It was less awkward than Nancy sometimes thought it ought to be, going monster hunting with her ex-boyfriend and her current boyfriend. Which still didn't make it completely un-awkward, especially on days like this, when they ended up spending most of their Saturday in the woods behind the quarry, trying to find a nest of monster bugs in the woods so they could burn it out.
And then it got dark.
And then it started raining.
And then the day really hit rock bottom.
"Steve!" Nancy shouted, just as the skittering many-legged insect-thing the size of a Rottweiler jigged sideways and stabbed its barbed tail into his thigh.
Steve yelled, his feet going out from under him in the mud, and swung his bat into the thing's carapace with a meaty crack. Nancy couldn't use her rifle this close, so she turned it around and clubbed it with the stock.
It was chaos and confusion on the muddy streambank, the rain not helping, the only light coming from the flashlight Steve had dropped in the mud. "Don't hit me!" Nancy yelled at Steve as the bat whizzed past her ear. She had no idea where Jonathan had gotten off to with the (now useless) homemade flamethrower, until he came out of nowhere, swinging a tree branch. Between the two of them, she and Jonathan managed to drive the whatever-the-hell-it-was off of Steve. Nancy kicked it into the rain-swollen creek.
Steve was making little gasping noises, down on his back in the mud, clutching his leg with both hands above and below the rip in his jeans where the barb had gone in.
"What happened?" Jonathan asked, crouching beside him and angling a flashlight at his leg. "How bad?"
"I don't know." Steve's voice was high-pitched with fear. "Feels like it's on fire. Am I gonna lose my leg? I don't think I could play basketball with one leg."
Jonathan huffed out a breathy laugh. Nancy, peering past his shoulder, couldn't get a good look; all she could see was the muddy leg of Steve's jeans.
"You're not going to lose your leg," Jonathan said in a steady, patient voice that Nancy could easily imagine him using when doctoring Will's scrapes and other hurts. "Nance, could I get some more light?"
She slung the rifle over her shoulder and angled the flashlight. The rain had slackened to a steady drizzle, but the roar of the muddy creek covered up any sounds that might be made by something creeping up on them. Jonathan took out his pocket knife and enlarged the tear in Steve's jeans.
"There's a stinger or something in it," he said. "I'm gonna pull it out, okay?"
"Okay." Steve's voice was a whisper. He stared up at them, pale and scared, with his wet hair plastered down to his head and his face splattered with mud. He looked, at the moment, nothing at all like the King of Hawkins High.
She could see the stinger now, an ugly black thing buried in the flesh of Steve's leg. Jonathan wrapped the tail of his shirt around his hand before grasping it. He gave it a single, swift yank. Steve screamed and Nancy clutched at Jonathan's shoulder.
Jonathan dropped the black thing in the mud, but not before Nancy glimpsed the barbed end, glistening with Steve's blood. There was blood welling rapidly on Steve's skin, a lot of it. Steve just stared, his mouth half open, not moving. He looked like he was about to faint.
Jonathan clapped a hand to Steve's leg. Steve gasped and grabbed Jonathan's wrist, maybe trying to stop him, and then just held on. Blood welled between Jonathan's fingers, slicked his hand and soaked through Steve's jeans.
"Nancy ..." Jonathan sounded scared now, for the first time. "I need something, anything -- something clean if you've got it ..."
She didn't. Every part of her was wet and muddy. While Jonathan clutched at Steve's leg with both hands, and Steve held onto Jonathan's wrist and otherwise looked like his brain had clocked out, Nancy crouched and tried to tear a piece off the bottom of Steve's T-shirt.
"Use my knife," Jonathan said.
"Where is it?"
She found it in the mud and wiped it on her leg. Steve's shirt was too muddy, she decided, so she sawed at her own, holding it out awkwardly with one hand and hacking off a ragged strip all the way around.
With her cold jacket lying clammy against her bare waist, she crouched beside Jonathan and helped bind it around Steve's leg.
"It's already slowing down," Jonathan said. "It's not actually bleeding that bad. The blood will help wash out the wound. Steve, how do you feel?"
"Weird," Steve said. His teeth were chattering.
They got him to his feet, one on each side, and looked at each other past his bowed, wet head. "Chief?" Jonathan said, and, "Your mom," Nancy said at the same time.
Adults, at least, was the thing they agreed on. Jonathan grabbed up Steve's nailbat, and they supported him as the three of them tottered into the edge of the woods like they were in some kind of bizarre three-legged race. Nancy almost tripped on the gas can and makeshift flamethrower in the edge of the woods, then decided to leave it. The stupid thing was useless in the rain anyway.
