Well can't you see me standing here,
I've got my back against the record machine
I ain't the worst that you've seen.
Oh can't you see what I mean?
Jump, Van Halen
“Okay,” Billy says, taking in the picture of all of them crowded around the outside of the boarded-up, abandoned lab. Six teenagers, with grins too big for their faces and an aura of mischief a mile-wide. It’s midnight and the shadows of the night paint the building into something sinister behind them. Something old and decrepit and forgotten. And then there’s Steve goddamn Harrington, leaning up against the vine-covered building like it’s nothing, like it’s not weird that he’s there at all.
And Steve? Steve’s got a baseball bat balanced against his leg, like he’s about ready to vandalize the place.
“Billy?” Max asks, her grin immediately twisting into a frown. “Did you follow me here?”
“Damn right I did. What is this?” Billy asks, slamming the door of his Camaro shut and taking one step toward all of them. “Is this some Dungeons and Dragons shit?”
“Uh, yeah,” says the curly-haired kid. Dustin, Billy thinks. His name is Dustin. “Totally.”
“Okay,” Billy says, letting his smirk turn into a sneer. It’s not like Billy pays attention to their little games, but Billy’s been around long enough to pick up on a little. “You each got little roles, right? Warrior, Healer, Wizard, and shit like that, right?” When the kids shrug something like agreement, Billy twists his gaze to Steve. “So, what does that make you, Harrington?”
Steve is annoyingly unflustered by Billy’s tone. He shoves off the building and twists the bat around in the air when he moves with an effortless sort of grace. Then, he rests it on his shoulder. Once the bat’s stopped moving, Billy can see that the end of it is punctured-through with nails -- well, that’s a surprise. That’s some hardcore shit right there.
“Obviously I’m the guy with the bat,” Steve says.
“I thought you were a cop,” Billy says. He takes another step, advancing on Harrington. The kids stand their ground around the two of them, less flighty than they used to be. “Shouldn’t you be here arresting petty vandals, not supporting them? Or are you some kinda crooked cop?”
Steve just laughs. And laughs. And then he laughs some more. He has a bandana tied around his neck, like some kind of hooligan. Even in the darkness, Billy can see that it’s blood red. The color of it reminds Billy of the time, years ago, he beat Harrington's face in until it was bruised and bloody and raw. Steve is wearing a denim jacket, not his police uniform. Billy’s only seen Harrington in it a couple times -- generally, he tries to avoid anyone he knew from high school like the plague these days.
“Whatever, Hargrove,” Steve says. He looks around at the kids -- the teenagers -- and gestures toward the building with his bat. “Are we ready?”
Billy -- well, Billy hates being ignored --so he moves to stand in front of Steve. “Where do you think you’re going?”
“Into the lab,” Steve says with his eyebrows raised, like Billy’s slow.
It’s not that Billy doesn’t get it. It’s just that he doesn’t get it.
“Call it a tradition,” Steve says. Dustin nods along, now standing at Steve’s side. He looks like a mini-Harrington, kind of. Same pose, same posture. Same style. “You’re welcome to come with, if you want,” Steve says.
“No, he’s not,” Max pipes in.
“Funny story, Maxine. You don’t get to tell me what I can and can’t do,” Billy reminds her.
“Yeah, well I’ll --” Max starts, but then she trails off. Likely, she was going to try lording this over Billy’s head, but she doesn’t have anyone to tattle to, anymore. Not that she ever tattled much -- after a couple years under one roof, she knew better. Doesn’t mean she didn’t threaten, though. Now -- well, now, it’s just the three of them. Max, her mother, and Billy. Neil Hargrove kicked it a year ago. A massive coronary while he was driving -- drove straight into a lamp post going seventy-five. Real messy, real final. Couldn’tve happened to a better guy, Billy thinks.
Billy moved back to Hawkins from Indianapolis when it happened. Sure, he doesn’t have many ties to his stepmother and stepsister, but there’s something there that he couldn’t quite ignore. There’s a kind of solidarity there, when you live under the same roof as evil, some responsibility to each-other. Anyway, Billy was getting bored in Indianapolis, anyway. Maybe he can save up enough cash to go back to the coast, working here in Hawkins. Life is cheap in a dirt boring town like this.
Well, maybe it’s not always boring. Not when Billy stumbles upon a group of teenagers and a cop ready to vandalize a government lab. It’s no secret that the government was doing shady shit here -- there were all those toxic chemical leaks a while back. It’s also no secret that they’re pretty diligent about coming back to check on the place in their militarized vehicles. If Billy was looking for a building to vandalize -- and he’s not anymore, really -- well, the lab would be dead last on the list.
