When Jughead sits down and starts writing, he doesn’t start with what happened on the fourth of July. He starts before that, before everything got bad and then, impossibly, worse.
He deletes that part, though.
In the fifth grade, Jughead saves his allowance for all of October, November, and December—five bucks a week for mowing the lawn and then shovelling the driveway of snow and emptying the dishwasher on Tuesdays, Thursday, and Sundays—to buy Archie’s Christmas present with his own money.
Except Archie is always changing his mind about what he likes and what’s cool and what games are the most fun — Jughead doesn’t mind. Not really. But it’s hard for him to keep up, sometimes.
He goes with his mom to Target and they walk through the aisles. His mom lets him stand on the end of the shopping cart while she pushes, and it’s nice to pretend he's a little bit smaller than he actually is.
“I think it’s really nice of you to save up your own money to get Archie a gift, honey,” she says, and he hops down from the cart when she slows in front of the baseball cards.
Jughead shrugs. “I guess,” he says, feeling shy.
At fifteen, Archie is gangly and has bad skin and is kind of all over the place. Jughead is all over the place in a different way; less well-rounded, a bit quieter than Archie thinks he is, thin in a way that Archie isn’t anymore; Archie is growing faster than Jughead is, plowing through puberty like it isn’t the absolute worst thing in the world.
Jughead’s knees hurt all the time, and his dad says it’s just growing pains, but Jughead doesn’t feel any taller. He just feels a little bit scared, a little bit alone, really tired, and so, so angry. And he’s hungry. All the time. Mostly, though, he just feels lost.
In May, Archie groans and leans his head back against the side of Jughead’s bed, craning his neck back and up so that Jughead can see his forehead and his eyebrows and the top of his eyes. “I cannot do another month of school, dude.”
“You don’t really have a choice,” Jughead said, still looking at the crown of Archie head. “Plus, last month is always easy.”
“Easy,” Archie says, slow, and then, “Hey Jug?”
“Did you just say that exams are easy?” He turns around at that, half twisting from his spot on the floor, his knees still straight out but his shoulders turned, leaning into Jughead’s sheets. The same ones are on Archie’s bed in his own room.
Jughead throws the pen in his hand at Archie’s face and he swats it away. “If you stopped being a giant baby and did some homework, they maybe wouldn’t be hard.”
Archie turns back around, but not before making a weak attempt at punching Jughead. It’s more of a punch that is aimed vaguely in Jughead’s direction. He opens up his math textbook to the same page they’ve been working on for the last hour, book propped on his knees. Jughead wants to reach out and touch Archie’s ridiculous hair, his shoulder. His hair is getting long, curling around the backs of his ears and at the nape of his neck.
Instead, Jughead says, “Hey, Arch?” and Archie huffs, and leans forward enough to be able to reach Jughead’s forsaken pen, and passes it back over his shoulder without looking. Instead of tracing the line where Archie’s t-shirt collar meets his neck, Jughead touches one of his fingers to one of Archie’s when he takes his pen back, and says, “Thanks,” quiet, softer, and Archie doesn’t react at all.
One day in the eighth grade, Archie says something stupid, and Jughead tells him it’s stupid, and Archie says, “You’re not better than me, you jerk.”
So Jughead says, “You’re the jerk, idiot.”
And then Archie stops walking, and they’re not even on Elm yet, close to home but not that close, and it takes Jughead a few seconds to notice, stop walking, turn around and say, “Let’s go,” before Archie says, “Fuck you,” and drops his backpack down onto the road.
They get into a real fist fight right there, in front of Reggie’s house, and Jughead skins his knees. When Archie hits him in the face, it splits Jughead’s lip and the skin across Archie’s knuckles.
Afterwards, sitting side by side on the curb, Jughead says, “I was just teasing,” nervous about it, for some reason, as if Archie isn’t the one who’s a total freak job and punched Jughead.
“I know,” Archie says, his voice rougher than normal. He sounds like his dad, Jughead thinks, and then shakes his head. “My mom ’n dad are separating.”
Jughead doesn’t say anything, looks at the small piece of rock near his sneaker, decides to kick it away, into the street. “Oh.” Archie stands up.
“Divorcing, I guess.” Jughead stands up, too. “Whatever. Mom’s moving to Chicago.”
“Oh,” Jughead repeats, stupid, he’s the real idiot, a total fuck-up and a lousy friend.
“Yeah,” Archie says, looking at his feet, or past them.
Jughead isn’t sure when he figures it out. Isn’t sure if he ever really did — thinks that maybe it’s just something he’ll be trying to figure out forever.
