Steve stopped the car on the road in front of Nicole’s house. While technically bigger than a trailer, the house was even smaller than the Byers’. It stood upon a shallow hill in a wide horseshoe of bald trees, wearing a tinfoil wreath on the door and four wooden candy canes in the garden.
The gravel driveway was empty. All of the windows were dark.
Nancy caught Mike looking at her and closed her eyes. Yes, she knew what this probably meant. No, she wasn’t going to say it out loud. She found her bubblegum lipgloss in her bag, glossed her dry lips and stuck it in her back pocket.
Steve got out of the car and immediately jumped up on one foot. “Hah!”
Nancy prickled. “What’s wrong?”
She fumbled with her door for far too long and ran around the rear of the car. “What ―”
“Hot shoe, hot shoe!” Steve fell back into the driver’s seat, trying to yank his sneaker off his foot without untying it. The sole had a wide black mark on the heel and it was wisping. Nancy fell to her knees and dove for the laces through a chemist’s cloud of who-knew-what.
“Here!” Mike yelled.
Wet swim trunks thwacked Steve in the face just as the shoe flew through Nancy’s hands and into the road. Steve yanked his sock off, wiped the swim trunks across his heel and then wrapped them around his foot, hissing for a moment. He tipped Mike a nod. “Nice reflexes, Starsky.”
In the middle of the dirt road, the white sneaker with the red Nike swish kept smoking.
“The leeches have acid inside them?” Mike wondered.
Nancy didn’t care. “Steve, are you okay?”
“The patio’s gonna be wrecked.” He dragged a hand down his face.
“Are you okay?”
Steve peeled the wet trunks away from his foot, looking at Nancy rather than the wound. “You tell me.”
His heel was red, but not blistering, at least not yet. Nancy sighed out her relief. “Looks like it’s just a first degree burn. You’ll be fine. Try not to walk on it?”
Steve just looked at her, lost.
She combed her fingers through his damp hair. “Stay here,” she said. She jogged across the tufty straw lawn and up the two steps to Nicole’s crumbling little cement front porch, and pushed the backlit yellow bell. Faintly, it announced her presence to the inside of the silent house. Nancy rocked on her feet, tonguing air through her front teeth.
“There’s nobody home!” Mike yelled.
“Shut up.” Nancy leaned over the railing to look in the front window. A frayed gossamer curtain blocked her view of everything inside.
“There’s obviously no one here!”
“Shut up Mike!”
“Seriously, Nancy…” Oh come on, was Steve about to agree with Mike? “Her dad works the night shift most of the time.”
“The night shift?” Nancy turned around and threw her arms down at her sides. “Where even is there to work a night shift around here?”
Steve sat on the front of his car with his feet on the bumper, one shoed and one bare. “I dunno, some factory in Cartersville or Eerie or something.”
“That’s like an hour away!”
“What do you want me to say?”
“You could have told me earlier!”
“And is there any chance that would have stopped you?”
Nancy tiptoed and thumped down on her heels a few times, thinking. No, that wouldn’t have stopped her, and this wasn’t going to stop her either. “But what about Nicole herself? Why isn’t she here?”
“Maybe she’s sleeping,” Mike said. He hopped onto the front of the car beside Steve. Steve raised a hand to push him off, but then only mimed a shove and dropped it.
Nancy jabbed the bell again, and again. She thumped the door with the side of her fist. She rapped hard with her knuckles, tried the bell again, hammered the door with her palm faster and faster and before she knew it she was trying the knob. Violently.
“Woah woah woah…” Steve stood at a slumped angle beside the porch with a hand on the railing, having limped up and taken her by surprise. He kept his volume very low. “Were you about to break into the house?”
“Sorry.” Nancy let go of the doorknob and shook herself, sheepish. “Sorry, that was stupid.”
“I’ll say. Jesus, Nancy, take a breather.” He leaned in. “I know it’s been scary but we’ve got to keep it together for the little guy.”
“I’m going to Will’s,” Mike announced. “His house is just through the trees sort of…” He slid off the front of the car and craned his neck around to scan the woods. “That way, sort of. I’ll find it.”
