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Billy’s acting weird.

 

There’s something wrong with Billy. More than normal, that is. And Max can tell, because he’s acting really freaking weird.

 

Had he been a normal brother, a normal person , and had their family been normal, then Max supposes there wouldn’t have been anything strange with his behaviour.

 

But as it is, he isn’t and they aren’t. So.

 

Billy’s being weird.

 

He’d gotten into an argument with Neil last night, and usually that means he’s going to be extra bitchy at Max the next morning. More likely to shout at her for some stupid reason that wouldn’t have bothered him otherwise. Not enough to say anything, at least.

 

But not this morning. He just grabs a piece of plain toast and grunts at her when she stares at him because he’s up late. Billy always gets up early. He wants to shower and fix his hair before they need to leave. And breakfast is like, his favourite meal of the day. He usually eats a lot. Not just plain toast and water.

 

It’s weird.

 

It’s not that Max is worried about him. It’s just that since that night at the Byers’ place she has been picking up on things that are weird more than she did before. And Billy hasn’t really been bothering her or the rest of the Party since then, but now he’s acting weird again and Max is gearing herself up for some kind of confrontation.

 

But once they get out to his car and away from Susan he doesn’t say or do anything. He doesn’t even put on any music. He always puts on music. It’s starting to freak her out.

 

He stops the Camaro outside the middle school a couple of minutes later.

 

“I’m picking you up straight after school. Don’t be late.” He won’t look at her, just keeps his grip tight on the steering wheel and stares straight forward out the window. But his voice sounds the same as always so she tries not to think about how not-himself he’s been acting this whole morning.

 

Max doesn’t answer, she just hurries to scramble out of the car with her backpack and then she’s off towards her first class of the day.

 

 

Lucas raises an eyebrow at her when she walks in and falls into her seat. “What’s wrong?”

 

“Huh?”

 

“You’re frowning,” says Mike from where he’s sitting behind Lucas. Max hadn’t realised she was.

 

“Nothing... It’s just... Billy was weird this morning.”

 

Lucas jumps up from his seat. Some girls on the other side of the classroom turn to look at him and he smiles sheepishly before turning to Max. “Did he hurt you?” he asks in a low voice. Max can see Will looking worried from beside Mike.

 

Max shakes her head. “No. Like I told you, he hasn’t really hurt me before, he just scares me. But he hasn’t done anything since that night.”

 

“What did he do then?” Mike looks confused.

 

“Nothing. That’s the problem. He was up later than normal, he didn’t really eat any breakfast, he didn’t say anything and he didn’t put any music on in the car, and then he wouldn’t look at me when he dropped me off.”

 

“Maybe he was up late last night. Or maybe he has a test or something so he’s stressed,” says Dustin. He’s put his backpack up on his desk and is rummaging around it. “Guys, I have to show you what I made last night. It’s really cool, you see, because I had these things at home and I remembered what Mr. Clarke said last week, so I...”

 

Max lets Dustin’s voice fade into the background as the boys turn to look at him. She can’t help thinking that there’s something else wrong with Billy. Neil forces him to read out his grades, so Max knows he has good ones. She knows he studies and can’t imagine him being unprepared for a test. And she knows he didn’t go to a party last night. But then Dustin is actually taking the thing out of his backpack, and okay, yeah, that looks really freaking cool, so Max lets herself forget about her stupid stepbrother.

 

 

Mr. Clarke’s class is their last one, and once everyone else has left, Dustin gets his thing out of his backpack and they all crowd around it so they can show Mr. Clarke. He seems impressed and then he’s getting into different scientific theories which aren’t on their syllabus but he tells them anyway. Max usually prefers maths, but she can admit that all of this is really interesting and Mr. Clarke makes it all so much easier to understand than her science teacher back in California did. She actually had to ask Billy for help then.

 

Billy .

 

Shit.

 

It’s only then that she remembers he wanted her to be out right after school. Class ended almost thirty minutes ago. And they boys were talking about meeting up at the Arcade after dinner. She doubts Billy will want to drive her after she’s made him wait for her. And her mom doesn’t like her going on her skateboard when it gets dark. But maybe she can still get him to drive her. If she just mentions the bat, then maybe...

 

“Guys, sorry, but I have to go now! I’ll call you later!” She grabs her backpack and runs out to the parking lot, leaving the boys staring after her.

 

The Camaro is parked away from the other cars, and Max slows to a stop as she nears it.

 

Billy’s sitting in the front seat, but he’s not smoking or looking annoyed or anything Max would have expected. He’s curled up with his head resting against the steering wheel and a hand against the back of his head. Even from this far away she can tell it’s shaking. Suddenly Max doesn’t feel like trying to get to the Arcade anymore.

 

She walks slowly around the car until she gets to the passenger side. Other than his trembling hand he’s not moving. She reaches out, opens the door and sticks her head in.

 

“Billy?”

 

“Shit!” He uncurls so quickly he even makes Max jump. “Fuck, Max!” He actually turns to glare at her, which almost makes her smile, because finally , he’s acting like his normal self. “Thought I’d told you not to be late?”

 

“Sorry.” She starts getting into the car as she speaks. “Mr. Clarke wanted to show us some things.”

 

“Whatever.” He shakes his head. Max notices he’s only got one arm on the wheel. The other lies on his lap, close to his stomach. They’re not shaking anymore. She almost things she imagined it. “Let’s just get back to the house.”

 

That’s another thing Billy does. Their house in Hawkins is always just ‘the house’ never ‘home’. California was his home. Max was the same in the beginning. But now she has the Party, she has friends, so now she calls their house her home. Despite everything.

 

Max is out of the car as soon as Billy parks it. She hurries up the path to the door and turns back when she notices he’s not right behind her.

