The soft spot below Jonathan’s adam’s apple, at the base of the throat, where the clavicles met each other: that was where the monster wanted to come out. He could tell because that was where it maintained a polite and persistent tapping. He tried humming Brahm’s Lullaby to help Elle concentrate but every note came out wrong. The glue in his mouth made him sound like a swamp creature.
“Mike,” Elle burbled, snotty. “Mike.”
Her struggle swung from enveloping aches to targeted pains and back again without rhythm, offering no periods of relief, no inner sunshine for Jonathan to anticipate. The flashlight moon, nested in its circles of gold, shined streaks across his rattling eyes.
“Monster,” Elle whispered. Her pseudo-fist shoved him violently, swaying the flashlight moon from side to side across the sky, yanking cemented chunks of his hair from a puddle of glue on the floor.
Stop it. He was about to choke on a ball of crumpled sticky-tape. Leave me alone. I quit.
“Murderers,” said Elle’s little bell voice. The creature answered, flexing, shaking, plucking at the place where Jonathan would gag if only he could remember how to do it. His fingers and toes were numb from cold, as if he lay prone in a pile of snow, or underground, numb because the worms were eating the littlest parts first. Fingers, toes. Ears. Nose. Eating away at him like frostbite.
The snow, that was it. That had to be it: after saying goodbye to Nancy he had slipped and fallen off the Wheelers’ icy garage roof and hit his head on the step-up bin, and now he lay in his own footprints, hidden between the snowdrift and the wall, just this side of knocked out. Luckily Nancy had already closed the window so she hadn’t heard him fall. That would have been awkward.
As soon as he fully came-to he could grab a handful of snow to nurse the swelling, then drive home, sneak back into his bed like nothing had happened at all and wait for Will to come drag him out of it again, marking the official start of Christmas morning. By the time he got to work on breakfast he would forget all about his new friend Elle and the monsters eating him alive from the inside, and next month Nancy would be back in the caf again, safe and whole like always, stealing his carrot sticks one by one while he scanned his mangled excuse for history notes and pretended not to notice.
And he would definitely, definitely take the gun back and either bury it in the woods or drop it off at Lonnie’s. Lesson learned, thank you dreamland.
“Mike.” Elle punched him again. It didn’t feel like help. It felt like he deserved it.
Jonathan’s eyes warmed. The flashlight moon blurred, multiplied, honeycombed. He couldn’t bluff his way through this one either.
I quit this. Go away. A warm hand cradled his heart, consoling it, and then bit down and shook it like a dog with a new toy. No, forget it. Don’t bother. He hated carrot sticks. Fuck you. He packed them every day. This isn’t happening.
“Mike. I’m sorry too.”
The rattling switched off. It was the release of a tether, freeing Jonathan to float up into space in airy silence, but instead the floor changed shape, curving under his weight, sliding him down into a groove.
The dark shadow that was Elle wiped its nose in triumph. “I did it.” Her velcro sleeve ripped apart once more, illustrating her point: “It’s unstuck.” The moon haloed her head off-centre, outshining her face and rendering her expressionless, thumblike.
A carnivorous breath exhaled from the dip below. Jonathan patted at the floor until he found her ― a flap of fabric, a fleecy flannel hem hanging from under her coat ― and held on with all the might of a rat in a storm drain. “But it’s not out,” he rasped, “Don’t. I can’t go back yet. Don’t.”
“I’m not. It’s going. It’s taking you.” Stifled by an endless yawn, Elle sounded too tired to care what happened at all. But how would she feel after a snack and a nap? How could she stand living alone in this place another day?
Jonathan dipped ass-first through the floorboards and into a widening, slobbering mouth. A thin patch in the fleece he was holding tore open. He hooked it. “Come too. See Mike. See Mom.”
“Can’t go back.”
A strobing blade of light beamed up from below. “We’ll take care of you.”
In a snap Elle was bawling. “Bad. Secret.” She grabbed at Jonathan’s hand in a confused fit, holding it tight while trying to extricate it from the rip in her clothing at the same time. “Can’t. Hiding.”
“Then I can’t either,” but he wanted to. He was so close. Jonathan wanted to go home more than anything he could ever want, even if it meant infecting a hundred nurses, killing every one of them and leaving Elle alone in this place to rot forever. The maw’s moldy tongue gave way then, winning, snickering at him, celebrating, liar.
“Goodbye Jonathan,” said Elle.
“Wear your mask,” he replied.
His handhold tore off. His knees bumped his forehead. The webbed gullet swallowed him down into a subtle plume of lemon soap and ammonia ― this was it, the falling part of the dream, the part that woke you up ― and spat him out into blinding, flashing light. For a long second it seemed he would not land.
