Work Header

Reinvention [A Dear Evan Hansen AU : Act One]

Chapter Text

August 29, 2016





Brrriiing. Brrriiing. Brrriiing.


Evan Hansen opened his eyes, and before his brain could even begin functioning, his chest tightened, and an overwhelming, intense wave of panic crashed over him, sending an icy, static-like chill through his every nerve. The first day of school.




No use pressing snooze and elongating his annual pre-first-day-of-school panic... not like he could fall back asleep now, anyway. Evan groggily leaned over, his arm flopping around on his nightstand until it found his phone. He grumbled under his breath upon seeing the time: 5:45am. 


Whose idea was it to start school at 7:20 anyway?


Evan was by no means a night owl, but he had never been particularly fond of being up before the sun- a fact about himself that high school had brought out in him within the first week of freshman year. 


Freshman year.


      It seemed like a lifetime ago. He remembered how miserable he thought he had been at the time, and he almost laughed. He wished he could go back in time, tell his poor, naïve freshman self that he would soon long for the days where he felt misery. 


It was at least better than feeling nothing.


Evan's legs swung over the side of his bed, and he heaved himself to his feet, staggering as his vision blurred for a moment, jarred by the sudden shift in position. He shuffled to his closet, scanning over his less-than-plentiful options before glancing to the overflowing laundry hamper planted beside his nightstand. He really should have done laundry last week.


He shifted his gaze back to the shirts hanging in his closet, and though the options were scarce, Evan felt a rush of overwhelm at the thought of having to decide what to wear. Clothes made the man, didn't they? What if he chose the wrong thing and everyone laughed at him or hated him? There was no way he was capable of being in the know enough to possibly choose the right outfit. 


This was quickly becoming a much bigger deal than it would be to a normal person, Evan realized, and sucked in his breath. 


Evan turned around and reached back over to his nightstand, taking hold of his bottle of Ativan. He unscrewed the lid and popped a pill, tossing the bottle back onto his nightstand and closing his eyes as he chewed. The Ativan was an emergency medication that was meant to stop him from spiraling or panicking within minutes whenever he took one. It only worked sometimes. Fortunately, after a minute or two of deep breathing, today was one of those sometimes. 


Evan reached for his go-to blue striped polo. Nothing too fancy- he didn't want to draw that kind of attention to himself... or any attention to himself, for that matter- but nothing too casual either. Just enough to make it appear like he put in a little effort this morning. Not that anyone would notice either way, but it at least made him feel a little less guilty for being so completely indifferent about the fact that he was about to start his first day of senior year. 


Most students would be thrilled to be so close to graduating- the beginning of the end, his mother had called it. For maybe the first semester of freshman year, Evan had been genuinely excited for the day that he would be a senior- several privileges bestowed upon him that no other grade could hold the right to, being cool with teachers and staff because you know them all and they all know you, being the one all the underclassmen looked up to, senior skip days toward the end of each semester, the list went on. 


That excitement had fizzled out practically as soon as it started.


Most of the privileges seniors held had to do with cars: leaving campus for lunch, parking in the senior lot so you don't have to walk as far to the buildings as the underclassmen lot, getting to paint your own designated parking space. Evan had actually been dumb enough for a little while to believe that he'd have a car by the time he turned sixteen. He wasn't sure if it was the adrenaline of finally being a high schooler that had played that trick on him, but reality had struck him soon enough. He hated driving, anyway; the videos and courses he had to take in Drivers' Ed had successfully traumatized him into never getting behind the wheel. He had driven enough to pass his test (which he could only take with help from his good friend Lexapro), and hadn't driven since. Even if he wanted a car of his own, it's not like he'd get one. His mom could barely afford her own car, let alone one for her son, whom she didn't even care enough about to take off work each Thanksgiving and most Christmases to spend with. 


Not having his mother's support didn't particularly do much for Evan's self image. Nobody knew who Evan Hansen was. Not even his own mother. Not even Evan Hansen. He had been sickeningly optimistic to believe things would be any different than in middle school, where maybe three people had even known his name outside of the teachers who were obligated to. He was a background character in his own life, and he had somehow come to believe his name would become one that everyone knew? That people would greet him or want to talk to him when they saw him in the halls? Pathetic. 


The only privilege he was kind of looking forward to was senior skip days, but even still, each was one less day of the structured schedule he needed to function, and one more day of suffocating solitude, inevitably alone at his house. The more he thought about it, the worse it sounded. 


Evan lazily tossed his polo onto his bed and shifted his attention to his dresser, where he opened his pants drawer and rummaged through his- again, scarce- options. He would really have to do laundry when he got home from school today. 


Settling on a pair of khaki pants, Evan tossed them onto his still unmade bed into a crumpled pile with the polo, and shuffled back to stand in front of it. He caught a glimpse of himself in the mirror out of the corner of his eye. Or, rather, caught a glimpse of the big, bulky, white bandaging and gauze wrapped around his arm. 


That damn cast.


It was itchy. It was hot. He was pretty sure it was tighter than it was supposed to be. It was a pain in the ass to change clothes with. It was even more of a pain in the ass to shower with. But worse than any physical inconvenience, it was a constant reminder.


