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Ocean Child

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January 1986



“Hawkins Video Kingdom.”

“Hi! Is Gremlins available?”

“Let me check.” Billy held the phone away from his ear, put the palm of his hand against the mouthpiece and hummed “You Give Love a Bad Name” to himself until he’d decided enough time had gone by. “Y’ello? Yeah, it’s out.”
“Oh. Darn.”

“Yep. Sorry. Bye.” He hung up the phone and glared out the window. He could not imagine that the yokel on the phone would’ve come by to rent a movie anyway. The snowfall outside was getting into “let’s forget grocery shopping and make stew out of Wonder Bread” intensity. At least, he thought so. He had not spent very many winters in Hawkins yet.

And still, he’d had to work a shift.

Which was ongoing for another half an hour.

The phone rang again. He sighed heavily.

“Hawkins Video Kingdom. FYI, we have no more copies of Wanda Whips Wallstreet at this time.”

“Very funny.”

Billy smirked to himself. “And who is this?”

“Fuck you. It’s Steve.”

“Who now?”

“Shut up, shut up. I need a favor.”

“Oh Jesus.”

“You’re picking Max up today right?”

“If I even make it there. Why didn’t they call a snow day?”

“It wasn’t that bad this morning. Listen. I was supposed to take Lucas and Erica home with Dustin but my car won’t start.”

Billy made a befuddled face at Steve, who couldn’t see him. “Why were you taking Dustin home?”

“I’ve been taking Dustin home for two weeks! His mom’s working nights and he’s right on the way-”

“Fine whatever.”

“The Beamer won’t start.”

“Harrington…”

“I know I know I know.”

“I swear to God.”

“I was going to change the batt-”

“I guess it’s too fucking late now, isn’t it!”

“So you have to pick up Lucas and Dustin-”

“Fantastic. Why does Lucas need a ride?”

“That’s the thing. I was picking up the Sinclairs because their parents went to ‘Napolis and they weren’t sure when they’d be back and now the roads are blocked so who the hell knows.”

“Oh Jesus H. Christ.”

“So I guess the best thing would be to take them to Lucas’s house and-”
“Don’t-”

“You’ll have to-”

“Say-”

“Babysit.”

“It.”

“What is the big deal, Billy?”

“The big deal is we’ve been together for what? Six months? And somehow I’m raising seventeen fucking children.”

“To be fair, most of them are teenagers.”

“Why can’t they just hang out on their own? It’s not like they aren’t old enough.”

“Lucas’s mom called Dustin’s mom who called me at work. They want them home with an adult around. Inclement weather and all. And Erica’s only nine.”

“And they picked me.”

“I picked you. You’re an adult…technically.

“Goddammit.”

“Obviously, you also have to pick up Erica-”

“Goddammit.”

“I’ll get over to Lucas’s when I can. I’m at Louie’s getting a new battery. Be a while.”

“Pfft. You’ll pay through the nose.”

“I don’t care. Don’t forget to pick up Erica.”

“Fine. Jesus. And be careful out there, dumbass. It’s insane. Dunno how people live here.”

“I love you too.”

“Yeah yeah.”

A half-hour later, Billy closed up the store and bundled up to go out into the wall of white. He’d opted to go with the layering option; a thermal, flannel, a hoodie, a thick scarf, and his leather jacket. It wasn't nearly enough. He slipped on a pair of leather gloves and, with a long suffering sigh, stuck a thick black beanie over his grown out hair. He’d finally gotten his hair just how he wanted it now, as big and teased as possible, just like Bon Jovi. Not that the snow did it any favors. He’d toughed it out with no hat until he’d thought he’d freeze to death and finally given up the ghost.

The Camaro crawled to Hawkins Middle where huddled kids were being smuggled into vans and station wagons. Billy spotted the fire red of Max and Lucas running beside her and they yanked open the doors almost before Billy had come to a stop.

“Christ!” Lucas said, cowering in the front seat. “I’m freezing.”

“How’d you know I was picking you up?” Billy said.

“I didn’t!” He rubbed his hands together and Billy cranked up the heat. “I just wanted to get warm!”

“Max, where the hell is your hat?”

