The pine needles and twigs crackled beneath her bare feet as she ran, faster and faster, as fast as she could, gasping and panting, glancing over her shoulder, fear billowing off of her in waves as the ratty hospital gown snagged on bushes and branches and thorns. Everything hurt but she couldn’t stop moving, terrified of what would happen. Each time she looked, the building still loomed behind her, the dark structure only seeming to get closer, it’s blockish shape covering what little light the moon offered. She stumbled, knees hitting the rough earth and then she was being sucked backward, toward the void, the doors opening like the mouth of monster, swallowing her whole as she screamed.
Painful silence. Suffocating. Pitch black. And then...
There were hands, too many hands, everywhere, reaching for her. Rough hands that gripped her arms and hauled her down the cold tile hallway, towards more darkness—the darkness that filled her head and mind and left her alone with only her fears. Familiar starched white uniforms and the sterile smell of the rubbing alcohol that dampened her inner arm before the prick of a needle.
She was kicking, fighting, trying to bite or scratch, but they were strong, so strong, and from behind her she heard the familiar disappointed sigh.
“No! No! Mike!” Her voice was ragged, screams echoing off the damp walls. “Mike!”
Her body was thrown, knees and elbows bruising against the copper walls of the familiar prison, scrabbling to turn, just as the door started to shut. From the shadow stepped a figure, white hair gleaming under the fluorescent lights.
“Oh, Eleven,” Papa sighed, the usual cold, tired disappointment filling his eyes. “Did you ever think you would really be free?”
The door slammed shut and she was screaming and crying and begging, throwing herself against it, pleading to go back, for Hopper to come, for Mike to—
“Kid! Hey!” Gentle hands were shaking her shoulders. “Jane, kid, it’s just a dream. Wake up!”
Her eyelids cracked open and she saw the familiar shape of her room, the lamp beside her bed lighting the wooden boards of the cabin’s interior. It had been her home for almost five years now, an addition on one side creating a much needed bedroom for her adopted father and a slightly larger bathroom that they still shared. Right then the sight of the worn wooden planks were like oxygen and she felt her heart rate start to calm as she turned to look up at Hopper, the panic of the nightmare still evident in her eyes.
“H-Hop?” Her throat felt scratchy and she swallowed, gazing into the faded blue eyes that were filled with concern as they observed her. They hadn’t quite made it to “Dad” yet, but she had stopped calling him Jim and they’d both considered it a triumph.
“Hey, kid.” He offered a soothing smile, trying to be calm for her. “Another nightmare?”
His hands relaxed as she nodded, dodging his gaze, suddenly ashamed. It wasn’t the first time that week. In fact, it was probably the third. Each time her screaming had woken him and he’d managed to break her out of the terror… but he was starting to look exhausted. As exhausted as she felt all the time.
She didn’t deserve his patience or care but she hunched towards him, feeling the usual desire for the safety that he offered.
“Are they getting worse? I could take you to the doctor Joyce mentioned, the thera—”
“No doctors,” she blurted.
Hopper stared at her a moment longer but then sighed and nodded. There were certain things he wouldn’t make her do, things he knew might only make it worse. It was hard to trust people with her anyway, the powers and trauma and leftover fear of strangers making both of them wary. She was seventeen now, so much different from the small girl he’d first found shivering in the woods. Her curls had turned into loose waves that brushed past her shoulders and she’d managed to get a little taller despite her more petite size, beating Joyce’s 5’3 height by an inch. She was barely still a kid and he was trying to get used to respecting her decisions, let her start getting a foothold on independence.
But it was getting harder to let her say no to help.
“Do you…” His eyes drifted to the Supercom that sat on her desk. “Do you want to talk to him?”
El hesitated but shook her head. “No. He needs sleep.”
“So do you.” Hop seemed almost nervous but deflated, reaching to set his hand over hers, unable to hide the concern. “Look, kid, they’ve been getting worse this past month and I know you don’t like to talk to me about it but—”
“I’m okay,” she cut him off insistently. “I just… need some water.”
