MAN HANDS ON MISERY TO MAN
They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
And add some extra, just for you.
But they were fucked up in their turn
By fools in old-style hats and coats,
Who half the time were soppy-stern
And half at one another’s throats.
Man hands on misery to man.
It deepens like a coastal shelf.
Get out as early as you can,
And don’t have any kids yourself.
-this be the verse, Philip Larkin
SAN DIEGO, CALIFORNIA
The sand against her toes was warm, and damp, and if she stood still enough, she was sure that she would sink into it completely; her entire body swallowed whole by seashore.
For a moment, she allowed for her eyelids to gently close shut, and for her mind to take her there. Underground.
The sun wouldn’t be able to touch her within the depths of the earth. It wouldn’t warm her skin, or kiss her cheeks, or turn her slightly darker; golden, and illuminous.
But she didn’t need the sun to set her aflame. She could do that herself.
“ Open your eyes ,” a voice steadily declared. Its source was smooth, and only slightly far away; muffled tediously by the cool wind that pressed her hair against her neck, against her ears. She tightened her jaw and forced her eyelids open, staring down at her feet. “Now, look at me.”
She stayed frozen. Her eyes remained glued to her feet. They studied the curves and colours of the seashell by her left foot; it was beige, with hints of mahogany strokes that seemed weaved within the crevices. The sunlight pressed against it — made it twinkle with bright, white light.
Dr. Nelson once told her that if she pressed her ear against the right seashell, she could hear all of the secrets of the ocean; the music, and the creatures, and sounds of ships that sailed above. She suddenly hoped that if she sank underground, the seashell would, too. It would sing to her, and she would hear the real sounds of the ocean.
Maybe that way, she wouldn’t be afraid of it anymore
“November,” the voice repeated. There was a slight hint of agitation laced within the tone. It was the kind of tone she didn’t like to hear. The kind of tone that meant she was being bad. Misbehaving. In trouble. “Look up at me, sweetheart.”
With reluctance, she twisted her head to the side, squinting against the blinding rays of the sun.
Dr Nelson was staring at her with a tight smirk; her lips were chapped, and her light hair was pulled back so tightly that her eyes seemed tense and stretched out. Unlike the tall man and plump woman who stood at either side of her, she wasn’t wearing the long, white coat that loosely hung open, flapping against their legs due to the wind. Instead, a light-pink blouse hung loosely against her willowy figure, tucked within a pair of pants that matched the foamy whiteness of a crashing wave. The colours made her skin seem pearly, and soft. Pretty, November thought.
“You know what to do, darling. Go ahead,” Dr. Nelson said. Her smile widened slightly, but the tension never seemed to leave her features. November cast a glance to man on Dr. Nelson’s left; he was staring at her with eyes so stern she felt the fear within her stomach bubble up inside of her, suddenly making it hard to breathe.
Snapping her head forwards, she swallowed the fear away as best as she could and forced a breath of air into her lungs.
The waves that crashed against the sand were gentle, and soft. And though they were nothing like the harsh ones she’d seen in the intensities of a storm — they still made anxiety creep up throughout her skin, forcing her breathing to grow heavier, and heavier, and heavier.
She wanted to be in her bed; within the white walls of her bedroom, under the safety of her covers, where no wind, or waves or sand could reach her. Where the only source of light was not from the sun, but from the old, small lamp by her beside.
Or the flame within her palm.
“The sooner you get it over with, the sooner you get to go home,” she heard Dr. Nelson call out. The sound wasn’t as clear anymore, half-muffled by the wind, and half from the anxiety that seemed to consume her.
November casted once lance glance at her feet. She dug her toes deeper within the dampness of the sand. Just swallow me whole, she begged.
Swallow me whole, where I would hear the sounds of seashells singing, and boats soaring, and fish dancing. Where the sun could not touch me. And neither could they .
Sighing heavily, she focused her gaze against a wave that was moments away from crashing against the shore.
She watched, and waited, and just as it rose against the sea, one last time, November raised a palm within the air above her, and set the wave aflame.