 

He’s leaning against the open car door, one arm against his belly. His eyes are closed.

 

Max gets the feeling she’s watching something private, something she isn’t supposed to see.

 

So she turns back to the door and reaches into her jacket for her key. Neither her mum nor Neil are home yet. She dumps her backpack by their circular kitchen table and turns on the radio. Grabs her walkie and starts calling Lucas.

 

“Lucas? Over.”

 

“Max? Over.”

 

“Hey. I just wanted to say I’m not going to the Arcade tonight. Forgot I had some homework left for tomorrow. You go on without me. Over.”

 

“Okay. Over. Guys! Max can’t come.”

 

Distantly, she thinks she can hear Dustin’s voice.

 

“Was that Dustin? Over.”

 

“Yeah, he said he can try to beat your high score at Dig Dug now. Over.”

 

Max laughs. “He can try. I’ll get it back next time, though. Over.”

 

“Yeah, probably. Over.”

 

She hears the front door open, followed by steps through the living room.

 

“Alright, well, bye Lucas. Over and out.”

 

She puts her walkie back in her backpack and waits in case Billy will walk in. He doesn’t. She hears him walk into the hallway leading to the bedrooms and bathroom, and a couple seconds later hears his door close.

 

She gets her homework out and starts doing maths. Someone on the radio sings about being young forever.

 

 

Her mum comes home and starts preparing dinner not long after. She runs her hand through Max’ hair and smiles at her when she sees she’s doing her homework.

 

Susan’s almost finished with dinner when Neil comes home. He walks into the kitchen, gives Max a smile and kisses her mum. Then he turns and frowns towards the doorway leading to the corridor with their bedrooms.

 

“Billy’s in his room?”

 

“Yeah.”

 

He nods before walking back into the living room. Max hears the TV turn on. She finishes her homework and goes to put her bag in her room. It’s quiet from behind Billy’s closed door when she walks past it. Almost like he’s not there at all. Usually she would at least be able to hear music but now there’s nothing.

 

“Max?” her mum calls from the kitchen. “Sweetheart? Can you help me set the table?”

 

She leaves Billy’s room alone and goes back to help her mum.

 

Once the table’s set Max goes to sit down at her place while Susan leaves. She can hear her moving into the hallway and knocking on a door.

 

“Billy? Dinner’s ready.” Max doesn’t hear what he says back, but she can hear the door to the bathroom close. Her mum goes into the living room to get Neil before coming back into the kitchen and sitting down.

 

She’s frowning.

 

Max almost wants to ask what’s wrong, but then Neil’s there and a couple seconds later Billy comes into the room. He’s pale.

 

She watches how he slowly sits down in his chair and how he only takes a little food onto his plate. Remembers how he only took one piece of bread for breakfast. And Max doubts he ate much at school. Steve always complains about what they serve in the cafeteria. She can’t imagine Billy being much of a fan either.

 

But nobody else seems to notice or care. Her mum is smiling at Neil across the table as he takes his first bites and nods appreciatively back at her. Then she turns to Max and smiles at her as well.

 

“How was school, Maxie?”

 

“Good. Mr. Clarke showed us some really cool stuff, and we started a new chapter in Maths which was fun.”

 

Nobody other than Max pay Billy any attention throughout the meal. It’s usually like that, the day after he and Neil have had a fight, but usually Max is entirely comfortable ignoring him as well. She can’t now, though. Because now she’s noticed that something is going on with him, and since he’s sitting right across the table from her she can’t really look away. He took less than half of what they took, but he still finishes his meal around the same time as they do. It’s like he doesn’t want to eat anything. It’s all so weird.

 

After dinner Max bounds off to her own room where she changes into her pyjamas, before curling up on her bed to re-read some of the new Wonder Woman comics she bought that weekend. She can hear Billy’s bedroom door closing and the TV turn on in the living room. Her mum and Neil have some TV show they always watch on Friday nights.

 

She falls asleep right in the middle of a battle sequence.

 

 

She’s pretty sure she’s had a nightmare.

 

It’s dark in her room when she wakes up and her comic lies open but face down on her nightstand, so her mum must have come in after she’d fallen asleep. She can hear the rain softly hitting her window.

 

She can’t remember much from the dream, she just has this strange unsettling feeling and the vague memory of having seen Lucas, Will and Nancy in her dream.

 

She reaches over to turn on the lamp on her bedside table so she can check the time. It’s just a little past three in the morning.

 

She needs a glass of water. She always gets thirsty when she wakes up in the middle of the night. And it helps ground her. Going out in the kitchen, checking everything looks as it should in the there and in the living room. No weird floating grey dust in the air, or vines around the house.

 

She’s quick to leave her room then. First into the kitchen where she grabs a glass and refills it twice before she looks out the windows and goes into the living room to do the same there. Everything looks normal. The night is dark out there, but the rain proves a steady rhythm against the glass in the window.

 

She’s just turning to go back to her room when she hears it.

 

Crying. Soft sobbing.

 

At first she thinks it’s her mum, but it doesn’t sound like her. It sounds male. And she can’t imagine Neil ever crying, so that only leaves one person.

 

Billy.

 

She turns to look at the clock on the kitchen wall. 3:30am. Neil wouldn’t have gone up in the middle of the night just to have a fight with Billy, would he? Something else must have happened.

 

She stays where she is for a little while longer, contemplating what she ought to do. Then there’s a whine and Max is off towards Billy’s room.

 

She slowly turns the doorknob, trying not to wake anyone else, and steps in.

 

It’s dark in the room, but from the light shining through his window she can just make out a bundle of blankets on Billy’s bed. The crying’s louder now, and she can hear him taking gasping breaths. She’s only ever heard Billy cry once or twice, but never like this.

 

“Billy?”

 

He abruptly stops and she thinks she might be able to hear him swallowing.