She moved to get out of the bed but he stopped her, shaking his head and tucking her back into the cozy sheets and quilt. He was out the door and back before she really had time to protest, clutching a cold glass of water and setting it on the nightstand next to the lamp and picture frame. The frame that held that first awkward picture from the Snow Ball, her polka dot dress clashing with the red tie and brown blazer of the boy whose arm was awkwardly hovering around her shoulder. Her eyes flicked back up to her father, obvious worry written into the lines that wrinkled his unshaven face. She wanted to pretend she didn’t see it. That she didn’t know what was coming next as he let out another long sigh.
“Jane—El,” he said more softly, using the nickname that was more… her. Jane was mostly to keep up the charade but he was used to it and she didn’t mind. “You went through a lot. It’s okay to not feel… one hundred percent yet. I know you’ve been okay for a long time but if the PTSD is coming back—”
“It’s not.” She flinched at the word. The one she'd been given garishly colored pamphlets about, that made people look at her like she was broken. “It’s just… bad dreams,” she replied stubbornly, not wanting to admit he was right. But the image of the dark building flashed behind her eyelids and she couldn’t hide a shiver. “I… I’ll be fine. Go back to sleep.”
Her voice broke a bit and he moved forward but she shook her head and quickly wiped her eyes with the back of her hand, before any tears had the chance of falling. No, crying was not going to happen tonight. She was tired enough to fall back asleep if he would just let her, the whole ordeal making her feel as if she was made of dust and would explode into nothing if she let the first tear fall. He knew how stubborn she was and when it was better to just give up, sighing again instead and nodding instead of forcing her to talk about memories she wasn’t ready to face. Forcing never worked and right then he knew she just needed to stop feeling afraid.
His eyes were reluctant but he nodded. “Okay, I’ll head back to bed… but if this keeps happening, we’re going to have to do something. It doesn’t have to be this way, kid.”
“I know,” she agreed softly. “I’m sorry.”
A quiet moment passed where he just observed her as she hung her head, seeming guilty or maybe ashamed of just how little control she had over her fears. He visibly softened and walked back over to her, sitting on the edge of the bed. His hug was warm and gentle and she sniffled as she buried her face into his shoulder, the smell of coffee and cigarettes a sudden comfort.
Safe. Home. Hopper.
He pulled back and then pressed a quick kiss to the top of her head, feeling her sigh and curl into him further, holding tighter for another heartbeat, as if he was trying to take all of the bad feelings and emotions from her. Her hand squeezed his arm and he relaxed. With another wordless glance he nodded—knowing he’d done all he could in that moment—and stood, clicking off her light and wandering back to his own bed. It was the most he could give her and she was grateful that he tried but it just wasn’t something she wanted to talk about. At least… not with him.
Hop was good at a lot of things. Making breakfast and telling jokes that were bad enough she actually laughed. He’d given her a home and found a way to get her a name, helped her become an actual person in the eyes of the law. Had become the father she’d never truly had, the cruel shadow of Papa hidden behind his strong figure. Protector. Wise. Strong.
But he kind of sucked at understanding when it came to the nightmares. He tried offer solutions to fix it, but that’s not how it worked, not quite what she needed. He’d seen a lot in his younger days, but their minds were different and no one—other than Kali, maybe, but that hurt to think about—knew what it had been like growing up in that hellhole with no hope. No one who truly understood.
She did have someone who tried to understand.
Her eyes wandered back to the walkie-talkie, shining dimly in the bit of moonlight glowing through her window. More than anything she wanted to grab it, whisper the name of the person who always made her feel better and let him spin wild stories of magical lands and daring adventures until the cold shivers in her stomach faded and she fell asleep to the sound of his voice in her ear.
Instead she glanced at her alarm clock, noting that it was past three in the morning. Too late. If she woke him up he wouldn’t be able to fall back asleep and he would come to school in a few hours looking even more tired. The bags under his eyes darkening as he yawned and insisted he was fine, that he would rather talk to her than sleep anyways, that it wasn’t a big deal.
Her heart softened at the thought of her boyfriend, towering over her with his newfound height and wrapping a warm arm around her shoulder, pulling her close. The smell of fabric softener and pencil shavings and his Old Spice deodorant he thought made him seem more manly.