OCTOBER 2 ND, 1996
The warm mug pressed between El’s palms was the colour of a flame; an orange-red so peculiarly bright it seemed out of place within the beige tones of the police station. The sun pooled in through the open window by her old and thoroughly-chipped wooden desk, reflecting upon it, and allowing it to grow even warmer against the gentleness of her skin — the colour of the mug even brighter — even more outlandish.
El pressed her lips against the porcelain rim, the taste of burning coffee bitter against her tongue. She swallowed harshly and could barely hide the grimace that spread throughout her features.
“Y’know, you shouldn’t drink that shit if it makes you look like you’re constipated every time you take a sip,” the heavy voice above her muttered. Releasing the mug, El tilted her head upwards, slightly to the side. There were no hints of surprise laced within her features as her eyes landed against the bearded face of her father.
“What are you hovering over me for?” She asked, reaching out to grab a pen from her desk and poking him in the stomach with it. The man scowled and moved backwards, reaching for his own mug by the run-down coffee machine right by her desk. His was black, and the handle was half broken at the bottom. He didn’t seem to care.
“I’m just saying,” Hopper grumbled, smoothly pouring the coffee into his mug, a thin cloud of smoke emerging right above it. “You shouldn’t drink it if you don’t like it.”
El sighed, rolling her eyes at him before forcing herself upright in her seat.
Sure, he had somewhat of a point. But at the same time, he didn’t.
El didn’t hate coffee. She loved it. She loved how it made her feel; alive, and human, and absolutely, perfectly normal . Merely a regular woman, working at her regular job, with her regular life, and her regular coffee in order to help fuel the normalcy that ran throughout her veins.
And so, Hopper was wrong, because El didn’t hate coffee. El hated the taste of coffee, and she’d come to learn how that was entirely different.
“Besides, it’s almost five o’clock.” he continued, shuffling back towards her and pressing himself against the tainted-leather seat by the desk next to hers. He pointed a large finger towards the clock that hung crookedly against the wall facing them, wagging it around with emphasis. “You won’t sleep tonight if you finish that.”
El cocked up an eyebrow. “It’s five o’clock for you, too.” Hopper shrugged, then took one large gulp at the steaming drink in his hands. He drank his coffee black; no milk, no sugar, no cream. El did, too.
“That’s different,” he stated.
“Mhm,” El hummed, standing up and walking towards the rickety coat rack in the corner of the room. Her fingers grazed against the smoothness of her brown, woolen coat before she slipped it over her shoulders, allowing it to envelope her with an immediate warmth much stronger than the coffee ever could. The coat smelled like home.
“You headin’ out?” Hopper asked.
“It’s Friday,” El answered swiftly, waltzing across towards her desk and retrieving her leather bag, her eyes scanning around the empty room. “And there’s no one else here. You should go home, too.”
Hopper groaned, tapping his fingers against the mug as he crouched into the worn leather of his seat. “Joyce isn’t even home — there’s no point. Might as well just be lonely here.”
El looked up at him from where she was readjusting the files upon her desk, casting him a quick, worried glance. He was already grinning at her by the time their eyes met, and she felt an internal sting. She should’ve caught the sarcasm in his voice. But sometimes, in the heat of the moment, she didn’t manage to grasp onto it quickly enough.
She hated it; the feeling that overcame her every time she couldn’t understand the punchline of an easy joke, or the sarcastic tone in someone’s voice, or an idiom that she hadn’t heard before. It was like a punch to the gut that never left; settling itself within the pit of her stomach — growing and piling up with the other dreadful times she just couldn’t understand . By now, there must’ve been a mountain of misinterpretation accumulated from within El’s body. She knew that it was there. She could feel it, and it was heavy.
“You could still come over and have dinner with us,” El said. Though he was being sarcastic, she wanted to invite him anyways. She loved having the people she cared about come over. There was something fulfilling about it; warming, and sweet. “Mike said that tonight’s the last night he’s using the barbeque this year.”
It was early October, and the weather was beginning to grow colder, and less inviting. Orange, yellow and red leaves were already beginning to pepper the streets and sidewalks of Hawkins, and El loved that, too. The colours were bright, and pretty, and though the weather was cold, the shades of autumn still kept her warm.
