The playground was further away than Sylvia remembered - she was used to biking around Hawkins, not going by foot - and she worried that by the time she got there, Dustin would be long gone. But that didn't matter - she had to try and make things right even if it turned out to be impossible.
She spotted two bikes parked by the side of the road, and peered through the dark until she found Dustin and Lucas sitting in the grass by the soccer field.
Noticing her approach, Lucas stood up, his fists clenched unconsciously, while Dustin kept his eyes on the ground.
"I thought I told you to leave us alone," Lucas muttered.
Sylvia shrugged nervously. "I know, I'm sorry, I just… um, I just need to talk to Dustin, for a second."
"Go away," Lucas spat out. "He doesn't want to talk to you."
"Lucas," Dustin interjected. "It's okay." He stood up and brushed the grass off his pant legs, finally looking over at Sylvia with what he hoped was a neutral and pleasant expression. "What do you want to talk about?"
Sylvia hesitated, smoothing down the front of her dress anxiously. She glanced at Lucas, who was still staring at her with his arms crossed, looking suspicious. Dustin gave Lucas a nudge.
"I'll see you tomorrow, alright?" he said.
Lucas nodded, pursing his lips. "Okay."
"And… thanks," Dustin said quietly. Lucas smiled slightly and walked over to his bike, hands in his pockets.
They watched him ride away, the silence of a Hawkins night swallowing them once again. Dustin kept his eyes trained away from Sylvia's face, sure that if he looked at her for too long he'd end up doing something really stupid.
Sylvia, in contrast, couldn't keep her eyes away from Dustin, keeping a careful watch for any sign of emotion, of a crack in the wall he seemed to have suddenly put up. Finally she broke the silence.
"Dustin, I'm really, really sorry."
He shrugged, mouth tugging down in a frown. "Don't worry about it."
She almost rolled her eyes. "Dustin. Come on."
He turned and stared at her. "Look, it's really not a big deal. You didn't want to kiss me and you got pressured into it. Let's just forget the whole thing and move on."
"Dustin, listen to me. That is not even close to what happened, okay?" She stepped in closer to him, looking at him with frustration in her eyes.
"Then what happened?" he challenged.
She huffed in irritation and looked up at the sky. "I didn't mean what I said. I just… I got embarrassed, or flustered, I guess. Christine was wrong, and I shouldn't have gone along with it. The truth is… I kissed you because I wanted to."
Dustin's eyes widened, but then his self-doubt got the better of him. He sat down on the grass and rubbed his eyes, trying to hide the tears that were leaking out. "That's a lie."
Sylvia crouched beside him, ignoring the way the wet, dewy grass scratched at her ankles and knees. "No it isn't!" she objected hotly.
"Why would you want to kiss me?" Dustin objected. "I'm Toothless Henderson and you're…" he gestured to her, looking hopeless.
She interrupted him. "And I'm Anorexia Davis!"
He glanced over at her, shocked, and she chuckled wryly. "You're not the only person who got a mean nickname from Christine Carly, you know."
He looked confused. "Why…"
She shrugged, feeling self-conscious. "Because I'm skinny, I guess? Who knows."
He frowned. "You're not that skinny." Then he clapped a hand over his mouth, turning red. "I mean - ah - I mean -"
She giggled. "Well, you're not that toothless."
This finally got him to crack a smile, and she felt a rush of relief. Maybe she would be able to get through to him.
"You have a nice smile, actually," she said shyly, inching closer to him while his face flushed. She hooked her pinky finger around his and tugged gently until he turned to look at her.
"We don't even need a bottle this time," she whispered, leaning towards him with a flirtatious grin.
Their lips were almost touching when Dustin pulled away, leaving Sylvia bewildered and more than a little disappointed.
"I… I don't think this is a good idea," Dustin said, shaking his head sadly. It seemed like it was killing him to say it.
Sylvia frowned, looking hurt. "Why?"
"Because…well, because you'll break my heart, okay?" he mumbled, his voice wavering slightly.
Sylvia stared at him blankly. "Why would I do that?"
