Jonathan turned his old Galaxie onto a long driveway just outside Fairfax, Indiana. The way was lined with tall, lush trees and thick undergrowth. The orange sunlight spilled through the trees and left jagged shadows on the gravel road. The sun was setting, they had been driving for most of the day. "Just like home," mused Will.
They rounded a curve in the driveway to reveal their new home. It was large, much larger than either of them had expected. It was also old, much older than either of them had expected. "This can't be right," said Jonathan skeptically. "There is no way we can afford a place this big."
"Maybe we can. Hey, it looks like there's lots of room for when my friends come to visit." Jonathan rolled his eyes at the thought of round-the-clock Dungeons & Dragons with Mike, Lucas and Dustin.
He brought the car into park in front of the house. It was painted pale blue what looked like more than a decade ago. The paint peeled from the wooden siding. The windows were small and numerous. It had a veranda that grandly circled the entirety of the main floor. Shingles were splitting and falling from the roof that boasted several chimneys. It was most likely a lovely house, when it was originally built, but time had not been kind to the dwelling.
Behind them, Joyce and El had been driving in near silence since the last rest stop. They were both tired and each had a heavy heart. Moving away from Hawkins was painful, but losing one person in particular was absolute heartbreak. For the last three months, neither one of them really talked about it. They kept their feelings to themselves; only wordless, lengthy hugs were exchanged.
Even after taking the pains to sell the house in Hawkins, pack up and move, Joyce was still having second thoughts. She had told herself a thousand times that moving away was what she had to do to keep her children safe. Hawkins would never be safe, even if the only dangers lingering there were the memories.
All four of them exited the vehicles and stood to survey the old house. "Great, isn't it? It looks just like Mrs. Smith described. Would you believe there are eight bedrooms? That's two rooms each!" She smiled and marched up the stairs to the veranda. The door was unlocked and Joyce and El entered. They found a note from Mrs. Smith together with keys to the front and back doors. "Welcome to your new home, Joyce and family!" Joyce read aloud. "Here are the keys. Please keep them safe as there are no copies at the moment. There is a lasagna for you in the fridge. Heat at 350 degrees for 45 minutes. I trust you had a pleasant trip. I will check in on you tomorrow. Tonight is my BINGO. All the best, Mrs. Smith."
Joyce didn't read the P.S. out loud to El. It read, "Your deposit check bounced, but I'm sure it was just a banking error. If you could write a new one for tomorrow, that would be appreciated."
"Camp was not lame! Stop saying that, Lucas!" Dustin shrieked.
"Look, I'm just saying that a bunch of nerds, hanging out, throwing around their nerdy ideas at each other, doesn't sound like it was particularly cool."
"You wouldn't know cool if it smacked you upside the head!" Dustin fumed. "Just because Cerebro got trashed doesn't mean I have nothing to show for it. Camp wasn't just ideas, I have blueprints... and prototypes."
"Blah, blah, blah." Lucas mumbled, glancing at Mike in the corner of the basement. "Are you going to sulk forever, Mike?"
"I'm not sulking! I'm just worried about El," Mike replied sharply.
"Yeah, worried she's gonna dump your ass again," laughed Lucas.
"Hey, that's not fair," Dustin rushed to Mike's rescue. "You don't know what it's like to have your girlfriend live far away. Yours is right here in Hawkins."
"That's right, she does live here. So I'm gonna go to her house instead of hanging out here with you lame-wads." Lucas got up from the floor and scooped up his backpack.
"You're leaving?" Mike gaped.
"Yeah, I am. If we're not going to start a campaign or go do target practice or something, then I don't need to hang out with you guys." He stomped up the stairs and out the door, leaving Mike and Dustin behind with their mouths open.
Lucas pedaled his bike across town towards Max's house. The crisp, October air helped cool his anger. Will and El had only been gone three days and already he felt like everything had fallen apart. Dustin was only interested in talking about his inventions and Mike had barely said two sentences. "I don't need them." Lucas repeated to himself as he deposited his bike on Max's front lawn.
