Actions

Work Header

Never Say Die

Chapter Text

After three weeks, my mom was already sick of Hawkins.

For starters, the house was too small. She hated that there was only one bathroom for the five of us and grumbled that there wasn’t any space for her china cabinet in the kitchen.

There were no orange trees growing in our backyard anymore; just brown shrivelled up shrubs that were already starting to drop their leaves.

Hawkins didn’t have a superstore. There was no mall and nowhere to go at night that wasn’t closed by ten.

When the school called to tell her that our places were ready, I think she was relieved. She was sick of Billy crashing through the house and sick of Max pestering her for quarters for the arcade. When she walked into my room that October morning, she was already pulling my red sweater out of my closet as if she couldn’t wait for me to leave.

“You’ve got an hour,” she said, bending down to rummage through the boxes on the floor for my plaid skirt and brand new school bag. “You’ll have fun today. Meet some new people. Make some friends.”

She turned to me over her shoulder. “No more silliness,” she said. “Promise?”

When she said ‘no more silliness’, what she really meant to say was ‘no more Billy’. It was no secret that she was hoping I’d meet some small-town boy who’d keep me in line and remind me that there were responsibilities that came with being in my senior year.

I pretended I hadn’t heard her.

“I can’t go to school today,” I said, kicking off my sheets and taking the clothes she handed me. “I have my interview today.”

“Well…” my mom hovered in the doorway. “You’ll just have to call and tell them you’ll do the interview tonight. After school.”

I stared at her, defeated.

School was never a part of my getting-the-hell-out-of-Hawkins scheme.

Getting a job was a part of my getting-the-hell-out-of-Hawkins scheme. In fact, it was the only part of my scheme. School was just an irritating factor that got in the way. It was an inconvenience and nothing more.

I got dressed and marched sulkily into the kitchen, flopping myself down at the table where my mom was pouring cereal for my sister and cutting into toast.

Billy was sitting at the table too, wearing his jean jacket over his sweater and a pair of dark-tinted sunglasses, even though he was indoors.

When Neil walked in, he told him to take them off.

“I want you all to try your hardest today,” Neil said, speaking in that stupid, authoritarian voice he always used when he was making a speech. “Try hard, get good grades. Make me and your mother proud. Think of it as a fresh start.”

He looked at Billy.

“You’ll be responsible for your sisters,” he said seriously. “Take them to school on time and bring them home again. That means sticking to the speed limit and driving on the right side of the road. Do you hear me, Billy?”

Billy’s voice was bored and flat. “Yes, sir.”

“I told Diana she could go to her job interview after school,” my mom piped up. “She can walk into town but she’ll need picking up again. I don’t like the idea of her being out after dark.”

“Mom.” I took a frustrated bite into my toast. “It’s not that far.”

“I don’t care,” my mom went on. “Some girl went missing around here last year. And she just vanished into thin air like she was never there at all. Dreadful thing. Her poor parents. I can’t imagine what they must be going through.”

“I bet she wasn’t where she was supposed to be,” Neil said, taking a mouthful of coffee. “That’s what happens to girls who keep secrets and run around after dark. If she’d been at home, she’d probably still be here.”

“Girls can still get hurt in their own homes,” I said, trying to hide my disgust from him. “And besides, people go missing in San Diego all the time. This is Hawkins. How likely is it to happen twice?”

“Walk home alone at night,” Neil said cockily. “And see how likely it is then.”

He put down his coffee. “I finish work at five. I’ll pick you up myself.”

“I can do it,” Billy jumped in.

“No. You’re looking after Maxine.”

Billy stared down at the tablecloth like a sulky little boy, scowling at his cereal. He hated that there were no places to go at night, that everybody had curfews, that everybody knew everybody else.

“Jesus,” he muttered, quietly beneath his breath. “This place is such a shithole.”

Neil sipped his coffee and pretended he hadn’t heard him.

He was under this crazy illusion that Hawkins was going to be this fresh start for all of us and that living in a small town instead of the seedy places that San Diego had to offer was going to magically straighten us all out into perfect, obedient children.

My mom went and stood behind Maxine, combing through her long, coppery hair with her fingers.

“Your hair’s all knotted,” she said. “Have you even brushed it today?”

“I was going to,” Max grumbled, wriggling sleepily in her chair.

She was leaning on the table with both elbows, chewing on the zipper of her red jacket and kicking the toes of her green sneakers together.

“I can’t believe we have to start school in the middle of the semester,” she complained. “Nobody’s gonna want to hang out with new kids in the middle of the semester.”

“Of course they will,” my mom insisted, leaning over to kiss my sister quickly on the cheek. “They’ll love you.”

She watched me over the table. “You’re not nervous, are you Diana?”

“Why should she be?” Max said before I had time to speak. “She’s got Billy. I’m the loser who’s not gonna have anyone to hang out with at lunchtime.”

“You’re being dramatic,” Neil said, sounding bored.

He rose from the table and my mom went and fetched him his coat.

“I’ve got to go to work,” he said, making for the door. “Diana, I’ll see you after your interview. Billy…” He paused as if he didn’t know what to say. “Just behave yourself.”

Billy was lighting up a cigarette, even though he wasn’t allowed to smoke at the table. I kept waiting for my mom or Neil to say something to him, but they just looked straight through him as if he wasn’t even there.

“Goodbye, darling…” my mom followed Neil out onto the porch, wrapping her arms around him like they were in some kind of movie. We could hear them kissing on the step and Max screwed up her face and mimed gagging, her fingers in her mouth.

“Gross,” she squirmed.

Billy was staring at the wall with this vapid, empty look on his face and his eyes didn’t seem to be taking anything in. He looked spaced out and distant, bored with everything.

He got up.

“We should head out too,” Billy said, flicking ash onto the side plate. “Max, you’re in the back.”

Max and I stared at each other, acknowledging with secret smiles and rolled eyes that Billy was, as usual, in one of his moods.

The hallway of Hawkins High smelled like tangy lockerroom sweat and boiled meat from the cafeteria. I walked with my books pressed against my chest, swept along by the girl that had decided to ‘adopt’ me for the day, parading me around as her shiny new toy, all the way from sunny California.

Carol had sidled up to me in Mr Mundy’s class, leaning forward across her desk to smack her gum loudly and ask me my name. She was pretty, with auburn hair sprayed into a helmet of curls and shiny pink lips that seemed to be twisted into a perpetual sneer, like she was secretly making fun of you.

“So that new guy you came with,” Carol said, tugging on my arm as we walked to the cafeteria for lunch. “Is he like your brother? ‘Cause I mean, no offence, but you look nothing like him.”

“My mom married his dad,” I said, hating the subtle dig she’d thrown my way. “But I literally just met him this summer. I hardly know him really.”

“Do you know if he’s single?” Carol asked. She squeezed my arm. “Not for me. I’m dating Tommy. See that guy over there?” She pointed proudly with her free hand as we entered the cafeteria, swinging me over to a nearby table. “It’s for my friend, Tina. We saw him in the parking lot this morning.”

Something told me to keep quiet about mine and Billy’s relationship. Carol didn’t seem the sort of girl you could really talk to about anything without having the conversation spread across the whole school in a matter of hours.

“Like I said.” I shrugged out of my jacket. “I hardly know him.”

Carol didn’t seem to press the issue. She was waving Tommy over, who had her food piled high on a tray for her. Tommy was pale and freckled and boyish-looking, with a cruel, cutting laugh that made me want to squirm in my seat. He threw an arm around Carol’s shoulder and kissed her roughly, pulling on her sweater like they were the only ones in the room.

When they pulled away again, Tommy’s mouth was stained pink from Carol’s lipstick.

“So you’re Hargrove’s sister, huh?” Tommy said, looking at me.

“They’re not actually related,” Carol corrected, spearing her meatloaf with her fork and taking a bite. “God, this tastes like shit.”

“So don’t eat it.” Tommy leaned over and smashed the meatloaf into a paste beneath his fingers. It made Carol laugh, throwing her head back like it was the funniest thing she’d ever seen.

“Tommy, you’re such a jerk,” she whined, faking upset. Then she looked up across the tables and her face turned sour. “God, have you ever seen anything so pathetic?”

I turned to look to where she was staring.

A curly, dark-haired girl was leaning against the lunch counter with her empty tray, gazing up at Billy with wide, expressive eyes. She had a large pink bow her in hair, which she pulled on nervously whenever Billy leant forward to speak to her, his hands placed arrogantly on the buckle of his belt.

“Heather Holloway?” Carol sneered. “Like he’d ever get with her.”

“She looks nice,” I said, fighting back visible jealousy. “What’s wrong with her?”

“Nothing, except she’s a total bitch.” Carol rolled her eyes and leaned into Tommy’s side. “Her dad’s like super-rich. He owns the newspaper or something and he’s loaded.”

“She’s a daddy’s girl,” Tommy sniggered.

I hated them. They were shallow and mean and spiteful and I couldn’t imagine them saying anything nice about anyone. I wondered what they secretly thought of me- mousy Diana Mayfield, the quiet, weird step-sister of Billy Hargrove, the newly crowned King of Hawkins High.

As if on cue, Billy sauntered his way over to our table, leaving Heather blushing wistfully by the lunch counter. He swung his legs over the bench next to me and beneath the cover of the table, knocked my knee playfully with his.

Carol shot forward. “Did I just see you talking to Heather Holloway?”

Billy stared at her flatly. “What about it?”

“She’s a total slut,” Carol chimed back. “She did it with one of her dad’s co-workers at an office party.” She screwed her face up, laughing. “She’s such a tramp.”

Billy didn’t look like he believed her. He was staring at her with this dull, uninterested look on his face, eyes narrowed like he was thinking something terrible about her. He looked at Carol like she was something that needed flicking away, like she was an insect that wouldn’t stop buzzing around him.

“Whatever,” Billy said.

“Hey, man.” Tommy waved his fork to get Billy’s attention. “You told your sister about the Halloween party yet?”

“She’s not my sister,” Billy cut in.

“So everybody keeps saying,” Carol sniped.”But anyway, Tina’s having this party tomorrow night. Everyone’s gonna be there. Diana, you should come,” she added sweetly. “Billy’s in, aren’t you Billy?”

“A party?” I echoed. “Like…a costume party?”

“Ding, ding, ding!” Carol laughed. “Duh! It’s Halloween.”

“She’ll be there,” Billy said, slinging his arm confidently over my shoulder. “Right, Diana?”

“Right,” I said, but even though I tried to sound enthusiastic, I couldn’t quite muster it up. “I’ll be there.”

I stared past Tommy and Carol and towards the back of the cafeteria. Heather was leaning on her elbows at another table, deep in conversation with another girl. She looked dreamy and waiflike, her dark eyes somewhere else.

Chapter Text

The rest of the school day passed by in a blur.

There were plenty of people who were kind enough and inquisitive enough to make sure I was never sitting alone in class or wandering the hallway by myself.

But by the time the last bell rang and I began to make my out to the parking lot to meet Max and Billy, I was beginning to wish they’d all just leave me alone. I was Diana Mayfield and there was nothing remotely interesting about me. I was from California but I didn’t have the tan to prove it and I’d never gatecrashed a Hollywood party or ran into a celebrity on the sunset strip.

I was desperately hoping that mine and Billy’s whirlwind arrival to Hawkins would soon calm down and they’d all just leave me alone. Billy was Mr Popular; with his golden tan, tight jeans and Hollywood eyes. But I knew I was never going to be the mysterious California girl they wanted me to be.

Billy was waiting for me by the car, back against the passenger side door, smoking a cigarette. My sister was skating round him in circles, trying to show him a new trick she’d learned during lunch hour but he was only half paying attention. He was watching me come out of the building, eyes sleepy.

“Good day?” He said when I reached him.

“Well…” I toed the dirt, resisting the urge to stand too close to him. “Everybody seems to like you.”

“They like you too,” he tried, with an unconvincing smile.

“They like me because you like me.”

Billy’s eyes flashed, lowering his head to my level and leaning in close. He smelled faintly of skunk-like he’d been smoking something at recess. He gave a playful smirk, his voice almost a whisper. “Who says I like you?”

“Can we go?” Max jumped off her board and stared us both down. She seemed sullen and moody, face all scrunched up like she was in pain.

“Bad day, Max?” I said, dragging my eyes from Billy.

She kicked the Camaro’s rubber tire sulkily. “I don’t wanna talk about it.”

Billy pretended he hadn’t seen her taking her mood out on the car. He didn’t seem to be interested in her. He hadn’t taken his eyes off me yet.

I had to admit, it was sort of weird, not being able to see him all the time like in California. He wasn’t in any of my classes apart from science.

“You have your interview,” Billy said, remembering. “I can take you there if you like. I mean, Max wants to go to the arcade anyway.”

“I can walk,” I said. “There’s no rush. Mr Newby says I can stop by anytime.”

Billy smiled a slow, amused smile. “His name’s Mr Newby?”

“Don’t.” I shoved him playfully in the shoulder. “He sounded really sweet over the phone.”

“Can we please go?” Max whined again.

Billy spun at her, head zipping in her direction. “I don’t see you getting in the car,” he snapped, taking one last drag of his cigarette and crushing it beneath his boots. “Don’t expect me to come for you.”

The three of us climbed into the Camaro, Billy’s music crashing obnoxiously loud from the stereo speakers as he swung the car out of the parking lot, spinning dust.

Max was rooting around in the bottom of her bag for more quarters. I had a few leftover from lunch and leaned over into the backseat to give her them.

“Make any friends today?” I asked.

She shrugged, eyes down. “Nobody special. They’re all creeps.”

I hadn’t thought Billy was listening but he made a sound at the back of his throat that could have been a laugh.

“I told you this place was a shithole,” he said, over the roar of the engine. “You know what they put on their fields here?”

He gripped the steering wheel tight. “Shit. Actual shit.”

“Bullshit,” I said, not believing him.

“No?” Billy clicked the window down, the drag of the car pulling at my hair. He pinched his nose. “You smell that, Diana? That’s actually cowshit.”

I didn’t say anything.

“Still planning your great escape then?” Billy asked, glancing at me. “You’ll never earn enough to get out of here.”

“A plane ticket only costs like a hundred dollars,” I said defensively.

Billy snorted. “Yeah? Then what? You get to California and live in some shitty Motel 6 for a couple of weeks ‘til you run out of money.”

“Nothing wrong with a motel,” I jumped in with a secretive smile.

He was trying hard to hide a smile of his own. “I’m serious, Diana. You leave and you end up dying in some shitty drug den where nobody even knows your name.”

“That’s a bit extreme,” I started.

“That’s what happens,” he shrugged, staring at the road. “I’ve seen it.”

“Oh really?” I had to laugh. “Where?”

“Miami Vice.”

The car shot into the arcade parking lot, screeching to an abrupt stop. My sister clambered out, clutching at her board.

She didn’t even bother saying goodbye.

Billy leaned over the seat to scowl at her.

“Like I said,” he snapped. “Don’t expect me to come for you.”

Max scowled back at him, shooting him the middle finger. She seemed to be taking her bad mood out on everybody.

“Screw you, Billy,” she fired back.

Billy floored the gas pedal before she had time to even close the passenger side door, skitting back out of the lot in a matter of seconds.

He was seething.

“That little shit,” he said under his breath. “God, she’s such a bitch.”

“It sounds like she’s had a tough day,” I tried, but even I was surprised by Max’s sudden change in behaviour.

Hawkins seemed to be bringing out the worst in everybody.

Billy slowed as we reached the edge of town, crawling the curb for a space to pull over. “Which one is it?”

“The one on the end,” I said, pointing. “Radio Shack.”

Billy didn’t even bother trying to hide his smirk as he pulled up outside the tech store, eyeing the red lettering with a mocking smile.

“Jesus,” he muttered, leaning forward to get a better look at the storefront. “You wanna work here?”

I grabbed my bag. “Don’t start.”

“I’m not saying anything,” Billy answered dryly. Then he leaned over to kiss me goodbye. Automatically, I stiffened up, aware of what it would look like should anybody walk past and see the two of us kissing in the front seat. When Billy pulled away, he looked almost offended but he didn’t bother to say anything.

“We can’t do that in public,” I said quietly, putting my bag over my shoulder. “People talk in small towns.”

“I’m not fucking you against the window,” Billy fired back rudely.

I stared at him. Billy was sharp-tempered and impatient but he’d never used language like that on me before, not when it was aimed at me anyway. I was used to him swearing and crashing around in his biker boots trailing cigarette smoke, but I wasn’t used to this.

“I’ll see you later.” I climbed stormily out of the car, slamming the door shut in my temper.

I blamed Hawkins. God damn Hawkins.

The store bell jingled as I went in.

The smiling man at the counter was in his early forties, with a sweet, round pudding face and a mop of brown hair.

When he saw me, the man gave me a real, genuine smile. His eyes crinkled.

“Mr Newby?” I asked nervously, stepping forward. “I’m Diana Mayfield. We spoke on the phone…”

“Diana.” The man put down the cables he was holding and circled the counter to come shake my hand. “It’s good to finally meet you; And please, don’t call me Mr Newby. It sounds so formal and I hate formalities.”

I stared at him, wondering what I should call him instead.

“Bob,” he jumped in quickly. “Just Bob.”

“Well then, Bob.” I felt relaxed around him already. “You think you can help me out with a job?”

He laughed, going back round to the counter. I knew he was laughing because it had rhymed.

“Diana,” he said seriously, holding up a black box-like object from underneath the counter. “Do you know what this is?”

I didn’t.

“This is a ZX Spectrum,” Bob said, reaching for something else. “You know what this is?”

I didn’t know what that gadget was called either, or the one after that. In fact, I didn’t know what any of the gadgets were called.

After a while, Bob put down the console he was holding and squinted at me kindly over the counter. He was trying very hard to be nice, but I knew the interview wasn’t going well.

“Tell me again why you want to work here?” He asked, dubiously.

“Because it’s part of my plan,” I blurted.

Bob smiled kindly. “What plan?”

“My plan to get out of here,” I sighed, leaning on the counter with my elbows. “Please, Bob. Can’t you just give me a chance? I really need this job if I wanna get out Hawkins by the time I graduate.”

“Get out of Hawkins?” Bob looked confused. “Didn’t you just get here?”

“Yes, and I hate it already.”

Bob seemed to like my honesty because he chuckled sweetly and nodded his head as if he understood.

“We all want to get out of Hawkins,” he said. “And for that reason and for that reason alone- because no offence, you don’t know anything about gadgets- I’m gonna give you the job. But only on Saturdays,” he added quickly.

I didn’t even bother trying to hide my smile. “Bob, really?”

“Sure,” he said, laughing too. “Why not? I’m feeling kind of generous.”

Bob glanced out the shop window at the darkening sky, frowning nervously at the clouds that were rolling in. The street outside was decorated for Halloween, with plastic orange pumpkins grinning wickedly out of the store window.

“I don’t like the look of that sky,” Bob said. “I make it almost five. Do you have a ride home?”

“My stepdad’s picking me up,” I said, hating the word. “But thanks.”

“Oh no problem,” Bob declared, getting ready to lock up the till. He gave a shiver like somebody had walked on his spine. “Maybe it’s because it’s Halloween,” he said. “But I always feel uneasy this time of year, you know? Like tonight, it’s movie night at my girlfriend’s house.” He turned proudly to me. “I’m dating Joyce Byers.”

He said her name like I should have known it.

“She works for Donald over at the retail store,” he said, going off topic. “But anyway, it’s her son’s turn to pick the movies tonight; And I’m just hoping he doesn’t pick anything too scary. ‘Cause I hate scary movies.”

I smiled at him. Bob sure knew how to talk but I didn’t seem to mind it. It was actually refreshing to have somebody just rambling away without a care in the world; talking excitedly about stupid things like girlfriends and movie nights and plastic pumpkins. It made a welcome change from the cattiness of Hawkins High which I was sick of already.

“Hey.” Bob perked up brightly, tilting his head to one side. “Somebody’s playing Kenny Rogers.”

I turned to the window and saw the tan ford pick-up parked up outside.

“That’s Neil,” I said, rolling my eyes. “I have to go. But thank you.”

“No problem kiddo,” Bob said, following me to the door. “I’ll see you Saturday; And I’m sorry, where did you say you lived again?”

I stopped myself, embarrassed. “Old Cherry Road,” I confessed.

Bob didn’t blink an eye at the street name, even though it was part of the old town of Hawkins, near the shabby trailer park and the intersection of Cornwallis and Kerley. I’d heard people at school talking about how only Poor people lived there- and that was poor with a capital P.

“That’s not too out of my way,” Bob said kindly. “Tell your dad I’ll drop you home myself next time. If he doesn’t mind it.”

I resisted the urge to correct him on his mistake, thanking him over and over again as I walked out of the door and back onto the street.

Bob gave Neil a small wave from the doorstep.

“You got the job then?” Neil asked, looking up as I climbed up into the truck beside him. “That’s very good. Very responsible of you.”

“Thanks,” I said, flatly.

Neil started up the engine and began to head for home.

I had my knees turned into the car door, staring out of the side window with my chin in my hands and praying he wouldn’t try and talk to me.

He looked slightly put out that I was trying to ignore him.

I pressed my forehead against the cool glass of the window and felt the vibrations of the engine through my skull.

The car was steaming up. I smudged patterns into the clouded windows.

Neil liked to drive slowly and carefully; idle like he didn’t have anywhere else to be. The trees and the sky didn’t rush and catapult back, heartbeat fast, the way they did like when Billy drove.

“What’s that?” I asked suddenly, leaning forward with interest.

Neil glanced quickly at where I was pointing.

There was a tall, barbed-wire fence running alongside the entire stretch of road in front of us. It was eery and metallic looking, threatening against the darkening sky.

It reminded me of a prison gate or a slaughterhouse that kept the animals caged in. There was a sign attached to the fence that read simply: restricted area.

It looked like a trap.

“That’s probably the laboratory,” Neil said, turning his attention back to the road. “The government work there. I imagine they’re working hard keeping us all safe from the Commies.”

“The Commies?” I echoed, glancing back behind me; It was a word I heard on the news all the time and sometimes in the conversations of older people. They said the word like it was a dangerous word, hissing or spitting it like it left a bad taste in their mouth. “What do you think they do in there?”

“Who knows?” Neil shrugged like he was bored with the conversation already. “But it’s probably best not to ask too many questions. I’m sure that whatever they’re doing in there, it’ll be for the good of the country.”

“Are you a patriot, Neil?” I asked, tracing a face on the fogged-up window.

“We’re all patriots in this house,” Neil said sternly, but then his voice softened. “Diana, I’ve been meaning to speak to you about something.”

I let my hands drop from the window, falling into my lap. Neil leaned over and turned the stereo down so that we could barely hear it anymore.

I braced myself for whatever was coming- another lecture probably.

“I’ve been meaning to tell you how proud I am of you,” Neil started, surprising me. “You’ve helped your mother with the move and the unpacking and I know she hates that there isn’t a Sears nearby but I think you’ve done very well at keeping her calm.” Neil rounded the corner and started to slow down as we approached the house. “Your mother, she can get a little upset sometimes, but you taking the initiative to get a job like that has really shown us both that you can be an adult.”

We pulled onto the concrete driveway, stopping outside the house. It had started to rain. Fat grey drops of water dribbled down the side of the car and squiggled down the windowpanes, seeping into the rubber window seal.

“I just don’t want you thinking I’ve been harsh on you for no reason,” Neil went on, staring straight ahead of him at the house. “My father raised me and my brothers using a similar disciplinary method and I think it works. I’ve always been raised to believe that a child should have respect for their father.”

I stared at him. I wanted to tell him that he wasn’t my father.

“I want you to keep it in mind.” Neil opened the car door and stepped out onto the driveway, prompting me to do the same. We walked up to the house together, up the steps that led to the backdoor. “Keep in mind what I said this morning, about treating the move as a fresh start, a new beginning. Find yourself some new friends, work hard at school. You can make us proud.”

Neil pushed at the door and we went in. My mom was at the table plating up dinner and Max was helping her. Billy was sitting at the table with his head thrown back, eyes on the ceiling, but they all looked up when Neil and I walked in.

“You’re a good girl, Diana.”

Neil reached for me and I flinched, drawing back automatically, thinking he was going to hit me. His fingers settled gently on my cheek, drawing himself nearer.

“I think you’ve always been a good girl,” he finished, “Deep down.”

“Everything okay, darling?” My mom was smiling her tight smile at us over the table. She didn’t make it clear which of us she was talking to. “Dinner’s ready.”

I dragged myself away from him, blinking fast and hurrying to the table to sit down beside Billy, who was staring and waiting for me to tell him what the hell was going on.

I kept my eyes down on my plate, choked up.

I thought we were all in our own private traps and this house was mine.

Chapter Text

“Swear to God, Max!” Billy brought his fist down so hard on the bathroom door that the whole frame shivered. “Will you hurry up? I swear to God, I’ll kill you if we’re late-“

“-Since when did you care so much about your attendance?” I asked with a laugh, coming up behind him in my bathrobe.

Billy turned to me with a sour-looking scowl, eyebrows knitted together like he was ready to kill someone for real. He turned his wrist to me and furiously tapped the digits on his watch.

“It’s almost eight,” he snapped. “I’m supposed to be trying out for the basketball team in half an hour.”

He turned back to the door and hit it again with force. He was only shouting and screaming because my mom and Neil had left for work early so they could do overtime. If Neil was here, there was no way he’d be acting the way he was.

“Let me.” I shoved my way past him and tapped politely on the door. Billy was standing so close behind me I could feel his front pressing into my back. “Max?” I called out, gingerly. “You okay in there? You’ve been ages.”

“Just a minute!” Max’s voice was small and quiet from the other side of the door. “I’ll be out in a second, okay?”

Billy exhaled slowly like he was trying to control himself, moving to go and stand by the wall. He looked at me, his eyes flicking to my bathrobe and then to my face. He didn’t even have to say what he was thinking. I was already blushing.

“Stop it,” I said, half-heartedly. I tightened the belt on my robe like I was trying to prove a point. “You’re not funny.”

“I didn’t say anything.” Billy leaned forward and his arms made a cage around my waist, dragging me up against him and the wall. “You make me crazy, you know that?”

“Don’t,” I said, but he was already kissing me and this time I was kissing him back. I liked his coffee and cigarette smell and the way his denim shirt felt against my skin.

The bathroom door opened and we sprang apart.

“Max!” I brought my hands quickly to my mouth, gasping at the sight of her. “What have you done?”

“Jesus Christ.” Billy gave a loud whoop and slapped the wall. “It’s Christopher Lee.”

Max stood, embarrassed, in the bathroom doorway. Her face was chalk white, drained of color like she was seriously ill. Her eyebrows were tinted comically dark.

“It’s Halloween,” she burst out, defensively. “You have to be scary. You can’t just dress up like Jennifer Beals and call it a costume.”

“That is so not the point,” I said, pretending that her comment hadn’t bruised me as much as it did. “Max, you can’t go to school like that. Nobody dresses up for school anymore.”

“Yeah, only if you’re like five.” Billy slipped past her into the bathroom. I could hear the water running. “Wash that shit off your face before everyone makes fun of you.”

Max ducked her head and let her hair hang heavy in front of her painted face. She looked small and childish.

He’d hurt her feelings.

“Hey.” I slipped a gentle arm around her. “I think you look great, okay? But Billy’s right. Kids are mean, Max. They’ll make fun of you.”

“Everybody dressed up last year.” Her voice came out thick and quiet.

“Well, that was different.” I tried to hug her without getting grease paint all over my robe. “We’re not in California anymore.”

“Yeah, no shit,” Billy said from the sink.

“Ignore him.” I gave Max a gentle push in the direction of my room. “Go wash it off, but don’t use all of my stuff.”

Max went, doing as she was told.

In her yellow t-shirt and Vans, she looked like a little kid. I turned to Billy with a hot stare, wishing he wasn’t always so mean. He could be nice when he wanted to be, even kind, but sometimes he was just an asshole.

I huffed loudly to show him I was mad and went to my room to get changed.

Later, when Billy honked his horn impatiently from the driveway, my sister came running out, makeup-free but stuffing a plastic Michael Myers mask into her rucksack.

She caught us staring.

“Just in case,” she said abruptly, climbing into the backseat. “I don’t want to be the only loser without a costume.”

At school, Tina’s party was all anybody could talk about.

During study hall, Carol dragged me off to the girl’s bathroom with a couple of her other friends to talk costumes. They were loud and giggly and smoked cigarette after cigarette until the air was like a thick fog.

Nicole, a red-haired girl with a snooty, upturned look, stuffed her jacket underneath the door to stop the smoke seeping out into the hallway.

We were sitting on the floor with our backs against the sinks.

“And it has a big net skirt,” A girl called Tammy was saying, trying to explain her costume. “Like one of those ballerina skirts, you know? And I’m gonna have my hair up real big like she does and wear lots of long, beaded necklaces.”

“Who are you supposed to be again?” Tina asked, dryly.

Tammy flushed indignantly. “Madonna.”

Tina didn’t look impressed. She raised an eyebrow haughtily and dragged on her cigarette like she was in a movie. “From what, exactly?”

“From the VMAs?” Tammy said, as if it was obvious. “Like a Virgin?”

Carol snorted loudly, coughing out smoke. “Like is the word we’re focusing on here,” she said cruelly. She turned to me, still laughing. “What about you, Diana? Still a virgin?”

The other girls turned to me for my answer.

They were mean and intimidatingly beautiful, blinking at me with their long dark lashes and waiting expectantly for my reply; their glossy, painted lips curved into pretty, dagger-like smiles.

“Oh.” I could feel myself blushing, dipping my head into my collar bone to hide my burning cheeks. “Actually, no. But I’ve only ever been with the one guy.”

Carol smiled her mean smile. “That’s cute,” she said.

“We need more details than that,” Tammy jumped in, giggling. “Who was it with?”

“Nobody.” I didn’t trust these girls, with their cruel smiles and cutting remarks and their eyes that told you one thing while their mouth said another. “It was nobody,” I said. “Nobody you’d know anyway. Just some guy from California.”

Carol leaned back into the sink, her eyes narrowed like a cat’s.

“She’s lying,” she said. “If she was telling the truth she’d just tell us his name. It’s not like we’re gonna know who he is anyway. Right girls?”

She stared at me, smugly chewing on her gum.

“If you’re telling the truth,” Carol smiled. “Then tell us his name.”

I stared at her, heart quickening beneath my sweater.

She was intimidatingly cruel.

“I don’t care if you don’t believe me,” I said slowly. “It doesn’t make any difference to me whether you believe me or not.”

There was a shocked pause and then Carol’s eyes lit up. She burst into laughter, throwing herself forward to smack at the floor with her palms.

“Diana, your face!” she gasped. “I’m kidding! We totally believe you, don’t we girls?”

She looked to Tammy and Nicole, urging them to nod along in agreement.

“God,” she laughed. “I’ve never seen anyone so defensive over a screw before. He must have been really good, huh, Diana?”

I let them laugh, secretly hating them.

Later, when I saw Billy in the cafeteria, I kept my eyes down and didn’t look at him. It sounded irrational, but for a brief moment, I’d been scared that Carol’s stupid little rich girl act was just that- an act.

She looked at me like she’d got me all figured out.

—-

It was fifty-six degrees standing out in Tina’s backyard- but I wasn’t cold.

I was wearing red shoes, black knitted legwarmers and a slouchy grey sweater over my black gym leotard. The red paper cup in my hand and the surge of people pressing against me, whooping and cheering by the keg stand, were keeping me warm. My hairsprayed curls stuck clammily to my forehead.

Billy was being crowned Keg King.

His legs were propped up onto Tommy’s shoulders, his gloved hands gripping the edge of the keg stand so hard that his fingertips had turned white.

Amazingly, he made it all the way to forty-two then came up again for air, spluttering frothy white foam out into the crowd, covering himself in the stuff so that his bare chest glistened.

“Billy!” One of the girls sprang forward, grabbing hold of his leather sleeve. “My hero,” she gasped out, her words slurred with drink.

People were pressing round him, shouting his name.

They wanted him.

“Hawkins has a new Keg King!” Tommy declared, swooping his arm around Billy’s shoulder and roaring his name back into the crowd.

“That’s how you do it, Hawkins!” Billy’s voice was deep and loud in the tiny backyard, even against the crash of the music. “That’s how you do it!”

He turned and saw me standing there at the foot of the crowd. His eyes flashed quickly and he grabbed hold of my hand, pulling me with him back into the house.

“Let’s go upstairs,” he said in my ear.

We pushed our way through the throng of sweating bodies.

Billy’s hands were on my arm.

“Beat it, Harrington,” Tommy was saying.

Billy’s eyes had been averted, stopping by one of the boys who was standing nearby. He was boyish, with floppy brown hair and dark sunglasses.

When Billy and Tommy sauntered over to him, Harrington took off his sunglasses to stare them down.

I rolled my eyes, now standing alone and feeling stupid by myself.

Somebody was throwing up in the sink.

I glanced around me, spotting another boy standing on his own near the door.

He looked like he didn’t really want to be there and I thought I knew the feeling.

“Nice costume,” I said, motioning to the plain black jean jacket and striped tee he was wearing. He pushed his sandy hair out of his eyes and looked away, embarrassed.

“Yeah,” he said, quietly. “I’m going as the guy who hates parties.”

I laughed at him, hoping he hadn’t thought I was being mean.

“Diana,” I said, sticking my hand out.

“Jonathan.” The boy took my hand in his own, staring at the wall behind me.

At first, I thought he was staring at Billy, because everybody did. But he was staring past him, at the tiny, brown-haired girl by the punchbowl. She was dressed all in white, struggling to stand, the sticky pink drink staining her cheeks.

She was Harrington’s date, I realised.

“You like taking photos?” I asked him, noticing the camera around his neck.

“I mean, yeah…” Jonathan shifted awkwardly from foot to foot. “It’s kind of a hobby, you know? I don’t take it too seriously-“

He hadn’t taken his eyes off the girl yet.

“You like her or something?” I asked boldly. “You’re sort of staring at her a lot.”

Jonathan looked twitchy. “Didn’t you come with that douchebag, Hargrove?”

“Touchè,” I laughed, not really minding that he hadn’t answered the question.

“Cool party, huh?” Jonathan said uselessly, clearly racking his brain for something to say. Conversation didn’t seem to be his forte. “This isn’t usually my sort of scene.”

“Mine neither,” I said, taking a drink. “Actually, I think I’ve been to about two parties in my whole life. This is the second,” I finished and Jonathan laughed.

“You’re new here. You can tell people you’ve been to a million and they’ll believe you.”

“Why are you here then?” I asked. “If these things aren’t your scene?”

“My friend invited me,” Jonathan said. He didn’t need to look at the tiny girl for me to know who he was talking about. “I guess I just can’t say no.”

“It does that,” I said, smiling. “They say it makes you crazy.”

“What does?” Jonathan blushed, but I didn’t get the chance to answer.

Jonathan saw Billy coming over, finished finally with his confrontation with Harrington, and took it as his cue to leave.

He gave me a shy, self-conscious smile, dipping his head with a wave.

“I guess I’ll see you around,” he said. “At school, maybe?”

“Yeah.” I smiled, feeling Billy come up behind me. “I’d like that.”

“He your new boyfriend?” Billy joked in my ear when Jonathan had shifted awkwardly on. “He looks like a mop.”

“You’re mean,” I said, trying not to laugh at how cruel he was being.

I turned round to face him and put my hand on his arm. People were still talking about the keg stand, their voices buzzing as they circled around.

“What do you know?” I said quietly, lifting my face up to meet his eyes. “Everybody loves you Billy Hargrove.”

“Yeah?” Billy held me at arm’s length so that he could study me through heavy-lidded eyes, weighed down by alcohol. “Do you love me?”

The question was jarring, erratic, and the look on Billy’s face told me he’d regretted asking me the question too. He laughed quickly before I had time to give him an answer and let his arm drape heavy over my arm.

“Come on,” he said smoothly. “Let’s go someplace quiet.”

We made for the stairs.

Chapter Text

Billy slammed me hard against the panel of the bedroom door, his hands on the back of my head to soften the blow of the knock. His mouth crashed furiously onto my mouth, his body pressing so deeply into mine it was like he wanted to pass through me.

“Billy…” I glanced over his shoulder, my eyes settling on the bed further in the room. “Billy, wait. Stop a minute.”

Billy let out a low groan, his face buried in my collarbone, hands on the wall by my head. “Jesus, Diana. You’re killing me, you know that?”

“There’s somebody else in the room.”

Billy whirled around, breathing hard. He was shiny with perspiration and spilt beer, blond curls spilling down over his forehead, his eyes snapping to the bed.

There was a girl lying on the top of the duvet, only semi-conscious, her eyes half-open and staring at the ceiling. She was wearing a tiny, white nurse costume, her matching hospital cap skewed on the side of her head.

“Heather Holloway,” I said, approaching the bed. “That’s Heather Holloway, isn’t it?”

I looked at Billy. He’d gone round to the other side of the bed, kneeling one knee onto the mattress to get a better look at her.

“Yeah,” he said. “That’s her.”

“Is she alright?”

“She’s wasted.” Billy brought his ear down to Heather’s mouth, listening for her breathing. “Or stoned. I can’t tell.”

Heather let out a small whimper, moving slightly in her subdued state.

She was looking up at Billy and her eyes were on his face but it was like she couldn’t take in what she was seeing.

“We can’t leave her,” I said.

I knew what the dangers were for a girl when she drank too much and passed out at parties. My mom had warned me about it, cutting out articles from her magazines on how to prevent it.

I wasn’t stupid.

I thought it was all very patronising, the way they were always telling girls how to behave all the time as if it was our fault.

“We should take her home,” I told Billy anyway. “We can’t just leave her here.”

Billy sighed a deep sigh, looking wistfully over at the closed door where the party could still be heard downstairs. I knew it wasn’t very ‘Billy’ to be leaving a party at eleven o’clock.

“Fine,” he said, bending down to swing Heather up into his arms, limp against his shoulder. “But just to her door and that’s it.”

Heather made a small noise, her voice small and muffled against his jacket.

Billy’s eyes rolled. “What did she say?”

“She wants water,” I translated, noticing Heather’s purse still lying on the bed. I picked it up for her. “She’s thirsty.”

“She’ll wish she was dead in the morning.” Billy shifted her in his arms, making for the door. “She’s gonna have the hangover from hell.”

I followed him and Heather out into the hallway, down the stairs and then out into the yard where the Camaro was parked.

Billy bent down and put Heather into the backseat, her head lolling against the headrest like a ragdoll.

She was pale and shivering in her thin costume.

I climbed into the backseat with her, letting her dark head fall into my lap.

Billy stared at me, eyes fixed on my face like he was going to say something important. Then he gave me a small, half-smile and climbed into the car.

Afterwards, when Heather was safely at home and in her own bed, Billy took to the backroads in the Camaro; no longer in the mood for Tina’s party and definitely not wanting to go home yet.

He drove fast and slightly erratically, the stereo cranked up so that I could feel the music through the seats. He was playing Mötley Crüe’s ‘Shout at the Devil’.

It had been playing at the party but it reminded me most of sitting on the hood outside the roadhouse back home. Perhaps it reminded Billy too.

“I had fun tonight,” Billy said, glancing at the dark, winding road in front of him.

“Even though I made you leave early?”

“Even though you made me leave early,” he said through a smile. “You’ve got me wrapped around your finger, you know that? I wouldn’t have done that shit for anybody else.”

I didn’t say anything.

It was nice just sitting in his car and letting him drive as fast as he wanted. It was nice to just bomb through town with the music blasting, the windows rolled down to let the night air in.

The air wasn’t as warm as it had been in California though.

“Diana,” Billy said my name, wanting me to turn and look at him; And when I did, he kissed me. I felt the car swerve slightly on the road, my stomach leaping at the danger of it, fingers curling automatically to cling to the sides of the car seat. It was reckless and stupid and it made my heart hammer.

I pushed him away. He was laughing.

“Jerk,” I said, only half-angry. “If you kiss me like that again I’ll get out of the car.”

Billy pulled the car into the side of the road, stopping slightly on the shoulder, the woods on my side of the window.

“Come on,” he said, snapping off his seatbelt and climbing out. “Come on, Diana?”

I stayed where I was, leaning forward in my seat to see where we were. We were almost at Cornwallis; I recognised the bend of the road and the trees on my side.

It was dark out.

I didn’t feel like moving.

“What are you doing?” I asked.

Billy had made for the woods, biker boots crashing through the undergrowth with a sharp snapping sound.

“Billy! You’re a real jerk, you know that?”

“You wanna stay there?” Billy called back, not turning around. “Alone?”

“I hate you,” I muttered, unclipping my belt and climbing out of the car.

I did a little run to join him, consciously aware of how impractical it was to be running around in the woods wearing pointed shoes and a leotard.

“This is how horror movies start,” I said, catching up to him and letting him slip an arm over my shoulder. “Every single horror movie has started this way. If we die tonight, you’re so dead.”

Billy’s voice was hot in my ear.

“Scared, Diana?”

He was teasing me, trying to get under my skin and annoy me. It was working.

“I’m not scared,” I pushed back. “I just don’t feel like dying tonight, okay?”

“I’m not gonna let you die,” Billy said, sounding like he actually meant it. “You shouldn’t say that word anyway. Don’t you know it’s bad luck?”

“Bad luck?” I had to laugh. “Who the hell told you that?”

“My mom told me,” he said, his fingers playing with the collar of my sweater. “I’ve got enough bad luck already so maybe don’t go around saying stuff like that.”

“You’re crazy,” I said, with a laugh.

“And you’re not gonna say it, right?”

“Say what?” I asked, playing dumb to try and get him to say it himself. “Never say what?”

Billy looked at me, his eyes bright in the dark of the woods.

We’d come to a little clearing, some of the trees parting slightly.

There had been some kids there recently, I noticed, because there were the remnants of an old campfire and some candy wrappers scattered on the damp floor. Billy kicked at the wrappers with his boots, sending them skitting.

“You’re kidding me, right?” I raised an eyebrow, arms folded like I was trying to prove a point. “Now? In the woods?”

Billy laughed and pushed me gently up against the tree behind me, his hands finding my hips, his mouth on mine and then on my forehead and then the side of my face.

His breath was warm and sweet-smelling from the beer.

I let my eyes close.

“This is where that girl went missing,” Billy said jokingly, voice muffled in my ear. “Did you know that?”

“No, she didn’t.” I pushed him slightly, not finding the joke very funny. “Don’t be an ass, okay?”

“You’re a funny girl, Diana.” Billy broke the kiss and pulled back to stare at me. His face lowered to my level, his eyes playful. “You’ll kiss me in some woods in the middle of the night, but you won’t kiss me in the car when we’re in town?”

“I’ll kiss you anywhere you like,” I said, letting my head fall back against the bark. “If there’s nobody around.”

Billy’s mouth dipped quickly to mine, his hand finding my own in the dark.

“Well,” he said. “There’s nobody around now.”

I let him kiss me; my eyes closing, the roughness of the tree trunk pressing in against my back. It was dark and quiet and the woods smelled damp and peaty. I made up mind that there was no way he was getting me on the floor.

Billy shoved himself back from me, head snapping to one side. He’d stiffened up and was standing absolutely still in front of me.

“Did you hear that?” He asked in a serious, quiet voice.

I listened, straining to hear through the silence.

My heart was hammering in my chest but I heard nothing.

I decided he was only playing with me, trying to scare me like he’d been trying to scare me all night.

Another reason for me to hold him.

“Jackass,” I laughed, giving his shoulder a push. “You’re such a bullshitter.”

“No, Diana.” Billy swung his arm and caught hold of my other hand. “I’m not fooling around, okay? I heard it.”

“You heard an animal or something,” I suggested hopefully. “A bird.”

“It wasn’t a bird.” Billy had turned around to look at the clearing behind him. The woods were thick and dark, and from where we were standing, gloomily impenetrable. “I think somebody’s out there,” he finished.

His words made me grow cold. “Let’s go home then.”

Billy dropped my hand, moving forward to the clearing where the trees were darkest. I kept on staring at the back of his jacket and wishing he’d just turn around and yell that it was all a joke- just a stupid prank to make me laugh.

“Who’s there?” Billy’s voice sounded cold and serious and I realised that it wasn’t a joke. “I said, who’s there?”

“Billy.” I pushed back from the tree and ran to him, grabbing his arm. “Let’s go home, okay? It’s probably some sicko who wants to spy on us.”

I thought that might make him see sense and turn around, but it just seemed to make him angrier. He knocked my hand off his arm and went on staring into the clearing, eyes straining through the dark.

“Fine,” I said, hanging back. “Stay here then if you want. I’m going back to the car.”

I waited. “Please, Billy, it isn’t worth it-“

Something snatched at my ankle.

I screamed, falling back onto the damp floor. There was a sharp stinging pain, like something had grabbed me by the teeth and suckered on. My hands felt blindly, feeling something cold and reptilian clinging to me. I tore it off.

It hurt.

“I’ve got you.” Billy was pulling at me, dragging me back with him. “I’ve got you, okay?”

I could hear his voice, warm and safe in my ear, but I couldn’t hear what he was saying. His words seemed meaningless to me.

“What the hell was that thing?”

I was still sitting on the ground, amongst the rotting leaves and the damp soil. “Did you see it?”

“Not close enough to tell you what it was.” Billy bent down and peered at my ankle. “Does it hurt? Can you walk?”

I tried to stand, hissing with the pain.

It was difficult to see in the dark but I knew that I was bleeding. I could feel the warm wetness of it seeping into my legwarmer and the back of my shoe.

“Can we just get out of here now?” I asked, trying not to show him how much it hurt. “Please?”

I knew it wasn’t his fault really; he hadn’t planned for any of this to happen but I couldn’t help feeling put out all the same.

When Billy tried to put his arm around me to help me walk, I pushed him away.

“I can do it,” I snapped, limping stupidly back to the car. “Jesus, Billy.”

“Diana.” Billy sounded pained, even upset, quickly following after me. “I’m sorry, okay?”

The pain in my ankle was slowing me down and even though I was trying my best to stride purposefully away, Billy caught up with me easily, swinging me around.

“Don’t be an idiot.” He lifted my arm and put it around his shoulder, pulling me into his side. “I’ll help you.”

We struggled back to the car, Billy guiding me into the front seat, flicking on the interior car light to peer at my ankle.

“Jesus…” Billy winced and then added unconvincingly: “It isn’t that bad.”

“Are you kidding?” I let my head fall back against the cold windowpane, gritting my teeth. “This wouldn’t have happened if you hadn’t been trying to screw me all night.”

“This wouldn’t have happened if you hadn’t made us leave,” Billy snapped back, offended. “Who the hell leaves a party at half-past ten anyway?”

“It was eleven o’clock,” I corrected him, childishly scowling at the dashboard. “Look, whatever. Can we please go?”

Billy started up the engine. “I’m taking you to the hospital.”

“No!” I leaned forward suddenly and grabbed at his arm. “Your dad’ll kill me.”

“He won’t touch you.” Billy stared at my hand on his arm. “As far as he’s concerned right now, his little Diana can do no wrong, He thinks he’s got you under his thumb.”

He paused and added wistfully: “He won’t touch you tonight.”

“Even so…” I sank back into my seat, shivering now that the shock had worn off. “I’d feel better if we just went straight home anyway.”

Billy didn’t look so sure.

He was clenching and unclenching the side of his jaw and twisting his mother’s ring around his finger, the way he always did when he was thinking hard about something and wasn’t sure what to do.

He looked at me.

“If you take me to the hospital,” I said, immaturely. “I’ll never speak to you again.”

Billy probably doubted I was capable of doing something like that because he laughed when I said it, jerking the car forward off the shoulder and back onto the road.

“You can be a real brat sometimes,” he said, but he wasn’t saying it to be cruel. “Just like your sister, huh?”

He looked at me when I didn’t say anything. “You okay?”

“Yeah.” I was tired, leaning sluggishly against my seat. “I’m okay.”

Chapter Text

I stood stiffly beneath the hot spray of the shower-head and watched the dirt and the blood spiral down the drain.

The dirt and the blood had mingled together during my shower into a strange, rusty looking color that smelled like warm pennies.

It reminded me of sitting on the fire escape back home when I was still living with my dad, and how the hot metal had smelled when it was burning through my shorts.

“Diana?” My mom gave a timid knock on the bathroom door. “Are you alright in there? You’ve been ages.”

“I’m okay.” I let my head fall back to rinse the last few soap suds from my hair. “I’ll be out in a minute, okay?”

I could still remember the look on my mom’s face when Billy and I had eventually stumbled in from the party. She and Neil had jumped up from the couch, my mother’s hands fluttering to the neckline of her nightie when she’d seen the state of me.

Max had been sitting on the floor, her Halloween candy spread out in front of her. She’d pulled her mask down over head like she was trying not to see whatever she suspected was coming.

They’d wanted to know what was wrong with me of course; why I was pale and shivering and leaning on Billy’s arm like I couldn’t walk.

“She’s drunk,” Neil had said simply, as if he’d got it all figured out. “Serves her right.”

And for the first time in my life, I was happy to let him think he was right.

“I’m going to go shower,” I’d said, letting go of Billy and trying to slip past them both.

Neil had grabbed my arm to stop me on my way by, swinging me round to look at him.

“Don’t disappoint me,” he’d said slowly. “Remember what we talked about.”

I’d slowly pulled my arm away, his hands leaving red marks on my skin where he’d grabbed me.

My ankle throbbed.

“Diana? Are you alright in there?”

My mother’s voice brought me back to my senses, the roar of the shower loud in my ears. I turned the faucet off and stepped out, drying and slipping into my bathrobe.

My ankle was pink but the bleeding had stopped.

“What happened to you tonight?” My mother was waiting for me in the hallway when I eventually came out, pulling on my sleeve. “Did something happen?”

“Nothing happened,” I said, brushing her off more curtly than I liked. “I’m going to bed, alright?”

“Diana-“ she followed me into the kitchen, standing back and watching me as I grabbed myself a glass of water. “You can talk to me. Whatever’s happened, whatever he’s done to upset you, you can tell me.”

“Who are you supposed to be talking about?” I asked carefully, already suspecting.

“I think you know,” my mom said. “I think you know.”

“I don’t know.” My voice came out cold and defensive and I sipped at my water. It left a funny taste in my mouth. “You’ll have to tell me.”

“Billy.” My mom hissed his name like it was a bad word. “Did he do something? Is that why you’re so upset?”

“He didn’t do anything!” I brought my glass down on the table, the water spilling over my hand. “For God’s sake mom,” I hissed back, getting angry. “You act like I’m this fragile little thing who doesn’t know anything about anything, but I’m not.”

“Billy’s a troubled boy,” my mom tried firmly. “I’ll give him that. But I’m not going to just sit back and allow him to treat you like you’re a piece of meat who he can get drunk and drag to parties whenever he feels like it.”

“Well you’re a little late for that talk,” I snapped back defensively, catching on. “Because I already got him to screw me at a motel back in California.”

My mom slapped me, her bracelets jangling on her wrists. She brought her hands quickly to her mouth and started to cry, her eyes welling up.

“My God.” My mom stared at me, wounded like I’d been the one to hit her. “Diana, you didn’t?”

“It’s true.” I lifted a hand to my stinging cheek, my ears ringing. “Jesus, mom.”

“I don’t think I know you anymore.” Her words cut me deeper than I imagined. “I don’t think I know who you are.”

“I don’t think you ever did,” I answered back, trying not cry myself. “I’m not like you, mom. I’m never going to be happy being married to some security guard; and having to cook his meals for him and wash his clothes for him just to get him to say he loves me.”

This time it was my mother’s turn to look hurt.

“You think that’s all I am?” She asked. “You think I’m just some dizzy little wife who does as she’s told?

“I’ve been married to your father, Diana,” she snapped. “I’ve lived with him. I’ve been with him to the bars and the poker nights and the roadhouses and the motels. It’s not secure, Diana. It’s no life.”

“This isn’t a life!” I exploded. “This isn’t anything! This is just existing!”

I grabbed at her arms, making her look at me.

“Mom, I would rather spend my nights in seedy motels with him than spend them in a nicely laundered bed with a man who scares me.”

I pulled her fiercely into me, hugging her against my chest.

“Leave him,” I begged, crying, my voice muffled against her hair. “We can get out. It’s not too late.”

“Diana?” Neil’s voice sounded from the doorway, breaking us apart. “What’s going on?”

I wondered how long he’d been standing there. I wondered how much he’d heard.

“Nothing.” I wiped my eyes quickly, glancing sideways at my mom, who was staring mutely at the tablecloth. “We were just talking.”

“Yes.” Neil stepped casually into the room. “What about?”

Max appeared quickly in the kitchen doorway, her pale, heart-shaped face peering around the door.

“I can’t sleep,” she said, coming to our aid.

“It’s all that candy.” Neil turned to her, putting on his fatherly smile. “Your mother’ll make you some cocoa, won’t you Susan?”

“I’m going to bed,” I said then, slipping past Max and then down the hallway to my room.

I heard Neil shouting my name, following after me. I pushed at my door, trying to close it before he reached me but he stopped it, jamming his foot in the doorway and shoving at it with his shoulder.

“You interfering little witch,” he snapped, bursting into my room. “You think you know what’s right for your mother more than I do?”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.” I backed up into the room. “I didn’t say anything.”

“We’ve all got opinions,” he went on. “We don’t always have to say them out loud.”

Neil turned to the door and pulled it closed, waiting for the catch to click. He turned to me with a smug smile.

“Here’s what we’re going to do,” he said, meanly. “I’m going to talk and you’re going to listen.”

“You’re not my father,” I burst out bravely, heart hammering beneath my bathrobe. “You can’t talk to me like you’re my father.”

Neil shoved me into a sitting position on the bed, holding my arms so tight it hurt.

“While you’re under my roof,” he snapped fiercely. “And while you’re eating my food and wearing the clothes that I put on your back; then I’m your father. Do you understand that?”

I nodded, eyes stinging, hating him.

“I’m sorry.” Neil cocked his head slyly to one side. “I can’t hear you.”

“Yes.” I spat out, hating the taste of the words in my mouth. “Yes, sir.”

“Diana?” There was a sharp rapping sound on the bedroom door. “Diana, are you in there? I need to talk to you.”

My eyes snapped to the door.

It was Billy.

“Now listen here.” Neil forced me back onto the bed, leaning over me, hand clamped down over my mouth. His forehead was pressing painfully into mine and I glared at him, furious with his trick. “I’ve tried being nice. I’ve tried giving you a chance to start again. I thought we could put your truancy in California behind us.” He gave me a mean shake, hurting me. I made a noise involuntarily against his hand. “Stay out of my marriage, Diana. Do you hear me?”

I nodded, chest hurting with how much I despised him, waiting for him to release me.

When he did, Neil went to the door and opened it but I stayed where I was.

Billy was in the doorway, still wearing the leather jacket he’d worn to the party. He saw me and quickly took a step forward. Neil’s hands went to his chest, pushing him back.

“Thin ice,” he said. “Both of you.”

He glanced behind him at the bed where I was still sprawling. “Remember what we talked about, Diana.”

Neil went.

Billy came into the room and I jumped up from the bed, flinging my arms around him. He smelled like beer and cigarettes.

