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Reinvention [A Dear Evan Hansen AU : Act One]

Chapter Text

August 29, 2016

5:45am

 

EVAN HANSEN’S POV

 

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.

 

Fantastic.

 

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 HANSEN’S POV

 

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.

 


 

6:29am

 

ZOE MURPHY’S POV

 

"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.

 

coming

 

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 MURPHY’S POV

 

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.

Chapter Text

August 29, 2016

6:46am

 

ZOE MURPHY’S POV

 

"I was about seventeen seconds away from leaving," Zoe grumbled, turning down the volume of her music as Connor took his place in her passenger seat and closed the door behind him. She shifted the car into reverse and turned to look over her shoulder at the road behind them. "I was supposed to meet Contrell before class to get my keys. I'm probably gonna be late now." Not entirely true, but she didn't feel too bad about guilt tripping them a little bit. They had made her wait, after all. 

 

Connor shrugged but said nothing as he buckled his seatbelt, turning their head to stare out the window as Zoe pulled out of the driveway. 

 

"What made you change your mind?" Zoe glanced at her brother, shifted into drive and turned the wheel to follow the same path out of the neighborhood that her father had minutes earlier. She fully expected Connor to snap at her to mind her own business, but their face stayed soft and they were seemingly unaffected by her prying. 

 

"Didn't wanna be stuck alone with Mom all day and have her on my ass for skipping, I guess," Connor shrugged again.

 

"Touché," Zoe nodded, but she almost felt as if he wasn't being entirely truthful. She opened her mouth to say so, but quickly found her senses and clamped her jaw shut again. "Did you eat anything?"

 

"I wasn't hungry," Connor shook their head, and Zoe frowned, but didn't press. Connor changed the subject. "Are you nervous?"

 

"Aren't you?" Zoe shot a glance at Connor, who stayed quiet and unmoving. "First day is always nerve-wracking for me."

 

"It's whatever," Connor murmured wistfully, and he tugged at the ends of his hoodie sleeves to cover his hands. Zoe shut up, but he didn't sound angry or even defensive with her for trying to press, so she could let herself relax again. 

 

High Connor was usually very calm and even sweet sometimes, once the weed had gotten a chance to kick in and overpower his normal angry, violent self. She actually kind of supported him smoking (if for somewhat selfish reasons), which she knew her parents did not like. It was much easier to see through the hard shell that'd formed over the years when he was high, and it was really the only time she truly felt safe in their presence or ever felt like she was making any progress reconnecting with him. 

 

Unbeknownst to their parents, Zoe had actually gotten high with her brother on more than one occasion when she had really needed to escape. It wasn't often or anything; the number of occasions definitely hadn’t passed a dozen, but she had to admit she'd actually enjoyed it more than she thought she would. She didn't fully get his borderline addiction to the stuff, but after trying it herself it had been much easier to understand why he liked the way it felt. 

 

The first time had been her favorite: It had been probably close to this time last year, early in Zoe and Connor's sophomore and junior years respectively. She'd tearfully stormed out of the house after a screaming match with her parents over something clearly not important enough for her to remember now, and walked around the neighborhood in an attempt to clear her head. She'd seen Connor's now-totaled Subaru at the park close to their neighborhood. Connor had been seated on the concrete stairs beside the empty playground, high as a kite, and Zoe had walked up to him, held out her hand and said "I want a hit." The look on his face had been priceless. 

 

When they were both high was the only time they both ever really let their guards down with one another: They'd laugh, joke, relax, talk, and sometimes cry. Stoned Connor was even goofy sometimes. But then, as soon as they sobered up, it was all over. Back to a cold, angry distance. It secretly killed Zoe, that drugs had become the only thing that could re-bridge that gap, and even then only temporarily. 

 

Deep down, Zoe desperately wanted back the closeness she'd had with her brother when they were kids. That Connor had been her best friend, her rock, her shoulder. It was the classic 'big brother, little sister' trope- Connor had been very protective over and close with Zoe then, swearing he'd be the kind of brother that would beat up her boyfriends if they cheated on her and who'd appear at her side if she ever got bullied.

 

Now, though, Connor had become the bully. Unless he was high and showing his softer, sensitive side, Zoe was terrified of him, and avoided him as much as possible. Granted, living under the same roof as him had made it rather difficult, but she could usually escape to the sanctuary of her room or take advantage of the luxury of having her own car.

 

She wanted to believe that he didn't want to hurt her. He always seemed horrified right after every time he’d gotten physical, as if he didn't process what he was doing until it was too late.

 

Besides, nothing he did was ever that bad... usually. Nothing beyond bruises or scrapes for the most part, except twice. He'd put a cigarette out on her shoulder her freshman year (she had layers on so the burn wasn't nearly as bad as it could've been, but it still scarred), and when she was in sixth grade, they'd been playing in their treehouse in the backyard and Connor had grown furious for reasons she couldn't even remember, and he'd shoved her out of the tree and broken her wrist. They'd just stared down at her in shock as she cried, jumped down, and ran off. Their parents never made him apologize, and he refused to sign her cast. 

 

"I'm sorry, by the way," Connor admitted quietly after several moments of somewhat comfortable silence. "For yelling at you earlier."

 

Zoe suddenly forgot she was driving, and almost ran the red light at the intersection of the entrance to their school. 

 

"Zoe-!" Connor sat up, bloodshot eyes wide with alarm and his arm instinctively flying over across his sister's chest to press her back against the seat. Zoe shook her head and slammed on the brake, barely screeching to a halt in time to stop before the occupied crosswalk. Some kid crossing the street screamed at her and flipped her off, but she didn't even notice, and stared down at Connor's arm pressed against the front of her shoulders. 

 

"You are?" She said finally, shock and disbelief soaking her tone. Connor slowly retracted their arm and stuffed his hands back into his pockets, staring back down at their lap.

 

"Yeah. And Mom really shouldn't have taken my side either. You didn't do anything wrong," Connor shrugged as if it wasn't the first time he'd apologized to her for anything in years. Zoe stared at them, her jaw slacked and eyes wide. 

 

"Can I get that in writing?" Zoe laughed breathlessly, only half-joking, her eyes widened in her shocked stupor. The light turned green. "How much did you smoke?  What was that pot laced with? Are you feeling okay? Do I need to take you home?"

 

Her questions hadn't really been rhetorical, but Connor just snorted as if they were, unsmiling, but their face still soft. A loud honk from the car behind them made both siblings jump, and Zoe had to restrain herself from instinctively flooring it as she lifted from the brake to turn onto campus. 

 

"Forget how to drive?" Connor chided, raising an eyebrow at her in a gentle tease, letting themself relax a little again.

 

"No," Zoe scoffed, shaking her head again and pulling into her usual parking space. "But, uh... thanks. And it's fine," Zoe glanced at them shyly, but then looked away. "I'm kinda used to Mom taking your side anyway." She added under her breath.

 

She hadn't intended to add that last dig- not out loud, anyway- and she immediately stiffened, but Connor only slowly nodded beside her. "I don't know why she does that," Connor mumbled listlessly. "I wouldn't take my side."

 

Zoe blinked at them in surprise, but he left no space for comments or questions, quickly opening the car door and stepping outside. Zoe followed his lead after a moment, turning the car off before hopping out herself. Connor slid their backpack over their head and shoulder and handed Zoe hers. She slipped into it as she popped the trunk and heaved her guitar case out, slamming the trunk again and pulling her keys back out to lock the car behind them.

 

"Oh, by the way, I don't know if Mom told you, but I have rehearsal after school today," Zoe glanced at Connor as he claimed his place at her side and she felt around her pockets to make sure she had everything. 

 

"On the first day? Damn, they must really hate you," Connor fidgeted with something in his backpack and then closed it again. 

 

"Yeah, kinda," Zoe snorted, stepping up onto the curb with Connor on her tail as she swapped her guitar case to her off hand so she could pull out her phone. "But yeah, I won't be done till six thirty, so unless you can convince Mom to pick you up, do you wanna walk home or wait for me to drive you?"

 

Connor blinked, staring at the ground. "Probably walk," he decided after pausing for several moments. "Dunno. We'll have to see how I feel after getting through the day."

 

Zoe nodded, looking down at her phone to check the screenshot she'd taken of her schedule. First period was jazz band- that was easy enough. The rest was a problem for another time. She clicked a notification coming in from her friend Nick, the other junior she was meeting in the band room to get their keys.

 

where are youuuu

 

Zoe shook her head slightly, amused, and precariously typed her response one-handed, not noticing Connor opening the door for her. 

 

i'm cominnngggg

 

"I should walk my route," Zoe heard Connor murmur as she entered the building. "I still don't know where I'm going."

 

"Okay, I'll see you later then," She lifted her head and pocketed her phone to the sight of him glancing around them and stepping closer. "What are-?" Connor leaned forward, and she braced herself, sucking in her breath, but he softly tugged her into his arms and wrapped them tightly around her.

 

Normally Zoe's instincts would've made her yank away, but her fight-or-flight response was nowhere to be found, and before she could truly process what her brother was doing, she felt her muscles loosen and her free arm snake around him to return his embrace. She melted into the feeling of his arms around her, something she hadn't felt in so long but had missed so much, and she closed her eyes, allowing herself to enjoy it. After all, there was no telling how many more years it would take for him to want to hug her again.

 

Connor gently let go, and Zoe would be lying if she said she hadn't felt an empty disappointment settle on her as he briskly turned away and disappeared around the corner. A brief hug in the hallway before class probably didn't mean anything to most siblings, but for Zoe, it felt like Connor had just silently told her that he loved her, for the first in what had felt like a dozen lifetimes.

 


 

6:59am

 

EVAN HANSEN’S POV

 

The hallways were usually loud and intimidating, but Evan hadn't remembered them echoing this much. He stepped through the crowd with his eyes on the floor, trying to ignore the countless conversations bouncing around in his head from students around him. A soft whistle-like ringing sounded in Evan's ears, his heart thumping through his chest so hard he could've sworn he saw his shirt vibrating.

 

How long was this damn hallway? He felt like he'd been walking through the sea of pheromones and Axe body spray forever now, he had to be reaching his locker soon. He glanced at the number he'd written on his hand- 406- and then over to the walls of lockers that lined the hallways his fellow students were crowding. He was in the upper three hundreds, so he'd be there soon.

 

Evan finally reached his locker and let out a breath of relief as he quickly stepped up to it, relieved that no one had been standing in front of it. He glanced at the number written on his other hand- his locker combination, and went to work unlocking and opening his locker. 

 

Evan slipped his backpack off and rested it on his lifted knee as he fished through his backpack to find the small pencil case he'd prepared to keep in his locker. It was all set up with backup pencils, lead, erasers, pens, glue, and the like. And some Ativan in a ziplock bag, of course, in case of emergency, with the folded up paperwork he had to have with him in order to carry medications on campus. Evan paused as he took the Ativan out of his backpack.

 

He was pretty sure he wasn't technically supposed to have another one yet, but he didn't really care at that point. He needed one if he wanted to make it through first period. Evan quickly glanced around and unzipped the baggie, popping a pill and stuffing the bag back into his pencil case hoping no one saw and assumed he was on drugs or anything. 

 

Evan went back to his backpack, unzipping one of the smaller pouches in front of the main one and pulling out his folded up gym uniform, placing it in his locker beneath the pencil case. He sifted through his bag one more time to make sure there was nothing else he needed to put in there yet, and zipped up his backpack. 

 

He closed and re-locked his locker, taking a deep breath and turning on his heels back toward the crowds. Evan lifted his chin just enough to discreetly scan the flowing hallways for any familiar faces- well, one in particular. 

 

Last year, Evan and Zoe's homerooms had been in the same hall, so he'd been awarded the luxury of sometimes being able to catch a glimpse of her before school or between classes each day. Now, though, she was nowhere in sight, and Evan felt the heavy but familiar weight of disappointment as he realized he'd probably just gotten lucky last year and the likelihood of her being in his hallway again was tiny.

 

The hall wasn't completely void of familiar faces, though. Evan froze.

 

Jared Kleinman was making his way down the hall, eyes glued to his phone and his headphones up over his ears. One hand was stuffed in his pocket and he casually bobbed his head to the music as he weaved through the crowd with an expertly-rehearsed confidence. 

 

Evan's stomach tightened, the extra Ativan forgotten in a fresh wave of uneasy anxiety. He whipped around to walk in the direction opposite Jared, not sure where he was trying to go except for away . He reached for his sharpie and capped and uncapped it repeatedly in a desperate need to stimulate and distract himself.

 

He and Jared had been undeniably inseparable growing up. Their mothers had been best friends since before they were born, and were absolutely thrilled that their sons grew up the same way. 

 

It had been he and Jared against the world for as long as he could remember. They had gone to summer camp together for forever, been in the same class for all of elementary school, simply grown up together. 

 

Then, the summer before seventh grade, something changed. 

 

Jared became cold and distant, and just flat out mean. He'd pushed Evan away, taking any opportunity he was given to pick at him and work at pushing the buttons he knew hit too close to home, and reopen scars he had been the one to heal in the first place. He'd avoid Evan and casually act like he never cared about him in the first place, insisting he only ever hung out with him out of pity and moral obligation.

 

Jared had always been rather closed off and seemingly emotionless, but Evan knew him well enough to see through the walls he put up. He had been adamant at first, if to no one but himself, that Jared was lying: There was no way he never cared- he'd spent their whole lives fighting to prove that he did.

 

Right?

 

So what if he laughed every time Evan tried to reach out, and shied away when he got too close? So what if Jared suddenly found some sick delight in essentially pretending he was invisible? So what if Jared knew how hard Evan was trying to save things, to fix something he didn't even know how he'd broken, and it'd only made him push Evan away more? He was lying. He had to be. He had to care. 

 

...Right?

 

For a long time, it had thoroughly confused Evan how someone could change so dramatically, seemingly overnight- especially someone as close to him as Jared had been. At some point, he had just run out of energy completely and stopped trying, silently accepted defeat: Jared had finally seen how truly broken he was, and decided he could no longer deal with tolerating his breakdowns or his anxious stuttering or being seen with him in public. It was pessimistic, but in Evan's mind, it was fact. It was bound to have happened eventually. He was used to important people leaving.

 

It was cruelly ironic, in a way. It wasn't difficult to pinpoint the drastic spike in Evan's anxiety and depression to seventh grade. Not that he'd ever tell anyone that. But, if he didn't know better, Evan could have sworn Jared had almost grown more cold and distant when he stopped trying...meaner and angrier, as if he was almost hurt. Evan never understood that... but he refused to wallow in it for too long a period at a time. After all, things with Jared rarely made sense anyway.

 

"Hey! How was your summer?" A voice cut into Evan's spinning thoughts and somber nostalgia, asking a question so broad he assumed it was for someone else. But two feet were planted in front of him blocking his path, so he looked up to see Alana Beck standing before him with a slightly-too-wide smile on her face. She had sat in front of him in Pre-Calc last year, but they had never talked. Well, she had answered like nine out of ten questions the teacher had asked, but they had never spoken to each other. He stared at her, and she blinked back at him, unmoving and still smiling. He glanced around him, but no one was behind him for her to be talking to instead.

 

Oh. She had been asking him. He gulped and stuffed his sharpie back in his pocket. "My summer was-"

 

"Mine was productive!" She went on before he could finish, and he closed his mouth again and fought the urge to break eye contact. "I did three internships and ninety hours of community service. I know, wow."

 

Evan blinked at her, not entirely sure what to say, but admittedly impressed. "Yeah, wow, that's really-"

 

"Even though I was so busy, I still made some great friends," Alana interrupted him again, and then seemingly interrupted herself. "Or, well, acquaintances, more like."

 

This is your chance, Evan, ask her. Be bold. Make a friend. "Do you want to sign my cast?" That's all it takes. Even if she says no, you put yourself out there.

 

What came out was much less articulate.

 

"Do you wanna, maybe, uh, I'm sorry, I don't know what you're... um... if you have to..." He stuck his cast out awkwardly and fumbled to pull the sharpie out of his pocket again. "Do you wanna just sign my cast-?"

 

"Oh my god! What happened to your arm?" Alana almost waited for him to finish his sentence before interrupting this time, but she hadn't seemed to even hear his question. That, or she just didn't want to sign it and was trying to change the subject. Evan was immediately convinced it was the latter. 

 

"Oh, well, I broke it," Evan started, having wondered if people would be curious and rehearsed what he'd say on his walk to school in case they asked. "I was climbing a tree-"

 

"Oh, really?" Alana cut him off again, and Evan clamped his mouth shut in defeat. "My grandma broke her hip getting into the bathtub in July. That was the beginning of the end, the doctors said, because then she died."

 

Evan's jaw dropped open and he blinked at her in a stunned silence. How on earth was he supposed to respond to that? That's terrible? I'm sorry for your loss?

 

He didn't have to think about it long. "Happy first day!" The bright, almost robotic smile sprung back onto Alana's face after just a few moments of silence. She turned and confidently walked away. Evan weakly waved after her, but she was already long gone. He retracted his hand and deepened his breathing, trying to recover from the sudden social bombshell Alana had just thrown at him. 

 

Evan took a deep breath and looked around, familiar light auburn hair catching his gaze. His eyes widened as he caught a glimpse of Zoe Murphy standing with a group of her friends, leaning up against the lockers as they talked and a tall, wiry boy with curly dark brown hair standing beside her moved into his. He must've cracked a joke, because her lips turned up and she laughed- a sound jumbled into a million others, but still making its way to Evan's ears. He felt a jolt of energy, a small smile finding its way onto his lips as he saw hers- so subtle, yet so perfect and real. 

 

Evan nearly leaped a foot into the air as the sight of Jared striding toward him snapped him out of his trance, and he jumped backwards, his heart fully stopping for a moment and his stomach twisting into a knot. Where had he come from? He'd been heading in the complete opposite direction just a minute ago.

 

"Is it weird to be the first person in history to break their arm from jerking off too much, or do you consider that an honor?" Jared's voice was knowingly much too loud, and he wore a sly smirk as he pointed at Evan's arm and slid his headphones down from his ears to his neck. 

 

Evan's muscles tightened and he felt his face grow fervid. He rushed toward Jared, frantically looking around and motioning for him to quiet down, his ears a noticeable shade of red. 

 

"Hey, stop, no, I wasn't doing that!" Evan stuttered, shaking his head vigorously. He just now realized he was still holding the sharpie, and shakily stuck it back into his pocket, both hands now free to quiet Jared down- just with his motions, he hoped, but he was not opposed to fully slapping his hand over Jared’s mouth if he had to.

 

Jared's smirk widened. "Paint me the picture," If anything, his volume was louder. He placed a hand on Evan's shoulder, tugging him up against him and motioning widely with his other hand as if setting a scene. "You're in your bedroom, you've got Zoe Murphy's Instagram up on your weird off-brand cell phone-"

 

"Shh! That's not what happened!" Evan stammered frantically, feeling like his face might burst into flames at any given moment. He glanced over to Zoe's friend group to make sure none of them were staring at him in a disgusted horror. They weren't, to his relief, but he had a feeling they might if he couldn't shut Jared up soon. Jared always knew exactly what buttons to push, and Evan had no idea how. "Obviously." He continued, trying to loosen his shoulders and mellow his tone from utterly humiliated to just mildly embarrassed. "I was just... well, I was climbing a tree and I fell." Evan shrugged, trying to be casual, but still very clearly burning up. 

 

"You fell out of a tree?" Jared repeated through amused laughter, staring at him as if he was the most pathetic being to ever walk the earth. To be fair, Evan wasn't feeling too far off from that right now. "What are you, like… an acorn?" Jared snickered at his own joke, and Evan looked away. He had a feeling that wasn't going anywhere anytime soon. He grimaced.

 

"Well, you know how I worked as an apprentice park ranger this summer?" Evan softened slightly, the fiery red on his face melting away ever so slightly as he turned back to Jared. 

 

"No," Jared's eyebrows knitted as if it was obvious. "Why would I know that?"

 

Evan's face fell. Because our moms spend seven days a week together and I thought the word might've spread? Because I texted you about it after I got the job? Because you still care about me and have made some effort in the last four years to stay updated on what happens in my life?

 

"Well, yeah, I was an apprentice park ranger at Ellison State Park. I'm kind of a tree expert now, I mean, not to brag," Evan almost smiled, but Jared just blinked at him boredly and the heat resurfaced on Evan's face. He cleared his throat and looked down at the ground, hot with embarrassment. "Anyway, I tried to climb this incredible forty foot tall oak tree-"

 

"And then you fell." Jared finished Evan's sentence, again through mocking laughter, but Evan wasn't done. 

 

"Well, except, it's a funny story, though, because there was a solid ten minutes after I fell where I just lay there... um... on the ground, waiting for someone to come get me," Evan turned to look off into the distance at nothing in particular, making abstract motions with his hands that he somehow thought would help convey his story better. Jared listened intently, nodding along with his face twisted to an exaggerated intrigue. "I was just, 'Any second now,' y'know? I kept- I was saying to myself, 'Any second now, here they come.'"

 

Evan paused for a moment, and Jared glanced in the direction he was staring and then back to him. "Did they?"

 

"No. Nobody came. That's what's, um... that's what's funny." Evan got a distant, far away look in his eye, his voice shrinking.

 

"Jesus Christ," Jared laughed again, shaking his head and ignoring Evan's obvious dejection. 

 

Evan tugged at the base of his shirt and shuffled in place. "How was- what did you do for the-?" He sighed, staring at his feet, just desperate to change the subject. "I'm sorry. You had a good summer?"

 

"Well," Jared straightened. "My bunk dominated in Capture the Flag, and I got to second base below-the-bra with this girl from Israel who's gonna, like, be in the army, so..." Jared shrugged, and bobbed his head from side to side a little, swelling with pride. Evan wasn't buying it for a second, but he'd never say that. "Yeah. Hopefully that answers your question." He winked and finger-gunned Evan, turning away and reaching for his headphones again.

 

"Hey, do you wanna sign my cast?" Evan took a step after him, reaching for his sharpie.

 

Jared twisted back to face him with a dumbfounded look on his face that made Evan immediately regret asking. "Why are you asking me?"

 

Just say Mom told you to. You won't get your feelings hurt that way. 

 

"Well, I just thought..." He'd messed it up. No use lying now. "'Cause we're friends-"

 

Jared turned around again, shaking his head and waving his hand dismissively as he re-approached. "We're family friends. That's like, a whole different thing, and you know it."

 

Evan felt his heart sink. His grip tightened on the sharpie, and his chin dropped to his chest. "Hey," Jared clapped him on the back, but Evan didn't move. "Be sure to tell your mom to tell my mom I was nice to you, or else my parents won't pay for my car insurance."

 

Oh, that's why you talked to me this morning. Of course. 

 

"I will," Evan murmured, and Jared patted him twice more on the back and walked past him. Evan hurriedly began rushing away, but froze in his tracks and looked back as he heard Jared greeting someone he hadn't seen enter.

 

"Hey, Connor!"

 

ZOE’S POV

 

Zoe's head shot up and she stiffened, her expression hardening. Uh oh. People that talked to her brother rarely meant well. Connor stood down the hall a ways from her, messing with something in his backpack. He froze and slowly lifted his head at the greeting, and Zoe caught sight of the person who'd given it. 

 

Jared Kleinman was casually striding toward Connor, but sensibly leaving plenty of space between them. Zoe had been in band with him for seventh and eighth grade- he played the alto sax up until high school, but dropped it for a reason she didn't know. He was funny, if kind of a dick, but Zoe was pretty sure there was a little more depth to it than that, and tried to give him the benefit of the doubt. Even more sensibly, backing away behind Jared was Evan Hansen, a boy Zoe didn't know very well and had never talked to, but had always been inexplicably drawn to and intrigued by. 

