Winters in Indiana weren't the kindest of things. Sure they weren't exactly famous for them, let's leave that to the Canadians and Russians, but being runners up in the coldest and longest categories had to account for something.
Snow hadn't quite covered Hawkins in its white embrace. Scrubby yellow grass managed to poke through thin sheets of ice. Yards stood barren in the frost, there wasn't enough snow to entice Hawkins’ young ones out to play. The steel gray cold stole the breath from lungs, scarves were pulled high over noses and mouths and thick coats buttoned tight. Few folks dared to brave the cold, scuttling from warm car to warm home, chimnies puffed and furnaces chugged over time.
With winter in full swing and Jack Frost practically gnawing at your nose the Byers home was mercifully warm and cozy, the furnace a dull background chug throughout the house. Ms. Byers puttered around the kitchen, her faint footsteps and the clang of pots and pans hypnotic and domestic and wonderfully exotic to El. The home smelled of clean linen and faint cigarette smoke, she liked the smell. All the good people seemed to smoke, even if Mike’s nose curled at the scent, she liked it. It wasn't clean or sterile, it didn't have the chemical tang of bleach to it. It was acrid and deep and maybe a bit dirty, and she liked it.
El yawned and stretched lazily, Will’s bed far too cozy for its own good. She wasn't the only one barely keeping sleep away, the day was far too frigid to do much of anything besides lounge like the fat seals she had seen on the TV.
She, Mike and Dustin had arrived in the early afternoon. El hand clung tight to Mike’s back digging her nose into the warmth of the collar of his coat. They had every intention to dump their bikes, gather the remaining three in their party and go out into the wide yard and roughhouse in the snow, but inside was so warm, and Johnathan had made cookies the night before and before they knew it their boots and coats had been kicked off and they had found themselves warm in Will’s room “Shooting the shit” as Hopper says.
“What would you do if you found a dinosaur?” Dustin asked from his spot half under the bed.
His question takes El by surprise, she pops up from where she was sprawled on her stomach, Mike’s head resting warmly at the small of her back, her fingers gently twisting Max’s long hair into sloppy unpracticed braids, and shot him an alarmed look. She knew what dinosaurs were, she also knew Dustin had a penchant for taking in dangerous strays, à la Dart. She couldn't help but imagine Dustin hiding a toothy prehistoric lizard in his garage.
“I think it would depend on what kind?” Will answered, on his back arms raised in the air trailing the patterns on his ceiling. “If it was a tyrannosaurus or an allosaurus, I’d run away faster than the Road Runner. If it was something too big to really care about me, then it would be neat to observe it.”
A lazy chorus of agreements rang through the Party, and El realized that it wasn't a real question, Dustin wasn't asking for their help in the sort of roundabout way he was fond of. Her nerves eased and she focused back on Max’s braid.
“Yeah, but a brontosaurus or iguanodon ain't as cool as a T-Rex.” Max pipped up, last weeks issue of “Boy’s Life” folded open to an article illustrated with bright pictures of fish.
“No, but out of all the dinosaurs, if they were around today we’d be more likely to domesticate the boring ones, so they would probably be safer to be around,” Will argued back, his arms falling back to rest on his narrow chest.
Max’s shrugs, but it's Lucas who takes up her case. “Well, lion’s are cooler than cows, and cows are domesticated.”
Will scoffs “Are “‘arnivores cooler than herbivores' wasn't Dustin’s question though. He asked what would you do, and if I was faced with a carnivore, I'd run and hide, but a herbivore I might not. It all depends on if it want to eat me or not.”
They quiet again before Mike picks his head up and asks a question of his own. “Ok, I got one. So, if Mickey and Minnie are mice, and Donald and Daisy are ducks, and Pluto is a dog, what the hell is Goofy?”
They’re quiet, puzzling over the truly baffling question Mike has posted.
“Goofy’s a dog?” El asked twisting to look at Mike over her shoulder.
“But if Goofy can walk and talk, why can't Pluto?”
