Jonathan fell back into the corner with his hands sweating and Nancy still ringing in his ear, Nancy harmonizing with the beast in his belly, Nancy screaming like a rabbit full of birdshot. He pushed past her to listen to his own darting heartbeat instead, and hoped he might slow it down enough that he wouldn’t have to notice when it stopped.
When he was a kid Jonathan thought death was just like going to sleep only it lasted forever, because that was what all the parents told their kids when their pets died. By the time he turned ten he had learned to keep an empty placeholder over the process of dying, which his father did not disturb when he put the rifle in his hands. Jonathan aimed because he was shown how, he fired because he was told to, and the sound the rabbit made turned his placeholder black.
Why is it screaming? Why’s it screaming like that?
Because you shot it, buddy. Nice shot, too. He’s already starting to quiet down. You did a good job.
No, I did it wrong, I did it wrong. I know I did it wrong! I made a mistake or this wouldn’t be happening!
Woah kid, hold on. Get a hold of yourself. You didn’t do anything wrong. It’s just a distress call. It happens when you shoot them sometimes.
Then I shouldn’t have shot him.
Shooting’s a better way to go than most ― it’s already over, see? He’s dead.
He didn’t have to die!
Everything has to die, Jonathan. Everything. You can’t grow up until you understand that.
I do understand that. But he didn’t have to die yet!
This one did. He died so you could learn something today. Why don’t you show him some respect?
You could have just told me, Dad! I would have believed you, I trusted you! You didn’t have to prove anything!
Okay, well, we’ll eat it too. I’ll show you how to skin it and we’ll eat it so it doesn’t go to waste.
I don’t want to eat it! I want to go home!
Fine. I’ll take you home. But can you do us both a favor? Don’t tell your mother about this.
A slowing pulse brought the bedside lamp to life.
On off, on off, on off.
On, off. On. Off.
It stayed on.
Nancy was okay with this. Everything was fine. She didn’t need Steve to drive. She could take Mike’s bike to Hopper’s place ― by the lake, right? A trailer somewhere by the lake ― and before she did that, she could take a minute to finish what she started. The camera might not matter much anymore, but at least she would be telling the truth. The truth had a way of clearing the air whether the contents of it mattered or not. Well, sometimes it did. Today it would.
Lithe and snakelike, Nicole stood in a slouch against her closed front door, her red hair fiery in the glow from above. Tommy and Carol were somewhere in the living room to the right, but Tommy and Carol were not relevant, and Steve was not talking.
At each of Nancy’s marching steps down the hallway toward her, Nicole’s eyes got a little wider. Nancy reached out. Nicole flinched. Nancy took Nicole’s hands firmly in hers.
“I’m sorry I came into your house when you weren’t here. This will sound crazy, but I did it because I need to develop a roll of film. This is a matter of life or death. I am not exaggerating. It’s an emergency. I can explain everything to you tomorrow.” Nancy did not promise. “Everything. Can you help me?”
Nicole’s eyelids bobbed up and down, like a person waking up. “Why do you need it developed? You need to see what’s on the film?”
Nancy held on a little tighter. “Exactly.”
“I’ve got a safelight in my nightstand for checking which negatives I want to bring to school. You don’t need to develop the film just to see what’s on it. You only need the red light.”
A bolt of stupid struck Nancy in the head. Duh. She banished it in a frenzy of blinks and lifted her chin a little to help her voice carry. “My brother and his friend are just behind me. Do you mind if they get the lightbulb so Steve and I can borrow it until we see you again tomorrow night, say around… seven? It’s really important. I’m really sorry to bother you.”
“Um… Sure? It’s just a red bulb in a box. In the drawer.”
“Thank you so much, Nicole.” The air was almost clear. Nancy could feel it. She pulled Nicole’s hands gently, inching her away from the door ―
“Woooah, what is this?”
Nancy’s gun slid up and out of the back of her pants.
Tommy fell three heavy steps back as Nancy whirled around to face him. Fascinated, he spun the gun ineptly around his finger by the trigger guard.
“Give. That. Back.”
“Oh my God,” Tommy said, and twirled the gun again, stumbling under the centrifugal force of his own arm. Was he a freckled circus clown? His smile was wide enough, his eyebrows high enough. “This is amazing.”
Tommy had been drinking.
“Give it back.”
Tommy stopped twirling the gun and held it like he was an action movie star. He aimed it in many different directions in a very short period of time. “Armed robbery. You are in so much shit right now.”
Steve skipped a quiet ‘no no no no’ record by the front window. When he caught Nancy’s eye he leaned back against the pane as if to press himself through it, straining the threadbare gossamer curtain on its hooks. ‘They don’t listen to me anymore,’ he mouthed.
“Isn’t it legal to shoot intruders during a break-in?” Carol wondered. She was sitting on the living room sofa upside down, with her legs up the back and her hair blending into the copper shag carpet, tonguing a piece of gum in her smile. She winked at Nancy. Nancy could have killed her.
