"El! Hey, El! Wait a minute!"
El paused for a moment on her way out the back door of the school and looked over her shoulder, catching sight of Dustin running in her direction and urgently waving at her to get her attention. "Hi, Dustin," she said congenially. "What's up?"
Dustin was panting by the time he made it to her side. "I... wanted to... give you..." He seemed to give up on the full sentence halfway through, just extending his hand so he could hand her over a piece of paper he was holding. "Here."
El took it and looked it over, noticing it was a copy of the group photo from the diner. "Oh! Thank you!" she exclaimed, smiling at how happy and goofy they all looked in it. "I'm going to put it up on the corkboard I have in my room," she added, already imagining where she would pin it up. Remembering that the original photo was supposed to be submitted to their Guidance Counselor in order for it to count toward the contest, she asked, "Did you take the photo to Ms. Tanaka? Do you have the second clue?"
"Yeah, we have it," he said, after taking a good, long, deep breath. "We're going to be working on it at the library tomorrow morning," he let her know.
"Oh, okay," El agreed with a nod. "I'll let Max know, then."
She turned to keep walking but halted in her tracks when Dustin spoke up again. "Actually... about that..." El turned to look at him again, expectant. He seemed to have something he wanted to say, but wasn't sure about saying it. Eventually, though, he sighed, deciding to go for it. "Uh, can we talk for a bit?"
"Well, I was on my way to the track field," she pointed out, signaling in the direction of the door with one hand. "Today's the first meeting of the softball team, and I told Max I'd wait for her at the bleachers. But... you could walk with me if you want?" she offered instead, figuring whatever Dustin had to say would probably not take long. It's not like they had long conversations on a regular basis.
"Yeah, sure." Dustin signaled for her to lead the way, which she did, and he moved to keep up with her steps. "So... this thing where I didn't want us to partner up with you and Max for the Brock Sorenson contest..." he started. "I just wanted to clear the air. I don't want you to think I don't like you or something. That whole thing... it wasn't about you."
"Okay," El assented, actually grateful to hear him say it. She had wondered after that day whether Dustin had some kind of problem with her, and although it thankfully hadn't come up in any of their interactions while working on the first clue, it still bothered her a bit. "What was it about, then?"
Once again he seemed reluctant to say, so El hastened to tell him he didn't need to tell her if he didn't want to, but he insisted. "It's okay, just... if I tell you, will you promise not to tell Max?" he asked, still wary.
This surprised El. She didn't know Max and Dustin were acquainted in any way other than sharing a few classes through the years, so she hadn't expected her opinion on anything to be of particular importance to him. This was interesting. "All right, I won't tell her," she let him know. She usually shared most things in her life with Max (hopeless crush on a certain freckled boy notwithstanding), but she could keep things to herself if they were someone else's secrets.
Dustin nodded and took a deep breath, as if steeling himself for what he was about to say. "It's just that... I kinda used to have a crush on Max," he admitted, lowering his gaze so that the lid of his cap hid the upper half of his face.
To say El was not expecting that reveal would be an understatement. "Oh my God. Really?" she said, unable to contain a bright grin from forming on her lips.
"Yeah..." Dustin admitted reluctantly, tilting his head to one side, then the other. He looked up and something in El's expression must've told her she wasn't going to judge him, because he chuckled. "When she first moved here, she beat my Dig Dug high score at the arcade. Like, by a lot," he added, smiling as he remembered. "And I just thought that was the coolest thing, you know? I thought she was amazing."
El almost cooed. He'd had a crush on her friend since middle school? How adorable was that! "And then last year there was that party at Jennifer Hayes' place," Dustin continued, not really looking at El as he spoke but with his gaze locked on the bleachers at the track field, which they were nearing. "And I told myself that was going to be the night, that was the moment I was going to ask her to dance, show her some moves, you know," he quipped, emphasizing the word "moves" in a way that made El laugh. "And then I found her in the basement... with Lucas."
All the mirth left El at the sight of his dejected expression. "Oh no," she lamented. "I'm so sorry, Dustin."
