The move to Terre Haute was not without difficulties. Mike was barely speaking to his parents, who had made good on their threats and hadn't come down to the courthouse. Between Karen Wheeler and his nerves at starting college, Mike had become quiet and withdrawn, something that always made El feel uneasy and guilty - so much of Mike’s arguments with his parents in the last month had been about her, about them, their relationship, about how him going away to school and leaving her for Christmas and summers was simply not an option. He’d never turned it around on her, but as Hopper’s truck roared down the highway her stomach roiled, and it wasn’t from motion sickness.
Everything they owned was packed into the truck, and despite the fact that they owned next to nothing it was still a tight squeeze. Mike’s leg jiggled the entire ride. Hopper, who seemed to understand better than most when either needed to talk and when they needed space to process what they were thinking, kept the radio turned up for most of the ride.
He wasn’t any happier than the Wheelers, El could tell, but had learned long ago that standing his ground against El or any of her friends was a losing proposition. Best to enable them to succeed and let them figure it out, she’d heard him tell Joyce after the blow up with Mike’s parents. It’s already hard out there.
Hopper helped them build the single bed, got the couple stocked with canned soups and vegetables, and left after treating them to gyros from the little Greek place down the street. He left them with their bed, a mini fridge, a loveseat, a television stand and a promise to bring them a small TV as soon as possible.
That night they sat on their loveseat, facing each other and playing cards. Instead of feeling lonely the way she might have once feared, she was reminded of the blanket fort. Mike’s fidgeting made her remember how nervous he had been, having a girl in his basement, getting her warm clothes, and keeping her safe for the night.
Whatever was waiting for them in Terre Haute, they were going to be okay.
Mike started classes, and was ambitious enough to load up his schedule with 8 AM labs. It meant early mornings for El too, who would quietly slip out of bed and make them both coffee while Mike swore and hit snooze and then rushed through showering and getting dressed. They still didn’t have a TV, but the clock radio was a fine substitute for the time being, and she quickly found a station that played what she instinctively thought of as Hopper music - Croce, Creedence, and Dylan.
More than once Mike caught her bopping around the kitchen to Stuck in the Middle with You, and while it was embarrassing when it was Hopper, Mike never looked anything but pleased, even as he was running out the door to get to class on time.
They’d had an unseasonably warm fall that year, which gave her a chance to actually indulge in the two luxuries in their lives: the newspaper, and the tiny wrought iron balcony that hung off the kitchen. It was big enough for exactly one plastic chair - two, if Mike sat in the threshold to the kitchen. El spent most mornings sitting outside, drinking her coffee black (it had never occurred to Hopper to offer her milk or sugar) and reading the newspaper from front to back.
In all, it was a quiet, pleasant existence, and somehow two weeks managed to go by before El spoke to another person besides Mike.
One morning as she was taking a bag of garbage out to the little dumpster behind their building, she noticed the apartment beneath them for the first time. Since it was on the ground floor, it not only had the same wrought iron fencing marking off its patio, but it also had a solid square of actual land. Instead of grass it was packed with a tangle of tall plants. Upon closer examination El could see flashes of red, and recognized tomatoes, large and small, and peppers in varying shades of yellow and orange.
What had caught her eye, however, was the single flower left on the vines that wrapped around the black metal that made up the fencing. Most of other flowers had died - El could see some that had dried up and turned brown, and others that had lost their petals and had nothing left of the blossom but the green tubular filaments that jutted out like tiny unnatural explosions - but one last purple-pink flower was stubbornly standing up against the weak Indiana sun.
Old habits died hard as she reached out a shaking finger and whispered, “Pretty.”
“Clematis,” a voice answered, and El instinctively stiffened, eyes looking for an escape path. The old woman who had just popped up from amongst the plants offered El a tiny tomato. “End of season, but they come back. They all come back.”
She had a thick accent - Mike would tell her later that it was Italian, and then lose several hours explaining accents, which would culminate in a discussion of Italian food (“You like spaghetti.”) - and El had a moment of panic when she thought that she was being yelled at before she reached out and took the tomato. Instead of eating it, she examined it with the polite smile that she had learned worked wonders with adults.
“You garden?” the lady asked, and despite the fact that she had the words, El’s eyes flicked up to the tiny balcony above their heads.
The woman’s face blossomed in understanding. “You’re new!”
At El’s hesitant nod she reached out and clamped a hand on her wrist. Despite her age, her grip was strong. “Anna.” She nodded encouragingly at El. “And you? And husband?”
