Chapter 1: Bend Me
A/N Greetings, all! This is my first attempt at writing Hopper. It's going to be from his POV. I marked this story A/U but tried to stay as close to the series as possible. Since it's 1977, Hopper's Blazer won't be in it at first since that model is 1980, so I gave him a police cruiser for now.
Warning: Hopper is distraught these first two chapters. You will not be proud of him. He's very manipulative while trying to process his grief. This story has heavy situations. Oral sex. First time. Rough smut. Older man / younger woman. Twenty year age gap.
"Chief, we, uh, got your wife here. I'm sorry to be the one to tell you this, but she said that, well, you're just not doing it for her anymore..."
I turn the dial down for the volume on my radio to cease Phil and Calvin's cackles before my hand returns to grip the steering wheel all too aggressive. Not because they're trying to get a rise out of me, but because if they only knew how much truth there was to that. My eyes lock on my wedding ring. I don't regret my time with Diane. It's just… not the same. Nothing has been the same since Sara was diagnosed with cancer.
I held it together pretty well until I was brushing Sara's hair and it came out in clumps. The doctors warned us it would be a side effect. I guess I just figured that wouldn't happen. Not my Sara.
All I've ever wanted is to be a good father, but instead of being by my daughter's side, I'm searching for a bar where there's no possible way they'll know Diane's and my situation with Sara. Where I don't get those pity we're sorry looks.
I end up in the town of Jonesboro at some… it doesn't matter. After a night of binge drinking, I sleep it off in the parking lot of my cruiser. Probably shouldn't have gone drinking in my uniform.
The sounds of laughter pull me from my stupor. I groan, fishing my flask from my pocket. What the? I tilt my head to the side and read the banner that's been set up.
Varsity Cheerleading Car Wash '77
My eyes trail places they shouldn't be. Especially Blondie there filling up one of the buckets of soap with the hose. I grunt and turn away. No. Don't even- oh? I slowly bring the flask away from my lips.
Blondie is resting her arm on my door. "Aren't you going to roll up your window? You're going to get wet," she giggles, leaning in.
My eyes go to one thing. Well, technically two. On top of the neglect, I'm anything but faithful to Diane. Some of which I don't even remember their names. There was this motel on the outskirts two towns over I'd have girls meet me because I used to try to hide the fact that I was law enforcement. I don't even care now, using my car mostly to save my twenty bucks on an hour rated room. It's better spent on alcohol. I'm a true pig.
"Chief?" She taps my badge some to snap me out of my funk.
Oh, right. "How much for you to wash my car?"
"It's two dollars."
I reach into my pocket for my wallet, making sure to emphasize I'm aroused. As I start to hand over the bills, I draw my fingers back with the money. "What's your name?"
"Bertie. Bertie Bennett, sir."
"Don't you think that top is a little revealing for a girl your age?"
"I'm grown now. Turned 18 last week, in case you were wondering."
"Lucky me," I smirk, slipping a five into her bathing suit top. Even brushing my thumb against her soft skin.
Her chest flushes with these little red spots. "You… you pay after," she whimpers, her teeth sinking into that bottom lip.
"That's for you. Be nice and thorough," I wink.
"I will," she stammers, backing away from the door.
High school girls? This is a new low, I tell myself. I'm just not a good listener. Ask my wife.
Blondie has her hair up in a bandana, but it looks like I could probably wrap it twice around my fist. Yeah… I already forgot her name. Mine's the only one that matters leaving those rouge lips.
I watch her as she's playful with the other girls. So full of life. Always laughing. I find myself joining in before I return to my stoic no bullshit manner.
"You're all clean, sir," she smiles.
Yeah, and you're filthy. I take in the dirt on her knees and thighs from when she was leaning over my hood. "Tell me that name of yours again," I grin, reaching out to wipe the suds from her shoulder.
"Bertie Bennett. Am I in trouble?"
You have no idea.
I'm actually on time to work today. Bertie Bennett, Bertie Bennett, Bertie Bennett, I keep telling myself. I wrote her name down on a piece of paper that flew out the goddamn window on the way in, and my memory isn't what it once was. Maybe it's all the drinking.
"Not now," I interrupt Flo before I forget. I shut my office door behind me, then knock on the window. "Get me Jonesboro P.D. on the phone." The blinds are flipped closed. I have a seat at my desk, getting a bottle from my bottom drawer before taking this call. "This is Chief Jim Hopper, over at Hawkins." I know the Chief there very well. Let's just say I had a little incident in Jonesboro a year back that he buried for me. "I need Bennett, uh." Shit, what was her name? "The address for the Bennett girl."
"Bertie?" He grunts against the receiver. "Keepin' you up at night?"
I'm not really sure what he means by that, or how he knew she's been on my mind.
"Randy's still lookin' after her. She's been doin' real good. Made head cheerleader. Just a second, I'll get you that address."
Is he trying to guilt trip me?
Within minutes, I have my address. School is out today, so I take me a little trip to Jonesboro. Hardly what I get paid for, but it's here or the bar.
I pull up to a house I don't know how is standing. Not a place I'd think the head cheerleader would live. I notice a 1956 Ford Pickup in the driveway that I walk over to. Christ, it's beautiful, but it's being worked on. The corner of my lip tugs upward as I set my hand above me on the hood. "Blondie," I greet, tipping my hat.
"It's Bertie," she smiles, wiping the grease from her hands.
I didn't realize how short she is the other day. Not even five foot. "She washes and fixes them," I comment. "Anything you can't do?"
"Well," she flirts, tonguing the inside of her cheek. "I did learn the hard way with the radiator." She shows me the inside of her left arm.
I run the knuckle of my index finger down the burn scar taking up most of her forearm. "Your daddy around?"
"Somewhere, but he's probably hungover."
Aren't we all? Her tools scattered about catch me off guard. That shit isn't cheap. What tools were organized were in a milk crate, but that's not any better. Why am I looking at tools right now? "So, 18, huh?"
"I have some cake left in the icebox if you want a piece."
For the record, she really meant cake.
That should have been my sign to leave. Instead, I'm sitting down at the table in the kitchen.
"You have to sing me Happy Birthday before you can get a piece."
"I ain't singing, Bird."
"It's Bertie, and I want my song or no pound cake for you."
I let out a breathed laugh as I tilt my chair back to see down the hallway. Once I return it to all four legs, I run my hand down my face with a groan. "Are you messing with me? Is this a joke? Some kind of game?"
"Nope! Rules are rules. Or else I'm gonna eat it all by myself." She drags her finger along the frosting. "It's chocolate."
I try to silence what's left of my conscience until I get a call over the radio. Leave. Now. Because putting her on the counter is probably the worst thing you can do. Cake. Counter. Car. Cake. Counter. Car… I clear my throat as I rise to my feet.
"Aww, I'll share."
Too late for that. "Maybe another time, Bettie." And be thankful I'm not being a dick about it. Waste of time thinking she'd mess around with me.
She follows me out the door, leaning into the frame. "It's Bertie," she calls after me.
"Like it matters," I murmur, getting in my cruiser.
"No," I dodge Flo, grabbing four donuts and speeding to my office. The one I've stuck in my trap falls to the floor when I see who's in my chair. Yeah, I said that right.
Behind my desk.
I close the door, then swipe the donut from the floor. "How'd you get back here?" I look paranoid out of my blinds before closing them, dropping another donut. "Dammit!"
"You're the one from the car wash with the..." She imitates an erection by sticking her finger in her shorts.
"Nothing gets past you, Blondie. Maybe I'll give you a job."
"I don't want a job. And it's Bertie."
"Then what do you want?"
"Why did you come to my house?"
Well, this is uncomfortable. I'm not often called out on this kind of thing. "For you, and I didn't follow you into the house for cake."
I'm grown now. I turned 18 last week, in case you were wondering.
I'm grown now.
Wait a second. She was implying that we've met before the car wash when she said that. But I can't even remember her name, why would I remember her? Then it hits me.
Let me back up. Last year is when all this started with Sara, as well as my many affairs. I was leaving the motel at about three am. Right before I got into Hawkins, a car spun out of control on the bridge and went over the edge into icy waters, taking my cruiser with it. I couldn't save the woman driving Alyssa, but I was able to save her teenage daughter. That girl being Blondie. I honestly thought we were going to freeze to death before help came once I pulled her from the lake. Being submerged in water that cold is like being set on fire as well as having all your oxygen depleted. Blondie's injuries were pretty serious. Last I heard when I was fleeing from the hospital, they were putting her in a medically induced coma. I actually meant to check up on her, but it just evaded me… like so many other things. "You're Alyssa's daughter."
She gives me a slow nod. "Bertie."
"I don't remember much from that night. Look, there was no hidden agenda. I didn't keep tabs on you after the wreck, and I didn't show up at the car wash ready to make my 'move' because you're legal. I was drunk leaving that bar and passed out in the parking lot. Ok?" I snap my fingers at her. "Up."
She sinks back some in the chair. "Something tells me it's down."
I brace both arms of the chair and lean in. "I'm not what you're looking for."
"I think you are."
As I return to my full height, I start to tug on her arm. "Out."
"My doctor said you fled the hospital that night. Why'd you run? Were you drunk like mama?"
"I can't!" I release her arm and hurry over to the door to crack it open a bit just to make sure no one is coming to check on me after that outburst, but the coast is clear so I carefully shut it. "I'm married. Was married." I don't know why I'm being truthful about the one secret I've tried so hard to keep, yet I'm lying to her about not being married. Furthermore, I'm pocketing my wedding ring before I turn around. "I was supposed to be at the hospital in Hawkins with someone, but I snuck out to meet this woman at a motel. After the accident, I fled the hospital in Jonesboro because I didn't want my wife to find out I was coming back from the motel."
"That's why the police Chief in Jonesboro covered it up."
"You better not say anything."
"I just wanted to say thank you for saving my life."
I stand in front of her, wondering what's rolling around in that dense skull of hers. In her eyes, I'm this ideal man she's built up. An infatuation fueled by false hopes. Impossible standards thanks to Harlequin romance novels. Filling their heads that because I did the decent thing and pulled her from the water, we're supposed to live happily ever after together. "I won't tell you again. Get. Up."
"Well, you gotta move for me to, silly," she giggles.
Yeah, I should have moved. Should have been better about brushing off her continual advances after finding out the truth, but I don't. And for the record, my hand does wrap twice around her hair. I tilt my head back, letting out a deep breath. "That's a good girl," I moan. I knew I saw something in those lips. If someone walks in and sees this, my career and my marriage are over. This is so wrong. Yet, my groans through clenched teeth say otherwise.
"Hop, are you ok," Flo calls from outside my door.
Shit! "I'm a little busy," I snap. "Ow, teeth," I growl down at Blondie.
"Be nice," she mouths, running her tongue along the spot she nipped.
I thrust my hips forward to shut her up. I am not nice. Clearly. And what is wrong with me? Here I have this barely legal girl in my office like some deviant. But the things she does with her mouth… Oh, too late.
I lean back against my desk, catching my breath as I slip out my pack of cigarettes.
She gets out of the chair, then grabs her backpack. "See you around, sir," she smiles, standing on her tiptoes to give me a soft kiss on the cheek.
My eyes follow that heart-shaped ass as she climbs out my window. Goddamn, that was good.
I don't usually see the same woman twice, but if I keep Blondie around, I could keep tabs on her. At least, that's how I justified all the times I met up with her in some motel or my cruiser. She was very giving, but she never let things go farther. So I messed around with a few other women to get what I couldn't from her. That's not even the surprising part. There is this moment when she is on her knees at the gas station restroom and she looks up at me with those big blues, cock in her mouth and all, and I think she… loves me. It's time to put an end to this. Well, in just a minute I will.
"Something wrong?" She tries her best to read me.
I put my hands on my hips with a sigh because I can't … keep it… up. "This is wrong, Bernie."
"Bertie, and it's not wrong."
I'm quick to zip my pants up and head for the door. Right as I reach for that doorknob, you know what she says to me? Yeah, she has me wrapped around her finger because this moment is when she decides I can put her on the counter. I use the sink and break the seal holding it to the wall with how hard I delve into her. "Fuck, B!"
"Shut up!" I cover her mouth with my hand. My eyes focus on her chest because her face looks like she's in pain. I don't even wait for her to finish, and shoot my load on the floor. That's when I notice blood and realize I've taken her innocence.
I wash my hands in the other sink with a sigh. "The way you act, I never thought it was your first time."
She pulls her panties up her shaky legs, big eyes spilling with tears.
I think it's safe to say she doesn't love me anymore.
The shred of decency I have as a man is left back in the restroom when I just walk out, taking long strides through the parking lot as it feels like every person knows what I did to her. Their eyes burning in judgment my way. I slide into my cruiser, my chest tight as I slam the door. I hang my head, trying to catch my breath. Go back for her. You are not this kind of person. You can still fix this.
"Chief," Flo's panicked voice says over the radio. "Are you there? Please pick up. It's… Sara. Over."
My drinking becomes too much as if it wasn't already. Sara isn't responding to her treatments anymore. Diane and I fight every minute we're together. Tonight being no exception.
"You didn't eat anything."
I push the plate away from me. "I'm not hungry."
She comes over and takes our plates to the sink before slamming them down in it. "Who is she? The woman you're seeing."
I think the question is who isn't she? Still, I never meant for Diane to find out. "Not now, Christ." Real sensitive, dick.
"Like I don't know you sleep around, Jim. Everyone in this town knows."
"I've tried to look the other way because you've never brought it back to the house until now."
I can't deal with this. Can't disappoint someone else. "I'm going to see Sara," I snap, swiping my keys off the table.
I try to be this pillar of strength for my daughter, but each day her health dwindles. Still, she always greets me with a smile like I can do no wrong despite the pain she's in.
"Hold still, I'm trying to do your hair," Sara giggles, gathering my hair and winding her blue hair tie around it. "You look pretty, daddy."
"Oh, yeah?" I start to tickle her sides.
Her laughs this time turn into a coughing fit. One that I've never thought I'd beg for it to continue because at least if she's coughing, she's alive. This is the moment that it truly hits me how ill my daughter is.
I kneel beside her bed once she's stable. "I'm sorry, baby." I tug the hair tie from the top of my head, sliding it over my hand and onto my wrist for safe keeping.
Sara can't breathe on her own right now, tubes and a ventilator everywhere.
I set my hand on her chest to feel her shallow breaths. Some assurance because I don't know what to believe anymore.
Diane comes running into the room. "I came as soon as I could!"
My worn eyes inch up to my wife.
She takes me by the head as I wrap my arms around her waist, my head resting on her stomach. Her fingers run through my hair as if nothing ever happened to push us away from one another. "Jim…"
I shake my head, hiding my shame by pressing my face against her floral shirt. "I screwed up," I sob. "I'm sorry…"
A/N Thank you for reading! Reviews are always appreciated, or even a kudo! :)
Chapter 2: Break Me
A/N This chapter is brutal. The way Hopper treats Bertie is pretty awful, but it serves as the catalyst for the next chapter and I promise Hopper is the cynical mess we all love. We just have to get through this one first. This is also the last flashback chapter before we get to 1983.
We lose Sara the Tuesday before Valentine's day. I watch them lower the tiny casket into the ground as my fingers cling tightly to her hair tie. As the earth swallows it up, I realize the casket is like this metaphor for my guilt as I'm suffocated by everything around me. I should have spent every moment with Sara. How could I be so goddamn selfish?
With Sara gone, Diane and I don't stand a chance. She's moved out before I even make it home that night. Now I truly spend my time alone because I quit my job. Most days, I can't get off the couch, so why would I bother showing up at a job?
I pack Sara's things into boxes. Some things more difficult than others. Her blue coat. One small plush tiger. A half finished rubber band ball she made in my office. As I start to put her hair tie in the box, I just… can't. I sigh heavily, flipping the lid on the box, then sprawl myself on the couch to hopefully get some sleep. It's… gonna be better. It has to. Just one day at a time until it gets easier.
It's recommended by numerous people that I see the doctor and a grief counselor. I'm not talking to some counselor about feelings, so the doctor it is. The way he looks back at me reminds me of a disapproving murderous look Robert De Niro would give someone right before he whacked them. Now I'm starting to regret coming here. Just give me the damn pills. And I need to stop watching The Godfather II.
"I'll start you off on 50 mg of Tuinal a day, once a day. Try to take it at the same time of day. I'll see you back in a month, Jim."
I take the prescription paper and slide off this ridiculous exam table he made me sit on. He could have just saved us both the trouble and called the damn thing in.
I'm reaching a point where I don't even want to go out in public because of the pity looks I get. It's everywhere I go.
As I return to my truck from the pharmacy, I dump three pills in my hand and swallow them back. Probably shouldn't take these on an empty stomach, so I drive over to the diner. I'm sure I won't get a seat because there's some game going on and there are people everywhere. However, I'm taken to a booth right away. Sometimes even simple tasks like eating are too overwhelming after Sara. I just keep telling myself I have to.
The waitress scratches her head with her pen. "What can I get you, Chief?"
Guess she hasn't heard the news I'm no longer on the force, though it gets me a discount. "Surprise me." I tilt my head back with a groan because I shouldn't have taken all those pills. I feel funny. Not bad, just funny.
I bring my head back when I think it's the waitress again, but startle surprised, scaring the entire diner when I yell.
Big blues stare back at me unfazed.
"Uh," I stammer, rubbing the back of my neck.
I set my arms on the table and lean over it. "What are you doing here?"
She points at the bus outside, then proudly puffs the big J out on the front of her cheerleading sweater. "The championship game, duh."
"Not in Hawkins, I mean at this table. You can't sit here. Are you crazy?" I reach my arm out, pressing my hand to the bench before she can get up. "Stay. I'm… a little skittish right now." Truthfully, I'm happy to see her. As happy as I can be at this point. I definitely don't deserve it after what I did to her, and a diner isn't the best place to say sorry I took your virginity on a gas station sink. Still, I need to try.
"I went to sneak in your office window again, but there was some other man at your desk. Why did you quit?"
"You wanna keep it down? I'm trying to get my discount." It doesn't matter anyway because I sit here as she eats the burger and fries that were meant for me, not doing anything about it. I observe as she twists the burnt ends off the fries and lets them land anywhere like the way I do with the filters on my cigarettes. I feel like there's this alternate dimension where she mirrors all my traits, but brings an innocence to them. "Are you ok after… the restroom?"
"Yep. Just sore the day after. Does it always hurt?"
It makes me feel worse because she doesn't realize what I did was wrong, especially her question. "No, it should never hurt. I shouldn't have treated you like that. I started to come back for you, but I got a call on the radio. Look, it's not an excuse. Nothing makes it ok for someone to treat you like that."
I'm given a glimpse of those little dimples of hers, followed by one of her gleeful chortles. "Oh! I need to go, they're calling for us. Pick me up Tuesday afternoon at six. East side of the gymnasium. Thanks for the food!"
Like I had a choice in the matter? She's lost her damn mind if she thinks I'm going to- My teeth grind together as I'm a witness to one of the football players snaking his arm around her.
"Stop, Austin!" She shoves him off.
"Tense! We could work that off, baby."
She slaps him across the face. "It's Bertie."
"Watch the way you speak to her," I shout, rising from the booth.
He starts laughing with some of his friends. "What are you going to do about it, old man? Nice plaid shirt you got there."
I pick him right up and stuff him into the trash can. When the older women having their coffee stare back appalled, I hold my hand out to wave to them. "He's just looking for something." Mind your business. I pat him on the shoes. "Isn't that right?"
"Yes," his voice echoes in the steel can. "I'm done now, sir."
"Nope, keep digging, little shit," I say under my breath with this fake smile plastered on my face to pacify the older women. I shouldn't have done that, but too late now. I make sure to put my trash on him before I leave. You know, come to think about it, that punk kid called her prude. That girl is anything but prude with me. Now I'm starting to hate myself again.
I bounce my knee impatient because it's well after six. Yeah, ok, so maybe I'm picking her up. I dig through old mail on my seat, taking a catalog for boots to kill some time. God, I'd love a pair of these.
Hmm. How much longer is this going to take? Is she trying to get me back for the restroom? I'm just in a foul mood today. Sara's birthday is this weekend and I haven't figured out how to cope with that yet. How to process all these unfamiliar emotions. Everyone goes on with their life as I'm expected to, like I haven't lost everything. I pop two more of these pills before I start working myself up again.
I draw in a deep breath, opening my eyes when I feel something move off my chest. I must have dozed off.
"What are you reading?" Blondie flips the catalog over.
"Some boots I wanted," I say groggy, swiping the catalog back and throwing it to the floor. "I'm starving. I thought you said six? I've been waiting out here, bored out of my mind."
"They kept us later than I thought. I'm sorry."
I don't give her a choice and head to a place that should probably be shut down for health violations, but it's cheap.
She's back to her smiling, jovial self. "I like your truck. The classics are the best."
"It's a piece of shit," I grumble.
"It does run a little rough. You should bring it by. I'll look at it for you. Don't want to get stranded."
"I'm not going to get stranded…"
"Why'd you quit Hawkins PD? Are you going for a job in the city?"
Why all the questions? "I already had a job in the city. I hated it. Thought I'd get a job as a garbage collector." I know I was attempting to be funny referring back to that football player when I put in the trash, but each giggle of hers only makes me grip the steering wheel in anger. I think part of me resents her because I've always been able to detach myself from this meaningless sex and now I can't. Or maybe I don't want to since I'm having a pity party today. After this last laugh, I can't take it anymore, and pull over on the side of the road. I unzip my pants, taking her by the wrist. "That's it," I moan, moving her head down faster each time she bobs up.
After that, I'm sure I won't see her again because we get into a huge argument and I leave her on the side of the road. She asked to use Sara's hair tie and I flipped out. I don't even give her a reason or why it's so meaningful to me. I need to get it together and quit taking out my anger on anyone who's empathetic towards me. It's not their fault, and it's not going to bring back Sara…
My insurance ran out since I'm no longer on the force, which means paying out of pocket for my pills. It isn't cheap, but I've developed a dependency on them.
Great. Flo. Queue the awkward condolences. I don't want Sara to be forgotten, but I don't want people telling me how sorry they are. Or treating me differently. As I start to open my mouth, that's when I notice Diane outside the pharmacy. Does she have a new… what the hell? I hurry from the pharmacy without my meds to go after her and see who this guy is. Is- "Shit!" I miss the curb entirely and plummet right into the bushes.
"Jim? Is that you?"
I stick my hand out from the bushes to let her know I'm ok, waiting for her feet to disappear before I drag myself from them. Jesus Christ, how embarrassing, and I still didn't get a look at the guy she was with yet.
To make matters worse, my truck is on its last leg. Smoke pours from the engine as it kills it entirely and I come to a rolling stop.
Don't want to get stranded.
I'm not going to get stranded…
Seriously? What else is going to go wrong?! "A little break would be nice," I shout.
"Chief?" There's a knock on the driver side window.
Ok, so maybe I broke down by the auto repair place. I've been to this shop a few times. Wendall went to high school with Joyce and me.
"Shouldn't be long, Chief. I'll get my best guy on it."
I want to say I've quit, but I just let it go. At least he's not asking me about Sara. "Take your time." That's all I seem to have these days.
While it's being worked on, my attention keeps getting diverted over to this toolbox that's neglected by the fence. I know I've been a real dick to, uh… Blond- heh. Why can't I remember her name?
Shouldn't be long, turns into three hours, but what the hell else am I going to do?
"You're all ready to go. No charge."
"How much for that," I point at the toolbox.
"That old thing? I was going to toss it. It's all rusted and the wheels don't work right. The drawers stick."
"I'd like to have it."
Wendall shrugs, whistling for one of his mechanics. "Load this junk box up for the Chief."
It takes me a week to fix the damn thing, but it's rather enjoyable. I paint it a sea green to match her truck, then write B on it because I can't remember it let alone spell it. All the drawers work again, and the wheels glide just fine on the bottom now. Perfect.
She's working on her truck again once I pull up. "What's this," she smiles. Her tools are still scattered all over.
"Just thought you could use it." Once it's unloaded, that's when the truth comes out. "You met me at a really difficult time in my life. Not that it excuses my behavior, but I just wanted to say that I was sorry for the gas station restroom and dumping you on the side of the road. You don't deserve the way I've treated you."
"You forgot my name again, didn't you?" She taps the B.
"Shit. Yes," I sigh, running my fingers through my hair.
"Well, I still like it. Thank you." Her arms move around my waist as she scoots in close to me.
I take in this embrace for a moment because I don't know how to feel about it. My hands hover over her head before they find their place. One on her back and the other tangled in blonde tresses.
"Will you tell me your name?"
Why can't you forget about me? Why can't I forget you? "What for?" It's not like I do you the courtesy of remembering yours.
"That way, if I lose you again, maybe I can find you."
It's meaningful, but I have a hard time believing when good things happen to me. Or maybe I'm just scared I'll lose someone again. It said Hopper on my name badge, so I'm sure she's seen that part before. Though it probably does mean something actually telling her. "It's Hopper. Jim Hopper." The somber truth is that I don't feel even a fraction of what she does for me. We're not going to settle down and live happily ever after. She's just a willing distraction. I'll use her until I don't need her anymore, then toss her to the sides like the others. It's how I really feel, yet, at times, I feel hypocritical about it. I do things for her that I don't do for the others. Take this moment, for example. I'm not shoving her from me. In fact, I let her disperse the embrace. When she goes back to her truck, I follow her, not flee like I usually do. Just don't get attached.
While she does, well, whatever she's doing to that engine, I organize her tools. "What's this?" I hold the long piece of steel up.
"It's a torque wrench. It tightens and loosens some of the nuts and bolts." She even offers to show me which results in me bending her over the hood. What? I saw the opportunity and I took it...
"See you around, Blondie."
"Bertie." She slips her shorts button back in place. "Jim?"
I pull out of the driveway, heading back to Hawkins. Yeah, I'm an asshole.
I snap my eyes open, sitting up from the couch. "Sara?" I've been having these hallucinations that are now bleeding into my dreams. With enough pills, it goes away for a few hours, but I need another distraction.
Over the next few months, any time I want Blondie, she's ready. Sometimes, it isn't until I'm getting dressed that I realize where I am. No thanks to all the pills and drinking. There's this motel by her house that we've been using. It makes no difference to me, probably because it's not my money that's being spent.
"Jim?" Blondie runs her fingers in my hair.
"Huh," I groan into the pillow. Shit! I sit up out of the bed in a panic because I cannot allow myself to become vulnerable around this woman.
"It's ok. I paid for another hour. Anyway, here, I bought you something," she smiles, handing me a box neatly wrapped. Even some frilly bow. It ends up being those boots I wanted from the catalog. Instead of telling her how meaningful the gift is, I bite her head off and demand to know how she knew my size. "I got your size when you were asleep."
"You went through my things while I was asleep," I snap.
"Who gives a shit about your name right now, are you listening to me?" No one has ever done something like this for me, but here I am yelling at her for it. I've messed up by letting her think she's getting close to me. I button my shirt, ready to bolt out of the motel room. "I don't want to see you anymore." I roll my shoulder from her touch. "Stop sniveling. It's disgusting." I lift my pants from the splintered bedpost, deciding to dig the knife even further. "How many times will it take of me emptying into you for you to figure out you're just an escape?" Christ, even I can't believe that slithered from my mouth. I start to speak, but just leave the mess I've caused.
As I slam the door to my truck, I glance up to see her in the doorway of the motel room.
She wipes her tears with the back of the hand.
This is for the best, honey. You don't need to get involved with me. I fling the boots to the side in the passenger seat, hell yes, I took them, then slam the truck in reverse. As I pull away, I see her collapse to the pavement in the side mirror and push harder on the gas pedal until she's gone. My eyes move between the road and the pair of boots before I come to a screeching halt. I want to cut the wheel and drive back to the motel. Go back for her like you should have in that gas station bathroom. This is for her own good, I assure myself. She'll find a man ten times the one I am. It'd be selfish to drag her down with me. I'm not any of the things she makes me out to be. And I'd never forgive myself if I let her get sucked down into this black hole along with everyone else.
I know, baby. Daddy knows.
I hang my head when I think about how I've used her and taken something she'll never get back. How I've ruined this poor girl all to make myself feel better, and I don't. Something tells me, I'm going to remember Bertie's name now.
A/N Hopper tells Joyce in episode one that he's been at Hawkins PD for 4 years. That's why I had him quit in this chapter. He'll take a year off, then return in 1979. Just so you're not thinking he's quit the force for good. Chapter three will pick up in 1983.
Chapter 3: Shape Me
A familiar face from Jim’s past is not happy to see him. He attempts to right his wrongs, but some things cannot be forgotten or forgiven.
“Eighty-two cents,” the girl smiles at me from behind the counter, her pale cheeks flushing.
It's two dollars.
Even after five years, there are times when certain things flash me back to Bertie. Especially innocent flirting like this. It's probably why I keep coming back to this place to get my smokes.
“Chief? Eighty-two cents.”
After everything with Bertie, I spiraled down into quite the depression. The divorce with Diane. Losing Sara. What I did to Bertie. It wasn't until a year later that pulled myself from it. Got my job back. I'm still using the pills, and I drink pretty frequently, but one thing at a time. “Wait, how much? I thought a pack was sixty-three cents?”
“The price went up,” she shrugs, holding her hand out for the money.
Still, I'm in this weird limbo nowadays. My work, when I show up, is less than stimulating. This is probably the highlight of my day by far. Soft skin touching my palm as the change is set in it.
“See you tomorrow.”
Am I really going through a pack a day now? No way. My eyes narrow to slits. Huh. Guess there's only one way to find out.
8:22 AM CIGARETTE ONE.
Let me clarify. Cigarette one from this pack. I mean, I practically wake up with a cigarette in my mouth.
Every day on the way to work, I pass Wendall’s auto shop. It used to be I'd stalk Diane and her new husband Bill, but all that changed in an instant. About six months ago, I went to Wendall’s on a Saturday to get something worked on when I saw a name on the schedule. Bertie Bennett. 7-6. Every day but Saturday and Sunday. So, now, every day I drive by hoping to catch a glimpse of her. I never do. It's almost as if my mind is playing tricks on me. I know it’s not though because I see her truck outside his shop.
8:32 AM CIGARETTE TWO.
Which hangs from my lip before falling once I step out of my Blazer at the station. “The hell is this?” It’s just hundreds of people in costumes. Tents. Coolers. All crowding the station.
“I've been trying to get you over the radio, Chief,” Phil explains.
“I know, I turned it off when you kept saying things like urgent and emergency. Get these people the hell out of here.”
“They're not budging. We tried. Something about a world record.”
Of course. The new Star Wars movie is being released on Friday. Two days from now, yet the line is wrapped around the theater, all the way to the station. “Bring me the bullhorn.”
8:34 AM CIGARETTE THREE.
I climb up on the floorboard of my Blazer and rest my elbow on the roof to steady myself. “Trekkies, listen up,” I start over the bullhorn. “You cannot block the police station like this.”
“Uh, Chief, it's Star Wars,” Phil informs up to me. “They're not called Trekkies. That's Star Trek.”
“Star Wars, Star Trek, same thing,” I say over the bullhorn. Which, now, we're seeking refuge in the station to avoid projectiles that these angry fans are launching. “Is that a bicycle?” I get confirmation when it bounces off the glass doors. “Get away from the doors!”
9:16 AM CIGARETTE FOUR, THEN FIVE.
Five cigarettes and it hasn't even been an hour. This is just an abnormal morning, and I technically wasted one. “Where did they all come from? They'll calm down, right?” I take another drag. “Does this mean we're stuck in here?”
“You did call them Trekkies. We actually prefer Trekker.” Phil adjusts his glasses nervously. “I mean they. They prefer it.” His eyes shift side to side.
“I'll call the movie theater. Have them think of something,” Calvin offers.
“Thank you,” I sing a praise, slamming my office door behind me.
I haven't heard any commotion the last hour so I very cautiously peek out the blinds. The line has shifted away from the station.
“Hop,” Flo startles me.
“Don't do that!” I take in a deep breath and sit down.
9:55 AM CIGARETTE SIX.
“That tow truck driver is at it again.”
