Mike tiptoed past Nancy and Steve, who were discussing a lot of things he already knew about, and stepped outside. The cement was a sandpaper ice cube under his bare toes. The swim trunks were way too big but the drawstring saved the day, bunching the band around his waist like a deflated inner tube. He shivered as he crept down to the shallow end: the mist was cold, the air was cold, the snowflakes melting on his arms were cold. There was no way the water could be anything but cold too.
Mike stuck his foot into the pool. It felt like a bath. His Christmas joy swelled up within him, threatening volcanic meltdown. He chomped on his lip to stop a laugh, then sat down on the pool’s edge to control his cannonball impulse. He splashed his fingers in the water, where they waved impossibly in the light-bending ripples, backlit yet dull and distant through the mist. He held up his hand. It smoked, as if he had dipped it in dry ice.
He wished the guys were here. And Elle. She could float away to a whole other galaxy in this pool ― a galaxy with a better planet than Earth, where the people based their constitution on the Jedi code and whose national food was just like pure Eggo pizza with maple syrup sauce only good for you, where things were always right side up except in stories. How much salt would that take? Like forty tons. At least.
Mike slipped into the pool and started walking toward the deeper end. This was awesome, the biggest bathtub ever, but he had no idea what to do. Splashing wasn’t allowed, there weren’t any pool toys, he couldn’t make a whirlpool all by himself and he had no one to play Marco Polo with. Treading water was boring. His feet glowed big and blue in the underwater lights, waving silently to keep him afloat.
That was it: it was silent under the surface. Down there no one could hear him. He could do whatever he liked. He pinched his nose, kicked himself up for momentum and dropped, enjoyed the momentary warm weightlessness whose familiarity he couldn’t quite name, then paddled back to the surface and caught his breath. On his next drop he pretzeled into a sort of improvised diving position and swam along to the other side the way a snorkeler would pass over the Great Barrier Reef.
At the deep end Mike surfaced, grabbed onto the edge and, emboldened, dove nearly straight down. When his elbow scraped the bottom he kept his breath. He kicked along, rising up the slope like a sea snake or a crab, as far as his lungs would let him go plus a little more than that for practice, and surfaced, gasping, near the shallow end. He had made it almost all the way across the whole pool underwater. Impressive.
Mike kept practicing, lap after diving lap. Eight laps. His head was getting fuzzy, his eyes chlorine-sore and his ears achy from repeated pressure changes. With one hand he held on to the end of the diving board and bobbed in the water.
Falling snowflakes raced each other downward through the steam. One after another he spotted them and silently encouraged them to touch the pool’s surface before the rising heat could melt them away into nothing ― but only a few made it. Only a few were big enough. The rest got nowhere, and there was nothing they could do about it.
Mike startled: a shiny black lump had gotten stuck to his scraped elbow. A leech? Leeches lived in lakes, not swimming pools. He imagined it sucking his blood and, shuddering, reached over to pull it off, but before he could grab it the lights went dark.
The pool blinked empty.
His guts balled up into his throat as the diving board slipped from his grasp.
Mike’s bare feet slammed down through a sponge and the extra momentum threw him to his knees, toward a bloated face with bulging brown eyeballs and a long, living, alien black tongue, a head wreathed in clumps of rusty hair and mucous spiderwebs. Tentacle vines strangled a grey, undead world. He thought of Elle.
The lights flickered back on and pressure needled his eardrums. He nearly inhaled water. He flailed, found a semblance of his bearings and kicked upward.
Halfway to the surface it all flickered out again and dropped him back into the nightmare.
Mike hit bottom with his hand square on the dead face. The force of his impact tore the flesh away from the skull so easily it could have been held on by vanilla pudding. An eyeball rolled over his fingers. More black leeches squirmed among the newly bared teeth, shrinking back into the mouth in response to the sudden exposure. Mike stopped thinking.
The return of the water pulled an explosion of bubbles out of him and he swam up again. The water dropped him for only a flash, returning to catch him before he could land.
Mike reached through the water for his elbow and missed.
Lights out, he fell.
Mike’s brain told him he would land on a giant spongy Eggo instead.
Lights on, he swam.
There was no way to know when it would be safe to breathe.
Lights out, he bounced onto the other end of the sponge pile, puffing up a sulphuric garbage smell. Those big eyeglasses tangled in the webbing by his leg were familiar, sickeningly reminiscent of a handful of chance meetings and a corkboard in Nancy’s bedroom. He grabbed on to them and, dry heaving, ripped them from an amalgamation of decayed brown corduroy and elastic paper snot.
Mike risked a breath, crept his free fingers to the slimy lump on his elbow, closed his eyes and waited for the light to come back. Two breaths, three breaths, in and out, and he held it. The instant the water’s bright warmth touched his cheeks he yanked the leech from its sucking place, pushed off the bottom with all the strength left in his legs and swam up.