She had always hated this moment. Her mother had named her Jane, her papers said Jane, but Mike and Hopper had never called her anything but El, and the sense of security and home would never fade. Jane was a mystery, a gift from her broken mother, while Eleven was a curse, branded on her skin. El was something she had claimed for herself.
“Mike,” she said, pointing up, and then to herself, “El.”
“Ella! Ella, so lovely.” She dragged El to the latch at the gate. “Coffee?”
It was phrased as a question, but it wasn’t a question, and it wasn’t a question the next day, or the day after that.
And that was how El made friends in Terre Haute before Mike did.
After it got too cold for her to enjoy her balcony properly, El started a new routine of taking her newspaper and coffee with Anna and her husband Marco. El liked them because they didn’t try to make her talk - Marco’s English was worse than Anna’s, and they traded the sections while Anna refilled their cups. Mostly he grumbled in Italian, and it was well over a month before El even realized that he liked her.
She missed a morning after getting a cold - Mike fussed and told her to stay in bed and left for class too late to be on time. Around lunchtime Marco appeared at the front door with a small container of homemade chicken soup. He stayed only long enough to convey the soup’s origins before he creaked back down the steps, but the next morning when she joined them again he cast an appraising eye over her.
“Better?” The newspaper covered the bottom half of his face, making him seem like a suspicious detective, rooting out a lie.
El nodded. “Good soup,” she answered, because even though she still had a runny nose the chicken soup had done something nice and warm in her chest. The canned soup had never done that.
The paper crackled as he lowered it. Marco grinned
“Best soup,” he answered. “Best medicine.”
Mike caught her cold; he couldn’t afford to skip class but as soon as he left El tromped downstairs and confidently said to Anna, “Mike is sick. Do you have soup?”
The smile Anna gave her in return was enormous and gratifying. She guided El into the kitchen, and to El’s surprise instead of offering her coffee, started to root in one of the cupboards under the counter, unearthing a pot that was so tall it came up to El’s knees.
She heaved it onto the stove, and then reached into their refrigerator and handed El a bunch of carrots.
“You peel,” Anna ordered gently. “While I shred chicken.”
El stared down at the carrots. When she looked back up at Anna, the question on her face must have been obvious.
“We make the soup,” Anna said firmly. “After we make the soup, you make the soup.”
In a flash, she remembered twelve year old Mike telling her what an amazing cook his mother was. Hopper could subsist on frozen dinners and canned vegetables until the end of time, but one summer Joyce had taken El under her wing and shown her the basics of a stove and an oven. She certainly wasn't an amazing cook - she wasn't even passable really, but she could fry eggs and make pancakes and grill burgers and if she could survive in the woods in an Indiana winter then her and Mike could survive on cheeseburgers and canned green beans.
It would be nice, she thought, to make something amazing for Mike.
As they're chopping vegetables together, Anna asked, "Your husband? Right?"
El blinked, trying to understand what she was asking. Anna had never referred to Mike as anything but her husband. "Yes, my husband."
"Not long, right? How long?" She was pouring stock into the pot and not looking at El, but she still felt unease curling in her chest. She wondered how long they would have to be married before that went away.
"Three months." El kept her eyes trained down, waiting for the hammer of judgement that inevitably fell when people learned that she and Mike were actually married. "Mike didn't want to live at school. The only way freshman can get out of it is if they're married. And I couldn't wait for him in Hawkins."
"Ah. 18?" Anna asked, cocking her head towards El. When she nodded, Anna smiled warmly. "Me and Marco too. 18 years old. My family was poor. His family was poor too, but not as poor as mine. They were going to send him to Palermo to work to get away from me."
She looked smug, and El couldn't help the smile that started to worm across her face. "We got married. His mother cried. Married 52 years now."
She put the knife down so she could poke El in the arm. "I could not wait in Pachino. You could not wait in Hawkins."
In a single swooping gesture, she picked up all of the chopped carrots and dumped them in the pot. “In 52 years, you make soup for Mike.”
El gave her a shy grin. Anna had been the first person who had learned that they were married who had offered congratulations without any qualifiers or questions. The Wheeler’s had lost their collective temper, Hopper had been visibly unhappy but ultimately supportive, and all of their friends had openly questioned Mike’s sanity until he’d lost his temper.
Of course, they’d all ended up coming to the courthouse, including Nancy, even though Mike’s parents hadn’t. All the same, it was nice to be celebrated without anyone asking are you sure or exclaiming how young first.
