Will walked beside his mother through the grocery store. They wandered down the isles, picking up cereal or toilet paper or milk, occasionally pausing to browse. It was nice, and comforting, and familiar.
Standing in the snack isle, Will looked around while his mother hummed and hawed over which bag of chips she should get.
“What do you think? Barbecue, or Ruffles?” She held up the two bags.
Will pointed to the one. “Ruffles, I guess.”
His mom smiled. “Okie-dokie, kiddo.”
Another cart rolled into the isle, pushed by some dad in his forties with two twin kids around Will’s age, a boy and a girl. The girl had a yo-yo dangling from her finger and was trying unsuccessfully to get it to spin. The boy stared at his shoes.
Will snuck glances at the two of them, noticing the matching blond hair and dark brown eyes. The boy looked up and noticed Will staring. Will quickly looked away.
“Alright, honey, let’s get a move on,” his mom said, starting to push the cart away. “Don’t want to leave Jonathan home alone too long.”
“Okay,” Will mumbled. He followed after his mother out the aisle.
Over his shoulder he caught one last glance of the boy.
Once they were in the parking lot, Will helped his mother load the groceries into the trunk.
She grinned at him. “So,” she drawled. “I saw you staring at that little girl in there.”
Will flushed. “What?”
“You know. The blonde one with the yo-yo.”
“Oh,” Will breathed.
“Don’t worry, I saw her peekin’ at you, too.”
Will chewed at his lip. “Oh.”
“Hey,” his mom said, shutting the trunk. “Can you run the cart back?”
Will took the cart back to the front of the store. The dad and his two kids were checking out. Will peered at them under his fringe, then turned quickly when he saw the girl look at him. He hurried back to his mom in the car.
“Did you guys see Molly Ivanov’s skirt?” one of the boys asked. “I swear it was too short for dress code.”
Several other boys chuckled. Will, who was in the process of pulling his shirt on, kept silent.
Another kid, Mattie McPherson, piped up, “I heard she cuts them in the bathroom to make ‘em shorter.”
Another round of laughter.
“I have her in English. When she bends down to get her notes you can almost see her panties!”
Some kid whistled. “Lucky!”
Will felt a sick nervousness come on. He glanced at his friends, trying to see if they were in on the joke, then regretted it. Mike was changing out of his gym shorts and a long expanse of just-hit-a-growth-spurt leg was bare. Will looked away quickly, heart pounding.
“We should sneak into the girl’s locker room!” someone said.
All three members of the Byers family were seated in the living room, watching the television. The news was on and Joyce was flipping through a catalog, cutting coupons. Will had a stack of paper and was doodling on the floor, half-watching and half-ignoring the program.
“Sweeping through the nation, the growing threat of disease continues to plague our citizens,” the anchorman droned. “What has sometimes been called the ‘gay virus’ reaches record levels.”
Several images flashed on the screen of protesters waving flags outside government buildings, holding signs with slogans like, “Fight AIDS, not GAYS” and “HIV stigma is the REAL killer.” Will found his eyes drawn to the rapid movement.
“…president continues to show no initiative towards stopping this crisis…”
People yelling, throwing bottles and rocks at other people.
“…calls into question whether the disease is deserved…”
A man at a pulpit, shaking his fist in a passionate tirade.
Will startled when his mom touched his shoulder.
“Will, honey, what’s wrong?” She gestured to his drawing. What had started out as a cheerful rendition of a cat in a tree had become marred by dark, angry scribbles and violent colors. Will blinked down at the paper, then smiled at his mother.
“Nothing. I just got bored, I guess.”
His mom smiled back. “Okay, sweetie. Just don’t let the cat get too scary.”
Will smiled and picked out a new piece of paper.
“Frog-face!” the bully jeered. Mike pursed his lips. “Faggot!” The bully kicked dirt at Will, who was on the ground.
Swinging at Mike, who dodged, the bully missed and stumbled a little. He coughed out a laugh. “Ha! Losers.” He then strut away.
“Are you okay?” Mike asked, helping Will up. “Did he hit you very hard?”
Will touched his cheek gingerly. “No. I’m fine. Are you hurt?”
Mike smiled bravely. “Nah, I’m good. My frog-face is still intact,” he added with a chuckle.
“You don’t have a frog-face. Don’t listen to him. He’s dumb.” Will shoved his toe into the dirt.
Mike grinned. “Thanks. And you’re not a faggot.”
Will felt his shoulders sink somewhat even as he smiled. “Thanks.”