His bed broke his fall, then snapped and collapsed under his weight in a way that was nothing like a bed at all. The pink insulation lining the unfinished ceiling hung down in rotten cotton candy tufts, living tufts, already curling in upon themselves and knitting back together over the hole. The basement’s hanging bulb swung around, pitching the room back and forth in a blurry, turbulent, sickening sea. A mermaid moaned a wail of rising urgency among the waves, then stampeded up the stairs.
Long spidery legs ticked up toward the swallowpoint in Jonathan’s throat and started tapping again, as if to complain, so delicately, I wanted to say Hi to that girl. He lay limp and bruised against the slanted tabletop, crusty eyed, gluey mouthed, seated in clean laundry. Maybe if he didn’t move, the thing wouldn’t either. Maybe he could trick it by playing dead. Maybe he wasn’t totally playing.
A body careened down the stairs, taking half the flight in three steps and longjumping the rest of the way to the floor. “No way, come on, this is just stupid.” Steve didn’t sound like Steve. “This is way too much.” He sounded like he was about to― “No, no, no, too much. Too much.” He dragged in a tight breath. “No way. Please, no way.”
Not him. Please, not him. Jonathan rolled away, off the table and into a heap on the floor. Anyone but him.
“OhthankGod,” and Steve’s hushed frenzy was a deafening foot away: “Hey hey hey what’s your deal? What do I do what do I do?” Rather than wait for an answer he pulled Jonathan onto his back, “Is that it? Oh shit that’s it isn’t it?” and yanked at his t-shirt collar with both hands, trying to rip it like a wrestler. “It’s moving in there Jesus fuck I can see it moving hold on I can ―”
“Off.” Jonathan had feathers for fists. Steve didn’t even seem to notice them.
I’d like to meet him, the monster groped and tapped. This minute. Second. Tick tick.
“I can see it it’s right there oh shit shit shit shitshit whadoIdo―”
“Off.” Steve was too slippery to grab―and sticky, and deeply, insidiously all wrong. “Off, off off!”
Steve finally let go.
His hands were covered in drying blood.
And so were Jonathan’s: blood in his hangnails, blood in his fingerprints, blood smearing the parallel between headline and heartline, blood pouring stoically down Nancy’s cheek from the black hole that had once held her eye.
Jonathan’s gag reflex woke up so forcefully it startled Steve a yard backwards.
He rolled over and retched into the laundry, needing this thing out of him yesterday, but he couldn’t do it. Some part of himself that he couldn’t control, some terrified and dumb prehistoric part, kept swallowing it down as if not seeing it meant it didn’t exist, and all he could do was drool like he did back in the road, back at the start of this all over again. “Nancy,” he sputtered in a spark of reason, unafraid of the truth because she couldn’t be dead ― Steve wouldn’t be down here, he’d be catatonic if Nancy was dead.
“She’s fine. Carol kind of accidentally shot her in the leg but it’s not that bad, it’s like a graze, like a big scratch and that’s it. She’s totally fine.” Steve smoothed his hand out over an invisible curve. “Like completely totally fine, like awesome.”
Jonathan knew a bluff when he heard one, especially one so amateur. He slashed Steve straight across the face with his slitted don’t-fuck-with-me eyes between lurches.
“Okay, not totally fine but we patched her up and help is coming. Her brother’s with her and yours is off getting help. Hey.” Steve’s hand grazed his shoulder, hesitated in revulsion and then changed its mind, gripping tight through slime and stink and all. “Hey. Can we worry about you now? Can we do something about this?”
“Is he there?”
The sound or her voice set off a flare, granting Jonathan a pause in which to spit, to cough, to grindingly catch his breath, and to discover that he might have developed a case of pneumonia along with everything else.
“Is that him? It’s him, right? He’s there?”
“Is he alone?”
Sorry Mike, I tried.
“Yeah, he’s here! Just him!”
“Is he okay?” called Nancy.
“He will be, I mean yeah. Give us a few minutes.”
Jonathan used a pair of panties to wipe his mouth because―well, hey. Why not? For all he knew it was the closest he would ever get.
Two sharp thumps, a girly grunt and “I’m coming down!”
Jonathan could hardly shake his head but Steve read him anyway: “No! Nancy you have to stay up there. You can’t do stairs and you can’t ― you can’t see this. Trust me. Please just trust me. I know you hate doing that but trust me anyway, this one time. Five minutes.”
“I can help! Whatever’s wrong I can ―” Thump. A sharp cry matured into a sob of frustration.
