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Never Say Die

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Billy had started his Christmas morning on the back steps of the house; barefoot, shirt unbuttoned like it was eighty-six degrees outside, hair tousled from sleep and dragging on his cigarette until the end glowed red hot.

He was scowling and muttering to himself.

My sister, winter coat and boots pulled on hurriedly over her pajamas, slipped excitedly past him to jump down into the powdery white snow that covered the whole of the yard. It was the first time any of us had ever really seen it.

“Shit cold,” Billy said moodily, watching my sister hopping up and down on one foot. “This blows. I’m going back to bed.”

I came up behind him, joining him in the doorway to peer over his shoulder at my sister, who was watching the snow crumble and powder into her hands.

“It’s Christmas day,” I tried.

“So what?” Billy said.

“So you can’t go back to bed once you’ve woken up. That’s the rule.”

Billy hid his smile behind his cigarette, smirking as he exhaled smoke out into the yard. “Don’t be such a buzzkill, Mayfield.”

Behind us, my mom cleared her throat. Neil looked up from the table.

“Close the door if you’re not going out,” he said stiffly. “It costs money to keep this house warm you know.”

“You’re making me cold just looking at you,” my mom said, cracking eggs into a bowl and whisking them with her fork. “Don’t you own a sweater, Billy?”

He did, actually. I’d seen several of them hanging in his bedroom closet, including a letterman jacket from his old school that he said he wouldn’t be caught dead in unless he was really made to. I’d tried it on late one night when talk had turned silly and we were too late into the night to sleep anymore.

“Vanity,” Neil sniffed rudely.

Billy swung the door shut with a bang. “You’re looking tired, dad.”

Neil shot him a cold look.

He and my mom had gone out the night before to a Christmas Eve party at the home of a colleague’s, leaving me and Billy at home to babysit Max.

Billy hadn’t been very happy about it. There’d been a party at Tina’s while her parents were at a function of their own and he was furious to have missed it.

“Very tired,” Billy repeated, raising an eyebrow at me. “What do you think, Diana? Looks like a hangover to me.”

I just smiled at him.

It made me nervous when he got this way, even though I knew he couldn’t really help it. Living with the Hargrove men meant watching them fight a constant battle for power most days. And I guessed it was obvious that Christmas wasn’t going to be any different from any other day either.

Billy winked at me.

The phone in the hallway began to ring.

“I’ll get it,” I said then, rushing quickly out into the hall to answer.

I was secretly glad for something to do, wondering how long I would be able to take Billy and Neil’s passive-aggressive digs at one another.

I snatched up the receiver with a grateful sigh, leaning back against the wall.

“Hargrove residence,” I sang.

“Is that you, Diana?”

“Dad?” I clutched the phone tight in my hands, happy to hear his voice after so long. “God, you sound so far away.”

“So do you,” he said. “I’ve missed you.”

“You never call anymore.”

“Life gets in the way, darling.” He sighed deeply like he didn’t want to get into it all. “You know how it is.”

“Yeah,” I said. “I understand.”

“Did you get the presents I sent you?”

“Yes.” They were sitting under the tree with the rest of the paper parcels, waiting to be opened after dinner.

“And is Max okay?”

“She’s out in the yard,” I said. “It’s been snowing all night.”

“Yeah? No way.” My father sounded distracted, like somebody had just come into the room. “That’s cool.”

I suspected it was Cynthia.

“It’s my first Christmas without you,” I said, the receiver slackening a little in my hand. “It’s weird. Doesn’t feel the same without you somehow.”

There was a long silence over the phone.

“You’re breaking my heart, darling,” my dad said at last. “It doesn’t feel the same here either.”

I could hear Cynthia talking to him in the background, her voice syrupy.

“How’s Cynthia?” I asked stiffly.

“Oh she’s been great,” my dad answered. “She’s cooking her first turkey for us today, aren’t you darling?”

