The hallway of Hawkin’s Laboratory reminded me a lot of being in a hospital.
It had the same shiny floor tiles that squeaked when you walked and the same seventies style chairs lining the clean white walls.
There was a sterile, soapy smell in the air and the beeping and singing of bodiless machines.
The soldiers had pulled Chief Jim Hopper out of the black hole along with Joyce and Bob during the burn and taken him to a room in the Lab where he was sterilised.
Mike had said the atmosphere in the Upside Down was toxic to our world.
The Chief was a large, powerful-looking man with a gruff demeanour and an even gruffer looking appearance.
He stood well over six foot, towering over Joyce and me who stood only at five foot three. His hair was sandy and unkempt looking, his beard wiry and his hands large and bear-like, but his eyes were gentle and kind.
“You got enough money for the phone, kid?” He asked.
He was sitting out in the hallway on one of the little chairs, dressed in some blue hospital scrubs and trainers.
When they’d pulled him out of the hole, the first thing he’d done was throw up something black and tar-like and he still looked a little pale from the experience.
“I think I have just enough,” I said quietly, hugging the payphone to my ear. “If I can get through.”
The Chief was smoking a cigarette.
I didn’t think he was supposed to.
“What’s your name, kid?” He asked.
“No.” I lowered the receiver a little. “Diana. Like in the TV show.”
The Chief gave a gruff laugh and leaned back. “My ex-wife was called Diane,” he said. “She lives out in the city now.”
“Oh,” I said. I didn’t know what else to say to that. “Right.”
He struck me as the kind of guy that liked to feel sorry for himself. But that was just an observation.
The dialling tone was still ringing in my ear, then came the quick beeps of the answering machine. “Damn it!” I yelled, frustratedly into the receiver. “Damn it, Billy, answer the goddamn phone!”
I crashed the receiver down angrily back onto the hook, letting my forehead fall against the wall.
I felt so tired. I just wanted to go home.
“What’s your cover story?” The Chief asked behind me.
“That I’m staying at a friend’s house.” I picked up the phone to try again, this time dialling Heather’s number. “God, I hope she picks up…”
There was a small click and Heather Holloway’s cheerful voice sang down the line into my ear. “Holloway residence.”
“Heather?” I leaned back against the wall, happy to hear her speak. “Is that you? It’s me. Diana.”
“Diana?” She sounded surprised that I was calling. “Oh God. I’m so sorry for just walking off and bailing on you at lunch yesterday-“
I smiled impatiently. “That’s okay, Heather, really.”
“You have to know that wasn’t me,” she garbled guiltily. “Well it was…but I’m usually not like that. I just got so jealous ‘cause you-know-who was all over you; And I know I don’t have any claim to him but I just can’t help it….”
The phone was going to cut off at any minute.
“Forget it,” I said quickly. “There’s nothing to forgive, okay? Listen, Heather, I need you to do me a massive favor.”
“Anything,” she said loyally.
“I need you to lie for me.”
“Cool,” Heather said, without missing a beat. “What do you want me to say?”
“Nothing major.” I tapped my nails on the plastic receiver. “Just that…if anybody asks you where I am tonight, we went to see a movie and I’m spending the whole night with you. Got it?”
“What did we go to see?” Heather asked.
I frowned down the phone. “Does it matter?”
“Well if anybody asks us then we’ll need to keep our story straight won’t we?” Heather pointed out cleverly.
That was actually a fair point.
“Okay,” I sighed impatiently. “We went to see that new Terminator movie, alright? And Heather, please don’t tell anybody I asked you to cover for me, okay? Not even Billy.”
“Not even Billy?” She sounded surprised, like she’d been expecting him to be with me. “He’s not there?”
“Not tonight,” I said. “Heather, do you promise?”
“Of course I do.” There was a quick pause. “Diana, you’re not in some kind of trouble are you?”
“Trouble?” I forced myself to laugh, hoping it sounded somewhat realistic. “Heather, this is Hawkins.”
