There is a man at the lab who tells Eleven that nobody actually cares when she throws a tantrum. She doesn't know what a tantrum is. She doesn't have to know. She understands what he means to say. He looks at her with a scorn that floods her cheeks with heat, that reminds her why it's better when the men at the lab just completely avoid looking at her.
"Nobody gives a shit about you," he says.
She wants to argue with him.
He knows it, and he leans in closer, taunting. "What?" She can see the grease on his forehead and the pimples on his nose and the specks of black that cover his chin and his cheeks and above his lips. "You got something to say?" He raises his eyebrows at her.
"Papa . . ." she tries. The word is small in her voice. "Papa—"
She stares at the floor. And when he leaves with a slam of the door, she is left in the dark, and she wants to pound on the door, crying and screaming and fighting. There isn't a point, though. Nobody actually cares when she throws a tantrum. She draws her legs up to her chest, and rests her chin on her knees, and sits in the dark, trying to steady her breathing, and crying in silence.
(Her sister says she has to harness her anger, has to use it, and she tries and it works and she learns that she can't be that person, can't do those things.
There are feelings more powerful than anger.)
She can't believe it when Hopper says that she can go to the Snow Ball. "Promise?" she breathes, trying to keep her smile in check. And when he laughs, she knows, and she launches herself straight at him, throwing her arms around his neck, and hugging him tightly.
He got her a dress, and everything.
She is nervous, though, when she walks in to face a gymnasium of people she doesn't actually know. Hopper says she's going to be the prettiest girl there. He got Joyce to pick the dress, and he surprised her with powdery pink eyeshadow, and he helped her fix her hair. Still. Every single step she takes feel shaky in that moment.
Mike is there, though.
He isn't with Max, or with some other, normal girl.
Mike's face changes when he sees her, and he takes her hand, and they learn how to dance together.
After they dance, she gets to talk to all of the boys.
"El, you're here!" Lucas exclaims, and he wraps an arm around her briefly in half a hug. It startles her. But before she can process his reaction, she sees Max, and there's a pause, a moment of uncertainty. "You remember Max, right?" Lucas says.
Will's arrival saves her from having to answer.
She doesn't really know him.
"Hi, Will," she says.
"Hi, El," he says, and he smiles.
Dustin actually dances into view, joining the group with a slide. "El!" he exclaims. "You made it!" He grins.
"I made it."
"Were you seriously just dancing with Mike's sister?" Lucas asks.
And, suddenly, the boys are talking, and laughing, and shoving, and it's just like it was way back when she met them before, only it's better, too, because everyone is happy, and Will is there, and Mike is holding her hand.
The group makes their way over to the tables of snacks after a couple of minutes. Mike has to let go of her hand to pour a cup of punch for her, but he takes it again. She's hardly had a sip of the sweet pink drink when a loud, fast song comes on that the boys say they have to dance to. This time, there doesn't seem to be a special, specific way to dance. They just stand together on the open dance floor, all of them, talking, and laughing, sort of jumping, and sort of moving their hips and their arms and their heads.
Time seems to fly by.
She dances another slow song with Mike, and a third, and his face turns pink when she touches his hair, when she rubs a lock of his hair between her fingers just because. Dustin teaches her how to moonwalk, or he tries, and Lucas says he's doing it wrong, and Lucas teaches her. She spits the weird, celery snack that she picked up into her napkin after a single, gross bit, and when Will catches her, he grins, and she decides that she likes Will.
It's the most fun she's ever had in her whole entire life.
"Does this mean you're going to come to school with us now?" Mike asks.
"I have to hide. For a while. To be extra safe."
After a moment, he nods. "I get it. But now that I know where you are, I can visit you. I don't care what Hopper says. And I can help get you ready for school! I mean, you've never been to school before. There's a lot of stuff you don't know. I can teach you!" His eyes grow bright again.
She isn't ready for the night to end.
It does, though.
She has to say goodbye to Dustin and Lucas and Will. To Mike.
She's going to see him soon. She makes the promise to herself. And even though the dance is over, and she doesn't know when, exactly, soon is, she can't stop smiling the whole dark, quiet drive back to the cabin.
She prepares a speech for Hopper about why Mike should be allowed to come to the cabin.
She is going to explain that Mike can come a different way every time so that nobody follows him. They will keep the curtains closed. Mike will teach her everything she needs to go to school. It will be a compromise. She wants to leave the house to be with her friends, and he wants her to stay in the house without her friends.
She doesn't get very far into her speech.
"It isn't that I don't trust the kid," Hopper says. "We just have no idea who has eyes on him. We've got to be smart."
"Teach," she says, because she should have started with Mike's idea.
"Mike can teach me," she says. "For school. Later."
"I've already hired someone for that, actually," he says, surprising her. "Someone who's a little more capable than Mike. She'll get you caught up."
"Who?" she asks
El doesn't understand why if it's safe for Nancy to come, Mike can't come. But when she points that out, Hopper just sighs at her. He says they'll "see" about Mike coming to visit sometime soon.
Until then, she wouldn't be alone every afternoon.
Nancy is going to tutor her.
El is nervous at first about having Nancy tutor her. Does Nancy know that there was nothing El could have done to save her friend from the monster? She hopes Nancy doesn't blame her.
It doesn't seem like she does.
On the very first day, Nancy teaches El a lot. She teaches her about fractions, because El knows how to add and subtract and multiply and divide, thank you very much, and she teaches her what a highlighter is, and she teaches her that George Washington won a war against evil men wearing red coats, and he became the president, and that's why he's on the quarter.
El likes Nancy.
She is calm and patient and smart, and she is pretty, too, and she smells the way that pretty must smell.
She comes three days a week.
After a month, she gives El her very first test. "To see what you've learned," she says. It's on money. (If a girl has three quarters, seven dimes, two nickels, and three pennies, does she have enough money to buy a box of Eggos that costs one dollar and fifty cents?) El gets a 100 on her test, which is the best you can get. "You didn't miss a single question!" Nancy is pleased, and she has a treat to reward El for doing so well on the test.
It's a tiny pink vial of perfume.
"I caught you sniffing me," Nancy says, teasing. She shows El how to spray it on her wrists, and how to rub it under her ears. El can't stop smelling her wrists for the rest of the day.
She likes Nancy.
But she refuses to give up on having Mike come to the cabin to see her, too.
It doesn't take as long as she thought it might. She pushes and pushes and pushes, and it turns out that Mike is pushing and pushing and pushing, too. And, after a couple of weeks, it works.
Hopper says Mike is allowed to visit her once a week.
In the weeks that follow, they do everything there is to do when you're cooped up inside a cabin.
One week they cook grilled cheese sandwiches and play Hopper's old, '60s board games. One week they make bottle rockets. One week they watch A New Hope on the VHS player that Mike brings over.
"You know, you're kind of a Jedi," Mike says, bright.
She uses the force to bring a plate of Eggos to where they're sitting on the sofa.
On a Saturday in December, he spends the whole day with her, and they have hot chocolate with peppermints and they make fancy, cut out paper snowflakes to paper the walls and they string Christmas streamers from the ceiling and they sing along to Christmas songs while they ice the cookies that Mike bought from the store with his allowance.
And in the evening when they're tired and full of cookies and happy, she tells him that she's trying to learn to paint her fingernails, and he lets her paint his fingernails for practice.
She helps him rub it off with remover right after.
(He makes her promise never, ever to tell Dustin, Lucas, or Will.)
She can always count on Mike.
She can't wait to get to go to school with him, to get to leave the cabin, and live her life, and do all of the fun things you can do when you aren't cooped up inside a cabin.
She wakes on Christmas to find a pile of shiny, brightly colored packages sitting on the table.
"Presents?" she says, gaping.
She's never gotten a present before. She didn't even know what they were until Mike told her. Now, suddenly, she is faced with a mountain of them, and Hopper tells her that she has to tear the paper off, that she's supposed to make a mess, and he laughs when she gets to work, tearing the paper, and tossing it over her shoulder, and revealing her presents: a set of Bonne Bell Lip Smackers and three new books and a Pink Care Bear and a Walkman and four cassette tapes and a set of pink, matching knit gloves, hat, and scarf that he says Joyce knit for her.