 

“Go away, Max.” He’s trying to make his voice a growl, but Max can hear the shakiness of it, so she ignores him and gently closes the door behind her before going up to his bed. It’s too dark to see his face, but she can just make out his eyes glistening.

 

“Billy... what’s wrong?”

 

And it seems like that’s what breaks him, because he starts crying again. He’s curling up and clutching his stomach. “Max... Max, it really hurts. I think... I think something’s really wrong this time. I’m scared Max. It feels like I’m going to die.”

 

He didn’t hit you that hard , she doesn’t say, because she knows what it would sound like. The thing is just that she’s certain Billy has taken worse before. The fight with Neil lasted perhaps fifteen minutes. They were mostly just shouting at each other before they suddenly both fell silent and not soon after that she could hear Billy moving into his bedroom. But she didn’t see it. She’s never really seen it. Only the results. So she doesn’t really know. She’s only ever seen Neil slap Billy, and heard crashes before seeing bruises adorning Billy’s skin.

 

But Billy’s never acted this way before. He’s never seemed to be in this much pain. And Max is afraid.

 

“I’m... I’m going to go wake my mum up.” She starts backing out of the room but Billy stops her with a harsh shake of his head.

 

“No, Max, she’s going to wake Neil. I don’t- He can’t- Just help me up. Help me get to my car.”

 

“I... okay, just wait here. I’ll be back in a second.” She has no intention of helping him out to the Camaro. He’d crash before he’d even left their street in his state. But she has to calm him down before he starts shouting at her, and then it will be him who woke Neil up.

 

She softly pads over to her mum and Neil’s bedroom, avoids the creaky floorboard just a step from the door, and slowly eases it open.

 

Max keeps one eye on Neil the whole way to the bed, but he’s turned away from her mum and snores loud enough he probably won’t hear Max whisper. Hopefully.

 

“Mom, mum, please, wake up.” She says as she gently shakes Susan’s shoulder.

 

“Max? Sweetheart? What’s going on? It’s the middle of the night?”

 

“I need you to come.” Max quickly looks over to Neil. Susan follows her gaze and her eyes widen.

 

“Is it Billy?” She sighs. “God, I knew something was wrong.”

 

Max can’t help staring at her mum. “W-What? How did you...?” But then she remembers Sudan frowning when she came back from Billy’s room after getting him for dinner, and realises that maybe her mum already knew. So she just nods and walks out of the room, trusting her to follow.

 

She does and Max leads her to Billy’s room. As soon as she’s stepped in and heard his cries, Susan’s rushing forward and falling to her knees beside his bed. Her nightgown flows out around her on the floor. Max steps up so she’s standing by Billy’s head.

 

He’s curled even more into himself, if that’s even possible, and his eyes are tightly shut.

 

“Billy?” Max’ mum says and his eyes snap open. He makes a wounded sound in the back of his throat when his gaze falls on them.

 

“N-Neil...?”

 

He looks so betrayed that Max almost feels guilty. She’s about to answer but Susan beats her to it. “He’s sleeping.” She smiles gently. “Can you tell me what’s wrong?”

 

He surprises Max by actually answering. She had thought he might just decide to ignore them out of spite. But perhaps he hurts too much to be angry. There’s something really scary about Billy hurting too much to be angry. “Stomach. A-And... nauseous. Cold.”

 

Her mum reaches out and lays her hand on Billy’s forehead. His eyes flutter closed and he flinches before letting out a gasp.

 

Max realises she’s never seen anyone touch Billy gently.

 

Then Susan lets go and nods to herself. “You’ve got a fever. Which part of your stomach hurts, Billy?”

 

He uncurls slightly, just to move his hand above his belly, first in the middle where his navel is before moving it lower and to the right. Max sees her mum take in a deep breath and close her eyes for a couple seconds. Then she opens them and breathes out.

 

“Alright. Listen, Billy, I know you don’t trust me, but I’m going to need you to cooperate with me. I need to check something. Just try to remember I don’t want to hurt you, okay?“ Well, that certainly sounds foreboding enough. Max can see that sentiment echoed in Billy’s eyes as he stares at her mum. But then he’s nodding. Just a quick movement of his head. Up and down.

 

Susan gives him another gentle smile. “Can you try to lie down on your back? Just for a minute.” He does as he’s told, but it’s slow work, and he keeps winching. “Max?”

 

“Yeah, mum?”

 

“I want you to hold his hands.”

 

“What?”

 

She can hear her sigh. “Just do as you’re told, Maxine. Please.”

 

Max doesn’t like being told what to do, but her mum did say please and Billy looks totally pitiful so maybe Max can offer some sympathy. Some comfort.

 

Susan takes his hands and pulls them up over his head so Max has an easier time reaching for them. His palms are sweaty and his grip is tight. Her mum pulls up his shirt and even in the dark Max can make out the bruises.

 

Susan gently places her palm over his belly button and Max hears Billy suck in a sharp breath. His grip tightens. Then her mum’s moving her hand lower and to the right and Billy wrenches his hands away from Max. They end up hovering over her mum’s.

 

“Please, please, stop, please, stop...” The words are mumbled, falling into each other, but Susan lets go. But it doesn’t stop the pain, it only seems to make it worse, because next Billy lets out an unnatural keening whine and curls back into himself.

 

He’s sobbing, gasping, and all Max can do is stare. Because yeah, now Max is actually really worried, because that is not a normal reaction. Her mum barely touched him!

 

But then he suddenly stops and falls silent. Max can see him swallowing.

 

Susan grabs her arm and pulls her back. “Max. Go and grab the bin. Quickly.”

