The summer of 1985 comes as a surprise, like most recent things have in the once sleepy town of Hawkins.
Spring slip-slides from a dewy warmth to an unforgiving swelter at the cusp of May. It seemed like only last night had it still been raining, storm drains roaring with the rush of water like miniature oceans, front lawns thick with mud. Mike hardly notices the change until he stands up from his chair at the last bell on a humid Friday in June—leaps, really—to find that the backs of his thighs peel away from his chair with a sticky noise of skin against plastic.
“Gross, dude,” Lucas snorts. “That was like a leg fart.”
“It’s hot, I’m not going to wear jeans like some tool,” Mike says.
Max, who is very much wearing jeans, makes an offended noise when she overhears this conversation. Her locker clatters as she closes it, shouldering her backpack. “Excuse me?”
“Do you guys always wear jeans in California? I thought you’re supposed to be in your swimsuit all the time. Even when it’s snowing.”
“That would be Billy.”
“Ah,” Dustin says, intelligently.
“Also, it doesn’t snow in California, genius. Unless you go up to Lake Tahoe.”
“Doesn’t snow? Then what’s winter even like?”
“Kind of like autumn here, maybe.” For Will, Max gives a proper answer.
Leaving the building is like walking into Satan’s asscrack. Hawkins hasn’t seen a summer this hot in a while. Mike feels as though his skin is being broiled in the sun, and it’s a Darwinistic game of survival for the kids who are waiting for the bus, clusters of bodies packed tight as sardines in the shade of the trees by the station.
“Goonies tonight!” Dustin cheers as they unlock their bikes from the racks. “Ah, shit—”
The handlebars and seats are scalding to the touch. Even the metal of the chain links is as hot as a pan when Mike reaches to unlock his tire from the rung, and he curses the whole way through undoing it before placing his hand over Lucas’s chest.
“Dude, what the hell—”
“Ah, so nice and cold,” Mike says, sniggering as Lucas snorts and swats his arm away, gives him a shove.
“Son of a bitch,” Dustin says, sweat beading at his jawline already. “It’s like taking two showers a day. Yesterday I opened the fridge and almost pulled everything out so I could hide inside it.”
“Like you did to my fridge?” Will asks dryly.
“Will, you know that was a scientific opportunity that we could not pass up. Mr. Clarke would have wanted us to remain on the curiosity voyage at all costs.”
“Yeah, except Hawkins Lab confiscated it and burnt it to a crisp, so all you accomplished was getting us cleaning duty.”
“I’ll see you guys at the cinema tonight,” Will says, waving. “Is El coming?”
“As if she would pass up a chance to hold Mike’s hand in the dark for two hours? Come on now.”
Mike struggles to and fails to withhold an eyeroll. It’s not very effective considering he blushes at the same time he does it, but give him a break. If he had to live not knowing if Eleven was alive or dead or somewhere in between—which is arguably the worst, not knowing—for nearly a year, then he feels like he’s earned the license to be equally insufferable about her for another year. Maybe in 1986 they can start roasting him.
“Has El ever seen a movie in theaters?” Max asks as she rolls along beside them on their bikes. The bikeseat is burning through the seat of Mike’s pants and he envies Max on her skateboard.
“Not in theaters, no. Only on VHS. Remember when we showed her Poltergeist and she just turned to us and went like ‘I don’t get it’?”
“What’s not to get?”
“She can’t understand why people go looking for trouble in scary movies,” Mike says.
“Oh, Jesus,” Max says. “Someone has got to explain to her what kind of guy she’s dating, then.”
“Uhm! Excuse me! I do not look for—”
“Yes you do,” Dustin deadpans. “Hell, we only met El because we were looking for trouble.”
“That was different, we were looking for Will.”
“By wandering around in dark woods on a stormy night knowing danger was afoot,” Lucas finishes. “You have to admit it was borderline idiotic. Not that I wouldn’t do it again.”
“So you admit it.”
“Admit what, Mad Max,” Lucas says.
“That you’re an idiot?”
They separate at a fork in the road—Lucas heads home, likely with Max in tow; Dustin bids them a goodbye with “Goonies at seven on the dot! Don’t forget your tickets!”; and Mike steels himself to take the long meandering dirt road to Hopper’s cabin in the woods. It’s a hair cooler on this side of down, particularly through the wood, with a gentle breeze brushing his bangs off his face to wipe the sweat away with her dry, cracked hands.
The road to Hopper’s cabin is long, but it always feels infinitely longer to know that Eleven is at the end of this road.
There are tire tracks in the dirt at the edge of the woods where Hopper’s truck kicks up the mud, the same place Mike always hops off his bike to walk it through the trees to the cabin.
He, and the rest of the Party save for Dustin, got new bikes during Christmas last year. They had simply grown too tall and gangly to fit on their old cruisers. Mike’s Schwinn is forest green now, lithe and sleek, with tires barely wider than a finger. It’s a road bike, but with some help from Steve—who is surprisingly good with tools for someone who has such pretty hair, Mike’s still getting used to his newfound affection for him—he installed a rack over his back tire so Eleven could still sit behind him as he rode.
The windows are open. Not all the way, but open enough for Mike to see Eleven’s head of curls through the shades, bent over a book. He knocks—five quick in succession, pause, then two. Eleven’s head shoots up, a smile coming over her face, and the door clicks as it unlocks.
“Aren’t you hot in here?”
“There is wind,” says Eleven. She points at the fan, which is rotating back and forth sleepily in the middle of the cabin. “How was school?”
“Hot. Boring. It’s the end of the year, the teachers are doing all the fun stuff now, but in some classes we just watch movies. Which would be so great if they were actually interesting.”
“Yeah, like Gone With the Wind.”
“I’ve seen it. I like it.”
Mike raises his eyebrows as he pulls his backpack off and redoes all the locks on the door. It’s a bit much, since Eleven’s mostly out of the woods now, but Hopper had advised him to “exercise some discretion” and “use his God-given common sense sometimes,” so this is him doing that.
“In the three hundred and fifty-three days, I watched many movies.”
Eleven strings together sentences much longer than the ones she spoke when they had first met. They still tend to sound absurdly formal here and there. The Party, especially Mike and Will, had poured their efforts into teaching Eleven how to read in the time after the closing of the gate. The learning curve had been steep, but one day Mike had stepped into the Hopper cabin to see Eleven with her nose buried deep in Fahrenheit 451, so absorbed that Hopper had to clear his throat for her to realize that Mike had come by.
