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Could You Live Without Me?

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Clay had never been so afraid in his life.

I mean, he had understood what fear felt like – losing Hannah, hearing her tapes, her voice. Feeling betrayed by Tony for telling him about them. Then, subsequently, almost getting shot by Tyler at the Spring Fling. For these past two years, it always stayed in his mind. And in a way, he had gotten used to the fear. The sadness, the disappointment. It was one of the reasons he never smiled anymore.

But no, this time it was a different fear, a different type of anxiety, one that froze his cells and filled his soul with sheer terror.

Justin almost died today.

He didn’t know how – or why – but he knew that there was a possibility that he could’ve lost him forever, like he lost her. The love of his life. And he knew that if that happened, if he truly lost Justin this time, he wouldn’t be able to forgive himself. Not again.

That’s just how Clay was. He cared too much. Loved too much.

Justin always had a way of making him feel this way. Powerless, like no matter what he did to save his former-classmate-turned-brother, it wouldn’t be enough. He always found a way around it.

If he detoxed him, he’d find drugs again.

If he told him to stay away from Jessica, he’d go out and buy condoms.

If he told him to stay out of trouble, to keep his head down, to just keep fucking walking, he’d come up with a reason to punch Bryce again.

Because, apparently: “You just don’t get it, Jensen. I want him dead.”

The next morning, he got his wish. Right there on the front page of The Evergreen County Register, in big bold letters, was the breaking news:

FORMER LIBERTY HIGH STUDENT, BRYCE WALKER, PRONOUNCED DEAD AT 18.

Clay remembers that day. It was the first day he had ever seen Justin Foley completely speechless. The first day he had seen him cry for someone other than himself.

It was the first time Clay began to see who Justin, the jock, the invincible player, really was.

The first time he began to love him.

So now he’s sitting here. The infamous plastic blue chairs in the Crestmont General Hospital cutting into his back like a sword. The happy stock photo décor of families and friends together next to the receptionist’s desk choking him like barbed wire around his throat. When did this room get so small? So cold?

He shivers. His mother hands him a blanket.

Why would they even put pictures of happy families in a waiting room like this? Knowing that they come in as happy families, and leave as broken ones?

He tries to ignore the bright blue “He loves me, he loves me not” pamphlets on the table in front of him. He tries to ignore the dying roses right next to it.

Tries to ignore the cries of not one, but two babies seated across from him, their screams bouncing off the cramped white walls, only bested by police sirens. It’s pounding in his head like a bad hangover. Their mothers look tired.

Tries to ignore Jessica’s tears and incoherent mumblings, Alex’s soft words of encouragement in his ear, his parent’s hands rubbing his shoulders and back while they say “it’s okay to cry, Clay. Let it out, honey.”  

Tries to ignore Zach’s bouncing leg that seems to bring him closer to the brink of madness with every jolt.

Tries to ignore Tyler’s presence and self entirely. He cares for Tyler, of course, but he just can’t handle being strong for him right now, not when he can’t even handle being strong for himself.

Tries to ignore Tony and Caleb as they ask the nurses for an update on his condition, this being their sixth time they hear “He’s still in operation. The doctor will have news soon.”

Tries to ignore Ani’s stares and texts from her side of the room.

Occasionally, his leg hairs rub up against the cold aluminum chair and it shocks him. He resents it. The shock lets him know that this isn’t a dream, that just a few feet away, past the doors of the OR, his entire world is crashing down.

It wouldn’t be the first time.

He remembers the day he lost Hannah. The only girl who didn’t judge him, who appreciated his company, who genuinely had nothing but goodness in her heart for such an awkward, dim-witted idiot like him.

He remembers sitting here, in the same plastic chair, second from the right, directly in front of the clock, watching the hands move from second-to-second and minute-to-minute. He didn’t know where else to go.

He thought that Hannah would be here, in one of these rooms, sound asleep while doctors mended her wrists and gave her blood transfusions. He tried not to think of her flatlining.

It was five whole hours later before anyone came to get him, before Tony Padilla walked into the waiting room, followed by Clay's parents, his eyes stained red with fresh tears and hands shaking. His parent’s eyes, inversely, filled with confusion and exasperation.

After that, he told his parents he didn’t know her that well.

They knew it was a lie.

Funny how life comes full circle, doesn’t it?

“Clay? Honey?”

His mother shook him out of his stupor. He looked at her, then checked the clock. It’s been three hours since Justin’s been admitted, and every second feels like lifetime.

“Yeah mom?” He says, turning to face her.

She handed him a pack of Goldfish snacks and a bottle of apple juice.

“You need to eat, honey. You haven’t eaten since this morning.”

He grabbed the snacks and met her gaze. Her eyes, sympathetic and caring, made him want to sit in her lap and cry into her shoulder, just as he did as a child, whenever school was overwhelming him, whenever his young, childish life became too much.

He settled for a tiny smile.

“Thank you.”

She grinned and patted his leg, returning her attention to her phone, typing away at what seemed to be an important email. His father cleared his throat and returned to his book, and Clay could see the nervousness etched on his face. Tony’s phone rang. He left the room, nervously speaking Spanish softly into the receiver, exchanging an urgent look with his boyfriend. Caleb got up quickly and followed suit behind him.

Zach sneezed. Alex blessed him. Jessica kept mumbling.

“This is bullshit. It’s been three fucking hours, how the fuck do they not have a diagnosis? Or at least a fucking answer?!” Jessica managed to say a little too loudly. “Why do bad things always happen to him, of all people?”

“How do we know he didn’t deserve it?”

“Oh, shut up, Zach.” Alex said, a little too angry for his own good.

“No, dude, you shut up. You’re telling me he didn’t deserve this? Just a little bit? Maybe if he stopped doing drugs and started doing shit for himself, none of us would be sitting here right now.”

Alex started to get up, poised to fight.

“Do you think that this is what we need right now? If you think Justin fighting for his fucking life is pathetic to you, the door’s right there.”

Alex pointed to the large mahogany door near the back of the room with his left hand. His right was curled into a fist.

“Yeah, fuck you, Zach,” Jessica began, voice shaking. “Just leave if you don’t give a shit.”

He didn’t move. Because deep down, everyone knew Zach gave a shit about Justin. He was his brother too, just as much as he was Clay’s, and you don’t turn your back on family.

At least, not family like Justin.

“All of you, seriously, shut the fuck up.” Clay said.

His parents simply sighed.

Clay felt out of place, like he wasn’t supposed to be here. And he supposed that he shouldn’t have been. I mean, he was supposed to have moved on from this time in his life, right? After her – after Hannah – this was all supposed to end, right? No more heartbreak, no more sadness, or anger. He was supposed to have healed. And yet sitting in this room, counting the tiles on the ceiling and checking the clock like it had all the answers, made him feel like he was right back where he started. Like he never left.

So, he took a big swig of juice, hoping that the sugary liquid would settle into his stomach and calm the twisting void that had formed since he walked in. Praying that the harsh semi-apple flavoring could calm his thoughts too.

Wondering, hoping, if Justin would ever be able to drink juice again. He loved apple juice, just as he did. It was one of the rare things they had in common, other than Alien Killer Robots comics. Oh, and their secrets, of course.

Would he have to stick to water? Milk? Or that nasty smoothie-like drink hospitals give to new patients, a whole meal in a glass?

Would Justin even make it out to drink something ever again?

Clay’s skin grew a bit hot. Just a little. He was starting to feel warm, his hoodie feeling confining and sticking to his skin. He took it off. The blanket fell to the floor. Beads of sweat were forming on his hairline, his stomach was clenching in the most awful way, his heart and mind were in a deathly rat race, whizzing around and around, trying to reach the finish line first. What that finish line was, he didn’t know. He felt like he couldn’t breathe.

Correction: he couldn’t breathe.

Justin had to make it out. He had to. Who was he, who would he be, if Justin Foley never made it out of that room? At this point, Justin saved Clay just as Clay had saved him. He was his brother. He was his world. What would life be without him?

Ani was the first to notice his newfound panic attack.

“Clay? Clay!”

Tony walked back into the room just as Clay had sunk to the floor.

“What the fuck is going on?!” He asked/demanded. His question went unanswered as Caleb called one of the nurses.

“Clay!”

“Shit, Clay!” Alex yelled.

In a blur, everyone was surrounding him, circling him like vultures, making him feel even more suffocated, like being in a bouncy house as a kid while it slowly deflated. Bits of bright blues and pinks of the nurse’s scrubs surrounded him like a great big tie-dye mess. He felt so much, Zach’s hands, Jessica’s voice, Alex’s gaze, Tyler’s breath, Hannah’s warmth—

Wait. That’s impossible.

He said goodbye to her, he saw her walk out of that church and into heaven, or the beyond, or whatever the fuck the afterlife is. He saw her leave. He let her go. So why is she here?

Why here? Why now?

Hannah’s gaze burned into his eyes.

“Hey, Helmet.”

Clay couldn’t see much after that.

Chapter Text

Justin Foley wouldn’t exactly call himself a good person.

He was capable of good things, sure, but it wasn’t enough to render him as genuinely good. And lord knows, he tried to be.

When Bryce told him that he was his new best friend in third grade, he smiled for a week straight. He told him he wouldn’t ever let him down, that he’d always ‘keep him clean’; even if that meant high-fiving him when he raped girl after girl years later.

When he got his first girlfriend in eighth grade, he promised he would never hurt her, that he would be there for her for whatever she needed, whatever she wanted.

She cheated on him three days later.

So, in true Foley fashion, He spread the nastiest rumors about her. Alienating her, bullying her, until she transferred schools a month after, being forced to take antidepressants from then on.

When he was accepted to the football team freshman year, he cried for hours. He told the coach he wouldn’t do anything to compromise his position on the team. That he loved football, that it was his ticket to a better life.

He almost failed his first drug test two weeks later.

So, when Justin Foley, the Justin Foley with the worst reputation, got the opportunity to have a new family, a new home, with a new brother, (who he already knew, but not the point) and new parents, he tried his absolute hardest not to fuck that up. To be a good son. A good person.

He’d like to think he was doing an okay job, too.

Until he wasn’t.

See, no matter how many opportunities Justin got to be a better person, he felt he would never be able to change, because he didn’t know how. That’s why Bryce was his best friend. Why they got along so well, so great, that he genuinely cried at his funeral. Why he was Justin’s future and forever, until he changed for the worst.

Justin and Bryce, the nuclear duo. They were both shitty kids, from even shitter families, bonded together by shared trauma and their horrid secrets. Two peas in a pod, if you will.

Because Bryce had a voice, and a rather loud one, at that.

Justin did not.

But you don’t care about that. You want to know the truth. You want to know the real reason why they were brothers, why they guarded each other’s secrets with an iron fist.

Do you want to know why they became inseparable?

Bryce had money. Plain and simple.

Bryce Walker had enough money to buy Justin Foley three times over, and in a way, he did. He had enough money to make every single one of Justin’s problems go away, to escape and find freedom, to take care of him for the rest of his career.

Justin was attracted to that idea. He wanted it so bad. To be protected and cared for as long as he lived. He craved it.

But he had enough money to lock him up forever, too. If Justin stepped one foot out of line, he could ruin his life with a simple phone call. Take all his dreams of the future and turn them to ash.

He even had enough influence to get rid of him without a trace, if he so chose to. He did that to Tony Padilla’s family when Tony stepped out of line, so who’s to say he wouldn’t do it to anyone else?

He claimed he ‘didn’t know’ that happened to Tony, but it was bullshit. Nothing happens in the Walker household without him knowing about it. Nothing happens without Bryce’s influence or his input.

So, faced with no other outlet, Justin stuck by him.

And he understood that. Anyone who was friends with Bryce understood his terms and conditions, or they’d be made to understand, whether they approved of it or not.

But even though he knew all of this, even though he knew Bryce’s character, he’d like to think that in their own fucked up, weird way, that they loved each other. That they had more than a mutual agreement. That, some way, somehow, they had a real friendship.

That all changed the day of Jessica’s party.

When Bryce pushed him out of that door – knocking him to the ground – and locked it, when he heard Jessica’s pleas of ‘stop, what are you doing?!’, when he heard the bed frame shake one, two, three times and then stop, he realized that the Bryce he knew, the Bryce he cared for, his best friend, was a monster.

But he still couldn’t leave him.

