When Nancy flew back toward Nicole’s house, an invisible string pulled Steve along behind her. Steve had a string too. It pulled Will. Will’s string pulled Mike.
Mike wasn’t quite ready for a sprint: a handful of strides revived his drowner’s cough. As he waited for the fit to pass Will returned to him, a solid shadow muting the distant glow from the car. His hair was as shiny as ever, like laquered wood, his face white-blue in the moonlight. It was good to have him back. Would it ever be normal, that he was back?
“Are you okay?”
Mike would have answered but his throat caught in a weird way. He doubled over and put all his energy into hacking out what felt like the last drop.
Will patted him with a light hand. “You’re n-not coughing up slugs too, are you?”
“Nuh-uh.” Mike pushed Will’s hand away. “No leeches here, just water from the pool. Inhaled some.” He coughed and coughed.
“Why do you keep calling them leeches?”
“Because that’s what they are.” Mike spat onto the ground in finality, ordering the cough to go away and stay there. “Black blobby blood-clotty… leech-looking things.”
“Uhm. You mean black bumpy yellow-spotty slug-looking things, right?”
“I definitely don’t.”
Mike shook his head.
“Does it matter?” asked Will.
“I don’t know. But we should probably tell my sister at some point. She’s the ―” Mike cut himself short, dismayed by what now seemed an inevitable horror. “She’s kind of the DM. Today.”
“No way. You’re letting her boss you around?” Will was clearly thrilled by the scandal of it. “I’m gonna tell her you said that!” He ran, laughing, dragging the long dark wizard’s robe of his bedspread over the frozen ground behind him, inviting Mike to give chase. Mike took him up on it even though he was pretty sure Will was bluffing. He limited himself to a jog at first, then sped up when he noticed Nancy sitting on the ground with Steve hovering over her.
Nancy was yanking at a cracked corner of the front porch’s first step, trying to heave it from beneath the foot of the railing, which anchored it in place. Steve was decidedly not helping. He made a face: She’s insane.
“What’s up?” said Mike.
“I’m looking for stones.” Nancy got up on her feet and, folding at the waist, pulled with all her might. “Big ones.”
Elle emerged from Will’s room shadowing the footsteps of a ghost. Jonathan had to fall against the wall to get out of her way, else she might have floated straight through him.
Jarred by the impact and fully alert in wait of another inner crack, he retreated into the chair at the end of the hallway to will away his cold sweat. Just when he had almost, almost badgered himself to his feet again, the screen door at the back of the house pricked the thick air with a springing click of tin and plastic.
He should have known she would leave ― she hadn’t really been here since he found her in Will’s room anyway ― but he had her flashlight now, and her gas mask. They had to be her two most valuable belongings. She wouldn’t just vanish without them, right?
Jonathan’s footfalls rattled the house to its foundations. Dishes chimed and floorboards groaned in reproach that he dared desecrate this crawling consumption with his pitifully juvenile persistence.
A twig snapped in the distance to the far left of the shed. He descended the steps from the back porch. “Hello?”
She didn’t answer him.
Jonathan sat down by the lip of the old fire pit to catch his breath.
Mired in a fibrous web, the pit’s chimney was a towering monument to filth and decay. It stood asymmetrically as if frozen in motion, the leg of a great elephant severed mid-step and left to turn black with age. A brick crumbled more readily under Jonathan’s light touch than ever before, streaming tendrils of clay dust to his knee.
Beyond the chimney top, where the leg would once have sprouted from beside a round and wrinkled belly, danced the ever-present atmospheric motes of the cave. Upon their ink backdrop they became dull stars, their constellations blown to transience in the astral current, proof by analogy that nature’s oldest observable forms moved as erratically as the whims of a gradeschool bully.
The pit’s mouth gaped, blacker than black. Chipped cement made a few little teeth. Once upon a time ― the summer of 1975 ― this oven had a heavy iron door. Upon that same time, Jonathan had made it his mission to teach Will a thing or two about hide and seek, since while he squealed with excitement at every mention of the game, he hadn’t yet grasped the importance of hiding his feet.
So, naturally, Jonathan put his little brother into the pit and lost him.
The door stuck. The handle broke off. For ten minutes lasting two hours Jonathan battled that door, blackening his battered hands with soot. When he pulled back a fingernail with a slipped grip he didn’t even swear. Instead, he joked. He played. Where’s Will? Hm, is he under the porch? Hm, is he in the shed? No, I think he’s gone! I guess he got eaten by a boogeyman. Oh well! More popsicles for me!