“At least one of us enjoyed it, I guess,” Mike says, collapsing on the lumpy couch so that their knees are touching. He smiles. “Missed you.”
“Missed you too. Only two days.”
“Two turns of the earth.”
“Definitely too long,” Mike says, but he’s smiling by the time Eleven leans in close to his face and presses a kiss to his mouth. It’s not much more than a brush of lips. Her hands are warm on Mike’s thighs where she’d braced herself and it’s the first welcome heat of the day. “How about your day?”
She makes a face. “Math.”
“Is it hard? If you need help, Lucas is pretty good at it. The best among us, at least.”
“No. Not hard, but. Too many numbers and letters and symbols all together. Reminds me of the lab.”
“Oh,” Mike says. “I’m so sorry.”
“Don’t be sorry, not your fault.”
“But we do have the Goonies tonight! Are you excited?”
Eleven nods, enthusiasm making her whole body bounce on the couch. Her curls have started to relax a little as they grow out into a shaggy curtain around her face and Mike doesn’t hold himself back from brushing a ringlet away from her eyes.
“I guess Hopper can speak to the school about you taking geometry next year if it’s too much. Apparently you can get out of running in gym if you have bad enough asthma.”
“Tell them math makes me tired.”
“Yeah, probably,” Mike laughs.
A pile of Holly’s picture books and children’s chapter books is stacked in the corner by the bookshelf. Mike had brought them over in a sack when Eleven had first asked them where she could start reading, not realizing she’d burn through them within hours and ask if there was anything more interesting to read. That was when he’d brought over his brand-new copy of Ender’s Game, Will Catch-22, and Max donated Blood Meridian, and Lucas had dug up The Shining from somewhere in the dregs of his room.
“We’re going to turn her into a serial killer,” Dustin had said, dumping his Tolkien collection into the book sack.
Hopper had spoken of leading “a normal life,” and as far as she’s convinced, one part of that is being literate. Kali, too, had spoken of their lives being stolen.
This is Eleven taking hers back.
“Anyway, we’re probably going to go to Palace Arcade after the movie, and we can teach you to play all our favorite games. But do you think Hopper will let you out that long?”
“Maybe eleven or something? Haha—eleven. We’ll get you home before midnight!”
“It has not been a year yet,” Eleven says, though it’s obvious that she wants to say yes.
“It’s been almost a year. But you don’t have to, if you think it’s too risky.”
“No, I want to.”
“Okay, then we’ll leave a note for Hopper where you are so he knows? If he wants to go into full dad mode and come get you if he needs.”
“He is always full dad mode.”
“Yeah, no kidding, huh.”
And time with Eleven passes like this—easy, fast, the slipping of sand through fingers. Time passes all too slow and much too fast now since Eleven’s return. The time with her is fast. The time apart is slow. Mike just learns to be thankful for the little things, despite how many big things could be better. Will could be in better health, but at least he’s not possessed. He could see Eleven more, but at least she’s here and real. Lucas and Max could be less disgusting, but he’ll take a lovesick Lucas over an angry one any day.
So the time between the afternoon until seven passes fast. It gets hot and muggy in the cabin, so they sit out in the wood under the shade of the trees. Spring had been kind to the forest around the cabin and the grass is soft beneath them, with Eleven holding The Bell Jar in her lap as Mike works on their next D&D campaign, a good long one that they’d save for a cooler day. This one will include Eleven and Max and even Nancy and Jonathan and Steve. After all that happened last fall, Mike has a newfound respect for his sister with whom he hasn’t gotten along in years. She can use a rifle, for starters. He’ll never say it to her face, but what a fucking badass.
“What are you doing?”
Eleven wiggles her feet, looking over the top of her book to see a tiny garden of flowers strung through the laces of her shoes.
“Sorry, got distracted from writing.” Mike pushes one more flower through the bowtied laces.
“I like it.” She taps the toes of her shoes together to make them dance.
“Come on, we should get going if we want to get to the cinema in time for tickets and good seats.”
“In theaters, the farther you sit from the screen, the better. Also if you get there early enough you can prop your feet up on the chair in front of you before anyone else gets there. Even better, it’ll be dark, and everyone’s just gonna be looking at the screen. You’ll love it. You’ll see.”
Because people definitely still stare. Eleven doesn’t look like a typical Hawkins girl, and there is already enough talk about the police chief’s new daughter. A kid of a war friend who passed in an untimely death is the official story. It doesn’t help that Eleven likes to dress in a mishmash of boy’s and girl’s clothing, in baggy jeans and a faded Wonder Woman T-shirt with a neon windbreaker some days or a blazer over a dress on other days.
Mike pushes off on his bike onto the main road, kicking up little clouds of dust as he gains some speed. The evening has cooled, the air bearable now that the sun is low in the sky. Eleven rests her head against Mike’s back between his shoulder blades. She sits sideways now, instead of straddling the bike seat with him, so her feet won’t scrape the road. She’s grown, too.
“You know, I was thinking, this summer? Since Max is going back to visit her family in California for a two weeks, it’ll just be the original party. We should rebuild Castle Byers. Will’s been talking about doing it so it’ll fit all six of us. He says he wants it to be bigger. Look different.” Mike thinks. “I guess it would make sense. He probably doesn’t like it as much as he used to after hiding in Upside-Down Castle Byers for a week.”
“That would be cool.”
“It would be, right?”
“Steve is good at chopping.”
“Yeah, he could help.”
“He did a good job helping clean up Will’s house.”
Mike laughs. That night is simultaneously a faint memory and a fresh wound. Steve had brought them back to the silent Byer household, and it had been a tense waiting game to see whether Will or Eleven returned first, so he’d relegated jobs to everyone to work off the nerves and adrenaline. Will beat out Eleven—looking worse for wear, but alive. Eleven and Hopper must not have been more than ten minutes behind, but it felt like several eternities. Her face had been caked with blood and her skin so translucent Mike could trace all the fine blood vessels around her eyes.
He goes over a bump in the road and Eleven knocks against him.
“Hey, there they are!”
Lucas and Dustin stand up and wave as Mike pulls into the bike racks beneath the cinema sign. “Where’s Will?”
“Jonathan’s dropping him off.”
“But Jonathan’s at my house to—oh,” Mike says, nodding. He makes a face.
