“So you take any pictures with that new camera?”
It’s Harrington, leaning into Jonathan’s space like he owns it. He’s a little too close; habitual unease creeps into Jonathan’s gut, never mind that apparently Harrington is kind of a friend now. But it’s Jonathan’s goddamn locker, so he doesn’t budge. “Some,” he hedges.
“I haven’t developed them yet.”
Harrington nods like this is momentous news, worthy of serious consideration.
Julie Schmidt slams her locker shut two feet away, and Harrington jumps a little, looking suddenly less at home. He takes a step back, but the distance seems to grow by considerably more than two feet. “Glad you like it,” he says. “Anyway, I gotta—” He thumbs over his shoulder.
“Sure,” Jonathan says. Harrington makes a hasty retreat, and Jonathan watches in bemusement. His heart is pounding weirdly, for some reason.
Certainly there’s nothing Jonathan can do except work his crap job and drive Will where he wants to go and come home to his mom, who gives Jonathan a crushing hug every time he walks in the door. So Jonathan does all that, and in the moments in between he takes pictures: his mom at the sink, staring out the window towards the shed while the water runs; Will in a hopelessly tangled nest of Christmas lights.
“That’s what you gave it to me for, right?” Jonathan says. Really he has no fucking clue why they gave him the Nikon. He keeps wanting to ask, and something keeps holding him back.
She gives him a sunny smile, and it reminds him of her smiling at her friends when he used watched from afar, before the monsters. “You should bring them by. I bet Steve would like to see them, too.”
“It’s just my mom and brother, mostly.”
Nancy shrugs, undeterred. “You should bring them by,” she repeats.
“Okay, I guess. When I develop them.”
It’s a relief, finally, when shuts himself into the darkroom. He’s missed the quiet of it, the familiar chemical odors of the developer and the fixer. He loses himself in the rhythm of the process: agitate the print in the developer, rinse in water, agitate in stop bath, rinse in water. There’s no sound but the ticking of the timer and the beat of his pulse in his ears.
He hangs the first photo up to dry. It’s off the first roll, late Christmas afternoon when dusk was already falling. Jonathan was sitting on the couch fiddling with the settings on the new camera while Will and their mom worked a puzzle on the card table set up in the living room. He peered through the viewfinder to doublecheck the focus just as Will’s face lit up. “I found it!” Will yelled, reaching for a piece, and Jonathan snapped the shutter without even thinking.
Will looks happy in the picture. He looks fine. Healthy. Safe.
Maybe Jonathan lied to Nancy. Maybe the camera doesn’t show you what’s really there, after all.
“So?” Jonathan parrots.
“We want to see ‘em,” Steve says. “Your pictures.”
Jonathan’s back is to open hallway, mostly empty; the last bell rang half an hour ago. Somehow Jonathan feels cornered. “They’re nothing special.”
“Please?” Nancy says, with those eyes so big Jonathan can’t stand to look at them sometimes. “You don’t have to, but—” She looks to Steve for backup.
Steve drops the smirk. It makes him look younger; it makes him look more like someone Jonathan would like to know, as absurd as that would be. But then Jonathan’s life lately has been pretty fucking absurd. “We could meet at Nancy’s tonight if you want. After dinner.”
“Fine,” Jonathan says.
“So it’s just us,” Jonathan says. That cornered feeling returns.
Jonathan follows Nancy into the living room. Steve’s already there on the couch; he sits up as Jonathan walks in, perking up like the Forners’ terrier when it hears a mouse. “Hey,” Jonathan says. He slips his backpack off his shoulder and turns his back to them both as he slides the envelope out, full of prints. “Like I said, it’s just my family. No monsters.” He tries for a smile. It feels stiff.
Nancy pats at the couch next to her, and unwillingly Jonathan goes. He puts the whole stack of prints in her lap.
Nancy leafs through the first two or three. “They’re really good,” she says. She gives him the smallest smile, just the corner of her mouth. It feels intimate, somehow, despite Steve sitting on the other side of her.