“I hate him,” I seethed into his shoulder, my eyes stinging with tears. “I hate him so much.”

“Tell me about it.” Billy’s reply was dry and humourless in my ear. “I hate him too.”

Max slipped into the room, eyes shiny. She looked frightened, twisting at the buttons on her pyjamas.

“Mom’s in the kitchen,” she said, thickly. “She’s crying.”

“Are you okay?” I let go of Billy and knelt down in front her, peering into her small, freckled face. “Did the shouting scare you?”

“What did Neil want?” Max’s voice was shaky, her hands clammy in mine. “Did he hit you again?”

I looked at Billy.

“No,” I said, trying to keep my smile fixed in place. “He didn’t hit me. He was just a bit rough with me, but it’s okay.”

“He’s a piece of shit.”

Billy clicked at his lighter but didn’t move to take out a cigarette. “It’s gonna be okay though,” he said seriously. “I’ll figure something out.”

Max looked at him, wide-eyed.

“What are you going to do?”

“I don’t know.” Billy’s reply was curt but kind. “I’ll just figure something out, okay?”

Max looked at him like she wanted badly to believe him. I wanted to believe him too. I wanted Billy to put his arms around both of us and tell us it was all going to be okay; He meant it. He had a plan.

In reality, he’d sounded determined but unsure. He must have thought those words over a million times before and had nothing ever come of it.

“Your leg,” Billy said, remembering. “Does it hurt?”

“What happened to your leg?” Max asked quickly.

“It’s my ankle.” At the reminder, it began to ache again and I sat down on the bed. “Some weird lizard thing bit me while we were in the woods.”

“What were you doing in the woods?” Max asked and then she blanched. “Actually, don’t bother telling me.”

“I mean it looked worse ‘cause of the blood.” I turned my ankle to the light. The skin was pink and white where the creature had bit me. “It doesn’t hurt that bad.”

“Do you think it’s poisonous?”

I hadn’t even thought of that.

“This is Indiana,” I said, trying to make myself feel better. “I don’t think they have poisonous lizards in Indiana.”

“No.” Max slipped her hand into mine, squeezing it tight. “I’m sure they don’t.”

We all fell silent, as if words didn’t seem to matter to us anymore.

In the kitchen down the hall, my mom was sobbing. It occurred to me that there were scarier things in this world than lizards that may or may not be poisonous. There were scarier things than plastic Halloween masks and painted faces. ‘Scary’ was Neil, with his smooth, mask-like face and his quick temper. ‘Scary’ was my mom, sitting alone in the kitchen with nobody bothering to hold her.

Chapter Text

At breakfast, my mom’s eyes were red and puffy and slightly swollen underneath.

She told us brightly that it was just her allergies playing up; even pointing out that she’d been reading up on some weird crop diseases affecting Hawkins’ fields in the local paper.

She looked almost proud- as if her story matching up with some infallible truth somehow made it more likely for us to believe her.

But I didn’t believe her.

I knew that she’d been crying all night because I’d heard her myself; sitting up in the kitchen with the coffee growing cold by her elbow because she’d refused to even touch it.

My mom leaned across the breakfast table and pressed a cool hand against my forehead. With her salmon pink nightgown, red hair and hot, flushed cheeks, she looked all peachy.

“You still look a little ill this morning,” she told me, frowning. “Do you think you can manage school?”

“She’s going to school whether she likes it or not.”

Neil didn’t even bother looking up from his cereal bowl.

“She can’t skip school every time she gets a damn hangover.”

I put my juice down carefully, keeping my eyes on my plate.

I had to admit- I was a little cold; but I had no headache, no nausea or churning stomach. If this was what a hangover was, then I was going to be fine.

“I feel okay,” I said calmly, hoping to snub Neil by lying about how well I really felt. “Just a little out of it but that’s all.”

My mom smiled brightly, blinking fast. She looked pleased, even relieved when I’d told her that I was feeling alright; And I felt a sudden pang of guilt for being so harsh with her the night before.

“This’ll be your third day at school now,” my mom said, looking over at Max. “Have you found any friends yet?”

“Just the kids that I went trick or treating with,” Max said glumly, looking depressed. “But one of the boys in the group hates me. I know he does.”

“You shouldn’t hang out with boys so much,” Neil cut in, inviting himself yet again into the conversation. “Find yourself some girlfriends; people who have things in common with you.”

“I don’t have anything in common with anybody around here.” Max ducked her head and pushed a strand of hair behind her ear. “I miss my old friends.”

“Of course you do.” My mom smiled kindly, trying to get her to look at her. “But you just have to make some new friends, that’s all.”

She said it like it was so easy, like it was as simple as counting on your fingers.

Billy came into the kitchen then; wearing a grey t-shirt beneath his jean jacket. The sleeves of his jacket were rolled to his forearms. He looked fresh and wide awake, like he’d already slept off any hangover from last night.

He put a hand on the back of my chair as he walked by me, leaning over my shoulder to drink from my cup, as if he was in too much of a rush to get his own. He smelled like hot shower and clean, soapy cologne.

“Anybody who wants a lift better be ready in five,” he said smoothly, looking up. “I got a game first period.”

“Baseball?” My mom asked, feigning interest.

“Basket.” Billy’s eyes narrowed, his gaze locked on his father. “I hate baseball.”

“You hate baseball because you’re no good at it,” Neil said, looking over his shoulder at his son. “You’re lazy. If you put the same amount of effort into it the way you put effort into partying and drinking and getting with girls, then you’d be a good baseball player.”

“Like I said.” Billy put my drink back down by my elbow. “I hate baseball.”

 

—-

“You don’t have to walk me into school,” Max grumbled, trailing reluctantly through the parking lot on her board. “I’m not a baby.”

“I just don’t want you to be by yourself all the time,” I tried kindly. “I worry about you.”

“I’m not by myself though.” Max jumped off her board and tapped the end of it with the toe of her sneaker, the board shooting up into her hand. “There’s Will.”

I looked over quickly to where she was pointing. There was a red Toyota Camry parked up clumsily in front of the school building.

A pale, sickly looking kid with an unfortunate haircut was climbing out of the car, slinging his book-bag over his shoulder. The kid looked sweet and babyish, almost too young to be in Max’s grade.

“This is one of your friends?” I asked, putting a hand on Max’s shoulder. “He seems nice.”

“He is,” Max said, waving her hand until the kid noticed her. “Will, over here!”

“Hi.” Will trotted over meekly, dipping his head. The way he tucked his head into his shoulder reminded of somebody I knew, only I couldn’t place who it was at the time. “I have to say goodbye to Bob,” he said.

“Bob?” I looked over at the car and saw Bob Newby’s smiling face at the window. “You know Bob Newby?”

“He’s sort of dating my mom.”

“Joyce Byers,” I said, remembering, and Will nodded quickly and turned back to wave at the car.

“Diana!” Bob wound down his window when he saw me, smiling at me so that his eyes crinkled in the sunshine. “Fancy seeing you here.”

“I was just about to say the same thing to you,” I said, laughing at his enthusiasm. Then I frowned, remembering something. “It’s funny, I swear I had a dream about you last night.”

For a brief moment, something snapped quick and bright in my mind, like the flashing bulb of a film camera.

“You’re just nervous about starting work on Saturday,” Bob said, still smiling.

I’d started to feel a little uneasy at the memory. “No, it wasn’t that.”

“I hope it wasn’t a nightmare.” Bob sounded sympathetic. “We were just talking about nightmares, weren’t we kiddo?” He turned cheerily to Will. “Sneaky little buggers.”

“We better get to class.” Will seemed to get embarrassed easily, flustered with too much attention. He tugged shyly at Max’s sleeve and the two of them slipped away, leaving Bob and I in the middle school parking lot.

“Small town,” I said, trying to think of something to say. The flashing pictures in my mind had rattled me. “You’re okay though, aren’t you Bob?”

“This isn’t about that dream of yours is it?” Bob leaned his elbows on the window of his car and leaned out. His smile was warm and reassuring. “Diana, I’ll tell you what I just told Will. Dreams are just dreams. They can’t hurt you.”

“Yes,” I started. “But-“

“-I’m fine!” Bob raised his hands in the air, turning his palms towards me. “Take a good look kiddo,” he said kindly. “I’m not going anywhere.”

I was actually starting to feel better already; the images from my dream last night were already fleeting in my mind. They were just snatches now, torn fragments of a photograph that didn’t make any sense without the full picture. Now they were just dreams.

“Listen, I better get to work.” Bob started up the engine and threw me a cheerful but apologetic wave. “See you on Saturday, kiddo.”

I stood back and watched the car pull out of the parking lot. The high-school bell across the lot was ringing already, shrill and muffled behind the walls.

I turned and started making my way back towards the building, passing the gym where the game could be heard starting already. I listened for the squeak of sneakers on the polished floor and wondered which ones were Billy’s.

“Hey, Diana.” Heather Holloway was leaning on the walls between the gym and the changing rooms, coyly smoking a cigarette. “You wanna sneak in and watch the game?”

Heather was wearing a fluffy, oversized red sweater, tucked into jeans. She had a pair of white sunglasses pushed up onto the top of her head and she pointed to them with a ditsy, carefree smile.

“Hell of a hangover,” Heather laughed, dragging on her cigarette. “I didn’t wanna come in today but my daddy would have played hell with me if I didn’t go; That’s what he says anyway.” Heather smiled a secret smile. “He’d do anything for me, really.”

“I wish I could say the same for mine.” I kicked numbly at the wall with the toe of my shoe. “My stepdad’s such an asshole.”

Heather stared at me. She had big, brown eyes that seemed to show whatever it was she was thinking. She was looking at me then and those big, brown eyes of hers were pooling with concern.

“You look like you’ve got a worse hangover than I have,” she said. “You want a drag? It’ll make you feel better.”

I didn’t normally smoke. I’d smoked half of Billy’s cigarette that night in the motel and it had been a hot, dizzying rush to the head. I took the end of the cigarette that Heather was offering me and dragged on it dutifully, spluttering until we we both laughed and Heather took the cigarette back.

“I wanted to thank you,” she said then. “For taking me home last night. Not a lot of people would have done that.”

“I didn’t think you’d be able to remember it,” I said, honestly. “It was nothing, really.”

Heather smiled at me.

“I remember everything,” she said, looking up as a whistle sounded in the gym. “Shall we go grab a seat at the back?”

We slipped in, keeping close to the walls so as not to disturb the game. There were a couple of benches at the back, kept there normally for spectators during a home game, but they were empty now.

Heather and I settled ourselves at the back of the room, sliding our bags beneath our seats.

On the floor below us, boys tussled and fought for the ball, their shoes squeaking on the highly polished floor. I spotted Billy in the middle of the court, grappling the ball back from Harrington. His shoulders and arms were tensed up and shiny with sweat.

Heather leaned into me to whisper admiringly in my ear. “Does he ever have his shirt on?”

“Not if he can help it,” I said.

Heather smiled knowingly and turned back to the court, pushing her fingers between her lips to whistle loudly. The boys on the court turned around, distracted.

“Looking good, Billy!” She called out crassly, ignoring the glare she was getting from the coach at the other side of the room. Billy had turned around and spotted us sitting there, breathing hard from the exercise. Then he winked at us, bold as brass.

Heather gave a slow, wistful sigh as if she was in pain. “I think I’d die if he winked at me like that.”

“What do you mean?” My stomach tightened involuntarily as I tried my best to laugh it off. “He was winking at you,” I said.

“Diana, please.” Heather threw me a secretive, knowing look. “He was winking at you.”

I didn’t say anything, too embarrassed to even speak. Heather caught my arm and gave it a reassuring squeeze.

“I won’t say anything to Carol,” she said, gently. “Best friends don’t tell. Isn’t that what they say?”

“We’re best friends?” I echoed back and Heather laughed.

“We are now,” she concluded. “You’re not a Carol or a Tina or a Becky. You’re a Diana.”

She was squinting at me, the freckles on her nose scrunched up. “Listen, would you like to have lunch with me and Nancy today?”

 

—-

Nancy Wheeler was a small girl with dark, curly hair cut closely to the chin. Sitting there in the bright November sunshine, she looked delicate and glass-like, shivering in her knitted sweater and matching grey duffle coat.

“So that’s it,” she said, sounding hopeless as she hoisted herself up onto the picnic bench outside of school. “I think it’s over.”

“It isn’t over because you had one fight.” Heather leaned sympathetically across the bench towards her friend. “People fight all the time. It doesn’t mean anything.”

“Yeah, but…” Nancy looked out thoughtfully across the parking lot. “I think I want it to be.”

From what I’d gathered from Heather’s summary, Nancy had been dating Steve since last November. Now, after a fight at Tina’s party last night, they were no longer on speaking terms.

Back in California, I’d never paid attention to the romantic and trivial dramas that came from within the walls of high-school. Here in Hawkins, it was sort of difficult to avoid it.

“Give it a couple of days,” Heather said helpfully. “Think about what you want. Then you’ll feel better, right Diana?”

“Right,” I said.

I felt a little on the edge of the conversation, as the newcomer to the friendship group. I didn’t feel like it was my place to be giving Nancy relationship advice when I barely knew her.

Nancy stared at me.

“You were at the party last night,” she said. “You came with Billy.”

The way she said his name, it was like she didn’t really like him. Nancy Wheeler clearly wasn’t the sort of girl to be impressed by a golden tan and a Hollywood accent.

Loyally, Heather jumped in to defend him. “Billy and Diana took me home after the party last night,” she said. “Don’t you think he’s kind of cute, Nance?”

“He’s just… not my type,” Nancy said politely, fiddling with the buttons on her duffle coat. “He’s got this whole rivalry thing going with Steve.” She glanced up at me, embarrassed to be taking sides. “It wouldn’t be fair.”

“So what’s your type then?” I asked, leaning back on the bench. I was more irritated by my creeping headache than by her words. “The quiet, sensitive photographer type?”

Nancy blinked at me, taken aback. “How did you-“

“Girls.” Heather shushed us excitedly. “Don’t look now but Jonathan Byers is coming our way. Nancy, you have a leaf in your hair-“ She stopped, cutting herself off short as Jonathan nervously approached the picnic bench. It suddenly clicked with me that the Jonathan I’d met at the party was this Jonathan Byers, the older brother of Will Byers, the boy I’d met that morning in the parking lot with Bob.

Neil had been right when he’d said that Hawkins was a small town. Everybody seemed to have some obscure connection with everybody else.

“Hey, Diana.” Jonathan nodded at me politely, remembering me. “Nancy, can I talk to you?”

“You two know each other?” Nancy glanced quickly between us both.

“Sort of.” Jonathan smiled a thin, shy smile. “At the party last night. Nancy, can I talk to you?” He repeated it with some urgency. “In private?”

Heather sighed as she watched the two of them go, both of them climbing up onto the rusted hood of Jonathan’s car. Nancy seemed so different when she was with Jonathan, almost bashful, tucking her hair behind her ears like she was nervous.

“Poor Nance,” Heather said, trying to hide that she was staring. “She’s had such a shit year, you know? I just wish things could be easier for her.”

“What happened?” I asked.

Over by the car, Nancy was laughing quietly, covering her mouth with the back of her hand.

“Barbara Holland,” Heather said, as if it was common knowledge. “The girl that went missing last year? She was Nancy’s best friend.”

I hadn’t known that. I couldn’t even begin to imagine what that must feel like. I’d never known real grief like that in my life.

“That’s horrible,” I said at last. “And they don’t have any idea where she could be?”

Heather shrugged. “I mean, her car was found at the bus station but that’s all there ever was.”

“You think she ran away?”

“You didn’t know Barb,” Heather said, shaking her head. “She wasn’t flighty, you know? She wasn’t the sort of girl who’d just run away.”

“So…” It felt almost wrong to push Heather for answers the way I was doing. “What do you think happened to her?”

Heather was quiet for a long time. When she spoke again, her eyes were brighter and shinier than usual.

“I think we had her all wrong,” she said, sounding too cheerful and hopeful to be real. “I think maybe she did run away. I think she’s alive and well and living in some exotic place where it’s always sunny; And she’s happy,” Heather finished hopefully. “Inexplicably happy.”

I didn’t say anything, letting the silence sit comfortably between us. There was a sharp pain gnawing irritably in my stomach and a wave of nausea washed over me.

I loosened the buttons on my coat, beginning to sweat.

“I can’t imagine being that unhappy,” I said seriously, my chest aching for Nancy. “Living with that everyday. How does she do it?”

“Jonathan’s brother went missing the same week,” Heather said. “Luckily, he was found. But I think it brought the two of them together, you know? I think it helps. They understand each other.”

She paused hesitantly, like she wasn’t sure it was her place to say something. “But you’re sad too, aren’t you Diana?”

“I’m not sad,” I said, surprised and a little overwhelmed by her statement.

“But you are,” Heather insisted, frowning. “My mom always says it’ll be my downfall; getting involved with people’s lives, but I can’t help it. When people are sad, I take notice.”

Heather was a lot like Billy, I thought. She saw people for who they really were.

She could see through the masks and the fronts that people put up when they were pretending to be somebody else.

Whatever mask I’d managed to subconsciously put up when I’d moved to Hawkins, Heather had seen right through it.

I didn’t deny it a second time.

Chapter Text

Billy and I stood shoulder to shoulder against the side of the Camaro, heels back against the rubber wheels, practically toeing the dirt out of boredom.

The school parking lot was emptying fast.

“She’s late again.” Billy was in one of his moods, scowling down at his watch and flicking the ash from his cigarette onto the floor.

I reached up and smoothed the denim sleeve of his jean jacket beneath my fingers, trying my best to keep the peace. “She’ll be here,” I tried. “She’ll just be getting catch up homework or something.”

Billy made a low, disgusted noise at the back of his throat.

“Jesus,” he snarled. “I don’t care. Five minutes and she’s skating home, you hear me?”

I dropped his arm like it was red hot, offended.

“Don’t talk to me like that,” I said seriously, staring at the empty parking space in front of us. “I swear to God, sometimes you sound just like your-“ I broke off abruptly before I could get out the rest of what I was going to say, flushing hot with annoyance. “It doesn’t matter,” I said.

“No, go on.” Billy dropped his cigarette onto the floor and crushed it beneath the toe of his boot. “Finish that sentence,” he said.

The way he said it, it was like he meant it as a challenge.

The parking lot was almost empty now. A few kids from the middle school across the lot were tossing a book-bag around like a football.

“Sometimes…” I turned to him with my chin up. “You can be just like your father.”

I waited for Billy’s eyes to flash, lighting up indignantly but they stayed flat, boring into mine with a pale, empty expression. The pain in my stomach started up again, nagging away.

“Screw her.” Billy seemed not to have heard me, even though I knew he had. He twisted on his heel and marched around to his side of the car, getting in and firing up the ignition. “That little shit can skate home.”

“She’ll be here-“ I glanced back quickly at the school building, expecting Max to appear suddenly in the doorway. “We can’t leave her.”

“Are you getting in?” Billy’s fingers tapped the steering wheel impatiently. “Diana, are you getting in?”

I didn’t say anything.

I wished Max would hurry up, wherever she was.

Billy gave me a long, flat look, his face arrogantly smooth. “Get in the car,” he said, in the low voice he always used when he was losing his patience. “I swear to God, I’m leaving.”

“So leave.” I took a step back, away from the car. “I don’t care.”

“You’re being stupid-“

“I’m being stupid?” I slammed the passenger side door shut, having no intentions of getting in with him now. “Screw you. You don’t get to talk to me like that.”

“What are you gonna do? Walk home?”

“If I have to.”

“If you have to?” Billy was laughing at me, his mouth all twisted up in that devilish smirk like he actually was enjoying it. His foot dipped on the gas pedal, not even teasing. “I’ll leave you,” he threatened. “I don’t care.”

I turned my back on him, arms folded across my chest to show him that I didn’t care either.

I could hear him swearing loudly behind me, the engine revving.

“Suit yourself,” Billy said then and the car pulled away behind me, wheels spinning so fast they spat up dust.

I stared at the empty parking spot where the Camaro had been, throwing my middle finger up after it. “Jesus,” I muttered and then I said, much louder: “Asshole!”

The parking lot was empty now and I was so frustrated I wanted to cry. I could feel my eyes pricking stupidly with baby tears and I rubbed them away, furious with myself.

I turned around and started walking towards the middle school.

I knew that Billy wouldn’t turn around and come back for me, even if he wanted to; Even if he changed his mind and felt bad about the whole thing, he was too stubborn to turn around and come back now.

I was too stubborn too. I made up my mind that I’d refuse to get in if he did come back. I’d much rather walk home than let him think he’d got the better of me.

I walked quickly into the school, not knowing where I was supposed to be. The receptionist was staring at me, frowning at me over her glasses, her pen poised over her papers like I was an inconvenience.

“Can I help you, dear?” She asked.

“Uh, yeah.” I came to a stop at the desk. “I’m looking for my sister. Maxine Mayfield?”

The woman gave a small, sarcastic smile. “I literally have no idea who that is,” she said rudely. “Perhaps she’s in study hall?”

“I don’t know where that is.” I was starting to lose my patience. “Don’t you register kids out when they leave?”

The woman pushed her glasses back up onto her nose, pointing with a single finger down the hallway. “Study hall is that way,” she said.

I stared, exasperated, down the long hallway. The walls were papered with flyers for sports games and after-school clubs.

“Thanks for your help,” I said, pushing myself off from the desk and stalking off down the hallway by myself.

My shoes clicked loudly on the polished floor, echoing hollowly.

“Max?” I called out, hating the way my voice sounded when it echoed. “Max, are you there?”

There was no answer.

I continued walking past the rows and rows of empty classrooms, all of them dark and gloomy looking with the lights switched off.

I began to think the hallway would stretch on forever, twisting and winding and snaking and never ever ending.

“Diana?” Max was squatting by the doorway on my left, knees drawn up against her chest. “What are you doing here?”

“What am I doing here?” I repeated. “Max, do you know what time it is? What are you doing here? Why are you sitting on the floor?”

“I’m waiting for my friends.” She nodded at the door as if it was perfectly obvious. The door looked like it led to a storeroom or a cupboard. It was too small to be a classroom.

“They made you wait out here?” I tried the handle, rattling it hard. “I thought you said they were your friends.”

“They are my friends.” Max sank back down into a sitting position. “But I’m not an official party member.”

“That’s bullshit.” I didn’t even know what that was supposed to mean. “Do you have a wire? Or a hairpin?”

“I have a paperclip.” Max was searching through her bag, her cheeks going pink with excitement. “You’re not gonna pick the lock though, are you?”

“Aren’t I?” I pulled the wire straight with my teeth, jamming it into the lock. I tried it.

It was too stiff and wouldn’t give.

I shoved it harder, twisting it, feeling blindly, waiting for the catch to click beneath my fingers. I turned over my shoulder and gave my sister a secretive smile. She stared back at me, hardly daring to breathe.

“Let’s see what party members get up to after school hours,” I said.

The lock clicked, the door swinging open.

Four boys rushed at me, knocking me painfully to the floor. Beneath my feet, something small and cold darted past.

“Don’t hurt it!” One of the boys was screaming, shoving me to one side. “Son of a bitch- don’t hurt him!”

“What the hell is going on?” Max was pulling me to my feet but I ignored her, spotting Will Byers amongst the group of boys. I grabbed hold of him, giving him a shake. “What’s going on?” I demanded. “What the hell was that thing?”

“Are you shitting me?” The curly haired boy threw his baseball cap to the ground. “Are you shitting me? You let him get away?”

“Who the hell is this random girl?” Another boy, a skinny black kid, looked me up and down. “No offence,” he added.

“None taken.” I turned to my sister, letting go of Will. “Is somebody going to tell me what the hell that thing was?”

“It’s a rare, undiscovered species.” The curly haired boy turned to me, distracted. He had a toothy, boyish way of talking. “Or at least it was, until you let it get away.”

“You pushed me over-“

“-Jesus, does it matter?” The tall boy standing next to Will pushed his way forward. “Fact is, we all know what that thing really is; Just because Dustin has some creepy little bond with it, doesn’t mean it isn’t dangerous.”

“You think it’s dangerous?” I turned quickly to the tall kid, my mind working fast. “I think that thing bit me last night.”

The tall kid blinked slowly. “I’m sorry, is somebody going to tell me who this is?”

“This is my sister,” Max jumped in, grabbing my arm. “Mike, stop bullshitting around. Do you think that thing could have bit her?”

“No, no, no.” The toothy boy, Dustin, was shaking his head, looking insistent. “He wouldn’t do that. Dart wouldn’t do that.”

“What the hell do you know?” Mike quipped, screwing his face up. “You’ve known it for like five minutes.”

“He wouldn’t do that,” Dustin repeated. “Shit, are you deaf?”

I was starting to lose my patience with the kid. I turned to Max with a tight, frustrated look and she rolled her eyes back at me, her fingers tightening on my arm.

“Guys,” she said. “This is serious, okay? Is the thing dangerous or not?”

“Meaning?” Dustin asked.

“Meaning,” Max pressed. “If that thing did bite my sister like she says it did, what’s the chance that she starts frothing at the mouth tomorrow?”

None of the boys had an answer for her. They looked, silently, from one kid to the other. The black kid folded his arms and leaned back against the hallway wall, looking thoughtful.

“We don’t know shit about that thing,” he said, honestly. “I wouldn’t rule out frothing at the mouth.”

“I thought you said you knew what it was,” Max cut in and the kid blushed, glancing down quickly at the floor.

“I mean, we do,” he mumbled, suddenly all nerves. “But we don’t know for definite.”

“Well?” My sister blinked at him, demanding an answer, making the kid squirm. “What do you think it is?”

“It doesn’t matter,” Mike interrupted. “We just need to find it.”

“What about my sister?” Max exclaimed.

“Well, she isn’t dead yet-“ The black kid pointed at me bluntly, shrugging his shoulders. “I’d say she’s fine.”

Despite everything, I couldn’t help liking the black kid best. Even if he was stupidly and offensively honest, at least he was giving me some answers.

“You,” I said, turning to him. “You think you know what that thing is?”

“I mean, yeah.”

“And you don’t think it’s dangerous?”

“Dangerous?” The kid nodded slowly. “Poisonous? No, I don’t think so.”

“And you’re not gonna tell me what you know about it?”

“We can’t.” The kid seemed genuine. “Believe me, I would if I could.”

Something in the way he spoke made me feel like he was actually telling me the truth. I wanted to believe him, more than anything actually.

“We should split.” Will spoke up, quietly for the first time. “We should split up and look for it, before he gets away.”

I looked at the clock on the hallway wall. It was almost half past four. Neil would be home by five and it was at least a mile’s walk back home. I tugged on Max’s arm, my stomach twisting with nerves.

“Max, we can’t stay.”

Max looked up at the clock too, going pale.

“You go,” she said bravely. “I’ll stay and look. Tell them I’m at an after-school club or something.”

I wasn’t having it. “Max, that thing bit me. I don’t want it anywhere near you.”

“It doesn’t bite,” Dustin interrupted, but I waved him away, not interested.

“Max, I’m serious.” I pulled at her hand. “I’m the closest thing to an adult here and I’m telling you to come home. In fact, you should all go home. We should be calling the authorities or something.”

“I told you.” The black kid spoke slowly and seriously. “I need you to trust me when I say that you really don’t want to do that.”

“Why should I listen to you?” I asked. “You’re like twelve.”

“I know what that thing is,” the kid said, sounding cool and confident. “And you don’t. I need you to trust me.”

I stared at him. “What’s your name, kid?”

“Lucas.”

“You got a last name?”

“It’s Sinclair,” he said. “Lucas Sinclair.”

“Can I really trust you, Lucas Sinclair?” I asked.

His reply came back quick and non-hesitant, impressing me.

“You absolutely can,” he said, holding out his hand for me to take. “I promise that you have my word.”

Chapter Text

My sister’s empty place at the dinner table that night was difficult to ignore.

Neil speared his steak with the sharpest point of his fork and held it halfway to his mouth.

The meat on our plates was pink and bloody looking, glistening like it was still alive.

It made me sick to look at it.

“Your sister,” Neil said, looking over at me and Billy across the table. “Where is she?”

“After-school club.” I pushed my food half-heartedly around on my plate. “She should be home soon.”

Neil nodded, chewing thoughtfully on his food. “What about you? Why were you so late home tonight?”

I snuck a sidewards glance over at Billy by my elbow, still not talking to him. “I wasn’t that late,” I tried.

Neil smiled a tight smile. “That wasn’t what I asked you.”

I was starting to feel warm again, like somebody was holding up a heating device at my back.

I reached up and loosened the last few buttons on my sweater, taking quick, nervous sips of my water.

“Can somebody please open a window?” I asked, throwing my napkin down onto the table. “It’s really hot in here.”

“Diana?” My mom rose obligingly and went to the window, pushing it open as far as it would go. “What’s the matter?”

“Nothing, mom.” I shoved my chair back, the legs crashing against the wall. “I just feel really sick, okay?”

“Diana.” Neil stared at me, blinking in surprise at my sudden outburst. “Sit back down.”

I ran for the bathroom anyway, making it just in time.

I fell to my knees in front of the toilet bowl and retched loudly, gagging.

Something hot and slippery burned in my throat and there was a loud ringing in my ears.

What came out was thick and slug-like and I stared at it, too shocked and too disgusted to say anything.

I was starting to shiver.

“Are you alright?” Billy’s voice sounded behind me in the doorway and I shot up, flushing the toilet quickly before he could see.

I wiped my mouth roughly with the back of my hand.

“I’m not talking to you,” I said stubbornly, reaching for my toothbrush by the sink. “You’re a real jerk, you know that?”

“Diana-“ Billy made a pained, frustrated sound, shutting the bathroom door and listening for the click of the catch.

“What do you want me to say?” He asked, coming up behind me in the mirror. “You want me to tell you that I’m a jerk and I’m such a bad guy for leaving you and I’m just like my old man? Is that what you want me to say?”

“You’re not like your father,” I said, squeezing toothpaste out of the tube. “I didn’t mean that. I shouldn’t have said it.”

“No, you’re right.” Billy laughed a dry, ill-humoured sort of laugh. “Sometimes it’s all I can think about.”

I spat toothpaste into the sink and rinsed, turning back around to face him. I didn’t say anything.

“It’s my mom’s birthday today,” Billy said, reaching up to push a strand of hair back from my eyes. “I’ve been thinking about her all day. How crazy is that? Wondering what she’s doing, who she’s celebrating it with.”

There was a knock on the door behind us but Billy ignored it.

“I don’t want to be like him,” he said seriously, his voice dipping self-consciously to a whisper. “I wish we could choose which one of our parents we get to be like.”

My stomach sank with how much that actually made sense to me; How much I longed to be more like my father- everybody’s friend, liked by everyone and loved by all.

”I wish I wasn’t so much like my mom,” I whispered back, backing up against the sink. “I wish I wasn’t so shy all the time. I hate it.”

“Shy Di,” Billy said with a small smile and he hesitated, then bent his head to kiss me once behind my ear. His mouth was hot and scalding on my skin. “You’re burning up,” he said.

Behind us, the doorknob rattled again, louder and more impatient.

“Just a minute!” I glanced quickly at the door.

“We should go back out there,” I said, looking at Billy.

“Diana, wait.” Billy held me fast in front of the sink, his hands tight around the top of my arms. “Let’s go out Saturday night, what do you say?”

“Out? Out where?” I asked. There was nowhere in Hawkins I could think of. “Like on a date?”

“If you like.” Billy held me tighter, leaning in. “Let’s just get out of this town for a night. It’s driving me crazy.”

The door rattled again. This time I heard my mother’s voice, pained and worried behind the wooden panels. I pushed past Billy quickly and went to the door, flinging it open, my mother almost falling into the room.

“I’m fine,” I said, when I saw the look on her face. “I’m alright, see?”

“Are you sick?” My mother followed me out frantically down the hallway and back into the kitchen. “What’s going on, Diana?”

“Mom, please.” I sat back down, Billy coming and sitting back by my elbow. “Everything’s fine.”

I knew my mom was worried. She was staring at me across the table, her lips a thin line, her eyes as wide as dinner plates.

She looked helplessly at Neil, who sighed and wiped his mouth on his napkin.

“She says she’s fine,” he said, looking bored. “I believe her.”

It was the first time I was actually grateful for Neil’s lack of empathy.

Then the backdoor swung open behind us and my sister walked in, looking pale and nervous in her yellow sweater.

“Max.” I resisted the urge to jump up and put my arms around her, keeping my voice bright and cheerful. “How was A.V Club?”

My sister moved slowly and carefully to the dinner table, sitting down across from me. She looked almost dazed, bewildered even, like she’d been told something she couldn’t believe.

“It was fine,” she said, her voice falling flat. “It was fine.”

“Your mother and I didn’t know anything about this,” Neil said, resuming his meal. “We’d appreciate it if you told us in future.”

“I think it’s nice,” my mom joined in sweetly. “She’s making friends. We’re proud of you, Maxine. Diana, I’m proud of you too.”

The table went quiet and everybody looked at Neil. We were all waiting for him to look up and say something kind as well. Neil kept on chewing on his food and didn’t say anything. I reached beneath the table and found Billy’s hand, holding onto it so tight that my nails dug into his palms.

“What about Billy?” My sister leaned forward bravely across the table, speaking for us all. “Isn’t anybody going to say they’re proud of him?”

“Oh, yes.” My mom jumped in politely, blushing. “Of course.”

“That’s alright, Susan.” Billy was smirking, acting all cocky as if he was trying to show he didn’t care. “You don’t have to pretend.”

“Yes, I have a lot to be proud of,” Neil cut in sarcastically. “I have a son who only ever thinks about women and cars. I have a philanderer for a son.”

“He has his sport,” my mom tried weakly.

“But it’s not baseball, so it doesn’t count, right dad?”

Billy had stopped eating, staring at his father across the table with a mean look.

“Right, dad?” He repeated.

“Watch your tone, young man,” Neil said, throwing his napkin down. “Or I might just say exactly what I do think of you.”

Beneath the table, I squeezed Billy’s hand tighter, urging him to sit back and be quiet, for once in his life if it was possible.

“Well then?” It was Max who spoke up, startling us all. “What do you think of him?” She asked.

Neil turned to her in his chair like he hadn’t been expecting her to speak at all.

He blinked at her slowly, taken aback.

“Excuse me?” He demanded.

My mother pulled apologetically at my sister’s sleeve.

“She doesn’t mean anything by that,” she said quickly, jumping in to defend her. “Max, he was being rhetorical, weren’t you dear?”

“I’m not used to being challenged by little girls,” Neil said slowly, still looking like he was trying to process what had just happened. “My son, I’m used to. He’s always been wayward; But you, Maxine?”

Neil actually looked disappointed. “I’m surprised.”

“Like I said.” My mother tried gently. “She didn’t mean any offence by it.”

Max’s face was starting to go red, her eyebrows knitting into a furious scowl.

She wasn’t used to being noticed by Neil; She had been always been sidelined in favor of Billy or me when it came to Neil’s bullying. She thought she’d been free to say whatever she wanted and now she was paying the price for it the same way as everybody else.

“I hate this place,” Max burst out at last, tears springing to her eyes. “I wish we’d never even come here.”

Neil’s fingers flexed and tightened on the table. He didn’t say anything. He was waiting for her to finish.

“We should never have left California,” Max went on passionately. “Everybody knows we only moved to get away from my dad-“

“That’s enough,” Neil warned.

“It’s true, isn’t it?” Max wiped away hot tears, embarrassed to be crying in front of everybody. “Everybody in this house is miserable and it’s all because we moved here-”

“I said, that’s enough-“

Neil moved to strike her, his hand swinging out flat and heavy in front of her face. Max shrank back, flinching away from him. Billy’s own hand shot out from across the table and seized his father’s wrist.

I stared, bleary eyed at the two men. My heart was beating so hard I thought it would come right through my chest.

“That’s enough,” Billy said in a strange, cold voice. He sounded calm but he was shaking. “Do you hear me?”

“Do you hear yourself?” Neil jerked his hand free, turning to Billy with an offended look. “Nobody has any respect for me in this house, least of all you. You’re a pathetic loser, do you know that? I have a pathetic loser for a son. I have a son who has to have a little girl fight his battles for him. I have a vain, selfish, faggot of a son who thinks he can spend his whole life preening in the mirror and sleeping with as many whores as he can.”

Neil rose furiously from the table. He stabbed his finger in Billy’s face, shouting the next part. “You have no respect for me, isn’t that right?”

Up until that moment, Billy had seemed brave and in control, even domineering over his father. Now, he sat quiet and sullen, beaten down by Neil’s insults. He didn’t say anything.

“You want me to sit here and tell you that I’m proud of you,” Neil went on cruelly. “How can I sit here and tell you that I’m proud of you when you’ve achieved nothing? When you’ve spent your whole life going against me? I’m not proud of you. I’m ashamed of you.”

The tablecloth was swimming in front of my eyes.

This was more humiliating, more degrading and more pathetic than any beating Billy could have been given.

My mother was sitting with her hands over her ears as if she couldn’t bear to even listen.

Neil turned finally to Max, who was crying quietly in her chair, too frightened to even speak.

“You wanted to know what I thought of my son?” He asked at last. “I think he’s worthless. That’s what I think of my son.”

Neil turned back and noticed me crying beside Billy. He clicked his tongue sympathetically, circling the table and coming round to stand in front of me.

I could smell the bloody meat on his breath.

“Why are you crying?” He asked gently, wiping at the tears on my face with the hardened tips of his fingers. “None of that, do you hear me? You’ve learned your lesson from yesterday, haven’t you? You haven’t said anything.”

His fake, over-the-top gentleness only made me cry harder, bending my head over my lap, not wanting him to look at me.

Neil shushed me like he was shushing a young child.

I shrank back.

“Leave her alone,” Billy said stonily at my side, staring glassy eyed at the wall. “Just leave her.”

“I’m not hurting her.” Neil turned to his son, surprised that he was still standing against him. “I haven’t hurt her, have I? And why not? Because Diana learns from our little lessons, don’t you Diana?”

His goal was clearly to drive a rift between the three of us, by favouring one and punishing the others. He was conveniently and contradictorily forgetful, remembering things only when it suited his narrative of the moment.

The little voice in my head told me to stand up for myself, for my sister and for Billy too. I wanted to shove Neil away from me and run over to the other side of the room, putting as much distance between us as I could.

The survivalist in me told to sit back, take it and be quiet. It wanted to be the favorite, to be the one who was treated nicer than all the rest.

When Neil brought his hand back up to my face, I wanted to shrink away; Repulsed, intimidated and cornered. The other half of me wanted to lean into him, actually craving his sick attention because it was safer when he was being kind.

“Am I hurting you, Diana?” Neil asked, trying to prove a point. His palm was warm against my cheek and Billy stared at us, a strange, uncomfortable look crossing his face. I thought even my mother was looking envious.

But for the first time in a long time, Neil was touching me and it wasn’t causing me harm. When he pulled his hand away this time, there would be no bruises and l wanted so badly not to ache. So when he asked me again if he was hurting me, the survivalist turned to him and said no.

—-

The dark hallway stretched out long and shadowy in front of me, the low hall table bumping against my knee.

I didn’t know how I’d gotten here.

In my dream, Will Byers had been standing at the end of the hall, his back flat against the wallpaper, his arms limp by his sides.

I’d been trying to get to him, running to him before the shadow man that lived in the wall could reach him. But then the floorboards had split beneath my feet, warping and changing and doors had sprung up where doors had never been.

Wallpaper rippled, windows slid up and down the walls and carpets bloomed like grass, then wilted and shrank away again.

“Help me,” Will had said and when I’d looked again, a girl was standing there in his place- a girl with dark red hair and large glasses, tears on her freckled face. “Help me,” she’d said.

It was cold in the hallway, my bare feet curling on the rug.

I stared hard at the walls in front of me, eyes straining through the dark and praying that this time they would stay still.

They did.

Then I put my hands up, feeling my way blindly along the hall to the room at the end, shuffling my way forward.

I stopped, pushing at the door until it swung slowly open.

“Billy?” I whispered, closing the door quietly behind me and moving further into the room. “Billy? Are you awake?”

“No,” came the sarcastic, muffled reply. The figure in the bed stirred slowly as I felt my way towards him, reaching out and taking my outstretched hand. “You’re shaking.”

“I’m cold.” I climbed into the bed beside him, slipping beneath his arm which was warm and heavy with sleep. “I had a nightmare.”

Billy’s heart beat steadily beneath my ear, my cheek against his chest.

“What was it about?” Billy asked.

Even in the dark, I could tell he had his eyes closed.

The steady thumping sound against my ear was weirdly comforting.

“I can’t remember anymore,” I lied. “It doesn’t matter, I guess.”

“Mmm.” Billy turned his mouth to my ear, missing and hitting the top of my head instead. “Was it about him?”

He thought I’d been dreaming about Neil.

I began to think it was probably easier to let him think it.

He wouldn’t have understood if I’d told him what it had really been about.

“You’re scared of him,” Billy said, not even making it sound like it was meant to be a question. “I get it.”

“But…” I could tell there was a ‘but’ coming. I just knew.

“But don’t give up,” Billy said and he half-rose up in the bed, turning onto his elbow so that he was looking down at me. “Don’t give up now, Diana. You hear me?”

I tried to make out the shape of him in the dark.

I reached up and felt the shape of his face against my fingers, tracing over his top lip and lower lashes.

“You hear me, Diana?” He was whispering it, but there was a sense of urgency in his voice. “Don’t bend to him. You bend to him and he wins.”

“I hate him,” I said, quietly

“I know you do.” Billy’s mouth found mine in the dark, then my chin, then the base of my jaw. “I know you do.”

He lay back down, sighing.

I reached out and felt for the curls on top of his head, smoothing them beneath my hands. They felt wilder than usual, tousled by sleep.

“What he said to you at dinner,” I whispered. “None of it was true. I don’t want you to think that any of that was real.”

“People tell you things often enough,” Billy said after a long pause. “You start to believe it anyway.”

“Well it’s not true.” I kissed him fiercely in the dark. “It’s not true, okay?”

“Go to sleep, Diana,” Billy said.

Chapter Text

It was a cold but bright morning in the school parking lot. The wind whipped my sister’s hair out behind her like a lick of flame and fanned the fringing out on my jacket.

The leaves made faint skittish sounds as they danced around our feet.

“I keep telling you.” Max hiked her way up onto the bar of the bike-stand and clung on. “You don’t have to wait with me.”

“Yes, but I want to,” I said.

I squinted out across the parking lot, the roofs of the cars flashing at me in the yellow sunshine. I shivered and hugged my arms tighter around myself.

“I don’t even know why you’re in school today,” Max went on, following my gaze.

“Mom said you were sick last night. I wish I was sick so I didn’t have to go in-“ she broke off, glancing out across the lot too. “Who are you looking for?”

“Who says I’m looking for anybody?” I forced my eyes back to her, blinking, and my sister threw me a long look.

“Are you looking for Billy?” She asked. “‘Cause if you are, he’s got gym first period.”

“I’m not looking for Billy,” I said. “He’s always got gym first period.”

“But you are looking for someone?”

I sighed, tapping the bar of the bike-stand with the toe of my shoe. The bell would be ringing for class in five minutes.

“I just thought I’d wait for Will,” I said breezily. “See how he is.”

My sister frowned at me. “How’d you know he was sick?”

My heart jumped and fluttered in my chest. “Will’s sick?”

Max nodded, pushing her hair back behind her ears. When she spoke, her voice came out strange and thick, like she was trying not to cry.

“Last night,” she explained. “When we were out looking for that thing; We came out and found him standing there on the field. I thought he was dead or something, because he was just standing there with his eyes closed, like he was frozen.”

“Frozen with fear,” I said.

Max looked at me. “What made you say that?”

“I don’t know…” I brushed the question off, toying with the zipper on my sleeve. “Will just seems like he’s scared all the time, doesn’t he?”

“I guess so.” My sister stared hard at me, her face scrunching up. “Anyway, it was really weird. His mom had to come and take him home so I guess he’s not coming to school today.”

“No,” I said, looking up as the class bell started to ring. “I guess not.”

A cold, creeping feeling had settled on my spine, sitting there like someone had pressed their cold hands up against my back. I pushed it away and tried my best to ignore it.

“I have to get to class.” Max jumped off the railing and grabbed her bag, slinging it over her shoulder. “Are you gonna be okay, Di?”

“Course I am.” I looked back over my shoulder at the high school. “I’ll see you tonight, okay?”

Max frowned at me again, her forehead creasing. Behind her, Lucas Sinclair and Mike were standing on the school steps, calling to her. She looked over at them and then back to me.

“You shouldn’t keep frowning like that,” I said jokingly. “You’ll have wrinkles by the time you’re sixteen.”

I nodded at the two boys over her shoulder. “You should go,” I said again. “I’ll see you tonight, okay?”

“Okay.” Max smiled quickly. “I’ll see you tonight.”

 

—-

Heather Holloway pushed her sunglasses down her over her eyes and pursed up her lips, dragging on her lunchtime cigarette.

We were standing between the gym and the locker rooms, waiting for the boys to come out after their game. We could hear them shouting and laughing from the showers, their voices echoing off the tiles and coming out from the open windows up top.

“So…” Heather tilted her head back against the brick wall and blew out a bright cloud of smoke. “Nancy totally bailed on me in English today. I had to stand up and do that presentation all by myself. I swear to God I could have died or something.”

Heather looked at me.

I continued staring at the wall.

“And I’m thinking about screwing Mr Kloss for a better grade,” she added.

This time I looked up. “What?”

“Just checking you’re listening.” Heather smiled a teasing smile and stubbed the cigarette out on the side of the wall. “You’ve been spaced out all day. What’s eating you?”

“Nothing.” I rubbed uselessly at my temple, kicking the wall. “I just can’t sleep.”

“Have you tried drinking until you can’t stand?” Heather laughed but then she frowned. “Seriously, Diana? What’s up?”

“Do you think dreams can come true?” I blurted out. “I mean…like telling the future and stuff?”

Heather stared at me.

“If they did,” she said. “Then why hasn’t Tom Cruise knocked on my door yet and begged me to marry him?”

I smiled at her, forcing myself to laugh along at the joke.

I felt stupid for even asking.

“Dreams are just weird stories your brain makes up when you think about things too much,” Heather went on kindly. “They’re not real and they can’t predict the future.”

Somebody knocked into me from behind.

Hands grabbed at my arms, steadying me.

“Woah, sorry about that.” The voice behind me was foreign but familiar. “Heather, have you seen Nance?”

It was Steve Harrington.

His brown hair was still damp and tousled from the locker room, pushed back away from his eyes and flopping in the direction of the wind.

“Nancy?” He repeated with some urgency. “Where is she?”

“Rumour has it…” Heather chewed apologetically on her bottom lip. “She skipped with Jonathan Byers this morning.”

“Somebody told me that.” Steve swore loudly and looked away. “I thought it might not be true anyway.”

“I’m sorry,” Heather said kindly. “You okay?”

“Yeah…” Steve shrugged and folded his arms. He fidgeted a lot, I noticed. “I mean, screw her, you know? The hell do I care anyway?”

He looked back at Heather and then sidewards at me.

“I know you,” he said suddenly. “You’re new, right?”

“First week,” I said.

“Diana’s a little spacey today,” Heather joked. “Don’t expect more than one sentence per answer from her.”

Steve leaned in and gave a knowing smile. “Pot?”

Heather snorted. “Insomnia, you crackhead. Diana can’t sleep, can you Diana?”

Steve was still staring at me like he was trying to figure out how he knew me.

It was like an actual lightbulb moment when he brightened up and said: “You were in the gym yesterday. You were with-“

He broke off as Billy came swinging out of the locker rooms and out into the sunshine. He was already pinching a half-smoked cigarette between his fingers and like Steve, his hair was still slightly damp too.

He was wearing a billowy white shirt beneath his jean jacket, only half-buttoned up like he couldn’t be bothered getting dressed properly.

He looked alarmingly underdressed for the chilly November day.

Billy came out of the double doors and saw the three of us standing there in the alleyway. He blew smoke rudely in Steve’s direction.

There was nobody else around.

“What’s going on?” He asked.

Heather smiled at him, pushing up her glasses to get a better look. “Lookin’ good Billy,” she said.

“Thanks.” Billy didn’t even look at her. He was still staring at Steve. “Why the long face, Harrington? This isn’t ‘cause your girl skipped town with somebody else is it?”

The way he said it, it was like he was joking with an old friend.

But there was a callousness beneath it.

“Billy.” I stepped in quickly to put my hand on his arm. “Leave him alone.”

Billy stared at me. “You two know each other or something?”

“We just met.” Steve shifted his feet uncomfortably in the dirt. “I was just saying I knew her from somewhere. She’s your sister, right?”

Billy stared hard at Steve, his eyes flashing. Then he slung his arm around my shoulder and pulled me into him, kissing me roughly on the mouth.

I was so surprised that he’d kissed me in front of Steve and Heather that I uttered a small gasp against him. Billy backed me up, laughing, into the wall. He was still laughing as he kissed me, fully aware of Steve’s eyes on his back.

When he pulled away, Steve was staring at the two of us in confusion.

“Half-sister then?” he guessed stupidly.

Billy reached out and thumbed at the corner of my mouth.

“She’s not my sister,” he said dryly.

Heather was staring quietly at the two of us and not saying anything.

I tried to catch her eye and smile at her but she deliberately looked down, away from me.

Steve was finally beginning to understand. He nodded his head along awkwardly as he pieced it together.

He didn’t seem to realise that Billy was just playing a game with him, trying to embarrass him and get underneath his skin.

“Don’t think about it too hard, Harrington,” Billy said cruelly. “Take it easy if it starts to hurt your head.”

“Ignore him,” I jumped in, feeling sorry for him. “Steve, are you really worried about Nancy?”

“Worried about Nancy?” Steve looked at me, confused. “Why would I be worried about Nancy? It’s not like I have to know where she is all the time, right?” He gave a weak, couldn’t-care-less sort of laugh. “I mean, I don’t even know what we are anymore.”

“Over,” Billy cut in.

Heather yawned loudly, covering her mouth with the back of her hand. I guess it was her way of saying she was bored of the conversation.

“As riveting as I find all this relationship shit,” she quipped up. “I’m gonna go get a soda. Steve, you want one?”

She didn’t even look at me.

Steve immediately jumped at the chance to get away from Billy.

“You bet,” he said. He half-turned, shyly towards me. “I guess I’ll see you around,” he said.

My heart sank as they walked away.

I thought he must hate me the way he hated Billy.

He probably thought I’d been teasing him when I’d tried asking him about Nancy.

I stared wistfully after them, wishing I didn’t care so much about what people thought of me and wishing all the same that Steve would like me.

“Jesus,” Billy said when they were out of sight. He crushed his cigarette in the dirt. “What a dick.”

“You’re the dick,” I said, not looking at him. “You didn’t have to be so mean to him.”

“Diana-“ Billy gave a low, frustrated laugh. “The guy’s an asshole. He grinds my gears up the wrong way.”

“You shouldn’t have kissed me in front of them either,” I added quickly. “You know I hate it.”

Billy came up in front of me and kissed my cheek. “I can kiss you now, can’t I?” He asked. “There’s nobody around.”

I begrudgingly let him kiss me, his arms wrapping tight around my waist.

I couldn’t get Heather’s face out of my head or forget the way she’d looked at me.

She’d looked hurt.

“You think Heather’s mad at me?” I blurted out, mid kiss.

Billy pulled away, blinking at me in surprise. “Mad at you?”

“Don’t you think she looked put out?” I asked. “Like she was annoyed at me?”

“I think she was more annoyed at me than you,” Billy said slyly and he kissed me again, rougher this time. “Forget about it, huh?”

I couldn’t forget about it all the same. It nagged at me like an itch that wouldn’t go. Me and Billy weren’t alike in that respect; I cared when other people cared. And I cared about Heather too.

Billy kissed me on the side of my face, grazing my eye with his mouth. He pulled me closer into him, tugging at my jacket.

“Come see me again tonight,” he murmured suggestively. “How about it?”

I wriggled away from him, blushing even though we were the only ones there. “What if I don’t have a bad dream tonight?”

“Well, you see…” Billy dipped his head down playfully to my level, looking me in the eye. He wet his lower lip with his tongue. “I heard you can avoid having bad dreams,” he said quietly. “If you just don’t bother going to sleep in the first place.”

It took me a second to get it.

When I did, I blushed again and pushed my head into his shoulder, too embarrassed to even look at him. I could feel his top half shaking as he laughed at me.

“I’ll think about it.” I raised my head up, staring at him and trying not to laugh myself. “Okay?”

“You’re beautiful when you laugh.” He was talking in a low voice, flirting excessively with me as if we were strangers. “You know that?”

My smile dropped involuntarily. “Billy, I need to tell you something.”

He was still smirking, leaning in to kiss me behind my ear. “Hmm?”

“Last night,” I started, speaking into his hair. “I didn’t dream about your dad. I was dreaming about Barbara-“

Billy made an impatient noise against my skin, distracted. “Who?”

“Barbara Holland,” I pushed, wishing he’d listen to me. “The girl that went missing.”

This time Billy pulled away, catching me seriously by the arm. He was staring at me with hardened, narrowed eyes like he was trying to see inside my head.

“Don’t you think you’re kind of hung up on that?” He asked, bristling. “I mean, you didn’t even know her.”

“I know but ever since-“

“Diana, look at me.” Billy held me fast, speaking gently but firmly. “These kind of things can get in your head, okay? And you can’t let them get to you.”

“I know,” I tried. “But this time it’s different-“

“It’s not different.” Billy went quiet, pulling me to one side as a group of boys stepped out of the changing rooms.

“This is a small town,” he went on when they’d passed by. “Old news is still ‘new’ news to these people. They’re morbid. They talk about things because they don’t have anything else to talk about. They exaggerate; make shit up just to make it more interesting.”

He stared at me, chucking my chin up to make me look at him. “Stop thinking about it,” he said seriously. “You’ll go crazy if you do.”

I stared at him, wanting him badly to be right. “What if I’ve gone crazy already?” I asked.

“You haven’t.” Billy pulled me into him, hugging me against his chest. The wind whipped noisily behind us, whistling tunelessly in the little alleyway. “It’s just this damn town,” he said into my hair. “I think it’s trying to make me go crazy too.”

Chapter Text

Billy was turning the lighter over in his hand.

The metal casing flashed and winked up in our faces, dazzling me.

I kept on waiting for him to notice and stop what he was doing, but he just kept on turning it, eyes fixed firmly on the doors of the middle school as if he was impatiently willing them to open.

“What’s going on?” I asked, nudging him gently in the side with my elbow. “You okay?”

“I shouldn’t have kissed you.” Billy didn’t look at me. “You were right.”

There was a moment of clarity as I thought about what he’d said, then I grabbed fiercely at his arm. “Why? Has something happened?”

Billy turned to me but his face was slack, frustratingly unreadable. I kept on waiting for him to break character- to slip into a smile and laugh, joking of course, because everything was fine.

There was a long time when it was just the two of us, staring at each other and waiting for the other one to say something.

Neither of us spoke.

The blue middle school doors swung open.

“What’s wrong with me? What’s wrong with you?”