“Yeah…” she said, doubtfully. “But-“
“-Heather, I’m sorry but I really have to go.” I put the phone down with a clatter, hoping I hadn’t sounded too harsh with her and turned back to the Chief.
“You handled that well,” he said.
I couldn’t tell whether he was being sarcastic or not.
“Thanks,” I said, sounding flat. “Do you think he’ll have woken up yet?”
The Chief followed my gaze to the white door at the end of the corridor.
Will had been rushed in there just over an hour ago, screaming at the top of his lungs and writhing and kicking like a mad thing, desperate to feel anything else but pain.
Doctors in masks and white lab coats had hovered around him, stabbing him and pricking him with needles that took and needles that gave.
Everything seemed quiet now.
“Guess there’s only one way to find out, right?” The Chief was hurriedly taking one last drag of his cigarette, lifting his foot and putting it out against the sole of his sneaker. “Let’s see shall we?”
His hand reached out and caught me as I tried to move past him.
“Hey kid,” he said, as if something had just occurred to him. “What happened to your eye?”
The first thing I did was laugh, turning my face away and hoping he’d believe the lie I’d cooked up just that second in my head.
“It’s nothing,” I said quickly. “Really.”
“Did somebody give that to you?”
“What?” I stared at him and laughed again, shaking my head insistently. “No, no. I got it in sport.”
The Chief didn’t look like he believed me. “So what you’re saying is a ball just flew into your eye?”
“It was thrown,” I said. “By someone with really, really bad aim.”
I looked wistfully at the door at the end of the corridor. “You know there’s nobody in Indiana that can actually throw a ball, right? I guess people just don’t play sport the same way as they do in California…”
I trailed off slowly, aware that I was running off on a tangent and starting to babble bullshit.
I don’t know what it was about the question that had got me all worked up and nervous. Maybe it was because he was a cop.
“I’m gonna go check on Will,” I said, twisting on my heel and heading off to the end of the corridor before he could stop me and ask another question.
I pushed the door open, peeping in.
Will was lying awake in the large metal hospital bed, looking tiny and fragile in his hospital gown.
His sleepy, pale face peered out from the wall of pillows behind his head.
Everybody was crowding around him, smiling that tight smile that people always smiled when they were trying to act like everything was fine.
“Hey.” I tiptoed my way into the room, smiling back at a beaming Joyce and slipping in beside Mike next to the bed. “How is he?”
“A little out of it,” Joyce said. “You’re a little groggy, aren’t you sweetie?”
“I’m glad you’re awake,” I smiled, turning to Will and leaning over to take his hand. “You had me really worried back there for a second…”
Will dragged his hand away from me, flinching back from my touch like a wounded animal.
“Who are you?” He demanded.
I shot a quick look at Joyce over my shoulder, then looked back at Will.
“What do you mean, silly? It’s Diana. Remember me? I’m here to take care of you.”
“Take care of me?” Will was looking at his mom for reassurance. “Are you a doctor or something?”
“A doctor?” I laughed because there was nothing else to do. “What are you talking about? Will, I’m your friend!”
I tried to reach for Will again and he tore his hand away, looking startled.
“You really don’t remember me?”
Will shook his head, looking apologetic and dazed. He was staring at me like I was a total stranger; like we’d met just that minute for the very first time.
It frightened me.
“I’m going to fetch the doctor,” Bob said, brushing past me and out into the hallway.
He gave my shoulder a reassuring squeeze on his way to the door. “Don’t worry about it, kiddo. It’s probably just the medicine or something.”
I heard him shouting for Doctor Owens.
“Will?” Joyce turned quickly to her son, smiling that tight smile again. “Don’t you worry about a thing, okay? The doctor’s gonna come and he’s gonna take care of everything.”
She looked exhausted, I thought.
She probably hadn’t slept in days.
“What seems to be the problem here?”
Doctor Owens, a plump, grandfatherly looking man pushed his way briskly into the room, followed by Bob and also by the Chief.