 

She knew that he and Jared had been best friends growing up, but she didn't know the details, as she'd started sixth grade after they had already been in middle school for a year, which must have been when they had their apparent falling out. So what were they doing together now? Were they friends again? She secretly wished it for the both of them- she hated assuming things of people, but she was fairly sure both boys had little else other than each other. Jared seemed reserved but cocky, while Evan on the other hand constantly seemed like he was on another planet- very distant and quiet, probably not someone most people would notice at first glance, and she couldn't explain it, but she thought that was why he stuck out to her. 

 

She'd found herself watching him out in the agriculture class' gardens out the window of her English class every day last year. He was clearly very passionate about botany, she'd noticed, as he’d always light up whenever he was outside, and it made her smile to see him so happy and clearly in his element.

 

She was almost sure she'd seen him in the audience at several jazz band concerts- even to symphonic band concerts back in middle school- but he always vanished before she could go look for him afterward, so she couldn’t be certain she didn’t just imagine it. Zoe had at first assumed in middle school that he went to support Jared, but that didn't explain why he went after their falling out and even less why he’d been coming to the jazz band concerts ever since her freshman year. 

 

He had gentle, clear blue eyes and light freckles on his face, soft-looking sandy blond hair and even softer looking hands; she'd always wondered if they felt as soft as they looked. Her heartbeat always sped up a little and she found herself smiling when she saw him, and she didn't really know what that meant. He was just different, and she wished she had the courage to figure out why and maybe get to know him and be his friend. She wasn't an extrovert by any means, but she rarely had problems talking to new people, so it confused her why exactly he in particular always made her so nervous. 

 

Zoe caught a glimpse of a white cast on Evan's left arm and frowned. That definitely hadn't been there last year. She barely had time to wonder what had happened or realize that her heart had skipped a couple beats, Jared's voice cutting into her thoughts. 

 

"Loving the new hair length," Jared went on, motioning to Connor's hair with a smugness that made Zoe want to roll her eyes. "Very school shooter chic."

 

Zoe and Evan both cringed, and she pushed off from leaning on the locker and straightened, her gaze flickering back and forth between Connor and Jared, who were both standing in silence. Was that his version of a joke? Who did he think he was? Zoe's friends had noticed her stop talking and standing straighter, and they'd all turned to notice Connor, murmuring amongst themselves in understanding and moving out of her way for when she inevitably had to go clean up another of her brother's messes. 

 

"I was just...kidding," Jared explained, quickly finding his senses. The confident expression he had worn was quickly fading, and he shrank away from Connor. "It was a joke?"

 

"Yeah, no, it was funny. I'm laughing, can't you tell?" Connor's voice was cold and hard, and Zoe gulped, recognizing that tone. As gentle as he could be with her while high, they were still incredibly insecure and defensive, and could get angry and violent fast if someone got to him- which Jared was clearly doing. "Am I not laughing hard enough for you?" He took a step toward Jared, who tensed and took an instinctive step back in turn. 

 

Evan's eyes widened in fear behind Jared, and Zoe silently willed him to make for the nearest classroom and slam the door.

 

"You're such a freak," Jared tried to jab, but his bravado was gone, his voice weak and eyes wide as he glanced around and backed away. Connor's fists clenched and unclenched themselves, their eyes never leaving Jared as he turned and rushed away, eyes on his feet.

 

Evan and Connor stood face to face now, still several feet apart but nothing between them. Evan stared after Jared helplessly, and let out a small, uncomfortable chuckle, clearly not sure what to do or say now. 

 

Please don't think he was laughing at you, Zoe pleaded with her brother internally, looking back and forth between both boys in a stiff, anticipatory silence. 

 

"What the fuck are you laughing at?" Connor hissed dryly, gaze snapping over to Evan. 

 

Shit shit shit shit shit...

 

"What?" Evan blinked at Connor in confusion, and her brother's hands settled in clench, tense fists.

 

"Stop fucking laughing at me," Connor's voice grew, Evan's panic obviously following suit.

 

"No, no, I'm not," Evan shook his head and stepped back. 

 

"You think I'm a freak?" Connor took a few ominous strides closer.

 

"No! No, I don't-"

 

"I'm not the freak!"

 

"But I wasn't laughing at-!"

 

" You're the fucking freak!"

 

Zoe nudged past Nick and Bee and rushed forward, but she wasn't quick enough- Connor was already furiously storming forward. In a blur, their hands slammed against Evan's chest and roughly shoved him to the ground, and Zoe's stomach lurched. 

 

Evan quickly scrambled to his feet, and she caught a glimpse into his eyes, a distant, sad glaze coating the normally soft blue sheen. Zoe could barely register what that could mean before her gaze flicked back to her brother, and she suddenly fell cold. Her expression shifted as she watched Connor storm away, angrily wiping their eyes with shaking hands as he got further away and neared the end of the hall. Connor turned the corner and disappeared. 

 

A heavy weight of emotion slammed into Zoe with a force double what it had been earlier this morning. She fell frozen in her tracks as she stared after Connor, knowing full well now what this feeling was: dread. 

 

But why? Time stilled, and Zoe stared forward, blank and unblinking for long enough that her eyes burned. Her skin crawled with cold anxiety as she willed herself forward and forced herself to blink and tear her gaze away, but she couldn't shake that feeling... Today was not normal. Something was going to happen. She could feel it. And whatever it was... it could not be good.

 

Zoe looked back to Evan, who still stood unmoving, staring off into space with the solemn look of dissociation she knew all too well. She took another glance toward the corner her brother had vanished behind and raced toward Evan, stopping in front of him to deliver yet another of countless apologies for Connor's behavior.

 

"Hey! I'm sorry about my brother, I saw him push you? He's a lunatic," Zoe started, and Evan's head snapped toward her as she pulled him from his zoning out, his eyes wide with shock, and he staggered back a little. Zoe swallowed, realizing this was the first time they'd actually talked and she should probably make some sort of introduction- it wasn't like he even knew who she was. "Evan, right?"

 

"Evan..." He repeated, eyes falling to the ground as he fidgeted with his hands. 

 

There was a pause, and Zoe pointed at him cautiously, anxious she had somehow already messed this up. "That's your name...?" 

 

"Yes, it is! It's Evan, sorry!" He stammered quickly, light catching him to reveal his flushed face. 

 

"Why are you sorry?" Zoe chuckled with a tone she hoped was gentle, tilting her head slightly, genuinely confused as to why he thought he did something wrong.

 

"Oh, because you said Evan, and then I said it, y'know?" Evan rambled, not looking her in the eye. "I repeated it, which is just... That is so annoying when people do that."

 

It is? Zoe didn't think so, but she didn't press, and instead stuck out her hand, smiling at him warmly. "I'm Zoe."

 

Evan said nothing for a moment, looking at her face for the first time with an expression she'd never seen before, from him or anyone. "Yes- no, I know," Evan lifted his hand for a moment but then frantically wiped his palm on his pants as he muttered under his breath. 

 

"You know?" Zoe blinked and withdrew her hand subconsciously, not having expected him to know who she was. Her curiosity was piqued.

 

"No, just, I've seen you play guitar in jazz band," Evan explained frantically, but Zoe was only pleasantly surprised that he'd noticed her. She rarely had solos and the guitar players always sat in the back behind the wind players, so she was never front and center- she didn't think anyone had really seen her. "I love jazz band. I love jazz! Well, not all jazz, but definitely, like, jazz band jazz? That's so weird, I'm sorry," Evan shook his head, looking down at his hands.

 

"You apologize a lot," Zoe observed through gentle laughter, with a small smile, endeared by his rambling.

 

"Sorry- I mean, you know what I mean," Evan muttered, hands fidgeting even more. 

 

Zoe frowned a little; she hadn't meant to come across as if she was criticizing. If anything, she was the one who should apologize: she hadn't meant to stress him out by talking to him. She heard Thalia call her name and she glanced over her shoulder to see her friends beckoning her back over, presumably to head back for the band room to set up before first period after walking Nick and Hannah over to move into their lockers.

 

"Okay, well, I'll talk to you later," Zoe smiled to Evan again, pulled out her phone and turned around, looking down to check the time, but she didn't process it before she thought she heard Evan say something behind her- only able to make out 'want' and 'cast.' Zoe stopped to face him again, having an idea what he might have said, but not sure enough. "What?"

 

"What? What'd you say?" Evan pointed at her, his casted arm behind his back.

 

"I didn't say anything, you said something." Zoe glanced around and shook her head. 

 

"No, I- me? No way," Evan glanced behind him as if looking for someone who would've said something, before turning back to face Zoe. "José." 

 

"Okay," Zoe blinked at him, badly suppressing another small smile, genuinely amused and not noticing Evan's cringe of embarrassment. "José." She gave him two thumbs up and waved goodbye, but Evan had whipped around, burying his face in his hands and shaking his head weakly before he could see her. She watched him for a moment, her smile fading and feeling a flicker of concern, but then turned on her heels to make her way back to rejoin her friends.

 

Zoe shot one last glimpse in the direction Connor had stormed off. She silently promised him that she'd find him between classes and make sure he was alright. She knew they probably hadn't meant to push Evan, or even wanted to, and it might help him to know Evan hadn't meant to be laughing at him and he didn't seem like he was mad. Zoe took a deep breath, and looked away.



EVAN’S POV

 

Evan hadn't been able to bring himself to stay facing Zoe and watch her leave. His head was still buried in his hands over a minute later, heart thumping in his ears from both the fluster of her talking to him at all, and the utter humiliation at how horrible he was at this. He heard the sound of her and her friends laughing as she rejoined them, and cringed. Even though the logical part of his brain knew she wasn't the kind of person Jared was and probably wouldn't make fun of him, the anxiety part of his brain was much stronger and immediately convinced she had just told them everything and was still laughing at how pathetic he was even now. 

 

The bell rang, and Evan finally lifted his head to look at the clock. He let out a breath, pulling out the paper in his pocket and glancing at the room number of his homeroom- it was just down the hall from his locker. Down the hall through a sea of students too numerous and moving too fast for him to count even if he wanted to. People swam up and down the halls around him, shouldering through the crowds and filing into their respective classrooms. So many people, so many personalities, so many stories, and yet he’d rarely felt more isolated.

 

Most everyone around him walked in pairs or groups, laughing and smiling and talking, about summer and in general. Most of the people who were alone were talking on the phone or texting with smiles on their faces. Arms and hands were linked, people hugged, greeting their friends after a long summer of missing them. Couples kissed, one couple made out. It looked very wet. Don't stare . A few teachers stood outside their doors, greeting their students and even hugging some of their returning favorites. A dean shooed the couple to class that was getting a little too handsy, and the guy flipped him off before scurrying away, his girlfriend still glued to his side. 

 

Evan knew how weird it must look for him to be standing deathly still surveying the crowd. If he was lucky, maybe someone would assume he was waiting for a friend. If he was realistic, no one would even notice him at all. That normally wasn't a bad thing, but this morning a lump burned in the back of his throat, the loneliness suffocating him to the verge of tears. He swallowed hard and turned toward his classroom, sticking close to the wall and staring at the ground. 

 

Evan reached a break in the lockers, and lightly ran his hand along the window to the courtyard, tapping against the glass in a need to move his hands and turning his head slightly to look outside. Someone was eagerly running up to the window, waving through it with a wide smile and such a contagious excitement that it made Evan perk up ever so slightly. They were waving at him

 

He lifted his hand to wave back, his heart lifting in his chest, but then he froze. He didn't even know who this person was, why would they be waving to him? Evan glanced over his shoulder to the sight of a girl he recognized as Rita Martinez from his English class last year waving back at them, bouncing on her toes and squealing eagerly, then both of them breaking away for the door down the hall. Ah. Of course. Evan's hand drooped and his eyes followed Rita as she raced down the hall until her friend burst through the door and threw their arms around her. 

 

A sunbeam broke through the clouds and shone through the window, catching Evan in the eye. He flinched, instinctively covering his face and stepping out of the sun, back into the shadows of the lockers.

 

Evan wondered if there would ever be a time, just once, where someone would be that excited to wave back at him . That excited to see him, so excited that they'd jump into his arms and never want to let go. 

 

Suddenly, the sunbeam caught a glint in a wave of soft light auburn hair, and Evan's breath caught in his throat. Zoe and her friends were making their way down the hall past him, but Evan only saw Zoe. Headphones in her ears, she was stepping lightly on her feet as if she was dancing, her eyes closed as she stepped to the rhythm. A small, contented smile on her lips, she passed by Evan, who could just gaze at her in an awestruck stupor, and she lifted onto her toes and twirled around once, her hair spinning around her and falling gently back down over her shoulders. Evan took a step forward and reached after her feebly, then withdrew his arm, and her shape got smaller until she turned the corner at the end of the hall. 

 

Evan had to force himself to look away and pick up his feet again, the warning bell sounding in his ears and reminding him he was supposed to be getting to class. He kept his head down just enough to be able to glance at the room numbers as he passed the classrooms down the hallway, his heart racing. Evan's head shot up as he finally entered his classroom, and he stopped dead in his tracks, realizing something and feeling a small flicker of something he had almost forgotten how to identify: hope. 

 

She knew my name.

Chapter Text

August 29, 2016
8:15am

 

 

EVAN’S POV

 

The first Mark-to-Evan name correction had been a success. Evan liked his English teacher, Mrs. Kiczek. She seemed easygoing and approachable, so he hadn't had too hard a time coming up to her and gently explaining that he went by Evan due to some personal discomfort surrounding his legal name. She'd been very understanding and immediately crossed out his first name on her roster, asking him to remind her if she ever slipped up, to which Evan agreed.

 

The post-class interaction had gone well, but Evan had been startled and less than thrilled when Jared walked into his homeroom as the first bell rang, and from Jared's expression when he saw Evan, the feeling was mutual. It wasn't unlikely to have happened: they both took AP English each year which had landed them in the same English classes all four years of high school. What had surprised him, though, was that Jared had actually not chosen to sit as far away from him as humanly possible this time around.

 

Evan was in the far back right corner beside the window and close to the door, but not close enough to have to be the one to get up and open it when someone knocked. Even though there were several options for where Jared could've sat that were further away from him, Jared had taken his seat in a desk one row up and over, on his upper left diagonal.

 

Evan wasn't sure what to make of that, but he hadn't had much time to think about it before Mrs. Kiczek started attendance and he'd had to start bracing himself to hear that name.

 

His next period, though, he was dreading. It didn't help that he and Jared also shared it, but all upperclassmen with last names A-M had gym for second period so it was inevitable.

 

Evan felt simultaneously more terrified and more excited, however, thinking about the fact that this year, that also meant Zoe would be in gym with him and Jared. At least he'd have her to look at if he needed a boost of energy or confidence, and maybe he could find some way to talk to her if she didn't already hate him after their god-awful interaction that morning.

 

Having known the drill for gym for at least two years at that point, upperclassmen were expected to have already picked up their uniforms, have pre-owned uniforms from their previous years- which was the case for Evan- or at least wear workout clothes on the bi-annual fitness evaluation they had each second day of school, which Evan had been dreading until he broke his arm. He couldn't do push ups or pull ups with his cast (not that he was amazing at them without it, but years of tree-climbing gave him more upper body strength than most people probably would've guessed at first glance), so he only had to participate in the sprint, running the mile, and sit-ups. He wasn't exactly looking forward to those either, but at least he didn't have to do the two things that required him getting up in front of a group and having them watch him fail.

 

Evan and Jared arrived in the locker room separately, but their assigned gym lockers weren't far apart. They stayed a safe, semi-awkward distance, and Jared didn't try to talk to or mess with him anymore, to Evan's relief.

 

Evan slipped all his valuables into his locker, which was too small for his whole backpack. Laptop, phone, keys, chargers, headphones, wallet, anything high risk for being stolen.

 

It was only the first day, so wearing uniforms wasn't required, but Evan had grabbed his on the way out of homeroom just in case. Even though they wouldn't be docked points today for not doing so, wearing their uniforms if they had them today was strongly encouraged to get in the routine. That way, they could also break off to play tetherball, ping pong, basketball, or practice for the upcoming volleyball unit if the opening announcements finished before it was time to go back to the locker room.

 

Evan glanced over to see if Jared was changing into his uniform or not, subconsciously deciding to follow his lead. Jared was still in the clothes he’d come to school in, looking down at his phone as he closed and latched his locker with his valuables inside. Jared turned away from Evan, kicking his backpack beneath the one of the benches beside the lockers, then swiftly pocketed his phone and rushed out of the locker room as Mr. Bortel emerged from the bathroom.

 

Evan was impressed that Jared was brave enough to bring his phone to the gym, where they were strictly prohibited. Stupid, but brave. Classic Jared.

 

Making sure everything was accounted for, Evan double checked that his locker was locked and trailed into the gym. He hopped up the bleachers and took a seat near the top, as isolated from anyone else as he could get.

 

He kept his eye on the doorway where the students filed in, about half in their uniforms, scanning for the face that he knew would make gym more bearable this year.

 

"Hey, Acorn," Suddenly a voice to his right made him jump, and he whipped his head over to see Jared standing on the stairs and walking over next to him on the bleachers. Evan cringed. How had he made it to his seat before Jared?

 

"Don't call me that," he muttered, crossing his arms and resting them on his knees as Jared sat beside him.

 

"Still no signatures on that cast, huh?" Jared goaded, poking his broken arm. "Sad."

 

Evan blinked and didn't respond, shoulders tense and looking back over to observe the masses coming into the gym.

 

"I heard Connor beat you up this morning after I left," Jared went on casually. "Everybody's talking about it. Surprised he didn't break any more of your bones."

 

"He didn't beat me up," Evan murmured, eyes never leaving the doorway, but shifting uneasily as Jared pointed out that people might be talking about it. He didn't want to believe that, surely Jared was just trying to make him anxious. "He just shoved me. I didn't get hurt." That wasn't entirely true; he was pretty sure his hip and elbow would probably have a nasty bruise tomorrow, but he'd barely noticed.

 

"I mean, I know you're good at annoying people, but damn, I thought you were smarter than trying to mess with Connor Murphy," Jared mocked, clearly trying to get under Evan's skin.

 

And who pissed him off in the first place, asshole? You're one to talk.

 

"I didn't mess—” Evan suddenly went quiet, sitting up as he caught sight of Zoe making her way into the gym, his heart rate practically doubling and immediately feeling his face flush at the sight of her.

 

She was in her uniform: a gray tank top and black bike shorts that stopped just above the knee, both branding the school's logo. She wore her black Converse with the stars scribbled all over the toes, and carried a reusable water bottle from home. Her hair was tied up in a high ponytail, long enough to graze the space between her shoulder blades that the tank top revealed as she walked. The still early morning light caught her lightly toned shoulder muscles from behind and framed her slim figure. Her ponytail fully revealed her neatly shaped, sharp jawline, and displayed her ears, which were adorned with small silver studded star earrings he hadn't noticed this morning when her hair was only half-up.

 

Evan watched as she stopped in front of the bottom bleacher in front of a couple of the same friends she had been with earlier this morning, opening her water bottle and tilting her head back to take a few gulps.

 

"Hey!" Jared smacked him on the shoulder and Evan jerked his head back and dazedly looked away.

 

"What? What happened?" Evan shook his head, looking back at Jared, who scowled and glared at him with an annoyance stronger than what he would have expected.

 

"Did you hear anything I just said?" Jared spat.

 

            "N-no," Evan shrunk slightly, face still burning from both the simple sight of Zoe like this and the embarrassment of having zoned out to the point of blocking out sound. "What'd you say?"

 

"Doesn't matter now," Jared huffed, looking away. "Are you seriously gonna pop a boner just because you're seeing her shoulders for the first time?"

 

"I didn't," Evan's shoulders bunched up and he went red again. As if it had been only her exposed shoulders that he was looking at. "And I won't. You have too little faith in me."

 

"Don't act like you haven't before," Jared scoffed, and Evan opened his mouth to protest, but Jared wasn't done teasing. "That would be hard to hide in gym shorts," Jared suddenly got a sly smirk. "You might be in trouble tomorrow. You get to sit out and watch as she does the fitness test."

 

Evan gave up, staring at his hands and 100% sure he looked like a tomato. Jared leaned back and stuffed his hands in his pockets, crossing one leg over the other in satisfaction to have flustered Evan as much as he had.

 

Both boys and most of the gym turned their heads as the two coaches, Mr. and Mrs. Bortel, took their places in the center of the gym and blew their whistles to get everyone's attention. Mrs. Bortel cleared her throat and lifted her chin to raise her voice to the very top of the bleachers.

 

"Good morning, students, and welcome back...."


8:44am

 

Evan had barely paid attention during the opening announcements, his gaze flitting back to Zoe every few moments. Jared had elbowed him harshly a few times to tell him to pay attention, but it never lasted long. It wasn't like she was doing anything particularly interesting, just sitting and listening to the coaches, leaned back onto the legs of her friend behind her and bouncing her own leg boredly. Now, everyone was separated into different activities of their choosing with the leftover time in the period, but Evan didn't feel any more focused.

 

He and Jared were tossing a volleyball back and forth, practicing hitting, setting, serving and spiking for the first unit of the year, which would start on Thursday. Evan had been thoroughly stunned when Jared grabbed and threw the volleyball at him, continuously shocked that Jared seemingly wasn't avoiding him like the plague this year.

 

"You want to play with me?"


"All my friends have gym for sixth period," Jared had shrugged it off, not meeting Evan's eyes. "And you obviously have no one else to pair up with."

 

Evan hadn't been able to argue with that. Now, they stood on the far end of the gym, the nets taken by larger groups, the one closest to them including Zoe and her friends. Evan had lost track of how long they'd been practicing, but it had either been quite a while or Zoe was really exerting herself, because sweat beaded and glistened on her face and shoulders, and her breathing was heavy as she played a high intensity match with her friend group on one side and some other kids on the other.

 

Jared had already hit Evan in the head with the volleyball once when he hadn't been paying attention, and the more he watched her play, the less he could keep his eyes off her. He didn't know what it was, but seeing her working out, watching the ball like a hawk, passionate and fully immersed in the game, it was harder not to stare than usual.

 

A couple of the girls in her friend group had shed their shirts as the air in the gym grew stuffier and hotter, now wearing nothing on top but their sports bras. It wasn't uncommon or frowned upon for the girls in gym to do that sometimes, especially considering the ventilation and air conditioning in the gym was complete shit. Some people had noticed by now, staring at them and looking some fraction of dazed that Evan was feeling, but his eyes never left Zoe. She was still the most stunning person on the court, in the gym, and probably on the whole planet.

 

He was sure Jared probably assumed otherwise, but Evan was actually thoroughly relieved that Zoe hadn't been one of the girls to take off her shirt. If she had, he was pretty sure he would have passed out on the spot.

 

"Come ooonnnn," Jared groaned as another serve flew right past him. Evan blinked.


"Sorry," Evan mumbled again, ducking his head and turning around to retrieve the ball. He leaned down to pick it up, and stood back up to face Jared again, but Zoe had moved from the volleyball court as her team and the one she was playing stopped for a water break, catching his eye. She approached Mr. Bortel, who looked up from his clipboard to address her. They were too far away and the gym was too loud for Evan to hear what Zoe was saying, but Mr. Bortel replied and then shook his head with a frown.

 

Evan kept a curious eye on her as he started to make his way back toward Jared, who stood impatiently, staring at the ceiling and rocking side to side with his hands on his hips.


"Serve already, Acorn," Jared yelled louder than necessary, but this time, Evan didn't flinch at the unfortunate nickname. He was focusing on Zoe, who turned around from Mr. Bortel with a troubled expression on her face. She glanced around uncertainly, as if looking for something, as she rejoined her team at the net. He frowned.


Evan drew in a deep breath, tossing the volleyball into the air and setting it back to Jared as it came back down. Jared set the ball, and Evan clasped his hands together, leaning down to hit it against his wrists, but he cried out as the ball slammed against his broken arm at just the wrong angle, staggering backward and letting it fall to the ground.