Wake up, exist emotionlessly, forget to eat, go to sleep. It was the routine Evan had grown accustomed to, but far from the one he wanted. It was an endless, excruciating cycle, and he was trapped in it. That cast was just a burdening reminder that he could never escape it... no matter how hard he tried, or how desperately he wanted to. 


A quizzically-inflected meow from his doorway made Evan lift his head to a pair of bright green eyes gazing at him. He smiled.


"Good morning," he cooed, nudging his clothes aside and sitting on his bed again as his calico eagerly trotted up to him, her purr loud and her eyes wide. "What have you been up to all night?" She hopped up onto the bed beside him, inviting herself into his lap and butting her forehead against his open palm affectionately.


Evan's mother had gotten him Bonsai the summer before his sophomore year to keep him company when she couldn't. She'd first been accepted into law school at the time, and felt bad for not being able to spend as much time at home anymore, so she'd come home with a kitten to hopefully make up for it.


Evan was, obviously, overjoyed, and to this day, he loved that cat more than anything, even (especially) himself. They had gotten her before their finances had gone under, however, and Evan was pretty sure Bonsai had been a factor in their monetary struggles, but his mom would never admit it. Even still, both parties loved the hell out of Bonsai way too much to care that she was part of the problem. 


Bonsai was undoubtedly the best part of Evan's life. She'd been the main reason he'd stuck it out as long as he did, and by association, his main source of excruciating guilt after he had broken his arm. She'd been practically right outside the hospital when he got out, much to Evan's horror. 


Bonsai was a primarily outdoor cat, but she never usually strayed past the adjacent neighborhoods, so seeing her racing up to him in the parking lot at the hospital- several miles from home- had been a jarring experience of several emotions. He knew she had known something was wrong, and he had clung to her crying on the whole car ride home, wracked with unbearably overwhelming guilt, anger, frustration, disappointment, and about seven billion other emotions. He hadn't even been thinking about her as he climbed that tree, and yet here she was at his side, softening the blow of the consequences without so much as a moment's hesitation.


She had hardly left his side in the months following his... injury. He wasn't sure if she was unnerved by how drastically it had changed him, or she wanted to make sure he was safe and taken care of as he healed, or if she just didn't trust him enough to leave him alone (rightfully so, to be fair). It had only been in the past few weeks that she had started branching back out and making her usual rounds, but she was never far, and always knew when her presence was needed, showing up before Evan himself even realized it. He was fairly convinced she had a sixth sense for knowing when he was at his worst and showing up right in the nick of time.


Everyone in the neighborhoods and areas she would frequent simply adored her: Bonsai was the everyday neighborhood watch cat. Nobody really cared who she belonged to, though, not that Evan could blame them. She had a collar, was clearly well taken care of, and had been around for two years at that point, so any confusion or concern over where she actually lived and whether or not she was lost had fizzled out ages ago- it was a silent agreement within the Bonsai-range community that she belonged wherever she went, and everyone was fine with that.


Evan certainly didn't mind her being so popular. She loved and deserved the attention, and in a way, it made him feel connected to the outside world and anyone Bonsai would cross paths with. He never interacted with them or anything (not that he wanted to), but it gave him the tiniest flicker of pride and an even bigger flare of hope to know that he was the reason these people had Bonsai. He had changed their lives, if only slightly, and that was a fact he never got tired of telling himself. 


Bonsai hopped off Evan's lap and back onto the floor, heading for the door again before pausing briefly to look back over shoulder and meow at him.


"Oh, that's what's going on. You're hungry, huh?" Evan got to his feet and tugged his oversized sleep shirt over his head, tossing it into the overflowing laundry hamper and missing pathetically. "You only love me because I feed you. I'll check your bowls on my way out," He promised as he stepped out of his sweatpants and tossed them into the hamper, missing yet again.


Bonsai perched herself by the door, curling her feathery tail over her paws and watching him intently, as if to hold him to that.


Evan smiled again as he pulled on his khakis, feeling the tension drain from his muscles just looking at her. She was magical in that sense- her simple existence made Evan's better. He couldn't explain it, but he certainly wasn't complaining.


It had definitely taken warming up to, that his cat was more extroverted than he was. But Bonsai hadn't had much trouble easing his mind and assuring he was still her favorite person, and as long as he could be sure of that, he didn't particularly care where else she hung around or who with. She was always close to him, seemingly at arm's length. Evan was her sun, her epicenter- she went where he went, revolved around him- no questions asked, no hesitation. 


He would find her lingering by the exit as he left campus some days, and he could only assume she had been hanging around the woods or the town center, both a short distance from the school. She would beg to be carried or walk alongside him as he walked home, hop in the car with him on the rare occasions he had a ride, and silently snuggle herself into his backpack if he took the bus- a secret stowaway. It was the one part of the school year Evan wasn't dreading.


Bonsai meowed, and Evan's head snapped up. "I said I'll feed you later!" He scoffed, waving his hand at her dismissively, and Bonsai meowed again, slipping back out of his room in defeat. "You'd think I was starving you or something." Evan rolled his eyes and shook his head in amusement. 


