Note: Oh no, it's almost been another year! I guess I'll spend the rest of this fic apologising for slow updates, but here is a bulkier one at last :) This actually isn't the whole of what I wanted to get through in this chapter, but I thought maybe it would be good to post this in the meantime and aim to try and finish off the rest in the not too distant future. A big thanks to those who have left reviews in the time passing, it was so nice to see that people are still keen to know where this eventually ends up (I think I can see a fair bit of how it plays out, but the details are fuzzy and turning that into chapters is not my strong point!). Anyway, here's 14b, I hope you like it (let me know if you're still following this!), and hope everyone is doing okay out there in the strange new world we find ourselves in~
Something here, it never looked right
Oh, we've been fighting on the front lines
For so long
I go digging in a graveyard
To find the remnants of your heart
But it's gone
- Crash the Gates, Yellowcard
They stood at the entrance to the sewer for an uncomfortably long period, in silence and solemnity, as if the concrete tunnel surrounded by overgrown bushes was in fact a gaping mouth leading directly to hell. Each of the five was equipped with a mix of utilitarian objects and weapons, and while the equipment may have advanced in complexity from when they were children, they might as well have been a comedic assembly of their younger selves.
George felt a cold pit in his stomach looking into the tunnel, torn between the dread of what lay ahead and a hysterical panic in his chest that compelled him to run into the darkness shouting Alex's name, as if that would do any good at all. He glanced around him at the others, who shared his mixed expression of determination and fear, and noticed Beverly slipping her hand into Ben's and gripping tightly. That small observation for some reason sparked a bit of hope within him, and he wondered if that was a subconscious reminder of the strength they had when they stood together as one.
"This is stupid," he said finally. "We're grown adults, and that's a sewer, and there's a kid down there who needs our help."
"Yep," Ben agreed, but didn't move. Beverly winced as he squeezed her hand tighter. But she didn't let go, or pull her hand away.
Andi started to say something, but stopped without forming a sentence and let the words die on her breath. Mike threw her a sideways glance, brow furrowed. Somewhere between the inn and the sewer, she'd become more withdrawn and quiet, perhaps beginning to realise the weight of what they were about to attempt in a way that talking about facing the clown did not impress. Maybe it was something else, but if it was, she certainly was not offering anything up to the rest of them.
George was trying to will himself to take the first step towards the sewers, but it almost felt as if he were frozen in place, just a little kid again with a tremendous overpowering fear of the dark. Forever the victim, like Pennywise had leered at him. And then he thought about Alex, another little kid trapped in the dark, and how scared and confused he must be. Thinking of Alex was enough for force himself to move, and he stepped firmly in the direction of the sewer.
"It's just a clown," he muttered under his breath as he neared the entrance. "A stupid, predatory clown using a scared little kid as bait, that's all that's down there."
He thought that maybe reminding himself of that would make the situation lighter, but in the weight of the damp, stagnant sewer air eking out from the tunnel, his chest felt tight and his stomach churned. The smells invaded his senses and reminded him of a time best forgotten, when he'd reached into the sewer for a waxed paper boat, and the teeth had been so suddenly large, and the eyes so amber, and the pain so sharp...
He jumped a little at the hand on his shoulder, but turned to see Mike give him a small smile, his dark eyes sympathetic. Of course, Mike saw right through his silent musings and knew exactly what was running through his mind. He was that good at reading people, after all those years spent chasing the ghost of Pennywise.
"We're together again," Mike said gently, echoing the thought that had crossed George's mind on seeing Beverly and Ben grip each other's hand. "That gives us a strength against Pennywise that I know he's afraid of."
"You're right," George said, a small bubble of confidence growing within him. He nodded at Mike, and glanced back at the others, who met his gaze with varying degrees of certainty. Then he stepped across the threshold, into the darkness of the sewer. It wasn't much, perhaps, to take one more step forward. But to him, it was a lot.