Next to the sofa, in the hallway beyond Tommy’s shoulder, stood a skinny scarecrow with a priceless froggy moon face and a wild mop of silky black hair.
“Mike, you and Will need to leave this house. Go. Leave. Now.”
Mike and Nancy shared an inedscribable something. It was nice. Mike ran away.
Jonathan wasn’t describing what a gas can looked like, or explaining to Elle what the word ‘siphon’ meant.
He wasn’t asking her to douse the body as soon as he was dead, or to draw a line from this corner to the kitchen, pouring carefully to preserve fuel. He wasn’t telling her to knot a rope from strips of dishtowel and soak it in gasoline to use as a wick connecting the stove’s coil burners to the puddle on the floor. He wasn’t making her promise to wait until everyone had left the normal version of the bedroom before she turned on the burner, just in case some of the fire came through, and he wasn’t telling her to leave the house right after she hit the knob.
It was familiar, what he wasn’t doing. It was like that time he wasn’t arranging Will’s funeral by himself, but less real. So maybe this wasn’t really real either. Maybe he would wake up in a hospital in a minute like Will had, and not kill any of the nurses like Will hadn’t.
Elle sat with an elbow on the desk, propping her head up with her fist squashing her cheek. Jonathan hadn’t noticed until now that her nose had a drop of blood under it. He had hidden behind closed eyes while giving his cremation instructions so he wouldn’t have to see them written on her face.
“Was it hard to make the phone work?”
Elle nodded. She carried permanent tension in the corners of her mouth. “Hard to punch through.” She wiped her nose on her hand, then wiped her hand on the dark leg of her pants.
“Are you okay?”
“Yes.” She dug around in a coat pocket. “But I’m tired. They’re quiet again.” She gave Jonathan the water bottle and returned to her digging. Instead of drinking, he put the bottle down, wrapped the scratchy blanket around his fists and pulled it up to his chin.
What was it like to be burned alive?
Was it worse to burn alive from the inside by acid or from the outside by fire?
As he fixated on this, Jonathan’s noisy vibration swelled the way it had done in the woods, threatening to break open the way it had done in the road. “Thank you for making the phone work,” he said, and the inhuman semitone in his voice kept him going: “I can’t do this.”
Elle ate a little piece of yellow bread and waited for him to continue.
“Can you do it?”
She didn’t understand.
“Will’s friends said you can do it.”
She still didn’t understand.
Jonathan retreated behind his eyelids again because he was a coward. “You can kill people.”
A phantom Nancy slapped him across the face, shocking his eyes back open with the flick of a notebook page. There had been lavender in her pillows.
“No,” Elle said.
“You can’t do it, or you won’t?”
Mike kicked Nicole’s dead phone out of his way and fell to a crawl to project his voice under the bed: “Will. Some retarded friend of Steve’s stole Nancy’s gun and he’s being a retard with it. Come on, we can go out the window.”
“Nancy has a gun?”
“Had a gun.”
“Why don’t you stay down here instead?”
“I can’t, I have to go.”
“What if the retarded guy sees you out there? What if he shoots you?”
“He won’t,” but Mike didn’t technically know that.
“There’s room for at least three more people to hide in here,” Will said.
Another day, Mike might have accepted the invitation. “I can’t. I’m going. Don’t make any noise.”
“Thanks for the advice but I kinda know what I’m doing.”
Will had a point. So did Mike. “Get out as soon as it’s safe enough, okay?”
People were arguing in the front room but Mike didn’t have the space in his head to listen to what they were saying. He pulled the cord on Nicole’s bamboo blind, shoved up the window and kicked out the screen.
“Jonathan said there’s no Deomogorgon. He’s just sick. We’ve got time to find him.”
How sick? How much time? How long had it taken Barb’s face to unglue from her head? “I won’t wig out if you won’t,” Mike said.
Mike sat down on the sill, swung his legs out, slid out into the cold, stomped directly on the screen because it really did not matter, and ran for Steve’s car. The folded sheet of typewriter paper in his pocket crinkled at every bend of his leg.
mike i care snow ball no place like home not safe bad men secret
That was all it said, and it said everything. Mike had memorized it while Nancy was yelling, before the phone crashed to the floor. Now the message looped in his head with the turning of his legs, spitting out another word for each beating footstep.
bad men secret mike i care snow ball no place like home not safe bad men secret mike i care snow ball
Steve’s headlights were off. The tires were flat, drooped into sad semicircles on the road, but that didn’t matter any more than the screen mattered. Mike could get home fast. He’d been practicing. He caught himself with both hands on the freezing cold ledge of the trunk and tried to pull it open, but of course it was locked. The nearest rear door was locked too. So was the driver’s door. So were the other two doors, and all the windows were rolled up.
Mike dropped a halfhearted hand on the nearest window. He looked back at the house. Steve was leaning on the front curtain making wild gestures, raising his voice, muffled, rambling. It was not safe to interrupt. This was bad.
Mike hopped back and forth between his feet, stuck. His bike was locked up in the trunk and Steve had the keys, but Steve and Nancy were in the middle of an argument with a lethally armed retard.
