Nicole’s eyes flashed in the firelight of her hair. “You want a story?”
With nowhere else to go, Nancy drew into herself. She sat down beside the boys’ softly ransacked bookshelf, pulled a fat phone book into her lap and flipbooked the corner, braaaaaaap. Could she flip it loud enough to drown out an entire barrage of oncoming bullshit? She could try. Braaaap. BRAAP.
“It’s Pulitzer time,” Carol said on the way out of the kitchen. She handed Tommy a beer, opened her own with a popcorn pop and sat down on the armrest of the sofa.
“Or you could, y’know, not. Not tell any stories,” Steve said. “That would be cool too.” He stood in the middle of the living room perching a hand on his hip, ignored.
“Got one.” Nicole’s eyes settled down from their search through her head. “I think I was like nine. It started the way it always did, right: yelling, banging, on and on. What was I doing, messing with a bunch of flowers in the yard? I picked them for some reason, somebody. But anyway I dropped ’em and ran so I wouldn’t miss it, and it was broad daylight, like the middle of the afternoon. So I get through the trees, I get to the big one I always hid behind at the side there, and she’s just ― Joyce, I mean, they come out and she’s just wailing on him.”
“On which one of ’em?” said Tommy.
“On Lonnie, who else? I mean she’s like,” Nicole gestured pinwheels with her arms. “Pap-pap-pap-pap, chasing him and he can’t get away, she’s so fast. She has him up against his pickup, he’s all bent over trying to knock her hands away but it’s like he’s caught in a hurricane, right? And then Jonathan comes out of the house yelling at her, just this kid my age but he sounded like he was as drunk as she was, and he’s like ‘Stop it Mom, he’s leaving, let him go, he’s leaving, wah wah,’ right, but she’s not having it, she’s not listening. She’s going nuts. So Jonathan grabs her shirt or something from behind ― it was hard to see ― and that’s when Lonnie gets one in and knocks her right on her ass. Didn’t punch her or anything, more like…” Nicole pushed out both her palms. “You don’t fall down so hard from something like that unless you’re trashed.”
“Let me guess,” Carol sarcasmed, “It wasn’t over.”
“Gee whiz babe, have you heard this one before?”
“What can I say, it never gets old.”
Steve had begun pacing again. Tommy raised his beer toward him in a mocking toast, still blocking the hallway, still holding the gun in his other hand, with his finger still on the trigger. Steve took a hard turn away from him.
“So when Joyce is down, that’s when Jonathan flips out so loud I almost ran away, and he starts trying to beat up his dad. But it was like ― oh God.” Nicole put her hand on her face. “He would have lost to a mouse. I try not to judge, you know? But wow. So he’s wailing away, annoying the hell out of Lonnie who’s basically just standing there waiting for him to get tired. Joyce is sitting on the ground lost in space or something and Jonathan doesn’t let up. It’s like he’ll never get tired, so finally Lonnie just,” Nicole swung her fist, “Bam. I mean bam.”
“And it still wasn’t over,” Tommy said, and chugged.
Carol sighed musically. “How many times have we heard this?”
“Too few.” Tommy tossed his can into the kitchen, where it clanged around in the sink. “Nicole plays the best reruns.”
“Shh, you’ll miss the best part,” Carol said.
“So Jonathan hits the ground flat. Skids. And there’s this silence, like even the birds shut up. Joyce is on her feet. She beelines for the bed of Lonnie’s pickup and grabs his shotgun.”
“Oh gnarly,” Tommy said, even though this was a rerun.
“But she doesn’t use it. She throws it on the ground, goes in there again and pulls out a ― what was it, what did we figure it was?”
“I don’t know,” Carol said, “You’re the one who was there.”
“I swear it was some kind of ― like a raccoon, or a possum or a cat. It was definitely a dead animal. Like roadkill, or something. She’s got it by the legs. She swings it back over her shoulder. And she starts beating Lonnie with a dead animal.”
“We shouldn’t be laughing.” Tommy rubbed his eye.
“But it’s so funny!” gasped Carol.
“Lonnie got in his pickup with blood all over his shirt, peeled out of there and Joyce must have thrown the thing at him as he drove away because she didn’t have it anymore. That or it disintegrated.”
“It shouldn’t be funny,” Tommy wheezed.
“But it is.”
“A roadkill beating.” Tommy slapped his thigh over and over. “It’s like Loony Tunes.”
