December 31, 1984
He waits until Harrington and the curly-headed twerp disappear inside the arcade. Then he takes one last drag on his cigarette, crushes it out beneath his boot heel, and starts walking across the busy parking lot. His pulse quickens and the anxiety begins to rise in his throat. He puts his hand in the pocket of his leather jacket, fingering the edges of the carefully-folded piece of paper. He focuses on the gleaming mahogany BMW in front of him.
Shit, this is the longest walk he’s ever taken.
Within arm’s reach now, he produces the note and crams it into the gap between the driver-side doors. It slips down before falling out.
It isn’t thick enough.
He clenches his teeth and folds it in half, then tries jamming it in again. No good. It needs another fold, but if he makes it any smaller Harrington won’t see it, and this stupid fucking idea will have been nothing but a waste of—
“The hell are you doing to my car, Hargrove?”
Billy Hargrove freezes. He palms the note and closes his fingers around it. Then he puts on his smarmiest, most sultry smile and slowly turns around.
There’s Steve. Hands on his hips, one leg stuck out, feet definitely not planted. Glaring at Billy with those big brown eyes, looking perfectly coiffed and polished and only marginally nervous. There’s still a discolored mark on his forehead from last month, but that’s the only evidence remaining of their fight. It’ll be gone in another week.
“I said,” Steve utters, taking a step forward and giving Billy’s shoulder a shove, “what the hell are you doing?”
Billy thumps lightly against the BMW. He swipes his tongue across his bottom lip and tries to keep his eyes on Steve’s. It’s harder than he thinks.
“Nothing.” He raises his hands peaceably and takes a step to the side. “Just wanted to wish you a Happy New Year.”
“Yeah?” Steve tilts his head. He hasn’t blinked once. “Then what’s that in your hand? A love note?”
Billy’s heart is suddenly knocking inside his chest like a Judas Priest song. He opens his mouth to snarl a reply when the Palace’s front door bursts open and Maxine rushes out. She’s grinning in absolute delight, her shiny red hair bouncing against her back as she runs. Steve turns to see what has stolen Billy’s attention.
Lucas Sinclair leaps out of his mother’s car, shuts the door, and jogs toward the arcade. Maxine skids to a stop and takes his arm, ushering him into the fray—New Year's Pizza Party, screams the big banner strung across the windows, 6 PM til 10 PM! Prizes & Gift Certificates! She’s laughing and rolling her eyes about some game or another that Dustin has just started and come on, he’s already beaten your score, you need to defend your title!
Something in Billy wilts when he sees her face—how happy she is, how easy she has it. Totally carefree and clueless, having the time of her life with the rest of her nerdy little friends. She got to start over. It must be nice.
Steve slowly turns back around. “Listen, jerkwad,” he says coolly, “I know you won our last fight and everything, but I swear to God, if you threaten any of those kids again I’m gonna be on you like a fucking scab. Understand?” He stabs his finger into the middle of Billy’s muscular chest, rocking him slightly.
“Ha,” Billy smirks. “What, are you their dad now or something?”
Steve doesn’t answer. He just looks at Billy as if he were a disgusting insect, some slithering, repugnant vermin whose guts he wouldn’t mind squashing out all over the bottoms of his expensive loafers.
Billy’s smirk fades and he swallows, blinking soberly. Maybe that’s all he deserves. It sounds about right.
He leans forward and claps his hand—the one holding the note—onto Steve’s chest. “See you next year, Harrington,” he mutters, then shoulders past him and walks away.
Steve feels something fall from the front of his coat and looks down to see the note lying on the asphalt. He glances over his shoulder at Billy’s departing back, then bends down and picks it up. The paper is hot and soft, like it’s been held in a sweaty palm for hours. He begins to unfold it.
Handwriting—nice handwriting, like an English teacher’s, cursive and mature and almost feminine—is the first thing Steve notices. Then he sees the words. Then his stunned, stupid brain finally wrings meaning out of them.
Steve doesn’t realize he’s breathing out of his mouth until the fog drifts in front of his eyes, obscuring the words. He raises his head and scans the parking lot, hoping to see Billy’s silhouette.
There’s a familiar roar of a 170-horsepower engine and the squeal of tires, and then there goes Billy Hargrove’s midnight blue Camaro, blasting out of the parking lot and onto West Midland, the thump of a heavy metal bass line audible even through the closed windows.
Steve watches it melt into the night, streetlights racing over its shining hood. He looks down at the note he still holds.
An angry heat flares up in Steve’s guts. He thinks of Lucas, Max, himself. The taunting, the jeering. The snide comments on the basketball court. The locker room antics. Calling him Pretty Boy, the Harrington Bitch. The fists that beat him to an unconscious, bloody pulp a month earlier. Sorry isn’t good enough. It doesn’t even come fucking close. And that asshole thinks he can just…
I’m sorry. For everything.
Steve crumples the note in his fist and sighs forcefully.
He wants to throw it away. He wants to slam it into the nearest trashcan and wash his hands—literally, with soap and water and goddamn kerosene—and get back inside and watch those dumbass, goofy kids play their dumbass, goofy games like he promised he would.
Steve leans against his BMW and opens his hand. He peels open the wadded-up note and stares at it. He reads it again—and again and again.
I’m sorry. For everything. 555-9012 Call me.
For a long time he stands out in the cold parking lot, rereading a 6-word note and wondering what the hell it means. Wondering if Billy knows about the monsters, the cover-ups, those weird tunnels. Maybe he’s finally found out the type of guy Steve really is. Maybe he wants to kill him. Maybe he wants to fuck him, hell, Steve doesn’t know, he was never good at reading people. Maybe this is all in Steve’s head. Maybe Billy just wants to apologize for being an unbearable fucking prick. If that were the case, it was going to take a lot more than a phone call to clear the air.
He sighs and rakes a hand through his hair, rubs one side of his face. Stares at the note.
Guess there’s only one way to find out how sorry Billy Hargrove is.
Steve straightens up and carefully refolds the piece of paper. He sticks it in his front jeans pocket, tucking it beneath his keys, jamming it into the deepest, darkest corner he possibly can. Burying it like a dead cat.
He lifts his face to the arcade’s flashing neon façade.
See you next year, Harrington.
Next year. 1985. It’s unimaginable that those numbers could even exist as a date in time. They aren’t even real yet. They’re still part of the future. Fiction and fantasy, as hard to believe as a huge interdimensional monster attacking Hawkins—or an apology note from Billy Hargrove. With his phone number on it.
Steve smiles and lets out a soft little hmph. It turns into mist as it leaves his nostrils.
Maybe he could believe this, too.