Chapter 1: Call Me
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.
Chapter 2: Too Late For Love
The note lies buried in the bottom of Steve’s sock drawer for a week. Finally, the Sunday before school starts up again, he makes the call.
He doesn’t need the note—he’s already memorized the number—but he gets it out anyway, steals the phone with the extra-long wall cable from the living room, and locks his bedroom door. He sits down on the floor beside his bed, on the far side, facing the window. He holds the phone in his lap and the note in his left hand, takes a breath, and punches in the numbers with his thumb.
He puts the phone to his ear and waits.
It rings five times before it’s finally picked up. “Hello?”
Steve sighs in relief. “Hey, Max. How’s it going?” he says a little too cheerfully.
“Um… good? I guess? Why are you calling here?”
“I’m, uh.” Damn. There’s no good way to say it. “I was just wondering if Billy’s around. I need to talk to him.”
There’s a clatter on the other side as Maxine either drops the phone or cups her hand around the mouthpiece.
“What’d he do this time?” she whispers fiercely. “Did he beat you up again? Has he been picking on you?”
“What? No. Jesus, you sound like my mom. No, I just need to talk to him for a minute. Is he there?”
A pause. Then, an almost inaudible whisper: “Did he ask you out?”
The phone almost slips out of Steve’s sweaty hand. “What?”
“Never mind. Uh. One sec.” A clunk as the receiver is set down on something hard, likely a table, then Maxine’s distant voice: “Billy! Phone!” Pause. “Billy!”
Silence. Vague noises. A blast of rock music as a door opens somewhere.
Steve’s right foot begins bouncing nervously. Maybe this wasn’t such a good idea after all. Before the urge to throw the phone out the window becomes too irresistible, there’s a click and suddenly he hears Billy’s voice.
“Okay, hang up. Yo. I mean it, punk, this is a private conversation. Out.”
Steve thinks he hears Maxine rolling her eyes in the background, then there’s one final click, and now he’s alone on the phone with Billy Hargrove.
“Yeah, who’s this?”
Steve’s fingers clutch the phone cord so hard his knuckles turn white. “Hi, yeah, it’s uh. It’s Steve.”
Just like that, something changes in Billy’s voice. Steve can’t put his finger on it—it might be fear or timidness, he can’t tell—but it’s a tone he’s never heard from Billy’s mouth before.
“Hey.” Steve wrings the curly wire like he’s trying to strangle it. “Uh, I got your note.”
Steve grimaces in actual, physical pain. He puts his hand to his forehead as if it’s killing him. “It said to call you, so I did. I mean I am.”
“Yeah, I know.”
There’s only a five-second pause, but it feels like five years to Steve. Just as he opens his mouth to speak, Billy finally jumps in.
“Listen. I wanna apologize for what I… for a lotta things. I’ve been a real asshole.”
“That’s one hell of an understatement.”
“I know. I’m sorry.” Pause. “I don’t know what else to say. I’m just fucking sorry.”
Steve doesn’t know, either. He sits on the floor with his mouth open and his mind a complete blank.
“How can I make this right?” Billy finally asks in that strange new tone of his. “I mean, can I even do that now, or… am I just too late?”
“What, to make things right?”
“Do you hate me?”
“Yeah, kind of,” says Steve honestly. “You beat the shit outta me. You’ve been grinding on me since you came to Hawkins, terrorizing the kids, driving around like a—”
“I know, look, I know. I messed up big time and I’m sorry. If I could go back and undo it…” A long, wordless stretch follows Billy’s sigh.
“Why are you doing this? What happened that made you change your mind?”
“Your sister told me what happened that night we got into it. About the needle and everything. Was it that?”
“No.” Another sigh. “I mean, a little, yeah, but this… I’m just fucking sick of so many things right now, dude. I’m tired of being pissed off all the time and feeling so powerless about it. I dunno, I just… I want something different.”
Steve had to smile a little at the surfer slang. He wonders if Billy has ever surfed before. It would suit a guy like him.
“What’s got you so pissed off all the time?” he asks.
“I don’t know. This whole situation, I guess.” Steve hears the metallic flick of a lighter, then a deep inhale. “My family. Getting dragged outta school my senior year, moving to this shithole. Leaving all my friends behind. There’s a lotta fuel in this bonfire, man.”
“And now you wanna put it out?”
“Not sure if I can. But I’d like to try.”
Steve swallows, closes his fist around the note. “What are you doing after school tomorrow?”
“You have a job?”
“My Camaro doesn’t run on air, Harrington. So yeah, I work.”
Steve cringes at his own stupidity. “Okay, where?”
“The tire place on Highway 37.”
“When do you get off?”
“All the fucking time, but if you wanna reach me after work, that would be six.”
Steve hears the grin in Billy’s voice and rolls his eyes. Maybe this was where Maxine gets it from. “Right. So if I were to come by at, like, five after, would you wanna go…”
“Go get something to eat, or… I dunno, hang out and talk some more?”
