The doorbell rang at 4:37 and Mike made his way up the basement stairs two steps at a time so he could get to the front door before his mother could beat him to it. "Michael!" Karen exclaimed in a chastising manner when all 160 pounds of her teenage son nearly barreled into her in the foyer.
"Sorry, Mom! It's for me," he apologized quickly, pointing to the door for a second before turning away from his mother so he could open it. He still managed, out of the corner of his eye, to see his mother's surprised expression when she saw two girls Mike's age on her doorstep. "Hey, guys. Come in."
Max and El stepped past him and into the foyer, each of them carrying what looked like dozens and dozens of issues of teen magazines— Teen Beat, BOP, Tiger Beat, as well as 16 and Seventeen. Mike figured that was the "research material" El had alluded to earlier in school, and he had to appreciate how smart that actually was on her part— if for any reason they got stuck on one of the Brock Sorenson trivia questions, these magazines could be their salvation.
"Oh, let me help you with that," he offered quickly, reaching out for the load El was carrying in her arms, which she surrendered gladly. It was heavy. She gave him a grateful smile, and he forgot for a moment that Max was carrying a similar load and she was standing right there. He cringed when he found her looking at him with an eyebrow raised high on her forehead. "Um, did you want me to—"
"I'm good," the redhead responded dryly before he could even pose the question, readjusting the weight of the magazines in her arms as if to let him know that she didn't need any help. "Where are the others?"
"Ah, they're in the basement," Mike explained, tilting his head in the direction of the basement door since his arms were now full. "That's the door over there. You guys can go on ahead, just watch your step on the stairs," he warned them, knowing that a couple of the steps were loose and not wanting the added weight of the magazines to cause one of them to trip or something.
"Thanks," El said, and the two of them started to head further into the house. "Hi, Mrs. Wheeler," she greeted Karen politely as they walked past her on the way to the basement.
"Hello, girls," Karen replied with a charmed smile, keeping her eyes on the two girls as El opened the basement door to allow Max to walk down the stairs first. Then, Karen turned to her son, who had just pushed the front door closed with his foot. "Do you need me to bring down some snacks later? Are you kids working on a school project?"
"Something like that," Mike replied absentmindedly as he stood there, and if his eyes lingered on El a little bit too long before she disappeared into the basement, at least his mother didn't seem to notice. "And snacks would be good. Hey, do we have Eggos? El really likes those," he said, remembering Will having mentioned in some previous conversation that frozen waffles were El's favorite food.
"I can make a quick run to the grocery store if we're out," Karen acquiesced with an amused grin. "Which one's El? Is she the brunette?" At Mike's nod, her grin seemed to widen oh-so-lightly. "She's really pretty," she added in a sing-songy tone, like she had just been made aware of some juicy secret she couldn't wait to share with her book club friends.
Mike narrowed his eyes at her. "I guess," he muttered, not wanting to give her the satisfaction of admitting that she saw right through him. Of course El was pretty— as far as Mike was concerned, she was the prettiest girl in school— but that didn't mean he was going to admit his crush out loud to his mother. "Let me know if you need help with the snacks," he declared, then promptly hightailed it out of there before his mother could ask any more impertinent questions.
After a brief argument about the logistics of it all ("Are we allowed to use a calculator?" among other questions, promptly answered with "Well, who's going to know?"), they got to work on the first clue. Mike, Lucas, and El were the best out of the group at math, so they sat down on the table to work on the math part of it, while Max, Will, and Dustin divvied up a stack of magazines to start looking for the place where Brock Sorenson was discovered.
Max couldn't remember the place itself, but she remembered that it was somewhere he'd been with his friends. They'd been goofing around and he started reciting lines from The Godfather— which Max knew was his favorite movie— out loud when a talent agent just happened to be walking by. The agent gave him his info and asked him to come in for an audition, and the rest was history. Now, if only she could remember where the whole thing went down...
They'd started browsing through magazines half an hour ago, and it seemed they had already reached the limit of their attention span. Max, who was lying belly down on the carpet near the foot of El's chair, had clearly gotten sidetracked by some sports article because she had not passed a page for the last five minutes or so. Will's eyes kept glazing over, and he only seemed to snap out of his trance every couple of minutes to answer the questions Dustin was reading off a "So, how confident are you, actually?" quiz that Will was never going to ace.
