“Get away from the door! Max! Max!”
The voice belongs to Mike, but it is Lucas who grabs her arm tight. The last thing Max sees before she is yanked away is Billy’s body contorted on the sauna’s tiled floor. He screams an animal howl and she strains against Lucas’s grip. She shouts her brother’s name, over and over again, like a chant. “Billy!” she calls. “Billy! It’s gonna be okay, Billy. Can you hear me? Billy!” She strains against Lucas but he does not let her go. Behind her, she thinks she hears someone ask, “Does it go any higher?” Will steps cautiously forward, eyeing the sauna door. He grabs the lever and pulls, pulls until the metal clanks and the gears shudder to a grinding halt. Billy screams- louder this time - and Max pleads, “You’re gonna kill him!”
“Will lived,” El reminds her. She is at Max’s other side, her hand on Max’s shoulder, and Max’s body slackens. “Will lived,” El repeats. Max can barely hear her over Billy’s pain. She thinks he is saying something, but the words are too disjointed to be sensible. The square window is fogged up down, the steam inside densely opaque, but they see a shadow moving inside. It is unsteady. It gets bigger and bigger. It falls against the door with a loud bang! that sends them all jumping. Max shrinks away; she thinks she might’ve fallen if El and Lucas were not there to hold her. “I think,” El whispers, “it’s working.”
But Max can’t look. She buries her face in Lucas’s chest. His arms wrap around her and she feels El’s hands on her back, too. Billy is pounding on the door. He is screaming; a long string of expletives turns into a pained yowl, something feral and inhuman, and then…
And then they hear him fall onto the floor, and all the screaming stops.
“Turn it off.” This is Mike again. Max lifts her head to see Will pushing the lever back to cooler, cooler, cold. The churning of the vents inside the room stutter to a halt. Max takes a step away from Lucas and El, and this time they both let her go.
“Did it work?” she asks no one in particular. Her heart is pounding so fast and loud it is all she can hear. There is no more movement from inside the sauna. “Billy?” she says cautiously. She makes her way to the door and stands on her tip-toes to see inside. “Billy?” she repeats. The fog has not yet cleared. Steam is still swirling in the cooling air of the sauna. When Max grabs the handle, it is warm to the touch. She takes a deep breath, and then she yanks the door open.
Billy is on the floor.
He is turned on his side, his wet hair plastered to his face, obscuring his features. He is covered in sweat. His whole body is sleek with the stuff, and his jeans are about soaked through. One palm is open and there is a long cut down its middle. Drops of red dot the floor near Billy’s arm, and there is a bloodied shard of broken tile next to it. Max can feel eyes on her, can feel the others’ bodies all pressed against the small doorframe. She kneels beside Billy and rests a hand on his back.
“He’s breathing,” she says. She swipes at a tear she’d been trying to hold back.
“Did we do it?” Lucas asks.
“I think so,” Mike says. “Right?”
He looks to Will, and so does Max. Will only shrugs. Max turns her attention back to Billy. She gingerly moves some hair away from his face. “Billy,” she says softly. She nudges his shoulder. He makes a small noise that sounds like a whine and he tries to curl away from her. “Hey, hey, hey,” Max says. She holds him in place, an easy task in his weakened state, and when he tries to turn his head away she says, “It’s just me. It’s okay. It’s okay now.”
“I didn’t mean it,” Billy mumbles. He sounds like he might cry. “I didn’t- I didn’t want to-”
“I know,” Max assures him. She rubs his back, squeezes his shoulder. “I know.”
Eleven steps into the room. Mike tries to tighten his grip on her hand but his fingers slip between hers. She hovers behind Max for a brief moment, and then steps around Billy and kneels at his side. He is still muttering, repeating the same things again and again- I didn’t know- I didn’t want this- I didn’t do it - It wasn’t me - It wasn’t me - It wasn’t me. But he stops when El’s shadow falls over him. His eyes, bloodshot and red-rimmed, flicker up to her. Max feels his muscles stiffen.
“You-” Billy says, brow creasing as he blinks warily up at El. “You were-”
She nods her head. There are a million questions on his tongue but he cannot pick out a single one to ask. He stares at her silently. El places her hand on top of Max’s, which is still on Billy’s shoulder.
“We should,” El says, “get him out of here.”
“How are we supposed to move him?” Lucas asks. Billy seems to answer for him, though not in so many words. He begins to ease himself upright, the girls’ hands hovering over him- steadying and guiding him.
“Are we sure it’s even gone?” Mike asks.
“It’s gone,” Max snaps. It must be true. She knows this. She knows this because she is holding Billy up and she can feel his body shaking. She knows this because she has never seen him look so small and scared, she has never heard his voice crack the way it had, she has never seen him cry. He is afraid, really and truly afraid, and she believes his fear.
“How do you know?” Mike demands.
“I just know, okay?” Max says.
“She’s right,” Will says. All eyes- including Billy’s -turn to him. “It’s gone.”
“You’re sure?” Lucas asks. Will nods. They sigh, it seems, in collective relief- all except for Billy, who is watching Will cautiously. He seems to be thinking something, though Max isn’t quite sure what. He shudders when she starts to stand.
“El’s right,” she says. “Let’s get out of here.”