He immediately heard voices from inside the house. Max's step-dad was shouting and he sounded furious. Lucas's stomach turned. He didn't know what to do.
Lucas stood on the grass, frozen. As he was trying to decide whether to ring the bell or get back on his bike and leave, the front door flew open and Max burst out. Her face was red and her eyes were swollen. Seeing Lucas, she let out a gasp of relief and threw herself into his arms. "Let's get out of here." She said steadily.
They got on their bikes and headed back towards town. Lucas hadn't said a word, he didn't know what to say. He liked Max, a lot, but he still had trouble dealing with, what seemed to him as, her rollercoaster of emotions. Between Mike and Max, he had almost had enough.
"Can we go to Mike's house?" she asked.
"No, I just came from there, it's no good."
"Oh. Can we go to your house then?"
"I guess." His mind wheeled, trying to think of an excuse not to go home, but no excuse was offered.
They pedaled on in silence and in the safety of Lucas's room, he asked the question he knew he should ask, but didn't want to ask. "Do you want to talk about it?" He held his breath for her answer.
The floodgates opened. "It's my step-dad. Ever since Billy... He hasn't been the same. He was mean and strict before, but now he is just maniacal. He's after me for every little thing and he gets unreasonably angry at the tiniest things. He was screaming at me just now because I accidentally left my bike on the driveway behind his truck. He just lost it on me! I try to stand up for myself and yell back, but that just makes him angrier. And now... honestly, now I'm just afraid of him."
Lucas was stunned. He had never dealt with anything similar at home with his family. But his family had never lost a child, either. Words were not coming to him.
Tears started to shine in Max's eyes. She opened her mouth to speak again, but instead, leaned into his chest and wrapped her arms around him. He returned the hug and they sat in silence.
"Robyn! Get out here!" Steve called from the cash register. "It's Saturday night and I can't handle this crowd by myself."
Robyn was in the back office, sitting at the desk. Papers covered the small desk and she was carefully filling out forms in large, neat block letters. "Coming!" she called back, but remained in her chair.
The next thing Robyn knew, Steve was standing in the doorway of the office, his hair filling the frame. "Robyn, get the lead out! They're not paying you to fill out college applications. I need help."
"Sorry, coming," she mumbled, slightly enjoying the fact he was annoyed.
They worked side by side for the rest of the evening without much chance for conversation. It was a typical Saturday evening, which meant it was steadily busy until closing time at 11 o'clock. At about fifteen minutes to closing, things started to slow down and there were only a few customers left in the store. "So what are you doing tomorrow?" Robyn asked.
"Dunno, gonna sleep in for sure. Dustin asked me over to his house for a bit, but I dunno..." he trailed off.
"Oh, well I was going to ask you if you wanted to come over for Sunday dinner."
"Robyn, I keep getting the feeling that you're using me as a smoke screen with your parents."
Just then, a young man approached them and, interrupting them without hesitation, quietly slurred, "Oh hey, hi guys. How are you doing this fine night? Umm... so... do you have, like, Back to the Future?"
"Sorry, man," Steve answered. "That's still in theatres, not on VHS."
"Oh right. Ha ha. Well... umm... or is it?" he countered finally, pulling something from his jacket.
"Hey, what is that?" Robyn asked, concerned.
He produced a home video VHS with hand writing on the label. "So, like, I figured since you guys work in a video store that you, like, umm... really like movies, you know? So, like, I made a copy of Back to the Future, ha ha, and I'll sell it to you for... twenty bucks."
"I frigging love that movie!" Steve exclaimed.
"And, I was also thinking, like, if either of you have any special, you know, customers... you can maybe rent it to them and put the money, you know, right in your own, like, pocket. Ha ha! You can't lose."
"Sweet! I'm in!" Steve grinned and reached for his wallet. The man grinned back and extended the VHS tape toward Steve.