He pulled his polo over his head, carefully ensuring no threads became caught in his cast, and glanced at the clock. 5:57. He still didn't have to leave for school for another half an hour, and he silently cursed himself for waking up so early. He had done it so he would have time to press snooze, plus extra time to pull himself together in case he started spiraling, but still be left with enough time to get to school by 7 and make sure he knew where he was going. All that seemed so stupid now: he hadn't needed any of that time and now he would be stuck alone with his thoughts until he had to leave.


Evan glanced around his room in a search for something to do, and settled his eyes on his bed. He brought himself back to the bedside, straightening the sheets. Re-tucking his comforter beneath his mattress, he pulled the rest of it up and precariously folded the edge back onto itself. He didn't usually make his bed; it seemed pretty pointless, but today at least, he needed anything he could get to distract himself.


He turned to the mirror next, taking a brief look at his hair and making a beeline for the bathroom. He ran a washcloth beneath the warm water in the sink and gave his face a good scrub (he had showered last night, so he didn't need to do much), then reached for his comb to fix his part. He smoothed some of the untamed curls with the remaining moisture on his hands from the washcloth. 


Evan took a hard, deep look at the person in front of him. Who that was, he didn't know. He saw tired, heavy, defeated eyes: eyes whose dark reality had been covered by rose-tinted glasses for as long as he could remember. All thanks to his mom, and then more recently, Dr. Sherman. They didn't truly care if he was okay, they just wanted him to say he was. So he always did. 


He drew in a deep breath and reached for his toothbrush and toothpaste.


Evan went on autopilot, zoning out until his phone went off in his back pocket and he practically leaped a foot in the air. He leaned over to spit out the toothpaste and wipe his face as he fumbled for his phone. He turned off the alarm, set to remind him to take his Lexapro. He barely registered the alarm's message, turning it off and sticking his phone back into his pocket after checking the time: 6:05.


Still twenty minutes to go. After deodorant and one last check of his face and hair, he stepped out of his bathroom and flicked the light off, heading back into his room and glancing around, looking for something to do. He was dressed, he'd already packed his backpack the night before, his bed was made, he looked and smelled decently presentable, he would feed Bonsai on his way out. What was he forgetting?


His eyes settled on his laptop. Maybe he could get a headstart on his every-other-weekly letter assignment for Dr. Sherman. He wouldn't see him until next week, but it was better than sitting and thinking for twenty minutes. 


Evan hopped into bed and opened his laptop, signing in and opening an empty Word Doc, but the world suddenly slowed around him, and he froze, the endless possibilities overwhelming him. He tried to tunnel in on the instructions he’d memorized.


His therapist had told Evan to start every letter the same way.


"Dear Evan Hansen,

Today is going to be a good day, and here's why."


Evan hadn't immediately opposed the idea in theory- the good intentions were there, at least. He couldn't really imagine it making a real positive impact, but what did he have to lose? After several weeks of humoring Dr. Sherman, however, Evan had started wondering if it was truly helping. If anything, it hurt more to force himself to be positive when everything about him and his life was just... not. It wasn't real. There wasn't actually anything to look forward to. Evan didn't actually believe anything he wrote... he didn't believe any day would be a good day. It was false optimism. It was all fake. Lies.


Gradually, Dr. Sherman had stopped asking to see Evan's letters, so naturally, Evan had gradually stopped writing them. When he had started falling back into old habits and getting worse again, however, probably around early May, he had told Evan to start writing them again, and had diligently requested to see a letter at each of their appointments every other week since then. Next week would be no different.


Evan swallowed hard and took a deep breath, clearing his throat and letting his hands fall onto the keyboard. He could wing it, right? He'd made up a zillion of these letters already, what difference was today?


Dear Evan Hansen.


Even seeing his name written in words made his skin crawl. Who was that? Did he know him? Did he even want to?


Evan Hansen. That wasn't even his real name. Well, it was, but it was his middle name. Mark was his first name...named after his father. His mother had wanted Evan. She lost that battle, at least according to his birth certificate, but at least she won the war. 


He never went by Mark. He visibly flinched each time someone referred to him that way. He swallowed hard again upon remembering that he would have to answer to Mark at least five times today. Saying anything during attendance was hard enough, but having to publicly answer to a name that brought so much tight, sour bitterness into his chest was even worse. 


He swallowed hard again upon remembering that he would have to answer to Mark at least six times today, probably more. Saying anything during attendance was hard enough, but having to publicly answer to a name that brought so much tight, sour bitterness into his chest was even worse. 


He never corrected the teachers in front of the class on the first day of school. He'd have to come up to them after class and briefly explain that he goes by Evan, hoping they'd remember for next time so he wouldn't have to answer to anything but Evan again. They didn't remember often. What could he say? He was forgettable.


Today is going to be an amazing day, and here's why:


Evan shrugged slightly, changing the average "good" to an even more pathetically optimistic "amazing." 


...because today, all you have to do is just be yourself.


The corner of Evan's mouth twitched, and he almost smiled. Himself wasn't enough. It had never been enough.


But also confident, that’s important. And interesting, easy to talk to, approachable.