Billy and I turned, distracted, back to the school. Max was striding purposefully away from the building, her board tucked under her arm, her face like thunder.

It took me a second to notice that the kid trailing behind her was Lucas Sinclair.

“You treat me like garbage!” Max whirled around, wildly, to face the boy, her voice unnaturally high and passionate as it carried across the lot towards us.

She sounded upset, insistent, hurt. The whole scene made me uneasy.

I turned to Billy for his thoughts but his face was like steel as he stared at them, still turning the lighter in his hand.

Max was coming over, dropping her board and skating her way back down to the car. Her eyes were down and she didn’t look at us.

“That kid you were talking to,” Billy pushed off from the car and went around to his side, waiting for Max and I to get in. “Who is he?”

Max sneaked another look behind her, at Lucas who was still staring. “He’s no one,” she said dismissively.

Billy bristled. “No one?”

“Just some kid from my class.” Max didn’t look at me, moving past me and climbing over into the backseat. She was trying very hard to ignore us both.

Billy climbed into the seat next to me, exhaling deeply and lighting up a cigarette. He let his hand dangle out of the open window, white smoke billowing and filling my head.

“Why was he talking to you?” Billy’s voice came out strange.

“It was just about some stupid class assignment.”

Even I could tell my sister was lying. “Billy-“ I jumped in, catching his look when I spoke up. “It’s none of our business.”

“He causin’ you trouble?” Billy had said that to me once, I remembered. Now he was ignoring me, staring strangely out of the windscreen like I wasn’t even there.

“Why do you care?” I pushed defensively before Max had time to speak up for herself. “Kids fight all the time. It doesn’t have to mean anything. People fight.”

“You think I don’t know that?” Billy shot me a look that sent me cold. “You think I don’t know that people fight, Diana?”

Of course, he would, I remembered. And now I felt like an idiot.

“It isn’t always like what you think,” I said quietly, dipping my head and staring into my lap. “It isn’t always like your mom-“

“-This is serious shit, okay?” Billy turned quickly to the backseat, leaning towards Max with a possessive and unpredictable fierceness that I’d never seen before. “You stay away from him, you hear me?”

His face was stormy, clouded over. “Max,” he said and his voice came out like a song when he spoke her name. “You stay away from him.”

Billy turned back around and gunned the engine, leaving Max and I speechless in our seats. I’d never seen Billy like that before, not with Max. He was changeable and volatile but he was never like that with her, not usually.

It scared me.

It unnerved me and left a strange feeling in the pit of my stomach that I didn’t like.

When the Camaro swung into the driveway back home, Max climbed out of the car and stormed her way into the house without a word, shoving past Billy as she marched down the hallway to her room. She let the door swing shut with a loud bang. It was a sound that seemed to settle over the entire house.

“So what?” I said, following Billy through the sitting room. “You think you can just tell people who to be friends with now?”

“Did they look like friends to you, Diana?” Billy fired back. “And spare me the lecture ‘cause I’m not in the mood.”

“No,” I said sarcastically. “You’re never in the mood, are you Billy? You’re fine preaching to other people but as soon as they call you out on your own bullshit you just-“

“Diana, please-“ Billy held his hand out to silence me, stopping me mid-speech. “I’m just looking out for her.”

“It’s not your job to look out for her.” I took a step closer to him, closing the distance between us so that I could feel the buttons on his shirt pressing against me. “She’s my sister.”

There was a heavy beat and then Billy laughed; a dry, humourless sort of laugh that made me wince and wish I’d never said anything.

“Thanks a lot, kid,” he said.

“Are you two fighting again?”

Billy and I sprang apart, catching Max standing there in the doorway.

She was chewing on the zipper of her red sweater, peeking in nervously with round eyes.

I went over and put my arm around her and Billy flopped lazily onto the couch, flicking through the channels on the TV with his boots up on the arm.

He usually only did that when my mom was around.

“Don’t be silly,” I said. “We’re not fighting.”

“We are,” Billy sang, not looking up from the screen.

I ignored him. “So what if we are? It doesn’t mean anything. People fight and it doesn’t have to mean anything.” I looked over at Billy. “It doesn’t mean that we mean any of the things we say.”

Billy jumped up from the couch.

“Where are you going?” I asked, following him quickly to the door.

“For my lighter.” Billy stuck a cigarette between his lips and raised an eyebrow, challenging me. “Okay, mom?”

I stared at him, not saying anything.

Billy leaned in and whispered in my ear. “Don’t act like it doesn’t turn you on.”

“You’re disgusting,” I said, not really meaning it.

Billy laughed and wet his lower lip with his tongue, staring at me with hard, bright eyes. He patted his empty shirt pocket and went to go fetch his lighter.

“I had a fight with Lucas today,” Max said when he was gone.

“Yeah.” I looked at her. “I know you did.”

“He was being a jerk,” she said. “They all were.”

“And that thing we talked about?” I found myself looking down at the couch, too nervous to talk about it. “Did you learn anything else?”

“Diana.” Max frowned at me, her nose scrunching in disbelief. “You don’t really believe any of that shit they were saying, do you? They were lying. Or just acting out one of their stupid games. It’s all bullshit,” she said. “All of it.”

“But why?” I struggled to understand. “Why would they say all of that stuff if it wasn’t true?”

“To impress me?” Max guessed, scoffing. “And what exactly did they tell you, Diana? Because all I ever heard was some bullshit excuse about why they couldn’t tell you.” Max leaned over and grabbed me by the hand. “Don’t you see? It’s all bullshit.”

“What’s bullshit?” Billy asked, coming back in with his lighter.

“Nothing,” I said quickly. “It doesn’t matter.”

Billy threw us both a long look, then flopped back down on the couch, rolling his eyes at the TV.

“Always keeping secrets, huh?” He muttered to himself. “You know, one day maybe I’ll get a straight answer out of you both.”

Max frowned at him. “Nobody’s keeping secrets Billy.”

“I don’t believe you,” he said simply.

He was still staring at the screen like it had all of his attention.

I went and sidled up to him on the couch, reaching over him with my arm to straighten the blond noodle curl that had slipped down over his forehead.

I snuck a smile at Max.

“Do you think he’s being a little melodramatic, Max?” I teased. “Just a little over the top?”

Billy puffed on his cigarette and didn’t say anything. Max laughed, joining in.

“Billy, being dramatic? No way.”

“Cut it out.” Billy blew smoke into my face, rolling his eyes. “You’re not funny.”

“Not even me?” I leaned onto his shoulder, my fingers digging into his jean jacket and Billy turned wryly to me.

“Don’t pout at me, Diana,” he said.

‘Or what?” I wanted to say, but Max was staring at the two of us and not saying anything.

It brought me back to reality.

“I’m sorry about your friend, Max,” I said kindly. “I’m sure you’ll make things up if you’re meant to be together.”

I looked at Billy but he didn’t say anything.

He was biting his tongue this time.

—-

After dinner that night, I went to the kitchen to help my mom with the dinner plates.

She seemed pleased, flattered even, that I wanted to help her and she was smiling when she handed me the tea towel.

“This is nice,” she said, dipping her hands into the sink so that the water swelled up to her elbows. “We never just stand around and talk anymore. It’s nice.”

I wanted to tell her that I’d tried to talk to her- all the time in fact. That she was different now. She wasn’t the mother I remembered from when I was a kid.

“I guess we’ve all just been busy with the move and everything,” I said limply.

“You have your job tomorrow,” my mom remembered. “Are you nervous?”

I shook my head.

I actually thought it would do me good, to spend a day away from home and school. They were the kind of things that could be dealt with only in moderation, like mean step-fathers and .

“I’m actually looking forward to it.” I took the soapy plate my mom handed me and swaddled it in my tea towel. “This week’s been such a drag.”

“But you have friends?” My mom asked. “People you talk to?”

“There’s this one girl,” I said. “Heather. She’s really nice.”

My mom could sense the ‘but’ coming and turned to me expectantly.

“But now I think she’s upset with me,” I went on, reaching for another plate. “And I’m scared that I’ve gone and ruined it before it’s even started.”

“What did you do to upset her?” My mom asked.

“It wasn’t me really…” I turned to the door to make sure nobody was listening. “She likes Billy,” I said.

“And Billy doesn’t like her,” my mom guessed, nodding. “That’s not your fault though, is it? You should just talk to her. Boys aren’t worth ruining friendships over.”

It occurred to me that my mom had been young once too.

There had been a time in her life when she was just as clueless as I was, navigating life and friendships and schoolwork and not knowing where she was going. There had been a time in her life when Neil had never been in it.

She must have felt like a different person then.

“Are you happy, mom?” I asked, putting the dry plate down on the side and looking at her. “I mean, are you really happy?”

My mom looked at me. “I have my two beautiful daughters living with me again,” she said. “It doesn’t matter about anything else.”

I looked down, staring at the frothy white bubbles in the sink. My mom dipped her hand into the basin and splashed me, the soap suds landing in my hair.

I think it was supposed to make me laugh.

“You’re happy too, Diana?” She asked me, sounding doubtful. “Aren’t you?”

“Sure,” I said. “I have you guys, don’t I?”

“And Neil…” My mom smiled hopefully at me. “He’s making more of an effort with you, isn’t he? Don’t you think?”

She seemed to have forgotten the previous night entirely, I thought.

My entire life seemed to be made up of a string of unhappy nights and yet she seemed so happy to just forget it all- as if it was just somehow easier to pretend that nothing ever happened.

“You mean because he hasn’t hit me since we moved?” I said bravely, forcing my mom to acknowledge it anyway. “I mean I have to admit, that’s really nice of him.”

“Don’t start, Diana-” my mom turned away from me. “That’s out of my control.”

“Out of your control?” I struggled to keep my voice calm. “Mom, you can get us out of here. Nothing’s ever out of your control!”

“I don’t want to talk about it.” My mom shut me down quick. “That’s it, okay? End of discussion. We’re not talking about this anymore.”

I threw the tea towel down onto the side, the plate in my hand slipping deliberately out of my fingers and onto the floor.

Blue and white shards spat and scattered at our feet.

“Are you out of your mind?” My mom gasped, stepping back. “What the hell is wrong with you?”

“I wish somebody could tell me,” I said.

Then I shoved past her, heading for the door.

Billy was halfway to the kitchen, wanting to know what the noise was.

When I reached him, I grabbed at him, my hands at his belt.

“I will come see you tonight,” I said, kissing him quickly on the way to my room. “Wait up for me, okay?”

“Is something wrong?” Billy called out to me, glancing back at the kitchen and then back at me. “Diana, has something happened?”

“When isn’t there something wrong?” I asked, reaching my door. “I just need to think for a while, okay? I’ll see you.”

I shut my door and went to my bed to think.

Chapter Text

The clock in the hallway read one am.

Almost everybody would be asleep by now.

On a Friday night, my mom liked to stay up late and watch Dallas on TV, but she hardly ever made it. She usually fell asleep by half-past nine, dozing in the armchair with her brick-red hair slipping down over her face, until Neil shook her awake and told her to go to bed.

My sister would be asleep too. She’d be tucked up in bed with some half-read comic book dangling from her hand, the pages getting all creased until she eventually rolled over and dropped the book to the floor.

She’d sleep through it, the same way she seemed to be able to sleep through every noise.

I came to a stop outside her room, listening for the sound of her steady breathing behind the door. It was comforting, just knowing that she was there.

I continued walking, feeling my way down along the papered walls with my fingers.

Billy’s room was in sight, just opposite the bathroom.

I could see the light from beneath his door and I knew that he was awake.

He was waiting for me, just like I told him to.

I put my hand on the door, turning the handle slowly.

“The hell are you doing?” A voice behind me asked.

I jumped, startled, and whirled around. Neil stood in front of me with his arms tight across his chest, staring at me with hard eyes.

I put a hand over my heart as if I could steady it that way.

“Neil,” I breathed, trying to stay calm. “I didn’t know you were awake.”

“It’s late,” he said, glancing at his watch even though it was dark. “Very late.”

I didn’t say anything, my mind not working quick enough to come up with an answer. I felt stupid and reckless, like a kid caught with their hand in the cookie jar, unable to come up with a plausible explanation or some kind of story.

“What are you doing?” Neil repeated, maddeningly. “Well?”

“The hell’s going on here?” The door behind me opened and Billy came out, fully dressed apart from his jean jacket, his white shirt half-open.

He looked at me and he looked at Neil and he didn’t say anything but I knew that he knew.

“Diana’s just going to give me an explanation,” Neil started, staring hard at the two of us. “As to why she’s sneaking into your room at one o’clock in the morning like some kind of college girl.”

“It isn’t what you think,” I said quickly. “I was just coming to ask Billy if he’d give me a ride to work tomorrow.”

Neil looked at me as if I was stupid. “At one o’clock in the morning?”

“So it’s late,” Billy said then, stepping in front of me. “It’s not a crime, is it?”

Neil’s face clouded over but when he spoke, he was calm.

“It’s funny,” he said, nodding along. “A man came into the bank yesterday and had a little something to say about you two. Said his daughter was the one who threw that little Halloween party you went to the other night.” Neil stared over Billy’s shoulder at me. “Said you looked a little too close for comfort.”

“That’s bullshit,” Billy snapped quickly.

“He said he doesn’t normally listen to gossip,” Neil went on breezily. “But I guess he was just looking out for a neighbour. Now, I didn’t want to believe it all the same. I’m not the kind of man who just jumps to these sorts of conclusions.”

He turned to Billy then. “But what can I think, when there are rumours like that going around?”

“There aren’t any rumours,” I pushed in fiercely. “Tell him, Billy.”

“Diana-” Billy threw me a look, stopping me. The look on his face told me everything I needed to know. He’d heard something, something that I hadn’t.

That’s why he’d been acting so funny outside the parking lot after school.

“What-what are you talking about?” I demanded, pushing on his arm. “What did you hear? Why didn’t you say anything to me?”

“It’s just locker room shit,” Billy said, not looking at me but looking at Neil. “It’s bullshit anyway. It doesn’t mean anything.”

“I thought that too,” Neil said. “Until tonight.”

“Nothing’s going on,” I started. “There isn’t any-”

“-Shut up!” Neil shouted it, shocking me into silence.

His voice rocketed in the hallway.

I expected my mom or Max to come running, but nobody came.

“Here’s what we’re going to do,” Neil said carefully, thinking. “I’m going to try and explain to you how inappropriate it is for the two of you to be together. I don’t know why you can’t see it.” He looked at me. “Or maybe you can see it and you just don’t care. Maybe you’re just trying to make me look bad.”

“Nobody’s trying to make you look bad,” I said softly.

I didn’t even think it was about that anymore.

Neil had always had certain ideas about women and what they should do or shouldn’t do but I think deep down he really just hated our happiness.

It ate away at him like a parasite, gnawing at his insides.

“I want both of you to go your rooms,” Neil said finally, ignoring me. “I’ll deal with this thing individually. Diana, go back to your room and wait for me.”

“No.” Billy’s hand shot out and pushed me to one side, stopping me from leaving. His voice sounded strong but I could tell he was scared. “Stay where you are. I’m not leaving him alone with you.”

Neil laughed, a quiet sort of laugh that cut at something inside of me.

“Did that impress you, Diana?” He said, rocking back meanly on his heels. “Billy’s always got to be the hero where the girls are concerned.”

I didn’t say anything.

Neil’s hand swung out and knocked Billy in the jaw, sending him crashing back into the room, falling against his bedside table.

I waited for Billy to get up but he didn’t.

He spat blood onto the floor and wiped roughly at his mouth.

“You embarrass me,” Neil said cruelly, standing over him. “You remind me of your mother. She liked to sleep around too.”

“Bite me,” Billy snapped.

“You think this is funny?” Neil grabbed at Billy’s shirt and pulled him up. “You think this is some kind of joke? You make me sick. Your own sister?”

“She’s not my sister.”

Neil awarded him with another hit, this time sending him back into the wall.

“In my eyes,” Neil grunted, shoving him back. “In everybody else’s eyes, that’s what she is. She’s your sister and it matters what people think.”

“We’ll be eighteen soon,” I said, stepping up behind him. “We’ll be eighteen and then we’ll be able to do whatever we like. And you won’t be able to tell us what to do anymore.”

Neil’s head snapped to the side to look at me. “Is that so?”

“Yeah,” I said, swallowing thickly. “It is.”

Neil shoved Billy away from him, breathing hard.

He turned to me.

“I’ll tell you what your problem is Diana,” he said, inching towards me. “You talk too damn much. You know that? You go around putting ideas in people’s heads, trying to turn my own wife against me. You think you’re tough stuff-”

He grabbed me by the collar and slammed me back against the bedroom door.

I could see Billy over his shoulder, righting his crumpled shirt and not looking at me.

“You think you’re tough stuff, huh?” Neil said, pressing me into the door so hard it hurt. “I always knew you were a little whore, Diana. I thought I’d straightened that out of you back in California but I guess I was wrong.”

Neil hit me, then grabbed at my jaw and squeezed it until it ached. “Everyone in this town thinks you’re a whore, Diana,” he went on cruelly. “You should care more about what people think of you.”

“Dad,” Billy said behind him. “You’re hurting her.”

Neil pretended he hadn’t heard him. “I could break you,” he said, staring down into my face. “It would be so easy.”

“Go to hell.” I glared up at him, hating him.

It was more than hate, I thought. There had to be something stronger than that.

He sickened me.

Neil hit me again and this time it knocked the breath out of me.

I think I would have fallen, had he not been holding me up against the door.

“I could bend you,” he hissed, leaning into my face. “With my finger and my thumb. I just want you to know that.”

He let me go, shoving me roughly to one side.

I hoped that whatever he’d started was now over.

“It ends tonight,” Neil said. “Do you hear me?”

“Sir,” Billy spoke quietly behind me.

His voice was flat and passive, different to the retorts he’d been throwing out earlier. He was tired now and he wanted Neil to leave.

“Don’t let this happen again,” Neil said and he opened the door. “It’s over.”

As soon as Neil was gone, Billy sank down onto the bed, his head in his hands

. I’d never seen him like this before, sitting with his head down and his elbows on his knees. It made me feel like giving up.

I approached the bed gingerly and stood beside him, pulling him into me so that his forehead was against my stomach. His hair was damp with sweat.

“You should have told me,” I said quietly. “You should have told me you’d heard people talking at school.”

“Why?” Billy raised his head and I saw that his eyes were wet with tears. “Would you have done things differently?”

He saw the look on my face and knew that he was right.

“We were stupid,” I said. “We were always going to get caught out. It was just a matter of time.”

“It’s not over, you know?” Billy glanced quickly at the door in case Neil might still be hovering around. “All this shit with my dad. He’s not gonna need an excuse anymore.”

The thought of it made me want to cry- hot, angry, scared tears that burned and suffocated and stuck in my throat.

I crouched down in front of the bed.

“I’m scared,” I whispered, blinking fast. “Billy, you heard what he said-.”

“I could break you too.” Billy leaned into me and kissed me as he said it. “Any man my size could break you, Diana. But it doesn’t mean we get to. It doesn’t mean he’ll actually do it.”

But there’d been something in Neil’s eyes that Billy hadn’t seen. And it had scared me more than the words that he’d said. It was like the soul of the man had gone completely and the eyes reflected back only what was left; an empty, hollow thing that lacked empathy and compassion, like some kind of monster.

Billy reached out to touch me and I went cold, flinching away.

“Don’t,” I said, looking down. “Billy, I think something’s going to happen.”

“What are you talking about? It already did.”

“No…” I stood up and went over to the door, closing it quietly and then turning with my back against it. “Something’s going to happen. Something bad.”

“What the hell are you talking about?” Billy’s voice had gone all strange, like he was trying not to sound like I was bothering him. “Di, my dad’s not gonna come back tonight, okay? Will you relax?”

“It’s not your dad.” I shook my head, trying to form the words even though I didn’t know what they were. “It’s something else and I can feel it. Like a gut feeling, you know?”

“You think something bad’s gonna happen tonight?”

“Tonight. Tomorrow. I don’t know.”

Billy looked at me for a long time.

The look he was giving me was the sort of look doctors and nurses gave each other when you were sick and they were trying not to panic you and come out with your diagnosis all at once. It made feel like I was some kind of lab rat.

“Don’t look at me like that,” I insisted. “I’m not crazy, okay?”

“You’re not crazy.” Billy came over to me, shaking his head. “Nobody’s saying you’re crazy. But I think my dad’s got into your head, Diana. I’m telling you that everything is fine. Nothing bad is going to happen.”

I didn’t believe him. And the little voice in my head sang liar, liar, liar.

“I think you’re tired,” Billy said. “You should get some sleep.”

“I don’t want to go to sleep.” I shook my head quickly, insistent. “If I go to sleep, I’ll have those dreams again and they scare me.”

“Jesus, Diana.” Billy reached out and held my cheek, looking pained. “What the hell has he done to you?”

Not Neil, I thought. Something else.

“Stay with me then,” Billy said, turning me and guiding me to the bed. “He’s not coming back. Nothing’s going to happen tonight.”

He pulled back the covers and I got in, rolling onto my side and watching him get undressed. “Everything’s fine,” he said, unbuttoning his shirt. “You won’t dream any bad dreams tonight, okay?”

“Okay,” I said against the pillow.

And the little voice in my head sang liar, liar, liar.

Chapter Text

When I woke up the next morning, the back of my head ached where Neil had shoved me against the door.

I pressed my hand against my hair as if I could stop the pain that way and rolled over onto my side.

Billy was already awake, sitting up in the bed with his cigarette and staring at me, his eyes steady on my face.

“What?” I peered up at him, smiling against the pillows and wishing he’d return it. “Why are you staring at me like that?”

“Your face.” Billy’s hand went to my cheek. “It’s bruised. Does it hurt?”

I turned my face away from him, my own fingers shooting up to push his hand away.

It did hurt, actually.

“Does it look bad?” I asked, worrying.

I felt around for the lower part of my eye, wincing as I pressed into the tender flesh. “God, I look a mess, don’t I?”

“Forget about it,” Billy said kindly, putting his cigarette to my mouth and making me drag on it. “Would you relax? You’ve looked worse, believe me.”

I lay back in the bed, half-satisfied with his answer and hopeful that it was nothing a little makeup wouldn’t fix.

“I can’t believe I spent the whole night here,” I sighed lazily and then I shot up quickly in the bed. “Shit, I can’t believe I spent the whole night here.“

I turned to the bedside table and grabbed for the clock. It was 7:25.

“I said, relax.” Billy leaned over and took the clock from me, putting it back down. “You don’t start work ‘til nine and I said I’ll drive you, okay?”

“What about your dad?” I looked quickly at the door. “Is he here?”

“He’s out,” Billy said coolly, leaning back against the headboard and blowing out a cloud of smoke. “Thank God, huh?”

The realisation that we were actually safe was relieving, to say the least, and I stared up at the ceiling in disbelief.

“He’s taking your mom to the next town for a decent department store,” Billy said before I’d even thought of asking the question. “Your mom’s going crazy without a Sears.”

“Isn’t there going to be a new mall next summer?” I asked.

It felt nice to be lying beside him and just talking, even if it was just about something as stupid and insignificant as a new mall.

Billy shot me a bored look. “Apparently.”

Somebody rapped loudly on the door.

“Shit!” I turned over my shoulder and then back to Billy. “I thought you said they were out?”

“They are,” Billy hissed, putting a hand on my arm.

He stepped quickly out of the bed and pulled on his jeans, slipping hurriedly into a shirt that he didn’t bother trying to fasten.

He marched over quickly to the door and flung it open.

There was a beat.

“What the hell do you want now?” Billy snapped. “Do you know what time it is?”

It was Max.

“Will you take me to the arcade today?” She asked.

Billy swore at her. “You’re a little shit. You think that’s all I’m here for, huh?”

He didn’t really sound mad though.

“Can’t you give me a ride when you take Diana to work?” Max peeped over his shoulder into the room and then looked quickly away again, blushing. “You never complain about taking Diana anywhere.”

“Yeah?” Billy stepped to the side in front of her, blocking her view of the room. “That’s ‘cause Diana doesn’t ask for all of my quarters.”

Max stared at him, blinking as if she wasn’t sure if he was joking or not.

“Is Diana awake?” She asked bravely.

Billy pretended he didn’t know what she was talking about. “How should I know?”

“It’s okay, Billy.” I sat up in the bed, wincing at how stiff I felt. “She’s thirteen, she’s not an idiot.”

Billy glanced at me begrudgingly over his shoulder and then back to my sister.

“You tell anyone about this,” he warned her. “And your ass is grass, you hear me?”

Max stepped nervously through the door, politely ignoring the clothes strewn about on the floor and the wild-looking state of the room.

“Diana, your face?” Max went over to the bed and stared at me, wide-eyed. “Are you okay? Does it hurt?”

“I’m fine, Max.” I turned the bruised side of my face away from her, feeling self-conscious. “Don’t worry about it, okay?”

“Okay…” Max sat down on the edge of the bed, then thought better of it and stood up again. “I heard the shouting last night,” she said quietly. “I wanted to come but I didn’t.”

She looked away, embarrassed. “I was too scared.”

“You were right to stay away, Max,” I said kindly. “He beat the shit out of both of us.”

“Because you’re together?”

It sounded funny, her saying it.

She sounded so blasé about it.

It made me laugh.

“Yeah,” I said. “Because of that.”

—-

Bob Newby crouched down on all fours at the back of the room and squinted at the dial on the portable heater.

“I’m sorry, Diana,” he said, struggling apologetically back to his feet. “They don’t go any lower than that.”

I leaned uncomfortably on the counter, putting the price tag gun down next to my elbow. “That’s okay.”

Bob smiled at me.

We were closed for lunch, not that we’d been very busy in the first place.

We’d sold one walkman to a spotty teenager, a new radio to an elderly woman who was hard of hearing anyway and a new coaxial cable to a man who’s dog had eaten the back of his TV overnight.

“The dog’s fine of course,” he’d assured us, laughing. But he’d been our last customer since noon and things didn’t seem like they were going to speed up.

“Is it always like this?” I took a small bite out of my meatball sub sandwich.

I’d forgotten to bring any lunch and Bob, of course, had insisted on sharing his.

“I mean, business?” I said, chewing thoughtfully. “Is it always this slow?”

“It didn’t use to be.” Bob came round and stood next to me behind the counter. “This town’s changed. It’s not like it used to be anymore.”

I stopped eating. “How’d you mean?”

“Well, you know…” Bob shrugged amiably. “Things change. Nothing stays the same forever.”

I looked down.

“I wish things didn’t have to change,” I said. “I wish people didn’t have to move house or change schools or lose friends. I wish everything could just go on like it usually does.”

Bob squinted at me kindly.

When he smiled, both of his eyes creased up around his cheeks and he looked like a smiling moon, wise and gentle.

“Sometimes change is good,” he told me. “If things didn’t change, nothing would ever get better. And things have to get better in the end. It’s the rule of life.”

I smiled at him, touched by his kindness. “I don’t think that’s true,” I laughed shyly. “Sometimes it feels like everything just keeps getting worse.”

“Yes, well…” Bob’s eyes flickered to the bruise on my face and then quickly back to his sandwich, looking away politely. “Sometimes things have to get worse for them to get better. But you have my word that it will.”

I don’t know why it meant so much to me. “Do you really mean that?”

“I do,” Bob said, looking up to smile at me. “I really do.”

We smiled at each other.

It was funny, but I’d never met anyone like Bob Newby before.

He knew so little about me, but he made me feel like I mattered, like my worries weren’t just stupid concerns that needed brushing to one side.

He listened to me.

He looked out for me.

He made me feel like everything was going to be okay.

He’d given me his word that it would.

There was a pile of puzzles sitting at the end of the counter, tied up with an elastic band to keep them in place.

I nodded at them. “Who are they for?”

“Ah.” Bob wiped at his mouth with a napkin and set his half-eaten sandwich to one side. “Those are for Will. I thought they’d cheer him up.”

“He’s still sick?” I asked, picking up one of the puzzles and squinting hopelessly at it. “Who does puzzles when they’re sick?”

“I do.” Bob took the puzzle from my hands and turned it in the other direction until I heard a clicking sound. “I was sick all the time as a kid and nothing cheered me up more than puzzles did.”

Something about the way he said that made me want to laugh at him.

Bob was so childlike already, it was so easy to imagine him younger.

“So that’s your secret to being so smart?” I said, teasing him. “Brain teasers and puzzles and Rubix Cubes?”

Bob chuckled and looked proudly at me. “They don’t call me Bob the Brain for nothing.”

I laughed.

Then a thought occurred to me.

“When were you planning on seeing Will?” I asked casually, leaning an elbow on the counter. “I mean, we could go see him now, couldn’t we? We’re not doing anything.”

Bob didn’t look so sure. “I don’t know, Diana. Joyce told me not to call.”

“So don’t call, surprise them!” I snatched the puzzle out of his hand and put it on top of the pile with the rest. “Can’t we just go see if he’s okay?”

“We’re supposed to be working,” Bob tried again.

I smiled, motioning around us to the empty room. “See any customers, Bob? ‘Cause I don’t.”

Bob laugh shyly, rubbing the back of his neck with his hand. “I don’t know, Diana. It kinda feels like we’d be intruding…”

“Intruding?” I circled the counter and grabbed my jacket from the coatstand at the back. “Visiting,” I clarified.

Bob hung back, dawdling as if he still wasn’t sure.

I waved my sleeve at him and slipped into my jacket, wishing he’d see how important it was for me to go.

“We’ll go for an hour,” I said breezily, pleading with him. “I promise, okay?”

Bob considered this.

“Half an hour,” he said. “Joyce really did tell me not to call.”

Half an hour was all I needed to make sure Will was okay. “Deal,” I said.

—-

The Byers house was a small, single-storey building with a front porch and a scrappy looking front-yard that was in dire need of cutting.

There was washing billowing on the line out front and a faded old sofa sitting beneath the canopy with a couple of mismatched garden chairs.

The front door was brown and unpainted and looked like it might splinter in your hand.

Bob was still shaking his head as he climbed out of the car. “I still think this is a bad idea,” he said doubtfully. “We’re intruding.”

“We’re visiting,” I said again.

The door at the front of the house creaked open and a small, nervous, dark-haired woman hurried out, hugging her thin jacket around her.

She smiled strangely when she saw us. “Now’s really not a good time,” she said.

There was no hello, no greeting or other acknowledgement.

She seemed rushed and flustered, like she couldn’t wait to go back inside the house and close the door on us.

“Joyce.” Bob stepped forward with the puzzles in his hand. “I know you told me not to call but I have these games for Will and I really think they’d make the kid feel better-“

“-We’re fine,” Joyce smiled, glancing at me over Bob’s shoulder. “We really don’t need anything.”

“I could teach him how to play,” Bob tried anyway, waving the puzzles in his hand. “Bob the Brain, remember?”

I could see we weren’t getting anywhere with her.

Joyce smiled a strained smile and glanced quickly behind her back at the house. “He’s sleeping,” she said.

I shoved past Bob. “Will’s really sick,” I asked her, one foot on the porch. “Isn’t he?”

“Diana…” Bob threw Joyce an apologetic smile and tugged on my arm. “I’m sorry, Joyce. This is my new trainee. Her sister’s friends with Will.”

“Oh.” Joyce looked like she didn’t know what to say. “That’s so sweet that you care.” She pulled a face awkwardly, running out of excuses. “But he’s fine, really. You don’t have to worry about him.”

“Can I see him?”

“Umm…” Joyce looked at Bob. She was starting to get frustrated. “Like I said, now’s really not a good time. He just needs his rest.”

I tried to see past her shoulder into the house anyway, hoping to catch some sight of Will. The house was dark and gloomy-looking and I couldn’t see what was beyond the front door.

“Mrs Byers,” I stepped a little closer to the porch. “This is sort of difficult to explain but I really need to see if Will’s okay-“

“Come on now, Diana.” Bob had had enough as well. “We’ll just come back another time. Joyce, I’m sorry-“

She was hiding something.

I skirted around Joyce and leapt up onto the porch, my boots hitting the wooden decking and stepping quickly over the threshold into the house.

I could hear Joyce and Bob shouting my name behind me but I kept on walking, blundering through the house and into the many different rooms.

“Will?” I called out, turning a corner. “Will, are you here? Are you alright?”

“Diana?” A pale, sleepy looking face poked its way around the door. “What are you doing here? Are you looking for Max?”

“No, silly.” I followed Will quickly into his room and shut the door. Mike Wheeler was sitting on the bed as well and he jumped up in surprise when he saw me.

“I’m here for you,” I said, crouching down in front of Will and taking the sleeve of his grey sweater. “I was worried about you. Are you okay?”

“You were worried about me?” Will didn’t sound like he believed me. “You don’t even know me.”

“Something’s happened,” I said anyway, glancing at Mike and then back at Will. “Hasn’t it? Something bad…”

“You shouldn’t be in here-“ The door to Will’s room burst open and Joyce and Bob stumbled in, falling over each other and out of breath. “Diana, we really have to leave,” Bob said.

Will clung to my arm like he wanted me to stay.

His hands were ice cold.

“You know something?” He asked me seriously, his dark-ringed eyes boring sickly into mine. “Don’t you, Diana?”

“Will?” Mike hung back nervously by the bed, looking pale. “What is it? What’s wrong?”

“She’s seen him too,” Will said, and what he said next sent shivers down my spine and made the hair rise up on the back of my neck. “She’s seen the Shadow Monster too.”

Chapter Text

Will Byers sat stiff and nervous in the low-backed chair at his kitchen table.

He looked worryingly pale; so pale that I could see the faint blue and yellow veins sitting beneath his skin.

His face was like porcelain, like paper or wax.

If I held him too tightly, I was sure he would break.

“I know that’s a lot to take in Diana,” he said in a softly spoken voice. “But do you believe me anyway?”

I picked at the weaving on one of the Byers’ placemats, not looking at him.

I could hear Joyce and Bob talking quietly to one another in the next room and the buzz of the television.

Across the table, Mike Wheeler gave me a reassuring smile.

“Do I believe you?” I echoed, still looking down. “Jesus, no, I don’t believe you.”

I put the placemat down, breathing hard like I’d been running. “But what choice do I have? I have to believe you, right?”

“I guess you have questions,” Mike said.

I shook my head, jumping up quickly from my chair. “Just let me get this straight, okay?”

I began to pace the room aimlessly if only to do something. Sitting still was driving me crazy. I felt like I could run a hundred miles without stopping.

“Last year,” I said, turning to Will. “When you went missing in the woods, you were actually in someplace called the…” I tried the strange new word uncertainly on my tongue. “…The Upside Down?”

“It’s an alternate dimension,” Mike said outright. “Think of it as being parallel to our world, like a mirror or a reflection.”

I laughed madly. “Kid, do you have any idea how crazy that sounds?”

“You just said you believed me-“

“-I changed my mind.” I threw myself down dramatically in the chair, putting my head in my hands and then straightening up again. “This is such horseshit!”

Will wriggled impatiently in his chair, leaning forward to take my hand. His fingers were ice cold and I almost dragged my hand away.

“Those dreams you just told us about,” Will said carefully. “You said I was in them?”

“One of them, yeah.” I straightened up, my mouth drying at the memory. “You were just standing there and there was this thing behind you. I don’t know what it was-“

“-The Shadow Monster,” Mike cut in.

“The Shadow Monster,” I said. “Anyway, you were asking me for my help and there was this other girl. Barbara Holland-“ I paused, my mind piecing it together. “She was there too. Barbara Holland went missing the same week as you, didn’t she?”

“She’s gone,” Mike said quietly.

“What do you mean?” I asked, although I already knew. “She’s gone?”

“The Demogorgon,” Will said. “It got her.”

The kitchen fell quiet and behind us, the tap dripped three times.

“You had another dream,” he said, remembering. “You said Bob was in it, didn’t you? What happened?”

“Oh, I can’t remember that anymore,” I lied. “It must not have meant anything.”

Will looked at Mike. “Do you think it’s True Sight?”

“True Sight?” I looked quickly between the two boys. “What’s True Sight?”

“True Sight,” Mike said. “It’s like being able to see into both worlds. Like being in our world but at the same time being aware of the other world as well- the Upside Down.”

“Dart bit you,” Will said. “What if that’s what caused it? What if somehow you gained insight into the Upside Down that way? Like you’re some kind of spy?”

“You mean like you?” I asked. “Didn’t Mike say that you could see that too?”

“Sort of…” Will didn’t look convinced. “But I don’t think we’re the same. You don’t have any Now-Memories.”

I rolled my eyes. “Now-Memories?”

“I feel him, Diana.” Will’s eyes welled suddenly with tears, breaking his cool facade and startling me. “I feel him…everywhere.”

I didn’t even know this kid.

He was just some skinny, awkward boy from my sister’s class who had a bad haircut and wore secondhand sneakers to school.

There was no reason for me to feel the way I should about him.

But I still wanted to protect him.

“Don’t cry,” I said, dropping to my knees in front of his chair. “Don’t cry, okay? I believe you, it’s just a little overwhelming to take in all at once.”

“He’s in me, Diana,” Will sniffed pathetically, snot running down onto his lower lip. “He’s inside me. He’s everywhere.”

“What-“ I looked at Mike for my answer, feeling nauseous at the thought of it. “What does that mean? He’s in you?”

“The Shadow Monster,” Mike said. “It got him.”

Mike’s words hit me like a weight of bricks and my hand went over my mouth. I steadied myself, blinking quickly and grabbing Will’s arms.

Then I pulled him into me, pressing my face hard into his hair. “I won’t let anything bad happen to you,” I said seriously, meaning every word. “You asked me for my help and I’m going to help you, okay?”

“You really mean that?” Will sniffled against my shoulder.

“Of course I mean it.” I pulled back, making him look at me. “I might not know shit about what this thing is,” I said. “But I promise you, I’m not leaving your side until you’re you again.”

Will looked bleary-eyed, at Mike, then back at me.

He was a little calmer, a little stuttery when he breathed in but calmer all the same. He rubbed fiercely at his eyes with the sleeve of his grey sweater.

“Are you and Bob any good at puzzles?” He asked me.

I tried very hard not to let my face show what I was thinking.

Bob stood beside me in the middle of the Byers living room, still holding the puzzles he’d brought over for Will and staring in confusion at the walls, which had been papered over completely with scribbled pieces of letter paper.

The scribbles seemed so meaningless to me, so random. Some of them were blue and green but the others were black and dirt-coloured and tacked together to make some neverending snake-like shape.

He must have used two whole packs of paper to make it.

I turned to Will over my shoulder. “You drew all these? Yourself?”

Will nodded slowly.

“Why exactly?” Bob asked.

“I told you.” Joyce put her hand gently on Bob’s arm, pleading with him. “I told you the rules. No questions, okay?” She rushed frantically into the next room, impatiently waving us all over. “We just need you to find where this is, okay?”

Will’s paper snake trailed off into several rooms, arching and twisting and spiking randomly in different directions. Joyce was crouching down and scribbling an X into the paper with a red crayon.

She stabbed at the spot.

“That’s the objective,” Mike said, following me and Bob into the room. “Find the X.”

“Yeah?” Bob peered at the waxy red X and chuckled to himself. “What’s at the X?” He said. “Pirate treasure?”

He laughed at his own joke but I could tell he was starting to feel a little overwhelmed with the whole thing.

He pulled nervously on his ear and turned to Joyce. “I just need to talk to you for a sec,” he said, pulling Joyce with him into the next room. “Hang on guys.”

They went.

Will turned to me expectantly. “Got any ideas yet?”

I didn’t say anything for a long time.

I desperately wanted to say something brilliant and clever.

I didn’t want to let Will down.

“I don’t get it,” I said instead. “Is it supposed to be some kind of snake or something?”

Mike gave a loud, exasperated sigh behind me, shaking his head.

He turned to me, eyes wide with frustration, his mouth half-opening as if he was about to say something.

Then Bob walked quickly into the kitchen with Joyce at his heels.

“…and if you just follow it naturally,” Bob was talking hurriedly to himself, pointing at the drawings on the walls. “It moves to…”

He came to a stop in front of the wall, clicking his fingers. “The Eno river,” he said proudly. “And there it is, see? The Eno.”

We all peered doubtfully at the markings, squinting hard to see it.

“I don’t get it,” I said again. “What are we looking at? Roads?”

“The lines aren’t roads,” Bob said, hurrying back into the dining room. “But they act like roads. And they act like roads ‘cause when you follow them you’ll see…” He pointed cleverly with his finger, his eyes lighting up. “They don’t go over water.”

“They don’t go over water?” I echoed.

“That’s the giveaway!” Bob laughed loudly, pleased with himself. “Don’t you get it, Diana? It’s not a puzzle. It’s a map!” He turned full circle, admiring the handiwork. “It’s a map of Hawkins,” he said. “Right, Will?”

We all turned to Will, who was looking just as dumbfounded as we all were.

He nodded awkwardly, going along with it and Joyce laughed, amazed.

“Bob,” she gushed happily and she ran to find maps and paper. “Will this work? Will you be able to figure it out this way?” She set the maps and the paper down, bringing rulers and a tape measure. “You can find it, right?”

Bob was promptly seated at the table, a ruler and pen shoved into his hand.

“I can try Joyce,” he said gently. “But it’s not gonna be a ratio of one-to-one, you know?” He looked over at me. “What about you, Diana? You any good at math?”

I hopped onto the kitchen table. “I think I’m failing,” I said.

“Great,” Bob sighed, picking up a pen. “Well, if you’re twisting my arm Joyce, and you are twisting my arm, then...” He peered hard at the map on the table for a long time, scribbling down numbers and then scratching them out again. “Your X is…maybe half a mile south-east of Danford?”

Joyce grabbed at the map to get a closer look. “Are you sure?”

“I mean, yeah.” Bob blushed as Joyce planted a kiss onto his forehead. “Joyce, what are you doing?”

Joyce was folding up the map and searching for her car keys and Will was helping her look. I hopped off the table and stood there with my hands on my hips, watching Joyce rush around.

“What are you doing?” I asked, joining Bob in his disbelief. “We’re not actually going there, are we? What’s even down there?”

Will tugged at my hand, pulling me to the door. “Come on, Diana,” he said.

We all went outside and bundled into the car; Joyce and Bob in the front and Will and Mike and me in the back.

I had somehow found myself sitting in the middle, awkwardly squashed between the two boys and I wriggled uncomfortably as the car swung out onto the road. “Jesus, Mike,” I groaned. “Can’t you move your elbow?”

“I’m sorry it’s not naturally padded,” he snapped sarcastically.

“Will you just get it out of my ribs?”

“Sorry.” Mike looked just as uncomfortable as I did. “My mom says I have to stop growing,” he said. “I don’t have anywhere to put my legs anymore.”

He was kind of unnaturally tall. “That’s alright,” I said, softer this time. “Just don’t puncture my lung, okay?”

The car fell silent.

Bob was leaning over and fiddling with the radio.

“Where are we actually going?” I whispered, leaning into Will’s side. “Is this part of your thing? Are we spying on the shadow monster?”

“Sort of…” Will rubbed at the back of his head like it hurt him. “Do you feel okay, Diana? I mean, you don’t feel weird or anything?”

I felt fine. “Why? Don’t you feel well?”

Will shook his head. Around the collar of his sweater, there were patches of sweat beginning to form and his skin looked waxy and clear in the fading light.

I reached over and pressed my hand against his forehead.

His skin was clammy and cold beneath my palm but I was expecting him to be warm.

I pulled him underneath my arm, trying to heat him up.

“Just hang in there, okay?” His body felt small and skinny against mine, his limbs jutting out awkwardly like a baby bird without its feathers. “You’re gonna be okay,” I promised.

“Diana…” Will’s voice was quiet and muffled against my shoulder and I could barely hear him against the rumble of the car engine. “He’s here. He’s here right now…”

I shot a look at Mike beside me. “What does that mean, Will?”

“He’s spying on us,” Will said, shuddering, and he squeezed his eyes shut against my arm, burying his face into my jacket. “He’s spying on us…right now.”

Mike leaned over my lap, grabbing for Will’s hand. “You’re like a superspy,” he whispered gently. “Remember? Like a double agent.”

Will peeked out at Mike behind his hair. “A superspy?”

“Mike’s right,” I said, pulling him tighter into me. “You can spy back, Will.”

“Joyce!” Bob raised his arms in the front seat, startling us all. “Where are we supposed to be going? There’s nothing out here-”

Bob was right.

The car was heading aimlessly down some darkening dirt track, stretching out endlessly in front of us. There was nothing to see except for fields, just shadowy black fields on both sides of the car.

“We have to be close,” Joyce pressed, turning away from the wheel for a second to peer at the map. “Bob, we’re close right?”

“We’re in the vicinity,” Bob said quickly.

“What does that mean?” I interrupted, leaning forward. “The vicinity?”

“It means we’re close,” Bob said, glancing behind him at the backseat. “Diana, it’s not precise, okay?”

“But you did all that work,” Joyce jumped in, getting frustrated. “You figured it out, you said-”

“I know what I said,” Bob stated. “But I told you. The scale ratio is not exactly one-to-one. We needed to take-”

Will shot forward suddenly in the seat. “Turn right,” he said determinedly.

My grip on him tightened. “What?”

“I saw him.”

“Saw who?” I asked. “Where?”

“Not here. In my now-memories.”

Bob whirled in his seat, alarmed. “In your what?”

“It doesn’t matter,” I insisted. “Just turn right!”

The car took a sharp turn, veering wildly to the right and ploughing through several crop fields. We were thrown about violently in the backseat, my head smacking against the glass. I reached out to steady Mike beside me.

Then the car came to an abrupt stop, headlights beaming.

There was another car parked in front of us.

“Is that a cop car?” I unbuckled my seatbelt and staggered out of the vehicle, my boots finding the soft, damp earth. “Mrs Byers, why is there a cop car parked in the middle of the field?”

Bob was climbing out of the car too. “What’s Jim doing here?”

“Jim?” I turned to them both. “Who’s Jim?”

“Boys, stay in the car.” Joyce was marching fiercely over to a patch of earth in the middle of the field.

It looked like it had been recently turned over, like a grave.

She crouched down and started frantically pulling at the earth with her hands.

“What’s going on?” I demanded. There was a shovel lying by my feet and I picked it up and gave it to her. “Is somebody in trouble?”

“Please, Diana.” Joyce pleaded with me. “Just help me get him out of here and I’ll explain everything to you, I promise.”

I looked closer at what Joyce was doing.

She wasn’t pulling at the earth, she was pulling at vines; damp, wet-looking vines that squirmed and wriggled as if they were alive.

Joyce took the shovel and drove them down through the middle, then struck them through again and again and again.

She turned breathlessly to Bob, pointing. “I need you to help me get down there-”

Bob was staring at her like she was crazy. “Joyce? What are you talking about?”

“Bob!” She shrieked, sounding close to tears. “Now!”

“I’ll help you,” I said, dropping to my knees in the dirt and tearing the vines apart with my hands. “Oh my God, this is crazy-”

The vines came apart in my fingers, spitting up something black and foul-smelling in mine and Joyce’s face.

There was a freshly dug hole beneath the covering and Joyce gasped loudly, looking triumphant.

Then she grabbed at my hand to thank me and jumped in feet first without another word.

I watched her disappear, slipping beneath the soil and vanishing from sight.

Bob swore loudly to my surprise and went in after her.

“Bob?” I called out, trying to snatch at his jacket as if I could stop him. “What are you doing?”

“Do you see anything?” Mike and Will had ignored Joyce’s instructions to stay in the car and were standing behind me, inching slowly towards the dark hole.

I thought Mike was talking to me and I shook my head, pulling myself back up to my feet. “I don’t know what’s going on,” I breathed heavily. “Who are they looking for?”

“What about in your now-memories?” Mike said, ignoring me and turning impatiently to Will. But Will just shook his head and didn’t say anything.

He was staring at the hole like he was waiting for it to swallow us all up.

There was a loud screech behind us.

Then, bright white headlights shone in the distance and there was the sound of vehicles approaching us.

The three of us spun wildly, catching our breaths.

I stepped quickly in front of the boys. “Who are they?”

“I don’t know,” Mike burst out, sounding panicked. “I don’t know.”

The vehicles were large white vans and strange, faceless looking men in white hazmat suits sat stiffly behind the wheels.

When the vans pulled up in front of us and the men climbed out, I shrank back instinctively, finding it impossible not to be afraid of them.

They looked empty and weird, like aliens.

“You kids stay where you are,” one of the men said gruffly, barking orders at the rest of the men.

The men were beginning to swarm the field, flashing their bright torches and shouting and yelling at one another things that I didn’t understand.

They were heading for the hole too.

They carried heavy looking flamethrowers over their shoulders, the metal flashing off the bright lights.

“Are you the army or something?” I asked bravely, stepping forward. “Is somebody going to tell me what’s going on?”

One of the hazmat men grabbed me. “Are there people down there?”

I stared at him, bewildered. “What?”

“Kid, I need you to tell me!” The man tightened his grip on my arm in frustration, his voice raspy. “Are there people down there?”

“Yes,” I stammered, confused out of my mind. “Why? What are you doing?”

“Get them out!” the man yelled, already turning away from me. “Get everybody out before the burn-”

“Before the burn?” I followed the man quickly to the foot of the hole, expecting them to stop me. “What are you doing? What are you burning?”

Behind me, Will gave a loud, strangled groan and dropped to the floor.

I spun around to see him lying there in agony, rolling around in the dirt and spitting up something white and frothy looking.

“Diana?” Mike staggered backwards, standing over Will as he started to convulse and scream, his whole body going stiff and straight like a board.

Mike’s eyes were shiny with tears. “What is he doing?”

“I don’t know-” I ran over to the boys, dropping to my knees beside Will.

He was shaking, his whole body writhing like he was having some kind of seizure.

I leaned over to get a better look at his face and threw myself back, horrified.

Will’s mouth was twisted into some kind of deformed ‘O’ shape, his eyes rolling hideously back into his head.

His face was contorted, his fingers curled into hooks at his side.

He looked like something out of a horror movie.

It made me so scared I wanted to cry as well.

“Don’t touch him,” I instructed, stopping Mike from grabbing his arm.

And Will’s eyes rolled back into his head and went completely white.

Chapter Text

The hallway of Hawkin’s Laboratory reminded me a lot of being in a hospital.

It had the same shiny floor tiles that squeaked when you walked and the same seventies style chairs lining the clean white walls.

There was a sterile, soapy smell in the air and the beeping and singing of bodiless machines.

The soldiers had pulled Chief Jim Hopper out of the black hole along with Joyce and Bob during the burn and taken him to a room in the Lab where he was sterilised.

Mike had said the atmosphere in the Upside Down was toxic to our world.

The Chief was a large, powerful-looking man with a gruff demeanour and an even gruffer looking appearance.

He stood well over six foot, towering over Joyce and me who stood only at five foot three. His hair was sandy and unkempt looking, his beard wiry and his hands large and bear-like, but his eyes were gentle and kind.

“You got enough money for the phone, kid?” He asked.

He was sitting out in the hallway on one of the little chairs, dressed in some blue hospital scrubs and trainers.

When they’d pulled him out of the hole, the first thing he’d done was throw up something black and tar-like and he still looked a little pale from the experience.

“I think I have just enough,” I said quietly, hugging the payphone to my ear. “If I can get through.”

The Chief was smoking a cigarette.

I didn’t think he was supposed to.

“What’s your name, kid?” He asked.

“Diana.”

“Diane?”

“No.” I lowered the receiver a little. “Diana. Like in the TV show.”

The Chief gave a gruff laugh and leaned back. “My ex-wife was called Diane,” he said. “She lives out in the city now.”

“Oh,” I said. I didn’t know what else to say to that. “Right.”

He struck me as the kind of guy that liked to feel sorry for himself. But that was just an observation.

The dialling tone was still ringing in my ear, then came the quick beeps of the answering machine. “Damn it!” I yelled, frustratedly into the receiver. “Damn it, Billy, answer the goddamn phone!”

I crashed the receiver down angrily back onto the hook, letting my forehead fall against the wall.

I felt so tired. I just wanted to go home.

“What’s your cover story?” The Chief asked behind me.

“That I’m staying at a friend’s house.” I picked up the phone to try again, this time dialling Heather’s number. “God, I hope she picks up…”

There was a small click and Heather Holloway’s cheerful voice sang down the line into my ear. “Holloway residence.”

“Heather?” I leaned back against the wall, happy to hear her speak. “Is that you? It’s me. Diana.”

“Diana?” She sounded surprised that I was calling. “Oh God. I’m so sorry for just walking off and bailing on you at lunch yesterday-“

I smiled impatiently. “That’s okay, Heather, really.”

“You have to know that wasn’t me,” she garbled guiltily. “Well it was…but I’m usually not like that. I just got so jealous ‘cause you-know-who was all over you; And I know I don’t have any claim to him but I just can’t help it….”

The phone was going to cut off at any minute.

“Forget it,” I said quickly. “There’s nothing to forgive, okay? Listen, Heather, I need you to do me a massive favor.”

“Anything,” she said loyally.

“I need you to lie for me.”

“Cool,” Heather said, without missing a beat. “What do you want me to say?”

“Nothing major.” I tapped my nails on the plastic receiver. “Just that…if anybody asks you where I am tonight, we went to see a movie and I’m spending the whole night with you. Got it?”

“What did we go to see?” Heather asked.

I frowned down the phone. “Does it matter?”

“Well if anybody asks us then we’ll need to keep our story straight won’t we?” Heather pointed out cleverly.

That was actually a fair point.

“Okay,” I sighed impatiently. “We went to see that new Terminator movie, alright? And Heather, please don’t tell anybody I asked you to cover for me, okay? Not even Billy.”

“Not even Billy?” She sounded surprised, like she’d been expecting him to be with me. “He’s not there?”

“Not tonight,” I said. “Heather, do you promise?”

“Of course I do.” There was a quick pause. “Diana, you’re not in some kind of trouble are you?”

“Trouble?” I forced myself to laugh, hoping it sounded somewhat realistic. “Heather, this is Hawkins.”

“Yeah…” she said, doubtfully. “But-“

“-Heather, I’m sorry but I really have to go.” I put the phone down with a clatter, hoping I hadn’t sounded too harsh with her and turned back to the Chief.

“You handled that well,” he said.

I couldn’t tell whether he was being sarcastic or not.

“Thanks,” I said, sounding flat. “Do you think he’ll have woken up yet?”

The Chief followed my gaze to the white door at the end of the corridor.

Will had been rushed in there just over an hour ago, screaming at the top of his lungs and writhing and kicking like a mad thing, desperate to feel anything else but pain.

Doctors in masks and white lab coats had hovered around him, stabbing him and pricking him with needles that took and needles that gave.

Everything seemed quiet now.

“Guess there’s only one way to find out, right?” The Chief was hurriedly taking one last drag of his cigarette, lifting his foot and putting it out against the sole of his sneaker. “Let’s see shall we?”

His hand reached out and caught me as I tried to move past him.

“Hey kid,” he said, as if something had just occurred to him. “What happened to your eye?”

The first thing I did was laugh, turning my face away and hoping he’d believe the lie I’d cooked up just that second in my head.

“It’s nothing,” I said quickly. “Really.”

“Did somebody give that to you?”

“What?” I stared at him and laughed again, shaking my head insistently. “No, no. I got it in sport.”

