El's POV (December 1987)
My knee bounced furiously as I glanced up at the big analog clock that hung on the back wall at Benny's.
Tik. Tik. Tik. Tik.
"Where are you?" I whispered under my breath as my eyes instinctively glanced towards the door once more.
I'd sat in the same spot for almost an hour in that ruby dress I've only worn once so far, which was hidden underneath my black wool coat. Since it was now just a few days before Christmas, the diner was practically empty. Everyone in town was either last-minute shopping at the mall or spending time with their families in the cozy comforts of their homes.. but not me.
"You sure I can't get you anything else?" The waitress cut off my line of view as she stepped in front of me, motioning towards my plate of crumbs and half-empty mug.
"I'm sure." I nodded. "I'm uh, kind of just waiting on someone."
"Alrighty then." She responded unconvinced as she picked up my dishes. "But if you change your mind sugar, just give me a holler."
"Thanks," I mumbled, my anxious gaze switching from her back to the clock.
As I watched the red hand glide effortlessly around the rounded 6, the doubts in my mind began pacing back and forth like a caged tiger.
"Did she forget?" "Did she get lost?" "I told her the right time, didn't I?" "What if she changed her mind?" "What if she doesn't want to see me?"
Suddenly, I felt the pang of instant regret for not letting Hopper come with me. He'd offered to keep me company before he dropped me off, but I declined, wanting to do this by myself.
But now in this moment, I didn't want to be alone.
And as my thoughts began to intensify, I felt like I was suffocating, as if the particles in the air around me grew so dense I could no longer breathe in.
I suddenly needed to get out of here.
I needed fresh air.
I was just about to get up from the booth until a rough startled tremor rocked through me as I heard the jangling of bells as the door opened and a breeze of frigid air rush past me.
And as my eyes landed on the person walking in, I froze.
My brain stuttered for a moment and my eyes took in more light than I expected, every part of me going on pause while my thoughts were struggling to catch up.
Six years after we last saw each other, I almost didn't recognize her. Her once lush blonde hair was now stringy and streaked with gray. Her once rosy cheeks and round face had paled and sunken in as if the pigment and life had been drained from them. She'd also lost so much weight that the hourglass figure she once had, now appeared more sticklike- almost skeletal, her clothes hanging off her body like rags.
She wasn't the woman I'd remembered, but a semblance of what I once knew. It was like death had come early to haunt her and was stealing her away piece by piece.
A perplexed expression crossed her face when she saw me but soon disappeared as recognition set in. Then I saw the corners of her mouth lift up into that smile, the one thing that hadn't changed about her- that honeyed smile that didn't stop until it reached her amber eyes and I swore right then I'd felt like a little girl again.
Her eyes widened in shock and her hand went to her mouth. "Oh my god, Jane." She hugged me with her bony frame and I didn't know what to do, so I stood there in her embrace.
"I can't believe it's really you." She cooed, pulling apart from me. "Wow, just... wow. Look at you. "You're so beautiful. I always knew you'd grow up to be-"
My direct remark didn't seem to faze her as she slipped into the booth right in front of me. "I know. Ugh, I'm sorry sweetie. Indy traffic is the absolute worst, especially this time of year."
She then paused, her expression softening back into a tender smile. "I-I can't believe this. I can't believe we're together again."
"And it only took six years, right?"
But even underneath the crudeness of my remark, there was a light in my heart that was missing just yesterday. Right now it's a spark of hope, a ray of sunshine yet to be born but it's there and I feel it.
She's come back for me.
"Ellie," She sighed. "I thought we already talked about this."
"No." I shook my head. "You told me you were in between jobs. You told me you were struggling with money. But you never told me you were…" I stopped, and by the guilt pooling in her eyes, she knew what I was referring to. "I just don't understand.. why didn't you tell me you were sick?"
"I-I've just.." Her golden eyes swooped to the table between us before she meekly replied. " I didn't want to worry you. Especially not after everything that happened with your father."
"How long?" I demanded. "How long have you been this way?"
"For quite a while, but-."
"Seriously? I could've been with you this whole time. We could've gotten through this together." The bitter resentment in my tone was now fading into one of worry. "I don't even know how much longer you have or whether it's terminal or not, and all because you never told me."
"It's just.. much more complicated than that."
I took in a deep breath. "Is.. is it cancer?"
She shook her head.
"Well, whatever you have. You need to see a specialist, okay? And I can help find you one. A good one too, not one of those pricks who are in it only for the money."