"Nah, it's fine," he said with a nonchalant shrug. "I mean, it really sucked at the moment because I really liked her, but... Lucas has been my best friend since the fourth grade. If they had something going on, I wasn't going to get in the way," he asserted with a shake of his head.
"And I got over it, anyway. Mostly," he declared, although that "mostly" tacked on at the end made El wonder just how "over it" he really was. "I was just worried that things would get awkward, or that I wouldn't know how to act around her, you know? Back in middle school I would try to talk to her, and I kind of kept making an idiot out of myself."
They walked 'round to the front of the bleachers and sat down on the bottom row, sitting sideways so they could only see Coach Bailey and the girls of the softball team if they turned their heads. El quickly located Max by the bright color of her hair.
"I know it's hard to believe, what with all of this," Dustin continued speaking, signaling to all of himself with his hands in a way that was so purposely self-deprecating that it made El snort, "but I'm not that great at talking to girls. And Max, well, she can be pretty intimidating," he added, and El could definitely see his point. God knew she loved Max with every fiber of her being, but she could be a handful.
Still, that didn't mean Dustin should pin his insecurities on her entire gender. "Girls are not some mysterious, exotic creature, Dustin," she told him with a roll of her eyes. "All you have to do is be yourself."
"You think so?" he replied, not looking convinced. "Because that hasn't really worked in the past."
"I do think so," she insisted, lifting a hand to his shoulder comfortingly. "You're a great guy, Dustin. You're super smart, you're really funny, and you've got the best smile," she listed encouragingly. Granted, she liked Mike's smile better, but she'd come to find in the last couple of days that Dustin's grins were contagious, and she thought that was a great quality for a person to have. "I'm sure someday some girl will notice all of that and snatch you up straight away."
"Aww. Thanks, El," he said, giving her a smile as if to underline her point. "You know, you're really nice. No wonder Mike likes you so much!" He stood up and rearranged the strap of his bag on his shoulder. "Anyway, I gotta go. See you tomorrow!" he said, and started walking around the bleachers.
"See you tomorrow," El retorted in kind almost automatically. It wasn't until he had turned the corner and was out of sight that her brain actually processed what he'd said about Mike. "Wait, what?" She sprung to her feet in a second, hurriedly making her way to the end of the bleachers.
"Dustin? What did you just say?" she yelled in the direction of his retreating back. But it was too late; he had already broken into a run, eager to get back to the front of the school where his bike was parked. If she wanted confirmation that she hadn't just imagined him saying that Mike liked her, it would have to wait until later.
Because they had solved the first clue so quickly, they'd been hoping it would be the same with all the other clues.
They were wrong.
They'd been working on the second clue for nearly a week now, and they still weren't any closer to an answer than they had been the first day. The subject for the second clue was history, which meant practically camping out at the library every day after school, and quite frankly, they were all getting a little sick of the place.
"I think that's it, guys. This is as close as we're gonna get," Will lamented with a resigned sigh as he closed yet another book on world history with a (too) loud plop. "As far as we've been able to find, the first battle Napoleon fought after the truce with the Prussians in 1807 was the battle of Sables d'Olonne. That has to be it."
Mike looked down at the question he had written down (and highlighted over and over) on his notebook: What is the group that first attacked Napoleon after his 1807 signing of the Treaties of Tilsit? If the answer was Sables d'Olonne as Will had suggested now for the third time, that meant that the group in question was the British. And that meant they would have to find something British somewhere in Hawkins. It might be easier to find a needle in a haystack.
"Yeah, but how does that even help us?" Lucas huffed, scratching the back of his head with one hand in frustration. He had his own gigantic history tome in front of him, and no better answer than the one Will had just put forth. "And what does Sables-de-whatsit even mean, anyway?"
"Oh, I looked that up," El chimed in enthusiastically, shifting the book she had in front of her with the notebook she'd been taking notes in. She passed a few pages before she landed on the piece of info she was looking for. "Here it is: Sables d'Olonne means 'Sands of Olonne.' It's the name of a beach town in France."
"So... maybe we need to go to a beach, then," Max suggested, waving her pencil back and forth as she spoke.
"That'll be a little difficult considering Hawkins is landlocked," Lucas retorted, shaking his head.
