Beyond the Silver Rainbow 5: springtime

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Steve stopped the car on the road in front of Nicole’s house. While technically bigger than a trailer, the house was even smaller than the Byers’. It stood upon a shallow hill in a wide horseshoe of bald trees, wearing a tinfoil wreath on the door and four wooden candy canes in the garden.

The gravel driveway was empty. All of the windows were dark.

Nancy caught Mike looking at her and closed her eyes. Yes, she knew what this probably meant. No, she wasn’t going to say it out loud. She found her bubblegum lipgloss in her bag, glossed her dry lips and stuck it in her back pocket.

Steve got out of the car and immediately jumped up on one foot. “Hah!”

Nancy prickled. “What’s wrong?”

“Hah! Shit!”

She fumbled with her door for far too long and ran around the rear of the car. “What ―”

“Hot shoe, hot shoe!” Steve fell back into the driver’s seat, trying to yank his sneaker off his foot without untying it. The sole had a wide black mark on the heel and it was wisping. Nancy fell to her knees and dove for the laces through a chemist’s cloud of who-knew-what.

“Here!” Mike yelled.

Wet swim trunks thwacked Steve in the face just as the shoe flew through Nancy’s hands and into the road. Steve yanked his sock off, wiped the swim trunks across his heel and then wrapped them around his foot, hissing for a moment. He tipped Mike a nod. “Nice reflexes, Starsky.”

In the middle of the dirt road, the white sneaker with the red Nike swish kept smoking.

“The leeches have acid inside them?” Mike wondered.

Nancy didn’t care. “Steve, are you okay?”

“The patio’s gonna be wrecked.” He dragged a hand down his face.

“Are you okay?”

Steve peeled the wet trunks away from his foot, looking at Nancy rather than the wound. “You tell me.”

His heel was red, but not blistering, at least not yet. Nancy sighed out her relief. “Looks like it’s just a first degree burn. You’ll be fine. Try not to walk on it?”

Steve just looked at her, lost.

She combed her fingers through his damp hair. “Stay here,” she said. She jogged across the tufty straw lawn and up the two steps to Nicole’s crumbling little cement front porch, and pushed the backlit yellow bell. Faintly, it announced her presence to the inside of the silent house. Nancy rocked on her feet, tonguing air through her front teeth.

“There’s nobody home!” Mike yelled.

“Shut up.” Nancy leaned over the railing to look in the front window. A frayed gossamer curtain blocked her view of everything inside.

“There’s obviously no one here!”

“Shut up Mike!”

“Seriously, Nancy…” Oh come on, was Steve about to agree with Mike? “Her dad works the night shift most of the time.”

“The night shift?” Nancy turned around and threw her arms down at her sides. “Where even is there to work a night shift around here?”

Steve sat on the front of his car with his feet on the bumper, one shoed and one bare. “I dunno, some factory in Cartersville or Eerie or something.”

“That’s like an hour away!”

“What do you want me to say?”

“You could have told me earlier!”

“And is there any chance that would have stopped you?”

Nancy tiptoed and thumped down on her heels a few times, thinking. No, that wouldn’t have stopped her, and this wasn’t going to stop her either. “But what about Nicole herself? Why isn’t she here?”

“Maybe she’s sleeping,” Mike said. He hopped onto the front of the car beside Steve. Steve raised a hand to push him off, but then only mimed a shove and dropped it.

Nancy jabbed the bell again, and again. She thumped the door with the side of her fist. She rapped hard with her knuckles, tried the bell again, hammered the door with her palm faster and faster and before she knew it she was trying the knob. Violently.

“Woah woah woah…” Steve stood at a slumped angle beside the porch with a hand on the railing, having limped up and taken her by surprise. He kept his volume very low. “Were you about to break into the house?”

“Sorry.” Nancy let go of the doorknob and shook herself, sheepish. “Sorry, that was stupid.”

“I’ll say. Jesus, Nancy, take a breather.” He leaned in. “I know it’s been scary but we’ve got to keep it together for the little guy.”

“I’m going to Will’s,” Mike announced. “His house is just through the trees sort of…” He slid off the front of the car and craned his neck around to scan the woods. “That way, sort of. I’ll find it.”

“Wha-what? All by yourself?”

“What do you mean, all by myself? Yeah, Steve, all by myself. I’m not a little kid.” Mike dropped his mouth open, aiming contempt at Steve. “I’m not ten.”

Steve leaned closer to Nancy and through the side of his mouth asked, “How old is he?”

“I’m not even short!” Mike shouted. “What the hell?”

Nancy jumped off the porch to jog back to the car. She passed right by Mike, opened the door and dragged her backpack by a strap along the back seat. “Gonna go see whether Jonathan’s home?”

“Yeah, obviously. That and I want to talk to Will.”

Nancy fished a little key from the pocket of her jeans, grabbed her backpack by the smaller front pouch, and unlocked the heart-shaped diary lock linking the pull tabs of the double zipper. She took her gun from the pouch. “Are you sure you can show up this late without freaking out their mom?” she said. “Because I can’t, and I don’t want her to know quite yet. I might be wrong.”

“I’m there all the time, it’s normal.” It had taken Mike about two seconds to get impatient. “Maybe just leave the gun here? Not loaded?”

“Leave the what?” said Steve.

Well, this was inevitable. Nancy waited. One beat, two beats.

“Oh no,” said Steve. “Nah nah, you don’t need that again, Nancy…

Nancy didn’t feel like arguing. She opened the chamber, grabbed a handful loose bullets from the pouch and began loading the gun, dropping them into place one after another. The guys held a silent argument behind her, swishing fabric and whispering unintelligibly while the bullets clicked home. With the gun fully loaded, she faced them and tucked it into the back of her pants.

“Yes I do need it,” she said, looking up at the three-quarter moon. “There might be another thing out there.” She eyed Steve. “Remember?”

“Monster bear shark,” said Steve, glassy. He leaned on the car with his forehead in his hand.

“Mike, if anything comes after you I want you to yell. Scream your head off. I don’t care who you freak out, just scream. I’ll come. But ― wait, don’t yell whatever pops into your head. Say ‘monster’ so I’ll know.”

Mike bowed a decisive nod. “Shoot it in the mouth. That’s what Lucas did. I think it helped Elle.”

“Right in the middle of the mouth?”

“Right there. Bullseye.”

“Got it,” said Nancy.

“Bye,” said Mike.

They shared a little smile. It was nice. Mike ran away.

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Jonathan heard only the recurring hiss of his own breath through a filter. There were still no night sounds.

“Let’s go home,” Elle said, sounding sleepy and numb. She pulled the gas mask off Jonathan’s face and put it back over her own. “There’s no place like home.”

Jonathan felt like he was made of stone, but he was sure hadn’t fallen all the way to sleep, assuming that was even possible, and he was grateful. Waking from a dead nap would have forced him to realize all over again that all of this was real.

He didn’t want to stay with Elle anymore. The tall tales were all true: she could throw people around, she could cross dimensions, she could reach inside bodies and she could dissolve monsters in a ball of dust and light. Jonathan was laying on the ground next to the scariest girl he could imagine. Yet when he got up onto his damp elbows and looked at her, she only offered him more water while peering at him with a pair of eyes that belonged to a baby.

There was something about baby eyes. Jonathan could even remember a glint of it in Will’s eyes: babies remembered where they came from. In a couple of years they forgot. Elle looked like she still knew.

“Where is home?” he asked.

“No place.” Her smile was too sarcastic for a baby. “Duh.” She stood and climbed through the webbed decay of the forest floor, tearing and squashing with her dull black galoshes, and began to walk down the road ― toward Jonathan’s house this time. “The no-place, like home.”

She had left the Yoda bottle behind. Jonathan picked it up and followed her carefully, his feet a pair of feelers, his knees doubling as shock absorbers. “Did you watch a lot of movies when you stayed at Mike’s house?” he asked when he caught up.

“No.”

“―Oh.”

They walked.

“What is… ‘vulner-able’?” Elle was watching him. For clues?

“You don’t know the word?”

She shook her head.

“It means, uh…” Jonathan thought of babies again, and sleeping people. And hiding. “It means someone who could get hurt.”

They walked.

Elle took her gas mask off and handed it to Jonathan, who felt obligated to use it for a while. He guessed they were taking turns now.

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Mike checked over his shoulder repeatedly as he wove through the twiggy woods behind Will’s house, keeping his direction by the tree-slatted glow of Steve’s headlights. Compasses still didn’t work around here.

The snow had stopped falling ages ago and little of it remained on the ground. Miniature drifts curled around the bases of trees, outlining their roots in white, and clumps of it gathered in the concave husks of dried fallen leaves. There were so many white lumps, isolated, each waiting to melt and die alone. Mike kicked his way through them with satisfying irreverence whenever he had enough clearing to do so.

A mourning dove cooed far away, strange for winter and even stranger for night time, and then a cloud slid away from the moon. Five steps later, Mike spotted the dark outline of the Byers’ shed, and then a window, honey colored, slid into view beyond it.

Will’s room was in the front right corner of the house. Coming from the back, Mike went left, to where it was dark and he would be hidden, and tapped his fingers on the glass. If he couldn’t be loud he would be annoying.

Tap tap tap tap tap tap tap tap tap tap tap tap tap tap tap tap tap tap tap tap tap tap tap tap tap tap tap tap tap tap tap tap tap tap tap tap tap tap tap tap tap tap —

The bedroom light came on. The windowblind dipped and lifted. Will’s round eyes softened from fear to joy and with an open smile he ran back to close his bedroom door. Pushing his heavy old window up was always a struggle. Mike helped him.

“Hey! Wanna be my player two? My mom’s been passed out since after supper.”

“Is Jonathan here?”

“He would but he’s not feeling well. Why? Don’t you want to?”

“When did you last see him?”

“Uh.” Will was clearly confused. “I dunno.”

“Could you go check his room, see if he’s still in there?”

“Okay…”

“Trust me, just check.”

Will was not gone very long. “He’s definitely not here,” he said.

For a moment Mike felt like his feet were sinking into the ground. “Are you sure?”

“Yeah, he left his light on and everything. Maybe he had to work tonight. Is there a late matinee on? I haven’t really been paying attention. What do you want him for?”

“My sister’s just been looking for him, that’s all.”

“Oh.”

It was time for Mike to go back and give his report, but he didn’t want to say goodbye. “I think Elle’s dead,” he said. The faraway dove cooed again.

Will shrank a little into himself. “Why?”

“She sucks at hiding. Sucked at hiding.”

“Didn’t she hide in that fort in your basement for a week?”

“Yeah, but she didn’t know when to stay there. She came upstairs when we were eating and my parents almost saw her. And she was kinda claustrophobic. And there’s that time she stole from the grocery store.” Mike put his elbows on the windowsill to rest his face in his fists. “I think she’s dead, Will.”

Beside him, Will stuck his head out the window and looked around. “How did you get here? Where’s your bike?”

“Steve’s car.”

“What’s going on?” Will’s voice had gotten very tiny.

Mike hadn’t thought this far ahead. He traced the cracks of the windowsill’s peeling paint with his eyes. “I went into the upside down. It’s still here. Er, there.”

Will wheezed. He looked like he might be sick. “It is?”

“I found a body.”

“Like a dead body?”

“Like a dead body.”

Will whispered, “Was it her?”

“No! No no no, it wasn’t her, I know that for sure. But… I just…” Mike didn’t know how to finish the sentence. It hurt to try. Trying felt empty.

“Doesn’t she have superpowers? Maybe that’s why she sucks at hiding. You don’t need to know how to hide if you have superpowers.”

Mike picked at the paint, catapulting chips into the dark. Then why hadn’t she come back yet? She had used her powers to leave, so why couldn’t she use them to come home? Chip chip flick chip flick. Why wouldn’t she use her powers to come home? The Snow Ball was already over, but the next one was less than a year away. Mike uncovered a big patch of bare wood. She could be anywhere by now. Maybe she never really liked him. “Yeah, I guess. She probably just doesn’t care.” It would be better that way, if she just didn’t care.

“How did you get to the upside down? Is… is…” Will’s breath jittered through him. “Hn. Is there ― is there ― another Dem-demog-gogo―?”

Mike sympathized. He hit Will on the shoulder to steady him. “It’s cold. Get a blanket, huh?”

“Right! Thanks.” Will tore his blanket from his bed, a trick like removing a tablecloth without disturbing a set table: only two of his new comic books slipped off it to the floor. He threw the blanket over himself. His face swam in a navy pool of airplane-patterned cotton. “So is there?”

“No, at least I don’t think so. I haven’t seen one. But in the mouth, y’know, of the body? There were all these…” It was gross to think about. Mike lifted his elbow from the sill to rub it. “It was this…” His face was curling, and Will was staring. “This… worm, thing. Like a leech. One of them got me.”

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On December 29th there were no Christmas lights to be found in the whole of House Byers, not inside nor outside, because all of that was over. They hadn’t even lit up the tree that year. Stepping into the elsewhere mirror of his living room, Jonathan wondered if his presence was messing with the television, disrupting Will’s game. If the lamps blinked, would Will be scared? Would he even notice? Would the dog bark? Would it wake Mom? Would she figure out what was going on?

The home was totaled. The overgrowth threatening the roof had crept inside in a hundred places, streaming from rotten floor corners to windowsills, from holes in the ceiling to holes in the walls, from an electrical outlet to the underside of a sofa cushion. The kitchen window had been smashed in, its curtain a mildewed flake of skin on the counter.

“I don’t think I really want to stay here,” Jonathan said, “But I guess everywhere else is worse?”

“Yes.”

Elle led Jonathan past the black patches of monster blood in the old carpet and into his own bedroom. The good news: his Evil Dead poster was still on the wall. The bad news: his Cthulu book might still be on the floor by the far side of the bed, although the mess of clothes and LPs he had left in the normal was missing. It would have been nice to take a nap, but more vines had crept in from the heating duct and hugged his bed in a tight grip from head to foot, and if he tried to remove them the room would fill with those spores.

Elle dropped the gas mask on the floor and sat down on the stuffed chair between the closet and the window. It had no growths on it, and the disintegrating blue-grey carpet in front of it had already taken the imprints of a hundred footsteps.

“Wait,” Jonathan said. “Do you come in here a lot?”

“I live here.”

A reflexive forearm crossed his groin. “Rl. Really?” Nausea stirred. “Could you see me?”

“Not much.”

“Can you see my family?”

“No. They’re being quiet.”

“How well can you see?”

Elle pointed her flashlight at the wall. “Only a little. Only sometimes.” She raised her other hand in front of it, waving her fingers, projecting a massive spider onto the painted grid at the head of his bed.

“Are there any other monsters around here? Big ones?”

“Not yet.”

That sounded promising.

Elle shot him the baby eyes. “Don’t worry.”

With no bed or chair to sit on, he picked a spot by the wall and sat on the floor. The carpet was damp. “I’ll try.”