They were bonded by more than friendship, more than ‘brotherhood’, and he knew that.

Justin Foley was trapped.

So, he lied to Jessica after that, said that it was him in that room instead, and that she was just really fucked up that night.

Always keep him clean, remember?

So, when Bryce died, as sad and alone as he had felt, he also felt relieved, for his money and connections couldn’t suffocate him anymore. He was free to breathe.

Still, he wasn’t a good person just yet.

He tried to make up for his mistake in any way he could, and after a while, he succeeded.

He reunited with Jessica, started football up again, began recovery, got a new job and a new family to boot.

And that’s the second mistake Justin Foley made.

See, at first, being part of Clay Jensen’s family was a godsend, literally.

The day before he was asked to be a part of the Jensen’s life, he had said a prayer for the first time ever.

What was it, you ask?

To have someone protect him. Someone to take care of him, someone new other than the Walker family, who genuinely wanted nothing but the best for him.

And God either must’ve been feeling merciful, or He decided Justin had had enough. Either way, to whoever was up there, he was grateful.

In the beginning, it was everything he could’ve dreamed of. A clean, warm bed with equally clean clothes, happy and supportive parents, and a brother, a caring, unconditionally loving brother.

But now, not so much.

Because he was feeling something more for his adopted brother, and he didn’t fully understand what that something more was, he just knew it was strong and it was persistent. He hated it.

In the past, Clay Jensen had always been somebody that Justin never paid attention to. Never even thought about. Except to torture, in a way.

But now, these past years, that’s changed.

He’s hurt Clay before, but he’s starting to have positive changes in his life because of him.

But Clay doesn’t know the full extent of damage Justin’s done to him.

Hannah, Jessica, He knows about that,

but not about the worst thing Justin’s ever done to Clay.

Do you remember freshman year, when those rumors that Clay was gay first began to spread, and the slurs and bullying started up after?

Justin never told Clay that he was the one who started them. Well, Justin and Bryce.

One more thing he can’t forgive Bryce for. His pressure.

It was the second week of school, ninth grade, when Justin Foley began to think of Clay Jensen.

--------------------

“Justy,” Bryce said, his voice coming out a languid slur. “What are you thinking about?”

They were sitting in Bryce’s pool house, switching Justin’s bong between them.

In the background, a video game start screen was still loading. GTA, Justin believes. He was too fucked up to see.

It was Sunday, and he was dreading school the next day. He wondered if he could convince Bryce to skip again.

‘Nothing and everything, life and death, I guess,’

He wanted to say, but that would be ‘too deep’ for his friend, who was about as deep as an inflatable kiddie pool.

But he wouldn’t want to disappoint his king,

So, he said:

“Getting fucked. Honestly, why are there no bitches here, dude? This is kind of sad.”

Bryce smiled at that.

“My man! And you’re right, maybe we should-”

Before Bryce could offer another equally misogynistic suggestion, his phone pinged. He exhaled, reaching over and picking it up off the brown coffee table, bumping into and spilling his beer over the TV remote. Justin snorted.

“Dude,” He began. “Clean that up, man. Your parents are gonna yell at you.”

“Dude, clean that up,” Bryce repeated mockingly. He adjusted his collared shirt. “We got some Mexican woman to do that shit for us, Jus. Don’t worry about it. Plus, it’s not like my folks come in here. They avoid the places I’m in.”

If Justin had a clearer mind, he would probably feel bad for him. But he didn’t, so he frowned at his racist comment, but ultimately said nothing.

He laughed as he turned the screen on.

“Ah shit, I can’t even fucking read right now.”

Justin began giggling also. There was something about Bryce’s laugh that was infectious.

“Read it for me.”

Justin slid the cool metal slab out of his friend’s hand.

“What makes you think I can fucking read right now either?” He asked.

Bryce shrugged. He sighed. Turning back to the phone in his palm, Justin did his best to read the tiny text on the display, squinting his eyes to regain some clarity. It was from Instagram, he could see that much.

“Your contact, Clay Jensen, has followed you. Follow them back to see their pictures and videos.” Justin read aloud. Bryce groaned.

“That skinny fairy? Why the fuck would I want to follow him back?”

Justin internally cringed at the slur.

“Why is he your contact, the fuck are you and Jensen texting about? You guys dating or something?”

Bryce laughed again.

“Nice try, Justy, but he was my tutor back in middle school. I guess I never deleted his number.”

He took a swig of beer and leaned his head back on the plush gray couch.

Justin fell silent. He had an idea.

“Follow him.”

“What?”

Bryce sat up. Justin faced him.

“Think about it. We’re the new kids. Freshmen. You really wanna prove you’re the new king of Liberty High? Let’s fuck with him a little bit. Let’s let these dickheads know just who they’re fucking with. So, follow him.”

He smiled at that. Like, a full, genuine evil grin. Justin smiled back, then swallowed a cough. And maybe a shiver.

“Justin Motherfuckin’ Foley, you are a genius. A fucking genius!”

Bryce gave him an aggressive side hug and a pat on the shoulder. He grabbed his phone out of Justin’s hands and got to work on his plan.

A part of Justin felt incredibly wrong for this, the voice in his head let him know. Clay had done nothing to either of them prior to this, so why hurt him?

But a part of him desperately wanted Bryce’s attention. His approval. He wanted him to be proud of something he had come up with. So, he kept his mouth shut and waited.

The next day, all hell had broken loose.

It was probably the fourth time Clay had been tripped up since the day started. His books fell out of his grip and onto the ground, once again. His papers flew all around him like confetti.

Scott Reed and Zach Dempsey stepped on a few of his notebooks with their shoes, early morning football practice making them extra muddy and disgusting. They laughed and high-fived each other before joining Bryce, who gave them both a pat on the back.

Justin stood in between two blue lockers behind his group, hidden from Clay’s view. Silently watching what happened next.

Clay curled his hands into fists, making eye contact with Zach, then Scott, before finally landing on Bryce, the ring leader.

“What the fuck, Bryce?!” He shouted, rising to his feet. “Do you have a fucking problem with me?!”

Justin was taken aback. Zach and Scott stared at him with wide eyes, Bryce rolled his own and smirked. The kids in the hallway silenced their conversations, circling around the altercation, curious to see what the freshman would do next.

Justin had never heard Clay yell that loud. In fact, he had never heard Clay yell, period. He was a quiet kid, the sit-alone-at-lunch-and-read-a-book type of quiet.

‘That’s what made you an easy target,’ he wanted to say.

But he could tell he had reached his breaking point, and Justin was slightly terrified. There was a fire in his eyes that he had never seen in anyone, not in Bryce, not even in himself. For the first time ever, Clay Jensen was angry.

“Oh, Jensen,” Bryce said, stepping over his scattered textbooks, standing eye-to-eye with him, his voice low and heavy.

Justin couldn’t look.

“I think you want to have a problem with me. I mean, doesn’t this, right now, excite you? To have a boy this close to you?”

Clay clenched his jaw.

“I think you really want this. I think you want my attention. Why else would you follow me?Why else would you DM me saying ‘hey’? So, yeah, I have a problem with you. I don’t fuck with disgusting boys like you.” He spit out, his words filled with fire. “Sorry to let you down, but I’m not interested.”

“What the fuck made you think I was interested in you?

Justin shivered. He wanted to leave, to run, but couldn’t tear his body away. Something about Clay had him frozen.

Bryce smiled. Evilly, as all his smiles were.

Clay had given him extra ammo without realizing, and Bryce was going to load it in his gun and shoot.

“You’re not interested in me? Because you’ve got your eye on another boy, right? Who is it? Zach? Scott? Charlie? Luke? Justin?”

Clay was starting to breathe heavier, shifting his feet in anticipation.

Bryce moved closer, until their foreheads were practically touching.

“Because I hate to break it to you, but we all play for the same team, the straight team. So maybe you should look somewhere else. I heard Grindr is a good app for people like you. They have plenty of dudes willing to shove their dicks into a cute little fairy, Jensen.”

“Go fuck yourself, Bryce.”

“‘Cause you’d like seeing that, wouldn’t you?”

That was the final straw.

Clay swung his fist, fast and quick, connecting it with Bryce’s nose. A loud crack was heard, and his nose began slowly leaking blood.

Justin gasped.

Bryce was knocked a few steps back and paused for a second, surprised that little Clay Jensen could punch that hard. He wiped his nose with his sleeve and smiled in disbelief, before grabbing him by the neck and pushing him roughly into a set of lockers, nearly trampling a small sophomore girl putting her books away with his weight.

Bryce broke. He took all his anger and frustration out onto him, boring and pummeling into his face and chest, attacking any exposed skin he could, breaking a few of his bones in the process. Clay started wheezing.

After a few minutes, Zach and Luke intervened, grabbing Bryce by the waist and pushing him off Clay. He was beating the bloody pulp out of him, and the administrators were coming, Justin could hear their calls of “Hey! Stop!” from all the way down the hall.

“Dude, we gotta go, like now! Security’s coming!”

But Bryce was on fire.

He was punching so hard, Justin thought he was going to kill him.

After much effort on their part, his goons managed to get Bryce off and run out of the side doors, to the parking lot. Justin following closely behind, although he wanted to stay and see if Clay was still breathing, even though he didn’t know why. But Bryce was more important to Justin, so he ran.

He left Clay there, with a black eye, a busted lip, a cracked rib, and a broken arm, not knowing what he did to invoke Bryce’s abuse.

Clay was suspended for three days after that and placed in an anger management course.

Injustice? Sure.

But he threw the first punch, and according to Liberty, being bullied to the point of lashing out doesn’t matter unless you swing first.

After that day, Justin tried his hardest to get Bryce to ignore Clay.

--------------------

Justin understands that Bryce’s influence on him isn’t an excuse, because it was his choice to follow Bryce in the first place. And for that, he will never forgive himself.

Never forgive himself for what he allowed Bryce to do to Jessica. To Hannah. To Chloe.

And what he, by association, allowed himself to do.

But he was trying, genuinely, to be better.

Clay Jensen saw that in him, which is why he allowed him to be a part of his family, of his life, his feelings and emotions.

Of his heart.

And what has Justin done to thank Clay?

He knows he doesn’t deserve this life, with or without Bryce’s influence in it.

He wants Clay to understand that his time is precious, and it shouldn’t be wasted on someone like him, because all Justin Foley has ever done to Clay Jensen is hurt him.

He doesn’t want to die. Of course, he doesn’t. He just wants to escape for a little bit.

He could never do what Hannah did and hurt Clay more than he’s already hurting. He cares for Clay, more than he’d like to admit, more than he even understands. Clay fucking Jensen saved his life, even though all he’s done is ruin his.

And all that guilt, all those negative thoughts, is what lead him here.

“What the fuck do you want?” A dealer that Justin only knows by the name of “Marco” asks him as he walks up.

Marco, a scruffy, white, lean, thirty-year-old man from Florida, who looks like he goes to nursing homes and scams old women for cash, waits on his usual corner under the dilapidating ‘Joseph’s Fine Dining’ sign.

You know, the one with the faded ‘foreclosed’ sticker on the side window. This diner has no doubt been sitting abandoned since before Justin was born. The golden yellow wood siding frame on the window has since turned black.

He wishes he didn’t have to go to these lengths, but he can’t buy from Seth anymore.

A: too much history and,

B: he’s in prison.

But Justin is desperate, so he found this guy through a friend of a friend. He hasn’t seen him in a long time, not since the whole Hannah thing a couple years back, and he hates him, but he’s the only dealer left in his area that hasn’t been sniffed out by the cops.

And, to reiterate, Justin is desperate.

He’s in the alleyway. Yes, the same alleyway that he ran through trying to escape Tony and Clay from, the one down in Oakland. The trash bags, stained dumpsters, and rotten smell makes him recoil. He has an urge to hightail it the fuck out of there. But it’s too late now.

“I need a favor,” He says, eyes watering, voice low. He knows he shouldn’t be here, but he doesn’t know how else to make the voices stop. He can see Clay’s disappointed face in his mind, along with Clay’s parents.

There’s a sinking feeling in his stomach.

The dealer, Marco, crosses his arms against his chest.

“Look, I know you can’t stand me, but I really need this, and I know you got it.”

He sighed, wiping his eyes. His hands were shaking.

Marco looks bored.

“Well kid, let’s hear it,” Marco says impatiently, as if he has somewhere else to be.