 

Max rushes off to his desk in the corner of the room and grabs his bin from beside it. Her mum is holding out a hand for it when Max gets back and so she’s quick to hand it over. Susan holds it up by the edge of the bed and Billy doesn’t waste a second before he’s learning over it and puking his guts out. Max can see his hair start to fall in front of his face, and it’s instinct more than anything else that makes her reach out and pull it back.

 

Since he hasn’t really eaten anything it only takes a couple seconds before there’s only bile left. Still he doesn’t stop, even though Max can tell it must be hurting his stomach to do it.

 

His whole body’s shaking once it’s over and he falls back into bed.

 

Max’ mum is frowning, worried, but her lips are set in a determined line.

 

“Max? I want you to go and grab yourself a comic or something, then get my keys and go wait in the car. Leave the other door to the backseat open.”

 

She nods and hurries out to her room where she grabs the discarded Wonder Woman comic before going to put on her shoes and jacket. It’s strange to think it’s still the same night. She’s all but forgotten she’d even had a nightmare.

 

Her mum’s car keys lie in the bowl on the drawer by the front door and Max grabs them before going out to the car. She opens the door to the backseat closest to the house, before moving around the car to get in. It’s stopped raining.

 

A couple minutes go by before she sees her mum getting out and locking the front door. She’s changed into one of her dresses, and she has Billy leaning heavily against her. Once the door is locked Susan pulls his arm around her shoulders while she puts an arm around his back. They start to slowly walk down to the car, and Max can see Billy trying to curl more and more into himself.

 

Susan gently deposits him in the backseat through the door Max left open. None of them move to put a seatbelt on him, Susan just closes the door and gets to the driver’s side. Max can see pained lines on Billy’s face before he curls his back and leans his head against the back of the passenger seat, his arms hugging his belly. His hair falls down and hides his face from her view.

 

Max turns to look at her mum through the rear view mirror when she gets in an starts the car.

 

“What about Neil?”

 

Susan mets her gaze through the mirror and gives a small smile. “It’s fine, sweetie. I left him a note.”

 

The ride to the hospital is silent, except for Billy’s occasional whimpers. He doesn’t move from his curled up position, not even when Max’ mum parks the car and she and Max both get out. Susan goes to open his door while Max goes to stand on the side.

 

Billy’s voice is pained when he starts speaking. “Wait... please, just wait-“ But then he’s standing up, or trying to, scrambling out of the car and falling to his knees on the wet asphalt. He’s trying to heave, but there’s nothing coming up. Max is pretty sure he’s crying again. It’s the most pitiful she’s ever seen him.

 

And Susan crouches down in front of him, places a hand on his shoulder. “Billy, Billy, hey, there’s nothing left. You already threw everything up. I know you feel nauseous and I know it hurts and it’s scary, but it’s not going to get any better unless we get in there so they can help you. Okay?”

 

Max doesn’t hear him answer but her mum nods before turning to look at Max.

 

“Max? Can you go and check if we can get a wheelchair?”

 

While the thought of Billy needing a wheelchair because he’s too sick to walk scares her, she understands her mum’s reasoning. Understands they need to get Billy help quickly. So she just nods and runs to the big sliding door of the ER.

 

The only people there are one elderly woman with a cane and the nurses behind the reception. Max rushes up to them.

 

“My mum, she- my stepbrother, he’s really sick, and mum told me to go see if we could get a wheelchair ‘cause she needs help to get him in.”

 

The nurse who answers her is male, with shirt dark hair. He’s young, and his expression is kind. He reminds Max of Steve.

 

“Yes, of course- Where are they? I’ll follow you and help.”

 

Max nods and waits for him while he goes to grab a wheelchair before she leads him outside to the car park.

 

Her mum has managed to get Billy up off the asphalt, but they haven’t gotten particularly far from the car when Max and the Nurse reach them. Susan smiles gratefully at them, while Billy only stares at the ground. He’s swallowing again, looking seconds away from trying to puke.

 

The Nurse makes the whole thing go much quicker. He’s really freaking efficient, Max thinks. He places the wheelchair behind Billy, Max’ mum eases him down into it and then the Nurse starts pushing Billy forward while Susan and Max follow on either side.

 

“I think he has appendicitis”, Susan says, and Max racks her brain for what she knows about it. It’s serious, and it’s painful, and it involves surgery. Is Billy going to have to have surgery? “He says he has pain around his navel and  in the lower right side, and his stomach seems swollen. He’s nauseous.”

 

“Yeah, that certainly sounds like it. It’s been a slow night, I should be able to get you a doctor immediately.”

 

The Nurse leaves Billy in the waiting area of the ER, and Max’ mum shoots her a glance she translates to “stay with him” while she herself follows the nurse to the reception desk. Max plops herself down on a chair beside Billy and turns to look at him.

 

He’s curled up again, arms around his belly, staring at his lap. She can tell he’s paying attention to his breathing. They’re measured, too deep and too even. She kind of wants to reach out and - and what? She doesn’t know.

 

Her mum is back a few minutes later, and she’s looking worried but also relieved. “He’s getting a doctor to come. It shouldn’t be long.”

 

And it isn’t. A middle-aged man with red hair, freckles and kind eyes steps into the waiting room and walks up to them. Max wonders if they put all the kind people on the night shift. She would understand if they did. No one goes to the hospital at night without it being serious. Without needing a bit of kindness.

 

“Hargrove?” He smiles at Susan and nods towards Billy.

 

Susan stands up from where she was sitting beside Max. “Yes.”

 

“I’m Dr. Jacobs. I’ve got an exam room prepared a floor up, if you’ll just follow me.” Susan takes a hold of Billy’s wheelchair and they hurry after the doctor down the corridor to an elevator, then down a another corridor and into an room with a desk and computer, chairs, cupboards and an examination bed in the corner. Susan rolls Billy up to it and helps him out of the wheelchair and up on the bed.