"Question number three," Dustin read. "You're chatting to someone at a party and you fancy them a lot. What's your next move?" He rearranged his position before he read the possible choices, stretching his feet out on the couch since Will had perched himself in a corner and left him a lot of space. "A: Keep chatting to try to gauge whether they like you too, then maybe ask for their number at the end of the night if things have gone well. B: Go into full flirting mode, hope they respond well, and then ask them on a date— what's the worst that could happen? C: Keep chatting, but then see if you can get their number off a mutual friend the next day— it's much less awkward that way. D: Ask them out! You feel pretty sure they like you back— why wouldn't they? E: Nothing, just like you always do in these situations."
Will's brows drew together pensively as he mulled over his answer. "I don't know, I feel like I could be a C. I couldn't ask for their number up front, but if I could get it from someone else, maybe... I could do that?" he finished, unsure.
Dustin stared at him with a flat expression, eyebrows raised as if he didn't believe a word he said. "Yeah, I'm going to mark you down as an E," he decided, circling the answer with a pencil.
El tuned out the sound of Will's protests and looked down at the equations she had written down on her notebook.
(46 + 4c) / 62 = 4 - [924 / (69c + 2)]
[1095 - (92a + 89)] - 2 = (37 + 12a) / 73
3b + 4e = 27
2b + e = 8
53d^2 - 106d + 53 = 0
She sighed as she underlined her answer for the second equation, lamenting that it was taking her so long to get through the whole problem set. She'd blame her teammates for distracting her with their goofiness, but in reality the most distracting thing in the room was Mike sitting next to her.
Every time he moved his arm, his elbow would graze her forearm and she'd be pulled out of focus all over again. Plus, they were sharing a calculator, so sometimes when she reached out for it absentmindedly, their hands would touch, and she would pull away blushing. And even when they managed to remain away from each other's space, she couldn't help but catch glimpses of him out of the corner of her eye; he mumbled to himself as he worked and sometimes, if he wasn't sure of his next step, he'd bite his lower lip in concentration, and El simply could not tear her eyes away from him when he did.
Well, if she couldn't keep herself from looking over at him, then she might as well use it to her advantage. "What did you get for the second one?" she asked him, leaning in slightly to see if she could see the answer in his notebook.
"Oh, um, c equals four," Mike replied. He must've noticed her frown, because then he asked, "Did you get something different?" He leaned closer so he could sneak a peek at her notebook as she had his, and she had to try hard not to let show how much the small movement flustered her.
She pushed her notebook closer to him so he could take a look at her work. He skimmed through it quickly— it took him a couple of tries to spot something off, but eventually recognition dawned in his expression. "Oh, I know what it is. You missed a negative sign here, see?" He pointed to it with the tip of his pencil.
El followed the gesture and groaned when she realized he was right. "Of course. I should've noticed that earlier," she said, pulling her notebook back so she could erase the last few steps of her work and correct it. She smiled gratefully at him. "Thanks. And I'm sorry it's taking me so long to work this out, by the way. I'm usually better than that."
"No worries," Mike replied with a dismissive shake of his head. "Everybody works at their own pace. Besides, you're about to start with the two-variable system, right?" He looked down at his own notebook with a grimace. "You'll probably still finish it before I do. I always do it by substitution and it takes too freaking long," he added before going back to his work. El had to smile at his attempts to make her feel better about going slow. It was sweet.
Dustin spoke up again from the couch. "I see someone has already marked B to this question," he quipped with a toothy smirk. "Max, was that you? Are you going up to boys at parties and asking them out?"
"Yeah, why not?" Max retorted, never taking her eyes off the magazine she was browsing through. She had already moved past the sports article she'd been reading before, but was still taking her time reading through every text box in the rest of the issue. "If you know you like someone, why waste time with dumb social conventions that don't make any difference in the long run anyway?"
"Yeah, who has time for dumb social conventions like, say, actually having the decency to talk to a person after you've made out with them," Lucas intervened under his breath, though he said it loudly enough for everyone to hear it. He wasn't looking at anyone in particular, remaining mostly focused on the work he was doing with the equations, but everyone knew who he was talking about.
Dustin sighed, shaking his head. "Yeah, I regret asking that question."
Max twisted her torso around so she could glare at Lucas. "Do you have something you want to say to me?" she demanded, narrowing her eyes at him. "Because you can just say it straight to my face, then."