The Chief didn’t look like he believed me. “So what you’re saying is a ball just flew into your eye?”

“It was thrown,” I said. “By someone with really, really bad aim.”

I looked wistfully at the door at the end of the corridor. “You know there’s nobody in Indiana that can actually throw a ball, right? I guess people just don’t play sport the same way as they do in California…”

I trailed off slowly, aware that I was running off on a tangent and starting to babble bullshit.

I don’t know what it was about the question that had got me all worked up and nervous. Maybe it was because he was a cop.

“I’m gonna go check on Will,” I said, twisting on my heel and heading off to the end of the corridor before he could stop me and ask another question.

I pushed the door open, peeping in.

Will was lying awake in the large metal hospital bed, looking tiny and fragile in his hospital gown.

His sleepy, pale face peered out from the wall of pillows behind his head.

Everybody was crowding around him, smiling that tight smile that people always smiled when they were trying to act like everything was fine.

“Hey.” I tiptoed my way into the room, smiling back at a beaming Joyce and slipping in beside Mike next to the bed. “How is he?”

“A little out of it,” Joyce said. “You’re a little groggy, aren’t you sweetie?”

“I’m glad you’re awake,” I smiled, turning to Will and leaning over to take his hand. “You had me really worried back there for a second…”

Will dragged his hand away from me, flinching back from my touch like a wounded animal.

“Who are you?” He demanded.

I shot a quick look at Joyce over my shoulder, then looked back at Will.

“What do you mean, silly? It’s Diana. Remember me? I’m here to take care of you.”

“Take care of me?” Will was looking at his mom for reassurance. “Are you a doctor or something?”

“A doctor?” I laughed because there was nothing else to do. “What are you talking about? Will, I’m your friend!”

I tried to reach for Will again and he tore his hand away, looking startled.

“You really don’t remember me?”

Will shook his head, looking apologetic and dazed. He was staring at me like I was a total stranger; like we’d met just that minute for the very first time.

It frightened me.

“I’m going to fetch the doctor,” Bob said, brushing past me and out into the hallway.

He gave my shoulder a reassuring squeeze on his way to the door. “Don’t worry about it, kiddo. It’s probably just the medicine or something.”

I heard him shouting for Doctor Owens.

“Will?” Joyce turned quickly to her son, smiling that tight smile again. “Don’t you worry about a thing, okay? The doctor’s gonna come and he’s gonna take care of everything.”

She looked exhausted, I thought.

She probably hadn’t slept in days.

“What seems to be the problem here?”

Doctor Owens, a plump, grandfatherly looking man pushed his way briskly into the room, followed by Bob and also by the Chief.

His hair was greying at the sides and his eyes were creased with worry lines.

He joined us at the bed.

“Now, young man…” the doctor took a seat and smiled kindly at him. “Do you know your name? Your full name?”

“William Byers,” Will said carefully.

“Very good.” The doctor looked pleased. “And what about me? Do you know my name? Do you know who I am?”

There was a long, difficult pause.

“You’re a doctor,” Will said at last.

“And have we met before?”

“I don’t remember.”

“You don’t remember me?”

Doctor Owens seemed to be taking mental notes, nodding to himself.

He turned over his shoulder and pointed to Mike. “What about this guy here? Know who that is?”

We all looked hopefully at Mike, who waved shyly at Will from the foot of the bed.

He looked awkward and gangly and embarrassed to be under so many eyes.

“That’s my friend,” Will said, still sounding unsure. “Mike.”

“What about me, kid?” The Chief said gently, leaning on the side of the bed. “Remember me? You saved my life tonight. That’s what they told me…”

He trailed off, faltering at the blank expression on Will’s face.

It was clear he didn’t remember him either.

“And me?” Bob said hopefully, but we all knew there wasn’t any point in trying.

“All I remember,” Will said flatly, as if he was trying very hard to concentrate. “Is that they hurt me. The soldiers hurt me.”

He turned slowly to the foot of the bed, catching my eye. “They shouldn’t have done that,” he said in a tight, strange voice. “It upset him.”

“Upset who?” Asked Doctor Owens with some urgency. “Will, upset who?”

“The Shadow Monster,” I said, realising. “Right, Will?”

Doctor Owens looked silently at us for a long time.

He had a blue stress ball in his lab coat pocket that he kept taking out and squeezing over and over again.

Eventually, he turned his head to me and beckoned me over as if he had a secret. His voice was low like a whisper.

“I wanna show you something,” he said gently, turning to the Chief beside me. “Okay? You too, Pop. I want you both to come with me.”

“But where are we going?” I got up and followed the two men out into the hall, hurrying to keep up with their long strides. “What are we going to see?”

“Trust me,” Doctor Owens said, without looking back. “It’ll be an experience.”

The control room was part of the underground subsystem of the Laboratory, tucked secretly away under several flights of winding stairs.

Men and women in official white coats sat uniformly behind blinking machines and spoke orders into their headsets.

“They’re monitoring the growth,” Doctor Owens said when I asked him what they were doing. “That’s all we can do. You see, we can’t stop it. We can only try and contain it for as long as we can.”

I turned back to the glass panelling in front of me, mine and the Chief’s reflections mirroring eerily back at us.

On the other side of the glass, the floor looked all torn and shredded up, like something had been eating away at it over time. Inside of that vapid looking pit, there was only blackness. It was the same sickly looking black as a smoker’s lung, the sticky tar color of a cavity.

“What’s down there exactly?” I asked, putting a cautious hand up against the glass. “I mean, I know it’s the entrance to that place… but what’s down there?”

“We don’t know,” said Doctor Owens, coming up behind me. “And quite frankly, that’s not really our problem. Our job is simply to contain it, to stop it from spreading.”

“Like cancer,” I finished for him.

Doctor Owens nodded. “That’s right.”

“Doctor Owens, sir?”

A woman in a black pencil skirt and glasses came up behind us, speaking secretively into his ear.

I heard Will’s name being spoken.

“Yes,” Doctor Owens said. “Go ahead.”

“Kinda makes you feel empty, doesn’t it?” The Chief said next to me, staring down into the blackness at our feet. “You know, people talk about those black holes you get in outer space and how they just suck everything into it. When I look at this, I just expect the whole world to just fall right into it.”

“I think it’s beautiful,” I said quietly. “In a frightening sort of way. It makes me feel like I’m a speck. Like I’m nothing.”

It was like looking up at the stars at night or standing at the highest point of a mountain. It was like remembering that was nearly five billion more people on the planet with you; and your life, your chaotic, biting, whirlwind of a life didn’t mean shit when you thought about it like that.

“Life’s cheap,” said the Chief.

Behind us, the control room doors slid open with a hiss.

A group of soldiers, suited up with guns and hazmat suits, began to make their way towards the pit, their torches flashing brightly.

I turned quickly to Doctor Owens. “What are they doing? They’re not going down there are they?”

“Your little friend,” the doctor said, backing up to one of the controls. “Says he can locate this shadow creature he keeps talking about. He says he knows where it’s hiding.”

“And you believe him?” I asked.

“Only one way to find out,” the doctor said, the glass doors sliding open and parting just wide enough for the men to get through. “Right, boys?”

“Right, sir.” One of the soldiers was laughing on his way down. His eyes looked shockingly young behind the hazmat suit. “Never gets old, huh?”

He caught my eye as I stared at him, throwing me a reassuring wink. I could tell by his eyes that he was smiling.

“Don’t look so scared, Miss,” he said bravely. “We’re on your side. We’re here to keep you safe.”

I smiled at him and my smile was tight.

“It’s black as shit down there,” the boy soldier went on, climbing onto the elevator. “I’ll be glad to see your pretty face again when it’s all over.”

“Count on it,” I said. “You got a name?”

The soldier’s eyes sparkled. “Jackson, Miss.”

“Well then…” I smiled encouragingly, ignoring the images that were creeping, cold and gory, into the back of my head. “I’ll see you when it’s over, Jackson.”

The soldiers went, slipping down beneath the pit and into the thick blackness.

It was hard to believe they’d ever come out again when the darkness was that black.

The Chief and I went over to where Doctor Owens was standing, crowding around the monitor. The images were jumpy and a little out of focus but I could see the beams of torches and the long, snaking shadows that they made in the soupy green light.

“All right.” I could hear Jackson’s voice through the radio, painfully cheerful. “Stay frosty, boys.”

On the monitor, there was the sickening sound of something wet and meaty slipping underfoot, then the sounds of bones crunching beneath boots.

“Wait a minute.” The Chief stabbed an impatient finger on the screen. “That’s where I was.”

“What?” I said.

“It’s that damn graveyard.”

I stared hard at the soupy images until my eyes hurt.

It did indeed look like some kind of graveyard, like a junkyard or a compost heap where all the sludge and the trash and the bones of dead animals were sent to pile up and rot and fester away.

The soldiers moved their torch beams in long, sweeping arcs.

“Sir, there’s nothing here.”

One of the men sitting at the control unit gave a sarcastic laugh beneath his breath. “Looks like your kid’s full of shit, doc.”

“There.” I pointed quickly at the monitor screen, choosing to ignore him. “What’s happening now?”

“Looks like fog,” the Chief said.

The screen was starting to cloud over with silvery white waves of rolling mist, blocking out the light from the torch beams and turning the images black.

“You need to get them out of there,” I snapped, grabbing at Doctor Owens’ arm and pulling on it fiercely “Sir, did you hear what I said?”

On the radio, there was a chorus of screams and a loud snapping sound.

Then the painful hum of static that sent our hands over our ears.

The screen on the monitor had gone completely black.

I tasted bile at the back of my throat and quickly swallowed it back down.

Nobody was speaking.

I wished silently that somebody would stand up and make some kind of noise.

Say something.

Do something.

“Shit.” The Chief swore loudly and ran to the glass window, pressing his hand against the glass to see better. “Shit,” he said. “Shit. Shit. Shit.”

“What is it?” My voice didn’t sound like my own. “What’s wrong?”

The Chief didn’t say anything. It was like all he could do was stand there, be quiet and point.

I dared myself to follow his gaze to the pit, scared of what I might see and feeling like I might throw up.

What I saw made my entire body freeze up, my hand reaching out instinctively for the Chief’s, who took it protectively in mine.

The wires on the elevator were moving.

Chapter Text

“It can’t get through can it?”

The wiry, four-limbed creature that had dragged its way out of the pit seemed to be taking its time.

It moved nonchalantly around the edge of the crater, creeping like a cat or another animal of prey.

Its limbs were long and its tail was hooked, it’s weird onion-shaped head rearing back as it stared at us through the glass.

It didn’t seem to have a face.

“It’s polycarbonate,” Doctor Owens said, reassuringly behind me. “It can’t get through.”

As if only to prove a point, the dog-like creature snarled and threw itself forward at the glass.

It didn’t crack it but it was enough to make the window shudder.

“You sure about that?” The Chief asked dryly, crouching down closer to the panel to see. “Diana, don’t touch the glass.”

I drew my hand away quickly, still staring. I could see the muscles rippling beneath its dark skin, tightening and growing taut and then slackening again.

I had this idea that if it stood up on its hind legs it would be taller than a man.

“There’s only one,” I said to no one in particular, my mouth working quicker than my mind. “If there’s only one then maybe we can find a way of killing it, you know? Unless you’re gonna tell me they can duplicate themselves like tapeworms-”

“-Diana,” the Chief grabbed my hand.

“What?” I said.

“Stop talking.”

We both looked back at the crater.

More four-limbed creatures had started to appear, dragging their lean bodies up from out of the blackness and into the sickly yellow light of the control room.

They made strange snarling sounds at the back of their throats and their faces seemed to open up like flowers, revealing rows and rows of sharply pointed teeth.

“Holy mother of God,” the doctor said behind us and he slammed his hand down on the red emergency button, the entire laboratory sounding with wailing, panicked cries. “Jesus Christ.”

“What do we do?” I staggered backwards as the army of dogs hurled themselves at the window, tripping over Doctor Owens behind me. The glass was starting to crack. “What do we do?”

The doctor shoved me forward, wrenching open the door and shouldering me through. “Everybody out.”

There was a small crowd of people behind me, pushing their way past, jostling and shoving on their way out. I hung back and faltered, waiting for the Chief.

“I’m here, kid.” He grabbed at my hand, squeezing it. “Now run, okay?”

There was a splatter of glass behind us.

We ran, skidding out into the hallway.

“Take the stairs, take the stairs-” Doctor Owens dragged us back from the crowd of people that had made for the elevator. “Take the stairs-”

We shoved our way through the next door, spinning out onto a stairwell. The Chief pulled at my hand and we went up, taking the steps two at a time.

The Chief’s palm was hot and slippery in my hand and my legs were burning, my boots making loud stomping sounds as they hit each step. I counted seven, eight, nine, ten stairwells, my lungs stinging as they tried to drag in for more air.

We burst out into the hallway, making for Will’s room.

Gunshots fired behind us.

“We gotta go,” the Chief snapped, bursting into the little room and dragging Will’s limp, unconscious body from the bed. He snatched at the needle that Joyce was holding in her hand. “Everybody out, we gotta go.”

The seven of us ploughed back out into the hallway, our eyes fixed firmly on the red exit sign above our heads. Then we skidded to a halt, pulling back halfway as a guard flew out from behind the corner, landing on his side.

Something black and dog-like leapt up on top of him and I heard a loud tearing sound.

I knew without knowing that it was the sound the body made when the spinal cord was being disattached.

“Don’t look at it-” Doctor Owens hauled us all into the security room on our left, crashing the door shut behind him. Mike was standing at the back of the room with his hands over his ears and Joyce was staring hard at Will and trying not to cry.

“Oh my God,” Bob said in a thick, shaken voice.

He was staring, open-mouthed, at the black and white images on the security screens, which were flickering and jumping erratically. Dozens of the black, crawling creatures prowled every hallway on every floor, dragging their bodies around every corner and spilling out into every unlocked room.

Then slowly, the lights began to flicker above our heads.

Then the screens on the monitor began to go out one by one.

And then the room went black.

For a while, nobody said anything.

“Power’s out,” the Chief said and for some reason, I laughed.

“I don’t see what’s so funny,” Mike snapped behind me, bending at the waist and putting his hands on his knees. “I think I’m gonna be sick.”

“So be sick,” I snapped back, turning in the dark and feeling my way along the wall. “Isn’t there any emergency light?”

“Try to your right,” Doctor Owens said, without looking at me. He was pulling out armfuls of maps and blueprints, laying them out on the table and peering at them.

He looked up, pleased when my fingers found the emergency switch and the room was filled with a sea-green light.

He waved us over. “Alright, this is where we are, okay? And this is where we need to be…” He pointed at a spot on the map and I saw that his hands were shaking. “That’s not too far to go folks.”

“Okay…” The Chief was sounding impatient. “So let’s get out of here.”

“We can’t,” the doctor jumped in. “The power’s out.”

“And?” Mike asked.

The doctor looked sorry. “The doors lock automatically during a power outage,” he explained. “The whole building goes on full lockdown.”

“But we can unlock them, right?” I cut in. I held on tight to the table edge and tried to stop my legs from shaking.

“With a computer,” Doctor Owens said, kindly pretending he couldn’t see what I was doing. “But somebody’s gotta reset the breakers-“

“Where are the breakers?”

“Breakers are in the basement.” The doctor turned and circled the spot on the map with a fat red pen from his pocket. “That’s three floors down.”

The Chief snatched up the papers and went for the door.

“Where are you going?” Bob demanded in disbelief.

“To reset the breakers,” the Chief snapped dryly, as if it was obvious.

“Okay, then what?” Bob quizzed him. “Then the power comes back on. You wanna unlock the doors, you have to reboot the entire computer system and then override the security codes with a manual input.”

“Okay…” The Chief waited. “How do I do that?”

“You can’t!” Bob burst out indignantly. “Not unless you know BASIC.”

“We don’t know what means,” I pushed in. “What’s BASIC?”

“It’s a computer programming language,” Mike said cleverly.

“Okay, so teach it to me,” the Chief pressed, turning back to Bob.

Bob gave another indignant huff. “Shall I teach you French while we’re at it, Jim? How about a little German?” He turned to us all. “Any of you speak BASIC?”

It was an obvious question with an even more obvious answer.

I was beginning to see where this was going and I didn’t like it one bit.

“I didn’t think so,” Bob said, at last, snatching the papers back from the Chief. “Let me handle this, alright? I got it.”

“Bob!” I ran and planted myself in front of the door. “What are you doing?”

“I’m gonna go reset the breakers,” Bob explained as if he hadn’t explained it already, gently trying to move me out of the way. “Diana, come on. I have to do this.”

“You don’t!” I planted my feet firmly and didn’t budge. “You don’t have to do anything! We’ll find another way out, okay? There’s gotta be another way…”

“There isn’t,” the Chief said. “Come on, kid. What choice do we have?”

I turned back to Bob, my hands reaching up and grabbing him desperately by the shoulders. “But I don’t want you to,” I said childishly, clinging to him. “I don’t want you to go.”

“Diana…” Bob smiled at me, trying to make me see. “I have to do this.”

“Then let me go with you,” I said, running out of ideas. “Bob, we’re a team, aren’t we?”

“I’m your boss,” Bob said with a kind laugh. “And I’m telling you to stick with everybody else and get the hell out of here.”

I let my hands drop back down by my sides, feeling defeated.

Then I threw myself at him, letting myself fall forward into his large, soft arms.

Bob stepped back one step, laughing in surprise but then his arms went up around me and we held onto each other.

In my head, he was dead already.

“We’ll wait for you,” I said, at last, pulling myself back to look at him. “We’ll see you outside, okay?”

“You got it,” Bob said with a wink and he turned finally to Joyce.

“Remember Bob Newby,” he said bravely, holding her tight and planting a kiss on her mouth. “Superhero.”

I turned to the wall as Joyce and Bob said their goodbyes, not able to look at them for fear my eyes would tell them what I already knew and deep down, had known all along; That Bob Newby would never make it out of the Laboratory tonight.

“Diana?” Mike was peering at me with a strange look on his face, his brow furrowed thoughtfully. “Are you okay?”

“I have a headache.” I turned to him and slid down the side of the wall, dropping to a crouch with my knees bent. “Jesus, I can’t believe this is happening.”

“Kinda crazy, huh?” Mike joined me on the floor, squatting next to me with his elbows on his knees. “El would know what to do,” he said.

I let my head fall back against the wall with my eyes closed. “Who’s El?”

“She was my friend,” Mike said in a tight, controlled voice. “She saved us from the monster last year. In fact, she totally kicked his ass…” He trailed off slowly, sounding so sad that I opened my eyes again. “She’s gone now,” Mike said.

“Gone gone?” I asked.

“Yeah,” Mike said. “Gone gone.”

We both looked back over at the door.

The doctor was handing Bob a radio, teaching him how to wire it up and use it.

I tore my eyes away from him, feeling sick.

There was a sharp pressure building behind my eyes and I squirmed uncomfortably, pushing up the leg of my jeans and staring hard at my ankle.

The skin around my bite was pink and tender, only just starting to heal.

“Does it hurt?” Mike asked in a quiet voice, leaning over me.

“No.” I shook my head hurriedly, pulling my jean leg back down. I struggled to find a position that I was comfortable in. “Just that I’ve suddenly become really aware that I have it.”

“That thing gave you True Sight,” Mike said carefully, peering up at me through his dark lashes. “Do we get out of here, Diana? I mean, we all live? Don’t we?”

I stared at him. “Of course we do,” I said, even though I had no idea. “We all make it out of here tonight, okay? You’ve got nothing to be worried about.”

I wondered if Mike believed me; Or if, like my mother, it was easier to pretend that you didn’t know what was really going on when you were as scared as you were. Sometimes it really was just easier that way, I thought to myself.

“If anything happens down there,” the Chief had taken hold of Bob tightly by the shoulders, making him look at him. “I want you to come right back up, you hear me?”

“Right back here,” Bob repeated, reaching for the door handle. Then he paused, turning to all of us as if he’d just thought of something.

“Listen,” he said. “I don’t want you to wait for me. As soon as I get those doors open, then just go. Don’t hang around.”

“-I’m gonna get them out,” the Chief said fiercely. “I promise.”

Bob seemed pleased with that.

“Then I’ll see you all on the other side,” he said cheerfully and just like that, he slipped out of the door and he was gone.

The room felt very quiet and empty after that.

“He’s gonna make it, okay?” The Chief took a long look at all of our faces. “He’s Bob the Brain. He’s the smartest son of a bitch in Hawkins.”

Joyce had started to pace the room, pulling on the sleeves of her scrubs and looking pained. She kept smiling that familiar, sickly tight smile and I felt terrible for not just opening my mouth and getting it over with.

A second later, there was a flicker and the lights came on. Then, so did the monitor. The Chief and I jumped up and ran to the screen, peering hard at the tiny black and white image that was Bob, typing away at the computer, his hands moving like magic.

“Told you, huh?” The Chief squeezed my arm, not looking away from the screen. “The son of a bitch did it.”

“Now get the hell out of here.” Doctor Owens stood back as the Chief snatched up Will, flinging him over his shoulder and reached for his gun. “Go on,” he said. “Move it.”

“What about you?” I asked, faltering at the door.

“This was my mistake,” said the doctor gravely. “And this is my Lab and my responsibility. I’m gonna stay back here and give your friend Bob a helping hand.”

“Doc?” Even the Chief sounded unsure. “You can come with us.”

“No.” Doctor Owens shook his head, smiling so that the wrinkles creased around his eyes. “No, I can’t. You’re a young family and tonight is not your time to go.” He waved us forward, more urgently. “Now get out of here.”

The five of us slipped out cautiously into the hallway.

We could see the door from here, just a mere pathetic stride away.

It had been so close all this time and yet until Bob, so far away.

“Thank you,” I said quickly, turning back to Doctor Owens and pulling him into me. “Thank you.”

“Don’t trust the government, kid,” the doctor said, laughing dryly into my shoulder. “But I guess you never did, huh?”

I smiled, not sure of what else to say.

The Chief was ushering us around him, telling us to stay close.

“When I say go,” he whispered in a very low, gravelly voice. “We sprint to that door and get the hell out of here, copy?”

We all nodded, bracing ourselves.

Mike slipped his hand in mine and gave it a tight squeeze.

He was shaking.

“Get ready..” The Chief was scanning the hallway with his flashlight, the hallway uncomfortably and frighteningly silent. “Let’s go.”

We ran for the door, the soles of our sneakers slapping against the floor tiles that weren’t so white anymore.

The Chief shouldered the door open and we spilled out, gasping for fresh air.

I hadn’t even noticed it at the time, but there had been blood in the air.

I could still taste it on my tongue.

I spat the taste out, disgusted.

“Where is he?” Joyce stressed, pacing frantically. She ran back into the foyer, bouncing on the balls of her feet. “Hop, where is he?”

“Relax.” Hopper set Will down by the wall, going over and squeezing her shoulder. “He’ll be here. Doc’s gonna get him out, okay?”

I couldn’t watch.

I turned and walked some good feet away from the building, my head pounding. It wasn’t just pressure now, there was actual burning behind my eyes.

I tried rubbing the pain away but it didn’t seem to help any.

It was like somebody was reaching right into my skull and squeezing tight.

I heard the foyer door flying open behind me, then Joyce’s gasp of happiness, quick and sharp in her lungs. I knew that what would come next was the small silence that felt like a minute and then the loud crack of splintered wood.

I knew, because I’d already seen it play out over and over again, a thousand times in my head, stuck on a permanent loop like a broken tape.

There was the sound of tearing behind me, of something wet and meaty being ripped and flung aside.

When Joyce started screaming, I keeled over onto my knees and threw up, the high wailing sounds puncturing me like a knife.

I thought I knew what agonised screams sounded like.

I was wrong about that.

“Come on!” When I finally turned around, the Chief was dragging Joyce out of the foyer by her arms, half=dragging her, half-carrying. She was fighting him, straining against him, trying to get back inside. To Bob.

“We can’t help him,” the Chief stated in a thick, swollen voice. “Joyce, we can’t help him anymore.”

There was a flash of headlights rushing towards us, then the wailing of a horn that hurt our ears. Jonathan Byers and Nancy Wheeler leaned coolly out of the window and motioned to us with quick, impatient hands. “Get in.”

The Chief bundled Mike, Joyce and the sleeping Will quickly into the car. Then he pulled out his set of car keys with a flourish, turning to me.

“Ever been in a cop car before?” He said and when he looked at me like that, I couldn’t help but laugh, despite everything.

Chapter Text

Afterwards, Nancy Wheeler came out and stood with me on the darkening porch of the Byers house, her duffle coat fastened all the way to her chin, hugging her arms tight to her chest.

It was cold tonight.

“Aren’t you coming inside?”

She had to repeat herself several times.

“What?” I said, looking up.

“It’s freezing out here.” She squatted down next to me on the steps. “You should come inside, Diana.”

I stared out across the Byers lawn; at the scrubby sun lounger in the corner that must have been there all summer and the laundry that was still hanging on the line.

On the driveway, Bob’s car was still there, sitting empty without its driver.

I couldn’t even look at it.

“Coming here tonight,” I said thickly, dragging my eyes away from the car and to the floor of the porch. “It was a mistake.”

“Really?” Nancy sounded doubtful, exhaling deeply so that her breath fogged the air. “Mike said you were really brave.”

She was trying to make me feel better, I realised. She was trying to make me feel like it had all been worth it in the end.

“But I didn’t do shit,” I said, sounding more frustrated than I liked to. “I didn’t solve Will’s map or go down into those tunnels to get the Chief out. I didn’t figure out that Will was lying to those soldiers. I didn’t go down into the basement and reset the breakers.”

My voice cracked when I next spoke. “All I did was bring Bob here and look what happened.”

Nancy had gone quiet. “What do you mean, Diana?”

“I begged him to come here,” I said, forcing myself to look up and stare at the car on the driveway. “He didn’t want to come. He said we were intruding and Joyce had told had him not to call, but I made him come anyway. I begged him.”

“Good,” Nancy said.

“What?”

I wasn’t sure I’d heard her right.

“I said, good.”

Nancy turned to me, her eyes kindly meeting mine.

“I mean, think about it, Diana,” she said. “If you hadn’t brought Bob here tonight, then nobody would have figured out Will’s map and nobody would have been able to reset the breakers in the Lab. Do you see what I’m saying?”

I did, sort of.

It was just too bad I didn’t want to make myself feel better.

“Well, like I said…” I jumped up from the porch step and went inside the Byers house, spotting my sister sitting at the kitchen table with Lucas. “It was a mistake, Nancy. Max, come on we’re going home.”

“We’re going home?” Max sprang indignantly back from the table. “No! We can’t go home!”

“Yes,” I said firmly. “We can.”

“Wait, who’s going home?”

Steve Harrington had been sitting on the kitchen counter when I’d walked in, toying with a Rubix Cube which he’d now put to one side.

“The Chief told us to wait for military backup,” Lucas cut in. “That’s what we’re doing, okay?”

Steve hopped off the counter and took my arm, trying to make me see. “Lucas is right. Those things are gonna come back and this time we need to finish it.”

“Yeah, well I didn’t start this!” I snatched my arm away. “I wasn’t even here last year. The only reason I’m here tonight is because I was too stupid to just ignore all this shit and pretend none of it was happening.”

“You’re here because that thing bit you,” Mike said, coming up behind me. “And because you were worried about Will.”

“I am worried about Will,” I corrected him.

Mike stared at me, pleading at me with his eyes.

“Then stay,” he said.

There was a long beat.

I almost changed my mind.

“I can’t,” I said at last and I stepped forward and grabbed my sister’s arm. “Max, please just come home with me, okay? We don’t belong here, neither of us do! Let’s just go home and let the military take care of it like the Chief said.”

“Diana?” Max frowned at me, wriggling disappointedly away. “This isn’t you.”

“It is me, Max,” I pleaded, trying not to bristle at the insult. “But people have died tonight. Okay? I was there. I saw it. And I could have stopped it but I didn’t. I didn’t do anything, Max. And I don’t want anything to happen to you too.”

I turned on my heel and marched quickly out into the hallway, snatching the Byers’ phone off the wall and bringing it to my ear.

Mike, Steve, Lucas and Max followed me out into the hall, staring at me.

“Who are you calling?” Max asked.

“Billy.” I turned my back on her, leaning my arm up on the wall. “I’m calling him to come and take us home. This has all been a huge mistake.”

“Diana…” Max pleaded.

“Save it, Max,” I snapped, aggressively dialling the number. “Bob died. Do you know what that means? It means he’s never coming back.”

“-Then don’t let him die in vain.”

I turned around, the receiver slackening in my hand, the dialling tone cutting off.

Joyce had shuffled her way out of her room, joining us in the hall.

She was draped in a knitted blanket and was hanging tightly onto the Chief’s arm. Her eyes were red from crying and her cheeks were stained with salty white tears.

“I hate it,” she said, struggling to keep her voice steady. “I want to kill it. I need to kill it. For Bob. For my boy. For you.”

The receiver was slippery in my hand.

I hung it back up on the wall.

“We can’t,” I said. “Nobody knows how.”

“But Will does.” Lucas stepped forward, his face brightening as an idea formed in his head “He’s connected now. Isn’t that what you said?”

“What?” Steve and I said it at the same time.

“Lucas is right,” Mike joined in. “Will’s connected to that thing. What hurts the Shadow Monster also hurts Will. If anyone knows how to stop that thing then it’s him. He’s seen inside that thing’s head.”

“Alright.” The Chief’s arm tightened on Joyce’s shoulder. “But you’re forgetting that he’s a spy now, okay? We can’t believe a word that comes out of that kid’s mouth. And if he wakes up and he finds out where we are, he’ll kill us.”

“He’ll send the dogs after us,” Dustin said, coming out into the hall.

Lucas looked ominous. “Judgement day.”

“This is crazy,” Steve said quietly, running his hands through his hair. Then he said it again, louder this time. “This is crazy. I say we just stay here and wait for the Chief’s military backup, okay?”

“We are,” the Chief drummed out with some annoyance.

“And what good are they gonna be?” Mike interrupted rudely, turning on the Chief with a frustrated scowl. “You can’t just kill this thing with guns!”

“We don’t know that,” the Chief said, raising his voice back. “We don’t know anything!”

“We know that it’s already killed everybody in that Lab,” Mike said, looking at me as he said it. “We know that those things are gonna moult again and it’s only a matter of time before those tunnels reach town and they find us.”

“But Will’s a spy now,” I said, stepping forward. “We wake him up and he’s just gonna tell that thing where we are.”

“Maybe.” Mike stepped forward too. “But he can’t spy if he doesn’t know where he is.”

The plan was simple: disguise the interior of the Byers’ shed and interrogate Will.

The way Mike described it, it was like nothing could ever go wrong.

He even allocated jobs for all of us- emptying the shed of furniture, tacking sheets to the walls, searching through the bins in the backyard for scraps of paper and cardboard that we could use to paper the walls and floor.

Steve and I were paired up and sent to the bins, much to Steve’s disgust, who grumbled all the way down the porch and to the backyard, clicking the switch on his flashlight over and over again until it started messing with my eyes.

“We got the shittiest one, huh?” He said, resting his foot on top of the trashcan as he rooted through it. “How much you wanna bet it’s ‘cause we told Mike to wait for military backup?”

I smiled shyly at him, not sure whether he was trying to make a joke or not.

“He’s a good kid,” I said, snatching up some brown parcel paper from the bottom of the can. “They all are. I wish I was as smart as they are at my age.”

“At their age?” Steve gave a dry laugh, kicking the can playfully with the toe of his sneaker. “Those kids could crush me in anything even now. They’re like freakish little geniuses who are probably gonna end up ruling the world or something.”

“Or saving it,” I said, smoothing the paper in my hands.

“Yeah,” Steve looked impressed. “Or saving it.”

For about half a second, there was only silence.

Steve had stopped looking through the trash can and was squinting at me through the dark, tongue hovering on his bottom lip like he was going to say something.

“I wanted to thank you,” I said instead. “For looking after my sister tonight. You kept her safe and I don’t know what I would have done if I’d lost her.”

“Yeah, no problem.” Steve sounded touched but looked slightly awkward, suddenly busying himself with his task again. “I mean, I didn’t know she was your sister when I met her. Is she your real sister or is she like…”

“…Like Billy?” I finished for him and I laughed. “No. She’s my real sister.”

“Really? ‘Cause I don’t think you look alike. I mean, at all.”

I laughed again. “Everybody always says that.”

We smiled at each other in the dark and I kept on smoothing the paper.

“You know,” I started nervously, the paper crinkling in my hands. “When we first met outside the locker rooms. I thought you hated me.”

Steve blinked at me in genuine surprise. “No way? What for?”

“Because of Billy,” I admitted. “I didn’t want you to think that I didn’t like you just because he didn’t. Because I do, actually. And I guess I just care about what people think of me.”

“Listen. Your brother’s a-” Steve smiled and corrected himself. “Your boyfriend’s a Grade-A asshole. And I can’t stand the guy but it doesn’t mean I hate you. People aren’t responsible for other people,” he said. “Even if you care about them.”

“That’s some deep shit for a Saturday night,” I said, and Steve laughed.

“I’m actually a very profound and sensitive guy,” he remarked sarcastically, rolling his eyes. “I guess people just see pretty and think dumb.”

I laughed at the joke. “I guess so.”

Steve crouched down and picked up the scrap of paper we’d salvaged from the trash, holding it up and waving it in the air like a flag. “I guess this is all we could get, huh?” He said. “I think it can just about cover the door handle, what do you think?”

“We should probably get over there,” I pointed out.

Steve looked over at his shoulder at the shed where we could hear the Chief hammering.

Then he turned back to me, the flashlight in his hand turned down and angled towards the grass.

He pushed his floppy brown hair back from his eyes and nodded as if agreeing with me.

Neither of us made any attempt to move.

“Diana?” Steve asked at last.

I peeked up at him. “Yeah?”

“Do you wanna go catch a movie sometime?” He sounded nervous. “Or you know, we could hang out at lunch or after school or whatever.”

“Yeah,” I said, not even having to think about it. “That’d be great. I’d like that.”

“If we survive the night,” Steve added, thinking fast and sticking his hand out for me to take. “Is that a deal, Mayfield?”

“Alright.” I grabbed his hand and shook it fiercely, meaning every word. “If we survive the night, Harrington, you’ve got yourself a deal.”

Joyce, Mike, Jonathan and the Chief carried Will into the little shed and set him down on the chair, binding him with makeshift ropes cut from the washing line and rousing him with the smell of bleach.

The rest of us were sent back to the kitchen, where the only thing we could do now was wait.

After the dizzying rush of the attack in the Lab, it seemed lately that all we were doing was waiting and my body was still on a danger high.

I preferred to keep moving, pacing around the kitchen and tossing the Rubix Cube high up into the air, letting it fall and then catching it again. Steve seemed to be the same way, standing with his feet apart in the next room and swinging a large bat back and forth over his shoulder, which was spiked with nails.

Max and Lucas were sitting on the floor in the hallway, talking quietly to one another with their heads close together like they had some sort of secret.

Lucas glanced up at us and irritably rolled us eyes.

“Will you both please just stop moving?” He begged. “It’s driving me insane.”

I clicked my tongue, letting the Rubix cube slip out of my hands and back onto the table. In the next room, Steve slowly lowered the bat.

“Sure,” I said, restless again. “Not a problem.”

“I can do that,” Steve said, not sounding very confident.

“Thank you,” Max groaned, rolling her eyes back at Lucas. “Jeez.”

Dustin Henderson was sitting at the kitchen table and not saying anything.

He was clutching his sports cap tightly in his hand, his shock of curly brown hair falling down into his eyes.

He looked miserable but not scared.

“You okay, slugger?” I went and perched on the edge of the table, looking down at him. “You look like you’ve got your face on backwards.”

He didn’t laugh at the joke.

“This is all my fault,” he said.

“Don’t say that.” I put a gentle hand on his arm. “It’s not your fault, okay? Why would you even think that?”

“I should have known that Dart was a baby Demogorgon,” he burst out, sounding upset. “I broke the rule of law and I lied to my friends and they almost died because of me.”

He looked over at Lucas. “You can kick me out of your party if you want to,” he said mournfully. “I wouldn’t blame you if you let Max take my place.”

“Dustin…” Lucas pulled a face. “Shut up! We’re not kicking you out of the Party, okay? I made mistakes too. We’re even.”

I got the feeling that this was a whole new drama between the group that I had not yet been privy to.

I caught my sister’s eye in the corner and she smiled at me.

It was a secret, sisterly smile that meant we were rolling our eyes at the boys and although we were too kind to say it, we thought they were pretty stupid.

“You guys are so weird,” I said, but I leaned over and ruffled Dustin’s hair anyway. “The world’s about to end and you’re worrying about whether you can stay in the Party or not.”

Dustin’s mouth opened defensively but he never got the chance to speak.

The Chief came rushing into the kitchen, snatching up the notepad and pen lying there on the side. He was silent for a minute, scribbling away.

We all gathered around him.

“Is that morse code?” Max asked, coming up behind him.

“It’s Will,” the Chief said, finishing the last scrawl. “He’s still in there. Look.”

We all peered at the paper.

The dashes and dots were meaningless to me. But underneath, in boxy black print, the Chief carefully wrote the four secret letters.

“HERE,” we all chimed in unison.

“He really is still in there,” I said, smiling hopefully. “Do you think you can reach him?”

“We’re gonna try.” The Chief hurriedly pressed the pen and paper into my hands. “Steve, go fetch that radio from my car. You’re gonna translate.”

“But we don’t speak morse code,” I worried, sitting down at the table with the pen and notepad in front of me. “How are we gonna-”

“-Just write down the dots and write down the dashes,” the Chief explained, leaning over my shoulder and tapping on the tabletop to show me. “Like this, see? Then write down what you hear.”

Steve came back with the radio and joined me at the table.

“What are we doing again?” Steve asked and the Chief groaned loudly into his hands, pinching the bridge of his nose like he was trying to stay calm.

“Jesus,” he sighed painfully. “Do I have to get one of the kids to do it?”

“We’ll do it,” I said, snatching the radio out of Steve’s hand. “Right, Steve?”

“We’re the adults,” Steve agreed, nodding along with me. “We can do it.”

“Keep an eye on them,” the Chief said, looking at Lucas. “This has to work.”

He went, the door crashing behind him.

Lucas turned slowly to us with his arms crossed and his eyebrows raised.

He was mimicking the look of a teacher or a parent when the kids aren’t doing as they’re told.

I thought it was a good job I liked him too much to get mad.

“What if this doesn’t work?” I said then, my pen poised. “What if we can’t get him back?”

“Hey, don’t talk like that,” Steve said reassuringly at my elbow. “The Chief said he’s in there, alright? It’s gonna work and we’re gonna get him back.”

Steve and I stared at one another for a long time.

I wanted to believe him.

Then came a rapid-fire of beeps from the radio.

“That was fast,” Max said.

One long beep meant a dash, so I jotted it down.

Then there was a quicker beep and that meant a dot so I jotted that down too.

The pattern repeated itself a second time.

“Is that supposed to be one letter?” Steve asked, leaning over my shoulder to get a better look at the notepad. “Why’s this shit gotta be so complicated?”

“Dash, dot, dash, dot,” Dustin joined in. “Isn’t that a C?”

I stared blankly at him over the table. “Kid, do I look like I know what I’m doing?”

Dustin held back a smirk. “Not really, Diana.”

I shushed him, putting my head down closer to the radio. “Then let me concentrate.”

More beeps then followed and this time they came more instantaneous.

Steve moved the radio and put it between us so that we could both listen.

It seemed to me that there were more dots and more dashes than we could count and at one point we argued about whether it had been a dot or a dash we had heard until Lucas was forced to step forward and say that it had been a dot all along.

“That didn’t sound anything like a dash, Diana,” Lucas said. “Trust me. It was a dot.”

“Are you sure?” I grilled him, terrified of getting anything wrong. “Lucas, are you positive?”

“Trust me, okay?” Lucas looked up as Nancy came running breathlessly into the kitchen, waving a book on morse code she’d found in the Chief’s trunk.

“Genius,” Lucas said.

The kids sat down to decode the message.

It was Lucas who did most of the work, his pink tongue tucked between his top and lower lip as he concentrated. For a minute, I was starting to worry that we’d written the whole message down wrong but then he looked up, smiling triumphantly.

“What does it say?” Max asked, running around the table to see.

“Read it,” Lucas said.

“CLOSE GATE,” they read aloud at the same time.

We all looked at one another, bemused by the message.

Then the phone rang shrilly in the hallway.

For a millisecond, nobody moved.

Then we all ran for the phone at the same time, darting across the room.

Nancy grabbed the receiver and wrenched it free from the wall with a grunt, tossing it to the floor.

The phone bounced off the carpet and broke into two pieces.

“Do you think he heard that?” I asked, breathlessly.

“It’s just a phone,” Lucas guessed. “It could be anywhere, right?”

Something told me he was wrong about that.

The Chief burst through the doors and back into the house, Will once again limp and lying over his shoulder.

Joyce, Mike and Jonathan were not too far behind him, looking pale and panicked as they ran inside and double bolted the front door.

“He’s coming,” Mike warned us in a forced voice. “They’re coming.”

“Tough luck about that movie, huh?” Steve said by ear.

Outside, there was a loud screeching sound and my sister ran up to my side and slipped her hand in mine.

I gave it a tight squeeze, kissed her fiercely on the top of the head and pulled her under my arm and into my side.

The Chief was standing at the front of the group with his back to us, facing the door. He had his gun angled high on his shoulder and to my surprise, Nancy stepped forward too, taking the shotgun that the Chief threw into her arms and joining him fiercely at his side.

I stared at her, in awe of her.

She was small and fragile looking with her soft curls and her high cheekbones but at that moment, I thought I’d never seen a woman look as powerful as she did.

Something heavy flew at the window, shattering the glass and landing, wet and meaty at the back of the room. Steve swore, disgusted and poked at it with his bat.

It looked like part of a tendon, like a limb torn from a body.

“Holy shit,” Max whispered against my side and we all looked at the door.

Chapter Text

Stupidly, out of all the things that had happened to me that night, I still came to the conclusion that the door chain moving and dropping on its own was the strangest thing I’d seen so far.

I turned in bewilderment to Steve at my side, staring up into his face to make sure he was seeing what I was seeing. It gave me some comfort when he finally turned to me, his face mirroring mine in confusion and gave my hand a squeeze.

Then the door swung open and a pair of scuffed white sneakers stepped over into the doorway. What followed was a pair of jeans, rolled at the hem as if they were too long and a black blazer which looked like it could have been a man’s.

I heard somebody swear lightly beneath their breath and the Chief and Nancy lowered their weapons to the ground.

There was a child standing there.

At first glance, it was difficult to tell whether it was a boy or a girl.

The child’s dark brown hair had been combed and swept back behind the ears, then sprayed and gelled closely to the scalp. The clothes were boxy looking and androgynous, sort of edgy; but the fresh, young face that peered out from behind the shocking punkish makeup was sweet and girlish and the child’s eyes were welling with tears.

“Mike,” the girl said.

The way she said his name, it was like it was her most favourite thing to say in the whole world. I’d never seen that before, not in real life.

Mike pushed his way forward to the front of the room, reaching out to touch the girl as if he wasn’t sure she was really there. When he seemed satisfied, he grabbed her and pulled her into a hug and the two of them began to cry.

“Is that…” my sister pulled her head out of my side and turned to Lucas. “Is that…”

“…Eleven,” Lucas finished for her and he nodded. “She’s home.”

So this girl; this tiny, sweet-faced kid who was clinging so tightly to Mike, was his precious ‘El’, the girl who had saved him and everybody else last year.

Before the Demogorgon got her.

“I called you every single night,” Mike was gushing, pulling back to stare into El’s face. “Every night for-“

“-353 days,” El finished for him. “I heard you.”

“Why didn’t you ever say anything?” Mike pressed. “Why didn’t you let me know you were okay?”

“Because I wouldn’t let her,” the Chief said from behind him.

Mike turned to the Chief with a face like thunder. “You were hiding her?”

He slammed his fists hard into the Chief’s chest, pummelling him. “You were hiding her all this time?”

“To keep her safe!” the Chief snapped back, snatching hold of Mike’s tiny fist in one hand. “Let’s talk, okay?”

The Chief and Mike went into the next room, where an explosion of raised voices soon started up. Everybody was polite enough to pretend that they couldn’t hear what was being said.

“Sweetie?” Joyce had followed El over to the table, where she was stood reading the crayoned paper that Lucas had filled in. “You opened this gate before,” she said. “Do you think you can close it again?”

“Yes.” The girl seemed to speak perfect English, but it was only very basic. She seemed to talk as if she was a much younger child than she really was.

“Hawkins Lab,” Lucas said, turning to me and Steve as if he could hear what we were probably both thinking. “They took her. They were the ones who made her open the gate.”

“How did she do that?” I asked, not understanding. “How did she-“

Lucas brought his hands up to his temple, tapping on the spot just above his eye. “Same way she killed those Demodogs and opened the door.”

I stared at him, not quite able to believe it.

“With her mind,” Lucas said.

I looked at Steve.

He was shrugging at me indifferently, nervously reaching up to push back his hair. “I can’t believe that’s not the craziest thing I’ve heard tonight,” he said.

“No shit,” I agreed, deciding to believe it anyway and I looked at Steve again.

He was staring at me and smirking and trying to hold in a laugh.

“Actually, that is the craziest thing I’ve ever heard,” I said and this time Steve gave a loud splutter and burst into a peal of laughter.

For a second, I just stared at him, startled by his sudden outburst. His stupid smile was contagious though and pretty soon I was laughing along with him.

We laughed until our sides ached.

It was the sort of laugh that seemed funny only because it was so random and so uncalled for- like laughing in the doctor’s office or at the back of a classroom.

It was probably annoying to everybody else.

They were all beginning to look at one another and raise a few eyebrows.

I guess we just couldn’t help it.

“You’re crying,” Steve wheezed, reaching breathlessly for my face. “Hang on,”

He tried to dab at my watering eyes but his fingers instead jerked roughly across my skin and the purpling bruise above my cheek screamed at me.

“Get off me.” I shoved him away, hard.

The laughter in the room had stopped.

“Diana-“ Steve blinked quickly at me, looking upset. “Shit, I’m sorry. I didn’t even notice.”

“Just-“ I turned my face away, embarrassed now that everybody was looking at me and even more embarrassed because I’d reacted the way I had. “It doesn’t matter, okay?”

“Are you alright?” Steve’s hand went gently onto my arm. “Diana, I didn’t mean to do that, I swear.”

“It doesn’t matter,” I said again. “Forget about it.”

“Sweetie?” Joyce and El were looking up from the table. “You okay?”

I ignored the question.

“Are we gonna close this gate then or what?” I said fiercely, turning back around. “We need to finish this, don’t we? And now we know how.”

“It’s not that simple,” Mike said, coming back into the room. “If we close the gate then the body dies and the whole army dies with it.”

“Isn’t that what we want?” Max asked, going pink and not meeting my eye.

Mike faltered. “Yeah, but…”

“Will’s also a part of that army,” I realised and then something occurred to me and I went into the next room where Will was lying asleep on the bed.

“It’s freezing in here.” I circled the bed and slammed the window shut. “Who opened the window for him?”

“I did,” Joyce admitted, raising her hand in the doorway. “It’s the heat, remember? He can’t stand it.”

“It hurts him,” I said, agreeing with her. “But the soldiers at the Lab; the only way they’ve been containing the leak is by burning it…and up until Will got infected that’s what they were doing. The only reason they stopped is that it was hurting him.”

“He likes it cold,” Joyce said. “That’s what he kept telling me. He likes it cold.”

I thought about it and suddenly everything made sense.

“So we heat him up,” I said, kneeling down by the bed next to Will and taking his clammy cold hand in mine. “We heat him up and we burn it out of him.”

Joyce was nodding at me in the door, desperately looking like she wanted to believe my theory. She came and knelt down next to me by the bed.

“You think it’ll work?” She asked hopefully. “You really think so?”

“It has to,” I said determinedly. “And when it does…” I looked over at El in the doorway. “We close the gate.”

—-

“I wish I could come with you.”

My sister pouted at me on the Byers’ porch, watching me load the plug-in heating device into the back of Jonathan’s car. She was standing there with her hands on her hips, silhouetted against the porch light and looking moody.

“You can’t come, Max.” I closed the trunk with a forceful slam. “You’re safest here with the other kids. I can’t let anything happen to you, okay?”

“But I can be useful,” Max begged. “He’s my friend too.”

I sighed, almost faltering. Then I went back to the porch and crouched down in front of her, trying to make her see it the way I saw it.

“I made Will a promise this morning,” I said gently. “I promised him that I’d never leave his side until he was him again. And tonight I almost broke that promise. I almost gave up and went home. I almost left him behind.”

Max stared at me, her eyes shiny with tears.

“I need you here,” I told her. “Where you’ll be safe.”

“I’ll look after her.” Steve Harrington sauntered out onto the porch, nailed bat swinging in his left hand. “I won’t let anything happen.”

“Thank you.” I stood up slowly, feeling awkward after our fight. “Steve? About what happened…”

“It’s fine.” He gave me a smile, swinging the bat like he was playing an invisible game of baseball. “It was my fault, Diana. And I’m sorry.”

“Well, I’m sorry too,” I said earnestly. “I overreacted. It wasn’t even your fault.”

“It’s a nasty bruise,” Steve remarked.

“Yeah, well…” I looked down at the porch floor. “Sports games can be dangerous.”

“Right,” he said, laughing. “I guess that’s true.”

He looked like he was about to say something, but he seemed to have thought better of it.

“I have to go,” I said, stepping to one side when Jonathan came out onto the porch, carrying a sleeping Will in his arms. “Look after my sister for me.”

“You betcha,” Steve said,

“Max.” I turned back to her, pulling her into one last hug. “Be good, stay safe and I’ll see you when I get back.” I looked at her. “Don’t do anything that I would do, okay? You’ll only get yourself into some trouble you can’t get out of.”

“Diana?” Jonathan, Nancy and Joyce were waiting for me by the car. “Are you coming?”

I turned to go, hopping off the porch step. Steve caught my hand and turned me around. “We still have to see that movie, remember?”

“Only if you pay for the popcorn,” I joked and I smiled at him and slowly eased my hand free, turning and making for the car.

The Chief’s Cabin had a dark, damp, woody smell to the place, but it surprised me how comfortable and cosy it seemed to be once we were actually inside.

“This isn’t actually that bad,” Nancy said, peering at a picture frame of a little blond girl. “I’m impressed.”

“And this is where he’s been hiding her?” I asked, coming up behind her to study the picture too. “El? All this time?”

“I guess so.” Nancy handed the frame to me. “I bet she felt like she was losing her mind.”

“I think we all feel like that sometimes,” I said, glancing down. “Who is this girl?”

“His daughter,” Nancy said gently. “Sara. I think she’d be Mike’s age now.”

“Is she…” I stopped myself, knowing the answer already. “She’s beautiful, isn’t she?”

The little girl had white-blond hair tied up in blue bunches and a piercing stare that was hard to look away from. She was smiling out of the picture, squinting at the camera as if the sun was in her eyes.

She was just a little kid.

“We’ll do it here,” Jonathan said behind us, dragging the bed out and placing Will down gently in the middle of it.

I looked at Will and I looked at Sara and then I carefully put the picture back.

“Then let’s get on with it,” I said.

It didn’t take us very long to do what we needed to do.

Determination made us work fast, strapping Will down to the bed with the ropes from the washing line and positioning the heaters around him like bunches of flowers in a morgue.

Nancy piled armfuls of logs into the stove and threw several matches into it and Jonathan and I cranked the heaters up all the way so that they buzzed and the bars glowed a bright, brilliant red.

Ten minutes later, it was starting to get uncomfortably warm.

First I removed my jacket, tossing it over the foot of the bed and then my sweater. My cami top clung to me like a second skin and my bangs were beginning to spring up and curl in all directions.

Nancy ruffled my hair with a laugh and said I looked like Betty Boop.

“No, she looks like…” Joyce was sitting on the end of the bed, her hand resting on Will’s leg. She turned to Jonathan for help remembering. “In that cartoon, you always watched when you were a kid?”

“Olive Oyl,” Jonathan jumped in with a laugh, snapping his fingers. “From Popeye.”

We all laughed at the absurdity of the comparison, fidgeting in the hot, soupy cabin. I think we were glad for the distraction, but it wasn’t long before Will started to stir.

First, his eyes snapped open and the four of us sprang up from the bed, frightened by his now unnatural appearance. His skin was waxy and pale, making him look more like a doll than a real human being.

I watched Will silently take in his surroundings, appearing almost calm.

“Let me go,” he said darkly, in a voice that didn’t seem to be his own. “Let me go.”

When nobody answered, Will began to strain against the ropes, his eyes bulging furiously in his head. He didn’t seem very happy at being ignored.

“Let me go,” Will demanded again and as before, nobody moved.

Then he gave a monstrous, barking scream, sounding so terribly in pain that it took everything not to untie him right there and free him.

“It’s not working!” Jonathan protested, gripping Nancy’s hand tightly in his own and turning into her side as if he couldn’t bear to watch.

What hurt the Shadow Monster hurt Will, but what hurt Will seemed to be killing Jonathan. “Mom, we’re hurting him!”

“Just wait,” I pleaded over the roar of the fire and the agony of Will’s tortured screams. “Just wait a little longer, okay? It has to work!”

“We’re gonna end up killing him,” Jonathan yelled. “Mom, do something!”

Will’s body had started to contort, twisting and straining and shaking like it had done in the field earlier that night. His face was shadowed with rage and that’s how I knew we were doing exactly as we were supposed to.

I circled the bed and cranked the heat up even more and Will turned and saw me, his eyes growing dark in his hatred for me. He spat at me in disgust and something black and goopy landed on my white shirt.

Murky black veins had started to appear at the base of Will’s neck, tightening and pushing up against the skin as if they were trying to break right through.

Joyce noticed first and ran to the bed, pointing. “It’s working!”

“Let me go!” Will begged and his eyes turned angrily to his mother and his voice came out deep and thunderous. “Let me go! Let me go! Let me go!”

“Get the hell out of my son!” Joyce screamed at him, towering over the bed, seeming mighty in her anger. “Leave him alone!”

Will, in his pain, started to laugh.

He gave one last strain and the ropes binding his wrist snapped.

Will snatched at his mother’s throat, choking her.

“Mom!” Jonathan lunged for his mother and Nancy ran to me, her eyes wide.

“Pass me that poker,” she commanded. “Quickly!”

Nancy snatched at the poker from my fumbling hands and stabbed it into the fire, waiting and watching until the end glowed white-hot and reflected brightly in her eyes.

“What are you doing?” I yelled, panicking when I realised what she was about to do. “Nancy, that’ll kill him!”

Nancy ignored me, shoving me to one side and turning waylessly to the bed where she plunged the hot poker deep into Will’s side. Will screamed, throwing his whole head back and Joyce fell to the floor, gasping for air.

Something thick and black had started to spill and foam from Will’s lips, frothing and then forming a cloud which started to rise, spinning and whipping above our heads like a tornado.

