Nancy calls Barb the morning she wakes in Steve Harrington’s bed to find herself alone. Not immediately, of course - he must have stepped out for a minute, that’s all, she thought, so she showered first and used her finger to brush her teeth, dressed in one of his shirts the way she’d secretly always wanted, and gave it until she made herself cereal and ate it all before calling.
“ Hello ?” Barb picks up on the first ring.
With a nauseating twist, Nancy realizes her friend was expecting this. “It’s me,” she says, voice sounding smaller than intended. Outside the kitchen window is driveway, where Steve’s car sits, glinting in its newness in the Sunday morning sunlight. The sight leaves a flutter in her chest. “Um. Something’s wrong. I need you to pick me up.”
“ What happened? What did he do? ”
Somewhere deep in the house an old fashion clock chimes, and the one on the microwave changes over from 9:59 to 10:00 . “Nothing,” she says, and stands to put her empty cereal bowl in the sink. There are more dishes in the drying rack. To her surprise, the Harringtons don’t have a dishwasher. “He’s just not here.”
Barb sighs. “ He ran out on you in you in his own house? ”
“No,” Nancy says firmly. That, at least, she knows. “Barb, his car’s still here. Please come get me.”
There’s a beat of silence. Then her friend says, “ I’ll be right there .”
Just ten minutes later, which means she sped, Barb arrives in her dad’s beat-up old Volkswagen he’s owned since 50s, dressed in loose sweatpants and the unfashionable autumn coat her mother bought her this September. Nancy sits on the Harrington’s stoop in last night’s outfit and one of Steve’s jackets, clutching her handbag. Her hair’s still wet. It’s fifteen degrees colder at least than it was yesterday, though the sun is bright and the sky cloudless, but that’s normal for Indiana in early November. Whenever he returns, Steve will forgive her for stealing his clothes.
Unless he doesn’t return. Unless whoever took Will Byers also took him.
“I left a note on the kitchen table,” she tells Barb before her friend can even say hello. “You know. For when he gets back.”
Her chest does that little flutter again. Barb cocks her head, strands of orange hair falling across her face, and holds out her hand. “Sure,” she says as Nancy accepts it. “Okay. So how exactly isn’t an Harrington an asshole?”
Even as she asks, her eyes drift to his car. Maybe she feels it too. Not a butterfly but a moth caught behind her ribs.
Nancy slips into the passenger’s seat, and flips down the visor to block the sun. Her wet curls stick to her face. “We fell asleep,” she says as Barb joins her and turns on the car, “and, I don’t know, at some point he got out of bed? It woke me up. It was still dark out. He was putting on a sweater over his pajamas, okay? His pajamas. And told me he heard something and to go back to sleep. And I just did. I just went back to sleep.”
“Oh,” says Barb, pulling out onto the road, the road that runs through the woods where Will Byers disappeared. “And you’re sure he didn’t come back? Maybe he went back out this morning again. I mean, he’s definitely the type to go running before dawn.”
Despite the sun, the forest is as dark as ever, just a tangle of gnarled trees and shadows. Nancy thinks about fairy tales and child-snatching witches. “He didn’t,” she says, because Steve Harrington is more considerate than people think, and would have left a note. “Barb,” she says again. “Something’s wrong.”
“Okay,” Barb says without looking away from the road, but Nancy can see her expression in profile, her turned in eyebrows and scrunched mouth. “So now what?”
Report him missing, Nancy almost says, but refrains. “See what happens tomorrow,” she says, focusing ahead like her friend, at the woods beginning to fall away and the houses rising, the classic suburban ones with all the same design and neat little lawns. “If he isn’t in school, I’ll go the police. And, god, if he isn’t there, I’ll talk to Carol and Tommy in the morning.”
Scowling, Barb says, “Even if he isn’t there, they won’t be any help.”
Nancy frowns. “I know they’re dicks, but they are his friends.”
“No, Steve’s a dick,” her friend says. “Tommy H. and Carol are evil.”
By now, Nancy’s learned that Steve isn’t a jerk, not really, but she can’t say the same for his friends. “Still,” she says, ignoring the sinking dread. “I have to ask.” Hopefully she doesn’t. Hopefully Steve will knock on her window later with his stupid, apologetic smile and say sorry for scaring her, seriously, he didn’t mean to, he’s just an idiot of course and had to go somewhere and didn’t think about how she would feel even though her brother’s best friend just disappeared in the woods behind his house.
But Steve doesn’t come.
The next morning, Nancy waits for Steve at her locker right up until the bell rings, and barely makes it to European History on time. Then she does the same between second period, then third, and at fourth period lunch, she waves to Barb before finding Carol and Tommy H. smoking behind the bleachers, alone. “Have you seen Steve since Saturday?” she asks, skipping any pleasantries. The two glance at each other, heads cocked, poisonous smoke drifting from the ends of their cigarettes, communicating silently.
“No,” Carol says eventually, and looks Nancy over with her blue, blue eyes like she’s searching for a fault. Distantly, Nancy thinks that her turtleneck is hideous, and still probably costs more than anything she owns. “We thought he was busy getting cozy with you, sweetheart.”
After Nancy explains what happened, Tommy laughs, and says, “So, what, you were such a bad lay he’s taking two days to avoid you?” Now that Steve isn’t here, they aren’t bothering to pretend they care. In a way, it’s a little refreshing.
“Fuck off,” she says. Last night, he checked to be sure she was comfortable with what they were doing so many times that it was almost as annoying as it was endearing. “I’m just letting you know I’m going to the police.”
“You’re overreacting, Wheeler.” Carol takes a drag of her cigarette and breathes out, releasing a white column. The sunlight catches her hair, a brighter orange than Barb’s. “Who knows? Maybe his parents finally decided to show up and take him with them to, I don’t know, where are they?”
Shrugging, her boyfriend says, “Fuck if I know. Who cares? If you go to the police, we’re all getting in trouble for nothing.”
“I don’t care,” she says bluntly, and while it isn’t entirely true, she knows with a strange amount of certainty that she’s right, and something happened.
Carol rolls her eyes. “God,” she says. “What the fuck does he see in you?”
Annoyed, Nancy answers, “Maybe he likes that I give a shit about him,” and walks back towards the cafeteria, to Barb, to the empty spot at their table she hoped would Steve’s.
Rewind thirty hours. It’s Saturday night - or early Sunday morning, depending - and Steve Harrington is alone at the edge of the wood.
He says it out loud, though there’s no one around to hear it. At his feet is a bloody handprint and beer stain, both hours old. Barb Holland’s social embarrassment made visible. But she’s long gone, along with Tommy and Carol. That’s not why he swears. It’s not what woke him. He woke because Nancy moved, snuggling into him, and he’s so unused to other people in his bed that the physical contact jostled him from sleep. Then he saw the movement, the trees waving against the wind. He saw a shape like a shadow right at this spot.
Now he realizes this spot is the spot where Barbara Holland bled.
A cold breeze sinks through his fleece sweater and cotton pajamas, the ones too short in the legs but baggy at the waist. He sees movement out of the corner of his eye. A ripple in the pool. Fear settles heavy and hot in his stomach and bubbles to his throat. There’s a noise like something slick at his back, and he -
Steve Harrington, age seventeen, runs into the woods and doesn’t come back.
A week ago, if anyone asked Jim about what it was like working as a police chief in Hawkins, Indiana, he would have said it was boring. He hadn’t realized it, but he liked boring. It beat this. It beat disappearing kids, murders, and no suspects.
It beat Nancy Wheeler standing in his office, ghostly white and bundled in a pale colored sweater to protect herself against the cold. “Please don’t tell my parents,” she says. “My mom will kill me.”
Finding Will Byers is proving hard enough; adding another kid to the list is turning this case into a nightmare Jim doesn’t think he’s ready to face. Teenagers afraid of their parents’ wrath isn’t making it any easier. “What makes you think he didn’t just run away?” he asks instead of promising one way or the other.
The girl says, “He didn’t,” so firmly that she doesn’t leave room for argument.
After she leaves, he tries to call the boys’ parents, and only reaches David Harrington’s secretary. “ Oh, neither of them will be available for a few days, Chief Hopper, ” the woman says, her high voice coming out thin over the bad connection. “ Did Steven get a speeding ticket? ”
Unlike most of the crowd Harrington runs with, the boy doesn’t have a record. Not even speeding tickets. “No,” Jim answers. “He’s missing.”
“ What? Oh dear, I’ll pass on the message. ”
She hangs up without a goodbye. Nancy Wheeler was right, Jim thinks. The kid didn’t run away. After all, there’s no point if his parents already aren’t around.
The search of his house, which Jim does alone, only solidifies his view. Not only is the boy’s car in the driveway, but there’s a decent amount of food in the fridge and cabinets, a half-completed essay carelessly laid out on the dining room table, a couple of twenties kept stereotypically in his sock drawer. His winter coat in the closet. His backpack in the corner of his bedroom. According to Wheeler, she last saw him in his pajamas, and Jim has a horrible feeling he walked out of the house barefoot, because there’s a pair sneakers and winter boots both still lined up by the door.
By the end of the day, he’s spoken to Thomas Hanson and Carol Smith, neither of whom are any help, and Barbara Holland, whose only real comment is that Nancy sounded scared on Sunday morning. He drafts Flo to make missing posters, since the boy’s parents aren’t here to do it for him, and visits Joyce Byers.
“Did your son have any connection to Steve Harrington?” he says, sitting in her comfortable living room armchair while she settles on the couch. Unsurprisingly, she looks as though she hasn’t slept in days. Her son makes food in the kitchen, the clangs of pots and pans creating background noise.
Shaking her head, Joyce says, “No. Why?”
The kitchen noises stop. She blinks. “The same as my boy?”
There’s a headache building behind Jim’s eyes. “I can’t say anything for sure yet,” he says as, out of the corner of his eye, he sees her older son appear in the kitchen doorway. “But his house borders the same woods.”
Joyce makes a soft sort of noise and says, “I told you, see, Hopper. I told you he didn’t just run away.”
Yeah, yeah she did. A mother’s instinct. Will didn’t run away, and neither did Steve Harrington. Turning, he asks her son, “Have you seen anything out of the ordinary? Anyone out of place by your school?” They’ve been around Hawkins Middle. It hadn’t occurred to anyone to check the high school.
“No,” the boy says, frowning. Like his mother, his eyes are bruised with exhaustion. “When did he go missing? Steve.”
“From what we know,” Jim answers, “Saturday night or early Sunday morning. Have you seen him since then?”
Jonathan shakes his head. “I haven’t seen him since Friday.”
Except for his friends, no one’s seen him since Friday. Several of Jim’s men have kids in high school, who all said the same. “I’ll update you when I find out more,” he says, standing, and excuses himself. He drives out onto the road, gets halfway to the police station, and lights a cigarette.
Nothing used to happen in Hawkins. Now he has a murder on his hands, two missing boys, and nothing to show for it. God fucking dammit.
