Chapter 9: Rapid Roy (The Stockyard Boy)

Oh rapid Roy that stock car boy
He too much too believe
You know he always got an extra pack of cigarettes
Rolled up in his t-shirt sleeve
He got a tattoo on his arm that say baby
He got another one that just say hey
But every Sunday afternoon he is a dirt track demon
In a '57 Chevrolet

El isn't happy with some of Mike's choices. Hopper just finds the whole thing funny, mostly.

Hopper put down his newspaper and glanced at El's door when the quiet murmuring of her and Mike talking over the radio was interrupted by a loud thud, followed by an ominous silence. "Hey, kid?" he called. "You okay in there?" When she didn't answer, he stood up from the couch with a groan, more annoyed than worried at her lack of response, and went to knock. "El," he said through the door, "you gotta answer me or I'm comin' in."

"I'm fine," she snapped, her voice muffled but not so much that he couldn't hear her irritation.

She certainly didn't sound fine, but she also didn't sound hurt or sad or like she was in the middle of a panic attack, so he left her to her teenage dramatics and returned to his coffee and newspaper. Mike was supposed to come over in a couple hours and the rest of the kids were joining later in the afternoon, so he was going to enjoy as much of this peaceful Sunday as he could before the tiny cabin was overtaken by five more middle schoolers who made El look dainty and tranquil by comparison.

But then eleven-thirty came and went without any sign of the Wheeler kid, who Hopper had never known to be a minute late when coming to visit El. He frowned, realizing that El had also not emerged from her room when normally she would be standing at the front window watching for him ten minutes before he was due to arrive.

He went to her door again. "Open up," he called as he knocked.

"Go away," said El.

He sighed. "Alright, well, I'm gonna make lunch, and you're gonna come out here and eat it whether you like it or not."

He heard her huff through the door and smiled ruefully to himself. He hated to see El in a bad mood for any reason, but if he was correct that this was about some kind of drama between her and Mike, he had to admit he was a little glad she was upset about something so normal. That felt like progress. Not that he was glad Mike had done something to hurt her—if that was the case, he'd be kicking the kid's ass next time he saw him.

El finally left her room as Hopper was setting their lunches on the table and slid into her seat with a stony expression. She didn't even look up at him as she started eating her sandwich, just glowered down at her plate.

Hopper watched her with raised eyebrows. "So," he said after a few minutes of silence, "no Mike today?"

Her glare deepened and she bit into a carrot stick with unnecessary force. "Not coming," she muttered.

"Yeah, I figured as much. What's goin' on with you two? Trouble in paradise?"

But maybe joking about it hadn't been the greatest move on his part. El looked a little hurt at his words and he sighed, rubbing his forehead. Teenage drama was certainly preferable to PTSD, but he felt no more equipped to deal with it.

"You wanna tell me what's wrong?" he asked, more gently.

El shrugged and then, after a pause, bit out, "Grounded."

"Mike's grounded?" She didn't answer, but the bitter look on her face seemed to be a confirmation. "Well…that's good, right?"

She looked up at him. "Good?" she asked, a little incredulously.

"Yeah. I mean, if he's grounded that means he still wants to be here. So it's not like you two are fighting or anything."

She shrugged again, not looking any less glum. "Stupid," she muttered.

He chuckled a little. "Sometimes being grounded is good for you." He took a sip of beer. "Builds character, or something. What'd he get busted for?"

"Stupid," she said again, but didn't seem inclined to tell him.

Hopper just looked at her expectantly until she relented.

"Smoking."

He choked on the sip of beer he'd just taken. "What?"

She glared at him, knowing perfectly well he'd heard her the first time.

He was having a difficult time not laughing. He himself had taken up smoking even younger, but he wouldn't have expected the scrawny, nerdy Wheeler kid to be sneaking cigarettes. It was difficult to imagine sweet, fumbling little Mike hanging around a back street somewhere with a pack of smokes. But then again, if he replaced the version of Mike he usually saw around the cabin with the rage-filled kid who'd screamed and pummeled him the night El closed the gate, it wasn't so hard to imagine. He tried to cover his amusement with a genuine question. "Where the hell did he get cigarettes? I don't see his parents smoking."