"There is some sand at Sattler's quarry..." Will input from the opposite side of the table, grasping at every straw they could get their hands on because that was the only choice they had at this point.
"It's not gonna be Sattler's quarry," Mike said, leaning back on his chair dejectedly as he dropped his own pencil on top of his notebook. "Unless they want us to take a picture of a pile of dirt, the answer to the clue is not the beach. Again, it can't be a place. It has to be a thing," he reminded them. He didn't mean to be short with them, but they kept making the same mistake— thinking the answer to the first half of the clue was a place when there was a whole second half of the clue that was supposed to tell them where to go— and all that meant was that they wasted time every time.
Thankfully, before anyone could throw his tone right back at him (they'd been at this for hours, and they were all starting to get... testy, to say the least), Dustin came back from his heated dialogue with the librarian with a large pile of books in his hands.
"We've got a problem, guys," he said dramatically as he dropped the books on the table. "We need to take out all these books, right?" he said, signaling to the pile of books he'd just brought over as well as a smaller pile at the center of the table they hadn't yet got to. "But dear miss Marissa there," he continued, waving at the woman at the librarian's desk with a contemptuous smile, "won't let me take out more than five books at a time." The older woman was still glaring at him when he turned around to face the table.
"So just take out five and we'll split the rest between the rest of us," Max responded with a groan, like she thought Dustin was making a mountain out of a molehill (which, of course, he was). She stretched out her hand so she could grab one of the books Dustin had just dropped in front of them and passed it around the table.
"Thank you, Maxine. That's an actually helpful solution," Dustin replied with a grateful grin, never mind that his words implied that the rest of them weren't being helpful in the slightest.
"Call me Maxine again and I'll show you where you can shove your library card, Henderson," Max retorted without bothering to look up from what she was doing.
"Yes, ma'am," Dustin shot back immediately. "Max. Ma'am." He shook his head. "It was supposed to be a compliment..." he muttered under his breath, but Mike was close enough that he could hear it clearly.
"Okay, so we all get books to read over the weekend," Lucas summarized once Max handed him a couple of books from the pile. "Since Mike just brought it up, what do we do with the location part of the clue? We've spent so much time with this Napoleon thing that we haven't even looked at that yet." He looked down at his own notebook, searching for the flyer with the new clue between the pages. "What was it, again?"
"I got it," El once again came through, having her own copy of the flyer at hand. "It's: 'What was Brock Sorenson standing in front of when he got drawn into the assassination plot at the center of Wizard for Hire?'" she read.
They all were silent for a moment as they thought about it, but soon ideas started flying back and forth. They had all watched Wizard for Hire, of course— multiple times, even— but it seemed that while they knew the exact point of the movie the question referred to, they couldn't really be certain of what was in the background during that scene.
Dustin was sure it was some kind of abandoned warehouse, Will insisted it was a burning building, and Max swore it was a dry cleaner's, because somehow that made more sense to her. "It's definitely somewhere in the city," Lucas asserted when his suggestion of a hardware store was promptly shot down.
"That tells us nothing," Mike declared, shaking his head. "The whole movie takes place in the city." They all slumped on their seats, disappointed that they were stuck on the second part of the clue as well as the first one. They didn't know of any other teams that were competing or how ahead they were, but they all had a feeling they were falling behind.
Dustin, however, was starting to smile. "Oh no," he said, in an overexaggerated tone that made him sound anything but dismayed. "We're going to have to watch Wizard for Hire again. What a travesty." That one managed to make everybody laugh.
After agreeing to meet up on Saturday night at Will's place to watch the movie and hopefully get at least half of this damn question over with, they packed up their stuff, moved over to the librarian's desk to check the books out, and then split up to go to their respective homes.
Mike caught the tail end of El and Max saying their goodbyes, and not for the first time, it struck Mike as odd. He had noticed over the past week of their work in the library that El didn't leave with Max as she usually did everywhere else, but rather she walked out on her own. He wasn't sure what she did after that, though.
"Hey, El," he called out, trotting until he was walking alongside her on the way to the main entrance. "Are you walking home? 'Cause I can give you a ride if you want," he offered, once again not wanting to just leave her to walk all the way to her place. It was a pretty long trek to make on foot.
