Once again, he's with Christine. They're on another date, but this one's outside, in the Goldstate Park. Except, it looks more like a forest now, trees surrounding them in all directions. It's dark, and the sky that Jeremy can make out between the leaves is starless. There isn't even a hint of the moon. It leaves them in inky blackness and Jeremy struggles to make out Christine's face in front of him.
"Why aren't you looking at me, Jeremy?" Christine asks. "Don't you care about me?"
"Huh? Yes, of course I do!" Jeremy tells Christine, trying his hardest to make out her features, but if anything, it just seems to be getting darker. He reaches out, finds her hand planted on the rough grass, but it feels wrong.
"No, you don't, Jeremy!" Christine cries. "You're not looking at me!"
"I'm trying!" Jeremy yells, but his voice sounds barely louder than a whisper.
He tries moving forward, only to find himself suddenly climbing, climbing up a pile of bricks and slipping on the goo that's lathered upon it. He knows that Christine is waiting for him at the top, and he attempts to go faster, even though with every step he climbs, it feels like the distance between them gets bigger.
After what feels like an eternity, Jeremy finally reaches the top layer. It suddenly grows from the size of a single brick it had seemed while climbing to a large platform, a figure standing in the middle.
"Christine, I'm sorry. I'm here."
"Are you though?" Says a voice, but it's not Christine's.
"You're just going to leave again. So go, do it."
Jeremy only manages to get a brief glimpse of Michael glaring face before the bricks turn to dust beneath his feet and he's falling, falling into the darkness and-
Jeremy wakes frozen.
For a brief, terrifying moment, there's absolutely nothing he can do. No matter how he wills his legs to move, for his arms to lift, he doesn't even move a fraction.
It doesn't last too long, soon Jeremy's muscles are able to move again, albeit stiffly, but the experience is enough to make bile rise up the back of his throat. He doesn't end up vomiting, but he does rush to his laptop and type in 'waking up and can't move' into google.
Sleep paralysis is the first search response but even after reading all the articles, understanding that it can happen to anyone for no real reason, it still freaks Jeremy the fuck out. This has never happened to him before, and the website he's on now says it happens because some bits of the brain are still asleep. What if parts of his brain are still asleep. Are dormant.
Because that's where the Squip is, trying to bust out.
"Just breathe, Jeremy," Jeremy tells himself. He feels clammy, and if he lets himself dissolve into the panic, he's gonna struggle to get himself out of it again. "It's fine. This is fine. Everything. Is. Fine." He ducks his head between his knees, his hands clamped tightly in his hair.
His immediate urge is to call Michael, to have his best friend's voice draw him away from the nauseating fear, but he can't do that. Because he told himself he wouldn't, and he doesn't want everything he's done this far be for nothing. He can't even call Christine because while, for once it's not the middle of the night, it's still 5am. And he can't go to his dad, because his dad doesn't even know the beginning of this whole mess.
For the remainder of the early morning, until his alarm goes off, Jeremy fluctuates between states of panic and states of nearly panic. So consumed by the, well, panic, his nightmare is lost in the recesses of his mind.
Over the next few days, despite their mutual apologies, both Jeremy and Michael seem to be distancing themselves from each other. Michael will still walk with him to and from school, but only on the days he's not picking up Rich, which is happening with increasing frequency. He's offered to pick Jeremy up too, but not wanting to be the third wheel, more often than not Jeremy will tell him his dad is driving him in, even if it's not always true.
Even now, they don't get much of a chance to talk, just the two of them, over lunch. Where Jeremy sits at the table changes on a daily basis so sometimes, he might even be on the opposite side to Michael. Of course, he does get to know the others better for it. For example, Jenna announces that she's aspiring to be a journalist and is going to be writing for the school newspaper, thanks to Brooke's suggestion last week. And while she's still trying to find the balance between what's considered newsworthy and what's just plain gossip, Jeremy has to admit she can write an engaging article (even if it's kind of hard to read when she shoves it at his face).
During one memorable lunch, Chloe ended up talking very loudly with Christine, when Jake hadn't arrived yet, about the fact she's going to try and get back with Jake because they've both changed, they're going to make such a better couple now, and that's okay, right? Bemused, Christine had given her blessing and Chloe, to at least half the table's surprise, planted a kiss on Christine's cheek and called her a babe.