And that hope within him died when the light of his headlamp illuminated the gift Pennywise had left for him.
Welcome home, Georgie.
Another yellow balloon, the same colour as his childhood raincoat, the message scrawled in dripping blood. The blood looked fresh, and he felt sick at the thought of where it might have come from.
"We need to hurry," he urged, his voice catching in his throat. He didn't need to say what they were all thinking: that this was exactly where Pennywise wanted them to be, and for all their grand plans of a heroic rescue, they were rushing willingly instead into what was likely to be a trap. And only a fool would go ahead with it knowing all this, but George knew he didn't have a choice, not while Alex was down in the sewer, alone, like he had been all those years ago.
One of the weapons at his disposal was a boxcutter, brought from the conference room where it had been sitting dustily on the bookshelf. With more than a little spite, he slid the blade up from its protective sheath, and popped the balloon in front of him. The yellow rubber burst apart obligingly, but somewhere in the distance (or maybe it was all in his head) he heard the sound of faint cackling.
"Let's go," he said darkly. In silence, the five of them made their way into the depths of the sewer.
In the aftermath of the Neibolt house, once they'd fled from the house itself in a panicked furore, there was a strange feeling of electricity hanging over the Losers as the realisation dawned on them. For a moment, they'd had more power than the creature terrorising their town, and they felt collectively empowered, as if light had triumphed over the darkness even just for this battle. As scared and terrified as they were, they also sensed that Pennywise had retreated from them back into the sewers, that their small band of Losers had a chance of maybe one day being able to stand up to him. On the dirty asphalt road outside the house they gathered, crowded around Eddie, trading breathless excited words as they revelled in having somehow, magically, surviving Pennywise.
Eddie's face was scrunched slightly as he cradled his broken arm, but he assured them the adrenaline of surviving Pennywise was providing a bit of a damper on the pain. Richie knew his expressions well enough by now to know he was really hurting though, from the way he was gritting his teeth and the beads of sweat on his forward. Richie watched silently as the other Losers cheered him on for being so close to Pennywise and coming out the other end mostly unscathed. The bleeding wound on Ben's stomach was largely superficial too, and to his clear relief, wouldn't need stitches.
"We need to get Eddie to a hospital," Stan said, ever the pragmatist. "His arm needs to be set as soon as possible or it won't heal properly."
Eddie's eyes widened at Stan's words, nodding quickly.
"Yeah I'd like my arm to come back to normal please," he said fearfully, his breath catching a bit. "But... you probably should just take me home, my mum will take me to the hospital."
The others exchanged glances, various thoughts passing through their minds. That Stan was right, and Eddie needed to get to the hospital as soon as possible, and taking him straight there was the most direct route. But also that going via his house was probably best since the "grown-ups" would know what to do. Of course, the prospect of facing Eddie's fearsome mother was terrifying in its own way.
"Are you sure?" Ben asked. "The hospital is the other direction to your house."
Eddie nodded firmly. Looking at his long-time friend, Richie realised that in that house, the fear he'd felt for himself upon finding the missing poster or in the room of clowns compared none at all to the fear he'd felt when Eddie's scream had echoed through the decaying halls. That Eddie's pain and terror had somehow rooted itself within him and he was feeling his friend's emotions perhaps even more strongly than he felt his own. That, to him, Eddie was...
He couldn't bring himself to finish that sentence. And at that untimely moment while his expression was a contorted mix of confusion, worry and embarrassment, Eddie met his gaze, tilting his head slightly with a furrowed brow. Of course, the other knew Richie's expressions pretty well too by now.
The other Losers had gathered their bikes and were getting ready to push them along, knowing that Eddie couldn't ride.
"I've got yours," Richie blurted out, in a desperate attempt to break the awkwardness of being caught out with his thoughts. Eddie's brow furrowed deeper, but without waiting for him to say anything, Richie brushed past him and grabbed the handlebars of Eddie's bike, as well as his own, pulling one bike with each hand and turning to follow the other Losers who had started off in the direction of Eddie's house.
