Harry wasn’t counting on there being much in Braxton when he first found out he was moving there, but he didn’t realize just how much nothing could fit into one town. He had thought that Jacksonville was enough of a cultureless hellhole, but he truly had never seen anything like Braxton. There was one library that was scraping by on any cents it could get out of the town government, no matter how hard he tried he couldn’t find one decent music store, and the only café-like shop he could find specialized in coffee that he could only call “watered-down shit”. The only redeeming part was that he was nearly one thousand miles away from his horrible father.
“I don’t know why you didn’t come to live with us sooner, Haz,” said his mom from the driver seat of the sedan. He smiled as he hadn’t been called that pet name in so many years.
“Yeah, I can tell by the look on your face that you love it here already,” finished his sister, Gemma, from the back. Today was her first day not flipping burgers for the Braxton Wrenches since three summers before, and the first day of flipping burgers for Harry. She couldn’t be happier.
“You know, I’m probably gonna regret saying this later, but thanks for the job, Gem. I really need the money before going off to school. Dad stopped paying me for chores when…he found out-” Harry added. He had kept bringing up his father since he arrived in town a few days before, but every time he did his sister or mother would immediately start a new conversation.
“-I wonder who you’ll be working with?” asked Gemma, on cue with the diversion, “Nick quit at the end of last year and Kelly got knocked up so she’s out for the season. Vanessa’s studying abroad in Costa Rica or something. Liam? Liam’s the only one left from last summer, I think, and I barely know him so…”
“At least he’s not knocked up,” replied Harry.
“One could only hope,”
Braxton Stadium wasn’t actually as bad as Harry thought it would be. It was in the middle of downtown, or whatever downtown Braxton actually had, and was built rather recently. He had images in his mind of dilapidated buildings with cartoon wrenches plastered all over the walls. It was nothing to brag about, but it definitely could have sucked more.
“Ok, Harry. Gem’s gonna go in with you today, and I’ll come pick you two up, but from now on you’re gonna need to take the bus. It’s longer but I need to go to work and Gemma needs the other car to get to her own job. Listen carefully, work hard, be patient, other good qualities, etcetera, okay? Love you, bye!” their mom said as she blew them a kiss, then sped off.
“The office is this way,” said Gemma, and she led him around the side of the building.
No one was around the stadium yet because the game wasn’t going to start for a few hours, but Harry needed training. The manager, Paul, was already inside. He was a big guy with a manly beard, but sitting at his desk in his button-up pastel shirt and coordinated tie made him look a little less intimidating. Only a little, though.
“Now, that’s Paul. His real name’s Arthur but he goes by Paul. His superiors will call him Arthur but you call him Paul. Never call him Arthur or he will hurt you,” whispered Gemma. Harry’s eyes grew wide.
“Nah, I’m only joking. He’s a real sweety, honestly. But he doesn’t take shit or sarcasm or jokes that well. Unless they come from the mascot, but everyone has a soft spot in their heart for the mascot so I wouldn’t count on that happening. But don’t mess with him, really. He used to be a security guard and he can totally pick you up with one arm and pummel you with the other. He can, but he won’t. Now go get ‘em, Tiger,” Gemma continued as she pushed him through the door to the office.
“Gemma, nice to see you again. I see you’ve brought along little Harold?” Paul asked.
Harry laughed at someone calling him little. He was 6’1” and a regular at the gym. No one had called him little since 7th grade, when he had his first growth spurt.
“It’s just Harry, actually,” said Harry, confidently.
“Harry? Harry Styles is your real name?”
“That’s a name for a popstar, son. Anyways, here’s your uniform. Now go get changed and we’ll get someone to finish up your training. Am I clear?”
“Yessir,” Harry said as he grabbed the packet of clothes from him and stepped into a bathroom to change.
It was a definite departure from his usual style. He traded in black skinny jeans with leather over the knees for a pair of khakis. The oversized white t-shirt was given up for a red polo, corporate logos on the back and all. The signature, old beanie was replaced by a new baseball cap with a cartoon wrench on the front. Needless to say, this wasn’t very Styles-ish.
