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An unnamed person goes to the post office to mail a box of tapes, just as they had been mailed to him. The package is addressed to the next name on “Hannah Baker’s list.” He thinks about how he never want to hear the tapes again, although he’ll the voice on them will never leave him and the high school and the city will always be there to remind him of what he heard on them. When he reaches school, he thinks of Mr. Porter, who as the last name on Hannah’s list will be the last person to receive the tapes.
Clay Jensen receives a package in the mail that contains seven loose cassette tapes with numbered sides: sides 1 and 2 on the first, 3 and 4 on the second, and so on. The last tape only has a side 13. Clay is confused because no one uses cassette tapes anymore. But there is an old stereo in his garage that still plays tapes, so he goes there and puts in the first cassette.
When the first tape plays, Clay hears, “Hello, boys and girls. Hannah Baker here. Live and in stereo.” Clay is surprised because Hannah recently killed herself. On the tape, Hannah says that she will be telling her life story and why she took her own life, but that anyone listening to the tapes is one of those reasons. Hannah explains that there are rules. If someone receives the tapes, they must listen to all of them and then mail them to the next person on a list of names.
Clay stops the tape when his mother interrupts him. She leaves after he tells her that he will not be home for dinner. Clay is frightened to hit the play button again, but he continues listening. Hannah explains that there are thirteen tape-sides. The listener should pass the tapes to whomever comes next in the order, and the thirteenth person can “take the tapes straight to hell.” Hannah warns that if anyone does not follow the rules, a back-up copy of the tapes will be released. Someone is watching the tape recipients to ensure that the rules are followed.
Clay doesn’t know why he would be included on the tapes, which upsets him. He worked with Hannah at the local movie theater over the summer but never got close to her. As he continues to listen, Hannah mentions that each person should have received a map. Just days before Hannah killed herself, Clay did receive a generic map of the town with red stars marked on it. Hannah mentions that the map indicates locations that are referenced on the tapes.
After the rules are explained, the first tape is about Justin Foley, who was Hannah’s first kiss. Hannah tells the story of how she was new in town and became friends with her neighbor, Kat. Kat was originally dating Justin but then she moved away. Justin and his friend Zach were supposed to meet Kat and Hannah, but after stumbling on Hannah’s front lawn, they became embarrassed and ran off. After Kat left and Hannah started talking to Justin, he eventually asked for her number. Clay thinks about Kat’s going-away party, and how he thought Hannah Baker was very pretty the first time he met her. As Clay continues to listen, he decides that he needs to find another way to listen to the tapes, so he plans to borrow an old Walkman from his friend Tony.
Hannah arranged to meet Justin at Eisenhower Park. She had been dreaming that she would have her first kiss with Justin there, next to a large, metal rocket-ship play structure. Hannah talked to Justin on the phone, then they met and kissed by the rocket ship. Hannah then explains that kissing was all that happened. Clay knows of several rumors, including one where Hannah let Justin put his hands under her shirt. On the tape, Hannah states, “Hannah Baker is not, and never was, a slut.” Hannah says that the first month with Justin was wonderful, but then he started bragging. Hannah states, “A rumor, based on a kiss, is just the beginning.” Side A of the first tape ends.
At Tony’s house, Clay finds Tony and his father working on Tony’s classic Mustang. They ask for Clay to start the car while they work under the hood. Clay takes Tony’s Walkman from the backseat of the Mustang while they are not looking. When Tony offers Clay a ride, Clay says that he would rather walk. Clay notices Tony staring at him and wonders if Tony is on the tapes somewhere. Clay walks down the street and starts Side B of the first tape.
Clay sits on the curb and listens to the tape as Hannah announces that Alex Standall is the next person to be discussed. Alex Standall had made a two-column list of girls in the school: “Who’s hot” and “Who’s Not.” Alex put Hannah’s name under “Best Ass in the Freshman Class” and put Jessica Davis down for “Worst.” Hannah says that Alex did this to anger Jessica and chose Hannah because most people already had a “perverted image” of her. Hannah says that people act differently towards you just because they see your name on a “stupid list.”
Clay again wonders what he has done to deserve one of Hannah’s tapes. He believes that he never did anything wrong. Clay walks until he reaches Hannah’s old house, the first star on Hannah’s map. A month ago, Clay ran here after he witnessed a car accident. One of the people in the accident, an elderly man, told him to run to the house to tell his wife that he was okay. The other person in the accident, a senior at Clay’s school, was killed. Clay looks at the front lawn and wonders how things would have turned out if Justin’s friend Zach had asked Hannah out initially. Maybe the rumors, the tapes and Hannah’s suicide would not have happened.