For two months, I've been trying to catch this son of a bitch. We get numerous calls a week that he's causing more accidents than he picks up.
“And Phil Larson is calling about his garden gnomes, too.” She sets the message on my desk, then ashes my cigarette I haven’t even gotten two puffs off.
“You know, there's a tray outside the door for the messages. That's why you write them down. Not to tell me while also--” I rub my brow because we've been over this a million times. I'm just wasting my breath. “I'll get right on it.” As she leaves, I pick up the small trash can and slide the papers off the desk into it. “Right on it.”
9:56 AM CIGARETTE SEVEN.
I hide as long as I can in my office before lunchtime, then carefully make my way to my Blazer so I don’t get lynched. I debate driving by Wendall’s, but I can’t do it. Just go straight to Benny’s.
This place has been awfully quiet lately. Not that I don't mind the peace and quiet, but it worries me about business for him. I don't see him in the kitchen, so I take a seat in the back.
“I’ve got a Star Trek special today, Chief,” Dolly tells me.
“Star Wars.” Don't make that mistake too...
She scratches the top of her head with the pencil. “Huh?”
God, help me.
11:02 AM CIGARETTE EIGHT.
The guy sitting behind me taps me on the shoulder. “Hop, you mind if I bum one off you?”
11:02 AM CIGARETTE NINE.
I don’t know why I always order the same thing. “Can I get some coffee, too?”
“Coffee this late will keep you up all night, Chief.”
It's not that late. And I don't sleep anyhow. Did you have a bicycle thrown at you? Just do what you’re told. Benny really needs some new help...
11:27 AM CIGARETTE TEN.
Ok, I guess it's not that difficult to go through a pack a day, but in my defense, it's been a rare morning. Though at least I'm not trapped in my office anymore.
“You look more strung out than usual,” Benny comments, having a seat across from me. He sighs and folds his arms. “Don't tell me you drove by Wendall’s again.”
Benny is the only person that knows about Bertie and me. “Jim, you've somehow managed to avoid this woman for five years because you claimed you didn’t give a shit about her. Now, for the last six months, you've been stalking her.”
“Hey, stalk is an ugly word.”
“I said it right. Stalk.”
I look away from him with a pout.
“Go talk to her before it's an awkward run in at the general store. And stop taking those goddamn pills. You look like you've been up for a week.” He pats me on the shoulder as he walks away.
I don't want to. And it's not stalking! I'm just observing. “Unbelievable…” When I twisted the filter off this one, it took some of the paper all the way up the side and now I have tobacco everywhere.
12:44 PM CIGARETTE ELEVEN AND TWELVE.
As I head back to the station, I decide after all to take a detour by Wendall’s. Once a day is creepy enough, but this crosses over into I might as well arrest myself. I slam on my brakes when a tow truck cuts me off to make a drop off at his shop. No way. This is that little prick!
It turns out, he's not even dropping off a car, he just needs a restroom and hurries into Wendall’s office.
Dammit. He's not getting out of a ticket that easily.
2:17 PM CIGARETTE THIRTEEN.
You've gotta be shitting me. My unlit cigarette drops from my mouth. Fuck. Fuck. It's Bertie in the garage. I wipe my sweaty hands down the front of my pants, then start to pace. Ok, you can do this. Settle down.
2:17 PM CIGARETTE FOURTEEN.
I watch nervously as Bertie digs through her toolbox. Is it silly that I'm disappointed it's not the one I fixed for her? Of course, that thing's probably at the bottom of a lake.
It's hard to tell in those coveralls, but she looks like skin and bones. She's still beautiful, just a lot thinner than I remember, and I hope it's not anything like drugs.
Alright, here goes. I step into the garage. “Bertie?” I hear a tool pinball down the engine a few times before it hits the concrete.
Her bloodshot eyes burn back at me when she peeks around the hood and I deeply regret ever stepping foot in this garage. “Now he remembers my name.”
I swallow hard, sounding like I'm going through puberty at 44. “I see you still have your truck.” Ugh, stupid.
She slams her empty cigarette pack on her workbench. “Why are you here?!”
“Please, just, hear me out. Then I'll leave.” She smokes. That's new. I offer her one of mine.
She breaks it in half, then flicks it at me.
2:22 PM CIGARETTE FIFTEEN.
“You can't be in the garage, so go back the way you came!”
“I just want to talk to you.”
“Talk?” She nods, opening one of her tool drawers. “Remember this?”
I shake my head at the tool. I mean, I remember she showed me it, but I don't remember what it's called.
“It's a torque wrench.”
Oh, that's right--
She swings it hard between my legs.
Oh my god!! I drop to one knee, grabbing my balls. I'd curse out loud if I were actually able to form words.
“I bet you'll remember it now. Get out,” she shouts, “or it's going somewhere very uncomfortable next time.” Her boot squashes my pack of cigarettes that's fallen on the garage floor.
2:27 PM CIGARETTE SIXTEEN, SEVENTEEN, EIGHTEEN, NINETEEN, AND TWENTY.
With my pants around my ankles, I slouch back in my office chair, moving my legs apart with a groan. I'm going to be pissing blood for the next three days, that's for sure. The only time it's not blinding pain is keeping completely still. As long as I don't move from this chair, it'll be ok, I assure myself.
Flo stares back at me for quite some time. “That's an attractive look.”
“Stop laughing, it is not funny.” I situate the bag of ice on my balls better, wincing in pain.
“Flo, get me some cigarettes.”
“Try gum, Hop.”
“I don't want gum. Can you please just do what I say?”
“No. I'll call doctor Patterson to look at your dingaling.”
My what? “Don't call her! Flo?” I see the red light turn on on my phone for line one in use. Jesus Christ. Just take me out back and shoot me now.
Which is only the beginning.
The humiliation as this doctor feels me up. Another woman I used and never called back.
Flo squints then slides her glasses up the bridge of her nose. “I've seen a thing or two in my day, but that don't look right from here.”
Oh, for fuck’s sake. “Can you please close the goddamn door? With you on the other side, Flo. Thank you.” I rub my brow annoyed, then tense up. “Your hands are cold,” I gripe at Patterson. “And shouldn't you be wearing gloves?”
She starts to laugh. “Like this is the first time I've been on my knees in front of you without them?”
“Please, don't remind me of what a pig I am right now, all things considered.”
“What'd she hit you with?”
“A torque wrench.”
“I don't know what that is.”
And I'll never forget it. “It's this big.” I illustrate the size with my hands.
“Is this like the time you told me other things were,” she holds her hands out, “this big.”
What the? “I'm serious!”
“Can't really say that I blame her, Jim. I think a lot of us have wanted to hit you in the balls.”
A lot? How many women have I messed up? I sigh heavily, shaking my head. “All of you can be pissed I didn't call you back after you so easily crawled into my bed, but after what I did to Bertie, you got off lucky. Hell, I'm getting off lucky because my balls are still intact.” For however long that is.
She returns to her feet. “Don't be getting off for a few days, whatever you do. You can pull your pants up. Call me if the swelling doesn't go down by the morning.”
Sex is the farthest thing from my mind right now. I don't even bother with pants, I just return the ice. “I hope this was as enjoyable for you as it was me,” I snap sarcastically when I see that smirk plastered on her face.
“Humiliated Jim Hopper all these years later? I promise, baby, the pleasure was all mine,” she winks.
Everyone, just have a good laugh. I twist my chair away from her like a Bond villain so I can look out the window. I know someone who isn't laughing though. Other than my daily, now sometimes twice a day, drive-bys, I've tried to avoid Bertie at the general store and what not. Living in a small town, I know that it eats her because there's not a day that goes by where she doesn't at least hear my name.
“Nope,” I shout at Flo. “Door!” I gotta get a lock for that thing.
I glance down at my watch when the time catches me off guard. I've been staring out this window now for three hours. I reach behind me, knocking over my lamp to the floor and breaking it. See, that's my first sign this is a bad idea, but I take the phone off the desk and bring it around to set on my thigh so I can make my call to Wendall. “It's Hopper.”
“Hey, Chief, what can I do you for?”
“I wanted to talk to you a second about Bertie Bennett.”
He sighs heavily. “What'd she do now?”
My brow furrows. “Now?”
“She's always coming in drunk, coming back from lunch late drunk. I don't think I've ever seen her eat in the time she's been here.”
I cover my face, taking this to heart. This is my fault. I just hope this is her only unhealthy coping mechanism.
“It's a damn shame, you know? Pretty girl like that. I know a few of us that’d like to bend her over her workbench--”
I slam the phone down on the receiver, then bash the hell out of it against the wall until that breaks too and puts a hole in the sheetrock. “Son of a bitch!” I moan in pain when I stand up. Ok, too fast. I yank up my pants, then start for the door before I trip on the broken lamp I forgot about. Another sign to stay away.
If Bertie's an alcoholic, and I haven't seen her at the bar here, that means she's at the south bar by Lover’s lake. This bar is rough. So much so, we don't even respond to the fights because of how frequent they are, and anyone there, to begin with, isn't innocent in the least. Which makes me fear for Bertie, wondering how far she's fallen.
Speaking of fights, I'm almost hit with a pool cue on the way in the bar. I shove him against the table and drop the stick to the floor. “Settle down.”
At the bar, I see Bertie swapping out her empty glass for another.
She scoffs my way, shooting the new glass back, then snaps for another. “Look, boys, CHiPs is here.”
The entire bar finds it funny.
I keep my hand a little closer to my gun from some of the looks I'm getting. I don't belong, and they know it. “Ponch had a good head of hair,” I smirk, but she's not trying to joke. She's always been the one that talks, so I guess I don't realize how bad I am at this. I hike up my pants leg a bit. “I still have the boots you gave me--”
Bertie breaks the bottom of a bottle off on the bar, then holds it out to me.
I put my hands out backing away.
The look on her face is complete disgust. She lets the broken piece fall to the floor before having a seat. “Another,” she slurs at the bartender, still working on the new one she just got.
I try to have a seat, bad mistake. She's so hostile and angry. Nothing like the girl I knew. “What happened to you, Bertie?”
She slams her glass to the bar as it sloshes out. “Why don't you ask the girl you left at the motel after you emptied into her!”
I grab her by the wrist when she tries to leave. “I said the most messed up thing I could think of to keep you from me!”
“Then do me a favor. Stay gone this time!”
“Because you're doing so well without me.” I cover my balls when she steps forward.
Bertie swipes the beer she's been using to ash in and steps up onto the chair before pouring it over my head. She even makes sure she lifts my hat first, then it's smashed back down on my head once she's done.
Ok, I deserved that. “You're drunk, Bertie.”
“You'd know!” She shoves the bottle into my chest before jumping off the chair which isn't graceful in the least.
I deserved that insult too. “Whoa! Now I said you're drunk. You're not driving anywhere.” There's a part of me that thinks she's messing with me. That she'll pass out in the bed of her truck or something. When the swerving glowing tail lights start to fade, I sigh heavily and call it in. “I've got a 502.”
I don't know why I let her drive off, and now I'm the one this time standing outside the truck door, leaning in the window. “Bertie honey, you need to come with me.”
“You bastard.” She opens her door up hard into me as she gets out. Her eyes fall to my handcuffs. “Is that necessary?”
“You've struck me in the balls with a wrench, you threatened to stab me with a broken beer bottle, you've poured beer on me, and you--”
“And you ruined me,” she cries.
My lips part as I stare back speechless.
Embarrassed, she turns around and puts her hands behind her back, her tears pattering down the side of her truck.
I'm as gentle as I can, then lead her to the passenger side of my Blazer.
No sooner than she's sitting down, she starts to puke on my floorboard.
Yep. Deserved that too. I take off Sara’s hair tie and pull back Bertie’s unkempt tangled hair, then rub her back until she's through.
“I hate you,” she sobs.
My eyes well up because it... hurts. “I know you do.”
Bertie sleeps slouched against the door while I head back to the station. I drive around for two hours just to be able to have her close. The only reason I park at the station is that I only have a quarter of a tank left on gas.
I support her by the arm since she stumbles down the hall. I'm sure she doesn't know where she is.
After I lock the jail cell, I wish I would have thought this out more. Taken her back to my place or something. It's just, when she wakes up, she can't go running out if she's behind these bars. Maybe that's not the best use of judgement, or my authority.
Bertie sits sagged with her back against the bars.
I do the same but on the other side. I'm not sure if she'll remember this, or care, or if it will even matter. “I'm sorry, Bertie. What I did to you… it still messes with me.” I turn my head so I can look at her. “But you are not ruined.” You don't know what I'd give to have another chance with you...
Her tiny hand, bruised in some places, moves through the bars as she sets Sara’s hair tie on the floor next to me. Bertie’s blonde hair clings to it in a spot.
As I scoop it up, I watch her go over to lay down on the cot, the blanket covering her entirely. I stand up from the cold floor, sighing heavily. “Ok, then. Goodnight, Bertie.” I click the light off so she can get some sleep before leaving her. This couldn't have gone any worse. I brace the wall outside the door and drop my head. Her little sobs and drunk hiccups make me feel even more disgusted with myself. I don’t know how to fix this if she won’t even let me try, but I have to do something because there is no excuse for what I did to her.
A/N I know this chapter is called Shape Me, but this isn't the last chapter. Bertie has a lot of backstory that drove her into Hawkins, but that won't be for a few chapters. Thank you for reading!
Chapter 4: Devastate Me
Jim releases Bertie, but realizes he never should have let her leave that cell.
A/N Just a random note, Will Byers is the closest in height to Bertie, but he’s still taller than she is. I watched episode 2.1 to get an idea of how short Bertie would be compared to Jim. I don’t know why I’m like this.
Why are you full of rage?
Because you are full of grief.
Flo knocks on my window before she lets herself into my office. “I need to leave an hour early today for an eye exam, Hop.”
I glance up confused. “An eye exam? Didn't you just go last week?”
“Must need a stronger prescription because it’s only seven thirty and you're in your office. Working.”
I'm early because I never left last night. I just felt too guilty.
She gets a good chuckle out of it, but I'm not laughing.
Phil and Calvin also have both come to my office this morning to ask what to do about ‘the grease monkey girl’. We usually release them after some paperwork first thing, but I don't want to give up the keys. I know I have to though, it's not right keeping her here.
I'm not even to the holding cell yet to unlock it and I'm getting scolded.
“I'm peeing, asshole!”
I lower my head as my eyes focus on my boots. I always think of Bertie when I look at them. Probably why my feet are always on my desk. She was so happy that day to give them to me and I ruined it. “We just have to do some paperwork and then I can give you a ride--”
“I'm late for work. Screw your paperwork!”
“Well, you should have thought about that before you drove drunk. Your hatred aside for me, you could have really hurt yourself or someone last night!”
“There's nobody going down that road, and I live right there on the lake.”
On the lake? But there are no houses out there. Is she homeless? “You don't have anything to wrack me with in there, do you?”
“What could I have possibly acquired while I was asleep? Idiot...”
Christ, even trying to make a joke at my own expense awards me nothing. “We need to do paperwork before you go storming out of here. Do you understand me?”
“The longer you keep me here, Wendall grows impatient, and he's going to get someone to cover my shift. I can't miss a day of work.”
It's against my better judgment, but I'm desperate. Filling out that paperwork gives me a chance to talk to her, but if she's pissed, she's not going to give me a thing. “I'll let you go to work, but you promise you'll come back here after to fill out the paperwork.”
“Yeah, yeah, come on!” She snaps her fingers still seeped with motor oil.
It's such a change seeing her now versus a few years ago. I don't think she's showered in days. Those clothes are stained. “Do you want a few minutes to yourself in the bathroom?”
“For what? I peed. You watched it happen. Make with the keys, man.”
In my mind, I think I've scored major brownie points, right? Well, no sooner than she left is she back knocking on my office window.
“Where's my truck,” she shouts against the glass.
To avoid a scene, I grab my keys and join her outside. “Impound. You can get it tomorrow.” The hell, is she really taking off down the street? “Where are you going?”
I sigh heavily and, for some reason, that I don't understand, follow her. “Please get in the truck, Bertie,” I beg her out the window for two miles. She's more stubborn than I am, and after twenty nine minutes, she arrives.
Even from here I can see the screaming match between her and Wendall, so I decide to make things worse by sticking my nose in it.
“You're fired, Bennett. I'm sick of this shit!”
“It's Bertie,” I correct him, “and don't swear at her. It's my fault she's late. She offered to help me fix my truck at the house and we lost track of time.”
“How long does it take to fix a truck? She's still wearing yesterday's clothing, with dried vomit on it. Sounds to me like she got arrested--”
“Wendall,” I plead, shaking my head.
He sighs, folding his arms. “I don't have any work for you today. I called in someone to cover your shift. Go home and come back tomorrow with clean clothes and a better story.”
Bertie gives me a glare before she storms out of the office.
“She means thank you.”
“She has a funny way of showing it, Chief.”
Something in me just snaps. I guess because he's always been such a pushover, yet tries to be tough with a four foot eleven woman? “You know, you're a real man, Wendall. Like I don't see through you, you slippery snake. You pulled this same stunt with Joyce when she turned you down. Yeah, you messed up on the phone saying what you'd do to Bertie. I'm on to you. You better keep her happy, you understand me?” I take a step forward and ball my fingers into a fist as he cowers. That's right. Cowers. Probably pissed his pants but I can't tell in this ridiculous position he's in.
“I understand,” he whines.
I swipe his bacon and egg sandwich before stepping outside the office. “Here, it was Wendall’s. Enjoy it.” I hand Bertie the sandwich.
As I return to my Blazer, the passenger door opens and up climbs Bertie.
“Take me home, and you can pick me up in the morning too so I can get my truck.”
Well, I'm not going to argue with that. After a quick stop for gas, we're on our way.
“Ugh.” Bertie pulls the piece of the sandwich from her mouth. “It's greasier than he is.”
“Hey, don't litter,” I chide when she throws it all out the window.
“Give me a cigarette.”
Shit, I forgot to get some at the gas station.
“Actually, just drop me off at the bar.”
“You're out of your mind if you think I'm taking you to a bar.”
“Let me out. I'll walk then.”
She thrusts herself back against the seat.
“Pout all you want, girl. Next time, don't drink and drive.”
“Uh, technically I wasn't drinking and driving. I drive a standard and need my other hand.”
“I know you drive a standard. You'd get me going pretty good and then have to shift gears.”
“Please don't reminisce about the times my hands have been down your sweaty pants. My stomach is upset enough.”
“I could return the favor--” I slam on the brakes as she tries to jump, yes, jump, from the truck. I reach for her by the shirt, yanking her to me by it.
“Fuck you, I don't want you to return the favor! Let me go!”
Well, there's the first fuck you.“Bertie, no! Stop!” I lock my arms around her, holding her tight even as she squirms.
“No! Stop! Help!”
“I'm sorry, Bertie, ok? I know that I messed up, but you cannot be reckless because of it. You can't throw your life down the drain.” That's when I realize she's not fighting me to get out of my grip anymore, she's fighting to breathe.
Her little fists beat at her sternum. “Chest,” she gasps violently only for this half hoarse breath.
Out of everything I've done to this woman, giving her a panic attack is the worst.
I still her fidgeting hands, resting my cheek against hers. “Take a deep breath, ok? Just breathe.”
Honey honey, just breathe. In and out. Slow.
She whines, trying to gasp for a breath which only makes her cry out of panic.
I hush her softly. “Feel my chest move against your back, ok? Slow breath in, slow breath out. Just breathe like me, honey.”
Sara, are you ok?
I take her wrist to feel her pulse. “I know you're scared because it's hard to breathe. Close your eyes. Slow deep breath with me. Do you feel the air?” I sweep her tears from her cheeks when she nods. “Good girl,” I praise as she takes in another breath. “Breathe with me. In together. Out together.” Somehow, I'm able to calm her down. “You're doing so well. It's going to pass. I promise.” I lock my fingers with hers. “Another slow breath. Together. We're the same.” I roll down my window to let in some fresh air, then feel her pulse again. “Do you feel the air--”
“Ugh, you're sweaty.”
Well, that moment was short lived. “Yeah, and you stink! You have dried vomit in your hair and down your work shirt.”
“Waste of good alcohol because of you!”
“Knock it off!” I take the hair tie from my wrist and pull Bertie’s greasy hair back. I'm thankful she doesn't ask about why I let her use it because I don't have it together right now. The flashbacks of Sara and this with Bertie... it's just a lot to deal with right now. Despite her needing a shower, I find comfort in holding her again, resting my mouth against her boney shoulder with a heavy sigh. “Bertie, are you ok?”
Someone startles both of us when they honk and I realize I'm in the middle of the road as it steals this moment.
She wiggles free from my arms. “That's strange. Usually, people don't come out this way. Except for that tow truck fuck.”
“Hey, come on. Watch it with the fucks, Bertie.”
“I'm ruined. No sense in fixing me.”
“Stop it. You're not ruined.”
“Then why did you leave me?! Why didn't you return my calls?”
“Because I was grieving,” I shout. I brace my steering wheel, trying not to let my emotion overwhelm me. I've kept it together since the night Sara died and I cried in that hallway. Swore I'd never get to that point again. “You can't even imagine the anguish I've been through…” I refuse to tell her why and change the subject. Sara is not a place I want to go with her because I feel like it would be the ultimate pity card. Yeah, I was grieving, but that doesn't excuse the fact that I treated Bertie like a doormat. “Why would you get work in Hawkins? Why didn't you get as far away from Indiana as you could?”
“I didn't have a choice. You obviously have your things, and I've got mine. Let's just leave it at that.”
“Then stop saying you're ruined. At least, don't tell me that because I've seen you with a wrench. Self improvement, forgiveness, that's up to you, honey, because it only affects you. We both know I'm at fault here, but your drinking and your anger, look what it's done to you. Bertie, I want nothing more than to be there for you, but you've got to let me help you.”
“Now you want to help after five years. I've been in Hawkins almost a year.”
“Before I saw your name on the schedule at Wendall’s, I thought you'd be long gone, not rotting away in Hawkins. And for the record, I've driven by the shop every morning for six months since I found out you worked there, waiting for the strength to talk to you.” Which oddly, I can thank that tow truck prick for. “Can we just start over?”
“Then how about you agree not to hit me between the legs.”
“Yeah. Fine. Take me home.”
I guess it's something. I don't know anymore.
Lover’s lake only has a few boats around it which is exactly where she's headed once she gets out of my truck. I step onto this dilapidated boat as my boot goes through the rotted wood. “Sorry.”
“That's where all the water collects when it rains. It was only a matter of time.”
“Wait, where are you going?”
“To change and get a drink. Bye.”
“Well,” I frown, following after her as she disappears down into the living area. I nail my forehead right on the top of the doorway, not even thinking about how low it is, or it being half the size of a door frame.
It actually awards me a breathed laugh.
That really hurt, only that isn't even the worst thing. I don't realize there's a step ladder down into the living area and miss it entirely.
“Get off me!” She kinda… broke my fall.
“I'm sorry.” I help her up once I'm to my feet. What the? My eyes scan the boathouse horrified. God, this place is disgusting, and that's coming from me. Is there like a tarp or something I can lay down on the couch first. I hope nothing comes crawling out of the giant holes in the upholstery.
“You forget which way your bacon wagon is?” She goes into the back part of the boat I'm assuming is the bathroom because her blanket and pillow are on the couch. When she slams the door, it hits so hard it actually opens back up some.
I catch a glimpse of her dressing and wish I never had. All the bones in her spine poke out as she bends over and her ribs are showing. The amount of weight she's lost is alarming. Christ, she's probably eighty pounds. My mind goes to a dark place because of Sara.
After she's dressed in some cut off jean shorts and a white long sleeved thermal shirt, she makes a beeline for the kitchen. Most likely to drink.
“Do you have a lot of those panic attacks?”
“Yep.” She continues to rummage through her cabinets, that she can reach, until she finds a bottle. “Among other things,” she murmurs spiteful.
“Are you sick? Bertie, you're awfully skinny.”
She takes two quick swigs, ignoring me.
My nerves are on edge watching her go from swigs to chugs from the bottle. Christ, she drinks so much too fast. “I'll take you to the doctor if it's about the money.”
The bottle slams hard on the counter. “I want my truck!”
“Then don't drive over the limit,” I yell back. “Now I'm trying to help you, goddammit! I understand you don't want my help, but tough. When's the last time you had something to eat besides that sandwich you threw out the window?” Might do her some good to soak up that alcohol.
She thinks on it for a while. Yeah… thinks on it… for a while. “I don't know. Saturday or something.”
“Bertie, it's Thursday, honey. You can't go a week without food. Are you just not hungry or is it because you spend all your money on alcohol?”
“I buy cigarettes, too.”
“That's not funny,” I frown. So that's why she can't miss a day. It cuts into her alcohol money. Frankly, with her drinking being this bad, I'm surprised she can still hold down a job.
“I'd rather drink than eat.”
“Why? Because of me?” When she shrugs, I decide to drop it. She's not being combative, so I'm not going to push her. “How about you pick a place to eat, then once we're done, we’ll fill out the paperwork?”
“How about you get out!”
I get up from the couch and rip the bottle from her hands. “Get out of this kitchen, girl, or I'm going to pour this entire thing down the drain!”
“You wouldn't dare.” Her eyes widen when I hold it over the sink. “I'm going!”
I make sure to put the lid so tight on this screw top I know she won't be able to open it before I join her on the couch.
She's digging in the cushions. “Yes,” she cheers, revealing a pack of Lucky Strike cigarettes. Surprisingly, she gives me one.
I light hers before twisting the filter off mine. “Do you have an ashtray?”
“Nah, I just ash on the floor.”
“That's real safe, Bertie.” I know she's not joking because there are cigarette burns everywhere. A part of the couch has even caught on fire before. She hands me a plate to ash on which isn't much better, but it makes me think about how she's not using these to eat off of. “I have a friend who owns a burger place. Benny’s Burgers. You go by there whenever you're hungry.”
Bertie lays back, resting her head in my lap which shocks the hell out of me. She’s quick to change the subject, asking about the missing filter on my cigarette. I bring the cigarette close to her lips but she shakes her head no. “Let’s just keep some things a mystery between us. Sharing a cigarette is one of those.” She tugs Sara’s hair tie free, slipping it over her left hand for safe keeping. “Whoa, when did you get a beard?”
Christ, how drunk has she been these last twenty-four hours? “I've had it this entire time. You don't like it?” I'm not sure I want her answer.
“At least it's not a mustache,” she shrugs, losing interest. Bertie starts feeling for something under the couch until she sets a music box on her stomach. It looks like it came from an old jewelry box. It's pretty beat to hell, but still winds up. “You should probably go to hell now, I want to sleep.” She closes her eyes after she winds the box and the music starts to play.
“I'm there with this music.”
“Show some respect for Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata, you uncultured swine!”
The hell? Did she just call me… I narrow my eyes to slits. I don't even know what to say to that.
When the song stops, she doesn't try to wind the box again.
I realize it's because she's asleep, or passed out rather. She didn't exactly say to leave, she just said go to hell. I tip my hat down some to block out the light and get some sleep myself after last night. Which is another horrible idea.
Bertie chews into me which startles me awake. “Get off of my boat!”
Once again, we take a step forward only to go to steps back. “You're right, I wouldn't want to interrupt such a fulfilling day ahead of binge drinking.”
“You insult me like you're better. At least I don't keep a bottle in my toolbox like you do in your bottom desk drawer. Oh? Think I didn't hear it the times you slammed into me from behind bent over your desk?”
“That was five years ago!”
“So... it's not still there?”
“Shit!” She has me so riled up, I trip on the ladder steps trying to get up them. “I’ll come by later with that paperwork, that is if you don't choke to death on your own vomit because you don't know when enough is enough since you're too hung up on the mistakes I made. Mistakes you don't make because you're perfect.” The plate I ashed on is launched at me, shattering against the wall a few inches from me. It's a good thing she only has one because I have a feeling the entire set would have come my way.
After two beers, a shower, pills, and a cigarette, I feel a little better. That's a lie. I feel disgusted for what I said to Bertie. I call her out for the same shit I'm doing, like it's going to take the attention off me or something. I sigh heavily and grab my keys so I can make a run by the store to pick up more cigarettes since I'm out at home.
“Eighty-three cents, Chief.”
“I need two packs of Lucky Strike, too.”
“They're six cents more.”
Shocker. Out of the corner of my eye, I notice a rack of shirts on clearance. One of which is a white CHiPs shirt. I flip through them until I find an extra small. “This, too.” I set it on the belt.
“A little small for you, don't you think?”
“Do you have a ribbon or something? You know, so I can make a bow.”
“Uh. I think there's some discount stuff left over from Easter.” She finds me this pastel green satin ribbon. It's like the color of Bertie’s truck. “Do you want me to tie it for you?”
I should have let her do the damn thing but, after six attempts of my own, I finally get it. Sorta. The cigarettes are stacked on the shirt and the ribbon is tied around everything to keep it in place. It's not much of a sorry gift. I don't know what I was thinking talking to her like that. I'm just frustrated because things won't ever be the same as they once were five years ago and I only have myself to blame for it.
I had to turn back around for the paperwork because I left it at the station, but I'm finally close to-- The hell? I pass right by Bertie walking down the road. You've got to be kidding me. I slam on the brakes, coming to a screeching stop. She's trying to walk to that bar, I just know it. As I start to cut the wheel to turn around, the tow truck driver almost clips the front of my bumper. He's going so fast, it's practically a blur. I want nothing more than to arrest him, but I've got to deal with Bertie right now. I reach for my handset on the truck radio so someone at the station can intercept him.
He taps his brakes, swerves, then floors it down the road.
What an idiot. “Yeah, it’s Hopper. Flo, I need--” I stomp on the brake pedal.
“Hop, you there?”
My eyes widen at the road in front of me before I practically rip the door off the hinges. “Bertie!” The few feet between us feels like miles until I'm at her side. If I didn't see her walking, I'd have no way of knowing this bloody mess is her. I frantically radio for an ambulance, afraid I'll do more harm if I move her to take her to the hospital myself. She's not responding, and she has no pulse so I start CPR until help arrives. Each time I do a chest compression, I'm fearful I'm breaking more ribs than are already broken. I don't want to puncture a lung. I pinch her nose then give her mouth to mouth. “Breathe,” I beg. “I can't lose… I can't. Sara,” I choke. “Breathe for me!!” I take in a deep breath, desperate to give this woman life. “Bertie honey, please!” Even though I can hear the ambulance in the distance, it takes minutes to reach us. Minutes that the brain cannot afford to be without oxygen.
I’ll come by later with that paperwork, that is if you don't choke to death on your own vomit because you don't know when enough is enough since you're too hung up on the mistakes I made. Mistakes you don't make because you're perfect.
One of the paramedics grabs me by the shoulder. “Chief, what happened?”
I sit back on my legs to steady myself because I'm dizzy and out of breath. I called Bertie Sara. I'm losing Bertie just like I did Sara. Only, it's not an illness. This situation was entirely preventable. “That fucking prick is what happened!”
Hey, come on. Watch it with the fucks, Bertie.
It takes the paramedics two tries with the defibrillator before I hear the sweetest words.
“We have a pulse.”
My anger subsides for the moment because I've learned that you don't get many second chances these days.
“Chief, you copy?”
I flip off my radio hooked on my belt as I follow one of the paramedics into the back of the box with Bertie. Her left hand is the only thing that doesn't seem to be mangled, broken, bloody, or twisted. In some way, I thank Sara for that because it’s the hand her hair tie is on.
The questions I'm asked on the ride to the hospital makes me feel horrible because I realize how little I know about this woman. I answer what I'm able to. “She's twenty-four. Four foot eleven. Blonde hair, blue eyes. Her name is Bertie Bennett. B-E-R-T-I-E.”
“Do you know if she's allergic to anything? Any surgeries, or any medications?”
I shake my head no.
“Me.” Yeah, that's real believable, especially with what little I know. I just don't want to leave her side and I figure lying about being family is the best way. Which reminds me, I need to get ahold of Randy.
Once we arrive, we're greeted by a team of surgeons.
