"Hey, I like this bracelet," Brooke scoots in next to Michael at the lunch table, pointing to his threaded rainbow bracelet nestled between his Weezer bracelet and an onyx bead one.
"Oh," Michael looks down at his wrist, holding it up slightly as Brooke inspects the different bracelets there. "Thank you."
"Did you make that yourself?"
Michael's gaze meets hers and he forces a slight smile. There's a small knot of anxiety sneaking into the pit of his stomach, as it always does when he's the center of attention or when someone asks about a bracelet.
"Yeah, actually," he replies. "I made all the embroidery thread ones."
They weren't the only things on his wrists he made himself, but Brooke doesn't need to know that.
"Why do you wear so many bracelets anyways?" Chloe asks in her permanent I-couldn't-care-less tone, not even looking at him as she taps away on her phone.
"I, er," Michael swallows, glancing over his shoulder. Where the hell is Jeremy? "I like them."
"Like your hoodie patches?" Brooke rubs a thumb over his cassette patch.
"Exactly," Michael says, hoping that's the end of it.
No such luck.
Chloe sneers down at his arms. Michael knows by now that that's just how she is. She doesn't mean to be mean, she's just an abrasive person. "You know, no one wears that many bracelets anymore. It's so out of fashion."
"Well, I like them," Michael replies quietly, shut down.
"Yeah Chloe!" Brooke exclaims. "I like them, too, Michael." Without warning, Brooke reaches for one of the elastic ones, like she did with his patch. Michael feels her fingertip brush the skin under the bracelet, and it's like she hit a button. The panic flips on in his chest.
He flinches and pulls his arm back way too quickly to not be suspicious, painfully hitting his elbow on the back of his chair in the process.
"Woah," Chloe says, staring at him.
"Sorry," Michael replies, voice light like he can't catch his breath. He grabs his backpack, and flees from the table, brushing past a confused Jeremy in his retreat. He doesn't even see him.
Michael makes his way to a bathroom. He'll just spend the rest of lunch there.
Michael wears a lot of bracelets. They run about halfway up his forearm on either arm. When he isn't wearing his bracelets, he wears long sleeves permanently down. The bracelets give him the freedom of T-shirts when it's hot out. He loves them for it. The only time he isn't wearing either bracelets or long sleeves is late at night or in the early hours of the morning when he's much too preoccupied with something else to worry about his wrists being covered.
Jeremy knows why. When they were younger teens, before Michael even thought of bracelets, he forgot and rolled his sleeves up in the summer heat.
"Dude, how'd you get that?" He squinted at Michael's wrist at some jagged letters that couldn't really be made out unless you knew what it was supposed to say. Michael froze and felt the blood drain from his face as he realized his mistake.
"I, it, er," Michael stammered, meaning to blame it on his neighbors cat, but he couldn't exactly think.
"Did you do that?" Jeremy asked.
Michael froze again, and couldn't speak. After a moment he nodded.
Jeremy's eyes darkened. "Like, on purpose?"
Michael will never forget how Jeremy looked at him then. It was like, they've known each other since preschool, but Jeremy looked at Michael like he was a complete stranger. At the same time, it was like he really saw him for the first time.
Jeremy dropped his controller. "Dude, why didn't you tell me?" His voice was strained suddenly, like he was trying not to cry. He took Michael's wrist and stared at the cuts. "Why did you . . ."
Michael let out an half aborted cry, squirming slightly in his bean bag at this sudden exposure. "I'm sorry, Jeremy."
"What? No, Michael please don't apologize. You have nothing to be . . ." Jeremy slowly trailed off, cocking his head slightly as he quietly mumbled, "Are these letters?"
"Jer," Michael swallowed. He took a breath and calmed himself down to stop the threat of crying. "I'm gay."
Jeremy glanced down at his wrist and Michael saw the realization click in his eyes as to what the letters messily spelled out.
"Jesus, Michael, is that why . . ."
"No," Michael cut him off quickly, shaking his head. "No. I'm not ashamed or anything, obviously. You've met my mothers. But someone at school started to, and it's nothing, I know, it's just a stupid word. Stupid, stupid, stupid, just like me for even doing this, and-"
"Michael," Jeremy interrupted. "Stop and look at me."
"Thank you for telling me. I'm so proud of you for doing that. You're awesome, you know that, Michael? You're so amazing, Michael . . ."
Jeremy made Michael promise to call him whenever he felt like doing that again. But Jeremy wasn't a superhero. Jeremy couldn't save Michael from himself. Jeremy even bought Michael his first bracelet because he thought Michael's permanent long sleeves were ridiculous in the summer. At the time, two or three strategically placed bracelets on his left arm were enough.
Michael's up to over ten on each arm now.
They don't talk about the new ones that appeared while Jeremy was blocking Michael.
Sometimes Michael feels horribly guilty afterwards, on really bad nights, and calls Jeremy. The conversation always goes something like:
"Michael?" In a very sleepy, tired, non-coherent voice.
"Jeremy, I'm sorry." Usually Michael's crying. Sometimes he isn't, and those are the worst nights, when Jeremy rushes over in his pajamas to find an empty shell of his best friend with damaged wrists. He can never find the razors, though.
"I'll be right there." Click.
That hasn't happened in weeks, because Michael hasn't called. He always feels awful for calling, for bothering Jeremy with his own ridiculous self. So usually he doesn't call.
That evening, Michael's in his basement, touching up the black polish on his nails. His wrist itches from the other night and he's trying his best to ignore it. He's blasting music over the speakers, and will continue to do so until one of his moms gets home to tell him to keep it down.