“STOP HURTING YOURSELF, STUPID!”
“Then why don’t you help me walk, you ―”
“No! NO! Five minutes!”
A leg thrust up higher in pursuit of their panic, reaching so high up that Jonathan couldn’t swallow it down again ― so high up he couldn’t breathe anymore.
He needed to scream but he couldn’t breathe anymore.
The prehistoric part of him declared war on it, reached into his mouth, clawed at his throat, but then Steve was tackling him, pinning his arms to his sides and bashing his head on the floor like some meatheaded football field numbskull about to hock a loog and spit, some sniggering posturing piece of star-athlete shit who needed his face smashed in right fu―
“―isten! Listen to me, listen! HEY! I don’t want to hit you. I really, really don’t but you’ve gotta stop grabbing at it, you maniac. Are you listening? If we crush these things it’s just like a chem exam except instead of failing you die at the end, you get me? You in there? You unders―”
“WHAT?” Thud. Steve cursed under his breath. “NO! Michael let go of me! Let go let go let GO you little douchebag frogthing asshole jerkface…”
Tick. Tick tick. Tick tick tick tick ti
Steve cranked his volume down, “You hear that? Yeah? You do? See, she’s fine, she’s better than fine, she’s dynamite. The sooner you slow down the sooner this is done and the sooner you can go up there without anybody going nuts and without you checking out early in front of her and then you can see her. That’s what you want, right? ―Oh you think you can shit me right now? I am not an idiot and it doesn’t matter. Now chill.” Steve shook him. “The hell. Out. Okay? You’ll be the first one all night.”
The hanging lightbulb whined inaudibly, its image a white hot sawblade between Jonathan’s ears. He couldn’t move, the way his hands couldn’t move when he swaddled them in his pockets. Steve was staring but he wasn’t angry, wasn’t sizing him up or putting him down. He wasn’t laughing at him either, not that he ever really had. He was just worried.
One little breath squeaked in.
Alright, okay. As long as Jonathan didn’t pull too hard and suck this thing into his lungs it might be enough for a while. He tried to nod. He tried to slow down. Air moved thinly between his outside and his inside. Steve let him go, so he got to his knees, buried his hands through the bed of clothes to palm the cool cement floor, and focused on threading his lifeline through a pinhole.
“Then would you just ― could you just ― could you at least ―” Nancy hitched and sobbed from hurting herself. Why’d she have to go and hurt herself like that? “Tell me what’s happening!”
“You were right the whole time, we are fixing it, and according to the rules I just made up we still have four minutes. We’re busy. That’s good news, means there’s something to do.” Steve wrenched a broken aluminum leg off the collapsed table and wielded it memorably. His voice dropped nearly to nothing. “Spit it out and I’ll do my thing. You’re fine, it’s almost done.”
The prehistoric part began to cooperate. It migrated to Jonathan’s abdomen, tried to break his back by puking and failed miserably, so it tried again, and again, and again. His toes were trying to puke, his ears were trying to puke, his balls were trying to puke; forget his guts, this thing was going to take his soul along with it on the way out.
A cheeky cartoon girl in a pink hat smiled up through smears of unmentionable crud. Strawberry Shortcake. Jonathan had wiped his mouth using Strawberry Shortcake underpants.
“Steve?” shrilled Nancy.
“Shut up for two minutes!” Steve clamped on to Jonathan’s arm and spoke right into his ear, “Hey, why don’t you try going somewhere else for a while? Go to a concert or into a porno or back to kindergarten, you know? I’m telling you, take off. Give your instincts some room. I know what I’m talking about, I’m good at running away. And you ― you just got hired full time shooting Playboy centerfolds and slave Leia’s miss January so get the hell outta here before some dickhead takes your place.”
The pinhole closed and didn’t reopen. Jonathan’s vision sparkled. This was it. Starry shit-smeared Strawberry Shortcake underpants, and then nothing. Goodbye, for keeps, forever.
Fresh pain flared in his arm. Steve was going to leave bruises on a dead body. He was framing himself. That wasn’t right. “Or how bout Becky Nelson? You know bigtitty Becky, everybody knows her, she wouldn’t wear a bra ’til the ninth grade. I have it on personal authority that her parents? Had to ground her for six weeks to make it happen and you can keep that to yourself ’cause she’ll know where you heard it. Bigtitty brunette Becky Nelson, miss February spread out under the umbrella lights doing whatever you tell her to for hours because all she wants is your attention, and when you get her alone at the end of the shoot the tits are like― like― like big silk sacks of marshmallow with Hershey Kisses on top but way damn better than that, believe me. ―How about it? ―Yeah? ―Yes! Hey Nancy! We got it, he’s good!”
