[PART ONE] CHAPTER ONE: FLICKER FLICKER
The Starcourt mall was almost empty. Every shop was closed, the metal gates glistening in the neon lights. It even flickered against the pearly tile floor, freshly cleaned by the janitorial staff just fifteen-minutes ago. The maddening, generic music that annoyed every mall employee was finally silenced, leaving Starcourt to succumb to a haunting quietness. Even with the heat on, the entire building was colder.
The icy chill swept goosebumps across Eleven’s tan skin—Hopper’s flannel couldn’t even keep her warm. It caused the brown hairs dancing across her arm to pause, no longer swaying to the humming of Steve Harrington’s favorite song. Instead, they became alert, aware. Eleven didn’t know if it was the cold of the ice cream parlor or of the hollowness of the mall that caused her heart to thump irregularly.
She balled her fists, pulling them underneath her orange and brown sleeves, barrowing further into the red leather booth. Steve, who had taken off that ridiculous hat and shoved it in his duffle bag, had pulled a black hoodie over his head, messing up his infamous hair. But he just ran his fingers through his chocolate locks at an attempt to add some sort of order to the chaos, really working his shoulder deeper into the canister of strawberry ice cream.
“How do I look?” Robin Buckley burst out from the swinging doors at Scoops Ahoy. Her tone was wrecked with nerves, stumbling over the rather simple sentence. Her fingers fiddled with her long tan cardigan, dragging it over her red tank top. Robin kept tugging up her loose jeans, the brown belt doing little to keep them upright.
Steve briefly glanced at Robin before plopping the last scoop of strawberry ice cream into the waffle cone. “You’ll be fine, Buckley,” he responded, completely dodging her question. Steve let out a slight grunt as he shut the cover to the ice cream canister closed, pressing his elbow against the top. “As long as you’re your usual, charming, irritating self I’m sure Mellie Fitzgerald is gonna love you.” Steve offered her a sarcastic smile, cupping his cheek with the palm of his hand.
Robin frowned, puckering her burgundy smeared lips. Waltzing forward, she tipped the top of Eleven’s strawberry cone into Steve’s face as she snapped, “you’re a real grade-A douchebag, you know that dingus?”
The teenager rolled his chocolate eyes, pushing himself off of his elbow. Grasping Robin’s shoulders, he shook her slightly, forcing her to look at him. “You’re gonna be fine, Buckley,” Steve said softly. He turned, peering past Eleven and towards the exit of Starcourt. “Go, leave for your date. We can pack up here.”
Robin let out a little groan, biting her bottom lip in between her teeth. She seemed to be having an internal struggle, smoke nearly coming out of her ears. “Fine,” she grumbled, stepping away from Steve and slinging her own duffle bag over her arm.
Eleven and Steve stayed silent as Robin scattered off, letting the taciturnity linger between them. The older boy took a towel, wiping the rest of the strawberry ice cream off his face, licking some off his finger. Eleven, who was only back in Hawkins for Thanksgiving break, chipped her over-grown fingernails against the wooden table. Earlier that day they’d been painted black by Max, claiming it was a look that suited El’s…unique personality.
But the black reminded her too much of the other place…of that realm. And of the waves that crashed along the Californian shores, the violent slapping of flesh on flesh, the cries of a terrified but very pretty women—
But then the muteness of an abandoned child. The blackness reminded Eleven of her skin getting wet with tears that were not her own and were salty like the waves of the west coast. And then anger—anger consumed the endless void and that antagonism would transpire into wrath that wrapped itself around Eleven’s bones, tangled within her muscles, plagued in her blood. But it was not her own rage, no it was foreign and far bigger than herself. And she couldn’t control it, it just overtook her like fear—
And then she couldn’t breathe, it was like the darkness gripped her throat, dragging its claws through her vocal cords. But she couldn’t scream or maybe she could, but no one heard her. She was trapped, isolated in an oblivion that Eleven wasn’t sure she’ll ever escape from—
“Eleven!” Steve shouted, leaning across the table, grabbing her face in between his hands. They were warm, unlike the goosebumps erected across her bone chamber, unlike the blackness, unlike the delicious ice cream that was now so close to her face. “Are you alright?”
Eleven finally broke free of her trance, her vision unblurring. She leaned back, disconnecting their touch. “Yes,” she replied simply, taking the ice cream cone. “Yes.”
Steve scrunched his brows together, leaning back in the booth. He slung his arm over the ledge of the chair, using his other hand to yank a bunch of napkins out of the container, sliding them over to Eleven. She only paused, peering up at him. Then, she took one, wiping a chunk of strawberry from the corner of her mouth. “Where is Robin going?”
He sighed, turning his head to the door that Robin had rushed out of nearly five minutes ago. Steve was tired, oh so tired, too exhausted to even rub the bags underneath his orbs. He had worked a twelve-hour shift, coming in earlier than he was supposed to so he could calm Robin’s nerves for her date with Mellie. And he had barely slept at all in the past three months, for every time he came home he was welcomed to his father’s bellows—the same sound that haunted his dreams.