Will cackled away in the dark, overjoyed by how good he had gotten at hiding, oblivious to fear because when they were together, that was for the bigger brother to bear.
Jonathan had finally used an old crowbar from the shed to pry the door off one of its hinges.
It was at that vivid moment, upon glimpsing Will’s smudged and joyful face as he clambered from the pit laughing and rolled to the ground without a scratch, that Jonathan fully understood the true importance of the bluff.
Will would never know anything had been wrong, neither would their mother, and this would never happen again. Rather than try to repair the one hinge he had broken, Jonathan knocked the iron door off completely and left it there. I guess it rusted out, was his answer to Mom’s offhand remark a few days later. We should tear the whole stupid ugly thing down anyway, she concluded. It’s dangerous.
Yet here it stood, still missing its door and partly filled in with cement, a shame. Jonathan would have liked to crawl inside it right then with a can of gasoline and a zippo and shut himself away. Whoomph. Easy as ripping off a bandaid. The biggest bandaid imaginable maybe, but almost as quick.
It wasn’t that he wanted to die, nor had he ever ― fading into the background was enough ― it was that he had to die. The monster had targeted him rather than Nancy. It had knocked him breathless and spat its snotty parasitic pollen down his throat as he gasped for air, and that was… it. That he had protected her by distracting it rather than by beating it was his silver medal, which was better than no medal at all. Better than no Nancy at all.
He did wish, though, that he hadn’t bluffed himself so hard. Today would not have been a day of saving the best things for later had he connected the dots in time.
The beam from Elle’s flashlight had dulled to brown. It flickered without intensity nor arrhythmia, and thus without fault. Just the electricity. The batteries were dying, but they weren’t dead yet.
Jonathan tucked the flashlight’s handle into a strap of the gas mask to make a headlight. The filth and decay to which the towering chimney was a monument stood just there, out beyond the shed. The now impassably dense woodland sagged under the weight of what had to be the most invasive species in the unknown universe. He could almost see it breathing.
Elle had gone off out there in the dark without her light and without her gas mask, which was stupid of her, but there was no angle by which she could be held responsible for her larger situation. Whatever had happened to her, however she had become what she was, whatever reason Hopper had for hiding her here, there was no way any of it could be her own fault. She was way too young for that.
In the shed, Jonathan tugged the light’s cold bauble chain. It didn’t turn on. Light switches didn’t work in dreams, either: this was a trick he had taught himself when he was little to test whether he was sleeping so he could wake himself from a nightmare. He closed his eyes, chasing memories of a warm bed, and hit a wall instead.
A pair of pruning shears peeked out from a low shelf into his sweeping spotlight, but he found they were so rusted he could hardly open them. He tossed them to the floor, relieved ― he didn’t want to go at this with a dinky pair of glorified scissors anyway.
Jonathan exited the shed with the family axe in his hands.
His first swing sailed between a pair of vines without hitting home, nearly taking him for a ride along with it. His breath roared in his ears. The coming exertion was going to make him sicker. “Fuck it,” he said.
It made more sense to swing at the places where the invading growths clung to the trees, so that was what he did. The axe cracked into its first target with an unexpected squelch. A pupil of black sap reflected his light and dripped. The matter inside the wound he had created was fleshy. Meaty. Poking from the middle of it was a pale piece of bone, shattered to reveal spongy marrow.
He looked up. Intertwined among the tree branches with the flaky bark vines and the slime was something else, something animal, a giant latticework organism of skin stretched over tendons, of knobby knees and knuckles. He saw a thousand limbs woven together into one body above his head, locked into impossible contortions by their own innate structure, stretching far beyond the reach of his light. He may as well have been walking into a tangled spiderweb made out of big vertebrate spiders.
Did this abomination have a nervous system? Was it conscious? Could it feel pain?
Jonathan pulled his axe from the tree and spread his hands to get the best possible grip on the handle.
He hoped so.
Nancy didn’t want to break in, she had to break in. Steve did not understand this yet.
“You can’t just go busting into somebody’s house on a hunch, Nancy.”
“Yes I can.” Nancy broke a nail in the crack of the step and didn’t let it slow her down as she pulled and jimmied from every possible angle. “I can today.”
“Please stop. Please. Just stop. Breathe for five minutes. Think it through. You’re being irrational. Mike, kid, other kid, both you guys, could you please back me up on this?”
But the boys were quiet. Good boys. “I am not listening to you right now,” Nancy said. She was making headway. If she picked out this one rusty little screw then maybe she could pull the whole railing right off the step.
“Wait, wai… Wait. Remember the talk we had, like ten minutes ago? About chilling out?”
