It feels like I only go backwards, baby,
Every part of me says “go ahead”,
I've got my hopes up again, oh no, not again
It feels like we only go backwards, darlin'
♠ Tame Impala
Chicago, Illinois | 1986
If regrets could kill, he would be long gone.
There were two sounds in the room – the fast breathing of three teenagers and the thunderous beating of his own heart.
Could the boy with pale freckled cheeks and black puffy hair be just a hallucination? A ghost of his past begging him not to move on? A foggy dream? A beautiful nightmare? No. He couldn’t go through this again. Not now.
“Will… Who is he?” The boy right next to him asked. The boy whose mouth was attacking his just a few minutes ago – and he was attacking back, willingly and eagerly. What was his name again?
“I could ask you the same thing.” The boy with dark brown eyes and red lips answered in an angry tone. Always moody. Always so charming yet so inadequate. Will wondered, for a brief second, if his heart has ever belonged to someone else. Someone else besides him. Someone else instead of him.
“James, this is, hum… This is Mike Wheeler. My childhood friend.” Will managed to say in a very weak voice. Something inside of him was struggling to accept the fact that his lifelong crush had seen him making out with another guy. Not that he would ever return the feeling, but it still felt dirty. “Mike, this is James Graysen, my… My, hum…”
“We’re working on that.” The tall blonde guy answered for him with a charming smile. Will felt grateful for choosing such a gentleman to swap saliva with – because how lucky could a gay boy be in 1986?
“Nice to meet you, man.” Mike forced a smile and raised his hand to grab James’. Will could tell Mike was faking it, for just seconds ago, he looked like he could murder James with his own hands. Why, exactly? Will didn’t know. He just knew that traveling all the way from Indiana to Illinois just to find your best friend kissing another boy could be a little surprising and, at the very least, quite frustrating (on Mike’s point of view).
But Will had questions of his own.
Why did you take so long to come?
Why do you only call me on special occasions, yet you call El every week?
Why didn’t you come with the rest of the party a few months ago?
Why am I always the first one to start an interaction?
And most importantly…
Why do I feel like you’re bothered?
Images of Mike and El being the stickiest couple of all time flooded his mind, and suddenly he didn’t feel so embarrassed anymore.
“So… Why are you here?” He asked in fake nonchalance after the boys had shaken each other’s hands and the initial element of surprise had lost its spark.
Mike seemed to think of what to say for a moment.
“Well, uh… There’s plenty of reasons.” He smiled to himself, that cheeky grin he missed so much. Will breathed in slowly and prayed to all Gods that James wouldn’t notice his cheeks turning a bit red. “I missed you lots, I had money to spend, but mostly I… I just realized I’ve never had the chance to say I’m sorry.”
An awkward silence had installed in the room – which was behind the restrooms of Will and James’ school gymnasium – and for a while, the sentence just hung up in the air.
“Sorry? Sorry for what?” Will chuckled nervously at the sight of Mike staring at the ground with a mix of guilt, embarrassment, and nostalgia. James looked at him in confusion and Will resisted the urge to say I have no idea what the hell is going on here.
Mike woke up of his seconds’ long trance and turned his gaze to Will. An electric sea of sensations crossed his body like a bolt of lightning when he said:
“I think we should talk. Alone.”
Hawkins, Indiana | 1985
Will was pacing back and forth in his room. Back and forth. Back and forth. Surely that wasn’t the best idea – he had already come out to his mom and brother, why did he have to go through this emotional pain with his friends?
Because they’re my second family. A voice in the back of his head answered his inner question. And every day is a struggle, knowing I can’t be truly myself. At least they deserve to know.
The knocks on his door startled him to the core. He felt as though a huge bucket of ice water had been thrown on his petite form, from head to toe. They were way too early, weren’t they? He looked at the clock – 4:32 pm – just two minutes after he told them to meet him. Oh, what he wouldn’t give to just morph into the ground.
“Will! We’re here!” Dustin shouted in that delicate way of his. Lucas wasn’t too far behind on the yelling, knocking at the door just a little harder. Will only then realized that he hadn’t moved an inch for one solid minute, like a paralyzed, terrified creature.