“I left it in algebra.”

Billy took off his hat and threw it at Max in the back. “Put this on. Susan’ll kill me if you get sick.”

Billy crawled behind the station wagons and turned up the Iron Maiden.

“Where’s Steve?” Lucas said.

“His battery died because he doesn’t listen to me because he’s an idiot. Wait, shit. Henderson. Where’s Henderson?”

A backseat door flew open again and Dustin squeezed in next to Max. “HOO! I’m freezing my balls off! Where’s Steve?”

“His battery died,” Lucas reported.

“Sounds like Steve.”

“That’s it, right?” Billy said.

Lucas said, “My sister!”

“Yeah yeah, I know.”

On to Hawkins Elementary where Lucas had to get out of the car because Erica was just standing there in the blizzard next to the other kids, her puffy blue jacketed arms crossed as she glared at the Camaro with suspicion.

“It’s Steve’s friend! He’s our ride!” Lucas insisted. He shoved her into the back seat next to Max and Dustin.

“Who are you?” Erica said. The brim of her fuzzy snow hat almost covered her eyes as Billy glanced back.

“I’m Steve’s friend,” Billy said, pulling out into the road. “I’m Billy.”

“I’ve never met you,” Erica said, scowling.

“Yeah well, we don’t travel in the same social circles.” Billy wanted a cigarette.

“You look like a criminal,” Erica said.

“So I’ve been told. Alright, Henderson first. Where are we going?”
“No no!” Dustin said from the back. “I’m going with them! To Lucas’s! I’ll just call my mom!”

“That was not the plan.”

“Yeah, he’s coming to my house,” Lucas said. “My parents won’t care.”

I don’t care,” Billy said, rapidly becoming more irritated. “Steve said-”

“Oh, Steve said,” Max piped up. “He has to do whatever Steve says.”

“I do not. Shut your mouth. Dustin, where is your damn house?”

“Steve said he should grow his hair out? So he grew his hair out.”
“Goddammit. Fine. I could give a shit. We’re all going to Lucas’s.”

“Yes!” Dustin said.
“Oh great,” Erica grumbled. “More nerds.”

Billy snorted a laugh at that and glanced at the rearview to see Erica pulling her hat down over the top of her head as if to drown out the teenagers.

“That is not why I grew my hair out,” Billy said. God, he wanted a cigarette. But filling the car with smoke didn’t seem like the greatest idea and he wasn’t about to crack a window.

“He said he wanted to look like Bon Jovi,” Max reported. “But that’s cause Steve likes Bon Jovi.”

“Max. I swear to God.”

She flipped him off in the rearview and she smiled when she did it.
“Why do I put myself through this,” Billy muttered.

Max started to say, “Because Steve-”

“That was rhetorical.”

Billy glared at the wall of white and crawled along at the direction of Lucas next to him. The annoying thing was, Max was right. It didn’t even require any further explanation. Just about anything he did anymore could be reasonably explained by two words: “because Steve.”



At Lucas’s house they all stomped their feet and rubbed their hands together and the snow whipped their cheeks as Lucas unlocked his front door. Billy tamped down his agitation. He was supposed to have picked up Max and dropped her home, at the now blessedly Neil-less house, and then gone to Steve’s place where he still lived (temporarily, he claimed) while he worked at his dad’s company. Billy was at Steve’s about as often as he was home and if Steve’s parents had finally noticed what was right in front of them, they hadn’t said anything about it yet. He had been looking forward to eating shitty frozen pizza at the Harrington's in a nice well heated room, smoking some weed, and watching Knight Rider, before doing horribly filthy things to Steve.

Goddamn blizzard, Billy thought.

Lucas’s house, to Billy’s mind, looked like a house on TV. It was the kind of place a kid was supposed to live; nicer than his own place but warmer than Steve’s. That was kind of a sweet spot for a family, he supposed. He watched Max, Lucas, and Dustin argue about whether they should play a game or watch a movie. Lucas wanted to play a board game based on the movie Goonies, Max wanted to watch Goonies, and Dustin wanted to play Goonies while watching Goonies. Billy had seen ten minutes of Goonies and the thought of seeing anymore of it filled him with terror. He watched Erica Sinclair shed her puffy jacket and backpack and snow hat and scarf and mittens, leaving it all in a trail on the floor on the way to her room.

