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a prayer for which no words exist

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 January 19, 1985

In a small town like Hawkins, everyone knew everyone—and everyone knew everyone else’s business.

Or, at least, they liked to think they did.

Melinda and Greg who owned the coin-operated laundromat on Habersham were always fighting about money. Everyone knew this because Sarah Colburne, one of the waitresses at the greasy spoon next door loved to spill the beans while she was topping up your morning coffee. Hilary, one of the other waitresses, would drop an unkind word about how Sarah shouldn’t be talking about other people’s money business when she had asked for an advancement on her last pay cheque along with your plate of eggs and bacon. Father Bryant would turn in his seat and tell Hilary that she shouldn’t speak ill of those in need, and then in the same breath say, “I heard her husband has been gambling again.”

The convoluted game of telephone tag left Melinda with the gambling problem and Hilary on the cusp of divorcing her own husband.

Steve didn’t put too much stock in what anyone said anymore. After the Upside Down, he didn’t believe anything was true without seeing it with his own two eyes.

“You know what I heard?” Sarah said as she filled his mug to the brim, snapping bright pink bubblegum around a sly smile. “The Chief had to go out to the Hargrove’s last night. Was a whole big ruckus going on in the front yard. The neighbours had to call the cops.”

“Oh?” Steve said, glancing up from his chemistry paper. It was due first period. It would get him a solid B- if he were lucky. These days it didn’t seem he was that lucky.

Sarah nodded, setting the pot down. “Uh-huh. Susan—not the neighbour beside them, but the one three doors down—came in here this morning all in a tizzy. Said she didn’t get any sleep last night because they were up all night over there screamin’ and yellin’.”

Steve looked down at his coffee, at the eraser marks on his homework, at his own chicken-scratched name in the right corner. Billy wasn’t on his radar, or maybe he was the one who wasn’t on Billy’s. He hadn’t been since he’d beat the snot out of Steve and been scared by his own baby sister. Steve saw him around when he picked up Will for Nancy from the Byers’ house, usually skulking in the front seat of his noisy car, head dipped low and cigarette hanging out of his mouth while he waited for Max. He didn’t go to the door anymore. Steve hadn’t asked why.

“That’s…different,” Steve said, going for casual and missing by a mile. The last time he’d seen Billy had been three days before. He’d been leaning up against his car, hip jutting out in a way that made his jeans look even tighter, running his fingertips over Brenda The Junior’s arm. They’d made eye contact for three seconds. Billy had been the one to look away.

He cleared his throat and tried again. “Did she say what happened?”

Sarah shook her head and popped her gum. “No-ope. Just said that Hargrove boy was screechin’ up a storm.”

Taking a sip of coffee so thick he could chew it, Steve hummed appropriately and let Sarah go on about what Susan had said. By the time he tossed down a few bills to pay for his breakfast, he learned nothing new—only that Susan who lived three doors down had been wearing pearls on a Thursday morning and wasn’t that just so unusual, and Billy Hargrove had not changed at all.

Winter had come crashing in November as usual, leaving a thick blanket of white across Hawkins that had only accumulated since Christmas. Mounds of snow piled up in the corners of the parking lot, middle schoolers crawling up the sides and tossing snowballs overhead at each other.

Steve stepped out of his car, nudging the door closed with his hip as he balanced his textbooks on one hand. The chilly January air bit at his bare cheeks and fingertips. He locked the door, scanning across the parking lot for Nancy's curly hair and Jonathan's Ford. Spotting Jonathan a few lanes over, he tucked his books under his arm and jogged toward them.

“Hey,” he said, settling in beside Nancy. She smiled at him, head tipping up and squinting past the brightness of the sun.

“Hey, you.” She nudged him with her shoulder.

A few months ago, he would have slung his arms around her, settled his chin on her shoulder and kissed her neck. His hands would have smoothed down her thighs until she squeaked and pressed back against him. He would have kissed her mouth and called her beautiful.

Jonathan Byers’ fingers threaded through Nancy’s. Steve smiled at him.

“Hey, man,” he said, shifting his books underneath his other arm. What he meant to ask next was how was your weekend and did I tell you about the party Dustin wants to crash. Instead what came out was, "Did Max say anything to Will or Mike about Billy?"

Jonathan squinted at him. "Billy Hargrove?"


"Is he bothering Lucas again?" Nancy asked. Her fingers tightened in Jonathan's.

"I don't think so. Sarah told me Hopper was out at their place last night."

Nancy's hand relaxed. "Mike didn't say anything to me.” She looked to Jonathan, who just shrugged. Steve took it as a no.