Elle crawled from the chair to her hands and knees and slid halfway under the bed, dragging her dangling flashlight in with her to dig around in amorphously shifting light and shadow. She emerged with a book, but not the Cthulu one. This one was much thinner, and the edges of the pages were wavy from moisture and use. She handed it to Jonathan and sat there expectantly in her bright flashlight halo with her legs tucked up under herself.

It was a copy of The Wizard of Oz. Jonathan opened the hard cover. Scratched into the top corner in heavy, denting strokes, it read, There’s no place like home. Keep your chin up, kiddo. Hop.

“Dad,” Elle said.

“Is that what he said?”

“No. It’s what I say.”

The Chief left her presents, so she adopted him? “Cute.” Jonathan closed the book. He meant it, it was nice, but this place made nice things hard to look at. His eyes were burning so he closed them too.

Elle made a frustrated little noise and bummed her way across the carpet until she glowed right next to him. She took the book from his hands and stressed the creaky spine. “Friends,” she said, placing the book in his lap. “Look.”

Surrounded by poppies, the cowardly lion slept wearing a peaceful fanged smile. His long curly mane pillowed his cheek upon his paw.

“Aren’t you a bit old for this story? This is for little kids and you’re, what, Will’s age? Twelve?”

Elle stared at him, uncomprehending at first, then comprehending with a touch of disgust. She thought Jonathan was stupid. “No,” she said.

Jonathan admonished himself. “No you’re right, sorry. You like what you like.”

Elle filpped through more pages. “Lucas.”

The tin woodman raised his axe over the neck of a snarling wildcat.

She flipped some more. “Mike.”

The scarecrow sat on an etched tree stump with his chin on his fist.

“Ohh. I get it. They all remind you of Will’s friends?”

“Yes.”

“Is Will in there too?”

Elle ducked her head on what might have been a stifled giggle. She pulled her lips into her mouth, biting them.

“What?”

“Secret?”

“Sure.”

She flipped the pages until she found an inking of the Oz crew traveling warily through a haunted forest. She tapped her finger on Toto, whose only visible part was a pair of pale eyes peeking out from within the darkness of Dorothy’s picnic basket.

Jonathan snorted. “I won’t tell him,” and as soon as the words came out a deep pit formed in the centre of his chest, and his heart ricoched around in the pit so hard that Elle could surely hear it. He pushed her book aside, drew his knees up to himself, and hid his face in his crossed arms. He wanted to be alone.

“I’m sorry,” said Elle.

“It’s not your fault.”

“It is. You don’t understand.”

Jonathan shrugged his shoulders up really far and sniffed. “That’s fine. It doesn’t matter.”

“Understanding matters.”

Jonathan was at a loss. “Okay?”

Elle left him alone for a while. Although the sound of her movements lost volume drastically within a short distance, he could still hear her footsteps. In the kitchen, a chair squealed across the floor. The refrigerator door opened and closed. The silverware drawer tinkled. Each note was a hammer blow, striking Jonathan with nostalgia for singular melodies he had last heard only hours ago and had taken for granted his entire life.

“Here,” Elle said. She held both hands out toward him. In one hand, a spoon. In the other, a single serving cup of chocolate pudding. “Courage.”

Jonathan wiped his sleeve across his face. “Where’s yours?”

“I have one.”

“Won’t it feed the monsters?” He pulled at the front of his jacket. “The little ones?”

“No.”

“How do you know?”

“They don’t like it.”

It seemed that was the most thorough answer Jonathan was going to get. With nothing to lose, he opened the pudding cup and started to eat it. It was so sweet, in such stark contrast with everything his world had become, that he had to eat it very slowly. Even the smallest bite tried to shrivel up his tongue, but it didn’t churn his stomach. He gained a bit more room in which to think, and to speak.

“Why here?” he started. “Why do you live in my house and not the Wheelers’?”

Elle was sitting in the chair nibbling around the bad parts of a partially rotten apple. “Mom’s here.”

“You mean my mom?”

Elle nodded, chewing. She swallowed. “Music is here too,” she added, “But it’s quiet.”

Jonathan finished his pudding and had an idea. He got up, dropped the cup and spoon on his bed, plucked Elle’s gas mask from the floor and put it on. “You might want to stand back,” he said. Elle detached her flashlight from herself and placed it in the chair, pointing it at the ceiling to light the room. She moved to the hallway and peeked in from behind the door.

Jonathan grabbed hold of one of the tough flaking growths strangling his stereo and tugged, but his effort threatened to topple the whole cupboard.

“Stop,” Elle said. “Loud.”

Right. This project wasn’t a big boulder to move, it was a big tangle to untie. Jonathan peeled layer after layer from the vines, fraying bark and digging through slimy sap. Clouds of escaped spores filled the room. By his work the growths thinned, broke apart and fell to the floor. He wiped his hands off on his thighs and walked his fingers along his record collection, and found that several ― most of his casual favorites, the frequent plays ― were missing.

The albums were piled under Elle’s chair, left open as books to their printed lyrics. It must have been that for hours upon hours over the last month or more, Jonathan’s room had been haunted by a strange girl reading along with the poetry of the greats.

He was about to choose one to play when he remembered how deeply Will had frightened their mom by playing his mixtape, so he rubbed his hand over his brow and devised a plan B from what he could recall of the boys’ jumbled stories. He extricated his headphones from the mess and detached the cord. He held them out toward his bedroom door. “Could these help you hear stuff better?”

Elle wasn’t there.

Jonathan put his headphones around his neck and brought the flashlight with him into the hallway. “Elle?”

She wasn’t in the bathroom, or the living room, or the kitchen. She wasn’t in his mom’s room either. He pointed the flashlight away and, stealthily, pushed open Will’s bedroom door.

Elle stood beside Will’s Jaws poster, a top corner of which had flopped down from the wall. She leaned forward over the old grey toy chest and put her hands on the closed window, and then her forehead fell to the glass. She stood like that, with her eyes closed, perfectly still, for a long time. Jonathan didn’t dare interrupt. He was starting to feel sick again. He thought maybe he should leave.

“Mike.” Elle’s voice was a little bell in a gust of wind. “No.”

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“Betcha fifty bucks the guy’s sawing logs.” Steve was sitting on Nicole’s front stoop.

Nancy had begun doing laps back and forth across the lawn the moment she could no longer see Mike through the trees. Her legs itched inside and pacing scratched them. It also kept her warm. She passed by Steve again without looking at him.

“All that stuff with the pool, with Mike, with the bug in the pool, that wasn’t enough for one night? You really think Jonathan’s gone too? It’s too much. Think about it.”

“I am thinking,” Nancy snapped as she passed him next.

“No, what you’re doing is worrying. What are the chances of two totally insane but mostly unrelated things happening the same night? Come on,” Steve smoothed, “Adventure’s wrapping up. Kid’s gonna find him in his bed and we’ll all go home and go to sleep too. Then tomorrow I’ll get my dad to fill in the pool with cement and the next time I run into Jonathan I’ll ask him why he’s gotta be such an asshole.”

“I’m not tired and neither are you.” Nancy marched to the pebbly drive and hit herself in the cheek with her ponytail by whipping around again. “None of us are going to sleep after what happened tonight.”

“Then we can do something else, somewhere interesting. Since you’re out. And I’m out. And I’ve got the car.”

On her way back to Steve, Nancy felt a corner of her mouth turn up without her consent.

“Nancy, couldja ― come on, would y ―” He snared her wrist by the cuff to stop her passing by him again. “You’re making me seasick.”

She stomped her foot and pouted. “My legs are itchy.”

“Nicole’s lawn’s gonna have a dirt stripe.” He squeezed her hand. “Maybe you’re just a little shellshocked. God knows you wouldn’t be the only one.”

Nancy didn’t want to melt. It wasn’t time to melt yet. “My baby brother almost died right in front of me,” she argued, pleading with him in case he somehow didn’t understand.

Steve smiled with a subtle purse of his lips. “Mhm,” he said, looking into her in a way she wasn’t prepared for. Nancy tugged, but he wouldn’t let go of her hand. “You’ve gotta relax. Okay? He’s fine. There’s probably nothing out there and if there is, you can protect him. You’ve got the…” His gaze slid to her waist. He tilted his head, looking behind her. “Stuff.”

It was good to be armed. “Okay.” Nancy heaved the deepest breath she could. “Alright, you win.”

“I wasn’t trying to fight you, Nancy.”

“I know! I know. I didn’t mean it like that.” The railing caught Nancy’s attention. Her legs hadn’t stopped itching inside and if she stood on the ground, the bar might be just the right height. “Thank you.” She bent and gave Steve a kiss. “For everything. For saving him. And everything.”

Steve put both his arms out and whooshed himself to his feet. “I do what I do. Wanna come warm up in the car?”

“Maybe in a minute.”

“Alright, shoot yourself. I mean ―” he clicked his cheek, “Don’t. Don’t shoot yourself.”

Nancy rolled her eyes but let herself smile this time. Steve ran his hand down her arm and left for the car, maintaining an aloof saunter in spite of his missing shoe.

Nancy turned back to the porch. She squared her shoulders, lifted her chin and toed up beside it, standing within the dead garden. She pointed her toes and raised her leg. Her foot stopped short, requiring her to pull her knee with one arm and guide her shin with the other hand to get her heel up onto the rail. She wasn’t in shape at all anymore. How long had it been since the dance studio closed up? Four years?

Oh well. What can ya do? had been her dad’s response to the tears. She hadn’t spoken to him for three days after that, and she still didn’t like to admit it, but he was right. The studio was gone. Not even her parents could stop the instructor moving away. So, no more dance. It was okay. Ballet lessons had been expensive because small towns made for small classes. Plus there was school to worry about. She was too short for dance anyway.

Keeping her balance by one hand on the rail, Nancy bowed her other arm out and, folding strictly at the waist, brought her nose down as close as possible to her raised knee, arcing the stretch down her leg and up her back. She remembered her instructor’s feathery, theatrical voice; the squeak and patter of slippers on the smooth studio floor. It had been so peaceful there, in a group of girls each working on their own thing, keeping one another on task in quiet but dependable company.

Nancy tried to deepen the stretch by bending her lower knee, but it wasn’t easy ― these jeans had no give and she was really out of shape. Giddy with the fleeting senses of childhood, she bounced minisculely, testing how far she could go without hurting herself.

“Is that a gun in your pants or are you just wagging your tail?”

Nancy nearly pulled a muscle. How had she forgotten about the gun? It was right there, cold and hard in the crack of her butt, insistently distracting now that she had been reminded of it. She instructed a wave of anger to go away, since she had not technically asked to be left alone. “I’m not a dog, Steve.”

“Mhm.” Steve was right behind her. “You’re a dancer.” His vocal fry tickled behind her ear. His breath crept into her jacket collar, warming the chain of her ballet slipper necklace. Goosebumps settled into the hollow of her collarbone.

“You’ve never even seen me dance.”

“For some totally insane reason, that’s right, I haven’t.” Steve’s creeping hands hooked her hips. “But I can already tell you’d put every cheerleader in Hawkins to shame.”

Nancy couldn’t stretch like this. She put her foot down and closed her legs. “I’m not a cheerleader either.”

Steve wrapped his arms all the way around her waist. “That’s why I said you’re a dancer.” He pushed his hips forward, grinding the gun ― and more ― into her tailbone. Her heart leapt but Steve was already thinking the same thing she was: he jumped back, shying away from the dangerous contact.

Nancy turned around with her hands behind her back, adjusting the gun to make sure it stayed in place. “You want me to believe you’re not trying to get me to join the cheerleading squad?”

Steve held his hands up. “Don’t shoot, I’m just saying.”

“Just saying what?”

“Just saying whatever pops into my head, Nancy. I’m not Shakespeare here. You’re the graceful one.”

She narrowed her eyes, “Are you actually scared of me right now?” and hooked both thumbs into her back pockets to test whether she was right.

“No,” said Steve squarely. “No, of course not.” Then he stumbled over a wooden candy cane and fell casually back against the brick wall of the house as if it was what he had meant to do.

Nancy placed a light hand on his chest. “You’re not?”

Steve changed. His uneasy smile fell away to a scowl as he looked down at her. “Why would I be?” His voice was flat, his eyelids low. Insolent.

Nancy had the answer. She lifted her brows to emphasize what was left of her china doll mascara, licked her lips and stared at Steve’s mouth to hold his gaze. When she had him locked in place she snuck her tube of lipgloss from her back pocket and pressed the end up under his chin. “Who knows?”

They stared at one another. Steve started breathing hard. When Nancy leapt up onto her tiptoes and kissed him, he moaned. When she bit his lip, he moaned and got shorter, so with her teeth she dragged him firmly down to her level. She dropped her lipgloss, and judging by the way he twitched it must have landed on his foot. “I knew―” He managed between their nipping kisses, “Knew that―knew it wasn’t―the gun.”

“Yeah, right.”

“Nancyy!” came a faraway call. Nancy’s heart leapfrogged over its previous jump. No, it was okay. Partly okay. In all his urgency Mike had not said ‘monster.’

Steve kept his hold, an arm around her waist, a thumb teasing her lip.

“Naancyyyy!”

“We have to go,” Nancy said. “News.”

“Ufya,” Steve whispered in the middle of her last word. Stiffly, he released her to follow the sound of Mike’s voice.

She nearly had to jog to keep up with him. “What was that?”

“Huh?

“What did you say?”

“I didn’t say anything.”

“Seriously, what did you say?”

“I swear to God I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

“Steve,” Nancy warned, her mouth tight ― and then she forgot about it all. “He’s got Will with him?” This was either bad or very bad. “Hey! I don’t want to get anybody in trouble.”

Mike sat down at the edge of the clearing and patted the ground. Little Will plunked down beside him, chattering within the mound of a giant bedspread.

Nancy could see the whites of Will’s eyes from here.

She sprinted right past Steve and landed on her knees in front of the boys. “Tell me.” She searched from one to the other and back again. “Flat out. I won’t get mad.”

“Jonathan’s not home. He wasn’t feeling well and now he’s gone.” Mike looked at Will. “Your turn.”

There was more?

“You can’t tell my mom. She’ll l-lose it.” Will shook and squeaked and yet remained thoughtful, as though he had built a wall between body and mind and banished all of his anxiety to the far side. “I al-almost made her lose it. She’s always up doing stuff in the middle of the night n-now unless she takes a pill. She can’t know.”

Nancy barely noticed Steve rustling the grass and sitting down beside her. She leaned forward, stretching, pushing her palms across the cold ground in Will’s direction. “It’s okay,” she said. “You can trust me.”

Will looked at Mike, reluctant. Did they think she was some kind of bully?

“You can trust her,” Mike confirmed. “She’s different now.”

Nancy stuck her tongue out of the side of her mouth at Mike without losing sight of Will’s big dinnerplate eyes. That seemed to do it: “I threw up a slug. On Christmas Eve.”

A buried memory uncoiled at the base of Nancy’s skull and lay there, waiting to be noticed. “You what?”

“It was black,” Mike said. “It looked just like mine.”