Carol slipped off the arm of the sofa while holding her fists out together, one for each dead animal leg, and swung an air-beating all over Tommy, “Pksh, pksh, pksh.” He defended himself with ninja parries.
Nancy burned twin holes into the copper carpet.
‘I cried for a week.’
She sent herself back to the fourth grade and searched the classroom, the playground, the hallways for a kid with an unexplained black eye, but came up with nothing. She couldn’t see him at all. She knew he was way up there at the top of the roll call, but the look of him had been lost to the wastebasket of unused memories a long time ago.
Steve sat down beside her, a hard thump ending with his forearms balanced on his knees. “I’ve got an idea,” he mumbled, quieter than quiet, “I’m thinking if you get your end of the coffee table and I get mine we can put it through the window.”
“I want to kill them,” Nancy whispered.
“That’s what I said: if you get Carol and I get Tommy we can put them through the window. And then we can use Nicole to clean up the mess.”
“Hey Steve, you want a beer?”
“Hey Tommy, you wanna go fuck yourself?” The sudden change in volume hurt Nancy’s ear. “You really think this is funny?”
“Yeah, I do. And so do you when you’re not trying to impress the nutcase’s nutcase. What happened to you, man? You’re not even you anymore.”
“Times change. Have we done ours yet or what? You gonna let us out of detention before sunrise?”
“Have you ― what? Have you done your time? That’s not how nuthouses work, my friend. You get out when you stop being psychotic. These people are seriously gonna ruin your life.” Tommy flourished at Nicole like he was striking up a band. “Next.”
Nancy closed her ears, opened her coat and pulled Barbara’s glasses from the left breast pocket of her shirt. Jonathan’s third eye had gotten her this far, so maybe Barb’s four eyes could take her the rest of the way. The spiderweb of the shattered lens tried to slice her fingertips. She picked at the cracks. The gunk from the poison place may as well have been dried glue and the glasses were covered in it. Barbara Holland deserved so much better than this stinky shitty garbage. Everybody did. Even the bullies holding them hostage did. Maybe.
Chip chip flick chip flick.
Barbara must have been so scared. So, so scared. She had already been scared enough of normal things ― scared to go to the Snow Ball and scared to be left out of the Spring Fling, scared she wouldn’t get her period and scared that she would, scared of starting high school and scared of not getting into the right college, scared of anything to do with sex, and most of all, terrified of losing Nancy.
It had been a live wire between them for months: Nancy was growing up faster. She was outgrowing Barb. She knew it was happening because it had happened to other friends in the past, but the warning knell still came suddenly, without anything seeming to have changed on Nancy’s side of the relationship. Barb just… started to get offended more often when they were talking. Not angry, but bothered. Defensive. Reluctant. Bossy. Confused. This isn’t you.
Not her too, Nancy had scribbled in an isolated diary paragraph, with no one left to talk to because Mom wouldn’t understand. I won’t lose her too. She extended her hand every chance she got, determined to grow Barbara up alongside her, but most of the time her encouragements just shocked her, zapped her like a bolt of static charge dragged up from dry winter carpet, and Barb shrank away, wilting on the line, No, Nance. I can’t do that. Can we please just drop it?
So Nancy would drop it, whether it was a dance, a boy, a new club, or a talent show with an open slot just the right size for a clarinet solo, but she never dropped Barb. She tried again next time. Little by little, it worked. Piece after piece, the shell cracked away to reveal new rays of Barb-tinted wisdom that might not have come out had Nancy not encouraged her to grow.
I mean it Nancy, don’t ever trust Tommy and Carol. Steve’s basically just an idiot, but they’re dangerous. They could really hurt you. All they do is talk crap. I know they’re already talking crap about me when we’re not around, not that I care. But they’ll end up talking a ton of crap about you too if you let them. Don’t give them anything to talk crap about.
Nancy and Barbara could have made it. That night at Steve’s before Barb went mis― before she was killed, that was only a rough patch. She was nothing like Tommy and Carol. She just needed some help coming out of the cave, or if not that, some help being okay with Nancy leaving the cave, because My God, Barb, how can it be so hard for you to accept that I WANT him in my pants?
And Nancy needed Barb’s help too, because people hiding in caves kept their vision adjusted to the dark.
Nancy unfolded the arms of Barb’s glasses and held them up to her eyes.
Tommy and Carol really were monstrous people.
