And once again I was alone. The beeping of the heart monitor was deafening. It was like the sound was vibrating my rib cage with every pulse, the sharp edges making my muscles ache. I exhaled a shaky breath to ward off the emotions threatening to overtake me. It was a battle I seemed to be destined to lose.
But that was okay. No one else was here to see it but me. An unconscious mind does not count. Thoughts of the worst had been pulling me into a place I didn't want to be—a place I shouldn't go. Though, I couldn't really help it. The one thing I couldn't stand to lose, was sure to be lost. That knowledge had been eating away at me for hours. I'd been able to deal with it up until this point. This point when my friends made the mistake of leaving me alone.
It was ridiculous—to think of how fast we'd gotten to this point of near bitter end. I couldn't help but try to picture the last time he looked normal, my eyes having nothing to do with themselves other than trace his relaxed features. But I forced myself to look away after a quick glance. I couldn't take more than that. I had to look at something else. The flowery drapes. The soft moonlight on the street outside the window. Or, my old friend, the floor tiles.
There was no point trying to conceal it. As I lifted my eyes to settle them on the pale skin of his face, I felt them begin to sting. It was almost overwhelming—the sudden ache bringing on a few stray tears. Hot water droplets rolled down my skin, leaving traces of their existence behind like an avalanche. "I know this is the part where I say something happy and heartfelt...but I can't do that," I swiped my tongue across my dry lips before continuing. "Things don't look good. And...I'm trying—I really am. But this feels so final and I-"
No sound came out. My lips formed the words, but they were replaced by a squeak of a sob beginning, and I clamped a hand over my mouth. I squeezed my eyes shut. This was impossible. Impossible to keep myself together even long enough to say the words I should've said weeks ago. So I didn't try. Removing my hand from my mouth, I sniffled, and moved to sit on the edge of my seat, taking his limp hand in both of mine on the hospital bed.
He felt cold. Too cold. Just weeks ago, I'd felt his warm skin on mine in an embrace and I'd heard his heartbeat. Now he looked like he barely had one. Washed out skin, slightly sunken features, bags beneath his eyes. And he was cold. He'd never felt so cold. The tears kept rolling, but I did my best to keep talking—even though all I wanted to do was run.
Run right out the door and never look back at the pain waiting for me here. "You can't leave me tonight. I don't care what the doctors say. Don't leave me," I propped my elbows on the edge of the bed, reaching up a hand to brush his hair back behind his ear. "I can't do this without you, Pea. We can't do this without you. So you can't leave just yet, okay? Please...just stay with me."
"Just talk about the deal," FP sighed heavily, fed up at this point. To be honest, I was, too. Jughead paced as the lawyer began to read the charges. But I stood just behind and to the left of FP's chair. My hand slid onto his shoulder, and his head turned toward me for a brief second, but he didn't look up. The lawyer was halfway through when FP interrupted, "I know what I did. The deal—what are they offering?"
"You're gonna want to take it," the lawyer slid his papers across the table to FP. "I'm telling you—I've been doing this a long time. It's a strong deal."
FP half-heartedly flipped the pages. Jughead came to stand on FP's other side. He only looked at the papers for a moment before looking right at the lawyer with a grim expression. "How. Many. Years?" he asked, a bit quietly. It was the question we needed answered, but didn't want to know the answer to. How many years would our father be behind bars, missing our lives? We were at the mercy of someone else's idea of morality and I felt completely helpless.
The lawyer readjusted in his chair, clearing his throat. "Twenty years. If you take it to court, and continue on, it could be up to forty. I strongly suggest that you take the deal, Mr. Jones."
The room was quiet, but only out of sheer shock. Neither of us expected it to be that long when we'd wondered about it. But hearing such a large number made me feel sick to my stomach. FP hung his head with a sigh, and his right hand moved to rest on top of mine, still on his shoulder. "Twenty years? That long?" Jughead questioned, appalled.