And where would a drug dealer like fucking Marco need to be, anyway?

Jail, for one, but Justin’s not here to put him behind bars.

“I need three grams of H.” He states quietly.

Marco’s eyes widen just a bit, then he begins to laugh. Quietly at first, then louder and harder with every passing second. Justin looks around nervously, hoping no one is around to hear him.

“THREE grams?! At once? Are you trying to fucking kill yourself, man? No, no way,” Marco says, shaking his head.

“Please? I know you fucking got it.”

“Oh, I got it, but I’m not gonna give you that. A: I know you’re not rich enough for three fuckin’ grams, and B: I’m not gonna have another man’s blood on my hands. Find someone else, kid. ‘Cause if I give you that shit and you OD, the cops are gonna trace it back to me, and I just did time. I’m not doing it again. My shit is good, but not that good.”

Justin shifts his weight between his feet. He’s two seconds away from breaking down, his head pounding and his nose running from the pressure.

He can feel his phone vibrate constantly, no doubt concerned messages from Jessica or Zach.

Maybe even Clay.

He wants to punch something. He’s starting to think Marco would be a good target, but decides against it.

“Fine. I’ll just go somewhere else then. Maybe, they’ll even have it for cheaper.”

“Kid, my shit is pricey because it’s good. You want that cheap Mexican shit, go somewhere else.”

Gritting his teeth, Justin turns to walk away. Marco shakes his head, still chuckling in disbelief.

At first, he thinks ‘this is it. Gotta find a plan B.’

But he’s halfway to the exit before he hears:

“Hey, kid!”

Justin turns around.

“You know what? Alright.”

“Alright?”

Marco scratches the back of his head with his right hand. He looks from left to right, then walks towards him, like he’s crossing the street. Justin doesn’t move.

“Fuck it, I’m feeling generous today. If you’ve got the money, I’ll give you a gram and a half. Not three. Got it?”

Justin’s brows furrowed, he was a little suspicious at his sudden switch in opinion. After all, drug dealers are stubborn, when they make up their mind, it’s pretty much set.

“What’s with the change of heart? Business been slow?” He asks humorously.

Marco scowls.

“Don’t fucking push it kid, or I’ll take it back, okay? We got a deal or not?”

Justin nods quickly, reaching into his pocket for his wad of cash.

Thank you, Bryce, He whispers to himself.

Marco reaches into his tattered brown coat, pulling out Justin’s order, and they shake, placing the drugs in Justin’s hand and the money in Marco’s.

“Pleasure doing business with you,” Marco says in a mock business voice. Justin resists the urge to wash his hands.

Justin nods wordlessly, turning to walk away for the second time. He’s opening the gate with his right hand when Marco calls out to him again.

“Hey!”

Justin turns his head around, gate mid-open in his grasp.

“Don’t let me see you around here again, okay? And you don’t know who I am, remember that.”

Justin scoffs.

“I don’t plan on meeting you again. And this isn’t my first rodeo, dude. Trust me, I never saw you.”

And with that, Justin closes the gate.

 

////////////////////////////

 

He’s in the back alley of the Crestmont Theater, high as fuck, when he gets the call.

“Where the actual fuck are you, Justin?! I haven’t seen you since last night!” Jessica’s digitized voice shouts at him.

Justin rolls his eyes, leaning back to take another hit, the theater’s rusty black swivel chair nearly tipping over with his weight.

“Did you forget we had school today?! The cops are still suspicious of us, Justin! I had to make up some excuse on the spot to save your ass. Don’t you dare make me do it again. You better fucking be here tomorrow.”

Jeez. She’s mad.

“You know Jess, you’ve got to lighten up. Like honestly, you take shit far too fucking seriously, like, all the time,” He says, voice tired and eyes drooping.

The chair squeaks and shrinks down a notch.

The receiver goes silent for a moment.

“Justin, are—are you fucking high right now?”

“Like a fucking kite, babe,” Justin says, giggling.

Silence again.

Justin could hear the disappointment in Jessica’s voice, and it made him upset, because he was making her upset.

Justin didn’t want to make her angry anymore because it seems like that’s all that Jessica knows how to do. Be mad at him over stupid shit.

Even though Jessica has all the reason in the world to be mad at Justin.

 “Just-” She pauses. He waits.

“Just get home safe, okay? Please. And be here tomorrow, sober. Got it?”

“Yeah, sure Jess,” He says, laughing again. “I’ll come back to school nice and kind and sober again. I won’t be the fuck-up that I am right now, that I always am, and I sure as hell won’t love someone that I shouldn’t by tomorrow. I’ll be the nice, clean, smart, sober Justin everyone wants me to be.”

“What the fuck, Justin? What the hell are yo—”

She stops, then sighs.

“Actually, I don’t even want to know.”

“Trust me, you don’t want to know. Its top secret,” He whispers to her, all while giggling again like a child.

The theater’s back door opens loudly and he turns to look, seeing a small, skinny boy file out of it, black bag of trash in one hand and a surprised look on his face. He couldn’t have been older than sixteen.

Justin didn’t react, leaning his head back and staring at the sky instead. It’s cloudy.

The kid opened the dumpster lid and threw the trash in as if it was an Olympics Javelin throw, three inches from Justin’s head, nearly giving him a free garbage sandwich. The boy’s eyes widened. He looked horrified, hands over his mouth in anticipation, as if he was waiting for Justin to react badly.

And Justin wanted to react, according to his faded blue Liberty letterman jacket and his athletic background, he supposed he should have, in the way everyone expected him to. But he didn’t. He couldn’t. The kid didn’t know him.

Did Clay Jensen know him when he allowed Bryce to react? To hurt him?

He pushes that thought away from himself, choosing to laugh at his attempted decapitation instead.

The kid blushed and muttered a soft ‘sorry’, awkwardly tripping over his feet before quickly entering the theater again, no doubt wishing the floor could open up and absorb him whole.

Justin thought he was kind of cute, like Clay Jensen level of cute, where it’s not really attractive and actually quite painful to watch, but endearing all the same.

After a few seconds, while pressing decline on all incoming phone calls and feeling the breeze coat his skin, Justin began to feel a bit ill.

Just a bit.

His heartbeat was accelerating rather dramatically, and he was beginning to sweat.

He couldn’t stop thinking, his thoughts whizzing and whirring by at one thousand miles per hour, each one as incoherent and frightening as the next.

The sinking feeling in his stomach returned, but with a vengeance, and he doubled over in pain.

At first, he figured it was because he hadn’t eaten. So, he brushed it off.

Then, a few moments later, his chest started squeezing him, and it felt heavy, like an elephant had reserved a seat right on his heart.

He panicked.

He wanted to tell Jessica that something was up, that this wasn’t right, but she hung up already and Justin was alone.

Then he figured he should call that kid back, tell him that he might need some help, but decided against it. What good would he do?

His feet broke out in a cold sweat, but he was feeling hot everywhere else. He took his jacket off.

His left side felt numb. He tried to flex his fingers, then his toes, but he couldn’t, like his brain wasn’t receiving the message from Justin to work.

His vision was starting to blur, and he thinks he’s walking, he can feel himself move, but he can’t see where he’s going.

He wanted to vomit, but his stomach was still clenching.

What’s happening to me?

In all his years of taking H, he never felt this way, and he doesn’t know why he’s feeling it now, of all times.

His mouth was filling with extra saliva. It spilled over next to his feet, and when he looked down he saw it was a foamy white, like the cream he puts over the lattes at Monet’s.

A woman’s voice enters his earshot, along with a man’s, and a car horn.

He’s wandered out onto the street.

“Young man! Are you okay?” She asks.

Justin opens his mouth to answer but falls to the ground instead, beginning to shake. Violently.

“He’s having a seizure!” The man yells.

“Quick, call 911!” A third person says.

He opens his eyes and comes face to face with the man, but his features are unclear, and the next time he blinks, it’s Clay.

Clay?

“Justin, how could you do this to me?  I cared about you, I-I loved you. And you do this?! You’re the worst person I’ve ever met! Just die already and save me the trouble, Justin Foley!” Pseudo-Clay says to him, tears in his eyes and poison in his voice.

‘I’m sorry Clay I really am please let me make it up to you I can be good I can I promise,’ He wants to say to him. But it’s too late, he’s not going to make it. His mind is fading fast.

He’s going to die just as Bryce did. Trying to change but never becoming better. Evil and sick, just like he was. Like they both were.

He’s terrified of that.

Will God have mercy on his soul?

Did God have mercy on Bryce’s?

“Cla-ay,” Justin calls out to him.

“Clay? Is that your name? Your name is Clay?”

The man reappears, and so does his voice. He can hear faint sirens in the distance, their lights reflecting off the neon business signs around him.

His shaking slows.

“N-No. Its Just-in,” He manages to squeak out.

He’s in so much pain.

“Its Justin! Tell them the name’s Justin!” He shouts at somebody.

The man stares back in his eyes.

“Stay with me, kid, okay? Help is coming, just relax and stay awake, okay?”

Justin can barely see now.

“Stay with me, Justin,” Clay’s voice whispers in his ear.

And he wants to, he wants to stay,

for Clay, for Jessica, for the people he loves,

But the Sun breaks through the clouds, and it gets just a little too bright, just a little too warm, it’s rays stuck in his eyes and in his throat,

and it swallows him whole.

Chapter Text

When Clay woke up, he was face-to-face with her.

The only person he’s ever truly loved.

Hannah.

Has he mentioned that already?

She waved at him, and he could practically feel the blood rushing in her cheeks.

Or maybe it was his. He wasn’t sure.

She still dressed the same as the day he lost her. Green army jacket with the matching green beanie, blue distressed denim jeans, and a graphic tee shirt with the black combat boots.

Her outfits were so distinctly hers, so unique, that Clay honestly believed she invented them.

Then again, Clay knows nothing about women’s fashion.

His mom made that very clear when, during laundry day, she asked him to hand over her red tank top, and he handed over a pair of old red boxers. The best part? They weren’t even his.

But for Hannah, he had memorized every singular aspect of her wardrobe, down to the accessories. It may or may not have helped with his fantasies. His clean ones, that is.

Her hair was long and free again. It flowed in the breeze like a dandelion on a field. He couldn’t stop staring.

“Hey, Helmet.”

Why would she say that to him?

How could she say that to him?

Doesn’t she know the impact that those words have?

After all, what more could she want from him?

She already had his heart, but that wasn’t enough.

She had moved on, and Clay thought he had moved on also, he thought that he could close the chapter on Hannah Baker forever.

Apparently, that isn’t the case.

“Hannah,” Clay called out to her.

“Helmet!” She said excitedly, running over to him. “You’ve found it!”

He smiled. Her voice was still as beautiful as he remembered.

“Uh, found what, exactly?”

“My hideout! Isn’t it beautiful? Don’t you just wanna stay here forever?”

“Yeah, uh, I guess I have. And it is… pretty,” Clay said nervously, shoving his hands in his pockets. Although, now that he thought about it, since when did he have pockets? He was wearing sweatpants today.

“So, uh, what is this place? Are we in, like, heaven?”

Hannah giggled. He grinned, trying to play it off nonchalantly, but his ears still flushed red.

“Oh Clay,” She said in amusement. “Where do you think we are?”

He shrugged. Honestly, Clay didn’t know.

He had never been in a place so calming.

He was in a forest, which was surprising, since Hannah didn’t like rural areas. She was a city girl, she insisted on that the second she told him about New York. Her future as a writer was explicitly stated to be in a cramped Manhattan apartment, ten feet away from a fire hydrant and twenty feet away from a dumpster.

And yet, he’s surrounded by trees, Oak, Redwood, and Evergreen alike.

Evergreen. That’s ironic.

The grass is so green and so plush, that Clay was sure he could sink in it, and he feels like he is. He can sense the ants walking underneath his toes, as if they were trying to make a new home inside his skin.

He can hear little critters roaming about, digging through bushes and underneath shrubs, looking for their fellow critter friends.

He can hear the shrieks of birds above him as they call for one another in search of food.

He can even feel The Sun’s rays warm his body, and it made him happy, as if he was a plant seeking sunlight.

Was nature always this soothing? He couldn’t quite place a time where he felt so at peace.

“So, this is where you went to.”

Hannah shot him a confused look.

“After you left the church that day. At your memorial. This is the place you went to, right?”