“Gee golly, Harrington, that sounds fucking swell. Count me in.”
“You’re really a sarcastic dickhole, you know that?”
“No, I’m serious. It sounds good. But I’m not getting in that goddamn yuppie-wagon of yours. We’re taking my car.”
Steve props his elbows on his knees and pinches the bridge of his nose. “That means I have to trust you’re not gonna drive me out into the middle of the woods somewhere and murder me with a damn machete.”
“Ah, well, see, normally that’d be my idea of a perfect date, but I keep hearing these weird rumors about you having some kinda wicked-looking nail bat and being pretty good with it, so… yeah. No worries. I’ll keep my hands to myself, promise.”
Steve finds himself fighting an emerging grin. “Alright. So. Six-oh-five?”
“How about six thirty. For your sake, man. I'm not trying to welch out or anything, it’s just I’m a mechanic, so unless you’ve got a fetish for transmission fluid, I’m gonna need a shower first.”
An image of Billy in the locker room suddenly plows its way into Steve’s mind. There he is, strutting around in the buff for no good reason, making a show of flexing his muscles, wagging his jewels at anyone who happens to glance in his direction, cackling and leering the whole time. Steve blushed then, and he’s blushing now. God damn it.
“Sure, no problem,” he says. “Uh… do you wanna meet at your house or—”
“My house? No way. What about yours?”
Steve freezes. He can see it now: the Camaro screeching to a halt in front of his house, his mother drawing back the curtains and staring in horror at the thing sleazing up the front walk and ringing the doorbell. His father opening the door, and there’s Billy, leaning against the trim, car still running and the sounds of some devil-worshipping metal band screaming out of the open windows. He’s wearing sunglasses, of course, tight jeans, that ratty leather jacket. Shaggy blond curls spilling over his collar, earring twinkling dangerously, a cigarette dangling between his lips. Yo, pops. I’m here for your baby boy.
Oh Jesus God, hell no.
“How about the Union 76 in town?”
“Oh. Yours too, huh?”
“Never mind. Yeah, Union 76 at six-thirty. No prob.”
An awkward pause.
“So,” says Steve, “do you. Wanna keep talking or save it for tomorrow?”
“Let’s do it tomorrow. Talk it—shit—save it for tomorrow, yeah, I’m a lot better in person. Better talking. I mean I prefer to talk in person rather than… shit fuck goddammit.”
Steve tilts the phone away from his mouth so Billy doesn’t hear him snort. Yeah, he’s definitely never heard this tone before. “Hey, listen, it sounds like you’re having some problems over there, so I’ll see you tomorrow, okay?”
“Okay. Hey, um. Thanks for calling, Steve. I’m… I’m glad you did.”
Steve’s smile fades into a more serious look, but one that is much lighter than it was a few minutes ago. “Yeah, sure,” he says. “Me too.”
And that was it.
Steve places the receiver into its cradle—gently, as if it matters—and leans back against the bed. It sinks in slowly, what he’s just done, and it makes him feel really, really confused.
He’s going to meet Billy Hargrove tomorrow evening at the 76 station. They’re going to go out and grab a bite somewhere together, probably fast food in Billy’s fast car, then find someplace where they can talk plainly to one another, and discuss their many, many problems.
It’s a damned date. Steve is going on a date with Billy Hargrove. With the sadistic asshole who almost killed him two months ago, and who is going to spend the next God-knows-how-long apologizing to Steve and everyone else in the county until peace and order is finally restored.
It sounds insane. But stranger things have happened in Hawkins. By comparison, this is small. Miniscule, even. Hardly noteworthy. But still…
Steve sucks in a breath through his teeth and presses his lips into a thin line.
He’ll bring the bat. Just in case.
Chapter 3: You Might Think
January 7, 1985
Billy exhales a lungful of smoke through his grin. “Well, well. So the legends are true.”
Steve lifts the nail-studded baseball bat from his shoulder and gives it a whirl. “Yeah, well, you can never be too careful,” he says flatly. “And I am pretty good with it.”
“Jesus. Is the crime here that bad?”
“Nah. I use it to tenderize meat.” Steve forces himself to smile.
Billy gives him a sultry look. “Can I hold it?”
Steve offers him the bat, handle first. Billy clamps his cigarette between his lips and takes it in both hands, gives it an experimental swing, adjusts his grip.
“Kinda small, isn’t it?”
“It’s a kid’s bat. Belonged to Jonathan Byers’s little brother.”
“S’at right? How did you end up with it?”
“It’s a long story,” says Steve. “I’m sure you’ll hear about it one day.”
Billy nods and gives the bat back, takes the cigarette from his mouth and flicks the ash away. “‘One day’? You got some big damn secret you’re keeping, Harrington?”