To Mike, Hawk Cinema has been a fixture in his life that he can’t imagine growing up without. But to Eleven, everything is new. From cotton candy machines, to waffle irons, to this. Glowing movie poster signs flicker by the entrance for The Breakfast Club and Friday the 13th and Back to the Future, which already looks promising. Mike makes a mental note for them to come watch that, too.
“What is that?”
Eleven points at a tall, firetruck-red contraption in the lobby of the movie theater, just beyond the box office.
“Popcorn, you want some?” Max says. “I can eat a whole bucket of that alone. Extra butter is the best. Here, come on. I like watching them kettle pop it.”
“Oh, hey! Get us some too.” Dustin rustles up some change from his pocket and drops it into Max’s palm.
“Arcade after, yeah?” asks Lucas.
“My mom isn’t a fan, but I’ll go,” Dustin says.
“What? Why? It’s like, a five minute bike ride from your house.”
“She says this weather isn’t natural. Tews has been going bonkers this week.”
“Would have expected that from Will’s mom, not yours,” Mike says.
“I told her that it’s just record highs this year. We’re living history, mom! But Tews is so well-behaved, and he totally destroyed the armrest on our couch. Tore it right up. And he keeps running headfirst into our door. Doesn’t go outside when we open it.”
“Being tormented by the ghost of Mews?” Lucas guesses.
“Maybe. Except I don’t think Mews is powerful enough to affect the weather. He was just a fat cat.”
“Hey guys! Sorry, sorry, I’m late—bye Jonathan, bye Nancy!” Will leaps out of the car in a rush, slamming the door shut behind him.
“Stick with the party, got it?” Jonathan calls after him.
“Are you slowpokes coming or not?” Max shouts from the entrance of the cinema. She holds a giant bucket of popcorn, Eleven armed with another. She’s holding a single popped kernel between her thumb and forefinger to examine it with a catlike fascination, squinting at it before tossing it into her mouth.
It’s a bit like watching a movie about themselves.
The Goonies have it slightly better than them, though. At least their villains are human, mostly predictable, and not from another dimension bent on the destruction or overtaking of this one. It’s fun, and funny, so much that Dustin chokes on a corn kernel halfway through the movie and has to quietly hack it back up.
“Mikey was so much like Mike I felt the need to reach out and smack him through the screen at least three times in that movie,” Lucas proclaims after it ends.
“Dustin was like Mouth.”
“Are you kidding? Lucas was more like Mouth.”
“I thought Mikey looked like Bob.”
Eleven is met with five pensive gazes.
“I can see it,” Will says. “Maybe if you made Bob like, forty years younger, and skinny.”
“Last one to Palace is a rotten egg,” Max says. She drops her board to the ground and takes off in a blur. This is the cue for them to reenact Mad Max, true to her name, across the city streets.
“No fair! I have extra weight on my bike!” Dustin shouts, Will clinging onto him from behind.
“So do I,” Mike says, pulling up next to Dustin on his bike. Eleven waves, teasing, and Will sticks his tongue out at her and blows a raspberry.
“Extra no fair! You have long spidery legs, Mike!”
“Pedal fast,” Mike says with a shrug. He barely holds back his laughter.
It happens right outside arcade, in the parking lot. Max is already there, Lucas pulling up by the bike racks, two who didn’t need to pull the weight of a second person. Palace pulses with neon blue and orange. The bustle of weekend activity means that a line is forming behind Dig Dug, the screen propped full of quarters. Another group is clustered around Dragon’s Lair. Mike turns to look over his shoulder to see how far behind Dustin and Will are when he hears the rumble, as though it comes from deep within the earth.
“Whoa, d’you hear—”
Then, the shaking. It’s as though the earth beneath the asphalt liquefies, rumbling so hard Mike feels his bike tip and lurch. Sparks fly when the telephone poles sway overhead.
Both he and Eleven half-fall, half-climb off his bike before they get tossed from it; Dustin and Will aren’t so lucky, being on a smaller bike, and they crumple in the street just outside the parking lot.
The shaking doesn’t cease. An earsplitting screech pierces the evening as the rotating neon sign groans.
“Get out from under the sign!” Mike shouts.
“Move!” Max crashes into Lucas from behind like a battering ram. “Move!”
They barely make it—well, they don’t. But the sign follows an oddly angled trajectory as it plummets, missing the two of them by inches. Mike stumbles back into Eleven to shield her body with his as sparks spatter the evening bright and bloody.
“Mike,” she says softly.
The din inside the arcade crescendos to a chaos.
“Eleven are you—you’re okay?”
A thin stream of blood trickles towards her lip. She nods. “Are they?” she asks, and nods to Lucas and Max. “I couldn’t see what direction they ran.”
“You did it. It missed them.”
“Hey! Holy shit, I thought you guys were mincemeat,” Dustin says, grabbing Lucas and Max when they finally join them, jelly-legged. “What the hell just happened?”
“I don’t know, some kind of earthquake?”
“El, holy shit--you saved our asses—”
“Earthquakes? In Indiana?”
“The last devastating quake anywhere near Indiana wasn’t even in Indiana,” Dustin says. “It was in Illinois, and we weren’t even born yet.”
“Oh yeah, it was like, a five point four,” says Will.
“A five point four,” Max repeats like she’s not sure she heard them correctly. “Devastating?”
“That’s halfway to ten!”
“In California, we only consider ducking for cover if it was a six or up.”
“Okay, Earthquake Girl,” Lucas says, not backing down from an argument even with his own girlfriend. “If you’re so well-versed in earthquakes, how much was this one just now on the Richter scale?”
Mike doesn’t hear Max’s answer. Eleven gives him a tug on one of his belt loops, and he turns around to see concern lining her face.
“What’s wrong?” he asks, turning to face her. She seems spooked, and beckons him to lean in.
“Someone is watching us.”
The evening chills against Mike’s skin.
“Who?” Mike asks. He wants to raise his head and look around, but two years dealing with Hawkins Lab and the Upside Down have taught him not to make it obvious that he knows he’s being watched.
“Behind me,” Eleven says.
Mike flicks his gaze up over the top of her head. The sidewalk is full of people spilling into the street, voices weaving together in frightened alarm about the tremors. Some people are complaining about the damage done to their shops and businesses. Others clutch at each other, hurrying towards their cars.
“Who am I looking for?”
“A boy, okay.”
“No hair, like me in the beginning.”