"Oh, thanks, but I'm just headed over to the station," she said, signaling with her hand in the direction she was about to start walking. "I usually just sit there and work on some homework while I wait for Dad's shift to be done. I guess today I'm going to be reading about Napoleon," she added with a chuckle, tightening her hold on the two books she'd been assigned in their earlier shuffle.
"It's only a couple of blocks away from here," she let him know, in case he wasn't aware where the only police station in Hawkins was. "It's not that long of a walk."
"Ah, well, uh, can I walk you, then?" Mike insisted. "My car is parked in that direction, anyway." It really wasn't— he had parked on the exact opposite end of Main street, in front of the Radio Shack— but he wasn't about to pass up an opportunity to get a few minutes alone with the girl he liked.
She gave him a (heartstopping) smile and agreed, only turning away for a second to wave goodbye to Will before starting to walk alongside Mike in the opposite direction.
The first minute or so was spent in silence— Mike hadn't thought this plan far enough to actually know what he wanted to say to her— but an idea came to him when he saw her rearrange the books in her arms again. "Oh, let me carry those for you," he offered, and she handed the books over without protest. It wasn't that they were heavy or anything, or that he thought she was struggling, but his mother raised him to be a gentleman, so it was the least he could do.
"Thanks," she said gratefully, once again smiling his way. They were just passing in front of the pharmacy when she spoke up again. "You know, this kind of reminds me a little bit of when we met," she admitted, fiddling with the hanging straps of her book bag, which she was still carrying.
Mike only had to think about it for a second. As if he would forget the day he talked to her for the first time! "Oh yeah, that presentation we had to do for history class, right?" She nodded. "I know what you mean. Except that one was about the Civil War," he pointed out, hoping he was remembering correctly. He'd been so spellbound by El that entire time they worked together, it was a miracle he'd managed to put words on a page, let alone finish the presentation to get a decent grade.
"Yeah," she confirmed, and Mike mentally patted himself in the back for getting it right.
There was silence again, but only for a few seconds, before Mike, scrambling to keep the conversation going, asked, "So, which one do you like better? Napoleon, or the Civil War?" In retrospect he imagined it was probably an odd question to ask, but he was genuinely curious. He wasn't really into history— and the parts of it he did like were usually more recent events, like the post-World War II order and the space race— but when it came to El, he wanted to know everything about her likes and dislikes, including something as trivial as this.
"Napoleon," she responded with a nod. "Definitely Napoleon. European history is just so much more... grand, don't you think?" she added with a wistful smile. "So many different cultures, with so many different ways of seeing the world..." She sighed, sounding content. "I really want to go there someday."
"To Europe?" he asked, for clarification.
"Mm-hmm," El hummed her assent, taking a deep breath as if she could smell the old continent in the air. "I've only seen it in pictures, but it must be so beautiful..." She sighed again, closing her eyes for a heartbeat before opening them. "Have you ever been outside of Indiana?"
"Yeah, I've been to other states to visit relatives," Mike told her, thinking back to family road trips with all five of them crammed into the station wagon, back when his mother was still its primary driver. "I've only gone as far as Florida, though. My sister— she's in college, and I think she's thinking of applying for a semester abroad next year, or the next one after that."
"That sounds amazing," El commented with a yearning groan.
"Yeah, Nancy gets to have all the fun," Mike said with a shrug. "Except if we win this thing and get to meet Brock Sorenson, I guess," he added. As far as he knew, Nancy had never tried a contest like this, let alone won it, so he was looking forward to actually having at least one thing he could brag about around her.
"She's a fan?" El asked, sounding curious.
"Not even a little," Mike retorted with a snort. Nancy had always been more partial to romantic movies, or anything with Tom Cruise or Rob Lowe in it. She always said that action movies focused too much on guns and explosions and too little on an actual plot to really grab her attention. "But she's never met a celebrity, so I still win," he appended with a chuckle. His comment made El laugh, too.