As he returned to the office there was another person standing there with Paul and Gemma. He was a few inches shorter than Harry, but he filled out the uniform better with muscles all over. His head was shaved, good for the summer heat, and he was a bit burnt on his nose.
“Hi! I’m Liam, and I’ll be training you today!” he said with the biggest smile imaginable.
Gemma came up behind Harry and whispered in his ear, “Oh yeah, now I remember why I forgot about Liam. He was always too excited so I just…tuned him out,”
Liam couldn’t hear what she had said, but he waved at her all the same.
“Enough chatting, get up to the concessions. We’re opening sooner than you think,” demanded Paul.
Gemma waved goodbye at her kid brother as he officially started his first day at work. He reluctantly followed Liam up the stairs. Harry zoned out as Liam rattled on about how working here didn’t seem very fun, but it really is! Harry was sure he had to be joking, but the sincerity in his voice couldn’t be missed. They finally arrived at the stand, and Harry saw a few people already working there. There was a tall, lanky kid introduced to him as ‘Mark but call me Pablo don’t ask why’, a shorter and even more muscular kid named Josh, and a pretty girl named Caroline who looked like she was more fitting to be a designer rather than working for the Braxton Wrenches. She had managed to make her uniform look chic. Well, as chic as possible.
He only got to speak with them for a few moments before being swept away by Liam to learn everything about the stand. Surprisingly, there is a lot to know about serving unhealthy food to the sweaty masses, and there are a lot of ways to royally mess everything up and get fired.
“Lucky for you the season started a month ago and it’s a one in the afternoon game on a Wednesday. We’re obviously not expecting a big turnout,” Liam said, trying to comfort the nervous Harry.
Harry was stuck in the position of handing food to people, leaving the registers to Liam and Caroline. Before he knew it, the rush came. In the span of about 5 minutes, a total of 20 whole people came. And just as it had come, the rush was gone.
“Told you, really not expecting a lot,”
These small groups of peoples continued until the game finally kicked off, and Harry couldn’t have been more bored. His father was a big fan of the Major Leagues so he didn’t know nothing about the sport, but he tried to know as little as possible. Organized team activities weren’t really his thing. All he knew was that the Braxton Wrenches sucked, but the team they were playing today, the Lake County Captains, sucked even more.
“We’re gonna win today, hopefully. We’re not really that good save for one player, but he can’t support an entire team can he? So really, don’t underestimate this team’s ability to drop the ball. Literally and figuratively,” started Liam on some small talk.
“Mmhmm,” Harry responded.
“Hey, where do you live?”
Harry eyed Liam’s out-of-place question with suspicion but responded none-the-less.
“I forget what it’s actually called, but it’s an apartment complex north of town. Out by the airport,”
“Grand Wood Crossings?”
“That’s perfect! We live out that way!”
“My family. My brother works here, too. He’s just lucky enough to get away from concessions,”
“Lucky’s the word I’d probably use, yeah,”
“Anyways, wanna carpool?”
“It’s just that I assumed you probably would have to take the bus or rely on your sister and mom for a ride. But that’s just silly as we’ll probably work a lot of the same shifts and I have to pass your place to get here,”
Harry wasn’t used to actively getting along with people as forward as Liam, but he thought he might as well try. It might make the three months left until he can leave for Northwestern not suck that much.
“Actually, that’s really nice and helpful. I’ll take you guys up on that, for sure,” responded Harry.
Liam smiled, but Caroline alerted the boys to the fact that a rush of people had arrived. Liam spun back around and said “Howdy!” to the incoming crowd. He had a real way with people that Harry didn’t quite understand, but it made him smile.
The rest of the game passed without problem, and soon it was over. The last rush of the shift occurred as everyone left, and then they started to pack up. Gemma found Harry as they were cleaning the stall down and gave him a giant thumbs up. She was so focused on him, in fact, that she missed the giant wrench approaching her. It crept right behind her ear and screamed “Gemma” and the top of its, very loud, lungs and she gave a big jump and scream back. When she saw who it was who had scared her, though, she laughed and gave him a play-hit.
“Lou, you scared me to death, asshole!” she giggled.
“Be a doll and help me out of this, please,” said the wrench.
