The first tape begins to play. On the tape, Hannah Baker introduces herself. Clay is shocked: Hannah Baker killed herself. Hannah’s voice continues, explaining that whoever is listening to the tapes is one of the reasons why her life ended. She states the rules for her listeners: first, they must listen to the tapes; then, they need to pass them on to the next person. She hopes neither of these things will be easy for them. Clay’s mom comes in and asks what he’s listening to. He scrambles to pause the tape and tells her it’s a school project.
Clay quickly realizes that this package of tapes isn’t a fun gift. Hannah didn’t intend her listeners to enjoy the listening experience or to feel good about passing the tapes on, which hints that she’s about to reveal some secret—and perhaps incriminating—information about them. Clay’s first instinct is to lie to his mother about the tapes, which shows that he’s worried about what they contain and worries that his mother might disapprove.
Clay’s mom asks if she can listen to the tapes, but Clay says it’s not his project—he’s helping a friend. His mom leaves and he struggles to press the play button again. He turns the volume down as Hannah says that the 13th listener “can take the tapes straight to hell.” She explains that she copied a second set of the tapes, so if anyone fails to send them on, they’ll be released publicly. She warns the listeners that they’re being watched and shouldn’t take her for granted again.
Even before Clay knows any details about Hannah’s story, he finds it hard to listen to the tapes. Her anger is palpable, especially regarding the final person on her list, which increases the suspense: what did that person do to her? She doesn’t trust her listeners to follow her rules, so she adds the threat of surveillance, possibly suspecting that they’d rather not have anyone else find out what they did to her.
Clay feels sick. He thinks he received the tapes wrongly: he only knew Hannah from working with her at the movie theater last summer, and there’s no way he took her for granted. He checks the packaging for a return address, suspecting that someone sent him the tapes as a joke, but he hears Hannah saying that the people on her list should’ve received a map. He remembers that a few weeks ago, just before Hannah died, he found a map in his locker with locations marked by red stars. He’d meant to find out if anyone else around school had received one, but he’d forgotten about it in his backpack.
The fact that Clay doesn’t know why he’s on the tapes makes them, and Hannah’s story, more intriguing. The reader wonders how many secrets she’s about to reveal. It's also clear from this passage that Hannah put a lot of thought into giving her listeners a full experience, which is a sign that she is trying her hardest to be understood, even if she could only make that happen after her death.
Hannah’s taped voice explains that she’ll mention places during the tapes that she’s labelled on the maps. Though she can’t force her listeners to go there, if they do, they’ll understand her story better. Then, she begins to address Justin Foley, a senior. Clay knows Justin was Hannah’s first kiss, but he begins to wonder how he knows that. Hannah says Justin was someone she felt drawn to since freshman year, and he’s where her story begins. She explains that even though Justin and all the other listeners might feel like they only played small parts in her story, every one of their actions mattered. Clay has no idea what his part in Hannah’s story is.
Clay begins to realize that he’s heard stories about Hannah through rumors, but apparently the rumors were so widespread that he absorbed them subconsciously—an early indication that rumors can easily seem like the truth. Clay’s distance from Hannah is obvious here—it seems like he never really talked to her, at least not about Justin, because this is information he learned from others.
Hannah directs the listener to find C-4 on the map and says they should go there when this tape is finished: it’s the location of her first house in this town and the first place she saw Justin. One summer day before Hannah’s freshman year, she and her friend Kat waited at Kat’s window until Justin and his friend Zach walked over, but when the two boys arrived, they slipped on the wet grass before running away, embarrassed. Clay remembers Kat telling that story at her leaving party, where he met Hannah for the first time. He thought Hannah was pretty, and the fact that she was new to town meant he could pretend to be a “new and improved,” more confident version of himself around her.
The scene Hannah describes is childish and innocent. It’s a sign that before Hannah starts school in this town—a town that’s new to her—she’s hopeful and happy and enjoys the company of others. Though Clay has a good first impression of Hannah, the way he describes appearing to her as a “new” version of himself is a subtle and mostly harmless way of taking advantage of Hannah’s newcomer status, and it’s just the first of many moments in the novel where people take advantage of her.
Clay decides that the only reason the tapes are being passed on is through fear of people outside the list hearing them: they must contain “really bad” details. He wonders why he’s even listening to them, but he never thought he’d hear Hannah’s voice again and he knows he can’t give that up. On top of that, he’s worried that there really is something on the tapes that could hurt him, and he isn’t willing to call Hannah’s bluff.
Clay still doubts he could’ve done anything to hurt Hannah. Though he seems unaware of his significance in her life, it’s also clear that he has a strong emotional connection to her, because he treasures the opportunity to hear her voice again. Still, he’s suspicious of her and seems to think she’s recorded these tapes in a conniving way, which reveals Clay’s defensive response to the threat of being blamed for her death.
Hannah continues her story: she and Justin grow closer thanks to the fact that most of their classes are near each other. After seeing each other in the hall for a while, Hannah works up the courage to say hello. Eventually, they start having conversations. Hannah’s mom told her to “play hard to get” if she wanted to get a boy’s attention, and it seems to work with Justin. He starts to wait outside her classes to talk to her and, after a few weeks, asks for her phone number. He’s the first boy she gives it to. That day, when she gets home, he has already called twice, lying to her mom that he’s calling Hannah to talk about math homework.
