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Strangers at Home

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Full, voluminous, light brown hair was coiled around tiny hair curlers, as Karen Wheeler laid back against her seat in front of her bedroom mirror. She put her hand out in front of her, and gawked at the beautiful peach colored nails. She leaned forward, and grabbed at the multiple make-up containers lining her dresser until she found the eye shadow she was looking for, and proceeded to paint it on. Once she finished she took out her hair curlers, and shook her head quickly. Grabbing a brush, she flipped her wrist a few times and smoothed our her hair. Finally, she added some hair spray. Once she finished she winked at herself, then leaned forward and kissed the photograph taped to her mirror. 

 

“This is it, baby. Today is the day.” Her eyes fluttered shut, and she sucked in a deep breath. “Give me strength.” 

 

Suddenly, the bedroom door swung open, and Karen jumped up, out of her seat to find her husband standing there. 

 

“Ted,” She sighed, “You scared the bejesus out of me.”

 

“Sorry dear,” He walked into the room and grabbed a tie for his nice black suit. “What do you think?”

 

“I think it looks perfect.” She smiled. Her hands were shaking as she tried to button up her dark red, almost purple blouse, to the very top. 

 

“Are you ready?” Ted asked, his hands wrapping around her waist as he looked into the mirror with her. Both of their eyes were no doubt staring at the photograph. 

 

“We’re not replacing her.” Karen whispered, mainly to remind herself of that fact. 

 

The little girl in the photograph had blonde pig-tails and was smiling so wide it made Karen’s heart bleed every time she saw it. 

 

“No, we could never replace her.” Ted kissed his wife’s cheek. “Are you absolutely sure you want to do this?” 

 

“Yes.” Karen said confidently. She wasn’t sure where the confidence came from because every voice inside her head was screaming that she was in over her head, but something in her heart was telling her to go through with this. “Besides, we already said we would. We signed the papers. They are officially ours for a month.” 

 

“But two kids... that’s not something we are used to. And they are so much older than our Holly ever was.”

 

“Nonsense. The boy is basically a baby, being only nine-years-old. And yes, the girl is thirteen, but that’s sorta fun, you know? I get to raise a pre-teen for a month.”

 

“Sounds like we’re in over our heads.”

 

“Don’t say that to me. Now you sound like everyone else.” Karen turned away, flustered. 

 

She watched her husband sigh heavily. He slowly walked to the door, only to turn back. “They are going to be here in five minutes. We should go downstairs.” 

 

Karen nodded, took one last look at the photo on her mirror, and then shut her bedroom door. 

 

Karen’s foot bounced up and down, as she sat at her kitchen table, staring at the clock. She was told by the Foster Care and Adoption Home development staff that the social worker would arrive at noon with her two new children. 

 

Last week, Karen got a phone call from Paul, a social worker who advises the placement of foster kids, and since Karen applied to be put on the list, Paul called to inform her of two kids that are in a crisis situation. According to Paul, their previous foster parents were abusive and their parents are dead. The Dyers went for a drive one night and a drunken driver missed an overpass. That was it. That was all it took for Nancy and Mike Dyer to become orphans. 

 

But that was all Karen really knew about these children. She knows the basics given to her on a sheet of paper. Nancy Dyer, 13 years old, brown hair, blue eyes, likes reading and loves pretzels. She is great in school, and is very bright and curious. Then there is Michael Dyer. The boy is 9, has black hair, brown eyes, likes watching movies and playing with toys. He does well in school too, and is very smart. He loves cookies. That’s it. That’s all Karen knows about these children. It’s not much, in fact, it’s basically nothing when you really think about it. She doesn’t even know what kind of cookies little Michael likes. So Karen made every kind she could think of last night. 

 

Ted peaked his head out from behind the curtain, and ran over to the couch. 

“They’re here. Act natural.” He sat down and grabbed a newspaper. 

 

Meanwhile, Karen had stood up, and started making her way towards the door. Her heart hammering in her chest the whole way. Then the doorbell sound came, banging inside her ear drums like a church bell tower. Ring. Ring. Ring. 

 

“Hello.” She said, opening the door wide, her smile equally as wide. 

 

Paul the social worker was standing in front of her, tall and proud. The two children were behind him slightly, looking up at her from behind their bangs. 

 

“Hello Karen.” The man extended his hand and Karen shook it quickly. Her eyes were stuck on the two kids. Every instinct she had was telling her to run, abort, retreat. This was not going to go well. She was, in fact, over her head. But it was too late. The kids were being ushered into her house and suddenly she had a huge list of rules and regulations to read and sign. 

 

Which her husband took haphazardly and signed without even reading. Luckily, Paul explained the most important things out loud to them. 

 

“This is Nancy and Mike. We are thankful you are willing to take them into your home Mrs. Wheeler. Kids, say hello to Mrs. Wheeler.”

 

“Hello.” The girl whispered, but her eyes were focused on her younger brother. The boy said nothing, and clung onto his sister’s hand. 

 

“So this is their medical record. This is their file. It has a lot of their likes and dislikes in it. You are subjected to random supervisions and of course, the children should not be abused while under your care.”

 

“Of course not.” Karen said, trying to once again smile at the kids. She got a slight smile from the boy and she calmed down enough to breathe. Maybe this wouldn’t be so bad after all. 

 

“You are required to provide three meals a day, and give the children a proper living space. Meaning they can’t sleep in a closet, they must at least have a bedroom.”

 

“I have two rooms prepared.” Karen said. 

 

“I’m going to need to see.” The social worker scribbled something on his clipboard and Karen nodded extra hard. 

 

“Of course. Follow me Everyone.” She said as she led the group upstairs. 

 

“So this is the bathroom,” She said as she passed, “and this is the room I have prepared for Nancy.”

 

The group walked inside a small bedroom with pink and white striped wallpaper and blueish/green curtains. There were two big windows and a white dresser on both sides of the large queen size bed. Near the door, there was another dresser with a mirror on it, and in front of her bed was another small dresser. All of the furniture was white and pretty. 

 

“Wow.” Nancy clasped a hand over her mouth. “Sorry.” She whispered. 

 

“Don’t be sorry.” Karen smiled. “I’m so glad you like your new room.”

 

“Yeah, it’s beautiful.” 

 

Mike nodded in agreement. Paul wrote something in his notes and then asked to see Mike’s room. Karen felt guilty, she wanted to let Nancy explore, but she figured she could do that later. 

 

“I bought them clothes too.” Karen explained as she walked to the room next door. When she opened the door, it revealed a dark blue painted bedroom. The first thing they saw was a single bed, and a window. Then, scattered around the room were light brown shelves and dressers. He also had a nightstand next to his bed. 

 

“You have a lovely house, Mrs. Wheeler.” Paul said on his way back downstairs. “Oh, nice kitchen.” He looked awe struck as he walked around. 

 

“I made some cookies if you would like.” She pointed to the counter where a tray of cookies sat. “I heard Michael likes cookies.”

 

“He does.” Nancy said from behind Karen. 

 

“Oh my. I’m going to have to get used to be snuck up on.” 

 

“Sorry. The kids are still learning manners.” Paul informed her. He placed the luggage he had been carrying on the ground. 

 

“Is that all of their stuff?”

 

“Yes it most definitely is. Sorry if it seems like a lot. Michael couldn’t bear to leave some of his toys.”

 

“No, that’s fine. It seems like too little, actually.” 

 

The social worker shrugged, and put his hand inside his blazer pocket. 

 

“Lastly, here is a check from the state so you can provide for their basic needs without waisting your own money.” Paul handed her a white envelope. “One will come in the mail monthly. It is expected to only be used for the children.”

 

“Thank you so much, Paul.” 

 

“Not a problem. Thank you for watching them.” He turned towards the kids, “I expect to hear good behavior reports from both of you.”

 

Both kids blatantly ignored him, and Nancy even went as far as to roll her eyes. 

 

“I’ll see you later, Mrs. Wheeler. Take care. If you need anything from me, just call my number.” He handed her his little card. 

 

“Thanks again.” She waved him goodbye, watching as his car drove away, leaving her with two strangers. 

Chapter Text

As far as Nancy was concerned, parents were like figureheads. Like the King and Queen of England, printed all over money but having no say in anything that pertains to England itself. Nancy believed the traditional idea of parents caring for their children was overrated, but society keeps up the image just to make itself feel better. She didn’t need anyone to look after her. She was perfectly capable of taking care of herself and her little brother alone.

 

But as soon as her first foster family sent her back, she was sent directly to another one because ‘children need parents’ according to society. 

 

Which is such bullshit. 

 

She’s not convinced, because Nancy is a thirteen-year-old and that means she has had time to read about life, and thus, she’s learned the meaning of life - or lack thereof in her short experience on earth. 

 

The one thing she is certain of, above anything else, is that ‘family’ is a construed concept made by people in Hollywood who want to pretend they know something about the real world, so they put this idea of ‘family’ in movies and people eat it up. 

 

Truth is, family is just another word for people that are forced to live together because they were born from the same parents. And the truth about parents is, they were just kids that made more kids. That’s the secret to life. And it’s all bullshit. 

 

Mrs. Wheeler screamed confidence. Her whole outfit seemed to glimmer, just like her smile. It was un-nerving to be next to her in a place so unfamiliar. 

 

Everything looked big and expensive. Nancy felt like she was living in a real life size Barbie house. But if she broke something in this house, there would probably be hell to pay. 

 

She picked at the carpet rug with her feet, after taking her shoes off. It was soft. Every so often, Nancy peaked back up at Mrs. Wheeler, before quickly ducking her head back down and focusing on Mike. 

 

“Well, kids. Um... I know this is probably strange for you. It’s a little weird for me too, but we can get through this. My name is Karen Wheeler. You can call me Karen, or even Mom if you feel comfortable at some point. I’m not trying to take the place of your mother, but... I mean, I am just your foster mother, but maybe... if things go well -“

 

The man cleared his throat, and Nancy saw Mrs. Wheeler blush and gesture at the man. “This is Ted. He is going to be your foster Dad.”

 

“Hello.” The man waved his hand. 

 

Mike waved back with a big cheeky smile. Rolling her eyes at him, Nancy grabbed Mike’s arm and sent him a warning glare. He never learns. 

 

Mike whined, and pulled away from her, but he stayed close to her side, like he was glued there. 

 

“So... did you like your rooms?” Mrs. Wheeler asked. 

 

Nancy nodded, along with her brother. Then everything went silent and she was at a loss for words. God this was so much worse than she thought it would be. 

 

Mrs. Wheeler cleared her throat. “Would you like to get settled into your rooms?”

 

Nancy nodded quickly. “Yes we’d like that very much.” 

 

Karen smiled again, her classic Brady Bunch smile. “Alrighty. Ted, grab their bags. Kids, follow me.”

 

Nancy and Mike followed her upstairs, back into their bedrooms. 

 

“I’m just going to give you a grand tour of the house, so you know where everything is, okay?”

 

They nodded. 

 

“Great. So the bathroom has soap, shampoo, towels, all right here. I expect you to fold the towel back up after you shower, and hang it over the rail. We’ll go over the rules later today.” 

 

Rules. Fantastic. Nancy knew it, she just knew it. Every house has a set of rules, and every parent tries to be the dictator of all the rules, just because they were older and had more experience. It was completely unfair. They were already bigger, and way stronger. They could easily, grab, shove, pick-up, and manhandle her and Mike with ease. So why did they have to make rules too. Just so they can rule over the house the like the Queen of England, Nancy supposed. 

 

Karen started to leave, Nancy behind her, but she turned around, and they stop abruptly.  

 

“What are you doing?” Karen asked.

 

Nancy was about to answer, but she realized, the question wasn’t directed at her. Oh no, Mike was sitting in the bathtub. 

 

“No!” Nancy shouted, but it was too late, he had already turned on the faucet. Cringing, Nancy quickly rushed over, shutting off the water. 

 

“Mike! You can’t get a bath with your clothes on. And Mrs. Wheeler wasn’t telling you to get a bath right now.”

 

“But I thought -“

 

“I’m so sorry.” Nancy spluttered. “He didn’t mean to.”

 

“It’s okay. He can get a bath now, if he wants.”

 

Nancy furrowed her eyebrows together. “He can? But it’s in the middle of the day. Before dinner.”

 

“I know.”

 

“Isn’t he supposed to wait until night?”

 

“Well, that’s when he would normally take a bath, yes. But if he feels dirty or wants a bath whenever, he is allowed. This is America.” 

 

“What about your water bill?” 

 

Mrs. Wheeler waved her off, “Nonsense, don’t worry about the bills dear.”

 

Okay, so maybe this family wasn’t that bad. Mrs. Wheeler seemed nice enough. Swallowing, Nancy looked at her little brother with worried eyes. 

 

“You gonna be okay?” 

 

Mike rolled his eyes, “Yeah, Nance. I’ll be fine. It’s just a bath.” 

 

“Okay. Get me when you’re done.” She said. 

 

Karen and Nancy left the bathroom and paused the tour, since Mike wasn’t with them, and instead went to Nancy’s room to unpack. 

 

“Is your brother’s clothes in here.”

 

“Yeah.” Nancy began to unpack her belongings. She dumped the suitcase on the floor and rummaged through the pile of stuff. She had a few pairs of clothes, mainly sweaters and slacks. Some white tank-tops and a lot of underwear. Karen could see the pinks and purples bikini briefs for Nancy, and one pair of Dinosaur underoos for Mike. Karen expected those items, but she was surprised to see Nancy had a deck of cards in this bag, and a bunch of textbooks. She also had a few beauty magazines and a Seventeen Magazine with Molly Ringwald on the front cover. She also noticed a bag of chips and some candy. There were bandages and antibiotic ointment in a plastic bag at the bottom of the suitcase. Plus there were some bottles of bubble-gum flavored medicine. Karen noticed she had a toothbrush, toothpaste and a comb for her hair. This kid really comes prepared. Then again, Karen understood that this was Nancy and Mike’s life. They lived out of bags. Everything Nancy had in her bag was the only things she actually owned. With that perspective, It was barely anything at all. 

 

“You can put your clothes in the dresser. I hope you don’t mind, I already bought you some outfits.”

 

Nancy smiles briefly. “I don’t mind at all. Thank you.” 

 

The drawers were full of sweaters, long-sleeved shirts, and pretty blouses. There were a few dresses hanging in the closet that caught Nancy’s eye immediately. She had never worn a dress before. But so many models and celebrities wear dresses. For a brief moment she thought maybe someone would actually consider her pretty if she wore a dress. 

 

Karen watched as Nancy grabbed some shampoo out of the bag, a toothbrush and toothpaste. Sliding the shampoo under her chin, Nancy had enough room to carry the bubble-gum medicine. 

 

“I’m going to give this stuff to Mike.”

 

“Oh, here, bring him his clean clothes.” Karen said, going to the suitcase and digging for Mike’s outfit. She found a blue shirt and khaki pants. “Is this the only pair of underwear he has?”

 

Nancy flushed, but nodded. “They - our other foster parents - they didn’t let him wear...um... yeah. It’s all he owns.”

 

Karen nodded carefully. “Okay. It will do for tonight. Tomorrow I’m going to run out and buy some more clothes for you guys. Just tell me what you like and I’ll get it for you.”

 

Nancy smiled.  “Thanks.” 

 

Together they placed the items on the bathroom counter. Mike was out of the tub and wrapped up in a warm towel when they entered. 

 

“Hey buddy. I brought you some clothes.” Nancy said. Mike was pressing into her side, giving her a sideways hug. It took Karen a moment to realize he was avoiding eye contact with her. 

 

“Oh! I’ll leave you two alone. Sorry.” She said, and she scurried out of the bathroom. She waited in her bedroom for the sound of the bathroom door opening. Once she heard it, she threw down the book she was most definitely not reading and rushed to the kids. 

 

“All set?” She asked to which they both nodded. “Great. Let’s continue the tour of the house.”

 

“I hung up the towel like you asked,” Mike whispered and Karen couldn’t suppress her smile. 

 

“Good boy.” She praised. “I appreciate that very much.” 

 

He beamed at her, his tiny hand sliding into hers. Karen could feel Nancy’s eyes on them, watching closely, but the girl said nothing. Holding hands with her foster son on the first day was definitely a step in the right direction. 

 

After showing them the whole house: the laundry room, the living room, the kitchen, the dining room, the basement, and her bedroom, Karen stopped back downstairs in the dinningroom. 

 

“Let’s eat. Okay?” 

 

The kids sat down at the table, still looking nervously at everything. It was clear some rules and boundaries were going to need to be discussed so they felt more at ease. But also, Karen was realizing quickly that if she wanted them to open up and heal, she was going to need them to talk about their past foster families. 

 

As Ted sat down at the table next to the kids, Karen didn’t feel so lonely anymore. She could only hope that the kids start to feel more at home too. 

Chapter Text

During dinner, it was quiet and there was a small awkwardness. The tension was due to the newness of the situation, at least, that’s what Karen hoped. She wasn’t sure how to hold a conversation with kids, let alone kids she just met two hours ago. But hopefully she would learn quickly. 

 

Looking to her husband for support, Karen hoped he would say something to let the kids know how happy he was to have them, but he said nothing. Instead, his face was buried in the noodle soup. 

 

Karen closed her eyes and mentally sighed. She could do this. When she opened her eyes she was smiling big and wide again. 

 

“So... here’s the thing. We are going to be together for a whole month at least, and during that time I would like to get to know you, and I am so happy you are here with me. We both are, right Ted?” She gave her husband a small nudge and he looked up with a blank stare on his face. 

 

“Mhm,” He hummed around his food, using a napkin to wipe his chin. 

 

“Yes, so I can’t wait to get to know you, and I look forward to talking with you. But there are some rules we expect you to follow if you live here, but it’s not ridiculous, just some basic safety rules and respect.”

 

Nancy was giving Karen the stink-eye as she played with her chicken noodle soup whereas Mike wasn’t even looking at her at all. 

 

“Would you like to hear some of the rules now, or would you like to tell me a bit about yourselves?” 

 

No answer. Karen looked to Ted for help, but he was silently chomping away. 

 

“Okay. First rule. We discuss things at the family dinner table. So start talking please.” 

 

Nancy shrugged. “Whatever you want to do is fine.” 

 

“Yeah,” Mike agreed. He reached for his glass of milk with shaky hands. 

 

They weren’t going to get anywhere if she asked general questions, so Karen decided to ask more direct, important things. 

 

“Michael, do you like milk?”

 

The boy looked at her like a deer caught in the headlights. He set the glass down and quickly shook his head no. 

 

“It’s okay if you do. I like milk.” Karen responded, “it’s good for my bones.”

 

The boy looked at his sister for guidance. Karen noticed Nancy nod at the boy. A second later, Mike said he did like milk. 

 

“So you do like it? Then why did you say you didn’t?” 

 

“I -“ Mike bit his lip. “I don’t know. I’m sorry.”

 

“You don’t have to please me when it comes to what you like. Everybody has different tastes buds and opinions and that’s okay. I would like to hear your honest opinion from now on, and I promise you won’t get in trouble. Understand?”

 

Mike nodded quickly. “Yes ma’am.”

 

“You can call me Karen, honey.” 

 

“Okay.” The boy whispered. “I do like milk. And juice.”

 

Now they were getting somewhere. Finally. “What kind of juice?” 

 

“Apple juice.” 

 

Smiling, Karen got up and went to the side table where she grabbed a notepad and pen. She sat back down while writing. 

 

“Tomorrow I will buy some apple juice. And I know we need underwear and clothes. What else?” 

 

There was a pause, both kids looked at one another as if questioning whether or not this was a trick. 

 

“Can... can I have a record player?” Nancy asked hesitantly. “All of the other kids at my old school had one.”

 

“Of course.” Karen wrote record player down. “And some records too?” 

 

Nancy nodded. “Any kind would be fine.” She looked at Mike, nudging him in the side. “Do you want any toys?”

 

The boys face lit up like the Fourth of July. “Yes! Can I have more dinosaurs and a Star Wars action figure please, and games like scrabble and -“

 

“Mike!” He looked at his sister who was shaking her head rapidly.

 

“It’s okay,” Karen assured her. “He can have a few things. It’s not a big deal.”

 

“Are you sure?” 

 

Karen nodded, and finished writing stuff on her list. “What other snacks do you enjoy?”

 

“Oh...um... I like pretzels.” Nancy said softly. 

 

“And tea. She likes pretzels and tea. I like juice and pop and potato chips and candy and ice cream and -“

 

Nancy slapped her hand over Mike’s mouth. “Stop being greedy.” 

 

“I’ll see what I can do.” Karen said, but she was determined to get these kids whatever they wanted. 

 

“You two are cute.” She admitted when they went back to eating. 

 

“Well thank you.” Nancy seemed to beam at that praise. Good to know. 

 

Karen waited until they finished eating before she discussed the rules. She made sure to bring out bowls of chocolate ice cream first to soften the blow. 

 

“Some of these rules are just chores. I do most of the cooking and cleaning in the house. But I would appreciate if you help with washing the dishes and putting your clothes away when I bring up the basket. When I bring groceries home, I want you to help put them away. Pick up your toys and clean up after your own messes. If you use a glass, put it in the sink when you are done. Put your dirty clothes in the basket in your room. I will come in at the end of the week and wash everything in the basket. Hang up your towels after you shower. Do you understand everything so far?”