“Wha-what? All by yourself?”
“What do you mean, all by myself? Yeah, Steve, all by myself. I’m not a little kid.” Mike dropped his mouth open, aiming contempt at Steve. “I’m not ten.”
Steve leaned closer to Nancy and through the side of his mouth asked, “How old is he?”
“I’m not even short!” Mike shouted. “What the hell?”
Nancy jumped off the porch to jog back to the car. She passed right by Mike, opened the door and dragged her backpack by a strap along the back seat. “Gonna go see whether Jonathan’s home?”
“Yeah, obviously. That and I want to talk to Will.”
Nancy fished a little key from the pocket of her jeans, grabbed her backpack by the smaller front pouch, and unlocked the heart-shaped diary lock linking the pull tabs of the double zipper. She took her gun from the pouch. “Are you sure you can show up this late without freaking out their mom?” she said. “Because I can’t, and I don’t want her to know quite yet. I might be wrong.”
“I’m there all the time, it’s normal.” It had taken Mike about two seconds to get impatient. “Maybe just leave the gun here? Not loaded?”
“Leave the what?” said Steve.
Well, this was inevitable. Nancy waited. One beat, two beats.
“Oh no,” said Steve. “Nah nah, you don’t need that again, Nancy…”
Nancy didn’t feel like arguing. She opened the chamber, grabbed a handful loose bullets from the pouch and began loading the gun, dropping them into place one after another. The guys held a silent argument behind her, swishing fabric and whispering unintelligibly while the bullets clicked home. With the gun fully loaded, she faced them and tucked it into the back of her pants.
“Yes I do need it,” she said, looking up at the three-quarter moon. “There might be another thing out there.” She eyed Steve. “Remember?”
“Monster bear shark,” said Steve, glassy. He leaned on the car with his forehead in his hand.
“Mike, if anything comes after you I want you to yell. Scream your head off. I don’t care who you freak out, just scream. I’ll come. But ― wait, don’t yell whatever pops into your head. Say ‘monster’ so I’ll know.”
Mike bowed a decisive nod. “Shoot it in the mouth. That’s what Lucas did. I think it helped Elle.”
“Right in the middle of the mouth?”
“Right there. Bullseye.”
“Got it,” said Nancy.
“Bye,” said Mike.
They shared a little smile. It was nice. Mike ran away.
Jonathan heard only the recurring hiss of his own breath through a filter. There were still no night sounds.
“Let’s go home,” Elle said, sounding sleepy and numb. She pulled the gas mask off Jonathan’s face and put it back over her own. “There’s no place like home.”
Jonathan felt like he was made of stone, but he was sure hadn’t fallen all the way to sleep, assuming that was even possible, and he was grateful. Waking from a dead nap would have forced him to realize all over again that all of this was real.
He didn’t want to stay with Elle anymore. The tall tales were all true: she could throw people around, she could cross dimensions, she could reach inside bodies and she could dissolve monsters in a ball of dust and light. Jonathan was laying on the ground next to the scariest girl he could imagine. Yet when he got up onto his damp elbows and looked at her, she only offered him more water while peering at him with a pair of eyes that belonged to a baby.
There was something about baby eyes. Jonathan could even remember a glint of it in Will’s eyes: babies remembered where they came from. In a couple of years they forgot. Elle looked like she still knew.
“Where is home?” he asked.
“No place.” Her smile was too sarcastic for a baby. “Duh.” She stood and climbed through the webbed decay of the forest floor, tearing and squashing with her dull black galoshes, and began to walk down the road ― toward Jonathan’s house this time. “The no-place, like home.”
She had left the Yoda bottle behind. Jonathan picked it up and followed her carefully, his feet a pair of feelers, his knees doubling as shock absorbers. “Did you watch a lot of movies when you stayed at Mike’s house?” he asked when he caught up.
“What is… ‘vulner-able’?” Elle was watching him. For clues?
“You don’t know the word?”
She shook her head.
