Steve was used to patching his own wounds. He didn’t remember learning how, being taught. He guessed it was more of a survival instinct than a formal education, figuring out how to mend himself. Put the pieces back together. The ones you could see. The ones you couldn’t.
Apply pressure. Stop the bleeding. Wash it out. Wrap it up. Leave it alone. Maybe it’ll feel better in the morning. Let it heal.
Keep a bat in your trunk. Keep another by your bed. Make sure your sneakers are always tied. Lock all the doors. Lock them again. Try to sleep. Maybe it’ll feel better in the morning. Let it heal.
The Battle of Starcourt wasn’t a wound the rest had prepared him for. It didn’t bleed. It burned. Raged beneath his skin. Ran like fire in his veins. Opened old scars he thought had faded. Ripped out years worth of stitches that stretched across his body like constellations. Ached and stung for hours that turned into days and just when he thought the fire was dying, it would flare, flames burning bright. In his lungs. Beneath his feet. Behind his eyes.
Let it heal, he told himself. Let it all fade. The bruises marring his face. The cuts lining his cheeks. The prick of a needle in his neck. The echo of the Mind Flayer’s scream. Of Billy’s scream. His body hitting the floor.
One simple switch, stroke of fate, and it could have been him. Could have easily been Steve. Him under the Mind Flayer’s control. Him screaming. Him hitting the floor. Him they were mourning.
He pressed the heels of his shaking hands against his eyelids and stars exploded in his vision like fireworks. Like the Fourth of July. Maybe one day the colors shrieking across the sky wouldn’t blend with the helpless ring of Billy gasping for air, the endless stretch of white noise that followed when the gasping ceased. Wouldn’t make him lightheaded. Dizzy. Disoriented.
It will fade. Let it heal.
Steve could hardly even remember the first few days after it happened. Not with the way his memory had gone hazy and blurred from stress and lack of sleep. Moments of clarity bled through randomly if he thought about it hard enough.
Joyce sitting them down and explaining what had happened to Hopper. The endless stream of non-disclosure agreements that were pushed into their faces. The first newscast that talked about the mall. Robin’s face when they finally properly told her about the Upside Down.
She was a major reason he’d been able to find the surface after days of drowning. Robin. She helped him come up for air. Pulled him out of his head when he got too quiet. Dragged him to the movies when he’d be going home to an otherwise empty house. Teased him at the video store like she would do at Scoops.
He knew how lucky he was to have her.
Dustin, too. Asking him for rides. Inviting him over for dinner. Making him tag along at the arcade. Showing up to hang out at the video store.
It all seemed normal. Played like normal.
Until he went to sleep and the nightmares stung like someone had poured salt in his mending wounds. Pushed on his bruises. Shattered him and hid the pieces.
They were always similar. Variations on the same theme. Starcourt. The Mind Flayer. Billy.
Sometimes they would play out like reality. He’d be forced to watch Billy die again, hanging over the railing, useless from the second floor. Forced to listen to Max sob over her brother while he struggled to run down the broken escalator.
Sometimes the dreams would stray. The Mind Flayer would turn and look up, kill him. Or Robin. Or the kids. Or El wouldn’t be able to get through to Billy and nothing would stop the Mind Flayer from following through with its plan to get her.
He’d wake up with a jolt that made it feel like he was falling. Always out of breath. Hair damp with sweat. Sheets tangled around his body. Sometimes he was silent, as though the dreams had crept in like a poison that killed him slowly. Sometimes he’d be screaming.
This had happened once before. In the first few weeks after the demodogs. When the Upside Down was still raw and terrifying and painfully new.
The nightmares had faded then. They would fade again. Eventually.
Move on. Let it heal.
Maybe that’s why he said yes when Max asked him to help move boxes out of Billy’s room after the dust settled. He could hear her voice. Too many. Too heavy.
Just like his wounds. His grief. Too many. Too heavy.
Robin had been dumbfounded when he told her he was going. They were in the middle of reorganizing the horror section by year-because apparently alphabetical was too archaic-when he dropped the bomb.
She’d gaped at him. Went dead still so that she could just stare.
“Lemme see if I heard you right,” she started. “You’re gonna go there and clean out Billy’s room? Like Billy Hargrove’s room?”
He shook his head, deliberately not looking at her. “I’m not cleaning out his room.”
“Really?” Her voice pitched up in that way it did when she thought she was right. “Because it sounds like you’re going there to clean out his room.”
“No it’s not-Max asked for help, alright? She said she can’t move his stuff out by herself.”
