Yikes! It's literally been forever and I'm so sorry for making you guys wait this long. I know some of you may have lost interest or moved onto bigger and better things and that's okay! but for those who waited patiently, as previously promised here's the sequel.
(SN: If you haven't read the first story no worries, I think you'd still be able to follow a long pretty well.)
He absentmindedly tapped his pen along to the symphonic tune playing in the background with his eyes glued on the book in front of him.
Around his desk there laid a clutter of loose papers, scribbled notes, and unfinished sketches and one could only imagine how he managed to still remain productive.
It had definitely been the most challenging semester thus far, especially when he took into account a full load of classes as well as a newfound internship. Yet, it was all finally coming to an end, and that made him only that much more determined to finish out this final year strong.
The music came to an abrupt stop, and it was only then that his attention had been broken from his studies for the first time in the past hour.
He reached across his desk to press eject on the stereo and out popped, the single-handedly most played cassette that he owned, the one she had given to him nearly six years ago.
Before he could switch the tape over to the second side, his pocket began rapidly buzzing.
He huffed under his breath, irritated with the interruption as he took out his vibrating pager.
His eyes grew comically wide before he could even finish reading the message.
He immediately glanced down at his watch.
They were gonna kill him.
He frantically rummaged through his drawers, swiping the first clean white t shirt and pair of pants he saw, before darting off to his closet in search of anything remotely decent to wear.
In a flash, he yanked a black button up from the rack, racing to the bathroom all while discarding his old clothes and putting on the clean ones in the process.
He caught a glimpse of himself in the mirror and deeply sighed taking notice of how tired he appeared. He rubbed his hand over his gristly five o'clock shadow, knowing he hadn't the time before flying a comb through his disheveled hair. Then finishing by brushing his teeth and spraying on more cologne than usual in hopes to mask the fact he hadn't showered.
As he ran out the bedroom he swiped his dress shoes, struggling to put them on while now on the hunt for his keys.
"Mike, what are you still doing here? Weren't you supposed to leave like-" his roommate looked over at the clock. "fifteen minutes ago?" he asked from the couch while he watched his frantic friend pass him by.
"I know, I know! I lost track of time. But hey, this stays between us. Don't tell the guys, alright?"
"Trust me, I won't, especially not since what happened last time," the short man snorted amused but then his expression fell as he faced his friend, turning down the volume of their tv,
"But it's okay if you don't wanna go. You shouldn't feel pressured just because Lucas and Dustin went out for you on a whim. I can talk to them if you want and I'd help them to better understand, you know.. If you're not ready for this."
Mike paused, reflecting for a moment as he stared down at the found keys in front of him.
"It's not really about being ready.." he finally spoke up, grabbing the key chain from the counter. "because I'll never be ready, Will.
But they're right, I need to at least try. She'd want that for me.. She'd want me to move forward and go on with my life and I know without a doubt I'd want the same for her too. "
Two Weeks Prior
"So um, Mike.. Dustin and I have been talking and.. "
"We're calling an intervention."
Mike's attention tore away from the television screen. "Wait, what?"
"An intervention? Really Dustin?" Lucas glared, annoyed at his friend for putting his foot in his mouth.
"Well what else should I call it? Mike is struggling with said issue and we are technically intervening on his behalf for said issue.." Dustin shrugged as though it should be obvious. "So, yeah, an intervention."
"He's not supposed to know that, moron." Lucas harshly whispered, causing them to trail off into the typical banter between them.
"You guys do know I can hear you, right?" Mike muttered, lifting an eyebrow at the two seated on the stools beside him.
Their fighting quickly subsided, and Lucas and Dustin looked back at him like a deer caught in headlights.
"What can I do you guys for?" The bartender interrupted and the guys couldn't have been more grateful.
"Can we get a round of beers." Will chimed in, hoping to ease the awkwardness between everyone.
Lucas sighed. "Better make that two."
After the group of four left for college back in '89 they had swore to each other that they'd all stay in touch. Lucky enough, they all chose to attend local schools, making it that much easier on them. Lucas and Dustin had decided on Tech, whereas Mike and Will went to State together.
Will had been the first one to finish school, having received his bachelor's in graphic design and Lucas followed right behind him with a degree in telecommunications. However, Mike and Dustin were still working towards their Masters.