That evening, Mike made a bigger deal about the chicken soup than anything she'd ever done with her brain powers. The day after she relayed his reaction to her neighbors, Marco heaved a pot the same size as Anna's soup pot onto the kitchen table.
"What is this?" she asked, looking around it to make eye contact with Marco.
"For you. So you make soup," Marco said to the newspaper.
El tried to remember if she had ever told them that they didn't have the fully stocked kitchen that Anna clearly had - she and Mike had exactly one small frying pan and a small pot; enough to heat up two cans of soup, but not enough to make the gallons of soup that they had produced the day before. "Where did you get this?"
"Pah." Marco waved a hand. "I know a guy."
Just after Halloween, Mike brought home with him two young men that he had become friendly with in class and the library. Maurice and Roy were both computer science majors, while Mike was still intent on mechanical engineering, but they had somehow come to the realization that they were all interested in dungeons and dragons, and were discussing setting up a group on campus.
She came upstairs to find two strangers sitting on her loveseat.
They looked as equally surprised at her entrance as she felt.
Maurice elbowed Roy. "Mike lives with a woman."
"Oh, hey, I thought I heard you." Mike came up from behind, draping an arm over her shoulders. "Guys, this is my wife, El. El, this is Maurice and Roy."
Maurice elbowed Roy again. "Mike's married to a woman." he said in awed tone.
"Way to play it cool guys." Mike rolled his eyes. He was holding his game books.
She wouldn’t ever like them as much as Will and Dustin and Lucas, but Roy and Maurice ended up becoming her favorite of Mike's new friends. They spent a lot of time at the apartment, putting together their group and planning campaigns, and they never treated her with anything other than total deference.
At first she thought that maybe she had slipped up, slammed a door from across the room or something, but when she asked Mike he just laughed at her.
"They're like that with all women,” he told her. "In fact, they're probably better with you than anyone else because they know you're married and therefore not judging them as a potential mate."
"Mate?” she repeated, wrinkling her nose. She knew the word, but not in the context that Mike seemed to be using it.
"It's what men who are bad at talking to women call women because they think it makes them sound," he waved his hands, looking for the right word, “respectable."
"Oh." She thought about how Maurice and Roy seemed almost jumpy around her. "Does it work?"
"No,” Mike said firmly.
One night while they were working, El appeared to deliver a plate of sandwiches, courtesy of Anna, who was concerned about Mike's perpetually skinny frame, and Marco, who was grateful that they weren't throwing loud, drunk college parties.
Mike was sitting cross legged on the floor, balancing a binder in his lap. He was flipping through the pages, frowning.
Roy's face lit up when El entered the room. "Mike, you could help us out! How did you meet El?"
"I found her in the woods," Mike said impatiently. "El, do you have any idea why the Compendium would be missing my Dragonlance Appendix?"
She stopped and thought.
"You found her in the woods," Roy repeated in a flat, disbelieving tone.
El nodded at him. "It was raining." Then to Mike, she said, "Will took pages for drawing."
Mike threw his head back, letting out a tortured groan. "That's right, he needed sketch references for art class."
He snapped the binder shut and tossed it aside. "Sorry guys, I won't be able to get those pages back until Christmas break."
"You know, if you don't want to tell us that's okay, but you don't have to make something up," Maurice said.
He shrank back when El turned the full force of her Hopper-influenced frown on him. She had matured over the years, but she still lived by party rules.
"Friends don't lie," El told him sternly, and then the subject was dropped for the evening.
When school resumed in January Mike called it spring semester, though it truthfully felt anything but. Everything was cold - Indiana, their apartment, Mike’s demeanor, everything felt frozen solid. New classes brought a new set of stressors, and the struggle of commuting without a car in the winter made Mike miserable and El worry constantly.
They were both still recovering from the holidays - Christmas had been an unqualified disaster after they had tried to visit on Christmas Eve and Mike and his mother had fought yet again after he had caught her telling his aunt that he and El weren’t really married. The blow up had culminated in him dragging her out of the house, and Mike hadn’t spoken to his parents again the rest of the holiday break.
El felt guilty, even though Mike had never once blamed her or treated her any differently. It was still difficult watching him try to process his constant frustration with his parents, and it was a struggle not to offer apologies that he wouldn’t accept anyway.
One morning after she returned from her ritual breakfast coffee, she heard a weird noise coming from outside. It took her a few minutes to trace the noise to the balcony, but when she yanked back the curtain they’d hung to try and block the draft she was surprised to see a large orange cat looking expectantly up at her.