Evan's hands paused. Dr. Sherman probably wouldn't like him straying from his original point like that. He'd say that mindset was making it more complicated for himself, putting more obstacles and social barriers in his way for him to have to knock down than were already there. 


But mostly be yourself: that's number one, just be true to yourself. 


Evan figured re-emphasizing the importance of his opening claim would probably do him good. Yet, as he read back what he'd written thus far, his hands moistened atop his keyboards, and his heart raced as he tried to fight the thoughts of what 'being himself' looked like... but more prominently, how good he had already shown to be at messing that up.


Suddenly, his hands were flying again, and this time, he had no idea what he was typing. Evan's eyes could barely catch up to the words on the screen as they appeared. All he could recognize was that he wasn't in control, but was he ever?


Evan pulled his hand back and sunk his nails into his free arm to anchor it so he could catch up to himself.


Also, though, don't worry about whether your hands are gonna get sweaty for no reason and you can't make it stop no matter what you do, because they're not gonna get sweaty. I don't even know why you're bringing it up. It's not going to happen, because all you have to do is just be yourself. 


He had barely finished reading when Evan's brain fully went on autopilot, and he was typing again. Unsure what about, he kept typing, not really caring at this point. He was rambling... again. He couldn't even keep his mind from veering off while he was writing . How was he supposed to talk to anyone and expect it to go well?


Seriously though, I'm not gonna worry about it, because it's not gonna be like that time where you had the perfect chance to introduce yourself to Zoe Murphy at the jazz band concert last year. When you waited afterwards just to talk to her and tell her how good she was. And you were gonna pretend to be super casual, too, like you didn't even know her name. She'd introduce herself and you'd say "I'm sorry, I didn't hear you, Chloe? You said your name was Chloe?" And she'd be like "No, it's Zoe, I said Zoe." And then you'd be like "Oh, well, you see, I thought you said Chloe because I'm just very busy with other stuff right now, is the thing."


Zoe. Of course his brain had turned this into something about Zoe. He felt his ears warm. He was fairly sure that was the only thing his head was capable of- thinking of Zoe whenever it could, coming back to that tiny beacon of hope whenever he could find a way to awkwardly weasel it in there. He sighed, knowing this letter was already a bust, but letting his fingers fall back to the keys to finish typing it anyway.


But you didn't even end up saying anything to her anyway, because you were worried that your hands were sweaty. Which, they weren't sweaty until you started worrying that they were sweaty, which made them sweaty, so you put them under the thayhand dryer in the bathroom, but then they were still sweaty- they were just very warm now, as well. 


"So, you just decided not to eat last night?"


Evan jumped out of his skin, instinctively slamming his laptop shut and looking down at his lap. Heidi Hansen stood leaned against his doorframe, holding up a twenty dollar bill she'd left on the counter last night before she left. No note, no "I love you," no time she'd be back, nothing. Just a slightly wrinkled twenty and an empty driveway. Evan honestly wasn't even expecting her to be here this morning- he was so used to waking up to an empty house, it almost made him more anxious when he didn't.


"I wasn't hungry." Evan responded immediately, having had this conversation many times already. He shrugged, fidgeting with a loose thread on his cast, but barely able to keep hold of it as his fingers kept slipping, and he realized that, yet again, worrying about sweaty hands had given him sweaty hands. 


His mom shook her head and made her way over to his bed. "You're a senior in high school, Evan," she sighed, pocketing the twenty in her scrubs again and leaning over to pick up a jacket from off his floor. "You have to be able to order dinner for yourself if I'm at work."


Evan made the mistake of glancing over at her, their gazes meeting very briefly. Both of them immediately turned back away, but not before Evan had been able to read that tired emotion that he knew all too well: disappointment.


"You can do it all online now," she went on, trying to lift her voice a little. "You don't have to talk to anyone on the phone. I know you don't like the phone...."


The false cheeriness melted out of her voice and was replaced with an exhausted frustration- subtle, but not subtle enough to escape Evan's finely tuned senses. He'd somehow trained himself to detect even the slightest negativity in someone's tone, eyes or comment. It wasn't often when he couldn't, he had come to realize.


"Yeah, see, but that's not true, actually," Evan found himself replying before he could bite his tongue, and his mom looked back up at him, slightly confused. "You have to talk to the delivery person when they come to the door. Then they have to make change, and you have to stand there while it's silent and they're counting the change."


"Okay, this is what you're supposed to be working on, Evan, with Dr. Sherman?" Heidi's muscles slackened, in an attempt to look more relaxed, Evan guessed, but all he saw was a tired glaze in her eyes. She draped the jacket over the foot of Evan's bed. "Talking to people, engaging with people. Not running away from people."


He'd heard this speech before, too... several times. Honestly, he was starting to wish he had woken up to an empty house. He hadn't particularly needed one of her 'pep talks' this morning. She had a very unhelpful habit of trying to remind him where he should be with Dr. Sherman and how his brain should be functioning, and it only made him feel worse. He was honestly starting to wonder if she even had good intentions at this point. He knew he should be in a better place. How hard was it to not point out that he was even failing at that? 