Gemma helped the poor soul wriggle out of his costume and out stepped a short college-aged kid. He could not have been over 5’7” and was darker than any other person there, save Caroline. Apparently the Michigan winters didn’t stop his tanning habits. His light brown hair was pushed down against his forehead by sweat, but he pushed it up into semi-quiff.
“Do I look damn sexy?” he suggestively asked Gemma.
“Of course, you dirty devil,”
“Kiss me!” he said as he lunged at her. Harry was tense with protectiveness over his sister, but as soon as it was apparent that Louis’s kisses were playful, and Gemma started to giggle, he let up.
“Ah, I see you’ve met my brother!” Liam said as he walked up next to Harry.
“You two…related?” Harry questioned. They had some similar features, but they really were completely different.
“Don’t remind me!” Louis yelled as he let go from Gemma.
“Louis loved me for most of our lives, until the day I finally grew past him in height,” continued Liam.
“You bastard!” Louis screamed. Liam just laughed the insult off.
“So how was the first day of work, little bro?” asked Gemma.
“Oh don’t tell me you’re related to Miss Beautiful over here!” Louis exclaimed.
“It was fine. I didn’t even catch anything on fire!”
Gemma joined everyone back in the kitchen to help them clean up as Louis returned his mascot costume to the backstage area. Harry prattled on about his day to his sister until he heard a loud voice boom through the stand.
“Leemo! Where’s my dog?”
Harry looked towards the front expecting Louis to be standing there, but in reality it was one of the Braxton players. He was about 5’10” with a fairly good build. Blond highlights snuck out of his cap into slight curls that gave him the look of a teenager. Or maybe he actually was a teenager?
“Here you go, Ni,” Liam said as he handed the kid a chili-cheese dog with extra onions and pickles and a smothering of BBQ sauce. Harry had seen Liam make it before, but had only assumed he was gonna eat it himself.
“They serve good food to the players down there, but nothing beats a Ni-Dog,” the kid said to no one in particular, until Harry realized he was actually speaking to him.
“Oh uh, a what?” Harry asked.
“A Ni-Dog. A Niall-Dog. The best god damn thing not on the menu,”
“Nile? As in the river?”
“No, Niall as in N-I-A-L-L. Niall as in a Gaelic male name meaning ‘champion’. Niall as in my dad moved out of Ireland when he was five but couldn’t resist giving his second-born a name to confuse the hell out of everyone in America,”
“Niall as in first-baseman extraordinaire, best damn hitter on the team, only just graduated from high school and is already being tracked down by MLB teams…” Liam explained.
“Stop it,” Niall managed to mumble out through a mouth-full of ‘Ni-Dog’. He was genuinely blushing at the compliment.
“Oh, you’re the only good player on the team, then? The one who is keeping the team afloat?” Harry asked. Gemma hit him on the forearm.
“I mean, my teammates work really hard and there are some saplings of talent among them. We can’t win them all,” Niall shrugged.
Harry for the first time remembered that he didn’t know the outcome of the game and squinted to see the scoreboard. It seemed that they had been leading the entire game, until the final inning. Liam leaned over and whispered to him (really to his nose) “Niall was 4th to bat in the final inning but everyone struck out ahead of him. If they could have gotten him up to bat the team would have won for sure,”
Harry expected Niall to be sad or angry or at the very least disappointed that his team lost another game. Instead, he just looked damn happy to be eating his hotdog.
“Niall’s like the chillest person I know,” started Liam as he slipped alongside Harry. “I’ve never seen him cry or frown or even get a little bit agitated. He wants to win, sure, and he has the drive! He just doesn’t let it affect him. You’ve seen him! He’s the only player worth shit on this team but he would never tell you that. He’d rather tell you about the awesome catch that Sandy made the other day, or the homerun Ryan almost hit (even though he was way off), or how fast the batboy can run. If you try to compliment his pale Irish cheeks will blush and he’ll turn away,”
“Are you an encyclopedia on all things Niall?” Harry asked.
