(El's POV) Flashback 1983
I could barely make out the sight of my legs sat dangled in front of me, tears having blurred my vision. I rocked back and forth slowly, my pent up frustration releasing through nervous energy. The old swing creaked and cracked each time I dared move, hanging loosely by a thread of corroding metal chains and I knew it wouldn’t be long before it broke completely, just like me.
I can’t exactly remember when it all went wrong and maybe it was my fault for being so oblivious to what was clearly bubbling underneath the surface this whole time. The back and forth bickering between my parents had erupted like magma at the beginning of last year and now it burned them entirely, consuming everything they once were into black ash.
I’ve never seen two people who once claimed to love each other spew out such hatred like a toxic vomit they couldn’t control. It was like an ugly monster rendered it’s head right before my very eyes and devoured two people whole, not even leaving a pulse of what they once had behind.
My dad had left a few months ago with not so much as a goodbye. The only evident trace of him was a stack of divorce papers haphazardly thrown onto the kitchen counter, all his other belongings vanished.
I once believed my dad had loved me. He used to take me out to the Indianapolis baseball games when I was younger. Although he tried his hardest to get us closer seats we’d always end up sitting in the nosebleeds, but that never mattered to me. I simply enjoyed being with him.
He’d made sure to buy us foot-long hot dogs during every halftime, that I never seemed to be able to finish. I found it hilarious whenever he would openly curse out the other team’s umpire, insulting him for the “stupid” calls he made even though there was no possible way the ump could even hear him from our place in the stands.
We’d always cheer for our home team the Indians at the top of our lungs even though we both secretly knew it would be a miracle in itself if they’d won the game. (I think they only won three out of the twenty we’d attended).
My mom had never been a fan of baseball so I didn’t think twice about it when she eventually stopped coming to the games with us. Now looking back on it I should have noticed that there was something else hidden beneath. I should have known. But whatever was brewing between them they had been so good at keeping it away from me that I didn’t notice, or maybe I just didn’t want to.
After my mom found out my dad had left, she told me I would go live with my uncle in a town I’d never even heard of, a town called Hawkins.
I didn’t understand at all and I immediately combusted at the seams. The betrayal and pain I felt bursting forth, like a dam that’d been battered by storms and cruel currents far too many times until it had enough and flooded forth.
But regardless of how I felt, how much I screamed, and much I begged to stay with her, it was final.
She said it would be better for me. She said she couldn’t take care of me on her own.
I once believed my mom had loved me. We would watch soap operas together every Saturday night, snuggling up on the couch together with a big bowl of popcorn as we indulged in the late-night shows. It was the only time she’d let me stay up past ten and I enjoyed every single minute of it despite how tired I’d become the next morning.
Days of our Lives was hands down our absolute favorite. We laughed, we cried, and then we’d theorize who would end up with who while we anxiously waited for the next episode. She’d made sure to cover up my eyes with her hands any time a heated scene came on which I always found funny.
On those late nights, she’d sometimes even braid my hair. I’d sit criss cross on the floor, while she sat up the couch and hummed along to the show’s opening theme song while weaving my hair to and fro between each other until it ended in a beautiful french braid.
But before long our Saturday nights started to dwindle. She’d either say she was too tired to stay up that night or whenever she’d end up a fight with my dad she’d leave and wouldn’t come home at all until the following day.
"Days of our Lives" was never as much fun to watch alone but I still did, waiting patiently for her to return so I could fill her in on all the stuff she’d missed. I was blinded though, having figured that her absence was temporary and she would eventually come to join me soon because she must’ve been dying to find out what happened between Marlena and Roman, she must’ve been.
Yet, she never came.
And today was the end of the first week since I’d officially moved in with my uncle in this godforsaken awfully small town that I hadn’t known was even on the map.
I found myself hating my parents.
It wasn’t fair.
Why would they do this to me? They were supposed to be in love! They were supposed to make it work! They were supposed to always be!
Isn’t that what marriage was?