“I’m coming!” He responded and heard a feminine voice say something like he’s definitely alive!
Great. They had brought Max.
He opened the door. El was there too.
They were all there.
Including Mike. Especially Mike.
Okay, Will, be cool. He breathed in and out once again, something he was struggling with during the whole day. They’re your friends, they love you just the way you are. It’s not like you aren’t all a bunch of weirdos anyway, so what’s a little more of bizarreness?
“Dude, you seem pale,” Lucas commented, his face frowning slightly. “Is that related to what you have to say to us?”
“Uh, no I… Hum…”
“You’re just making him more nervous.” Mike snapped, arching his eyebrows in Lucas’ direction. As he looked at Will, his expression immediately softened. “Will, whenever you’re ready, you can tell us.”
There was that again. The reason for all that gathering.
That ardent, tingling feeling of adoration. Love. Joy. All because of Mike.
Mike, a boy.
Boys aren’t supposed to like other boys.
The image of his father came to mind.
“I don’t know about you guys, but I have a compromise later. So please, be quick.” Max raised her voice in the silent room. Jonathan and Joyce were working and Will had the house all to himself – and now to his friends.
If they even want to remain friends after my revelation…
He shut his eyes strongly and sit down on the sofa. The other five teenagers followed him with weird expressions on their faces.
“What I wanted to tell you was that hum…” He started, but his words betrayed his thoughts. The expectant faces of his friends didn’t hold any judgments, but his mind had a colorful imagination.
“I… I am… Well…” He sighed, his hands twisting in nervousness. The room was way too hot, for he could feel the sweat dripping on his back and on his palms. But it’s winter–
“Will?” Dustin called. Mike was starting to frown.
“I’m gay!” He wanted to scream. “I’m queer! A fag! A fairy in the gayland! Whatever you want to call – I like boys!”
I like their hairstyles, I like their broad shoulders, I like how I can always see them topless and never have to wonder about their body shapes. I like the realness and the tone of their voices and how they can be rough and soothing at the same time. But most importantly, I like their…
“… dicks. You guys are being dicks.”
“What?” Will asked, astonished. Had his mind traveled way too far this time? He barely realized that his friends were arguing right in front of him.
“I told them not to pressure you. You told me this is a delicate subject. They were being dicks.” Mike said, defensively. Max rolled her eyes, El seemed confused, Lucas had no expression and Dustin looked indignant.
“I wasn’t being a dick, I was just trying to bring him back to Earth. Jesus, why do you treat Will like a baby?”
“Yeah, Mike, leave the babysitting to Steve!”
“What the hell…”
“Guys, guys!” Will shouted, earning everyone’s attention. That didn’t happen very often. “This is a delicate subject, but not worth a fight.”
“Then tell us!” Lucas exclaimed. “Tell us what has been bothering you for so long!”
Suddenly he imagined his friends leaving. The tears in his eyes. The disgust in their faces. The unwelcome surprise. He pictured his dad, standing in the hallway, staring at him as a human staring at a rat. He could hear his words, as sharp as knives, making him bleed and cry and scream and…
That’s when he said:
“I feel like Hopper wants to bang my mom.”
The afternoon ended up being completely different than what he had in mind. And for that, he felt as coward as ever.
The living room exploded in tremendous noise. Dustin was surprised no one had noticed before. Mike and Lucas couldn’t understand why that was so important. Max had to explain to El what “bang” meant without actually clarifying the act. And Will just added more context to a lie that could as well be true.
But when the night came and they all left, he felt empty again. Only worse.
Felt bad for his mom and Hopper. Felt bad for El. Felt bad for himself. His friends would never take him seriously again after that.
That’s why, a few minutes later, a knock on the door surprised him.
Will had already changed to his pajamas and was ready to cry himself to sleep. Mike had other plans.
“What are you doing here?” He asked as the tall boy entered his house without warning or restraints. His confusion was bombarded by Mike’s determined look.
“I could’ve gone home, you know. I could’ve gone upstairs to my room and think about how none of this makes sense.”