After she opens her presents, they have a feast of Eggos.
And after they've eaten, he has her bundle up in her coat and her boots and her new, knit clothes, and they leave the house to play in the snow.
Hopper has never really played with her before.
She loves it.
They have hot chocolate to warm up after, and watch Christmas movies for hours, and they have Eggos for dinner, too. It's the only Christmas she's ever really had. Falling asleep against Hopper's side while magical, flying deer chat on the TV, she thinks she couldn't have asked for better.
Mike gets a present for her, too. He visits the cabin three days after Christmas, and his eyes are bright when he presents her with the small, wrapped package. She tears off the dancing polar bear wrapping paper, opens the box, and gapes: it's a shining silver bracelet with little pink stones twinkling between the links. It's beautiful. She tears her gaze from the bracelet to look at him.
"It's a bracelet," he says.
He takes it from the box. "You put it on like this." He takes her arm, and, after a couple of tries, is able to get the latch to catch. "I had to do, like, a million chores for my mom to get the money," he adds. "Do you like it?" His eyes are searching her face.
She nods. "I love it."
She touches his hand to tell him to wait, and she goes to her room to fetch her present for him. A lightsaber. She spent days trying to come up with an idea, and when she thought of this at last, it took her over a week to make it. She was pleased with herself when everything was done, but, now, faced with showing him what she came up, she's nervous. Gingerly, she gives the badly wrapped gift to him.
Mike doesn't seem to care about the paper, tearing it off in excitement. "Whoa!" In an instant, he's on his feet with the lightsaber in hand.
"I made it," she tells him.
It took a lot of tape and cardboard and paint, and Hopper had to get her plastic tubes at the hardware store, and a flashlight, too, but she thinks it ended up looking pretty good.
"I made one for me, too," she says.
He starts to make lightsaber noises. "This is awesome!" He twists around suddenly, slashing at the air with his lightsaber.
They play with the lightsabers for the rest of the afternoon, running all around the cabin, and re-enacting scenes from the movie, battling until they fall breathless with laughter onto the couch.
("There's something I kind of meaning to ask you," Mike says. "It's—I mean, okay." He swallows. "Do you want to be my girlfriend?"
"Yeah. Girlfriend. It would mean that we're, like, together. And not together like together in the same place at the same time. Together like—well, like, if you're my girlfriend, and I'm your boyfriend, it means that we would get to do stuff that we don't do with our other friends. Hold hands, and. Kiss." He pinks. "It's like—it's like a special kind of friendship, I guess. You'd be like my special . . . person."
"Yes," she says.
"I want to be your special person, Mike.")
She gets to leave the house on New Year's Eve. According to Hopper, it's a holiday to celebrate the start of a brand new year. Joyce is hosting a dinner, and El is invited.
Hopper says they have to bring a gift for the hostess.
El suggests Eggos.
"Happy New Year's!" Joyce says, pulling El into a hug, and pressing a kiss to the top of her head. "I missed you!" Her voice is warm and kind and certain, and she holds onto El for a moment.
El had forgotten how much she loved hugs from Joyce.
Joyce has cooked up a feast, but she puts the Eggos on a plate that looks like a snowman, and sets it right in the middle of the table with the garlic mashed potatoes and the ham and the green bean casserole. The food takes kind of funny: the garlic mashed potatoes are lumpy and the ham is salty and green been casserole is tough and she has to chew it at lot. It's better than the meals from the freezer that El usually eats for dinner, though, and she eats and eats and eats until she thinks she'll explode, and that's, of course, when Joyce brings in the brownies from the kitchen.
El has to eat some of the brownies, too.
After they eat, Will says he got a Magic 8 Ball for Christmas. "Do you want to see it?" he asks. They sit on the couch, asking every question they can think to ask.
("If Lucas has his wrist rocket, can he beat Darth Vader in a fight?"
"Can I eat Eggos for every meal?"
"Did Dustin's new cat really pee on his algebra homework like he told Mrs. Kaminski?")
In the end, she doesn't actually make it until midnight like she's supposed to.
She nods off.
She wakes up slowly in the morning. At first, she's confused. She's in a warm, unfamiliar cocoon of blankets in a room she's never been in before, and her heart beats just a little bit faster. But she remembers last night, and she hears the deep, familiar timber of Hopper's voice outside the room, and she actually looks around the room, seeing the bottles of perfume and lotion and makeup that top the dresser and the pictures that are taped to the mirror and the clothing that's strewn over the chair at the desk. This is Joyce's room, isn't it? She turns her face into the pillow, and breathes in the smell of shampoo and cigarettes and Joyce. Hopper must have brought her to sleep in here after she dozed off last night.
She finds Hopper in the kitchen with Joyce.
They're talking in low voices, smiling, and smoking. El takes a seat at the table. "Do you want something to eat?" Joyce asks, greeting her with a smile, and reaching out to brush a hand through El's messy, flattened curls.
"Yes, please," El says.
There aren't any Eggos left, but El doesn't even care when she gets to split a warm, sweet strawberry-flavored Pop-Tart with Joyce while Hopper complains about the deputies at his office, and Joyce laughs softly at his stories.
The snow is unrelenting in the weeks after New Year's Eve. It makes El even more restless than usual. And, worse, Mike isn't able to visit her for three straight weeks.
(She visits him.
"I'm grounded," he says, gripping the supercom with tense white knuckles, and he explains that when he tried to come over anyway, his mom was watching him, and she caught him, and she stood in front of the door. "It's stupid. She's mad because she found out I'm failing civics, so she's trying to ruin my life."
"Failing?" El asks, frowning.
His face brightens when he hears her voice, when he realizes she's there.
"It's because Ms. Grady thinks that we should all spend, like, all of our time doing her stupid news reports, but I have better stuff to do, you know?" He sighs. "Anyway, my mom says I can't go anywhere until I get my grades up. She won't be able to keep an eye on me forever, though. I'll be able to get to you soon. I promise."
She trips over her feet slightly in her haste to open the door when Mike visits at last.
He isn't alone.
The boys are with him. They pile into the cabin, peeling off their jackets and greeting her with hugs and dumping the games they brought on the table. She hugs Dustin with a breathless, confused smile. They explain happily that they badgered Hopper incessantly for weeks about getting to visit, and, finally, he gave in just to make them shut up. She should have known. That's one of the things she likes about her boys: they never, ever give up. They spend hours with her in the cabin that afternoon.
After that day, they come with Mike every other week.
Mostly, they play games with her.
They teach her to play Trouble and Battleship and Aggravation and Operation and 13 Dead End Drive. They try to teach her the rules of D&D one afternoon, too. It's confusing, though, and she doesn't really understand the appeal of battling gruesome monsters in your imagination when you know the truth, when you know terror and loss and pain of fighting real monsters.
It's okay, though. Friends can like different things sometimes.
She's thrilled when they come over on a Monday for the campaign that Mike's been planning for weeks. They have the day off school. And they've been planning for weeks to spend the day on a brand new campaign, but they thought it would be fun to do it here in the cabin, to keep her company for the day.
"Is that cool with you?" Mike asks.
"Cool," she says, beaming.
She doesn't actually want to play with them, though.
She sits on the couch while they sit on the floor in front of her, and she watches her soaps over their heads, smiling to herself at the way they shout and argue and laugh while they play.
The storms knock out the power on the TV for a night, and when she realizes there's static on every single channel, she panics. She tries to use her powers, but it doesn't work. She's not even sure how to use her powers to return the soap to the screen.
"Son of a bitch!" she says.
At the table, Hopper chokes on his glass of milk.
El gets sick with a cold. She doesn't really understand when Hopper says that. She isn't cold. She is hot, and her nose is stuffy so she can't breathe right, and her head is achy like she's used her powers only she has not used her powers. It's miserable.
Hopper stays home with her on Tuesday. He can't stay home with her forever, though. There's a reason he works a lot: his job is important. "I got to go to work," he says, sitting on the edge of her bed. "But I'll come by when I get a break to check on you. I'll bring you some soup that isn't from a can." He brushes a hand through her hair in reassurance.