“Doesn’t she have parents for that?”
“I don’t know. I didn’t ask.” He reached over her to shove a cassette onto the top shelf. “Her brother just died. I feel bad.”
“Her step-brother just died and he beat the shit out of you not too long ago,” she said, matter of fact. “Or did he hit you so hard you forgot?”
“That was like months ago,” he said, leaning further into her space so that she had to move with a huff. “And you don’t get to use that because you weren’t even there.”
“Coulda been if you’d gotten the stick out of your ass sooner.”
“I didn’t have a stick in my ass.”
“Yes you did,” she said, lips twisted into a smirk. “The douchebag stick.”
“Whatever,” he mumbled. “That’s still not the point.”
“Well what exactly is the point? Because I don’t see one.”
“You don’t have to see one,” he argued. “I’m gonna go ‘cause it’s-it’s the right thing to do, okay? Let it go.”
“Okay, okay. Fine, you win.” She waved the videos she had in each hand like a white flag. “Go be a knight in shining armor, but don’t come crying to me when your arms are sore tomorrow.”
He didn’t care what she had to say about it, though.
Saying yes felt right. Like an apology. A eulogy Steve knew he couldn’t speak given his and Billy’s history. An understanding of the penance Billy thought his sacrifice would serve.
A sacrifice, a penance that would reap no rewards. Would never change anything. Would never help Billy find peace. Would never erase July 4th, 1985.
Go help Max. Let it heal.
The Hargrove-Mayfield house was nothing like he had expected. Bright. Open. Warm. Curtains printed with bright flowers. Pretty vases filled with seashells. Cream-colored walls accented with teal green. It wasn’t hard to imagine the way it all probably clashed with denim, with a battered leather jacket. With jagged edges and a sharp tongue.
In that way, Billy’s bedroom was everything he had expected. Cold. Empty. Lifeless. Still only half packed up. Walls lined haphazardly with band posters. Sheets crumpled down at the end of his bed. Thin tapestry hiding one of the windows halfway. Bedside table littered with belongings; cassettes, headphones, a telephone, pack of cigarettes, glass ashtray.
Steve hadn’t known he’d been holding his breath until Max picked up one of the cardboard boxes from the floor and walked past him. He released it with a shaky exhale, loud to his own ears like he’d been running sprints. He picked up a box, small and deceptively heavy, and followed her outside. Dropped it into the bed of the run-down pickup truck parked in their driveway.
They made this same trip a few times. Back in, back out. Back in, back out. Until there were only two more boxes left.
Max took one, walked past him. He heard the distant slam of the screen door as she went back out to the driveway.
Alone in Billy’s room for the very first time, his eyes wandered, gravitated instantly towards his bed. Those crumpled sheets. The same way Steve’s looked when kicked his off in the morning. The same way he’d leave them until it was time to go to sleep again. Certain he’d be back to pull them up to his neck and rest under their safety.
Billy would never be back to pull them up. To rest.
Something like nausea pulled uncomfortably in his gut, threatened to spread up his chest and spill over.
He tore his gaze away and it landed back on the bedside table. Attention drawn to the glass ashtray on display towards the front. Entirely out of place amongst the rest of his things, worn, tattered, and torn. Distracted by the way it sparkled in the light from the half exposed window behind it, bending the rays in every which direction.
It was heavy in his hand when he dumped it out in the garbage in the corner, cleaned it, brushed it off with the sleeve of his jacket.
Newly polished, he walked it back over towards the window. Examined it. Ran his thumb over its dips and smooth edges, hard lines and rounded corners. Delicate. Ornate. Watched the way it refracted the light into a rainbow onto the stark white wall. Angled his wrist, followed the beam around the room until it landed on the last cardboard box.
He hesitated. Thought of this pretty, little glass ashtray buried in the bottom of one of those boxes. Frowned at the thought of it being stored away. Hidden beneath records and clothes. Lost. Forgotten.
The screen door swung open with a pang and, before he could think, he stuffed the ashtray into his jacket pocket. Zipped it closed just in time for Max to walk through the doorway.
“There’s one left, Steve. What’s the hold up?”
His lips pulled into a tight smile. “Nothing. Just, uh, needed to catch my breath.”
He picked up the last box and left Billy’s room behind him. Kicked the screen door open with his foot, dropped the box off in the bed of the truck.
As he wiped his hands off on his jeans, a beat up Cadillac parked along the curb. Two doors slammed. Out from one came a petite woman with burnt orange hair, kind of young, very pretty. Definitely Max’s mom. Out from the other came a man with hard eyes, set jaw, broad shoulders. Definitely Billy’s dad.