 

Then the Dr. Jacobs steps up to them, gloves on, and guides Billy down so he’s lying on his back. Billy bends his knees and Max sees him clench his hands. But no sound slips out. “So we’re thinking appendicitis?”

 

“Yes.” Susan’s nodding along. She’s hovering close to the bed Billy lies on, wringing her hands like she’s not sure what to do with herself. Max has plopped down to sit in one of the chairs.

 

“When did the pain start?” Max can see her mum’s about to answer, but she seems to realise she doesn’t actually know the answer to that question. And Dr. Jacobs is turned towards Billy, anyway.

 

“Last night. It got worse throughout the day,” he mumbles. It’s quiet, coming from between clenched teeth.

 

“I thought he looked a little sick before dinner, but I assumed it was a cold,” Susan pipes up. “But then...” Her mum turns to look at Max and Max let’s out a little sigh. Dr. Jacobs follows Susan’s gaze to her.

 

“He didn’t eat much for breakfast. Plain toast and water. And he didn’t listen to music in the car. He was holding his belly when he came to pick me up from school. And he ate less than all of us at dinner. I woke up a little after three, because I was thirsty, but I heard him from his room. He sounded hurt, so I went in, and he looked sick, so I got my mum.” She doesn’t say he told her he thought he was dying. Doesn’t want to think about that part.

 

Susan looks shocked Max noticed so much, and even Billy’s staring at her. Dr. Jacobs just smiles at her before turning back to Billy.

 

“Alright, so, I’m going to start with just palpating you’re abdomen, then we’ll see where we go from there. I need you to lie down straight, alright?” Billy nods, and slowly lets his legs unbend. “Good. I’m going to pull your shirt up.”

 

Billy doesn’t say anything, just stares up into the ceiling. Dr. Jacobs pulls his shirt up, but pauses before he can touch him. Max can see him looking down at Billy’s belly and frowning. Then he turns to look at Max’ mum.

 

“The bruises...?”

 

“I-I don’t-“ Susan tries to answer, but it’s clear she doesn’t know what to say. Billy saves her.

 

“I got in a fight. After school two days ago.” He still won’t look away from the ceiling. It’s like he’s trying to focus his whole gaze on one specific spot.

 

Dr. Jacobs turns back to him, nodding. “I see. Well, I’m going to start the exam now. Just breathe.”

 

And Max can tell that Billy tries to, but as soon as the doctor places his hands on Billy’s bellybutton he’s flinching and jerking away, his hands reaching for Dr. Jacobs before he manages to stop himself. Dr. Jacobs holds his hands up in front of himself and Billy looks embarrassed.

 

“S-Sorry. Sorry, I... I-“

 

“It’s alright. I understand you’re in pain. But if it’s appendicitis I need to know before it raptures and this whole situation gets worse then it already is. Okay? I’m going to touch you again.”

 

He waits for Billy to nod, which Billy won’t, not at first, but the Max’ mum is moving forward and placing herself by his head. She takes his hands in hers and gently turns his head so that it’s turned towards her, pressed into her dress. She’s the one to nod to the Doctor to continue.

 

He looks grateful. Max feels useless. She’s about to stand up, go up to Billy and her mum, do something, when Dr. Jacobs lays his hand on Billy and presses down.

 

And Billy’s crying out. Sharp, cut of whines and keens barely muffled against Susan’s clothing, before he starts sobbing again.

 

Dr. Jacobs takes longer than Susan did, but he’s still relatively quick and efficient. Still, as soon as he lets go and moves away Billy lets out a sound that could almost be a scream, and curls into himself. Max can’t stop staring at him. This is not... this is not the Billy she’s used to seeing. It’s scary. Painful.

 

She can tell her mum agrees because Susan has a tear running down her cheek when Dr. Jacobs comes back with a syringe, cotton balls and a plaster.

 

“It’s most likely appendicitis, but I want a blood and urine test, and then an ultrasound just to remove any other options,” he says, gently grabbing Billy’s arm. Billy’s letting out short, gasping breaths, like he can’t get enough air in. From where she’s sitting, Max can’t see what the Doctor does, but she hears Billy hiss and then sees the Dr. Jacobs leave with a bowl of blood. He leaves it on a stand at his desk and grabs a plastic bag with a plastic cup inside from a drawer, before turning to Billy, who’s staring up into the ceiling again.

 

“Alright, so I’ll help you to the restrooms for the urine test. There’s one just down the hall, and while you’re there I’ll get these to a nurse to send down to the lab. Then I’ll help you back. Sound good?”

 

“Yeah.” It’s no more than a quiet mumble, but he does turn to look at him. Then he’s pulling himself up so he’s leaning back on his forearms before swinging his legs over the side. He stumbles as soon as his feet hit the floor but her mum’s there to catch him. Max can tell he’s trying to curl up even while standing, and he pulls one arm close to his belly. Like she’d seen him do in the Camaro, when he was picking her up from school. It’s hard to think that was only yesterday.

 

Dr. Jacobs is quick to get there once Billy’s standing, and he helps him get to the wheelchair before steering him out of the room.

 

Susan sighs as soon as they’re out of the room. Max turns to look at her mum. She looks tired. 

 

“Is Billy going to have to have surgery?”

 

Susan drags a hand over her face. She takes in a deep breath and slowly exhales before nodding. “I think so, sweetie.”

 

She thinks back to how she’d immediately known what to check when Max had taken her to Billy earlier that night. “How did you... know it was... appendicitis?”

 

“Oh... Well, we can’t be sure that’s what it is, but I’ve had it. I was about his age then, too. The symptoms matched.”

 

Max nods. She didn’t know her mum had gotten her appendix taken out, and she doesn’t like thinking about her mum in as much pain as Billy seems to be in. She doesn’t like seeing Billy like that, either.