Her gut instinct was to recoil - she’d never forget the cat in Hawkins lab, and it seemed like any other one that she ran into, whether it be a stray or Dustin’s mom’s Tews, had the same reaction to her. She waited for the hissing to start -
But instead the cat made an odd trilling noise and cried out again. It was easily -10 outside, with the windchill. She had watched the weather report on their newly acquired TV the night before and the meteorologist had issued a stern warning to bring outdoor pets inside, lest they freeze to death, and so El slid open the door, and again waited for hissing.
The cat bussed up against her legs as he walked into the apartment like he owned the place.
She spent most of the day cautiously observing the cat, waiting for the moment it would turn on her. He was easily the largest cat she'd ever seen - when he stood he almost reached her knees - although it was hard to judge under all of his bulky orange fur.
In the early afternoon he started pacing, and crying. El opened the door to the balcony, thinking he wanted to go back outside, but he simply sat in the middle of the kitchen and meowed plaintively.
Mike found her sitting on the kitchen floor, an opened can of tuna licked clean, petting the cat that was now curled on her lap.
He stopped and stared.
The cat hissed at him. As soon as El touched the top of his head though he rolled out of her lap and onto his back, purring as he twisted on the linoleum.
"Where did this come from?" Mike asked. When El tilted her head up to look at him, his face was twisted in a disgusted grimace.
"Outside," El said simply, reaching out to run her fingertips through kitty's tail.
"Use your words El," Mike prompted. He hadn't even gotten his coat off and she could feel the cold radiating off of him. He must have been freezing.
"He came up the fire escape," she explained. "And he likes me."
"Well put him back outside," Mike said stubbornly. "He can go back down the fire escape."
El stood up, slipped her hands under his coat at the shoulders and helped him pull it off. She kissed him, chastely, and pressed warm fingers to his icy cheek. "Too cold. The news said to bring pets inside."
"We don't have any pets," Mike insisted. "We can barely afford to feed ourselves, let alone that horse over there."
"He's a cat,” she said, blithely smoothing over his protests. "And he likes me."
"He doesn't like me!" As if to prove his point, his foot strayed too close to the cat, and he was rewarded with a long, drawn out growl.
"It's too cold." She dropped her gaze and looked down at her feet. "Cats don't usually like me."
Mike sighed, and that was when El knew they were keeping him. He knew that El didn't like how animals avoided her - she had always felt that it singled her out as different, and that people would notice.
"Well." Mike wrapped an arm around her waist, and together they looked at the fluffy orange beast. He looked back up at them, nonplussed, as if he, too, knew El would be winning their debate. "If you're going to have a pet, you have to name him. What are you going to call him?"
It took a couple days before El found the perfect name in the newspaper comics.
That was how Garfield came to live with the Wheelers.
Having a pet, it turned out, was great for El. The short days during the winter made it seem like Mike was gone for much longer than he actually was, and Garfield was good company. He was attentive, and seemed to understand when El's mood was low or she wasn't feeling well, and despite Mike's pleas to keep cat hair out of their furniture, there was no keeping him from curling up between El's feet every night or on the loveseat every afternoon. His purring reminded her of the engine in Hopper’s truck, and he was a great comfort on the days when she missed the man so much she felt it like a physical ache.
Having a pet, it turned out, was not great for Mike. Garfield hated him, hissed at him anytime he came within a foot of him, and developed a habit of vomiting in his shoes. The feeling was clearly mutual - but it wasn’t just him that Garfield was threatened by. He growled at Marco, hissed at Roy, and once trapped Maurice in the bathroom for over half an hour before El could be summoned to rescue him.
He shredded the hems of Mike’s jeans and pulled the elastic out of his socks by swiping at him as he walked by, but Garfield had never so much as scratched El with a stray claw as he kneaded in her lap.
It was not long after that that the first check arrived.
“What the hell is this?” Mike was shouting into the phone, and El was growing concerned by the flush in his face.
The little slip of paper that had upset him so much had arrived by mail in a plain white envelope earlier in the day. All of the mail came addressed to Mike - still better to keep her off of paper as much as possible, Hopper had counseled - and so she hadn’t opened it when she’d collected it earlier in the day.
Therefore she’d had no idea what was in the envelope - nor been able to warn Mike before he’d ripped open the envelope and discovered a check from his father.