“You’re not taking these kids into that building,” Billy says, final. He’s still a little weirded out that Steve Harrington spends too much time with a group of teens, anyway. It’s strange. The kind of thing that makes the hairs on the back of his neck stand on end.
Steve laughs again and Billy bristles. “Yeah, no,” Steve says. “See, I’m not taking them in there. They’re taking me.” He grins, all pride and nonchalance and Billy hates it. He wants to punch Steve again, like before. Wants to watch him bleed. “They’d go anyway," Steve says. "So I might as well come with them and watch their backs.”
“Don’t think I’m letting you go in there alone with them,” Billy says, squaring his shoulders and tucking his keys into his pocket.
Max sighs. A couple other of the kids groan. Steve claps his hands together, unflustered. “Great!” Steve says. “The more, the merrier.”
The inside of the lab is dark and grungy. It was abandoned about five years ago, right when all the shit came out that they were experimenting with chemicals, or something fucked up like that. Honestly, Billy hadn’t paid that much attention to the whole thing. Small town news, and all. It was pretty gnarly, from what he understood -- but ultimately uninteresting. The government is always up to shady shit -- this time it just happened in everyone’s back yard, so people took notice.
The inside of the building is a bit worse-off than Billy would have figured for only five years of abandonment, but then again, maybe their experiments expedited the process, or something. The walls are covered in patches of what looks like black mold and the ceilings are dripping in places with moisture and condensation -- like a cave. About five steps into the building, Billy snagged one of the kid’s flashlights -- luckily, they all seemed to bring spares in those backpacks of theirs. Prepared for anything, or whatever. They’ve all got bandanas (for covering their faces, Billy guesses), flashlights, walkie-talkies, backpacks full of junk, and most of them are carrying a large object suitable for vandalism. Dustin’s the only one with a bat -- like Steve’s, just with no nails. Wheeler’s brother has a crowbar, so does that kid Lucas who Billy used to hate. Max has a tire-iron that looks familiar enough that Billy thinks she might have swiped it out of his car. The two other kids -- a girl and Buyers’ brother -- aren’t armed with anything that could break a window.
Billy wonders if they brought any spray-paint. He’d love to leave the government a little something to remember him by.
“Why’re you hanging out with these losers, still?” Billy asks, when Max falls into step next to him. Billy is bringing up the rear, with Harrington at the front, leading them into the bowels of the building. Billy isn’t sure why they have to go so far in -- there’s plenty of unbroken shit out here.
“They’re good people,” Max says. Her knuckles are white around the tire-iron and her eyes keep darting down each dark hallway they pass.
“What, you concerned about running into whatever crackheads have been camping out in this place?” Billy laughs.
Max doesn’t laugh back. She rarely thinks Billy is funny. “No one is stupid enough to be here for too long,” Max says, seriously.
“Please, whatever chemicals killed all those people years ago are long gone,” Billy says, shining his flashlight into an empty room as they pass it. The chairs are toppled at the workstations and the floor is covered in dark patchy stains. The tabletops are clear, like someone came in and scrubbed everything off -- they probably did.
Max snorts. “Sure,” she says, taking a couple fast steps to catch up to Lucas, leaving Billy all alone at the back of the party once more.
The building groans as they take the stairs down. It’s a weird sound, especially given that the whole place has been sort of eerily quiet the whole time they’ve been in there. Billy figured animals would have moved in, but nothing seems keen on being inside the building -- even the kids. They’re all a bit on edge, despite the brave front they’re putting on for each other.
There’s more black mold the further they go down. There are patches of it on the ground, black underneath Billy’s boots. Some of it is crunchy, textured, and some of it just looks like old blood, like a massacre happened here. It’s a stupid thought, but it sticks with Billy, off-putting enough that he stops looking down at his feet and keeps his eyes peeled on the walls, on the teens and on Steve, as they wind their way down the stairs.
“Don’t understand why we have to go so fucking far out of the way,” Billy mumbles. They could’ve broken some windows right when they came in and then skedaddled. Maybe the kids are worried about getting caught. They shouldn’t be, not with King Steve the do-good police officer here with them.
Then again, maybe Steve should be worried about his badge. If he gets caught, Chief Hopper might not look too kindly on the circumstances -- him alone in a government building with a bunch of teens and Hargrove himself. The Chief’s kinda a hard-ass, and he’s never liked Billy, so he wouldn’t look too kindly on the company Steve is keeping tonight.
“You’re free to head on back,” Steve says, as they come to a stop in a long hallway. There’s a set of doors that looks pried open, like they were once electronically sealed under security that is now long gone with the power to the building. Department of Energy with no energy, Billy thinks. How ironic. There’s a small gap between the doors -- person sized. Big enough for all of them to fit through. Only darkness awaits beyond it.
