Once Jessica got home she was surprised to find her mom in the kitchen fixing dinner. Her mother hated cooking. She wasn't a bad cook, she just didn't like doing it. Unless it was a holiday or the meal was easy to fix, her mother usually just let them eat whatever they wanted.
That night they were having spaghetti.
"What did Mike want?"
"Something to do with Will. They're all worried something bad has happened. I – I think they feel more comfortable talking to me about it because I'm not actually an adult yet."
Jessica noticed that her stuff was still on the kitchen floor, near the phone, where she'd called Mike earlier. That was one thing her mom didn't really enforce – a clean house. Unless they were going to have company, she didn't really care. She figured they would eventually get tired of looking at the mess and would clean it when they decided to.
That hadn't worked when they were younger, but once they'd moved to Hawkins both Dustin and Jessica had matured greatly, so the house stayed pretty clean. That was probably why their mother never got after them about not picking up things all the time.
While dinner was being fixed, Jessica did what homework she had and was done by six. She ate dinner with her mother. Dustin hadn't known their mom was cooking, so he'd stayed at Mike's.
After dinner Jessica, having nothing else to do, watched the news. The only things worth noting were that the search for Will was still ongoing but there were no new leads, and the story of the apparent suicide of the owner of Benny's Burgers.
El had been wearing one of Benny's shirts when they'd found her the night before, and there had been blood on it. Now Jessica knew why. Benny was dead, and he hadn't committed suicide.
The news mentioned that he'd been shot in the head, though they got the part wrong about him having shot himself. Whatever had happened, El had seen it. She'd mimicked the act of shooting, so even if she hadn't known what exactly had been going on, she had known enough to realize how bad it had been.
El had obviously stopped by the restaurant the night before and she'd either been followed or Benny had called someone to let the authorities know she'd shown up there. Benny wouldn't have known who'd had her, where she'd escaped from, and would have called local child services. Unless child services was in on this, people's phone lines were being tapped. Whoever had been holding El prisoner had to be someone high on the food chain to get that kind of help from the . . . government.
Whatever had happened, Benny had been killed for his efforts.
This was just further evidence of why no one else could become involved in this. The more people who knew, the harder it would be to keep El safe and hidden.
Dustin got home safely. Apparently, Mike's parents still hadn't found out about El, which was good for her, but it made Jessica wonder just how oblivious the Wheeler's really were.
"And they're staying put, right?" Jessica asked. "No heroics?"
"And tomorrow? I have to work."
Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, and sometimes weekends.
"What about it?"
"Don't do anything that'll get you killed. Mom and I would miss you. We would cry."
Dustin stood there in her doorway, awkwardly now, because of her words. She knew he already knew he was loved, but because he was a boy he found it weird to be expressed out loud apparently.
"Go to bed, Dustin," she said, suppressing a smile. "Still have school tomorrow."
Steve met Jessica the next morning in the school parking lot like he did most days. Tommy and Carol were nowhere in sight, which was weird, but she was not going to complain.
"Hey," he said. At least he had the decency to look guilty. He apparently realized that her hasty exit from school the day before had been because of him.
"Oh, you're being nice to me now?" she almost hissed, grabbing her bag from the back seat and resisting to slam the car door. She wasn't in the habit of mistreating her baby.
"I wasn't being mean to you yesterday."
"No, but Tommy and Carol were, and you let them. You didn't say anything. You didn't do anything."
"Thought you didn't care what they thought."
"I don't care what they think."
"Then what's the problem?"
"The problem, Steve," she snarled, "is that I do care what you think. And you obviously don't think much of me at all if you're willing to let them treat me that way."
"What? Come on, you're my best friend."
"Yeah? Well, sometimes you don't act like it." She shoved past him. "I have to get to class."
She still had about ten minutes to spare, but she couldn't stand to look at Steve anymore, not just then. He hadn't understood why she was mad, he hadn't even understood why she felt he'd been in the wrong. He probably didn't even understand that she was hurt by his inaction, by his not standing up for her.