"The list of charges is longer than my right arm," the lawyer replied, as though the length should be obvious because of his words. "This is the best deal we're going to get here. I'm sorry."
It seemed the more I stood there, the more I contemplated the thought of twenty years in prison, the more my stomach turned. It felt like I couldn't breathe. Like the oxygen in the room was too thin. The effect was dizzying, only adding to the nausea. I tried to hold it back by taking in a deep breath. "And if he doesn't take it, is he guaranteed forty?" I asked the lawyer.
"No. But it's a very, very slim chance that you'll get anything less," he answered, from across the table.
"I'm gonna need some time to think about this," FP resigned, moving his hand off mine and back to the pages in front of him.
In exhaling my third deep breath, a tremble of dizziness and anxiety mixed in my gut. And it was too much. Thankfully for me, the meeting was just about over. I could feel eyes on me. It was Jughead. Analyzing me closely from two feet to my right. "Diana, you okay?" he asked, in a hushed voice. It was quiet, but it was enough to get FP's attention.
FP twisted to look up at me. His features washed from stressed to concerned as his eyes settled on my face. But he didn't get the chance to say anything on the subject of my surely green appearance. "I'm sorry, just a second," I held up a finger in a gesture, but it only lasted a millisecond. I was moving just after I'd spoken the words, heading right for the door. My hand pulled it open and I let it fall closed behind me after I'd blazed through.
There was a bathroom just down the hall. I nearly broke the door bursting in, but I didn't have time to worry. I'd barely slid to my knees in front of a toilet before I wretched up anything I'd managed to eat in the last forty-eight hours. Which, when I thought back on it, wasn't very much. Yet somehow I had plenty of things to come up. After, I sat back on my heels. My fingers gripped the toilet seat as I took in gulps of air, letting my eyes close.
If I was being honest with myself, I would say that I'd felt this way for just over two weeks—sick. Everything was so stressful, so nauseating. Whether it was Archie's dad or mine, something was happening that made me sick. And the day to day living with the knowledge of the stressful situation was just as nauseating. "Diana?" Jughead's voice followed a momentary screech of the bathroom door.
"It's all clear," I replied, swallowing hard.
The same screech from before sounded, along with a soft thud of the door closing, and I could hear footsteps getting close. They stopped a moment before he spoke again. "Are you okay?" Jughead asked, genuine concern the only alteration to his voice. His body cast a shadow across me as he slid to the floor just to my left. My stomach still felt uneasy. But his hand started a comfortable motion against my back that eased it enough to speak.
Exhaling, I answered, "I don't know. I think I'm coming down with something."
"Or you're drastically over-stressed and not eating or sleeping like you should be. With Pop's about to shut down, dad going to prison, and taking care of Cash—I can understand why," he spoke quietly. "When was the last time you got enough sleep? Or you ate an actual meal?"
"Does it matter?" I closed my eyes against the nausea, sounding a bit irritated because of it.
"It matters a lot, actually."
"Okay, um...I don't know. I just haven't been hungry lately. But I got eight hours."
Jughead's eyebrows popped in surprise, "Last night?"
"Last week—in total."
Jughead sighed, hanging his head. I knew how it sounded. But life was just so hectic. Bouncing between trailers to maintain a healthy level of family and love life. Walking Cash to school with enough time to get myself to school. Polo practice immediately following school. Late shifts at Pop's waiting tables. Getting home with enough time to clean up the trailer a bit and make breakfast for Cash so I can do it all again. There was no point in attempting sleep most nights.
I'd dozed off at lunch the other day, but it wasn't for long. Either way, something in this situation needed to give. I couldn't keep up with all of it. "What can I do? There has to be something I can do to at least somewhat help with all of this. You shouldn't have to do it all yourself," Jughead lifted his head, giving it a shake at his own words.
I shrugged a little. "I don't know. I don't know anything right now, Jug."
