating so damn quickly. “So what are you doing here?” Wow, smooth small talk, Veronica.

“Had a slushie craving,” he answers. “And I had nothing better to do. Either hang out at home.. Or here. My favourite place in the world.”

“Your favourite place is the 7/11?” she asks, looking around her. “No offense but… why?”

“Well,” he says. “You know how I said I’ve moved around a lot? What I’ve noticed is that in every single state I go to there’s a 7/11. Boston, LA, Chicago, Texas…” He freezes, his hand curling into a fist. Veronica debates stepping forward or trying to talk to him; the faraway look in his eyes makes her think he can’t even see her. His hands tighten on the slushie.

“JD?” she asks. She decides to reach out and tap his arm. “Hey, JD?”

“Sorry,” he mumbles, shaking his head. He smiles, but his eyes still look… haunted, that would be the word she’d use. “Sorry, got lost in my own head there. Anyway where was I? Right, every city, every state I’ve been to, there’s a 7/11.” He begins strolling up the aisle, walking backwards, motioning for her to follow. She laughs under her breath but does so. “No matter where you go they always look the same. They’re my own little home on the way to home.” He wiggles his slushie in front of her eyes, the ice crystals catching the artificial light. “I can take one of these bad boys and just walk up and down the aisles for as long as I want.”

He takes a long, fast drink out of the slushie.

“You know you’ll get a brain freeze if you drink it that fast,” she remarks. He stops drinking and, just as she predicted, winces at the brain freeze.

“Maybe that was the idea,” he tells her, smiling against the pain in his head.

“Veronica?”

She turns to see Martha standing a bit behind her, holding a bag of chips, giant candy bar and two bags of assorted candies. Martha shifts from foot to foot as she looks at her best friend and JD. Veronica turns back to him, smiling sheepishly.

“I should go,” she said, tossing the bag of chips lightly in her hands. “Thanks again for these.”

“Any time,” he replies with a smile. “Enjoy your sleepover.” He turns away from her and wanders off down the aisle, continuing to drink his slushie while his free hand trails along the shelves.

She wonders what he meant about the brain freezes.

In Martha’s house, they spread their 7/11 stash out on the coffee table and Veronica orders the pizza before they change into her pyjamas. Veronica hops into her sleeping bag and curls up on the armchair in Martha’s living room while Martha stretches hers out on the couch, reminding her that she’s more than welcome to take the couch if she wants.

“Hey, Veronica,” she begins while eating a slice of plain cheese. “Can I ask you something?”

“Go for it,” she replies, wiping her greasy hands on her sleeping bag. One of them should have brought paper towels.

“Do you like JD?” she asks. The questions catches Veronica off guard.

“Do I like him?” she echoes. “I mean, he’s okay I guess. He seems cool. I don’t not like him-”

“That’s not what I meant,” Martha tells her, scooting closer to her. “I meant do you, you know…” She wiggles her eyebrows. “Like-like him?”

“Martha!” she laughs. “No, of course not!” If she’s honest, she doesn’t really know if she’s telling the truth or not. Whatever this is, it’s new for her.

“I think he might like you,” she tells her.

“What makes you think that?” she asks, trying to sound casual, but the way her heart flutters and a smile forces its way onto her face betrays her. Martha looks through their sugar feast on the table and picks up one of her magazines, flipping it open to the middle.

“Here,” she says, showing her the page, which says in big pink lettering “Ten Signs A Boy Wants To Be More Than Friends”.

“And you think JD wants to be more than friends?” Veronica asks. “I’m not even sure we’re friends yet.”

“Well let’s see,” Martha says, reading the magazine. “See? Number two, he always finds excuses to talk to you. JD’s always trying to talk to you.”

“Martha, I’m the only one he tries talks to,” she reminds her. Martha raises her eyebrows as if Veronica’s just proven her point.

“Number five, he laughs at your jokes,” she reads. “The other day, JD laughed when you made that joke at lunch.”

“Yeah,” she agreed, laughing herself. “Because it was funny.” At lunch, Betty had been saying that she had seen paper spray on sale in the store with her mum, and Veronica had joked that it was in case people are victims of a-salt. JD, who was leaning against the wall reading yet another book, looked up and laughed.

Which he should have. Because it was funny.

“Okay,” Martha says, clearly not entirely convinced. “Well what about this? ‘He keeps finding reasons to touch you’.”

“I don’t know,” Veronica says, shrugging. “I don’t count.”

“Well, I do,” Martha says. “He’s always finding reasons to touch you. Like when you two walk to geography together. I see him, Veronica. He keeps brushing his hand against yours.” Veronica stops and thinks about it. She rubs the back of her hand, feeling in her mind how JD’s brushes against hers in the crowded hallways. But she knows that’s only because he keeps getting knocked against her.

“We’re just friends, Martha,” she says. “Actually, I don’t think we’re even friends.” Martha shakes her head, a small sad smile on her face.

“You should see the way he looks at you,” she says, her voice slightly deflated. She looks down at her hands, linking and unlinking her fingers.

“Martha?”

“It’s nothing,” she sighs. “I just hope someone looks at me like that one day.”

Veronica sits up in her sleeping bag and half-jumps, half-shuffles over to Martha. At least that makes her laugh. She drops to her knees beside her, wrapping her arm around her shoulders.

“Martha,” she says, her heart slightly breaking. “Martha, someone will one day. Trust me.”

“You really think so?” she asks, starting to smile. “Or are you just saying that because you’re my best friend?”

“Of course I think so,” she replies. “Martha, you’re super kind, crazy smart and funny.” She jumps up onto the sofa beside her. “And besides, who cares about some dumb boys?” Martha huffs a laugh and leans her head against Veronica’s shoulder.

“Thanks, Veronica.”

“And anyway… if you want, you can take JD, I’m not using him right now.” That makes Martha really laugh, throwing back her head and scrunching up her eyes and her shoulders beginning to shake.

“He’s all yours,” she says, getting up to lift a slice of pizza from the table. “He’s not my type.”

“You have a type?”

“Of course.” Veronica fights the urge to roll her eyes. She loves Martha, but she’ll never get why of all the boys at school, she had to fall for Ram Sweeney.

Still, for now, she banishes all thoughts of boys from her mind and presses her cheek against Martha’s shoulder while they settle on a video to watch while Veronica braids Martha’s hair before they inevitably crash from the sugar high and fall asleep a little after midnight, Martha curled up on the couch with Veronica practically on top of her, forgetting that the world outside of Martha’s house and anyone other than the two of them exists.

                                                                                                    *****

When she gets to geography on Monday, JD is already there, lost in another book. Before she can even realise what she’s doing, Veronica brushes her hair behind her ear and pulls her jumper down before she approaches him.

“Hey,” she greets. He looks up at her and smiles. He slides his bookmark in and sets his book aside, turning his body towards her.

“Salutations,” he replies. “How was your sleepover?”

“Great,” she says, taking her seat behind him. “You know, just watched Pinocchio and ate pizza.” And talked about you, she thinks but won’t say.

“Ah,” he says, wrinkling his nose. “I believe that’s what they would call, girl stuff.”

“I guess,” she admits, scratching behind her ear. “What about you? Do anything fun over the weekend?”

“Oh, lots,” he says, voice dripping with sarcasm. “I went a little crazy and unpacked one whole box in my room.” He opens his mouth wide in a pantomime of shock and Veronica giggles. “Wait and see, this week I plan to go completely bananas and even put things on a shelf.”

“Wow, slow down, someone might call the cops on you,” she continues. “So you’re still not unpacked then?”

“Nah. It always takes a while to get everything completely out.” He lifts a pencil off his desk and toys with it; poking it in the middle of his hand, slapping it against his palm. “But then…I mean, if I’m away in a few weeks, what’s the point, right?” He forces a smile on his face.

“Oh,” she says. She doesn’t look him in the eye, instead looking at her desk, focussing on the graffiti on the wood. His eyes follow hers.

“Well,” he says. “Guess while I’m here, I might as well make my mark, right?” She looks up and watches him take a pen out of his pocket. “It’s your desk. May I?” She nods, a smile creeping on her face. He leans forward and presses the pen into the wood, moving it almost frantically, going over lines three, four, five times, making it sink in. Making it last. He leans back when he’s finished, gesturing with his hand. “What do you think?” She looks at the spot where he was writing. There’s a ‘J.D.’ written there in black ink and sharp lines.