"Are you out of your mind?" Robyn asked. "Do you know how quickly you would get fired if our boss found out you were renting bootleg videos out of his store? And even if you got away with it, what incentive does anyone have to return it to you? It's not like you could go after them or anything. Don't be stupid!"
"But I really like the movie! What if I don't want to wait for it to come out on VHS? Maybe I want it for my own personal enjoyment."
"Yeah! The man has a point, lady," the bootlegger stated.
"At least haggle with him," Robyn suggested, defeated.
"Oh, right!" Steve closed his wallet and turned to the bootlegger. "I'll give you ten."
"Deal!" the man said, looking over his shoulder out the front window.
Steve extended a ten-dollar bill toward him and took the video tape. Without another word, the bootlegger exited the front door and ran from the front of the store. "Awesome!" Steve beamed, examining the video tape.
"Sometimes, I just can't believe you." Robyn said, shaking her blonde hair. "Well, this I have to see. How about I come to your place tomorrow and we'll watch that."
"But I want to watch it tonight!" he moaned.
"You are the most impulsive person I have ever met. Can't you wait for anything or think anything through?"
"What's the problem? It's just a movie. Nothing bad happened."
"No, nothing bad has ever happened because you were impulsive and acted without really thinking. Nothing at all," she said, emphasizing her sarcasm.
It was Nancy Wheeler's first day as the new receptionist at Hawkins Police Station. Florence was showing her the ropes. It was a lot different than the newspaper. There was a weight in the air and everyone worked quietly for the most part. It smelled different too, like coffee and sweat. The newspaper had smelled like chemicals and cigars. Nancy listened carefully as Florence explained the telephone switchboard to her. It had four lines that could each be put on hold, transferred or relegated to an answering machine. The answering machine was a finicky piece of electronics that needed to be turned on and off each day for office hours.
Florence spoke casually and Nancy could tell she was tired. Everyone there looked tired, like sleep was something of a rare commodity. She scratched some notes into her coil scribbler and took in what Florence found important enough to tell her. "My last day is Friday, so you have until then to ask me any questions. I suppose after that you could call me at home if you really got into trouble. The most important thing is to not allow yourself to get rattled." she explained, suddenly sounding very serious. "A cool head is the best weapon against crime."
Officers Callahan and Powell entered the station, removing their hats. "Hi Nancy, first day finally? How is Florence treating you?" Powell asked.
"Yeah, the background check took longer than I had hoped, but I'm here now. Florence is amazing, I have big shoes to fill," she smiled.
"I'm only a size 7," Florence quipped, butting her cigarette.
"Me too," Nancy added, hoping to find common ground with her mentor, no matter how weak it sounded.
"When the time comes, lunch is on us today, ladies." Callahan announced.
"I have to retire to get a free lunch out of you guys?" Florence teased, her eyes dancing. Callahan waved meekly at the two women with a shy smile and retreated to his office.
At the same time, miles and miles away, Jonathan was at a job interview. The Fairfax newspaper was hiring a staff photographer. He sat across a large, extremely messy desk from the editor, a Mr. Skinner. Skinner was reviewing Jonathan's portfolio. Jonathan was slightly embarrassed at the appearance of it. It was a second-hand folder that had a few cracks, scratches, and one missing corner. But he felt confident that the content would speak for itself. He had done a lot of work he was proud of at the Hawkins newspaper. He left in several artistic shots to show the range of his abilities.
He watched Skinner peruse the photographs, when suddenly a photo came loose from the folder and glided to the floor. Skinner bent to pick it up and Jonathan's heart skipped a beat. Immediately his palms began to sweat. He knew that photograph well, he just had no idea why it was tucked into his portfolio.
"What's this?" Skinner asked, looking puzzled.
"Just a dark room experiment. It's nothing, it shouldn't be in there." Jonathan leaned across the desk to gingerly retrieve it from Skinners curious gaze.