Cynthia said something back to him and my dad laughed loudly.

“That’s great,” I said, my voice falling limp and flat. “Mom’s cooking for us. We haven’t been able to touch anything in the fridge all week.”

“And your mom’s okay?” It sounded like a question he felt obligated to ask; like he was rushing through the formality of it. “Is she happy and everything now?”

I could hear my mom humming along to ‘Band-Aid’ in the kitchen, her voice silly and high. “Yes,” I said. “She’s happy.”

“And Max is happy?”

“She’s never seen snow before,” I told him. “Happy is one word for it.”

“And you’re happy?”

I found it very easy to laugh like everything was normal. “Of course.”

My dad seemed satisfied with those answers. He felt like he’d done what was required of him and I could feel the conversation drawing to its natural end.

I knew what happened next; pretty soon he was going to sigh and hum and fidget over the phone and then suggest that he was now too busy to talk anymore. I’d suggest fetching Max and bringing her to the phone and he’d say something about not wanting to cause any fuss and to leave her playing in the snow. I saved him the trouble and hurried through the conversation myself.

“Happy Christmas to both of you,” was the last thing I said to him before I hung up the phone.

I joined Billy in his mood after that.

At dinner though, Billy started to make more of an effort.

He seated himself at the table between me and Max, and smiled at my mom when she plated up his turkey. He pulled the crackers, wore the stupid paper hats, read out the shitty jokes and raised his drink to my mom’s toast just like he was supposed to. When Neil brought out the mistletoe and tied it above the kitchen table, Billy slung his arm over Max’s shoulder and kissed her quickly on the cheek, making her blush redder than her cranberry juice.

“My two girls,” he said, and then he turned to me, bent me back over the chair and gave me a big movie-star kiss on the mouth right in front of everyone, his arm wrapped tight around me, fingers on the collar of my sweater.

“Very funny,” Neil said seriously when my mom looked away, mortified. “I think that’s quite enough of that, don’t you?”

Billy thumbed at the corner of my mouth the way he always did after he’d kissed me, to right my smudged lipstick for me. He was holding back a laugh and he spoke to Neil without looking at him. “Lighten up. It’s Christmas.”

“I think that was a joke, dear,” my mom assured Neil quickly.

“Who the hell’s laughing?” Neil asked.

I thought it was probably wise to change the subject now.

“My dad called,” I said proudly, stabbing at my potatoes with my fork.

Neil glanced at me over his plate, not even bothering to at least pretend he was interested. “Oh really? And what did he have to say?”

“He says he misses me.”

“Is that right?”

“And it sounds like he’s doing great.”

My bragging seemed to amuse him. “Good for him. What else?”

“He says he misses Max too.”

“Did Max speak with him as well?”

“No,” I admitted. “He said he had to go.”

Billy stretched both of his arms out across the back of his chair, his fingers brushing against my sweater and staying there. “Did he say he’d call again?”

“No,” I said again truthfully, grateful to be looking at Billy and not at Neil. “But I think he might, you know? He sounded like he really missed me. And Max.”

“If he missed you, Diana,” Neil said curtly. “He wouldn’t just call at Christmas now, would he?”

“He doesn’t just call at Christmas,” I argued, scowling at him from my chair.

“Did he call you on your birthday?”

I faltered, mouth opening and closing.

“No,” I confessed.

“And did he call you on Thanksgiving?”

“No.”

“Has he called you at all since you moved here?” Neil asked, smiling and ignoring the look on my mother’s face that was telling him to be kind.

“No,” I said, swallowing thickly.

“But he doesn’t just call at Christmas?”

“Alright.” Billy snapped his eyes to his father, fingers tightening on my sweater sleeve. “You’ve made your point, okay?”

Neil’s eyes flashed at him. “Then again, at least Tony knows how to pick up a phone and call somebody.”

I pressed my lips together tightly until they disappeared, not sure why he was insisting on being so cruel, especially on a day like this when we were supposed to at least pretend we were happy.

