Steve stomped through the woods, holding his right arm still with his left one and trying not to cry. It had just been a stupid drawing. A little cartoon. It was supposed to be funny. Tommy had laughed. So had Josh. Steve didn’t understand why his dad had gotten so mad about it.
Steve sniffled and wiped his nose on his shirt. It would serve his dad right if he got lost out here. He couldn’t just practically pull Steve’s arm off and expect Steve wouldn’t run away. Tommy’s house was somewhere on the other side of these woods. His mom liked Steve. She would give him a place to stay for the night.
Except it was starting to get dark out and Steve still hadn’t found his way out the other side of the woods. Tommy’s neighborhood had to be around here somewhere.
Then Steve saw it. Some sort of structure. As Steve got closer, he saw that it was a fort or something. Probably made by some kids by the unfinished look of it. Curious, Steve went closer to the fort. There was a blanket hanging over the entrance, and Steve didn’t stop himself before pulling it aside and looking in.
There was some sort of cushion or something on the floor of the fort, and there were toys spread around, a few candy bar wrappers. And a flashlight.
Now that he saw a place he could sit down, Steve realized how tired he was. Stooping down, he stepped into the fort and dropped onto the cushion. Actually, it was a couple of cushions, and they were kind of musty, but really worn in and comfortable. And actually, if Steve curled the right way so his arm wasn’t hurting, he could lay down and close his eyes.
He woke up to a surprised yell and a flashlight shining in his face. He gave a surprised yell back and sat up, twisting his arm the wrong way for how messed up it was. “Ah, motherfucker!” he swore, hunching over his arm and panting through the worst of the pain.
The person with the flashlight said, “Steve Harrington?”
“Yeah,” he muttered, holding up his good hand to block the worst of the flashlight in his eyes. “Sorry, is this your place? I’ll go.”
Steve tried to get up, but his arm hurt so bad, he gasped and clenched his teeth.
“What did you do?” asked the person, and now that the flashlight wasn’t in his eyes, Steve saw that it was a kid from the grade below him in school. Jonathan Byers.
Still gritting his teeth at the pain, Steve said, “Fucked up my chances of ever pitching for the Cubs, is what I did.”
Jonathan blinked at him. “What?”
With a sigh, Steve told him, “My old man.”
Instead of looking surprised, like Tommy always had whenever Steve mentioned his dad’s “outbursts,” Jonathan pressed his lips into a thin, determined line. “Did he twist it?” Jonathan asked, and it made Steve think maybe he had some experience in the matter. Word around town was that Lonnie Byers could be a mean drunk. Steve hated the fact that Fred Harrington only ever drank at home, sparing himself the same reputation around town, even if it was deserved.
“Can I see?” Jonathan asked, shining his flashlight on Steve’s arm.
“I don’t know, man,” Steve replied. “Not sure I can get my jacket off.”
Jonathan put the flashlight into Steve’s good hand and said, “Hold that.”
Then he put delicate fingers on Steve’s arm, squeezing gently starting at Steve’s shoulder and stopping when one squeeze to Steve’s forearm made him gasp, his eyes watering. “Jesus Christ!”
“Sorry,” Jonathan murmured, gently supporting Steve’s arm with his hands. “My dad broke my arm last year,” he said, looking up to meet Steve’s eyes just for a second. “That’s when my mom finally kicked him out.”
“You think it’s broken?” Steve asked, wiping his wet cheek with his shoulder.
Jonathan nodded. Then he plucked the flashlight out of Steve’s hand and offered his right arm. “C’mon. The longer you wait before going to the hospital, the worse it’s gonna hurt.”
Steve let Jonathan lift him to his feet and lead him out of the fort. Once they were out in the dark woods, Steve let go of Jonathan, using his good arm to support the other one.
As he followed Jonathan, Steve asked, “Is the hospital going to call my parents?”
“I don’t know,” Jonathan told him. “Probably. My dad has broken my arm, and two of my fingers. The judge still gave him visitation rights.”
“What the fuck?” Steve asked, shuddering at the thought. “Why?”
Jonathan shuffled through the fallen leaves for a few seconds, before saying, “Judges don’t believe kids.”
“Shit,” Steve said, stumbling a little, but managing to keep himself on his feet. They came out of the woods into the backyard of a tiny, one-story house. “You’re a freshman, right?” Steve asked Jonathan.
“Yeah,” Jonathan replied, leading the way to the back door. “Come on.”
Steve figured he didn’t have anything to lose, so he followed Jonathan into the house. He pointed Steve to a chair at the kitchen table and said, “You can sit there. I’ll be right back.”
Steve sat down. The kitchen was smaller and uglier than the one in his house, but he kind of liked it a little better. There were dirty dishes left on the counter beside the sink and a jacket on one of the chairs and a pile of phone books on the floor underneath the phone. Steve’s father wouldn’t have tolerated any of these things. They went against the mandatory neat order of the house. Of Fred’s house.
Steve was never allowed to call Fred's house his own. He would be allowed to call someplace his house only after he made it big and bought one.
While Steve wondered what a house like this would cost, Jonathan came back, and he had his mother with him. She was wearing sweatpants and a big flannel shirt, and it looked like she’d already been asleep. “Hello.”
“Hi,” Steve told her, unthinkingly starting to wave, before he was reminded again that his arm wasn’t doing so hot. He hissed a little with the pain, but managed not to swear that time.
“Oh, dear,” she said, sitting down beside Steve and frowning at his arm. “I’ll take you to the hospital. Come on.”
Joyce held up a hand. “No. We’re going.” She turned to Jonathan. “Stay with your brother, and call Mrs. Thomas if you need anything.”
Jonathan nodded. “Yeah, okay.”
“Let’s go, sweetheart,” Mrs. Byers said, and it took Steve a second to realize she was talking to him.
Standing up, Steve gave Jonathan a nod of thanks and followed Mrs. Byers to the car.
The car was old and it smelled weird, mostly like cigarettes, but Steve got in and buckled his seat belt. After they got out on the road heading into town, Mrs. Byers asked, “Do you want to tell me about what happened?”
Steve shrugged. “My dad got mad at me.”
“Does it matter?” Steve asked, feeling more than a little dumb.
With a sigh, Steve thought through his words before he gave them. “I drew a stupid cartoon. It wasn’t even any good.”
“Your dad broke your arm over a cartoon?” Mrs. Byers asked, her voice half-disbelieving, half-angry.
Steve didn’t know how to explain why the cartoon had made his father so upset. “It was just supposed to be funny. It was one of my suck-up teachers marrying the principal. He called it inappropriate.”
He didn’t mention the part where the teacher and the principal were both guys. It was dumb, and it didn’t make much sense.
Mrs. Byers shook her head. “That’s no excuse for hurting you.”
“Excuses never stopped him before,” Steve muttered.
Mrs. Byers gave Steve a look, but she didn’t say anything. Instead she said, “Why don’t we listen to the radio? What kind of music do you like?”
“Anything,” Steve told her. “I’m not picky.”
Mrs. Byers laughed. “My son Jonathan is extremely picky when it comes to music.” She reached for the stereo and turned it on. “He hates it when I sing along to my music.”
Steve gave her a little bit of a laugh, sitting and listening to Mrs. Byers’ oldies station as they drove.
In the emergency room, Mrs. Byers helped Steve fill out his paperwork. He didn’t know his social security number, but he had an insurance card that his mother made him put in his wallet, so he handed that over to the nurse.