 

The kids nodded, licking their ice cream. Karen smiled and continued. 

 

“I want you to talk to me and Dad. If something bad is happening or you are scared or whatever, please don’t be afraid to talk to us. Alright. As for the rest of the rules, they are as follows:

1.) No swearing at us or each other. 

2.) Respect all people. 

3.) Try your best in school. Do your homework etc. 

4.) Be honest. This is big. I do not want any lying. 

5.) Ask if you can have friends over or if you can leave the house. Most of the time I will say yes. 

6.) No fighting. 

7.) Bedtime is 10pm on weekdays. 11pm on weekends.” 

 

Nancy looked at Mike cautiously, but the boy was busy licking chocolate off of his cheek to stare back at her. She turned to Karen and cleared he throat. 

 

“And if we don’t follow the rules?” Her tone was mocking, almost challenging. Karen couldn’t quite understand why. 

 

“Well Nancy. If you don’t follow the rules there will be consequences. If you do follow them, there will be more rewards.”

 

“Consequences like ice baths? Burns on our arms? Sleeping outside? Hit with chords?”

 

“Consequences like more chores, grounding, taking away toys, and possibly sitting in the corner for Mike.”

 

Nancy scrunched her eyes at Karen, sizing her up. “Anything else?” 

 

“No.”

 

Nancy bit her lip. “Okay.” She finally agreed. “I guess we’ll be good then.”

 

Mike nodded. “Yeah. We’ll be good.”

 

“Good.” Karen shoveled a spoonful of ice cream into her mouth as a reward. 

 

When they finished dinner, more awkward tension fell over the group as Karen quickly thought of things the kids could do in their spare time. 

 

“Do you want to watch TV? Ted - I mean - Dad always watches TV after dinner.” 

 

“What do you do?” Nancy asked softly. 

 

“I usually read at night. Sometimes I take a long bath and relax. During the day, I make a bunch of phone calls to people around town, run errands for friends and myself, visit people, I work out before lunch. Um, let’s see. Oh in the morning I usually watch TV until your father wakes up. Then I make coffee and breakfast and read the newspaper while doing the little crossword puzzles. Sometimes at night, Ted and I will watch a movie together. Maybe we can have family nights where we watch movies together and play bored games.”

 

The kids blinked up at her. “I asked one question...” Nancy whispered into Mike’s ear and he giggled. 

 

Karen was growing tired now of everything. She was putting in a lot of effort and no one else seemed to be doing the same. Not even her husband. With her hands on her hips and a scowl on her face, Karen tightened her jaw. Her stance had an immediate reaction, as the two kids huddled together. 

 

“I expect respect. I am really trying here. I know it’s new and everything is scary and weird, but I’m going to need to see a little effort from the two of you. Okay?”

 

They both nodded, but their eyes held mixed emotions. Karen sighed. 

 

“Let’s watch a movie, okay?” 

 

“Can - can we go to bed?” Mike asked. 

 

“It’s early.” 

 

Mike shrugged. “I can play with my toys and Nancy can read.”

 

“It’s true. We can keep ourselves entertained.” 

 

“Well alright. If you’re sure.” That was all it took for Mike and Nancy to rush upstairs. 

 

Maybe tomorrow things will be easier. 

Chapter Text

“I have a phone in my room!” Nancy took off her shoes and tossed them under the bed that Mike was laying on. 

 

“Who are you gonna call? Your imaginary friends?” 

 

“Shut up,” Nancy snarled at her giggling brother. 

 

“Mrs. Wheeler seems okay. What do you think?”

 

“Yeah she’s alright. Better than any other foster home we’ve ever had.”

 

“It’s still scary though,” Mike clutched the collar of his shirt, a nervous habit he’s never let go. 

 

Nancy sat on her new bed beside him, and started rubbing his back. “It’s going to be okay. We’re still together. That’s all that matters.” 

 

“I know.” He whispered. His body leaned closer to her touch. “But I don’t want these people to get rid of us.” 

 

“Whatever happens, happens. We can’t control them. But we can control ourselves. So we’re just going to be good and try to have fun, okay?” 

 

Mike nodded, then a smile formed on his lips, “Do you what to play?” 

 

Nancy rolled her eyes. “Oh Mike. Not again.”

 

But the boy was already rushing over to the suitcase where he dug out his plastic dinosaurs and baby lion cubs. 

 

“Here you be Tyler,” he handed her a T-Rex, “And I’ll be Rory.” 

 

Nancy sighed, giving in completely, the joys of having a baby brother occurring once again. “Alright.” She said as she took the toy.

 

They ended up making a game out of the trash can. The dinosaurs had to leap across the fire pit of doom, (the floor), and land safely in the island of treasure (the wastebasket). 

 

They were getting rough and rowdy. At one point Mike leaped off the bed with a scream of triumph as his dinosaur successfully landed in the trash can for the fifth time in a row. 

 

“Oohhh new record! Beat that! Oh that’s right. You can’t.”

 

Nancy shook her head. “Oh that’s it. That is so it.”

 

Mike’s eyes popped out as his sister approached him, and he ran out of her reach with glee. 

 

“Hehehee. You can’t catch me.” 

 

“Get back here, you little brat.” 

 

Mike raced out of the room and down the hallway, when he raced back in Nancy’s room, he turned around to find himself trapped on the other side of the bed. 

 

“Now I’ve got you.” She laughed. 

 

“Stay away from me, you evil witch.”

 

“I’m not a witch. I’m a mad scientist, and your my patient.”

 

“Noooo!” Mike cried as his sister picked him up by the armpits and threw him on the bed. He tried to get off, but she pushed him back down, then straddled him. 

 

“Get ready to pay.” She clawed her fingers together and then started tickling him. Mike thrashed, and laughed, and screamed until his throat hurt. 

 

“N-Nancy.” He giggled. “Let go.” 

 

She stopped abruptly, and he sat up. “You weren’t really supposed to stop.” 

 

But then his ears heard what hers were hearing, the sound of footsteps. The door swung open too soon for either of them to move. Mike was laying underneath Nancy, with his hair all tousled. 

 

“What’s going on up here?” Karen wore a smile, but Mike was uneasy about the situation. He sat up cautiously, and slipped the covers around his waist.

 

“Just playing.” Nancy whispered, worried that they were making too much noise, but Karen grinned. 

 

“It sounded like fun. I hate to break up this little adventure you were having, but it’s time to get ready for bed.” 

 

Mike glanced at the alarm clock on Nancy’s dresser. 9:30. Wow, he couldn’t believe they had been playing for that long. When he was alone with Nancy, time just flew. 

 

“Nancy, do you want to get your shower tonight or tomorrow.”

 

“Uh, tonight.” The girl responded, slipping off of the bed and going to her suitcase. She pulled out a pair of jammies. A pretty blue set. 

 

She grabbed a pair of grey pj pants and a matching shirt with the same polka-dot pattern and tossed it to Mike. He missed catching it by a long shot, but happily retrieved the fallen clothes. 

 

“Thank you.” He grinned, then he stole a glance at Karen and his smile faltered. 

 

Not understanding what what wrong, Karen wasn’t sure what she should do, but she decided to leave the room and give him some space. She waited outside the door for Mike to dress. Ten minutes later she knocked. 

 

“Can I come in?”

 

It was quiet. Finally after what felt like forever, a very soft ‘yes’ was heard from the other side of the door. 

 

She opened it and saw Mike fully dressed in his pjs. He looked so little to her, almost as little as her daughter once looked. 

 

He was curled under the covers, a perpetual frown on his face. The closer she got, the more fidgety he seemed. 

 

“Are you going to sleep in Nancy’s room?” Karen asked, noticing that he was under her pink covers. 

 

“Yes.” Mike meekly replied. 

 

“What’s wrong with your room?”

 

“N-Nothing. I just want to sleep in here.”

 

“Michael... technically you aren’t supposed to sleep with another child, especially one of a different gender than your own. It was part of the rules I signed.”

 

Mike blinked at her, and then he scrunched up his face in a look of bitter disgust. “Screw you! She’s my sister! I’m allowed to be with her if I want to. We’re not going to do anything. That’s - That’s disgusting.”

 

“Michael!” 

 

“No.” Mike yelled. “I am allowed to sleep in here. You can’t - you can’t take Nancy away from me.” His eyes were overflowing with tears. 

 

“Honey, Calm down.” 

 

“I - I want Nancy.” He wailed. She went to hug him, reached her arms out to hold him, but a terrible thought flashed through Mike’s mind. He shrunk back against the bed, scrambling to the other side, away from Karen. The older woman gaped at the dark haired boy, his shaking hands covering his face in defense. After a moment of zero offensive movements, he lowered them, grinning up at Karen with a nervous laugh

 

“I thought... I thought you were gonna hit me.” He admitted sheepishly. He took a few shaky breaths before somewhat relaxing against the mattress. 

 

Karen frowned at him, wordlessly sitting on the bed. “I would never do that.” 

 

“I’m really sorry.” Mike said quickly, embarrassed he’d even thought such a thing. 

 

“You can sleep in here, with your sister if you want. But I think... I think we should try and get you to sleep in your own room every once and a while.”

 

Mike’s lower lip wobbled again. “I don’t wanna sleep alone.” 

 

“We can work on it.” 

 

“I don’t wanna sleep alone.” 

 

“You don’t have to.” Karen caved. She leaned forward and planted a kiss on his forehead. “I want you to feel comfortable. But if the social worker asks, you have been sleeping in your own bed, understand?”

 

Mike nodded, gulped back a lump in his throat, and began to relax. Karen stood by the bed and started looking through the dresser drawers. 

 

“Here.” She said, when she found the stuffed animal she was looking for. It was a small bunny rabbit with floppy ears. 

 

Karen’s hopes were met when Mike’s eyes lit up and he made grabby hands for the toy. 

 

“Do you like him?”

 

Mike nodded vigorously, as he pet the rabbit’s fur. “What’s his name?”

 

Karen shrugged, “You can choose.” 

 

“Ummm. How about... Carrot?” 

 

Karen had to suppress a laugh, “Carrot the Rabbit? I like it.” 

 

“Thank you Mrs. Wheeler.” Mike said, as he planted a kiss on the stuffed animals head.

 

“You’re welcome sweetie.” Score one for Karen. She was doing great at the whole Mom thing. As she mentally patted herself on the back, Mike crawled off of the bed and went to the suitcase. He took out a brown teddy bear and a dark green frog toy. 

 

“This is my friend Jumpers.” He said, putting the brown-eyed frog in her lap. “And this is Mr. Bear. He’s Nancy’s bear. But he’s Jumpers best friend. They like hanging out together.”

 

“That’s nice.” Karen smiled. 

 

“Everybody, this is Carrot. Say hello.”

 

Karen watched as Mike made the stuffed animals talk to one another and hug each other and for the first time since her daughter passed away, she felt a deep love seep through her veins as her motherly instincts kicked in. 

 

A little while later, Nancy returned wearing her blue pjs and wet hair. 

 

“Hey,” Nancy whispered towards Mrs. Wheeler as she placed her clothes in the basket. “What do you got there?” She asked Mike. 

 

“This is Carrot. He’s the newest member of the family.” 

 

“Oh, wow.” Nancy turned to Karen, “Thank you. You didn’t have to get us anything.”

 

“I wanted to.” Karen admitted. “I think he likes it.”

 

“I do.” Mike assured her. 

 

Karen waited for Nancy to get settled in bed before tucking the two kids in. She gave Mike another kiss on the forehead, and she gave Nancy a kiss on her head, hoping the outward affection wasn’t too much for the girl. Thankfully, Nancy didn’t seem to mind. 

 

“Goodnight.” She felt a strange word forming on the tip of her tongue, but she swallowed it back. It is not the right time. 

Chapter Text

Nancy woke to a foot pressed into her side and she blinked groggily. Mike was curled up against her, with his arm hugging her neck, and his feet against her side. He was clinging to her like a baby kangaroo. Nancy didn’t mind, though. It was an everlasting reminded that Mike was there, safe with her, and not alone in the other room where bad things could happen. 

 

She slept well, despite Mike’s arms wrapped around her neck all night. She hadn’t slept so well since she was in her childhood home. It was nice. Sleepily, Nancy turned to the alarm clock. 7am. Her new foster mom was probably awake, and making breakfast. It was time to get ready for the day. She tried to ease herself out of bed, without waking Mike, but she shouldn’t have bothered. Her absence was immediately noticeable to the boy. Mike, still half asleep, grunted in displeasure that Nancy was leaving. He pried his eyes open, and sat up. 

 

“Sorry, I didn’t mean to wake you.” Nancy whispered in the dead of the morning. “But I have to get ready in case Mrs. Wheeler wants me to go downstairs and help with breakfast.”

 

The sun is barely peaking through the closed curtains, but Mike knows it can’t be later than at least eight o’clock. 

 

“Nance. We have time. Why don’t you wait until they call us down.”

 

“And keep them waiting? What if they get angry and threaten to send us back?”

 

Mike groaned, but kicked off his covers. “Okay. But I call the bathroom first.” As soon as he said it, his feet hit the carpeted floor and he took off running. 

 

“Hey!” Nancy screeched. “Get back here!”

 

The boy laughed as he got to the bathroom first and slammed the door on her. “Ha Ha! Too slow.”

 

Nancy whisper-yelled his name. “Are you crazy!? Mrs. Wheeler might kill us for making noise this early in the morning. And you just slammed the door, buttmunch!”

 

“Airhead.” Was Mike’s amazing comeback. 

 

“Dork.”

 

“Take a chill pill, Nancy. I’m sure we’re fine.” Mike explained, soon enough he flushed the toilet and Nancy could hear the facet running. Finally, he opened the bathroom door, and Nancy shoved him out of the way. 

 

“Don’t take five thousand years.” He teased.

 

“Get dressed, jerkface.”

 

It didn’t take them long to dress and go downstairs. Nancy was shocked to find the breakfast table already made, and their foster mom in the kitchen whipping up some eggs and bacon. 

 

“Hey!” She called out, the second she turned and saw them, “Good morning. How are you two.”

 

“Good.” Nancy said, feeling awkward again. She looked over to Mike, and saw the boy staring at his shoes. 

 

“Good, good. Did you sleep okay?”

 

“Yeah.” Nancy nodded. Mike nodded too. 

 

“Okay. Well there is cereal in the cupboard, and bowls over here.” She pointed to a specific shelf. 

 

Nancy nodded and walked towards the shelf while Mike picked out what cereal he wanted. He chose Marshmallow Krispies. 

 

Nancy grabbed the milk from the fridge and waited for him to put the cereal in the bowl before filling it with milk. She couldn’t believe some people did it the opposite way. 

 

“You guys are welcome to any eggs and bacon.” Karen said as she sat down with her coffee mug. 

 

“Thank you.” Mike reached for the bacon and dipped it in the syrup that he put on his plate. 

 

“Dad should be down soon.” Karen explained as she sipped her coffee. “So, I figured we could go shopping today.”

 

“Sounds fun.” Nancy noted. 

 

“Since it’s Saturday, you won’t have to worry about school until Monday.” 

 

Mike dropped his spoon in his cereal, with a loud clang, and some milk spilled onto the table. 

 

“Oops!” Karen laughed. “Let me get a napkin to clean that. 

 

Nancy’s hand was over her heart, the second the spoon had fallen. When Karen turned around to get a napkin, she slapped Mike’s arm. 

 

“Ow,” He mouthed, glaring at her. But Nancy glared right back. “It was an accident.” He muttered. 

 

“If your not more careful she is going to get mad eventually.” The girl whispered. 

 

“I didn’t know we had to go to another school!” Mike whisper-growled. 

 

“Of course we do. We -“

 

Nancy stopped talking and smiled up as her foster Mom returned with napkins. 

 

The woman patted down the spilled milk, while continuing with the earlier conversation. 

 

“So, where do you kids want to go first? The toy store, or the general store? Oh, then we can go to the clothing boutique owned by Mrs. Holland. She has a daughter around your age, Nancy. I think you might like her.”

 

“Oh. That’s cool.”  Being a foster kid meant moving from house to house, and with each move meant leaving people and friends behind. Nancy hasn’t made many friends since she was in her childhood home. 

 

“And when we go to Melvald’s General Store, we are going to talk to an old friend of mine, Joyce Byers. She is so wonderful. I’ve told her all about how I was going to foster kids, so she knows a little about you. But anyways she has a son about your age, Michael.”

 

“Really?” Mike looked so hopeful, Nancy had to chug down her orange juice to keep herself from saying anything. 

 

“Mhm.” Karen smiled, and picked up the newspaper. “You’re going to have so much fun today.”

 

Fun wasn’t exactly the word Nancy would use to describe walking around the small, unfamiliar town and being shown off to strangers like a new piece of Jewelry her foster mom bought. But that’s how she felt. Everywhere they went it was, ‘look who I finally got’ and ‘oh they are just adorable.’ Nancy’s all time favorite was, ‘make sure you train them well’ as if they were dogs. 

 

No, Nancy was not a fan of the neighborhood, but she did, however, enjoy buying some movies and toys. Mike was in love with the toy store, and he wanted to buy everything his little hands touched, but Karen limited him to 3 things. 

 

Nancy stared dubiously at the plastic Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle figure. She and Mike were in the boys aisle of the toy store. Mike was on his boney little knees triumphantly holding a pack of teenage mutant ninja turtles as if it was the best thing in the world. He was already clutching a pack of 2 Hot Wheels cars under his armpit, and a game called Guess Who in the cart. Now he wanted the turtles as his last toy. Nancy shrugged. 

 

“If that’s what you really want, go ahead and get it.” She finally said and he grinned, happily putting the pack of toys into the cart. 

 

Nancy had chosen sparkly nail polish, glitter batons, and a beautiful my little pony horse. She really liked the design on the extremely bright and colorful pony and she figured she could let Mike play with it, if he wants. She was mainly happy about her nail polish. 

 

The next place they stopped at was Mevalds General Store. Karen seemed extra enthusiastic about this trip. She opened the glass door, and inside was a beautiful young woman with disheveled, short brown hair. She was wearing a long-sleeved grey shirt, with a dark blue T-shirt over it. Her golden name tag said, Joyce. 

 

“Kids, I want you to meet one of my best friends, Joyce Byers.” 

 

The woman’s face lit up with glee. “Oh they’re here!” She walked around the counter, and stood in front of Karen and the children. 

 

Mike subconsciously drew closer to Nancy, his hand taking hold of hers. His eyes then landed on the candy jars that were sitting along the counter and he reached for one. 

 

“What do you think?” Karen whispered, “crazy right?” 

 

Joyce nodded, “Everything is so much more real now. I mean, they are real.” 

 

“I know.” Karen clenched her hands in nervous-excitement. She leaned forward and whispered into Joyce’s ear, “I think I might be in over my head a little bit.” 

 

But Joyce shook her head. “I’m sure you’re doing fine. You have an amazing house, and a lot of love to share.”

 

Karen’s eyes crinkled. “Thank you.” She squeezed Joyce arm before talking to the kids. 

 

“Mrs. Byers has a son. I thought maybe you would want to meet him, Michael?”

 

The boy, who currently had his hand in the candy jar, smiled sweetly. “Yes.” 

 

Joyce couldn’t hold back her excitement, “That’s great. I’ve already told Will about you. He’s really excited to have a friend.”

 

“He doesn’t have any friends?” Nancy asked, and Karen immediately gave her a pointed look. 

 

“Oh - uh - no - well actually - you see, Will is sort of a loner.”

 

“That’s perfectly alright.” Karen reminded Joyce. “Everyone is different. But the point is, Will is an incredibly sweet kid.”

 

“I want to meet him.” Mike smiled. “He sounds nice. Can I have this?” He held up the candy and Joyce nodded. 

 

“If it’s okay with your Mom.”

 

“She’s not our mother.” Nancy said bluntly and Joyce stuttered out an apology. 

 

“Mrs. Wheeler can I have this?” Mike shot her his best pleading eyes, and how could Karen resist? 

 

“Of course sweetie. I’m going to go look around for some other treats and food.” 

 

An hour later, and Karen has placed a bunch of bags in the trunk of her car. Then she walked with the kids into the clothing shop, which wasn’t far. 

 

Marsha Holland was folding a piece of clothing for a costumer when they walked inside. 

 

“Karen, what a pleasant surprise.” The woman said after giving the costumer she was dealing with some change. 

 

“Hi Marsha. I thought I would drop by and say hi. Also my two new foster kids need some new clothes to wear.” 

 

Marsha’s reaction resembled most of the other adults Nancy ran across on this short trip. The jaw dropped, her hands covered her mouth, and a small shrill of excitement escaped her lips. 

 

“Let me look at them.” She said as she rushed over to Nancy and Mike’s side. “Oh my, skinny little things aren’t they? Lord, Karen, what are you doing, starving them?” 

 

The women laughed loudly, as if some funny joke was hidden amongst their bland conversation. Nancy would never understand adults. 

