If you're reading this, it means something went wrong. Or it means you were snooping through my stuff, but that doesn't really seem like you.
I hope you're not reading this. But if you are, there are a few things I need to say. First, I need to say I'm sorry. It's a lot easier to write that than it is to say it, so I'm writing it. Hopefully you'll never need to hear it. I'm sorry for all the shit you had to go through; I'm sorry for all the shit I put you through. I know you'd laugh it off and just say that's life, but life shouldn't be like that.
The second thing I need to say is thank you. I'm sure you'd ask me what in the world I was thanking you for, and my answer would be long and complicated, so drawn out that eventually you'd forget what you asked me and I'd be spared from answering. But since I don't actually have to say this out loud—well, thank you for helping me climb my way out of the very dark hole I had fallen into. Thank you for never giving up, even when everyone else, including me, had. Thank you for being you.
The third thing I need to say to you is simple. You were right. It's time to leave Hawkins. Get as far away from this place as possible. Put this all behind you, put this behind your family. Take your boys somewhere safe and quiet—somewhere actually safe and quiet, not the pathetic excuse for quiet that this place is.
And when you do leave, please take El with you. I know she won't want to, she'll want to stay here, but you need to get her as far away from this place as possible. There are people watching this town, watching her. And this entire place is a powder-keg of insanity, just waiting to go off. I don't want her to be around when it does. She deserves better than that.
There's a million other little things I'd like to put in here, but who am I kidding? You won't read this, and in a few days, after this all is over, I'll pull it out and burn it, and have a good laugh at myself.
And then with any luck, I'll be taking you to Enzo's right after.
Joyce Byers stared at the letter in her hands and then looked out the window. She had it practically memorized at this point, but that didn't stop her from reading it multiple times a day. After what had happened under Starcourt, she hadn't known what to do. She had planned to move away, had even put the house up for sale. But then Hopper had made her change her mind, think more about staying in Hawkins. And then Hopper had changed her mind again.
He was gone. He was really gone. Disintegrated with the Russians underneath a goddamn mall of all things. Everyone knew that he died a hero—reportedly saving lives in the burning mall. But no one would ever know just how much of a hero he had been. Just exactly what he had done.
The police, who had gone through Hopper's house to find a will, or anything of the sort, had found the letter hidden in his room, addressed to her. She hadn't shared it's contents with anyone, not her sons and not with El. She knew how all of them would have reacted. They would have refused to leave. We can handle it! they would have shouted. And they would have been right. But no kid should have to handle things like that. Once was more than enough, let alone the three times it had happened. Putting her own family at risk one more time would have been unthinkable.
And so they had moved.
It had taken some getting used to, and a good deal of family arguments. Jonathan, of course, had been reluctant because of Nancy. Will had been devastated to leave his friends behind. And El…
Joyce had worried that El would just outright refuse to go. The girl was clearly more than capable of handling herself, and on a number of occasions had just vanished entirely. Joyce would not have been surprised had El done the same thing as soon as she heard that she would be moving out of Hawkins with the Byers family.
But that wasn't what had happened. It had been as simple as explaining to the girl that this was what Hopper had wanted for her. El had said nothing, just nodded. And that was all the convincing it had taken.
Now, living in a small town in Pennsylvania called Coyote Hollow, Joyce sometimes wondered if she had made the correct decision. Being so far away from Hawkins made her uncomfortable, especially considering everything that had happened there. It felt like turning your back on someone you knew was dangerous, someone you knew was trying to hurt you. Sure, if you were closer to them, it meant you were more likely to encounter trouble. But it also meant that you could see the trouble coming.
She was still in regular contact with Murray Bauman, the eccentric former reporter who had helped them destroy the Starcourt facility. She wasn't sure what he was up to (mostly because he refused to share any specific details over the phone or via letter), but whatever it was, he claimed it was huge and that she needed to stop by at her earliest convenience.
And just how does he expect that to happen? She wondered. She could think of nothing more inconvenient.
Her thoughts were interrupted by the sound of Jonathan's voice in the doorway. She looked over at him and slipped the paper back into the drawer where it had come from.
"What is it?" she asked, forcing herself to smile. Jonathan was smart, and there were things in that letter that she didn't care to have to explain to him.
"Well, I was just thinking about maybe driving back to Hawkins in a little. It might be nice to spend Christmas there. Nancy already said that I could stay with her family."
Internally, she winced. He'd rather spend Christmas with her than with us? But the feeling passed quickly. She remembered what it was like to be that young. And Jonathan didn't mean it like that. He just missed Nancy.
It wasn't just that. She knew that both her sons and El had been counting on going back for Thanksgiving. But it just hadn't worked out. Both her and Jonathan had been stuck working, unable to call off, because all the other employees at the respective jobs had seniority over them. It had been hugely disappointing to everyone. Secretly, Joyce wondered if she hadn't been slightly relieved. It meant once less tearful goodbye for everyone involved.
