A little patch of drool had formed under Nancy’s cheek. Jonathan figured he was drooling as much as she was, but if Steve noticed them he didn’t care: he had been talking for a while now, absorbed in his retellings of the recent past. Jonathan grunted occasionally to corroborate a y’know? or a right, and felt weirdly comfortable. There wasn’t really anything to this, it was just someone bigger than him to lean on so he didn’t fall over, and it was better than being alone.
“I didn’t believe her,” Steve was saying. “She pretty much knew what happened to you when she showed up at my place but it took me ’til the phone call.” That sounded like a confession, worth more than a grunt.
“You tried to stop her?”
“What? No. No way, of course not.” Steve bumped his head back on the wall. “As if I could.”
“Then it’s fine. Forget it.” Muscle by joint, Jonathan worked his weight off Steve’s side and onto his own propping arm. His cheek cooled in the air. Yup, drooling. He pulled Will’s bedspread tighter around himself.
“You okay?” said Steve. “You’re whiter than birdshit.”
Jonathan shrugged. He had no idea.
He hadn’t gotten to watch Nancy sleep before―that one night last month, she had been the one theorizing while he was the one sleeping through it. And now, pestered by a sense of dread not quite strong enough to edge him into denial, he had to strike down all of her hard work:
The monster never smelled blood. It smelled fear. The whole place smells fear.
He could hardly think the truth to himself it was so crazy, but even that dying deer last month proved it. He and Nancy had been acres from the road when they came across it: it had run a long way, bleeding all the while, before it fell to rest in the leaves. The monster hadn’t come until he and Nancy showed up to frighten it ― and themselves. Jonathan wasn’t ten anymore, but right then he had felt like he was.
Nancy’s leg looked like a horror show. The dark denim excuse for a bandage was soaked black. Brown smears climbed up over her knee and a rusty crust flowed down her ankle and into a bloodsoaked sock. More blood had drawn a dark circle in the carpet. And she was totally oblivious.
We thought it sensed blood because blood is scary. It hunted at night because the dark is scary. It came for my family because we scare so easy. Keep your lights on.
How could Jonathan tell her that? How could he tell anybody that? If trying to be afraid made it impossible, trying not to be afraid made it inevitable. He knew it with a sureness that cemented him to the floor, a sureness as fixed as gravity.
Nancy would never sleep again if he told her. She would scare herself so badly trying to be brave that she would forget how to sleep, just like Mom, and then it would find her anyway. It would find everybody anyway.
What had Elle said when he asked if there were more monsters? Not yet. He could buy everyone some time, keep it a secret at least until then. Don’t worry, she had ordered, as if it mattered whether anyone worried or not. It did matter, after all. It mattered more than anything.
Nancy’s hair had spilled across her face in frizzy ribbons. Lock by lock Jonathan picked it up and placed it behind her head where it belonged. She was so little all over, even her forehead was little. More weary than apprehensive, he traced her hairline by touch.
It can’t get you in here. I won’t let it.
Reaching her ear, he evoked a sleepy snort. That was little too. A reluctant smile sliced ticklishly across his face and healed back up again, and then he felt it: he was being watched.
“You lo―” Steve’s voice cracked. He switched to a whisper, “―love her?”
People weren’t so bad when they were sleeping. Sleeping people minded their own business. They didn’t turn blindly territorial, they didn’t cringe. They didn’t stare at you harder and harder to make you answer what they thought were simple questions.
Very softly, Steve cleared his throat. The warmth he was wearing singed Jonathan’s eyes, so Jonathan returned to the sleeping person to comb a bit of frizz back from her temple. “Is it okay?” he said, and began to count the freckles across her nose.
Simple question, right?
It took Steve a while. Seventeen freckles.
“Yeah, I mean I guess. For now. We can duke it out tomorrow or something.”
An icy breeze pushed through the knitholes in Mike’s sweater. Normally the cold didn’t bug him so much but it had been a really long night. He rubbed his arms. His elbow stung. His coat lay torn and useless by Steve’s rear wheel in a snowfall of glass, twenty steps behind.
Trees arced up on either side of the road like spears left over from a war between tribes of giants, and at their tops they frayed into black cracks in the navy sky. Mike walked fast for the warmth. Totally the warmth. It was only Hawkins, only the outskirts of Mirkwood. Nothing ever happened here. Har har.
He widened his eyes to let in more light ― not because he was freaked out ― and swept them along the sides of the road once in a while to be sure he wouldn’t miss an abandoned bike. The bullets in his pocket made warty bumps on the hip of his pants. If it was dangerous out here, if there was another Demogorgon after all, was there a way he could use them to defend himself?