 

“Extra small. You’ll definitely need to shop in the extra small section.” Marsha explained and then she clapped her hands together, “Barbra.”

 

Suddenly a red-head shot out of the back room, scaring Nancy. 

 

“Yes?”

 

“Barbra, show these two kids to the proper places so they can shop.”

 

“But mom, I’m studying.”

 

“Barbra!” Her mother scolded impatiently. 

 

“Fine.” The girl huffed, walking towards the back. “Follow me.”

 

Nancy and Mike trailed closely behind. They passed a lot of adorable hats and scarfs, and a few adult dresses, before they entered a little place titled kids section. 

 

“So what are you looking for?” Barbra turned around, and it was the first time Nancy could get a good look at her face. She had big glasses, blue eyes, and a whole bunch of freckles over her face, way more than Mike had. 

 

Nancy smiled. “What stuff do you like to wear?”

 

The girl looked taken aback. “You - you want to know what I like to wear?”

 

“Yeah. Why not? I think you look pretty.”

 

Barbra looked at her shoes, a smile dancing on her face. “Thanks. Um... I really like the long pleated skirts, and double sweaters.”

 

“That’s pretty.” Nancy pulled a light pink skirt from the rack. 

 

“Yeah. You should get it.” 

 

“Hey this white blouse would go great with it.” 

 

Nancy took the blouse happily. “This is fun.” She admitted. 

 

“Oh you could wear this.” Barbra pulled out a multicolored striped shirt. 

 

“Yes! That’s beautiful. Thanks Barbra.”

 

“Please. Call me Barb. What’s your name?”

 

“Hi Barb. I’m Nancy, and this is my little brother, Mike.”

 

“Hi.” The boy said, as he slipped a skirt over his head. 

 

“No, no, stop.” Nancy told him, as she took the skirt off of him. “This isn’t for you.”

 

“Well what am I supposed to wear.”

 

Barb thought for a second, then she grabbed his wrist and led him to the corner of the room where a bunch of striped boy shirts were. 

 

“Do you like any of these?”

 

Mike nodded. He grabbed a white striped shirt. While they were looking around, Karen also bought the kids a lot of matching sweaters and clothes. She bought shorts for the summer, and she even got a few pairs of sweatpants. 

 

“Karen, that’s a lot of stuff. Are you sure you want to spend so much money on kids that are only going to be with you for a month.”

 

Ouch. Marsha’s words stung deeper than Karen wanted to admit. She had been living in a slight dream, one where she can keep the kids forever. 

 

“Yeah, I’m sure. Besides, the state gave me money to pay for them.”

 

“Oh that’s nice. Maybe I should foster.”

 

“It’s not just about the money. I mean, you actually have to raise children.”

 

Marsha sighed. “I suppose with my business, I’m not ready for another child. I don’t even give Barbra as much attention as I should.”

 

A tiny bell chimed as the door opened and another costumer came through. She had a young girl about twelve or so, with her. 

 

Barb, who was laughing along with Nancy, went silent. 

 

Nancy spun around and saw a brunette girl walking towards them. “What is it?” She asked Barb, but the brunette spoke for her. 

 

“She forgets how to use words a lot. You know, for such a dweeb, she’s really quite stupid.”

 

Nancy narrowed her eyes. “That’s not nice.”

 

The girl smirked. “And who are you? The nice police?”

 

“My name’s Nancy. Who are you?”

 

“Carol. And I would like to shop please, so if you would please move your fat ass out of my way...”

 

Barb moves to the side, a frown stained on her face. Nancy huffed, and followed Carol through the aisle. 

 

“You know something, you’re a real jerk.”

 

Carol stopped walking. “You said your name was Nancy right?”

 

“Mhm.” She crossed her arms. 

 

“So did you just move here? Because I’ve never seen you before.”

 

“Yeah. I got here yesterday.”

 

Carol raised her eyebrows, the corner of her lips turning up. “Yesterday? Wow. Then you don’t know.”

 

“Don’t know what?”

 

“About Barb. She’s really lame. I mean, you don’t want to be seen hanging out with her.”

 

“Oh really? And who should I hang out with? You?”

 

“Oh sweetie. You will have to take baby steps. Middle school is a food chain. But if you start out with Barb, you’ll never make it to the top. But if you start fresh, friendless, you might just have a chance. I mean, you’re cute, except your nose is a little big -“

 

Nancy gasped, covering her nose quickly. 

 

“ - but you could always get plastic surgery when your older. If you mom let’s you that is.”

 

“My mom’s dead.” Nancy deadpanned. “And thanks for the advice, but I’m going to stick with Barb anyway because she said I could be her friend, whereas you told me I had to earn your friendship. And that’s bullshit.”

 

It was Carol’s turn to gasp. “You just made your bed, Nancy - whatever your last name is.”

 

A woman walked over to Carol and smiled. “Honey we need to go - oh! Hi, you must be Karen’s new foster girl. I’m Hannah, and this is my daughter Carol.”

 

“Foster girl? Oh that’s great.” Carol smirked. “Mom, buy these for me.” She handed her two dresses, waiting for the woman to leave. Once they were alone, she whispered quietly to Nancy. 

 

“Your new foster mom is Mrs. Wheeler? I am so sorry. Look, I know we got off on a bad foot, but no one deserves to be with that woman.”

 

“What do you mean?”

 

“Sorry. It’s best if I don’t tell you. Maybe she’s changed.”

 

“No, tell me. What’s wrong with her?”

 

“Well... she had a daughter once. She was the cutest little blonde thing, so full of life. But overtime, she started looking sicker- and sicker. Turns out, Mrs. Wheeler was burning her with spatulas and forcing her to sleep in the freezer.”

 

Nancy’s eyes widened. “She abused her kid?”

 

“To the point where her kid died.”

 

Nancy shivered, feeling frozen. “You’re lying.” She whispered.

 

“I really wish I was. Look, just be careful okay? Don’t ever ask her to take you anywhere or she will abuse you. Never ask for food. Only take what you are given. And most importantly, don’t have any friends over. That was Holly’s fatal mistake.”

 

Nancy nodded, and wiped a single tear from her face. She turned and ran back to where Barb was, but Karen was there too. 

 

“There you are. Come on sweetie, it’s time to go.”

 

Nancy’s eyes darted everywhere for Mike, and they finally landed on the spot behind Karen, where the boy was licking a lollipop. Quickly, she rushed to his side. 

 

On their way out of the store, Nancy let Karen take the lead, and she fell back along with Mike. When she was sure Karen wasn’t paying attention, Nancy pulled at Mike’s wrist. 

 

“Come on. We need to run away.” 

 

Chapter Text

Karen was walking a few feet in front of her foster children, heading back to her car, ready to go home. After a few steps, she turned back towards the kids just in time to see them walking in the opposite direction. 

 

“Hey! Where are you two going?” 

 

What happened next made time stand still. Nancy and Mike looked at her, then, without even thinking, without even hesitating, they ran into the middle of the road. 

 

The screech of breaks shattered the peaceful afternoon. The driver of the blue car having slammed on the brakes, swerved also, in a desperate attempt to avoid hitting the children that suddenly appeared in front of him. 

 

Karen was unable to tell from her angle if her kids had been hit, and was already sprinting towards the scene. 

 

Mike had screamed when he saw the blue car barreling towards him and had hugged his sister so tightly Nancy couldn’t breathe. The girl remained frozen, in complete shock and terror of the whole situation. Tears of shock were rolling down Mike’s face as his heart hammered in his chest. 

 

The two kids turned and rushed back into the sidewalk. They were met with the sight of their foster mom running towards them. 

 

As soon as Karen reached them she hugged them so tightly, shushing them quietly and cupping their chin gently. Then in a flash, Karen yanked Nancy’s arm forward, sending Mike stumbling away. Out of pure fear, Karen applied eight hard unyielding spanks in quick succession. She was so scared, so angry, so confused. They could have been killed! 

 

Mike had already been crying from the shock of nearly being run over by a car, but once he saw his sister get hit it turned into full-fledged sobbing. 

 

Nancy yelped on the last one, whimpering from deep within her throat, desperate to hold back tears. When Karen released her arm, Nancy wordlessly stumbled over to Mike and flung her arms around him. 

 

“Hush Mike,” she whispered, moving one hand to stroke through her baby brother’s black wispy hair. Nancy remembered her mom doing that when she was upset and it always worked with her. 

 

After the thudding sound in her ear died down, Karen finally registered that the driver of the car was trying to talk to her and she tore her gaze away from her kids, her thoughts in a whirl, able to only grasp and hold onto one fact: Her kids were alive and unhurt!

"I'm so so sorry!" babbled the middle-aged driver.

Karen took a few deep calming breaths and forced herself to pull herself together. She glanced once more at the kids to reassure herself - they’re okay - before turning to the man and extending her hand.

"You have nothing at all to be sorry for. In fact, I want to thank you from the bottom of my heart. If you hadn't reacted as quickly as you did, my kids could have been badly injured." Or dead! She thought. 

After watching the male driver return to his car and drive off, Karen turned back to her kids and deeply regretted not having had control over her emotions. Still, she had no idea what possessed her children to just run off like that.

“I am sorry I spanked you,” Karen said after a long moment of silence, “but you scared me to death. Why on earth did you run away?” 

Well I can’t really tell you that, Nancy thought bitterly. 

“ I don’t like it at your house.” She blurted out, but winced at the pained expression that crossed Karen’s face because honestly, so far, Karen had been the kindest foster parent Nancy ever had. But that could change. According to Carol, that will change. 

“Well I’m sorry to hear that. But you can’t just go running away whenever you feel sad. You scared me, and you could have been seriously hurt by running out on to the road.”

“There’s no reason to be scared. Just leave me alone, I can take care of myself.” Nancy shouted, while backing further away from her foster mother’s towering form. 

“Don’t you go shouting at me.” 

Mike started crying again, unsure of which person to hide behind, he chose to bury his face in his hands. 

“I don’t know what kind of rules your other foster parents had, but when you are with me, you will be respectful.” Karen added feeling absolutely betrayed by the kids reaction. One minute they are shopping peacefully, pretending to like everything, and then when she turns her back, they vanish. Maybe this whole thing was a lie. Maybe this whole fostering thing was a mistake. 

“I DON’T WANT TO BE WITH YOU.” Nancy nearly screamed, breaths coming out in heavy puffs. 

At least that was honest. Karen could do honesty. She had some things to be honest about as well. 

“You don’t always get what you want in life, Nancy. I care about you, and I don’t want to see you hurt.”

The truth was out. 

Nancy’s heart nearly stopped. Mrs. Wheeler just said she cared about her, but two minutes ago she was screaming and hitting. Her foster mom was the most confusing woman she ever met. 

“I’m - I’m sorry. I won’t run off again.” Nancy stuttered, unsure of what else to say at the moment. But Mike was crying, and Nancy saw an opportunity to end this argument early. 

“Good. Because that was terrifying.” Karen felt like she could finally breathe. “Alright. Let’s actually go home this time.” She grabbed both of them by the wrist and walked to the car with them. 

Later that evening Karen sat on the couch and contemplated Nancy, who was laying on the other sofa staring glumly at the ceiling. 

Something was up with the girl. She hardly touched her dinner, just spent time pushing the food around her plate. She had been extremely quiet and subdued ever since this afternoon and Karen couldn’t figure it out for the life of her what had happened that made Nancy want to run away. 

Thing were going well at the stores. Nancy was talking and laughing most of the day. She and Mike seemed to be getting along and she even liked that Barbra girl. But something switched her behavior in a blink of an eye and made the girl want to run away. Was Karen a bad mother? Did she do something wrong? The thought concerned her so much, that she had a pounding headache. Of course, she told her husband nothing about what had happened, so asking him for advice would not be possible. 

Sighing, Karen stood up. “Nancy, do you want to say goodnight to Michael? He’s done with his bath.”

The girl nodded, as Karen had expected and together they climbed the stairs towards Mike’s bedroom. 

“He’s going to try to sleep alone. But if he gets scared, he is more than welcome to come into your room, or mine.” Karen explained to the girl as she tucked Mike into his bed. 

“Jumpers and Carrots finished putting away my clothes today, and they are really excited to play with our new game Guess Who.” Mike said as he tucked his stuffed animals into bed next to him. 

“I’m excited to play that too.” Karen smiled,  leaning forward and kissing Mike on the forehead. 

“Can you kiss Jumpers too. He gets lonely.”

Karen nodded and kissed the frog toy. Nancy leaned forward and kissed Mike’s cubby cheek. 

“Night jerk.” 

“Night Nancy,” he murmured, focusing on his toys. 

She whispered in his ear something Karen couldn’t hear. The boy nodded at his sister and then rested his head against the pillows. 

“Goodbye.” He told Karen as she and Nancy got up to leave. 

“Bye sweetie.” She closed the door behind her, then she followed Nancy to her bedroom. Once Nancy was sitting in bed, Karen sat beside her. 

“Okay. I want you to tell me what’s bothering you. I can’t fix it, if I don’t know what it is.”

Nancy didn’t answer, she just stared at her hands in her lap. Karen placed a gentle finger under her chin and tilted her head up, forcing the child to meet her searching gaze. Nancy’s blue eyes were swimming with unshed tears. 

“Oh Nancy. Honey, I love you. You can tell me anything, anything at all.”

“You are going to abuse me.” 

Karen wasn’t sure what response she had been expecting, but it certainly wasn’t that. 

“Wha - where on earth did you get that idea?” 

“Carol told me all about it. She said you abused your own daughter... and that... if I ask for more food or invite friends over that you might kill me like you did to her. I mean, I know you had a daughter. The social worker told me. And I know she died. But I didn’t know you killed her.”

“I didn’t.” It was harsh, and Nancy flinched with fear. Maybe this was it. Now that Karen knew she knew, maybe it was all over for Nancy. 

“Look, if you want to kill me, that’s fine. But please, please, I’m begging you, don’t hurt Mike. He’s a good kid and he’s got so much life left to live -“

“Nancy.” Her foster mom grabbed her hand gently. “Sweetie, there are so many things wrong with what you just said. First of all, your life does matter and it would most certainly not be okay if I killed you.”

Nancy rolled her eyes. Yeah whatever, the point is don’t hurt Mike. 

“Secondly, I never killed anyone. I loved my little girl so much and it hurts me everyday that she’s no longer here.”

There was something about Karen’s voice and her brimming wet eyes that told Nancy she was telling the truth. 

Nancy was shell shocked. “I’m so sorry.” She whispered. “Carol was lying, wasn’t she?”

“Yes. She was. Because I would never abuse you or Mike, just like I never abused my daughter.”

A tear slide down Nancy’s face as she reached over and hugged her mom. “I’m sorry I said I didn’t like it here. I was just scared. Truth is, this is the best home I’ve had in years.” 

“Glad to hear that.” Karen smiled, “because it did hurt when you said you didn’t want to stay. But if that’s really how you feel - I can call your social worker and you can be placed with a different family.” 

Nancy shook her head, pulling away. “I - I like you. I like it here.” 

“Are you sure. I don’t want you to be unhappy.”

Nancy nodded. “I’m sure. I want to stay... with you. I want to stay with you.” 

“Well that’s good to hear, because I want to stay with you too.” Karen grinned, “Now get under those covers and get some sleep.” 

Nancy pulled her cool pink covers over her shoulder and snuggled her head against the pillows. She was really tired. Sleep hit her fast, and the next thing she knew, Mike was shaking her shoulder, waking her at 2am. 

“What is it? Did you have another nightmare.”

“No. You told me to come in your room, remember?”

“Oh yeah.” Nancy muttered sleepily. “Sorry. I thought Mom was abusive.”

“Mom?”

“Mrs. Wheeler. You know what I mean.” 

Nancy couldn’t see, but she could tell Mike was smirking at her through the darkness. 

“Well go back to your bed. She’s not abusive so you’re safe.”

A few seconds passed and Mike remained in the same place. 

“Can I sleep in here anyways?” He finally asked. 

Nancy sighed and pulled back the covers, inviting him in. 

“How do you know she’s not just lying?” Mike asked as he laid down against the soft blue pillows, resting his eyes. 

“Because... I just know. There was something about her daughter, something about they way she spoke about her. I could tell she wouldn’t have ever hurt her. I don’t think she’ll ever hurt us.”

“I hope your right. But she seems strict. I’m scared to do anything wrong because I don’t want her to freak out like she did today, ever again.” Mike mumbled groggily. Sleep was starting to take over so Nancy brushed his bangs out of his eyes and shushed him. 

“Don’t be scared.” She whispered as he dosed into oblivion. “We’re going to be okay.” 

Chapter Text

Kelly was well aware that she hasn't been the most pleasant of clerks today, but then again people don't expect manners or polite conversation when they draw up at the scrubby Gas 'n' Go. Still, Kelly likes to make an effort, ask where people are headed, make a little small talk, isn't it horrible weather we're having, that's a fine ride you've got there ma'am, anything else I can get you? Usually she likes to make people smile, ‘cause if that’s the only real good she can do in this world then she’s damn well going to do it.

Not today though, because Kelly has had it to here with today. Everything that could possibly go wrong, went wrong. 

The light above the cash desk flickers jarringly, and Kelly sighs through gritted teeth. She shifts on throbbing feet and runs an impatient hand through her bangs where they fall grimy and greased in her eyes.

It's getting late, 10pm, and she's thinking about calling up Jamie to ask if he can start the late shift early when the entrance door bleeps and two kids walk in, the surprisingly cold April chill gusting in behind them and sweeping up the aisles, making Kelly shudder.

Kelly frowns, clocking the security camera on the desk to check and make sure she's seeing things right.

Yep. Definitely kids; not the usual teenagers who sometimes stumble in around this time, eyes glazed and clothes on inside out looking for more drink. This was a boy and a girl. They don't look like trouble, far too young for that, and they're apparently alone too, seeing as Kelly hadn't heard the familiar crunch of gravel that signaled a car arriving.

The taller girl rounds the aisle nearest to the cash desk, tugging the little one, presumably her brother, behind her by the hand. She can't be much older than 9, Kelly thinks with an unsettled twinge in her stomach. The little one looks to be about 4 or 5, unruly dark curls falling into a round babyish face.

“Hey kids, can I get you anything?" Kelly called, smiling at the older girl, because she may be near-sleeping standing up, feet aching in her trainers, but something about this is setting off all sorts of warning bells and she's suddenly feeling very awake.

“We’re good. Thank you ma’am.” 

They are good looking kids. The girl has electric blue eyes that can be seen from a distance. They wore sturdy clothes, that were patched messily in a few places and there was something about the dullness in their expression. A tired, distant look that Kelly’s never seen in her kids and never wanted to see in her kids. 

The younger boy, never for one second let’s go of the girl’s had. 

“Alrighty then. Just shout if you need anything.” 

Kelly watches them on the security camera feed as they make their way around the store, pausing in the Essentials section to pick up some milk, the older girl ducking down to the bottom shelf of cheap basics that are mostly out of date. They stop frequently, the little one crouching to peer at certain items, thumb in mouth, eyes wide and curious, his sister waiting for him, watching him, sometimes offering a smile or a quiet comment that Kelly can’t quite hear. She’s a picture of parental patience, but there’s something innately wrong about seeing it in the actions of a kid who hasn’t hit double digits yet.

As they're passing the candy section, the younger boy pauses again, little sneakers scuffing on the ground as he pulls out of his sister’s hand, forcing her to stop and turn. He reaches out to the chocolate bars, makes a grabby hand gesture, and then looks up at the older girl, big brown eyes imploring. The plea is obvious, universal, and Kelly’s seen that exact same puppy-dog-eyed look on her daughter so many times that she feels a sudden, overwhelming rush of affection and an acute desire to close up as soon as these boys have gone and get home. Damn she misses her own kids after long days like these.

The older girl, however, seems well-attuned to this particular technique and just rolls her eyes, a smile quirking her lips.

“You greedy guts. You ate, like, four o’ those the other week.” She teased. 

The boy mumbles something incoherent and reaches up to tug at his sister’s jacket.

Kelly watches, caught between incredulous disbelief and a faint sense of horror as the older girl’s face closes up in response to whatever her brother just said; the flash of childish teasing vanishing as though it had never been there at all. Boarded up behind the same deep-seated tired look that seems to haunt this kid.

“You know why we can’t Mike.” She said quietly, and even her voice sounds tired, faintly hoarse, as she holds out her hand.

Mike doesn't ask twice, doesn't whine or gripe or throw himself to the floor in a screaming, red-faced tantrum like Kelly’s daughter used to do. He just ducks his head all-forlornly like and takes the older girl’s hand again, quiet as the grave.

And with that Kelly decides that the situation going on here is far from a-okay, and she steals herself as the two approach the counter, determined to find out exactly what's going on.

“Little late for you two to be out all alone isn't it?" She says pleasantly, as she helps the older sister stack up their few, measly, squashed-box and cut-price items on the cash desk. "Your mom sent you in here to pick up some things for her?"

As if any mother in their right mind would send kids as young as these two out on their own at this time of night.

The older girl stiffens slightly, her face closing off again, eyes flashing to Kelly dark and defensive. "Our dad's out of town for a few days. We just ran out of a couple o' things."