“Yeah, what was it you said? That he’s ‘sawing logs’? Well guess what Steve? You were wrong. He is not sawing logs. Jonathan is missing.”
“And he’s not ― What, you think he’s in there? Jonathan Byers is not locked up in Nicole From School’s house right now either! You’re losing your mind scrambling after a little clue that’ll probably amount to shit-all, and before you even get that far you need, oh right, a fully functioning dark room, which isn’t here. I mean look at this place. It’s a complete shit heap. I bet they don’t even have a color TV.”
Glued in place by eons of rust, the screw would not budge. Nancy beat the railing with the palm of her hand. There was no reasoning with it. She was just going to have to pull on the step with everything she had, plus a little bit more than that. “You still don’t remember?” she snapped.
“That’s right, you didn’t see.” Nancy had hardly seen either. First she was so sure the monster would slaughter them both in the dark that she forgot she had a gun, then the gun jammed but it was actually just her finger trying to pull the trigger-guard in place of the trigger, and by the time she figured that out the thing had already spat up all over Jonathan’s face. “You didn’t hear him choking. You were too busy ―” The whistle through the air, the thump and squish. “Being really…” The howl of inhuman betrayal straight from the mouth of the faceless reaper itself. He’s in the trap! “Really awesome.”
The cement chunk came loose, scraping the railing foot and sending Nancy into a backwards sprawl. Steve caught her under her arms and helped her to her feet, but when she turned around he tried to kidnap her new pet rock, so she shoved it up inside her coat, wrapped it in both arms and scowled at him.
“What didn’t I see?” he conceded.
“It infected him, I know it. Whatever it is, it grew inside him and it took him away. I know that’s what happened.” What evidence did they have of another whole monster? Nothing, no missing people on the news, no sightings. It had taken Will six weeks to grow that thing inside him, and now in the same amount of time ― “It’s the only explanation that makes any sense.”
Steve rubbed his hand over his mouth in sick acceptance.
With nowhere else to go, Nancy’s frustration turned on her. “I practiced so much, I was so ready, and then when it actually mattered I couldn’t protect him. He didn’t say anything about it. So I just… forgot.” She fell forehead-first into Steve’s shoulder and stayed there, holding her stone tummy as the cold breeze blew between their bodies, freezing her fingers. “I forgot. I’m the world’s worst monster hunter.”
Steve’s hug transformed him into a strong warm pocket. “How many monster hunters are there? World’s worst is still, what, third place? Worst case, you get bronze.”
“Consolation for trying? Screw that.” While it was nice to smoosh her face into Steve’s pullover, Nancy refused to close her eyes. “I am not done trying.”
“Kay, how bout a cliche? You like those. I’ll make a new one just for you.”
That wasn’t how cliches worked. Nancy headbutted him. “Shut up.”
“A-hem. ‘There are no dark rooms in straw huts.'”
“And what is that supposed to mean?”
Steve sighed out the grandiose defeat of a failed showman. “It means it’s time to find a phone and call the cops.”
“No way.” The edges of Nancy’s pet rock forced satisfying dents into her fingers through her jacket. “We are not doing that. They won’t listen.”
“Come on, between you and the braniacs and the camera we’ve really got something for them now.” Steve’s mapping hands skipped stones across her back, worrying their way from one knot-prone spot to the next. “They’ll have to listen.”
Nancy tensed up even more. Steve wasn’t giving her a back rub, he was searching for an ‘off’ switch. It felt exactly like a fight. “If they listen at all it’ll only be to twist whatever we give them into proof that there’s nothing wrong.” She grew dark and solid inside. “I’m not dealing with that again.”
“Hey, shh, stop. You don’t have to. Too much out-there stare for one night.” Steve definitely wasn’t just holding her anymore. This was a bear hug. He was restraining her. “Let somebody else deal with this. Let them do their job.”
Oh, that was it. “Their job? I’ve already seen them do their job, Steve!” Nancy hit him in the side, and with a little oof he set her free. “It’s their JOB to tell me to go home and stop worrying because Jonathan, oh, he just ran away! And why did Jonathan run away? Because Jonathan likes me, just like Barbara liked me, and he ‘ran away’ because it turns out I’m just some average rebellious slut who slept with the wrong guy!”
”Nancy, you… ?”
“Pigs, Steve! The police are pigs!”
“Okay, but… The wrong guy?”
“No, you idiot. It’s all bullshit. You are not the wrong guy. And I am breaking into this house.” Nancy took the rock from her coat and hefted it in both hands to get a sense of the weight. “If you don’t want to help because you’re worried your dad might find out, that’s totally okay. I understand. Go home. But if you call the police yourself I will never speak to you again.”