They took x-rays of his arm and then set it back in place before putting a cast from his hand all the way up around the bend in his elbow. “Why does it have to be this big?” Steve asked the doctor.
“We need to prevent your forearm from twisting at all while the fracture heals,” the doctor explained. “You’ll need to keep the cast dry until it’s ready to come off.”
“How long is that going to be?”
The doctor frowned a little bit. “Spiral fractures like this are a little messier than a clean break would be. You’re probably looking at six to eight weeks of the cast.”
“Great,” Steve replied sarcastically.
When he looked up, Mrs. Byers was standing there with a police officer and some other lady.
They waited until the doctor was done, putting Steve’s cast-covered arm in a sling, and then led him to some sort of meeting room. Mrs. Byers stayed outside.
“Son, did your father do this to you?” the police officer asked.
Steve shrugged. “What happens if I say he did?”
The lady said, “We can have a judge order him removed from the home while there’s an investigation.”
Steve shook his head and sighed. “I’m pretty sure he’s friends with all the judges in town. Who are they gonna believe?”
“Any judge would have to take our recommendations into account,” the lady told him.
That didn’t sound solid enough to make it worth the risk. If his dad found out he tried to tell someone, everything was just gonna get worse. Shaking his head again, Steve said, “I tripped and fell down the stairs.”
“Son,” the police officer said softly, concerned and disappointed.
“I’m already gonna be in trouble for being out this late,” Steve insisted. “Can someone take me home?”
“Can we call your mom to come get you?” The lady asked.
Steve told them, “She can’t drive at night. Not after she’s taken her pills.”
The police officer frowned, but he said, “Come on. I’ll drive you home.”
As they left the room, Steve saw Mrs. Byers still standing there, waiting. He waved at her with his good arm. “Hey, thanks. You know, for the ride and everything.”
“Of course,” Mrs. Byers said, giving Steve a careful smile. Then she shared a look with the police officer, and Steve realized that they must have known each other. In fact, he would guess that they were pretty close.
Then the police officer said, “Come on, kid. Let’s get you home.”
Steve wasn’t looking forward to showing up at the front door with a cop, but what else could he do?
The ride home was pretty quiet, with the radio tuned to some sort of folk music station. Steve kind of thought they were going to end up silent the whole ride. However, the last mile, the cop cleared his throat and asked, “You get in fights with your parents a lot?”
“I wouldn’t call them fights,” Steve told the cop. “It’s always more like my dad giving a list of reasons why Steve sucks today.”
“Yeah, I had a dad like that,” the cop said, pulling up at the stoplight outside Steve’s neighborhood and making a right turn.
It seemed ludicrous that a guy as big as this cop could have a dad like that. “What did you do?”
“Shipped off to the Army,” he replied. “Got bigger and scarier than my old man. Made my own money and built my own life. Never talked to him again.”
“Oh,” Steve said, looking out the window as the dark houses went by. “I’ve got two and a half years left before I’m eighteen.”
Steve wondered if he would make it that long. Not if he kept doing stupid, gay drawings, he figured.
They turned onto Steve’s street. God, he felt like he was gonna be sick.
“You play any sports, kid?” the cop asked, and Steve didn’t know if he was just trying to distract Steve, or if he had something in mind, but either way it was a welcome distraction.
“Basketball and cross country,” Steve told him. “Looks like I’m warming the bench for the next two months.”
The cop nodded and said, “You know Hawkins gym? Downtown?”
Steve nodded. God, they were so close to his house now.
“They’ve got some good programs. I’ve heard boxing is great cross training for other sports. I know I like it, anyway.”
Steve thought about that, about learning how to box. It might be kind of fun. He pictured getting strong enough to deck his old man back. His grin faded when they turned down his parents’ driveway.
“It’ll have to wait until my arm heals,” Steve said, sighing as he looked up at the house.
“Not necessarily,” the cop told him. “You should go by. Tell them Jim Hopper sent you. The trainer there, Georgie, could you get started with footwork.”
“Yeah?” Steve asked. “Like Rocky?”
The cop laughed. “Yeah, like Rocky.” He looked up at the house. “You know, if you tell me what happened today, I can arrest him. It’s late enough that he won’t get out on bail until morning.”
Steve thought about Hopper’s offer. Yeah, he’d have one night of peace, followed by a thousand nights of hell to pay. “Nah,” Steve said. “It was an accident.”
“If you’re sure.”
Hopper sighed and opened the door of his truck. Steve had to reach across and use his left hand to open his own door, clumsily sliding out of the truck and following after Hopper as they went to the front door. Hopper had to ring the bell three times before Steve’s dad opened the door.
“What the fuck is this? It’s the middle of the night!” Fred swayed a little on his feet, and Steve could already smell the alcohol.
“Sir,” Hopper said, stepping just a little bit closer to the door. “I’m Chief of Police Jim Hopper, Hawkins PD.”
Chief of Police? Huh.
“Earlier this evening, one of your neighbors delivered your son, Steven, to the emergency room, where he was treated for a broken arm.” Hopper shifted just enough to highlight the fact that Steve was standing next to (and a little behind) him. “He seemed concerned that both you and your wife would be unable to safely retrieve him, so I volunteered to give him a ride home.”
“Oh, well,” Fred said, looking at Steve, with his cast and his sling, like he was just now seeing him. “Much obliged, Chief.” Turning to Steve, Fred asked, “How the fuck did you manage to break your arm? Take a tumble in the woods, did you? I told you not to go out there!”
Steve looked to Hopper, who subtly rolled his eyes, then tilted his head toward the house. Steve understood that he was meant to go into the house now. He didn’t want to, but he supposed he had to.
He brushed past his dad without acknowledging him and went up to his room. Standing in the doorway, he thought he heard Hopper speaking to his dad, but he couldn’t hear the words. He decided to lock himself in his room, and shove his desk chair under the handle for good measure.
In the morning, Steve waited until his father had left for work before unlocking his room. He quickly brushed his teeth and splashed some water on his face and put on a bunch of deodorant, before heading for the door. His sneakers were a bitch to try to tie, and the only thing he could find for breakfast was leftover pizza and an orange, but whatever. It was good enough.
He ate as he walked to school, and he noticed when people started to spot his cast and sling. He managed to make it to class on time, but just barely, as getting his backpack and the sling to cooperate with each other was a hellish proposition.
“Hey, man,” said Tommy when Steve sat in front of him in first period Spanish. “What happened to your arm?”
“Fell down the stairs,” Steve told him. “Got it trapped in the banister. My arm almost came off! It was so gross.”
“Whoa!” Tommy said, giving Steve a high five.
The bell rang and Steve got out his notebook and pen, only to realize that holding the pen was really hard because of the way the cast looped around his thumb. Shit.
Mrs. Beckham saw him struggling, and stopped next to him. “How long are you in the cast, dear?”
“Doc said like eight weeks,” he told her. “How should I…?”
Speaking up so the rest of the class could hear her, Mrs. Beckham said, “Can I get a volunteer willing to let us make copies of their notes for Mr. Harrington to use while he’s indisposed?”
Kelly Norris raised her hand.
“Thank you, Kelly.” Turning back to Steve, she told him, “Now, make sure you pay attention, or Kelly’s notes aren’t going to help you, alright?”
He tried to pay attention. He really did. But without the ability to doodle in the margins of his notes, his brain just kept slipping sideways and he couldn’t focus.
In his next class, someone else volunteered their notes, and he tried doodling with his left hand instead. It kind of worked, and he was able to pay attention better than in Spanish, but it still sucked.