Even Mike and El had now paused in their work to warily witness the confrontation that was surely about to take place. Lucas said nothing, but he glared right back at Max. The tension in the room was palpable— which is why everyone breathed a sigh of relief when Will suddenly exclaimed "Guys! I found it!" and stood up from the couch to make his way to the middle of the room.
He set the magazine down on the carpet so that everybody could crowd around him and read it. In the end, it was Max who leaned over his shoulder and read aloud the caption on a picture of Brock Sorenson at some red carpet event. "Luck of the mobster! Brock Sorenson was discovered by a talent agent while hanging out at a diner with a group of his friends, reciting lines from The Godfather just for kicks." She looked up, moving from face to face with wide eyes. "That's it! He was discovered at a diner."
"So now we just need to find something in a diner," Dustin said, not sounding terribly impressed. "I'm so glad we're ahead of the curve, guys."
"Take it easy, we'll be done soon," Lucas let him know, as he, Mike, and El pushed themselves to their feet and went back to the table to finish working on those equations. With the situation between him and Max diffused (at least for the moment), and Dustin having given up on the confidence quiz (Will got "About average confidence"), they were able to focus on the math and actually started working faster.
It was near dinner time when they finally got all the equations done and were as confident as they could possibly be that their answers were correct. "So?" Will asked as he, Dustin and Max approached the other three at the table. "What do we have?"
"Four," Lucas started, looking down at the list in his notebook, "three, one, six, and one." He finished the sentence with a resigned sigh, looking up to meet his teammates' blank gazes.
"What does that mean?" Dustin asked, clueless as to the significance of the five digits. "Forty-three thousand one hundred and sixty-one? How are we supposed to get a thing from that?"
"It's too short to be a phone number," Will pointed out.
"Too long to be a year," Max added, nodding. "Maybe a date?"
"April 31st, 1961 doesn't work," Lucas shook his head, immediately nixing that idea. "Neither does January 43rd. Maybe they're some kinda coordinates?" he suggested instead, tilting his head as he looked down at the numbers again. "I could take a look at a map, but why would they give us coordinates to a place when the second clue already is a place?"
"It's gotta be code for something," El suggested, although she herself could not even hazard a guess at what that something could be.
"Actually, I was thinking about something earlier when I was working on the equations," Mike said suddenly, pulling Lucas's notebook with the list toward himself. El and Will, who were the nearest to him, moved closer so they could look over his shoulders. "I thought it was weird that they used different letters for the variables than the usual x, y, and z they use in our algebra textbook."
"They're just variables," Dustin reminded him, clearly not seeing Mike's point. El couldn't blame him; she was kind of lost herself. "Any letter can work as a variable. It doesn't always have to be x, y, or z."
"I know, but these particular letters— a, b, c, d, and e— are usually reserved for constants," Mike insisted with a shake of his head. He grabbed Lucas's pencil from his hand. "I think the fact that they chose to use these five exact letters— the first five letters of the alphabet— means something. Like..." He leaned down so he could start writing a new list on a blank page. "...what if we put them in alphabetical order?"
"Three, one, four, one, and six," Will read the numbers as Mike wrote them down. He was silent for a heartbeat, and then he gasped. "3.1416! That's pi!"
"So we have to find pi in a diner?" Dustin asked, still not getting it. But then he seemed to really hear what he had just said, and realization dawned, finally. "Oh! We have to find pie in a diner!" El, too, started getting excited, now that she understood what Mike had been getting at.
"So, that's it, then?" Max input, clearly not as entertained by the mathematical pun as the boys and El were. "We just go to the nearest diner, order a slice of pie, take a photo, and then submit it to Ms. Tanaka tomorrow?"
"No, it has to be a specific diner," Lucas said, unfortunately dumping a metaphorical bucket of ice cold water on everyone's excitement. "And there's like four different places it could be. How are we supposed to know? We already solved both clues and they only get us so far."
"Benny's Burgers," El blurted out as soon as the idea popped into her head. She was a little embarrassed that she'd just yelled it out like that, but the more she thought about it, the more it made sense to her. "It's Benny's. It has to be."
"How do you know?" Mike asked as everyone turned to look at her, curious.
"Benny has a framed poster of Hazard Pay 2 hanging up on the dining area," she explained, remembering the frame so clearly in her mind. She knew Benny was really into action movies.
"Are you sure?" Dustin asked, not entirely sold. El knew what he was thinking: they'd probably been to Benny's before, and they probably couldn't tell you a thing about the decor, other than 'typical diner fare.' El didn't blame them; most people would think the same way.