"That's one hell of an experiment, if you ask me. That looked downright terrifying. Well, young man, you certainly have a lot of talent. I'll start you off with a probationary period, and if you're reliable and you keep turning in photos like these here, you will have a great future ahead of you at this paper."
"Thank you, Mr. Skinner," Jonathan said as calmly as he could. The appearance of the photograph had startled him and he was trying desperately to regroup. The interview wasn't over, the job wasn't in the bag yet.
"I'll ask you to start tomorrow. You can get acquainted with the rest of the staff and you can have a look at our dark room. The other photographer, Jed, will be in to show you the ropes. He works special occasions only, so you both will be working on Halloween events."
"Thank you again, Mr. Skinner. I'm really looking forward to... getting started." Jonathan stood when Mr. Skinner did, shook his hand and gathered his portfolio in his arms.
El finished arranging the last of her clothes in the dresser drawers. Her room was plain, but it was on the second floor and had a beautiful, broad view of the hills and trees beyond.
She resented Joyce for moving them to Fairfax. She was angry that no one in Hawkins, particularly the Wheelers, hadn't offered to look after her so she could stay. She felt she could have stayed there on her own. After all, she had lived on her own for ages without anyone's help. But things weren't the same. Hopper was gone and so were her psychokinetic abilities. As a coping mechanism to help not be angry with everyone, she repeatedly told herself that she was just an ordinary girl, and she had to do what ordinary girls did.
An ordinary girl, with brothers, she thought to herself as Will appeared at the door. "How's it going?" he asked. "This room is nice."
"Yeah," she replied, still not sure to make of her new living arrangements. "Will, I am scared to start school tomorrow. We don't know anyone. Mike, Lucas, Dustin and Max are all back home and they'll be going to school without us."
"But we have each other." he smiled. "And no one can make us feel like we don't belong if we have each other."
"Kids, time for dinner!" Joyce bellowed.
El stood up and instantly started to sway on her feet. Will watched in shock as her eyes rolled into the back of her head and all her strength abandoned her muscles. Her head bobbed and fell back. He dove to catch her, but she landed in a heap on the hardwood floor. Will fell at her side and started shaking her. "El! El!"
Footsteps hammered up the stairs and Jonathan and Joyce tumbled into the room. "What happened?" Joyce gasped, "How?"
Jonathan carefully pulled El's shoulders so she laid flat on the floor. Her eyes were closed, but she was still breathing. "I don't know," answered Will, still shocked. "She just got up to go to dinner and she fell right over."
"El?" Jonathan whispered.
The three of them watched her and waited. Blood started to trickle from her nose. Will's eyes widened with fear.
A few heartbeats later, El's eyes fluttered open and she slowly tried to sit up. "Are you okay? What happened?" Joyce asked again.
El looked at the three of them, her eyes out of focus. She blinked and breathed, then put her hand to her nose and felt the familiar blood there. She quickly sharpened up and was easily able to speak. "I don't know. The room just went dark and the next thing I know, you're all here," she sounded genuinely confused.
"Did you hit your head?" Joyce asked in a motherly tone.
"I don't think so," El put her bloody hand to her head. "I think I'm fine. Can we go eat?"
"I think you just passed out. That happens sometimes when..." Joyce trailed off.
"I'm fine," El assured. "Please, let's just go eat."
The four teenagers sat where they used to play Dungeons and Dragons, only this time, the table was covered with crudely drawn spec sheets. Max held her math textbook in her lap and was trying to finish a worksheet for school. She was barely listening to Dustin's lecture about his invention.
"Since, you know, the fourth of July, I've been thinking about creating a weapon to defeat the Mind Flayer. Basically, the only thing we know about it is that it doesn't like heat. We tried the fireworks, but they all just bounced off of it and were hardly effective. The obvious solution was a flame thrower, but that puts everyone at risk. I've been trying to create something that would wound the flayer, but not us. Or, in any event, have a farther range than a flame thrower so we would not have to be in close proximity to attack."
"So what did you come up with?" Lucas asked lazily.