In the passing period between second and third, Steve spotted Jonathan Byers. He stopped Jonathan, and said, “Hey, man. Thanks again for helping me out yesterday.”
Jonathan looked around at the others, like he wasn’t sure he should be talking to Steve at school. “Of course,” he said, before scampering away like a frightened deer. Or some other sort of woodland creature.
When he got to PE, Coach Markovick stopped him at the locker room door. “Harrington, you’ve got study hall instead, until that cast comes off.”
“Aw, man,” Steve sighed, feeling more than a little antsy after trying to pay attention all morning. “Can’t I run laps or something?”
Markovick shook his head. “Not on school grounds. It’s a liability issue.”
“Wait, does that mean I’m out at basketball practice, too?” he asked the coach.
“Here’s a hall pass,” Markovick said, pressing the pink slip into Steve’s chest. “Go get your books and head over.”
Looking at the slip, Steve said, “But this is a freshman study hall!”
“The sophomore one this hour is at capacity. Next time, don’t break your arm.”
“Yeah, thanks, Coach,” Steve said, leaving the locker room and heading to the study hall. When he got there, Mr. Nolan waved him over.
“The front office collected these notebooks from your classmates,” he said, passing the stack across his desk to Steve. Looking around the room, he called out, “Jonathan? Are you all out of homework again?”
Jonathan Byers looked up from where he was hidden behind Robbie Albright, a paperback in his hand. “Yeah.”
Mr. Nolan waved him up. “Would you help Steve make photocopies of the notes he needs for class? You can use one of the machines in the copier room next to the library.”
“Uh, okay,” Jonathan said, taking the notebooks when Mr. Nolan held them up to him. “C’mon.”
As they left the study hall, Jonathan said, “I was right. It was broken.”
“Yeah, pretty badly, the doctor said,” Steve replied. Deciding to have some fun, Steve whispered, “If I hadn’t gone to the hospital when I did, I could have lost my arm!”
“What, really?” Jonathan asked, looking properly horrified.
Steve laughed. “No. I made that part up.”
“Asshole,” Jonathan scoffed, but Steve noticed the way the edge of his mouth twitched, like he was trying not to smile.
When they got to the copier, Steve found the first page of Kelly’s notes and handed it over for Jonathan to run the machine. As he did the second page, Jonathan asked in a soft voice, “So, did Hopper arrest your dad?”
Steve shook his head. Then he asked, “You know Chief Hopper?”
“My mom does,” Jonathan insisted. “They’re friends or something.”
Thinking about the way he saw Mrs. Byers and Chief Hopper interacting the night before, Steve asked, “They’re screwing?”
“Oh, come on!” Jonathan said, turning to scowl at Steve. “Don’t talk about my mom like that!”
“Jeez, sorry!” Steve insisted, holding up his hand in defense. “And, like, Hopper’s pretty cool. She could do way worse, is all I’m saying.”
“Yeah, I suppose,” Jonathan said softly, switching the page on the copier window and pressing the button.
“When we’re done with the notes, you wanna photocopy our faces?” Steve asked.
Jonathan smirked a little bit. “Okay.”
Steve ended up back in study hall with a stapled-together packet of notes, and the last two pages were his and Jonathan’s faces.
Those pages made him smile whenever he looked at them.
After school, Tommy hung out for a minute, asking, “Hey, so are you coming to practice?”
Steve told Tommy about being banned from practice while his arm was still healing.
Tommy asked, “What are you gonna do? Go home?”
The thought of going to an empty house and waiting for his dad to come home and notice Steve’s arm while sober. Steve shook his head. “I’ll probably fuck around until dinner time.”
Tommy laughed. “Have fun.”
Steve felt like some fresh air and some exercise might do him some good, so after dropping his bag off at home, he left the house again, walking the trail around the woods.
He was almost all the way around to Jonathan’s neighborhood when he decided to turn back. This was dumb. Steve didn’t know why he was even out here in the first place.
Because no one wanted him around, his brain helpfully pointed out.
Not even a minute later, he heard a bike coming up the trail. He got off to the side, not wanting to get hit and do something stupid like break his other arm. Except when he looked up, it was Jonathan pedaling in his direction.
“Oh, hey,” he said, slowing down and then stopping.
“Hey,” Steve replied, waving his good arm.
Jonathan looked like he was going to say something, but then stopped himself, biting his lips closed.
What the hell. Steve asked, “Wanna hang out?”
“Hang out?” Jonathan asked, like it was some foreign word.
Steve rolled his eyes. “Nevermind. I’ll get going.”
“No, wait,” Jonathan said, giving Steve another look. “You like music?”
Steve shrugged. “Sure. What kind of music?”
“I just bought a new album by this band called The Cure,” he said, opening his backpack and pulling out a shopping bag, which had a cassette in it. “Do you know them?”
“Sounds kind of familiar,” Steve said, taking the tape Jonathan handed him. Laughing he asked, “Why does this say, ‘Pornography’?”
“That’s the name of the album,” Jonathan insisted, snatching the tape back and putting it back in his backpack. “It came out in May, but I just finally convinced Ed at the record store to let me buy it now that I’m 15.”
“When was your birthday?” Steve asked, turning around and walking with Jonathan as he pushed his bike toward his house.
“About a month ago,” Jonathan told him.
“Get any cool presents?”
Shrugging, Jonathan shook his head. “We don’t…” He sighed. “Nevermind.”
“No, what?” Steve asked him, reaching over the bike to give Jonathan a little nudge. “What don’t you do?”
“Just, we don’t really have money for presents,” Jonathan admitted, not looking over at Steve. “It took me awhile to save up enough to buy this cassette.”
Steve nodded, swallowing nervously. After a few steps walked in silence, Steve admitted, “A couple years ago, after my dad knocked me around, he bought me a TV for my room. I think he felt bad. All my friends were jealous, but…” He scoffed and shook his head.
“My dad used to do shit like that, too,” Jonathan said softly. “Buy me presents, as if that makes up for it.”
“It doesn’t,” Steve said.
“No. It doesn’t.”
A car. Not just any car, but a BMW. Steve’s dad bought him a BMW. He must have felt really bad for Steve’s broken arm. Asshole.
“I can’t even drive yet,” Steve told him. “Between my broken arm and the fact that I’m not taking driver’s ed until January, I won’t be able to drive it for awhile.”
“Well, then maybe you’ll learn your lesson about running off through the woods, won’t you, son?” Fred asked, clapping Steve on the shoulder and leaving the garage.
A gift and a punishment all in one. What kind of sick bastard would think of something like that?
The next day, while Jonathan was helping him photocopy his notes, Steve told him about the car.
“You should use it anyway,” Jonathan said. “Like, hang out in it and listen to the radio or something.”
“By myself?” Steve asked. “Isn’t that a little...sad?”
Jonathan gave Steve a long look before asking, “You don’t like being by yourself?”
“Not particularly.” Steve shrugged, unsure how to tell Jonathan that most of the time he wasn’t in school or at practice or hanging out with Tommy, he was alone. He got to do it so much, he never missed it.
A few minutes later, the noise of the copy machine the only sound in the room, Jonathan finally spoke up. “I’ve never seen a BMW in real life before.”
“You want to come over and see mine?” Steve suggested. “I’m not doing anything after school.”
“Sure,” Jonathan said with a nod. “I’ll meet you out front by the bike racks.”
When they got to Steve’s house, his mother’s car was in the driveway, but she wasn’t in the house. Steve just grabbed a couple of sodas from the fridge and led the way to the garage.