"My dad and Benny are good friends. I've been to the diner probably hundreds of times. I know that place like the back of my hand," she insisted, trying to transmit to them how confident she was about this. "Trust me, guys. It's definitely Benny's."
The others didn't look fully convinced, but it was Mike who finally intervened in her favor. "I say we go," he said, sending a supportive nod El's way. "Worst that can happen is we get it wrong and have to try a different diner. It might set us back a little but at least we tried something, right?"
The others couldn't find much fault with that logic, so without as much as a "We're going out for dinner!" to Mike's mom, they all piled into Mike's station wagon (Dustin called shotgun, and it was just lucky that the other four were fairly skinny although Max still ended up squished rather dramatically between El and the window) and made it all the way out to Benny's Burgers in record time.
Barely waiting for Mike to actually park the car, they stampeded into the dining establishment, ignoring the booths— which were pretty packed as they'd gotten there just in time for the dinner rush— and heading straight to the window that separated the dining area from the kitchens.
"Benny!" El called out to the large, imposing man who was unassumingly flipping some burgers up at the flat top.
"Hiya, Ellie!" the man smiled congenially at her and her friends, greeting them with a nod of his head as his hands were otherwise occupied. "What can I do ya for? You here to pick up some grub for you and your old man?"
Dustin cut in before she could answer in the negative. "We're doing the Brock Sorenson scavenger hunt and the first clue brought us here," he explained quickly, bouncing on the balls of his feet. "So, are we in the right place?"
"Please say it's here," El begged, entwining her fingers in front of her face as if praying.
Benny narrowed his eyes at them for a moment that felt like an eternity as they waited on bated breath, and for a second El was deathly afraid he was going to tell them they'd gotten the whole thing wrong. But then he grinned. "Yeah, it's here."
The six of them erupted into cheers, high-fiving each other repeatedly as the older man laughed at their exuberance. "Are we the first ones here?" Lucas asked, the only one of them always keeping at the forefront of his mind that this was a competition and they could still lose even if they got everything right.
"Yeah, you're the first ones," Benny confirmed, prompting another round of cheers and squeals. Once the noise subsided, the man gave the teenagers a knowing smile. "Well, then," he started. "What can I get ya, kids?" he prompted.
They were almost too excited to say, each trying to prompt another to be the one to make the order. In the end, though, Mike was the one who spoke, unable to stop a bright grin from taking over his face as he did so. "We'd like six burger platters," he stated confidently, "and a slice of your best pie."
They got a waitress to take a photo of the group with Benny and the plate that held their pie slice. They were all grinning like crazy, Dustin giving Max bunny ears while Lucas and Mike pointed excitedly at the pie, Benny hugging El and Will to his sides. Even Mike, who usually wasn't one for pictures, liked it so much that they decided they'd make copies of it, so each of them could keep it as a memento.
Still feeling euphoric at their first victory, they made their way to a miraculously empty corner booth where they ate their dinner, Dustin and Lucas fought over the slice of cherry pie, and Max and El shared a caramel waffle a la mode that Benny had brought them on the house. Will snuck bites from both desserts and Mike would've liked some sweets, too, but he was much more preoccupied watching El indulge— he thought it was absolutely adorable how excited she got over waffles.
He felt so... full at the moment. Not just because they had gotten their first clue right and they were one step closer to actually winning a face-to-face meeting with Brock Sorenson, but also because... this. Just sitting there, all six of them together, joking around, talking about their favorite movie moments and sharing anecdotes from their first week of school like they'd all been friends since kindergarten.
Even Max and El, who didn't routinely hang out with them at school, felt like they fit with the group effortlessly. Even though he knew this was an alliance of convenience and the two groups would eventually part ways once the contest was over, in his heart, Mike wished it could always be like this. It just felt so... right.
Once they were done with their dinner they said bye to Benny and drove back to Mike's house to pick up all their stuff that they had left in his basement in their haste to make it to the diner earlier. Will put the photo inside a folder, cradling it like it was the Holy Grail. When all their things were packed and they started heading back outside, Mike caught sight of Max standing by the door, anxiously tugging at the strap of her backpack as she apparently waited for someone.
The mystery was solved when she took hold of Lucas's elbow as he walked by. "Hey, can we..." she started, a little hesitant in a way that Mike didn't usually associate with someone like Max. "Can we talk?"