Both of Billy’s eyebrows lift interestedly. He sucks his cigarette and gazes at Steve with shining, smoldering eyes. Steve swallows and winces against the cold breeze blowing in the small Union 76 parking lot. It plays with his hair and brings with it the smells of gasoline, car exhaust, and the spicy, smoky hint of a distant wood fire.
And Billy’s cigarette, of course. Steve also catches a whiff of his cologne, a harsh, cheap, overtly masculine fragrance. He instantly detests it.
“Well then”—Billy tosses his cigarette away and opens the passenger door of his Camaro—“shall we?”
Common sense screams at Steve not to do it, but he’s already reached the point of no return; he can’t turn back now without looking like a major pussy.
So he leans in and tucks his bat into the footwell, then slides into the seat. It’s really deep and low, makes him feel like he’s sitting just inches above the asphalt. The leather upholstery is cold on his butt and the backs of his thighs.
Billy shuts his door and walks around the front while Steve automatically reaches for the seat belt. He’s buckling himself in when Billy drops into the driver’s seat, sees what he’s doing, and stares.
“What’s the matter, Harrington, you don’t trust my driving?”
“I’ve seen the way you drive, so no, I don’t.”
Billy smiles. “Honesty. That’s one of the things I like about you, Steven. I really appreciate that shit.”
Steve curls his lip in disdain. “Yeah, it sounds like it.”
There’s a jingle as Billy turns the key in the ignition, then Steve recoils as he’s blasted head-on with 110 decibels of Metallica’s Ride the Lightning. He claps his hands over his ears as Billy casually reaches over and turns the volume down to a less ear-rending level.
Steve lowers his hands. “Jesus Christ, Hargrove, how is it you’re not deaf already?”
“I said—” He stops himself. Billy is smirking at him. “Oh, so you’re a wiseass, huh?”
“One of my many talents,” says Billy, and thrusts the shifter into neutral. He taps the gas pedal a couple times, making the engine roar. Steve can feel the vibrations in his seat.
“So.” Billy licks his lips and turns to face him. “What’s your poison?”
They end up in the drive-thru at McDonald’s. Steve tries his best to keep his order separate, but Billy just ignores him, pays for both of their meals, and passes the bag to Steve when it arrives. Steve holds onto it like a life preserver as they peel out of the parking lot and speed through town. The hot food warms his lap and fills the car with greasy, delicious aromas.
“Any place in particular you wanna go?” Billy asks, dropping a gear.
“Yeah, um.” Steve lurches from the shift, his seatbelt cutting a diagonal line into his chest. “I was thinking the park over in west Hawkins. You know where that is?”
“No. How far?”
“Eight minutes, tops. I can tell you how to get there. Just turn left when you come to the next light.”
Billy tongues his lips. “S’it busy, this park?”
“Not this time of year.” An uncomfortable knot forms in Steve’s stomach, and suddenly he feels very far away from his car, his home, his parents—bat or no bat. “Why? You worried about witnesses?”
Billy snorts and reaches over to bury his hand in the McDonald’s bag that Steve is still clutching. He fishes out a French fry and sticks it between his lips. “Jesus, Harrington, calm down. I’m not a serial killer.”
“I don’t know that. I don’t know anything about you.”
“Then I guess you’re just gonna have to trust me, huh?”
Their heads turn toward one another simultaneously. The same serious expression is mirrored on both their faces. Billy blinks and turns his eyes back to the road, then reaches out to steal another fry. His hand misses the bag and lands directly on Steve’s crotch. They both jump as if jolted by an electric current.
No one talks for a while. The silence between them is filled by the instrumental bridge of Iron Maiden’s Hallowed Be Thy Name. It’s a long one, thankfully.
Billy makes the left turn onto May Street, fists clamped fast to the wheel, resisting the call of another golden French fry. Steve holds his bottom lip between his teeth and stares out the window at the passing scenery. It’s mostly pitch darkness interrupted by street lights, not a lot to see.
“Take a right at this intersection,” he says.
Billy actually puts on his blinker before turning the wheel.
Roughly five minutes later they roll into an empty parking space at the edge of a well-lighted recreation area. There are some walking trails, a garden, a playground. It’s not totally remote; houses are visible one block over, and on the adjacent sidewalk an older man is taking his overfed Dachshund for an evening stroll. Both pet and owner share a similar waddling gait.
“This okay?” Steve asks.
“Yeah, it’s fine.”
Billy cuts the ignition, pockets the keys, and grabs their drinks from the cup holders. Steve picks up his nail bat in one hand and grasps the McDonald’s bag in the other, and hauls himself out of the low-slung seat. He feels a little better once he shuts his door. Less vulnerable, more in control.
They pick a spot on the deserted playground to sit and eat. After a brief game of yours-or-mine, they tuck into their burgers and fries and deliberately ignore the agonizing awkwardness building between them. Billy seems more experienced when it comes to bearing the unbearable, evidenced by the way he sprawls so indifferently on the merry-go-round, but Steve is not. It’s like being stuck on the sidelines and watching your team get creamed while the coach is busy flirting with the cheerleaders. He can’t stand it. So he takes a sip of his Coke and just comes out with it:
“So what made you decide to treat everyone in Hawkins like garbage?”
