He had played the same scene in his head 1000 times over ever since. The Demogorgon, The Bad Men, Eleven, the way she looked at him before she vanished into thin air. It plagued his mind everyday, and his dreams every night.
“She isn’t dead!” he used scream at his friends, his family, even himself every time there was a slight tone of doubt about the girl with the pink dress. Lucas and Dustin used to exchange looks before comforting him, but now they just sat in silence, a silence dripping with pain and punctuated by Mike’s sniffs.
It’s not that the boys didn’t care anymore, they miss Eleven and they wish it could have ended different. But after months of chasing after nothing, and running through the dark forests of Hawkins at dusk, they felt hopeless. Their feelings for their missing friend had gone numb. They had to realize that there were two possibilities, one was that she’s dead and that they have been chasing after someone who was no longer a piece of this world, or two, she was still alive somewhere out there, in the Upside Down or here in the Right Side Up.
Will, not sharing the same bond as his friends did with the young girl he never got to meet, was still as kind and as understanding as he always had been and usually stayed up till 4 am with Mike on his Supercom. Mike said it was to see if Eleven would ever give them a sign, contact them through the static between the two worlds. But Will had a feeling that part of it was because Mike needed a friend during those late hours of the night, when his eyelids were heavy but wouldn’t close, and the shadows that moved with the moonlight scared both of them half to death.
There used to be jokes and laughs about Eleven.
“I bet you she’ll be back any second now asking where her box of eggos is,” Dustin used to tease while Lucas, to the best of his abilities, impersonated her infamous stare. The boys would laugh and giggle till until late into the night, they’d eat eggos for dinner and ride their bikes at sunset, pretending to flip passing cars and neighbor garbage cans. And Mike, he wouldn’t cry as much.
But he had played that scene 1000 times over in his head since those events months ago, and the shorter the days got and the more seasons passed, he started to give in.
He started to give up.
It was one of those days. The bad ones. The days where he couldn’t sit still in his seat, or he’d often get so lost in his thought he’d stare out the classroom window for the entire period. It was at that awkward time in Hawkins. Not quite summer, but not quite fall either, cool in the mornings and warm during the day. The clouds were large and spread out and they drifted over the blazing sun every so often. A soft breeze rolled its way against his cheeks the way it usually did in the winter, cool and soft. School was let out almost 2 hours ago. They usually had homework or a campaign to play, but today was a Wednesday. And Wednesday meant hours spent riding their bikes around their small town, it meant burgers and fries at the local diner, and it meant that those nights were spent in the forest, together, looking for a sign.
They had just finished turning down a familiar street, full of shops and people rushing to get to their cars, not wanting to get caught in the cold evening air of Hawkins. They rode the same route every Wednesday. From school, through the empty streets in between, through the town, down that same street they rode those months ago. The day he had called her pretty.
It always made him sad when they did, it didn’t feel right, like something was missing. And it was. There was supposed to be someone there on the back of his bike, holding him around the middle. They pulled up to the usual diner they ate at on these days and parked their bikes outside.
“I’m telling you, Lucas, the new issue is amazing, we have to go the comic store tomorrow!” Dustin spoke.
Dustin and Lucas had gotten into some sort of argument about the latest issues that came out this month while they were riding their bikes, and it hadn’t stopped since.
“Sorry dude, I have way too much homework to catch up on. Besides we have that test to study for, remember?” Lucas replied which received a groan from Dustin.
They had made their way to the booth they usually sat at, a booth by the back near one of the biggest windows. Dustin said he liked it because he could see all the cute girls walk by, But Mike liked it because of the view of the sunset and the way the colors hit the trees.
They ordered their burgers and milkshakes, (which Dustin ordered two of) and were all thrown into discussion about the school day and weekend plans.
“Did you see the way Sarah looked at me today? She totally has a thing for me,” Dustin teased as he sipped at his shake, a chocolate shake with two cherries, the second one which he stole from Will.
Will just gave a small scoff as he bit into a fry.
Lucas rolled his eyes. “Or maybe because you farted in class?”
All four boys erupted into laughter which caused the quieter people in the diner to turn their heads, and the waitress who had been serving them every Wednesday to smile.
It was typical. Wednesdays were full of laughter, even if today’s Wednesday was a bad one. He was glad the diner was somewhat empty, because they probably would have been kicked out otherwise.
In the midst of the giggles and hollers from him and his friends, he had turned to look out the window. The colors hit the trees and the pavement. Familiar faces he had seen before passed by, him and his friends’ laughter bounced off the glass, but then the world stopped.
Because he had played that scene over 1000 times in his head, the girl with the pink dress, the Bad Men, the Demogorgon. He had yelled and screamed for months about a false hope. So when the world stopped he couldn’t figure out why a familiar face was standing less than 30 yards away from him in the surrounding forest. The girl with the pink dress. El.
He felt a tug, a pull. And the next thing he felt was that same soft breeze on his cheeks as he bolted out of diner and onto that street. The street he rode every Wednesday with his friends, the street with the shops.