“I didn’t-didn’t tell anyone because it was Christmas.”

Mike kept elaborating: “He brought it from the upside down. He must have.”

“What?” said Steve.

Will shrank back. Nancy put her hand on Steve’s knee. “Don’t yell at him.”

Steve grabbed his own hair. “You’re coughing these things up? We’ve got to get you some help, like right now. We can take my car, we can go.”

“I’m, I’m, I’m not sick anymore. My mom said the Demogorgon put this thing in my throat and I think the slug was just something le-left over. Like the doctors m-missed it. But…” Will hmphed at Nancy’s outstretched hands.

Gooseflesh spread down Nancy’s back from the nape of her neck, the creeping crawl of resurfacing denial, a little piece of mayhem labeled ‘unimportant,’ or at least not labeled as ‘important’ as everything else, and left behind. Abandoned. “What?”

“It like… It… put me back into the place for a second.” Will glanced at Mike. “The upside down. But I figured maybe I was dreaming, you know? Like when, when s-sometimes I get up to go to the bathroom at ni-hn-night and it’s like I’m there or if I get too cold or if my do-dog growls I think I’m-m there an-hnd.”

“It’s really cold out here,” Mike explained.

“Yeah,” Will agreed, laughing a little.

“Maybe one of them got Jonathan too,” Mike said. “The way it got me and Will. Do you think it could have kept him somehow?”

Nancy started rubbing the back of her neck. “Steve, remember when you helped us? When you ran into the house and grabbed the bat because I couldn’t…”

Steve cringed. “…He couldn’t protect you.”

Nancy tightened her grip on Steve’s knee, reading tea leaves in the grass. “Did it do anything to him?” She dug her nails in. “Did you see?”

“I was too busy beating the shit out of it, Nancy. If I’d looked anywhere else we’d all be dead.”

“You beat up the Demogorgon?” Will’s jaw had dropped. “You actually beat it up?”

Steve mimed the swing of a baseball bat and marked the impact with a ksh.

“Cool!”

Nancy remembered.

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Beyond the Silver Rainbow 4: Winter follows

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Jonathan had been laying on his side in the dark, lost in his first ever listen through The Clash’s Sandinista!, when his camera’s flash went off. It branded itself onto his retinas before he even realized his eyes were open, transforming his night blindness into a wakeful white panic. He waited for the bitter adrenaline to filter from his blood but there was no point. Full alert. Moment ruined. He flung his headphones down onto the bed. Mick Jones became an ant in a tin can.

Someone lights a cigarette
While riding in a car
Some ol’ guy takes a swig
And passes back the jar
But where they were last night
No-one can remember
Somebody got murdered
Goodbye, for keeps, forever

He pinched the bridge of his nose and rubbed his eyes. It would be nice to be able see again sometime before the end of his life, because now he had to take a leak, and a blanket of dirty clothes topped with a crunchy crust of neglected LPs lay between him and the bathroom. Wishing he could blame someone for this, he reached for his lamp and turned the switch. The light came on as normal with no flickers but he still couldn’t quite see.

Damn it. The first listen through an album was sacred. When he had unwrapped Sandinista! Christmas morning, best for last by Mom’s decree, hours of bliss had stretched out before him. This is a triple album. It must have cost you a fortune. But Nah, said his mom, crinkling her nose. It was the same price as all the others.

Now all of it was tainted, maybe even ruined. It wasn’t so much that he would have to start at the beginning and listen to it over again, since he expected to wear most records out eventually. It was that when he did start again his experience of the first few songs would be affected by familiarity, and then the extra groove run into his mind by the repeat would undermine the virginity of the rest of it. Not to mention the groove run into the record itself, a little tragedy of diamond-tipped vandalism done in sacrifice for every single play, dulling the peaks and valleys of the aural spectrum ― but only for the first few songs this time around. Unless he let Side B run its course, the microdamage done to the record would be uneven. For keeps. Forever.

Jonathan didn’t normally care ― he couldn’t when his other-other hobby was making mix tapes―but he had really been looking forward to this and he hadn’t quite settled back to his baseline yet. He still checked the locks five times a night, still toe-walked through the house sweeping his hands along the walls afraid they would breathe, still put his ear to bedroom doors afraid they wouldn’t ― but the locks stayed put, the bedrooms breathed and the walls didn’t. Every time. Maybe it was better to let the record be uneven, then. In defiance of a vestigial coping mechanism Jonathan lifted the needle, stopped the turntable, and let it be.

His camera watched him from the nightstand, as innocent as one of his own limbs. It sat on top of a dense book that he wished he hadn’t asked for for Christmas and knew he would never open: The Complete Cthulu Mythos and R’lyehian Glossary. He picked up his camera and shoved the book off the table.

Turning the camera in the light from the lamp, he peered warily into the flash bulb. It seemed fine. A pull of the lever actually advanced the film instead of moving loosely with nothing to do, and the shutter count read 17, an odd number. He never left it on an odd number.

The camera had taken Jonathan’s picture. By itself.

Okay.

He was not obligated to care about this. Most of the time he didn’t care much anyway, except when he really, really, really cared, and that was a pain in the ass, so no. Forget it. No caring. He got up. He navigated the minefield. He made a U-turn. He took a piss.

The motion of zipping up afterward lurched his stomach, forcefully reminding him why he’d been laying around all day saving the best of his albums for last in the first place: he had woken up feeling terrible. It was a sort of nausea, now returning, which intensified until he was sure he would be sick, but then nothing happened. He had been carried through the cycle nearly every hour since morning, its episodes peaking with a clawing need to upchuck a balloon full of cement that just wouldn’t come, before the sensation faded into airy relief. Throughout the day each period of relief had gained a stronger tinge of dread than the last as it became ever more apparent that this frustrating nausea would return again later.

So he had been hiding in his room all day, alternating his pillows at the window so he would always have a cool one, keeping this annoyance to himself even when his mom rapped on the door to offer some food that he didn’t want. You haven’t been eating much the last few days. I know it’s hard but we’ve got to keep eating ― right? Everything’s fine now. It’ll get better. It always gets better.

I’m still stuffed from Christmas dinner. No seriously, I think I’ve got some sleep debt to pay back. Don’t worry about me.

But of course Mom had worried. He heard her soft socks building static charge up and down the hall carpet once in a while, and in the evening she took her sleeping pill early for a lay-down on the sofa. She lay there still, her intermittent snores playing bass percussion to the blips and beeps of Will’s vigilant Atari.

Leaning on the sides of the sink, Jonathan studied his waxy face in the mirror. He had already tried sticking his fingers down his throat. It didn’t work. Whatever this bug was, it was suppressing his gag reflex. He patted himself hard in the chest. No change. Woozliy he returned to his room and lay down on a warm pillow to wait for it to pass.

His mom had lectured him once, after a splotch of blood in the bathroom sink informed her that his impacted wisdom teeth were severely infected, Don’t you talk about not wanting to worry me. You know what worries me more than anything in the world? Secrets. There is nothing worse than secrets.

They’d had to forward the dental bill to his father.

The nausea slithered away into the dark, leaving a grateful inner sunshine behind it. It would be gone for good this time ― it had to be. There was no other choice. Invigorated and sick of music for once, Jonathan grabbed his camera, passed by the Pitfall-enraptured Will in the front room and made it out into the fresh air unnoticed and dressed for the weather.

His first deep breath soothed him as coolly as a shot of Pepto Bismol straight from the refrigerator. He looked out at the wilderness with no idea what he would photograph, which was normal. Either he would find something, or “Something’ll find me.”

The flash went off again. The shutter clicked with it.

“I take it back,” he mumbled, pulling the advance, frightened and laughing at himself. It was probably a loose catch under the shutter button, or a poorly wound spring. Factory defects tended to reveal themselves with mild usage, just as you started getting used to having a new toy ― but the prospect of asking Nancy about the warranty made him want to open it up and figure out how to fix it himself. Hey Nancy, you know that not-really-a-present you gave me? I broke it. Or worse, It was broken when you gave it to me. I need a new one. Not happening. With luck the coverage details would be in the manual.

May as well start walking and use up the roll. He went left, squashing the leaves he had never gotten around to raking up, and onward around to the back of the house, eyeing the treeline for a dark pattern to balance against the three-quarter moon’s pearly cloud blanket. He disabled the flash, held his breath and took his shot.

The flash went off after he lowered the viewfinder from his eye. It wasn’t supposed to go off at all. He slid the flash out of the hot-shoe, tested the weight of it in his hand and studied the sync contacts. The moonlight revealed nothing out of the ordinary. Were the batteries messed up? He slid off their cover and took them out.

The grass around his feet flashed neon tan.

Without a trigger, without power, without any touch to the contacts, the flash had gone off again. Mentally scorched, he dropped it, stared at it, picked it up off the ground, put the batteries back in, dropped the cover, found it, put it in place over the batteries, slid the flash back into the hot-shoe and stayed down, breathing. The excitement did not agree with his stomach.

“Okay, you tell me where to go,” he said, feeling crazy, pointing the camera ahead of him as he crept back up to a standing position. He ducked out of the strap so he could hold it at arm’s length from his body. “This is a compass now. Morse code will look like a monster if it doesn’t burn the bulb out, so please don’t try that.” He swallowed on a churning sensation. “You’ll just have to take me somewhere.”

Jonathan planted his feet firmly and began a steady turn, pivoting at the waist. “Say when,” he said. One, two, three o’clock, four o’clock rock. The camera took another picture at six o’clock, pointing him back toward the road in front of his house. “Great,” he said, following the tentative instruction with hurried steps. “When do I stop?”

His camera stopped him by taking a picture of the dirt road, then turned him three o’clock down that road, toward the centre of town. He walked for at least a full minute. “Do I just keep going?” he asked. Only the old song stuck in his head offered an answer:

We’re gonna rock around the clock tonight
We’re gonna rock, rock, rock, ’til broad daylight
We’re gonna

This was idiotic. He was probably following the random sputters of a trashed mechanism, spooked to all hell with a fever and stupid from not eating. His camera dangled at his side. Stupid. He turned around to head back home, and it immediately took another picture. The next round of Camera Clock Compass pointed him toward town just like the last. “I am mentally unwell,” he told the darkness, trudging on with the camera pointed ahead and a terrible impulse accumulating in his legs. “I’m okay with this.”

The flash began to shriek in R’lyehian morse code.

He spun. The frenzy of light limited his vision to a few yards in every direction, pulling the wide wilderness in toward him while blinding him to the threat. He threw the camera away and cried out in instant regret as the flash strobed a silver arc through the night. It disappeared with a distant crack.

Jonathan remained blind. He stumbled aimlessly, a cork of white panic in an endless black sea. “Where is it?” he spat. “Where are you this time?”

Silence.

Silence.

Nothing.

A pop reverberated just below his ribcage, as if a big knuckle had cracked inside his stomach. It didn’t hurt at first. Then it was acid. Then the acid caught fire and the fire grew to an inferno.

The moonlight went away. The air thickened. A stink rose to Jonathan’s mouth, of old rotting matches, of shoveled roadkill and compost. It was the stink Nancy had showered away that one night he slept in her room to keep her safe, to keep them both safe. “Not here.” He could barely speak. “Please not here. Anywhere but here.”

The inferno became an nuclear reactor. His legs stopped working. He fell stiffly to his hands and knees in a shocked prelude to rigor mortis.

“You’ve got worms.” The hallucination was distant ― no, muffled and small. Tonally flat, yet feminine. “I need them.” It wasn’t a hallucination. She was right here.

“Help,” was the only thing Jonathan could say.

A phantom pressure pushed into his torso. There was a wriggle by his heart, a rising blockage of his windpipe as the presence squeezed his esophagus like a tube of toothpaste. Then it released, and the blockage slipped back into the depths.

“I’m sorry.” The girl’s voice had lost some of its passivity. “They’re smart.”

Jonathan lay on his side with his head on his arm, drooling onto the road. “What’s smart?” he breathed, his throat on fire. “What’s happening?”

“One!” cried the girl. She hit the ground near his head. “I just need one!”

The phantom blunted, socking him in the gut once, and on the second go it went out the other side and up through his throat, bringing the inferno with it. He spat clumps of burning bile onto the ground and the girl scrabbled around in the mess he made, a homeless orphan collecting dropped change.

The embers in his stomach took an aching nap, and from their ashes thirst awoke. “Water,” he said. “Do you…”

A kids’ plastic water bottle touched down in front of him, with Darth Vader’s helmet printed on it. He reached for it but it was taken away and replaced with another: Yoda. “This one.”

Jonathan sat up and squeezed a shot of water into his mouth, reluctant to take too much. “You’re Eleven,” he croaked. He had overheard his brother’s friends talking about her many times in the present tense, implying she was still alive. He had doubted them.

“Elle,” she said. “Not Eleven.” She pulled her gas mask from over her face to rest it on top of her head, catching it for a moment on the pompom of her pink knitted hat. She wore an oversized down-filled pink coat over her pink dress and long dark pants underneath it. Over the coat she wore a backpack. From one of the shoulder straps dangled a dull flashlight, their only source of light. She was filthy.

Jonathan stared at her, wiping his face with his sleeve, while she unscrewed the black lid of the Vader bottle. She opened her hand over the wide mouth, scraped her palm and fingers off on the rim and replaced the lid. She squirted some water from the Yoda bottle onto her hand and wiped it down her skirt. Then she looked at him. Was she waiting for him to say something?

“Where did you get all this stuff?” he asked.

“Dad. Not Papa.” Her eyes held the gravity of this distinction. “Dad.”

“Someone visits you here?”

“No. Mailbox.” Before Jonathan could ask what she meant, she stood up and stuck out her hand at him. “Hospital,” she said.

Jonathan didn’t take her hand, not because she was dirty ― everything here was dirty ― but because if he did he would pull her down by trying to pull himself up. He made it to his feet by himself, his own body a mountain to climb until he was upright. “Was that you being my compass?”

“Yes.”

“You were taking me to the hospital?”

“Yes.”

“I still need to go there?”

“Yes.”

Terror slipped into the cracks left behind by the urgency of pain. “What makes you think they can help me? How will we even get back to the …normal?”

Elle didn’t answer.

Jonathan shoved his hands into his pockets and looked up at the sky to find that there wasn’t one. In its place loomed black emptiness and floating spots. He may as well have been inside the world’s deepest cave. “Elle?”

“Yes?”

“Am I dying?”

Elle pulled on Jonathan’s arm to get his hand out of his pocket and took it, knitting her fingers between his with precision. “Yes.” She tugged him toward town.

“No, wait.” He pulled his hand back, unweaving their fingers carefully, afraid he might crack one of her knuckles. “Wait a second. You said ‘worms.’ What are those?”

“They eat you.”

Dread stuck to his ribs, gnawing at him, starving. He put his freed hand back into his pocket to slow it down, to calm it by swaddling it. None of this made any sense. “Why did you bring me here?”

Elle shook her head. “They did.”

“And your plan is take me back somehow. At the hospital.”

“Yes.”