“He’s the youngest on the team, and he feels it, so he kinda hangs around here with us youngins when he grabs the chance. I’ve managed to learn a lot about him in the one month he’s been here,”
Harry looked back at Niall at saw that he was actually extremely good looking. He was pale as hell with flushed cheeks, probably from the sun and activity, but he pulled them off. His hair was slightly curly and framed his face quite well (Framing a face? Is that a real thing? Harry wasn’t quite sure). He had stunning blue eyes with little hints of green. He even noticed the invisible braces on his teeth, which made Harry feel sad. This kid was already leading a minor league team and he didn’t even have his dental work all done with. In all reality, Niall looked nothing like Harry’s type, so he didn’t know why he was having problems getting the kid out of his mind.
“Horan!” someone yelled from the concourse.
Niall turned his head towards the voice and a middle-aged man came into view from off to the side.
“Horan, we’ve been looking for you!” cried the man again.
“Sorry, coach. I’ve just been up here to get something,” replied Niall.
“I know about your stinking Niall-Dogs, son,”
“Ni-Dogs,” Niall whispered quietly.
“Just get back down to the locker room and don’t get barbecue sauce on your uniform. Again,”
“Yessir,” said Niall, as he turned to go down the hall that led to the team’s rooms. Harry noticed his number – one.
“That’s Coach Cowell. He’s produced a surprising number of really good players from this team, despite the fact that we suck. I don’t know why he hasn’t moved up to some place better, yet. He seems to have a ton of talent, just not much to work with,” said Liam.
“Do you know everything?” asked Harry.
“This is my second summer working here and there’s not much else to do but pay attention to the gossip and drama surrounding the inner-workings of a shitty baseball team,”
“Harry!” Gemma yelled from further back in the kitchen, “Mom’s on her way to pick us up,”
Suddenly there was an arm around Harry’s shoulder.
“I actually thought you could come out for dinner with us, mate. Our treat,” said Louis, barely hanging onto Harry due to the height different.
“Uh, that’d actually be really nice. I’ll take you up on that, yeah,” Harry replied.
“Suit yourself,” Gemma said as she left the stand, “Just don’t stay out too long,”
“So where are we going?” Louis asked, turning to Liam, arm still awkwardly around Harry.
“I don’t know. Maybe Don Juan?” suggested Liam.
“It sounds Mexican. Is it Mexican?” asked Harry.
“It’s as close to Mexican as you can get in a small town in the middle of Michigan, yeah,” replied Louis.
“Great. Fucking love tacos,”
Don Juan is not an actual restaurant, like Harry had been hoping. Instead it was a taco and churro truck in a parking lot of the central business district. A bunch of construction workers and a few tired businessmen were surrounding it. Harry didn’t know things like this actually existed outside of movies.
“You brought me to a moving vehicle to get food?” he asked, clearly disturbed by the idea.
“Shit it can move, yeah, but it’s not now. And it has the best ‘kinda Tex-Mex’ food in town and it’s 2 bucks for one taco and a dollar for a churro. It can’t get better than that, can it?” asked Louis.
“I guess it can’t be that bad,”
“That’s the spirit! Not that bad!” chanted Liam.
Up at the truck he saw that when they said ‘taco and churro truck’ they meant it. They were the only two items on the menu. There weren’t even any toppings listed on the taco. Just taco.
Louis and Liam ordered 3 tacos each, and of course an order of churros. Harry tried as hard as he could just to order one taco, but Louis wouldn’t let him hand the man his money until he ordered at least one more and a side of churros. Harry felt that with any person he would’ve become annoyed and just left, but with Louis it made him smile and laugh. He acquiesced and got what Louis and Liam had ordered.
The man behind the window gave them their food and they went to sit at a picnic table, next to one overcrowded with construction workers. Harry stared at the food in front of him; he literally had no clue what was on the taco.
“We’re not quite sure what’s in it either, mate. As long as you don’t have food allergies you should be fine, though,” explained Louis. Harry still wasn’t convinced.
“We’ve gathered that there’s probably avocado, some kind of sugary fruit? And like the normal salsa and sour cream and stuff,” helped Liam, “Come on! We wouldn’t have brought you here if it wasn’t really good!”
Harry decided to trust the kids he met only a few hours before and took a bite. And he was surprised at how amazing it was.
“Ok, yeah, it’s good. But do you even know what the meat is?”