Before Jonathan goes to see Nancy, he burns the pictures he took Saturday night in a metal trash can. They catch quickly, edges curling in first, and turn to ash. His moment of voyeurism disappears forever.
When finds her Thursday morning at school, she’s sitting on her own on the bleachers, her knees pulled to her chest with her arms looped around her legs. Her nose is red. So are her eyes. “Hey,” she says, tucking hair behind her ear. “What’s up?”
He fidgets, reminds himself he has to do this, and says, “I was in the woods. On Saturday night. You know, looking for Will. I think I saw something.”
“Did you tell the police?” She sits up straighter, the sleeve of her oversized jacket sliding off her shoulder. It’s Steve’s jacket, his Varsity basketball one proudly displaying the school colors, making her look just like every other girl in the school.
“No,” he says, tucking his hands in his pockets. He never should have taken those pictures. “Look, it doesn’t really make any sense, but I got a picture by accident.”
“Why did you have a camera?” she asks, and rubs her nose.
“Sometimes cameras notice things we don’t,” he answers as he takes out the picture, and shoves the thought of that freckle he caught on film, the on her lower rib, out of his head.
In the woods, he hadn’t seen or noticed anything out of the ordinary, but his camera did. He sits, handing her the photo, and she looks silently at the inhuman shape crouched in the underbrush for a long time. “It’s just an animal,” she says, but doesn’t hand it back.
That’s what he told himself at first, too, but he knew even before Chief Hopper knocked on the door that it’s not. Now she knows it. The body’s contorted. Its shadow is wrong. There’s something about the shape of it that leaves a chill settled in the base of his spine.
Carefully, he says, “Have you ever seen an animal that looks like that?” He doesn't tell her about his mom huddled around Christmas lights, trying to speak to his brother, or that she once described a monster that looks exactly like this.
“How long were you there?” she asks. “In the woods.”
“Not long.” His knee jumps, though he’s not lying. “I got home before midnight.”
For a long moment, she does nothing. Then she finally returns the picture and says, “He saw something. That’s why he left. It’s like a horror movie. Boy leaves girl alone. But that was long after midnight.”
When he walked through his front door, he found Mom asleep on the kitchen couch, letters painted on the wall above her and the house all strung up in festive, colorful lights. He wanted to scream at her, to tell her that thinking she could talk to Will was only making it worse. Then he developed the photos he shouldn’t have taken.
Now there’s this.
“I didn’t do anything to the film,” he says, swallowing hard. “Manipulate it or anything, I mean. I promise.”
Again, she’s quiet. Then she says, “I didn’t think you did. Not with Will missing.” Another beat. “Now what?”
What do you do when you find something skulking in the underbrush, immortalized in black and white? Go to the police? No. Chief Hopper doesn’t believe Mom. Jonathan didn’t believe Mom. Somehow, he doubts physical proof will change anyone’s mind—anyone but them.
“I don’t know,” he says as the first bell rings, signalling that they have seven minutes to make it to class.
“We’ll talk about it later,” Nancy says, standing. The cold November wind whips at her hair and Steve Harrington’s jacket. How unfair it is, Jonathan thinks selfishly, that he’s loved her years, but his brother and her boyfriend had to disappear before she could look twice in his direction.
Will Byers enters another world. Steve Harrington enters another world.
Will escapes a monster. Steve escapes a monster.
Will stays home. Steve goes home.
—Or, no. Steve goes to Will Byers’ home.
Will Byers and Steve Harrington meet in the kitchen. What looks like the kitchen. The whole world is red and black and purple. They’ve stepped inside a bruise.
They’re both afraid to talk. After a short, whispered conversation (“How did you end up here?” “I don’t know, how did you?” “Do you know how to get back?” “No.” “Is it still after you?” “Yes.”), Will removes a sketchpad and colored pencils, one blue and one green, from a backpack already beaten to hell. There’s food inside, Miss Wheelers’ veggie rice leftovers and bags of candy. No water.
mom is talking to me
He writes in blue. Steve takes green.
thru lights I can only say yes and no
Steve underlines how.
morse code do you know it
He shakes his head.
Ill teach you
Maybe whatever’s out there tracks through scent, or movement, in which case they’re fucked, but maybe it’s sound. There’s no question that they’ll be here for a while. Right now, they just have to survive, though there are things they already know, like how the air sitting heaving in their lungs is killing them slowly, they’re the bottom rung of the food chain, and they’re running a marathon for survival not a race.
Will writes, want food , and Steve shakes his head even as stomach twists from hunger. In the distance, something makes a noise like a shriek, like it’s dying. With nothing else to to do, Will moves his cracked wooden chair closer, and teaches Steve to communicate without his voice. Tap tap, tap tap, pause. Repeat.
It’s the last time either of them talk in days.
In the days following the disappearance of Will Byers, his Party find a human experiment in the woods, name her El, get some answers, and call her a friend. Joyce receives silent calls that leaves her phone charred. Nancy trespasses in her boyfriend’s backyard. Jim investigates the laboratory at the edge of town everyone conveniently ignores.
El tracks this all in a distant sort of way, though she doesn’t understand most of it—the woman with the stress taunt back and messy hair running from the now named ‘Demogorgon’ bursting through her wall; Mike’s sister fading into her clothes, fleeing shadows; a large man talking to Papa, frowning. The large man is frowning even when he’s smiling, somehow. Papa doesn’t like him, but that’s all right. He doesn’t like Papa either.
But this is a vague knowledge she registers like a subconscious thought. She focuses on Michael-called-Mike, who says she’s a friend, and Lucas, and Dustin, and looks for the boy lost on the Other Side of the Gate. “He’s safer,” she tells them a few days after they meet. “Not safe. More safe.”
“How?” Dustin asks. There’s a red stain on his shirt. They all sit in Mike’s house around the table, around the board she flipped around and the piece she place on top. “Is the Demogorgon gone?”
As she shakes her head, she reaches over and takes two other figurines, a short one and a tall one, and places them behind the monster. “He has a friend.”
The boys all swivel their eyes to look at each other. Then Mike settles on the board and says, “So Steve did end up in the Upside-Down.”
“Do you know where they are?” Lucas asks, falling back into his chair so the metal creaks. “Two of them has to be easier to find than one, right?”
What she sees, when she searches for the face in the photograph, is this: a kitchen that feels friendlier than Mike’s, the first boy and a taller one curled together in the dark beneath a sink with its doors closed, the monster stalking through the empty rooms. Even if she can’t bring them across the Gate, she can show them the house. It’s safer that way. They’ll die if they cross. By now, Mike already taught her friends protect friends.
She nods. If they see the house, they’ll understand, she thinks. Other people are looking for him, their friend, good people instead of bad men. Right now, that’s the best hope the boys have.
Will and Steve show up dead midway through the school week. That’s when Nancy convinces Jonathan that they should tell Barb the truth. “Let’s face it,” she says before the homeroom bell rings. “We need all the help we can get, and even if your mom believes it, we shouldn’t involve her, right?”
Though he’s clearly reluctant, Jonathan agrees, so at lunch she leads Barb behind the bleachers where he’s waiting for them, photo already in hand. This is Tommy and Carol’s spot on normal days, but according to the town rumor mill, she nearly fainted in the supermarket when she heard the news. Nancy can’t imagine it, though she tried. The thought that Carol Smith cares about anyone other than herself is inconceivable.
“We already know how this is going to sound,” Nancy says after Barb takes a seat on the frost speckled grass, “but they aren’t dead.”
“And this is involved,” Jonathan says quickly, shoving the photograph towards her. “It was in the woods the night Steve disappeared, and my mom’s seen it.”
“And I’ve seen it,” Nancy adds. “You know. The day I went back to his house.”
Barb’s quick, analytical gaze skips across the picture, absorbing it. “Look,” she says carefully after a moment, turning her attention back to them, who stand shoulder to shoulder against the cold and her inevitable disbelief, “I know the two of you are upset, but this is just an animal. Hawkins doesn’t have the boogeyman living in its woods.”
“We know that,” Jonathan says impatiently. His hair’s messy like he forgot to brush it, so he looks more like his mom than ever. “We think it might have something to do with the Department of Energy. Chief Hopper told Mom that the State didn’t let the guy who usually does autopsies in Hawkins do theirs.”
Standing, Barb says, “So now you’re adding government conspiracies to this?” Turning to Nancy, she adds, “Listen, I know you’re feeling guilty, but—”
Nancy’s heart pounds harder, offbeat. “I’m not feeling guilty,” she says, though everyone here knows she does. “We’re going after it with or without you, and we could use the help.”
In all the time they’ve known each other, Barb’s never been the type to believe in risk; she’s content to let her mother choose her wardrobe, she styles her hair several years out of fashion, doesn’t drink, writes her essays on what she knows the teachers want to read. She still hasn’t come out to her family, though Nancy knows and even Barb must know they’ll never reject her. So Nancy expected this reaction. Belief in shadow creatures, talking lights, and manufactured corpses is dangerous in more ways than one.
Barb shakes her head. Her shoes sink into the wet grass. “This is crazy,” she says. “Even if it is true, you can’t just go running into the woods after it. You’ll get hurt. The next couple bodies in the quarry might be yours.”
“We don’t care,” Jonathan says, and even though he’s speaking for her, Nancy can’t find it in herself to be offended, because it’s true. “We have to do something.”
“What are you going to do about it?” Barb asks, stuffing her hands in her pockets. “What’s your plan?”
There’s a gun in Jonathan’s basement that they’re going to teach themselves how to shoot, and a baseball bat in the Wheelers’ garage they’ll stick full of nails. Then they’ll go into those woods and find Will and Steve, alive. The Christmas lights are still flashing. That has to mean something.
But they don’t tell her this yet. “I don’t know,” Nancy says evenly. She doesn’t remember when she learned to lie this well. “We’re still figuring out the details. We just need you to believe us first.”
“I don’t believe you,” her friend says, “but if you really insist on running around the woods, then fine. I’ll help you.”
Jonathan looks to Nancy, who looks back. “We’ll go Friday night,” he says. That’s two days from now. Though she doesn’t want to wait, Will and Steve have survived this long, and can hold out for another forty-eight hours, she tells herself.
On a Friday in mid-November, Jim takes a scalpel to the bodies of a couple small town boys and finds them both filled with stuffing instead of guts and bones. His head reels, the dim morgue lighting grows too bright, and then the world rightens.
That’s it, he decides. He’s checking out that fucking lab.
Before that, he tries the Harringtons again. Ring ring. On the sixth, right before he gives up, the phone clicks. “ David Harrington’s office ,” says the woman from the first time he tried, who never picked up the second or the third or even the fourth. “ Patricia Edwards speaking, how many I help you? ”
“It’s Chief Jim Hopper again,” he says, hating this woman and hating the Harringtons and hating whoever it is who keeps taking his town’s kids. “Connect me to David or Cindy.”