Kelly attempts to mask her horror and bites her tongue. An 8 year old left alone to care for a preschooler? 

“He's home tomorrow so it's no big deal," the girl says, firmly this time, as though she’s reading the judgment on Kelly’s face.

“Sure thing, dear.” 

Mike is staring at the cash desk display of Hershey bars, thumb in mouth, eyes just level with the edge of the counter. He's a little paler than his sister, cheek bones a little gaunt, but he had some baby fat making him look round around the face like an adorable chipmunk. 

“Your Mike right?”

The boy looks up at her with a jolt. “Yes,” he admits, and the he adds, “and this is Nancy.”

Kelly laughs, and plucks the Hershey bar Mike had been eyeing from the display, dropping it into their shopping bag. She can afford a dollar for this kid.

“You don’t have to do that. We don’t need -“ Nancy begins, but Kelly cuts her off. 

“I know you don’t need my charity. But this is just a little something extra on the house for your brother.”

Mike reached up over the desk to grab Kelly’s hand carefully with a small, grubby, chubby fingered-palm- “Tank you.” 

Mike seems to go a little shy then, and ducks into Nancy’s side, tucking his face under his sister’s elbow. 

“He's just tired," Nancy says, softened by Mike’s sudden show of wariness. She ruffles Mike’s black, cowlicked curls with her other hand and then reached into her pocket to put the money on the counter.

Kelly counts it over quickly. They're 70 cents short, but another instinctive surge of feeling tells her that these kids are down to their last dime, so she doesn’t mention it, just slides the crumpled notes and quarters into her palm.

Kelly watches them go, chewing her lip hard, fingers twitching on the counter top. She's in half a mind to call out, to stop them, invite them over for some proper food, a night in a room that isn't the dingy motel in town, but she can't quite summon up the courage.

And that's when she sees Nancy sliding a packaged cake from the shelf surreptitiously into the shopping bag, barely even pausing as she heads to the exit, pulling Mike along with her a little faster.

“Hey!" Kelly yells, instinctive, rounding the counter in a second, "just what d’ya you think you're doing?!"

Nancy speeds up, acting as though she hasn’t heard, breaking into a near-jog trailing Mike behind as they hit the final aisle.

”You stop right there!” Kelly hollers, and breaks into a run too, she shoulda known, shouldn't have fallen for such an easy trick: two cute kids, rough themselves up a bit, act out a sob story a blind man could see through and whaddya know, the perfect cover for theft. Kelly half-runs, half-stumbles to the end of the aisle, blocking their path, opening her mouth to start a lecture, ready to start demanding the truth this time, whether they really are just theieves or whether their Dad is in on it too- probably his idea in the first place-

But then Mike trips, too-short legs failing to keep up with Nancy’s pace and he hits the ground with his hands and knees hard, crying out.

Nancy skids to a halt meters from the doorway and scrambles back to her brother, falling clumsily on her knees as she goes, dropping the shopping bag and sending food skidding across the floor, the milk crushed into a slippery mess and soaking through her jeans as she pulls Mike up from where he’s curled up -

Mike’s not crying, even though his little four-year-old face is screwed up in pain, and somehow that just makes the aching hole Kelly can’t help but feel for these kids grow all the larger.

But they are thieves. And there is no getting around that. 

“Hold on, sugar.” She said as she went to the back counter to grab some band-aids. “I’ll patch up that cut.”

As she rounded, the counter she pressed the little button that indicated a crime was being committed. The cops would arrive soon enough. 

“I’m so sorry.” Nancy said, as Kelly returned with some band-aids. 

She’s kneeling in front of Mike, one hand keeping the younger boy pushed behind her, but it's Mike who catches Kelly’s eye.

He's not looking at her.

He's looking up at Nancy, expression confused, anxious in the face of Nancy’s fear and desperate pleas, and with a shuddering, hitching breath, he begins to cry.

Not loudly, just quiet hiccuping sobs half-brought on by tiredness no doubt and Kelly’s anger melts instantly away.

At the first sob, Nancy’s  face just crumples.

Nancy pulls him tighter into her chest, shhing him, right there on the floor in the middle of the grimy Gas 'n Go,  spilt shopping strewn everywhere, a growing puddle of milk extending around them, and Kelly’s throat goes tight and hot and she feels horribly out-of-place, as though she's intruding on something she has no right to witness.

Nancy stays like that for a while, murmuring softly to Mike who stays wrapped tight in her arms, stroking his back and hair with a trembling hand, letting Mike scrub his tears into Nancy’s shirt.

Nancy doesn't do a thing about her own tears, tracking silent paths down her cheeks.

They look for all the world as though they’re barely keeping it together, the two of them, as though they’ve seen and done more than either of them can really understand. Maybe, hopefully, the cops can help. Maybe call social services and help these kids get a better life, it’s what they deserve. 

A week later Kelly got the whole story from her local police chief. Apparently, the two kids had been living on their own for three months after their mother and father dropped them off at a hotel and then vanished without a trace. There was a note found in the hotel room that said, ‘take care of them.’ 

In other words, the parents didn’t want to be found. They vanished on purpose, abandoned their young children in the middle of nowhere. A few days later they were pronounced dead. A drunk driver missed an overpass. Now the kids were in a group home, waiting to be put into the foster system. Kelly can only hope their foster home will be kind. 

 

Chapter Text

“Mrs. Wheeler?” Mike asked quietly, as he poured a bowl of Banana Frosted Flakes into a white ceramic bowl. 

“Yes sweetie?”

“What’s your favorite cereal.”

“Hmm, well when I was a little girl I really liked count chocula. But nowadays I like cheerios.”

“Do grownups always get boring when they get old?”

Karen’s mouth dropped open. She leaned forward and ruffled his hair. 

“Watch it buddy, I’ll show you old.”

“That doesn’t make any sense.” Mike laughed. He held out his hand and dropped a toy from the cereal box in front of Karen. “Cheerios don’t come with prizes.”

“Ah. I see.” Karen laughed. Things had been going well since her talk with Nancy last night. But Karen had to admit she checked the kids rooms at least 10 times that night. So much so that she didn’t get a wink of sleep. She talked to her husband briefly this morning about the concern of the kids running away. How were they supposed to prevent that from happening again? As much as Karen hated to admit it, her trust in the kids was broken. 

Last night when she checked Mike’s room and didn’t find him in his bed, she panicked. It took every ounce of her not to call the police. Luckily common sense kicked in and told her to look in Nancy’s room where she found both kids. Still, that was the proof she needed to realize that her trust was damaged. 

She can’t put bars on the windows. She can’t keep them from going to school. Most of all, she can’t keep an eye on the 24/7. So how was she supposed to trust that they wouldn’t run away. 

She needed advice. She needed parenting advice. 

“So today. I was thinking we could go to Mrs. Byers house and you could meet Will and I could talk to Mrs. Byers for a little while.”

Mike smiled. “That sounds nice.” He clanged his spoon off the cereal bowl by accident and the milk went spilling again. The boy bit his lip. 

“I - I can clean it.” He hurried over to the sink and grabbed a piece of paper towel. 

Nancy was upstairs in her room listening to her new cassette that Karen bought her. Since she was awake before Mike, she already ate breakfast. That left Karen alone with Mike. This is the first time she noticed, but he was very accident prone. His hands were almost spastic at times, very uncoordinated. 

It mostly happened when he was nervous. He would grab at the collar of his shirt and clutch it within his hands and then bite the shirt. Occasionally this morning, Karen caught him with his thumb in his mouth. Honestly, the boy was just nervous and clumsy. He would pick up things and drop them. But it wasn’t on purpose, it was just Mike. 

The mess was cleaned quickly, Karen helped him out and together they threw away the wet paper towels. They also put the dishes in the sink and washed them. Mike helped dry. 

Then Karen was left with a few hours to herself. She was going to shower and get dressed up to go out, even if it was just to see Joyce, but she was terrified to leave the kids alone. 

“Tell your sister that around noon we are going to make sandwiches and then go to Mrs. Byers house for lunch.” She said to Mike as he began to walk upstairs. 

“Okay. I will.” 

Her stomach was unsettled. What if they were planning to escape while she was in the shower. 

“Ted!” 

The man in question poked his head up from behind the newspaper as he sat on his favorite Lazy-boy. 

“Yes dear?”

“Can you watch the kids while I’m upstairs?”

“Of course.”

“No. I mean, can you spend time with them. Talk to them about cars or something. Get to know them. But most importantly, don’t take your eyes off of them.”

“Whatever you say dear.” 

And that’s how Karen found them when she finished washing her hair, sitting on the couch looking bored out of their minds. 

“Why do you think they protect those energy and light places?”

Mike shrugged, cowering further into the couch. 

“Because it’s government Son! Military! We don’t want any commies coming after us, do we?”

“No?” 

“Exactly. But don’t worry, son. They make weapons to fight the commies and Russians. Our military will protect us.”

“Ted? What are you going on about.” Karen asked as she walked downstairs in her robe.

“Oh we were talking about fishing and then we got side tracked talking about our military - oh never mind.”

“Oh,” Karen smiled. “So are they going fishing with you?”

Mike and Nancy’s eyes widened and they shook their heads a little too quickly. 

“They should! That would be a great way for us to bond.”

The kids slumped against the couch in defeat. 

“That’s great honey. I’m glad you are bonding with the kids. You pick a day and tell me in advance so I can be sure we have nothing planned.”

She gestured for the kids to follow as she went into the kitchen. Soon they were all behind the kitchen counter as Karen pulled out a basket from under the shelf. 

“Can you guys help me make sandwiches to take to Mrs. Byers?”

They wordlessly grabbed some knives and the bread while Karen grabbed the turkey, cheese, mayonnaise, peanut butter, and jelly.

She placed all the ingredients on the counter, then let the kids get to work spreading the PB&J while she did the lunch meat. 

“This would go better with some tunes.” Karen said as she put down the knife and walked away. When she returned she had the record player in her hands. Setting it down not he counter, Karen put on a Bon Jovi record.

Karen was chopping tomatoes at the kitchen counter when she first recognized that Mike and Nancy were humming quietly. 

She laid the knife down on the stained cutting-board and wiped off her hands on the dishtowel threaded through the refrigerator's handle.

She started to sway her hips back and forth. Nancy caught on, and began to copy. Karen smirked, as she grabbed Mike’s hands. The began to boogie around the room, swaying and rocking to the music. 

Nancy grabbed a spoon and used it as a microphone while she sang “living on a prayer” with Karen.

It was fun to see them let loose for a little bit and just be themselves. 

Things got a little out of hand when Karen lifted Mike up on every “Whoa-oh” part of the song. But his infectious giggling was her incentive to lift him again. 

“Whoa-oh we’re half way there, whoa-oh, living on a prayer. Take my hand and we’ll make it I swear, whoa-oh living in a prayer.”

The song was fading to a finish, so Karen took the record out eliciting some groans from her kids. 

“Hey, don’t worry. We can have plenty more days to listen music. But right now, we have to go to Mrs. Byers, remember?”

Mike and Nancy nodded, looking at the basket of sandwiches they had created. 

“Do you think they’ll like it?” Mike asked as he walked outside with Karen. 

“I certainly think so.” She laughed, “Joyce always enjoys my cooking. At least, I think she does.”

While they were walking to the car, Karen was watching carefully to ensure neither child was running off anywhere. She was looking forward to talking to Joyce about this fear. Before she signed up for fostering, Joyce promised her that she would help her in any way possible. Although Karen hates to admit she needs help already, but the truth is she does need someone to hear her concerns. 

“I want to sit up front,” 

Karen turned to see Mike looking at his sister, with a tiny scowl on his face. This was the first time Karen has seen the siblings bicker with one another. 

“No. I’m older so I get to sit up front.”

“That’s not fair! You always say that!”

“Too bad. You sit in the back with the basket.”

“No.”

“Mike.”

“No! I’m not sitting in the back.”

“Well neither am I.” Nancy crossed her arms. 

“Guess I’m sitting on your lap then.” Mike added scornfully. 

“You will not.”

“Will too.”

“Will Not.”

“Will Too.”

“Will not!”

“Will Too!”

“KIDS!” Karen spun around and glared at them. “Why don’t you just take turns. Nancy can ride up front on the way to Mrs. Byers -“

“Ha!” Nancy shouted right in Mike’s face. 

“ - and on the way home, Mike can sit up front.”

The younger boy smirked, “Ha.”

“Okay. Both of you settle down. Remember the rules. You’re not supposed to fight.”

“Sometimes Mike deserves it.”

“I did nothing wrong.” Mike’s face scrunched up in a very displeased manner. 

If there was one thing Karen already learned about Mike, it’s that he wears his emotions on his face. She could read him well. Anytime she said something, she could immediately tell if it scared him, confused him, angered him, or made him happy. 

Nancy was a little bit harder to read, but she also expressed a lot of emotions through her face. It was a good trait to have, Karen thought. At least, in this certain situation it was good because Karen wanted to know how they felt and what their boundaries were. It might not be a good thing when they go to a job interview and scrunch up their noses and their potential boss, but that’s a few years away. They can hopefully control it better by then. 

“Alright. Get in the car.” Karen clapped. “Hurry up. Let’s go.” 

Chapter Text

It was a hot summer day, and Karen was burning up in Joyce Byers’ kitchen. 

“Let me get you some lemonade.” Joyce offered.

“No... that’s alright. I don’t want to take the boys lemonade. They made it themselves.” Karen said as she stared at the picture of both Will and Jonathan. Joyce had a bunch of pictures of her family lining the shelves of her house. It was much smaller than Karen’s house, but it felt cozy and warm. It felt like a real home. 

“Karen, I feel awful. You were there for me when my husband left. I want to be there for you.”

Sighing, Karen tried to smile as she took the lemonade glass from the brunette. “There’s nothing you can do. It’s not your fault.”

“I know, but you and Ted were always so close. I hate to hear that you haven’t been talking much.”

That was an understatement. Ted and Karen were still sleeping in the same bed, but they may as well have been miles apart. Things started to crack between them quickly after Holly passed away and everyone in Hawkins knew it. Sometimes it was a curse to live in such a small town. Karen, who was usually part of the weekly gossip sessions, was suddenly the hottest topic, and with that came the exclusion of conversation with friends. But the gossip was true, what was once a passionate and loving relationship, eventually fizzled into contempt and loneliness, a deep and aching loneliness. 

“Without her, there’s just nothing to talk about.” Karen’s voice started to wobble and she set the cup down quickly because her hands were starting to shake. Joyce reached out and grabbed one of her hands. 

“Hey. I know. I know this sucks. I mean, I can’t even imagine what it’s like to lose a child. My boys are the world to me. But maybe... maybe a distraction would be good. When Lonnie and I separated, I distracted myself with the kids.” 

“A distraction?”

“Like another honeymoon with Ted.”

“No.” Karen said flatly. “I don’t want to go anywhere with him. Sometimes I can’t even look at him without thinking of Holly.”

Joyce sighed and looked at the ground. “Maybe another kid?”

“I don’t think we’ll be having any more children after what happened.” Karen said bitterly. She looked at the pictures again of Joyce’s kids and how happy and healthy they were and she couldn’t help the bitter jealously rise in her stomach. How come Joyce gets to have two healthy children, and Karen didn’t even get to have one. It wasn’t fair. Life isn’t fair. 

“Maybe not one of your own kids. Maybe you could adopt another child. One with a difficult life. That way, you could save another child’s life even though -“

The phase fell dead but Karen could mentally finish it. You can save another child’s life even though you couldn’t save your own kid. 

“Adopt? I don’t know. I have a hard time just looking at kids.” 

“Just think about it, okay? If you do adopt, then I could help you. I have watched my boys grow up for quite some time now. I know about the terrible twos and the bullies at school, and the sibling crisis, and boys favorite games. So hopefully you get a boy because the only thing I know about girls is my own childhood.” Joyce said with a laugh. 

As she was listening to her friend talk, Karen started to smile a teary smile. She never thought of having another child. But now, the way Joyce was talking, it sounded fun. It sounded like maybe she could gain a purpose. 

“I could provide a great home.”

“Yeah. You have wonderful financial abilities.”

Karen nodded with growing excitement. 

“I could fix up the guest room and turn it into a room for a kid. Heck I could adopt 3 or 4.”

“Okay. Slow down.”

Karen stopped herself from speaking, fumbling an apology. But she was happy. 

“How do I do it?” Karen asked.

“What? Adopt?” Joyce tapped her chewed nails against the table. “Look, Karen. Maybe this isn’t such a good idea after all.” 

When Joyce saw her friend’s face fall, she quickly added, “I think it’s great that you want to help a child. But... maybe jumping into this isn’t a good idea. We don’t know how it works and there’s no guarantee that this will be easy.”

“Why not? I’ve babysat Will and Jonathan before. Besides, I thought you said I need a distraction?”

“I do - I mean, I did. But maybe adopting is too much.”

“I won’t know unless I try. But don’t worry Joyce. I won’t take this lightly. I’ll do my research and I’ll talk to Ted about it.”

Joyce nodded, “Alright. Just know, I have your back if you need anything.”

“Thanks Joyce. I really appreciate that.”

“It is exciting, isn’t it?” Joyce grinned. “I wonder if you get to pick your kids?”

“A valid question, I’ll be sure to ask the agency. And I’ll keep you informed every step of the way.” 

                  _________________________

At the time, in Joyce’s kitchen, over a fresh glass of lemonade, it seemed like such a good idea. But now that the Eiffel Tower of papers were stacked in front of Karen and Ted, they were starting to second guess themselves. 

Karen didn’t think she was old enough to have a midlife crisis, but there she was in the Foster Care and Adoption Home development center, pulling her hair out. 

Her tired eyes glanced around the area, clearly on the guard, as she slowly but carefully swept the area. 

There were a bunch of couples like herself that were sitting with a social worker mumbling. One woman was rather loud and she had a child with her already. 

“He was an outrage! He should be locked up, not put out for adoption.” 

“I’m sorry ma’am. He’s just not used to home environments.”

“He threatened to bake my cat in the oven. I don’t want him anymore. Take him back! Take him back!”

“Of course. Right away ma’am. I just need you to sign a few papers and he’s not your problem anymore.”

Karen bit her bottom lip hard. She turned to her husband who was signing the papers and signed. 

“Are you sure you think we can do this?”

He shrugged. “If you want to, dear.”

That was not what Karen wanted to hear. She needed support. She needed advice. She needed to calm the hell down. She needed Joyce. 

Excusing herself politely, Karen went to the payphone outside of the office and dialed Joyce’s number. 

“Hello?” The woman answered. 

“Joyce. You have to help me.”

“Karen, good to hear from you. What’s wrong? Did you adopt the kids?”

“No. Not yet. I’m filling out paperwork to be put on a foster list. But what if I can’t do this.”

“I think you can. You are strong enough and your a wonderful babysitter. My boys love you. I think it’s like having a newborn baby. Everything is going to be new and scary, but if you have a good support system it will be easier. When Will was born, if it wasn’t for you I don’t know what I would have done. Lonnie was constantly in and out of my life at that point. So, if you need me to be your support system I would happily watch the kids for you. Or talk with you late at night about them. Whatever you need.” 

Karen felt like falling to her knees and crying she was so thankful. 

“You’re probably going to regret that invitation because I’ll be at your doorstep a million times. And what about your job? I can’t ask you to watch the kids.”

“It’s okay, Karen. We’ll make it work. As long as you keep my family fed I can afford to miss a few days of work if necessary. You won’t believe how many personal days I have saved up.”

When she ended the conversation with Joyce, Karen was certain of two things: one, she had the best friend in the whole world, and two, she will be a damn good foster parent. 

Chapter Text

As the Mercury Colony Park wagon stopped in Joyce Byers driveway, no one got out of the car. 

Karen checked her hair in the rearview mirror, then dug through her purse for an extra touch-up of lipstick. 

Nancy, who sat in the passenger seat, glanced at the new house worriedly. It was small, an out in the middle of a field type place. There were woods nearby and a field in the back. The house was isolated and scary looking. 

She glanced to the backseat where her younger brother sat in a car seat. He was looking out the window too, while swinging his legs, a look of excitement on his baby face. It worried Nancy, sometimes, how open her baby brother was to people. He was too trustworthy. Honestly, Nancy thought he would have learned by now that the world was a very cruel and mean place. But Mike still wears his heart on his sleeve. If Mike becomes friends with this Will kid, he’s just going to get hurt when they move away. Because this was a foster home. Everything was temporary. Mike should know that. 

Joyce wandered out onto the porch when she heard tires crunching on the gravel outside. She squinted into the late September sun, a faint pounding in her temples a reminder of last night's bourbon. Two kids spilled out of the car; the taller one's hair was a slightly lighter shade of brown. The smaller one had jet black hair with bangs. Karen slowly unfolded herself from the front seat while the kids grabbed baskets of sandwiches out of the back. 

Joyce scratched her head and tried to remember how old the kids were. Karen said something about 13 and 9, yeah that sounded about right. 

After ascending the porch steps, Karen gave Joyce a hug. "Thanks for having us," she said sweetly. The kids stood quietly at the bottom of the steps watching their foster mother. 

She turned, introducing both of them to Joyce. 

