I'm grateful that Mr. Krabs closed the door when he left. The last thing I want is for anyone to hear me crying and ask what's wrong. What would I even tell them? There were enough questions when I first got here. What happened, how I got hurt, when I started feeling unwell. That last one, I had no problem answering: when I woke up this morning. But, the others? There is no way I could incriminate Jack just one day after he was released from prison. Telling everyone I fell down the stairs is just easier.
At least, that's what I thought. The doctors, my parents, my grandma, Larry, Pearl, Pearl's boyfriend. I lied to almost everyone who came to see me, and it's killing me.
I did tell Sandy I was mugged and left in the rain (not a total lie), but then she demanded the name of "that lowdown, dirty varmint," and I panicked and said I didn't know him. When she asked what he looked like, I said I didn't get a good look at him. I could tell she didn't believe me, especially when I begged her to keep it a secret, but I stood my ground. Neptune knows what she would do to Jack.
Lies, lies, and more lies. I feel like a kid again in the worst way possible. But, really, this whole thing with Jack was my own fault from the start. Mr. Krabs would probably tell me not to think like that, given what we'd just talked about, but I can't help feeling that way. It all started back in grade school. I was in first grade, Jack in fourth. He would take out his frustrations on other kids when no one was around, and I couldn't stand it. So, I told him that the next time he was feeling angry...he should hit me. Not someone else. Not some random kid who didn't know him. And, he was hesitant. He did not want to hurt me, but I insisted. I didn't want anyone to get hurt. I didn't want Cousin Jackie to get in trouble.
People think I'm naive. They think I see the world through rose-tinted lenses. They aren't wrong, but they don't know that I was even more starry-eyed as a child than I am now.
Little Bobby didn't know what a habit it would become. He didn't know that Jackie would use him as a stress ball - well, stress cube - for the next five years, meeting him after school when necessary. Bobby didn't know that his only true friend would be someone who lived miles away and could only communicate with him through letters and phone calls. I wonder how different things would have been if Patrick had known Jack back then. Or, if I had at least had the guts to tell Patrick about him.
Patrick. He had been a welcome reprieve from today's heartache. He had come barrelling down the halls, screaming my name, passing my room three times even though he could hear me calling to him. Apparently, he hadn't noticed the note I'd left him about going to work. ("So, that's what was stuck to my head when I woke up.") I hadn't meant to scare him. In hindsight, I probably should have called in sick like Gary and that bus driver suggested. Mr. Krabs would have understood, and Patrick wouldn't have been in such a panic. The moment Patrick found me, he rushed to my bedside, held my hand, and sobbed out an apology. He felt guilty about sleeping so long and not stopping me from leaving. And, here I'd been expecting him to chew me out for going to work. Forcing down the lump in my throat, I wiped away his tears and assured him that I was the stupid one, not him.
Later on, after Patrick had brought the books I asked for and promised to watch Gary for the time being, Mr. Krabs had shown up. I don't know why Squidward is always complaining about him. Sure, Mr. Krabs is rough around the edges, but he's a wise man with a big heart. I'm honored to have him see me as a son. If I didn't already have a father, I'd be overjoyed to have Eugene Krabs as one.
Our conversation is still ringing through my mind. He's right; I should cut ties with Jack, but I keep thinking of the sparkle in his eyes when I visited him in prison. Everytime I remind myself of the cuts and bruises and now (dear Neptune) internal damage, I remember the laughs, the stories we shared, the hug/affectionate noogie he gave me when he was released.
I've seen kindness in those big green eyes. I know it's not too late for him. He can be a good, honest citizen.
There's a knock on the door. I choke down my remaining sobs, quickly wipe my face, make a mental note to tell the nurse that the tissue box is almost empty. I tell the visitor to come in, hating how shaky my voice is. I clear my throat only to succumb to yet another bout of coughing. Turns out injuries, pneumonia, and bawling your eyes out for a solid twenty minutes don't mix. I usually feel better after a good cry. Now, I just feel achy all over and my chest feels almost as bad as it did this morning.
The door opens, and Squidward stands in the doorway, cringing as he waits for my lungs to calm down. Squidward is perpetually grumpy, a little - okay, a lot - pretentious, but he's a wonderful person beneath that. He's a kind, creative, passionate man once you chip away at the surface, and he's easily one of my dearest friends. He's also a germaphobe, so the fact that he's here at all makes me want to cry again.