“Now you’re in Westerburg Middle School forever,” she says. An idea unfurls in her mind, a little more daring than she would normally think, and she bites her lip. “Can I…” He slowly hands her over the pen and there’s what she can only describe as an intrigued smile as she starts just below his. It’s harder than he made it look, writing on wood, and she goes over the lines a few times.

But within what seems like no time at all, there’s a ‘V.S.’ just underneath ‘J.D.’.

“Wow,” he breathes.

“Think I should do what you do?” she asks, glancing up at him through her hair. “Have people start calling me VS?” He shakes his head lightly, biting his lip.

“I think Veronica suits you,” he tells her, looking down at his hands. “It’s pretty. Like you are.”

The pen nearly falls from her hands. She feels like all the air has been sucked out of her lungs as a blush creeps up her cheeks and across her nose.

No one has ever called her pretty before. Her parents used to call her beautiful when she was younger but she realised that that’s what every parent calls their kids. Martha has called her beautiful too but as a friend. No one has called her pretty before, and no one has said anything to her with the expression JD has right now. She’d almost say he looks bashful, smiling ever so slightly, looking nervously at her while he fidgets.

She worries she’s in danger of falling off her seat but then she doesn’t care. All she can hear is the word ‘pretty’ echoing in her mind.

“You’re blushing,” Heather Chandler tells her as she walks past, whacking her desk with her bag as she goes. Veronica frowns at her and looks to JD, who’s still just looking at her.

“Thanks,” she manages, her voice as small as a mouse’s. She smacks herself internally. All she could come up with was ‘thanks’? Still, his smile grows bigger and he pushes his dark curls out of his eyes. Mr Matthews walks in and he turns around, but he keeps his eyes on her for as long as he can and god, does it make her insides melt.

Screw Heather Chandler, she thinks. She can be as read as the scrunchie in her hair and she’ll remain that way if only he keeps looking at her like that.

With fifteen minutes left in the class, Mr Matthews springs the first fun event of the year on them; their semester projects are due soon, and this time, now that they’re in seventh grade, they can do them in pairs. Initially, a cheer erupts in the class, the room overflowing with overlapping voices claiming their friends as partners. Veronica sits amongst the noise, resenting the fact that Martha isn’t in her class and they can’t be partners, the way they’ve been for everything, until she remembers who is in front of her. He hasn’t moved since the assignment’s been announced; his desk partner is leaning across the room to talk to his friend.

“Okay, okay, but…” Mr Matthews says. “You’re not choosing your partner.”

Veronica isn’t sure she’s ever seen a room change so quickly. Excitable chatter quickly turns to groans and whines and protests of unfairness. It’s kind of funny admittedly, but Veronica can’t help but feel a little bit deflated.

She just hopes she doesn’t get saddled with a Heather.

While his class protest, Mr Matthews lifts out a small, hard plastic bowl, containing small slips of paper.

“You’ll draw names from this,” he explains over the dwindling noise. “It’s completely random, luck of the draw.” He shakes the bowl for good measure and presents it to them like it’s a prize. “So who wants the first pick?”

“I’ll do it,” JD pipes up. Mr Matthews seems taken aback by his enthusiasm, but nonetheless invites him up to the front. Veronica finds herself holding her breath as he reaches in and picks out a piece of paper. There’s 28 names written in there. 27 not counting his. She’s one in 27.

“So,” he says. “Who did you get, Jason?” JD gives a low chuckle when he opens the paper.

“Veronica Sawyer,” he replies, showing him the slip. He turns and smiles at her and she smiles right back, her feet dancing under the desk.

She can’t even hear Heather Chandler’s faux-vomiting behind her.

She and JD walk out of class together, closer than most other people in the hallway are, him reading the assignment off the page everyone was given.

“It doesn’t look that hard,” she says. The assignment a five minute oral report on either earthquakes or volcanoes, using recent examples and visual clues.

“No it doesn’t,” he agrees. “Are you free on Friday?”

“Mmm-hmm.” His walk slows down and he scratches the back of his neck awkwardly.

“Want to come over to my house to work on it?” he asks. “My dad won’t be home until late, so it’ll be quiet. And I can make pasta.”

“Sure,” she says. She thinks briefly that she should take up drama, because she’s amazing at making herself seem calm when really, she’s bouncing up and down inside. “And what about tomorrow, after school, just to get it started? We can go to the library?”

“Sounds awesome,” he says. They come to the corner of the hallway, where the two corridors diverged. Veronica looks down one and he looks down the other.

“I have French now,” she explains. He nods, biting his lip.

“And I have English,” he replies, his shoulders sagging. “Well, au reviour, Veronica.”

“Bye,” she replies instead, starting to giggle. She stays put for a while wand watches him go, his black coat standing out among all the other students.

She’s grown up enough to admit it to herself. She, as Martha would put it, has it bad.

On Friday, JD meets Veronica after her last class of the day, Math. She bids goodbye to Martha, who gives her a knowing smile that tells her exactly what her best friend is thinking, and she and JD go out the main door together, walking out the gate along with a sea of students and he starts leading her down his path home. He had told her at lunch on Thursday it was a long walk and he hoped she didn’t mind. Really, she doesn’t, not when the weather is nice enough and they go into a small store on the way and buy candy bars and he’s by her side talking about everything and nothing.

When they do reach his house, its much bigger than Veronica expected, especially considering it was just JD and his dad. Dark red brick and black tiled roof and a wooden porch with steps they run up. Up close, she can see it isn’t perfect; paint peels and chips off the door, the porch has bars missing and the windows don’t have curtains. But even with all that it’s pretty breathaking.

“Wow,” she says. “Your house is amazing.”

“It’s okay,” he says, turning the key in the lock. “Dad got it cheap enough.” He leads her into an uncarpeted wooden floor hallway, plain walls with stained-looking white paint and through into the small kitchen. The walls are red and there’s nothing on them, just like in the hallway, and the fridge door is completely bare. JD opens it and takes out two cans of Diet Coke, handing one to Veronica. “Sorry about the mess, we’re still not entirely unpacked.” She looks around and sees what he means; there’s still boxes sitting around the place, as well as jackets slung on the chairs and couch, and a few empty beer cans next to the couch. He takes her by the hand and leads her into the living room that follows on from the kitchen. It’s not as bare as the rest of the house; there’s a circular red rug on the floor and a beige leather couch and a TV set propped up on a wooden table, as well as a few pictures and books along one of the shelves. “As you can see I tried to do a bit of decorating. Make the place nice.”

“Just for me?” she jokes and he laughs. He doesn’t stop her when she walks over to the shelf, eyes scanning over the books and photos. She spots Moby Dick and Wuthering Heights, Frankenstein and Dracula. “Are these all yours?”

“Yeah,” he answers, coming up behind her. “I got most of them second hand at this bookstore a last year. She almost laughs; she can’t imagine going near anything that deep. Her eyes move to the photos. She sees one of a toddler in a blue onesie with little dark curls chewing on the ear of a toy rabbit. No mistake, it’s JD. Brave, she touches her finger to the glass and chuckles, turning to him.

“You were cute,” she tells him. She looks at the one beside it; a woman with dark brown hair and brown eyes and dark skin, standing in a green dress, smiling, one hand on her prominent baby bump. Her chin is identical to the one of the boy next to her, who stiffens, catching his breath.

“That would be my mom,” he says.

“She’s pretty.”

“Yeah, she was.”

Veronica’s mouth falls open. God, how could she have missed it? Never talking about his mother, only mentioning his father, and having her picture out pride of place on his shelf. God she’s so stupid.

“I’m sorry,” she says. “I didn’t-”

“It’s okay,” he says, his voice flat.  He rolls his lips into a thin line so that they almost disappear. “It was two years ago.” He shakes his head, running his hand through his hair, and seems to do a complete 180. “Anyway, let’s start this project, shall we?”

Despite the awkward conversation about his mom, and the fact that it’s school work, working on the project with JD actually turns out to be fun. Really fun. So fun they pass nearly two hours in almost no time at all. They piece together information from the books strewn around them and sketch out rough diagrams. JD seems fascinated by volcanoes, and especially about Pompeii. His eyes light up when he talks about them, he revels in each new piece of information they learn.