It was two weeks after the shooting at Pop's. The diner was going under. I sat on a stool at the front counter, amid the bare and empty halls, while Pop Tate hunched over the counter on the opposite side with his financial papers. "I don't know what I'm going to do, Diana," he confessed, sighing as he stood upright to look at me. "You're my only remaining staff member—but, either way, I have no customers!"
I leaned forward onto the counter on my forearms. "There has to be something we can do to fix this."
"No one wants to eat where someone was almost murdered," he replied, sadly.
Pop's Chock 'Lit Shoppe was becoming a thing of old. A relic behind museum glass that no one dared touch. I pushed back from the counter, sliding off the stool. "Well, we can start by washing off the spray paint," I exhaled. "That's something we can fix, right?" It was my plan from the beginning—it was why I'd come in that afternoon instead of going to school.
I picked up the bucket I'd filled with soapy water from the floor by my stool, grabbed the large sponge from the counter, and started for the door. As I pushed it open, I heard Pop's voice over the bell, calling after me, "You're a good kid, Diana."
"I try," I smiled at Pop, and he smiled back, before I disappeared through the door.
When Pop first told me his whole staff quit and the side of the Shoppe was vandalized, I'd wanted to hit someone. Because I had a feeling it was some North side moron with a can of spray paint and a big ego. But maybe it was my recent endeavors, the things I'd allowed myself to do, to feel, that was giving me such violent thoughts? I'd always wanted to, but never acted on it when I was angry. Now I was starting to act on it.
I'd guessed that helping Pop Tate clean up and restore the Chock 'Lit Shoppe to its original glory and status was my way of counter-acting the angry urges. The sun was shining softly on my back while I put all my strength into scrubbing the black lines. The lines that made up the words DEATH DINER. It wasn't true. No one died there. But I'd guessed it was the thought that counted. I'd had my ear buds deep in my ear canals with my iPod in my back pocket.
It was on shuffle so I didn't really know what was going to come on next, but it seemed it was stuck on all of my Eminem and NF songs. It wasn't bad—scrubbing the paint off. It was actually nice to break from my schedule and do something for myself after so long of being repetitive. Reputation came on through the ear buds and I couldn't help but smile, bobbing my head, mouthing the words to Call It What You Want as I scrubbed.
I'd spent a little over twenty minutes scrubbing before a shadow was cast over me and the space I was working on. I'd only managed to get off the D and E, so now it was EAD DINER. It was humorous. But I twisted at the sudden cast of darkness. The last person I expected to walk up to me then was walking up to me—Archie Andrews. It wasn't the mere sight of him that caused me to immediately pull out my ear buds, dropping my sponge into the bucket of water.
It was the glisten to his cheeks and the red to the edges of his eyes. He'd been crying. And he looked like he was about to keep crying. "Archie? Are you okay?" I asked, turning toward him fully, stuffing my ear buds into my pocket with my iPod. Archie came to stand about two feet from me, but he didn't look at me—he just looked at the ground. Like he was in shock.
"It's Miss Grundy...she's dead," he answered, as if it physically pained him to say it out loud. "She was murdered in Greendale last night."
I hadn't known exactly what to say. Or why he walked all the way from the high school to Pop's just to find me and tell me that. I didn't ask for the answer to either of those questions. Normally, I would have. But his shoulders shuddered as fresh tears fell along the lines of his previous tears, down his shadowed cheeks. The sight pained me to look at. But I pulled him into a hug so I didn't have to. His fingers gripped the back of my sweat shirt tightly.
Like there was a chance I'd blow away with the wind. And he buried his face in my shoulder. I exhaled, trying to push past the awkwardness of it all. My ex-boyfriend was coming to me for emotional support when the school music teacher he cheated on me with was murdered. How does one normally go about dealing with that kind of situation? Is there a manual for this? A For Dummies? Because that would've been very helpful.