“It means, uh…” Jonathan thought of babies again, and sleeping people. And hiding. “It means someone who could get hurt.”
Elle took her gas mask off and handed it to Jonathan, who felt obligated to use it for a while. He guessed they were taking turns now.
Mike checked over his shoulder repeatedly as he wove through the twiggy woods behind Will’s house, keeping his direction by the tree-slatted glow of Steve’s headlights. Compasses still didn’t work around here.
The snow had stopped falling ages ago and little of it remained on the ground. Miniature drifts curled around the bases of trees, outlining their roots in white, and clumps of it gathered in the concave husks of dried fallen leaves. There were so many white lumps, isolated, each waiting to melt and die alone. Mike kicked his way through them with satisfying irreverence whenever he had enough clearing to do so.
A mourning dove cooed far away, strange for winter and even stranger for night time, and then a cloud slid away from the moon. Five steps later, Mike spotted the dark outline of the Byers’ shed, and then a window, honey colored, slid into view beyond it.
Will’s room was in the front right corner of the house. Coming from the back, Mike went left, to where it was dark and he would be hidden, and tapped his fingers on the glass. If he couldn’t be loud he would be annoying.
Tap tap tap tap tap tap tap tap tap tap tap tap tap tap tap tap tap tap tap tap tap tap tap tap tap tap tap tap tap tap tap tap tap tap tap tap tap tap tap tap tap tap —
The bedroom light came on. The windowblind dipped and lifted. Will’s round eyes softened from fear to joy and with an open smile he ran back to close his bedroom door. Pushing his heavy old window up was always a struggle. Mike helped him.
“Hey! Wanna be my player two? My mom’s been passed out since after supper.”
“Is Jonathan here?”
“He would but he’s not feeling well. Why? Don’t you want to?”
“When did you last see him?”
“Uh.” Will was clearly confused. “I dunno.”
“Could you go check his room, see if he’s still in there?”
“Trust me, just check.”
Will was not gone very long. “He’s definitely not here,” he said.
For a moment Mike felt like his feet were sinking into the ground. “Are you sure?”
“Yeah, he left his light on and everything. Maybe he had to work tonight. Is there a late matinee on? I haven’t really been paying attention. What do you want him for?”
“My sister’s just been looking for him, that’s all.”
It was time for Mike to go back and give his report, but he didn’t want to say goodbye. “I think Elle’s dead,” he said. The faraway dove cooed again.
Will shrank a little into himself. “Why?”
“She sucks at hiding. Sucked at hiding.”
“Didn’t she hide in that fort in your basement for a week?”
“Yeah, but she didn’t know when to stay there. She came upstairs when we were eating and my parents almost saw her. And she was kinda claustrophobic. And there’s that time she stole from the grocery store.” Mike put his elbows on the windowsill to rest his face in his fists. “I think she’s dead, Will.”
Beside him, Will stuck his head out the window and looked around. “How did you get here? Where’s your bike?”
“What’s going on?” Will’s voice had gotten very tiny.
Mike hadn’t thought this far ahead. He traced the cracks of the windowsill’s peeling paint with his eyes. “I went into the upside down. It’s still here. Er, there.”
Will wheezed. He looked like he might be sick. “It is?”
“I found a body.”
“Like a dead body?”
“Like a dead body.”
Will whispered, “Was it her?”
“No! No no no, it wasn’t her, I know that for sure. But… I just…” Mike didn’t know how to finish the sentence. It hurt to try. Trying felt empty.
“Doesn’t she have superpowers? Maybe that’s why she sucks at hiding. You don’t need to know how to hide if you have superpowers.”
Mike picked at the paint, catapulting chips into the dark. Then why hadn’t she come back yet? She had used her powers to leave, so why couldn’t she use them to come home? Chip chip flick chip flick. Why wouldn’t she use her powers to come home? The Snow Ball was already over, but the next one was less than a year away. Mike uncovered a big patch of bare wood. She could be anywhere by now. Maybe she never really liked him. “Yeah, I guess. She probably just doesn’t care.” It would be better that way, if she just didn’t care.