“A whole city,” he says, turning the page. “A whole city just… gone.” He gestures with his arm, sweeping broadly across the air as though he’s the lava and his living room is Pompeii. “I mean one mountain had all that power. It’s crazy. And none of them even knew about it until it was too late.”

“Wow, you’re really into this,” she remarks, a book balanced on her knees. He runs his hand through his hair and nods, shrugging.

“I just think… all that power, all that chaos and destruction just came from one mountain,” he explains. “A whole city was gone. You know I was reading about it once, I heard that when these explorers went and dug it up, under the ash, it was exactly like it was back then. People were frozen in the places they were in when they were running.” There’s something in his eyes that Veronica can’t quite place; some kind of excitement that makes her feel like he’s not all here. It’s gone soon though, replaced by something close to sheepish and a soft smile. “Anyway… What have we got so far?”

“Um, how volcanoes are formed,” she says, flicking through her pages of notes. That should take up about two minutes, if we want to leave room for the rest of the stuff-” She’s cut off by her stomach making an embarrassingly loud rumble. She hasn’t eaten a full meal since lunch, and while the candy bars she and JD had bought in the store were great, they weren’t exactly filling. Still, she cringes, blushing to the roots of her hair, and when JD giggles, she wishes the ground would open up and swallow her whole.

“I would ask if you’re hungry,” he jokes. She responds by lifting a cushion off the couch and throwing it at his head. He catches it expertly and looks at the clock on the wall. “Yeah, so am I.” He gets up and holds his hand out to her. She takes it and lets him lift her to her feet while her embarrassment fades. “Come on, let’s see what we have.” He doesn’t let go of her hand, not that she’s complaining, and leads her into the kitchen.

“Should we wait for your dad to get back?” she asks, rubbing the back of her neck. She’s watched her mother cooking more times than she can remember but wouldn’t have the first clue about how to work the cooker herself. JD, however, jumps up onto the counter and starts looking through the cupboards.

“You wouldn’t want my dad near an oven if you knew him,” he says. “He somehow manages to undercook and overcook. Do you like pasta?”

“Yeah.”

“Cool.” He lifts out a packet and keeps looking before taking out a heavy looking jar. “Tomato and basil sauce?”

“Sounds great.”

He jumps down from the counter and starts working like it’s second nature to him. Veronica watches, half fascinated. As far as she is concerned, this is the adult’s world, and yet JD runs it without a problem. She wants to ask how when he learned to cook, but he question sits dominant on her tongue.

“Don’t look too impressed,” he tells her as he fills up the pot with water and brings it over to the stove. “Pasta’s not that hard.” He opens the pasta packet and starts pouring in as much as he can. “Except for when you’re trying to judge how much is enough. Then it’s a minefield.” She wonders exactly how much he thinks is enough, because while she’s no expert, what he’s putting in seems way too much for two people, especially people as small as them. She stands next to him as he turns the stove on, minute flames dancing on the ring. “After my mom died, I was on my own a lot. Dad likes to work late.” Veronica nods. Her question is seemingly answered, but part of her wishes he wasn’t telling her. How does she react to something like this? “So I learned a lot. How to cook pasta, do laundry, get my ass to school on time, pay for the cable, get groceries. Etcetera, etcetera.”

“Oh,” she says, searching for the appropriate response. “That… must have been hard.” He shrugs casually but bites his lip hard. He lets his hair fall in front of his face.

“Yeah, I guess,” he says, his voice thin. He coughs into the crook of his arm. “But you know… everyone has to learn about this some time. I just got the accelerated course of study.” He lets out a dark chuckle. “AP class in adulthood. Maybe that’s why I’m so much more mature than the meatheads in our grade.”

“Are you calling me a meathead?” Veronica asks playfully. When he looks at her however, it isn’t playful. It reminds Veronica of how she felt when he dropped the bombshell about his mother. The look of internally kicking yourself in the shin.

“Of course not,” he says, his voice lined with sincere regret. “Sorry… ego took over for a second. You’re not a meathead. You’re… you’re awesome.” She laughs, a little too loud in her mind, but he just smiles at her. At least she didn’t snort, she thinks to herself. “Come on, I think this is ready.”

They sit at JD’s small, round kitchen table, a bowl of pasta each and some left in the covered saucepan for JD’s dad when he gets in.

“If he gets in tonight,” JD adds, and Veronica’s heart skips a beat. Her mind races to horror stories she’s heard about people going missing, and JD’s casual tone slightly frightens her. She must look at shocked as she feels because he quickly clarifies. “Sometimes he doesn’t get home until after I go to bed. So he doesn’t even eat anything until tomorrow.”

“Oh,” she says. “Well, you make awesome pasta.”

“Don’t praise me,” he tells her. “Praise Mr Grossman, the maker of that sauce.” He kisses his fingers in a pantomime of an Italian chef. “Perfection. Get your mom to buy it for you.”

“I could tell her I can make pasta now,” she says. “She can take nights off.”

“Hold onto your childhood,” he tells her. “Let your mom keep doing the cooking.”

After JD puts the empty bowls in the sink, he lifts out two cookies for dessert and tosses one to her.

“Perks of getting to do your own grocery shopping,” he tells her as they sit back down to their project. “And my dad is none the wiser.”

A key turns in the front door, making Veronica look up and JD jump.

“Shit,” he whispers, looking from the direction of the door to her. “Shit.”

“Is everything okay?” she asks. She’s never seen that look on his face before; his cheeks start to turn red and his eyes are wide and he chews the side of his lip in his nerves.

“My dad’s home,” he states, as if she hadn’t worked that out. “Um, I’m sorry, he’s a little… You should probably go home now.”

The abruptness of his words take her aback, hitting her in the chest. Still, she nods just as the door opens and begins packing away her stuff in her bag, taking her time while JD hurries. The contrast in their actions hurts her, despite her best attempts to brush it off

“You can hold onto all the notes,” he tells her, handing her the pages of her scribbled handwriting. “You did most of them anyway. What about I keep the diagrams?” She nods slowly, slinging her bag onto her shoulder. JD’s shoulders drop and he lets out a sigh, his expression guilt-ridden. “Look, I’m sorry… it’s just my dad… I thought he’d be home later and he gets weird when I have people over.”

“JD I won’t judge,” she promises. He nods but doesn’t seem to hear her, his face growing panicked when he hears the footsteps in the hall getting louder.

“I know,” he says distractedly, running his hand through his hair as he looks towards the hall. “Just… I think it is best if you go.”

Before Veronica can even agree, his dad enters. She wasn’t sure what she was expecting from him, JD rarely talks about him and when he does, the words aren’t flattering. His dad has the same dark hair as him, but where JD’s is a mess of curls, his dad’s is slicked back. His eyes are small, there’s stubble and a grimace on his round face. He’s short and thin and wearing a beige jacket over a yellow checked shirt and jeans, which has the bulge of a cigarette packet in them. He carries a crate of some kind of beer under his arm. It’s not a brand Veronica recognises; she’s only ever seen her dad drink and it’s not one he drinks.

Everything about JD changes when he comes in. She sees his shoulders tense, his grip on the drawings in his hand tightening until he crumples the paper, his back straightening, a blush coming into his cheeks. He ducks his head slightly, letting his hair hide his eyes. She even hears his breathing get heavier.

“Hey dad,” his dad-Mr Dean, she supposes-says, taking a can out of the crate and depositing the rest in the fridge. JD shoots an apologetic look to a confused Veronica. “How was work today? It was miserable.” He takes a long sip of the can in his hand, leaning on the kitchen table. “Some old bitch says I don’t have the right permit to blow up that hotel.” JD looks at the ground. The paper in his hand is crushed into a ball. The silence feels like it’s suffocating Veronica as she looks from JD to his dad to the floor, wondering what the hell she’s meant to do now. “Gee dad, I almost for got to introduce my new friend here.” He gets up from the table and crosses over to them, sitting comfortably down on the couch, looking at the pair of them expectedly.

“Dad, this is Veronica,” he introduces. “She just came over to work on a project.”

“Nice to meet you,” she says, extending her hand. Mr Dean laughs, deep and loud.

“Get your own, cutie, there’s some in the fridge,” he says. Veronica lets her hand drop to her side and curl into a fist.

“Anyway, Veronica was just leaving,” JD says. He takes her arm and the sudden grip on her nearly makes her squeal.