Nicole’s front door opened.
“Hi,” said Will. “Mike boosted me through the window.”
Mike appeared from around the corner of the house bundling Will’s navy bedspread in his arms. “You were going to check for open windows before you actually broke something, right?”
“Um. Yeah.” The rock tipped from Nancy’s hand and thumped into the dirt of the garden. “Of course,” but no matter how hard she tried she could not bite the embarrassment off her own face.
Amazingly, Mike shrugged it off. “It’s okay,” he said, hopping up onto the stoop. “Everybody gets too focused sometimes.”
Steve patted Nancy on the back from behind. She could feel the laughter in it.
It had begun to scream.
As Jonathan hacked his way through the infested woods he came upon no mouths or throats, nor heads, nor torsos, nor any other way for life to speak or even breathe, and yet the sound was incessant, a simmering crustacean screech pestering him forward and rising to a tirelessly echoing choir as each strike of his axe added the voice of one more prawn. He put his headphones over his ears to dull the sound.
This project had begun as a therapeutic sport. The drawing of blood had combined with the thrill of exercise to hone every dark corner of his being into a beam of destruction: this wasn’t an axe, it was a goddamn lightsaber; he wasn’t just hacking a path through an impassable forest, he was exterminating an entire species to a tune of whack, crunch, kick and crush. Even the screeching had sounded good at first. It meant the problem was someone else’s.
But gradually, as Jonathan added more and more voices to the choir, those voices began to resonate within him. The vibration started at the flare of his ribcage, subtle enough to bluff away, but soon it had risen to his collarbones. From there it crept a tickle up his throat, into his nose and against his eardrums. This hungry thing in him, this pregnant lump of rock and rubber capable of outwitting a telekinetic prodigy, was screaming too.
There was no point in turning back. He only paused to sneeze, which he did often but quickly because resting any longer than a few seconds at a time might stop this engine from turning for good. That wasn’t going to happen, not yet. He had to give Elle her stuff back. He had to tell her this wasn’t her fault. He had to rebel mercilessly against his executioner until the very moment his buzzing brain blinked out.
What Jonathan knew was momentum. What he was was momentum.
His axe got stuck mid-swing as a piece of the beast hooked it above his head. With a yank he brought down a thorny grey crab leg the size of his arm, which bent back up again, slowly, kinetically. Insulted, he shoved past it to return to his work, then stumbled back strangling as it pulled his jacket against his throat. He dropped his axe to grab the warm limb and unhook it from his collar ― would break it in half with his bare hands ― but then he was free, tripping forward toward a rustling nest of jointed appendages, and through a gap he spotted a tiny blur the color of a down-filled pink winter coat.
He charged into the appendages and trampolined back without breaking through. Bending to grab his axe introduced him to a hole at ground level, and so he fell flat, pushed his weapon out first and crawled from the forest.
He climbed to his feet, stumbled a few steps and collapsed as carefully as he knew how to, rolling onto his back in the sticky grass. He pushed his headphones down around his neck. He escaped the gas mask, flinging it and the flashlight aside. It smelled like old eggs out here but it was the freshest air he could get, and it would be good enough, at least for a few cooling breaths.
The forest wailed on. His infection whined a mosquito’s revenge inside his ears. He sneezed three excruciating times and fought back a fourth to call out, “Elle,” but he may as well have whispered. The monster was stealing his voice away.
He rolled onto his stomach and pillowed his cheek upon his paw to squint as far out across the clearing as the blue soup atmosphere would allow. That dark lump was a house. That faded spot of pink was Elle’s coat. She had led him next door. Why next door? “Elle,” he said, squeaking this time, and the pink spot changed its trajectory.
A blink later, a boot crunched down beside his ear. “Get up?” She panted like a sprinter. “Get up.”
Why did she sound so scared? Was it because of the forest? It was okay, Jonathan was just killing it. He was winning. He blundered through his buzzing brain, compiling scraps. “Don’t―”
His collar strangled him again and the seams of his jacket sliced into his armpits. “Get up!” Elle had taken his advice: she wasn’t afraid anymore, she was furious. She throttled him some more. “Get up! Get up!”
“It’s not your fault.”
“Get up! Get up! What is wrong with you?”
Jonathan didn’t know what to say, but he was awake. He was sitting up. He was laughing hoarsely into his elbow and trying to figure out, around the whining in his ears and through the corners of his eyes, whose voice Elle had just been speaking with.