"You know what's funny?" she posited, swinging her arms back and forth as she walked. "This contest is so much more important in terms of what we get out of it, but it's still slightly less anxiety inducing than that first project we did about the Civil War."
"Why was that anxiety inducing? It was just a middle-school presentation," Mike asked, a bit confused. He hoped her anxiety back then had nothing to do with him— he'd never been considered intimidating in his entire life, and he would die if the first person to do so was the girl he'd had a crush on for years.
"Yes, but it was the first school presentation I ever did," El let him know, and that's when the chips started falling into place for him. "Remember that I was homeschooled before I moved to Hawkins?" He nodded. Of course he'd heard about that over the years, but he hadn't known about it back then. "That week had been my first week in public school, ever. I was terrified that the other kids were going to hate me, or that my classes would be too advanced for me and that I would flunk out miserably."
"Oh, man, I had no idea," Mike interjected, a little dismayed that he had not realized any of this back then. He would've been a lot more careful with everything he said to her— not that he wasn't already because he wanted her to like him, but he was pretty sure that twelve-year-old Mike had spent most of that period babbling about random things because she was so pretty that it just sort of short-circuited his brain every time he looked at her.
(He hadn't gotten much better about that, either.)
"I hope I didn't do anything to make things worse for you, then," he told her sincerely. He knew back when he was younger he could be a total mouthbreather from time to time, but he would hate to have added to her insecurities, even unwittingly.
She shook her head emphatically, soft curls bouncing from side to side with the movement. "No, it was the opposite, actually," she said, once again directing that heartstopping smile his way. "You were really nice to me, and always explained things really clearly when there was something I didn't understand or had forgotten. It made me feel better about working with other kids from then on. Less scared," she admitted in a low tone.
"Oh," Mike breathed, not entirely sure why hearing that affected him so much, but his cheeks were flushed, and his heart was beating madly, and his stomach was doing funny flips, and his feet wanted to start skipping. "I'm... I'm glad," he said after clearing his throat, afraid that his voice would break.
"Me too," she said quietly. She was still smiling that beatific smile, but she wasn't looking at him anymore; instead, her gaze was fixed on the sidewalk in front of them. Mike could see the police station nearby already. "Actually," El spoke again after a few seconds of silence, "one could almost say that you were my first friend here."
Mike didn't know what to say to that— all he knew at the moment was that he felt like his soul had sprouted wings and was flying somewhere in the stratosphere, but he had no way of putting that feeling into words, so he remained quiet, her words echoing inside his mind and his heart.
The last minute or so of their walk was quiet, and when they stopped in front of the police station, he handed her back the two books. "Well, then," she said, looking up at him through her lashes. "I'll see you tomorrow at Will's, I guess."
"Yeah," he croaked through a suddenly parched throat. She gave him one last smile and turned to go inside, and that's when Mike's brain started screaming at him to do something; grab his chance, take the jump. "Hey, um, El?" he called out before she could take one step.
"Yes?" she said expectantly, turning back around to look at him again.
"Uh, I was wondering if, um..." he stuttered, barely making sense as it was. God, he was so bad at this. Why did he think asking her out at this exact moment was a good idea, again? "...if maybe you'd want to, I don't know—"
"Ellie bear!" came the holler from behind them and they both turned toward the door— Mike's mouth closing with a clang— to see Steve, aka Cadet Harrington, the newest recruit of the Hawkins Police Department, walking out the door of the station.
El sighed— Mike dared not even hope that it might be because she was as disappointed at the interruption as he was— but nonetheless put on a tight smile and turned to look at the newcomer. "Hi, Steve," she greeted him cursorily.
The older man walked over to them and threw an arm around El's shoulders comfortably. "Your pops was wondering why you were late. What are you doing out here?" His eyes narrowed as he turned his head to look at Mike. "...And with a boy?"
"Hi, Steve," Mike said with an unimpressed roll of his eyes. He and Steve knew each other from when Steve had dated Mike's older sister Nancy back in high school, but they'd never talked to each other much, and when they did they never really got along— mainly because Steve was such a douchebag back then. He was less annoying now, and had actually become good friends with Dustin, but Mike figured their interactions would always be somewhat tense.
