He remembered how it happened, just past ten years ago. He had been seven when he was admitted to the hospital. Now, he was seventeen and still in the hospital. His parents had been embarrassed, at least, that was what Doctor Brenner claimed. He claimed that the little stunt that Steve pulled to end up in the hospital had embarrassed his parents, that his condition embarrassed his parents, and so he was to stay in the hospital.
“Good morning, Steve,” a soft voice called out.
Steve turned his gaze to watch as his nurse, Claudia Henderson, entered the room with a tray of terrible, hospital cafeteria breakfast food. But he had been eating it all his life, so he learned not to complain.
“Did you sleep last night?” Claudia asked softly. “Or would you rather sleep the day away?”
“I slept,” Steve told her, his voice monotone. “I only woke up because I forgot to close the curtains all the way last night. The sun filtered through a bit. I haven’t been awake long.”
Claudia nodded, placed a gentle kiss on Steve’s forehead, and placed the tray in her lap. She had to do her rounds before she could talk with him. After all, Claudia Henderson was the only person who truly cared about him in this hospital. She had practically raised him alongside Doctor Sam Owens, both trying to keep him safe from Doctor Martin Brenner. Doctor Brenner was a jerk to his patience, but he was an amazing surgeon, and unless he committed a serious offense, the hospital was not going to fire him.
As for Steve, he had quit caring a long time ago. No one visited, and he learned his tears were stupid. Why should he cry over those who never cared? Instead, Steve kept his voice monotone and a blank smile on his face. The last time he had tried a blank stare, they tried to hire him a therapist. It didn’t end well, and Steve donned a blank smile to keep people assured. It worked.
“Ah,” Doctor Owens smiled, a real smile. Very few people in this hospital gave a real smile. That was why Steve liked Doctor Owens and Claudia Henderson. They always smiled unless they lost a patient or something bad happened at home. “Good morning. Come on, let’s check your vitals today and then you can be up and about as you like.”
Doctor Owens was kind, telling him of life outside the hospital. He tried, several times, to take Steve out of the hospital for a few day trips. Doctor Brenner always vetoed those activities, claiming his parents were insistent that Steve stay at the hospital at all times. Steve couldn’t exactly argue. Not without telling the truth.
“I’ve got another grandkid on the way,” Doctor Owens was saying. “That makes five beautiful babies. I should bring them by again some time. They really like you.”
“Just keep them away from stairs,” Steve said.
“Of course, of course,” Doctor Owens chuckled. “Wouldn’t want a tumble, now would we? But maybe then you would finally make friends.”
“I would never wish this on anyone,” Steve said, shaking his head. “And I don’t require friends. I’m fine.”
Doctor Owens made jokes, because he could. Because Steve did not take any offense to them. But the old man shook his head this time, his face becoming serious.
“Steve,” he started softly. “It’s been four years since your last attack. There’s a chance it will never come back.”
“My parents know best,” Steve said.
Lies. All lies. But Steve wasn’t going to say that. He wasn’t going to say anything that could reveal the truth. His parents didn’t care, had never cared.
“I would never wish epilepsy one anyone,” Steve said. “Especially for something as stupid as tripping down the stairs.”
Steve rarely went outside, choosing to watch from a window on his floor level and in his waiting room. Other days, he would just walk the halls as he was doing now. The nurses and doctors knew he would not go outside, so they gave him whatever freedom he needs. The hallway he was currently in was his own, normally rather quiet, but as he got closer to where the windows were, he heard soft singing. A child singing.
“Ashes, ashes, they all fall down. Ring around the rosy, a pocket full of posy, ashes, ashes, they all fall down.”
Steve peaked into a room to see a girl, maybe in middle school, dancing a doll on her lap. She had those nose tube things, and she looked incredibly skinny. But it was her hair, or rather her lack of hair, that struck Steve. And that smile. Pure and genuine.
This little girl was dying of cancer and she was still smiling without a care in the world.
Steve’s head snapped up to see the little girl smiling at him, waving. Steve had to glance behind him to make sure she wasn’t waving at someone else. No one ever really talked to him before. Especially not other patients. And if they did talk to him, they normally told him to go away.
“Would you like to play with me?” she asked softly. “I have another doll.”
Steve slowly crept into the room, waiting for the other shoe to drop. But then the little girl was digging around and pulling out another doll from under her sheets. She smiled brightly as Steve sank onto the bed.
“This one is Melissa,” the little girl waved the doll she had been playing with. “And this is her friend Jessica. And I’m Sara.”
Steve blinked. “Steve.”
“Hi, Steve,” Sara beamed. “Here, Melissa and Jessica want to go to the mall.”