―Uh, no. What was he going to do, throw them at it? Forget it. What if he hit a bullet with a rock to set it off? No, there was no way to aim it and he could lose a finger trying, and as cool as it would be to take one apart with his new knife to see what it was like inside, that was too dangerous too. And pretty pointless out here the dark. The moon was setting. He could only see about ten feet of road ahead of him.
Mike got his knife from his back pocket and carried it with the blade out.
What if ― like, tomorrow ― Lucas shot one if the bullets from his wrist rocket? Just to see what would happen? Dustin would lose his mind, at least until Will came up with a safety plan. Mike counted five bullets by touch. They needed a wide berth and a big wall. The quarry had both.
Cool. He patted his pocket. Elle’s letter crinkled.
mike i care snow ball no place like home not safe bad men secret
She wasn’t a murderer, she couldn’t be, she had just been confused and mad. How was she supposed to know that this time, the bad person who shot a friend with a gun wasn’t as bad as the bad men? And anyway, she could have broken Carol’s neck, easy ― but she didn’t. She didn’t listen to Mike right away but she didn’t kill Carol right away either. She didn’t know what to do, and she knew that, so she waited in the middle, and that meant everything would be fine, eventually. Once it was safe to see her again. If she didn’t go crazy living in the upside down first.
How long had those men kept her locked up?
How was she supposed to know anything?
Mike played around in his pocket and reserved two bullets for the quarry. The rest could go into that stupid Power and Light lab, followed by a ton of rocks. It was abandoned anyway. Not that he cared whether he hurt someone, he just didn’t want to get caught. The Demogorgon could turn every one of those people into worm food for all he cared. Bastards.
Bad men, she had said, on the bloody school floor, in the wrong arms, with two black eyes.
Yes, yes, it’s your Papa. The guy hadn’t even heard her right, he was so full of himself. They were all so full of themselves.
Although Mike remembered that old man a lot, he had only figured out two things about him for sure: that he hurt Eleven, and that he lied to her about it. The more Mike thought about that the less sure he was which of the two things, the hurting her or the lying about it, was worse. He hadn’t gotten a chance to ask Elle what she thought but that was probably for the best. Mike wouldn’t want to talk about it either.
The important thing, the thing that stopped the cruel air pushing so hard through his sweater and made his lungs feel three times bigger, was that the lies hadn’t stuck. That old man would never boss her around again. And when Eleven reached out to Mike instead, when she really proved it, the man had glanced up at him wearing a slackjawed look worse than Dustin’s after rolling three natural ones in a row, like he was crapping his pants in fear.
When Mike thought about the man, he lingered on that look the longest. It was the look you got when you knew you’d lost a campaign but still hoped the DM magically wouldn’t say anything about it. It was one of his favorites.
Mike’s heel scuffed the ground. Her voice had come from outside his head, from everywhere, muted and echoing at the same time, as if the trees themselves were talking.
The breeze puffed. Branches clattered overhead. All of Mike’s limbs wanted to fly off in opposite directions and spread out in a search party. “Eleven?”
“No. Just Elle. Not Eleven.”
She was right here. Somewhere right here. “Elle?”
“I’m in a hole,” said a trunk three trees back. It was just a little hole, smaller than Mike’s hand and totally black inside. He put his eye to it and got blinded by a sudden golden light from the end of the tunnel. “Hi Mike.”
“Hi.” Mike forced himself to stare into the flashlight so he wouldn’t miss anything, but then it clicked off, leaving a green circle tattooed on his night vision. He casually stabbed his knife into the tree over and over, tuk tuk. “Did you make this hole?”
“Yes,” came Elle’s voice from the darkness.
He turned the tip of the knife in the tree, grinding the point in between chunks of bark, trying to dig her out. “Can you make it bigger?”
Wrecking his new knife like a total moron, Mike pried a big scab of bark off the tree near the edge of the hole, and then got to work chipping more pale bits of wood away. You couldn’t dig a hole through a tree using a folding knife, but here he was, trying his hardest anyway. Elle was turning him into a stupid idiot just by existing. “How’d you do it?”
Mike saw the writhing black nest inside Barbara’s mouth. He held his knife in a two-handed grip above the wood he had uncovered and started carving a line to distract himself. “From bodies?”
Elle’s voice still sounded like it was coming from far away, and yet the tree trunk was only a foot deep. Mike leaned over and looked around it to make absolute sure she wasn’t there on the other side. The trick of physics persisted, duh. He was getting dumber by the second. “I can’t see you,” he said. “Could you turn on your light again?”
“You’ll get scared.”
“I will not. It’s just you.”
Three weeks ago, Mike had tagged along with Will to the pet store to get a bag of dog food. He wandered off alone ― he did that a lot now ― and for a split second he thought he saw Elle’s eyes through the glass at the back of the store, in one of the puppies. It made him feel bad. She wasn’t a dog. But now, sometimes, when he thought of her, he saw the puppy instead. “It would be cool if I could see you, that’s all.”