I pace up and down the halls for hours. Sit. Stand. Stare at the vending machine even though I’m not the least bit hungry. In total, it’s 14 agonizing hours of multiple surgeries. And she'll need several more which the surgeon has come to talk to me about.
Bertie had increased intracranial pressure from the accident so they did a craniectomy. Basically, they removed a piece of her skull to help relieve the pressure on her brain that’s swelling. It takes a few months for the swelling to go down before she has another operation to reattach the bone flap they made. “You took a piece of her skull bone out and you just put it in the freezer until it goes back in?” I run my hands down my face because this is all so convoluted.
Of course there is. Bertie is in a coma which is dangerous for her recovery if she stays in it too long because it's hard to monitor brain and other functions. Her trauma is also so extensive that even if everything goes according to plan, she could have long term and or short term memory loss, speech delays, and she might not even be the same person. He's also telling me that she won't walk again which I can’t process that right now. “Christ,” I shout, upsetting passing nuns. “When can I see her?” The surgeon seems hesitant to want to let me in her room because of her physical appearance right now from the accident and the surgery, but I’m able to go in.
There’s a nurse in the room changing out Bertie’s head bandage.
Before I’m even at her side, I can see why someone might be squeamish. Her entire face is swollen, but her left eye swelling is the worst which is from the surgery. It’s given her a black eye that’s puffed up like a purple golf ball. They’ve shaved an entire side of her head which has a horseshoe looking incision from the surgery. I hover my hand over the piece of skull that’s missing. The only thing protecting her poor brain is this layer of skin. I’ve never seen anything more vulnerable in my life.
The nurse keeps giving me this look of pity before she starts wrapping Bertie’s head again.
I don’t find myself entirely saddened by it because the surgery means she’s alive, and I am grateful for that, it’s just seeing someone that you care for with all the medical equipment that’s difficult to deal with. That and the uncertainty that I don’t know if this woman is going to be ok after she wakes up, and if she does, is she even going to be the Bertie I remember? What if she… doesn't remember me?
My eyes move downward, taking in numerous injuries. There's a neck brace on her because she’s fractured one of her vertebrae which she’ll also need surgery for. Her entire body is scraped, bruised, gashed, and bloody. And she has countless broken bones.
My eyes well up as I have a seat. “I'm here.” I lean over, touching my ear to her chest to hear her heartbeat for myself. I refuse to watch another machine countdown to zero. “Can you hear me, Bertie?”
There are all these what ifs going through my mind.
What if I would have been more diligent and arrested the tow truck driver sooner? If he didn't have his license or been in jail, he never would have hit Bertie.
What if I didn't leave the paperwork at the station? I would have caught her before she left her boathouse.
What if I never arrested Bertie? She'd still have her truck and wouldn't have been walking.
What if I didn't tighten that bottle? She never would have left to go to the bar because she could have her alcohol there.
What if I was a man five years ago and did the right thing, to begin with? Then she'd never been in that boat. She'd be with me. Safe.
I have to stop thinking like this. Bertie will be ok, I assure myself. And when she wakes up, I'll teach her how to walk again, how to call me a bastard, and even how to swing that torque wrench. “Just, please, give me one more chance, honey.”
A/N Thank you for reading and your feedback!
Chapter 5: Remember Me
Jim desperately waits for Bertie to wake up from her coma, hoping to salvage any of her former self he's able.
I start to nod off, but every time I do, nurses seem to sense it. My stomach knots when I see them prep Bertie like she's not going to wake up. Things like a catheter and a feeding tube. There are so many IVs in her. Machines that constantly make noise. But at least those things mean she's alive.
Today is different because she doesn't get fed.
“Why don't you go for a walk, Chief?”
Now I realize it's because they're taking Bertie away for surgery on her neck. I might as well stretch my legs. Except I don't get far, ending up in the small bathroom that's in her room. I slide down the wall, bringing my knees up to my chest. I'm completely helpless again, only with Sara I had Diane. I don't have anyone now, and what would most people think if they knew about Bertie and myself? Some of the nurses have already mistaken her for my daughter which I can't fault them for. We're twenty years apart in age. That kind of thing is taboo. Speaking of daughter, I need to call Randy.
After I've collected myself, I give him a call. When I ended things with Bertie the first time, she'd frequently leave me messages to call her.
Jim, it's Bertie. I need to speak to you, please.
Jim, it's Bertie, again. You're not working for the department anymore? Can you call me, please? It's urgent.
Jim, it's… Blondie. Please, call me.
It's a number I'll never forget. “Randy, it's Jim Hopper, Chief of police in Hawkins--”
“You gotta lotta nerve callin’ this house!”
Christ, I knew this was going to be awkward. “Bertie was hit by a tow truck--”
“She ain't my problem no more. Neither one of yous is welcome ‘round Jonesboro, ya hear me?”
I pull the receiver from my ear confused when he hangs up. I can understand not welcome in his house, but Jonesboro? And what did Bertie do? What a drunk.
The phone falls from my hand as I start to become concerned that the code is for Bertie. I know that one well because it was one of the last things that happened before Sara died. I follow behind the medical personnel responding to the code, only to be told I can't go further than the double doors. It's not often I flash my badge, but not even that helps. So... I kinda let myself in. By forcing my way through the doors. I find the team of doctors doing CPR on an older man, which he ends up surviving, and I almost get thrown out of the hospital.
With every hour she's in surgery, it's clear I'm losing my mind. Especially with the lack of sleep and food. Sometimes, my thoughts going to the darkest parts that don't even give Bertie a chance. I decide to reach out to the one person that I trusted enough to tell about Bertie. “Benny,” I sigh heavily against the receiver. “I need--”
“Where are you calling me from, Jim? No one has seen you in days. Your truck was just abandoned by a bunch of blood. Calvin came to the restaurant out of his mind. It was completely unlike him--”
“Bertie's hurt,” I manage to choke out, then lower my head.
“Are you at Hawkins General?”
“Mmhm.” I can't form words.
“I'm on my way.”
It takes something like this for me to realize that I’m not alone and that I do have a good friend in Benny. Within minutes, he’s here. Even brought me some food. I was hungry until I start telling him what happened to her.
“I know that in your mind you see Sara, but this is different, Jim.”
“How can I not? Back on that road, as I was giving her CPR, I even called her Sara. Benny, I can't lose someone else that I love.” I hide my face in my hands. I finally say out loud what I've been wanting to only it's meaningless if she doesn't know. “What if I don't get that chance to tell her?”
“You will. And she'll probably try to hit you in the groin with something else, but at least she'll know.”
It makes me laugh even though I can still feel that torque wrench every time it's brought up. “I feel like this happened because I'm not seeing what's right in front of me. Like it's some catharsis, yet there's no relief.”
“This is temporary, brother. Get some sleep. I'll wake you up once the doctor says she’s out of surgery.”
I prepare Benny about Bertie’s appearance before we go into her room. Even though I’ve seen it, it still chokes me up like the first time.
“God almighty,” Benny sighs, running his hand down his mouth and beard. “It was that same guy you’re always talking about that hit her? What an animal. Jim, you let Calvin or Phil handle this.”
As much as I want to kill him, I know I can’t. I would lose everything for sure. “Benny, she could wake up and have years erased of her life, or, even worse, she could have the same mental capacity as a toddler. I'd have to feed, dress, and do everything for her.”
“Or she could wake up, flip you off, and you two will go right back to bickering. Jim, don't go there. Not now. Not after what she's gone through to make it to this point. It's not fair to her.”
It’s good advice that I don’t need to brush off. “Do you think this entire town is going to turn against me once they know there's something going on between Bertie and me?”
“Why would they do that?”
When the nurse comes in to check on my ‘daughter’, I raise my hand out at her as an example. “Because of that right there.”
“I mean, there's only one way to find out.” Benny looks over at the nurse. “That's his partner, not his daughter.”
“Oh, she's a police officer?”
“No, think more... intimately,” Benny antagonizes, pushing his hips forward a bit.
The nurse flushes.
I cover my face mortified. “Please, stop. God, just stop.”
Benny’s eyes follow her from the room. “I think she took that pretty well.”
“I think it's time for you to go.”
“Yeah, but you feel better, right?”
I fold my arms and nod. “Yeah. I do.”
“Warm up your burger, watch some bad TV, and have a little faith, Jim. I know this world hasn't shown you a lot of kindness, but don't become jaded just yet. I'll come by in a few days.”
“Thanks, Benny. Maybe bring some onion rings next time,” I suggest.
“Sure thing,” he laughs.
With every passing week, it's getting harder to have that optimism. I feel like I'm in a dream I can't wake up from. That is if I could actually get a REM cycle going. ICU isn't made for me to sleep in so I'm lucky they're letting me in here at all. This chair the nurse was kind enough to bring in is getting old, so I just sleep on the cold linoleum tile. Tonight I'm only able to because I pass out from complete exhaustion.
I dream about one of the last times I read to Sara. It's not somber like it usually is for me. It's peaceful. A reminder to be thankful for the time I had, rather than to be spiteful at the time stolen from us.
I open my eyes, staring at my watch. Somehow, I slept through the night, which hasn't happened this entire time I've been with Bertie. However, I find myself restless throughout the day. Today marks eight weeks since the accident and Bertie is still in a coma. As I return to my spot to hold her hand, I notice that Sara’s hair tie is gone which sends me into a fit like no other. I flip one of the trays with medical supplies on it right into the hallway, demanding to know where it’s at. Little did I realize, the hair tie has been off Bertie’s wrist this entire time. Ever since the first time that the nurses went to clean her up after everything. I know I sound insane, but Bertie went through more trauma within the first twenty four hours than most people do their entire life. And she survived, despite every odd against her.
The hair tie was actually put in a cabinet in her room, along with some of the clothes they cut off her and one of her shoes since the other one flew off when she was hit. I carefully put it back over her hand until it settles on her wrist. “That's better.” Bertie hasn't shown any progress so I'm desperate, looking for hope in any place I can.
I am wore the fuck out. Between work and the hospital, I am just this mindless machine. Today at work, I fell asleep on the toilet. Twice. I practically collapse in the chair next to Bertie’s bed and almost flip out of the damn thing. Until I realize, it's because this chair reclines. I've been sleeping on the cold hard floor this entire time and no one thought to tell me this chair reclined?! Ugh, Christ, I'm too tired to care at this point, flop my arm out to the side, and pass out.
It's troll’s favorite food! Princess!
No, daddy! No, daddy!
Roasted princess with paprika and gravy!
No! No, daddy. No, daddy!
Sadly, I'm often woken up by a code blue call. Then the shuffle of nurses and doctors that pass by hoping to save the poor soul. I open my eyes groggy, sitting up in the chair and check my watch. 2:17 AM. I groan, clearing my throat. What the? “Bertie?!”
Her eyes are open and locked on her toes. As she hears my voice, her attention turns to me. The nurses have taken out the tube in her mouth so she's been awake a while.
I scoot to the edge of the chair, trying to keep it together. “Bertie honey, what's the last thing you remember? Do you know who I am?” I swallow hard when she doesn't respond. Is this what the doctor was saying would happen? Then I notice out of the corner of my eye, her left hand is moving.
Her middle finger slowly starts to rise towards me.
Or she could wake up, flip you off, and you two will go right back to bickering.
“I'll take it,” I choke emotional before taking her hand in mine. It's just like Benny said. “What's the last thing you remember?” When I just get some blank stare, I start to fear the worst. “Are you ok?”
She still seems awfully drowsy, but manages to speak. “Head.”
And that's pretty much all I get out of her today, but that's not to be taken lightly. The doctor said Bertie more than likely would never wake up especially due to the duration she's been in the coma, but she did. Maybe next time she opens her eyes, we can go back to fighting because that's a whole lot better than the alternative.
As the days passed, it's easier to assess Bertie and see just how severe the damage is. She isn’t able to do much except stare and have slight mobility in her left hand. She also hasn't shown any more hostility towards me. In fact, she hasn't really shown anything because of how out of it she is.
I reach into my pocket, taking out her music box and set it on her stomach after winding it.
Her eyes close briefly as she takes in the song.
I love when I get to see glimpses of her former self because it makes me hopeful that she can find her way back before the accident took such a substantial piece of her.
But then, days like the following come.
The nurse steps in with her chart, looking her over. “Betty, does your head hurt?”
I frown because she always corrects people about her name. “It's Bertie. You called her Betty.”
There's absolutely zero reaction from Bertie. Just these concentrative stares at her toes.
Sometimes, I move my chair to the foot of the bed in hopes she'll stare at me. She never does.
All the little things that we take for granted, Bertie can't do. Even something as simple as scratching an itch.
I rake my fingers up and down her bicep. “Better?” I don't get much of a response from her, but I can see the gratitude in her eyes any time I help her. In fact, Bertie still doesn’t say much, if at all after a solid week of attempts. It’s mostly just nods, blinks, and blank stares.
When she gets some sleep, I decide to make her flashcards. Ones for yes, no, pain, sleep, water, and food. This way, she can point to them if I set them on her lap. I'm not sure if she can read, so I try to draw pictures where I can. A bunch of zzzzs for sleep. A plate of spaghetti for eat and so forth.
The longer Bertie is here, the more she starts to shed casts and braces. Bruises are gone. Gashes have healed and become scars. Scars that I know will be difficult for her because her face has several. Under her left eye are two parallel one inch scars. Then one that runs over the middle of her nose and then forks out some on her right cheek. There are a few small other ones that hopefully will fade. Even if they don't, I'd still be proud to call her mine. To have her by my side. This hopeful delusion that she'll, one day, forgive me.
Instead of her focus being on her toes today, it's out the window. I try and get her attention, but she points at it. A Blue Jay has made its nest on the edge there.
“It's a bird. It won't bother you.” Well, maybe. Those things are mean.
Bertie seems awfully suspicious, then points to her pain card.
I figure the whistling bothers her head, so I open the window to shoo it away. That's when I realize the bird has a broken wing. Oh. There are some gloves I find to put on before I wrap the wing up. She watches intensely so I explain what I'm doing, then show her the bird. “They heal fast. It'll be ok in a few weeks.”
Bertie nods, then watches me place the bird back in the nest.
“There, all better,” I smile. It's one of the few things she seems to show interest in, so the following day I get some seeds for the bird so we can nurse it back to health. I also got Bertie a burger and fries. She's still not able to feed herself, so I hold the fry up to her. “Good?”
She's not eating much though. One small bite of a burger piece I ripped off and she didn't finish her fry.
She slowly taps the sleep flashcard. “Rest.”
“Ok,” I nod, eating what's left of her food and mine with a sullen expression. I never thought I'd be on the verge of tears elbow deep in greasy goodness. I'm starting to understand why she gets frustrated, because I am too. I just want this fucking nightmare behind us.
“Chief,” the doctor starts, “a word?”
Why can't he talk to me in here? Alright...
He basically tells me that Bertie shows no interest and has no response to the tests he does for her to be able to walk again which means she'll be confined to a wheelchair.
I fold my arms defensively because the surgeon said these same types of things and now she's awake and using flashcards. And who is this guy anyway? What happened to the other doctor?
“I know you're not my biggest fan--”
“I don't even know you.”
He seems surprised by this.
Was he one of Sara’s doctors? Shit, I don't even know anymore. Everything is so muddled. After a few other doubtful accusations on Bertie’s ‘lack of progress’, I'm left alone in the hall. That's bullshit. She has a gaping hole in her head for Christ’s sake. What does he know? Doctor my ass. Idiot.
Bertie looks like she's in pain when I step back in the room.
“Are you ok?”
She taps the pain card. “Head.” Then she shows me the goosebumps on her arm and taps pain again.
I never thought how being cold could cause her head to hurt, but I guess with a piece of her skull gone maybe it's like the equivalent of when I eat ice cream with my front teeth. More blankets to the hospital mean these thin sheets. I could go buy her one, but I give her mine I keep up here for now. As I'm tucking her feet in, she laughs. It's faint, and I'm sure it's all in my head, but I do it again.
This is actually a huge deal because it means she can feel the nerves in her feet and that's an indication she'll be able to walk again. I try to show the doctor, but he believes Bertie is just sensing my fingers. “I'm telling you, she laughed.” She refuses to do it again until he leaves. “So it's not that you can't, you just won't do it for him.” I keep seeing the blanket pop up. When I move it back, she's pointing to pain. “It hurts?”
She shakes her head no, points to the door, then the pain sad face flashcard.
“That son of a bitch hurt you?”
I'm not even to his office door before I have my handcuffs out. With everything that happened with the tow truck driver, I'm not giving any second chances.
“What are you doing?!”
“Shut up!” I throw him against the wall. “What did you do to her?!” I shove him again when he tries to play dumb.
“I told them I didn't want her as a patient, that it was a conflict of interest!”
“A conflict of interest? Did you try and touch what's mine?”
I have Calvin come get the doctor because if I take him in my truck, I'll dump his lifeless body in the woods before we even make it.
“He's gone,” I tell Bertie. Christ, like I'm not stressed enough about the times I can't be at her side and now I have to worry about some handsy piece of shit? Her relief only makes me wish I did dump him somewhere.
The hospital was very sincere in telling me that the doctor had nothing in his history that would lead them to believe malpractice of any kind. Bertie is given another doctor that's come to meet with me. I step out into the hallway, rolling my eyes. Christ, not her.
She scoffs, folding her arms. “Still hitting on high school girls I see...”
“She's twenty-four, Dorothea,” I snap bitterly.
“Whatever you say. She's still too young and naive to realize you’ll be onto the next one the second you find someone better.”
I dated Dorothea’s mouth for a semester in high school. “No, see, there's a difference. I love Bertie, all of you were just a distraction. And I sure wouldn't be by any of your sides. It'd be onto ‘someone better’. Like Chrissy Carpenter.” That was Dorothea’s best friend that I cheated on her with.
“You're a bastard.”
“So I'm told. Go do your job and help us get out of this hospital.”
Despite our hatred for one another, Dorothea actually works well with Bertie, unlike the other doctor. She suggests that we start doing brain stimulated activities which Bertie shows no interest in. I decide to go get her a book and read to her later this week. Maybe it'll help her speech.
I’ve been trying to avoid the librarian because I kinda, well, slept with her and never called her back. So now I’m hiding in the kid’s section. For being as tall as I am, it makes it difficult to hide using these small shelves.
“What are you doing,” a little girl giggles.
“Avoiding alcohol influence decisions.”
“What's that mean?”
“It means, when it's three am at last call and a guy tells you you're interesting, you're not.”
Shit! Marissa found me. A noise I've never heard before escapes from my mouth briefly before I bolt for the door. I flee so fast, by the time I get to my Blazer, that's when I realize I took this ABCs book. Stupid. I should have gone to the damn general store and bought one. I drop it in the front seat and head back to the hospital.
They've cleaned Bertie up a bit today. New bedding and a gown, too. After last time, my eyes dart to her wrist. Good. It's still on her. “You look fresh,” I smile.
Bertie’s interest is in the window rather than me.
The bird seems stronger, and it's been about two weeks, so I remove the bandage all to watch the bird fly away. “It'll be back,” I assure Bertie because she looks so saddened by the bird’s hasty departure. “Maybe not for a while, but they always fly back home.”
She sulks back in the mattress.
“Hey, I brought you something,” I smile, taking a seat. I open the book up and show her the first page. “Thought we could learn the alphabet today.” I get an excited nod with that. “This is A.” I touch the letter, then the disgusting apple they used to illustrate it. “What do you do with an apple?”
She gives me the most repulsed look.
I start to laugh and nod. “That’s right. You spit it out.” I flip to the next page, wondering if this one will go over her head. It's one of those bears in a ranger's hat. I think it's supposed to be Smokey the Bear. “B. Bear. What does a bear do?”
Bertie makes a claw with her left hand. “Roar.”
“Good girl,” I smile, laughing once more. Goddamn, I'm so proud of her.
“Home,” Bertie speaks up.
“Not, yet, ok?”
She points to her yes flashcard.
“I know you want to go home.” I kiss her cold fingers. “You have a hole in your head, and the doctor needs to fix that next week.”
I swallow hard and deny her once again. “You'll have a long recovery after the surgery to learn how to walk and do all the things you could before the accident.” I sigh heavily and think of something to steer the conversation away from her wanting to leave. “Do you know where you live?” I start to flip through the book to see if I can find a boat. Maybe a ship for S or something, but she catches my attention.
Bertie is pointing at me.
“You live with me?” Don't get your hopes up.
“Home.” Her finger still pointed my way.
Too late. “If you… if you want to live with me. Do you know who I am though?”
“Bear.” She makes the claw.
I smile back at her even though I have tears pricking my eyes. “It's the beard, isn't it?”
As meaningful as it is, there's not a lot of truth to that. “I haven't always been good to you, Bertie.”
She taps the pain flashcard.
That hurts because out of everything she can remember, what I did isn't something I want her to. Not that I want to weasel my way out of this. I frown and shake my head. “You remember I hurt you, right?”
I take the pain card and rip it in half. “I will never hurt you again. I promise.”
Bertie points at my badge.
My fingers run over the metal. “Yes. Protect. I will always protect you, and I will never ever hurt or cause you pain.” I've never been more passionate about anything that has left my mouth.
She nudges the pain card pieces off the bed as they fall to the floor.
I know that Bertie and I are going to get through this. Not just the brain injury but back to the place where we started.
Will you tell me your name?
That way, if I lose you again, maybe I can find you.
“I'm Jim, by the way. Jim Hopper.” I can't describe what it's like to look someone you love in the eyes and they have no idea who you are. To feel this deep adoration for someone that can't be returned. Still, that's not entirely fair to her. She knows who I am to an extent. If anything, I need to be grateful for this second chance. Grateful that she's not swearing at me or hitting me in the groin with any medical supplies. And she only flipped me off that one time.
She points to herself, but her eyes are vacant.
“You are Bertie. Bertie Bennett.”
“Bird,” she points to herself before her finger extends to me. “Bear. Bird and Bear.”
My eyes well up again as I nod. “Ok. Bird and Bear,” I choke out.
A/N Happy 217 day! ha! The next chapter is called Strengthen Me. Just so you know Bertie is on the road to recovery. Also, there's more to the doctor Hopper arrested that will come up in a later chapter that ties into Bertie’s backstory. Reviews are always appreciated! Even the little heart :)
Chapter 6: Strengthen Me
Bertie’s surgery to reattach her bone flap is a success, but Jim is fearful about getting her the rehabilitation she needs before the hospital discharges her.
I watch them prep Bertie for more surgery. This one is the most unnerving because of all the risks. Bertie could get an infection easily and die, or she could be put under and never wake up again. Even though I see the hair tie on her wrist, I still touch my fingers to it. Bertie hasn't woken up this morning so I won't get a chance to tell her, but it doesn't stop me from saying it. “If you can hear me, I want you to know that Bear loves his Bird very much.” I lean in and kiss the spot by her head where some of her blonde hair has started to grow back in. Although, when they take her back for surgery, they'll shave it again.
I just hope that this operation will help bring back the parts of Bertie that are no longer present. But even if this is the best it will get, it won't change my feelings for her. It’ll just be a different kind of relationship. If she'll ever take me back that is.
When Bertie isn't in the room I don't like to be in it, so I take a walk to the vending machines. I get a pack of smokes and then three Almond Joys.
“We have a cafeteria here, Jim. You should try it.”
I roll my eyes at Dorothea and take a cranky seat in the waiting room.
My attitude doesn't keep her from sitting beside me. “Are you with that girl because you feel sorry for her?”
“She has a name,” I snap.
“No one ever comes to visit her. Which makes me think you're all she has. Is this really how you imagined your life?”
I purposely open this wrapper as loud as I can which... isn’t that loud…
“You can't have a normal life with her. All you'll ever be is her caretaker.”
“I'm curious, is that something you say to all your patient’s loved ones who see someone suffer through a traumatic brain injury? Do you tell them to give up or are you just that bitter from what happened between us in fucking high school that you don't care what slithers from your mouth? Bertie is going to be fine, and I'm going to teach her to do all the things so she can lead a normal life again. So don't come to me with anything other than her progress because I don't want to hear it. Are we clear? Nod!”
She gives me a frightened nod.
“Now leave me alone so I can choke this shit down in peace.” I’m not usually so crass, but fuck her. Anyone that tries to come between Bertie and me can go fuck themselves. Christ, I’m going to need blood pressure pills, too, if this keeps up.
“Hopper,” a soft voice wakes me.
“Huh?” I sit up from my slump and yawn, surprised to see Karen Wheeler and her daughter. “What are you doing here?”
“No,” she tells Holly who is trying to steal one of the Almond Joys I didn’t eat. “We’re just here for a three year checkup for Holly. What are you doing here?”
I discreetly sneak a piece of chocolate to give to Holly as I try and think of a lie. “The hit and run over by Lover’s lake.” Good job with the lie there, Jim. “I’m with her. She’s my... I mean, it’s complicated. I don’t really know what we are.” Now my mouth is just on autopilot. Bertie seems ok with me now but before the accident, we weren’t even friends let alone whatever I think this is.
Karen takes a seat by me as she rubs my arm. “You should have said something. What’s her name?”
My eyes drop to her hand on me. “Bertie. Bertie Bennett.”
“Oh, that’s the girl who worked at Wendall’s. Ted said that Wendall is having a hard time replacing one of his mechanics. I didn’t know you two were together. She’s awfully young though, isn’t she--”
“Karen, please.” I don’t know what I was thinking opening up to Karen Wheeler of all people. This entire town is going to know we’re together before Bertie does and then Bertie is going to rack me with the rest of the tools in that box. “Look, just… don’t say anything about us.”
“Chief, Ms. Bennett is awake,” the surgeon informs me.
I hand the rest of the candy bar to Holly and hurry to Bertie’s room. “Bertie?” There's no reaction from her and I start to fear the worst. Please, not the flashcards again. I bring the chair closer to the bed and take a seat. She still has the hair tie on her wrist. My fingers curl around hers. “I'm here, honey.”
“Still no bird, Bear.”
I give her a breathed laugh as my lips press to her fingers. “The bird will find its way back, I promise. They always do. How is your head?” Bertie has what I have started calling ‘misfires’. Basically, she just repeats the same question or sentence to me. The technical word for it is ‘perseveration’ Dorothea tells me, and also says it's common for patients with traumatic brain injuries. That the best thing is not to get frustrated. As long as Bertie isn't telling me to go to hell over and over, I don't care how many times she repeats herself.
“Still no bird, Bear.”
“The bird will find its way back, I promise. They always do. How is your head?”
Bertie turns to look at me as her face turns to confusion. “What’s wrong with it?”
That question bothers me a bit until I realize, “are you making a joke?”
She snickers proudly.
Thank god. Christ, to see her joking around with me… I can’t describe it. It’s so hard not to lose my composure, but I manage to keep it together. In a way, her playfulness reminds me of when I first met her. How she was always so jovial and full of life. It makes me feel guilty for ever doubting this woman’s recovery.
“Do you want me to get the nurse?”
She shakes her head no and points to me. “Pain.”
The fact that she has an understanding of my feelings is a good sign. “I’m just sorry for everything. I have so many regrets when it comes to us and sometimes it eats me alive. Especially for the way I treated you when we first met.” Bertie doesn’t seem to recall when we first met, and that scares me.
Her interest is in the long burn scar on her arm.
“It's from the radiator when you were fixing your truck. You're a mechanic.” I know I have to give it time. She'll come around. She has to.
The attention I get when I step into the general store reminds me of the days when Sara first passed. The paranoid side of me thinks that Karen said something. Like these people all think I’m some deviant. The older people seem to be the most judgmental.
I set the package of pencils and notebook paper on the counter.
Joyce is always a friendly face from the past. “You didn’t really think this through, did you?”
Joyce holds the pencils up to me. “These aren’t sharpened. How is she going to write with them?” Joyce walks out from behind the counter and finds a clear package of what looks like pens. “These. They’re all different colors, which she can tell you what the color is, and they all smell like different fruits. When the lead runs out, you take the little piece and push it through the top here and a new piece of lead is ready to go. You don’t have to worry about a sharpener or anything. Oh, and one fun smiley faced eraser.”
“Joyce, Bertie has trouble remembering her own name. I think these erector set pencils might be a little too advanced for her.”
“Or maybe you’re just doing everything for her and making excuses that she can't.”
I fold my arms, not really wanting to hear the advice she’s given me because maybe there’s some truth to that.
“Aww,” she placates me, rubbing my arm.
I lose my sour puss expression and start to laugh. “Knock it off. How much are these space pencils, anyway? I only have a five.”
“Are you doing ok, Hop?”
“That’s not what I asked, Joyce.”
“Yeah, I know. You don’t ever want to talk about feelings.” She swipes the five from my hand.
“Nah. I’ll consider it a tip.”
I roll my eyes even though I’m really not all that annoyed, I just like to give her a hard time. “Thank you.”
“Take care of yourself. I mean it. You look like you’ve been up a week.”
The truth is, I have, but I can't stop going. Not when there's so much riding on this.
I think charting Bertie’s progress is important, so I make sure to date the top of the page, then show her how to use and hold the pencil before I situate it in her right hand. “Let's try your name.”
She shakes her head no.
“Please try.” Her attempt frustrates me because she won't keep the pencil in her hand. “Bertie, this is important.”
“No!” She lets the pencil fall from her hand.
My chair scrapes across the floor in anger as I leave the room. And, now, for the real icing on this shit cake because one of the hospital administrators stops me about Bertie’s rehabilitation. Since Wendall let Bertie go, she doesn't have insurance and the hospital won't start her rehabilitation and speech therapy until they have payment. “She hasn't exactly had money for surgery either, but you did that for her. Now that we're this close, are you really going to turn her away? This wasn't her fault!”
“I'm sorry. We haven't discharged her yet, so she's still in our care. It's just anything after being discharged she will be responsible upfront for in order to continue our care.”
“How much is the goddamn rehabilitation?”
“Six hundred and forty nine dollars.”
“Oh. Well, I can get you that money--”
“A day, sir.”
“My suggestion is to have the money immediately so that the rehabilitation can start while she's still here. I need you to sign here as well as Ms. Bennett that you understand what I'm telling you.”
“This is a joke, right?” I step back in the room and hold my hand out. “She can't even hold the--” My brow furrows as I watch Bertie for a second. “--pencil.” I hurry over to her to see Bertie has been tracing the lines on the notebook paper. “Oh. You're left handed,” I smile. “That's why you kept putting the pencil down. I'm sorry.”
Ugh, Christ. I yank the clipboard from the administrator's hand because this moment would be taken from us. “Bertie, I want to talk to you a second. This is very important what I'm about to tell you.” I put the clipboard on her lap. “The hospital needs money to do your rehabilitation. Now I can cover a few sessions, but I thought maybe we could sell your boat to get enough for a few more sessions? That means that you would come home and live with me. Is that ok?”
“Home.” She points at me.
I just hope that this doesn't change come tomorrow. I write her name on the form, then tell Bertie to sign below. I smirk watching her do it because she doesn't do a signature, she draws this little dumpy bird. “I want a copy of this,” I deadpan when I return the clipboard.
“Of course.” The administrator bumps right into Benny on the way out.
He's always so courteous with stuff like this and even ends up being the one to apologize. “Entire bag full of onion rings.” He shakes it at me. “I got Bertie some stuff too. This is a chicken fried steak. I think. Dolly made it while I was doing the till.”
“I hope you're doing better than we are,” I sigh, setting down the Styrofoam box for her and opening it.
Benny shakes his head. “Well, what's going on? Insurance giving you the runaround?”
“She doesn't have any.”
Benny looks at me for a second, then starts to laugh. “She called you a bear.” His hands are placed on his gut like he ate too much.
“Laugh it up, old man. She hasn't hit me in the groin once since she's been awake so she can call me whatever she wants.”
“Bear,” she draws out.
Oh, shit, that's right. Bertie is still having a difficult time with mobility in her arms. She can't seem to bend and lift them all that well like with eating and touching her face. I'm not sure if that's a permanent thing or not. Just like the confusion and the misfires.
She refuses the fries, but then I remember that day in the diner. How she twisted the burnt ends off them, so I do the same. She eats six of those and a bite of steak.
I tell Benny about her bills while I feed her.