“Are you trying to bribe me or something? Because nothing is going to change!” El couldn’t hear Mr. Wheeler’s side of the conversation, but he was making a fatal mistake - letting Mike gather and focus all of his energy and get a full head of steam. She had long since learned that it was far better to try and distract him, redirect his anger elsewhere, or else it could be hours before he calmed himself down.
“Did Mom tell you to send this? Does she think this is going to change something? Because she owes me an apology, and that’s nothing compared to what she owes El!” Mike was so loud that she knew the neighbors could hear. Anna would want the whole story when she next saw them. She’d always been sympathetic when she’d described their difficulties with Mike’s parents.
Garfield had long since fled. He was hiding under their bed; El could see the tip of his fluffy tail poking out from under the sheets hanging near the floor.
El hovered in the doorway to the kitchen, biting her lip raw, trying to decide if she should interrupt or not. It appeared that Mike’s father had sent them money, and she wasn’t sure how to feel. Hopper certainly helped support them, but his support tended to come in the form of driving out and helping them with chores around the house, finding them furniture, and making sure they had groceries. If he had ever just opened his wallet and offered them money, El didn’t know about it and Mike had never said.
But that didn’t change the fact that they were just scraping by, and with Mike constantly stressed out about school, even something small would make a huge difference to them.
Strange that Mike’s father had reached out first. Most of the time when Mike talked about his parents he talked about his mom, and lumped his dad in with her. El had never seen them as anything but a united front. The only thing that El had ever associated with him alone was the recliner in the Wheeler’s living room.
“I’m ripping this up,” Mike declared. “I’m going to rip this up into a thousand pieces and -”
El cringed. Whatever Ted had interrupted Mike with, he’d reacted so violently it was almost a physical convulsion. He spun around and slapped his hand against the wall. “That is not an invitation to send another check! And don’t you dare sic Nancy on us either!”
With that, he slammed the phone back into the cradle, then picked it up and slammed it back down three more times.
She gave him a minute to gather his thoughts, for his heaving shoulders to settle back to normal. “Why did he send money?” she finally asked, when she thought Mike was calm enough to speak rationally.
Mike threw his hands up. “I don’t know. He spouted some bullshit about wanting to make sure our heat was turned on. He said Mom didn’t know about it.”
She reached out and delicately took the now crumpled check from his hands. It wasn’t anything flashy - plain green paper, the amount printed in neat text, above Ted Wheeler’s boring signature. The memo line was blank.
“I don’t know what he expected,” Mike fumed. “Did he think I was going to call and say -”
“Thank you?” she interjected. He gaped at her, and her stomach twisted as she considered if she’d said the right thing. So much of Mike’s strife with his parents was because of her, and it wouldn’t do to throw that back in his face, but all the same, she thought he’d be much happier if they could reach some sort of understanding.
And maybe this was just the first step.
Mike was silent, still processing what she’d said. El considered her words carefully. “He said your mom doesn’t know. Maybe he wants to help.”
“He wants -” Mike came in hot, and El cut him off again.
“I don’t care what he wants. We need it.” Whatever Ted had said about their heat wasn’t far from the truth.
Mike slumped. “You’re right.”
He held up an arm and she darted beneath it, wrapped her arms around his chest. He rubbed her back, kissed the top of her head, and then sighed. “I guess we can use it to buy cat food for that manticore in there.”
They were buried in snow even through March, when Mike and his friends holed up in their little apartment to study for midterms. Their newest acquisition was a spindly fold-up card table, gifted to them by Marco, who had refused to let El help carry it upstairs and was still huffing and puffing even as she gently assisted from the bottom of the steps using telekinesis.
(“Where did you get this?” she had asked him.
“I know a guy,” was all he would say, mopping his sweaty brow.)
El would lay on the loveseat, Garfield sprawled across her abdomen, reading while Mike and his friends spread their books across the table and worked on calculations together, cursing good naturedly.
Mike had been in a much better mood lately - a second check had arrived in February, and Mike had grumbled a bit, but when another had arrived this month, he'd simply cashed it without another word. She wasn't sure if Mike had talked to his father again since their argument over the phone. If they had talked he hadn't told her, and Mike told her pretty much everything.
It didn't matter to her whether he had or he hadn't - the fact was, Mike's spirits had improved considerably in the last month, and that alone made El feel better. She was aware (because she had been told) that what they were doing - getting married young, going away to college, living independently - was hard. While she loved Mike and the way he constantly stood up for her without a second thought, El thought anything that made this a little less hard was a good thing.