But when she wakes up next, Hopper isn't there. Joyce is. She says that Hopper told her El was sick, and she volunteered to spend the day with her.
"Why?" El asks.
"I don't like being by myself when I'm sick," Joyce says. "You should never be by yourself when you're sick. So. Is it okay if I keep you company for the day? I'll make you something to eat, and I brought a book to read to you."
El is happy that Joyce is there.
Joyce makes lunch for El. It's soup from a can with toast, and it's good, but El doesn't eat a lot. She isn't hungry.
After, Joyce reads to her, and El is amazed.
El loves stories in movies and on TV and in books, and she's capable of reading to herself, but she just really loves being read to. Also, well. The people she loves become everything she loves about them when they read to her.
Mike always gets really excited about the books that he chooses, and his enthusiasm is infectious, and sometimes he starts to read so quickly that she can't even keep up with what he's reading, but she just likes to watch his joy grow and grow and grow. She loves the way that Hopper reads to her, too: loves the soft, steady cadence of his voice, and how it reassures her, and wraps around her like a hug, and lulls her into sweet, easy sleep. Nancy reads sometimes when she's tutoring El, and she'll stop to ask El questions along the way, and they'll discuss the book, and even when El is struggling to describe her thoughts, Nancy is patient, and El feels important, and when Charlotte tells Wilbur that he was her friend, it makes Nancy tear up, and when she sees that El is crying, too, she laughs, and she hugs her, and, together, they cry and laugh and hug.
("I'm sorry about Barb," El says, abrupt.
Nancy takes her hand. "Me, too," she says, and she squeezes El's hand in reassurance.)
But when Joyce reads to her, El is awestruck.
Joyce has voices for all of the characters: scary witch voices and friendly bear voices and silly, high-pitched old lady voices. And she has lots of faces, too, scrunching up her nose, and wiggling her eyebrows, and talking out of the corner of her mouth. She makes Eleven jump with surprise and laugh until she's crying and hold her breath in anticipation for what happens next.
It's like watching a movie that's playing just for El.
El means to tell Joyce that she likes when Joyce reads. "I like you," she says. Sometimes, she can't say things the way she means to.
"I like you, too."
And El's seen a lot of really pretty things since escaping the lab, but she thinks Joyce's smile in that moment is the most pretty thing she's ever, ever, ever seen.
It turns out having a cold isn't awful.
When El wakes up from a nap, she feels much better. She leaves her bed to see if Joyce has left, only to pause at the door in shock. Joyce hasn't left. Hopper is back, though. They are standing close together in the kitchen.
El pulls back quickly from view before they notice her, and stands, breathless, in her room. After a minute, she hears Joyce's laughter curling warmly around Hopper's voice. She covers her smile with her hand.
"I saw you," she says, pushing the peas around her plate to avoid eating them. "In the kitchen. You kissed Joyce."
He blinks. "Well." He clears his throat. "Here's the thing, kid. Sometimes, when two people like each other in a special, grown up way, they become more than friends. And when you're more than friends with someone, one special way you show that you care about each other is to kiss."
"I know," she says.
He makes a face at that. "Yeah, well. I think my relationship with Joyce is a little more serious than that. I mean, it's not a relationship . . . exactly, because it was just a kiss, but I think—I'd like—" He sighs. "Okay, the point is—you'll probably be seeing more of Joyce. Is that okay with you?" His face remains slightly pinched in that grumpy, frustrated way of his, but his eyes are soft, and she knows he means the question.
He doesn't ask her things the way that Papa used to, posing a sentence like a question but not actually, truly giving her a choice.
"I like Joyce," she replies.
"Good." He nods. "Yeah. Good. Me, too. Okay, then. Don't think I don't see you avoiding actually eating those peas, by the way."
It turns out there is, in fact, more to being a girlfriend and having a partner and kissing a person than anyone has told El.
She is unprepared to wake up in April with blood in her underpants.
It's soaked right through her underpants to stain the front of her pajamas, and she doesn't know how it happened, doesn't know what to. Nothing hurts. She tries to find a cut, but she can't, and the blood keeps trickling out.
"Hop!" she cries.
She hears him start across the cabin to the bathroom, and she pulls up her pants, tears open the door, and finds herself face to face with him. "What's the matter?" he asks. But before she explains, he sees the blood on her pajamas, and his whole face changes.
"I don't know why," she tells him.
He rubs his forehead. "Yeah, um. It's fine. You're fine. It's—natural."
"Normal." He must have been able to see her confusion. "It's just something that happens to girls when they're your age. Look, I'll go the store and get you some stuff for it, and we'll talk when I get back, okay?"
She can't help worrying when she's alone. She thinks of trying to talk to Mike, but he is on his way to school right now. It's okay. She changes out of her stained, bloody clothes, telling herself that she has no reason not to trust Hopper when he says it's normal. She fills the sink with water to try to scrub the blood out of her clothes, only to panic when she's up to her elbows in soapy, pink water and she realizes that she's bleeding on her new, fresh pair of underwear.
Thankfully, Hopper isn't gone very long.
He has something for her called sanitary napkins, because, apparently, she's going to keep on bleeding for days.
And, in a month, it will happen again. She will get her period every month. She will bleed like this every single month for years. "This is good, though," he says. "I wasn't sure if after everything they did to you in the lab, you would still . . ." He trails off. "This is good. This means you can—you can probably have kids someday if you want." He smiles.
"Kids?" She frowns. "What does bleeding have to do with kids?"
He stares. "You know, I would love to talk about this with you more, but I have got to get to work. But you know what you can do? Why don't you ask Nancy about it this afternoon? She's a girl. She'll . . . explain." He smiles one of his tight, slightly exasperated smiles that she's come to find a little bit funny.
She's annoyed that she has to wait for an answer to her question, but Hopper happily ignores her annoyance.
She brings up her question the moment that Nancy walks through the door.
Thankfully, her talk with Nancy is fruitful.
After she recovers from her shock, Nancy answers every question El thinks of. El learns about what Nancy calls genetics, and x and y chromosomes, and Nancy gives her a quick, clinical overview of eggs and sperm and sex, and what that has to do with your period, and at the end of her explanation, Nancy tacks on how sex is enjoyable, but it's something you do when you're older, and you do it with somebody you trust, and when you're ready, you'll know. By the time they've exhausted the topic, they only have half an hour for tutoring.
That night, El reassures Hopper.
"I know about sex now," she tells him.
He chokes on a piece of chicken. It really gets lodged in his throat. She has to use her powers to get it out.
She is ready for her birthday. She was surprised by presents on Christmas, and by dinner on New Year's, and by cards and candy and hugs on Valentine's Day, but she's learned about birthdays. Her birthday is marked with a thick red circle on the calendar, and she's ready.
It starts with a triple-decker Eggo extravaganza for breakfast.
She opens her presents after she eats. There's three cassette tapes and a dress and Jenga and a nail polish kit with twelve different colors and a VHS player so that Mike doesn't have to lug his over whenever they want to watch a movie. "That's a pretty good haul, isn't it?" Hopper asks, grinning at her over his mug of coffee. He's pleased with himself. She beams, and she's painting her nails bright blue when he drops a kiss on top of her head, says he'll take off from work early to celebrate with her, and leaves.
He does come home early.
He says that they should put up decorations even if nobody but the two of them will see, so they put on music, and they clean and hang up the streamers and dance until she's breathless.
Not very long after that, she learns that he was tricking her.
They weren't just decorating for themselves.
There's a knock on the door. "Who could that be?" Hopper asks, tilting his head in a way that means he knows exactly who that is. He laughs when she skids across the floor in her haste to get to the door.
"Mike!" She beams.
"Happy Birthday!" Mike says, grinning.
He isn't by himself. All of the boys follow him into the cabin, and Joyce is there, too, of course, and Nancy, and even Will's nice, quiet big brother, Jonathan. They crowd into the cabin. She is elated. She isn't just getting presents and cake and decorations for her birthday. She is getting a party. Everyone is at the cabin for her.
There are more presents: makeup from Nancy, a drawing of El the mage with the rest of the party from Will, a mixtape from Mike, a book on learning to use Morse code from Lucas, a lizard from Dustin.