Sweet Mike, always so willing to calm her fears and chase away the nightmares. It had been years, four since she’d come back, two since they started officially dating, and he was still so amazing and incredible and every other word she’d learned that meant “good”. If she woke him up he wouldn’t be mad. He wouldn’t even think to be mad. He was that perfect.
She sucked in a breath and rolled away from the Supercom. It wasn’t fair. She wouldn’t do it to him again. Not tonight.
Instead she exhaled a shaky breath, tucking her blankets over her shoulder and closing her eyes, trying to breath and find the calm. But the image of the lab, it’s doors opening as it sucked her back to the prison in the tile caverns below kept her awake the rest of the night.
There was the thwack of a book hitting her desk and El’s drooping eyelids snapped open as she jumped upright so fast the vertebrae in her neck popped. She looked around, trying to place herself in her surroundings, realizing she was still sitting in American History, every eye in the classroom on her as the wrinkled face of Mrs. McClintock scowled down at her.
Fuck. She’d totally fallen asleep.
“Um, yes?” She felt her heart rate spike up, sweat dampening her palms as there were titterings and whispers from the back of the room.
“Since you can’t be bothered to pay attention, how about you read the next chapter for us? So I know that you’re learning something instead of just sleeping in my class,” the angry teacher seethed, clearly offended.
“U-Um…” El felt panic well up. She hated reading in front of the class more than anything, she always stumbled over words she didn’t know and had trouble pronouncing them sometimes. Sure, she’d improved considerably when it came to vocabulary thanks to her father and friends, but it still wasn’t something she was good at. But she couldn’t say no. “Um, okay.”
Her voice was weak as she started to read the textbook, talking about the trade in the Atlantic between the islands in the Caribbean and the colonies and Africa. Some of the words weren’t even in English and she stared at them in confusion until Mrs. McClintock mercifully supplied the correct pronunciation. Every time she stuttered there was soft laughter and it made it harder to concentrate, the whispers that followed her through the halls suddenly echoing in her ears, the ones that called her freak and retard and psycho.
She’d managed to piss of the clique of popular girls on her first day, creating a grudge she hadn’t fully understood until they’d cornered her and told her that she was ugly and stupid, putting gum in her hair. That coupled with Troy’s stories and her bad speech and quiet ways had branded her a freak, an outsider, someone who wasn’t normal. Rumors of where she came from turned more cruel, and the most prevalent one was that she’d come from the nuthouse out in Kerley county, that the Chief had taken her to try and help them out. That weird stuff happened around her, windows blowing out and people being shoved by invisible forces. Not to mention that despite her pretty face and likable smile, she chose to hung out with nerdiest losers in the entire school.
The freak and her nerd boyfriend and loser friends. A walking circus.
Tears blurred her eyes and she tried to keep from sniffling but the tears hit the page anyway and she inhaled sharply, trying to wipe her eyes without being noticed.
“Is she crying?” A voice whispered sharply. The laughter was no longer hushed.
“Alright, that’s enough, Miss Hopper.” The teacher quieted the class before it got too out of hand, shooting the troublemakers in the back of the class a serious look before her disapproving glare rested fully on El’s trembling form. “I hope you’ll think twice before deciding my class is the place to take a nap.”
The tears silently rolled down her cheeks the rest of the period.
At lunch, Mike noticed that something was wrong the second she met him at his car. They were both always the first to arrive to their group’s preferred lunch spot. Her eyes and nose were red, face blotchy from crying in class and then alone in the bathroom in a stall between bells. She tried to smile at him, knowing he wouldn’t believe that nothing was wrong but needing to try anyways.
At first he said nothing as the both jumped onto the hood of his car, his corduroy-covered thigh pressed against the skirt of her dress, his warmth sinking into her. His paper bag lunch sat in his lap like hers, but his eyes were on his clearly troubled girlfriend, sensing the wrongness in the air.
His hand reached for hers but then Dustin arrived, plopping onto the hood of the grey Dodge Monaco with a long sigh. Mike didn’t have the time to get a word in as their friend started complaining about being put in a terrible group for his Drama class. El dodged her boyfriend’s eyes, pulling her lunch of it’s bag and staring at the plastic baggies full of cookies and vegetables.