“Where a swarm of totally unknown alien parasites could explode out of me all over anyone who’s trying to help me, which could do who knows what to who knows how many people.”

Elle was still.

“Hospitals are where vulnerable people go.”

Elle was still.

“I can’t go back.” Jonathan searched for the words to explain himself further and couldn’t find them, so he kicked one of the vines in the road. It exhaled a dense breath of particles at him, which rose as high as his knees, shimmered with the faintest flash of bioluminescence, and dissipated a mile away.

Everything was a mile away. His own feet were a mile away.

“Can’t go back,” Elle said. She was crying tearlessly, her smooth face twisted into a mask of mourning. Then she swallowed really hard with her eyes closed and forced a little smile. “I understand.”

“You do?” Jonathan didn’t.

She nodded.

That was that. He looked back and forth, skipping from pock to pock all over the crumbling road, with absolutely nowhere to run. Now what? Sit down and wait to die? Sit down and wait for one gateway to hell after another to open up inside him, consuming a little more of his sanity each time, so that by the time he approached the threshold he wouldn’t even know where he was about to go?

“I shouldn’t have given Nancy the gun,” he muttered.

“Nancy?”

“You know, Mike’s sister.”

“Pretty,” Elle said.

A tearful laugh puffed out. “Yeah. She’s pretty.”

“Pretty,” Elle repeated, but this time her mouth fell open. “Nancy.”

“That’s… that’s her.” Something was wrong. Or was it right? “What?”

Elle sprinted down the road toward town, hopscotching over twining roots and gaping pits with a lightfooted grace borne of familiarity. Jonathan tripped nearly every step as he tried to keep up. She was shrinking fast, and the light with her. The weight of the cave pressed down on his shoulders. He watched his feet. He gained speed. The shrinking light maintained its size, then grew.

Alone in the haze Elle stood on tiptoes. She pulled up one knee to make a triangle at her side, and with her arms she slowly mimed a great halo around her head. Then she tried some kind of fancy footwork and fell down, hitting the ground with both hands as if she had fallen off a skateboard. She bounced back up to her feet, sprinted a few steps in Jonathan’s direction, and tried again.

She was dancing ballet?

“Hey, what’re you doing?”

“Dancing,” said Elle. “Duh.” Staring into nothing, she hopped up onto her tiptoes and hugged a big, delicate, invisible ball. She turned a wobbly half-circle before she lost her balance and caught herself with a hard step.

“Why are you dancing?”

“Practice.” Elle got back up on her toes, staring. “Fun.” She hummed a familiar tune that Jonathan couldn’t name until a few bars in: Brahm’s Lullaby. This stare of hers was aimed very intently at a very specific and unwavering piece of nothing.

A golden pair of ballet slippers dangled from a delicate chain in Jonathan’s mind. “Can you see Nancy?” His throat flexed involuntarily. “Is she here? Is Nancy here?”

“Yes.” Elle put her swinging foot down and looked up at Jonathan as though he was a large pet. “Can’t go back,” she said, firmly.

“Nancy!” Jonathan was the one turning in circles now, impulsive circles, which widened until he looped from one side of the road to the other. “Nancy!” He put his hands on his knees to take a heaving rest as he developed heartburn, having tired more quickly than an old man. He listened. There were no wildlife sounds ― no crickets, no frogs, no night birds, and certainly no voices ― just a thick blue soup of acrid decay. “I wish I could see her too,” he confessed, out loud.

“I have one,” Elle offered, staring, waiting for him to approach her. She pulled the Vader bottle from her coat pocket and led him along the side of the road to one of many big trees. The trees along this road seemed much larger than Jonathan remembered them being in the normal. He crouched with her beside an exposed root.

The worm Elle shook from the Vader bottle was fat at one end and had a disc mouth at the other, and two inches long. It was pure black, a slimy stream of ink. A wave ran through its body from mouth to tail as it rolled across her palm. Jonathan fell off his feet, clawing at himsef with a sound stuck in his throat. His gag reflex slept on.

Elle closed her fingers around the worm and placed her other hand on the tree. A light grew within her fist, drawing glowing red lines between her fingers as it illuminated her blood like stained glass. The soulless whistling scream of a boiling lobster gave way to the creaking and groaning of the hollowing tree trunk. She opened her fist and blew a puff of weightless motes from her palm, all that was left of the worm. “Can’t go back. Just look. Promise?”

Jonathan nodded.

“Promise?”

“I promise.”

“Secret,” Elle said.

“I understand,” Jonathan replied.

He crawled into a tunnel much longer than the tree trunk was deep. Unlike the one he had once pulled Nancy from, it was clean, its walls and floor smooth with a texture of dusty ice, but warm. The aperture at the end of the tunnel, a circle of moonlight, was a faint pearlescent blue. The Hawkins breeze smelled like stale vanilla ice cream. Jonathan crawled faster. Elle’s hands closed around his ankles.

Nancy was dancing.

Coming toward him, she fell from a movement into a heavy-heeled trot, strolled a few steps and leapt into a spin with her arms bowed out and fingers splayed. Her balance escaped in the middle of it and, scraping sparse gravel, she fell to one knee. Jonathan clenched his fists but the concern was unwarranted: she sprang up fluidly as though this was all part of the game, skipped a few playful steps and continued her stroll.

Her ponytail bounced. He could see her profile, her ears, her little gold earrings. She wasn’t wearing earphones. The orchestra was all in her head. If he called, she would hear him. She would come right to him.

Nancy, I’m right here.

“Stop,” Elle whispered, tightening her grip. “Too far.”

Jonathan put his face in his hands, but he couldn’t get enough air. He grabbed at the dirt and the dead grass, wedging hard Hawkins mud under his fingernails ― the mud of home, the mud of the real world, the mud that was really a torn bedsheet, it had to be. It had to be. A scream was coming from the past, from long before he was old enough to learn not to scream. It would be here any second. There was nothing he could do about it. This was much bigger than he was.

“Secret.”

A knuckle cracked in his stomach.

The floor became a wall. Jonathan slid down and out of the tunnel in a freefall. His back pounded against his landing place, knocking his wind out and shaking dry leaves above him before he came to rest in a pile of mulch. Convinced that his lungs had forgotten how to fill again, he curled up like a shrimp, giving the monster inside him permission to do its destruction.

Elle ran to him and fell down behind him. “I’ll get it. I’m sorry,” she gasped wetly, dripping warm tears onto the side of his face. “I’m sorry! You promised! I can get it!”

The force fingers slid around in there with the nuclear waste, but it was all very far away. They poked at random parts of Jonathan’s guts, they triggered muscular reflexes. For a second they arched his spine. It was as though they were lost.

“I can get it!”

Jonathan was exhausted. “I know.”

With a precise little flick, Elle got it. She grabbed a hurried fistful of what he expelled into the dirt. “Camera. I can show her. I promise,” she said, scraping a plastic rim, and ran off.

Without any water to soothe him this time, Jonathan tasted pennies.

How long was this going to take?

Maybe it would be best for Elle not to bother getting any more.

‘Jonathan?’

Nancy’s voice swelled through the mist, chasing and tumbling over itself as it journeyed a thousand trillion miles and canceled out. The distant tree trunk groaned and snapped, bricking its own bark back into place.

Jonathan!

Are you there?

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Jonathan!

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I’m right here.

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Beyond the Silver Rainbow 3: Blue turns into grey

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Mike tiptoed past Nancy and Steve, who were discussing a lot of things he already knew about, and stepped outside. The cement was a sandpaper ice cube under his bare toes. The swim trunks were way too big but the drawstring saved the day, bunching the band around his waist like a deflated inner tube. He shivered as he crept down to the shallow end: the mist was cold, the air was cold, the snowflakes melting on his arms were cold. There was no way the water could be anything but cold too.

Mike stuck his foot into the pool. It felt like a bath. His Christmas joy swelled up within him, threatening volcanic meltdown. He chomped on his lip to stop a laugh, then sat down on the pool’s edge to control his cannonball impulse. He splashed his fingers in the water, where they waved impossibly in the light-bending ripples, backlit yet dull and distant through the mist. He held up his hand. It smoked, as if he had dipped it in dry ice.

“Cool.”

He wished the guys were here. And Elle. She could float away to a whole other galaxy in this pool ― a galaxy with a better planet than Earth, where the people based their constitution on the Jedi code and whose national food was just like pure Eggo pizza with maple syrup sauce only good for you, where things were always right side up except in stories. How much salt would that take? Like forty tons. At least.

Mike slipped into the pool and started walking toward the deeper end. This was awesome, the biggest bathtub ever, but he had no idea what to do. Splashing wasn’t allowed, there weren’t any pool toys, he couldn’t make a whirlpool all by himself and he had no one to play Marco Polo with. Treading water was boring. His feet glowed big and blue in the underwater lights, waving silently to keep him afloat.

That was it: it was silent under the surface. Down there no one could hear him. He could do whatever he liked. He pinched his nose, kicked himself up for momentum and dropped, enjoyed the momentary warm weightlessness whose familiarity he couldn’t quite name, then paddled back to the surface and caught his breath. On his next drop he pretzeled into a sort of improvised diving position and swam along to the other side the way a snorkeler would pass over the Great Barrier Reef.

At the deep end Mike surfaced, grabbed onto the edge and, emboldened, dove nearly straight down. When his elbow scraped the bottom he kept his breath. He kicked along, rising up the slope like a sea snake or a crab, as far as his lungs would let him go plus a little more than that for practice, and surfaced, gasping, near the shallow end. He had made it almost all the way across the whole pool underwater. Impressive.

Mike kept practicing, lap after diving lap. Eight laps. His head was getting fuzzy, his eyes chlorine-sore and his ears achy from repeated pressure changes. With one hand he held on to the end of the diving board and bobbed in the water.

Falling snowflakes raced each other downward through the steam. One after another he spotted them and silently encouraged them to touch the pool’s surface before the rising heat could melt them away into nothing ― but only a few made it. Only a few were big enough. The rest got nowhere, and there was nothing they could do about it.

Mike startled: a shiny black lump had gotten stuck to his scraped elbow. A leech? Leeches lived in lakes, not swimming pools. He imagined it sucking his blood and, shuddering, reached over to pull it off, but before he could grab it the lights went dark.

The pool blinked empty.

His guts balled up into his throat as the diving board slipped from his grasp.

Mike’s bare feet slammed down through a sponge and the extra momentum threw him to his knees, toward a bloated face with bulging brown eyeballs and a long, living, alien black tongue, a head wreathed in clumps of rusty hair and mucous spiderwebs. Tentacle vines strangled a grey, undead world. He thought of Elle.

The lights flickered back on and pressure needled his eardrums. He nearly inhaled water. He flailed, found a semblance of his bearings and kicked upward.

Gone.

Halfway to the surface it all flickered out again and dropped him back into the nightmare.

Mike hit bottom with his hand square on the dead face. The force of his impact tore the flesh away from the skull so easily it could have been held on by vanilla pudding. An eyeball rolled over his fingers. More black leeches squirmed among the newly bared teeth, shrinking back into the mouth in response to the sudden exposure. Mike stopped thinking.

The return of the water pulled an explosion of bubbles out of him and he swam up again. The water dropped him for only a flash, returning to catch him before he could land.

Mike reached through the water for his elbow and missed.

Lights out, he fell.

Mike’s brain told him he would land on a giant spongy Eggo instead.

Lights on, he swam.

There was no way to know when it would be safe to breathe.

Lights out, he bounced onto the other end of the sponge pile, puffing up a sulphuric garbage smell. Those big eyeglasses tangled in the webbing by his leg were familiar, sickeningly reminiscent of a handful of chance meetings and a corkboard in Nancy’s bedroom. He grabbed on to them and, dry heaving, ripped them from an amalgamation of decayed brown corduroy and elastic paper snot.

Mike risked a breath, crept his free fingers to the slimy lump on his elbow, closed his eyes and waited for the light to come back. Two breaths, three breaths, in and out, and he held it. The instant the water’s bright warmth touched his cheeks he yanked the leech from its sucking place, pushed off the bottom with all the strength left in his legs and swam up.

He was going nowhere. It was the longest swim of his life. When he surfaced he gasped only as much air as would allow him to scream again, and once he started he couldn’t stop.

“Nancy! NANCY!” He tried to pull himself out of the pool at the nearest edge, climbing with his knee over the side, but with Barbara’s glasses clutched in one hand he slipped so forcefully that he launched backwards into the pool again.

He gasped beneath the water.

The world narrowed to a pinhole.

Mike was drowning.

A pulse shoved him in the deep, and something ― a tentacle, a vine, an arm? He didn’t care ― coiled around his chest from behind. Bruising claws under his armpits hauled him up to sit in the dry where a girl was squeaking his name a million times in one long word. A rock thunked into his back and he almost threw up.

“Any time, man.”

The rock came back as a boulder and Mike puked a waterfall, then wheezed in all the air he could, and puked a stream, and kept wheezing. His chest and his nose were full of dry ice, burning and freezing him at once.

“Mikemikemikemike…”

“Nancy?” Before Mike knew it he was crying. He might have started crying before he started drowning.

“Mikemikemike…” Nancy clutched him to her chest as though he was Jonathan’s camera, rocking him, and although he was sobbing, gasping, choking, losing his mind, Mike stared into the pool, searching for the leech. It was still in there, somewhere. Hiding. Waiting to take someone else.

“We have to go,” came Steve’s grave warning from above. “If our parents find out about this it’s all over. Ambulance, questions, cops. Happy New Year Hardwood. I’m dead. We’re dead. I’ll get ―” He sprinted away.

“Nancy?”

“What happened?”

Mike held up the glasses in a deathgrip. “I know what happened to ―” he coughed “― to Barb. She’s in the pool. In the upside down. In the pool. It’s not alright. I know what happened. It’s not alright and we can’t fix it.” Barbara’s face split apart in his mind, and when it was over it split apart again. Another coughing fit came over him, suffocating him in realization, in despair, in life rolling natural snake eyes for no good reason at all.

“I know,” Nancy said. Her voice had steadied. “Eleven told us. It’s okay. I know.” She unfolded Mike’s fingers from the glasses and took them away. “Thank you.”

“What the hell is going on out there? Your time was up ten minutes ago!”

Mr. Harrington’s voice was coming from inside the garage.

“Nothing! Nothing’s going on. Just driving everybody home.”

“Why are you soaking wet?”

“I fell! Slipped. Ice I guess. I’m fine. Time to go home everybody! Come on, let’s go…” Steve fled the garage carrying a tangerine duffel bag. He fired it at Nancy with a basketball pass and it landed on the ground by her feet. “Let’s go,” he said through clenched teeth, beckoning with outstretched hands. “You get the bag, I got the kid.”

“Where’s my backpack? The camera?” Nancy said, as Steve scooped up Mike the same way Dustin had scooped up Eleven the night she disappeared ― then threw him over his shoulder.

