The first death happened on the night of their daughter’s first birthday.
El had collapsed, blood running down from her nose and over her lips as she convulsed on the floor. They rushed her to the hospital and Mike desperately held onto her hand for as long as he could. ‘She’s not breathing, she’s not fucking breathing Hop!’ He kept repeating it over and over hoping her father could fix it. He could always fix it.
Anne was crying out, cheeks bright red as she screamed for her mother who had fallen as she was putting her to bed. Bedtime was always her favourite time, she loved to tell their daughter stories and sing lullabies. Anne of Green Gables was her namesake, of course. ‘Dad used to read it to me every night. Anne was my friend when I had no one to talk to.’ How could he say no to her? He could never say no.
‘Michael! Your daughter needs you!’ His mother passed Anne into his arms, her dark hair was stuck to her wet face and she was screaming so loud. She knew something was wrong, he tried to get her to calm down but everyone was trying to get him to sit. Then a clipboard was thrust into his face and he had to fill out the forms, he had to tell them all of her medical details. ‘Wheeler. W-H-E-E-L-E-R. Eleve- -‘
‘Jane. Her first name is Jane.’
Hopper’s gruff voice interrupted before Mike even realised what he had said to the nurse at reception. ‘Maiden name: Hopper.’
He didn’t remember eventually sitting down or his sister’s arms embracing him and staining his shirt with her running mascara. He stared down at his sneakers on the lime green linoleum and wished he was twelve and riding his bike and sneaking waffles down to his childhood basement.
‘A friend is someone you do anything for.’
His vision is blurred by a styrofoam cup, a thick brown liquid swirling around inside. ‘Drink this, buddy.’ Will was now sitting beside him, always the calming presence in his life ever since kindergarten.
When did they move to the corridor? When did it become morning? ‘We’ve been here for nearly ten hours,’ Will tells him and Mike runs his hands down his face hoping it will hold back the tears.
‘Anne! Where is she?!’ He sits up in a panicked fit, back in the waiting room as Joyce puts a hand on his knee. Everyone is huddled on salmon coloured sofas, winter coats wrapped around their shoulders and coffee cups in their hands. He can’t see his daughter with any of them. She needed to be close. ‘El will want to see her when she’s ready.’
‘She’s with Nancy and Jonathan, sweetheart. At the apartment. So she can sleep.’
Everyone throws him a sad smile. Dustin, Lucas, Will, Max - they’re all here. They had all made sure to be there for the birthday party.
‘She’s only turning one! She’s not going to remember any of it.’ They would all remember it, she had retorted whilst blowing up balloons of every colour. ‘We can’t just wait to make memories.’ El wanted to give their child everything; everything she never had.
‘Mike.’ Someone was pushing at his shoulder, pulling his eyesight from the dirty skirting board of the hospital wall. Why was it so black and scuffed? Shouldn’t a hospital be clean and spotless? ‘Mike. Come on, the doctor is waiting.’ It was Hopper, running a hand over his eyes and down his beard. It was nearly all grey now - ‘the first grey hairs appeared the day I caught you two in El’s bedroom.’ But he always seemed older after his time in Russia, the time he doesn’t like to talk about.
The doctor was in lime green scrubs that matched the floor, his mask down and around his neck. His face was all harsh lines and tired wrinkles, none of the kind roundness that Mike remembered of Dr Owens. They hadn’t seen Sam in a while, not since the day they found out El was pregnant again. ‘Jane was in a lot of distress, internally, when we began to operate.’ She had wanted to be a mom so bad. She wasn’t going to let Brenner take that away from her too.
‘There was a lot of bleeding and it became very hard to find the source.’ Hopper’s hand came to rest on his shoulder. He barely felt it. The doctor’s voice was going in and out, as though he couldn’t tune in on the same frequency.
‘You don’t even have to say anything. I just want to know you’re okay.’
‘I’m so sorry. She suffered an aneurysm on the table. We weren’t able to revive her.’
‘Jesus.’ Hopper’s hand was gripping him now, his body weight coming down on his shoulder and all Mike could do was stand and take it. Someone else grabbed him from behind, their small hands hugging him as they sobbed into his shoulder. He watched as the doctor with the harsh face and sad eyes turned away from them and walked back through the doors. Behind those doors, El was waiting. She was all alone.
‘Mike, I’m so sorry. I’m so, so sorry sweetheart.’ The voice belonged to his mom who was clutching him as he knelt on the floor. He didn’t even remember falling to his knees but there he was with the cold of the linoleum seeping through his jeans. Beside him was Will, tears freely falling from his brown eyes. He looked up to find Hopper there, eyes red raw and clutching Joyce like she’s his only lifeline. She’s sobbing and rocking back and forth on the balls of her feet so she can reach him.
