Nancy used to look forward to the first day of school. The thrill of putting together a new outfit and being with her friends all day used to be more than enough to compensate for having to wake up half past six o’clock in the morning.
Now, though…she’s saved up all her money from working at the Hawkins Post over the summer or spent it on additional SAT prep, so she has no money to buy new clothes, and Barb is dead and Jonathan moved and Steve has graduated, so she doesn’t really have any friends, either.
She’s not really looking forward to the first day of school. In fact, she’s actually dreading it.
“Nancy, hurry the fuck up! I need the bathroom! My hair looks like shit!”
At least Mike will be at the same school as her now.
Nancy twists open the bathroom door and glares at her younger brother. She’s started calling him her “younger” brother, not “little” anymore, because he’s four inches taller than her. She can still beat him downstairs when their mom makes dinner, though, so he’s not faster just yet.
“Literally none of your friends will care,” Nancy huffs, but still moving out of the way so he can enter.
“First impressions, Nancy,” Mike retorts, opening a drawer and pulling out a comb. “I already know my grades aren’t going to be as good as yours were your freshman year, so I have to look extra good to make up for all my teachers’ inevitable disappointment in me.”
Nancy rolls her eyes good-naturedly and looks at herself in the mirror one last time. She’s wearing a lavender blouse with frills across the shoulders that the guys at the Post had made fun of, her favorite ripped jeans, and white sneakers. Three years ago, her freshman self would have been horrified to even think about not wearing a skirt on the first day of school.
“You look fine, now get out,” Mike says, shoving her out the door and slamming it behind her.
“No slamming doors! You know the rules!” Their dad yells from downstairs. “If you break one, you’re paying for the repairs!”
Neither of them bother to answer. Nancy reaches into her room to grab her backpack and walks downstairs, ruffling Holly’s hair as she takes a seat beside her at the table.
“You excited for your first day of kindergarten?” Nancy asks.
Holly nods enthusiastically, syrup dribbling off her chin. She points to her floral skirt. “Mommy got me a new skirt! Becca and Lori and I are all going to wear skirts today. We all got in Ms. Decker’s class.”
“Pretty,” Nancy comments, not having the heart to tell her the skirt was hers, once, roughly thirteen years ago. “Do you want me and Mike to drop you off on our way to the high school, or are you going to brave the bus?”
“Bus!” Holly answers. She claps her hands. “Mikey from across the street and I are going to go together.”
Their mom enters the kitchen, applying lipstick. She glances around until she spots her tan heels on the floor near the sink. She scurries over and slips them on, pausing for a moment to kiss Holly on the forehead and squeeze Nancy’s shoulder, before she announces that she’s going to be late for work and leaves through the front door.
Mike stomps down the stairs, carrying his backpack, which he’s looking through frantically. Nancy raises her eyes in question.
“I borrowed Dustin’s Rubik’s Cube this weekend and told him I’d give it to him today at school but I can’t find it,” he explains, setting his backpack on the ground. He grabs a waffle from the plate on the table and chews thoughtfully. “Although Lucas was over yesterday, so maybe he took it and will give it to Dustin for me.”
“Or maybe your room is just so messy everything gets lost,” Nancy suggests. She stuffs the lunch she made the night before into her backpack and hands Holly one their mother had made her that morning. “Did you pack a lunch?”
“Lunch?” Mike asks, distracted. He blinks. “Oh, shit.”
“Bad word!” Holly gasps.
“I’ll just buy at school. I forgot Mom has to leave before we do now,” Mike sighs. “Or maybe I can ask her to buy me some McDonald’s and drop it off to school on her lunch break.”
“Don’t do that,” Nancy immediately chastises him, taking out her sandwich container back out of her backpack and tossing her sandwich at him. “Here, take this. Mom shouldn’t leave her job to bring you food because you were too irresponsible to pack your own lunch.”
Mike holds up the sandwich in thanks and grabs a container out of one of the kitchen cupboards to put it in. “Thanks. But you know, she has an hour for her lunch break. That’s more than enough time to drive to McDonald’s and the school and then back to the office.”
Nancy shakes her head, becoming frustrated. “Just…don’t ask her to do that, Mike. Okay?”