"Wheeler number two," Steve replied in an equally unimpressed tone. He glanced at El for a second, then back at Mike. "You gotta watch out for this one, Ellie," he declared, signaling in Mike's direction with a nod of his chin. "Boys his age only have one thing on their minds."
"Steve!" El's face went as crimson as Max's hair, and Mike couldn't blame her because he was sure he was red up to the tip of his ears.
"It's not like that—"
"Mm-hmm," Steve retorted, still glaring like he wasn't even paying attention to Mike's poor attempts to defend his integrity. "Come on, El. Flo's letting us have donuts with our afternoon coffee today because it's Friday."
Sending one more "I'm watching you" scowl Mike's way, he guided El around until they were both walking up to the main entrance to the police station. El only got a second to wave at him and mouth "See you tomorrow!" before Steve ushered her inside and out of sight.
It took Mike a couple of seconds to process everything that had happened, and then he sighed, hoping his furious blush would subside by the time he made it all the way back up Main street and to his car. The utter humiliation would persist for a few more hours, at least. Of that, he was pretty sure.
Since the teenagers were going to take over the Byers house that Saturday night, Hopper and Joyce were going to get dinner elsewhere and leave them to their own devices for once. It was their first chance in a while to take some time to themselves, forgetting about their parental responsibilities for one night while they ate, shared a pack of cigs, reminisced about their high-school days...
"...and make out?" El interjected cheekily, earning herself a glare from her father as he parked the Blazer in the gravel driveway of Joyce's place.
El rolled her eyes. Fine; if he didn't want to admit that he was hopelessly in love with Will's mom, that was fine with El. God knew she'd carried her own torch for long enough without saying anything, so it's not like she had the high ground here or anything. She just hoped today's outing went well and their relationship took a step forward, even if it was just a small one; sometimes that seemed like the hardest thing to do.
All the others were already there when she arrived. Will had ordered pizza for everyone— it should be there in about half an hour— and when Joyce was on the way out she reminded everyone that there was popcorn and soda in the kitchen for them to prepare whenever they felt like it.
Dustin was already bouncing all over the place, so they decided to start the movie even before the pizza got there. As Will and Lucas set up the VCR and Dustin and Max looked for the tape in Will's room, Mike volunteered to get the drinks and El seized her chance to get a minute alone with him.
After throwing a bag of Act II into the microwave, she turned to look at him as he poured Coke into one of six plastic cups he had laid out on the kitchen countertop. He was wearing a cream sweater with fall-colored accents that made the freckles on his cheeks stand out, and it looked so soft that every time he was within a foot of her she itched to reach out and touch it.
She bit her lip. She'd been so sure for a moment there yesterday that he was about to ask her out. If what Dustin had said about Mike liking her was true, then it was a definite possibility that he had been. But they were interrupted, and nothing more had happened between them since then.
Would things be different between them now if Steve hadn't made an appearance the day before? Would she be allowed to reach out and touch him like she longed to? She had to know. "Hey, Mike?" she called out as the kernels started to pop loudly inside the microwave behind her.
"Yeah?" he responded without looking up from the cups he was pouring soda into.
El took a few steps closer, resting a hand on the back of one of the kitchen-table chairs. "Yesterday when we were standing in front of the police station, you seemed like you were about to ask me something," she reminded him. "What was it?"
His head snapped up to look at her so fast she thought she heard a crack (it might've been the soda bottle, too), and his eyes widened as he realized what she was asking. "Oh, uh... I was..." His words stumbled for a moment as his eyes moved from her face to the living room, where their friends were arguing about what their favorite parts were of the movie they were just about to see.
"Ah, it was nothing," he finally declared, dragging his eyes back to where she was standing in front of him. "Don't worry about it."
El was disappointed, but she tried not to let it show. "Okay," she said, giving him a smile as the microwave beeped behind her, letting them know that the first bag of popcorn was ready now. "Um, you might want to..." she signaled down at the countertop delicately, because Mike was so preoccupied still staring at her that he hadn't noticed the cup he'd been filling was now full, and the liquid was spilling over the edge.