His hair was greying at the sides and his eyes were creased with worry lines.
He joined us at the bed.
“Now, young man…” the doctor took a seat and smiled kindly at him. “Do you know your name? Your full name?”
“William Byers,” Will said carefully.
“Very good.” The doctor looked pleased. “And what about me? Do you know my name? Do you know who I am?”
There was a long, difficult pause.
“You’re a doctor,” Will said at last.
“And have we met before?”
“I don’t remember.”
“You don’t remember me?”
Doctor Owens seemed to be taking mental notes, nodding to himself.
He turned over his shoulder and pointed to Mike. “What about this guy here? Know who that is?”
We all looked hopefully at Mike, who waved shyly at Will from the foot of the bed.
He looked awkward and gangly and embarrassed to be under so many eyes.
“That’s my friend,” Will said, still sounding unsure. “Mike.”
“What about me, kid?” The Chief said gently, leaning on the side of the bed. “Remember me? You saved my life tonight. That’s what they told me…”
He trailed off, faltering at the blank expression on Will’s face.
It was clear he didn’t remember him either.
“And me?” Bob said hopefully, but we all knew there wasn’t any point in trying.
“All I remember,” Will said flatly, as if he was trying very hard to concentrate. “Is that they hurt me. The soldiers hurt me.”
He turned slowly to the foot of the bed, catching my eye. “They shouldn’t have done that,” he said in a tight, strange voice. “It upset him.”
“Upset who?” Asked Doctor Owens with some urgency. “Will, upset who?”
“The Shadow Monster,” I said, realising. “Right, Will?”
Doctor Owens looked silently at us for a long time.
He had a blue stress ball in his lab coat pocket that he kept taking out and squeezing over and over again.
Eventually, he turned his head to me and beckoned me over as if he had a secret. His voice was low like a whisper.
“I wanna show you something,” he said gently, turning to the Chief beside me. “Okay? You too, Pop. I want you both to come with me.”
“But where are we going?” I got up and followed the two men out into the hall, hurrying to keep up with their long strides. “What are we going to see?”
“Trust me,” Doctor Owens said, without looking back. “It’ll be an experience.”
The control room was part of the underground subsystem of the Laboratory, tucked secretly away under several flights of winding stairs.
Men and women in official white coats sat uniformly behind blinking machines and spoke orders into their headsets.
“They’re monitoring the growth,” Doctor Owens said when I asked him what they were doing. “That’s all we can do. You see, we can’t stop it. We can only try and contain it for as long as we can.”
I turned back to the glass panelling in front of me, mine and the Chief’s reflections mirroring eerily back at us.
On the other side of the glass, the floor looked all torn and shredded up, like something had been eating away at it over time. Inside of that vapid looking pit, there was only blackness. It was the same sickly looking black as a smoker’s lung, the sticky tar color of a cavity.
“What’s down there exactly?” I asked, putting a cautious hand up against the glass. “I mean, I know it’s the entrance to that place… but what’s down there?”
“We don’t know,” said Doctor Owens, coming up behind me. “And quite frankly, that’s not really our problem. Our job is simply to contain it, to stop it from spreading.”
“Like cancer,” I finished for him.
Doctor Owens nodded. “That’s right.”
“Doctor Owens, sir?”
A woman in a black pencil skirt and glasses came up behind us, speaking secretively into his ear.
I heard Will’s name being spoken.
“Yes,” Doctor Owens said. “Go ahead.”
“Kinda makes you feel empty, doesn’t it?” The Chief said next to me, staring down into the blackness at our feet. “You know, people talk about those black holes you get in outer space and how they just suck everything into it. When I look at this, I just expect the whole world to just fall right into it.”
“I think it’s beautiful,” I said quietly. “In a frightening sort of way. It makes me feel like I’m a speck. Like I’m nothing.”