 

"Jesus Christ, are you okay?" Jared called over, making his way toward Evan as the ball rolled away onto the court adjacent them. Evan was more taken aback by the fact that Jared wasn't laughing at him than he was by the pain. He almost looked concerned, and he reached out as if he was going to touch Evan’s arm, but then shied back.

 

"Yeah," Evan nodded, but his voice was strained, and he still gripped his arm, feeling it throb against his hand even through his cast. He looked at his feet to retrieve the ball, but it was gone.

 

"Hey, Evan!" Evan felt a jolt of shock and his head shot up to see Zoe jogging over, his volleyball in her hands. She slowed down as she approached. "Your ball rolled onto our court."

 

"Oh, h-hi. Um... Yeah, sorry," Evan stammered, and rubbed his cast again, looking down at it and flexing his hand with a pained expression.

 

"Are you okay?" Zoe's eyebrows furrowed with concern, and she glanced at his arm.

 

"Oh. Uh... The ball just hit my arm at a weird angle. That's, um, why it rolled onto your court," Evan awkwardly lifted his cast to show her. "I'm... I'm fine, thanks." Evan caught a glimpse of Jared, seeing that his eyes were narrowed as he watched Zoe suspiciously from a couple feet or so away. His gaze flicked back and forth between them uncertainly, as if he was struggling to process that Zoe was actually talking to him and knew his name. Evan felt the same way, to be fair.

 

"Okay, that's good," Zoe smiled. "Hi Jared." She turned her head to address Jared as she tossed the ball back to Evan. He silently willed himself to catch it and thankfully managed to do so with only a minor flinch as it lightly hit his broken arm again.

 

"Zoe," Jared responded with a stiff grumble, still eyeing her unfamiliarly.

 

"You two know each other?" Evan blinked at Jared, surprised and feeling slightly betrayed that he somehow didn't know about this.

 

"Oh, we were in symphonic and jazz band together in middle school," Zoe explained to Evan, who nodded. "We've had a couple classes together since then, too."

 

"Oh, okay. That's— that's cool," Evan shot a look at Jared, who didn't notice as he drew noticeably closer to Evan in particular.


"You two
know each other?" Jared repeated Evan's question, glancing between him and Zoe, his voice cold. "I think that's a little more shocking."


Evan's throat went dry, and he swallowed, not sure how to respond. They didn't really know each other, they had just talked once and now she was, for some reason, talking to him again. Pity, probably, he decided.

 

"Well, the whole county's pretty much gone to school together our whole lives," Zoe shrugged, but she looked at the ground, not meeting eyes with either boy and stuffing her thumbs into the waistband of her bike shorts. "You'd have to be actively avoiding someone to not know who they are by now." She rubbed the back of her calf with the decorated toe of her opposite Converse, looking almost sheepish. Jared's eyes narrowed even more beside him.

 

"Anyway," Zoe cleared her throat and looked back at Jared with sharp eyes, seeming to have an easier time elaborating now that she could take the focus off herself. "I saw what happened in the hall this morning with my brother," Her voice grew thin and icy, and Jared stiffened. "I just went over to check on Evan Connor shoved him."

 

"It was just a joke," Jared mumbled uncomfortably, kicking at the ground. "He overreacted."

 

"Well, maybe it was in bad taste, because nobody laughed," Zoe's voice stayed calm through humorless chuckling, a steady smile still on her face, but her voice was hard and serious. Her eyes bore into Jared with an intensity that made him shrink away and stare at the ground, grabbing the volleyball from Evan as he turned to keep practicing by himself, leaving Evan and Zoe alone.

 

"Nobody's ever shut Jared up that fast," Evan stared after him, chuckling breathlessly, stunned. "You could have the skill to actually get an apology out of him for once. I might need to hang around you more often."


Evan tensed suddenly as soon as he finished speaking, realizing how forward that might've just come off as without even meaning to. Normally he wouldn’t even think about saying something that bold. But surprisingly, Zoe had a way of easing his nervousness to the point where he felt almost like an average, non anxiety-crippled human being while talking to her, and he hadn't even thought about what he was saying until after he said it.

 

Before he could correct himself, Zoe laughed, and Evan softened slightly, smiling a little. "You just might," Zoe laughed gently, her tone not making him overthink for once, and he thought she might even actually mean that. His heart fluttered in his chest, only just registering that she had lightly punched his arm as she spoke.

 

Evan nearly short-circuited at the feeling of not just physical human contact, but physical Zoe contact. Zoe Murphy had just touched him. On purpose.

 

"Oh, hey, I meant to ask," Zoe snapped her fingers. "Have you seen Connor since this morning by chance? He's been acting really weird all day and now he's skipping gym, I'm kinda starting to worry." She glanced around the gym again.

 

"Oh. N-no I haven't, I'm sorry," Evan stammered, shaking his head and looking at his feet. He hadn't been looking for him, but Connor was pretty hard to miss and Evan was pretty sure if he'd seen him, he'd know it. Zoe's lips pressed together in a thin line and she turned her head to scan over the crowds in the other direction. Evan went on, not really sure what to do with the silence and not liking how uneasy she looked. "But... but I can definitely keep an eye out for him. If you want. I-I mean, not in a creepy way, obviously, I just meant—“


"No no no, yeah, that'd be great," Zoe responded, her quick reply reassuring him slightly.

 

"Zo!" A girl called from the court, and Evan and Zoe both looked over to see her waving in their direction. "Your serve!"

 

"Ah, shit, okay, I gotta go," If Evan didn't know better, he'd say she almost looked slightly disappointed to be called back to her game. He knew better, of course, but the idea still made him fluttery. Zoe turned back to Evan, bouncing up and down on her toes a little and then taking a couple small steps backward, pointing finger guns at him. "Uh, tell you what- What lunch do you have?"

 

"F-first," Evan blinked, not sure he believed where this was heading and that he wasn’t dreaming. 

 

"Perfect, me too. If you see him, come find me at lunch and let me know, okay?"


"Okay," Evan nodded in breathless disbelief. "Uh, where do you sit?" (He knew exactly where she sat.)

 

"My friends and I usually sit in the caf. The middle table on the left line of circle tables in The Zone? You'll see me, I'll have my guitar," She smiled at him again, and Evan's face burned, remembering she knew he knew she was in jazz band now from their disaster conversation this morning. "I'll be kinda hard to miss."

 

No kidding, Evan wanted to say, but bit his tongue.

 

"Okay, cool," Evan nodded, sheepishly smiling back at her. "I'll keep an eye out and let you know."

 

"Thanks!” Zoe turned around and called back over her shoulder as she ran back to rejoin her friends. “I'll see you later!" The girl that had called for her tossed her the volleyball, which she effortlessly threw into the air and hit over the net, leaving the other team scrambling to reach it in time.

 

This morning in the hall after Connor pushed him had been a disaster, but talking to Zoe just now had gone much smoother, he pondered. She was so real and approachable and open, it was hard to not get more comfortable each time he talked to her, and she had stuck around much longer than she would've if she wanted to avoid him. She didn't have to talk to him at all, she could've just thrown the ball back over or even let someone else do it, but she decided to come deliver it herself. Sure, she wanted to ask him about Connor, but still, she didn't have to ask him specifically. And she'd told him to talk to her at lunch, for god's sake!

 

Evan's smile never faded as he watched Zoe keep playing and Jared precariously re-approached. "Finally making a move, huh?"

 

"No,"  Evan said immediately, heat bursting onto his face. He knew Jared was teasing, but his voice was low and held a tone he didn't recognize. "She just asked if I'd seen Connor since this morning and told me to find her at lunch if I see him later." He went on, trying to ignore Jared’s odd behavior.

 

"Uh huh," Jared snorted and turned from him, bouncing the volleyball once and backing away to distance himself for practice again. "Are you finally ready to pay attention now that you got her to talk to you?"


“I didn’t mean to….” Evan started, but trailed off, knowing that arguing with Jared was always fruitless, and instead nodded. "But I think so."

 


 

10:57am

 

Despite keeping a keen eye out all day after gym and leading up to lunch, much to his chagrin, Evan had not seen Connor anywhere. If he was being honest, knowing that Zoe was worrying about him made Evan worry too- had he really upset him that much this morning?

 

Evan had no idea how to muster up the courage to talk to Connor if he found him, or what he would say, but he hoped at least that he would be able to get out an apology for the misunderstanding, and pray he wouldn't get mad again. 

 

His motives were multiple, though, if he was honest. Evan truly did want to apologize for giving off the impression he was making fun of him, but he felt a pang of guilt knowing he probably wouldn't have thought to look for or talk to Connor if not given the promise to talk to Zoe if he did.

 

Upperclassmen were given an optional free period (intended for SAT prep, tutoring sessions, study hall, or college research, but nobody used it that way): They got their pick between fourth and seventh period, and this year, Evan picked fourth so he would essentially have a longer lunch.

 

He normally didn't mind having a free period; in fact, he loved spending most of them in his agriculture class with Mr. McGuire, the one teacher Evan actually felt genuinely at ease with and comfortable talking to. But today, however, free period seemed to be dragging on endlessly, and Evan wasn't sure how much longer he could agonize about whether he would see Connor.

 

Agriculture was a non-performing arts elective, so the credit wasn't required for graduation, but Evan had enjoyed the class so much that he'd managed to keep it all four years. He knew he was still far from Mr. McGuire's favorite student or anything, but he always appreciated Evan's help, and they got on just fine.

 

After a couple years, Evan had even grown fairly confident that his presence wasn't an annoyance or inconvenience to his teacher, and that he didn't only put up with him hanging around out of pity or because he was useful to him: a feeling of reassurance very, very foreign to Evan. Was his presence looked forward to? Definitely not, but at least by now he could be mostly sure it wasn't a bother.

 

Mr. McGuire had even pulled some strings so Evan could stay in his class for longer than the two levels of the course that were offered, knowing it was his main escape from the anxiety of the rest of the school day. He'd managed to switch his role from student to TA, which would this year be his seventh period. His role responsibilities as teacher's assistant had needed to be altered to appease his anxiety, but they'd worked out responsibilities where Evan could be of use to Mr. McGuire while at the same time doing tasks he enjoyed and not having to deal with much interaction with the other students.

 

His TA responsibilities and tasks completed during free period were essentially the same; most of the time he was in the classroom helping grade papers, helping care for or play with the various class pets, or out in the gardens or greenhouse tending to the plants.

 

Today, however, he had instead been wandering the campus, anxiously exploring places he might not usually frequent with the intention of hopefully finding Connor, to no avail. It was possible that he was avoiding Evan, he supposed was a possibility— not that he could blame him, but that admittedly made him feel even more guilty. He was truly growing uneasy by Connor's disappearance, certain by this point that what happened between them this morning had something to do with it.

 

The lunch bell suddenly went off, snapping Evan's head up. He felt the heaviness of disappointment and light fluttering of relief warring in his stomach, and he swallowed hard and turned in the direction of the cafeteria.

 

Evan wasn't sure what he was supposed to do at lunch now. Technically, Zoe had said to come find her if he saw Connor, not otherwise. Of course he still wanted to, but how creepy would it look if that wasn't what Zoe meant?

 

"Hey, I didn't see your missing brother but here I am anyway because I'm desperate enough to talk to you to take a chance at embarrassing myself in front of you and all your friends." Yeah, right. No thanks. Too risky.

 

Maybe if he caught her by herself at some point, he could play it off easier. The risk of disaster was slightly less if she was alone, but still too prominent for Evan to be sure if he wanted to chance it yet.

 

Evan lifted his chin as he entered the cafeteria, his eyes immediately gravitating toward Zoe’s table in The Zone (the group of tables in the middle of the cafeteria where the popular or at least less-socially outcasted kids would sit), but then felt the unpleasant ache of disappointment upon seeing it empty.

 

The bell just rang. He reminded himself silently. She's probably on her way.

 

Evan still wasn't what he thought qualified as hungry, but for once, the thought of eating didn't make him nauseous, so he fell in with the other students in line to get cafeteria food. This way, he at least had a way to keep himself occupied as he waited for Zoe and decided whether to approach her.

 

The line inched forward, and for once, Evan wasn't fretting over how he would thank the lunch lady as he checked out. Instead, he was fretting over what, if anything, he would say to Zoe, about Connor or otherwise. He'd always hoped for an excuse to talk to her, but now that he had one... How was he supposed to know what to say? How could he be trusted to not mess it up, especially after how he'd managed to so badly this morning?

 

Surely he could easily get away with talking to her at least for a minute if he just asked if she'd been able to get ahold of him? That couldn't be too creepy, could it?

 

He didn't really want to talk about Connor, if he was being honest. He was worried about him and felt bad about their altercation earlier, sure, but he wanted to talk about Zoe . The few times he'd heard people talk about her, they didn't refer to her as "badass electric and bass guitar in the jazz band" or "the girl with the gorgeous smile and freckles and stars doodled all over her stuff," but just as "Connor Murphy's sister." And that made him mad. She was so much more than that. He wanted to talk to Zoe , not just Connor's sister. But for now at least, he tried to accept the fact that the premise of their possible-conversation would probably have to be bound to her brother.

 

Evan barely had to move his feet as the line inched forward. He decided to give himself a break from agonizing over the conversation with Zoe that might not even happen, instead shifting his focus to looking over the options laid out before him. Today was Monday: burger day. Contrary to popular opinion, Evan didn't mind the school's cheeseburgers, so that was an easy decision. He scanned the options of fruits and vegetables before deciding on baby carrots and ranch, and then looked over to decide what to drink when he heard someone calling him from behind.

 

"Evan!"

 

Evan looked over his shoulder with wide eyes, not sure if he was more surprised that Jared was approaching him (again) or by the fact that he called him by his name. The students around him in the line grumbled as Jared casually slipped in beside Evan, who shuffled uncomfortably to give him some room.

 

"Don't look at me like that," Jared must've seen the bewilderment on Evan's face, because he shouldered him and rolled his eyes as he pulled out his phone. "It's easier to cut the line if I act like I'm meeting a friend."


"Oh," Evan nodded, avoiding his eyes. "Okay. That makes sense."

 

He always thought he'd be excited if Jared ever started talking to him again, but he was really more anxious than anything. Jared just casually hanging around completely out of nowhere made him uneasy, and he'd be lying if he said it didn't sting a little that so far he'd really only started shadowing him when he needed something. He hoped it wasn't true, that Jared was only re-acknowledging his existence for his own benefit, but knowing Jared, it wasn't unlikely.

 

Evan and Jared arrived at the front of the line, reaching for a tray and then carrots and strawberries respectively. Evan paused in front of the drinks. He wanted a water bottle, but that would cost money, and he could only get school lunch in the first place because he got it for free. He hated the school for making water bottles cost extra. Where was the logic in that? He grabbed an apple juice instead and stepped up to the register, punching in his student ID and nodding to the cashier with a shy smile before clearing the way for Jared to check out.


"Does, uh, did that mean you wanted to sit with me too or something?" Evan stammered before he could think about what he was asking. He wasn't even sure he wanted to sit with Jared, knowing how anxious his presence had proven to make him, so he wasn't sure why he asked. Maybe Jared was truly trying to extend an olive branch and just didn't know how, and Evan was more willing to give him another chance than he would've expected. But then again, probably not. This was Jared he was talking about, after all.

 

Jared looked up at Evan, surprised. Evan expected him to laugh, and felt a jab of regret for asking at all, but Jared just looked back down at his phone and shook his head as he walked away from the cashier.

 

"No can do, Acorn," There it was. "I spend my lunches in the ASL rooms with my friends. Got freshmen to tutor."

 

"Oh. That's cool," Evan looked away to hide his disappointment, surprised to feel it at all. "I didn't know you were a tutor."

 

Jared nodded, only half paying attention, and slipped away into the crowd, sliding his headphones up his ears and leaving Evan standing alone to watch him go. Evan stared at the ground, at his feet, begging them to move, but all his energy was buzzing around his head with the countless voices of students around him.

 

He sighed, lifting his head again to scan for either of the Murphy siblings. His eyes couldn't find them, and instead landed on the table in the back corner where he would usually sit if not in the library or Mr. McGuire’s room where he preferred to. Evan finally moved forward, grabbing some ketchup at the condiment and utensil cart by the checkout and then weaving through the crowd until he could sit down in his spot and take a breath of relief.

 

Evan set his food in front of him, but his sort-of-appetite had walked right off with Jared. He pushed his tray back and pulled his phone from his back pocket, rustling through the side pocket of his backpack on the bench beside him to pull out his headphones. He needed something to pass the time while he waited. He couldn't expect Zoe to rush here as fast as he had- it wasn't like she was actually excited to talk to him or anything. He just had to be patient, he decided, turning on a random playlist and sliding his earbuds in. She wasn't the type of person to commit to being somewhere and then ditch, right? He should really have more faith in her. Honestly, the late bell hadn't even rung yet. She was totally on her way, he was sure.

 

Evan crossed his arms on the table and let himself relax, sinking into the sound of his music and letting it drown out the clamor around him. He boredly nibbled at his fries, glancing up to Zoe's table off and on throughout a few songs until he straightened and felt a jolt of excitement. He recognized some of the people gathering at her table from her friend group, but his face fell as he realized Zoe herself wasn't among them.

 

He figured maybe she was buying school lunch today, and his eyes flicked to the now mostly-barren lunch lines, searching for the distinctive shade of Zoe's hair or her guitar case like she'd told him to look for, but she was nowhere to be seen.


Evan felt insecurity ache in his chest and anxiety worm in his stomach, and he dug his nails into his thighs, staring down at his lap. His heart pounded in his ears, and he swallowed back the lump building in his throat, fighting back laughter at how stupid he was to have believed she would've actually willingly put herself in the position to talk to him again. With any luck, he just wasn't significant enough for her to remember that she'd asked him to maybe come find her. With any logic, something just came up and she had to be somewhere else for or show up late to lunch. But Evan was immediately convinced of the worst.

 

He'd creeped her out, that was it, and she'd just invited him to find her in a panic to get away from him faster in the moment. That or he was just so pathetic that she invited him out of pity, but either way realized before lunch that she would rather be literally anywhere other than in a situation where she'd have to see him again. Or maybe she actually had second lunch, but had just lied to keep him out of her hair. Of course she didn't actually want to talk to him. How hopelessly optimistic and desperate could he have been?

 

As if on cue, he caught a glimpse of Zoe's whole table bursting into laughter that he could hear from halfway across the cafeteria. He stiffened, sucking in a few short, broken breaths, his blood roaring in his ears as he tried to convince himself that logically, they probably weren't laughing at him. He crossed his arms on the table again, resting his chin on his free arm so he wouldn't have to look at the Zoe-less table, but that meant he was left staring at his cast, which was just as bad— if not worse. He was much too aware of the painfully empty space on the plaster, where he had hoped he'd have a few signatures by now. At least a few people to sign it, as the smallest possible gesture that they might care and that the cast wasn’t there in vain.

 

But no. Empty. He might as well have branded a massive, neon 'LONELY, PATHETIC LOSER' on it for the whole cafeteria to see. Clearly no one else was interested in writing anything different. Why should they? It was the truth.

 

Not liking his two main options of things to look at, Evan lifted his head from his arms again and stared ahead at the space between Zoe's table and his cast, but it backfired, and now both were in his peripheral. His stomach lurched and he resorted to squeezing his eyes shut and burying his head in his hands.

 

Nausea swam in his belly and sorrow ached dryly in his throat, and Evan felt more pathetic and pitiful than anyone on the planet. Even with his eyes closed, he heard countless voices bouncing around him, and he dug his nails into his temples as they started blurring together into a familiar whistle in his ears. He felt his heart pounding in his throat, trying to place where he had heard this exact ringing, and he had to fight his breath from shallowing in the familiar deafening loneliness.

 

He leaned into his hands a little more, arms weakening under the influence of his rising anxiety, but then hissed through clenched teeth as the added weight sent a jolt of sharp, splintering pain under his cast. He yanked his head off his hands and stared down at his left arm again, his head hollowing helplessly as he recognized the connection between the merciless ringing in his ears and the sickening pain of his broken arm.

 

He'd heard this exact sound when he woke up at the base of the tree.

 

Evan almost gagged, feeling a wave of nausea, dizziness and pain so fresh that he was unsettled by how eerily it matched the feeling when he'd woken up under the tree on that fateful summer day. It made sense that he'd feel those things and hear that sound again, he realized. Even in the buzzing cafeteria brimming with students so plentiful that they were probably over capacity, Evan was no less alone than he'd felt waiting against the tree trunk, clutching his arm, crying, silently pleading for someone- anyone- to come find him, to notice he had disappeared.


And just like that day had proven, he knew that right now, if he just vanished into thin air, not one person in this cafeteria would even notice.

 

Evan swung his legs over the bench, briskly pushing himself to his feet. Grabbing his barely touched lunch tray, he threw it into the trash can and lunged for his backpack with his casted arm, not caring and barely even feeling the shooting pain of lifting something so heavy with it. He swung his backpack over one shoulder and hastily made for the exit, knowing full well where he was headed next.

 

He had a letter to write.


11:13am

 

ZOE’S POV

 

"I'm here! I'm here," Zoe skidded to a stop in front of  her lunch table, nearly tripping over her own feet as a couple of her friends looked up to acknowledge her. "Sorry I'm so late. What'd I miss?"


"Hey, bitch," Bee greeted Zoe affectionately, not looking up from her phone. "You didn't miss anything. What took so long?"

 

Nick moved his backpack from and patted the seat between he and Hannah, inviting Zoe to sit. "I had to drop by the band room to get my bass," Zoe explained, patted her guitar case and set it behind her seat. "I need to drop it in my car on the way to fifth period." She shimmied her backpack off her shoulders and took her seat.

 

There were a couple empty chairs, she realized, and Zoe furrowed her brow. "Where are Sabrina and August?"

 

"August is my English TA in fourth period. They got held up helping Mr. Holloway and sent me ahead without them," Hannah explained, "and Sabrina has second lunch this quarter. But she had her fifth period teacher last year and hates her, so she said she's getting a schedule change anyway, and that should leave her in the same lunch as the rest of us."

 

"I hope so," Thalia muttered. "Lunch would be weird without her. How are we gonna sneak all of us out for lunch with only Zoe's car?" She half-joked, and their friends laughed.

 

"Oh yeah, that reminds me, Zo," Nick lightly slapped Zoe's arm with the back of his hand, making her jump a little bit and her breath hitch in her throat. "Can you give me a ride home after practice? My moms' anniversary is tonight and I don't think they're gonna be home until, like, eleven."

 

"Can't you just go ahead and get your license already?" Zoe rolled her eyes, feigning annoyance.

 

"I have my test next month!" Nick huffed, ducking his head in embarrassment as the girls around him laughed.

 

"I know, I'm kidding," Zoe snickered. "Yes, I'll give you a ride home if you buy me dinner on the way." She stuck her tongue out at him, and he snorted.


"Fine," he stabbed his salad with a fork, fake pouting. "You only hang out with me because I buy you food."

 

"Maybe," Zoe grinned, flicking his arm and sticking her tongue out again. "Oh, hey, y'know that guy I was talking to in gym?" She pulled out her lunchbox, asking Khadija in particular, knowing she'd seen them talk when she called her back to serve.

 

"Evan?" Khadija blinked at her, snapping off a bite of baby carrot. "Yeah. He's in my chemistry class, too. He's pretty cute, don't you think?" Khadija cocked her eyebrow questioningly, but Zoe looked down to unzip her lunch, not picking up on her inquisition.

 

"Oh yeah, definitely," Zoe agreed without thinking. "But that's not why I was talking to him." She went on quickly, feeling the group's curious eyes on her. "He's the one that Connor shoved in the hall this morning."

 

"Yeah, but didn't you apologize to him right after that?" Nick took a swig of his chocolate milk.

 

"Uh huh," Zoe pulled out her fruit snacks and slid her peanut butter crackers across the table to Bee as usual. "But I figured I'd ask if he'd seen Connor since then."