Lucas was quiet for a moment, not looking like he was too sure this was a good idea. But eventually he relented, telling Max they could go to his backyard where they could talk without people (that is, Erica) butting in. "Can you get home on your own?" Max asked El, remembering that she was her ride back home.
"Um, sure, I guess—" El started in an understanding fashion because that's just the kind of person she was, but Mike stepped in before she could finish the sentence.
"Oh, I can give you a ride," he offered, stepping into the conversation carefully, not wanting to seem too eager, either. Everybody knew that Chief Hopper lived in the outskirts of town. There was no way El could make it back there on foot, not to mention it was probably dangerous, plus it seemed like a waste to have the chief— probably in a bad mood and tired from a full day of work enforcing law in their thankless little town— come all the way from his house and then back just to pick her up.
She turned to look at him, half hopeful and half hesitant, and he hastened to add, "I mean, I have to drop Dustin and Will off anyway," not wanting her to feel like she was being an inconvenience. Not that he wouldn't give her a ride even if she was the only one out of the group who needed one— hey, any extra time he got to spend with her was welcome.
She seemed relieved when she heard that, and she thanked him effusively and repeatedly before the group split, Max and Lucas heading over to Lucas's house while the other four got back into Mike's car without much fanfare.
The first leg of the trip was dominated by Dustin obsessively wondering what Max and Lucas were talking about over at his house and then attempting to draw the others into a bet on whether Max and Lucas would eventually get together or not. Considering they'd been sniping at each other just a few hours ago, none of them wanted to take a gander at that bet— who knew what could come out of this truce. But hearing Dustin throw out ideas of how their conversation might be going, each one more surreal than the previous one, made for a ride filled with hysterical laughter.
Things were quieter when Dustin was dropped off at his place, with Will and El discussing their favorite music and whether or not their parents had talked to each other recently— El seemed convinced her dad had a "thing" for Will's mom, and Will didn't seem to mind one bit. Mike mostly just listened as he drove, wondering if this is what their interaction outside of school usually was. He knew the two of them were friendly, but he'd never witnessed their rapport firsthand, and he found it quite illuminating. Then Will was dropped off (with specific instructions to "guard that photo with your life!") and it was just Mike and El.
El's place was much closer to Will's than Will's was to Dustin's, so the last leg of the trip was quicker. "Hey, um," was Mike's first attempt at conversation, "I just wanted to say that... I thought you were really cool today, with the whole Benny's thing and all," he admitted, sneaking a glance at her out of the corner of his eye. It was dark on the road they were in, but he thought he saw her cheeks flush. "Really. We wouldn't have figured it out so quickly if you hadn't been there."
"Ah, just got lucky, I guess," she waved off his compliment, but she was smiling, so he figured she was somewhat flattered, at least. "But we never would've known what to order there if you hadn't figured out those equations. I mean, I can do the math, but it never would've occurred to me to reorder the numbers. Mike, that was brilliant."
Now it was his turn to feel flustered, not having expected her to turn his compliment right back at him. "Someone would've figured it out eventually," he replied modestly, but he couldn't stop the grin that was threatening to break on his face. She thought he was smart! How amazing was that?
"But thanks to you, we got there first," she insisted after telling him to take a right turn in the next intersection. They were quiet for a bit, the only sounds inside the car coming from the radio, which was— rather fittingly, Mike thought— playing Nothing's Gonna Stop Us Now. "Hey, Mike," El began carefully after about a minute of silence, "do you think we can really win this?" she asked, hopeful, but still retaining some caution.
"I think we've got a fair shot at it," he replied with a good degree of confidence. After things had gone so great for them today he was riding a high, but he really did believe they could do this. They had a good balance of strengths and weaknesses, and save for that whole Max and Lucas thing (which Mike sincerely hoped got resolved that very night one way or the other), they had a good partnership going. He didn't know anyone else who was participating in the contest, but that had to count for something, at least.
"It's gonna be amazing if we do," she declared, leaning back on her seat with a deep sigh. "Can you even imagine it?"
"Yeah, it's going to be so awesome," Mike had to agree. Glancing her way to find her with her eyes closed and a big smile on her face, he had to add, "I didn't have you pegged for a Brock Sorenson fan, I admit. It doesn't seem like the type of movies someone like you would watch."
"What, because I wear a lot of pink I can't like action movies?" she threw back, and Mike sputtered, almost apologizing out of reflex— the last thing he wanted was to offend her or label her in any way— but before he could actually string words together, she continued speaking. "You're right, though. They're not the type of movies I usually watch, but Max loooooves him. She made me watch most of his movies with her and, well, I just couldn't help but really like them. He's such a good actor."