She smiled. Clay’s heart burst.

“I guess you could say that. It’s more like, this place found me, in a way. I wasn’t going anywhere specific when I left. I just, walked out those doors and this was the first place that greeted me, and I’ve been here ever since.”

Clay nodded. He understood that. Sometimes a person just ends up in places without realizing. He assumes it’s like when a person put a song on while they’re driving, and they think so hard about other things that they get to their destination without thinking.

In this case, he got to this place without thinking. Without realizing.

“So, you weren’t just a figment of my imagination last year, were you? You were, like, a ghost?”

“I think the politically correct term is spirit, but yes, you could say that. Or not. I mean, how do you know nowadays if what you’re seeing is the truth?” Hannah said.

Clay laughed. It felt like it was the first time he truly laughed in a while.

“Yeah. I guess you can’t really know nowadays.”’

She cut in front of him, bouncing softly from side to side, her grin reaching her eyes.

“Take a walk with me, Helmet.”

He paused.

“That’s slightly menacing. I mean, don’t people usually say ‘take a walk’ when they want you to go away? Or die?”

Hannah rolled her eyes. Clay mentally slapped himself.

“You’re so uptight, Clay. I can’t kill people, idiot. I’m dead myself, remember? Plus, why would I do that? You’re a lot more interesting than watching a couple birds fight over a worm.”

Clay snorted, then apologized.

“Fine then,” He said, hoping she wouldn’t see how nervous he was. “Lead the way.”

 

///////////////////////////////////

 

“I heard about what happened,”

Clay looked at her. She didn’t meet his gaze.

The path they were on was quiet and tranquil, save for the occasional wolf howl or cicada sounds. If he focused, he could hear the leaves crunching under his shoes. It was beginning to get colder, he could see small wisps of breath escape his lips.

Straight ahead, they were approaching a browning wooden bridge, old and narrow. It looked five seconds away from falling apart at even the slightest touch.

He could tell from his position that the waters surrounding it were full of fish, he could tell by the way it was bubbling.

“That’s a broad statement. A lot has happened since you, uh, left.”

Hannah focused her eyes on the ground in front of her.

“Yeah, I know. I was talking about Bryce. I heard about his death. I also heard about you and Justin moving in together. And about that new girl, Annie?”

Clay was astounded.

“Ani. And you must get great reception up here to know all of that,” He said jokingly.

She smiled again.

“Just bits and pieces. Small snippets here and there.”

Hannah stopped. They were at the top of the bridge now. It creaked and moaned under their combined weight.

“Do you love her? Ani?”

He looked at her in disbelief.

“W-What? Me? Love Ani?”

She shot him a look of annoyance. Clay was equally as annoyed.

How could she even think about that?

Of him loving anyone else other than—

“Clay. Being dead doesn’t mean I’m stupid. I know you’ve had eyes on someone while I’ve been gone. You can’t lie to me anymore, I’m pretty sure it’s illegal now. Like, it’s the 11th commandment, thou shalt not lie to Hannah Baker.

He didn’t laugh. Hannah’s smile faltered.

“I don’t love Ani.” He said firmly.

“So, Justin, then.”

“What?! No! He’s my brother, for Christ’s sake! And a guy!”

Hannah giggled quietly.

“I didn’t mean it like that, but the fact that that’s where your brain went is pretty interesting.”

Clay’s cheeks flushed.

Then he shivered. It was freezing at the top, almost as if it shifted seasons on the walk here, and he didn’t have his hoodie anymore. In fact, he didn’t have any of his clothes on him anymore.

His outfit changed, and he was in a battered hospital gown (the ones that were closed in the back, thank god), entirely barefoot. The scenery around him was changing.

The trees were shedding their leaves at such high speeds, he could blink, and they’d be bare.

The critters fell dead, and birds were falling out of the sky, as if they got struck by lightning.

The planks on the bridge were breaking into pieces by the second. Clay wanted to take a step back, to grab Hannah and book it the fuck out of there but he was afraid to move his feet. One wrong move and he’d plummet into the icy waters below.

The plants were withering, the fish were floating to the surface, and it was loud. Incredibly loud.

“Hannah?” He said cautiously. She looked unaffected.

Her arms were dripping. Clay couldn’t really see what it was, his vision fading fast.

He caught a sliver of light and felt like vomiting.

Blood. Her arms were bleeding.

“You know, Clay, I thought you loved me,” She said sadly.

“I do, Hannah, I do!”

A single tear fell down her cheek.

He could barely hear her, it sounded like she was in a wind tunnel, and he was getting knocked off his feet. The world around him was turning black, and disintegrating, and before he could even scream, he was entering the void.

“Then why would you do it?”

“Do what, Hannah? Do what?!” He yelled.

Her face became expressionless.

“You gripped my wrists and pushed yourself inside of me,”

Clay’s eyes widened. It wasn’t Hannah’s sweet, caring voice anymore. It was the cold, monotonous words of the tapes.

He cupped his hands over his ears, crying out in pain and terror.

“It felt like a knife cutting me open,”

“Hannah, stop! Please!”

“I begged you, ‘please Clay,’ but you told me to relax,”

“That wasn’t me, Hannah! That was Bryce! Please!”

He was getting sucked in, he could barely see her anymore, he had to strain to hear her. He was suffocating again, and he felt close to death, so cold and so lonely.

“You said you would go ‘nice and easy’ but you went harder and faster,”

Clay couldn’t breathe.

“When I cried out in pain, you grabbed my hair like the sound of my pain made it better for you,”

He felt useless, and alone.

“I just tried to leave my body. I tried to forget the anger and pain,”

He couldn’t handle it anymore. He killed her. He KILLED HER.

“There are two different kinds of death,”

CLAY JENSEN IS A MURDERER.

“If you're lucky, you live a long life, and one day, your body stops working, and it's over,”

He wanted to die. He destroyed her. He let her down.

“If you're not lucky, you die a little bit, over and over, until you realize it's too late,”

It was all his fault. Not Bryce’s, not the school’s, not even her parent’s. His.

“And in that moment, it felt like I was already dead.”

 

/////////////////////////////////

 

Jessica was alone.

If she looked through her phone messages, hoping that Justin sent an ‘I’m okay, no need to worry Jess,’ text one more time, she would lose it.

But hasn’t she already?

It’s been three days since the incident. Justin still wasn’t awake.

Was it her fault? Did she forget to pay attention to him?

If she had just let go of her fucking attitude, her anger, her entitlement, for one fucking second and listened to him, would she have been able to save him?

No.

What Justin did, he did to himself. How could Jessica have known?

Then again, how could she not have?

She said she knew him better than he knew himself, and yet, sitting here, alone in her bed with only her blank phone screen as company, she has never felt more guilt, more fury, in her life.

Guilt because she was too late. Because she let Justin, her fucking boyfriend, nearly die out right in front of her while she rolled her eyes and cursed at him for making her and Clay look bad.

Fury because she never knew Justin could be so stupid. How he was so willing to throw away a life he so desperately craved and had right at his fingertips? How could he have been so willing to give it up? Give her up?

Jessica wiped a few tears with her blanket. Her bed felt too big, too empty. She threw extra throw pillows on it, hoping it could add to the space and cushion her feelings, but the bed did nothing but expand. She threw one of the pillows at her dresser in frustration, knocking down a few perfume bottles in the process.

She could scream, that’s how shit she felt.

“I have to get out of here.” Jessica said to the air, stomach clenching. The air said nothing in response, the vent above her door buzzing softly around her ears. Her head spun.

She caught a glimpse of her reflection in the mirror and stood up slowly, entranced by her image. She walked over to the glass, dust floating in the moonlight as she sunk down into her vanity chair. Her eyes, bloodshot and glazed, followed her movements as she picked up the faded Welcome to Oakland postcard stuck between the wooden frames.

“Nancy,

I’ll always love you.

-Sid.”

Jessica wanted to vomit.

She’s read this postcard a total of five times, (that’s just from today) and she still couldn’t process what’s happened.

“Am I a bad person?” She asked her duplicate. Her mouth, sallow and quivering, repeated Jessica’s words, but her eyes knew the answer.

Yes. She was.

She was a killer.

If not in actuality, then by association.

She couldn’t save Hannah, or Clay, or Tyler, or Justin, or even herself.

Was she a fraud? Was she a liar?

Was she always to be the victim of her words, her actions?

Was Jessica Davis always going to hurt people?

Jessica stood up quickly, wiping her eyes. Her mirror image seemed uncertain, as if she knew what Jessica was planning on doing and didn’t know if she would follow through.

She gave the glass a quick look and sneered. The reflection’s eyes stayed dull.

“You don’t know who I am, what I’ve been through, or where I’m going. So, you know what? I’ll show you Jessica Fucking Davis.”

Sliding on a pair of pants and boots, resting the hood of her jacket on her tangled curly hair, she grabbed her bag and walked out of her bedroom.

Screw what people thought. Jessica was going to prove who she was to herself.

 

///////////////////////////

 

“Jess? What are you doing here? Its- Its 10pm.”

Jessica stood on Tyler Down’s porch, hands in her pockets and breath swirling in the air. It’s freezing.

She didn’t know why she was here.

As soon as she locked her front door, (sneaking past her parent’s room and disarming the alarm first, of course) her feet went on autopilot, and her mind blanked.

She thought about everything she went through, Bryce’s rape, followed by his lies, Justin’s lies, followed by his truths, Hannah’s friendship, her rape, her death, and she just couldn’t stop.

She spiraled down a path of her past, of what ifs and how comes and why me’s and couldn’t get out.

She had to talk. She had to talk to someone who understood what it was like to be taken advantage of. Someone who knew the pain she was going through.

And that lead her to Tyler’s door.

Tyler himself was shaking, as he was only wearing a gray short sleeve and sweatpants. His breath came out in pants, and his teeth chattered. He hugged himself. It was the first day of winter, and clearly, he wasn’t prepared for the surprise Crestmont icy weather. It never gets cold in California, and yet here they were, shivering.

“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to come this late, but I couldn’t stop thinking, and nobody’s answering the phone and Clay’s in the hospital and so is Justin and there isn’t really anyone to talk to and I just need someone who understands—”

“Whoa, Jess, take a breath. It’s okay. Here, come inside, its f-freezing.”

Tyler widened the door and stepped to the side. Jessica walked through the door frame quickly, grateful that the house was warmer inside than out.

Tyler offered her a glass of water or a bag of chips, both of which she declined. Jessica didn’t think she could eat right now.

He led her to his room silently, and Jessica was grateful for that too. Her thoughts were swimming, like how, for one, she’s hanging out at Tyler Down’s house.

“Crazy weather outside, right?” Tyler said, shutting his bedroom door quietly behind him. Jessica nodded, sitting down gingerly on his matching gray patterned sheets.

“I wonder what made it so cold. I mean, it’s a first for Crestmont, right?”

Tyler nodded, wringing his hands nervously. He was still tense about having people near him in his space, and Jessica could see that. She tried to smile, just to ease his nerves, but unfortunately this was Tyler’s character now. Always afraid, always looking over his shoulder.

You could thank Montgomery De La Cruz for that.

‘Tyler,” Jessica began softly. Tyler looked up from his feet.

“Is-is this okay? For me to, you know, be here?”

Tyler grinned shyly, looking down at his feet again. He walked over to his desk and took a seat in his chair.

“Yeah. I-I mean, we’re friends, aren’t we?”

Jessica nodded. Of course they were friends.

“I just, I’ve never been to your house before. I mean, other than to throw a rock through your window that one time.”

They both giggled to themselves.

“Sorry about that, by the way.”

Tyler shrugged.

“It’s okay. Window’s aren’t broken forever, I guess.”

Silence filled the room after that.

Tyler shuffled his feet and Jessica coughed.

It was so awkward and so quiet, you could hear a pin drop.

“So, um, not to be rude, or anything,” Tyler started.

Jessica glanced at him.                     

“But why are you here? Its almost midnight, on a school night. Surely you have better things to do than hang out with Tyler Down, the creep.”

And Tyler was right, why was Jessica here? After all, she could’ve gone to someone else—anyone else— but no one else understood her as deeply as Tyler did.

Except maybe Hannah, or Nina, or maybe even Chloe, all of which weren’t currently in the position to speak right now.

She could’ve gone to Alex, who—let’s face it—knew her longer than Tyler did, but she walked here. So, her heart, (or mind, who knows) led her to his door for a reason.

