“I don’t know what it is,” Will says, scrubs at his cheeks.
Honestly, Billy didn’t sign up for this. Says slow, mostly kind, “What, and you think I do?”
Will shakes his head, chokes back another sob. “Just. Just. I thought—I don’t know what I thought.”
It’s not like anyone really likes Billy, or even wants to like Billy. Especially after the Mindflayer. Especially after the fight in Starcourt Mall. Sometimes Billy feels like he’s still sitting there, revving his engine, wondering how long he can keep the car in park, wondering how long it’ll be until he can’t control his arms, will watch the car slip into drive, will jerk forward to pop the clutch.
Things are a little easier from a hospital bed. He’s still got no control, is hooked to more tubes than he’s ever wanted to be, but it’s a still kind of rattle in his bones. He’s breathing on his own, air catching in crackles from his still-torn throat. When he rubs his face, it’s because he wants to. The sweat trickling down his neck is from the busted air conditioning in his room, not the anti-freeze gurgling in his stomach.
When they got him on the mend, he threw up for two weeks. They said he should have been dead.
“He visits you, right?” Will asks, and really, that’s the biggest downside of his hospital stay. Every teary-eyed, slack-jawed shmuck in Hawkins can just waltz right in. No one has to look for him anymore, he’s pretty fucking easy to find.
“Sometimes,” Billy says, because even if he doesn’t want to admit that he knows who Will means, he knows Will isn’t stupid. “What do you want, Bowl Cut?”
Will takes a deep breath, kind of gurgly through his snot. He’s not a cute crier. Billy’s always thought he looks too young for his age, too boyish. Of all of Max’s friends, he’s the quietest, the least assuming.
Slowly, Will says, “I don’t know who else to tell.”
Max was telling him the other day that the Byers put their house on the market, that she doesn’t know what to do without El giggling with her on the floor, without Will frowning soft when Lucas says the wrong thing. Billy didn’t know what to tell her then, still doesn’t. He doesn’t remember the last time his relationship with her was so good, even if it’s difficult, gruesome. She’s more torn than she was leaving California.
She always visits on her own, always brings cookies from Susan. Dad has only three times, something about work. Doesn’t believe for a second that his son nearly died pulling a young girl out of a blazing mall fire. Everyone else thinks it’s a pretty good lie.
“You got two months left here, kid. Just fucking suck it up.”
“But I can’t,” Will says. “I just. I feel like I just sit here and watch. And it’s constant, over and over and over. And he doesn’t even know.”
“Okay, but why the fuck would you tell me?” Billy asks. “You think I’m what, too disabled to tell anyone? Why the fuck am I suddenly the barer of all the fucking secrets in Hawkins, huh? I can’t escape, so I’m some form of fucking therapy? I’m not a fag, Byers.”
It’s mean. Will’s breath hitches. He rubs at his eyes again, rubs snot on his shirt sleeve. Billy grimaces and throws the tissue box from the bedside at him.
Will misses the throw, just blinks when it hits his face. Clutches it to his chest after like a snotty, globby trophy. “Sorry.” His words crack. He’s so young.
“I’d have beat you up for that a month ago.”
“If I could move, I would kick your ass.”
“I know, I’m sorry.”
“Just fucking tell him.”
Will’s breath rattles. “Are you going to tell him?”
And they’re talking about two different people. Billy knows, knows Will knows, meets those teary, red-rimmed eyes with a scowl.
“You’ve got until your mom finishes selling that fucking house to do something. So fucking do it, alright? Don’t cry here like some bitch. I can’t fix your problems.”
“He’s got a girlfriend.”
“And you’ve got your left hand. I’m not really seeing how I’m in the equation.”
“It’s how you look at him,” Will says, talks about that someone else, doesn’t answer Billy’s question. “It used to be hungry, you know? You looked at him like a prize, or a contest, or. And now it’s just. Sad. Really sad.”
“It’s not my fault I won that contest.”
“We all know you didn’t.”
“I tried to sleep with Wheeler’s mom.”
The face Will pulls is comical, would have Billy in stitches if his stomach wasn’t rolling, didn’t feel like he had new poison in his veins. He licks his lips, hasn’t felt real fire in his belly since November. Like his blood hasn’t felt like the static on TV, buzzing, fuzzy, never bringing in a station.
“It was almost too easy.”
“Did you even want to?”
Billy shrugs, looks at the ceiling. “It would have been fun.”
“But not what you want.”
“This isn’t my therapy session.”
“I can’t tell him.”
“Look, how many times do I have to tell you I don’t have the fucking answer, huh? I don’t know about this shit. I don’t even want to. I’m not like you.”