“It's probably nothing.”

“It's probably Billy being Billy.”

“He punched Reed in the face at practice last week,” Nancy added, as if it explained it all. In a way, it did.

“Yeah. Yeah, you're right.” He plastered a grin on his face. “You guys coming to Dungeons & Dragons night this Friday?”

Nancy barely hid her disdain. Jonathan laughed. When the bell rang, they filed inside and parted ways.

Later, during third period, when Mr Douglas ran out of chalk and sent Steve to the office to collect more, Steve spotted Neil Hargrove stepping into the principal's office.

He knew who Neil Hargrove was because this was Hawkins, where everyone knew everyone, and because he'd seen Neil pick up Max a time or two from the Wheelers house. Over Christmas break he'd spotted Neil, his wife and Max at church, where all the other good Catholics in town went on Christmas Eve. Billy hadn't been with them.

A bruise, blooming purple and tinged yellow around the edges, stained Neil's cheekbone. Steve stared for a beat too long before jerking his eyes away, muttering a thanks to the office aid and ducking out of the office.

Steve hid behind a wall outside the office until Neil Hargrove left, fingers curled around the pack of chalk in his hand.

A note was stuck to the fridge along with a twenty dollar bill.

Your dad surprised me with a trip to Indianapolis for the week. We'll be at the Palmer House. I'll call you at five.

Steve tore down the note and tossed it in the trash. He pocketed the money, picked out one of his father's German imported beers from the fridge, flopped onto the couch and flipped on the TV.

Five came and went, along with two more beers and leftover lasagna. At eight-thirty, Steve put on his coat and left the house.

It hadn't always been suffocating in his house. There had been a time before when he had rejoiced in being left alone, in being considered trustworthy enough not to burn the house down while his parents fucked off to whatever show or concert or weekend-turned-entire-week getaway they were obsessed with lately. They always left the house fully stocked. If his parents weren't around, there were a dozen people willing to fill up the empty space they left.

If it wasn't Tommy and Carol, it was Amy or Laurie, or Becky. It was whoever could hitch a ride to his place on a Friday night to drink and dance and mess around. It was Nancy. It was whoever wanted to spend the evening with King Steve Harrington, and that was everyone.

But that was before. Before the Demo-dogs and the Mind Flayer. Before Steve knew that government conspiracies were real and that little girls were weapons stronger than the atomic bomb. Before everything Steve had ever known had been yanked out from under him.

After that first night in the Byers' house, he'd thought he'd seen it all. That had been the worst thing to ever happen to him. Barb's death, Will disappearing, facing off with what looked like the Venus-flytrap from Hell—all of it was the worst thing that would ever happen to Steve. He'd barely been a participant, but it had been enough to leave him in nightmares, gripped by the night chills and the taste of bile in his mouth in the morning.

There had been no nightmares when the Mind Flayer had been stopped. Steve had crawled into bed and slept for twelve hours. He'd gone to school the next day, went to class and turned in his assignments. He'd worked on college essays and argued with his parents.

The nightmares had rolled in just before Christmas, gnarled and twisted things that sat heavy in his chest long after he woke. The shadows that followed him at night looked so much like the ones that crept along the walls of his empty house in the early morning light. When the wind howled and whistled outside, the snapping, Venus-jowls of the Demo-dogs howled with it.

Sometimes, buried underneath a mountain of blankets, Steve could feel the overbearing presence of the Upside Down creeping into his bedroom, slipping up to the ceiling and swallowing him whole.

Steve jammed a slightly bent cigarette between his lips, fiddling with the wheel of his lighter. He struck it twice before the cigarette lit up. He inhaled, holding it for a beat too long, before releasing it out into the bitter air. He shoved his hands in his pockets, half-curled into fists, and trudged down the sidewalk, kicking a path of snow out of the way to lead him back home.

Walking helped. Walking cleared his head, in the same way the slap-slap-slap of a basketball on the court cleared his head, in the same way running at five-thirty in the morning cleared his head. The cold bit at his skin, chilling him under his jacket and leaving his fingertips numb, but left him mind blissfully blank, a low-grade white noise buzzing in the background like whatever latest tunes were playing on the radio while he did homework.

Even getting high and jerking off in bed didn't have the same affect on him anymore. Walking in the cold air was like a balm to his soul, soothing it in ways nothing else could.

Cutting a path through the house on the end of Cornwallis that had foreclosed six months before, Steve buried himself in the quiet of Hawkins after dark. Wrapped up in the sound of snow shuffling beneath his boots and the flutter of the flickering streetlamp overhead, he almost missed the Camaro parked on Belmont.