Patricia clicks her tongue, or maybe taps her pen against the desk. “ You know I can’t do that, Chief Hopper ,” she says. “ They’re both handling business abroad right now and —”
“Did you even tell them their kid was missing?” he asks, desperately wanting a drink and knowing that would a shit idea. The Harringtons are in advertising, if he remembers correctly. Supposedly Cindy was David’s secretary before they married. “No, don’t answer that. One of them can take time out of their important meetings to hear that he’s dead.”
“ One moment please ,” Patricia Edwards says with a wobble to her voice, and then switches the line over to hold music. At the same moment, Flo enters, takes one look at the phone held to his ear and his expression, shakes her head, and leaves.
If Joyce is right, if those puppets called corpses lying in the morgue mean what he hopes—that the boys are alive—then Steve’s never going to hear the end of this. That the Byers had to do the preparatory organization for his funeral alongside their son like some kind of afterthought.
When the line finally reconnects, Cindy says, “ Steven’s dead? How? When did this happen? ”
He gives her sparse details, she babbles, says she’ll call her husband and catch the first flight to Indianapolis, and hangs up without goodbye. Right. Now they know about the body. Now they’re coming. Now he can go get their son back.
Except, he doesn’t.
When he wakes, there’s a prick mark on his neck and afternoon sunlight on his ceiling. The air smells like autumn, all woodsmoke and pine, and the boys have been missing for ten days.
Nancy enters the tree first, tumbling right through, an Alice into Wonderland. “Steve?” she calls. “Will?” The air smells metallic, like the moment before a thunderclap, like blood. Though the place looks like Hawkins, it’s not, instead existing as some kind of parody saturated in purple and red.
Following along with that horror movie cliche, she and Jonathan and Barb separated in the woods. She’s alone. The silence absorbs her voice. Slowly, she removes the handgun from her jacket and backs up again towards the tree she entered to find them.
Then comes Jonathan, tumbling through. His hands are already curled around the bat. “She’s keeping watch,” he says in a low, low whisper that the silence steals away.
The trees around them drip with limp vines she knows better than to touch. She tries again: “Steve? Will?” There’s nothing, even after Jonathan’s voice joins her so the names turn into a mush— StellweveSteveWill?
Halfway between the Byers’ house and the tree, they find an M&M packet too crisp looking to be anything other than freshly dropped. Jonathan picks up, examines it from all angles, and says, “Does this mean they’ve left?” Left his house, of course. Nancy doesn’t think they’ll find the tree.
Before she can answer, something from the direction of the house roars, and the ground rumbles. In the distance, Barb’s voice floats towards them, saying, “Guys, it’s closing!”
They don’t hesitate to sprint back the way they came, acutely aware that the monster knows they’re here and it’s following them. Just as they round the corner, Jonathan trips on a moving vine. Nancy shoots it as it goes to wrap around his foot, grabs the back of his jacket, and together they stumble out into the clear, bright, colorful world where boogeymen don’t exist. It isn’t until they’ve gone through, landing in a heap at Barb’s feet, that either of them realize he dropped the bad.
“What the hell, guys,” Barb says, eyes wide and watering. “What was that? Were they there? Did you see them?”
Though Nancy’s whole body is shaking from her sprint, she pulls herself to her feet. “I don’t know,” she says as Jonathan stands too, and they start making their way out of the woods without discussing the possibility of staying any longer, “and I’m pretty sure, but no. We found a candy wrapper.”
Jonathan holds it out, reaching past Nancy. “This is bad.” His voice cracks. “I don’t think there’s anything to eat in there. Just candy for two people for ten days?”
“We should go to your mom,” she says, and thinks that maybe they should have from the beginning. “Especially if they left your house.”
“How are you taking it this calmly?” Barb says, her hands shaking. “This is—this isn’t right. It doesn’t make any sense. We don’t live in a fairy tale. There aren’t supposed to be other worlds in trees. And if they aren’t in your house—how does that even work?—then where are they?”
They don’t like in a fairy tale, but there are still worlds tucked inside trees, and it turns out Will and Steve went to the Wheeler house. When Nancy finds out, it’s two in the morning, Jonathan and Barb are both crammed in her bed, and the light at her bedside flashes. Barb startles, and nearly tumbles off the side; Jonathan sits up fast as a jack-in-the-box; Nancy automatically reaches for the gun now hidden in the bedside table drawer. But it dims and brightens over and over in a pattern, like a person trying to communicate.
“You got paper and pen?” Jonathan asks, voice as low as it was in the place inside the tree. With a shaking hand, she reaches past Barb into her bookbag, removing a notebook and pencil. After jotting a couple dots and lines, he says, “‘We’re here.’”
“How do I talk back?” Nancy says, throwing a fervent look at her door, instinctively worried her parents will hear them.
“I don’t know,” he says. “Mom just talks to lights.”
As Nancy again reaches over her friend, Barb says, “Now there are talking lights?”
Nancy and Jonathan hold the lamp together, clutching it in both hands so the fake glass warms in their palms. “Hello,” she says as he says the same. “Why did you move?”
Brighten, dim, dim, brighten. Over and over it goes as Jonathan writes his dashes and lines, and then reads, “‘It found us.’” He asks, “Are you safe? ‘No.’”
After that, no one sleeps.
Later, after Jonathan and Barb both sneak back to their respective homes, Nancy takes the lamp in her hands again. It’s morning, the sun casting a pale glow against her girlishly pink room, but still early enough for the lamp light to be sharply visible. “We came for you,” she says, quiet like the monster can hear her. “I found the entrance in the tree.”
She goes to say more, but pauses as it brightens and dims. Though she can’t read Morse Code as quickly as Jonathan, she has a rudimentary knowledge of it, and after a moment makes out I heard you.
“Stay where you are, Steve,” she says, ignoring the pressure building behind her eyes. “I’m going to come back for—”
The next answer is simple. Don’t.
Will and Steve sit in the room that should be Nancy’s, with Will’s face pressed into Steve’s shoulder and Steve’s nose in Will’s unwashed hair. It’s a delusional attempt to breathe filtered air, as though the poison in the atmosphere hasn’t already burrowed into their skin. The water they drink from the streams got it their bloodstreams.
How long has it been? Neither of them know. The few people on the Other Side who have tried to communicate never say. But two days ago they finally ran out of food, nibbled candy bars and rice gone rotten picked at with dirty fingers. Steve let Will have the majority of it. The way he figured, he’ll last longer without food than a boy thinner than Nancy. Not that any of that matters now.
Tap, tap, tap, pause. Will drums out a message on Steve’s leg. Game, he says.
Steve nods into the boy’s hair. After a moment, they untangle, and Will picks up the sketchpad and pencils he still hasn’t lost. Lately, all they’ve had the energy to do is play tic-tac-toe and hang-man, and those never last long.
Every so often, Nancy’s voice cuts through the silence of the house, hardly loud enough to hear. “I just saw your parents,” she says at one point. “I forgot how much you look like your mom.”
Why? he taps back, meaning why are they here? , but doesn’t hear the answer. Sometimes this happened with Mrs. Byers, like a phone dropping connecting.
Then, later, Nancy says, “We’re coming to get you. All of us.”
Will taps, All , and wins hang-man. The answer was her name. do you really like her , he writes underneath.
“Mrs. Byers and Chief Hopper are going to help,” she says, mentions Jonathan and Barb, and adds more, but her voice fades before they can hear it.
yeah , Steve answers. why
J &M said you don’t like the girls you date
rumors nancy is amazing do you like. He pauses before he writes Mike, and puts instead anyone.
Will shakes his head. Even if Steve thinks that’s bullshit, because he manages to talk about Mike even through Morse Code, he doesn’t push him.
At some point, Will falls asleep. Nancy’s voice comes through again, saying, “Don’t worry about me. Just stay safe. We have a plan.”
What, Steve taps, and she stays clear long enough to explain that her brother found a girl with psychic powers, can you believe that, who can locate them with her mind, so she, Jonathan, and Barb are going to distract the monster long enough to let Mrs. Byers and Chief Hopper save them. No, don’t argue, she says. They have the plan set for tomorrow night.
He tries to argue with his fingers, and hears her laugh, sounding so confident. “Trust me,” she says. He latches onto the image of her stripped naked on his bed, her wet hair splayed out across his pillow, blushing in a red line across the bridge of her nose. The likelihood that they’re going to survive this seems slim, so at least he had that one night when Nancy Wheeler fell asleep at his side.
Do you really like her? Will asked.
Deliberately, clearly, Steve taps, You are beautiful . Then he wakes Will, curls up on the floor, and takes his turn to sleep.
Will and Steve are separated when they sneak out to find water. One moment, they’re together. Then a vine hidden in the leaves rears, snatches the younger boy’s ankle, and drags him away.
Though Steve runs after, time and space are funny here, and suddenly, he’s back in the woods outside his house. Walk a quarter mile and he’ll reach his backyard, or this world’s version of it anyway. He looks left, right. No sign of Will. Fuck.
With his options limited, he does all he can think of, and walks in the direction of the Byers’ house. That’s where he finds the bat, lying in the middle of the path. Jonathan or Nancy must have dropped it, he thinks. Most likely Jonathan. A bat stuck full of nails isn’t Nancy’s style. Still, it’s a weapon, thank god.
As he goes to pick up, he hears Will scream.
Fuck. Well, fuck. Steve runs, chasing the trail of the sound’s echo, until he reaches a tree covered in vines and bones that drags Will towards it. His body’s one long scrape, but he’s still struggling enough to slow it down. Faster than the vine, Steve runs, and swings the bat as hard as his weakened body can. It lets out a shriek, and its grip slackens.
The monster appears in the shadows. He scurries back, trying to evade it, and shouts for Will to run. Three steps, and the vines catch him again, wrapping around his legs and waist. Adrenaline snaps Steve out of the haze he’s lived with for days, bringing the world into focus. He doesn’t attack with any plan, or a sense that he knows what he’s doing; all he can do is put his weight into each swing and strike the monster before it strikes him. In a single-minded, instinctive sort of way, he knows he has to save Will.
In another dimension, his girlfriend and her friends wait for this monster to appear with bleeding hands, unaware that the fight they wanted to prevent is already happening. Steve beats it back. In his peripheral vision, he watches a vine silence Will by stuffing itself down his throat. Then—
One moment, Steve is upright, and the next, he’s flat on his back, his ears ringing and blood spilling from his side onto the decomposing leaves. The thing’s face splits, bearing down on him, so he swings upwards with the bat he managed not to drop, and clobbers it in the side of the head. It falls away, but not for long. In an instant, it’s back over him, and Steve thinks, I’m going to die, I’m going to die, like this in the dirt where no one will ever find me, I’m actually going to fucking die, and so is Will.
He screams, not ready to die, and the monster disappears.