Thursday sees Jeremy and Christine hiding away in the Rehearsal Room. Neither of them has specified it's a date this time, but when Jeremy enters and it's just the two of them alone, no prying eyes invading their space, it's hard to think of it as anything else. He tries not to let his nerves over the specifics control him as he sits in front of her and they begin eating.
They've nearly finished their lunches, and are in the middle of a conversation about who would win between space pirates and flesh-eating tentacled aliens, when Christine gets up, rummages in the props cupboard, and comes out with some old halloween bunting. Jeremy watches as she takes different strands and wraps them around her torso. He doesn't have a clue what she's doing until she declares:
"I am Balthezaria, the 6-tentacled alien, devourer of worlds and conqueror of planets!"
Jeremy's mouth drops open slightly and he just sits there blankly until Christine brushes him with one of her 'arms' and cries, "Oh, what have we here? A space pirate who thinks he might be able to best me?"
It kickstarts Jeremy's brain again and he grabs a cheese string, holding it up as if it were a sword.
"Yes! I am...Salazar the Willful! A space pirate who will not let Balthazar destroy planets and take they're...they're booty!"
Christine nearly breaks character, but she regains her fearsome composure quickly and spins around so her arms take flight.
"Come at me, puny pirate, and I will show you the wrath of my species!"
"Hi-yah!" Jeremy cries, jabbing his cheese string towards her. Christine darts out of the way with a graceful skip.
"You think that will be enough to beat me? Take this!" She moves in large, exaggerated motions so that they translate the extra arms. She swings to the side and when one of the pumpkin lined strands hits him, he makes an over-dramatic groaning noise and grabs his arm.
"Ha! And that's just the start! I'll show you how tentacled monsters always defeat space pirates!"
"Tis but a flesh wound," Jeremy declares. He then spies the old-fashioned pencil sharpener sat on the desk and lunges over to grab it. "Let's see you avoid my blast ray!" He rotates the sharpener and makes 'pew pew' noises as he directs it at Christine, who's dancing around the imagining shots. She then suddenly falls back and leans against the wall.
"You may have got a lucky shot, but try and avoid this!"
They keep up the fight until Christine is leaping up on a chair to get some height on Jeremy. Except, in her enthusiasm, she doesn't land on the centre and quickly loses her balance. Jeremy tries to steady her, but it's fruitless and Christine ends up toppling onto him, sending them both to the floor. Jeremy lets out a gasp as Christine lands on his chest.
"I'm sorry!" Christine squeals. She pushes herself up so that she's not pressed flush against him, but she doesn't move to fully get off him. They're both very, very aware of the position they're in.
It almost feels like it's something from a film, or a book, or...something. Boy and girl play fighting. Girl falls on boy. Boy and girl...kiss.
Christine bites her lip and glances down at Jeremy's. Blood rushes towards his face, which he's grateful for because if it ran any lower, this could get more than a little awkward incredibly quickly.
"Okay?" Christine asks quietly and all Jeremy can do is gulp, then nod. This is going to be his first kiss. At least, his first kiss where he's (mostly) in full control of his own body.
Christine lowers herself down slowly until gravity does the rest and her lips fall onto Jeremy's. His eyes close of their own accord and as their mouths move slowly against one another, gently exploring this new territory, he waits to feel it. To feel that thrill of exhilaration, the thrum of desire, the...the spark. He waits to feel what he'd experienced with Brooke (and even Chloe from that brief, confusing kiss) but feel it enhanced, have it mean something more. He waits for this to be the best moment of his short life thus far.
But it never comes.
His lips still remember what to do, and he knows to move his hands to her hips, but he's not...he's not invested like he should be. This is the girl he's been crushing on for years and he's finally kissing her.
Yet he feels absolutely nothing.
Actually, that's not true. If anything, Jeremy's starting to feel a little weirded out by it.
They stop kissing and Christine looks down at Jeremy, her expression unreadable. Jeremy, unsure what exactly is going wrong with his brain, says, "We should do it again!"
Christine has barely said "okay" before Jeremy's leaning up to kiss her once more. He pushes with an unrestrained sense of urgency, using enough force that Christine ends up breaking it and leans back.
"Jeremy, are you okay?"
"Okay? Me? Why wouldn't I be?" Except he's really, really not because there had still been nothing. Not even his...you know...showed any interest, and that thing showed interest in Mrs Windom across the road just last week! Which now might be less mortifying than his current situation, which was saying something.
"You look like you're having trouble breathing," Christine says dubiously.
"I'm not!" But he is. And he hates it. And he doesn't understand it.