"Exothermic chemical reaction!" Dustin announced.
"Say that again," Lucas drawled, still disinterested.
"A chemical reaction with a by-product of blistering heat!" he looked at everyone's faces to find an indication of their understanding and saw none. "The opposite of an exothermic reaction?" their faces registered nothing.
"Anyway, if there are two canisters of the required chemicals, we can use a pump and a trigger to combine them, only when needed, and spray the Mind Flayer with a heat-producing chemical reaction."
"Like a mega hot water gun?" Mike suggested.
"Yes! Only it will be cool to us because the chemicals will not be combined until they leave the nozzle and spray, hopefully over 15 yards, onto the Mind Flayer, demogorgon, or demodog, as the case may be."
They all shuddered at the thought of all three of the terrors from the Upside Down attacking at once.
Dustin immediately attempted to relieve the tension in the room. "And this," he pulled a large sheet from the bottom of the pile, "is the finished weapon! I've been working on it for the past three months."
The giant sheet of paper floated to a rest on top of the table to reveal a hand drawn image. The device looked like something a gardener would carry on his back to spray weeds. Like Dustin had said, it showed two canisters, side by side, a pump at the top and a hose with a triggered spray gun nozzle, all attached to thick backpack straps.
"Hey, it kinda looks like a proton pack." Lucas observed. "If we all had one of these, and if it actually worked, I don't think I'd ever feel afraid of the Mind Flayer again."
"A proton pack?" Max finally looked up from her math book and scrutinized the drawing. "So what? You guys are going to run around like little Ghostbusters, only with Mind Flayers instead of ghosts?" she laughed.
"THE GORGONBUSTERS!" Dustin screamed and began hopping around the room in his excitement. "Max, you are a genius! That is a terrific idea! We build four of these babies and no one would ever need to be scared again. We could protect the whole town!"
"Then El and Will could come home!" Mike chimed in. "I'm with you, Dustin! I want to be a Gorgonbuster!"
"Well, there were four Ghostbusters, so we're gonna need two more." Dustin looked pointedly at Lucas and Max, still sitting at the gaming table. Lucas rolled his eyes.
"Sure, I'm game." Max said. "You guys still need a Zoomer. Only I don't have a hearse, but I'll have my learner's permit soon." She turned to look at Lucas and waited for his answer.
He stared at her in disbelief. "But..." he started. He knew what he had to do and, again, he didn't want to do it. "Fine, I'll be a Gorgonbuster too, but no Winston Zedmore jokes or I'm out!" he threatened.
"Well, you were the last to join!" Dustin teased playfully. Lucas immediately jabbed him in the arm with his fist.
"This is so great, you guys!" Dustin chortled. "I'll get to work on the prototype right away. This is going to be so awesome!" he could hardly contain himself.
Just then, the phone rang, one ring and then a pause. "Lucas, that was your mom, you have to go home." Mrs. Wheeler called from upstairs.
"Alright, you losers, I'll see you at school tomorrow." He leaned into Max and gave her a kiss, she smiled up at him, then ran up the stairs and out the door as the phone rang again.
"Mike, phone's for you." Mrs. Wheeler called again.
Mike scowled and picked up the receiver of the downstairs phone. "Hello?"
"Hi Mike, it's me," El said quietly over the line. Mike heard the upstairs phone click as his mother hung up.
"El! It's you! You finally got the phone hooked up over there. How are things?"
There was a pause on the other end of the line. "Oh, things are good." El answered reluctantly.
"Is something wrong?" Mike was instantly worried. He had honestly expected a much warmer greeting from El on their first phone call since she moved away with the Byers.
"No," she paused. "Well, yes."
"What is it?" Mike's anxiety was building making him slightly terse.
"Well, something did happen. Umm... I passed out the other day. I'm fine, but it was, well, weird."
"Are you okay? How come you passed out? Are you sick?" Mike's questions came rapidly.
"No, I'm not sick, but, Mike, don't say anything to anyone, but..."