“I got it, come on.” Steve lumbered toward the open gate, jerking Mike around and shouldering his gut so that he coughed up even more water. He felt disgusting. He wanted to go to bed. Or to a doctor. Or to his mom. He landed in the back seat of Steve’s car and flopped onto his side. Nancy slid in beside him and pulled his legs onto her lap. Steve closed her door, then looped around to the driver’s door, got in, and started the engine.

“Wait!” Mike shouted, jumping up onto his elbow.

“Can’t wait.” Steve shifted into reverse and threw an arm around the front passenger seat, craning to see behind them. “We’re going.”

“NO! Steve. Stop. There is a black leech in the pool. It stuck itself on me and it took me to the upside down. It is still in the pool. It is still alive.

Steve stared at Mike, his face fish-blank, an unlit cigarette hanging from his mouth. His outstretched arm slowly recoiled. “I should kill that,” he said.

“Please do,” Mike said, exasperated. Steve left.

“Don’t tell me the camera’s in here,” Nancy groaned, searching the duffel bag on top of Mike’s legs in her lap, “The way he threw it ― I should have taped it shut. Where is it?” The Kermit blanket flew out as fast as a prank snake from a can.

“Leggo my legs.” Mike sat up just in time to see Steve, through the windshield and the open gate, knocking a pool skimmer onto the patio. A little dot fell out. Steve stepped on the dot, jumped back a second, then slammed down on it with a murderous, grinding heel. He wiped the mess from his shoe onto the patio as one would a clump of dog crap and made his way back to the car.

“Where is it?” Nancy’s searching grew frantic. “Where is it?”

“He’s wearing your backpack.” Mike fell against the cold window. He coughed a mess onto the floor of the car. “Whoops.”

Steve returned to the driver’s seat.

“My bike!” Mike realized. “Road!”

“You gotta be…” Steve backed the car into the road, stopped, shifted out of reverse, turned forward, slammed on the brakes, got out, slammed his door, threw Mike’s bike into the trunk and slammed that too, bouncing the car like a carnival ride. When he got back behind the wheel the eyes in the rearview mirror belonged to some kind of animal.

“Thanks,” said Mike. “I mean it.”

Steve dumped a fistful of dry clothes into the passenger seat, closed his door softly, then reached back and placed Nancy’s backpack beside her before he started driving again. He accelerated at a normal rate.

“Thank God. I mean,” Nancy cleared her throat. “Thank you Steve.” She opened her backpack, looked into it and threw herself back against her seat. “Thank you.”

“Yeah, you know, whatever. Stuff.” Steve emitted a lunatic chuckle. “Would you guys gimme a minute?” He searched the seat beside him with a blind hand, then lit his cigarette. “I need to drive. A while. Around.”

Nancy pulled gifts from the duffel bag in silence: Mike’s red sweater, his coat, his jeans with his underwear still in them, his shoes with his socks still in them. No towel. No big deal. He put on his sweater and coat, looked at his jeans, and looked at Nancy. Awkward. She held up the Kermit blanket by the corners to make a privacy curtain between them. His cough nagged him while he finished changing.

Steve slapped the car’s heater on to full blast. “It screamed.” He stubbed out his cigarette in the ashtray beneath the knob. “Squealed like a pig when I stepped on it. You ever heard of a screaming leech?”

“Crazy,” said Mike.

“Is it…” Nancy looked at Mike as if he knew anything. “Are they… reproducing?”

“It had a little flower mouth and everything. At least I think so. I’m not sure.” Mike’s voice dwindled away. Sometimes his brain made things up under pressure. His breath rasped. This cough was going to nag him the rest of the night. He rubbed his arms and leaned over so more of the warm air from the front would land on him. His elbow stung.

“You shouldn’t have killed it,” Nancy said darkly. “It could have taken us to Jonathan.”

“No,” said Mike and Steve at once.

Nancy did not argue the point.

Steve made a hard left and rolled the car to a stop at the far end of the closed Fair Mart’s parking lot. The cab’s overhead light came on. Steve ruffled his hair in the mirror, then struggled out of his wet shirt and flipped a dry one around in his hands. Nancy was watching all of this with her face pink and her lip in her teeth.

Ugh. Mike snarled at her and coughed really loud to jar her out of her… Ugh. It didn’t work. Instead Nancy held the Kermit blanket up again, not to separate Steve from the rest of the car while he changed, but to hide Mike as she had before. “Ugh!” Mike put his hand on the door handle and waited for even one kissing noise, but only a period of quiet bumping and a rustle of fabric followed.

“Um, Steve? About your pool…”

“Huh?”

“It’s Barb. She’s… in there. Mike found her body.” One corner of the blanket fell. “He brought these back. The monster killed her.” Nancy’s voice pitched up. “Barb’s dead. We know for sure now.”

Steve yanked the blanket through the gap between the front seats and balled it up in his lap. “Yeah?” That animal look had come back. He stared at the fractured glasses Nancy was showing him, but he didn’t take them. “How the hell can Barbara be in my pool?”

Mike would have helped Nancy explain but he really didn’t want to talk about it.

“In the other version of your pool. In the same place but… On the other side.” Nancy wore the expression that came with trying to pull a splinter out of someone’s hand. “Is this… Are you, um…?”

“That’s shitty,” Steve said. He turned around, threw open the glove compartment and started searching through it.

Nancy’s lip wobbled only a moment before she got ugly. “Do you even care?”

Steve didn’t say anything, just kept searching. A rain of playing cards trickled from the compartment and flapped to the floor. Nancy’s eyes saucered.

“Please don’t fight,” Mike said.

“Do you even care, Steve?”

Steve found whatever it was he had been looking for and turned around, fast. “I am all out of care right now, Nance! I used it up!” He raised his fist, opened his palm to the roof, “Pkfff,” and sprinkled his fingers downward. “Reserves empty. Give me a break here.” He held up a smallish flat plum-colored box. “Barb’s honor.” He searched Nancy’s eyes. “It’s okay. They don’t bite.”

Nancy leaned forward and sniffed. “What is that?” she asked. Mike could smell it from where he sat, sweet and sour, and heavy. “Cigars?”

“Cigarillos. Stale’s better than nothing, right?”

Nancy took one. Steve held the box out toward Mike, but Nancy batted at his hand and he rescinded the offer before Mike could say No thanks. Nancy leaned toward the lighter, blinking in the brightness with the flaking miniature cigar at her mouth, but then she stopped. “Barbara would hate us for this. She hated smoking.”

“‘Fraid the glove box is all out of scotch,” Steve replied.

“She would hate that too.”

Steve killed his flame and sighed. He collected Nancy’s cigarillo and dropped it, along with his own, back into their box. “What wouldn’t she hate?”

“I don’t know, a… prayer, probably?”

The three passed an awkward look around the car and held a moment of silence.

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Beyond the Silver Rainbow 2: uphill

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Mike pedaled so hard down the road that Nancy had to lower her eyelids until they were almost closed to keep her eyeballs from freezing. “You’re fast!” she shouted into the wind.

“I’ve been practicing!” Mike yelled back.

Nancy curled her toes make sure her mother’s shoes would stay on her feet as she bumped along on the back of the bike, taking up most of the seat while Mike rode standing. His shoulders made a little seesaw in her hands. His only mistake aside from grabbing her the wrong shoes had been to tear the shoulder seam of his old gray jacket on the way down from the window, and now, lined with little white threads, it opened and closed as he moved. He was wearing a red shirt underneath it.

Nancy changed channels.

Mom would get better. Her smiles were still like rips in wrapping paper, but Dad was spending more time with her now. They were building a real relationship out of the hidden mess of things, maybe finally getting it that there were some treasures even Tupperware couldn’t preserve, no matter how good and clean and under control the container. Fear wasn’t all bad. A little fear could be good for you. Maybe it was sort of like medicine, like plant food for love.

Jonathan had never been a cafeteria type ― he was more the type to wander around outside eating from a bag ― but in late November he had materialized in the back corner of the caf where, once Nancy and Steve found him and the weather really cooled, he began to appear every day.

Their table became a comfortably silent refueling station for a party of three. It was in the glances a little and in the silence a lot that this wasn’t just an understanding, it was a pact: no parents, no mentors, no counsellors, no psychologists, no explanations, no bullshit. Everyone was here, so everything was fine. Nice, simple, case closed.

It was so nice, in fact, that sometimes ― pretty often ― Nancy didn’t even need to eat, she just recharged the ol’ intangible trifecta batteries until the first bell severed the connection and ushered her back to a life that flowed by at an arm’s length away. Tommy and Carol were not missed, Nicole was not relevant, and Nancy’s casual friendships, all of which reminded her of Barbara, froze solid to slip away into an early winter. She didn’t even know Kathy anymore.

Cold dots prickled her cheeks. While the weather had warmed just enough the last few days to melt most of the Christmas snowfall away, it had started snowing again. She peeked at the road to check where they were. Clumpy flakes danced in the wide beam of Mike’s headlamp, mirroring the atmospheric motes of the poison place. Would she ever enjoy the sight of falling snow again?

“Your next right,” she said.

“What?”

“We’ve got to make a right, up here.”

“Oh, okay.”

A racking shiver emerged from the core of Nancy’s spine, making her fight to keep her balance. Between the sense of helplessness, the choice of transportation and the slightly too-big shoes, she felt exactly like a kid in disguise. Steve would be a comfort, assuming he wouldn’t kill her for getting him in trouble by showing up so late. It was already way past ten and Nancy wasn’t the one who normally did the showing up.

Hey, wanna have a movie night after the game? Hey, Dave’s cat had kittens, let’s go see them. Hey let’s go throw some stones in the quarry, I’ll show you how to skip ’em―okay, then you can show me how to skip ’em. Hey, it’s the Benny & Friends grand reopening today, you hungry? Hey, I got an idea, lets go running―I dunno where, like around. Running’s the cool thing to do now. Let’s just run.

Steve had given her a TV and a VCR for Christmas a month early, and a few nights each week, behind an adamantly locked door in the dark, they retreated into film and beat their bad memories to ribbons until his curfew. And it worked ― it actually worked ― because this wasn’t denial, it was a rhythm of gently persistent hypnosis, maintained in the knowledge that Hawkins probably still had invisible cancer but Hey, let’s pretend. Disbelief suspended until further notice.

The only place in Nancy’s room where the new TV could fit was the top of her studying desk. Unwilling to let her grades suffer, she had accepted the painful reality and put them to sleep. Steve celebrated her first B with a ruler-thin bottle of pilfered ice wine, passed between them. No glasses. It’s not like you’re any less smart now, he said when it turned out she was in mourning. It’s just that sometimes there are better ways to prove it.

“Help me out.” said Mike.

“I know.” Nancy leaned into the turn with him and they came out of it smoothly. “D’you think I’ve never been on the back of a bike before?”

“I’ve never seen you.”

“You’ve never seen a lot of things.”

“Har har.”

The wind was quieter on this winding road, buffeted by the dense evergreens lining the street. Mike had begun to huff and puff. “We almost there? My lungs are getting frostbit.”

“Actually yeah. Right after this curve, you should see… Yep. The pool.”

Mike braked a little too hard. “Is that steam?

Behind Steve’s big grey house, an endless silver mist wafted up high and dissolved into a TV-static sky.

“Uh huh.”

“They heat their pool all through the winter?”

“I think his parents might be crazy.”

“If by crazy you mean rich,” Mike said, creeping their vehicle to a halt with his handbrakes. “Like really, really rich. Wow. I’ve never gone swimming in the winter. Outside, I mean.”

“I don’t think today’s your day.” Nancy hopped onto the road.

When Mike bent to lay his bike by the curb he stayed there, searching the ground. “Too bad,” he said absently.

“What are you doing?”

“Looking for stones. Tiny ones. Which window’s Steve’s?”

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“Holy shit, what happened to you?” Steve drew Nancy up into his arms and squeezed her so tightly she squeaked. “Why’s the kid here? All that ― that freaky business is over, right?”

“It’s probably nothing,” Nancy said, but a new tear tsunami had begun looming the moment he opened one of his front doors and now the wave crashed over her as hard as any other.

“It’s not nothing,” said Mike.

“Simmer down, little bro.” Steve’s voice hummed against Nancy’s ear through his sweatshirt. When he shushed into her hair she allowed herself a single sob and swallowed everything else, because if she let this emotional mess go on any longer she would end up subjecting him to a whole lot of crap he didn’t deserve. He had already made up for everything. She wouldn’t drag him through any more confusion than she had to.

“What’d you do kid? Didja ―”

“I didn’t do anything.”

“― punch your sister in the eye?” Steve leaned back to take Nancy’s face in his hands and stroked her temples. “Both eyes? Because that’s what it looks like.” He quieted, just for her: “I know exactly what this looks like.”

The weaker part of Nancy nearly crumbled to the stoop. “Do you know Nicole’s address?”

“Nicole?” He cocked his chin back and dropped his hands. “You mean Carol’s friend?”

“Stephen, what is this?”

Steve’s eyes lost their focus. “Heya, Pop.”

“Are you standing there with the door wide open in the middle of winter?” Mr. Harrington spoke in hushed tones and yet he boomed, as though he only lowered his voice because that was the most efficient way to roll it down the stairs. “We are not heating the outdoors.”

“You are too,” Mike mumbled. Nancy shot a foot back to kick him into silence, but only brushed his leg. He said “Ow” anyway.

“Sorry, Pop.”

“What the hell are you doing? It’s past eleven! Trying to sneak another girl in here in the middle of the night? Your mother is going to blow a gasket!”

Another girl? Nancy launched her eyebrows up at Steve. He spun around as though the look had made physical contact and scratched at the back of his head.

“I’m not trying to sneak anything.”

“Oh, I can see that! You’ve got a lot of nerve, Stephen, an abundance of nerve and less shame every day. Close that damn door for Christ’s sake!”

Nancy, who had been slowly leaning in to get a glimpse of the looming figure she still hadn’t met, found herself instead pushed steadily away by Steve’s patting hands. “Just ― one minute. Don’t go anywhere.” He guided her a step backwards. “Hold on.”

“Wait.” Mike jumped forward as the door swung closed and stuck his foot in the gap, where it bumped his shoe before it could fully shut. “Like this,” he whispered.

Nancy was about to pull Mike away when Steve, blank faced, said “K,” and turned back to his disgruntled father. It seemed the invisible man hadn’t noticed.

“― more I try to set you straight the more boldly you swing the other way, any other way. And you don’t seem to care which way, as long as it isn’t my way. Can you explain that? Explain it to me. Explain why you think it’s acceptable to throw another surprise party when you should be studying.”

Nancy flicked Mike’s ear. This was a terrible idea.

Mike shrugged. Not my fault he has a jerk for a dad.

Together they leaned in to listen.

“There’s no party. I didn’t even know they were coming.”

“They?”

“She has her little brother with her. He’s like ten years old.”

Mike was offended. Nancy tousled the snow from his hair.

“Oh, of course! Since, thanks to you, this is the house known state-wide as the place to go when kids want free liquor and a free swim, here they are.”

“I don’t know why they’re here. I think they just want to talk.”