“How did you get to the upside down? Is… is…” Will’s breath jittered through him. “Hn. Is there ― is there ― another Dem-demog-gogo―?”
Mike sympathized. He hit Will on the shoulder to steady him. “It’s cold. Get a blanket, huh?”
“Right! Thanks.” Will tore his blanket from his bed, a trick like removing a tablecloth without disturbing a set table: only two of his new comic books slipped off it to the floor. He threw the blanket over himself. His face swam in a navy pool of airplane-patterned cotton. “So is there?”
“No, at least I don’t think so. I haven’t seen one. But in the mouth, y’know, of the body? There were all these…” It was gross to think about. Mike lifted his elbow from the sill to rub it. “It was this…” His face was curling, and Will was staring. “This… worm, thing. Like a leech. One of them got me.”
On December 29th there were no Christmas lights to be found in the whole of House Byers, not inside nor outside, because all of that was over. They hadn’t even lit up the tree that year. Stepping into the elsewhere mirror of his living room, Jonathan wondered if his presence was messing with the television, disrupting Will’s game. If the lamps blinked, would Will be scared? Would he even notice? Would the dog bark? Would it wake Mom? Would she figure out what was going on?
The home was totaled. The overgrowth threatening the roof had crept inside in a hundred places, streaming from rotten floor corners to windowsills, from holes in the ceiling to holes in the walls, from an electrical outlet to the underside of a sofa cushion. The kitchen window had been smashed in, its curtain a mildewed flake of skin on the counter.
“I don’t think I really want to stay here,” Jonathan said, “But I guess everywhere else is worse?”
Elle led Jonathan past the black patches of monster blood in the old carpet and into his own bedroom. The good news: his Evil Dead poster was still on the wall. The bad news: his Cthulu book might still be on the floor by the far side of the bed, although the mess of clothes and LPs he had left in the normal was missing. It would have been nice to take a nap, but more vines had crept in from the heating duct and hugged his bed in a tight grip from head to foot, and if he tried to remove them the room would fill with those spores.
Elle dropped the gas mask on the floor and sat down on the stuffed chair between the closet and the window. It had no growths on it, and the disintegrating blue-grey carpet in front of it had already taken the imprints of a hundred footsteps.
“Wait,” Jonathan said. “Do you come in here a lot?”
“I live here.”
A reflexive forearm crossed his groin. “Rl. Really?” Nausea stirred. “Could you see me?”
“Can you see my family?”
“No. They’re being quiet.”
“How well can you see?”
Elle pointed her flashlight at the wall. “Only a little. Only sometimes.” She raised her other hand in front of it, waving her fingers, projecting a massive spider onto the painted grid at the head of his bed.
“Are there any other monsters around here? Big ones?”
That sounded promising.
Elle shot him the baby eyes. “Don’t worry.”
With no bed or chair to sit on, he picked a spot by the wall and sat on the floor. The carpet was damp. “I’ll try.”
Elle crawled from the chair to her hands and knees and slid halfway under the bed, dragging her dangling flashlight in with her to dig around in amorphously shifting light and shadow. She emerged with a book, but not the Cthulu one. This one was much thinner, and the edges of the pages were wavy from moisture and use. She handed it to Jonathan and sat there expectantly in her bright flashlight halo with her legs tucked up under herself.
It was a copy of The Wizard of Oz. Jonathan opened the hard cover. Scratched into the top corner in heavy, denting strokes, it read, There’s no place like home. Keep your chin up, kiddo. Hop.
“Dad,” Elle said.
“Is that what he said?”
“No. It’s what I say.”
The Chief left her presents, so she adopted him? “Cute.” Jonathan closed the book. He meant it, it was nice, but this place made nice things hard to look at. His eyes were burning so he closed them too.
Elle made a frustrated little noise and bummed her way across the carpet until she glowed right next to him. She took the book from his hands and stressed the creaky spine. “Friends,” she said, placing the book in his lap. “Look.”
Surrounded by poppies, the cowardly lion slept wearing a peaceful fanged smile. His long curly mane pillowed his cheek upon his paw.