“The day’s not over,” I said gently, coming to Billy’s defence even though I didn’t believe myself that Billy’s mom would call. “There’s time.”

Billy didn’t say anything.

Spookily, the phone in the hallway began to ring.

We all looked expectantly at the door, our ears pricking up at the high, shrill sound. Billy’s arm stiffened around my shoulder. The phone kept on ringing.

Billy made to stand up.

“Don’t you dare,” Neil said cruelly, leaning over to help himself to more turkey. “Rules stay the same just like every other day. And that means there are no phone calls at the dinner table.”

Billy sat back down, doing as he was told. I didn’t really think it was his mom calling but there was always that one chance; that one possibility.

“Whoever it is,” my mom tried kindly. “They’ll call back if it’s important.”

I don’t think Billy believed her.

Even when dinner was over and we all filed into the living room to open our presents, I could tell that the phone call at dinner was still at the back of his mind. It was in his face when he spoke, that faraway look he wore when he was thinking about other things. He kept turning his mom’s ring on his hand.

We opened the presents in age order, which meant that Max got to open her presents first, then me and then finally, Billy. Max tore off the brightly patterned paper feverishly, cheeks reddening with excitement when she saw the shiny new skateboard underneath, glossy wheels and bright logo. She was a little less enthusiastic about the matching helmet and knee pads, but she liked the walkie-talkie that I’d snagged on discount from Radio Shack and the Queen tape from Billy.

“So you can listen to some real music,” he said.

In my little pile of presents, there was a Madonna calendar for 1985, a VHS copy of ‘Sixteen Candles’ which had come out just the month before, a tube of hot pink lipstick and a necklace from Billy.

The necklace didn’t look that expensive but I knew he’d put together what he had for it, and that meant more to me than anything. It was a simple gold necklace with my initial on it, strung on a delicate chain that Billy pulled between his fingers and motioned for me to turn around. He knelt behind me on the rug, sweeping my hair to one side and making a point of removing the necklace that was already around my neck and replacing it with his.

As Billy finished fastening up the clasp, I happened to look up and catch sight of Neil sitting on the sofa, staring at me. The look in his eyes was angry, disgusted, disappointed; and perhaps had Billy not been kneeling so close behind me I would have been afraid of what that look meant. But though the act of removing Neil’s necklace and swapping it for his own was a simple gesture, it was the biggest ‘fuck you’ Billy could have given to Neil at that time of his life, with the small amount of power he had. So the look was worth it.

From my mom and Neil, Billy got a Scorpion tape that it turned out he already had, so my mom said she would take it back to the store and give him the money so that he could choose what he wanted. Billy said he’d put it with the rest of the money they’d given him that he said he was putting towards a better stereo for his car. Actually, Billy had already started saving for California.

When all the presents had been torn open and the discarded paper had been swept away, my mom ran into the next room for the camera that she’d been using at dinner and returned breathlessly with it in her hands.

She ordered us to join Neil on the sofa, lifting the camera to her eye and squinting through the viewfinder.

“Everybody in close,” she said, waving her hand.

Neil was sitting at the end of the sofa with me next to him, then Billy and then Max on the end. My mom said it looked more even that way but I hated sitting next to Neil, even with Billy beside me. Sitting there on the sofa with him only reminded me of that night in November, when he’d pulled me under his arm and kissed me, then tried to force me back against the pillows on one side.

I hadn’t thought about that night. I thought that not thinking about it would make me forget faster, and that was all I wanted to do. But when Neil put his arm around my shoulder for the photo, it took everything not to cry right then.

“Put your arm around me, Diana,” Neil hummed, putting his mouth by my ear and leaning in to talk to me. “Anybody would think you don’t like photos.”

I stared straight ahead of me, eyes boring into the camera lens.

“I hate them,” I said.

“Smile, Diana,” my mom pleaded.