Upstairs there was a little bump, and a vocal sigh.
It was over.
Jonathan could hardly remember the final heave that must have been (sour jello brillo pad), but it was over, it was out, and it was retarded.
It lay in a puddle by a sock. The skin was a black-veined, pasty grey. Three long, stubbled legs, strung with mucous ― two on one side and one on the other ― grasped impotently at the air from their anchorpoints in arbitrarily arranged segments of an undulating body smaller than a baseball. It couldn’t walk. It had no face. It made no sense at all: here on the body was a patch of stubbly barbs, there and there and there on the body were clusters of popped bubblewrap. One of the bubblewrap blisters remained intact. Inside its milky translucent shell a stunted black worm writhed, an angrily convulsing prisoner.
“Congratulations,” said Steve, lip curled, “It’s a…”
This wasn’t a living thing, it was a chimera of disparate bodyparts, a product of mixed seeds sprouting from the clump in which they had just happened to congeal. It had to be some fluke, some accident, the fruit of a fertilization process cut short.
Jonathan spat a wad of red foam on it. “Yeah.” He had fluid in his lungs but, beyond hoarse, he was afraid to cough. The bomination had cut him a hundred tiny times on the way out and coated the roof of his mouth in copper.
Steve’s weapon tapped the floor, disappointed. “Do I bother?” He moved to pass the torch. “Your turn?”
Jonathan sat frozen in morbid fascination, in this sick subterranian mess of filth, insanity and the girl next door’s clothes. Each hair of the stubble covering the legs ended with a little hook. Some of the hooks had taken crumbs of his insides with them. “Get it away from me.” It responded by waving at him with a leg like a beckoning witch finger. “Get it away.”
Steve got up and used his stick as a golf club to putt the bomination across the floor until it hit the stack of boxes lining the wall. He raised his weapon in both hands, readying to thrust it down, a sword into a stone ―
“Wait,” the vowels were made of splinters, “Don’t kill it.”
Steve turned around. “What, you wanna name it?”
No, dumbass. “The noise. They ―”
“Scream! Right. I getcha.” Steve batted and kicked most of the clothes on top of it, then grabbed the table and propped it up against the pile as a blockade. “Good?”
“Good.” A smothering heatwave descended the moment Jonathan freed his mind of monsters. Burning up, he struggled to get out of his top layers, twisting them into a straitjacket, then willed himself out of the knot before Steve had a chance to help him any more.
Nancy had begun to chant, strained yet unfeeling, “…come up here, come up here, come up here, come up here,” and with it came a soft and steady beat, like someone rocking, or hitting a wall with no strength, for no good reason.
She was hurting a lot. Jonathan had a lot to do with it. “I don’t know if I can,” he confided in Strawberry Shortcake. He hoped Elle still had some food with her, that she might put her mask on and try sleeping in Nicole’s clean bed for a while.
“Not looking like that you can’t.” A hand appeared, less bloody than last time. “Can you stand?”
“Come up. Just come up.”
“Alright, okay,” but instead of taking the hand, Jonathan knocked it away. He didn’t know or care why, only that he felt like it, and when it reappeared he did it again. The third time it was too strong to get rid of so he just sat there waiting for it to hit him back.
“Don’t be an asshole,” Steve said. “There’s a girl who wants to see you and she can’t see you like this. Come on, let’s go soak your head.”
“I don’t care what he looks like, you dummy,” Nancy grouched down dimly.
“Glad to hear it, but you’re not the one looking at him.”
Jonathan had rocks in his knees and stripes bruised across his back. Steve heaved him up and shambled him along to the big laundry tub using a lot more than just a hand. The room rotated under Jonathan’s feet as they went, holding him to the centre of a shrinking universe.
He collided with the tub, grabbed on to the plastic lip, and in that moment what could have been a trick of perspective revealed itself as absolutely real: all of this, everything, was ending. It would keep on ending until it was over. Nothing could be simpler. It was a surprisingly easy pill to swallow.
Steve turned on the tap. It pummeled an earthquake into the basin.
Jonathan scooped palmful after palmful of water into his mouth without choosing to and without feeling thirsty, and stopped only because he needed to hold himself upright. Somehow Steve understood this: he delivered a puddle in his cupped, clean hands. Jonathan drank from it, heaved, batted Steve aside and threw it all up again. Nothing but pink. No more monster parts and no more drinking for now. Fair bargain. “Thanks anyway,” he said.
