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Fighting monsters

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Hopper drove her home. Max suspected that he only offered because he needed time to collect his thoughts, because he barely spoke a word to her in the car. But she didn’t mind the silence. She had enough on her own mind that she appreciated the lack of small-talk.

Billy had been gone when they’d come back to Will’s house after the whole thing with the tunnels. She had been grateful for it – because as good as it had felt to finally stand up to him, finally push back, she didn’t think she had it in her to do it again, now when the adrenaline had worn off. Tonight had been the crazy culmination of a couple of very weird days, and she found that now when it was all over, all energy had bled out of her and left her exhausted. So she’d been grateful when Billy hadn’t been lying on the floor where they left him, and even more grateful when no one mentioned him.

In the car with Hopper, though, she looked out through the window – out in the dark – and purely by chance, she saw him. Billy. Just a flash of him, really, when the headlights of the car illuminated his back for a second. He was standing on the side of the road, where the woods began, leaning his head against a tree. She didn’t have time to see his face, and she was glad – just this short glance of him made her tense up, and she turned her head and looked straight out through the windshield instead. She glanced over at Hopper, but he hadn’t noticed – or if he had, he didn’t care enough to comment.

She didn’t say anything either. Billy was upright and had obviously made it this far. He could walk the rest of the way in the cold and the dark, she didn’t care. She didn’t feel sorry for him at all, not after what he did to her and her friends. He was an asshole, and a part of her wished he wouldn’t come home at all.

When they got to her house on Cherry Lane, Hopper got out and walked her to the door. Max was grateful for that, too, because as soon as she spotted her mom in the doorway, it was like everything that had happened that night suddenly caught up to her, and she burst into tears. It was embarrassing, but once she started, she couldn’t stop. Her mom crouched down and pulled her into her arms and whispered soothing words into her ear while stroking her hair, which left Hopper explaining what had happened to Neil over their heads.

They’d come up with some bullshit story about Max and her friends being at the Byers’ house when someone broke in – Max didn’t really listen when it was explained to her, so she couldn’t say what exactly they’d decided on – and thankfully, in the face of her unexpected tears, neither her mom nor Neil asked what she was doing at Will’s in the first place. They probably thought she was traumatized or something. Which, not entirely incorrect. She just couldn’t tell them why.

Susan eventually straightened up and put her arm around Max’s shoulders, leading her into the house. They left Neil and Hopper in the hall, and Max barely managed to turn around and, between sniffles, murmur her thanks to Hopper before Susan swept her away.

They went into the bathroom first, and Susan set her down on the closed toilet lid and bent down in front of her. Wet a towel and gently wiped the tears off her face, which only caused Max to cry harder. She couldn’t understand why. Part of it was relief that it was over, she was safe, she was with her mom who had always managed to make her feel better … but part of it was grief, too; grief because she knew that this was something she wouldn’t be able to talk to her mother about. This was something she’d have to go through alone.

“Oh sweetie”, Susan murmured and pulled her into yet another hug. Max clung to her with desperation, as if she would never get the chance to hug her mother again. It felt as if this – what she’d seen and done tonight – was pulling her and her mom apart, simply because she couldn’t tell her the truth. And suddenly, Max was afraid that it would never be the same again.

“Mom …”

“I’m here, honey. I’m here.”

They sat like that for a long time, until Max’s tears dried up and Susan’s knees must have started hurting. Then, Susan leaned back and reached out to hold Max’s face between her hands.

“Do you want to talk about it?”

Max shook her head. She wanted to, but she knew she couldn’t, and that hurt more than anything.

“Okay”, Susan said and ran a hand through Max’s hair. “Okay. Then let’s get you to bed, alright? It’s late.”

Max just nodded. With her mother watching, she got up and started brushing her teeth, almost mechanically, while Susan let her have some time for herself. When she was done getting ready for bed, Susan was waiting for her outside the bathroom and followed her into her room. Tucked her in like she used to do when Max was younger. Like she was just a kid, still. Like she hadn’t – don’t cry, don’t cry, don’t cry – fought monsters and won tonight.