Steve is busy scrutinizing a photo of Jonathan’s mom with a hammer in hand, nailing a board to the living room wall. “Yeah, this is a good shot,” he says.
Jonathan laughs; he can’t help himself. “Yeah, but you don’t know anything about photography.”
Steve laughs, too. “Learn how to take a compliment, loser,” he says, but somehow it’s friendly instead of mean.
They go through all the prints, one by one. Nancy smiles when she gets to the one of Will at the puzzle table. Steve looks at a lone photo of the house itself, no people, just the long hallway with the enormous scorch spot in the middle of the carpet, and he asks if the smell’s gone away yet.
“I’m glad you like it,” Nancy says when she hands the last photo back to Jonathan. “The camera.”
“Yeah,” Steve says.
“It’s a good camera,” Jonathan says. It’s way nicer than my old one, he doesn’t say, for a lot of reasons that include the fact that it’d feel like a betrayal of his trusty Minolta, bought with years of scrimped savings from his paper route.
“Good,” Nancy says. She flexes her hand, and her fingers brush Jonathan’s thigh. His pulse picks up; he shifts away an inch or two, for safety. “Hey, so, we wondering,” Nancy says, not quite casually. “We kind of have a favor to ask.”
“Yeah,” Steve agrees immediately, not casual at all.
“Okay,” Jonathan says, wary.
“It’s not a joke, okay?” Nancy says. Her cheeks have turned pink, and her eyes are so fucking earnest. They could make you do anything just by looking at you.
“You don’t have to,” Steve adds. “If you think it’s weird, or you just don’t want to—”
“It’s fine,” Nancy says – urges, really, like saying will make it so.
“Right,” Jonathan says, well beyond wary now. “Okay. So…?”
“We wondered,” Nancy says, and stops. Steve is silent for once; he watches Nancy like she’ll save them both from whatever shit they’re about to step in. Nancy clears her throat. “Would you take some pictures of us?”
“You have it with you, right?” Nancy asks.
Of course he does. The Nikon is sitting in the front pocket of Jonathan’s backpack. “You want me to what?” Nancy curls her fingers over Steve’s. They pin Jonathan with twin pleading stares, and they don’t answer, and slowly the inevitable impossible seeps into his brain. “You want me to what?”
“We thought maybe you’d like to,” Nancy says.
“But you—but I—you tore them up,” Jonathan says, which is a stupid fucking thing to say but all he can think of. “The other ones I took.”
“It was creepy,” Nancy says, unapologetic. “But it wouldn’t be, this way.”
She’s angled into Steve’s side, and Steve’s arm fell over her shoulder sometime back, and they’re happy and whole, an untouchable pair, and Jonathan doesn’t understand. “I don’t understand.”
“Please?” Nancy says.
She went with Jonathan to buy lighter fluid and a bear trap and four boxes of rifle ammo. Steve was ready to take on a monster with a baseball bat. Jonathan doesn’t get the angle, here, but he trusts them. He trusts that they’re not fucking with him. “Okay,” Jonathan says. He digs the Nikon out of his backpack.
“I told you he’d bring it,” Nancy says.
“I always have it with me,” Jonathan says, and for some reason that earns him another of her brilliant smiles. He takes the cap off, adjusts the lighting, the focus. “Here?” he asks.
“Here,” Nancy says firmly.
“I guess—get arranged however you want in the picture,” Jonathan says. He has an ear for the door, in case Nancy’s parents come home early or Mike tries to bust in, and even so it’s a shock when Steve leans in to kiss Nancy. Until that moment, Jonathan wasn’t sure that’s what Nancy meant. He gets lost watching as Nancy arches up against Steve’s mouth, as Steve’s fingers tangle in Nancy’s hair. Then Nancy hums softly, and hurriedly Jonathan lifts the camera.