The truth had to be the way out of this, the kind of truth that wouldn’t give them anything to talk crap about. That was Barb’s advice. And sometimes the only way around a problem was to charge straight into it. That was Nancy’s.
“I’m totally serious about the table.” Steve slid his voice under an uproar, “Hundred percent serious. All he’s ever wanted is to fly. Listen close, he’s calling you.” Nancy couldn’t hear anything but obnoxious laughter. Then a squeak, “Set me free Miss Nancy…”
Around the corner the Kit Cat clock ticked on. Nancy picked at the gunked glasses in her lap again. If only she had time to think. If only she had her pile of open encyclopedias, textbooks, notebooks, hilighters, color-coded ballpoints and a bonus Jonathan curled up in a nest of pillows, sighing randomly in his sleep to redirect yet another stuck thought like a Magic 8-Ball. She had almost played with his hair. Twice.
“Mike’s getting help,” she said, but how long would that take? The clock became a torture device. How long had she been sitting here? An icicle pierced her. What if Jonathan had already gone ahead and ―
“Your brother got his bike out of my car and left it on the ground.”
“Then where is he?”
“I’m clueless as usual.” Steve took a detour at Barb’s glasses to play with the ring on Nancy’s pointer finger. Deliberately, warmly, he rotated it full circle. “How about we turn this night around ourselves, yeah?”
Tommy shouted over Nicole to finish one of her sentences. Carol swatted his arm and corrected him. Nancy prided herself on failing to register anything they said. What mattered was that Tommy was still a threat, and he and Carol had done the opposite of sobering up. “It’s not safe,” she said.
“Which is why we’re gonna be fast. Pick it up, swing it back, out it goes, one two three. Let me lead. The I’ll lift you out first, you hit the ground running and we take the bike, ‘K?”
Past Steve, the gossamer curtain had been pushed aside. The tiered wooden table before them looked like it weighed about two tons, but on the other hand the lathed legs went all the way to the top as if they were made to be handles. Nancy stretched a foot out and toed the corner of the table an inch across the floor. Accounting for the extra resistence as it caught on the shag carpet… about three tons. Whatever, this was happening. She put Barb’s glasses back into the pocket over her heart. “Okay. When?”
Steve’s eyes turned wild as he watched the others. Nancy crept up to a crouch and imagined she had springs in her legs, in her arms, in her back, and wound them up to make herself strong.
“… … … Go.”
One, Nancy heaved the table up a split second behind Steve, tipping it sideways along the way, spilling coasters and other kipple to the floor. Two, they swung it back in unison.
“Hey, hey!” Three, Tommy hooked Nancy’s elbow from behind, yanking her nearly off her feet, so that on the forward swing Steve pulled the table right out of her hands. Her corner hit the floor with a bang beside Steve’s bare foot, then his corner fell from his hands and banged down too, but he kept his momentum, turned it around, bypassed Nancy and slammed it right into Tommy.
Tommy fell onto the sofa with a hand on his face. With both hands on his face. Then where was the ―
As theatrical as Charlie’s fourth angel, Carol flicked her hip to the side above parted feet and aimed at Steve. “Play nice. You okay hon?”
Tommy nodded while holding his wrist under his nose, smearing blood, but didn’t stand up. His eyes were watering. “You wanna square this now? We’re long overdue.”
“Gimme another rain check,” Steve said, rubbing his hand. “You know what I want.”
Nicole looked on from her corner blocking the front door, spellbound. When she noticed Nancy staring at her she pulled her camera from her bag and hid behind it.
“Carol.” Steve chopped both hands down to hold her attention. “There’s only so much pissing on a guy’s grave I can take. You can’t change our minds, you won’t teach us any lessons, so―”
“Don’t tell me you believe it too.” Tommy raspberried, doubling over. “What the f ―”
“It’s all true.” Steve shut his eyes and braced himself for the next part: “Everything Nancy said is true.”
Nancy registered the sound of laughter along with the sight of falling snow on the list of beautiful things she would never enjoy again.
“My shoe!” Steve gestured wildly out the window. “There’s a reason I’m only wearing one. You must have seen the other one in the road when you were messing with my car. I crushed a bug tonight and it burned a hole right through it and it’s all connected. This town is screwed up in ways I can’t explain but I’ll prove it to you at some point. I’ll prove it if you could just chill out.”