Well, that stumped El, why couldn't Pluto talk?
“Shit your right, what the hell is Goofy,” Dustin said his eyes wide.
They carried on like that for the remainder of the afternoon, taking turns to pose and ponder the philosophical questions of thirteen-year-olds. El lets their voices and the chug of far off appliances wash over her. She was warm, soft and safe, eyelids becoming heavy and her breathing evening out. Sleep was just about to claim her when THE question was asked. The one that would snap her out of her sleepy state and keep her up all night and for many nights to come.
“Do you think there are other Upside Downs? Like other worlds?”
El didn't hear the others answer through the sudden rush of blood through her ears. Was there more than one? She had never considered, she had no reason to think, but at the same time, nothing she knew said there couldn't be. There were so many questions, so many “what ifs”. If there were other dimensions, what were they like? How dangerous were they? Did the other dimensions know about hers? Would traveling in the Void alert them as it did with the Upside Down? Or where they blissfully ignorant like the townspeople of Hawkins?
Her mind ran like a rat in a wheel for the rest of the day, until six rolled around and Hopper came by in his Bronco to pick her up and take her home. She was quiet all through dinner as she and Hopper sat at their little table take out boxes spread between them.
She was so lost in thought that even Hopper took notice.
“You doing alright Kid?” He asked through a large mouthful of lo-mein. “You haven't even touched the crab rangoon.”
It was her favorite.
El tucked a shoulder and reached out to spear one of the golden fried little packages of goodness on the end of her fork.
“Thinking.” She says quietly and stuffed the whole wonton into her mouth, crispy buttery crust breaking under her teeth spilling the gooey cream cheese, crab, and onion concoction onto her tongue. Normally her jaw would ache with the pleasure of the exotic taste, but today she just couldn't focus on the flood of flavors.
“What about?” he asked rolling the liquid in his beer can before taking a swig. His eyes under his heavy brows where pinned on her, kind and patient. Things have been good recently, they’ve been open and honest with each other, expressing affection freely, if clumsily. El gets to go out to see her friends, she is learning and experiencing more than she had ever had before.
She doesn't want to ruin this, she doesn't want to go back to before.
“Is it about Mike?” Hopper leans in close waggling his eyebrows.
El felt her face heat up, she's not sure why it does that, but Hopper seems to revel in it. She ducks her head and stuffs another wanton into her mouth. She feels a bit guilty for letting Hopper believe what he wants, it's not exactly a lie, Mike isn't far from her mind, and what she wants to do might affect him. It might affect all of them.
Or nothing will happen.
But the curiosity was killing her and she just had to see.
Hopper chuckles fondly, reaching across the small table to ruffle her fluffy hair.
“Come on, Kid, help me clean up, Jeopardy will be on soon.”
El nods her head vigorously and pops up to dump empty containers into the trash. The sooner they can get through their nightly routine the sooner she can get to bed. She sits through Jeopardy soaking up the trivia, then flicks her chin at the TV setting it to the evening news. Hopper pulls out a worn set of cards from a caddy and deals them out onto the coffee table. They play a few hands of poker and blackjack, Hopper says it's to help with her math skills, but El thinks he doesn't know any other card games.
When eleven o’clock rolled around, El started to exaggerate her yawns and curls closer to Hopper's side. She could feel him soften as he wrapped an arm around her shoulders, pulling the cards from her fingers.
“Alright, Kid, time to call it a night, eh?”
She nodded sleepily, knuckling the corner of her eye. Really hamming up the fatigue.
“Go brush your teeth, gotta start getting into the habit of getting to bed early if you're going to start school,” Hopper said fondly, ruffling her hair and sending her off to the small pocket bathroom before she said goodnight and closed her bedroom door.
She feels like a thief in her own home, going about the motions of slipping on her PJs and turning down her bed. She opens her book, “Little Women”, but makes no effort to read the words. Instead, she strains her ears listening as Hopper settles back into the swayback couch with a creak and a groan. El waited as the clock ticked and ticked, after twenty minutes she flicked her chin towards her lamp causing the pull chain to twitch and the lights go black. She lays in the darkness waiting until finally, she hears the tell-tale click of the TV and the squeal of Hopper’s bed springs.