The deep pneumonia cough took over and constricted, rubbing salt into a million microcuts, dropping speckled yellow glue into the drain. Something like this was going to happen to everybody. Elle first, probably, but later even Steve, herculean Steve the rehabilitated dickhead rubbing his back as if it was going to help anything. But it did, eventually. It did help. “I did this, it’s my fault. I knew I was sick and I didn’t tell anybody.”
A sharp shrug. “Oh well.”
“Oh well. Shit happens.” Steve handed him a bundle of white cloth bearing delicate patterns of embroidery and pearls: abraisives for scrubbing.
Rattling, Jonathan wedged the lip of the basin under his arms for support, wrung the cloth in the stream and waited for the water to run warm over his hands. When it finally did he could have pissed himself, and when he pressed the heat to his face it took away a rough imprint of an undead Halloween mask, a mess of monster blood and tunnel crud. “This isn’t going away,” he said.
“What, you mean you? ―I mean as in you being sick?― or you mean… stuff? The freaky business?”
“I mean everything you hope I don’t mean.” Jonathan wrung and wiped, wrung and wiped, until black and brown became beige, then white. Silently he laughed a turtle’s bitterness at the drain, slow and smug. “This ‘business’ isn’t going to get better. We’re all screwed.”
“Yeah, I had a feeling,” Steve said, blessedly casual. “Been avoiding it, but…” He splashed few artless handfuls of hot water over Jonathan’s head. “Who wouldn’t, am I right?”
Cold raw egg dribbled down to the the nape of Jonathan’s neck. A laundry soap bottle landed in the basin with the lid off. He moved to help but Steve just picked his wrist up in a pincer grip and put it aside. “Get the rest of you, fix your face,” Steve said, needling gluey wads of extradimensional intestinal bubblegum from Jonathan’s hair. “Ugh, God you stink. What is this?”
Slowly the pulling softened to a utilitarian, club-fingered scratching that reminded Jonathan of his dad. Not his real dad, but the dad he thought he had when he was six, before he was supposed to be anything but silly and sandboxy, scraped-kneed and barefoot.
They were standing in floodwater. It was too out of phase to see, but he could feel it. How high up did it reach? Shins, knees? Over the rim of the basin? It was dripping into his ears, blending faucet sounds and scratching sounds into an isolating wom wom wom wom. Any second, he could switch back to the other side again and drown. For all he knew he was still dreaming, drowning in his sleep.
Wait, no, Steve would tell him if something was wrong. Steve would stop washing him and tell him, definitely ― which would suck, because this was really nice. He might go get a haircut tomorrow just for this part. The apocalypse could wait.
Plop. Jonathan woke up. A black blob swirled down the drain. “Woah, we can’t…”
“Leave it.” Steve picked at his hair, distant, occupied. “They’ve gotta be fuckin’ everywhere by now so just let it be. I’ve heard they bite but apparently these ones aren’t hungry.” Plop, plop. “If it’s not gonna get better then screw it. We’re not superheroes, we’re not soldiers.” Plop. Jonathan was a kid with head lice. He was a chimpanzee, a groomee in a tree. “We’re seventeen, and this?” Ploploplop. “Is complete horseshit.”
Nancy sat crumpled up against the wall in the narrow hallway. She felt like she had fallen down a shadowy crack, or into an industrial trash compactor in a big space station in some movie or other.
Inarticulate murmurs haunted the house: Mike mumbled to ‘himself’ in Nicole’s room, Tommy and Nicole took monosyllabic turns across a canyon of silence in the living room, and Steve and Jonathan hummed calming music downstairs. They weren’t singing, but they were beautiful, so Nancy listened, unable to grasp the words through the din of rushing water, alone.
The toes at the end of her bad leg had gone numb and she didn’t know exactly why, but she had three theories. One, the intensity of the pain was blocking the signal. Two, the tourniqet belt was so tight it was blocking the signal. Three, there was no signal to block in the first place because the nerves were permanently damaged. Four, a combination of all of the above. Four theories.
But it didn’t matter. Jonathan was safe, and Nancy was too short for dance anyway. She played with the golden slippers on her necklace ― the charm that had drawn admiring touches from all five girls in the studio after her twelfth birthday ― for a long, miserably conflicted while. She didn’t deserve to get shot and it hadn’t even helped anything, but it had to be worth it. She would make herself believe it was worth it. She would make believe until it was true if she had to.
Footsteps scuffed the carpet behind her. She twitched in acknowledgement. The footsteps slid closer, the stocking feet dragging sparks, the breaths short and strained.
Carol sat down facing Nancy and stared at her leg.
