Chapter 1: part one
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.”
He takes me down to Pike Place, after he learns I’ve never been. He insists he needs to take me to his favorite bakery there, a Russian place called Piroshky Piroshky, and loudly extolls the virtues of a cinnamon cardamom pastry that he can’t get enough of when he’s in town.
Years ago, when Ed Levy burst onto the Seattle scene as one of the early pioneers of the grunge music scene, he was often described as a stripped wire: electric and anxious as equal turns, but bright, energetic, magnetic. Many of his early comparisons were to Marc Bolan of T.Rex which, in his words, was “all because of the hair.” But it was also the way he commanded the stage, strutting back and forth, winking at his audience, bouncing from one edge of whatever venue he was in to the next, the showmanship, the craft behind the manic energy.
These days, there’s a quieter, more contemplative Levy on stage. After the release of i’m not angry anymore — heralded as the most mature of his works — he’s been doing several shows at The Crocodile, lo-fi and unplugged, just Levy and his guitar. I had the pleasure of attending last night’s show and seeing that version of Levy on stage.
— Excerpted from “When the Levy Breaks,” Rolling Stone, December 1998
Late winter turned to early spring in Chicago, remaining stubbornly, bitterly cold as always. Despite his best hopes, Steve’s boys didn’t make it to States; Madchen’s girls did, but didn't make it out of the first round. Still, he and Madchen threw a party for the seniors on their teams like they took it all home; one of Steve’s boys had gotten scouted at the very end, got a full ride to USC, and two of Madchen’s girls were going to Auburn. Madchen’s sophomores staged a sit-in back in February over the invasion of Iraq but that was a better received radicalization than last year's actual riot, no matter the revisionist history Madchen had about that. Steve’s favorite neurotic mess of a student, Darlene, officially accepted her offer to Northwestern. It was wrapping up to be a pretty successful semester, and school year.
In the first week of May, on a Thursday, Steve and Madchen caught an early morning flight to Northern California. While both of them had been to California for one reason or another over the years, they hadn’t spent much time in wine country. They did a little sightseeing as soon as they landed, and then met up for dinner with the Hopper-Byers clan.
After Nancy had graduated with honors at Emerson, she’d gone to J-School at Harvard. Jonathan had followed her to Boston but ultimately decided he didn’t want to pursue a degree and went straight into working as a photojournalist, first just interning at the Globe and then actually working there. They’d moved to San Francisco after Nancy had finished school and that was where they were now, Nancy working at a small but well respected independent newspaper as their editor-in-chief and Jonathan as a part-time freelance photographer. They had two adorable rugrats, an absolute fucking pistol of a six year old named Barbie who Steve would commit any number of crimes for, and a shy four year old named Scott, which Steve would also go to jail for, no questions asked.
Joyce and Hopper were the only ones of them all who had stayed in Indiana, though they’d moved away from Hawkins, bought and renovated an old dairy farm on the border of Kentucky. They’d gotten quite a bit of government hush money, themselves, so Joyce only needed to work part-time at a local pharmacy to keep busy and Hopper —
In 1992, Steve got a call from Jonathan at nine pm; it was a Tuesday, in April, and the moment was burned into his memory. Hopper had found a strange lump along his jawline and had gone in to check it out a few weeks prior, and after several biopsies and exhaustive rounds of testing, the doctors finally had a diagnosis: adenoid cystic carcinoma. He was scheduled for surgery, and then radiation, the next week, and the doctors were convinced that they’d caught it early enough. They hadn’t.
A bout with testicular cancer came two years after that; he handled his subsequent surgery and chemo with predictably bad grace, and refused to quit smoking, even though Steve, Eddie, and Joyce all quit in solidarity with him. He spent three years in remission, and then they found the tumor on his back and he sat through another six months of radiation. It went like that a few more times: a mass the size of an apricot on his liver in the spring ‘99 was next, some lymph nodes removed six months after that, and then, just before last Christmas, fourteen small masses back on his liver.
“The war comes for us all, in the end,” Hopper had told Steve the night they’d announced this most recent diagnosis. He had shaken out a cigarette from his pack and blown smoke rings into the night sky as he had sat on a rocking chair while Steve drank a PBR as he sat by his feet. Joyce had forbidden smoking in the house back when they were trying to get Hop to quit; it was either the porch or the old dairy barn out back for him now. “I’ve had some good years, and I’ve had some bad, kid, but most of them have been good, especially these days.”
Steve had stared up at Hopper’s smoke rings. After a moment, he’d said, “You’re not gonna get treatment for this one, are you?”
“You were always smarter than they gave you credit for,” Hopper had said, smiling. They hadn’t talked further about it, just drank quietly on the porch until Hopper had slowly risen, dropped a hand into Steve’s hair and ruffled. He’d said goodnight and turned in. Steve had sat on the stoop, in the cold Indiana winter, for another hour.
Now, Steve was walking with Joyce and Nancy through downtown Santa Rosa, Jonathan lagging behind taking photos and Hopper walking ahead of them, hand in hand with little Barbie, laughing at something Madchen was saying while she gave Scott an effortless piggyback ride. Steve had already told them he was planning on setting her up with Robin, and they’d immediately set about grilling her, but she’d charmed all the accumulated Hopper-Byers, making fast friends with Nancy and Jonathan as they talked about Boston, talking basketball with Hopper, and just shooting the breeze with Joyce.
Nancy looped an arm in Steve’s.
“Not long now, I don’t think,” she said quietly, just for him. Still Joyce heard and she sucked in a quick breath. Steve reached out to take her hand in his free one.
They all looked at Hopper. He wasn’t frail, Hop, but he was smaller, less substantial than Steve ever remembered him being. He knew Hopper had made his peace with it, but he didn’t know how any of the rest of them could. It was something that had haunted Steve since the fall of ‘83. Even if you were unafraid to die, it didn’t mean you were ready.
“Yeah,” said Steve, squeezing Joyce’s hand. “Yeah.”
“Let’s just focus on Max,” Joyce told them, “and Lucas. I saw that boy this morning, he looked fit to throw up.”
Nancy laughed. “Max has been making him work for this wedding for the better part of a decade, and he’s getting cold feet?”
“Not cold feet,” she said. “Just nerves. Steve, you should talk to him.”
“Hey, I’m not team Lucas this weekend,” he said, shrugging. “I’m with the bride! That’s his dad’s job, or Hop’s.”
They dissolved into arguing about who should, in fact, talk Lucas off the edge all the way back to the minivan Jonathan had rented for the weekend to ferry the family around. They all clambered in, Steve and Madchen squashed like sardines into the back with Barbie, who kept asking Madchen if she was a supermodel, and drove back to the house on the vineyard that Lucas and Max had gotten as part of their wedding package. They’d decided to use it to house the Party and adjacent families.
Max and Lucas were already there, along with the rest of the boys and El. Robin had had an important meeting that afternoon, so was flying in from Boston the next morning, and Eddie was on an international flight from Antwerp that was due to land around 9am. Erica was going to get in Saturday morning; she was supposed to have been on the same flight as Will but, arguably the smartest and most successful of them all, she was a lawyer for the Innocence Project and a court date for one of their clients had been moved up at the last minute.
As soon as Jonathan pulled the van in, Hopper and Joyce excused themselves early to the casita out back, offering to take Barbie and Scott so everyone could catch up and have fun.
Inside, Steve was greeted with raucous cheering and hugs. The kids had apparently gotten started early. Jonathan immediately beelined to take over the sound system from Dustin, who abandoned it in favor of throwing an arm around Steve. Nancy took off in the direction of El, who was something like seven months pregnant with her first kid and being hovered over by an increasingly paranoid Mike about it. Dustin and Max’s new favorite pastime was ragging on him about it, apparently, but Nancy dispatched him neatly to go make conversation with Will and his new boyfriend.
Steve introduced Madchen all around and she immediately settled in to talk shop with Lucas, which had apparently turned out to be the hidden fourth option for who should talk to Lucas about his nerves after Steve, Hopper, and Lucas’s own dad.
“Do we like this one?” asked Steve, accepting a beer from Max and jerking his chin in the direction of Will and the aforementioned new beau. “Will hasn’t talked much to me about him.”
“Eh,” said Dustin, always the harshest critic of the romantic options of his crew.
“Not eh,” countered Max. She turned to Steve. “We like this one. He’s a broadway actor, and so far has not displayed any dirtbag tendencies in our line of sight.”
“Could just be a matter of time,” Dustin said.
“Just because he’s never played DnD — ”
“ Yes , because he’s never played DnD! That is an integral facet of Will’s personality, the core tenant of our — our friendship, not to mention how it’s affected — ”
“Oh my Jesus god — ”
“How about you, Dustin?” Steve asked loudly. “You still seeing that production scout?”
Dustin rolled his eyes but took the bait.
“Nah, didn’t work out.” He wiggled his eyebrows at Steve. “But, like, Madchen — now, she’s a babe.”
“She’s a friend,” he said.
“Platonic with a capital P?” Max asked.
“Very much so,” Steve told them. “I brought her for Robin.”
“Like an offering? Dude. She’s a human being.”
“Yeah, that you were just objectifying. Listen, I know they’re gonna hit it off,” he defended. “Anyway, Max, how are you feeling?”
“Better than Lucas,” she said, rolling her eyes. “I don’t know why he’s so wigged out about this. All we gotta do is wander up there, have Eddie undoubtedly embarrass us or something, kiss in front of his team, and then get hammered. Boom, easy.”
“Boom, easy,” echoed Dustin with a snort.
“Frankly,” she continued, wiggling her beer in their faces, “I’m getting started on the hammered part early. There’s apparently a golf cart on the premise and I would like to see how fast that sucker goes. Shall we?”
“Who are we to deny the bride her wishes,” said Steve, and shotgunned his beer.
EL (laughing): Oh my god! Listen, okay. I wrote the Kate Bush song as, like, like, a joke for a friend of mine. Kate Bush is her favorite artist, which I mean obviously I find horribly offensive because it’s not me, like, rude, and it was — straight up, straight up, I wrote it while we were getting high and listening to Kate Bush! Isn’t art supposed to hold up a mirror to nature or whatever? Listen. Okay. I did it to make her laugh. Anyway. Like not to get pretentious on you or anything but, like, I think that's why we should make art and shit. To make people smile.
JB: Did it?
EL: Well, she called me a fucking clown when I did it, but she was smiling. Does that count?
— Excerpted from “Ed Levy Wants You To Get High And Listen To Kate Bush,” Mojo, July 1997
Steve woke the next morning, viciously hungover, and had only vague memories of being in a golf cart doing twenty-five across a dirt road while Max laughed like a madwoman behind the wheel and Dustin and Will screamed hysterically from the back.
There was a note on the bedside table from Madchen, telling him that she’d gone to town with Nancy and the kids to help with a last minute thing for Max. She’d also left him two Advil and a glass of water, though he was under no illusions that he would emerge from last night without any sort of ribbing or emotional blackmail; he hoped setting her up with the future love of her life would offset this.
He dry-swallowed the Advil and then drank the water before lying in the bed, staring up at the ceiling until the idea of getting out of bed didn’t send every single one of his internal organs into open rebellion. There was a cool breeze coming in from the window and washing over him, a balm, and he could hear very faintly the sounds of the Party, laughing and hollering at each other, from somewhere out in the vineyard. Inexplicably, it made him feel like crying; he blamed it on the hangover.
Once everything settled and he was no longer in danger of being violently sick when he sat upright, it was almost noon. He threw on an old Indiana State hoodie and blearily made his way down to the kitchen. He could hear additional voices coming from there, murmurs to faint for him to actually make out individuals, but Robin’s flight had been due in at something like eight a.m., and Eddie’s just an hour later.
Sure enough, when he leaned himself up against the door frame, Robin and Eddie were at the scrubbed kitchen table, laughing at something, while El and Max looked on. El had one hand resting across the gentle swell of her stomach, not yet popped, and Max appeared to be even more hungover than Steve and possibly still drunk. They had a spread of pancakes in front of them, on a hotplate.
Robin’s wide, laughing smile wiped away any traces of jet lag she might be feeling, looking all for the world like she’d been with them the entire time, but Eddie had dark, tired smudges under his eyes. He often looked tired when Steve saw him these days, running from one gig to the next, a recording studio to a soundstage to a press thing to a show. Yet even now, almost two decades beyond a broken beer bottle to the throat, leaning sleepily into his fist, exhausted, the remains of mascara flaked around his eyes, he was still the most beautiful person he had ever seen. This weekend didn’t bode well for his heart, always a little battered by longing and regret and self-recrimination when in extended proximity to Eddie.
Sometimes, he wondered if he’d ever manage to screw his courage to the sticking point and just blurt the words out. But if he hadn’t yet, he doubted he ever would, and there was a part of him that thought if Eddie felt the same, he would have said by now.
He found himself distracted by the strong, corded line of Eddie’s neck and El had to call his name twice to get his attention.
“I made pancakes,” she said, something vaguely judgmental but amused in her tone. Steve harbored the long suspicion that, these days, she read their minds for fun and profit; none of them entered bets with her anymore for a reason.
“You get the number of the bus that hit you, or what, Harrington?” called Robin.
He flipped her off and made his way to the table, sinking down into the empty chair between Max and Robin. Immediately, her feet went into his lap and she handed him a plate of pancakes as Max shifted slightly to lean into Steve’s side, soaking up his warmth.
“How were your flights?” he asked.
“Fine,” said Robin. “Eddie got hosed.”
“They lost my bag during one of my layovers,” he said. “Thank god I always buy a seat for my guitar, I think I would’ve burst into tears right at baggage claim if I didn’t. Not that I wasn’t tempted already.”
“I brought an extra suit jacket,” offered Steve.
“Babe, I love you,” Eddie said with a smile, “but your shoulders are twice the size of mine — ”
“Twice is a stretch — ”
“And I’d just end up looking like a kid in my dad’s suit, regardless,” he finished. “I was blessed, however, with some sort of premonition of the shape of things to come, however, and had tossed a delightful little number into my carryon before I quit lovely Belgium.”
“I told you,” mumbled Max from where she’d smushed her face into Steve’s shoulder, “no assless chaps.”
Eddie pointed an accusatory finger at her. “And I told you I would not allow your puritanical sensibilities to stifle me! But, alas, those were the back-up and therefore in the checked bags.”
“It’s sequins,” said Robin, leaning in to whisper into Steve’s ear. “And embroidery. He showed it to me in the town car from the airport.”
“I’m going to look like heavy metal Graham Parsons,” he said, winking. “Nudie girls and everything. Oh, “Heavy Metal Graham Parson” would be a great name for a song — ”
“You gonna wear a shirt under it?” asked Robin.
“That will be a game time decision, and frankly you’ll be blessed either way.”
Robin took Steve’s fork from his hand and ate a bite of his pancakes, despite having clearly eaten her own plate. “Heard you brought a date.”
He looked up from his plate in time to see Eddie looking away from him and Steve shrugged. He said, “My friend Madchen. She’s heard a lot about you guys and wanted to meet you. So I figured, you know, why not now?”
“Wait.” Robin’s brow furrowed. “You’ve mentioned her. She’s the girl’s basketball coach, right?”
“Pretty. Strong,” said El, approvingly. She’d drunkenly arm wrestled and defeated all of the boys in quick succession last night before crushing a PBR can against her forehead, which had apparently endeared her to El for life. She added, “ Tall.”
Steve nodded. “Very tall, regularly beats my ass on the court. She would’ve gone pro, if she could, like, actually make a living off it. She’s the best, Rob, you’re gonna love her,” he added, over a rising commotion from the front of the house that signaled the boys had returned from whatever nonsense they’d been getting up to.
“She better be the best,” she said. “I won’t accept anything less for my darling Steve-O — ”
He rolled his eyes. “She’s not — ”
The boys spilled into the kitchen, raucous, a shout of “Pancakes!” from Mike and “ Eddie!” from Dustin, and Max hissed and spit like a cat with her tail pulled.
“Shut the fuck up, shut the fuck up,” she said, pressing her face into Steve’s shoulder harder.
Across the table, Dustin had draped himself across Eddie’s lap and was rapid-fire questioning him about his European tour, while Mike and Lucas sat on either side of him after dropping kisses on their spouses’ heads — El preened and Max made another disgruntled cat noise — and began to help themselves to the pancakes. Will slid in on Robin’s other side, packing them all way too tight around the table. All four of them were windswept and chapped and grinning like a bunch of loons.
Over Dustin’s chatter, Lucas told them about the adventure they’d just been on: they’d been looking for a soccer ball or something to kick around earlier and had instead found four ancient ten-speeds in a back shed. Obviously, unanimously, they’d all decided to take off on a bike tour through the vineyard, speeding around and reliving some of their childhood adventures on their bikes.
“Where’s the boyfriend?” asked Steve. “Bill?”
“Ben,” said Will, smiling softly. “He’s got an audition when we get back so he said he was just going to hang by the pool and work on his sides.”
“I didn’t get a chance to talk to him last night,” he said.
“You mean grill him, Mom,” shot Dustin from across the table.
“The day is young,” offered Eddie. “We do have to make sure he’s good enough for our youngest.”
“I thought Erica was your youngest,” said Will, rolling his eyes.
“Maybe, but we don’t need to worry about Erica,” said Steve, “and she'd scalp me herself if I tried it.”
“I could scalp you.”
“You could try, shrimp,” he said.
Will rolled his eyes even harder. “I’m literally like half a foot taller than any of you except Lucas.”