The spaced out street lights had begun to flick on. The colors of the sunset he usually watched was now fading into blues and greys, and he was running. Running to the familiar face in the woods, because he wouldn’t just imagine something like that. Would he?
She’s here and she’s alive, but as he approached the tree line where he had seen her in the diner, there wasn’t anything but leaves and sticks. He called for her
Dustin, Lucas, and Will called out for him and finally caught up
“Okay, what is going on?” Lucas asked.
“I didn’t even get to finish my milkshake.” Dustin wheezed, out of breath, as he tripped over his own feet.
“I saw her, she was here just a second ago.”
“Who?” Will asked out of the silence
The three boys let out sighs, because they knew it was one of those bad days for him, the days where he fidgeted, and it wouldn’t be the first time Mike had hallucinated her. A month or so ago, the boys insisted on a sleepover one Friday, and during the campaign, He had run out of the house convinced he saw her standing in his backyard and refused to come in until he found her. They had to wake Mrs. Wheeler in the middle of the night to get her son out of the rain and chilled night air. He ended up getting a bad cold and missed school for almost two weeks.
“Mike..” Lucas started.
“No listen… guys do you hear that?” He paused and listened, his brow scrunching. He heard something, a snap of a twig or the rustle of leaves and he started towards it.
Lucas and Dustin shot each other concerned looks
“Mike, I don’t hear anything.”
“I do.” Will answered and quickly followed Mike toward whatever noise they were hearing.
He felt that tug, that pull from before.The colors that hit the trees had become a mixture of muted greys. And he was running again, following that pull with Will close behind him.
I saw her.
She isnt dead.
Soon enough they reached a clearing in the trees, a clearing that was remotely empty except for the wooden box in the middle and a girl. The girl was hunched over next to the box, covered in dirt with a once pink dress that was now ruined and torn.
And he froze.
She was eating something that looked to be eggos. Dustin, breathing heavily, ran into the clearing yelling, “Guys, wait up!” The girl turned to face them.
And she froze.
And they both just stared at each other
She dropped the freezer waffles and slowly rose up from the ground. He wasn’t sure what to make of what he saw. He wasn’t blinking, he wasn’t sure if he was even breathing, and his ears began ringing. He had been close to giving up, he had been losing hope. But there she was, the girl in that pink dress, and he felt his world start moving again.
“Wicked,” Dustin whispered under his breath and Lucas nudged his shoulder. They both exchanged looks before running to her and wrapping her in a hug.
They bombarded her with questions.
“Are you okay?”
“Where’d you go?”
“Is the Demogorgon dead?”
Eleven had a look of worry and confusion twisted on her face. Her eyes darting every so often to a still Mike behind them.
He was still frozen, mind jumping from thought to thought and as the bitter air stung his skin.
He didn’t know what he was feeling but it was way too much to process. Dustin rolled his eyes and grabbed Mike by the jacket before dragging him into the hug.
He don’t know how long they stood there.
Will just watched from a few feet away with a smile on his face.
Eleven still hadn’t spoken, just nods and small shakes of her head. Dustin and Lucas had gotten into an argument on what to do about her, while Mike wrapped his jacket around El and gave her a warm smile.
“We should call the Chief.”
“Uh, no! We should just take her back to Mike’s place!”
“We can take her to my house,” Will spoke between the two bickering boys,
“My mom, she can help.”
And he wasn’t wrong, when they thought about it. If they were given a choice between the Byers or the Wheelers, they would definitely pick Byers. Afterall, Joyce was the one to experience last year’s events first hand, and she was one of the few who knew who Eleven was. And Eleven knew her, she was a familiar face.
They walked their way back toward the street with the diner, back to their bikes and soon enough the soft breeze was back. It was as if it was again that one week all those months ago, as if they had gone back in time. Except this time there was no threat of giant monsters or scary government officials.
They took off on their bikes, the missing place on the back of Mike’s bike that someone should have filled these past months, was now filled with a warm, familiar body, and it felt normal again. And those grey, muted tones above them didn’t look so bad after all.
They arrived at the Byers not 30 minutes later. They had taken a different route other than Mirkwood. They were not taking any chances, especially not now that they had El back. A shocked but enthusiastic Joyce answered the door and hurried them all inside and out of the cold evening air.
Joyce ultimately decided to call the chief anyways and told the boys to settle down, while she went to help Eleven wash up and change. Hopper, who showed up 10 minutes later, rushed in through the door and it took him a minute to realize that they were all sitting there on the couch.
“Where is she?”
“My mom is helping her right now, they’re in the bathroom,” Will answered
Hopper looked as if he was contemplating the situation at hand, and took off his hat.
“Where’d you boys find her?”
As usual, they started talking and yelling over each other, their words mixing together. Hopper just rolled his eyes which landed on a quiet Mike.
“Hey! One at a time!”
The three boys silenced themselves, clearly intimidated. As usual, Hopper let Mike do the explaining. Hopper as always, listened intently.