“What’s he cooking?”
“Chicken with veggies and roasted potatoes,” El replied, loosely twirling a soft, peach scarf across her neck.
Hopper groaned again; his favourite thing to do. He took another gulp of his coffee before kicking his feet up against El’s desk, earning him a half-hearted glare. “Tell Wheeler if he made better food that I’d come over then.”
“It’s healthy, ” El insisted, shoving his feet off of her desk and walked past him in the process, towards the doorway.
“Well, enjoy your healthy meal then,” Hopper called out. “I, on the other hand, will enjoy two delicious McChickens with a nice fat fry.”
“You going to wash all that down with a nourishing Coke?” El asked, casting him a teasing grin.
“ Diet Coke, actually,” Hopper retorted. He smiled back at her, chuckling as a giggle escaped from her lips. She was happy het let work here. It was nice to him every day, even if she’d moved out. Though she adored her new, small house with Mike, a part of her still missed what it was like to live with him. She remembers being fourteen, and sitting right next to him on their old, worn-out couch in the cabin, her head pressed against his shoulder as they watched the soap operas she obsessed over. The memory made her smile widen.
“What if one day next week, Mike makes us all burgers?” El asked. “Joyce could come, too. We can all have a glass of wine — but you can have your diet Coke if you want.”
Hopper chuckled quickly one last time, grinning at her from where he lazily sat. “Sounds good, kid,” he said.
“Are you sure you want to stay here alone?” El pressed on.
“Of course,” Hopper insisted. “Someone’s got to answer if anybody calls.”
“No one ever calls,” El answered quickly.
She was right. Nothing seemed to happen anymore. Nothing like what had happened a decade ago. The town was quiet now; safer, as it had been before that night Will disappeared. But there was a part within the both of them — a part within all of them — that feared that a day like that would return; that the safety and lives they so delicately rebuilt would be shattered within seconds.
El forced herself not to think about it.
Sometimes, it crept up within the depths of her mind anyways — when the phone did ring at the station, when a child’s scream was too loud.
The memories were the worst at night while she slept. Sometimes, she’d wake up in cold sweat, panic suffocating her until Mike wrapped his arms around her and forced her back to reality.
El didn’t need another source for her nightmares to latch onto. None of them did.
“El, I’ll be fine here, okay?” Hopper insisted. He was staring at her with a more serious gaze; a gentleness within his eyes. A reassurance.
Reluctantly, El nodded. “Okay.”
They shared one last smile. Though El could sense the authenticity of his, she could also see the lingering tension behind his eyes. She knew, deep down, his fears mirrored hers — even if he tried to hide them.
The thought left her uneasy.
“Now, go home and eat some chicken,” Hopper told her.
Nodding, El twisted around, opening the door and wandering out of the station, leaving the coffee in her mug to grow cold amongst her desk.
“They’re too salty, aren’t they?” Mike took a large bite into the crisp potato that stood on the tines of his fork, chewing it with inquisition. “They totally are — they’re way too —”
“ Mike .” El said his name with a soft emphasis, already half-smirking. He stopped babbling within a second, his eyes releasing their set gaze on the potatoes against his white, ceramic plate. His eyes quickly found hers instead. El felt her heart twitch instinctively. He was so soft in this lighting.
The golden, dim hue of the chandelier that hung above turned the entirety of their dining room to honey; including Mike’s skin. The freckles dotted against his cheeks seemed darker — more pronounced — and his lips were a plump, crimson colour. Maybe it was from the glass of red wine that sat right by his plate, already half-empty.
“The potatoes are delicious,” El insisted, handing him a small, knowing smile. The anxiety within him immediately seemed to dissipate; his features softening — his shoulders, too. She reached out her arm, running a hand through his hair — he needed a trim — allowing him to fully melt into her palm.
“Thank you,” he mumbled sweetly, reaching out to push her wrist further towards his lips and press a gentle kiss against the warmth of her skin. She watched as he allowed his eyes to flutter shut for a second.
He was so tired tonight . She could see it in the prominent circles that darkened beneath his eyes, and the tension in his features, and his slightly disheveled hair. She noticed as soon as she walked in. When his lips were too pursed against hers in their greeting kiss. When he nearly burnt his finger while stressfully flipping the chicken onto the barbecue.