Billy balks, then chuckles and licks a spot of ketchup from his thumb. “Wow. Straight for the jugular. You don’t pussyfoot around, do you, Harrington?”
“The suspense was killing me.”
“Hm.” Billy nods and sets down his cheeseburger. “See, that’s because you actually care about the situation. You got a stake in it. That’s a good way to get yourself hurt. It’s easier to deal with things if you don’t give a shit how it all turns out.”
Steve goes still, suddenly feeling like he’s been asked to analyze a piece of classic literature. He’s pretty sure Billy just answered his question—indirectly and ambiguously—but he’s not completely sure. It seems to make sense, though. It feels like that’s how Billy meant it.
“So that’s it?” Steve blinks. “You’re just not gonna give a shit about anything for the rest of your life?”
Billy tilts his head to the side and grimaces. His earring glitters in the orange glow of the sodium lamps. “Nah, see. Realistically, I think it’s impossible. But it’s worth a shot. Picking and choosing what to care about, it’s pain and suffering on my terms, y’know? I can’t control all it of, but I should at least be able to have some say over how and when I get my heart broken. Figure this bloodsucking bitch of a world owes me that much.”
Steve finds himself becoming irritated. “And if that means treating people like shit and being a huge prick, you’re totally cool with that.”
Billy lifts his hands and grins. “Hey. When you don’t care what anyone thinks of you, you’re a free man. I don’t expect a spoiled little prep like you to understand ‘cause all you’ve ever done is care what others think.”
Steve’s irritation mutates into full-on anger. He glares at Billy and purely, absolutely hates his guts. He sets his cup down forcefully on the merry-go-round’s deck, making the ice rattle.
“It’s better than being a lonely, miserable piece of shit,” he snaps, and Billy’s grin instantly drops off his face. “Better than going through life a jaded, pessimistic jackass and letting your heart rot out because you’re too goddamn delicate to handle the heat.”
Billy points his finger at Steve warningly. “You don’t know what I’ve been through, Harrington,” he utters. “You don’t know shit.”
“So tell me!” Steve cries. “God, I’m not sitting out here freezing my ass off just because I had a craving for cheeseburgers! I wanted to—”
He realizes how loud he is and stops, reins in his emotions, and gives Billy a cold, calculating look. “I wanted to see if you’re actually sorry, but it sounds like you’re not. You can’t not care about anything and still regret the things you do. It doesn’t work like that.”
Wow, Steve is a little proud of himself right now. He wishes his English teacher could hear some of the words he’s using, she’d be shocked.
“So which is it?” he says. “Are you sorry, or do you still not care?”
Billy’s eyes are gleaming. They look almost wet, but it’s hard to tell in this light. “Both.”
“You can’t be both.”
“I’m in a really weird place right now, Steven. I feel both.”
“Well, which is strongest?”
There’s no hesitation whatsoever: “The sorry. Sorrow—the sorriness. It’s stronger.”
“Good,” Steve mutters. “It should be. You’re a sorry person.”
Billy lifts his chin and looks down his nose at Steve, an insolent curve on his mouth. “You and my old man would get along real good.”
Something about the way Billy says that hits Steve in the heart—the unsteady voice, the sadness in his tone, as if he’s been mortally wounded and this whole rude, bad-boy persona is just a means of covering up how heavily he’s bleeding. It’s a pathetic image, but God, Steve just can’t seem to let go of his anger. He’s not sure if he wants to let it go. It’s a hell of a lot easier to hate Billy Hargrove than it is to like him.
Steve’s thought processes screech to a halt. He’s heard something like that before, hasn’t he?
It’s easier to deal with things if you don’t give a shit how it all turns out.
And just like that, Steve finally, truly grasps the definition of irony. Ms Pierce has been beating him over the head with Pride and Prejudice ever since September, and it’s just now sinking in. The words fall out of his mouth before he can stop them:
“God, I’m such an idiot.”
Billy quirks an eyebrow.
Steve takes a deep breath and drags a hand through his hair. He doesn’t think he can explain it. He’s only now managed to wrap his head around the concept, but in a broad, vague way he thinks he finally understands Billy Hargrove. Or at least he’s beginning to.
“Listen, we’re both guilty of trying to take the easy way out,” he says slowly. “But I don’t think there even is an easy way. I think we’re just kidding ourselves. All the good things in life—you know, forgiveness and caring and trust, that stuff—it’s hard to come by. It’s not something you automatically get when you’re born. If you want it, you’ve gotta work for it. It’s hard, but… if you want it bad enough, you can find a way.” Steve forgets where he was going with this and finishes with a shrug. “I dunno. Am I making any sense?”