“She doesn’t have to.” Mr Dean leans forward and rests his elbows on his knees, looking at her with an unsettling grin. “Can’t my little friend stay for dinner, Dad?”

“We already ate,” JD shoots back. “There’s pasta in the pot if you want some.”

Before his dad can say anything else, JD takes Veronica down the hall. Well, ‘takes’ is a kind word. The more appropriate word would be ‘drag’. She can’t even catch her breath as he drags her to the front door, her tripping over her feet and struggling to keep her bag on her shoulder. When they get to the door, he turns her around to face her, his face a mix of so many different emotions; the telltale blush of humiliation, a grimace of regret, his eyes confused.

“I’m sorry,” he tells her again. “I told you, my dad gets weird when I have people home.”

“It’s okay,” she says. It doesn’t feel okay, but she lets it slide. He gives her a shaky smile.

“I’ll see you on Monday? Maybe we can go to the library?”

“Sure. Yeah that’s… that’s fine.” He nods and opens the front door and she takes the hint and steps out. “I’ll see you on Monday?”

“Yeah,” he says, his voice tight. “Bye Veronica.”

“Bye, JD.”

He closes the door and leaves her alone on the porch, her heart slightly racing. She wobbles backwards before turning around and running down the steps. It’s colder than she thought it would be; goosebumps form on her arms despite her jacket-she’s not wearing her jacket. She kicks herself as she pictures it perfectly. Her jacket is sitting on the Deans’ couch. She debates for a moment going back in and getting it, but JD made it fairly clear he didn’t want her in his house and if she’s honest with herself, she’s not sure she wants to be in his house while his dad’s there.

                                                                                                ******

JD stays at the door for a second, looking through the thin windows at Veronica. There’s something lovely in the way she walks. At school, she tends to walk with her head down a little, but on the street, when she’s alone, or when she was walking with him, she looks lost in her own world.

He’d do anything to live in that world with her. Instead, he has to go back to the world in his kitchen.

He finds his dad scooping the pasta in to a bowl. He doesn’t look up when JD enters, though it’s not like he would have expected him to. Most days he’s lucky if he gets a nod.

“Well, champ, Veronica seems like a real nice girl,” JD says loudly. “Oh she is. Yeah she just came over to work on a project.” He just keeps eating. JD sticks his hands in his pockets to keep them from shaking as the silence stretches out between them. “Anyway I’m glad you’re making friends here, son.” His dad regards him with a look, and for a moment he hopes he’s gotten through to him. After all, this is a fairly big revelation. The first time in two years he’s had a real friend. They should go out for ice cream like normal people do when their kid gets an A on a test.

“Did the rent come in?” he asks instead. JD bites back his scream.

“Yeah,” he says. “The letter came in this morning.” He gestures to the white envelope on the table. “You’ll find my contribution in your room.” He nods and goes back to his pasta. JD wants him to tell him it’s good. To thank him for cooking. To promise to pay him back. To ask him about school, about Veronica, about his project. Instead he just looks straight through him.

His eyes land on the empty dishes in the sink and his hand twitches. He crosses over to the sink and grabs on of them. His breaths come deeply and slowly and raggedly. The unbroken plate sits there like an itch begging to the scratched.

So he smashes it on the floor. It goes into five pieces.

His dad jumps and turns around, leaning on the chair and raising an eyebrow. You’d think he caught his son using the wrong grammar (or, that would be the case if his dad ever cared about grammar).

“How many times do I have to tell you not to do that?” he sighs. “That shit costs money, you know.” Two sentences. Nineteen words. But for those two sentences, he has a father.

The other plate ends up smashed on the floor before he has time to think. Seven pieces this time. His dad rolls his eyes and glares at him.

“That’s coming out of your allowance,” he grumbles. He turns away from him and hunches his shoulders. Even from across the kitchen, JD shivers.  He wonders if he should remind his dad that he doesn’t actually give him allowance, that all his money for rent and slushies comes from newspaper runs.

He makes a mental note to check who needs a newspaper boy in this town.

He wonders briefly if he should clean up the mess he made, and even bends down for a moment. He looks over at his dad. His still, silent, oblivious dad.

“Be careful there, son, you could cut yourself on those sharp edges,” he says to his dad’s back. “Why don’t you go on upstairs, I’ll sort that out.”

Nothing. Absolutely nothing.

He runs over to the couch and grabs his bag, haphazardly throwing pieces of the project in there with shaking hands, not knowing or caring what they are. He just wants to get out of there as soon as possible. Maybe escape into a book or run up the 7/11.

Just as he’s passing the couch, he sees it. Veronica’s blue denim jacket. He internally slaps himself for forgetting to give it to her before quite literally throwing her out the door. He picks it up, rubbing the material between his fingers, remembering how it looked over the long green dress she had been wearing. He finds it amazing how she doesn’t seem to care about her looks, not like the Heathers and their carefully coordinated skirts, but she’s easily the prettiest girl in their class.

“What’s that?” his dad asks. JD can’t help but smile. Even the smallest sentences out of his dad come as a victory. Even more so when he doesn’t need to break something to get it.

“Veronica left her jacket here,” he explains, avoiding his dad’s gaze. He grunts in response. “I’ll have to give it back to her on Monday.” He knows his dad’s not listening at this point, but it’s fun to pretend just this once. “If she’s still talking to me.”

He decides to shut himself up in his room that night. He carefully places Veronica’s jacket on the back of a wooden chair in his room and lays back on his bed. Beside the bed, there’s one box marked “JD’s clothes” and another marked “JD’s stuff”. He’s gone over the words quite a few times, but his mom’s handwriting it still just about visible. He rolls over, traces the faint script with his finger and digs out a book he’s read at least fifteen times and starts reading it again, revelling in the familiarity allowing his mind to wander. Not long after he picks it up, he puts the book down and settles for staring up at the ceiling.

He shouldn’t get too attached to Veronica. He knows it’s just a matter of time before his dad packs him into the back of his car and they take along drive to wherever it is next. The first time they moved, it was exciting. Then the second time it was less so. When the third time rolled around, JD caught on. They’re never going to stay in one place for too long now. He’s living out of a suitcase and a cardboard box. Veronica says she’s known these people all her life and he considers her lucky. He barely remembers his old friends.

When his mom was alive, they didn’t need to move so much. They still moved, but after a few years of staying around, when the idea of going to a new place would be an adventure rather than a burden. He’s been to three new schools in the two years since she died.

JD rolls over onto his side and closes his eyes tightly. He will not cry. His dad will not make him cry. He won’t get that out of him. He rolls over more so that his face is planted in his pillow and he pushes the sides of it into his ears, blocking out the world. What he really wants is a slushie; a nice trick he stumbled upon a year ago. Drink it fast and let your mind go numb. You stop thinking, breathing, existing, everything stops except the pain in your head. But unfortunately he doesn’t have the money for one after paying his share of the rent and even if he did, it might involve having to pass his father in the hallway, so he settles for pressing his face further and further into the pillow until colours shoot around the backs of his eyelids and his ears start ringing.

He doesn’t mean to fall asleep, but he does anyway, his fingers letting go of the pillow, his breathing evening out. He whimpers slightly and shifts onto his side, unconsciously grabbing the blanket for something to hold on to. Still, even in all the vulnerability and weakness of sleep, he doesn’t cry.

Chapter Text

Veronica pulls her knees closer to her, her diary resting on her pyjama-clad legs with her back against the bed board, 11:15 flashing on the alarm clock beside her bed. She doodles some hearts in the corner and margins of the page and doesn’t even pretend like she doesn’t know why she’s doing that.

Dear diary,

Weird day at JD’s place. I mean, it started off good. Actually, it started off great. We talked and we laughed and it was awesome. And he’s funny. Really funny, like he’s not even trying to be. He keeps telling me that he thinks I’m smart, which feels great, but he’s smarter. He reads so many books, ones I’d never even think about. He reads stuff that’s on the high school reading lists for fun. He’s kind of creative when it comes to this project stuff. And he likes talking about volcanoes. Maybe a little too enthusiastic about them but that’s nothing.

He makes his own dinner, which is-well it’s not normal. No one makes their own dinner. I can’t even work the oven, Betty wouldn’t know where to start and Martha wouldn’t even think of it. But he says he cooks for himself a lot. And pay rent and do laundry. I don’t know how weird that is.