I forced myself to smile like I was supposed to, waiting for the familiar click and the bright snap of light as my mom took the picture, the film shooting out at the top of her camera and falling onto the rug.

My mom bent down and picked it up, ready to take another one.

“Smile, Diana,” she said again.

“I am smiling,” I insisted.

“Smile like you mean it then,” my mom said.

“She means smile like you’re actually happy,” Billy said in my ear. “Fake it.”

I didn’t think there were any genuine smiles in the photos that day, apart from maybe Max, who was still thinking about her new skateboard.

The highlight came that evening, when my mom and Neil went into the next town for a Christmas drink, leaving the three of us home alone to finally do as we pleased. It felt like it had been a whole charade all day, the whole family pretending to be something it was not.

Max watched them go from the window. “Coast is clear,” she said.

Billy groaned loudly and flopped down onto the sofa, grabbing my hand and pulling me down with him.

“Thank God,” he said, letting his eyes close. “That was a whole shit show if I ever saw one.”

“What’s a shit show?” Max asked.

“It means it was chaos,” I answered for her. “An actual living nightmare.”

“Was it that bad?”

“Yes,” Billy and I said in unison.

Max dropped her board onto the floor, eyebrows shooting up. She pushed at it gingerly with her toe, just testing.

Billy opened one eye.

“Max,” he sang in a very low voice. “You go on that thing in here and I’ll end you.”

“But it’s Christmas,” she tried.

Billy opened both eyes fully, snapping up in his seat to stare at her. “If you do as you’re told,” he said. “I’ll give you a cigarette.”

Max frowned at him like she didn’t believe he was being serious. “Do you really mean that?” she asked.

“Of course he doesn’t,” I jumped in, shoving Billy in the side. “Don’t be stupid. She’s only thirteen.”

“How old do you think I was when I started smoking?”

Billy took two cigarettes out of the pocket of his shirt and put them between his teeth, snapping open his lighter to light them both.

He handed one to Max.

“It’s Christmas,” he said. “Di, you want one?”

“No,” I said, pushing myself up from the sofa. “But I will have a drink now that your old man’s not breathing down my neck.”

Max was dragging tentatively on her smoke, lips comically pursed. “What’s his deal with you anyway, Diana?”

“What do you mean?” I turned my back on her, fixing my attention on the drinks cabinet that we were normally never allowed to touch or even go near.

“Don’t you think he’s weird around you?” My sister inhaled and then pulled a face, coughing a little. “I think he has a crush on you or something.”

It was meant to be a joke but it sent my blood cold and I took a long drink, knocking it all the way back before I turned to her.

“Don’t say shit like that,” I snapped at her. “It’s gross, okay?”

Max stared at me, not used to me being so harsh. “Okay,” she said.

I poured myself another drink. “Billy? You want one?”

“Is that a trick question?” Billy got up and came over to me, taking the drink and then catching me by the arm. “You okay?”

“I’m fine.” I slowly eased my arm back, loosening myself from his grip and clinking his glass with mine. “Cheers.”

“Shall I put some music on?” Max asked, behind us.

She was already reaching for the TV remote, churning through the channels for some Christmas songs.

“Are we having a party?”

“Can’t have a party with three people, Max,” Billy said, giving me one last look before turning and going back to the sofa. “How’s your cigarette?”

“It tastes awful,” Max said.

“Give it to Diana then.”

“No.” Max held onto it, pinching it between her fingers and holding it close to her chest. “It’s a good kind of awful.”

“That’s enough, okay?” I snatched the cigarette from her fingers, putting it quickly to my own mouth and taking a drag. “You shouldn’t smoke. It’s bad for you. Don’t they teach you anything in school?”

“Diana?” Billy was watching me from the sofa. “Are you sure you’re okay?”

I half-turned to him, mouth opening to tell him yet again that I was fine and could everybody please stop asking me if I was alright all the time.