“But it was a hit and run, and the guy had no insurance. They don't have money tucked away for stuff like that?”
“Doesn't matter to the hospital. They want every dime. Once they discharge her, that's it. Benny, if I don't get enough money to pay for her rehabilitation, I don't know what I'm going to do.”
“You need to get some sleep, Jim. You look like you've been up a week. If you go down, who is going to take care of her?”
“Rest, Bear,” Bertie speaks up.
Benny points at Bertie. “She gets it, Bear,” he smirks.
Why does everyone keep saying I need sleep? It's more important than ever that I work now with all these bills. I can rest another time. Right now, my focus is my Bird.
Bertie’s story somehow got around Hawkins, most likely Karen. How she had been left for dead on the side of the road by the tow truck driver. How the hospital was refusing to do any rehabilitation before payment. What I didn't expect is how the town pulls together.
Benny came to tell me about the Bird and Bear special he has. And that all the proceeds will go to her speech therapy. People often tipped quite a bit once they were briefed about it. At the end of the week, Benny has almost enough for four day's worth of therapy.
Joyce and Will Byers bring Bertie a puzzle with a brown bear on it that has a white bird he carries on his back. Joyce is taking donations at the store. And Will is drawing pictures for money. He's raised forty-five dollars.
Karen Wheeler’s daughter Holly also drew a picture of a bird with an ‘ouch’ on its head except this one was for Bertie to keep. Karen has organized a bake sale with the proceeds going to Bertie. People love their sweets because that raises enough for three days of rehabilitation.
I ‘kindly’ persuade Wendall to make a generous donation. A donation that paid for the ambulance bill. He wants to buy Bertie’s tools, but I don't feel comfortable selling those, or her truck. Both of which are at my trailer for the time being.
After I clean it out and collect all her things, Earl buys Bertie’s boat. He says he'll fix it up and use it when they go fishing. I don't care what he does. It gets us a week of rehabilitation.
Then that brings me to the tow truck fuck. He's in prison for twenty years for the hit and run. His truck that we have at the station for evidence, I have plans for.
That Saturday, I host an event at Wendall’s. Twenty bucks for five swings with a baseball bat to it. After all the fluids and what not have been drained from it. The turn out is overwhelming. Here I was so worried about this town turning on me, but that can't be farther from the truth. This is our largest sum of money gathered so far. Twenty five thousand dollars. It puts a small dent in her negotiated hospital bills, but, in all honesty, I think this is going to end up being close to a million dollars by the time everything is added up, and that's not including her rehabilitation which we have enough for a little over three week's worth. I guess we'll make the best of it before they shove Bertie out of the doors.
After her first day of speech therapy, I already see a major improvement that night after work. I'm starved for the day when Bertie and I can carry on full conversations. Less than one week later, I get that wish.
“I never got to go ice skating.”
My eyes shift from my paperwork to her. “What?”
“There was this picture of a woman ice skating in my book at speech today. It looks... fun.”
I set the police records to the side, then rest my arms on her bed. “Bertie, even if you never walk again, it's not about not being able to do things. It's about doing them in a way you're able.”
“What, like sliding on my butt across the ice like a woof woof…”
“No, that's what I'll be doing when we go, and it's called a dog.”
She loses that pity pout and starts to giggle. Her fingers grip mine. “We'll both scoot across the ice then.”
“When you get out, it'll be our first date. I promise.”
“We've been on plenty of dates.”
I stare back at her, knowing what she said but unable to wrap my mind around it. “Do you mean… before your accident?” It gets me unbelievably hopeful when she can recollect anything before the accident. I'm starting to realize that even if it means the darker times.
“When we would… do things.”
“Heh,” I rub the back of my neck a bit awkward, thankful for my beard to hide behind. “Do you regret the things we did?”
“No,” she shakes her head. “Only the first few times because they hurt.”
That gets me. “I never met to hurt you. I should have pushed you away, but if I'm finally being honest, I loved the way you looked at me. The way I always wanted my wife to, but she never did. Which, I know I lied about being married. I just, wasn't in a good place. Yet I feel so selfish because, in this moment sitting here with you, I don't regret not pushing you away because I care for you so fucking much.”
“Enough with the fucks, Bear.”
Enough with the fucks, Bertie.
It makes me smile as I nod. Her ability to turn my self loathing around with a simple joke always astounds me. “You might not remember everything, but you remember a lot more than I think anyone gives you credit for.”
“Every day it does get a little easier.”
“Yeah… that's usually how it goes. Get some sleep, ok? It's been a long day.” Like she said… every day will get easier.
As I’m walking down the long hospital corridor, I start to think how with Bertie in the hospital it’s forced her to become sober. She’s actually put on a little weight. Well, weight being she’s still in the double digits, but it’s better than her bones sticking out. Maybe I should make it a point not to smoke before I come to see her? Help her keep these healthy habits she’s had no choice in. “Hey, I got us pasta tonight.” We've been eating burgers for the last two weeks it seems.
Bertie doesn't seem all that impressed with hers though. In fact, she likes the broccoli the best. She refuses to eat any of the cheese where the oven scorched it.
“The burnt cheese is the best part.” I stab it with my fork and rip the entire top layer of cheese off.
“No. It's not.” She's dead serious.
“Ok,” I laugh. “I got some cookies, too--”
“I don't like sweet things.”
“What about that birthday cake you tried to force feed me?”
“Birthday cake is the only exception.”
This girl is definitely something different when it comes to food. No sweets, but she'll eat her vegetables. I pick out the broccoli in mine and give those to her.
She giggles every time she scoops one up, like it’s a game or something.
“Maybe you wanna use a fork?”
“No, I'll milk this as long as I can.”
I bellow out a laugh. Just her being able to bend her elbow to eat is quite the accomplishment, so I don't care how she eats. This is probably the happiest I’ve seen her since she’s been here. Hell, this is the happiest I've been since she's been here.
Different days have very different results. Sometimes, she stares back at me when I ask her questions like she’s offended I’d even ask her something this trivial. Other times, the stare back is blank. Like I’m speaking another language. This week isn't as hopeful as the last one. “Why don't we go for a walk before I go to work this morning?” I don't get a response, but she's not opposed to it, so I help her into her wheelchair, draping a blanket on her legs.
Bertie has this pink foam helmet that she wears to help protect that vulnerable spot on her head when I push her around. I usually have to stop and put it back on her a few times because it’s too big and slides down over her eyes.
She hates the damn thing and usually tries to turn her head to fight me. “No!”
“It won’t be forever,” I assure her. Today is her first day of rehabilitation to teach her how to walk. I wish that I could be there, but at the same time, I take a lot of what Joyce said to heart. This needs to be something that Bertie does on her own. I kneel down beside her chair, resting my hand on the blanket covering her legs. “I have to go to work, alright? Bear is very proud of his Bird,” I smile, pressing my lips to her helmet.
“Roar,” she whispers.
“Yeah, fighting bad guys,” I laugh, although nothing really ever happens in Hawkins. I'll probably get a papercut before I get an actual police call. Well, at least she doesn't know that.
I'm getting to this point where I hate coming into the station. Every day is so critical for Bertie, and I want to be there for her, not pushing paperwork or keeping inventory on yard art. Although, that's only part of the reason. This is the main one once I get past the first threshold. Where Flo is always the first one to give me grief, trying to pawn some sort of fruit on me, or Phil tries to bust my balls, I've been able to get all the way to the donut box without a peep from either. This kind of treatment is a trigger for me. I brace the desk and sigh. “I'm going to turn around soon so you all can pretend you're not staring at me.”
“Save it, Calvin.” I glare at all of them once I turn around. “The pity looks will not happen when she gets out. I mean it.” I chuck the donut in the trash, walking out of the station. Did I have to be so dramatic? Probably not. I tossed a donut for Christ’s sake. Sometimes, it just wears on me. I'm also on edge because as I was leaving the hospital, I was stopped by Dorothea. The hospital wants to discharge Bertie at the end of the week, but she still can't walk and I'm afraid if she leaves, it will ruin her progress. There's just not much of a choice.
We're down to the final days, and Bertie is not doing well with her rehabilitation. I figured her not being able to walk is a result of her being in bed for so long, but it's clear it's more than that. It's like the desire to do it is gone. I just don't want her to get depressed. What she's been through and knowing how far she's come has actually inspired a lot of people. Including me. Bertie makes me want to be a better man, and fuck only knows that isn't something that goes through my mind often, if ever. “I heard you didn't have the best day in rehabilitation.”
She shrugs her shoulders.
“Hey, talk to me.”
“Why does everyone always stare at me?”
“Because you're beautiful.” I exhale sharply because she's not buying it. When she demands a mirror, my stomach knots. This is something I've been fearful of ever since her accident. I'm able to find a small hand mirror and hesitantly pass it over to her.
All it takes is one brief look before Bertie hangs her head and starts to sob.
“It's ok,” I assure her.
“No, you're not!” There is nothing that I can say to make the scars easier for her to swallow. Especially the one across the bridge of her nose. But it turns out, that's not even what she's concerned with. It's her hair. “Hair will grow back.” Christ, Bertie is so hysterical. I mean, I guess I get it to an extent. I'm grateful because she's alive, so hair is trivial to me in comparison, but she didn't have that same scare as I did. “You have come such a long way. Don't let something like this destroy you. Hair grows, Bertie. You cannot be replaced. I'm not saying that you can't feel a certain way, ok? I'm saying, when you get down on yourself, you think of everything you've been through. This is just one more thing.”
I'm actually a little grateful that we're interrupted. The woman has very important things to talk to Bertie about. The hospital calls it transferring. Basically, how Bertie will get from the wheelchair to her bed. The car to the chair. Even the chair to the toilet. It's extremely hard to watch because I want to do everything for her. Pick her up, carry her, set her wherever she needs to go, but I can't. I hate that because of money, I'm not able to give Bertie more time that she needs in rehabilitation. That she's going to leave here on Friday and not be able to walk. It's just one more way that I've failed her.
As I was trimming up some of my beard this morning, I got an idea. I take a deep breath, then open the bathroom door in her room.
Bertie startles and sits up from bed once she actually gets a good look at me. “What did you do to your hair?”
I turn so she can see my profile. “Since it looked good on you, I thought it might help me.”
She stares back at me like what she's seeing is a mistake, until her tears give and she starts to cry.
Oh, god, that's not the reaction I wanted. “Is it that bad?”
Bertie sniffs up her nose, biting her quivering lip with a nod. “It’s horrible,” she laughs. “I can't believe you shaved the side of your head for me.”
I rub the back of my neck. “Guess I figured, this way, they'd stare at me, instead of you.”
This simple gesture means more to her than anything. I just want her to be happy. For everything to go back the way it was. I take a seat next to her in the bed.
“Thank you, Bear.” Her fingers tangle with mine.
“This is just temporary. I promise, Birds...”
A/N This is the last hospital chapter. Bertie has been in the hospital since May. The next chapter will start in September with Hopper bringing her home.
Chapter 7: Forgive Me
Bertie adjusts to her new life, but becomes increasingly more depressed by the days. Jim has an idea to get her out of her slump.
A/N There are going to be some parts in this chapter that will give you an idea of the neglect Bertie went through as a child. I just want to point that out now so you don't think it's her brain injury, there are just some things Bertie isn't accustomed to. I don't have the next chapter written. I need 8 and 9 to both be done before I post 8 to make sure that I don’t miss anything important, so it might be a bit before an update :(
I stare at my porch, then Bertie’s wheelchair once I set it down by the passenger door of my Blazer. This is actually something I wish I would have thought through beforehand. She can't transfer from my Blazer to her chair easy at all, and there's no ramp for her to go up to get to the front door. “Ok, that can be fixed.” I turn around and back up to Bertie. “Here, hold onto me. I'll give you a piggyback ride.” I make sure my forearm is under her rear for support, her now collapsed wheelchair in my left hand. This actually works a lot better, and she giggles as I start up the steps.
“It's like my puzzle. Bird riding on bear’s back.”
Which she put together despite all the doubts from everyone.
“Thank you for getting my truck.”
“I have your toolbox from Wendall’s too.” When she doesn't say anything, that worries me. “Well, this is home,” I announce once we're in the door. I unfold her chair, then help her on it.
Bertie seems rather overwhelmed by the sheer size. She grunts, trying to get over the bump where the carpet and tile meet.
It's hard to see her struggle like this, but I know I can't do everything for her. I lead her to my spare bedroom. It's more of a storage room, but it has a pull out couch which I make up. “I promise, we'll make this yours, ok? This is just for now.” I graze her cheek with my thumb. “One day at a time, honey. Are you hungry?”
I take a step aside so she can wheel up next to the bed.
She locks her wheels, then tries her best to transfer from her chair to the couch.
It's hell to watch, even worse not to do anything. Those armrest sides keep getting in her way. I know that eventually, this will become second nature, or she'll find little tricks to do things. And maybe, one day, she won't even have to when she's able to walk again.
Once Bertie successfully gets into place, she situates her legs better so they're not twisted.
“Here,” I say, having a seat beside her and placing the music box on the small table. “If you need me, you just play the song and I'll come.” I'll be honest, leaving her isn't easy. For five months, I've slept at her side even though that meant the floor. I never thought I'd miss the hospital. “Well, ok, then,” I stall, hoping she'll ask me to join her. “Is it warm enough for you?”
“Yes,” she yawns.
I come back with my blanket anyway. “Just in case.” This sucks so much. “I could, uh, well, if you want me to…” I don't know why I can't just tell her what's so obvious. “Goodnight,” I frown, walking as slow as I can out the door. I poke my head in three times before actually shutting the door. Only, I can't bring myself to leave her, so I slide down the wall and plop myself on the floor. It's strange to be this far from her. I hate it. At least my carpet is softer than the cold tile at the hospital. After hours of tossing and turning, I finally start to drift off until the music box pulls me from it. “Did you need to pee,” I ask once I'm at her side.
“I want to go back to the hospital.”
“You can't do that, Bertie. I'm sorry.”
She sighs heavily, putting her music box back.
“Why do you want to go back to the hospital?” I'm not sure if I want to know.
“How will the bird find us?”
Ok, that's a little relieving not being the root cause. “I have an idea, but it's three in the morning, honey. Get some sleep, and when you wake up, I'll show you.” My idea? It takes the rest of the night to build, but the smile on her face once I look up and see her that morning is the ultimate pay off.
“You made a birdhouse!”
I get up off the living room floor and stand the house up. Well, sorta. It's on a seven foot steel pole so it hits my ceiling.
“It's perfect, thank you so much!”
While she marvels over the birdhouse, I'm pretty taken back with her. She got out of bed, onto her chair, and came out into the living room without help. That's a big deal. “Do you want to use the bathroom first?”
This is actually the first time I've seen her vocally frustrated.
She can't turn her chair much in the tight space. Her wheelchair keeps sliding on the tile because there's no carpet or rugs to catch it on when she tries to transfer onto the toilet. Then, she's not sure how to get her pants down once she's on the toilet.
“It's ok, don't get frustrated.” I almost break my neck trying to get to her on the toilet in this small space. I have a seat on the tub ledge next to the toilet. “Look at me, Bertie. It's just making simple adjustments, ok?” I wipe her tears. “Hold onto my neck, I'll help with your pants.” Which is another thing on my list today. Bertie had very few clothes in her boathouse. These jeans and a few thermal shirts. Her cut off shorts and one of her thermals couldn't be salvaged from the accident since they were cut from her. “I won't look.”
“Don't close your eyes!”
Well, that's kind of a good point. I ease her jeans and panties down over her rear, then place her back down on the toilet. Guess I'll, uh. Sit back down on the tub. “Yep,” I comment after quite some time, slapping my hands against my thighs. Awkward.
I can't help but laugh, which she joins in on. I scoop up her hand. “You're going to get through this. I promise. And I'll do my best not to hinder you, or make you feel like you need me.”
“Well,” she starts as she wipes herself, “I'm done so I need you to pull up my pants.”
I mean, it is nice to be needed though.
This makes the fourth attempt now. “Here?”
Bertie is on the back porch watching my every move as I put this birdhouse in the ground. “No, Bear. More to the left. Not your left, mine.”
“My left is your left. So, to the right?”
“Maybe. Let me see.”
I can't help but laugh because this makes no sense. “Yes? Well, you realize this is the spot we started. That you told me no.”
“Less talk, more, you know.” She acts like she's stabbing the earth with the pole.
“Get back inside before you freeze to death.” Winter isn't usually this early, but we're having an unusual cold front and it's not even in the teens today. Once it's firmly in place, I run back in the house, rubbing my hands together. “Jesus. I don't remember it being this cold last year.” I cup my hands, blowing against my thumbs. “We skipped breakfast. How about some lunch?” When she nods, I make my way to the kitchen. “Salisbury or turkey?”
Bertie shrugs. “I’ve never had either.”
“What,” I laugh. “Well, the Salisbury is a little better. I’ll let you take that one then.”
However, she’s not having it and spits her peas out back onto the foil tray once it's done. “I don’t like Salisbury.”
“Those are peas,” I laugh.
She shakes her head frantically. “Those are mush, and this bread is burned.” Her finger stabs right into the Salisbury.
“That's the Salisbury. It’s not burned, it’s charbroiled. Do you want to try the turkey then?” I switch around our trays, hoping to get a better reaction but all I can do is laugh because the dressing is crispy so she hates it. “Ok, so I failed with lunch.” I watch her as she wheels into the kitchen and can’t help but laugh because there’s nothing in there for her to eat other than flour, seasonings Diane left, milk, and beer. “Where did you find those potatoes? Don’t eat those, they're old.”
“You won't even eat vegetables, how would you know if one was still good or not?”
“I eat french fries.”
“Oh my god,” I laugh. “Yes, ma'am.”
It really does shut me up. I love these moments that mirror previous ones. Every day I see more of her former self. It's just something I am damned grateful for.
I think it takes Bertie an hour to cook, but it was difficult for her to use a lot of the kitchen appliances. She's fried up some potatoes, making sure that she inspects each cubed one over and giving anything with a slight burn to me. Which is fine, it makes it taste better. She's also made cream pepper gravy and the perfect colored biscuits. Instead of getting up to help, I let her bring everything to the table. It actually scores me those brownie points I wanted back a few months ago.
“Thank you for not rushing me.”
I smile back at her. I'm proud of her. “Thank you for cooking.” The food is worth the wait. “Mmm mmm,” I moan dramatically, ready to lick my plate. “I didn't know you could cook like this.”
“Biscuits and gravy are hardly cooking. Anyway, Daddy and Momma were too drunk to cook, or if one of them did, it was too burnt to be edible. I learned if I wanted to eat, I better do it myself.”
That explains a few questions I had. Though it's sad to think of her as a child trying to cook. “That's probably why you don't really like sweets. You didn't grow up with it.”
She just shrugs, changing the subject, though she's never been one to talk about herself. “The dishes are yours.”
“Deal,” I smile.
Bertie is often frustrated by her wheelchair. The once carpet I had in the living room I've ripped up in some places so she's able to move around easier. But that's not even her main frustration. She keeps getting hung up on the armrests of the wheelchair. Rather than just being able to slide like when she goes to the restroom or something, it's a lot more difficult with these metal bars in the way.
I hand her a few tools of hers I got from her truck in hopes it will help.
The first thing she does is unscrew the seat belt from the wheelchair itself because it keeps poking her in the back.
I thought the screwdriver would be to remove the armrests but those just pop right off with a push of the button.
“Better,” she smiles as she transfers from the couch to her chair with ease.
There were some tricks that we learned. Like for example, tongs. That's right, the ones you use to grill with. She hangs them off the back of one of the push knobs. That way, if she drops something, the tongs are right there to help her get it. Or if things are too high.
If a door swung towards her rather than in, it was very frustrating for her. And if there were places that didn't have ramps. We quickly found out if a place had uneven floors, so thank Christ for the locks on the wheelchair.
Clothing even came with issues. Wearing her long sleeve thermals were a problem. Because of the wheels rubbing it, her sleeves were constantly dirty. Luckily, it's the eighties so her pants all had stretchy waistbands which made it easier for her to go to the bathroom.
Bertie actually becomes extremely inventive. She gets a package of those little aluminum die-cast cars, then glues them onto the bottom of the laundry basket. This way, she can push the basket rather than having it topple over in her lap as she tries to navigate with it there. It's little changes, but it helps her get some of her freedom back.
The mornings are the hardest for her because she's so stiff from not moving. I tried to set my alarm to help move her throughout the night but that's exhausting for both of us. For now, she's doing little exercises when she wakes up. I try not to interfere, which is always hard.
However, today, I want to do something to help her out. I wait until she's distracted with something in the living room before I make my grand entrance. “You ever have a... construction worker fantasy?” I strut in front of her with only jeans on and buckle my tool belt very subjectively.
She looks up from her book and starts to laugh. “No.”
“Well,” I sulk.
“What are you doing with a toolbelt?”
Oh, right. “I'm going to build a ramp instead of stairs.” As I open the door, I shut it abruptly because it's freezing. “Sorry, you're going to have to suffer through me clothed.”
“I don't know if I'll manage.”
I shake my head at her. Since she doesn't have much, I help her into my police jacket, zipping up the hood even to put it on her.
“It looks better on you though.”
Her response catches me entirely off guard and I just stare back. “It's, uh. It's hard to do manual labor in.” That's really the best thing you can think to say back?!
Now she seems embarrassed and sinks back in her chair.
Bertie’s rehabilitation is on hold right now. I just can't afford it. We decided it's best to save the money so we can send her back consistently, rather than waiting a month to save the money and only send her once a month.
I really like the idea of taking care of her financially, but I know it's not Bertie’s way. She's always taken care of herself, even when Randy was in the picture so I know it really upsets her that she's not contributing financially. “You're still contributing, Bertie. I mean, look at this place? It's spotless. Something I know can't be easy, but you find all these creative ways to make it work. You always make sure my uniforms are ironed. You cook for us. Don't dismiss what you do because you don't get a paycheck for it.”
Damn, that didn't come out right at all and now I just feel like some misogynist dick. Maybe instead of giving advice, I just need to work on listening to her. Only, that's one aspect of Bertie that still hasn't come back. It's very rare that she engages conversation. Some days, it's hard not to take it personally because I'll catch her on the back porch with her seeds talking to the ‘bird’. It worries me that she is still angry with me.
The same pity looks I used to get when I'd go out after Sara are now the ones Bertie gets when we go out. She absolutely hates the way she's treated which means with each passing day she refuses to go outside and that leads to this spiral down into depression. I kneel in front of her. “I know you're depressed staying here all day. And former things don't interest you.”
“I just never thought I'd see a day where I didn't want to fix cars.”
“You will, I promise. I have an idea, ok? Just try it and if you don't like it, well, we do something else tomorrow.” I get a nod from that at least.
My idea? Which Bertie approved of going to Benny’s, and the fact he had a ramp she could get up.
Benny pokes his head out from the kitchen and smiles. “Well, well, well, what have we here?”
I'm not sure if Bertie remembers him or not, so I introduce the pair. “Bertie, this is Benny.”
“Bird and Bear special,” she smiles, sticking out her hand to shake his.
“Benny, Bertie is really good at fixing things. I thought maybe you could use the help.”
He nods, his eyes scanning the joint. “Plenty of stuff to do around here that I can't get to.”
I set my hand on her shoulder. “What do you think? Do you want to give it a try?”
“Yes.” Bertie is already going over towards one of the signs on the wall the flickers.
It makes me feel a lot less guilty that I'm not leaving her alone for ten hours a day. I hand her tool bag over to Benny and tell him to call me if she needs anything.
“Yes, dad,” he smarts off.
I take in Bertie one last time before I head out the door and start my day.
By the time I come back, there isn't a place to park. And there's a line out the door. What the hell?
“No cutting,” a woman snaps nasty at me.
I point to my badge before letting myself in. “What's going on?”
“Your girl,” Benny laughs, setting down the six plates of fries. “She made this sauce that people are going nuts over. I've sold out of patties twice today.”
“Benny, can I get more of that sauce?” The man holds up an empty plate with orange smudges down it.
“It ain't pudding,” Benny scoffs, motioning his hand for me to follow him into the kitchen.
I smile down at Bertie fixing a toaster.
“Hi,” her voice perks up. “I'm almost done.”
This is the first time where she's looked at me like she did back before I messed things up between us. I know this is a big win for her.
Benny sets his hand on my shoulder. “You're bringing her back tomorrow, right?”
“If she wants.”
“Yes,” she smiles at me.
“Benny, could you give us a minute?” I kneel down and take the toaster from Bertie. “I'm so proud of you.”
“It’s just some sauce and a toaster,” she shrugs.
“It's so much more than that. Every day you prove the doctor’s wrong is just one more step closer to your former self. You know, they told me you'd never wake up again, and if you did, you'd be in this vegetative state for the rest of your life. Now, look at you? And who knows what tomorrow will bring. Don't dismiss the little things.” I cup her cheek. “Alright, sauce boss?”
“Yeah, it's pretty good,” she boasts.
“I'll be the judge of that.”
“The sauce ain't free, man.”
I laugh at my little entrepreneur. The sauce is actually pretty incredible. She's an amazing cook, and I’m just happy that she’ll have something that she enjoys doing.
I catch Bertie fixing her hair this morning, which results in her crying. Trying to help her only makes her more upset. She's not usually so short with me, so I can already tell this is going to be one of those mornings. A morning that turns into a week-long mood. I try to compliment her to tell her I like the way she's fixed her bandana in a way that it ties on the side of her head that still has her hair growing in.
“Yeah, so you don't have to see how hideous I am.”
“Now you know that's not true. Stop feeling sorry for yourself.”
She turns her wheelchair away from me with an attitude.
One that I don't do well with. “You're still mad at me from before the accident, aren't you?”
“I don't believe you. I think you’re grateful that I've been at your side and don't feel like you can tell me that there's still a part of you that's mad. Otherwise, why the attitude the more you seem to recollect memories? This has nothing to do with attraction because you know I'm attracted to you.”
Bertie can't even bring herself to look at me.
“So, let's talk then. Or I'll talk, and you'll listen.” I turn her chair so she faces me as I have a seat on the couch. “When I met you, I was losing someone to cancer. I… I did lose someone to cancer. It's not an excuse, it's just so you know that I wasn't in my right mind. That I'd never treat you now the way I did back then. I want to make us work. I'll wait as long as you need, but it sure would be nice to know, that after all this, do you think there is a place for me in your future?” Slowly, throughout the conversation, I've watched her distinct scowl start to ease to understanding and I feel fucking stupid for not explaining this the first time I saw her in the garage. “Is there a place for me in your future, Bertie?”
I know that I'm speaking to the Bertie before the accident. Not this caretaker bear persona I've become to her after. And that's important to me because I want to build that trust with her, not be given some free pass because certain memories of hers are hazy. “Well, good, since I kinda told a few people we're together.”
“Then what if I said no?”
I shrug my shoulders, giving her this sorta confused scrunched up face as I lick my lips. “I'd… keep trying to hit on you?” I flash her a mouthful of teeth.
“Ok.” I run my thumb over the scars on her left cheekbone as I give her an actual smile. One that very few people have seen.
She abruptly jerks away from my hand. “You're not going to kiss me, are you?”
My expression goes blank. “Well… not now!”
“Good, because you're sweaty.”
What the… “And you stink!”
“I do?” She sniffs her arm.
“No, goddammit. Shit. Bertie, do you forgive me or not? Damn.”
She sighs heavily, locking eyes with me. “I don't hate you, and I'm not angry with you anymore for the things in our past. Let's just leave them there, and keep moving forward.”
“Well, if that's the case, I have a surprise for you.” It always makes me laugh when she seems skeptical. “It's outside.” I just hope this works.
Bertie gripes and rubs her hands together. “Cold.”
Those bars on her wheels really do get cold. I think it's probably one time she doesn't mind being pushed. Asking to push her is actually a big thing for her. She doesn't like it when people just assume they should push her which happens more times than not when we're out. “Here we have it!”
“I don't get it.”
The pond in my backyard is frozen solid from the unusually cold weather. It's only late October which means December and January are going to be miserable. I'm a little nervous to use the entire pond because the ice isn't as thick as I want it in some places, so we stay close to the edge.
“Can you even skate?”
“No, but I've got your chair to hold me up.”
“That's not a good plan...”
“What's the worst that could happen?” For the record, the chair doesn't hold me up. Maybe I should use ice skates, which I don't have.
“Let me try, let go.”
“I let go a while ago,” I groan against the ice before pushing myself up.
“This is… not easy,” she grunts out of breath.
Ok, so, in my mind, this was a lot more, I guess, romantic? Something I could do for her that she had talked about in the hospital, but it's a nightmare. And at one point, my feet go right out from under me as I land right on my tailbone. “Shit!” Oh my god, that hurt so much.
Birdie turns her wheelchair around, then leans over. She grabs me by the shirt and pulls herself from the chair to me sprawled out on the ground.
The ice is frigid and soaking my clothing, but I'm not moving.
She tucks herself under my chin, her small hand clutching my shirt. “Thank you. For everything, Jim. I know I'm not the easiest person to get along with. I've taken a lot of my frustration out on you and that's not right. Especially, when all you're trying to do is be there for me. I know you say I'm strong, but the truth is, I couldn't have done this without you.”
I give her that kiss on her forehead instead. “I'm just grateful for this second chance.” I slip my hand under my jacket on her, touching the small of her back. “I got to thinking. About that place for me in your future. I thought... maybe that could be now.”
“That was only twenty minutes ago that we had that conversation.”
“I can ask in another twenty?”
“Meh, surprise me.”
“What about now then?”
“Yeah, ok,” she shrugs. “I mean, you're just going to keep telling people we're together anyhow so we might as well be.”
“You really break those stereotypes about women wanting romance.”
“You saved my life and gave me a new one worth living. What more could I ask for?”
I'm speechless. I didn't think of it like that, and it makes me feel really good. Especially moving in the right direction and starting a life together. Truthfully, this woman saved me, in more ways than she knows. I just hope that I can be the man she'll be proud to call hers.
1/2 cup mayonnaise
3 tablespoons ketchup
2 tablespoons sweet pickle relish
1 1/2 teaspoons sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons distilled white vinegar
Combine all ingredients before covering and refrigerating for one hour.
Chapter 8: Displace Me
Jim gets a call over his radio that changes everything.
A/N I'm back! Sorry about the wait, so here's a longer than usual chapter. This story is about to take a dramatic turn. Originally, I didn't want to involve a lot of aspects from the show but that is changing. That means in some parts I went a little off course so I could include Bertie, but I think you’ll be happy with the changes in this chapter. This chapter covers episodes 1 through 3 and some of 4.
I stab the buttons on the typewriter as Joyce talks a mile a minute. Will didn't come home last night. I try to be sympathetic, but things like this just don't happen in Hawkins. Bertie being hit by the tow truck driver was the biggest case, and really the only heinous act I've taken on since I've been with the department. I’m just finding this ‘disappearance’ all a little hard to believe. When I yawn, because I’m exhausted after staying up too late with Bertie, I get a lamp thrown my direction. I move my hands out, appalled that she would even do something like that. “Did you just throw a lamp at me?” That lamp is on its last leg.
Joyce's eyes burn back at me. “This is serious!”
Since Sara’s passing, I see her anytime something like this happens on the news so if Will really was missing, it would subconsciously bring up those feelings. Joyce is my friend. I’d never make a mockery out of something like this. I rise from my desk, pressing my finger against it. “Let me do my job.”
She has no more time for me.
“Joyce,” I call after her.
“Find my son, Hop!”
I stand in the hall well after she's left. Everything was just starting to get back to normal and now this. Not that this is some burden. Will is around here somewhere. Probably even with Lonnie.
I'm a little late picking up Bertie today because I had to swing by the school and interview a few kids about Will, then swing by Joyce's after I found Will's bike in the woods. I finally make it to Bertie and apologize for not calling, however, she doesn't really seem all that fazed by my tardiness. “Not much of a crowd today,” I comment once we're on the way home.
“Benny closed early.”
Oh. That's odd. “Look, I need to go back to work tonight. I know we had plans, but there’s a child that went missing and we’re going to have a search party out by the woods.”
“Like the one at Benny’s?”