“There’s no shoe out there, Stevie. Are you seriously this messed up? What the hell did they do to you? Hypnosis? You need some sense beaten into you or what?”
“No. Tommy. Damn it. How many have you had? This is taking way too long.”
“The Byers Crazy really is catching.” Carol threw her head back and sighed, holding the elbow of her gun arm. “First he screwed it into the princess, then he beat it into Steve and now they’re breaking into houses.”
“Where is that lunatic, anyway? Hiding in his lair while you do his bidding? You screwing him too Steve?” Tommy got to his feet and chattered his teeth under a bloody Chaplin moustache. “Didja-didja catch queer?”
Steve was disgusted. “That doesn’t even make sense. Is he screwing Nancy or is he queer? Losers.”
“Maybe he’s both,” Tommy said, poking Steve in the chest. There was no room for Nancy to get between them. “Maybe he’s just.” Poke. “That.” Poke. “Weird.”
“Yeah what if he was?” Steve shot back, “So what?”
Tommy fell away holding his head while Carol spewed a whistling laugh into her hand. “They are screwing,” she said. “They’re all screwing! It’s like some perverted B-and-E sex cult.”
“Ha!” Tommy bounced up to Carol on wobbly legs and humped her hip. “Break and enter. They break into houses to screw in. That’s what it is. You cracked the case, you cute little genius.” He planted a big kiss on her cheek and left a red smudge.
“A queer sandwich with a syrupy slut centre.” Carol honed in on Nancy. “You people are messed. Up.” She lowered the gun and strolled so-casually forward. “And you know,” she added, grabbing Nancy’s chin and wagging it, “She does look kind of like a man, so…”
Nancy slapped Carol’s hand away. “All you do is talk crap,” she spat. “You and Tommy talk crap and assume the worst about everyone else, even the people you think you care about, so you never have to look at yourselves.” She shrugged Steve’s hand off her arm. It was time for this to end. She could end it herself. “You think hating everyone else means you love each other but the only thing you really love about Tommy is that he makes you feel good about yourself, because―because―you know what you are, Carol?”
“Hey uh Nancy what if you didn’t ―”
Carol cut Steve off by poking him with the gun, stinging him and giving Nancy a silent heart attack, then hummed phony sympathy and pointed down at the floor again. “This is going to be suuuper interesting, since you’re such a smart special girl and all.” She chomped her gum like a cow and waited for Nancy to make good.
Nancy’s heart pounded against Barbara’s glasses. “You’re a bitch.” Carol didn’t react. “You are a nasty, mean, judgmental bitch.”
“Yeah,” Nancy said. “Why don’t you go fuck yourself?”
Carol giggled. “Well you know what I think?”
“I think that’s a really cute necklace, princess.”
It didn’t hurt at first. It was only a blunt kick, so that on the way to the floor Nancy wondered where Carol had gotten such big loud feet, but what Nancy fell into was softer than the floor, higher than the floor, had to be Steve, Steve putting her to rest amid a flapping rain of softly ransacked books.
“Carol.” Tommy was not laughing. “What did you just do?”
A hot current flowed down Nancy’s shin and into her mom’s shoe while Steve spittled a panic attack a foot away, “―how could you do that to her oh my god how could you shoot her my god you dumb bitch―” and the blood was soaking through her jeans, dripping from the cuff to the carpet, and Steve was, what? Was he washing his hands in it? “―you dumb bitch she just wanted to get him back you dumb bitch and you― you― you― stupid pointless psycho bitch―”
Carol’s gasp was shrill and lengthy. “I didn’t mean it! I didn’t mean to, I was just trying to scare her! It was an accident! I was aiming for the space between her feet, you know, to… make her dance.”
“―you bitch you bitch―” Steve tore denim as if it were paper.
“Babe like holy―Like holy, holy―What? Now what do we do?”
“―you bitch you fucking bitch oh my God Nancy Jesus you’re crazy why are you so damn stupid okay I got it, I think. I think.” Steve found the hole under Nancy’s bent leg in her calf and, pinning her foot with his knee for leverage, plugged it up using the heel of his hand. “I got it.” Then it hurt. Nancy yelled at him and tried to pull him away but he didn’t listen. “You’re okay!” He fought off her frantic hands and caught them both in one. “You’re okay. Stop.”
Outnumbered, Carol placed the gun on the floor and backed away from it. “I’m… sorry?”