Then the phone rang in the hallway, making me pause.

We all froze just like we did at dinner, turning to the door and looking out into the hallway, counting the rings.

For a moment or two, nobody said anything.

“Shall I-” Max moved cautiously to the door. “Shall I get it?”

“Wait a minute.” Billy jumped up from the couch, putting a hand on her shoulder. He looked pale and nervous all of a sudden. “Let me get it.”

We followed Billy out into the hallway, watching his hand hover over the ringing phone. Then he snatched it up and brought it to his ear. Nobody was saying it, but we were all thinking the exact same thing- if it’s important, they’ll call back.

“Hargrove residence,” Billy said, and his voice was surprisingly calm.

He brought his free hand up and pinched the bridge of his nose as he listened, his head snapping up when the person on the other line began to speak.

His face was empty and unreadable, frustratingly devoid of expression.

“This is Billy speaking,” he said and he wouldn’t meet my eye. “No, I’m sorry. He’s out at the minute but I’ll…”

For a split second, he choked up. “But I’ll tell him you called.”

I was sure that Billy put the phone down when the other person was still speaking, crashing it back down into the cradle and rubbing his jaw.

His face, empty one minute, was now shadowed with something else- bitter and painful disappointment that he was trying his best to hide.

“Fuck,” he said.

“Are you okay, Billy?” Max pulled gently at his sleeve but he shook her off.

“I’m fine, Max. Leave me alone.”

He went back into the living room and Max and I followed him, watching him sink back down into the couch and stare flatly at the TV screen, not even taking any of it in. The look on his face scared me. I didn’t like him this way.

“Who was on the phone?” I asked him, leaning in the doorframe.

Billy snapped his eyes to mine. “Nobody. Just an uncle wanting to tell my dad Happy Christmas. Nobody important.”

I chewed on the inside of my cheek until it hurt. “Max, will you leave us alone for a minute? I just need to talk to Billy.”

Any other time, Max would have dug her heels in and rolled her eyes and made some big fuss about being left out of it, but I think she could see by the look on my face that now was not the time. And so she did as she was told, obligingly, going down the hall to her room without even going for her board.

I turned to him.

“Billy?” I approached the sofa gingerly, reaching out and putting my hand on his arm, crossed over his chest. “Billy? Are you okay?”

“I said, leave me alone.” He shrugged his arm away. “I’m fine.”

“You don’t seem fine.” I shook off his curt manner, deciding to ignore it, joining him on the sofa and tucking my legs up under me. “Will you talk to me?”

“No. What about?”

“About your mom,” I said, nodding when he turned to me, as if I was breaking some unspoken rule by acknowledging that he’d been waiting all day for her call. “She didn’t call you. You thought she was going to.”

“She never calls me,” Billy said, denying it. “I wasn’t expecting anything.”

“Maybe,” I put my hand back on his arm. “You hoped she would anyway.”

Billy didn’t say anything at first.

Then he made a small noise, sharp and ragged like he was taking in a sudden breath. He bent himself over so that his elbows were on his knees, his hands covering his face, his ring flashing in the lamplight. “Fuck, Diana.”

I thought he might be crying.

“Fuck,” he said again, his voice muffled by his hands. “Jesus, I’m an idiot.”

“Don’t say that.”

“I fucking hate Christmas,” he spat into his hands. “I fucking hate it and I always have. It was worse though when it was just me and my dad.”

“You have me now,” I said gently, pleased when he raised his head to look at me. “And you have Max too. You’ll always have us.”

Billy laughed, but it wasn’t a nice laugh. “Yeah, but I just want-”

But he couldn’t bring himself to say it.

He felt too stupid and embarrassed to say it out loud.

Because nobody would understand that Billy Hargrove, the King of Hawkins High, eighteen years old, tough as nails, hardened and experienced, and the kid who wasn’t afraid of anybody, just wanted his mom.

And it was killing him that he couldn’t have her.