"But what? El, tell me! I'm going crazy!" Dustin and Max looked over at him as he raised his voice. He met their stares and rounded the corner, stretching the phone cord as far as it would go to give himself a little privacy.
"Just promise you won't tell anyone." she pleaded.
"Of course I promise, I'll do anything you ask me to."
"Well, you know that place I go? When I want to find someone?"
"Yeah. But what does that have to do with you passing out? I don't understand. "
"Mike, it was like... it was like... rather than me going there on purpose, when I passed out, it felt like someone was pulling me there," she paused, "I had to fight to get back. I was so scared."
"Who? How?" Mike's mouth hung open.
"I don't know," was her only response.
"It has only happened the once?" was all he could think of to ask.
"Yes. Please don't tell anyone. I don't want a questions because I don't have any answers. I'm afraid of what they'll do. You know, considering what we've all been through."
Mike considered her request. "You're totally right. There aren't too many people we can trust anymore."
"I have to go, the charges."
"Wait! What's your number?"
Mike could hear the smile in her voice as she read out the new telephone number, "It's 555-1105. Joyce asked the phone company for an eleven."
Mike jotted the number down on the drywall. "Cool." he answered. "I'll call you next time, I just have to get permission."
"Bye, Mike. I miss you."
"I miss you too. I'll tell the guys you miss them. And tell Will we miss him."
"Thanks. I'll tell him. Bye." her voice was weak.
"Bye." Mike heaved a heavy sigh and hung up the telephone.
Dustin and Max stared at Mike. "What the hell was that?" she asked.
"That was El," he struggled. "Their new telephone is hooked up. And, so... yeah."
Will and El walked along the side of the road on their way to school. It was the day before Halloween and most of the houses had decorations up. Nothing extravagant or terrifying. Most of the decorations were simply pumpkins or jack-o-lanterns, homemade ghosts strung up in trees or cobwebs with plastic spiders. There were, of course, lots and lots of orange garbage bags overflowing with autumn leaves, jack-o-lantern faces grinning at the street.
Will was excitedly telling El all about the Dungeons & Dragons campaign he was creating for their friends' visit at Thanksgiving. He said he had a clever twist in the story near the end of the quest. As he was explaining exactly how clever the twist was, without giving it away, El's pace slowed, and again he watched her muscles soften and give way to gravity. This time, he was able to dive under her at the last moment, keeping her from collapsing on the pavement at full force. Her weight crushed down on him, and he landed on his hip and scraped his leg in the process. He held on to her as best he could, but even in a sitting position, she was difficult to hold steady. Blood streamed from her nose and her body waivered to fall. All Will could do was lay her down gently, because he could not hold her up.
He stared into her face, waiting for her to wake up easily, like she had the first time. He waited. "El?" he whispered.
He waited longer, but she did not move. He put his ear to her mouth. She was breathing, but only slowly. He shook her shoulders, still nothing happened. He started to panic. He scanned the road in both directions, hoping to see an oncoming vehicle. Nothing.
"El!" he yelled and shook her again.
The blood trickled down the side of her face and Will decided he had to knock at one of the houses to get help. Just as he moved to leave, her eyes fluttered open. Her eyes opened wide, terrified. "El!" he sang, relief washing over him. "Are you alright? Speak to me."
She pulled herself onto her elbows, but did not look at him. He watched her, she was still disoriented, but at least she was awake. His hip throbbed.
Slowly, the panicked expression left her face and she turned to Will. "You caught me."
"I had to, you were going down like a load of bricks! Are you okay?"
"Yeah, I think so. Where are we?"
He looked at her, puzzled. "We're on our way to school," he advised, suddenly concerned that she had maybe had a seizure rather than just passing out.
"Right." she focused on the ground and pulled herself up. "Then we better get going."
"Maybe we should go back home. You're not well."
"I'll be fine, it was nothing." She pushed forward, determined.