I slam on my breaks, sighing relieved. I told Joyce that Will wasn’t missing. Wait. Bertie knows Will. She wouldn’t call him a child. “It’s Will Byers,” I clarify, hoping maybe it’s a situation where she just doesn’t remember him.
“Oh, this was a girl. About his age, but definitely not Will. He’s missing?”
Now I’m starting to feel really guilty about brushing Joyce off. “Yeah,” I sigh, switching the hand I’m steering with so I can hold Bertie's. “Are you going to be ok by yourself tonight?”
“I believe so. I can look along the roads so I don’t have to wheel over the terrain in the woods.”
“Oh, I meant that I’d take you home first.”
“I didn’t mean it like that, Birds.” My thumb grazes her fingers softly. I know the last thing she needs is another person telling her she can’t do something because of her wheelchair. "Thank you," I correct myself. It's what I should have said from the start. Or even asked her. Having a partner in things again is actually taking some getting used to in a sense that my actions affect her too. "Sorry I'm such a dick sometimes."
"It doesn’t surprise me anymore,” she shrugs.
I start to laugh because the polite thing to do would have been for her to deny it but she doesn't sugarcoat things. “Do you want me to wheel you through the woods instead?”
“No. Just take me home since I can’t do anything for myself.”
“You know, you can be a dick too.” Bertie seems proud of herself as I can see the grin in the reflection of the window as she looks out it. With everything in my life, I think having a woman like Bertie is important. I know we’re twenty years apart, but it works. I’m not embarrassed by it, I’m proud to have her at my side. I look down when I hear the bag of food crinkle on her lap. “You don’t have to always bring home leftovers.”
“Earl didn’t eat all his fries and I didn't want to waste the food. This is fine.”
That’s something I truly love about Bertie. Her heart is always in the right place. “You look pretty today.”
She clutches the brown bag tight. “Don’t suck up to me, Jim. You’re not getting any sauce.”
I chuckle and take a turn down one of the roads we'll search since Bertie is coming with. "Better eat it now, honey." For the record, she does offer me some but I'm not really hungry. Especially as I see lots of people have turned up for the search party. It just makes it all the more real.
Most people trickle off before the storm starts, and even more once the rain begins to fall. Once I make it back to my Blazer, I notice Bertie on the other side of the street calling for Will. Her voice is hoarse by now. “Come on, let’s go home.”
She sighs, turning around as her flashlight is flipped off. "You didn't find anything either, huh?"
I shake my head no.
"How is Joyce holding up?"
"She threw a lamp at me because she thinks I'm not taking this seriously."
Bertie isn't buying it, narrowing her eyes at me suspiciously. "Did you yawn?"
"...maybe.” My eyes shift side to side. “I was tired from last night." I know Bertie told me to go to bed, but I was having a lot of fun with her.
Lightning strikes way too close for comfort so I help Bertie get into the truck so we can get out of here faster. Bertie and I decide to drive to Cartersville to see if we find anything, but it's all the same as before.
"You'll find him. That's what you do." Bertie reaches over and takes my hand.
The gesture is nice because she's not really one to lead like this anymore. It means a lot to me because I'm not stuck in my head with these racing thoughts. I just know the longer it takes to find Will, the--
"I know you're in your head thinking the worst."
"Yeah," I start awkwardly, "you're right. Thank you." Now I just need to focus on finding Will. She's right, that's what I do. Cops are good at finding.
There's this photo of Bertie I keep on my desk I found in her boathouse. It was actually on the floor and it stuck to my boot is how I found it. Like she had gone to throw it away but missed the trash. I like it because it's from that car wash she did that we met at. Back when that smile didn't leave her face. Back before I ruined her is more like it.
"Hop, you're not answering your line," Flo chides over the intercom.
I set the picture frame back down. "Yeah, I was hoping they'd go away."
"You might want to take this one, Chief…"
When I pick up the phone, I barely get my name out before I'm interrupted.
"This is Warden Clydel over at USP. Chief, you got a Bertie Bennett there? I tried Jonesboro, but--"
Why is a prison calling and asking about Bertie? "What about her?" I move my feet off my desk as my heart starts to race.
"I believe she's in danger. One of our inmates--"
Then it all makes sense. "The tow truck fuck."
"I beg your pardon?"
Probably shouldn't have said that out loud. "Kenneth Miller."
"That's right. When we searched his cell, we found an address. Most likely given to him by a trustee. The address matches a Randy Bennett, and considering Bertie is what he's serving his time for, we believe she's in immediate danger."
"Thanks for the call, Warden."
"Chief, I don't think you understand. Now, this ain't a proud moment to admit, but Kenneth escaped last night. Randy didn't seem all that troubled about his daughter…"
Because he's a drunk piece of shit. He didn't care she almost died, why would he care if some psychopath was looking to finish the job?
"...said you might know Bertie's whereabouts."
"I'll handle it, Warden," I assure him, hanging up the line. Oh, will I handle it, alright. If he takes one step in my town and he's not going back to prison. He's going to visit Gary. Permanently. This is the last thing I need on top of everything else.
"Chief," Phil knocks. "Are we still going to the quarry?"
I don't think telling Bertie about Kenneth is going to be good for her right now. He wouldn’t even know to look for her at Benny's and Benny wouldn't let anything happen to her. I grab my hat off my desk. "Yeah, let's go." Jesus, one crisis at a time...
I look out over the quarry and try to think like a kid. What would I do? Where would I go? My concentration keeps getting interrupted because Phil is going on about some stupid dare and jumping off the ledge. It amazes me how he's still alive sometimes.
“Chief, you copy?"
A welcome interruption as I grab my radio. “Yeah, Flo, talk to me.”
“Hey, Chief, we got a call from over at Benny’s. I think you need to get there right away.”
Why would I need to get to… Bertie! I launch off the rock to the gravel and run to my Blazer. “Flo,” I radio frantic as I pull onto the road. “Is it Bertie?” I stomp my foot on the pedal when there's no response. I will never forgive myself if Kenneth got to her and I brushed it off like I did.
When I get to Benny’s, there is a firetruck, an ambulance pulling away, and a crowd. “Move,” I shout at a few people gathered by the door. As I step into Benny’s, I find Bertie in her chair, her hands bloody. “Christ, what happened?!”
Bertie wipes her cheek, smearing blood across it. “Benny,” she chokes out.
“Chief,” a paramedic starts, “it was an attempted suicide--”
“It wasn't a suicide,” Bertie snaps. “It was attempted murder! Jim, tell them Benny wouldn't do something like this, they won't believe me."
You just never know with people anymore. Sometimes the ones who seem the happiest are the most troubled, but, still. I just don’t think Benny could do something like take his own life. "I've got it from here," I dismiss everyone. "Do you know who it was?"
She shakes her head no. "I found him like this this morning when I got here."
"Why didn't you call the station sooner?"
"I tried, but the line was busy."
Shit, because Flo had the Warden on hold. "Alright, just calm down, honey. You said attempted. Does that mean he’s alive?”
Bertie holds Benny’s hand at the hospital as I lean against the door frame of his room. For now, he's stable, but he's in a coma. We won't know what happened until Benny wakes up, but surely the child that Benny found yesterday wouldn't have done this, so it makes me think someone tried to make it look like a suicide. I don't think it was Kenneth because he more than likely would have stuck around and waited for Bertie. Will missing, Benny almost murdered, what the hell is going on around here?
Throughout the night and morning, Bertie stayed with Benny until I could be there with him. Bertie agreed to look after the restaurant while he was in his coma.
As I sit with Benny, I look over my police report and a few statements. The angle the bullet struck Benny was fortunate because it grazed him, rather than entered his skull. It tells me that shooter was significantly shorter. Well, with Benny, who isn't shorter than he is, but still. It's at least something. I get this feeling that the paramedic suspected Bertie. My eyes shift over to the nurse after she calls my name again. “What?”
"Didn't you hear the alarm?" She fiddles with one of the machines.
I guess after everything with Sara and Bertie, I've learned how to tune that thing out. Christ knows I've had enough practice. "Is everything ok?"
"Yes. His vitals look good. He's doing really well. The brain, well, it just takes time, dear."
Like I don't know that with everything Bertie went through. Benny might be doing well, but what if the hospital is wrong about him? They told me Bertie wouldn’t wake up and she did, yet they’re telling me he will wake up? I can't think like this. He's going to be fine.
Bertie and I are exhausted. I thought with everything Bertie actually slept through the night but when I go to check on her that night, she's wide awake. "Why didn't you used your music box?"
She frowns, holding it up. "It's broken. I've been trying to fix it for the last hour."
Bertie isn't usually this distressed, but I know that box means a lot to her. I try to fix it, even try to take it to one of those places that fixes watches and clocks. Nothing. I get Bertie a bell, but she just seems uninterested. "We'll find a way to fix it, I promise." Yes, it's some dollar piece of scrap metal that could be replaced, but the value has nothing to do with how important it is to someone. Especially, considering this box was probably there more for her than her own mother. "Do you want to sleep with me?"
"No, I'll be alright."
Well, shit, that backfired. "I can stay with you." God, I'm pathetic.
"I'm awake. It's probably good I get to the restaurant early anyhow. Benny has the meat and produce deliveries this morning."
She doesn't have to step up like this. I know how hard Benny works so this way he won't lose everything by closing down however long he needs to recover.
I don't want her to have to cook this morning, so after she's ready, I drive us to get breakfast.
"Jim, do you want to go to the museum tonight?"
That was the plan, but I get caught up at work and leave Bertie in the cold. Literally. Her hands are ice when I pick her up later that night. "I'm sorry," I frown, keeping my truck in park. "Truthfully, I forgot."
"About me or the museum?"
"Both," I admit shamefully, covering my face. "I feel as if I'm always so close to finding Will until something else happens that puts me five steps behind. I went to Hawkins lab, asked them to see their videotapes. Either I wasn't worth their time or they are hiding something."
"What would the department of energy be hiding?"
"Well, Phil thinks space lasers for one." Bertie actually laughs which I don't mind the view. "I'm going to take Calvin to the library tomorrow to see if I can find anything on it. I don't know if this is worth mentioning, but I, uh, kinda slept with the librarian."
She leans over, narrowing her eyes. "I don't know if it's worth mentioning, but I still have my torque wrench and my arms have become very, very , sculpted."
"It wasn't recently!"
"You probably should have led with that."
I probably should have just kept my mouth shut. Good ole foot in mouth syndrome. "How about the music store," I change the subject.
"Good save, Jim."
Let's just hope there's something there she likes. I wonder if the store would know how to fix her music box?
I ask the girl at the front when we get here if they do repairs but she suggests I find the song on record. A lot of help that is. I feel emasculated that I can’t even fix a damn tin box for Bertie, but at least she is happy as she looks through the crates.
“Perfect,” she comments, taking out a record by Carl Orff.
All this classical stuff might as well be in another language to me because I’ve never heard of any of it. Maybe some in backing tracks of movies. She gets several records that I hold for her until she's satisfied. "Am I forgiven?"
"Yes, you're forgiven."
It only cost me fifty six dollars, too.
As we drive back, I'm a little distracted. Mostly because I still haven't told Bertie about Kenneth. Well, I guess now is a good a time as any. "Bertie, the tow truck driver that hit you, I got a call from the Warden at the penitentiary and he… escaped."
"I guess he couldn't handle prison."
"I'm serious, Bertie. They searched his cell and found your address on a piece of paper. Look how easily someone snuck up on Benny and he's 6 foot 4 and not in a wheelchair."
She snaps me a glare.
"Don't make this about that, Bertie."
"You just brought it up."
"My point is that I'm worried about you."
"I didn't survive that accident all for him to come back and finish the job. Am I unnerved about it? Sure, but I'm not going to let it rule my life. They'll more than likely find him before he makes it here. And if he steps foot in Hawkins, I have a feeling he's not leaving."
I give her a smirk as I start to laugh. That's my girl. "I said the same thing. Give Gary something to do." As I pull into the driveway, I curse because I forgot to pick up dinner. "Were you cooking tonight?"
"Yes. Fried chicken and mashed potatoes."
This night just turned around. Or not. When we get inside the house, it’s colder in here than outside. “I hope the heater is broken again,” I sigh, walking ahead of her to see if maybe it’s just the pilot light blown out. It's not that easy of a fix, and definitely, one that won't get done tonight. "We can go to a motel or something until I can get the parts in the morning.”
“It’s only the heater,” she shrugs, wheeling into the kitchen to start dinner. "Make a fire. We'll sleep out here."
A comment like that makes me wonder how many times she grew up without heat because Randy was too drunk to do something about it. Though I catch the tail end of that comment. We'll sleep out here. I should have shut the damn heat off two months earlier.
“Jim, I can’t wait any longer to use the restroom. Will you please watch the chicken? It just needs one more minute.”
“Yeah, sure,” I murmur, looking over this map to pinpoint all the locations we’ve searched for Will. It’s times like this I feel guilty for not being out there looking for him. “Bertie, what’s burning in there?” My eyes shoot up from the map. “Shit!” I clear the coffee table and nail my hip right on the corner of the counter trying to get to the stove to pull the chicken out of the grease she asked me to watch. Not only are the legs burnt, but they are beyond just pulling the skin off. Ok, maybe I can fix this before she sees.
Bertie sighs heavily coming into the kitchen “You forgot about the legs, didn’t you?”
“It’s uh. You know, it’s just...” I frown knowing how hard she’s worked to make us dinner and I messed it up because I'm, once again, too involved in this case. Bertie has been more than patient with me and spent her fair share of nights in an empty house. “I’m really sorry, Birds.” It’s also more than it just being burned. I know that Bertie hates wasting food, so as my own personal form of punishment, I eat the chicken. It’s a little hard to eat because the meat is dry, but it’s really not that bad. Plus she made the entire bag of potatoes so I have to unbutton my pants once I’m finished. “I’ll do the dishes.”
“Thank you, I’m beat.” And she’s going to fall asleep in no time because she goes over to the record player to put on her music.
Classical music is by far the most repetitive nonsense I’ve ever heard. It’s a good thing I am doing the dishes because I wouldn’t be able to stay awake otherwise. It actually makes me laugh as I'm drying off everything and putting them away. There is no way that Diane could domesticate me, meanwhile, I offer to do the dishes without hesitation with Bertie. It's just funny how life works out.
When I'm done, I join Bertie and this awful music in the living room. The hell? “What happened to my map?” I run my hand across it like what I’m seeing isn’t real. Everything I’ve been charting over the last few days is just... gone!
“Oh, it fell off the coffee table. I put it back. Did it get ripped?”
“No, it’s all… gone. I had all these points of reference on here drawn where we had searched for Will, but it’s missing.”
Bertie tugs up the corner of the map. “It’s two sided.”
Thankfully, all my notes are on the other side of the map. “Most maps are two sided,” I say, flipping it over and then back again, “it’ll have the county on one side and the state on the other, but this has the county on both sides. That’s... strange. Why would it have the same thing on both sides?”
“Maybe because he’s already in a place that you’ve looked."
My eyes meet with hers. That's really disturbing advice I don't want to hear. I suppose that’s enough for tonight so I carefully put away the maps. “Did you buy anything that wasn’t… you know… fall asleep music?”
Bertie holds up the new album from The Police. Synchronicity.
Please don't go to that one song that’s been overplayed. Yep. Of course, it's that song. I stretch out on the floor in front of the fireplace with a groan.
“I don’t think we’re going to agree on anything.”
I’m starting to think that she’s right. To be fair, I really don’t care what we listen to because I remember quite vividly a time when she couldn’t stand to be in the same room as me. I have to stop thinking like that though. Those cold days between us have long passed. I don’t usually like to stare at Bertie while she transfers, but watching her move from her chair to the floor is definitely an accomplishment. Maybe she won’t need that music box after all. She seems to be just fine doing everything on her own, and I knew she would be.
Oh can’t you see, you belong to me.
Bertie made me a better person. Not just relationship wise, but someone who appreciates even the little things. Like this awful music, in this freezing house, with our burnt dinner.
She gives me a funny look. “Are you about to cry?”
I feel so cold and I long for your embrace.
I sink my teeth into my bottom lip a second before I do.
I lean in, pressing my lips to hers and catch her off guard. I wish it could be this soft embrace, but it's years overdue, and something I thought would never happen between us. My hand moves around to her lower back as I deepen the kiss, pressing her harder against me.
Her hand roams my side shyly at first, then her fingers spread out as they trail up my chest.
I want this woman more than anything, and partly for redemption on my end. To show her I'm not any of the things I was before. I unbutton her jeans, inching the denim over her hip.
"Jim," she whines, tugging my wrist as she breaks the kiss. “I, uh--” Her blue eyes widen, glazed over. "I just need more time before we…"
This is my fuck up. For treating her like absolute shit in the beginning. She probably thinks that after we do anything, things will go back to the way they once were. "Bertie, have you ever been with anyone else?"
She shakes her head no. "Just you."
And her only experience was me being a complete self-centered dick.
"Are you mad?"
"No. I'm not mad, and I don't want you to feel obligated if you’re not ready to do this. I know that I really hurt you in the beginning.”
She seems relieved by my words.
“Was there any time we slept together and it felt good?" I don't know why I asked that question because I can't handle the answer.
"Sort of, but mostly it just felt lonely."
Diane used to say that too. That I was cold. I just… I don't know. That's how I've always been. I'd get up and leave to shower, or go smoke a cigarette hoping whoever was in my bed wouldn't be there when I got back. "But I do know that what I feel for you is something I have never had with anyone. I'm sorry that it took me so long to realize that, and that I hurt you over it." I tug her jeans back up and slip the button into place.
Bertie moves closer to me, resting her head against my chest.
The affection is rare, though I hate that it stems from something like this. This isn’t something I want us to get through. I want it to happen organically. I sure know how to make a mess of things, that’s for sure.
“Jim, do you remember the time that I made all those calls to you?”
Dredging up the past always hurts because I was such a dick to her. Christ, she must have called me at least ten times a day for a month. “We don’t have to talk about that now, Bertie. Just… get some sleep, alright?” We both need sleep. I've got a long day tomorrow.
"Try to keep it in your pants at the Library tomorrow, Jim."
"Why? Are you planning on being there?"
She starts to laugh.
Twice in one day? I must be on a roll. Though I think it's fair to say we're on a roll. Things are only going to get better from here on out. I know it.
The Library has me even more confused about Hawkins lab. All kinds of alleged abuse experiments, one including a woman that claims they took her daughter. That kinda science fiction crap Phil always blabs about. My head hurts from staring at that stupid screen too long. What if Will was in the wrong place at the wrong time and something he shouldn't have? I know it's a reach, Calvin tells me it's a reach, I just--
"Hey, Cal, is the Chief with you?"
I don't know if I can handle another one of these kinds of radio calls. But instead of fleeing from the quarry, I'm fleeing to it this time. My heart sinks when I see all of the police and emergency response vehicles here, especially as close to the water as they are. "Oh, Jesus!" My eyes widen as I see something being pulled from the water. "Oh, God. Please tell me it's not the kid." When his body is put on that stretcher, every shred of hope deflates in me. It puts me in a place where I haven't been in a long time. A place I never wanted to go back to. I turn away from the scene as I head back to my Blazer. This was my chance at redemption in so many ways. I've failed. Everyone. I hold onto the door for a second to catch my breath. Joyce. This is going to destroy her.
Though once I go over everything with her in detail about how the Trooper found Will and the Theory we're working on, her reaction is not what I expected.
All the things she starts spouting off. Lights. One blink for yes. Things coming out of the wall. No face.
"I'm not saying that you're crazy."
"You are." Her worn eyes look up at mine. "God, I… I need you to believe me," she begs.
Greif… it does unexplainable things to you. It turns you into someone you thought you'd never be or makes you do things you'd never normally do. "Listen. I think you should go down to the morgue tomorrow and see him for yourself. It'll give you the answers that you need. But tonight. I want you to try and get some sleep if you can." I'm not sure how much she's going to take to heart because as a parent who has just lost a child, you're still in this state of denial. Especially when it's something as awful as the way those Troopers found Will.
As I go to leave, I put my truck back in park. Joyce might have been hysterical, but one thing that she's not is a liar. I don't know what she saw, but I can't have more blood on my hands. That God forbid something happens to Jonathan. It's just best that I stay here and watch over things. I know that Bertie will understand.
Some days I get so turned around I can't remember where I left Bertie at. What kind of a partner does that make me? She's not at the restaurant and that's when I remember that I dropped her off at the hospital this morning so she could stay with Benny. I'm losing it.
My eyes widen as I step into Benny’s room because I did not expect this. “You’re awake? Son of a bitch…” I smile relieved that the bastard actually pulled through.
He groans, pushing himself into a sitting position. “You got fatter since the last time I saw you. Bertie giving you free food or something?”
It’s just like him to bust my balls. “No, in fact, she’s been working her tail off to keep your restaurant-- wait a second.” My eyes move to her wheelchair. Her vacant wheelchair. The… hell… "Where's Bertie?"
He doesn't seem to know what I'm talking about. “Bertie? She was here?”
“Yes, she was fucking here! She’s been by your side since day one.” I point at her wheelchair. “You didn’t see anything?!”
"Is that her wheelchair? I thought it was for me."
As much as I’d love the idea of Bertie just getting up from the chair to get lunch, that’s not the case. "Bertie," I call, opening up the bathroom door. “Fuck!” My heart races as I leave Benny’s room to find the nurse’s station. "Did you see a woman in that room?"
"No," the nurse tells me.
"What do you mean no? No, like you don’t have eyes in your fucking head?" Calm down before you get thrown out. "Her wheelchair is in his room, so why isn’t she in it?" I slam my hands on the counter in frustration because this nurse is no more help than Benny. "Bertie," I yell, turning around. "Bertie!" Christ, no, not this, not now. "Flo, come in," I panic. I feel disoriented, like I'm going in circles. Jesus Christ, it's Kenneth, I know it."Get Phil and Calvin down to the hospital, now." I pause, pressing my radio to my brow a second. "It's Bertie. She's missing."
A/N I just couldn't kill Benny, sorry. I know you’re livid about that decision, lol. This was actually Bertie and Jim’s first kiss (despite their earlier relationship) and I thought the song was fitting because it’s the ending song in season 2 at the snowball dance with Mike and Eleven.
Chapter 9: Shatter Me
While searching for Bertie, Jim uncovers a life changing truth.
A/N This chapter will cover the rest of episode 4, 5, 6, 7 and part of 8. I’m going to skip an awful lot of it because I don’t want to reiterate what we’ve all seen. Just a general idea so you know what’s going on. Bertie’s past is revealed in this chapter and it's a painful one.
I stare back at Bertie's empty wheelchair as Calvin asks me questions. Now I know how Joyce felt in that daze. Just muffled voices as the room spins. This should be a moment to celebrate with Benny waking up. Instead, I don't know where my Bird is.
Calvin presses his pen to his paper. "How tall is she? And what was she wearing, Chief?"
Is this my punishment for Will? Where could she have gone? "Four foot eleven. White long sleeved thermal shirt. Blue--" I narrow my eyes and go over to the window. "--jeans," I murmur. I don't believe it. It's that damn bluebird Bertie's always talking about. I'm quick to open the window and accidentally scare the damn thing off, but that's just the thing. The window was already open. Well, unlocked. Which makes no sense. My eyes look on the ground to see footprints in the mud. It leads over to the sidewalk that goes into the parking lot. The smart thing to do would be to go around, but I squeeze very awkwardly out the window, falling flat on my face when I hit the ground. “Fuck!” I grab onto the branch of the small bush to help me back up.
"Uh, Chief?” Calvin pokes his head out of the window. “ Should we put this in the report?"
My eyes widen when I see Bertie’s bandana in the mud. Especially when I pick it up and find out that it’s bloody as my stomach turns even more. Kenneth likely hit her over the head to knock her out because I know Bertie. She wouldn’t go down without a fight. What worries me is all the trauma her poor brain has been through and being struck in the head might injure her again. I know this bandana is evidence, but I feel like this is all that I have of Bertie, so I stuff it into my pocket.
You know that feeling you get when you’re being watched? I look up and notice the cameras. Shit. Wait. Cameras! "Get me the hospital surveillance tapes," I shout back at Calvin as I follow the footprints. They give me as much help as the goddamn tapes the hospital has. There is no record of the window opening in all this footage. What the hell is going on?! I know I'm not making this up. "No, no, no!" I knock everything off the shelf. "People don't just vanish into thin fucking air!” I rest my hands against the table with a heavy sigh. “I brushed off that goddamn phone call from the Warden. I know he took her.”
Calvin's eyes narrow to slits. "Who? The Warden?"
“The tow truck guy that hit Bertie a couple of months ago. Kenneth. He escaped prison and knows Randy’s address.” Never in my wildest dreams did I think that Kenneth would come this fast for her. I know that Bertie hasn’t lived at home in years, but if anyone would roll over on her, it would be Randy. Especially because he doesn’t give two shits about her.
With Will gone and Bertie taken, I feel like I am losing my mind. I can't go down this road of self destruction with pills and alcohol again, yet I find myself going right for the pills. I grip my fingers around Sara's hair tie on my wrist. At least if Bertie had it on her, I'd feel… I sigh and drop my arms. I don't know what to feel anymore.
This morning I have to be there for Joyce down at the morgue. Hopefully, this at least gives her some kind of peace when she gets that closer with Will. Except, I hear some rather unsettling news at the coroner. I find out that Gary was sent home and he didn't even do the autopsy on Will. That Staties did. It doesn't sit well with me.
Things only continue to become more strange when I call Gary down to the station to talk later that day. He's right, it is rare that State would even take this case considering that the quarry is owned by the Sattler Company. I think my best bet is to talk to David O'Bannon. The state trooper that found Will.
I find him at the Hideaway bar downtown. It takes me less than two minutes to figure out he's full of shit when he says the quarry is state run. His empathy astounds me. Like he's got something to hide. That's fine. I'll rough him up a bit and take out some of this aggression I have building up. Some for Will. Some for Bertie. Some for the failure I sure have become lately. How did I lose her?! Two people missing in less than a week. It doesn’t make any sense. Hawkins is the most boring place. I can’t even count the number of times I’ve slept in my office before or just not even bothered to show up. It’s nothing like New York, that’s for sure.
Joyce made the comment today that thing wasn't her son, just like O'Bannon said they told him not to let anyone get too close to the body. What could Will have done or seen that caused all this CIA type coverup? I figure my best bet is the morgue to see if there’s something I’m missing. I get my answers alright, too. Though it comes with about ten other questions. The body at the morgue is a fake which convinces me that Hawkins lab has a hand in this. So that means one of two things. Either Will really is dead, mutilated beyond belief by Hawkins lab, or he's still in there. Regardless, I want answers. And all I need are a pair of bolt cutters to get them.
Jim, it's Bertie. I need to speak to you, please.
Jim, it's Bertie, again. You're not working for the department anymore? Can you call me, please? It's urgent.
Jim, it's… Blondie. Please.
I snap my eyes open, sitting up off… my couch?! What the hell? I was just at Hawkins Lab. How did I get here?? I catch my breath, covered in sweat. Where are my shirt and jacket? "Birds," I call, hoping that maybe she came home except that's false hope.
My house has been ransacked, but broken appliances are the least of my concern. It's what was left behind. I find a microphone in one of the lights. As I take the bug down and look it over, it’s clear that I’ve stepped on toes I shouldn't have. That I’m getting too close to finding the answers to something they don’t want me knowing. Joyce was right. Here I told her it was grief when it’s not.
There's a part of me that wonders if I'm going off the deep end here. That maybe losing Bertie is making me come up with all these crazy conspiracies so I don't focus on the fact she's gone. Or what Kenneth might be doing or have already done to her. Pull it together, Jim.
I’m not sure what I’m going to be getting myself into with this lab, so I’m having one of those moments where I better say all the things I should have said while I can. I find myself sighing into the receiver as it rings for Diane. There are some things that I want to get off my chest. Things that, after everything, she deserves to hear.
"Hello?" She already has that tone like I'm wasting her time.
I'm a little surprised she's questioning it. Like I meant so little to her she can't be bothered to remember my voice. "Yeah."
"Why are you calling me here, I told you not to call me here.
I knew this idea was shit. “I know, I know, I know. I just wanted to hear your voice and uh. I just wanted to say even after everything that happened I don’t... I don’t regret anything of it. Those seven years they were, they were everything to me.” With Bertie being taken so easily from me, it shows me that I need to make things right with people even if they’re not in my life. I put Diane through a lot and there was no reason for it other than me selfishly blaming grief for it.
"Have you been drinking again?"
"No." This is something I've always been jealous about Diane. How quickly she was able to move on with her life. Her grief. With Bill. This kid screaming in the background. I'm just embarrassed for even reaching out to her. "You know, actually, I have been drinking. I'm sorry.”
“Jim, I can’t.” Maybe a part of her wanted to say something too, but she just wasn’t ready.
At least if something happens to me, whether it be finding Will, finding Bertie, Hawkins Lab… I’ll know that I haven’t left anything unsaid. “Just take care of yourself, ok? Say hi to Bill for me."
"Are you sure--"
I hang up the phone to save myself anymore embarrassment. There’s this part of me that feels like I’ve gone behind Bertie’s back but the other big reason I called Diane is because I see now how alone I left Diane in what happened with Sara. I searched out liquor or women to solved my problems instead of being at my wife’s side. Diane and I, it’s clear we weren’t meant to be, but I do know that I was wrong in the majority of our relationship. Taking the blame, understanding it, it’ll help me work on myself so I can be a better man for Bertie.
I grab my coat, leaving the house. I need to talk to Joyce about what I’ve seen at the morgue and about the bug in my house, but, first, there’s one more thing I have to do.
The last person I want to see is Randy, but it's my best bet to find some lead for Bertie. Randy didn’t even want to talk to me on the phone so I don’t expect this going over well with him. If he even knows who I am, the drunk.
I pound on his front door again. "Randy," I shout. His truck is here so I know he's home. I tilt my head some to look in the window and see his hand. He must be passed out. Using my shoulder, I manage to forcefully let myself in. Christ, it smells awful in here. Just as I figured, he's unconscious on the floor. "Randy." I nudge him some with my boot. "Randy." I roll my eyes at the empty liquor bottle under him-- "Randy?" I squat down some, grabbing him by the jaw. "Shit," I sigh. The son of a bitch drank himself to death. Of course the phone line is dead, so I radio for Flo to get a hold of the Chief here. By the time he gets here, I'm practically frozen. "Jesus, it's only been four hours."
"Jim, what are you doing here? And I didn't figure there was much of a rush knowing Bennett drank himself to death."
I shake my head. "No, see, that's the thing. I think he was murdered."
He scoffs, folding his arms. "Look, Randy might not have been liked, but he definitely wasn't murdered. Not in my town."
I'll believe that when I see the cause of death because after seeing a fake body, things are clear they're not what they seem. "Will you just let me know what the autopsy says? Look, there are some things happening and I… just, fuck, call me once the autopsy comes in?"
He shrugs. "Fine. You ok in there, bud? Heard that kid went missing.”
“Yeah, and so did Bertie.” That news isn’t really public yet, but it’s hard to keep a professional side in all this when it’s the person that I love.
I decide to look around Randy’s some because I know the police here won’t. Maybe I can gather some type of clue about this all too timely death of Randy’s. Off the living room, there are two rooms, one of which happens to be Bertie’s. I stand outside the door frame for a minute before I take a step inside. There's not much in her room but the former memories. Pictures. A few trophies. One for first place in… "Robot fighting?" It makes me laugh. I expected some cheer competition one, not fighting to the death robots. It makes me smile to think about her love for fixing and restoring things back to life. I set the trophy back down and swipe a picture off her desk. It’s a close up of her face. I’m not really sure if having the picture is more painful than not, so I pocket it for the time being.
"Jim, you should probably get out of here. If this turns into something more than the drink, things could turn into a witch hunt."
It is more than a drink, and I don’t know why he can't see that. "Sounds to me like Kenneth got what he wanted, killed Randy, then came after Bertie.” I scoff and just walk off because, once again, I’m letting emotion get the better. As I pass the last room, I backtrack my steps. "The hell?" It's a... nursery, though it’s never actually been used. "Did Randy have another kid?"