It quickly became obvious that they weren't going to be able to walk side-by-side with all three of them in the woods, so Nancy went ahead with the rifle, and the boys followed behind. It was absolutely miserable. The rain had turned into a downpour again, and there was rain in her eyes, rain cascading off her shoulders and dripping off her hair. Every water-laden branch smacked her in the face. She had absolutely no confidence the rifle would work in the rain, and she also thought this path seemed like it was going up. They were supposed to be going down to McNally Falls and the road that went from the picnic tables there, and came out behind the laundromat on Jefferson, where their cars were parked.
She glanced back, just barely able to make out Steve and Jonathan when her flashlight beam swept across them. The nailbat had somehow been transferred to Steve's hand, and he was clutching it in a white-knuckled grip while Jonathan held onto him. It looked like Jonathan was taking most of his weight.
Jonathan looked up and gave her a wide-eyed, freaked-out look, or at least as freaked out as Jonathan got. The words "we're lost" died on her lips. Maybe she was wrong. Maybe the darkness and the rain was deceptive. They might be closer to the falls than she'd thought.
But they went on, and the path got steeper. Her feet slipped in the mud.
"I think we took a wrong turn," Jonathan said from behind her.
"I know!" She tried to think what to do. It was possible, likely even, that this trail looped around and came out on the other trail or on a road somewhere. The woods around town were a crisscrossed network of trails used by deer and rural folks and kids and hikers.
Or they could walk in circles for hours.
"Nancy, we need to stop," Jonathan said.
"Not yet. Just a few more minutes."
She thought she had seen something up ahead. She hurried on, leaving the boys behind, wanting to check if it was really what she'd thought it was.
And it was. Some kind of hunter's cabin. This place made Chief Hopper's cabin look nicer than her parents' house; it was just a shack with rain dripping off its sagging eaves, but it was the only thing she'd seen so far that looked anything at all like civilization.
"Hello?" she shouted, banging on the door. "Hello! We need help!"
She stood on tiptoe to look in the window. It was pitch dark inside. When she held the flashlight to the glass, her hand cupped around it to minimize the glare, the beam wandered across glimpses of a small iron stove, a sagging wood-framed bed.
She looked back at Jonathan, who had stopped just behind her, with Steve wilting on his shoulder. "I don't think there's anybody home," she said.
"We gotta get out of the rain. I don't think they'll mind?"
The last words ended on a question mark, but Nancy was already trying the door. It was locked, but the doorknob was old and rusty. She struggled with it, and finally gave it a hard twist. There was an unpleasant-sounding snap, and the door swung open on the cabin's cold, dark interior.
Nancy jerked back instinctively, swinging the dripping rifle off her shoulder. She held the flashlight under it, balanced in her support hand, so she could swing rifle and flashlight together around the inside of the cabin.
There was a single small room, nearly bare of furnishings. A stove with a crate of wood beside it, a bed with scratchy-looking army blankets on it, a table made out of another overturned crate. She thought she heard something skitter in the shadows, and jerked, swinging the flashlight around. She glimpsed a mouse skitter out of sight under the bed and shuddered, but at least it was an ordinary mouse, not an alien bug.
"Nancy?" Jonathan asked from the doorway.
They couldn't stand out here forever. At least, Steve couldn't. "I think it's safe," she said. "Bring him in."
Jonathan and Steve followed her inside, doing an awkward wobbling jostle through the narrow doorway. Jonathan started to put Steve on the bed, then set him on the floor instead, with a wet, squelching noise. At least the rain had gotten most of the mud and blood off. Steve tilted woozily, and Jonathan crouched down to support him. "We gotta get him warmed up. Do you think you can get a fire going?"
"I guess I'll try. Do you still have the lighter for the flamethrower?"
Jonathan patted his pockets and shook his head. "I lost it. I'm sorry."
"I'll see if they have matches."
She closed the door first, and found a wooden bar on the inside, a sort of homemade rural deadbolt, that she slid into place to hold it shut with the busted doorknob. She also gave the door a kick to make sure it was solid, which it seemed to be. She leaned the rifle beside the door and began a sweep of the cabin for anything they could use.
There were some crooked shelves nailed to the walls, made out of rough boards. One of these had a box of matches -- hooray! -- and another one had a lantern. Nancy tilted it and heard sloshing, smelled the pungent scent of kerosene. She tried striking a match and watched the wick bloom into life.
She set the lantern on the crate table. Jonathan was helping Steve take off his sodden jacket and shoes. Nancy crouched down in front of the stove and figured out how to open the front after a little trial and error.
There were cold ashes and bits of wood inside. On top of the wood crate, she found a magazine with half the pages torn out. Nancy crumpled up some pages and tried to remember how they'd learned to make campfires at the summer camp that she'd gone to under great duress when she was just a little younger than Mike and his friends.
It took some trial and error, and several matches, but eventually she managed to coax a blaze from the crumpled paper, and got some of the little pieces of wood from the box burning, and then added some bigger ones.