 

“Mum?”

 

“Hm?” Her mum’s looking down at the floor, frowning.

 

“I’m scared.”

 

Susan turns to look at her with so much sympathy Max almost regrets saying anything. “Oh, sweetie.” She walks up to her and falls down to a crouch in front of Max’ chair. Lays her hands on Max’ and strokes them gently. “What are you afraid of?”

 

“It’s just... I don’t know. Billy was acting weird, and I thought he might be doing something bad, but then... I woke up from a nightmare. I can’t remember what it was about, but I got thirsty, and then I heard Billy crying. But at first I thought it was you, but it didn’t sound like you, and I was about to ignore him, but then he sounded... he sounded really hurt, so I went in, and he... he said he thought he was dying, because it hurt so bad.” The last part leaves her in a whisper. It almost feels like a betrayal even saying it out loud. “Don’t-Don’t tell him I told you.”

 

“Oh, Maxie. I won’t. But Billy’s not going to die. Okay? I promise. I won’t lie to you, it’s a serious medical emergency, but it’s not an unusual one. They know what to do. He’s going to be fine. And you did the right thing; waking me up. It would’ve been much worse if you hadn’t. You did good. You’re a good sister.”

 

Max doesn’t think she is. And Billy isn’t a good brother. They’re not good at being siblings. Billy’s too... angry. Too broken. And Max, she’s... sad? Hurt? She didn’t want her parents to get divorced, didn’t want her mum to remarry, she liked it when it was just the two of them, but then her mum met Neil and told her she was going to get an older brother, and that sounded fun, rather a brother than a sister, and maybe he could help her when the other kids made fun of her for liking to skateboard. But Billy wasn’t like that. He was tough, sure, but he was angry all the time and at everyone. And it didn’t take Max long to figure out Neil hit him. And that her mum knew. But no one seemed to care, and so Max figured that why should she? She’d stood beside Billy while he reassured a teacher that the black eye and bruises came from falling out of a tree, and Max hadn’t said anything. It had become a fact of life. Max’ mum made her blueberry pancakes for her birthday and Billy’s dad hit him but that’s not something we ever talk about. It was just something that happened. As though it was normal. It isn’t fucking normal.

 

Max doesn’t realise she’s crying until she feels her mum reach up and brush away her tears. Once she’s realised it, she does her best to make the tears stop. It’s not too many, thankfully, so by the time Dr. Jacobs comes back with Billy, she’s pretty sure no one can tell she’d cried.

 

Billy’s trembling. She wonders if her mum can tell, or if Max only notices it because she can’t stop staring at him.

 

“I’ve sent the tests to the lab, so while we wait for the results I’m going to have you go a floor up to get an ultrasound done. Just follow the signs.”

 

Max thinks her mum nods before she’s taking hold of Billy’s wheelchair and Max is standing up to follow her. They go down the corridor to the lift, and once they’re one floor up Max decides to trust her mum to lead the way. They end up in another long corridor, but this one has a young woman standing in front of one of the doors. She looks to be in her thirties, with long dark hair pulled up into a high ponytail.

 

“Hargrove?” she asks as they near and Susan nods, says yes. The woman smiles at them. “I’m the sonographer. Eva Davies. Let’s go.”

 

She holds the door open for them and Max follows her mum and Billy.

 

The room they enter is smaller than the exam room they’d been in. There’s an exam table with an ultrasound machine up next to it.

 

“Usually, we’d ask you to change into a hospital gown, but I think it’ll be fine if you just take of your shirt,” Eva says, and nods at Billy. For the first time, Max realises that both she and Billy are still in pyjamas. Billy sleeps in pj bottoms and faded band t-shirts. He’s trying to pull it off now, but it’s slow, and they can all hear him whimper. When he’s halfway done Eva reaches out and helps pull it the last bit off. Then she’s putting an arm around his upper back and helping him up and down on the table. By the time she’s got him lying down he’s sweating and breathing like he does after an hour long session of weightlifting.

 

In the strong lightning and up close Max can see what her mum had meant when she’d said his belly was swollen. It’s not very noticeable, but it’s there. She can see the bruises littering his side.

 

Eva’s going over to the other side of the table, where the machine is, and putting on gloves before sitting down there.

 

“I’m going to start by applying this lubricating jelly - it will be cold - and then I’m going to drag the transducer over your skin to get a picture on the screen. I- Dr. Jacobs, he told me, well, I know that it hurt when he touched your stomach. I know you’re in pain, so I’m sorry if this also hurts.”

 

Max is so goddamn tired of all these people touching and pressing on Billy’s belly until he screams, so she doesn’t wait for it. She goes up to him and grabs his hand. He’s not looking in her direction, he’s looking at Eva, but he doesn’t push Max away. He squeezes her hand, and Eva smiles at her. She probably also thinks Max is a ‘Good Sister’.

 

As soon as she starts putting the weird jelly on Billy’s grip tightens. He’s closed his eyes, tightly, but she can see tears running down the sides of his face and into his hair. Every once in a while he lets out a whimper, and Eva actually looks like it pains her to be doing what she’s doing.

 

It doesn’t take her long to spread the jelly over his whole belly, but as she starts exchanging gloves, Max knows it’s only the beginning of the pain Billy’s going to have to deal with.

 

And then the door bursts open.

 

It’s so sudden Max jumps. She think Billy must have realised who it was in the doorway much quicker than she did, because he’s already let go of her hand and pushed it away before she’s even noticed what’s happened. Before her brain has registered that Neil Hargrove stands in the doorway.

 

Eva looks confused. “I’m sorry, but who are you? I’m in the middle of helping a patient.”

 

“I’m Neil Hargrove. Susan’s my wife. And your patient is my son.”