“Are you going to be alright by yourself?” Susan asked quietly, sitting on the edge of the bed and smoothening out Max’s hair over the pillow. A part of Max wanted to scoff – she wasn’t a little kid anymore. Another part of her wanted to shake her head and ask her mom to sleep in here, just for tonight … But if she did, she wasn’t sure she’d be able to keep quiet, and she had to keep quiet – so in the end she just nodded.

“Okay”, Susan said. Hesitantly, as if she could sense what Max was feeling. “Do you want me to leave the light on?”

Again, Max hesitated. She hadn’t slept with her light on for years, not since Billy teased her about it and said that only pussies need night lights. But Billy was a psychotic shithead, and she didn’t care about anything he said. She’d seen the weirdest shit tonight, and survived. No one (who knew, at least) would fault her for wanting a little comfort.

“Yeah”, she said, and her voice sounded smaller than she’d expected it to. She’d fought monsters, damn it. Why did she sound like such a girl?

But Susan didn’t seem to notice. Her face just softened, and she ran her thumb across Max’s cheek before bending down and placing a kiss on her forehead. She stood up and walked to the door, but there she turned around and said, “Me and Neil, we’re just down the hall if you need us. You can talk to us about this, if you want, at any time, you know that right?” Max forced herself to nod, even when she knew she wouldn’t ever be able to do that. “I’m so glad you’re alright, sweetie. I love you.”

“I love you too”, Max said, and pulled her blanket up over her nose so she could press her hands against her mouth without her mother seeing. She didn’t want to cry again.

Susan left, and closed the door quietly behind her. As promised, she left the lights on. Max could hear her say something out in the living room, and then Neil’s voice – a little louder, but still not clear enough for Max to hear what he replied. Then it got quiet, and the door to her mom’s and Neil’s bedroom closed.

Max looked around her room. With the lights on, it looked too normal. Like everything was fine, like there weren’t tunnels burning under their feet or monster dogs roaming the woods. Like she didn’t watch her asshole brother almost kill someone tonight, like she didn’t steal a car and drive it to the mouth of Hell, like she didn’t see a girl make things move with her mind.

Like she didn’t almost die tonight.

But she was safe now. The light reminded her of that. Her room was just a room, and it looked normal because it was normal. It was safe. There were no monsters here. Just her, and her mom, and Neil. She was safe.

Still, she couldn’t sleep. She was exhausted, but it was like every time she closed her eyes, she was back in the tunnels, or at Will’s. She wanted to sleep, but at the same time she was too wound up. She kept tossing and turning in her bed, and eventually ended up on her back, staring up at her ceiling, huffing in frustration and tired beyond belief.

That’s how she was lying when she heard the front door open, and heavy footsteps stumble in.

Billy. Shit, she’d almost forgotten about him. Her eyes widened and she felt cold all over – they had a cover story, and no one had thought to include Billy in it. Just as that thought hit her, she heard Neil’s low voice from the hallway – he was still awake? – and her heart felt like it was trying to beat right out of her chest. What if Billy told Neil what had happened? What was she gonna do then?

Panicking, she shot out of bed, darted across the room to turn off the lights, and flew back to her bed in under five seconds. She closed her eyes and pulled the covers up to her chin, pretending to sleep. Hoping that it would postpone whatever questioning that would certainly follow until the morning.

But nothing happened. No one knocked on her door. There was a murmur of low voices from the front of the house, and a thump, but nothing else. A little curious now, despite herself, she snuck out of bed and went to stand by her door, listening. Neil sounded angry. Billy … she could barely hear him at all. The door to Billy’s room opened, and they must have gone in there, because she could only just hear their voices now.

Cautiously, she opened the door and peeked out in the hallway. No one was there, and the lights were off. She could hear Neil’s annoyed voice coming from Billy’s room, and suddenly she wanted to hear what they were saying. She needed to hear it, she thought to herself; needed to know what she was going to have to explain away. Needed to know if whatever Billy told Neil would come back to bite her in the morning.

And also, maybe she wanted to hear Billy get chewed out by Neil. Maybe a part of her – the part of her that hated Billy, and wished he hadn’t come home at all – wanted to revel in Neil’s yelling at his son. It certainly sounded like that was a possibility, from the way Neil sounded right now.