Steve had never played with anyone but Claudia. He played with Sara though, because this little girl was dying and still smiling. He wasn’t sure how long they played, but a nurse was startled when she walked in with lunch for the girl and saw Steve there. She blinked, left the tray for Sara, and then raced out of the room.
“That was rude,” Sara stated. “She didn’t even say hi. And she just ran away. She’s rude.” Sara turned to Steve, still smiling. “You should smile like that more.”
“Like what?” Steve asked.
“You know,” Sara gestured to his face. “Real. You should smile real, like you are now. Not with that dumb fake smile.”
Steve hadn’t been aware that his blank smile had become a real smile. He touched his face, knowing the smile was gone, but wanting to see if he could grasp it. Sara was back to playing again, singing another nursery rhyme song. It was nice. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Claudia and Doctor Owens smiling at him from the door. He spent the rest of the day with Sara, just playing and singing. It made Steve feel like a child again, like he had a friend.
Steve kept seeing Sara, even pushing her around on a wheelchair sometimes. Sara explained that her parents could only visit every so often because her father was a police chief and her mother was working at a company Sara couldn’t say the name of. They visited when they could, and Steve thought they were better than his own parents.
On the day Steve met her parents, he was reading “The Fellowship of the Ring,” by J. R. R. Tolkien to Sara. They were on the part of Tom Bombadil when there was suddenly whispering outside the door. Steve, used to the gossip of the nurses, ignored the whispers in favor of doing silly voices that made Sara laugh. And then her gaze snapped to the door.
“Mommy!” Sara called excitedly as a man and a woman entered the room. “Daddy! You’re here!”
“Hey, baby girl,” the man who was clearly Sara’s dad, came and hugged her. “Hey, how’s my little princess trooper.”
“I’m great,” Sara beamed, and quickly began to tell stories of her days when her parents couldn’t be there.
Steve had moved off the bed when Sara’s dad got closer. And then, as both parents settled, Steve slipped out of the room. Claudia was sort of beaming, but she turned back to her work and didn’t notice Steve slink off. Steve went back to his room, moving to settle on the couch and watch out his little box window. He had a view of the field beside the hospital, and once more donned his blank smile. It was easier that way. To close off. That way it would hurt less when Sara’s parents told him to stay away from her. He would comply, of course. Always.
“Steve, right?” a gruff yet calm voice called. “Sara says you’ve been playing with her.”
“Yes,” Steve said, turning to face Sara’s father.
Hopper sat beside Steve on the couch, placing a hand on Steve’s knee. “Thank you,” the man said softly. “For keeping her company and being her friend. We were afraid she would get lonely if she got left here by herself, and I hate that she has to be here without us. I hate that we can’t be there for her all the time, but I’m glad you’re here.”
Steve wasn’t expecting that, and his blank smile slipped.
“I know,” the man stopped for a moment. “Mrs. Henderson told us that you don’t really like people. But, could you please just stay by her side? Stay by her side?”
“Yes,” Steve said without a second thought. “Yes. I can stay by her side.”
Sara’s father smiled in utter relief. “Jim Hopper,” he introduced. “My wife’s name is Diane, and you already know my daughter.”
“Steve,” he said again, just as he had with Sara.
Hopper smiled, and patted Steve on the shoulder, giving a soft squeeze. Steve couldn’t help but lean into the touch, wondering if this was what it felt like to have a father. Hopper didn’t seem to mind.
He saw a lot of Jim and Diane Hopper after that, and he loved to keep Sara company whenever he could. The little girl gave him a reason to smile. A real smile, and the two parents of the amazing young girl treated him like family. They even visited Steve on days when he suddenly felt too tired to leave his room. It was like having a family.
“You’ve done her a world of good,” Claudia told Steve one day. “Look, her scans have changed. All that play time has helped her get better. Maybe not healed completely, but it’s made her better.”
Steve looked at where Sara was laughing with her dad and realized, yeah, she was looking a bit better. There was a little color returning in her skin, and her eyes held more life. He smiled a genuine smile at that thought.
He’s walking down the hallway one day when he spots a woman sobbing in Diane’s arms. A boy, maybe his age, looking like he’d been crying, but he was staring at a door near Sara’s in pain. A new family, which meant a new patient. And someone the Hopper’s clearly knew. That wasn’t good.
“My dad is friends with Mrs. Byers,” Sara told him as he slipped into the room. “Her husband was a jerk, so they got a divorce. Her sons are nice though. Jonathan’s a photographer and he takes really cool pictures, and he listens to the Clash a lot. And Will likes to draw all the time, but he has asthma. Like, really bad asthma. It got really bad last night.”