After the boys had eaten, El and Max disappeared into the biggest bedroom to do bride stuff — though Steve suspected that was just an excuse for Max to sleep off the rest of her hangover and El to just take a nap — while the boys, refueled, went back outside to terrorize each other on bikes. Steve heard something about a kitchen broom and jousting and immediately tried willing himself hearing loss.
He, Robin, and Eddie spent the rest of the afternoon in the living room of the house, day-drinking and passing a blunt between them. Eddie didn’t smoke as much as he used to but still could be relied upon to be carrying, especially at larger group functions. Joyce and Hopper passed through once or twice, Hopper stopping to take a few hits, and the boys came and went as the need for snacks and drinks brought them back to the house; but mainly it was the three of them, Jonathan joining them a few hours in as he returned from a separate errand on behalf of Lucas, shooting the shit and getting pleasantly crossfaded as the afternoon wore on. Eddie regaled them with stories from the tour and discussed his current bout of “horrifically crippling” writer’s block while Steve shared stories of his students, Robin got animated about a new exhibit, and Jonathan told them about the latest news story he and Nancy were chasing.
Around four, the front door opened and shut and Nancy hollered, “We’re back!” as little kids' feet thundered into the living room. Robin pinched out the blunt as Barbie immediately launched herself at her and then at Eddie for hugs, Scott following behind. Two more sets of footsteps followed behind as a much more sedate pace and Steve leaned over to Robin, whispering, “Don’t say I never got you anything — ”
Madchen turned the corner into the living room. At his side, he could feel Robin stiffen up and turned to see her eyes widen as she stared at the Amazon that had appeared in the doorway, one that Steve had spent the past year practically gift wrapping for Robin only for her to fail almost immediately at recognizing that he’d done it. And she’d always said he was the hopeless one.
“This is my friend, Madchen,” he said, shifting to the left so that she could sit next to him. “Madchen, this is Robin and Eddie — ”
But Eddie had already slipped out the door, hand in hand with Barbie, and Steve frowned at his back and then made quick work of ignoring the looks the other adult in the room shot him, except Robin. She was leaning over Steve’s lap to shake hands with Madchen, and Madchen, an expert at rolling with the punches and emotional upheavals (typically teenage), ignored the glances and made easy conversation with Robin.
She was, of course, one hundred percent aware of what had occurred. The only reason he got about five minutes' peace was because Madchen appeared to be also one hundred percent into Robin. She seemed genuinely intrigued by Robin’s job as a museum curator, asking Madchen-typical insightful questions and getting Robin to stare increasingly starry-eyed at her in return as she, adorably, stumbled over her replies. It only made Madchen’s smile grow wider as they spoke. Nailed it, thought Steve.
It couldn’t last though. After a moment, she jerked her chin in the direction Eddie had lately gone.
“That was him, right?” she asked. “I can see why you want the business from him. Not my type, but he’s hot, in a nocturnal animal kind of way.”
“What the absolute fuck is that supposed to mean?” he demanded as the same time Robin manifested a pair and said, “What’s your type?”
Madchen ignored Steve in favor of giving Robin a once over so aggressively thorough that he was pretty sure he took some kind psychic damage just by witnessing it. He momentarily abandoned his indignant rage in favor of gagging expansively. Luckily for him, however, Madchen’s horniness for an adorable nerd — a commonality between them that Steve knew of but never like to explore further about himself because he valued his mental stability — neatly derailed her desire to continue dragging Steve.
He took advantage of the moment and, ignoring the looks he was getting from Nancy and Jonathan, Steve slipped out from between them on the sofa, muttered something about grabbing some water, and escaped outside.
Dustin had cornered Steve last night too, about two drinks and a shot from putting their lives in Max’s debatably licensed hands aboard a golf cart. Robin didn’t give Steve much shit anymore these days about Eddie, thanks to a whiskey soaked evening back in ‘93 that Steve did not remember clearly but Robin did; Dustin however had no such reservations, and probably wouldn’t anyway even if he’d been there that night. When Steve had officially come out right after getting his Masters, he’d immediately started trying to set Steve up with Eddie, who’d been out to his friends since ‘88 and publicly since ‘94 when a fan had accurately connected some lyrical dots over pronouns.
He’d taken it personally, was the thing; Steve and Eddie were his two favorite people, his big brothers, Mom and Dad the kids sometimes joked, and he’d been clearly upset that Steve had kept shooting him down. He took it as a sign that he and Eddie were never friends but just “stayed together for the kids,” he'd said. He never shut the fuck about about it to Steve, frankly, and he had no idea if Dustin had ever tried the same thing with Eddie; he tried not to think about it, because he didn’t really want to confront the possibility that Eddie was doing the same thing. He never claimed to be a rational person, okay?
He’d shut Dustin up last night with another beer and a tequila shot that Dustin spit back out onto the ground, Steve laughing and Dustin shouting that of course he spit it out, it was poison, it was a reasonable thing for your body to reject poison!
Madchen was easier to avoid, but he was under no illusions that this weekend would allow him to escape the other attempts he knew would show up, trying to get him to open up about his personal life, his feelings. Joyce was a fair bet, and Nancy, but he could usually see them coming; the real dangers were either of the Byers boys, Jonathan in particular.
“Penny for them?”
Steve startled, looked to the side. Hopper was seated on the porch swing right by the steps. He wasn’t looking directly at Steve, but instead at the lawn, where Barbie was sprinting madly too and fro, Eddie pretending to chase her, arms extended and growing as something or other. Maybe a bear; no one pretended to be a monster in this family, even for the kids.
“Sorry, thinking,” said Steve, moving forward to sit on the stoop, sort of at Hopper’s knee, and stared out at the two of them goofing off in the yard.
Hopper snorted. “Pull the other one, kid, it’s got bells on.”
“No, I mean,” he said, “it’s not important. Just — shit. The usual stuff.”
“Hmm.” Hopper reached down and picked up the beer at his feet, taking a drink. “You sure?”
“I’m sure,” said Steve.
Objectively, Steve’s parents hadn’t been terrible. Objectively, they hadn’t been great either. Just because someone didn’t actually smack you around, didn’t mean there still weren’t other ways for them to hurt you. Steve had been a latchkey kid and it extended beyond just after school at a too-early age: by the time he was twelve, he was alone for whole weeks, a cook and a cleaner ghosting through his house, a nanny for a few more years until that stopped too. It was the kind of shit that Steve would be mandated to report these days, or at least bubble up and keep a closer eye on. But he was never dirty or hungry, he never skipped class too much, and he never failed but he never saw a grade above a C until he started dating Nancy. He just sort of existed, was fine, was okay, and there was enough money behind his father’s name that no one gave him a second glance.
No one until Jim Hopper and Joyce Byers, that was, until they found him beat to shit and half concussed on Joyce’s sofa and a gaggle of feral kids at his feet, arguing how best to clean up the cuts on his face and should they wake him up, it had been an hour since he fell asleep and you weren’t supposed to let concussed people sleep, right? Somehow, the two of them had taken one look at his sorry ass and adopted him as their own.
Steve hadn’t seen it at first, had chaffed under Hopper’s too watchful eye. He’d resented him until he started to see that Hopper looked at him like he looked at the kids, and then he’d only been able to wander at it, at how easy it had been for the two of them, for Joyce and Hopper to pick him up and settle them in between their outstretched arms. He’d never had a family until that night, just matching names and genetic code and a joint bank account.
At length, he said, “Thanks, though.”
“Sure thing, kid,” Hopper told him. He took another drink of his beer. “You seeing anyone?”
He flopped backwards onto the porch. “Jesus Christ, not you too.”
“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” he said.
Steve ran a hand over his face and sat back up, said, “Yeah, I’m fucking sure about that. Not like I’m the only one of your goddamn kids that shows up to family dinner every month without fail."
Hopper made a sort of contemplative noise. “You do call more than the rest too.”
“I know I won’t beat Will and El, but tell me I rank higher than Jonathan,” he said, “if only to make me feel better.”
Smirking, he took another sip of his beer.
“Anyway, I don’t really have time right now,” Steve told him.
Hopper didn’t dignify that with a response either, just stared somewhat pointedly out at the lawn. Barbie had grown tired of running around and now she and Eddie were sat cross legged in the grass; Eddie was showing her how to make flower crowns out of dandelions and clovers.
“Jim,” he said, plaintive, and Hopper put a hand on the top of his head, the echo of a memory.
His thumb ran along the shell of his ear and he said, “Life’s short, Steve. I only want my kids to be happy.”
“I am happy.” Hopper dropped his hand and Steve said, “I am.”
“Hey! Hey!” Barbie shot up from her seat and sprinted at a full tilt up to them, practically skidding to a halt with dust in her wake before she bounded up the stairs. She thrust her flower crown in first Steve’s face and then Hopper’s. “Uncle Steve, Grandpa, look what Uncle Eddie taught me to make! Here, Grandpa, you take it!”
She clambered into Hopper’s lap, surprisingly gentle, and stuffed her crown on Hopper’s head, who immediately began turning his head this way and that for Barbie to admire, fluttering his lashes.
Eddie ambled up the stairs now too and sat down next to Steve. He set the crown he made on Steve’s head, said, “Don’t want you to feel left out.”
“Thanks,” he said.
“How do we look?” Hopper said little Barbie, who beamed.
“Good!” she said, wriggling happily in her grandfather’s lap. “Like fairy princesses!”
“Yeah.” Eddie was staring at Steve. Steve stared at the ground. He could feel Hopper’s eyes on them both. “You look good.”
“Oh. Oh, man,” he says, leaning forward on his forearms, suddenly serious. Honestly, it’s a little unsettling to be the center of Levy’s attention: his eyes, wide and dark, self-described as Bambi-like on a good day, are consuming as he stares. It shouldn’t be surprising, with Levy known for an intense focus on stage for all that he goofs off and jokes with his adoring fans, committed wholly and completely to his craft. This moment between us feels like a confessional, and I almost expect him to reach out and grasp my hands.
“That was life altering, and trust me, dude, I know from life altering,” Levy is telling me. “I mean, it’s one thing to have have my little album, like, pitted against guys like REM and Nirvana, but to have a song in the same category as my heroes — like Metallica is literally, fucking literally the reason I got into this. Master of Puppets honest to God, fuck hyperbole, really and goddamn truly saved my life when I was twenty. I mean fuck! Fuck! Like when people say it’s an honor to just be nominated, it is an honor just to be fucking nominated. Listen. Sorry I’m swearing so much, but I cannot emphasize enough how huge that was for me. James Hetfield shook my fucking hand. He told me it was nice to fucking meet me! Lars shitting Ulrich said he thought Girl with a Buzzcut was one of the most interesting debuts from a musician in the last ten years! I thought I was gonna pass out! Jesus Christ.”
What would you have done if you had won? I ask.
“Cried and then thrown up,” he says, zero hesitation, still as serious as if he‘d been discussing the conflict in Bosnia. “Live on national television, I would have cried and ralphed all over the floor of Radio City.”
— Excerpted from “Fortune Favors the Fuck-Ups,” Spin, June 1992
At six p.m., on Saturday, on the fourth of May, Max Mayfield tucked her hand in the bend of Steve Harrington’s elbow and breathed a laugh as Steve leaned down to whisper in her ear, “There’s still time to flee to Canada. I give Eddie the signal, he’ll vamp for an hour and you’ll be long gone.”
“No,” she said. “No. This is right where I’m supposed to be.”
She leaned most of her weight on him and, together, slowly and steadily, they made their way down the aisle as an acoustic version of Kate Bush’s “Love And Anger” began to play; Eddie had recorded the cover in a hotel bathroom right after Lucas had asked him to officiate the ceremony.
Despite claiming that he was Team Max for the weekend, Steve had checked in on Lucas two hours before the ceremony, slipping away when El, Joyce, Erica, and Robin were helping Max into her suit and knocking back champagne, laughing. Lucas had always looked up to him, he knew, especially after the incident with Billy, and he’d felt a certain special kinship with him of all the kids. He loved all his nerds, but Mike was right: they were the jocks of the group, and Steve knew the others, especially back then, didn’t get it. Lucas had felt isolated from his friends, and it had been made even worse because of how isolated he’d already been in town. Steve couldn’t pretend to get what that was like, even if he had an inkling back then because of how isolated Robin felt and Steve’s own internal journey with his sexuality, a messy journey to be sure.
What he could do, back then, was be there for Lucas in any capacity that he needed and also do what he did best: put his body between his kids and the danger, monsters or small town bigots alike.
When Steve had stuck his head into the bedroom where the boys were, Lucas had immediately shot to his feet and asked, “Is she okay?”
“She’s fine,” he had said. “I’m checking in on you. You’ve been jumpy. I mean, you literally just jumped.”
“Oh.” He’d walked over to Steve and they leaned in the doorway together. “Oh, I mean I’m fine. I’m great! I’m nervous, sure, but, like. It’s — I think maybe I’d given up on her saying yes, you know? ‘Cause I know she loves me, and that’s enough. I mean, if she walked away right now, I’d still be happy. I know marriage is a whole thing for her, and I’m just happy to spend my life with her however she’ll let me.”
Steve had pulled him into a brief hug. “Shit, kid, how did you get to be so well-adjusted?”
“Therapy,” Lucas told him.
They had laughed.
“But seriously, dude, thanks for checking in on me,” he’d said when they’d broken apart. “I know you’re Team Max this weekend, but like we kind of all have joint custody of you as the group's big brother with Eddie and Jonathan.”
Now, Lucas stood at the end of the aisle, beaming like an absolute lunatic, with Eddie to his left and the Party to his right. Steve could see Max’s face from the corner of his eye, her own smile stretched wide to match, and he dropped her off with a kiss to her cheek. He handed her her cane, which he’d had resting in the crook of his other arm, and shook Lucas’s hand before heading back to his seat between Joyce and Madchen in the front row.
Eddie waited for him to be seated and gestured for the music to cut out. In his white suit, sequined and embroidered — nudie girls on the lapels as promised — the black curving letters of his Led Zep chest piece visible because he’d held true to his promise and eschewed a shirt while Max had snorted and rolled her eyes, he looked indeed like heavy metal Graham Parsons, or maybe a heavy metal Elvis impersonator about to officiate a Vegas shotgun wedding. Ridiculously, it suited him.
He aimed a wink at Steve, like he could read his mind, and began, grave, “Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today to get through this thing called life . Electric word, life: it means forever and that’s a mighty long time — "
Guests had started laughing as soon as Eddie had landed the little bit of extra emphasis on the word life, and they were all whispering and giggling to each other as Lucas and Max continued to beam at each other and Eddie got even more into his Prince recitation, especially as Lucas’s parents really got into it.
“But I’m here to tell, there’s something else: the afterworld,” he said with a flourish of his hands. “A world of never ending happiness. You can always see the sun, day or night. So when you call up that shrink in Beverly Hills, you know the one — "
“Doctor Everything'll Be Alright,” shouted Mrs Sinclair, laughing.
Eddie pointed to her, like a preacher agreeing with his congregation. “Instead of asking him how much of your time is left, ask him how much of your mind, baby, ‘cause in this life, things are much harder than in the afterworld. In this life — well, the poet said you’re on your own. But this bard will have to humbly disagree, because, you see, since these kids before me were prepubescent little shitheads, they’ve had each other. And now they’ve decided to get a tax break from it!”
The rest of the ceremony was a blur to Steve. Eddie was magnetic as he wove a highly redacted tale of Max and Lucas’s teenage courtship, and Steve fought back tears the whole time, hand in hand with Joyce, squeezing tight to each other. Robin, between El and Erica, truly looked like she was going to lose it.
They’d spent so many years in absolutely hell and came out the other side, and it was as much a miracle to witness this wedding as it had been to witness Mike and El’s backyard nuptials back in ‘93, and to stand on the steps of a Boston courthouse for Nancy and Jonathan in ‘88.
After Eddie pronounced the newly christened Sinclairs now officially legally bound to ride or die and Lucas and Max had, laughing, kissed to seal the deal, the wedding party and guests had been herded into the massive covered pavilion the vineyard had for the reception.
Lucas hadn’t been able to decide on a single best man and so the boys had all taken on various duties leading up to the wedding, but Dustin had been nominated by the Party to give the speech. It was, like Eddie’s, highly redacted in parts and overlaid with the cover-story Owens and his crew had given to them all those years ago, but it was side-splittingly hilarious nonetheless, and contained many details that had Max practically snorting champagne out of her nose while Lucas hid his head in his arms in shame. Steve suspected, mainly by her smirk, that Erica had had a heavy hand in the crafting of it.
El gave a short and sweet speech on her friendship with Max, how much it had meant to her when she was going through a very difficult time in her life, how proud of Max she was for facing and overcoming her own challenges, and how proud she was to stand before them all and call her her best friend.
While Steve was discretely wiping at his eyes as El closed the speech out, a series of looks were exchanged between all members of the Party. He looked up only in time to see El staring at him with those big eyes of hers, something dangerous in them, as she handed off the microphone to Max.
“I know how much everyone wants to party down, and so do I,” she said, smirking, “but Lucas and I really wanted one last speech from another very important member of our lives, our favorite babysitter—”
“Oh, fuck you both,” said Steve, recoiling.
“—and my adopted big brother, Steve,” Max concluded. She wiggled the mic at him. “Steve?”
Around him, the Party lost their whole minds. Mike and Will started a drum roll on the table while Dustin chanted, “Speech! Speech! Speech!”
Robin shoved at Steve’s arms, the traitor, and pushed him to his feet. He said, “This is bullying. I’m being bullied.”