He feels so disconnected from his body. He was screaming and writhing in agony but his body just wasn’t keeping up. So he’d just fallen and sat on the cold floor. ‘She’s so young, she didn’t get to live enough... What about Anne...’
Anne. Their daughter. All alone. Her mother was gone. She would never know her.
‘No. No, no, no, no...’ the words escaped his mouth before he could stop them. The hot tears stung his tired, dry eyes as he fell back into his mother’s arms. She couldn’t be gone, they had survived so much. They had defeated Brenner and demogorgans and mind flayers from other dimensions. They had survived high school, separated by different towns and college and mortgages and miscarriages. They were supposed to be together until the end. That was how this worked. You survive the shit and your reward is forever.
He’s clutching Hopper’s shoulder now, his face wet with tears and a beard scratching his cheek. How were they supposed to go on? ‘Hopper had a little girl too. Sarah. She died.’ He held the man closer hoping to find some solace in the fact he’d been through this before. How do you go on? How do you get off the floor and do anything else?
‘Mike. Do you want to see her?’ Dustin’s always sure and steady voice was quivering in his ear. He had joined Mike on the floor, backed up against the waiting room chairs. Hopper was nowhere to be seen, Joyce too. His mother was holding onto a payphone telling his little sister what was happening. ‘You need to come upstate, your brother needs you.’
‘Mike. They said you can go see her now if you want to.’ Dustin is patting his shoulder now and helping him get up off the floor. All he can see now is the door and he’s terrified to go through it. He goes through it and this is all over. El is gone. She’s not trapped in the Upside Down, she’s not hiding out at Hopper’s old cabin in the woods. She’s just gone. ‘Don’t leave.’ He grabs onto Dustin’s arm and knows he’ll need all the help he can get just to reach the door.
‘We’re all here, we’re not leaving.’
He couldn’t recall how they reached the door, or how his friends helped him to the room they were keeping El in. But there she was, eyes closed peacefully. They’d wrapped a bandage around her head, part of her curls missing where they had to shave them. She was going to be so mad, she hated anyone touching her hair. ‘She’ll hate that.’
‘Her hair. They shaved it. She’s going to be pissed.’ He knew he should be talking in the past tense, but no one corrected him. A sob escaped Max’s mouth but Lucas pulled her outside the door. Her lips were slightly parted, the colour drained and replaced by an icy blue. Mike couldn’t believe that she was just lying there, looking like she was sleeping and having a beautiful dream. ‘You’re such a mouthbreather. You need to let me get up before I’m late for work again.’ She’s was just too cute in the mornings, how was he supposed to let her go?
He’s not sure how long he’s lying there, on his side, holding her waist. He’s stroking his thumb back and forth along her arm. She was so cold. She needed more blankets. When a nurse comes in again he’ll ask for more. Hopper is sitting on a chair, just staring at her, his eyes red and blank. Mike couldn’t remember when he arrived.
They found out why she hadn’t been moved, why no one had asked about her organs. She hadn’t registered as a donor. She couldn’t. They tried to keep her off as many government documents as possible. Such a waste. She was gone and there was nothing left to do. She would just stay like this. Perfect, serene. Gone. No one could touch her now.
It was just as he always feared. She pushed herself too far, she gave up too much for everyone else. ‘We are treating her like some kind of machine when she's not a machine.’
The nurses had wiped away all the blood from her face. He just laid there, staring up at her cheek and waiting for her to wiggle her nose in discomfort because he was breathing on her. El hated feeling his breath on her cheek when they would lie together. It tickled.
They kept trying to get him to move, his mother tugging on his sleeve and screaming through her tears. He didn’t listen to what she had to say. He didn’t tell her how to grieve for dad. He let her deal with it in her own way. She needed to let him do the same.
Mike eventually moved off the bed so everyone could say their goodbyes but he stayed in the room, holding onto her hand the whole time. He wasn’t fucking leaving this room. He wasn’t leaving her alone for another minute. Dustin, Lucas and Max filed in and placed kisses on her cheek, Max’s tears falling on to El’s pale skin which she shakily brushed away. Steve showed up, still in his Hawkins PD uniform and he pulled Dustin in for a hug before patting Hopper on the shoulder. He didn’t really venture towards Mike. They just shared a look and that was all Mike could handle. He was grateful for that.