Steve winced. He’d seen asthma attacks in patients before. Asthma had no cure, just sort of attacked a person’s lungs suddenly and never really went away. Sometimes, if it was bad enough, it could kill a person. This was going to be hard on the guy, Steve knew it.
“We should visit him,” Sara stated eagerly. “Let him know he isn’t alone. Like you did with me.”
Steve couldn’t help but nod. He could do that. Steve didn’t get a chance to meet Mrs. Byer’s youngest son until late that night. The night nurses weren’t always the best help, especially when someone was rushed into the hospital, so when coughing rang in the hallway, Steve went to go check.
“Please!” Joyce Byers was begging a nurse. “Please! Just help him!”
“Ma’am,” the nurse sighed.
But she had to stop as Steve walked past them and into Will’s room. She was left gaping at him at this, and Joyce was left confused. The older, Jonathan, was trying to help Will stop coughing. Especially as Steve opened a cabinet and pulled out an air mask.
“Don’t pound on his back,” Steve instructed, stopping Jonathan’s action. “Here, help me sit him up. Then hold his arms above his head.”
Jonathan did so, and Steve skillfully placed the mask, rubbing Will’s back just as Mrs. Claudia had taught him. Living in a hospital, Steve learned a lot about helping certain patients. Soon, Will was breathing steadily and relaxing, propped up against a bunch of pillows as he fell asleep.
“It will help him sleep better,” Steve told Mrs. Byers and Jonathan. “At least, that was what Mrs. Claudia always said. So I assume he’ll be able to breathe better this way.”
“Thank you,” Joyce beamed, but it soon became a frown. “Aren’t you a patient, don’t you need to get some sleep.”
Steve pulled on his dull smile. “Mrs. Claudia is aware that I like to take night walks sometimes. She’ll understand now, too. Don’t worry.”
“But you look exhausted, sweetheart,” Mrs. Byers pressed. “Won’t you get worse if you don’t sleep?”
“I’ll be fine,” Steve said. “You appear to be the one who needs sleep.”
Steve gave a slight bob of his head as he left the room. He then left a note in Sara’s room, letting her know that he had been up all night helping Will and that he would be sleeping the day away. When Claudia brought him breakfast that morning, she kissed his head, drew the curtains, and told him to sleep well and that she would be back with lunch.
Steve officially met Will the next day with Sara. Steve had gotten permission to wheel Sara about and they were in Will’s room. Both Jonathan and Mrs. Byers had gone to work on Will’s insistence.
“Hi, Will,” Sara greeted, cheerful as always. “This is my friend Steve, he helped you the other night. We’ve come to keep you company.”
“Hi,” Will muttered timidly. “And it struck Steve how similar he was to this child. He had been in Will’s position years ago. Struck with an incurable illness and forced to stay in a hospital without knowing anyone. “It’s nice to meet you.”
Steve wasn’t sure what to say, so he let Sara take the reins. Pretty soon, they were squished on to Will’s bed, Will on the left, Sara on the right, and Steve in the middle as Steve started re-reading The Fellowship of the Ring for Will. Will loved the story and it was worth rereading the book to see both children smile and laugh at his voices. The three of them were passed out in Will’s bed, the younger two having passed out and Steve unable to get up, when Mrs. Claudia came to greet them the next morning.
“Would you like to sleep the day away, Steve?” Mrs. Claudia asked as she always did. She was preparing Sara for another treatment, which meant it would be some time before Steve would get to see Sara again. “Or will you be awake.”
“I went to bed at a decent time,” Steve said, his blank smile returning as he spoke. “I’ll be fine. Thank you.”
Mrs. Claudia beamed, pecking his head as she usually did, and promptly took Sara for the room. Steve wasn’t exactly sure what to do now, though. He should probably leave since the buffer of Sara was no longer there to make Will be more at ease. But he didn’t want to leave. Will was a good kid. Nonetheless, he shifted, about to get up. Except, he had to stop himself as Will grasped onto his arm.
“Could you read this one too,” Will held out a book shyly. “With the voices too?”
The Princess Bride. Huh. Steve hadn’t read this one in a while. He nodded at Will and carefully took the book, settling back onto the bed so the boy could tuck himself under his arm. And he read, using silly voices and occasionally mocking some of the idiots in the story. It made Will laugh, and that was enough for Steve.
It was sometime after lunch that story time was interrupted. By three eager boys Will’s age, Jonathan, and Mrs. Byers. Will took one look at them, grinned, and said something that Steve couldn’t help but laugh at.
“Steve does a better Indigo Montoya voice than you do, Mike.”