“Suck it up,” said Lucas, grabbed the mic from Max, and tossed it underhand at Steve. He caught it, glaring.
Across the table, Eddie turned coat too and stuck his fingers in his mouth, letting loose an ear-splitting whistle.
“Seriously, fuck all of you,” he said. “Okay. Uh. Well, obviously this is a surprise and I would have had something prepared if someone had just told me , so just bear with me or whatever. Okay. Um. I’m not really sure — listen, I’m just so fucking proud of both of you, okay? Max, you are such an incredibly strong person, I’ve never known anyone like you before. And Lucas, you are so smart and insightful and kind. I know it took you a while to get here. But, like, you guys knew, the thing is, loving each other isn’t enough to be here. You gotta put the work in. On yourself, on your relationship. There’s give, and there’s take, and there’s compromise and, like, so many small and huge things that go into a marriage. It’s work. And you guys put in the work. And not only that, but, like, you want to make each other better. You want to be better people for each other. Yeah, because it’s not just about love: it’s about growth. You aren’t the same people you were at twelve. You won’t be the same people at forty. You’re growing together, and you’re loving the people you’ve grown into. That’s — to be brave enough to do that, to know yourself and your partner enough to say that wherever our growth takes us, I’m going to love you and keep falling in love with you — that’s amazing. You guys are amazing. I’m so proud of you. I’m so happy I get to be here to watch you, that you’re here to do it. I, uh.” He swallowed, bit his lip. “You know I — that I — ”
“We know,” said Lucas. He had tears on his cheeks, and Max had her mouth twisted as she fought back some of her own, blinking up at the ceiling. “We know.”
“Okay, great,” he said. “Because I do. So much. Okay. Alright. To Max and Lucas. To these little shitheads who deserve each other.”
Everyone raised their glasses, toasting, and Steve sank back down into his seat, blindly handing the mic off to someone. Robin wrapped her arm around his shoulder.
“That was really nice,” she whispered in his ear.
He nodded. “I wanna get super drunk. Can we get super drunk?”
“Of course,” Robin said.
“It’s a wedding,” agreed Eddie from across the table. His big dark eyes were wide and wet and Steve couldn’t look directly at him or he thought he’d explode. “I think we’re contractually obligated.”
“Great,” he said. “Because I think I’ve met my quota for being emotionally vulnerable for, like, the next three years with that and I would like to stop feeling things.”
“You got it, babe,” said Eddie. “One bottle of tequila coming up.”
It seemed, of course, that the rest of the guests had the same idea. After the dinner service came drinking and dancing and then came the wine cave that Max had told him about back in January and even more drinking. He lost sight of the Party early on and only caught the occasional glimpse of Eddie in his embroidered suit as he weaved his way through the crowd, making friends everywhere he went. Nancy and Jonathan had gotten an outside sitter for the night and appeared to be making good use of it, caught up with each other in a corner, every song a slow song no matter the tempo, and Steve danced with Robin and Madchen for a long time before he felt like he was becoming a third wheel.
Eventually, he found himself out within the vineyard itself. He stared up at the night sky. It was so clear out here; it reminded him of Hawkins, though it had been a long time since even before he left that Steve had stared up at the sky in wonder. He’d known too many terrible things beneath his feet to feel anything but a deep dread at what could lie beyond the horizon.
But it was nice out here. He could almost forget.
There was a rustle behind him and Steve turned in time to see Eddie emerging between the plants.
“There you are,” he said. “El said she saw you go out this way.”
“Just needed some fresh air,” Steve told him.
Eddie tucked his hand inside the lapel of his jacket and Steve looked back up at the sky, away from the alternatively inky and pale expanse of his sternum. There was a curl of longing building within him and he tried to ruthlessly squash it back down; he already felt so raw, exposed, from the speech — he was worried he might start crying again, and how was he supposed to explain that without ruining everything?
“I liked your speech,” Steve said.
“Thanks.” A new noise, familiar, came from Eddie’s direction and there was a brief flare of light. He glanced over to see Eddie cupping his hand around his mouth, lighting a blunt. “I liked yours too.”
“Yours was funny.”
Eddie’s eyes flicked up from where he was concentrating on his spliff. “Yours was real.”
Steve licked his lips. He said, “Yours had Prince.”
“Well, Mrs Sinclair’s love was for sale and I wanted it,” he said. “I know Lucas gave his parents some bullshit story about WITSEC a million years ago when his dad recognized me, but they still look at me funny sometimes.”
“I’m sorry, man,” said Steve.
Eddie shrugged and passed him the blunt. “What can you do? Anyway, I totally promised her I’d get her an autograph from the Purple One the next time I’m at an event with him, so case closed.”
He took a hit and passed it back, saying again, “I can still be sorry.”
“I can still tell you to fuck off,” he said. “Anyway. I, uh, hate to break it to you, but I think your girl might be going home with Robin?”
“Madchen is not my girl, first of all,” Steve said, “and I should fucking hope so — that’s why I brought her.”
“Yeah, man, I thought everyone knew?” He shrugged now. “We work together. She’s my best friend in Chicago. We went on one ill-fated date when she got hired at the school because we both like basketball and apparently that was enough for the rest of the staff to decide to marry us off. But turns out she likes petite band nerds better than jocks with great hair, so I called an audible and decided to marry her off to Robin.”
“Well then,” said Eddie around a mouthful of smoke. He held the blunt out to Steve again. “You are doing a bang-up job at that, because Robin looked to be about twenty minutes and another drink from climbing your friend like an oak tree.”
“Well, the living room couch looked comfortable,” he said, blowing a ring up into the night sky.
Eddie laughed, moving to jostle his shoulder. “Please, you’re always welcome in my room.”
Steve smiled and it struck him, the two of them, alone among the vines, in the dark, like a memory from long ago. It made his breath catch, but not for the reasons those types of memories usually did. He turned to say something but the words got stuck in his throat as he realized how close the two of them were to one another. Steve stared at Eddie, who stared back, and Steve honest to God thought about it for the first time in forever: leaning in —
From somewhere beyond them, there was a burst of hysterical, loud laughter, and Lucas shouting.
He and Eddie startled apart.
Something splashed and the laughter grew louder.
Someone, Steve suspected, had tossed Lucas into the pool.
Wordlessly, the two of them turned to go investigate, the moment, whatever exactly it had been, lost; and as they walked, Steve took another hit off the blunt. He passed it back to Eddie once more, they walked on just a bit farther until the lights of the reception illuminated the house and the pool, and sure enough there was Lucas, still fully dressed and spitting mad in the pool while Mike and Dustin looked on and laughed. Max, on the other side with El and Will, made eye contact with Steve and sent him a two finger salute before she tossed her cane to the side with a clatter and joined her new husband, wedding suit and shoes and all, in the pool. With a wild yell, Dustin cannonballed in next, then Mike, then El more carefully, sedately, helped in by Will, who dove in next.
Eddie turned to Steve, smirking, one hand outstretched in a gallant, after you sort of gesture.
“My liege,” he said.
“Sure,” said Steve. He fisted one hand in Eddie’s jacket and before he could do anything more than raise a questioning brow, Steve was tipping himself backwards into the water, Eddie, laughing, following in his wake.
did i give eddie the new last name of “levy” just so i could make that rolling stone article “when the levy breaks”? you bet your biscuits i did
Chapter 3: part three
- well two things you might have noticed: (1) rating has gone up this part since we get a little sexy— i don’t think it’s, like, aggressively explicit, but if you’d like to skip it jump from “The kids – aren’t kids anymore” to “After, they stood at the foot of the bed together”; and (2) chapter count has gone up because i’ve lost control of my own life
- also: steve + eddie discuss funeral arrangements during one scene; it’s very brief, just a few sentences, mostly humorous, but if you need to skip it jump from “Anyway, funeral homes...” to “Steve laughed and tipped his head...”
He unlocks the door to the studio, flicks the lights on, and says without preamble, “I haven't written anything new in, like, three years that isn’t total shit, so I kind of hate it here right now.”
Levy sits himself behind the controls of the recording booth and waves a hand at me, gesturing to the oversized leather sofa against the wall. He continues, “At first I thought it was because i’m not angry anymore had been so, you know, pivotal or whatever. It took me a whole year after METALHEAD to get a song out, and I was blocked for six months after Is This The Last Time? too. But this is, like, next level shit, I guess.”
Is this why you recorded the live album?
“No,” he said. “I didn’t realize what was happening then. Like I said, I’ve gone stretches before without writing. I thought I just needed to give it time. I was burnt out and tired from touring all the time and my manager was like, well, we’re still negotiating the European tour, let’s push it back more, why don’t you hang around home for a bit, do some shows at the old haunts. So I did, and people were really liking it — all MTV Unplugged and shit.”
You did an MTV Unplugged, I think.
“Yeah! Good memory. ‘95, never got released.” Levy leans back in his chair. His fingers drum absently against the arms. “So I thought, you know, why don’t I record one of these too. And it was fun. I’ve always loved doing covers, I think you can do really interesting and transformative — subversive — shit with it, you know? You can create this new conversation and experience around it. And like I like an acoustic version of my own shit too, yeah? It’s fun. It’s raw in a different way than the song it was originally crafted as, if that makes sense?”
All the demos, then, on B-Sides —
He points a finger at me. “Yes! B-Sides and Rarities is more a response to my block, than Live At The Crocodile. Live At The Crocodile was a good time, was a vibe. But I could name what was happening during B-Sides. So I decided to try to fight it, and compiled covers and demos and songs I’ve played at gigs but never dropped on an album, because I thought it would maybe help unlock something, if I recorded and re-recorded and shared those demos. Like, if I bared my soul again and again and shared the raw, unfiltered, fucking broken love song that is the demo of I Wore His Jacket or the frankly depressing ten-minute version of Chrissy’s Song that rightly makes people ask how my therapy is going — I thought if I let those things go, I’d be, like, free. Personally, creatively.”
But it hasn’t worked.
Levy sighs. “Nope. Sure fucking hasn’t.”
— Excerpted from “When Suffering Grows a Garden, Set It On Fire,” Fader, March 2001
The call came in as Steve was packing up his office for the summer. He came in more often during breaks than some of the teachers, unless they taught one of the summer remedials, because he always had a few overachievers in each year that were planning ahead or had recent grads that needed talking off this ledge or that; but he still liked to clean out the previous year’s detritus so he could start totally fresh in August. He was just rubber-banding the last stack of files he’d be boxing up for the school archives when his Blackberry nearly vibrated off his desk. He caught a glimpse of Jonathan’s name as he rescued it and put it to his ear.
“Hey, J, what’s up, man?” he said, tucking it against his shoulder so he can have his hands free. “You just caught me on clean out, about to swing by the last grad event — ”
“It’s Hopper,” said Jonathan.
For a moment, Steve just stood there. It felt like — the words didn’t compute right away, was the thing, just a moment of numbness, blank incomprehension, but then they were crashing over him and it was obvious. It had been obvious that day last winter, and it had been obvious just a month ago at the wedding: the way Hopper had looked at them all. It was like he’d been trying to memorize their faces, their voices. He’d spent so much of that weekend just sort of sat back, taking stock of them, drinking them in like this would be the last time.
“Oh,” he said. He couldn’t stop thinking about Hopper on the porch next to him, how he’d tried to talk to Steve and Steve wouldn’t let him, wouldn’t let him tell him to just be happy because he wanted all of his children to be happy. It had been obvious: this round of cancer was going to be the last one and it was going to be fast, brutal, the final chapter. Had those words been the last he’d said directly to Steve?
No, they’d spoken on the phone just last week — Hopper and him were making plans to go see the Royals when the Padres were in town at the end of the month — and he was supposed to come down for dinner on Sunday, and Joyce wanted his help painting one of the guest rooms, and, and, and —
“Steve,” Jonathan was saying down the line. “Steve.”
“I’m here,” he said. “Sorry. I’m here. Are you — do you need me to — is anyone with Joyce, I can be there —?”
“I didn’t mean. Sorry. Shit, no, I didn’t.” He could picture him shaking his head, half the country away, saying, “Hey, I didn’t mean. Mom’s fine, she’s with him. He’s still here, I meant. Fuck, sorry. It’s just — he collapsed this morning. Mom took him to the hospital, and they didn’t want to release him but you know Hop, flat out refused to stay, checked himself out AMA. Said he’s gonna die at home with his family if he’s gotta die anywhere.”
“Oh,” said Steve again. He scrubbed a hand across his face.
“I just meant,” he said. “It’s happening, is what I meant. It’s time. The doctors said, Mom said.”
He took a deep breath. “Okay. Who do you need me to call?”
Jonathan took a deep breath too; his caught in a kind of sob. “Thanks, S. God, you were always the one best in a crisis, huh?”
“Had to make myself useful somehow,” he said.
“Hey,” said Jonathan in that too-soft voice of his that usually precipitated Steve unwillingly confronting his own self-worth issues and Jonathan saying something like I think you’re very brave and I’m proud of you at the end of it. He said, “I’m not gonna touch that right now because I recognize that other things have to take a front seat, but when I see you next, I’m gonna hug you for an extra two minutes and I need you to know it’s about that right there, okay?”
“Okay, Jesus Christ, which of us is the queer here?”
“You just upped yourself to five minutes, you want to keep going?”
“Alright, alright, get off my dick, Byers,” he said, laughing a little. This was yet one more thing that the Steve of 1983, or even ‘86, would never believe — that on top of Dustin, he would’ve gained another two brothers in the form of the Byers boys, that he would be laughing and joking with Jonathan even as they planned for one of the hardest moments of their lives.
With a list in hand, he and Jonathan exchanged good-byes and see you soons and hung up. Steve sank back into his chair and held his head in his hands, counting to ten in his mind, then twenty, then thirty. Just because you were unafraid to die, he thought again, didn’t mean you were ready.
He had Robin on his list, naturally, and Max and Lucas and Dustin. He made the phone calls quickly, moving through them with a sort of detachment that felt like an out of body experience, telling them to head home to Indiana as soon as they all could and that he’d be there when they arrived. Then, he rose from his desk, zipped up his shoulder bag, locked his office, and headed home to pack a bag.
It was four and a half hours from his loft to Memphis, Indiana, mostly a straight shot down the southbound I-65 after you got into Indiana. Steve shaved forty-five minutes off his travel time, and was pulling up outside the retired dairy farm Hopper and Joyce had called home for nearly a decade now at around eight pm. The sun was just beginning to set, the sky a smear of orange and purple over pale blue, but the lights had yet to get turned on in most of the windows. Steve pulled his ‘97 Subaru Impreza — his old BMW sold off years ago to pay for his first semester of grad school — in between Hopper’s beat to shit Toyota truck and a ‘95 Chevy Blazer with New York plates — El and Mike, he remembered abruptly, had driven down a week or two after the wedding, to spend the summer with Hopper and Joyce as her due date approached.
He sat in his car for a moment, staring up at the big old farmhouse, the defunct dairy parlor looming behind it like a shadow. To the left there were old cow pastures that Joyce was talking about renting out to some local farmers to grow corn — El and Mike had gotten married just beyond them, under a pergola constructed by Hopper, Steve, and Jonathan that was, miraculously, still standing; Hopper had had to rush Steve to the hospital halfway through because he’d nearly sawed off the index finger on his left hand, and Hopper had written on Steve’s in take form that he was his dad; they’d never talked about it after — and to the right was a densely wooded area that eventually became a part of some state park he could never remember the name of.
Hopper’d had renovated the place back in ‘92, with all that government hush money they’d each gotten a piece of. He’d been planning to build somewhere entirely from scratch, had an architect and blue prints and everything, when he’d stumbled across the old farm on the Kentucky border that’d been abandoned for years. The architect had seen Hop’s vision right alongside him when he’d showed it to her, and had gotten to work with her firm on renovation plans instead.
He’d wanted a big home, something huge and sprawling so that he could house all of the people he cared about under his roof. He’d wanted to give them a safe place to return to, somewhere he could protect them within the bones of his house like he’d always wanted to protect them within the bones of his own body. It had been El first, of course, back in ‘83, but the rest of them had surely but slowly crept into his heart alongside of her and Hopper had never let them go.
Steve crawled out of his car, stretching with his hands at the small of his back. He hadn’t stopped since he left Chicago, just drove straight through, and he needed a moment to collect himself.
The lights above the wrap around porch clicked on and he grabbed his hastily packed overnight bag out of his car. He trudged up the old brick walk and the door swung open as his feet alighted on the steps to reveal El, approximately five years pregnant to look at her. She’d popped since the wedding, and how.
She leveled him with a Hopper-esque glare, as if to encourage him to try it, so he just dropped his bag and swept her into his arms instead. She clung to him, like a child.
“How are you?” he asked. He got a mouthful of her hair but he didn’t mind.
“Okay,” she said. Her hands were fisted in the soft cotton of his t-shirt.
“How you sleeping?”
She pulled back just slightly. “Bad. Kicks.”
“I bet,” he said.
“You are first,” she told him, pulling back further. “Will and Jonathan, with Barbie, get here tomorrow. Nancy had a deadline, so she will be here Friday with Scott.”
“Dustin, Max, and Lucas all got the same flight out of LAX on Friday too,” Steve told her, moving to scoop up his bag in one hand and hold El’s in the other. She led him to the kitchen, where Mike was washing dishes mechanically. She sat at the table in front of a half-eaten plate of something that Steve didn’t want to look too closely at because the smell was alarming. He made brief eye-contact with Mike, who grimaced and shook his head. Steve said, “Robin’s moving to Chicago this weekend, so she and Madchen will be down Sunday night after the movers leave.”