“Oh.” Suddenly, Eleven’s unsettled expression begins to make sense. “Are you saying…?”
“I don’t know. I think he might be.”
Mike scans the crowd across the street again. This time, he sees him—a boy with cropped hair, around Lucas’s height, with his gaze fixed on them from across the street. He is a single unmoving figure in the frenetic post-earthquake panic, unbothered by the bodies brushing past him.
“I don’t think he’s watching us,” Mike says slowly.
“I think he’s watching you.”
Not everything is perfect.
Not much is perfect, in fact, but there are beginnings of okay somewhere the night after Eleven closes the gate. Jim Hopper still doesn’t call her anything but “kid,” or “El” when she’s surrounded by the others (he learned his lesson when he had once just barked “kid” in their general direction to see six pairs of eyes turn towards him). It’s born of a fear of loving something enough that its loss would break him, and Hopper isn’t sure he’d be able to live through it a second time.
But Eleven smiles now when he pulls up in his police truck, gruffly thanking Karen Wheeler for feeding his daughter yet again, even when he’s late (more time with Mike, hey, she can’t complain).
Joyce still worries over Will like he’s a young sapling in the snow, but she lets Jonathan do the chauffeuring now. He gets dropped off to a lot of places where his friends can bike to and laugh as they do, but at least Jonathan plays all his favorite music in the car.
Billy is better. Not good, but better. When she’s driven to school they don’t see Max flipping birds at the car that peels out of the parking lot so much anymore, which can only mean progress. Sure, he still blasts music loud enough to rattle the streetlamps, and Max hardly has a good thing to say about him, but as Steve’s face heals, Max’s fear of turning out like him starts to scab, too.
Dustin gets a new ball python that is very much of this world. He doesn’t let it near Tews and they exist in a strained but respectful harmony.
And Nancy—well, Nancy would be lying if she said she didn’t cry when she took down the three dozen or so photos of her and Barbara on her bulletin board. They grew harder to look at day by day, even after the funeral.
Losing someone is funny like that, the way everything reminds you of them. How bits of their life had trickled into all the cracks and crevices of yours to fill up the spaces and give them meaning. There are all the photos, but then there’s the hair tie that Barb let Nancy borrow in middle school, with the pink beads. The vanity Nancy had done Barb’s hair at before all the school dances. The ballerina music box that Barb had given her for her twelfth birthday. The beat up old diary with pages upon pages of what she and Barb did that week.
Nancy leaves one photo up, of her and Barb at the winter ball sophomore year. There was tinsel in Nancy’s hair and her dress had a tacky silver neckline, but she’d liked it so much back then. They hadn’t had dates, even though Barb had insisted that tons of guys wanted to ask Nancy to go.
Nancy startles as Jonathan comes up behind her. “Yeah,” she says.
He looks down at the old Polaroid over her shoulder. “You could get that framed.”
“They don’t make Polaroid sized frames, do they?”
“Sure they do,” Jonathan asks. “This is about three by four, right? Maybe not to this exact size, but yeah, we can go to the craft store and find something.”
Nancy turns her body to face him properly now, the photo still trapped between then bodies. Jonathan is wearing that black sweater that makes his shoulders look nice, despite how much he slouches, hunching into himself as if to disappear.
—okay, Nancy, it’s no big deal. Jonathan trails off when realizes she is standing very close and rocking up onto her toes a little. He fights the smile that tugs at his lips, because really, the Jonathan of two years ago would not have predicted that present day Jonathan would be kissing Nancy Wheeler in her room.
Yet here they are.
The house feels like it’s thrown off its foundation just before their lips meet. Nancy clutches at Jonathan, who stumbles with the shaking. A panicked wailing from Holly filters up the stairs.
No reply. There is a commotion downstairs of her mother shouting their father’s name, which for the first time possibly ever, is a reassuring sound. Then the soft shattering of glass as several of the photos along the mantel and along the hallways crash to the floor. Several of the lights flicker.
“Nancy?” The shaking is fading out to gentle tremors, so she opens the door and stumbles down the flight of stairs to see her mother in the dining room. “Nancy! Are you all right?”
“Yeah, I—I was with Jonathan. What happened?”
“Earthquake, I guess.” Her mother hoists Holly up on her hip.
“Let’s see what the news says.” Ted Wheeler frowns when the TV is unresponsive.
“Don’t tell me the power lines are down.”
“They might be,” says Jonathan. “The lights.”
“He went to watch The Goonies with the others. He should be okay. I hope he is.”
“God, why is it that he’s never at home when this kind of thing happens?”
“Mom, it’s okay. I’m sure he’s fine. There aren’t a lot of things that could fall on him in a cinema.”
“Except for the roof, maybe,” Ted says. Karen glares darts at him.
“They’ll head here first, if not, probably to my place. We live out where there’s not much, there’ll be less chaos for them to wade through.”
“Can you go wait on them over there, Jonathan? And give me a call if you see them?”
“I’ll go with you,” Nancy says.
“Uh-uh, young lady.”
“We don’t know what just happened. I won’t have you going out when we don’t know where Mike is.”
“I—I want to check on the Hollands.”
Karen struggles to reply to this. Nancy knows her mother has been softer on both her and Mike this past year, especially after Barb’s death had become official. Conflict is apparent on her face, and she finally says, “Jonathan, please don’t let her get into any trouble.”
“Absolutely not, Mrs. Wheeler. I’m very good at that.”
Nancy gives him eyebrows in the car later. “Good at keeping me out of trouble, huh?”
“You have to admit I am.”
“And you have to admit it goes both ways.”
“Oh, sure, when did I say it didn’t?” Jonathan says, starting to chuckle as he backs the car out of the driveway. “After all, my girlfriend’s the one who knows how to use the gun.”
It’s the talk of the town.
Even on Monday, two full days after the earthquake, the hottest topic isn’t about Carrie Anne’s house party that coming weekend, or the Sadie Hawkins dance the weekend after that. It’s about how many glasses got destroyed in your house, if you lost power, where you were in that moment when it hit.
Joyce had been frantic when Will got home with the rest of the party that evening. He can’t say he blames her; in the past two years, he’s been involved in all manner of weird shit, usually at front and center, so a monster earthquake is reason enough for her to grab him and hug him tight enough to snap ribs.
“Are you okay?” she asked, holding Will’s face in her hands. He nodded.
“That was madness!” Lucas shouted. “Mrs. Byers! You should have seen it. Holy shit!”