Waiting until she was positive Hopper had fallen asleep, El rolled into a sitting position and drew her blindfold from under her pillow and tied it over her eyes. With the darkness of the room, she really didn't need the blindfold, but the motions put her into the mindset she is looking for.
It takes a bit longer than it normal, she dared not turn on the static of her radio, but soon she was opening her eyes to an expanse of dark and shallow water.
El takes a moment to gather herself, twisting the hem of her too large t-shirt between her fingers. The Void is intimidating and comforting all at once. The neverending blackness could eat her alive, whether or not something was lurking in that blackness she couldn't know.
But then it was a source of comfort for the longest time. When she couldn't leave the cabin she could go into the void and see everybody; Lucas and Dustin and Mike. She could shadow them throughout the day and spending time in science with the boys, or watching Ms. Byers at the teller or sitting on Hopper's desk was a far cry better than the lonely cabin.
Shaking off her nerves, El figured she would do her rounds. Ease her way into the Void. First, she searched out Hopper. It was easy, he was just barely thirty feet away, asleep, shirtless, on his stomach with the sheets already twisted and kicked to the side. His mouth hung open and his deep croaking snores were loud enough to be heard both here in the Void and back in their cabin. She passed her hand through the fog of his hair, the motion fond and comforting even if she couldn't feel anything.
She sought out each of her friends next, most were sleeping, curled safely in bed. Dustin, she found was plopped in front of his television, Atari controller in hand and the strange pinging music from the game floated low through the TV. When she reached out for Nancy she found herself before Johnathan’s car, the windows fogged over. She could see dark shapes moving within the cab and soft strange little noises could be heard that sent weird feeling up and down her spine. That silly flush was back and she readily let them go, she wasn't sure exactly what they were up to, but she was reasonably positive it had to do with kissing, and Hopper, Joyce, and Mike agreed that that type of kissing was a private thing.
Instead, she sought out Mike and parts of his room soon swam into view. A gooseneck lamp was contorted through the wide slats of his bunk bed to shine warm yellow light on the pages of the book he was reading. Nestled in pillows and blankets, Mike looked soft and the epitome of safe and welcoming. She leaned against the leg of the bunk sliding to sit on the corner of his mattress. El craned her neck to read the text over his shoulder her fingers reaching out to pet his incorporeal hair. It fluttered through her fingers like steam, she could feel the warmth of him, the slight brush of something clinging to her skin like condensation. It wasn't nearly as nice as the real thing.
Mike paused, his book dropping to rest on his chest. He cocked his head and El thought he looked a bit like one of the rabbits that lived around the cabin. She reached out and poked his nose, her finger ghosting through. Mike’s eyes closed and he wrinkled his nose, an amused little grin played across his wide mouth. Sinking back into his pillows he picked the book up and lingered longer on each page.
She wanted nothing more than to stay perched on the edge of his bed, reading over his shoulder until one or both of them fall into sweet slumber. Not tonight, El reminded herself, she had a mission to do.
El said her goodbye to Mike and finally started off for what she had truly come here for.
Stepping carefully through the dark terrain, her footsteps echoed with a soft splish-splash. She trained her eyes for any sort of change on the horizon, be it hulking beast or benign creature. Gently she reached out a one-sided game of Marco Polo, where El hoped beyond hope there was no one playing Polo.
She knows she needs to be careful. She knows not to touch, not to bring attention to herself. The Demogorgon’s vile head rears in her imagination, petals unfurling to show a maw filled with so many teeth, too many teeth. Gnawing and gnashing teeth searching for soft flesh. The Mindflayer’s shadow loomed before a backdrop of blood red, it's dark writhing limbs reaching, malice dripping from every pore of the thing.
She would not make that same mistakes again.