In the space of a thought, Elle’s visible anger slipped into confusion and then relief, settling finally upon determination. She did not sit down for a rest. Instead, she handed Jonathan the Yoda bottle. It was heavier than last time, so he drank without rationing. He washed the smears of black blood from his cold hands, patted the dampness to his cheeks and wiped a cupped handful through the stiff straw that his bangs had become. By the time he was finished, the noise in him had dulled to a muffled hum. Elle put the bottle away. She held out both hands. “Get up.”
Jonathan gave her an arm and let her pry him up off the ground. “Brought your stuff,” he said, pointing, and she hesitated. “Go ahead, I’m okay.” He carefully distributed his weight between his heels in the soft earth.
Elle hopped to the side, put her mask on top of her head without pulling it over her face, reattached her dead flashlight to her shoulder and handed Jonathan his axe. She grabbed hold of his forearm just as he maybe might probably not have lost his balance. With a two-handed tug she coaxed him to walk, and did not let go.
“Is there a plan?” he asked.
“Yeah, that’s, y’know. Next d―” Jonathan’s voice cut out. He coughed to jar it back to the proper frequency. “Next door. That’s her house.”
“Friends,” said Elle. Strange, Nicole wasn’t a friend. Nicole was a rat. Jonathan dragged the axe’s head through the grass, bumping it along and snowballing it with layers of webbing and goo. He found that it made a good cane, kind of like a cross-country ski pole, but Elle wouldn’t be interested if he showed off his discovery: she was in the middle of another quiet cryptic phase. But then she added, “Mike. Nancy, Steve. Will.”
Jonathan nearly fell down. He felt as though a lasso had tightened around his waist to pull him backwards, while another dragged him forward by the chest. “I don’t think I can,” he said.
“They’re being loud. We can.”
Nicole’s house smelled like coconut-mint and cat litter. Nancy patted the wall until she found the light switch, which lit up a small lamp over the front door. She bumped right into Will when she sped inside and with a “Sorry!” she surveyed the home: a sparse brown living room with no TV at all, a kitchen with a two-chair table, a hallway straight ahead, two bedrooms, one bathroom, extra door. “Does Nicole have a basement?” She pulled the sticky door open and headed down the stairs. Yes. The principal trait of basements was that their rooms were dark.
“Dunno, I just drove her home. Oh, hey. Basement.”
Wooden stairs creaked under Nancy’s feeling feet. Dragging her hand along the wall in want of a railing, she descended into a damp black pit that reeked of mildew and more so of cat litter. When her shoe tapped the solidity of a cement floor she spread her hands all over the wall, but found it empty. The backs of her forearms felt hot. “Hey, is there a light switch near you?”
“Oh, uh. Yep.” A bare bulb flashed to life, revealing a small one-room cellar.
Along the wall to the left sat a washer and dryer with a laundry tub between them. Above the laundry tub there was a little cobwebby-curtained window, and under it on the floor, a litter box. In the centre of the room a card table heaped chaotically with folded laundry stood over a floor drain. Along the far wall on the right, a clothesline stretched from corner to corner. It was empty of everything but wooden pins, wire hangers and an old wedding dress. The hem of the dress puddled on top of a long tiered stack of boxes. The stack’s lowest layer bore the dark horizontal blemish of past floodwater, and in a gap between those boxes, in the furthest corner from the stairs, a silver-grey cat crouched, staring at her.
And that was it.
Nancy slapped her hands to her face and punished the back of her head against the wall so hard it cracked in her ears. There was no word for the sound she made.
“Any luck down there?”
What was she doing?
Steve met her at the top of the stairs wearing a look that promised she wouldn’t have to answer him out loud. “I figure you’ll do Nicole’s room for girl reasons?” he said. “The guys are softly ransacking the bookcase in the front room, so…” He leaned on the hallway wall with that hunch in his shoulders again, with his hands in his pullover pockets and his eyes less focused than normal.
“You can leave, it’s okay. Really. It’s okay. This is dangerous. We’re still breaking the law.” Nancy tried to force a laugh. “Get out while you still can.” It came out stale.
“Sure, I could do that, but there’s no evidence. I like no evidence, especially when there’s no stealing either. Take her room and be quick, hey? I’ll mess around out here.”
“Are you sure?”
“W’yeah, of course. If I left I’d have to call the cops on you myself.” He winced at her, sarcastic and pleading at once. “…Since that would be my natural course of action.”
“I didn’t mean it.” Nancy hardly even remembered saying it. “I was scared. And… mad. But not at you. I’m sorry.”