Especially for when I finally got him to sit down inside Pop's, in a booth near the back, by the window. He'd stopped the tears for the most part, but he was still shaking quit a bit. All he could do was talk. It was a nervous, anxious ramble. Saying things I doubt anyone knew he was thinking about—and had been thinking about for weeks. "It's a little coincidental, don't you think? My dad's shot and then Miss Grundy's murdered right across the river—all within a matter of days?" he questioned, rhetorically. "What if this guy's targeting people that I care about?"
"Let me stop you for a second. Archie, what makes you think someone would target you specifically? Did you do something worthy of a stalker?" I asked, slightly confused by his theory.
He sighed heavily. "Look, Diana, I don't expect you to understand. I just need someone to listen to me."
The look in his eyes said it all. He was fed up. Fed up with people not listening to his deepest fears because it sounded ridiculous. I knew exactly how that felt. So I nodded a little and sat back against the booth seat across from him. "Alright, then," I agreed. "Talk it through. Who, what, when, where, and why. What's so special about Archie Andrews?"
"I don't know...maybe it was the Jubilee? Everyone thinks I'm some hero. Maybe this guy's jealous? Or something? I don't know," he shook his head, in deep thought.
"So, he's jealous everyone thinks you're a hero. Now what?"
"Now he hurts the people I care about to show everyone just how wrong that is," his eyes shifted up to me from the table. There was a certain cold seriousness in them that caused me to sit up a little straighter in my seat. "Think about it, Diana—he shot my dad and I couldn't do anything to save him. But that backfired. So he went across the river and killed Miss Grundy to make a point."
With an exhale, I leaned forward on the table top with folded forearms. "That's a great theory. But don't start obsessing over this, okay? Find out what the Sheriff thinks about all of it first."
"I thought you said Keller was an incompetent ja-"
"I know what I said, Arch, but you cannot act on this theory."
"Why not?" his eyebrows drew together with an accusatory tone.
"Because it's fiction!" I rose my voice a little, chuckling humorlessly once. Like it should be obvious. Because it should've been. "You have no proof that these two crimes have anything to do with each other. Yes, you knew both victims. But that's where it ends. If you want to know the truth, Alice Cooper has contacts at the city Coroner's office. How do you think she got early access to Jason Blossom's autopsy report?"
Archie was sitting back a bit. His features were more relaxed than they had been, but he still looked to be thinking deeply, his eyes aimed at his hand resting atop the table. Encouraging more detective work was not the best thing to do. But if he was going to believe they weren't connected, then he needed to find it out himself. "I'm sorry for dumping all of this on you," he said, suddenly shifting his eyes up to mine, surprising me a bit. "I just...I needed to talk to someone—and I knew you'd listen."
I smiled a little, closed-mouthed. "It's alright. I've done my fair share of dumping this year."
"Do you think you'll still be able to work here?" he asked, obviously trying to make conversation.
"I don't know. It's still up in the air if it can even stay open with such a small customer base," I shrugged one shoulder. "Veronica mentioned something about having an event to boost the public's confidence in the place, but, I'm not too sure how that's going to go over."
"I, uh, I should probably let you get back to whatever you were doing out there before I pulled you away," Archie said, a bit abruptly, before standing up from the booth. It was sudden. But I did my best to act like it wasn't, standing as well. "I'm going to do what you said, and talk to Betty's mom. I need to know if this is because of me."
"Just be careful with that, okay? Promise me you won't go too far with this."
He sighed, but nodded. "I promise."
When I got home to the trailer, just after dark, Jughead looked like he was getting ready to leave. Betty was there when I walked in, standing in the living room with him. My right eyebrow rose on my forehead as I closed the door behind me. Both Jughead and Betty looked like I'd just walked in on something I shouldn't have. "I'm sorry. I didn't see the sock," I quipped, with dry sarcasm. "You guys going somewhere?"
"Actually, I wanted to talk to you. It's about dad's case," Jughead said, taking a step or two toward me.
I dropped my bag on the couch cushion and dropped onto the armrest. "I'm listening."