The veins on his neck and face were starting to disappear.

Then the cloud seemed to come to life, sweeping up to the ceiling and then swooping down again, crashing through the cabin door and out into the dark woods. Nancy and I ran to the door, seeing the cloud rise up and disperse into the sky like a scattered pile of leaves on the roadside.

The cabin fell quiet.

Will had stopped crying.

The heaters buzzed with their heat.

“How did you know that would work?” I gasped out, turning breathlessly and following Nancy back into the Cabin. “How did you know that would do it?”

Will looked beautifully himself, sitting up in the bed and lying like a young child in his mother’s arms. The color had come back to his cheeks and he looked sweet and young and just like a little baby.

“I didn’t,” Nancy said and she went and kissed Jonathan hard on the mouth. “But thank God it did.”

Will peered sleepily behind his mother’s shoulder and saw me standing there.

“Diana?” He said my name like he hadn’t seen me in a long time.

“Hey, Will.” I couldn’t stop myself from smiling. “How are you feeling?”

“Different.” Will thought about it. “Better.”

“You look it,” I said, sitting down next to him on the bed and reaching for his hand. “Didn’t I tell you that everything was going to be alright? And you believed me didn’t you?”

“Thank you,” Will said.

“What for?” I laughed. “I didn’t do anything. It was all Nancy.”

“Thank you for staying,” Will said. “And for helping me when I asked.”

That all seemed like a long time ago now. It felt like it had been the longest night of my whole life. My entire body felt stiff and sore like I’d been thrown against several walls and I desperately needed a shower.

Still, I dreaded having to go home.

“I know what we’ll do,” Joyce suggested, sounding more cheerful than I’d ever heard her. “We’ll go back home to mine and we’ll have cocoa and sandwiches and maybe some cookies if we’ve got any.”

“What about those cookies under your bed?” Will asked, rising enthusiastically onto one elbow. “You know the ones with the faces on?”

“They’re supposed to be for Christmas,” Joyce cut in and then she stopped, laughing. “Hey, how do you know about those?”

Will just laughed and hugged his mom tighter. I wanted my own mom.

“Actually,” I said regretfully. “I think I’m gonna go straight home. It’s late and my mom’ll be worrying about me. I’ll just get Max and we’ll get out of your hair.”

“Let Max stay,” Joyce suggested, looking at Will for confirmation. “Right? I mean, I think the kids want to celebrate saving the world tonight.”

Joyce could see by my face that I wasn’t so keen on the idea. “I’ll call your parents and tell them where she is,” she tried again. “I don’t think they’ll mind.”

‘You don’t know my parents,’ I wanted to say but it seemed so stupid to argue with her about that now. What did a curfew matter now that everything that had happened had happened? What did anything matter anymore?

It just didn’t.

Chapter Text

“Are you sure you want dropping here?” Jonathan frowned out at the lashing rain and then back to me in the passenger seat of his battered Ford Galaxie. “You know, it’s no problem. I can drop you straight outside.”

I didn’t want anybody to see who I’d really been with tonight.

“Here’s fine,” I said, unclicking my belt and climbing out of the car. My boots hit sludge at the side of the road and I almost slipped. “My house is just there.”

“Well then get back in,” Jonathan insisted, squinting at me through the fogged-up windows. “You’re getting soaked; Let me take you straight there.”

“I’m fine, really.” I gestured to my sodden curls with a half-hearted laugh. “Besides, I’m already wet. It’s not gonna make much difference now.”

“You’re crazy,” Jonathan said. “But thank you.”

I stared at him, already starting to shiver. “What for?”

“For helping my brother. You were there for him when I wasn’t.”

“I didn’t really do anything,” I said modestly. “Nancy did it in the end.”

Jonathan smiled at the mention of Nancy’s name. “She’s smart, isn’t she?”

I laughed at his enthusiasm. “Okay, I really have to go now.”

“Shit, yeah.” Jonathan ducked his head shyly, embarrassed at having kept me talking. “Yeah, you better get yourself inside before you get pneumonia.”

“I’m not eighty,” I joked but I still stayed out just a little longer to watch Jonathan’s car pull away, disappearing at the end of the road and then vanishing from sight.

I shivered again.

My hair was plastered to my scalp and my jacket clung uncomfortably to my bare arms, sticking to my back and stomach. I hurried my pace up the dark street, my boots splashing in the murky puddles, streams of ice-cold water running down my head and down inside my collar.

There was only Neil’s car on the driveway, parked up neatly in front of the garage at a perfect angle. I couldn’t help looking for Billy’s car anyway as I walked past, not liking that he might not be there when I had to face Neil.

Imagine my relief when I walked in and saw him sitting there at the kitchen table anyway, all blonde curls and rumpled shirt, sitting there with a cigarette.

“Diana?” Billy jumped up when he saw me, dropping the cigarette on the plate next to him. “The hell have you been all night? I’ve been out looking for you.”

“For me?” I wiped my boots on the doormat, frowning at him. “Where’s your car gone? And what the hell happened to your face?”

Billy grunted like he didn’t want to talk about it. “It doesn’t matter.”

“Seriously, Billy?” I went up to him and took his face in my hands, turning it gently to the light so I could see clearer. “Who did this to you? Was it your dad?”

Billy didn’t say anything.

There was bruising around his nose and jaw and when I took his hands in mine and kissed them, I noticed that there were cuts all along his knuckles too.

“Have you been in a fight?” I asked, realising. “Billy, have you?”

“That’s what I’d like to know,” a voice behind me said.

I whipped around, my back hitting Billy’s shoulder in my hurry.

Neil and my mom both stood there in the kitchen doorway, looking in.

My mom was in her nightgown and bathrobe, ready for bed, but Neil was still dressed.

“Maybe you’ll give me a straight answer,” Neil said. “Where were you tonight?”

The telephone in the hallway began to ring and my mother rushed off to answer it, thankful probably for the distraction.

“I was with Heather Holloway,” I said steadily. “We went to see a movie.”

“You went to see a movie?”

“Yes,” I said angrily. “Why do you say that like you don’t believe me?”

“Because I don’t believe you,” Neil said simply.

“You don’t believe me?”

“Nothing about tonight makes any sense.”

Neil turned on his heel, pacing the kitchen, enjoying his spotlight.

“Your sister goes missing all night. You go missing all night. I send your brother out to look for you both and instead, he comes back two hours later saying his car broke down at the side of the road and he doesn’t know where either of you are.”

Neil came to a stop in front of me. He reached out and squeezed at the ends of my damp hair and the water dripped off my jacket and onto the rug.

“Do you know where your sister is?” He asked.

“She’s okay.” My mom came back into the room. “She just called. She’s spending the night at a friend’s house.”

My mom looked at me like she’d just seen me for the first time that night.

“Diana,” she said, looking me up and down. “You’re all wet.”

“It’s raining,” I pointed out.

“You look cold.” Neil took a step back and studied me. “Are you cold?”

“Not really,” I said quietly, trying not to make a point of shivering.

There was a crotched blanket sitting by the window, kept there when my mom liked to sit and read in the evenings after cooking.

Neil went and brought it over to me, tugging my jacket off my shoulders and covering me with the blanket instead.

He was being suspiciously gentle and it was almost intimate.

“You’re blushing,” Neil said, leaning in with an unkind smile.

I definitely wasn’t.

Everything about him repulsed me.

I looked quickly to my mother for help, embarrassed and confused, but she was looking down, away from me.

I could count on Billy to have my back, of course.

“Jesus.” He made a low, disgusted sound at the back of his throat, stepping in front of me. “You just can’t leave her alone, can you?”

“As opposed to what?” Neil asked, raising an eyebrow. “You?”

“Stay away from her,” Billy said, stepping up in front of his father. “You leave her alone.”

Neil rubbed thoughtfully at his jaw and glanced at me behind Billy’s shoulder. “I don’t know what you’re trying to imply, son. But Diana is my daughter. She’s my family. And I look after my family.”

“You’ve got a pretty shit way of showing it,” Billy said boldly.

Neil’s eyebrows shot up. “Excuse me?”

“It’s getting very late,” my mother piped up then, quite unhelpfully. “Maybe we should forget about this until the morning.”

Both Neil and Billy ignored her.

Neil stabbed a finger into Billy’s chest, pushing him back one step so that Billy almost stepped on my toe.

“You don’t talk to me like that,” Neil said very slowly, over pronouncing every syllable. “I’m just trying to get to the bottom of what went on tonight.”

“I was at-“

“Yes. I know, Diana.” Neil shot me an impatient look over Billy’s shoulder. “You’ve said. You were with Heather Holloway and you went to see a movie. It doesn’t matter how many times you say it, I still don’t believe you.”

I was starting to get frustrated with him.

Why did he bother asking us for our stories if he didn’t believe us anyway?

I couldn’t tell him the truth; it was too outrageous, too dangerous.

And he probably wouldn’t believe me anyway.

“Shall we settle this?” Neil slipped past Billy to stand back in front of me and Billy went over to the table and lit up another cigarette.

His hands were shaking, his bruised fingers stuttering over his lighter.

“What shall we say?” Neil asked, reaching out to thumb at the bruise on my cheek. “A misunderstanding?”

“What?” I flinched away from him.

“Tonight?” Neil said calmly. “Shall we draw a line under it and call it a misunderstanding?”

“A misunderstanding?” I echoed stupidly, not getting it.

“Crossed wires,” Neil explained. “Miscommunication on both sides. I’ll call this Heather Holloway tomorrow morning and if she confirms your story then I’ll apologise to you myself.”

I knew Heather would confirm my story if he asked her.

So I felt better about that.

“And you’re not…” I hesitated with the question, scared to ask aloud and jinx it all. “You’re not going to punish me?”

“Punish you?” He had the audacity to look surprised. “Why? Have you done something wrong?”

“No.” I thought my answer was a little too quick but Neil was already looking bored.

“Do as you’re told,” Neil said, turning away from me with some disinterest. “And I’ll never have to punish you.”

My mom threw me a small smile in the doorway. Neil came and put his arm around her. “Do you kids want to see if there’s a movie on TV?”

We both stared at her in disbelief, expecting her to laugh at any minute and say she was joking.

“I think I’ll pass on that, Susan,” Billy said curtly, crossing his arms.

They both went.

In the living room down the hall, I could hear the familiar canned laughter track on the TV and the voice of a cheerful gameshow host.

Now that we were finally alone again…

“God, are you okay?” I went and threw my arms around Billy, careful to avoid his swollen jaw. “Thank you for sticking up for me. I didn’t even know what to say.”

“He’s a total dick,” Billy said against my hair and then he paused. “Were you really at Heather Holloway’s tonight?”

I stiffened against him. “Of course I was.”

He didn’t say anything.

Annoyingly, I had a feeling he didn’t believe me either.

“Come to my room,” I said anyway, toying gently with his bruised fingers. “I have some wipes for those cuts on your hand.”

Billy and I went down the hallway to my room, boldly holding hands even as we slipped past the living room. Neil seemed lazy tonight, like he couldn’t really be bothered with confrontation.

It was a relief to both of us probably.

“So…” I sat Billy down on the bed, kneeling in front of him as I began to wipe at the crusted blood on his knuckles. “Are you going to tell me where your car really is?”

Billy gave me a long look. “Would you believe me if I told you I actually don’t know where it is?”

I laughed uncertainly, not sure what to think about what he was telling me.

“What happened to you tonight, Billy?”

“What happened to you?” He asked, turning the question back round to me. “We were supposed to be going on our date tonight, remember?”

I stopped wiping, racking my brain for some kind of excuse, some sort of explanation. I had nothing.

“I’m sorry,” I said quietly, resuming my work on his hand. “I forgot all about it.”

Billy didn’t say anything.

I could sense his eyes on the top of my head as I studied the bruises on his hands, turning his fingers gently in mine and interlocking them.

I brought his hand up to my mouth and kissed it fiercely, my eyes meeting his.

“We’ll go out some other time,” I suggested guiltily. “It’ll be worth the wait.”

“And tonight?” Billy leaned forward in his seat, his mouth finding mine. His lips were rough and feverishly hot.

“Tonight we listen to Mötley Crüe,” I said, kissing him back. “And we drink some of that stuff I know you’ve got under your bed.”

Billy kissed me behind my ear. “And?”

He wasn’t mad at me, I realised. He knew I wasn’t telling him the truth but he wasn’t mad and I thought he would be.

“And we lock the door to my room,” I said, all over him. “And we thank Max for staying out of our way and staying at the Byers house tonight.”

Billy pulled suddenly away from the kiss, holding me by the shoulders at arm’s length. “What did you just say?”

I stared at him. “What do you mean?”

“You said Max was at the Byers’ house,” Billy repeated suspiciously. “How’d you know that?”

I laughed, getting flustered. “I don’t know. My mom must have said it.”

“No, she didn’t.” Billy peered at me, frowning like there was something he wished he could say. “Diana, how do you know that?”

“Well, how do you know that?” I asked him, wriggling back and rocking onto my heels. “Billy, do you know something?”

“Do you know something?”

I shook my head, insistent. I knew that if I pressed the matter any further then the night would be ruined. I’d find something out that I didn’t like and we’d be forced to confront the reality of what had really gone on tonight, whatever that was.

But tonight, I just really wanted him to hold me. I wanted to feel something.

“Forget about it,” I said, stretching up on my knees to kiss him and bringing my arms up around his neck. “How about we skip the music and the drinking and just lock the door?”

“Have mercy,” Billy said against my mouth. “You’re gonna kill me, you know that?”

He said that sometimes when I kissed him, but the words didn’t sit right with me tonight. I stiffened up against him for just a second, thinking of Bob, but it was long enough for him to notice.

“Hey.” Billy caught my face in his hands, making me look at him. “What’s the matter? You okay?”

“Okay?” I smiled fakely at him. “Why wouldn’t I be okay?”

“I don’t know.” Billy thumbed over the bruise on my cheek, not pressing as hard as Neil had. “You know you can tell me anything, right?”

I nodded at him, of course. “And you know you can tell me anything,” I repeated back. “Anything.”

We stared at one another. I was almost sitting on his knee, sprawled against him with his fingers tangled in my damp hair. Just a few seconds ago, he’d been kissing me and my hands had been inside his open shirt.

So why did I feel so far away from him?

“Just kiss me,” I said hastily and I closed my eyes and prayed that he could kiss the feeling away.

—-

When I awoke the next morning, my entire body felt stiff and sore and bruised, like I’d been thrown against several walls.

Billy was lying on his back beside me, his face turned slightly to my locked bedroom door. I could see the steady rise and fall of his chest as he slept, his curls swept messily over his forehead like a little boy’s.

I rose slowly to my elbows in the bed, wincing at the slightest movement. It felt like I’d been hit with a truck or at the very least, dragged behind one.

I rolled over into a sitting position at the edge of the mattress, reaching for my bathrobe on the floor.

I put it on.

“I didn’t hurt you last night, did I?” Billy’s hand snaked out from underneath the sheets and found mine, squeezing it. “You’d tell me, right?”

“Don’t be stupid.” I thought he’d been sleeping. “I think it’s from being out in the rain.”

Actually, I thought it was probably from running up all those stairs yesterday with the Chief; all those endless, twisting stairs at the Lab.

I tried not to think about that.

“You need a cigarette.” Billy rose up in the bed and leaned over for his shirt, pulling his pack of Marlboro’s out of the pocket and lighting two. Then he took me by the arm and pulled me back into the bed, the back of my head against his bare shoulder.

He kissed my hair, handing me the cigarette. “You should relax more.”

I dragged on the cigarette and didn’t say anything.

I thought I’d offended him with my silence.

“I’m sorry,” I said, turning to him and pushing his curls back from his eyes. “I just have a lot on my mind right now.”

“You look better though.” Billy kissed me. “You’ve got roses in your cheeks.”

“I have?”

Outside, somebody rang the doorbell and Billy groaned against me, holding me there when I tried to get up and answer it. “Let my dad do it.”

“It’s a Sunday,” I pointed out, trying to push myself up. “He wouldn’t even get out of bed if there was a fire.”

Billy kept his hands on my shoulders, weighing me down into the mattress.

“It’ll be Mormons,” he said, even though he had no way of knowing. “Ignore them and they’ll go away.”

The doorbell rang again, persistent as if to show perhaps that they weren’t going to go away like Billy said they would.

“Billy-“ I pushed up against him, freeing myself and rolling out of the bed. “Let me go see who it is, okay?”

“Tell them we’re getting ready for church,” Billy joked, putting his cigarette back in his mouth. “Then come back to bed.”

I was smiling as I left the room and smiling as I made my down the hallway and to the front door.

I was still smiling when I opened it and saw the Chief standing there, Billy’s Camaro parked up behind him on the driveway.

“Chief?” I blinked at him in surprise, stepping out onto the porch with him and shutting the door behind me. “You brought his car back. Thank you.”

“It was an excuse really,” the Chief said, peering up at the front of the house. “After what happened last night, it got me thinking. I was worried about you.”

I was touched by his concern.

“Everything’s fine now though, right?” I asked. “I mean…I feel better than I’ve felt in ages. And Will seems like he’s going to be okay again.”

The Chief frowned at me. “That’s not what I’m talking about.” He nodded at the door behind me. “This Billy kid…he your boyfriend?”

I caught myself.

“He’s not my real brother,” I tried to explain. “I know it seems weird for some people to get their head around but I swear I only met him last summer. Maybe it’d be different if I’d known him for years and years….” I allowed myself to trail off, catching the look on the Chief’s face. “What is this about?”

“Did he do that to your face?” The Chief asked, straight-out. “Did he hurt you?”

“What?”

“You can tell me,” he promised kindly.

“Billy didn’t do anything to me!” I tried to keep my voice low, not wanting my parents to hear and come looking. “Why would you even think that? He’d never do anything like that to me-“

I stared at the Camaro over his shoulder, embarrassed to even look at the Chief. He probably thought I was some just some stupid kid.

“I know how it is,” the Chief explained, confirming my suspicions. “He’s a good looking guy, a little rough around the edges am I right?”

I stared silently at him.

“And most of the time he’s a real nice kid,” the Chief went on. “He’s charming, he makes you laugh, he shows you off when you’re out. And then sometimes when you have a fight he gets a little rough with you, am I right? Maybe he makes you feel like it was your fault- like you deserved it. But he always ends up hitting you again in the end.”

I just stared at him, open-mouthed.

“You couldn’t be more wrong,” I said angrily. “Billy’s not like that.”

“No?” The Chief turned over his shoulder to the car and then back to me. “Listen. He almost put that Harrington kid in hospital last night. Beat the shit out of him. Knocked him out cold.”

He could probably tell this was my first time hearing it.

“You just ask your sister if you don’t believe me,” he went on. “She was there when it happened; All the kids were.”

Slowly, I raised my eyes to him.

So Billy had been at the Byer’s house last night, I thought to myself. And Steve Harrington had also been there.

I almost hated myself for not being able to figure it out myself- and to think that I had nursed him last night and let him kiss me and hold me and put his hands on me; those swollen, bruised hands that I’d kissed and had let touch me and undress me; those hands had also balled into furious fists and hurt someone.

Hurt Steve.

“I didn’t know anything about that,” I said stiffly on the porch step. “I know how it must look, Chief, but I promise you that Billy didn’t hurt me. That was an accident like I told you.”

“You don’t have to defend him,” the Chief started.

“I’m not defending him!” I swallowed thickly, my throat going tight. “I’m not some stupid little small-town girl who doesn’t know any better,” I argued. “I know how the world works, so please don’t patronise me.”

The Chief opened his mouth to say something but I held up my hand, cutting him off.

“I think you should go,” I said carefully, turning to leave myself. “Thank you for bringing the car back and for being concerned but there’s nothing to be worried about here.”

There was a slow pause as the Chief deliberated over what I’d told him and I loitered in the now open doorway, waiting for him to leave.

“You know where I am,” he said, turning to go. “You call me if you need me. I’ll be there, okay?”

For a quick second I wanted to open my mouth and blurt it all out; everything that had happened since I moved in with the Hargrove’s- the beatings with the belt, the threats at dinner, the hand over my mouth. The hot, angry words hissed into my ear as he pinned me down.

“Thank you for your concern,” I said instead, moving to close the door. “But everything is fine here.”

Chapter Text

Very slowly and very carefully, I closed the door to my bedroom and leaned with my back against it. Billy was half-sitting up in the bed, still smoking and still looking exactly like he’d looked when I’d left him to answer the door. He looked rugged and handsome and all kinds of good-looking.

He waved me over to the bed but I stayed where I was.

“You coming back to bed?” He asked me, the cigarette bouncing in his mouth. “What’s the matter with you?”

“I don’t want to go back to bed,” I said.

Billy did a double-take as if he couldn’t believe I’d said it.

Then he swung his legs out of the bed and hopped into his jeans, walking barefoot over to the door.

“Hey.” He came to a stop in front of me, a good deal taller so that I was forced to stare up at him. “What’s wrong?”

“Nothing,” I lied, dropping my eyes back down from his face. “I’m just not tired.”

“We weren’t going back to sleep,” Billy murmured, ducking his head under my chin and kissing me on the mouth. “Hmm? Come on, what’s the matter with you?”

“Would you ever hit me?” I asked him.

Billy stiffened up at the question, his hand at the side of my head on the door. He pushed himself back and stared at me, his eyebrows furrowed.

“The hell are you talking about?” He sounded offended. “The hell kinda question is that?”

“Would you?” I repeated, staring brazenly up at him. “Would you do it?”

“Don’t be so goddamn stupid.”

“Even if I made you mad?” I slipped past him and went and sat down on the bed, tightening the belt on my bathrobe. “Even if I’d slept with somebody else or trashed your car?”

“I still wouldn’t.” Billy was staring at me, still by the door. “Where’s this coming from? Why are you asking me this?”

“Because I need to know.”

“Because you need to know. Shouldn’t you know that already?”

“I don’t know you anymore.”

“You don’t know me anymore?” Billy pushed himself away from the door and took me by the shoulders, pulling me up to stand in front of him. “Diana, what’s going on here?”

“You hit Steve,” I managed to get out, struggling. “What’s to stop you from doing the same thing to me?”

Billy stared at me. “How’d you know about that? Who was at the door?”

“It doesn’t matter how I know-“ I shoved him back, away from me, stabbing a finger at the side of my head.

“You’ve flipped a switch!” I hissed at him. “What the hell is wrong with you? You could’ve killed him!”

“But I didn’t,” Billy said dryly. “Who told you about that?”

“You know what your problem is?” I dared myself to inch closer to him, standing toe to toe. “You’ve got such a God Complex, you know that? You walk around thinking you’re so superior- expecting everyone to bow and scrape and get down on their knees for you like they’re beneath you or something.”

Billy glowered down at me, standing so close we were almost touching.

“Well I’m not beneath you,” I said fiercely, jutting my chin up. “I’m not beneath you, Billy.”

His eyes flashed meanly. “Just last night, huh Diana?”

I stared at him. “You sick shit.”

“You weren’t at Heather Holloway’s last night, were you?” He asked.

“That’s irrelevant,” I snapped. “Your car didn’t really break down at the side of the road, did it? It was at the Byers’ house.”

For a second, Billy looked confused. “It wasn’t when I left.”

“What are you talking about?”

“You’re right,” Billy interrupted rudely. “It is irrelevant. Fact is, Harrington was being a creep and he had it coming.”

“How was he?”

“He had Max and all these kids there, Diana. Just him, alone in this stranger’s house with my thirteen-year-old sister. I mean, what the hell did you want me to think? They were having a tea party?”

“He was waiting for me-“ I burst out, not technically lying. “That’s why he was there.”

Billy flinched at my words. “And why was that?”

“Diana?” There was a cheerful knock on the door behind us. “I’m making pancakes,” my mom sang out.

“Just a minute!” I called back, without taking my eyes off Billy.

“Did he fuck you?”

My first reaction was to laugh, I don’t know why. It all just seemed too stupid and chaotic to be true.

“I’m only going to answer that question once,” I said, hurt. “Will you believe whatever answer I give you?”

Billy’s eyes twitched at me. “Yes.”

“He didn’t fuck me,” I said, wincing at the vulgarity of the word on my tongue. “But like hell, I wish he had, just to see the look on your face.”

—-

My mom leaned over the table and piled the strawberries from her plate onto mine. She smiled at me and tapped the stack of pancakes with her fork.

“They taste a lot better when they’re hot,” she said brightly. “Billy, you’re almost finished. You want some more?”

“If you’ve got any going.”

Billy was sitting across from me with his elbows on the table. He’d finished one stack of pancakes already and was soon to start on another. He said he hadn’t eaten anything last night and that’s why he was so hungry.

I didn’t know how he could eat anything.

“You’re always eating,” Neil said snarkily behind his newspaper. “I don’t know how you never put any weight on.”

“He’s growing,” my mom said.

I didn’t know why she was trying to kiss both our asses all of a sudden.

“I’m going to give this Heather Holloway a call after breakfast,” Neil said, without looking at me. “Confirm your story.”

“You’re calling her now?” I asked.

Neil studied me over the paper. “Why? You got a problem with that, Diana?”

“No.” I bit down on a strawberry. “But it’s nine am on a Sunday.”

“You can call after lunch, can’t you darling?” My mom suggested, helpfully. “Diana, you’re not eating much.”

“I’m not hungry.” I pushed my plate away.

“Can I have it?” Billy stabbed at my pancake stack with his fork before I could give him my answer.

“Do what you want,” I snapped.

My mom and Neil stared at us.

“What’s going on with you two?”

“Nothing,” I said, glowering at the white tablecloth. “We’re just not talking, right Billy?”

“I guess you could say we’re not doing much of anything anymore,” Billy said coarsely. “Right, Diana?”

“Right,” I said.

Neil put down his newspaper and folded it up carefully, putting it down by his elbow next to his coffee and juice.

“Has my son done something to upset you, Diana?” He had the nerve to look concerned about it. “Because if he has, I want you to tell me.”

Our eyes met across the table and I could tell he had us both exactly where he wanted us.

He hadn’t even had to try.

“He didn’t do anything,” I said, looking away. “I don’t want to talk about it.”

“Will you talk to me about it?” My mom asked gently.

“There’s nothing to talk about,” I persisted, getting irritated. “We’re just not talking anymore and that’s it.”

There was a long wait as Neil stared at me. “Okay,” he said.

“What?”

“I said, okay. It’s none of our business I guess. I was just being curious; thought maybe I could be a mediator.”

“We don’t need a mediator,” Billy scoffed, rolling his eyes at his father’s sarcasm. “Admit it. You love it.”

Neil stared at Billy over the rim of his coffee mug. “Love what?”

“That you’ve got her all to yourself.” Billy threw down his cutlery and pushed himself back from the table, done with his food. “You won, I guess. Well played.”

“Now you just wait a minute…” Neil jumped up from the table too, stalking out of the kitchen after his son.

I could hear them shouting in the next room and I rolled my eyes.

“I hope you don’t mind me saying…” My mom was blinking as if she hadn’t heard the conversation moments earlier. “But I’m glad you’re not on speaking terms.”

“Bite me, mother,” I snapped.

“I’m serious,” she went on, leaning into my side. “I think it’ll be good for you to have a break from it all. You’re always with him. It worries me.”

“It worries you?” I laughed at the hypocrisy of what she was saying. “God, give me a break.”

“I hated you with him,” my mom pressed on. “He’s not good for you, Diana and I’ve told you this before.”

“Then why are we talking about it again?”

“Because I worry.” My mom snatched at my hand on the table and gave it a squeeze. “I worry about what you do and where you go with him- whether you’re being safe-“

“-Being safe?” I snatched my hand away. “Mom, nobody says that anymore.”

“Well, are you?” She demanded. “Are you being safe with him?”

“It doesn’t matter,” I snapped, sick of the sight of the food and sick of the look in her eyes. “Because we’re finished, just like I said.”

My mom pushed my hair back, tucking a dark strand behind my ear. “You’ve changed so much,” she whispered. “Sometimes I look at you and you’ve grown so confident. Other times it’s like you go right in inside yourself.”

“That’s because he scares me,” I said.

“Billy?”

I looked her dead in the eye. “Neil.”

My mom blinked at me as if she was wishing she could forget what she’d just heard. “You shouldn’t antagonise him. You know he gets upset easily.”

“My heart bleeds for him.’

“I don’t expect you to understand.” My mother rose up from the table too. “But that’s alright. When you’re older, you’ll understand that he’s just trying to look after us all.”

Maybe that’s what Neil told her.

I wondered if she lay in bed at night and repeated those things over and over to herself, and if she repeated them often enough she began to believe them.

——

The hand on my shoulder shook me awake.

“Diana, wake up, you’re dreaming.”

I shot up onto my elbows, sweating and gasping for air. Neil was sitting on the couch next to me, peering down worriedly into my face. His fingers smoothed at the blanket covering my legs and he smiled at me, his eyes creasing.

“You were dreaming,” he said, still looking at me even when I looked away. “I think you must have been having a nightmare.”

“I was?” It all seemed scarily hazy, actually.

I swept my hair back and pushed my forehead into my open palm, trying to steady my breathing. “I can’t remember.”

I glanced up and spotted Billy standing there by the TV, wearing shorts, sneakers and a plain white muscle-tee. He was smoking a cigarette and lifting his weights at the same time. He looked at me but he didn’t say anything.

“You shouldn’t nap in the daytime,” Neil went on. “They say it’s easier to get nightmares that way. Are you sure you can’t remember what it was about?”

I shook my head again, lying. “It’s gone.”

It had been about Bob, actually. But I couldn’t tell him that.

“Well, here.” Neil took the glass of water off the coffee table and pressed it into my hands. “This’ll make you feel better.”

I wasn’t sure why he was being nice to me.

The water tasted funny, the way it always did when you’d been sleeping.

“You’re driving me insane with those stupid weights,” Neil snapped suddenly, as I rose on the couch to a sitting position. “Billy, I’ve told you a thousand times that you’re supposed to lift your weights in your room or in the garage.”

Billy shot his father a look. “You’re telling me to leave?”

“I’m telling you to take your weights to the garage,” Neil ordered, rising up from the sofa and going over to the telephone. “I need to make a call now.”

Billy was trying his best to meet my eye but I wasn’t looking at him.

I propped my feet up onto the coffee table and kept on sipping my water.

“Fine,” he huffed, at last, and he may as well have said ‘fuck you.’ “I’ll go finish my workout in the garage then.”

Neil waited calmly until he had gone before he made the call.

I could hear the heavy-metal music booming from the garage outside.

“Hello, yes?” Neil lifted the receiver to his ear, motioning for me to stay put. “This is Diana’s father, may I speak to Heather Holloway please?”

There was a pause as he listened to whatever was being said to him on the other line. His eyes were on me the whole time.

“Heather,” he said briskly, toying with the wire. “I’m sorry to bother you like this on a Sunday of all days but I was wondering if you could confirm something for me, real quick?”

Heather said something to him and Neil laughed.

“That’s alright,” he went on. “But you and Diana went out yesterday, did you?”

Neil listened, nodding as if Heather could see him.

“To the movies,” he confirmed. “Yes, what’s that?”

Neil listened. As he listened, I saw his eyes smoulder and flicker quickly over my face and I began to feel uncomfortably sick, my stomach swilling with water.

“Thank you, Heather.” Neil put the phone down with a loud click.

“Did she confirm it?” I asked nervously, watching him cross the room towards me over the rim of my water glass. “I told you she would.”

“No doubt under your persuasion,” Neil said, and the way he said it wasn’t kind but it wasn’t unkind either. “No doubt about that at all.”

“Why do you bother looking for proof?” I asked him bravely. “If you don’t believe the proof when you get it?”

Neil swung his hand out and knocked at my legs on the coffee table, my feet hitting the floor, the water spilling over my hand and onto the floral rug.

“She said you were with her all night,” Neil said, shocking me with his brusqueness and his sudden violence.

He grabbed at my chin, jerking my head towards him so roughly that I thought my neck might snap. “But that’s not true, is it Diana? Because you were home at eleven o’clock.”

“Perhaps she misunderstood,” I tried.

“I don’t think so.” Neil backhanded me onto the sofa and my cheek burned from the sting of it. “Stop lying to me!”

“I’m not lying!” I pushed myself back up, springing to my feet to scream at him. “You make my life hell! I can’t stand being with you anymore-“

“Sit back down and listen to me-“

“No,” I cried, aware that I was near to crying and very embarrassed about it. “I’m so sick of all your stupid rules and your curfews and having to walk on eggshells just to make you happy…”

Neil swung his hand at me, to threaten me at first, to get me to stop talking.

When I didn’t quieten, he grabbed me and forced me back onto the couch. We struggled, rolling off, and the back of my head hit the floor, his hands pinning my wrists at my sides.

He was heavy.

I glared up, furiously into his face.

“There’s nobody in the house, Diana,” he warned, his breath warming my forehead. “Your mother’s gone for your sister and Billy’s not here. It’s just you and me. I could break you right now.”

“Do it,” I goaded beneath him, realising that was probably his plan all along. “Do it anyway. Do it.”

“Where were you last night?”

I didn’t say anything. Neil shook me until it hurt.

“Where were you last night?” He repeated, white specks of spit frothing on his lips. “Tell me the truth or I swear to God-“

“-Billy!”

I called out to him uselessly from the garage and Neil’s hand went and clamped down over my mouth, pushing the back of my head down into the floor until that hurt too and tears sprang to my eyes.

“Give it up for God’s sake,” he panted, his knee knocking against my knee. “I warned you this would happen if you didn’t behave and you never listen, do you? You just can’t help yourself.”

I made a noise against his hand.

“I shouldn’t have been so soft on you,” Neil said, batting my one free hand away. “I should have just done this to you last night, or the night before when I found out you were screwing my son.”

He lifted his hand from my mouth and I took in the lungful of air he’d been holding back from me, using what strength I had to push against him.

“Get off me!” I tried again, trying to free myself and roll out from under him.

I saw Neil’s hand go to the waistband of his jeans and I heard the clicking of his belt buckle as he started to pull the belt hurriedly through each denim loop.

“Just stay very still,” he said.

His weight above me shifted just enough for me to turn onto my stomach. I managed to elbow him once in the chest, winding him just a little before he grabbed me and shoved me with a grunt onto my back again.

I’d made him angry.

“Bitch,” he spat, both hands on my wrists, bending them back above my head. “I told you to stay still.”

He took my wrists in one hand and using the other, fed the rest of the belt out of his waistband. It was thick in his large hands and he brought it up to my face to show me, laughing when I flinched away.

“You’re a pretty girl,” he said, faking kind. “Don’t worry, I’m not going to touch your face this time.”

“Please don’t do this,” I pleaded with him, staring up at him through bleary, stinging eyes. “My mom’ll be back any minute, I know she will.”

“Don’t beg,” he said. “It’s not very becoming on you. I thought you had more about you than that.”

I decided that I didn’t, still straining against him anyway. “Please!”

He heard me, but he pretended not to.

“Just stay very still,” he said and the belt swung into my side, silencing me. “It’ll all be over in a minute or two.”

He was true to his word actually and I do think the punishment lasted no longer than a couple of minutes.

When he was finished or bored or both, Neil climbed off of me, out of breath and started to put his belt back on.

I’d been staring up at the stucco roses on the ceiling while it was happening and trying to stay very still like he’d told me to and not make any noise.

“You can get up now,” Neil said, peering down at me. “Did you hear what I said?”

I eased myself up into a sitting position, wincing at every movement. I managed to shuffle my way back to lean against the couch, shivering even though I wasn’t cold.

“God, Diana.” Neil dropped to one knee beside me, taking my face in his hands and kissing me on the forehead. “I hope you’ve learned your lesson now. I didn’t want to have to do that to you but you gave me no choice.”

“It hurts,” I said quietly into his shoulder.

“It will do.” Neil pulled back, holding me at arm’s length. “That’s what happens when you rush and you fall down the stairs.”

I blinked at him. “When I what?”

“When you fall down the stairs,” he told me again, wiping away the tears on my cheek. “That’s what happened, isn’t it?”

I thought about it. “It is?”

Neil nodded, helping me stand up and then easing me back onto the couch.

The music in the garage had stopped now and Billy would be coming back inside at any minute.

“I feel really sick,” I said, leaning forward with a grimace and trying to reach the glass of water on the coffee table.

Neil leaned over and fetched it for me, pressing the glass into my shaking hands. “Just take small sips,” he said gently. “Don’t gulp.”

He watched me as I sat beside him on the couch, taking quick, nervous sips just like he told me to. Then he pressed his lips against the side of my head and his mouth was firm but it didn’t hurt.

I savoured the feeling of it, leaning involuntarily into him.

Chapter Text

I don’t know how many aspirin pills I managed to shovel in; one, two, three, a rounded handful with my mouth on the faucet of the bathroom sink and my fingers clutching the edge because it hurt too much to bend like that at the waist.

When I raised my eyes to the bathroom mirror, the girl who stared back at me was surprisingly normal-looking, if there was actually such a thing as ‘normal’ anymore. My cheeks were a little too pink, my eyes just a little too swollen from crying. But I looked normal.

Behind me, the bathroom door opened slightly and Neil slipped cautiously through the gap and came into the room. I saw his eyes go to the aspirin packet on the side of the sink and I quickly put it back into the cabinet, as if I could make him forget that he’d ever seen it.

“You shouldn’t take too many of those,” he said. “How many did you take?”

“I don’t know.” I turned my back on him and stared down at the dark plug hole of the sink. “I can’t remember.”

“Does it still hurt?” Neil came up behind me and put his fingers on my lower back, just below my ribs. “Does it hurt if I press here?”

He pressed down.

His fingers didn’t press very hard but it still hurt and I sucked in a lungful of air through my teeth, jerking against the bowl of the sink with nowhere else to go.

“I think mom’s calling us for dinner,” I struggled out, turning around to face him and hoping he would let me past. “I’m fine, really. I think I should go now.”

Neil had me up against the basin of the sink, keeping me penned in against his legs, and not leaving me much room to do anything else but stand there and wait for him to move out of my way.

“Let me see how bad it is,” he said, his fingers pulling at the hem of my sweater. “Is it bruised? Let me see.”

“No-“ I pushed his hands away, cheeks burning furiously. “I told you that I’m fine and I’m fine, okay?”

“Diana…” His voice came out like a song. “I just want to make sure nothing’s broken. You can let me do that, can’t you?”

It was something I’d worried about myself- whether anything was broken or not. I’d heard that you couldn’t do anything for broken ribs, that you just had to control the pain and let the bones heal on their own time. I didn’t know how long broken bones took to heal or how I was going to manage if it turned out to be true.

I let Neil slowly ease up the hem of my sweater, stopping just below my diaphragm. The sink basin was cold against my back but his fingers were warm as they gently felt their way up my ribcage and around the sides of my waist where the bruising was most.

I winced as his fingers pressed down a little too hard on a certain spot. To my surprise, he drew quickly back.

“Breathe in,” he told me, lifting his head. “Does it hurt when you breathe in?”

I shook my head, looking at him hopefully for my answer. “Well?”

“I don’t think you’ve broken anything.”

It was a relief to hear it.

“I can get you things if you need them,” he said seriously and I knew he was talking about the painkillers. “If you want me to.”

“Thank you.” It confused me how grateful I felt towards him, for wanting to help me the way he was.

“You’ll have to be more careful next time,” Neil said, putting his hand on my cheek and holding it there. “And stop making silly mistakes like these.”

I stared at him, not sure whether he was talking about being caught out at lying or slipping on the stairs. I almost didn’t even seem to know which story was true anymore; it was funny how I had two separate memories in my head.

“It won’t happen again,” I said flatly.

“That’s right.” Neil nodded at me in approval and kissed me on the side of the head. “How about a smile? Hmm?”

I didn’t smile at him. I thought I owed myself that privilege at least.

“Shall we go eat then?” Neil didn’t seem to care whether I smiled for him or not, stepping to one side and letting me leave first. “I think your mom’s making pot roast.”

We walked down the hallway together and into the kitchen, where my mom was heaping peas and carrots onto everybody’s plates. She was ordering poor Max around, getting her to fetch gravy and carry plates and whip the potatoes.

Billy was standing by the back door, leaning coolly against the open doorframe and blowing billows of silver smoke out into the dark yard.

“Diana,” he said, waving me over when he saw me. “Come look at this.”

I went over to him, slipping myself between him and the doorframe. Billy’s hand reached around and brushed up against my waist. It was meant to be a kind gesture, an apology even. but it hurt and I ended up shrinking away from him.

“What are you looking at?”

Billy eyed me suspiciously for a second, his jaw twitching. I half expected him to be offended and think it was because of our argument earlier, but he didn’t say anything.

Billy pinched his cigarette between his thumb and forefinger and pointed out at the yard. “Look at that. You ever see the moon look like that before?”

I looked to where he was pointing and uttered a small gasp of surprise, making Billy smile against his cigarette. The moon was shining a dull, burnt amber colour and was hideously and grotesquely bloated, looking like a cheap prop in a science-fiction movie.

“It looks like a pumpkin,” I said, unoriginally. “Why does it look like that?”

“It’s a blood moon.” Billy dragged on his cigarette until the end glowed red and he smirked slyly. “You know that means the world’s gonna end, right?”

“That’s not true,” my sister jostled her way between us to get a look. “Is it?”

“Of course it isn’t!” My mom exclaimed, overhearing. “Max, I thought you were helping me? The world isn’t going to end for hundreds and hundreds of years at least.”

“Try thousands,” Neil said, sitting down.

“Try billions,” Billy said by my ear.

I tried to hide my smile, looking out at the moon instead. It leered down at us, hovering so close I felt like I could reach out and touch it if I wanted to.

Billy was still staring at me, puffing on his cigarette and tapping hot ash onto the outside steps.

“What?” I said, sneaking a self-conscious glance up at him. “You’re not supposed to be talking to me. I’m still mad at you.”

“Yeah?” Billy dropped his cigarette onto the steps and dashed it beneath his boot. He leaned one arm up on the door-frame and smirked at me through his long lashes. “How’s that working out for you?”

I opened my mouth and then closed it again, almost swooning for him. Then I noticed the bruise on his jaw and I remembered why I was so mad at him in the first place. “You’re still a jackass,” I said obstinately, bumping his shoulder with mine as I turned and went back inside. “It’s freezing out here.”

I sat down at the table, seating myself between my sister and Neil. For some reason, Billy was still smirking as he came back inside, smiling to himself like he couldn’t speak his thoughts aloud. He was still smiling as he grabbed a beer from the fridge, cracked it open and sat down in the seat opposite me.

He swilled cockily from the can, never taking his eyes off me.

My mom noticed and cleared her throat. “School tomorrow,” she said breezily, tucking into her meal. “Can you believe you’ll all be starting your second week?”

“I can’t believe we have to do it all over again.” My sister stabbed moodily at her potatoes, plagued by the gloomy thought. “This week’s been such a drag.”

“We all have to do things we don’t like sometimes,” Neil said, his mouth full. “Susan, you’ve outdone yourself. This is delicious.”

My mom blushed pink like an idiot at the compliment.

For a minute, I just stared at her, wondering how she could swoon and simper over this man every time he gave her just a little bit of attention.

He seemed to have something about him that made her love him anyway, despite everything; something that sucked her in and kept her hostage.

The Hargrove men were like that, I thought.

“I think I’ll have one of those beers,” I said then, looking at Billy who seemed surprised that I was talking to him. “You got one spare?”

Billy nodded like it wasn’t a big deal, like it wasn’t my way of responding to his little peace offering, for now at least. “Sure,” he said.

He got up and sauntered over to the fridge, snapping a cold can out of the pack and bringing it over to me, pressing it into my open hand. The can was wet and icy against my skin. The smell reminded me of California.

“Are you sure you should be drinking that?” Neil waited until Billy had sat down again and then put his mouth by my ear. “With what you’ve just taken?”

Annoyingly, he was probably right about that. I remembered what they’d said in science class about the dangers of drinking on medication, what it could do to you, how it could mess all your insides up, make your head feel like mush.

I think it was stubbornness that made me keep sipping.

Neil stared at me and then snatched the can out of my hands, holding it up above his head where I couldn’t reach it. “I think you’ve had enough.”

“What the hell?” I scowled at him, wiping my mouth with the back of my hand where the beer had spilt. “Why do you care?”

I felt a lot braver when it wasn’t just the two of us.

“What’s going on?” My mom looked up, frowning, with her fork halfway to her mouth. “Diana? Neil?”

“Diana’s not supposed to be drinking,” Neil said, still looking at me. “And she knows it. She’s just being stupid.”

“Why-” my mom blanched. “Why isn’t she supposed to be drinking?”

“It’s nothing like what you think,” I jumped in quickly, rolling my eyes at Neil’s lawless ability to cause a panic. “I just took some aspirin tonight. That’s it.”

“But why?” Max asked.

I surprised myself with how easily the lie came out of my mouth, maybe because I half-wanted to believe it myself. “I fell down the stairs.”

“At the backdoor?” My sister’s eyebrows went up like she didn’t believe me. “You fell down the stairs?”

“It’s been raining,” I said, surprising myself once again with how easy it was to think of an answer. “The steps were wet. I slipped.”

“When the hell was this?” The question came from Billy this time, not smiling anymore. “Why didn’t you tell me?”

"Probably because you weren’t there,” Neil said and I thought I saw Billy flinch. “Besides, you’re fine, aren’t you Diana?”

“Yes.” I churned my answer out like I was supposed to. “I’m fine.”

It didn’t surprise me how easily my mother seemed to accept that story; it was a good lie. It wasn’t completely outrageous to believe that I’d slipped on the steps at the back of the house and hurt myself a little. It had been raining, the steps were wet. It wasn’t difficult for anyone to accept it as gospel if they were desperate enough to believe it already.

“Walking into doors, falling down steps…” Billy scoffed across the table, ignoring the look I was giving him, begging him to keep his mouth shut. “I guess you’ve got pretty clumsy lately, right Diana?”

“I never said I walked into a door,” I said, but his point had already been made.

Billy kept his eyes on me for the rest of the meal after that, and when dinner was over and Max and I stood up to help my mother clear the dinner things away, Billy didn’t go straight to his room like he usually did.

He hung back, smoking at the table and drinking can after can of beer until I wasn’t sure how he was still able to stand.

As soon as I’d put that last plate away in the cabinet, Billy was stalking after me down the hallway, following me to my room and crashing the door shut with an impatient slam.

“Let me guess,” he said when I turned around and he saw the look I gave him. “You don’t want to talk anymore? You’re sick of the sight of me.”

“I don’t want to talk about this morning,” I said, turning my back on him and taking my hairbrush from my dresser.

Billy came up behind me and took the brush from my hand, making me look at him. “Neither do I. I want to talk about tonight.”

I feigned clueless. “What about it?”

“Don’t play dumb with me, Diana,” Billy pushed. “That bullshit story you gave about falling down the stairs? Did you really think I was going to believe that?”

“You’ve got such a track record for believing what I say, haven’t you?”

“Did you hear what I just said?” Billy tried to cup my face in his hands but I pushed him away again. “Cut the crap and tell me the truth.”

I opened my mouth, but I didn’t say anything.

“He hurt you again, didn’t he?” It sounded worse when he said it out loud. “When I was outside? Did he hit you?”

“It’s nothing I can’t handle,” I said, my voice coming out thick. “It wasn’t that bad. It was over so quick I don’t even really remember it.”

“Bad enough for you to need painkillers.” This time Billy caught my chin and I let him take it, knocking it up gently to look at him. “Bad enough that you didn’t say anything. Bad enough that you were lying for him.”

My eyes had started to sting, threatening tears. I knew that if I spoke, that would be the end of it. I’d crumble and cry out what I’d been holding in all night.

“Well?” Billy chucked my chin up some more. “Is that what happened?”

“He hit me,” I confessed, at last, dragging my eyes down. “So what? It’s no different from any other time before. I just didn’t want to tell you.”

“Can I see?” Billy’s hands tugged knowingly at the hem of my sweater, giving me time to stop him if I wanted to. “Diana? Will you let me see?”

I faltered, but raised my arms up above my head and let him peel the sweater off of me, dropping it on the carpet by our feet.

My arms went back down again, crossing self-consciously over my bruised torso until Billy pushed them apart.

“Was this…” Billy’s fingers traced bruises, scoring small gasps of protestation from me. He sounded all choked up with disgust. “Was this done with a belt?”

“I can’t remember,” I said, even though I could, and that was one of the reasons why I bent my head and began to cry. “Shit, I’m sorry.”

“Why are you crying?” Billy nuzzled his head under mine, trying to kiss my mouth with his. “Diana, talk to me. I need you to talk to me, okay?”

He took me by the shoulder and we both sat down on the bed, my face buried into his side. I was getting tears and snot all over his shirt and my face was damp and hot, clumps of my hair sticking unattractively to my wet cheeks.

“I didn’t screw him,” I stammered out.

Billy stiffened up against me. “What are you talking about?”

“Steve.” I raised a tear-stained face to look at him. “I didn’t screw him. And I wouldn’t have let him either, even if he’d wanted to.”

Billy actually laughed at that, kissing the top of my head. “You’re a funny kid, Diana,” he said against my hair. “I can’t believe you’re still thinking about that.”

“I want you to know though,” I said, still crying. “I want you to believe me.”

“I do believe you,” Billy repeated it for good measure. “You hear me?”

“And I only lied about falling down the stairs…” I tried to think of the right words for what I was feeling. “Because- because he told me to. And he was so nice to me afterwards and it was like he was actually sorry; And he was being so kind to me and I didn’t know what to do. I kept thinking that if he was kissing me then he wasn’t going to hit me and I just wanted him to keep on doing it.”

Billy listened, taking it all in, his chin resting on the top of my head.

“From now on,” he said, after some time. “You tell me everything. We tell each other everything. Even if I’m mad at you or you’re mad at me, it doesn’t matter. If he hurts you, I want to know about it.”

“Even when we’re not friends?” I asked against his shirt.

“We’re always friends,” Billy promised. “Even if we don’t like each other, we’ll always be friends. And I want you to know that I’d never hurt you. Not ever.”

“I know that already,” I said, looking up, and my eyes grew serious. “You know I’d never have forgiven you if you’d killed him, right?”

“I know that too,” Billy said and he pushed at my shoulders, hovering over me on the bed with his hands on either side of my face. “And from now on, no more secrets, okay? We don’t keep anything back.”

I just nodded, letting him kiss me, his breathing ragged and desperate in my ear. I knew that after his hands had wandered where they needed to go and his mouth had kissed what it could of my face, his fingers would go to mouth, tugging at my bottom lip. “Where were you last night then?” he asked.

I’d had a feeling the question was coming; it had felt inevitable.

I gave him a helpless, apologetic look as my answer. “Billy-”

He grunted, shoving himself back onto his heels. “I thought we said no more secrets. Isn’t that what we agreed? I went to the Byers last night and I beat the shit out of Harrington. I still think maybe he deserved it. Now, why can’t you just tell me what you were doing there last night too?”

“Because I can’t!” I raised myself up onto my elbows, wishing he could see how much I wanted to tell him, but couldn’t. “It’s not that simple- I can’t tell you.”

“What is it though?” Billy stared down at me, breathing hard. “What is it that’s so bad, you feel like you can’t tell me? Are you in some kind of trouble?”

“No,” I said quickly. “Nothing like that.”

“Then tell me.”

“I can’t,” I tried again, getting desperate. “Billy, I’m sorry.”

His face was all twisted up with confusion, scowling through his lashes at me as if he just wanted to take me and shake me up. Billy put his hands on either side of my head and bent back over me, his lips fluttering to my lips and then to my ear and then to my neck. “Come on, Diana,” he pleaded.

“No-” I was insistent- sorry but insistent. “I can’t.”

“You can,” he pushed, his fingers knotting impatiently in my hair. He was a little rougher with me now, not forceful, but definitely more aggressive with his pleading. “Don’t even think about it. Just do it.”

“I’ve told you-” I pushed up against him, halting him. “I can’t.”

“What’s going on in here?” My mother’s voice by the door made us both freeze up and whip around. She was standing there in the doorway with a bottle of aspirin and an icepack wrapped in a tea cloth. She looked at my sweater on the floor and she looked at Billy, lying there between my legs, and she looked at my mouth, swollen from kissing and the fresh tear-tracks on my cheeks.

“What can’t you do, Diana?” She asked me.

“It doesn’t matter.” I shoved Billy up off of me and hurriedly pulled on my sweater, covering up the bruises for good. “Billy was just leaving.”

“Like hell I was,” he started to say, but he stopped himself, turning arrogantly to my mother with a vexatious swagger. “Don’t you ever knock, Susan? You might end up seeing something you didn’t want to see.”

“Maybe so,” my mother answered back. “But I think I’ve seen what I needed to see.”

Billy looked at her like he hated her. “You see what you want to see,” he said.

My mother’s cheeks began to burn. “I’ve tried to hold my tongue,” she started, growing pinker. “God knows that I’ve tried not to say anything. But after tonight, after today, after I can see how miserable you make her, I’m telling you this; You stay away from my daughter. You go mess around and play with the heart of some other girl, some girl that knows a bit more about the world than my Diana does.” My mom stepped curtly to one side, showing him the door. “I’m not going to stand here and let you use her and parade her around anymore.”

“Mom.” I stared at her, shocked that she’d come out and said what she was thinking, just like that. “I’ve told you- it’s not what you think.”

“Diana, I’m your mother.” Her voice was razor-sharp, shocking me. “And for once in your life, you’re going to take my advice and end whatever fiasco this relationship has turned out to be. It’s caused you nothing but trouble, just like I said it would at the very beginning. I don’t want you seeing him anymore.”

“Yeah, well.” Billy had snapped on his defence face, staring at the two us with lazy, hooded, couldn’t-care-less eyes. He pulled out his Marlboro’s and lit up a cigarette, shoving it between his lips. “Plenty of bitches in the sea.”

My mom slapped him, her bracelets jangling, his head snapping sharply to the left with the force of the hit. Billy laughed like it hadn’t hurt him.

“Mom-” I gasped out, not believing what I was seeing, my hand over my mouth. “Stop it! Billy, tell her you didn’t mean that-”

“I’ll tell you what.” Billy rubbed tentatively at his jaw, wincing a little as if the sting was only just kicking in. “Why don’t you give Steve Harrington a call, Diana? Get him to come do whatever he was doing with you last night that you just can’t bring yourself to tell me. Maybe you’ll feel a lot better afterwards.”

There was no use arguing with him when he was like this. It seemed for a minute, like everything had been fixed and put back together again. And in the space of a few minutes, it had all come crumbling back down.

Chapter Text

On Monday morning, Mister Boushebel wanted to know why I hadn’t done any of my reading over the weekend. We were supposed to have finished the final chapters of The Scarlet Letter and hand in our notes on the characterisation of Hester Prynne. When Mister Bouschebel went around the class and asked for everybody’s opinions on the ending, I saw him look down at my empty notebook and his eyes went questioningly to my face.

I waited for him to say something, half-expecting him to call on me in front of everyone and have me explain why I didn’t have any of my notes with me. But then Nancy made a point of shifting her table closer to mine and sliding her own notes onto my desk for me to read. And it was enough for Mister Bouschebel to keep walking and turn his attention back to the board.