“I am not running a public house. You watch yourself. Nobody ‘just wants to talk’ to the rich kid in town, Stephen. You would do well to get a grip on the concept of pretext. Just as you would do well to grasp the concept of study.

“Oh give me a break ―

“Don’t you dare raise your voice, young man.”

Nancy and Mike shared a look. The guy was a total mean-dad cliche. They were hearing in seriousness the sorts of things their own parents usually said in jest.

“What do you expect me to study during Christmas break?

“I expect you to study the mountain of information that flew by your pickled brains last semester, you boozing lowlife. No son of mine brings home straight Cs. No son of mine will bring home even one single C ever again. Do you understand me?”

Mike’s teeth had begun to show, his eyes to water. His foot! Steve had forgotten about it and was leaning on the door without thinking. Nancy placed her palm on the door. Mike shook his head at her really fast: No, it’s okay. Nancy pushed a little bit to save him some pain anyway.

“Yes, I understand you,” Steve said. He sounded like a different person ― one who had already heard all of this many times before.

“Do you understand Hardwood?”

“Yes, I understand Hardwood,” Steve recited.

“Six months.” Mr. Harrington’s feet creaked heavily up a few stairs.

“So can I at least talk to them?”

There was a long pause. The door bounced against Mike’s foot. He peeped a grunt of pain and immediately it began to swing open. Nancy caught the knob to hold it ― gently ― in place.

“You have twenty minutes. Use the garage.”

“Thank you,” said Steve. His father’s steps grew distant, then silent. In the exact same tone he mumbled “Fuck you,” and opened the door, carrying an uncharacteristic hunch in his shoulders. He looked from Nancy to Mike. “How’s your foot?”

“It’s fine.”

“Meet me around back.”

“Yeah, sure,” Nancy said. Steve shut the door.

What was Hardwood?

“Your boyfriend’s dad is such a dick,” Mike said, as Nancy led him past Steve’s car in the driveway and back to the rear of the house, climbing through a few crunchy snow drifts that hadn’t quite melted. “If I was in your place, I mean if I were you and I was a girl, I don’t think I’d want to marry Steve. He might be a cool guy and all but you’ve got to think of the future. His dad is not grandpa material. Would you leave that guy alone with your kids? I sure wouldn’t want to be alone with him. He’d cancel dessert over an elbow on the table. Why haven’t you told me to shut up yet? Hello?”

“Sorry, were you talking?” Nancy had heard him, distantly, without really thinking about anything he was saying.

“Nope, just singing to myself.”

Hardwood. Nancy pushed the high gate all the way open until it touched the wall. Six months. She toed the brick stopper in front of it to keep it open, just in case. Lowlife.

Through the mist floating up from the swimming pool, past an upturned snowy deck chair, the door at the backside of the Harringtons’ attached garage opened to blackness. Then the light turned on, cutting a bar of gold from the fuzzy grey-black night, and Steve emerged with a baby blue blanket in his arms. “Here,” he said, wrapping Nancy up.

“What’s this for?”

“You’re shaking. Did you guys bike here in the snow?”

“Yeah, we doubled,” Mike said. “Got here fast. I’ve been practicing.”

“Parents don’t know you’re gone?”

Nancy shook her head.

Steve guided Nancy toward the door with an arm around her, but she moved reluctantly. She hadn’t realized how cold she was, and now she shook and shuddered as if the subtle warmth of the blanket was drawing it out of her. She was so tired, she just wanted to sit down, and if she went inside there would be a place to sit down, but she couldn’t afford to sit down. “I have to talk to Nicole,” she pleaded.

Mike waved his arms around. “Can I have a blanket too?”

“On your left.” Steve pointed into the garage and Mike ran in. “So… hey.” He rubbed heat into Nancy’s shoulders. Her teeth chattered. She swore they had only started chattering just now. “What do you want with an airhead like Nicole?”

This was the moment to tell him about Jonathan. No, this was the moment to show him the camera. No, this was the moment to stomp her foot, demand an address and refuse to explain. She couldn’t do any of it. “What’s Hardwood?”

“Nuh-uh, you first.”

“And then you’ll tell me?”

Steve expelled a lungful of mist, searched the sky and casually plucked an answer from it. “Sure. Why not.”

Nancy entered the garage. The far side was occupied by a sports car with a silver-grey cover over it, which slanted down in front so that it looked vaguely like a shark. A stripe of red peeked out the bottom. Tools and pool equipment lined the walls of the nearer side, surrounding an old fraying easy chair and a sofa that had a knitted throw draped over the back. Mike was sitting in the chair, wrapped in a Kermit the Frog bedspread, tossing a can of beer between his hands.

“Michael!”

“Relax, I didn’t open it.”

“Hilarious, kid.” Steve snatched the can from Mike and held it out to Nancy. “So you’re another one who uses full names when pissed off, huh?”

“No.” Instead of accepting the beer, Nancy pulled the blanket off her shoulders and shrugged her backpack down to her forearm. “I have to show you something.” Except she couldn’t grab the zipper with her numb, shaking, stupid fingers.

“Hey.” Steve stuck out his lip, then his hand. “I got it. Trade?”

Nancy handed her backpack over with knitted brows, took the beer and instead of opening it, hugged herself. Steve began unzipping. Nancy couldn’t watch. She turned away, pulled the blue blanket back over herself and sat on the far end of the sofa with her chin on her knee. The can of beer lay abandoned in the crevace between the cushions beside her.

“The hell is this?” Jonathan’s new camera hung like an exposed corpse from the strap in Steve’s hand, its tangled flashbulb tilted at a grotesque angle. “I can’t believe it. No wait, yes I can. I should have known that asshole ― this cost me ― I was trying to ―” Steve rolled his eyes, shaking his head in bitter incredulity. “What did mister psycho stalker do, take a hammer to it in front of you? Or was it a baseball bat?”

“No!” Mike shouted. “He wouldn’t just throw it away!”

“Oh yeah what do you know, Kid Retard? You think you have any clue what ―”

“Do you even know my name? Nancy, your boyfriend’s a bigger jerk than his dad.”

“Mike!” Nancy wobbled.

“Well he is,” but the force of Mike’s conviction had left him.

Steve seemed to shrink. “Yeah, I am,” he said softly. “Sorry, Mike. Listen, your sister and I have to talk. Why don’t you…” He deposited the backpack and camera on the sofa on his way to a shelf behind it. Nancy, crouching, turned on cushioned ballerina tiptoes to watch him as he dug into a neglected pile of brown towels. “Why don’t you go for a swim?” he said. A pair of navy swim trunks sailed through the air, drawstrings flapping, and landed on Mike’s arm.

“Seriously?” said Mike, his eyes wide.

“Yeah, seriously. No cannonballs or my dad’ll knock both our heads off in one swing, got it?”

Mike jumped up with the trunks in his fist, nodding earnestly. “I’m a ghost,” he said.

“You can change by the car. Don’t scratch it.”

“Totally. Thanks Steve,” and Mike may as well have disappeared.

Nancy looked down in surprise. Jonathan’s camera had made its way back into her hands and she hadn’t even noticed. She held it close.

Steve draped the crib-sized Kermit blanket around his shoulders like a cape and flopped down onto the middle of the sofa, bouncing Nancy up and down. She reached over and pet Kermit’s nose with the backs of her fingers. “Was this yours?” she asked.

“Pff, what do you mean was it mine? It is mine.”

“I mean when you were a kid.”

“I still am a kid, whatever happened before. So are you.” The beer snapped open and hissed in Steve’s hands, startling her. “Sort of.”

“Thanks, but I’m not really in the mood. I don’t want to get drunk right now.”

“Fear of being naked is not the only thing this takes the edge off, you know that. I’m not trying to get you drunk. I’m trying to get you to stop shaking. We’ll share. It’s the only one I have anyway.” Steve took a big gulp and this time when he held it out, Nancy accepted it. “Why don’t you tell me what climbed up Byers’ ass so we can do something about it?”

She told him everything, wetting her mouth with small nervous sips between sentences. She told him about the tentative plans for some kind of multi-family New Years’ Eve party, the long peaceful walk to Jonathan’s house, the way an instinct or the wind blew her toward that tiny little glint in the frozen ditch before she got there. She backtracked into places she loathed to tread ― the dying deer, the slimy habitat to which it had been taken, the shrinking doorway that Jonathan had just barely pulled her out of ― while Steve, rapt, finished most of the beer himself. Then she jumped ahead to Mike’s discovery of the differently branded camera strap. She was perfectly honest about every fact and perfectly secretive about every feeling. Almost every feeling.

“Jonathan’s a really good person,” she finished, having dented a long crescent moon pattern into the leather strap with her nail. “He is sane, and smart, and… gentle.

Steve scoffed, but a look proved it was mostly in good humor.

“You weren’t there when I gave this to him. You haven’t seen how he is with Will. And I mean, if he wanted to be resentful or jealous or something he would sell it, or trade it in for a different one, not throw it away. He couldn’t afford to throw it away. It’s too valuable to lose.”

“Assuming he has no pride,” Steve said, rubbing his jaw. “So now you want to bug Nicole because she’s in the photography club?”

“Right.”

“I don’t think she has a dark room at home, Nance.”

“Well, whatever. She can tell us what to do. Maybe she has the chemicals, or a book. Anything.”

“You’re forgetting she’s also an airhead. Why don’t we just go to the cops?”

“Because they’ll shut us out. They tried to shut us out last time. We had to steal our own equipment back and trap the monster in secret. That’s why we were alone in his house when you found us.” Nancy played with the lens, tried to straighten it within its casing, gave up and found reluctant sympathy in Steve’s eyes. “Mike is right. We need to know what’s in this camera. We need as much information as we can get before we tell the police.”

“Did you even call the guy’s mom?”

“Their phone doesn’t ring. The last time Will was over to see my brother he told my mom they’re taking a break from phone calls until the new year. I guess they want some peace and quiet. Anyway…” Nancy took the beer from Steve’s hand to steal the last (flat and kinda gross) sip. “Hardwood.”

Steve swatted at his ear as though beseiged by a mosquito and looked around the room, the turn of his head following an invisible yet riveting menace. “Mumblarycool,” he said.

“What?”

“You know.” He broke into a coughing fit. “Mistle,” he hacked into his hand, “Mistlewary school.”

Nancy nearly choked for real. “Military school? Your dad is sending you to military school?”

He shrugged, frowning. “I don’t know why you’re so worried. There won’t be any other girls there.”

“Steve!”

“I’ve still got a whole semester to fix my grades before he registers me. You can help me study. You’re even familiar with my learning style. It’ll be cake.”

Nancy put on her sceptic hat. “Your learning style?”

“Strip studying: the fastest way to straight As.”

“So when you said your dad was a ‘grade A asshole,’ you actually meant it?”

Steve was taken aback. “Huh. I guess I did. How did you even remember that?” He leaned in, dominating Nancy’s field of view. “The girl’s got a photographic memory and a beautiful voice. I’ll just lay around listening while she tells me everything I need to know and then I’ll ace every single test. I’m telling you: cake.”

Nancy shut her eyes and sighed. School didn’t work that way. Before she could say so Steve was kissing her, sliding his fingers up the nape of her neck, tonguing the seam of her lips with the gentlest persistence, but she put a hand on his collar, kept the kiss chaste and ended it with a deep inhale and a savoring smack. It felt good to smile again. It also felt guilty. “We’ve already been here too long. We need to get Mike out of the pool and ― Aw crap, wet hair on the bike? It’ll kill him.”

“So I’ll drive. Nicole’s around the long corner from Jonathan’s place, lucky us. She’s the one we get ― we got ― all the…” Steve was in the middle of regretting this sentence. “…Byers stories from.”

Byers stories, as if a family could be reduced to a situation comedy. Nancy shook off her disgust. “Your dad’s okay with you going out?”

“Nah, but so what? Screw him. Things to see, people to do. I’ll make ―” Steve’s eyes bugged.

Nancy’s heart crashed into her legs.

Mike was screaming.

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Beyond the Silver Rainbow 1: Rivers flow

Fiction following season one of ‘Stranger Things.’

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“At first the witch was tempted to run away from Dorothy, but she happened to look into the child’s eyes and saw she had a simple soul. The little girl did not know of the wonderful power of the Silver Shoes. The Wicked Witch laughed to herself and thought, ‘I can still make her my slave, for she does not know how to use her power.'”
― L. Frank Baum, The Wizard of Oz

“One of the highest pleasures is to be more or less unconscious of one’s own existence, to be absorbed in interesting sights, sounds, places, and people. Conversely, one of the greatest pains is to be self-conscious, to feel unabsorbed and cut off from the community and the surrounding world.”
― Alan W. Watts, The Wisdom of Insecurity

“I wish to paint in such a manner as if I were photographing dreams.”
― Zdzisław Beksiński

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Mike heard Nancy sniffing as he walked to his room after brushing his teeth, so he approached the glow at the crack of her bedroom door. She sobbed dryly to herself, crying more quietly than he thought normal girls ever did.

“Nancy?” Mike put his eye to the light. His sister lay on her bed, facing the window and curled up in a ball so all he could see was her bony back and stringy hair. “…Nance?”

“Go away.”

He wanted to. He was only trying to be nice and she was acting like a jerk. So Steve dumped you already? He could have said it. You didn’t make out with him as much as he wanted you to so he found a new girlfriend, right? “Nancy, come on.”

“Michael, screw off!”

No wait, I bet it’s the dragon breath, that’s why he dumped you. I should tell Mom and Dad so they can ground you again for never brushing your teeth. Grounding her hadn’t worked so they gave her special flavored toothpaste that smelled like bubblegum and Mike had never been allowed to have any. Sure it was a million years ago but it still sucked.

He took a deep breath. They couldn’t fight anymore. Nothing was the same anymore. He held tight to the doorknob and kept his fingers clear of the edge in case Nancy might launch up from the bed and try to slam it in his face, like that time she’d almost busted his nose over a missing (firecrackered) Barbie head. “We’re supposed to tell each other everything now, remember?”

“No we’re not. We were supposed to when we were still trying to find Will and Barb, but now Will’s back and Barb’s gone forever so if you would just leave me alone please.

“You don’t know Barb’s gone forever. She might be –”

Nancy roared her frustration and bounced her bedsprings. Afraid she was coming at him, Mike kicked the door open and held out his hands to defend himself, but through his cringing squint he found she wasn’t there. She wasn’t even on the bed. She was gone. What if that yell had been — Oh no. “Uh… Where…”

“I’m down here, stupid. Close the door.”

On the floor, Nancy’s wiggling feet stuck out from behind the far side of the bed. Her pale pink socks were splattered with dried mud and the soles were brown. Mike closed the door until it clicked.

“You can come in but don’t look at me,” Nancy said.

Mike leaned on the curly white frame at the end of the bed and put an elbow over it. “Why, did you grow a third eye or something?”

“I’ve always had a third eye. It’s how I know when you come in here and take my stuff.”

“I don’t take your stuff!”