Once I'm able to sort of breathe again, Squidward tentatively walks up to me and hands me a card. "Here. I got you something."
I thank him and grin at the card. The front shows a snail dressed as a doctor and reads, "Have a slimy recovery!" I open it, and the inside says, "But, not too slimy," with Squidward's signature underneath. I half giggle, half wheeze.
"Well, I've done my civic duty," Squidward announces. "Get well soon, and goodbye."
"Wait, Squidward," I say as he turns to leave, "you just got here! It's just pneumonia. That's not contagious," I add, thinking he's just uncomfortable being surrounded by sick people. At least, I don't think it's contagious. I hope it's not, because anything else would mean I've been putting people at risk all day.
Just another thing to feel guilty about.
Squidward's frown deepens, his brow lowers. "Pneumonia, huh?" He sits down in the chair Mr. Krabs forgot to put back, keeping it a safe distance from me. That's probably a good idea. His voice takes on an almost mocking tone. "Did you get that from 'falling down the stairs?'"
I bite my lip. I should have known he wouldn't buy that story. He's too smart, too observant. My resolve finally snaps. I'm so tired of lying to the people I love, tired of lying for the people whose love I can't stop myself from questioning. I'm just so darn tired. "No."
Squidward nods solemnly. "And, you didn't fall down the stairs either."
Squidward stares me down, expecting me to elaborate. What should I say? Patrick, as much as I love him, is too clueless to even consider going to the police. Mr. Krabs has always been the type to let people handle personal matters themselves.
Squidward? His first instinct is to call the cops. I can't let that happen when Jack is barely out of prison.
While I'm paralyzed with indecision, I can see Squidward's mind working. He sizes me up, and I suddenly know how stalked prey feels. He hums and brings his wrist up to rest his non-existent chin on it. I know that look. It's a look that says he knows something, that he's planning his next move.
After what feels like hours, he slaps his tentacles down on his knees. "Alright. Since you won't tell me what actually happened, here's my theory. Knowing you, your little 'fell down the stairs' story is just a ruse so you can protect someone. Am I right?"
Why, why does he know me so well?
"Don't answer. The look on your face says it all." He crosses two legs over the others. "The real question is who and why?" He places his tentacles behind his head. The gesture is casual, but his face and tone are a forced nonchalance. "Considering that I actually pay attention to the news, I have noticed your resemblance to a certain someone." My heart rate skyrockets. I can't breathe and it has nothing to do with pneumonia. Squidward crosses his arms over his chest and leans forward. "A certain someone who not only looks kind of like you, but also shares your last name and was released from prison just yesterday." He leans back again. "I know you're only slightly smarter than Patrick, but I think even you know where I'm going with this. So, do you want to tell me what really happened, or should I take a guess?"
He knows. He knows I'm related to BlackJack. Appearances can be passed off as coincidence, but if Jack's last name was on the news, that means other people know. Why has no one said anything?
Careful, that's Jack SquarePants's cousin.
Why are you crying, Bobby? You should be used to Jack by now.
He doesn't talk. I hear Jack ripped out his tongue so he couldn't tattle.
"And, wouldn't you know it?" Squidward continues when I don't say anything. "I'm not the only one who watches the news. People talk, SpongeBob."
They know. They all know. Of course, they do. Why did I think I could keep it a secret forever? My heart in my throat, I reluctantly ask, "What are they saying?" I don't actually want to know, but if I have to find out, I'd rather it be from a dear friend like Squidward. Even if he does tend to use the bluntest honesty possible.
Something shifts in his gaze. "Oh, nothing bad." His quick answer speaks volumes. That's Squidward Tentacles for you. He acts like he doesn't care, but the littlest things betray him. I don't think he realizes what a good person he is. "I mean, there are a few brain-dead jerks out there who are wary of you, now." My heart seizes. "But, for the most part, people either pity you or don't think much of it at all, Mr. Town Sweetheart." He adds an eye roll to my nickname. I don't blame him. I don't mind the nickname the townsfolk have given me, but it is a little embarrassing.