Maybe he really was just a shallow, rich, white kid – or a shallow, white kid with rich parents. She didn't know if their friendship would last if that was all there was to him. She needed more than just surface emotions. She craved depth, and she just didn't know how deep Steve Harrington was anymore.
Jonathan was back in school that day and Jessica kind of wished he wasn't because when she saw him at his locker she had a really hard time not letting him know that her new little group might have a lead on Will. She knew she couldn't because no one could know about El, but she also didn't mention it because . . . what if they were wrong about El knowing where Will was? Jonathan's hopes would be brought up just to be kicked back down if they didn't find him.
No matter how hard she tried to avoid Steve, she couldn't get past him at lunch. He wouldn't let her. He literally stopped her by placing his hand on the door and blocking her way with his arm. Tommy and Carol were there, but Steve told them to go on into the cafeteria. Jessica was surprised, to say the least.
"Nancy is supposed to meet me here in a few, but we need to talk."
"Uh . . . about yesterday, apparently."
"Okay. Listening." She crossed her arms over her chest and waited.
"You're right. I didn't do anything or say anything. I'm sorry. I . . . it obviously upset you that I didn't stop them, so I am sorry for that."
Jessica sighed, releasing some of the anger she'd been feeling towards Steve. She'd really only wanted an apology anyway, so she unclenched her fists and let her arms fall back to her sides.
"You do realize the only reason it upset me is because I will always defend you. I dare somebody to look at you funny."
"Oh, Hawkins High, beware," Steve quipped, and grinned as she slapped him on the arm playfully.
"Shut up. I could so take you."
Nancy met them at the cafeteria entrance and they joined the other students in the line. They were having some kind of meat that looked like it was made from gel, mashed potatoes, and some kind of green mushy vegetable, and pudding. The only things Jessica would be attempting to eat were the potatoes and the pudding.
Once seated at the table with Tommy and Carol, Nancy asked if they had seen Barb that day.
"Who?" Tommy asked, stuffing his face with chocolate pudding.
"I literally have no idea who you're talking about."
"Don't be a jerk about it," Steve said. "Did you see her last night or not?"
"No. She was gone before we left."
Nancy sighed. She'd obviously been hoping for a different answer.
"She probably got tired of listening to all the moaning," Carol teased, and then in a higher pitch, "Oh, Steve. Oh, Steve."
Jessica, who had been bringing a spoonful of potatoes to her mouth but was now frozen, glanced Nancy's way. The brunette was embarrassed, but she seemed to be able to ignore Carol for the most part.
Jessica glared at Carol and gave her leg a light kick under the table to make the girl stop teasing. She did.
As far as Jessica knew, Nancy had never had a boyfriend before, let alone had sex before, and she didn't deserve to be teased for it.
"Guys," Steve said. "Come on."
Steve seemed amused and a little smug, which if Nancy had really reacted the way Carol had said, then he probably was. Jessica sent him a glare too, and he knocked it off when he met her gaze.
"I'm just worried about her," Nancy said. "With everything going on with Will . . ."
"Hey, I'm sure she's fine. She's probably just skipping."
Nancy sort of nodded, but Jessica could tell she didn't believe that. Jessica didn't either. She didn't know Barb very well, but she knew the girl seemed too straight-laced to skip school for any reason other than deadly disease.
If Barb had –
Wait . . . Steve had slept with Nancy. It hit Jessica then – hard – that Steve had slept with Nancy . . . and Nancy was having lunch with them. Steve had slept with many girls and none of them had sit with them at lunch. Steve had said that Nancy was different and maybe she was. Maybe Steve had actual feelings for Nancy.
Jessica thought Nancy was a nice girl, but she still didn't want to lose her friendship with Steve because of her. Maybe she should have another conversation with Steve – only this time she just needed him to know that he wasn't allowed to outgrow her as a friend just because he had a girlfriend now.
She didn't get a chance to talk to Steve about anything important that day, however, because Tommy and Carol never left his side unless they were in class, and even after school they all met up in the parking lot. A red-headed girl named Nicole was with them, and they had congregated around Jonathan's car.
