Jake had spent more time at the Heere’s household than he’d ever expected to. Mr. Heere had been nice to him, which was unexpected. He had done his best to repay him- helping him with yard work and cleaning, keeping him company while Jeremy was away. He knew he didn’t have to, but… he felt the need to repay him. Or apologize.
Michael had offered to help him set up Jeremy’s room. Mr. Heere- Levi? No, that still felt too weird to say- had been thankful. The boxes still sat there on the floor where Jeremy had packed them up neatly, the posters stacked on the desk and the rug rolled up in the corner. No one had touched them. Jake hadn’t even set foot upstairs.
Jake tried not to feel sick as he and Michael made their way upstairs. The last time he’d been in Jeremy’s room hadn’t been exactly… Well, great. But he knew that Jeremy wouldn’t want to set his room up after two weeks of whatever happened at an inpatient facility. He knew he wouldn’t, if he was in Jeremy’s shoes. When he’d first moved to this house, he’d left his clothes in boxes for nearly a month.
“I don’t think it’s ever been this clean.” Michael said, clearly trying to make a joke. It wasn’t funny, but Jake laughed a bit anyway. Just to make them both feel just a little better.
It was hard to make this feel like less of a chore. It was daunting. Jeremy’s entire life was packed into these boxes. Opening them would feel too much like… like cutting him open and seeing what made him tick. Jake wasn’t exactly thrilled to think about how Jeremy operated.
“Where do you think we should-” Jake started to say, before he heard the doorbell ring. They both exchanged glances, before shrugging.
Jake had just crouched to read the neat handwriting that was all too familiar when he heard girls' voices downstairs. Teenage girls. He looked up at Michael, who looked just as confused down at him.
“Is that-” Michael started, before tilting his head towards the doorway. “No way.”
Leaning against the Heere’s stair railing made it obvious that they did, in fact, recognize the voices.
“Jake! Michael!” Christine said, grinning widely at them as she waved. Jenna raised a small tin foil tray in a sort of wave, smiling at them both. “We heard that you guys were setting up the room, and we kinda figured- I dunno. An extra couple sets of hands would be nice.”
“I made cookies.” Jenna added helpfully, raising the tray a little higher.
Michael looked at them, blinking behind his glasses. “You- what?”
“Oh, and Rich is bringing Brooke, I think they got… distracted at home.” Christine said with a mischievous grin. “I mean, we can go if you don’t need us, of course. We don’t wanna impose.”
Only Christine would use the word impose in this sort of situation.
After a moment, Jake looked to Michael. He wasn’t sure what he himself was. Jeremy’s- crush? Boyfriend? Friend? But even after it all, Michael was still his best friend. That hadn’t changed.
There was a moment of silence. Even Mr. Heere was quiet- he’d already let the girls into the house, which Jake took to mean that he was fine with them being there. Finally, Michael nodded. “You’re good. Just- don’t touch anything yet, okay?”
The girls followed them up the stairs, looking around the room. Jenna whistled softly under her breath. “I thought you guys were kidding when you said it was cleared out.” Christine elbowed her, shooting her a look that insisted that she shut up.
“Yeah. The one time I’ve ever seen it clean.” Michael muttered, yet again. He looked a little- well, he looked like how Jake felt. Mildly sick, a little awkward, and oddly determined. “Don’t worry, we’ll mess it the hell up soon enough.” He dropped onto the swivel chair, as if he’d forgotten what happened to the guy who owned it.
“Where should we start?” Christine looked to Michael. They all did. Even Jake found himself doing it, asking Michael’s permission and guidance silently. He’d barely been allowed in Jeremy’s room, much less his house.
Michael took a deep breath, before scanning the boxes. “I think- uh. Bookshelves?” He sounded hesitant. Clearly, he hadn’t had this many people paying attention to him and asking him for advice.
Jake nodded. “Yeah- hold on.” He grabbed his bag from by the doorway, pulling out the notebook. It was somehow even more battered than it had been at the start of the summer, the edges a little warped.
“You- kept that?” Michael stared at him.
Jake felt his cheeks burning hot. He felt like he’d just admitted to being an absolute freak, but he tried to ignore it. It was the one thing that he’d had of Jeremy’s, after everything happened. He couldn’t exactly bear to let go of it. “It- I dunno. I just kind of thought…” He trailed off, before shaking his head. “Doesn’t matter.” He flipped through the pages, landing on the list of names. “Uh, open the box with- Jenna’s name first.”