Will’s mom was home, but she was passed out from a sleeping pill, maybe even more than one. What was it like to take a sleeping pill? Mike bet it was like taking cough syrup or allergy medicine but for adults, which meant it would be even stronger. He bet if he woke her up and told her what was going on she would get really upset and not be able to think straight. What if she ran into Nicole’s house? What if she got shot?
Mike had to get home. He had to get Lucas on his radio and then get Dustin, or maybe bypass home totally in case he woke his parents ― Could he even get back into Nancy’s window by himself? ― and they had to come up with a plan. Maybe one of the guys knew where Hopper lived, or something else, anything else. The police? What if they shot somebody? What if more bad men found out about Elle and they shot somebody?
Mike couldn’t do this himself. He couldn’t strategize all by himself. He couldn’t even get his stupid bike by himself.
Wait, yes he could.
It took him three tries to smash Nancy’s rock through Steve’s rear passenger window.
“Blame it on the retard,” he mumbled.
He took off his coat and wrapped it around his arm to safely clear more glass out of the way, shredding lycra with no regrets, and pulled up the front passenger lock. Leaning in through that door to the dashboard, he patted around until he was pretty sure he found the right thing to pull and pulled it. It wasn’t the right thing, so he pulled another thing and the trunk popped open.
He closed the trunk very carefully after retrieving his bike so he wouldn’t make any more noise, and just then, as he was listening closely to the silence in fear of breaking it, he heard a roar of rage, Nancy’s rage, angrier than he had ever heard her in his whole annoying little brother life.
Steve wasn’t in the window anymore. It was really hard to see through the curtain, but there was movement. A lot of it.
Everyone was in that house ― Nancy, Steve, Will, Jonathan, Eleven ― and Mike was running away?
“Screw leaving.” Mike dumped his bike on the ground and jogged back toward Nicole’s bedroom window. “Screw it, screw it, screw it.” If Elle could hit typewriter keys from the upside down, she could do other things too. It would be good to talk to her. Really good. He might even get to see her again.
Mike stopped, nearly tipping forward over his toes, and boomeranged back to the car. By the time he returned to Nicole’s bedroom window he had shaken all the bits of glass off Nancy’s backpack.
Tommy turned away from Mike’s retreating feet in the hallway and eyebrowed Nancy with a mixture of pity and glee. “You really think I’d hurt some kid? Don’t you know it’s all about you? You’re the star of the show.”
Nancy spoke along a very flat line: “We just want to leave. That is all we want.”
“Well yeah, obviously.” Carol’s eyeroll moved her whole head, sweeping her hair through the carpet. “Because you know you did something wrong.”
“Nicole said it’s fine!” Steve threw his hand out toward the door. “She said we can leave!”
Nicole stood against the door, clutching the strap of the messenger bag hanging from her shoulder. She raised her eyebrows even higher than Tommy’s, looked at the gun in Tommy’s hand, looked at Nancy, and shook her head.
“Guilty as charged,” said Carol.
Nancy locked her jaw. “That. Isn’t. Why. We want. To leave.”
Reddened from her inverted position, Carol hauled herself up, stretched her body out along the sofa cushions and meweled. “Really, princess? Then why?” She feigned a loud yawn. “Why are you soo desperate to get out of here?”
“How ’bout because your boyfriend’s waving a gun around in her face? Did ya think of that, Carol?” Steve bounced on the windowsill, popping a curtain ring off the rod. “Tommy, for God sakes Tommy, I didn’t even know you were still pissed at me. Why couldn’t you talk to me at school or something? It was a month ago, a whole month.”
“Because I’m a good guy, that’s why.” Tommy had moved to the front of the hallway. He leaned against one wall with a foot up on the wall opposite him, denying all passage. “I was gonna let it go, man. I did let it go. I was waiting for you to open your eyes. And then instead, you helped miss two-shoes here mess with another one of my friends.”
“Yeah, what the hell Nancy?” said Carol, swinging her feet to the floor and sitting up. “What the hell did Nicole ever do to you but try to protect you from a stalker? And now you break into her house with a gun? Were you going to shoot her if she didn’t let you leave? How much money did you take? Did you find her mom’s jewelry too? Nicole’s mom is dead, you know that right?”
Nancy put her back to the wall between Tommy and Nicole, wishing she could sink backwards into it and disappear. She understood it now, the leaning.
“No answer? What a shocker,” Carol said.
“I saved your ass, man.” Tommy punched the air with the barrel of the gun, pointing it directly at Steve, driving Nancy toward the window, and it didn’t matter how forbiddingly Steve looked at her ― she wasn’t the one Tommy was the most angry with right now. If she was in the middle, Tommy was less likely to shoot anyone at all. Probably. Maybe. Hopefully.
“I tried to stop psycho Byers beating the shit out of you because I knew it was gonna go bad but your dumb ass blew me off like it was some friggin TV western, and I still stuck around ’til you needed me to drag you off the ground. You could hardly walk. You were this close to cuffs, this close to Game Over. It would all have been over for you, do you realize that? What do you think Daddy Harry would’ve done to you if I hadn’t been there for you, huh?”