Billy stood in the entry of the living room off the hall, having no idea what he should be doing and wanting a cigarette. He heard Erica thumping and she came back out and squinted up at him.

“When are my parents getting back?” Erica said.

Billy shrugged. “The roads are closed. I dunno. Steve’ll be here soon. He better be.”

“Ugh.”

Erica Sinclair stood there scowling at him in her fuzzy yellow sweater. He felt oddly intimidated.

“They’re watching Goonies,” he said, pointing to the eighth-graders on the couch fighting over Red Vines. “Go watch Goonies.”

“I hate that movie.”

“Well.” Billy sighed. “So do I.”

Erica wandered back into her room and Billy hung out in the kitchen and lit a cigarette and dropped his jacket on the counter. At some point, he assumed, the kids would demand food. He took stock of the fridge. Well, there was bread and there was stuff to put in between the bread so that would probably have to do.

He was smoking and imagining Steve Harrington stretched out on a towel on a beach under the sun, grinning beneath his RayBans, when Erica stalked into the kitchen.

“You can’t smoke in here,” Erica announced.

“That’s weird,” Billy said, taking a drag, “because I am smoking in here. See?” He exhaled in the general direction of a closed window.

“My mom doesn’t even let my dad smoke in here,” Erica said, eyebrow raised.

“Guess it’s good your mom’s not here then.”

“Ugh!” Erica rolled her eyes and ran back to her room.

Billy finished his cigarette and cracked a window just enough to throw the butt into the snow, a blast of cold making him shiver. When he shut it and turned around, Erica was standing there again and he startled.
“Can you not do that!” Billy said. “Just sneak up on a-”

“I need you to reach a shelf,” Erica said.

“What.”

What,” Erica said in an exaggerated low voice. “You have to get something off a shelf! I can’t reach.”

“Fine,” Billy said, because it wasn’t as if he had anything better to do.

Erica led him to a linen closet next to the bathroom where she’d already thrown open the doors. She pointed to a small white train case on the top shelf.

“Gimme that!” Erica said.

“Aren’t you supposed to say please?” Billy said.

“PUH-LEASE,” Erica said in a not so polite manner.

Billy shrugged and reached up to grab the train case and handed it to down to Erica whose eyes lit up, her mouth bursting into a giddy grin.

“YES!” Erica said.

Recently Billy had acquired a voice of sense in his head that sounded suspiciously like Steve Harrington. The voice now suggested that there might be a reason that the train case was on a high shelf and that it probably had something to do with Erica Sinclair wanting it so badly.

Billy ignored the voice.

“I’M GOING TO PAINT MY NAAAAAILS!” Erica sang from her room.

Though Billy considered Erica awfully bossy for a little kid, especially as she was talking to her babysitter, she was also more entertaining than Goonies and if Billy had nothing to do he would end up worrying about California and also about Steve getting back in the blizzard. He ambled down the hall and hovered at her door.

Erica’s room was “happy” if Billy could ascribe a word to it. It was all yellows and crayon drawings of rainbows and weird animals taped to the walls. There was a bookcase full of kid books. She plopped down on her canopy bed next to a big stuffed monkey and threw open the train case.

The Steve voice returned, this time with the warning that if Erica got nail polish all over everything he might be blamed as the adult on the premises.

“Now what color…?” Erica stroked her chin.

“Hold on a sec,” Billy said. “You’re gonna get polish all over everything.”
“No, I won't,” Erica said.

“You don’t even know how to paint nails,” Billy said. “What’re you, four?”
“I’m nine.”

“Okay, well. I’ve never seen a nine-year-old with nice nails, alright, so you’re not painting em’-”
“Nooo!” Erica said. “My mom has all this stuff in here and she never lets me play with it even though she never uses it-”

“Not my problem, kid.” He picked up the train case.

“Let me paint yours then!”

“Why in hell would I let you paint my nails?” Billy said, chuckling.

Erica let out howl of discontent and buried her head in the big monkey beside her. “BECAUSE!”