The boy who had to be Mike spluttered and gaped as Steve and Will laughed. Even the other two boys were laughing as Mike spluttered. Will’s friends were nice. Michael Wheeler was Will’s first friend, and his best friend. Lucas Sinclair was a great friend too, and he was almost as strong headed as Mike seemed to be. Dustin Henderson was a goofball, but a lovable one, and Steve just kind of gaped at him as that last name processed.
“So you’re the guy my mom has basically adopted,” Dustin gasped excitedly. “We’re unofficial siblings then! That’s so cool! I’m glad I finally get to meet you!”
Steve liked Dustin the best of all the kids. He reminded Steve of Mrs. Claudia, and Steve liked Mrs. Claudia.
“If I had known my son and his friends would make you smile like that,” Mrs. Claudia hummed as she busied herself with changing the sheets for Steve. “Then I would have brought them by myself.”
Steve’s smile was genuine as he stared out the window.
“You’re turning eighteen soon, Steve,” Doctor Owens spoke softly. “And you haven’t had a seizure in years. By rights, you could go home. Live your life.”
“I don’t have a home,” Steve stated softly.
“But you have money,” Doctor Owens brandished the bank statement in front of Steve’s face. “See, look at this. Your parents have left you money. You could get a house. Get out of here. See the world if you wanted.”
Steve scowled and snatched the check. “I don’t care,” Steve spat. “I don’t want their stupid apology money. They left me here to die, Owens. We both know it.”
He scowled at the bank statement, reading the numbers on the form. And then stopped. That couldn’t be right. Steve carefully dug in between the mattress and pulled out more bank statement forms. He shifted through them, laying them out by date.
“Steve?” Doctor Owens questioned, confused by his patient’s behavior.
“That can’t be right,” Steve stated. “I almost never spend money. And not that much.”
But if the bank statement was holding true, Steve’s money had plummeted severally as of recently. By a could hundred-thousand dollars as of recently. Grabbing a calculator from his desk, Steve began doing the math. None of this was right, and Doctor Owens was eyeing the bank statements with the same surprise Steve was.
“I think I’m being robbed,” Steve told Doctor Owens firmly.
Doctor Owens, secretly, looked into it immediately. Honestly, Steve didn’t care about the money. Not really, but he had a sneaking suspicion as to who the person was that was stealing form him. The man was a master of doing things without getting caught. Usually. But after catching the man hovering over Sara a few days ago as she slept, Steve was going to use this moment. He had never liked Doctor Brenner, and if the man got fired for this, Steve would be okay with that. Full heartedly okay with getting Doctor Brenner arrested for any charges. He’d probably just pay his way out, though Steve suspected the reason he had stolen was because he was broke already.
“We are still going to talk about this,” Doctor Owens said. “I honestly think it would be better if you got out of the hospital, Steve. Live your life. And I mean actually live your life.”
“And if I suddenly keel over and die, what then?” Steve tested. “I’m safe here. Always have been.”
“You need peace,” Doctor Owens told him. “You need to get out of here. It’s the only way to know if you are truly better.”
“I said it doesn’t matter!” Steve yelled, chucking a book at the wall.
Someone let out a high-pitched speak from the door, and Steve jerked around. There was a girl standing there.
“I’m,” she stuttered out. “I’m sorry. I have the wrong room. I-I’ll leave.”
“Steve?” Mike’s voice came from behind the startled girl. “Steve, what’s wrong?”
Steve sighed, sinking onto the bed and burying his face in his hands. He didn’t want any of the kids to see him like this. He hoped Doctor Owens would make Steve go away, but Mrs. Claudia and Doctor Owens had been talking.
Mike was sitting at his side in seconds.
“Steve?” Mike pressed.
“I’m okay, buddy,” Steve went to ruffle Mike’s hair. “It’s nothing. Honestly.”
“Didn’t look like nothing,” Mike scoffed, shoving Steve’s hand away. “You scared my sister.”
“Sorry,” Steve chuckled softly. He turned to Mike’s sister. “I’m sorry. You shouldn’t have seen that.”
“No, it’s,” the girl paused, gaining her bearings. “It’s okay. Mike, uh, Mike told me you’ve been here a while.”
“Yeah,” Steve nodded. “Yeah. I’ve been here a while.”
“Pretty much all his life,” Mike stated.
“Mike!” Nancy snapped. “Don’t be so blunt!”
Steve chuckled, a real sound this time. “Don’t worry. I’m used to it by now.”
“I’m Nancy,” she offered. “Nancy Wheeler.”
“Steve,” he shook her hand. “I am really sorry I freaked you out.”