“It’s the death of Hester’s lover,” Bouschebel was saying. “That finally allows her to escape the small-minded town she lives in. She’s finally free to live her own life and escape judgement and persecution for simply being in love with him.” The teacher paused, staring the class down as if considering something. “But in the end, Hester returns back to her town anyway; the same town that shamed her for her sexuality. Why does she do this? Is it because she feels as if the outcast life is now a part of her? Or is it because it’s the only place that reminds her of being with her lover?”

Nobody in the class said anything.

Most lessons seemed to go that way, I’d noticed. The teacher would make an interesting point, leave it hanging there for discussion and then answer his own question anyway.

It wasn’t that I didn’t have anything to say on it, just that I didn’t like talking in front of the class. You were pretty much made a social pariah if you willingly answered a class question; or you were, according to Carol and Tina at least.

The rest of the lesson dragged slowly after that, and I began to become convinced that it was true what they said, about the clock never moving when you looked at it for too long. It was like the whole thing froze up and turned to stone until you looked away again.

When the bell finally rang and the students began to gather their things and pile out into the hallway for lunch, Mister Bouschebel clicked his pen at me and motioned me over to his desk.

I’d been expecting it.

“I won’t keep you too long,” he said, leaning back into his desk chair and studying me over the steeple of his hands. “You didn’t do any of the classwork I set you this weekend. Is there a specific reason for that or did you just not feel like doing it?”

Mister Bouschebel was a tall, robust-looking man with a head of thick black curls and large brown hands that were always stained with ink or pencil graphite. The knitted sweaters he wore with his khaki pants made him look like exactly what he was- an English teacher- but there was a rumour going around school that Mister Bouschebel played the bass guitar and drove a Harley Davidson on the weekends.

I didn’t know if any of that was true or not though.

“I’m sorry,” I said flatly, not sure what my lie was. “I don’t know what to tell you.”

“Just tell me the truth,” Mister Bouschebel said with a shrug. “Was there something you didn’t understand about the assignment? I know you had a little more catching up to do, being a new student, but you all got the same amount of reading. Did you even finish the book?”

“I got as far as her release from prison,” I confessed.

Mister Bouschebel smiled at me. “And now that Miss Wheeler was kind enough to share her notes with you, Diana, what did you think of the ending?”

“I think it was terrible,” I said honestly, earning a small laugh from my teacher, who then tried his best to hide it. “I think it’s stupid that she’d go anywhere near that place after the way those people treated her. If I was her, I’d have run away with Arthur first chance I got.”

“Everybody always says that,” Bouschebel said, nodding in agreement. “But I think it’s very hard to tell how anyone would react unless they’re in the same situation themselves. You’ll often find that saying something is very different from actually doing something, even if you really want to.”

“Like saying I’d do the reading at home,” I said, even though I understood perfectly what he meant. “I had a busy weekend. Things got a little out of hand and honestly, reading was not high up on my agenda.”

I was glad that he didn’t ask me what I was doing that took up so much of my time. It would have been difficult to tell him that I didn’t do my reading because I was helping fight an interdimensional monster that had possessed my sister’s best friend and hatched a plan to end the entire world.

Mister Bouschebel looked over at the door where Nancy and Heather were waiting for me in the hallway. When he looked back at me, his eyes were a little more forgiving than they’d been when we’d first started the conversation.

“I’ll let it slide,” he granted me, rolling his eyes. “This time; because you’re new and because I don’t want to make an enemy of you. You should try and talk more in class, Diana. I think you’ve got a smart head on your shoulders if you try.”

“Thank you,” I said, not really sure how to take that compliment. “Can I go now, sir? My friends are waiting for me.”

“Yes, you can go.” Mister Bouschebel was already opening his desk drawer and pulling out a sandwich carton and a rosy red apple. “Please, think about what I said. You can do better than that.”

I nodded, smiling at him before hurrying out of the classroom and joining my two friends in the hallway. Heather was snapping the purple hair tie on her wrist, which matched her sweater as usual. “God, I thought he’d never let you leave.”

“He wasn’t that bad really,” I said, falling into step beside them.

“Did he give you detention?” Nancy asked me, linking my arm with hers and looking worried. “Sometimes these teachers are impossible.”

“He said he’d let it slide ‘cause I was new,” I said. “I don’t know, I guess he’d probably give me detention if I did it again.”

Actually, he probably wouldn’t. Mister Boushebel seemed to be the only teacher in Hawkins High who wasn’t afraid to show a little humanity. I thought he must have been the only teacher I knew who actually cared about the subject he taught.

The three of us came out into the parking lot for lunch, eyes on our usual spot beneath the trees. The sky was grey and overcast, a dreary November day that had a biting chill in the air.

Nancy brushed dead leaves off the picnic bench and swung both legs over.

“So me and Steve broke up,” she said.

I joined her at the table. “So did me and Billy.”

Nancy raised her eyebrows at me. I kept waiting for her to bring up what had happened the night before, but she didn’t seem to want to say anything, not in front of Heather at least.

“Jesus,” Heather said, sitting down and pulling out sandwiches from her bag. “Both of you split with your boyfriends the same weekend? That’s got to be the moon, right?”

“I don’t think it’s so much the moon,” I said, taking the sandwich she offered me. “And more that men are complete and utter assholes most of the time.”

Nancy sniggered at my comment.

Heather studied me coolly over her sandwich and took a bite.

“What did he do?”

“He…” I half-smiled, trailing off uncertainly, deciding the whole thing was too complicated to explain in full. “He thought I was screwing Steve. I told him I wasn’t and he didn’t believe me.”

“You and Steve?” Heather’s head whipped from me to Nancy like she was watching a game of tennis. “Wait, Nance, is that why you and Steve broke up?”

“Steve and I broke up because I slept with Jonathan,” Nancy said bluntly. “I don’t think that actually has anything to do with it.”

Heather blinked slowly, taking it all in.

“You slept with Jonathan?” She turned back to me. “You may or may not have slept with Steve…And you both broke up over the same weekend?”

“I didn’t actually sleep with Steve,” I cut in.

“Girls, you need to call me on the phone more,” Heather sighed, and then she jumped suddenly as if an idea had just come to her and grabbed my arm. “Wait, is that why your dad called me? Were you really with Steve this entire weekend?”

“I was with Steve,” I said. “But it wasn’t like that. My dad didn’t believe my cover story anyway.”

“Was he mad?” Nancy asked me.

“No,” I lied, taking a large bite out of my sandwich and talking with my mouth full. “Not really.”

“Well, well, well…” Carol and Nicole sauntered their way over to our table with their fingers in the belt-loops of their jeans. “If it isn’t the three most talked about sluts in school.”

“Kiss my ass, Carol,” Heather said snarkily, sticking a cigarette between her lips and lighting it. “You’ve been screwing Tommy since seventh grade.”

Carol laughed and shook out her auburn curls. “Whatever. At least I didn’t screw my dad’s co-worker on all fours at an office party.”

“That’s disgusting,” Nicole commented shallowly.

“Do you believe everything you hear, Carol?” Nancy cut in, not managing the same amount of poison in her voice as Heather did. “You really shouldn’t.”

“Oh, please,” Carol snickered and rolled her eyes. “You don’t get smoke without a fire, Nancy. You of all people should know that.”

“Yeah…” Nicole smiled a slow, capricious smile, twirling her hair. “What was that movie you were in last year?… All The Right Moves?”

I didn’t know what they were talking about, but Nancy was starting to turn bright red. I thought it was anger more than humiliation though. They were impossible to beat down when you had nothing to use against them.

“And you, Diana?” Carol turned to me, spitting venom. “I thought you were just some ditsy little airhead who got fucked once by some stoner in California…”

“…I can’t believe you’d actually try anything like that with your own brother,” Nicole cut in, miming being sick. “This is Indiana, Diana. This isn’t Kentucky.”

Carol laughed at the joke.

“I guess beneath that cutesy little plaid skirt of yours, you’re no less likely to get down on your knees than Heather is.”

“He’s not my brother,” I said fiercely, glancing sidewards at Heather who was staring down at the table. “Don’t you have anything better to do?”

“Well, we just thought you’d like to know that your name’s up on the bathroom stall,” Carol smiled. “Along with Nancy the Slut Wheeler, and Heather, of course, the biggest slut of them all.”

Heather made a small noise and burst into tears. Her reaction was so jarring from her usually cool and confident demeanour, that for a second, I just stared at her, shocked by what I was seeing.

“Who knew the slut had feelings?” Carol laughed and she pulled on Nicole’s arm. “I’m bored. Let’s go get something to eat.”

Heather had started to sob quietly into her hands, her whole body shaking, her shoulders going up and down. I’d never seen her like this before.

Heather Holloway wasn’t the sort of girl you’d think would cry over anything, least of all two petty high school bullies with nothing better to do.

“Ignore them,” Nancy said kindly, once they’d gone, coming up behind Heather and putting her arm around her. “Don’t listen to a word that comes out their mouths, okay? It’s just bullshit.”

“They’re so mean,” Heather sniffed, wiping her nose crudely with the back of her hand. “Why are they so mean?”

“Because they can be,” I said.

“They’re losers,” Nancy assured her, leaning her head onto Heather’s shoulder. “They get off on making other people feel like shit. It’s what they do.”

“I just wish…” Heather raised her head slowly and sniffled, showing us her bright eyes and hot, flushed cheeks. “I wish they could feel what I feel, you know? Even if it was for ten minutes. Just to see how much it hurts.”

Heather caught me staring and started to laugh, covering her face in embarrassment. “I guess that’s pretty hard to understand, right Diana?”

“No,” I said, grabbing her hand. “I don’t think it’s hard at all. I know exactly how you feel.”

Heather stared at me, blinking away tears. “You do?”

“Diana?” Steve Harrington had approached our table while we’d been talking, coming to a stop near my elbow. “Can I talk to you for a second?”

He was wearing a black trucker jacket and blue jeans, toeing the dirt with his white sneakers which were already scuffed.

“Now?” I asked.

That was when Steve noticed that Heather was crying. “Shit, are you okay?”

“I’m fine.” Heather rubbed at her eyes with the sleeve of her sweater and exhaled slowly. “You go talk to him, Diana. I’m alright, really.”

I wasn’t so sure about that.

Even when I agreed to go stand by Steve’s car and talk to him, I kept an eye on her over his shoulder all the same. I was trying not to make a point of looking too much at Steve anyway. The bruising on his face almost made me queasy too look at; purple and black and raw, throbbing red all along his jawline and the side of his head.

There were cuts on his eyebrows and on his lower lip which had started to scab over.

I couldn’t look him in the eye.

Steve hopped up onto the trunk of his car and patted the space next to him, motioning for me to join him. I put a boot up on the bumper and pushed myself up, my jeans sliding over the dark red paint. I felt his elbow on my arm, touching me through my sleeve. I don’t know why I noticed it so much.

“Before you say anything…” I didn’t look at him. “I’m sorry for what happened to your face. I guess I should have seen that coming since day one.”

“It’s not your fault,” Steve shrugged. “Besides, people think I’m pretty badass for getting in a fight with Billy-fucking-Hargrove. I didn’t tell ‘em that I lost the fight but who knows? Maybe I’ll still get popularity points for trying, huh?”

He was rambling again, fidgeting with his zipper and pushing his hair back. He was tapping his heels on the bumper of the car as well, playing a nervous tune.

“But that’s not what I wanted to talk to you about,” Steve went on, still tapping. “Afterwards, when El closed the Gate and you got that thing out of Will, everybody came back to the Byers’ house and you didn’t.”

“I had to get home,” I said. “My mom was worried. She worries a lot.”

“I was kinda bummed you weren’t there,” Steve said anyway. “I waited for you.”

“Oh.” I stared at the dirt on the ground, my words catching in my throat. I wasn’t sure what to say to that; talking to people wasn’t exactly my forte and I still didn’t entirely understand why Steve and I seemed to have clicked so well.

“I heard you broke up with Nancy,” I said. “I’m sorry.”

“You’re always apologising for other people,” Steve pointed out, squinting out across the parking lot. “Me and Nance were never gonna last anyway. I guess I should have seen that coming too.”

“Billy and I broke up as well,” I said, not sure whether I actually wanted him to know or not. “It was such a mess. My mom didn’t approve of it and my step-dad definitely didn’t approve of it, and then we had this big fight because of what happened to you…”

I didn’t tell him about the cheating accusations.

That would have been too mortifying to say out loud.

“Are you free Wednesday night?” Steve blurted out. “If you’re not doing anything, I thought we could catch that movie you promised me.”

I hadn’t thought he’d actually been serious when we made that deal at the Byers house, shaking our hands over the trashcans in the dark with just the flashlights to see by. Maybe I had meant it at the time, but I thought it was just one of those things people said to make themselves feel better when they thought they were going to die.

Steve saw the look on my face and groaned. “You don’t want to,” he said.

“No…” I jumped in quickly, putting my hand on his arm. “Steve, the world was about to end. I didn’t think you were actually being serious. But we can go,” I said, aware that I wasn’t making it any better. “I’m free Wednesday night.”

“Don’t say you’ll go just ‘cause you feel sorry for me.” Steve looked down at my hand on his arm. “I’ll just take my mom or something, I don’t care.”

He was joking with me, waiting for me to smile.

I laughed loudly and glanced quickly over his shoulder at Heather. What I saw next made my smile fall flat as quickly as it had come. “I forgot,” I said, taking my hand off his arm. “I promised my mom I’d help her with something.”

Steve frowned and turned over his shoulder to see what I was seeing.

Billy was leaning against the picnic bench with one black biker boot up on the seat, smirking down at Heather who was talking quickly to him, waving the hand she was holding her cigarette with and dragging on it occasionally.

He was wearing a plain white shirt underneath his leather jacket and he was laughing at whatever it was Heather was supposed to be saying.

He’d had gym that morning, I noticed, because the front of his hair was still slightly damp, springing up around his forehead like a noodle. He looked like Jason Patric or some kind of rockstar.

“Who does he think is?” Steve scoffed and I knew he was rolling his eyes. “Danny Zuko or something? One of the T-Birds?”

“I have to go,” I said, hopping down off the trunk of the car. “Steve, I’m sorry but I’ll have to take a rain check on that movie. I just- I promised my mom.”

For a millisecond, I saw his face fall.

“You know what?” Steve grinned at me and snapped his fingers, brightening like I’d never seen it. “I just remembered too, I promised to take Dustin for a tux on Wednesday night. The little shit’s got me doing everything for him or he’ says he’ll expose my hair care routine to the world or something.”

Steve laughed, waiting for me to laugh too, which I did to be polite.

I think he could tell I didn’t believe him. But then, he didn’t believe me either.

“I’m sorry,” I said, starting to back away from the car. “Another time, okay?”

I didn’t wait for Steve to give me his answer, my cheeks already burning with shame at turning him down for the reason I’d turned him down.

As I got closer to the lunch table, Billy glanced up and raised an eyebrow at me, acting surprised like he hadn’t been able to see me sitting across the lot with Steve.

“Diana!” Heather was suddenly her exuberant self again, practically bursting with enthusiasm. “Billy just asked me out on Wednesday night. You don’t mind do you?”

I faltered at her words, matching Billy’s blank, flat look. “Don’t be silly. Why would I mind?”

“I can say no,” Heather pressed, looking between us both. “If it’s too early or you think it might be weird-”

“It was never that kind of a thing,” I said thickly, still looking at Billy. He hadn’t spoken or looked away from me either yet. “Right, Billy?”

All of a sudden, Heather wasn’t looking so sure. “I don’t think it’s a good idea,” she regretted. “I’d feel like I was getting caught up in the middle of something that I don’t really feel right to get involved in.”

Suddenly, Billy turned to her, all smiles again. It was like he’d snapped back into character and his eyes flashed at her flirtatiously. “Why not? It’s harmless. We’re just having some fun, aren’t we?”

“But what about, Diana?” Heather insisted.

Billy plucked the glowing cigarette from between her thin fingers and brought it up quickly to his mouth, dragging on it slowly so that I could see exactly what he was doing.

“What about her?” He asked and he glanced up at me quickly, making sure that I’d heard him and pleased to see that I’d flinched, just like someone had threatened to swing a fist in my direction.

—-

After school, we were surprised to see that Neil’s car was parked up on the driveway. He usually wasn’t home until five at least, and by that time my mom always had dinner on the table and the house tidied and organised from whatever chaos had been caused during the morning school rush.

After what had happened at lunch, Billy and I were officially no longer on speaking terms. I’d been giving him the cold shoulder since he’d asked Heather out on Wednesday night, more hurt than I cared to admit to even myself. Billy seemed like he was as equally happy to ignore me and since then, Max had become our mediator; the one person we talked to when we had something to say and didn’t want to say it to each other.

“My dad’s home,” Billy said, killing the engine with a frown. “I wonder what he wants.”

If we’d been on friendlier terms, I’d have asked him whether he thought anything serious had happened. I couldn’t help but think about my dad back in California, whether he’d got sick or been in some kind of accident.

“Do you think everything’s okay?” Max asked for me, reading my mind and leaning forward from the backseat to speak into Billy’s ear. “I mean, maybe someone got sick.”

“Nobody got sick.” Billy kicked open his door and climbed out of the car. I think he meant to sound reassuring, but his bad mood had turned his voice sour. “Let’s see, shall we?”

The three of us slowly ascended the steps to the backdoor, our boots clattering in unison. Maybe we approached the house a little more cautious today, not quite sure what we were expecting to find. It had been raining again and I could smell the damp wood on the bannister, slightly rotted from the bad weather of previous years. Neil said he’d repaint the steps once summer came around and make them clean and white again.

He said everything about the house would look better in the summertime.

“Music,” Max said, when we reached the door, turning behind her to look at me hanging back nervously on the steps. “Diana, it’s your song, remember?”

I listened to the song playing behind the door. It was California Dreamin’, an old song from the sixties that my mother had been listening to as far back as I could remember. It was folky and wistful and romantic.

It was a cruel joke if ever there was one.

“I can’t remember it,” I said, faking naiveté. “You’ve got a better memory than I have, Max.”

Billy’s hand went to the door handle, the tendons in his wrists tautening as he gripped it and turned it. A few drops of rainwater had trickled down from the guttering that ran alongside the roof of the house, dripping down onto his shoulders and splashing onto the collar of his jacket.

“Sounds like a shitty Disney movie,” he said curtly before going in, Max and I at his heels, following him into the kitchen. My mother and Neil were standing in front of the windows where the sunlight was coming in through the white gauzy drapes. They were standing close together, holding hands like they were doing some kind of ballroom dance and Neil was whirling her around.

My mother’s cheeks were pink and flushed and she was laughing as he spun her. There were two glasses of wine on the counter, and in the corner, the turntable hummed out the familiar sixties tune.

“The hell’s going on?” Billy interrupted.

“We’re celebrating,” Neil said, glancing over at us. He let go of my mother and waltzed his way childishly over to Max, taking her arms and making her dance with him. “We’ve got a lot to celebrate. Life is going to get a lot better.”

“Why? Are you getting divorced or something?” Billy quipped, and everybody pretended not to hear him.

“Neil had a meeting with the bank today,” my mom said giddily, sipping her wine. “They’re talking about raising his pay in a couple of months. We might be able to afford a proper vacation next year, in an actual hotel or something.”

“Are we going back to California?” Max asked, looking up hopefully at Neil. “Is that why you’re playing this song?”

“We haven’t decided yet,” Neil answered. “I think your mother just likes this music.”

“Diana says she doesn’t remember it,” Max said, letting go of Neil’s hands and turning to our mother. “Didn’t you used to play it almost every night when we were kids? Don’t you remember?”

“I remember,” my mom said. “Of course I do.”

“How about a little celebratory dance, Diana?” Neil took me unwillingly by the hand and pulled me into him. The action hurt my side, but I managed to hold back and make a point of not showing it. “You’re the only one not saying anything tonight. Don’t you think it’s good news?”

I didn’t like this version of Neil. “I suppose so.”

“You suppose so?” He laughed a little too cheerfully. “Aren’t you thinking about all the nice things you can try and convince us to buy you?”

I leaned stiffly against his shoulder, his fingers squeezing mine just a little too tightly. “How about a one-way bus ticket to San Diego?”

“Funny,” Neil said.

“Dad used to love this song too,” my sister spoke up, still reminiscing. I wasn’t sure who she was supposed to be talking to anymore. “Diana used to dance on his toes when he came in from work, remember? And he’d pretend like he didn’t know any of the steps so Diana thought she could teach him…”

She trailed off, looking at me, and I knew she wanted me to tell her that I could remember it too and that the memory was not hers to remember alone.

“I don’t remember it,” I said again with a shrug. “It was a long time ago.”

Billy was still standing there by the backdoor, staring at me from over his father’s shoulder. He gave me a smug, knowing, you-can’t-fool-me sort of look and tore his eyes away. He was being annoyingly contemptuous with me today.

“I have to make a phone call,” I said then, acting as if I had only just remembered. I knew that everybody would be listening as I went out into the hallway and picked up the receiver, dialling the number carefully so as not to get it wrong, but also, perhaps to make it just that little bit more suspenseful.

I brought the phone to my ear.

“Steve?” I asked when I heard the familiar click. “It’s me, Diana.”

“Diana?” Steve sounded surprised to hear from me. “What’s going on? Are you at a party or something? Why can I hear music?”

“That’s just my mom,” I said, shrugging the question off impatiently. “Listen, I just remembered something.”

“Oh yeah, what’s that?”

I checked down the hallway to make sure Billy was listening.

He wasn’t looking my way but I’d have bet every dollar I had that he was. “I just remembered that I don’t actually have any plans on Wednesday night,” I spoke up. “So I guess I’m free for you to take me out to that movie now.”

“What a coincidence.” I could practically hear Steve smiling down the phone at me. “I just remembered that I don’t have any plans either.”

“That is a coincidence,” I laughed, a little too loudly. “I’ll see you at school tomorrow?”

“Wait, wait,” Steve stopped me before I hung up the phone. “Are you sure I’m not gonna get myself knocked into another coma over this? What about Billy?”

I shot another look down the hallway. “What about him?” I asked and I put the phone back down on the hook, shaking. I thought it would have made me feel a little better; maybe even feel as triumphant as Billy had looked in the parking lot when he’d said it, but it didn’t.

I felt meaner than Carol or Nicole, saying things simply because I could.

Chapter Text

The black dress with the spaghetti straps and the ruching on the waist had fit me a lot better when I’d last worn it. It was supposed to be my go-to dress, the dress you could wear to just about anything; family reunions, funerals, wedding receptions with the right pair of shoes, job interviews and first dates.

I thought to correct myself that this was not my first date.

The last time I’d worn the dress, I’d been about fifteen or sixteen. Me and my dad had gone to some Christmas party at his friend’s house and they’d drunk beers and played pool and stuck me up on the table to sing White Christmas and Santa Baby. Even back then the dress had been short- this was the 80s after all- but trying it on again now, it seemed to be a hell of a lot shorter and a hell of a lot tighter too.

My mom said that with a pair of black pantyhose and some sensible heels, the dress would look a little more conservative; yet the bare arms and the generous amount of depth there was to the neckline still wasn’t sitting right with me.

Back in California, an outfit like mine wouldn’t have even been an issue. Here in Hawkins, I could tell it would raise a few eyebrows. People in this town just didn’t seem to like showing any skin.

“Put a sweater over it,” Max suggested helpfully from my bedroom doorway when my mom had gone back down the hall to finish her ironing. “I think you look nice. You look really grown up.”

“You honestly think so?” I reached into my closet and pulled out a fuzzy eyelash sweater, baby pink like cotton candy. I put it on. “How about now?”

My sister giggled into her hand. “I still think you look nice.”

“Thanks, kid.” I sat back down at my dresser, teasing my hair up at the roots and putting on my makeup. I don’t know why I was so nervous, but acting out a familiar routine with my hands seemed to help with easing the flutters in my stomach. “God, I feel so sick.”

“Steve’s nice,” Max reminded me, coming into the room and putting her hand on my shoulder. “He’s really nice. He looks after us, just like he promised.”

“He’s an idiot,” I pointed out, my lipstick halfway to my mouth. “But so am I.”

“You really like him, Diana?”

I stopped myself, snapping the lid back onto the tube and reaching into my dresser. “Of course I do.”

“Yeah, but…” My sister got up and followed me out into the hallway, trailing at my heels. “Do you like like him?”

I wasn’t sure what she was supposed to be getting at. I paused momentarily before I reached the kitchen doorway and glanced back at her, still frowning at the question. “Of course I do,” I said again.

Then I turned and made my way into the kitchen, my heels tapping on the linoleum floor. I shook out two aspirin pills that I’d taken from my dresser, into my open palm, bending over the sink with my mouth closed around the faucet.

“Why don’t you just get a glass?” My mom asked me with a laugh.

She was standing by the counter with her ironing board, pressing one of Billy’s shirts for his date with Heather. There’d been a bit of a commotion when he’d tried to do it himself, and my mother had stood back and winced and chewed on her nails until she eventually told him to move over and let her do it for him.

“It’s easier this way,” I said.

Neil looked up from his newspaper. Billy was sitting beside him at the table too, waiting for Susan to finish with his shirt.

“Does it still hurt?” My mom asked.

I strained with the effort of straightening up again. “It’s not so bad.”

“You look like the Easter Bunny,” Billy pointed out, looking me and my unfortunate sweater up and down. “Like a Care Bear.”

I felt certain he was trying to get to me. He was staring at me across the table in just his undershirt, that stupid smug smile on his face that he always wore when he thought he was saying something clever.

“You think it’s too much?” I asked him, letting my hands go to the hem of my sweater. “Max said it worked but you know, I wasn’t so sure.”

Billy didn’t miss a beat. “You look like you’re in My Little Pony,” he said.

I didn’t take my eyes off him, feeling pretty smug about it myself, despite everything. I peeled the sweater off and tossed it down onto the table.

“You’re right,” I agreed with him, waiting for his eyes to flash at me like I knew they would. “This is better.”

Billy opened his mouth and then closed it again. For the first time ever, I swear to God, he was actually speechless.

“No,” Neil said, putting his newspaper down sourly. “That is not better.”

“Neil-“ my mom started, but he put his hand up to silence her and she bit her lip compliantly, looking down like she was supposed to.

“What are you wearing?” Neil asked, getting up and turning to me.

“It’s just a dress,” I said.

“Just a dress? You look like a slut.”

My mom gasped at the insult and turned to Max, telling my sister quickly to go watch TV in the other room. Billy bristled uncomfortably in his chair, fun over.

“So everybody keeps telling me,” I said, backing myself up against the counter.

Neil didn’t look too impressed at my attempted quip. “This ‘Steve’ you’re seeing tonight- he wouldn’t be who you were really with last Saturday is he?”

I half-glanced, involuntarily at Billy behind him. I knew what it looked like.

“No,” I said firmly. “I told you, I was with Heather.”

“And have you ever thought,” Neil pointed out calmly. “That the reason people keep calling you a whore, Diana, is because you might just be one?”

My cheeks flamed.

“I’m not a…” I let myself trail off, hating the way the word sounded on my tongue. It was bitter and capricious, steeped in misogyny.

“Not a what?” Neil asked, lifting an eyebrow. “Go on, Diana. Say it.”

I blanched, fingers tightening on the counter behind me, nails in palms.

“Whore,” I choked out.

“Then why are you dressed like this?” Neil’s eyes dropped and then snapped back up to mine. “You want people to think certain things about you? Think that you’re a certain type of girl who likes to do a certain type of things?”

“Please, Neil.” My mom went over and handed Billy his shirt, using it as an excuse to reach out for her husband’s arm. “Don’t say things like that.”

Neil shrugged her hand away, almost vehement. “Stay out of this, Susan.”

“Dad.” Billy was shrugging into his shirt, snapping the buttons closed. “That’s enough, alright?”

Neil ignored him. “Do you dress like this for all of your lovers, Diana?”

My mom tried again. “They don’t call them lovers in high school, Neil.”

“Well she’s not going out dressed like that,” Neil snapped. “She’s going to take that thing off and wear something a little more appropriate, aren’t you?”

I didn’t say anything, almost close to tears. Neil must have seen but he didn’t care. He was pressing into me with his legs, the counter edge cutting into my back. He reached up and brushed my cheek with his hand. I flinched away.

“Stop it,” Billy said, fiercer this time. “Dad, just stop it, alright? She doesn’t like it.”

Neil whirled to him. “How do you know what she likes?”

The doorbell rang at the front of the house and I took the opportunity to push my way past Neil and go stand at my mother’s side. I wanted her to put her arm around me, but she didn’t.

“That’s Steve,” my sister said, coming back into the room. “Shall I get it?”

“Wait a minute.” Billy grabbed his leather jacket off the back of the kitchen chair and put it around my shoulders. It was too big and it hung off of me, but the gesture behind it was the same.

“Thank you,” I said, glancing up at him.

I looked sidewards at Neil, waiting for him to stop me from leaving, but he just stood there and it scared me that I couldn’t tell what he was thinking.

I looked back at Billy. “Are you…”

“Just go, alright?” Billy let go of my collar and took a step back. “Better not keep pretty boy waiting, huh?”

I looked over my shoulder as the doorbell rang again.

Max was fidgeting on her feet and looking antsy, wanting me to go. Yet I still faltered, hanging back, waiting one more time for Neil to try and stop me from walking out of the door. When he didn’t, I turned and went quickly, but there was a sour taste already forming in my mouth as I chewed over why he had decided to let me go.

The cherry slushy was ice-cold against my teeth, staining my lips and tongue bright red and chilling the hand that nursed it.

The drink holders at the back of the theatre were broken.

We had to put them down on the floor by our feet if we didn’t want to hold them.

Steve had paid for both of our tickets with a ten-dollar bill, buying two slushy’s and a large bag of buttered popcorn which we shared between us. I thought the girl had put too much butter in the popcorn. It was heavy and wet and seemed to seep right through the paper bag.

I ate some of it, but I didn’t have much of an appetite.

“You saving room for dinner or something?” Steve whispered, leaning forward in his seat to look at me. I could see the silver glow of the cinema screen on the front of his head and the black shadow on him at the back.

I realised that dinner after the movies was an expected thing, but for some reason, it hadn’t even occurred to me. I tried to hide the look of surprise on my face. “I guess I am,” I said, smiling.

Steve half-smiled back, wavering and turned back to the screen. He probably thought I hated him or something, that he’d said something that had turned me off. I could practically see the cogs working in his head as he pretended to watch the movie, trying to understand why I’d suddenly turned about as enthusiastic as an execution victim.

To make up for it, I slipped my arm through his arm, moving a little closer to him in my seat and letting my leg brush up against his. “Thank you for bringing me here tonight,” I whispered.

A woman sitting on the row in front of us twisted around and hushed us, clicking her tongue in disapproval. She huffed loudly as if making a point.

“Yeah, no problem,” Steve grinned, ignoring her but keeping his voice low. “I mean, we had a deal, right? It’s just a shame the movie’s so shit.”

The woman hushed us again.

I held back a laugh, hand over my mouth. “Any idea what’s going on?”

“Not a clue,” Steve admitted, breaking into a smile. “You wanna get out of here?”

I looked at him. The light from the cinema screen was bouncing off of his features. If it weren’t for the terrible bruises on his jawline, he’d look almost pretty. Steve was so good-looking it was sort of girlish, especially with those long lashes and pink lips turned into a smile. It was the square jaw and the strong nose that masculinised him again, but Steve Harrington was pretty and there was definitely no denying that.

“Sure,” I said, as loudly as I could. “Let’s get out of here.”

As it turned out, there weren’t that many fast-food places open at this time of night, which had been Steve’s plan for after the movie. He did know of a shitty little gas-station a few miles out of town, so we went to that instead, parking up in front of the newspaper stand and picnicking in the front seat. That meant there were two more cherry slushies to go round, a bag of BQ corn nuts, red liquorice sticks and a sloppy cheeseburger that Steve warmed up in the gas-station microwave for a quarter.

“God.” Steve threw his head back dramatically against the headrest of his seat and groaned loudly, fluttering his empty burger wrapper. “This is the life, huh, Diana? Cherry slushies and cheeseburgers from a gas station. Some date.”

“It’s been fun,” I said, reaching up to wipe at his chin with my finger. “You have ketchup on your face though.”

Steve rolled his eyes. “I bet it’s not what you were hoping for.”

“Who said I was hoping for anything?” I asked him. “We went to see a movie. It turned out it was shit. So we came out here and it’s better, isn’t it? We’re getting to know one another.”

Steve bit down thoughtfully on a liquorice stick, chewing. “You know, this is where my dad takes me whenever he wants to give me the talk. He’ll drive a couple of miles out, distract me with a grilled cheese and just rip into me.”

“What does he talk to you about?” I asked him.

“Mostly how I’m gonna end up living my whole life as a failure and not get into college,” he churned out bluntly. “Then he’ll say how lucky I am that I probably won’t have to worry about that as long as I can come work for him.”

“You sound bitter,” I pointed out tactfully, making him laugh.

“Parents are assholes,” Steve said. “Maybe they were cool people once, you know? Maybe they had something going for ‘em. But it’s like as soon as they become parents they just become the biggest assholes on the planet.”

“It’s probably part of their contract or something,” I joked, chewing on the end of my straw. “Both my dad’s are assholes. My real dad and my step-dad.”

“Is your real dad still in California?”

I nodded, staring out of the windscreen at the newspapers. “I used to live with him, right up until this summer. Then he just dropped me all of a sudden.” I turned to him, snapping an eyebrow up. “He got himself a new girlfriend.”

“Aw, man, let me tell you…” Steve groaned sympathetically into the steering wheel. “My dad has had so many. My parent’s marriage was basically over as soon as I was born.”

“That sucks.”

“That’s life.” Steve glanced at me and gave me a double-take, grinning. “Is there a reason you came out tonight wearing his jacket?”

I looked down at myself like I’d forgotten I was wearing it. Like I could forget anything when I breathed in the smell of him every time I moved my arms.

“Billy let me wear it,” I shrugged, tugging on the lapel with my fingers and working up a lie. “It’s cold out tonight. I didn’t have anything warmer.”

“Right,” Steve said it like he didn’t believe me.

“It’s true,” I protested, although he wasn’t being mean. “You know, Billy’s not all bad, really. I know he can be a real dick, but he’s not always like that- not with me he isn’t. At least, not all the time.”

“You’re really selling it to me,” Steve quipped dryly. “Let me guess, he’s not really the asshole everybody thinks he is? He’s just misunderstood.”

That one hurt. “You don’t know him like I know him.”

“Clearly,” Steve snapped. “You’re very close.”

I blinked at him slowly, trying to understand how we’d gotten here.

One minute we’d been arguing about whether cherry slushies were better than coke slushies. Then we’d been stuffing our faces with cheap convenience store food and laughing at how shit and irresponsible our parents were. Now he was staring at the steering wheel and I was trying to figure out what went wrong.

“Are you in love with him or something?” Steve asked, at last.

My first instinct was to laugh at him. “Are you in love with Nancy?”

“That doesn’t matter,” Steve brushed off. “She’s with Jonathan now.”

“That’s not what I asked you.”

“That’s not what I asked you either.” Steve turned and stared at me, both wrists dangling off the steering wheel. The neon sign from the convenience store strobed over one side of his face from across the lot. “Well, are you?”

I couldn’t give him an answer, because I didn’t know.

When I didn’t say anything, Steve grabbed at my face in both of his hands and kissed me, surprising me with its intensity until I relaxed and started to kiss him back. His mouth tasted like cherries and liquorice, his hair smelled like too much product and was surprisingly stiff between my fingers.

He fell into me.

I let him.

Steve shrugged me out of the jacket, letting it fall onto the floor beneath the glove compartment. His lips were on my neck, his hands grazing the ruching on my dress, his breath hot in my ear. “God, you’re beautiful.”

“Thanks,” I kissed him back, firmer, breathing hard. “So are you.”

“That’s new,” Steve grunted, leaning over the seat to roll on top of me, corn nuts spilling everywhere. “Nobody’s ever said that before.”

I laughed into his shoulder, letting him kiss me, staring up at the red neon sign flashing from outside the window. The bulbs were going out for sure, I thought to myself. In my ear, Steve’s breathing was getting faster and more urgent. My own breathing was so fast, I was beginning to feel dizzy like I was intoxicated.

Steve slipped his hand up beneath my dress.

“Don’t,” I said and I shoved him back.

We stared at each other, now in our respective seats, catching our breath.

“I’m sorry,” Steve said it first, frowning and brushing corn nuts off his seat. “I shouldn’t have done that. That’s not why I brought you here tonight.”

My skirt had ridden up. I pulled it back down. “Why did you?”

“Because I like you,” he said, and he sounded like he meant it. “I just wanted to get to know you. Take you out to a movie or something.”

“You don’t think I’m a whore?” I burst out, wincing at my own words.

Even I didn’t know where that had come from.

Steve was staring at me like I was crazy.

Maybe I was crazy. I definitely felt like it.

“Are you kidding me?” Steve blinked, rocking back in his seat, looking startled. “Why- why would you even think that?”

“I don’t know.” I bent over in the seat and pulled my jacket hurriedly back on, hugging it around me. I could smell Billy’s cologne faintly on the collar. “Because I dress like this. Because I’ve got all those things written about me on the bathroom stall. Because everybody else seems to think so.”

“Wait, who does?” Steve didn’t understand. “Who says that?”

“People at school…” I wanted to tell him about Neil, but I didn’t.

“Screw the people at school,” Steve snapped. “They’re all assholes.”

“People are just so mean,” I pondered. “I never realised it until recently. I didn’t even know people could really be like that, you know? I never got picked on when I was a kid. My dad was always a bum but he loved me. I guess I never really believed it. And now people are just cruel and it’s all I see all the time, just people making other people miserable. Grinding them down. Making them feel like shit just because they can. Just because they can get away with it.”

“I don’t believe in that,” Steve said kindly. “People never really get away with it. You know what Nancy’s doing? She’s exposing that Lab; everything they did to that kid, to Barb, to Bob. All of it. She’s not letting them get away with it.”

I hadn’t even known that. “But what about the real people? People who just kick you because they want to. Because they don’t even have a reason for it.”

“They’re just high-school bullies,” Steve shrugged. “They all just fade away.”

I thought that was very naive of him.

High school bullies didn’t just fade away and disappear like they’d never existed. They employed you. They scanned your groceries for you at the store. They worked for your government. In your hospitals. In your banks. They washed your windows. Filled your car up with gas. They married you.

“I guess so,” I said, but I didn’t believe it. “Steve, I’m sorry for kissing you anyway. I think we both used each other a little bit tonight. For similar reasons.”

I didn’t bother saying what those reasons were aloud. We both knew.

“You wanna go home?” Steve asked me, turning the ignition.

I didn’t. But it wasn’t like there was anything else to do now.

“Okay,” I said. “But Steve?”

He half-glanced at me, swinging the car out of the parking lot and back onto the road. “Yeah?”

“I still had a good time tonight,” I admitted. “I don’t wish I hadn’t come.”

The house was quiet when Steve dropped me off on the corner.

I’d been scared that he’d be able to hear shouting from the house if he dropped me off straight outside. I could see the fuzzy white glow coming through the curtains at the front of the bungalow, which meant that somebody was watching TV. As I made my way back up the driveway, I noticed that Billy was back from his date early and his car was parked up where it usually was.
The windows in the kitchen were dark.

I hurried up the steps to the backdoor and went in, flicking on the light in the kitchen and shutting the door behind me. I could hear ‘Dynasty’ on the TV down the hall and I wondered if my sister was still awake, although she probably wasn’t. It was a school night and it was gone ten already.

I shrugged out of my jacket and hung it neatly on the back of the chair, sitting down to undo the buckled clasp on my shoe. Over in the corner, the blush pink crackle vase which was normally kept on the dresser was shattered in pieces on the floor, like it had been thrown hard against the wall and bounced off.

“I didn’t hear you come in,” Neil said then from the doorway.

I glanced up at him, straightening in my seat. “I just got back.”

“So I can see.” Neil came into the room and shut the door to the hallway. “Did you have a nice time? You’re lucky I let you go.”

I was trying to lean over and take my shoe off and I was starting to wish I’d left the jacket on to do it. I gave up on the clasp and sat up straight in my chair again, noticing that there was a plate missing from the cabinet on the top shelf.

“The movie wasn’t that good,” I said, half-heartedly.

“Shame.” Neil had come right the way round to stand in front of me, his eyes on the top of my head. Sitting down, he looked very tall standing over me like that. But then he surprised me by crouching down by my feet and taking my ankle into his hand. He pressed my heel into his palm, lifting and straightening my leg so that my foot eventually rested on the top of his bent knee.

I didn’t know what he was doing at first.

“If that boy hadn’t rung the door when he did,” Neil’s fingers started to work the clasp of my shoe. “I wouldn’t have let you go out looking the way you do.”

I could hardly dare to breathe, gripping the edge of my seat; I didn’t know what to say. I never did know what to say around him. His moods were so erratic and changeable. I didn’t know which version I was yet to be dealing with.

“You know I only said those things because I’m looking out for you?” Neil slipped the first foot out of its shoe, letting the black patent heel tumble to the floor. “And I wouldn’t want anybody thinking anything horrible about you.”

“I know that.” I watched as Neil snatched up my other foot, dropping the first one and starting to unfasten the second clasp. “You don’t have to.”

“I want you to understand that everything I do and tell you is for your own good.” The second shoe came off and I let my foot slide back off his knee, onto the floor. “And for the good of this family too. You can see that, can’t you?”

I nodded dumbly and then to my surprise, Neil rose up so that he was leaning over me in my chair and his hands went tight around my face like a blindfold.

I couldn’t see him but I could feel him. His fingers pressing hard against my closed eyes as if he was trying to press them right into my skull.

“What are you doing?”

“Do you know who I am?” Neil’s voice was by my ear.

I gasped several times, each one shorter than the last. “What?”

“Who am I?” He asked again. He was scaring me.

“I don’t know.” There was a long pause before I said it. He was a mixture of both Neil’s tonight. “You’re you. You’re Neil. You’re my father.”

“That’s right.” He slackened his hold on me and I blinked fast, blinded a little by the yellow kitchen lights. “And you know I’ll always look after you, right?”

There was my bully right here, staring down into my face with his hands on my shoulders. He wasn’t an acned teenager with nothing better to do with his life. He was a grown man who stood at six feet tall with large hands like a bear. He wasn’t going to go away when I graduated. He was always going to be there.

“I’m tired,” I pleaded with him, wriggling out of my chair. “I’m going to bed.”

I went quickly out of the kitchen, slipping down the hallway and hoping he wouldn’t follow me. When I made it safely to my room without him, I crashed the door shut behind me, making sure to lock it. “You okay?”

I turned around, jumping when I saw Billy sitting there on my bed. He must have been waiting for me and not heard me come in. “You scared me.”

“Sorry.” He sounded genuine. “I thought I’d wait up for you.”

“You didn’t have to do that,” I tried, flustered by what had happened in the kitchen. “Listen, I’m really tired tonight. Can we…do this tomorrow instead?”

“You’re not even going to tell me how your date went?”

“It was…” I caught myself, noticing a scratch above his eye. “Hey, what happened to your face?”

I thought back to the broken vase in the kitchen, shattered glass, razor-sharp. “Did he do that to you?”

Billy just looked at me, taking out a cigarette and lighting it up. The question was pretty stupid considering how obvious it was. He rolled his eyes at me.

“You got back from your date early,” I said.

“I didn’t go on my date.” Billy looked sullen and put out, as moody as his cigarette smoke. “Son-of-a-bitch made me call and cancel.”

I knew he was going to say that. It was because of me. Because he’d helped me. Because Neil couldn’t stand it if we were happy. He’d done that for me.

“I’m sorry,” I said, meaning it. I sat next to him on the bed. “He’s an ass.”

“He’s a dick.” Billy’s eyes drank me in. “You look really beautiful tonight.”

“Don’t,” I said, turning my face away. “Don’t say that, alright?”

“Why not?” Billy’s voice was good-humoured, despite the cut above his eye. There was a fresh bruise on his knuckle too. “I can say that, can’t I?”

“Not if you’re just going to be mean to me again,” I told him. “Don’t say nice things to me and then be mean. I just want you to be nice to me.”

“Hey.” Billy caught my face in his free hand, leaning into me. “I can be nice.”

My chest rose and fell with how hard I’d started breathing, letting Billy press his forehead against mine. His mouth was so close to my mouth now that I could taste the smoke from his cigarette. “I kissed Steve,” I blurted out.

Billy drew back slightly. “Tonight?”

“I’m sorry.” I peered at him suspiciously. “You’re not mad?”

“We’re not together.” Billy eyed me, dragging on his cigarette. “You can do what you want, right? I was going to.”

I wondered if he’d really have screwed Heather if she’d let him. Whether he’d have stayed out all night and rocked up the next morning in the same clothes.

“Me and Steve,” I said, wanting him to know. “We’re not together. I told him to stop kissing me and he did. I don’t think it’s like that.”

“You don’t have to explain yourself to me.”

“But I want to.”

“Why bother?”

“Because I want you to know.”

Billy stopped, cigarette jutting from his mouth. “Know what?”

“That I don’t want to be with Steve,” I admitted, keeping my voice quiet. I prayed that he wouldn’t laugh at me for what I was about to say next.

“Billy, you’re the first man I’ve ever been with. You’re the first man who’s ever kissed me or touched me. And you’re the only man I’ve ever let…” I was struggling to get it out. “You’re the only man I’ve ever slept with in my whole life. And you were the firsts for all those things and it never occurred to me that anybody else would do those things after you.”

I was trying to read his face, reading his reaction. “I don’t want there to be an after you.”

For a long eternity of time, Billy didn’t say anything. He just sat there looking at me on my bed, smoking his cigarette and flicking his ash onto the bedside table. It was one of those excruciating moments when his face was completely unreadable and I found myself staring back at him, trying to read anything.

“Say something,” I told him.

“I believe you.”

It wasn’t the answer I’d been expecting, but then, I didn’t know what I had been expecting. The little speech had been so impromptu.

Billy stood up and pulled me into him, kissing me on my forehead. I could see his necklace swinging from his open shirt. “Go to sleep, Diana.”

I didn’t know what that meant.

“Billy.” I sat there feeling stupid as I watched him walk to the door, panicking at the thought of being on my own. “Please. Will you at least stay with me?”

“I can’t.” Billy reached the door, turning to me. “My dad’s on edge tonight.”

“That’s why-” I crawled down to the end of the bed, begging him. “Billy, please. That’s why I need you to stay with me, okay? I need you to stay with me. Because he scares me.”

“He wouldn’t come in here,” Billy said, sounding unsure.

I pleaded with him to see it my way.

“I know you’re always telling me to be brave,” I ventured. “And I try to be. When we’re fighting I can do it and it’s so easy because I know you’d never hurt me. But he would, Billy. He has. And I just get so scared and so angry that I can never do anything.”

I climbed off the bed and went to him, stockinged feet on the carpet, fingers tucking desperately into his belt. “And the way he is with me, it’s not like he is with you. It’s different. You’re his son at least but I’m just trash. I’m this little toy that he can just pick up and throw around-”

“-You’re his…” Billy stopped himself, jaw flexing. “I’ve noticed.”

“Then stay with me.” I didn’t even want to screw him tonight. I wasn’t even sure he wanted to screw me. I just needed him here, two kids looking out for each other because nobody else was. “He can’t get us in here. Not if we’re together.”

Billy wet his lower lip with his tongue, staring at the door.

Monsters could still get through doors, but we could pretend tonight that they couldn’t, just to make ourselves feel better.

Chapter Text

The following Saturday, it rained and it rained.

It was raining when I first opened my eyes that morning; dragging myself out of warm, numbing sleep and back into the real world. I could hear it tapping dismally on my bedroom window, beating away my chances of burrowing back down beneath my covers, eyes squeezed shut to block out the daylight, limbs lolling opium-heavy. When my mom called me for breakfast and when I blundered out into the kitchen in a sweater and jeans, it was still raining.

The house seemed dark and suffocatingly gray.

It continued to rain at lunchtime- when my mom made bean soup and fresh doughy bread straight out of the oven. Afterwards, when I helped my mom wash, dry and put away the plates from lunch, I stared out the kitchen window and watched the rain bounce off the concrete driveway and ping off the roofs of Neil and Billy’s cars.

My mom put her hand on my arm, making me jump.

“You looked like you were in another world there for a minute,” she told me, handing me another plate to dry. “It makes you feel a long way from California, doesn’t it? When the weather’s like this?”

“It feels like it’s going to go on forever,” I said, staring back out at the driveway. “What if it doesn’t stop?”

“It will.” My mom laughed, thinking I was joking. “You do say some gloomy things sometimes, Diana. Why don’t we watch some TV after this, hmm?”

“Okay,” I said.

We went into the living room and found Max already there, sprawled out on the rug watching ‘The Bugs Bunny Show.’

She insisted there was nothing better on because she’d tried and looked several times. And Billy, who was sitting at the end of the couch, confirmed this, although he said he was waiting for the sports to come onto the other channel.

He was sitting there with his arm around the back of the couch, hair messy, cigarettes and lighter peeking out of his shirt pocket. Billy didn’t wear sweaters or pullovers, even when it was cold outside. He patted the empty space next to him and raised his eyebrows at me, daring me to come and sit beside him.

I looked at my mother. She was trying to convince Max to turn the channel over, but I saw her glance sidewards at me as I crossed the room and took a seat on the couch next to him.

It wasn’t against the law to just sit. To just be.

Billy pushed his knee against mine.

He was staring intently at the cartoons on the TV screen and absolutely refusing to look my way now that I’d joined him. I stared hard at the TV too, trying to keep my hands still and focus on the plot. I thought maybe I’d seen this episode before, but they all seemed the same to me anyway.

Billy’s hand was resting on the back of the couch by my head.

I was suddenly very aware of it being there.

“Hey, Max,” Billy’s fingers tugged gently at one of my curls, passing over the back of my neck. “Turn over to the playoffs.”

“It’s going off in a minute,” my sister said, impatiently.

I wet my lips, feet shifting on the rug as I sat there, otherwise as still as a statue. Billy’s hand was thick and warm, wrapping tight around the curl he still had hold of, then dipping down to play with the collar of my sweater.

I swallowed hard, pressing my lips together tightly as his fingers brushed skin.

Now he had his eyes on me.

“Max,” he sang, smirking as he watched me squirm. “Turn the channel over.”

“It’s almost finished,” she complained.

Billy’s foot drew out slowly on the rug, coming up behind my ankle so that the lower half of his leg was almost wrapped around mine. He pressed down and thumbed a circle into my collar bone. His thumb was scorching hot.

I lurched forward in my seat, unable to take anymore. “God,” I gasped out, going red. “Max, just turn the damn channel over, will you?”

My mom and my sister stared at me, wondering what had gotten into me all of a sudden.

Billy was leaning back on the couch and grinning. “Leave it on,” he said, smirking wickedly. “I hate baseball anyway.”

Then the doorbell rang at the front of the house. We all turned to the sound.

“Who could that be?” My mom pushed herself up off the couch to go answer it, shuffling in her slippers. “Who the hell would be out here in weather like this?”

She disappeared down the hallway and we heard the door opening, then the lull of quiet conversation. My mom came back into the living room with Heather Holloway at her heels, dripping rainwater onto the rug, shivering in her mac.

“Heather?” Billy and I spoke at the same time, jumping from the couch.

“What are you doing here?” Billy asked.

“Are you okay?” I quizzed her.

Heather looked apologetically between the two of us. She was soaked to the bone like she’d walked here all the way from her house. Her belted mac coat had done little to keep her dry and her bangs had sprung up around her forehead in small, untameable curls. Her cheeks were pink with the cold.

“I’m sorry to interrupt like this,” she started to explain, hands in her pockets. “It’s just that I had something that I needed to talk to you about. Ever since you called me last Wednesday night, it’s all I could think about.”

That was when I realised she was talking to Billy and not to me.

“And I guess I’ve been chickening out,” Heather went on, ducking her head as if she was embarrassed to say it. “But then I just got the courage to say it all of a sudden. And I had to come here right away before it went again.”

We all stared at her, wondering what could be so urgent and so important that she’d needed to walk a mile and a half in the rain to tell it to us.

Heather waited too, biting the inside of her cheek. “Sorry,” she said. “Could we talk in private maybe?”

Billy patted his back pocket for his keys. “We’ll take my car,” he said.

I thought he could have just taken her into another room; the kitchen maybe, or the porch if they definitely didn’t want anybody to hear them.

Billy put his hand on my shoulder as he walked by me, going back out into the hallway with Heather and grabbing his jacket from the coatstand. I could hear him talking to her quietly, his voice a low murmur.

Heather laughed. My cheeks burned with embarrassment.

When they were gone, my mother came up to my side and slipped her arm amiably in mine. “She seems a nice girl,” she said. “I think it’s for the best.”

I shook my arm away, sulking. “And don’t you just love it, mom?” I snapped. “Look at you, you’re practically giddy.”

“I am not!” She was indignant.

“You so are.” I was fully aware that I was being childish, my voice rising embarrassingly high in my upset. “You’re absolutely beside yourself with happiness that he might be ruining some other girl’s life and not mine.”

“I don’t think that at all,” my mom tried again, firmly. “I’m simply saying-”

I didn’t want to hear it. I wasn’t interested in the slightest at anything she or anybody else had to say. I definitely didn’t care to know what Heather Holloway desperately needed to tell or what Billy had been whispering to her in the hall.

Nothing had changed since our fight, I reminded myself. Billy and I were on speaking terms, friends again, but nothing more. It didn’t matter that we shared a bed most nights, secretly slipping back and forth between sheets and bedrooms. There was nothing sexual about that- that was just being there for one another. That was me figuring out that the nightmares didn’t come as often when he was lying there beside me.

Nothing had changed at all. It was still raining.

Neil stood there in the doorway of my bedroom, one hand on the wall beside him, the other in his pocket. He was wearing those stupid khaki pants he always wore on a Saturday and a chequered shirt tucked into his belt.

I couldn’t ever imagine him wearing anything casual like jeans or sweats. He was too military for that, always on duty. I wondered if he’d ever been in ‘Nam. Everybody else’s dad had.

I was sitting cross-legged on the covers of my bed, pretending not to notice him standing there while I worked on my school books. The rain hammered on the window behind me.

“Don’t you knock?” I asked him, lifting my head when the inevitable silence had dragged on for too long.

Neil took my acknowledgement of him as an open invitation to come further into my room. “Your mom took Maxine dress shopping for her school dance,” he said. “I’ve rented some movies. I thought we could watch a few. Seeing as we’re the only ones here.”

I kept my eyes fixed on my paper.

“Billy might be home soon,” I corrected him hopefully. “Thanks, but I have to catch up on my school work.”

Neil snatched the paper out of my hands, peering at it, one knee on the bed. “That’s a lot of crossings out,” he remarked with a small smile. “Having trouble?”

I tried to lean over and take the paper back, but he held it up, out of my reach. “I guess I just suck at math. Can I have it back now, please?”

Neil dropped the paper back into my lap, sitting down on the bed beside me.

I picked my pencil back up and stared at the numbers until they squirmed on the paper. I’d forgotten how to think.