Nancy made it, but Steve pushed her aside with the back of his arm. “Oh get off it. You were covering for your own vandal ass. You’re welcome for the cleanup by the way.”
“Hey screw you, man. First I tried to save you from her. Then I tried to save you from the psycho. Then I actually managed to save you from the cops and your daddy. I thought we were friends, you know? But nah, you had to get yourself pussywhipped by some ―”
“Watch your mouth.”
“― cheating slut,” and Tommy snorted at the stomp of Steve’s foot. “Oh meh-meh, ‘You guys never liked her,’ meh-meh, as if we owed her something.”
“‘She actually cares about people’? Like we don’t? We cared about you, Steve.” Carol gripped the sofa cushion on which she sat. “You blind moron.”
Tommy pointed at Nancy for a second, pulling Steve’s arm in front of her. “But this one here, you think she gave a shit while she was screwing around on you? You don’t screw around on someone you care about, Stevie. Stevie Wonder.”
“That’s not ―”
“Shut up, Nancy,” Carol snapped. “I’ve never been with another guy and I don’t think I’ll ever be with another guy, because I’m not a phony goody-girl slut. I love Tommy. I don’t screw around on him and sure wouldn’t risk getting him thrown in jail for burglary.”
“Thanks babe, I’m honored. Stevie Wonder and his sidekick Goody Two Face here could learn a lot from you.”
“Would you quit that already?” said Steve. “Would you quit it with the names?”
“But that is your name. There’s Spiderman, Superman,” Tommy counted on his fingers with the barrel of the gun in place of his pointer, “The Green Lantern, The Great Stevie Wonder. Blind Stevie Wonder thinks he’s such a goddamn hero he doesn’t even need his friends.”
“Alright! Okay! Fine! I’m a screwup!” Steve’s hands went everywhere, “I go left I screw up, I go right I screw up, I go up, I go down, I screw up wherever I go because that’s what I do. I’m very sorry but I’m just not worthy. Happy? Can we go now?” He got up and stood in front of Nancy. She took his hand to stop him going any further. It was shaking.
“She can,” Tommy said. “She can go far away and never come back. But you? Stay. Have a beer with us, we’ve got three left.” Tommy eyed Steve down the barrel. “Shoot the shit. I’d rather not invite any cops here.”
“Hey… Hey.” Steve turned to Nancy and ducked his head to make meagre privacy. “Maybe you should, yeah? Why don’t you get going?”
“But you said they don’t listen t ―”
“I can talk them down.” He squeezed her hand. “I’ll take care of it. Get some help. He needs your help.”
I’ll take care of it.
“Nancy.” Pain sparked in Nancy’s bones as Steve’s grip crushed her scratched-up scar against itself. “He would agree with me.” He was begging her. It was in the eyes a little and in the silence a lot: he was begging her and he was right.
You don’t have to do this, but she may as well have already started cutting, I’m just saying, you don’t have to ―
“He? He who? He ho? Ho who? Who’s he?”
“Oh,” came Carol’s breathy squeal, “Jonathan!”
Nancy would not cry in front of these people. She would not.
“We’ve been here a while, honey,” explained Kindergarten Teacher Carol. “Why don’t you stay for circle time, hmm? You can tell us everything, just like you promised Nicole a minute ago.” Her lip protruded. “Otherwise Nicole might have to involve the authorities.”
There was another telephone on the wall at the far end of the hallway, just below the teasing pendulous tail of a Kit Cat clock. “Call them!” Nancy shouted.
The drama bounced an invisible candy ping-pong ball between Tommy Carol, from sofa to hallway and back again. “Okay, I have got to hear this now,” said Tommy.
“Come on guys. Let Nancy go home, we’ll talk.”
“No leaving. No phone calls.” The gun had by now become Tommy’s prosthetic pointer finger. “Sit.”
“Pfk. This is stupid. We’re outta here.” Steve dropped Nancy’s hand and made for the door. “It’s not like you’d actually use that thing.”
Nancy turned cold. “Steve don’t ―”
“Nicole’s been through enough,” Tommy warned. “Don’t even think about touching her. Don’t escalate this.”
Nicole stood a little straighter against the door.
Steve didn’t touch her.
Instead he laced his fingers behind his neck and paced an oval between Nicole and Tommy. “This is insane,” he said. “We have to leave. You don’t understand. You can’t understand.”
“Sit the hell down, man. Don’t you come near any of us again.”
“What, on the floor? You want me to sit on the floor?”
“Yeah, both of you.”
“Circle time,” Carol sang.
Fine. Fine fine fine fine. Nancy dropped obediently to her butt and sat Indian style just like circle time. If the truth could work in the junk shop and could almost work on Nicole it could work here too. It had to work. There was no other choice. “Jonathan is dying. We need to go.” She jammed her finger into the carpet. “He just phoned us here from another dimension because he was infected with something terrible by a monster we were hunting last month. The infection took him away and we need to go get him or he’ll die. He is all alone. He could die tonight.” She blinked away everything she could. “I know it.”