“You said something dumb when you were scared? Who does that?” Steve shouldered up from the wall and headed for the living room. He planted a peck on the top of her head as he passed her. “Get your act together, Nancy.”
Nancy left the basement door open for the cat.
Elle had already been inside Nicole’s house. The front door was open, the window was broken and a rock lay on the floor of the living room, a crashed meteor in a spray of glass. Jonathan juggled his weight from the wobbly railing to the doorway. “You shouldn’t climb through broken windows,” he teased. “You’ll hurt yourself.”
“Sorry,” Elle said, holding her flashlight and hooking her backpack with the same arm. She dug around inside it until she found some batteries, and switched them into the flashlight with a shotgunner’s hands, discarding the dead ones like bullet casings. She pointed a bright chalky beam into the house. “Help,” she offered, twisting to extend a hand. Jonathan declined and ditched his axe in favor of the wall.
They moved through the living room, past the kitchen ― Had there been a fire in here? ― and down the hallway into a blue bedroom. Although dusted with grime, the dresser looked a little bit girly. The stacks of magazines on top were moldy, their edges so blackened that barely any white showed at all.
Elle sat down at the room’s small desk, dwarfing the chair, puffy in her dirty skirt and big pink coat.
The corner of the bedroom floor nearest the door had rotted away. Jonathan used some intuitive sign language to borrow the flashlight and found that the hole went right through to an underground pond. The floodwater reflected the light like a mirror. There was a table down there, lumped with laundry. Tight golfballs of white fluff dotted the clothing, enormous cousins of the egg sacks that tended to congregate under windowsills and picnic tables.
When Jonathan caught a hint of his reflection in the floodwater he shuffled away. He didn’t want to know. He planted the flashlight beside the phone on the bedside table, endowing the ceiling with an artificially shining full moon, and checked out the bed in the corner. Like the rest of the room, it was mostly clean. Maybe a little musty, but there was nothing to stop him climbing in and letting it swallow him whole.
Jonathan sank back into the far corner under the window, between the bedside table and the desk, and enjoyed the dryness of the hard wood floor. Wall corners made good vertical pillows. He put his headphones on because it seemed like the thing to do, but they only magnified the whine inside him. He sneezed and took them off again.
Usually, when he wanted music but didn’t have any on hand, he just closed his eyes and listened. Either he would find something, or something would find him ― a fly, or a leaf, or a kid with a ball ― and he would trace their paths as far as he could before they blended into everything else. It was silent now, so he pushed his ears out, past the noise in his head, and listened to the silence. Something would come. Something always came.
Elle poked at something on the desk, too high up for Jonathan to see, making little schwick-click sounds. It didn’t matter what it was. It was better not to know what it was, so you could listen.
It was cold in here.
A scratchy blanket fell on him. When had he closed his eyes? Why was he forgetting whether his eyes were closed? The dull clang of his inner alarm awakened a captive swarm of inner bees. It would be nice to hear Will laugh again instead. Maybe he could come up with a joke.
“Hey,” he whispered.
Elle had dark smudges under her eyes. She looked down at him from her chair and waited.
“Can you make a new hole, like in a wall or something?”
“But you have another one. Of the worms.”
“And you said Will’s here.”
Jonathan let her see him cry this time. He was too angry and tired to hide it. He wanted her to see it, he needed her to get this. He trapped her in the jaws of his blurry stare, he pierced her with it, and he wasn’t going to let her go until she got it.
Finally, her crumpling expression proved that Jonathan was contagious. “Vulnerable people,” she explained, and hiccoughed. “I’m the monster. I made you the monster too.”
It was a lot worse than watching a baby cry. He wished he hadn’t done it.
…was all alone, tumbled a moan from the walls.
“What was that?”
Elle ignored him, her eyes shut, her troubled face shiny and stiff. She was listening.
It almost sounded like Mom.
This is not yours to fix alone! One day she was apologizing for needing Jonathan to do life alone ― to cook, clean, do the repairs, get the groceries; to answer Will’s hard questions, homework and worse ― and the next she was yelling at him for doing life alone. You act like you’re all alone out there in the world but you’re not. Sometimes she yelled at her own reflection in his eyes without realizing it. That was when he was the most alone.
It wasn’t Mom, though.
Every soft feature of Elle’s face gestured to the centre of her forehead. “Will’s hiding,” she said, drifting blindly to her feet. A little fairy bell rang. The rotary phone from the bedside table appeared in the shelf of her hands. “Find him.”