His mother, once she recovered from yelling at him, walked in again with Holly in tow. She had driven all night from Indiana State, her long blonde hair a mess above her head. Her eyes were red and she hugged Mike from behind. ‘I’m so sorry Mikey. This is all bullshit.’ She didn’t touch El, she couldn’t bring herself to get close so she held on to their mother instead. ‘I’m sorry, I can’t.’ She whispered through her tears and ran out of the room. He squeezed El’s hand in apology, ignoring how cold and hard it felt.
Nancy arrived next and she seemed to be supporting Jonathan as they slowly crept towards El’s bedside. She and Mike shared a look and she appeared to be holding back her tears. She always stayed strong for everyone. She took El’s other hand and kissed it as Jonathan cried for his sister. ‘We brought the baby with us. She’s outside with mom.’
‘Do you think she’ll remember?’
‘If I bring her in here, do you think she’ll remember?’
‘She’s only one—’
‘I don’t want to fuck her up for life Nance. You’re the doctor! Will she remember or not?!’
His mother reluctantly brings Anne into the room and she’s sucking quietly on her pacifier. Her dark curls were now sticking out everywhere, just like her dad. Mike had to let go of El’s hand to grab her and he refused to look at how it didn’t move or twitch. It just stayed on the edge of the bed, fingers spread out in a strange claw.
Mike buries his nose into Anne’s neck, breathing her in and holding on a little too tight. She starts squirming and hits him on the shoulder. She’s seen her mother and is trying her best to reach for her. Whenever she demanded cuddles El always obliged. Every cry, every tantrum she was picked up and cradled. ‘Nancy says it’s not good to always pick her up.’ ‘I love your sister but screw what she says. I won’t ignore a crying child.’ Her eyes had turned dark, daring him to argue with her. He couldn’t. She had been ignored and forgotten too many times, too many nights crying out in dark rooms with no one to comfort her. She could fucking hug their child as much as she wanted.
Mike didn’t know how he was still crying, assuming all the tears had now dried up. His daughter was leaning over the bed now and reaching for her mother. Her little hands grabbing at El’s cheeks and pulling at the bandage on her forehead. ‘No darling. No. Mommy is sleeping.’ Anne wasn’t happy with that response and her dark eyes narrowed in frustration. She bopped El on the cheek and before she could do it again Mike pulled her back to his chest. She cried out and her pacifier fell to the floor, silent tears falling down his own cheeks.
At some point, Hopper returned with Joyce and Will. He looked like a zombie, his eyes vacant as he stared at Mike and his granddaughter. ‘This is so fucked. The kid will never know her mother.’ Joyce looked up at him sadly as Will put his arm around her shoulder. Anne’s cries echoed around the room. It was so unnatural to hear his daughter cry and not have her mother respond. It was all he could do to stop himself from shaking the bed and yelling at her. ‘You hurt me. What you did sucks!’
‘We’ll remind her every day. She’ll know how amazing El was. She loved her so much,’ Will offered the sentiment, his voice shaking. Mike tried to soothe Anne, bouncing her and running his hand up and down her back.
Everyday. There were more days to come. More days without El. He’d have to raise their daughter alone. A future without his best friend.
‘Take Anne. I’m going to be sick.’ Mike passed her screaming form to Hopper and quickly ducked for the wastebasket in the corner of the room. It was filled with needles and plastic and he threw up what little contents was left in his stomach. It was mainly bile. Each retch shook his whole body and pain raged against his aching lower back. What was the fucking time? How many days since Anne’s birthday? How long would they let them stay with her?
They all stayed in the room, keeping vigil at her bedside. Mike held her hand again and Hopper refused to let go of Anne as she slept peacefully on his shoulder. The only sound echoing around the white room was the noise of the hospital outside the door. No more tears, there weren’t any left to shed. Just quiet and waiting.
Mike signed a form, he didn’t read it. His mother said she was going to help arrange a funeral parlour, he didn’t care about that right now. He just wanted to stay with her for as long as he could. He didn’t want her to be alone. Hopper wasn’t leaving either and the two men who loved El the most stayed vigil by her bedside as everyone trickled out of the room. It had been nearly a day and a half. Everyone was exhausted and cold and the world continued on.
El probably knew this, she always knew, but Mike would always wait for her to fall asleep first. Even if he was exhausted from a late shift at the office or his eyes were strained from pouring over data reports all night he always made sure El slept soundly. If she woke up when Anne cried in the middle of the night Mike was up too. ‘Go to sleep dummy, you don’t have the goods she’s after.’ ‘I can’t sleep if you’re awake.’ She always rolled her eyes but he knew what it meant to her by the small smile she tried to hide behind exasperation.