He sighed. "Well, obviously, I like you too much. I like you a lot more than you like me, and that's going to be a recipe for disaster."
She frowned and crossed her arms. "How do you know who likes who more?"
He looked at her sadly. "I just know."
"That's not an answer," she huffed.
"Okay, look," he said, and the emotion in his voice made the hairs on the back of her neck stand on end. "I'm not blaming you for what happened, and I know it's hard to stand up to someone like Christine. But the way I feel about you, it's like… you know, if my friends were making fun of you, I would choose you over them every single time. I'd tell them to go screw themselves, I really would. That's how I know."
Sylvia didn't know what to say at his confession. She felt a strange lump in her throat as if she were about to cry. She shook her head, trying to compose herself, trying to think of a counter argument, but her mind was numb.
"I think we're better off as friends right now," he whispered, and she could feel her heart splintering in her chest.
Dustin noticed that Sylvia was shivering. The grass had soaked the hem of her dress, and her arms were bare. He stood up and offered her his hand, helping her off the ground. "I should take you home. It's getting cold out here."
"Dustin…" she sighed, rolling her eyes. She wasn't done with this conversation, but she was starting to feel chilled, and in the back of her mind she was worried about getting in trouble with her parents for staying out so late.
He smiled at her gently and gestured to the back of his bike. She hopped on gingerly, suddenly very self-conscious about where she put her hands.
They rode silently through the inky black streets, Dustin staring straight ahead and vowing not to waver in his decision, Sylvia trying to think of a way to change his mind. Sylvia wished he would slow down, but all too soon they arrived at her front door. She hopped off the bike and turned to face him.
The words she wanted so desperately to say were stuck inside her throat. He looked sad and wary and so stupidly resigned it made her want to kick him.
Dustin already felt like the world's biggest idiot, and when he saw the look in her eyes, that absolutely confirmed it. Here was Sylvia Davis, wanting to kiss him, acting like she was interested in him, and all he could do was turn her down. He knew he'd regret it the instant she walked away - he was already regretting it now - but he just couldn't force himself to take the risk, to make that jump. Sure, she wanted to be with him now, but what about tomorrow? Or Monday in school, when all her friends found out? He still couldn't get the sound of Christine's mocking laughter out of his head.
"Goodnight, Sylvia," he said. He knew if he stayed with her any longer, he'd probably end up changing his mind, what with the way her dark hair shone in the moonlight and how her lips parted in a slight, unconscious smile the moment she caught his eye.
"Dustin, I - " she began, but couldn't quite finish the thought. He shrugged, eyes downcast, and threw his leg back over the seat of his bike, riding away and leaving her speechless in front of her doorway.
The next day dawned grey and drizzly, and Joyce reminded El that one of her new responsibilities was to keep up with her schoolwork - and that meant staying home and working on pre-algebra even when all she wanted to do was to bike over to the Wheelers to talk to Mike. Joyce tried to get details about what had happened at the party the night before, but both Will and El had very little to say.
In English class on Monday, Mike glared at Sylvia when she sat down next to him in her usual seat. He'd spoken to Lucas on the super-com Sunday night, and he knew enough about what had happened at the party after he left to be upset.
The look in his eyes made her cringe and shrink into her chair. It was bad enough to think that she had screwed up her chance with Dustin, but the prospect of losing all her new friends on top of that was nearly unbearable. The worst thing was that she couldn't even blame Mike, or any of them - she'd messed up. She'd hurt one of the nicest people she'd ever met, just to stay in the good graces of a bully like Christine. Sylvia groaned and put her head in her hands. What had she been thinking?
"Yes, Miss Davis?" the teacher said, surprised.
She looked around, red-faced. "Um… I just… I wish Odysseus would just go home already, you know?"
The teacher chuckled. "Yes, well, I think Penelope also feels that way. Unfortunately, there are several more books left before that happens."
"Oh," Sylvia said, blushing and staring down at her book.
"As I was saying…" the teacher said, continuing his lesson while Sylvia tried to compose herself. She glanced at Mike, who seemed amused.