Eddie's voice stopped him. Richie glanced ahead. The others were out of earshot, but Stan looked back at them with a pointed look, clearly thinking about the speed with which Eddie should be taken to the hospital to have his arm set. He nodded his acknowledgement at Stan, but waited for Eddie to reach his side.
"We need to get you home," Richie said, hoping faintly that Eddie hadn't really noticed his unintentional thoughts in the other's direction. "I can tell how much it's hurting, even if you tell the others it's fine."
"I've been better," Eddie admitted with a grimace. "But... just now..."
"Can we not, right now?" Richie interrupted, starting to walk after the others again. Eddie hurried to keep up, clutching his broken arm tightly in place to keep it still.
"But Richie, what was that? You looked at me with the weirdest expression," Eddie pressed. "I just want to know-"
"What do you want to know?" Richie said, trying not to raise his voice so much that the others would hear, disliking that his own voice sounded angrier and defensive than he wanted it to. He was still dealing with the confusing thoughts swirling in his head and the last thing he needed was Eddie stirring them up further. And it sounded like Eddie already half-knew the answer to his own questions.
He walked a bit faster, kind of hoping to walk away from the conversation, but Eddie kept up. Richie felt a bit bad that he was pushing his friend like this, when he was already in pain, but such was the desperation to avoid dealing with the feelings he had suddenly become aware of.
"Do you..." Eddie didn't seem quite able to finish the sentence either.
"And what if I did?" Richie said shortly, stopping to face Eddie, his arms out on each side to balance the bicycles. "What then, Eddie? Do you even know?"
Eddie looked back at him blankly, saying nothing. Looking at his friend's solemn face, Richie recognised in that moment that his pointed jab had really been aimed at getting a response from his friend, at maybe actually confronting the elephant in the room and dealing with it. But Eddie's silence was condemning, and Richie's stomach twisted with a sudden nausea.
"You don't... it's just me..." Richie said in realisation, feeling sicker and sicker. The brief strange moment of wanting to talk openly passed and he now wanted instead to crawl under a rock forever. "Look, just forget all this. It's nothing, it really isn't, and the real issue is your stupid fucking arm, so let's just deal with that okay?"
He pulled the bikes forcefully forward and felt their rubber tires skid in protest on the asphalt, as he turned away from Eddie, his eyes stinging a little against his will.
"Richie-" came the voice after, and he hated the pity in it. He'd been so absolutely dumb to think for a minute that perhaps maybe these sudden feelings might have been not entirely misplaced, that maybe...
"Richie!" urged a suddenly gurgled distorted voice. It was Eddie's voice and it wasn't Eddie's voice, and the sky around them darkened to match the ominous tension rising. The other Losers were gone. Not really wanting to, Richie turned back, and gasped at the sight of a pale Eddie impaled on a sharp talon, the claw protruding from his chest and dripping with dark black blood. They weren't on Neibolt street anymore, they were in a cave, and it was loud and there were screams echoing, and Eddie was reaching out to him, mouth open in a cry, but then the claw ripped him away and boulders rained down from above to crush him underneath.
And when he glanced to the side, noticing a sudden movement, he saw a thin dark figure with a shadowed face looking back at him, the glint of sharp pointed teeth twisting into a smile.
Richie woke with a start, shouting out despite himself, hands gripping the threadbare velvet chair tightly as his heart beat fast in his chest. He quickly registered his surroundings, taking in the drab Kenduskaeg conference room with the madness of Mike Hanlon decorating its centre. Now that he had recovered from the unpleasant memory-nightmare, he noticed Stan's skeptical gaze fixed on him.
"Bad dream?" Stan asked simply. Richie nodded mutely.
"Must be the curse of this hell hole," he said, trying to lighten his tone and hide the depth to which the nightmare had unsettled him. It had dredged up one of his worst memories, and dragged with it all those feelings of confusion, insecurity and...