“So, this is it,” Steve said, turning on the garage light and leading the way in.
Jonathan whistled. “Can I look at the engine?”
“Sure,” Steve said. “If you can figure out how to get the hood open.”
Jonathan opened the driver’s seat and ducked down, searching for a moment before he found what he was looking for. He pulled something and the hood popped up a few inches.
Steve joined Jonathan at the front of the car, drinking his soda as Jonathan pushed the hood the rest of the way up. All Steve saw was a bunch of parts, but Jonathan whispered, “It’s beautiful!”
“If you say so, man,” Steve said with a shrug. “Do you even know what any of that shit does?”
“Sure,” Jonathan replied. He started pointing out parts and naming them like it was no big deal. Eventually, he looked over at Steve and explained, “My dad used to make me help him rebuild muscle cars. He sold them for extra drinking money.”
With a snort, Steve said, “What a piece of work! That’s, like, against about a hundred child labor laws.”
“I don’t think there are a hundred child labor laws, but yeah,” Jonathan said. He took one last look at the engine before closing the hood. “So...stereo?”
“Yeah,” Steve said, realizing he’d been staring at Jonathan just a little bit too long. “Get in.”
Steve took the driver’s seat, putting the key in the ignition with his left hand and awkwardly turning it halfway. Steve was sometimes allowed to power up his mom’s car like this when she sent him outside to close the windows on her car before it rained.
The electrical system powered up as Jonathan dropped down into the passenger seat.
Reaching for the radio, Steve asked, “What station do you like?”
“None of them,” Jonathan insisted, lifting his backpack onto his lap and opening the front pocket. He pulled out a couple of tapes, asking, “What are we in the mood for? British punk? Rock? Metal? This one has a few new wave songs that aren’t too bad. I think I have some American punk in here somewhere, too.”
Steve laughed and said, “You’re such a nerd.” He plucked a random tape out of Jonathan’s hand and tried to put it in the stereo, but he couldn’t quite get it.
Jonathan took the tape from Steve, his fingers brushing Steve’s hand as he said, “Here. Let me do it.”
Steve didn’t know why he could still feel those patches on his skin five minutes later as the first song drew to a close.
“So?” Jonathan asked with a little smile. “What do you think?”
Just to rile him up, Steve said, “That was so bad. Like, shockingly bad.”
Jonathan looked genuinely distraught until Steve laughed.
“I’m just messing with you. It’s good!”
Jonathan rolled his eyes and shoved at Steve’s shoulder, but he laughed too.
As the next song progressed, Steve found himself wondering what it would feel like to hold Jonathan’s hand, and if the slide of Jonathan’s fingers across his would feel as good as Steve thought they would.
He’d held hands with Sheila Thompson before. Made out with her behind the gym after school, too, until she decided Gary Peterson was more her style. Steve was never really friends with Sheila. He thought if he had been, then maybe making out with her would’ve felt more… Well, more.
Like everyone else described it.
His voice kind of soft, Jonathan asked, “What are you thinking about over there?”
Steve didn’t know what to do with that question. His other friends never would have asked him that. It was too weighty. It meant too much.
Words tumbled out of Steve’s mouth and he asked, “You ever want to fall in love?”
“I don’t know,” Jonathan told him, fiddling with the knobs on the stereo. “Maybe someday. Why?”
“Never mind,” Steve said, hastily changing the topic. “What’s this one called?”
Jonathan lit up again, talking about the song and the band, and what he thought of this band versus the other bands in the genre, and Steve just kind of watched him talk, wondering if he ever talked this way to anyone else. He always seemed so quiet at school.
It made Steve happy, to think he was the person that Jonathan had finally warmed up to.
Eventually, Jonathan looked at his watch and said, “Shit, I gotta go. I’m supposed to be home for dinner.”
Steve pouted, which made Jonathan laugh as he popped his tape out of the stereo and put it back in his backpack. Then he turned the key and took it out of the ignition, holding it out to Steve.
Steve let his fingers brush against Jonathan’s again as he took the keys back with his left hand, and Steve suddenly realized why his dad had broken his arm.
It wasn’t about the fucking drawing.
“Yeah, you should get out of here before my dad gets home,” Steve said, suddenly afraid, not just for his sake, but for Jonathan’s as well.
Jonathan must have noticed the shift, because as he followed Steve out of the garage and toward the front door, he asked, “Are you gonna be okay? Like when he gets here?”
Steve turned and Jonathan all but crashed into him. Trying his very hardest not to look at Jonathan’s lips, Steve opened the front door and said, “I’ll be fine. See you at school tomorrow.”
“Yeah, tomorrow,” Jonathan agreed, throwing his bag into his back and leaving the house. He picked up his bike from the front lawn and called back, “Bye!”
“Bye,” Steve said, trying not to stare for too long before closing the door.
He made himself a sandwich for dinner, then locked himself in his room.
He had. A stupid crush. On a boy.
No wonder his dad beat him up so much. He must have noticed it before Steve did. Noticed how strange and abnormal he was. How much he deserved to be punished like this.
Maybe if he pretended everything was normal, things would go back to the way they used to be. It wasn’t ideal, but it wasn’t the first problem Steve had ignored into going away.
He ate his sandwich and did his homework, and his dad still wasn’t home. Steve covered his cast with a plastic bag, using his teeth to tie it tightly, and he got in the shower.
When he got in bed, Steve still hadn’t heard his father, or his mother, come home. He bet they’d gone on another trip and forgot to tell him. He tried not to think about it too hard while he fell asleep.
Two days later, Steve still hadn’t seen his parents. He told this to Jonathan during study hall, earning a weird look. “What?” Steve asked him.
“Want to come stay over at my house tonight?” Jonathan asked. “I mean, it’s nothing fancy, but I’ve got a stereo and there’ll be food.”
Steve thought about saying no. He thought about bugging Tommy to hang out, to go rent a movie or something, but he knew that wasn’t what he wanted.
“You sure it’ll be okay with your mom?” Steve asked, watching as Jonathan flipped the notebook page and copied it.
“Yeah,” he insisted. “I already asked her.”
Steve nodded. “Okay. Yeah, okay.”
Laying on the floor of Jonathan’s room, looking up at the ceiling, listening to a song that was unfamiliar but intensely full of emotion, Steve asked, “Do you ever get the feeling that you’re not normal?”
“Don’t have to,” Jonathan said. “Darryl Lagrange tells me I’m a freak every time he sees me.”
Steve thought the name sounded vaguely familiar. Like the kid might have been on one of the football teams or something.
“Yeah, but that’s some asshole being an asshole,” Steve insisted. “What about aside from that?”
“Sure,” Jonathan told him, leaning down over the edge of his bed and looking at Steve. “But no one normal ever did anything important.”
“You really think that?” Steve asked, meeting Jonathan’s eyes.
“Yeah,” Jonathan insisted. “I really do.”
Steve shrugged and felt a little bit better about himself.
Steve’s parents came home that Sunday afternoon. Steve had dinner with them as requested, but escaped as soon as he could. He hid out in his room, listening to one of the tapes Jonathan had made and Steve had stolen from his room.
He was almost done with his homework when there was a banging on his door.
Steve wanted to ignore it, but he also didn’t want it to get worse. When he answered the door, it was clear that Fred had been drinking.
“Turn off that damn music,” he demanded. “And go to bed.”
Steve wanted to argue that he still had homework to finish. But, he didn’t want to anger Fred. Not while he was drinking. “Yes, sir.”