“We found her in the woods, by some box…”
It wasn’t long before Joyce and a cleaned up Eleven emerged from the bathroom. Her old torn pink dress was gone, replaced by a long blue t-shirt that must have belonged to Jonathan. Her hair, although still short, had slightly grown out into a short pixie.
Joyce, heated up some eggos and coffee for Hopper and let Eleven have some alone time with the boys as long as they didn’t get too loud. She joined the Chief outside on the porch.
Dustin, still bombarded her with questions while Lucas argued back and nudged him with his elbow every so often, Will asked questions of his own, curious about the events that took place during that one week.
“You have to show him your powers!”
“She doesn’t have to do anything, Dustin! Let her eat her eggos in peace!” Lucas shot back and they both ended up in a classic slap fight.
Eleven just smiled at the familiar boys before her, and Mike rolled his eyes at his friends, but they occasionally stopped on El.
It was late by the time Joyce had returned from dropping off the other boys at their homes. She told them they could come get their bikes tomorrow at any time and stop by to see Eleven whenever they wanted, which got loud complaints from the boys. Mike on the other hand, didn’t verbally say he didn’t want to leave but Joyce, having raised two boys, knew how to read him and told him it was alright if he wanted to stay the night. Mike who let out a sigh of relief, quickly agreed.
Hopper had fallen asleep at the kitchen table, he had been rummaging through some files all night, every so often shooting looks out into the living room at them. Joyce had brought out extra blankets and pillows for them to sleep with. Mike let Eleven have the couch while he took the floor, Mike and Will stayed up telling her all about the past months and what happened. El in return just nodded or smiled. Will tried his best to stay awake with both of them but gave in to exhaustion and headed for his room, and leaving them both in a silence.
He wasn’t sure what to say, he had planned it all out in his mind every day, what he would say or do when she came back. El, who was occupied by the blanket she had wrapped around her, traced the patterns with her finger.
Now that she was here, it’s like his brain had forgotten how to process. Every so often he’d open his mouth to say something but it would shut right after like he forgot how to speak. He was afraid to break her or hurt her. Mike thought she was like glass, like any word he would say would make her disappear, and he didn’t want her to shatter again.
So he turned over in his sheets to sleep and closed his eyes, letting the silence invade his ears and mind.
“I’m sorry,” Eleven finally says.
“What?” He had moved his sheets aside and sat up in the darkness of the room.
“I’m sorry,” she repeated.
His brow furrowed even more and he let his jaw drop. What could she possibly be sorry for?
“Sorry for what? You did nothing wrong, okay El? If anything, I’m sorry.”
A look of confusion and maybe hurt appeared on her face, and he was worried. Had he shattered her already? But words kept pouring out of his mouth like water, and his world stopped again.
“I made a promise to you and I broke it. You were missing and gone, you vanished in front of our eyes and we thought…I thought you died.” The word ‘died’ rolled off his tongue like sap, because he really hadn’t accepted the fact that she could have been dead outloud. He constantly had been battling the thought in his mind but he never admitted to it to anyone.
“I was starting to give up, I broke our promise.”
He had been so caught up in his babbling that he didn’t realize what was happening around him. He didn’t realize he had been crying, his cheeks now burning and wet from the tears, and he hadn’t realized Eleven had moved down to the floor to sit with him.
“I’m sorry, El,” he said and he couldn’t stop the tears welling in his eyes from falling. he felt the droplets fall onto his hands that were resting in his lap and roll off onto the sheets under him. His shoulders shook from holding in sobs, and he kept his eyes on the floor. A silence entered the room again.
“Mike… I understand”.
And his world started again.
His eyes slowly rose up from the floor to the girl sitting next to him, the girl who used to wear that pink dress. The tears still rolled down his cheeks, but the look of disbelief and admiration was back on his face. And she just smiled. The same smile she gave him those months ago, a smile full of kindness and understanding and warmth.
He felt his hand intertwined with hers, and her soft eyes never left his.
And he kissed her.
It was different this time, not the same as it was that time ago in their school gym. It was gentler, warmer, and it let the butterflies in his stomach free. It was the feeling of those Wednesdays spent on his bike riding down that familiar street, it was the feeling of the soft breeze and the way it his face, and it was the feeling of the colors he saw in the sunset and the way they hit the trees.
He felt her squeeze his hand, a silent, loving gesture and the last of his tears rolled off his chin.
He leaned back and they both opened their eyes, El’s smile grew and although he was embarrassed about his crying and his flushed cheeks, he smiled back.
And the silence and exhaustion washed over them once more. The shadows that had kept him up all these months and the nightmares and daydreams and scenes he played 1000 times over in his head, were now nothing but a memory. And they both slept soundly.
It was early that morning when Joyce had emerged from her room to find an empty kitchen table with a freshly brewed coffee waiting for her. It was early when, with a steaming mug clutched in her hands, she walked into the living room where the two kids lay. And it was early when she saw them, fast asleep, holding hands, wrapped up tightly in blankets. The soft morning colors rained into the room through the windows and curtains.
The world started and stopped, then started again.