I could feel my chest rattle as another flood of tears began to shed when the realization of it all overcame me. I stopped the swing, and took my hands off the chains, groveling my face into them not caring about the specks of copper that littered my fingers or the lingering smell of rust.
All I could think about at that moment was the only reasonable explanation of why my parents suddenly wanted nothing to do with each other anymore and also why they wanted nothing to do with me.
It was there sitting alone on that swing set that I uncovered the mystery of why my life had completely and utterly gone to bullshit.
Love wasn’t real and it didn’t exist.
I didn’t even bother to look up, hoping whoever it was would catch the hint and leave me alone. I had chosen this spot solely because I didn’t think anyone else would be here. I wanted to be alone, I needed to be, and I really thought an abandoned swing set found deep in the woods would be the best place for seclusion, but then again, I guess not.
It wasn’t long before I heard a thud like something had been dropped along with a short breathless pant and before I knew it, I heard a soft rattle of chains right beside me.
Whoever this person was they decided to sit in the swing next to me and I could now feel myself boiling over.
“Why are you here?” I furiously wiped at my eyes with the backs of my hands before daring to look the perpetrator in the face.
He was a boy that looked to be around my age. He had jet black hair styled in a messy bowl cut which curled at the ends. His unruly bangs plastered stuck upon his forehead perceivably from the sweat that was started to drip down his face. I could see a silver bike laid on its side right behind him.
His face was soft and round, cherry cheeks flushed from the harsh summer heat, but taut with an expression of concern, or maybe it was pity. “My friends and I made a bet on who could make it to the lake first so I decided to take a shortcut through the woods-
“No.” I spat firmly, interrupting his spiel. “Why are you here?”
I didn’t care that he decided to bike through the woods or whatever he was going on about. He could’ve easily raced through and been on his way and that would’ve been that but I didn’t understand why he decided to stop and sit beside me and that began to frustrate me to no end.
“I-well.. um, I saw you sitting here alone and I thought I’d check, uh... you know, to see if you were okay.” He fumbled through his words like I’d thrown him for a loop that he didn’t see coming.
“I’m fine alright.” I harshly retorted, not interested in progressing this conversation. “I don’t need a babysitter, so you can go now.” I flippantly waved him off.
I stared down at my feet in an effort to avoid him and to also blink away any stray tears still left behind in my eyes. I was expecting that to be that and he’d leave and forget this whole situation ever happened but when I didn’t hear so much as the swing shake from him getting off of it I grew increasingly confused.
“You’ve been crying... What’s wrong?”
I don’t know whether it was the fact that he’d been the first individual to ask how I was this entire time or the fact this his gentle voice sounded so genuine in that moment that my initial frustration with him slowly began to dissipate.
“Everything,” I mumbled under my breath and it was solely the truth, everything that could possibly be wrong in my life was wrong and I hated it.
He ran a hand through his damp curls and glanced up thoughtfully for a second before his gaze landed back on me. “Do you want to talk about it?”
I watched curiously as he took off the backpack he’d carried on his shoulders and set it on his lap. He unzipped it and rummaged through it having stopped only once he found what he was looking for.
He slowly pulled out a small bag of M&Ms and tore them open. He then turned back to me, lifting the bag towards me with a nod to ask I wanted any.
I brushed off the chips of rust from the swing onto my shorts and then opened the palm of my hand towards him.
He poured some of the M&MS into my open palm. “Thanks..?” I asked not understanding the reason behind the gesture. “Why though?”
“I don’t know.” He shrugged, his eyes darting nervously as if he were second-guessing himself. “I guess because M&Ms are my favorite candy of all time and since they usually cheer me up, I thought maybe they’d do the same for you.”
‘I like M&Ms.” I said, quickly popping the chocolate pieces into my mouth before they could melt in my hand.
“Cool.” I could see a slight smile grow on his face and suddenly I could feel my expression match his own. The first kind of half-smile I had even smiled for the whole month.
“I’m Michael by the way.” He stated, through chomped bits of chocolate. “Well actually you can call me Mike, everyone else does.”
