The Place Beyond the Quarry is the follow up to the Shotguns’s critically acclaimed sophomore album, the Grammy-nominated METALHEAD. Unlike their first album — a metal inspired grunge album with influences from Led Zeppelin, T.Rex, and Metallica alike, with soaring vocals and surprisingly delicate, thoughtful musical digressions — or the aforementioned METALHEAD — which leaned further into both the sounds of metal and Ed Levy’s distinctive lyrical stylings — The Place Beyond the Quarry is more interested in story-telling and risk-taking. I tell him so right before we sit down, that that is what I want to talk about today.
“I’m into that. I’m not, like, invested in creating a certain sound and sticking to it,” Levy says. “Sure, there’s comfort in it — you keep your core fans that way, you know? — but I wanna explore. I wanna do interesting things, and I thought it’d be fun to take a whole album and tell a certain story.”
Like a concept album?
“No, no.” He shakes his head, lights up a cigarette after asking if I mind. I don’t, but he still carefully blows the smoke away from me as he continues, “It’s just a story. A ghost story, maybe, a horror story, definitely. A failed love story. I want — something I want, and I don’t think I’ve done it here, I don’t know if I’m ready yet, but something I want to get close to — that risk-taking — is kind of cracking myself open. Showing myself, as I am. I think I get close.”
He pauses then, stares out the window, contemplative. He repeats, “Risk-taking. Risk. Hmm. Yeah. I suppose that’s one word for it.”
— Excerpted from “Obscurity, Legend, or Horror Story: Ed Levy Talks a Place Beyond the Quarry,” NME, August 1994
Sixteen years after the world didn't end for the last time, Max Mayfield showed up on Steve’s doorstep and said, “You gonna walk me down the aisle in May or what?” It’s not really a question.
It was January, the new semester just starting, and it was sleeting like a son of a bitch on the South Side of Chicago. Steve had been living in the same loft space in a converted warehouse since he’d moved to Chicago, back in ‘94 when he’d succumbed to the final round of educational bullying from Nancy and Robin and found himself accepted to Chicago State, pursuing a Master’s in School Counseling. Like a lot of things, he’d fallen into his career and, against all reason and historical evidence, he was actually a damned good guidance counselor. Maybe it was all the experience from babysitting the Party and saving the world, he’d think and then laugh quietly to himself.
But good at it he was, and he was also good at his side gig at the school he worked at as the coach of the boy’s basketball team. The team itself wasn’t anything to write home about — they hadn’t yet made it past the first round of States but they had a lot of heart and grit and a few of his kids had been scouted over the last five years that he’d been coaching. He had a good feeling about this season though, and so had his kids, putting up with him running them ragged near daily in the paint, encouraged because he always ran himself ragged right next to them.
Even if, he thought, they mainly just enjoyed ragging on him afterwards for how deflated his still-signature hair got.
He’d, in fact, just been there, at the high school gym, critiquing free-throws and putting in wind sprints to groans and good-natured but still foul teenage expletives, before sending them all home for the afternoon and packing himself up as well. It hadn’t been weathering yet, when he’d hopped onto the 9, but it had started soon after and he’d had to carefully jog through the slush and sleet for the final ten minute leg of his journey home.
He’d just finished his usual post-work out routine — protein shake and a handful of Nilla wafers, then a five minute shower followed by twenty-minutes of sitting at the bottom of the shower dissociating — and was trying to decide if he felt like cooking or if he just wanted to order some take-out when his doorbell rang.
Brow furrowed, Steve had made his way to his door, wondering if one of the neighbors had gotten locked out or someone else’s dinner was on his doorstep only to find one of his once-wayward charges. Max stared out at him from a parka that probably weighed more than she did, pale face a wind chapped red and furious about it. She’d never gotten used to a midwestern winter and had hightailed it back to Cali after graduation to study at UC Santa Barbara, Lucas trailing in her wake with a athletic scholarship further south at San Diego State. They were both in L.A. these days, Max working as a children’s therapist and Lucas a point guard with the Clippers.