Lesbians, he thought fondly.
“Will said Eddie’s flying in from an undisclosed location,” said Mike over his shoulder. “So who knows when he’ll get here.”
“Is he on tour?” he asked.
El scooped a bite of her nightmare dinner into her mouth and leveled him with a look that Steve didn’t feel like dignifying with a response. Mike, luckily, wasn’t watching them, so he answered, “No idea. He’s writing somewhere, he said.”
Will and Eddie had, somewhat predictably, become fast friends in the aftermath of Hawkins, pen pals, phone buddies. He knew Mike and Dustin had been stupidly jealous about it when it happened but Steve, well aware that he had his own issues there and therefore had no leg to stand on, gave that a wide berth. They were both dungeony leaders or whatever, anyway, and writers to boot, even if they had different mediums; it made sense that they were close and, frankly, Steve felt like the littlest Byers should get as many nerdy friends as he wanted anyway.
“Tired?” asked El.
“A little,” he said. “Drove straight here.”
She nodded. Mike said, “Joyce made up your room.”
“Thanks,” he said. “Where is she?”
“With Dad,” said El. Her face was unreadable. “Tired, too.”
“I bet,” Steve said. “Do you guys mind if I head upstairs to drop my bag and wash the car smell off?”
El shook her head. “Leftovers in the fridge, if you are hungry.”
Steve shot Mike a quick look. Mike mouthed, Not the red one. Steve smiled at El. “Sure. If I don’t see you guys, sleep tight, okay?”
“El’s been keeping weird hours,” Mike told him. “I know you do too, so we’ll probably see each other before morning.”
“Sure.” Steve smiled at them both again and turned on his heel, heading for the back staircase that circumvented the majority of the guest rooms, and the main bedroom on the second floor where no doubt Joyce and Hopper were.
Hopper had, of course, insisted on more guest rooms than any reasonably sane person would during the renovation. Each of his gaggle of dubiously adopted feral kids needed a room to call their own, no matter that half of them were often on a sort of constant move. They hadn’t all been personalized for each of them for that reason, trading around based on who was where at what time, but they all had their favorites and things that felt like them ended up in them over time. El favored a room that looked out over the old cow pastures, and Max and Lucas had staked a claim early on to a ground floor bedroom, though Hopper had installed a chair lift that was honestly more often used by the boys when they’d been drinking than Max herself. Nancy and Jonathan always used the guest room that had an en suite that connected to another bedroom, where their kids stayed.
Personally, Steve’s favorite was the attic. Joyce had, at some point, rustled up a few articles about him from back in Hawkins, box scores and a few write-ups about his time captaining the swim team and the sophomore basketball game that was their closest ever run at States while he was on the team and had them tastefully framed as decor. She’d also had a large photo made of him in his cap and gown from Chicago State, trapped in a bear hug from a beaming Dustin.
There were a few pictures of Eddie framed on the walls too. He wasn’t sure if it was because the rare occasion that saw Eddie returning to Indiana had him crashing in the attic or if it was just because subtly was not one of Joyce Byers’ passions. Steve knew Hopper had each of Eddie’s albums hanging down in his office, but Joyce had gone with magazine covers for this room: the ‘94 NME cover, curled over his guitar with a cigarette hanging from his mouth in some studio; the Mojo one where he was holding up a copy of Kate Bush’s The Dreaming; the first one he ever got, some shot of him just performing, for a tiny outfit out of Seattle; and, of course, his biggest cover, the Rolling Stone one —
Eddie, sprawled on some hotel bed, his hair a wild halo around him not smiling, serious; Eddie, a threadbare Megadeth t-shirt, a hole in the collar, RIP Mary Jane, rucked up to just under his pectorals; Eddie, the tortured and lovely expanse of his stomach, the flowers he used to half cover the demobat and surgical scars, the fine line of hair at his naval, lower; Eddie, one hand on his belt buckle, one in his hair, his ringed fingers; Eddie, staring directly at the camera; Eddie, his eyes, wide, the darkest eyes Steve had ever known —
Steve dropped his bag by the dresser in the corner. He collapsed onto the bed and sat there for a long time, head in his hands, until the room slowly faded into darkness, illuminated poorly by the new moon.
A light flicked on and Steve looked up to see Joyce in the doorway. She must've skipped the creaky stair; he would've heard her otherwise.
“I thought I heard you moving around up here,” she said.
“Sorry,” he said. “Did I wake anyone?”
“No, we’re up,” she said. She padded over on quiet, stockinged feet, sat down next to him.
“How are you, sweetie?” she asked.
“How are you?” he countered.
Joyce stared at him for a moment before taking his hand in hers. His was so much bigger, and it was wild, how he forgot things like that. Joyce, like Hopper, had always seemed larger than life to him: brave and sturdy and fearless, she took up way more space than her tiny frame allowed, than what everything she’d ever been through suggested she should. He thought of what her shitty first husband had done to her, the things he’d learned from Jonathan and Will over the years; he thought of the way the town — the way he — had treated her in the wake of Will’s disappearance and supposed death, and everything that followed after; the way everyone had looked at her like she was crazy but she still held her head high and dared them all to not meet her eye. She’d been through so much, and now this. What bullshit.
It wasn’t fucking fair, and he told her so.
She stared at him for a moment longer.
Joyce Byers had never not given it to Steve straight, neither her nor Hopper, in fact, the only two reliable adults in Steve’s whole life, it felt like. So he wasn’t surprised when she sighed, just the once, and shifted so that she was sat facing him. She didn’t let go of his hand.
“No, Steve,” she said, “it isn’t fair. Of course it isn’t fair. I don’t think a single fair thing has ever happened to any of us. But I wouldn’t trade it. Every terrible thing has led to every good thing. That’s what’s hard, I think, to really understand. My boy disappearing brought Hopper and El and you, Steve, into my life, and no, the agony of those few days, the terror, the grief — none of that is ever going to go away. It’s going to heal, scar, but so many good things have come in its wake, and I won’t be mad at it. To be mad at it, to be furious, would be to give into the sadness.” She squeezed his hands; her eyes were bright. She told him, “And I refuse to be sad about where I am now. Do I want things to be different? Of course. I want a world where Will doesn’t still have nightmares, where El doesn’t have to live in fear that maybe, someday, someone will come looking for her. Where Max doesn’t have a wheelchair in the hall closet for the bad days, where Eddie didn’t have to choose between his scars and his tattoos, and where people don’t stare at your neck in the grocery store, wondering how someone who looks like you got something that looks like that. Where Sarah lived for me to know her, and where Hop — do I want more time? We all want more time. But what I had was enough, and I would do it again and again, because it would mean that I got to love him again, new and unvarnished and terrible and wonderful. Grief and growth live hand in hand, Steve, and I wouldn’t change a single thing.”
“Even the monsters?” he asked.
Joyce kissed his temple. “Even the monsters, sweetheart.”
“People are weird about flowers,” he says. “Especially on men, which, like, get out of my face with that heteronormative, gender conforming bullshit. That is not punk, okay, that is not metal. Still talk a lot of smack about my flower tattoos though, they think I should’ve kept the scars — because that’s more metal than, like, my violets and shit. But violets mean resurrection, man. What’s more metal than to live and die and live again? Like it’s my body, bro, and my tattoos and I am the only person who gets to decide how I react to my trauma, okay? To the things that almost killed me — did kill me, a little bit, I was legally dead and met God, she looks great. I kept a few but mostly I wanted to reclaim it, my scars, what happened. Here, look. So there’s the violets — resurrection — and ivy means endurance and thistle actually has a couple meanings and I liked them all: pain, protection, pride. Monkshood means death, which I decided to take in, like, the tarot kind of way, that death isn’t death, but change, rebirth. Nasturtium mean victory in battle. And these are asphodel, which I think is the most metal of my flowers. It means my regrets will follow you to the grave, which like, that would be a killer name for a song now that I'm thinking about it. Hold on, I gotta write that shit down — ”
— Excerpted from “Obscurity, Legend, or Horror Story: Ed Levy Talks a Place Beyond the Quarry,” NME, August 1994
Slowly, one after the other, the rest begin to arrive. There was a lot of silently holding each other in hallways and doorways, twos and threes and fours, hands fisted in shirts and curled into hair, breaths wet and stuttered, until Hopper inevitably rocked up on them with a mug of coffee in one hand, muttering, “Pussies,” as he walked past.
Steve tried to keep busy while he waited for everyone to get there. He helped Joyce air out rooms, painted that guest room, drove to the grocery store with Mike and Jonathan, when he got there. He looked after Barbie so Jonathan could have some time alone with his mom and step-dad, and took over dishwashing duty at the end of the night so Mike could spend some quiet time with El. As the resident insomniac of the group, too, he was regularly dispatched at all hours of the night to go pick up whatever heinous thing El’s pregnancy was demanding that she eat.
“Can’t be as weird as when Nancy was craving dirt when she was carrying Scott,” Jonathan had commented one afternoon when Steve was coming back from a coleslaw run.
“I’m sorry, what?” Steve had asked.
He had shrugged. “Apparently it’s pretty common. Doctors think it has to do with an iron deficiency.”
Steve had looked at El, who was adding peach jam to her coleslaw and watching the conversation like it was a tennis match. He had said, “I can let this happen, but I’m drawing a line at dirt. Do not ask me for dirt.”
She’d spooned some of her coleslaw peach mush into her mouth while Steve had valiantly fought the urge to gag. She’d asked, “Why would I ask you for dirt when there is a whole yard of it right there?”
Steve had turned on his heel and left.
When Dustin, Max, and Lucas arrived, he’d been on his way out for one of those runs and Dustin had asked to come along, tossing his bag into a corner of the living room and turning immediately to follow Steve out the door. It had just supposed to be a quick mission to the gas station for something salty for El to add to a yogurt but it turned into a four hour aimless drive around town. He was sure El wouldn’t mind.
“How you doing, kid?” asked Steve on their third pass of the main drag. They’d already shot the normal breeze — work, dating, a dig at Steve for being a chickenshit that Steve manfully resisted the urge to retaliate for, had he seen any good movies he didn’t work in lately, was that Jar Jar fucker gonna be in the third prequel too and also why, and did Dustin maybe want to come to Chicago in December to see the next Lord of the Rings — but Steve could see something working behind Dustin’s eyes.
“I don’t know,” he said after a moment. He was staring out the window. “I thought I’d be ready, you know? After all, we’ve done it once before, right?”
“It’s different,” Steve told him. “You know it’s different.”
Dustin sighed. “I know. It’s just — it’s Hopper. It’s El’s dad. I’m not ready. I know we’ve been — I know the writing’s been on the wall, but I’m still not ready.”
“You don’t have to be,” he said.
“I know that too. But why’s it gotta be like this?”
“I don’t know about you, man,” said Steve, thinking about his talk with Joyce, “but after everything we’ve been through? I don’t mind quiet. I think we deserve quiet. He’s lived a hard life. He deserves peace at the end, with his family.”
Dustin scrubbed his hands across his face. “I guess you’re right.”
“You guess? You guess? Shithead, you know I’m right,” he said, stretching a hand out to jostle his shoulder.
“Whatever.” He snorted. “Don’t act like you got your shit together, like, with anything else. You forget I know all about your big gay — ”
“Okay, okay, shut the fuck up,” said Steve. “You wanna head back or drive around a little more? I know that plane ride was long.”
“Drive a little bit, I think,” Dustin told him, and so they did.
It was pretty late when they got back, the vast majority of the house asleep, except for El who was in the kitchen drinking a glass of water and glaring balefully at a yogurt cup. Her face lit up when they entered, wrapping Dustin in a quick hug, before thanking Steve and making grabby hands at the plastic bag he was carrying, predictably understanding of their tardiness in returning and honestly just thrilled that someone was willing to run errands for her at all hours. He handed off what he picked out — peanuts, cornnuts, pork rinds, and a Slim Jim among a few others — and beat a quick retreat before he had to learn which one the winner was. He saw Dustin to his preferred room on the third floor before making his way up to the attic. He promptly crashed face first into the sheets of the bed that had felt more like a home than anywhere else he’d ever slept, only to be woken in the pitch black by a weight settling onto the side of the bed. Steve came up swinging.
When he was able to get his eyes open enough to register what was happening, Eddie was standing at the side of the bed, hands raised, eyes wide.
Steve slumped back into the pillows, heart going a mile a minute. He put a hand over his eyes and muttered, “Jesus fucking Christ. Did I get you?”
“No. Sorry,” Eddie said, hushed. “Didn’t mean to — they said you wouldn’t mind me bunking up here with you, when I got in. I can sleep on the floor — ”
“Don’t be stupid.” Steve was whispering too; he wasn’t sure why: it was the attic, and Hopper always claimed it was soundproof — Steve wasn’t too sure about that, personally — and it was something like two a.m., the whole house was fast asleep. “There’s plenty of room. Get in.”
Eddie stared at him a little longer, dark eyes reflecting the scant light from the harvest moon hanging above them, searching. At last, he said, “Okay,” and sat back on the edge of the bed.
Steve watched as he took off his shoes — Docs, ancient, stuffing his socks into them — and then as he pulled off the t-shirt he’d had on and shimmied out of his jeans. He was wearing briefs with little luchador masks on them, and Steve had to bite back a smile. He’d gotten a new tattoo since the last time Steve saw him stripped down to his skin and underwear, a large tree on his hairy upper thigh, an oak, maybe. He thought maybe there was something written into the bark of the tree, carved, someone’s initials maybe, but he couldn’t quite see it in the dark. His eyes traced over the others, quickly cataloging: the snarling tiger that was the center of his right sleeve, the stylized Zeppelin lyrics just beneath his collarbones, those bats that Steve had once asked him why he didn’t get them covered.
“I don’t want what happened to us to change everything about me,” he’d said. “I don’t want the Upside Down to destroy all the things I used to love. It took enough, right? From all of us?”
It had been ‘95, ‘96, when they’d had that talk, and Steve had been wearing nothing but turtlenecks in public for a decade. He’d touched his collar and Eddie had watched his fingers, silent. Steve had nodded and said, “Yeah. It has.”
He asked, still in a whisper, “You have a gig?”
“Hmm? No.” Eddie slid beneath the covers, moving his shoulders restlessly as he settled onto his back. “Writing the new album. Trying to write the new album, been trying for four years. Rented this house in the middle of Buttfuck Nowhere, British Columbia. Took me forever to fly in after Will called me, I think I was in a goddamn crop duster at one point.”
“But I made it,” he concluded. “When did you get in?”
“Couple days ago,” he said. “It was just El and Mike when I got here.”
“How are they doing? You?”
He shrugged. “We’ve all been better.”
“Hates the fuss we’re making,” Steve told him. Beside him, Eddie snorted. “I swear, if the man had his way, he would’ve just, like, wandered into the woods when none of us were looking and been done with it. He won’t even tell me what he wants done, like, after, you know?”
“Oh, that’s because I’m taking care of that.”
He blinked into the darkness. “What?”
“Yeah.” Eddie touched the back of his hand, brief. “I told Jim I’d handle it when he called to tell me he wasn’t gonna go into treatment this time. You guys shouldn’t have to — listen, don't look at me like that, I know you’re gonna be like but you’re family too, but don’t act like I don’t know how you and Joyce were the ones to take care of the stuff for Wayne for me. You’re not a fucking island, Steve, I wish you wouldn’t pretend like you don’t know that.”
“I’m not an island,” he protested. It sounded weak to his own ears in the quiet of the attic.
“Yeah, shut the fuck up,” he said without heat. “Let me take care of you for once. Anyway, funeral homes can really fuck around with families, I’ve been reading up on it, and, like, you know me, I refuse to get pushed around. I’m gonna open with ‘this is a Folgers can with a lid, legally you have to do it if we tell you too,’ and we’ll go from there.”
Despite himself, Steve laughed. If there was a bit of wetness to it, Eddie was kind enough not to comment. He said, “I don’t think that’s what Hopper wants.”
“He told me he wants his body tossed into the woods,” Eddie said flatly. “He said he didn’t even want us to stop the truck. Just fucking launch him out the back of the cab while we’re doing sixty and keep going.”
Steve laughed again and tipped his head, just slightly, towards Eddie. “Well, that sounds wildly illegal.”
“Why do you think he asked me?” he said. He leaned forward too. “You can see why I’m going with the Folgers thing, though, right?”
“Yeah, no, totally makes sense now.”
“I thought so.”
And, as their voices faded out between them, between one breath and the next, they fell asleep.
“Is i’m not angry anymore your most personal album? It feels very personal.”
Levy tears his pastry into small pieces, pops a few in his mouth and chews thoughtfully. At length, he says, “In a way. Everything I write is personal, some of it more than others, you know? I think, if I’m being honest, and I try to be very honest with myself these days — if I’m being honest, I think the most personal thing I ever wrote was Girl with a Buzzcut (Reprise).”
“You’d think,” I say, “that it’d be I Wore His Jacket.”
“Ah, the great public coming out song.” He shoots me a wry smile. “Not that everyone got it right away. That’s what you get for having a reputation as a story teller or whatever pretentious bull it is people like to call me sometimes. Don’t get me wrong: that was, in fact, a fucking doozy. I was scared as hell to put that one out into the world, and to make it the first single? I’ve got some brass ones, huh?”
We each laugh, but I have to ask: “You think the Girl’s reprise is more personal than that?”