“Aren’t you a bit old for this story? This is for little kids and you’re, what, Will’s age? Twelve?”
Elle stared at him, uncomprehending at first, then comprehending with a touch of disgust. She thought Jonathan was stupid. “No,” she said.
Jonathan admonished himself. “No you’re right, sorry. You like what you like.”
Elle filpped through more pages. “Lucas.”
The tin woodman raised his axe over the neck of a snarling wildcat.
She flipped some more. “Mike.”
The scarecrow sat on an etched tree stump with his chin on his fist.
“Ohh. I get it. They all remind you of Will’s friends?”
“Is Will in there too?”
Elle ducked her head on what might have been a stifled giggle. She pulled her lips into her mouth, biting them.
She flipped the pages until she found an inking of the Oz crew traveling warily through a haunted forest. She tapped her finger on Toto, whose only visible part was a pair of pale eyes peeking out from within the darkness of Dorothy’s picnic basket.
Jonathan snorted. “I won’t tell him,” and as soon as the words came out a deep pit formed in the centre of his chest, and his heart ricoched around in the pit so hard that Elle could surely hear it. He pushed her book aside, drew his knees up to himself, and hid his face in his crossed arms. He wanted to be alone.
“I’m sorry,” said Elle.
“It’s not your fault.”
“It is. You don’t understand.”
Jonathan shrugged his shoulders up really far and sniffed. “That’s fine. It doesn’t matter.”
Jonathan was at a loss. “Okay?”
Elle left him alone for a while. Although the sound of her movements lost volume drastically within a short distance, he could still hear her footsteps. In the kitchen, a chair squealed across the floor. The refrigerator door opened and closed. The silverware drawer tinkled. Each note was a hammer blow, striking Jonathan with nostalgia for singular melodies he had last heard only hours ago and had taken for granted his entire life.
“Here,” Elle said. She held both hands out toward him. In one hand, a spoon. In the other, a single serving cup of chocolate pudding. “Courage.”
Jonathan wiped his sleeve across his face. “Where’s yours?”
“I have one.”
“Won’t it feed the monsters?” He pulled at the front of his jacket. “The little ones?”
“How do you know?”
“They don’t like it.”
It seemed that was the most thorough answer Jonathan was going to get. With nothing to lose, he opened the pudding cup and started to eat it. It was so sweet, in such stark contrast with everything his world had become, that he had to eat it very slowly. Even the smallest bite tried to shrivel up his tongue, but it didn’t churn his stomach. He gained a bit more room in which to think, and to speak.
“Why here?” he started. “Why do you live in my house and not the Wheelers’?”
Elle was sitting in the chair nibbling around the bad parts of a partially rotten apple. “Mom’s here.”
“You mean my mom?”
Elle nodded, chewing. She swallowed. “Music is here too,” she added, “But it’s quiet.”
Jonathan finished his pudding and had an idea. He got up, dropped the cup and spoon on his bed, plucked Elle’s gas mask from the floor and put it on. “You might want to stand back,” he said. Elle detached her flashlight from herself and placed it in the chair, pointing it at the ceiling to light the room. She moved to the hallway and peeked in from behind the door.
Jonathan grabbed hold of one of the tough flaking growths strangling his stereo and tugged, but his effort threatened to topple the whole cupboard.
“Stop,” Elle said. “Loud.”
Right. This project wasn’t a big boulder to move, it was a big tangle to untie. Jonathan peeled layer after layer from the vines, fraying bark and digging through slimy sap. Clouds of escaped spores filled the room. By his work the growths thinned, broke apart and fell to the floor. He wiped his hands off on his thighs and walked his fingers along his record collection, and found that several ― most of his casual favorites, the frequent plays ― were missing.
The albums were piled under Elle’s chair, left open as books to their printed lyrics. It must have been that for hours upon hours over the last month or more, Jonathan’s room had been haunted by a strange girl reading along with the poetry of the greats.