I can’t believe I didn’t work it out about his mom. I just wanted to kick myself when he said it. I wonder how she died. I’m obviously not going to ask just…. I don’t know, I guess it would be interesting (I guess) to know. He looked really upset when I brought her up. He looks like her.

And then there’s his dad. His dad is… weird. I know that it’s rude to say that about someone else’s dad but he is. And in fairness, JD seems to think his dad’s weird too. I thought he was overreacting but his dad is seriously weird. First things first, he calls JD ‘Dad’. He also drinks, and even offered me one. It had to be a joke, right? There’s no way an adult would offer a kid a beer. And he makes JD cook for him. Okay, maybe he doesn’t make him. Maybe JD just does it to be a good kid.

I think JD was scared of me meeting him. Not going to lie, I wasn’t exactly flattered when he started dragging me down the hallway.

Her pen pauses hovering over the paper as she relives the experience, the haste with which he pulled her down the hall, the redness in his cheeks as they said their goodbyes at the door, the way he avoided meeting her eyes. Did he avoid meeting her eyes or was that just her imagination? She had assumed by the look on his face that he was embarrassed by his father, but what if he wasn’t the one JD had been embarrassed by.

What if he didn’t want his dad to meet me? She writes slowly, the possibility creeping into and taking over her mind. What if he’s embarrassed by me? Or was he worried I was going to judge him after it? Or if I wouldn’t want to hang out with him?

She tells herself not to be so stupid. That JD wouldn’t keep hanging out with her and wouldn’t have taken her to his house if he was embarrassed by her. But then why would he want her to leave whenever his dad came in? Did he notice that she had left her jacket there? What did he do with it?

She slams her diary shut and throws it onto the bed like it’s a basketball, pushing her hair out of her face.

“You’re being dumb,” she tells herself under her breath. She tries to distract herself, picking up her bag and looking through it. She takes out her math books and begins to go through fractions. She definitely gets a few of them wrong but it’s a good way to numb her brain.

“Veronica?” Her bedroom door opens and her mom comes in, balancing a plate of crackers in one hand and holding a glass of juice in the other. Veronica looks down and sees her nudging the door open with her foot. “I brought you a snack.”

“Thanks, Mom,” she says as she sets it on her bedside table. Veronica moves over her alarm clock to make room, but otherwise the table is bare. No matter how many times she’s begged for a phone in her room. She’s even picked out the one she wants, the one that would look best in her room. Her parents keep asking what exactly she’d do with a phone in her room and shake their heads with small laughs when she says ‘talk to people’. They always reply ‘Martha doesn’t live that far away’. What they don’t seem to know is that she doesn’t always feel like running down to Martha’s house. Especially if she wants to talk about something she wouldn’t want her parents to overhear. Something that includes the letters J and D.

“So how was your friends’ house?” her mom asks, sitting on the edge of her bed.

“Fine,” she says, taking a bite out of a cracker. Just the ones Veronica likes. “He’s new here.”

“Well it’s nice that you’re making him feel welcome,” she says. “Are you ever going to have him over too, like you do with Martha.”

“I don’t know,” she says, shrugging and hoping her mom doesn’t notice her blushing. Do girls usually invite their crushes over to have dinner with their parents? She’d ask Martha but Ram has barely looked at her since kindergarten. She looks over at the plate on her table. It’s not that much, probably took her mom two minutes to spread cheese on a few crackers and put them on the plate. “You know, I can get my own snacks.”

“I don’t mind, sweetheart,” her mom replies, placing her hand on her knee.

“You know, JD makes his own dinner,” she tells her. Her mom frowns and moves closer to her.

“He does?”

“Yeah. His dad works late so he makes it himself. He made dinner for us tonight,” she goes on. Her mom looks away from her, her eyebrows furrowed. “Mom?” Something in Veronica’s gut sits uneasily with her. It takes a while to realise where she recognises this feeling from; JD’s house when she brought up his mom. The ‘why did you say that’ feeling when you know keeping your mouth shut may have been better.

“Well, JD can do that if he has to,” her mom says, taking her hand. The action takes her by surprise. “But you have parents who can make snacks for you. And make dinner for you.” She runs her thumb along the back of her hand, her head nodding gently, her lips moving very slightly. “Don’t stay up too late, sweetie.” She kisses her on the forehead before leaving.

Once her mom closes the door, Veronica throws her books off the bed and picks her diary back up. She leaves another page blank after her entry five minutes ago, just in case she needs to write anything else about JD and his dad and starts on the next page.

Dear diary,

Sometimes I wonder if my mom knows how old I am. It’s not that I don’t mind her bringing me snacks, I just think I should be able to get my own snacks. Hell, if JD can cook for himself, so can I, right?

I kind of hope she stops calling me sweetie too. It’s not that I don’t like it, but I’m nearly 13. Isn’t that the age your parents stop calling you sweetie? Heather Duke is 13 in October and I’m pretty sure her parents don’t call her sweetie.

Okay so that’s a bad comparison. No one would call Heather Duke sweetie.

Out of nowhere, she remembers what JD said to her in his house. To hang onto her childhood. She wonders what he meant by that. Being a kid sucks, no one listens to her, she can’t go where she wants, she has to be home by eight, and she has homework every night. And can’t have a phone in her room. Why should she hang on to that?

And her mind is back on JD.

She tells herself that she really needs to either get over this crush or they need to start dating just so she can get him off her mind.

She’s almost scandalised by her own mind. She doesn’t even write it in her diary. She hasn’t even had a boyfriend before, or even considered one until now. The thought of it shouldn’t make her blush this hard but it does. She takes a bite out of another cracker and just feels glad her mom isn’t still around to watch her blush.

                                                                                                *****

JD adjusts his bag on his shoulder as he walks past the school gates, Veronica’s jacket making it heavier than usual. Almost no one is in yet aside from janitors and a few teachers, who barely glance at him as he passes by. His hair is matted down slightly from the light rain shower that morning, which seems to have cleared up now. He probably should have waited before leaving the house but his dad hadn’t gone into work yet and JD didn’t feel like nursing a hangover right then. He did do the nice thing and leave a prairie oyster sitting on the counter, though. God knows what it would taste like when his old man gets out of bed but hey, not his problem.

His homeroom is empty when he comes in, which suits him just fine. He drapes his jacket over the back of the chair and works on some homework he didn’t get done over the weekend. As he looks through his bag for his science book, his fingers brush past his geography notes and he tenses. Veronica still has the other half of the project.

She’s never going to want to talk to him again. Not after he threw her out of his house like that. His father had come home earlier than expected and well, he panicked. He never really got as far as friends meeting his dad, not since before his mom died. He was ready to commit himself to not having anyone and playing the lone wolf until college, and then she showed up and dashed his plans. She had talked to him and laughed with him and asked him about himself. She made him feeling wanted for the first time in two years.

And now that’s gone. So he guesses that’s what he gets for having expectations.

What’s she going to think of him now? The boy with the crazy dad? She’s smart and he knows she has good parents. She’ll have told them everything by now and they’ll probably tell her to stay as far away from him as she can, and even if they didn’t, she’s probably way too put off by his piece of crap dad to go near him again.

He slams his hand on the desk, needing a release. He rubs his forehead, trying to get his thoughts under control. He needs to go numb, he needs a slushie, but he’s stuck here instead. He can’t read right now, he’s got himself too worked up and angry to focus, his mind running rampant.

Ms Murphy walks in, blinking at him in surprise. It doesn’t take a genius to work out that he’s not exactly her favourite student. He doesn’t tend to be a teacher’s pet.

“You’re in early, Jason,” she points out, sitting at her desk. He only nods, which she probably doesn’t see from the front of the classroom. He puts on a façade of reading, but the words are meaningless now. “Jason… how are you finding Westerberg?”

“Fine,” he says flatly. It’s not the worst school he’s ever been in, that honour goes to LA and that piece of shit English teacher who could still hit kids. Or maybe he couldn’t, no one bothered to check.

“Making friends?” she continues.

“A few.” Ms Murphy rolls her lips into a thin line and nods. He briefly wonders what the teachers say about him in the teacher’s lounge. Probably something like ‘Jason Dean, the reason I deserve a pay raise’.

“And…” Good God if this lady asks him one more question about school he’s going to start screaming. “How are things at home?”

His head snaps up, his mouth opening and closing.