Billy is staring at Steve as if he’s seeing him for the first time. The corner of his mouth twitches like it wants to smile. “I think you’re starting to.”
Steve sighs. Maybe it’s a good thing Ms Pierce isn’t here.
“You wanna split this apple pie with me?”
Steve raises his head and gazes keenly at Billy. Of course he wants to split that apple pie. Here it is, January in Indiana, with his ice-loaded soft drink slowly coaxing his body into a hypothermic state, his fingers already half-frozen sticks of meat at the ends of his hands. A deep-fried pastry pocket of fruit and molten sugar sounds heavenly.
“What, you don’t want it?”
“It’s a peace offering.” Billy slips the pie out of its box and carefully breaks it in half. He holds the bigger piece out to Steve. “Here.”
Steve looks at the pie, then Billy’s face. “Food won’t instantly fix things between us.”
“Jesus Christ, Harrington, I’m not expecting it to. It’s an apple pie, not a goddamn ring. Hurry up and take it, the filling’s hot as fuck.”
Steve hesitates another second before finally reaching out to accept the offering. It’s not an olive branch, but what the hell. It is 1985, after all. The pie’s steamy heat brings the feeling back to Steve’s partially-numb fingertips, prickling and tingling.
The smile they share at that moment is tiny and fleeting, but it’s 100-percent real. Suddenly Steve doesn’t feel quite so cold anymore. At least his face doesn’t.
“So,” he drawls, biting into the pie’s flaky, buttery crust, “you ever been surfing before?”
Chapter 4: Time After Time
January 17, 1985
Steve knew it was only a matter of time before it was going to happen. He had already begun to mentally prepare himself for it, but the day came a lot sooner than he expected. Most life-changing events do.
“Hey Hairy-gton,” sings a familiar voice, and Tommy Huff shoves his freckled hand into Steve’s hair hard enough that his head bumps into his locker. “How’s it growing?”
Steve turns and glares at Tommy with the mien of a tired adult being forced to deal with a stupid, belligerent child. Carol isn’t far from his side, snapping her gum and watching the action with a wicked gleam in her eyes.
“Hey, Stevie,” she chirps, opening her locker. “Any luck finding new friends yet?”
“Yeah, ones who aren’t in eighth grade?”
Steve smiles anemically and turns back to his locker without saying a word.
“Oh no, babe,” says Tommy, “looks like he’s giving us the cold shoulder.”
“Ooh, frosty!” Carol shivers dramatically as she swaps out her textbooks. “I bet he’d thaw out if he got laid once in a while. Poor baby, I haven’t seen him with a girl since junior year.”
Steve shakes his head and unzips his backpack.
“I don’t think Steve’s into girls anymore, Care,” Tommy tsks, and something ice-cold punctures Steve’s heart. “I guess that’s why he started hanging out with all those nerdy little kids. What’d you do, Harrington? Swap Nancy for her little brother?”
“Ew, ga-ross,” Carol mutters.
Fury boils in Steve’s guts, but he doesn’t think he’ll win a fight against Tommy. He hit another growth spurt back in October and now he matches Steve inch for inch in height, and he’s probably ten pounds heavier. Plus, Carol is one of those screeching hellcats who would probably leap in and try to claw Steve’s eyes out if he and Tommy got into it. There is nothing Steve can do but ignore these assholes like he’s been trying to do since the start of their senior year.
He slams his locker closed and turns to leave, but Tommy isn’t done digging yet.
“Hey, Steve, tell me, does the Henderson kid call you Daddy when you two are getting it on?”
Carol squeals and laughs her high-pitched hyena laugh while Tommy continues to elaborate on his original idea:
“Oh, Daddy! You’re tho throng! Tho hairy! Ooh!”
Steve shuts his eyes and clenches every muscle in his body. If he had Eleven’s powers, Tommy would be nothing but a slimy red smear on the hallway floor.
“Oh, Theve! Theve—”
An open palm lands on the locker inches from Tommy’s head, silencing his raunchy commentary. His smirk vanishes at the sight of Billy Hargrove’s dissatisfied face.
Billy tongues the toothpick hanging between his lips. “What’s up, Duff?”
Steve whips around at the sound of Billy’s voice and stares, frozen to the floor.
Tommy grins condescendingly. “Just saying hi to the resident ice queen.” He tilts his head in Steve’s direction. “Seems he has a fetish for little boys.”
“Oh, really?” Billy looks up at Steve. “S’at true, Harrington? You a kiddie fiddler?”
Steve’s stomach drops to the bottom of his sneakers. He should have known better than to expect Billy to stick up for him, especially in front of his lackeys. Guys like him need to maintain their reputations. They’re nothing without them.
“You know I’m not,” he mutters.
“Yeah, I know. But I thought I’d ask first. Get all the facts straight.” He flashes a smile at Steve, then hauls back and punches Tommy Huff right in the face.