They stared at each other for a long moment, Max frowning grumpily and Steve trying to remember if he wholly blacked out on a phone call. He knew the Clippers were in an away loop, because they had a game in Milwaukee coming up that he’d wanted to go to but couldn’t because it was a Tuesday, and Max usually didn’t travel with Lucas, too busy with her practice, but maybe she had this time, and Steve totally forgot about dinner plans, but then she had ambushed with with that walking down the aisle business and —
Max cracked him right on the shin with her cane. “Mother fucker, you gonna let me in or what? It might be warm in this hallway but I’ve been freezing my tits off for the past hour and a half getting here from O’Hare and my hip is goddamn killing me.”
Steve blinked and stepped aside. “Did I forget about a visit?”
“No.” She shouldered past him, pulling her parka off and tossing it over his coat rack. “This is an ambush.”
“Okay,” he said. That was on brand. “Go sit on the couch before you fall down and break another hip, grandma. You want coffee? I got a hot water bottle I can warm up too.”
“Yeah, thanks,” Max said. “Both, please.”
He put on his kettle first, and then started up his Mr Coffee as he went. He shot a look over his shoulder at Max, who was making herself comfortable on the Ikea sofa he’d let Robin pick out last summer when she was visiting, replacing the old shit-kicker he’d inherited from Joyce and Hopper when he’d first moved in.
“Food too?” he called over his shoulder.
“I could eat,” she hollered back.
“Yes. The shit in LA is an abomination.”
Steve picked up the landline in the kitchen and dialed his local place, putting his regular order in plus an extra round of garlic knots, while he kept one eye on the stove and the other on the Mr Coffee. In a matter of minutes, he had all three tasks done and he was joining Max on the couch with two mugs of coffee in his hands and the water bottle tucked under his arm.
She liberated the bottle immediately, setting it under her left hip, and then took hold of her coffee mug. Steve had given her one of the novelty mugs Dustin had gotten for him over the years that announced he’s gotten lei’d in Honolulu; he had poured his coffee into his personal favorite mug from that collection, one that read World’s Okayest Dad. Max snorted as she read it.
“How’s the practice?” he asked, settling back into the cushions.
“Normal,” she said. “Had to call CPS the other day, did I tell you?”
“You mentioned you had some concerns,” Steve said.
Of all the kids, Steve stayed most in touch with Max. Dustin and Lucas were always on the go — Lucas, of course, traveling with his team and Dustin had ended up working for Industrial Light and Magic (and hadn’t that been a phone call that nearly blew Steve’s eardrums out) and was always on some movie set or another — and Will called fairly from NYC regularly to talk but god help him if he was approaching a deadline from his editor. Meanwhile, Mike and El ran a bed and breakfast in upstate New York and often were pretty busy being a couple of granola weirdos with chickens, living off the grid; Mike would occasionally call but El preferred to send him letters.
Max and him had similar professional interests though, working with kids, even if they were two totally different careers. They would send each other scholarly articles about counseling and early education development and any interesting papers they may have read lately; they’d bounce ideas off each other, ask for advice if they had a particularly difficult kid in their care at the moment while still protecting privacy and abiding by doctor-patient confidentiality. They emailed at least twice a week, and regularly talk on the phone, schedules and time zones allowing.
“Yeah,” she was saying. “It was pretty ugly, in the end. I was hoping I wouldn’t have to get them involved but —”
“I’m sure you made the right call,” he told her.
“Oh, I did,” she said. “It’s just — you know. You never want that.”
Steve squeezed her shoulder once. “I know.”
“How are your kids? Darlene still having a normal one?”
“Always,” he said with a snort. “Pretty sure she’ll be in my office at least four times next week, in a full panic about something. Totally reminds me of Dustin at that age, going on about the same shit. Poor kid.”
“You tell her not getting into college isn’t the end of the world?” she asked.
“Every damn time,” Steve said. “Even told her I didn’t go until I was twenty-three, but honestly I think that freaked her out more. Kid’s an absolute genius, there is no way she isn’t getting into every one of her top schools, but you can’t reason with anxiety.”