She knew it was his job. He’d been working at one of the corporate offices in the heart of town for five years already — and though she knew he didn’t hate it; she knew he didn’t love it either. His father had proudly landed it for him, seeing as he worked there himself; a well-paying job as soon as he got out of school.
“This a job for a responsible man, Michael,” Ted had said. It was Thanksgiving dinner, and Mike had just turned twenty. “A man who provides for his family.”
But El wanted Mike to be happy. She wanted him to do what he wanted — to be a writer, like he’d told her he wanted to be. He was so good . Too good to let it go to waste.
She didn’t want him to take the job.
Mike took it anyway.
And now, five years later, part of her is glad that he did. It was because of that job that they have the quaint, cozy suburban home they live in now. It was because of that job Mike had given El her engagement ring at only twenty-years old. And it was surely because of that job that they could both afford cars, and nights-out, and soft coats, and warm boots and barbecued chicken with silky red wine .
And she’s thankful for it. For him.
But the other part of her — the one that’s rooted from the same stem of guilt as her nightmares —hates herself just as much.
It’s the part of her that hates that her own job can’t be sufficient enough — for her own lack of capabilities that prevent her from a better career.
She hated that she couldn’t protect him with her knowledge in the way she could with her powers.
She’d told him that once — within the depths of their bedsheets, while rain slapped against their windows as they were pressed up within each other’s arms.
“El, no— ” Mike had pleaded. His voice was shaky, and delicate, and it made El hold him tighter. “You’ve saved me so many times — all of us. You risked your life — just, let me do this for us. Let me do this one thing for the both of us. It makes me happy — being secure with you, in this home — it makes me so happy. This is the live that we’ve always wanted.”
She knew he wasn’t lying. This was the life they both wanted — the life they had dreamed of. Growing up, this was their goal. A house, together — where no one could separate them again. Where they didn’t have to part at night. Where they didn’t have to say goodbye until morning, when they both went off to work, only to return to each other in the evening.
Normalcy; That was their wild, far-fetched dream.
And here it was; and it was just as beautiful as it was tedious.
“You should write after dinner,” El murmured gently, stroking her thump against his cheekbone, softly smiling at him. “It’s been a while.”
Mike shook his head hastily within her palm, the tension growing back within his body. “No, no, no,” he said. “I want to spend time with you tonight.”
He dropped the fork in his hand and reached out to grab El’s thigh from underneath the table, stroking his own thumb against her material of her jeans. He leaned forwards, softening entirely and eyeing her with a teasing grin. “Just the two of us — alone .”
She wanted to tell him that they were always alone nowadays.
Max and Lucas had moved to Los Angeles three years ago. They were both lawyers now — graduated top of their class. Lucas was doing criminal law, and he loved it — he could never shut up about it over the phone. Max, however, was a family lawyer — but she loved her position just as much as Lucas loved his.
Will lived in the city, working as an artist for comic books. He lived with his boyfriend, Alex, who was a social worker. They visited most; especially during the holidays.
Dustin was still studying science — and El wondered if his studies would ever end — even after he found a job.
She missed them. It wasn’t easy to be apart — especially that first year. She called Max every day, both of them with wavering voices on either end of the line.
But she had Mike. And he was here, facing her, in their home.
And so, instead of going off on him about their friends, El smiled back, warmth flooding throughout her as she closed the distance between them, her mouth deeply pressing itself against his.
They melted into each other for a moment. El’s fingers weaving themselves into Mike’s hair as his hands slowly stroked up and down her arms. Their kisses were soft, and every time they parted, she could still feel his breath against her mouth before they reconnected. He tasted like wine, and roasted potatoes. She giggled against his mouth at the thought.
“ Mike ,” she whispered between kisses. “The chicken is going to get cold.”
“I don’t care,” he retorted, kissing her harder, his tongue tracing her bottom lip and forcing a sharp gasp from her mouth.
She was going to get him closer, to leap out of her chair and onto his lap and press up against him until they both couldn’t seem to breathe. But before she could even place another kiss against his mouth, the phone persistently began to ring from the kitchen.