Tommy goes down like a sack of dead meat. He hits the floor barely conscious, blood pouring from his busted nose.
Carol screams and drops her books. Students in the hall either run to see what’s happening or press themselves against their lockers to make way for the charging mob. Teachers bellow commands above the excitement like guards at a prison riot.
In the midst of the chaos, Steve and Billy meet eyes. Billy wags his eyebrows and smirks, then allows himself to be dragged away by the beefy Mr Bolden.
Steve stares after him, his heart glowing in his chest like a new star.
It’s honestly the nicest thing anyone has ever done for him.
He catches Billy on his way to the parking lot just as school lets out. Billy’s got the collar of his denim jacket popped to ward off the chill, his hands stuffed into his pockets, shoulders hunched. He’s smoking a fresh cigarette and squinting into the cold breeze. Steve slows to a halt when he reaches him.
“How much trouble are you in?” he asks.
“I am trouble, Steven. Haven’t you noticed?”
“I’m not kidding, what did you get?”
“Three days’ suspension, including extracurricular.”
Steve closes his eyes. “Shit.”
“S’okay. No biggie.”
“No, it’s not okay. Did you at least try to explain it to them?”
Billy reaches his Camaro and pins Steve to the spot with his razor-sharp eyes. “Explain what, exactly?”
Something colder than the air freezes Steve’s tongue. “That I. You were. That Tommy started it. That he—”
“No, Harrington, I hit first. I started it.”
“But you were defending me.”
Steve suddenly feels like a very young, naïve child who has just said something entirely too revealing about himself. “I. I dunno. Were you?”
Billy unlocks his car and flicks away his ash. “Get in. I’m freezing my nuts off out here.”
It’s only a little less freezing inside the Camaro. Steve shuts his door as Billy cranks it up, and they sit huddled in their seats, waiting for the engine to warm. Billy rolls his window down an inch and hangs his cigarette out, blowing a line of smoke through the crack. The engine idles, filling the silence between them with a steady rumble.
“So were you?” Steve finally asks.
“Was I what?”
Billy sits still, then reaches over and opens the glove box.
For a brief second, Steve has the horrifying notion that there might be a gun in there, but he relaxes when he sees nothing but a cluttered collection of cassette tapes. Billy selects one, closes the glove box with his fist, and shoves it into the tape deck. Steve catches a glimpse of the cover. A scythe-wielding specter of death on a rearing horse. Grim Reaper, it reads on top. See You In Hell, it reads below.
The noise that comes out of the speakers isn’t quite as monstrous as Steve expects, but it’s still not easy listening. Billy turns it down to a soft snarl and takes a drag on his cigarette.
It’s always the same, you know I will follow
I’m taking the blame ‘cause it will end in sorrow
“I’ve been wanting to punch that shit-sucking little weasel ever since I saw him,” Billy says over the song. “Today you gave me the perfect opportunity. Thanks.”
Steve looks at Billy as if he’s out of his mind. “You got suspended.”
“And you made an enemy outta Tommy Huff, which means you made an enemy outta Carol Clarke.”
“Which means you made an enemy outta Allison Ledbetter, Erik Seager, and half the senior class. You just lost every friend you had at Hawkins.”
“I don’t have any friends at Hawkins.”
Steve stares. Billy tosses his cigarette out the window and rolls it up, then reaches over and turns the heater on. Hot air blows through the vents, making Steve’s skin prickle and his hair flutter.
“Do you really mean that,” he asks softly, “or are you just saying it to make me feel better because I’m technically the reason you got suspended?”
“Technically? Shit. You are the reason.” Billy turns his head to him. “But it’s okay. Not like I’m gonna be here much longer anyway.”
Steve tenses in his seat. “What do you mean? Are you moving?”
“I turn eighteen in February. I’m gettin the hell outta here.”
“What? You can’t. You.” Steve stops, realizing how childish he sounds. And needy. He quickly changes his tactic. “It doesn’t make any sense to drop outta school three months from graduation. Just stick it out. Get your diploma, then leave. It’ll look better on your résumé.”
“My résumé? Jesus, Harrington, what are you, my guidance counselor?”
Steve folds his arms over his waist and wishes he hadn’t said anything. Or gotten in the car. Or even tried to approach Billy after school. This was a mistake.
“My grades are shit anyway,” says Billy. “I’m probably gonna fail a couple classes, which means I won’t graduate, so I might as well just quit and find a full-time job. That’s the whole point of school, isn’t it? So you can get a job? I can do that shit on my own.”
Steve keeps his mouth shut. He’s angry and sad and he has no idea why.
Billy puts his hands on the wheel and glares at the dashboard, his teeth clenched and his lips pinched together tightly.
This moment in love, it ain’t a game I want to play
I like to be free, so I can face another way
“I’m not gonna stay in this shitty town just because you can’t stand up for yourself. You want someone to fight for you, drop the act and just get a fuckin boyfriend already.”