A bright white flash filled the room, and then another, extending long shadows from the front door. The dim light over Nicole’s head flickered. She took another picture. The power went out and came back on.
A gust of ethereal wind picked Carol up, blew her across the room and hammered her to the wall by the kitchen, pinning her along the seam at the ceiling. Her feet kicked thunder into wallpaper and stucco as she grabbed at her throat, and the lightning of Nicole’s photojournalism flashed on and on.
Mike swam out from under the bed and opened the door while kicking the blanket away at the same time. In the confusion he caught his foot, slipped and whacked the back of his head hard enough on the floor to make himself realize he was about to run into the middle of something really, really bad.
That hadn’t sounded like a gunshot from movies. It had sounded like a gunshot that killed people for real.
Steve was babbling on and on like the gunshot had killed someone for real.
Mike was going to kill someone for real. He cataputed around the doorknob.
Nancy was awake, Steve was holding her leg in bloody hands and the gun was on the floor while everyone sat there in flashing light, staring agape at the ceiling as if it was playing a horror movie. The horror movie was the retard’s horizontal girlfriend kicking and slapping and elbowing the wall. Mike’s volcanic joy washed over him in a confusing thrill of gooseflesh. Elle. Eleven. Eleveneleveneleveneleveneleven.
He lunged out and confiscated the gun. The retard started laughing. What was he laughing at? Wasn’t that his girlfriend getting squashed into the ceiling?
Uh. Wasn’t that Mike’s girlfriend squashing the retard’s girlfriend into the ceiling?
“Elle!” This wasn’t how you kept secrets! This wasn’t how you hid from the bad men! What was she thinking? How could anyone alive be so shitty at hiding? “Elle! Elle, what are you doing? Eleven!” The hall’s doorways became monkey bars as Mike swung along to check each empty room. “Elle! I took the gun! It’s safe! You can let her go!”
Eleven wasn’t anywhere. Was she still in the upside down? Mike ran back to the living room. The retard got up, grabbed at his girlfriend’s clothes and tore her jacket open. An invisible bomb blew him backwards over an upturned coffee table where he landed on his back, his legs in the air, howling with unnatural laughter.
“Elle, stop! Stop it!” Standing at the end of the hallway, Mike planted one foot far in front of the other and held on to the corner of the living room wall in case Eleven tried to throw him again too. “Stop it! Stop! She won’t hurt anybody!” The girl wasn’t kicking much anymore. Her white boots slowed to an irregular rumble. She gurgled. “What are you doing?” Was Eleven actually going to kill her for real? “What is wrong with you?”
The girl’s hand slipped down from her throat and dangled there.
Her head tilted to a grotesque angle.
“MURDERERS AREN’T ALLOWED IN TO THE SNOW BALL!!”
The girl rolled down the wall. When she hit the floor she bounced, once. “Babe― Carol― babe―” The retard shoulder-checked the wall above her and fell to his knees directly on her fanned hair. She screamed and choked, and started coughing the same throaty barking coughs that Holly coughed when she had croup. He got off her hair, pulled her to lay across his lap and rocked her with his arms over her, shielding her.
“Hello,” Mike said.
The red-nosed retard gazed up at him emptily. “Are you a wizard?”
“Yes. I’m a wizard.” Mike hooked his finger around the outside of the trigger-guard so it wouldn’t go anywhere stupid and aimed, weavingly, at Mr. and Mrs. Retard. “I’m also just a little kid. I’d shoot you in the leg but I’ve never even held a gun before. The bullet could hit you anywhere. It could get you in the head.”
“Michael you put that down right now!”
“Kid hold on Mike listen Mike hey ―”
“SHUT UP! What’s your name, douche?”
“Which one of you shot my sister?”
“Me,” Tommy said, holding up a defensive hand while Carol barked on and on in his lap. “Me, I did it. It was me.”
Yeah right. Eleven wouldn’t go after the wrong person. “You’re a retard,” Mike said. “You’re both retards.” The redhead by the door ― Nicole ― took another picture. “STOP IT!” She jumped and lowered the camera from her eye. How many pictures had she just taken of Elle’s superpowers? How many had she taken of Elle in the upside down? “Pull the film out and expose it. All of it.”
Nicole’s shoulders dipped back. She put the camera in her bag, lengthened her neck, crossed her arms and looked haughtily down at him. “No,” she said.
“I’m pointing a gun at you!”