At her indication he looked down and realized what was happening. "Oh, shit! Dammit!" he exclaimed, immediately pulling the Coke bottle to an upright position and rushing to push the liquid back with his hands so it wouldn't drip down onto the floor.
"No!" El warned him. "Don't use your hands, you'll stain your clothes. Here," she ran to grab a roll of paper towels that was on a stand nearby the microwave. "Use these, they'll absorb the liquid faster." She hurriedly handed him a few pieces of the absorbent tissue paper and he quickly dropped them on top of the liquid, effectively stopping the flow of it and saving Joyce's kitchen floor from the inevitable stickiness it would've incurred.
"Oof. Thanks," Mike said with a relieved sigh. "That was quick thinking."
El chuckled and patted his forearm as he pressed down on the paper towels. They were standing that close. "I'm going to take the popcorn outside," she told him. "Let me know if you need any help with those cups." She turned to go take the popcorn out of the microwave, pressing her lips together as she opened the bag. Yes, his sweater was as soft as she had imagined it would be.
Handing two buckets of popcorn off to her friends, El took her seat— on the floor in front of Max's legs, since the couch that faced the TV was already occupied. She had to stretch her arm to grab popcorn from the bucket Dustin was holding but she didn't mind, so long as he didn't eat the whole thing.
"Freaking finally!" Max exclaimed when Mike appeared carrying a tray with all six cups about a minute later. "A little faster next time, garçon. We're burning daylight here."
"Maybe next time you can get your own damn drink, Mayfield," Mike retorted dryly as he handed over the cups, giving the last one to El as she was almost directly at his feet. "Where am I sitting?" He had to step over El's legs to take the spot between her and Dustin, so close to her that their hands would probably brush when they moved to pick up their soda cups.
"Alright," Dustin interjected, handing the popcorn bucket to Mike and then proceeding to rub his hands together eagerly. "Are we ready for this?"
Everybody cheered, with an added "Just play the damn movie already!" from Lucas. Dustin moved to the VCR so he could hit the play button, and as the credits rolled, everybody held their breath like they'd never seen this movie before.
Watching Wizard for Hire with this group was a completely unmatched experience for El. Normally she didn't like people talking during movies, but this time it felt different; the boys knew all the lines, which they would quote constantly, even attempting to imitate the characters' voices and intonations, leading to many hilarious moments. Whenever Brock's character unleashed a spell and killed off bad guys there would be cheering, whenever the bad guys got a leg up on Brock's character there would be booing, and there was lots of screaming "don't go in there, stupid!" or "how did he not see them?!" or "above your head, dumbass!" and other warnings the characters on the other side of the television screen never seemed to heed.
Brock's character had just unleashed his largest fireball spell on a bunch of vampires when the doorbell rang, and the ensuing collective groan made El think that she had never heard anyone sound so dismayed about getting pizza for dinner before in her life.
Dustin paused the movie so that Will could go get the pizza, and Mike went back to the kitchen to get everyone some disposable plates— Joyce was nice, but she wouldn't be happy if someone stained her furniture with pizza grease. When he sat back down beside her, El couldn't help but notice that he was a little closer than he'd been before. She wondered if he had done that on purpose. She hoped he did.
The pizza was distributed around and the movie resumed, the exuberance from earlier coming right back except a little bit grosser because Dustin didn't know how to react without talking with his mouth full. El tried to keep her eyes fixed on the screen rather than on the fact that her hand and Mike's, both of them resting on the carpet beside their thighs, were only about half an inch apart.
Dustin and Lucas started up an argument about whether the leader of the vampires would be more difficult to find than the pack of lycanthropes because vampires have echolocation and can hear Brock's character coming, but El wasn't paying attention because her pinky finger was moving oh so close to Mike's, millimeter by millimeter. Another fight scene came on screen and the rest of their friends let out a cheer, but she noticed Mike remained quiet, and she thought that might be because he realized how close they were to touching.
Feeling buoyed by his reaction (or rather the lack of it?), she decided to bridge the gap, slowly but surely moving her hand left until the side of her pinky finger was resting against Mike's. She watched him out of the corner of her eye and saw that his posture didn't change at all, but then she saw him start to smile, and next thing she knew, his own pinky had lifted up and was softly rubbing against hers in a way that sent shivers down her spine.