Silently, she snuck out of her room and towards Billy’s door. It had been left slightly ajar, but the lights weren’t on in there either. She pressed up against the frame and peeked inside just as she caught the tail end of what Neil had been saying.

“– better to say? Nothing?”

“No, dad”, Billy’s voice answered. His voice was hoarse, like he’d been gurgling broken glass.

A pause, before he amended; “No, sir.”

“Did you know that Max was brought home by the Chief of Police?” Max flinched at the mention of her name, and held her breath as Neil continued, voice entirely too neutral. “She was with her friends when someone – who was probably under the influence of drugs, Chief Hopper said – broke into the house and started making trouble. Scared them properly, he did, before the police showed up.”

A thump, and Billy exhaled sharply before Neil went on, “Your sister came home crying, and where were you? Hmm?” A sound like someone smacking their lips really loud, and then; “Off somewhere to get high, from the looks of it.”

“I wasn’t –“

Another smacking sound, making Max frown.

Look at me when I’m talking to you!”

“I was looking for her, I –“

Max adjusted the angle to see better, just in time for her to catch the moment when Neil slapped Billy across the face. It made the same sound that she’d just heard, and her breath caught in her throat. Neil hit Billy! No one ever hit Billy. Would Billy laugh insanely, just like he had done hours earlier? Would he explode and hit Neil back, just like he had with Steve? Would Max have to run and wake up her mom, and call 911 to save her step-dad’s life from her insane step-brother?

But Billy did nothing. He just stood there, with his back against the wall and his arms at his sides. He was looking Neil in the eye, almost in defiance, and Neil’s back was to the door so Max couldn’t see his face but he must have been angry, because in the next moment he slammed his forearm into Billy’s chest and growled, “Don’t lie to me.”

Billy grunted as he was pushed up against the wall, but Neil didn’t let up. “I send you out to find Max, and you show up hours after her, not being able to walk in a straight line and unable to –“ Billy’s head had started dropping, so Neil grabbed his face, hard, and shoved his head back against the wall, forcing him to look up. “– unable to look me in the eye like a man. And you want me to believe you weren’t out, getting high, instead of finding your sister like I told you?”

Max could barely make it out in the darkness of the room, but Billy almost looked pleading. “I wasn’t getting high, dad –“ And Neil punched him in the face, hard. Billy’s head snapped to the side and he went down on his hands and knees. Max gasped and took a step back, and slapped a hand over her mouth as to not make a sound. Then she froze, right there in the hallway. Heard a hard thump, followed by a short “Ah!”, and then Neil’s voice again; “Shut your mouth. Do you want your sister to wake up, hmm?” One more hit (because he was hitting him), and a muted groan. “Want to traumatize her more?”

Max was shaking. Her eyes darted to her own door, then further down the hallway. A part of her wanted to go back to her room and hide under the covers, and a part of her wanted to go get her mom. But there were still sounds coming out from Billy’s room, and she’d faced actual monsters tonight. She could see this through, whatever it was.

So she resumed her position by the door, and looked inside. Billy was on the floor halfway outside of her field of vision, but she could see most of Neil as he was standing above him, fists clenched.

“Get up.”

Billy got his hands under him and tried to get up, but it was slow going. Too slow, apparently. Neil exhaled impatiently and drove a shoe into Billy’s ribs, hard. Billy choked on a cry and curled up on the floor, and Neil crouched in front of him and reached out – for what, Max couldn’t see.

“I said, get up!” He stood, and pulled Billy with him by his hair. Billy’s face was screwed up in pain and he was scrambling to get up to ease the pressure off, but he seemed to have some troubles getting to his feet.

“You useless pussy, get up and take responsibility for your actions.” Neil didn’t have the patience for Billy’s efforts, and pulled harder on his hair, eliciting a pained whimper from Billy which made Max’s eyes widen in the dark of the hallway.

She’d never seen Billy like this. She’d never seen any of them like this. A couple of hours ago, she’d seen Billy beat Steve bloody, and it had been terrifying – but she’d known, then, who the bad guy was. Billy was the bad guy, Billy was the one who needed to be taken out. It was simple. Easy.