But Will knows nothing about anything. He’s definitely safe. He doesn’t feel like he’s losing himself to a demonic entity in his body. He doesn’t feel ill. And, most importantly, he hasn’t seen the Upside Down since the exorcism. So, in conclusion, it can’t have anything to do with him.
“—absolutely mental Mr. Clarke, Mike was thrown off his bike and everything—”
“Was not! I just fell a little, I didn’t even hit the pavement—”
“And the sign by the arcade smashed in to a bajillion pieces as it fell!”
“Sounds like you had quite the night, Mr. Henderson. I’m just glad you all are okay, some people were injured by falling furniture in my neighborhood. The magnitude was a six point eight on the Richter scale—a real quaker.”
A sudden movement in the glass pane of the door catches Will’s attention. Someone must have come by to ask for help from Mr. Clarke, but it’s nearly summer, and no one is as excited to talk to Mr. Clarke as the four of them. Especially not after school.
Will makes his way to the door and opens it, about to tell whoever it is that class had gotten out over ten minutes ago, come in, come in.
But no one is there.
Faint, dissonant sounds of the band warming up for after school practice drift down the hall. Will steps out into the hallway, sticks his thumbs under the straps of his backpack, and looks down the length of it and over his shoulder.
Still no one. His shoes slap on the linoleum. He makes it all the way down to the end of the hall where the doors are, the windows hot from the summer sun.
Will whirls around when someone puts a hand on his shoulder, heart shooting into his throat. No one ever calls him by his full name except the principal, and his mother when she’s really, really mad, but he doesn’t come face to face with either of them.
“And you are?”
He doesn’t say that, yes, he is Will. He’s also never seen this person in his life—tall, almost as tall as Mike, with cropped hair. The stranger allows Will to shake his hand off.
“Are you alone?”
Will feels a cold sweat start in the centers of his palms. “No,” he insists, though Mr. Clarke’s classroom is at the other end of the hall. “Who are you? What do you want?”
Oddly enough, the boy looks alarmed by his questions.
“Are you not Will Byers?”
“I was looking for someone he might know.”
As unsettling as this is, Will’s curiosity is piqued. “Who?”
The boy stiffens when Dustin’s voice floats down the hallway. Will leans around him to see if they’re coming out, but he’s knocked off balance when the boy pushes roughly past him and runs out into the school yard, leaving the door swinging behind him.
“Will! What’re you doing out here?”
“Thought I heard someone call my name,” Will says, straightening his sleeves.
“All the way out here? Do you have bat hearing?”
“Or owl hearing,” Lucas says.
Mike gives him a sidelong glance, like he’s not convinced, but smart enough not to ask. Well, at least not within earshot of Dustin and Lucas, who have the double-edged fortune and misfortune of not seeing the worst of Will’s possession last autumn.
“You weren’t seeing now-memories again, were you?”
“No.” Mike raises his eyebrow. “No, I really wasn’t! I promise. I haven’t seen anything from that world since that night.”
“But you did see something.”
“Someone,” Will admits. “A stranger.”
“He was just walking past or something?”
“No, he,” Will purses his lips. “He knew my name. He said he was looking for someone I knew.”
“Was he tall, in a suit or something, with snow-white hair?” Mike asks, immediately agitated, and Will blinks in confusion.
“No, no, he was about our age. About your height. Short hair, greenish-brown eyes. He seemed scared when I asked him what he wanted.”
“That’s new,” Michael says.
“Who’s the tall man with white hair?”
“Oh, some psycho freak from the Lab. He died before we got you back.”
“You sure don’t make it sound like he died, if you’re asking me about seeing him around our school.”
“I didn’t see his body.”
“You really believe in seeing bodies now before reaching a conclusion, huh,” Will jokes. He tries to joke, anyway, but Mike levels him a serious expression and the smile fades from his mouth.
“After you and Eleven, I don’t really believe anyone is dead until it’s as proven as it can get. I didn’t stick around to see what happened after that Demogorgon broke through the wall that evening, I just heard him yelling, and he was replaced by Doctor Owens. But obviously for him, I want to think he’s dead.”
“I know, I know. I’m sorry.”
“No, it’s not something you need to be apologizing for!”
“Okay. Sorry. I mean, I know.”
Mike laughs. “Of all the things you’re good at, Will, not saying sorry is the one thing you absolutely suck at.”
Of all the things that Jim Hopper has learned and forgotten and had to relearn (how to cook proper meals, how to keep work at work, and how to make beds), the one thing he never thought he would have to relearn is how to do his daughter’s hair. It’s one thing he never thought he could bear relearning.
“Sorry kid,” he mumbles around a bobby pin. Eleven pulled a face when he tugged too hard on her hair, but otherwise makes no noise at all. It’s a constant and unnerving reminder what she must have endured—he’s never once heard her say ow or ouch, even when she insisted on helping slice the fruit for Sunday brunch and cut her finger open. She’d simply stared at the blood streaming into her palm and calmly asked if he had a bandage.
“Thank god these dances only happen twice a year,” Hopper says. He’s not sure he wants to entertain using the curling iron more than once every six months.
“Thank you,” she says as he pins her bangs out of her face.
“You’re growing up too fast, kid.”
“Mike grows faster.”
“Yeah, Wheeler looks like more of a praying mantis every time I see him,” Hopper grunts. He still remembers the two of them falling into each other’s arms in the foyer of Joyce’s house and realizing just how long it must have been for both of them to be apart. Two years ago Mike and Eleven had been eye to eye. That night, Eleven could hardly prop her chin over his shoulder.
Three hundred and fifty three days turns into a slow, sleepy blink when you get to the age that Jim Hopper is. For them it must have felt like an eternity.
“A handsome praying mantis.”
Jim has never had to learn, or even understand, the feeling of dropping off his daughter at a school dance. He’s done it once before, but he must confess that it’s yet another thing that he hasn’t gotten used to. Eleven slides out of her seat and smooths down the pleats of her dress—floral this time, a generous donation from Nancy—before making her way into the Hawkins Middle School gym.
“I’ll be here at ten. No ifs, ands, or buts.”
“And uh,” Jim clears his throat. “Have fun, kid.”
Hopper watches her go. The gym doors are decorated this time with pink and orange and yellow crepe streamers instead of the silver tinsel of winter, fluttering when the doors swing shut. He lights a cigarette, Zippo clicking as he snaps it shut.