Billy was bored.

Steve was in the snow.

He thought of the beach.

He opened the train case. The thing was packed with not just nail stuff, but old eyeliners, shadows, blushes, lipsticks, the basic forgotten make-up stash. Susan had one too-he’d “borrowed” eyeliner from hers. He pawed through the polishes, most were medium but a couple were dark (to his liking), and there were a few bright neon colors that wouldn’t look too weird on a nine-year-old.

“Okay,” Billy said. “Tell ya what. I’ll paint your nails. But I’m painting mine too.”

“You can’t paint nails,” Erica said, curling her lip.

Billy just laughed. “Uh, yeah I can. But not in here. Kitchen table.”

At the kitchen table Billy set down the train case and poked around in the Sinclairs’ bathroom to find some Kleenex and cotton balls. The Goonies squad was within his line sight and the nerds were arguing about the ruels of their board game.

Erica sat at the table, her chin in her hands, watching him carefully.

“How do you know how to do nails?” Erica said.
“I know how to paint nails,” Billy clarified. “I don’t sit around doing French manicures or some shit.”

“Boys don’t wear nail polish,” Erica said.

“Yeah they do.” He stuck a cigarette between his lips but didn’t light it. It was almost like a smoke if he just kept it there. “Nikki Sixx wears nail polish all the time,” he said around the Camel. He took out some bottles of neon colors and set them down in front of Erica. “Pick a color.”

Erica leaned on her hand and bit her lip and took forever to make up her mind. “Orange!”
“Orange,” Billy said with a snort. “You want orange nails.”

Yes.”

“Your funeral. Lemme see your hands.” Erica spread her fingers on the table. Her nails were pretty short, a little bit cruddy, mostly neat, a few were a little ragged where she must’ve picked at them.

Shoot. He was going to end up giving the kid a goddamn manicure.

Since Neil had been summarily dismissed from Casa Hargrove, Billy had actually done Susan’s nails just a couple of a times and only because she’d given him a few bucks for it. He’d done colors for Max even, when she happened to be in the mood.

At least the train case was pretty well stocked.

Billy went to work on the raggedy bits with the softer side of a file and felt like he was under scrutiny as Erica stared at him.
“Who’s Nikki Sixx?”

“He’s in Mötley Crüe,” Billy said around his cigarette.

Oh,” Erica said. “I’ve heard of them. I’m not allowed to listen to them.”

“Yeah, I wouldn’t think so.”

“I like Cyndi Lauper,” Erica informed him and started squirming as she began to sing. “Girls! Just want to have fuh-un! Oh-ooh girls just want to haaaave fuuuun!”

“Sure,” Billy said. “Hold still.”

“Do you paint your nails a lot?” Erica said.

“Nah, I haven’t done my own in a while,” Billy muttered, evening out the edge of her right thumb. Her hands were little. He wasn’t used to little kids at all. She looked like she hadn’t lived at all hardly with her tiny brown hands. He supposed she really hadn’t. “I used to,” Billy said. “I’d just do...every other nail black or something like that. But I had to try to work it around my dad. He’d get pissed when he saw it and that was bad news.”

“Huh.”

“Yeah. Maybe I will more often since he’s not around. But just a few.”

“You’re supposed to paint all your nails, you know.”

“I know,” Billy said. “But it looks cool on me that way.”

“And why do you only wear one earring?”

“Because it looks cool.”
“It looks dumb,” Erica said.

“George Michael only wears one earring,” Billy argued. “Bet you like him.”

“My mom likes George Michael. A lot! And my dad pretends to get mad about it but he’s not really.”

“I bet. My boy- my friend likes George Michael like your mom does. Kinda makes me mad but not really.”

Erica giggled at that and Billy went about buffing her nails.

“It’s weird that you’re the babysitter,” Erica said.

“I agree.”

“Your name’s Billy, right?”

“Yep.”

“Aren’t you the guy who tried to beat up my brother once?”

The rhythm of Billy’s buffing stuttered and he said, “Yeah.”

“Everybody kept saying Steve shouldn’t be friends with you,” Erica reported, “because you beat him up that time and you tried to beat up my brother. But I beat up my brother all the time.”