Nancy pauses. How can she explain it to her brother? That their mother’s lunch break may be an hour, but she’ll probably spend the majority of it still doing work? That if she leaves the office, especially to run an errand on behalf of her children, she’ll forever be seen as the woman who can’t work as well as the men? That she’s a mother first, and a worker second, and they’ll never take her seriously, no matter how good she is at her job?
Nancy shakes her head. She doesn’t have time for this. They need to leave for school.
“Bye, Holly,” she says, ruffling her sister’s hair. “Have a good first day! I want to hear all about it when I get home!”
Mike mimics her movements, making Holly groan that she’s going to have to redo her hair. The older Wheeler siblings both wish her luck again before leaving through the front door. They don’t bother saying goodbye to their father.
Once Nancy pulls into an open spot at the school, she turns the key and pulls it out of the ignition and looks seriously at Mike. “The last bell rings at three o’clock. If you’re not in this car by three-fifteen, I’m leaving without you, and you’re going to have to walk home or find another ride.”
“Okay, no problem,” Mike answers, but it’s obvious he’s not listening. He’s scanning the crowds of people milling around the parking lot and walking into the school. “Wow, there’s a lot of people. Do you see Dustin or Lucas anywhere?”
“Nope,” Nancy chirps, exiting the car. She slings her backpack over a shoulder. “Come on, homeroom starts in fifteen minutes. Do you know where your classroom is?”
“Second floor, right above the cafeteria,” Mike tells her confidently. Then he frowns. “Wait, that might be my first class, not homeroom. Shit. I need to check.” He sprints off toward the building, narrowly avoiding running into other students.
Nancy rolls her eyes and walks toward the building, suddenly feeling self-conscious. She’s never walked into school alone before on the first day. She’d always had Barb or another girl who met her outside, and last year, she’d had Steve.
She stops by her locker and deposits some notebooks into it. The inside of the locker door is uncharacteristically bare; she used to get a kick out of decorating it with stickers and Polaroid photos, but the only pictures she’d taken this past summer were of rats in Mrs. Driscoll’s basement.
Nancy heads to homeroom and selects a seat in the back row.
The first half of her morning goes by, fairly uneventful. In her AP classes, her teachers stress the importance of the SAT and college applications, which stresses Nancy out a bit since she hadn’t focused on either at all during the summer, but she figures she has time.
When the bell for lunch rings, Nancy doesn’t even bother stopping by her locker to drop off the books she’s done with and beelines straight for the cafeteria to get in line to buy lunch. Damn Mike for forgetting to pack lunch. And damn herself for being too nice and giving hers up.
Once she receives the glorious fine dining course of mystery meat and a lukewarm fruit cup, Nancy slowly walks through the cafeteria. She’s not sure if there’s anyone for her to sit with, so she figures she’ll just go to the library.
“Nancy! Come sit with us!”
A mix of relief and dread fill Nancy’s stomach as she turns to see who called her over: Caroline Ledford, one of the most popular girls in Nancy’s grade. Nancy had never had a problem with her in elementary and middle school; they’d pretty much just co-existed in the same space, but she figured she gained respect from Caroline and her friends when she began dating Steve and fell in with his group of friends.
“Oh. Um, are you sure?” Nancy asked, setting her tray down. “I was thinking about going to the library for lunch to study for the SAT some.”
“Of course, of course,” Caroline insists, flipping her hair. “It’s senior year! We should all mingle as much as possible to make our last year our best.”
Caroline also happened to be class president.
“Sounds good,” Nancy replies weakly, wondering if Caroline genuinely wanted to sit with her or if she’s some sort of social charity case. “So, how were your summers?”
She looks around the table. Two of Caroline’s close friends, Emilie and Madison, are sitting across from her, but other than that, Nancy doesn’t recognize the other girls.
“Oh, this is Kara, Kaleigh, and Trina,” Caroline says, gesturing to them. “Kara And Kaleigh are twins; they moved here this year and they do cheerleading with me, which is how I know them already.”
“Hi!” The girls say in unison. Nancy smiles at them in greeting.
“And this is Trina,” Caroline continues. Trina gives Nancy a friendly wave. “She lived in the county next to Hawkins, but moved into town this year so she had to transfer to our school.”
“How’re you liking Hawkins High so far?” Nancy asks her.