“I just,” She paused.

“Am I a bad person, Tyler?” She asked slowly and sincerely, her voice fading.

Tyler tilted his head in confusion.

“Bad person? You—Jessica Davis—a bad person?”

He furrowed his brow, standing up to grab a glass of water off his nightstand and walking back to sit at his desk. He took short sips, savoring the water in his mouth as he thought.

“Am I someone who’s capable of— “

Tyler sat up in his chair, eyes focused on her.

“Someone who’s capable of bringing people to their deaths?”

Tyler’s eyes widened.

“W-What? Jess, are you okay?”

Jessica stood up, pacing around Tyler’s tiny room. Her heeled boots clicked with every step.

“God, I—I don’t know. I’m freaking out, Tyler. I can’t think straight, I can’t sleep, I can’t eat, hell, I can’t even fucking read right now, is stress-induced dyslexia a thing?”

Tyler got up, trying to stand in between Jessica and her pacing, any louder and his parents would wake, but Jessica simply walked around him. He stopped after a while, simply deciding to let her walk out her frustrations.

“Jessica,”

Jessica stopped and turned, staring into Tyler’s eyes.

“I don’t think a bad person would help me and believe me about it when no one else would. I don’t think a bad person would check up on people to see if they’re okay, I don’t think a bad person would organize an entire club to make an important statement at a big homecoming game in front of thousands of people. Do you?”

Jessica froze. She didn’t really know what to say.

“I mean, real bad people don’t question if they’re bad. They wouldn’t even care if they were.”

Jessica could cry. She was hoping Tyler’s words would soothe her, but instead they dug down further into the pit of fear in her stomach.

“But, surely I’m bad. I mean, I could’ve done more for Justin. For Hannah, for Chloe, for Alex, for you, for everyone those jocks at Liberty ruined. But it’s like every time I want to help, or think I’m helping, I fuck it up. Hannah’s dead. Chloe needed an abortion. Alex shot himself in the head and you,”

Tyler swallowed.

“Well, you know. And I couldn’t stop it, couldn’t slow it down, couldn’t make it better. All I could do was watch.”

He stayed silent.

Jessica didn’t know she was crying until she tasted the salty drops on her tongue. She felt so angry at herself that she couldn’t even bring herself to wipe them away.

“So, what’s the point? Of caring, of pushing forward, of being smart or kind, when it helps nobody?” She said, her voice rising.

“It helped me,” Tyler said, his voice small in comparison.

Jessica sat back down in defeat. She let out a deep breath, flopping back onto his bed, her eyes facing the ceiling.

“That makes one of us.”

Tyler got up and sat next to her on the bed, his eyes downcast.

“What Hannah did, and Chloe and Alex and Justin, those were all their own choices, Jess. There was nothing you could’ve done to change their minds about any of it.”

Jessica wiped her face, sitting up.

“Clay changed your mind. About Spring Fling. I could’ve done the same.”

“That was different.”

“How?”

Tyler looked into her eyes.

“Clay gave me an alternative. A choice. What they felt, the ones you think you couldn’t save, they felt they had no choice. So, they made their own.”

Jessica sighed brokenly, her lips still quivering.

“People aren’t easy to understand. But everyone makes their own decisions. That’s something we can’t always change.”

Jessica nodded.

“You’re not a bad person, Jess. A bad person would make that choice for them.”

 

////////////////////////

 

Jessica’s boots squeaked with every step.

Her cheeks were frozen and stung with each breath, her tears crystalizing before they fell. Pulling on her hoodie strings, she hoped that the biting wind would quit soon, any longer and she would lose her ability to move.

It didn’t.

Her phone pinged in her back pocket.

She was walking for what felt like hours, her legs felt like jelly and her fingertips were turning yellow, but she couldn’t stop. She ignored the pings, knowing that it was probably Alex or Zach. She didn’t have the energy to face either of them.

She felt numb.

After leaving Tyler’s house, Jessica was filled with more questions than answers. Most of them asking if she truly was a shitty person, and if Tyler was simply lying to save himself from her wrath.

Is Jessica wrathful anymore? Is she angry anymore?

Does she have a reason to fight?

Oh Justin, please wake up soon, she thought. She was going crazy at this point, and she didn’t know whether it was because of Justin or because of herself.

Doesn’t matter.

The streetlights above her were covered in frost, their glow diluted by the freak California weather. They flickered ominously, as if they knew the horrors that Jessica was going to face in the coming hours. Jessica wanted to throw a rock at it.

How dare they glow while she herself is filled with such darkness?

A few feet more and she would be face-to-face with Monet’s. Stomach clenching with every inhale, she walked closer to the small business apprehensively.

She walked up to the glass. It was three am, and it was dark in the coffeeshop. Jessica half-expected to see Justin’s face behind the counter, cleaning the machines with the same filthy rag Monet’s always uses, waving at her and beckoning her to enter.

If she focused, thought hard, she could almost see the kind smile on his face, the spilt coffee on his apron, and his phone in his hand, sending her a text.

She misses that. She misses him.

Hand on the glass, in desperation or fear, she wills herself to remember, to recall that feeling.

She misses the heat. She misses last summer.

--------------------------

Jessica was running late.

She had exactly ten minutes, forty-five seconds, and thirty-eight milliseconds to get some sustenance in her system before she was late for her job interview at the Crestmont theater.

Believe it or not, the owner of the only theater in town with the shittiest movies known to man was picky about who he hired, at least he was at first, when Crestmont was still fresh and innocent in the public’s eyes. He sent a lot of teens away when it first opened. No piercings, tattoos, kinky hair, (yeah, really) and ‘colorful’ vocabulary. It was bullshit, to say the least.

And surprisingly, it worked at first, until he realized that the best of the best this town had to offer were the shitty, bitchy kids that attended Liberty. He revised his criteria quickly after that.

Even with that, Jessica Davis still wanted to make an impression, seeing as she doesn’t have very much job experience. That resumé doesn’t build itself, does it?

She stumbled into Monet’s desperately, practically tripping up to the counter where she spit out her order desperately to the first barista she saw, a fifteen-year-old short and scrawny boy, who stared at her with a look of amusement and surprise woven in his tired eyes.

“Hot chocolate, please. And a donut. And a turkey sandwich. Can you make all of that in five minutes? I’m kind of in a hurry.”

The boy’s eyes widened. He stood in shock for a moment, slowly nodding his head before snapping out of it and scrambling to find the cocoa powder.

The rest of Jessica’s order he whispered to his coworker, A bratty sophomore girl that Jessica had the misfortune of working with last year on a class project.

She curled her lip in disgust before sizing her up with her eyes. Jessica sneered at her. She grabbed the bread beside her, rolling her eyes.

Jessica paid swiftly and went to sit at the faded baby blue table near the back of the restaurant, resting her bag in the chair next to her in exhaustion. She could practically feel her cells shutting down, that’s how tired she was.

Was this even worth it? She wondered.

Then again, her dad did tell her to not come home today unless she came with a job, so she supposes she has no choice in the matter.

Yes. I’ll miss my bed if I don’t get this job.

A faint vibration came from her back pocket, and she jumped slightly.

God, could she be more at edge right now?

Pulling the phone out quickly and turning it on, she read the notification.

“Stressed out?”

Justin.

Jessica looked up, hoping she would meet those infamous blue eyes she dreamt of and adored so many times, but she only saw the boring, ordinary people at Monet’s, each as agitated and impatient as she was.

Must be in the air, she thought.

Fleetingly, she made eye contact with the boy at the counter, his negligible, pale, annoying gray eyes staring intensely back at her. She looked away quickly.

“Looking for someone?”

Jessica turned around.

Justin.

Smiling, she stood up to hug him.

“Hey.” She said quickly.

He smiled.

“You in a rush somewhere?” Justin said, moving Jessica’s bag to the floor and sitting in its place.

He had his work uniform on, the faded black Monet’s Café logo littered with coffee stains covered up with his equally black apron, though it was longer this time, covering the tips of his shoelaces. His hair was disheveled but eyes bright, and his breath was sweet, like sugar.

“My bag was sitting there, you know.”

He laughed softly. Jessica beamed.

Justin gingerly picked up her bag— a faded light brown leather bag she got at a thrift store freshman year— and set it down in the seat next to him, patting it gently as if he was comforting a small child.

“There. Now it’s sitting in a chair. Do you want me to apologize to it, too?” He said in mild amusement. Jessica shook her head.

“So, as I was saying, do you have somewhere to be? You seem…”

Jessica raised her eyebrow.

“…In a hurry. I mean, did you even brush your hair this morning?”

She rolled her eyes.

“I can’t brush my hair like these white girls can, Justin. It’ll just turn into a frizzy shit-show. Trust me.”

Justin raised his hands in surrender.

“So?” He questioned, nudging her.

She sighed.

“Job interview. Crestmont theater.”

Justin clapped in amazement, his eyes shining with pride.

“Finally! About time!”

She resisted the urge to roll her eyes.

“So, when does it start?”

“Well, I have about—“ Jessica began, looking at her phone in a rush. “Eight minutes to get to the Crestmont theater, and I’m starving. You know I can’t do an interview with nothing in me.”

“I could put something in you,” Justin suggested.

Jessica groaned in disgust but smiled all the same.

“Nice try. But I really need this job, Justin.”

“Fucking could be a full-time job, Jessica,” He said lowly, placing a hand on her thigh. “There’s money in that.”

“Yes. But no merit.”

Justin moved his hand up.

Jessica pulled back and crossed her arms.

Eight minutes, Justin. I have eight minutes. Watch yourself.”

“I only need six.” He said.

If Jessica rolled her eyes any further, she’d be able to see her own thoughts.

“Alright, one turkey sandwich, glazed donut, and hot chocolate for Jessica,” The girl spit out as she walked up, nearly throwing her food onto the table. It took Justin’s quick thinking and Jessica’s reflexes to avoid spilling the meal onto her clothes.

Jessica got ready to stand and tell the bitch off for nearly ruining her outfit, but Justin waved her down.

“Not worth it. Eight minutes, remember?”

Jessica checked her phone.

“Seven now.”

Jessica grabbed her sandwich and shoved it in her mouth, the rye bread and cold meat filling her senses. He’s right. Not worth it. She settled down.

The small boy behind the counter waved Justin over, and he picked up Jessica’s phone, checking the time. He stood up reluctantly.

“Shit, my shift started. I gotta go, Jess.”

Jessica swallowed, standing up to kiss him, but Justin pulled away.

“Gross, turkey breath. Don’t kiss me like that.”

Jessica pouted slightly but smiled anyway, sitting down to sip her hot chocolate.

“I know you’ll get the job, Jess. No one can resist you.”

She sighed.

“I’m not fucking you, Justin.” She said between sips.

Justin bent down until he was at ear-level.

“We’ll see about that, Ms. Davis.”

Jessica’s eyes widened and she was about to smack Justin and tell him off, but he had already started walking to the counter, high-fiving the boy who handed him a coffee rag. Throwing it over his shoulder, Justin began taking the next customer’s order, a smirk on his lips.

------------------------------------

Her phone was buzzing when she woke up.

Her back was contorted into a terribly painful shape, and her head felt heavy, like it was filled with lead. Her throat was dry, as was her eyes, and her stomach grumbled.

She must’ve sat down on Monet’s doorstep and fallen asleep. The folded chalk street sign under the doorknob was digging into her side.

When did I fall asleep?

She got to her feet, but not without difficulty. The balls of her feet were sore from her heeled boots.

Her phone buzzed again.

Jessica assumed it was her parents, angry at her for sneaking out and doing god-knows-what at this time of night. Or morning, she should say.

She mentally prepared herself for the verbal beating she was about to get, ready to kiss her phone goodbye until she looked at the caller id.

Zach?

By the time she gathered herself and stood to walk back home, the call fell, and she got a quick chance to look at her notifications. She had fifteen missed calls and twenty-five messages all in the span of two hours, and Jessica has never been more confused. What happened? Did someone else get hurt?

Also, she was asleep for two hours?

What the fuck is going on?

Ani had called her five times and left two messages. Alex called her twice, leaving five messages, and Zach left her a whopping eight calls and eighteen messages.

“Whoa.” Jessica said aloud. She had never had people call her in such urgency before, except that time in eighth grade when she broke her arm on the school bus and had to be driven to the hospital in an ambulance. Boy, her phone did blow up then.

