When she first wakes up in the Upside Down, she walks the length of the forest until she’s tired.
Even though there are no walls, she feels claustrophobic; pressed in on every side.
It feels like just another laboratory - and what do you do, she wonders, if your entire life is a continual experiment?
The first time, it’s food - leftovers, carefully sealed away in a large wooden storage box. It's the storage box she notices first. She comes across it in the forest when she's walking. She's not sure how long she's been here, but she's sure that that box wasn't there last time she walked past this particular section so she opens it which is how she finds them.
She’s not sure how long it’s been there, but there’s a note with it. It says If you can, come home.
She doesn't recognise the handwriting instantly, but it looks like an adult's writing, and the fact that there are Eggos narrows down the pool of suspects considerably, and also confirms that yes, this was definitely intended for her.
The food, anyway. She's not sure how accurate the words themselves are - not sure she ever has had a home.
Anyway - this isn’t the kind of place you leave. Don’t they know she would if she could?
Still. She makes a mental note to check the storage box again next time she goes past. Just in case.
The second time, there's something left for her alongside the food: a notebook and a pen. The notebook is blank except for the first page, which says Write back if you can. She picks up the pen and holds it over the paper and then puts it back down again. She's not sure what she'd write.
There’s something underneath the notebook, she realises. It’s a book. At first glance when Eleven looks at the title, she misreads it as Alive in Wonderland.
Reading is something she’s still getting used to, and there aren’t many opportunities in the Upside Down. It’s more about running and hiding and staying alive - which she is very good at. Although the demagorgon is gone, she knows that there are always new monsters to take it's place. She suspects she might have even brought some of her nightmares with her although right now she's hoping she's wrong.
Anyway. The book. She opens it up, slowly. There are pictures, which helps her to understand the story. It’s the story of a young girl who falls down a rabbithole and finds herself in a world crowded full of impossible things.
At first she thinks it’s the Upside Down but she soon realises it’s not - it’s just sideways. The world in this book is whimsical but firmly between the covers, and when she closes it, she’s still alone, in a darkening forest that's a fractured reality; a universe inverted.
On the inner cover, there is a child’s handwriting. This book belongs to Sarah Hopper, age 9.
She picks up the pen and scrawls a note - ‘I’m not her’ - and she’s not sure if she’s referring to Alice or Sarah or El, the girl in the pink dress and the blonde wig. Maybe all of them - because she is none of them, not in any essential way that matters. Her existence is the most impossible thing thing she knows.
Eleven takes the food but leaves the book inside the storage container, where it’ll be safe.
She doesn’t feel much like reading anyway, and a book is just one more thing to weigh her down.
At least she knows who’s leaving her the parcels now.
What she doesn't know is why.
When she comes back the next week, there’s a new book waiting for her, and a torch. She mentally congratulates Hopper for balancing sentimentality with practicality. The batteries won’t last, not for ever but she uses them to finish the last of the book in the dark.
The note this time says: They miss you too.
Something howls in the distance, and she burrows closer into the tree roots in which she’s hiding as she keeps reading about Neverland and Peter, a boy who never wanted to grow up living in a place he never needed to.
The Lost Boys are her favourite.
The next week what accompanies the food isn’t a book at all - it’s the compass that Dustin was using.
So you can find your way home, says the note, and she folds it in half, and half again, and puts it in her pocket, next to her heart.
She remembers how Will used the lights to communicate with his mother, how someone in the right-side-up world cared enough to see the signs and believe the impossible.
She thinks of the fact that someone out there is still sending her messages, that she still matters to someone.
She concentrates very, very hard and shuts her eyes. She pretends she is floating in the deprivation tank. For a moment, she can see Hopper's face, behind the wheel of his car. That startles her so much that she nearly opens her eyes. She stops and concentrates even harder. She can feel a thin trail of blood trickling down her chin.
She can't make the lights so much as blink - but when she opens her eyes, the compass needle in her hand is spinning in ever-increasing circles, until it finally is pointing away from her.
It's pointing to the storage box.
It's not a big box - but she is not a big girl, and she folds herself pretzel-like into its confines. As soon as she pulls the wooden lid down, it’s dark and quiet and it feels like she’s back in the deprivation tank. In a strange way, she already feels safer than she's felt since she arrived in the Upside Down because it's the first time she can pretend she's not there. She's not anywhere.
She focuses all her energy and her mind on what she wants more than anything.
When Hopper opens the lid, he curses and drops whatever he is holding, then he lifts her out. She’s dazed, blinking in the light, trying to believe that she’s woken up in the right side of the world.