When Jim and Joyce find the boys, Will has a vine down his throat like a medical tube, and another is pulling Steve in. Jim shoots that first, takes one look at the blood trail left in the kid’s wake, and focuses first on Will.
It’s a bad flashback to Sarah, the circular pipe reaching into his chest, his still chest. Though it takes a long time—too long—they bring him back. He wakes with a jolt, gasping. He goes lax in his mother’s arms, eyes drifting, but at least he’s alive. Jim helped with that. Even if he couldn’t help Sarah, he could save Will.
As Joyce situates her oxygen mask over his nose and mouth, he manages to get out one garbled word. “Steve?”
“He’s alive,” Jim says, patting the boy’s knee. “He’s good.” That’s enough validation for Will, apparently, because he promptly loses consciousness again.
Thankfully, Jim isn’t lying. When he crouches down and presses his fingers to the pulse in Steve’s neck, his eyes crack open. “Will?”
Alive, good, Jim tells him, and picks him up. He can’t say why he also takes the blood splattered baseball bat, but he does.
Hours later, he sits in Hawkins General Hospital with Joyce on one side and Nancy Wheeler’s little brother on the brother, awaiting news. The doctors tell Joyce, who relays the message, about damaged lungs and bruised throat muscles, severe malnutrition and dehydration, lacerations and abrasions and contusions. Of course, they don’t tell her about Steve, whose parents, as usual, arrive late.
“I don’t understand,” Cindy Harrington says, face deathly pale and her ponytail limp. Steve looks more than her than he does his father, a reedy blonde man with a freckled face, though Jim knows her hair’s only brown from dye. The rumors surrounding the Harrington family have sparked Hawkins’ interest for years. She says, “How is he just...here? We thought he was dead. We were planning his funeral .”
“We don’t know how yet,” Nancy says before anyone else can, slumping low in her chair. “They’ll only talk to you. So you should go ask and let us know.”
The Harringtons turn to look at her. Even her own parents, who arrived half an hour ago to get their kids and never left, don’t tell her to watch her tone. With a frown, David Harrington says, “You’re Nancy Wheeler, aren’t you? Why are you here?”
“Because I’m dating your son,” she says, snappish, “and I want to know if he’s going to be okay. They won’t tell me.”
With her mouth set in a line, Cindy marches off to find a doctor, and her husband trails after her. By the time they come out, Jim’s preparing to leave. After all, Will and Steve have their shared room and their families, and he has paperwork he can’t bribe Flo to do for him.
“He’s asking for Nancy and someone named Barb?” David says, like a question. Nancy’s on her feet before he even finishes speaking, her fingers wrapped in Barbara Holland’s messy cardigan to pull her along. As the Harringtons watch the two girls and the gaggle of boys who follow them rush down the hall, he adds to Jim, “He has seventy-one stitches. Seventy-one. And a concussion. Dr. Collins says it looked like a wild animal attacked him.”
“I just don’t understand,” Cindy says, shaking her head. “Dr. Collins said you saved him. Where was was? How was there a body?”
Jim gives them the short version of the lie: the bodies were found on state land, so state officials took over without letting Gary in on autopsy, and made a snap judgment. And where did Jim find them? In the woods. He can’t ask either of them further questions until the doctors say it’s okay, but the current assumption is that they were held somewhere and escaped. Did he happened to say anything, Mr. and Mrs. Harrington?
With a look over her shoulder, back in the direction of the hall, and says, “All he did was ask for people. The boy, then Nancy, then other two. He didn’t stop until Jonathan Byers went over to talk to him. Jonathan Byers. He barely even looked at us.”
That doesn’t come as a surprise, but Jim holds that thought. “I’m sure he’ll be back in normal soon,” he says, which is a lie, and they all know it. No one walks away from damaged lungs, seventy-one stitches, and a concussion just to be normal. “I should get back to the station. You know how to reach me if you need anything.”
They know how to reach him, but they won’t, or at least he doesn’t think. With one last, awkward goodbye, he takes his leave, and wonders how he’ll ever sleep again.
Barb thinks she’s always loved Nancy, a little, and that probably Jonathan does too, but neither of them look away as she and Steve Harrington cling to each other so tightly they block out the rest of the room.
“I was so scared I was just imaging it,” she says into his shoulder, voice muffled by his thin hospital gown. “I kept talking -”
“I heard you,” he says. “I heard you.”
It’s intimate. Watching them feels voyeuristic. At the bed next to them, Mike and his friends crowd Will, chattering, as Mrs. Byers pets his hair, but her attention also flicks over to the scene on the other side of the room every so often. When Steve disappeared, he and Nancy were barely past dating. They were still secretly meeting in school bathrooms and leaving secret notes in each other’s lockers. He hadn’t met Karen and Ted. Really, Barb was convinced they’d break up before Thanksgiving.
Now she wonders, Is it possible to fall in love across dimensions?
Nancy finally moves, putting a space between them, and brushes a hand through his hair. During his time in what the kids named the Upside Down, he lost so much weight that every bone is visible. Whatever she says next is so quiet it’s lost beneath the ruckus on the other side of the room, but Barb still hears him answer, “You’re an idiot, Nancy Wheeler.”
She laughs. “So are you, Steve Harrington.”
Suddenly Jonathan says, at a volume no one else can hear, “We never had a chance, did we?”
Barb instinctively goes to defend herself, to say no, she’s not gay, what's he talking about? But then Nancy kisses Steve’s forehead, and the hospital light illuminates the natural gold in her hair. He smiles, thin and weak but genuine, like he's seeing her for the first time.
“No,” Barb says, finally looking away to Jonathan, who’s small in his oversized, worn hoodie, watching Nancy and Steve fold deeper into each other. “No, we really didn't.”
Eight kids enjoy a lull between interdimensional disasters, c. 1984.
So, it's been like...a year and a half, but hi. Enjoy?
Also, I played with Max's timeline a bit.
INDIANA SCIENTIST INVOLVED IN KIDNAPPINGS A SUSPECTED SOVIET SPY
Martin Brenner, the man responsible for the kidnapping of two children in Hawkins, Indiana, committed suicide before the police could bring him into custody on November 19, 1983. Post-mortem investigations recently revealed—
That’s as far as Cindy gets before she lays the paper on the kitchen counter. It’s six-thirty in the morning, still dark outside and she’s only halfway through her coffee. On the TV in the living room, which is just visible over the half-wall separating it from the kitchen, the anchorwoman with the Shirley Temple perm announces the Indianapolis Metropolitan Area should be expecting a White Christmas. Great. David just left for his first business trip since this Soviet spy, mad scientist kidnapped their son, and Steve’s not in any condition to shovel out the driveway yet.
She sips her coffee. The hall light turns on, and a moment later Steve enters, dressed for the day in the nautical-colored polo shirt she brought back from New York, his winter coat, and a pair of jeans. “Won’t you be hot in class, sweetie?” she says, thinking about those long sleeves in that too-hot building, as all he gives her is a small, silent, good morning smile. When he shrugs, she doesn’t press him, and asks instead, “Do you want a ride to school? It’s supposed to snow.”
Though she frames it as a question, what she really means is I want to drive you to school. Unfortunately, her son just shakes his head and says, after a pause, “I’m getting Nancy.”
He takes his lunch from the fridge and slides it into his backpack. For the first time since he left kindergarten, she’s been making him paper bag lunches because the doctor from the hospital prescribed a specific diet to help him regain weight while not aggravating the damage poison had done to his stomach. Though still skinny, he looks close to normal now, or at least so long as his shirt doesn’t move.
“We could pick up Nancy,” she says as he slips his backpack over his shoulders. “It’s a half day today, isn’t it? I can bring you back during my break.”
Frowning, he says, “I have an appointment.”
Oh. She forgot, again. “What time?” she says, and sips her coffee. “I can bring you.” After all, his psychiatrist’s wanted a family meeting since the appointments started.
“One,” he answers, which is just after school ends. After another pause, he adds, “I’ll be home late.”
“Are you going out with Nancy?” And Jonathan, and maybe that Holland girl. Steve nods. “Where?” All he does is shrug. “ Words , Steven.”
Again, he frowns. “Don’t know,” he says.
“Well, call me, okay?”
He nods. Okay.
After another minute of shuffling around, he leaves for school. She takes a deep breath and exhales shakily. Then she finishes her coffee in two long sips, and finishes readying for her day.
Long before Christmas, the conjoined pair that is Nancy and Steve twists itself into an equilateral triangle of Nancy and Steve and Jonathan , but Barb doesn’t stop floundering in her effort to make that perfect shape a square until the day of the Wheelers’ holiday party.
Will cements her separateness after dinner. “I drew you guys a present,” he says during the gift exchange, face flushed, thrusting out a piece of white construction paper towards Steve. The sitting arrangement is already a mess—Mike, Lucas, and Dustin in a semicircle on the floor at their friend’s feet so he’s still included, because he’s on the couch, of course, because Steve’s on the couch, and next to him is Nancy, and next to her Jonathan, but they don’t all quite fit, so they’re squished together, which leaves Barb alone on Ted’s coziest armchair.
Her palms sweat. The scar gives a phantom throb. Between the heat and her discomfort, the fuzzy red sweater Nancy bought her is much too warm.
“Thanks, Will,” Steve says as they both take it, inspecting the artwork. As they lean forward, Nancy’s hair falls across her face to hide her expression, and his shirt moves to reveal the monster’s claw marks on the back of his neck.
“Did you color coordinate my shirt with my walls?” she asks, looking up and over at the boy so that all three of them are smiling. With a warning, Jonathan lifts the camera Nancy and Steve bought him together and snaps a picture. Unlike everyone else, they gave it to him at the beginning, knowing he’d want to document the occasion, which Karen’s just loving.
They told Barb about the camera, but only after they bought it, though she would have contributed to the cost. Jonathan’s her friend too. And ever since they arrived, Jonathan’s taken picture of everyone and everything, but the happy couple most of all. Not even as excuse to capture Nancy in her best yellow sweater, the one Barb loves, or at least she doesn’t think; he’s taken just as many as Steve alone.
Mike says, “Steve’s always here,” but despite his exasperated tone, he still looks over his shoulder as though to make sure Karen or Ted aren’t about to enter.
Rolling her eyes, Nancy says, “Shut up. I’ll be right back,” and stands to run upstairs and put the drawing in her room. Right as she goes to pass Ted’s favorite armchair, she pauses. “Are you okay, Barb?”
“What?” Barb says.
“You’re being really quiet,” Nancy answers, cocking her head. For the first time, Barb realizes her lipgloss is smudged. “And you’re a little pale.”
When Barb says, “I don’t feel well,” she doesn’t mean to, not consciously. But suddenly she can see Will’s picture, which isn’t just Nancy and Steve , but a freakishly realistic crayon drawing of the equilateral triangle from the waist up on a white backdrop. There’s no Barb. There’s no room for Barb, just like there’s no room on the Wheelers’ most comfortable couch, even though the scar on her palm mirrors Nancy and Jonathan’s.