“You took my dress for your girlfriend.”

Mike decided not to let the word bother him. His heart was still thumping a little too hard from that dumb scare a minute ago and he didn’t want to give it anything else to wig out over. “Lucas found your dress in the basement. And you didn’t know we took it until you saw her wearing it, so I know you don’t have a third eye.”

In her hiding place beside the bed, Nancy took a big, shuddering breath. “Jonathan has a third eye, in a way.”

“Huh?”

“But now I have it.”

“You… What? You’re being weird.”

“I found it on the side of the road.”

“You found Jonathan’s third eye on the side of the road?”

“Basically.”

“Nancy, are you on drugs?” Mike leaned over to see her laying on her stomach with her head in her arms. “Did Steve give you drugs? Is that what’s wrong?”

Mike thought Nancy had started crying again from the way she shook, but then she sat up, wiping her face with fisted sweater sleeves, and despite her red blotches and puffy lizard eyes she was smiling. Maybe almost laughing. “No you booger, Steve didn’t give me any drugs.” She leaned onto her bed and reached under her pillow, then stopped to aim a harsh look at Mike. “Keep a secret? I’m dead serious.”

“Of course. I promise.”

“Dead fucking serious.”

“I promise!”

“He gave me this.” Carefully, and with suddenly shivering hands, Nancy pulled a black and silver object from underneath her pillow. A dangling strap, a tubular lens. Nancy’s expression began to crumple, so Mike thrust his hands out and took the camera from her. She immediately folded her arms on the edge of the bed and hid her face in their nest. “Steve bought it for me to give to Jonathan for Christmas because his last one broke.” Her voice grated. “Anyway, I gave it to him, but…”

The camera, heavy in Mike’s hands, was streaked with dirt like Nancy’s socks. It felt expensive. Will’s family was poor. He turned it over, inspecting it. The lens was broken, rattling around inside its casing, and the flash was bent to the side. “You found this on the ground?”

“By his house. I went to ask him if he’s working New Years’ Eve and there it was in the ditch. I don’t even know how I noticed it, it was so dark. I just felt like I should look there, like my head — Whatever, my head’s screwed up, I can’t think yet. I just ran home. I’m still trying to calm down.”

“Are you sure it’s the same camera?”

“I kept the receipt in case it wasn’t… I don’t know, in case it wasn’t right. It’s the new one.”

“Did it come with a strap too?”

“What? Are you seriously geeking out over this? Who cares?”

Mike rolled his eyes. “If Jonathan put the strap on it himself that means he was actually using it and didn’t just throw it away.”

Nancy’s head shot up. Her anger was hideous. “He wouldn’t just throw it away!”

“I know.” Mike held out his hand and gestured downward with it. “I know he wouldn’t. I’m just saying. I’m just trying to think, okay?” Nancy put her face back into her arms. “It would be…” He didn’t want to say this. Puzzles were a lot easier to take than real life, or at least they were easier than what real life was turning into. “It would be better if he had just thrown it away. You know?”

“Yeah.” Nancy sniffed loudly. It was gross. “I know.”

Mike inspected the strap, wiping mud flakes away with his thumb, and discovered tiny lettering stamped into the leather: Canon. He checked the camera: above the lens the logo read Pentax. The fear came back again and didn’t go away. Instead it spread into his arms and legs, itching and aching, stupidly telling him to run somewhere, anywhere. “The strap is a different brand. He was definitely using the camera.”

“In the dark, in the winter?”

“Who knows? It could have been this afternoon. Maybe he had the day off work.” Mike tapped all eight fingers on the camera’s body in a frantic rhythm. “But he was using it. He was taking pictures.” His fingers stilled. “He was taking pictures! Hey, you didn’t open the back, did you?”

“I didn’t, and it was closed when I found it. But… Mike?” When Nancy lifted her head this time, she looked different, worse than upset: her tearful grimace had relaxed to hopelessness. “We already know what took him. There’s another thing out there. Even if he got a picture of it, so what? We know what it looks like. We know what happened.”

“No we don’t.”

“We know what happened to Barb.”

“No, we don’t. We know what happened to Will.”

Nancy smiled a tiny little bit, the sort of smile old people saved for kids they thought were being cute.

Mike glared at her. He was not being cute. “If he didn’t just lose the camera by accident, if something… got him, we’ll probably have to tell someone so they can go into the upside down and find him, which is dangerous, and if we hand this over for evidence we’ll never see it again. And for all we know we might be freaking out a ton of people for no reason. You want to do all that without knowing for ourselves exactly what he saw?” He held up the camera and shook it for emphasis. “Without seeing through his eye?”

Nancy clapped her hands to the top and bottom of the camera. “Then don’t wave the thing around, you’ll trip the catch and expose the film.”

“Okay, so. I have no idea how to develop pictures.”

“I have an idea. He showed me once, but… ” Nancy crunched her eyes shut, froze for a brain-racking moment and shook her head. “I can’t. I don’t have all the details. I was too worried about Barbara.”

“Do you know anyone who could help?”

Nancy dropped her gaze. “Shit,” she murmured.

“No?”

“Yes. She’s just not someone I want to talk to.”

“Can you go talk to her tonight? Can we go right now?”

“It’s after nine!”

“So we’ll pretend we’re asleep first.”

“And it’s freezing.”

“So bundle up. We’ll take my bike and get there fast. I’ll double ride you. You’re really small for a big sister.”

“No, Mike. No. I’m not bringing my litte brother to… I don’t… ugh.” Nancy hung her head. “I hardly know her. I don’t even know where she lives.”

“Who do you know that knows where she lives? We’ll go see them first and they’ll tell us where to go!”

“Mike! Would you please back off?” Nancy was wasting time cowering and making faces when she should have been planning. “You’re like some kind of… frog… jumping around in my face, some slimy little toad… thing…”

“Toads aren’t slimy. They’re an entirely differen –”

“Shut UP Mike!” Nancy yanked the camera out of his hands and bundled it to her chest. The hideous burning anger had returned to her face. “You’re so — You’re just –”

Mike backed away until he bumped into the new TV on Nancy’s desk. This was not the reaction he had expected. He didn’t know what he had expected. This was exactly what he should have expected. “Sorry,” he said. “I get really focused sometimes.”

Nancy stood slowly. “You mean obsessed.”

“I mean I want to do something about Will’s brother before their mom gets any clue anything is wrong! What do you want to do, sit around crying all night like a little girl?”

“I thought you said you were sorry.”

“I am sorry. But I still want to do something.”

“Sexist twerp,” Nancy grumbled, hugging the camera close as if it was her baby and Mike was trying to eat it.

“No. I am not that. You shut up. Elle is way younger than you and she’s more grown up than anyone I’ve ever met, guys included. Whether you’re being a little girl or not is in here.” Mike tapped his temple. “Come with me. Let’s get this done.”

“No, you shut up,” Nancy hissed, clearly wishing she could shout at him. “I am not going to just stand here while my dumb kid brother lectures me about growing up. You have no idea what I’ve done or what I can do. Don’t you dare talk to me like that again. Let’s go.”

Mike blinked. “What?”

“I said let’s go. You go to bed, I go to bed, then Mom and Dad go to bed. Then you get our coats and shoes in perfect slience without waking Holly and come back up here. We’ll go out my window and take your bike to Steve’s because he knows where Nicole lives. Okay?”

“Uh. Yeah. Yeah, okay. Sounds great.” Mike put his hand on the doorknob, then stopped himself. “Wait. Dad sleeps in his chair in the back room. My stuff’s at the back door. I can’t get past him. He’ll be watching TV ’til who knows how late.”

Nancy smiled slyly, squinting her already squinty eyes. “Not since the whole incident when those bigwigs tossed the house,” she said. “They’ve been back in their bedroom for weeks now. Remember Christmas?”

Of course Mike remembered Christmas, it was four days ago. He remembered dragging Nancy out of bed and not letting go of her wrist no matter how many times she swatted him. He remembered pouncing onto the foot of his parents’ bed and jumping around as if he was ten again, overwhelmed with a joy that seemed to erupt from nowhere. His parents — both of them — hugged him in turn, while Nancy apologized for failing to rein him in. “Duh.”

“One more thing,” Nancy said, kneeling beside her bed. She flipped up her pastel bedspread and slid her arm under the mattress. “I’m going to have this on me just in case, and I want you to be prepared if you see it. Don’t touch it and don’t tell Steve. Don’t tell anyone.”

Nancy had a gun.

“What the fuck!?” Mike said, then covered his mouth right after. “Is it loaded?”

“Not right now, but it will be. Or it might be.” Hanging from Nancy’s hand the gun looked as dark and heavy as a black hole. She pointed it at the floor and fiddled with it, opening the chamber and closing it again. “It always might be loaded, even when it isn’t. Remember that, okay? And don’t ever touch it.” She stared at Mike, her lip trembling in emphasis. “Never, ever.”

“I could handle it if I had to.”

“Have you ever even held one before?”

“No.”

“Then don’t touch it.”

“Well how am I ever supposed to learn…?” But Nancy’s evil eye cut him off. He tried another avenue: “Where did you get it?”

“Jonathan gave it to me. It wasn’t really his to give away but he wanted me to have it just in case, so… Here it is. Merry Christmas.” A shyness came over Nancy in that moment, a ducking of the head, a twinkling guilt as though she had been caught doing something wrong but didn’t know whether to feel bad about it.

It must have been Will’s mom’s gun. Nancy probably knew she wasn’t supposed to have it, but this was not the time to bug her to give it back.

“You and Jonathan are pretty good friends now, huh?”

“Yeah.” Nancy was calm. She slid the gun beneath her pillow where the camera had been. “We’re good friends.”

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Mater Artium: A Time Lapse

Fiction for the 2001 film ‘Kate & Leopold.’
Necessity is the mother of invention.

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Kate relaxed into the leading rhythm of Leopold’s dance steps, her lips still damp from his unreserved kiss, and watched her new audience watching her. Handlebar moustaches and crisp collars brought friendlier faces than did flat curls and lace: the women were unhappy with her.

Whilst turning along with Leopold she spotted an expression of jealousy among the other dancers, then one of disappointment, then another of confusion, and yet all the while the palpable otherness separating her from her surroundings contained the girls’ distaste so that it couldn’t touch her. These weren’t merely the faces of strangers, they were entirely alien to her. They were sepia photographs, colorized.

All of these people are dead.

Seeking comfort in familiarity, Kate caught Leopold gazing down at her, his pupils wide and dark, his smile soft. Unafraid, he did not glance away. He was in love for the first time. He had no idea how much it could hurt, and he was beautiful.

Leopold is dead.

Whirling, she tripped. Leopold caught her in a swift improvisation so that it seemed she hadn’t faltered at all, and they shared a little laugh, but her existential vertigo caught up with her.

I’m dead.

Kate sought stability in the glowing globes of the electric chandeliers overhead but they drew uneasy trails across her vision, evoking motion sickness. A function in the back of her mind counted the decades ahead.

1886, 1896, 1906, 1916.

She tried to ground herself in the beauty of the big bouquets of lilies and roses bordering the ballroom, but the thought of their purfume nauseated her further.

1886, 1896, 1906, 1916.

She would be in her seventies during the first world war. She would probably miss the second altogether.

I’ve been dead for a very long time.

Kate felt tossed about in a wooden machine, as though Leopold was only a figure in a robotic puppet display that had whirred through these exact motions a gazillion times before, and she was the sole living occupant of the whole apparatus, hanging pliably from his automatic arms.

“Kate?”

She couldn’t find a single word for him. Her heart siphoned strength from her limbs to fuel its roaring pace. The dance escaped her grasp as the music succumbed to ringing. She felt her smile slip away.

“Kate, are you all right?”

The ballroom rose up to heaven.

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The Season of Denial: The Beast

Fiction for the 2004 film ‘Van Helsing.’
A haunted man is a hunted man.

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“There are moments, psychologists tell us, when the passion for sin, or for what the world calls sin, so dominates a nature that every fibre of the body, as every cell of the brain, seems to be instinct with fearful impulses. Men and women at such moments lose the freedom of their will. They move to their terrible end as automatons move. Choice is taken from them, and conscience is either killed, or, if it lives at all, lives but to give rebellion its fascination and disobedience its charm. For all sins, as theologians weary not of reminding us, are sins of disobedience. When that high spirit, that morning star of evil, fell from heaven, it was as a rebel that he fell.”
– Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray

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Prologue [†] The Beast

Although Van Helsing had left Transylvania with Friar Carl bearing witness by his side, he could not escape the place. The entire voyage back to the Croatian ports, over piercing mountains and through sleeping valleys, while he soothed the horses and skinned small game, he lived in only one moment, a moment which refused to heed its own passing. The moment latched on to his back with a razor grip, tore at his shoulder blades like a rabid cat and whispered itself into his ear in an eternal mantra.

He had wanted to remain a werewolf.

His hands ached for claws, his mouth for fangs, his eyes and ears for the heightened senses of the beast. When he yeilded to his desire, while numb from riding or reclined beside a crackling campfire, he salivated; and when he steeled himself against it, his paltry muscles cramped and his skull throbbed. As days of travel passed the physical symptoms subsided, but the moment remained. Memory remained. Anna Valerious remained, gripping the threat of her syringe, throwing herself toward him at a desperate pace with the purest intent to rescue him from the very thing he had come to want more than anything else, more even than to protect her from harm.

It was not the wolf who had killed her. The wolf had only tracked down the part of his soul that longed to be monstrous and delivered it the means. He had known her intent, found her a nuisance and murdered her himself. Of course it was that way. Of course the beast had not overrun the will of the man. If it had, it would have been too late, and the antidote Anna thrust into his gut as he destroyed her would have had no effect upon him at all.

So, absent any other choice, Van Helsing lived in that secret moment. He looked into the wild eyes of snared rabbits, then broke their necks as he had broken hers. He skinned them having never undressed her, he gutted them having never entered her, and he cooked them over her pyre; and, because his journey found the weight and care of cutlery impractical, he consumed them without civility, tearing mouthfuls of meat from their carcasses with itching teeth. The first time he ate such a meal he vomited his full belly into a quiet creek, but after that he was all right. He would be all right.

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A Very Empty Place

Fiction for Game of Thrones S7E3, “The Queen’s Justice.”
Jon catches up with Tyrion after meeting Daenerys.
August 2017

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Jon didn’t like his new chambers at Dragonstone. A moment ago, in exasperated pursuit of a crunching noise that chased every one of his tosses and turns, he had stuffed his hand down into the corner where the bed met the wall and pulled out a flattened corn husk doll. Half its face was smeared black, and a folded bit of parchment had been sewn to one of its hands as a book. The Baratheon girl had made the sad little thing herself.

He got out of bed and set the toy gently upon the hearth’s vermillion embers, where an ugly white instant transformed it into nothing and weightless ash. It could be worse, he thought, as he shoved himself back under the covers. He could be stuck in Arya’s old bed instead, stuck with the pointy end of a dead girl’s hidden needle.