His eyes fell back down to his damp hands, which had subconsciously started attacking each other, his nails digging into the cuticles on his casted hand in a sudden urgency to tear them out.


"You're right, I'm gonna be a lot better," Evan responded quickly, just eager to be finished with this conversation. He should've just left as soon as he was finished getting ready. Who cares if he got to school early? It was better than sitting here with his mom having to hear her strain to sound like she cared, and wasn't just tolerating him out of obligation. 


"No, no, I know," His mother raised her hands slightly, nodding in acknowledgement, probably only to try and keep him from thinking she was judging him. Too late. "I know you are. That's why I made you an appointment with Dr. Sherman for this afternoon. I'll pick you up after school."


"I already have an appointment next week," Evan reminded her, looking up with eyebrows knitted in confusion, the taste of anxiety suddenly burning in the back of his throat again. 


"And I thought maybe you could use something a little bit sooner.”


Because I skipped dinner once? Evan wanted to say, but he let his head fall back down to look at his lap instead. He truly just hadn't been hungry last night. Was it because of crippling nausea and school-induced anxiety? Yeah. But he had at least saved his mom twenty bucks in the process. With how bad their finances were, shouldn't she be thanking him?


Evan never really got hungry anymore. He had become accustomed to the discomfort and pain of an empty stomach, and it felt more foreign at that point to eat upon feeling those pangs than to ignore them. He wasn't a fan of the way a full belly felt, he would've preferred the pain of an empty one... so he just never really ate anymore.


That was what he was forgetting to do this morning. He had promised Dr. Sherman to try and eat breakfast more often- a promise he had not regularly held true to, but still, a promise. He cringed slightly, the thought of eating something- anything- sending his stomach into merciless somersaults. Surely he had to eat something on the first day of senior year, but there wasn't a single thing in his house or the school cafeteria that he could think of that didn't make him wanna hurl. 


"Hey, have you been writing those letters he wants you to do?" His mother's voice pulled him out of his head and he blinked at her, not fully processing her question yet. "Y'know, the letters to yourself? 'Lil pep talks? 'Dear Evan Hansen, this is gonna be a good day, and here's why!'" She was very bad at pretending to be excited. "Have you been writing those?"


Evan looked away. "Yeah, I started one," Heidi let out a long breath through puffed cheeks and raised her eyebrows at him, hands on her hips, clearly unconvinced. "I'll finish it at school!" Evan vaguely gestured to his laptop. He'd already had it out this morning, what more proof did she need? Did she honestly expect him to show her the letter?


"Those letters are important, honey," Heidi went on, now standing an officially awkward distance from Evan's bed, and leaning over to playfully shove his shoulder. "They're gonna help you build your confidence. Seize the day!" Her voice thundered and she shook her raised fists beside her head.


Evan blinked at her, weakly and pathetically mimicking her movement. "I guess."


"I don't want another year of you sitting at home on your computer every Friday night telling me you have no friends." Heidi stood up straight again, one hand on her hip, the other gesturing to his laptop. Her tone was only light teasing, but all Evan heard was mocking, and he felt a coil of hurt and frustration in his chest. 


Don't pretend like you're here Friday nights, he wanted to snap. Maybe once a month, if I'm really unlucky.


"Neither do I." was all he managed to get out. 


His mom went quiet briefly and closed in on the side of Evan's bed, reaching to tug him against her in a stiff side-hug. "Let's go into this year with high hopes and high expectations, okay? It's a new start, let's make the most of it! I really feel like this could be your year, if we can just make the decision to try before we decide that everything's gonna go wrong."


Evan stiffened in her awkward embrace, jaw clenching. Did she honestly not think he was trying? Trying was all he could do at that point, and she hadn't even noticed?


"Hey, I know!" Heidi released her grip from Evan, clearly not actually reading into the fact that she'd just completely brushed off her son's efforts. She snapped her fingers and pointed at his cast. "You can go around today and ask the other kids to sign your cast! That'd be the perfect icebreaker, wouldn't it?"


Evan couldn't think of one thing he would rather do less. But she had already grabbed a sharpie from the cup of writing utensils on his nightstand, and she held it out to him.


A smile rested on her face. She was actually excited about this idea. This idea. For her son, Evan Hansen, to go up to people at school that he didn't know, hand them a sharpie and ask them to permanently brand the plaster stuck to an arm they'd never met.


Evan's mother truly didn't know him at all.


"Perfect," Evan muttered half-heartedly, reaching for and taking the sharpie from his mom, whose smile widened, satisfied.


"I'm proud of you already." 


"Oh," Evan looked away and pocketed the sharpie. Did she really think that meant something to him? How clueless should she get? "Good." He said finally, catching a glimpse of a shift in his mother's expression, but lifting his legs to turn and face the other direction on the bed before he let himself read it.




Heidi watched Evan slip his shoes on and take his Lexapro as if she wasn't there, a heavy weight settling itself on her shoulders. She knew that weight well: defeat. Heidi slipped out of Evan's room and into the kitchen, looking for any sign that he might've eaten something. Nothing on the table, in the sink, or in the trash. The lights were still off. It didn't even look like Evan had gone in the kitchen at all yet this morning. 


