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Focal Point

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Things were different when he was young.

His father was always a son of a bitch, with hard eyes and even harder fists. Billy couldn’t really remember a time when he was ever safe from his anger. He would break a plate in the kitchen and get a whack on the back of the head and a ten minute lecture on the value of money and how much kitchenware costs. He would come home later than he said he would and he’d get slapped around a bit for disrespecting the house rules and if he could just keep his fucking mouth shut he might escape a full blown disciplinary beating.

He could never keep his mouth shut.

It was rarely hard enough to bruise. Bruises usually came when he really fucked up big time, or when his dad was drunk and just felt like starting a fight, or when his mom tried to stick up for him. it was the humiliation, really, that hurt the worst. The implicit threat that he might just lose it one day, have enough of Billy’s shit and just throw him out the fucking window or something, that was scary, but worst of all was the inescapable feeling of helplessness. The knowledge that his dad could do whatever the fuck he wanted to him and then go out to his perfect job and flash his perfect smile and say something like ‘you got to have a stern hand with these kids or they run you wild’ and people don’t even blink, don’t even stop to think that maybe Neil Hargrove with his easy smiles and his dedicated work ethic could ever be throwing hands with his wife and his kid.

But afterward.

Billy would usually shut himself in his room when it was done, when he had done whatever Neil said and the lesson was taught, he would make himself scarce. When he was young he couldn’t just take off and get out of the house for a few hours. He had to sit in his room, shaking, staring at the walls and recounting everything he had done wrong, everything he had done to deserve whatever happened. It would take a while, until it was fully quiet, but eventually his mother would sneak in to his room. She would lay his head on her lap or wrap him up in her arms and say things, nice things, things like ‘you didn’t do anything wrong, baby,’ and ‘don’t mind your father, he just gets angry,’ and ‘I love you’ and ‘we’re gonna get out of here one day, baby, I promise.’

Yeah, things were different then.

Then when he was fourteen she just left. Packed up her shit and took off without a word while Billy was at school and Neil was at work and neither of them ever heard from her again.

Guess when she said ‘we’re gonna get out of here’ she didn’t really mean him, too.

Shit got worse before it got better before it got worse again, and here he was, in bumfuck nowhere, his own personal hell, waking up on the floor of some psycho-house feeling like he was drunk because his bitch step-sister had stuck a needle in his neck.

He had fucked up. He knew he had. He was a grade-A fuck up, it was all he really knew how to do, but ironically enough this fuck up had actually been him trying to make things right, sort of. He just wanted to bring Max home, get his dad off his case for a little while, with the added bonus of prying her away from her punk-ass little friends and her fuck-off boyfriend. He thought maybe, if he can convince his dad that this was all Max’s fucking fault, maybe he’d lay off him for a little while, take it out on his precious, perfect step-daughter for a bit, let her see all the bullshit he goes through for once. Maybe Susan will actually do shit if it’s her own kid.

Or maybe she’ll just fucking leave, like his mom did, and Max will see exactly what kind of hell he’s living in.

Then Harrington showed up. Billy was supposed to be going to the movies with some bitch and then getting his dick sucked in the Camaro before dropping her off home and instead Steve was pressing his fingertips into his chest, and Billy swore he could still feel the warmth of his skin against the metal of his mother’s necklace as he smashed a plate over King Steve’s fucking head.

It just spiraled out of his control from there. Everything always spiraled out of his control because of the same shit. Boys with pretty hair and strong hands and soft lips that inevitably deteriorate under the invasive eyes of every fucking person who thinks they know a single damn thing that goes on in his head. And he knew what he was doing. He wished he could say he lost his head, that he couldn’t even see what he was doing, but he could see every splatter of blood, hear every strike of his fists, he knew what he was doing and he knew who he was doing it to. For a second, it even occurred to him, ‘I could be killing him. I could kill him if I don’t stop,’ and all he did was raise his fist higher and hit harder and he wished he was dead, wished he would die if it meant that for once he could just be fucking normal, if it meant that his dad would stop caring him a fucking faggot and Max would stop telling him it’s his fault and Susan would stop giving him those sad glances like she knew and—

He knew that really he should be grateful that Max stuck that fucking needle in his neck, but he wasn’t. If she had any mercy she would have just taken that bat and bashed his skull in with it.