He swallowed, noticing the person in question wasn't in the room.
"Where's Eddie?" he asked, hoping his voice sounded calmer than he felt. Stan shrugged.
"He went off to get something from his room, I think," he said. "It was a little while ago, now that you mention it."
The vision of a blood-drenched Eddie impaled on a talon flashed through Richie's head, and he felt his heart quicken again. Then he remembered the earlier part of the nightmare, and the echoes of the nausea he'd felt returned with a vengeance. That confused time when he thought he had felt something for Eddie... he'd spent years coming to terms with it. Figuring out it had just been some strange reaction to the near-death experience in Neibolt, nothing of any significance after all. That had messed him about, for sure. But it was fine now.
"I'm gonna go look for him," he mumbled, gesturing vaguely in the direction of upstairs. In his distraction, he didn't notice the faint flicker of worry across Stan's face, a face that had been pale all day.
But Stan said nothing, as he left the room to head for the upstairs section of the inn.
They'd been making their way into the depths of the sewers for about ten minutes, in silence, when Ben suddenly spoke up.
"It's not a good thing that I feel like I just know where to go, right?"
He voiced the feeling that the five of them had shared, that something (some-thing) was guiding them through the sewers, without uncertainty, towards the place that it exactly wanted them to be. George glanced around at the others, noticing the pale-faced Andi seemed even more distant than before. Mike was watching her with a wary expression on his lined face. George wondered what was going on there, and whether Mike knew more than he was letting on.
"No, it's probably not," Bev said, sighing. "I feel it too."
She looked at George pointedly.
"Are you sure we should be going ahead with this, George?"
He met her gaze steadily, but didn't offer a judgement.
"I can't not," he said simply, helplessly. The memory of Alex proudly holding out his Mythbusters book echoed in his mind, and his chest tightened. But even if he had to see this through, that didn't mean the others did. He opened his mouth to say exactly that, but Bev shook her head, a little sadly.
"We're not leaving you, George," she said wryly, before he could even begin his sentence. Ben nodded, standing next to her, his face oddly shadowed in the asymmetric glow of the head lamps. George looked to Mike and Andi. He could see from Mike's expression alone where Mike stood on the matter, but Andi seemed more aloof and simply shrugged. It was an odd change of personality, and he knew it had everything to do with being en route to Pennywise. What he didn't understand was why.
"Andi, is everything okay?" he ventured gently. Her dark eyes fixed on him, and narrowed.
"Shouldn't we be focused on getting to this kid and stopping the clown, rather than loitering here in the sewer?"
She crossed her arms, challenging him to push further, but George just blinked at her.
"Sure..." he said uncertainly. "Let's keep going then."
They continued through the tunnels, reaching a wider open space with several branches running off of it. It wasn't familiar to George, but then none of this was. But for Mike, Ben and Bev, this alcove was very known.
"Isn't this where-" Bev began. She'd not been there at the time because they were coming to find her, but she remembered the recounting. And she vaguely remembered it from when they were exiting the sewers after, because of the blood that had still been seeping on the floor as they splashed past.
"Yeah," Mike agreed.
"Where we found Stan," Ben finished, his eyes dropping to the pooled water on the floor. George realised what they were talking about quickly, and his thoughts jumped back to Stan who had stayed behind at the inn with Eddie and Richie. He hoped they had all stuck together, or at least that Stan had someone with him. After what had happened, even if Stan had forced him not to say anything, at least hopefully he wasn't alone. He pulled his phone out of his pocket, but of course there was no reception down here.
Andi was silent, looking around the hollow space with clouded eyes. George turned his attention back to where Ben was inspecting the wet ground with a perturbed expression. There was a thin layer of water covering the entire floor, but underneath that, at the spot where Stan had been...
"Is that a chalk outline?" George said out loud, voicing what Ben and Bev had just been concluding. Bev nodded sombrely.
"That's exactly where we found Stan," Ben said. "You don't think Pennywise..."