Not as embarrassing as being carted out of work on a stretcher, though. Thankfully, I had passed out the second the doctors laid me on it. I didn't have to see the shocked faces of the customers. I almost bring it up, but I'm not in the mood for Squidward's teasing right now.
Instead, I force myself to ask, "And, what do you think?"
Squidward studies me for a long time, carefully thinking through his words. Eventually, he says. "I think you care too much about what other people think."
Translation: You're my friend no matter what.
So, I tell him. I tell him about how Jack bullied me when we were kids. How I would frequently visit him in prison. How I was helping him figure out where to stay. How he needed money. How he beat me until I handed over my friendship ring. I tell Squidward the whole story.
Squidward doesn't interrupt. No matter how often I pause to collect my thoughts or stop myself from blubbering all over again, he doesn't say a word. At most, he jerks back at one point when I start coughing again. I've never seen him so patient, and it means a lot to me that he's so willing to listen. It means more than I could ever hope to put into words.
When I'm finally finished, he's staring at me in a new way. There's something in his eyes I can't quite make out. Sympathy? Respect, even? He can be hard to read when he wants to be.
"You know," he says, his voice kinder than I've heard it in a long time, "you could press charges."
"He's family, Squidward. Besides, he just got out of prison. Everyone deserves a second chance." At this point, I'm not sure which of us I'm trying to convince.
Squidward sighs and shakes his head. "You're one of a kind, SpongeBob." He stands up. "But, I suppose it's your own decision." He adds under his breath, "Even if it is the wrong one." Then, he smiles. It's a really small one, but it's filled with compassion. He pats the uninjured part of my head. "Get well soon."
He walks out of the room, takes some extra squirts from one of the hand sanitizer dispensers in the hallway, and leaves me to my thoughts.
The Next Day
"When did you become a man, Derek?" my sister asked with a chuckle. She stared at my naked body. Stared so low and so long that a shiver ran up my spine. "But then, I suppose you're only four years younger than me."
I lunged for my clothes, but she grabbed my shoulders and wrestled me to the hardwood floor. Her eyes spoke of something new, fierce, wrong. I tried to break free, cold sweat trickling over me, but she was bigger than me, stronger. "Delilah," I gasped, "please."
"Please," she breathed. Suddenly, her lips were on mine-
Something smacks my shoulder, and I almost drop Polyps On the Wind (the sequel to Coral in the Attic, which I finished this morning). I mark my place and turn my head, expecting a rude nurse. Then, my heart leaps into my throat. After my heart-to-hearts with Squidward and Mr. Krabs, I had spent most of the night thinking about Jack. Both of my friends had made some very good points, and deep down I know they're right. After all of this, I should cut ties. I should call the police.
But, a traitorous part of me remembers, a SquarePants is loyal, a family man (or woman) at heart. Growing up, my dad would do things, big or small, for my mom and my grandparents and just anyone in the family, be it Mom's side or his own.
"Remember, son," he would tell me, "a good SquarePants always puts his family before himself."
While Mom did try to encourage that ideology, she would always chime in about the importance of self care. "If you don't look after yourself," she'd say, "how can you look after your family?"
Dad would heartily agree, but I confess that I always thought more about helping others than helping myself.
But, seeing Jack standing beside my bed makes me wonder which of us needs more help right now.
Jack chuckles and shakes his head. "After all these years," he comments in that deep, gravelly voice, "you're still a book nerd. I'll bet anything you could read straight through a sea-quake." He glances at the books on the nightstand. "Coral in the Attic, huh? I saw the movie. Didn't think you'd be into that sort of thing."
"Uh, I read lots of stuff," I say stupidly.
Jack doesn't seem to notice. "Guess I really did a number on you, huh?" He raises his hands in surrender. "In my defense, you are a sponge. We both know you can take a hit." His gaze turns thoughtful, and he scratches his head. "A really big hit, I suppose." He shrugs. "Eh, whatever. That's not why I'm here."
My pulse races with hope. Is he going to apologize? Did he come to say that he acted out of desperation, that he was afraid he'd have to live on the streets or in some bad place full of bad people? Will he say that he's finally going to get some help with his anger issues? That he cares, and he never wants to hurt me or anyone else again?