The trip home is, for lack of a better term, cumbersome. The girls pile Billy’s things into the trunk of the beat-up Camaro- Max had wondered what had happened to it when Billy came home just a few nights before; the windshield is splintered and cracked, and there are chips in the blue paint. She hadn’t had time to ask, for Billy snuck the car away before Neil could see the damage (surely, they both knew, his father would have something to say). She thinks, now, that she knows the answer.
When Max asks Billy if he thinks he can drive, he can nods. Still, she does most of the steering from the passenger seat. They move at a crawl, the boys ahead of them on their bikes, all the way back to the Wheeler house. Billy does not ask where they are, or why they are here. He doesn’t say anything. This, Max thinks, unnerves her the most.
He does not protest when she tells him to park the car, or when she yanks the keys from the ignition. He follows almost obediently behind her as she and El lead him into the house and down into the basement. He does not notice, or at least seems to ignore, the whispering that short-circuits when he comes within earshot. Mike and Lucas watch him cautiously. Will watches him, too, though there is more empathy there.
“I know it’s a lot to ask,” Max says when Will is helping her root through the bathroom cabinet for the Wheelers’ old first aid kit, “but do you think you could maybe…try to, like. I don’t know. Talk to him? You can say no, but. I mean. Since you-”
“Max,” Will says. “I get it,” he says. “And it’s not a lot,” he assures. “And yes.”
“Thanks.” She pokes her head out of the room. Billy is leaning against the wall, his brow furrowed as he looks about the room. Max can tell he is uncomfortable. His muscles uncoil when she says, “Hey. Come in here.”
Will slips out of the room as Billy slips in. Max shuts the door behind him and Billy sighs, relief and exasperation expelled in one breath. He sits when Max tells him to, opens his injured palm when she reaches for it, doesn’t even wince when she presses a soapy washcloth against it.
“You gonna explain any of this?” he says. His voice is still hoarse, and is at least an octave deeper than his normal register. He sounds exhausted. “You seem to know-”
“Later,” Max interrupts. She leaves the cloth on the lip of the sink and swabs a weak alcohol pad over the gash. Again, Billy does not react. He has, Max knows, done this many times before, on many different kinds of cuts.
“I deserve to know,” Billy presses. “Don’t I?”
“I promise,” Max says. She is tearing open an expired packet of gauze. “Later.”
“All your little friends seem in on this bullshit,” he says. Max should be annoyed, wants to be annoyed, but she finds that she is actually relieved. Relieved, and maybe a little bit grateful that he is here, with her, talking to her, sounding almost like himself.
“I know,” she says. “It’s a long story.”
“Right,” Billy sighs, and he doesn’t even seem mad. He watches absently as Max winds the gauze around his hand. “I just-” he starts, and then he shakes his head. “I don’t-” he tries again, but loses this thought, too. “It was like-” and again he stops. His throat is getting tight. Max can tell by the pull in his voice, the slight quiver of his lip, the water welling up in his eyes. He looks up at her. “How’d you get it out?”
She wants to ask, Get what out?, but she knows he wouldn’t buy it. It wouldn’t buy her the time she wants, that she needs- because the Mind Flayer is still out there, somewhere. They got it out of Will and it came back for Billy. They got it out of Billy and- where will it go next? Where is it now? Does it know where they are? Will it come back for Billy? Will it come back for all of them? There is no time to explain, because they may have to run. Max shakes her head to clear it. She uses a strip of slightly-yellowed medical tape to secure the gauze, then begins to clean up her supplies. Billy inspects her handiwork, running his thumb over the covering on his palm.
“Thanks,” he murmurs, “shitbird.”
He is quiet, but not so quiet that Max can’t hear him, and that stupid little word- the insult that has become a nickname, the one he bellows through the house or over the pounding music in his car, the one he slings at every opportunity -makes her smile.
“Just…take it easy for a minute, okay?” she says. “Don’t rip that open.”
When she looks back at Billy, he is smiling, too. It’s a small smile, barely there, but it’s enough. Enough to convince her that she was really right- that Will was right- that right now, in this moment, the Mind Flayer is lurking underneath the surface. They are okay.
“I’ll be right back,” Max says. Billy nods his head. There is chatter outside the door, an argument had in hushed whispers, and it ceases the minute Max opens the door. “I can hear you, y’know,” she says pointedly. “And if I can hear you, he can hear you. And no, he’s not flayed anymore. And yes, we can trust him. He’s not a spy.”
“How can you be sure?” Mike asks.
“The Mind Flayer is out of him,” El insists. “Right?”
“Right,” Will says.
“See?” Max says.
“Max,” Lucas says. “That still doesn’t mean-”
“I’m stopping you right there,” Max says. She lowers her voice and prays that Billy won’t hear her, that what she has to say won’t embarrass him or upset him or make him mad. “He’s scared. Okay? I’v never seen him that scared. He doesn’t know what’s going on. And what if the Mind Flayer’s not done with him? We can’t just leave him.”
“He might,” El reasons, “know what the Mind Flayer wants.”
“Or at least help us figure it out,” says Will.
“So he’s staying,” Max declares. “Got it?” When no one speaks, Max says, “Good.” She steps toward the couch and lets herself fall into it, bumping into El as the cushions sink beneath her. “So,” she begins after a few beats of silence. She looks at everyone in turn, and then to the bathroom door, which she had left closed for Billy’s sake. “Where do we go from here?”