At least there were no calls from her parents. That was definitely a good sign.

Before she could respond to anyone’s calls or messages, Zach called her again, bringing his grand total to nine calls in a row.

Something’s going on.

Jessica answered the call and put the receiver to her ear, her breath quickening. She was becoming nervous. She could barely feel the cold anymore.

“Jess? Jessica?!” He said urgently. He sounded panicky, and Jessica was beginning to fear the worst.

Jessica stayed silent for a moment, gathering her bearings.

What on earth did Zach Dempsey need to say right now?

“Jessica Davis, you better fucking answer me or I’m gonna lose my shit!”

“Hey, y-yeah, I’m here,” She said slowly, teeth chattering.

“Where are you? Are you at home?”

Jessica was confused.

“Why do you care where I am right now, Zach? Do you want to explain why the fuck you left me eight calls and eighteen texts?! Where are you?”

“Jessica, just tell me where the fuck you are right now!”

She figured there was no use fighting it. But if all this fuss was because Jessica wasn’t at home, she was going to beat his ass.

“I’m outside Monet’s. Why?”

“You’re at Monet’s? It’s five in the fucking morning Jess!”

Jessica wanted to scream.

“Who fucking CARES why I’m at Monet’s?! Can you PLEASE just tell me what the FUCK is going on already?! Why in the ever-loving blue fuck do you need to know where I’m at right now, Zach?!”

His voice was giving her a headache.

She hugged herself and sat on the curb, hoping that holding herself closer would keep whatever’s left of her body heat inside of her. She felt the goosebumps line her arms.

“I’m gonna go pick you up right now, okay? Just stay right there, I’m two minutes away.”

Jessica’s heart rate was increasing. Her stomach was starting to cramp up again, and she was beginning to break out in a sweat, despite being colder than the Arctic.

Something was seriously wrong, she could feel it, and she didn’t know if she was ready to hear it.

Was it Clay?

Oh god, was it Justin?

She couldn’t breathe.

Zachary fucking Dempsey you better tell me what the fuck is going on right now!”

He paused. Jessica was standing in the middle of the street right now, ready to ambush Zach’s gray Audi and kill Zach if she sees him.

Zach,”

Before she could scream into her phone and curse Zach out, he pulled up in front of Monet’s, and Jessica all but ran to his door. Zach lowered the window.

“Zach, you better start speaking, and fast.”

Zach eyes were bloodshot, and his lips chapped, as if he had been biting them for the past three hours. He looked as if he hadn’t rested in days, and honestly, Jessica understood his rudeness, he looked as if he wasn’t alive anymore.

The heat in his car was on full blast, Jessica could feel the warmth hit her cheeks. The contrast of temperatures slithered down her body and into her boots. She was sure there were goosebumps on her face.

“Get in, we gotta get to Crestmont General right now.”

Zach didn’t have to tell her twice. She opened the door and hopped in, putting on her seatbelt at record speed. He pulled up the window and sped off, the squealing of his tires filling Jessica’s ears. She was sure the neighbors who lived near Monet’s were awake now, as if they weren’t already from Jessica’s phone conversation.

Zach’s left leg was bouncing. His right pushed the gas pedal as far down as it could, and Jessica was beginning to feel frightened.

What had happened that pushed Zach—who cared about safety and laws as if it was air to him—to this level?

What had happened at Crestmont General Hospital?

“Is it Clay? Is he alright?”

Zach was biting his lips again. He checked his rearview mirrors for cops and went even faster, jumping in between cars as he made his way onto the freeway.

“Clay’s fine. Stable. He’s awake now, I think. He’s fine.”

The large green “Crestmont Hospital 8 miles” sign on the road loomed over their heads like a death sentence. Zach was tapping his hands on the wheel anxiously.

“Come on…” He muttered.

The car pushed even faster, Zach was topping nearly 100mph. If he went any faster, cops would be the least of their problems. They’d probably have to be admitted into Crestmont themselves.

“Zach, seriously, slow down,”

“I can’t! We gotta get there fast!”

“Well we won’t get anywhere if we’re DEAD, Zach! Fuck the cops, you’re going to kill US! What good would that be to anyone?!”

Zach looked into her eyes quickly, and Jessica could see the pure desperation within him.

Oh god…

“Is it- “

Zach swallowed, tears welling up in his eyes.

“It’s Justin.”

 

/////////////////////

 

A few moments later, after miraculously avoiding all cops and surviving, Jessica and Zach managed to make it to Crestmont General Hospital.

“Did anyone say what happened to him?” Jessica said quickly, unbuckling her seat belt and exiting the car. Zach followed, turning it off and rushing inside.

“Not specifics. The Jensen’s just said to come. Said it was urgent. Said it was—” Zach stopped abruptly, entering the cool hospital rapidly and making his way towards the elevators. Jessica chased after him, her heels echoing louder than it should in the giant white building. The receptionist said hello, but it was ignored, neither one of them in the mood for small talk.

“Said it was what, Zach?”

The elevator door opened with a deafening ‘ding’ and they both entered it swiftly, Zach pressing the ‘4’ button and the ‘door close’ button without a moment to spare.

Jessica was on edge. It was over, wasn’t it?

Was Justin seriously damaged?

Would he be okay?

Would he survive?

“They said it was important. Necessary, whatever that means.”

Silence filled the elevator like smoke. The only sound was the elevator announcer, and the only thing Jessica wanted to do was open its control panel and rip its contents out. Just so it would shut up.

“Necessary? Like he’s—”

“I don’t know, Jess,”

He looked down at his feet, shuffling his car keys between his fingers.

The elevator announced the fourth floor and the doors opened smoothly.

“I don’t know.”

 

/////////////////////////

 

Justin Foley was getting a new bag of saline into his IV when Jessica walked in.

Looking up, she half-expected Justin to be sitting up in his bed, his smile reaching up to his blue eyes as he greeted her. His phone in one hand, Jessica’s palm in the other. She expected to catch up, laugh at this whole thing with him, brush it off as just another one of Justin’s shitty mistakes and move on.

But the room was silent, unmoving, and the suffocating white walls clamped over her throat like a bear trap. Zach cleared his throat as he walked past her, but it wasn’t enough to distract her mind.

She walked into the hospital room tentatively, her brown eyes searching for any of Justin’s usual cues, a smirk, an eyebrow raise, anything. Any sign of life on his body that could calm her mind, but his body was still. The only sign of life was the constant beeping of his heart monitor and the subtle rise and fall of his chest. Her own heart sank.

Ani greeted her with a hug at the door, pulling her in quickly. Jessica tripped all the way into the short plastic chair next to her, breath quickening and mind swimming. Her legs felt frozen, and this time it wasn’t because of the weather. Her eyes stayed glued on Justin’s feeble form, as if she looked away for a split second he’d disappear.

And in a way, it felt like he already did.

Jessica was afraid of that feeling.

His (adoptive) parents sat in the couch next to him, Lainie ghosting her shaky fingers over Justin’s pale cheek and Matt pressing soft kisses into her blonde hair. They looked as if they hadn’t left the hospital since Justin arrived, fast food bags and empty to-go cups littered the modest coffee table next to them, which at this point was more coffee than table.

Could anyone blame them? They were worried sick, for their biological son and their adoptive one. That’s just how Clay’s parents were, they cared far too much for their own good. Jessica can see where Clay got that stubborn love from.

Speaking of Clay…

“How’s Clay doing?” Zach piped up, stealing the words from Jessica’s throat. She looked at him in surprise, before focusing her gaze back on Justin.

Lainie wiped her eyes.

“Clay’s okay. He woke up yesterday, he’s safe. Doctor said this could be too stressful for him, so we decided to give him some space.”

Her voice was small and disjointed, like she was mouthing the words over a recording of herself. Her cheeks and eyes were red, the rest of her sallow and weak. She looked like a strange Victorian era doll. Jessica’s eyes swelled at her broken resolve, they both looked two seconds away from crying.

Jessica exhaled instead. Clay was okay like Zach said, so at least there was some good news left.

Zach crossed his arms and walked over to sit in the chair next to Ani, the closest one to Justin. Ani rested her head on Jessica’s shoulder.

Jessica wanted to feel angry at Zach, because it should be her sitting that close to Justin, it should be her running her fingers through his hair, it should be her sitting here, in this asphyxiating hospital, losing sleep and nutrients over him. But Jessica wasn’t. She wasn’t doing any of that.

She wasn’t angry.

She looked at Zach’s emotionless face and felt the pain he was experiencing. She saw as he bowed his head in shame, saw when his shoulders began to shake, hot tears of anger spilling onto the dull green tiles under his shoes. Saw his leg bounce once again in nervousness, wiping his face quickly, gritting his teeth in exasperation.

And looking around the cramped room, she realized that her feelings of pain and agony weren’t exclusive just to her. Everyone in this room was in just as much pain as she was, if not more (though she doubted it).

Although, there was one person absent from the space that Jessica was sure felt more pain for Justin than she might.

Clay.

Clay was the first person to arrive in the hospital three days ago, even before Jessica herself, who was on the phone last with him. The first to sit in that chair in front of the clock, first to question the nurse, first to react when he heard that Justin was in surgery, first to fall ill when the realization hit him that Justin could be dying right now.

Of course, Clay would be in pain right now. He’d be downright tormented.

She felt a sharp pain in her stomach as she recalled that memory.

What if that was the last time she ever heard his voice? If anyone heard his voice?

She shook her head roughly, covering her eyes with her hands. Ani groaned and lifted her head at the commotion, but ultimately said nothing, resting against her shoulder again once Jessica settled.

Needing stimulation (or maybe a distraction), Jessica pulled her phone out of her back pocket and checked her notifications.

Twelve calls from dad. Thirteen from mom.

Shit.

How was she supposed to explain this to them?

Hey guys, I’m in a mental prison right now and I can’t bring myself to sit still for one fucking second, so I decided to leave the house last night to go god-knows-where and I’ve been gone this whole time, surprise? Love you?”

Jessica mentally rolled her eyes at herself.

She was a fucking idiot, that’s for sure.

She switched her phone to silent, deciding to deal with that later. Her parents were just going to have to cope without an answer for now, like it or not.

I wonder why I didn’t hear it ring before.

Opening the messages app, she typed up a message to Alex.

“Why aren’t you here? I’m stuck here at General with Ani and Zach. Call me.”

She stared at the screen for a few moments, hoping to see the three-dotted bubble appear and read his response, or get a phone call, but nothing popped up. It wasn’t even read. Turning the screen off, she sighed.

She doesn’t blame Alex, it is really early after all.

A few moments passed just like that, filled with silence. It made her skin itch with how uneasy the atmosphere felt.

She couldn’t take it anymore. Tears were spilling down her cheek, her nose running and her stomach clenching once again. She stayed here any longer, she’d genuinely vomit.

“Hey Lainie, Matt?”

They looked up at her in quick unison, and if she wasn’t in pain herself right now, she would’ve found it creepy. But she was, so she ignored it and said:

“Where’s Clay’s room?”

Matt looked at Lainie.

Without breaking her gaze on Justin’s face, she replied:

“Room 212. Downstairs.”

Jessica nodded, although aware that the Jensen’s weren’t paying attention to her anymore.

She got to her feet, pulling her purse close to her chest. Ani adjusted her posture in her seat, resting her head with her fist, her eyes sealed shut. She looked as if she was asleep, which only proved Jessica’s theory that Ani will show up anywhere to insert herself into any form of drama, even if she didn’t truly know the person directly.

If she truly knew Justin, her eyes would be peeled open and bloodshot right now. If she knew Justin, she’d realize what’s at stake if he’s gone. Sleep was far less important than him.

But Jessica didn’t have the energy or the patience to tell her off now, so she simply gathered her thoughts and began towards the door.

“Jessica?”

She turned around slowly, hand on the doorknob.

Lainie stood up quickly, grabbing her purse from the blanket cabinet and rummaging inside, her face pinched with worry. After lots of muttering and desperate searching, she pulled out a Snicker’s bar and handed it to Jessica, her lips quivering. Jessica took it curiously.

What am I supposed to do with this? Eat it?

Noticing her reluctance, Lainie piped up.

“It’s for Clay. Snicker’s cheer him up, always has. But if you ask, he’ll deny it,”

A dry laugh came from her throat. Jessica smiled politely.