She wasn’t chewing gum. Her unblinking eyes bulged and her makeup was a smudged mess, dressing her up as a sickly, permanently terrified―preferably roadkilled―raccoon. She raised her fingertip and put it on the wall beside herself to draw a letter: I, and finally made eye contact.
Nancy raised surly eyebrows: Go on.
Carol turned back to her canvas and wrote in invisible ink, I-M-A-B-I-T-C-H.
“Yeah,” Nancy said. “You are.”
Carol got up, placed a wrapped stick of gum the floor beside Nancy’s ivory hand, and left.
Nicole brought three white pills and a glass of water. She placed these things on the floor beside the stick of gum, and left.
Nancy almost asked them to come back. That was how badly she didn’t want to be alone.
She put the stick of gum and one of the pills into the pocket over her heart. According to the calculations of her aching and underfed brain, Barb’s glasses would purify the other things. The glasses were a lot bigger and more important, so it stood to reason.
The two remaining pills gazed up at her from above a crease in her palm, making a pensive cookie-monster face. Drugstore painkillers couldn’t to do squat about her leg, she knew that, but maybe her leg didn’t know that. She choked them down one at a time. The water tasted like metal but she sipped at it anyway, holding it in both hands the way she held hot cocoa, and cast her focus out to fish for the haunted house’s softest murmur.
A bump gonged up the pipes and echoed through the skeleton of the home: someone had turned off the faucet in the basement.
“I think I’m okay. …Yah, sure, we can go.”
Nancy put her glass of water aside.
A hint of the poison smell came up the stairs first, coating the moment in varnish, preparing to set it into long-term memory. Nancy’s future flashed before her eyes: she would revisit this, puff breath on it, shine it, lick at its lustre and happily cut her tongue on it until she was dead or senile. Repeated recollection would buff away the crippling pain, the helplessness and the hysteria, but she would remember this perfectly. This moment. Right now.
Four feet creaked up the stairs, two sneaking, two plodding, while one voice offered a private pep talk, “One foot next foot, cadet. Pick ’em up and put ’em down. There you go. You’re good, you’re great― you got this, you’re golden.” A white shoe toed the basement door all the way open. Steve waggled his eyebrows, Tadaa, and tilted his head at his treasure. “If you pay for its shots you can keep it.”
Jonathan drooped from an elbow slung over Steve’s neck, a bundle of sticks and rags, thirty pounds lost in three hours. The lines under his puffy eyes had piled upon one another, his ordeal cut into him as deeply as the thumbnail crescents worried down a leather camera strap in an attached garage a hundred years ago, and yet somehow, magically, he was smiling.
“Hey,” he said.
Nancy threw herself out of her body and kissed him.
Reality was less romantic: she had hardly moved before the pain howled up her leg to knock her down again. Jonathan leapt out to catch her but fell, Steve swore, Jonathan bowed over her but didn’t land on her because Steve had him by his belt and a handful of his t-shirt, and everyone froze for a moment in an impromptu round of Twister.
Pulled backwards, Jonathan hit the wall, slid down it and sat beside her. His boots had been mucked beyond redemption, stonewashed jeans smeared black to the knees, baggy t-shirt warped and sweat-ringed, hair in needles, nostrils flaring, lips white, smile gone. “‘Mostly okay’?” he said. The angry concern lines wrinkling his forehead burned the back of Nancy’s hand.
“I didn’t say ‘mostly okay’―”
“This what mostly okay looks like to you?” His cheeks were hot too, both of them, and his forearms, clammy and pasty and not better yet, not at all.
“―I said we patched her up.” Steve was about to take a nap on his feet. “Look, see?” He flung an arm out toward Nancy and the counter-force threw him back against the opposite wall with his eyes already closed. The impact reverberated right through him. “Patches.”
Jonathan huffed, coughed a fit and, cuddling up to the embossed wallpaper, began to shiver.
Nancy picked up her water. “You’re right, though. I am. I’m mostly okay.” The next part was an order: “Just like you.” She nudged the glass against his hand but he shook his head in distaste, so she fetched the stick of gum and the pill from her pocket instead, waited for his hand to open up and dropped them into it.
Jonathan rolled the pill in the pinch of his forefinger and thumb, shuddered, and lost it in the forest of carpet fibres. Rather than chase after it he unwrapped the stick of gum, fumbling foil very slowly ― but when he got a taste he chewed eagerly enough to disintegrate it.