The tapes and Clay’s experience listening to them intertwine throughout each chapter, so the reader travels rapidly between past and present and grows close to both Hannah and Clay as they gain insight into their different perspectives. Hannah’s mom’s suggestion to “play hard to get” emphasizes how gender norms govern the world these teenagers live in: young women are less appealing if they seem interested in a romantic or sexual relationship, so they just have to hope that the young men they’re interested in will make the first move.
As Clay listens to the tape, he pulls the map out of his backpack. Clay’s mom calls through the door to ask if he wants dinner. He says no—he’s heading to a friend’s house to work on the project. He decides to go to the first star on the map, but only after going to Tony’s house. Tony isn’t a close friend, but Clay knows where he lives and that he has an old Walkman that can play tapes—in fact, even his car stereo can only play tapes. Clay plans to borrow the Walkman and walk back home through Hannah’s neighborhood while listening to some of the tapes. He can’t listen to the tapes at home. He needs some breathing room.
Clay continues to lie to his mother about the tapes being a school project. In doing so, he isolates himself from his caring, concerned mother—a sign that these tapes will threaten relationships between their listeners and the people closest to them. At the same time, though, thanks to these tapes, Clay will connect with Tony, who he doesn’t know very well, which suggests that the tapes might also encourage people to reach out to others.
On the tape, Hannah describes the conversation she and Justin had when she called him back that afternoon. He gives her a math problem: Train A is leaving his house, and Train B is leaving hers 10 minutes later. She answers that the trains meet at the bottom of the rocket ship slide in Eisenhower Park in 15 minutes, and Justin says that seemed “awfully slow.” Hannah tells the listener she knows they’re thinking, “Hannah Baker is a slut.” But she says she isn’t—she just wanted a kiss, and that’s it. Clay remembers hearing a different story about Hannah and Justin: that Hannah let Justin put his hands under her bra.
Hannah and Justin’s conversation is playful, referring to math and playgrounds, which is a stark contrast to the reputation Hannah acknowledges she gains thanks to the kiss they share. It’s clear that Hannah’s side of the story is very different from what other people think is true, which is an early hint at how powerful and damaging rumors can be—especially when people equate rumor with truth.
Hannah explains that the rocket ship is similar to the one in her old town. On summer nights before her freshman year in this new town, she’d climb the rocket ship and think of home. For the few nights before she meets Justin in the park, she dreams that she’s sliding down the rocket ship slide toward Justin. Each time, just as she’s about to reach him and kiss him, she wakes up. But today, she’s finally going to kiss him, and she chooses to meet by the rocket because it reminds her of innocence. She’s anxious about the kiss, but it ends up being beautiful. On the tapes, Hannah says she knows people want to hear more scandalous details, and the truth—that it was just a kiss—is the least popular version of the story.
The rocket ship is a symbol of innocence for Hannah, and it’s also a structure that helps her feel safe, secure, and hopeful, even when she’s nervous about being new in town. Her decision to have her first kiss there shows that she’s still feeling optimistic about life and excited to experience her first kiss, something that’s widely seen as a joyful and important landmark in teenage life. By the time she records the tapes, she’s learned that people prefer to spread around exciting rumors than to accept a more mundane version of a story.
Hannah enjoys dating Justin for about a month following their kiss, but then Justin starts to spread rumors that something more intimate than a kiss took place. She tells the listener that it wasn’t the rumor itself that contributed to her death, but that the rumor began a snowball effect that changed Hannah’s entire reputation and ruined a memory she treasured. She instructs the listener to turn the tape over for the next part of the story.
Even though Hannah didn’t initiate anything sexual when she kissed Justin, people believe she did just because Justin said so, which reflects the gender inequality that these high schoolers have internalized—people trust a young man’s account and don’t even bother to ask the young woman for her side of the story.Hannah also emphasizes that the rumors didn’t just affect how people treated her—they warped and spoiled her joyful memories.
Clay arrives at Tony’s house. Tony and his dad are working on his car. They greet Clay and ask him to help them out by starting the car’s ignition. While Clay sits in the driver’s seat, his eyes lock onto Tony’s and he wonders if Tony knows about the tapes. He sees Tony’s Walkman on the floor in front of the passenger seat and, when Tony looks away, he scoops it into his backpack. Tony’s dad decides the car is in good shape, thanks Clay for his help, and heads inside. Tony asks Clay why he came round. Clay says he just needed to get out of the house. As he walks away from Tony’s, he waits for Tony to call after him about the Walkman, but nothing happens. Clay takes the Walkman out of his backpack, slips the first tape into it—B-side out—and puts on the headphones.
Tony and his dad clearly have a strong relationship, similar to Clay and his mother. This is an instant similarity between the two boys and a sign that they feel loved and protected by their caregivers. Clay’s decision to steal the Walkman, rather than to ask Tony if he could borrow it, shows that he feels under pressure to keep the tapes a secret and is worried whether they’ll have incriminating information on them about him (even though he doubts that).