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fall down the rabbit hole head first

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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.

“Fuck.”

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?”

“He’s missing.”

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.

how

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

ok

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.

“Steve!”

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.”