But despite their hectic schedules they religiously met twice a month to catch up at their favorite sports bar in the heart of Indianapolis.
"So anyways, as I was saying before." Lucas proceeded, being sure to shoot Dustin one last dirty look before turning back around in his stool.
"We've been talking and you probably know what we're gonna say by now, but it's been six years Mike.. We're worried about you man, You can't just stay stuck like this."
"What? I'm not stuck, I'm almost done with classes and the internship is going really great and-
"You know that's not what we mean."
Mike took a swig of his beer, and wiped the foam from his mouth with the back of his hand. "I've just been really busy man, especially with this being my final year and all."
"Funny enough, that's what you said last year, and the year before." Dustin frowned, seeing right through his lie. "Which also doesn't explain why you stood up Maddie the other weekend. "
"I didn't stand her up. It was a blind date!"
"Whether it was a blind date or not, you said you would be there, and you didn't so…" Dustin exposed his excuse. "That my friend is called being stood up. Trust me, unlike you, I suffered through plenty of those in high school."
"But you wanna know what the crazy thing is?" Lucas jumped in, nearly spilling over his mug with his adamant gesturing.
"Dustin had initially asked me if I wanted to be set up with her, but I was like no it's okay, we can set her up with Mike because I'm just an incredibly wonderful friend like that. But not only do I find out that she's hot as hell, but I also find out that you ditched her! What the fu-"
"And do you even realize how difficult it was for my fiance to convince her friend to be set up like that? Dustin interjected, slamming his fist on the counter. "Insanely! and now I'm pretty sure my girl's best friend hates me, which sucks total balls dude."
"Guys.. come on, cut him a break." Will stated, coming to Mike's defense. "It's not like he planned that, shit just happens."
Will had always had a softer spot for this situation than the others did. It was partly due to the promise he had made to Elle before she left, that he'd look after Mike. But it was largely due to the promise he made to himself that he would never give up on his best friend, no matter what.
"No, it's fine." Mike shook his head. "They're right, I shouldn't have stood her up like that. By the way my apologies to you and Sophie, Dustin." he nodded over at the curly haired man before staring down at the beer clenched in hands.
"I just.." he exhaled the deep breath he had been holding for awhile.
"I don't think I'll ever be able to move on."
It took him forever just to come to terms with the fact that she had left, but to move on from it? That was impossible.
Even in the wake of her absence there wasn't a day that passed by where she hadn't consumed his thoughts and even sometimes his dreams at night,
She was still the center of his world, despite not being apart of it.
"See, now that's where the problem lies." Dustin replied sincerely, catching his attention. "You're thinking of it in the context of "moving on" and that may never happen.
I believe there's always gonna be a piece of you that'll hold onto her and that's okay. But, you can still move forward."
"He's gotta point you know." Lucas grabbed Mike's shoulder. "And look, I'm not gonna say I get it, because I don't.
Your situation is completely different than mine. But after the fall out with my last relationship, I was scared shitless to put myself out there again.
It's scary man, especially knowing that person was supposed to be your future and when they're not there anymore..
It's kinda like, what do I do now." he took a gulp of beer, dejectedly staring off into the distance as though he was reliving the memory.
Lucas then caught himself and looked back over at his friend. "To be honest though Mike, you're one of the strongest people I've ever met, but I think your struggle is that you don't even realize your own strength, so you just kinda hold yourself back from ever trying."
A beat of silence ensued and the guys began to grow nervous, afraid they'd said the wrong thing at the wrong time.
Mike lifted his head up slowly and looked his friends in the eye. "I.. I actually wanna do this, for real this time." he swallowed roughly."Well, I wanna try anyways."
In the previous years of her departure trying was never even an option. He had somehow fully convinced himself that she'd return soon and then their story would pick up right where it left off. But the years went by and he'd never even heard from her, no letter, no calls, no nothing.
He kept himself from believing the worst though, the idea of her having been captured by Brenner was somewhere he wouldn't allow his thoughts to travel.
Sadly enough, in the next four years it would officially mark a decade since she left and he knew that he should prepare himself to accept the fact that she may never return.
The guys glanced between each other in surprise before huge grins stretched across their faces and suddenly they bursted into a fit of excited cheers.