The door opens and he looks up to see Jeremy waving, closing the door behind him. They haven't used doorbells in years, aside from that awkward occasion when Jeremy first came over post-play and they weren't quite sure where they stood.
"Hey," Michael greets, dipping the brush back in the bottle.
"Those fumes are gonna make you high," Jeremy coughs, climbing on the back of the couch to crack open the basement window.
"I highly doubt that," Michael replies, carefully painting a fresh layer over his chipped pinky nail. "Heh, get it? Highly?"
"Ha ha," Jeremy says. He throws his backpack down next to Michael and slumps into the beanbag next to him, sighing loudly.
"It's only Wednesday."
"That it is."
"Same," Michael replies, carefully replacing the cap on his polish. "I'd ask if you wanna play video games but I can't use my hands for a while, so."
"It's the thought that counts."
Michael grins at Jeremy, who returns it with a smile. "Exactly!"
"Hey, where'd you go at lunch?" Jeremy asks. "I asked Brooke and she said she didn't know why you ran off. I had to sit with them all alone, it was awful," he teases, smiling.
"Sorry," Michael replies flatly, toying with a leather bracelet around his arm at the memory, being careful of his drying nails. The leather rubs lightly against the itchy spot, which feels nice even though he shouldn't be scratching it. Jeremy turns to face him, smile slowly dropping. Michael can tell he knows something's up.
"Michael, what happened?"
"It's really stupid."
"I bet it isn't?"
"No, really it is."
"Michael, anything that . . ." Jeremy trails off as he looks down to where Michael is toying with his bracelet.
Jeremy opens and shuts his mouth twice, eyes widening a little. "You're bleeding."
Michael looks down, "Oh." The spot he was scratching with the bracelet reopened. "Sorry."
"You don't have to apologize," Jeremy says automatically as he reaches forward, then stops himself before he touches Michael. "I thought you,-" Jeremy stops and shakes his head once. "Can I see?"
Michael nods, face heating with embarrassment. Jeremy takes Michael's arms and gently removes some of the stretchier bracelets, pushing the others out of the way.
"I'm so sorry," Michael says. He's had a few bad nights since Jeremy last saw his arms.
"I thought you said you'd call me," Jeremy says. Not angrily. No matter how many times this happens, he's never mad. Michael doesn't get it. He just sounds . . .
"Don't be disappointed, I'm so sorry, please," Michael says.
"Hey, you have nothing at all to be sorry for, and I am not disappointed in you. Let's just clean them up, yeah?"
Michael nods, letting Jeremy walk him upstairs to the kitchen. They don't go to the bathroom anymore.
Jeremy turns on the faucet and lets the water run over his fingers until it's lukewarm. He digs around the cupboard beneath the sink for a drawstring bag he has stashed behind a loose board for occasions like this. He pulls out a fresh paper towel and wets it.
"Careful, my nails are fresh," Michael says, smiling slightly at Jeremy. Jeremy looks at him at the unexpected humor in Michael's voice. He doesn't say anything.
Jeremy pulls his wrist towards him, moving the bracelets out of the way again, taking a few more off with minor difficulty. He pats the wet towel on the bleeding spots, holding it down with one hand as he digs in the bag for a tube of Neosporin. Michael watches, and can't believe Jeremy.
His wrist looks like an old cat's scratch toy. Lines up and down blur out awful words he's put there in the past. Creep, faggot, loser, freak.
It's just a mess now. Jeremy doesn't even blink as he cleans up Michael's last bleeding cut. After all, he's cleaned up much worse in the past, and Michael isn't recovering from a panic attack this time around.
Michael looks around at the light streaming in the kitchen. "It's weird doing this at this time of day," he regards, thinking of how they're usually doing this late at night, trying not to wake up his moms.
Jeremy looks up from where he's replacing bracelets. "Yeah, well, let's not make a habit of it."
Michael snorts. Jeremy cracks a smile, and just like that it's like nothing happened.
"You fucked up my nail," Michael sings, waving a smudged middle finger nail in Jeremy's face.
Jeremy smacks his hand out of his face and pushes him towards the basement. "Let's play some video games before you fix it. I don't want to wait an hour before Super Mario."
Jeremy will always be there for Michael.
That's what he tells himself over and over as he cleans up this one cut for him. He knows Michael never cleans up beyond making sure he doesn't leaves any blood on the floor and it's an honest to God miracle that none of them have gotten infected at this point.
Jeremy will always be there to make sure they don't get infected.
Jeremy wishes he could have been there any of the countless times Michael without a doubt hurt himself since the last time he cleaned him up. But, Michael didn't call, how could he have known? Jeremy can't get mad at Michael, though. He can't.
After all, Jeremy knows he's the reason Michael had to get six new bracelets in the span of one month. If Michael doesn't want to tell Jeremy after that, how could Jeremy blame him?
And Michael is so damn good at faking it. At school he's literally the happiest person in the hallways, always smiling and joking and laughing. No one would ever guess. Hell, Jeremy even knows Michael's signs and he still didn't realize.
He's not mad at Michael. He isn't disappointed. He's just sad.
He lets that emotion wash over him as he slowly replaces those six bracelets and a seventh new one he hasn't noticed until today. Jeremy rubs his thumb over the new silicon as Michael looks around at the lightness of the kitchen, not at all aware of the fact Jeremy is just barely keeping it together as he slides that bracelet back on Michael's wrist, swearing to himself that he'll always be there for his best friend.
He owes him that much.