The doorbell rang then, and it was the kid from his local place with his order. He tipped generously for coming out in the weather, and set the boxes on his coffee table. He popped back into the kitchen to ditch their coffee mugs and grab them each a Peroni, even though it still felt weird to offer any of the kids something alcoholic.
They each got through a slice before Steve took a swig of his beer and said, “So, about me walking you down the aisle.”
“What about it,” Max said around a mouthful of pepperoni. “It’s happening.”
“I haven’t even gotten a save the date yet or whatever,” he said.
She rolled her eyes. “What do you think this conversation is, Harrington?”
He rolled his eyes right back.
“May fourth, it’s a Saturday, gonna be up in Santa Rosa,” she said. “Wine country. We booked this vineyard for the ceremony, there’s a damn wine cave for the after party.”
“That confident Lucas isn’t making the playoffs this year?”
“The Clippers blow,” said Max, pulling approximately zero punches, as always, and like she wasn’t wearing a Clipper scarf on the way in, “so, yeah, no, I think we’re good for the date, even be able to invite the whole team.”
The Clippers, Steve reflected, did in fact blow this year. They weren’t his team — go Pacers and occasionally the Bulls — but he kept an eye on their standings to support Lucas, and they were four L’s in a row at the moment, though the last one was in OT. It would take an actually miracle to get them beyond April that year, which Max clearly wasn’t betting on.
“Well, then as your father,” he started.
“Gross,” she said.
“As your father,” he said, “do I get to bring a date to this thing?”
She waved her slice of pizza at him. “Robin’s already gonna be there.”
“Did you invite Robin before you invited me?” he asked. “I don’t know how I feel about that.”
Max rolled her eyes again. Steve had given up years ago trying to tell her they’d stick like that. She may have been the kid he was closest to these days, but she was also the one who respected him the least. He wondered if that said anything about him, and promptly shoved that thought into the back of his mind of interrogate at the later date of fucking never.
“I asked her to put that fancy Fine Arts BA to work and make the invites,” she was telling him. “Of course she knows when the date is before you. She knew the date before anyone besides me and Lucas, and, like, Lucas’s agent.”
“Keeping it in the family, aren’t you?” he said. “Robin with the invites, me walking you down the aisle.”
“Yep,” said Max. She picked a few pieces of pepperoni off her slice, ate them one at a time. She said, off hand, “We actually asked Eddie to officiate. Lucas talked him into it a while back, actually, so he planned his current European tour around it, and will be back in the states by then. We haven’t seen him since Will’s book signing last year, he’s really excited to see everyone again.”
“That’s nice.” He shoved a garlic knot in his mouth. “So I’m third to get invited?”
“Seventh,” she said. “Well, maybe not. Eighth? Ninth? I told El after we asked Eddie, and Lucas told Mike and Dustin and Will, and I bet they told Jonathan and Nancy.”
Steve snorted. “You sure know how to make a boy feel special.”
Max smirked around the neck of her Peroni and jabbed Steve in the ribs with her elbow, still as fucking pointy as they were when her head barely went past his waist.
While Steve proclaimed that he loved all his children equally, albeit differently, sometimes he thought if someone put a gun to his head and asked his favorite, it might be Max. Lucas liked to lord the fact that he took most after Steve over the rest — jocks, Mike always hissed derogatorily, even while smirking; Dustin was the closest thing to a brother Steve had ever had in his life; Mike was an absolute shitbird but well-meaning and he’d be the first to call Steve these days asking for advice; and Will and El were just angels here on Earth and they’d never done anything wrong in their lives, as far as Steve was concerned.
But Max was a miracle, an honest to god miracle. She’d spent a month in that hospital bed, unaware, Steve by her side more than not, with Joyce and Hopper too, because Max’s mom couldn’t handle it. Hopper had been the one to lie to the nurses, say Steve was Max’s older brother, and maybe it had been Joyce in tandem with Murray but then there were papers that said so too, gave Steve power of attorney and it had choked him right up, wrapped a fist around his heart and tightened like a vice. Steve had kept her hair in plaits, taught El to do the same, helped the nurses with her PT, read her books well into the night.
