Written by Rachael Cheeseman
Dot, dash, dot, dot: L
Dot, dash: A
Late. Again. She didn’t even need to consult the chart to decipher the Morse Code. She was all too used to that particular pattern, and she was growing increasingly used to the strange heaviness that settled over her upon hearing it. It was an unsettling but all consuming weight that pushed her down and tightened her chest. It didn’t hurt her. Not in any physical sense, at least, but it reminded her of pain nonetheless. She supposed she was actually quite fond of Hopper. He was unusual. Awkward and uncertain at times, strong and in charge at others. And every so often, when El personally believed him to be at his best, he was silly. It was the silly version of Hopper that would put on the voices of the characters in the books they read together, and who taught her how to make a barricade out of her Eggo’s so the syrup didn’t touch the other food. It was silly side of him that danced in a way that never failed to make her laugh and told jokes she was sure only he would think were funny. She didn’t really understand them, but she liked to hear him tell them regardless. However, the very best thing about silly Hopper was that he so often led to the sweet version of Hopper. Sweet Hopper took some getting used to. The first time he had ruffled her rapidly growing hair she’d thought perhaps there was a cobweb caught in it that he was brushing aside. He’d chuckled at her nonplussed expression, until he realised that meant he was the first person to touch her in such a way, then his expression had darkened. Since then he had progressed to one armed hugs, pats on the back and this strange thing where he would lightly punch her in the arm when he was especially pleased. The contact was foreign and peculiar but El found herself craving it. It made her feel accepted, something she hadn’t felt since Mike.
Her eyes drifted to the makeshift blindfold beside the old television set. She had time to kill. What would it hurt to check in on him? Except it did hurt. It hurt to be so close but unable to make contact. It hurt when she saw how much he missed her but it hurt even worse in those moments when he was able to forget about her. Sometimes she caught glimmers of him enjoying a life like the one he’d had before she’d dropped in and made a mess of everything. He’d be smiling, laughing with Dustin and Lucas, playing one of their games. She’d watch until she literally couldn’t see through her tears. No. She wouldn’t look in on him. Like Hopper would say “There’s no good can come of it.” So, the real question became, what should she do?
First things first. El grabbed the plate of dinner Hopper had left out for her and promptly dumped the vegetables out her bedroom window. She frowned at the growing pile of broccoli. Hopper insisted it was good but, in El’s experience, rats would eat pretty much anything and even the rodents wouldn’t touch the weird green stuff. And if the rats wouldn’t eat it, she wasn’t going to go anywhere near it. She replaced the missing vegetables with two extra Eggos and settled down to her feast.
She was just bringing the first forkful up to her mouth when she spied the coffee maker out of the corner of her eye. She shook her head, determined to focus on her meal but her eyes kept being drawn back to the bizarre contraption. Hopper said coffee was no good for her. But he drank it all the time. How bad could it really be?
El was only vaguely aware of the mess she was making in her haste to tear open the coffee and pour it into the compartment. She wasn’t sure what the small paper circles were for, so she decided not to bother with them. Instead she hastily emptied the coffee granules into the machine and filled it to the brim with water. She placed the jug underneath just as she had seen Hopper do countless times, and at the click of a button she was rewarded with the loud sputtering noise that always made her think the machine must be broken, but that Hopper assured her was perfectly normal. Whilst the coffee machine got to work, El’s eyes alighted on another way to keep busy.
Hopper’s record collection was extensive to say the least. He’d told her all the names of the bands and singers when she’d first arrived but she had long since forgotten all but a few that were his favourites. She picked a record at random, placing it on the turntable and lowering the needle, just the way Hopper always did. She didn’t know exactly where the needle was meant to sit so she nudged it forwards and backwards a few times. It made a peculiar, zipping sort of noise that made her smile so she continued swinging the arm to and fro, delighted to see just how loud a noise it could make. She was just considering seeing if she could make it play actual music when she spotted the rusty old pair of roller skates in the corner.
Hopper had told her there wasn’t enough space to skate in the cabin. He’d promised to take her out one day and teach her how to use the odd, wheeled shoes. El bit her lip in indecision. That had been 83 days ago. Perhaps if she pushed the couch to one side she would have enough room to at least have a go at skating. Leaving the record playing to screech and crackle, El raced across to the skates tearing off her beaten up old sneakers as she went. Her hands shook in her haste to fasten the buckles of the skates and they didn’t quite fit her feet but she couldn’t have cared less. Just standing up proved to be exceptionally difficult but eventually she found she could just about keep her feet under her if she clung to the bookcase. Every tiny movement nearly sent her flying as her feet jerked and slipped beneath her. It was a little frightening and difficult but unbelievably fun. Even when her momentum sent her feet skidding in opposite directions and landed her squarely on her butt, surrounded by the books she’d pulled off the shelves in a desperate attempt to remain upright, she still couldn’t keep from grinning like a fool. She hadn’t quite mastered standing in the skates but she was too excited to get moving to hold off any longer. She pushed off from the bookcase sending even more volumes clattering to the ground as she careened across the cabin straight into the dining table, colliding with one of the rickety wooden chairs and sending both them to the ground in heap of tangled limbs and splintered wood. Dazed but unharmed El tried to right herself when she spotted the coffee pot beginning to overflow. Obviously, she’d done something wrong. Hopper’s coffee never looked like that. The machine was pumping out a thick sludge that smelt burnt and bitter and was quickly oozing its way along the work surface and splattering onto the floor. In her rush to stand, El momentarily forgot the skates still affixed to her feet. She crashed into yet another chair, sending it skittering across the floor, before she gave in to scrambling on her hands and knees desperately trying to find something she could use to haul herself back to her feet. The, she would find a towel or a cloth or anything that might be useful in cleaning up the sludgey coffee. She grabbed hold of the cupboard door to her left and it nearly swung clean off its hinges under her weight. She crumpled to the ground once more, digging through the cupboard for something that might help. There was no towel in sight but what she did see froze her in her tracks. The box of lucky charms was partially obscured behind the tinned meats but there was no mistaking that packaging. Hopper had told her there were none left. She’d suspected he wasn’t being entirely truthful at the time, she hadn’t wanted to accuse him of lying though. He’d saved her from freezing and starving and he’d not hurt her or asked anything of her since. It felt wrong to question him when he’d shown her such kindness. Almost without realising, El found her hands reaching for the brightly coloured cereal box, all thoughts of the coffee long forgotten.
When the door to the cabin swung open some indeterminable time later, El was still sat on the kitchen floor amidst handfuls of dropped cereal and broken chairs. Her feet were still wedged firmly into the roller skates and thick, gloopy coffee covered a good deal of the counter top. Books were strewn haphazardly around the cabin and the scratchy crackling of the record player was the only sound to be heard. Hopper’s eyes opened wider than she’s have believed possible as he took in the scene before him. His mouth moved wordlessly, at first, then he found his voice.
“What in God’s name happened here, kid?” El locked eyes with him, not entirely sure how she could express everything that was inside of her. Her fear, her frustration, her gratitude and her loneliness and all the questions she had burning her up inside, questions about who she was, about the world, about the man who had taken her in and why he cared what happened to her and whether she could trust the feeling of safety he gave her, the happiness he’d brought her. Hopper waited, the vein throbbing in his clenched jaw, his narrowed eyes pinning her to the spot. In the end she said the only thing she could.
'You were late.'