Mike pedaled so hard down the road that Nancy had to lower her eyelids until they were almost closed to keep her eyeballs from freezing. “You’re fast!” she shouted into the wind.
“I’ve been practicing!” Mike yelled back.
Nancy curled her toes make sure her mother’s shoes would stay on her feet as she bumped along on the back of the bike, taking up most of the seat while Mike rode standing. His shoulders made a little seesaw in her hands. His only mistake aside from grabbing her the wrong shoes had been to tear the shoulder seam of his old gray jacket on the way down from the window, and now, lined with little white threads, it opened and closed as he moved. He was wearing a red shirt underneath it.
Nancy changed channels.
Mom would get better. Her smiles were still like rips in wrapping paper, but Dad was spending more time with her now. They were building a real relationship out of the hidden mess of things, maybe finally getting it that there were some treasures even Tupperware couldn’t preserve, no matter how good and clean and under control the container. Fear wasn’t all bad. A little fear could be good for you. Maybe it was sort of like medicine, like plant food for love.
Jonathan had never been a cafeteria type ― he was more the type to wander around outside eating from a bag ― but in late November he had materialized in the back corner of the caf where, once Nancy and Steve found him and the weather really cooled, he began to appear every day.
Their table became a comfortably silent refueling station for a party of three. It was in the glances a little and in the silence a lot that this wasn’t just an understanding, it was a pact: no parents, no mentors, no counsellors, no psychologists, no explanations, no bullshit. Everyone was here, so everything was fine. Nice, simple, case closed.
It was so nice, in fact, that sometimes ― pretty often ― Nancy didn’t even need to eat, she just recharged the ol’ intangible trifecta batteries until the first bell severed the connection and ushered her back to a life that flowed by at an arm’s length away. Tommy and Carol were not missed, Nicole was not relevant, and Nancy’s casual friendships, all of which reminded her of Barbara, froze solid to slip away into an early winter. She didn’t even know Kathy anymore.
Cold dots prickled her cheeks. While the weather had warmed just enough the last few days to melt most of the Christmas snowfall away, it had started snowing again. She peeked at the road to check where they were. Clumpy flakes danced in the wide beam of Mike’s headlamp, mirroring the atmospheric motes of the poison place. Would she ever enjoy the sight of falling snow again?
“Your next right,” she said.
“We’ve got to make a right, up here.”
A racking shiver emerged from the core of Nancy’s spine, making her fight to keep her balance. Between the sense of helplessness, the choice of transportation and the slightly too-big shoes, she felt exactly like a kid in disguise. Steve would be a comfort, assuming he wouldn’t kill her for getting him in trouble by showing up so late. It was already way past ten and Nancy wasn’t the one who normally did the showing up.
Hey, wanna have a movie night after the game? Hey, Dave’s cat had kittens, let’s go see them. Hey let’s go throw some stones in the quarry, I’ll show you how to skip ’em―okay, then you can show me how to skip ’em. Hey, it’s the Benny & Friends grand reopening today, you hungry? Hey, I got an idea, lets go running―I dunno where, like around. Running’s the cool thing to do now. Let’s just run.
Steve had given her a TV and a VCR for Christmas a month early, and a few nights each week, behind an adamantly locked door in the dark, they retreated into film and beat their bad memories to ribbons until his curfew. And it worked ― it actually worked ― because this wasn’t denial, it was a rhythm of gently persistent hypnosis, maintained in the knowledge that Hawkins probably still had invisible cancer but Hey, let’s pretend. Disbelief suspended until further notice.
The only place in Nancy’s room where the new TV could fit was the top of her studying desk. Unwilling to let her grades suffer, she had accepted the painful reality and put them to sleep. Steve celebrated her first B with a ruler-thin bottle of pilfered ice wine, passed between them. No glasses. It’s not like you’re any less smart now, he said when it turned out she was in mourning. It’s just that sometimes there are better ways to prove it.
“Help me out.” said Mike.
“I know.” Nancy leaned into the turn with him and they came out of it smoothly. “D’you think I’ve never been on the back of a bike before?”
“I’ve never seen you.”
“You’ve never seen a lot of things.”