Steve’s heart stops. His breath stops. Everything in his body seems to stop, except for the pressure building in his skull.
So Billy knows. Billy has the power to destroy him now, his whole life and everything in it. All he has to do is get the rumor started, and pretty soon…
…they’ll be the same. Friendless, bitter outcasts dying to get away from Hawkins, throwing themselves at the first opportunity that comes their way, regardless of how much strife and humiliation it will bring.
“I hate you,” Steve mutters.
“Yeah, I know.”
Heavy metal fills the silence that would have otherwise followed. The song ends. Another begins. Nobody moves.
“If I stay,” Billy says finally, softly, “you’re just gonna fly off to college in a few months anyway. There’s no point in me sticking around. It’s bullshit.”
Steve turns and stares at the side of Billy’s face, unable to believe what he’s hearing. Unable to believe it could even be possible. That Billy might…
“Who said anything about staying for me?”
“That’s the reason, isn’t it? You want me to stay. I have no fucking idea why since you hate me so goddamn much, but if it makes you—”
“It makes sense to stay and finish your senior year, dipshit! I never said anything about staying for me.”
“But that’s what you meant.”
“No, it wasn’t!”
A lull falls. Guitars grind and drums crash in a frantic, frenzied rhythm. Steve sits in his seat with his face turning various shades of red while Billy’s mouth goes through a series of angry-looking contortions.
Billy turns to him with his finger raised and his eyes blazing. “You know, Harrington, I’ve met a lot of guys like you, but you are, without a doubt, the dumbest of them all.”
Steve is motionless for two seconds. Then he sits up with a snarl and punches the eject button on the tape deck. The music cuts off, the tape spits out. He reaches over the console and grabs the collar of Billy’s jacket, jerks him forward, and plants his lips onto Billy’s.
He instantly regrets it. Billy’s mouth is dry and tastes like cigarettes, bitter and sour, but if he pulls back now then he—
Billy comes alive. He leans into the kiss and brings his hand up to the side of Steve’s head, holding him steady. His tongue plays with Steve’s, stroking lightly and expertly, neither too bold nor too shy, and if it weren’t for the awful fucking taste of it all, it would have been the best kiss Steve’s ever had. He bears it for ten more seconds, then he reaches his limit.
He lays his palm on Billy’s chest and shoves him away, breaking their kiss with a wet smack.
Billy’s eyes are dark and his flushed face is hilariously, handsomely confused. “What? What’s wrong?” he asks breathlessly. “What’d I do?”
Steve tries to remain serious, but he can’t seem to keep his mouth straight. “You taste like a goddamn ashtray.”
“Well, how the fuck was I supposed to know you were gonna kiss me? You gotta give me some warning.”
“It would have ruined the moment. More than your breath ruined it.”
“Alright. Alright. Shit. Fine. Fuck. I get it.” Billy closes his eyes and rests his elbow on the steering wheel, massages his brow. “Do me a favor and reach under your seat.”
“Under your seat. There’s a bottle of gin.”
“You keep booze in your car?”
“The bottle, Steven.”
Steve leans over and sticks his hand beneath his seat, groping. “I don’t. I’m not feeling anything. There’s only like half an inch down here and I can’t—”
Billy growls and throws himself across Steve’s lap, intent on retrieving the bottle himself. Steve barks in shock and tries to lift himself out of the way, but only succeeds in cramming his goods even harder into Billy’s face. He turns tomato-red.
“Oh shit, shit, Billy, what, get off my, what’re you do, jeez—”
“God, will you sit still!”
Steve drops his ass back into his seat.
Billy rummages around on the carpeted floorboards, his head turned so that his nose isn’t buried directly into the crotch of Steve’s khaki Dockers. Steve sits still and sweats like it isn’t 40 degrees outside.
At last Billy locates the small glass flask and sits up. Steve stares as he unscrews the cap, takes a pull, and starts swishing. He grimaces when Billy swallows instead of spits.
“That is the grossest thing I have ever seen in my life,” he says with genuine disdain. “You are the grossest thing I’ve ever seen in my life.”
Billy thrusts the bottle into Steve’s chest. “Shut up, Harrington.”
Steve upends the bottle and fills his mouth with the astringent, piney liquor. He swishes it around for a few seconds before throwing his head back and gargling loudly.
Billy smirks. “Fucking sexy. Can’t believe you’re single. I really hit the jackpot. Mm mm.”
Steve hums in amusement and gulps down the gin. It lights a path of liquid fire down his throat and brings tears to his eyes. He passes the bottle back to Billy.
“Wanna try this again?” Billy asks, capping the bottle and tossing it into the backseat.
“Yeah.” Steve coughs. “I mean, I’m already scarred for life, so I don’t think it’ll make much—”
This time Billy comes to him, swallowing the rest of his sarcastic comment. His tongue, fresh and wet and tinged with the same sharp aftertaste, slips between Steve’s lips and locks them together.