Fred nodded triumphantly and staggered down the hallway toward his bedroom.
Steve switched the tape to his Walkman and put the headphones over his ears. He listened to the tape as he lay in bed, trying to fall asleep. It drowned out the sounds of the argument his parents got into.
He wondered what they would do if they caught him kissing a boy. Kissing Jonathan.
Probably kick him out.
In the morning, Steve didn’t see either of his parents. He caught up with Jonathan at his locker before school, handing him the tape. “Hey, I found this at my house. You want it back?”
“Sure,” Jonathan said, taking the tape. “You want to borrow another one?”
“I’ll come over after school,” he insisted, inviting himself over. Like he could just do that.
Jonathan didn’t seem to mind. “Sure. After school.”
Steve laid on Jonathan’s floor, his left shoulder against Jonathan’s right. The tape in the stereo was one that Jonathan had made the night before, and every time it switched to a new song, Jonathan put down his homework and told Steve about the song and about the artist.
Eventually, he wasn’t doing his work anymore, just talking to Steve and smiling over at him and Steve felt like he was going to explode if he didn’t do something soon.
He waited until Jonathan put his right hand down between them and closed his eyes, listening to the music. Then Steve brushed his knuckles against the back of Jonathan’s hand. It could have been an accident, if that’s what it needed to be.
Jonathan didn’t look over at Steve. He didn’t even open his eyes. Steve’s heart tumbled downward, plunging into his stomach, until Jonathan moved his finger. He brushed the side of his pointer finger along the side of Steve’s finger. It tickled, but it felt good too.
Steve returned the gesture for a moment, then moved his whole hand, pressing his palm to Jonathan’s and lacing their fingers together. He didn’t look over at Jonathan. He couldn’t.
But Jonathan didn’t pull his hand away, and that had to mean something, right?
Jonathan’s hand was warm, and a little sweaty, but when Steve closed his eyes and just held on, it made the angry bee’s nest feeling in his head go away.
When the song switched again, Jonathan cleared his throat. “This one is The Clash,” he said, his voice soft.
“Yeah?” Steve replied. He carefully opened his eyes and snuck a glance at Jonathan. He looked confused or pensive or something. Steve traced his thumb along the side of Jonathan’s palm. “You like them?”
Jonathan turned and looked at Steve, meeting his eyes for a long moment. Then he said, “Yeah, I like them.”
Steve nodded and he had to look away. “Cool.”
“Cool,” Jonathan repeated.
When the song switched over again, Jonathan started talking like he had been before. Steve listened and he stroked his thumb against Jonathan’s hand. He thought he might have felt almost happy.
When Jonathan’s little brother got home, Jonathan pulled his hand away. He gave Steve a smile, though, and yeah. Steve definitely felt happy.
When the tape ended, Steve ejected it from the stereo and said, “I’m borrowing this one.”
“Okay,” Jonathan said, his cheeks a little pink. “There’s another side we didn’t get to.”
Steve put the tape in his backpack and said, “I’ll listen to it tonight.”
“But you won’t know what the songs are.”
Steve wanted to touch Jonathan again, but he didn’t know how. So he shoved his free hand in his pocket and said, “You can tell me tomorrow.”
“Sure,” Jonathan said with a little nod. “Tomorrow.”
When he got home, Steve was scared that his parents would be able to see it on him. They’d know that he held hands with a boy. When he went to school in the morning, everyone there would know, too.
Except there was no one at home. A note on the fridge said that his dad was out of town and his mom was at a fundraiser. He supposed if they never saw him, then they wouldn’t be able to notice that he’d held hands with Jonathan.
Maybe Steve could coast by, undetected. Like a ninja.
He listened to Jonathan’s tape and tried to finish his homework. He tried, but he couldn’t write very well at all. He could barely even brush his teeth with his left hand. Steve’s right arm still hurt a little, but mostly it was his shoulder that hurt, unused to the extra weight of the cast, unused to holding still so much.
He felt restless. Jumpy.
Maybe he should check out that gym Chief Hopper had recommended. Get rid of some of this excess energy. Maybe even learn how to fight back, so this wouldn’t happen again.
“My dad is out of the house this week,” Steve told Jonathan during study hall. “We could hang out there.”
“I told my mom I would take my little brother to get some shoes that fit him,” Jonathan said with a regretful frown. “We’re biking to Main Street after school.”
“Oh,” Steve said, trying not to show his disappointment. “Okay. Sure. Maybe tomorrow.”
“Definitely,” Jonathan said, and Steve smiled. Maybe he didn’t feel quite so bad anymore.
After school, Steve grabbed some clothes from his gym locker and walked the opposite way from his house. He walked down the street and a couple blocks over to Hawkins Gym, and hesitated outside. Steve stood there, pouting at his arm, until a deep voice behind him said, “You gonna stand out here all afternoon, kid?”
Steve shook his head at Hopper. “No. I’m going in.”
Hopper gestured for Steve to lead the way. He struggled a little bit with the door, but Hopper reached past him and held it open.
Steve stopped at the front desk, about to ask the woman there if he had to pay or what to get in, but Hopper just said, “Sign the kid in as my guest, okay, Penny?”
“Okay, Hop,” she said, making a note on the sheet in front of her.
Hopper headed for the locker room, and Steve followed him, but once they got inside, when Hopper went down one aisle, Steve didn't stop until he was a few more over. It took some time to get out of his jeans using just one hand, and to get his sweater and shirt off over his cast, but eventually he managed to change into a t-shirt and gym shorts.
When Steve left the locker room, Hopper was spotting some guy at the bench press. Once the guy was done, Hopper beckoned Steve to follow him. They went through an archway, and there was a boxing ring. "Hey, Georgie!" Hopper called, getting the attention of a man with slicked-back gray hair.
The guy was kind of round, but he walked like he was strong, and his smile was bright. "Jimmy! What's this?" Georgie pointed to Steve, who was still trying to get over the fact that someone was allowed to call Chief Hopper "Jimmy".
"Kid's interested in a little cross-training," Hopper told Georgie. "Obviously focused on footwork for now."
"Obviously," Georgie said, clapping Steve on his good shoulder. "What's your name, kid?"
"Steve," he told Georgie, feeling oddly welcomed. "How do we get started?"
"Laps," Georgie said, pointing to the track painted around the outside of the wall. "Ten minutes."
Steve nodded and started running. It was difficult with his cast and his sling, but eventually he got the hang of it. It felt good to finally start moving again after a couple weeks spent like an invalid. Maybe he didn't even mind too much that he wasn't seeing Jonathan today.
As he ran, Steve watched Hopper wrap his hands in tape and then start in on the punching bag. It looked like getting punched by Hopper would hurt, and Steve made a decision. He was going to get strong like that. Stronger than Fred.
Whatever it took.
As they were leaving the gym, Hopper asked Steve, "Need a ride home, kid?"
"Sure," Steve agreed, following Hopper to where his police truck was parked halfway down the block.
"Your parents expecting you for dinner?"
Steve got into the car and shook his head. "They're not home."
Nodding, Hop started the truck. "Joyce says you've been spending a lot of time over at her house."
"I guess so," Steve said. Most of the time he'd hung out with Jonathan, one or the other of them had gone home before Joyce got off work. It made him wonder how much Jonathan had told his mom about them.
"I'm headed over there for dinner. I'm sure Joyce wouldn't mind setting an extra place at the table."