I point to the nursery.
He gives me this look like I've lost my mind.
“Hello?” I hold out my hands, gesturing for him to speak. Why is he just staring at me?
"You know a doctor Felder at Hawkin's General?"
Why does that name sound familiar? "What about him," I play along.
"I think you better talk to him, Chief."
So does that mean that there’s another missing kid? Is it spreading now all the way to Jonesboro too? Bertie didn’t mention having a sibling. A boy from the way the nursery is decorated. The Chief here has clammed up so I guess my best bet is back to that hospital again.
I feel like I’m at this hospital more than I am my own place. Hopefully, this is the last time I am here for a while. "I need to talk to a doctor Felder," I tell the woman at the nurses station.
“Let me see if he’s free.”
She should have said, let me waste your time because I stand here for almost an hour. When this doctor Felder comes down the hall and I get a good look at him, my knuckles whiten from how tight of fists I'm making. It's that doctor who treated Bertie like shit, that I almost broke his neck.
"Shit," he pales.
"Wait," I call after him. "I have some questions for you.” I don’t know how long he’s going to stick around so I just get right into it. “Did Randy Bennett have another kid?"
He stares back at me confused.
"I went to his house. There's a nursery. I mean it's unfinished, but it's definitely a nursery. A boy’s nursery."
"You better start talking, or I'm going to start swinging." I take a step forward when he just keeps looking at me like I’m the crazy one.
"Jim, Bertie was pregnant. At the time, I worked in Jonesboro when she came into the hospital with complications. The baby was hers."
Now I'm the one that pales.
"He was stillborn. I… I blamed Bertie for it. Hell, the entire town of Jonesboro did once I started with the accusations. That's why she left. Everyone turned against her. The Chief in Jonesboro told me to leave town for exposing Bertie like I did and that’s why I ended up here at Hawkins. You didn't know?"
“Wh-- what happened to the baby?” I can’t process the rest of what he said right now.
"It was nothing she could have helped. She did everything right through her pregnancy, but when she was giving birth, the cord wrapped around the baby's neck. I was scared. Rather than slander my name, I just… I turned the attention on her--"
I reach back and punch him right in the face. "Like she wasn't devastated enough and you had to make her feel like it was her fault?!"
He spits blood on the floor. "You didn't even know until today!"
"You turned an entire town against her! You ruined her life. She didn't even finish school!" It's a good thing we're in the hospital because I leave him barely breathing when I'm done. "Piece of shit!" There is a part of me that knows I could go to jail for doing this, but, thankfully, I don’t because the doctor agrees not to press charges. Still, I have got to get my emotions under control. I’m no use to Bertie or Will if I end up in prison.
Back to Jonesboro I go. Now I see why the Chief didn’t say anything to me. Felder can be assured that we are not done. Not even close. I’m going to turn his life upside down for what he did to Bertie. Christ, I almost wreck twice trying to get to the cemetery. It’s a bit overwhelming once I get here so I’m hoping the older lady outside planting flowers can help me. "Excuse me, I'm looking for a grave. A child. Bertie Bennett's son."
"She hasn’t been by here in almost a year. Is everything ok?”
I shrug uncomfortably. “She’s missing. I’m just looking for any clues at this point.”
“Go all the way down the path, dear. The small headstone at the end there."
I swallow hard because I didn't expect her to know right away. It’s been a long time since I’ve been in a cemetery. My knees buckle. My legs shake the closer I get until I get to the end. I drop to my knees once I do.
Bertie, have you ever been with anyone else?
“Oh, Christ,” I choke. My eyes take in the small headstone again.
Jim, it's Bertie. I need to speak to you, please.
Jim, it's Bertie, again. You're not working for the department anymore? Can you call me, please? It's urgent.
Jim, it's… Blondie. Please.
Bertie was pregnant, and pregnant with our son. That's why she kept calling me. And when James died, that's why she had the drinking problem. Christ, here I thought it was all my doing but she was grieving him. No wonder she hated me. And to think, the cruel things I said to her that day in the truck about her not understanding what it's like to lose a child.
You can't even imagine the anguish I've been through…
It makes sense why Randy had so much hatred towards me, but it’s still not right that Randy believed the doctor over his own daughter. I hate that I shut Bertie down our last night together before she disappeared because she was trying to tell me about James.
Jim, do you remember the time I made all those calls to you?
We don’t have to talk about that now.
And there’s no telling just how many other times she tried to tell me and I ignored her or shut her down. I thought the guilt of me feeling bad over the things I did to Bertie was starting to subside, but this devastates me in a whole new way.
Losing Sara has done things to me that I don't understand how some days I'm still here. Nothing prepares you for the day you have to bury your child. Now I sit here slumped in the grass having to do this all over again. I press my hand to the small headstone, overcome with so many emotions. “I'm so sorry,” I sob.
I know I can’t shut down, but it’s hard to keep going. I spent the night in my truck at the cemetery, lost in thought. All the what ifs and could have beens. I know that Bertie wouldn’t want this for me. That she’d want me to keep going for Will. For Joyce. I draw strength from within that I wish I would have had with Sara rather than running to alcohol. There is a lot riding on this for me to lose it now.
Joyce and I are on the way to Larrabee Road. I came to this startling realization after a lengthy conversation with her. This whole time I thought I had been chasing after Will but it hasn’t been him at all. It’s the one that Benny found and he almost paid the price for. Bertie was persistent that Benny didn’t kill himself like everyone had made it out, and that makes sense if this kid is tied into all this government research. That’s why Joyce and I see if we can seek out this Terry Ives woman. The one who claimed her kid was taken which I believe to be the one Benny found.
I feel like my mind has been going a mile a minute since I’ve left the cemetery, so the ride to see Terry is when my stoic mask starts slipping.
Joyce picks up on immediately. “Do you want to talk about whatever is going on, or is your answer nothing’s wrong?”
“I got Bertie pregnant.” Talk about not holding anything back. I don’t talk a lot about myself, but a part of me is so desperate to say what I have to that it was forcefully blurted out without hesitation, and that’s not even what I’m trying to say.
“Oh, congratulations? I think?”
I shake my head, taking a deep breath. “This was a few years ago. She lost the baby, but I just found out before I came to see you.”
I chew the inside of my cheek, trying to hold it together. Joyce’s car suddenly feels ten times smaller than it is already. This has to be awkward for Joyce because she’s only pieced together my relationship with Bertie by the few bits she has to go off of, which isn’t much. “Bertie started off as an affair. I was stupid, and I was grieving Sara. Diane and I were always fighting. The way I treated Bertie and the things I did to her, she didn’t deserve and for a long time, I’ve been trying to make up for them. You know, I’d see it in her eyes sometimes, Joyce. Especially after the accident, like she recalls every egregious thing I’ve done to her. I could feel the hatred she has for me, but I realized that I was making it up because she wouldn’t have truly forgiven me and stayed with me if not. I used to think it was because she just felt too guilty after everything I did for her when she got hit by Kenneth, but I know that’s not true. Bertie and I have worked a long time to finally get to this point of understanding and then she’s taken from me.” I try and tread lightly about losing hope on finding Bertie, especially in front of Joyce. Here I am telling her to have faith in us finding Will, yet I’m barely holding on. “There were times when Bertie and I’d be together and she’d try to tell me something, but I would brush it off. Now I know it’s because she wanted to tell me about our son. What happened with Sara, it broke me and Diane. I wasn’t the best to Diane, but we still had each other through the loss of Sara. I can’t imagine going through losing a child on your own, and even worse, everyone turned their backs on her. They blamed her for killing the baby when the doctor told me it was completely out of her hands.” I’m really surprised I got as much of that out as I did, but in a way, a lot of my strength does come from Bertie.
“You’ve both been through so much,” Joyce frowns. “I know it doesn’t seem like it, Hop, but Bertie didn’t survive all of it for it to end here.”
I’d like to think that too. Especially since Bertie and I haven’t really had a chance to begin a life together. We’ve always been robbed of something. “Let’s just both try to hold it together for a little longer,” I tell Joyce.
Though the visit with Terry really leaves us both a little unnerved. That and it really shakes up Joyce, but I think that together, Joyce can keep me positive about Bertie and I can do the same for Will. “We’re close.”
“Twelve years. Twelve years she’s been looking for her--”
“And she shows up at Benny’s five nights ago which means that we got a chance. You know what I would give? For a chance? You know what I would give?”
“Hey, Chief, you there?” Phil radios. “A fight broke out here. It’s Jonathan Byers. You haven’t seen Joyce by chance?”
Well, now Joyce has that added bonus of her mind being preoccupied on whatever dumb thing Jonathan did to get arrested. Christ, I could really use Bertie right now. She'd know what to do. What to say. Well, it’d be a smartass remark but it would make me feel better at least. I can hear her saying that my mind might be a mess but I better bullshit confidence through this mess. So that’s what I’ll do. For Bertie. For Joyce. For Will. For Hawkins. I haven’t done right a lot of times by this community, but I will do right by this.
I stare back at this box sitting on my desk of lighter fluid, bear traps, and ammunition we found in the back of Jonathan’s car. I’m somewhat impressed because I didn’t think he had it in him, but equal parts disturbed. This whole thing has gotten way out of control. I say that because Nancy watched a deer devoured by a creature not of this world, and Jonathan believes it’s only a matter of time before the creature kills again. If what Nancy and Jonathan said is true, this is a lot more than some missing kid. People could be in danger if these things Nancy saw seep out from one world into ours. I look up from the box when I hear commotion in the main part of the police station.
“I want an apology!!”
The hell is that now? I step out into the hallway and tell Jonathan and Joyce to stay there who are talking outside my office. However, this outburst turns out to be a hysterical mother going on about an attack on her son by Terry Ives’ daughter Jane. Eleven as the kids have been calling her, or El. I think our best bet is to find this girl and see if she can give us some insight to finding Will.
I know the first time I went to Hawkins Lab that I saw something I couldn’t explain. This El kid confirms that. This alternate dimension like ours Will’s friends have been referring to as the Upside Down. What’s a bit unsettling is I think back to the night when I thought all the markings on my map had just disappeared but it was just flipped over.
Why would it have the same thing on both sides?
Maybe because he’s already in a place that you’ve looked.
Will has been here all along, just not in our world. He’s in the Upside Down. The only way I can think to even get there is Hawkin’s lab, so that’s exactly where Joyce and I head to. It might not look like it, but my intention is for us to get caught so I can speak to Brenner. “Just let me do the talking,” I tell Joyce when we’re surrounded at gunpoint. I need down in that basement. That’s how we’re going to find Will.
There’s this eerie feeling that washes over me this time in the lab. I can’t explain it. I dwell on it even more once Joyce and I are separated and I’m shoved in a room for questioning. More like, threats and shocks from a cattle prod.
One of Brenner’s lackeys loom over me. “What do you know?”
That last shock hurts, but I refuse to give up. “I’m sorry, did I stutter? I told you. Everything. I know you do experiments on kidnapped little kids whose parent’s brains you turned to mush. And I know you went a little too far this time in a big way. I mean, you really messed up in a big way. I mean you really messed up, didn’t you? Big time. That’s why you’re trying to cover your tracks. You tried to kill Benny Hammond, you faked Will Byers’ death, you made it look like that little girl just ran away. See, I told you. I know everything.” I don’t regret anything that I say to these people because if someone doesn’t stand up to them, they’ll just keep getting away with this. Maybe in their mind, they have good intentions trying to keep this town safe from whatever is happening down in the basement, but it can’t be one life in exchange for another.
I figure when I’m given a cigarette, that’s a good sign, and it helps me bullshit that confidence as I demand from Brenner that Joyce and I are released so we can find Will.
Brenner does like that idea of silence in exchange for Will though so Joyce and I are allowed to finish what I started the first time I broke into the lab.
I’d love nothing more than to knock that stupid ass grin off his smug face. He thinks we’re not going to find Will, but I’m not leaving that place without him.
I’m relieved to see that Joyce looks no worse for wear. That they didn’t try anything to get her to talk like they did with me.
Joyce glances up at me confused that we’re being released. “I don’t understand.”
“We came to an agreement.” That’s a polite way to put it.
“Look, everything that’s happened here and everything that’s gonna happen we don’t talk about. You want Will back? This place had nothing to do with it. That’s the deal. You got it?” I stop for a brief moment because there’s that feeling again like when I first got here. Not dejavu, but something along those lines. I look over my shoulder and down the hall at one point like I’m forgetting something. Just to be safe, I check my pockets. Everything is there, including Bertie’s bandana.
“This way,” one of the scientists instructs.
We’re both given protective gear, flashlights, and I have a gun, something I hope I don’t have to use but I’m thankful for. At least, this way, we have a fighting chance. When the doors open, this world is unlike anything that I have ever seen. It’s more like a product of a nightmare.
Joyce is handling this about the same way, although she sounds like she’s about to hyperventilate.
“Yeah. Hop? When we were in Hawkin’s lab, Brenner said that six people had been taken. Six. Do you think that maybe this thing… this Upside Down got Bertie too?”
It’s something that crossed my mind when El was searching for Barbara and Will in that pool, but the moment the thought came on, I dismissed it. “No. Even if she was here in the Upside Down, think about the contact you’ve made with Will, meanwhile, I’ve heard nothing from Bertie. When El was in the pool looking for Will and Barbara, she didn’t say anything about seeing someone else either. I know Kenneth took her.”
“I feel guilty, like if you weren't looking for Will, you could be spending time finding her, but a selfish part of me is so thankful you're here.”
“Bertie would have wanted it this way, Joyce. If she knew that I sacrificed time to find Will on her, she’d never forgive me for it. We’re going to find Will and we’re going to bring him home. Then I’m going to find my Birds.” However long it takes, I won’t stop.
Joyce takes me by the hand and gives it a quick squeeze. “You’re right.”
Christ, I hope that I am…
A/N On a random factual note, Robot Combat was founded ‘about’ 1987 and it was actually called Critter Crunch, but I altered that for this story with Bertie’s trophy. Also, this pleases me.
Chapter 10: Guide Me
Jim stumbles upon something in the woods that forever changes things.
A/N This chapter is the rest of episode 8 of the first season and will only take place over the course of a month or two. Just so you don’t think we’re already in season 2. (Aside from the cabin flashback scenes with El and Jim in 2.3) I also want to say thanks for reading this. I know a lot of people ship Jopper so I appreciate you giving bird and bear a chance!
I stare back at the picture on my desk of Bertie and smile. Even though I haven’t brought her home, we were able to find Will. He’s doing just fine despite the scare we had of him not breathing in the Upside Down. I know that Bertie would be proud. Now I just have to find her to see it.
I finish filing the paperwork that Calvin started for her disappearance. I’m going to run over to a few other police stations tomorrow morning. For now, I better get out of here because I hear music starting. Tonight is our annual Christmas party, and I don’t want the attention of why I’m leaving so soon.
Calvin turns my way. “You leaving already, Chief?”
Well, that was short lived. I take a Tupperware bowl and start to fill it. “Oh, come on, you think I actually wanted to come to this thing? I was just hungry.” That’s all bullshit, of course. I think I spent two hours looking at the flyer that Flo made for the office Christmas party when it was put up. Truthfully, it’s something that I would have loved to come to with Bertie. Be proud to call her mine in front of the others. Next year, I keep telling myself.
Every day I’ve been driving out to the spot where I found Will’s bike. There’s a supply cache I keep restocking with food. I’m certain the recipient of the food is El. After everything with Will, I had a long sit down with some of the people at Hawkins lab. At first, I thought it was another one of those threats with the cattle prong to keep quiet, but it turned out to be a sit down with a doctor named Sam Owens. There are about nine hundred pages of confidentiality forms that I had to sign, and so did some of the others. Another thing Sam told me private is the girl, Eleven, was never found.
I rise up from the box to start back to the truck when I hear the faintest moment of snow behind me. That sound is either her or a very brave deer. “I know a place we could get some real food if you’re coming,” I say, continuing to the truck. Once I start the truck, I wait a second. I’m a little relieved when the door opens and up hops El. At least we have one thing in common. The fact we’re both motivated by food. Bertie would be a good cook for the kid. She sure wouldn’t be feeding her soggy waffles and overcooked chicken wings. Well, I guess that all depends if she asked me to watch the chicken or not.
When we get to Benny’s, I wait until the last car leaves before taking El inside his restaurant. I know I should keep this kind of thing to myself, but I also know that I can trust Benny with my life. “You wouldn’t mind firing that grill up again, would you?”
Benny is a little confused by the kid, but after a brief pause, he nods. “She can eat free but you have to pay.”
El’s eyes light up when she’s brought a burger and fries. The vacant spot where the sauce used to be served is an ever present reminder of Bertie.
“What are you doing, Jim,” he asks, joining me at the table. "This didn't really end well the last time she was here…"
I don’t know what I'm doing, truthfully. It’s not like I planned this. When Hawkins Lab told me that the kid was still out here while I was signing a million confidentiality agreements, I felt compelled to at least make sure she had a chance at survival. That’s why I’ve been leaving these little caches. “I’m not doing anything. She’s been with me six minutes. And you don’t have to talk about her like she’s not here.” Actually, the kid is so involved in her food, I don’t even think she realizes we’re at the table with her. "Though maybe it's best you pretend we were never here."
"Isn't your Christmas party tonight?"
"I just didn't feel--"
"I didn't ask your feelings. Did you bring me some of Flo's oatmeal cookies or not?"
Shit, I forgot. As soon as he mentioned it I remembered. "Look, I know that I haven't been a good friend to you. You haven't seen me much and even after you came out of this coma, I'm still not there for you. At least, not the way you were for me. I miss her, Benny, and I don't know if I'm ever going to see her again."
"Not if you keep stuffing your face you won’t. Jim, she didn’t disappear into thin air.”
It sure feels like that sometimes. She can’t be in the Upside Down. I’ve ruled that out entirely. I know I would have felt her when Joyce and I were there. “Without being too morbid about it, why would Kenneth take her instead of just killing her right there? An abduction makes no sense.”
“Now you’re thinking.”
"Am I? Because it feels a little like I'm going in circles here."
"That's usually because we missed something the first time around."
I dig in my wallet and give him a ten. He's right, there's something I'm not seeing here.
Benny scoops up the cash. "On a side note, do you think taking the kid to a place that was bugged before is really the best idea?"
Shit. I didn't think about that, I mean I would have but I was just worried about the fact that she's alone in these woods when it's below freezing. I don’t really like being in my trailer anyway without Bertie anyway, so the following morning, I bring El to a place that sometimes even I have trouble finding. A place no one would think to look. "This was my grandfather's cabin," I explain to the kid. "No one will find you here."
"Yes." There's a lot of work that needs to be done to the cabin so I can make this a place El can call home. That's not some fortress where she's locked down twenty four hours a day. A chance for her to start a life. But aren’t I just doing the same thing though? Locking her down twenty four hours a day. Forbidding her from talking to anyone. From going outside even. It’s either here, back out there, or Hawkins lab. Right now, it’s the best option. I want her to be able to live a normal life, but I just can’t do that right now. One thing at a time. “Come here,” I say, grabbing the dictionary.
I need to sell my trailer, but that means forcing more memories into a box and marking it too painful to deal with.
Benny lets me keep Bertie's truck and things at his place which saved me all the questions from El. "It's not that I don't want to tell her, I just don't know how to explain it," I tell Benny.
His right eyebrow inches upward. "So you're just going to wait for the day Bertie comes home and then you have to explain everything not just to Bertie about how you ended up with a kid but to El about this woman in your house now."
"Mmhmm. Yeah. I like that option better."
"Alright, good luck with that, bud." He hands me back a box of records.
They're Bertie's so I really don't know what I'm going to do with them because I don't like the music she listens to. I guess it would be nice to have something of hers with me instead of hiding all her stuff like I do with Sara. "Whoa, hey." I snatch Bertie's music box from Benny before it's thrown away. "Not that."
"I said, not that.” I clear my throat because this is becoming a little awkward. “Thanks for letting me keep her stuff here."
"Still think you should talk to El about Bertie."
Yeah, that's not happening. And I need to get back. I’ve left El alone all day and Saturday is one of the few days I get with her.
Trying to juggle this box and a few other things is difficult to pull off while getting in the cabin, but I manage. Hmm. There are two boxes of empty Eggos on the couch. “Kid?” It makes me feel guilty knowing that all she’s had are some frozen waffles while I was off trying to deal with a part of my life I can’t merge with this one.
“Bird,” El pronounces.
I almost drop the damn box. “What?!”
She holds up the dictionary. “Word of the day.”
Shit, I forgot to give her one. “How did you, uh. Why that one? Why bird?”
Oh, she’s talking about that show on TV where that guy changes into animals to fight crime. Manimal. Today must have been the bird episode. Maybe Benny is right. Maybe I should talk about Bertie. This could have been really bad. When she gets distracted by the box in my hand, I decide to keep putting the conversation off. I don’t really know why I don’t want to talk about Bertie. I guess I’m not ready for the questions El’d ask. Or maybe even more afraid that if something has happened to Bertie, El would know with that mind thing she does that I still don't quite understand.
El takes to Bertie’s records instantly. As she plays each one, specific moments play over in my head with Bertie. Then when Beethoven starts, I find myself in the bathroom, gripping the sink so tight, it feels like it's going to crush the porcelain under my hands. My tears slide down the faucet each time they hit. Once again, I feel pulled in two different directions. One is trying to find Bertie and the other with taking care of El. One will always suffer because I'll put priority over the other. I flip off the light and join El in the living room. "Let me show you how to cook. Eggos are for after dinner, not before it." When she's at my feet, I open the fridge and dig in the freezer part of it for the TV dinners. It's Salisbury and a turkey one. Of course it is. Everything reminds me of Bertie.
El tilts her head some. "This... is cooking?"
"No," I snap out of it. "This is the oven. Take the food out of the cardboard. No cardboard, El. You turn the oven to 375. Put the tray in the oven and close the door. That's cooking."
She nods wide eyed in understanding at me. "No cardboard. 375."
"And, for Christ's sake, don't burn yourself. It'll be hot once it comes out of the oven." I hold up the towel.
"How long until it burns?"
"55 minutes, and we're cooking, not burning." Bertie would have a heart attack. Hmm. 55 minutes is an eternity. Hell, 30 seconds is an eternity when you're hungry. I can't even count the number of times I've had cold food because I just can't be bothered with waiting. "I have an idea while we wait." El and I need some way to communicate when I’m gone so I sit down with her and teach her Morse code. I figure this is the safest way because I’m about the only one that knows it anymore. It makes me laugh how she moves her head every time she squeezes the PTT button on the handset. This will be good because now we can have a secret knock too if she knows Morse code. This way, she can lock the door while I’m gone and only open it for the knock. These little precautions make me feel better. Anything I can do to protect her.
Once I finally filed the missing person reports and visited the surrounding police stations, news spread fast about Bertie's disappearance. It was difficult when I heard it on the radio because they’d describe her as if people should be looking for a body.
--is Bertie Bennett. Four foot eleven. Blonde hair. Blue eyes. White thermal long sleeved shirt and blue jeans. If you have any leads, Hawkins Police Department--
I’ve got to get out of my office before I lose my mind and venture across the street to Melvald's.
There’s a list that I made of things that El needs. I’m really hesitant to do this kind of thing because I feel like it’s going to cause more questions than anything. I stare back at the overwhelmingly amount of shampoos and conditioners. “Twenty percent more,” I murmur as my eyes scan all the labels. “Two in one. Moisture care. Extra body. Shit!” I swipe a green one off the shelf and take it over to the counter.
“Oh,” Joyce says a little taken back. “Small miracle conditioner, Hop?”
“Mhmm. For my beard.” That seems believable. Right?
She drags the bottle across the scanner suspiciously. “And the Teen Spirit deodorant?”
Goddammit. “Look, I don’t know what Bertie uses and I just wanted some things for her. Can you please put them in the bag, Joyce?” I’m in so far over my head. This isn’t suspicious at all.
Joyce wiggles a little tube at me. “How about some Dr. Pepper lip smacker?”
I slam a five on the counter, yanking the brown paper bag from Joyce with El's things in it. “Hilarious.” She’s never going to let me live this down. Hell, I’m never going to let myself live this down.
The cabin smells like it's on fire once I get home. As soon as I open the door, it’s all smoky inside. "Kid, you ok?!" I survey the damage to find burned blocks of former TV dinners and an empty pitcher next to them on top of soaking wet floorboards. "You forgot to take the cardboard off, huh?"
She gives me a nod.
“That’s ok. Here, I got you some things.”
When I confirm that they are indeed hers, watching how grateful she is over little trivial drug store items is really a testament to how much we all take for granted. It makes that awkward incident with Joyce worth it. Now I wish I got her that damn lip balm.
I am run down and worn out. So much so, I almost fall asleep on the ride home from work. When I step out of the truck, I stop in my tracks. Music. Loud music coming from the cabin. “Shit!” I'm awake now. I practically take the door down with me as I barrel inside.
El’s eyes widen.
I can’t get to the cord fast enough to unplug the record player. “Jesus, El. You cannot play this music when I'm not home. Do you understand me? Do you!?” I don’t mean to be so dramatic and it scares her because she hurries into her room. I set my hands on my hips with a sigh. I’m definitely out of practice with the whole tiny human thing. Shit, I better make this right. Before I go into El’s room, I take something off my nightstand.
She’s huddled in the corner of the bed, gripping the pillow tight. Her wide eyes follow me to her bed.
“I’m sorry I yelled at you. I just don’t want anything to happen to you too.” It seems like everyone that I get close to leaves. Finding Will gives me hope that there’s a break to this curse of mine, but having El with me just magnifies the worry that something will happen to her too. “Here.” I reach out my hand, setting Bertie’s music box in it. “You wind it like this,” I show her. "It used to play music. Maybe we could get you something small like this. Just, uh." I start to take it but draw my hand back. "Be careful with this, alright? This belonged to… someone very important to me.”
“Uh,” I rub the back of my neck.
So you're just going to wait for the day Bertie comes home and then you have to explain everything not just to Bertie about how you ended up with a kid but to El about this woman in your house now.
“Someone that I love very much,” I admit.
I stare back at her, ready to ask a million questions. “What… how did you know?”
“You say her name in your sleep when you’re having nightmares.”
I never thought about how I could be so vulnerable sleeping. My eyes well up, the barrier ready to break any moment. Before I can get lost in thought, Beethoven's song starts up on the music box. “Unbelievable.”
El wipes her bloody nose.
I laugh some as I sniff up mine. "I tried to fix the damn thing so many times." It gives me hope that while Bertie is gone, she won't be forever.
It’s early, but if El’s tired, we can just spend time together tomorrow. I wind the box up before setting it on the bed with her. "Goodnight, kid." I keep the door cracked some before I go have a seat on my bed. The music box plays in the background as I reach for the picture of Bertie that's stashed under my pillow. I feel so lost without her. Just come home, please, Bird.
Jim, it’s Warden Clydel over at ISP. Police here found Kenneth. Over at a motel about a mile from the prison. I think you need to get here right away...
I keep playing our phone conversation over and over in my head as I press my foot to the floor to get to Michigan City Indiana faster. The last person that said something similar like that to me was Flo, and that was the day Benny was shot. I don’t know why Clydel refused to tell me anything on the phone, which makes me think it’s about Bertie.
The parking lot of the Travel Inn is an infinite amount of emergency response vehicles it seems like. “Where is she,” I demand at the first officer I see.
“Jim,” a man calls when he hears my distresses. “I’m Warden Clydel.” He tries to shake my hand.
“Is Bertie ok?”
He shakes my head. “Jim, Bertie wasn’t with Kenneth.”
I can feel my stomach in my throat. “What do you mean… she wasn’t with him. Where is Kenneth at?”
“Dead. He shot himself with a 12 gauge. The maid found his body in a bathtub this morning. Frankly, we don’t know how it took so long for someone to. We estimate he’s been dead for a while now.”
My sorrow fades and now I’m just left with anger. “You called me all this way to tell me what you could have over the phone?!”
“Follow me,” the Warden instructs as we go inside the motel.
Even though Kenneth’s body has been removed, the stench is awful from all the time he’s been in this room.
“Here.” The Warden gives me a pair of disposable rubber gloves. Then he hands me a black trash bag. “Jim, I need you to listen to what I’m about to tell you. Inside that bag are a pair of clothes. We need to know if they belong to the Bennett girl.”
He knows what Bertie was wearing when she went missing. I told him personally, and it was on the radio the first initial broadcast they did. I quickly unknot it, but can’t bring myself to peek inside. What do I do if it's her clothing? I swallow back the bile that's been churning in my stomach across five counties to get here before I yank it open. I hang my head as my eyes fall closed.
One bloody pair of blue jeans.
One bloody thermal long sleeved shirt.
I have a seat on the motel bed as I lower the bag to the floor.
Clydel stands in front of me. “There are a few dogs with the search teams combing through these woods right now. You can join one of the teams if you’d like or I’ll have the Chief here give you a call when they find the body.”
“What if she killed him and got scared,” I stammer as my mind starts making all these scenarios. “He was showering and she thought it was her only way out. Yeah! Then, she hid her bloody clothes. She could have hitched a ride home with a trucker, right? She could be on her way home right now--”
“No! You tell those men to call off the search for a body. You tell them to look for her!” I start towards the door because I’m not thinking clearly right now.
“That’s evidence, Jim, where are you going with it?” He tries to get the garbage bag from me.
“Evidence,” I yank the bag back with a shout. “I’m taking her clothes home and washing them. These are her favorite jeans. These… they’re… her… favorite.” I can’t hold it together any longer after that. I drop the bag at his feet and hurry from the motel room. All the once bright lights from the police cars are dim. The sounds from other officers are muffled. When I shut my truck door, I have to tug on the collar of my shirt because I can’t breathe. The steering wheel is gripped so tightly, I feel like it’s going to snap at any moment. At this point, I don’t know if seeing a body would even make it any more believable that she's truly gone. Especially after what I’ve seen with Will, it’s changed my entire perception on everything. There’s not even the sense of relief by watching Kenneth getting additional sentence time for it because he’s dead. So I’m left here with all these emotions and no way to release them.
When the last police car leaves the motel, it’s well after ten at night. I’m never this late getting home. I pick up my handset piece of the radio so I can talk to El on our secure channel. “It’s me,” I start, clearing my throat. “I know I’m late… and I know I didn’t signal, but it’s about Bertie.”
El uses her Morse code to ask me if Bertie is safe.
That’s when I can’t bring myself to speak anymore. Tears won’t even surface because I am so fucking numb. I press the PTT button but the words die in my throat. All I can do is send El Morse code back.
--. --- -. .
A/N I will say this. I didn't go through the trouble of making another aesthetic board with Bertie on it if we weren't going to see her again.
Chapter 11: Understand Me
Jim desperately tries to fall back into a routine but nothing ever works out that way.
A/N We’ve arrived at the beginning of season 2. It takes place a little before that season starts and it will fly through the entire 9 episodes.
If I didn’t have El, this thing with Bertie would have damn near fucking killed me. She’s my reason to get up in the morning. My reason to go to work so I can provide for us. My reason to keep going.
Warden Clydel said that Michigan City police never found Bertie’s body. It’s something else that keeps me going. All the leads have been exhausted and it’s what is known as a cold case now. While the media and the town have forgotten about Bertie, I won’t. Though I guess that’s not entirely true because when I’m at home, I don’t ever mention Bertie to El. I just don’t want to confuse El after I told her Bertie was gone.
I feel like I'm drifting from day to day. Season to season. As time passes, tension with me and El start to rise. She’s constantly pressuring me about leaving and seeing that Mike kid. Maybe I should kill him. I’m the Chief of police, I can make it happen.
“Jim,” Benny says for the fourth time, taking a seat with me. His restaurant closed twenty minutes ago, but I can’t seem to find the motivation to get up. “We need to talk, bud. It’s been almost a year since you found Bertie’s bloody clothing. She’s… she’s not coming home, and you’ve got El to think about. I think it’s time that you have a funeral. For peace of mind for you.”
I snap him a glare, my blood boiling. “Fuck you, Benny.”