And Steve had promised Eleven these free ice cream visits every time she came back to Hawkins. They had a…mutual understanding. She lost a father and Steve never really had one.
“On a date,” Steve said, picking at the eroding leather on the booth.
“Mellie is a strange name for a boy.”
“Mellie isn’t a boy, she’s a girl”—
“Girls can go on dates with other girls?”
“Yes-I, uh,” Steve stuttered, running his digits through his hair. “Of course,” his faced flushed with embarrassment, he was never good at having these types of conversations. “I’ll have Robin explain it later, God knows she can word it better than me.”
Eleven nodded, licking the rest of her strawberry ice cream. Words evaded them again as they sat in a peaceful calmness, mutual comfort. She didn’t know if they sat there for seconds, minutes, or even hours before she spoke, but there’s one thing she did know—her dessert never melted. “Next time, I want sprinkles.”
Steve mocked offense, tugging at the strings of his hoodie. “You’re getting unlimited free ice cream every time you come home, the least you could do is say ‘thank you’.”
Eleven let out a soft giggle, chewing up the rest of the waffle cone. However, the snickers slowly dissipated from her mouth as she got hung up on one word, one simple word, that she only knew for a year or so. A word that now seems so foreign and so distant—a faraway dream that now tastes so very different on Eleven’s tongue. “Home?”
Steve was speechless for a few moments, twirling his fingers along the crevasses of the booth. He didn’t acknowledge El’s presence as he spoke, “Yeah, I guess Hawkins isn’t really your home anymore, is it?”
Eleven shrugged, sweeping the strawberry off her face. “Hopper was my home,” she whispered, crumbling the napkin in her fist. A tear slipped out from her waterline, drizzling down her cheek. Eleven didn’t even try to wipe it away with her napkin—it just wasn’t worth it. “And now with him gone…I just feel lost.”
Steve took the cloth that was attached to his belt and smoothed it over the table, picking up any crumbs Eleven might have left behind. “I’ve never felt the feeling of home with my parents—especially with my dad,” Steve admitted, tucking the cloth back underneath his belt. His brown irises grew heavy, increasingly interesting in the fraying fabric of his navy shorts. “And I guess, well—I guess the closest thing I felt to home was with Nance, but then”—
“But then she dumped your ass.”
Steve squinted his eyes at the impact of Eleven’s choice of words, holding is hand up in the ear in rejection. “Okay, no hold up, Nance did not dump my ass; Steve Harrington does not get dumped”—El couldn’t hide her laughter at his fluster-ness, his face turning as red as Robin’s tank top. Eventually, Steve just rolled his eyes, shutting his mouth.
And again, silence consumed them both, but it was comfortable, welcoming. In the past couple years, they both had too much noise. Too much violent, nightmare surging noise.
But when Steve spoke again, something about if Mike ever broke her heart he would kick his ass, a sudden chill slithered up Eleven’s spin like a snake. It caused her back to go rigid, her blood taut with fear. Apprehension caused her movements to freeze, her bones icing over with trepidation.
And then, Steve felt that cold breeze too. It swindled his hair just as those neon lights began to flicker. It was as if they were spazzing in terror too, thrashing on and off to the beat of both Eleven and Steve’s hearts. And every time the electricity flicked off, so would the heat, making the atmosphere chillier and chillier until it was as if they were in an ice box.
Steve slowly stood up from his seat in the booth, blocking El from the breeze that was rushing into Scoops Ahoy, from the chaotic lights that could give anyone a seizure. But that did not stop the girl from peering out from behind Steve, from seeing what he saw. Like him, Eleven’s breathing caught in her throat, her heart stopped pounding her chest, as her vision landed on a beautiful girl a couple hundred feet away.
Around Steve’s age, the girl wasn’t looking at the two, but she knew they were there. They could only see a side of her pale face, could only make out her intense cheekbones and jawlines, only picked up one of her dark eyes dancing with the same chaotic neon. Her dark chocolate locks, nearly black, cascaded down her leather jacket, blowing in the wind she so obviously curated. And the more and more she pressed her hand against the countertop of the Chinese restaurant, the heavier the wind got. It slammed metal chairs into columns, flipped the tables on its sides. And even through all the ruckus, the girl did not flinch. She did not waver.
But then as quickly as she came, the girl was gone.
The newborn Mind Flayer roared in agony as the restraints electrocuted its bloody flesh. It’s verbal wrath nearly broke the impenetrable glass, its limbs flaring out in pain. But its screeches and its cries were unheard in the sealed overlook where two Soviet officers stood, arms crossed with clipboards tucked away in their jackets.
Are you sure this is going to work? the younger lieutenant inquired hesitantly in Russian, eyes not able to peel away from the monstrosity before them.
All in good time. The smile dancing along the elder Soviet’s lips was vicious, looking at the dangerous Mind Flayer like it was a masterpiece sent from God. The trapped is laid—and soon the young child will bring the Daughter of Death to us…He looked to his comrade, the lust for power drenched in his tone. And we will have the two powers that control the upside down…the ultimate weapon of mass destruction.
And when the Mind Flayer thundered again, the officer laughed.