“That’s the one thing we asked the owner. It’s chicken,” replied Louis.
“You mean it’s not a big secret? He’ll just tell you what’s in it?”
“Oh, yeah! But then it’s not fun anymore!” Liam said excitedly.
Harry had to smile at the absurdity of that, but he continued to eat his three tacos and devour the churros afterwards. At least the churros were normal. Sugary, soft, cinnamony. Everything he could have wanted from them.
Liam and Harry scarfed their food down, but Louis seemed to be a delicate eater and savored every bite. It took him 20 minutes after the other boys to finish all of his food. It didn’t help that he loved to talk, too.
“So, what brings you to boring-fart, Michigan?” he asked Harry through a mouth-full of taco.
“Uh, well. It’s kinda complicated but not really. A few months ago I got kicked out of my house in Florida by my dad, but I couldn’t leave because I had to finish school, so my dad and I just kinda didn’t murder each other until my graduation last week. My mom and sister came down to see me walk across the stage, then I flew back to Michigan with them,”
“Oh, wow. That really sucks,” Liam said. It wasn’t a very comforting thing to say, but Harry didn’t expect more from a stranger.
They sat in silence for a few moments until Louis finally broke it.
“Why’d you get kicked out, then?”
“LOUIS JESUS CHRIST THAT’S SO PERSONAL YOU CAN’T ASK THAT THAT’S SO RUDE WHAT IS WRONG WITH YOU,” Liam yelled as he sprang to life. The workers at the table next to them looked at them strangely.
“No, you know what. It’s okay. I’ll tell you, it’s no big deal anymore. It’s because I’m gay,”
“Oh, is that all?” Louis said, very nonchalantly and seemingly genuinely.
“Well and my dad’s a raging homophobe. I’m surprised he hadn’t found out earlier, really. He has a near-obsession with finding out who’s gay or not. He nearly moved me out of my third-grade class because my teacher was a lesbian. Ah, good ‘ol dad,” Harry explained.
“And you didn’t leave immediately? I couldn’t imagine living with a man full of such hatred,” said Liam, looking legitimately concerned.
“I really needed to graduate. Not to mention my existence in the house was a constant reminder that he ‘failed’ as a father to keep his ‘only, pure son’ out of the influence of ‘flaming homos’. His words, not mine, obviously,”
“Good on you, mate, for getting out,” Louis said, finally finishing his second taco.
“Well now that you two know about me, explain to me how you are related. Because you are nothing alike,”
“Okay fine, we’re brothers, yeah? But we’re step-brothers,” Louis explained.
“Yeah my dad married his mom like a long time ago,” explained Liam.
“I was four and Liam was two when they got married, I think,”
“Whirlwind romance, and such,”
“And since then they’ve had four, beautiful, bouncing, annoying-as-shit baby girls,”
“And I brought two sisters with me to the family,”
“We’re like the Brady bunch, except we have no Alice to keep everything in order. And instead of a beautiful, big home in Southern California we live in a shitty townhome in the middle of fucking Michigan,”
Harry smiled. At least someone hated Michigan as much as he did.
“Louis will you finish eating, please?” Liam asked.
“Have you quite finished?” Louis asked.
“Why do you keep saying that?!?! You’re the one not done!”
Louis smiled as his brother unraveled before his eyes.
“So Grand Wood Crossings?” Louis asked from the driver’s seat.
“Yeah, apartment number 316,” Harry said from the back, his legs scrunched up against the back of Liam’s seat. They were almost to his complex, and it hadn’t taken that long considering Louis had sped the entire way.
“You know the entire baseball team lives here,” Liam added.
“Oh, really,” Harry said. He thought he did a good job of sounding uninterested, but in reality he was totally into the idea of Niall being his next-door neighbor.
“Yeah, teams always try to get themselves into really cheap housing,” said Louis.
“Shit, sorry,” Louis apologized as Liam punched him on the shoulder.
They pulled into the complex and Harry was able to navigate them to his building safely.
“Say hi to Gemma for me,” Louis yelled as he sped off, leaving Harry in front of his building.