“Whoa, now, Jim--”
“Bertie never let go of hope with you, even when they said you wouldn’t wake up. She defended you when they said it was a suicide. She ran the restaurant for you. She stayed with you. Fuck you for giving up on her.”
“This really how you want to do this? You’re angry, be angry with me. That’s fine. But, Jim, you know that deep down you’re looking for a body now.”
I hang my head and, after months of trying to hold it together, I start to sob. “But… cops… they find people.”
Benny sets his hand on my shoulder, moving over to the benched seat beside me. “This isn’t on you. It never has been. But we can give her a spot to rest. For her, for you. You’ve got El now, and you can’t be falling apart like this. Grieve Bertie, Jim, the right way.”
I feel like a funeral means that I’ve given up on Bertie. "It used to be that I couldn't go anywhere without someone asking me about her. Now it seems like everyone has forgotten. Like they've moved on. The scary thing is, it hasn't even been a year. A year, Benny, and it's like she's never existed. I just don't understand how no one in this town has seen a thing. A thing! Now I'm just supposed to bury an empty coffin and forget about her too?"
"No, Jim, but Bertie wouldn't want you drifting through life like this. You’re not giving up on her or forgetting about her because you have a funeral."
I set a few dollars on the table and get up because I can’t have this conversation right now. I can’t. I won’t. But I do feel like there’s someone who can help me. Someone that understands what I’m going through.
Joyce opens her door, surprised to see me. “Hop-- are you… Have you been drinking?” She leans in and smells me.
I know how this looks. My eyes are heavy. I’m slouched against her door frame. My words are all over the place. “I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have come here.”
She shuts her sweater tight before stepping out on the porch with me. “But you’re here now. Why?”
“When everyone was telling you that you needed to have a funeral for Will but deep down inside you knew he was still out there, why did you agree to have the funeral after all? For everyone else, or because you were scared that he truly was gone?”
Joyce frowns and closes some of the space between us. “I never felt like it was my choice. The town, Jonathan, Lonnie, everyone felt like they were waiting on me to do something so I did it. I was so numb, and a part of me felt resentful, especially knowing that Will was still out there. It didn’t even matter that no one believed me. There’s something in you that just knows. It’s not denial like everyone wants to say it is, it’s instinct that they are still alive. The odds are pretty against you, Hop, but as long as you feel like there’s a chance, no one can take that from you.”
I give her a nod, situating my hat right on my head again. “Thanks, Joyce. I think I just needed to hear that.” Though I should know by now that I don’t ever really have time to dwell on anything because when I get to the station in the morning, Murray is already on my ass about his latest conspiracy and this girl with psionic abilities. I have so much to do today, it’s unreal. Between visiting Sam Owens about Will and this sabotaging pumpkin business with Eugene and Merrill, I’m stretched thin.
With all the time I’ve been spending away from the house, I would expect El to lash out, but not in a way that puts her in danger like leaving the cabin because when I get home that night, she’s nowhere to be found. Fuck, I think I smoke 8 cigarettes on the porch waiting for her. There are so many things at risk here if she decided to go see Mike. I got a call that a mother and daughter had seen this little girl today and now I know that was El. My nerves are absolutely shot. I feel like my relationship with El is starting to strain. Speak of El… here she comes. Finally. The fact she walks right past me inside like nothing happens sets me off. “‘Friends don’t lie’. Isn’t that your bullshit saying?” I calm myself for a second so I can figure out if anyone else saw her. She doesn’t even realize how much she put us in danger.
“Nothing ever happens!”
This is definitely uncharted territory for me. Christ, I used to daydream about being so lucky to be able to ground Sara and I know that sounds crazy, but anything for more time with her. Now actually having to ground El, it’s… not a good feeling. Especially the more she defies me. “Well, congratulations. You just graduated from no TV for a month to no TV at all! You have got to understand that there are consequences to your actions.”
“You are like Papa!”
I know that I haven’t been holding onto things well, but that comment doesn’t help and this argument gets so far out of control that El’s tantrum breaks every single window in the cabin. I never meant for it to get this bad, but I’m only acting like this because I care for her and that’s a very fucking scary thing. Especially, when I am so goddamn lost right now.
If I don’t get over to Joyce’s house this second, I’m going to have to find a new secretary because Flo says she’s already called eight times this morning. When I get there, I’m a little confused. “Hello?” Why is Joyce’s door open? In fact, what the hell is going on here? It’s freezing in her house.
Will is having an episode far worse than the others. I know that Sam told us it was going to get like this, but these aren’t memories of the Upside Down he’s having. They are memories of something else. Will’s not able to explain it to us, so Joyce has an idea for him to draw what’s happening.
Now, I’m not an artist by any means and I know he’s just a kid, but these drawings he does are scribbles.
Joyce has an idea that these pictures connect, so four hours and seven rolls of tape later, we have his drawings in order scattered around Joyce’s house.
“Does this mean anything to you?” I walk around the drawings, hoping it will give me-- I grab my coat and hat because I’ve got it. “He’s drawing vines.” When everything happened with the pumpkins, I remember vines in that field. I don’t know what I’m looking for, but there has to be something if Will’s drawing them.
Digging this seven foot hole to get down to the vines actually gives me some time to think. About the way I’ve handled things with El mostly. That maybe I didn’t go about it the right way. In my mind, it was the safe way, but it doesn’t mean it was the best option. I get so lost in thought that I don’t even realize I’ve hit the vines until the shovel is pulled from my hands.
Once I climb into the hole, I realize that Will isn’t drawing vines at all. He’s drawing tunnels. Tunnels that seem like they go on forever. Twists and turns with numerous spots to trip over. And the air is toxic. Is… this the Upside Down? From what I can tell, which isn’t much because I only have my flashlight to see with, these vines are aggressive. Down here, I lose track of my senses and time. I can’t help but feel like if I don’t get out of here, I’m going to die. Which turns out to be true when the vines start to coil and pin me to the ground. My knife is just out of reach, and I haven’t been able to get a signal on my radio to call for help.
Right as I’m starting to lose hope, Joyce finds and frees me, handing over my knife so I can do the rest. The look Joyce has in her eyes as I get to my feet is the same feeling I have internally. How things could be much different right now had they gone any other way. I owe this woman my life.
I retch into this bucket at Hawkins lab after I’ve been hosed down and looked over by their team. Being down in that tunnel wreaked havoc on my body. My insides, Jesus Christ.
Sam Owens steps into the room with one of his colleges. “Alright, cowboy, good news. We’re giving you the green light.”
Did I have the red light before? And what does that even mean? “Can I get a cigarette?”
“How about you come with me first. There’s something you need to see…”
What Sam shows me below Hawkins lab makes the caves I came from look like nothing but some kiddie maze. These tunnels are everywhere and they can’t contain what’s growing in it. Even worse, Sam tells me they’ve stopped trying. The reason for it is because he thinks that by burning the tunnels, it’s causing Will pain since Will is the host of this thing. That’s at least one theory that Sam came to the conclusion of when Will came in complaining about burns. Burns? What the hell happened while I was in those tunnels?
Will is in worse condition when I get a chance to see him and Joyce. He doesn’t even know who I am. And Sam’s theory turns out to be right. I don’t know how they plan to contain this thing if everything they do causes Will agony.
“Jim, come with me,” Sam says as he takes me to his office.
I grunt, doing this weird walk thing as we make our way there. These pants are riding up my crotch, though they didn’t really have my size. “How long are you going to keep me in scrubs? Where are my clothes?”
Sam shakes his head at me. “You don’t want those back, trust me.”
Like hell. “I want my boots. Those are important to me.”
“You can’t have them. They’re--”
“I want those fucking boots, Sam. Find them!” Bertie gave me those, and I can’t part with them, that will break me.
“Uh,” he stammers, taking his place at his desk. “I’ll see what I can do. Have a seat.” He’s quiet for quite some time, just staring back at me as if I’m guilty for something. “Jim, you wouldn’t happen to know where the girl is, do you?”
I’m pretty sure he’s talking about Eleven, even though it’s random timing. Shit, maybe I said something while I was unconscious? “What kind of girl,” I shrug off. “Tall girl? Mean girl? The beer girl at the gas station?”
He holds up a picture of El. “You know what I mean. I know you’re looking for your girlfriend that went missing. You wouldn’t happen to have the kid in a desperate attempt to find your girl now, would you?”
What the hell is he talking about? How would El find Bertie? “Let’s say I did have her. Yeah, in some desperate attempt as you put it, I have this girl and I’m using her to find Bertie.” I roll my eyes.
“Jim, it’s not just the Upside Down where the girl can find people in. Why do you think Brenner was so interested in her? She was used to spy on people. All she needs is a picture and she can find anyone. Look, I’m not accusing you. I just want you to be careful. If anyone knows that you have her… it’s… it’s not just her life on the line.”
I am perfectly aware that I could very well die protecting El, and, I’m ok with that. She might have been some kid that stumbled into my life on accident, but I can credit her in a lot of ways to keeping me alive this last year. But what he says really catches me off guard because I had no idea that El had the ability to find people that weren't in the Upside Down. I have to hide the emotion that El might very well be able to find Bertie. "I gotta take care of something real quick, Doc."
Everything with Will and now this talk of El just makes me realize how much I miss her, and how important she is to me. I try signaling her once I get to my truck, but I know that I need words to convey everything, not Morse code. "Hey, it's uh, it's me. I know that I've been gone too long and it's... I just I want you to know that it's not about you and it's not about our fight. Ok? Something came up, and I will, I will explain it all when I see you. I just want... I want you to know that I'm not mad. I'm just sorry. About everything. I, I don't want you to get hurt at all. And I don't want to lose you…" I sigh heavily. "Just make sure you heat up some real food and not just Eggos, and I want you to eat all the peas, even if they are mushy and gross. I will be home soon." I let go of the PTT button waiting for anything from her. She doesn't radio me back so I just hope that she's heard what I have to say.
There's a brief moment when I'm walking down the halls where I… I'm just tired. After everything that has been going on, I'm worn out. Drained. Part of me is starting to question if I can do this. Keep this façade I've tried to project. This bullshitting confidence one when I am clearly so lost. I'm trying for Joyce, for El, for Bertie.
"Jim," Sam calls as I pass an office. In his arms is a small box. “I found these surveillance tapes in Brenner’s office. The girl they're looking for was on one, you know, help refresh your memory in case you forget what she looks like."
I’m actually curious about the tapes. I want to see what else this Brenner character has tried to cover up. He told Joyce that six people went missing after all. The first tape ends up being the one I wanted to see the night that Will went missing. It shows El’s escape through the drain pipe. I knew they were hiding something. The second one isn’t labeled so I trade it out to see what’s on it. I grip the TV as soon as it flips on. Oh my god. “Bertie!!” This surveillance tape is from the hospital. It’s the day she was taken. And it wasn’t Kenneth forcing her from the window. It’s two men in suits.
"Jim, you need to come right now," Sam stammers out of breath.
"Sam, I think that Hawkins lab took Bertie," I try to speak my thoughts even though they sound crazy.
I follow after him as we head down to the basement and explain what I’ve seen. "Those tapes you gave me, the day Bertie went missing I asked the hospital for their surveillance tape. When I watch the tape there was nothing on it about Bertie leaving the room but I know for a fact that she did because I found her bandana outside of the window. One of the tapes in that box is the surveillance tape from the hospital showing two men in black suits taking her. What would Hawkins lab want with Bertie?"
Sam opens the door to the basement office. "Jim, other than scientist and soldiers, the only people here are some of the test subjects from project MKUltra. But these are people that can barely hold a spoon or care for themselves. The lab keeps the ones who didn't have family to care for them. We don’t abduct people.”
"Now you don't, but you know that some seedy shit was going on before you took over. Why else would Brenner have the tapes in his office of Bertie being taken if--" My mouth parts as I get a good look at this creature coming up from the ground and diving right into the glass. What the hell? I step forward towards the glass as one creature becomes two and three and so on.
"Mother of God," Sam comments as the creatures. "It's… it's polycarbonate, they can't get through."
The constant strain from the creatures trying to get through causes cracks in it. "You sure about that glass?" We're not about to wait around and find out. My first priority is trying to make my way through the weaves of the long hallways to get to Joyce and Will. "We gotta go," I tell them frantic as I barge in the door. "We gotta go!" Which we don't get far before we're trapped in the surveillance room, now without power. My mind is all over the place, but Bob and Sam have a plan, so it looks like I'll be the muscle. Or so I think.
"Where are you going," Bob asks me.
It's not often I feel useless, but this is definitely one of those times. I don't understand this BASIC Bob keeps talking about which is needed to turn back on the power so Bob offers to do it.
If only turning on the power and unlocking the door was our only problem. We've got Will as a spy who we're trying to keep unconscious along with these creatures that don't go down even with a gun.
When we actually make it outside, I've never been more thankful to be out of that lab. We did it. Together. "Joyce, I think we should-- Joyce?" Where is she? That's when I hear her scream and walk back into the lab to see Bob being devoured by those creatures. Jesus. It all happens so fast. I know that I can't save Bob, but I made him a promise to protect Will and Joyce and I'm going to do just that.
Once we make it to Joyce's house, I make calls to try and get some help in that lab. Not just for Sam but this is going to be a lot bigger than what I can handle with guns that don’t even stop those things. "We stay here and we wait for help." I didn't realize it at first, but Joyce isn't in the living room and her bedroom door is closed. I let myself in, sitting across from her. It's one thing to lose the person you love, but watching them brutally murdered in front of you is another. There’s nothing that I could even offer advise on so I just sit here quietly.
“Do you think that after Bertie…” Joyce can't bring herself to say it. “Do you think that you’ll ever be able to get past that hurt?”
I pause for a minute before sighing. “As much as the evidence points to Bertie being dead, I still feel like she's out there. And if one day she's not… if she's… if I bury her,” I bow my head, “Bertie will always be everything to me, and I know that no one can fill that void. Ever. After everything that I put that poor woman through, she still was able to look at me with the deepest adoration. How do I find that in someone else? Why would I want that with someone else?”
Her fingers wrap tightly around mine.
I give her the best attempt at smiling I'm able and squeeze back. “Take as long as you need, Joyce.”
Through Morse code and Will, we know the only way we're ever going to destroy this thing in the Upside Down is by closing the gate, and the only person that can do that is El. I don’t like this idea, but I know it’s pretty much our only shot because the other alternative is we all die.
Talking with El as the two of us ride back to Hawkins lab about where she's been all this time is an eye opener. She was able to find her sister and see her mother. In a lot of ways, it feels like I've gone about things wrong this last year with her. "I should never have lied to you about your mom. Or about when you can leave. A lot of things I shouldn't have done." El came into my life at a time I wasn't all there, and, truthfully, I'm still not. "Sometimes I feel like I'm… like I'm just some kind of black hole or something."
"A black hole?"
"Yeah, it's a, you know, it's this thing in outer space. It like, it sucks everything towards it. Sara had a picture book about outer space."
"Sara? Sara's my girl. She's my little girl.”
"Where is she?"
"Well, that's kind of the thing, kid. She's. She left us."
"Yeah. The black hole. It got her. And somehow I have just been scared it'll take you, too. I think that's why I get so mad. I'm so sorry. For everything. I could be so--"
"Yeah. Stupid. Just really stupid." When I see that black bandana around her wrist, it reminds me of Bertie. "Here." I reach into my pocket and give her Bertie's red one. "It belonged to her. To Bertie." I take a deep breath. "I don't want any part of you to think that the only reason I took you in was to find her. Honestly, I had no idea that you could find people."
"But… she's gone?"
"No, I just told you that because I couldn't bring myself to answer questions about Bertie. I know it sounds crazy, but she's still out there. I just don't know where." I reach into the center console and hand over the picture of Bertie I found in her room. "This is my bird."
After El gets a good look at Bertie, she reaches over and clicks my radio on to dead air, tying Bertie's bandana around her eyes.
That's when I notice her nose start to bleed. “What are you doing--” Over the radio, I hear a voice for the first time in a year.
“...Jim,” Bertie cries frantically.
I slam on the breaks in the parking lot of Hawkins Lab, trying to turn up the volume but the radio seems like it’s fried or something. I knew she was still alive. “Where is she?” I’m going there as soon as we close the gate.
El shrugs a second, then sighs. “...Upside Down.”
I grip the steering wheel, bowing my head. Goddammit.
“Not safe,” she frowns, lowering the bandana from her eyes.
Bertie obviously hasn’t been in the Upside Down this entire last year because the atmosphere is toxic there. Brenner had those tapes of her and Sam always makes the comment that Brenner is gone, never dead . What if Brenner is still alive and doing his experiments? Fuck, no, it can’t be because wouldn’t El be able to tell? After all this time I finally have a real chance at finding Bertie only I’m out of time. We have to close the gate now or everyone else will die. It feels like I'm betraying Bertie closing the gate because this will certainly kill her. I know that deep down, Bertie would say closing the gate is the right thing to do, but the selfish part of me doesn’t want to. I’ve continuously pushed Bertie off time after time because I’m trying to save everyone except her. Bertie honey… I'm so sorry I failed you. Please, take care of Sara and James until I see you again. “Alright, kid. Let's close the gate.”
A/N The next chapter will answer everything! Stay tuned! I'll update shortly.
Chapter 12: Isolate Me
Please read my A/N.
A/N Notice the date and place below. Also, this chapter is from Bertie’s point of view. I tried to make it as brief as possible because I wasn't sure if people wanted to read from her perspective but it answers the question of what happened to her.
Hawkins National Laboratory November 1983
My eyes are heavy as the light makes me squint again. Wh-- where am I? The last thing I remember is being at Benny’s side. I touch my fingers to the side of my head and when I draw my hand back, the first thing I see is, “blood.”
“My name is Doctor Brenner,” a man startles me and takes a seat at the table I’m sitting at. “Your head… it wasn’t my intention to go about things the way that we did, but you are quite the fighter,” he grins.
What? Whatever, my head isn’t important. “Is Benny ok, Doctor?”
He sets his arms on the table as his face goes dark.
Oh, god. No. Please. My bottom lip starts to tremble as I wait for the crippling words that Benny didn’t pull through.
“How exactly do you know Benny Hammond?”
What… what does that have anything to do with Benny’s health? “Please, I need to know if he’s ok.”
“A few nights ago, a child showed up at Benny’s Burgers. The same restaurant you work at. And you were the only one scheduled to work with him that day. Where did you take the child after she fled from his restaurant?”
Do they think that I did something to Benny and then took the child? Or have it in me to hurt a child? My eyes well up thinking about James.
“Where is that little girl?”
“I don’t know,” I shake my head. “Benny closed early. I didn't even get a look at her. Then Jim came to get me from work--”
I become smaller in my seat because I don’t like his tone or his questions. “I want to see Jim.” I reach for my wheels only they’re not there. I’m in an actual chair. “Where-- where’s my wheelchair?!”
“Answer my questions.”
“I don't have to answer anything!”
“Is this the same Jim Hopper that is threatening State Police? Or breaking into my lab. I'm sure you know nothing.”
This son of a bitch is lucky I don't have my torque wrench. Damn, I know that Jim has been stressed lately, but threatening people? And trespassing?
“ What do you know?”
I lean over against the table some. “I don’t have anything to hide. I told you that I didn’t know anything and I mean it! Now let me go. Don’t let the fact that I’m in a wheelchair fool you. You have no idea what I’m capable of.” I feel like that’s something Jim would say. That, through him, it gives me this empowerment. Though this doctor doesn’t take too kindly to that and I’m forced into a… closet? A small room? Whatever it is, I can’t get the door open. There’s not even a knob. “Hey!”
After a day without food or water, I’m starting to become a little stir crazy. Damn, all it took was a day? I talked a big game and everything, too. Thankfully, I’m pulled from this small room, but the same questions are asked again today. “You idiots… I told you--”
“We heard your lies the first time.”
“You can’t keep me here! This is illegal. I’d like to think I have a pretty good grasp of the law seeing as I sleep with a police officer.” Well, ok, maybe that’s not entirely true, but they don’t know that. My cheeks redden at the thought of Jim and me.
The hell, is that a cattle prod? I told them not to mess with me and I mean it. They have no idea what I’m capable of after everything that I have been through and I get a hold of the prod, even managing to use it on a few of their men before I’m pinned to the floor. “Go to hell,” I scream as I’m injected with something in my neck.
"Pull Kenneth from ISP,” Brenner orders another man. “Make it look like an escape and plant her father's address in his cell. Dump Kenneth’s body in a nearby motel and leave her clothes in his room. She'll talk one way or another...”
What?! My heavy eyes start to close as the back of my neck feels like it’s on fire. “No,” I weakly try to fight them as my clothes are stripped. “These are… my… favorite pair. Hnng--”
I gasp for a breath as I sit up off the cold floor. What the hell? They really took my damn clothes? Yuck, this gown is stiff and stinks. What kind of hospital has rooms to hold people like this?
Today, I’m visited by a woman. I guess they thought a female could get more out of me than the men, but I’m not wavering. I don’t have anything to hide, and I know nothing about the child. Apparently, this isn't a hospital at all, it's Hawkins Lab, and this lab screwed up big time. They’re also going to make it look like Kenneth killed me as some elaborate cover up. But that's not the only issue. It's all the questioning that has given me quite the insight into everything and they see that as a liability.
I’m strapped to a chair as another doctor comes in. My eyes fall shut as I shake my head in disbelief. This can’t be real. I knew that someone tried to kill Benny, I just never thought it was some government cover up. All for that child that stumbled into his restaurant. I just hope that my friend makes it out of his coma. Jim is going to need him because I’m not making it out of this alive. How long have we all lived in Hawkins and never knew that something like this was happening right here? And I thought this town was dull…
We’re interrupted before I’m given another injection in the neck to ‘deal with me’ as they put it.
“Connie, we found the girl. Hawkins Middle School.”
The team abruptly scatters and leaves.
“Uh.” Seriously. They’re leaving? “Where are you going?! Hello?" Three hours later, I’m still strapped to this damn chair. “Hello? You idiots there?” For two days, I'm left in this room until someone finally comes. I'm so exhausted, I'm barely conscious. Dehydrated. Starved. My gown soiled.
“Shit,” a doctor sighs. “Hey, we found another one in here.” He walks over and starts looking over a machine next to me. “This one is young. Do you think she’s an offspring from project MKUltra?”
“That'd be my guess," the other answers, "but we'll never know. They used that machine on her. She probably thinks she’s on the damn moon.”
My eyes move over to this machine they are talking about as things start to make sense. God, if this place can fake my death, there’s no telling what else they can do. I’m just going to pretend I’m not all here. Play the part of an MKUltra offspring and hopefully get some insight to what is going on because I've been through enough for it to end here.
I'm given a pair of scrubs which are definitely an improvement from the itchy gown. Since there is technically no paperwork on me as they put it, they assume that I'm this girl named Samantha Smith. God help whoever Samantha Smith really is or what this lab did to her.
It also goes to show you just how far the government will go to cover things up. Knowing Jim, he has given my information to the news stations, and there have been multiple reports that I’m missing, but if these people are doing experiments, changing names, and making fake body doubles, a news report won’t do a damn thing. These employees are just going to look the other way because they’re not about to put their life on the line for me. It really makes me even more scared to speak up and say that I was wrongly taken. They will never let me go because they know how much trouble they’d be in to take an innocent person. Especially with the blowback from the press. Perhaps even having the place shut down for good. I will never leave this place unless I make it happen for myself. Impossible for someone with the use of their legs considering the security, but I have to try.
The room I’m going to be staying in is a little better than the previous one I was crammed in to. A small bed and a toilet sink combo much like a prison cell are my only companions. That and this drawing on the wall. Stick figures of Eleven and Papa with a cat on a table. God, that reminds me. Will is missing too. I hope poor Will wasn’t taken and is suffering the same fate as this poor child that drew this drawing did. I stick it back on the wall, taking in my surroundings once more. Home sweet home…
Every day from the time I wake up until the time I go to sleep, I work my upper body out. Do my best to stimulate the muscles in my legs and feet, but I don't really know what I'm doing because all my rehabilitation was for my speech.
After the first three months, I'm able to wiggle my toes and tilt my left foot slightly. Still, I can't rely on my legs to get me from this place.
Once it's the fourth of July, I start keeping track of the days better that I have a point of reference.
I repeat the same routine every day.
Try and move my legs.
I'm not abused or even messed with other than occasionally I'm visited by a doctor. I just pretend to be a mute so the questions stop, and eventually, so do the visits. I haven’t seen that Brenner fool or his lackey Connie, but I always fear they'll be back.
Every time the door opens for food, my eyes move to the wall outside of the door. That's because there's a fire escape map on it. I memorize as much as I can before the door is closed, then use my ketchup or mustard packets I'm given sometimes to continue the map on the back of this child's drawing. I study it so I can plan my escape.
From all the years of cheerleading, the muscle memory really helped me. I know that I’m not going to walk out of this place, but I don’t need my legs. I have my strength through other things.
Today is the day that I’m planning my escape. I’ve been trying to think how I am going to subdue the guy who brings me my breakfast, but I don’t have to. On the bottom of my tray yesterday, I noticed a piece of duct tape. I’m going to use it to put over the lock so the latch doesn’t click into the strike plate. Well, in theory, that’s my plan. We’ll see how well I execute it. I move over to the door and sit along the wall. The tray is set at the foot of my bed every day so that means I have a few seconds to where his back will be turned and I can reach up and slap the tape on. Wait, tonight is meatball night. Dammit. I would choose today to escape...
The door creaks open, followed by the man with my tray. “Smith, I know you don’t eat the cereal, so I got you another hash brown.”
Generous of him. As soon as he passes me, I reach up and situate the tape into place, hoping this loud gray piece of tape with HNL on it doesn’t catch his attention as he’s closing the door. My eyes squeeze shut as I can hear him struggle on the other side but I let out a sigh of relief when I hear his boots echo down the hall. Well, here goes nothing and if it doesn’t work, I’m only out one more day. I reach up, not even having to use any force as the door separates from the frame. I thrust my fists up in the air in victory. “Robot Fighting Champ,” I praise myself, not that this has anything to do with fighting… whatever, I’m free. That’s all that matters. I know now is the time if I want to escape because they always talk about how short handed they are in the mornings. I stuff my map I made in my front pocket, along with a hash brown, then shake my pillow out of the case. The case is laid flat on the ground as I situate my legs so I’m sitting on the case, on my knees. This way, I can push and pull myself across the floor without much resistance since the case is slick. Alright. You got this.
I poke my head out of the room and down the hall. It’s clear on both ends so now is my chance. There are little X’s on some of the rooms on my map. Those are what I think to be closets. They’re my checkpoints where I can stop to rest and gather myself. Thankfully, I’m upstairs, not down, so using the staircase won’t be as difficult as going up them after dragging myself through this lab.
My first few lengths of the lab is a success. Now I’m hiding in one of the closets as planned until I don’t hear the chatter. Which goes on for hours . I know that escaping this lab is going to take me a full day. The slower the better though. I tug the hash brown from my front pocket to refuel since I can’t do much else. Well, the downside to leaving the lab is I have to start cooking for myself again-- I choke on my hash brown when an alarm is triggered. Crap! Already?! Oh, hell, no. I’m not going back to that room!
And as if things weren’t as bad as they could be, now I have to navigate this place without power.
Guards come running at me as I prepare for a fight, however, they’re not even interested in me. What? Shit, not that I’m complaining. Maybe they have bigger fish to fry.
The more I progress through this lab, the more death I see. That’s right, death. The hallway is a slew of dead bodies everywhere. They look like they’ve been ripped apart by something or chewed… on, I don’t know how to describe it.
My eyes widen when I see some kind of rabid… dog?? When the face opens up, I can’t explain what I’ve just seen. Now it’s clear that alarm isn’t for me, but I’m certain this alternative isn’t better. As the guard is being devoured, I can’t believe what I’m seeing. Jesus Christ. What did they lace those hash browns with?! Breathe, Bertie. I look over my shoulder when I hear commotion, thinking it’s one of those dogs but it’s not. I scoot over to it, waving my hand at the wall. There’s a giant crack in the wall as these little dust particles come out of it. I just watched an animal's face split into fours so I’m not really questioning things anymore. I don’t know if I’ll be able to get down this hallway, so I figure the split might lead to another room. As I crawl through the crack, I realize just how wrong I am. Terror unlike anything I have ever experienced comes over me. This isn’t another room at all. It’s like another… dimension. My god. Something screeches past me as I put my hands up to cover my face. “Jim,” I cry, then start to cough because I can't breathe. Forget this, I’ll take my chances with those damn dogs, and pull myself back into the hallway. Apparently, it’s just in time because something pulls a body next to me into the wall and the crack closes. I don’t know how long this dog is going to feast on this guard so that means I need to get out of here and fast.
I'm careful to avoid any cameras now that the power is back on which I’m grateful for because it’s dark outside so I don’t even have the outside light to help me navigate. One of the rooms I end up in looks like some type of giant locker room. Complete with showers and-- My eyes settle on a pair of boots. Not any boots. The boots I got Jim. Oh, god. Did the lab take him too? I tie a knot in the laces so I can put them around my neck like a scarf. It does give me a bit of hope. A sign to keep going. Alright, last stretch before the steps.
I try not to drag myself through any blood puddles because I’m not looking to make myself any more appealing to these dogs. Thankfully, I make it to the stairwell. Once I’m on the other side of the door, I listen closely to hear if there are any dogs in here but I don’t hear them.
Descending downward on the steps is not as easy as I thought. It’s exhausting. I’m mentally drained and physically every part of me hurts. It seems not even the stairwell is safe since there’s a passed out doctor slouched against the wall. He’s not dead because I can feel a pulse. That's when I recognize the belt tightened around his leg because of the many times I’ve taken it off. That’s Jim’s belt. I mean, damn, is Jim even clothed at this point? I'd take the belt too, but that might be the only thing keeping the doctor alive. I know the lab has taken the last year from me, but I'm not a killer by any means despite how angry I am so the belt will stay to give him a chance to survive.
As the doctor starts to stir, I hurry away from him. We get a good look at each other before I take the last step down. His expression is a little unnerving. Like he’s seen me before but I don’t recognize him at all.
Thank god. I’m almost out of this place. Just a few feet more. As I push open a heavy wooden door, I’m greeted by two dogs. “Shit!” I panic, desperately trying to find something to defend myself with. The only thing I manage to get a hold on is a broom which I break in half, using the wall to help me do it. The two dogs attack my legs as the other lunges for my throat. I'm able to stab it in the open mouth with my broom. It shakes its head as the stick flings out. "Shit!" It's a very sobering feeling to know that death is certain. Being eaten alive by creatures from an HP Lovecraft novel just isn't what I expected. I move my arms over my face out of instinct and await my fate. The tugging on my leg stops as I look down to find the dogs running off. Almost… retreating in a way. I lean my head back against the floor, catching my breath. That was close, but I'm not out of the woods yet. While I still have no feeling in my legs, I can feel whichever one got ahold of my foot. There's the strangest burning sensation. The attack has left me in poor condition because of all the tears in my flesh and the constant bleeding. I know I don't have much time so I need to make what I do have count.
My heart beats faster because there's the exit. I don't even take any chances with locked doors at this point, pick up the small end table, and hurl it towards the window. Shattered glass be damned, I just want out of this hell.
When I feel the night breeze swallow me for the first time in almost year, I breathe as much of it in as I can. As I open my eyes, I realized that was one challenge down and now comes another. This entire place is fortified with nine foot chain link fences. "No," I sob, hanging my head. I've made it this far all for it to be some cruel joke.
My eyes shift over to the sound of whistling. What the…? I pull in a sharp breath. “Bird,” I stammer. I crawl over to a drainage pipe to the bird sitting on top of it. It's the bluebird from the hospital! “You came back. I knew you would.”
The bird will find its way back, I promise. They always do.
I reach my hand out close as the bird hops on my wrist. It whistles once more before it flies away. My smile fades because if only I had wings…
Bertie, even if you never walk again, it’s not about not being able to do things. It's about doing them in a way you’re able.
I touch my hand against the cold metal, pulling myself into the corrugated drainage pipe. Ok, Jim. The way I'm able.