Steve looked over at Hopper, wondering how much he knew, how much he could tell. Still, if the choice was between eating dinner with an actual family and getting to hang out with Jonathan, or going back to his empty house by himself, it really wasn't much of a choice to begin with.
When they got to Jonathan's house, Hopper opened the door as he was knocking, calling out, "Hello?"
"Hi!" Joyce called happily from the kitchen.
Hopper lead Steve in that direction, saying, "Look who I found on the way over."
"Oh! Hi, Steve," Joyce said, giving him just a little squeeze on his good arm. "Jonathan's in his room if you want to keep him company while Jim and I finish making dinner.
"Okay," Steve said, escaping the kitchen as Hopper asked quietly, "Jim and I?"
Steve went over to Jonathan's door and knocked, waiting until Jonathan called, "Come in!" before he opened the door.
"Uh, hey. Hi," Steve said, taking a step into Jonathan's room. "Hopper kind of invited me to dinner. Hope that's okay."
Jonathan looked up from where he was lying on his bed, reading, and rolled his eyes. "Don't be stupid."
Steve grinned. He dropped his bag on the floor and flopped down on the bed next to Jonathan, asking, "What are you doing?"
"Trying not to be bored," Jonathan told him, shifting a little to give Steve more room. "Did you finish that assignment you were working on in study hall?"
"Why?" Steve asked. "You want to finish it for me?"
"I'll write it, if you want. You have to think of the answers, though."
Steve laughed, looking over at Jonathan. "You're really bored, aren't you?"
Jonathan laughed and nodded. "Where did you run into Hopper?"
"He let me bum off his gym membership," Steve said, totally distracted by the shape of Jonathan's eyes and the way they were ringed in pretty, dark lashes.
Then he thought that if his face was close enough to Jonathan's to be able to see his eyelashes, he was almost close enough to kiss.
Jonathan's voice was soft, his eyebrows pinched together, when he asked, "Did you want to work on that assignment?"
Steve heard Joyce laughing in the kitchen, and that convinced him to pull back before he did something extremely stupid. "Yeah," he said, sitting up and reaching for his bag. "Thanks."
Jonathan sat up too, sitting beside Steve, his knee almost touching Steve's as he took the assignment Steve handed him. "You got a pen?"
"Yeah, somewhere." Steve dug around in his backpack, and when he handed the pen over, Jonathan's fingers brushed his.
Steve would have thought it was an accident, except for the way Jonathan smirked a little, looking down at the paper. Steve leaned in closer, his left shoulder pressed against Jonathan's right one, and started talking through the assignment.
They still had their heads bent together when Joyce called, "Boys! Dinner!"
Jonathan handed Steve's almost-complete assignment and his pen back to him, again his fingers lingering against Steve's. If the door wasn't open and Jonathan's family wasn't waiting for them, Steve thought he might have wanted to see what it felt like to kiss Jonathan.
But he didn't do it.
He put his things in his bag and followed Jonathan out to dinner.
"I just think the back seat is going to be more comfortable," Steve insisted as they climbed into the BMW to listen to one of Jonathan's tapes. "Like, with my sling and everything."
Jonathan rolled his eyes and said, "Whatever," but after he started the music, he climbed in the back next to Steve. He sat on Steve's left and when Steve put his hand in Jonathan's, he didn't pull it away. Instead, he gently rubbed Steve's hand with his thumb.
Smiling at the gesture, Steve leaned his head back and looked over at Jonathan, watching his profile as he listened to the music. As the first song wound down, Jonathan laid his head back too, turning just enough to tell Steve, "I think you're going to like this next one."
God, Steve couldn't stand it anymore.
He couldn't help himself.
Steve leaned over and pressed his lips to Jonathan's. He left them there, just for a second, before pulling back. Jonathan looked a little stunned, but he didn't pull his hand out of Steve's. He didn't yell or hit Steve or anything.
He just asked, "What was that for?"
"Sorry," Steve said, his whole face feeling hot. He leaned away from Jonathan and tried to pull his hand out of Jonathan's grasp, but he just squeezed Steve's hand tighter.
"Hey," Jonathan spoke softly, his other hand reaching up, almost shaking as he brushed his thumb against Steve's lower lip. The touch sent Steve's heart rate skyrocketing.
Pulse thundering in his ears, Steve looked over at Jonathan, not quite sure what he was going to see. What he saw was Jonathan leaning closer, pulling Steve by the back of his neck into another kiss.
Steve sighed into it.
When Jonathan pulled back just a little bit, his lips turned upward and Steve could feel his smile. Steve smiled too. He laughed a bit, relieved that Jonathan seemed to want this as much as he did.
Jonathan laughed, too, squeezing Steve's hand and leaning his head against Steve's shoulder.
Clearing his throat, Steve said, "You're right. I do like this one."
Jonathan snorted and poked Steve in the ribs. "Smartass."
"Better than dumbass," Steve insisted.
"No, but really, this song is amazing," Jonathan insisted, and he proceeded to explain exactly why.
God, he was such a dork, and Steve liked him so much.
Before Jonathan left, Steve caught him just inside the front door, bending down a few inches and kissing him again. "I'll see you tomorrow?"
Jonathan nodded and bit his lower lip. "Yeah. Tomorrow."
Steve watched Jonathan photocopy his notes, and decided that as much as he wanted to, he wasn't going to kiss Jonathan at school. If he did that, and somebody saw? All the assholes on the basketball team would probably beat his face in, when he came back to the team. It was just the unwritten rule. No homos allowed on the team. On any team.
Except there was no one else in the room and Jonathan was right there and Steve just wanted so much.
He had to put his hand in his pocket and pinch his leg hard enough to bruise so he wouldn't get carried away and do something he regretted.
Besides, Jonathan's little brother had his AV club this afternoon, and his mom was working, so there would be plenty of time later to be alone.
At lunch, he still sat by his basketball team friends, and he tried to follow their conversations, but there was just so much Steve had missed out on from not being there for weeks. He found he wished he was eating lunch with Jonathan instead.
But if he did, then everyone would know.
Maybe no one would know that Steve was spending all his free time with Jonathan, kissing him when no one was watching, but they would know that Steve associated with someone they considered a loser. And popular kids didn't get to be losers without getting the same shit they used to give out.
Beside Steve, Tommy H. laughed at something Pete said, and he grabbed onto Steve's good arm, shaking him and trying to get him in on the joke. Steve smiled and pretended to laugh. If anyone noticed that something was off about him, that something was different, they didn't say anything.
They bumped into Steve after class and smiled and said, "See you later, man!"
Steve walked home with Jonathan, not really talking, but not not talking either. Just kind of being together. When they got to Jonathan's room, he asked, "Is everything okay? You're quiet today."
"Everything's fine," Steve insisted, laying back on Jonathan's bed and letting him kiss Steve as many times as he wanted.
Steve wanted more, but he knew since Jonathan was a grade younger, he shouldn't push it. Still, as Jonathan's kisses got longer, Steve couldn't help but put his hand on Jonathan's face to hold him there. He couldn't help but press his tongue against the seam of Jonathan's lips, making the kiss wetter and slicker.
"Mm," Jonathan said, pulling back.
"Too much?" Steve asked, and when Jonathan nodded, Steve said, "Sorry. I won't do that again."
Jonathan smiled at him and pushed Steve's hair back away from his face. "Thanks."
"Wanna take a break?"
Jonathan nodded again. "Hey, when did the music stop?"
Steve laughed. "I don't know. What time is it?"
"Late," Jonathan said. "Really, really late."