“Oh,” Doctor Owens spoke up for the first time. “You must be here to meet Barbara. She’s one room over. I do apologize for the mix-up. Here, let me help you.”
“Okay,” Nancy shifted awkwardly. “It was nice meeting you, Steve.”
“Barbara’s her best friend,” Mike explained. “She has some reoccurring tumor problem in her brain.”
“Glioblastoma,” Steve said. “I’ve met her a few times. We never really got along though.”
Mike hummed, not seeming to be surprised. “So, what really happened?”
Steve laughed at that, a true, heartfelt laugh. Then he shook his head as Mike leaned into him. They weren’t ever going to let it go.
“I’m sorry,” Steve sighed, his smile slipping. “I just.” Steve had to take a breath. “Doctor Owens thinks I should move out. Of the hospital.”
“But isn’t that a good thing?” Mike asked, clearly confused.
“Mike,” Steve sighed, finally looking the kid in the eye. “I haven’t stepped a foot out of this hospital in years. Not even to go outside.”
Mike looked positively horrified by this revelation.
The kids were relentless, and soon, Steve was standing in front of the door that led outside. His feet weren’t moving. He couldn’t do this. There was no way he could go outside. This was crazy. How did he let the kids talk him into this? This was a terrible idea. Why would he do this? What was wrong with him?
“Push me outside?”
Ah. The kids were clever. Sara was sitting in her wheel chair, eagerly staring up at him. The others were waiting beside Steve, watching just as eagerly. The kids figured that if Sara asked Steve to take her outside, he would do it. Well. Honestly.
They weren’t wrong.
Steve was slow, but he watched as they walked stiffly towards the door. Pushing Sara in her chair. The laugh that bubbled from Steve’s lips surprised even him as he felt the sun on his skin for the first time. He wasn’t supposed to stay out long; he was too pale for that. Sunburn easily. And there he was.
“One small step for Steve,” Dustin grinned. “One giant leap for Steve’s future.”
“You know he butchered that quote, right?” Steve asked Dustin.
“Very funny Steve,” Dustin chuckled. But then he took in Steve’s expression. “Wait. Hold on. What happened? You’re joking. Steve. Steve!”
But Steve was already walking back inside at Doctor Owens beckon.
“Steve,” Doctor Owens began, handing Steve a folder. “You were right.”
Steve stared at Doctor Owens and opened the folder. He gaped as he saw the full confession from a bank teller. Doctor Brenner had come in with Steve’s bank account information and tapped into Steve’s bank account, withdrawing money often.
“Then get him out of this hospital,” Steve growled back, handing back the folder. “Now.”
Doctor Brenner was out of the room hospital as soon as the folder hit the desk of the head of the hospital. Chief Hopper did a further investigation, and Brenner was more than broke, having stolen from Steve for years in order to do “government work”. The government was compensating Steve for everything. Especially as a new patient was dragged in kicking and screaming.
“Papa!” the girl screamed, late into the night. “Papa! Papa!”
Steve burst out of his door, watching as the nurses and doctors manhandled a child. A little girl about Will and Sara’s age. Barb was awake too, and though the didn’t get along, Barb looked at Steve as if asking him to do something.
“Hey!” Steve screamed, especially as he watched Will open his door and stared wide eyed. “Put her down! Now!”
Steve had just gotten the best Doctor in this hospital fired. So all of the staff dropped her instantly. And at Steve’s glare, they ran.
“Hey,” Steve cooed gently. “He sweetheart. Hey. You’re okay now.”
“Papa?” the girl asked, shaking. “He’s a bad man. Papa’s a bad man.”
“I know,” Steve nodded. “Believe me, I know. Uh, I’m Steve. What’s your name?”
The girl shook her head and curled in on herself.
“It’s okay,” Steve offered gently. “You don’t have to tell me. Do you want to get some sleep? I have a bed you can sleep on. And there are books in my room too if you don’t want to read. I just want to help. I promise.”
“Promise?” the girl asked in confusion.
“It’s something you can’t break,” Will said, stepping up. “It’s when you tell someone you’ll do something and then you make sure you’ll do it. I’m Will, by the way. Steve is my friend.”
“Friend?” the girl asked. “What is friend?”
“A person you never lie to,” Will pressed. “Well, sometimes you lie, but you try not to. And they stick by you when things get bad. We can be your friend too.”
“Friend,” the girl breathed, then pointed to herself. “Eleven.”
The she showed her wrist, and the tattoo there. Steve’s heart broke in that moment.
“Hello, Eleven,” Steve smiled. “Would you like to meet my friend Sara before you go to bed.”