“You met Mike and Nancy yesterday, but today they helped make lunch for all of us.” 

“Oh thank you.” Joyce took the basket of sandwiches from Nancy. “Hi guys. Please come inside.” 

The kids and Karen went inside and instantly noticed two boys standing awkwardly in the living room. 

The older boy, around Nancy’s age, smiled meekly and half-waved. He had greasy brown hair that fell in his face, almost hiding his brown eyes. 

The younger boy looked much more excited. He was practically bouncing on his feet, grabbing his older brother’s arm. 

“Hi.” He shouted. 

Unexpectedly, Mike cowered behind Nancy’s back. Maybe he was smarter than she gave him credit for and he realized that making friends was a waste of time. 

“Kids, this is Nancy and Mike Wheeler.” Joyce explained, “They are staying with Mrs. Wheeler for a while. And this is Jonathan and Will. They are my two sons.”

“Hi.” Nancy said politely. 

“Hi.” Mike whispered out. 

The other boys said the same meek greeting and then it fell into awkward silence. 

“So Nancy and Mike brought sandwiches for us to enjoy.” Joyce declared. 

“Thank you.” Will led the way to the dining room table with the basket of food. 

“Actually. We don’t have to eat together. I was wondering if I could talk to your mom alone for a bit and maybe you and Mike could go to your room and talk.” Karen looked hopefully at Will, and the boy did not disappoint. He flashed a toothy grin. 

“Sure Mrs. Wheeler. I can show Mike my comic collection.”

“That would be great.” Karen looked at Mike who was still hiding behind Nancy with fearful eyes. What on earth was he afraid of? Will Byers was the least intimidating person Karen knew. 

“Honey, don’t you want to see Will’s room?”

Mike looked at Nancy, waiting for her approval, once he got the silent nod, he slipped away from her safety and followed Will down the hall. 

“Wait.” Joyce followed. “Don’t forget your lunch.”

Both boys took two sandwiches and disappeared. Meanwhile, Nancy and Jonathan took some food as well then went into the backyard to visit Chester the dog. 

“He’s so cute.” Nancy said, as she crouched down to pet the fluffy pup. 

“Thanks. He’s a real mutt though. Always getting dirty too.”

“That’s okay. He’s still cute even if he’s dirty.”

Jonathan smiled as he observed the young girl playing with Chester. Whenever she would look back over at him, he quickly averted his eyes. 

Mike was watching Nancy from Will’s window. “I didn’t know you had a dog.”

“Oh yeah, that’s Chester, we adopted him from a shelter.”

Mike turned, “really?”

“Mhm. You wanna read any of my comics?” Will put a bunch of graphic books out in front of him. 

“Whoa, you have Superman.”

“Yeah.” Will was grinning from ear to ear. “Do you like Superman?”

“Uh yeah. Who doesn’t?” 

The kids laughed simultaneously. It felt good. The way their voices harmonized made all the tension melt. 

Mike’s fingers traced the outline of the comics. “They’re in really good shape. I have a bunch of Batman ones, but they got messed up.” 

“I want to get Batman but my mom said I have to wait until we have more money.” Will admitted quietly. 

As soon as Mike saw the blush on Will’s face, he was quick to soothe the boy, “Hey it’s okay. My parents didn’t have a lot of money either.”

Will’s face contorted with confusion. “But Mrs. Wheeler has a beautiful house. I think she’s like rich.”

“Yeah... I mean, she might be. She takes us shopping a lot.” Mike agreed. “But I’m not talking about her. I mean, my parents. My real parents... they were poor.”

“Oh. Right. Mommy said you were fostered. When I asked what that meant she said you had a different home before you lived with Mrs. Wheeler. I guess I just never thought that meant you had different parents too.”

“Mhm.” Mike mumbled, feeling nervous now. “Yeah, I uh, I did.” 

“Were they nice?”

“Wow you have a really cool poster of Jaws in your room. That’s awesome. I heard the movie was amazing.”

“You never saw it?”

“No. But I want to.”

“We should see it together sometime.”

Mike nodded his tense shoulders relaxed as he continued to snoop around Will’s bedroom. He badly wanted to show Will some of the toys he owned now. 

“Maybe you should come to my house sometime.” Mike blurted our without thinking. 

“I’d like that.” 

They shared a smile. 

Back in the kitchen, Joyce and Karen were sipping mugs of steaming hot tea. Karen allowed her eyes to flutter shut for a few seconds. 

“So,” Joyce smirked, “How has it been? You look tired already.”

Karen laughed. “It’s been good. I feel extremely close to them already. It’s insane honestly, because I just met them, but I almost wanted to tell them the words “I love you”.”

Joyce’s eyebrows shot to the sky, “Wow.”

“I know. But at the same time, something happened that rocked me to my core.”

“Oh?”

“Yeah. So apparently this girl told Nancy that I was going to hurt her and Nancy tried to runaway with her brother.”

“Oh my God.” Joyce placed a hand over her heart. 

“It was so scary. They ran right in the middle of the road and almost got run over by a car.” 

“Oh Karen. I’m so sorry. That really is scary. You had every right to be afraid and angry.”

“Thank you.” The dark blonde said as she sipped her tea. After setting it down and collecting herself, Karen shakily explained herself. “It’s just... now I’m afraid all the time. I feel like they are going to run away if I’m not watching them 24/7.”

“I understand.”

“You do?”

“Yeah. They took off and broke your trust. Now you can’t trust them to stay at home.”

“Exactly. Oh thank you so much for understanding. But what do I do now? I can’t watch them every second. And soon school is starting.”

Joyce sighed. “I think you should talk to them.”

“Talk to them?”

“Yeah. Tell them that running away is a very dangerous thing. Tell them that if they are scared of you, to call someone else, like me. And I’ll pick them up. Or tell them they can contact their social worker. Anything but run away.”

Karen was nodding vigorously. “Yes, Yes. That is a great idea. That’s what I’m going to do.”

“Good. I’m proud of you.”

The women clicked their mugs together, while laughing. 

 

Chapter Text

In the years he had been running the group' home, Shawn had encountered numerous teenagers with the exact indifferent expression as the kid currently handcuffed and sitting on his couch, avoiding eye contact. That wasn’t unusual. After all, kids didn’t come to Shawn’s group home unless they were involved in some kind of delinquent behavior. 

As it turns out, according to the police officer that dropped the girl off, she had been caught stealing from a connivence store. That wasn’t unusual either. In fact, stealing was one of the top offenses that landed a lot of children in Shawn’s group home. 

What was unusual, was the other kid, who couldn’t have been older than five or six years of age. The kid wasn’t cuffed and according to the report, he had done nothing wrong. But yet, here the kid was. This scrawny little guy in an oversized hoodie who was clearly a few years younger than the thief he was sitting beside. 

This kid with floppy hair and huge eyes stared up at Shawn beneath a fringe of bangs, obviously terrified and on the verge of tears.

This kid fisted the denim hem of the older kid's jean jacket and was sitting so close to the older kid that he was practically in the older kid's lap.

And strangely enough the older kid didn’t seem to mind. If fact, the girl seemed to welcome the contact. Occasionally she would nudge the younger kid’s shoulder, bump their knees together or offer a small smile to reassure him. 

Shawn watched their subtle interaction and recognized siblings when he saw them. 

 

And suddenly a picture was coming into focus. Food stolen because their was no parent around and no money. But there was still a hungry little brother that a big sister had to feed, even if that meant doing something illegal and risking arrest in the process. 

 

Shawn nodded, realizing the older girl wasn’t stealing for the thrill, but out of responsibility. And Shawn couldn’t fault her for that. He would have done the same. 

 

The sheriff called for him. Shawn walked into the kitchen where he could still keep an eye on the kids as he spoke to the office. He was debriefed on their parents and how they now needed a place to stay. 

 

“We would have taken them to the NorthShore place, but the girl was caught stealing. So we brought them here. We could have separated them, but we figured it’s never a good idea to separate siblings. I hope you don’t mind taking on more kids. It won’t be long, just until we find a foster family ready to take them.”

 

Shawn laughed, “that won’t be a problem for me sherif. Take all the time you need. You know my home is always open.”

 

The sheriff tipped his hat off to Shawn, then 

uncuffed Nancy and left.

 

The older kid rubbed her wrists, looking pleased to be released. In fact, Shawn’s seen that look a million times. It was the look of a new kid finding a way to escape. 

 

But Shawn turned toward the kitchen, confident that the kids would follow and he smiled when he heard the busted springs in the couch squeak as the older one stood first, then her little brother expectedly did the same.

“How do you know I won’t just run away?” A cocky question. Shawn expected no less. To most kids that arrive here, Shawn’s home is viewed as a prison instead of a second chance. This girl was no exception. 

“Cause you’re hungry.” He replied over his shoulder. 

It wasn’t hard to figure out. Hungry kids stole food. 

“No I’m not.” The older kid denied, causing Shawn to stop and turn. 

“Well then why did you steal cake and candy?”

The older kid shrugged, saying nothing but wrapping her arm around her little brother as the younger kid leaned against her; the smaller child still seeking that contact, that reassurance.

And for the second time that day, the picture came into clearer focus as Shawn was reminded that the older kid didn't steal the food because she was hungry. She stole it because her little brother was hungry. No parents. No money. No food. Just each other. 

He sighed and turned back toward the kitchen, barely taking two steps before the older kid asked another question.

“So what is this place anyway?” 

Shawn stopped once more, encouraged that the kid's tone sounded less defensive this time. 

"It's for kids like you," he replied. "You work the land. Teaches you some discipline and responsibility."

Though Shawn suspected this kid already knew about both, especially the latter. Lacking responsibility wasn't the reason she was here; taking responsibility was.

This kid had taken responsibility for her little brother and was now facing the consequences with a cocky attitude to disguise her fear.

Nancy scoffed. “This is so dumb.”

And just like that, the smartass mask goes on. Shawn nodded, understanding the defense mechanisms of wounded kids and having learned long ago not to take any of this personally.

“Beats Juvie.” He quipped.

There was a beat of silence before Shawn turned, determined to get these kids to the kitchen so he could feed them. "Come on. I'll fix you something to eat."

He walked into the kitchen waiting for the kids to follow. 

“Can we?" the younger kid whispered, asking his sister’s permission to accept Shawn’s offer of food. "Please?"

Shawn smiled as the quiet voice floated from the living room to the kitchen, realizing this was the first time the little guy had spoken since the pair had arrived.

The older kid sighed. "Yeah," she agreed; her reluctance to accept handouts overruled by her eagerness to feed her little brother. "But first..."

Shawn tilted his head.

First what?

"Did he hurt you?"

Shawn narrowed his eyes, again suspecting the sheriff had grabbed the younger kid at some point...or maybe the woman at the gas station grabbed him roughly. 

Either way, the older kid was clearly checking on her little brother.

"Mike..."

Shawn blinked at the name and smiled.

Mike.

That was perfect for the little guy, it fit him well, and there were a lot of Mike’s in the world. 

"M'fine, Nancy."

Shawn nodded as the second name was revealed.

Nancy. 

That was equally perfect for the older kid.

"Are you sure?" Nancy pressed, her tone promising trouble if she discovered her little brother had been hurt.

"M'sure," Mike replied, and Shawn frowned as he heard the kid's voice hitch with the threat of tears.

Nancy must have noticed it, too.

"Hey..." she called, and Shawn was surprised to hear the difference in Nancy’s tone.

The smartass was gone and instead replaced with an unexpected tenderness.

"Don't, Mike. It's okay."

"No," Mike countered miserably, finally giving into those tears he had held at bay while Shawn had been in the living room. "It's n-not o-okay. This is m-my fault, and m'sorry."

Shawn frowned, his heart breaking.

Nancy sighed, and Shawn knew from the silence that Nancy was hugging her little brother, offering comfort as she waited for the kid to calm down.

Several seconds passed.

"Now, you listen to me..." Nancy began as Mike’s tears grew quieter, and Shawn pictured her easing her little brother away so she could look the kid in the face as she made her point. "This is not your fault."

"It is," Mike insisted. "I was h-hungry."

"Yeah," Nancy agreed. "But that doesn't make this your fault. It was my decision to steal. And it was my decision to run when we were clearly caught. Not yours."

"But you...you did it f-for me."

Shawn swallowed against the emotion rising in his throat.

He barely knew these kids, and they had already captured his heart.

"Yeah," Nancy agreed once again, acknowledging that she did indeed steal for Mike. “And you know what, kid? I'd do it again."

Shawn smiled at the statement of love and loyalty, even though this conversation was killing him.

"But... they said Mommy and Daddy left us forever," Mike cried, his words tripping over his tears. "Then they said w-we would rot in the system," He sniffled, sounding hurt and confused. "Why would they s-say that?"

"Because those people are jerks. They think we’re criminals.” Nancy replied, her tone sharp.

Shawn nodded 

"But Nancy – "

" – shut up," Nancy interrupted her little brother, though there was no heat behind her words. "We're not talking about this anymore, Mike, because none of this is your fault.”

Mike must have opened his mouth to dispute, to once again insist their current situation was his fault...but he was cut off by a warning sound from Nancy.

"Mike. I mean it. It's not your fault. And if you say it again, I'll - I’ll tickle you. You hear me?"

Mike gave a soft, wet laugh at the threat. "Nuh-uh."

“Uh-huh”

Seconds later, the siblings were standing in the kitchen's doorway.

"Hey, guys..." Shawn greeted, wondering if this was their default position – always beside each other with barely any space between.

"Hey," Nancy returned, rubbing her hand back-and-forth over Mike’s shoulders as the kid finished pulling himself together; still wiping those red eyes and trying to control those shaky inhalations.

"You hungry, buddy?" Shawn asked. 

Mike glanced at Nancy before nodding at Shawn.

Shawn returned the nod. "Alright. How 'bout I make you a sandwich?"

Another nod. 

"Alright," he agreed, stepping aside to approach the cabinets. "I've got bread, peanut butter, jelly, maybe some lunchmeat in the fridge..."

Nancy nodded at the options. "Go wash your hands," she instructed her brother, watching Mike cross to the sink and then setting about his own task.

The big sister washed afterwards while Shawn smoothly slathering one piece of bread with peanut butter, then the other with grape jelly before cutting off the crusts and slicing the sandwich in half.

"You want milk?" Nancy asked over her shoulder.

"Yes, please," Mike responded and then offered a shy smile to Shawn. "Thank you for sharing your food with us."

Shawn nodded at the polite kid. "Absolutely, man. Mi casa es su casa," he quipped with a wink and was about to translate when Mike beat him to it.

"My house is your house."

Shawn arched an eyebrow. "Smart kid."

"Yeah he is," Nancy proudly agreed and stared at Mike meaningfully. "Tell him the words you know."

Shawn smiled at him, clearly waiting for Mike to perform his trick.

“I know the words Elegant, Ambition, Privileged, Resident, Scatter, Brilliant and Graceful.” 

“It’s a 3rd grade vocabulary list. Mike’s only five.” Nancy said confidently. 

"Wow. That was..." Shawn chuckled, again not quite sure what to think about these kids. "That was awesome, man.”

“Thank you.” Mike said but his sister was beaming. 

“He’s in the special advanced class at school. They were talking about letting him skip a grade, but they weren’t sure due to his social development.”

Mike glared at her, cheeks tinting red, clearly embarrassed to be talked about as if he wasn’t in the room.

“Shut up.” He muttered, slurping his milk. 

 It didn’t take long for the food to be finished. Shawn waited and then gathered the empty plates along with Mike’s glass and crossed to the sink.

There was silence behind him, and he was sure the siblings were looking at each other again, speaking without words.

"So, now what?"

That was simple.

"Now we get you two settled," Shawn replied, turning to face Dean. "Usually boys and girls sleep in different rooms -“

Nancy shook her head. "Absolutely not," she rejected, visibly bristling at the idea of being separated from Mike. "That is not happening."

Shawn nodded, noticing that Mike had scooted closer to his sister; the six-year- old's eyes once again wide and scared.

"I figured you'd say that," Shawn commented, having anticipated Nancy’s reaction.

And if he was honest with himself, the idea of these two being apart made Shawn uneasy as well.

"That's why I'm settin' you two up in a different room. One you can share. Just the two of you."

Nancy arched a suspicious eyebrow at the news. "Why the special treatment?"

"Because this is a special situation," Shawn pointed out and shrugged as if he wasn't breaking his own rules about treating all the kids equally.

Shawn nodded, decision made. "So, what d'ya say? Wanna see your new rooms?"

Nancy shrugged. "Whatever."

"Okay," Shawn drawled, having expected the return of Nancy’s indifferent attitude since that seemed to be the older kid's response to new situations until she figured them out. "I'll take that enthusiastic reply as a 'yes'." He paused. "Let's go."

Nancy said nothing, watching as Sonny left the kitchen and headed for the stairs.

Beside her, Mike shifted in his chair, attracting Nancy’s attention.

"You okay?"

Mike nodded even as he frowned.

Nancy frowned as well. "What's wrong?"

"You need to stop being mean," Mike scolded, the big-hearted kid hating it when his sister was rude.

Nancy rolled her eyes. "I'm not being mean, I'm being cautious. There's a difference."

"Maybe," Mike allowed. "But Mr. Shawn seems nice."

Nancy glanced in the direction Shawn had disappeared. "Yeah. But a lot of people seem nice until you get to know them."

...which was why Nancy had to be careful.

They were in an unfamiliar place with unfamiliar people facing an unfamiliar situation.

It was a nightmarish trinity, and Nancy would do whatever was necessary to keep Mike safe...even if doing so was considered "mean" by her little brother.

One day Mike would understand everything Nancy was doing was to protect them. 

A few days later and a young couple with a daughter of their own showed up at Shawn’s group home and took Nancy and Mike into their home. 

But the family did not want to adopt Mike and Nancy because they loved them and wanted another child. They wanted someone to clean their house for them. They wanted a pair of servants without having to pay anything. In fact, they go paid by the state for having these two new workers. 

As Nancy dragged her suitcase away from Shawn’s she had no idea what horrors awaited her and her brother. 

Chapter Text

Mike was sitting with his knees against his chest rocking back and forth on Nancy’s bed awake in the dead of night while his sister slumbered next to him. 

His felt like his head was being squeezed tight while the rest of his muscles felt weak like they lost all control as they were shaking violently. It felt like a lead ball had fallen into his chest and in his stomach there were a bunch of invisible hands squeezing whatever they could find. 

Mike didn’t notice he let out of moan of pain, until he felt Nancy’s body twist under the covers. 

He rolled his eyes at the very idea of her being able to sleep at a time like this. School was tomorrow. Another new school. More strangers, more bullies, more chances to look like a freak. Mike’s chest tightened more and he started to lose the ability to breathe. 

“I hate this.” He mumbled, tugging at his hair as a single tear dribbled down his cheek. “I hate this.” 

Mike couldn’t deny the surge of jealousy that buzzed underneath his skin whenever he thought about how simple Nancy had it. Sure his sister has been through a lot. But it was just that she certainly never woke up screaming in the middle of the night with nightmares of the past and the mountainous fear that there was a monster—a real live, breathing monster wearing human skin—in the bedroom. Mike envied her. 

As his stomach wrenched, Mike slid off the bed and rushed into the bathroom to empty the contents of his stomach. 

When morning rolled around, he was lucky to have gotten at least one hour of sleep. Unfortunately during that one hour, Nancy had managed to wake up and hog the freaking bathroom. 

“Nancy!” Mike screamed for the fifth time, bashing his fist against the door. “Come on!!!!”

“Go use the one downstairs.” Nancy hissed, “I have to look amazing this is the first day at our new school and I already have enemies.”

If Mike wasn’t so exhausted he might have asked about the so called ‘enemies’ but he just wanted to pee. But then he remembered Carol and assumed that’s what his sister was talking about. 

He sat down at the breakfast table feeling like crap. Apparently he looked bad too because when Nancy came into the room, looking like a million bucks, she ruffled his hair, sat down and said “wow, you look like shit.”

“Thanks airhead.”

“No problem, buttmunch.”

Mike glared at her nickname for him, then slapped his spoon in the cereal. He grumpily are the food, shooting a scornful glared at Nancy and her stupid pretty hair. 

His bad mood may have prompted him to squirt the syrup bottle into Nancy’s cereal bowl. 

“Mike!” She screeched, “What the hell.”

“Language.” Ted shouted, slamming the morning paper down. 

“Hey!” Karen had piped in as well, peaking through the kitchen. 

Nancy’s mouth dropped open as Mike snickered. She turned towards Ted and then towards Karen.

“What? He put syrup in my cereal. He should be getting yelled at right now.”

“Oh thanks for throwing me under the bus.” He yelled, throwing his hands in the air. 

“It’s what you did! You’re always such a douchebag before school.”

“Sorry I’m not perfect like you.” 

“I’m not perfect.”

Ted slid his chair back and Karen walked in the room to hover over them with her husband.

“Now that’s enough.” She said. 

“Listen to you both swear and argue with eachother.” Ted added, trying to be helpful. 

“Apologize to each other.”

“Seriously?” Mike whined. “She hogged the bathroom.”

“That’s what this is about? Seriously Mike?” Nancy muttered. 