 

“I see. I wasn’t aware you were here...?”

 

“He wasn’t”, Susan says, hesitantly. “He was still asleep when we left. I didn’t want to wake you, honey-“

 

“I know, Susie”, Neil interrupts her. He smiles, pleasantly. Placating. “I read your note. But I was worried.”

 

Bullshit , Max thinks. She doubts Neil’s ever been worried about Billy. She glances over at Billy.

 

And she can see him trying to school his features. But there’s no hiding the tear tracks. And Max knows they can’t act too weird, knows that they can’t act like Neil showing up is as horrible as it is. Because the sonographer, and later, Dr. Jacobs, they may ask questions, and Max’ family hates questions. But at the same time, she knows that if Billy were to appear ‘too weak’ then Neil will make sure he pays for it the next time they fight.

 

Max kind of hopes that Eva will tell Neil to leave, but she doesn’t, of course she doesn’t, because he’s Billy’s dad and it isn’t normal to be afraid of your own dad.

 

“Well, if you’ll just close the door behind you then you’re welcome in.”

 

Neil nods at her and steps in. He goes to stand at the foot of the table Billy lies on, in easy view of his face. Max wants to punch him.

 

As soon as Eva presses the transducer to his skin Max sees Billy tense. His eyes are closed, again, and she can see him taking slow, deep breaths. But he doesn’t let out a sound, and Eva stops moving the transducer after less than a minute. She’s turning away from the screen to look at Billy with a serious expression.

 

“William-“ Max sees Billy tense even further at the use of his full name. Max didn’t even know ‘Billy’ was just a nickname until after a full year of living with him. Nobody used ‘William’. Eva seems to notice something’s wrong because she doesn’t finish her sentence, even if the serious look is still there.

 

“He goes by Billy”, she says, because it doesn’t seem like anyone else is going to say something and Max just really wants to get this over with so Billy can get the help he needs and go back to being her asshole of a brother.

 

Eva looks grateful. “Billy. I need to know if it hurts. Because if it doesn’t, if it suddenly stops hurting, then that means it’s raptured. So, are you still in pain?”

 

“Yes,” Billy says, and it sounds like defeat. She can see he’s trying his damnedest not to look in Neil’s direction.

 

“Okay”, Eva says with a nod. She starts moving the transducer again. As she gets to his lower right side Billy sucks in a breath and squeezes his eyes shut. Max hears him let out a low groan and sees his hands fist. Can see his nails digging into the skin if the palm of his hand. She wants to reach out and take a hold of it again, but knows it wouldn’t help anyone.

 

Eva keeps going for a couple more minutes. No one says anything. Once she’s done she’s grabbing some tissues and cleaning off the gel from Billy’s skin. She reaches out a hand and helps him up so he’s sitting with his legs over the edge. Susan hands him his shirt and Max sees him grit his teeth as he puts it on. She turns to look at Neil. He’s watching him like a hawk.

 

Eva goes to grab the wheelchair and Max sees Neil’s gaze harden. Billy must also see it, because he stops her from getting it.

 

“It’s fine. I don’t need it”, there’s an edge of panic to his voice, and Max hopes she the only one who hears it. “I can walk. I can”, he adds when it looks like she doesn’t really believe him.

 

“Alright, then... If you’re sure?”

 

“I am,” he says with so much conviction Max almost believes him.

 

“Okay. I’m going to send down what I found to Dr. Jacobs. You can go back to him.”

 

That’s all Neil needs, so he turns around and walks directly out the door, Max’ mum following close behind. Max waits for Billy to get down the table, waits to catch him if he stumbles.

 

He doesn’t, but he’s also really careful standing up. He’s biting his lip so hard Max thinks he’s going to break the skin.

 

“What are you waiting for?” he says when he sees her watching. “Go. Just go, Max.” His tone is short, clipped. Max has to remind herself it’s not her he’s angry with.

 

Still, she does go. Goes up to the door and holds it open for him before she follows him out, and ends up a few steps ahead. Her mum and Neil are even further ahead than she is. Like they’re not even thinking that they need Billy with them when they get to Dr. Jacobs.

 

It goes well at first. Max is kind of impressed Billy’s able to hold himself together this well.

 

Then it all goes to shit.

 

Billy falls to his knees with a soft, keening whine halfway down the hall leading to the lift. Neil and her mum stop and turn around to stare. Billy hangs his head, blonde curls hiding his face, and wraps his arms around his stomach. Nobody reacts. Max can see her mum twitch, knows she wants to go to him, but she doesn’t.  Because Neil is there. Looking impatient and irritated. Max wishes he would leave. Wishes he’d never come. Wishes he would disappear and never come back. But there’s no use wishing for things that won’t ever happen, and no one is helping Billy, so Max goes up to him and sits down on her knees in front of him. He’s crying. Softly, silently.

 

“Come on, Billy”, she whispers, makes sure she’s quiet enough that Neil can’t hear her. “I know it hurts. I know. But you have to stand up. Just a few more steps. Just a few. I... I don’t want him to hurt you.” It’s the first time any of them have said it aloud, have recognised what happens in their family, and Billy gasps, shudders. Max goes on: “Alright? Please? Just a few more steps. I’ll help you. Okay? Yeah?” He nods and Max can’t help but smile. She places herself beside him and lets him put a hand around her shoulders. Helps him get to his feet and start walking. She can feel him tremble and flinch with every step they take. It’s awkward, because Billy is much taller than she is, but at least he’s up and walking.

 

Neil rolls his eyes at them before turning away and starting to walk towards the lift. He’s walking way quicker than Billy is able to, and Max is certain he is aware of it. It makes her hate him even more than she already does.