“You shouldn’t say that.” Mike had carved two vertical lines by now, so he started making a little ‘v’ to link their tops together. “It’s not true.”
“Pretty bad. Pretty ugly. Pretty scary.” Sniff. “Pretty messed up.”
“You really shouldn’t say that, especially if you won’t let me see for myself.” He started another vertical line. “That’s not fair.”
Elle clicked her light on. Aimed elsewhere, it lit her smudged, sallow face softly in ambient light. Mike shook his hair out of his eyes. Through the round hole she looked like a moon, a dirty, pale, exhausted moon. Her brown eyes were nothing like a puppy’s, and not just because the sockets around them had gone dark again ― they were too shiny, too grown up. Too pretty.
“You need a bath,” Mike said.
“I hate the bath.”
It made sense. Mike nodded bobbingly. “I would too.” The tree said ‘M F,’ and he found he was afraid to finish the last line. What would he do with himself then? He carved along the other strokes, deepening their grooves. “Where do you sleep?”
“Do you have enough food?”
“When are you coming back?”
Mike’s knife slipped. He looked up at Elle and back down at his carved letters and back up again a bunch of times. “Says who?” he finally demanded, gouging the last line to finish the E.
“Says… Says me.” Elle’s voice sounded dusty. “They’ll come. I hurt people too. I’m like them.”
Mike scowled at her instead of yelling at her. “You’re not like them.” She swayed a little, as if she was a leaf and Mike was a breeze. “They hurt you and lied about it. Sure you can hurt people, but you never lied to us about it. Lying about it is way worse.”
“I suck at lying.” Elle looked down and sighed through her nose, her eyebrows tense and unhappy. “I suck at hiding.”
So she had definitely heard him talking to Will at his window. Mike opened his mouth to say I didn’t mean it, but that wasn’t true. I was wrong, and No you don’t, weren’t true either. “You’ll get better at it,” he settled.
And then Mike’s carving began to stretch upward, in a way that should have been impossible: the hole was closing. Of course Elle couldn’t hold it open forever. She looked drained enough to faint already.
He held his breath on an idea, a big dumb idea that he knew he would punch himself for not saying unless he said it right now. “There’s an upside down version of my house too, right? Why don’t you come sleep at my house?”
“No.” She still wouldn’t look up. “Too big. Too quiet.”
“So you stay at Will’s?”
“Yes. It’s loud.”
“You mean music? You can hear people from the upside down?”
“Yes. But ―” She shook her head stiffly. “No.”
Mike could barely see both of her eyes at the same time through the closing hole. “You don’t know what you mean?” Impatience reared up. “That’s stupid.”
“Mike,” she choked. Her wet eyes dripped. Mike was a total jerk. He pinched himself on the arm again.
“Just tell me. Tell me what’s ‘loud.’ I’ll put it in my house so you can come over.”
“Elle. Friends tell the truth.” Don’t cry, please don’t cry. He wished he could pinch her too. Just stop crying.
“Love is loud.”
“Game night!” The idea had burst out before Mike could think, let alone blush. “Come to game night. We love game night.”
“Game night is loud?”
“Oh yeah, sometimes it’s so loud we get in trouble. Though it’s more like game day. We usually start at eleven, on Sundays.”
“Yeah! Easy to remember. You still have my watch, right?”
“It still works?”
Elle shifted, rustling, becoming nothing but a pinpoint of forehead, then a pinpoint of pink hat, through the tree. “Yes.”
“See where it says T-H-U? When it says S-U-N, and one-one-zero-zero, be in my basement. Understand?”
The gate closed.
Mike was still deciding whether to put a plus sign between the stretched M and E when a pair of headlights turned onto the far end of the road. He turned back to his work, finished it and admired his new landmark in the dim night, memorizing it and everything around it so that he would be able to find it again later: the spaces between trees, the pattern of the edge where the road met the grass. M + E.
Tires crunched bits of debris in the distance. Mike jogged for the sheriff’s truck so it wouldn’t look like he had been standing anywhere special. He waved his arms over his head, air traffic control guiding the grownup in, then realized he still had his knife in his hand and hurried it back into his pocket.
“He’s inside!” he called out, “Jonathan came back! He’s okay, he’s in the house!”
The hi-beams flashed once, twice: not a flicker, a signal. A huge figure loomed over the steering wheel ― that was Hopper all right. But the smaller one, in the front passenger seat, was too tall to be Will. She was beating her palms on the dashboard and ranting, her voice rushed and rising. “―hear me you stop this car this minute. I don’t CARE how far! Just let me out God damn it―”
The crunching slowed. Mike squinted, baring his teeth. The passenger door opened before the truck stopped, and when Will’s mom came out of it, tripping toward him in a brown coat and a striped bathrobe, she didn’t bother closing it behind her.