"I did it!" she said happily to Jonathan over her shoulder.
Jonathan flashed her a grin over his shoulder. "Nice going! -- no, dammit, Steve --"
There was a heap of Steve's wet clothing discarded next to the bed, and Steve, half-naked and wrapped in a musty army blanket, was trying to escape. Nancy reluctantly pulled herself away from the fire -- it wasn't until she'd held her hands out to the flames that she realized how cold and tired she was -- and went to help.
"Where's the Demogorgon?" Steve was asking, wild-eyed. "Where is it? Dustin!"
"No Demogorgons, everything's fine -- Nancy!"
"Steve!" Nancy grabbed him by one bare arm and then found herself in the awkward position of grappling a damp, half-naked Steve. She gave him a shake. "Steve!"
He blinked, and focused on her, seeming to come back from somewhere far away. "Nancy?" he asked dazedly.
"Bed, Steve," she told him firmly, in the getting-Steve-to-do-sensible-things voice that she'd perfected over a year of dating him. Steve went suddenly pliable, and Jonathan sat down on the floor with a startled grunt when Steve stopped fighting back.
"Demogorgon," Steve said as they got him back under the covers.
"Not here," Nancy said in her best no-nonsense voice.
Steve settled down. With her hand resting on his chest, Nancy looked at Jonathan, who looked back at her.
"There's no telling how poisonous that thing was," Jonathan said quietly. "Someone's gotta go for help."
"You're thinking tonight? In this?" As if to punctuate her words, the rain gave a renewed burst of drumming on the roof. "With those things out there? Jonathan, you can't."
"Yeah, but ..." Jonathan waved both hands at Steve, as if to say, Counterargument: Exhibit A! Right there!
"The only thing you can do if you go out there is get yourself lost in the woods and maybe in the same fix he's in, except you'd be out there alone. Jonathan, no. I'll sit on you if I have to."
Jonathan flushed, looking down at his hands, and then back up at her. "We could go together?"
"And leave him alone?" Steve was weakly pawing at her hands; she wasn't even sure what he thought he was doing. "He'll set himself on fire or something."
"Take him with us?"
They both looked down at Steve; she could see Jonathan coming to the same conclusion.
"Fine," Jonathan said. "But you get to explain to Dustin if he's too brain-damaged to talk by morning."
All her reassurances aside, Nancy really wasn't at all confident about Steve's ability to recover from the poison on his own. He needed a hospital. But she couldn't see that they had a choice.
There was nothing much to do in the cabin, and only the one bed. She and Jonathan poked through the contents of the shelves. There were canned goods, only slightly expired, and a cast-iron skillet. Jonathan opened some cans of beans, tomatoes, and corn, and made a sort of chili-like concoction.
Nancy went outside with a flashlight to look for something to collect water in. The rain was still pouring down, drenching her all over again. There turned out to be a rain barrel under the eaves, but it was half full of leaves and a few floating dead earthworms (ewww); still, it'd be all right for washing with. She found a couple of coffee cans among the debris in the yard that looked like they'd hold water, dumped them and rinsed them with rain-barrel water, and turned them upright to catch water for drinking.
She came back inside to find dinner burning on the stove and Jonathan trying to get Steve back into bed, babbling something about --
"Dora Gillespie?" Jonathan said, flailing with a half-naked Steve. "Who the heck is Dora Gillespie?"
"His ninth-grade crush," Nancy sighed as she shouldered in at Jonathan's side. "Steve, lay down, we're serious."
"I gotta clean up the beer cans! My dad's gonna kill me!"
"Well, at least it's better than Demogorgons," Jonathan said, turning Steve over to her with a grateful look. He ran to rescue the chili-like mess from the stove, wrapping his shirttail around his hand to lift it off the fire.
"Steve," Nancy said. He was burning up. She didn't want to think that Jonathan was right about going out in that awful mess out there, but if it got worse, maybe one of them should go for help. "Steve, listen. You have to lie down."
"Don't let them," Steve said. His teeth were chattering now. "Don't -- Nancy -- look out behind you!"
He was staring over her shoulder with such wild-eyed terror that she had to take a quick look herself to make sure there was nothing there, and Jonathan almost dropped the skillet.
"There's nothing there, Steve," she told him, keeping her voice calm with a desperate effort. "There's nothing there. We're going to be okay. Hear me? You're going to be okay."
He subsided at last. Touching him seemed to help; he calmed when she squeezed his shoulder.
"What are we going to do?" she asked Jonathan, almost in tears. She'd never so desperately wished to have an adult handy.
"I think I can probably make it down to the road in the dark --"
"Can you?" she asked. "Because I don't think I even know where the road is."
Jonathan set the skillet on the floor and sat down next to it. "I don't know," he said quietly. "I don't know."