“No, it’s actually not. It’s just part of it.” 

“Well then what is bothering you.” She asked. 

“School and you. You never have any problems at school. And you don’t have to look so perfect because everyone loves you: teachers, students, everyone.” 

Karen smiled gently. “Oh Mike. If you were worried about school you should have talked to me. But don’t blame your sister. Everyone has different experiences. You can’t compare yourself to her.”

It was Mike’s turn to sigh. “I’m sorry Nancy.” He mumbled, looking at his own bowl to avoid eye contact.

“I’m sorry too.” She added. “And don’t worry, Mike. I’m sure you’ll be okay. If not, Mrs. Wheeler could always talk to your principal and try to help you.”

Her words didn’t seem to help him relax, but at least he wasn’t fuming with anger. 

As things began to settle down, Karen decided to discuss the situation further.

“Why are you afraid to go to school? Because it’s brand new?”

“No not only that, but people don’t usually like me. No one ever wants to talk to me. It’s so lonely and I feel so awkward.”

Nancy muttered under her breath, “I told you not to talk about nerdy stuff.”

“Thanks for the advice Sis.” Mike huffed, crossing his arms over his chest. 

Rolling her eyes, Nancy continued to eat and ignore him. Mike just glanced at his hands. 

“It’s fine. I know I have to go so I will.”

His words sparked a concern in Karen, which  then lit a match. Karen was going to address the running away situation once and for all.

“That reminds me, I wanted to talk with you two about something...” Karen noticed the side glances they gave to one another. Almost a silent apology for fighting with each other when they still have a common enemy. Karen didn’t want to be the enemy. But she needed to say this. “You ran away when we went shopping.”

They both physically winced at the mention of that day. Mike went back to staring at his plate and Nancy was fidgeting nervously.

“Mike, Look here.” Karen said firmly. His eyes snapped towards her. 

“You both worried me, but more importantly you broke my trust. Now I’m scared to let you out of my sight because I’m afraid you will run away. I know you may want to sometimes because you get scared, but running away is never the answer. It can just lead to a very dangerous situation. You could be kidnapped, run over, lost and starving in the middle of nowhere. So please, promise me you won’t runaway again, even if you get scared. You could always call Mrs. Byers if you are afraid of me and she can pick you up and you could stay with her for a while. Or you can call your social worker if I do something to you that you don’t like. But no running, understand?”

Mike and Nancy nodded with a meek yes. They were cute kids. 

“That’s all I wanted to talk about.” Karen smiled. She glanced at her watch and hopped up. “Alright, fifteen minutes hurry and get all of your things.”

“Like backpacks?” Nancy raised her eyebrows, going upstairs once Karen confirmed that was the stuff they needed. Apparently Karen had bought them backpacks before they were even in her care. They were in the closet. 

“Wow, Mom really thought of everything.”

“Mom?”

“Mrs. Wheeler. Whatever.” Mike muttered, grabbing his teal, white, and brown backpack and slinging the straps around his grey and blue striped shirt. He had a light white shirt underneath that had a collar tucked down. He looked very preppy for a nine-year-old. 

Nancy tossed a grey and pink backpack over her one shoulder to seem more cool. Mike wanted to push her, but he resisted. 

“Really?” He settled instead on taunting her.

“It’s what all the middle-schoolers are doing.”

Mike narrowed his eyes. “Maybe you won’t make any friends after all.”

He ducked away from the playful slap, and ran downstairs to the door and out to the car. 

They realized that Mrs. Wheeler was dropping them off and they weren’t required to take the bus. 

“We live... close to the school huh?” Mike asked. 

“Yes we do.” She smiled at his deductive reasoning. The bus would be pointless due to how close they were. There was no point getting ready for something that was a quick 5 minute drive.

“Can I bike here?” Mike asked, “once I learn the routes.”

She dropped her jaw. “Bike? You want to ride your bike around town? Isn’t that dangerous?”

Karen’s seen other kids ride their bikes. She knows other mothers let them do it. But perhaps she’s an old overprotective mother bear, but she can’t picture her boy riding his bike by himself anywhere. Maybe she was afraid he would run away or get kidnapped or disappear. 

“Mom? Can I?”

Mom. Karen felt a wave of every emotion strike her at once. But love was the feeling that overcame all the other ones. 

“Of course you can.”

Why did she just say that? Love really does make you say stupid things. 

“Thank you, you’re the best.” He said as he fumbled out of the backseat of her car. 

“Have a good day.” She called after him, but Mike was already scrambling for the front door of the elementary school. 

“Should I go in with him?”

Nancy shook her head, “Don’t worry about it. He knows what to do. He’s been to a million new schools.”

“But he - he just -“

“Mom, drive.” Nancy ordered impatiently as she continued to comb her hair in the backseat. 

Karen pulled up to the Hawkins Middle School Student Drop off section. “Alright honey. Have a good day. I’ll pick you up at 3:15 Alright?” 

“Okay.” Nancy smiled as she stood outside the car and waved her mother goodbye. Once the car disappeared down the road a nervous, unsettling feeling started to creep up Nancy’s neck. 

She saw the bus with Roane County School District painted on the side, then she saw a huge swarm of kids walk off the bus, so Nancy tried to blend with the crowd as she reached the double doors. 

She immediately recognized Barb amongst the crowd of people. Carol was right when she said Barb stood out, but Nancy thought she stood out in a cool way. 

Middle school was a strange place. There were kids of all sizes, some as small as Mike, and some of them were as tall as the high-schoolers. Nancy noticed a lot of the girls were already developing a nice curvy figure as well as wearing some makeup, and she suddenly felt very out of place with just a ribbon in her hair and her best purple blouse. She noticed another thing, most kids were carrying lunchboxes with cute stickers on them or brown paper bags with handwritten notes from their parents. 

Nancy didn’t have any lunch. Her foster mother didn’t even give her money to buy lunch. Nancy was positive that she was going to starve. 

There was a big field in the back, and Nancy was excited to read her book under the beautiful oak tree. 

She gripped her schedule tighter as she was crammed against a bunch of students as the narrow hallways were getting even more narrow. Nancy tried to remember the meeting she had with the principal on Saturday. But she had been so upset after getting punished for running away, she barely paid attention. Now she had to figure it out for herself, room 213 with Mrs. Dunum. 

Nancy saw Barb walking into a room and she figured she could ask her for help, but as she approached the room, Nancy realized it was number 213. Perfect. 

“Hey, Barb.” She said quietly as she sat in a chair next to the girl. 

“Oh hello. You’re that girl from the store. I’m sorry, what was your name again?”

“Nancy.” 

Barb smiled, “Hi Nancy. Are you in Mrs. Dunum’s homeroom?”

“Yeah.” Nancy shoved her schedule at her new best friend. “Do you see any classes we have together? Maybe we can sit next to one another.”

Barb nodded, and circled the few classes they had together, which was actually more than a few. “Wow, everything except science. That’s neat.”

Barb agreed and they girls began discussing what happened at the store between Nancy and Carol.

“She said that your foster mom was a murderer. Wow, I knew she was trash, but that’s just low. Wait, you do know Carol was lying right?”

“I do now.” Nancy huffed. “But I didn’t in that moment and I tried to run away -“

“You did what!?” Barb whisper-yelled. 

“I know, I know. Big mistake. Afterwards my mom and I talked and I realized she would never kill anyone.”

“Yeah. She’s really sweet.” Barb agreed, “Mrs. Wheeler always bakes me cookies for our school sale.”

“I wish I would have known that before.”

Before the kids got a chance to continue, the teacher walked in and told them to take their seats. 

“I’m going to do roll call, and today we have a new student. Everyone say Hello to Miss Nancy Wheeler.”

“Hello Nancy,” was the mundane class response. Nancy slide down in her seat slightly, as the teacher continued to stare at her along with half the class. 

“Hello,” she finally whispered, wondering if they were waiting for a response. They must have been, because the teacher went back to calling out names. Barb, Freddie, Ally, Ned, Carol, Tommy, Steve, Nicole, Robin. 

Honestly, Nancy stopped listening at the name Carol. Please don’t let it be the girl from the clothing boutique, she begged. One glanced around the room, and as sure as the sun rises, it was Carol from the store. Nancy slipped down in her chair even more. Life was cruel. 

“Hey Princess,” someone was tapping her shoulder. 

Nancy turned to see the culprit, ready to chew them out for teasing her, when she saw it was a cute set of brown eyes. 

“H-Hi.” She muttered, feeling awkward and stupid. 

“Hey, can you pick up my pencil.”

Nancy leaned forward and picked up the fallen object, then handed it to the boy. 

“What’s your name?”

He scoffed, “Steve. What’s yours? Belle? Because I’m pretty sure she’s the only other person that wears ribbons.”

“Belle?”

“You know, that princess from beauty and the beast.”

“Now how does someone like you know about Belle?”

Steve’s mouth hung open for two seconds, before his quick recovery when his friend joined in. 

“Cause Stevie’s a girl.”

“Shut up.” Steve shoved the boy with a huge amount of freckles backwards and he almost fell out of his chair. 

“What are we talking about?” Carol asked as she walked into the back of the room. Nancy assumed for the rest of homeroom they were free to move wherever they wanted and of course Carol wanted to come over and bother her. 

“We’re talking about how Steve’s a girl.” The boy said. Carol smirked at Nancy, then leaned into the boy with freckles and kissed him with a fat wet smooch. 

Nancy was taken aback, and turned around quickly back to the front of the room. She noticed how stiff Barb was beside her. Suddenly Carol was leaning over Nancy’s shoulder while chewing gum. Nancy made a mental note to torture Mike in the same way, because that sound was pet peeving. 

“So, how’s life with you new mommy?” 

Nancy chose not to respond. She didn’t want to respond to such a jerk. 

“Oh she’s a foster girl?” The boy asked, and Carol decided to tell them all about Nancy’s life, but Nancy didn’t care. Let them think what they want. She wouldn’t be in this town for very long anyways. 

The other boy, Steve, was rather quiet. Nancy appreciated that. He also had such an attractive face for a 13-year-old, she had to admit. 

“Hey Tommy, at least she has actually has parents that care about her, unlike you,” that was Barb. Nancy couldn’t believe it, Barb had stuck her neck out for Nancy’s honor. 

Tommy’s face turned beet-red. “What did you just say!?”

“Chill out.” Carol told him, and she nearly dragged Tommy away while still glaring at Nancy. 

“I think that girl absolutely hates me.” 

Barb laughed. “You’re not the only person she hates. Don’t feel bad.”

Looking at Barb, Nancy knew, this was the start of a beautiful friendship. 

Chapter Text

“Class this is our new student, Michael. Michael, would you like to say anything about yourself?”

Mike shrugged haphazardly, his eyes were glued to his feet. Miss Roberts smiled down at him, and when she realized he wasn’t going to say anything, she checked the classroom seating chart for an empty chair. 

“Alrighty, well your seat is going to be over there by Tanner and Gregory. Boys raise your hands so Michael can find you.”

It wasn’t difficult to see one of the only seats left in the extremely full classroom. But Mike followed the hands of his peers anyways, and sat in his intended chair. 

He felt more nervous than ever as he half-listened to Miss Roberts talk about the word of the day. She had already taken attendance and went over the classroom rule list and the classroom jobs. 

Mike was the paper passer for today. Apparently they rotated positions every day. Mike didn’t mind most of them, but he really didn’t want to be the line leader. 

Halfway through class, Mike was more busy reading X-men issue 121 than his assigned reading. But Mike wasn’t stupid. He had his history book propped up to the right page, but the comic was laying on his lap. 

The morning had dragged on, and Mike was glad it was almost lunch time. Mike had already read all about Abraham Lincoln in his previous school and it wasn’t even fun then, but now it was worse than boring, it was torment. 

Miss Roberts continued, “Honest Abe was the 16th president of the United States, and during his presidency the Civil War occurred between the North and the South. His priority was to keep the country together. He issued the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863.” 

Mike gritted his teeth. He was only half listening but Miss Roberts was driving him crazy. This was information he already knew and she was talking to the class like they were five-year-olds. 

She asked a question, which Mike didn’t catch because Wolverine was fighting an epic battle against Sabertooth, but when Mike looked up and saw Miss Roberts looking in his direction, he panicked. He thought maybe she was going to call on him, or worse, that she saw the comic, but luckily for Mike she called on the kid sitting in front of him. 

Mike hadn’t noticed before, but the boy in front of him was Will Byers, the boy with the sweet mom that was friends with his mom. 

“The North won.”

“Correct. Good job Will. It’s nice to see you read the assigned homework.”

Then Miss Roberts paused and looked at her watch. “Alright. That’s all the time we have for history. We will pick up with reading class after lunch. For now I want everyone to line up in a single file line. Gregory, you are our line leader today.”

Mike got up and stood in line with the rest of his classmates and waited for the teacher and Gregory to lead him to lunch. The cafeteria line, where he merged with a bunch of students from different classrooms, went faster than expected. 

Mike grabbed a tray with the classic PB&J sandwich, a milk carton, and some apple slices. When he turned around to find a place to sit, Mike immediately shrunk with fear. His hands trembled as he carried his tray around the lunchroom. There were a bunch of kids that he didn’t know sitting together and talking. Mike felt so afraid, he didn’t want to interfere with anyone. He looked around for the Will kid, but couldn’t find him amongst the enormous crowd.

He tried to find another kid that was alone, maybe someone he could talk to and make friends with, but everyone had someone. Suddenly, Mike didn’t want to sit alone. Sitting alone would look lame. So he took his tray and ran out of the cafeteria and straight to the boys bathroom. He sat on one of the toilet stalls and began to eat. 

The day could have been worse, he thought positively, at least no one made fun of him. He kept track of how long he was in there by looking at his watch. After half-an-hour, he left the bathroom and went to dump his tray when he saw one of the lunch ladies. 

“Hey little one, recess is out there.” She laughed. “Go on. Join the group. No stragglers.” She laughed as she shooed him outside. 

Well, now things were worse. Mike felt even more out of place on the playground. Everyone was playing hop-scotch or double Dutch but Mike was not the athletic type. He walked over to the curb of the blacktop and sat down. 

Mike slumped over and chewed his nails as he watched the other kids play on the playground. Tomorrow he would add fifteen minutes to his bathroom stay. 

As he watched the other kids play basketball, Mike felt a fresh batch of tears sting at his eyes, but he held them back. Crying would be the worst thing he could possibly do. 

Just as he gained control over his emotions, Miss Roberts walked over to him. Of course... Mike thought miserably. 

“Hello Michael, mind if I join you.”

Mike shrugged. If he said yes he would probably get sent to the principals, so he stayed quiet.

“When I was your age, my parents moved to a new town. I was the new kid in school back then, and I know how scary it is. I just want you to know it’s perfectly fine to be nervous or afraid. But if you try to make new friend it really helps make everything a lot easier.”

Mike glared at her, but tried his best to make himself smile. She was only trying to help, but telling him to make friends was not helping anything. Mike didn’t know how to make friends. His only friend was his big sister. 

“You just have to be brave and go up to someone and say, hey let’s be friends.”

Mike wanted to laugh, thank God he cupped his mouth with his hand or else the noise would have escaped. 

“I know it sounds funny, but a lot of times it works. Just be confident, okay?”

Mike nodded because he was dying for this conversation to be over. Miss Roberts walked away feeling satisfied and Mike continued to sit alone. There was nothing wrong with being alone anyways. 

The lonely ant that crawled across his shoe was alone. Wolverine felt alone. All superhero’s felt alone at some point. The single cloud in the sky was alone. The boy on the swings was alone.

Mike squinted his eyes in the sunlight to check again, but yeah, there was a boy sitting by himself on the swing set. 

Ha! Mike wasn’t the only person to be alone anymore. Then he contemplated the situation. Maybe the other boy wanted a friend too. Maybe Mike could just walk over to him and ask, just like Miss Roberts said. 

Be brave, be confident. Those were two things Mike never was before, but maybe he could be them now. It was worth a shot. What was the worst that could happen? Mike plopped up from his spot on the curb and walked across the blacktop. He made his way over to the swings and sat down. 

The other boy slowed down and looked at him. It was Will. Wow, what were the odds. Mike grinned stupidly. “Hello.”

“Hi.” Will replied with a giggle.

“Do you want to be my friend?” 

As soon as the words let his lips, Mike squeezed his eyes shut and crunched his face up like a wrinkly t-shirt. 

“Sure.”

“Yeah?” Mike asked, peaking out of one eye.

Will shrugged. “I kinda already thought we were.”

Mike laughed then because yeah, they were. He pushed his legs back and started to swing. 

“Okay, I bet I can go higher than you.”

“Nuh-uh.” Will laughed. They both kicked and swung until they were going fast through the air. The wind whipped Mike’s rosy cheeks and he felt so happy and alive. Maybe he wouldn’t be alone this year after all. Maybe Miss Roberts was right after all.  

Chapter Text

“Nancy, will you set the table?” Karen called from the kitchen, her hands were halfway in the oven. 

She pulled out a mouth watering spicy sausage rigatoni and placed it on her kitchen counter next to the garlic green beans and grapes. 

Karen took off her oven mitts when she saw Nancy enter the kitchen in search for the placemats. 

“They’re under the pots and pans drawer” 

Nancy nodded and went about setting the table. She had four placemats, four glasses with ice, four plates and all that was left was the silverware. 

“Ted, Mike, dinner is ready.” Karen called. She turned to Nancy, brushing the girl’s long brown hair away from her face. 

“So what were you and your brother up to?”

“Well he was telling me about his day, and then he started coloring stuff for Will.”

Karen hiked her eyebrows. “Will Byers?”

Nancy nodded, “Yeah, I think so.”

Karen let the smile show on her face as she grabbed a pitcher of water, and brought it to the table. 

“It sounds like you guys had fun.”

“Yeah, I had a good day too.” Nancy admitted. 

“Well I can’t wait to hear all about it. Excuse me.” Karen set the milk carton on the table then walked towards the staircase screaming, “TED!!!” 

“Coming dear,” he called. 

Karen rolled her eyes, then went back to the kitchen for the pitcher of iced tea. Nancy followed her and grabbed the napkins. 

“Are you mad at Dad?”

Karen looked over her shoulder, “Oh, no. I just -“ Karen sighed, “How do I put this nicely... Dad doesn’t help with the cooking. Ever. So, um, the least he could do is come downstairs when I call him. But he likes to make me wait a lot and that is one of my pet peeves, that’s all. I mean, I would appreciate some help is all.”

Nancy nodded quickly, “Mike and I could help cook.” She glanced nervously towards the stairs, “I’m sorry he’s not down yet. He probably didn’t hear you. I can go get him -“

“Oh no, Nancy, it’s fine. I’m not mad at Michael. I’m just irritated at Dad for not helping out much. You kids help out just fine. I don’t expect you to do the cooking. That’s my job.”

“Are you sure? My other foster parents expected Mike and I to do nothing but chores.”

“Really?” Karen asked. She was excited that Nancy was starting to open up and share some information about her previous homes. It would help Karen to understand the kids better. 

This might be pushing her luck, but Karen was curious about something Nancy mentioned on one of the first nights she was here. 

“Hey Nancy, you told me something about Michael not being allowed to wear underwear? I was just wondering what -“

“Wow this smells delicious!” Nancy said quickly. It was too soon. 

“Thank you, sweetie.” Karen smiled. “It’s my homemade recipe.”

“Do you like to cook?” 

“I love to cook.” Karen said. “When I was a little girl, I wanted to be a chef.”

Nancy smiled. “Well what stopped you?”

Karen shrugged. “Oh I don’t know. I guess life.”

There was a nod from Nancy and then a set of black hair appeared from the doorway. 

“I made a card for Will. Look it.” He shoved the card in Nancy’s face. The girl grunted then took the card to get a better look at it. There were multiple colored dots everywhere, and on the outside it said ‘To Will.’ The inside of the card had big fat wording that said “Thank you for being my friend.”

“Aw Mikey, it’s cute.” She ruffled his hair and kissed his head. Karen took the card next and looked it over. 

“Aw sweetie. That’s very nice of you.” 

“Will deserves it. He’s the best.” 

Karen urged them to sit down and pick which drink they wanted. She served them their food on each plate, then asked, “so you seem to like Will a lot. What happened today?”

“Well... me and Will swung on the swings and then we played tag, and then we played with a frisbee and a hola-hoop and then we sat together in class and read comics together.”

“That’s wonderf - You did what?” 

“Oh. I mean we listened to the teacher read her story for reading class, and then we read our own story after...”

“Michael you need to pay attention in class.”

“I know, but Mrs. Wheeler, I already knew that stuff. We were talking about nouns, and adjectives. I already know what those are.”

“Name 3 adjectives,” Nancy challenged and Mike glared at her. 

“Beautiful, loud, smooth.” 

“See he knows.” Nancy bragged and Mike rolled his eyes. 

Karen shook her head, “If you are going to continue to read comics, it better be when you are positive you know the lesson and you better not get caught. I do not want a phone call from you teacher saying you were reading comics.”

Ted walked in the room and pushed back his chair while the kids continued chatting about their day. 