She grappled at Mike, trying to shake his hand wherever hers happened to land, staring out over his head toward Nicole’s house with her eyes full of ghosts. “Thank you,” she whispered, chattering. She dragged Mike down the road a few steps, shaking his elbow and the top of his head, before she noticed herself and pushed him back to the spot from which she had taken him. She held his face in her icy hands and drilled her gaze eerily into his, and found her voice: “Thank you.”
And off she went.
“I didn’t do it though,” Mike said, but there was no way she heard him. Watching the white soles of her sneakers flapping up in tandem behind her, he promised himself and whoever else might be listening that he would never, ever put that look on his own mother’s face.
Shit. But Nancy? She might.
“What the hell took you so long?” he shouted at the truck. “Did you stop at McDonald’s on the way here?”
Mike had never seen a bear stand up in real life but he remembered one in black and white, a hazy old clip from before his dad got the new TV. The bear had reared up onto its hind legs and just… stood there, looming over the camera, its snarl twitching, until the hunter dropped his gun and ran. When Hopper got out of the truck it was exactly like that.
“Are you yelling at me?”
“Uh. No. No sir. It’s just that. Nancy’s hurt. And El―”
“And. Uh, and Elverybody’s pretty freaked out, heh.”
“Is that what you were about to say?”
The Chief of Police drummed his fingers on the roof of the truck.
“Eleven. She’s in the upside down.”
“I didn’t mention that part!” Will called from the back seat.
“Get in. Talk to me.”
Jonathan heard something.
“Mom?” Only after he said it did he really pick out the desperate whimper, the struggle to breathe through a sprinting panic, the same sound she made that night he nearly hit her with the car. The wall, it came OUT of the WALL Jonathan it didn’t have― it didn’t have―
The door slammed open. Plaster crumbled.
Jonathan limped on all fours over the obstacle course of other people’s legs, narrowly missing Nancy’s bloody bandage. When he got to the end of it his mother was there, fallen to her knees and scooping him up with a strength that could flip cars. “I knew it,” she squeaked, holding him like she’d just won the biggest prize on the midway. “I knew it, I knew it! Damn it, damn it I knew it! I’m so sorry honey, I knew it and I left you alone.”
“Oh well,” Jonathan croaked. “I was asking for it.”
His mom laughed a little, then held her breath and froze still.
“She’s just asleep,” Steve said. “Nicole gave her… something.”
“I don’t believe this. How did Nancy get a gun?”
Jonathan didn’t hesitate in dread for long. Better the truth came out now, while his mom was still happy to see him. “I stole it from Dad,” he told her big brown coat button, the same button he used to chew on a very long time ago.
“Well that was a stupid thing to do,” she replied, resting her chin on the top of his head.
Jonathan had come to sit hunched over in his mother’s lap in front of how-many-people from school, but when he looked up he found that nobody cared. Tommy and Carol sat solemnly on the sofa, heads bowed like it was a pew, and Nicole, hidden behind a short curtain of red hair, had begun scrubbing the carpet near a bookcase.
“…And I know all about stupid things to do,” Mom growled. Her bathrobe pocket rattled: pills in a bottle. “To hell with these.”
The dread of a second ago was nothing. Jonathan fought his way out of her arms. “Mom, you need those.”
“What I need is to listen to my gut, that’s what I need. I am such an idiot. If I’d had these to hide behind when Will was missing he could be dead now. And you―” Her chin bobbed, “Jonathan, tonight…”
“So now what? What are you going to do? Stay up every night doing laps around the house, thinking in circles until you get so scared it drives you crazy? Like actually crazy?” The cuts in Jonathan’s throat were still making him hoarse, but the pain of it seemed very far away. “That’s how you’re going to protect us?”
His mom stared at him angrily, thinking, then called, “All right, everybody out.” Nicole kept scrubbing. Tommy and Carol looked at her but didn’t move. “That means you, you and you, outside.”
“This is my house,” Nicole said. “I live here.”
“You think any of you deserve a place to live after what you did tonight? Get out.”
Nicole threw down her scrubbing brush. The three exited single file. Nicole slammed the door behind her, and a little more plaster crumbled somewhere in the wall.
Jonathan’s mom took him by the shoulders. “I am afraid of something real,” she said. “I need my fear. It’s how I know when something is wrong. I will work with it. And if I can’t sleep at all at first, that’s fine! I’ll stay up until I faint, or I’ll take little naps.” Gingerly, she moved Jonathan off her lap and got to her feet. “I’ll learn to sleep with my eyes open.” She slipped away to the kitchen. “And don’t you worry about work, I can do that job with my eyes closed.”