Steve closes his eyes and raises his hands, unsure of what to do with them and eventually forgetting they’re attached to his body. But Billy knows what to do with his hands; he reaches up to hold Steve’s head, possessive but gentle, and Steve finds himself anchoring both fists onto the collar of Billy’s jacket. Billy’s unruly curls tickle Steve’s cheeks, the stubble of his teenage mustache raking against Steve’s upper lip as their mouths move soft and slick on one another. Pulses quicken, hearts kick up a few beats. They pull back for half a second to take a breath before plunging in again, their bodies becoming more active.
If someone were to tell Steve Harrington that he’d be making out with the same guy who punched his face to a bloody pulp not two months earlier, he would have laughed his ass off. But stranger things have happened. What’s happening right now in this car is actually pretty easy to believe.
Billy is the one who finally breaks the kiss. He pulls away but doesn’t let go of Steve’s head, staring at him with dark, dilated blue eyes, his thumbs reflexively stroking and petting Steve’s cheekbones. He leans in one more time, stealing a thick, fleshy kiss from Steve’s mouth.
“How was that?” he murmurs. “Better?”
Steve nods shakily. “Yeah.”
They both let go at the same time and sit back, gaze at each other with furrowed brows and fascinated eyes. Like scientists discovering a new species of bizarre but beautiful insect.
Steve drags his fingers through his hair and slumps against the door. “So… what happens now?”
“I dunno.” Billy turns in his seat and grips the wheel, stares through the windshield. “You’re parked in the main lot, right?”
“Yeah.” The seniors at Hawkins High are eligible to buy permits to park in the main parking lot closest to the school. Premiere parking as opposed to the farther, more plebian option. Steve’s BMW is parked there, which happens to be on the other side of the school. It’s a long walk in the Indiana winter, especially with Steve’s lightweight, teal green golf jacket. His wool overcoat is still in the school, bundled in his locker.
Billy inhales sharply and grasps the gear stick, wrenching it out of park. He twists to look out the rear window as he backs out of the parking space. He doesn’t say a word.
Steve smiles and rolls his lips inward to hide it. He thinks about asking if Billy wants to swing by Burger King and grab a coffee, maybe talk a little bit more, but then he remembers that Billy has a job and is probably in a hurry to get to it. He plants his feet in the footwell and braces himself as they shift into drive.
The Camaro careens around the school in less than a minute—mother of God, this guy drives like a fucking maniac—and screeches to a halt in front of Steve’s BMW. The midnight blue beast rumbles and growls as Billy taps the wheel anxiously.
Steve waits to see if Billy is going to say anything—it seems like he wants to—but people in the parking lot are beginning to stare. He mutters a simple “thanks”, opens his door, and climbs out. He’s about to shut the door when Billy suddenly leans over the passenger seat.
“You doing anything tomorrow night?”
Steve freezes—almost literally. A cold wind whips through his jacket and chills him to the bone. “You mean Friday night?”
Billy gives him a dull look. “Yes. Tomorrow night. Are you doing anything?”
“You wanna…” He fidgets. His lips try to form words. It looks painful.
Steve finally has mercy on him. “Do something?” he finishes.
“Yeah. Like… hang out.”
Billy nods crisply. The stud in his ear twinkles. “Okay. Good. I’ll pick you up at seven, then.”
For a split second, Steve has that horrible vision of Billy showing up at his house in black leather and sunglasses and inverted pentagrams again, but then he remembers his dad is flying out to Chicago tomorrow morning on a business trip and his mom is going with him. “A little getaway weekend for Mommy and Daddy,” she had told Steve.
The words spill from his mouth before his brain gets a chance to finalize his plan:
“Wait! My parents aren’t gonna be home. You wanna hang out at my place? We can order pizza and… I dunno. Rent a movie?” He winces at how lame it sounds. It was so much cooler in his head.
Billy’s eyebrows leap up. “Golly, Stevie, that sounds super fun. Maybe I’ll bring my bible and teddy bear and we can have a slumber party with Jesus!”
Steve curls his lip sarcastically. “Hahhh hah. Bring your bathing suit, asshole. I’ve got a heated pool.”
“Good, I can teach you how to swim without floaties.” Despite the jab, Billy flashes a smile that’s 100-percent authentic. It looks very good on him.
Steve narrows his eyes and smiles back. “Seven o’clock.”
“Yes, ma’am.” Billy pushes the tape back into the player and heavy metal starts blaring. He has the audacity to wink at Steve, his long eyelashes fluttering coyly.
Steve shuts the passenger door and steps back.
The Camaro revs three times before blazing out of the parking lot. Steve watches it disappear onto Langford Street, bass thumping faintly even after it’s out of sight. He shivers suddenly and tells himself it’s because of the wind, but he’s not sure the wind is to blame this time.
He isn’t cold at all.