Now? Now Neil got tired of Billy’s inability to stand up properly, and let go of his hair only to punch him in the face again. Billy dropped like a sack of rocks, and Neil aimed another kick at him. From her position, Max couldn’t see where it hit – but she heard it.

A couple of kicks more followed, and the only thing she could see of Billy was his feet, after he pulled his knees up to his chest.

“Pathetic”, Neil muttered, and then took a deep breath and stretched his shoulders back. “It’s late. Susan has to get up early tomorrow, and if she doesn’t get enough sleep, it’s on you. We’ll finish this later.”

The only answer was a low whine from the floor. Neil turned around with a disappointed sigh and a shake of his head.

That broke Max out of her reverie. Her bare feet didn’t make a sound as she darted back to her room and got inside, but she didn’t have time to close the door properly before Neil’s voice carried in from the hall.

“Maxine?”

And she’d faced monsters tonight, she reminded herself. She could face one more.

Slowly, she leaned around the doorframe, trying to look like she’d just woken up. Neil was standing outside of Billy’s room, having just closed the door behind him. She barely dared to look him in the eye, but when she did, she found him looking concerned.

“What are you doing up?” he said. “You should be asleep.”

Max wet her lips, and looked down. “I thought I … heard something.”

Neil let out a barely audible sigh, and then walked the few steps up to her. He put a hand on her shoulder – she had to stop herself from flinching – and said, “That would be Billy. He just got home. I’m sorry he woke you up, I’ll talk to him tomorrow about keeping it down when he gets home late.”

Max felt sick. “Okay.”

He squeezed her shoulder, and when he spoke next, his voice sounded warmer. “Go to sleep, Maxine. You’ve had a long day.”

The longest day, Max silently agreed. But she nodded, and he let go of her. She closed her door, and then immediately pressed her ear up against it to listen for Neil’s retreating footsteps. She heard the door to his and her mom’s bedroom open and close, and not until then did she dare breathe out a sigh of relief.

She didn’t know what to do.

Billy was in the next room, on the floor after his dad beat him. But Billy had also beat Steve up earlier, so badly that Steve lost consciousness.

Billy had been kicked by his own dad. But Billy had also gone after Lucas.

Billy was hurt. But Billy had also hurt her.

He deserved this. Didn’t he?

Surely, he’d had it coming. Yeah. He deserved this. She didn’t care.

Hesitantly, she walked over to her bed and laid back down, wishing for sleep. But sleep didn’t come. Instead, she couldn’t help listening for the smallest of sounds. Most nights, she fell asleep easily, hardly ever noticing the sounds around her – she was born and raised in a big city, after all, and a city is never quiet. But most nights she hadn’t been fighting off monsters and mad step-brothers, and seen said step-brother get beaten up by his dad. So she listened.

And what she heard made her frown. It was something that wasn’t what she usually fell asleep to. Something she hadn’t heard before – but it was so low, she could barely hear it. Throwing the covers off again with a frustrated sigh, she stood up and followed the sound until she was kneeling on the floor by the old radiator.

She realized two things at once. The first thing was that she could vaguely hear Billy, and that the sound must carry from his room to hers through the metal pipes, especially if he was still on the floor by the radiator in his own. The second thing was that Billy was crying.

Out of everything she’d been through lately – the tunnels, the monster dogs, the drive, Neil – this was what shook her the most. Billy didn’t cry. She’d never seen or heard him cry, and before this moment she hadn’t thought that he could.

She thought of all the times she’d wished for a different brother. All the times she’d wished for him to just stop, to leave her alone, to go away and never come back. She thought of how she’d thought that things would be better if he was just … gone.

And now she found herself wondering if he ever thought the same thing … but about Neil.

She’d fought monsters tonight. Demodogs, and Billy. And between the two of them, standing up to Billy had felt like the biggest accomplishment. Because they were both monsters, to her. Billy just happened to look human.

She realized, quite suddenly, that maybe Billy had monsters, too. He just didn’t fight his.

Eventually, Billy quieted. She thought she heard some shuffling, and after that she didn’t hear anything. Everything got quiet, or at least as quiet as things got in their house at night.

She went back to bed. Pulled her blankets over her head. And proceeded to not sleep for the rest of the night.