I swallow a sigh. Even I think that sounds ridiculous. Still…
Jack sticks his hand in his pocket and pulls out-
He clears his throat, oddly shy all of a sudden, staring thoughtfully at the Best Friends Forever Club ring in his hand. My ring. "Solid gold and fist edition. Apparently, the artist passed away a few years ago, too. Heart failure or something; I don't remember. This thing is worth at least ten grand." He finally looks at me. "Did you know that?"
Half-numb, I shake my head. So much money in something so small, so easily overlooked by anyone outside of the Best Friends Forever Club. Jack could have sold it and been set for a while. But...he kept it. Why did he keep it?
"Sorry I took it, little man. I didn't know it was sentimental," he says, answering my unspoken question.
He presses the button on the side of the ring. The top opens, and tiny look-a-likes of Patrick and myself pop up and circle the base, singing, "It's the best friends forever. Best friends forever. Ring!"
A pleasant warmth spreads through me at the familiar tune. Even Jack smiles softly. "So, who's the pink guy? I'm guessing he's that Patrick-guy you're always yappin' about. Certainly doesn't look like a Squidward," he adds with a chuckle.
I laugh with him. This is nice. It's just like the banter we shared when he was incarcerated. Maybe there really is hope for him. Maybe he really does care. He hasn't apologized for hurting me yet, but this is a good place to start.
"Yeah, that's Patrick," I respond proudly. "My best friend in the sea." A sudden tenderness washes over me. "You know, Jack, Pat's been a real brother to me. Especially lately."
I clamp my mouth shut, hoping he doesn't realize what I'm referring to. Luckily, it seems that he doesn't. He smiles wider and nods. "Good. A guy's gotta have someone he can rely on." He closes the ring, tosses it in the air, and catches it. "I know I've come to rely on you."
Any other time, hearing that someone relies on me would make me feel warm and special. Now, a warning siren is going off in my head. I try to ignore it and force a smile.
Jack rests his hands in his pockets, still holding the ring. The warning sirens turn into alarm bells. "So, turns out I'm supposed to be staying at the halfway house, but I can't stay there forever. I've got some cash, but I'm gonna need more if I want a decent place to live in the near future." The bells are ringing louder now. "And, who would hire BlackJack SquarePants? Well," he grins wider, "how about someone in the family?"
Red alert. Red alert. I grip my mattress and pray he doesn't notice the shivers running over me. "What-what do you mean?"
Jack shrugs. "I don't know. Maybe I could do some odd jobs for you or something. You know, housework, run errands, look after that snail of yours."
He's not coming within ten feet of my Gare-Bare.
"You know, general stuff. I do the work, you pay me." He pauses. "Wait, you're a fry cook, right? Probably don't make that much. Whatever. You don't have to pay me a lot. Anything helps."
My immediate thought is yes, of course I'll help. Anything I can do to help. I have plenty of money saved up, not to mention all the cash my grandfather left me when he passed away. Heck, I'd offer to just give him the money if I thought his pride would allow it.
But...something stops me.
Jack senses my hesitation. His eyes narrow, a familiar, dangerous look that makes me shake even more. "Well? Ya gonna help me out or what?"
"You still haven't apologized." I let out a small gasp, cold sweat building on my brow. I had not meant to say that out loud.
"Apologize?" Jack sounds more confused than angry now. "For what?"
It's too late to back out now. I swallow hard. "You...you beat me up. You left me in the rain." My voice quivers from fear and a sudden bout of anger, every word out of my mouth making the latter overshadow the former. "Jackson SquarePants, I could have died! And, over what? A stupid piece of jewelry? Why can't you ever think of someone besides yourself?" He opens his mouth, but I can't stop now. Years of frustration continue to spill out. "I wanted to help you! I thought you'd changed! But, no. You're just awful. You've always been awful, and you've only gotten worse! The last thing I want is you anywhere near my home, my Gary, my li-i-ife!" My angry rant is stopped by my lungs convulsing. It's probably for the best. I'm not sure how much longer I would have gone on.
When my fit ends, the realization creeps in. I just… Did I just tell off BlackJack? Son of a sea cow, have I ever done that before? But, my pride shrivels up and dies when I see the reddening of Jack's face, the scowl that shows all his teeth.
Tartar sauce. What did I just do?