"Jeremy, hey, it's okay." Christine places a gentle hand on his shoulder and tears of frustration threaten to leave Jeremy's eyes. Why is this happening? He likes Christine, has crushed on her forever, but now that he has her, he's suddenly not interested? What if he's broken? What if the Squip took that part of him with it, the part of him that's able to act like a normal person and feel normal things…
"Don't bottle it up, Jeremy. I said you could talk to me and I mean it, about anything."
She sounds so earnest that Jeremy can't keep it in. "When we kissed, I...I didn't feel anything. You know the...the stuff you're supposed to feel when you kiss someone you like. And it's messed up because I've liked you for years and this was supposed to be, I dunno, that moment. The moment everything clicked. Except, I've ruined it because that's what I do now. I ruin everything. And maybe this is okay because it means you don't get stuck with me-"
"Jeremy!" Christine interrupts. "Don't talk about yourself that way. Please. I really like you, even if it's not in a romantic way or whatever. And that's okay, because I still want to be your friend. I want to keep hanging out with you. Does that have to change if we're not dating?"
"I guess not but...this is all I thought I wanted. So, why isn't it?" His voice cracks at the end and Christine's expression turns sad. She flips herself so she's lying next to him and holds out her hand, invitingly, despite the utter shitshow that's going down. Jeremy takes it.
"Sometimes what we think we want isn't actually what we want at all," she says.
"That doesn't even make sense," and to Jeremy's horror, he inhales a big, wet sniff. Christine squeezes his hand reassuringly.
"I'm just saying, when you crushed on me, you didn't know me. Like, really know me. You couldn't know for certain how we'd fit together. I think it's still pretty good, but just not in the way we expected."
"It sucks because you're great." Christine's words have lifted his spirits somewhat. Enough that his agonising horror is turning into petulance and frustration.
"I think you're great too, and like I said. We can still hang out, just the two of us."
"Yeah," Jeremy sighs. "How are you so chill about this?"
"Um, well. I don't know. I guess sparks didn't fly for me either?" She admits. "It wasn't a bad kiss or anything, just…"
"Not right?" Jeremy offers and Christine nods.
"You're sure you're still okay to hang out with me? Even though…" It's Christine's turn to be embarrassed, insecure, and Jeremy hates that she'd even consider he'd be anything but okay with it.
"Yeah! Of course. We can do this and it just...doesn't have to mean anything more."
He bumps his arm against hers and she looks over at him, smiling. "Cool. And by the way, I totally won that fight."
"You did not! You fell on me! I was just a gracious enough opponent to catch you."
"Uh-huh, then I guess you wouldn't mind a rematch then!" Christine leaps to her feet and Jeremy loses his worries as he joins back in the imaginary battle.
"Sooooo, how was your date?"
Ever since Jeremy told Michael he and Christine were having lunch alone, he'd insisted on walking home with him. Something still seems off about them though, and Jeremy blames that for the dishonest answer he ends up giving Michael.
"Great. It went great. We, uh, kissed."
And for a brief moment, the strain between them disappears as Michael cries, "What, dude! Your first kiss with the girl of your dreams! How was it?"
Memories of the nightmares, of Christine and Michael morphing together, suddenly him Jeremy and he has to shake them off before replying, "Nice. Good."
"Is that it?"
It's not enough, not how he should be reacting, he knows this but still, Jeremy snipes back with, "I dunno, dude! What am I supposed to say?"
And just like that, the awkward atmosphere is back.
"Sorry," Jeremy says, scuffing his shoe against concrete. "It's just, this is all kinda new for me, you know?"
"I get it," Michael replies, though his tone is more subdued. "Hey, uh, on the topic of new stuff, I've got some news of my own."
"Yeah?" Jeremy glances upwards at him.
"So, kinda following on from you and Christine, me and Rich decided to hang out over lunch, just the two of us and…," Jeremy sees where this is going, and his stomach lurches violently. "He asked me out."
"What did you say?" Jeremy's voice is rough from how dry his mouth has suddenly become
Michael looks down at his feet, a small almost bashful, smile on his face. "I said yeah. He's gonna come over to mine at the weekend since there's not a lot of stuff we can do with his arms in casts."
Jeremy wants to scream. Not only was his own date a massive disaster but Michael had one of his own. He thinks about all the things Michael and Rich can do. They can watch movies together. Michael can put his arm over Rich's shoulder. They can kiss, and it can mean something.
"That's great. I'm really happy for you."
Jeremy has never spoken words so hollow.