Nancy stood in the middle of Nicole’s tidy blue bedroom holding her elbow and biting the insides of her mouth, simultaneously shaking with the need to rush and frozen in her reluctance to invade Nicole’s privacy. She let her eyes do the searching and spotted two foot-high magazine stacks, Life and People, on top of the dresser. In her own room’s equivalent spots she kept a pair of music boxes.
The bed was small and neatly made with a faded flower print spread. A pea green rotary telephone and a lamp occupied the bedside table. Past the window and the corner, Nicole’s homework desk had an electric typewriter on it, and behind the typewriter a row of notebooks and diaries lined the wall. An old Ziggy mug brimmed over with pens and pencils. Monochrome photos and news clippings covered the corkboard. The wastepaper basket was full.
Steve finalized a conversation in the living room: “So you’ll tell your ma tomorrow? Good man.” He caught his own momentum on Nicole’s doorframe and drummed a beat to introduce himself. “Hm?”
“Why did you call Nicole an airhead?”
“Because she basically doesn’t talk. She’s got some stories to tell but it’s like she doesn’t have an original thought in her head.”
“Do Tommy and Carol treat her like an airhead?”
“They don’t really treat her like anything. She’s just kind of there half the time.”
“Steve.” Nancy turned to him on her toes, amused. “Nicole isn’t an airhead, she’s a reporter.” That was what she wanted to be, at least. Did she work on the school paper? Nancy couldn’t remember the last time she had looked at a copy.
“Oh. Well, good, that means she’d understand. Reporters toss houses for information all the time, right? Speaking of, have you…?”
Nancy had not been thinking about Jonathan, or cameras, or film, or finding the answers to any important questions at all.
When she opened her mouth a wheeze whistled out of it.
“I do not have my act together,” she said. An emptying sob hunted her down, all the way down to the floor, where she sat and stared into the black abyss in her hands. Steve did some kind of obscure nudging to comfort her in the distance, but it didn’t matter what Steve did. They would never see Jonathan again. This trail had been dead from the beginning. The only thing missing was a body.
Nancy saw maggots in the scar on her palm, so she scratched them out and tangled her fingers in the hair at the back of her neck. She wanted to rip that out too. “He was all alone.” Her own voice scraped glass against the inside of her skull. “He was all alone and he’s dead.”
“Christ, Nancy! Don’t―”
“He died all alone.”
“―say that. The little kid’s out there. Other kid, brother-kid. Right there.”
It was too late. Will stood in the doorway, shaking from head to foot. Mike’s scowling white face appeared above Will’s and then slid away into nowhere.
Nancy tried to get Will’s attention but he was looking all around the room as if the whole thing was about to reach out and attack him from every angle. “I didn’t mean it,” she lied. “I’m just worried.” Will still did not recognize her. He seemed blinded by a darkness invading his eyeballs from inside and from outside at once. “I’m sure he’ll be okay. We’ll find him.”
“You’re a shitty DM, Nancy.”
“Go to hell, Michael!”
“Fuck,” said Steve.
The phone rang.
Nancy yelped. Her eyes and Steve’s eyes got into an argument over what to do. It was a complicated argument. Nancy didn’t know what side she was on or why there were sides in the first place.
The phone rang.
“Don’t answer it,” Mike said. He was putting Will’s huge blanket back over his shoulders. Will still wasn’t moving, except to breathe at randomly varying speeds. “Seriously, don’t. You’ll just tell whoever it is that we’re here and we’ll all go to jail.”
The phone rang.
“I kinda feel like…” Steve slid up the side of the bed and sat on it. “I don’t know why, but I…? Kinda feel like I should.”
The phone rang.
“Well you shouldn’t,” Mike commanded. “Hasn’t your girlfriend already screwed up enough? Or are you even dumber than she is?”
The phone rang.
Nancy felt it too. A little wriggle by her heart. A rising blockage of her windpipe. “Answer it. Steve, this is important. This is so important, just do it.”
“What the hell?” Mike shouted.
The phone rang.
“What do I say?”
Did Steve have stage fright?
“It doesn’t matter what you say!” Patience lost, Nancy propelled herself toward the phone. Steve lifted the receiver just before she got there, skirting it under her fingers.
A century passed in stillness. Then Steve grabbed Nancy’s arm so hard he might break it, and it made her love him back.
“Yeah.” He sounded like a handful of stones. “For sure, hold on.” He held the receiver out to Will, but Will didn’t move, so Nancy took the base of the phone in one hand and the receiver in the other. With a big impassable balloon of repentance lodged between the receiver and her ear, she carefully toed the long skinny grey cord away from the wall, and crossed the room, and put the receiver into Will’s hand.