The lighting in Nancy’s living room isn’t great. The angle from where Jonathan’s sitting, at the far end of the couch, is kind of weird. It doesn’t matter; through the viewfinder, every shot is perfect. Jonathan clicks the shutter again and again, almost without noticing. He’ll run out of film soon at this rate. And where will he ever even develop prints of Steve Harrington sliding his palm up Nancy Wheeler’s side?
Nancy moans. Jonathan shifts and realizes he has a boner. Fucking fuck.
He never wants them to stop. He wants them to stop yesterday. He lowers the camera to his lap, and he rasps, “I’m almost out.”
They both turn. Nancy’s lips are slightly parted; Steve’s are red where Nancy’s nibbled at them. Nancy and Steve look at Jonathan, and they don’t have any of that haze of makeout lust in their eyes that Jonathan expected. They look at him, and with sudden horror he’s certain that they see every filthy thing in him, the dirt in every crevice of his soul.
“Get some good ones?” Nancy asks. Her hand’s still resting on Steve’s hip.
It’s a trap. Jonathan’s instincts for those are honed pretty well these days. He says, “I think so.”
“You liked them?” Steve says, watching Jonathan intently.
“I’m sure they’ll be great.” Jonathan reaches for the lens cap. “Look, I—”
“Do you want a closer look?” Nancy asks.
She holds out a hand, her trigger finger long and straight. She looks at him, so solemn. Steve looks like he’s stopped breathing, his eyes round and finally unguarded. The house is silent. It seems like the whole world waits for Jonathan to shift along the couch. It’s not a choice he makes, just a tug in his gut pulling him along until he’s touching Nancy, knee to knee. He’s pretty sure he’s not breathing either.
She cups his jaw. He presses into her touch, and she kisses him, gentle and slow. And then she stops being gentle; she pushes up into his mouth like she had Steve’s. Jonathan opens it to her, and then Nancy Wheeler’s tongue is in his mouth.
Steve shifts, and Jonathan jerks away from Nancy. Now his heart is beating, way too fast, pounding in his ears as he braces for the punch. But Steve isn’t looking at Jonathan like he wants to punch him. He looks—Jonathan doesn’t know how he looks. Lost, maybe. A little bit sad.
Nancy glances back and forth between them. She gropes for Steve’s hand, and he squeezes it, but he doesn’t look away from Jonathan. Steve’s color is high in his cheeks. There’s something Jonathan’s not getting. In fact he doesn’t get a single fucking thing that’s happening, but still the shape of something looms just beyond his comprehension, enormous.
“We come as a set,” Nancy says. There’s a challenge in her voice; her eyes are a dare. “You have to take us both, if you want us.”
Between one breath and the next, understanding snaps into place. Jonathan stares at Steve, and he can see the moment Steve sees him understand what Nancy’s saying: all of it, the whole huge shape of it and this one piece that doesn’t feel so enormous after all. The next moment, Jonathan makes something that feels more like a discovery than a choice. He stands up, ignores Steve’s minute flinch, and gets down on his knees between Steve’s sprawled legs. Steve makes a sound in his throat, something animal and small.
They could all sit like that forever, Jonathan thinks, caught in possibility like amber, as still as a photograph. But Steve is still staring – scared out of his mind, Jonathan sees now – and Jonathan is suddenly impatient with possibilities. He braces a hand on Steve’s thigh and puts his mouth on Steve’s, and Steve whimpers and cups the back of Jonathan’s head and presses in. Nancy’s approval is a hum in Jonathan’s ear.
Oh, he thinks distantly. Oh.
But he does develop one print taken that first night by Nancy’s mom, pleasantly tipsy from wine and winning at cards. It’s the three of them all together on the couch, Nancy’s hair tied demurely back, Steve brilliantly flushed, Jonathan’s arm stretching as far across their shoulders as he can reach.
They look young in the photo, Jonathan thinks. Not innocent – how had Nancy’s mom not noticed how red Steve’s mouth was? how Nancy had changed into a turtleneck to hide the hicky underneath? – but unbroken. Surviving.
He keeps it in his sock drawer, next to the one of Will at the puzzle table, and he wonders if the camera tells the truth after all.