When you’re attached to someone’s hip, it’s the rest of them that starts to be the problem.
When Jughead unwraps the beanie, he says, “Uh, thanks Arch,” awkward, because it’s just a hat, really, and Archie has always been bad at buying gifts—the worst was when they were eleven, the bed sheets, although now Jughead loves them, thinks about what it means too often—but this seems weirder, somehow.
“So your dad will stop complaining about you not getting your haircut often enough.”
Jughead laughs. “Thanks, man.”
“Plus it’s good luck,” Archie says, crossing his arms in front of his chest, looking proud of himself.
“Yeah,” he says, “I just decided. Nothing bad can happen to you in that hat.”
Over the summer between grade seven and grade eight, Betty gets boobs. Archie’s dad takes them down to the water one Sunday morning and when Betty pulls her t-shirt over her head, there they are. Jughead looks at Archie looking at her, watches as Archie’s cheeks go red. He meets Jughead’s eyes, looks half confused and half scheming. Betty doesn’t even notice.
Jughead pulls his own t-shirt over his head, tosses it down on. Betty says, “Last one in the water is a rotten egg,” and takes off towards the dock.
Archie yelps, and runs after her. They’re both in the water by the time Jughead reaches the end of the dock.
“You snooze, you lose, Jug,” Archie says, and Jughead jumps in, stays under the water for a bit longer than necessary, wishes he could stay under there forever, resents himself for needing to breathe.
Summer rolls around, as it always does, and something in the world shifts. It’s like the universe sets itself onto a different course, where everything is a little bit lighter, sunnier, where Archie lays beside Jughead on the trampoline in the backyard and chatters away.
Archie is working for his dad for the first time ever — his freckles are coming in, Jughead’s favourite thing about summer, and he’s hitting another growth spurt. Jughead is still all limbs, features that don’t quite fit his face.
He’s telling a story about the crew, something one of them did, said, Jughead can’t remember, isn’t really listening. He’s watching Archie watch the cloudless sky, and all he wants is to lean over him, tell him to shut up, do you ever stop talking, Arch? And kiss him and kiss him and maybe punch him in the shoulder and then kiss him again.
He doesn’t — just laughs at the punchline of Archie’s story about someone else’s joke.
“Just ask my brother,” Jughead hears Jelly say when he comes into the kitchen.
“No,” Betty says, hisses, really.
“Yes,” Jelly says, and she shuts the fridge. “I can.” She turns to Jughead, and Betty’s eyes are bugging out of her head behind Jelly’s back, her cheeks pink.
“Hey, Juggie, does Archie like Betty?”
Jughead’s eyebrows draw together. “Um. Of course Archie likes Betty?”
“No, like. Does he like like her?”
Betty looks desperate when she meets Jughead’s eyes, a look on her face that seems sad and complicated and really scared, which Jughead understands. He’s always had a soft spot for her, and maybe this is why. Archie looks right past them; loves them but can’t see the whole of them, forgets, sometimes, that they exist when they aren’t with him.
“I don’t know,” Jughead says, after a too-long pause. “It’s Archie. You know how he is.”
“Yeah,” Betty says, and exhales, and Jughead feels something in his own chest shift and move out, too.
It’s nearing the end of June, two weeks into summer vacation, and Archie is tossing rocks at Jughead’s bedroom window.
Jughead gets up from his bed, pulls the window open. Bugs are going to get in.
“What?” He half whispers, half shouts.
“Come down here,” Archie says. Shrugs his shoulders when Jughead lifts an eyebrow.
Jughead pulls his head back into his room, shuts the window. He heads downstairs, skips the sixth and third steps, toes into his shoes and opens the front door as quietly as he can, shuts it just as softly.
“Thought you were gonna climb down,” Archie whispers.
“I’m not you,” Jughead says, and Archie knocks their shoulders together. After a few minutes of walking down their street in silence, Jughead asks, “How was work?”
Archie shrugs. “Okay.”
Archie shrugs again. “I don’t want to do it for my whole life, but—“ He cuts himself off.
“But your dad,” Jughead says, and Archie nods.
They turn the corner, and then again. They pass the community centre and Archie says, “I have an idea.”
Jughead looks at Archie, who looks past the fencing, and Jughead follows his gaze.
“Nuh-uh,” Jughead says, shaking his head. “That’s a bad idea, man.”
“C’mon,” Archie says, then adds, “Please.”
Jughead cuts his palm climbing over the fence, nothing deep but enough that it hurts. When he lands on the pavement on the other side, Archie is already toeing off his shoes.
