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.
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
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?”
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?”
“You were taking me to the hospital?”
“I still need to go there?”
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?”
“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.”
“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.
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.
“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?”
“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.
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.
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.
Are you there?
Where are you?
I’m right here.