“El, huh?” He pondered. “Is that like short for something?”
I shook my head. “It’s actually my middle name. I don’t really care much for my first, so I just go by El.”
“What’s your first name?”
“Jane.” I slightly winced, disliking the way the name even rolled off my tongue.
“I see.” he hummed, starting to pick up speed on his swing. “I think I prefer El too.”
“You do realize that swing is super old?”
“Yep.” He replied, although not seeming to care as he continued to sway back and forth, his legs now setting into a faster-paced motion. “So, you’re new here, right?”
Although Mike was friendly for whatever strange reason which I still hadn’t a clue. I just couldn’t seem to wrap my mind on why he was here bumming it out with me on a mangey old swing set in the middle of the woods in ninety-degree heat when he could be at the lake with his friends right now.
I ignored his question. “You lost your bet.”
I rolled my eyes then resumed my gaze on the chains in his hands, anticipating the swing to collapse any second. “Your bet with your friends?” I reminded him. “You totally lost it.”
“Oh yeah.” He replied unbothered. “I was probably gonna lose anyway. They had a head start.”
“So what did you even bet?”
He shot me a knowing smirk and it made me feel a little funny, almost like it had tickled the insides of my stomach. “These M&Ms.” he replied, holding up the half-emptied brown paper bag so I could see.
I couldn’t hold back the chuckle that threatened my lips. “You’re dumb.” I breathed, playfully glancing back at him.
He put a hand over his heart in mock offense. “Hey! I-
And then it happened,
The swing finally snapped, the sound piercing through the ominous silence of the woods.
The rusted chains fell swiftly onto the floor and Mike flew into the open air shortly before his body collided roughly onto the mossy dirt covered ground.
I immediately jumped from my swing and rushed over beside him. I couldn’t see his face for he’d pulled his body up into fetal position. “Mike!”
I heard a muffled noise that sounded a lot like wailing and I began to panic. “Oh my god, Mike! are you okay?” I tugged at his arm.
He turned to face me and that’s when I realized he wasn’t crying at all. He was laughing. In fact, his obnoxious laughter was so loud that it seemed to echo, the sound bouncing off of the trees and scaring away the cardinals and robins that were once at rest.
“Scratch that, You’re not dumb. You’re just an idiot.”
I should’ve been mad at him for the stunt he just pulled but I couldn’t seem to keep a straight face, his laughter was so contagious that I soon found myself right there along with him.
It was during that turbulent summer of ‘83 right before seventh grade that Mike and I became inseparable. He was my first real friend. It’s not like I hadn’t any friends before, don’t get wrong. I left a few back home in Indianapolis, but I never in my twelve years of life had a friend quite like Michael Wheeler.
Over the course of the next two months, I’d practically go over to his house every day to play D&D with him and the rest of his friends in the hub of his basement. Their names were Will, Dustin, and Lucas who slowly but surely became my friends as well. Even though I hadn’t played the magical role-playing fantasy game before I met them, it wasn’t too long before I caught up with the others and matched their skill level in no time.
We had established ourselves as the Party and every single day it would be an adventure.
I, the mage, Mike the Paladin, Lucas the Ranger, Will the Wizard, and Dustin the Bard.
Mike’s mom didn’t bat an eye anymore when I’d show up unannounced to their house. I liked his mom, she’d offer us snacks or fresh cookies that she’d bake while we planned our latest campaign.
What I enjoyed most about that summer though was that there was always something new to look forward to with the party. There was always another adventure to explore which allowed me to escape. It was with them that I was able to take my mind off of everything and even for the briefest of moments if I were lucky enough, I’d forget how shitty my life actually was. It had been a breath of fresh air and my lungs were desperate.
Aside from our campaigns, we’d race bikes practically everywhere. We’d zip by on the streets, down forest trails, underneath tunnels, and shortcuts through neighborhoods that we’d claimed as our secret magical passageways even though most were off-limits, given it was private property.
We’d only got caught once though and after we barely managed to escape their beast of a rottweiler we’d vowed as a group to steer clear of shortcuts, no matter how badly we wanted to win a race. But through all the bets we waged, Mike probably ended up losing more candy and comics than we could count.