"You still haven't?" Thalia's face darkened in concern, and Zoe frowned, shaking her head.

 

"And he still won't answer his phone," Zoe sighed, pulling hers out from her back pocket to check one more time- nothing. She set an uneaten fruit snack back in the bag, suddenly not hungry anymore. "I'm close to asking my parents to try and get ahold of him. I wish I knew his schedule so I could hang out around each of his classes to see if he shows up, or even ask his teachers if he was in class."

 

"I'm sure he's around," Nick briefly pressed his calf against hers under the table reassuringly, but uncertainty bubbled in the undertones of his voice, and Zoe looked away.

 

"It's not like he hasn't up and left school in the middle of the day before," Zoe muttered, anxiously zipping and unzipping her lunchbox and bouncing her leg. "But never the first day. And he usually at least tells me if I ask if he left. But this time, it's like he disappeared into thin air. He was high as a kite this morning, but even still, this isn't like him." Her friends shared uneasy glances, and Hannah leaned into Zoe comfortingly. She sighed. "I just have a weird feeling today. It's been eating me up since this morning."


"So Evan didn't see him either?" Khadija went on gently, clearly sensing Zoe's increasing worry.

 

"No," Zoe gave up on her food, zipping her lunchbox shut again and stuffing it into her backpack. "But he offered to keep an eye out for him, so I told him to come find me at lunch if he saw anything. I wanted to invite him to eat with us either way, 'cause I think he usually sits alone, but I didn't think to clarify until after I had already left. I just figured we could maybe ask if he wanted to stay if he came over. If everyone wanted him to."

 

"I wouldn't mind if he joined us sometime," Hannah mused with a shrug, and the rest of the table murmured and nodded in agreement.

 

"He was my TA in Agriculture last year," Bee recalled through her fruit punch straw. "I think he's got some social anxiety, but he seemed chill."

 

"Perfect, he'll fit right in," Thalia joked, and the table snickered, not able to argue with that.

 

"But he hasn't been over here, then, I take it?" Zoe glanced around the cafeteria, scanning for the striped blue polo he was wearing, but her friends frowned and shook their heads.

 

"I thought I saw him over there when we first came in," Hannah nodded to a table in the far corner. "But I think he left a minute or two before you got here."


"Okay," Zoe slumped a little in her seat. "I guess that means he hasn't seen Connor either. Or he thought I wasn't coming anymore. I hope he doesn't think I bailed on him when you all came in without me...." She trailed off, suddenly regretting going to get her guitar when she had.


"Don't worry, Zo," Bee kicked her shin lightly under the table to stop her from zoning out before it started. "Maybe he just had to go to the bathroom or something. Lunch isn't over yet, he could come back with news about Connor any minute now for all we know."

 

"Exactly," Khadija nodded. "And you didn't mean to be late, you just had an errand to run on your way over. I'm sure he understands. He probably didn't even see us come in."


“Yeah….” Zoe agreed half-heartedly, eyes trailing over to the table where Hannah had seen Evan. As much as she wanted to believe her friends, the knot of uneasiness in her stomach was only growing, and she had a horrible sinking feeling that this dread was only the beginning.

Chapter Text

August 29, 2016
11:17am

 

TRIGGER WARNING:
This chapter contains a s*ic*de by drug overdose, implications of past s*lf h*rm, and mention/implication of underage drug/alcohol usage. Please proceed with caution and read responsibly.

 

CONNOR MURPHY’S POV

 

Thirty-one pieces of gum stuck under all the tables and chairs in his eyeline. Sixteen shapes formed out of the randomly-speckled pattern on the flimsy, water-damaged ceiling tiles. Twelve screws bolting the bookshelf to the wall across the way. Twenty-nine books on said bookshelf. Forty-seven threads strung between the edges of all the holes in his jeans. Seven bracelets on his arms, half-concealing way too many scars to count.

 

The computer lab was dark and quiet. Connor sat beneath the long tables lined up against the wall, knees pulled up to their chest and his head resting on his crossed arms. A jungle of computer wires hung tangled around him, and he was probably sitting on some, but if he was, he couldn't feel it. 

 

They'd lost track of just how long they'd been here, sitting on the computer lab floor with the lights turned off, in complete silence save for the hum of the computers lined up on the tables above his head. Desperately trying not to sober up, Connor had spent however long hiding in here, brooding, and counting whatever he could find to- it was all that was keeping him grounded right now. The bell had rung on several occasions now over long stretches of time, and he guessed it had been at least a few hours. His phone had gone off in his pocket enough that he had gotten annoyed with it and had to turn the vibrate off. It was probably just some YouTube notifications or Cynthia breathing down his neck to see if he had majorly fucked up yet today. 

 

Connor wasn't sure why exactly he'd chosen the computer lab to bunk in. Sure, it was one of the most isolated spots on campus, but why had he stayed on campus at all? He could've gone anywhere, there was nothing stopping him. He’d snuck past the administrators on security detail at the edges of campus dozens of times before. So why did it feel like he was being compelled to stay? There was nothing for him here, apart from people he hated or people who hated him, or both. There was nothing for him anywhere , if they were honest with themself… not anymore, anyway. Ask him this time last year, maybe he would've said there was. But not now. 

 

Connor couldn’t blame him for being upset when he found out. It wasn’t like he would’ve stayed if Connor had, anyway. Not when he saw how truly fucked up they were. They never understood what he’d seen in them in the first place. But this was for the best, they’d had to tell themself- he deserved much better than Connor, and thankfully they’d realized that before he could run away himself. They’d left in a panic to stop themself from getting hurt, but the guilt in knowing that they had hurt him by doing so had been eating him alive every day since. Connor wasn’t worth mourning over, they hoped he had come to realize, so he would be able to move on quickly and come to the conclusion that Connor was right to leave. They hadn’t heard from him, after all. Miguel was fine.

 

At least one of them was.

 

Perhaps Connor hid in here because they wanted to believe someone was looking for him, or had noticed he was missing all day. Perhaps he wanted to believe that someone would find him. Maybe if they did, it would be a sign that he shouldn't. A sign that someone cared even the tiniest bit, and that he could throw that bottle in his backpack away, and the burdening weight of the potential consequences with it. Maybe, deep down, that was the real reason they had decided to go to school today after all.

 

He would’ve taken it at this point, but Connor honestly didn’t want just anyone to find him. There was only one person he truly wanted to see right now, one person he thought would be able to convince him he would be alright. He wanted her to burst through the door and for her eyes to light up when she saw him, to pull him out from under the table positively glowing with relief. They wanted her to hug him tight and tell them how worried she was and that she'd been looking everywhere for him and that she loved them. 

 

Like she would have done when they were kids.

 

But they weren't kids anymore. If she'd even noticed he was missing, he was sure she'd be relieved. 

 

Connor couldn't remember the exact moment he realized Zoe was afraid of him- he had probably blocked it out. But he remembered how it felt: the dread, the guilt, the regret, the bitter, seething self-hatred for ever letting himself lose control to the point where it cost them his sister. They hadn't stopped feeling it since.

 

But yet, the more he hated himself and what he did to her, the worse he got. Back when he started majorly declining, Connor never would've dreamed of hurting her. They didn’t know when that line he’d once refused to cross had blurred away. 

 

They still didn't want to hurt her, quite the opposite, actually, but they did. The angrier they got with himself, the more he took it out on her, which was utterly confusing and even more-so terrifying. He had absolutely no idea why, when it had started, or how to stop himself, and no more energy to even try.

 

He couldn't stop himself from hurting her, either physically or psychologically, so he just avoided her altogether… and she seemed to be fine with that, so why would he try anyway? He knew he made her nervous, and she was clearly uncomfortable in their presence. And she had every right to be. He couldn't ignore the way she'd flinched away from them when they grabbed the milk this morning, or how tense she'd been and how fast her heartbeat raced against him when they hugged her in the hallway earlier, even if she had hugged him back.

 

Therapy and rehab had told Connor that the first step of making things right with Zoe was to forgive himself. Connor thought that was bullshit.

 

How could he forgive himself, when her wrist cast from sixth grade, festooned with signatures but not his own, was still in that bag in the back of her closet? How could he, when she jumped and trembled violently with wild, glazed eyes at the sound of anything remotely loud or sudden? How could he, knowing that she was always hiding in her room or fleeing the house in order to avoid him? How could he, knowing that she refused to take off her shorts at the beach or pool anymore, and always screwed her eyes shut and hissed in pain if she waded too deep into the ocean? How could he, knowing what he’d caused her to do to herself?

 

If Connor couldn’t even forgive themself, how could he possibly believe that she could forgive him?

 

Therapists had tried to answer that question for them, but they were only telling them what he wanted to hear. Connor knew the real answer: She couldn’t. Not even if she wanted to.

 

The potential to reconnect with Zoe was one of the few things that kept him going as long as he did. But knowing what they’d done to her, how afraid she was of him, he knew it was dumb to hope that they might be able to fix things. The pain, trauma and stress he had inflicted on her and the rest of their family wasn't forgivable or forgettable, and Connor was all too aware of that. And now that Miguel was gone, they didn't have anyone to try and convince them otherwise.

 

He truly believed it would be in everyone’s best interest if he just up and disappeared, as if he never existed to begin with. No more pain, not his own or whatever he put his family through. No more fear of how he might hurt someone next or for Zoe to be stricken with whenever he walked into the room. No more money drained into drugs, or stupid programs and products and miracle cures that couldn't save someone this far gone. 

 

No more suffering. No more heartache. No more Connor.

 

But he couldn't just erase his entire existence, unfortunately… and that's what the bottle in his backpack was for. The next best thing. 

 

Connor was exhausted. It wasn't going to get better. Zoe was afraid of him. Zoe hated him. His relationships with both of his parents were destroyed. Connor and Zoe were both painfully aware of the paperwork and business cards of various divorce lawyers scattered around the house; Their parents’ marriage was collapsing, and it was all his fault. Miguel was gone. They had no one else. Jared was right: he was a freak. A waste of time, energy, money, and space. He was so, so tired of fighting. No one was coming to find him here. No one had even noticed he was missing. And he was done.

 

No more suffering. No more heartache. No more Connor.

 

He reached for his backpack with a trembling hand, rummaging for the bottle he'd stealthily swiped from the medicine cabinet this morning. They felt the smooth plastic of the container and pulled it out, staring at it with dull, half-open eyes, and feeling a rush of euphoric relief at the idea of what he was about to do. Their hand made its way to the cap and tightened around it to twist it open, when—

 

Connor jumped as the door to the computer lab slammed open on the other side of the divider wall, and he immediately pressed himself up against the wall beneath the desk sheltering him. They should've felt relieved, but until he could be sure it wasn't some administrator that would bust his ass for skipping, he couldn't be. He strained to listen for a voice, but instead was met with strained, shallow breaths that startled Connor into leaning forward ever so slightly to listen closer.

 

This ragged, unsteady breathing sounded familiar, oddly enough, and it was thoroughly confusing him. Who was this? Had they run here? Why else would they be panting so hard?

 

Oh, they realized with a jolt of shock and uneasiness. That's not panting. That's hyperventilating.

 

Connor felt a genuine rush of concern for this mystery person and slipped the bottle back into their bag, previous plans forgotten… at least for now. They leaned forward onto their hands, silently crawling forward and standing up against the will of his legs, which had fallen asleep, he realized. They crept up to the divider wall that partially separated the sections of the lab, pressing his back against it and trying not to let their legs buckle as they struggled to wake up.

 

The footsteps behind him clumsily stumbled to a stop and Connor heard tapping on a keyboard; he could guess they may be logging onto a computer. Their breathing was still labored, but he could tell they were desperately trying to curb it, stopping to swallow and take somewhat-deep breaths as much as possible. 

 

A phone on the other side of the wall suddenly went off, making Connor jump again. 

 

“Shit,” the person muttered quietly, voice just barely discernible.  

 

Evan.

 

Guilt washed over Connor and they cringed upon remembering what they’d done to him this morning. They hadn't cooled down in time to stop themselves from pushing him, but they understood now that he was more even-headed that Evan almost definitely hadn’t been laughing at them. He hadn’t registered the panicked helplessness on his face in time after Jared had rushed off, and by the time he realized that his laugh sounded more uncomfortable than mocking, Evan was on the ground and Connor was storming away.

 

They listened uneasily, not sure what to do, when the familiarity hit him like a ton of bricks- and Connor realized with a chill that he sounded just like Evan did right now every time he broke. 

 

Are we really so different after all? 

 

A horrible thought struck Connor, hitting him with a wave of sickening shock and dizziness that sent him staggering in place. 

 

Did he break his arm trying to…?

 

No. Of course not. They weren’t that similar. Maybe Evan was struggling more than he’d made publicly obvious, but he wasn’t broken . Not like Connor. 

 

They heard Evan take a couple more shaky, somewhat-shallow breaths, swallow hard and answer the phone with a surprisingly steady voice, as if he had just been able to turn off the panic of whatever was ailing him. “Hi, Mom.”

 

Connor gulped, the painful memory of this morning all too fresh in their head, seemingly mocking him from the big screen projected on the backs of his eyelids. God, he was such an idiot. What was wrong with him? Why couldn’t they control themselves enough to just wait a couple seconds and think about why Evan was laughing, instead of just assuming the worst of him and literally physically assaulting him? He had a broken arm, for fuck’s sake! 

 

Then again, it would be a massive insult to Evan to assume he was anything like them. This was probably a one-off thing for him, Connor decided. One breakdown wasn’t telling of anyone’s mental health. Everyone had a bad day every now and then, right? Evan was fine. There he’d gone, assuming the worst of him again, he realized, and his shoulders slumped. 

 

Connor wanted to turn the corner and make amends: apologize, explain himself, make sure Evan was okay and that they hadn’t hurt him earlier. He was pretty sure that Evan, like himself, sat alone at lunch, so maybe they could ask him if he wanted to sit together tomorrow, as some sort of peace offering. But they faltered; that wasn’t the Connor that Evan knew— he couldn’t do that. He wouldn’t want to sit with the freak who shoved him for no reason anyway. It was probably for the best.

 

But hearing the state Evan had been in when he stumbled into the computer lab only made Connor feel worse. Clearly he wasn’t in the best place himself, not right now, at least… Had what happened this morning made things harder, or even worse, what sent Evan into this spiral in the first place?

 

Why did they have to be so impulsive? That was probably the quality he hated most about himself. They never thought, they just did. Every time he hurt Zoe, screamed at her or Larry or Cynthia, stole money or booze from their parents, or randomly vanished to nowhere in particular in the middle of the night, it was all on a whim. Running from Miguel when he found out had been a panicked split-second decision. Even today, running off to hide in the computer lab had been on impulse. And last summer, that night when he totaled his Subaru. He’d swerved straight into that tree at sixty-five miles-per-hour on purpose. There was no deer in the road. He crashed that car because he decided that he wanted to… on impulse. Pushing Evan, though, aside from the things he had done to Zoe, was quickly becoming the impulse he regretted most.

 

He’d never seen this side of Evan. Sure, he was kind of a crybaby growing up, and he had some fairly bad anxiety, from what Connor had gathered, but there was pure anguish in the way he’d sounded when he came stumbling in- hyperventilating and almost certainly crying, at least a little bit. There was no way what Connor did to him wasn’t playing some part in this, they concluded, and they felt another stab of guilt and sunk their teeth into their bottom lip. 

 

Connor leaned over and strained to listen in on his phone conversation, but then paused. He’d already shoved him this morning, could they really in good conscience add eavesdropping to his list of Evan-offenses?

 

“Hope it was a good day, honey.” He managed to hear, just barely, on the phone line before he could stop himself.

 

“It was…” Evan stalled. “Yeah, it was great.” Liar. His voice was weak and quiet enough that Connor wasn’t sure if his mom would even hear him, and definitely nowhere near confident enough for her to believe he was telling the truth.

 

The printer went off a few feet away from him, distracting Connor from listening any further. They couldn’t fight their curiosity and leaned over to peek, catching sight of the first line as it printed.

 

Dear Evan Hansen,

 

What?

 

Connor yanked his head away, not wanting to invade his privacy anymore, but officially confused and intrigued. Was he writing a letter to himself? Or was this not Evan after all, maybe? 

 

They cautiously leaned over to peek behind the wall. No, that was definitely Evan alright. 

 

"Bye," he said quickly into his phone. His shoulders drooped and Connor heard the hum of the other line going dead, Evan’s hand falling to slip his phone into his back pocket. 

 

Connor gulped, knowing he would probably be coming to retrieve what he'd printed, but Evan slowly logged out of and turned off the computer as if every movement weighed heavily on his limbs. Connor had a little time to plan their next move, they realized, as Evan stilled and stared blankly at the computer monitor screen, which had shut off and gone black. He was unmoving aside from the subtle shifts in his shoulders as he breathed, and Connor realized he was probably zoning out. Yet another thing they had in common. 

 

Connor had two options here: Go back under the table and hope to god that he wouldn't see them, or let Evan find him back here and hopefully try to extend an olive branch.

 

They stood frozen for several more heartbeats, biting his lip, gaze flitting back and forth between where his backpack was still sheltered under the table and the printer with Evan’s paper on it. He drew in a deep, shaky breath, and peered around the corner one more time. Evan still didn't seem to be going anywhere. Connor gulped and took another deep breath, deciding on a new third option and bouncing on their toes, shaking their hands to hype himself up a little bit. 

 

Before they could have second thoughts, Connor silently crept back over to the desk hiding his backpack and pulled it out from underneath. He swung it over his neck and shoulder and swiped Evan’s paper from the printer, fighting the curiosity to read it by instead tucking it under one arm and crossing his arms over his chest to shield himself.

 

Another deep breath in. Connor stepped around the wall.

 

“So.”

 

Evan jumped, whipping around with wide eyes that betrayed the obvious glint of panic Connor caught when he realized who had spoken. The familiar defeated exhaustion weighing under Evan’s eyes caught Connor off guard, and they hesitated.

 

Go on, say something, Connor snapped to himself. Don't just stand still staring at him like some kind of creeper. Talk to him. God, why hadn't he thought this through? This one simple thing? It couldn't be this hard for anyone else to just stop and think for more than half a second. He tried to subtly scan over Evan to find something conversation-worthy, but he didn't have to look for long. 

 

“Um, what happened to your arm?” They pointed at Evan’s cast. Connor knew he sounded pathetically uncomfortable and anxious, but hopefully non-confrontational. Of course they knew they weren't a threat… not on purpose, anyway… but Evan had every right to believe they were, and he understood his need to be cautious with him.

 

“Oh,” Evan cringed and instinctively tugged his broken arm closer and covered it with his opposite arm, as if trying to hide it. “I fell out of a tree, actually.” Evan murmured weakly. He'd been avoiding eye contact already, but now he fully looked away from Connor, a distant expression on his face as he clutched his cast with mostly chewed-off nails.

 

“Fell out of a tree?” Connor repeated after a moment of uncomfortable silence.

 

“Yeah,” Evan chuckled quietly, cracking a smile that hardly masked the pain behind it, his cheeks tinged with embarrassment.

 

“Well, that is just the saddest fucking thing I've ever heard, oh my god,” Connor laughed, actually laughed, but then felt a jolt of panic at what they'd just said and how it might come across until Evan joined in his laughter, telling them that he knew it was good-natured. 

 

“I know,” Evan chuckled, then trailed off and looked back away. Connor went quiet as Evan's face grew distant again, and both boys fidgeted nervously.

 

Tell him you're sorry about this morning, Connor silently instructed himself, but their eyes trailed back down to Evan’s broken arm, and his lips betrayed him. “No one’s signed your cast,” he realized aloud, his voice nowhere near hostile but apparently still packing a punch hard enough to make Evan wince again and shy away.

 

Oh, for fuck’s sake, you fucked it up again? You can't even apologize right!

 

“No, I know.” Evan glanced down at his cast, his voice barely above a whisper. 

 

The look on his face reminded Connor of how Zoe looked when he'd refused to sign her cast all those years ago, looking some mix of a kicked puppy and an exhausted old greyhound that couldn't race anymore. He felt a deep pang of guilt and regret, but it quickly fizzled into something else as Connor took in Evan’s face and body language. 

 

It was like pity, but somehow… warmer. It was a vaguely familiar feeling, but Connor couldn't tell if it was good or not. It was similar to realizing the relation to Connor and Evan at their breaking points, but now it felt more… intimate. Connor understood the loneliness he could tell Evan was feeling right now. He felt for Evan, and knew his pain. 

 

Empathy . That was it. 

 

Perhaps there was some merit in Evan finding them here, after all.

 

“Well, I'll sign it.” Connor found himself saying. 

 

You will? The voice in his head sounded dumbfounded, but Connor shooed it away. He couldn't make the same mistake with Evan that he'd made with Zoe, refusing an opportunity to connect and prove he cared like this, even in such a seemingly small, insignificant way. If not with his sister, then with someone . It was the least they could do, knowing how much a small gesture like this would've meant to them ten minutes earlier- and even now, still.

 

Evan lifted his head, looking completely stunned, and meeting Connor’s mismatched eyes for the first time. “You don't have to,” he shook his head weakly, sounding breathless, but Connor couldn't read his voice beyond the shock at face value. He thought he could pick out a hint of relief and a hint of hesitation, but they couldn't be sure. There was something so sad about how Evan had immediately thought to respond, though, and Connor’s heart sank a little for him.

 

“Do you have a sharpie?” Connor inched forward cautiously, hoping he sounded genuine— like he wanted to do this, and didn't just feel like he was supposed to want to. 

 

Evan blinked at them, still looking a little dazed at the offer, but he fumbled for the side pocket of his backpack where he pulled out a sharpie and reluctantly handed it over. Connor carefully took the sharpie from him and bit the cap off, reaching for and taking hold of Evan’s broken arm to pull it close enough to sign. 

 

“Ow-!” Evan flinched and Connor stiffened.

 

Wow, great job, dipshit. You hurt him. Way to show how little of a threat you are!

 

Connor clenched his jaw and loosened his grip on Evan’s cast, looking down to focus on signing over the shame hot on his face. He could tell Evan was still pretty uncomfortable, with the way he fidgeted and the uncertain glimpses Connor caught being thrown in his direction. They wished they knew how to assure him that he could relax, but they figured maybe giving him space was best… just as soon as he was… done. The squeaking of the marker stopped, and Connor stepped back to admire his masterpiece and re-cap the sharpie. 

 

“Oh… great, thanks,” Evan stared down at his cast, newly-adorned with probably the biggest six letters they could've written. 

 

CONNOR

 

He wasn't sure why exactly he'd written their name so big. Maybe he just didn't want one small name to be the only thing on Evan’s cast, and he wouldn't feel as alone if more space was taken up, even if only signed by one person.

 

Connor stared at the ground, shrugging off his thanks and fiddling with the sharpie. “Yeah, well, now we can both pretend that we have friends.” Shit . He hadn't meant to say that out loud. There he went again. They risked a glance up at Evan, who only nodded wistfully, not looking offended in the slightest. Connor offered the sharpie forward.

 

“Good point,” Evan murmured as he took back his marker, nodding to Connor once with the tiniest smile he'd ever seen, and dipping his head before stepping around him and hastily making for the exit. 

 

Connor was almost satisfied enough to let him leave, when he remembered Evan’s paper was still hidden under his arm. “Oh, is this yours? I found it on the printer.” Evan turned back to look at him, and Connor took a couple steps in Evan’s direction as he pulled the paper out and held it out to him. “It's— ‘Dear Evan Hansen.’ That's your name, right?”

 

The undeniable look of unbridled panic struck Evan’s face. “Oh! No, yeah, that's just this stupid thing I have to write, it’s-it's for an assignment….” He nearly tripped over himself as he lunged forward to grab the paper back from them, but Connor caught a glimpse of something that made them yank it back. 

 

“‘Because there’s Zoe,’” Connor’s face darkened as they read one particularly unsettling line aloud, and they lifted their head to lock eyes with Evan. Now dead serious, a surge of protectiveness swelled in their chest and completely drowned any and all of Connor’s concerns about appearing friendly and not scaring him. “Is this about my sister?” 