Eleven followed them to Sara’s room, and Steve saw Barb slip back into her own room. Before Steve knew it, they were all curled up in Sara’s bed, fast asleep with Steve watching over the three kids from the couch. He slept that night, knowing he would need too. Eleven would need someone to trust.
The next morning, Mrs. Claudia tried to insist that Eleven get checked out, but the poor girl panicked and began to sob and hyperventilate. Doctor Owens had to get Steve, who had been kicked back to his own room, to come and talk to the girl.
“Mrs. Claudia and Doctor Owens are friends,” Steve explained to Eleven. “They just want to help you. Make sure Papa didn’t do anything to hurt you really badly.”
“Stay,” Eleven begged.
So Steve stayed by Eleven’s side through every procedure, sometimes holding her hand, and other times just reading a book so she could hear his voice. It was the only way they could keep her calm. Later, Will’s friends got to meet the girl, and they gave her the nickname, El. Mike seemed really attached to her.
“Keep this up, and you’ll adopt every kid in this hospital,” Jonathan teased as they played a game of chess as El slept in Steve’s lap.
“Keep this up and you’ll never got that date with Nancy,” Steve shot back. “Honestly, just ask her out.”
Jonathan blushed but shook his head. Steve could only role his eyes at the oldest Byers. They’d been having this conversation for weeks, and Jonathan still wouldn’t make a move. It was obnoxious.
“The kids are going to visit you, by the way,” Jonathan told Steve. “You know, because Will is getting discharged tomorrow, but they still want to come see you and Sara.”
Steve could only smile at that. He’d never had anyone come visit him personally. “Just make sure the next time I see Will, it isn’t because he needs a doctor himself.”
Before Jonathan could respond with the obviously snarky comment waiting on his lips, Doctor Owens walked in looking grim. The look made Steve grip El just a bit tighter, waking the girl from her slumber. It only served to make Doctor Owens look a bit more grim.
“We found her mother,” Doctor Owens told them.
And that was all he really needed to say. Honestly and truly. The next few hours were filled with Steve explain to El who it was that was found, what a mother was, and then asking the little girl if she wanted to meet her real mother. She really, really wanted to meet her mother, but she begged Steve to come, and Jonathan, and Will, and Sara.
“Chief Hopper is down there,” Doctor Owens told them, keeping his voice soft as Steve asked people to do in her presence whenever she was on edge. “You remember him, right?”
“Nice man,” El nodded, still clinging to Steve as said boy carried her down stairs.
Jonathan was pushing Sara’s wheelchair since Steve’s hands were occupied. Will had decided, since they were both skinny, that he would ride next to Sara, the two giving El encouraging smiles and making faces to keep El happy.
“Yeah,” Steve nodded back. “Very nice man. He’s going to be there just in case. Okay?”
“Just in case,” El repeated, finality in her voice.
The moment they met the woman, they knew for a fact that she was El’s mother. The resemblance was uncanny. But Steve saw something no one else noticed, or at least, didn’t bother to mention. The dark bags under her eyes, the weird marks on her arms and the stiffness of her joints that meant she had probably been restrained. Steve had put El down, hovering close, but his gaze was on Doctor Owens’ guilty expression.
“Jane,” the woman breathed. ‘Oh, my Jane. My baby girl. I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry. My Jane.”
“Momma,” El breathed, reaching for the woman.
Making sure El, or Jane, was alright, Steve stepped out, and Doctor Owens followed.
“What happened?” Steve demanded.
“Her name is Terry Ives,” Doctor Owens explained. “The day Jane was born; Terry Ives nearly had a miscarriage. Except, we all believed it to be a miscarriage. Doctor Brenner was her doctor during the procedure, and he hired several nurses and doctors to claim the baby had died. Terry, despite the drugs, was lucid and saw her daughter and heard her cry. When she tried to sue Doctor Brenner, she was deemed crazy and sent to a psychiatric ward.”
Steve sucked in a breath and watched as mother and daughter finally reunited. Jane, who never knew what a mother was, and Terry, told she was crazy her entire life. It made Steve smile a bit to see that Jane had someone to love her now. At least, love her the way a parent should.
“Thank you,” Terry breathed as she met Steve in his room later. “Just, thank you.”
“I’d do it again,” Steve stated back.
Terry shifted. “The doctors need to make sure I don’t have any brain damage,” she explained. “Which means a lot more time in the hospital. And their still worried about Jane.”
“I’ll keep an eye on her when you can’t,” Steve promised, cutting her off. “I swear I will. Besides, she has friends who will help too.” Steve dropped his voice. “And between you and me, I think El has a crush on Mike Wheeler. I’ll point him out the next time he visits, but the crush definitely goes both ways.”