Tommy and Carol’s candy ping-pong ball bounced between them a few more times and exploded into a firework of laughter. “That is amazing,” Tommy said. “That really is amazing. Another dimension. Did you come up with that whole thing right now?”
Carol turned her fists under her eyes. “Dyyiiinng.”
Nancy found her claws.
She didn’t know she had propelled herself from the floor until she was dangling in the air by her waist. Then Steve was crushing her, smothering her, praying into her ear, “―please please please, just please, gun, don’t.”
Okay, Nancy wanted to say, but she couldn’t find words. Her throat was sore. Okay, I’m fine. Steve gave her feet back to her and let her breathe again, but kept a forearm around her shoulders.
“God, she actually believes it.” There was disquiet in Carol’s disgust, a small comfort.
Tommy drew circles beside his head and whistled. A hint of sympathy dulled his amusement. “Damn Steve, turns out you really do have a thing for the crazy, huh?” He cleared his throat, but his voice stayed rough. “You’re right, I can’t understand. I’m not even gonna try. But I can raise you.”
Carol cracked her gum. “Come on Nicole, give us a true one. Show Steve the light before these schitzos drag him under.”
Jonathan chewed his thumbnail until he encountered a nasty acidic morsel and spat it out.
His little corner folded him up comfortably with his back to the wall, his head tipped into the joint and his feet on the side of the desk. The position held all his limbs cozy under his scratchy blanket and he didn’t even have to try. No wonder Will liked hiding. Small spaces were big hugs for lonely people.
The rest of the room had grown enormous. The bed was a cheesecloth cliffside, and the distant dresser, bearing its twin magazine stacks, rose up as a mountainous horned cathedral. The ceiling had become a real sky from which the projected moon’s blond light outshone the rot, imbuing the place with the deep turquoise of a nighttime aquarium. Jonathan’s nausea ebbed and flowed with the rhythm of a shoreline, and while he knew he was breathing, he couldn’t really feel it.
Elle was enormous too, but that was an illusion sown by her magic and her oversized pink jacket. Even towering above him in her chair she was still just a kid with sticks for legs, a newly hatched tortoise in a big old shell, growing into the hand-me-downs of the gods all on her own.
“Why aren’t you wearing your mask?”
Elle didn’t open her eyes. “I don’t like it anymore.”
“But you’ll get sick like me.”
She shrugged one shoulder.
Jonathan pushed his blanket down over his knees. He unzipped his jacket, unbuttoned his flannel, pulled up his t-shirt and felt around, spilling his cold popsicle stick fingers over himself and digging them in like tombstones. When he found the deep lump below his ribcage it convulsed and shuddered, losing its numbness to pins and needles as it awakened from its restlessly vibrating sleep.
Elle had been watching him find it.
“Can you get it out of me?”
It took her forever to say it again: “No. It’s too smart.”
“What’s that mean?”
Elle scooted her chair away and sat down on the floor next to Jonathan’s accordioned legs, meeting him at eye level. She held her arm out over him, and with the other hand she pulled a tab on the cuff of her sleeve. It made a ripping noise: velcro.
She sandwiched it back together and pulled it apart again.
The horrible implications of the tearing sound introduced Jonathan to a new cluster of nerves in his back and elevated the whine a few octaves, turning the pins and needles into teeth and rapiers. Another sneeze grated his sinuses and made his head heavy, so he fell to rest in the corner again. “What if you really concentrate?”
Elle’s hands landed on her knees. “No.”
“… And take your time?”
“How can you know that for sure?”
Her mouth trembled. Her head fell. Her pompom danced and her hands wrestled. A tear fell out of her eye, through the darkness and into her lap with the glint of a falling star.
“Why don’t you think you can do it? You think it’s your fault, you think you’ll mess up?”
Jonathan’s next breath struck him as hard as a salt sack full of razorblades. “You said ―” He borrowed strength from his arms to keep talking. “You said you made me the monster too. That means it can’t be my fault ― that’s why you feel bad. Right? So if you’re the monster, I bet someone did the same thing to you. I bet it’s their fault, not yours. I bet they should feel a lot worse.”
Elle’s voice was a little bell again: “You don’t understand.”
He could try. “Sometimes other people change us, and we have to take responsibility for it even though it’s not our fault. I get that. But knowing we’re a little messed up ― that doesn’t mean we have to call ourselves monsters. We don’t have to let anybody call us monsters. It’s good enough to be sorry.”
“Mike said I’m not the monster.”
“I hear he’s. A pretty smart guy.”
“He doesn’t understand either.”
“Nobody does, right?”
Elle rubbed her palms over her hidden face.
“Maybe if. If you didn’t think you were the monster. Then you could do it.”
Elle was still.