The wind was quieter on this winding road, buffeted by the dense evergreens lining the street. Mike had begun to huff and puff. “We almost there? My lungs are getting frostbit.”
“Actually yeah. Right after this curve, you should see… Yep. The pool.”
Mike braked a little too hard. “Is that steam?”
Behind Steve’s big grey house, an endless silver mist wafted up high and dissolved into a TV-static sky.
“They heat their pool all through the winter?”
“I think his parents might be crazy.”
“If by crazy you mean rich,” Mike said, creeping their vehicle to a halt with his handbrakes. “Like really, really rich. Wow. I’ve never gone swimming in the winter. Outside, I mean.”
“I don’t think today’s your day.” Nancy hopped onto the road.
When Mike bent to lay his bike by the curb he stayed there, searching the ground. “Too bad,” he said absently.
“What are you doing?”
“Looking for stones. Tiny ones. Which window’s Steve’s?”
“Holy shit, what happened to you?” Steve drew Nancy up into his arms and squeezed her so tightly she squeaked. “Why’s the kid here? All that ― that freaky business is over, right?”
“It’s probably nothing,” Nancy said, but a new tear tsunami had begun looming the moment he opened one of his front doors and now the wave crashed over her as hard as any other.
“It’s not nothing,” said Mike.
“Simmer down, little bro.” Steve’s voice hummed against Nancy’s ear through his sweatshirt. When he shushed into her hair she allowed herself a single sob and swallowed everything else, because if she let this emotional mess go on any longer she would end up subjecting him to a whole lot of crap he didn’t deserve. He had already made up for everything. She wouldn’t drag him through any more confusion than she had to.
“What’d you do kid? Didja ―”
“I didn’t do anything.”
“― punch your sister in the eye?” Steve leaned back to take Nancy’s face in his hands and stroked her temples. “Both eyes? Because that’s what it looks like.” He quieted, just for her: “I know exactly what this looks like.”
The weaker part of Nancy nearly crumbled to the stoop. “Do you know Nicole’s address?”
“Nicole?” He cocked his chin back and dropped his hands. “You mean Carol’s friend?”
“Stephen, what is this?”
Steve’s eyes lost their focus. “Heya, Pop.”
“Are you standing there with the door wide open in the middle of winter?” Mr. Harrington spoke in hushed tones and yet he boomed, as though he only lowered his voice because that was the most efficient way to roll it down the stairs. “We are not heating the outdoors.”
“You are too,” Mike mumbled. Nancy shot a foot back to kick him into silence, but only brushed his leg. He said “Ow” anyway.
“What the hell are you doing? It’s past eleven! Trying to sneak another girl in here in the middle of the night? Your mother is going to blow a gasket!”
Another girl? Nancy launched her eyebrows up at Steve. He spun around as though the look had made physical contact and scratched at the back of his head.
“I’m not trying to sneak anything.”
“Oh, I can see that! You’ve got a lot of nerve, Stephen, an abundance of nerve and less shame every day. Close that damn door for Christ’s sake!”
Nancy, who had been slowly leaning in to get a glimpse of the looming figure she still hadn’t met, found herself instead pushed steadily away by Steve’s patting hands. “Just ― one minute. Don’t go anywhere.” He guided her a step backwards. “Hold on.”
“Wait.” Mike jumped forward as the door swung closed and stuck his foot in the gap, where it bumped his shoe before it could fully shut. “Like this,” he whispered.
Nancy was about to pull Mike away when Steve, blank faced, said “K,” and turned back to his disgruntled father. It seemed the invisible man hadn’t noticed.
“― more I try to set you straight the more boldly you swing the other way, any other way. And you don’t seem to care which way, as long as it isn’t my way. Can you explain that? Explain it to me. Explain why you think it’s acceptable to throw another surprise party when you should be studying.”
Nancy flicked Mike’s ear. This was a terrible idea.
Mike shrugged. Not my fault he has a jerk for a dad.
Together they leaned in to listen.
“There’s no party. I didn’t even know they were coming.”
“She has her little brother with her. He’s like ten years old.”
Mike was offended. Nancy tousled the snow from his hair.