Under Nancy's hand, Steve seemed to have calmed for now, and that would just have to do. At least unless and until they got desperate and worried enough to go out in the storm and the dark.
They shared a slightly burnt dinner with the skillet on the floor between them, eating with the one spoon they'd found behind the stove and washed in the rain barrel.
The cans Nancy had set out in the yard had collected enough water to drink. She tried giving Steve some, and he woke up babbling about Barb and swimming pools, nearly knocking her over and spilling most of the water down her sleeve, so yeah, that went well. He then mistook Jonathan for Dustin and started some kind of long, rambling story about math homework.
"How long does it take this stuff to work its way out of his system?" Jonathan asked in frustration.
"I don't know why you think I'd know."
"Sorry." Jonathan put an arm around her. Nancy had kept her hand on Steve's shoulder because it seemed to make him calmer (ish). "This is a pretty weird situation."
"I know," she sighed, leaning her head against his temple. Under her palm, Steve twitched violently and then settled back into sleep, or something like it.
The lantern was starting to burn down, so Nancy blew it out, saving the remaining fuel in case of emergencies. The only light in the room came from flickering firelight through the grate in the stove. Every once in a while, she or Jonathan got up to feed the fire. Otherwise, they napped on the floor by the bed. Steve drifted in and out, having vague conversations with the walls. Nancy had a distinct recollection of being suddenly awakened to find Steve grabbing at her and telling her to stop being Eleven because it was really messing with his head. Another time, she woke hazily with her head pillowed on her arm and found Jonathan sitting up, having a quiet argument with Steve. She was too tired to pay attention to what they were arguing about, but it seemed to work, because Steve settled down and Jonathan stayed sitting up, one elbow propped on the bed. And then she slept again.
She woke with every part of her body feeling bruised, her clothes dried in a clinging muddy mess, and Jonathan curled against her on the floor. The room was light. She lay with her eyes half open, gazing blearily at the bare floorboards under the bed.
There was a thump-creak that her sleepy mind recognized two seconds too late as the door opening. Nancy sat bolt upright and groped around her for any kind of weapon, seizing the handle of the unwashed skillet before she realized that it was Steve standing in the morning sunshine streaming through the open door, barefoot and naked to the waist with the army blanket from the bed wrapped around him.
"Uh, hi?" he said, and sheepishly shut the door behind him. "Sorry. I needed to ... you know."
Nancy took a quick look at the bed to make sure it was empty and this was Steve and not some kind of Steve doppelganger (check). She then took a critical look at Steve. Now that he was no longer backlit by the morning sun, she could see how pale he was, and he limped as he tottered over to sit on the edge of the bed.
Jonathan stirred next to her. "Gwah," he mumbled. "Ugh. I want a toothbrush."
"I want an aspirin," Steve said plaintively.
"Steve?" Jonathan said, opening his eyes.
"Hi," Steve said. He leaned back against the wall. "Um ... where are we?"
"I'm not actually sure." Nancy sat up, deciding right then and there that sleeping in her clothes sucked, especially going to sleep in her clothes while wet, on a bare wood floor. "Some kind of cabin in the woods, I guess?"
"That," Steve declared, "doesn't help." He reached down and started to scratch at his thigh, then jerked his hand away. "Why does my leg hurt?"
"Because you got poisoned." Nancy gave him another long, critical look. "How do you feel?"
"Crappy," Steve said succinctly.
They got Steve dressed, and everybody had a little water from the coffee cans on the porch since they were out of food. Steve was acting like he had the flu; he was pale, shivering, and winced in the sunshine like his head hurt, but he seemed to be mentally back together again.
The woods were obnoxiously beautiful in the morning sun. Water glimmered everywhere like tiny jewels ... which also meant they were soaked within minutes of leaving the cabin. Nancy had scribbled a note on the labels from one of the cans, leaving her phone number and asking the cabin's owner to call them so they could thank him and pay him back for staying at his place.
Nancy took the lead, trying to figure out whether they were on a trail that looked kind of similar to the one that would take them back to Jefferson Road and their cars, or the quarry at the very least, which she knew she could use to find her way back to town. She must have been on the right track, because she found a trail, and the next thing she knew it spit them out on the edge of a road -- some road, anyway, probably the upper part of Jefferson. Good thing it wasn't a schoolday; they could probably convince their parents they'd all been over at someone else's house.
Hopefully the cavalry -- namely Chief Hopper and the kids -- wasn't already out in the woods looking for them. That would be embarrassing.
"So you don't remember anything," Jonathan was saying, as they made their way along the damp road edge in the sunshine.
"Nope," Steve said, a little too fast. "Nothing at all."
Nancy looked back and saw that he was limping badly, but he was also leaning on Jonathan a little bit, and Jonathan had his arm around Steve's back.
She smiled a little, and decided things were probably going to be okay.