"Boys you know what," Dustin slapped Mike on the back, while the others leaned in closer. "I say, this a cause for celebration!" He then waved the bartender over towards them. "Hey Joe! Can we get that second round now?"
After having received their beers, they excitedly chatted amongst themselves, planning exactly what the next steps would be for their friend.
Lucas cleared his throat, in order to capture their attention." On behalf of the party, Mike. I just wanted to let you know that we're proud of you man, this is a big deal. Huge even! But always remember that whatever happens we've got your back."
Then with a giant grin he raised his mug in the air. "Here's to moving forward!"
Mike faintly smiled as he lifted his mug up along with the others. "To moving forward!" they shouted in unison before downing their beers.
He anxiously fixed the collar of his shirt as he hustled into Fellini's Italian restaurant.
"How may I help you?"
"Um, I have a reservation under Wheeler for seven." He breathed heavily and he wondered if the man could even hear him.
The host looked over at the clock with a grimace before turning back with a tight lipped smile. "Yes sir, right this way."
With the reservation having been put under his name he had no clue who his friends had set him up with this time but he had hoped by some kind of miracle, that his date was still here.
After being led to his table, he felt relief wash over him at the sight of her still being there but then felt instant guilt for having made her wait.
"Hey, I'm so sorry I'm late! Really, If it makes any difference, I was on major time crunch and I got caught up with this project I'm working on and I completely lost track of-
E-Erica?" His mouth fell in disbelief, "Is that you?" his eyes widened, doing his best to capture the sight of her in the dimly lit room.
"You know, for a second there I was beginning to wonder when you'd stop rambling long enough so you could figure that out." the young woman smirked, setting down her empty wine glass.
Erica had always just been Lucas's annoying younger sister. The only times they'd even somewhat talked were during junior high when Lucas had occasionally invited him and the rest of the gang over to his house.
However, even then, Erica always left to go play with her dolls while the boys played D&D and did their own thing. And taking into consideration all the insults and backbiting from her, they had really never grown fond of each other.
But strangely enough, here she was.
She'd grown into such a beautiful woman, with long braids that cascaded down her back and glowing bronze skin that seemed to radiate even more alongside her curve fitting yellow dress.
"Wow, it's been years. I think the last time I saw you was at Lucas's and I's high school graduation. You were just a kid then, I mean we all were but.. I can't believe it." he marveled, taking the seat in front of her.
"And I can't believe that you'd arrive late to your own reservation."
"I know, I'm sorry.. I truly feel bad," Mike apologized, nervously rubbing the back of his neck. "Did you already eat?" he asked, upon noticing her empty glass.
"No worries." She stopped him with a flippant wave.
"But to answer your question.. I actually haven't eaten yet. Especially since I was not about to rack up a bill if my date never showed up. But, I guess now that you're here.." Erica softly chuckled, pulling out the menu.
She then lowered the menu slightly, catching his gaze.
"But all jokes aside, It's really good to see you again Mike, I mean that." her pink lips then lifted into a half smile. "And I know you'll probably always remember me as Lucas's precious little sister-
"I'm gonna have to stop you there," Mike cut her off. "Precious?" he snorted.
Erica's mouth dropped in mock offense, "I was an angel, thank you very much." she swatted at him with her menu.
"More like a little brat." He laughed under his breath. "I still remember how you'd always dress up our action figures to play with your barbies and how you'd threaten to tell our parents on us for god knows what, until we bribed you with candy."
He shook his head in amusement. "I'm also pretty sure you called us nerds more than any of the schoolyard bullies combined."
"Rightfully so," Erica shot him a teasing grin. "because let's face it you're still kind of a nerd, especially since you nearly missed our date for what? that's right, "studying." she air quoted with exaggeration "So, yup, nerd."
And that's how they hit off their conversation with each other. They started off with playful banter and dove right into shared memories, both good and bad as they relished in the stories from their childhood and teenage years.
The evening flowed quite well and he knew a lot of it was due to their familiarity with one other. It was easy to talk with Erica. She was charming, witty, and fun. Their conversation was also nostalgic to say the least, and comfortable.
That was it, she made him comfortable.