He rolled on to his side and had to wait for a second, doubled over on the floor feeling like he was gonna puke, before he could finally push himself to his feet and stumble toward the door.

His car was gone.

He laughed, despite the fact that none of this shit was funny.

He didn’t know what he was doing, but he stumbled forward despite himself. He didn’t know what the point was in going anywhere, all he knew was he wasn’t gonna sit here and lick his fucking wounds until someone came back, stewing in his own misery, thinking about how shit his life is and how his dad is gonna fucking kill him and his mom never cared enough to stop it and Max is gonna throw a party and Susan is probably just gonna be glad she doesn’t have to fucking pity him anymore.

So he walked. He stumbled into the tree line and kept going, didn’t care if he got lost, figured he’d find his way out eventually. He didn’t have his jacket, left it in the car, and his cigarettes were in his coat pocket, so he had nothing to assuage the anxiety that coiled around his chest and his throat. He just kept walking, and laughing, sometimes, just because he couldn’t fucking believe that this was his life. That a few months ago he had a shot of being something almost happy and then that dream is dead and he’s in Hawkins Indiana stumbling drunk into the forest after he almost killed someone and his sister stole his car.

She’d probably wreck it. She was a shitty driver. He should know, he taught her, one of the few times they almost got along in California, when he didn’t want to go home yet and Neil had told him to take Max out to get an ice cream so afterward he drove them to a deserted parking lot and told her she was gonna learn how to drive stick so he didn’t have to drive her everywhere forever. She had screamed at him the whole fucking time and nearly crashed the car into the same wall five times.

Fucking bitch.

It was pitch black in the forest. He wondered what it meant that he would rather be stumbling through the forest risking getting eaten by a bear than heading back home without Max and facing his father’s wrath. Maybe because the bear felt less likely than his father running him over with his car or something.

It was quiet, and so dark he couldn’t see more than a foot in front of him. His head was pounding and he scratched at the dried blood under his nose and around his mouth and scratched at his split knuckles until they started bleeding again. He was nervous, but it wasn’t about getting lost or bear attacks or anything other than something just didn’t feel right, and he couldn’t pinpoint what it was.

Then he heard something. A shuffle. He stopped walking and listened and heard it again, the shuffling of leaves, and he knew something was nearby. He looked down at the ground, crouched, felt along the leaves and found a branch that felt relatively sturdy, definitely not as intimidating as the nail bat that Maxine had nearly pinned his balls to the floor with, but it was something he could hit with if an animal went at him. He looked around, but he couldn’t see shit.

He listened.

This was fucking stupid. He shouldn’t have wandered into the fucking forest, but at the time it had seemed like just as good an option as staying and waiting for…for whatever the fuck would have happened when they all returned.

He listened. Tried not to get lost in his thoughts, and listened.

More shuffling. He caught sight of a silhouette in the dark, it walked on four legs but it was small, like a dog. Definitely not a bear. He relaxed a bit. He could take a dog.

It growled, or something, it made a sound that he interpreted as a grown but it sounded more guttural, clicking like that creepy fucking thing from that movie Alien, but he knew it was just the dark getting to him. He raised his stick.

“Come on, puppy,” He goaded, tightening his grip on the stick, “You wanna go? Come on, you fucking mutt.”

Something screamed. It was a sound that absolutely could not be the thing in front of him no matter what his ears told him, because dogs did not scream like that. It moved, fucking fast, and he readied his branch to swing and just as he swung, when it got close enough to see through the darkness, it looked like—it looked like—

The branch hit, sent it sailing and hitting the tree, but his branch splintered and broke and he had no weapon. He thought he saw rows of teeth, a mouthful of pink gums and pointed, sharp teeth open and aiming for his throat, and it looked just like the fucking thing from Alien

His mind was playing tricks on him. It was dark as shit, and some dog with rabies was attacking him and his sister just drugged him and he was hallucinating. That was the only explanation. He was hallucinating and this wasn’t happening or if it was, there were no rows of sharp teeth going in circles like some freaky alien thing.