“He loves El. Loves her so much it hurts.”
“And you just want to play your nerd shit and stick your hands down his pants, I got it the first time.”
“I don’t want to—” Will blushes. “Okay, I. I maybe want to. But this isn’t—I’m not doing that.”
“I was trying to bang chicks at your age.”
“What’s your point?”
Will shakes his head, looks like he might laugh. “I definitely feel too young for that. I am too young for that. I just want to, you know—”
“Hold his hand, make him buy you flowers, all the girly shit. I got it.”
“Do you feel like that?”
Billy’s looking at the roof again, needs to remind himself that he can’t punch the kid sobbing next to him, that there’s no point when he’s been playing nice guy, thinks he might be close to one fucking person giving a shit about him. Not that he cares. No one ever fucking has.
“I’ve bought flowers before.”
“I can’t get out of this bed. I’m getting fucking sponge baths from middle aged nurses. I couldn’t make it to a florist if I even wanted. Which I don’t.”
“You want to have sex with him.”
“I fuck a lot of people. That’s a bold word for you, Bowl Cut.”
“Shut up,” Will says, chokes on a laugh. “He used to look at me like maybe I was special. Think I was maybe making it up.”
“Could be. Brain does weird shit, when you want something.”
“Do you think he ever looked at you like that?”
Billy shrugs, exhales slow. “Nah. He was kind of busy licking that princess’s pussy.”
“You’re a prude.”
“I think you love him.”
“I think you’re full of big fucking assumptions. Just because you’re into that shit—”
“I can’t help it,” Will says. “Keep promising myself I’m never going to fall in love.”
Well. Billy pinches his nose, can’t believe he’s even fucking having this conversation, wishes he could tell the kid he was going to the bathroom, never come back out. “Sounds a little late for that.”
“He doesn’t know. I don’t think he even guesses it’s possible. He’s just, so wrapped up in El. And I think he might know that I’m—I think I gave myself away. I just wanted so badly for them to shut up about girls, to be my friends, to remember me for one second. I feel like I lost my whole childhood.”
“Got nightmares? Heard you went through hell, worse than mine, Zombie Boy.”
“Every night. Sometimes—sometimes he’s in them. Sometimes he saves me.”
“He never stopped looking. Never stopped trying. Or that’s what they tell me. Saw me in the hospital a lot.”
“Isn’t that El chick, like, your sister?”
“Step-sister, I guess. Or adopted.”
“I know all about that shit, at least.”
“I don’t think I should tell him.”
“I think you’ll regret it if you don’t.”
For a minute, Will rolls that around in his mouth, looks at his tube socks and scuffed running shoes. He squeezes his knees. “I don’t think he’d visit come me, after that.”
“I think you’re not giving him a chance to.”
“We keep making plans to visit on holidays, but I think he’ll come down with Nancy a lot, to see El and Jonathan. I think he won’t want to talk to me.”
“Or he could want you too.”
“I’d ruin my relationship with El.”
“If you’re never going to tell him, why are you even here?”
“Are you going to tell him?”
This isn’t a game Billy wants to be playing, doesn’t like all the switching around. He licks his teeth, sucks on his tongue. “No point.”
“He visits you.”
“I think he’s fucking sorry. Thinks maybe we could be friends. Like that’s even fucking possible. He’s probably got head trauma, after being punched in the face so many times. His nose is kind of crooked now, if you look close.”
“You might be the only one who sees that.”
“He’s started wearing too much chap-stick.”
“He’s too old for you.”
“I don’t want him. I’m just saying.”
There’s a knock on the door, makes them both jump. Will twists around in his chair, says, “Oh.”
“Uh,” Steve says. He leans with his arm up in the doorway, bouquet dangling from his other hand. “If this is a bad time, I can come back?” He’s making a face like maybe he heard more than he bargained for, more than any of them have ever wanted to say.
“No, no,” Will says, quickly getting to his feet. “I was just leaving.”
“Liar,” Billy says. “Just go kiss Mike already, Jesus Christ. Snot-nosed bitch is probably aching for it.”
Steve raises his eyebrows, blinks. “Wow, okay.”
Will whips the tissue box back at Billy, says, “Fuck you,” as Billy groans. He shoves Steve out of the doorway as Steve stalls, watches Will go up the hall like maybe he’s processing.
“Is everyone I know gay?” he slowly asks.
“Everyone? That’s one fucking kid.”
“Okay, like, way more people than I thought of in Hawkins.”
“Close your mouth already, god, you look stupid.”
“My mom sent these flowers,” Steve says, closing the door behind him. The daffodils are already in a vase, considerate.