Billy thinks of the stairway splattered with dark patches of something that looked an awful lot like blood, of the long hallways and the shadowed corners he’d have to walk past. The whole place is ominous and weirdly foreboding, and Billy’s been in a lot of abandoned buildings in his time. This one leaves a hell of a sour taste in his mouth. He thinks of leaving teens here with Steve, a bad feeling creeping over his skin at the idea. Billy shrugs. “Nah, just don’t know why you’re going to all the bother, is all.”
“It’s your funeral,” Nancy’s brother says. One of other kids elbows him. The girl who Billy doesn’t know, with the short mop of wavy hair, just snorts.
“You’re about as nice as your sister,” Billy says. Nancy Wheeler never much liked Billy, and it’s clear that her brother feels the same way. It’s fair, though. Billy’s given these kids every reason to hate him in the past. He never expected love.
“Hey,” the kid snarls, taking a step toward Billy. “Don’t you talk about my sister.”
Dustin immediately follows with, “Yeah, you don’t get to talk about Nancy!”
Steve just grabs the kids by the back of their jackets before they can truly advance on Billy. “Hey. Hey! Cool it. You can fight when you’re out of here. You spill any blood now and this gets a hell of a lot more risky.”
For whatever reason, the struggling kids go immediately tame at that. They stop twisting in Steve’s grip, going limp and docile.
Billy rolls his eyes and laughs. Like it matters where a little blood is spilled. He shines a flashlight at the door, and then at Steve’s face. Steve winces and shields his eyes. “So, is that where we’re headed?” Billy asks, nodding at the gap in the door.
“Watch it, Hargrove,” Steve hisses. He adjusts his grip on the bat and then nods. “Yep. Straight through there.” For a moment, Billy thinks Steve might ask him to go first, but he doesn’t. He takes a breath and then just pokes his head through the gap in the doors and looks around, shining his flashlight where he can. Then, he pulls back with a frown.
Steve leans his bat against his leg and uses his two free hands to pull the bandana up over his nose and his mouth. “It’s looking a little gross in there,” he says. All the kids follow suit, until it’s just Billy left with nothing to cover his face. Steve frowns at him and chews at his lip.
After a second, Harrington sighs, then digs through his pocket to pull out a second bandana. He holds it out to Billy. Billy shines a flashlight on it. It’s green and wrinkled like it’s been in Steve’s pocket for hours. Absolutely not.
“Yeah, no. I’m fine,” Billy says. He can handle a little stale air.
“Put the damn bandana on,” Steve says.
“Common, Billy,” Max says. “Just do it.”
“Nah,” Billy says. He snatches it out of Harrington’s hand though, so they’ll all stop complaining. Then, Billy stuffs it into his pocket.
“Alright, man. It’s up to you.” Steve grins, like there’s some sort of joke Billy isn’t getting.
Some of the kids pull out headlamps, though some of them just grip their flashlights a bit tighter as they file through the crack in the door and into the darkness waiting beyond. Billy is the last to squeeze himself through. The building groans again, creaking and moaning around him once he’s all alone in the hallway. He finds himself shivering and moving a little faster than he normally would.
The space on the other side of the door is -- exactly the same, just darker. They are in another long hallway that probably looked pretty clean and clinical back in the day. The walls are dirtier than the other ones they’ve passed, and when Billy shines his flashlight around, it keeps catching on particles of dust in the air -- but they’re big and flakey, like ash. He takes a breath and immediately coughs; the air is so acidic and polluted that it hurts his throat. Burning.
Steve is suddenly next to him, tugging the bandana out of Billy’s pocket. He ties it around Billy’s neck and tugs it up and over Billy’s nose. “Told you,” Steve says. Billy slaps him away when he’s finished. Steve just laughs.
“Let’s go, kiddos,” Steve says, heading off down the dingy hallway. This time, however, he’s not alone at the front of the pack: the girl that Steve doesn’t know strides right up next to him. She’s tall and slim -- looks like she doesn’t have an ounce of muscle on her. She isn’t carrying anything except a flashlight, not even a backpack. She looks focused, but nonchalant. Determined. She’s traveling light and she’s got an attitude and posture that says ‘don’t fuck with me’ -- Billy approves.
Except that it doesn’t really make sense. If they’re all in here to vandalize the place, why isn’t she carrying at least something? If she wasn’t planning on participating, that’d be fine (albeit boring), but her posture clearly isn’t one of passive compliance. If she didn’t want to be here, she’d be dragging in the back with Billy, not picking up the front with Harrington.
There’s definitely something strange going on here, Billy thinks. And fuck if Billy isn’t going to figure it out before the night is over.