The dog made that weird gurgling growl again, and like an idiot, he took a step closer to see. Where it stood, there were a few scarce streamed of moonlight that seeped between the branches above. It definitely looked like a dog, but it turned his head to him and he saw it, like a festering wound with teeth, its face tearing open in the most grotesque imitation of a flower he had ever seen and what the absolute fuck was going on?

It leapt at him, and he didn’t have the time to run.

He fell back to the ground, the thing landing harshly on his chest and winding him. He held out the remains of his branch, not long enough to make a good enough blunt weapon but he held it out in front of him when its teeth closed in. Its teeth sank into the bark and puled back sharply, as if it meant to toss the branch away, so he held tight, his shoulder screaming at the force with which the creature pulled back, because if he had nothing then he would die, die because of this freaky alien creature from hell currently screaming in his face and trying to eat him.

It ripped the branch from his hands, tossed it somewhere behind him, and it roared in his face again. Billy screamed like a fucking bitch, threw his arms in front of himself in a futile attempt to save himself. It’ teeth sank into the flesh of his arm and he screamed again.

Then it stopped.

It released his arm and looked up, like it heard something. It stood and listened, and Billy held his breath because he feared if he made any noise it would remember he was there and finish him off. It just stood there on top of him, staring off into the distance—but not staring, because now that Billy could see it, he noticed it didn’t have any fucking eyes.

It ran, darting forward. One of its feet caught on Billy’s face near his eye and the claws sank in and nearly gouged his fucking eye out, but he bit his tongue and didn’t make a noise. It ran off, and he didn’t waste any time getting to his feet and running for his fucking life.

He made it out of the forest on to the side of the road, gripping his arm, his fingers slippery with blood, and the panic finally overwhelmed him and his knees gave out just outside the tree line. It probably wasn’t safe, he didn’t know where he was yet and that fucking thing was still alive and running around probably killing someone else, but he could hardly move, let alone lift himself up off the ground to keep running.

He had lost it. That was the only explanation. Or Max really had killed him, and he was in hell. That would make sense too. Either way he found himself bonelessly slumped on these side of the road, his arm torn to hell, crying like a bitch.

“What the fuck, what the fuck,” He muttered, as if anyone could answer, and briefly he thought ‘Max is out there somewhere. That thing could kill her and if she turns up dead Neil will kill me next.’

He couldn’t go home. His arm was bleeding all over the place and he still didn’t have Max and if he went home he would get the beating of his fucking life and he wasn’t sure he could handle that, not now while he was on a hell of a drug trip or whatever the hell was going on.

After his mother left, he tried to run away once. Life had been utter hell once his mom was gone, his dad went at him harder and more frequently than ever before and he didn’t even have his mom there to lie to him afterward, to say everything was okay. He was fourteen, and he couldn’t drive, and the cops found him on the side of the road begging to a ride out of San Diego.

He was nearly eighteen now. If he had his Camaro he would probably drive out of town and never come back, fuck his high school diploma, fuck everything in this bullshit town, just get out of here and the freaky forest and the cow shit and the eyes on his every move.

But he didn’t have his car. So he couldn’t do shit.

It took him a while, to get himself to stop crying, to uncurl from the ball he had formed on the side of the road and draw himself up on weak, shaky legs to trek alongside the road. He recognized where he was soon enough, and he kept walking, kept walking and clutching his dirty, bloody arm until he was standing outside of his house.

His Camaro was in the driveway. He didn’t have the keys, so he walked past it entered through the unlocked front door.

Susan was sitting on the couch in front of the TV. His dad stood in the doorway of the kitchen. When he entered, careful not to get blood on the door, Susan gasped and rushed toward him, making squawking noises like an overdramatic bird and saying, “Billy, oh my god, what happened?”