"I can't promise anything," she said to her son. His face fell, so she continued speaking quickly. "But I can tell you that I will do everything in my power to make sure we're there."
"You mean it?" he asked.
"I mean it. All of us."
"Thanks, mom," he said, his gratitude obvious in his tone. "And, you know, if it doesn't work out… don't worry, okay? I'm doing great here. I think we all are."
Joyce could only hope that was true.
"I miss you too," El said into the phone. The phone received a lot of usage in Byer household. Most of the calls were directed back to Hawkins. If it wasn't Will or Jonathan, it was El, calling Mike. Sometimes Mrs. Byers was in on it too. El wasn't sure who Mrs. Byers was calling, but the conversations were usually hushed. Until Mrs. Byers got annoyed by something the other person was saying. That seemed to happen a lot.
"I still can't believe you couldn't make it down for Thanksgiving," Mike sighed.
"Sorry," said El frowning. "They… had to work."
"I know, I know. It's not your fault anyway. It just sucks, you know? I mean, why did you have to leave Hawkins anyway? You could have lived with me."
El said nothing. Mike knew exactly why.
"I'm sorry," he said, taking his turn to apologize. "That wasn't fair. And I think living with Mrs. Byers is good for you. She's a great mom."
"She really is."
"So… have they come back yet?"
Mike didn't specify what he was talking about, but the implication was clear. Ever since Starcourt, El had lost her otherworldly abilities. Her telekinesis, her far-seeing, all of it was gone. It was like she had burned herself out. She found herself trying to use them, even for the smallest of tasks, extremely often. It was like a part of her was gone. She used to think of them as a curse. Now, they felt like a missing limb.
"Nothing. I can't do anything."
"Well, hold on, El, that's not true! You can do tons of things. You just can't do… those things."
"I'm just like everybody else."
It was a strange feeling. For as long as she could remember, she had wanted to be like everyone else. But now that she was, she found herself wondering what the point was. Who was she now? What was her purpose?
Mike's voice was adamant. "You're not like anyone else I've ever met. You're stronger and smarter and braver—and you put up with me. That's kind of like a superpower on it's own, isn't it?"
El giggled. He always knew what to say, even if what he said was incredibly dorky. She knew that he wasn't like everyone else. He definitely wasn't one of the "cool kids," whatever that meant. But that suited her just fine. She didn't think that she was one of the cool kids either. They seemed boring. And Mike was never boring.
"I just really wish you were here," Mike said. "High school is crazy and it would be a lot better if you were here."
"We could go to school together," El said with a smile. It was a nice thought. It was something that she had never thought she would be able to do before, especially when she was hiding out with Hopper. All of that seemed so long ago now. She still wasn't going to school—Joyce thought it would be best to keep a low profile for just a little longer—but she knew it would be happening soon. In the meantime, she contented herself by reading anything she could get her hands on. And by watching a lot of TV, of course.
"Yeah. We could. It would be awesome." He sighed. "But it's cool. I get why Hopper thought it would be best if you were gone. He was a smart guy."
El smiled sadly to herself. In his own way, Hopper had been smart. He had known how to get things done.
"How is the rest of the party?" she asked, wanting to steer the conversation to more pleasant territory. She was still sad about Hopper, but in a way, she thought maybe the sadness wasn't quite so big and painful as it was when everything had happened. And that confused her. Did that mean that she didn't love him as much as she had thought? It had only been a few months. Was she forgetting? The thought scared her, but she could see that everyone else she knew was reacting the same way. Maybe it was normal.
Mike thought for a moment. "Hmm… well, Dustin's been spending a lot of time around Steve. I don't know if that's good or bad. I think it might be better for Steve if I'm being honest. Lucas and Max are dating, which is pretty cool. It means he can't make fun of me and you too much. We still hang out a lot… I even have some classes with them. It's just..."
Mike's voice trailed off. El wondered what was bothering him. "Mike?"
"Sorry. It's just that things don't feel the same anymore. Maybe it's you guys being gone. Maybe it's just high school. I don't really know. I don't like it though. Sometimes I just wish everything could go back to the way it was, you know?"
El did know. But she also knew a thing or two about life. A thing or two that had been taught to her by a very wise man. A very large man with a large mustache. Her dad. "Everything changes," she said. "That's part of life. It hurt sometimes."
"I… yeah. I mean, yeah. I guess you're right. Say, when did you get so wise?"
El smiled. "Always been that way."
"Yeah, I guess you have."
Their phone conversation, which was taking place in El's bedroom, was interrupted by a knock on the door-frame. El had left her door wide open—there was no reason to have it closed. She looked to see Will standing in the door.