He waves a hand. “It’s a whole thing. But yeah, I do. I think I tell a very specific story in that song, different from Jacket, and that’s, you know — Jacket is a love story, but it doesn’t have a happy ending. It’s bittersweet. The Girl’s reprise has a happy ending. I think that’s the story I really wanted to tell. The Girl, you know, realizing that she isn’t a monster, and that she’s deserving of love— that she can want love, that she’ll be okay. I suppose i’m not angry anymore does something similar. the songs no heroics and anthems for a twenty year old boy certainly does — it tells you that, despite everything, you’ll be okay.”
— Excerpted from “When the Levy Breaks,” Rolling Stone, December 1998
Slowly, Steve swam towards consciousness. It took a moment for his brain to come back online, which was strange, for him. Since he was sixteen and had learned there was another world beneath this one, he almost always snapped straight awake, engines firing on all cylinders and working on his anxiety disorder — like last night, when he’d felt pressure on the edge of the bed and came to swinging even though there was no house safer than one with El Hopper, massively pregnant or not, under the roof.
He was, objectively, a terrible sleeper. Even before all the Upside Down bullshit, he’d had trouble falling asleep and staying asleep. Lots of old girlfriends had complained he never spent the night but he’d always been too restless in someone else's home, and if he was at his, he just decamped to the pool and sat beside it. That had lost its appeal shortly after the fall of ‘83, and his insomnia had only gotten worse then too. These days, his nightmares were few and far between but he still spent a lot of time watching QVC, or reruns of the Golden Girls at three in the morning.
So this slow, gentle waking, feeling well rested and like he could slip right back under, was strange. He tried to put his finger on what was different; he remembered being in the car with Dustin, saying goodnight to El, and then falling asleep and, yes, waking again. Eddie had been there, he recalled; they’d talked about the kids and Hopper and Eddie’s writing and then Steve had fallen asleep. Now?
Now, he was warm, cocooned with the blankets and spooned against a heat source that he was slowly beginning to realize was Eddie. They must’ve rolled together in their sleep; and, now Eddie was curved against his back, his face pressed between Steve’s shoulder blades, a leg between his thighs, and one hand spread against his abdomen. Neither of them had on shirts, skin to warm skin. Heartbeat rabbiting, he realized that Eddie’s fingers were skimming the waistband of his briefs.
Oh, fuck, he thought, this was —
This was —
His eyes burned. This was everything he’d ever wanted, and it was so clearly some kind of sleepy mistake — how did he get out without breaking his own heart into a million pieces in the process?
Steve closed his eyes tightly, sucking in a breath between his teeth and allowed himself one moment of weakness. He allowed himself that, just one brief, perfect moment of fantasy: that this was every morning, that this was his life, tucked in the hollow of Eddie’s body like a parenthetical, so close you couldn’t slot a coin between them. That, like this, Eddie’s breathing would change, speed up with waking; that, like this, his mouth would press softly and sweetly to the ridges of Steve’s spine; that, like this, his sleep warm hand would slip beneath elastic of his briefs; that, like this, he would take Steve in hand.
“Baby,” Eddie said, voice raspy and low with just waking up, his fingers dipping low. His hips pushed forward, the hard length of him pressing into Steve, and instinctively he pushed back, wanting, and —
That wasn’t —
“Shit — ”
This was —
Behind him, Eddie shot up and backwards like he’d been burned. Steve sat up too, turning in time to see Eddie topple off the edge of the bed in a flurry of sheets and flailing arms.
For one second, a lifetime, they just sort of stared at each other. Steve’s heart felt like it was going to beat out of his chest. He opened his mouth to say something just as Eddie scrambled up onto his hands and knees and said, “Fuck. Fuck, Steve, I am so sorry. I didn’t — I thought I was — I would have never touched you, if I’d — without — I was — I thought I was dreaming and — fuck — ”
“What?” he asked. “That’s — what? It’s okay.”
Eddie stared at him, eyes huge. “What? Steve, I fucking felt you up, I’m so sorry — ”
He’d thought it’d be harder, was the thing. He thought it was going to be some sort of huge emotional upheaval, but it wasn’t, he realized. He thought, if he ever managed to tell Eddie how he felt, that it would destroy him, destroy them both. But it was just them, together in this bedroom in the attic of the house built by the only man Steve ever thought of as his father. His family was under this roof, and Eddie was under this roof, and Eddie was the one looking at him like he had fucked up by touching Steve.
Steve thought about what Joyce had said to him, sitting side by side with him on this bed, god, just two days ago. Grief and growth, he thought.
“I love you,” said Steve, and, at once, it was easier and harder than he thought it would be. He’d never managed to say the words to anyone, after he’d said them to Nancy in that bathroom at that party, too terrified of what someone would say back. But this was him, and it was Eddie, and it was them, in Hopper’s attic.
Eddie was frozen on the ground still. His hands were fisted in the sheets near Steve’s calf. His eyes —
“I love you,” he said again. “I’ve loved you since we were twenty and you tossed your jacket at my head and I don’t think I’m ever going to stop loving you, is the thing, and I’m sorry if I’ve crossed some wires but I don’t think I have, and I’m sorry that I’ve been scared, I’m sorry that I’m a runner, and maybe we should have done this earlier, and I’m sorry I didn’t, I was too fucking scared, but I’m not scared anymore and I have to tell you now, because — ”
“Steve — “
“ — because it doesn’t matter, because I can love you now with, with more of myself. With my new self. I’m not sad that something’s ended, because there’s something new, and I love you, I’ll love you, I’m sorry — ”
“Steve — “
“I still have your jacket,” he said.
Eddie’s palm was cupped along his jaw now, the one with the stick and poke eye he’d done himself right after everything. He’d had it cleaned up a few years later, Steve knew, had them scrawl the devil won’t keep till morning below. People always thought it was after his song, but the sentiment came first. They’d known their fair share of devils over the years, some of them human, most of them not.
Steve wasn’t sure if Eddie had reached out first, or if Steve had leaned in, but they were so close suddenly. He said, “I still have it.”
Eddie kissed him, thorough and slow and beautiful and filthy, his tongue behind his teeth. Steve felt flayed open, vulnerable, and he wanted to crawl into him, live inside of him, never let him go. His hands tangled in Eddie’s hair as they kissed for what felt like forever, Eddie on his knees at the edge of the bed, Steve bent in half to reach him.
“I wrote every single one of them for you,” Eddie told him an eternity later. Their parted mouths were still so close together it was like he was feeding the words to him. He pulled back, ran his thumbs along the hollows of Steve’s eyes, dear, and said, “Every love song, every song, every word — Steve, I wrote them all for you.”
Oh, he thought.
“Eddie,” he said. “Kiss me again. Please.”
He did, and everything felt slow and fast all at once. Eddie was on the bed again, leaning over Steve, crowding him back against the pillows, and Steve was spreading his thighs, opening up the cradle of his hips for Eddie to make a home for himself. His hands were still tangled in Eddie’s soft hair, and Eddie’s fingers were pressing on the hinge of his jaw, encouraging. He licked into his mouth, soft, exploratory, and Steve held the moan that wanted to escape in his throat like a secret.
“Don’t do that. I wanna hear you.”
“The kids — ”
“— aren’t kids anymore. But we’ll be quiet, if you want.” Eddie’s other hand was back on the elastic band of Steve’s briefs. He was hard again, so hard, and he could feel Eddie hard against his thigh too. He breathed into his mouth, “Is this okay?”
“Okay,” Steve said. “Fuck, more than okay. Eddie, Eddie — ”
“I’ve got you, baby.” He slipped Steve’s briefs down his legs, his own following before Steve even had to ask, and then they were moving together in the half-light of the attic. Eddie was so hot against him, like a brand. His mouth trailed down Steve’s neck, licking into the hollow of his collarbone, and he thought he was going to explode.
“Eddie, Eddie,” he said, like a mantra.
“What do you want?” he asked, mouthing at Steve’s pectoral. “I want — I want to give you everything.”
“I don’t know. This, anything, everything.” He wasn’t making sense, but he didn’t care. It was him. It was Eddie. “Just — don’t stop touching me. Don’t stop.”
“I could never,” Eddie said. He kissed his way down Steve’s sternum, across the thick scarring of his abdomen, down into the dips of his hips, slow and thorough as that first kiss had been, and then kissed back up the way he came when Steve tugged gently at his hair. He asked, “Do you want me to fuck you?”
“Please,” he said. Nothing had ever sounded better to Steve, in fact, and he told him so.
Eddie huffed a laugh, pressed that laugh into his mouth as he kissed him, and then slipped off him to go to his bag. Steve sat up and watched him go, the confidence in his nude body as he bent to rummage through his bag, the strong line of his back, his shoulders, the curve of his round ass. Steve wanted to bite it, wanted to run his hands across the breadth of him, memorize his tattoos with his fingers and not just his eyes, clutch him tight and never let go.
Turning back to him, the unruly shag of Eddie’s hair covered half his face in shadow. “What are you smiling at?”
“You,” he said. “Come back.”
“I’m coming,” he said. He walked back slowly, his hard dick, thicker than Steve’s but not as long, bouncing against his thigh, and he crawled back over Steve, a condom and a sachet of lube in his right fist.
“That confident you’d get lucky?” Steve asked, as Eddie ripped the sachet open.
“Doesn’t hurt to be prepared,” he said, his slick fingers pressing at the apex of Steve’s body. “Anyway, I don’t hear you complaining.”
Steve wasn’t, and he didn’t. He had taken any number of lovers into his bed over the years, and had quite a lot of great sex too, but this was different. This was Eddie, and Eddie took his time, staring into his eyes the whole time, watching his face carefully for any twitch, any wince, any sign of discomfort or hesitation — for any flutter of his eyes, or the bite of his lip. He was, Steve realized, learning his body, like an instrument, like something that Eddie was planning on playing for years to come. Let me take care of you for once, he’d said.
“You’re smiling again,” said Eddie, softly.
“Yeah,” he said. “Don’t worry about it.”
He wiped his hand on the sheets and carefully opened the condom, and Steve gently took it from him.
“Let me,” he said. Steve rolled the condom on. “Can I get on top? I wanna ride you.”
“Fuck.” Eyes huge, breathless, Eddie nodded. “Sure, baby.”
Steve flipped them and sank down in one fluid motion. Somehow, impossibly, Eddie’s eyes blew even wider and Steve set a slow but punishing pace for them, riding Eddie steadily but surely into the mattress.
“Jesus Christ, look at you,” he breathed. “Steve, sweetheart, look at you.”
“Yeah?” he said. “Like what you see?”
“I’ve always liked what I saw,” Eddie told him. This, for some reason, made Steve duck his head, and Eddie reached up a hand, the tattooed one, tilting his face up. “Don’t hide from me. Please. I want to see you.”
“What do you want to see?” he asked.
“This. Anything,” he echoed. “Everything.”
Somehow, eventually, they were on their sides again, Eddie curled over Steve’s back like they had woken barely an hour ago, Eddie thrusting in and out of Steve’s body, his mouth over the scars on Steve’s neck, saying quietly in between kisses and bites, “Steve, baby, sweetheart, my love.” He felt electric, a stripped wire, and he wanted so badly for this moment to never end. But he wanted to feel him, too, feel Eddie lose control, wanted to have a part of him in him always, and he was on fire, immolated from the inside out, so he said, “Eddie, babe, please, please, I need you — ”
“Yes,” he said, hips snapping furiously, his hand fisting around Steve in time. “Yes, yes — ”
After, they stood at the foot of the bed together, slowly dressing one another. Eddie smoothed back Steve’s hair, his fingers sliding down to the nape of his neck, and Steve buckled the belt on Eddie’s jeans. He leaned in and kissed him on the corner of his mouth, and Eddie ran the backs of his knuckles from his jaw to his shoulder to his hand.
“Hey,” said Steve.
“Hey,” said Eddie. “I love you.”
“Yeah,” he said. “Because — you and me forever, is what I mean.”
“I’d like that,” Steve told him.
Eddie beamed. “Breakfast?”
He took his hand and, together, they walked down the stairs. They dropped each other’s hands as they approached, after Steve squeezed once, and they went into the kitchen where Hopper was having coffee with Mike and Jonathan.
“Eddie!” called Mike. “Hey, man, when did you get in?”
“Late last night,” he told him, heading over to the coffee pot in the corner. Steve followed him over; he was going to have to go on another run soon, that old thing was really putting in overtime. Eddie was saying, “Will let me in.”
“How was your flight?” asked Jonathan.
“Eh,” he said. He poured Steve a cup of coffee and then one for himself. Eddie smiled softly at him, took a sip.
They turned sharply.
At the kitchen table, Hopper was giving them the hairy eyeball; it was as powerful as it was when Steve was fifteen and illegally joy riding the Beemer down dirt roads in Hawkins while his parents were out of town, undiminished by time and Hopper’s own fading body. Steve liked to think he’d become immune to it, though, a son to Hop as much as the Byers boys were, as much as El was his daughter, but he could feel Eddie shrinking behind his shoulders. Hopper demanded flatly, “You two fuck in my attic?”
Behind him, Eddie choked on his coffee. Steve stared Hopper right back in the eye, despite the fact that he was desperately trying to figure out if he had a visible hickey or something. He didn’t think so but Eddie had, true to character, proven to be delightfully bitey. It could really go either way.
“What about it, chief,” he said.
Eddie made another strangled noise, clearly trying to will his body through the floor.
Hopper grumbled, but there was a smile lurking at the edges of his mouth. “Just wash your own sheets.”
“Wait, what?” asked Mike. His eyes darted back and forth between Eddie, Steve, and Hopper. Jonathan leaned back in his chair, smirking. Mike demanded, “Wait, did you guys finally figure your shit out? You banged? In the house?”
Steve liked to be the bigger person these days, when it came to the kids — he was a grown ass man, after all — but if Mike was going to leave him an opening like that…
“Guest bath too,” he said.
Mike flung his hands up. “Dude! That’s a shared fucking space, what is wrong with you?” He pointed an accusatory finger at Eddie, adding, “And you! I gave you a kidney, and this is how you repay me?”
Eddie shrugged his shoulders and made an apologetic face, despite the furious blush that was streaked across his cheeks and turning the tips of his ears bright red. “You’ve seen those freckles. I’m weak!”
“You guys suck,” he hissed.
“I sure did,” said Steve.
With an inarticulate noise of rage, Mike’s chair screeched backwards and he stormed out of the room. Steve chortled to himself, leaning back into Eddie, and caught the edge of Hopper’s smirk before he took a sip of his coffee.
“Ignore him,” offered El. She’d wandered in just as Hopper had begun his interrogation and was now doing something unspeakable with an Eggo and a jar of sauerkraut. “He is just upset because now he owes Lucas money.”
“What? Wheeler! Get back here! Did you assholes bet on me?” Steve shouted.
“From the bottom of my heart, kid,” said Hopper, “you deserve this, and I’m thrilled it’s happening. Munson, you and I are gonna talk later.”
Behind him, Eddie nodded stiffly. “Yes, sir.”
Later still, after Robin and Madchen had arrived and Steve had held Robin for a long time in the kitchen, wordlessly, tucked into each other like little kids; after Robin had taken one look at, yeah, the enormous hickey Eddie had in fact left behind beneath the Y of the scar on Steve’s neck and laughed so hard she told him she might be sick and Madchen had just high-fived him; after Hopper dragged Eddie into his study for a talk that Steve suspected Hopper had been perfecting for the better part of two decades —
Later still, Steve caught the boys and Max, crowded around the back of the old dairy parlor, on his way to his car for that emergency coffee run at Kroger. Will had a notebook open in one hand and a fanny pack worn crossways across his body that he was digging in with the other, rifling through a truly alarming amount of cash. He was handing out a handful of bills to each Dustin and Max but the lion’s share of the cash was going to Lucas, who was crowing, “I told you I knew Steve best!”
Mike glared. “Eat dirt, Sinclair.”
“There’s still unanswered questions,” Dustin was saying. “For instance, we don’t know definitively who made the first move — ”
“El said Eddie kissed him first,” Max said, counting out her wad of fives and tens before handing them to Lucas to put in his wallet. “She said he was thinking about it super loud.”
“Yeah, but who confessed,” he said. “Who broke down first? Did Eddie tell him he wanted to go get gay married in the Netherlands? Did Steve tell him he loved him and wants to have lots of sex and babies?”
“Dude, gross,” said Mike.
Dustin rolled his eyes. “Oh, shut the fuck up, you homophobic piece of shit — ”
“I am not homophobic, you shut the fuck up, just because I don’t wanna imagine our dads bumping uglies — ”
“Those babies would be cute,” said Max contemplatively as Dustin and Mike dissolved into a slap fight.
“Great hair,” agreed Lucas. “Big hair.”
“I’m still holding three hundred in the pot,” Will offered, “for the over/under on who says I love you first, and another two hundred for a proposal. I can add a thing about the big-haired babies but as the resident homosexual of the Party Proper, I can tell you, it’s probably not gonna happen.”
“Probably?” asked Lucas.
“Mutants. Also seahorses do it, and how would you know if you, like, had a secondary mutation for it unless you tried?” called Dustin. He now had Mike in a headlock and seemed poised to give him a wet willy but paused as he watched Lucas visibly weigh that information.
“Okay,” he said. “I mean, it would be the weirdest thing to happen to us yet, but, like —”
“Not ever,” finished Will.
“Oh my God,” whispered Steve, backing away. He wanted no part of this.
Still, he did tell Eddie about it later, as they brought Mike’s nightmare to fruition in the guest bathroom.