Regardless that this date was going way better than he expected, he still couldn't help but catch himself remembering Elle and their very first date together and suddenly this moving forward thing was much more difficult than he thought.
After their dinner had been served, they slipped into the latter of the discussion as they conversed about what was going on in their lives, how their families were doing, and how college was kicking their asses.
"So let me guess," Erica stroked her chin thoughtfully. "After you graduate.. you're gonna move to a really nice city, like New York or something and there you'll live in a fancy penthouse with your dog, preferably a black lab as you strive to become some big shot in your field. Am I right..? Or am I right?"
"Not even close," Mike laughed as he wiped his face with a napkin. "Well, then again you might be onto something with the black lab."
"Damn, almost." Erica playfully snapped her fingers. "So do tell then." she urged, wondering what he envisioned for his future. "What will be Michael Wheeler's claim to fame?"
"Well, If my internship continues smoothly then I'll start off my career here in Indiana and by the time I have enough money saved up, I'll move back to Hawkins."
"Hawkins?" Erica's forehead crinkled, knowing their small hometown hadn't much to offer. "Why Hawkins?"
"It wouldn't really cost me too much to get a house built there considering I already own some land, so I figured it would be a good place to settle down."
Erica pointed her fork in his direction. "Hmm, didn't really have you pegged for the farmer type."
"Then you'd be safe in your assumptions, because I don't really farm," Mike responded, but upon noting the strange look on her face he clarified.
Wiping the sweat from his brow, he took in a deep breath and knocked, reciting to himself for about the thousandth time what he planned on saying.
The door creaked open slowly,
"Hello?" an elderly woman's voice rang out.
"Um, Hey, Miss Smith. I know we've only met once, so you probably don't remember me but-
"Michael?" She then opened the door fully, adjusting her glasses. "Well I'll be.." she grinned. "I haven't laid eyes on you since that little sweetheart Elle introduced us." She then gestured him inside. "Well come on in, it's mighty hot to just be standing there outside."
"So Michael, how have things been?"
"Good, I'm almost done with my second year at State while juggling working part time at this pizza joint near my school." He replied, making his way towards the couch. "How about you?"
"Same ol', Same ol' around here sugar. Not much really happens when you reach my age." She shakily handed him a glass of iced water, nodding as he thanked her.
"But I'm glad for you sweetie, it's good to know you're doing so well. But tell me, how's our dear Elle? It's been such a long time since she's come around."
Mike hesitated, looking down at his folded hands. "I'm not sure, she moved awhile back." he answered regretfully.
A moment of silence passed between them, the only sound being that of the whir of the ceiling fan hanging above them.
"That's a shame," Ms Smith frowned, "You both reminded me so much of me and my late husband that I always had secretly hoped you two would get married someday.
Elle was such a beautiful soul though and it's not often that you run across someone like her. I sure do hope the best for her though."
"Yeah... I do too."
"Well I know you didn't come all this way just to hear me yap," the woman diverted, noticing this topic was making him uneasy. "So what brings you here today?"
Mike shifted on the couch until he was seated upright. "I.. well, I was wondering if I could possibly buy your green house and the land that it's on." he nervously swallowed.
"I have five hundred dollars with me now that I've saved up. So I could potentially put a down payment on it if- "
"Oh, so you're the one who's been doing all that work in my greenhouse?"
"Um.. yes, ma'am," Mike answered apologetically, "I know I should've told you beforehand. But after Elle left, I knew there would be nobody to look after the flowers so I kind of just took it upon myself. I'm sorry for that."
"I see," Ms. Smith replied, taking a sip from her cup as she sat back in her rocking chair.
"My son actually took me to see it a few months ago, and I was astonished by how incredible it looked. I honestly don't think I've seen flowers that vibrant since my former gardening days." she smiled warmly.
"No need to apologize Michael, you've done a remarkable job. I just don't really know how you manage it on top of school and all."
"I usually try to come down every weekend and then on Sunday I'll drive back to campus to make my classes. The drive isn't too bad though, it's only eight hours total, to and from."
The elderly lady grew puzzled. "What I really don't understand is why a young man like you has taken such a liking to my little greenhouse anyways? It's not much of an investment, and the land it rests on itself needs a lot of work. "
"It's-" he paused momentarily, wondering if he should proceed.