 

“No, not at all,” Evan’s face paled and he averted his eyes, trying to reach forward and snatch the letter again, desperation clearly growing exponentially. “You have a sister? No, it's not about her.”

 

“Don't play fucking dumb with me,” Connor spat, heart racing in his chest as he felt a familiar heat begin to boil deep within them. “You wrote this because you knew that I would find it.” Deep down, they knew Evan would never, but Connor couldn't think anymore: he could only act. It was what he did best, after all. 

 

“What..?” Evan croaked weakly, and the tiny bubble of logic still fighting the anger in Connor’s head somewhere read the genuine confusion in his voice and made Connor hesitate. It didn't last long, the insecurity quickly overpowering their ability to think straight, and they took another ominous step closer to Evan. 

 

“You saw that I was the only other person in the computer lab, so you wrote this and printed this out so that I would find it.” Connor’s voice trembled. He hated when it did that. 

 

“Why, um…” Evan began carefully, taking a step closer as if he wanted to reach his hand out and try to reassure them. “Why would I do that?”

 

Connor’s mind flew a million miles a second as they fought to control himself against the influence of the anger. Why would he do that? What would Evan possibly have to gain from doing anything to Connor?

 

Revenge , the fuming voice in his head hissed. He wants you to suffer for what you did to him this morning. And why shouldn't he? It's what you deserve. 

 

“So I could read some creepy shit you wrote about my sister, and freak out, right?” Connor was almost yelling at this point, completely overcome with the insecurity the voice was feeding him. Evan stared at him with wide eyes, stunned and terrified into silence. “So then you can tell everyone that I'm crazy!” He was screaming now, his eyes burning as they stared straight through Evan to the ground behind him.

 

Listen to yourself, that doesn't even make any sense! The small voice of reality cried desperately in his ear. Evan’s not a vengeful person! He understands you, he doesn't want to hurt you! You know that deep down, I know you do!

 

“What?!” Evan cried, shaking his head and looking completely and honestly dumbfounded and even a little hurt by Connor’s accusation. 

 

“Right?!” The last of Connor’s logic left in what felt like bucketloads, uncovering all the miserable hopelessness that Evan’s appearance had veiled for longer than Connor had felt since Miguel.

 

“No! I don't even-”

 

“Fuck you!”

 

Connor’s hand flew for Evan, but he graspe helplessly for the tiniest puppet string of control and stopped himself just in time, managing to only jab him hard in the chest with one finger and roughly shoulder past him, storming for the door with hot tears in their eyes and the letter held tightly in his hand.

 

All common sense and optimism gone, Connor drowned out the noises of Evan desperately calling after him and begging him for the note back. All they could think now was get out. Get away from him. 

 

The door slammed behind them and Connor broke off down the hallway for the door out to the courtyard. How dare he? Take Connor’s generous gesture to make them think they were safe, then use their status as Zoe’s older brother against him? The sting of betrayal burned hot in Connor’s churning stomach, and the tear slipping down his cheek burned even hotter against his face. Just when he'd thought they were making a connection, too. Just when he'd thought maybe they could be friends . This was what they got for letting their guard down. The voice in their head was right, though: he did deserve it. For shoving Evan, yes, but more-so for thinking, even for a second, that he was anywhere near good enough for someone to want him as a friend. Surely he should've learned his lesson by now.

 

Connor wiped their eyes and then narrowed them as they reopened, having no recollection of how they got to be crossing the road at the campus entrance in the direction of his house, but finally regaining some consciousness just enough to realize how far he'd made it. They glanced over his shoulder— Evan wasn't following them. Damn, security on campus was weak if Connor could leave without even being conscious of anything but the hurt and rage searing in their chest.

 

The question that stood now though loomed over Connor with a sense of hollowing solitude almost worse than earlier in the computer lab: Where were they supposed to go now?

 

Back to the house? Cynthia was there, and she’d demand that he talk to her about what happened, or even worse, force him to go back to school. That was not an option, he decided. He couldn't chance running into Evan again or risk Zoe or anyone else seeing him like this. There was no way they could go back to school, or to his house- not unless they could be sure he'd be home alone, which he couldn't. If he couldn't assure Cynthia would be at the gym, there was no way he was going home. They cursed himself silently for not paying more attention to Cynthia’s yoga schedule. 

 

So where else was an option? Connor scanned the deepest crevices of their mind for somewhere else- anywhere else- they might be able to go, but there wasn't a place he could think of that might be a safe bet. The only place that might work was Ellison, the state park only a couple blocks from his neighborhood. It wasn't Connor’s favorite place in the world, but it wouldn't be too busy on a Monday at noon, and it was usually rather peaceful, which they could appreciate.

 

Connor especially liked one trail that led to a wide yellow field centered with a broad, tall oak tree that probably stretched to over forty feet high. They hadn't been there or climbed in years, but he and Zoe had a tree bearing a tire swing and treehouse in their backyard growing up, and he looked fondly back on the days where they would climb, swing and hang out in the treehouse with Zoe… until seventh grade when he’d shoved her out and broken her wrist. He didn't even remember why he'd gotten so upset, the horror they'd felt when they looked down at her and realized what they'd done dominating the rest of that memory entirely. Zoe’s shriek of pain and the sickening crunch from when she'd slammed against the ground onto her arm was a sound he didn't think either of them could ever forget, no matter how badly they wanted to.

 

The treehouse was still there (although dilapidated probably beyond repair), but the tire swing’s rope had rotted away after several years of neglect and finally broken in the harsh winds of a blizzard last winter. Zoe had been surprisingly upset when Larry threw away the tire and cut down the rest of the rope. Connor was disappointed, too, but he’d never told anyone that, or even placed exactly why. It wasn’t like anyone was using it.

 

Right now, though, they had to admit that walking that particular trail and maybe even lounging on one of the lower branches of the oak sounded rather relaxing- maybe just the right thing to clear his head. Hurt still bubbled deep in their chest, but the roar of adrenaline in his ears was receding, and their grip on Evan’s paper in their hand softened slightly. He glanced down and caught another glimpse of the name he had so blatantly printed for Connor to see, but instead of a returning flush of anger, the sympathy that they'd felt upon first seeing Evan seeped back into view.

 

He'd done it again, hadn't he? Assumed the worst of Evan, assumed he was out to get them, with no proof. The panic-stricken face Evan had worn flashed in their mind, and Connor’s shoulders drooped. There had been absolutely no hostility or anger or mockery in his expression, now that he was out in the sun and fresh air and could remember it with a more level head. Just pure fear, with an undeniable twinge of embarrassment. 

 

He glimpsed at the paper again. Evan hadn't meant for Connor to see that he'd written about Zoe, had he? Maybe Evan actually wasn't talking about Connor’s sister Zoe. Maybe Evan was just trying to get through his clearly very bad day and finish this letter- hadn't he called it an assignment? Oh god, had Connor just stolen Evan’s first grade of the school year? Why hadn't he just listened to him? Why was the only thing he was good at jumping to conclusions? 

 

The context clues were overwhelming, but Connor’s gut told him more than anything: This letter wasn't meant for anyone’s eyes but Evan’s.

 

Guilt and humiliation rang heavy in his head and Connor let his legs slow down to a more leisurely pace as they turned in Ellison. Jesus, had he been running or was he on the move longer than he thought? Ellison Park was at least a good 25 minute walk from school. 

 

He let out a deep sigh, looking down and reluctantly straightening the crinkled edge of the letter from where his angry fist had gripped it, trying to swallow his pride and force himself to turn around, go back to school, find Evan and return it. But his eye caught onto something, and they kept reading before he could think twice. 

 

All my hope is pinned on Zoe.

 

Connor froze dead in his tracks, a cold sting jabbing him through the chest with a force that weakened their knees.

 

Even if this wasn't about Zoe Murphy , that line was just a little too real and a little too specific. Connor picked his heavy feet back up and stopped to look up at the map posted at Ellison’s entrance, his plan to go back to school and return the note quickly forgotten. An odd, anticipatory feeling weighed on Connor, throwing him off and blurring their vision to the point where they struggled to find the trail to the big oak amongst the maze of the other paths scattered on the map. 

 

“Come on,” he muttered, hitting his temple with the base of their palm a couple times and briefly clenching his eyes shut to clear their head. The map was slightly clearer now, or at least just enough for Connor to make out the biggest clearing and the color coded path marking the trail leading to it, branded in a light sky blue. 

 

Luckily, the path was fairly easy to remember, and Connor was able to stumble off in the right direction as he clenched and unclenched his fists around the paper. Looking down, Connor dodged the eyes of the few park rangers and hikers scattering the park as they briskly found their way to the path and subconsciously made the decision to keep reading.

 

Dear Evan Hansen,

 

So Evan had been writing a letter to himself. Peculiar, Connor pondered, but far from the most prominent thing on their mind right now.

 

Turns out this wasn’t an amazing day after all. This isn’t going to be an amazing week, or an amazing year.

 

“I feel that,” Connor muttered darkly, to no one in particular. Perhaps he was subconsciously trying to tell Evan that he understood him in some way or another… but that was ridiculous. He couldn't expect Evan to hear him way out here, much less sympathize with them after that outburst. 

 

Because why would it be?

 

Hell if Connor could tell him. He didn’t know how to answer that for himself.

 

Oh, I know. Because there's Zoe. And all my hope is pinned on Zoe, who I don't even know and who doesn't know me.

 

A heavy numbness weighed on Connor’s legs, and his knees buckled slightly, a hard lump forming in his throat. Uncertainty gnawed into Connor as they began to question again if he was meant to see this or not. They still doubted Evan had any ill intentions, instead pondering if perhaps he wasn't so wrong to identify them with one another after all— again, regardless of which Zoe Evan’s letter might've been written about. 

 

He still felt guilty assuming he and Evan had anything in common, but the way he had worded this note and the way he'd sounded before he knew of Connor’s presence made their similarities harder to deny than ever. 

 

All my hope is pinned on Zoe, who I don't even know and who doesn't know me. That line stung in particular. Connor didn't know Zoe anymore, and she definitely didn't know him like he wished she did. She knew the vicious, angry, constantly-high Connor he hated, not the version of himself he'd been trying and failing to salvage for so long- the version he really was… or at least really wanted to be.

 

Keep reading, he told himself through the hesitation despite his best judgement- which wasn't too great, though, to be fair. And stop dragging your feet, you sound like you're lugging a body bag. Step on the leaves, don't shuffle them. He picked up his feet higher under the influence of the nag in the back of his mind, letting himself be grounded by the sound of the freshly-fallen scattered pre-autumn leaves crunching beneath his boots. He looked back to the next paragraph.

 

But maybe if I could just talk to her, then maybe… maybe nothing would be different at all.

 

He flinched harshly, lip twinging. Evan’s ability to word the emotions they hadn't even been able to describe. It wasn't Zoe’s fault that she and her brother had become strangers- quite the opposite, actually. The distance separating both siblings had grown too long to bridge. Even living in the same house and having to rely on her to drive them places, she just seemed so far away. They might as well have been a million worlds apart. Even if she wanted it, even if he could truly talk to her again, Evan was right: It would change nothing at this point. They were too far gone. 

 

I wish everything was different.

 

He staggered slightly, sucking in his breath and briefly looking up ahead to notice the end of the path as the field approached and the lump in his throat ached more painfully still. 

 

I wish I was a part of… something . I wish anything I said mattered to anyone. 

 

The trail tapered into the clearing, but Connor barely noticed, their burning eyes locked in on the words printed on the paper as tears threatened to prick from his ducts and cloud his vision. It mattered to me, he assured Evan silently. I'm sorry I couldn't do a better job of proving that to you… or showing you that I know just how that feels. A pained sorrow for both of them tugged dryly at Connor’s heartstrings.

 

I mean, face it… 

 

Connor stopped walking.

 

Would anyone even notice if I just… disappeared tomorrow?

Sincerely, your best and most dearest friend,
            Me

 

Time slowed around him as Evan’s final question played on a blurry, deafening loop in their head. Connor’s vision clouded with tears and they swallowed hard, took in a shaky breath and leaned himself up against the base of the tree trunk. This really didn’t feel like Evan was talking about himself anymore.

 

The question itself wasn’t what was so upsetting: What hurt most was that Connor couldn’t even give himself the answer. Would anyone notice?

 

Larry? He was barely home during the weeks and didn’t leave his office or his room when he was- of course he wouldn’t notice.

 

Cynthia? He doubted it. If she wasn’t at the gym or some stuffy coffee shop with her mom friends or grocery shopping, she’d just assume he was avoiding the house if she even realized he wasn’t there.

 

Zoe? She avoided him and the house at all costs like he did (but in a more honor-roll, social butterfly, non-druggie-fuck-up way) and they didn’t see each other at school more than maybe once or twice a day, so it wouldn’t be a stretch that she’d assume the same as Cynthia- again, if she actually registered that Connor wasn’t home.

 

Miguel...? They hadn’t spoken in months. They lived too far apart to run into each other in public. Connor just dissipating into thin air wouldn’t feel any different than the way things had been between them ever since that February day. Honestly, if the tables were turned and Miguel had disappeared, Connor didn’t have any way of knowing. He didn’t have the stomach to call or text to check in on him, or even check his social media to see if he was active and doing okay. Connor might as well not exist— Miguel certainly wouldn’t know any different.

 

There really was no one else for Connor to wonder about whether or not they’d notice his disappearance. He truly didn’t have anyone. Maybe Evan would notice, but only because Connor had stolen this clearly important letter and he might want or need it back, and that was still a hard maybe. They knew that experience well: Being kept around because someone needed something from them, and for no reason otherwise.

 

Their backpack on their shoulder suddenly felt very heavy, and Connor gave into the weight and slid down the trunk of the tree. He ignored the way the bark made his vest and shirt ride up and scraped harshly against the skin on his back, his gaze locking back into the paper to read over it again. 

 

And again. And again. And again.

 

The tears were hot on Connor’s face. There were so many, more than there had been in a long time. These tears were different, though. Usually, Connor hated himself for crying, but now they felt… freeing. Liberating. Almost like… closure.

 

Maybe Evan hadn’t done it on purpose, but Connor was convinced now that this letter was meant to find his eyes. This was exactly what he needed to see. There was no putting it off any longer.

 

Connor had hidden in the computer lab hoping for a sign that he shouldn't. But with his eyes drifting over the paper in his trembling hands over and over again, feeling the tears layering thick over his cheeks and down onto his shirt, he was more sure than ever now: he had instead been given a sign that he should .

 

Everything in this letter put into words what Connor could have only dreamed of saying. This was the Connor he needed people to see. This was the Connor he needed people to know he was- or rather, who they had failed to be.

 

“Thank you, Evan Hansen.” Connor murmured, the faintest of smiles on their lips, a tear slipping off of their chin and down onto the paper. With gentle hands, Connor folded the paper in half once, then again the other direction, and then one final time. 

 

Shifting so they could reach their waist, Connor gingerly slid the letter into his pocket. He lifted his backpack strap from over his shoulder and laid it beside them, pulling back the flap and putting the pill bottle into view. The solace that washed over him as he reached down and touched the bottle was overwhelming, but in the best way.

 

Connor hadn’t known that either of his parents needed sleeping pills to fall asleep, but apparently one of them did. It was convenient, though, that there was a brand new, unopened bottle for him to grab from the medicine cabinet this morning… almost too convenient. But they certainly weren't complaining. They weren’t nearly as confident that anything less than a full bottle could get the job done. It was just another sign that this was meant to happen today.

 

The bottle opened effortlessly; He wasn’t sure if his hands just weren’t as shaky anymore now that he was mellowing out, or if it was from the practice he’d had with all the prescriptions he’d been forced onto in the failed attempts his parents and rehabs had made in order to fix him through the years. Either way, at least it was working in their favor now.

 

He pulled his water bottle from his backpack, tucking it into the crook of his arm and digging his fingers into the paper seal on the pill bottle until there was enough space for the pills to funnel out.

 

Connor lifted the bottle to his mouth, his lips brushing the rim giving him a spark of energy and certainty. He closed his eyes, took a deep breath, and threw his head back. Chin still lifted, the water came next.

 

The pills went down easy.

 

The sun peeked out from behind scattered clouds and the sky brightened above them. Connor lifted his head and took another deep breath, taking in the view and feeling more at peace than he had in over a decade. 

 

“It’s almost over,” They mumbled wistfully, closing their eyes and settling back against the tree. “It’ll all be okay soon.”

 

He didn’t know how long it would take to happen, but he didn’t particularly care: It was closer than it had ever been before, and that was enough. Hand on their stomach, Connor felt himself breathing, taking in the feeling of his belly rising and falling for some of the last few times. Behind their closed eyes, Connor let themself imagine the reactions of the people in his life upon finding out he was gone.

 

Larry just looked annoyed at the inconvenience of paying for the funeral. Fair enough, Connor supposed, but it probably wouldn’t be very hard to convince his father that a funeral wasn’t necessary or deserved in this case. 

 

Cynthia lit up like a Christmas tree- any passerby would be able to tell she just got a massive weight taken off her shoulders.

 

Zoe’s eyes flooded with tears, undeniable relief washing over her face as she let out a breath it seemed she’d been holding since sixth grade. She smiled— no, not smiled. She beamed , and chuckled a little, hand over her heart, like she was finally feeling herself breathe after years of suffocating.

 

Miguel’s face was completely emotionless, his eyes dull and heavy. He shrugged once, completely indifferent, turned away, and walked off. 

 

Connor instinctively tried to reach their hand out after him, but his limbs were suddenly very heavy. His fingertips tingled slightly, a sensation that sent a jolt into his brain, and they realized for the first time what was actually happening.

 

What am I doing?

 

The tiniest flicker of hesitance flared underneath the radiating numbness circulating through the nerves in their limbs, and Connor drew in a deeper, much more labored breath than before.

 

I’m dying.

 

If Connor was a normal person, that realization would have stricken an instinct of horrified panic. But Connor was anything but a normal person.

 

The images of each person replayed over and over in his head, and Connor gulped. They’ll be okay, he told himself. They’ll be even better than okay. This is what’s best. This is what’s best for all of them.

 

As an eternal sleep daunted heavily on their eyelids, the unsureness gradually drained away until he felt nothing but feather-lightness.

 

It was almost over. They would be gone soon, and all their mistakes with them. The burden of his being would soon be lifted from the shoulders of everyone he loved. 

 

No more suffering. No more heartache. No more Connor.

 

Chapter Text

August 29, 2016

11:38am



ZOE’S POV

 

Evan never had come back to the cafeteria during lunch. It shouldn’t have unsettled her as much as it did: after all, she only told him to come talk to her if he saw her brother, and he had no way of knowing she meant to invite him to join them for lunch, too. He just hadn’t seen Connor, that was all, so he didn’t come find her. There was nothing more to it than that, right?



Normally, this wasn't something she would let herself stress about, especially not in the way she was now. But if there was one thing she was sure of, it was that today was anything but normal. She had no real evidence to suggest it, but she got an odd vibe that Connor being missing and not seeing Evan at lunch were related somehow, and that definitely couldn’t be good. She didn’t like any of the vibes today was throwing at her, to be honest, and as the day went on, they weren’t exactly getting better. 



Now, Zoe was in her fifth period honors calculus class waiting for the tardy bell to ring, surprised to have made it with time to spare after having to take the detour to drop her guitar off in her car. Leaning back in her chair with arms crossed, she stared straight ahead at nothing in particular as her gears turned and her music blasted in her headphones. She felt a little out of place being one of only a few juniors in this predominantly senior-level course, but being a lower grade in a higher class was much better than being a higher grade in a lower class, so she couldn't really complain. 



The desks were arranged in groups of four, and Zoe had been assigned to a group with two people she didn’t know very well and a senior named Alana Beck that she’d shared a class with last year. She wasn't popular or anything, but she was very academic— always bringing up her extracurriculars and volunteer work and college interviews, but somehow not in a pretentious way. Zoe wouldn't have been surprised at all if Alana was a high-runner for valedictorian of the class of ‘17.



Alana was currently enthralled in her phone- probably doing something productive for school, if Zoe knew her at all. At least in Zoe’s eyes, she was notorious for being an overachiever, so she would be lying if she didn't admit to herself that it was a little surprising she wasn't in an AP math class. They weren't really friends, maybe acquaintances at best, but she didn't at all mind the idea of sitting with her in calc.



Not only was Alana generally a nice and outgoing person (if not a little socially oblivious), but she was wicked smart too, and it might be helpful to have such a classmate on her side for the duration of the class she was most nervous about. She was not looking forward to this. But maybe she could ask for some help on the homework when she needed it, and ask Alana’s opinion on certain scholarships and colleges she was considering. Having her for help and encouragement might make it a little more bearable. Zoe didn't think she had much to offer in return, but she hoped her company would be enough, even though it wouldn't be if she were looking at herself from outside eyes. Oh well. She could dream. 



She had also noticed Jared sitting at the group of desks across from hers, and they’d given each other a stiff, semi-formal nod upon noticing one another, sharing a mutual glance that said ‘I don't particularly like you, but let's be adults about this and coexist peacefully anyway.’ She didn't dislike Jared either (it was hard for Zoe to dislike anyone without knowing their side of the story, knowing how much she hated when people did that to her), but she didn't particularly approve of his far-too-dark ‘humor,’ especially since this morning it had been directed at and caused a switch in Connor, leaving him missing and Evan pretty shaken up and probably bruised. 



 She glanced at her phone every few moments, still hoping that Connor would answer her texts or call her back, but quickly losing hope that she would hear from them. She tried to be optimistic, though, deciding through her doubts that they were probably at least still keeping to their commitment to walk home after school or get their mom to pick him up, and would be there when she got home from rehearsal. Maybe his phone was just dead or not working right on the shitty school WiFi, and she was being paranoid and letting herself get worked up over nothing. That was probably it, she concurred. But why didn't that make her feel any better?



A familiar blue striped polo in the doorway caught Zoe’s attention just as the late bell rang, and she perked up slightly as Evan’s feet dragged him through the door, arms crossed over himself and eyes on the ground. It wasn't very common to share more than one class with a student from a different grade level, but now she had gym and calculus with him, which was exciting. Hopefully that meant they would get some more opportunities to get to know each other better, and she might finally be able to place why she couldn't not be nervous around him.



So what if he didn’t talk to me at lunch? At least he’s still here. I shouldn't have been so worried, he's okay, she tried to convince herself, but her relief was short-lived, quickly fading out as he stumbled further into the room and she got a good look at his face. Or… maybe he’s not.



Evan looked as if he’d seen a ghost: pale and cold and shaky, sweat glinting on his forehead. His knees were weak and he clutched his cast to his stomach and pressed his other arm over it, as if he was trying to hide something. Zoe’s assigned seat was definitely in his range of vision upon walking into the classroom, but he had seemingly yet to notice her, gaze flicking around with a paranoia that caught her off guard, like he was waiting for someone to jump out at him at any given moment. He stalled at the back of the classroom and looked at the projector, swaying a little on his feet as he tried to find his name on the seating chart and the last few students filed in behind him. 



Evan cringed upon seeing something on the board, and Zoe frowned, following his eyes and scanning the seating chart as he looked back to the ground and clumsily made for his seat. She spotted his last name and looked at the ones around it to see what might have been wrong, when she saw another familiar name beside his. 



Oh, he’s sitting next to Jared, that explains it, she realized. Things were obviously still very tense between those two, so it made sense that the memories still stung and he might be uncomfortable sitting with him. But then Zoe blinked in confusion as she caught sight of the rest of the name she’d seen:



HANSEN, MARK



Mark? That wasn’t his name. Were there two Hansens at this school that she didn’t know about? Maybe a new student, she decided, but her theory was quickly rejected as Evan approached the seat supposedly assigned to Mark. Jared briefly looked up from his phone, back down, then did a double take and jumped as he realized who was standing beside him. Evan stepped back a little with wide, surprised eyes, as if he hadn’t even noticed Jared was in this class, much less assigned to sit right next to him. So he was cringing at seeing Mark , not at seeing Jared. That still left her with several unanswered questions.