“That’s different,” Billy mumbled.

“He beats me up too!”

“It’s different,” Billy said, barely speaking audibly. He took a breath. “I’m a shitload bigger than your brother so... It was a shitty thing to do.”

“So why did you?”

Billy sat up and cleared his throat. He held the unlit cigarette in one hand and picked up the bottle of orange nail polish with the other and shook it, the rattle of it was kinda comforting. “I was really mad back then.”

“At Lucas?”

“No. At my dad. And Max. And my step-mom. And...everyone. I was just like…” He shook the bottle again. “Mad and sad and stuff. So I wanted everyone else to be mad and sad. Get it?”

“I guess…” Erica looked up at the ceiling, pondering. “If my mom gets mad at me, it makes me mad and I get mad at Lucas.”

“Yeah, like that,” Billy said. “But way worse..” Billy unscrewed the orange and measured out a tiny bit of base coat for Erica's tiny nails. “My dad was...mean. Made me mean.”

“You don’t seem very mean,” Erica said, frowning at him.

“Well, I’m a little nicer now.”

“You have pretty hair,” Erica declared.

Billy smiled at that. “Thanks.” He squinted as he painted her tiny nails. She was decent at keeping still, maybe because she seemed so fascinated by her manicurist.

“I don’t like my hair sometimes,” Erica said, her brows turning down. Billy looked up at her. Her hair was in a big puff of a pony tail on the back of her head. Seemed like average little girl hair.

“No?” He said, for lack of anything better.

“This girl Vicky, in my class, makes fun of my hair sometimes. She’s got long blonde hair and she wears it in a side ponytail and I tried that once and it looked so stupid.”

“Well...this chick Vicky sounds like an asshole,” Billy said.

“She is.”

“Besides, those side ponytails look dumb.”

“Yeah, I guess.”

“Don’t listen to assholes,” Billy said. “I should know. I’m an asshole.”

“Naah.” She watched him paint her nails and leaned her chin on her other hand.

“I knew a couple girls in San Diego who had hair like yours, but they put it in braids with beads on the end,” Billy said. “Like rainbow beads.”

“I want to do that,” Erica whispered, and her already big brown eyes got bigger.

“And they used to roller-skate on the beach,” Billy said, painting the tip of her thumb. “And...they’d spin on their skates and their braids would swing around in a circle.”

He could see it in his head; days at the beach before his mother had died He could almost feel the sea spray. He remembered hanging around and smoking on the sly as a kid and watching the two girls in their shorts spin and spin, their beads catching the sunlight.

“That is so cool,” Erica said, awestruck. “I want to roller-skate on a beach.”

“Someday...you probably will,” Billy said with a shrug. “ It’s legal. Now gimme your other hand, girly.”

“When I grow up,” Erica said, “I’m going to go all over the world. Hawaii and Japan and Mexico and everywhere. And I’ll roller-skate on all the beaches.”

“Sounds like a plan.” Billy finished Erica’s other hand pretty quickly and he sat back and nodded. “Okay. Now that dries, that’s a base coat. Then we paint em’ again.”

“Where is San Diego?”

“It’s in California,” Billy said, shaking a bottle of the dark purply red he’d chosen for himself. “At the very bottom. It’s right next to Mexico.”

“Does it snow there?”

“Never.”

“I like snow but this is too much.”

“I hate snow,” Billy said darkly.

“Then why did you move here,” Erica said.

“‘Cause my dad and my step-mom made me.” He tapped the table with the cigarette and wondered why it was so easy talking to a nine-year-old.

“Your step-mom?” Erica made a face. “What the hell is a step-mom.”

“Hey, watch the language.”
“Oh puh-lease.”

“My mom died. Then it was just my dad and I for a while.” He stuck the cigarette behind his ear and painted his index finger. “Then he met Susan and they got married. So Susan is my step-mom.”

“Your mom died?” Erica said. “That sucks.”

“Yeah, I thought so.”

“I’m sorry,” she said in a quiet voice.

“S’okay.”

“How old were you when she died?”

“Eleven.”

“Wow.”

Billy only shrugged and he painted his middle-finger, his head bowed over his work.

“What was her name?”