He was going nowhere. It was the longest swim of his life. When he surfaced he gasped only as much air as would allow him to scream again, and once he started he couldn’t stop.
“Nancy! NANCY!” He tried to pull himself out of the pool at the nearest edge, climbing with his knee over the side, but with Barbara’s glasses clutched in one hand he slipped so forcefully that he launched backwards into the pool again.
He gasped beneath the water.
The world narrowed to a pinhole.
Mike was drowning.
A pulse shoved him in the deep, and something ― a tentacle, a vine, an arm? He didn’t care ― coiled around his chest from behind. Bruising claws under his armpits hauled him up to sit in the dry where a girl was squeaking his name a million times in one long word. A rock thunked into his back and he almost threw up.
“Any time, man.”
The rock came back as a boulder and Mike puked a waterfall, then wheezed in all the air he could, and puked a stream, and kept wheezing. His chest and his nose were full of dry ice, burning and freezing him at once.
“Nancy?” Before Mike knew it he was crying. He might have started crying before he started drowning.
“Mikemikemike…” Nancy clutched him to her chest as though he was Jonathan’s camera, rocking him, and although he was sobbing, gasping, choking, losing his mind, Mike stared into the pool, searching for the leech. It was still in there, somewhere. Hiding. Waiting to take someone else.
“We have to go,” came Steve’s grave warning from above. “If our parents find out about this it’s all over. Ambulance, questions, cops. Happy New Year Hardwood. I’m dead. We’re dead. I’ll get ―” He sprinted away.
Mike held up the glasses in a deathgrip. “I know what happened to ―” he coughed “― to Barb. She’s in the pool. In the upside down. In the pool. It’s not alright. I know what happened. It’s not alright and we can’t fix it.” Barbara’s face split apart in his mind, and when it was over it split apart again. Another coughing fit came over him, suffocating him in realization, in despair, in life rolling natural snake eyes for no good reason at all.
“I know,” Nancy said. Her voice had steadied. “Eleven told us. It’s okay. I know.” She unfolded Mike’s fingers from the glasses and took them away. “Thank you.”
“What the hell is going on out there? Your time was up ten minutes ago!”
Mr. Harrington’s voice was coming from inside the garage.
“Nothing! Nothing’s going on. Just driving everybody home.”
“Why are you soaking wet?”
“I fell! Slipped. Ice I guess. I’m fine. Time to go home everybody! Come on, let’s go…” Steve fled the garage carrying a tangerine duffel bag. He fired it at Nancy with a basketball pass and it landed on the ground by her feet. “Let’s go,” he said through clenched teeth, beckoning with outstretched hands. “You get the bag, I got the kid.”
“Where’s my backpack? The camera?” Nancy said, as Steve scooped up Mike the same way Dustin had scooped up Eleven the night she disappeared ― then threw him over his shoulder.
“I got it, come on.” Steve lumbered toward the open gate, jerking Mike around and shouldering his gut so that he coughed up even more water. He felt disgusting. He wanted to go to bed. Or to a doctor. Or to his mom. He landed in the back seat of Steve’s car and flopped onto his side. Nancy slid in beside him and pulled his legs onto her lap. Steve closed her door, then looped around to the driver’s door, got in, and started the engine.
“Wait!” Mike shouted, jumping up onto his elbow.
“Can’t wait.” Steve shifted into reverse and threw an arm around the front passenger seat, craning to see behind them. “We’re going.”
“NO! Steve. Stop. There is a black leech in the pool. It stuck itself on me and it took me to the upside down. It is still in the pool. It is still alive.”
Steve stared at Mike, his face fish-blank, an unlit cigarette hanging from his mouth. His outstretched arm slowly recoiled. “I should kill that,” he said.
“Please do,” Mike said, exasperated. Steve left.
“Don’t tell me the camera’s in here,” Nancy groaned, searching the duffel bag on top of Mike’s legs in her lap, “The way he threw it ― I should have taped it shut. Where is it?” The Kermit blanket flew out as fast as a prank snake from a can.
“Leggo my legs.” Mike sat up just in time to see Steve, through the windshield and the open gate, knocking a pool skimmer onto the patio. A little dot fell out. Steve stepped on the dot, jumped back a second, then slammed down on it with a murderous, grinding heel. He wiped the mess from his shoe onto the patio as one would a clump of dog crap and made his way back to the car.
“Where is it?” Nancy’s searching grew frantic. “Where is it?”
“He’s wearing your backpack.” Mike fell against the cold window. He coughed a mess onto the floor of the car. “Whoops.”
Steve returned to the driver’s seat.
“My bike!” Mike realized. “Road!”
“You gotta be…” Steve backed the car into the road, stopped, shifted out of reverse, turned forward, slammed on the brakes, got out, slammed his door, threw Mike’s bike into the trunk and slammed that too, bouncing the car like a carnival ride. When he got back behind the wheel the eyes in the rearview mirror belonged to some kind of animal.