"No, it's not-."
"After I move in, I'll find a decent job. I can even put college on hold for a little if I have to, and I'll make sure to take you to all the right doctors. I'll find you the best treatment and-
"Jane, stop it," She abruptly raised her voice. "You can't live with me."
"What?" I choked like my chest had taken a sharp unexpected blow. "I-I don't understand." My voice began to shake.
She reached out to grab my hand, accidentally knocking over her purse in the process.
"You just can't. You have such a bright future ahead of you and I don't want you to waste it-"
But all I noticed at that moment were the contents that had spilled.
A very familiar bottle of pills.
But before she could shove it back into her bag, I snatched the bottle from her.
And in an instant, I was brought back to an earlier haze. In this haze, I see my mom take a handful of what she calls her "vitamins" only to end up passed out on the bathroom floor later that day. I also recall the loud voices that echoed down the hallway into my bedroom, waking me from my sleep. They are yelling. Yelling about money, about something called oxy. I hear the back and forth screaming and the sound of glass being shattered. I quietly crawl into my bed. Curling up with my teddy bear and blanket in the dark. I then drift off to sleep, the noises in the hall fading away as I fall back into my dream where everything for once is peaceful and happy.
It's like the block in my brain has finally lifted. The natural anesthesia that had forced me to forget all these years was now giving way into this sudden moment of clarity.
Unlike before, I'm now aware of the slight twitching of her body and her red shot eyes. It wasn't the illness I'd initially suspected but it was one far worse.
Because this one had not only stripped away her health... but her marriage, her livelihood, her being.
She looked at me with panic-filled eyes. "I-
But I didn't even give her a chance to form her lie as I yelled out. "So this is why you left!" I shook the pills angrily before slamming them down on the table.
If she was hoping the tears welling up behind her eyelids were going to get any sympathy from me, well she was definitely wrong. "I'm so sorry." She whispered. "I… I, All I wanted was a better life for you."
"You know it's funny," I swallowed, silently demanding my own tears not to surface. "I always heard that mothers would do anything for their daughters. They'd jump hurdles, leap fences, or do whatever they have to because that's how much they care. But you would've never left me if you really cared about me. You especially wouldn't have left me for a bottle of pills. But hey, why worry about me? When you can just move to another city and have the freedom to do whatever you want."
She was quiet as her hands shook.
"I've missed you. I've missed you so much."
"Don't." I stopped her by putting my hand up. "Don't say you miss me, because you don't know what it's like. You don't know what it's like waiting weeks and months on end just for a lousy phone call or what it's like holding your breath every year hoping for at least a visit. You certainly have no idea what it's like to always get your hopes up, only for them to end up being crushed every single time by another bullshit excuse."
She looked like a child being scolded.
"I guess you really had me fooled, huh?" I silently cursed because my eyes weren't cooperating and I felt warm tears stream down my face. "Well good luck with that next time, because now I know the real you."
"I'm trying to change." her voice was soft, almost desperate.
I glared at her. I felt the resentment come back tenfold, twisting sharply like a hot knife in my stomach. I'd just replayed this scenario countless times. Each time ending with me going off. But when I opened my mouth, the only words that would come out were.
"Why did you stop loving me?"
That's not the question I'd hoped to ask. I'd planned to curse her out. I'd plan my hardest to make her feel at least a taste of the pain she'd caused me all these years but yet, those were the only words that seemed to surface.
Her eyes never left mine. "I never stopped loving you. Ever."
"Bullshit." I retorted, "Because if you did, you would've never left."
She let her tears fall. "I left to save my life. I was miserable. I was dying. I don't expect you to understand, but I was no good to you the way I was."
"You're right." I said, meeting her gaze, "I don't understand. I'll never understand a mom who abandons their daughter for drugs."
Her shoulders rose then fell, then she began fidgeting with the zipper on her purse. "It was your father-"
I jabbed a finger in her face. "You don't get to use him as an excuse." I cut her off before she could continue. "Because unlike you, at least he had the decency to leave entirely. He never once lied saying he'd come back or had me falsely believing that he still cared."
"But I'm here now," she said, ignoring my admonishment.
"And why's that? So you can ease your guilty conscience." I said disgusted that she just tried to use that as an excuse. My cold eyes then locked on hers. "You're not even planning to stick around.. are you?"
Her shoulders sank and she avoided my gaze.
And right then, I knew.
She never came here for me. She came for herself.
"I-I don't know what to say. It's so much more complicated than you can ever imagine."