We’d play hide and seek and capture the flag during nightfall because we thoroughly enjoyed the challenge. But more often than not, a fight would break out because teams were uneven due to our group of five. Mike and I would sometimes get so distracted wandering off by ourselves or catching fireflies that the other boys would eventually scrap the game and start a new one without us.
I’d managed to drag the boys to the mall a few times but they never liked it as much as me. I could go and window shop for hours on end but if they lasted a mere thirty minutes it was a miracle. We mainly went for the ice cream at Scoops Ahoy and sometimes if we were feeling risky, we’d sneak into R rated movies. Surprisingly, we never got caught.
We also spent many late afternoons at the lake which was without a doubt our favorite spot. The pool was just far too crowded with annoying teenagers who just lounged around to gossip and pretentious adults who would get onto us for roughhousing. In an effort to avoid that, we always went swimming down at Lover’s lake, and even though I loathed the name for obvious reasons, it was still in my opinion the highlight of that summer.
“Stop it!” I squealed as Mike continued to splash me with water. I couldn’t help but notice that the specks on his sunburned nose and shoulders multiplied every time we went swimming. I would never tell him, but I kinda liked his freckles.
He continued to splash me despite my plea and laughed at my struggled attempt to get him back. “You’re so dead,” I warned, with a sneaky smile.
Once he finally ceased I swam after him and attempted to dunk his head into the murky water in means of revenge. We went back and forth, splashing and trying to dunk each other. We’d been so easily caught up within our own world that we hadn’t even realized that the rest of the boys had already gotten out of the lake and dried off, sitting off to the side while murmuring among themselves and suggestively glancing back towards us.
The thing was that the others didn’t really understand my bond with Mike, and to be honest, I didn’t really understand it myself. All I knew was that the friendship I had with him didn’t compare to the friendship I had with anyone else, nobody in the party even came remotely close. What Mike and I had was just special.
I felt myself the most when I was around him. He saw me for me and I never had to pretend or even felt the need to.
Aside from our shared jokes, and the pranks we pulled, we shared secrets. He listened well and never judged and it was becoming so easy to tell him almost anything, almost.
He told me about the bullies he’d faced in school and how they pushed him into the lockers and called him frog face. It made me mad and I vowed to kick their asses for him next year if they dared try again.
I eventually opened up to him about what happened between my parents, eventually confessing to him as well that I would never in my lifetime get married.
He was the only one who knew anything out of our friend group and he’d been sworn to secrecy, but even then he still didn’t know everything.
We saw each other practically every day, rain or shine. Eventually, Mike became so good at reading me he’d know if I was in a good or bad mood by the way I simply carried myself. I don’t know how, but it was like a third sense he had or something. The only downside is that I could never get anything past him.
But whenever I was in a really low place and didn’t even feel like hanging out with the rest of the party he always without fail, knew where to find me. He’d look for me on the abandoned swing set in the woods or the bench near the far edge of the lake and if I felt like it, we would talk. But if I didn’t, I’d just lay my head on his shoulder and cry.
It was clearly evident that I enjoyed his company more than the other boys and they caught onto that in no time. They’d often tease us about us liking each other which I found irritating as hell because as far as that went, that wasn’t the case, we were just friends.
I admit whenever I was around Mike he’d cause me to have these funny sensations that I couldn’t really explain. My heart would speed up whenever I heard the sound of his laugh and my hands would grow clammy whenever he held onto them before we jumped into the lake together. But the thought of becoming anything more than friends was a concept that was far from my mind.
Because dating entailed feelings, and feelings entailed “love” and...
Love didn’t exist
Before we knew it September rolled by and summer was coming to an end. It frightened me to know that the pains of life were creeping up again ready to snatch me at a moment’s notice.
But more than anything it frightened me to know that my fresh breath of air would soon be gone and I’d be gasping again, drowning, not only in a sea of my parental issues but also anchored down by the dreaded weight in which I wasn’t yet ready to face, a new school.