Rather than argue with her, he kept pace with her all the way to school. He knew he had to tell his mom about it when they got home that evening. This definitely meant a trip to the doctor for El. His concern for her colored his mood for the rest of the day.
Joyce had just started her evening shift at the supermarket, The Big Apple. She was given the evening shift because she was new. She would probably had to work for years to earn the seniority to work the day shift.
Things had been going well over the previous few weeks, the job was pleasant and the people were friendly. She was kept busy as the brand-new mega market was doing well in the growing town. She worked alongside several bag boys, teenagers who usually had nothing to say. They were the type to slouch and stare at the floor with their bottom lips hanging out. "Mouth-breathers," Joyce would say to herself and smile, remembering what Will and his friends called these seemingly brain-dead creatures.
She had just finished ringing through a customer's order when the loudspeaker crackled, "Joyce Byers to the Manager's office. Joyce Byers."
Joyce felt a surge of nervousness, like electricity, course through her stomach. Have I done something wrong? she asked herself. She locked her till and headed toward the back of the store, thinking of all the tiny mistakes she had made and wondered if any of them warranted dismissal.
She entered the office to see Wayne, the manager, standing with the phone in his hand. "Your daughter's school. There's an emergency." She hesitated at the word daughter, as no one had referred to El in that manner before. Wayne held out the phone with a tight expression on his face.
"Hello?" Joyce said into the receiver.
"Mrs. Byers? This is Mrs. Spencer, the vice principal. I'm calling to tell you that your daughter, Jane Hopper, has been taken to the hospital by ambulance. She lost consciousness during class and an ambulance was called when she could not be revived."
Joyce recalled the Sunday evening several weeks ago when El had passed out in her room. This was serious. "She is at the Fairfax hospital?" Joyce asked the vice-principal.
"Yes, your son, Will, accompanied her in the ambulance. They will both be there." Mrs. Spencer explained. "Mrs. Byers, I do hope she is alright. Please call the office when you can. There was no preceding incident to report, we just like to know our students are being looked after."
What was that supposed to mean? Joyce wondered. "I'm on my way there now, thank you Mrs... Uh… Sp..." she dropped the phone absently and met Wayne's eyes. He nodded and, with his approval, she fled from the supermarket, into her green Pinto, and directly to Fairfax Hospital.
At the hospital, Will was waiting. Joyce collected his small frame in her arms and held him close. "It's going to be alright. But I have to ask you, what happened? Were you there?"
"Yes, I was. But, mom, on the way to school this morning, it happened again. She was just walking, we were talking, and she just closed her eyes and fell over. I tried to catch her. She didn't wake up for a really long time. But when she did, she insisted on going to school anyway. So we did, and I was going to tell you everything tonight, but then this happened!" he finally took a deep breath and tried to steady himself.
"What happened at school just now? Did anything happen to her before she passed out?" Joyce asked calmly.
"We were just sitting in science class and she toppled over in her chair. But, mom, this time she didn't wake up!" he was getting more upset by the moment.
"Will, I need you to calm down, honey. El is going to be fine. Let me talk to the doctors and find out how she is. Come on." she took his hand and approached the front desk.
"I'm here for Jane Hopper, I'm her... mother, Joyce Byers." she told the triage nurse.
The woman at the desk sorted through several forms until she found the right one. "Yes, Jane has been admitted under Dr. Svenson. He's with her now. Can you please wait in the seating area until he can meet with you?" her manner was sympathetic, yet professional.
Joyce had been through this type of scenario enough times to know that the best thing to do was take a seat in the waiting room. "Thank you. Please let us know as soon as the doctor is available."
"Of course," she smiled and carried on with her work.
"I hate hospitals," Will whispered.
"I know you do, honey. Let's wait for the doctor." Joyce said a silent prayer to no one in particular that El would be okay. She filled out paperwork while they waited and habitually stared at either the clock or the front desk, hoping to be called.