Trina rolls her eyes. “Honey, you should have seen my school in the county. We were understaffed so often the science teachers would have to serve lunch sometimes and the math teachers would have to run PE. This is heaven compared to my old school, which is crazy since it’s just half an hour away.” She drums her brightly painted nails on the table. “Although with all that shit that went down this summer at y’all’s mall, there was a part of me that wished we hadn’t moved.”
“Oh yeah!” Caroline exclaims, grabbing Nancy’s arm. “Were you in town for the Fourth of July when all that happened?”
“Yeah, I was. We just stayed in Hawkins this summer,” Nancy answers, the hair on her neck standing up. She figured people at school would be talking about Starcourt, but she hadn’t known they’d be talking about it with her. “It was pretty insane. Jonathan and I were at the mall the day it got destroyed, actually. There were so many cops and security everywhere.”
“Oh, right,” Caroline drawls innocently, but Nancy has been around enough girls her whole life to know that Caroline intentionally forced the conversation to this topic. “You and Byers were, like, dating, right? And your little brothers have been best friends forever. I remember in third grade, I would always see their kindergarten class in the hall, and they would always be holding hands. So cute!”
“Um, yeah,” Nancy answers. “And Mike and Will are best friends. The Byers moved this summer, actually.”
“I heard about that,” Caroline replies, which Nancy knows translates to “My parents gossiped with other parents and found that out and told me.” “So, are you guys still dating?”
“Yeah,” Nancy says, fingering the necklace Jonathan had gotten her for her birthday.
“That’s so cute,” Kara or Kaleigh compliments. “Is he your first boyfriend?”
Before Nancy can answer, Emilie, another cheerleader, shakes her head and leans into the table, as if she has a juicy secret.
“Nancy used to date Steve Harrington,” she says. “You know, that guy with the hair who worked at the ice cream place at the mall?”
“Oh!” the other twin exclaims. She gives Nancy an approving nod. “You’re a lucky girl, Nancy.”
Nancy uncomfortably laughs. Fortunately, the conversation shifts to the upcoming homecoming dance, so she tunes out until the bell rings.
She has study block in the library next, and she checks in with the librarian before placing her things on a small table in the back of the library, blocked by the shelves. There are a few other students for study block in the library, but they all seem to be engrossed in their own work, so she contentedly sighs as she pulls out an SAT prep book she’d bought earlier in the summer. Finally, she can get some studying in.
After about half an hour, the fire alarm suddenly goes off. Nancy jumps in her seat and quickly shoves her book and papers into her backpack. All around her, the other students lazily stand up and stretch before meandering toward the exit of the library. Nancy is much quicker. After all the shit that’s happened to them in Hawkins, she knows that a seemingly innocent fire drill can actually mean something much more sinister.
The usual fire drill routine is for students on the first floor to exit the building and wait outside at the front of the school, just past the parking lot, while the students on the second floor exit the building from the back and wait behind the sports fields, right before the closest neighborhood. Nancy’s supposed to go to the front, but she knows that Mike has math after lunch and will be ushered toward the back.
She files in with the other students exiting the building. Everyone seems relatively calm, with the exception of some confused teachers, who keep telling their students there wasn’t a drill scheduled for today so to take themselves seriously.
Nancy turns and sighs with relief. “Thank God,” she mutters, bringing Dustin in for a quick hug. “Do you know what this is?”
“A...fire drill?” Dustin asks, looking around. “I mean, I’m not complaining. Anything to get me out of English is fine by me.”
“Are you sure?” Nancy asks, paranoid. “A bunch of the teachers are saying this wasn’t scheduled. And to have this many people, all in one place, out in the open–”
“Whoa, whoa, whoa, hold on,” Dustin says, furrowing his eyebrows. “You think this is...” He looks around and lowers his voice. “...the Russians?”
“I mean, I don’t know,” Nancy says defensively, feeling self-conscious. Isn’t she right to be a little paranoid of the situation? “It seems weird, doesn’t it?”
“I don’t know about this one,” Dustin says. “I mean, Will or El haven’t mentioned any weird feelings or happenings to us.”
Nancy sighs. “Okay. You’re right, I guess.” She shakes her head. Being comforted at school by a fourteen-year-old isn’t how she pictured her day going. “Well, other than this, how’s your first day of high school been?”