Separately, she hated the thought of Mike being estranged from his parents. She knew him well enough that she was positive he'd ignore them until he got his point across. It was humbling to have proof of how thoroughly he was committed to her, but at the same time El was acutely aware that she'd never had the same nuclear family that Mike had grown up with and couldn't shake the feeling that she was denying him still.
The extra money had also helped improve their meals - Anna had taken El under her wing, and expanded their menu. Besides the chicken soup, El had learned to make wedding soup, chili, beef stew, and ground meat spaghetti sauce, all from scratch. They’d never turn their nose up at Campbells, but making large batches meant that Mike could take better meals to campus, and that the two of them were fed leftovers for a week at a time.
One evening, Mike was drawing on a large piece of graphing paper, hunched over his work. His eyes darted between the textbook in his lap and the ruler he was trying to hold steady. Maurice and Roy were trading a single calculator and then complaining when their answers didn't match.
El was laying on the loveseat, Garfield's tail twitching contentedly against her thigh, reading a copy of The Last Unicorn that Maurice had lent her. She had been focused on the book until Roy’s raised voice had jarred her from her reverie.
“And then she began reading poetry?” His voice went shrill at the end of the word poetry, and El carefully balanced her book along the top of the cushions, not wanting to lose her place. “This bizarre poem, and she was looking at me and was like, really excited?”
Mike didn’t look up from what he was doing, but his head was tilted, and it was obvious he was listening. Maurice was still tapping on the calculator.
“Then when I said I didn’t think we’d work out she started crying, like, really loudly, in the middle of this restaurant!” Roy exclaimed. “And she was wearing all this makeup and it started running everywhere and all these people were looking at us and I looked like one of those assholes who takes a woman out in a public place to break up with her so she doesn’t make a scene.”
“You did take her out into a public place to break up with her,” Maurice pointed out.
“And she did make a scene,” Mike added. “I told you not to date an English major. My sisters an English major, I know what they’re like.”
“Well you’re no help!” Roy complained, throwing his pencil onto the table. The table wasn’t completely level; it immediately rolled back into his lap. “You’re already married! And you still won’t tell us how you picked up El anyway.”
“I told you,” Mike said dryly, head bent over his graphing paper again. “She was on the run from a shadowy government agency.”
“This story again.” Maurice rolled his eyes. He turned to look at El. “Have you heard the lies he tells about you?”
El raised an eyebrow. “I slept in a tent in his basement.”
“Really?” Roy asked rhetorically, huffing a sigh.
“Friends don’t lie,” she reminded them, and picked her book up again.
El was suffering from major cabin fever as spring rolled in - she was sick of the walk to and from campus, where she sometimes met Mike - and as a result took advantage of the more pleasant weather to walk around their neighborhood, to try and get fresh air in the afternoons.
She had walked down the little street, a block off of the busier part of the business district, a thousand times before she noticed the shop. It blended in with the brick shops on either side, so it took a crystal bird wing pendant, glinting in the sunlight, to catch her attention.
There wasn’t anything particularly special about it, other than she felt drawn to it. She didn’t wear much jewelry - the only thing she wore consistently day to day was the plain gold band on her left hand. Nancy had given her tons of costume jewelry that she didn’t wear anymore - faux pearls in different colors, gaudy gemstone earrings, bows and headbands to show off her curls - and when the occasion called for it El could get dressed up, but accessories weren’t something she sought out, or spent money on.
All the same, she stood and stared at it for several minutes, until a voice interrupted her. “Pretty, isn’t it? Have you been here before?”
El shook her head, finally tearing her eyes off of the pendant displayed in the window. The women standing next to her had a cigarette balanced delicately between two fingers, and was looking at her with one eyebrow cocked, as if she instantly knew all about El without even trying. Her dark hair was plaited into a braid, pulled over one shoulder draped over the scarves and chains that hung around her neck.
There was a ring of red lipstick around the filter of the cigarette. El caught a whiff of the stale smoke scent that clung to smokers, and felt an abrupt wave of homesickness as she was reminded of Hopper.
“Do you want to try it on?” the lady asked, and El practically recoiled from her. She liked to look in the windows, but avoided going into any stores, where she could be asked any questions she couldn’t answer or for money she couldn’t give.
“I can’t pay,” El explained, taking a step back. “I only have money for groceries.”
With a flick of her fingers, the cigarette went flying. “That’s okay, there’s no one else in the shop anyway. It’s been a slow day. And maybe you can come back when you do have money?”