Will gulped inaudibly. Before he could ask anything, Mike went on.
“You knew Bob Newby wanted to bang your mom and you definitely knew they were banging when they started dating, but you didn’t make that much of a big deal. In fact, you avoided this subject because it made you uncomfortable. All of a sudden, you decide to call all your friends and warn them of a code red. We reunite in your house, fearing for something more, something darker, something of the upside down or related to your health… and that’s what you come up with?”
Will’s fear was now turning into annoyance.
“What are you insinuating? That I’m a liar?”
Mike seemed surprised to see the bit of anger popping in Will’s tone, but didn’t back down.
“I’m implying that there’s something you’re not telling me… Telling us.”
Will sighed. The fact that he didn’t deny Hopper and Joyce’s obvious attraction for each other was the last thing on his mind.
“Go home, Mike.” His hands went to the sides of his forehead. Only the boy standing in front of him could give him such a migraine at that hour. “It’s nothing important.”
“Nothing important? Nothing important?” Mike’s face went red, yet Will couldn’t tell, for he had turned his back on him. The tallest boy ran to his encounter and stood in his front like a barrier. “How dare you say there’s nothing important going on after all you went through? I thought we could trust each other. Crazy together, remember?”
Yes, I remember. Will closed his eyes in emotional pain. I’ll remember this till my hair turns white and my legs get weak and my skin grows old.
“Friends don’t lie.” He continued. Will wanted to punch him. Or kiss him. Something in between. “And, might I add, friends don’t omit. If we don’t have trust, then we have nothing.”
The deadliest silence.
When Will walked away, he thought he could hear Mike’s heart shattering. Or maybe it was his trust. His pride. He knew something had broken down.
Before Mike could leave, however, he spoke.
“The things people say about me, the things you heard… They’re true.”
Another silence before the door closed again. Will thought he was alone – and maybe that was for the best – but of course, he wasn’t. After all, he was talking to Mike Wheeler.
“What?” The other boy asked, his tone was way softer than before. Will felt something inside of him shift. Like his soul was remolding.
“When my dad called me a fag, or when Troy called me a queer… When those kids made fun of me for being weak and a little too small and a little too delicate… When some of them would catch me looking at a cute boy in class with red cheeks… All those things people talked about… They’re true. They were right. All along.”
“I’m gay, Mike.” He hadn’t realized he was crying until his voice cracked. The tears went down smoothly as a waterfall, softly like a lullaby. Strangely, he felt fine. Relieved, even. “I never thought I would ever have the courage to say this, but it’s who I am. I tried to change. Tried to have a crush on girls. Jennifer Hayes. Pamela Crimson. Kate Jensen. I prayed. I cried. I even borrowed my brother’s secret porn magazines. Nothing worked. Nothing.”
“Will, it doesn’t matter…”
“It matters, Mike. That’s the problem.” The smaller boy sniffed in anger. He turned around to face his best friend, who was looking at him with sympathy – if not pity – and decided to say everything he’s ever wanted to say. “The world hates people like me. We’re not welcome. We’re freaks, we’re wrong, we’re sinners, we’re going to hell, we’re going against God’s will. I’m sick of it. I’m sick of feeling threatened and humiliated and small. I’m tired of hiding every single day. But guess what? I might as well get used to it because this feeling isn’t going anywhere. Not just my feelings, but my whole nature. And if I’m being completely honest? If the Upside Down was more accepting of my kind, I’d gladly go back.”
“Don’t say that!” Mike grabbed his arm firmly and stared angrily at his red face. “Don’t ever say that again. Do you hear me? You’re safe now.”
Will scoffed. “Am I?”
“Yes, Will!” Mike was now surrounding him completely, his hands grabbing his shoulders and grounding him to reality. “I don’t give a damn about that. So what if you like boys? Freddie Mercury likes boys. David Bowie too. So does Elton John. You’re still my best friend.”
His tears were drying out as green met brown. Those caramel freckles, so close to him… Would Mike run away if he knew the truth? The whole truth?
“I was scared to tell the party. I already told Jonathan and mom. They’re my family, so I guess it would be hard to get rid of me. But you guys…” And suddenly the tears returned again. Mike finally hugged him.