He approached Steve with heavy, stomping footsteps on the gravelly driveway. Zeroed in with a shark like focus that made Steve feel like he should be backing up.
“You were helping Maxine, right?” His voice was a stern hum, reminded Steve of some general he might see in a war movie. Made the hairs on the back of his neck stand at attention.
“Yeah, we just finished up actually. I’m Steve.” He held his hand out, offered what felt like a polite smile, but Billy’s dad didn’t extend his own, didn’t acknowledge it, not even when he set his feet. “Steve Harrington.”
“How much do I owe you?” he asked, gruff, short.
Steve felt his lips twitch, his eyebrows pinch. Let his hand fall slowly, uncomfortably. “Owe me?”
“For helping her.” He got his wallet out of his jeans and began to rifle through it. “How much do you want?”
“Oh. I don’t-” he stared blankly at the ten-dollar bill being pushed in his direction, “I don’t want anything. Max called in a favor and I wanted to help.”
He didn’t seem like the man to offer anything twice and proved Steve’s suspicion when he shoved the wallet back into his pocket, made like he was going to push off his heel to keep walking.
Steve panicked in the awkward tension, spoke on pure impulse.
“I’m really sorry about Billy,” he said, the words spilling out before he could think better of them. “It’s awful what happened to him.”
Billy’s dad stopped dead in his tracks and Steve watched the sharp line of his jaw as it clenched, mouth a thin line.
He knew the story the public had been told. That Billy had been in a car crash. Knew Billy was reckless enough for the story to be more than halfway believable. Knew the totaled Camaro and his broken body made up for what little doubt might’ve been leftover.
He could have guessed Billy didn’t have the best home life, that there was something deeper lurking beneath the macho, go fuck yourself attitude that he played at so well.
He never could have guessed Billy’s dad would laugh. A sound so ugly and harsh that it cut through him like glass, suddenly afraid of the cruelty his next few words might possess.
Steve was almost grateful that he walked past him without a word. Max’s mom trailed close behind, threw him a tight-lipped smile that didn’t quite reach her eyes before she disappeared into the house. Max waved to him from the window and he tried to smile back, but he didn’t feel much of himself in it.
The long drive back to his house was shaded hues of orange and pink as the sun set in the sky above him. Gave way to the quiet, starry night sky and the constant chirp of crickets out in the woods. Little more than a faint drone beneath the radio, which he had up so high it distorted the notes. Distorted the ring of a dark laugh in his ears.
When he walked in the front door, he went right up the stairs. Ignored his mom as she called from the kitchen that she had a plate saved from dinner if he wanted it. Ignored his dad before he could start with whatever and where exactly have you been all day?
He locked the door behind him and unzipped his jacket. Went to throw it on his bed like he normally did, but stopped when it hung heavier in his hands than usual.
He’d forgotten all about the little, glass ashtray he’d taken from Billy’s room. Pulled it out of the pocket. Turned it over in his hands. Eyed it carefully. He wondered if anyone noticed it was missing yet. Wondered if anyone would notice it was missing at all.
A thought that both hurt his stomach and eased his guilt about stealing it.
He placed it down gently on his bedside table, all but empty except for his lamp and clock. Mirrored the way Billy’d had it, out in the middle, pushed towards the front like it was on display. Begging to be looked at.
Steve didn’t even smoke anymore. Gave it up sometime in the spring. There was still the occasional restless cigarette here and there, but nothing consistent, not steady like the habit used to be.
He liked the way the ashtray looked, though. Liked how it reminded him of a simpler time. Not of monsters, but of persistent teasing and the occasional shove at basketball practice. Of a fight that put an end to all of that, but not to Billy’s eyes, which Steve felt on him constantly through the halls, in class, the locker room. Put him on edge. Made him a little hot under the collar. Had him wishing that Billy would just open his mouth and say something, put an end to the stalemate and let things return to how they used to be.
He liked the way looking at it helped him remember that Billy. Not his body lying flat and bloody on the floor of Starcourt mall. Liked the way it made him feel.
Let it heal.
He fell asleep with his head tipped in its direction. Splayed out on his stomach, hands folded beneath the pillow. Deep and dreamless for the first time in days.
He woke once to the sound of a hard thud across the room. Like something had fallen. Maybe got knocked over in another room. He squinted into the darkness, hardly even lifted his head off the pillow. Saw nothing.
He thought nothing of it.
So he fell back. Back into that peaceful, perfect sleep.