“Fine,” he says. That’s what he should say, right? That’s what he says when adults ask anything because it keeps them out of his business. And that’s the answer they want. Mutually beneficial. They get a false sense of security, he gets to keep living his life.

Except it’s not what he gets, because Ms Murphy comes down to his desk, wringing her hands awkwardly. She pauses, not sure what to do with herself, before she folds herself into the seat in front of him. He pulls his book closer to him, pressing his back into the back of his seat like he can disappear into it.

“Jason,” she begins delicately. “You know, if there is anything going on at home that’s worrying you, there are plenty of people available in school. I am here…” A snort escapes him before he can stop himself. He should be mortified and probably should also apologise, but the idea of having a heart to heart with Ms Murphy is too funny for him not to react. She raises an eyebrow at him, but composes herself, clasping her hands together and he wonders briefly how much she’d like to beat him. “Or we do have a school counsellor if you need to talk to someone.”

“Good to know,” he mumbles in response, looking away from her. She doesn’t leave, either not taking the hint or not knowing what to do, so he decides to help her along by lifting up his book and making a show of reading it.

“Montgomery? Anne of Green Gables?” she reads. “That’s a lovely book, Jason.”

“I’ve read it before,” he tells her, not lifting his eyes from the page. “It’s better the second time around.”

“You have a nice taste in books,” she remarks. “Anything else you like reading?” He hesitates before answering, but frankly, no one has ever asked him about what he likes reading before and he’s kept all his thoughts locked up and they’re begging to be let out.

“A lot,” he confesses. “Old Victorian stuff. Classic myths. I like all those old monster books. And plays. I started reading MacBeth last week.”

“Macbeth?” she echoes. “You have an advanced taste in books, Jason.”

He smirks. Of course he does. He lives a pretty adult life, why shouldn’t he read more grown up books?

Students begin filtering in after a few minutes. Betty Finn nods in his general direction before sitting at her desk with her gaggle of friends. The Heathers almost float in. They sit at their desks like they’re in their own bedrooms, not once breaking their conversation. Kurt and Ram bounce in, punching one another and laughing too loud for anyone’s liking.

Veronica comes in at around 7:45 and he sits up immediately. She snakes her way past people, mumbling apologies when someone has to move a chair for her. She meets his eyes just before she reaches his desk and manages an awkward smile.

“Hi,” she greets.

“Hey,” he replies, hurrying to stand up from his chair. She adjusts the rainbow coloured scarf around her neck with a chuckle. “Um, how was your weekend?”

“Fine,” she says, tucking her hair behind her ear. “I mean I didn’t do much, I just… you know.”

“Yeah.”

“Uh, I left my jacket at your place on Friday,” she says.

“Yeah, I have it here.” He gets down on his knee and pulls it out of the bag, taking longer than he would have liked with it getting stuck behind books. He feels her shift nervously behind her and the eyes of the class on them and he yanks it out and hands it to her.

“Thanks,” she says, folding it over her arm. “I uh, yeah… I really like this jacket.”

“Cool,” he says, pressing his hands into the pockets of his jeans, looking at the floor. He waits for her to walk away from him and over to her normal friends who have normal parents, but instead she stays with him, toying with the fabric of her jacket.

“So uh… I know it’s short notice but if you’re not doing anything after school, do you want to work on the project? We can go to the library.”

“Really?” he asks, smiling. She smiles back and he feels his hands get sweaty. He wipes them quickly on his jeans. He mentally tells himself to calm down, that no one gets this excited about working on a project after school. “I mean, yeah I’m not busy. That sounds… that would be cool.”

“Cool,” she says, biting her lip. She pauses before going to sit down, but she still smiles at him before she starts talking to Martha.

He exhales as he sits down. He shouldn’t be so happy at something so banal, but he is, because it means Veronica hasn’t gone running for the hills after meeting his dad. Maybe it means this school will be different, and he can have real friends who don’t care that his dad is a weirdo and that his house is straight out of a horror flick and that he cooks his own dinner. Or maybe that last part even impresses her. He can’t even remind himself that all of this is only temporary, because if it is, it’ll at least create some sweet memories down the road.

                                                                                                *****

The next week, JD walks home from school later than usual, having stayed behind again to work on the project. As ridiculous as it sounds, he’s secretly glad this project is happening, because it’s the only time he gets to spend alone with Veronica. He has lunch, but she sits with Martha and Betty at lunch and he’s not sure about them yet. Martha seems okay, hell, she’s the one who wanted to start talking to him that first day, but the vibe he gets from Betty isn’t exactly welcoming. Like she’d tolerate him there but frankly, she’d rather he sit somewhere else. He doesn’t think she necessarily dislikes him, just that she’s not sure there’s more room for him in their little posse, and he can admit he can be more than a little off-putting.

When he’s not sitting at the end of their or another table, he normally eats his lunch under the bleachers, if he remembered to make one. If not, he just sits and reads his book because there’s no way he’ll eat the cafeteria food. There has to be eat least six different types of food poisoning in those.

He trots up the porch steps and enters the house with a liquorice from the small candy store en route to his house dangling from his mouth. Sometimes he likes to pretend it’s a cigarette, just for a little giggle. He copies the expert way his dad can blow smoke rings and talk with one in his mouth.

“I’m home!” he calls out. He had thought his dad would be asleep now, but the light’s on in the kitchen. “I’m going upstairs.”

“Jason?” an unfamiliar voice asks from the kitchen just as he starts claiming the stairs. “Is that him?” His skin prickles at it. It’s a woman, much older than him. Why the heck would his dad have a woman round? It doesn’t take him long to come to the most obvious conclusion and he starts shaking with rage. How dare he. His mom isn’t even gone three years and he’s just moving on.

He wonders what he should do. Run in there and confront him, screaming and crying? Tell his new woman about what happened to his mom and how it was all his ass of a father’s fault? He considers the option ‘run upstairs and shut himself in his room’, but then he comes across a better one that doesn’t involve him being in the house at all.

He sprints up to his room, hearing the kitchen door creaking open behind him, and dumps his backpack on the bed. He pulls out a five dollar bill from his sock drawer, earned after he had volunteered to mow some old man’s lawn on at Sunday morning. That’s probably the best part about the candy store he passes on his way back from school; old people love advertising jobs in the windows and don’t care about hiring kids.

He pauses at the top of the stairs and hears adults still talking inside the kitchen. He takes care going down the stairs, not yet knowing where the creaky ones are, keeping his eyes focussed on the door. All he needs to do is get out of there and then he can run as fast as he can to the 7/11. His head is buzzing now, too many things overlapping at once, past memories with present grief and anger. God he needs that slushie right now.

“Jason?” the woman asks. He stops dead in his tracks, near the bottom. He counts the stairs between himself and the door. Five. All he had to make was five steps. “Jason?” She comes closer to him. He sees out of the corner of his eye that she has dark hair and is wearing a pantsuit, but he doesn’t look any more than that. “Jason, my name’s Katherine. We’re not here to hurt you. Is it okay if we ask you a few questions?”

We?

He turns more, looking past her and into the kitchen. His dad is sitting at the table with another man in a suit. He doesn’t know a lot about adult dating, but he knows that it normally doesn’t involve taking someone with you to your new boyfriend’s house. He looks back at the woman, Katherine. She’s smiling at him, wearing pink lipstick, maintaining a distance from him. There’s warmth in her eyes and it makes him take a step back.

“Why?” he asks after a while.

“There’s just some things we want to know,” she explains. “About your dad.”

“Are you cops?” he asks flatly. He won’t lie; the idea of his dad being jailed makes him pretty happy. But he doesn’t know if he can trust cops. He had some experience with them after his mom died and they weren’t pleasant people.

“No, we’re not cops, Jason,” she answers. “But we would like to talk to you. We can talk in your room if that’s more comfortable for you?”

He looks over to the door and back to the kitchen. He won’t be able to make it to the door, he knows that. And he’s pretty sure he it’s not legal to run away from a cop. Or whatever she is.

“Okay,” he says. “We can talk in my room.”

                                                                                                *****

In homeroom, Veronica and JD look over their presentation notes one last time. She’s organised what they’ll talk about into flashcards and they have carefully drawn out diagrams and visual clues. They’ve stayed behind in the library every day working on it and this is finally the day they do this presentation. Still, even with all the work they’ve put into it, Veronica feels her hands getting sweaty just thinking about it. As nervous as she is, JD must be more so. His hair is messy and he makes his worse by running his hand through it every five minutes, and his nails are nearly chewed down to the skin. She didn’t see him as the type to get nervous. But right now, he’s covering his mouth with his hand, barely responding to her questions.