He was about to choose one to play when he remembered how deeply Will had frightened their mom by playing his mixtape, so he rubbed his hand over his brow and devised a plan B from what he could recall of the boys’ jumbled stories. He extricated his headphones from the mess and detached the cord. He held them out toward his bedroom door. “Could these help you hear stuff better?”
Elle wasn’t there.
Jonathan put his headphones around his neck and brought the flashlight with him into the hallway. “Elle?”
She wasn’t in the bathroom, or the living room, or the kitchen. She wasn’t in his mom’s room either. He pointed the flashlight away and, stealthily, pushed open Will’s bedroom door.
Elle stood beside Will’s Jaws poster, a top corner of which had flopped down from the wall. She leaned forward over the old grey toy chest and put her hands on the closed window, and then her forehead fell to the glass. She stood like that, with her eyes closed, perfectly still, for a long time. Jonathan didn’t dare interrupt. He was starting to feel sick again. He thought maybe he should leave.
“Mike.” Elle’s voice was a little bell in a gust of wind. “No.”
“Betcha fifty bucks the guy’s sawing logs.” Steve was sitting on Nicole’s front stoop.
Nancy had begun doing laps back and forth across the lawn the moment she could no longer see Mike through the trees. Her legs itched inside and pacing scratched them. It also kept her warm. She passed by Steve again without looking at him.
“All that stuff with the pool, with Mike, with the bug in the pool, that wasn’t enough for one night? You really think Jonathan’s gone too? It’s too much. Think about it.”
“I am thinking,” Nancy snapped as she passed him next.
“No, what you’re doing is worrying. What are the chances of two totally insane but mostly unrelated things happening the same night? Come on,” Steve smoothed, “Adventure’s wrapping up. Kid’s gonna find him in his bed and we’ll all go home and go to sleep too. Then tomorrow I’ll get my dad to fill in the pool with cement and the next time I run into Jonathan I’ll ask him why he’s gotta be such an asshole.”
“I’m not tired and neither are you.” Nancy marched to the pebbly drive and hit herself in the cheek with her ponytail by whipping around again. “None of us are going to sleep after what happened tonight.”
“Then we can do something else, somewhere interesting. Since you’re out. And I’m out. And I’ve got the car.”
On her way back to Steve, Nancy felt a corner of her mouth turn up without her consent.
“Nancy, couldja ― come on, would y ―” He snared her wrist by the cuff to stop her passing by him again. “You’re making me seasick.”
She stomped her foot and pouted. “My legs are itchy.”
“Nicole’s lawn’s gonna have a dirt stripe.” He squeezed her hand. “Maybe you’re just a little shellshocked. God knows you wouldn’t be the only one.”
Nancy didn’t want to melt. It wasn’t time to melt yet. “My baby brother almost died right in front of me,” she argued, pleading with him in case he somehow didn’t understand.
Steve smiled with a subtle purse of his lips. “Mhm,” he said, looking into her in a way she wasn’t prepared for. Nancy tugged, but he wouldn’t let go of her hand. “You’ve gotta relax. Okay? He’s fine. There’s probably nothing out there and if there is, you can protect him. You’ve got the…” His gaze slid to her waist. He tilted his head, looking behind her. “Stuff.”
It was good to be armed. “Okay.” Nancy heaved the deepest breath she could. “Alright, you win.”
“I wasn’t trying to fight you, Nancy.”
“I know! I know. I didn’t mean it like that.” The railing caught Nancy’s attention. Her legs hadn’t stopped itching inside and if she stood on the ground, the bar might be just the right height. “Thank you.” She bent and gave Steve a kiss. “For everything. For saving him. And everything.”
Steve put both his arms out and whooshed himself to his feet. “I do what I do. Wanna come warm up in the car?”
“Maybe in a minute.”
“Alright, shoot yourself. I mean ―” he clicked his cheek, “Don’t. Don’t shoot yourself.”
Nancy rolled her eyes but let herself smile this time. Steve ran his hand down her arm and left for the car, maintaining an aloof saunter in spite of his missing shoe.