Jonathan wanted to yell after her, could feel that elusive roar building in his chest but it wouldn’t come out. It never did when he really needed it to. “And what about the night terrors, are they coming back now? Remember why you got those pills?” He dragged himself under the archway and found her leaning on the kitchen counter, orange pill bottle in hand. “You’re going to start running in your sleep again, Mom! What happens if we don’t hear you messing with the door one time? You could wake up in the woods―or in traffic, or―” It’ll find you.
“So I’ll tie my shoelaces together!” She plucked an empty beer can from the kitchen sink and tossed it aside. “I don’t care! These―these―” She wrestled the lid off the bottle. “These things are not helping anyone.”
The sleeping pills crashed a hailstorm into the sink.
“I will figure it out as I go,” she said, running the tap and sweeping her hands around to wash fifty dollars down the drain. “That’s what I’ve always done, and it has kept all of our heads above water most of the time, and that has been good enough. Barely, I know, but good enough.”
Jonathan had nothing more to say. He sulked at his knee, defeated.
“If you want me to rest easy, stop hiding things from me. Whatever it is next time, and the next time, I can handle it. Knowing is always better than not knowing. There is nothing worse than―”
“Secrets,” Jonathan mumbled numbly.
“―secrets. Right. Please take it to heart this time. If I can trust you, I can sleep. ”
An engine had been idling outside. Jonathan noticed because at that moment it turned off, giving way to two inarticulate voices: Chief Hopper’s level grumble, and Nicole’s few dwindling yelps of defiance.
Nicole came back inside. Hopper ducked in after her. His dishevelled plaincothes made him seem more wildly threatening than official. He stared her down, waiting.
She found her camera beside the sofa, opened the back and pulled out the flim in a long, arcing ribbon, then turned around, her flushed cheeks shining, and made a big show of throwing the film on the ground and stomping on it. When the door slammed behind her again the walls didn’t just crumble, they groaned. Whatever had been on that film, Jonathan felt for her ― a little bit.
“Broke into a house with a gun down the back of your pants,” Hopper mumbled, his steps heavy. “The hell were you thinking? You need training, a license, a holster for God sakes… ” Filling the hallway like a cork in a bottletop, he crouched by Steve and Nancy. “How’s she doing?”
“Not bleeding to death,” Steve replied.
“I hear Byers coughed up a bug tonight.”
Steve snorted. “A bug, sure.”
“I’m afraid to move her.”
“Joyce,” Hopper said softly, and she rushed over.
The Chief lifted Nancy up and tipped her over into Mom’s lap. Nancy made a few little pained noises without waking, and once she was settled, Steve led the way to the basement. Mom stroked Nancy’s head and called her a “Silly girl, you silly girl. You silly, brilliant, unbelievable girl.”
Hopper blurted out a cuss word downstairs. Jonathan felt acutely mortified, as if Hopper and Steve were inspecting a beast he had created himself, a true part of him, his ugliest and most vulnerable part.
“They kicked me out of my own house.” Nicole punted one of the garden’s wooden candy canes, bending it back and leaving a faint shoeprint on it. “As if I don’t deserve a house. Everybody deserves a house.”
“You’re right, you do deserve a house,” Mike said. “The Big House.”
Hopper came outside carrying a pillowcase, using it as a bag like a trick-or-treater. The thing inside it was still moving. And leaking. He was also carrying a drowsy-looking Nancy bundled up in Will’s blanket, which was a really good thing since if Steve had been carrying her he would have dropped her on the ground.
“Holy fuh…” Steve said, gaping at his car. “Tommy you fuh. The window too? You fuh.”
Tommy had his arm around Carol’s waist. “I said I’d cover the tires but don’t ask me about the window. I had nothing to do with that.”
Mike felt eyes on him like the heat of a spotlight. “It was an emergency!”
“You’ll pay for the window too, Tommy,” Hopper said. He placed Nancy in the back seat of the truck and left the door open. “No insurance, no paper trail, no charges. The johns at the station could use a deep cleaning once a week if you’re short on cash.”
Mike turned to Will to share a grin at the retard’s expense, but Will had already run off to welcome Jonathan back to the rightside-up. The Byers stood at the foot of the steps as one lumpy body made of three people hugging in relief, until Jonathan fell back to lean on the railing, hacking and choking. His mom busied herself draping her coat over his shivering shoulders.
The Byers family had weird luck, Mike thought. The next thing to happen to them would either be a missing mom or a winning lottery ticket. Maybe both. He yawned deeply. When he could see again, Hopper had taken Will’s mom by an elbow and was leading her around to the side of the house.
Mike checked Nancy by instinct. She raised her eyebrows and poked her nose at him in a moment of lucidity: Go!
He ran on tiptoes across the lawn and put his back to the wall by the corner, a classic spy.