“M’fine.” He said.

“You’re arm.”

“Susan, he said he’s fine.” Neil said, and Susan paused, turning to face Neil where he stood.

“Neil, look at his arm.” She stressed.

“Susan, now that Billy’s home, you don’t need to worry. How about you go to bed—“

“No, Neil, he needs to go to a hospital—“

“He can clean himself up in the bathroom, Susan.” Neil said, and this time his tone left no room for argument. Billy stood still, watching the exchange and wishing she would just drop it and go to her fucking room so she didn’t make it even worse. Eventually she did, because she always did what Neil said, and with one more glance at his fucked up arm, she left the room.

Billy was shaking, but he met Neil’s eyes when he approached. That was something he got from his mother, his disrespect for Neil’s brand of punishment, the only difference is he always pussies out by the end of it.

“I couldn’t get Max—“ Billy started, but Neil cut him off.

“The Police Chief brought her home.” Neil said. Billy gritted his teeth and forced himself not to interrupt. “Max said she didn’t know where you were, but they had your car. How did that happen?”

Billy didn’t know what Max had told him, and he didn’t want to be caught out on a lie. So he told the truth. “I got into a fight with the guy who was babysitting them. I…went out and…”

“And left your car?” Neil raised a disbelieving brow.

He felt dizzy. He was gonna pass out if he didn’t get to lay down soon. “I don’t know.” He said, even though that answer didn’t make any sense.

“Are you drunk?” Neil asked. Billy shook his head.

“No, I’m not drunk, dad, I—“

“I ask you to go get your sister when she goes missing on your watch,” Neil started, and Billy took a step back without thinking. God he always pussies out in the end. His mom used to stand there like she could take Neil down with a flick of her wrist, didn’t matter how hard he hit her. Didn’t matter that she never could. “And you go out into the forest and get drunk?”

“No, dad, that’s not what happened—“

“You can’t do a single thing right, can you?” His dad asked in a low voice. That voice never meant anything good. “Everywhere you go, everything you do you fuck up.” Neil stepped closer, and Billy stepped back. “You’re just like your mother that way.”

“Maxine is the one who snuck out!” Billy exploded, “Why the fuck aren’t you going at her? Why is it always me you gotta beat on?”

Neil caught the front of Billy’s shirt and slammed his back into the wall.

It all went downhill from there.

Billy didn’t sleep much that night.

After his dad was done, and the yelling quieted down and the hits stopped coming, Billy had more or less crawled his way to the bathroom. He got in the shower, bit down on a dish towel as the spray of water hit his arm. It didn’t really feel like water, it felt like fire, and he cranked up the heat because the pain felt like a release somehow. Liquid ran down his arms bright red and dripped off his fingertips a watered down pink, and after a long time he didn’t really feel the pain anymore, he just felt numb.

After his shower, which he was careful not to let go on too long lest his dad come knocking the door down, he retreated to his room. He pulled on a pair of boxers and wrapped his arm in a dark t-shirt so he didn’t bleed all over his sheets and collapsed face-first on the bed.

He could wrap it with some bandages in the morning. Right now everything hurt too bad to try.

When he woke in the morning, it was late, but it was Sunday, and the house was quiet. They probably went to church, and left him there to recover from everything. It wasn’t unheard of that his dad would leave him out of family outings when he was fresh out of a beating, and he was grateful for having the house to himself.

He rolled out of bed, his head pounding, and opened his bedside drawer to pull out a bottle of painkillers so he could pop a few. The shirt he had wrapped around his arm was plastered to his skin, and making a face he carefully peeled it off. It was gross, but it didn’t hurt, which he was grateful for.