Nancy turned back to the porch. She squared her shoulders, lifted her chin and toed up beside it, standing within the dead garden. She pointed her toes and raised her leg. Her foot stopped short, requiring her to pull her knee with one arm and guide her shin with the other hand to get her heel up onto the rail. She wasn’t in shape at all anymore. How long had it been since the dance studio closed up? Four years?
Oh well. What can ya do? had been her dad’s response to the tears. She hadn’t spoken to him for three days after that, and she still didn’t like to admit it, but he was right. The studio was gone. Not even her parents could stop the instructor moving away. So, no more dance. It was okay. Ballet lessons had been expensive because small towns made for small classes. Plus there was school to worry about. She was too short for dance anyway.
Keeping her balance by one hand on the rail, Nancy bowed her other arm out and, folding strictly at the waist, brought her nose down as close as possible to her raised knee, arcing the stretch down her leg and up her back. She remembered her instructor’s feathery, theatrical voice; the squeak and patter of slippers on the smooth studio floor. It had been so peaceful there, in a group of girls each working on their own thing, keeping one another on task in quiet but dependable company.
Nancy tried to deepen the stretch by bending her lower knee, but it wasn’t easy ― these jeans had no give and she was really out of shape. Giddy with the fleeting senses of childhood, she bounced minisculely, testing how far she could go without hurting herself.
“Is that a gun in your pants or are you just wagging your tail?”
Nancy nearly pulled a muscle. How had she forgotten about the gun? It was right there, cold and hard in the crack of her butt, insistently distracting now that she had been reminded of it. She instructed a wave of anger to go away, since she had not technically asked to be left alone. “I’m not a dog, Steve.”
“Mhm.” Steve was right behind her. “You’re a dancer.” His vocal fry tickled behind her ear. His breath crept into her jacket collar, warming the chain of her ballet slipper necklace. Goosebumps settled into the hollow of her collarbone.
“You’ve never even seen me dance.”
“For some totally insane reason, that’s right, I haven’t.” Steve’s creeping hands hooked her hips. “But I can already tell you’d put every cheerleader in Hawkins to shame.”
Nancy couldn’t stretch like this. She put her foot down and closed her legs. “I’m not a cheerleader either.”
Steve wrapped his arms all the way around her waist. “That’s why I said you’re a dancer.” He pushed his hips forward, grinding the gun ― and more ― into her tailbone. Her heart leapt but Steve was already thinking the same thing she was: he jumped back, shying away from the dangerous contact.
Nancy turned around with her hands behind her back, adjusting the gun to make sure it stayed in place. “You want me to believe you’re not trying to get me to join the cheerleading squad?”
Steve held his hands up. “Don’t shoot, I’m just saying.”
“Just saying what?”
“Just saying whatever pops into my head, Nancy. I’m not Shakespeare here. You’re the graceful one.”
She narrowed her eyes, “Are you actually scared of me right now?” and hooked both thumbs into her back pockets to test whether she was right.
“No,” said Steve squarely. “No, of course not.” Then he stumbled over a wooden candy cane and fell casually back against the brick wall of the house as if it was what he had meant to do.
Nancy placed a light hand on his chest. “You’re not?”
Steve changed. His uneasy smile fell away to a scowl as he looked down at her. “Why would I be?” His voice was flat, his eyelids low. Insolent.
Nancy had the answer. She lifted her brows to emphasize what was left of her china doll mascara, licked her lips and stared at Steve’s mouth to hold his gaze. When she had him locked in place she snuck her tube of lipgloss from her back pocket and pressed the end up under his chin. “Who knows?”
They stared at one another. Steve started breathing hard. When Nancy leapt up onto her tiptoes and kissed him, he moaned. When she bit his lip, he moaned and got shorter, so with her teeth she dragged him firmly down to her level. She dropped her lipgloss, and judging by the way he twitched it must have landed on his foot. “I knew―” He managed between their nipping kisses, “Knew that―knew it wasn’t―the gun.”
“Nancyy!” came a faraway call. Nancy’s heart leapfrogged over its previous jump. No, it was okay. Partly okay. In all his urgency Mike had not said ‘monster.’