At lunch, Sylvia cautiously made her way over to the AV club's table. El had once again joined her friends instead of having lunch at home, so the whole gang was there.
"Um… is it okay if I sit here?" Sylvia mumbled shyly. The boys and El all looked at Dustin, who nodded, although he wasn't quite making eye contact. She smiled gratefully and sat down at the table.
Just then, Christine sauntered over, looking disgusted and amused.
"Sylvia, our table's over this way, come on." She jerked her head in the other direction and pulled on Sylvia's arm, but Sylvia wrenched herself away.
"Cut it out, Christine," Sylvia muttered, turning back to her plate of lukewarm mac and cheese.
"I don't think you understand," Christine said, her tone icy. "I want you to sit with me today. I thought I told you not to waste your time with these weirdos anymore."
"Don't call them that!" Sylvia snapped, making everyone - including Christine - jump. "They're my friends."
Christine chuckled. "That's so cute, they're you're friends." She gestured at Dustin. "Don't tell me, he's your boyfriend, now, right?" Her smile was mocking.
"So what if he is?" challenged Sylvia. Dustin turned red.
"You cannot be serious, Vi. It's social suicide. Nobody's gonna want to hang out with you after you've made out with that." She gestured at Dustin again, looking disgusted. El stood up, fury in her eyes, but Mike grabbed onto her wrist, trying to remind her that they were in a public place and she needed to be careful with her temper.
"Oh yeah? Well… Well…" Sylvia sputtered, trying to think of an appropriate response. "Well… GO SCREW YOURSELF, Christine Carly!"
The entire cafeteria turned and stared as Sylvia stomped over to where Dustin sat and gave him a big kiss on the lips. Kids began to hoot and holler but neither Sylvia nor Dustin paid them any attention.
El giggled and clapped along with everyone else, only taking a brief moment to covertly break the heel of Christine's right shoe, causing her to stumble to the floor and then hobble off in humiliation.
When Sylvia pulled away, it was hard to tell which one of them was blushing harder. Sylvia's formerly brazen confidence faltered for a moment.
"I'm sorry," she murmured. "I know you said you just wanted to be friends but…"
"You know what?" Dustin interrupted, grinning like a madman. "I changed my mind."
Then he kissed her again.
That afternoon, El and Mike were walking home from school when El asked the question that had been weighing on her for a while. "Mike, are you my boyfriend?"
Mike didn't know what to say. "Um… well… why do you ask?" he finally spit out, turning red.
El shrugged. "John asked if you were my boyfriend."
Mike's eyes narrowed suspiciously. This guy really needed to back off. "When did this happen?" he asked, trying to keep his tone neutral.
"At his party, after he tried to kiss me," El said, nonchalantly.
Mike stopped in his tracks and stared at her. "WHAT?" he yelled, clenching his fists.
"Did he hurt you? Did he try anything?" That bastard…
El shook her head, bewildered. "I said no, and he said sorry."
"Oh," Mike said, trying to get a handle on his emotions. "Good."
They walked in silence for a few moments, both trying to figure out what to say next.
"So, are you?" El asked, looking at him curiously.
Mike smiled and ran his thumb over her fingers. "Do you want me to be?"
She shrugged. "I don't know what it means."
Mike sighed, trying to think of a good explanation. "It's like a… promise."
"Promise?" That was a word she knew, a word that always reminded her of Mike.
"Like a promise that… we'll always care about each other, and tell each other everything, no matter what."
"Okay," El said, smiling brightly.
"And, like, it's a promise that we won't, you know…" he gestured to her lips, and then to his, "…with anyone else."
She thought for a moment or two. "Okay."
He turned and studied her face, unsure whether to bring up his concerns. He felt that he needed to, for her sake, even if it made him miserable. "But, El, are you sure… are you sure you are ready? You just started school. What if… what if you meet some guy, and you like him more than me?" He frowned.
She shook her head. "It won't happen."
He looked at her hesitantly. "But how do you know?"
She smiled at him and leaned up to kiss him on the lips. Then she giggled and tugged on his hand, pulling him down the street.
"Don't be a mouth-breather, boyfriend."