Ultimately, this is what happened: she kept watch on the day Nancy and Jonathan walked into Upside Down from the opening inside the tree, and then the little girl who died stole away the monster’s attention by shedding more blood than three hands ever could. She never clutched at lamps or Christmas lights or tapped out messages in some vague hope that her words would travel dimensions. It doesn’t matter that she knows. All that matters is that while they wake in the middle of the night unable to breathe seeing god knows what, she can still sleep soundly.
But that's what makes this worse. To be replaced with Steve is one thing—it happens all the time, girls replacing friends once they start dating—but to also be replaced by Jonathan —
She hears herself say, “I think maybe I should go home.”
“It’s starting to snow,” Steve says, which she guesses means, If it gets worse while you’re driving it’ll be dangerous.
“Yeah, then I should beat it before it’s more than flurries,” she says, standing even as Jonathan and Nancy start to protest and Dustin downright whines that hey, does this mean they’re all going home, because he thought they were having a sleepover.
After a minute, they concede to let her go. By the time she wishes Karen and Ted goodbye and thanks them for inviting her, Nancy’s already back downstairs. “Are you sure you’ll be okay?” she says as Barb shrugs on her coat.
“I just need to lie down,” she says as in the living room, Steve steals Jonathan’s camera, laughing, and snaps a picture as he tries to hide his face.
God fucking dammit.
Even before Steve’s parents return to their normal schedule, a reversion that happens just after New Years’, he already spends more time his friends’ houses than his own. They have study sessions at Barb’s, where he struggles to catch up on the work he missed and still learn the current lessons; he eats dinner at the Wheelers’, and sneaks through her window to spend nights in her bed; mostly, he stays with the Byers.
The doctor at the lab says he shouldn’t. That he and Will need to learn “to adapt without each other.” Steve just argues that he’s not there hanging out with Will , that he’s there with his girlfriend to spend time with his friends, one of whom is Will’s brother. And it’s only half bullshit. It’s true that he and Will aren’t there together. It’s just that they both feel better knowing each other’s locations, even if neither of them openly admit it.
That’s where the walkie-talkie came in, at first.
Before Steve’s parents left again—just days after leaving the hospital, really—Will shoved his old walkie-talkie into his hand and gave him their own frequency. He hadn’t said anything, but neither of them said much anymore. They left their voices behind in the Hawkins that wasn’t Hawkins. All those words dried up into tapping fingers and scratching pencils. Even when they did wake up in the night, when they did blindly reach out for that connection, they communicated through clicked buttons and static.
Overtime, talking doesn’t become easier necessarily, but they get out their words more often. Then the flashbacks start.
The first one comes in the last week of February, when he’s midway through tying his shoelaces so he can head home from the Byers’. One moment Jonathan’s talking, rambling on about math in the morning and why does Nance find it so easy, and Joyce is looking for her keys down the hall so she can get Will from the Sinclairs’, and then Steve is back. The world is purple red blue, the wallpaper peels, the house decays, he’s breathing poison, metallic taste on his tongue, on the back of his throat—and there’s something else breathing, too, something at his back, something far away that’s exhales feel like wind and—
Then he’s in the Byers’ foyer, shoulder aching where he knocked it against the bathroom’s moulding. Jonathan stares at him, his already pale face turned ghost white, and Joyce stands shock still behind him with her keys dangling from her fingers. “Oh, Steve,” she says, and gives him strict orders to stay the night.
“That was new, wasn’t it?” Jonathan asks after his mother leaves to get her younger son and they settle on the couch with a show neither of them watch playing on the TV.
“Yeah,” Steve says, and doesn’t elaborate.
When Will returns, he’s just as pale as his brother, but then again, he’s always pale. Jonathan goes to change into his pajamas, and Joyce disappears into the kitchen to finish the dishes, expecting Will to do the same. He locks eyes with Steve on the couch, and blinks.
“You too?” His voice doesn’t go above a whisper. If they’re any louder than that, they’re dead, after all.
By the time Joyce and Jonathan return, they’re both asleep on the couch. Steve doesn’t leave, really, after that.
It isn’t uncomfortable, though it should be. The Byers have no spare room, so he spends the nights he stays in Jonathan’s bed. There’s never an argument about whether or not one of them should stay on the floor. That, somehow, would be as ridiculous as if he did the same at Nancy’s, where he usually sleeps on weekends, except for the rare day his parents are home. After long, it becomes routine. No one actively acknowledges it - or, at least not until a Tuesday in early April when Barb blinks at him from behind her glasses and says, “Does Jonathan know you stole his shirt for gym?”
He looks down. Oh. When he blindly reached for his gym clothes at six-thirty in the morning, he hadn't realized what he grabbed wasn’t his. “Eh, no one will know,” he says, because the shirt is, as always, plain. “You worried about my reputation, Holland?”
“In your dreams, Harrington,” she says, and pushes her glasses decisively up her nose. Just for that, once the teams are divided for baseball and the coach finally nominated him for team leader for the first time since Before, he selects Barb first.
“You bastard,” she says, sharp and under her breath, but doesn't quite manage to hide her smile even as Tommy laughs. This must be the first time she was ever picked first, Steve realizes. Maybe even the first time she was picked before last.
And for that, he privately and silently promises to do it from now own, her lack of physical fitness be damned.
Ultimately, his team loses, and when they do, it’s not the fault of Barbara fucking Holland. Voice high as a falling birding, she's saying, “He needs the nurse’s office, Mr. Ritner, he needs to go home,” but Steve doesn’t hear her here, really. He exerted himself; he can't force the air into his lungs. And then, and then -
Even in the moment, he registers dimly that this isn't flashback. Somewhere out there, Will’s so terrified that Steve can hear it through this world’s idea of space, pounding out the beat-jump rhythm that screams for help, screams Steve’s name - so the walls are rotting where they stand, something is breathing, the air is poison, but, but still there’s Barb, a steady grip on his arm leading him away, his classmates’ palescaresworrieswary faces, the world sharp, intact. Barb’s saying, “Come on, Steve, you’re out. It’s April, you can breathe, you’re at school. So is Will. You’re safe. ”
He sags against a locker, the metal handle digging into arm below his sleeve. Like that, the world rightens itself: the too-bright lights, the dirty tile floor, Jonathan’s shirt soft against the scars on his side. One blink, then two. The hallway is saturated with color. Barb’s hair shines orange, little wisps curling around her glasses. Yeah, he thinks vaguely. He’s safe.
“We really should get you to the nurse’s office,” she says after a moment. “Mr. Ritner will check that we went.”
Though he wants to say “you think?”, he aborts any attempt to speak to cough into his elbow instead. She rubs his back, a bit awkwardly, and explains that the one time she and Nancy ever tried to cut class was gym, but Nancy had to fake an injury for it, see? And Ritner checked, which means they got detention for a week.
They pass Steve’s locker, where the walkie-talkie sits at the bottom of his bookbag, useless so long as Will is in class—if Will is in class and not at the nurse’s office himself, checked over by old Ms. Lovet with her wrinkled fingers softer than Jonathan’s tshirt. “You too?” he’d asked last time. Yeah, Steve, too. And he’d felt him again, his signal for help folded beneath something else’s breathing.
Barb says he’s out, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t still trying to pull them back in.
When they reach the office, the nurse acts like Barb’s only insisting she wants to stay to cut class, and forces her to leave. After she’s gone, Mrs. Scully says, “You’ve already missed a lot of school, Steve. Do you think you can stick out the rest of the day?”
“Yeah,” he says. Even if he’s embarrassed, he isn’t sick, and his parents aren’t home anyway. He doubts she’d let him call Joyce or Hopper. “Can I go back now?”
Her mouth thins to a line. There’s grey in her brown curls that wasn’t there last year. She says, “Do you want to wait until next period, maybe? You’re pale.”
“Yeah,” he says, “sure,” and takes the seat closest to the door, closest to the windowless room’s single escape route. Just in case.
Will Byers disappeared into another world. Will Byers walked out—or at least that's what Mom and the Party say, anyway. Jonathan says it. Hopper says it. So do the doctors at the lab.
But Steve doesn't. Steve walked into another world, and someone else walked out.
Sometimes Will forgets how it felt to be Before-Will. There's a taste in the back of his throat like poison, like blood. He spits slugs down the drains of bathroom sinks, the last effects expelling themselves up his esophagus. He overheats under his covers, under his shirts. There's chill left the air every morning even though it's spring, but he's melting in his layers with something alive wriggling in his stomach. Poison still coats his lungs.
At night he hears Steve cough, his lungs still unable to handle fresh air. He hasn't switched to short sleeves outside the house, where no one talks about the scars on his arm. No one talks about the clothes that migrated into Jonathan’s bottom drawer, or that Will isn't the only one relieved to have him close. And he and Will don't talk about what the adults all call flashbacks but can't be, because even two people who shared what they shared wouldn't share those.
Those get worse by the start of spring break, which comes just at the end of April. They're down at the quarry, him and Mike and Dustin and Lucas. It's midday and Will’s burning, but so are they. At some point Lucas peeled off his shirt, which lies crumbled in a heap over their backpack pile. Mike and Will sit in the shade far away from the cliff’s edge. Though Mike won't say why, he doesn't look any further than the treeline.
Another thing they don't talk about.
Just a few feet away, Dustin curls around his notebook and scribbles secrets for his campaign, gnawing at his bottom lip. “Get it yourself,” when Lucas asks him to pass the candy, not looking up from his work. “I'm busy. ”
“No, you’re not,” Lucas says even as he does move towards the bag to get his own Snickers. “The campaign isn’t for another three days. Do it later.”
Dustin protests that ideas take time, and Mike interjects on his behalf that planning is a delicate process, Lucas , as a cloud passes over the sun. The quality of light shifts abruptly, bright to dark, and—
By the time he falls back into reality, he’s across the clearing, curled against a different tree with his nails digging into the bark. His heart beat jumps once, twice. His friends stand in a circle around him, pale and wide eyed. There’s a smudge of melted chocolate on the corner of Lucas’ mouth.
“You okay now, buddy?” Dustin asks before even Mike. His voice shakes. Though Will doesn’t know how they can tell the difference between here’s here and when he’s there , he doesn’t ask and nods instead.
Sunlight beats against his skin. This tree doesn’t offer shade.
Slowly, Mike crouches down, and cocks his head. “Should we go back?” he says. “Do you want us to get Jonathan? He’s probably with Steve. The walkie-talkie might be in range.”
It’s not. The quarry is too far away from town. With a jerky movement, Will shakes his head. What he doesn’t say is that he wouldn’t ask for Jonathan even if the walkie-talkie was in range, because he should be with Steve and Steve isn’t going anywhere right now. After all, Will isn’t the one who dragged them back this time. Even if he doesn’t know how he is, he’s aware on some subconscious that he needs to see more wrong with the world than the purple-blue-red decay for it to be his fault.