“Oh, of course! Since, thanks to you, this is the house known state-wide as the place to go when kids want free liquor and a free swim, here they are.”
“I don’t know why they’re here. I think they just want to talk.”
“I am not running a public house. You watch yourself. Nobody ‘just wants to talk’ to the rich kid in town, Stephen. You would do well to get a grip on the concept of pretext. Just as you would do well to grasp the concept of study.”
“Oh give me a break ―”
“Don’t you dare raise your voice, young man.”
Nancy and Mike shared a look. The guy was a total mean-dad cliche. They were hearing in seriousness the sorts of things their own parents usually said in jest.
“What do you expect me to study during Christmas break?”
“I expect you to study the mountain of information that flew by your pickled brains last semester, you boozing lowlife. No son of mine brings home straight Cs. No son of mine will bring home even one single C ever again. Do you understand me?”
Mike’s teeth had begun to show, his eyes to water. His foot! Steve had forgotten about it and was leaning on the door without thinking. Nancy placed her palm on the door. Mike shook his head at her really fast: No, it’s okay. Nancy pushed a little bit to save him some pain anyway.
“Yes, I understand you,” Steve said. He sounded like a different person ― one who had already heard all of this many times before.
“Do you understand Hardwood?”
“Yes, I understand Hardwood,” Steve recited.
“Six months.” Mr. Harrington’s feet creaked heavily up a few stairs.
“So can I at least talk to them?”
There was a long pause. The door bounced against Mike’s foot. He peeped a grunt of pain and immediately it began to swing open. Nancy caught the knob to hold it ― gently ― in place.
“You have twenty minutes. Use the garage.”
“Thank you,” said Steve. His father’s steps grew distant, then silent. In the exact same tone he mumbled “Fuck you,” and opened the door, carrying an uncharacteristic hunch in his shoulders. He looked from Nancy to Mike. “How’s your foot?”
“Meet me around back.”
“Yeah, sure,” Nancy said. Steve shut the door.
What was Hardwood?
“Your boyfriend’s dad is such a dick,” Mike said, as Nancy led him past Steve’s car in the driveway and back to the rear of the house, climbing through a few crunchy snow drifts that hadn’t quite melted. “If I was in your place, I mean if I were you and I was a girl, I don’t think I’d want to marry Steve. He might be a cool guy and all but you’ve got to think of the future. His dad is not grandpa material. Would you leave that guy alone with your kids? I sure wouldn’t want to be alone with him. He’d cancel dessert over an elbow on the table. Why haven’t you told me to shut up yet? Hello?”
“Sorry, were you talking?” Nancy had heard him, distantly, without really thinking about anything he was saying.
“Nope, just singing to myself.”
Hardwood. Nancy pushed the high gate all the way open until it touched the wall. Six months. She toed the brick stopper in front of it to keep it open, just in case. Lowlife.
Through the mist floating up from the swimming pool, past an upturned snowy deck chair, the door at the backside of the Harringtons’ attached garage opened to blackness. Then the light turned on, cutting a bar of gold from the fuzzy grey-black night, and Steve emerged with a baby blue blanket in his arms. “Here,” he said, wrapping Nancy up.
“What’s this for?”
“You’re shaking. Did you guys bike here in the snow?”
“Yeah, we doubled,” Mike said. “Got here fast. I’ve been practicing.”
“Parents don’t know you’re gone?”
Nancy shook her head.
Steve guided Nancy toward the door with an arm around her, but she moved reluctantly. She hadn’t realized how cold she was, and now she shook and shuddered as if the subtle warmth of the blanket was drawing it out of her. She was so tired, she just wanted to sit down, and if she went inside there would be a place to sit down, but she couldn’t afford to sit down. “I have to talk to Nicole,” she pleaded.
Mike waved his arms around. “Can I have a blanket too?”
“On your left.” Steve pointed into the garage and Mike ran in. “So… hey.” He rubbed heat into Nancy’s shoulders. Her teeth chattered. She swore they had only started chattering just now. “What do you want with an airhead like Nicole?”