“You’re getting good at this, huh?”
Joyce’s voice comes from around the vicinity of his elbow, and Hopper looks down to see her with her arms crossed, hunched over as if cold. “Good at what?”
“Her hair looks nice. I didn’t get any frantic calls asking how to put hair in a curling iron this time around.”
“You live and you learn, I guess.” He offers his cigarette and she takes a long pull. She doesn’t cough anymore.
“Will doing alright?”
“He says he’s fine.”
“Earthquake must’ve given you a scare.”
“God.” Joyce shakes her head. “Sometimes I dream, like—I dream about a day when I won’t be afraid after every little odd thing that happens.”
“It’ll come, Joyce.”
“It’s been months.”
“Months aren’t enough.” Hopper takes another drag of his cigarette when she hands it back. “Give it a few years. Maybe a lifetime. This kind of thing follows you like a ghost. It’s just that one morning you wake up and realize that you’ve learned how to live with it.”
Joyce probably thinks he means Sara. It’s not that he doesn’t, but for the first time, he means Eleven too.
“You’re doing a good job, Hop.”
“Not too shabby yourself, Joyce.”
For most of his short life, Mike has never been the center of any welcome attention in school. He was the kid that always had his nose in a binder full of dragon illustrations, the kid people pitied because Troy and James picked on The Party, or the kid that got all weird after the Will Byers incident. Really weird. Quiet, nerdy Mike, who became a bit of a legend last year for telling Mr. Kowalski he was full of shit in front of the entire class.
Right now he’s the kid that somehow has a date with the Chief’s new daughter. What the hell. There’s no way he didn’t pay her to do this. How does he even know her, for starters? She looks familiar, like they’ve seen her somewhere before. Maybe once with blonder hair, or a pinker dress.
Mike doesn’t know what his face is like when he crosses the dance floor to meet her at the entrance. Stupid is a good guess, he supposes. A shy smile spreads across her mouth when she sees him.
She just smiles wider, ducking her face like she can’t look at his expression too long.
“Pretty good?” she asks, addressing his tie more than Mike.
“Gorgeous,” he says.
Eleven blushes high in her cheeks.
“Handsome,” she replies, taking the hand he offers her.
“Thanks! I did my tie myself this time. Windsor knot and all.”
“Is that fancy?”
“Fancier than Dustin’s or Lucas’s? Hell yeah. Except Will has a bowtie, which is very snazzy.”
“Where are they?”
“Waiting for you!”
They want a picture. The line had been too long at the Snow Ball for it a group photo to be practical, and Jonathan is doing photos again for Sadies. It would only make sense, between the Party finally having a few months of peace, and Eleven home. Mike is actually excited for it despite hating having his picture taken.
“There she is,” Dustin singsongs. “Jesus Mike, don’t tread on the flowers.”
“I was not treading on—”
“Yeah Mike, you have all evening to look at her like she defeated Palpatine and hung the stars in the sky,” Max says, pushing past Mike, who sputters defensively, to grab Eleven’s hand. Her hair has been clipped back and smoothed into sleek curls so bouncy that one would be tempted to reach out and pull on one just to watch it spring back into place. “Come on, we’ve been waiting for you to get here so we can take photos already! I’m tired of looking nice.”
Jonathan is a natural behind his camera. He seats Eleven and Max on the crates in the front and instructing the four boys to strand and arrange themselves behind them. There are a lot of limbs and not a lot of space, so after some fumbling, they jigsaw themselves together into something presentable.
“Mike, you’re a goddamn ent. Switch places with me, you’re too tall to stand in the middle.” Dustin squeezes between Mike and Lucas.
“That means you too, Lucas,” says Will, darting in between Lucas and Dustin so that he’s sandwiched by Dustin. “You can stand next to Max later.”
Jonathan rolls his eyes.
And it is an evening of almost-teens being almost-teens: stupid, silly, embarrassing, full of awkward contact between people who want desperately to know who they are. Eleven is put off by songs that require her to move any faster than the gentle sway back and forth in time with the music. Lucky for the both of them, those are songs that Mike is so okay sitting out on.
“You want some punch?”
“Yeah, juice punch.”
“I would like some.”
“’Kay, wait here,” Mike says.
Nancy mans the punch table again this year. One side of her mouth quirks up a little higher when Mike comes up to the table.
“Can I get two?”
“One for El?”
“Yes,” Mike says testily.
Nancy nods, ladling a spoonful of bright red punch into the Dixie cup.
“I didn’t say anything!”
“You didn’t have to.”
“I just was thinking how you insinuated you were disgusted when I asked you if you liked Eleven back when this all started.”
“You also said you didn’t like Jonathan.”
“I think a better way of looking at it was that I didn’t know I liked him.”
“Well then—then how was I supposed to know I liked El!”
“You weren’t supposed to know it,” Nancy says, handing him a cup for each hand. “That’s what made it the saddest part.”
“Go deliver libations to thy girlfriend, young paladin,” Nancy says. If she’d intended for the weird change in tone, then she doesn’t acknowledge it, already turning to the girl in line after Mike with a smile on her face.
What made what the saddest part? Liking Eleven?
Mike shakes it off.
She’s not at the table Mike left her at. There’s another gaggle of girls sitting there now, fingers sticky with donut glaze. One of them shoots him a look that starts as a sneer but turns into a combination of respect and confusion when she remembers oh yeah, Mike is apparently cool enough to date in a pretty girl’s eyes. The pecking order dictates that he commands some modicum of respect now.
“Did you see a girl sitting here?” he asks. He’s never spoken to Lorraine Watson in his life and planned on graduating without ever doing so. “Uhm, Jane. She was in a flower print dress.”
“No,” she says.
“Are you sure? She was sitting here just a few minutes ago?”
“I didn’t see her.” Lorraine shrugs. “Maybe she went to the bathroom?”
Mike frowns and scans the bobbing heads over the dance floor. With Eleven there is never such a thing as maybe she went to the bathroom.
“I think I saw her leave.”
This time it’s Annie McClain who speaks. Mike has only ever seen her hanging around Jennifer.
“Yeah, with some other guy.” She gives him a patronizing once over. “Maybe you should go find her.”
Some other guy? “Here,” he says, shoving the cups of juice into her hands.
“Hey! You got it on my—”
But Mike is already halfway through the throng of bodies, mumbling ’scuse me, ’scuse me, to all the people whose toes he treads on. Will catches him as he wiggles his way out between two particularly tall couples.