Jonathan didn’t know how to ask for her hand so he just took it. “Here. It’s this. It’s just small.” He put her fingertips right about where the lump was and pressed them down on it. She immediately yanked her hand back as if the pincushion had pricked her too, and waved it really fast, and touched it again, and waved even more emphatically. “Secret,” she said. “Why?”
“What, the buzzing? It’s not a secret.” He gulped. “…I guess I forgot to mention it.”
“Why?” What was she ― angry, happy? Both? She poked him too hard, knifing him with a fingertip. “Stupid.”
“Stupid.” She shut her eyes and formed a line between her faint eyebrows. “Explain.”
“It gets quiet sometimes. Like when I was talking to Will. It started at the woods. When I was killing the woods. And now whever I get… scared, actually, it starts… humming and screaming, like―”
“Jonathan.” There were galaxies in her big brown baby eyes. “You broke it.”
Hope fluttered up and blanketed the razorblades with its wings. “Can you get it out?”
Elle searched her pockets and fished out a yellow ball. Her frantic fingers peeled away layers of cellophane, revealing the grid lines of a prized peach made of squashed Eggo waffles. “Help me. Be scared.” She brought the doughball to her mouth and tore away a huge bite.
“You want me to what?”
“Vee scaret,” said Elle’s full mouth.
“But I was just starting to feel better.”
“Helt we.” She had hardly chewed yet. “Vee scaret. Oo haf to.”
The invader got quieter and quieter as a silent laugh tickled its edges. “You’re not serious,” Jonathan said.
But she was. With one chipmunk cheek puffed out and two crumby lips, Elle was dead serious. She swallowed. “I can get it if you’re scared.”
Mike couldn’t get back into Nicole’s bedroom window. He should have been able to, but every time he ran enough momentum up the wall and pulled, his weight turned his arms to jelly. It was as if he still had Barbara’s glasses in his hand. He must have tried twenty times by now. “Will,” he said to the window. “Will, I’m back. Are you still here? I can’t climb in.”
Will’s dark head and bright eyes appeared in the corner. “I’ve seen you climb way higher things.”
“I’m having a bad memory from the pool and the body. From the upside down. It’s stopping me.”
“So put it over there.”
“Huh? Put it where?”
“You know, over there. You know where.” Will looked down at him curiously. “Haven’t you done it before?”
“Oh. Okay, well, it doesn’t really matter where you put the memory, just put it there so it’s not here.”
“Well I need to think of somewhere.” Somewhere like a trash can, or the big dumpster behind the school, or the sewer. Mike wanted to flush it all down the toilet.
“How about the fort in your basement? Put it in there.”
“But I like it there.” Mike didn’t want Elle sleeping next to Barb’s dead body, not even in his imagination.
“Then you should definitely put it there. I put mine in Jonathan’s room. The worst parts dissolve after a while.”
“Trust me, I know what I’m doing.” Will put his hand out. “Need a boost?”
“That’s okay, I can do the rest myself.”
Will got out of the way.
Mike closed his eyes and pulled the pool to the front of his head. He picked out the leech, the smell, the sponge, the vanilla pudding, the rolling eyeball, the glasses and the dry ice, and held a deep breath on them. He backed away a few paces, balled them all up between his hands as if he was crumpling a piece of wastepaper, ran toward the window, threw the ball of paper into the fort, and in a puff of surprise, Elle caught it and pulled the bedsheet down over the door with a soft Burrrrp.
Mike tipped over the sill and into the room with plenty of momentum to spare, so he just kept moving. He closed the bedroom door on the yelling, he took Will’s blanket off the bed and stuffed it along the crack under the door, he closed the window and dropped the bamboo blind, then he took the shade off the lamp. The lamp was dark but still hot, so he used his sweater sleeve as an oven mitt to unscrew the bulb and switched it out with the safelight from the nightstand drawer. He turned it on, put it on the floor and turned off the overhead light. The room turned red, except for a crack of white light coming in from the top of the door. Not quite good enough.
“What are you doing?”
“Making a dark room.” Mike took off Nancy’s backpack and put it by the lamp on the floor.
“You got the camera?”
“Yeah.” Mike loaded the typewriter with a new piece of paper from the stack beside it and put it on the floor with everything else. “You said there’s room under there?”
A few strands of Mike’s hair got caught when he climbed under the bed but he let them rip out and just kept going until he was on his belly next to Will with his tools within reach. He pulled the red light under the bed near their faces, turning Will into a squinting devil. When he took the camera from the bag he discovered there was no latch on the back where he imagined one would be. “Do you know how to open it?”
Will reached over, pushed a button on the bottom, turned a crank on the top left around and around until Mike felt a click, and then pulled the crank’s lever up. The back popped open and there was the film, all rolled up and waiting for Mike to do something he had always been told he should never, ever do: he tugged the tab sticking out of the canister and began to unwind the roll.
Will shuffled close and leaned on Mike’s shoulder so he could see. “Christmas,” he said. “Please don’t wreck these.”