He slowed to a stop, pulling the cigarette from his mouth. There were exactly three people in Hawkins who owned a Camaro, and only one who owned one that looked like that.

Stationary, it didn't look nearly as intimidating as it did when it rumbled and revved into the school parking lot, blasting AC/DC or Lynyrd Skynyrd through bass-laden speakers. It was loud and rough and All-American, just like the boy who drove it. Turned off and quiet, surrounded by the rows of baby blue and off-white houses in the suburbs, it looked as threatening as a plastic spoon.

Steve bit his lip, glancing up and down the street. There was no one else around. All the windows of the houses were drawn, flimsy light glowing from the edges of the curtains. He could just walk away. It didn't matter what Billy was doing in Belmont. It wasn't Steve's business.

He bent down anyway, squinting into the dark interior of the Camaro, pressing the cigarette back to his lips.

Outlined in the dim light of the streetlamp was Billy, curled up in the passenger seat, legs tucked up and feet resting on the driver's side. Steve knew his shape, the length of his legs, what his thighs looked like in his jeans, to know it was Billy, even if he couldn't see his face. A plaid blanket was draped over his torso, tucked up to his chin. It didn't look warm enough for frigid weather.

Steve dropped his cigarette, snuffing it out with the heel of his boot, and knocked on the window.

Billy jolted, smacking his head on the roof. He swore, loudly, jerking himself forward in his seat and glaring at Steve. Whatever was on his face, Steve couldn't read, shadowed by the darkness of night. Steve stepped back and straightened his spine, shoving his hands into his pockets.

It took so long for Billy to open the door that Steve thought he might drive off, but when he finally did, Steve put his finger to that look on Billy's face. He had seen it staring back at himself for weeks, molted and purple, fading to a sullen yellow.

It was still in the molted and purple stages. There was some dried blood around Billy's nose, and his left eye was swollen shut, a puffy mass that made Steve wonder if he even still had an eyeball under it.

“You look like shit, Hargrove,” he said. He dug his hand into his pocket for his cigarettes, opening the carton and offering it to Billy.

Billy stared at it like it was poison. Silence stretched between them for so long that Steve's hand shook with the cold wrapping around it. “Nothing gets passed you, does it?” Billy said, reaching for the pack.

Steve handed over his lighter wordlessly, watching as Billy light up a cigarette and inhale deeply. When he breathed out, he tipped his head back. He looked like a lone wolf, howling to the moon hanging fatly in the sky.

Steve watched him burn through the whole cigarette in silence. He'd never been like Nancy, book-smart and nerdy to boot, and it had been hard enough for him to string enough orderly sentences together for college applications, but he wasn't stupid. He'd never been that stupid.

He rocked back on his heels, hands curled into fists in his pockets. He sucked on his teeth.

“You got something you wanna say, Harrington?” Billy asked, cutting Steve with a hard glare, voice raising on the last syllable.

“Not really,” Steve said after a moment, shoulders slipping down a notch. The last time they had faced off, Steve had only escaped by the skin of his teeth, and only because Max was wicked in a crisis. A fight in the middle of the suburbs at night would lead to the cops getting called—and another incredibly boring lecture from Hopper.

“You want another one?” Steve asked, holding up the pack of cigarettes. Billy swallowed thickly, Adam's apple bobbing along his throat, and nodded. Steve could see the edge of a bruise peeking out from under his collar. He wondered if Neil Hargrove had any underneath his shirt.

“It's supposed to get cold tonight, you know,” he said. And your jacket isn't going to keep you warm, his eyes said for his mouth.

“It's cold every night. It's winter,” Billy said, lips twisting into a sneer.

“You know what I mean.”

“Maybe I do, maybe I don't.” Billy blew a stream of smoke into Steve's face. Steve's eyes stung. “What's your point?”

"You'll freeze to death," he said softly. 

Billy didn't say anything for a long time. The silence was new. Most of the time Steve couldn't get Billy to shut the hell up. From their first meeting to the showers, to the night Billy had kicked his ass, he had always been running his mouth, tongue flicking behind his teeth. The quiet was different. It was alarming, too. When Billy was talking, Steve knew what to expect. Billy could do anything now, in the silence, and Steve forced himself to keep his eyes on Billy's hands. If he threw a punch, he'd be ready.

"It's not that cold, princess," Billy said dismissively, leaning back against his car. He puffed on the cigarette, eyes locking with Steve's. It felt like a challenge.