“No, Will, that’s not true… We would never…”
And so the night went on. Will’s limbs being crushed by Mike’s weight in such a tight hug. He could die in his embrace and he would die happy. He cried and apologized and cried again.
When Joyce came home, just a few minutes after Jonathan, she wasn’t surprised to find Mike and Will curled up in his room, sound asleep and both with very swollen faces.
Hawkins, Indiana | Summer 1985
“It’s not my fault you don’t like girls!”
The words left his mouth as easily as a body went down a waterslide. His expression changed immediately, from anger to guilt. Will, however, could only drown in the most awful feeling as the phrase rang in his ears repeatedly. How dare he?
“I’m not trying to be a jerk, okay?” Mike shook his head. Will contained his tears, for he felt humiliated enough. “But we’re not kids anymore. I mean, what did you think, really? That we were never gonna get girlfriends? That we were just gonna sit in my basement all day and play games for the rest of our lives?”
There were a lot of things he wanted to say to him.
He wanted to say he thought they would be friends forever. He thought they would grow confident and smoothly and beautifully. Nothing to come between them. No force so strong to make them doubt their bond. Nothing so weak to make the strings that tied them together loosen up.
He wanted to say that Mike had never been as tremendously stupid as he was being at that very moment, and for that, he hated him. For just a small second, he hated him.
“Yeah” He hurtfully stated. “I guess I did.” The tears were now about to spill. “I really did.”
He turned to his bike and Mike felt as though his body was made of regrets and bad choices.
“Will…” He called his friend in a useless try. The boy was already leaving. “Will, come on!”
Too late. Will’s tears were mixed with raindrops.
If regrets could kill, he would be long gone.
Chicago, Illinois | 1986
“Dude, that was so long ago…”
“It wasn’t, Will. That’s the problem.” Mike responded just as quickly and Will felt a sensation of Déjà vu. After a very awkward parting with James, they were now sitting on the bleachers of Will’s school stadium. There were a few lights on and he had promised Joyce to be home by 8:00 pm. He was surprised his mom even allowed him to be out that late in a big city, but it’s how she herself had stated – you can’t move on completely if you don’t let go of your fears and insecurities.
“So, why right now?” He spoke after what seemed to be several minutes later. Mike side-eyed him as if he was embarrassed. Maybe he was. “I mean, if this bothers you so much, you could’ve talked to me sooner. We have telephones, you know.” He chuckled humorlessly, Mike followed his gesture.
“Yeah… Let’s say I had some… awakening.” He raised his eyebrows in that expressionist way of his. Will suddenly realized he had missed him. He had missed him quite a lot.
“Awakening? What do you mean?”
Mike turned to face him and sighed.
“Some things happened over the past few months that made me realize that I’m a douchebag. Or was, at least. That’s what I hope.”
Will wasn’t expecting him to be so blunt, especially with something that was obviously sensitive to him. He was about to deny that statement but stopped in his tracks. Deep down, he knew it was his turn to listen.
“I’ve never apologized to Max until two months ago. She was just a regular girl trying to make friends in a new town and I treated her like some sort of dangerous alien.” He scoffed to himself as if he couldn’t believe his own stupidity. Giving that Mike was a teenager full of hormones back at the time – and probably still was – Will failed to understand why he seemed so troubled. “It’s quite funny thinking about that because that’s exactly how Lucas acted with El while you were missing. The difference, though, is that he had a point. A very good point. My point? The girl I liked was nowhere to be found and this other girl was supposedly trying to take her place. Meanwhile, El was being hidden and you were being possessed. In the end, nothing actually mattered, because I lost you. I lost you both.”
Mike’s voice broke down a little and Will thought he would start crying. He didn’t, though – he jumped in a standing position and shook his head in the direction of the road. “Let’s take a walk.”
Will followed him in silence, for a moment. He was silent too. He remembered that silence with Mike was never that mysterious, not nearly as uncomfortable and hard to dissect.
“Sometimes, it just feels…” He started again. “It feels like I’m empty.”
I know the feeling. Will wanted to say.