Jared looked back to the board to confirm that Evan was supposed to be sitting at his table, and Zoe could’ve sworn she saw him flinch too when he read the name beside his own.



Jared turned back to Evan and looked him up and down, appearing to be surprisingly less annoyed and inconvenienced by his presence than she would’ve expected- just a little stunned. Zoe couldn’t blame him: Evan was quite the sight to behold right now, and not in the best way. Frankly, he looked sick, like he was going to throw up or pass out at any given moment. 



Zoe looked him over again, pausing her music and taking out her headphones. He truly didn’t look like he should even be at school right now, he looked that sick and weak. Concern gnawed at her stomach as Evan stuffed his arm behind his back, seemingly in an effort to take off his backpack in a way that would hide his cast, then pulled his chair back and slid into it as he let his backpack slip off his arm and onto the ground, and immediately sliding his casted arm under his desk.



“You look like shit ,” Zoe heard Jared mutter- not meant as a tease but not an insult either, just like an actual genuine observation- to which Evan groaned and promptly dropped his head onto the desk. A jolt of shock shot down her spine at the sudden sound, and some of their other classmates turned to look over at what the noise was. Zoe let out a heavy breath, winded by the spike in her heart rate, then looking up to acknowledge the teacher, Mr. Bailey, as he took his place in front and center of the classroom- silently relieved by the distraction.



“Good morning everyone, I’m Mr. Bailey if you hadn’t figured that out,” he gestured to his name written in big block letters on the whiteboard behind him, and Zoe noticed Evan lift his head tiredly to look at him. “Welcome to Honors Calculus. Most of you will probably hate it, and that’s fair, but if I do my job right then you’ll hopefully hate it a little bit less.” A few students snickered. “Today will be a light day because I don’t believe in teachers that give you homework on the first day—” Brief cheering. “—so we’re just gonna go over the syllabus and supply list. So yeah, all you’ll need today is a pen. But first let’s do attendance...” 



Zoe saw Evan stiffen. Jared must’ve noticed too, and he glanced at him anxiously, seemingly sharing in his discomfort at the announcement. “Phones away for now please, you’ll have time at the end of class for them, though.” Zoe reluctantly obeyed, moving her phone to her lap but leaving the screen up in case she got any notifications.



“For now please just respond when I call your name, and correct me if I ever say it wrong or forget because I suck at names and I most likely will.” Evan paled even more and shrank down a little in his seat. Jared bounced his leg uneasily under the desk as his eyes continued to flick between Evan and Mr. Bailey, clearly not liking Evan’s rising anxiety— and Zoe wasn’t either. 



Zoe listened for her name as Mr. Bailey started and the “Here’s”  rang out around her, but knew the M’s wouldn’t be for a while, so she zipped open the front pouch of her backpack where she kept her sharpies to keep her busy. Her lifted foot rested her ankle on her opposite knee, revealing the stars, planets, and other related things she had doodled onto the cuffs of her jeans last time she wore them. Zoe pulled out and quietly uncapped a dark blue sharpie and carefully traced over the fading stars of the same color, chewing on her bottom lip in concentration and adding a few small four-sided stars to the bare spots where more of the blue could fit.



She didn’t even notice at first as her phone screen turned on atop her opposite knee, but her eyes widened and she capped and practically threw the sharpie back in her bag as she realized, her lifted foot flying back to the ground as she sat up and inconspicuously scooped up her phone.



“Alana Beck?”



“Present,” Alana’s voice rang out confidently beside her, and she leaned over sideways in Zoe’s direction. “Mr. Bailey said to put our phones away,” she murmured, not sounding condescending, but Zoe still suppressed a groan.



“I’m having a family emergency,” she muttered back, letting a little sharpness seep into her tone so she would come across seriously. Not exactly true, but not a lie either, and this was definitely a worthy cause to use her phone for ten seconds nonetheless. “It won’t be long.”



Alana dipped her head in respectful acknowledgement and straightened her spine again.



Zoe scrambled to unlock her phone, and impatiently tapped the messages app until it finally loaded and she saw who'd texted, but her shoulders drooped: it was just her mom. 



Have you talked to your brother? He won’t answer his phone.



Great, now her mom couldn’t get ahold of them either. 



It was a valid concern, especially considering she hadn’t talked to Connor since earlier and couldn’t contact him either, but Zoe couldn’t repress a slight sting of bitterness at the fact that this was her mom’s first text to her of the school year. My day is going swimmingly, by the way, thanks so much for caring. She curled her lip, her silent retort thick with sarcasm. Glad you’re not only texting when you need something from me.



She gave a small sigh as she opened the keyboard to respond, and silently scolded herself for being upset that their mother only texted her in hopes that she could dog down Connor. She was the one that told her mom today wasn't a big deal, after all, and it was important they figure out where he was. After they did that, she could huff about her parents’ blatant favoritism whenever she wanted to, but it wasn't about her right now— she just had to remember that. Not that it ever was about her… but that wasn't the point.



no, i haven’t seen them since this morning and they won’t answer me either. i was actually gonna ask if you or dad had gotten a hold of him/could try



Zoe tapped her foot as she waited for a response, almost not catching Mr. Bailey calling out a half-familiar name.



“Mark Hansen?”



She looked over just in time to see Evan’s face shift roughly, like no matter how much he thought he was ready, he couldn't be prepared to hear someone call him that. His eyes clamped shut for several moments before he lowered his head and slackened in defeat. He looked as if he was in physical pain. “Here,” he replied weakly, barely audible. Jared stared down at his lap, clenching and unclenching his jaw and wringing his hands, still bouncing his leg, but more rapidly now.



Mr. Bailey didn’t hear him. “Mark?” He lifted his head from the attendance sheet to look around, saying it louder this time. “Mark Hansen?”



Evan hunched over in his seat more, looking on the verge of tears, and Zoe could see his figure tremble as he tried to answer, but no sound came out. Zoe squirmed uncomfortably and opened her mouth to respond for him, but another voice cut her off.



“Evan.” Jared said it softly at first. 



Mr. Bailey looked at him and blinked. “Sorry?”



Jared lifted his head and locked gazes with the teacher, looking more serious than she’d ever seen him. “He goes by Evan.”



“Oh, okay, my bad. Is he here?”



Jared nodded once and tilted his head in Evan’s direction so Mr. Bailey would know his face, crossing his arms and letting his gaze fall back down to his desk as he sank a ways down into his seat.



“Alright, cool,” Mr. Bailey nodded to Jared. “Thanks for letting me know, I’ll change it on my roster.”



Zoe let out a breath she didn’t know she was holding, looking back over to Evan to see his reaction. He stared at Jared looking absolutely stunned, the slightest touch of color finally back on his face. 



“Thank you,” Evan rasped quietly, and Jared shrugged, turning away from him. 



“You’re not him, y’know,” Jared murmured back without looking at Evan, lowly enough that Zoe wouldn’t have heard it if she was one seat further away and wasn’t straining to listen. “You shouldn’t have to answer to his name.”



Evan blinked at Jared, almost looking a little misty-eyed. He tried to respond, but the words seemed to dry in his throat, and he closed his mouth and nodded as he shifted to face forward again. 



Who's ‘him’? Zoe couldn't help wondering through the surprise at Jared’s sudden protectiveness. He's named after someone? His dad, maybe? 



Whoever he was, Evan and Jared were clearly not fond of him. Simply hearing himself called ‘Mark’ made Evan quiver and nearly pushed him to tears, as if it was a legitimate trigger for him (Zoe knew all about that), and pissed Jared off enough that he forgot about the fact that he and Evan weren't friends anymore and stood up for him anyway.



Jared was undoubtedly a dick, and she still held some resentment for his awful school shooter joke from this morning, but Zoe admittedly admired how he'd so easily swallowed his pride and grown serious, dropping the wise-cracking class clown agenda he branded when Evan needed him. It was telling, too, that perhaps Jared wasn't exactly quite as over their friendship as he led on. That proved to Zoe what she had always passively suspected: There was still at least a tiny part of Jared that couldn't sit by and watch Evan suffer if he had anything to say about it. There was at least a tiny part of Jared that still cared about Evan.



Zoe’s phone lit back up on her lap and she opened it to another text from her mom.  



Okay… I asked your dad but I haven't heard back yet. 



Sure enough, before she could exit the app or respond, another notification banner popped up at the top of her screen, this time from her dad. 



Please try to calm your mother down. Connor won't answer her and she's getting paranoid.



“Jared Kleinman?”



“Here.”



Zoe opened her keyboard to reply. 



i’ve been looking for him, texting and calling all day and i have no idea where he is either



How do you not know where he is? You're both in the same place. 



Zoe scoffed quietly. So she was her brother’s keeper now? She understood that she was more likely to see them than her parents, since they were both (at least supposed to be) at school, but how was she expected to know where he was at all times? She had her own life and problems too, and her parents seemingly sometimes forgot that she didn't just exist to keep tabs on Connor when they couldn't. 



because he's not my responsibility???



Watch yourself. 



can't, i don't have a mirror

 

She smirked, knowing that would piss him off. He hated it when she got snarky. Maybe that was why she loved being snarky so much. 



“Zoe Murphy?”



She almost missed Mr. Bailey calling her name until the slightest glimpse of Evan’s head shooting up in her peripheral made her register it. 



“Oh— here,” she raised her hand slightly, sliding her phone out of view. Mr. Bailey nodded at her, then looked back down at his attendance clipboard.



Zoe risked a glimpse at Evan, his initial reaction giving the impression that this was his first time noticing her. She hoped that he was looking just as pleased as she felt when he walked in, but Evan’s actual reaction completely caught her off guard. 



His eyes were wide and immediately glazed over with fear, his face clearly displaying the same dread that she had been plagued with all morning. Their gazes locked for a moment, and she tried to smile at him, but Evan yanked his eyes away and sank down in his chair, the elusive color draining yet again from his face. He looked embarrassed, almost, or even ashamed. Definitely petrified, and even more definitely hiding something. 



What does he know that I don’t?



Jared stared at Evan beside him, looking even more stunned than she was, like he could not believe he reacted to seeing her that way. He and Zoe looked at one another with wide eyes. Her face clearly displayed her confusion, because Jared frowned, shrugging and shaking his head, looking undeniably dumbfounded as to what was wrong.



Zoe swallowed and looked away, not able to suppress the twinge of hurt and disappointment she felt knowing he was exactly the opposite of excited to see her, nor the guilt she felt upon knowing her presence had just completely reset what little progress Evan had made at feeling better than he had been when he got to class. 



Was he scared she was upset with him about lunch? She was kind of disappointed that he never showed, sure, but not disappointed in him. Had he not seen Connor and was embarrassed to tell her, or he thought he let her down? Or maybe he had seen Connor and was desperately trying to hide it from her? 



No, that was ridiculous. He had no reason to keep it a secret, especially after she'd asked him to tell her. Not unless Connor threatened or scared him into keeping quiet or something… which, unfortunately, sounded like something her brother might do. If that was the case though, why he was so insistent on not being found, Zoe had no idea. And, at this point, she was starting to wonder if she even wanted to find out.




12:3pm




The rest of the period dragged on slowly. Evan barely moved, only stared down at his hands on his lap and bounced his leg. He was chewing the inside of his cheek a lot too, she noticed, and she was starting to worry that he was chewing it raw. Zoe saw Jared glancing at him a lot, as if he thought he could figure out what was going on if he looked at him enough. A few times, he leaned over and mumbled something to Evan, but Zoe couldn't hear any of it, so it didn't really matter that he never got any response other than a shake of his head or simply nothing at all. 



Something else Zoe had noticed, though, was that she was growing progressively more uncomfortable and fidgety as time went on. She found herself checking the clock practically every thirty seconds, waiting for no time in particular to arrive. She checked her phone religiously too, but never got anything from Connor- just one more text from her dad, snapping at her for giving him attitude, a message she had chosen to leave on read. 



“Are you okay?” Alana had gently inquired at one point, and the other two students at their table shared an uneasy knowing glance, revealing they'd all noticed she was acting strangely.



“I'm not sure,” Zoe had responded simply and truthfully, a painfully obvious tremor in her voice. 



“Is there anything I can do to help?” Alana glanced her over uncertainly, but sounding genuinely worried. 



“I don't think so,” Zoe swallowed, shaking her head weakly. “I…. Thank you, though.”



“I don't mean to pry,” the girl sitting across from Alana started carefully. “But did you say you had a family emergency or something? Is that what's wrong?”



Zoe clenched and unclenched her jaw, conflicted. She really appreciated her tablemates’ concerns and felt bad for making them worry, but really didn't want to talk about it. She didn't even want to talk about this with her friends , so these people she barely knew definitely wouldn't work either. “Kinda? It's hard to explain,” Zoe settled on, shrugging and looking away, again speaking as vague a truth as possible. “Today's been weird for me. It's complicated.”



“If you need to go to the guidance counselor or the clinic, I'm sure Mr. Bailey would understand,” Alana suggested quietly. “You look really pale. Do you feel like you're gonna pass out or anything?”



“No, I just….” Zoe hesitated again, still not sure what to say that would both be friendly and tell them she was ready to stop talking about this now. “I think that would make it worse. Maybe I'll just go get some water after we finish going over the syllabus.”



“I have a water bottle if you need it,” The boy across from her offered shyly. “I haven't drunk out of it yet, and I have another one in my locker if you want this one.”



“Um,” Zoe’s voice cracked, and she closed her eyes for a minute, genuinely struggling to process what he had just said to her. “Yeah, um, that might be good,” she decided, speaking slowly and quietly so her voice wouldn't crack again and no one outside the table could hear. “Thank you,” she muttered with a forced small smile as he dug out the water bottle from his bag and handed it to her. He smiled back and nodded shyly.



“One of us could take you to guidance or the clinic if you change your mind,” the girl offered. “Or if we can help some other way….”



“I'll let you know,” Zoe gently cut her off. “I’ll be fine though, really.” She took a big gulp of the water bottle the boy had given her, hoping that would be enough to tell them that she was done with this conversation. They seemed to get the hint, and nodded, smiling kindly at her before looking back to Mr. Bailey.



She knew they had only good intentions, and she really did appreciate them wanting to help, but she couldn't help feeling relieved when they finally left her alone: Being the center of attention like that was very foreign to her, and she didn't like it, especially when they were seeing her so weak and vulnerable. They may have been trying to help, but she realized quickly that she felt worse now. 



Her hands had grown shaky and she had goosebumps, but she hadn't noticed them appear. They weren't going anywhere either, though, which was weird because it wasn't cold. The horrible dread she hadn't been able to shake had grown less miserable and heavy, and instead more anxious and antsy. It should have been a relieving change of pace, but it was so, so much worse. Her heartbeat was unnaturally rapid now, making her breathing noticeably ragged too, and her tablemates clearly noticed it too.



The only thing ailing her that came anywhere close to worrying about Connor and their whereabouts was what was up with Evan- or more specifically, why Connor still felt so blatantly connected to it. She couldn't brush that feeling under the rug, no matter how presumptuous and far-fetched it was, and she decided that even if talking to her would make him anxious or if he was scared into silence by an empty threat from Connor, if Evan knew something, she needed to find out. Her intuition was screaming at this point, with her brother’s disappearance and now Evan suddenly afraid to even look at her, it was hard to not assume the two were related. She'd never felt anything so strongly before. Something was just off



When the bell finally rang, Zoe was on her feet with her backpack over her shoulder within seconds. Jared had the same idea to try to stop and talk to him, it seemed, but neither of them were fast enough. Evan was practically up and out the door the moment the bell rang when he caught a glimpse of Zoe, cast still sheltered closely underneath his good arm and pressed against his stomach. 



“Evan!” Jared called after him, but he was either insistent on ignoring him or didn't hear him in his rush, not hesitating for a moment. Zoe heard him sigh as he gave up and made for the exit, approaching and falling into line with him without a second thought. 



“Was he okay? I've never seen him like that,” Zoe watched Evan hastily disappear into the crowd of students. 



“Me neither,” Jared murmured back, barely present, not taking his eyes off the last place Evan was visible and seemingly not weirded out or annoyed that Zoe was talking to him, to her relief. It wasn't reassuring, though, that even Jared hadn't seen that side of Evan before, despite being practically glued to his side from birth through middle school. 



“Was it something I said?” Zoe nervously fidgeted with a loose thread on the hem of her shirt, not wanting to be the cause for his distress, but knowing that Jared probably knew Evan better than anyone and would be the most likely person to be able to give her an answer- even one she didn't necessarily want.



“You answered for attendance and that was it for the whole rest of class. You didn't say anything.” Jared reminded her, lifting his eyebrow. 



“But he looked worse after he saw me,” Zoe went on, gripping her backpack straps and kicking at the floor. “I must've had something to do with it.”



“Evan’s a fuckin’ mystery, man,” Jared shook his head. “Like some impossible riddle at the middle of a bunch of tangled Christmas lights. If you ever even get to the puzzle, there's no solving it. Why do you think I stopped trying? He's not worth it.”



Jared’s complicated analogy came out so smoothly, Zoe wouldn't have been surprised if he had rehearsed and repeated it before… but be it to someone else or himself, she wasn't sure.



“I don't think you really believe that,” she found herself murmuring, testing the waters before she could think twice. 



Did she really just say that? She hated making assumptions, especially about people she didn't know very well. With her friends, yeah, maybe, but she and Jared weren't friends by any means. So far this year, aside from right now, the only way she could think to describe their relationship (if they could even call it that) was existing in passive aggressive, begrudging mutual tolerance. So why did talking to him feel so natural? Or was it maybe talking about Evan that felt so natural…?



“Are you following me for a reason?” Jared snapped suddenly, picking up his pace and putting some distance between them. “Or can I get to my sixth period in peace?”



“I'm not following you ,” Zoe retorted defensively and flexed her fists around her backpack straps, her guard immediately back up. “Forgive me for walking in your same direction, your majesty, I should have known better.” Zoe sneered slyly. “I mean, honestly, how dare I? Walking to my next class? Un heard of.” 



Jared scoffed and turned his attention to his phone, officially dismissing her sarcasm and her presence. Zoe huffed in annoyance at his capriciousness, but she couldn't judge him too harshly: It spoke languages to her that he had lost his cool so abruptly. Going from comfortable conversation to snapping at her so defensively and changing the subject when she brought up his relationship with Evan, it was rather apparent to Zoe that she’d touched a nerve- one that might not be quite as healed as Jared wanted people to think. 



Zoe and Jared said nothing else to each other and kept their distance as they made their way to sixth period. Zoe pulled out her phone again and logged in, finding the screenshot of her schedule in her favorited pictures and confirming she had the room number right. She slipped her headphones into her ears and let herself fall back from Jared, whatever short-lived casual interaction they’d just shared clearly over. 



The warning bell rang just as Jared slipped into the classroom right ahead of her, and Zoe paused.



Tell me that's not my class, too… 



Switching back to the screenshot of her schedule, she glanced at the room number she was assigned to and then to the one labeled over the door. Sure enough, Jared had just gone into the same classroom.



Ugh.



Zoe suppressed a groan, unplugging her headphones and pocketing her phone as she stepped through the doorway into her sixth period government classroom. She exchanged friendly smiles with the teacher— Mrs. Bradley, if her schedule and the name plate outside the door was correct— and then looked to the board for further instruction on what to do. 



Welcome to American Government!

Sit at whichever table you like for now and get out a pencil and paper :)



There was an assortment of couches, bean bags, and other lounge chairs arranged against three of the walls, surrounding some individual desks and tables in the center of the room. She looked for an empty, semi-secluded seat, and caught sight of Jared settling onto a stool at a high-top table in the back corner surrounded by three other empty stools. 



He set his phone down and lifted his head, grimacing as he saw her and putting much less effort into hiding his annoyance than she had. 



“Oh, come on ,” Jared groaned loudly, and Zoe rolled her eyes, choosing to ignore him and taking a seat at one of the open individual desks as the late bell rang and a couple more students scurried into the classroom. 



The teacher stood up and brushed herself off, then took her place in the front of the room. “Hey guys! I'm Mrs. Bradley, welcome to— What period is this? Sixth. Welcome to sixth period. I'm gonna finish printing a couple things in the back while we give any late students a couple more minutes, then we'll get started.”



Zoe glanced up at the clock as Mrs. Bradley headed for the printer and chatter crescendoed around her. She knew full well that class had literally just started, but she still squirmed impatiently when the clock confirmed how long there was left in the period. Mrs. Bradley seemed friendly enough so far, even though this was one of the last classes she would've wanted to take if she’d had the choice, but she was quickly growing sick of the ever-growing pit in her stomach and was itching to get back to the one place on campus where she’d been able to forget about it: the band room.



First period was the only time today that she'd felt any sort of contentment, and after the day she'd had, she was more than ready to stop being so pointlessly paranoid over Connor and focus all her attention on her music and her people. 



“Two more hours,” she muttered to herself, running her hands up and down her neck and lowering her head. “Then you're home free.”




2:20pm




By the time the dismissal bell rang, Zoe had practically chewed a hole in her lip, probably driven her classmates crazy with her incessant toe and finger tapping, and was drenched in a dreadfully uncomfortable cold sweat. Being sweaty when she was hot was bad enough, but cold sweats were exponentially worse, and after over an hour of it, she would've given anything to be hot instead. She was fairly sure she may have sweated through her shirt in spots, which was complete sensory hell, and made only worse with the stupid paranoia she couldn't shake. 



With it came an odd numbing feeling that started in her limbs and was working its way up into her chest. Even though she was more on edge than she'd ever been in her life, it almost felt like her whole body was asleep, except… less prickly. Just numb. She nearly tripped over herself while jumping to her feet as the bell rang, her knees buckling underneath her, their weakness catching her off guard. She only didn't fall to the ground because she caught herself on her desk.



As soon as she was out the door, she almost ran to the band room, weaving through her peers in the courtyard with absolutely no grace or finesse, and probably making herself look ridiculous. 



But to Zoe’s dismay, the long-awaited arrival to the band room didn't supply the sort of instant relief she was hoping for. Sixth and seventh periods had gone fine, but dragged endlessly, and she was really expecting her worries to melt away as she walked through the door like they usually did, so it was not a good sign when they didn't. 



She was one of the first people in the band room, so she had some time in partial solitude to clear her head before they'd have to start. Zoe found her locker- which she'd moved into during first period- and took out the little bag of snacks she kept for she and her friends to munch on during the half an hour they had between school ending and rehearsals starting. She was still far from hungry, but she hadn't eaten since breakfast and knew she needed something in her system if she wanted to perform decently— today especially. 



Zoe went on autopilot, zoning out as she forced herself to eat a bag of Fritos through the nausea swimming in her stomach. She set up her chair and music stand in her usual spot, getting out her band binder and a pencil and feeling slightly more at ease as she let herself get reacquainted with the familiar routine. She set her water bottle next to her seat and went back for her guitar and pick in the locker room, leaving her case leaned against the wall and grabbing her pitch pipe to get herself in tune. She crumpled up her wrapper and threw it out on her way back to her chair, then took her seat and looped her guitar strap around her neck. 



She didn't even notice Nick, Thalia, Khadija, and August coming into the band room together and approaching her seat, her pitch pipe held between her teeth as she adjusted her tuning pegs. 



“Hey! Earth to Zoe!” August’s voice made her jump and blow a blast of air into her pitch pipe, spooking her yet again. She dropped it into her hand, shook her head and looked up. “There she is.”



“We were supposed to walk to the band room together , remember?” Thalia punched her shoulder playfully as she passed by to get to the locker room— but luckily, Zoe saw it coming before she could flinch away. 



“We were?” Zoe stared after her, Nick and Khadija sharing uneasy glimpses beside her.