She linked an arm with El, and turned to guide her into the shop. “Besides, I have a way of seeing these things. You’re supposed to be here.”
“What?” El asked, confused at how she could possibly know such a thing.
The shop was dimly lit, and smelled like dust and old smoke. There was something inherently comforting about it to El, who was reminded of Hopper’s cabin back in Hawkins.
“You’re in school?” the lady asked, leading El to the counter in the back. “Or are you working?”
“My husband is in school.” El found herself placed in front of a large mirror, watching as the delicate chain was looped around her neck. The bird wing settled low on her sternum, and El thought it looked good, even with the plain red tshirt she was wearing.
“No,” El answered, picking up the pendant to examine it more closely.
“You want to?”
“What?” El stared.
The lady leaned against the counter and held out a hand expectantly. “Let me see your hand.”
El hesitated, and then cautiously offered her right hand. The lady took El’s hand in both of hers, rubbing gently with her thumbs. “I read palms out of the back parlor. Like I said, I’m good at seeing things.”
She leaned over the counter. El watched curiously as she looked - and then her eyebrows furrowed, and her face pulled into a look of surprise.
“You’re okay now, girl,” she finally said, deadly serious, and again El felt the urge to pull her hand away.
Instead she swallowed hard. “I am,” she confirmed. That statement had never been more true in her life; she was safe, and with Mike, and that was pretty much all her younger self had ever wanted. “You can tell?”
“Your fate line,” she confirmed. “And your sun line - they’re remarkable. And I’ve never seen travel lines like these before…”
“What does that mean?” El asked. Her hands were starting to sweat.
She was rewarded with a large, impressed grin. “It means your life was interrupted and… you’ve been rewarded for that.”
El thought of Mike, and their little apartment, of Anna and Marco downstairs and Garfield waiting for her. “I think that’s true.”
“So you want the job?”
“I’ve never had a job.” El’s hand curled in the woman’s, closing herself off. “Are you joking?”
“I don’t joke like that.” The lady leaned close, looking up into El’s eyes. “And I never lie.”
And that was when El knew they were going to be friends.
Her name was Claire, and she lived above the shop, and she paid under the table, which was an expression that El had never heard before and had needed explained.
Mike had protested, of course. El had arrived at the conclusion years ago that Mike’s general response to ideas he hadn’t come up with or hadn’t thought out was to protest them and then let himself be swayed by reasonable explanations.
This one had been a bit harder - and hadn’t been helped when Roy had described her as “That crazy lady in the curio shop” - but after Mike had met Claire he had conceded that even the couple hours per week at minimum wage could only help their finances. Not to mention that El was dead set on taking it - anything to get her out of the apartment and into the chilly springtime air.
Anything to help her feel like a normal person.
It was the easiest job in the world - El had always excelled at math, and therefore took to the register with no problems. Once she was trained up, she spent most afternoons reading at the counter, side-eying the college students who came in to snicker at Claire and the shop. She was unsurprisingly good at intimidating people without even saying a word to them.
Claire absolutely delighted in her. So many evenings El returned to the apartment with some kind of trinket that Claire had declared was meant to be with El, that Mike wondered out loud how she managed to keep the shop in business. Maurice pointed out that it was probably a way for her to unload stock that she didn’t think would sell, to which El had sternly told him to stop being mean about her.
She was an oddity in town, and El could understand that burden. The way Claire embraced it was inspiring.
And she liked most of the stuff Claire gave her, even if Mike complained about it. After a couple months, Marco met her one evening with a small cabinet, about waist high, with three shelves that opened with sliding glass doors.
“Needs redone,” he said, pointing out where the stain had been rubbed away. “But I’ll show you.”
“This is perfect!” she exclaimed, crouching down to look at it. It would fit right into a space in their tiny living room, and she could display all of the items that Claire passed onto her. “Where did you find it?”
“I know a guy.” He shrugged, and looked embarrassed when El hugged him in gratitude.
In late May, after Mike and the boys had survived finals and Mike had started working at his summer job at a landscaping company, the now customary monthly check from his dad arrived.
She was at the stove, heating up tomato soup and grilling cheese sandwiches for the two of them, when he heaved a huge sigh and asked, “Do you want to go home this summer?”
They had talked about it a little bit, but they had paid for a year’s lease and with his job - her job didn’t matter, Claire would give El time off if she asked - it seemed a bit silly to plan any extended time away. The two of them were settled, and happy.