After about ninety minutes, Joyce was relieved to be summoned to the front desk by the triage nurse. Standing by the desk was, what could only be described as, the best-looking doctor Joyce had ever seen. He could have easily been the best-looking man Joyce had ever seen. "Is this guy for real?" she muttered as she and Will approached the desk.
"What, mom?" asked Will.
"Nothing," replied Joyce.
"Hello, I'm Dr. Svenson," he said showing perfectly white teeth and deep dimples. He extended his right hand and Joyce shook it briefly. Joyce was reluctant to meet his eyes.
"How is El, I mean Jane?" she asked, trying desperately to not itemize all the similarities between Dr. Svenson and Don Johnson.
"El must be a nickname? Come this way and I'll explain what we know." He led them down a side corridor, out of the flow of traffic. He looked extremely serious and Joyce started to fear the worst. She braced herself for his report.
"Jane was brought to us by ambulance in an unconscious state. She has not regained consciousness. We understand from the school that there was no corresponding incident to cause this unconsciousness. Does Jane have any health issues that you know of?"
Joyce's mind searched for answers, but she could think of nothing from El's past she wanted to share with this doctor. She looked helplessly at Will. "She passed out on the way to school this morning. And a few weeks ago at home."
"I see," said Dr. Svenson. "No head trauma or accidents?"
"No," replied Joyce. "At first, I thought it might have been because she was getting the flu, but it can't be that."
It was clear that Will did not want to divulge anything about El's past to this doctor either.
"We are going to have to keep her overnight. There are several tests we have to run to determine the cause. We won't be able to do much for her tonight except keep her comfortable and under observation. Mrs. Byers, I want to warn you that this is a potentially serious condition. I wish I could tell you something more comforting, but due to the fact that there was no corresponding accident or incident, the cause could be grave."
Joyce nodded and simultaneously felt like she didn't understand anything. "Can we please see her?"
"Of course, right this way." he strode down the wide, white hallway and Will and Joyce scurried behind him. At the end of the corridor, he pushed open a wide door and held it for them, deliberately making eye contact with Joyce, a kind, understanding expression on his face. He did not enter the room with them, but simply nodded and retreated down the hallway.
The room was bright in the late afternoon sun. El laid in the bed with a heart rate monitor making the only noise. Her eyes were closed and she looked like she was merely asleep, except for the bandages at her nose. Joyce's heart sank when she saw her. What could possibly be wrong with her? she questioned silently.
Jonathan appeared at the doorway, and after a brief conversation with Joyce, beckoned Will to leave with him, to go home for the evening. "I'm going to stay here for a while. I'll be home later." Joyce hugged her boys and watched them leave. She pulled up a chair beside El's bed and took her hand.
The suppressed guilt of moving her family away from their friends broke free and washed over her. "I'm trying so hard to take care of you, but it seems like everything I do is wrong. I just don't feel like I'm winning even though I've done everything that makes sense to me. I just feel like I'm not good enough to take care of you. You're a remarkable young woman who has been through hell and come out the other side. And I'm just... well... me."
She sat in silence and grief took hold of her. She shook as she cried. She cried because she desperately missed Jim. He had taken care of El for years and she had blossomed. Whether she wanted to admit it or not, Joyce needed him too, to challenge her and give her courage. Well, I can still have courage. No one has taken that away from me, she thought. Feeling fortified from within, she took a deep breath and tried to relax. She wiped the tears from her face and blew her nose. An hour slipped by and eventually she nodded off in the chair next to El.
It was dark outside when Joyce opened her eyes. Her neck was sore and she was thirsty. As her eyes adjusted to the light, she noticed a young girl standing across from her at El's bedside. She wore a long nightgown and a vacant expression. She regarded El carefully, then slowly turned to meet Joyce's gaze. She stared at Joyce momentarily, unblinking, then turned again and slowly padded across the room and out the door.
Joyce watched the girl go, then stood, kissed El on the forehead and whispered, "I'll be back in the morning. Stay strong, El. You'll be home with us again soon." Then she also turned and tiptoed across the room and out the door.