“We planned it at lunch,” Khadija reminded her as she brought her own chair over and placed it next to Zoe’s. “You told us where your seventh period was and everything.”



“And we called and texted you while we waited, too,” August pitched in, hauling two music stands up onto their shoulders. “But you never answered, so we figured you just forgot and went ahead.”



“Oh,” Zoe looked back down at her tuning pegs. “Yeah, I remember now.” She didn't remember anything close to that happening at lunch, at all . She didn’t remember anything after August got there, come to think of it. “I guess I got… distracted. I must’ve forgotten. Sorry.”



“Don’t be sorry,” Nick quickly shook his head as he adjusted his music stand. “You’ve had a lot on your mind today. No harm done.” His tone was sincere, but didn’t stop Zoe from feeling a bit guilty, and she fiddled with her shoelace in lieu of a response.



“Any news on Connor?” Thalia’s question didn’t hit her ears until the end, the only thing triggering a reaction being having heard her brother’s name.



“Huh? Oh. No, not yet,” Zoe shook her head, adjusting in her chair so both feet were on the floor and not seeing August and Khadija sharing yet another look in the day’s series of concerned glances, both of them clearly noticing her delayed reaction. “But now I know that neither of my parents can get a hold of him either. So… a little news, I guess. But no good news.” She sighed through puffed cheeks, leaning back in her chair and absentmindedly picking up her pitch pipe to keep tuning as Thalia acknowledged her update with a frown and a nod, and the rest of her bandmates continued setting up.



“Aye, Contrell’s here!” August’s excited announcement a few minutes later made her perk up, and Zoe briefly forgot her Connor predicament, taking off her guitar strap and eagerly getting to her feet to join the gathering crowd by the front entrance. She slipped in with the group as Mr. Contrell chatted amiably with her bandmates and stepped up onto his podium. Her director was young for his profession (turning thirty this year, if she remembered right), and Zoe was convinced there were very few people better at their jobs than him. He was approachable and understanding, serious when he needed to be but mostly just a massive laid back goofball who rarely had a student that didn’t love him. 



The old director had retired right before she started high school, so it was weird to be a freshman when she was with all the older students moping over the loss of their old teacher and grumbling over the arrival of their new one. But Mr. Contrell had easily won over all his students as well as the rest of the staff, winning teacher of the year last year- which was only his second year teaching at Ellison High, and made even more impressive considering this was also his first teaching job out of college. And not only did he oversee the jazz band, but he also directed the beginning, symphonic, and marching bands, and did so with the finesse of an aged professional. 



Mr. Contrell was also the only teacher— only person in general, come to think of it— who came anywhere close to knowing the truth about what was going on with Zoe’s home life. He’d noticed bruises on her arms last year and pulled her aside after class, asking if everything was okay and if he needed to do anything to help. She’d wanted to brush it off and deny any problems, coming up with some on-the-fly excuse like she did whenever her friends saw her coming to school with some sort of injury. But that was the first time someone had shown any awareness of the fact that it might not have been an accident, any sign that they cared enough to realize it might not have been an accident, and actually asked if she was okay. So instead of denying it, much to her chagrin, she had broken down crying and told him the truth. Well, almost the truth.



After calming down a little bit, she told him that Connor was getting help and that things like this rarely happened anymore. She said that her parents put him in a program as soon as they found out and were supporting her 100%. Yeah, right. But she didn’t need Mr. Contrell getting involved and getting her family even more pissed with her, so as far as he knew, everything was under control and absolutely no interference was necessary. She made sure to put a lot more effort into hiding the evidence of anything that might clue into him thinking otherwise after that.



“Okay, okay, go finish setting up, then we’ll start with the agenda,” Mr. Contrell waved his hand to shoo the band away, talking through laughter at something Zoe must’ve missed when she zoned out… again. She obeyed, though, silently relieved to break away from the bustle of the crowd and make away for the solitude of her chair again. She plugged her guitar into her amp and looked over her station one last time, making sure she had everything she needed. Pencil, binder, guitar, pick, water bottle, her backpack was in her locker, everything looked ready. It all looked just fine, just like it would on any other day. Everyone around her was sure acting like it was any other day. 



The boisterous excitement of her bandmates at being back in rehearsal kind of felt like a slap to the face, especially considering the few of them who were in her friend group knew the kind of day she was having. Nonetheless, Zoe knew she'd be able to humor them and mirror the enthusiasm given off by the rest of the jazz band, and do what she did best: hide.



Zoe checked her phone one last time to no new texts, only some Instagram notifications and one from some game she kept forgetting to delete. Her battery was down to 14%, though, and she headed for the locker room one more time to grab her charger. August fumbled with their combination lock at the locker adjacent hers, and scooted to give her room as she approached.



“Zo, Zo, Zo, can I have a snack?” August elbowed her incessantly, prying in a knowingly irritating voice as they retrieved their music binder from their locker.



“Stooopp,” Zoe giggled as their elbow poked her in the ribs, swatting them away and grabbing their locker door to use as a shield. “Go crazy.” Zoe snatched the bag of snacks and tossed it at August to deter them while rummaging for her charger and pulling it out, snickering as they fumbled the bag before eventually securing their grip on it. She backed up and ducking down out of August’s reach as she bolted for the door again.



“Hey!” Caught off guard, they reached out and jabbed her in the side one last time before she could flee, and she squeaked through more giggling, shying away from their hand.



 “Stop tickling me or I'm never bringing food again!” She looked over her shoulder back at August as she escaped the range of their hands, fake pouting. 



“We both know you love me too much to do that,” August gave her a shit-eating grin, and Zoe blew a raspberry at them, flipping them off playfully as she backed up toward the door, turned around and darted back out of the locker room. Thalia stopped and looked over her shoulder a couple feet ahead, and Zoe picked up her pace until she reached her side, slipping into easy conversation as they both made for their seats.



A soft smile stayed with Zoe upon re-arriving to her seat, and for the first time since first period, she felt a little of the burdening weight of wary trepidation being released from her chest. She even found herself laughing a few times as she and Thalia joined in on the excited chattering of the rest of the band. She knew she still wasn’t exactly present, though, only hearing their voices and being able to respond, but not fully processing anything anyone was saying, either. Something about a cruise someone had gone on, mention of a few new jobs, someone boasting of a summer fling. As for specific details or who said what, though, she had absolutely no idea. Still, much to her relief, Zoe gradually felt her guard sliding down, relaxing her in the way that only band could. 



See? There was no reason to worry, she told herself, finding she was more easily self-assured than the last times she’d tried to convince herself that she was getting worked up over nothing. There had been some delay to it, sure, but her faith in band easing her anxiety hadn’t been fruitless after all. I never should’ve doubted it. Band fixes everything.



Honestly, what was the worst thing that could happen?




3:04pm



   

It was never really necessary to go through the jazz rehearsal agenda out loud each day. After a certain amount of time, everyone fell into an easy, comfortable routine. First half of practice was group rehearsal, where they practiced the ensemble pieces for whichever concert was upcoming next. Second half of practice, at least during the first semester, was individual and section rehearsals, where they worked on their solos and section performances for the big end-of-semester Band and Chorus Showcase. Today, though, they would spend the first half with the usual first-day stuff, and the second half would be group rehearsal. They wouldn’t get their Showcase pieces for a couple weeks, had they several other things to work out first anyway, including freshman auditions, which Zoe was in charge of for electric guitar. 



    Experience had taught the current students that it was less intimidating to incoming freshmen to audition in front of a fellow student instead of a teacher, so each section picked their top performer and people-person and let them take over auditions for their instrument. After playing for the impromptu-section leader, they would go back to Mr. Contrell with their top choices and get his input before he ultimately made the final decision. It wasn’t the cleanest system; most sections were pretty small (electric guitar was only her and her friend Jordan, and bass was only Khadija and Zoe as backup if a piece needed another), but it hadn’t failed them yet, so it didn’t matter if it wasn’t perfect. 



    Zoe honestly thought Jordan was much better of a player and much less intimidating than her, but she didn’t complain when Contrell assigned the role to her- especially considering the relief she saw wash over Jordan. He was only a sophomore, and pretty shy, so maybe Contrell didn’t want to put that pressure on him. Whatever reason, Zoe was fine with it— she was excited to be trusted with such a responsibility. 



    Everyone was set up for ensemble rehearsal now, and they had just finished sight-reading the four pieces they decided on for the first concert during class that morning. Sight-reading might’ve been Zoe’s least favorite thing on the planet, but for now at least they were done, and she couldn’t be happier about it. 



Zoe’s fingers stung as Contrell picked up his phone and signaled to stop. She pulled away from her strings, tucking her pick between two fingers and resting her guitar on her lap as the music briskly died out and their director put his phone to his ear. 



“Hey, hon, what’s up?” Mr. Contrell made a shooing motion with his hand and mouthed ‘five minutes,’ turning his back to the band and stepping from his podium. Zoe got to her feet and lifted her guitar strap from around her neck, gently setting it on her chair and making for her phone as her bandmates quietly put their instruments down and talked among themselves.



“Zoe, I’m gonna raid your locker,” Thalia called from her chair in the row in front of hers as Zoe briefly checked her phone’s battery— 47%— and slipped it into her pocket. Good enough. 



“You can’t eat during a five minute break, dipshit,” Zoe scoffed incredulously. “Your poor pipes!” She gestured to Thalia’s trumpet, sitting belladown on the floor beside her chair as she broke off for the locker room.



“Watch me,” Thalia turned on her heels, scrunching up her nose and grinning smugly as she walked backward and flipped Zoe off with both hands. Zoe sighed dramatically and shook her head.



“Ooh, bring me fruit snacks,” Khadija called after Thalia from her seat next to Zoe’s. 



Zoe snorted, shouldering her playfully. “You’d think I’d share my fruit snacks with you people? What do you take me for?” Khadija snickered and shoved her away, kicking her in the shin with the hard tip of her boot probably harder than she meant to. “Ow! Fuck you!” Zoe hopped backward, keeling over to hold her calf in her hands and hop in place, but laughing nonetheless. “I didn’t pack fruit snacks in there anyway!”



“Then bring me Fritos!” Khadija cupped her hands around her mouth and yelled to Thalia, who was long gone into the locker room by now. She recoiled as nearly the entire band shushed her, gesturing to Contrell on his phone. “Oh, shut up!” Khadija threw her hands out to her sides. “Fritos transcend phone calls!”



Zoe snickered as Mr. Contrell ended his call and took back his podium, snapping his fingers to get everyone’s attention. 



“Okay, guys, Kendrick is bringing pizza,” he announced once the band had quieted back down and Khadija silently slunk back to her seat. Zoe’s classmates whooped around her, and she stepped back up to her music stand, readjusting her folder and straightening the music. Whether they were excited about the pizza, or seeing Mr. Contrell’s husband (whom they all adored), or both, she wasn’t sure, but she had to admit that her mouth was already watering. “He’ll be here in half an hour, so let’s get as much done before then as we can, alright? Let’s pick up right where we left off, so Zoe and Jordan, be ready to come in.”



Zoe nodded, scrambling to pick up her guitar as Contrell’s hands lifted to count them off, and not having time to put her strap over her shoulder. Her fingers just barely made it to her starting chord in time for her cue, and she breathed a sigh of relief as she effortlessly picked it up, hardly noticing the feeling of vibrations coming from her back pocket.



A few more runthroughs of that section of the piece, and Zoe was starting to feel confident in it. She could tell everyone else was too- the frustration and confusions melting from their faces and their more self-assured postures returning. “Okay, okay, hold on,” Mr. Contrell waved his hand to stop, and Zoe lowered her guitar. “I hear a clarinet on the wrong key signature. Let’s try again: pick it up at the first time change.” 



Bzzz. Bzzz.



Zoe clenched her jaw as she processed the buzzing sound from her pocket, and frantically pulled it out to see that her dad was calling. Shit. This could be important. But Contrell was already counting off. Her mind raced until the music started around her and she panicked, swiping to answer and tucking it between her ear and shoulder before clumsily joining in, very aware of the familiar feeling of dread seeping its way back into the depths of her chest. “Dad, I’m in the middle of a runthrough—” 



“There you are, for god’s sake, I’ve been trying to get a hold of you for half an hour!” Zoe’s hushed whisper was almost immediately cut off by the surprisingly frantic voice of her father on the other line, his usual stoicism gone completely. 



Zoe’s heartbeat quickened, and she slowly stopped playing as the cold rush of panic fell over her. Was this about Connor? “Why, what’s—?”



“We found Connor.” He cut her off again. “You have to come to the hospital. Now.”



The world faded around her, the music blending itself into a steady, painful ringing in her ears. Her voice dried in her throat. The music was gone. All she could hear was her heart pounding in her chest and the ringing in her ears. In that moment, all the nausea and anxiety and anticipation and dread from throughout the day seemed to be at its climax. “What?” she finally managed to croak, no longer whispering.



Zoe’s raised volume caught Mr. Contrell’s attention, and he tried to say something to her, but she couldn’t hear him. 



“Zoe…” Larry’s voice faltered on the other line. “He overdosed. He didn’t make it.”



Dead silence. 



Cold slammed into Zoe as she processed what her father just said, numbness rushing through her whole body. Her phone slid off her shoulder as the numbness flowed into her arms, and she lost all feeling in her hands. Her guitar slipped from her hands, crashing to the ground and cracking right in half, shocking the band into silence. The voices around her were nonexistent. Mr. Contrell hopping from his podium and hurrying over to see what was wrong was invisible. Darkness danced in the corners of her eyes, and the room quickly started to shrink around her. 



Then, she was moving. Faster than she had ever moved in her life, she was moving. She had no control, but she was moving. She was in the locker room. The weight of her backpack on one shoulder set in. The faint, almost-silent jingle of her keys found her ears. Her hands were roughly shoving August away as they tried to slow her down. Her phone was back in her hand, screen shattered. The doorknob was cold. Finally, the door slammed, and she burst into a sprint down the hall, drowning out whatever noise was left of the friends calling her name behind her.

Chapter Text

Monday, August 29, 2016

4:31pm

 

TRIGGER WARNING:
This chapter begins with a hospital scene following a s*ic*de by drug overdose, followed by scenes featuring s*lf h*rm and v*miting. Please proceed with caution and read responsibly.

 

ZOE’S POV

 

“My brother,” Zoe gasped out, only just now processing that she had not only made it to the car, but she was already at the hospital.

 

She couldn't remember anything past leaving the band room, and the hospital was a good twenty-five minutes away. Had she really just driven here completely subconsciously? 

 

“Where's my brother?” She knew she was loud. She knew to some people, this might even be considered yelling. She couldn’t hear herself over the roar of blood in her ears, but she could tell by the way people in the waiting room were looking at her: startled but curious about the commotion. She wanted to turn around and snap at them, ask them what they thought they were looking at, what was so interesting. But she restrained herself, sure that she probably wouldn’t be able to get out such a coherent sentence right now. 

 

The receptionist looked up at her, startled. “Oh, uh, what’s your brother’s name, hon?” He scrambled for his clipboard and a visitor sticker, clearly sensing her urgency by the lack of color on her face and the sweat beading on her forehead. 

 

“Connor,” Zoe croaked, still panting. “Connor Murphy?”

 

Her stomach lurched as the receptionist’s face darkened before he even checked his patient list. “Room 406, sweetheart. Second floor, at the end of the middle hallway on your right.” He tenderly peeled the visitor sticker off its back and offered it forward, which Zoe quickly snatched and haphazardly slapped it onto her shirt.

 

“Thank you,” she tried to smile at him, but for once, she couldn’t even force one.

 

He nodded at her. “I’m so sorry for your loss.”

 

“No!” Zoe spat, slamming her palms onto the table before she could stop herself. “Don’t say that to me! He’s gonna be fine!” An obvious tremor to her voice, she felt the tears that had been absent up to this point burning at the back of her eyes.

 

Now she knew people were staring. They mumbled amongst themselves, pity thickening the air around her and making Zoe bristle. She took off, refusing to hear it or see the receptionist’s reaction.

 

Her Converse squeaked on the linoleum as she sprinted full-speed down the hall. She carelessly shoved through the crowd of people waiting at the elevator door, knowing the staircase would be faster.

 

“Hey, watch it, kid!” An older man hissed after her, which she ignored until a nurse beside him spoke and another wave of rage and panic flooded over her.

 

“Sir, please don’t be too hard on her. Her brother just committed suicide.”

 

“Shut up!” She yelled, clapping her hands over her ears and messily rounding the corner until she reached the door to the staircase. 

 

Her feet moved faster than she thought possible, carrying her up the stairs in such a blur that she was shocked she didn’t trip. She slammed the door open, bolting again, trying to find the middle hallway. She quickly scanned the plaques outside each room on her right until she found 406, where a good number of nurses and doctors were buzzing about. 

 

“Such a tragedy,” One nurse murmured to another, writing something on a clipboard and shaking her head sadly. “He was so young.”

 

Zoe’s knees nearly buckled beneath her as she raced for the door, and the crowd by Connor’s room silenced as they saw her approaching, making room for her to run through. The thick, undeniable fog of solemnity hung in the air around her, suffocatingly present in every shallow breath she took. Tears threatened to brim her eyes, but she refused them, not letting herself believe what they were saying.

 

She skidded to a stop, her shoes screeching against the floor, and stumbled through the door. 

 

She thought she was ready for whatever would meet her inside.

 

She was wrong.

 

Her father was bracing himself up against the windowsill, staring outside, completely silent. He was trembling. 

 

Her mother was collapsed at the side of the bed, sobbing helplessly and clinging to her son’s unmoving hand for dear life.

 

And Zoe, standing just inside the doorway, dizzy with adrenaline and disbelief, stared at her brother, Connor Murphy, lying lifeless in the hospital bed.

 

No.

 

That couldn’t be right. 

 

“Why isn’t he on oxygen?” She asked no one in particular, stepping up to the side of his bed opposite their mother. “Why aren’t there any IVs?” She asked, louder this time, when no one could answer her. “Why aren’t you helping him?” Louder. Shakier.

 

“Zoe,” A nurse behind her started gently, eyes glassy with tears. She rested a tender hand on her shoulder. “There’s nothing we can do for him now.”

 

“What the fuck do you mean ‘nothing you can do?!’” Zoe screamed, whipping around and slapping her hand away. Her heart slammed in her chest. “That’s your job! You have to save him! You can’t just let him—” 

 

She trailed off before she could say it, powerless to the cold and merciless reality that was crawling deeper and deeper into her body. 

 

The tears were suddenly much less controllable. 

 

She tried again. “You can’t just….” 

 

The first tear fell. She looked up at the nurse helplessly, eyes round and pleading, silently begging her to say it wasn’t true.

 

The nurse’s lip quivered. She nodded. “I’m so sorry, sweetie. There was nothing that could be done. He was gone when he got here.”

 

The room fell dead silent. Zoe slowly turned around, allowing herself to look at Connor again.

 

Their lips were tinted blue. There was a gray hue to his skin. His eyes were closed. Their chest was still. 

 

She shakily leaned over him, taking their hand and threading her fingers between his. It was cold, and growing stiff. She turned her head and rested her ear against his chest. 

 

Please, she pleaded silently for the faintest trace of a heartbeat. Give me something. Anything. 

 

Silence.

 

“Please.” She croaked aloud this time, barely audible, her grip on their hand tightening.

 

Silence.

 

Slowly, Zoe lifted her head, staring into Connor’s closed eyes. 

 

“He’s dead.” Her own voice was foreign. 

 

Zoe’s whole body went cold as the words escaped her lips. Her legs buckled and she collapsed onto her knees, the full force of her weight making them sing with pain, but she couldn’t feel it.

 

She couldn’t feel anything.

 

Zoe buried her face into the crook of Connor’s stiff, cold neck, her shoulders trembling with one last shaky inhale before her walls finally crumbled and her body erupted into broken, ragged sobs.

 

Her brother was dead.

 

Connor Murphy was dead.




???



Maybe it had been an hour. Maybe it had been three days. Zoe didn't know. Whatever.

 

The chair Larry had guided her into after having to pull her away from Connor’s body was very uncomfortable, but Zoe had never cared less. About anything, not just the chair. 

 

Her mother was still sobbing two chairs over, doubled over in a crumpled, blubbering mess. Her father sat between his wife and daughter, face unreadable, his hands stiffly set on both their shoulders. 

 

Zoe’s mouth and throat were bone dry, her lips cracked and parted just enough to breathe, since her nose was still clogged and runny beyond salvation. Her breaths were short and shallow, just enough to keep her alive. The fact that she was breathing at all while Connor lay lifeless being torn apart for his autopsy registered for the umpteenth time, striking her like a gunshot. Her brother would never breathe again. 

 

It's not fair.

 

She thought she'd run out of tears, but her breath caught in her throat, pain tightening in her neck from the dryness as her eyes welled up again. 

 

The contrast between Zoe’s silent weeping and Cynthia’s loud, broken sobs swirled around in her racing, shattered brain, her delirious state making the sounds so overwhelming that she had to lean forward, resting her elbows on her knees and digging her thumbs into her ears. Her back cracked as she shifted, jarred from the movement after being completely still for so long. A wave of dizziness rolled over her, the sensory overload strengthening. 

 

Suddenly, the air vent she was sitting beneath felt like the force of a tornado, a single hair brushed her neck just so that her whole head twitched with irritation, and the way her toes sat in her shoes made her want to tear them off. The distant sounds of monitors beeping, keyboards clacking, and people talking were deafeningly pounding her ears. 

 

Zoe clenched and unclenched her jaw, trying to block out the sound of her mother’s cries to little avail. Sleep taunted heavily on her eyelids, but she refused to give in, jolting awake whenever her vision started to blur and her head tried to droop. 

 

Another hour or six had gone by (Zoe still had no concept of time, or any interest in the concept of time, for that matter) when the sound of nearing footsteps made its way to her ringing ears, and she forced herself to lift her head. 

 

“Thank you for your patience,” the medical examiner started, her voice barely above a whisper. She met Zoe’s eyes when neither Larry or Cynthia could look at her. The doctor had told them her name before Connor was taken back for his autopsy, but damn her if Zoe heard it. She narrowed her focus in on the doctor’s gaze, letting her soft, kind brown eyes ground her and finally put her overwhelmed senses at some semblance of peace. 

 

 “We were able to confirm manner of death as a suicide. Official cause of death won’t be available until the tox screens come back in about 48 hours, but from what we know so far, this was most likely a zolpidem overdose.”

 

Zoe didn't need her to simplify it to know what that meant: sleeping pills. 

 

Cynthia tumbled into another bout of pitiful, hoarse wails, and Larry closed his eyes, pressing his lips into a firm line. Zoe looked away, trying not to let her words sink in too much. She knew what had happened. She didn't need to hear it out loud, too. 

 

“But we believe we've found a suicide note in his pocket.”

 

That made Zoe’s head shoot back up, bringing with it a sharp flare of dizziness. She shook her head weakly, trying to focus her eyes back on the doctor, whose hand reached forward until a folded up piece of paper was visible to her blurry, half-conscious eyes. 

 

Zoe waited for one of her parents to take the note, but they just stared at it, frozen. She hesitated before lifting her trembling arm and letting the doctor gently set it in her open hand.

 

Zoe tried to thank her, but all she could get out was an only half-audible crackle in her throat. The doctor blinked at her with a warm understanding.

 

“You all are welcome to go home anytime,” the medical examiner went on quietly. “It's very late, I'm sure getting some sleep would be good for you. We’ll let you know as soon as the tox screen results come in so we can confirm the suspected cause of death. The mortuary will be coming to pick him up early this morning, and they'll be giving you a call as soon as he arrives. You can discuss funeral and post-mortem options with them as soon as you're ready.”

 

Zoe nodded weakly, having a feeling she was the only one who was even partially processing her words. 

 

“Thank you,” Zoe finally managed to rasp after several unsuccessful attempts. The doctor smiled sadly at her, her eyes glistening, and nodded. 