“Is that your dad?” Neil picked up the framed photograph on my bedside table, peering at it. “He looks just like you. How old is he here?”

I glanced up quickly. “About seventeen or eighteen? He’d just met my mom.”

Neil grunted and put the picture back down. He seemed nervous, fidgety like he was thinking about other things. He peered over my shoulder at the equations on the paper and sighed deeply like he was somehow disappointed.

I could feel his breath, hot on the side of my face.

“You’re not supposed to divide it by that number,” he told me, stretching his arm over me to point. “You’re supposed to divide it by the number at the top.”

I stiffened up, staring at the paper and trying to convince myself that what he was telling me made sense. The truth was, all I could think about was his arm resting over my shoulder and the way his breath had flushed over the side of my face as he turned to talk to me.

It was all just accidental, I told myself carefully.

“Billy’s better at math than I am,” I said anyway, wriggling away from him to sit back against the headboard. I drew my knees up against myself, fingers creasing the paper. “I’ll just get him to help me when he gets back.”

“And how do you think he got so good math?” Neil asked me. “I could have gone to college, you know. If we’d been able to afford it.”

“Are you asking me if I want your help?”

Neil smiled at me, plucking the pencil from my mouth and taking up one of the notebooks beside him on the bed. “We’ll just go through a couple, alright?”

I thought that maybe if I let him coax me through a couple of questions, it would be alright. He’d leave me alone after the first five or so had been explained.

Neil had me come sit and beside him, on the bed, the question paper and the notebook we used for workings out, spread open on the tops of our knees. He was actually a good teacher and very patient when he explained things to me.

He didn’t even get angry when I got things wrong, just laughed and carefully repeated the question back to me. His laugh was warm and friendly and put me at ease. I began to think maybe he was okay today, that the arm over my shoulder had been incidental, an accident and nothing more.

“You know what I think?” He asked me.

My head was bent down over my work, figuring out the very last question. I wanted to do it myself, to show myself that I could do it without his help, now that we’d gone through the formula together. “What do you think?”

“I think you should grow your hair long.” He tucked a curly strand behind my ear, fingertips under my jaw. “I think it’d look nice. Don’t you think so?”

I brushed his fingers away, scowling at him. “I like my hair the way it is.”

“Don’t misunderstand me,” Neil laughed, shifting on the mattress to turn to me fully. “I think your hair would look nice however you decided to have it. You’re a pretty girl, Diana.” His fingers went to my hair again, pulling gently at the ends. “Very pretty,” he said.

I stared at him, wishing I could speak. My throat had closed up and my lungs were screaming at me for air, telling me to breathe. I couldn’t move an inch.

“You’re blushing again,” Neil picked up the stuffed teddy on my pillow, sweeping the bear’s nose against mine so that I flinched away. “Aren’t you?”

“I’m not.” I found my voice, defensive and angry. “What are you doing?”

“I’m helping you with your math homework,” he said innocently.

“No.” I stared him down, heart pounding. “What are you doing?”

Neil didn’t say anything. I took the opportunity to scramble off my bed and back myself away, feeling for the door behind me.

Neil blinked at me like I was stupid.

“You haven’t finished your homework, Diana.” He patted the space next to him and motioned me back over. “Come back and finish it and then we’ll talk.”

“I don’t want to talk.” My fingers found the doorframe and I went through, retreating out into the hall. “You stay away from me. Just stay away.”

For a second, neither of us moved. Neil’s eyes twitched at me.

When he got up from the bed, I was one second in front of him, rounding the corner and running to the end of the hall.

I snatched the phone out of its cradle, not even sure who I was supposed to be calling. I guess I’d figure that out when I started dialling.

What I knew was that I didn’t want to be alone with him anymore.

Neil smacked the receiver out of my hand. “Don’t be stupid,” he grabbed me, dragging me away from the hall table and into the wall. “I’m not going to hurt you, okay?”

I struggled anyway, fighting him, hands shoving at him until he grabbed them easily and pinned them at my sides.

“Leave me alone,” I pleaded, breathing hard and close to tears. “Please, just leave me alone.”

“What the hell did you think I was going to do you?” Neil blinked at me, looking shocked and offended. “Diana, you’ve got it all wrong. I was just teasing you.”

“Like hell you were!”

That angered him, I think. His face clouded over into a scowl and he pushed himself closer, hissing at me. “I don’t know what you’re implying, Diana, but saying things like that can get people into a lot of trouble. You want to reflect very carefully about what you think just happened back there.”

I struggled to catch my breath, staring down at him. Maybe I had jumped the gun and assumed the worst, letting my paranoia and my hatred of him get the better of me. Nothing he had said or done to me was so different from any of the things he had done before.

I slackened a little in his grip. Maybe that’s all it had been.

“I’m sorry,” I said, foggily. “I don’t know.”

“You don’t know?” Neil frowned at me, peering into my face with worried eyes. “I was just being nice to you back there, you can see that can’t you?”

“You were helping me with my homework,” I said.

“That’s right,” he addled coaxingly. “And you wouldn’t want me to be mean to you, would you?”

Being mean. I thought of all the times he had hit me and thrown me around, spat out cruel words that had made me feel small and helpless. I wanted him to be nice to be. I was so very tired of him being mean.

The red plastic phone was still lying there on the floor where Neil had tossed it.

It had started to whine, missing its cradle, and Neil let go of me and picked the phone up, hanging it back on the wall. I straightened myself up too.

“Now,” Neil said, briskly. “Shall we go back and finish that math question? Then I was thinking we could watch one of those movies I rented.”

I nodded, letting him turn me around and go back into the bedroom.

When he leaned over my shoulder to point out a mistake and when I got the question right and he kissed my forehead, I reminded myself that he was simply being nice to me.

And him being nice to me was a hell of a lot better than him being mean.

Chapter Text

The knocking at the window was what roused me from my book.

I was several pages into the ending of the ‘Scarlet Letter’, eager to finish it and discuss it Monday morning with Mister Bouschebel. I was sitting cross-legged on my bed, just like I had been earlier that afternoon when Neil had come in to help with me my homework.

Afterwards, we’d watched a movie just like he’d suggested; some gritty seventies movie about two heroin addicts living in Manhattan. It was dark and trippy and I hadn’t expected Neil to pick a movie like that, but he seemed to have enjoyed it. He’d told me afterwards that it was supposed to be a warning for people who ran away from home; that a life like that for the homeless girl in the movie was the reality. He said it like the whole movie had been some kind of government officiated information film, but I just thought it was sad.

My mom and Max had come home from their shopping trip at dinner time, and my mom had been in a sulk with her because Max had refused to buy a dress, insisting she’d be more comfortable in a sweater and pants. Neil said it was about time Max started growing up and stop dressing like a boy all the time.

My sister had rolled her eyes at him behind his back and mashed her food up angrily with her fork as if she was imagining it was him.

Billy didn’t come home for dinner, even though my mom set him a place at the table, just in case. I kept staring at the backdoor and expecting him to wander through at any second, but he didn’t. It was ten o’clock in the evening when I finally gave up loitering in the living room for him and went to my room to study.

“Diana?” The voice at my bedroom window was hushed like it didn’t want to be heard, tapping faintly on the glass. “Diana, get over here.”

It was Billy- his face at the window, elbows on the window ledge, hoisting himself up, legs swinging from the woodpile. I crawled down to the end of the bed and shoved the window up, laughing at the ridiculousness of it all.

I leaned out and grasped his wrists to steady him. “Why not just use the door?”

“Because I’m not staying.” Billy dropped back onto the woodpile and stared up at me, grinning. “Are you coming? Heather’s waiting in the car.”

“What are you talking about?” I didn’t understand, but I was already pulling on my jacket despite that, running to my dresser for my lipstick. “Where are we going? Where’ve you been all day?”

“We were just talking,” Billy helped me swing my leg over the window-ledge, catching me as we both dropped down into the dirt. “Don’t worry about it.”

“I don’t understand. You’ve been gone all day.”

Billy stared at me, the two of us standing there beneath my window. He hadn’t let go of me yet. “I’m sorry. Did something happen?”

“No,” I brushed his hands away, defensive. “Nothing happened.”

“Did my dad try anything?”

“He was…” I thought about it. “He was nice to me.”

My room was at the back of the house, facing away from the driveway. It meant that we had to slip past the front window without being seen, crouching down and sprinting to the waiting car.

Billy held onto my wrist as we neared the Camaro, spinning me around. “What does that mean? He was nice to you?”

I glanced at Heather, who was climbing over into the backseat. “It means he was kind. He…he helped me with my homework. And then we watched a movie together.”

“Why’d he do that?”

“Because you weren’t there.”

I saw Billy flinch at the animosity in my tone. “That’s not what I meant. I mean, why was he helping you? What does he get out of it?”

This time it was my turn to flinch, jutting my chin out. “Who says he gets anything out of it?”

Heather stuck her head out of the window. “Come on you guys,” she complained dramatically. “Where are we going? You know there’s nowhere cool to hang out in Hawkins, right?”

Billy let go of me and we both climbed into the car, not looking at each other.

I was annoyed at them both for leaving me alone all day and then suddenly demanding my appearance at the snap of a finger. I wanted to go somewhere different, somewhere we’d never been before- not the movie theatre or the snack shack or anybody’s house.

For just one night, if we were going to really do it, I wanted to get out of Hawkins.

“Let’s go to a roadhouse,” I suggested, jumping at my own idea.

Billy grunted, swinging the car out onto the road. “You know any?”

“No…” I sank down into the seat, staring at his hands on the steering wheel, at the wrists coming out of his sleeves. “But you can find one, can’t you?”

Billy clicked his tongue, smirking like he was making fun of me. “I can try. Not promising we’ll find one though. Not in a town like this anyway.”

The roadhouse we eventually found was a couple of miles out of town, further than the gas station that Steve had taken me to last Wednesday, but not by much.

It was a filthy, sleazy looking place, with a cheapness about it that not only parallelled but arguably took over the seediness of the ones we’d visited in California. The floor was unswept and sticky underfoot, the tables crowded with empty beer bottles and glasses. There was the reek of unwashed bodies in the air, the smell of sex and hedonism, spilt beer and fake leather.

“Jesus,” Billy’s arms dangled like armour from both of mine and Heather’s shoulders, steering us to a table at the front of the stage and sitting us down. “This place is a real shit hole.”

I couldn’t help being offended that he was so against my idea.

He’d always loved the roadhouses in California.

Scarlet red lights shone down dully from the ceiling, staining the whole room with a gristly anatomical glow. The singer on the stage wore a too-tight dress, tossing her blond, unwashed hair over her bare shoulders and crooning out mournful ballads to the whine of an electric guitar that didn’t seem to sound right in a place like this.

“Well, we’re here now,” Heather said a little too brightly, wetting her bottom lip with her tongue. “How about something to drink?”

She seemed nervous, keeping her eyes fixed on Billy as he turned and shouldered his way over to the bar at the other side of the room.

It was like she didn’t want to lose him; like she was scared he’d disappear into the crowd if she looked away for even a second.

She bounced her leg, jittery beneath the table.

“Are you okay?” I asked her, shouting a little over the music. “We don’t have to stay here if you don’t want to.”

I wondered if Heather could tell that it was actually me who was starting to regret suggesting we come here. She was staring at me across the table, her mouth open slightly as if she was a little overwhelmed with the whole thing, her eyes wide as they bore into mine.

Heather had always struck me as tough, but this place was a far cry from the sanitary Hawkins.

“Don’t be silly,” she said reassuringly. “It’s a cool place, right?”

“Right,” I smiled. “It’s cool.”

“Mind if I ask you ladies a question?”

A man in a faded donkey jacket had sauntered his way over to our table, coming up and putting his hand on the back of Heather’s chair.

His hair was long and dark, hanging loose way past his shoulders. “Which of you girls isn’t with that guy over there?”

We both stared at him, a little startled that he was talking to us.

The man laughed at the look on our faces, waving his free hand in front of us as if trying to snap us out of a trance. “Hello?” He sang rudely, his eyes flashing under the hot lights. “Which one of you is it?”

“What’s it to you?” Heather asked boldly.

The man laughed again.

He couldn’t have been any older than twenty- a student maybe. He was tall and thin and the sweater underneath his jacket was too big for him.

“It’s just a question,” he said.

“What if we’re both with him?” Heather coyly suggested.

The man raised an eyebrow. “So it’s like that is it?”

“No, it isn’t.” I leaned forward, rolling my eyes and shooting a look at Heather, who stifled a giggle into her hands. “It isn’t like that. She’s messing with you.”

The man looked me up and down, scrutinising me. The way he was looking at me was so vulgar and so suggestive that I started blushing, my throat locking, glad that he couldn’t see me properly beneath the red lights.

He had a funny way of talking, drawling his words out like he was singing a song.“What’s your name, sweetheart?”

“Diana.”

“Diana…” His eyes flashed at me wickedly. “How’d you like a dance, Diana?”

I opened my mouth, almost getting ready to say ‘no.’ Then for some reason, I stopped myself, my legs pushing themselves up from the seat impetuously, reaching out to take the guy’s outstretched hand, his fingers locking in mine.

“Okay,” I said before I could change my mind.

Heather stared at me, seizing my arm. She looked horrified, disgusted, but not with me. “You’re not actually gonna dance with him are you?”

“Hey, Buck doesn’t bite you know.” The guy swung his arm over my shoulder, pulling me defensively into his side. He smelled like dirt and gasoline. “Come on, sweetheart.”

I let Buck pull me, stumbling, onto the dance floor, threading me through the wall of swaying bodies and into his arms. He laughed at my stiffness, pulling my arms up to drape around his neck. “You should loosen up,” he said.

“Sorry.” The music was loud, a wail of guitar strings in my ear. “I’m not very good at dancing.”

“There ain’t nothing to it,” Buck said, his breath scorching my cheek. “Here, drink this. That’s the trick.”

The beer that Buck pressed into my hands was plucked from a nearby table, warm like it had been sitting out. He tipped the drink back into my mouth until it dribbled down my chin and onto my collar. It tasted sour and brassy.

I pulled a face.

Buck laughed at me and roughly wiped at my mouth with his fingers, smearing the waxy red lipstick over the lines of my lips and onto my chin.

“You’ve never been here before,” he said.

“We just moved here,” I swallowed the rest of the beer.

“Who’s we?”

I nodded over his shoulder at Billy, who had returned to our table with drinks of his own. He was staring darkly across the dance floor at me, but all I saw was Heather holding onto his arm. I kept on staring at her nail polish, shiny and red on the black of his leather sleeve.

Buck saw it too and laughed a low laugh, turning back to me. We were barely moving our feet but it felt like we were spinning; the whole world was spinning and it was hot and fast and rushed. “You told me you weren’t with him.”

“I’m not,” I said quickly. “Anymore.”

“Got it,” Buck winked and then his hands went to my hips, pulling me up into his chest so that I was almost stood on his toes. “I thought you said you couldn’t dance either.”

“This isn’t dancing,” I pointed out. It was swaying, shuffling, grinding and oscillating, toes stuck to the sticky beer-stained floor. This wasn’t like the kind of dancing I’d ever done before and I was convinced we weren’t really moving anyway; it felt like the room was moving for us.

“You smell real good, you know that?” Buck nuzzled his mouth against the side of my neck, fingers pressing into my hips. “You know what I’d like to do to you…”

I let my head rock back, eyes fluttering closed. My limbs felt so heavy all of a sudden, such a burden to move. Buck’s whispers filled my spinning brain.

I didn’t think it was the beer that was making me incapable of standing; it was the things he was telling me, making my fingers curl and tighten around his jacket, my breathing quicken. It was the thought that I could do anything if I wanted, let him do anything; to the stranger at the roadhouse, Diana with no last name.

Buck kissed me and his mouth was wet and soft and clumsy with drink and whatever else he had taken. I could feel his hands on me, pressing into me through the fabric of my clothes, pressing so hard it would leave bruises.

He told me to kiss him back and I did.

He told me to open my eyes and I did.

Buck pulled back to look at me, mouth swollen, lips and chin stained with my lipstick. “You wanna get out of here?”

“No, she doesn’t.” Billy’s hand tugged at my arm, pulling me back from Buck and whirling me into the path of another dancer. “She’s had enough, alright?”

“What the hell, Billy?” I turned to him, slurring, struggling to focus my eyes on him. “I’ll say when I’ve had enough, okay?”

“You can’t even stand up straight,” Billy snapped, sounding far away. “I’m not just gonna sit here and watch you screw some junked up hippy in an alleyway.”

“Hey, stay outta this, man!” Buck spun and shoved Billy hard in the chest, leering at him. “What are you then? Her pimp or something?”

“Billy!”

Billy hit him, sending Buck backwards into a nearby table. Heather ran over and grabbed at my arm, pulling me out of the way. Billy’s was shaking his hand and swearing like the blow had hurt him.

“Shit!” Buck spat blood, laughing and staggered back to his feet, crunching broken glass. It was eery, the way everybody else just kept on dancing.

“Let’s get out of here, Diana,” Heather pleaded, pulling desperately on my hand. “Come on, you don’t really wanna do this do you?”

“Maybe I do,” I said, but I didn’t know anymore. Buck’s laughter scared me.

“You don’t,” Heather said gently, buttoning my sweater that I didn’t even remember unbuttoning. “You don’t, okay? You’re not thinking straight tonight. You’d only regret it afterwards, I promise.”

“She wouldn’t regret it, don’t listen to her. Come on, sweetheart…” Buck was holding his hand out to me, smiling at me beneath the hot, red lights. There was blood in his teeth. “Remember what I told you, huh? Huh, babygirl?”

I stared at him.

I could feel Heather’s hands on me, holding me back, her curls tickling my cheek. She was whispering something to me, her voice near my ear, but I couldn’t hear her anymore.

“Sweetheart,” Buck whined.

“Don’t call her that,” Heather snapped, starting to shove me towards the door. “Billy, come on. Let’s get out of here.”

The three of us went, stumbling out into the cold, dark parking lot. Billy was fumbling for his car keys, muttering something about almost breaking his hand.

“Jesus Christ, Diana,” he swore, stooping to unlock the car. “We weren’t even in that place for an hour.”

I groaned dizzily, not really hearing him. My lungs were filling with cold air, my stomach heaving and lurching. My legs felt like they didn’t belong to me.

“Shit,” I moaned, staggering to one side. “I’m gonna be sick…”

I bent over at the waist, already wretching, holding onto the back of the car to steady myself, teetering crazily, the floor spinning. My throat burned and my ears rushed. When I was finished, I was shivering, tired and wrung out, like someone had taken me in both hands and squeezed me hard like a sponge.

Heather came and put her arm around me, helping me into the back of the car, my head on her lap. “You’ll be okay tomorrow,” she said kindly. “You’ll feel like shit tonight though.”

Billy climbed into the front seat and slammed the door closed.

He was looking straight ahead and not saying anything.

There was a terrible silence that made me catch my breath.

“I’ll take you home, Heather,” he said, at last. His voice was thick and vapid, and his hand looked like it hurt him more than he was letting on. “You okay?”

“I’m fine,” Heather said. Her voice sounded far away even though she was right next to me. “We shouldn’t have come here tonight. Billy, that guy…”

“I know,” he said, firing up the Camaro’s engine as if he didn’t want to talk about it anymore. “Let’s just get you both home, okay?”

When I opened my eyes again, Billy was leaning over me in the backseat, throwing my arm over his shoulder and hauling me out of the car. Heather wasn’t there anymore, but I couldn’t even remember her ever leaving.

“Can you walk?” He asked me curtly.

“Are you mad at me?”

He didn’t give me an answer either.

Clinging onto the shoulder of his leather jacket, I let him steer me to the back of the house, stopping beneath my open window. It was dark inside, apart from the small lamp I’d left on. I felt Billy’s hands on me, helping me climb up and swing my leg back over the ledge, collapsing onto the bed.

I lay still on my back and felt the bed shift as Billy climbed through to join me, breathing hard with the effort of it all. I heard him swearing and muttering, heard the click of his lighter as he sparked up a cigarette.

I had my eyes shut but I could tell he was watching me.

I thought he was disappointed.

Scalding hot tears of humiliation began to fall from my closed lids and they rolled down my cheeks and into my ears. I extinguished a choked up sob into my hands and turned onto my side, my face in my pillow, trying to be quiet for Billy’s benefit more than anyone else’s.

I cried until I didn’t feel like crying anymore.

“Are you in love with her?” I asked, at last, when I’d stopped crying a little. I rolled over onto my back and opened my eyes, staring up at him, waiting for my answer which I knew was almost certain. “You’re in love with her, aren’t you?”

Billy rolled his eyes at me like I was stupid, dragging on his cigarette and shaking his head. “God, you’re such an idiot.”

“Am not,” I mumbled, offended.

“Yes,” he said firmly. “You are. How can I be in love with someone I’ve known for barely a month? It doesn’t work like that.”

“But you like her,” I said.

“So what if I do?” Billy crawled over my legs to get to me, joining me on his back at my side. “Liking someone isn’t the same. You like Steve, don’t you?”

I thought about it, trying not to catch myself out. “I’m not sure anymore.”

“Well, you liked that hippie tonight.”

“I didn’t like him. He was gross.”

“He slipped you a roofie.”

“No, he didn’t.” I wiped my face roughly, insistent. “You want to believe that I was drunk or I was drugged and I didn’t know what I was doing. You want to believe it because it’s easier than believing that I wanted it. I know he was gross but I still wanted him. And I didn’t care what he did to me either.”

Billy turned to me on the bed, taking my chin and tipping it up seriously into his face. He kept shaking his head, trying to get me to do the same. “No, you didn’t. You didn’t want him, Diana, okay? The guy was an asshole.”

“Maybe not him then,” I sighed shakily, somewhat agreeing with him. “But the sex. I wanted that. I really wanted it.”

“You did?”

I nodded. “I just thought that it would make everything inside me feel better for five minutes.”

“It doesn’t work like that,” Billy said honestly, lying back down. “Trust me, okay? You’ll feel like you’re on top of the world and you’ll feel like you can stop anyone, but you can’t. You’ll come crashing back down again and you’ll feel even worse.”

“I just-“ I let my eyes flutter up to the ceiling. “I want to be the one to decide who gets to screw me. I want to make those decisions myself, you know?”

Billy didn’t say anything. I thought maybe he’d fallen asleep but he was just dragging on his cigarette, blasting smoke out of the open window.

“Billy?” I asked, not sure if he would answer me.

“Yeah?”

“You can screw me if you want.”

He laughed at the bluntness of it and I was sure he was rolling his eyes. He thought I was joking. “Yeah?”

“I’m serious,” I insisted, rolling up onto my elbows to look at him. “You wanted me this morning, didn’t you?”

As if remembering, Billy’s fingers went into my hair, pulling deftly on one of my curls. “Did you want me this morning?”

I nodded, remembering how his fingers had felt on my collarbone and how I’d squirmed for him on the couch, fingers twining into the couch seat. My breath caught at the memory, jumping in my throat, and Billy caught it too, rolling over so that he was almost on top of me, fingers tightening and curling in my hair.

“Please,” I whispered, staring up into his face. “Don’t you like me anymore?”

“You know I like you.”

“Do you like me more than Heather?”

Billy looked at me as if it was obvious and I was stupid for not realising it. His voice hummed warmly in my ear. “No contest, Di. You’re my girl, aren’t you?”

“I am?”

“If you want to be.” Billy watched me, fingers leaving my hair. He put his hands between my legs and I gasped for him, mouth open, head arching back into my pillows. Then Billy’s mouth went back to my ear and he promptly drew his hand away, leaving me pining. “But we’re not doing this tonight, okay?”

“Why not?” I asked sulkily.

Billy fell back down beside me on the bed, breathing hard. “Because it’s late and you’re probably not even going to remember this in the morning.”

I knew that I would remember this bit. He still thought my head wasn’t working properly tonight, that my thoughts weren’t always my own. Perhaps some of them weren’t, but the thoughts that I had about him were as real to me as anything.

“What were you talking with Heather about?” I asked him, rolling onto my side and into his ribcage, sliding underneath his arm. “Is she okay?”

“She’s okay.” Billy’s breath was hot on the top of my head. “Don’t worry about it, alright? Everything’s fine.”

“But what were you talking about?” I asked again.

Billy told me to drop it. “Go to sleep,” he said.

I didn’t want to go to sleep. I was scared that I’d forget everything if I went to sleep; my mind dragging me down into a nightmare that I wouldn’t be able to claw my way out of. “Tell me a story, Billy.”

He hummed in frustration, his eyes closed. “You tell me one.”

I wasn’t that sure I knew any. “Can I read to you?”

Billy squinted, opening one eye. “Read to me?”

I was already crawling over him, reaching for my English book that I’d left lying open on my bedside table. The pages were soft and creamy beneath my fingers, rustling as I rested myself down on the bed, my ear against Billy’s open shirt. I could hear his heart beating steadily against my cheek.

“Don’t go to sleep,” I murmured, peeping up at him. “Promise me, you won’t go to sleep?”

Billy’s voice was amused but drowsy, his fingers snaking out and reaching for my hair, knotting around the ends. “I promise, okay?”

“Okay.” I settled myself against him, not really believing him and knowing he would be asleep in a matter of minutes anyway. Regardless, I began to read.

Chapter Text

“Diana?” Janet Holloway popped her head around the bedroom door and stretched her Barbie pink lips into a smile. “Will you be staying for dinner?”

Heather’s mom looked immaculate.

I hadn’t known women could really look like that unless they were in movies or music videos. She was standing there in this dusty pink shirtdress, her tiny waist cinched in with a patent belt, painted nails tapping a tune into the doorframe. Her hair was brown like Heather’s, pinned onto the top of her head.

She looked exactly like a movie star.

“I can’t,” I confessed politely. “I told my mom I’d be back before it got dark.”

“Oh.” Janet gave me a softer, disappointed smile; she had perfect teeth. “Do you need Tom to give you a ride? He’ll be home soon.”

I didn’t want to be any trouble. “That’s okay,” I said. “I don’t mind the walk.“

“I just don’t like the idea of it,” Janet persevered with a grimace. “One of Heather’s friends went missing last year and we haven’t heard from her since.”

“Mom,” Heather rolled her eyes, snapping her notebook closed on the bed. “Barbara Holland ran away. That’s what the police said and that’s what I’m choosing to believe. This is Hawkins.”

“Well, now I don’t believe that girl ran away,” Janet said, her face clouding over with thought. “Nice girls like Barbara Holland just don’t run away from home. It’s not in their nature.”

“What else would you like me to believe, mom?” Heather’s voice had gone all thick.

“I’m just saying…” Janet seemed to panic at the thought of having to answer Heather out loud. “I’ll tell Tom to drive you home anyway, Diana.”

I finally gave in and agreed to it.

“My mom’s such a worrier,” Heather sighed when Janet had gone back downstairs. “I swear to God she’d have had a fit if she knew where we were last Saturday.”

We were sprawled on the floor beside Heather’s bed; on the fluffy white rug, lying on our stomachs with our feet in the air. We were supposed to be studying and I pretended to be reading through my notes, not answering her straight away. The events of that night were hazy but I remembered the gist.

“We shouldn’t have gone there,” I said, at last. “It was my fault. I was stupid.”

“You weren’t stupid.” Heather peeked up at me kindly from her work. “You were having a rough time. I get it, okay?”

I stopped writing. “What do you mean?”

“What do I mean about what?”

“What you just said…” I stared at her, my mouth going dry. “How’d you know I was having a rough time?”

“I don’t know. I guess you must have looked sad or something.” Heather shrugged casually, starting to chew on the end of her pen. “Does it matter?”

It did, actually.

“Seriously, Heather.” I stared at her, waiting for her to glance up and catch my eye again. “Do you know something?”

I could tell by the look on her face that she knew something. Heather Holloway, as it turned out, wasn’t a very good liar. It didn’t take long for her to crack.

“Billy might have told me something,” she said finally, giving in. “But it’s not his fault, okay? I sort of made him.”

“You made him?” I couldn’t imagine anyone making Billy do anything.

“He called me up Wednesday night,” Heather explained, shoving her books to one side. “Said that something had come up and he had to bail on our date; Said he didn’t care anyway; said he’d started having second thoughts about it.”

“He said that?”

Heather nodded. “I said to him, ‘if you’re so pleased about cancelling our date, Billy, then why are you crying?’ I could tell he was- or he had been at least. His voice was all funny, you know?”

My stomach sank when I heard that, remembering the broken vase in the kitchen, the shattered pieces on the linoleum floor. “What did he tell you?”

“Nothing at first.” Heather glanced quickly at the door as if to make sure there was nobody nearby that might be eavesdropping. “I kept on pressing for him to tell me and he wouldn’t; just kept telling me to mind my own business and it wasn’t anything to do with me. ‘Cept I knew that he wanted to tell me really.”

“How’d you know that?” I asked.

“Because he didn’t hang up the phone,” Heather said. “If he didn’t want to talk to me, he’d have hung up straight away but he didn’t. And so I pressed him again and then he just told me- he told me about your dad- your step-dad.”

It felt strange to hear somebody say even that out loud. For months, Neil’s behaviour had been some sort of unspoken secret between everybody else in the house; and it was like we were expected never to talk about it, not to anyone. It felt strange and uncomfortable having somebody else know; like a pact had been broken, even though nobody ever seemed to talk about it.

“He didn’t tell me a lot,” Heather went on. “That night, he just said that there’d been this big fight and his dad had knocked him about but he didn’t want to talk about it anymore. Afterwards, I couldn’t think about anything else. I just kept playing his voice over in my head and remembering how sad he’d sounded.”

“So you came over on Saturday?” I guessed. “Because you were worried?”

“Worried…intrigued, I suppose. I knew it was more than just one fight. But I never thought that it might be happening to you too. That never even occurred to me. And I felt so sick when he finally said it, that it’s been happening to both of you all this time… Diana…” Heather sighed. “You can talk to me.”

I didn’t even know what to say. “There’s nothing really to talk about.”

“That’s what Billy said,” Heather answered. “At first.”

I wondered how much he’d really told her- whether he’d sat down and told her only the basics of what was going on, or whether he really had said everything.

“I can’t even explain it,” I started. “It’s not like we ever really talk about it, even when it happens. Afterwards, it’s like everybody just keeps on pretending that everything is normal, that everything is fine. My mom’s the worst for that. It’s almost as if she just switches off from it all; sees what she wants to see, hears what she wants to hear. I don’t think she’ll ever leave him. She’s too far gone.”

“That doesn’t mean you can’t leave though,” Heather said gently.

“I can’t leave,” I confessed, laughing at the idea. “I thought I could. I thought I could get a job and save and save and save. And one day I’d be out of there.”

“You can still do that though,” Heather pushed. “Can’t you?”

I’d thought so to begin with. I’d started my new life in Hawkins with the determination and the drive to go back to my old one. I’d been so certain that everything was going to work out just fine and that I’d be out of here before I knew it; before the summer was up. Now it all just seemed impossible.

“My dad knows a guy,” Heather said then, as if a thought had just occurred to her. “He’s a pool manager. And every year he gets me this summer job, just hanging around and making sure stupid kids don’t end up killing themselves in the pool.” Heather hesitated as if she thought somehow she had maybe overstepped her mark. “I could get him a job there. If he wanted it.”

“Billy?” I smiled at the idea of Billy spending his summer telling kids not to swim too far out into the deep end. “You’d do that for him?”

“I’d do that for you, Diana,” Heather clarified. “You stick with the job you have. I get Billy a job at the pool and you put your wages together. Hell, you can even have mine if you want them.” She seemed so serious, so determined. It was almost motivational. “You could both be out there by the end of the summer.”

“By the end of the summer,” I echoed. It sounded too fantastical to be real.

“You and Billy are meant to be together,” Heather admitted with an embarrassed smile. “I don’t believe in soul mates but if they were real…you two would come pretty close.”

My eyes watered at the sweetness of her words. When Heather said it, it sounded real. She said it like it could really happen; like it wasn’t a dream.

Janet Holloway knocked politely on Heather’s door, peering round and smiling her usual smile. “Tom’s home,” she said brightly. “He says he’ll take you now before dinner’s ready. Unless you really do want to stay?”

I smiled, reaching for my bag. “Thank you, but I’ll go home now.”

Heather caught my hand, squeezing it. “Will you be alright?”

“I’ll be fine,” I said, squeezing her hand back. And for the first time, I felt like I really meant it, like there was actually a way out. “Thank you, Heather.”

“I haven’t done anything,” Heather said, blushing and looking down. But she had done so much more than she thought she had; Heather Holloway didn’t just see people, she heard them too. And everything was going to be okay.

When I got home, my mom was humming to herself in the kitchen, mashing a bowl of potatoes and keeping an eye on whatever was cooking in the pot on the stove. She looked lost in thought, almost dreamy, but she looked up and smiled brightly when she saw me.

“You’re home,” she announced to nobody in particular. “Did you get a lot of studying done? Or were you just gossiping? That’s what we always did.”

Her enthusiasm was a little startling.

Her cheeks were pink from the heat of the kitchen and she was shiny with sweat. She looked like she was glowing.

“We got through a lot,” I said, swinging my bag down onto the kitchen table. “You seem happy. Why are you in such a good mood?”

“Guess,” my mom smiled.

I’d never been very good at guessing games. “You finally convinced Max to wear a dress to the Snow Ball?”

“I wish,” my mother laughed. “But no. It’s better than that. Much better. Try and guess again.”

I was getting stuck for ideas already. It occurred to me how little I really knew my mother; what tiny factors of her day might make her or laugh or smile.

“I don’t know,” I said, giving in without even really trying. “You’ll just have to tell me.”

“Neil got his promotion at work,” my mom gushed. She lifted the pot off the stove and turned back to me with an excited smile. “Isn’t that brilliant news? Aren’t you so proud of him?”

“Sure,” I said, flatly, rolling my eyes when she turned away. “That’s great.”

“I remember when I lived with your father,” my mom recalled, starting to serve up the dinner plates. “That man drifted from job to job every couple of months. It was terrifying- never knowing whether he was going to walk in with a payslip or a note saying he’d been canned.”

I didn’t say anything. I hated it when she started to compare Neil to my father.

“He works so hard at what he does,” my mom marvelled. “He takes care of us.”

The silence that ensued after my mom had finished speaking was long and heavy. Perhaps she had expected me to play along for her sake and congratulate her for marrying so well, which was so clearly what she was so proud of. She was proud of herself for finding that security; her white-picket-fence of a life, with a driveway and a company car.

“That’s great, mom,” I said, at last.

My mom smiled at me thinly, wavering, probably hurt by my lack of enthusiasm. “Well, go wash up for dinner then, Diana.”

She sounded sad, hollowly disappointed that I hadn’t joined in with her game.

“It’s almost ready.

I snatched up my school bag and went out into the hallway without another word. I was trying very hard not to turn back around and scream at her, tell her how stupid she was being about everything.

She just seemed so silly to me.

Everything that came out of her mouth was silly- nothing she said was real.

She was living in her very own fantasy world.

“Diana?” Neil stuck his head around the door to his and my mom’s bedroom, beckoning to me. “I thought I heard you come in. Come here and talk to me for a minute.”

He had one hand behind his back, I noticed. His other hand on the door.

“Now?” I shot an uncertain glance down the hallway, eyeing the kitchen where I could hear my mom serving up the plates. It was no less than twenty steps away if I tried. “Dinner’s almost ready.”

“This won’t take five minutes,” Neil said, catching hold of my wrist and easing me gently into the room. He laughed when he saw the look on my face. “It’s alright, Diana, you can leave the door open.”

“What’s the matter?” I made myself ask.

Neil’s face was glowing. “I have a little something for you. A gift, if you will.”

“For me?”

I looked down at the little red box that Neil had conjured up from behind his back, taking it and holding it in my open palm. The box was made of red leather and stamped with small brass studs that lined the outer edges.

“But I don’t understand,” I said, looking up at him in confusion. “My birthday isn’t for another month at least.”

“It isn’t for your birthday,” Neil smiled, snapping the box open against the top of my hand. “I just thought you’d like it.”

It was a necklace. A small white stone strung onto a delicate gold chain. It was nestled in plush blue velvet, like a pearl in an oyster shell.

“It’s an opal,” Neil said when I didn’t say anything. “See how it changes color when it catches the light?”

“Aren’t opals supposed to be unlucky or something?” I made myself say.

Neil laughed at me, thinking I was joking with him. He seemed eager to please me like he wanted me to smile. “Don’t you like it? Aren’t you going to try it on?”

He took the box from me, slipping the necklace out of its cushion and stringing it between his fingers. Then he motioned for me to turn around, sliding the chain around my throat and fastening the clasp, his fingers on my neck.

He took his time and did it slowly.

“There,” he said, sounding satisfied. And he turned me back around, catching the stone in his hand and holding it there. “I think it suits you.”

My mom’s bedroom dresser was behind him. I caught sight of myself in the mirror, pale and frightened and not saying anything. I tore my eyes away.

“It’s beautiful,” I said translucently.

“You like it then?” Neil sounded pleased, even relieved. “I thought you might do. I’d hoped that you would.”

“But what about my mom?” I asked him then, seeing him wince. “And Max?”

“We don’t have to tell them do we?” Neil peered at me, trying to get me to look up from the floor. “It’s just something nice for you, Diana. Between the two of us. If it makes you feel any better, think of it as an early birthday present.”

“An early birthday present.” It did sound better when I looked at it that way.

Neil was still staring at me, catching my eye when I eventually looked up, hooking his finger under my chin and smiling. “How about a thank you?”

“Thank you,” I said it automatically, just to get it over with so that I could leave.

“And a little kiss?” Neil tapped his cheek with his finger, pulling me into him so that I stumbled over his toes. “Not even just a small one to say thank you?”

I’d started to feel suffocatingly warm all of a sudden, squirming under his arm and wishing my mom would hurry up and call us both for dinner.

“I don’t know,” I struggled out, hating myself for not just shoving him away and leaving. “Dinner’s almost ready.”

“I’ll just give you a small one then.” Neil planted a kiss on the side of my head, just missing my eye. “Aren’t you going to give me one back?”

I stared at him, lips parting, almost leaning in to kiss him back like he wanted me to. There was a part of me that felt sorry for him, that wanted to thank him for the present anyway. I almost did it. Then something seemed to click in my brain and it was like I realised how absurd the whole situation was.

“No,” I said at once, stumbling back from him, making for the door. “I can’t.”

Neil just laughed. I worried that I’d offended him.

“You’re right,” he said. “We should go to dinner, shouldn’t we?”

He came over to me and slipped the necklace under my blouse, hiding it from sight. It felt weird, only he and I knowing that it was there, sitting beneath the dip in my collarbone, resting on my skin. It felt like a secret between us both.

Somehow I just knew not to say anything about it.

At dinner, Neil lay into Billy for drinking on a school night, picking him to pieces for finishing his third can of beer and saying how irresponsible it was of him.

“Like some dirty redneck,” Neil scowled bitterly.

Billy lounged at the table with his arm slung coolly over the back of his chair and pretended not to hear what his father was saying. He looked cool and careless in his open white shirt, Marlboro’s peeking out of the breast pocket.

He caught my eye across the table and winked at me, a smile on his face that said, ‘screw this guy, what a joke.’ I smiled secretly back at him, in love.

It surprised me then that my mother was the one who was standing up for him tonight. “Let him drink if he wants to,” she piped up. “We should all be celebrating, shouldn’t we? It’s not every day you get a big promotion.”

“It’s not that big a deal,” Neil said modestly, but he seemed pleased that my mom had brought it up and seemed to sober up from his lecturing after that.

“While we’re on the topic,” Neil said when my mother had cleared the table afterwards and brought out dessert. “We’d like to hear a few suggestions on Christmas presents this year. Obviously, the most important thing is that we’re celebrating the holiday for the first time as a whole family.”

“But we’d still like to know,” my mom added. “If there was anything you’d like in particular.”

Max jumped in straight away. “A new board. I saw one in the catalogue.”

“Is it expensive?” Neil asked, shooting a knowing look at my mom.

My sister shrugged, slouching into her chair. “It’s not that expensive.”

“Meaning?” My mom asked.

“Meaning, what’s your budget?” Max teased bravely and Neil threw back his head and laughed at her, actually laughed like he thought it was the funniest thing he’d heard all night.

“We’ll think about it,” he told her, not making any promises. “What about you, son? Diana, is there anything special you’d like us to get you?”

“I remember,” my mom reminisced fondly. “Diana couldn’t have been any older than five or six, and she insisted we buy her this Etch a Sketch for Christmas. And everybody else had bought her Barbies and dolls and tea sets but all day long Diana just sat there under the tree, absolutely in love with this thing. She didn’t put it down all New Year. But I never see you draw anything anymore.”

“I didn’t know you did anything creative,” Billy hummed, flicking his lighter.

“I don’t,” I said, rolling my eyes. “Mom, that was years ago.”

“Well, wouldn’t you ever like to take it up again?”

“You’re acting like I was some protege,” I laughed, not sure why I was arguing with her. “Mom, all kids draw when they’re that age. It doesn’t mean anything.”

“Well…” my mom looked like she was struggling to think of anything. “What would you like then?”

I couldn’t think of anything I wanted more than to get out of here.

I was reminded of Heather’s promise to me at her house after school, how resounding and sure she’d sounded, convinced that with her help, everything would be alright. My first Christmas in Hawkins might actually be my last too.

“It doesn’t matter,” I said, at last, softening. “It’s not important, is it?”

“You’re right.” My mom nodded at me, smiling at me across the table like she understood where I was coming from; like she knew me when she couldn’t have been any further from me. “As long as we’re together as a family, that’s all that really matters.”

I thought that despite everything, I would still miss her when we went.

Chapter Text

The next morning, breakfast started as it usually did. My mom poured Neil his coffee and scrambled his eggs, pleaded with Max to chew her toast a little quieter and floated around the kitchen in her nightgown and robe, waiting for us all to leave so she could tidy up and rearrange the house.

“I finally unpacked the last box yesterday,” my mom said, taking a sip of Neil’s coffee and kissing his forehead. “Can you believe it’s taken us so long to get ourselves organised?”

“Good things take time,” Neil answered through a mouthful of toast and egg. “We’ll be able to afford some new drapes for the hallway next week.”

My mom sat down beside him at the table, practically glowing at his promise.

I could already see her planning her next weekend trip into town, seeking out a department store that sold runners and blinds and curtain fabrics in every color she could dream of.

Those were the kind of things that made my mom happy and Neil knew it.

“Billy needs to hurry up in the shower,” Neil muttered, glancing down impatiently at his watch and then back again as if he hadn’t read it right the first time. “He’s been ages. He’ll be costing us a fortune.”

My mom didn’t say anything, just patted his hand like it wasn’t worth getting into. She glanced across the table and her eyes settled on me, sipping her coffee and smiling.

“That’s a pretty necklace,” she pointed out kindly, nodding at the gold chain peeking out from under my sweater. “Who gave you that then?”

My fingers went automatically to my throat, fingering the chain. It was hot from sitting on my skin. Neil’s were eyes on me, willing me not to say anything.

“I’ve always had it,” I shrugged coolly. “I think my dad must have got it me.”

“It’s pretty,” my mom said again. “You should wear it more often.”

I half-smiled at her, stomach churning up my coffee and cornflakes.

In the hallway, the phone started to ring, shrieking shrilly.

“Phone!” We heard Billy shout from the bathroom.

“I’ll get it.” My mom got up, brushing her hand over my shoulder as she walked by me, fondly pulling at my hair. “I can’t see who’d be calling at this time.”

Neil watched her go to the door and then turned to me, wiping his mouth with his napkin and setting it down next to his plate. “How’s school then, Diana?”

I watched him carefully over my cereal, not sure why he was bothering.

I knew he didn’t really care about little things like that.

“School’s school,” I said jadedly. “It’s fine.”

“I bet you’re looking forward to winter break,” Neil said.

“Mmm.” I took a large bite of cereal so I didn’t have to talk to him.

“Diana?” My mom came into the kitchen, the receiver pressed against her chest, frowning as she handed it to me. “It’s for you. It’s Heather Holloway.”

There was something in her voice that made me panic, snatching up the receiver and bringing it quickly to my ear. “Heather? What’s wrong?”

“Turn the TV on,” Heather’s voice came out thick and muffled.

“Turn the TV on?” I wandered into the living room; my mom, Neil and Max following me in. “What’s going on? Have you been crying?”

Heather didn’t say anything. I’d begun to think maybe the call had cut off but I could still hear her breathing down the line, sniffling and blowing her nose.

The TV flickered on, the local news station flashing up its bulletins.

“They found Barb,” Heather wailed down the phone, her voice cracking with the act of saying it out loud. “My dad’s covering it in his paper today. He said it was something to do with chemical…” she seemed to be struggling to remember exactly what it was. “Chemical asphyxiation or something.”

I could see it flashing up in front of me on the TV screen- two unfamiliar words that I didn’t understand. Barb’s picture was up there too; all red hair and large glasses, just like I remembered seeing in my True Sight.

“They’re saying there was a leak at the Lab,” Heather sniffed, trying to keep her voice steady so that I could hear her. “Some big cover up all this time; how fucked up is that? And it’s not just Barb too. There was another guy as well.”

“Bob Newby,” I answered for her, his name flashing up a few seconds after. “Shit, Heather. I worked with that guy at Radio Shack.”

It had been almost a month since Bob’s death at the Lab that night. Up until now, I hadn’t really known what ‘they’ were going to say he’d really died of.

Seeing his name and his picture up on the TV, made it seem like I was learning about it for the first time, hearing the news of his death all over again, reliving it in a way. I hadn’t expected it to hurt even more than it had before.

“My mom says I don’t have to come into school today,” Heather said after a long, long pause. “Are you going to be okay? Do you need me to come over?”

“No,” I said, the phone almost slipping in my hands. “I’ll be alright.”

Heather sounded like she’d started crying again. “I’m sorry, I have to go-”

The phone cut dead and there was a dull thud on the floor at my feet.

I looked down and realised that I’d dropped the receiver, bending and picking it back up again, my hands shaking.

My mom was saying something to me but I couldn’t hear her very well.

Her voice sounded very high and far away.

“I’m sorry, Diana,” my sister said quietly, though she knew the same as I did that words didn’t matter when you’d be dead as long as he had.

“It must be a dreadful shock,” my mom said behind me, the dullness in my hearing fading and her voice coming back in focus. “Are you alright?”

“Of course she’s not alright.” Neil caught hold of me and pulled me into his side, pressing my face into his chest, hands on the back of my head. “Look at her. She’s in shock. She’s shaking.”

A sob racked through me that I hadn’t known was coming.

“It’s alright,” Neil hummed, chin on the top of my head. “You’re allowed to cry.”

Another noise was building in my throat, breaking, muffled against the front of Neil’s sweater. I hadn’t cried for Bob for when it had first happened.

I seemed to be making up for that now.

“What’s going on?” Billy came into the room, following the noise, damp and shiny from his shower, towel around his waist. “What’s happened?”

I didn’t say anything, too choked up to speak. Neil lifted my head and tried to hold it in his hands, thumbing at the tears on my cheeks. I wriggled away from him, turning and going to Billy who tucked me automatically under his arm.

“Hey.” Billy didn’t even know what was wrong with me yet. “It’s gonna be alright, okay? I’m here, aren’t I? Diana, look at me.”

This time, Billy took my head into his hands and I let him, staring up through bleary eyes.

“I’ve got you,” he said.

I let out a shaky breath I’d been holding in, swallowing thickly.

My mother was standing to the side of us, taking all of this in and looking uncomfortable. Perhaps it was a little risky and stupid to be standing so close to him, letting him hold me and whisper things in my ear that only I could hear.

Maybe it was a little reckless, a little crazy and immature. But did any of that really matter? Did any of that matter at all, when Bob and Barbara’s deaths had been swept under the rug as some careless accident- some scandal that would rock the town for a week or two and then fade into just a memory?

Did anything really matter anymore?

“Alright, Max; Get outta the car and I’ll see you at the end of school.”

My sister clambered over the backseat, swinging her bag and dumping her board at her feet. “What about you?”

“What about me?” Billy echoed, cigarette jutting from between his teeth. “Mind your own business, kid.”

My sister threw me a long, knowing look, glancing behind her at the school and then back to me. “You’re not coming in today, are you?”

“You’re not gonna say anything, right?” I asked her.

Max rolled her eyes back at me as if the answer was plainly obvious. “I’m not a snitch, am I? Where are you going?”

“Swear to god, Max…” Billy clicked his lighter, sparking it up in front of his face. “The hell did I just tell you?”

“Yeah, yeah, yeah.” Max grumpily snatched up her board and slammed the car door shut on my side. “I’m minding my own business, okay?”

She gave me a small, apologetic wave, turning on her heel and walking in the direction of the school doors, her long red hair swinging behind her.

Usually, I would walk with her as far as the bike racks, but today was different.

Billy said school was out today.

“You shouldn’t be so hard on her,” I said, watching my sister disappear through the double doors and into the school. “You know she wouldn’t say anything.”

Billy hummed in agreement, blowing smoke out of the open window of the Camaro. “You know, believe it or not, I’ll actually miss that kid.”

“What do you mean?” I asked.

Billy fired up the engine, backing out of the parking lot and swinging the car around. He threw me a slow look, cigarette still dangling from his mouth.

“When we leave,” he said. “I’ll miss her.”

I stared at him.

Obviously, there had been no promises, no assumptions or propositions that had even suggested that my sister was a part of this newly formed getaway plan; that she’d even be a part of it or know anything about it until afterwards when we were out of there.

I didn’t know why I was only just realising that now though.

“Maybe we could wait a bit longer,” I tried, catching Billy’s look. “Wait until she’s older. So she can come with us.”

“No way.” Billy glanced back at the road, fingers tightening on the wheel. “Something’s gonna happen soon. I can tell. My dad’s out of control right now.”

“He hasn’t done anything for a while,” I tried. “It’s been weeks since he hit me.”

Billy’s jaw twitched and he didn’t look at me, eyes fixed straight ahead of him on the road. “It’s worse when he’s like this,” he explained. “You’ll see what I mean. The longer he’s like this, the worse it’ll be when it happens. It always is.”

“You don’t think he’d hurt Max do you?” I worried. “If we left?”

“He wouldn’t,” Billy said, but he didn’t sound very convincing to me.

“Max is good though,” I thought aloud. “She keeps her head down and does as she’s told.”

Billy snorted like I’d told him a joke.

“You still think any of that shit matters anymore, Diana?” He quizzed. “The man’s fucked up. Like I said, it’s all just a matter of time.”

I thought about it.

“Then I’m not so sure I want to leave anymore,” I said quietly, knotting my hands together in my lap. “Not if it’s just going to hurt Max.”

Billy let out a long breath of air, smoke filling the front of the car.

He was quiet for a long time, and for a while, there was just the sound of the road rushing past us and the growl of the engine beneath the seats.

“Look,” he said, at last, gentler this time and a lot more unsure. “We’ll talk about this later, okay?”

“Okay,” I put my forehead up against the glass, the opportunity slipping by us faster than the road markings zipping past my window.

Later, at Lover’s Lake, Billy made it easy to forget about early morning news stories and stepfathers burning away on short fuses.

When he grabbed me under the arms and pulled me with him into the backseat, it was easy not to think about Bob or Neil; A feverish kiss on the jawline made Heather’s wailing phone call forgettable, and by the time he’d tightened his hand on the back of my neck and put his knee between my legs, I’d even forgotten my own name.

Outside, it began to rain hard and fast, hammering against the metal roof and the hood of the Camaro, drumming on the windows and spitting onto the dirt outside, making slush. The water on the lake was stippled like TV static.

I didn’t even hear it.

Billy held me under his arm and took out a cigarette, lighting it and putting it slowly to my mouth for me to drag on. I still wasn’t used to smoking.

The smoke was hot and heady and filled my lungs up, sending me dizzy, like being high. I tried to speak, tongue heavy, slipping over the syllables until Billy kissed me and made it impossible for me to speak anyway.

He knew what I was going to say.

“You’re beautiful,” I gasped out, at last, looking up at him, fingers outstretched to brush the curls back from his face. “You’re so beautiful, you know that?”

“Taking my lines, Di,” Billy hummed, face dipping, burying hotly into my neck. “Jesus, you’re killing me.”

I sighed his name back.

Normally, we were all rough and tumble, quick and impatient and feverish, but this time we were slow. We moved like we were in a dream, our limbs liquid.

Billy put his fingers in my hair and then in my mouth and then eventually between my legs, my head falling back into the leather seat, my mouth opening. He watched me under him, my breathing ragged and then he lifted his arm and pressed it to my mouth and when he eventually pulled away again the denim sleeve of his jacket was stained with my waxy red lipstick.

Afterwards, when we’d tired, we fell, breathing heavy in each others arms, leaning back against windows smudged with condensation and I noticed the sound of the rain for the first time.

“Listen to that,” I said, glancing up at the roof above us. “Sounds like it could come right through, doesn’t it?”

“Nothing’s getting in here, Di,” Billy promised, planting a kiss against my bare shoulder, his voice quiet over the roar of the rain. “You alright after that?”

I was quite rightly tired now- from the crying and the fucking.

“I feel like I could sleep forever,” I said.

I felt warm and drowsy, safe against Billy’s shoulder, protected from the stormy skies outside and the rain that continued to fall, rattling like a drum above us.

“Well don’t,” Billy told me with a slow, lazy smile of his own. “Stay awake and talk to me for a minute. I think we-“

He broke off sharply, fingers snatching hastily at the necklace at my throat.

“The hell is this?” He snapped at once, his eyes sparking. “Where the hell did you get this from?”

I stared at him, startled and bothered by his sudden bout of aggressiveness.

“I’ve always had it,” I said. I pushed his hands away and bent down, reaching for my sweater which I pulled on quickly over my head. I was using the same lie on him as I used on my mom. “It’s just a necklace, what’s the big deal?”

“Big deal?” Billy laughed a horrible, frustrated laugh and tried to snatch for the necklace again. I shoved him away, sliding myself down to the other side of the seat, my hand cupping the stone protectively in my palm.

“It’s just a necklace,” I said again.

“He gave you that,” Billy spat stiffly, not moving to touch me this time. “Didn’t he?”

I didn’t know how he could know a thing like that; My mom had believed the same thing I’d told him without blinking or batting even an eye.

“Who’s he?” I asked, dragging it out.

“Don’t play dumb with me, alright?” Billy crawled down to the end of the seat and kneeled in front of me, pleading with me. “Just tell me the truth, okay? I’m not mad- I’m not mad at you, at least. I just…I need to know.”

“Know what?”

“Did my dad give you that necklace, Diana?” Billy’s tone was sharp and impatient, classic Billy when he wasn’t getting his way. “Yes or no?”

“Yes,” I said, at last, not understanding how he could even know a thing like just by looking at it. “How did you-“

“-I didn’t think he’d kept it,” he said, knowing what I was about to ask him seconds before I did. “I didn’t think he’d kept any of her things. I thought the box in California was the last one-“

“What are you talking about?”

“My mom’s necklace,” Billy snapped and he lunged forward and grasped the chain in his fingers, making me gasp. His face was pressed so close to mine that I could feel his breath on my cheek. “If it wasn’t hers,” he said slowly. “I’d rip that thing right off your neck.”

