There were moments, usually occurring in the early hours of the morning or right in the middle of a class period, when he didn’t feel any pain at all. He wasn’t seeing the black remnants of the demogorgon or hearing Eleven’s screams and his chest wasn’t contracting in waves of hurt. He felt…normal. The way he felt before she died.
In those moments he would be temporarily comforted because maybe the brief reprieve signaled the beginning of the end. Maybe the sadness was ebbing and would be leaving him alone. But that was the stupidest thing about grief. It never really was over- just as soon as he’d gotten a grip he’d lose it and go through the varying degrees of depression or pain all over again. This was the case now, as he pushed back the most recent flow of reflex tears. He hated the sudden bursts of sobbing almost as much as he hated the times he felt too low to even cry.
Sitting up, he rubbed a hand over his burning cheeks, already scrubbed bright red. He was tired, exhausted from the ridiculous cycle he went through for someone he hardly knew. Why did he have to care as much as he did? Why did some self-destructive complex in his brain pin the blame on himself? And why couldn’t he just break out of it?
The door handle turned. Frantically, Mike pushed the covers off his legs and flipped the tear-soaked pillow over. Nancy treated going into his room like a necessary mission and barged in all at once. Holly was the only one in the house shy enough to actually knock first. His father hadn’t entered his room in years. And Mike could handle anyone in the house seeing him like this except for his mom.
“Michael, I have some of your laundry folded on my bed and-” She stopped, her gaze sweeping over his swollen eyes and tightly balled fists. “Oh, sweetie,” she breathed, enveloping him in her arms.
Mike’s shoulders tensed. So many times he’d collapsed against her and cried until his heart wasn’t as heavy, but he didn’t want that anymore. He didn’t want to cry, he didn’t want to be held, he just wanted it to be over. He just wanted to forget. Rip down the blanket fort and throw away the tattered T-shirt she’d arrived in and just be okay. And besides, he could never make his mom understand because he wasn’t allowed to. She couldn’t help him.
She must’ve known this, because while she hugged him hard she murmured, “If only I could just take away the pain and have it for myself I would, Mike. I would in a heartbeat.”
Mike doesn’t think about those words, he doesn’t want to think about those words, for over a year. They come back all at once when he’s on his knees in the basement with quivering hands and a feeling of complete and utter inadequacy. He feels so useless in the middle of El’s flashbacks and after the fact as well, when he can only offer to hold her and maybe talk about it if she can find the words to do so. He’s stuck crouched by her shaking body with no idea of what she’s seeing and no idea how to chase those images away. You don’t deserve this, he thinks. You don’t deserve this! You don’t deserve this! But he can’t go back in time to yell in the faces of everyone that wronged her and he can’t reach into her head and pull all the bad things out. He can only wish for something absolutely impossible.
When Will broke his finger and was wailing on the sidewalk and when Holly had a bad earache and cried for half the night and when Troy tripped Lucas in third grade and he had scrapes all over his face for weeks, Mike felt the same way. He wanted their pain to somehow switch over onto his own body so he could hold onto it until it passed. But with El, it was different. She had an entire life before she met him that was full of pain, and every time he saw the memories of it flickering on her face he wanted to take all of it. But that was the plight of loving a person like El- in the end, the pain would still belong to her.
He never tells her how much he wishes her pain was his. He doesn’t need to. She feels it when he holds her hand and hears it when he gets up the courage to tell her how much he loves her for the first time. His wife knows, but over twenty years later Mike is sitting beside his teenage daughter and wondering for the first time if he’ll need to say the words out loud.
“I’m sorry,” Aubrey whispered. “It’s just been happening a lot lately,”
“It’s not your fault,” Mike answered firmly, pulling away from the middle school parking lot. “It’s never your fault, okay?”
Aubrey’s anxiety attacks had been an ongoing battle for years, and Mike hated every second of them. When they first realized the nature of her nervous breakdowns, he couldn’t get his mother’s words out of his head. If he hadn’t understood them fully then or even when he was with El, he understood the concept completely now. He would remember for the rest of his life how small and perfect she had been when she was born. He would remember holding her as she slept and knowing with every fiber of his being that he would spend the rest of his life trying to give her the best of everything he had. But now he was here, picking her up from school on one of her worst days, and he only had one thing to say:
“You know, if I could do anything to take this away from you, I would. I don’t care if it got multiplied by a thousand on the way over, I would just want you to never have to deal with it again. And your mom…she feels the same way,” Mike got out, the smell of his mother’s shirt wafting through his memories.
Aubrey shifted in her seat, reaching for the Kleenex box under the passenger seat. “I know you would. I always know that,”
I remember the feeling of sadness, the overwhelming stride an the heaviness of loss. I remember walking down very dark alley ways only thinking of the one person who could keep me alive. She was the only one who ever understood what it was like, the only one who cared enough to ask if I was feeling alright. For years before I had met her she was locked away, never to know what the world outside her walls truly looked like an she would cry an she would scream, begging to be freed. There was only so much I could do to make her not think of those times but the pain she felt an the life she lived explained why she knew nothing like we did. I spent nights trying to calm her, she would wake up screaming an crying but I was always there, there to hold her but still. That wasn’t enough. Eleven is gone, she really is gone an now im not only questioning the world, im questioning everything. I held her in my arms as the blood ran down her nose, I cried an pleaded but nothing I did was working an the pain only got worse for her, I laid my hand on her stomach trying to make peace with everything but I just couldn’t. I was empty an I felt shattered, I was numb an all sensation just wasn’t there, no more of anything. I guess this is the end now,this is my official goodbye to Eleven. I miss you…is there a snowball where you are?…….