“Tell him that I’ll be there soon. I just gotta make sure he’s okay.” She said, looking over at Justin.

Jessica took one last look at him before meeting Lainie’s eyes, nodding silently. Lainie smiled minutely before returning to her husband’s side.

I hope I have a love like that in the future.

She wiped a stray tear.

With Justin.

She slid the candy bar in her purse and gripped the doorknob again, exiting the room without looking back.

 

/////////////////////

 

Clay hated bright lights.

As a child, he spent most of his prepubescence outdoors, surprisingly. He liked the Sun and the cool California weather. It gave him clarity, or the clarity that an aloof, stress-free child would need anyways. He enjoyed feeling the rays on his skin as he played, enjoyed seeing the Sun’s red-tinted shadow on his eyelids when he closed his eyes. It reminded him that the Sun was constant, always there, no matter if he traveled to the farthest places or squinted his eyes until his vision turned black and spiraled. The Sun was there – almost like a friend— if Clay could call a celestial star that.

But with every ray of Sun, comes a drop of rain, and his attitude shifted when he hit puberty. When the world turned on him. When he realized that everything he wanted to become was silly and stupid.

Just as fast as he befriended the star, he became its enemy.

He stayed inside more, his skin changing from gold-tinted to pale and dull. His eyes from vibrant cerulean to plain blue, his attitude from overwhelming optimism to cynical nihilism. It’s as if Clay Jensen was taken from Earth and replaced with a sluggish, angry version.

After all, growing up is hardly easy. Clay knew that from the moment he stepped foot into elementary school, then middle, then onto Liberty High. Friends came and left, and he assumed it was because his interests were just too weird, too off, too Clay. Girls found him amusing, but not in a good way. Jocks found him hilarious. He didn’t know how to keep up with his peers, always light-years away from any social cues, awkward and stumbling through the halls.

After that, the Sun went from being a constant, caring friend to being a symbol of his growing pains.

To him, it felt like the Sun —the biggest source of positivity and light— left him too.

So in retaliation, he only went outside to collect the mail or take out the trash, (after being yelled at by his parents, of course) video games and comic books replacing the outdoors. Replacing human contact.

He preferred the moon now. Preferred darkness.

It reflected what he felt inside. Any light the Sun filled him with as a child was sucked out as a teen, and replaced with sticky, tar-like emotions. It felt like aging fifty years every second.

He hated the anti-depressants growing up. Still does.

They try to replace the sunny, summery feeling in his chest. The feeling of the grass tickling his knees, the feeling of steam-coated skin touching pavement. They try to replace what he can barely remember, and it comes off as insincere, as if he was tasting week-old candy he found under the couch. The flavor was there, but less intense, as if something was just off.

So, when he woke up three days ago to the Sun coating his eyelids, to nurses trying to feed him shitty food and pills to ‘get his health back up’, to the freezing, blinding atmosphere of Crestmont General Hospital, he felt right back in his early teenage shoes.

And he hated it.

Disoriented and groggy, he could feel time passing by. A sickening, metallic feeling coating his tongue whenever the clock’s second hand ticked by.

His parents were the first to show, his mother in muted hysterics, (Too panicked to focus on anything, but too self-conscious to express that out loud). His father seemed rather composed, but Clay knew it was a façade. His father’s emotions were divided over which child to worry over, him or Justin. Clay wanted to say that he could accept that, but he felt a little disappointed. He was his own flesh and blood, after all.

Tony visited, sans Caleb, saying he was just ‘too busy to stop by’. Clay didn’t care. Caleb was about as important to Clay as school was. To say the least.

Alex dropped in, but dropped out just as quick, Clay could barely remember what their conversation was about. He was too out of it. Something along the lines of ‘I hope you’re okay’ and ‘Don’t stress about it, take your time’. Clay rolled his eyes just thinking about it.

Zach even came by, followed by Ani. Tyler was nowhere to be seen, but that was understandable. Tyler was fragile now, and all this no doubt stressed him out too much. Clay wishes he knew what was going on in his brain right now.

Jessica didn’t show. He figured Justin was more important to her in the long run. He understood that too. Justin was just as important to him, also.

Speaking of, he didn’t know anything about his soon-to-be-adoptive brother. Snippets of his brother’s condition reached his ears through the mouths of some gossiping nurses whenever they came to check his vitals.

He’s out of surgery now, but still asleep. That’s all he could make out between his moments of drifting in and out of consciousness.

He was itching to get out of his room. If he played his cards right, he figured he had a six-minute window before anyone suspected he was gone. Just long enough to see Justin.

That’s if he played them right, and Clay was bad at card games.

“You really are. Remember when I tried to teach you poker? You lost five times in a row. I’ve never seen anyone as bad as you. Zero poker face.”

Clay sat up, fast enough to make his head spin a bit. He figured his head must be spinning, or at least hallucinating, to be seeing what he saw right now.

Hannah.

Hannah fucking Baker was sitting in the blue plastic chair adjacent to his bed, closest to the double-paned window, which she was currently looking out of. She looked different, Blue denim jacket and orangey-pink dress on this time, with her boots of course. Hair long as always. Her skin pink and healthy. She looked like the Hannah Clay chose to remember.

Clay was glad she looked different than she did in the nightmare. If she looked the same, he would vomit.

And he did, right into the closest object next to him, a silver trash bin on his nightstand that the nurses forgot to put back on the ground. His throat burned and his head continued spinning, as if there was a fucking twenty-four-hour Ferris wheel located neatly in his brain cells. He was losing his fucking mind.

“Gross. Keep that on your side, please.” She said humorously.

Clay sat up slowly, exhaling. He placed his head back on his pillow, his vision spotting at the edges. Straining his neck, he forced himself to look at her, his body weaker than he thought it was.

“What the fuck are you doing here?” He asked, his words full of fire. He supposed his eyes were even more so.

Hannah smirked, standing to her feet and walking towards Clay’s bed. Clay shrunk back in fear, the last time he saw Hannah she tried to kill him. Could this be another one of her plots to destroy him?

“Not true, by the way. Your mind always goes to the worst places, Clay. It’s almost amusing.”

She sat down in the hospital recliner next to him, equally as blue as the chair. Reaching for his hand, she stared directly into his eyes, ice in her pupils. Clay’s feelings of anxiety grew with every breath.

Hannah’s hair flickered every now and then, air from the vent above her trickling down in waves. If Clay’s first impression of seeing Hannah again wasn’t uneasiness, he’d be mesmerized.

Of course you’d be. Still not over the dead girl, huh?

Hannah leaned in, her face now a breath away. Clay stood down. He had a feeling of what was coming next and he didn’t want it. Not with her.

“Clay. Let’s talk.”

Hearing her voice call his name with such firmness made Clay shiver. He tried not to let it show.

“Why, the fuck, should I talk to you? You don’t give a shit about me, so what’s there to talk about? How now – two years later— you still find ways to torture me? Tell me, Hannah Baker, why I should waste my time on you anymore?”

He hoped his voice sounded firm and rude. He wanted to let her know just how upset he truly was, but seeing her here, now, with that look in her eyes, made him feel breathless at how afraid he was.

He didn’t know reality from his imagination at this point.

Hannah swallowed, adjusting her posture.

“Isn’t that what you’re doing now, Clay? Wasting time?”

Clay stayed silent.

“After all, it’s what you’re good at. Being controlled by your emotions, never moving forward, pushing people away. It wouldn’t be Clay Jensen if he wasn’t uptight and impulsive, would it?” She said, tilting her head in amusement.

Clay clenched his jaw, then his fist, a lump forming in his throat.

“Fuck you,” He said quietly. He wanted to say it with more energy, but his voice betrayed him, his eyes welling up with fresh tears.

He still can’t hurt her.

“It’s funny, isn’t it? How you went after Ani hoping she could replace me, even after she said she wasn’t interested? How you still think of me, night after night, for two years? How every single day, even after you said you let go, you still can’t stop crying long enough to move on? Isn’t it funny, Clay? Isn’t it hilarious?”

Clay’s squeezed his eyes shut, begging his body not to let him slip in this critical moment. He couldn’t appear weak, not now. His jaw hurt from how hard he was clenching and the lump was making it hard to breathe.

“Its not her,” He said to himself. It couldn’t be.

“Look at me, Clay.”

Clay opened his eyes hesitantly, afraid of what she would say next.

“I was your Sun, wasn’t I? What’s it like living without me?”

Clay snapped.

“Fuck you! FUCK YOU! I FUCKING MOURNED YOU, HANNAH! What more do you want from me?! What more could you possibly take from me?! WHAT DO YOU WANT?!” He shouted, finally breaking.

Hannah sat unfazed. She didn’t even pull away, not even as Clay gripped his sheets and threw a pillow at her.

Her eyes stayed cold, even as Clay screamed in her face and pushed her away.

Her demeanor stayed sad, even as Clay cried.

“I’m sorry, Helmet,” She exhaled, her tone disappointed. Clay didn’t know who she was disappointed at, and that infuriated him even further.

“No! You don’t get to call me that anymore! You don’t get to toy with my feelings anymore! FUCK!”

Clay was full on crying now. Tears of anger, tears of sadness, and one day he was afraid he wouldn’t know the difference between the two. Hannah blurred every line when it came to him. His mind wasn’t his when she was around.

He pawed at his face desperately, hoping to reclaim any sense of cool he had left, even though it was slipping through his fingers faster than he could grab it.

“That was harsh. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean for it to come out that way.” Hannah said softly.

She reached over, placing her hand on his shoulder but he jerked his body away from her, frustration and anger clouding his vision. She backed down.

He stayed still for a few moments, focusing on slowing his breathing.

I can’t lose my mind. Not here. Not now.

Hannah broke the silence.

“Listen, I know you’re angry at me, Hel- “

Clay shot her a pointed look.

Clay, but you should know that I never truly meant to hurt you, for anything.”

He scoffed. Hannah sighed.

“Go screw yourself, Hannah. You meant that. For the nightmare, the insults, everything.”

Hannah dropped her gaze, muttering a soft ‘I’m sorry’ under her breath.

“I know, Clay. But I really, truly am sorry, I…” She trailed off.

Clay waited.

“I just wish you’d get over me. I don’t know what I can do to make that happen. What do I need to do, Clay? Insult you? Hurt you? Because clearly, waiting for you to realize it isn’t working.”

Clay looked into her eyes. They softened since his outburst, a forlorn, melted look replacing the ice. It hurt his heart to see.

He leaned back, staring at the florescent ceiling lights in faux fixation.

“That’s not your choice to make, Hannah. It’s my choice when and how I’ll move on. Even though I already did, or thought I did,” He said, not making eye contact. “Why should it matter to you anyways? You made your choice. Let me make mine.”

Hannah swallowed, wringing her hands together. She stood up and walked towards the foot of his bed, pacing slowly, crossing her arms against her chest. Clay broke his concentration on the lights to watch her in confusion. She seemed to be thinking of something, but Clay couldn’t read what it was.

She stopped and turned her body towards his. Clay was still confused.

“Do you remember that time we got high together? At Jeff’s house?”

Clay furrowed his brow.

“Uh… Yeah. I do. Why?”

“We had that conversation about infinity or some shit like that, and I said that maybe love was infinity?”

Clay said nothing. He didn’t know what she was getting at.

“Well, do you?” She asked quickly.

He nodded.

“Okay,” Hannah said under her breath.

“My love for you is infinite, Clay Jensen,” She began.

Clay’s eyes widened.

“Really? Like, for real?”

She nodded.

Clay laughed. If he wasn’t completely afraid of her right now, he might’ve celebrated.

“But that’s the thing,”

His smile faltered.

Why wasn’t she as happy as he was?

“What? What thing?”

Hannah covered her eyes with her hands and groaned in desperation.

“There’s someone else that loves you infinitely, Clay. Maybe even more than me. And that person needs more help than I do.”

Clay shook his head.

No there wasn’t. There was no one else that Clay could love or be loved by more than her.

“You’re lying,” He said, voice cracking.

Hannah walked over to him and grabbed his hand, tears filling her eyes.

“They need you, Clay. There’s nothing more that you can do for me. I’m dead. Whatever purpose I had in your life is fulfilled now, Helmet. You need to move on.”

Clay yanked his hand from her, standing to his feet quickly, his IV-line tugging on his vein. He ignored the sting from the needle.