“Will’s running book on us,” he said. Eddie made an inquisitive noise from between Steve’s legs. He told him, “Apparently there’s, shit, there’s an open bet on which one of us says I love you first and there’s a lot of money on it. Shit. I mean, like, a lot of money.”
“Damn,” said Eddie, a little breathless. “I always knew that kid was a genius. Do you know who has you? If it’s Max, I bet we can talk her into splitting the profit if we make it worth her while. Now, as interesting as this is, can we stop talking about the gremlins? I’ve got big plans down here, you know?”
Steve laughed. “My apologies.”
Eddie shot him a wicked smile and ducked his head back down.
“I didn’t think I’d live past twenty, you know?” he says. “It’s wild to me that I’m here, genuinely wild. I was supposed to be dead. Maybe that’s why I’ve got such a connection to it. Because I thought there was this thing — you know, the classic rock star thing — and it was supposed to, fucking, eat me alive. But here I am, and there I was, with my heroes shaking my hand, and I’m never getting over it, you know? Never, ever, ever. Can you imagine? That’s, like, I think the heart of METALHEAD. Maybe that’s what makes it so metal: surviving when you shouldn’t, and making a life for yourself after.”
— Excerpted from “Fortune Favors the Fuck-Ups,” Spin, June 1992
Despite what they were all waiting for, life went on on the farm, each of them orbiting each other, waiting, one day at a time. Eddie had had a medical marijuana card since they made it legal in Seattle in ‘98 — “If anyone asks,” he said, “I have glaucoma” — and he smoked Hopper out in his office most afternoons, the two of them having quickly gotten over whatever shovel talk Hopper had given. Hopper began spending more time asleep than not too, and they all just — waited.
Max took a few sessions with her clients over the phone and Lucas did an interview on his cell seated on the fence of the old cow pasture, had a long call with Nike one morning while the rest of them watched from the kitchen window, fingers crossed. Dustin had brought his traveling equipment and entertained Barbie and Scott with it, dubbing them his assistants; Mike and Will also got involved, and there was one afternoon filled with explosions that took about two years off Steve’s life. Nancy and Jonathan kept Joyce company when she wasn’t tending to Hopper, and Robin and Madchen had taken over all kitchen related duties, the best cooks of them all. Will and El could often be found at Hopper’s bedside, El growing rounder and rounder with every passing day and Will reading the draft of his newest book aloud, making edits as he went.
Eddie often disappeared in the afternoons after his daily bowl with Hopper. He would go off to the old dairy parlor to write; Hopper and Joyce had never been able to agree on what it should get turned into, had just gutted most of the equipment and then bickered about whether it should become a guest house or maybe a studio for Will when he visited. The acoustics were good, either way, said Eddie, and he could often be found there or in the guest bath with his guitar.
Him and Steve screwed most nights, making out like teenagers like they were making up for lost time, shushing each other if they got too loud, aware now that the acoustics in the attic weren’t too shabby either. Mostly, Eddie fucked him slow and deep and right, always staring into his eyes or kissing the space beneath the hinge of his jaw, and Steve’s heart felt like it might explode, so full.
Steve ended up the runner of the group, an extension of his duties as gopher for El’s pregnancy cravings. Usually, someone came along with him, one of the kids most of the time, looking for a reprieve, looking for a shoulder to cry on where no one could see them break down. Steve didn’t mind; the times when he was alone, he found himself in tears behind the wheel, terrible sobs clawing their way up his throat.
He started leaving his Blackberry behind when he went during the second week, no matter if someone was with him or he was alone. So far, Jonathan was the only person who’d either clocked it or decided to mention it at all. They were on their way to pick up ingredients for a new recipe Robin wanted to try — she was on a vegan kick, and needed a shit ton of chickpeas — and Jonathan waited until they were buckled into Hopper’s truck and heading down the dirt driveway to speak.
“Hey,” he said softly, “you left your Blackberry — don’t you think we should bring it?”
“No.” Steve turned onto the street, shot Jonathan a look from the corner of his eye. “Do you want to find out your step-dad died in the frozen food aisle of a Kroger?”
Jonathan huffed a laugh, or maybe a sob. “Yeah. Yeah, that’s fair.”
One week, then, and two, and then another, and, in the end, they got a whole month. It was longer than they thought they would get and somehow, of course, not long enough indeed.
Steve had been sent on yet another horrific food run for El, two weeks out from her due date now and clearly over the entire thing. If Eddie didn’t drag him to bed, he spent most of his nights side by side with El at the kitchen table. He was going to join her there now, locking up his car, and when he entered it was to Hopper at the table with her, their heads bent together. Joyce was at the kitchen sink, washing dishes for something to do.
“Hey,” said Hopper, looking up Steve put the absolute horror El requested from the local Dairy Queen on the table in front of her. “Mission accomplished?”
“Barely,” said Steve. “The looks the people in town give me now. I’m a pariah!”
El stuck her tongue out at him. Hopper said, “You talk a big game for someone who will never know the beautiful nightmare of pregnancy.”
“I mean, not for lack of trying on Eddie’s part,” said Steve. “He really puts his back into it, you know?”
El snorted into her DQ abomination and Joyce rolled her eyes so hard it was practically audible. “Steve. ”
“Listen!” He held his hands out, palms open. “He just wants to make sure you get a grand baby from each kid, and apparently there’s a bet going around about whether or not I want to have his big-haired babies. And I do, so.”
“I’m telling Mike,” said El.
“Do it. And make sure I’m there, I wanna see what color his face turns.”
“This is perfect, huh, Joyce? All of our babies, here, home,” said Hopper then, and they all turned to look at him. He was smiling, wry and soft and strained, tired. He looked so genuinely happy and it was startling — sometimes, Steve thought he could only count on one hand the times he’d seen Hopper actually happy, not just content or fine. As he slowly rose from his seat, Steve felt his eyes well up with tears, and Hopper said, “But I think it’s time for me to turn in.”
He shuffled to stand behind them, kissed El on the temple, cradled his boney hand against the bottom curve of Steve’s skull, and said, “Be good, okay?”
At the sink, Joyce dried her hands off. She moved silently but quickly to Hopper’s side, tucking herself beneath his arm, her thin shoulders holding him up as they always did.
“Here, honey,” she said. She turned to smile softly at him and El, said, “We’ll see you in the morning,” and steered Hopper from the room.
“Hey, I should take you out for dinner soon,” said Hopper.
“Yeah?” said Joyce. “Like a date?”
“Yeah, like a date,” he said.
“I’ll pencil it in.”
In the kitchen, him and El sat quietly for a moment, listening as their voices faded and their soft steps retreated to the stairs and then upwards. El put her spoon on the table with a clink.
“Steve?” she asked, voice small.
He blinked hard once, twice, and then stood. It seemed to him like it took monumental effort, like his body was on the verge of collapsing in on itself, and he forced some steel into his spine. He held a hand out to El. “Hey, let’s get you to bed too, okay? It’s late and Mike’s probably about to round up the troops to find you.”
Those too-old eyes of hers searched his face; for what, he’d never be sure, but after a moment she nodded and let herself be led from the room. He dropped her off at her bedroom and watched carefully from the doorway as she laid herself down on her side, Mike curling unconsciously around her in his sleep. She gave him another nod and he closed the door, moving to the back stairwell that led to the attic.
Eddie was in bed but still awake, writing steadily in his notebook. He looked up when Steve hit the final stair, the creaky one, and his quick smile turned into a frown.
“Is everything okay?”
He shook his head. “Yeah. I don’t know. Can I just, like, hold you for a little bit?”
“Of course.” He shut the notebook, put it on the side table in one fluid motion, and Steve stepped out of his jeans and tossed his t-shirt in the general direction of the dresser. Wordlessly, Eddie flipped back the duvet and he dropped into him, pressing his face into his sternum and wrapping his arms around his torso. One of Eddie’s hands carded through Steve’s hair while the other reached for the light and Steve listened to the reassuring rhythm of both their hearts.
He didn’t even realize they fell asleep like that, Eddie still sitting and Steve buried into him like an animal looking for warmth, until he startled awake to the feel of a cold hand on his bicep. Only Eddie’s grip on him kept him from flailing out wildly and he blinked rapidly, trying to see into the dim half-light of the attic in morning. The sun never made it in until well after noon, and he couldn’t get a clear look at the clock.
“Dustin?” asked Eddie, voice hazy.
Steve raised his head and sure enough there the kid was, kneeling by the side of the bed. His hair was wild and there were tears streaming down his face, his hand spasming on Steve’s arm. He said, “Hopper’s gone.”
He sat up on his elbows. He looked from Dustin to Eddie, whose mouth had dropped open, and then back to Dustin, still crouched on the ground.
“He just — didn’t wake up this morning,” he was saying, voice thick and watery, “and he’s gone. He’s just — he’s really gone this time. Isn’t he? Hopper’s gone.”
Steve sat up, moving off Eddie’s legs, and opened his arms. Dustin fell into them, weeping. Steve pressed his cheek against his brother’s head, felt Eddie move beside him to sit up and wrap them both in his own long arms, and began to cry.
Chapter 4: part four
- here we are at the end!! thank you to everyone you has been reading!! there might be a few more things set in this universe that might come down the pipeline — follow me on tumblr to keep an eye out
- also a brief warning: after the second article we go to hopper’s funeral; it’s brief, and steve doesn’t remember most of it but if you need to skip go from the Mojo article to “After, they held the wake…”
Rarely does Levy discuss his hometown, his childhood. In most interviews, he rushes past the question with a joke. In his most iconic — the aptly titled ‘98 issue of Rolling Stone, “When the Levy Breaks” — he got more personal. It was, he says, a common story for someone like him: a broken home and a drug problem, trailer trash just like the first track off his first album.
But now, sitting across from me, in the midst of the worst writer’s block of his career, he confesses, “I’m worried I’ll never write another song again.”
“Yeah.” He reaches out, presses one hand to the window of the recording booth. There’s a startling longing on his face; I feel, suddenly, like a voyeur. He tells me, “Maybe this is it for me. I don’t know. I wonder, sometimes, if I’m being punished.”
“Chrissy’s Song,” he says. “People always ask me: what’s it about, really? As if what it is on the surface wasn’t enough. A girl in trouble, a girl needing help, and not getting it. What she got was me, and sometimes I wonder if I’m being punished for failing her. I don’t — I don’t talk about this. About her, that night. Rightfully. You know, there’s a whole town of people who think I murdered her. Do you wanna hear a ghost story?”
— Excerpted from “When Suffering Grows a Garden, Set It On Fire,” Fader, March 2001
Steve’s most enduring memory of his father was this: at a dinner table, reading the paper, asking him about his day and then not listening to the answer. He was ten, in the memory, and even then some part of him recognized that the man before him may have been his father but he was also a stranger. Like with many things, he didn’t have the words to articulate the feeling until much later in life, but it had been a certain sadness then stuck beneath his breastbone, a kind of loneliness that no ten year old should know.
His most enduring memory of Hopper was this: Steve, seventeen years old, beat to shit on Joyce Byers’s sofa, Hopper pressing butterfly bandages over his nose, asking, “You sure you won’t let me take you to the hospital, kid,” and Steve shaking his head even though it made him want to puke and cry all at the same time.
“I’m fine,” he told him.
Hopper arched a skeptical brow and said, “And I’m the Queen of England.”
At Steve’s other side on the couch, the super-powered little girl with the dark eye make-up was leaning against his side and she giggled. Hopper continued, “If I can’t take you to the hospital, and you won’t press charges, you’re coming home with us so I can make sure you don’t slip into a fu—tzing coma in your sleep, okay?”
“Okay,” he said.
“Okay.” He rose, wiping his hands on his pants, and pointed to the girl. “El, poke him every five minutes when we get into the car. Hard.”
“Okay,” she said too.
Hopper dropped a hand into Steve’s hair then, not ruffling, mindful, obviously, of how concussed he in fact was. He looked at him steadily and, even if Steve saw two of him there for a minute and was getting a little concerned about his own brain, he knew what he saw in Hopper’s eyes just then. It was the first time, that night, but it wasn’t the last: it was a man who was a stranger but also a father.
Or, perhaps, no, it wasn’t that, and instead this was his most enduring memory of Hopper: Steve — nineteen years old, stitches across his abdomen and the y-shaped marks on his neck, a pint of someone else’s blood in his veins, and an IV-drip in his wrist, sitting next to Eddie Munson’s hospital bed and praying to a god he didn’t know if he still believed in that he and Max, two doors down, were going to wake up — looking up to see a dead man in the doorway.
Steve was tired and bloody and dirty and he’d been holding it together with white knuckled hands for the better part of a year; and Hopper, thin and grim, cracked a smile and said, “Hey, kid. Heard you had kind of a week too.”
He burst into tears. It wasn’t a pretty cry, either; no, it was full-on ugly, gasping, snotty sobs, Steve clawing at his own mouth to keep the terrible wounded animal noises at bay. He heard, as if from a great distance, someone say, “Oh, bud,” and then there were big arms around him. He collapsed into the hug, burrowing his face into Hopper’s now boney shoulder, his whole body shaking. He smelled like sweat and the woods and peanut butter and cigarettes. He was warm. He was maybe shaking a little too.
Hopper was alive, Hopper was here — Hopper was alive, Hopper was here —
With one hand cupped against the back of Steve’s head, he used the other to rub circles between his shoulder blades and, between gasping sobs, Steve said, “I’m sorry, I’m so sorry, I tried, Hopper, I tried —”
“I know,” he said. His lips were pressed against Steve’s temple, chapped and peeling, and he was so real and warm and he couldn’t stop fucking shaking. Hopper said, “I know, son, I know you did.”
“I couldn’t keep them safe,” he sobbed.
“But you kept them alive,” he told him. “You did so good, kid. I’m so proud of you.”
“I can’t,” he gasped. “Dad — ”
“I know,” Hopper said again. “It’s okay. I’m here now, son. You kept them alive, and I’ll keep you safe. It’s gonna be okay. I’ve got you. You can rest now, son. I’m here.”
JB: I have to ask, your song, An Unhaunted House — it’s so evocative, that idea, that you present, there. What made you think of it?
EL: What? That there’s no such thing as an unhaunted house?
EL: Because there’s not. I don’t think I’m the first to have this idea. Look, it’s like: your body, it’s a home, it’s your home, your vessel. But you live inside of it, and your memories live inside of it, and those are ghosts. There’s always a ghost, metaphorical or otherwise. There’s this poem, by Merrit Malloy, and I think about it a lot. I heard it a few years ago at a funeral, right before they did the Kaddish. So, there’s this part, goes like: “I want to leave you something, something better than words, or sounds. Look for me in the people I’ve known or loved, and if you cannot give me away, at least let me live in your eyes and not your mind.” She says it so much better than me, but I think that’s what I wanted to get at with An Unhaunted House . That it’s there. It follows you, good or bad. “Love doesn’t die, people do.” There’s no such thing as an unhaunted house. It’s just a matter of how the haunting takes you.
— Excerpted from “Ed Levy Wants You To Get High And Listen To Kate Bush,” Mojo, July 1997
Hopper was cremated. They didn’t put his ashes in a Folgers’ can, even though Hopper had found it objectively hilarious and had given Eddie his blessing to do so, saying if they wouldn’t bury him in the backyard, he found that alternative solution acceptable. Instead, it was a tasteful wooden box. They scattered half of his ashes over little Sarah’s grave in a small, private ceremony, and then a few days later took the rest up to Hawkins to toss over the quarry.
A priest spoke and Joyce delivered a dry-eyed eulogy that made everyone else cry, her hands steady around the wooden box that held him; but Steve didn’t remember any of that. He remembered, instead, the way Joyce’s shoulders had been straight and firm and uncompromising. He remembered the warmth of the back of Eddie’s hand, pressed against his own as they stood there, Dustin under Eddie’s free arm and Max under Steve’s. He remembered Robin crying into Madchen’s shoulder and the quietly devastated expression on her face when he checked on her in the rearview of the car on the way over. He remembered the Byers boys holding hands, and he remembered El staring out over the quarry like she could see something none of the rest of them could see, like she could see something beyond them. Maybe she could.
After, they held the wake at the farm. Steve stood on Joyce’s left with El, and Will and Jonathan, Nancy and the kids too, on her right, all of them but El shaking hands and thanking people who told them they were sorry for their loss; she stood with her hands over the heavy swell of her belly and nodded. No one looked twice at Steve in the line up; Chief Powell, retired a few years back, even told him that Hop used to carry a picture of Steve in his wallet from his Indiana State graduation, would tell him about his son up in Chicago when they ran into each other after he left Hawkins.
Steve had to look at the ceiling then, jaw clenched, just for a moment, before thanking him for stopping by.
He wished Eddie was by his side too, but he was rightfully keeping himself scarce. The old government cover-up and Lucas’s inspired lie about WITSEC had done a lot for Eddie’s image but people from Hawkins had a long memory and there were tons of them filtering in and out of the house to pay their respects and Eddie didn’t want to disrupt an already difficult day. Steve thought he saw him slip into Hopper’s office with Dustin at one point, an arm around his shoulders, Robin and Madchen with them. Either way, a T.Rex record was playing; it was one of the few artists Hopper and Eddie could agree on.
Steve kept himself busy, in between, bringing water and food to Joyce and standing there until she put something in her stomach, rolling her eyes at his mothering of her.
“Shouldn’t this be the other way around,” she whispered to him once, pushing the hair out of his face.
“You can give us one day,” he told her as he and Jonathan and Will traded off a place at her side.