Dustin grins. “It’s been awesome! I have Mr. Payne for Chemistry, and he’s super awesome. He lit the floor on fire this morning!”
“I had Payne,” Nancy muses. “Wait, they let you take a sophomore class as a freshman?”
Dustin spreads his arms. “What can I say, being a genius gives you special privileges.” He turns to scan the crowd of students. “I should probably get back to my class before my teacher freaks out. I’ll see you later, Nancy!”
“See you,” Nancy calls.
She turns the other direction and runs to the front of the school before the librarian can realize she’s missing.
One day, Wheeler, she thinks to herself. You’re going to get yourself into some serious trouble.
Three-fifteen comes and goes, and not uncharacteristically, Mike fails to show up.
Annoyed, Nancy starts the car, backs out, and pulls out of the parking lot. She figures she’ll get in trouble with her mother if Mike says she didn’t give him a ride home, so she stops by the office her mother recently started working at as a secretary to leave a note on her desk.
Nancy discreetly enters the building and takes the stairs to her mother’s floor. Her mother is on her phone, back turned to Nancy.
“Jesus Christ, Ted, can you just let me explain?” Karen Wheeler huffs. “I didn’t cheat on you, for God’s sake. He simply put an offer on the table, and I–” She pauses while Ted presumably argues something. “Oh, really? So if one of the little lifeguard girls offered to spend the night with you, you’d refuse?”
Nancy quickly sprints down the hallway to the stairwell and outside to her car. Once she shuts the door, she slaps a hand over her mouth in shock. Her parents had been fighting more than often recently, but it was because her mother almost cheated on her father? And with a lifeguard?
Nancy racks her brain, trying to think of the male lifeguards at the local pool. Billy Hargrove used to work there, before he was killed, and a couple other guys from the grade above Nancy.
Either way, they were all Nancy’s age. Nowhere near her mother’s.
Nancy gags to herself and starts the car. She drives home and is surprised to see Steve’s BMW in her driveway, taking the spot where she usually parks her dad’s car.
Before she can make it to the front door, her dad is walking toward her, hand held out.
“Keys, please,” he demands, shaking his head. “I’m going to need the car back tomorrow. I had to get my coworker to drive me in today, and I thought I was going to die.”
“What? How are Mike and I supposed to get to school then?” Nancy cries, tossing him the keys and crossing her arms.
Her dad shrugs. “You have legs. Walk. Bike. Take the bus; that’s what it’s for!” He opens the car doors and slides into the front seat. “I’m off to run some errands and then get dinner with your mother once she gets off work. We have some...things to talk about. Can you just make dinner for your kids?”
“I guess,” Nancy grumbles as he drives away.
She enters her house. Immediately, she can hear the boys in the basement, blasting Purple Rain. She goes into the kitchen, where Holly is jumping around in her gymnastics leotard, a cup of grapes in her hand.
“Hey Holly!” Nancy exclaims, wrapping her sister in a hug. “How was your first day of kindergarten?”
“Good,” Holly answers, popping another grape in her mouth. “Lorena’s mommy is picking me up for gymnastics soon!”
“Okay,” Nancy says, “it starts at...four-thirty, right? Do you need for me to pick you guys up?”
“No, Lorena’s mommy takes Tuesdays and Mommy takes Thursdays,” Holly answers. “How was your first day?”
“It was pretty good,” Nancy says, her stomach sinking remembering her mother’s phone conversation she’d overheard. “We had a fire drill at school.”
Holly stares up at her with wide eyes, amazed. Nancy ruffles her hair and goes upstairs to put her backpack in her room. She sits down at her desk to get a head start on her AP Government homework.
A few minutes later, she sees Lorena’s mom’s station wagon pull up in the front of their house. Holly skips out of the house and waves up at Nancy’s bedroom window, and Nancy waves back.
After finishing her homework packet, Nancy pads downstairs to start making dinner. She decides on shrimp and pasta with side salads, since that’s easy enough, and heads down to the basement to ask who’s staying for dinner.
“Hey guys, I’m making pasta with shrimp. Are any of y–” She halts halfway down the stairs, forgetting that Steve was over. It’s still weird to see her ex-boyfriend hanging out with her little brother. If they weren’t all bonded by almost dying from an otherworldly monster unleashed by the Russians, she’d probably even be angry about it.