This was the moment to tell him about Jonathan. No, this was the moment to show him the camera. No, this was the moment to stomp her foot, demand an address and refuse to explain. She couldn’t do any of it. “What’s Hardwood?”
“Nuh-uh, you first.”
“And then you’ll tell me?”
Steve expelled a lungful of mist, searched the sky and casually plucked an answer from it. “Sure. Why not.”
Nancy entered the garage. The far side was occupied by a sports car with a silver-grey cover over it, which slanted down in front so that it looked vaguely like a shark. A stripe of red peeked out the bottom. Tools and pool equipment lined the walls of the nearer side, surrounding an old fraying easy chair and a sofa that had a knitted throw draped over the back. Mike was sitting in the chair, wrapped in a Kermit the Frog bedspread, tossing a can of beer between his hands.
“Relax, I didn’t open it.”
“Hilarious, kid.” Steve snatched the can from Mike and held it out to Nancy. “So you’re another one who uses full names when pissed off, huh?”
“No.” Instead of accepting the beer, Nancy pulled the blanket off her shoulders and shrugged her backpack down to her forearm. “I have to show you something.” Except she couldn’t grab the zipper with her numb, shaking, stupid fingers.
“Hey.” Steve stuck out his lip, then his hand. “I got it. Trade?”
Nancy handed her backpack over with knitted brows, took the beer and instead of opening it, hugged herself. Steve began unzipping. Nancy couldn’t watch. She turned away, pulled the blue blanket back over herself and sat on the far end of the sofa with her chin on her knee. The can of beer lay abandoned in the crevace between the cushions beside her.
“The hell is this?” Jonathan’s new camera hung like an exposed corpse from the strap in Steve’s hand, its tangled flashbulb tilted at a grotesque angle. “I can’t believe it. No wait, yes I can. I should have known that asshole ― this cost me ― I was trying to ―” Steve rolled his eyes, shaking his head in bitter incredulity. “What did mister psycho stalker do, take a hammer to it in front of you? Or was it a baseball bat?”
“No!” Mike shouted. “He wouldn’t just throw it away!”
“Oh yeah what do you know, Kid Retard? You think you have any clue what ―”
“Do you even know my name? Nancy, your boyfriend’s a bigger jerk than his dad.”
“Mike!” Nancy wobbled.
“Well he is,” but the force of Mike’s conviction had left him.
Steve seemed to shrink. “Yeah, I am,” he said softly. “Sorry, Mike. Listen, your sister and I have to talk. Why don’t you…” He deposited the backpack and camera on the sofa on his way to a shelf behind it. Nancy, crouching, turned on cushioned ballerina tiptoes to watch him as he dug into a neglected pile of brown towels. “Why don’t you go for a swim?” he said. A pair of navy swim trunks sailed through the air, drawstrings flapping, and landed on Mike’s arm.
“Seriously?” said Mike, his eyes wide.
“Yeah, seriously. No cannonballs or my dad’ll knock both our heads off in one swing, got it?”
Mike jumped up with the trunks in his fist, nodding earnestly. “I’m a ghost,” he said.
“You can change by the car. Don’t scratch it.”
“Totally. Thanks Steve,” and Mike may as well have disappeared.
Nancy looked down in surprise. Jonathan’s camera had made its way back into her hands and she hadn’t even noticed. She held it close.
Steve draped the crib-sized Kermit blanket around his shoulders like a cape and flopped down onto the middle of the sofa, bouncing Nancy up and down. She reached over and pet Kermit’s nose with the backs of her fingers. “Was this yours?” she asked.
“Pff, what do you mean was it mine? It is mine.”
“I mean when you were a kid.”
“I still am a kid, whatever happened before. So are you.” The beer snapped open and hissed in Steve’s hands, startling her. “Sort of.”
“Thanks, but I’m not really in the mood. I don’t want to get drunk right now.”
“Fear of being naked is not the only thing this takes the edge off, you know that. I’m not trying to get you drunk. I’m trying to get you to stop shaking. We’ll share. It’s the only one I have anyway.” Steve took a big gulp and this time when he held it out, Nancy accepted it. “Why don’t you tell me what climbed up Byers’ ass so we can do something about it?”