Joyce's gift is a giant chocolate cake with dancing Eggos drawn on top in icing.
Before they eat the cake, they sing.
El is certain that this is the happiest she's ever been, sitting in front of a cake made especially for her while everyone she loves in the world stands around her singing happy birthday, dear El with big, candlelit smiles.
Summer dawns early that year, and before El's restlessness can grow to new, terrible heights that lead her to stomp around the cabin with what Hopper calls a pout, he announces that she could probably venture out of the house on occasion this summer.
She thinks at first that she misunderstood.
He means it, though.
"We're planning on having you go to school in a few months, aren't we?" he says. "Might as well let you acclimate to things a little before you start. We don't want your teachers to have a reason to get suspicious."
(She is way too excited to tell Mike to wait for him to visit the cabin.
His grin lights up the void when she delivers the news. He tells her all the things that they're going to do. She asks if they can go to the movies, and he promises that it can be the very first thing they do if that's what she wants.)
Hopper has some new Don't Be Stupid rules that she has to follow, of course.
1) She must call him at appointed times throughout the day
2) If she sees the same unknown adult more than once unexpectantly, she must immediately call him
3) No using her powers under ANY circumstances
The story is that up until now, she lived on a commune with her mother in Maine. "That's why she's, like, different," Dustin says. "Her mom died, though, so now she's living with her dad." She hears Hopper tell Joyce that a lot of people are giving him sideways looks about him having a secret teenage lovechild, but nobody is trying to argue with the story. Eleven doesn't know what it means that people are giving him sideways looks, but she won't be worried if he isn't.
The boys are really, really excited for her to rejoin the party.
They take her to see Back to the Future at the movies on her very first day out. She likes watching things on the television, but it's nothing like seeing a move in a theater. And after the movie, they bike to Lucas's for chocolate ice cream, and they talk about the movie for hours.
There is, of course, the problem of Max. El knew that the girl was in the party with the boys, because they brought her up more than once during the afternoons they visited her. She never came with them, though. It was easy for El to pretend that Max wasn't that important, that she wasn't really in the party. Now, suddenly, that's impossible.
Max is in the party.
El decides to deal with her by ignoring her.
Max refuses to accept that.
"Is there a reason you don't like me?" she asks, cornering El while the boys are setting up a bike obstacle race. This is the third time El's gotten to spend a day out of the cabin with the boys, and, therefore, it's the third time she's been forced to hang out with Max, too. "I know you don't," Max says. "It's why the boys never invited me to come with them to visit you in your super secret cabin. And now you're acting like I'm not even here."
El ignores her.
Max lets out a huff of breath. "Whatever. It's not like I want to be friends with you anyway. You're such a girl." She makes her skateboard twirl under her heel.
El can't help it. "I am a girl." She glares at Max.
"Yeah," Max says, scornful. "Well, you look like a doll." Her gaze travels over El, and, clearly, it's an insult.
Eleven refuses to be made small by anyone ever again, let alone by a boy stealer like Max. She doesn't look like a doll. She's got her hair curled like Nancy showed her, and she's wearing a top on that looks just like one that Marlena wears in an episode of Days of Our Lives, and she's even got pink eye shadow on, and she spent ten minutes this morning in front of the mirror to get it perfect.
She curls her hand into a fist. She doesn't care about Max. She's just going to keep on ignoring her.
Max skates her board right in front of El, and she comes within a hair of knocking El over on purpose, and El doesn't even think before reacting, before doing what she's done once before to Max: she uses her powers to pull the skateboard right out from under the girl.
Max cuts her chin on the ground.
Immediately, she's on her feet again. "Did you do that?" she demands. "I know you've got, like, powers. I know you did that." Her face has flooded with red.
El ignores her
"Forget it," Max says. "I don't have to put up with you. Hey, losers! I'm leaving! You can do your stupid little race without me. I wouldn't want to upset Mike's girlfriend." And despite the fact that the boys are shouting their concern and frowning and jogging over quickly in reply, Max skates off.
El explains what happened to Mike. He listens, and he says he understands, and he says that he'll talk to Dustin and Lucas and Will about it so that they'll understand, too. They'll figure it out.
"I really think you would like Max if you got to know her, though," he adds. "I think you guys would be friends."
He's said that before, of course.
It's what he said months ago when they were talking about their year apart, and she told him about how she saw him with Max that day in the gymnasium, about how she used her powers on Max because she was upset that Max got to be with Mike, and she didn't. He said that he hadn't liked Max at first either because it felt like she was trying to replace El. It turned out that she wasn't, though, and "Max is really cool, and you guys would totally be friends if you got a chance to hang out," he said.
El trusts Mike when it comes to a lot of things.
He doesn't really understand this, though. He doesn't understand how weird she feels around Max, how she feels like she can't be herself around Max, how she's afraid of losing her friends, losing her family, losing her home.
El is startled when Lucas comes alone to see her at the cabin. "Can we talk?" he asks. She lets him into the cabin. He drops his backpack by the door and sits at the table with a sigh, and, after a beat, she sits at the table with him. He taps his fingers on the wood for a minute.
"What's the matter?" she asks.
"Here's the thing," he starts. "You're in the party, El."
"Max is, too. And that means you guys have to get along. That's the rule. There can't be discord in the party. It's not allowed."
"Max," she says.
"Yeah." He nods. "Max. Red hair? Always on a skateboard? Our friend?"
She crosses her arms. "I don't like Max." It's the truth. It's what she told Mike when he wanted to talk about it earlier, too. Max isn't her friend.
"Max doesn't like me."
"Seriously?" He sighs. "Mike says that you used your powers on Max 'cause she was mean to you. Max says she was mean to you because you don't like her. Now you're saying you don't like her because she doesn't like you? Seriously? Does anyone else see how stupid this is?"
El thinks the question might be rhetorical. According to Nancy, that means El isn't supposed to answer. She's just supposed to let Lucas keep talking.
"Look," he says. "I'm going to be honest with you. Mike coddles you."
"Coddles?" She frowns.
"Yeah, he—he protects you too much."
She doesn't get it.
"Mike is friends with Max, you know. Or, well, he was, before you used your powers on her, and now he's siding with you. But there aren't supposed to be sides! That's not how the party works. Mike says that we have to cut you some slack, because it's hard for you to trust people, and you haven't had the chance to get to know Max yet. But we know her, and we trust her, and you should trust us."
She hesitates. She does trust them.
"That's why you have to apologize," he goes on. "To Max. You drew first blood, and that's the rule."
He huffs. "See, this is why it should have been Dustin who talked to you."
"I'm not good at this stuff!" he says, exasperated. "Fine. El, listen. Max? Is awesome. And you are, too! And if you'd just give her a chance, you guys would be friends. Can you just—try? For me? Because we're friends?"
"Yes," she says. "Really. I'll try. Mike says I should apologize, too. And we are friends."
The tension in her shoulders melts away at the sight, and she smiles, too.
Max is glaring when the whole party meets up. But El walks over and holds out her hand and says "I'm sorry." There's a pause, and Max takes her hand.
The boys are satisfied with a handshake. There is no longer any discord in the party. Everything can go back to normal. El still doesn't really know how to behave around Max, though. And after she lets go of El's hand, Max looks away quickly, because, apparently, she doesn't know what happens now either.
A month into her new, wonderful life of freedom, Mike has El over to his house for dinner. She's nervous at the invitation. But, of course, she's excited, too, to go to his house, and to have dinner with his family like a real, regular girlfriend on television.
Dinner is awkward.
Mrs. Wheeler eyes El for most of the meal in a way that makes El shift uneasily in her chair. She wonders if this is what a sideways look is. El wants Mrs. Wheeler to like her, but she feels a little like she's back under the ever watchful, ever assessing gaze of someone at the lab.
"Now, I'm sorry, is your name Jane, or El?" Mrs. Wheeler asks, sipping a glass of wine.
"Both," Mike says, quick to come to her rescue. "Her name is Jane Ellen Hopper. She goes by El. Mostly. It's way cooler than Jane."
El pierces a single green bean on her fork. She does not like green beans. It's going to take what Nancy calls willpower to avoid pinching her nose while she eats these.