A/N I didn’t realize that David’s middle name was Kenneth when I was trying to come up with names for the tow truck driver, lol.
Chapter 13: Reunite Me
What brought me El has brought back Bertie.
A/N This chapter wraps up the last little bit of season 2. I don’t plan on following season 3. Maybe a few scenes here and there if that.
As I carry El out from Hawkins Lab, I pass by several military men. Men we could have used hours ago. I can't help but feel resentment, like if they had shown, I would have had time to look for Bertie, but I guess there's no point in wishing for what could have been.
I set El down once we're outside. She can walk, I’m sure, it’s just me being overprotective knowing how much of a strain closing the gate was on her. Mike and some of the others gather around. She wants to go with Mike and, frankly, that's not a bad idea. I just need a couple of hours to regroup.
El squeezes my hand because it's clear on my face how distraught I am.
I squeeze her hand back because I am thankful that with everything that happened tonight I still have her. I'm so proud of her.
Out of the corner of my eye, I notice a bruised and battered Steve. “Should… you be driving?”
“I do alright,” a redhead shrugs.
“I'm talking about him.” I point to Steve. “Whichever one of you are driving, get her home safe. Home,” I reiterate to El, giving her my radio in case I get home and she’s not here. Yes, I’ll go embarrassing dad rage at that point over the radio.
“Home,” she nods.
"Jim," Sam shouts.
I'm glad he's ok.
"Jim, wait, I need to talk to you."
"Get him to a doctor," I tell one of the men before getting into my Blazer.
As I start to leave Hawkins Lab, I pull over on one of the roads that leads out. Something doesn't feel right. I step outside the truck to throw up, but it's just dry heaves. I shut my eyes because I swear I see Bertie's bluebird. After a few quick breaths, I open my eyes and the bird is gone. Like a metaphor for our time together. “I never believed you were dead, but now that I know it got you, I'm sorry. I was so wrapped up in trying to save Will, trying to protect El that I let you down... again, and never saw what was right in front of me. All I've done is disappoint you. I just hope that you've found some peace. With James and hopefully Sara. My Sara would have loved you. I love you. I always will, Bertie.” I look down and curl my fingers around Sara's hair tie on my wrist.
“Help,” a disembodied voice cries.
It sucks the air right out of me. I look over my shoulder and into the woods. “Bertie?” Is my mind playing tri--
“Help me, please,” Bertie shrills.
I take off into the woods towards the cries. "Bertie!"
I almost run right past her if she wouldn't have yelled again. Surprisingly, she's in a storm drain. I flip on my flashlight and call her name.
"Get me out, please," she sobs.
I stick the end of the flashlight in my mouth as I try to fit as much of me as I'm able, but it's no help. I tuck it between my neck and shoulder to try and reach for her. "Bertie, keep pulling yourself to me."
“I can't,” she whines defeated.
“Birds, I can't fit down the pipe. I'm too big.” I don't have my radio on me and the one in my truck is fried. There's no way that I can leave her to get help. If something happens now after everything, that is on me. My belt I put on Sam, so that's out. I don't have any rope and I can't even see her even with my flashlight so there's no telling just how far down she is. “Listen to me. I know that you're exhausted, but it's just a little more. Look at how far you've come, without the use of your legs. All you have to do is reach my hand and I'll do the rest.”
When I see those blue eyes… goddamn. The flashlight falls, hitting the metal. “Yes! Just a little further.” At me comes flying one of my boots. The ones the lab took. I notice she's tied the shoelaces together and she's holding onto the other boot. I give it a good yank, thinking it's working but it breaks. “No!!”
Her bloody hand latches onto the metal as she sobs against it.
I wiggle myself in as much as I can, but our fingertips just barely graze each other. “Please,” I beg her. “Just one more big pull and that's it.”
“You can! Think of everything you've been through and survived. Don't give up, Bertie. Not now. One more foot, that's it.” Sadly, I really don’t know everything this poor woman has been through, but if she’s escaped that lab with those creatures, there is no telling.
Bertie takes a few deep breaths before her shaky arms giving everything she's got. With a strained yell, she moves herself so much, I'm able to grab her forearm.
I yank her out so fast, I'm certain I've dislocated her shoulder. I fall back on my ass as she collapses against my chest. My arms engulf this woman. “I'm so fucking proud of you, Bertie,” I praise into the crook of her neck. If I think too much on it, I’ll question my sanity and if this woman is really here. My lips touch her soft skin for confirmation. I feel like I’m crushing this woman in my arms, but getting this second chance is something I could only dream of before.
Her fingers have a death grip on my shirt as if I’ll let go. “You're sweaty,” she cries.
“Yeah, and you stink,” I laugh through tears. Her legs are bleeding. It's the same as the injury I saw on Sam which means those things got her. I hoist her up, stepping up onto the pipe to get back to the truck. You know, in a strange way what brought me El has brought back Bertie. “Let's get you to the hospital.”
I practically pull right into the front door of the hospital with my truck.
“Sir, you can’t park here! Sir?”
I don’t really give a shit right now about anything but them stopping the bleeding on Bertie. She’s not even responsive anymore. “Help,” I yell, turning around in circles like I’m stuck in some never ending nightmare, desperate for anyone to do something.
Thankfully, fucking thankfully, she’s just exhausted the doctor tells me. I resume the painful spot of being at her bedside like I did all those months ago, but knowing that this woman is going to wake up this time is a great relief. Something that happens in less than an hour.
Bertie looks around frantic, then feels the scar on her head. "Did I dream--"
"No." I take her scratched and battered hand. "What happened in the lab?”
She shakes her head at me. “You wouldn’t believe me if I told you. Hell, I don't know if I believe my own--"
“Trust me,” I put out my other hand out, “I know. Yes, what you saw was real. And, no, you’re not crazy. It’s... a long story.” Bertie recollects the last year for me as I listen to try and piece together everything. Brenner did abduct her and made it look like Kenneth killed her. And that moment that El heard her in the Upside Down was that brief moment she went through that crack. “I can’t believe you fought off those things.”
She frowns, lifting the blanket some. “I didn’t really do that well of a job, then they retreated so I got lucky.”
I notice out of the corner of my eye, her foot moving. “Did you just--” I look down at her feet. Her foot isn’t the only thing that moves. All of her toes, too.
“But it wasn’t enough…”
I cup her cheek. “Bertie, you drug yourself down a mile long pipe without the use of your legs after you escaped a building infested with things from another dimension. Honey, it was enough. No one else could have done what you did.”
"Bird came back. I saw it,” she finally smiles.
Yeah, I smile. She did. "I saw it too. Every time I wanted to give up or it seemed hopeless."
"Is Benny ok?"
It's just like her to ask something like that. "Yes, he's back at the restaurant now. Will is safe, too.”
"Do I really stink?"
"Yes," I nod big time, but I still pull her close into a hug. "I missed you so fucking much."
"Enough with the fucks, Jim."
Talking with Bertie like this is as if we never lost any time together. We just fall right back into place. Bickering. Teasing. Sarcasm. Finally. I have her.
Bertie needs to be hospitalized for a few weeks from the injuries on her legs that have become infected, and then they want to do a mental evaluation, plus more scans to make sure everything is alright with her brain. I try to stay with Bertie as much as I can. On the nights that I do, Joyce agreed to let El stay with her so she didn't have to be alone at the cabin.
"Hop," Joyce calls again, snapping her fingers to get my attention.
"Here are the things El asked for as well as a few other things she'll need." In Joyce's hands is a brown paper bag.
"Like what?" I see razors and face wash, but that's not all.
"Actual hair care products, not miracle leave in conditioner," she chuckles.
Yeah, ok. Good thinking. I flip the lid to take a sniff. "That's nice." I set the bottle back into the bag. "What else?" I back away from her frightened and into the corner when Joyce pulls the next item out. "Uh," I clear my throat, pointing at the package. My eyes widen at the words feminine napkin. "Wh-- uh, what is… that Joyce?"
"What is what?"
I stab my finger in the direction of it again. "That, Joyce! Why is that in your hand?"
"Oh, maxi pads?"
"Joyce," I raise my voice. "No. Uh-uh. Nope."
"Would you grow up? I'm not going to say it will happen any time soon, but you need to be prepared."
My face bunches up in disapproval. "I don't want to," I pout.
"Moving along. I got her a nice dress."
After I make my way back over to her, I hold up the modest gray dress with puffy sleeves and a belt to match the collar. "What's wrong with flannel?"
"She's not chopping wood. Just give her the dress, Hop."
No. It looks too damn grown up. It's going in the back of the closet when I get home.
“So now I get why you were in the store buying Teen Spirit.” Joyce has one more thing for me. "Here, a girl her age is going to start wanting makeup. I know, I know, it's too grown up, but trust me on this."
She explains what is what but I know what it all is because it's all the things I packed up off my bathroom counter when Bertie went missing. I think after the accident with all the scars under her eye and across the bridge of her nose, the makeup helped her to be a little more confident. If El wants to wear makeup, even though she doesn't have those scars, if it makes her confident, then I don't mind. Speaking of, I know she's been waiting on me in the truck.
"I spied," El admits once we're on the way home.
“Joyce wouldn’t tell me why you are always gone, so I spied. Is Bertie ok?”
I take her hand in mine. It’s the one she’s tied Bertie’s bandana to. “Yes. It’s not that I didn’t want to tell you, alright?”
“Do I get to meet her?”
"You will, kid. I promise." I learned my lesson saying soon before so I won't this time, but I know that soon needs to be any day now. I just need a little bit longer. This is one of the most important moments of my life, and I just want the timing for those two to meet to be perfect.
I step into Hideaway Bar, joining Sam Owens in one of the booths. He said he has something for me. Something that's slid across the table once I have a seat. I tug a birth certificate from the envelope. "I thought--"
"Sometimes, I impress even myself."
It's El's, and for father, my name has been forged in the line. Well, the entire thing is forged really. I don't really know what to say.
"You, uh, tell your girl?"
"Bertie… and no. She's still in the hospital from everything and I didn't want to overwhelm her with surprise, I have a kid ."
The certificate isn't the only thing he wanted to talk to me about. "Look, this thing with Bertie, we've paid off all her medical bills for her surgery from the hit and run and we're going to pay for her rehabilitation to be able to walk again. As long as she needs, Jim."
Now I really don't know what to say.
"Aside from the extreme isolation, she wasn't abused or drugged and I believe it because we really have tried to do right by those people in the project since Brenner left. I talked to one of the men that regularly brought Bertie food. Said she always sent back her dessert," he chuckles.
"Yeah," I smile somewhat somber when I think about it and all the time we've lost. "She doesn't like sweets. Except birthday cake, that's the only exception." Still, it angers me because this lab fucked up big time, even more than before. “Sam, you guys took a year from Bertie and me. And it’s not even about me. From her. The only reason I’m able to keep half the composure I have is because I see how much Bertie has grown as a woman from this, but this could have been a very different conversation.”
“Like so many other things, it’s definitely one of our bigger mistakes. Jim, it wasn’t personal. It’s always been about having the best interest of the bigger picture.”
In the grand scheme of things, nothing else matters besides having Bertie safe. And now she’s going to get this rehabilitation that I know I could never afford on my salary and her working full time. It’s pretty shitty to think that all this happened for a reason, but at least something good will come from it all. “Well, what else can I squeeze from you guys?” I’m not joking.
This is the last time I will have to divide my worlds and I am so grateful. I have a seat on Bertie's bed. "I've got some good news," I smile. "We're going to start your rehabilitation as soon as you are released."
She looks at me stunned. "But… how?"
"Well, it's really so you'll be so overcome with gratitude that you won't sue Hawkins Lab for what they did to you."
"Considering the news reports about how much trouble they're in, I wouldn't get much."
I start to laugh. "You should get to come home tomorrow, too." My mind is in a million places, mostly because El is going to meet Bertie later and I'm nervous but excited at the same time. Oh, shit. Speaking of El. "I need to go take care of something but I’ll be back about midnight.” The Snowball dance is tonight and I can't miss getting El ready and taking her.
"You're leaving now? You just got here."
I’ve never felt more torn, especially that look on her face. “I need you to trust me, and when I get back, I’ll explain everything. There’s something I have to tell you.” I smile faintly and grab my coat.
“...did you... f-- find someone else?”
“What?” I stop in the doorway and turn on the ball of my heel. “Of course not!” It breaks my heart that she thinks I would do something like that. That she thinks I could move on. “Bertie, I love you. It’s always going to be you.”
She flushes as she drops her head.
I smirk as I slip my hat back in place. “Four hours, honey. Then I’ll be back. I promise.”
A/N The dress Joyce gives Hopper for Eleven is the one she wears to the Snowball dance. Also, if you look on my aesthetic, Jim looking down the drainage pipe was an Easter egg, hehe :P
Chapter 14: Accept Me
Bertie finally comes home as she adjusts to life with El and Jim.
A/N I know it’s been a while since I’ve updated, but I'm having some health issues. Sorry about the wait.
El talks a mile a minute when I pick her up from the Snowball dance. I’m not sure if she’s more excited about the dance or that Karen is going to take her in a bit to stay the night at Mike's. That's actually probably a bad parenting mistake that I'll regret later on. Anyway, my plan is to drive to the hospital and let Bertie meet El. Then El will go with Karen until I bring Bertie home tomorrow since it’s too late for the hospital to discharge her tonight.
“Wait,” El pauses. “This isn’t home.”
“Yeah, I know, kid.” I sigh heavily, parking my truck. “I feel like I am living in two worlds now. One being with you, and one with Bertie. I haven’t told her about you because I'm not really sure what she's going to say.”
“She’ll hate me?”
“No, Christ, no. It’s just, before she disappeared you weren’t a part of my life, and now you are. A very important part of my life. It’s time that the two of you to meet, and I just think going into the hospital would be the easiest way--”
Did… she just shut me up? “Ok?”
I give her a breathed laugh when she spells it. I’m a lot more nervous for this than I’m showing. Not that El or Bertie have it in their hearts to hate someone. Well, maybe they’ve both been pretty pissed at me, but that’s different. We’ve all just come too far and I can’t imagine my life without either of them. “Listen, kid. Bertie had an operation on her brain last year, so one side of her hair was shaved. It’s grown in a little, but it’s still uneven and noticeable. Just don’t ask her about it, ok?”
“I know. I saw her in the Void."
Oh, right. I forgot she spied. “Hey, be careful with that shit, ok?” God forbid she see something that she shouldn’t...
“El!” I give her a double take when she giggles, like she’s trying to bust my balls. She hasn’t even met Bertie and she’s already taking after her. “Just be respectful of privacy is what I’m saying. Got it?”
“Yes,” El nods.
I lead El through the hospital before taking a deep breath and stepping into Bertie’s room. Thankfully, Bertie is still awake. “Hi,” I stammer.
Bertie looks behind her for someone else in the room, confused as to why I’m acting so weird. “Who are you talking to?”
“Uh. You. So, uh, there’s someone that I want you to meet.” I reach my hand out into the hallway and tug El into the room.
Bertie’s eyes widen.
Well… if you’re going to get wet, you might as well go swimming. “This is Eleven, I mean, uh, El. My daughter." I’ve had a year to figure out how to explain this and instead I just blurt out the first unscripted thing. “It’s a long story--”
“Eleven,” Bertie interrupts me. She stretches her arm out to get the scrubs on the table next to her. In the front pocket, she pulls out a map but it’s not the map she’s showing us. It’s flipped over and on the other side, there is a child’s drawing.
Wait a second, I remember that drawing when I was looking for Will. Oh, it's El's drawing. So that means… wow, of all the places Bertie could have been in that lab it was the room they kept El in when she was there. Well, I guess now I don’t have to explain as much as I thought.
El reaches out her hand and touches Bertie’s hair where it's shorter on one side. “Pretty.”
Bertie leans into El. “Did he tell you to say that,” she whispers.
“Whoa, hey,” I start defensively when El says yes. “I didn't tell her to say it, just not to… you know, bring attention to it.” I put my hands on my hips and sigh.
Bertie starts to chuckle to herself. “I’m Bertie. Bertie Bennett.”
Maybe I jumped the gun with being worried about these two because El seems awfully interested in Bertie. I wonder if it has something to do with Bertie being in the lab, in her room. Though the hopeful part of me is that El wants to take an interest in her because she knows how much that I love her. How much I love both of them.
“Knock, knock,” Karen announces before letting herself in as Mike follows.
Dammit, I wanted El and Bertie to have more time together. I should have told Karen to wait in the car, but it is late. “Here,” I say, giving El my keys to the cabin. In the morning, El and a few others are going to go back to the cabin and set up a welcome home party for Bertie. “Separate rooms,” I insist, glaring at Mike when the two of them are already holding hands. My god, I can already tell I’m going to have trouble with him. My punishment for what a dog I was all those years.
Bertie waits until we're alone before she says something. “When I was at the lab, they talked about a machine that wiped your slate clean. I know that sounds crazy, but since I wouldn’t talk they assumed it was used on me. Was Eleven's mother Samantha Smith? Did they use that machine on her?"
"Her mother’s name was Terry Ives, and, yes, they used the machine on her. Look, Bertie, El isn't really safe.” There’s just something in me that tells me Brenner is still out there. “There's a doctor that I believe is trying to harm her, so I try to do my best at keeping her from prying eyes."
"Brenner," Bertie says to my surprise. "He tried to fake my death and Benny's death all in hopes to find her. It's good that you found her, Jim."
"I don’t really know what I’m doing, but I know that it’s the right thing to do..."
She starts to say something, then her eyes well up. “Jim--” The words die in her throat as she begins to sob.
Fuck. I take a seat beside her, swallowing her with my arms. “I went to his grave…” There’s more guilt than I know what to do with when it comes to James, but the worst thing of all is the guilt that maybe if I was there for her, he would have survived. “It’s my fault, Bertie. It’s all my fault…”
“It’s nothing you could have done. The doctor said that I--”
“Yeah, and I talked to that motherfucker. Bertie, it was nothing you could have done. The doctor said what he did because he was scared it would be a reflection on him. He turned that town against you.”
“But… he said….” Bertie’s face goes dark.
I’m not going to tell her how to feel, but I can’t help thinking her anger should be at me.
However, Bertie puts that hatred aside to reflect on James. “He was beautiful,” she struggles to say, moving from my arms.
That gets me, and the tears fall against my pants leg. “I’m sorry that I wasn’t there for you, honey. And I’m sorry for the insensitive comments that I made about you not knowing what it’s like to lose a child.”
She gathers her composure a minute before taking a deep breath. “I don’t want to waste any more time on I’m sorry. We’ve both made wrong choices in this relationship. This is our chance to start again.”
I don’t know how much truth there is to that because I can’t help but feel like all the mistakes are because of my fuck ups. However, she’s right. This is our second chance. Or, maybe our third. It doesn’t matter.
Bertie scoops up my hand. “As far as the pain of losing James and Sara, we both need to be that shoulder for the other person, instead of shutting the other person out.”
I know the mental evaluation for Bertie came back good but it's seeing glimpses of her so mature and level headed really help to assure me that she’s going to be ok. That the lab might have taken a year of her life but not her spirit.
This bed isn’t made for the both of us, but I take my spot next to her as Bertie talks about James and the pregnancy as much as she’s able. I think it will be good for Bertie and me to maybe get some counseling, like so many people suggested with Sara but I turned my nose up at it. Most importantly, just being there for one another. I can’t help but feel like I need to apologize again for making her go through this alone for so many years because I avoided her or brushed her off. Maybe after she’s asleep, I’ll pay that doctor a visit…
Christ, by the time Bertie and I leave the hospital the following day, it’s after three in the afternoon. Oh shit. Home. I kinda neglected to tell her I moved, so that’s one more change along with the many.
"No ramp," she comments when we pull up.
"It's a work in progress but I can wear the tool belt again for you to build one." I wiggle my eyebrows but just end up getting brushed off. It makes me wonder if the fire that Bertie once had for me will ever return.
When we get inside the cabin, Bertie is greeted by several people. One being Benny.
He puts his arms around her and around the wheelchair. “Thank god.”
Bertie sighs relieved and returns the embrace. “I was so worried about you.”
“Alright, that’s enough,” I murmur jealously, pushing on Benny’s shoulder to break the hug up.
Karen comes forward, already grinning ear to ear. "I made you a chicken and spinach lasagna, but don't worry," she puts out her hands, "no burnt cheese! I watched over it the entire time in the oven."
Bertie perks up. "Thank you…"
"Oh, I’m Karen. I'm Mike's mom."
"Right," Bertie nods. "El's boyfriend."
My expression goes blank. That's the first time I've actually ever heard it said out loud and I don't really like the sound of her having a man in her life that's not me. Can we eat that lasagna yet? How come my vice is defaulting to food when it comes to those two? I’m going to be thirty pounds heavier come summer.
"Is that really your trophy?" Dustin points at her robot fighting one on the bookshelf.
Bertie seems confused to see it there, then nods to Dustin’s question. "Yes. Though you'd be surprised how little fighting is involved. Most robots lose due to flaws in the build causing self-inflicting damage. Poor craftsmanship and poor execution mostly.”
Dustin's jaw drops as the rest of the boys gather around her, wanting to hear more about this robot fighting.
While they’re talking, I thank Joyce and Karen for putting this all together, and Benny for bringing Bertie’s stuff back. As nice as it is having the people that have your back close, I'm looking forward to just having Bertie and El at my side, which thankfully comes quicker than I thought.
I notice that El has been holding onto this small box throughout the night. “What’s in the box, kid?”
El takes the item from the box, then hands it over to Bertie. It’s her music box. “Better.”
Oh, shit. El didn't exactly fix that thing with a small screwdriver.
Bertie seems in disbelief as she winds to hear it. “Unbelievable… Jim, remember, we tried everything.”
“Yeah,” I stammer awkward, trying to brush it off. Well, at least the damn thing works again. Christ, I remember the day I gave that box to El. How hard it was for me because I didn’t have Bertie at the time. I’m never letting Bertie out of my sight again.
Bertie is really appreciative of the music box, but ultimately decides to give El the box.
I smile watching them talk about Sara’s hair tie on El’s wrist. Especially when the conversation shifts to Bertie’s bandana on El’s other wrist.
“I kept it safe,” El tells her, unknotting the bandana before giving it back.
“If you like it, keep it. I can always get another one,” Bertie smiles. “Now you’ll have something from Jim and something from me.”
There’s no real significance to the bandana other than it gave me hope at a time when I was desperate for anything I could hold onto. I think that this is more about me, and the two girls using me to relate to one another, which makes me feel important. Something I often don’t experience.
Bertie grunts, finally getting her wheelchair in motion as she goes for the bathroom.
"Do the dishes while I help Bertie," I tell El. I grab some clothing from Bertie before stepping into the bathroom, closing the door behind me.
"This bathroom is much easier to navigate." She reaches out her hand for her clothes. "Thank you."
"That TV show you like is on tonight." Why am I nervous?
"Dean Martin's celebrity roast," she smiles.
"It's the last episode though. Of the series…" It is sad to think how she's a year behind on everything. "This will be our first Christmas together," I change the subject and have a seat on the ledge of the bathtub to plug the tub so I can start filling it with water.
"I hope you got me some privacy."
Privacy, I mumble under my breath. Pff. “I just got you back… sorry if I’m a little clingy.”
She wheels over my way, putting her arms around my torso.
The corner of my lip tugs upward as I start to chuckle. Affection? What’d I’d do to deserve this? As I go to put my arms around her, I’m shoved. "Oh, fuc--" I lose my balance, falling right back into the tub.
Bertie starts to laugh, slapping the edge of the tub amused.
I sit up out of the water and fling the water from my arms. "Hilarious…" I lose my annoyance real fast when she slides into the tub with me. My wallet is soaked along with my clothes, the water isn’t even all that warm, and there’s more water on the floor than in the tub, but I don’t care. I move her against me and enjoy whatever this even is.
“Bring your feet to me,” she says, then takes both my boots off.
I remember the day she got these for me. God, I was such a dick, too. “You know, we really do have a lot of history together, Birds…”
“Is that why you didn’t find someone else?”
“No,” I shake my head. “It’s because I think about what all I put you through in that history and despite it, you’re still here. How could I ever find someone else?”
"That's a pretty good answer."
I use my foot to flip on the hot water so we don't freeze to death.
"I couldn't help but notice the bed in the living room… the very small bed."
I still have so much work to do to this place. "There's an add-on, but it's not finished yet. You can take the bed and I’ll use the couch." Bertie and I really haven’t actually slept together so I don’t want to force her into a situation she’s not ready for. "Unless you want to sleep together."
“It’s going to be difficult to share a bed. I can’t climb over you, and actually getting up in the middle of the night will wake you for sure. You need your rest.”
“Bertie, I haven’t slept right in a year. If a few minutes of interrupted sleep is the most that happens, I’m fine with it. And you won’t be in your wheelchair forever. You’ll be back to clean long sleeves and reaching things without tongs in no time.”
“When you’re not even five foot, reaching things is always an issue. And I’m a mechanic. My sleeves are never clean.”
I like hearing Bertie refer to former things that made her happy. That she hasn’t lost the drive. “I can talk to Wendall, you can start back at the shop if you want.”
Bertie rolls her eyes. “Yeah, talk, sure. I heard about the talk you had with State Police.”
“Says the woman who assaulted me with a torque wrench.” I shudder thinking about that thing. “Too bad you didn’t have that with Brenner, huh?”
“I used their cattle prod on a few of his men, but it was six against one. Anyway, either help me get clean or get out of the tub. I don’t want to miss any more of my show than I have.”
It always makes me laugh how forthright Bertie is, though I suppose we’ve lost enough time not to be that way with each other. I move from the tub and have a seat on the edge so I can wash her hair. I figured that’s what she meant until clothes start to drape over the edge of the tub. “Wha-- uh… do you want me to,” I cough, “leave?”
“Don’t get too excited for me getting naked. My body isn’t what you remember. Especially after James and the accident.”
It takes me a second to actually form a thought as she strips down, but eventually, I get the blood back in the right spots to be able to help her with her pants. I don’t know how to explain my attraction to this woman other than to show her as I point to my lap.
She blushes when she notices my… situation. “Or maybe it is what you remember.”
“I can’t begin to see these faults you think would ever change my opinion about you. The only reason I’m not in this tub with you is because I know you need a little more time. But know that when the time comes, nothing would ever make me think you’re anything less than perfect, honey.”
It takes her a second to speak as she scoots her tears from her cheeks and sniffs up her nose. “Did you get that from a fortune cookie?”
“No, I got it from shut up and listen to me because I’m older than you and I know what the hell I’m talking about. Shit, woman.”
“Shit,” El laughs from the living room.
Bertie’s eyes widen mortified before she covers her face. “Oh my god, I didn’t know she could hear us…”
I never thought in my life I’d say this, but I tell El to play one of those records loudly she and Bertie like. The moment has passed, but hopefully, it gives Bertie a little more privacy. I get some dry clothes so I can change and join Bertie back in the bathroom. “I tried to show El my music, but she likes yours,” I tell Bertie annoyed as I dry my hair.
“Your other daughter… what did she like?”
“Oh, Sara?” I pause a minute. “She didn’t take much to music. She liked to read.”
Bertie smiles somberly. “I bet James would have liked your music.”
“Let’s hope that’s the only thing he would have taken from me.”
“Look who’s being hard on themselves now? You have a great profile, Jim. You’re patient. You’re strong.”
I put our wet clothes in the sink so they can dry. “Thanks, Birds.” I give her a kiss on the top of her head. “I’ll put your show on.” Which she doesn’t make it through half of the episode before she’s asleep on my side. And I’ve got El’s foot poking my other side. “I hope you’re comfortable, kid.”
It seems I’ve been reduced to the world's comfiest pillow.
This morning is hectic because I’m trying to get to work a little earlier than usual, but I still want to make time for breakfast with the girls. I set our plates down, then look up to Bertie straining. She has a hard time moving her wheelchair in the cabin because of how separated the boards are on the floor. For a second, I think she’s finally got the hang of it until I see El wipe her nose.
“Must be stronger than I thought,” Bertie comments when she’s at the breakfast table still in shock which makes El chuckle. “Jim, what kind of pancakes are these?”
El’s eyes widen. “Eggo’s…”
Bertie does not approve. “They’re too sweet." She spits it back out onto her plate. "This is breakfast?”
“How can you not know what Eggo’s are,” I laugh.
She shrugs before going to the fridge and getting out the leftover chili. It’s placed in her lap as she comes back over to us.
I can say this is the weirdest way I’ve ever seen someone eat a waffle, but whatever gets her to eat because I remember very clearly a time when she’d go without eating. “Alright, I'm going to be sick. Let me at least make you French toast.” I hear her follow behind me and laugh. “Don't trust me?”
She shakes her head no, watching me like a hawk. “Don't burn my bread, Bear.”
“I'm not going to burn the bread.”
“It smells burned.”
“Birds, it’s not.”
“Let me see it.”
El finds our bickering to be funny.
Bertie shakes her head. “No. Make it again, and you're eating that.”
Four pieces later, it's finally to her liking. At the expense of moving my belt another notch out.
Bertie rips the crust off her bread, setting it off to the side.
I pick up a bottle and twist the lid. “Syru--”
"No!" Her hand hovers protectively over the toast until I put the bottle back down.
I figure she's going to put more chili, but she actually puts cottage cheese on her french toast. I'm not really hungry anymore.
“Ew,” El gags.
"Bertie, that's gross."
Bertie leans in towards me. “But did you try it? No? Then you don’t know it’s gross, do you?” Bertie takes a bite of it before spitting it out. “Alright, it’s gross.”
I can’t even begin to count all the wasted food at this table, but wasted food doesn’t matter. Not when I finally have a moment that I could only envision before this one.
El moves the salt shaker to Bertie.
“No,” I intervene. “Quit trying things and both of you eat your damn food. Now.” I don’t know if I want to leave these two alone. There’s no telling what I’m going to walk into tonight.
After several attempts with my knock, I have to crawl in through the window because no one is answering. “Birds, what the hell? Didn’t you hear me knock?”
She’s distracted by the car auction on TV. “...no.”
Bertie points lazily at the bathroom.
“El, come on, I’ve got KFC. It’s not good cold. You too, Bertie.” I get a loud sighed protest which I think is funny. Especially considering she is usually the one who makes food so you think she’d be happy she didn't have to cook. When I radioed El today, El said Bertie was sucked into the auction. I know what that means.
“Can I sit in your spot so I can watch the TV?” Bertie’s already trying to wedge her way onto my side.
“No.” When she starts to pout I give in because I’m weak. I know Bertie isn’t paying attention because that biscuit she’s about to eat is burned. Her and those goddamn cars. “Hey, what is El doing in the bathroom?”
“...I don’t... know.”
“Well, how long has she been in the bathroom?” I snap my fingers to get her attention. “Talking to you.”
Now she's upset because I've made her miss a part. “I mean… am I supposed to time her? Why does it matter how long she’s in the bathroom for? If anything, she’s just taking after you.”
“That’s real funny. El,” I shout. “Dinner, now, or I’m coming in there.”
Bertie tilts her head confused when El comes out of the bathroom.
Oh my god, what? What happened?! I turn around in the chair abruptly and knock over the mashed potatoes, then get that same taken back expression as Bertie when I see El. “What did… your hair.” She’s cut it like Bertie’s. A few inches on one side, leaving it long on the other side. She’s even put Bertie’s bandana in her hair the same way that Bertie wears it.
"Like yours," El smiles at Bertie, moving her head so we can get a better look.
In a way, it chokes me up. Especially because this is something that El and I have both done for Bertie’s acceptance in a way. Where I shaved mine in the hospital that day, El has done the same thing today.
“It’s beautiful,” Bertie tears up.
It’s one hug I won’t try and break up. I was so nervous about these two. Hell, there are times when I don’t know what the fuck I’m doing with El so I can’t imagine how Bertie must feel, but this is definitely a pretty good sign that things are going to be ok. It also says a lot too because Bertie completely loses interest in her TV show as the two talk throughout dinner. In fact, I try to butt in and am told to be quiet. It’s two against one odds I don’t really mind.