“I thought we decided already,” she hedged, getting their two plates and their two bowls from the dry dish rack and plating their sandwiches.
“That was before my dad sent us this,” Mike answered, and El studied the check that he’d opened.
Unlike the previous months, this one was made out for double the usual amount. In the memo line, he’d written in his small, tidy script, 1 year.
“But we got married at the end of June,” El remarked, eyebrows crinkling. “How do you know what he means?”
“Because he wrote us a letter that basically says, happy anniversary, this will cover bus tickets home if you want.” Mike showed her. It was a short letter but she noticed it right when he pointed it out. “It’s addressed to both of us.”
Nothing was ever addressed to both of them, especially not from Mike’s parents. It hadn’t always been that way; they’d always been polite if not overly interested in her as Mike’s high school girlfriend, and had apparently been counting on college to give them the time apart so Mike could, in Karen’s words, get his head on straight.
After senior prom was when it had occurred to Karen that there might be adult consequences to their grade school romance - that Mike was searching for a way to make sure El wouldn’t feel abandoned, that Hopper, while unhappy, wasn’t going to try and stop them himself, that since El wasn’t going to college herself she had the freedom to follow Mike wherever he went. She had quickly soured on their relationship and on El in general, and that was when the fighting had started.
She thought about what Mike had asked. “I miss Hopper. And Joyce. And Holly.”
“I miss Holly too,” Mike muttered. Then, “You know, if we just go for a long weekend I could probably get the time off. And my mom might keep her mouth shut if she know’s we’re not going to be there long.”
“We can stay with Hopper,” El offered. He’d complain a bit, but he’d be secretly happy to have them home. If she could get Mike out of the house one night to see the boys, they might even be able to spend an evening in front of the TV with old movies and a bucket of candy, something they hadn’t been able to do last October. “If you want.”
“We’ll see,” Mike finally said, looking down at the check pensively.
El assumed that was the end of that debate, because they cashed the check, and instead of buying bus tickets she and Mike went out to dinner - nothing particularly fancy, but a restaurant where they sat down with cloth napkins was an unbelievable luxury to them. Claire had given El a new pair of ridiculously oversized beaded feather earrings, and Mike had gotten great enjoyment out of making fun of them. The joke had been on him though - the beads glowed in the dark.
It was a couple more weeks, well into June, before Mike brought it up again. He’d been able to coordinate with Lucas, who was home from Chicago for the summer, and their friends would finally be able to come out and visit them in Terre Haute, something they’d wanted for months now.
“So they’ll come visit for a couple days, and then I thought maybe we could ride back with Dustin and spend a couple days in Hawkins, if you still want to go?” He seemed unsure, as if waiting for her to protest. Instead she felt pride explode in her chest. Her boy had always been brave; it had been brave for him to leave his parents, to forge ahead without support from them, but it took just as much courage to go home and try to patch things up after his father’s olive branch.
It didn’t do to let wounds fester, she knew, and so she wrapped her arms around his neck and kissed his cheek and told him, “Of course I want to go. I’ll call Hop.”
Will, Dustin, Lucas and Max all come to visit. To greet them, Anna presented them with a gigantic plate of fried dough, rolled in sugar; she particularly liked Will. “Eat more,” she told him. “You’re as skinny as Mike!”
Maurice and Roy were still in town, and Mike had spent days conceiving and planning an intense dungeons and dragons session that incorporated all of their characters. The main villain was loosely based on Garfield.
They splurged and ordered pizzas, and crammed in together around the card table. Dustin had managed to convince Steve to buy them beer, but with eight of them and twelve beers to go around, there was no chance of somebody getting drunk and sloppy. It was just enough to take the edge off, loosen everyone up, and smoothe over any awkward interactions while Mike and El introduced new friends to old ones.
El was trying to shoo Garfield away from the bathroom door so Lucas could use it when Roy asked.
“Hey! You guys would know. How did Mike and El meet? Everytime we ask Mike makes up some dumb story.”
“El?” Dustin answered, scratching the back of his head. “We found her one night in the woods.”
“Yeah,” Will picked up, looking at Mike for confirmation. “Didn’t she like, sleep in your basement?”
El turned back to them, smirking. Roy and Maurice looked as though a feather could knock them over. Maurice mouthed for words, while Roy was looking back and forth between Dustin and Mike, as if he were about to accuse them of rehearsing a story.
She cleared her throat, and when they both turned to look at her, she smirked.
“Party rules,” she said sternly. “Friends don’t lie.”