"Have you visited Hawkins before, El?" Mrs. Wheeler asks. "You look familiar." She tilts her head just slightly at El. "Although I have to admit, I never knew the chief had a daughter in Maine." Somehow, it sounds like an accusation. "So. Have you visited Hawkins before?"
(Nancy says if in doubt, you can always impress teachers by saying "ma'am" and "sir.")
"Ma'am?" Mrs. Wheeler raises her eyebrows. "Wow. It's nice to know that some people's children still have manners." She takes a bite of her food, and looks pointedly at Mike.
There's a long, loudly quiet pause.
"You're pretty," Holly says.
"You're pretty, too," El says, smiling at Mike's sweet, pig-tailed little sister.
Again, it's quiet.
But when dinner is over, and El is stuffed from three large helpings of key lime pie, and the headlights of Hopper's truck have wave washed over the front of the house, Mrs. Wheeler smiles sincerely, and tells El that she hopes to see her again soon.
Mike grows so, so tall that summer. The sun makes new, dark freckles bloom on his face. And when he kisses her, it's different: slower, and softer, and sweeter.
She changes, too.
She tans from days in the sun. Joyce has to buy her a bra. She teases her friends, and when Dustin realizes that she's teasing him for the very first time, he releases a whoop and lunges at her and lifts her up suddenly to twirl her around while she laughs.
They camp in Dustin's backyard one night. They go to the carnival when it comes to town. They see Back to the Future in theaters again, and again, and again.
They spend a day at the lake on the edge of town.
The boys teach her to swim in the green, murky water, surrounding her, and telling her a dozen different things at once: paddle your legs like this and hold your breath like this and cut your arms through the water like this. And when she's got the hang of it, she uses her powers to make beach waves in the calm lake water, and she has the waves chase the boys. They show her how they like to jump off the dock, too; she learns to dive like Lucas and she jumps with Mike's hand clenched tightly in her own and she belly flops once because Dustin says she has to try it.
"Happy?" Mike asks, holding her hand in the arcade.
Dustin is playing a game, and Lucas and Will and Max are yelling at him over his shoulder, and El is very, very happy.
Hopper gets her Ice Castles on VHS for them to watch. She loves it. She watches it over and over and over, memorizing it. Hopper says when it's cold again, he'll teach her to ice skate like in the movie, and, in the meantime, they can try watching another movie. She doesn't want to try watching another movie, though. She wants to keep watching this movie.
"I noticed," he says.
She puts the movie on while he's making them dinner, and she uses her powers to clear a space in front of the TV for her to pretend to skate, and she does Lexie's routine right there in the small, cramped cabin.
"You know, I hear this song in my nightmares," he comments.
She ignores him.
It startles her when, in the middle of her routine, he breaks out suddenly into the song that's playing on the tape. "And, now, I do believe, / That even in a storm we'll find some light, / Knowing you're beside me, I'm all riiiiiiiiiiight." She glances at him in surprise, and he slaps a hand to his heart, making her laugh.
She sings her way over to him.
"Dinner," he says, pushing a plate into her hands.
But, of course, she curls up on the sofa again after dinner, and she mouths the words while she watches, while it grows dark outside, and her eyelids grow heavy with sleep.
She wakes to find that Hopper is carrying her to bed.
"Goodnight," she murmurs.
"Goodnight, kid," he replies, and she thinks he might say something about having sweet dreams.
She's eating a piece of vanilla cake that's frosted to look like the DeLorean from Back to the Future when a boy sits down next to her.
It's Dustin's birthday party, which means there are a handful of people that she doesn't know here. Mostly, she can't keep Dustin's six cousins straight because they look a lot a like. Nobody she doesn't actually know has tried to talk to her, though. Her gaze darts around the backyard quickly in search of one of the boys. They got caught up fighting with tiny water guns earlier, though, and must have chased each other around to the front of the house while El stole another slice of cake.
"So," he says. "You're Eleven. Right? The Eleven. The one. The only. The famous. El." He chuckles.
"Cool." He holds out his hand. "I'm Steve."
She relaxes. "Steve." She knows about Steve, of course: he's friends with Nancy and he helped the boys fight the demodogs and he works at the station with Hopper.
"I've heard a lot about you, El," he says, shaking her hand. "I'm going to be honest with you, though. I was starting to think you didn't actually exist. I mean, I was there when you made your big, triumphant return, but there was a lot going on, you know, and who can say what was really real, and what I made up. . . ."
He smiles. "Clearly."
Hopper asks Joyce to take El shopping for some new clothes to wear to school. "You don't have much of a wardrobe right now," he explains. She isn't going to argue with him.
After an hour at the store, El realizes that shopping for clothes isn't easy.
She's always just worn the clothes that were given to her by Papa or Mike or Hopper. She's never had to go to the store, and try on jeans and shirts and dresses in a small, semi-private stall, and decide what fits the way it's supposed to, what looks good. She thinks it'll be fun to pick out clothes for herself, but she discovers it's actually pretty overwhelming.
"How about this?" Joyce asks, holding up a pair of overalls with roses stitched along the edges of the pockets.
"No," El says.
Both of them turn around to see Mrs. Wheeler.
"Karen," Joyce says. "Hi! How are you?"
"I'm very well, thank you." She smiles. "I'm running some errands while Nancy babysits. It's nice to get out of the house once in a while. Well, you know. And what about you? Doing a little shopping with El?"
"I am. The chief wanted to get her a brand new wardrobe for school."
"That must be fun for you to get to go on a little shopping spree." She looks at El. "What have you picked out for far?"
"We actually just got started," Joyce says. "We, ah, we're still deciding on what style we want to go with. I've never had a girl to shop for before."
"Oh! Well, I'm happy to help if you like."
Joyce starts to protest, to say that there's no need. "I know you're busy," she says. But Mrs. Wheeler insists that she isn't, and, in fact, she would love to help them, and, after a glance at El, Joyce agrees.
It turns out that shopping is a breeze when someone like Mrs. Wheeler is there.
She takes El to the department store counter to talk to a consultant, and El actually likes having a lady who smells like cherries fawn over El's complexion before declaring that El is a spring. That, apparently, is what Mrs. Wheeler would have guessed. Mrs. Wheeler starts to pull clothes for El to try on, and El isn't sure about some of the blouses, but Mrs. Wheeler has an opinion on everything, and El listens, and starts learning what to judge, and what she likes, what she doesn't like.
"I think we've picked out a pretty good wardrobe," Joyce says, helping El carry her choices to the register.
But after the woman at the register has rung up the clothes, Joyce hesitates. "Oh, um." She takes an envelope form her purse. "Jeez, I should have been paying more attention," she mutters, counting the cash in the envelope. "I'm sorry, sweetheart. Your dad only gave me enough for maybe half of this." Her eyes are sad when she looks at El. "I might have some more money, though! Yeah. Just give me a second." She glances at the saleslady before starting to rifle through her purse
"I've got it," Mrs. Wheeler says, opening the purse that's hanging at her elbow.
"What? No. Karen, I can't let you—"
"It's on Ted," she says, and she gives the saleslady a brief, closed-mouth smile when she hands over the cash, but it's a smile like the people at the lab used to give El: her mouth is smiling, but the rest of her face isn't.
"Karen, I . . ." Joyce shakes her head. "I really don't think I can let you pay."
"It's my present to El," Mrs. Wheeler says, ignoring her protests, and wrapping an arm around El's shoulders. "I might not know everything, Joyce, but I've pieced together a few." She looks at Joyce with something like a challenge, with something in her gaze that is knowing and sad and determined all together at once. "And I want to do this for El." She looks at the saleslady. "My treat."
"Thank you," El says.
Mrs. Wheeler glances at her. "You're welcome." And this time when she smiles, it's real.
"My mom is okay, I guess," Mike says. "It's cool that she helped you shop." He slowly, carefully pushes a block from the middle of the tower with his finger. "My dad's a loser, though."
"Loser?" El asks, taking a piece from lower down.