Not that it’s Steve’s fault either. That’s what the doctor at the lab says. That even zombie boys can’t be held accountable for mind tricks.
“Okay,” Lucas says, and shares a not-so-subtle look with their friends. “How about we start Dustin’s campaign? One of us has got to have dice, right?”
Both Mike and Dustin do, of course. For the rest of the afternoon, Will focuses on a world that isn’t This or That and eventually, he remembers how to breathe.
But it doesn’t stop. His next one comes halfway through break, when he’s standing in the kitchen alone, and he runs so far and fast from the monster watching his back that he’s nearly back at Mirkwood by the time he wakes. The one after that comes when Mr. Clarke’s ending his lesson on the sun, right when the high school’s day end; Will goes blank in his seat, immobile, so even Mike doesn’t notice and Mike notices everything. Troy pushes him into a locker an hour later, spitting out zombie boy , but Will’s still so disoriented that it doesn’t bother him. He barely makes it to the bathroom before he throws up another slug.
When he gets home, Steve’s there but so’re Nancy and Barb, so they don’t talk about it. Steve’s stretched out on the couch, slumped against Nancy, who runs her fingers through his hair, with his feet thrown over Jonathan’s lap while Barb scribbles in a school workbook on the chair. For a brief second, Will wishes he had a Nancy and Jonathan, who isn’t like Nancy and still acts like he is, but squashes the thought before it can form. Mike and Dustin and Lucas are all perfect the way they are with the only difference being that they aren’t older. If that’s the difference. It might not be. Will can’t be sure, because these days he isn’t sure of anything.
His consolation, in a not-so-good way, is that Steve isn’t either. “We can’t be going crazy,” he says on the day when they finally do talk about it. It’s a Tuesday, Mom and Jonathan are working late, and Nancy’s at SAT prep, so they can sit on Will’s bed just the two of them. “Not both.”
Shaking his head, Will says, “It’s like—we’re—”
Connected. Telepathic. Before-Will used to think he and Mike were telepathic in that metaphorical way, but this is different. This is real.
Steve swallows hard, visibly, and looks down. Today’s burning again, and he’s in a tshirt, so the scars on his forearm are visible where the monster that almost killed them tried to rip him open. “We’re not,” he says carefully, pauses, then finishes, “No one. Right?”
Again, Will shakes his head, and guiltily thinks that he hasn’t even told Steve about what’s wriggling around inside his stomach. What he doesn’t say now, but what he knows Steve understands, is that they’re freaks enough already. This just makes it worse. No one needs to know that they’re imaging the same things at the same time.
They don’t talk about it for the rest of the afternoon because they already said what they need. Instead, Will does homework for Mr. Clark, and Steve reads A Brave New World for English. At some point, Will falls asleep, because he’s always falling asleep these days, and when he wakes later, it’s dark outside the window and Jonathan’s leading Steve out of the room, saying quietly, “You look like shit,” like that’s new.
It can’t be any later than nine, but Will is scared and Will is tired, so he rolls over and falls back to sleep.
Summer comes to Hawkins, Indiana on a Friday in June. It comes to the high schoolers first, whose half day ends at 12:05, and trickles down to the middle schoolers an hour later. The day is humid and boiling, the sky cloudless, and every slow breeze seems pulsate with the knowledge that they have two full months of freedom.
On that first afternoon, the eight of them split between two cars, and drive the town over to the public lake, though Joyce places them under a strict sundown curfew. “At least to one of your houses,” she says, following them out to the cars. “I want a call or your faces by seven at the latest, boys. Nancy—”
“I’ll keep an eye on them,” Nancy promises, and kisses Steve on the cheek before following Barb to her car, Mike and Lucas trailing after them.
It’s a twenty minute drive through commercial wheatfields, the long grain stalks wavering in the warm breeze. When they arrive, the sunlight is as golden as the crop, sparkling off the water and sand. They stake their claim on a spot between a family of four and a group of tanning twenty-somethings with fountain hair. Within minutes, the Party have all dashed out to the water. Dustin keeps his shirt on. Will nearly trips, and laughs genuinely when he catches his bearings.
At thirteen, none of them need real supervision, even Will, regardless of what his mother thinks. Nancy, understanding this, says, “We should get ice cream,” and strips herself of her shirt. After a moment, Jonathan does the same, revealing a body more toned than she expected (and which, to her discomfort, leaves a flutter in her stomach she decides to ignore). Like Dustin, Steve and Barb stay covered.
No one comments.
They drift to the snack stand through the golden haze, and come to a stop behind a man with Chinese letters tattooed on his arm clutching at a little boy’s hand. This year, summer was an abrupt arrival with temperature’s just last week still hovering in that cold, early spring range, and Nancy and her friends bake in the heat. A breeze ripples the water and the strip of grass surrounding the parking lot and booth. The light glinting off the nearby cars’ windshields is blinding even from here.
When it’s their turn, Steve insists on paying. “It’s just easier all together,” he says, which is true, even if it flusters Barb and Jonathan. Eventually, they both settle on bland vanilla; Steve gets chocolate; Nancy orders a swirl of both with rainbow sprinkles. As an afterthought, they purchase eight waters too, and struggle to carry them all back.
“My mom’s already talking about me getting a job,” Barb says as they take their seats on the now sand-dusted towels. Her ice cream’s half gone. Nancy has chocolate and vanilla running down her fingers. “She’s right, but also. I don’t know. Where? I guess.”
Nancy’s parents have been hinting that she needs to do the same, but before she can say this, Steve noticeably cringes. “Mine basically said I’m not allowed,” he says into his ice cream. “The...guy me and Will have to see told her it’s ‘not a good idea.’”
As she and Jonathan share a glance, he says, “That’s not, you know, the worst. It fucking sucks working any kind of service job in Hawkins ‘cause everyone’s a dick.”
“Don’t remind me,” Nancy says with an exaggerated groan. “If I have to get a waitressing job serving dumb kids all day, I’m going to die.”
“The arcade and the diner and the only two places I’ve seen with Help Wanted signs,” Barb says. “If it stays like that, we’re screwed.”
Steve stays very quiet. From the towel grouping beside them, one of the fountain hair girls says loud enough to hear, “My god , Lise, you’re such a whore.”
“The ice cream stand’ll open in a week,” Jonathan says, and bites his cone.
“Rita’s in summer?” Nancy says. “That might be even worse.”
“Pay’s better, I think, so fewer hours?”
Realistically, the only reason she wants fewer hours is because she doesn’t want Steve to spend all his time alone, if he’s not allowed to work—a decision Nancy is, admittedly, fully behind. Having a flashback at school, where he can go to Mrs. Scully’s, or with them, is one thing, but having one surrounded by strangers? Just the idea of it turns her stomach.
Unfortunately, the idea of him having one alone is worse.
They finish their ice cream in contemplative silence. As Nancy uses the ineffective tiny napkin to wipe her hand, which is sticky and gross, the boys come tumbling back, the sunlight glinting off the lake water on their skin as brightly as the cars. There’s already a sunburn formed on her younger brother’s cheeks and shoulders. She can’t imagine she’s much better.
“You guys got ice cream without us?” Lucas says as Will makes a dive for the water bottles and Dustin claims that’s “no fair.”
Quirking a brow, Steve says, “It would’ve melted.”
“Can we get ice cream, Nancy?” Mike asks. “ Please? ”
Sighing, she says, “Fine. Come on.”
Barb wants more water, so she follows along, helping corale the chattering the middle schoolers. “There’s only chocolate and vanilla,” she tells them as they go on about flavors, which clearly and horrifically disappoints them all. Lucas’ unabashed love of strawberry is endearing, and just in case, Nancy files it away as something to remember.
Eventually, the reach the front of the line, order, and head back. Nancy, from the distance, watches one of Jonathan’s rare smiles eke out as he tugs at Steve’s shirt. The dreamy afternoon turns the already soft expression softer, and just barely outlines both their profiles with the smudged quality of an old fashioned silhouette. Something constricts her heart and she realizes oh, oh no—oh no, she realizes, because she loves loves loves loves Steve, but she might just be falling in love with her best friend, too.
“Do you like my brother?”
Steve freezes, hand hovering around the glass of water he’d just moved to grab. When he turns, Will’s looking at him with a scrunched mouth and turned in eyebrows. Then the question and what it means slams into Steve with unexpected severity, and all he can manage is “What?”
Dead serious, Will repeats, “Do. You. Like. My. Brother.” Then, just as firmly but less choppy, he says, “I don’t care, but what about Nancy?”
At the moment, it’s just the two of them, since Nancy, Jonathan, and Barb are all at work and none of Will’s friends are allowed to bike over in the rain. They hide together under the protection of the Byers’ porch to escape a downpour that does nothing to cut either the late June heat or the humidity. Will sits indignantly straight in the wicker chair, staring at Steve, who occupies the one across the small round table, still bent towards the glasses of water. Self conscious, he abandons his mission and rightens his posture. A mosquito lands on wrist, out for blood. He ignores it.
“I like Nancy,” he says, which he, vaguely, realizes is probably a non-answer.
“I know ,” Will says. “But you look at Jonathan the same way you like at her.”
This is more than they normally say to each other when they’re alone. “I do?”
Steve’s insides turn.
Again, Will says, “I don’t care . I—I—I like—”
And he stops.
For a moment, neither of them speak. “Mike,” Steve says finally, and watches Will’s entire twiggy body shutter despite the syrupy temperature.
“He still likes her ,” he says. Whispers it, as though there’s a monster still out there who wants to get them.
With uncharacteristic insight, Steve wonders if Will wants him to like Jonathan the way he likes Nancy because then that would mean Mike could like him even if he was holding the proverbial torch out for a dead girl. “Look, I’m not speaking for who Wheeler likes,” he says, and leans forward again to take his water, “but if he does or doesn’t like guys—whatever. Hawkins isn’t the entire world, and you’re a brainy kid. You’ll end up going to college in New York or something and meet someone a thousand times cooler than anyone here.”
“Is that what you’re going to do? Go all the way to New York?”
Shrugging, Steve says, “Not sure. That’s what Nance and Jonathan want.”
“See! You do like him.”
He blinks. “What?”
Will’s mouth sets into a determined line. “If you only liked Nancy, then you’d only say Nancy,” he says, “or you’d say Nancy and Jonathan and Barb, but you’re only saying the two of them. So do you?”
Again, Steve’s just quiet. The rain comes down to the earth in a roaring stream, and even over that, the crickets sing loud enough to hear. “I don’t know,” he says, after trying and failing to get his thoughts in order.
“Well,” Will says with a smirk worthy of Lucas as he grabs his own water, “if it makes you feel any better, I think he likes you too.”
“Whatever,” Steve says in a mumble, and thinks that, if anything, that makes it worse.