He’d only left her side when Joyce kicked him out, and even then he never went far. He’d go home to shower and sleep, sure, but Eddie was two hospital rooms down, in his own medically induced coma with his uncle at his side while they waited for him to stabilize enough to get a kidney transplant from Mike, of all people, who turned out to be a match.
Steve had haunted that hospital like a ghost until Eddie woke and got whisked away by the feds, and until Max woke up too, and they saved the world again, Vecna Part Two: Electric Boogaloo or whatever.
These days, her remembrance from Vecna was a cane on a good day, and a wheelchair on the bad ones. She had difficulty with fine motor control too, relied on a dictaphone for her session notes with her patients. The screaming nightmares, she assured, were few and far between now, and Steve believed her, only because his nightmares were too.
Having her here, sat across from him, it was a miracle none of them thought they would get, and the Steve of the spring of 1986 wouldn’t have even been able to fathom this conversation on his couch. His girl was getting married — his girl was alive and whole enough to get married, and she was asking him to walk her down the aisle.
“Sorry I didn’t ask you first,” she told him, picking shakily at the label of her beer. Steve couldn’t look away from the tiny motions of her fingers as she spoke. “I mean, if you’re really sore about it. I suppose I just — you know, the day Lucas proposed to me, back when we were eighteen — when we were kids — I wasn’t ready back then, you know that, and neither was he. We’d been through so much, and I didn’t know if we knew who we were without that. We had a lot of living we needed to do, normal living, and so we decided to wait until I was finished with school, and then Lucas was getting drafted and I was getting my masters and you know I never thought marriage was a thing I’d want, not really. I’d seen seen all these terrible marriages, all my life, and I thought: who could possibly want that? Why would you want to put yourself through that? It seemed like a fucking tax scam, and maybe I still think that, maybe it really is, but even when I thought that, even then — the only two things I knew for certain was if I did get married, if I changed my mind, if I thought, fuck it, why not — I knew that it’d be to Lucas and I knew that I’d want you next to me when I did it.”
Steve looked out the window. He rubbed a hand across his mouth.
“Are you crying?” demanded Max. “You’re crying, ugh, don’t make it weird, old man.”
“I’m not crying, you’re crying,” he said, shifting to wrap one around her thin shoulders. He dropped a kiss onto her hair while she pretended to gag.
“So you’ll do it?” she asked.
“Whatever you want,” he told her, squeezing her shoulders once and releasing her. He stood and went to the kitchen to grab them two more beers; they’d earned it. “Alright, so, now that is out of the way or whatever — did you come here with any other plans? Or did you just think you’d ambush me emotionally and then rely upon the goodness of my heart and the softness of this Ikea sofa?”
“Bitch, I am not sleeping on the sofa,” she said as he dropped back down next to her. “I’m crippled, I get your bed — you get the sofa."
Steve shook his head. “Yeah, that tracks. You want me to see if I can find the Clipper’s game?”
“Ugh, those losers?” She kicked up her feet into Steve’s lap. “Sure. Whatever you want.”
… Girl with a Buzzcut , the titular song of the album. It starts slow, a gentle warm up of guitar and soft lyrics, before bursting into something hard and fast; it slows again just as quickly. Levy repeats the move several times, easing the listener into the story of a fierce creature with her hair shorn to her scalp and the place she’s looking to burn to the ground for its trespasses against her, building the rhythm and melody as the Girl’s rage builds. Levy’s lyrics paint a stark picture of the girl, someone he clearly respects and admires for her ferocity; it’s a stark juxtaposition to the last song on the album, which is a sort of bittersweet ode to a small-town cheerleader who finds herself in trouble and doesn’t know how to get out — a story that is more universal than the apparent monster killer of the Girl…
— Excerpted from “Seattle’s Own The Shotguns Drop First Full Album,” The Rocket, April 1990
Steve had just shooed his last student of the day out of his office — Darlene Johnston, of course, having yet another crisis about her college application process because she hadn’t yet heard back from her two early action schools, and Steve had to talk her off the ledge, because the kid was top of her class and was surely going to get into all of the schools she was applying to — when someone knocked as he was packing up to get ready to head to the gym.