If only he could explain to this woman just how much of an impact that greenhouse had on his life.
If only he could get her to see what priceless memories it held and how it was now his beacon of hope for somehow he could see Elle in every single flower planted there,
and how even though it might be some crazy far fetched dream, he wanted it just in case she ever decided to return.
"It's my safe haven."
The white haired woman opened her mouth to ask another question, but stopped herself before she could.
"I always imagined giving that land to my grand kids one day, but they never took much of an interest in it." She sighed, then smiled as she looked towards the dark haired boy. "Well look, since I like you and you've taken such great care of my flowers, I'll make you an offer.
I'll sell you my acre of land right now for all the money you have in your pocket and I'll even throw in the little greenhouse you like so much."
Mike's jaw fell and he blinked a couple times just to ensure this was still reality.
"However, If and only if, you can promise to me that when you're down here every weekend, you'll come take me out to go see it." She brightly beamed, holding out her hand for him to shake.
"So what do ya say, do we've got a deal?"
"Yes!" He began to nod rapidly."Yes! Yes!" he sprung from the couch, ignoring her hand and instead pulling her into a hug.
"Hey, let me walk you to you car." Mike insisted, as he held the door open for her.
"Wow such the gentleman," Erica playfully batted her eyes at him as she walked outside."But I didn't drive tonight, I actually took a taxi.."
"Where do you live? I don't mind giving you a ride home."
"I was hoping you'd say that. After all it's the least you could do, for being what? Like an hour late to our date." she laughed, walking beside him on the sidewalk.
"Please," Mike jokingly rolled his eyes. "It was thirty minutes, tops."
"Don't ya know that thirty minutes is basically an hour in "first date" time?" Erica quipped, intentionally knocking her hand into his as they walked towards his vehicle.
He felt like a brick plunged into the pit of his stomach, knowing fully that she was flirting with him and yeah, he knew she had been flirting most of the night.. But this was different, this was branching into something physical and he knew once that line was crossed there'd be no turning back.
He pulled his hand away, playing it off by pointing towards his black Nissan. "Well, uh.. there's my car."
"You're gonna take a left at the mailbox and it'll be the first apartment building on your right."
"You know something, my brother never actually set me up with you." Erica spoke, interrupting the silence, before turning to him with a mischievous smile.
"What do you mean?" Mike turned his wheel at the stop light, glancing over at her and noticing the streaks of green dancing across her face.
"He asked if I had any single friends who might be interested, but I decided to just go for it myself and I'm really glad I did. Even despite everything, I had a great time tonight Mike."
"Yeah." He faintly smiled, putting the car in park. "Me too."
And it was the first time in awhile he actually meant it,
Erica gently grasped onto his forearm. "Wanna come in? My roommates are out of town for the weekend."
He was now very aware of their proximity to each other and he could feel the pricks of nerves in his neck, like sharp pins warning him to steer clear.
"I um.. I don't think so." Mike avoided her gaze entirely.
He hated how conflicted he felt.
On one hand, he craved that kind of intimacy with a woman, for it had been years since he'd been with one in that manner.
But on the other, he knew that he couldn't be the man Erica wanted. He also knew he couldn't find it in himself to play with her emotions just for the sake of instant gratification. No, he wouldn't dare.
She rubbed her thumb gently over his arm. "Look, I know your still hung up."
A mixture of surprise and confusion dawned on his face.
"Lucas told me." Erica explained to put him at ease.
"So if you're not ready for a relationship then I get it. I won't ask that of you Mike. But don't think I haven't noticed how much you've held yourself back during our date.
I don't know what it is.
Maybe you're afraid of something new, or maybe you feel guilty that you can't let go of the past. But whatever it is, If even only for a night, I want to help you forget." she whispered, planting a kiss to his cheek.
the word now buzzed heavily in his mind,
What he would do just to forget for a moment the emptiness that made him lay awake at night.
To forget the pain that tore away at him as he prayed and begged for
maybe even a sign from the universe that somehow and someday she'd come back to him and everything would make sense once again.
Erica pulled away and she noticed a new confidence in his eyes, one she hadn't seen from him before.
Upon exiting the car,
Mike took her hand in his and in the coolness of the night he followed behind her as she led him up the stairs towards her apartment.