“—don’t know why they’re even taking Drama if they don’t like to act! Like, how am I supposed to get a good grade when these assholes can’t pretend to be anything other than fucking stiff boards?!” Dustin ranted through a mouthful of roast beef sandwich.
El stared at her own peanut butter and jelly, between two Eggos, one of her favorite lunches. Hopper had made it for her that day, a rather uncommon favor he did only occasionally now that she was more than capable of making it herself. It had been a nice gesture but now she realized she wasn’t hungry. She was tired and sad and her eyes hurt and her throat was dry from crying and she just wanted to go home and crawl into her bed and maybe never come out again.
Max and Lucas showed up with Will, who was trying to mediate some argument between them. The two seemed to have reached another volatile point and El briefly wondered if they were going to break up again. It was a monthly occurrence, their feelings for each other solid but neither sure about how to deal with calling it a relationship. Between her hateful, unaccepting family and his refusal to be subtle or anything but proud, they bickered and fought and broke up and then would apologize and kiss and make up.
It made El even more grateful for Mike. They rarely fought over anything serious—and when they did it always had some sort of resolution—and she couldn’t imagine ever being angry enough to want stop wanting him. He always made her talk out her problems and while he was known to have a temper that could explode if he was pushed too far, so far he’d managed not to explode on her.
She loved him so much it made her entire chest ache.
Except now his worried gaze was burning a hole into her as she studied her untouched bag of pepper slices and carrots. He slid his hand into hers instead of saying anything in front of their friends, the quick squeeze asking silently if she was okay. She shrugged in reply.
“God, Dustin, can you shut up for two seconds?” Max grumbled, clearly in a bad mood as she leaned against the side of the car, as far away from Lucas as possible.
“I’m having a crisis, Max, something you wouldn’t understand!” Dustin shot back, throwing his hands up into the air. “I have to try and act out Shakespeare with a bunch of morons who’ve never even read Hamlet!”
Max rolled her eyes. He was always overdramatic. “Okay, well, that sucks but I’m tired of hearing you talk about it. Let somebody else talk for once.”
“Does anyone else want to talk?”
“I don’t know… you could ask.”
“That’s pointless. If someone wanted to say something they would have.”
“That’s impossible when you don’t even breathe between sentences. You’re like a fucking robot, Henderson, one that just yells all the time or something.”
“Robots aren’t made just to talk, Max, that’s stupid.”
“Isn’t that C3PO’s only function?”
“You did not just—”
It started turning into a full on argument and El felt the harsh words grating against her tired mind, shoving her food towards Dustin who didn’t even stop talking as he unwrapped her sandwich and started eating. She jumped down off the hood, staring across the parking lot as she hesitate, not sure where she wanted to go but needing to get away from… everything.
A hand nudged hers and she felt Mike’s presence towering above her, all furrowed brow and quiet concern. She let him intertwine their fingers and pull her away from their friends who barely acknowledged the couple’s disappearance as they started walking to the side of the parking lot, where woods edged the asphalt and only the smokers usually hung out. They made their way through clouds of acrid cigarette and weed smoke until they were lost further into the trees, Mike leading her wordlessly until they were alone in a small clearing, obscured by the leaves that were just starting to change color.
He turned, leaning back against a tree, watching her for a moment before finally asking the damn question she knew he’d wanted to ask the second he saw her. The usual one.
“El, are you okay?” His eyes were so damn soft and warm and she felt tears well up in her own as he finally broke down the last bit defense she’d tried to build up. It took two seconds for him to wrap her in his arms and then she was sobbing into the front of his hoodie, soaking the dark navy material with her tears. “Hey, it’s okay, shhh,” he soothed, holding her securely, his hand rubbing the back of her sweater, his lips finding her temple and pressing a kiss there. “What’s going on? What’s wrong?”
“I don’t know,” she sobbed. “I’m so…” She hiccuped, unable to go on, ashamed to admit the truth.
His voice was low and gentle against her ear. “What, El? You can tell me, come on.”