"He's the best," Mike agreed, nodding as he made one more right turn. "We're going to win this contest. You'll see," he promised her, and mentally patted himself in the back when he saw her smile, pleased.
They arrived at El's place before they had time for much more conversation. "So, this is me," El signaled toward her house with a smile as Mike parked the car curbside. "Thanks again for doing this. I can already imagine how grumpy my dad would've been if I had dragged him all the way back to town just to pick me up."
"Yeah, no problem," Mike said with a shrug. He looked at the house and the flickering light coming out through the window— the chief was probably watching television— before looking at her again. "Does your dad know that you're doing this Brock Sorenson thing?"
"Yeah, kinda," was El's not-entirely-convincing response, punctuated by a vacillating wave of her head. "I told him over the weekend when I first heard about the contest, but it went in one ear and out the other, so today I just told him I'd be working on a school thing," she elaborated with a chuckle. She shook her head as she thought of something else. "He still doesn't know who Brock Sorenson is," she added with a roll of her eyes, but she was still laughing, so it came off as affectionate.
"Well, to be fair, I doubt my parents have any idea who he is, either," Mike pointed out, sure that his mother would barely recognize Brock's name as "that guy from the movies" and his father would probably think it was a type of bread or something.
"Yes, but he's watched a bunch of Brock's movies with us. He should know by now!" El grumbled, crossing her arms with an exasperated little huff that Mike thought was absolutely endearing. She shook her head. "He can be a bit clueless, but I love him anyway."
"You and your dad are really close, huh?" Mike asked, feeling both enthralled by the way she seemed to glow when talking about her family, and a little dejected because he knew he would never have that with his own father. "That's really cool. My dad couldn't care less about anything that I like," he blurted out before he realized what he was doing.
No! Don't bring up your dad, you wastoid! He really wanted to kick himself for bringing the mood down when he saw her expression fall. "I'm so sorry to hear that, Mike," she whispered, sounding genuinely sad for him.
The last thing in the world he wanted was for her to pity him, so he hurried to try and make it sound a little less pitiful. "It's okay, though!" he exclaimed, maybe a little too eagerly. "I'm used to it. And I've got the guys, anyway. They more than make up for my dad's lack of interest," he pointed out, not entirely sure that was better in any way.
To her credit, she tried to bounce the conversation back up when he couldn't. "And hey, you've also got Max and me," she suggested earnestly, giving him the most beautiful, supportive smile. "We're your friends, too."
Just looking at her when she smiled at him like that, he felt like he had thousands of butterflies fluttering around in his stomach and they tickled so much from the inside that he couldn't help but chuckle, the gleefulness nearly pouring out of him. "Really?" he gasped, his brain almost unable to process that this amazing girl— popular, interesting, mesmerizing El Hopper— actually wanted to be friends with him. "You'd really want to hang out with a bunch of nerds?"
She looked down at her lap for a second and, this time under the glow of the light coming from the window, he could clearly see a blush rise to her cheeks. She looked up at him and, still smiling, declared, "I would love to hang out with you, Mike Wheeler."
He could do nothing but stare at her with an idiotic grin on his face, his heart beating so loud he swore she'd be able to hear it from the passenger seat. Before he could actually put together some kind of a response, however, she quipped, "I'll see you at school," and opened the door, her ponytail swinging behind her as she got out of the car.
"Yeah... see you..." Mike sat there feeling like his head was exploding as she made her way to her front door. His mind was working a mile a minute. What did she mean when she said she would love to hang out with him? Did she mean just him, or hang out with all of their friends? Was she asking him out? Should he ask her out? Was she flirting? Was that what flirting was? He was so out of his depth, for God's sake.
Man, she wasn't even out of view yet and he already wanted it to be tomorrow, so he could see her again.
With a groan he dropped his head against the steering wheel, pushing himself right back upright with a jump when he realized his forehead had hit smack in the middle and the klaxon had gone off. El, who had just opened the front door and was about to take a step inside, turned at the sound and waved at him before walking into the house. He awkwardly waved back before setting the car on drive and pulling away from the curb in the direction of Maple street.