Nancy hovered her hand near him in wait of a job to do, a crack to mend. He chomped and shivered for a while, then took hold of one of her fingertips and puzzled over it so intensely that she wondered if the human spirit had all along been housed not in some hidden corner of the brain or the heart, but specifically in the first knuckle of the ring finger, and Jonathan Byers was the only person in the world who could see it.
“I’m sorry,” he wisped.
The apology hardened to an unjust needlepoint in Nancy’s throat. “You didn’t do anything wrong,” she said.
She grappled for the voice she had used on the phone. “What do you need?”
Jonathan solidified on his shivering. His solemn eyes rolled up to look at her, all pupils, two bits of coal in a melting snowman. “I’d like a blanket.”
“Hey could ―”
“And I’d like a damn adult.” Steve glared down the hall at the door, one knee locked and the other bouncing. “Time for me to take a walk, see who I can find.”
He stood a mile high. Nancy began, “Don’t,” but the way he looked at her ― a shellshock she hadn’t seen in weeks ― stoppered the rest up tight. Please don’t leave.
Steve nodded almost imperceptibly. His blankness bittered. “Hey Mike. You left your sister sitting here all alone with a hole in her? What gives?”
“She told me to!”
“Why don’t you go take a walk?”
“But Eleven’s here.”
“She can’t hear you right now,” Jonathan called, straining to project his voice and failing. “She’s tired. Can I have a blanket?”
Mike came out of Nicole’s bedroom and drew a snarl from Steve by stepping on his foot. He threw Will’s bundled blanket over Nancy and onto Jonathan’s drawn-in legs. “Tell me everything.”
Nancy tugged on Mike’s pantleg. “Not now.”
Mike didn’t budge ― physically. “Then tell me something.”
Jonathan pulled the blanket around his neck, turning himself into a severed head at precarious rest on the top of a hill, an image made more grisly as he lolled forward to think. “She says she’s sorry too.”
Mike fought with himself adorably. Nancy wanted to tell him it was okay to smile, really it was, as wide as he wanted to and none of the big kids would make fun of him for liking a girl, just as they hadn’t made fun of him for crying over one.
“I’ll go,” Mike said. “The sooner Will knows you’re okay the better. They’re probably almost here.” When he turned away Steve hit him meaningfully in the back, shoving him into a stumble. “Yeah whatever, we’re even now.” He held up a middle finger behind his back on his way out the door.
“You sent Will out alone?”
“Sure. We did him a solid last time. Now it’s his turn.”
Jonathan stared up at Steve in silent fury. Nancy held her breath.
“What? He’s not some little kid,” Steve said. “He can take care of himself.”
Jonathan’s fury remained silent. Nancy touched the cool surface of her drinking water and dripped a few drops onto the back of his hand to test whether it would steam. It didn’t, but it did extinguish the fury: he squinted, dipped into the glass himself and flicked a spray at her.
Before Nancy could get her revenge Steve took Jonathan by a leg and an arm and, less carefully than he should have, pulled him away a foot across the carpet. Then he took the glass, drained it in two loud gulps and sat down, wedging himself assertively between them. “…And that’s the end of that chapter.”
“I thought you said it doesn’t matter,” Jonathan grumbled.
“You thought I said what doesn’t matter? Exactly?”
Jonathan didn’t answer.
A groaning lion’s yawn filled the hallway’s quiet cavern. Along with it came a downright cliche movie-theatre reach, pulling Nancy in tight to hold her in protective custody. She peeked out past the pullover collar, now popped, and found that the reach had been two-armed: Steve’s other forearm dangled from Jonathan’s far shoulder, his hand hanging at just the right angle to easily swing up and swat him if he wanted to.
The yawn was contagious. Jonathan caught it first, then Nancy yawned what felt like three yawns in one, and then some more, a whole chain of addictive yawns, each lit by the tail end of the last. Her leg still stabbed her startlingly at random but she cared a lot less all of a sudden. She trilled her fingertips on Steve’s tummy. It twitched at her, so she did it a bit more for fun. He squished her in retaliation. “Hey Nicole,” she called, her voice too quiet and too high pitched, “What were those pills you gave me?”
“They help me sleep through my migraines.” Nicole’s voice flowed as softly as Nancy’s. “I don’t know what they’re called. My dad gets them under the table from somebody somewhere. Some guy at work I think.”
“Shit,” Nancy said, but she didn’t really mean it.
“Are you allergic to anything?” whispered Jonathan.
“No, no. I’m fine.” Very fine. Giddy. Relieved. A lavender twilight rolled into the spaces between Nancy’s twinkling neurons. Synapse, dendrite, soma. Axon. Myelin sheath. Terminal brachia―no, terminal branch. Frontal, parietal, occipital, tempor―
“Could somebody please tell me what the hell happened here?”