 

“Of course, honey. I'm so sorry for your loss.” She leaned down to squeeze Zoe’s hand. “Hang in there, okay? I promise it won't be this hard forever.” Zoe blinked gratefully up at her, but couldn't smile. After one last nod, the doctor turned around and solemnly headed back down the hall until she disappeared behind the door. 

 

There was no doubt that looking at the paper in her hands would open up a whole new breed of grief, and Zoe had never wanted anything less than how little she wanted to read this note. Even still, she felt a sort of…  responsibility, being the first person trusted with her big brother’s last message to the world. Conflict grappled in the foggy wasteland that was her mind, until she found her hands unfolding the paper, gently flattening the creases. 

 

Her eyes blurred, jumbling the paragraphs into blotches and smears that looked as if she had dipped the whole page in water. She blinked a few times, trying to focus in on the opening line, until she could finally make out the words— still blurry, but legible. 

 

She didn't know what she had expected… but it wasn't this. 

 

Dear Evan Hansen,

 

Zoe’s eyebrows knitted, and she blinked a comical amount of times, convinced her eyes must be playing tricks on her. Had she read that right?

 

She was getting dizzy from looking back to reread over the first line so many times. It had probably been a good few minutes before Zoe actually processed that this note was indeed addressed to Evan Hansen. The very same Evan Hansen that Connor had screamed at and shoved to the ground this morning. The very same Evan Hansen that Zoe had never ever seen interact with her brother before said conflict. 

 

Not to their parents, not to her. Not to anyone Zoe could've predicted with a million guesses. No, Connor’s suicide note was addressed to Evan Hansen. 

 

“What does it say?” Larry asked hoarsely, but didn't try to look at the note. He sounded as if he was forcing the question out, like he didn't really want to know. Zoe definitely understood that. 

 

Zoe waved him off, no words finding her throat. That was good enough for her father, though, and he dropped it, his still mostly-blank face betraying traces of relief that he didn't have to find out just yet. 

 

She had to lean back in her seat, nausea making her stomach flip as she moved her eyes down the paper to read the last words Connor had ever written.

 

Turns out this wasn't an amazing day after all.

 

No kidding. 

 

This isn't going to be an amazing week, or an amazing year...

 

Definitely not anymore, Zoe thought, hopelessness seeping back in and making her hands feel cold and numb until she couldn't feel herself holding the paper anymore. She swayed a little in her seat, and had to close her eyes for a moment to regain her composure. 

 

…because… because why would it be?

 

Zoe reached into the deepest crevices of her brain, desperately trying to find an answer to give him. But nothing came. 

 

Oh, I know. Because there’s Zoe.

 

“What?” Zoe blurted, voice raspy but surprisingly loud, the utter bewilderment that hit her apparently bringing with it enough energy to speak an actual coherent word. 

 

Her parents lifted their heads, staring at her in surprise, but Zoe didn't feel their eyes on her. Her discomfort was piquing. Now she really didn't want to keep reading. But she forced herself onward, telling herself this was the least she could do for her brother.

 

And all my hope is pinned on Zoe… 

 

Zoe’s hand found itself clasping over her mouth, her fingernails digging into the side of her face as she choked back another sob. 

 

…who I don't even know, and who doesn’t know me. 

 

A pair of tears dripped soundlessly onto the paper. 

 

But maybe if I could just talk to her, then maybe… 

 

Yes, Zoe cried out a silent plea that Connor would never hear. Please talk to me. Please let me help. 

 

…maybe nothing would be different at all.

 

No! Panic rose like bile in her throat. We can still make it different! We can still make it better! I know we can fix this, I promise!

 

I wish everything was different. 

 

Me too . Zoe thought miserably as reality set back in. Her shoulders drooped and the familiar ringing in her ears made its return, sounding louder now. 

 

No, they couldn't make it different. They couldn't fix it. Not anymore. 

 

I wish I was a part of… something. I wish anything I said mattered to anyone. 

 

Guilt dropped like a stone in Zoe’s belly, and her eyes blurred with tears again. It mattered to me, she whispered to him silently. I would've told you how important you were to me. How much you mattered to me, how much I still love you, even after everything. How much I wanted to fix things, how I hoped that maybe we could someday. If only I had known….

 

I mean, face it… 

 

Would anyone even notice if I just… disappeared tomorrow?

 

Another tear slipped from Zoe’s chin and plopped onto the note. You didn't deserve to think we didn't care, Zoe squeezed her eyes shut. I wish you could've known how lost we already are without you.

 

Sincerely, your best and most dearest friend,

Me

 

His best and most dearest friend….

 

Zoe folded the note back in half along the creases. Confusion and grief and exhaustion and anger and hopelessness weighed too heavily on her to think about this anymore without completely shutting down. She noticed for the first time how shallow her breathing had become, and how hard her heart was pounding against her chest. 

 

She tried to swallow over and over, but her mouth and throat were so dry that it almost looked like she was gagging instead. She wouldn't have been surprised if she really was at this point, with how sick she felt. She gave up, folding the note in half one more time and pushing herself to her feet, knees wobbly. Her parents looked tiredly up at her. 

 

Zoe barely had to glance at them to see that in the span of however long they'd been at the hospital, they both looked like they'd aged at least a decade. She didn't even want to think what that meant about how she looked. 

 

“I'm going home.” She croaked, holding Connor’s note out to her father. 

 

Larry stared at it, then up at her, the uncomfortable helplessness in his features making her sizzle with frustration. 

 

The empathy she had felt for him about being afraid to read the note was long gone, replaced with the sharpness of her exhaustion catching up with her. She didn't care if he read it right now. At that moment, Zoe didn't care if he never read it at all. She just needed this note out of her hands, and she needed to get out of this hospital and never come back. 

 

Zoe clenched her jaw, then reached forward to clap the note against her father’s chest. He scrambled to catch it as she pulled away, and Zoe briskly turned the corner behind the chairs where they were sitting. She heard her parents weakly call her name behind her, protesting her leaving, but she ignored them. 

 

She managed to keep herself from stumbling (much) or falling over, but her whole body was cold with lightheadedness and black oozed at the edges of her vision. She kept her eyes on the floor, staying close to the wall to catch her if she fell. 

 

She thought she'd be relieved to hear the silence of the hallway, save for the sound her shoes made as she walked and the faint singing of crickets outside. But comfort was the last thing it brought her; she only felt the eerie chill of the words that had been swirling around her since she finished the note. 

 

His best and most dearest friend. 




???



There weren't enough words in any language on the planet to describe how much Zoe didn't actually want to go home. 

 

In her car, her eyes shut tight and her forehead wearily resting on the steering wheel, Zoe had never been this miserable. Her house would just be a million times worse, every square foot suffocating the air with memories they’d made and memories that would never be. 

 

She knew that once she opened her eyes, anything and everything she could possibly look at would be a reminder of the person who would never get to see those sights, feel those feelings and textures, hear those noises, smell those smells or taste those tastes again. Not just today, not just now while her grief was raw, but for the rest of her life. 

 

Zoe had felt hopelessness before— quite often, and to horrific and physically damaging extents, even— she had the scars to prove it. She thought she’d known thanks to the passing intrusive thoughts or the stubborn not-so-intrusive ones. But for the first time, down to her core, she genuinely understood how Connor could think that life was too painful to keep living… enough to take measures into their own hands.

 

She truly never wanted to open her eyes again. 

 

Why should she?

 

The hope of getting the big brother back that had once been her best friend was the only thing she felt like she had going for her until now. Even if it was the tiniest, most microscopic pinprick of hope imaginable, at least it was there , because Connor was. 

 

But now he wasn't. 

 

Now the horrible sinking feeling that'd stuck with her all day made sense. 

 

Why they had hugged her now was made clear to be the last time he knew he ever would. 

 

The panic that had overwhelmed her after they pushed Evan she could now pinpoint as the last time she would ever see him alive.

 

The then-inexplicable numbness radiating through her limbs could be explained as the last ounce of hope draining from her body as Connor’s life force left his. 

 

I was telling myself that everything was okay while he was dying. 

 

The realization brought rage boiling deep within Zoe’s core, and she found herself grinding her teeth so hard that she felt they might shatter. Her whole body was wrought with pain so intense that she felt as if fire gleefully danced under every square inch of her skin, mocking her stupidity and attacking her just out of reach. 

 

…Or was it?

 

Something hollowed in Zoe’s mind. 

 

She opened her eyes, sitting up and slamming her foot on the brake. She turned on the car and thrust it into reverse, not even looking behind her as she backed out of her parking spot, shifted into drive, and sped out of the parking lot.

 

Her vision stayed blurry and out-of-focus the whole drive home, and she was probably driving more recklessly than she ever had in her life. If she had been capable of feeling anything in those moments, she would've been shocked she wasn't pulled over under suspicion of driving drunk. 

 

But she eventually made it home in one piece— which she was half relieved and half furious about— and shoved her way inside, leaving her things in the car and not bothering to lock it or the front door behind her. She kicked off her shoes and made for the stairs, refusing to look up from the floor, knowing that the memories would flood wherever she dared look in this damn fucking house.

 

Zoe heaved a sigh as she reached the top of the stairs, relieved and admittedly surprised her body had been able to muster up the strength to pull her up. She practically bolted into her room and slammed the door behind her, letting out another heavy breath and lifting her head to look around wildly.

 

The fiery grief under her skin was spreading, its flames and silent taunts becoming more and more vicious, and the pain bringing a frightening numbness. Zoe’s whole body trembled with exhaustion and fury and desperation to make it stop, tears that she hadn't even noticed endlessly streaming down her face. Her stomach lurched with panic as she realized she could no longer feel her arms, and the scorching numbness was seeping up her neck and down her chest.

 

Her gaze landed on her reflection in the floor mirror across her room, and she fell still. She stared blankly into her own eyes, slowly approaching the mirror and not letting herself look anywhere else, the fear of memories still strong. Zoe held her own gaze until she reached the mirror, and her hands twitched with longing as grief and rage and every other emotion at once blazed beneath her skin. She didn't actually look at her face in the mirror, not willing to see what exactly the news of Connor’s death had done to her just yet. She just kept looking into her eyes.

 

The fire raged in her blood. 

 

She knew exactly how to let it out. 

 

Then it'd all be okay.

 

That was what she was going to keep telling herself, anyway. 

 

Zoe flexed her shaking hand, numb with red hot needle-like pain, not taking her eyes off of their own wide, glazed reflection. She raised her fist, clenching it tightly, and before she had the chance to question herself, launched it forward with all the force her drained, weakened body had left. 

 

She aimed for the eyes. 

 

Her fist slammed into the mirror, and she felt a weight lift from her shoulders as the glass circling her hand shattered , the sound deafening in the very best way. Zoe's eyes glittered wildly and relief soared in her chest as a shooting agony seared in her knuckles, and she felt the wetness of blood drip and smear over her hand as she drew it back. 

 

Zoe’s gaze followed several pieces of shattered glass as they clattered to the ground, scanning for the sharpest edge. 

 

Zoe calmly lowered herself to the ground, settling comfortably back onto her knees as she sifted through her options with her battered, bleeding hand. Satisfaction bubbled maliciously in her chest as blood continued to bead and trickle from the tiny lacerations that covered her knuckles, dripping off her hand and bloodying the carpet and mirror shards as she brushed over them. 

 

As she examined the glass littering the carpet like a hunting bird of prey, her fingers twitched eagerly until her eyes settled on a shard with a distinctive curved, blade-like edge. She picked it up with two fingers, tilting her head and turning her wrist to give it a proper inspection. She then pushed herself to her feet, gently setting the shard between her lips. 

 

Zoe turned to make her way into the bathroom and grasped the base of her shirt with both hands. She tugged it up, crossing her arms and arching her back until she could strip it off and toss it aside. She blinked at herself in the bathroom mirror, the eerie darkness thick around her, but not so thick that she couldn't inspect which of her arms to choose.

 

Adrenaline pounded through her and her hands trembled with anticipation. This was the part she knew.

 

Zoe decided on her left shoulder, and raised the glass shard up against it with her opposite hand. 

 

She briefly met her own gaze in the mirror once more. Her eyes had gone dull. The black dancing in her vision was expanding. She swayed as the violent numbness found her legs, and hoisted herself up onto the bathroom counter before it could claim her feet.

 

She looked back to her shoulder, pressed the blade-like edge to her skin, held her breath, and sliced

 

Immediately she let out a sigh of relief as, after a flash of cold, the numbness seemed to snake its way up and gather at the cut, seeping its way out with the blood and replacing the blazing pain with the more-familiar sharp sting she'd felt before. She watched with unsettlingly entranced eyes at the blood that welled in the cut and oozed mesmerizingly in thin but steady streams down her bicep. 

 

Zoe stared mindlessly at the blood as it dripped rhythmically off her elbow onto the counter, not taking her eyes off it for a long time until the dripping slowed and eventually ceased. She inspected her shoulder in the mirror, running her fingers lightly over the dried blood staining her skin. She traced over the cut itself, softening as the pain brought the rest of the sensation returning to the tips of each limb. 

 

At least this feeling was familiar. It was about the only thing she could say had stayed the same. The rest of the world around her had either crumbled or been turned upside down and inside out. The only stability she could count on was the pulse of pain in the slice in her shoulder and the vicious lacerations covering her fist, and narrowing in on it brought her spiraling mind back into orbit. 

 

Zoe tore off a paper towel, dampening it under the faucet and swiping it over her bicep, clearing the dried blood from her skin before moving up to dab the cut itself clean. She moved to the counter next, soaking up the small puddle that'd formed beneath her elbow, then rinsed her bloodied knuckles off under the running faucet. 

 

Too exhausted to be alarmed by the fact that punching her mirror and cutting her shoulder with a piece of the shattered glass was the only thing able to bring her peace right now, Zoe wiped the shard clean and hid it at the bottom of one of her drawers. Something told her she might be using it again soon.

 

Zoe tossed the bloodied paper towel into the trash can beside her toilet and trudged nearer to the bathtub, picking her shirt up off the floor and pulling it back over her head. She tugged the sleeve down to hide the cut, satisfied that she'd managed to keep the bathroom looking like nothing happened. The shattered, bloodied mirror on her bedroom floor, however, was a problem for another time. Now, she needed to get off her feet in the quickest way possible before she collapsed. 

 

Zoe absentmindedly stumbled the rest of the way over to the empty bathtub, clumsily climbing in fully clothed and sinking down. She leaned back and rested against the slanted tub wall, her head settling on the suction-cupped bath pillow she kept for her bubble baths. 

 

She had barely had her head on the pillow for longer than a few seconds before sleep overcame her, and her eyelids sagged shut. 



Tuesday, August 30, 2016

4:32am



Zoe woke from a thankfully dreamless sleep with a start to her parents screaming downstairs, followed by a slam of the front door so hard that she could feel the foundations of the house tremble. Well, that was one more thing she could say hadn’t changed.

 

“Don’t you act like this is my fault! They were your sleeping pills!” One of her parents boomed, but despite the blatant differences in their voices, Zoe was too delirious to tell or attempt to care which one. 

 

From the window high on the wall over her bathtub, Zoe could see that it was still pitch black outside. She grumbled wordlessly to herself, shimmying off her back until she could heave herself to her feet. 

 

Once she gained her balance, Zoe stepped out of the tub, careful not to let her socks slide on the tile, and shuffled out of the bathroom. She blinked in surprise at the sight of her shattered mirror, the memory of what happened cutting through her sleepiness and making her shoulder and fist suddenly flare with agony. 

 

Zoe ignored the pain (it was what she did best, after all) and glanced at the clock on her nightstand. 4:34am. She had no idea what time she'd gotten home, but she knew she had not been asleep for nearly long enough. 

 

Now that her parents were home, though, she knew she needed to get rid of the mirror shards scattered on the floor on the other side of her bed. Not like they would actually come check on her— as if. But she knew she'd sleep more peacefully if she knew she had nothing to hide, and right now she needed as peaceful a sleep as she could get. 

 

As she approached the remains of her mirror, Zoe grumbled annoyedly, wondering why she had to have made such a mess. But the satisfaction of the throbbing pain in her shoulder and knuckles put her at ease, and she decided that alone made it worth it. 

 

Brushing her foot carelessly over the carpet, she kicked as many big pieces of glass as she could manage underneath the bed. She knew she couldn't vacuum in the middle of the night without her parents suspecting something, so she balled up a throw blanket from the foot of her bed and tossed it carelessly over the smaller shards her foot couldn't kick. 

 

She arranged the blanket strategically so it would look like it just fell off the bed, and wasn't planted there. After she was satisfied with her work, she reached over the blanket to pick up her floor mirror, which she lifted surprisingly easily despite the majorly weakened physical state her body was in. 

 

Zoe opened her closet door and tucked the mirror in the back behind her shirts, so the shattered upper half wasn't visible. 

 

Good enough. 

 

Zoe kicked the closet door closed and collapsed back into her bed. 

 

Her parents were still screaming downstairs, but luckily for Zoe, she had plenty of practice tuning out the sounds of yelling. She messily threw her comforter over herself and flopped onto her pillows, once again giving into the release of sleep the second it closed itself around her. 



Tuesday, August 30, 2016

3:19pm



By the time Zoe woke up again, the sun was bright in her window, and she realized with a start that she was in her bed, not the tub. She groggily pushed herself upright, peering over the edge of her bed to see the floor mostly cleared of the mirror’s shattered remains and the rest of it precariously covered with a blanket. 

 

She had absolutely no recollection of how or when she got from the bathtub to her bed, but she silently thanked her past self for cleaning up the mess so she wouldn't have to deal with it right away now. She flopped back down onto her pillow, but knew that trying to get any more sleep would be useless. Even still, she had no interest in moving or getting up any time soon. 

 

It wasn't until she had been lying there for at least a good several minutes that why she was so exhausted and didn't care that she was missing school really sank in. Her throat went dry, and the pain in her hand and on her shoulder suddenly returned. 

 

Tears burned in the back of her eyes, but she clenched her jaw and blinked them away. Zoe couldn't tell which part exactly triggered them, be it the searing pain, her pounding headache, or the memory of what had happened to…. the memory of what had happened yesterday. 

 

She didn't even want to think his name. 

 

As she suspected, there was no sign that her parents had made any effort to come check on her and see if she was okay. They could have without leaving a trace, even just peeked in her door, but Zoe knew they hadn't. A bitterness soured her throat so potent that made the wounds feel much less burdening all of a sudden. 

 

Zoe had no idea what to do with herself next. She really just wanted to curl up in a ball and disappear, but the only way she could come close to that was sleeping, and despite how exhausted she still was, she knew there was no chance. 

 

She knew she should eat something, but she'd never been less hungry in her life, and the thought of leaving her bed, let alone her room, made nausea bubble in her stomach. 

 

She didn't care to know what her parents were doing, either. She knew they were probably home by now, but was just surprised it wasn't them screaming at each other that woke her up. Maybe that was what had woken her in the middle of the night when she moved into her bedroom, but she couldn't tell if the vague sound of yelling in the crevices of her misted memory was from last night or one of countless other times.  

 

For the briefest moment, Zoe considered tracking down her phone and telling her friends what happened, but she quickly vetoed the idea and tugged the comforter down over herself a little tighter. If she had to put into words what she'd been through the past twenty-four hours, she thought she'd probably break down completely and never recover. 

 

So for now the only thing she could think to do was lie there. Her mind was empty, much to her surprise- a barren wasteland of any and all emotion, regarding yesterday or anything. Her eyes hung half-open, dull and colorless, and her body felt like it was being pushed into the mattress by the weight of the sky itself. 

 

The doorbell rang, and Zoe jumped. She muttered wordlessly under her breath, pulling her comforter up to cover her head completely. 

 

“Can someone get that?” A weak, raspy call from her mother downstairs barely brushed her ears. She ignored her. 

 

Silence followed for a long moment. Zoe expected one of her parents to give in and open the door, but the next sound she heard was the doorbell ringing again, and then a muffled voice calling from outside that she recognized instantly. It was Nick. 

 

“Mr. and Mrs. Murphy? Zoe? Connor? Is anyone home?”

 

Zoe’s breath froze in her lungs as she heard her brother’s name. Tears sprang back into her eyes, and oh god, she was going to throw up.

 

She threw the blankets off of herself and shoved herself to her feet. Zoe quickly stumbled back across her room and lunged herself into the bathroom, dropping to her knees and skidding across the floor in front of the toilet just in time. 

 

Not having the strength to hold her hair back, she silently pleaded that it would stay out of the way as she clutched the toilet seat, retching over and over and over again until tears streamed from her eyes and her throat began to burn. 

 

She gasped for air when it finally stopped, panting and shakily scooting back off her knees until she could lean against the wall. Head in her hands, Zoe rested her elbows on her freshly-skinned, bloodied knees as she fought to regain her breath for long enough to make her dizzy. 

 

When she finally felt like she could breathe somewhat normally, she shut the toilet lid and flushed, pushing herself to her feet and stumbling to the sink to get the horrible taste out of her mouth. 

 

It had been mostly bile, with traces of her cereal from yesterday morning and Fritos from rehearsal, but the lightheadedness that followed reminded Zoe that she hadn't actually eaten anything since then. And as much as she wasn't hungry in the slightest, she could tell that she needed to get something in her system before her body gave out on her entirely. 

 

Begging to herself that Nick had gone away, Zoe gurgled what felt like enough mouthwash to fill the bathtub and stumbled back into her room to find a hoodie to throw on. 

 

She picked up her band hoodie from last year off the back of her desk chair and pulled it down over her head, tugging the sleeve over her mangled fist and stuffing it in her pocket for good measure. 

 

Staggering out of her room and to the stairs, Zoe kept her eyes on the faint blood stains seeping through the fabric on her knees and took it slowly, one step at a time. She ignored her father, who snored lightly on the couch, and more-so ignored the fact that that meant her mother had kicked him out of their room. That was fairly common as it was.

 

Seeing Larry passed out in the living room, though, had distracted Zoe from her mission of not looking up from the floor and made her finally lift her head and take in her surroundings. She immediately regretted it. 

 

Every square foot of the house seemed foreign, yet dreadfully familiar- like she knew her way around with her eyes closed, but when she looked at it, it no longer felt like she lived there. It felt like someone else’s house, which she realized with a jolt, was because it was. Before yesterday, it had been her brother’s house too. 

 

Zoe held back a pitiful grieving wail, instead sinking her teeth into her tongue and forcing herself to look back down at the floor. No comfort came from following her feet as they trudged into the kitchen, though, only a cruel and silent indifference. 

 

Something told Zoe that she wouldn't be able to keep down much of any actual meal, but she didn't want one to begin with so it didn't matter. She found herself at the counter and snatched the loaf of bread that sat by the toaster. That’d do her justice for now.

 

She knew, though, that she wouldn't be able to relax again until she knew for sure that Nick had left. Dodging the windows at the front of the house, Zoe crept up to the door and peeked through the peephole. Nick was gone. 

 

Zoe breathed a sigh of relief and headed back for the stairs, forcing her stiff legs to pull her up one at a time, and fighting to ignore the dizziness that followed each step.

 

“You’re awake,” an exhausted, raspy voice sounded from behind her when she was about halfway up the stairs. Cynthia.

 

“Perceptive.” Zoe grunted, heavy with sarcasm. She opened the loaf of bread and pulled out a piece, and didn’t stop walking as she tore half of it off and stuffed it in her mouth. 

 

“Zoe, wait,” Cynthia pleaded weakly, and Zoe stopped at the top of the stairs, bread still sticking out of her mouth. She turned around and looked down at her mother, annoyed that she felt obligated to humor her. “Please, talk to me.” Cynthia set her foot on the bottom step, as if she wanted to follow Zoe upstairs. 

 

The sting of bitterness returned to curl its claws into her throat. Zoe turned away and kept walking. 

 

“No.” She answered coldly, and shut her bedroom door behind her.