“Just one day,” she told him.
“That’s all I ask.”
A few hours in, he realized he’d lost sight of El. The gathering had lost that awful edge of solemnity, laughter and jokes rising as people traded memories of Hopper, the T.Rex album louder, and a part of the Party had run out to gather more alcohol because Hopper would drag himself back from heaven itself to kick their asses if they threw him a dry funeral.
He tried to remember the last time he saw her. With Eddie, maybe, having emerged to drink a few beers in a kitchen with Max and Will, or with Mike before he’d led the booze recon with Dustin, Lucas, and Max.
She wasn’t in the kitchen with Eddie and Will, though, and she wasn’t with Jonathan and Nancy around Joyce either, and so Steve quietly slipped out of the house and across the backyard to the old, empty dairy parlor. It was Hopper’s favorite place to smoke, after Joyce had forbidden him from doing it in the house if he wasn’t going to quit completely, and El was just standing in the middle of it, that far away look on her face.
He stepped softly but audibly over, not wanting to startle her, and she turned to look at him just so. She tucked a bit of her dark, curly hair behind her ear with one hand and Steve saw that the other was clutching a pack of Hop’s old smokes between her breasts, against her heart. She’d clearly been crying but not anymore, eyes red rimmed and face salt stained but dry.
“Hey,” he said.
Steve stood at her side and she looked forward again into the nothingness of the dairy parlor. He asked, “You need anything?
El shook her head. He put his hands in his pockets.
At length, she held out the cigarettes to Steve.
“I don’t have a lighter,” he said.
“There is one in the box,” she told him.
“Okay,” he said. “One last one for the old man, huh?”
“Yes,” she said.
He shook a cigarette out and lit it. El watched him carefully and he blew the smoke away from her, wanting to take a step back, but she closed her eyes and sniffed the air gently. She smiled.
“I don’t miss him yet,” she said. “It has been days. Is that strange?”
“No,” he said. “It’s not strange. I think I’ve been missing him for a long time before he was gone.”
She looked at him quizzically.
Steve shrugged. “I don’t know if I can explain it.”
“You do not have to,” she said.
He thought for a moment, took a final drag of the cigarette and then just let it burn out in between his thumb and forefinger, and settled on, “Grief’s different for everybody. I think I’ve been grieving him since he told me, even if I kept making plans for us. We were supposed to see a baseball game last week. I don’t know. I think I missed him even when he was still here because what we have — what we had was different now. I think maybe he knew that, and he tried to, to give us everything of himself that he had left to give.”
“But what we had was good,” said El.
“The best,” he said. “And it’s okay if that hurts.”
“Maybe you don’t miss him yet,” said Steve slowly. “Maybe you won’t ever miss him not — not like you think you should, I mean. Because you’ve still got his love. We all still have his love. Whether he’s here or not. I mean, I look at you and I see him, you know?”
She wiped at her face with one hand, dashing her eyes, and said, “He was proud of me,” like a question.
“The proudest,” he said.
El nodded again and then made a tiny, strange little face that Steve caught from the corner of his eye. He’d never seen her make that face before, and he’d seen a lot of faces from El Hopper; she’d become wildly expressive as soon as she’d learned she was allowed. He stared at her for a moment, aware that something in him, a kind of primal alarm bell, was beginning to go off.
“You okay?” he asked slowly.
She made the face again, there and gone. ”Fine.”
“No,” he said. He flicked the spent cigarette to the floor, tamped it out with his heel, and moved so she was in front of him, face to face. “That wasn’t fine. That was. What was that?”
They stared each other down. He wondered briefly, hysterically, at how he’d always wanted siblings when he was a kid — how he’d always wanted a big family. Six kids, he thought, staring at one of them all grown up and building her own branch of the family, and a winnebago.
El admitted, “Contraction. My water broke an hour ago.”
“What the absolute fuck, Eleven,” Steve said, wide eyed. He looked over her head to the open door out of the parlor and he could see his car parked in by some stranger’s SUV, but the rental Eddie had been driving was off to the side, easy access. He didn’t throw El over his shoulder but that was because she was a thousand years pregnant and in active fucking labor.
“I did not want anyone to worry,” El was saying. “Do you think you could drive me to the hospital and then call everyone once we get there?”
“Can I drive you — go get in Eddie’s fucking car,” he said, remarkably even all things considered, he thought.
Steve walked her to the rental and settled her into the backseat before telling her he’d be back in a minute and heading back into the house. She called after him, “Could you get my overnight bag?”
Eddie and Will were still in the kitchen, bent over an old DnD manual, the dweebs, and both of them straightened up instinctively at the no doubt wild-eyed look smeared across Steve’s face. He felt calm all the same, that sort of peace that always came over him in times of crisis and alternate dimension demons.
His hands were steady, his voice placid, as he asked, “Where are Jonathan and Nancy?”
“Babe?” asked Eddie. “What is it?”
“The baby,” he said. “El’s in labor. I’m taking her to the hospital.”
“Oh, shit,” said Will. His eyes had gone huge. He was already heading to the back staircase. “I’ll go get Mom. She just went upstairs for a second.”
“Jonathan and Nancy are in the living room, I think,” said Eddie.
“Okay,” he said. “El’s got a bag in her room she needs, can you go grab it and get Will and Joyce out to the car?”
“On it.” He ducked in, kissed him on the corner of the mouth, and moved to follow in Will’s footsteps up the stairs. “Meet you outside.”
Steve shouldered his way through the guests until he found Jonathan and Nancy standing in a corner of the living room, huddled with Robin and Madchen. They all snapped to alert too, because if there was anything this family did well, it was read each other’s emotions and immediately get ready to ride into battle. Madchen looked between them all, a little confused, he knew, but she’d get used to it just as she’d gotten used to some of Steve’s other, less fun leftover habits from the Upside Down; the first time lights had flickered in the gym during a game of horse hadn’t been fun for either of them.
“El’s having the baby,” he said without preamble. “I just put her in Eddie’s rental; it was the only one that wasn’t blocked in. We gotta go.”
“How far along are her contractions?” asked Nancy.
“She did not let me in on that,” he said, “just announced that her water broke an hour ago, said she didn’t want to worry anyone, and asked very politely if maybe I could drive her to the hospital.”
“Oh my God,” said Robin.
“What a boss,” said Madchen.
“Yeah, she’s unreal,” agreed Steve. “Will’s getting Joyce. Eddie’s getting El’s overnight bag. They’ll meet me outside. What the fuck are we gonna do about all these people?”
“Ooh, idea! What if I go stand naked in the kitchen with a knife,” said Robin, with the kind of manic energy that kept sealing the deal on their platonic soulmate relationship year after year. “That’ll clear ‘em out, right? Quick and easy. I’m on it!”
She marched off. Madchen immediately followed, tossing over her shoulder, “God, I’m obsessed with her. I’ll go make sure she doesn’t do that.”
Jonathan put his face in his hands, laughing quietly but somewhat hysterically. Nancy rolled her eyes and said, “Okay, well, Steve, are you good to drive? Good. So then, Eddie, Joyce, and Will are with you and El; Robin, Madchen, Jonathan, and me’ll ask everyone to leave, in a normal human fashion, and then when the boys and Max get back, we’ll head to the hospital and meet you. Okay?”
“Okay,” said Steve. He clapped his hands together. “Break. Go team.”
“Break,” she said, with another roll of her eyes.
Outside, Will and Joyce had gotten into the back of the rental with El, Joyce pushing back El’s hair from her face and Will holding her hand, while Eddie was dropping El’s bag into the trunk. He moved to the side of the car and tossed Steve the keys over the roof as he climbed into the passenger seat.
Steve slid into the driver’s seat, didn’t bother adjusting the mirrors, and said, “Everyone buckled in? Good to go?”
“I am having a baby,” said El. Her eyes were wide. He wondered if the collective energy in the car — determined and, like Robin, a little increasingly manic — had made her realize that this was a thing that was actually happening. She was, he recalled abruptly, a few days past her due date anyway; it had gotten lost in the shuffle of the funeral and the wake and Steve bit down on his lip to stop from bursting into laughter. Only them, he thought.
“I am having a baby,” she said again.
“That’s right, supergirl,” said Eddie, twisting in his seat as Steve peeled out of the driveway. “Just don’t have it in the backseat, this shit’s a rental.”
El started giggling. “I will keep my legs closed extra tight just for you.”
“Atta girl,” he said, winking.
Somehow, Steve made it to the hospital without crashing, even if he did drive a solid ten over the speed limit the whole way. He threw the car into park outside the emergency room and they spilled out of the car like they were in a fifties’ screwball comedy. An orderly smoking outside the hospital doors took one look at El — truly, comically pregnant looking surrounded by a coterie of flailing lunatics — and ducked inside only to return immediately with a wheelchair. Joyce got her settled in, Will was grabbing her bag from the trunk, and El was reaching her hand out to him.
“Steve,” she said. Her eyes had gone from blank and grieving in the dairy parlor to wide-eyed shock and giddiness in the car to this now: pleading.
Eddie snatched the keys from Steve’s fist and kissed him on the corner of his mouth again. “I’ll park the car. Me and Will will be — fuck, somewhere, who knows. We’ll wait for the others, okay?”
Time blurred once more as they pushed El in the wheelchair into the hospital and were gestured by a nurse down a hallway, then another. Then Steve and Joyce were on either side of El's hospital bed, each holding one of her hands as the on-call OB-GYN was flipping through El’s chart, asking, “And when did your water break?”
“Two hours ago, now,” said Steve, “uh, give or take.”
The doctor glanced up at him. “Are you the father?”
“Brother,” said El, before Steve could get a word out. She squeezed his hand; he squeezed back.
“Her husband’s on his way,” he said. “He wasn’t at the house.”
“Her contractions in the car were coming pretty close together,” said Joyce, brow furrowed. “She’d been having Braxton-Hicks contractions before too, and there'd been what we thought was a false alarm yesterday…”
The doctor nodded at this and put the chart back at the foot of the bed. She bent down and lifted El’s gown for a physical exam and, after a moment, she stood back up wearing a sort of quizzical smile. “Well, I’m not your primary OB-GYN, Miss Hopper-Byers, and I know you said your water broke two hours ago, but I’m willing to bet that wasn’t a false alarm yesterday.”
“What?” asked El.
“You’re fully dialated, dear,” said the doctor. “So either yesterday wasn’t a false alarm or you are about to have one of the quickest first births I’ve ever seen. It’s time to push.”
Steve, wide eyed, looked at Joyce, who frowned. “Can she get an epidural?”
The doctor shook her head. “Even if you had gotten here an hour earlier, we would be in the same boat, I’m afraid. As the athletes say, it’s go time.”
El’s brows had drawn together. “No drugs?”
“No drugs,” said the doctor.
She glanced between Joyce and Steve. She said, “I can do it.”
“I think you’re gonna have to,” said Steve. “Unless you want me to hit you in the head with a brick or something.”
“Steve.” Joyce rolled her eyes while El giggled again. The adrenaline was kicking in, he assumed. Joyce was saying, “Okay, honey, you heard the doctor then. It’s time to push. You just squeeze our hands as hard as you need to, okay? Hard as you need to?”
There had never been a single ounce of give up in Eleven Hopper. In this, as with everything, she nodded once, grit her teeth, and got down to business.
Like the doctor predicted, it went quickly. There was barely even time for Mike to arrive, running into the room with mere seconds to spare and then almost immediately having to sit down because he thought he was going to pass out, the shithead. Steve was never going to let him live it down, almost passing out during the birth of his first child.
And so, with tears streaming down her face but her jaw set and the force of her grip probably fracturing a few small bones in his hand, El brought a small, tow-headed child, bloody and squalling, into the world.
“It’s a boy,” Joyce said, watching the nurse move to clean the baby off. She brushed sweaty hair off El’s brow and asked, “Did you guys ever decide on a name?”
El looked at Mike in his seat across the room. He was pale and shaky looking but beaming and El smiled too, soft, secretive.
“Terry,” she said. “Terry James Wheeler.”
“A lot of people think of Girl with a Buzzcut (Reprise) as a gay anthem,” I say.
Levy grins. “Really? I love that. I mean, it’s about someone who has spent so long searching for love and belonging and finally finding it in the arms of a family they made for themselves, of someone no longer thinking of themselves as a monster — so I can totally see that journey. Oh, wow, I’m getting a little misty eyed about that!”
“You never thought of it that way?”
“No, she’s a straight up monster-killing badass deserving of love,” he says seriously. “No gay allegories here. Just monster hunting and murder. But I like that people apparently see it that way. That’s really — I just like it. It’s funny,” he adds. “I've been out to my friends for a long time. And I didn’t — I don’t think I, like, set out to hide it in my music. To hide my own sexuality, I mean. I was, like, never exactly subtle about it to begin with. My friends would probably say there’s not a subtle bone in my body, you know? But it wasn’t explicit. It’s just there. It’s who I am. I’m just — private, I guess. It’s fucked up, though, right? You don’t think about, like, a song like, I don’t know, Sweet Child O’ Mine, and are like, Oh shit, those pronouns, that is a heterosexual love song. Wait, maybe that’s a bad example. How about I Wanna Be Your Lover. No gendered pronouns in there, but it is a love song, and you don’t think straight or gay with it, right, off the top of your head? It’s just a love song. I wrote, uh, lets see, We’ll Never Have Sex and ONE MORE EROTIC NIGHTMARE ABOUT YOU and people were like, That’s a love song. Those are love songs. No one was like — that’s a gay love song, even though I do think EROTIC NIGHTMARE is very gay, when you get down to it, heh, but they were just love songs — songs about longing, need, want and not having, quiet desperation. It was opaque. But then I had to go and put Live to See You In That Dress (Live to See Undress) and I Wore His Jacket back to back and people lost their minds.”
— Excerpted from “Grunge and Gay: Musician Ed Levy of The Shotguns On Being Out and Proud,” The Advocate, July 1995
El stayed in the hospital for a few days, the whole of the Party coming and going. They took turns keeping El company and watching the baby through the maternity ward windows. Mike wandered the halls with a dazed expression half the time, and Dustin, Lucas, and Will ribbed him constantly for it. Max practically demanded a cot right next to El’s, determined to keep her company as long as she was there.
Eventually, though, she returned to the farm, little Terry in her arms, staring at him in wonder and delight, Mike hovering behind her, and real life began to creep in for the rest of them. It had been nearly six weeks since Jonathan had called; it was time to return to where they’d all been before. Nancy, Jonathan, and the kids headed back first; Nancy had gotten away with a longer leave than a reporter normally got, only because she was the Editor-in-Chief and because she managed to answer emails within an hour of receiving them, two time zones away. Still, a day after El was released, that branch of the Byers’s family tree was getting back on a plane after making plans for Thanksgiving.
Robin and Madchen headed back to Chicago the day after that. Robin had pushed back the start date for her new job long enough and needed to get started before she lost it, and Madchen had lesson plans to start. Steve had hugged each of them goodbye out on the lawn and Robin had said, “Dinner when you get back, okay? We never got to debrief on you debriefing Eddie.”
“Jesus, I thought I dodged that bullet,” he said with a groan.
Madchen snorted. Robin winked. “Never, babe. Imma need a full PowerPoint presentation. You two finally getting your shit together is, like, my World Series.”
Dustin, Lucas, and Max all catch a flight back to LA after a week. Dustin was due on a movie set at the end of the month, Lucas needed to ink the Nike deal in person, and Max, as always, had patients to see. They made plans to go to Mike and El’s place in New York at the end of August, before Lucas’s training camp started up, and set up individual trips to Chicago to see Steve. Lucas and Max would plan around Lucas’s game schedule, and Dustin would come in December, for The Two Towers.
Will, Eddie, and Steve, however, all stuck around. Will could, and did, write from anywhere; his boyfriend had flown in for the funeral and then flown right back out because he was in the middle of some show, but Will was planning on staying until Mike and El were ready to drive back to New York. He was planning on trading off driving with Mike, and to be a third set of hands so the new parents could actually rest some nights as they drove.
Steve didn’t really have anywhere to go until mid-August, when he was expected to be back at school, and Eddie — well, Eddie just shrugged when he asked him when he needed to get back to writing at his studio. Steve, who had woken up to an empty bed a few times over the past month and seen lights on out in the dairy parlor at two am or heard soft guitar sounds from the guest bath, suspected the writer’s block had ended some time ago and that Eddie hadn’t wanted to jinx it.
So they stayed on the farm, helping with the baby here and there and helping to pack up the last of Hopper’s things so Joyce didn’t have to. Hopper had demanded the family take what they wanted and then donate the rest, not wanting his ghost to linger in the house more than it already would. Steve picked a few shirts, some books; Eddie took records.
Steve spent a lot of time, too, with Joyce late at night at the kitchen table, drinking tea or, on one memorable occasion, doing whiskey shots from one of Hopper’s half-finished bottles. Steve told her stories about Hopper breaking up his teenage parties, the time Hopper had found him with a traffic cone stuck in his head when he was fifteen and drunk and Hopper had laughed so hard he had to sit down, and Joyce had told him stories of when they were in high school and Hopper got up to a lot of Steve’s old antics. They’d woken Will up with their laughter and he’d rolled his eyes but joined them anyway, going shot for shot with them until Joyce drank them both quite literally under the table. Eddie, emerging from his mystery so late it was early morning business in the dairy parlor, had had to escort all three of them to bed. Will had ended up curled up with his mom, too drunk to make it another flight of stairs, and Eddie had had to bodily carry Steve the rest of the way.