It was like looking up at the stars at night or standing at the highest point of a mountain. It was like remembering that was nearly five billion more people on the planet with you; and your life, your chaotic, biting, whirlwind of a life didn’t mean shit when you thought about it like that.
“Life’s cheap,” said the Chief.
Behind us, the control room doors slid open with a hiss.
A group of soldiers, suited up with guns and hazmat suits, began to make their way towards the pit, their torches flashing brightly.
I turned quickly to Doctor Owens. “What are they doing? They’re not going down there are they?”
“Your little friend,” the doctor said, backing up to one of the controls. “Says he can locate this shadow creature he keeps talking about. He says he knows where it’s hiding.”
“And you believe him?” I asked.
“Only one way to find out,” the doctor said, the glass doors sliding open and parting just wide enough for the men to get through. “Right, boys?”
“Right, sir.” One of the soldiers was laughing on his way down. His eyes looked shockingly young behind the hazmat suit. “Never gets old, huh?”
He caught my eye as I stared at him, throwing me a reassuring wink. I could tell by his eyes that he was smiling.
“Don’t look so scared, Miss,” he said bravely. “We’re on your side. We’re here to keep you safe.”
I smiled at him and my smile was tight.
“It’s black as shit down there,” the boy soldier went on, climbing onto the elevator. “I’ll be glad to see your pretty face again when it’s all over.”
“Count on it,” I said. “You got a name?”
The soldier’s eyes sparkled. “Jackson, Miss.”
“Well then…” I smiled encouragingly, ignoring the images that were creeping, cold and gory, into the back of my head. “I’ll see you when it’s over, Jackson.”
The soldiers went, slipping down beneath the pit and into the thick blackness.
It was hard to believe they’d ever come out again when the darkness was that black.
The Chief and I went over to where Doctor Owens was standing, crowding around the monitor. The images were jumpy and a little out of focus but I could see the beams of torches and the long, snaking shadows that they made in the soupy green light.
“All right.” I could hear Jackson’s voice through the radio, painfully cheerful. “Stay frosty, boys.”
On the monitor, there was the sickening sound of something wet and meaty slipping underfoot, then the sounds of bones crunching beneath boots.
“Wait a minute.” The Chief stabbed an impatient finger on the screen. “That’s where I was.”
“What?” I said.
“It’s that damn graveyard.”
I stared hard at the soupy images until my eyes hurt.
It did indeed look like some kind of graveyard, like a junkyard or a compost heap where all the sludge and the trash and the bones of dead animals were sent to pile up and rot and fester away.
The soldiers moved their torch beams in long, sweeping arcs.
“Sir, there’s nothing here.”
One of the men sitting at the control unit gave a sarcastic laugh beneath his breath. “Looks like your kid’s full of shit, doc.”
“There.” I pointed quickly at the monitor screen, choosing to ignore him. “What’s happening now?”
“Looks like fog,” the Chief said.
The screen was starting to cloud over with silvery white waves of rolling mist, blocking out the light from the torch beams and turning the images black.
“You need to get them out of there,” I snapped, grabbing at Doctor Owens’ arm and pulling on it fiercely “Sir, did you hear what I said?”
On the radio, there was a chorus of screams and a loud snapping sound.
Then the painful hum of static that sent our hands over our ears.
The screen on the monitor had gone completely black.
I tasted bile at the back of my throat and quickly swallowed it back down.
Nobody was speaking.
I wished silently that somebody would stand up and make some kind of noise.
“Shit.” The Chief swore loudly and ran to the glass window, pressing his hand against the glass to see better. “Shit,” he said. “Shit. Shit. Shit.”
“What is it?” My voice didn’t sound like my own. “What’s wrong?”
The Chief didn’t say anything. It was like all he could do was stand there, be quiet and point.
I dared myself to follow his gaze to the pit, scared of what I might see and feeling like I might throw up.
What I saw made my entire body freeze up, my hand reaching out instinctively for the Chief’s, who took it protectively in mine.
The wires on the elevator were moving.