“I don’t care!”
Well, this was over. “Fine.” Mike aimed at the floor and fiddled with the chamber of the gun the way Nancy had. “Don’t go anywhere, okay? Nobody go anywhere.” When he got it open he dumped the bullets into his hand and stuck them in his pocket.
Nicole darted around Tommy and Carol, around Mike, straight down to the end of the hall, and picked up the phone under the cat clock. “It’s not working.” She beat it up. “The line’s dead.”
Nancy looked way too pale, but then so did Steve and he wasn’t even shot. Mike crossed the room and gave Nancy her gun back. The weight of it pulled her hand down to the floor. “Always taking my stuff.” Her joke fell flat. “I knew it.”
“Yeah, I lied. I sneak your savings too. Did it go all the way through?” Mike leaned around and peered at the side of Steve’s soaking red palm, which tilted for a split second, just enough to show a ragged meaty edge. Mike felt blank when he should have been upset. “That’s an exit wound. What about the entrance wound? Did you even look for it? She’s still bleeding.”
“Oh…” Steve said, “Shit.”
Nancy began patting around at her torn and flapping pantleg with noodle arms. Steve tried to brush her hands out of his way but she fought back, and he fought back, and on they went in a squabble headed for nowhere.
Tommy hadn’t stopped rocking his girlfriend yet. “Give me your knife,” Mike said.
“You used a knife to slash Steve’s tires. Give me it.”
Tommy tilted Carol, stirring her barking back up, patted around in his baseball jacket and underhand-tossed a folded pocket knife in Mike’s direction. He then turned Carol onto her back so that her head fell back over his leg, where she began to breathe easier, and trailed his fingers along her throat like he was petting a shy kitten. It was infuriating to watch. Douchebags weren’t supposed to be nice to anyone, not even each other. Especially not each other.
Mike unfolded the knife and found Nancy’s look of terror annoying. “Do you have any idea how much research I do for my campaigns? I know everything about battlefields. I’m not going to cut you.” With the edge of the blade facing out he cut away the leg of Nancy’s jeans above the knee, exposing a second little hole on his side of her leg. It was only about an inch away from the exit wound. “Who has a belt?”
Steve was already unbuckling with his free hand.
“It’s safe to come out. You can use my bike to get help, get to a phone and call an ambulance for Nancy.”
“No,” Nancy said, “Hopper.” She shouted, “Go get Hopper! Does anyone know where he lives?”
“Nancy come on,” Steve said, “That’s way too crazy you’ve lost like ―”
“Shut up.” Nancy winced. Steve had begun tightening the belt below her knee while murmuring indecipherable syllables. Her eyes watered and her eyebrows made a huge teepee but she didn’t yell. “All this might have to stay a secret. I can tell Hopper about Jonathan and Eleven while he takes me and Carol to the hospital.”
“You’re not a shitty DM,” Mike said. “I take it back.”
Nancy jostled limply. “Thanks.” Her head rolled against the bookshelf while Steve tried to force a new notch into his belt using only the prong. It wasn’t going to work. Mike reached over and, once Steve caught on and got out of his way, poked a hole through the dented spot using the point of the handy new Christmas present Tommy had just given him for keeps. “You too,” Nancy added. “You’re not a shitty DM too.”
Will appeared quaking by the kitchen doorway. “I kn-know where he-he-Hop-Hopper lives,” he said. “Me and my mo-mom go there to hang out some-times. I can tell him abou-out Jonathan an-hnd this and and and―”
“Hey. Will.” Steve mimed the swing of a baseball bat and marked the impact with a “Hit the road.”
“Right.” Will almost smiled. “Thanks. Bye.” He hopped over Tommy’s outstretched legs. The front door slammed hard behind him. Nancy patted the back of Steve’s head good-dog style.
“Where’s Scoop?” called Nicole from far away, vibrating the floor with her voice. “I left my cat down here!” She sounded scared out of her gourd, over a cat? “Where is he? Scoo-oop!”
Mike gargled dry frustration. “So he got out. He got out! Who gives a crap?”
“He’s not allowed out! There are wolves around here, and cars! And bears! He’ll die!”
“If you don’t let him out he’ll never live!” Mike folded his knife. The air in the living room snapped silent along with it, slamming a door of its very own on the entire night.