El hesitated, clearly torn about whether to tell him. But apparently her friends-don't-lie code of ethics outweighed her reluctance to snitch on any more of her friends. "Max stole some from Billy."

It was much easier to picture Max smoking. And he certainly didn't feel any indignation on Billy's behalf. He just shook his head in bemusement, still trying not to smile.

El seemed to pick up on his amusement, though, and if anything it just seemed to make her angrier. "Why aren't you mad?"

"Mad? Hell, kid, everyone does crap like that when they're fourteen. But," he added, trying to make his voice sound a little more menacing, "if I ever catch you with a cigarette, it won't be pretty."

She rolled her eyes and Hopper wondered whether he should feel worse about the fact that he apparently didn't inspire even the slightest fear in her anymore. She still seemed upset, though, more than he would have expected from her. It wasn't as if she had any particular moral stance against smoking; at least, if she did, she'd managed to hide it pretty well. She'd never commented on Hopper's habit.

"Is something else bothering you?" he asked her.

There was a long pause in which he could see El trying to put together the words she needed. Eventually she said, "He did it even though it means he can't come see me." She was swinging her feet, scuffing the toes of her shoes rather aggressively against the floor. "I am…less important to him. Than smoking."

"Ah, kid," sighed Hopper. "Look, he probably wasn't expecting to get busted. He didn't know it would mean he can't visit you."

"But why…" She trailed off, looking lost and hurt.

"Why would he risk it?"

She nodded.

"I dunno, kid. Boys his age, they…I'm not sayin' what he did was good, okay? He shouldn't've done it and his parents were right to ground him. But a lot of kids'll start doing stuff like that. He probably just wanted to feel like, you know, like a bit of a bad boy."

She looked alarmed at that. "Like the bad men?"

"No, no, no," Hopper said quickly, regretting his choice of words. "No—sometimes bad just means a kid who likes breaking the rules a little. A kid who likes a little rebellion."

"Rebellion," she echoed.

"Yeah, rebellion. You know, smoking and drinking when you're not old enough, sneaking out of the house, that kinda thing. Stuff that's supposed to make you look…cool, I guess. And older than you really are." He decided not to add that, in his experience, being a bad boy had also meant getting with as many girls as possible. It would be silly to introduce that worry to her, especially when he was pretty sure that Mike hardly noticed that girls other than El even existed.

El looked thoughtful. Then she said, "Like Roy."

"Roy?" echoed Hopper blankly. "Who's Roy?"

She gave him that look that she did when she thought he was being especially dense. "Rapid Roy."

Then Hopper started laughing. He couldn't help it. He laughed so hard his stomach hurt, and all the while El just looked at him like he was insane, which made him laugh even harder. Finally he got himself enough under control to speak. "Yeah, kid," he gasped out, wiping his streaming eyes on his sleeve. "Just like Rapid Roy."

"Funny?" she asked, looking confused.

"No. No, I'm sorry, I don't know why I laughed so much. Just—we need to get you some newer music, I think. Can't have an old Jim Croce song being your only reference for a bad boy."

She shrugged, unconcerned. "I like that song."

"Me too," he said, grinning at her. Then he lowered his voice and said more seriously, "Look, kid, I'm sorry Mike isn't coming today. But don't let this worry you too much, okay? The kid's clearly head over heels for you. I don't see that changing anytime soon."

She blushed, but he'd managed to coax a small smile from her. "Okay." Then she frowned again and said, "I don't want Mike to be a bad boy. I like normal Mike."

Hopper couldn't help chuckling again. "El, you ran off to Chicago on your own to get a whole punk makeover. You're already more of a bad boy than Mike Wheeler will ever be. So, just, cut him some slack, okay?"

She rolled her eyes, but her smile was a little bigger that time. Hopper reached over to ruffle her hair affectionately.

"Come on," he said, "finish up your lunch. And then I know what song we're gonna dance to until the rest of your friends get here."

El took a bite of her sandwich and then, with her mouth full, started to hum the chorus.