She told him everything, wetting her mouth with small nervous sips between sentences. She told him about the tentative plans for some kind of multi-family New Years’ Eve party, the long peaceful walk to Jonathan’s house, the way an instinct or the wind blew her toward that tiny little glint in the frozen ditch before she got there. She backtracked into places she loathed to tread ― the dying deer, the slimy habitat to which it had been taken, the shrinking doorway that Jonathan had just barely pulled her out of ― while Steve, rapt, finished most of the beer himself. Then she jumped ahead to Mike’s discovery of the differently branded camera strap. She was perfectly honest about every fact and perfectly secretive about every feeling. Almost every feeling.
“Jonathan’s a really good person,” she finished, having dented a long crescent moon pattern into the leather strap with her nail. “He is sane, and smart, and… gentle.”
Steve scoffed, but a look proved it was mostly in good humor.
“You weren’t there when I gave this to him. You haven’t seen how he is with Will. And I mean, if he wanted to be resentful or jealous or something he would sell it, or trade it in for a different one, not throw it away. He couldn’t afford to throw it away. It’s too valuable to lose.”
“Assuming he has no pride,” Steve said, rubbing his jaw. “So now you want to bug Nicole because she’s in the photography club?”
“I don’t think she has a dark room at home, Nance.”
“Well, whatever. She can tell us what to do. Maybe she has the chemicals, or a book. Anything.”
“You’re forgetting she’s also an airhead. Why don’t we just go to the cops?”
“Because they’ll shut us out. They tried to shut us out last time. We had to steal our own equipment back and trap the monster in secret. That’s why we were alone in his house when you found us.” Nancy played with the lens, tried to straighten it within its casing, gave up and found reluctant sympathy in Steve’s eyes. “Mike is right. We need to know what’s in this camera. We need as much information as we can get before we tell the police.”
“Did you even call the guy’s mom?”
“Their phone doesn’t ring. The last time Will was over to see my brother he told my mom they’re taking a break from phone calls until the new year. I guess they want some peace and quiet. Anyway…” Nancy took the beer from Steve’s hand to steal the last (flat and kinda gross) sip. “Hardwood.”
Steve swatted at his ear as though beseiged by a mosquito and looked around the room, the turn of his head following an invisible yet riveting menace. “Mumblarycool,” he said.
“You know.” He broke into a coughing fit. “Mistle,” he hacked into his hand, “Mistlewary school.”
Nancy nearly choked for real. “Military school? Your dad is sending you to military school?”
He shrugged, frowning. “I don’t know why you’re so worried. There won’t be any other girls there.”
“I’ve still got a whole semester to fix my grades before he registers me. You can help me study. You’re even familiar with my learning style. It’ll be cake.”
Nancy put on her sceptic hat. “Your learning style?”
“Strip studying: the fastest way to straight As.”
“So when you said your dad was a ‘grade A asshole,’ you actually meant it?”
Steve was taken aback. “Huh. I guess I did. How did you even remember that?” He leaned in, dominating Nancy’s field of view. “The girl’s got a photographic memory and a beautiful voice. I’ll just lay around listening while she tells me everything I need to know and then I’ll ace every single test. I’m telling you: cake.”
Nancy shut her eyes and sighed. School didn’t work that way. Before she could say so Steve was kissing her, sliding his fingers up the nape of her neck, tonguing the seam of her lips with the gentlest persistence, but she put a hand on his collar, kept the kiss chaste and ended it with a deep inhale and a savoring smack. It felt good to smile again. It also felt guilty. “We’ve already been here too long. We need to get Mike out of the pool and ― Aw crap, wet hair on the bike? It’ll kill him.”
“So I’ll drive. Nicole’s around the long corner from Jonathan’s place, lucky us. She’s the one we get ― we got ― all the…” Steve was in the middle of regretting this sentence. “…Byers stories from.”
Byers stories, as if a family could be reduced to a situation comedy. Nancy shook off her disgust. “Your dad’s okay with you going out?”
“Nah, but so what? Screw him. Things to see, people to do. I’ll make ―” Steve’s eyes bugged.
Nancy’s heart crashed into her legs.
Mike was screaming.