He shrugs. "Yeah, like. He's useless. I guess he's around, so I can't really complain about him, because Will's dad isn't around and Dustin's dad died when he was really little, and that sucks, and my dad is here and he's alive, but—" He looks up finally from the game of Jenga. "I just—he's so frustrating. He doesn't care about me. He never listens to anything I say."
"You should have a dad who listens to you," she says, because it's the truth.
She reaches across the table to take his hand.
He smiles. "It's okay. I've got friends, and Nancy's been pretty cool lately. And I've got you."
Three days before the start of school, Nancy projects stars onto the ceiling of the cabin with a piece of paper that's suspended over a flashlight.
"It's pretty," El says, lying on the floor with her.
"I loved constellations when I was your age," Nancy says. "I loved that the sky was a map. And I knew every story. I guess this isn't that important to get you ready for school, but I thought you would like it."
"You don't have to."
El is startled, and she turns to look at Nancy, only to find that Nancy is looking at her.
"I'm serious," Nancy says, gentle. "You might already know this, but I just want to be sure that you know. You don't have to like anything or do anything or—or be anyone just because someone else wants you to. Even if the person who's telling you to like something is somebody you love, you don't have to listen. You can be your own person. The people who matter won't love you any less."
"Mike," El says.
Nancy laughs softly. "Yes. Mike. And Hopper. And me. I'm your friend, too."
Nancy holds up her pinky.
That afternoon, El learns three things from her tutor:
First, she learns that the sky is a map.
Second, she learns the story of Aries the ram and how he tried to carry two children away from their evil stepmother and how he was only able to save one of the children, but he was still a hero, and that's why they put him in the sky for everyone to remember.
(It's the trying that counts.)
Third, she learns how to make a very special, very sacred kind of promise.
El doesn't get out of Hopper's truck until she sees the boys pedal up to the school. She gives Hopper one last small, nervous smile, he gives her a thumbs up in reply, and she hops out. She makes a beeline for where the boys are putting their bikes.
"Ready?" Mike asks.
School is overwhelming. There are kids her age everywhere, yelling and laughing and slamming the doors of their lockers, passing her quickly. She's jolted by the sudden, screaming bell.
It seems like every single teacher wants to introduce her in each of her classes, too, and she has to stand in front of everyone, say her name, and tell the staring, questioning eyes something about herself. She's lucky that Mike thought the teachers might do that. Lucas had said they probably wouldn't because they were freshmen, and all of them were new to this school, but Dustin had pointed out that the town was small enough that teachers were definitely going to know that El was really, actually new, and Will had agreed, and Mike had helped El prepare an introduction. She practiced it over and over last night while failing to sleep. She's from a little, unheard of town in Maine, she likes playing board games, and she saw Back to the Future four different times this summer.
Thankfully, she has most of her classes with at least one of her friends.
Dustin has history with her at the start of the day.
(He smiles encouragingly at her throughout her nervous, hurried introduction.)
Mike is in English with her after that, and, with a grin, he turns his desk immediately to face her when the teacher says they need a partner,and she wishes she could have every class with Mike.
Nobody in the party is in algebra with her, though, and she feels like everyone in the class keeps on staring her even after she takes a seat in the corner by the window.
She is more than ready for lunch.
She sits wedged snuggly against Mike, and she eats a sandwich that Hopper made for her that morning, and when Dustin starts to describe their first period history teacher, El makes a face just like the teacher, and says, "now, children," in his high, nasally voice, and her friends all thinks it's hilarious.
She's doing an impression of the teacher, apparently.
She has her elective after lunch. It's art. She signed up because Will was in the class, and he said it was fun, and he promised to help her with the assignments.
She has science with all of the boys after that.
She has gym last. None of the boys have gym with her. Lucas says that he thinks Max has gym last, too, but El doesn't see Max when she gets to the gym. She has to change into special gym clothes in a dimly lit, crowded locker room of girls, and she goes as fast as she can, hurrying out of the room to the gym.
Kids are standing around aimlessly. She stands, too. After a couple of minutes, the sound of soft, badly muffled laughter makes El look over at a group of girls.
She follows their gaze to see that Max is crossing the gym towards her.
"I hate gym," Max says.
"What?" Max glances over her shoulder at the girls. Her lips tighten just slightly with anger. She turns away from them without a word, though. "They're just a bunch of stupid girls."
"Why are they looking at you?"
"It's . . . whatever."
El knows the answer, though. They are making fun of Max. They are looking at her with sly, mean looks, and she knows what those looks mean, because she saw boys look at Mike and Dustin and Lucas like that two years ago. It isn't whatever. The girls suddenly start to laugh again, and El is tempted to use her powers on them, but she can't. She promised that she wouldn't.
"Come on," Max says, an edge of disgust in her voice. "We're supposed to be stretching."
El ignores her.
El is already on her way over to the girls.
"Hey," says the pretty, yellow-haired one. "You're new, right? Jane?" She smiles. "I'm Jenny."
"What?" she asks, raising her eyebrows at El.
"I said to shut up," El repeats.
Jenny just scoffs at her. "Or what?" She crosses her arms.
"Or I'll make you shut up."
"Is that so?" Jenny says, leaning in closer. "Well, you know what I think? I think you're a—"
El shoves her.
She might not be able to use her powers, but none of the Don't Be Stupid rules said she couldn't shove a stupid little mouthbreather named Jenny.
Jenny stumbles back with the force of the shove.
Immediately, the girls behind her grab at her arms and squawk in indignation and exclaim that El is a freak.
"That's enough," says the teacher, waving a hand at them. Jenny starts to tell the teacher that El pushed her, but the teacher is already turning away, and hollering at students still coming out of the locker room. "Hustle up and find a place to sit. We're going to start with some stretches. Let's go, let's go!"
El returns to Max.
"You didn't have to do that, you know," Max says. "I knew what I was doing by ignoring them. I can take care of myself, okay?"
"No," El says, sitting.
"You're in the party." El puts her legs in front of her to reach for her toes like Lucas taught her when the boys were explaining gym class to her on Saturday. "That means you are not by yourself."
There's a pause. "Yeah." Max's voice changes just slightly. "I guess it does." It's quiet. "I don't even know why they're such jerks," she adds. "They just think they're so pretty, and so stylish, and so—" She makes a silly, high-pitched laughing noise that makes El look at her. "Well, you know," she says. "Last year, Jenny told the health teacher that I was in the wrong class because I should be with the boys since, clearly, I'm a boy. I guess because I hang out with boys, I must be a boy, too."
"That's stupid," El says.
They share a smile.
El is glad that she has Max in gym with her.
Hopper is waiting in a line of cars for pick-up as soon as El walks out of the building at the end of the day. She waves goodbye to her friends. It leaves her flushed with happiness when they shout things like "see you tomorrow, El!" at her, because they are going to see her tomorrow.
She goes to school like a normal, happy girl.
"How was it?" Hopper asks.
"Good," she says, buckling her seat belt, and turning to smile at him. "It was really, really good."
El doesn't even know how to react she learns that the boys aren't planning on trick-or-treating that year.
"My mom thinks we're too old," Lucas says.
That probably means that El is too old, too. And if her friends aren't going, she doesn't want to go either. She was excited about getting to dress up, though, and she can't help but be disappointed that she missed it, that she will never, ever get to go trick-or-treating.
She admits to Mike that she already had a costume in mind.
"We can still go if you want," he says. "You and me, I mean. We're not that old, and I kind of wanted to anyway."
She looks at him skeptically.
"Seriously," he says, earnest. "And we'll take Holly with us, so we'll have a reason to be out if anyone does think we're too old. My mom tried to get me to take her last year. She would be thrilled if I said I wanted to take her this year."
"You want to?" she asks, hopeful.
"Definitely." He smiles.
She smiles, too, and a wave of affection for him suddenly wells up inside of her. Mike is the best. She means to give him a quick, happy kiss, but, in a fit of joy, she starts to pepper his face with kisses: to his chin and his cheek and his eyebrow and the tip of his nose.
"I can't wait to go trick-or-treating with you, Mike," she says, beaming.
At the end of the night, she announces to Hopper that Christmas is still the best, most fun holiday.
Halloween is second on the list, though.