"It's cold enough."

"For who?"

"Stop talking in circles," Steve snapped irritably, shoving his fists deep into his pockets. His fingertips were numb. Billy's cheeks and nose were stained a ruddy red by the chilly breeze. Steve expected his own were too. "Do you want a place to stay or not?"

Billy didn't look surprised. He didn't look shocked or mollified, grateful for Steve's jabbing offer. Instead, he looked angry. His eyes sharp, he sucked a last drag on the cigarette and tossed it to the ground. He spat next to it, like the offer was as worthless as the cigarette. "I don't need your fucking charity."

"I don't like you enough for charity, fuckhead," Steve said. Frustration stained the inside of his mouth like the chill, curling around the words. "If you freeze and die, Max is gonna have to deal with that."

She'd probably rejoice, he didn't say, but he didn't have to. Billy probably knew that already.

Billy smiled, sharp, all teeth. It didn't reach his eyes. "I didn't know you were into little girls. Does your girlfriend know?"

"You know what? Never mind. Fuck you. I hope your dick gets frostbite."

Steve turned to go, an angry hunch to his shoulders. Billy's hand landed on his arm. Steve tried not to flinch and failed. Shrugging out of his touch, he spun around and glared at Billy. "What."

Hands shoved in his pockets, shoulders hunched up to protect his neck from the cold, Billy looked like a mirror image of Steve. Glare stuck to his face, lips twisted into something unhappy, he said stiffly, "It's just for the night."

Steve stared, counting back from ten in his head. "Yeah," he said, voice sounding strangled to his own ears, "just the night. And don't fucking steal anything, aight? I'll kick your ass. I'll get your sister to kick your ass. Again."

"She's not my sister," he said, and then Billy smiled again; less sharp, less teeth. He looked tired. Steve didn't know how he'd missed the dark circles underneath Billy's eyes. "You can try."

They took the Camaro, Billy in the driver's seat because he refused to let Steve take the reigns. Steve had conceded to the passenger seat, giving directions out softly as they passed street signs and lamps. He looked out the window, refusing to look at Billy. The radio stayed off, and the car was filled with the sounds of their breathing.

Billy didn't say anything as Steve unlocked the front door, flipping light switches and flooding the front foyer with yellow light. He kicked off his boots, careful to nudge them onto the boot tray. His mom threw a fit when water got on her precious cherry hardwood, sighing angrily about swelling and staining. Billy followed suit and let his boots drop to the floor beside the tray. Steve glared, bent down to set them on the tray and muttered jackass under his breath.

He didn't wait for Steve to gesture him through the hallway. Shoulder bumping Steve's as he walked by, he let out a low whistle as he peeked into the living room. "So this is Casa Harrington."

"If you touch anything, I'll call the cops," Steve said wryly.

Billy didn't respond. Instead, he flopped down onto the overstuffed couch, reaching for the remote Steve had left on the arm and kicking his feet up on the coffee table. He clicked on the TV. Steve just rolled his eyes and sat down next to him, saying nothing.

It was more than surreal. It was something Steve didn't have a name for. Like the Upside Down, but more and less, but worse and better. A month ago, Steve wouldn't have thought it a possibility. Sitting in his living room with Billy Hargrove, side by side on the couch, watching a rerun of M*A*S*H in silence. Billy Hargrove, the boy who had beat his face in until it had been black and blue, the boy who had terrorized Lucas because of a step-sister he claimed to not care about.

He was supposed to hate Billy. Steve knew that much. So why had he let him into his home? He didn't have a good answer. He didn't have an answer at all.

Maybe the Upside Down had fucked with his head more than innocuous shadows creeping across the walls.

"Hey," Steve said, when M*A*S*H had switched to Dallas to the opening credits of Charlie's Angels, "do you—?"

Head tipped back, lips parted around a soft snore, Billy's fingers twitched in his lap. Steve watched him for a moment, memorizing the smooth line of his forehead, the way his lips weren't turned down into a frown or a sneer. He didn't look any different. He still looked like Billy. Steve didn't know why he was watching him.

Careful not to wake him, he reached across Billy's lap for the remote, clicking off the TV. He rose silently and left the room, flicking off the lights as he ambled up to his room, quiet on the creaking stairs.

In the dark of his room, Steve stripped down to his boxers and crawled into bed. He pulled the covers up to his chin, counting down from one thousand while he stared at the stucco ceiling.

At three hundred and ninety-eight, he drifted off to sleep, lulled by the inane image of slinking downstairs and covering Billy in one of his grandmother's hand-sewn quilts.