“Anyone staying for dinner?” she continues, leaning against the railing.
“Thanks, but I have to get back before my dad gets off work,” Lucas answers. “My mom’s going to want to hear about my first day. And Erica’s.”
“Same,” Dustin says. “Except for the part about Erica’s first day. I don’t think she’d really care.”
Lucas rolls his eyes. “Well since she’s suddenly one of your best friends now, your mom might just care about her first day, too.”
“She is not,” Dustin says defensively. “We just needed her help to infiltrate the Russian spies at the mall. That’s all. You’re still my best friend.”
“Are you sure that spot isn’t taken by Suzie?” Max teases.
Immediately, she and Lucas lean in toward each other and begin bellowing, “Turn around. Look at what you seeeeeeeee!”
“I hate all of you,” Dustin deadpans. He stands up, grabs his backpack, and looks at Steve. “Can you give me a ride home?”
“Sure, dude,” Steve says, laughing along with the rest of the kids. His laughter falters when he makes eye contact with Nancy, making everyone else fall silent. “Oh. Uh, hey, Nance. How was your first day?”
“Good,” Nancy breathes, giving what she hopes is a normal-looking smile. “I got Mr. Sierra for English.”
“Oh, man, he was my favorite!” Steve gushes.
Nancy smiles genuinely. “I know.”
After a beat of awkward silence, Dustin pats Nancy’s shoulder. “Well, have fun making dinner, Nancy. Thanks for the offer. I’ll see the rest of you assholes tomorrow!”
Dustin and Steve ascend the stairs.
“Dinner sounds great, but my mom and stepdad will probably want me home for dinner,” Max tells Nancy, smiling. “Thanks, though.”
“Yeah, no problem,” Nancy says, turning to go back upstairs.
She’s barely started chopping carrots to put in the salads when the phone rings. Mike screams at her from the basement to pick it up.
“Wheeler residence, Nancy speaking,” she says into the phone.
“Hey, Nancy! It’s Roger,” a voice on the other end says.
“Oh, hey, Roger,” Nancy says, somewhat surprised. Roger Holden was Steve’s former friend Tommy’s younger brother in Nancy’s grade. Roger was much nicer than Tommy, but Nancy figured Tommy had talked enough shit about her and Steve to make Roger not want to associate with her. “What’s up?”
“This is sort of a weird question, but are you by chance applying to Notre Dame?”
Nancy’s slightly taken aback by the question. “Uh…I’m not sure yet, actually. I haven’t started on any applications yet. Why do you ask?”
“Oh, okay,” Roger says. “Nothing, I’m just a little confused by one of their personal essay questions, and I figured if anyone was applying there and had gotten started, it would be you.” He chuckles. “College applications are a bitch, huh?”
“Yeah, they’re tough,” Nancy replies distractedly, not pointing out that she’d literally just said she hadn’t started them yet. “Sorry I couldn’t be much help.”
“No problem,” Roger says easily. Nancy’s about to hang up the phone when Roger adds, “Oh, also, I’m having a sort of back-to-school party this Saturday night, if you want to come. I think some people from Tommy’s class are going to be going too, since it’ll also be like a farewell to last year’s seniors before they leave to go to college. If you want to come.”
“That sounds fun,” Nancy says, but she knows she probably won’t go. “Well, thanks for the invite. I’ll see you around, Roger.”
She hangs up before he can reply and runs a hand through her hair. If Roger Holden, the kid who once shotgunned a beer in the back of the classroom in Geometry freshman year, is already applying to colleges, then that means Nancy is even more behind than she thought. She looks down at the half-chopped carrot on the counter and decides she doesn’t have time to cook tonight. She decides to just buy something from McDonald’s for dinner and runs up to her bedroom to grab some cash before realizing it’s all in a jar she’d labeled “College.”
Nancy groans aloud in frustration. She knows there was a time when she could’ve completed all of this, easily. It wouldn’t have even been an issue. But now, she feels like she’s struggling to stay afloat, and no matter how hard she treads, the waters will be too much and engulf her completely. She supposes, to go along with the metaphor, an option is to ask for help, which she could do if the local lifeguard hadn’t tried to hook up with her mother.
That’s another issue in itself she has to figure out.