She dresses up like Lexie from Ice Castles. Mike is Marty McFly, of course. And Holly is a princess with a wand and a tiara and glittery face paint on her cheeks.
They travel through the neighborhood each holding one of Holly's little, gloved hands for over an hour, going from house to house, and collecting their candy. It's everything El imagined it would be. And when Holly starts to tire, Mike hoists her up onto his hip, and she dozes with her head on his shoulder while they make their way happily back to his house.
They dump their candy onto the table in his basement, sorting it, and trading it.
By the time Hopper picks her up, El is exhausted, and, also, full of sugar, and, also, happy.
It isn't long after Halloween that Hopper sits El down to tell her that they're moving. They aren't leaving Hawkins, but he got a house in town, and it's going to be bigger, and he thinks she'll really like it. Also, Joyce and Jonathan and Will are going to move into the house with them.
"Why?" El asks.
"Well, because . . . you know, Joyce is my girlfriend. We've been together for a while. And we love each other, and we want to live together. We want to be a family. Not just us, but you, too, and Will and Jonathan. Joyce and I—we want all of us to be a family." He looks at her searchingly for a moment. "Is that okay with you? If that isn't okay, you can tell me. We'll figure things out. Because no matter what else is going on, you and me? We do things together."
"It's okay with me," she says.
She smiles. "Yes."
The house they move into is much bigger than the cabin. El thinks it looks like the house from a TV show with a green front door that matches the green window shutters. It isn't as big as Mike's house, of course, but it has a big, fenced in yard for Chester to play in, and a garage, and a porch on the front where Hopper is going to install a swing, and the floors have carpets and the kitchen is huge and the wallpaper in the hallways looks like someone actually painted tiny pink rosebuds in perfect, pretty lines.
It takes a couple of weeks for them to move in completely, and, even after Hopper claims they are done, a lot of stuff is still in boxes that are stacked in the corners of the rooms.
"That's life for you," Joyce says, sighing.
El doesn't know what she means. She knows this, though: even with boxes stacked in the corners, it's the best place that El has ever lived. She has a television in her room that she can watch whenever she wants, and Joyce says goodnight to her every single night, and she is never, ever alone.
(She thinks a lot about what Hopper told her that day when he told her that they were going to move.
She thinks about what family means.
She thinks about the years she spent in the lab. She thinks about who she used to be. She thinks about the lies she was told and the things that were taken from her and the lives she'll never get to live.
Her chest aches softly for Mama. She wonders if her sister is happy, if she misses El, if El was cruel to leave her. And why did Papa want her to call him that? He must've known what a papa was, what it was supposed to be. He said he was her papa, but he never treated her like he was. He never listened to her, never loved her, never took care of her.
She thinks about the fact that when her friends mention Hopper to her, they say "your dad" without even batting an eye.)
Max gets a Spirographt Plus kit for her birthday. They spend the whole afternoon using it. El loves the way the designs seemingly come to life before her eyes.
They do it on every spare paper just because, and when they run out of paper, they do it on old grocery bags that they cut up to make into covers for their workbooks from school, and when they're done with that, they do it on the wall of Eleven's bedroom because Hopper said she could decorate it however she wants.
They end up having ice cream sundaes for dinner after, because they are at El's house, and Jonathan is babysitting, and Jonathan is a pushover.
"What's a pushover?" Eleven says.
"Jonathan," Max says.
"I like Jonathan." She spoons up a piece of Eggo that's soggy with mint chocolate chip ice cream. "He's nice."
Max brought a bag with her to spend the night. It's El's very first sleepover. After they have ice cream for dinner, they go upstairs and they change into pajamas and they stay up late watching the TV in El's bedroom. And once the lights are off, they talk: they talk about Max's life in California and Kali and Max's stepfather and the things that the monster says to El in her nightmares.
(Sometimes, it's nice to talk about the things that you aren't supposed to talk about.)
In the morning, El shows Joyce the designs they drew on dozens of papers with the Spirograph. "That's so cool," Joyce says. She puts one of the papers up on the fridge.
The town of Hawkins has a student art contest every Christmas. Students submit artwork that they created to capture the spirit of Hawkins, and a panel of county officials chooses a winner, and the piece of art that wins is displayed in the courthouse for the year. There's a big, fancy ceremony to announce the winner, and everything,
At the cajoling of his friends, Will is convinced to submit a piece of his art.
"You have to submit at least a drawing," Dustin says. "You're, like, the da Vinci of Hawkins. You have to, man."
Dustin is right.
And, several weeks later, they learn that Will has won.
The night of the ceremony, Will is the happiest that El has ever, ever seen him. Everyone is looking at his art on display, and complimenting it, and telling him what amazing work that is for someone so young, and his face is as red as his bowtie, but he hasn't stopped smiling since the moment they arrived at the courthouse. Joyce is beaming, too, and all of their friends are there, and Jonathan is taking a lot of pictures.
"Mr. Byers!" The mayor is a small, frosty-haired woman. "We're about to announce that you're the winner. Ready? You've prepared something to say about your art, haven't you?"
"You can have your parents stand with you if you're nervous about talking in front of everyone, dear."
"This is your moment!" Dustin says, clapping him on the back.
"Can you wait just a minute?" Will asks.
"I want to wait for—for my . . ."
The mayor looks over at Joyce, and Jonathan. "You want to wait for your dad?" she guesses. She smiles. "Alright. We'll give it five more minutes."
She leaves to talk to someone. It's quiet. El sees Joyce share a look with Jonathan.
"Sweetheart," Joyce starts, something like trepidation in her voice. "I told Lonnie about the ceremony, I did, but—"
"I'm here!" Hopper says. "I'm sorry!" He pushes his way through a group of people to get to them. "I know I'm late." He turns his face just slightly to Joyce. "There was a domestic," he murmurs. "I'm here, though! I didn't miss it, did I?" He looks eagerly at Will.
"You didn't miss it," Will says. "We made them wait for you." He smiles.
In the end, he gives his speech without a hitch.
He gets a round of applause, and he shakes hands with the mayor, and he is laughing when Mike and El and Lucas and Dustin and Max surround him in a loud, cheering group hug.
Mike gets in a fight at school right before Christmas break. He's suspended from school for the rest of the afternoon, and for tomorrow, too. And when El learns from Lucas after school that the fight was because somebody called her a freak, her stomach is hollowed by guilt.
"The fight wasn't about you," Hopper says, driving them home from school.
"No." He's firm. "Mike didn't get in a fight for you." They're at a stoplight, and he turns his head to look at her, to hold her gaze in the way that means what he's saying is important. "Mike got in a fight for Mike." He glances at Will beside her. "Got it?" He waits for both of them to nod.
She tries to talk to Mike as soon as they get home. She thinks that he'll be on the supercom in anticipation of her, that he'll want to talk to her, too. But when she finds him in the void, he's lying on his bed, and staring at the ceiling.
She decides to talk to Will about it.
"Is Mike in trouble?"
"I'll bet he's grounded for the rest of his life," Will says. After a moment, he looks up from his drawing. "That isn't what you're asking, though."
"Mike's just going through a lot right now, you know?"
"His parents are getting a divorce," she says, because, yes, she knows. It means they don't want to be partners any more. "How do we make it better?"
"We can't," Will says. "We just have to be his friend. I kind of went through this when my parents got divorced. I got really sad, and nobody could cheer me up. Not really. And Mike isn't getting sad, but he's getting mad. He's just . . . he needs time. And we've just got to stick it out with him. That's what Mike and Lucas and Dustin did for me. That's what I needed."
(But she remembers that when she got mad, it made her into someone she didn't really want to be: Kali told her to harness her anger, and she did, and it worked. But. It wasn't right, wasn't her.
She doesn't want Mike to become someone different.)
She wonders if Nancy is angry, too.
She wishes that she could find the secret, special way to fix everything. She wishes there were a monster she could fight, or a gate she could close. She wishes she could give them clothes and Eggos and home, and make it better.
She goes over to Mike's house.
His mother says with a sigh that he's in his room, but he's grounded, and that means Mrs. Wheeler is only going to let El talk to him for five minutes. She goes up. The door is closed, and she knocks softly because that's what you're supposed to do when someone has closed the door.