"I talked to Tall Boy about what to do, moving forward. He told me to go talk to the Serpents' lawyer-" My head snapped back in a recoil as my eyes narrowed. Due to this reaction, Jughead stopped talking, pausing with a look of concern. "...what?"
"You went to Penny Peabody?" It was rhetorical, rueful.
Jughead's eyebrow rose. "Yeah…? You've met her?"
I got to my feet, stepping closer as I pushed off the armrest. My chest was tight now—battened down with a mixture of anxious worry and pure rage. "What exactly did you ask her to do, and what did she ask for in return?" I crossed my arms over my chest to hide my panic. "Tell me the truth, Jughead."
"I didn't ask for anything, she just sort of...started talking. She said that if we get Cheryl's family to show mercy, we could get dad a lesser sentence," Jughead answered.
"And what did she ask for?" I pressed, my eyebrows creasing.
Jughead shook his head, confused. "Nothing. She said if she did me a favor, I would do her a favor in the future. No details were discussed."
The air in my lungs was let out in a deep sighing exhale, and I combed my fingers through my hair as I took steps away from Jughead and Betty. Serpents of all ages knew about the likes of one Penny Peabody. The Snakecharmer. FP had warned me not to get tangled with her and her twisted web of 'favors' years ago, closer to when I first joined. I'd met her once or twice in passing. Even though we didn't speak much, all I remembered about the encounters was how weird she seemed.
She acted almost crazed. Like she was on something, when I knew certainly she couldn't be. "We were going to try to talk to Cheryl," Betty said, a bit hesitant sounding behind me. "We thought maybe you would come with us? You two are close and all-"
I turned on my heel, silencing her with nothing but my gaze. "You guys talk to Cheryl. I have a snake to step on."
Betty looked a bit terrified. It was in her reclined posture and rounded eyes. Jughead just looked confused, mildly concerned. I didn't say another word. Just grabbed my Serpent jacket off the coat rack by the door before I left, letting it slam shut behind me. I couldn't tell what was more enraging—Penny thinking she could mess with my family, or Tall Boy sending Jughead to Penny in the first place. Both were equally irksome.
But I could deal with Tall Boy later. Penny needed more urgent handling. So I went there first, to the tattoo parlor not far from the Wyrm. It was her usual place of business. Thankfully for me, it was almost always open. I pushed through the glass door and the skinny tattoo artist that worked there didn't bother looking up from tattooing a blonde biker. "She's in the back," he said, tiredly. Probably because he'd done it already today, just hours ago.
I already knew where her office was located. My feet carried me across the tiny parlor to the back office, through the beaded curtain separating it from the rest of the building. Penny was sitting behind her cramped desk, feet up on the corner of it, leaned back in the office chair with her phone in her hands. As the beads chimed, she glanced up, a smiling grin coming to her lips upon seeing me. "Hey, look who it is," she put her phone on the desk. "Long time, no see—right, DJ?"
My feet didn't stop until my knees were touching the desk, and I leaned over it, my palms on the cluttered wood. "It's Diana. I don't care what you think you've got on my brother or my father. It's over, Penny. Whatever favor you think you need is on me now. If you talk to Jughead again, I'll know."
Penny sat up in her seat, dropping her legs off the side of the desk. "Wow, look at that. I very much admire your enthusiasm here. But what makes you think you can come in here and make a threat like that?" she asked, rhetorically, in a quiet but patronizing tone as she leaned forward. "I don't take orders from you, kid."
She shrugged up her shoulders with a mock expression of apology in a gesture before relaxing to her typical expression of knowing triumph. My lips curled up in a snarl, "Maybe not. But I know what you do. You manipulate, you use, and you cheat. People like you don't pass up an offer to manipulate someone innocent for free."
"True..." she nodded slowly, looking away from me as she thought. Then, in a snap, she looked back to me with a mischievous grin, her eyes glowing with a hint of admiration. "Alright. You got yourself a deal, kid. I'll be in touch."