“No! NO! You DON’T get to decide that! You don’t get to decide anything! Who could need my love? My parents? Justin? I give that to them! I CARE for them! You’re different, Hannah! You’re different! My love for you is different!”

Hannah shook her head, eyes puffy from fresh tears, face flushed.

“You left me! YOU LEFT ME! And you have the fucking audacity to tell me to move on? I did! So fuck you! Fuck you, Hannah Baker! I wish I never fucking met you!”

Clay’s throat was filled with lava, his eyes spilling tears faster than he could wipe them. His face, red hot from anger, looked at her in bewilderment.

How could she ask me that? The fuck?

“Clay,”

She walked towards him but Clay took a step back, raising his hand between them. She stopped.

“It doesn’t matter if you’re mad at me or not. I need to move on. You’re the last person who can’t seem to really do that. You’re the only person keeping me anchored here.”

Clay wiped his nose.

“I find that hard to believe.”

“That’s the thing about the truth, Clay. You don’t have to believe it for it to be true.”

Lip quivering, Clay sunk down to the floor, the cool tile forming goosebumps on his legs.

I moved on at her memorial. I let her go.

So why does this hurt so much?

Is she right? Did I not truly move on?

Clay thought he did a pretty good job of that over the past year. He thought after Bryce, he could finally find some sort of peace. But demons hardly take breaks. At this point, Clay felt like his own demon. His own prisoner.

Hannah knelt in front of him. Clay didn’t look at her, choosing to stare at the green tiles beneath him until they turned blurry and gray.

“Clay Jensen,”

Clay looked up, gritting his teeth.

“I love you,”

She kissed his cheek. He could feel the salty tears on her lips.

“So, this time, truly let me go.”

 

A soft knock on the door stole Clay’s attention. He looked quickly to see who it was, seeing the shadow of Jessica’s boots underneath the door stretch into the room.

When he turned his head back towards Hannah, she was gone.

“Clay? You awake?” Jessica asked through the door. Her voice sounded rough, like she had been crying for a while. Clay sighed.

Wiping his face once again, he got up to his feet slowly, tripping his way back up to his bed. If there was any time he didn’t have the energy for, it would be right now.

“Yeah. C-Come in,” He stuttered, willing his lips to stop shaking.

Jessica opened the door slowly, poking her head in to check her surroundings before walking in. The familiar click click click of her heels grounded Clay. He took a deep breath. His heart monitor was going crazy, any higher and those fucking nurses would come.

“Your mom said you’d be in here,” She said quietly. She was thumbing what Clay thought could be a Snickers bar, and he grinned internally. At least his mom still worries for him enough to get him his favorite.

“Well, you found me. Do you want a fucking prize?” He spit out roughly, head throbbing.

Jessica looked at him in surprise. He shook his head.

“Sorry. Just… tired of being in here, I guess.”

Jessica smiled, walking over to the recliner Hannah sat in just moments ago. He tried not to visibly cringe.

“I get it. I’m tired of being in this fucking place too. I hope once I leave, I never have to come back,” She said firmly, sitting and leaning back. Clay nodded.

Then silence. Jessica must’ve been too caught up in her thoughts to say anything else, and Clay couldn’t blame her. It feels like Clay couldn’t blame anyone lately.

“Oh yeah,” She said in realization, handing Clay the candy bar. “Your mom sent this for you.”

Clay whispered a soft ‘thank you’ before unwrapping it and taking a bite. Who knew being emotionally unstable came with an appetite?

“She cares about you a lot, your mom,” She said, eyes downcast. Clay nodded again, but he knew she couldn’t see it.

More silence. You could cut the tension in the room with a knife, although it was so thick the knife would probably break.

“Did you see Justin? Is he...?”

Jessica’s leg began bouncing, which was a nervous habit she had never done before. Everyone knows Jessica’s nervous habit is talking. (Or yelling, depending on her mood). So, when Jessica’s as silent as she is now, you know something is seriously wrong.

“He’s not dead, if that’s what you mean.” She spit out.

Clay intertwined his hands, pinching the skin of his knuckles to avoid lashing out. He took a deep breath, biting his cheek.

“That’s not what I meant,” He said, tone firm. Jessica looked up at him.

Her eyes were watering, her hair sliding from underneath her gray hoodie and shielding her face.

Hands trembling, she shook her head at him.

Clay’s hands shook.

“No. No, you’re lying.” He said in disbelief, voice rising.

He’s okay. He’s not dying.

Her eyes widened.

“Holy shit, Clay, no that’s not what I meant!” She said quickly.

Clay exhaled.

“Don’t fuck with me, Jessica. You can’t imagine the shit I’ve gone through these past three days. Seriously.”

Jessica nodded.

“Trust me, I can imagine.” She said.

The Sun’s rays crept into the room, sneaking up behind Jessica, illuminating her body in soft golden light. It emphasized Jessica’s diminishing frame, making her skin look even more pale and tired.

Has she been sleeping lately? She looks terrible.

Another silence.

At this point, the clock above the TV in front of him was better company, at least its incessant ticking filled the empty space in Clay’s ears. He wanted to say it was comforting, but it wasn’t. It —like every other thing in this fucking place— reminded him that he was awake.

He would say he hated it, but he’d be repeating himself.

A phone rang.

Clay also wanted to say that the sound startled him, that the sound snapped him into reality, but the truth was that the sound dug him deeper into his mind. Deeper into the dark. He blinked a few times, willing himself to wake up, to focus, but he couldn’t.

Maybe he didn’t even want to.

Maybe, he couldn’t live in a world where Justin wouldn’t be on the other end of the phone, where his strong, honeyed voice wasn’t playfully criticizing whatever dumb thing Clay was complaining about that day.

Maybe he wasn’t ready to be in a world where his only form of communication with Justin was with his voicemail.

Maybe he wasn’t fucking ready to delete Justin’s number. Ready to see Justin’s adoption file be put on a shelf.

Maybe he wasn’t ready for a life without Justin Foley.

And so, he begged that it was Jessica’s phone instead of his, because he couldn’t bear to pick up a call on his phone and have someone else tell him the bad news.

Because if it came to that, Clay Jensen would honestly, truly, lose himself.

“Clay?” Jessica asked softly, shaking his arm.

He looked over at her.

“Is it mine?”

She nodded.

Tears of fear were clouding behind Clay’s eyes. Swallowing, he gestured to the blanket closet where the nurses placed his belongings, dreading touching the metal device again.

Jessica walks over slowly, the clicks of her heels reminding him of the clock. He’s running out of time.

Hurry up…

Rummaging for a bit, (which was weird considering he only had about three items and his clothes in there) she finally grabs it and walks over just as slow, placing the phone in his lap.

Clay couldn’t touch it. She noticed this.

“Do you want me to answer next time?”

Clay bit his lip.

“Would that be rude? To you, I mean.” He asked.

She laughed humorlessly.

“No, Clay. It wouldn’t.”

It rang again, and he could see, faintly, that it wasn’t his parents, or Justin, (unfortunately) but Ani.

“Fucking great,” He said, annoyed.

He pressed decline.

“What, you don’t like her anymore?” Jessica said, slightly amused this time.

Clay scoffed, rolling his eyes.

“No, that’s not it. She’s just-”

“Slightly intrusive? Stubborn? Dedicated?”

Clay furrowed his brow. Where was she getting at?

Jessica smiled, which was probably the first real smile that Clay’s seen out of her today.

“You two have a lot in common.” She stated.

He took a deep breath, knowing where this conversation was leading to.

“She’s just my friend, Jessica. She’s made that pretty fucking clear.”

Jessica raised her eyebrow, leaning back in her seat. Her leg shaking in anticipation.

“But...?”

“But,” He began, rubbing his eyes. “She just thinks she knows more than she actually does. And I’m tired of it. I mean, aren’t you?”

Jessica tilted her head in deliberation.

“Yeah, sometimes. I mean, she fell asleep in Justin’s room. I couldn’t even close my eyes for one second, and there she is, snoring.”

“She’s in Justin’s room?” He asked, surprised.

Jessica nodded again.

Clay shook his head, full-bellied laughing in disbelief.

Of course, Ani was up in Justin’s room. Of course! It wouldn’t be Amarowat Anysia fucking Achola if she wasn’t in someone else’s fucking business, would it? Wouldn’t be Ani if she wasn’t playing the role of good Samaritan. Justin didn’t even like her that much, and yet she’s here. God, she’s so fucking sweet, isn’t she?

Jessica laughed quietly alongside him. The whole situation really was amusing.

“Surprised she’s managed to get past her mom this whole time.” Clay said.

“I think she’s out of town. I overheard her talking about it at school. Some family thing.”

Clay beckoned her for some water on the table next to the door. She rolled her eyes and walked over, pouring the water into a Styrofoam cup and bringing it over much faster this time, and he was grateful. He drank it down quickly.

“So-”

Before Jessica could begin talking her phone rang, cutting into their pleasant conversation.

“I swear to god if its her,” She said under her breath. Clay smiled.

Jessica reached into her purse, pulling her phone out quickly and pressing ‘answer’ without checking the caller ID. He found that a bit odd but said nothing.

Faintly, Clay could hear the deep and scratchy voice of Zach, who seemed to speak quickly, stumbling over his words. Quickly, he sat up, curious of what he was saying.

The more he spoke, the more Jessica lost color in her face, until her skin was almost pale. Her jaw dropped and she began to cry, fat drops sliding down her cheeks and into her lap. Clay was becoming anxious. This wasn’t normal. It was happening too fast.

If Zach was in the room, then he would know what’s happening with Justin. Which means that if Jessica is having this reaction, then Justin isn’t okay.

Justin isn’t okay.

Justin isn’t okay.

“Jessica, what the fuck is he saying?” He asked firmly. Jessica said nothing, her hand over her mouth to suffocate her cries. She wasn’t even looking at him, which only agitated Clay, increasing his nervousness.

“Jessica,” He began, voice rising.

She shook her head, heavy cries leaving her throat. She rested her head on her knees, her phone sliding out of her hand and falling to the ground. Clay all but jumped out of bed, swiping the phone and swiftly placing it to his ear.

“Zach,” He called out, his lips shaking, along with his hands. He could feel the tears brimming his eyelids. “What’s going on?”

“Clay? Thank fuck!” Zach said. His voice was cracking, and he was sniffling. Clay felt a wave of nausea roll through him.

“I tried calling you earlier, so did Ani, but you didn’t pick up and-”

“Zach, tell me WHAT THE FUCK is going on RIGHT NOW before I lose my shit!” He shouted. He didn’t care if he was rude, something was going on with Justin, he could feel it. He needed to know.

“Well…”

Clay walked over to the door, one hand on the doorknob, ready to leave. He didn’t care if he’d roam the hospital in this stupid gown, he had to go.

His arm was dripping blood, his IV needle resting on the floor from where he yanked it out. If he thought too long about what the blood reminded him of, he’d begin to spiral.

“Well?!”

Zach hesitated. Clay pushed the door open.

“It’s Justin.”

A tear slipped down his cheek and onto his collarbones. It was hot against his skin.

“What ABOUT JUSTIN, ZACH?”

“Clay,”

“FUCKING TELL ME!”

Zach took a deep breath.

“He’s waking up.”

Clay was halfway into the hallway when he fell to his knees. Nurses quickly surrounded him, lifting him to his feet. Their hands were bloody. He was grateful for them, because he doesn’t know if he’d be able to walk after hearing that. They tried to grab the phone but he swatted their hands away.

He shouted cries of relief.

“Why— why the fuck didn’t you say that earlier Zach? You had me shitting myself, you know that?”

He was walked back into the room where Jessica was sat up now, wiping her face with shaky hands. She still wasn’t looking at him. One nurse grabbed his arm to block the blood flow while another rushed out to grab a new IV needle. He didn’t even feel the pain of blood loss, he just felt relieved.

He handed the phone to Jessica, Zach still on the line.

Clay took a good look at her, hoping to catch her attention. She looked up, fresh tears threatening to fall. Her breath began quickening and she bit her lip.

“Why did you have that reaction?” He questioned, walking over to the closet to put on his clothes. “He’s waking up now, let’s go.”

Jessica shook her head again, a small, sad smile on her lips.

“Oh Clay,” She said softly.

Clay sent her another look, this time of confusion.

She wiped her new tears.

“You didn’t let him finish.”