Looking over at the clock, Steve said, "Shit. I should get home. I think my parents are going to be there."
"Did you want to borrow my bike?"
Steve shook his head. "Nah, I'd probably crash it with this stupid thing on my arm."
"How much longer?" Jonathan asked as he walked Steve to the front door.
"Four weeks," Steve told him with a little shrug. "Not that long."
"Not that long," Jonathan agreed, his cheeks flushed and his lips red and it took all of Steve's effort not to sway back into him and kiss him again.
That night, after a tense dinner with his parents where no one really spoke much at all, Steve went to bed. The taste of Jonathan's lips was still on his mind, and his left hand didn't work great for getting off, but it worked well enough.
Steve started driver's ed with the new semester, at the end of January, just a week before he was scheduled to get his cast off. Since he had sports, he was taking driver’s ed instead of PE, which meant he no longer had a study hall with Jonathan.
He found he missed Jonathan more than he thought he would.
"Psst," said Tommy, sitting in front of Steve during history class.
Whispering back, Steve leaned close and asked, "What?"
"Carol told me that Laurie Ballinger has the hots for you," Tommy said with a stupid grin. "She wants you to ask her out after you get your cast off."
"Only after I get it off?"
Before Tommy could respond, Mrs. Greene said, "Misters Hansen and Harrington, do you have something to share with the class?"
"No, ma'am," Tommy said brightly. He didn't turn around again until the bell was about to ring. "So, what do you think? Laurie Ballinger? She's pretty hot."
"Yeah, but I don't really know her," Steve told him.
Tommy leaned over and smacked the side of Steve's head. Or, at least he tried to. Since Steve had been stopping by the gym for the past six weeks, his reflexes had gotten faster. He blocked Tommy's hand with his good arm. Tommy shrugged it off, saying, "Don't be an idiot. Who cares if you know her? She gives out BJs!"
Steve kind of doubted that, since her last boyfriend, Robbie W., was totally a compulsive liar.
Besides, Steve had just gotten Jonathan used to kissing with tongue. He wasn't going to ruin that by asking out some party girl he didn't even know.
"I'll think about it," Steve told Tommy, figuring that would at least buy him some time to come up with an excuse.
The day before Steve got his cast off, he went home and was glad to see his mother was there for once. He cornered her in the upstairs hallway and told her, "I need a ride to the doctor's office tomorrow."
"What time, darling?" she asked, but she already had that vacant look in her eyes. "I might be able to make it, if it's after two and before three."
"It's at 4:15," Steve told her with a scoff. "Nevermind."
He went into his room and picked up the phone, calling Jonathan's house.
"Hi, Mrs. Byers. This is Steve."
"Oh, Steve," she said, and it sounded like she was smiling. "Do you want to talk to Jonathan?"
"No, actually. I wondered if I could ask you a favor?"
After a short pause, she said, "Well, sure. What is it?"
"Will you drive me to the doctor tomorrow after school, so I can get my cast off?" He asked, wincing at how hot his cheeks felt for having to ask in the first place. "My dad's kind of out of town."
"Oh, sweetie," she said, sympathetically. "Hang on a second."
Steve heard some muffled scratching against the mouthpiece of the phone and her muffled voice. When Joyce came back on, she told Steve, "Jim says he can take you. He'll pick you up after school."
"Okay," Steve said, pushing at the way his eyes watered. "Okay, thanks."
Just a few more months. Just a few more months until he was done with driver's ed and he could get his license. Then all he would need his parents for was money, and they were really good at doling that out.
When Steve got into Chief Hopper's truck after school the next day, some upperclassman called out, "Hey, look! Harrington's getting arrested."
A bunch of people looked over and all Steve could do was glare and throw him the finger.
"Ready to get that cast off?" Hopper asked, pulling out of the school parking lot like nothing had happened.
"Yeah, totally," Steve insisted. "It's starting to smell kind of funky."
Hopper laughed, and asked, "So, where are we headed? Back to the hospital?"
"No the medical building next door," Steve told him, watching Hawkins go by out his window. "I would have walked, but there wasn't enough time between class and the appointment." He watched Hopper's profile. "You don't have to wait with me or anything. I can walk home."
"Kid, it's fifteen degrees out today, and the sun goes down damn early. I'm not letting you walk home."
Steve nodded. "Sure, okay. If you've got the time."
With a snort of a laugh, Hopper said, "This is Hawkins. Nothing ever happens here."
He took that to mean the Chief didn't have anywhere better to be.
After getting his cast off, Hopper just decided that Steve was going to dinner at the Byers house again. Truth be told, Steve didn’t really fight him on it. He didn’t fight it either when Joyce asked him if he wanted to stay the night.
“I’m sure Jonathan has something big enough for you to sleep in,” she’d said. “Just call your house and leave a message so your parents don’t worry.”
Steve didn’t tell her that they wouldn’t worry whether or not he called. So, he was surprised when Fred picked up the phone. He wasn’t supposed to be home until tomorrow. “Hi, Dad. It’s Steve. I was wondering if I could stay over at a friend’s house.”
“You have friends?” he asked, then gave a drunken laugh.
Steve hung up on him.
“He said it’s fine,” Steve told Joyce, leaving the kitchen and going into Jonathan’s room.
Jonathan took one look at him and asked, “What’s wrong?”
“My dad’s an asshole,” Steve replied.
“Join the club.” Jonathan threw a shirt at Steve’s face, and followed it up with a pair of pajama pants.
He unfolded the shirt and laughed. “The Beatles? Seriously?”
The smirk Jonathan gave Steve over his shoulder made Steve laugh and cry out, “You jerk!” throwing the shirt back at him. “I know you have cooler shirts in there!”
“No, but this one is totally you,” Jonathan said, pushing it at Steve’s chest. “It matches your lame taste in music.”
“How dare you!” Steve said with a laugh, pushing the shirt back at Jonathan. “Gimme like Aerosmith or something.”
“Aerosmith?” Jonathan asked, falling onto the bed in a fit of laughter. “That’s even worse!”
“You’re such a snob,” Steve insisted, poking Jonathan in the ribs as he stood up and took off his old shirt. “I’m wearing the Beatles one, just out of spite.”
When he looked up again, Jonathan wasn’t laughing. He was just kind of … watching Steve change his shirt.
Steve blushed a little, but he couldn’t help asking, “Like what you see?”
Jonathan shook himself and looked away. “Sorry.”
“I don’t mind,” Steve assured him, pulling the Beatles shirt on over his head. Then he leaned down over Jonathan, pleased to be able to bear his weight on both arms again, and pressed a soft kiss to his mouth.
A knock at the door made Steve jump away from Jonathan guiltily. “Just a second, mom!” Jonathan called. “We’re changing!”
“Steve,” Joyce said carefully. “Your father is here.”
“What the–” Steve’s palms started sweating all of a sudden. He felt like he was going to throw up.
Still, he knew it was better to face Fred than to keep him waiting. He left Jonathan’s room and brushed past Joyce to get to the front door. Like he thought, Fred was drunk, swaying in the doorway, a mean expression on his face.
“Jesus Christ,” Steve said to him. “Did you drive here like this?”
Hopper loomed in the dining room archway, looking ready to step in if needed.
“What the hell are you doing here, boy?” Fred asked, not answering Steve’s question. “You should have been home from practice hours ago!”
“How did you even know I was here?”
“That fucking police truck,” Fred told him. Then he staggered over to Hopper, looked up at him, and poked Hopper in the chest. “You think you can file neglect papers on me? On me, you hick bastard?”