A soft knocking fell upon the lower part of one of the chamber’s double doors. “So you are awake,” it said.

“So I am.”

“I’ve come in the hope that I might catch you without your armor, not that I would fault a man in your position for wearing it to bed.”

Jon rolled over, slammed his eyes shut and pulled the furs up over his ear — but he didn’t really mean it.

“Yes, I thought you would be difficult to woo.” Tyrion must have been standing at the perfect height to speak directly through the keyhole. “I brought you a present. That is, I brought your belly a present. But it has to share.”

Jon put on his tunic and took up his pieced-pelt blanket for his shoulders. “How long have you been standing out there?”

“Oh…” Tyrion estimated, and then left it hanging instead of answering. “Did you know I quit drinking? I’m very experienced in the field of quitting drinking. I’ve quit drinking twenty times since I arrived on this rock. Tomorrow I’ll make that twenty-one. You see, just now I had a bad dream and woke up in an empty bed. It was a particularly bad dream, in a particularly empty bed.”

“And so now what?” Jon placed two old half-logs upon the embers. Their fraying bark started up without help, lighting the room well enough. “You want to climb into mine?”

“I’d vie for a cuddle with the mother of dragons but her children have grown quite large, not to mention a little unfriendly. Her bed must be the only place in this unthinkably cavernous stronghold with no extra room. For example, I am the sole inhabitant of the entire southeast wing. You may not have noticed, but it seems to me that on the whole this world is becoming a very empty place.”

Jon opened a door. “Why wouldn’t I have noticed?”

“I don’t know.” Tyrion rocked onto his tiptoes, looking up through a dark and beardy mop. “A turn of phrase.”

“A lot of nothing important.” Jon took the near-empty bottle from Tyrion’s raised hand and swigged. “And if that’s what you’re here to offer, not treatises or… deals, or diplomacy, I’ll take it.”

“I’m not sure that’s an expectation I can live up to. There isn’t much room left in me for unimportant things anymore. It’s no wonder I feel out of place in this keep. I have nothing in common with it.”

“Having something in common with it won’t help.” Jon turned to make way, emptied the bottle he had taken and set it down by the door. He felt he was being stared at but didn’t check over his shoulder.

“All keeps are haunted,” Tyrion said, as he tottered in and hopped up to sit at the table. “Just like everyone still living in them.”

Jon took the other chair. “You still talk like a poet.”

“A conjurer.” Two small horns and a fresh skein appeared in Tyrion’s hands. “Spells to ward off the ghosts. Eye of newt, grape of vine, figure of speech.” He poured a rich violet drink, likely more fortification than wine, into one of the cups. “The purplest of prose,” he finished, and slid it out toward Jon by its base before pouring his own.

Stars winked in through the latticework blocking the windows. Jon had a mind to bash those windows clear. The suffocating shutters and the bars on the double doors made this room far too like a prison. “Why did you put me in here, of all places?”

“I advised the Queen to lodge you in Shireen’s old quarters because Sir Davos will be inclined to avoid them.”

“Why?”

“To prevent you having him in your ear for too long whilst shut up in private,” Tyrion said.

“Why?”

“Because exercise, sunlight and fresh air clear the cobwebs from between men’s ears better than any maid.”

“You put me in a dead child’s bed for my own good?”

“No, the Queen did. For Seaworth’s good more than for yours.”

“By your recommendation.”

“Yes, by my recommendation. Trust me when I emphasize how well I understand the damage that can be done to a period of mourning by excessive solitude. I understand it intimately. If Seaworth wishes to avoid this room for ever, he may. If he wishes instead to confront it, he now has the perfect excuse. And your presence breathes new life into it: a persistent reminder that there is such a thing as the future. I may be a torturer, but I am a benevolent one.”

Jon smiled a little into his cup and covered it by drinking. “How did you find out what happened?”

“No man’s family is safe under a king who would burn his own heir alive. A few high ranking defectors have since pledged their swords to a new monarch, and in the process explained why.”

“I don’t understand it, what they did to her. I tried to relate.” The venom in Lady Catelyn’s unmotherly stares had been only one side of the blade that ran through Jon’s youth. The other side he remembered by sound: groans of stressed branchwood as her labor bore a prayer wheel at his bedside, while her mournful croaks and whispers warped the nursery songs he knew. When he roused from his fever he found the totem’s taut fibers stained by spots of dried blood. Even she couldn’t have done such a thing; not even to him. “I can’t.”

“Filicide,” Tyrion said. “The deliberate act of killing one’s own child. Filicidal inclinations are far more common than most people are willing to admit. We could blame it on a child’s failure to live up to a parent’s vicarious projections, or upon a child’s success in living up to a parent’s deepest insecurities, but I think that for Stannis it was relatively simple. He believed that to give his daughter’s life would be the ultimate sacrifice in service to his subjects. He did it for his people.”

“Duty is the death of love,” Jon realized.

“He who abandons either is lost,” murmured Tyrion. “He who abandons both is me.”

Jon broke the ensuing silence by approaching the nearest window, shoulders held wide as if he would brawl with it. He plucked the old candlestubs from the sill and dislodged the latticework shutter from its place. The air outside was cold but still, the sea and sky like two panes of black glass. “I heard about your father,” he said, and turned to look Tyrion in the eye. “Did you do it?”

Tyrion decidedly preoccupied himself with the task of gulping down the rest of his cup. He poured more, right up to the brim — meticulously so. “Everyone knows I killed my nephew and everyone knows I killed my father,” he said, openly slurring for the first time. “They are only wrong about the first one. It hardly bothers me anymore. I had Tywin Lannister in my sights when I took my fateful wrong turn once freed from the cells. But do you know who else I murdered that night?”

Solemnly, Jon waited.

“I murdered the whore who betrayed me. When I happened upon her in the Hand’s chambers she tried to stab me with a cheese knife, so I took her by her golden chains and strangled her to death with them. Golden chains! I had given them to her myself. She clearly hated them, took umbrage at their irony, and yet still she wore them — to impress my father, anyway. I felt like a child clinging to the reins of a rearing horse. At any moment she would work up a good swing and use the momentum to bash me into the bedpost. I was sure of it. Any moment. But then she just…” The imp then farted with his mouth, a longer fart than any sober man would make. “Died. I win!” He toasted toward the ceiling, sloshing a spatter of wine onto his brow, and as he wiped it off he spotted Jon, who had seated himself back at the table again. “Now that’s a sour look,” he said, playing at a wounding.

Jon made fists under his furs and mumbled, “But you loved her?”

“Yes, of course. Of course I did. Even if I hadn’t before, I have to now. If a woman dies in your arms you’re required to love her, even if you’re the one who killed her, even if she was trying to kill you.” Tyrion waved his winglike little hand along with his own words as though they were music — mournful, playful, hideous music. “Even if you had never seen her face before in your life, by having felt her spirit slip away you are beholden to love her until the end of your days. It’s the rules.”

Tyrion had just thrown a dead lover at Jon’s feet for a bit of entertainment, or self-indulgence, or friendmaking, or whatever this was supposed to be. Although he tried to speak in confidence, his response was thunderous: “If you loved her you should never tell anyone about what happened. Not any of it. I don’t deserve to know. Your best friend doesn’t deserve to know. The servants always lurking round the doorways don’t deserve to know.” A scuffling scurry of footsteps started up in the next room and faded down the hall, dragging most of Jon’s anger away with it as Tyrion pursed his lips to fight a laugh. “No one is good enough to know,” Jon reiterated. “Do her that honor, at the very least.”

“Such sobering authority, Snow. You speak as though you already know quite a lot about this sort of thing. Perhaps more than you deserve.”

Jon fell back in his chair and contemplated the fire, contemplated jumping in. “I do know something about it.”

The next pause was pregnant, for Tyrion was expecting: he stood up on his seat, leaned across the table by his elbows and stared, grinning in what was surely the way that had earned him most of his nicknames.

Jon’s eyes smiled back, leaving the rest of him behind. “I’d rather not.”

Tyrion thumbed at a scuffmark upon the table. “Maybe some day.”

“Probably not.”

“Oh, goody. I happen to be adept in matters of probability.” Tyrion topped up Jon’s cup quickly, as though afraid he might shield it if given the chance. “Let’s play a game.”

“Aren’t you a bit old for games?”

“Not for this game. Not for a lot of games, in fact. They say I never grew up. Here’s how this game works: I make a guess about your history. If I’m wrong, I drink. If I’m right, I drink. Wait, no, if I’m wrong, I — I mean if I’m right, you drink. And by the way, when one of us is wrong it’s the other’s turn to ask a question.”

That sounded like a lot to keep in fuzzy mind at once. “I’m afraid I don’t have much time for games these days.”

“Oh, yes, of course. Selfish of me. There’s so much to do. Great halls to rank by echo, great cliffs to mope across, your hair to slather with oil. And all of it before noon tomorrow. How’s this: I’ll save us some time by giving you a head start.” Tyrion finished his drink, poured another, finished that, and filled his horn again. “If you play competently I’ll be too handicapped to remember any of this. Now, go ahead. Tell me about my past.”

“You killed both your father and the whore who betrayed you in the same night.”

Tyrion clicked his tongue, scowling in condemnation. “That’s not fair. It has to be something I haven’t already told you.”

“You’ve narrowed my options down a lot. That’s not fair either.”

“Fine, I’ll grant you this one, but next time be creative.” He drank. “My turn, fuck the rules. You died and were brought back to life.”

Seven hells. “I thought you wanted to talk about a woman.”

“I do. The red woman is the one who did it.” The little man was extremely pleased with himself. “That’s two in a row for you.” Jon drank as he was bid, but it didn’t get the halfman off his back. Tyrion was transfixed by him, reading back and forth between his eyes as though he had a book for a face. “What was it like?” he finally demanded, almost gleefully.

“It hurt.”

“And then?”

It was hard to find the answer, hard to find a way to talk about the lack of a thing that was indefinable even when present. “There’s been an empty… blackness, but invisible, for a long time. I feel I’ve woken up in the middle of a long night. The long night, as though there’s truly only one, always waiting. Perhaps I brought it back with me.”

Tyrion’s gleefulness had gone away. “Is the dawn coming?”

“I don’t know. I can’t really touch the dark, the edges of it. Can’t pull it aside. I might be stuck here. But it is getting a bit less…” Jon took in a deep expansive breath as though it were a word, aware that he was making little sense.

“Oppressive?”

“Something like that,” said Jon, through a big sigh.

Tyrion sat back with his eyes closed, perhaps offering some privacy, perhaps passing out drunk. As his head lolled on the chairback, making the latter seem ever more likely, Jon felt ever more willing to put words into the air.

He directed them at the floor, and the fire: “After I got brought back, it was a week before I could think about anything but her, about how I hadn’t seen her when I was there. Hadn’t seen anything there, hadn’t really been anywhere at all. I thought I might go out past the wall again, pull her black bones from the pyre ashes, put them in that woman’s arms like a bundle of firewood. ‘Do your best, you have to do your best. You’ll be my prisoner until you’ve done your best, and I’ll know because I’ve seen what your best looks like.’ It was stupid. But even now it’s there, when I put my head down, when I wake up. A faggot of bones for the fire god. You’re lucky you can find an empty bed. I can’t. I wish I could.”

“Do you really wish you could?” Tyrion spoke without moving. He didn’t sound drunk anymore, only sleepy. “Truly?”

A white scar had crossed the first three knuckles of Ygritte’s right hand. The story that went with it began with one stolen rabbit, three boys and a promise to eat them in revenge. The best part was, they’d believed her. Two of them shit themselves. The third slashed her while she was laughing. That was the day she left the spear for the bow. When she pulled, the scar would pucker tight like it might split open again. “No.”

“When you want to let her go, you’ll let her go. Don’t waste your energy running in circles playing victim to yourself. Too many others seek to victimize you.”

“Do they?”

“Well — I don’t mean here. I mean general. You’re a king! That means everyone wants your throat.”

“But only in general. So, not here.”

“Exactly.”

“The Targaryen, she doesn’t want my throat. Or my head.”

“No.” Tyrion took up his drink again, slow this time, with the thoughtful grace of a performer. “What Queen Daenerys wants is your hand,” he said, and sipped.

“What could she possibly want with Seaworth when she’s got you?”

Tyrion put a fist over his mouth, his eyes watery and strained with humor. He looked like he had choked, or was about to.

Jon’s bellyful of wine expressed a desire to share. “…Oh.”

“I shouldn’t have said that, but you should be prepared to negotiate. Mind, it’s not expressly true, only my own conjecture. She came to Westeros willing to marry to forge an alliance, if necessary. My sister is essentially taken, by both my brother and by her own psychotic thirst for vengeance, poor Yara is in no way available and the other Ironborn fellow is irredeemable, so that leaves you.”

The Targaryen had looked like a child empress when Jon first found her in the throne room, drawn demurely in on herself, an unassuming little white and grey doll that would not burn; and then she had blown in toward him from her seat of stone, grew steadily from wisp to thunderhead, became fulmination and flame, gnashed her teeth, a righteous beast drunk on a far more disarming brew than Tyrion Lannister’s gut-melting blend of stiffly fortified wine.

“Well, don’t you look terrified. What in the world are you thinking right now?”

“I don’t want to remember any of this,” Jon said, and took the rest of the skein for himself.

=====

The Myth of Male Power, by Warren Farrell

myth of male power by warren farrellIn 2013, I read a selection from The Myth of Male power, titled “Man as Nigger,” at a ‘Freedom To Read’ event at a local coffee shop. The purpose of the event was to read from banned and controversial texts at the open mic. Other participants read from texts that were once controversial but are no longer (mostly feminist, some anti-war), and throughout each of those readings, the audience remained respectfully silent.

I chose to read Farrell’s “Man as Nigger” because it was controversial at the very time of the reading. Feminists had recently been attacking Warren Farrell for appearing at the University of Toronto a few hundred miles away.

As I took the stage for my turn and began to read “Man as Nigger,” a large portion of the audience tried to drown me out — but not too overtly, as they were conscious of their own hypocrisy. They shuffled and scraped their chairs across the floor constantly. They talked loudly among themselves. Even the hostess participated in this passive-aggressive effort to censor my reading at her own free speech event, by loudly greeting someone at the door and continuing to talk to them the whole time I was on stage. When I later approached her to ensure there was no ill will between us, she made some excuse and practically ran away, leaving me to have a long and amicable conversation with her husband. As far as I am aware, there has not been a ‘Freedom to Read’ event in my city since.

Much like reading The Myth of Male Power, this was a very enlightening experience. “Man as Nigger” remains one of the best argumentative essays I’ve ever read. (Read it here.) Despite any expectations created by his use of the word “nigger” in an essay title, Farrell doesn’t seem to possess grain of ill will in his entire person. His claims are heavily evidenced and fair, and are argued compassionately. I don’t know how a clear-headed person could finish this book without finding Farrell to be a kind, intelligent, fair, admirable and wise fellow. I have bought multiple copies of this book to give to friends.