Jenna looked down at her feet. “My name?” Clearly, she hadn’t expected that. The fact that there were names on the boxes was slightly unsettling in itself. They all looked at the stack of boxes, at the neat handwriting in black Sharpie on the sides.
But Jenna sat down, crosslegged, on the floor, rifling through the contents of the box. Jenna had apparently gotten all of Jeremy’s novels. There was a surprising amount of romantic fiction, which Jake found strangely endearing. Jake hadn’t even known Jenna was a reader, really. He hadn’t known much about her. He made a mental note to change that.
Rich and Brooke showed up a little bit later, with Brooke’s hair a little askew and Rich’s shirt rumpled. Neither of them mentioned it, only sitting on the floor to go through the rest of the boxes.
Michael settled into the role of director, informing where things went. Jake was usually the one moving the heavier things, which he didn’t mind. The strain of his muscles helped him forget that he was repairing the room of his depressed- fuck, he really had to stop calling Jeremy his boyfriend in his head.
Jake thought he was fine. He was fine, for the most part. Then he found himself with the box addressed to him on his lap, and as soon as he opened it-
Jake Dillinger didn’t cry often. He had never been much of a crying person. He cried in movies when dogs died, sure, but that didn’t count. Everyone cried. He would so much rather laugh off the pain. It was what he’d done for years, when his parents were gone. People were a lot less likely to worry about him if he joked about the fact that his parents had up and left.
But something about seeing the neat, tidy rows of video games, the ticket stub from the concert they’d gone to, a hoodie that Jake had left behind at his house, a whole assortment of other nicknacks- so horribly sad and touching and depressing all at once- made him break.
Jake’s tears were silent, rolling down his face like he was standing in the rain again. His mind didn’t seem to care that he had a reputation to keep up, didn’t seem to notice that there were others around him, didn’t think about anything other than the idea that Jake had almost lost Jeremy.
He hadn’t let himself think about that. The thought that Jeremy had almost died, almost left Jake and Michael and Christine and all their friends to mourn him, had been pushed away for ages. But if Jake had been five minutes later, if he hadn’t gotten the text, if he hadn’t done something impulsive, they might be carrying these boxes out to clean the room out rather than putting it back together again.
Someone said his name, but he didn’t hear it, not really. He set the box on the ground, standing up. “I’ll-” He started, before the lump in his throat stopped any other words. He made his way down the stairs, only thinking about how he needed fresh air. He found the back door easier than he thought he would, pushing it open and sitting on the back steps.
Jake buried his face in his hands, trying to stop crying. He couldn’t bear the thought of anyone seeing him, or hearing him, or god forbid, coming to check on him.
“Fuck.” He mumbled, wiping his face angrily. He shouldn’t be crying. He should be better than this, they were all upset. But why was this so hard for him?
The screen door swung open, and Jake startled. Shit, who was there? He didn’t look over his shoulder as the person came and sat next to him, quiet. Jake didn’t look for a few moments. He couldn’t let them see his tear stained cheeks, his red eyes.
“Hey. It’s- it’s just me.” Rich’s voice was soft.
Jake looked over at him. Rich watched him, oddly serious, not judging him. At least, Jake didn’t think he was judging him.
“You… you know, you can cry.” Rich said. “It makes sense. I mean, you- really care about him.”
“I almost lost him just after I got him.” Jake hadn’t said anything like this out loud. He hadn’t even let him think it. “I barely had any time with him. I was just- just starting to know how good he is. How much he- he’s funny and caring and smart and- and I could have lost him. And he’d never have really known how much I-” He pressed his hands to his face again. “This is- this is stupid. I feel like I’m mourning someone that’s not even-”
“I know.” Rich shifted closer. “But it’s- it’s okay to feel that way. It’s not stupid, Jake.”
Rich’s hand on his shoulder nearly made Jake break down again. Instead, he only dropped his head to the shorter boy’s shoulder.
“I miss him.” Jake mumbled.
“I miss him too.” Rich’s response was just as quiet. “He’s a good guy. And I know- what he was going through, kind of. But he’s coming home soon.”