George grasped at his phone again, staring at the screen hopefully, but still no reception.
"Do any of you have reception?" he asked, more worry creeping into his voice than he would have liked.
The other three checked. Ben and Mike shook their heads, but Beverly held her phone up.
"One bar," she said with a weak laugh. "Maybe it's lying. But I can try."
Mike gave her the number for the conference room, and she entered it into the phone, waiting for the call to ring through. Several long seconds passed while the phone sought to connect, and George found himself gritting his teeth in impatience. What if this had all been a distraction to lure them away from the inn?
Finally, it seemed to start ringing, and Bev held the phone up to her ear. A muffled voice sounded at the other end.
"Stan?" she said. "Oh good, you're okay." She pressed the loudspeaker button so the others could hear his response.
"Yeah, why wouldn't I be," came a slightly distorted voice over the phone's speaker. The reception was clearly barely holding on. Bev glanced at Ben, who was still crouched next to the chalk outline.
"Uh, no reason!" she said quickly. "We don't have much reception down here but we wanted to check in. We're... getting closer to where Pennywise might be."
Stan didn't reply at first, but they could hear the noises on the line indicating he was still there.
"Right," he said at last, but something in his tone sounded unsettled.
"Is everything okay back at the inn?" George asked, hovering over Bev's shoulder to see the screen, even though it revealed nothing other than the fact that the call was connected. The one bar of reception would certainly not be able to handle a video call if it was struggling this much with transmitting just audio.
"Yeah, I think so..."
"Think?" Ben echoed, standing up from the chalk outline.
"Uh, I'm fine, but Eddie went to his room to find something and Richie went after him..."
"Guys, where's Andi?" Mike interrupted suddenly in a low voice.
"Andi's not with you?" Stan said. Apparently the phone microphone was picking up audio just fine despite Mike's attempt to be quiet. George looked around the alcove and indeed, Andi was not with them. With several different paths leading away from them, he wasn't sure where to even start with going after her.
A distant, pained scream echoed around the chamber, and Mike instantly took off down the tunnel from which it seemed to coming from.
"Mike, wait!" Ben shouted after him, but he'd already rounded the corner.
"Er, Stan, I think we better go after Mike and Andi," Bev said, looking back at her phone. "We'll probably lose reception, but we'll get back in touch as soon as we can. Send us a message if anything comes up and we'll see it when the reception is less patchy."
"Will do," Stan's voice crackled, the noise on the connection increasing. "Guys... stay safe."
"You too," George said, as Beverly hung up and pocketed the phone. The three of them made sure they still had everything with them and hurried down the same tunnel Mike had gone down. They didn't have to go too far before they found Mike kneeling down next to Andi, who was bent over in the murky sewer water with her hands covering her eyes and sobbing.
He was speaking softly to her, clearly trying to calm her down.
"This is what Pennywise does, Andi, you have to stay here with us," Mike said steadily. George wondered how he managed to be so seemingly unaffected at the thought of Pennywise, but then he remembered that Mike had lived in Derry, knowing about the clown, for his entire life. Actively seeking out information about it, at great personal risk. Stan used to tell George that Bev was the bravest of the Losers, but Mike in managing to stay in Derry and live with what they had once known was perhaps the bravest of them all.
George scanned the area quickly. It was a junction of three tunnels, but otherwise unremarkable. He didn't see any signs that Pennywise was there, at least not currently.
"She... was... there!" Andi cried in broken sobs, her shoulders heaving. "Her arm...!"
Mike had his hand on her back, clearly trying to comfort her, and threw them a look of urgency while Andi continued to sob. George got the feeling, judging by Mike's reaction, that this wasn't entirely a surprise to him.
"Andi," Mike said carefully. "I need you to tell us what you saw."
Andi stilled, looking at Mike through tears, a complete shell of the hardened persona she'd projected since they'd met. Whatever Pennywise had shown her, it had really hit its mark. She breathed out, slowly, swallowing hard before speaking.
