The kids peel away one by one, dragging feet through the dusty gravel of the Byers’ driveway (no, not theirs, not anymore, they are gone and her brain is screaming, heart is breaking) to their bikes and climbing on. Mike calls something behind him, she thinks, but all she can hear is buzzing and all she can feel is the weight on her chest.
They’re halfway down the driveway before she can force herself to move, to drag her feet as well to the driver’s side of her mother’s car.
Outside birds sang and dry leaves rustled with the wind, but inside the car it’s silent. No ambient sounds to distract her, nothing but her own breath. She focuses on keeping herself steady, inhaling and exhaling evenly, counting the beats of her heart. Her pulse forms a rhythm, and words match to it unbidden: he’s gone, he’s gone, he’s gone.
Her eyes burn with the force of her emotions and she presses the heels of her hands into them, as if to quell the tears by force.
“Come on Nancy,” she whispers harshly, “pull yourself together.”There’s no use just sitting there, she tells herself. He’s gone, the house is empty, and when she opens her eyes again nothing will have changed. No matter how hard she wishes, no matter how hard she tries to make the universe to bend to her will.
We’re strong, Jonathan had murmured to her, hands cupping her cheeks, sliding into her hair. We can do this. Nothing can change the way I feel about you, okay?
I know, she’d nodded, a tear dripping down her cheek then and another following now. It wasn’t a lie but the truth of it feels remote, impossibly far away. Like him. In the warm October afternoon she feels cold and alone.
A second tear follows, then a third, then a fourth, then a flood.
“Stupid,” she gasps out, banging her hand against the steering wheel before feeling for the keys in the ignition. “Stop being so fucking stupid.”
She wipes the tears away angrily with one hand, blinking to try to clear her vision, and twists the keys in the ignition with the other. The sound of the car turning over is masked by the sudden blaring of jangling guitars; she screams.
The surprise stops her crying entirely. She grasps at her own chest as she tries to calm her racing heart, catch her breath. Reaches blindly for the volume, turning it down just as a nasal voice starts to sing.
Don’t cry no tears around me, don’t cry no tears around me…
For a moment she wants to scream in frustration; so much has happened over the last twenty-four hours, too many emotions are racing through her blood, everything is too much for her to handle right now and figuring out where this goddamn song she’s never heard before is coming from feels like a cruel cosmic joke.
Can’t she just have a minute to fall apart in peace?
‘Cause when all the water’s gone, the feeling lingers on…
One thing she’s sure of, as she regathers her wits about her, is that she wasn’t playing music when she drove over yesterday. It had felt a little like a funeral march and she’d cycled through half a dozen radio stations before giving up entirely. Every song felt too poignant or too flippant, like rubbing salt in an already gaping wound. So she’d turned it off.
Which means someone has been in her car and done something with the stereo. And if that’s the case, she’s pretty confident this isn’t the radio.
Old true love’s not too hard to see, don’t you cry no tears around me…
Sure enough, when she looks down there’s a new cassette case sitting in the cupholder, pristine with a little gold ribbon bow stuck to the corner of it. The same kind of bow she had jokingly stuck on Jonathan’s forehead the day before when they were helping his mom pack up the last of the living room, the cabinet full of wrapping paper and other gift decorating paper bits.
Her hand’s shaking when she reaches for it. It is empty, and the familiar black label simply reads FOR NANCY. She flips it over and finds the tracklist printed in Jonathan’s scrawl, as neat as she’s ever seen him manage.
She’s halfway through reading it when she realizes what’s going on. It takes three tries to read it all the way through; the titles go blurry through her tears.
Don’t Cry No Tears (neil young)
A Million Miles Away (the plimsouls)
Our Love Will See Us Through (nina simone)
Think About Me (fleetwood mac)
The Ghost In You (psychedelic furs)
With Our Love (talking heads)
There Is A Light That Never Goes Out (the smiths)
The Prettiest Star (david bowie)
Even When You’re Far Away (yoko ono)
This Must Be The Place (talking heads)
I Can’t Help Myself (the four tops)
Because (the beatles)
I Will Always Love You (dolly parton)
Only You (yaz)
Don’t You Forget About Me (simple minds)
I Want You Around (the ramones)
Tears are streaming down her face and she can feel snot dripping from her nose but she laughs anyway, laughs because she has to, laughs because of course he’d do this, of course he’d leave her something like this, of course he’d know she’d need it.
She wonders when he put it in her car. Maybe he snuck off in the middle of the night but she spent it wrapped in his arms and she thinks she would have noticed. She’d barely slept as it was, waking up all too often convinced morning was already there and their time together was over.
Maybe while they were moving. Maybe on one of the runs to put boxes in the moving van, or when his mother or brother called for him. Maybe in the chaos of their siblings, their friends. Maybe in one of those moments where she stood staring off into space, remembering everything that had happened in those rooms, those halls – good and bad, wonderful and terrifying, Maybe that’s when he slipped out the front door and into her car, maybe that’s when he made sure she’d find this last part of him, left behind for her to keep.
Something in her chest loosens, just a little.
She’s still laughing when she goes to set it back in the cupholder and sees the piece of folded paper that must have been beneath it. Sets it carefully aside on the seat next to her purse instead, and picks the paper up with unsteady fingers.
There’s a series of numbers, and it takes her brain a moment to recognize as a phone number, with an unfamiliar area code. Beneath it are two sentences, in his sloppier, everyday handwriting.
Mom says it’s a 3 1/2 hour drive. I love you.
Her tears have stopped; more than stopped, she’s grinning so hard her cheeks hurt. She still feels exhausted, still feels the aura of separation and loss weighing her down, but she no longer feels like she’s drowning.
She throws the car into reverse, kicks up gravel as she turns it around and peels out of the driveway. She has a tape to listen to, and a very important phone call to make.