When they were teenagers and had faced monsters you could only conjure up in nightmares, El often snuck into his childhood bedroom. She never bothered entering through a window, she took the entrance to the basement and wandered up through the house as if she’d lived there her whole life. Much to the chagrin of Karen and Hopper, of course. Mike held her as she jumped in her sleep and cried into his shirt. It was his only chance to protect her.
The habit of Mike watching her sleep stuck. As soon as she closed her eyes and a small smile tugged at her lips then he knew he could sleep too.
Now, he didn’t know what he was going to do. She wasn’t smiling anymore.
Hopper murmured in his ear, pulling Mike from his thoughts. ‘I’ve pulled as many strings as I can but...’ The man’s voice began to quiver and Mike just nodded, accepting the solid hand on his shoulder. He patted it and the two men tried to give each other some form of comfort; it came from an empty place but it was all they could muster.
‘Where will they take her?’
‘The morgue. Then the funeral parlour will come for her.’
Mike squeezed her cold hand again and threw his upper body across her chest. It was rigid and hard and hollow but he had to hold her one last time. He had to tell her that he didn’t want to leave and that it would be cold and lonely and he’d tried to stay with her as long as he could.
‘Just be careful, alright? I can’t lose you again.’
‘You won’t lose me’
He didn’t know how he got into Hopper’s truck, but his father-in-law must have led him there and buckled in his seatbelt. They were driving away from Hawkins Memorial, back towards town.
‘I think we should play that ABBA song she likes so much.’
‘At the uh…funeral,’ Hopper cleared his throat, hands gripping the steering wheel as though it was holding him up. ‘The one she broke my record player with. Dancing something...’
‘Yeah. She loves that song.’
‘And no black. She’d fucking hate black everywhere.’
He couldn’t say anything else, it physically hurt to think of what to say. All he could see in his mind was Anne’s bedroom waiting at home and the overturned crib, blankets strewn everywhere, blood on the carpet. ‘You’re not going home. You’re coming to our place. Anne is there with Joyce.’
‘Okay.’ Mike had no idea what he would do once he was alone. He couldn’t imagine going to sleep without her. Maybe planning a funeral would be best. ‘She loves pink.’
‘The shade of Pepto Bismol. We’ll cover the house with it.’
They both couldn’t help the smiles that flickered across their faces. For a brief, guilty moment they sunk into their memories of El. For a second they allowed themselves to be comforted and distracted from a reality where they would never see her again.
She was the girl they both saved; who saved them.
But that was all Mike remembered.
He saw Hopper’s face, he heard the blaring of the horn from the oncoming truck and then felt nothing.
Did you think this was over?
Did you really think I would leave you alone?
I’ve been waiting for this for a long, long time…
The second death happened on October 31, 1984. Sweaty and shaking, Mike took in his surroundings.
There had been a pain so intense that felt like blinding hot fire had taken over every vein in his body and then…nothing. Everything just stopped.
He was now in what he recognised as his childhood basement. There were brand-new posters on the walls and his D&D table set up for gameplay. He was wearing his Ghostbusters costume, the one he begged his mom to buy for him even though he knew Lucas was buying the exact same one. There were candy wrappers strewn across the floor and a supercomm in his hand.
Everything was exactly as it was 20 years ago.
Mike didn’t know if he was dreaming or if he was dead but what he was experiencing was incredibly real. Perhaps this was some sort of purgatory or near-death phenomena where you see your whole life flash before your eyes.
He jumped up and ran for the old basement bathroom and saw his 13-year-old face reflected back at him in the mirror. He had a layer of baby fat and his freckles were in stark contrast to his alabaster skin. Exactly as he had looked all those years ago.
That Halloween night, after he had comforted Will, he had called El. Back then he didn’t know if El was dead or alive so he would sit in the blanket fort every night and try to contact her through his supercomm. He spent 353 days just hoping for a sign that she was okay.
‘I had a bad day today. I don’t know…I guess I wish you were here.’
13-year-old Mike didn’t know if he’d ever see her again.
33-year-old Mike did. In fact, he knew exactly where she was right now.
A disgusting glimmer of hope clutched at his heart as he thought of El. Somehow he was here, in this time and place, and whether he was dead or dreaming didn’t matter. In 1984 El was still alive and hiding out in Hopper’s cabin.
She wasn’t dead.
Mike tapped into some long-forgotten muscle memory and ran for the back door of the basement. His old Schwinn bike was lying on the grass, untouched by time and just waiting for him to ride to school the next day. He jumped on and peddled furiously up his old driveway while his heart beat wildly in his chest.
El was alive. He was going to see her one last time.
As he drove into the dark of Maple Street he failed to notice the van that slowly followed behind him…