There’s a chemical sort of smell to his shirt, and she fights the instinctive urge to panic. It smells like Hawkins-Lab-danger-deprivation-tank-experiment-escape-011-who-am-i.
He wraps his arms around her, and she wriggles out of his grasp. He backs away immediately, his hands raised in the air as if to demonstrate he’s not a threat.
As if you can tell someone’s a threat just by looking at them.
She goes to Mike’s house first, and he’s not home, although his mother says he’ll be back any moment and invites Eleven to wait in the sitting room. Eleven obediently goes in and sits. She finds herself looking at a framed photo of two girls with their arms around each other, beaming at the camera.
“I saw it too, you know. What it was like in the Upside Down.”
She turns around. It’s Mike’s sister, Nancy. She’s standing in the doorway, watching. She looks older than the last time Eleven saw her - her face is thinner and her eyes are sharper. She sees the world differently now. Eleven knows what that’s like.
“I wasn’t there as long as you were,” says Nancy. “And I can’t imagine what it was like, all those weeks. Probably no-one can.”
Without meaning to, Eleven shudders. “Will can,” she says. Her voice is still creaky from disuse.
“Did you see her, when you were there?” asks Nancy. She's pointing to the other girl in the photo. "Did you see Barb?" She probably doesn’t realise how bright her eyes are, the undisguised eagerness in her voice.
It’s a mistake, to let someone know how much something means to you - to wear your heart outside of your body, where anybody could steal it away.
Eleven thinks of shattered glasses and a shapeless form, slug trails and sorrow.
“No,” she says, and it’s the truth. What she saw wasn’t Nancy’s friend.
Nancy looks like she wants to ask another question, but just then Mike rushes through the door, and there’s no time for any more conversation because Mike is there, and Dustin and Lucas and Will.
Will, who she never really got to know, apart from the times she could sense him in the Upside Down. He smiles at her, but she sees the shadows under his eyes - recognises the same ghosts.
Some nights she goes to sleep at Castle Byers. She’s always careful not to be seen, although there is always a fresh blanket, neatly folded, waiting.
Hopper enrols her in school. There are papers that he fills out, official documents. He calls her his niece.
There’s a science fair at the school, and each of the boys enter. Eleven wasn’t going to, but Mike talks her into it.
Her project is about the way that mirrors and prisms reflect light and when Hopper stands in front of it, it looks like he’s going to say something, but instead he just claps one hand on her shoulder and leaves it there. She doesn’t shrug away.
Will is at the science fair as well. His project is on black holes.
Eleven finds Will’s brother there, staring at the dark circles and space photographs that Will has mounted onto heavy cardboard.
“I don’t know how to help him,” says Johnathan. “Will”.
“Try anyway,” she says. It's the best advice she knows how to give. She's here because someone kept trying.
She wanders back to her prisms, to where her name is printed neatly in the corner of her display. “E Hopper.”
She watches the boys, always.
She sees Will, when he thinks nobody is looking.
She sees it too - this world that exists on the borders. Her powers are fading, but with what little she still has, she suspects Will's powers are growing.
They don’t tell the others, not yet.
It's Christmas, and Dustin has convinced the boys to use Joyce's boxes and boxes of Christmas lights for the festive purposes they were originally intended. When they're done, the whole house is glowing softly, like something out of a postcard. Joyce is talking to Hopper over in the corner where he's mixing drinks. He's even wearing a tie, which is strange - they're not anywhere special, just the Byers house. As Eleven watches, she sees Joyce touch Hopper's arm lightly, familiar. It's nice to see Joyce smile - she never smiled when Will was gone. The sound of their laughter drifts over to the corner where Eleven is sitting.
Dustin is trying to loop up another box of lights he's just unearthed from beneath the kitchen sink while Mike and Lucas are arguing passionately about whether there will ever be a sequel to Star Wars and Will and Jonathan are poring over the settings on Jonathan's new camera.
Eleven sits quietly in the corner, surrounded by the low burble of noise amidst the glow of the Christmas lights.
"There you are," Hopper says as he hands her a drink. His tie is slightly crooked, smile bright.
The cup he hands her smells like cloves and cinnamon and -- waffles. She takes a tentative sip.
“What is this?” she asks.
“Special recipe, just for you," he says, looking inordinately pleased with himself. "Eggo-nog."
It’s the most delicious thing she’s ever tasted, and as she drinks it she feels the warmth of it spread to her cheeks. She ducks her head to hide her smile, but by the answering grin on his face he's seen it anyway.
"You like that?" he asks, looking pleased, and Eleven nods because she doesn't have words for it, for this feeling of home.