“Your mom’s necklace?” For some reason I felt disgusted, violated, dressed up like a doll I could never be. “But that’s sick. Billy, I don’t want it.”

“Well, you’ve got it.” He sounded moody, but not with me. “How long have you had that on you?”

“Since last night,” I whispered.

“Last night? Why didn’t you tell me?”

My cheeks flamed with distress at my answer. “He told me not to.”

“Fuck.” Billy looked around him for his cigarettes, spotting them on the floor beneath the front seat. “Since when did you do what he tells you to do?”

“Since he started treating me better,” I pushed, waving away the cigarette he offered me. “Billy, he’s different now.”

“He’s a creep.” Billy cupped his hand around his lighter, snapping it aggressively closed. “I don’t want him near you. You don’t spend a second alone with him, you hear me?”

“Then stop leaving me alone with him,” I said seriously, watching him stiffen up and flinch. “But Billy, what do you expect me to do? I can’t help it- when he’s nice all I want him to do is stay nice. I’d do anything.”

“Don’t say stuff like that,” Billy winced again, looking disgusted as he dragged on his cigarette. “Just don’t, okay? Talk like that makes me sick.”

“But it’s the truth.” I grabbed onto his arm, digging my nails in tight so that they left marks. “I’d do anything.”

Billy stared at me, the cigarette hanging loose from his mouth like he’d forgotten that it was even there; his arm tightening and going red under my grip. Suddenly, he leaned forward into me, breath fanning my face.

“This is why we’re getting the hell out of here,” he said fiercely. “You see what he does? You see how he gets into your head? We’re getting the hell out of here first chance we get.”

Chapter Text

The morning of Bob’s funeral, my mom ran me a hot bath, topping it up occasionally with cold water to keep it at just the right temperature.

She went and fetched her own special bath salts from her room, the ones that Neil gave her for her birthday with the potpourri and the coconut hair oil.

She said I was allowed to stay in as long as I wanted, to take my time and to just shout if I needed her.

Her over-the-top fussing was a novelty.

I climbed into the tub, letting the warm, soapy water come right up to my neck, turning my skin pink and soaking the ends of my hair that had slipped down from their bobby pins.

Beneath the water, I studied the faint bruises dappled over my ribcage, letting my fingers trace lightly over them.

They’d long faded now, but they hadn’t disappeared completely. They were still there if you looked hard enough; an ugly, brownish yellow color and I hated the sight of them.

“They’re just bruises,” Billy had said when he’d slipped my sweater over my head and tossed it onto the floor of the car. “You see this bruise here?”

He’d turned and pointed to a purplish mark on his shoulder blade, where Neil had shoved him into a wall the night he’d cancelled his date with Heather.

There was another bruise on the top of his arm, the shape of four fingertips.

A small cut above his eye too.

“They’ll go,” Billy had promised me, bending his head and kissing the yellowing marks, not so tender anymore. “You can hardly see them anymore, alright?”

The bathwater made the bruises look softer, almost translucent. I pressed down on my hip with a firm hand. The pain was nothing but a dull ache now.

Afterwards, when I got out of the bath and towelled myself dry, I was all shiny and pink from the heat of the water. My mom said she had laid my clothes out for me on my bed, so I padded down to my room and put them on. It was the same black dress I’d worn to my date with Steve, a black jacket with shoulder pads that I’d borrowed from my mom’s closet and a pair of her black heels.

I went out into the hall and showed her, turning slowly when she asked me to.

She said I looked grownup.

“You can borrow my pearl earrings too if you want,” she suggested kindly, but I thought it was too much.

“What time are we leaving?”

She glanced at her watch. “Five minutes.”

“Okay.” I went and found my sister sitting alone in her room, cleaning up her skateboard with an old rag and a bottle of Windex.

She looked up when she saw me enter, smiling and putting her board to one side.

“Hey,” she said.

“Hey, yourself.”

I toed an invisible circle into the rug at my feet. I didn’t like keeping secrets from her. We used to tell each other everything. That’s just what sisters did.

“It’s your dance tonight,” I remembered, glancing up at the blue sweater and new pants hanging on the back of the closet. “Got a date yet?”

My sister’s cheeks went pink at the question. “We’re going as friends,” she said, trying to be serious. “As a group.”

“Is a certain Lucas Sinclair going to be a part of that group?”

“We’re just friends,” she insisted, but she was laughing. “He probably wouldn’t even have the balls to ask me to dance. I’d end up doing it myself.”

“So ask him,” I pushed her, hiding a laugh behind my hand. “You know, guys like it when they don’t have to do all the work all the time.”

“I think that borders on too much information.” My sister screwed up her face and rolled her eyes. “You didn’t make the first move with Steve,” she said.

My first instinct was to burst out laughing, sinking down into the mattress with a quick glance at the door. “How do you even know about that?”

“Steve told Dustin,” Max shrugged casually and peeked up at me to make sure I wasn’t mad. “You know he tells that kid everything, right?”

“Steve’s gonna have to keep his mouth shut,” I mused, but then I grew serious. “He’s great, really. But I couldn’t go through with it in the end.”

“Go through with that?” Max asked.

“A relationship,” I added quickly. “Another date.”

“Because of Billy?”

I smiled stupidly at the mention of his name. “Yeah, because of him.”

My mom called for me in the kitchen, telling me it was time to go.

I could hear her snatching up the car keys off the counter and I suddenly grew cold and nervous, not sure if I was really ready to leave like I’d said I was.

It was my first ever funeral.

I ruffled Max’s hair on my way to the door, walking slowly down the hallway and joining my mom in the kitchen. She was pulling on her coat, tugging her hair out from under her collar. She stopped and smiled sadly when she saw me.

“Oh God,” she said quietly, dropping her arms back at her sides. “Darling, I wish you’d let me go with you. You shouldn’t have to do this alone.”

“I won’t be alone,” I said. “Some of my friends from school will be there.”

I didn’t know how to tell her that I didn’t want her there; that I didn’t want her looking me over with her teary eyes and fussing over me with her simpering tone and doting embraces.

I didn’t know how to make it obvious to her that I hated how she was only there for me when she wanted to be.

When it suited her the most.

And I almost hated her for it, which just made me hate myself for hating her.

“I’ll be fine,” I said instead.

In the car, my mom and I drove in silence for some of the way, my head flat against the passenger side window, watching my breath fog up the glass.

We’d had the radio on for a little while, the station tuned automatically to some channel that only ever played fifties and sixties music- the kind of stuff old people listened to on their porches.

I’d rolled my eyes at the song choice and tried to flip through the stations for something more modern sounding, but just as I found the station I liked, my mom switched the radio off.

“I want to talk to you,” she said seriously before I even had time to protest. “And don’t roll your eyes at me either, because this is serious.”

I slouched down in my seat, keeping quiet.

I had a feeling I already knew what this was going to be about.

It was the only time she ever really talked to me.

“I know about you and Billy,” she told me, keeping her eyes on the road. “I don’t need any of the details but I have a few things I’d like to ask you.”

“What do you know already?” I asked her tentatively, not surprised by the subject choice. It always came to this.

“I know you’re with him again,” she answered. “And I assume you’re sleeping with him again too? Seeing as that’s all he actually wants from you.”

I couldn’t even believe what I was hearing. As if it was any of her business what he did to me.

“You don’t have a goddamn clue,” I snapped, growing red with frustration and glaring hotly out of the window. “You think that’s all we do?”

“I heard him leaving your room again this morning,” my mom pointed out, all matter of factly. “And Neil might be a heavy sleeper once he gets off, but I’m not. I can hear everything.”

“So he fucks me,” I snapped, turning to my mother and seeing her flinch at the vulgarity of the word. “So what if he does? I’m the one asking him to do it.”

“I’m sure you are.” My mother’s fingers were white on the steering wheel, visibly upset, not believing me. “And I suppose it was your idea to take up smoking and skip school the other week?”

I didn’t know how she knew about that one.

“Your school called me,” she stated, answering the question that lay unspoken between us. “You’re lucky I decided not to tell Neil.”

“Why not, mom?” I faked stupid, blinking at her innocently, though my hands were wedged between my knees to stop them shaking. “What would have happened if you’d told him?”

My mom shot me a look and then looked away again.

She didn’t want to look me in the eye for too long.

“You shouldn’t upset him,” she said. “And it will upset him if he finds out about you two again. And if you end up doing anything stupid, then I might just have to tell him myself anyway.”

“You mean like Billy knocking me up?” I asked her rudely, watching her flinch again. “Is that what you mean, mom?”

“That,” she agreed. “And other things.”

I turned slowly back to the window, scoffing, drawing on the fogged up glass with my index finger. “I’ll be eighteen soon,” I said. “You won’t be able to tell me what to do anymore.”

“I’m not telling you what to do,” my mom sighed. “I think we all know by now that you can’t be managed. I’m just warning you, that’s all. And I want you to know that I’m not happy about it.”

“You’re never happy about anything,” I sulked sullenly. “Only thing you ever care about is noiseless drape runners.”

“That’s not true,” my mom argued, blinking quickly at the windscreen. “But Diana, if anything happens. If you get yourself in trouble or do something stupid, you’re on your own. I won’t be able to help you.”

She didn’t help me anyway, I thought.

“I just think you’re going to end up making a stupid mistake,” my mom went on. “You’re going to end up with a man just like your father- a layabout, a good-for-nothing slob who’ll spend all his money on beers and fixing up his car.”

“Dad never hit though, did he?” I jumped in. “So there’s that at least.”

The car had pulled up outside the cemetery, and I could see Joyce up ahead, leaning onto Jonathan’s arm while they both talked with the minister.

Steve Harrington was loitering near the gates smoking a cigarette.

“Are you sure you don’t want me to stay with you?” My mom asked me after a long period of silence. “I know we’re not seeing eye to eye right now but I still want you to know that I’ll stay with you- if you need me.”

“I don’t need you,” I interjected harshly, unfastening my seatbelt. I didn’t look to see if she’d flinched this time. “I’ll be fine on my own.”

“Diana-” My mom leaned over into the passenger seat, giving a desperate sigh as I climbed out of the car, my hand gripping the top of the open door. “I just want you to be happy,” she tried. “You know that, right? I’m your mother.”

I knew that was all she wanted really, but who was she to decide what made me happy or not? What made her happy didn’t necessarily make me happy.

“Don’t bother coming for me later,” I said simply, swinging the car door shut behind me. “I’ll get Steve to give me a ride home afterwards.”

It began to rain during the service.

The eight of us that had gathered to remember Bob huddled together beneath the rusty, orange oak trees, clutching large umbrellas with numbed fingers and squinting through the sheet of rain that fell miserably down.

Bob would have said it was ridiculous, us all standing out here in the rain like that just for him. He would have told us to get back inside where it was warm and have a cup of hot cocoa or something.

I sort of felt like I deserved it though.

Bob’s parents hadn’t made it to the funeral. Steve whispered to me that they were still in Maine and hadn’t got a flight out for some reason.

I couldn’t imagine wanting to go to my son’s funeral either.

I understood them, but it still surprised me that the number of attendees was so small. There was Joyce and Will and Jonathan, and Nancy and the Chief had come along to support them. There were no employees from the Radio Shack or friends of friends that had come to pay their respects. I had thought there would be high school friends, ex-girlfriends, past colleagues and employers. But there eight people in total, including the minister.

“Doesn’t that make you mad?” I asked Steve afterwards, when we were all making our way back to the cars outside the gates. “Eight people showed up. Eight people out of all the people who live in this town? And he died for them.”

“They don’t know that though,” Steve said when we reached his car, patting his pockets for his cigarettes. He smoked Parliaments, I noticed, not Marlboro like Billy did. “If they knew, maybe they’d care more, you know?”

“It’s just not fair,” I sighed, leaning back against the hood. “All those people in your life and when it’s over, who the hell do you have to show for it?”

“You,” Steve said, sticking one cigarette in his mouth and another behind his ear. “Mrs Byers, Hop, Nancy, Will. The people that matter. You think Bob’s gonna give a shit whether his fifth-grade teacher showed up?”

I thought he might have had a point. “I guess not.”

“Diana?” Joyce came over to us with her arm linked through the Chief’s. She was wearing a black turtle neck under a brown jacket, like she didn’t have anything else to match. “How are you feeling, sweetie?”

“I should be asking you that,” I said, coming over and taking her hands in mine. “I’m so sorry that it all came to this. I’m sorry that it rained and I’m sorry that it took so long for it all to come out.”

“None of that’s your fault,” she said kindly, squeezing my hands back. “You know, Bob would have really liked that you were here today.”

“You think so?” I asked, pleased. “And you’re doing okay?”

“Oh, I’m fine.” Joyce was putting on a brave face. “Don’t worry about me.”

“What are you kids doing now?” The Chief asked, drawing Joyce comfortingly closer into his side. “You got a ride home, Diana?”

“We were gonna go get some fries,” Steve said, turning to me for confirmation and lighting his cigarette. “I said I’d take her home after.”

The Chief was still looking at me. He had the kind of stare that made you feel like he could see right into your head. “Everything alright at home, kid?”

“Everything’s fine,” I said, trying to sound like I meant it. I was telling myself that as well as him. “Home is great, actually. My step-dad just got a promotion and my mom’s really happy about it, and my sister’s going to the Snow Ball tonight and everything is just really, really great.”

I thought I might have overdone that a little, I regretted after.

The Chief raised both his eyebrows at me. “Well, that is great,” he said slowly and I thought he sounded convinced. Maybe. “Well, don’t us keep you, huh?”

“Yeah,” Steve opened the car door for me, going round to his side. “I mean, we should get going if we don’t want the scraps. You don’t have a curfew right?”

“It’s like three in the afternoon,” I pointed out, laughing and climbing into the car beside him. “Nobody has a curfew in the middle of the afternoon, Steve.”

“Do you believe in God?” I asked.

Steve stared at me over his burger, several fries already halfway to his mouth.

We were sitting in the parking lot of Benny’s, sipping coke out of plastic cups with flimsy, ill-fitting lids. Steve let the question hover for a moment.

“That’s kind of a deep question,” he said, through a mouthful of fries. “Pretty deep shit to think about when you’re eating fast food, huh?”

“We just got back from a funeral,” I reminded him. “What’s deep about it?”

Steve nodded, my point made and accepted. He chewed thoughtfully for a long time and helped himself to some of my fries. “I don’t know,” he said, at last.

“I definitely don’t.” I handed him the rest of my food. “Not after everything that’s happened. If there was a God then bad things wouldn’t happen to good people. Bob would still be alive and all of that shit that Will went through…”

“Wouldn’t have happened either,” Steve finished for me, nodding. “I get it.”

Stuff like that was hard to put into words. People always made a point of saying, when they watched the news or read the paper, that it was only ever the good that died young. Some people said it was because God thought they were too good for this world and wanted them back up in heaven with him. I thought that if that was true, then God must be the sickest being alive.

I thought about all the people in the world who’d lost their homes and their jobs, got knocked around by bullies at school and cried themselves to sleep at night. I thought about all the people who got killed in freak accidents and storms and hurricanes and all the people who had to live on after them, suffering all that pain and loneliness for years and years, just living.

If there was a God, then I didn’t believe he was a nice God. I thought maybe he must like to see people suffering. He never seemed to do anything about it.

“I think when we die,” I mused. “It all just goes black, you know? And you can’t feel anything. Can’t see anything. Can’t hear anything.”

“Sounds shit,” Steve said, making me laugh.

“I just hope that whatever it is,” I tried to explain. “Whatever ‘death’ is, whatever it’s supposed to mean…I hope it’s peaceful. And I hope it isn’t scary.”

Steve was squinting at me in the driver’s seat, his brown eyes pooling with what I could only describe as understanding- he got what I was saying.

“It was Barb’s funeral last week,” Steve said, tucking a strand of my hair back behind my ear. “And I didn’t know her that well when she was alive. She was just this girl that Nance hung out with and she was so ordinary that nobody ever really paid any attention to her. But at her funeral, I kept looking at that picture of her that they had next to her parents, and it was like I couldn’t really believe she’d gone, you know? She just wasn’t there anymore but I couldn’t get my head around the fact that she wasn’t coming back. I think maybe that’s what death is. You just stop existing but you don’t go anywhere.”

I noticed that Steve’s hand was still hovering by my face. He noticed too and quickly pulled his hand away, waving the last few fries at me to see if I wanted them. “You know, we haven’t really talked much since our date,” he said.

“I thought we agreed we were just friends,” I started, not liking where the conversation was going. “We can be friends, can’t we?”

“Totally.” Steve looked mortified that I looked so uncomfortable. “And that’s what I wanted to talk to you about. I felt so shit afterwards, rushing everything like that, kissing you and trying to-”

“-it’s fine,” I assured him quickly. “There was a minute when I thought that was what I wanted, but then I realised that I didn’t. And that’s got nothing to do with you and the way you kiss or anything. I’m just really…”

“Hung up on somebody else,” Steve finished for me. “It’s okay. I get it.”

I was glad we could be friends.

It felt nice to have somebody to talk to who understood what I’d gone through with the Upside Down and the Shadow Monster and everything that had happened in-between. There were some nights when I woke up shaking and drenched in sweat, and half-crying into my pillow with fear. It took everything not to tell Billy about what I was really dreaming about, instead of making up some vague excuse that I couldn’t remember.

I knew he thought that my nightmares were about Neil and sometimes they were; Sometimes he was waiting for me at the end of a long hallway that I couldn’t stop walking down, even if I wanted to. Sometimes the monster was there instead of Neil, his long, shadowy arms stretched out towards me.

Sometimes Neil and the Shadow Monster were the same.

Chapter Text

It was almost dark when Steve finally dropped me off outside my house at six o’clock. He parked up in front of the driveway and didn’t stay long after that.

He told me he’d promised Dustin almost three weeks ago that he’d give him a ride to the school dance and pick him up again.

I told him he should start charging and become a full-time chauffeur.

“That’ll be twenty bucks,” Steve demanded with a laugh and he held his hand out expectantly. Then he laughed again, started up the engine and said he’d see me later.

I watched, waiting until he’d driven away before I turned and made my way back up the driveway and up to the house. I noticed with a dull sense of appreciation that Neil’s pick-up truck wasn’t parked up under the window where it usually was. I thought maybe he and my mom had taken Max to the Snow Ball and then gone out for the night by themselves.

They did that sometimes.

“I’m home,” I sang anyway, when I went inside, wiping the soles of my shoes on the rug and pushing the door closed until I heard the catch click. “Billy?”

There was no answer.

None of the lights in the kitchen or any of the backrooms was on.

I noticed that there was a lamp on in the living room, but my mom had a habit of leaving at least one light on whenever we went out at night.

She thought it warded off burglars and thieves.

Neil had been telling her all Fall that she didn’t need to worry about that anymore. We weren’t in California now.

“Anybody home?” I asked again.

I slid my purse down onto the kitchen counter and made my way into the living room, slipping out of my mom’s shoes and kicking them to one side.

The toes and the heel of the black patent pumps were crusted with dirt and bits of grass from when it had been raining during the service.

I punched the red button on the TV remote and the screen flickered to life, some overly cheerful gameshow host smiling back out at me through the screen, his teeth stunningly white.

I sat down on the couch, tucking my legs up under me.

I didn’t really care much about what was on the TV; it was background noise really. I just hated sitting in a quiet house. I hated the noises a building made when it settled and the noises you noticed when you were alone.

When you thought you were alone.

I looked over at the living room door all of a sudden, my ears pricking up at a sound from the hallway. The doorway was dark and shadowy, quiet now.

“Billy?” I asked, my voice straining through the silence. “Is that you?”

“Sorry to disappoint you,” Neil came out of the hallway and came to stand in front of the living room door. “It’s just me.”

He was smiling at me, the white light from the TV ghosting over his face.

He came further into the room and I sprang up quickly, dropping the remote onto the rug where it landed with a dull, hollow clatter.

“I didn’t know you were here,” I said quickly, almost like I was apologising for being in the room the same time as him. “I thought you’d taken Max to the Snow Ball or something.”

“Not me,” Neil said, coming over to the couch. “Just your mom.”

My eyes snapped to the dark hallway behind him.

“Is Billy here?” I asked.

“Billy?” He said his name like he’d never heard it, pausing for a millisecond and then shaking his head. “No. No, I don’t think so.”

“Then I’m going to go find him.” I tried to step forward but Neil caught me with his shoulder, jarring into me, blocking my way out.

“He’s not here,” he said abruptly, catching my wrist and passively forcing me back onto the couch. “Sit back down.”

I did.

“Where is he?” Neil’s fingers were beginning to hurt. I rotated my wrist slowly, trying to slip my hand out from under his grip. “I don’t believe you.”

“So call him,” Neil shrugged casually, looking around him at the empty living room. “See if he comes when you call him.”

“You’re lying,” I said and I winced when his hold on me tightened.

Neil had the nerve to look confused, his forehead furrowing so that all the creases appeared at once. “Now, why would I lie about a thing like that?”

He didn’t bother waiting for my answer.

“Your mom told me you had a fight with her this morning,” he said, and suddenly his voice was warm and sympathetic. “You want to tell me what happened? She was very upset.”

“She was?” A pang of guilt tore involuntarily at my stomach and I just hoped she hadn’t been crying. “It was stupid really. I don’t even remember how it all started now. I guess it doesn’t matter.”

Neil hummed. “Your mom thought it might have been because it was your first time. Your first time at a funeral.”

“Yeah,” I said listlessly. “Maybe.”

Neil let go of my wrist. There were tiny red marks where his fingers had been digging in, sore crescents from his nails. He reached up and pushed my bangs back gently from my face, the heel of his palm pressing into my forehead.

“You want to talk to me about it?”

I turned my face away, eyeing the wall beside the sofa. “I don’t know. It’s late.”

“Late?” Neil echoed and he laughed. “It’s not even seven. You can talk to me, can’t you? Come on…you know I was only twelve years old when I went to my first funeral? It was my mothers.”

“Your mother’s?”

Neil nodded. “Everybody said it was the stress of having all those babies, but I know she drank herself to death. She drank a lot back then and the drink killed her in the end. Sometimes I see her in Billy when he gets that way.”

“Drinking?” I asked.

“Drinking, attitude, meanness.” Neil narrowed his eyes at me coolly, making sure I was listening. “My old man was mean too but I don’t think he meant it. He just wanted us to respect him.”

I didn’t know why he was telling me all of this.

He’d sidled up closer to me on the couch as he’d been me telling his story, and now his knee was touching mine. I deftly moved my knee away.

“What was your mom like?” I asked him because I didn’t know what else to say.

For a second or two, Neil looked like he didn’t want to answer the question.

For a terrifying moment, I thought he was going to get mad.

“Oh, she was always crying about something,” he remembered at last, almost begrudgingly. “Always complaining and never happy about anything. She always made it very clear that she didn’t want any of us; never wanted any more kids after my eldest brother. ‘Cept my father kept giving us to her.”

“Did you love her?” I asked.

Neil’s eyes flashed indignantly at the question, settling on me instead.

“You’re still wearing it,” he said.

“What?”

“The necklace I gave you,” Neil reached out and plucked at the necklace by my throat, nursing the stone in the cup of his palm. “You’re still wearing it.”

“Oh.” It was one of the only times I ever blushed for real, cheeks stinging and burning. “You said it was a birthday present.”

“You wanted me to say it was a birthday present.” He was peering at me, trying very hard to read my face. “You know, I’ve always wondered what it is that goes on in that head of yours.”

“How’d you mean?” I asked, mildly offended.

“Well, you just always seem to have this faraway look in your eyes.” Neil toyed with the gold chain, fingers brushing the collar of my jacket. “I wonder where you go when you get like that.”

“I don’t know,” I said.

“Away with the fairies,” Neil quoted, laughing. “Isn’t that what people say?”

“I guess they do, yeah.”

A terrible sinking feeling had settled in my stomach and I didn’t know what it was or where it had come from. It was melancholy and loneliness and an urge to get up and away from him all at once.

“What’s the matter?” Neil asked me, noticing the look on my face. “You look sad. Is it because of the funeral? I shouldn’t have made you talk about it if you didn’t want to. That wasn’t fair.”

“What are you doing?”

Neil had slipped his arm around me, my shoulder wedged under his armpit, his hand still fingering the gold chain around my neck.

I stared at the floor.

He kissed me once on the cheek, just beside my ear.

“Nothing,” he sighed, giving me another kiss. “Just making it better.”

I squeezed my eyes shut, face scrunching up automatically in disgust as he kissed me again, this time below my ear.

He caught hold of my face and made me look at him.

“Don’t,” I said, but I didn’t move.

“Come on, Diana,” Neil’s voice was soft and quiet, so quiet I could hardly hear him. It was coercive and gentle and trusting. His mouth brushed mine, tentatively, just testing. “I’m just being nice to you, aren’t I? See?”

He kissed me on the mouth again and this time I let him, my eyes pricking with tears. I thought I was going to be sick.

“That’s it,” Neil hummed, kissing me again. “Everything’s alright, isn’t it?”

“Don’t,” I repeated, and I didn’t understand why I was just sitting there. I was screaming at my legs to move but it was like they’d forgotten how to work.

“That’s it,” Neil said again.

It was all he said.

“Please.” I started to cry when his hand went to the back of my neck, trying to guide me down into the couch. I hated how small my voice sounded, how it cracked and got all choked up. I stiffened up and my voice seemed to get louder, breaking with anger and frustration. “I said, get off of me!”

I jerked away, my body moving on its own again, twisting and attempting to jump up from the couch. Neil caught me by the arm and we struggled, my elbow knocking him in the nose.

The sound it made was flat and heavy.

Neil swore, pushing me face down into the couch. I threw myself off sideways, landing on the rug and on top of the TV remote. Neil tackled me, grabbing hair.

“Bitch!” He spat and there was blood on his nose that dripped onto my forehead. “I don’t understand, Diana. I’ve tried to be nice to you, haven’t I? Haven’t I been trying to take care of you?”

It was difficult to breathe with his weight on me, difficult to kick at him with his legs on top of mine. I felt blindly for the TV remote, snatching for it and bringing it up to his face. Neil caught it before I could hit him, knocking it to one side.

He was furious, pulling sharply on my hair until it hurt.

“What, are you crazy?” He seethed, kneeling right down over me into my face. “Are you crazy, huh? What’s the matter with you?”

He shook me and the back of my head hit the floor.

“I’m sorry!” I choked out, though I wasn’t. I just wanted him to stop.

It felt like everything inside of me was going to come loose and spill out of me onto the rug. “I’m sorry, okay?”

“Disrespecting me?” Neil went on as if he hadn’t heard me. He knocked at my knee with his. “Thinking you can get away with hitting me? After everything I’ve done for you?”

“Get off me!” I screamed.

Neil punched at the cabinet by my head and everything inside the cabinet rattled and shook. I flinched away, eyes squeezed shut.

“That should have gone to you,” he breathed. “Nothing but a damn tease. Making me soft on you, smoking those cigarettes, makin’ your eyes all wide when you look at me. Wearing that shit all over your face.”

“You’re hurting me!”

“Then stay still.” He caught both of my wrists in his hands, bending them down and into my side. “That’s what you’re going to do, okay? Just stay still.”

I felt his knee knocking my knee again and this time I opened my mouth to scream, his hand clamping down over my face and muffling half of it. For some reason I kept on screaming anyway, angry and guttural against his hand, trying to strain and bite against him.

“What the hell are you doing?” I could hear someone else’s voice behind me and boots crashing across the floor. “Get the hell off of her!”

Suddenly, Neil wasn’t on top of me anymore. He was sprawling on the floor like somebody had shoved him back. Then he was on his feet, wiping at his bloody nose and breathing hard. It sounded like he was laughing, but he wasn’t.

It didn’t click in my head what had happened until I saw Billy standing there, one hand on his father’s chest as if he could hold him back that way.

I sat up quickly, dazed. “Billy!”

Billy turned and looked over his shoulder at me. The look on his face made me want to start crying. His face softened and he came over, crouching down in front of me. “Are you alright, Diana? Look at me, are you okay?”

I couldn’t say anything all of a sudden, words thick in my throat. “Oh, God…”

“You’re alright now.” He thumbed at the blood on my face. “Shit, your head.”

“It’s not mine,” I said, numbed.

Billy stood up again, turning back around to Neil. “The hell is wrong with you?”

Neil had caught his breath, straightening his clothes and mopping his nose up with tissue from his pocket. He waved the bloody tissue in the air like a flag.

“She hit me first,” he said, defensively. “I was just teaching her a lesson.”

“I know what you were doing,” Billy said slowly. “It’s sick.”

“Oh yeah?” Neil raised both of his eyebrows at him. “What’s that then?”

Billy didn’t say anything. He turned and made for the other side of the room, heading for the door. I panicked, thinking he was leaving me.

Billy raised the phone up from its cradle.

“What are you doing now?” Neil asked, laughing like it was all some big joke.

“I’m calling the police.”

“To tell them what?” Neil shot me a hot look from his side of the room. “That I tackled her in self-defence? You see any bruises on her? I haven’t hit her.”

Billy started dialling. “Diana, get over here.”

I stood up and went to him. And Billy tucked me underneath his arm, pressing me into his side. His leather jacket was wet with rain.

“You think anybody’s gonna believe you?” Neil cut in, watching us. “You think anybody’s gonna take your word over mine? I’m respected around here, people know me. I’m a good guy and you’re a doped up sack of shit screwing his slut of a step-sister.”

He jabbed a finger at us as if to prove his point. “And everybody knows it.”

Billy’s fingers tightened around my shoulder, the knuckles on his other hand going white as they gripped the phone. “It’s ringing,” he said stiffly.

“Nobody’s going to believe you.”

Billy glanced at me and I saw doubt creeping into his eyes.

I shook my head at him slowly, pleading with him not to give up like I’d given up. He needed to keep going. I was begging him to.

Billy kissed me quickly on the forehead.

“Put the phone down,” Neil said, stalking slowly across the room towards us. “Put it down and we’ll forget all about it.“

There was an excruciating, pregnant pause as I waited to see what Billy would do. I could hear the dial tone by his ear, the creaking of his jacket as he pressed me further into him. I swallowed thickly, not even breathing.

“Put it down!” Neil barked, his voice booming and making me jump. And just like that, Billy slammed the phone back down onto the stand.

“That’s better,” his father said, looking pleased. “Don’t do anything stupid.”

“I should beat the shit out of you,” Billy said bravely, letting go of me and going to stand in front of Neil. “I told you to leave her alone. I told you.”

Neil looked vaguely amused at the idea of Billy doing anything of the sort. “You don’t even have it in you,” he sneered. “A pussy. You’ve always been a pussy.”

“Billy…” I didn’t even know why was I saying anything.

I didn’t know what it would do.

“Come on then,” Neil goaded, pointing cockily to his jaw. “Come on then tough guy, how about you go ahead and do that, huh? I’ll give you the first punch. I’ll let you prove it to me. Prove to me and Diana how tough you really are.”

He was right up in Billy’s face, almost spitting on him. one hand on his belt as he stood there, waiting for him to make the first move.

“One punch,” Neil said again. “One swing and maybe you’ll impress me.”

I couldn’t see Billy’s face from where I was standing, and I was glad.

I knew he wasn’t going to do it.

Neil stepped back, rocking with a satisfied smile onto his heels. “That’s what I thought,” he sneered. “A gutless shit.”

I let out a long, shaky breath I hadn’t realised I’d been holding. Had it been Nate, some biker from the Roadhouse, Buck with his long hair and donkey jacket; had it been any of them, Billy would have swung a punch their way no problem. He’d have mashed them beneath his fingers until their noses were bloody and their teeth were on the floor. You wouldn’t have been able to drag him off them, had it been anybody else but the one man Billy couldn’t hit.

Neil was right. He didn’t have it in him, but not for the reasons he said. Not because he was gutless or a coward. At this point it came down to basic biology; your body simply wouldn’t let you. It was the same reason I’d squeezed my eyes shut and let Neil kiss me, why my legs hadn’t seemed to work and why Billy had put the phone down.

It was submission in the name of self-preservation; the belief that if you didn’t do as you were told, something much worse was going to come along soon. And it didn’t matter how angry you were or how much you wanted to fight it, that response, or lack of a response, became a part of you, like your DNA.

“What’s everybody standing around here for?” My mom’s voice appeared in the doorway, surprising us all. She smiled brightly at us, completely oblivious, swinging a plastic carrier bag in her hand. “I stopped by at the video store. Anyone up for a movie?”

She turned to me and held the bag out to me like a peace offering. She must have seen the tear tracks on my cheeks because for a split second I saw the concern flash and flicker in her eyes, but then it was gone again.

“I’m tired,” I said simply, turning her down. “Sorry.”

“Well…maybe tomorrow night then?” My mom suggested hopefully, not hiding her disappointment very well. “They’re Christmas movies. Your favourite.”

I wasn’t in the mood for any kind of movie. I just stared at her, pleading at her with my eyes to ask me what was wrong. Maybe if she asked, I’d tell her.

“They’re probably a bit too old for Christmas movies now,” Neil cut in, and it was his way of telling us both to leave.

“Oh.” My mom gave a half-smile, blinking quickly and taking the bag back from my hands. “Yes, you’re probably right. You’re not kids anymore.”

Another second passed. Another opportunity for her to ask me went by.

I was beginning to think by now that she’d probably never ask.

(And maybe I was fine with that and maybe I wasn’t.)

“Come on,” I said, slipping my arm through Billy’s. “Let’s go.”

“Where are you going?” Neil asked quickly when we reached the door.

I turned to him, my face blank, my voice flat. “Nowhere,” I said.

I could hear Neil talking to my mom as we went to my room, his voice too cheerful and over-confident. I knew that we’d shaken him all the same, as much as he liked to pretend we hadn’t.

It gave me some pleasure in knowing that for just one second, when Billy had picked that phone up, he’d actually been as scared as we were.

In my room, I fell back against the closed door and let Billy kiss me, my arms going up around his neck and pulling him fiercely into me. He smelled clean and he was warm and safe and I buried my face into the side of his neck, the collar of his leather jacket rubbing against my cheek. I savoured safety.

“You’re alright now,” Billy kept assuring me, mumbling it against my mouth and into my hair. “I’ve got you, okay? Everything’s alright now.”

I tried to shrug him out of his leather jacket, slipping my hands into his open shirt. Billy caught my hands and held them tightly in his, squeezing my fingers.

“No,” he told me, holding me fast. “You don’t wanna do that now.”

I did. “I do,” I breathed, pulling him by the hands into me. “Please, Billy.”

I tried to put his hands on me.

“I’m serious, Diana.” Billy’s voice rapped out sharply and I stopped, startled.

“You don’t want me?” I asked him slowly. “Because of what happened?”

“Of course I want you.” Billy looked confused that I’d even think such a thing. “But not like this, okay? Not when you’re not thinking straight-”

“-I am thinking straight-”

“-No, you’re not.” Billy put both hands on the side of my head and my hands went up and grabbed at his wrists, just holding them. “Did he hurt you? Bad?”

“Not bad.” I couldn’t bring myself to say it either. “I thought he would.”

“I thought he had,” Billy admitted. “At first. When I heard you.”

“Where did you go?” I tried not to sound resentful for him not being there like he said he would be. I knew it wasn’t really his fault. “Where were you?”

“Tommy H’s,” Billy said, looking upset anyway. “I’m sorry.”

I turned my face to the side and pressed my lips against the heel of his palm, keeping them there for a long time.

“You didn’t call them,” I said into his wrist.

“Eighty-three,” Billy said.

“Eighty-three?”

“That’s how many times I’ve picked that phone up,” he confessed. “Eighty-three times and the closest I got to actually calling somebody was tonight.”

“Why didn’t you? Why didn’t you call them in the end?”

Billy thumbed softly at my cheek. “Because my mom called them once,” he said. “And you know what the cops told her?”

“What did they tell her?”

“They told her to stop wasting their time and to apologise for whatever it was she’d done to make my dad so mad.”

I stared at him, his words hitting home. It sounded like my mother.

“We’re never going to get out of here, are we?” I whispered, the bare-faced reality of it setting in. “We’re stuck here, aren’t we? We’re never leaving.”

“Don’t talk like that, alright?” Billy sounded deadly serious. “Diana, you’re tough, okay? Tougher than you think. I couldn’t hit him tonight but you could. And you did. You hurt him back.”

“It made him angry,” I worried.

“It made him scared.”

Then Billy kissed me, pulling me protectively into the front of him, my chin on his shoulder. “We don’t give up now, okay? We keep going.”

I thought I could do it if he could. If he stuck with me.

“And we never say die,” I said, half-smiling into his sleeve. “Right?”

“Right,” Billy said. “And we never say die.”

Chapter Text

Billy had started his Christmas morning on the back steps of the house; barefoot, shirt unbuttoned like it was eighty-six degrees outside, hair tousled from sleep and dragging on his cigarette until the end glowed red hot.

He was scowling and muttering to himself.

My sister, winter coat and boots pulled on hurriedly over her pajamas, slipped excitedly past him to jump down into the powdery white snow that covered the whole of the yard. It was the first time any of us had ever really seen it.

“Shit cold,” Billy said moodily, watching my sister hopping up and down on one foot. “This blows. I’m going back to bed.”

I came up behind him, joining him in the doorway to peer over his shoulder at my sister, who was watching the snow crumble and powder into her hands.

“It’s Christmas day,” I tried.

“So what?” Billy said.

“So you can’t go back to bed once you’ve woken up. That’s the rule.”

Billy hid his smile behind his cigarette, smirking as he exhaled smoke out into the yard. “Don’t be such a buzzkill, Mayfield.”

Behind us, my mom cleared her throat. Neil looked up from the table.

“Close the door if you’re not going out,” he said stiffly. “It costs money to keep this house warm you know.”

“You’re making me cold just looking at you,” my mom said, cracking eggs into a bowl and whisking them with her fork. “Don’t you own a sweater, Billy?”

He did, actually. I’d seen several of them hanging in his bedroom closet, including a letterman jacket from his old school that he said he wouldn’t be caught dead in unless he was really made to. I’d tried it on late one night when talk had turned silly and we were too late into the night to sleep anymore.

“Vanity,” Neil sniffed rudely.

Billy swung the door shut with a bang. “You’re looking tired, dad.”

Neil shot him a cold look.

He and my mom had gone out the night before to a Christmas Eve party at the home of a colleague’s, leaving me and Billy at home to babysit Max.

Billy hadn’t been very happy about it. There’d been a party at Tina’s while her parents were at a function of their own and he was furious to have missed it.

“Very tired,” Billy repeated, raising an eyebrow at me. “What do you think, Diana? Looks like a hangover to me.”

I just smiled at him.

It made me nervous when he got this way, even though I knew he couldn’t really help it. Living with the Hargrove men meant watching them fight a constant battle for power most days. And I guessed it was obvious that Christmas wasn’t going to be any different from any other day either.

Billy winked at me.

The phone in the hallway began to ring.

“I’ll get it,” I said then, rushing quickly out into the hall to answer.

I was secretly glad for something to do, wondering how long I would be able to take Billy and Neil’s passive-aggressive digs at one another.

I snatched up the receiver with a grateful sigh, leaning back against the wall.

“Hargrove residence,” I sang.

“Is that you, Diana?”

“Dad?” I clutched the phone tight in my hands, happy to hear his voice after so long. “God, you sound so far away.”

“So do you,” he said. “I’ve missed you.”

“You never call anymore.”

“Life gets in the way, darling.” He sighed deeply like he didn’t want to get into it all. “You know how it is.”

“Yeah,” I said. “I understand.”

“Did you get the presents I sent you?”

“Yes.” They were sitting under the tree with the rest of the paper parcels, waiting to be opened after dinner.

“And is Max okay?”

“She’s out in the yard,” I said. “It’s been snowing all night.”

“Yeah? No way.” My father sounded distracted, like somebody had just come into the room. “That’s cool.”

I suspected it was Cynthia.

“It’s my first Christmas without you,” I said, the receiver slackening a little in my hand. “It’s weird. Doesn’t feel the same without you somehow.”

There was a long silence over the phone.

“You’re breaking my heart, darling,” my dad said at last. “It doesn’t feel the same here either.”

I could hear Cynthia talking to him in the background, her voice syrupy.

“How’s Cynthia?” I asked stiffly.

“Oh she’s been great,” my dad answered. “She’s cooking her first turkey for us today, aren’t you darling?”

Cynthia said something back to him and my dad laughed loudly.

“That’s great,” I said, my voice falling limp and flat. “Mom’s cooking for us. We haven’t been able to touch anything in the fridge all week.”

“And your mom’s okay?” It sounded like a question he felt obligated to ask; like he was rushing through the formality of it. “Is she happy and everything now?”

I could hear my mom humming along to ‘Band-Aid’ in the kitchen, her voice silly and high. “Yes,” I said. “She’s happy.”

“And Max is happy?”

“She’s never seen snow before,” I told him. “Happy is one word for it.”

“And you’re happy?”

I found it very easy to laugh like everything was normal. “Of course.”

My dad seemed satisfied with those answers. He felt like he’d done what was required of him and I could feel the conversation drawing to its natural end.

I knew what happened next; pretty soon he was going to sigh and hum and fidget over the phone and then suggest that he was now too busy to talk anymore. I’d suggest fetching Max and bringing her to the phone and he’d say something about not wanting to cause any fuss and to leave her playing in the snow. I saved him the trouble and hurried through the conversation myself.

“Happy Christmas to both of you,” was the last thing I said to him before I hung up the phone.

I joined Billy in his mood after that.

At dinner though, Billy started to make more of an effort.

He seated himself at the table between me and Max, and smiled at my mom when she plated up his turkey. He pulled the crackers, wore the stupid paper hats, read out the shitty jokes and raised his drink to my mom’s toast just like he was supposed to. When Neil brought out the mistletoe and tied it above the kitchen table, Billy slung his arm over Max’s shoulder and kissed her quickly on the cheek, making her blush redder than her cranberry juice.

“My two girls,” he said, and then he turned to me, bent me back over the chair and gave me a big movie-star kiss on the mouth right in front of everyone, his arm wrapped tight around me, fingers on the collar of my sweater.

“Very funny,” Neil said seriously when my mom looked away, mortified. “I think that’s quite enough of that, don’t you?”

Billy thumbed at the corner of my mouth the way he always did after he’d kissed me, to right my smudged lipstick for me. He was holding back a laugh and he spoke to Neil without looking at him. “Lighten up. It’s Christmas.”

“I think that was a joke, dear,” my mom assured Neil quickly.

“Who the hell’s laughing?” Neil asked.

I thought it was probably wise to change the subject now.

“My dad called,” I said proudly, stabbing at my potatoes with my fork.

Neil glanced at me over his plate, not even bothering to at least pretend he was interested. “Oh really? And what did he have to say?”

“He says he misses me.”

“Is that right?”

“And it sounds like he’s doing great.”

My bragging seemed to amuse him. “Good for him. What else?”

“He says he misses Max too.”

“Did Max speak with him as well?”

“No,” I admitted. “He said he had to go.”

Billy stretched both of his arms out across the back of his chair, his fingers brushing against my sweater and staying there. “Did he say he’d call again?”

“No,” I said again truthfully, grateful to be looking at Billy and not at Neil. “But I think he might, you know? He sounded like he really missed me. And Max.”

“If he missed you, Diana,” Neil said curtly. “He wouldn’t just call at Christmas now, would he?”

“He doesn’t just call at Christmas,” I argued, scowling at him from my chair.

“Did he call you on your birthday?”

I faltered, mouth opening and closing.

“No,” I confessed.

“And did he call you on Thanksgiving?”

“No.”

“Has he called you at all since you moved here?” Neil asked, smiling and ignoring the look on my mother’s face that was telling him to be kind.

“No,” I said, swallowing thickly.

“But he doesn’t just call at Christmas?”

“Alright.” Billy snapped his eyes to his father, fingers tightening on my sweater sleeve. “You’ve made your point, okay?”

Neil’s eyes flashed at him. “Then again, at least Tony knows how to pick up a phone and call somebody.”

I pressed my lips together tightly until they disappeared, not sure why he was insisting on being so cruel, especially on a day like this when we were supposed to at least pretend we were happy.

“The day’s not over,” I said gently, coming to Billy’s defence even though I didn’t believe myself that Billy’s mom would call. “There’s time.”

Billy didn’t say anything.

Spookily, the phone in the hallway began to ring.

We all looked expectantly at the door, our ears pricking up at the high, shrill sound. Billy’s arm stiffened around my shoulder. The phone kept on ringing.

Billy made to stand up.

“Don’t you dare,” Neil said cruelly, leaning over to help himself to more turkey. “Rules stay the same just like every other day. And that means there are no phone calls at the dinner table.”

Billy sat back down, doing as he was told. I didn’t really think it was his mom calling but there was always that one chance; that one possibility.

“Whoever it is,” my mom tried kindly. “They’ll call back if it’s important.”

I don’t think Billy believed her.

Even when dinner was over and we all filed into the living room to open our presents, I could tell that the phone call at dinner was still at the back of his mind. It was in his face when he spoke, that faraway look he wore when he was thinking about other things. He kept turning his mom’s ring on his hand.

We opened the presents in age order, which meant that Max got to open her presents first, then me and then finally, Billy. Max tore off the brightly patterned paper feverishly, cheeks reddening with excitement when she saw the shiny new skateboard underneath, glossy wheels and bright logo. She was a little less enthusiastic about the matching helmet and knee pads, but she liked the walkie-talkie that I’d snagged on discount from Radio Shack and the Queen tape from Billy.

“So you can listen to some real music,” he said.

In my little pile of presents, there was a Madonna calendar for 1985, a VHS copy of ‘Sixteen Candles’ which had come out just the month before, a tube of hot pink lipstick and a necklace from Billy.

The necklace didn’t look that expensive but I knew he’d put together what he had for it, and that meant more to me than anything. It was a simple gold necklace with my initial on it, strung on a delicate chain that Billy pulled between his fingers and motioned for me to turn around. He knelt behind me on the rug, sweeping my hair to one side and making a point of removing the necklace that was already around my neck and replacing it with his.

As Billy finished fastening up the clasp, I happened to look up and catch sight of Neil sitting on the sofa, staring at me. The look in his eyes was angry, disgusted, disappointed; and perhaps had Billy not been kneeling so close behind me I would have been afraid of what that look meant. But though the act of removing Neil’s necklace and swapping it for his own was a simple gesture, it was the biggest ‘fuck you’ Billy could have given to Neil at that time of his life, with the small amount of power he had. So the look was worth it.

From my mom and Neil, Billy got a Scorpion tape that it turned out he already had, so my mom said she would take it back to the store and give him the money so that he could choose what he wanted. Billy said he’d put it with the rest of the money they’d given him that he said he was putting towards a better stereo for his car. Actually, Billy had already started saving for California.

When all the presents had been torn open and the discarded paper had been swept away, my mom ran into the next room for the camera that she’d been using at dinner and returned breathlessly with it in her hands.

She ordered us to join Neil on the sofa, lifting the camera to her eye and squinting through the viewfinder.

“Everybody in close,” she said, waving her hand.

Neil was sitting at the end of the sofa with me next to him, then Billy and then Max on the end. My mom said it looked more even that way but I hated sitting next to Neil, even with Billy beside me. Sitting there on the sofa with him only reminded me of that night in November, when he’d pulled me under his arm and kissed me, then tried to force me back against the pillows on one side.

I hadn’t thought about that night. I thought that not thinking about it would make me forget faster, and that was all I wanted to do. But when Neil put his arm around my shoulder for the photo, it took everything not to cry right then.

“Put your arm around me, Diana,” Neil hummed, putting his mouth by my ear and leaning in to talk to me. “Anybody would think you don’t like photos.”

I stared straight ahead of me, eyes boring into the camera lens.

“I hate them,” I said.

“Smile, Diana,” my mom pleaded.

I forced myself to smile like I was supposed to, waiting for the familiar click and the bright snap of light as my mom took the picture, the film shooting out at the top of her camera and falling onto the rug.

My mom bent down and picked it up, ready to take another one.

“Smile, Diana,” she said again.

“I am smiling,” I insisted.

“Smile like you mean it then,” my mom said.

“She means smile like you’re actually happy,” Billy said in my ear. “Fake it.”

I didn’t think there were any genuine smiles in the photos that day, apart from maybe Max, who was still thinking about her new skateboard.

The highlight came that evening, when my mom and Neil went into the next town for a Christmas drink, leaving the three of us home alone to finally do as we pleased. It felt like it had been a whole charade all day, the whole family pretending to be something it was not.

Max watched them go from the window. “Coast is clear,” she said.

Billy groaned loudly and flopped down onto the sofa, grabbing my hand and pulling me down with him.

“Thank God,” he said, letting his eyes close. “That was a whole shit show if I ever saw one.”

“What’s a shit show?” Max asked.

“It means it was chaos,” I answered for her. “An actual living nightmare.”

“Was it that bad?”

“Yes,” Billy and I said in unison.

Max dropped her board onto the floor, eyebrows shooting up. She pushed at it gingerly with her toe, just testing.

Billy opened one eye.

“Max,” he sang in a very low voice. “You go on that thing in here and I’ll end you.”

“But it’s Christmas,” she tried.

Billy opened both eyes fully, snapping up in his seat to stare at her. “If you do as you’re told,” he said. “I’ll give you a cigarette.”

Max frowned at him like she didn’t believe he was being serious. “Do you really mean that?” she asked.

“Of course he doesn’t,” I jumped in, shoving Billy in the side. “Don’t be stupid. She’s only thirteen.”

“How old do you think I was when I started smoking?”

Billy took two cigarettes out of the pocket of his shirt and put them between his teeth, snapping open his lighter to light them both.

He handed one to Max.

“It’s Christmas,” he said. “Di, you want one?”

“No,” I said, pushing myself up from the sofa. “But I will have a drink now that your old man’s not breathing down my neck.”

Max was dragging tentatively on her smoke, lips comically pursed. “What’s his deal with you anyway, Diana?”

“What do you mean?” I turned my back on her, fixing my attention on the drinks cabinet that we were normally never allowed to touch or even go near.

“Don’t you think he’s weird around you?” My sister inhaled and then pulled a face, coughing a little. “I think he has a crush on you or something.”

It was meant to be a joke but it sent my blood cold and I took a long drink, knocking it all the way back before I turned to her.

“Don’t say shit like that,” I snapped at her. “It’s gross, okay?”

Max stared at me, not used to me being so harsh. “Okay,” she said.

I poured myself another drink. “Billy? You want one?”

“Is that a trick question?” Billy got up and came over to me, taking the drink and then catching me by the arm. “You okay?”

“I’m fine.” I slowly eased my arm back, loosening myself from his grip and clinking his glass with mine. “Cheers.”

“Shall I put some music on?” Max asked, behind us.

She was already reaching for the TV remote, churning through the channels for some Christmas songs.

“Are we having a party?”

“Can’t have a party with three people, Max,” Billy said, giving me one last look before turning and going back to the sofa. “How’s your cigarette?”

“It tastes awful,” Max said.

“Give it to Diana then.”

“No.” Max held onto it, pinching it between her fingers and holding it close to her chest. “It’s a good kind of awful.”

“That’s enough, okay?” I snatched the cigarette from her fingers, putting it quickly to my own mouth and taking a drag. “You shouldn’t smoke. It’s bad for you. Don’t they teach you anything in school?”

“Diana?” Billy was watching me from the sofa. “Are you sure you’re okay?”

I half-turned to him, mouth opening to tell him yet again that I was fine and could everybody please stop asking me if I was alright all the time.

Then the phone rang in the hallway, making me pause.

We all froze just like we did at dinner, turning to the door and looking out into the hallway, counting the rings.

For a moment or two, nobody said anything.

“Shall I-” Max moved cautiously to the door. “Shall I get it?”

“Wait a minute.” Billy jumped up from the couch, putting a hand on her shoulder. He looked pale and nervous all of a sudden. “Let me get it.”

We followed Billy out into the hallway, watching his hand hover over the ringing phone. Then he snatched it up and brought it to his ear. Nobody was saying it, but we were all thinking the exact same thing- if it’s important, they’ll call back.

“Hargrove residence,” Billy said, and his voice was surprisingly calm.

He brought his free hand up and pinched the bridge of his nose as he listened, his head snapping up when the person on the other line began to speak.

His face was empty and unreadable, frustratingly devoid of expression.

“This is Billy speaking,” he said and he wouldn’t meet my eye. “No, I’m sorry. He’s out at the minute but I’ll…”

For a split second, he choked up. “But I’ll tell him you called.”

I was sure that Billy put the phone down when the other person was still speaking, crashing it back down into the cradle and rubbing his jaw.

His face, empty one minute, was now shadowed with something else- bitter and painful disappointment that he was trying his best to hide.

“Fuck,” he said.

“Are you okay, Billy?” Max pulled gently at his sleeve but he shook her off.

“I’m fine, Max. Leave me alone.”

He went back into the living room and Max and I followed him, watching him sink back down into the couch and stare flatly at the TV screen, not even taking any of it in. The look on his face scared me. I didn’t like him this way.

“Who was on the phone?” I asked him, leaning in the doorframe.

Billy snapped his eyes to mine. “Nobody. Just an uncle wanting to tell my dad Happy Christmas. Nobody important.”

I chewed on the inside of my cheek until it hurt. “Max, will you leave us alone for a minute? I just need to talk to Billy.”

Any other time, Max would have dug her heels in and rolled her eyes and made some big fuss about being left out of it, but I think she could see by the look on my face that now was not the time. And so she did as she was told, obligingly, going down the hall to her room without even going for her board.

I turned to him.

“Billy?” I approached the sofa gingerly, reaching out and putting my hand on his arm, crossed over his chest. “Billy? Are you okay?”

“I said, leave me alone.” He shrugged his arm away. “I’m fine.”

“You don’t seem fine.” I shook off his curt manner, deciding to ignore it, joining him on the sofa and tucking my legs up under me. “Will you talk to me?”

“No. What about?”

“About your mom,” I said, nodding when he turned to me, as if I was breaking some unspoken rule by acknowledging that he’d been waiting all day for her call. “She didn’t call you. You thought she was going to.”

“She never calls me,” Billy said, denying it. “I wasn’t expecting anything.”

“Maybe,” I put my hand back on his arm. “You hoped she would anyway.”

Billy didn’t say anything at first.

Then he made a small noise, sharp and ragged like he was taking in a sudden breath. He bent himself over so that his elbows were on his knees, his hands covering his face, his ring flashing in the lamplight. “Fuck, Diana.”

I thought he might be crying.

“Fuck,” he said again, his voice muffled by his hands. “Jesus, I’m an idiot.”

“Don’t say that.”

“I fucking hate Christmas,” he spat into his hands. “I fucking hate it and I always have. It was worse though when it was just me and my dad.”

“You have me now,” I said gently, pleased when he raised his head to look at me. “And you have Max too. You’ll always have us.”

Billy laughed, but it wasn’t a nice laugh. “Yeah, but I just want-”

But he couldn’t bring himself to say it.

He felt too stupid and embarrassed to say it out loud.

Because nobody would understand that Billy Hargrove, the King of Hawkins High, eighteen years old, tough as nails, hardened and experienced, and the kid who wasn’t afraid of anybody, just wanted his mom.

And it was killing him that he couldn’t have her.