“Joyce, can you drive right now?” rumbled Hopper. “Say you really had to. Because you do.”
“Are you kidding? I haven’t been this awake in three weeks.”
“I need you to cut through the woods. Mike knows the best route. Leave him and Will at your place for now, bring the car around, take Nancy and the other girl to emergency and coach them best you can on the way there. Here’s how it went: they were being stupid playing around with the gun in the woods, got in a scuffle and it got out of hand accidentally. No fault. You heard the shot, came to the rescue and that’s it. Steve smells like a good enough liar so you bring him along too, let him do a lot of the talking, but stave off all the questions you can. Get a hold of the Wheelers before the docs do, let them know their kids’ situation and I’ll talk to them soon. Tie it all up nice. Nice and simple. Can you do that for me?”
“But where are you going? I mean, Jonathan―Did you look at him? He needs―”
“Jonathan is coming with me.”
“With you where?”
There was a long silence. Mike peeked around the corner. Hopper stood a few yards away in the yellow light from a window, gazing up at it over Will’s mom’s head. “A facility,” he finally said. “I can’t tell you more than that.”
“Excuse me? What, the―the feds? Are you insane? You think I’d ever let my son anywhere near those― those― No.” She laughed wild and quiet as she flailed, pushing the weight of his plans off her shoulders. “No. You are high. You are drunk and high. You are blitzed out of your mind on your Tuenal ― Oh I’m sorry, your ‘Tylenol’ ― and cheap beer.”
“Joyce, I need you to okay this. He needs you to okay this. The damn bug’s got its teeth on the outside. This is not something I’d trust an average med student to handle. You think I’d let anything happen to him? I don’t throw kids to the wolves, it’s not really my thing.”
“Oh? It’s not? Really? No kids? No kids thrown to the wolves, not ever? Not once?” She whispered, but it was loud enough to hear anyway: “No little bald girls?”
Hopper humphed, paused, then pulled something like a bracelet off his wrist: a blue braided cord, and he played with it in his hands for a second as if it had feelings.
“Here.” He took her arm and slipped the cord around her hand. “I know it’s not much but it’s all I have. This is a promise. Joyce! Take it. Take it.” He ducked into her line of sight and held fast. “Watch over it for me. We’ll be back in a few hours. Then we trade back. Do you follow me?”
She looked both angry and heartbroken. “I…”
“Sarah made this for me. It is all I have. Do you follow?”
“I know. Alright. I’ll― but―”
“Two hours. Three at the most. For all we know he’ll be in his bed by the time you get home. That’s what I’m shooting for.”
“You… still have the key?”
“I still have the key.”
“Then put him on the sofa. He’s grounded from his room for the next week.”
“… Grounded from his room?”
“That’s what I said.” Her tone lost some of its edge. “Grounded from his room. No bedroom, one week.”
“Appropriate. I know.”
Once Jonathan fell into the front passenger seat of the Sheriff’s truck, everybody huddled around the open door: Mom, Will, Mike, Steve, even Nancy on one foot, held upright in Steve’s arms. As suffocating as it was to be so surrounded, Jonathan didn’t want to leave. This couldn’t be as bad as wherever he was about to go.
When Hopper closed the door, parting the small group only temporarily, Jonathan thought of a coffin lid, then a guillotine. Any last words? “It’s bigger than we thought,” he said. “Be careful.” But not too careful. Actually I take it back. Don’t think about it at all. Forget anything ever happened.
Nancy’s eyes were sleepy, her smile weak but conspiratorial. “So we fight back.”
Jonathan slumped. Why did he bother talking? He would be better off eating staples. “We can’t fight back,” he muttered.
“Wanna bet?” Steve challenged. Totally unconvincing, and he looked like he knew it.
Jonathan’s mother leaned into the dark cab to kiss him on the head and stayed there.
“He won’t leave my sight,” Hopper said. He reached over Jonathan’s knees and started rolling up the window.
Mom whispered a tiny love you and ducked out, and then they were moving. Will waved in the rearview mirror and dwindled away.
“You must have put that little girl through hell, almost dying in front of her,” was the first thing Hopper said, a few minutes into the drive. His tone was emotionless but intense, hot and cold at the same time. “Ever thought about what it might be like to watch somebody dying in front of you? Somebody innocent?”
The dashboard clock ticked over. 3:04. A shock of pine branches bleached white in the headlights and swept off to the side.
“You say that like she’s not innocent.”
“In her mind she isn’t. You don’t know what she’s been through.”
“I do, actually. She told me some stuff.”
“Oh, she did? And so, what, you’re her friend now?”
“Something like that, yah.”
The truck turned onto the highway. Jonathan closed his eyes for a while.
Get up! Get up! What is wrong with you?