Steve kept his hold, an arm around her waist, a thumb teasing her lip.
“We have to go,” Nancy said. “News.”
“Ufya,” Steve whispered in the middle of her last word. Stiffly, he released her to follow the sound of Mike’s voice.
She nearly had to jog to keep up with him. “What was that?”
“What did you say?”
“I didn’t say anything.”
“Seriously, what did you say?”
“I swear to God I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
“Steve,” Nancy warned, her mouth tight ― and then she forgot about it all. “He’s got Will with him?” This was either bad or very bad. “Hey! I don’t want to get anybody in trouble.”
Mike sat down at the edge of the clearing and patted the ground. Little Will plunked down beside him, chattering within the mound of a giant bedspread.
Nancy could see the whites of Will’s eyes from here.
She sprinted right past Steve and landed on her knees in front of the boys. “Tell me.” She searched from one to the other and back again. “Flat out. I won’t get mad.”
“Jonathan’s not home. He wasn’t feeling well and now he’s gone.” Mike looked at Will. “Your turn.”
There was more?
“You can’t tell my mom. She’ll l-lose it.” Will shook and squeaked and yet remained thoughtful, as though he had built a wall between body and mind and banished all of his anxiety to the far side. “I al-almost made her lose it. She’s always up doing stuff in the middle of the night n-now unless she takes a pill. She can’t know.”
Nancy barely noticed Steve rustling the grass and sitting down beside her. She leaned forward, stretching, pushing her palms across the cold ground in Will’s direction. “It’s okay,” she said. “You can trust me.”
Will looked at Mike, reluctant. Did they think she was some kind of bully?
“You can trust her,” Mike confirmed. “She’s different now.”
Nancy stuck her tongue out of the side of her mouth at Mike without losing sight of Will’s big dinnerplate eyes. That seemed to do it: “I threw up a slug. On Christmas Eve.”
A buried memory uncoiled at the base of Nancy’s skull and lay there, waiting to be noticed. “You what?”
“It was black,” Mike said. “It looked just like mine.”
“I didn’t-didn’t tell anyone because it was Christmas.”
Mike kept elaborating: “He brought it from the upside down. He must have.”
“What?” said Steve.
Will shrank back. Nancy put her hand on Steve’s knee. “Don’t yell at him.”
Steve grabbed his own hair. “You’re coughing these things up? We’ve got to get you some help, like right now. We can take my car, we can go.”
“I’m, I’m, I’m not sick anymore. My mom said the Demogorgon put this thing in my throat and I think the slug was just something le-left over. Like the doctors m-missed it. But…” Will hmphed at Nancy’s outstretched hands.
Gooseflesh spread down Nancy’s back from the nape of her neck, the creeping crawl of resurfacing denial, a little piece of mayhem labeled ‘unimportant,’ or at least not labeled as ‘important’ as everything else, and left behind. Abandoned. “What?”
“It like… It… put me back into the place for a second.” Will glanced at Mike. “The upside down. But I figured maybe I was dreaming, you know? Like when, when s-sometimes I get up to go to the bathroom at ni-hn-night and it’s like I’m there or if I get too cold or if my do-dog growls I think I’m-m there an-hnd.”
“It’s really cold out here,” Mike explained.
“Yeah,” Will agreed, laughing a little.
“Maybe one of them got Jonathan too,” Mike said. “The way it got me and Will. Do you think it could have kept him somehow?”
Nancy started rubbing the back of her neck. “Steve, remember when you helped us? When you ran into the house and grabbed the bat because I couldn’t…”
Steve cringed. “…He couldn’t protect you.”
Nancy tightened her grip on Steve’s knee, reading tea leaves in the grass. “Did it do anything to him?” She dug her nails in. “Did you see?”
“I was too busy beating the shit out of it, Nancy. If I’d looked anywhere else we’d all be dead.”
“You beat up the Demogorgon?” Will’s jaw had dropped. “You actually beat it up?”
Steve mimed the swing of a baseball bat and marked the impact with a ksh.