“When you and El aren’t around, something just isn’t right.” He went on. “When you went missing, I was desperate and confused. When El went missing, I was angry and frustrated. Now you are both gone and I’m all these things and more. And I figured there was something incredibly wrong – I couldn’t be this attached, could I?”
Will opened his mouth and closed again, at loss of words. What was the meaning of all that confession?
“Then, like pieces of a puzzle, all those little things started to make sense.” He could’ve sworn Mike’s eyes shone for a second – or maybe it was just a random Christmas light.
“Things? What little things?” Will finally spoke, the questions taking a big part of his brain. Mike had stopped walking and was now facing him directly. It was funny – no matter how much time passed, Mike always managed to stay taller than Will.
“Those cute boys you stared at in Middle School? I stared at them too. The difference is that I only focused on the fact that I also admired the girls.” He said, not losing eye contact for one single minute. Will felt his heart twist in the most unwelcome sort of way. “The bullies didn’t notice that because they were way too busy commenting on my frog face. But you? You were just so… Pretty.”
“Pretty?” Will scoffed. Mike rolled his eyes – he was serious.
“Handsome, if you prefer. Nice to look at. Delicate.” He elaborated, to Will’s discomfort. No, that couldn’t be right. That had to be some sort of joke – a sick, problematic prank. “I wasn’t lying when I said that being your friend was the best thing I’ve ever done. It still is. And you’re still good looking and sweet and kind like you always have. But you’re so far away. It seems you’ve been away from me since you disappeared and I can’t have you back no matter how much I want to. I’ve felt like this for such a long time and I only came to realize it now.”
When Mike approached him, Will took a step back. But big soft hands grabbed his cold fingers and his heart stopped beating.
“Mike…” He murmured in desperation. If his goal was to turn his soul into complete ashes, then he definitely succeeded.
“I said I was sorry, back at Castle Byers, that day. But I never truly let myself be heard. I just shove all my feelings down my throat and pretended that all those horrible things never happened. The fight. The break-up. The monster. Hopper’s death. It was too much for me. I’ve never really had the chance to solve our fight – but most importantly, I never said that I loved you.”
“I still do.”
Oh goddamn no.
“Just like I loved El.”
All the hope you shattered in my being just came back full force, you sadistic boy.
“Mike,” Will said through gritted teeth. “Don’t you dare play with my heart again.”
The other teenager seemed a little surprised with his choice of words but didn’t back down. In fact – he only got closer. And closer, and…
“If your intention is to kiss me, I’d like to remind you that I was making out with another guy just a few minutes ago.”
“Is it something that bothers you? Because although I was quite pissed off at that dude, I really want to kiss you right now.” Mike said, his expression as truthful as anything Will had ever seen before. He remembered his mother’s look on her face when she said she would never let anything bad happen to him again. A huge warmth spread itself through Will’s body and made him realize that he also wanted to kiss Mike. Badly. Urgently.
So why was he pulling away?
“Mike” He took his bigger and slightly freckled hands out of his cheeks. He caressed them with his own fingers, which were now warm. “We shouldn’t.”
When he looked back at his childhood best friend, he was holding back tears.
“It would be a step backwards, wouldn’t it?” Mike almost sniffled. He wanted to believe his nose was red due to the cold.
“Yes. Yes, it would.” Will agreed, his voice was weak. They kept staring at each other, smiling soothingly. They had missed each other so much.
Mike took one of Will’s hands and they continued to walk.
“Today, three years ago, you vanished. Vanished into thin air. And I thought I would never see you again.” The taller boy commented after a few minutes. Will raised his eyebrows in surprise.
“I didn’t realize.”
“Great. It means it’s truly gone.” Mike smiled. Will noticed he hadn’t seen his smile in a long time – not because they didn’t live in the same town anymore, but because of everything that has happened to them. It felt nice – great, even – to see him that way. Honest. Radiant. Warm.
And Will soon concluded that he didn’t care, as long as he could see that smile again.
“I love you too, Mike. Always have.”
The hold on his arm tightened.
Happy and red-faced, the two boys made their way home hand in hand.