He startled awake and almost laughed but couldn’t quite remember why. Elle was on his mind again, a bright spot in a navy swamp. “I don’t think pink is the best color for hiding out in a blue environment,” he said. “Just saying.”
“She’s still wearing that crappy old coat?” Hopper pinched his temples and dragged his hand down his face. “I’ve left her three black ones by now. Is she building a fort out of them?”
“Where are you taking me?”
“Like I told you, a facility.”
“A checkup for you and a ― whatever that is,” Hopper thumbed over his shoulder at the source of the rustling noises in the back seat, “for them.”
“You work for them now?”
“Yes and no.” Hopper scratched his head and tapped the side of his nose. “Think of it this way: I’m a double agent with a curse. The curse is, everybody knows I’m a double agent.”
“I didn’t know.”
“They know and your mother knows. I tell them what I have to. I tell her what I can.” The Chief pushed in the console’s cigarette lighter to start it warming up. “They’ve got me drugged and bugged but I’m used to the drugs and I found all the bugs.”
How drugged? Because just now you sounded like a lunatic. Jonathan played with the door handle, watched the trees slide by in the dark and wondered whether he would survive a jump-and-roll at this speed. And at that, the only thing he wanted was to get out of Hawkins. “We need to move away. All of us. Elle, and my family, and Nancy’s family. We’ll find somewhere else to live. Anywhere would be better than here. I can save up and once I get into college ―”
Hopper laughed, an eerie tee-hee-hee. “You are going nowhere. Hell, I’m pushing the boundary right now. Anyone you know tells you about plans to skip town, you find an excuse to advise against it and if that doesn’t work, you talk to me.”
Jonathan slid down the seat until the seatbelt cut into his neck. He didn’t have the energy to get really angry, and so his protest was a formality: “You can’t do that.”
“I’m not doing it. If it was up to me there’d be a full evacuation. Hawkins, Cartersville too even. But that’s not how it is.” The dashboard lighter popped out an inch, ready. The Chief took his time pulling a cigarette from his breast pocket and lighting it.
Jonathan coughed involuntarily at the first sight of smoke. Hopper glanced from the road to his cigarette, reached toward the ashtray to put it out, then jolted back at the last second. He took a long hands-free drag and cracked his window open instead. “They don’t know how far this thing spreads,” he explained quietly, smoke patting out with his syllables. “Whether it’s contagious, whether it follows people. What they do know is that the doorway’s in our backyard, and that makes us a threat by association. You ever heard of a soft quarantine?”
“Think quarantine plus gag order. Means nobody knows they’re quarantined. Prevents mass panic.”
Jonathan perked up at that word, panic. Had they figured it out too? “Why are they so worried about mass panic?”
Smoke curled out of the Chief’s nostrils, dragonlike. He shot Jonathan a quizzical side-eye. “Because mass panic is bad?”
“R-right.” Jonathan studied his hands. They looked like they belonged to someone else. “Right.”
“Here’s how Soft-Q works. You try to get out, they’ll sabotage you a little but not so much you’ll notice. SAT scores lost in the mail, stuff like that. If bad luck doesn’t work, they go out and find you. Carbon monoxide leak in your dorm room maybe, or they take you into custody so you can help them test the boundaries of the human mind.”
Is that what they’re doing to you? Jonathan thought, but he said: “They can’t keep track of so many people.”
“They’re keeping closer track of some than others. Top of the list is anyone who’s been in direct contact and anyone who’s got a bad habit of asking too many questions. That means me, that means Byers, that means Wheeler and a few more. Plus all public services.”
“How much of this does my mom know?”
“All of it.”
And half an hour ago she was going on about honesty?
“But she doesn’t know about the kid in pink, and you’ll help me keep it that way.”
So, what, Hopper was going to leave Eleven to rot on the other side? Just because? While lecturing Jonathan about not understanding what it was like to be in her shoes? “Oh yah? Why should I keep it that way? Because you said so? You keep all the secrets and you make all the rules? My mom still talks about her.” If there’s no body, she’s not dead. That is a FACT, Jonathan. “You want me to start lying?”
“Yeah, I am asking you to start lying, because if you don’t, your mother’ll try to go in and get her. And then either some of us or all of us are…” Hopper checked his mirrors and changed lanes without using his turn signal. “I would tell you more if I could. I wish I could but it could get more than just me killed. The problem you have with me goes all the way up the ladder, understand? There are a lot of eyes on this town, eyes that make stupid pointless rules like you wouldn’t believe, and none of those eyes exist, which means they can do whatever the hell they want. You need to hide from them whenever you can and so does everyone else, especially that girl. We clear?”
Jonathan balled his mom’s jacket up between his neck and his shoulder. A moment of anger had left him barely able to hold his head up. “Yeah.”