Christmas morning’s dawn was cracking the white world wide open like a fresh egg full of fire opals. The engine chugged. The steering wheel quivered at unplowed mounds of snow in the road. Oldies monopolized the radio.
―risked your life you bitch you fucking bitch what if this thing oh my God Nancy―
The air hung perfectly crystal-still, cold enough to freeze the nosehairs on the first breath.
Jonathan nudged his car door into its frame without fully closing it and ducked his head low. He avoided the untouched pink snow on the Wheelers’ front lawn to crunch along their driveway’s tire treads of frozen slush instead. The valley between the side of their garage and its parallel snowdrift was wide enough that he could prance long strides down it to conceal his pointed footprints. Only Nancy would know he had come over, and not until after he had passed on.
He would just leave it there, tucked away behind a wall of snow on the sill so it couldn’t be seen from the outside, and if it turned out she didn’t want it no one would be put on the spot. He brushed all the snow off the step-up bin and climbed on top.
Nancy’s bedroom light was on. If she left it on even for Christmas Eve she had to still be leaving it on every night.
The eavestrough overflowed with ice, the roof was covered in a hard white crust and Jonathan didn’t even own a pair of gloves, but in exchange for stinging hands and a sore middle he made it.
His breath patted a golden film onto the windowpane.
Nancy slept flat on her back with her hands folded on her chest and the bedding undisturbed. It was as if someone else had made the bed around her and arranged her on display for visitors.
What an idiotic idea that was, to just drop the thing off here and leave. Keeping a stolen gun could get anyone ― but especially a girl with as much to lose as Nancy had ― in deep, permanent trouble. You didn’t drop so much responsibility into a person’s lap without asking.
Jonathan shuffled backwards to the edge of the window and turned away while he tapped on it so Nancy wouldn’t wake up being stared at, but his eyes dragged themselves back to her before he finished the fourth knock. She smiled, stretched out and squirmed happily, expecting somebody, and then she saw him.
Her covers flapped up and over the bed like the wing of a restless dove revealing a hidden wound. When the window rattled up it wafted a sleepy gust of lavender into the peppermint air. “Hey,” she said. Her red plaid nightgown had lacy white trim around the bib and a teddybear embroidered on the front. There was enough room to fit another whole Nancy inside it, a whole person. A whole extra person could slide in there with her. “Is everything okay?”
“Yeah, of course, I just. I’m. Hey.”
Nancy slouched on her cushioned window seat, swept up a patch of snow from the sill into her bare hands and made a snow ball. She shaved away rough edges with her fingertips and smoothed unsightly lumps using the bodyheat in her palms, patiently absorbed in her craft.
Jonathan didn’t know how to introduce the thing so he just took it out of his pocket and put it there in the space Nancy didn’t know she had cleared for it. “Merry Christmas.”
She laughed at him. “Seriously?”
He shrugged and went for broke: the box of bullets jingled merrily down beside it. “Seriously.”
“But everything’s okay?”
“Don’t worry, it’s just that I won’t be seeing my dad if I don’t have to, and there’s no point in me having it. ― Unless you don’t want it. I understand why you wouldn’t. That’s why I woke you.”
Nancy threw her perfectly spherical little snowball at him. It patted to his chest without breaking, plopped onto the roof and rolled away. “You’re crazy,” she bantered, staring at his mouth, scorching it. Was there something wrong with it? He wet his lips quick. Nancy shivered, looked out at the bluing sky and pulled her arms tight around herself.
“Think about Mom.”
What had Jonathan just said? He couldn’t remember. “Can you remember her voice, what it sounded like?”
Suspicion painted a strawberry blush across Nancy’s nose. “Um…?” She squinted at him in humor, forgiving him before he could explain. “Are you still here?”
Jonathan’s insides twisted with shame. “Remember all the nice stuff Mom said to you in the bath? To make you stronger?” He was making Nancy uncomfortable. He was embarrassing her. Psycho Byers the schizophrenic creep had just stalked up to Nancy’s window uninvited on Christmas morning to chatter jibberish at her while offering her a weird and dangerous and illegal gift.
Nancy cringed and smiled at the same time. Jonathan knew that look, he saw it on all the girls: she was trying to come up with a way to ask him to leave that wouldn’t make him violent. “You don’t have to, though,” she said. “The camera wasn’t really a p―”
“―Present. I know.” Jonathan was slipping slowly backwards down the roof. It was too slow to see, but he could feel it. “This isn’t really a present either. I might have to take it back. Depends what my dad does if he notices it’s missing.”