“JD?” she asks. “JD!”

“Woah, yeah, yeah,” he says, snapping out of whatever he was thinking about. “Sorry, I um…”

“Nervous?” she asks.

“Yeah,” he answers.

“Me too.” He looks up at her, seeming to forget about himself for a second. He hesitates for a moment and takes her hand. She jumps at the contact, but she’s glad when he doesn’t let go.

“Don’t be,” he tells her. “I’ll be up there with you, remember?” She nods, feeling her nerves start to slip away at his touch. She swings their arms playfully.

“I’ll be with you, too,” she reminds him. “I guess we just… keep looking at each other.” He nods with a smile, squeezing her hand gently.

“Hey, you two, get a room!” Heather Chandler calls from her seat. Duke makes kissing faces behind her and MacNamara draws hearts in the air.

“Hey, Jason’s getting some!” Ram calls.

“Hey, tell us what her bra size is!” Kurt adds, cackling. Veronica flinches and drops JD’s hand to pull her jacket tighter around her. The comfort on JD’s face melts away, replaced by something she can only describe as rage. He begins storming towards them and she doesn’t stop him. Ram and Kurt keep up the confident appearance, but once he comes over to them, they seem to remember what went down with them in the cafeteria on his first day. “Hey, look, we were just kidding.”

“I’d like to hope so,” he says. “Now, apologise to Veronica.”

“We’re-we’re sorry,” Ram mumbles.

“Veronica’s over there,” he tells them. He points over to where she is and she feels her cheeks flush red. Part of her loves this, him standing up for her, but she also wishes he’d stop so that everyone else would stop looking at her.

“JD,” she calls. “It’s okay.” JD turns to look at her, silently asking if she’s sure about this. “It’s fine.” He clenches his fists and turns back to them.

“Don’t talk about her like that again,” he whispers menacingly. Despite her embarrassment, she feels a rush of excitement as he comes back over to her. People start speaking in their little groups again and Kurt and Ram look at each other with wide eyes. She can’t hear exactly what they’re saying, but she does hear the high pitched voices. She knows she shouldn’t feel this way, and part of her does feel bad about it, but she can’t lie to herself; she really likes the idea of not having to deal with Kurt and Ram until they mature more.

“Thanks for protecting me,” she tells him. Her hand finds his again and no one reacts. She feels like he’s carrying her away from all of that nonsense of middle school; away from stupid jocks and shallow mean girls.

“Any time,” he replies, running his thumb along the back of her hand. She looks down at the table, with their notes till open on it. Unfortunately, the one thing he apparently can’t protect her from is actual schoolwork. There’s something about his face, the faraway look in his eyes, the turned down corners of his mouth, all of it tears at Veronica’s young heart.

“Are you okay?” she asks, swinging their joined hands gently back and forth. The movement makes him smile, at least.

“Yeah,” he lies. She steps closer to him, shaking her head softly. He bows his head and bits his lip. “It’s nothing.” He looks around nervously at the rest of the class and pulled her even closer, his voice dropping to a low whisper. “Some people came round to my house yesterday. They were asking me stuff about my dad.”

“About your dad?” she asks. He nods and she frowns, her mouth opening and closing. “Wow… do you know why?”

“No,” he admits. “They’re not cops, but I’m not sure what they’re doing.” His brown eyes are wide and he holds her hand tighter as his shoulders hunch. She wants to tell him everything will be okay, or give him an answer, but she can’t even think of one. She nods and rubs her thumb along the back of his hand. She remembers the brief interaction she had with his dad and how uncomfortable it was. No offence to him, but he really didn’t seem like a nice guy. But a criminal?

“It’ll be okay,” she says after a while, her tone soft. She knows he isn’t convinced but he smiles at her. He doesn’t let go of her hand until Mrs Murphy tells them to go to their seats.

                                                                                                *****

That Friday, Veronica lounges on the sofa, flicking through TV channels, looking for a good movie, her shoes kicked off.

“Ronnie, help me set the table for dinner?” her mom asks from the kitchen, and she does so. When there’s a knock at the door, she stops, but she hears it open and assumes her dad got it.

“Veronica?” he calls from the hallway. “It’s your friend from school…. JD.”

“JD?” she mutters to herself. Her mom excuses her from the table and she goes to the door. JD stands in the frame, his hands in his pockets, glancing nervously at her dad. He looks so much smaller than normal, the doorframe seeming to dwarf him. It’s not that she’s not happy to see him, quite the opposite, the butterflies in her stomach start going crazy, but it’s unusual to say the least. She wasn’t even sure he knew where she lived.

“Hi,” she greets.

“Hey,” he replies, chewing his lip nervously. “Look I hope I’m not interrupting anything but… Do you want to go for a walk?”

“Um, can I, Dad?” she asks. Her dad sighs, but he’s smiling.

“We’ll keep your dinner for you. Take your jacket with you and don’t stay out past 7.”

“Thanks!” She turns back to JD, who is still hunched over, looking uncomfortable. “Come on in, I just need to grab my jacket.”

“And shoes,” he tells her, looking down at her sock-clad feet. She follows his gaze and giggles.

“Yeah shoes would be good too.”

JD follows her into the house, scurrying uncharacteristically behind her like a shadow, especially when they go into the kitchen and her parents are there.

“This is JD,” she introduces when her mom looks at him. “He’s a friend from school. We’re just going out.”

“Sure,” her mom says, nodding, her smile a bit too wide. “How are you, JD?”

“Fine,” he replies in a tight voice.

“You know, you’re welcome to stay for dinner if you want,” her mom says. “As usual I’ve made far too much so there’s plenty to go around.” Veronica looks over at JD as she’s lacing up her boots. The idea of him sitting at her table with her makes her cheeks go pink.

“Thanks for the offer but um, I already ate before I left,” he says. “But thanks, Mrs Sawyer.” Her mom nods, but she keeps her eyes on him while he waits for Veronica. She whispers something to her dad, something Veronica and she assumes JD can’t hear, but it makes his shoulders tense.

“Okay, I’m ready,” Veronica says, pulling on her denim jacket. “Let’s go. See you guys later.”

“Home before 7!” her dad reminds her. “And don’t go too far!” She shakes her head and looks apologetically at JD.

“God they’re so over protective,” she sighs as she opens the front door. “Like I need reminded to be home by 7.” She kicks the ground with the toe of her boot. “I’m not a kid.”

“I think it’s nice,” he says, shrugging. He drags his feet slightly as he walks, his hand slipping out f his pocket and brushing against hers. She takes a deep breath and decides to hold his hand. He smiles despite the sadness in his eyes.

“Where are we going?” she asks.

“I don’t know…” he says quietly. “The park?”

“Sure.”

The walk to the park is filled with soft, easy conversation, mostly about nonsense and things that don’t really matter, but it fills the time and distracts Veronica from how tight JD’s shoulders are, how his eyes never quiet meet hers.

The park is pretty empty when they get there, save a mom and toddler on the baby swing and a few 8 year olds on the climbing frame. They wander over to the roundabout and she jumps on while he stands beside it, moving it gently from side to side, taking slow, deep breaths.

“Veronica, I…” he begins. “I need to tell you something.”

“What is it?” she asks. She grabs the cold metal bar to stop her hands from shaking. “Is it about the thing with your dad?”

“Sort of,” he admits. His voice sounds thick, like he’s trying so hard not to cry. “Veronica… I’m leaving.”

She feels like someone punched her in the stomach and knocked all the wind out of her. She hadn’t even had time to imagine the worst scenario, yet this felt like it was it.

“Your dad?” she asks softly. “He’s moving you away again.”

“Not my dad this time,” he sniffles. He wipes his hand quickly across his face and she’s not sure if he was crying or not. “I don’t know a lot… Those people who were in my house said I can’t live with my dad any more. That my dad has to go to court and I’m supposed to go stay with some lady I’ve never met!” His voice gets faster, higher, more frantic. His hand comes over hers on the bar and he squeezes so tightly it hurts, but she doesn’t care. “I’ve packed all my stuff and I’m meant to be gone tomorrow morning. I ran out while they weren’t watching.” He looks up at her, his eyes glistening with unshed tears. “I just really wanted to see you before I left.”