"Hey, El," he said. "I have some news you might want to hear. And… oh, are you talking to Mike?"
"Tell him I said hi!"
"Will says hi," El relayed into the phone.
"Oh! Hi, Will! What's up?" Mike said, even though there was no way that Will could possibly hear him. Sometimes El still didn't understand certain conventions.
"He says he has news," El said, still looking at Will with interest. She had known him for less time than the rest of the original party, owing to his time spent trapped in the Upside Down. But after living with him for a few months, she felt closer to him then ever. He was a good friend… and a great brother.
"Yeah!" Will said, his voice excited. "Jonathan just told me we're going back to Hawkins for Christmas!"
El dropped the phone in her excitement, jumping off her bed and hopping up and down, running towards Will and giving him a hug. "We're going home!"
On the other end of the line, Mike was very confused. "El? El? What's going on?"
"Yeah, listen, man, I don't know," Steve said. "I just work here. You want a good movie? Uh. Check out those ones. They're new." He pointed at a long shelf in the front of the Family Video.
The customer, a teenager, probably no older than Dustin or his dorky friends, looked at Steve in disgust. "What do you even do here?"
"Serve mongoloids like you," huffed Steve under his breath.
"Nothing. Anyway, those are the new ones."
The customer—the kid—walked away from the counter. Steve sighed in relief. He didn't know why he let Robin talk him into working here. He supposed that he didn't really have too much of a choice. Not too many places were willing to hire someone who was pretty much known all around town for being a complete tool.
They don't really know me though.
It was funny how fast you grew up. And speaking of growing up—
The bell above the door jingled as another teenager walked in. This one, though, Steve knew.
"Dustin, dude, what's going on?"
Dustin marched up to the counter with his head down, nervously looking around the store like someone else might be watching. He was a cool kid, but… well, he could be weird. Like, really weird.
"Steve, something's up."
"Yeah, like what? My chances of going down in history as Hawkins greatest failure? Spit it out, man."
Dustin looked up at Steve and Steve saw that his younger friend's eyes were red. Like he had been crying. And he looked afraid.
"Woah. Wait. What's going on?"
Dustin shook his head. "Can I talk to you in private?"
Steve looked around. "I mean, it's pretty private. There's no one—"
"Okay, okay, jeez! Come to the back room." Steve stepped out from behind the counter, then hesitated. "Hey kid, don't steal anything."
The customer, who was already heading for the front door, said, "There's nothing worth stealing in this shitty place anyway."
Steve shook his head. They didn't make them like they used to.
"Alright, calm down. What's going on? And have you been crying? What did we say about that?"
"Suzie told me she likes that I'm in touch with my emotions."
"And anyway, that's not the point! Something big is going down."
Steve scratched the back of his head. He wasn't sure if he was ready for anymore big. "Like what?"
"That's what I was afraid of. Can you please slow yourself down for just a minute to explain? Please?"
"It would be way easier if I just showed you. It's not so much something you can explain as much as it's something you can feel."
Steve sighed. "Dustin, are you telling me that you came here over a feeling?"
"Have my feelings ever been wrong?"
Steve blinked. "I honestly don't think I know the answer to that. Maybe?"
"Dammit, I thought I could trust you!"
Steve put his hands up. "Okay, okay, hold on. You know I can't go anywhere right now. I'm working. So just try to tell me."
"Okay. Okay. Fine. But if it comes out wrong, it's because I am under stress right now!" Dustin heaved a deep breath. "I was biking downtown because I wanted ice cream. I was going to get some for me, Lucas, and Max—"
"Come on, really? That place isn't even a fraction as good as Scoops Ahoy. And who even wants ice cream in December?"
"I do! And you asked me to talk, so listen!"
Steve sat down heavily in one of the plastic chairs in the tiny break room and waved his hand, indicating for Dustin to continue.
"You know the alley behind it? The one that runs perpendicular to Grape Street? Okay, so I heard something weird from back there. At first I thought it was just some homeless person digging through a trash can. But then I remembered that Hawkins doesn't actually have any homeless people. So I went to check it out."
"What did it sound like?"
Dustin thought for a moment. "Hmmm. Kind of like… a tearing noise? But less like paper and more like sheet metal?"
"And you thought it was a homeless person?"
"It was coming from an alley!"
Steve shook his head. "I don't even know where to start with that. But never mind. Keep it going."
"So I popped into the alley, I just wanted to get a look. I've had a lot of experience saving the town, as I'm sure you're aware. I walked down the alley, turned right where I heard the noise… and you will never believe what I saw."
"What?" asked Steve, curious to hear the answer despite himself.
"Nothing. I didn't see anything."
Steve let his shoulders slump. "You dragged me back here, while I was working, to tell me that nothing happened? And you cried because of it?"