She heard footsteps approaching from the hallway harboring Evan's room, and quickly rushed to the cabinet to grab him some sort of breakfast. He needed to eat something... anything . She wished she knew what was happening in his head: why he barely ate, why his brain couldn't just give him a break, why she couldn't seem to reach him no matter what she tried. Her heart ached, and she let out a sigh. 


Heidi reached for the bagels and quickly fumbled to undo the twist tie. The sound of sneakers passed by on the other side of the kitchen wall before stopping at the front door.


Heidi had a few moments to spare, she realized, as she heard the quick, eager pitter patter of little paws. She heard the bag of cat food crinkle, and then the sound of it falling into Bonsai's food dish, just as she pulled a bagel out of the bag and rushed to catch Evan as he stepped out the front door.


"Honey, I-"


The door closed.







"Morning, Dad. Pass the milk."


The air in the Murphy household was tense. Zoe wasn't sure what she had been expecting; it was tense every morning. Tense, and always at least slightly smelling of weed. It wasn't hard to identify the culprit of the latter.


Zoe Murphy took her usual seat at the kitchen table, her father seated to her right as he normally did, handing her the milk carton she'd requested upon sitting down without so much as looking up from his phone to say good morning. Her mother was at work in the kitchen, presumably making coffee for the three of them who drank it. Zoe poured herself some cereal into the bowl her mother had set out for her, relishing in the quiet for as long as she could before it was inevitably cut short.


Tension was normal, yes, but today was different. An unusually heavy fog clouded Zoe's head this morning. She didn't know what that meant, or what to make of it, but she knew there was no way it meant anything good. It was almost anticipatory, as if her instincts could just tell something was off today, or something was going to happen. She'd felt it from the moment she'd woken up, but disregarded it as first day of school jitters and tried to ignore it with the assumption that it would go away as she got moving, like any normal school anxiety usually did.


It wasn't going away.


Cynthia Murphy appeared in the entryway of the dining room, precariously balancing two coffee mugs and a travel thermos in her hands. She caught sight of Zoe for the first time that morning, and her daughter braced herself.


"Look at you, all prettied up for your first day of junior year," Cynthia piped up, making an unfruitful attempt to keep her voice light and cheery. 


Zoe sighed. "I look exactly the same." She hadn't done anything differently while getting ready this morning. Her mother could very obviously see that.


"And it looks even better because of how grown up you're getting," Cynthia gave her daughter a (clearly fake) beaming smile, and Zoe had to physically restrain herself from groaning. Her mom went on. "I bet you're excited, huh? Finally an upperclassman?"


Zoe shrugged tiredly and half-heartedly rolled her eyes. "Just another day, Mom. Pretending like it's a big deal isn't gonna make it one." 


Her mother sighed, dejected, but Zoe really didn't care. Why should she pretend that today was going to be an amazing day? It was already far from it. 


Zoe often humored her mom's sad attempts at optimism in an underlying effort to make herself feel better as well, but today just wasn't a day where she cared enough to try, even if the fog in her brain hadn't been distracting and alarming her too much to do so.


Cynthia set Zoe's thermos in front of her, delivering Larry's mug next. A beep sounded from the kitchen. "I'll get the coffee pot and creamer," she announced tiredly, turning back into the kitchen, the pep in her voice already drained. 


Zoe ate her cereal in silence, staring into the bowl and listening to the sounds of her chewing and the spoon occasionally clinking against her bowl. Larry sat just as silently beside her, scrolling through his phone, presumably doing something for work... as usual. 


Larry was a corporate lawyer who had owned his own firm since before his children's time, and their arrival hadn't set him off track very long. He was a working man, not a family man, and he never beat around the bush in regards to making sure his wife and kids knew where his priorities lie.


Zoe really did try hard to love her family, as hard as they made it to, but she'd be lying to herself if she said there wasn't some underlying bitterness toward all of them. Her mother tried too hard, her father didn't try enough, and her brother... Well, bitter wasn't the right word to describe how she felt about her brother.


As if on cue, the thunk of heavy boots making their way down the stairs cut into her thoughts, and Zoe felt her muscles stiffen. 


Connor Murphy lumbered into the dining room, his head low and a few locks of their recently grown out hair falling to cover his eyes and most of his face. Zoe's eyes froze on her cereal, and she did her best to ignore her brother's presence. Connor reached across the table and snatched the carton of milk from Zoe's side without a word, and she flinched away from them instinctively, but said nothing.


She found herself still frozen in a stiff tension even after he retracted his arm, and stayed deathly still until they sat down at the seat across from her and poured themselves some milk into the glass that had been waiting for them.


The heavy, pungent scent of marijuana clung to Connor's figure and wafted into the air around him, but Zoe didn't notice, so accustomed to the smell that it didn't pierce her senses enough to make the realization that it had suddenly become stronger. She watched cautiously as Connor threw their head back and downed their whole glass in a matter of seconds, then slammed it back down to pour himself some more as if it was a shot. His eyes glanced up and locked hers, and Zoe froze again.