By some stroke of unexpected luck, no one has work on the Fourth of July, so Barb invites Nancy, as always, to her cul-de-sac’s block party, but also, for the first time, Steve and Jonathan. Unsurprisingly, the equilateral triangle arrive together, carrying Steve’s mayo-free pasta salad and Karen’s famous tray bake blondies and a casserole Joyce made that Barb doubts anyone should touch, and dressed in matching red and white.
Barb, who never cares about holidays or color coordinating, stands out among them in her unseasonable jeans and pink t-shirt. Mom lets out a very low “oh dear” at the sight of them.
“Thanks for inviting us, Mrs. Holland,” Steve says after they exchange hellos, and places his pasta salad between the blondies and the casserole, and in front of Mrs. Klein’s Jello mould and Mom’s vegetable lasagna. The plastic bowl is the same shade of blue as the tablecloth. To Barb’s horror, she realizes that, even after all these months, there’s more than likely nothing here but his own dish that Steve can eat.
“Oh, you know the three of you are welcome to anything,” Mom says, and adds, “Excuse me,” when Mr. Lambert, their across-the-street neighbor and Barb’s ex-third grade teacher calls her over to help set up the paper lantern string lights.
There’s a beat where no one moves. Then Jonathan shifts his weight, foot to foot, and his gaze sweeps the gathering crowd until Nancy brushes the back of her hand against the back of his. In the grey, overcast light, their tans are all washed out. A sudden gust, unexpectedly cold, flutters the edges of the paper table cloths and her dress hem. Barb folds her arms across her chest.
“Where’re the kids?” she asks, if just to break the tension.
“My place,” Nancy says, and rolls her eyes. “Playing another ten hour game probably.”
Glancing past Barb’s shoulder, Steve says, “Hey, are those sparklers?”
More than one of her neighbors brought sparklers and firecrackers, and dumped them all into a number of fancy picnic baskets. “Yeah,” Barb says. “We should grab a couple before they all get taken.”
It doesn’t take long before the four of them fade away from the greater party, disappearing into Barb’s backyard. Overgrown grass curls over their ankles and promised rain sticks to their skin. As Jonathan ignites her sparkler with his lighter, Nancy laughs, the sound floating high and clear into the heavy July air, as delighted by the crackling white lights as she is every year.
Traditionally, Barb is the one to light her sparkler, using one of her dad’s matches. Now Jonathan does the honors for all of them. When Steve smiles, goofy and childish, the corner of his mouth quirks. She didn’t know it was possible to like more than person at once, but the way they all look at each other—just the way they look —
Well. Barb’s never had anyone look at her like that.
I’m right here, she wants to say. I’m right here, and I was there too, and I was there first, Nancy, so why can’t any of you see me? She wants to scream it, but knows it will do nothing, and holds the words in instead.
Nancy waves her sparkler in the air like a wand. “Remember when we used to use these in manhunt with your neighbors?”
“Yeah,” Barb answers. “Remember when Carol was nice?”
As Steve’s eyebrows shoot towards his hair, Jonathan says, “Oh, jeez. I forgot she used to live over here. What turned her into a bitch?”
“She got hot,” she says bluntly, and Nancy readily agrees.
Too quick to have thought about it first, he tells her, “That didn’t do anything to you.”
Barb looks to him so fast her neck cracks. His face goes the same color as his shirt, flushed up to his ears, and though she expects Steve to comment, he doesn’t. Only laughing, Nancy elbows his side and says, “I got to keep Barb’s good influence.”
From there, the conversation shifts to the upcoming school year. They light a second round of sparklers, then a third. Jonathan smokes a cigarette once when the wind is down, billowing the smoke away from Barb and Nancy, who never tarnished their lungs, and Steve, whose are damaged irreparably. Around five, the drizzle starts, so they emerge from the backyard and make for the food. In the cul-de-sac’s center, Mr. Lambert and Sargent Stanger set up the fireworks, ready to start the show early with the sky already as dark as it is. Most of the dishes are picked over, but Steve steals his bowl of pasta salad to eat the remains without shame, and the rest still salvage a good haul of sweet and savory. No one touches Mrs. Klein’s lime green Jello mould.
“This is crack,” Nancy says when she swallows a forkful of Cindy Zarnstroff’s black forest tart. Barb, who has the absolute last slice on her own paper plate, already knows this. As she digs a second piece out, Nancy says, “You have to try it,” and shoves it on Jonathan. Steve kisses her, chasing the sugar he’s only allowed in once-in-awhile quantities.
As Jonathan complains it’s too sweet through a swath of chocolate and candied cherries, Sargent Stanger sets off the first firework. It pops way up against the dark clouds with a loudness that bursts Barb’s ears. “Ow,” she says, but it’s worth it, however pathetically, when Nancy rests a hand on hers.
The display goes on for twenty minutes, even as the rain picks up and the parents begin clearing the tables. Though Nancy never moves her hand, she falls with all her weight against Steve’s side. Out of the corner of her eye, Barb, at some point, sees him drape his arm across Jonathan’s shoulders.
For the duration of the show, they stay just like that, connected and quiet with their thoughts drowned out entirely by the noise.
July and early August pass smoothly, a glorious six weeks free from flashbacks or otherworldly drama that lulls all those touched by the Hawkins that wasn’t Hawkins into a vivid illusion of security. One blistering evening before the illusionary cocoon unravels, Joyce comes home with the boyfriend she’s been hiding, and says, “Boys, this is Bob Newby. Bob, these are my sons, Jonathan and Will, and this is Steve. Me and Bob...Bob is my boyfriend.”
By now, this first week in August, and they’ve been dating for four and a half months, but Joyce has explained remarkably little about Will and Steve, and Jonathan and Steve. “Hi,” Bob says to the boys, who stand in a triangle in the backyard, grouped around a checkered soccer ball Steve’s been getting the Byers to kick around just so they have something to do on evenings as dull as this.
When Joyce said someone was coming for dinner, they all expected Hopper, so Steve hadn’t changed his shirt to one with long sleeves. Though his scars are perfectly visible in the sunset’s reddish daylight, Bob pointedly does not look at them. Joyce may only have explained the bare minimum, neglecting to mention that Steve spent more nights in her son’s bed than his own or his girlfriend’s, but journalists had been shockingly brutal with what details they released despite the boy’s age.
“Hi,” Jonathan says after an unreasonably long pause, and leaves it at that. After a moment, Steve parrots him, says, “Nice to meet you,” and Will adds bluntly, “Mom hasn’t mentioned you.”
“Will,” Joyce says as Bob pales. Her tone is chiding, but not sharp.
Steve excuses himself with a not quite lie that he needs to meet Nancy after she gets off her shift at Rita’s, and leaves before anyone can protest. Dinner is quickly constructed, consisting of chicken kiev and leftover roast potatoes Jonathan made the night before. It’s awkward. Joyce leads the conversation. Will pushes his potatoes around. Jonathan asks Bob’s work. Even once talk turns to cameras, tension doesn’t ease, but they don’t hate him, either, much to his and Joyce’s relief.
After, he’s around more, and he’s around when the six weeks’ calm breaks.
“Oh, come on , Will,” comes up Mike’s voice from the backyard, frantically raising in pitch with each word. Though still not cold, it’s the first cool day of the season, marking the end of summer.
Joyce stops, midway through explaining the way she learned Hopper’s allergic to wool back in January. “Oh, god,” she says, and dashes off her porch chair and around the house. After a moment of indecision, Bob follows.
When he rounds the corner, he finds Will seated on the ground, corpse pale, staring at nothing, as Joyce crouches in front of him and the boys huddle around him. “He tripped,” the one named Dustin’s saying, almost as pale as his friend, “and then did this.”
“It’s been weeks,” says Lucas and declares, loudly, “It’s not fair.”
An autumn wind rises, late September cold. “Joyce,” Bob says, drawing everyone’s attention, “we should get him inside?” He says it as a question, but she just gives a jerking nod and moves aside, asking for his help. Even if he’s better at fixing machines than people, he never thought dating Joyce would easy, so he casts aside his own doubts, lifts the small boy into his arms, and carries him indoors.
In the weeks that follow, as the chill settles more permanently into the air, both boys grow worse.
“What do the doctors say?” Bob asks at the very end of August, on the day Steve turns seventeen, and just thirty minutes after he witnessed the birthday boy disappear into his own head. It’s terrifying. It’s heartbreaking.
Joyce dabs at her eyes with her sweater sleeve. “He called it post-traumatic stress,” she says, voice low, through her tears as he tucks her under his arm and rubs her leg with his free hand. Outside in the living room, her son and the Wheeler girl worry after Steve, so they’ve hidden away in the bedroom to talk. She continues, “He said it’ll get worse for them before it gets better. Hopper looked it up. War vets have it. War vets, Bob.”
None of the Vietnam veterans in Hawkins have scars like Steve, but Bob keeps that thought to himself. Instead, he says, “Do you go in with both of them?”
“Sometimes,” she says to her lap, and sniffles. “Sometimes they see him together. It depends if one of Steve’s parents bring him.”
After a brief hesitation, Bob says, “Joyce. Joyce, I love you—” She raises her eye, brow knit. It’s not the first time he’s said, and she’s said back, so despite her confusion, he pushes on, saying, “And one of the things I love about you is just how big your heart is. But do you think maybe you should, I don’t know.” He drops his voice. “Report the Harringtons?”
She laughs. “You think I haven’t considered it?” she says. “It would never work, me against the Harringtons. Besides, no one needs the added drama with one year left.”
From beyond the door, Nancy giggles loud enough to hear. Jonathan yelps. In the last few weeks, Joyce integrated Bob into Family Movie Night on Thursdays, during which Steve is the only other non-Byers included. Bob hadn’t meant to suggest starting drama. It’s just that for all parties involved, it might be good, he thinks, to make the poor kid’s stay here official.
A week before the start of the school year, the Hargrove-Mayfield family comes to town, and so Max and Billy start the new semester with everyone else. They’re the first new students the eighth or twelfth grade has had in at least three years, if not more, and speculation about them sweeps both schools by the end of first period.
It’s dreary outside, with the skies slate grey and the wind carrying the smell of decomposing leaves and morning frost rather than the SoCal seaside. Mr. Clarke, Max’s new science teacher, introduces her as though this weren’t the first day for everyone, and outs her Cali origins. “We sit in alphabetical order,” he says after she makes damn sure everyone knows she’s Max, not Maxine, “so you’re right here in front of Dustin. Dustin, raise your hand.”
A chubby kid with floppy curls raises his hand, and grins. Max’s seat is front seat, front row. She wants to die already, but she slips into the uncomfortable plastic chair anyway and readies herself for the day. For the whole class, she feels eyes on her back. It would be nice if she could disappear.
For Billy, it’s easier. His car rumbles into the high school’s lot along with the sunrise. He steps out, his cigarette dangling between his lips. Nearby, a gaggle of chicks in tight sweaters watch him. The short redhead smirks rather than blushes when he sends her a wink. As he walks to the trash to chuck the burned out bud, he notices the co-eds on the lot’s other end, a girl and a guy sitting on the hood of a beat up old car and a second pair standing. They don’t look his way. The kid on the car has hair almost as good as his.