He opened his door quietly, on the off chance that people were still here, but a glance into the silent hallway told him the house was empty. He went to the bathroom, threw his shirt onto the floor of the tub so that the blood would wash out and stepped in. He carefully scrubbed at the dried blood, trying to avoid reopening any wounds. It didn’t seem to be bleeding anymore, and his arm no long looked like it had been partially ripped to shreds, so that was a good sign. there was a bruise blooming across his ribs, and one near his hip, and he was pretty sure there was one on his face, too, from a too-hard slap that hit his eye wrong, but he was pretty sure his arm wasn’t going to fall off, so as far as he was concerned, he was good. And the bruises didn’t look nearly as bad as he expected them to look.

Except, the more blood that washed off his arm, the more…weird it seemed.

His arm was fine.

He ran his fingers along the smooth, uninjured skin of his arm. He thought maybe it might have been a horrible dream, or a drug trip, but he remembered the blood still seeping out of the shirt on the floor of the tub, and the way Susan had rushed toward him and almost stood up to Neil in order to bring Billy to the hospital. Even if he hallucinated a dog having some weird, alien face, the wounds had been there. His arm had been in ribbons.

He shut the shower off and nearly tripped and cracked his head on the sink on his way out. He reached back in and squeezed the water out of the shirt on the ground and went back to his room. He threw the wet shirt on the ground and hurriedly got dressed, pulled on a pair of jeans and a shirt without buttoning it and tried to find his keys.

He needed a cigarette, but his pack and his jacket were in his car, and he realized pretty quickly that he didn’t have his keys.

His dad probably did.

He went outside anyway, saw the Camaro in the driveway and tried the front door and laughed like a lunatic when it was unlocked. He sat in the front seat and picked up his jacket from the passenger seat floor, fishing in the pocket for his cigarettes and his lighter. He threw the jacket on over his shirt that he still hadn’t bothered to button and stepped out of the Camaro, lighting up a cig as he walked.

He kept glancing down at his arm as he walked, every time he lifted his cigarette he could glance down at his forearm and wonder what the fuck was going on. Maybe it just wasn’t that deep. Maybe it had just bled a lot, looked way worse than it actually was. Maybe it was just a few scrapes and they healed overnight.

Maybe none of it had happened.

But he still remembered the way his knuckled cracked against Harrington’s cheek. He remembered the press of Steve’s fingers against his chest. He remembers that too vividly for none of it to have been real. His stomach twisted uncomfortably, and god he must be fucked up in the head if even the memory of some guy’s fingers agains this chest (before a knock down, drag out fight in a stranger’s kitchen) is enough to get him worked up like a fucking bitch.

“Billy?” He lifted his head from where he was staring at his arm. He didn’t realize it, but he had stopped walking, just stood on the corner of his street staring at his arm like a dumbass. A girl named Nicole was hanging out of the passenger side window of a car. Bill didn’t know the other girl, or if he did he didn’t remember her, but Nicole was supposed to be the girl he went out with last night.

When he was nearly dying instead.

“What.” He snapped. She scowled.

“You stood me up.” She said, “What happened? You look okay.”

Her eyes drifted downward, settled around his chest for an uncomfortable amount of time, and he suddenly remembered the bruises there. Without thinking, he snapped his head down, his hands gripping his open shirt about to pull it shut when he realized there were no bruises to be seen.

What the fuck. What the fuck.

“Billy!” She said, her tone suggested she might have said his name a couple times already.

“Jeez, yes, what do you want?” He snapped.

“I asked you where you were.” She said.

“I was busy.” He replied, taking a drag of his cigarette.

There was a long silence, where she just stared at him, looking like she wanted to say all sorts of things. Billy had long since decided if she did have anything more to say he would just leave. Instead, she spat, “You’re an asshole, Billy Hargrove.” And her friend drove off, and Billy was alone again.

When the car was out of sight, he opened his shirt and ran his hand along his side. No bruise, just smooth unblemished skin, just like his arm.

Curious, he took the end of his cigarette and pressed it into his arm. He hissed at the pain, then put his cigarette between his teeth and watched.

He counted fifteen minutes before the burn mark was completely gone.

He absolutely did not have a panic attack on the side of the road. He just needed to sit down for a second. He wasn’t a fucking pussy.