Steve caught Terry up on what he knew of El’s life and story. They even introduced him to El’s aunt, Becky, who was surprised to see Jane was real. But watching the two sisters react with the girl, Steve knew they would take care of each other.
It was like, 2:30 in the morning that Steve woke up to hear someone shifting through his books. It had been a month since Terry Ives had been reunited with her daughter and a month since Will was discharged. The kids, as promised, visited often, and Sara was getting better. There was hope for the cancer to go away, but everyone still kind of held their breath. Even Barb made several visits home, and Steve had gotten to know Nancy a bit more. The two often hung out with Jonathan and Steve. But despite this, Barb and Sara were the only two still in the hospital. Barb would not go anywhere near Steve’s room without Nancy or Jonathan, and Sara could not walk to his room unaided yet. So Steve sat up in obvious concern to see who was in his room.
“Will?” he gaped at the boy.
Will grinned sheepishly. “Hi, Steve,” the boy waved awkwardly. “Sorry about waking you. I just needed a book, and you always let me borrow some.”
“Okay,” Steve nodded, still a little sleep dazed. “What are you doing in the hospital?”
“I didn’t have an asthma attack,” Will shook his head quickly. “I swear. We’re, uh, we’re actually here for someone else.”
Joyce Byers had gotten a boyfriend, a guy named Bob Newby. He was the type of guy who was a giant nerd, but the fun lovable kind. Though it was clear that neither Jonathan nor Will knew what to make of the guy.
The thing was, Bob had a heart attack out of the blue. Getting rushed into the hospital, he was diagnosed with cardiovascular disease. Steve was going to call his floor the uncurable floor because there was literally no known cure for any of the people Steve had met.
“I mean, you’re their friend,’ Bob shrugged awkwardly. “What do you think they think about me?”
Steve liked Bob; he was a great guy. And he had fun stories about his childhood. So, Steve and Bob got to talking sometimes whenever they were bored and had no one else to talk too. And this topic was about Jonathan and Will. Neither Byers boy talked about it much, but-
“Lonnie Byers was a jerk,” Steve told Bob. “He used to hurt Jonathan behind Joyce’s back, and he’d call Will all sort of homophobic names. It left a mark on them, and the only other father figure they’ve really had was Jim Hopper, and he’s not the best example of warm and feely unless he is with Sara. I honestly think they don’t know what to make of you?”
“Why not?” Bob asked, still confused.
Steve had to purse his lips as he tried to think of how to put this. “You’re bright,” Steve tired. “Good. Good for Joyce. Good for them. But they’ve never really had that connection with a male figure you like you before. You’re everything Lonnie told them was bad for a guy to be. And yet, here you are, successful in your job, rich parents, and despite the bullying- enough love for the world. They’re still trying to wrap their head around the fact that everything Lonnie told them was untrue. They don’t dislike you, they just have trouble understanding you.”
Bob nodded, clearly trying to wrap his head around this thought. Steve had never been outside the hospital except as a child. He had no idea what people said about Lonnie, or Joyce, or the Byers. But he gathered it wasn’t good. In fact, from what Steve did know of the outside world, it was possible people took Lonnie’s side in the divorce matter. At least, his side of lies. There was no telling what Bob really knew of the Byers’ home life with Lonnie.
“Okay,” Bob finally nodded. “Okay. I can help them understand. I think. Thanks, Steve. You’re a good guy.”
No, he really wasn’t.
A few months later, and the five kids brought a red head to come visit him and Sara. Her name was Maxine Mayfield, but she preferred Max. She wasn’t sure what to make of Steve, but like the other kids, she came to like Steve.
“Why?” Steve asked when Max told him this.
“What do you mean why?” Max frowned.
“I’m a recluse living in a hospital,” Steve waved around. “The only thing I ever wear is hospital clothes. I hardly go outside. And I hate people. Why the heck do any of you guys like me?”
“Because your cool,” Dustin stated.
Steve gave him a look.
“Because you’ve been hurt,” El stated firmly. “Like us. And you understand and don’t want us to be alone like you were. We like you because you care, even if you don’t know it.”
Ah. Well. In that case. What was Steve even supposed to say to that? He didn’t get much of a chance to say anything because Mike was suddenly complaining about people being mushy, to which Lucas coughed out “El”, and he was yelling at them about finishing Max’s character sheet.
Seeing Max at the hospital became common, but he was surprised, and a little terrified, to see her there at four in the morning a couple of weeks after she told him she liked him. She was sobbing too, and Steve was ignoring the startled woman beside her in favor of brushing the tears away. She just sobbed harder as she latched onto him.
