By the time Billy shakily climbed up the pool ladder and stood shivering on the concrete, the sun was setting, golden light fading into the woods. Steve had gone inside for towels, Jonathan following with a comment about checking in with his mom, leaving Max and El to watch over him. Billy stared into the shadows under the trees until a tentative touch startled him back to the poolside. El left Max sitting with her feet in the water and had come to stand by his side, fingertips resting on his arm to get his attention.
“Yeah, kid.” He tried for a smile. It didn’t feel quite right but El smiled back and he took it as a win. She looked as tired as he felt, worn to the bone.
“Good idea, the pool. I’m not up for laps yet but at least it’s warm.” She made a confused face.
“What is laps?” Billy frowned and made a weak dog paddle gesture.
“You know, laps. Swimming. Backstroke? Front crawl? Butterfly?”
“Butter...fly?” She tilted her head in confusion and Billy mimicked her.
“What, you don’t know how to swim?” She slowly shook her head no and he huffed in disbelief. “Shit, were you raised in a cage or something?”
As soon as he said it, he was bombarded with mental images. Grey walls, metal doors. Men in white uniforms dragging him through the halls. The white haired man standing behind a window. A soda can crushing itself on a table.
He jerked, spinning to face Steve as he walked up with an armful of towels, concern all over his face. The sight helped the visions fade but Billy was rattled, looking back at El, who still stood there in confusion.
“You were, weren’t you?” He breathed out, putting a few more pieces together. “The white haired man. He raised you like that.” El’s eyes grew almost comically wide as he reached out and took her arm, lifting and turning it until he could see the stark black tattoo on her wrist. “Eleven.”
“What’s going on?” Steve leaned into the space between them, looking back and forth from one to the other. Behind him, Max had realized something was happening and was making her way over.
“You saw?” El asked in wonder and she reached out and cupped his cheek gently, just like she had on the floor of the mall, encouraging him to fight off the monster consuming him. Billy cupped her face in his own hand, nearly covering the entire side of her head, she was so young.
“Yeah. I think...I think you opened a door.” He struggled to put it into context, to translate the rough strobe light flashes of something less than memory into words. “You wanted to see it. Him. And me.” El nodded.
“I tried to show you.” He said haltingly, leaning forward to rest his forehead against hers as if it would improve the connection between them. “But I couldn’t...I didn’t know how. It felt like I was underwater, like I could see you but I couldn’t touch you. Couldn’t hear you.”
Billy was dimly aware of Max and Steve standing right next to them, of the sound of a car pulling into the driveway, the water moving in the pool. But he was focused tight on El’s eyes, inches from his own. On her hand on his face and her wrist in his loose grip.
“I was screaming. The whole time. I was just, just screaming. And then you heard me.”
El smiled at him gently, softly. And she stepped in and wrapped her arms around him in a hug.
“I heard you.”
He hugged her back, tighter than he’s ever hugged anyone, tighter then he hugged his mom the last time he saw her. Max grabbed them both and he freed one hand to wrap around her too. Why not? If killing who knows how many people hadn’t solidified his reputation, nothing would. Might as well hug his bratty little sister and get it over with.
“What’s going on?” A new voice broke through the moment and Billy looked up to see Jonathan and Bowlcut making their way over, looking curiously at the group hug in front of them. Billy reluctantly let El and Max go and Steve draped a towel around his shoulders. It was softer than any towel he’d felt before and smelled like soap. He buried his nose in it and took a deep breath, like he could inhale the clean scent and wash out his insides, before he spoke.
“El can’t swim.”
They all blinked at him, like he was speaking a foreign language. He rolled his eyes and reached for whatever was left of the attitude that had served him so well as armor the past seven years.
“Have none of you heard of basic water safety? Jesus, the kids I taught in my toddler class could-“
He broke off, words clogging up his throat. He gripped the towel tighter, pulling the sides together until the edges dig into the sides of his neck. A feeling like a great pit had opened in his stomach.
“Guess that’s over huh?” He shook his head at himself. The pit in his stomach filled with bitterness, an echo of the rage he used to feel at pretty much everything. “Nobody’s gonna let me anywhere near them after this shitshow. God.”
He roughly scrubbed at his face with the towel, the soft fibers too plush to provide the friction he was looking for. He suddenly felt the specter of what he'd done grow large around him, like a weight on his chest, and a dark thought occurred to him that he lacked the strength to keep to himself.
“Probably never should have come back at all.”
“Fuck that!” Steve’s voice was vicious and loud in the evening air. Billy turned in surprise and Steve was standing there, hands on hips, hair falling forward into his eyes which burned fiercely with an intense fire.
“Fuck. That.” He repeated. “You won. You beat that piece of shit Alien rip-off with your bare hands. You saved all of us. You saved the whole damn town and, and probably the world.”
He stalked forward to thrust his finger into Billy’s bare chest, just to the side of his Santa Maria necklace. The contact was a bright point of fire to Billy’s system, his body heat feeling more like fire where it touched the scar.
“You do that,” Steve continued, voice softer but no less indignant. “You do something like that, you deserve to live. And you’re gonna live, okay?”
“Yeah.” Billy once again wished he could ask Harrington to hold him like he had on the floor of the mall. He wanted to rest there, warm and easy, sure in the knowledge that Harrington would do anything to protect those kids including taking him out. But he settled for agreeing, even if he didn’t quite believe it.
“Teach me.” El lifted her chin in a challenge. He looked at her in confusion.
“Backstroke. Front crawl. Butterfly.” She added, complete with mimicking his doggy paddle. Billy shook his head almost before she finished.
“I don’t think that’s a great idea-“
“I need to learn things. Learn to be normal. Hop…” She started to tear up again but just lifted her chin higher in defiance. “Hop was teaching me. Now you teach. Please.”
He looked at her. This little girl who’d seen so much pain and anger already. He could still sense the echoes of those feelings somewhere, like music playing in another room. A song he knew all too well. She’d saved him. A complete stranger.
Maybe...maybe if he helped her, it might begin to make up for the terrible things he’d done. Maybe in someway, he could get back a little bit of that boy on the beach, the one so happy to spend the day with his mom.