Jack raises his hand, and I flinch back, waiting for the blow that I know is coming. But, nothing happens. I force my eyes open. Jack's hand is still in the air, but the anger is gone from his face, now sporting a more thoughtful expression. He slowly lowers his hand and reaches into his pocket. His smile strongly resembles the kind Plankton gets when trying to steal the Krabby Patty Formula.
I swallow twice as Jack pulls out my ring. Why is it so hot in here all of a sudden? Jack observes the ring, a hand on his chin. "Just a stupid piece of jewelry, huh?"
I didn't mean that.
"Guess you won't care if I pawn it off then."
I have to do something, say something. But, I can't move, can't breathe, can't anything.
Jack pockets the ring - my ring, one of my most cherished possessions - and leaves with a satisfied smirk on his face.
This is worse. He should have punched me, thrown me off the bed, reopened my head wound. This is worse.
And, he knows it.
My rose-tinted lenses shatter. What was I thinking? Why was I kidding myself? I clung too hard to hope, to the family values that had been instilled in me since birth. I should have known. All these years, and Jack never changed, no matter what anyone did. He just kept getting worse. My brain is going a mile a second, the pieces of my heart are beating too fast, but my body has gone numb. I can't even cry.
Out of nowhere, someone screams my name.
"Oh, will you pipe down, you idiot?" Squidward.
"SpongeBob's in the same place he was yesterday." Mr. Krabs.
"But, I don't remember where that is!" Patrick.
They aren't saying anything about Jack. Surely they would have passed him. At least one of them would have recognized him, right? How long have I been sitting here?
Mr. Krabs is the first to appear in the doorway. He smiles at me and calls out to the hallway, "See, Patrick? He's right where ya left him."
Patrick's pink head peeks into my room, a big, friendly grin on his face. "Hi, SpongeBob!"
They step inside, and Squidward lags behind them. "Can we hurry this up?" he nags. "The last thing I need is to die of tuberculosis or whatever's floating around this place."
Mr. Krabs rolls his eyes knowingly as he grabs one of the chairs and sits down. Patrick takes another one and pulls it close to me. There's a third chair, but Squidward seems content to stand.
Patrick rests his elbows on the mattress and places his chin in his hands. "Hi, buddy." The way he said that would be creepy if it were coming from anyone else. Then, his cocoa-colored eyes shift. I must look worse than I thought, because he asks, "You okay, pal?"
Squidward crosses his arms and scoffs, just barely masking his worry. "He's in the hospital, you buffoon. Does that sound okay to you?"
As Patrick considers this, Mr. Krabs says, "Seriously though, you ain't looking so chipper, lad." He grins a little. "They got ya on too many meds or something?"
"It...does...not sound okay to me!" Patrick says triumphantly. Squidward sighs.
So, they don't know Jack was here. I should say that Mr. Krabs is right, that I'm just on a lot of medication and that's why I seem off-
No. No lying. Not to them. Not to my family.
Calling these three my family is so...easy. None of us are even the same species and yet. Jack may be my cousin by blood, but these three sea creatures at my bedside…
Patrick: my sweet, goofy older brother.
Squidward: my cool, aloof even older brother.
Eugene: my strong, wise second dad.
My little makeshift family. And, it's not just them. Gary, Sandy, Pearl, Larry, they're family too.
The words come tumbling out of me. None of them speak as I tell them what happened with Jack. Not just what happened today, but everything from my childhood, everything from when he beat me up the other night. As I speak, Mr. Krabs regards me with sympathy, Squidward gives me that same patient look from yesterday, and Patrick looks torn between hugging me and going after Jack. When I finish my story, I feel oddly better. The secret I've been keeping for so long is finally free. It actually makes me giddy, and I let out a little stress laugh.
"I still think you should report him," Squidward says. He's not standing so far away now.
Mr. Krabs turns to him. "Let the lad handle this his own way, Mr. Squidward. Besides, cops these days want proof before they arrest anyone. Where are we supposed to get that?" Squidward just grunts in response, muttering something that sounds like, "should be all the proof he needs."
Patrick doesn't say anything. He just holds my hand and regards me with tears in his eyes and a sweet smile on his mouth, a gesture that says, "I'm here."
I sigh, basking in their love. I will get my ring back. I will do something about Jack. But, for now, I just want to be with my family.