“He hurt Billy,” Max sobbed. “He hurt my brother. He nearly killed him, Steve.”
Billy Hargrove, Max’s step-brother. Steve had heard mostly negative things about Billy, but Max had confessed a few secrets about their home life. Billy Hargrove wasn’t a good person, but he didn’t deserve this. No one deserved to be beaten to near death by their father. Ever. Steve would know.
Billy Hargrove, when he woke up, lashed out at everyone and everything. He barely let the nurses close, and threw a scalpel at Susan. Neil Hargrove was arrested, and he couldn’t afford bail. It was bad. Really bad, and they were talking about unclosing Billy off. Steve stepped in.
“Get out,” Billy hissed.
“Not really feeling it,” Steve said calmly. Was it bad to be calm? Probably. “I’m Steve.”
“I don’t believe I asked,” Billy spat.
“Maybe not,” Steve shrugged. “But I figured I would come say hi. Ask you to calm down so the nurses and doctors could actually help. You know, the usual conversation starters.”
Billy scowled, clearly about to lash out. Steve kept talking.
“I was put in this hospital at the age of seven,” Steve told Billy, grabbing the guy’s arm. “I was diagnosed with epilepsy. I told the doctors and nurses it was because I tripped down the stairs and landed on my head. And I’ve been spinning that lie my whole life.”
The condition for Steve talking to Billy was that he do it monitored. So there were several people, Steve knew, watching the scene unfold. Listening. But he kept his eyes on Billy because Billy needed someone to understand. He needed to know someone else had it just as bad.
“I’ve lied to everyone about what happened that day,” Steve told Billy. “Even pretended I don’t remember what happened. But I do. I know exactly what happened. I had skinned my knee playing with friends, and it made my dad angry. He might have been drunk at the time, I don’t know, but he picked me up and threw me down the stairs. I fell unconscious, and my parents were just going to blow it off, leave me on the floor, but then I started to have my first attack. Ashamed because I was no longer perfect, my parents sold me to the hospital and demanded that Doctor Brenner never let me leave. I’ve been here since.”
Billy eyed him, and this time, there was understanding in his gaze. And for Steve, it felt like a weight he hadn’t known he was carrying was finally removed. Steve had a very long talk with several people after that. But he managed to befriend Billy Hargrove, and the guy agreed to cooperate. So Steve considered it a win.
It was a few days later, not long, when Billy was finally allowed visitors. Steve was on his way to the guys room, looking down at his latest bank statement. He didn’t realize their was company until their was a surprised and pained gasp. Looking up, Steve was struck with the sudden revelation that he knew the two people at Billy’s bedside.
“Steve?” the guy breathed.
“Tommy?” Steve gaped at the freckled guy and red-head girl. “Carol? What the heck?”
And suddenly, Carol was grabbing his face, searching him over and looking as if she might cry. Steve was very much confused. They’d never visited before, why would they care about him now. But then Tommy suddenly poked him, retracting his hand as if he’d just been burned.
“You’re alive?” Tommy breathed in awe and horror.
“Of course I’m alive,” Steve said, his expression becoming closed off. “Why wouldn’t I be? Where do you think I’ve been all these years?”
Tommy and Carol just exchanged mortified looks.
“Wait,” Billy spoke up. “This is Steve Harrington? As in, your childhood friend who died on the stairs?”
“Died?” Steve questioned, pulling away from Carol. “What do you mean died? I’m right here.”
Carol finally broke down sobbing in Steve’s arms.
His parents had told all of Hawkins that Steve had died when he tripped down the stairs. Hiding the fact that their son had been living in a hospital. Chief Hopper took great pride in arresting both Harrington’s for neglect, child abuse, and aided child abuse. Steve watched the arrest on the news, shaking his head the whole time. With Steve parentless, and not quite eighteen, Mrs. Claudia immediately filed for adoption. And with a few strings, she got custody.
“Guess we’re brothers now?” Dustin beamed excitedly.
Yeah. Steve was okay with that. He beamed brightly at Dustin as he ate real food for the first time and wore real clothes too. He’d never been so happy.
Steve did, in fact, still have epilepsy. It never really just goes away, but he lived with Mrs. Claudia now, and she gladly took care of him. He would never be normal, but he had a life now, and that was all Steve had ever wanted. Will still suffered from Asthma, and Bob still had cardiovascular diseases. Even Barb would suffer head pain and hospital visits, but they made the most of it. As for Sara, who had suffered leukemia her whole childhood, the cancer went away. Jane adjusted to life slowly, occasionally being babysat by Steve, and Billy found peace with his step-mother and step-sister. Things had changed, and Steve was okay with that.