“Then Barb totally stood up for me which was amazing. No one has ever done anything like that for me before.” Nancy was smiling so wide, Karen tried to resist the urge to look utterly crushed at the thought of kids picking on her. 

“That’s great, honey. If those kids ever cause you too much trouble you let me know, okay?”

“Okay Mom.” Nancy tossed a grape in her mouth. Mike tried to copy her, and tossed a grape in the air but it rolled down his shirt. He whined and tried to wiggle it out. As the grape rolled across the floor, Mike grabbed another one and tried again. 

“You know, maybe you two should have a sleepover.”

Mike scrunched his nose in disgust. “I don’t want to have a sleepover with her - ewww.”

Nancy shoved him, and Mike smacked her arm back. 

“Hey!” Karen scolded. 

“Sorry.” They said simultaneously. 

“You two have been fighting a lot more recently. But I’m going to have to start dishing out punishments if you start hitting each other.”

Mike swallowed his grape uneasily. He picked up his fork, and focused intently on his food not bothering to look up. 

Nancy shifted in her chair. “Mrs. Wheeler, with all due respect, we don’t usually hit each other and if we do it’s playful.”

Mike nodded without looking up. Karen sighed. It was too early for her to be making threats of punishment, but at the same time she expected her rules to be followed she didn't want to see them fighting or failing school. But Karen did hear what Nancy was saying. She looked at her husband for some advice, but he just smiled at her and told her how delicious the food was as if that was the reason why she was staring at him. 

“Thanks dear,” Karen said, patting Ted’s shoulder. She then turned to her kids, “Well what I was thinking was you could have separate sleepovers. Nancy and Barb could be upstairs and Mike and Will could be downstairs in the basement. There is a lot of room down there. Have you been in there yet.”

Mike shook his head rapidly. “Please don’t lock me in the basement. I won’t fight with Nancy anymore. I promise.”

“No honey. I’m not going to lock you in there.” Karen felt herself losing an uphill battle. “I’m trying to be nice. The basement is a huge spacious place for you and Will to hang out.”

“I can show you what it looks like after supper,” Ted said. Thank you, Ted. 

Mike glanced up, a look of relief on his face. “You’ll be with me?”

“Sure,” Ted shrugged. 

After feeling completely safe again, Mike was brave enough to mention the bike he saw in the basement. 

“I don’t know if it was your bike at one point, or not, but I was wondering if I could use it to go to school by myself.”

This again. Karen was hoping Mike would have forgotten about it. Maybe it was one of those one time questions that kids ask but don’t really remember or mean, at least that’s what she was hoping. Unfortunately for Karen, the fact that Mike remembered and was asking again meant only one thing: he wanted to ride a bike to school. 

“What’s wrong with me driving you?” Karen asked, setting her fork down. “I mean your just a kid. Most kids your age ride the bus. I’m not embarrassing you, am I?”

Mike shook his head. “It’s nothing like that. I just - I like riding my bike. But I don’t have one anymore and I sorta wanted another one. I thought, if I had to ride it to school you might be more willing to give it to me. You know, because the bike has a purpose.”

“I think Michael just wants a bike.” Ted said as he patted his face with the napkin. 

Mike chewed on his bottom lip, while Karen looked from her husband to him. 

“If you want a bike just say so. I’ll buy you one.”

Mike’s face exploded into a smile. “REALLY?!” He was out of his seat, literally jumping up and down. 

“Mike!” Nancy snatched his shirt sleeve, then yanked him back down into his chair. “Settle Down.” She warned. 

“I’ll buy you the bike. But I don’t want you riding it to school yet. I would like to drop you off. Is that a deal?”

“Yes.” Mike agreed quickly. “good deal.”

Karen laughed, and took a sip of her water. Raising kids was certainly an exciting experience. It was fun to see how happy they got over the smallest of things. 

“Can we talk more about the sleepover?” Nancy asked, picking up her drink of iced tea. 

Cutting into the rigatoni, Karen nodded. “Sure. What would you like to talk about?”

“Well, uh, when can we do it? What games should we play. Or should we watch TV. Barb was talking to me about this movie and I was wondering if maybe we could rent it at the blockbuster and then watch it during the sleepover.”

“That’s fine with me.” Karen said. “As for the day, you’ll have to discuss it with Barbara and her family but I think this Saturday would be good.”

“And my sleepover with Will could be Saturday too?”

“That would be great. I would actually prefer to have them both on the same night so that way we only have guests in the house for one night. Sleepovers might be fun for you kids, but they are a lot of work for the parents.” Karen laughed. 

“So we shouldn’t?”

“No. I want you kids to have fun. As long as you want too, I do too.”

Nancy and Mike smiled at one another. They finished their meal a few minutes later and Karen was gathering some of the dishes. 

“Can everyone put their dishes in the sink and Michael can you help was the dishes tonight.” 

Humming, Mike followed Nancy and his foster mom into the kitchen where they all dumped their plates into the sink. There was a lot of shuffling around, Karen was busy putting left-overs in the fridge, along with the drink cartons. Nancy was trying to get out some of the dessert their foster mom promised, and Mike was washing the dishes. 

With her head in the refrigerator, Karen jumped at the sound of shattering glass. She spun around quickly to find Mike standing by the dishwasher with a distraught look on his face. His eyes met hers, and Karen swore she had never seen so much fear before in her life. 

Everyone was frozen. Nancy’s breath seemed to catch in her throat as she glanced between her brother and foster mother. Nancy knew what happened when stuff was broken. Even though the Wheelers were easy-going and generally nice, nothing bad like this had happened yet. But now it did. She knew foster parents weren’t forgiving when it comes to breaking things. 

“I’m so sorry!” Mike shouted. He dropped to his knees and started picking at the small pieces of glass. “It was an accident. The cup was wet. I -I didn’t mean to. I’ll clean it up, I promise.” 

“STOP.” Karen shouted. She was terrified he was going to get glass stuck in his hands. 

Before Karen knew it, Nancy was standing between her and Mike with a determined look on her face. Mike was right behind Nancy, holding onto her shirt for dear life, his face buried into her back sobbing and whispering ‘I’m sorry’ over and over again. 

Karen stood dumbfounded, shocked into silence. She had no idea how to deal with the situation, but one thing she knew for sure was Nancy thought she was going to hit Mike. The girl was using her left arm to keep Mike behind her and her right arm to keep Karen from coming any closer. 

“Mike.” She said softly, causing Mike to let out a pitiful cry. “I’m not going to hurt you. It’s okay. It’s completely okay. If you knew how many times I dropped things on the floor and broke them you would be laughing right now.”

Karen took a step forward and the kids stood their ground, but anxiously held on to one another. 

When Nancy realized her foster mom wasn’t going to hurt them, she lowered her arms and stared at Karen in disbelief. 

“You’re not angry?” She whispered, true fear outlining her voice. 

“No. Of course not. It was an accident.”

Mike was still whimpering behind his sister, but his tears started to slow down. 

“I was worried you were going to cut yourself, that’s all.” Karen explained. “That’s why I told you to stop. We need to clean this glass with a broom and a dust pan, not your hands.”

Mike nodded quickly. “I’ll get the broom.”

“Okay honey,” Karen sighed, watching as the boy dashed out of the kitchen. Nancy remained cautiously watching her from the side of the room. 

“You promise you’re not going to hit him?” 

“I promise.” Karen assured. 

“What about spanking him?”

“No Nancy, I -“

“Grounding him then? Extra chores? Starvation? There must be something?” 

“I’m not mad. He didn’t do anything wrong. He’s not in trouble.”

Nancy wiped the sweat off her forehead and finally relaxed. Mike returned with a broom in trembling hands. 

Karen just felt horrible. She took the item from him, promising that she would clean. “Please, go play Mike. It’s okay.”

But Mike was way too worked up, sniffling and shaking. So Karen picked him up and carried him to the living room. The glass could wait. Mike needed comfort immediately and Karen would be happy to give it. Finally, at some point, Mike wrapped his arms around her neck and let himself relax against her. 

“Baby what happened to make you so afraid?” Karen places her hand against his flushed cheek. He was warm, if Karen didn’t know any better she would say he was potentially feverish. 

“It’s okay sweetie. You don’t have to tell me anything. But if you ever want to talk, I’m here. I’m right here.” 

Mike closed his eyes and rested his head against her shoulder. 

Chapter Text

Silence. Nancy held her breath for fear that her breathing might be too loud. Her foster father, Mr. Johnson was asleep on the couch, a bottle of beer in his hand. 

Mr. Johnson’s daughter, Abigail was asleep upstairs and Mrs. Johnson was out having a “girls night” which she did every night. And every time she returned she had a vague smell of cologne on her clothes which were skimpy. 

Mike shuffled his feet beside Nancy, as he reached for the towel sitting beside her. Nancy took a good long look at her baby brother. His eyes were red from crying less than an hour ago, and his arm was bruised with the rough fingerprints of Mr. Johnson as he yanked Mike into the bathroom and forced him to take a bath. It wasn’t Mike’s fault that he got his feet all dirty, it was raining outside and he was just trying to take out the trash like Mr. Johnson told him too, but Mike tracked in a blob of mud, and Mr. Johnson screamed at him. 

The boy silently dried the plate he was holding. He wasn’t sniffling anymore, but he was very subdued. 

Recently things were tense. Nancy didn’t mean to steal Abigails shoes. She was running late, and her own pair of shoes had a completely worn out sole. She shared a room with her “new” sister and the girl would get extremely angry if Nancy touched anything in her room. After she told her parents that Nancy stole her shoes, they were so angry. Nancy’s back was throbbing from where she was hit with a belt. She was still moving extremely stiffly as she tried to bend over to put away the dishes. 

“Are you okay?” Mike’s soft voice startled her from her thoughts. With a gentle hand, Nancy rubbed the back of her brother’s neck.

“Yeah I’m A-okay, kiddo.” 

Mike snorted a small laugh, their secret joke giving him great amusement. Nancy hated to shush him, but she did. 

“Quiet, we don’t want Mr. Johnson to hear us. Remember what he said, we can’t wake him.” 

Mike nodded solemnly. He carefully stacked the dish onto the pile of clean ones and went back to his dirty dishes. 

As Nancy placed a dish in the cabinet, she accidentally clanged off of another dish making a noise equivalent to church bells ringing. 

Both kids jumped back, terror stricken. They turned their heads towards Mr. Johnson’s chair waiting to see if he woke up. When they heard a snore, they sighed a breath of relief. 

“Oh my God that was close.” Nancy mumbled. “I’m so sorry.”

“It’s okay.” Mike whispered. “Let’s just hurry up and finish this.” 

So hurrying up probably wasn’t the best option. The faster they went the more dangerously loud things got. Then, it happened. Nancy saw it with her own two eyes, like it was going in slow motion just like the movies, but Mike fumbled a plate and it slipped right out of his hands. 

Three. Two. One. It crashed. Splattered. Shards of glass flew all over the floor. But what’s worse was the noise. It was painful to the ears, but fast. Maybe they skated by without Mr. Johnson waking up. 

A silent prayer, then he was there. Hovering over them, scarier than a Giant and angrier than the hulk. 

Shit. 

Nancy didn't even have time to take the blame for her brother which she so desperately wanted to do. She assumed the man spotted the broken dish directly next to her brother, so he must have put the pieces together. 

“What was the one rule I gave you!?” Mr. Johnson screeched. He hand already snatched Mike by the shirt and was shaking him with every word. 

“I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean to. I can clean it up.” He pleaded. 

Mr. Johnson used his open palm to smack Mike’s ear. 

“Stop it!” Nancy screamed. 

A smack against his thigh and Mike began to bawl his head off. 

“Shut up!” Mr. Johnson shouted. “You need to learn to keep your Goddamn mouth shut.” He was opening a drawer while still holding onto Mike. Once he got the duck tape he cut off a piece and taped it over Mike’s mouth. 

“Now don’t you dare take that off until I tell you too.” Mr. Johnson said, listening to the muffled sobs. 

Nancy rushes to her brother the second he was released, and she sat with him on the kitchen floor. 

“You clean that mess up if you want that tape off.” 

So they found the dustpan and the broom and they cleaned up the glass very carefully. 

The next day, the cycle didn’t end. Mike slept with the tape over his mouth, pressed flushed against Nancy in his bed. 

Apparently Mr. and Mrs. Johnson were fighting about cheating on each other and Mike became Mr. Johnson’s personal punching bag. The second he punched Mike’s stomach, Nancy grabbed a baseball bat and destroyed his TV. She ran outside and a neighbor was sitting on his porch beckoning Nancy and Mike to sit with him while he called to police. 

The kids were taken in the back of the police car and driven to a new home, not too far from this one. Mike no longer had the tape on his mouth, so he could fully sob against Nancy’s lap as he lied there, and he did. 

Chapter Text

“Good morning sweet pea.” Karen said as she crossed Mike’s blue painted bedroom. “Did you fall back to sleep in your own bed?”

Karen knew Mike slept the night with Nancy, but after the dinner scene last night, Karen didn’t care, she just wanted him to be comforted. 

“Yeah.” He replied. 

However, as stressful as last night was, Karen felt like she really broke through to Mike. The boy trusted her enough to lay his head against her shoulder and let her comfort him. It was a bonding moment and Karen felt like she earned a few parenting points for being there for him. 

After the whole dropping the glass incident, the family watched a movie last night and then the kids got ready for bed and Mike slept next to Nancy. Then, Nancy came down for breakfast this morning and said Mike was awake but he was going to lay in his bed for a little while. 

So here Karen was with a tray table, ready to serve her foster child some breakfast in bed. 

“Mrs. Wheeler, you didn’t have to do that.” Mike said when he saw the meal. “I’m not sick. I was just tired.” 

“It’s okay honey. I want you to get some breakfast. They say it’s the most important meal of the day.”

“Then I’ve missed a lot of important meals because I don’t usually eat breakfast.”

“Really?” Karen hummed as she sat on the side of his bed. “But you’ve been eating some everyday this week.”

“I know, but I thought you wanted me to, so that’s why I ate it.”

Karen nodded. “I do want you to eat. Especially breakfast. It’s a good habit to get into.”

Mike nodded, and picked up his spoon hesitantly. “Thank you.”

“No problem.” 

There was a long pause, and Karen gently brushed Mike’s bangs out of his face. 

“Baby, do you want to talk about yesterday.”

Mike stiffened. “Not really.” He choked out. 

“Okay, alright,” Karen quickly backtracked. “But if something bad happened in your past you can tell me. I promise I’ll listen.”

Mike nodded. “Okay. If I ever want to talk about something, I’ll come to you.”

“Alright.” Karen tried to smile, but she felt like she was losing parenting points now. Her nine-year-old was keeping secrets from her.

“Do you feel better?” She asked for the sake of a conversation. Since Mike opened up slightly to her, she didn’t what to let this opportunity go. 

“Mhm,” He hummed around his spoonful of cereal. 

“So, are you going to talk to Will at school?” 

Mike nodded. “Should I ask him about the sleepover?”

“Yes you should. Remember, ask him if Saturday would be good. Oh, and after school I think you should try out that bike.”

There it was, a big bright smile. That’s what Karen needed to see before she sent him to school. 

She was getting the hang of sending her kids off to school, but Karen wasn’t getting used to the boring feeling the followed. These kids completely consumed her life. And once they were gone at school, it was hard for Karen to believe she did anything on her own before them. 

What did she do for fun? She liked to read, but now reading romance novels and taking long baths felt wrong. She wanted to spend her free time preparing things for her kids. 

Ted was at work, so Karen decided to look through her old cooking books to find a recipe to make for dinner. After finding the recipe she wanted to make, Karen went out to shop for the few items she needed to make Tuscan Chicken Mac and Cheese. She needed some baby spinach, she already had garlic, chicken broth was needed, of course she needed the elbow Macaroni. 

Karen spent a long time at the store because she met up with Joyce and they had a lot to talk about. 

“Will was over the moon. I have never seen my boy so excited about someone before.” 

“That’s amazing.” Karen said, “I know Michael was just as thrilled about Will. He could hardly stop talking about him.”

As Joyce was ringing up Karen’s groceries she expressed a small concern. “I just hope Will doesn’t get too attached.” 

Karen frowned, “Why not?” 

“Oh I don’t mean it in a bad way, but you know, you are just fostering Mike. If he’s not going to be here in a month, I don’t want Will to be too disappointed.”

Karen swallowed a lump in her throat. She hated the reminder that these kids weren’t actually hers. “Right. I completely understand. But I think a friend would be great for Mike, even if it doesn’t last.”

“I think a friend would be great for Will too.” Joyce agreed. 

“And who knows.” Karen fumbled with her wallet, pulling out a ten dollar bill. “Maybe Mike will stay with me longer than expected.”

Joyce’s eyebrows twitched up. “Really?” 

“Maybe. I don’t know yet. All I know is they can stay with me until someone is willing to adopt them, and that could be a while.” 

Joyce handed her the bags of groceries. “Here you go.”

“Thank you. Oh, and Joyce, do you think it would be okay for Will to come to a sleepover this Saturday?”

“A sleepover?” Joyce began to smile. “Wow. Will’s going to a sleepover and for once you aren’t just babysitting him. He’ll have a real friend. It sounds great. I’m in.” 

They exchanged some long happy squeals, but Karen finally managed to get to her car just in time to pick up the kids from school. 

Karen was ready to pull her hair out. The elementary school carline to pick up your kids was backed up because some mother was chatting entirely too loud with her daughter about this school carnival that was going to happened in a month. 

There was no reason to hold up the car line. Every single person wants that line to go just as fast as the next. It should take 45 seconds at the most. You pull up to the curb, your kid sees you, he or she gets in the car, and then you drive. Simple. Easy. But no, this was not simple or easy. This was hell. Once she was closer in range, Mike must have seen her because he walked over to her car and opened the door. 

“Hi Mrs. Wheeler.” He said as he tossed the backpack in the backseat. 

“Hi Mike. You want to sit up front with me?”

Mike nodded and looked out the window at a few of the kids that passed by, and he groaned. “Ugh, That’s Shelly Taylor. She was mean to Will today.”

“Oh? What did she do?”

“We’re coloring our classroom doors to get ready for the contest next month for the carnival and anyways, she told Will he can’t color the ‘boys’ section pink. But Will was making it look amazing Mom. He had cotton candy clouds and a lollipop floaty.”

Karen was slightly lost, but she understood the kids were clearly drawing something about candy for their door contest. 

“He’s an amazing drawer, mom.” Mike said, throwing his arms out wide. 

“That’s great sweetie.” Karen said as she pulled out of the tight line as soon as the first car pulled up. So long suckers, she thought happily. Her kid was the smart one. 

Luckily the middle school line was quicker. Karen had Nancy in the car within 5 minutes. 

“Hi honey. How was your day?”

“Good.” She replied grumbly. 

“Did you ask Barb?”

Then Nancy’s face lit up and she excitedly sat up straight. “I did! Barb said she would love to!” 

“That’s great.” 

“I know right. She just has to check with her mom but it’s pretty much in the bag.”

“Oh yeah,” Mike pipped up, “Will said he could too.”

“Excellent. I even asked Will’s mom today and she said she’s excited about it.” Karen told him. 

When they got home, things quickly went to chaos. Nancy was trying to do her homework, but she couldn’t find her book so she accused Mike of taking it. But the boy swore he didn’t. Nevertheless, they were arguing for half an hour, and then Mike was playing with his toy cars all along the kitchen counter top while Karen had a million ingredients everywhere for the meal. 

She had just gotten the pan into the oven when the doorbell rang. For a second she thought it was her husband coming home from work but forgetting his keys again. But when she opened the door and saw a tall man with grey hair she realized it was Paul from child services.

“Hello Mrs. Wheeler, I’m here to check in on the kids and just see how things are going. Do you mind if I come in?”

Does she mind? Her house was a mess, the kids were shouted at each other Mike was playing near the stove... holy shit he was near the stove. 

“Of course I don’t mind. Please come in.” 

Karen Shut the door behind them then led him to the living room. “Can I get you something to drink?”

“Water would be fine.” He said kindly. The moment of peace was ruined when Nancy screamed at the top of her lungs. 

“WHY DOES NO ONE CARE!” 

“I’ll go get that water,” Karen ran into the kitchen and snatched Mike up away from the stove. 

“You can’t play in the kitchen when I’m cooking. It’s dangerous. Now, hand the nice social worker a glass of water and sit with him please.”

Mike look past her towards the living room. “He’s here?”

“Yes. He just wants to check up on you.”

“Okay.” Mike grabbed a glass of water, meanwhile Karen went searching for Nancy. 

“There you are.” Nancy muttered when her foster mom walked in her room. “Do you not care that I can’t do my homework without this book. I think we should make Mike sit in the corner until he confesses.”

“Nancy. I probably accidentally moved your book when I was looking through my cooking books today.”

“Are you trying to ruin my life -“

“Shhhh.” Karen put a finger over her lips. “Your social worker is down stairs. And of course I’m not trying to ruin your life, that’s why I want this visit to go well. How about we find the book once Paul leaves okay?”

“Fine.” Nancy mumbled. 

The two girls went back into the living room where Mike was talking to Paul. 

“And do you like it here?” 