“So…” Nancy’s tension dissolved into sweet sympathy. Or was it relief? “You’re being practical.”
“Yah, practical.” The mix tape he had stayed up all night to make was eating its way through his pocket but he didn’t have the guts. “Exactly. I thought ― Y’know, since you’re good with it, if anything else happens…”
Nancy’s eyes were bluer than the holes in a tin can held up to the sky. “Do you think something else might happen?”
“―No. No, I just thought that if you had it you wouldn’t worry, you know?”
“I can’t,” she said. The gun lay on its side in her open hands.
“No, I can’t.” One side of Nancy’s mouth drooped down her chin and pulled back up again. She shook off the faux pas with her lashes fluttering and smiled shyly behind a few fallen locks of hair. “I’m sorry.”
Goosebumps seared down Jonathan’s back. This wasn’t what was supposed to happen. This was the something else that might happen. It was happening right now.
Nancy enclosed the grip of the gun in both hands―backwards, pointing it at herself. “I messed up.”
Jonathan’s hands froze to the windowsill. “Please just try. For Mom.” His stomach rumbled. “I’m so scared. It has to work. I need you to keep trying.”
“Murderers,” Nancy said. She rammed the full length of the barrel into her eye.
Sitting down to wait was the worst thing Mike could imagine doing, so he searched the house for Eleven. He knew it was dumb but he couldn’t help it. He looked into the shadowy space behind the sofa, he looked out the window where Will was still accelerating to cruising speed, he looked under the kitchen table and he looked every other place where there was no chance she would be.
“Elle,” he mumbled into the yellow refrigerator, which offered nothing she would like. How did she find food in the upside down? Mike pinched himself on the arm a few cruel times so he wouldn’t end up crying in front of anyone.
He shouldn’t have yelled at her. He hated yelling at her. Why did it have to be like this? Why did he have to yell at her as soon as he found her? What if she ran away even further this time? What if he never saw her again?
She couldn’t live in the upside down. It was so cold in there, so dark, so gross and dirty. It was toxic in the upside down. There had to be a safer place to hide. Was there any sunlight at all? How did she stay happy? How did she get clean and warm?
In her whole life had she ever even taken a bath that was just a normal bath?
Mike wandered down the hall, almost punched that stupid cat clock in its stupid side-to-side eyes, turned back and circled around the living room again.
“Hey Tommy,” Steve said. He had tied Nancy’s severed pantleg around her calf as a bandage. The denim was all stained dark but it wasn’t dripping. “Want some help getting Carol onto the couch?”
“Huh? Uh. No. No, I’m good. You stay with uh, Nancy. I’ll do it,” and Tommy began to agitate Carol.
All Mike wanted to do was give Eleven a hug.
He speedwalked back to Nicole’s bedroom and sat down in the desk chair. “You’re not a murderer,” he said, cutting his thumbnail along a gouge in the top of the desk nonstop, trying to start a fire. “You’re the opposite. You saved us from the Demogorgon. I can still take you to the Snow Ball. I got your letter. I care too. I’m sorry I yelled at you. I’m not mad at you. I miss you. A lot.”
Nothing happened. Mike scrubbed at his eyes, left the bedroom, kicked a bunch of fallen books out of his way and sat down beside his floppy sister, then leaned his head on her shoulder and stopped caring what he did in front of anyone. She tousled his hair while quietly telling Steve a lot of things that Mike already knew.
What if he hadn’t decided to stay at the house?
What if Eleven was a murderer?
All of a sudden the floor vibrated again, as much as it had done from Nicole’s voice, and then a lot more. A short earthquake faded into splintering. The splintering crashed. Mike looked to Nancy as if she knew anything but she and Steve were staring at each other with that same dumb look they had on their faces when the phone rang.
Nancy grabbed the front of Steve’s shirt in her fist, twisted it and pulled while her other hand pawed at the bookshelf. She was trying to get up? She was trying to get up and walk on a shot leg? Did she have gunpowder in her brain? She gasped and cried out. Steve scrambled at her. They fell back down together.
Nicole stampeded up the basement stairs and came into the living room with her mouth hanging open. She closed it and opened it and closed it again. Then she burst into tears.
Steve pulled Nancy’s hand off his shirt so easily it could have been a moth. He kissed her forehead. “Stay here.”