He swallowed and shifted in his seat. “Julia.”

“You miss her a lot?”

Billy chewed his lip. He painted his pinky. “Yeah.” He sat back and inspected his work. “She loved the ocean. And The Beach Boys, she loved the Beach Boys. Everything like that... Things made of seashells… Dolphins…”

“Dolphins are awesome.”

“I want to go back there,” Billy said. “San Diego, I mean. Or L.A. maybe.”

“Because you hate the snow.”
“Yep.”
“You’re old now,” Erica said. “You can do anything you want. If I was old, I’d go to Hawaii.”

He laughed at that. “I know, I’m gonna. Just… have to… I want to bring somebody with me.”

“Who?”

“None of your beeswax, kid.” Erica’s base coat was about dry and he went about giving her a quick second coat as she watched him. He thought of Steve on the beach. Steve had never seen the Pacific. “Just haven’t asked him yet. He’s probably gonna say no.”

“Oh. You’re scared.”

“Am not,” Billy cracked

“Are too.”

“Am not.”

“Artoo-Detoo!”

“Jesus Christ.”

“My grandma says you’re taking the Lord’s name in vain when you say that.” Erica grinned at him.

“Yeah well, your grandma can eat my shorts.”

Erica burst out laughing but faithfully, did not move her hand. Billy smirked and went to work on the next second coat.

Billy heard the slamming of the front door and frowned over his shoulder, his brows just as quickly relaxing when he saw Steve walking in, bundled up in his big wool overcoat and snow-hat. He turned back to Erica, his ears perking up as he heard the tenor of Steve’s voice if not what exactly what he was saying as he spoke to the kids.

He heard Steve’s footsteps before he felt a gentle hand on his shoulder and he sighed a little.

“What’re you guys doing?” Steve said.

“We’re making spaghetti,” Billy said.

“Yeah, we’re making spaghetti,” Erica said. “Duh.”

Steve played with his hair and Billy leaned back a little. “We gotta make dinner for the rugrats,” Steve said.

“Yeah.” He finished Erica’s pinky finger and waved his hands. “Wave em’ around a little, not to much.”

“Look at my nails! Aren’t they cool!” Erica wagged her nails at Steve.

“They’re very very cool,” Steve agreed. He combed Billy’s hair with his fingers. “You guys been having fun?”
Yeah,” Erica said.

“Yeah,” Billy said. “Can I talk to you for a minute? Outside?”

Outside?” Steve said. “I just came from outside. It’s a tundra.”

“I wanna smoke.”

“Smoke in here.”

“It’s not allowed, Steve. Jesus.”

Steve sighed heavily and grabbed Billy’s jacket from the counter. “Never figured you for rules.”

In the backyard, they stood by a snow covered swing-set and Billy lit his cigarette and gave Steve the first drag. He watched snowflakes alight on Steve’s hair.

“I gotta say something,” Billy said.

Steve eyed him, wary. “Okay…” He handed Billy the cigarette and Billy took a long drag, working up his courage.

“I want to move back to Cali,” Billy said. “Soon.”

He watched Steve’s face fall slowly, his lips parted, he looked like all the air was being sucked out of him.

“Oh,” Steve said.

“I mean… But I want you to come with me,” Billy said. His chest ached, his heart was beating so hard.

“Oh,” Steve said. The corner of his mouth turned up. “Really?”

“Obviously. Idiot.”

“How long have you wanted to-”

Forever. I just didn’t think… Well, how the fuck should I know? If you’d go. Everyone you know lives here. You babysit all these fucking kids all the time, I thought you wouldn’t want to and I’m not even going without you okay so fuck you, I was scared to ask alright. Just tell me if I’m wasting my goddamn time so I don’t-”

Steve kissed him, slow and sweet and leaned back and then kissed him again. “Dumbass. Of course, I want to go.”

“Yeah?” Billy said.

“Yeah.” Steve tugged on his sleeve. “Take me to the beach. But first let’s make dinner for the kids. They’re gonna starve to death.”

“Okay.”

“Did you totally bond with Erica Sinclair or something?”

Billy took another drag and Steve led him back to the house. “She’s the only cool one.”