He looked up, ready to neatly dispatch whatever student needed his attention, and nearly sighed in relief when he saw who it was.
Madchen Fraser was Steve’s best friend at Whitney. The sophomore English teacher and girls’ basketball coach, she was a weird little goth trapped in the body of a beautiful jock, six foot two and violently blonde and honest to god movie-star gorgeous, with the meanest three-point lay-up he’d seen outside the pros, and Steve had once personally watched her make Mr Griswald who taught AP chem cry using only her words. He kind of dreaded the day she inevitably met anyone from Hawkins in person; he would never know peace after.
“Hey,” he said.
“Hey. You getting ready to head to the gym?” she asked.
He nodded, locking his filing cabinet and standing to move out from behind his desk. “Yeah. You?”
“Yup,” Madchen said. “Walk with me?”
She stepped backward into the hall so Steve could look his door, and he fell into step with her, the clicking of her heels — which lifted her even taller, something Steve knew she did because she loved making people uncomfortable — the only sound for a moment. Last bell hadn’t rung yet, so they were alone in the halls.
“How are classes?” he asked. He hadn’t had much time to catch up with Madchen since they’d come back from winter break: he had all the home games while she’d been out on the aways with the girls lately, and they were on opposite lunch periods that semester to boot, which had always been their normal catch up time outside of practices.
“Eh,” she said. “We finished Up from Slavery right before the break, and I decided to make them all read On Civil Disobedience next this year so I’m expecting to get called to the superintendent’s office any day now.”
Steve snorted. “Last year’s Slaughterhouse-Five inspired riot wasn’t good enough for you?”
“First of all, it wasn’t a riot,” she said, “it was a small, erm, protest against the Gulf War and I gave a coerecided apology to the Board for that. You were there.”
He was. He’d been proud of those kids too. Still, he shook his head and told her, “You’re so lucky you haven’t been fired.”
“I thought we wanted to educate the youth and create free thinkers, not little automatons who don’t question the status quo.” Madchen shrugged. “Whatever, I’ll keep shaping the minds of tomorrow as I see fit and if they wanna fire me, fire me. What was that you said once? I’m not keeping any curiosity doors shut for these kids.”
“Yeah, yeah.” He snorted again. He’d gotten that from Dustin, a million years ago, and it was surprisingly applicable for so many situations in his life and career. “I did say that.”
They were at the gym by then, just a few minutes before the final bell of the day rang and Steve’s boys went to the weight room while Madchen’s girls had the court.
“You wanna stick around after practice?” she was asking. “Play a little horse, blow off some steam.”
“You just wanna take me to school out there,” he said, pointing.
“I do,” she said. “It’s very funny to me.”
“Fuck it, why not.”
They separated, going to their respective practices, and, as promised, Steve headed to the court after. A couple of each of their teams hung around on the bleachers, too, heckling as Madchen absolutely whipped his ass at horse. It was, of course, par for the course: back when she was a teen and a head taller than most of the other girls in her grade, Madchen had been scouted for the US National Team. The only reason she hadn’t ended up in the pros was because she’d been in a bad car accident that had derailed her young career and, after, had decided she’d rather go to school and become a teacher instead.
After two rounds of fully getting his ass handed to him, and smack talk coming from all directions, he and Madchen started cleaning up the court for the evening. Their kids headed out, waving as they went, and the two of them sat down on the bleachers, trading a water bottle back and forth between them.
“So I’ve got this wedding in May,” he told her. “Couple of the kids I used to babysit are getting married finally — you know, the therapist and the kid on the Clipper’s I’ve told you about?”
“The point guard,” she said, nodding. “He should really talk to his agent about a trade, he’s wasted.”
“I know.” Steve nodded too, lifting his shirt to wipe some sweat off his brow. “But Max’s practice is in LA and they both like it there, so I don’t think he’d move unless it was for the Lakers, or even Golden State.”
Madchen made a face at the mention of Golden State; she was a Boston girl, through and through.
“Anyway,” he continued. “Max is like my kid sister, I guess, and her dad’s been out of the picture for a while and her mom — she basically threatened to kneecap me if I didn’t walk her down the aisle, and like I would’ve said yes anyway, but she’s about ten pounds of whoopass in a five pound bag, so.”