“Mike! What—where are you going?”
“El—Elev—I mean. Jane! I can’t find her—”
“Hey, it’s okay. There are a lot of people here, have you looked first?”
“Annie McClain said she left with some other guy!”
“Dude, Annie McClain is a grade A degenerate bitch,” Max says. Dustin whistles low at the insult. The hair around her face is starting to come away from the hairspray and gel, fanning out in a cloud of flame around her head, so she looks and sounds threatening. “I wouldn’t be so fast to trust her. Maybe she’s just trying to make you look like a fool.”
“I actually wouldn’t put that past her,” Lucas says.
“No, she—I was only—I was just gone for like, seconds! Okay, minutes. I just went to get some punch and she was at the table in the back, then when I went back they were all sitting there looking at me like I was idiot for not knowing. And that she left with someone.”
“Well, if it was minutes ago, then they can’t have gone far. Also, relax, Mike, you need to remember El—I mean, Jane—can literally kill people with her mi—I mean, handle herself.”
“Nice save,” Lucas says dryly.
“What the hell are we waiting for then?” says Max. “Come on numbskulls, let’s go look.”
They nearly mow down a girl who’s coming in late. “Sorry, sorry!” Lucas throws over his shoulder.
“I’ll take the east wing.”
“I’ll look in the west wing.”
“Then I’ll take north.”
“Will, you and I can take the fork in the south,” Mike says.
Wandering the halls of Hawkins Middle School at night reminds him so much of the nightmarish evening that they had lost Eleven that Mike needs to steel himself as he and Will head down the south wing. Will seems to know it, too.
“Hey. We’ll find her.”
“I hope so.”
“It probably sounds weird to say this, but I wish I were there that night.”
“Of course not, Will. Why would it be?”
“It must’ve been terrifying.”
“Yeah,” Mike says, unable to help the humorless laugh that escapes from his throat. “Yeah, it was. It was scary.”
“But?” Will prompts when he doesn’t continue.
“No, it’s stupid.”
“Okay,” Will says. Lucas probably would have retorted that he was being stupid, which would also be—not incorrect.
“The demogorgon was scary. Especially when it cornered us in Mr. Clarke’s classroom, holy shit. I thought we were dead for sure. But it was scarier not knowing where Eleven was, if she was alive or dead. In the face of losing her, confronting the demogorgon didn’t seem scary at all.”
“I told you it was stupid.”
“I don’t think it’s stupid. It makes sense.”
“When I was in the Upside Down, I had to live with the demogorgon for—well, I guess for seven days in this dimension. I was obviously scared of it. That’s why I hid in Castle Byers. But after the initial fear wore off, the thought of Mom never knowing what happened to me and dying alone was so much scarier.”
Mike quirks up one side of his mouth. “See, it sounds so much better when you explain it.”
They split at the fork in the wing—Will taking the right, Mike taking the left. Lockers line the hallway down to the exit, the glowing sign a bright acid green in the dim fluorescent lighting. The tiger paw of their mascot has long since been repainted, but Mike stands before it, alone, gripped by the haunting memory of losing Eleven.
What he thought was old and weathered still hurts as much as a fresh wound: the fear of being surrounded by people he knew were after her, the sallow quality of her skin when she killed them, the helpless way she called out for him and tried to squirm her way out of Brenner’s arms.
He stands and stares and remembers.
“Still nothing!” Will shouts, voice echoing. Mike jumps.
“No luck here, either,” he shouts back.
He traipses down another row of classrooms. Another row of lockers. Just as Mike is about to give up and consider jogging back to Will to look elsewhere, he catches a long shadow spilling over the linoleum by the drama theater entrance. It casts a fading poster of Jesus Christ Superstar into darkness.
“Hey—hey, excuse me, have you—El! Eleven!”
Mike’s feet carry him to her without him registering it. There’s a boy in front of her, as promised, and Mike recognizes him as the same one who had been standing across the street from Palace last week, staring at Eleven. Anger starts to boil in his stomach until he sees Eleven’s expression. It isn’t scared. Surprised, maybe. He tries not to raise his hackles (he fails, but hey, he tried).
“And who are you?”
“Mike, it’s okay.”
He definitely looks unconvinced, because she reaches out for his hand. “It’s okay. Promise.”
“Okay,” Mike says. “But who is he?”
Eleven reaches out for the stranger’s wrist. He complies, although woodenly.
A little like Eleven. A little like he’s not very good at picking up on social cues.
“Look,” she says.
The light above their heads is weak, the buzzing kind of bulb that gives you a headache during tests and puts you sleep during class, but it is bright enough for Mike to read the ink in his skin.
What is nothing less than a full-blown interrogation is taking place in the dressing room of the drama theater. They’d pushed him into a chair and turned on one of the vanity lights, and Thirteen’s gaze pingpongs between Mike’s face to Eleven’s face, to Dustin and Lucas, then Will and Max.
If the first time was anything to go off of, Dustin can’t imagine Lucas is too pleased about this so far. Then again, Lucas is no longer the disbelieving child he once was. The disbelieving children they all once were, save for Mike, who had never not believed Eleven for a second. So he supposes that just makes the two of them, and Mike, and Eleven, and Thirteen.
You could call him a cautionary teen now, thank you very much.
Logically it shouldn’t be surprising that there are more of them. Eleven had explained, after she had closed the gate and all was said and done, why she walked into the Byers’ house looking like the sixth member of Bon Jovi. Something about hitchhiking, an Indian girl named Kali who was really her sister, and having the number eight on her wrist. Eleven had held up her wrist, tapped it once, twice, three times, and said “Eight. Kali. She was my sister.”
So if there is an Eight, and an Eleven, then there should be a Nine and a Ten. Maybe even a One through Seven. Then, why not Twelve and Thirteen?
“Do you know a Twelve?”
Thirteen shakes his head. Well, he’s already more responsive than Eleven was when they first found her, so that’s promising.
“Then how about any other numbers?”
“Two is dead,” says Thirteen. He seems to fumble with his words, and the sight of it gives them such a sense of deja vu to a rainy night in Mirkwood that he can feel Lucas soften beside him.
“Two, as in two of them, or Two, the person?”
“Two. More are dead. Four, and. Uhm, Six and Seven are dead.”
“What happened to them, do you know?” asks Michael.