Hannah continues her story by naming the next map location, Blue Spot Liquor. Hannah says that she used to stop there regularly to buy candy bars on her way home. Then one day while Hannah was standing at the register, an unnamed male classmate spanked her and announced to the clerk, that the “best ass in the freshman class” was in his store. Clay walks into Blue Spot Liquor and buys and soda and a Butterfinger.
Continuing on the tape, Hannah says that she tried to push past the student who had touched her, but he grabbed her wrist and told her to calm down. Clay believes that he knows whom she is talking about based on their behavior. Hannah breaks down the events and why they happened, stating that the student touched her without her permission, and then became aggressive instead of apologizing. “Alex, am I saying your list gave him permission to grab my ass? No. I’m saying it gave him an excuse.”
Clay thinks about the hot-or-not list of girls. Angela Romero was on the list for “Best Lips.” At a party, while playing spin the bottle, Clay had refused to quit until he had kissed Angela—all because of Alex’s stupid list.
Hannah says that Jessica Davis is next. Clay sits on the curb outside of Blue Spot Liquor and pulls out the second tape from his backpack setting the side marked “3” to play.
The early chapters of Thirteen Reasons Why introduce the idea that suicide causes a ripple effect of trauma that extends beyond those close to the victim. Throughout the book, characters show how Hannah’s suicide has profoundly affected them. From the start, Clay’s actions reveal his strong feelings about Hannah, a classmate he didn’t know very well. He is unsettled by her dark humor about death on the tapes. He also stops the tape and hides the device from his mother, revealing that he has complicated feelings about the loss of his classmate that he’s not willing to share. His physical reaction of nausea reflects his emotional upheaval. Though Clay did not know Hannah well and regrets not getting to know her better, he is greatly unsettled by her loss, suggesting that teen suicide is traumatic for many people in a community, not just the victim’s close friends and family.
The introduction of Justin Foley and his part in Hannah’s story illustrates the destructive power of rumors. As the new girl in town, Hannah is determined to control how other people perceive her, so Justin is the first boy she gives her phone number to. Justin is also Hannah’s first kiss. A high school freshman, Hannah has a romantic idea of what her first kiss will be like, and the gentle, innocent moment with Justin at the playground surpasses her expectations. Justin earns his place on the tapes by exaggerating what happened and bragging to his friends at school. His betrayal starts as a small rumor but ends with Hannah unjustly gaining a reputation as a slut. Clay’s admission that stories about Hannah kept him from getting to know her better, fearing that she was too experienced for him, prove that the rumor damaged more than one relationship. Not only did Justin’s betrayal ruin his own relationship with Hannah, but it also kept Clay from reaching out to her, showing that bullying through rumor-spreading can damage people in several different ways.
As the tape continues, Hannah’s narrative explores how a reputation can reduce someone to a single trait. Because of Justin’s lies, Alex Standall puts Hannah on his Who’s Hot/Who’s Not list, further damaging her reputation. Alex’s list rates girls according to physical attributes, and Hannah feels as if her whole identity has been reduced to a single body part. As a result of appearing on the list, Hannah is subject to unwanted recognition and physical contact, and others ignore or excuse the sexual assault that she experiences. Clay’s realization that Hannah’s name was on the list because of Justin’s lies once again demonstrates the snowball effect of rumors. When Clay reflects on his own reaction to Angela Romero, who appeared on the list for best lips, he realizes that even a “nice guy” like him doesn’t always acknowledge the real person behind a false reputation. As a rumor gains momentum, the subject at the center of it loses control over their own identity.
By creating the tapes, Hannah regains a sense of ownership and power over her own story and identity that she did not possess in life. Her joke that there is “no chance for encores” emphasizes the finality of her actions as well as her sense of control. By saying that she is “not taking requests,” she asserts that this time, the narrative and its telling belong solely to her. Hannah rules that the recipients must listen to the tapes and then pass them on, and she gives the listeners “permission” to laugh, another signal of her control of the situation. She declares that she hopes the listeners will not find the process easy; what she wants most is for them to understand and feel remorse for the suffering they have caused. Hannah’s threat that the tapes will be released and the listeners are being watched instills a sense of fear and isolation in them, much like what Hannah felt when she was alive. Hannah may seem cruel in the early tapes, but she is merely recreating the treatment that the listeners forced her to endure. Though her empowerment has come at the terrible cost of her life, Hannah’s tapes represent her taking back control of her own story.