She knew he was right. She could tell him anything. It had never changed how he felt about her and it wouldn’t change anything now. The shame of being weak, the guilt of being a burden, all of it faded away as she let herself confess the truth, trembling in her boyfriend’s impossibly strong arms.
“I-I-I’m so t-tired,” she whimpered, voice breaking, her whole body shaking, blinded by tears.
“Of b-being scared.”
The truth was out and she sobbed harder, feeling so ashamed for being scared of something that was in the past. The lab was abandoned and empty, Papa gone, the bad men thrown out of Hawkins. She was safe. She was home. Mike was holding her just like Hopper had last night and both of them would always protect her from the bad things. But she was still afraid and she hated it. She hated feeling… weak. She had never been weak before. It wasn’t fair.
After another minute she started to quiet, hiccuping and pulling back, wiping at the snot string that connected her to Mike’s hoodie and feeling gross but a little better. Letting it out always helped but she’d bottled it up the past few weeks and last night. And then today… had sucked. And it was only halfway over. More than anything she wanted to stay right there, alone in the woods with Mike’s arms around her, his voice gently murmuring that it was okay. Somehow she always believed him when he told her that.
But they had ten minutes before fifth period started and it was Advanced Calculus, the only class they had together, so it would be far too suspicious to skip. Even though nothing sounded better staying there in that moment.
“El.” His breath was warm in her hair. October was looming and it was getting chillier. “Is it the nightmares again?”
“Yes,” she breathed.
“You could have called me last night. I would have answered.” He almost sounded hurt.
“I know, but… you’re tired too.” Her voice felt small. “We shouldn’t both be tired.”
“If you need to talk—”
“I didn’t need to.”
“Yes you did,” he argued. “You look exhausted… did you sleep at all?”
His hand found her chin, his thumb pressing against the dimple and tilting her face up to look at him. The familiar dark eyes scanned her features, taking in the tired bags and sallow skin, her eyes red from the tears and lack of sleep. She knew she looked like shit, but he just sighed, unhappy at how stressed out she seemed. His question didn’t need an answer.
“What was… was it the lab again? The same nightmare?”
He knew the collection of terrors that haunted her, the sounds of the monster breaking through, the one where he and his friends were cold corpses covered in slugs, the horde of demo-dogs that overpowered her. And the lab, full of horrors he’d never seen and memories he would never fully understand. It had been the persistent one, the one that kept coming back every couple of months and wearing her out.
“Yes,” she whispered.
Even then, in that moment, standing in the middle of the forest with no way to tell the direction, she could feel it. A slight tug on her right side, somewhere in the distance, a hushed exhale whispering, waiting for her. Her first home. Her prison. The only world she’d known.
“It’s empty, El. There’s no one there. That… that asshole is gone. They’re all gone,” Mike tried to sound encouraging. “You’re safe. Nothing is going to make you go back.”
“I know,” she whispered again, the fear making her voice tremble as she admitted the feeling that crept over her like a cold shiver. Her insides quivered, her entire body suddenly ice. “But it’s always… calling, Mike. It’s waiting for me.”
“It’s not, El. There’s nothing there.”
“It’s always there.”
She dared to look up at him, his expression peaking into worry as he saw the grim despair that haunted her eyes. There were no more tears, just genuine fear, and he frowned pulling her to him again, holding her tighter, trying to find something that would reassure her, calm her, make her feel better. He always knew the right words, to say—he was the word guy and she was one who just always understood when there were no words to be found . A perfect match.
“I… we’ll figure something out, El. So you don’t have to be afraid. I promise.” He swallowed thickly and she felt him tense, felt how serious he was as he gripped her firmly, his arms suddenly the safest place in the world. “You’re going to be okay. I’m going to figure it out. I promise, El.”
“Okay,” she whispered, clinging to him more tightly as she buried her face into his hoodie, closing her eyes and letting everything but the feel and the smell of him and the comfort he offered fade away. “Okay, Mike.”
In the distance the bell rang, signaling the end of the lunch period, but neither moved. For that moment they were safe. There was no lab, no memories, nothing bad. They were okay.
They were late for fifth period.