"So, how did it go with you and Lucas?" El asked later that night when Max called her to talk about everything that happened that day. "Did you guys talk it out, or what?" She had pulled the living room phone inside her room to talk to her best friend as she usually did, thinking she really needed to convince her dad to let her have a phone in her room or just leave this one in her room permanently. It's not like he would miss this one or anything— he had passed out on the couch while MacGyver played on the TV, and this was hardly an unusual occurrence.
(Joyce and Flo were the only ones who ever called him, anyway).
"Yeah, I think we're good now," Max replied with a sigh from the other end of the line, and in the background El heard some squeaking that indicated her friend had just laid down on her bed. "He was really mad that I completely ignored him after Jennifer's party, which, admittedly, was a shitty thing to do on my part."
"Admittedly," El agreed with a nod. She had tried to ask Max before why she was so keen on avoiding Lucas after that night— or why she had made out with him in the first place, really— but Max was always quick to change the topic whenever his name came up, so El figured she just wasn't ready to talk about it.
"So I tried to explain it to him from my side," Max continued speaking as El rearranged her position so she was sitting Indian style on her own bed. "I told him I do like him, but I'm just... not looking for a relationship or anything like that right now," she admitted, and El was surprised to hear her admit to liking Lucas so easily. It felt like something of a milestone, and she wasn't about to interrupt. "I told him about my family— the whole mess with my parents' divorce and my mother's remarriage and all."
"And what did he say?" El asked, curious. She knew how much those issues had marked Max, how close to the vest she held her feelings about her family, and she hoped Lucas had been sensitive about it rather than throwing her honesty back in her face as other boys would.
"He said he understands," Max said in a tone that made El almost hear the shrug of her shoulders through the earpiece. "He says he really likes me, but he's okay with not pushing things any further right now. So we're going to keep getting to know each other as friends," she finished in a vague tone, like it wasn't a big deal, but El was proud of how grown-up Max and Lucas were being, either way.
"Besides, I have to keep my options open, you know?" Max continued speaking, unaware of El's thoughts. "I mean, what if we win this thing and get to meet Brock Sorenson? I have to be available in case he happens to fall madly in love with me."
El burst into laughter. "You're sixteen and he's in his thirties! Eww!" she decried in between guffaws. Her best friend could be really something.
"Sixteen but not blind!" Max retorted with a scoff, but she was laughing, too, so El knew not to take her seriously. "All joking aside, though, things are good with Lucas now. We know where we both stand. And if something happens between us in the future, well... we'll deal with it when it happens, I guess," she added. She was still trying to keep it vague, not wanting to write anything in stone, but El knew this was a pretty big thing coming from Max. She couldn't help but be excited for her friend.
"So you're not going to get jealous if he asks some other girl to Homecoming?" El asked. She had to tease her, just a little. Max was always teasing her about something or another— El didn't mind, but she had to get in a tease or two of her own when she was given the chance.
"Oh, no, I'm going to be freaking pissed," Max retorted straight away in a dry tone. But then she burst into amused giggles. "Whatever. We'll figure it out."
El had to chuckle. "I'm glad you guys made up. I think it's very mature of you."
"Hey! Watch it with that tone of surprise, you jerk!" her friend exclaimed on the other end of the line, and that led the two right back into raucous laughter that took nearly a full minute to subside. "What about you, then? Judging from today, it seems like you and Wheeler make a pretty good team."
"Yeah, we do," El agreed with a fluttery sigh. Closing her eyes, she let herself fall back on her bed with her head on her pillow and thought back to everything that had happened that day. Working with the boys. Getting to spend the afternoon with Will. Laughing at Dustin's jokes. Having dinner and waffles at Benny's. Getting a ride home with Mike.
"I think this scavenger hunt thing is going to be fun," she said, smiling to herself as she looked up at her bedroom ceiling.
"I think so, too," she heard Max reply, although she sounded a little muffled. "Alright, I gotta go. See you tomorrow!" the redhead added, to which El replied in kind. Once the call was over, she stretched out her hand to put the phone back into its base, taking a second to grab her old teddy bear from her bedside table.
She hugged her plush toy to her chest and breathed in the scent of the laundry detergent they used to wash all their clothes, wishing it was someone else she was hugging instead. "Good night, Mike," she whispered into the plushie's soft fur, as if by some magic it could transmit her words to him through the distance.
She hoped with every beat of her heart that Mike was thinking about her just as she was thinking about him, but she knew that was probably just wishful thinking. So she closed her eyes and let sleep overtake her, comforted by the fact that she would see him again tomorrow. She had that much to look forward to.