Harry walked up the two flights of stairs and into the small living room. His mom had moved into there to sleep on the pullout couch. Harry now had her room. She was eating some Chinese take-out in the kitchen, but she bounded out of her seat when she saw Harry come through the door. They hugged and she pet his curly hair. They sat on the couch and watched the news for a bit while Harry told her of his first day at work.
He told her of how Liam trained him, and about going to Don Juan’s (which was not a restaurant) and how Paul was maybe the most intimidating person he could imagine. He purposefully left out a special little blond boy. She listened with a smile on her face the entire time and said “I’m so proud of you for making friends!” through a toothy grin. Harry never understood how making friends was always at the top of his mother’s priorities, but he was always happy when she was proud of him. And she usually was.
He let her watch Wheel of Fortune in the living room and walked back to his new bedroom. It still had all of his mother’s old furniture in it because there wasn’t any room for it to go, so it looked rather girly. The only parts of him in there were his laptop, his grey comforter, and hundreds of photos littering the walls from Florida. They were a pain to put up and he knew they’d be a pain to take down when he went to school in September, but they were necessary in order to stop have regrets about leaving his friends behind.
He opened up his laptop and crossed his finger that one of his friends would be on Skype. He was in luck and he clicked on the only name available.
“Hi, love!” shouted a boy from the screen. He was thin with long brown hair that hung around his shoulders.
Harry smiled at the first look of his best friend, Carl, since Harry had left Florida. He giggled while Carl started talking about what he had missed in Jacksonville “To be honest, a whole lot of nothing,” and started to eat some kind of sandwich he had sitting in front of him.
Carl and Harry had dated secretly for six months starting at the end of the year before. Their close-knit circle of friends knew, but that was it. It was a tad taboo because no one else knew that Harry was gay, and also because Carl was decidedly much older. Already out of college, he was working in Jacksonville for the local news station, but he had aspirations of hosting his own show for a national audience one day. He had a natural charm and charisma about him that would aid him through the tough media, and Harry was sure his big break wasn’t too far away.
“Did you meet any cute boys to replace me?” Carl asked through batted eyelashes.
Harry smiled again and replied with a drawn-out “Nooooo,” even though he felt that Carl could tell he was lying.
They had broken up right when Harry told his dad about his sexuality because they feared what would happen if his dad had found out that not only was his son having these ‘unholy urges’, but he was also acting on them. It was a mutual decision that was aided by the fact that Harry would be leaving for school and long-distance relationships never work, but they both were still recovering from it. Carl was Harry’s first love and Harry was Carl’s first functional, loving relationship in years. Harry couldn’t help but shake the idea from his mind that had they not been afraid of his dad, they would still be together.
Carl started talking about some idiot that he had to work with at the station who kept on insisting Obama was born in Kenya, and Harry kept on commenting on how much he missed Florida, and Carl talked about how crowded the beach was getting these god damn tourists, and Harry told Carl that he longed to lay in a hammock with him again like they did all those months ago. Carl continued with distractions that might help Harry forget how far away Michigan was from Florida (800 miles), but Harry wouldn’t allow it to work. He felt at home in his misery.
“Shit, Harry, it’s already midnight,” Carl said. Harry hadn’t noticed that five hours had practically flown by while talking about ‘Ni-Dogs’ and bong hits and ‘watered-down shit’ and Florida humidity.
“Are you sure you have to leave?” Harry asked, adding a hint of puppy dog eyes.
“Unless I want to oversleep and be fired in the morning, yeah,”
“I don’t know why you stick around, you fucking hate that station,”
“Why’d you stick around with your dad?”
“Fucking hell, man,”
“Sometimes life’s not as easy as ‘I don’t want to be here so I guess I’ll leave,”. Ja feel?”
“I feel, man. I feel,”
“Good, see you sometime later this week?”
“Love you,” Harry added quickly.
Carl’s cam quickly switched off, and Harry still felt the sting of how unromantic their conversation had been. He had seen movies where love still held up over Skype. But an old relationship that has since gone long-distance, between the world’s two most boring cities, doesn’t quite make the best movie. Harry quickly brushed his teeth and stripped down to his birthday suit, falling asleep to dreams of cute boys with metal mouths and hair made of sunshine.