At this, Thirteen just looks to Eleven. To everyone’s surprise, even her own, she stiffens and sways, reaching out for Mike’s arm and to steady herself.
“Hey,” he says, anger rising once more in his throat. “What did you do? Leave her alone!”
“It’s okay, Mike. I’m okay.”
“You don’t—look okay,” Dustin says.
It’s true. While Eleven’s face doesn’t have any of the trademark pallor when she strains herself, her nose is bleeding, and it doesn’t appear like she’d used her powers.
“Car.” She looks back to Thirteen, then to Mike. She, too, struggles for words, despite the many months since she’s been reading and picking up the Party’s words and sentences. “Hit them. It hit Six and Seven.”
“Oh,” Mike says. “They were in an accident?”
“How do you know?”
“He showed me.” Eleven sounds as confused as Dustin feels. “In my head, but I saw it.”
“In your void?”
“No, not in the void.”
“Telepathy,” Dustin offers.
“It’s when you can talk to someone else, but in each other’s heads. You can cast it for one day across an unlimited range and communicate with any other creature with whom you are familiar in the same plane! Will just used it in our last campaign.”
“I don’t know if he appreciates us comparing his ability to a D&D tactic,” says Will.
“We compared everything about the Upside Down to D&D stuff. Makes it less scary.”
“Maybe if the names of monsters were ‘Princess Dianagorgon of Wales—’”
“Point is, what brings you here to Hawkins? Were you looking for Eleven?”
Dustin has to hand it to Mike. As much as Lucas is skeptical of strangers, Mike is accepting of them. Well, with the exception of Max, where the tables were turned, and the reason is standing next to him right now with a bloody nose.
“Yes.” Thirteen thinks. “And no.”
Lucas finally groans here. “Mike. Why is it that we collect a weirdo one year, and then a psycho another?”
“You collected a zoomer last year.”
“Yeah, and that was the only good decision we made that year. What do you think would’ve happened if she hadn’t been there to knock Billy out cold?”
Dustin rolls his eyes.
“Be nice, Lucas.”
Lucas heaves a martyred sigh but shuts up.
“Then what about Two and Four?”
“Two,” Thirteen says, haltingly once more. He looks at Eleven again, and this time, she’s more prepared—but whatever he shows her leaves her at a loss for words too. She does her best.
“He ate something. He died.”
“Someone poisoned him?”
“Oh,” Dustin says. A somber silence settles over them. In the past two years, the Party has experienced more brushes with death in their fourteen years alive than most people do in a lifetime, but they and everyone they’ve known have fought against it tooth and nail. It is unfathomable and heartbreaking to know that someone would willingly choose it. Usually when Eleven has to use a roundabout way to explain a single word, Mike will supply his best guess and nod as she repeats it, rolling the word around her tongue like hard candy. It happens less now that she reads so much.
He doesn’t say what it is this time.
Eleven reaches for Mike’s hand when his expression grows stricken and stony all at once, and he gives it a little squeeze. A wordless it’s okay, I’m okay. “I’m sorry to hear that.”
“Did you see all of this happen?” asks Lucas.
“For Two, not with my eyes. Only Six and Seven.”
“In the void,” Eleven guesses.
Thirteen shakes his head. As responsive as he is, he’s nearly as taciturn as Eleven. “Before it happened.”
“How is that even possible?”
“You can see the future,” Max posits.
A hush falls over them when Thirteen nods.
Then, “Am I going to be rich?” Dustin says.
“Ooh! How about me?” says Max. “And also, does my brother marry someone way too good for him but end up miserable and alone because she realizes her true self worth and leaves him for a rich handsome man with two dogs? Please say yes.”
“That is blisteringly specific. Are you okay?” asks Dustin.
“Are there going to be any more Star Wars movies?” Mike asks, unable to help himself.
“Will Papa come back?”
Eleven’s voice is so soft that it’s barely audible over the din of questions, but everyone looks to her gravely.
“You should answer that one first,” Lucas says.
“He can’t pick and choose what future he wants to see,” Dustin says.
“How do you know so much about the others, then? The other numbered kids like you?”
Mike is okay with not knowing how Thirteen knows these things. After all that has happened to them, he has little problem chalking it up to the idea that all the children that Hawkins Lab had experimented on had a connection that none of them would ever really understand. If Eleven can open gates to other dimensions and throw vans around with her mind and Kali can make people see collapsing bridges, then a telepathic link between thirteen superpowered kids doesn’t seem all that far-fetched.
“Were you born with these abilities?” says Max.
“Don’t know. I don’t remember not having them.”
“Wait, but you said yes and no.” Mike crosses his arms, then holds one hand out in the universal gesture of so, let me get this straight. “What part is the yes? Yes, you were looking for Eleven?”
“And no, you weren’t looking for her?”
“That doesn’t make any sense,” Lucas says, patience stretching thin again. “How do we know he’s not dangerous?”
“Because Eleven isn’t!” Dustin says.
“I don’t know about you, but the way she told us about Kali, I would not want to cross the witch.”
“I did not know who I’d find here,” Thirteen finally says.
“I knew one of us would be here in Hawkins. I did not know it would be Eleven. In the winter I saw something. A girl with purple hair and a girl with short curly hair. Two twins with long braids. And others. I follow what I see. I saw you,” he points at Lucas, “and you,” at Will. “Sorry for frightening you earlier this week.”
“It’s okay,” Will says.
“He’s the one you saw in the hallway?” Dustin asks.
“He said he was looking for someone I knew,” Will says.
“Yes. I’d seen Eleven talking to you.”
They regard him with a stunned silence.
“So you follow whatever you see?” asks Will.
“No. Not everything.”
“So you must have had a reason to travel so far.”
Thirteen tears his gaze away from Dustin’s, looking down at the tangle of his own fingers in his lap. He seems afraid to say, afraid to even think, as if his thoughts aren’t safe.
“I saw a man,” he says.
“A tall man," Thirteen says. “In a dark suit, always.”
“Holy shit,” Lucas says.
“What? What’s he talking about?” Max hisses.
“And hair as white as snow,” Thirteen says, looking up, into Eleven’s face.
“No,” she whispers, and even as she does, Dustin can feel his blood turning to ice in his body. He’s glad Mike has her hand in his, fingers squeezing so tight he’s whiteknuckling.
“I saw him,” he says, shaking. “I-I know him.”
“Where? Where did you see him?”