“That’s my son, and I’ll raise him any damn way I please!” He pointed star Steve and said, “Get in the car! I’m taking you home right now.”
“That’s all I needed to hear,” Hopper said, moving quickly and getting Fred’s left arm twisted up behind his back. Hopper pushed Fred against the wall, grabbed his other arm, and cuffed his wrists behind his back. “Sir, I’m arresting you on intent to endanger the life of a child. You have rights, and I’ll get to that in a minute.” Turning back to Steve, Hopper asked him, “Are you alright to stay here tonight, or do you want Joyce to drive you home?”
Steve was shaking as he hugged his arms around himself. “Um. I’ll stay here,” he looked to Joyce, “if that’s okay?”
“It’s okay, sweetie,” Joyce assured him, pulling Steve into a tight, warm hug.
Looking back into the hallway, Steve saw Jonathan and Will standing together, Will wide-eyed, and Jonathan looking pissed. For a second, Steve thought Jonathan was angry with him for bringing this mess into his house. But then Jonathan stepped forward and put a hand on Steve’s shoulder, glaring out the still-open door at Fred.
“Will? Close the door, would you?” Joyce asked. “I’m going to make everyone some hot chocolate. How does that sound?”
“Good,” Steve told her, still feeling kind of shell-shocked.
He’d been sitting at the table for a good five minutes before realizing that Jonathan was holding his right hand between both of his. If Joyce noticed when she set the mugs down in front of them, she didn’t say anything. Neither did Will.
Steve drank the hot chocolate, and it did help, a little. Then he followed Jonathan into his room and laid next to him in his bed and said in a whisper, “I have no idea what happens now.”
“I don’t either,” Jonathan told him.
The first thing that happened was a social worker pulling Steve out of class and asking him about a million questions that he figured he had no reason to lie about anymore.
The second thing that happened was Tommy asking if his dad had really been arrested, and then telling him Laurie no longer wanted to date him.
The third thing that happened was Steve’s Aunt Lily coming for a visit, “Just until things calm down.” Steve didn’t really get along with Lily, but she was his mom’s sister, so at least she wasn’t loyal to his dad.
The fourth thing that happened was Earl Simpson pushing him down during basketball practice, and laughing, “Uh-oh! The cops are gonna come arrest me now!” Coach had benched Simpson and given him detention, but it still hurt like hell. And not just physically.
Technically Steve’s mom still lived in the house, but Steve never saw her except in passing. When Steve asked Lily about it, she waved her hand and said, “Oh, you know how fragile your mother is. This whole business has thrown her all out of whack.”
Steve was able to write his own notes again in class. He was able to write his own assignments and papers, too. Between basketball practice and Lily always being around, asking after him, Steve barely got to see Jonathan at all.
One night, in early March, the weather had turned warmer and Steve was too restless to settle down. He sneaked out of the house and rode his bike out of his neighborhood, and around the woods, and up the trail to Jonathan’s place.
Jonathan’s window was kind of high up, but there was an old milk crate in the yard. Steve placed it under Jonathan’s window and climbed up it, tapping on the glass until Jonathan pulled up the shade and opened the window. “What are you doing?”
With a shrug, Steve told him, “C’mon. Pull me in.”
Jonathan looked out the window and said, “Stay there. I’ve got a better idea.”
He came out the back door a minute later, wearing a jacket, and carrying a big blanket and a flashlight. “Come on.”
Jonathan led the way into the woods, back to the fort where he’d found Steve with his arm broken. Steve ducked inside after him. They curled up together on the musty mattress, the blanket pulled tight around them. Jonathan switched off the light. “We probably can’t stay out here all night.”
“Just a little while, then,” Steve insisted, pressing his cold lips to Jonathan’s warm ones.
Jonathan kissed him back before asking in a whisper, “What’s going on with you? With everything?”
Steve spilled his guts. He talked about everything, and it took him a good fifteen minutes to get it all out. Then he said, “Shit, I suck. I haven’t asked what’s been going on with you.”
“I’m taking photography for my art elective this semester,” Jonathan said. “I think I kind of like it.”
“Such a snob,” Steve said, laughing when Jonathan huffed at him. “But that’s cool. Has Hopper still been coming around?”
“Sometimes,” Jonathan nodded. “Have you seen him at the gym?”
Steve shook his head. “I haven’t gone since I started back up for basketball practice. I don’t think my Aunt Lily would understand.”
“Would she understand this?” Jonathan asked, kissing Steve again.
“Definitely not.” Steve kissed back, a little more urgently. “I’m not sure I entirely understand this,” he admitted.
“Because you’ve dated girls before?” Jonathan asked him.
Steve hadn’t talked about that with Jonathan, but he supposed word got around school well enough.
“Do–” Steve asked, not quite sure how he wanted to ask the question. “Do you like girls at all?”
“I have before,” Jonathan admitted. “One or two.”
Curious, Steve asked, “Like who?”
“Nooo,” Jonathan said, hugging Steve a little closer. “I’m not talking about this with you.”
“Why not?” Steve asked. “You have other friends you confide in when I’m not around? Are you cheating on me?”
Jonathan laughed, pulling Steve close and kissing him again.
Steve threw himself into the kisses, making them as deep and dirty as Jonathan would allow. He got hard, and when Jonathan pulled his leg close, squeezing it between his thighs, he realized Jonathan was hard too, and pressed against Steve’s leg.
Jonathan pulled back after a bit, breathing heavily and resting his forehead against Steve’s. He asked, “How far did you get? With the girls you dated?”
“Just kissing,” Steve told him. “Not even second base.”
Jonathan laughed. “I don’t really … have a second base.”
“Sure you do,” Steve insisted, pushing his icy fingertips up under Jonathan’s shirt and flicking his cold-hardened nipple.
“Yeaghh!” Jonathan cried, pushing Steve’s hand away and punching him in the shoulder. “What the hell?” he asked, but he was laughing so Steve figured he didn’t mind too much.
“Sorry,” Steve said. “Maybe I’ll have to use my mouth next time. See if you like that better.”
Jonathan groaned. “You’re the worst! Why do I even like you?”
“I don’t know,” Steve said, completely honestly. “Did you feel bad for me?”
“Yeah, but that’s not why I like you,” Jonathan insisted. “I think it’s more… we have something in common. Something most kids at our school don’t understand.”
“Yeah, that makes sense,” Steve told him, pushing his hand into Jonathan’s hair and kissing him again. “That makes a lot of sense.”
Eventually, Aunt Lily got used to letting Steve have a normal amount of teenage freedom. He passed his driver’s test and got to start driving the BMW to school. His social capital was instantly restored.
Basketball season ended and baseball season started, and Steve decided not to go out for the team. He got his Aunt Lily to sign his membership paperwork at Hawkins Gym. When he spent two weeks doing laps and jump rope for Georgie, he finally got to learn how to punch.
It felt good. Better than Steve was expecting, for sure. He got stronger and faster. At school, Laurie and Amy fought over who was going to set next to him at lunch and wrap their hands around his arms.
“Does it bother you?” Steve asked Jonathan one night. They were parked out by the quarry, the stereo on quietly, hanging out in the back seat. “Those girls flirting with me at school?”
“Yeah,” Jonathan said, his fingers laced with Steve’s. “But I understand why you let them. It’s easier, pretending to be someone you’re not.”
“You know who I am, huh?” Steve asked Jonathan.
“Yeah, I do,” Jonathan said, leaning over and kissing Steve. "I know you."