“I really gotta meet these kids someday,” she said, snorting. “They sound like they were raised by wolves, and you know I love that in a kid.”
She didn’t even know the half of it, his little feral weirdos. “They’re all like thirty these days, but we could totally make that happen. You maybe wanna come? I get a date.”
For a second, she side-eyed him over the Gatorade-branded water bottle. He waved a hand at her. “Not as, like, a date-date.”
Steve, it should be said, had realized he had some very specific criteria for his close female friends. He didn’t think Joyce counted, because when he was being honest with himself he could admit he thought of her as his mom more than his own biological one, but the other women in his life? They were either lesbians, ex-girlfriends who he saved the world with, or something little sister adjacent — or, on occasion, an unholy combination of all three.
Madchen clocked in at two and a half of the three. They didn’t save the world together, but they’d gone on approximately one date together because they were peer-pressured into it when Steve started at the school — apparently, they were contractually obligated to given that they were both ‘ballers — and when they decided they were better off as friends, they’d slipped into friendly, sibling-like camaraderie, horse related ass-kickings and all.
They’d also discovered they shared another important trait through their friendship: they were both bi, and while Madchen was self-professed to always being female-leaning on the spectrum, Steve these days found himself more male leaning.
“I’ve got this cute lesbian I’ve been meaning to introduce you to,” he said, because, yeah, he knew he was setting himself up for a lifetime of getting his shit torpedoed on a regular basis but Robin and Madchen? He knew without a shadow of a doubt the two of them were going to hit it off, end up in gay love, move in two months into dating, and adopt something like twelve cats together.
The things he did for his friends, he thought, watching as Madchen’s stared, narrow-eyed, at him as she thought.
“How cute,” she said.
“So cute,” he told her. “Art historian in Boston, ex-band nerd, half a foot shorter than you, practically a pocket person.”
“Sold,” Madchen said. “I mean, I was gonna sign up anyway because I figured I’d finally get to meet all of those weirdos you call your children. A cute lesbian is just a bonus.”
“The gang will all be there,” he said. “I’m walking Max down the aisle, and El and Robin — that’s our girl — are gonna stand with her, and the boys will all be there with Lucas. My, like, adopted parents will be there too, and my kind of step-brother and his wife. Our friend Eddie is apparently officiating. Probably also like half the Clippers. Other people, probably —”
“Eddie,” said Madchen, slowly. Her eyes had narrowed again. “You’ve talked about him before.”
“Yeah,” said Steve, cautiously.
“The rockstar,” she said.
“Metalhead,” he corrected. “The Shotguns, that’s his thing.”
“The Shotguns. Huh.” She stared into the middle distance for a moment and Steve, suddenly, realized that something was at work behind Madchen’s eyes and he felt a sort of dread rise in his chest.
Madchen Fraser was perceptive, was the thing. He loved that about her. It was what made her such an insightful teacher, a brilliant essayist, a great coach. She was mean and fucking smart and there was a reason she was basically the head of the English department at Whitney despite only being thirty-three. She had a great memory, an excellent attention to detail, and was an avid reader of Rolling Stone. He watched, then, as Madchen’s mind started to work at the problem, as she weighed evidence from their five year friendship, as she recalled conversations they’ve had and things Steve had said over the years about, the one off-hand reference he’d made to a love affair that never even got off the ground because he was too much of a chickenshit to —
He could see her picturing the guys he’d hooked up with in the dark corners of the gay bars when they’d hit the town together, the one serious boyfriend he’d had since they’d known each other, the one serious girlfriend. He could practically see her picturing the December ‘98 cover of Rolling Stone in her mind’s eye.
He’d avoided this conversation with Madchen for five years; she hadn’t even known it was a conversation they could have. He’d successfully avoided this conversation with the people who knew him best for even longer.
Fuck, thought Steve.
“This is the guy you were in love with in high school, right?” she asked. “Or, like, right after? The one you fucked it up with.”
“I didn’t fuck anything up,” he said.