"What's this about?" Jessica asked when she reached them.
"It seems Byers' has been sneaking pictures of Nancy behind her back," Steve said, taking a seat on the back of Jonathan's car.
"What? That's . . . How? Are you sure?"
"I saw them with my own eyes," Nicole said. "Today in the dark room. He just developed them."
"Hm . . . and we're waiting around his car why?"
"To tell him to stop, obviously."
Jessica still couldn't believe what was being said. Yes, Jonathan was a keep-to-himself kind of guy, but that didn't mean creep or pervert. It was probably all a misunderstanding.
She continued thinking that even when Jonathan came out and was hassled about his backpack. Tommy had grabbed the bag from Jonathan's shoulder and had then thrown it to Steve.
"Man, he is trembling," Steve said. "He must really have something to hide."
Steve set the bag up on the car and unzipped it, pulling out a stack of pictures.
"Steve, leave them alone," Jessica said. "Just . . . put them back."
"Yes, re –"
Steve turned one around for her to see. The picture showed the group from Steve's house the night before. They were outside near the pool.
"That's not creepy at all," Carol complained, and for once Jessica couldn't blame her or call her a jerk. She was right – it was creepy. Why had he been close enough to Steve's yard to get pictures of the group outside his house?
"I was looking for my brother."
"No, this is called stalking," Steve said.
Jessica's gut clenched uncomfortably and she suddenly felt like she was going to throw up. She'd been nice to Jonathan, had defended him, and now here she was looking at evidence of why she shouldn't have.
It got worse when Nancy joined the group and realized what was going on. Carol handed Nancy one of the photos from the bottom of the stack. It happened to be a picture of Nancy taking her shirt off in front of the window in Steve's room. Jessica recognized the curtains.
"See, you can tell that he knows it was wrong," Steve said, "but . . . Man, that's the thing about perverts. It's hardwired into 'em. You know, they just can't help themselves."
Jonathan did know that it was wrong. He refused to meet anyone's eye – especially Nancy's – and he barely moved when Steve ripped one of the pictures into pieces and tossed them on the ground.
Jessica couldn't even be mad at Steve's actions. His privacy had been intruded upon; Nancy's privacy had been intruded upon, and Steve had every right to be upset – though she did think he was more upset because it was Jonathan who had done it rather than the fact that the pictures had been taken at all.
When Steve grabbed Jonathan's camera from his bag and threatened to drop it, however, Jessica thought he'd taken it too far. Jonathan lunged forward, but Tommy stopped him from getting any further.
"Steve, you've made your point, now give it back."
He shrugged and gestured for Tommy to let Jonathan go. He held out the camera for Jonathan to grab, but before he could, Steve let the camera fall to the ground, where it smashed to pieces.
Tommy and Carol laughed. Nicole seemed shocked. Nancy just stared at the broken pieces, and Jessica shook her head as Steve began systematically tearing all the pictures to shreds. She couldn't believe what Steve had done; he'd never actually taken a turn at vandalism before.
Once done, Steve said, "Come on, the game's about to start."
There was a basketball game being held that evening in the gymnasium. Jessica cared nothing about sports at all, and she only went to the games because Steve was on the team. She had to work that day, so she couldn't have gone anyway, but even if she hadn't been she wouldn't have gone. Not after what Steve had done.
She realized then that she hadn't moved from her spot in the parking lot, but neither had Nancy. In fact, Nancy was starring at the pile from a picture that had been taken of Barb sitting poolside with her feet in the water. Nancy knelt to pick up the pieces and then took off after Steve.
Jonathan quickly picked up the pieces of his broken camera without looking at Jessica. Despite what she'd found out, she still felt a little bad for the guy.
"I'm sorry about the camera," she said. "Really. I thought . . . I don't know what I thought, but I know I didn't think he'd do that. And you should have never taken those pictures. It is stalker-ish."
That was all he said before he got in his car. It didn't take much longer for her to make it to her own car. Then she was on her way home.