 

He scoffs and huffs when they get into the lift and Max helps Billy lean back against the wall. Her mum sends her a warning look when she notices Max is about to open her mouth. She doesn’t even know what she’d say. Just knows she wants Neil to know she hates him. She wishes for the comforting weight of Steve’s nail bat and longs to use it against another Hargrove man. One who probably deserves it more. She might even actually hit Neil for real, not just threaten him like she did Billy.

 

Max probably shouldn’t be given any weapons.

 

Her mum and Neal walk ahead once again, and Max sees Susan knock on the door to Dr. Jacobs. Sees him open and hold it open for Susan and Neil to get it. She sees his look when his gaze falls on her and Billy. He looks confused, and there’s something sad in his eyes, but he doesn’t say anything and for that Max is grateful. She doesn’t know what she’d say if he were to ask.

 

Once they’re all inside and she’s helped Billy down into a chair the Doctor starts speaking.

 

“Well, I’ve got the results back. It’s appendicitis, so I’m going to ask you three to leave and go wait in the waiting area while I prep Billy for surgery and take him there.”

 

“Surgery? Susan, the cost-“ Neil starts to say, but Max’ mum ignores him.

 

“Of course. We’ll go right away. Will someone come and get us when it’s done?” Susan says, and Max loves her mum.

 

Dr. Jacobs looks a little unnerved by Neil’s outburst, but he plasters on a small smile as he turns to Susan. “Yes. We’ll see you in a little bit. You can go to the cafeteria while you wait.”

 

Part of Max wants to insist on staying with Billy, but another part is grateful the Doctor asked them to leave, because it means Neil won’t get to be close to Billy. Won’t get to stare at him and judge him. So Max gives Billy a small encouraging smile, sees the small smile he gives in return, and leaves with their parents.

 

 

Max knows she’s dreaming. She knows she is. Because Billy doesn’t know anything about the demodogs, about the Upside Down, and El closed the gate.

 

But still, it feels so real. She’s standing in the hospital, the lights are flickering and there’s dust in the air but there’s no one there except for her and the demodog tearing into Billy’s stomach from where he lies on the floor, spasming. There’s a growing pool of blood from under him. At first she can’t hear anything, there’s no sound, but then suddenly she can hear the sound it makes gorging on her stepbrother, and then it’s being drowned out by the sounds of Billy’s screams.

 

Max tries to cover her ears, but she can’t, she can’t move, and then she doesn’t have to because Billy is silent, and Max wishes he would scream again, because silence means he’s dead. He isn’t moving anymore, and his head has fallen to the side, his eyes are open and staring blankly at her. The demodog lifts its head up, blood dripping, and turns to Max, petal like mouth opening and Max closes her eyes tightly shut.

 

“Max... Max... Maxine...” She knows that voice. But it’s more quiet, more subdued than she is used to hearing it. Still, there’s no mistaking it. Besides, no one calls her Maxine except Billy.

 

She opens her eyes.

 

She’s sitting in a chair, resting her head on her arms on the edge of Billy’s hospital bed. She must have fallen asleep. She was so tired, she’d just pulled up a chair and fallen down beside him when the nurse had taken them to his room. There were two more beds in his room, but they were empty, which Max was grateful for. She wanted him to have some privacy. As they’d left Billy with Dr. Jacobs, Max’ mum had sent her out to the car to get her comic book, and she’d been reading it while they waited for Billy’s surgery to finish. It’s lying on the floor beside her chair, now.

 

And Billy’s looking at her. He has a hand in her hair, and it falls down to rest on her arm when she raises her head. They’re alone in the room.

 

“You had a nightmare”, he says, softly. He looks tired, and pale, but at least he’s awake. His other hand lies on top of the blanket, and there’s an IV leading into it. Max hopes it’s keeping him from feeling any more pain.

 

“I dreamed that you died”, she whispers back.

 

He smiles at her, turns to look up into the ceiling and chuckles, but it’s without humour. “And that’s a nightmare, huh?”

 

Yes .” Max says, because she needs him to know, needs him to understand that she wants him to live.

 

He nods, and suddenly there’s something more... solemn. More serious, coming over his face. “Hey, Maxine... thank you.” He’s still not looking at her.

 

“For what?” she asks, because she genuinely can’t figure out what he’s thanking her for. And Billy has almost never thanked her for anything.

 

He closes his eyes and sighs. She thinks his lashes look wet. “For holding my hand. Helping me walk. For just... being there.”

 

She stares at him, speechless. ‘For holding my hand.’ “I- You’re welcome.”

 

“Where’s Susan? ...Dad?”

 

“Neil went home. I think mum might be in the cafeteria.”

 

He nods, opens his eyes and starts shuffling away from her on the bed. She’s about to ask what she did wrong, what made him wish to get away from here, when he lets out a groan and Max sits up straighter, leans closer to him.

 

“What is it? Are you in pain? Should I get the nurse? I can-”

 

“Max, Max, Maxine, it’s fine. I just pulled on the stitches. I’ve already talked to the doctor. I’m going to be sore for a while. I’m okay. It’s fine. Just... get up here.”

 

Max stares at him. “Up on... on your bed?”

 

“Yeah.” Billy sighs. “You’re tired and you can’t sleep in a chair. And I’ll protect you against any other nightmares.”

 

Maybe Max is just too tired to care, or maybe she’s lost all ability to think rationally, because she climbs up and curls up beside him, careful not to hurt him.

 

They’re silent for a few minutes, but Max can’t sleep. She’s not calm enough yet. Hearing Billy’s heartbeat helps, though. Then she feels him exhale.

 

“I’m sorry, Max. I’m sorry for being such an asshole.”

 

“I know”, Max says, because she’s sorry too.

 

“I’m tired, Maxie”, he says in a sigh. Billy’s never called her that. She reaches out, grabs his hand.

 

“Then sleep,” she says softly. And we’ll protect each other.