"I. Don't. Want. To TALK, MOM!"
"Mike," she says.
There's a pause before the doors whips open. "El?" His brow creases with a frown. "My mom let you up? Is something wrong? Are you okay?"
He sighs. "It's okay. It's just, like, I get to start break early."
"Look, I'm not really in the mood to—"
She doesn't look. Not right now. There will be time for that later. She only has five minutes now, and she needs him to know. She surges in and grabs him, hugs him.
Slowly, his arms come around her, too, and he turns his face into her cheek.
"I love you," she whispers.
"I love you, too." His voice is thick.
"I'm here," she tells him. "I promise." She holds onto him as tightly as she can. "I promise, Mike. I'm here."
She is practicing her writing with Nancy. Every week, she has a new assignment. She has to write a paragraph about the book they are reading, or about a fun she thing she did this week, or about everything she sees when she looks out the window of her bedroom for ten minutes.
It can be kind of fun.
She isn't sure what to write when Nancy asks her to write a paragraph about herself, though.
She starts by writing her name, but that turns into an explanation of how she got the name "El" for short, and her paragraph ends up mostly being about Mike.
Nancy says she has to try again.
"I asked you to write a paragraph about you."
El frowns. "I did."
"No, you wrote a paragraph about Mike." Nancy sighs. "He's important to you. I get it. But I want you to write about you. What do you like? What do you wish for? What do you want to be when you grow up?"
El tries again that night.
On Thursday, she gives it to Nancy with a kind of sick, nervous feeling in the pit of her stomach. She watches Nancy's forehead crease while she reads it. El thinks that she's going to have to rewrite it again, because Nancy's eyes grow wet.
"This is good," Nancy says, soft. "This is really, really good." She looks up from the paper to smile at El.
My name is Jane Ellen Hopper. I go by El for short. I like when people call me that. It means that they know me, and they love me. If you love someone, that means it makes you happy when they are happy and you hurt when they hurt and you fight for them and you apologize when you are wrong and you do anything to keep them safe. I like a lot of other things beside my name, too. I like watching TV and Eggos and being with my friends. I wish I did not have nightmares. I wish I could be more normal like girls at school who know lots of things without having to ask. Also, I wish I could say that Joyce is my mama, too. When I grow up, I want to live in a house with Mike and I want to smoke cigarettes when I am stressed about money and I want to protect people like Hopper protects people. Now you know some things about me.
It happens when El is alone at home, when she is sitting in front of the TV, half-watching, and half-waiting.
Hopper is supposed to take off work early today to shop with her. El went Christmas shopping already with Joyce to get presents for everyone, but now she needs to get a present for Joyce. He promised he would be home by noon so that they have plenty of time to find a gift.
At 11:47, she hears the back door open in the kitchen.
She doesn't look away from the TV, because he'll want to make himself lunch before they go.
"Hi," she says, hearing his footsteps.
She isn't expecting him to jab a needle into her neck. He comes up behind the sofa, and before she knows what's happening, he grabs her shoulder, and the needle sinks suddenly into her neck, and a wave of grogginess crashes through her. She clutches at the side of the sofa.
It isn't until the world stops tilting under her that she sees him.
"Hello, Eleven," he says, calm.
He isn't real. This isn't happening. He isn't here. "No," she says, or tries to say, but the word is stuck in her throat. He is here, and she is terrified. She is paralyzed. She is Eleven again.
"What's the matter?" He sits on the edge of the sofa. "Aren't you happy to see your papa?"
"It got you," she says. "I saw it. It got you."
"No." He smiles.
She tries to sit up, only for the world to tilt under her.
"Careful," he says, reaching out a hand as though to steady her. "The medicine I gave you has weakened you. Temporarily."
She shakes her head.
"Eleven," he says, touching her cheek.
"No." She jerks out of his grasp. "That is not my name. I'm Jane. Jane Ellen Hopper."
"Hopper?" He looks at her like he used to, like she's a small, pathetic little girl who doesn't know anything, and he pities her. "Did you really think some small town police chief could keep you hidden from me? Eleven, you're my girl. You know that."
She glares. "Jane. Ellen. Hopper."
"You don't belong to him," he says, shaking his head. "You belong to me. You always have." He paused, and seemed to assess her for a moment. "Don't you know, Eleven? Haven't you ever wondered why you were so much more successful than the others like you? Why I gave you such special attention?"
"I know you found your mother. Didn't you think to ask about you father? I knew your mother long before I knew you, Eleven."
"I am your papa, Eleven."
She uses her power to send him flying. Or she tries to. But nothing actually happens to him, and she is flooded with panic at the realization that her powers aren't working, that she is facing a monster, and she is powerless.
"Now you must know I can't have you using your powers on me," he says, holding up the syringe that he used on her.
"I hate you."
"I don't think you do. I think you're confused, and you're scared. I get it. You're angry, and we're going to use that. I've waited months for the moment to approach you, to rescue you. And it's here. You mustn't be afraid. I've come alone. I'm not here to hurt you. Don't you know how much I care for you? You have an important future in front of you, Eleven. I'm going to give that to you."
She clenches her jaw and tries again fruitlessly to wield her powers, feeling her eyes burn with tears.
"Sweetheart," he says, tutting.
She won't let him take her. She won't. He might have done something to her powers, but she'll get them back, and she'll stop him from ever hurting her again. He isn't her papa. He's a monster.
He rises to his feet.
And that's when she hears the car door slam.
"Hop," she realizes.
She breathes in sharply, and she screams. "Hop! Hop, he's here! He found me! HOP!" She tries to lurch off of the sofa.
Instantly, he reacts, grabbing her by the shoulder, and clapping a hand to her mouth, shoving her back onto the sofa, and starting to pull a gun from his waistband. She struggles violently against him, trying to shove him away. He gets a better, tighter grip on her, though, and he whirls around when the front door slams wide open, but he's a second too late in lifting his gun.
"Drop it," Hopper says, panting, and pointing a shotgun at him.
He is silent.
"I told you to drop it." Hopper steps into the room with his gun still raised, still ready. "Drop your weapon, and get the hell away from my daughter, you psychotic little piece of shit. Don't think I won't shoot you." His eyes are burning with fury. "I have a shovel in the backyard, and I would love to put you in the ground."
"You're making a mistake," says the monster, but he lifts his hands in submission.
El watches Hopper handcuff him.
"The gate is open. Eleven might have been able to close it temporarily, but it's been opened again."
"You have no idea what—"
Hopper punches him in the face. "I told you to shut up," he says. And he looks up slowly, and meets El's gaze, and with a whisper of her name, he steps over the unconscious body to get to her, to pull her into his arms, and hug her.
(She wasn't thinking about every terrible thing that was done to her when she closed the gate.
She was thinking about every good thing: about Hopper dancing around the cabin and Dustin screaming that she was their friend and Joyce reassuring her that she did so good, about Lucas saying they missed her and Mike telling her that she saved him, she saved him, she saved him.)
She isn't Eleven. She won't be dragged into a dark, empty room by men who don't care about her. She isn't the property of a monster. And when everyone is arguing about what they should do now that the monster is back, and he claims the gate is opened, and they can't keep him locked up unconscious in the stairwell closet forever, she doesn't sit quietly at the table.
"We need to know what he knows," Hopper says.
Joyce is incredulous. "We can't trust a word out of that man's mouth!"
Everyone starts talking at once.
"I have an idea," El says.
Mike is holding on tightly to her hand, and, behind her, Dustin is gripping the back of her chair, and Will is there, too, of course, in the chair right next to her, and Lucas is there, and Max is there, and Nancy and Jonathan and Steve are there, and when she speaks at last, all of them go quiet.
"I know how we can make him talk," she continues, looking from person to person. "I have a friend. In Chicago. She can make him see things. She can scare him."
She can tell that Hopper is hesitant.
"You have to trust me," she says, holding his gaze. "Please, Dad. I know what to do."
He nods. "Okay."
Mike squeezes her hand.
"But no matter what we do, we do it together." Hopper's gaze travels over everyone in the kitchen. "I'm serious. Nobody is running off half-cocked this time. We're in this together. A team. A family. Got it?"