“I didn’t,” he said. “I didn’t! I just —”
The thing was: he didn’t do anything.
After Eddie woke up, staples in his stomach, several pints of other’s people blood in his veins, and Mike’s kidney replacing the one that demobats tore out of him, the feds had whisked him away. There hadn’t been a clear way to fix the damage Vecna had done to Eddie’s name and so it had been a sort of witness protection situation that was decided on in the end: Eddie and his uncle had gotten a new last name and a new home all the way out in Pittsburgh, Ed Levy born out of the ashes of Eddie Munson. And, sure, he’d stayed in touch, with Dustin and Mike, mostly, and Robin and Steve some too, the occasional phone call; and, sure, he had seemed more than happy to leave Hawkins in the rear view. But he’d peeled back into town in a cloud of smoke and burning rubber during that final showdown in the Upside Down when they’d called all the same, quite literally crashing his government-issued ‘78 Datsun 620 into the final big bad in the process, sending the damn thing spinning through the air in a manner that could only be described as slapstick.
After, Steve could feel this unspoken thing, between them, an unspoken thing with a capital-t, and they never talked about it. Not in person, not on the phone, not to other people. And they never acted on anything — the Steve of ‘86 barely had the vocabulary to even acknowledge that he felt something, let alone put words to it. And, sure, before and after, they’d been pulled to each other, like orbiting planets, inextricable —
But Eddie was there, and then he was gone, and then he was there again but he’d never be there again, and Steve —
He was —
Steve was fucking scared, okay, of what it meant, of what it was, and it wasn’t like Steve could go anywhere back then, not before the end, not before he knew it was over, not before everything was in the fucking ground where it belonged. This was his town, and his kids, and he had to protect them; it was the only thing he’d ever been good at and, even then, sometimes he thought he wasn’t all that good at it to begin with.
And even when it was — even when the dust settled and the skies were blue again — even when El swore up and down and until she was blue that nothing was ever, ever going to happen again — she’d collapsed it, she’d imploded it, sealed it within itself and tossed the key into the fires of Mordor or whatever —
Even then, it had still taken the collective powers of Hopper, Joyce, and Robin to convince Steve that there was something beyond Hawkins for him. That there was a life for him to be lived that wasn’t the kids and monsters and a place beyond the quarry.
Robin had joined forces with Nancy and Jonathan and Dustin, that punk shithead, to submit applications to local Indiana colleges behind his back; and Steve, somehow, found himself accepted to not one, not two, but three of them. He got out; he might’ve been the last of them, the last one out, even after the end. But he got out all the same.
It was just that it was too late, for the secret he kept in the dark shadows of his heart. It was 1989 by then, and Eddie was in Seattle at that point, deep in a developing grunge scene and putting the finishing touches on an EP that sometimes he played snatches from over the phone to Steve, while Steve was in Terre Haute, struggling though his BA in Elementary Education. How could someone so insignificant as Steve Harrington, he of the 2.1 GPA, reformed bully, world’s okayest dad — how could Steve mean anything to Eddie, putting out his first full album and then his second, two Grammy nominations coming down the pipeline?
Eddie was a rockstar, four albums, five, and Steve was some jumped up white boy in inner city Chicago trying to make a difference while Eddie was spread out on the cover of Rolling Stone, crooked smile and eyeliner, a Megadeth t-shirt riding up his stomach to show off the tattoos he got to cover up all those demobats bites. Steve just had scars that he didn’t talk about.
And, sure, they ran into each other all the time, this event for one of the kids or that, called and wrote letters and emailed — sure, they went to the same weddings and parties and anniversaries, mourned the same things, were haunted by the same things — sure, sometimes Steve felt Eddie’s eyes from across the room — sure, sometimes Steve had to look away —
It was just too late. It was okay. It was fine. Sometimes, no matter how bad you wanted something, it didn’t work out. He was happy with them as friends. Some things weren’t meant to be.
Lots of people, he thought, had regrets. It didn’t make him special.
Madchen was still staring at him.
“I didn’t fuck anything up,” he repeated. “It just — it never worked out. It’s fine, I promise.”