“I’m not going to wreck them.” Mike had forgotten negatives were in the negative. It was hard to tell what he was looking at. There was a bright red Christmas tree on a black background, a freakishly dark-faced Will with red hair holding big present, a light table with dark dishes, Will’s mom with red hair and black teeth, some kind of black slop falling off a spoon. Mike rushed through Christmas morning and a closeup of a red sphere with black reflections all over it, and came upon a sideways picture of Jonathan spaced out on a pillow. Someone else had been behind the camera for this one.
“What are you looking for, anyway?”
The message in Mike’s pocket reminded him,
. “Clues,” he said. Proof.
The next one looked alarmingly normal: it was as red as the others, but it wasn’t in the negative. Elle stood in the middle of the Byers’ front porch with a hat on her head and a gas mask in her hand. Mike brought the tiny image of her face as close to his eye as his focus would let him. She looked a little upset, but she was okay. She was definitely okay. Not only was she alive, she was okay. He kicked his feet around to keep his Christmas joy off his face.
Following an image of a black cloudy moon in a red sky, there she was again, and again, and again, walking down an overgrown road in a series of blurry shots that looked like they had been taken blind. The rest of the film was blank, unused. It was over but Mike’s feet kept on bouncing, toes to floor and heels to bed, whunk whunk whunk.
“Is that Eleven? She’s in here with Jonathan?”
“Yeah.” Now that the news was out Mike could finally smile, and once he started he couldn’t stop. “Don’t tell anyone about her, okay? It has to stay a secret.”
Nodding groovily, Will eased the camera and the ribbon of film from Mike’s hands and began rewinding. “I know how to talk to the other side. We can ask her to use her superpowers to get Nancy’s gun back from those jerks so everyone can leave.”
“Uh huh.” Mike grabbed the typewriter, and a loud noise exploded in the living room.
Jonathan looked up to the haloed flashlight moon for an answer to a question he couldn’t articulate. A simpler one replaced it: “If this works, will it send me back?”
While he kept his hopes low on purpose, practicality reigned. “Don’t go into my room like you used to. Not unless the music’s on ― loud, on the stereo. I have to be by myself most of the time. It’s not personal, it’s just me, okay? Promise?”
“Promise. Don’t tell Will. Or Mom. Secret.”
“Promise. And it’s okay if you mess up.”
Elle’s throat rattled. “No it’s not.”
She understood that what Jonathan meant by ‘listen’ was ‘look at me.’
“Are you sorry? Do you really mean it?”
“Then it’s okay if you mess up. Do your best.”
She nodded, put her hand on him and waited for him to scare himself.
“Will it hurt?”
The thing churned out a cicaida’s call at that, so Jonathan embraced it. It weakened. She had probably just lied to scare him anyway. It died out completely. “This could take a while,” he said.
The spring he was eight, Jonathan had found a cloud of squirming tadpoles in a flooded ditch far from his house. When he reached into the water they bumped jelly kisses all over his curious hand, so he played a while, making friends. He wanted to take some home to watch them turn into frogs but he didn’t have anything to put them in, and as he sat there pondering his predicament he spotted their mother ― or at least, he imagined it was their mother, and he imagined that although she was only the size of a bottlecap she would still make a cool pet. He took off his sock to use it as a bag and nudged her into it, and tucked the cuff of the sock into his back pocket with the toe dangling out so she wouldn’t get squished. Then he rode his rusty bike home and headed straight for the shed to find a bucket.
In the shed, he took the sock from his pocket and pushed the toe up into the cuff to check the inside. Something had gone wrong. A pink veiny jelly ball the size of the frog’s head had gotten stuck to the fibers near her mouth. Her eyesockets were empty. He buried her in the woods. Nine years later he was still ashamed.
Jonathan put himself inside the sock, where he knew Elle’s best would not be good enough. She was just a nervous kid, not a surgeon, more likely to turn him inside out than help him. She was going to rip his throat out in ragged strips. Jonathan was about to die spewing bloody geysers onto this rotting nowhere-floor, ushered away to nothingness by the sobbing of a young girl forever changed by an innocent mistake.
At least you know it’s coming.
Nancy’s arm shot out from the forest porthole so Jonathan grappled with the memory, seizing the opportunity to fight the tug of war all over again. He crushed Nancy’s slimy little hand in his. He cracked her shoulder. The closing burrow pinched in, strangling her around the middle, so he pulled harder, so hard he snapped her spine, tore her in two, dumped her intestines into the dirt and fell back holding her, half of her, her torso lighter than a toy, her blood like hot soup spilled in his lap, her stuffing strung up to what was left of her in the hole, entrails melding into meaty moss and biosludge.
He couldn’t apologize to her. She didn’t even know she had been wronged. As the confusion in her eyes turned to glass the monster in his middle surged to an uproar, which was a promise that Elle could save his life, which meant he might have a chance to wrap Nancy up tight in his arms and legs and keep her safe and whole again someday, which filled him with a shining silence purer than kindness.
Jonathan had failed, utterly.