The idea made Jake feel even more confused. Jeremy was coming home. He was okay, he was alive, just away. Sometimes, he had the intense panic that he wasn’t actually just away. That everyone was fooling him into thinking Jeremy was in a facility, that he was actually gone for good and no one was telling him. Like with his parents. Away, but never coming back.
Jake couldn’t lose anyone else.
Jake found himself being pulled into Rich’s arms. It was a little odd. They weren’t usually this type of friends, but god, did he need this. Rich’s hugs were warm, comfier than he thought they’d be. His flannel smelled like a mixture of cigarette smoke and Brooke’s shampoo and cologne, which was oddly comforting.
“What if he doesn’t- what if he’s not coming back?” Jake’s voice almost broke. He hated when his voice broke. It made him feel like he was weak. “What if they- what if he’s just as bad, and I lose him again, and…”
“Jake?” Rich’s hand patted his back, a little awkwardly. “He’s okay. You’ve heard him on the phone. He’s coming home. And… and he may be bad, still, we don’t know. But we’re here to help him. You’re here to help. He’s got his dad, too. It’s going to be okay.”
Jake didn’t speak. He stayed there, letting himself dissolve into Rich’s arms. Finally, he pulled back, wiping at his face and taking a deep breath. “God, sorry, dude.”
Rich shoved his shoulder. “Shut up, Dillinger. You needed that.” His eyes were surprisingly soft as he looked at Jake, eyebrows furrowing. “Are you good to go in? No one’s gonna judge you if you’re not.”
Jake actually considered that. Was he good? He felt a little oddly empty, and his chest hurt, and his face felt like he’d somehow gained a shell, but hey. He was… mostly fine.
He nodded, and Rich stood, holding out a hand to him. Jake took it, pulling himself up to stand.
WHen they made it back to the room, Jake didn’t quite meet anyone’s eyes. Someone had unpacked the box with his name on it, which was now folded up in the corner. His hoodie was set on his bag, and everything else seemed to be taken care of.
And now, on the floor sat everyone else, sparkly glitter pens and polaroid pictures strewn across the frayed and worn galaxy rug.
Brooke looked up, shooting Jake a sympathetic smile as she scooted over. “I had a bunch of polaroids from the past few years that I wasn’t using.” She said as they both sat down. “I found the ones with us, and I figured- I dunno. It would be like… a reminder we’re here. You know? And then Jenna said she had pens, because Chris wanted to make little notes on when everything was, and then…” She gestured at the minor chaos. “This happened.”
Jake gave a small smile. It was so very Brooke. It wasn’t exactly something that Jeremy would have done for himself, but… Jake was reminded of his hallway at home. One time in their junior year, Rich had printed out a bunch of photos of his face and taped them over the glass of each and every photo of Jake’s parents that Jake couldn’t bear to take down from the wall. It was stupid, and dorky, but it made Jake feel a little less alone.
So he picked up a photo, a darker one with surprisingly bright fireworks in the background. From that Fourth of July, if Jake could tell anything. And in the front, there was him and Jeremy. His arm was around the other boy’s shoulder, holding him close. God, and he hadn’t even thought of him as anything more than a bro at that point.
He picked up a sparkly green gel pen, staring at the photo. It felt like this was the one photo he should take. He had the odd urge to slip it into his pocket, keep a memento of the time before he knew any of this was going to happen, before he was head over heels for Jeremy Heere, the dorky awkward nerd with the baggy cardigans and the beat up sneakers and the smile that made his freckles disappear.
But he didn’t, using the old notebook with the fake photo-realistic dinosaurs on it to write on the bottom section in his chicken scratch handwriting.
He was reminded of their conversation then. About fireworks, about how they were beautiful and morbid all at once. “At least they get to be beautiful before they go, right?” He’d said, not knowing just how bad he’d sounded, talking to someone going through that.
But Jeremy’s smile was soft, and sad, and even then it had made his heart hurt in a weird way. “I guess that’s as happy an ending as any.”
Jake made his handwriting as neat as he possibly could, even though the words got a little squished. Jake didn’t like comparing Jeremy to fireworks, short lived and there one second, gone the next. Endings weren’t what he was looking for. They’d barely had their beginning, he didn’t want to think about them stopping anytime soon. So he wrote the only thing he was wishing that they had a chance at.
Hoping for a long, happy middle.