Mike and I headed down to the lake with slushies in hand that we had just gotten from the nearby corner store, his cherry and mine blue raspberry.
Dustin was currently on his way back from Space Camp, Will spending time with his brother, and Lucas forced into back to school shopping which meant Mike and I were left alone.
We sat right near the water’s edge, far enough to where we wouldn’t get wet but close enough that we could dip our bare feet in the shallows. The sun was beginning to set, the last golden rays fading into a purple hue and we could feel the faint autumn breeze ripple through the warm air.
“Can I tell you something?”
He turned to me with expectant riddled eyes, and I noticed him absentmindedly pulling at the grass beside him as if he felt nervous. “Yeah.”
“I really don’t wanna go to school.” I groaned aloud, hoping to conceal the anxiousness I was actually battling inside. “I’m gonna be the new kid.”
“You have to think optimistically.” He suddenly stopped pulling at the grass and it seemed his nerves settled. “Since it’s a small town at least everybody will already know who you are.”
“And how is that a good thing?”
“Makes for easy introductions?” He quirked a smile, knocking his shoulder into mine.
“Mike!” I swatted at his arm. “Stop being an idiot right now, I’m being for real.” I took another sip of my slush then sat it down, my gaze locked ahead on the stillness of the lake’s surface secretly wishing for the day I’d feel that calm. “I’ve never moved schools before, I don’t... I don’t know how it’s gonna be.”
“Well, how do you want it to be?”
I glanced over at him, the earnesty in his voice catching me off guard. I sat there quiet for a minute as I picked at the question he’d presented me at least a hundred times in my mind before I settled on an answer. “Like this summer.”
I read his perplexed expression and felt the need to clarify. “I’d want it to be something extraordinary you know. I’d want it to be different. Where I won’t just be the random new girl and you won’t just be the kid who gets picked on but it would be like another adventure, like one of our D&D campaigns.” I turned away from him and let out a small huff. “It won’t be like that though.”
“Why do you say that?” He raised his brows in genuine curiosity.
“Because Mike, it’s middle school.” I rolled off my tongue like it was the most obvious thing in the world. “All anyone cares about is trying to secure a top spot on the social ladder before high school. There are sadly no mages or paladins... Just a bunch of kids who think they know what they’re doing, but really don’t.”
“It could still be an adventure though.” His red-stained lips lifted up into a reassuring smile while purple hues from the setting sun danced across his face. “But this time instead of facing the Demogorgon or Mind flayer we’d be taking on the monster known as Hawkin’s middle.”
“Sounds a hell of a lot scarier in my opinion.”
“True, I don’t think if we’ve even acquired enough experience points for that yet.”
We both looked at each other and began to harmonize in fits of laughter.
Once we finally composed, my overthinking started to get the best of me again, and although I tried to act like it didn’t bother me I knew right off the bat Mike could tell. He always could.
“Hey.” he soothed, interrupting the silence between us. “It may suck at first, but it’ll be okay.” He placed his hand on top of mine where it laid rested on the grass but he didn’t retract it like I had expected him to and I could feel my pulse quicken. “You’ve got this.”
“You mean we’ve got this,” I remarked causing him to smile. “A mere mage can’t simply take on the Hawkins Middle monster by herself, now can she?”
I don’t quite know when it happened but I realized Mike’s face had drawn closer to mine, it felt almost magnetic. He was so close that I could now count the stars of freckles across his nose and feel the coolness of his breath fan across my face.
As I stared back into his dark eyes, I saw an explosion of warmth inside of them that I’d only ever seen mere traces of before. What was happening?
But before I could think twice about it he suddenly pressed his smooth cold lips onto my own.
I closed my eyes momentarily but in a split second, I snapped them back open.
This was wrong. He was my friend.
I shoved him away from me, catching him by surprise as he nearly toppled backward, losing his balance. “What are you doing?” I asked, scrambling up to my feet.
But before he could try to explain himself, I did the only logical thing I knew to do at that moment,