“Yes. Mrs. Wheeler is really nice and I have a lot of space to play and the school is cool, and I’m happy.”

“Did she tell you to say any of this?”

“Nope.” He said obediently. 

Paul clicked his pen and wrote something. “I’m really happy to hear that, Mike. I know we had some trouble in the past.”

“Yeah,” Mike agreed, “But she doesn’t lock me in the basement or anything like that.”

“Good to hear.” Paul said and then he stood when Nancy and Karen entered the room. 

“Hello Nancy, good to see you again.”

“You too, sir.” She gave Paul a half-way hug then sat on the couch. 

“So kids, I just have some questions for you, if you don’t mind exiting the room Karen, that would be great. And then I can ask you some questions privately.” 

“Sure. That sounds wonderful.” Karen left the room in a hurry and went back to the kitchen to check on the chicken Mac and Cheese. She opened the oven 3 to 4 times to keep her mind occupied. She tried grabbing a book she had on her counter for years and started flipping through it. 

But as she read about Fabio kissing Juliet’s face, she could only think about what her kids could be saying in the other room. She decided to find Nancy’s cooking book and by then, Paul was ready for her.

Nancy and Mike were already gone when Karen entered the livingroom. She smoothed over her dress as she sat down on her purplish, blue couch. 

“Relax Karen, you’re doing an excellent job. This is just some routine questioning.”

Hearing those words did ease her mind a little. “Thank you. So what would you like to know?”

“First, have you had any issues or complaints you would like to address?”

Karen wracked her brain. No complaints, but there was a small issue with running away. Should she bring it up? What if the social worker deems her unfit? 

“No. Everything’s been wonderful.”

“Really? Well that’s good to hear.”

“Why? Did the kids say thing weren’t going well?”

He shot her a skeptical eyebrow. “Should they have?”

“Well no, but -“

“Don’t worry about what they said. Just answer the questions as honestly as possible, okay?”

“Okay.” 

“So since things seem to be going so well, I think you are the perfect foster home to do it - they are due for one. It’s been about a year.”

“I’m sorry, they’re due for what exactly?”  

“Oh I’m sorry. The kids need their yearly health care check up.” 

“Oh,” Karen nodded. “I know all about those. I took my daughter enough times.” She laughed bitterly.

“I didn’t know you had a daughter.”

Karen pulled a painfully tight smile. “It was a long time ago. So, when should I take the kids?”

“Soon. I will give you a list of the doctors that accept Medi-cal. Because they are your foster kids the state will pay for it, so you don’t have to worry about costs. Your foster kids are already enrolled in their medi-cal insurance. Now... I must warn you, previous doctors have found problems with both of your kids and it’s fair to say it might happen again. If future diagnosis or treatment is needed it’s important that you follow up with the medical advice you are given.”

Karen frowned. “What’s wrong with them?”

“First I would like to disclose that it is completely normal for any foster child to have medical problems. That’s why their yearly check up is so important. But um, they’ve had skin rashes, dislocated joints, and some weight problems. Mike’s most recent emergency was a simple ear infection.”

Karen sighed a shuddery breath. 

“Are you okay?”

“Yeah, sorry,” Karen wiped her eyes with her sleeve. “I’ve had a bad history with doctors and children and I hate to think of these children having heath problems too.” 

At this point in the conversation, Paul let go of his stern professional personality and cracked a warm smile. “Hey, it’s alright. These kids are very healthy. They’re going to be just fine, okay?”

Karen nodded. “Thank you.”

“No problem. You’re getting attached, huh?” 

Karen shrugged. “I think it’s impossible not to.” 

“I want to run something past you. So, I’m making progress on finding them a good set of parents that are ready to adopt them. In less than 3 weeks I’ll probably have a family ready. But, I wanted to ask, do you have any desire to adopt? Because if you want to adopt them, I can hold off on finding parents and I can let you go through the stages of adoption instead.”

She froze. Adopt them? Her mind was racing because yes she did love these kids and she was attached but adoption meant permanent and Karen was still afraid and unsure of what she was doing and permanent was so finale. 

“I -“  Paul held his breath patiently. “I’d have to ask my husband.”

“Of course. It is a family discussion. Well, if you are willing, would you please give me a call in about a week. The sooner the better of course but don’t feel rushed. It is a big decision.”

“Thank you.” Paul reached out his hand, and Karen shook it firmly. They stood and walked to the door. 

Once Paul left, Mike and Nancy creeped down the stairs. 

“So?” Nancy whispered. “Did everything go okay?”

“Yep. Everything is fine.” 

Chapter Text

Ted Wheeler fluffed his pillow, then put his glasses on the nightstand. His wife was pacing around the bedroom in her bathrobe, with cold cream masking her face. 

“I mean, adoption! Can you even fathom adoption?”

“No dear.” Ted kicked off his fuzzy slippers and threw his legs up on the bed.  

“But is it crazy? Because after he said it, I was thinking and thinking and I don’t know - what if it’s not crazy at all.”

Ted was just about to lay his head back, when he shot back up. “Wait, are you considering adopting them?”

Karen’s eyes widened. “I don’t know. Do you want to?”

“I want to do whatever you want, dear. But adoption is very -“

“Permanent. I know.”

“And difficult. I like these kids also, but I thought we agreed they weren’t really part of the family. We were just helping kids in crisis situations.”

“Yeah, but -“ Karen went into the bathroom and turned the facet on. “I wanted them to be part of the family. They were going to be our kids. How bad would it be to have permanent kids? It would be like we had our own kids.”

“We did have a kid.” Ted muttered. 

Karen shoved her face under the water and swallowed some, allowing it to burn her lungs. When she lifted her face out of the sink, she dried herself with a towel. 

“Why can’t we be happy? We deserve that. We can’t bring Holly back. But we can still be real parents.” 

“Whatever you want.” Ted dismissed the conversation by laying his head down, and closing his eyes. Karen gritted her teeth, but laid next to her husband. 

“I don’t know what I want.”

Karen couldn’t sleep that night. She kept tossing and turning, but her husband was sound asleep next to her. Sometimes she wondered why they even shared the same bed anymore. 

She tried to force her eyes to stay closed and she felt herself dozing off when a loud screech woke her up. 

Kicking off her sheets, Karen sat up with her heart hammering. Did she just dream that? Another scream answered her question, and she slapped Ted’s chest, while tripping out of bed. 

She ran down the hall checking Mike’s room first, and the boy was thrashing around the bed screaming. 

“Mike.”

She sat down on the side of his bed and gently grabbed at his shoulders. “Mike?” 

“No, stop!  Don't!  Stop it!!" Mike heard himself shriek as he fought against the hands trying to restrain his wrists.  Someone was shouting his name, telling him to calm down.  He shoved forward blindly, as hard as he could, until he was propelled backwards off the mattress and onto the floor.  

“Michael!”

The boy landed on his hands and knees on the blue carpet, breathing heavily as he took in his surroundings. He was so disoriented, he had no clue where he was, so naturally the next course of action was to curl up in a ball and ignore the way his heart was trying to pound out of his ribcage. He struggled the breathe, the puffs of air coming out in sobs as the sheets still tangled around his legs felt like they were about to wrap around his throat and strangle him. 

“I hate this,” Mike gasped, rocking himself back and forth. He heard a voice mumbling something, but it sounded far away, like he was underwater. Suddenly, there was a terrifying cracking sound near his face and his head snapped towards the source of the noise. 

It was Mrs. Wheeler, crouched a foot or two away from him with her hands held out in front of her. 

“M-Mom?”

“Sorry for clapping sweetie. I didn’t know how else to get your attention. You looked - you looked distant.”

“I’m at your house.“ the boy noted softly. “Not that old house.” 

“What old house?” 

Mike stared at his bare knees. He had slept in his boxers last night because of the rare heat wave that passed through in the beginning of September. 

“It looked like you were having an intense dream, I tried to wake you, then you fell out of bed.”

“Oh.” How embarrassing. Mike felt tears threaten to surface so he blinked rapidly, and tried to concentrate on his breathing. 

“Here.” Karen offered, teaching forward slowly to gently pull at the sleeve of Mike’s sweat-soaked t-shirt. “Let’s get this gross wet shirt off. You’ll feel better.” 

“But I’m freezing,” Mike countered, shivering in his baggy T-shirt and boxers. It was hot last night, but this morning had turned into a dreadful 50 degrees. 

Karen got up and found some comfy grey sweatpants and a dark blue sweatshirt. 

“How about these? They’ll keep you warm.”

Mike nodded and took the clothes thankfully, the threat of tears now evaporating. Mike noticed his sister standing in the doorway when he stood up. She gave him a sympathetic smile and he shared one back. 

Mrs. Wheeler helped him out of his shirt and Mike put the sweatpants on over his boxers. Afterwards the three of them went downstairs to the breakfast table. 

“What were you dreaming about?” Karen asked, handing Mike a steaming mug of tea. It was a bit early to be awake, but Mike refused to attempt to go back to sleep. 

“You can probably guess.” Mike mumbled bitterly, pulling the knitted blanket Mrs. Wheeler gave him tightly around himself. 

“Mike, don’t be rude.” Nancy scolded. 

“Sorry.” He whispered, the tears threatening to come back because he was way too sensitive this morning. “I just hate this.” 

“I know, Mike. I know.” She put her hand on his shoulder comfortingly. 

“It’s okay honey,” Karen said, “You don’t have to talk about it.” 

“Thank you.” 

Karen hummed, non-commintally, tapping on the ceramic mug, staring into the dark liquid. 

“H-How are you?” Mike asked suddenly, not wanting to dwell on his own misery any longer. 

“I’ve been fine, honey. Thanks for asking. I’m actually excited to see Joyce again.”

“Joyce?” Mike asked. 

“Mrs. Byers. You know, Will’s mom.”

“Oh, yeah. OH YEAH, OUR SLEEPOVER IS TODAY.” Mike had leaped out of his seat. 

“Settle down.” Nancy grabbed his wrist and guided him back into his chair. 

“Aren’t you excited? You’ll get to see Barbara and I’ll get to see Will.”

“Yeah, I am exited.” Nancy agreed. 

After breakfast, Karen pulled Nancy aside. “Do you think we should still have this sleepover? What I mean is, can your brother handle a sleepover if he can’t sleep well?”

“I think it will be fine. Worse comes to worse, he has another nightmare.”

“But don’t you think he’ll be embarrassed?”

“Maybe. But he would be more crushed if you don’t let him have this sleepover. Especially if Barb comes over and Mike isn’t allowed. He’ll feel like he’s being punished for having nightmares.”

“I don’t want to do that to him.” Karen said. “Okay. We will have the sleepover as planned.”

Chapter Text

Mike spent the whole day looking out the window, waiting for Will to show up. In the meantime, when he wasn’t staring at the grassy yard, he was helping Karen clean the basement. 

“You have so many cool things done here, Mrs. Wheeler.” 

Karen had to agree. She honestly forgot how many toys and games she had stored in the basement from her own youth, but there it all was: an old dart board, a stack of bored games, a small TV, her Polaroid camera, a small fold-up table, a bunch of chairs Karen bought for the upstairs but then changed. She recognized the ironing table near the bathroom because that is where the washing machine was. Karen used that often. But she never paid attention to the rest of the room where she put stuff for storage. She recognized the old couch she used to have upstairs, but now it was laying down there under the blue left over carpet that was used in Michael’s room. 

When Karen was pregnant 4 years ago with Holly, she didn’t want to know the gender of her baby. Instead she decorated two rooms. One was completely blue, Incase it was a boy and one was pink. Now Nancy and Mike were living in both of those rooms. 

“Mom can I use this?” Mike asked, Karen turned to see him holding a box of sidewalk chalk.

“Yeah. Of course.”

“Will likes to draw.” Mike explained, sitting down on the couch. 

“So, am I going to sleep on the couch? Or Will?”

“That’s up to you two.” 

“We can flip a coin.” Mike said. 

Karen smiled and fluffed out a bunch of pillows. “So, you or Will can sleep on this sleeping bag.”

“Okay.” Mike’s face was pressed against the glass window. 

“Sweetie, I told you, he’s coming at four.”

“But what if he comes early.”

“I don’t think that’s going to happen.”

Mike frowned. “I’m bored. I want Will to come over now.”

“Soon. Why don’t you help me dust down here.”

Mike furrowed his eyebrows and scrunched his nose. “Ew no.”

“Then go play.” 

Mike sighed, but went upstairs to the livingroom to watch some TV. He found Nancy sitting on the livingroom floor turning the knobs of the television. 

“Hey,” she said. “The x-men are on. Wanna watch?”

“Yeah.” Mike sat next to her.

“So listen Mike. I don’t want to be a jerk, but I don’t want any of your friends in my room, okay? It’s weird to have a bunch of little boys in my room. I’m a teenage girl and, well you know, I don’t want you going through my drawers and stuff.”

Mike looked offended. “I wouldn’t want to see your crummy underwear anyways. That might terrify my friends.” 

Nancy leaned over a whacked him with a pillow. “You’re such a scumbag.”

“Bite me.” Mike retorted. 

Nancy rolled her eyes. “Fine, but I’m serious. If I catch you or your friends in my room, I’m telling.”

“That’s so mean. You don’t even know what Mrs. Wheeler might do.” 

“Then you better not find out.”

“I’m not gonna go in your stupid room. Jeez.” Mike got up and stomped to the kitchen to get something to snack on. He was half way through a bag of chips and finished with a bottle of coke-a-cola when the doorbell rang. 

Mike raced for the door, but Mrs. Wheeler was already opening it. She greeted Joyce with a hug, but she was blocking Will. So Mike shoved Mrs. Wheeler out if the way, sliding around her legs so that he could greet Will. 

“Hey!” Mike exclaimed, wrapping Will in a hug. 

Karen’s scolding words died on her lips as she watched the kids interact. Joyce was melting too. 

“Oh you’re going to have so much fun.” Joyce told him. She addressed Karen, “He’s never been to a sleepover before.” 

“Aw. Don’t be afraid Will. You’re gonna have a great time.” Karen said. 

“I never had a sleepover either.” Mike added. “But I got sidewalk chalk, and I know how much you like to draw, so if you want, we can do that first.”

Will’s face lit up. “Yeah. I want to do that.” He turned to his mom and gave her a hug. “Okay, Bye mom.”

Joyce grabbed him by the sleeve and crouched down to his level. “I want you to have fun, but if you need me don’t hesitate to call.”

“Mom.” Will whined.

“And be good.”

“I will. Can I please go?”

“One last hug.”

“No mom stop.”

Joyce wrapped him up anyways and kissed his reddened face. Then she reluctantly let him go. Will scurried away quickly with Mike behind him. 

“He’s growing up so fast.” Joyce said, and Karen stepped aside, inviting her friend inside. 

“I know. He is.” Karen smiled as she took the bag from Joyce’s shoulder. 

“Is this all his stuff?”

“Yes it is.” Joyce held out her hand and started checking her fingers off as she went down the list. “Toothbrush, toothpaste, pajamas, clothes for tomorrow, oh and some comics he wanted to share with Mike.”

“I’ll put this in the basement later.” Karen said. “And before you go, I want to give you this cinnamon cookie recipe.”

“Oh thank you.” Joyce said, her hand already in her pocket digging for a cigarette. “I meant to ask you for that but it slipped my mind.”

“No worries. And you said Will likes spaghetti right?”

“Right.” 

“Good because that’s what I’m making tonight.” Karen said. 

Joyce was about to light her cigarette but she saw the look on her friend’s face, and she remembered Karen’s distaste for smoking. 

“Sorry. I’ll get going.” Joyce laughed nervously. “I’m just -“

“Worried. Joyce, I completely understand. But he’ll be fine.”

“I know. I know. It’s just the motherly instincts you were talking about coming out.”

“Kids have a way of doing that.” Karen laughed as she walked Joyce to the door. “Well thank you for letting him come over. I promise you’ll get through this.”

Joyce laughed. “I’m more worried than my boy.” 

As the two mothers exchanged their long goodbyes Mike and Will had already made their way downstairs. Will was flustered, pacing around the floor. 

“So, do you want to color now or -“ Mike watched as Will sat down with his head hung low. 

“What’s wrong?”

“My mom is embarrassing.” Will muttered, his face bright red when he lifted it. “I hate when she does that. Yesterday at school, she picked me up and she called me baby boy in front of everybody that was outside.” Will let out a frustrated groan. 

Mike bit his lip. “Sounds like she loves you a lot.”

Will furrowed his eyebrows. “Yeah of course she loves me. But she doesn’t have to embarrass me.”

“I think it’s nice.”

“Easy for you to say.” Will shouted, feeling very defensive. “You’re mom isn’t real. She can’t embarrass you.”

“I think I’d rather be embarrassed.” Mike countered, speaking quietly and non-aggressively. “At least I would know she loved me. Every mom I ever had never once called me any cute nicknames. Well, except for Mrs. Wheeler. She calls me honey.”

Will laughed lightly, “she does?”

“Yeah.” Mike chuckled too. “But I like it, cause like, I know she loves me.”

Will nodded. “As long as you don’t think it’s lame I guess there’s nothing wrong with it.”

“I don’t think it’s lame.” Mike assured him. 

“You’re cool.” Will declared. “Okay, we should definitely color now.”

Mike led Will over to the chalk and then outside into the driveway. They had just started making plans to color a dragon when a car pulled into the driveway. 

A red-headed girl hopped out of the backseat with her book bag. Mike recognized her from the clothing shop. It was Barb. 

“Hello Mike.” She said, as she walked past them on her way to the door. 

Will whispered to him once the girl was out of ear shot. “You know her?”

“Yeah. That’s Barb. She’s my sister’s friend. They’re having a sleepover too. But they will be upstairs doing disgusting girl things like nails and stuff.”

Will shrugged. “Painting nails doesn’t sound that bad. I like the idea of coloring and painting anything.” 

Mike thought about this for a second. “Yeah I guess I see your point. But I don’t know, girls are weird. They laugh about stupid things and they always spray gag smelling perfume everywhere.”

Will laughed. “I wouldn’t know. I have a brother and Jonathan doesn’t know many girls.”

“Then he’s lucky.” Mike said, but then he stopped coloring and dusted his messy chalk hands against this black slacks. “But girls aren’t so bad. They are really nice when you need someone to hug and they listen and stuff. So all an all, I like my sister.”

Will nodded. “I like my mom.” Then he gasped. “Whoa your dragon has really cool scales.”

Mike looked down at his blob of a drawing. “Really?”

“Yeah, I like the hexagon design.”

“Thanks. I always have really good visions in my head of how a scene should look, but I can never draw it. So I write it instead.”

“What do you mean?” 

“Well, it’s like the X-men comics. I can write about the action, but the illustrator can draw it. You can draw it too. You have a gift.”

“Really?” Will’s eyes were glowing. 

“Yeah.” Mike nodded in all seriousness. Then an idea popped into his head and he threw his arms out big and wide. “Hey! Do you think you could draw some of my writings? And - And if you can - if you can do that, then maybe we can make - you know - comic books together!”

Will dropped his chalk along with his mouth. “That’s a great idea. We can call it Mike and Will’s comic strip.”

“Yeah, and we can paste it on the back of old newspapers and pretend it’s in the comic page.” Mike was jumping up and down with Will, extremely excited about their really cool plan. They went inside to get their supplies and brought it back outside. 

Meanwhile, Barb and Nancy has locked themselves in Nancy’s bedroom and were blasting the record Barb brought over. 

“I love Pat Benatar” Nancy shouted as Barb was dancing around her room using Nancy’s hair brush as a microphone. 

“Hit me with your best shot, fire away. You come on with the come on, you don’t fight fair. That’s okay, see if I care. Knock me down it’s all in vain, I get right back on my feet again.” 

Nancy and Barb held up pretend guns and shouted, “hit me with your best shot.” They were busy laughing and dancing for the first 60 minutes. Finally, they turned off the tunes and sat on the bed giggling. 

“Oh that’s a pretty necklace.” Barb said, looking at Nancy’s ballet slippers. Brushing the sliver with her fingertips Nancy smiled. “Thank you. It was a gift from my mom before she left. It’s the only thing I have of her.” 

Barb nodded silently, taking in the beauty of the jewelry. 

“Wanna paint our nails?” Nancy asked.

“Duh,” Barb agreed, already holding her hands out, palms down. 

“So tell me all about this Steve Harrington.” Nancy said as she began to paint Barb’s nails a dark shade of pink. 

“Oh I dunno.” The girl rolled her eyes, “he’s a jock, likes basket ball, dodge ball, hits me in the head all the time during gym class. But what’s worse is his friends Tommy H and Carol. I swear they are sleeping together.”

Nancy’s mouth dropped open and she burst into laughter. “But they’re like thirteen? Right?”

“Yeah.” Barb looked at her nails in the lamp light and grinned, “but that apparently isn’t stopping Tommy and Carol.” 

“Ew gross.”

“Totally.”

“I’m never sleeping with a boy.” Nancy declared. “At least not until I’m thirty.”

Barb laughed, and picked up her water bottle. She gestured for Nancy to pick hers up too. Then, once they were both holding the bottles, Barb clicked them together. 

“Cheers to that.” 

“Cheers!”