"What are you looking at?" Connor grumbled, taking another gulp of milk and crossing his arms on the table. 


Zoe suddenly found the courage to lift her head and look at him straight on, her willingness to submit to her fear of Connor vanishing, and she sharpened her gaze to stare into their narrowed, barely-open eyes. "What are you looking at?" She shot back through gritted teeth, lip curling and the grip on her spoon tightening.


"Guys." Their father cut in firmly, not looking up from his phone, and clearly not willing to deal with them this morning.


Well, good morning to you too! Zoe hissed internally. How nice of you to finally say something. I'd begun to think we were invisible.


"Fuck off, Larry," Connor shot their father a venomous glare before leaning over the table and resting his head on his crossed arms, unafraid to say what Zoe had silently wanted to (a much more blunt rendition, but still). Larry said nothing.


Zoe leaned back over her bowl to take another bite of cereal, her eyebrows knitted and her previous anxiety forgotten. It was remarkable to her that Connor's simple presence could change any and all of her emotions into anger within seconds.


"Morning, honey," Cynthia's voice had lifted again to make one last attempt at being positive as she re-entered the dining room, coffee pot and creamer in her hands. She gave Connor a beaming grin that he didn't see, his face still buried in his arms. "Big day, huh? Ready for school?"


"I don't feel like it," Connor's voice was muffled, and they didn't look up. "I'll just wait a day." That wiped the grin right off Cynthia's face, taking any last hope of having a peaceful morning down with it. Her son was not interested in making this easy for her.


Do you think I do feel like it? Zoe thought. That's not how this works, and you know it.


For a second, Zoe hoped her mother would just give in and let him stay home- then, at least, she'd have to deal with driving him to school one less day. She hated him for crashing his car last summer, and she hated her parents for forcing her into the role of his personal chauffeur. It wasn't her fault he hadn't been paying enough attention to see that deer coming.


A shake of Cynthia's head as she set Zoe's coffee creamer in front of her brought her back to reality, though, and she let out a heavy breath.


"It's your senior year, Connor, you are not missing the first day." Cynthia poured some coffee into Larry's mug and looked at Connor, sweet mom voice long gone and replaced with her firm, no-nonsense mom voice. The corner of Zoe's lips twitched in amusement- that voice was rare. She had definitely been faking her good mood this morning.


"I already said I'd go tomorrow," Connor finally lifted their head, throwing it back in an exasperated frustration. "I'm trying to find a compromise here."


Cynthia huffed, glancing at her husband for backup, but he only blinked, unmoving aside from his finger scrolling on his phone and clearly not really paying attention. "Are you gonna get involved here, or are you too busy on your email, Larry?" 


"You have to go to school, Connor." Larry shifted in his seat, not looking up, but transferring his phone to his other hand, just to really switch things up.


"That's all you're gonna say?" 


Zoe hunched over in her chair, the sharpness in her mother's voice officially discomforting her. She really wasn't in the mood to hear them fight this morning. Maybe she should just get up and leave and say she had agreed to meet Mr. Contrell before school, and she was gonna be late if she didn't leave. Right now.


It wasn't entirely a lie. She wasn't running late yet, but she did have plans to meet her jazz conductor to hand over a set of keys to the band and locker rooms. Being one of only two upperclassmen in jazz band now, the responsibility fell on them to secure the band and locker rooms after they had independent rehearsals. The job usually went to seniors, but there wouldn't be any this year, and Mr. Contrell trusted the two juniors he'd be handing the keys to just as much as if they were seniors.


"Well, what do you want me to say? He doesn't listen," Larry shot back, quickly growing frustrated. "Look at him, he isn't listening. He's probably high." 


Zoe looked at Connor. He definitely wasn't listening. She looked harder, catching full view of his eyes for the first time that morning: Bloodshot. The scent of pot finally hit her.


"He's definitely high," Zoe muttered. That got Connor's attention.


"Fuck you," Connor spat harshly, and he lay his head back into his arms.


"Fuck you ,"  Zoe shot back immediately, dropping her spoon into her now empty cereal bowl and her hand dropping onto the table. Their mother shook her head, making her way back over to Zoe's side of the table.


"I do not need you picking at your brother right now, that is not constructive!" Cynthia scolded, glaring at her daughter.


"Are you kidding?" Zoe gaped, blinking at her in disbelief. How was it that she, and everyone else in this goddamn house, always found some way to twist things into being Zoe's fault? Connor was the one who was somehow already high off his ass by 6:35am. She had literally only backed up her father, and then defended herself when Connor insulted her . She was the last person who should be blamed here.


"Besides, he's not high," Cynthia stated matter-of-factly, disregarding Zoe and turning back to face her all-too-innocent son for confirmation. Zoe whipped around to grab something- anything- from her backpack hanging on the back of her chair to distract her so she wouldn't lose her temper and use a few choice words on the beloved family that was seated around her. She barely registered Connor responding by lifting their head and staring off into space with a smug smirk and hooded eyes, instead flipping open the pocket dictionary she'd packed in her bag for songwriting. 


"Are you high?!"


Sweet, sweet karma. 


"I don't want you going to school high, Connor, we have talked about this!"