The anxiety within her chest arose from where it was hidden; webbed within the crevices of her heart — the same stem of her nightmares.
“Ignore it,” Mike mumbled against her skin, reaching out to press kisses against her neck, all up along her jaw; his soft lips tickling her sensitive skin. “It’s probably just Max and Lucas.”
“How do you know?” She asked, her heartbeat already beginning to race within her chest. The anxiety within her bloomed, and an unsteadiness began to overwhelm the entirety of her consciousness.
Mike must’ve sensed it. He always did.
He pulled away — the lust in his eyes replaced with worry of his own. Worry for her. His hands immediately fell from the middle of her back to each side of her face, his thumbs stroking against her cheeks.
“Hey,” he whispered, his features laced with sincerity and tenderness. It was almost enough for the anxiety within her to melt away; crawl back into the deepest crevice of her heart, where it always would remain.
“I’ll go pick it up, okay?” Mike didn’t wait for her to answer. Instead, he pressed a quick kiss against her forehead before stumbling out of his seat and wandering into the kitchen.
El tried not to follow him. She tried to eat the chicken, instead. She picked up the utensils and stabbed her fork into the tender meat, using a knife to cut out a small piece.
She tried to force her mind elsewhere — to shove her worries away.
It’s just Lucas and Max. Everything is fine.
She pressed the piece of chicken onto her tongue, chewing.
It’s just Lucas and Max. Everything is fine.
She swallowed it, her hand reaching out to wrap around the long, skinny stem of her wine glass, desperate for a sip.
It’s just Lucas and Max. Everything is fine.
She liked the taste of wine more than she liked the taste of coffee, but not enough for her to genuinely enjoy merely the flavour.
She enjoyed wine for the same reasons she enjoyed coffee. The normalcy. The adulthood. And the bonus, hazy and bubbly state it would leave her in if she’d had just the right amount.
And so, she gulped down a large, thorough sip.
It’s just Lucas and Max. Everything is fine.
It’s just Lucas and Max. Everything is fine.
It’s just Lucas and Max. Everything is fine.
“Hello?” She could hear Mike’s voice, slightly muffled from the distance of the next room. Her breathing seemed to stop for a second, the rim of the wine glass pressed between her top and bottom lip; cold and soothing.
But nothing could fully soothe the feeling in her chest.
Especially not when Mike didn’t say Max or Lucas’ names.
Not even Karen’s or Ted’s or Nancy’s.
What he did say, however, was the name of her father.
His voice was not gentle or teasing. It wasn’t menacing, or kind. It was hesitant; anxious. And El immediately knew that something was wrong from how foreign Hopper’s name sounded against Mike’s tongue.
El hopped up from her seat, running into the kitchen, her arms already halfway outstretched, as if she needed to use her powers at any instant.
Because that had to be it. Why else would Mike sound so strange?
The moment she’d been dreading was here — no coffee, or wine, or home could erase the anxiety that was consuming her in this very moment.
No coffee, or wine, or home could erase the truth that she had been trying so hard to avoid; El would never truly know normalcy.
“What is it?” El asked, walking over to where Mike stood by the phone. He wore a peculiar, empty face, and El couldn’t quite manage to read him. She reached out for him, her hands grasping onto his arm. “What’s wrong?”
Mike moved to face her, his eyes finding hers. There was no trace of mindfulness within his gaze; merely confusion, and perplexity.
“It’s Dr. Owens,” Mike said, cautiously. “He wants to talk.”
“to Dad ?”
Mike shook his head, his brows finally furrowing. “No.”
El’s heart skipped a beat. She already knew the chicken would be left cold against their dinner table tonight. Forgotten, and abandoned.
The anxiety within her began to grow, blending together with an odd sense of confusion. Mike bit his lip, the phone only lightly pressed against his ear — as though if he’d press the phone against him too closely, the entirety of the mystifyingly perfect world they were currently living in would shatter, and a familiarly harsh reality would be replacing it, instead.
Maybe it was about to, anyways.
“No, El,” Mike repeated. “He wants to talk to us.”