“Thanks,” said Mike. “I mean it.”
Steve dumped a fistful of dry clothes into the passenger seat, closed his door softly, then reached back and placed Nancy’s backpack beside her before he started driving again. He accelerated at a normal rate.
“Thank God. I mean,” Nancy cleared her throat. “Thank you Steve.” She opened her backpack, looked into it and threw herself back against her seat. “Thank you.”
“Yeah, you know, whatever. Stuff.” Steve emitted a lunatic chuckle. “Would you guys gimme a minute?” He searched the seat beside him with a blind hand, then lit his cigarette. “I need to drive. A while. Around.”
Nancy pulled gifts from the duffel bag in silence: Mike’s red sweater, his coat, his jeans with his underwear still in them, his shoes with his socks still in them. No towel. No big deal. He put on his sweater and coat, looked at his jeans, and looked at Nancy. Awkward. She held up the Kermit blanket by the corners to make a privacy curtain between them. His cough nagged him while he finished changing.
Steve slapped the car’s heater on to full blast. “It screamed.” He stubbed out his cigarette in the ashtray beneath the knob. “Squealed like a pig when I stepped on it. You ever heard of a screaming leech?”
“Crazy,” said Mike.
“Is it…” Nancy looked at Mike as if he knew anything. “Are they… reproducing?”
“It had a little flower mouth and everything. At least I think so. I’m not sure.” Mike’s voice dwindled away. Sometimes his brain made things up under pressure. His breath rasped. This cough was going to nag him the rest of the night. He rubbed his arms and leaned over so more of the warm air from the front would land on him. His elbow stung.
“You shouldn’t have killed it,” Nancy said darkly. “It could have taken us to Jonathan.”
“No,” said Mike and Steve at once.
Nancy did not argue the point.
Steve made a hard left and rolled the car to a stop at the far end of the closed Fair Mart’s parking lot. The cab’s overhead light came on. Steve ruffled his hair in the mirror, then struggled out of his wet shirt and flipped a dry one around in his hands. Nancy was watching all of this with her face pink and her lip in her teeth.
Ugh. Mike snarled at her and coughed really loud to jar her out of her… Ugh. It didn’t work. Instead Nancy held the Kermit blanket up again, not to separate Steve from the rest of the car while he changed, but to hide Mike as she had before. “Ugh!” Mike put his hand on the door handle and waited for even one kissing noise, but only a period of quiet bumping and a rustle of fabric followed.
“Um, Steve? About your pool…”
“It’s Barb. She’s… in there. Mike found her body.” One corner of the blanket fell. “He brought these back. The monster killed her.” Nancy’s voice pitched up. “Barb’s dead. We know for sure now.”
Steve yanked the blanket through the gap between the front seats and balled it up in his lap. “Yeah?” That animal look had come back. He stared at the fractured glasses Nancy was showing him, but he didn’t take them. “How the hell can Barbara be in my pool?”
Mike would have helped Nancy explain but he really didn’t want to talk about it.
“In the other version of your pool. In the same place but… On the other side.” Nancy wore the expression that came with trying to pull a splinter out of someone’s hand. “Is this… Are you, um…?”
“That’s shitty,” Steve said. He turned around, threw open the glove compartment and started searching through it.
Nancy’s lip wobbled only a moment before she got ugly. “Do you even care?”
Steve didn’t say anything, just kept searching. A rain of playing cards trickled from the compartment and flapped to the floor. Nancy’s eyes saucered.
“Please don’t fight,” Mike said.
“Do you even care, Steve?”
Steve found whatever it was he had been looking for and turned around, fast. “I am all out of care right now, Nance! I used it up!” He raised his fist, opened his palm to the roof, “Pkfff,” and sprinkled his fingers downward. “Reserves empty. Give me a break here.” He held up a smallish flat plum-colored box. “Barb’s honor.” He searched Nancy’s eyes. “It’s okay. They don’t bite.”
Nancy leaned forward and sniffed. “What is that?” she asked. Mike could smell it from where he sat, sweet and sour, and heavy. “Cigars?”
“Cigarillos. Stale’s better than nothing, right?”
Nancy took one. Steve held the box out toward Mike, but Nancy batted at his hand and he rescinded the offer before Mike could say No thanks. Nancy leaned toward the lighter, blinking in the brightness with the flaking miniature cigar at her mouth, but then she stopped. “Barbara would hate us for this. She hated smoking.”
“‘Fraid the glove box is all out of scotch,” Steve replied.
“She would hate that too.”
Steve killed his flame and sighed. He collected Nancy’s cigarillo and dropped it, along with his own, back into their box. “What wouldn’t she hate?”
“I don’t know, a… prayer, probably?”
The three passed an awkward look around the car and held a moment of silence.