He’d paused, however, to let Steve sloppily make out with him in the stairwell landing just below the attic for a long while, his body pressing Eddie’s into the wall, aimless, not really wanting anything from it but closeness. Steve felt safe, harbored against Eddie’s body, like a ship in a storm, and if he was being honest with himself, no one had ever before made him feel that way. Eventually, he’d pulled back, ran his hands through Steve’s hair, left his thumbs pressing into his cheekbones and said, so fondly, “C'mon, baby, let’s get you to bed — you’re already gonna have a hell of a hangover.” And then he’d laid on his side so Steve could spoon in behind him, face pressed in the space between his shoulder blades, and hummed Steve to sleep.
El, Mike, and the baby had slept through it, and had teased them for their hangovers in the morning. El, in fact, had taken one look at Steve and plopped Terry in his lap and announced she was going for a walk.
Steve didn’t mind. He’d always liked kids, and Terry wasn’t the first fresh newborn he’d spent time around these days. He’d spent a whole month in Nancy and Jonathan’s guest room when Barbie was born, him and Robin, pitching in with night feedings and diaper changes. Terry, too, was a remarkably chill baby: quiet and calm, he watched everything with his huge, dark eyes — his mom’s eyes — and only occasionally pulled at Steve’s hair.
One night, three weeks after they said goodbye to Hopper and welcomed Terry in the space of a few hours, Mike and Will were crowded around the stove, arguing about the correct firmness for the spaghetti they were making. Joyce was sitting at the table, watching them and smiling, a little sadly but still smiling, and El had retreated to the bedroom after putting Terry down for a nap. She’d gotten good at sleeping when the baby slept.
Eddie was nowhere to be seen; Steve had been looking for him, wanting to see if he’d like to come along on a grocery run since Mike and Will’s argument was shaping up to mean they were running out of pasta sooner rather than later. But he hadn’t been in the dairy parlor, the attic, or the guest bath. He was passing through the kitchen to make his way to Hopper’s office when he caught sight of the baby monitor at Joyce’s elbow. Faint music was playing.
“Did El leave a record on for Terry?” he asked.
Joyce shook her head. “That’s your man.”
“I swear,” said Mike, interrupting himself mid rant about al dente to Will, who was rolling his eyes, “I’m gonna have to get him to record a kid’s album because Ter’s not gonna fall asleep to jack shit once he leaves.”
Steve jerked his thumb in the general direction of the nursery. “Want me to lodge a formal complaint?”
“Please,” said Mike. “And remember we can hear everything on that monitor, so, like, leave room for Jesus.”
“I’m going to the nursery, dipshit, I think I can keep it in my pants for ten minutes,” he said, turning and rolling his eyes now too. Mike had neither heard nor walked in on anything at all — unlike certain other members of their family, Dustin and Lucas claimed to be scarred for life — but he was still bent out of shape about Steve’s bathroom comments.
He went back up the back stairwell and quietly stepped towards the room Barbie and Scott usually stayed in. After they’d left, it had been quickly turned into a makeshift nursery for as long as El and Mike were there and, when Steve pushed the door the rest of the way open, there was Eddie, cross legged on the floor in front of the crib, strumming quietly on the beat to hell old Warlock he’d saved all their lives with all those years ago. He didn’t pull it out for shows anymore, but carried it with him on trips like this; he said it was still his favorite thing to compose on.
Steve watched from the doorway for a moment, listening to the soft, delicate hush of his voice, craning his head to see his fingers move along the fret, and it was a moment before he could make out the lyrics of the lullaby.
Only, he realized, it wasn’t, it was —
“Look at the way we gotta hide what we’re doin’,” he crooned, spare and pared down, voice smokey despite the high notes he was hitting quietly and gently, effortlessly, “cause what would they say if they ever knew, and so we’re runnin’ just as fast as we can, holdin’ on to one another’s hands — ”
— it was fucking Tiffany.
He bit at his own mouth, trying not to smile. Fuck, he thought, blinking back tears, he loved that stone-cold weirdo so much. How had he waited for so long to tell him? He pressed one hand to his cheek, watching him sing to the baby in the crib, his heart beating in his chest, and thought of Joyce and Hopper, his arm across her shoulders, planning one final date they’d never go on.
It didn’t matter that he’d waited. He didn’t care, not like he used to: he would do it all again, everything the same, because it meant he got to have him now, and for however long they’d have after.
A tear rolled down Steve’s cheek and he dashed it away, smiling still; and Eddie sang on, “I think we’re alone now, there doesn’t seem to be anyone a-ro-ound. I think we’re alone now, the beating of our hearts is the only s-ah-ound — hmmmm, hmm, hmmmm — ”
“So is there like a membership you lose if the metalheads find out you know all the words to I Think We’re Alone Now, or,” said Steve.
Eddie’s fingers tripped over the chords, a discordant sound, and he immediately wrapped his hand around the frets to silence the noise. They both stared at the crib, checking, and then he whipped his head around, hissing, “What the fuck, Stevie.”
It just made Steve’s smile widen. “Language, Ed.”
“Oh, please,” he scoffed, “like Wheeler’s kid’s first words weren’t already gonna be something horrific. It’s been fuck this, fuck that since he was, like, ten. You said it yourself!”
“Yeah, but it’s, like, cheating if you help him learn fuck. Anyway, I got my money in the pot for eggos.”
Eddie snorted. He held out a hand, said, “What’s with you and lurking in doorways like we’re in an Ang Lee movie? Come here, now you’ve scared the absolute bullroar out of me.”
“Bullroar?” he asked as he stepped quietly into the room and took a seat in front of the crib next to Eddie.
“Yeah, bullroar,” he said. He strummed absently on the strings of the Warlock.
Steve nudged him with his knee. “You didn’t answer my question.”
“About Tiffany?” He snorted. “I’m allowed to like stuff that isn’t grunge or metal, and, anyway, none of my own sh-stuff is age appropriate. In fact, most of them are thinly veiled illusions to wanting to get into your pants.”
“Sweet,” he said.
“You know it,” said Eddie. “Maybe I could turn Girl with a Buzzcut into a lullaby, the reprise — think El could dig it?”
“Oh, definitely,” he told him and Eddie shot him a soft smile, the kind that felt like it lit all of Steve’s nerve endings on fire; he didn’t think they’d ever stop doing that to him. Eddie strummed again on the guitar, this time with a little more purpose, and he recognized the opening strains of Eddie’s first big hit.
Steve shifted a little, leaning gently into his side, watching him work.
“It’s strange,” Eddie said after a moment, brow still furrowed in concentration.
“Being here,” he said, “and not having Hopper just — show up in the doorway to yell at me about something.”
“I know,” said Steve. He looked at the crib and then back to Eddie’s hands, his face. He said, “I keep thinking of something I want to say to him, and then I go looking for him and — he’s not there. But every room feels like he was just there, you know?”
“I remember when Uncle Wayne went,” said Eddie. He glanced at Steve, who nodded. He remembered too, obviously; Eddie had been right, that night. After Wayne had passed in his sleep from a massive heart attack back in ‘95, Steve and Joyce had arranged everything for his service before Eddie had even begun wrapping his mind around it. Steve had called a synagogue in Chicago for help, and the rabbi there had walked him through everything he needed to know before he’d picked up Joyce and driven to Pittsburgh with her to plan the service.
“It didn’t feel real for, like, a long time, to me,” he was saying. “I didn’t see him much, at the end, because I was always touring or recording or something. But we talked on the phone all the time, you know? And even now, I, like, forget. I call his old landline and there’s a minute there where I’m shocked when someone new picks up and I don’t recognize the voice, you know? Shit, I literally did it just the other day.”
“Yeah.” He turned to look at Steve. “I wanted to tell him about you. About us. Completely slipped my mind that I couldn’t. And fuck if that didn’t bum me out. There’s so many things I wanna talk to him about still, get his advice on, and I can’t. But at the same time — I know he’s happy for me, wherever it is we go after. Because he was so proud of me, when he went. How we got out, how I got out, and became — this, and I think: he knows, he’s there, he’s right there.” He strummed the guitar, hit a few notes. “Sometimes, when I sing, I’m singing to him and him alone, you know? I think that’s why I like recording alone. It’s like I’m having a conversation with someone who I can’t have a conversation with anymore. Him. Chrissy. You, for a while. Hopper, now. I tell myself: they’re there, they’re listening, and eventually it doesn’t hurt so bad anymore.”
“Me?” he asked.
“I told you,” said Eddie. He shifted, gently put his guitar down and turned to face Steve fully. “I wrote all of them for you, baby, whether you were listening or not.”
“I was listening,” he told him. “I listened to all of them, I just — ”
“It’s okay,” he said.
“I’m here now,” said Steve. “And I’m not. I’m not going anywhere. You know that, right?”
Eddie took his hand.
“Yeah. I know,” he said. “Neither am I.”
“This is my favorite bar in Chicago,” Ed Levy tells me, slouching down into the seat of the booth. Out of context, he’s unassuming. He looks like: some guy you know. He’s got on a beat up Royals ball cap — his partner’s, he says, he doesn’t follow sports — over his shaggy hair, ponytail pulled through the back, and wears an ancient looking pair of Reeboks, and torn black jeans. His t-shirt has a print of one of William Byers’s book covers on it, the arm holes cut practically to his waist, flannel over that. He’s drinking a Peroni and he asks me three times if I want a soft pretzel, because they’re made fresh in the kitchen and they’re “just so good, man!”
I marvel: this is one of the most influential musicians of my generation, a metalhead turned pioneer of the grunge scene, and he lights up like a little kid when he clocks a copy of Fellowship spilling out of my bag.
Levy is fun, almost bubbly; overdramatic and charismatic at equal turns; he greeted the bartender by name when he came in, shared a fistbump with him, and now spends the first fifteen minutes of our time together grilling me on the book after learning it’s my first time reading it.
Eventually, I steer him towards the point of our meeting at this Chicago bar. A week from our shared beers, his long awaited sixth studio album is dropping: Boy with a Bat. Earlier this month, I got swept into a Seattle studio to listen to the master copy; it felt like I was listening to state secrets, a record company intern checking my bag on the way in and the way out for recording devices. I almost expected to be patted down for a wire.
But it was understandable. Boy with a Bat shares a lot of thematic similarities with the album that made Levy’s career, and not just because the names are reminiscent. Girl with a Buzzcut and Boy with a Bat both deal predominately with grief and anger; but while Girl feels more like grief of a teenage heartbreak at times, and anger at an unjust system, Boy is the grief of the passage of time, of anger at the things we never got the chance to say or do. And Boy understands where Girl rages. It’s filled with sweeping soundscapes, startlingly beautiful story-telling and thoughtfully crafted lyrics, intricate melodies, and a raw, emotional intensity that feels impossibly vulnerable: like you’re looking into the beating heart of Levy himself.
“My partner’s father was dying,” says Levy. ”He’d been dying for a long time. Cancer. And so we all went home to be with him, while it happened, and I’d been struggling so hard to write for so long and then it just — I don’t know, something unlocked. I wrote all of the album while we were there — I actually got to play most of it for Jim, too, which — which was huge for me, to be able to share this with him before he went. You know, even before my partner and I got together, his dad was, like, one of the only positive male role models I ever had and, man, was it against his will.” He laughs. “Anyway. I was writing this album, and he died — and then my partner’s sister went into labor at the funeral and — yeah, no shit, right? I mean, full-on rom-com shit, that June. It’s a super personal album to me, maybe my most personal now, even more so than Quarry. I actually recorded something like three-fourths of it in the guest bath of the house.”
He sips his Peroni, bites the edge of his thumb. He continues, “You can actually hear, like, all of them, the whole family, on the album because of that. Because none of them knew what I was doing — just Jim, my partner’s dad. I think Steve knew too, but he never said.”
“Steve is your partner?” I ask, and if I thought Levy’s face lit up at Fellowship, it’s nothing compared to me mentioning his partner’s name.
“Yeah,” he says. “He’s actually — I mean, dig this, but he is in fact the boy.”
“The boy with the bat? Wait, he’s the boy? Is he the cover art?”
“Yeah!” Levy laughs again. “Oh man, he’s gonna be so embarrassed that people know! He’s, like, so shy compared to me. But. Yeah. He is the boy with the bat. Been my muse since I was twenty years old, and I saw him swing that shit. My favorite thing about the album? You got to listen to it, right? I never dropped Memphis, Indiana as a single, but, towards the end, you can hear, there’s — ”
“Laughter,” I say, eyes wide.
Levy beams. “That’s Steve.”
— Excerpted from “Ed Levy on Grief, Growth, and that Boy with the Baseball Bat,” Stereogum, July 2003
Chapter 5: THE COMPLETE SHOTGUNS DISCOGRAPHY (thru 2003)
the complete (fictional) discography for the shotguns through 2003 because, yeah, i did write out all the albums; why? well, first of all the economy is in shambles, and —
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Girl with a Buzzcut (1990) [Album Cover: A girl with a buzzcut sitting on a sofa with ‘The Shotguns’ painted on the wall behind it]
1. Trailer Trash
2. The Pines
3. We’ll Never Have Sex
4. Girl with a Buzzcut
5. Going to Pittsburgh
6. The Devil Won’t Keep ‘Til Morning
7. Chrissy’s Song
METALHEAD (1991) [Album Cover: Eddie blowing cigarette smoke out of his nose at the camera, METALHEAD in large font over it]
1. BLACK DOG BARK
3. NO GODS, NO MASTERS
4. THE GHOST AT THE BACK OF YOUR CLOSET
5. FIGHTING TRIM
6. THE PARTY
7. ONE MORE EROTIC NIGHTMARE ABOUT YOU
8. BEGGIN (cover)
9. REAL HEAVY METAL SHIT
10. YOU AND ME AND THE DEVIL MAKES THREE
11. FREAK SEASON
12. I’M DOING THIS FOR REVENGE (I’M DOING THIS FOR YOU)
13. LET NONE BE THE NOOSE
The Place Beyond The Quarry (1994) [Album Cover: Eddie, out in a boat in the middle of a quarry, small, blurry]
1. Will the Wise
2. Roll the Dice
3. Everyone Dies But They Shouldn’t Die Young
4. The Banished
5. On the Water
6. Flickering Lights (S.O.S)
8. Movie Night
9. The Most Metal Concert This Town Has Never Seen
10. The Hard Part
12. Live to See You In That Dress (Live to See You Undress)
13. I Wore His Jacket
Is This The Last Time? (1996) [Album Cover: A pack of 100s, open, each cigarette lit]
1. An Unhaunted House
2. He Smoked 100s When I Met Him
3. Light Your Own Pyre
4. Going to Indiana
5. The Wreckage All Over
6. Get High and Listen to Kate Bush
7. Lover’s Spit
8. I Was A Boy
9. Is This The Last Time?
10. Leave the Children Behind
11. You Can Call Any Place Home
12. The Knife’s Edge
13. Girl with a Buzzcut (Reprise)
i’m not angry anymore (1998) [Album Cover: Eddie in profile, i’m not angry anymore written over him]
1. i’m not angry anymore
2. no heroics
4. a variety of sadness
5. get this off of my chest
7. going to seattle
8. anthems for a twenty year old boy
Live At the Crocodile (acoustic guitar album) (1999) [Album Cover: The Crocodile’s marquee]
1. Babe I’m Gonna Leave You (cover)
2. Going to Indiana
3. Girl with a Buzzcut
4. Monologue – Thanks for coming out…
5. YOU AND ME AND THE DEVIL MAKES THREE
6. Master of Puppets (cover)
7. Monologue – If you look generic…
8. get this off of my chest
9. Monologue – toothless
11. REAL HEAVY METAL SHIT
12. Monologue – T.Rex
13. Monolith (cover)
14. Monologue – False start
15. The Banished
16. Monologue – Reverb
17. Swingin Party (cover)
18. no heroics
19. Girl with a Buzzcut (Reprise)
20. Monologue – Where was I gonna go?
21. i’m not angry anymore
22. FREAK SEASON
23. There Is A Light That Never Goes Out (cover)
24. Monologue – Goodnight
25. Leave the Children Behind
B-Sides and Rarities (2000) [Album Cover: Image of a mixtape, hand drawn on by Eddie]
1. Girl with a Buzzcut (demo)
2. Nancy’s Got a Gun
3. I’ve Been A Liar
4. LET NONE BE THE NOOSE (demo)
5. i held your hand at skull rock
6. I Wanna Be Your Lover (cover)
8. The Path
9. i’m not angry anymore (Full Studio Band Version)
10. Houses of the Holy (cover)
11. a ‘78 datsun and a pack of marlboros
12. This Is The Place We Fell Apart
13. I Wore His Jacket (demo)
14. Chrissy’s Song (Ten Minute Version)
Boy with a Bat (2003) [Album Cover: Steve, from behind, face just turned enough to catch a glimpse of his profile, holding the nail bat]
1. Memphis, Indiana
2. Bright Dead Things
3. No One’s Leaving Anyone
4. Boy with a Bat
6. 7.20 AM
7. A Place to Keep Warm
8. To Be With You In Hell
9. Tell the Wolves I’m Home
8/4/22: (1) i am absolutely floored by the response to this story, i’m in love with every single one of you who takes the time to read, kudo, or comment, it’s sending me to the moon; (2) if this story inspires you artistically in anyway (lyrics, music, art) please know that you have my aggressively positive blessing, and i would like to see it so drop it into the comments here or link me on tumbles!! 💕
also a (somewhat) complete list of musical references for the band/influences on the story itself is here