Nancy strained her eyes. Tommy had leaned off the end of the sofa to look down the hallway, grey in the face, gravel in the voice. She couldn’t make out his freckles anymore.
“Later.” Steve was never so stern with anyone else. “Go see to yours and leave me to mine, Shitforbrains.”
Tommy threw something at them, a little stick, a cigarette. Steve picked it up from where it landed by Nancy’s hip and tucked it behind his ear. Tommy slid away.
Nancy did some sliding of her own, all the way down Steve’s front until she lay in his lap, while his fingertips drew endless, mindless pictures on her back. She crept her vacant hand across his thighs to the other side, certain there was some role she should be playing right now but way too drained to think up a bunch of white lies to live by. All she had was herself, selfish Nancy Wheeler who did what she wanted and answered for nothing. Today was special. She had taken a bullet for someone today and she was on drugs. She could do whatever she wanted to do and she could be whoever the hell she liked.
When she found Jonathan’s hand she pulled it up onto Steve’s knee, covered it with hers and folded her fingers under the palm in clear view so Jonathan wouldn’t be the only one not doing anything about it, and waited. Nobody did anything about it, except that their fingers wove together ― he still had a fever ― and Steve’s deep, resigned sigh nudged against the back of her head.
Jonathan twitched his swollen fingers. It felt involuntary, unconscious. “You gave me a nightmare.” He wasn’t really talking so much as adding little sounds to the ends of silent words. “It saved my life.”
Nancy had to concentrate to make her mouth work. Thinking aloud like normal wasn’t enough. “Who did?”
“You, when you got hurt ―” he coughed, gripped hard, relaxed. “When Steve got upset. I’ll explain later. If I feel like it.”
Steve sighed, “Freak.” The exasperation in it was so fake. “Don’t forget Becky. She helped too.”
“She did.” There was shaking, and the clicking of tired laughter. An inside joke about a girl, already? That girl? “I think everybody did.”
Nancy rolled the sequence of events down her mental hill again, a tiny fifteen-minute reel: Carol shot her, Eleven poltergeisted Carol, Mike shouted at Eleven until she let Carol go, Mike and Steve became field medics, Mike went into the bedroom and mumbled something nice at Eleven; then the thing inside Jonathan let him drop through the basement ceiling, surely somehow with Eleven’s help, and Steve helped him… ick. And now a nightmare had something to with it?
A piece was missing, a big piece. No matter how Nancy twisted the existing pieces and slid them around ― she had done a lot of rearranging while she waited ― she couldn’t find the answer. But the failing wasn’t hers. The missing piece was more than big, it was central. “You don’t feel like explaining now?”
“No. I might by next lunchtime ― in the caf.” Jonathan’s plea for peace came through his thumb, tenderly petting the side of her hand right out in the open. “I have to think.”
In the caf.
There was more than friendship to this intangible trifecta, more than dating, more than family. There was more to it than anything Nancy had ever felt for other people.
What had they all been doing the last month, sitting in silence to orbit every noontime together, letting the baggage be whatever it happened to be on whatever given day? What was the point? All the bad dreams, the flashbacks, the unanswerable questions had evaporated each silent hour but still hovered there above the cafeteria tabletop, a blackening stormcloud ominously promising to cleanse and quench. It hadn’t quite opened up, not yet.
Whatever this was, Nancy didn’t want to talk about it. She hoped they could keep not talking about it. Putting a whole idea into words meant separating it into pieces, conventional pieces, like reducing a person down to a brain and dividing it into lobes, and she definitely didn’t want that. Sometimes good ideas didn’t fit into words; sometimes, you had to risk throwing away part of an idea if you wanted to talk about it, if you wanted to make it fit into convention.
Screw convention. It was a lot better this way, the quiet way. It meant not having to throw anything away.
Every rule did have its exception, though. They didn’t have to tell each other everything, but― “Nomrsecrets,” she slurred. “If a’ything cou’be wrong with any one of us we tell the ‘ther two.”
“Hm,” Steve said, and finally stopped drawing pictures on her back.
“K,” Jonathan said. His head had fallen to rest somewhere just above hers, and from there the puffs of his breath flowed down and settled hotly over her face in curtains of poison stink, barely hinting at bubblegum ― but it wasn’t so bad. The poison place didn’t smell like losing someone anymore. It smelled like getting someone back.
Comraderie, that was it. Nancy nuzzled at the denim under her cheek. Comraderie and crushing.
She hit-hit-hitched the deep breath of a child tired out from a long tantrum.
It was time to melt.