"No," Dustin said. "You didn't let me finish telling you the story. I didn't see anything. But I felt something. It was like the most awful feeling you could possibly imagine. Like someone told you your whole family died, and that everything you had ever owned was gone, and that your house had burned down, and also that you would never feel happy again."
Steve blinked. "Dustin, are you depressed?"
"What? No! I'm telling you, Steve, I really felt this. I came here right after. It took awhile for me to shake the feeling… but what if it's the Mind Flayer?"
Steve suddenly understood. Dustin probably hadn't heard anything at all. He was just terrified of the possibility that the horror that had nearly killed them just a few months ago could come back.
"You know that's not possible, right? The gate closed. Forever. It can't open again. El told us that."
"The list of things we actually know about that place is so small that it doesn't even exist! What if it opens again? And El's not here to stop it?"
Steve stood up from the chair. This was a problem he would have to deal with at another time. "Look, I'm sorry that happened. We'll talk about this later. If you want, I can even go check it out with you. But right now I've got to get back to work. Why don't you talk to Lucas and Max about it? You were going to see them, right?"
"I was afraid they'd think I was crazy."
Steve winced because he had just done exactly that. "We'll sort it out. For right now, why don't you go get ice cream for real this time, and stay out of strange alleys while you're doing it. That might make a difference." It felt like a half-measure, but Steve wasn't sure what else to do. Maybe he could go there later with Robin and Dustin, just to reassure the kid that nothing was actually wrong.
"You're not crazy. I don't think anyone would blame you for feeling that way."
Dustin looked at Steve with mild confusion. "When did you get so wise?"
Steve thought about it. "Probably when I accidentally adopted a few teenagers."
Somewhere, buried deep in Russia, a few scientists were huddled in urgent conversation. The exact meaning of the conversation was difficult to make out from anyone who might have overheard it, mostly due to the strange nature of it and the odd words that they were using.
There was a lot of talk about doorways, and unblinking eyes. They discussed a certain American a few times, including what value he could possibly have. Why were they still keeping him alive? He was more trouble than he could possibly be worth, wasn't he?
The reason for their hushed conversation was because they were not alone. The massive, imposing facility that they were currently inhabiting was occupied not only by men of science, but by men of war as well. They had… encouraged the scientists to push forward with the research, using methods that were sometimes less than polite. The scientists that were currently talking to one another wished to be able to avoid any future encouragements. Once was enough.
"I don't like him," hissed one in Russian. "He needs to go!"
"And what do you suggest we do?" asked another, sarcasm heavy on his voice. "Shoot him in the head? Not so much our style, is it now?"
"He has been the cause of too much! We cannot keep him here any longer!"
"We will keep him here until the exact moment we are told not to. And then, if we're lucky, we'll still be alive."
Far away, safe in her new home in Coyote Hollow, El dreamed. She didn't dream Russians or nightmarish facilities. Instead, she dreamed of something that she had dreamed about a few times since moving to Pennsylvania. She dreamed about a voice.
In the dream, everything was dark. The ground beneath her was water, but solid, cool on her feet, just like the ground whenever she went into her head-space to see someone far away. But it was not the same place. She could tell that just by the feeling it gave her as she was there.
"Hello?" she said, her voice shockingly loud in the utter silence.
"Hello," came the reply. It was neither male nor female. It was neither good nor bad. It simply was.
"Who are you?" she asked.
"Am I?" the voice responded.
El frowned. That wasn't an answer. What confused her more was her lack of certainty of whether or not any of this was happening. Was it a dream? Was it something more? Was it possible her powers were returning?
"Where am I?" she asked.
The voice said something then, but she didn't understand it. It was a word she had never heard before, using sounds that the human mouth could not possibly make. It hurt her to hear it.
Her face clenched and her hand went involuntarily to her nose. She wiped it and felt a warm wetness. "Please don't do that," she said. "It hurts me."
"Hurt? What is hurt to you? You do not know what hurt is."
El felt very small indeed. The voice seemed to come from everywhere and seemed to speak with great assurance that every word it uttered was fact. Even so, this time she knew it was wrong.
"I do know what hurt is," she said. "Hurt is losing the people you love."
The voice said nothing. Or maybe it did say something, just something she couldn't hear. In any case, El felt that hurt very powerfully. It felt like an ache in her chest. She thought of Hopper. The man who could have been her father forever. She thought about her mama. The woman she would never truly know. She thought about Mike, who was so far away now. She wondered if he would always feel the same way about her.
Maybe he won't like me anymore. Maybe too much time has passed. Maybe he's found someone else… maybe…
"What are you doing to me?" she asked, and her voice trembled.
"Nothing," was the reply. "You all do it to yourselves. Every time."
When she awoke, her face was stained with tears. Her pillow was stained with blood.