I rolled my eyes and angrily wiped the tears from my face. "You've said enough." I inhaled, standing up from the booth.
"Can we-oh god, I came all this way."
Those five little words packed an unimaginable punch. Terry Ives had just visited her daughter after six long years and all she could say was "I came all this way?" The words were like gasoline being poured into a small brush fire. Was that all I was to her? An inconvenience?
"Well, you won't have to worry about me being a burden anymore."
"Ellie." her voice was just above a whisper.
"Don't you dare call me that!" The bite in my voice was sharp. "My name's El."
"But you can go. You can go back to getting high every day since that seems to be the only thing you actually do care about. I'm no longer that twelve-year-old little girl who needs her mom, so you don't have to pretend for me anymore. You know.. I've actually done perfectly fine without you. Bet you didn't know that I always made honor roll in middle school? Did you? Or that I've kept that up throughout high school and now I'm top ten percent of my class. And you wanna know something? when I walk across that stage during graduation and I don't see you out there with all the other parents cheering on their kids. I'll be okay! Actually, I'll be better than okay! Because you know what? I don't fucking need you!"
And with those final words, I left.. and didn't look back.
After I'd made it outside of the diner I ran as quickly as my legs could carry me, bolting down the alleyway and cutting through all the shortcuts I'd remembered from the first summer I spent here.
The harsh wind didn't phase me as my pace started to quicken to an all-out sprint. The pounding noise of my boots resonating off the empty streets with a clanging echo that matched my heart throbbing inside my chest. I didn't know what to make of the frenzy of thoughts and emotions pummeling my mind, nor did I stop long enough to allow myself to.
All I knew was that I had to just keep running until I made it.
Until I made it somewhere safe.
He looked at me with fear in his eyes yet the words had exited his lips before mine.
"Wha-what are you doi-"
"Where's your family?" I cut him off hastily, my voice loud and clear with a strict intent behind them.
"Mom and Holls are visiting Nancy an-and Dad's working a late shift." He stumbled quietly, his eyes still wide in shock at my very presence and his lip trembling in both confusion and the sudden gust of what was occurring hitting him all at once.
I let myself in the dim house and without a word, and with no time to spare I shed my coat, tossing it over the couch before I darted up the stairs that led to his bedroom.
There was something comforting about being back in his house. I'd caught sight of the family photos and tan furniture as I made my way up the carpeted stairwell, Mike close behind me with the thudding of his own footsteps. As I reached the top of the stairs and made my way to his bedroom on the left, it was as if all the air had left my lungs, tears that I had no control over, and that came from deep within rushed through me. I'd never experienced anything like this because I wouldn't allow myself to get this far, this "Out of control." I had no control over anything, not even my own thoughts. It was as if my body decided for me. I'd come here instinctively-the place I'd spent most of my life in middle school. Mike's house- the place for some reason, I just knew I needed to be.
"What the fuck, El?" he asked with a sense of anger coating each word, his brows furrowed in confusion but then anguish drenched his face once he'd met my gaze.
I knew it was wrong to have just shown up like this but I didn't have the time or the emotional energy to dwell on the subject. Things seemed to happen in an instant- years of buried feelings, emotions, and thoughts all flooding me at once and sweeping away any trace of rational reasoning along with it.
"I'm sorry." was all that managed to flee my dry throat, my words cracking, and my body shaking with adrenaline.
Mike ran a hand roughly through his curls. "What's going on?" he asked softly, the color disappearing from his face.
"My mom- sh- she just-" I tried to get the words out but it was like they refused to come, as all my built-up energy and raging notions imprisoned them at the very tip of my tongue, intentionally halting my ability to speak clearly with every effort.
"Your mom? You talked to her?" Mike blurted in frustration. It was clear he was upset and puzzled at me being there which was understandable but it bothered me that I'd lost the ability to explain it to him.
"Is your mom here?" Mike interrupted me loudly, trying to maintain order within my frantic stutters and movements.
"Yeah- and-she's just-I don't know-
"You need to calm down, okay? Take a deep breath." Mike redirected, his tone tightly stretched out.
"We saw each other." I finally managed to utter.
"Wait, you saw her?" Mike glanced up at me. He still had a mixture of anger and hurt in his eyes but now they were encased in concern. Perhaps, he'd even felt for me.
I nodded, glancing down at the floor. "She doesn't want me."
My eyes still dripped with tears, but now my walls, the walls that held me up for so long, the walls that have always been my crutch...