“We won’t get caught. We’ll be quiet,” he says, and he sounds sure, so Jughead follows his lead. Jughead thinks he’ll be following Archie’s lead for their entire lives. It feels like the same life, really, because they’re so tangled up that it’s hard to know what’s what. So much of Jughead is built on the foundation work that Archie built, adventures and schemes and trouble, shared milkshakes and sleepovers and matching sheets. Jughead isn’t sure what people are made up of outside of the things that happen to them, and Archie has always, since the second they met, been happening to Jughead.
When Jughead jumps into the pool, he cannon bombs as close to Archie as he can, hopefully splashes water in his face.
When he surfaces, Archie’s face is half submerged, but his eyes are crinkled into crescents, the softest smile he’s got, and Jughead smiles back before shoving his hand through the water to splash Archie.
“Fucker,” Archie laughs and dunks Jughead head under the water with his palm on the Jughead’s forehead.
They scramble at each other, half-pretending to drown each other, laughing until they get tired of it. Maybe they’re too old to be horsing around like little kids for too long. Maybe it’s only fun because they’re breaking the law. Archie catches Jughead’s hand while Jughead tries to catch his breath.
“You cut your hand,” he says.
“On the fence,” Jughead says, but doesn’t pull his hand back. Archie’s head tilts to the side. Slowly, he brings his other hand up, pokes at the cut on Jughead’s palm with his finger.
Jughead flinches, then, and pulls his hand back. “Jesus, don’t—“
“Doesn’t seem too bad. No stitches or anything.” His voice seems soft, and Jughead knows he’s just whispering because they’re trespassing, because the police station is only a half a block away, but something about it makes Jughead close his eyes anyway.
“Feels fatal,” he says, and opens his eyes.
Archie watches him, and Jughead watches him even though he thinks he could die, is scared and embarrassed even though he knows Archie doesn’t know, can’t know, he’s too self-involved and cagey and weird to figure it out.
“It’s cause you’re not wearing your beanie,” Archie says, eventually.
“Right,” Jughead huffs. “My good luck charm.”
When Jughead slips back into his room, Jelly knocks a few minutes later, slips in.
“Where’d you go?” she whispers, and Jughead wants to cry.
“Archie,” he says, as if it explains anything, and maybe it does, maybe it explains everything, because she nods.
“Your hair’s all wet,” she says.
Jughead nods. “I think I—“ he starts, stops, curls his hand into a fist until his fingernails press into the open wound along the inside of his hand. “I’m.”
“It’s okay,” Jelly says, and Jughead loves her, loves her a stupid amount, more than any brother has ever loved any sister in the history of the world.
Archie is late meeting Jughead at Pop’s — it’s not unheard of, Archie is often late for any number of things. Jughead doesn’t take it personally, not usually, but he’s been working himself up, running over a million different things in his head, over and over. All the reasons why Archie isn’t here, the reasons why Archie’s always late, all the ways he takes Jughead for granted, how he’s never going to love Jughead back.
Once Archie’s an hour late, Jughead starts to worry.
Jughead pays for his untouched milkshake; the sun’s gone down, the temperature dropping down from the sweltering heat of the day. Jughead walks home, stops short when he sees a car parked across the street from Archie’s place, the window’s fogged up a bit at the back.
Jughead thinks it’s Miss Grundy’s car, and then he knows it’s Miss Grundy’s car, and then he sees Archie get out of it, and his stomach sinks.
He can feel his mouth fall open, just a little, nothing like a cartoon character, but enough for his breath to fall out of him and not come back right away.
Archie’s hair is messed up for maybe the first time in his entire life, and he’s cheeks are flushed, and Jughead isn’t stupid, but then Archie sees him, and then Jughead feels stupid.
Snooze you lose, indeed.
He wants to tell Betty but doesn’t. Expects Archie to come around, to explain, to say anything, but he doesn’t, doesn’t come around, isn’t home when Jughead eventually goes to knock on his door.
“I’ll tell him you came by,” Mr. Andrews says. “I think he’s out with Betty.”
Jughead can see Betty sitting on her bed, silhouetted through her bedroom window, and Jughead nods. “Thanks, Mr. Andrews. Have a nice night,” he says, and goes home
And then Jason dies and things get, somehow, impossibly, worse.
In spite of himself, once school starts up again, Jughead finds himself putting on the hat.
“If you mean Betty,” he says, and wants to disappear into the earth. “Whatever happened, just talk to her, man. It’d go a long way.” He swallows his pride. “It would have gone a long way with me.”