“I don’t need fucking gifts. You see any other flowers in here?”
“No, but. She’s home right now, and I said I was going to the hospital to visit a friend today, because, you know, she always wants to know where I’m going, and when I got back from job hunting she had these on the kitchen table, waiting—”
“I don’t even know your mom.”
“She’s just kind of like that.”
Steve sets the flowers on the side table and pauses at Billy’s bedside. The sun streaming through the windows picks up every dust particle floating in the shadows, the hospital lights always too dark, like they think Billy’s always sleeping. Sometimes, he feels like he is.
“Think he just needed someone who will listen.”
Steve doesn’t take the chair by the bed. Instead, he sits by Billy’s hip, smooths down the covers at his side. The way his baby finger brushes Billy’s ribs feels a little like fluid collecting in his lungs, black bile.
“What do you want?” Billy asks.
“Nothing,” Steve says, but doesn’t look at Billy, keeps his eyes where his finger is moving, rolling over Billy’s side. “Just checking in, you know? We’re all kind of worried. El says she checks on you every night, in her mind, before bed.”
“That kid is too nosy.”
“I think she loves you.”
“God, all you people want to fucking talk about is love today. She has a boyfriend.”
“Not like that.”
No one’s ever said that Billy takes his own advice, because he doesn’t. He likes to stew, let stuff rattle around in his brain until it comes spitting out of his mouth. He’s a man of impulse, impatience. “I never meant to fuck up your face, you know? Just wanted to get under your skin a little. Thought I might be kind of fun to be important, for my last year of school.”
“Well, you definitely did that.”
“Tommy H. isn’t shit, you know?”
“Has he come to see you?”
“Carol’s made him, a few times. They were mad no one told them for weeks. They just come in and talk shit. It’s never anything important.”
“Yeah, well. They missed all the bad shit. Kind of wish it was just us sometimes. Playing ball, smoking by the pool. Letting Carol braid my hair.”
“You did that shit?”
“She thought it was fun. I don’t know. Growing up is weird, you know? Wish I’d realized how easy it was, then.”
Billy isn’t really thinking, lightly takes Steve’s wrist. He ghosts his finger over Steve’s pulse, same rhythm, same heartbeat. “Can you get me a glass of water?”
But Steve doesn’t get up. He twists their arms, brings Billy’s hand close to his mouth, hesitates by his palm. “Why was Will talking to you?”
“He thinks I’m a fag.”
“He doesn’t know you very well.”
The sun just touches Steve’s knees. Billy breathes out slow, wishes he had a cigarette, or a beer, or a lobotomy. “I don’t think anyone wants to. Don’t think I deserve it, honestly.”
Gently, Steve presses Billy’s palm to his lips, so soft Billy almost misses it. “I forgive you.”
“Is he right?”
Steve gives Billy a look that says he knows better, knows he hasn’t been punched in the face. “I shouldn’t tell you this, but Robin Buckley is a lesbian.”
“Yeah. She told me after I told her I was in love with her.”
“No. But I thought I might like her. Dustin had it all worked up in my head, kept saying she was my dream girl.”
“Fuck that toothless freak.”
“Don’t call him that. He has a condition. It’s—actually, I can’t pronounce it, it’s too long. He claims his girlfriend thinks the teeth thing is hot.”
“Yeah. You really saved our asses.”
“You know, you keep saying that,” Billy says.
“I think that’s dramatic.”
“Thought my heart was going to stop, watching you. Wished I was down on the ground.”
“You hated me.”
“Yeah.” Steve presses his lips to Billy’s palm again, tries to catch his eyes. Murmurs against his palm, “I was kind of hoping Will was right, just now.”
Pain is seeping through Billy’s limbs, painkillers wearing thin, has him less loopy than he is sometimes. Steve is all sharp angles and soft lips, slightly bent nose, half-mast eyes. He holds Billy’s wrist like a crushed bird, feathers escaping his fingers, squished between tight nails and knuckles.
“Didn’t know you were like that.”
“I’m not, always.”
There’s something in the air, in Steve’s pulse, that has Billy breathing electric, kicked in the chest. He says, “Robin teach you that?”
“Fuck that Byers kid.”
But Steve smiles like maybe he’s solved a problem, lips a little parted, and bends to kiss the corner of Billy’s lips, leaves the spot gooey and minty. “You know I forgive you.”
There’s a knock on the door. Steve stands quickly, clears his throat, just in time for a nurse to come in. “Afternoon, Billy. Just changing your IV, don’t mean to interrupt. Oh,” she says, holds the flowers between her palms. “These are lovely. Someone loves you.”
“Yeah,” Billy says, voice cracking. “Maybe.”