Zoe pointed to a random word on the first page she flipped to.


Discord [ noun dis -kawrd; verb dis- kawrd ]

lack of concord or harmony between persons or things.


Ironic. She could almost laugh.


"Perfect, so then I won't go." Connor shrugged, and Zoe glanced up as he pushed his chair back and grabbed his backpack from the floor beside the table. He slung it over his shoulder and disappeared around the corner. "Thanks, Mom!"


Zoe tossed her dictionary back into her bag once she felt it was safe and glanced at her phone to check the time.


"Well, that was a disaster," Cynthia muttered, staring sadly after Connor despite him already being far out of her line of vision.


"Interstate's already jammed," Larry changed the subject absentmindedly as he typed something into his phone, shaking his head. Zoe knew he was eager to move on from that little altercation. Knowing the Murphys, it was going to be the first of many today, so none of them were too keen on dwelling on it.


She still had enough time to have a little more cereal, so Zoe reached for the box and tipped a bit into her bowl as her mother shook out of her trance and appeared back at her side. "Coffee?" Cynthia offered the pot forward, but didn't wait for an answer, and filled Zoe's thermos, nudging the creamer closer to her. 


Zoe picked up the suddenly empty milk carton, and furrowed her eyebrows as she tried to pour some onto her cereal to no avail. "Connor finished the milk," she complained, setting the carton back down and pushing her cereal bowl away. She checked her phone again. She still didn't really need to leave yet, but she wasn't going to pass up this opportunity to get out of the house sooner.


Reaching for the coffee creamer, she popped off the lid and poured a good couple shots into her coffee, watching the color lighten and then setting the creamer back down to screw her thermos closed and push her chair back.


"I'd better head out." Her dad got to his feet, slipping his arms into his suit jacket and reaching for his briefcase and coffee mug, seemingly just as eager to leave as Zoe, and vanished around the corner as his son had minutes before without another word.


Zoe double checked the tightness of her thermos and put one finger over the lid just to be safe, shaking it mercilessly to mix the coffee and creamer as she stood up. She leaned to pull her backpack from the back of her chair and swing it over one shoulder. "If Connor's not ready, I'm leaving without him." 


She grabbed her car keys in the same hand as her thermos and picked up her phone with her dominant hand, nudging her chair back under the table with her hip and turning away from her mother. Zoe unlocked her phone and opened her text thread with Connor, typing quickly and having pressed send twice by the time she got to the front door where her electric guitar case waited.


i'll be in the car

i'm leaving in 5 with or without you


Zoe stuffed her phone into her back pocket and leaned over to heave up her case and close the door behind her to the best of her abilities with two full hands. She had just opened the trunk of her car to toss her guitar in when she got a response.




Zoe lifted her head and stiffly waved to her dad as he backed out of the driveway. He nodded to her formally, and looked back to the road, the firm, emotionless expression he'd held on his face all morning never wavering. Zoe watched his car drive down the road, stop at the stop sign planted at the end of the street, and turn out of sight. She closed her trunk and opened her back door, sliding her backpack into the seat and slamming it again to take her seat behind the wheel. 


Zoe pressed her foot on the brake and turned the key, plugging her phone into the aux cord and scrolling through her music. She glanced at the clock: 6:41. She would leave at 6:46, regardless of whether her passenger seat was occupied, just as she'd promised. 




Cynthia silently dumped Zoe's somewhat-soggy forgotten cereal into the trash can, and placed her bowl and Connor's glass in the sink. She stacked Connor's untouched cereal bowl back on the rest in the cabinet, and set the empty milk carton by the garage door to recycle the next time she went out. She stepped back into the dining room, finishing tidying up after the family that had left her one by one without so much as a goodbye, leaving her wondering, yet again, where she'd gone wrong.


The pessimism under the Murphy roof was utterly suffocating, and they all knew it, but the collective exhaustion of the four of them overpowered any hope that was left of changing that.


This house was just simply wrung dry of energy from countless attempts to turn it into a home, and turn the people within it into a family. Cynthia was the only person who hadn't given up at this point, but her husband and children were quickly growing tired of her false optimism, and she quite honestly wasn't far behind them. She had a sinking feeling that if one more thing went wrong, she wouldn't be able to keep this crumbling household standing anymore, and all the effort she'd been giving would be wiped out. 


Connor was the last to leave. Cynthia felt a rush of relief upon realizing he had given in and was going to school without making her fight him on it anymore, but that feeling knotted into something else she couldn't describe as her son looked back over his shoulder, glancing over the house with a glazed look that she hadn't seen before. He locked eyes with his mother from across the way, and she forced herself to smile. "I love you, sweetheart. Have a good day."


Connor blinked once, and, barely audibly, responded, "I love you, too."


Cynthia took a small step back. She hadn't expected him to say it back... she couldn't remember   the last time he'd said it back. She smiled again, genuinely this time. Perhaps this was a turning point? Her heart skipped a beat thinking about it. Connor could be the key to changing the energy in the family, and maybe this was a sign that he was ready to try! His mother opened her mouth to say something, but Connor had already turned around and stepped outside.


The door closed.