"It... Pennywise... my mother," she managed. She looked at Mike sorrowfully. "I'm sorry I didn't tell you everything. I thought I-"
"Andi, what's your last name?" Mike asked softly. Of course, George realised, Mike knew everything about Derry's sordid history with Pennywise, and it would be easy for him to see where Andi fit into it.
"Lamonica," she whispered. "My mum was-"
"Cheryl," Mike finished quietly, knowingly.
Andi choked back a sob, fishing morosely in the water next to her and pulling out one of the waterlogged homemade Molotov cocktails.
"I guess I wasn't ready for this at all," she mumbled. "Pennywise... it just-"
She burst out crying again. For the first time, George noticed there was blood staining the left arm of her jumper. It didn't stand out obviously because her jumper was red to begin with, but his headlamp illuminated the steady drip of blood into the water next to her that was diluting slowly and turning the water a hazy pink.
"Your arm..." he started, but it was more to draw attention to it for Mike's benefit. Mike carefully inspected the ripped sleeve, while Andi continued to breathe raggedly in between sobs. From what George could see, the wound wasn't too serious, but the teeth marks were deep enough to be concerning. George was oddly grateful that for whatever reason, the clown hadn't managed to take Andi's arm like he had his own arm. Yes, he'd learnt to live with the missing limb over time, but it hadn't been easy in a world designed under the assumption that all your limbs just work as normal. Not to mention that it had always become something that defined him, no matter what other traits or qualities he might have. That physical trait of missing an arm was something people remembered, even if they didn't intend to. And then there had been the rarer moments of cruelty where his missing arm served as a way to tease or mock him, moments he remembered so clearly and painfully even though they occupied so relatively little of his memories.
"I don't think she should go further," Mike said hesitantly. "It might be more of a liability at this stage. I think the three of you should go ahead and just try to grab Alex quickly, and head back out this way. I'll stay with her."
Ben, Beverly and George exchanged looks. The same gut feeling that had led them this far was shared between them and they knew which way they had to go next. But with their numbers dropping from five to three, the so-called rescue mission was looking less and less feasible. Especially since Pennywise clearly knew they were, and wanted them to be, coming.
"Okay, let's go, " Ben said, suddenly sounding all business about it. "We need to get in, and get out, as quickly as possible. No distractions, just grab the kid and go."
Bev gave him a curious sideways glance, but nodded in agreement. With last looks back at Mike and Andi, they together headed down the leftmost tunnel. They'd turned a few corners and were well out of earshot from the other two when Beverly stopped and breathed out a little shakily, meeting both of their questioning gazes.
"I think we're close," she said, voicing the unspoken knowing amongst them. George reached into his pocket and gripped the box cutter, feeling silly at the thought of taking on a savage child-eating clown with something used to open a delivered package. Bev had wordlessly taken the 9mm pistol from Andi earlier, nodding simply when Andi asked if she knew how to work it. George found himself wondering at the time why Bev knew how to use a gun, but it didn't seem to the right time to ask. Looking at the expression on Ben's face as she checked the safety on it, George saw he wasn't the only one wondering about this.
Ben meanwhile gripped a crossbow, another weapon in Andi's assortment, sourced from someone in town before they'd headed into the sewers. When asked about it, Andi shrugged and said that even those in Derry who didn't know the source of the darkness was Pennywise still needed to protect themselves. Even though so few people really knew the truth about the threat lying in wait beneath, it seemed they somehow were aware of the danger regardless.
Box cutter, pistol, crossbow. It sounded like either a twisted Derry version of scissors-paper-rock, or a strange rendition of Clue. Except the odds of winning were stacked pretty high against them, and it felt like they were speeding headfirst towards something that was going to destroy them.
And yet there was no choice.
As the three of them began heading down the tunnel, George felt the weight of that knowledge grow in his chest.
It seemed they'd never really had a choice about any of this.