She doesn’t know what to say. She wants to tell him that he can’t leave, not in the middle of the semester, but clearly he can. She wants to beg him to stay or ask him to run away with her. Maybe she could hide him in her room, but they’d find him eventually. Or her mom would come up to get her laundry and find him hiding in her closet.

“Being a kid sucks,” she sighs. “Adults just take you wherever they want. You don’t get a say in it.”

“I know,” he says bitterly. He climbs up onto the roundabout with her, their legs brushing against each other, and puts a hand on her cheek, his thumb tracing her cheekbone. “I guess, before I left, I just wanted to say thanks. For being my friend.”

“Of course,” she replies. Not being able to find the words, she pulls him into a tight hug, tears wetting the back of his jacket. “Thanks for being mine.” His arms tighten around her and she feels him shaking. She rubs her cheek on his shoulder.

“Imagine if we ran away,” he whispers.

“Where would we go?” she asks playfully. He shrugs against her, beginning to rock her back and forth.

“Seattle?” he suggests softly. “I hear it’s really cool.”

“We could break into an apartment,” she says back. “Make it our own.”

“I could cook,” he adds. Veronica isn’t sure how she’d feel about living off pasta for the rest of her life, but she plays along for now.

They pull apart from the hug, their faces both sticky with tears.

“I’m really going to miss you,” he tells her. She nods, clutching his right hand with both of hers and his left grabs her waist. “You’re the first friend I’ve had in… forever.” His hand lets go of her waist and cups her cheek.

She isn’t sure who moves in first, but suddenly his lips are on hers. Martha still talks about her first kiss with Ram on the kickball field and Veronica wonders briefly if she’ll still remember her first kiss in six, seven years. Her first kiss being JD.

She’s thought about what it would feel like, watched it on TV, seen her mom and dad give each other quick kisses. JD’s soft and gentle with her and it feels good but also sadder than she thought her first kiss would be. Her heart is racing, her toes curling as the butterflies start settling, leaving only warmth inside her.

He pulls away almost as soon as he started. Somehow, her hands ended up on his shoulders. His face is red.

“Um, I,” he stammers. “I’ve sort of wanted to do that for a while.”

“Me too,” she confesses. They smile and she briefly forgets about everything else, why they were in the park in the first place.

“Jason?” a woman calls, the anger in her voice poorly disguised under the concern. Veronica looks over his shoulder and sees a dark-haired woman in a suit entering the park and running towards them. “Jason, oh God. Please, please don’t run off like that.”

“I just wanted to say goodbye to my friend!”  he spits. She looks at Veronica as if she’s just seeing her for the first time and her face softens.

“Jason, if you wanted to do that, you could have asked. We would have let you see her before we leave.”

Veronica wants to ask the woman exactly why she’s taking JD and when he’s allowed to come back and why exactly they can’t stay here, but the words die on her tongue when she sees her steely eyes. Instead she holds him tighter like she can keep him here just by willing it so. JD doesn’t meet the woman’s eyes, but Veronica can tell by the scowl that he doesn’t believe her.

“I guess I should be going now,” he says bitterly. He jumps down from the roundabout and gives her a hand down too. The woman sighs, her face going soft at the sight of them.

“Why don’t we give your little friend here a ride home?” she asks. “We’ve been all over looking for you, we can manage one more trip.”

The woman’s silver car pulls up outside of Veronica’s house way too soon. The car is far cleaner than Veronica expected it to be; her own parent’s car is littered with magazines and empty soda cans and shopping bags.

She looks back at JD. Their hands are still joined and sit in his lap.

“I guess this is goodbye,” he says.

“No,” she replies. “Not forever, right?”

“Right,” he says with a weak smile. “Just… See you later?”

“Yeah. See you later.” She pulls him into another tight hug. She hopes she still remembers how he hugs her in six years. “We should have run to Seattle,” she whispers, so the woman in the front can’t hear it. He laughs against her.

“We really should have,” he agrees. In the rear mirror, the woman looks at them and she knows what it means.

“See you later, JD,” she says again, her voice breaking. Her eyes burn with tears.

“Until we meet again,” he agrees, smirking slightly. “Veronica Veronica Sawyer.” She laughs before climbing out of the car, her hand and arm shaking as holds the door. If she doesn’t close the door he doesn’t leave. “I’ll write to you. As soon as I can, I’ll write.”

“Promise?”

“Promise.”

“We should get going,” the woman says gently. “You can see your friend again soon, Jason.” JD looks from the woman to Veronica one last time, looking at her so intensely it’s like he’s trying to remember her. She closes the car door slowly and steps back. She keeps looking at him through the window as the car starts up and begins to pull away from the sidewalk.

“Goodbye, JD,” she whispers as the car disappears down the road.

When she goes into homeroom on Monday, his desk is empty.

                                                                                               *****

A month later, a letter arrives for Veronica on a Saturday morning, her name typed onto the envelope. They’ve even called her ‘Miss Veronica Sawyer’. Her dad jokes it’s her Harvard acceptance letter and she laughs along with him, until she opens it.

Inside, the letter is written in blue pen in handwriting she knows from a school project. Knowing she can’t read this in front of her parents, she excuses herself from the breakfast table and heads upstairs.

‘Dear Veronica,

I’m sorry it took so long to write, but this is the first time I’ve had a minute. You wouldn’t believe the month I’ve had.

First part, I had to go to court. Well, I didn’t, my dad did. But I had to go to the courthouse and talk about him. I got asked a lot of questions about him. And my mom. I hated it. But I told them everything and I guess I said the right thing. Or the wrong things. Basically, it ended up with my dad going to jail. I wasn’t there when they decided it, but that woman-you know the one you met?-she came and told me. Her name’s Anna. Basically, she said my dad can’t look after me. So I got put into another home. The kind with a capital H. It’s this old couple, and I don’t have to call them Mom and Dad, just Kerri and George, which is fine, and six other kids.

It’s Hell, Ronnie. The kids are all torture. Two of them are these little six year olds who keep screaming all the time and asking me if I want to play house with them, then there’s two who are like nine or ten and they keep trying to hang out with me and one who’s my age but she’s pretty boring. I mean, she’s okay in that she’s not a jerk but we don’t talk a lot. The one who’s sixteen and doesn’t want us to even look at her.

I’ve asked Anna how she knew about my dad. She said someone from school called them and said they worried about me. Though I don’t know how they knew about my dad, but that’s another mystery. Maybe you can work that one out for me.

I wish you were here. My new school’s weird. It has Heathers, but they’re called Alice, Jade and Rebecca. Alice even wears red all the time. Like Heather Chandler up and moved all the way across the state to torture me. And there are these two boys who are so obnoxious they make me miss Kurt and Ram.

I miss you more than anyone. I eat lunch in the library most of the time. I’d rather be at Westerberg eating with you. There’s no one like you at this whole school, Veronica. No one as funny as you or as nice as you. I think if you were here, I wouldn’t be losing my mind over here.

I keep asking when I get to go back to Sherwood and they keep telling me they’re not sure yet. Apparently I need to stay with Kerri and George a bit longer. I ask Anna every time I see her and she tells me the same thing too. That I should try to make friends at my new school. No thanks.

Don’t worry, I’ll think of something and get out of here. Then you and me can run up to Seattle and pretend none of this ever happened.

JD.

She writes back to him that night, filling him in on every detail she can think of about what he’s missed the past month, from the tiniest, most insignificant details like the new milk cartons in the cafeteria, to the latest classroom drama involving a clash between Heather Duke and Heather Chandler that nearly splintered their little friendship group, to her own life, her grade on her math test and a book she started reading and her and Martha’s sleepover at her place last weekend. She tells him how much she misses him, how homeroom and lunch aren’t the same without him. She tells him that she misses him smiling at her across the room and his jokes and him holding her hand, but she scribbles it out quickly. She crumples the whole page up and writes it out again, hating how awkward and formal she sounds on paper. She ends the letter saying she hopes that he’s happy.

She posts it the next day, and waits every day for a reply, sorting through the mail before her dad can get anywhere near it. Every day she wakes up thinking that this is the day she gets a letter back from him, some days the feeling is stronger than others, and every day there’s nothing for her. It takes her two months before she stops getting up early to check the mail.