“Mike, do you have any money?” she calls down to the basement.
“Who the fuck do you think I am?” is the answer she gets, so she assumes that no, her brother doesn’t have any money.
Nancy manages to find a few crumpled bills around the house. The closest McDonald’s is just over a mile from her house, so she figures she’ll get some exercise and use Mike’s bike to get there. She has to lower the seat just to get her foot to reach the ground, but she manages.
When she arrives, she waits in the line and tries to remember what Holly likes. Eventually, she figures that four McNuggets will be good enough, and places her order. While she’s standing to the side to wait for her number to be called, she sees Mr. Payne, her old and Dustin’s current chemistry teacher.
“Hi, Nancy!” he says jovially. “How was your first day?”
“Pretty good,” Nancy answers. “And yours?”
“Oh, same old, same old,” Mr. Payne chuckles. “Only fifteen more until I can retire!”
Nancy smiles politely.
Mr. Payne gestures to the man sitting across from him. “And this is a new teacher at Hawkins, Mr. Brenner, also in the science department. He just moved here last month, so I’m showing him around, getting him acclimated to Hawkins.”
“Hi, nice to meet you,” Nancy says, sticking her hand out for the man to shake.
“Likewise,” Mr. Brenner replies, giving her a firm handshake.
“So, what brings you to Hawkins?” Nancy asks. She really doesn’t care at all, but her mother taught her nothing if not manners.
Mr. Brenner leans back in his chair. “Well, it’s not the nightlife, that’s for sure.” Nancy laughs uncomfortably with him before he continues. “My brother actually worked here a couple of years ago before moving away. He was into science, too, and didn’t hate it here, so when my tenure at Chicago was up, I figured I’d try life out here for awhile.”
“The University of Chicago?” Nancy asks, suddenly very interested. “You worked there?”
“I did,” Mr. Brenner chuckles. “I earned my Ph.D. there, so technically I’m Dr. Brenner, but that sounds too pretentious for me. It’s also what my brother goes by. But if you need any help with an application for Chicago, feel free to stop by my classroom sometime. That’s partly why I decided to start teaching. I’m on the second floor at Hawkins.”
“I just might, thank you,” Nancy tells him earnestly.
After getting her order, Nancy bikes home as fast as she can. She’s out of breath when she arrives home, and she knows her legs are going to be sore tomorrow, but she’s excited to speak with Mr. Brenner and actually get somewhere with planning her future.
When she enters the house, she sets out the food she’d bought on the kitchen table and calls for Mike and Holly to come eat. Holly bounds down the stairs, still in the gymnastics leotard, and begins babbling to Nancy about gymnastics practice.
Nancy nods along as her sister talks. When Mike comes up to eat, he raises an eyebrow at the grin on Nancy’s face. “What’s got you so pumped?”
“Something totally awesome,” Nancy sings. She launches into a story about meeting Mr. Brenner and how he offered to help her with her college applications.
Instead of being happy for her like she thought he would be, Mike’s face pales and he frowns. He tells Holly to go watch cartoons for a few minutes before he leans in close to Nancy and lowers his voice. “That’s all he said? Offered to help you with applications?”
“Well, yeah,” Nancy says defensively, put off by her brother’s negative reaction. “I was planning on going to his room during lunch tomorrow. Why?”
Mike chews on his bottom lip, crossing his arms. “Okay,” he mutters, thinking to himself. “Lucas and I can wait outside in case anything happens, and Dustin could ask Steve to drive him t—”
“Hold on, what exactly is your damage?” Nancy demands, picking up one of her nuggets and waving it at Mike. “I thought you’d be happy for me. I wasn’t able to work on any college stuff all summer because of all the stupid men at my awful job, and then the Mindflayer decided to attack Hawkins, and—”
“Okay, I’m sorry, I am happy you’re planning your future,” Mike interrupts, his face softening for a moment. “But…I don’t know if this particular plan of yours is going to work.”
“What? Why not?”
“It may just be coincidence,” Mike sighs, “but that rarely, if ever, happens for us. But don’t you remember?”
“Remember what?” Nancy presses, her stomach sinking.
“The man who gave El her powers and tried to hunt her down and kill all of us,” Mike says quietly, looking around as if someone is listening. “I think you may have just encountered his little brother.”