Once home, Jessica went through her normal work day routine of showering and changing into work clothes. She put her hair up in a ponytail, as she had the day before, only this time she didn't leave it messy. The only thing different about that day was the fact that Dustin hadn't made it home by the time she was ready to leave for work.
She assumed that meant Dustin was with Mike and Lucas. She hoped he was, anyway. No matter where he was, she still had to go to work.
"'Kay, Mom. I'm out."
Her mother didn't work, not really. She did arts and crafts and sold them, but the settlement from Jessica's dad's life insurance policy had set them up pretty well. The only reason Jessica was working was to teach her a little about responsibility.
The short ride to work was uneventful, spent listening to rock music, until she pulled in front of the theater and parked. Once inside the building she noticed that one of the drink machines was on the fritz. Soda was going everywhere.
Apparently, none of the buttons were working to shut the machine off. Two people were working behind the counter; one of them eventually unplugged the machine.
"What happened there?" she asked.
Bill, the manager and one of the two behind the counter at the moment, shrugged.
"The thing just started going nuts. The news people have been talking about power surges – maybe that's the problem. I don't know."
Jessica clocked in and went back out to where the tickets were sold. She was glad she didn't have to work behind the counter that day; the mess was not her problem. She only really had to work behind the counter on the weekends, the two days the theater was busiest.
She had a few people come through, mostly couples, but that was it. She got bored easily, though, on slow days, and she wasn't allowed to do homework while working. Sometimes all she did was sit there.
It could get monotonous and she felt great relief when her shift was over and she could go home. The difference that night was that once she clocked out and got to her car Steve pulled up beside her in his dad's BMW and rolled his window down. At least his parents left him a way to get around when they were gone.
He was by himself. No Tommy and Carol. No Nancy.
"Hey," he said.
"Hey. What're you doing here?"
He shrugged. "Thought you might like to hang out."
After what had happened that day in the school parking lot she wasn't sure she wanted to hang out with anyone at the moment.
"She didn't go to the game either. She said she had something to do with her mom."
"You don't think I freaked her out, do you?"
"Freaked her out? Doing what?"
"By being a jerk? I don't know. You did smash the camera."
Steve got out of the car and made his way in front of Jessica.
"He deserved that."
"No. He didn't." Jessica sighed. "What Jonathan did wasn't right, and you were right by taking the pictures away, but you only smashed the camera to impress Tommy and Carol. It's so important to you what they think of you that you're willing to be a bully for them."
"I'm not a bully."
"No, you're not. But you are when you're with them because that's what they are."
Jessica felt tears fill her eyes and she ducked her head to hide them. She accepted a hug from him, though, when he wrapped his arms around her. It eased the need to cry, but it also helped the tears that were already there to fall. That was it. No more tears after that.
"You . . . if you had found out by yourself, you wouldn't have done that. You would've talked to him and maybe taken the pictures from him, but you wouldn't have broken the camera. That's vandalism, Steve, destruction of property."
"I know. I know . . . I've upset you again."
She stepped away and took a deep breath.
"It's not just you, though, Steve. Will's missing, and Dustin went out the night he found out Will had disappeared looking for him. I think he went out again today, and I hope he's with Mike and Lucas, but I couldn't go looking for him because I had to work."
And now Barb was missing too, and Jessica was helping Mike harbor someone that was probably on the run from the government. If El hadn't been a kid, Jessica probably wouldn't have been helping her, to be completely honest, and she couldn't tell Steve any of that.
But no, it wasn't all Steve's fault that her nerves were on edge. It wasn't even Steve at all, really, because she knew how he was, and she'd never complained before – though she had felt she could plenty of times – but with everything else going on she'd been standing on a ledge and Steve was the closest thing to take her frustration out on. He was also the safest.
"For what it's worth . . . your brother's bike was in the driveway of your house. I saw it on my way here."
Relief filled her and her body releasing its tension was an almost physical thing. It was so immediate and strong that she felt as if she could just sink to the sidewalk where she was standing. Her brother was home and safe.
"Did you eat dinner before you left for work?" he asked. "We could go get some food, hang out for a bit."
That sounded so good, just her and Steve hanging out. It was what she needed.