Will almost dropped it. Nancy helped his fingers around it and he put it up to his ear. “Huh-huh-huh—huh-hi-Hi. Hi?”
He brought it with him to the desk chair and Mike followed, holding the blanket in place as Will sat down to listen. Nancy knelt on the floor before them both, sheltering the base of the phone in her hands, alert in vigilant defense against accidental hangup. She strained her ears but she couldn’t hear anything, not buzz nor breath.
Will started laughing. He bent forward, flopping his hair, hiding his face, and quietly but uncontrollably, he laughed and laughed. “You’re retarded,” he said. “…Yeah, I know. …I know you’re right, I know. You’re just also retarded.”
Well, that was a relief. Jonathan wasn’t dead, he was just retarded.
Will reached out and gave the receiver to Nancy.
Nancy wanted to be retarded too.
“Hey,” she said.
Nancy would blow a hundred IQ points to the wind as wishborne dandelion fluffs if it meant all of this could turn out to have been some stupid nutcase goose chase, if it meant Jonathan was only calling Nicole’s house because he was looking for Nicole because they had started dating without Nancy knowing.
“What’s so funny?”
She prayed a lightning bolt would come down and strike her retarded, proving she had been nothing but an irrational lovesick puppy all along who in the next two minutes would have to drag herself home with her tail between her legs, unable to explain to Steve why she was still so upset.
I told him it smells like Grandpa’s farts in here.
It would have been a lot better that way, if Nancy had been wrong all along, if Jonathan had just thrown her away and abandoned her the way she had abandoned him.
“Are you in the house? You’re in this house?”
Yeah, I’m… here.
“Stay here, don’t move. I’ll find Hopper and your mom.”
“They’ll come get you.”
Don’t tell my mom.
“What? What do you mean don’t tell your mom?”
I’m too sick.
“Are you crazy?”
I can’t come back. It’s not safe.
The film reel of the last few hours rolled down a steep hill.
“Worms, right? In your mouth? In your stomach?”
Jonathan just breathed.
He was just breathing. Just barely.
“Listen to me. They will come through anyway. If you stay there and let them kill you they’ll just breed in your body and come through and take more people to the other side. Do you understand? Barb’s body did it to Mike in Steve’s pool.”
… Is he okay?
“He’s fine. And you will be fine. We’ll figure something out. All of us, like last time.” Nancy blew the whimper in her voice to smithereens. “You can’t protect anyone by hiding there.” She spoke from her belly, “We’re going to come get you. I will come get you.”
Steve squeezed Nancy’s shoulder and didn’t let go. His fingers were digging in, hurting her. She put her hand over his and he apologized even though he hadn’t done anything wrong.
Don’t come in here. I’ll take care of it.
“What do you mean you’ll take…”
I’ll take care of it.
Comprehension tore through Nancy’s arm, lifting the telephone’s base above her head, whipping it down toward the floor, but it stopped short with hands all over it, hands all over hers, Will’s hands and Steve’s hands, putting it down gently. “You will do no such thing.”
Don’t scare him. It’s okay.
“No it is not okay! It’s the furthest thing from okay! You’re not―” Nancy slapped the floor. “You’re not―” Nicole’s wastebasket was full. “Jonathan, you are not disposable!”
The line clicked.
Nancy plunged the hangup, found no dial tone, then held it down, smothering it, burying it in a rage. “Jonathan, you call back right now!” He was in one of these corners, one of these four corners, “Right now. Jonathan!”
Steve picked Nancy up by her shoulders and held her captive until her feet anchored. “I have a car. Forget the phone.” The phone was broken now anyway. She let it fall away in a cacophany.
A muffled kek-kek-kek sound, a gleeful semi-secret snickering, wound its way into the room from down the hall. “Stevie Wonder thinks he still has a car!”
Steve tripped out into the hallway. There was another snicker, and a lopsided flurry of footsteps, and a curling, ironic cheerleader laugh.
By the typewriter, Mike was holding a piece of paper and crying at it.
“Mike, where’s Will?”
Mike looked up and sniffed.
Distant handprints bonged a windowpane.
“My tires? You slashed my goddamn tires? Right now? Did you have to do this today? Any other day, any other day would have been fine ― I can’t believe you just…”
“You forgot to give us your burglary schedule,” Carol deadpanned.
“Yeah man, this one’s on you,” said Tommy. “We could have worked out something better but we had no idea when you’d be coming.”
“Jeez Nicole, do you not have any other friends?”
Maybe she did, but these ones made the best headlines.