The window was cool on the side of his head. He remembered switching his pillows out at his bedroom windowsill earlier that night, and dreamt he was back in the upside down, but this time he was alone. He had eaten Eleven. She was trapped in his belly and there was no one left to talk to about it.
Jonathan awoke to a heavy ka-chunk, and the squeak of his door opening. The engine was off. Freezing air seeped into the cab. Hopper reached in and slapped a cold handcuff onto his wrist.
“Wuh―” The hell? “I never said I wouldn’t go.”
“I’m not making sure you go in there.” Hopper closed the other cuff around his own wrist, crik. “I’m making sure you come out again.”
It was pointless for Jonathan to change his mind now that he was handcuffed to a man the size of a train car, but the change had come on its own. He curled up where he sat, his feet on the seat and his forehead to his knees again, his throat raw and his aching insides awash in a returning tide of terror. He checked whether the keys were still in the ignition. They weren’t. “No,” he said.
“You can’t walk?”
The scratching noises in the back seat grew from interested to excited.
“I don’t know.”
Hopper got shorter in Jonathan’s peripheral and crouched beside him. “…You think they’ll shoot you in the head like they did to Benny?”
“I don’t know,” or forget me in a cell, or cut me up while I’m awake, or put that thing back inside me just to see what happens. One arm dangled lamely out the open door between Jonathan’s shoulder and a little chain, an easily broken chain. He tried to put his feet back on the floor but they wouldn’t go. “I can’t move.”
The monster in the pillowcase was going haywire.
Hopper spoke slowly: “They’re not going to shoot you in the head like Benny. The folks who shot Benny, chased the kids, hassled me and your mother, they were panicking. They were in deep shit and they were panicking, and now they’re gone. These people, working the night shift in this building?” He waited until Jonathan looked up. The facility was just a cement shack, standing in a six-car lot with a fence around it. “The people in this building have next to nothing on the line. They’re science guys, just grunts doing their jobs. That means they’re honest, they’re predictable and they’re boring. And they need me. The worst they can do is tie us up in red tape for a while.”
“Then―” Jonathan tugged. The anchor didn’t budge. “Why this?”
“Because there’s a one in a hundred chance I’m wrong, and I made a promise.”
“I want this to be over.”
“Me too, trust me.” A heavy hand fell onto Jonathan’s knee and squeezed, swaying him. “Trust me.”
Jonathan decided to go somewhere else for a while. He began to walk.
He tried to go to a concert but he had never been to one before, and a few music videos weren’t enough to fill in the gaps in his imagination. He ended up focusing on the gunk on his shoes, the black blood leaked from a forest of grasping limbs whose sapling had almost turned him to fertilizer.
The ground under his feet changed from dark asphalt to grey cement, then bleached tile, then shining linoleum. An elevator lurched him up and down and almost knocked him over. He descended to kindergarten, chewed on the crayons, caught trouble for staining his teeth red, got lost in the taste of wax and the texture inside his old lunch pail.
There were a lot of people around.
He answered closed questions. Yes, no. Yah. No.
Left, right, left, right.
Bright lights. He shut his eyes tight.
He would have tried going into a porno next but these weren’t imaginary hands all over him, stopping him from going anywhere at all. They jabbed him way more painfully than Eleven ever did and fighting them off only brought more. Jonathan went back to Nicole’s basement, where he needed to scream and couldn’t breathe.
“Put him out.”
Lone words rose up from a cloud of muttering. Budget. Boss. Peritonitis.
“Are you deaf? Debate later. Put him out. Now.”
The muttering ceased. The hands eased up and vanished.
There was a squeaking to Jonathan’s right, and his arm got pulled around a little by the handcuff. There were busy clangs and mumbles, rolling wheels, shifting lights. He realized he didn’t have a pillow and that most of his clothes were missing, so he retreated from that feeling, climbed into his own bed and gave himself a new set of headphones. Good ones. Top of the line. Discographies lined up to the end of the world.
It didn’t matter what these people did to him. It was too late to do anything about anything. More monsters would come, in a week or a year. You couldn’t kill fear and you couldn’t hide from a psychic predator that didn’t need eyes or ears. Fear was older than the dinosaurs. It was the best weapon life on Earth had to defend itself. If these things survived by sniffing it out directly, that meant they always won.
Will was only a kid. Elle was only kid. Jonathan himself was only a kid.
We’re seventeen, and this? Is complete horseshit.
Somebody gave Jonathan a new gas mask.
They were going to lose. The other place would seep into the world and absorb it, and its monsters would eat up all the people, the animals and the trees, and everything would die ― but they could try to slow it down. All of this was ending but if they figured out how to fight back somehow, and fought hard enough, they might not still be kids when they died.
Somebody gave Jonathan a prick in the arm.
Nancy would not still be a kid when she died.
All of this was ending, but it wasn’t over y―