“I wish you kept it a secret,” he said. “I’d be able to stay scared if I didn’t know how it worked.” He put his headphones back on to magnify what was left of the noise, to chase it, to feed it, but as he stoked it ― because he stoked it ― it wisped to silence, extinguished. Trying to be afraid was futile. Aside from his exhaustion, Jonathan felt better than he had felt all day. It was awful. “It’s not working. I can’t stay scared.”
“AAAHHHH!” Elle screamed in his face at the top of her lungs. The startle whipped up a prickling hum which they promptly killed with infectious laughter. If only the problem had been hiccups.
“This is the worst thing that could ever happen to me,” Jonathan said, giggling.
“I’m trying.” How could he forget something like this? By dying and coming back to life again as someone else, maybe.
The moment the mortician lifted the sheet.
When the iron door trapped Will in the oven it exploded into flames.
He ran from the car to find his mom half-eaten beside the hole in the living room wall.
No, no, no. Each exercise frightened him less than the one before it and he saw beauty in every horror: in the marble veining of Will’s counterfeit corpse, in the stark incomprehensibility of sudden loss, in the fact that his half eaten mom could only have died from a thousand defense wounds because while everybody was made out of meat, Joyce Byers was jerky.
None of it was real. Jonathan liked horror movies. He couldn’t bluff his way through this one.
A similar catharsis had surprised him back when he and Nancy sliced their palms open to lure their mark. The butchering itself still screeched nails across his memory’s slate, but a numb tranquility had settled through him as soon as it was done. The only thing bothering him while they wrung their seeping fists onto the rug had been the discovery that he had given Nancy the sharper knife.
Oh shut up, no you didn’t. I just pushed harder than you did.
Jonathan stroked his scar where it stretched a tight parallel between headline and heartline, the way he did most nights to put himself to sleep. He had picked at the stitches incessantly while it healed, scolding himself and defying himself the whole way, drawing blood like it was some kind of achievement, and now it would never go away.
What would flighty Aunt Darlene think of this? Her eldest great nephew was a true palmist’s mutant now.
How dismal… No life line at all. Be sure he doesn’t jump off any bridges, will you? It’s a miracle he left the womb. Oh! Well, pardon me Joyce, my mistake to presume you would be interested in the shape of your own child’s soul.
He would have to show it to her, give her a second chance to read him, if they ever visited the home again.
As much as his fresh cut had stung while he wrapped Nancy’s in gauze, it tickled at the same time. The lips of the split had opened and closed playfully while he worked, eating up his anxieties by giving him somewhere to put them, steadying his grip and his focus. Nancy must have felt the same way, or close to it ― they had scheduled a man-eating beast to arrive any minute and yet they just sat there on the sofa playing doctor and holding hands.
How had he lost her? How had he gotten so close, and then lost her?
By the time Steve came to bash the door down, they were ― well, Jonathan had been about to ― anyway, they had tested Nancy’s theory and the blood hadn’t baited anything into the house except a worried almost-ex boyfriend. Then Nancy threatened to blow Steve’s head off for his own good, everyone was freaking out and that was when the living room turned bottom up ―
Elle pulled her hand away.
Another whining startle in Jonathan’s middle, another involuntary wave of relief to smother it. “Sorry.” The housing over his ears made his voice stuffy in his head. “I haven’t figured it out yet.”
Elle scrambled to her feet, stalked to the hallway and stood there staring down it with her knees bent and her arm curved at her side. Her hand curled into a white-knuckled fist.
“Is something here?”
When Eleven turned to look at him only her head moved, as if she was a doll, an angry automaton doll.
“Bad,” she said.
Her arm straightened. Her thumb stuck out. The first two fingers uncurled from her fist, and she pointed them straight at Jonathan.
His headphones popped and hissed.
―nonononononono you stupid bitch how could you do that to her oh my god how could you shoot her my god you dumb bitch―
This time the whine kept on rising.
―you dumb bitch she just wanted to get him back you dumb bitch and you―you―you―you stupid pointless psycho bitch―
A knuckle cracked in Jonathan’s stomach. Then another. A handful. A firing squad. A plague of locusts.
―you bitch you bitch you bitch you bitch you fucking bitch oh my God Nancy―
He whipped his headphones to the floor. They smashed to pieces before Steve could become an ant in a tin can.
Eleven had already walked away.
Jonathan tipped forward from the wall, landed on his elbows and crawled for the door as though he could leave the broken monster in the corner behind him, but it only chased him off his elbows and onto his face. It licked flames into his nostrils and raged against the backs of his eyes, shaking his vision, smearing it with grease.
He coughed to jar his voice back to the right frequency.
Elle. Now. I’m scared now.
It didn’t work.
god how could you shoot her my god you dumb
He had to get away from this tireless thing, from this hopeless, hateful, howling thing, but it was already inside his brain.
‘You risked your life! And Nancy’s!’
Jonathan couldn’t think. He was shaking through a seive.
‘What if this thing took you too?’
He was dissolving.
I wanted to tell you, I jus―
The weight of the cave pressed down on his shoulders, cozy and permissive, and evil.