"W-Why-" I tripped over my words, my voice shaking at the seams. "Why don't my parents want me?"
It's that look he gives me, those midnight eyes probing into my soul desperate to understand what's going on inside, and the way his hand gently reaches out to caress my arm that I find myself falling into him, sobbing into his chest unceasingly, hands clutching his shirt.
And much to my surprise, he doesn't pull away but instead, he wraps an arm around my shoulders.
He then holds me in the silence of his room, rocking me slowly, as my tears soaked his chest.
When she stood there in front of me motionless and wordless, I realized I had no idea what would happen next.
And just as well realized, neither did she.
So when she fell into me. When she finally allowed herself to rid the mask she'd been hiding behind since I'd met her, and let go, grappling onto me as though I was her lifeline. It was like I'd crashed with her, as every part of my being that I'd promised to keep built up to resist every inch of what she was seemed to evaporate and melt away.
Because as much as she had hurt me, as much as she'd left my heart in a shattered disarray of pieces and never bothered to clean up the mess, as much as I tried to get over the late nights where we'd shake in place over the outrageous amount of sugar we'd consumed from those slushies, or the D&D adventures we brought to life in the woods behind my house, or the evenings we'd spent at the lake, sitting beside each other and watching the sun go down- as much as I'd try to get over that. I realized in that very moment that I'd always love her and that was something I could never change.
It's the kind of love that's embedded in you like tattoo ink in your skin. The kind of love that's much like the lyrics of your favorite song that you never seem to be able to get out of your head. The kind of love that's like a stain in your white t-shirt that won't come out no matter how many times you've washed it. It was the kind of love that would never disappear: because once you love someone- truly love someone you never get over them. It's just as the days go on it becomes easier not to think about them.
So once she looked at me it was as if every ounce of breath was taken from my lungs floating into the air like midnight smoke and a gravitational pull that I couldn't explain drew me unto her like a magnet. Before this, I'd never been so sure. I'd never been so sure that we all have a soulmate out there: that one extraordinary relationship that could never be recreated or replicated- and El was mine.
As her head buried in my chest and her sobs came rough and heavy, I realized through her shaking cries that droplets of my own salty tears began to fall.
"I'm so sorry." She whispered, disrupting the silence between us. I then wiped away my tears with the back of my hands, before pulling apart to look at her through a clouded hazy vision.
"Why are you sorry?" I sniffed, trying to compose myself. "It's not your fault your mom-
"No, not that." She gently interrupted me, her own damp eyes locking on mine. "I'm sorry for how shitty I've been. I know you care a lot and I-I I'm sorry. I'm just a fucking mess."
"It's okay," I replied earnestly with a soft smile. "I don't blame you. I'd never blame you.'
"I don't get it. Why do you do that?" She wondered out loud with raised eyebrows. "Why don't you hate me?"
"Trust me, I've tried.. but I can't. I think we both know, I just.. can't."
"You may not think so, but you're one of the best things that's ever happened to me."
"I-I don't really know what to say to that."
And just when it seemed like I'd finally regained the power to be able to predict her next move, she'd took that from me, mercilessly and quickly without a moment's notice.
Her lips against mine, her honey waves tickling the side of my face, her hands hanging around my neck.
And an in instant, my world fell away.
The kiss was slow and soft, comforting in ways that words could never be. She moved her hand from my neck and cradled my jaw, her thumb caressing my cheek as our breaths mingled together.
I hesitantly glanced up at her. The swirls of emotion I saw there made my heart stagger. Her eyes were like candles in the night, their light a spark of passion.. desire.
But before I could ponder it further, she pulled me back to her and pressed her lips against mine once again.
As our mouths met, I felt like I was being lifted up into the air above the clouds, like I was going to slip free from the hold of gravity any moment and float on up into a world of pure sensation, flying by the sun and stars in a moment of ecstasy pumping through my veins.
Before I knew it I found myself crumbling, as I willingly gave into her. My hands wrapped around her waist and I drew her closer to me, deepening the kiss in such a way that it made her stumble over, taking me down with her onto my bed.
I watched as a small smile crept on her face while she reached to untie her dress.
And at that moment, I should've stopped her,
I should've pulled away,
I should've done something...
But I'm so enraptured by her that my heart's racing, skins buzzing, and I can feel fireworks exploding in the pit of my stomach at her very touch and I know I've already become lost within a heady trance.
And there's no other feeling in the world that can ever compare to how I feel when I'm with El.
Because when I'm with her...
Only then do I realize,
I'm finally home.