During third period PE, Good Hair gets a name. Coach Sorvino drags him over to the side before the bell rings for a Private Conversation, but the guy’s so obnoxiously loud that Billy hears him clearly across their grade’s side of the room. “Harrington,” he’s saying, “can I expect you back on the team this year?”
Harrington shrugs and mumbles something too low to catch. Noticing where Billy’s attention wandered, Tommy, who he met in last period trig, says, “Sorvino coaches the basketball team. Steve was the best player on Varsity even in his sophomore year.”
“Interesting,” Billy says, glancing towards Tommy, who still has a summer sunburn peeling the bridge of his nose. “I was star player at my last school.” It’s not strictly speaking true, but he’s damn good, and that’s enough to be better than anyone in small town Indiana.
“Tryout’s’ll be in a few weeks,” the other kid says. “You’ll know. Coach won’t shut up about it ‘til they pass.”
The bell rings, Sorvino takes roll call, and then releases them to the locker rooms, which stink of BO and mildew. Though Billy doesn’t mean to notice, he’s annoyingly aware of when Harrington changing behind the privacy of a full length locker, something that would get a jeer or two in any normal school, not a single fucking person comments. Now that—that’s weird .
Throughout third period, he remains hyper-aware of Steve, who really is that good at basketball, but meanwhile, Steve hardly notices him. Billy is new, and new isn’t common in a town like Hawkins, but he’s more concerned with physics next period. This year, bad lungs might not the only factor stopping him from joining the team. His guidance counselor cautioned him against taking physics and chemistry, because he’s not smart, so they’ll be hard, but he’ll feel better if he understands even just a little of what caused all the trouble last year. The consolation is that Barb and Nancy are also in physics, and Jonathan in chem, since they’re both mixed grade classes.
Meanwhile, as Steve stresses about schoolwork and Billy stresses about the lack of attention, Max and the Party face the opposite dilema. “You can sit with us,” Lucas tells her at lunch, approaching her before any other group has the opportunity.
“You’ve been staring at me all day,” she says, wrinkling her nose. “I don’t sit with stalkers, stalker.”
“We’re not stalking you,” says Dustin. “Hawkins just doesn’t get new kids.”
Max longs for her old school, where the beach was visible as a sliver from half the rooms and she knew everyone’s name. Their year started the same week that she left. Her two best friends had half the same classes together. The town had rebuilt the skate park that was halfway between the school and her dad’s new condo. This time of day, the sunlight coming through her house’s living room window used to reflect off the yellow painted walls. Mom always said it was like the room was smiling, because she was cheesy like that.
Now Max is here, in the landlocked Midwest, in a school where she has no friends and house to return to with all off white walls and a step-family who hate her. Now she’s new , and misses not being new so strongly it makes her heart hurt.
“Fine,” she says, but only because she doesn’t see any free space where she can sit alone. “Lead the way.”
They reach a round red table by one of the windows, where Mike and Will sit huddled over a piece of paper. “It’s fine, Mike,” Will says, but his voice doesn’t sound like it’s fine.
“Did someone put something in your locker already?” Dustin asks as they sit, plopping down his tray of god knows what so hard the table rattles.
“No,” Will says, but Lucas snatches the paper from him before he can hide it. Max, from his right, makes out a faded newspaper headline about the Soviets, and the words ZOMBIE BOY written in Sharpie.
“Why are you a zombie?” she asks, and takes a seat at the end of the bench as Lucas leaves to throw away the clipping.
Frowning, Zombie Boy says, “It’s nothing.”
“You can’t invite me to sit with you then third wheel me,” she says. “That’s bullshit.”
Will has such dark circles under his eyes, and his skin’s so colorless that really could be a zombie. “Ask anyone in our grade,” he says. “They kept all the newspapers.”
Even if she wants to move, she can’t, because already, there’s nowhere else to sit. “Whatever,” she says, annoyed, but also knowing that if whatever it is made it into the papers, it shouldn’t be that hard to find answers.
She just hadn’t counted on learning those answers from Billy.
“This town is fucked up, Susan,” he says hours later, when she emerges from her room to help set the table with him, like she’s supposed to every night. Mom tsks at his language, but doesn’t tell him off, which seems unfair. “Two kids got kidnapped and, like, tortured or something like a year ago. Two! By the Russians.”
“I’m sure that’s just rumors,” Mom says, sighing, as she spoons soup into three bowls. Neil’s working late today, which means Max doesn’t need to pretend to be nice through dinner. “If the Soviets ever do attack, it’ll be New York or DC, not somewhere like Hawkins, Indiana.”
“No,” Max says, interrupting Billy’s reply. “Mom, he’s right. One of the kids is in my grade. He’s in my science class.”
Billy cocks his head. “Really?” he says. “What are the fucking odds? The other’s in mine. I’ve got ‘im in gym and chem.”
With a sweeping glance between the two of them, Mom asks, “And how did the two of you get your information?”
“A newspaper,” Max says, which is almost true, as Billy answers, “This kid who used to be Harrington’s friend before everything went down told me. He said they turned up as corpses and everything, but really it was just some Russian mad scientist who faked the bodies, so then Harrington was back in school like a month later and now he’s all messed up in the head.”
Zombie Boy . A kid who came back from the dead. “Well, Will’s nice,” she says, if only because it seems like Billy’s going to be a dick about the Harrington kid. “He has a friend who’s really good at arcade games, but not as good as me.”
“I still don’t know how much I’m buying that it’s a Russian invasion,” Mom says, ignoring Max’s rightful brag, “but I’m sure they’re both sick of rumors. Go on, finish the table. I’ll bring out the soup.”
For the first time ever, Max and Billy share A Look, but do as they’re told. “What newspaper?” he says when they walk with napkins and utensils into the dining room, leaving Mom to delicately balance three bowls of hot liquid in the kitchen.
“I couldn’t see the whole thing,” Max answers, “but I definitely saw the word ‘Soviet.’”
Mom enters, effectively ending the conversation, and flicks on the light. The table’s new, just like all their furniture, bought at a place in town, and the shiny surface reflects the ceiling lamp’s bright, new bulb glow. “Other than finding out about kidnapped boys,” she says as she sets the bowls down on the placemats, “how were your days?”
With that, the subject changes to classes and potential friends, and talk of zombie boys ends for the day.
Two weeks into the school year, Max is already an almost fully integrated member of the Party, and Billy’s a fully integrated member of Hawkins High’s popular clique. Two weeks into the school year, someone also slips a newspaper clipping with Zombie Boy scrawled across into the slates in Steve’s locker some time between second and third period.
Barb grabs it before he can tuck it out of sight, away from his friends’ inevitable concern. “Who did this?” she says. “We’re in high school. Who honestly finds this cool?”
Maybe it’s their age, or maybe it’s due to his Before social status, but Steve never faced the same ridicule as Will. Nancy and Jonathan mutter in outrage as he looks left and right down the hall, but there’s no gaggle of students gathered around to watch his reaction. Whatever this is, it’s personal, but he can’t for the life of him figure out who he pissed off.
“Just ignore it,” he says, snatching it away from Barb, and pushes it where he found it. Later he’ll get rid of it. When the hallway is clear. “Someone probably just showed up stoned and thought it would be funny.”
“Steve,” Nancy starts, but stops, sighing, when he shakes his head. “Fine. Let’s just focus on your in-class essay. What are you going to say about Hamlet’s themes?”
They split from Barb and Jonathan, who have photography and journalism together, and head in the opposite direction, where Steve has English and Nancy has AP bio, keeping their focus on Shakespeare and the theme of revenge. Outside her classroom, she pauses to kiss him, someone whoops, and Mr. Lane barks his name in warning when he flips the kid off.
Despite Steve’s expectations, the note is not a one time anomaly. Another slips through between PE and physics on the following Tuesday, and a third appears on Thursday at the start of the school day. He hears “Zombie Boy” thrown at his back for the first time a full year late, dropped from the mouth of a freshman with acne on his chin and a face like a ferret. It happens just before lunch. Before Steve can react, Tommy whacks the kid on the head and tells him to mind his mouth, but the freshman just shoots back that hey, he’s not the one who started it.
It doesn’t matter who started it. What matters is that the label’s finally here.
“I heard you got brought back from the dead last year, Harrington,” Hargrove says the following day in PE, during basketball, which is the first time Steve really notices him. “Hey, what’s dying like?”
The question catches him so off guard that he doesn’t realize Hargrove’s in his space until the ball’s out of his hands and he’s on his back on the slick gym floor.
“Could it be from the freshman?” Nancy says, mystified, when he and she and Jonathan settle at Steve’s house after school. His parents left last night for Beijing, making this the most private place in Hawkins. “You know, like they brought it up from tormenting Will last year?”
Though it doesn’t seem likely a freshman would go after a senior, no one can think of a better option. “It doesn’t matter,” Steve says. “A dumb nickname and a few pieces of paper aren’t going hurt me.”
Jonathan, at the speed of spilled molasses, reaches out to rest a hand on Steve’s shoulder. “I get what you’re saying,” he says, “but we’re not in middle school. This might not stay just a dumb nickname.”
“What if someone actually goes after you?” Nancy says, readjusting her position on the couch. The late afternoon sunlight catches on the autumn leaves on its way through the window, highlighting the pale streaks in her hair.
“I’ll be fine,” Steve says. “Someone’ll go get knocked up or something, and everyone will forget about me.”
“Shit like that doesn’t happen until prom,” Jonathan says, and drops his arm.
“No,” Steve says. “Cindy Mason got pregnant in the middle—”
Loudly, Nancy says, “You’ve made your point. But still. What if someone goes after you, and you, you know, think you’re back there ?”
Again, he says, “I’ll be fine,” because he loves Nancy, and there’s a chance he’s in love with Jonathan, but he hasn’t explained yet that the doctor is wrong, that these flashbacks aren’t really flashbacks, so circumstance doesn’t matter much.
“But if you’re not—”
“I said I’ll be fine, Nance.”
They fall silent. Then Jonathan clears his throat. “Steve’s probably right,” he says to Nancy even as he looks at Steve. “Something else will happen in a week or two and everyone will forget it.”
Conceding, his girlfriend says, “Fine. Have it your way. It’s bad enough that the DOE’s just getting away with treating you and Will like shit without it happening in our school too.”
“Don’t be like that,” Steve says. “It’s my senior year. I don’t want to start anything.”
Nancy shakes her head, and doesn’t answer, though he doesn’t understand how she still has the energy to be angry when he lost his the moment he woke in the hospital. Time will tell which one of them is right, but at the moment, sunlight saturated with autumn colors dances across his living room walls, he has Jonathan on his left with Nancy on his right, and the idea that there’s anything beyond his silent house seems far fetched, like a dream or make-believe.