She had to bite her bottom lip to keep back the bright grin that threatened to break on her face. It didn't really work. She had a feeling she was going to be smiling for the rest of the night.
Unfortunately for that bubbly feeling in her stomach, that was when the scene they were waiting for— the one that pertained to the scavenger hunt clue— was just about to come up. Will was quick to point it out, interrupting Lucas and Dustin's very elaborate argument with a "Guys, guys, shush! This is it, this is the scene!" as all of them waited on bated breath to see what exactly was in the background when Brock's character was told by the vampire messenger about the assassination plot.
"Is that... the entrance to Central Park?" Mike asked, his hand still resting against El's but having gone still as everyone's attention snapped back to the movie. He was reading the letters on an archway Brock's character was standing in front of. The shot was quick but pretty clear. There was no misreading it.
Someone on the couch gasped, and then all six of them exclaimed in unison, in such uncanny harmony that it probably would've been hilarious to anyone looking from the outside in: "The park!"
They had their where. Now they just needed to figure out the what.
The following Monday, Mike was putting his books into his locker when he spotted Lucas running like a madman from the main entrance in his direction. "Hey, where were you? I waited for you," he called out to him.
Since they lived so close, he and Lucas usually carpooled to school, and today it had been Mike's turn to drive, but he had waited for Lucas for over ten minutes and he never made an appearance. Mike had assumed he was sick or something, and eventually had no choice but to drive to school without him.
"Never mind that," Lucas said, barely managing to stop his momentum before he crashed headfirst into the lockers in front of Mike. "Track field bleachers. Now."
Mike frowned. "What? We can't go now, first period's about to start—"
"I'm serious, Mike, this is a code red!" Lucas insisted, and it was the "code red" label that convinced Mike that something important was going on. They only used "code red" in the direst of situations. "I'm gonna get the others. If you see any of them, tell them to meet me there. El and Max, too."
He ran off before Mike could ask him anything else, and he figured he might as well make his way to the bleachers, then, if it was such a big deal. He found Dustin along the way and told him, and the two of them headed toward the back door. They met Max and El, who had already been approached by Lucas, as they turned the corner toward the exit.
"What's this all about?" El asked him as they walked behind the school toward the track field.
"Beats me," Mike replied, "but it's gotta be important. Lucas said it was a code red."
"Oh, you gotta be freaking kidding me," Max interjected suddenly, and for a moment Mike thought she was talking to him and was about to protest, but then he saw what she was looking at: under the bleachers, at the exact spot where Lucas said to meet, stood two sophomores with their tongues so far down each other's throats, it was a miracle they weren't both choking.
Max increased her pace, separating herself from the group until she stopped some five feet away from the overenthusiastic pair. "Seriously?" she asked out loud, arms crossed, causing the two underclassmen to spring apart abruptly. She glared at them. "You couldn't keep it in your pants until lunch like the rest of us normal people? Scram!" The two younger kids threw her a dirty look but decided to go elsewhere either way.
"Man, I want to be like Max when I grow up," Dustin said with a chuckle as the three of them approached their redheaded friend, now standing alone under the bleachers. Before Mike or El could comment further, however, they heard someone else approaching from behind, and they turned to see Lucas and Will running toward them.
"Oh, we're all here, good," Lucas said as they approached. He was carrying a book with him— Mike assumed it was one of the two books he had taken out on loan from the library on Friday. Interesting History was the title; Mike was barely able to read it before Lucas moved to open the tome. "Guys, we've been going about this all wrong," he declared. "It's not the British."
"But," Mike countered, "the first battle that Napoleon fought after the Treaties of Tilsit was—"
"—the battle of the Sables d'Olonne, yes," Lucas agreed, confusing everyone for a moment. And then, "But the clue doesn't talk about a battle, does it? It just says Napoleon was attacked by some group," he pointed out as he browsed quickly through the book.
"What's the difference?" Will asked, not following. Mike didn't either, so he waited for Lucas to explain.
"The difference is that the group that attacked Napoleon doesn't have to be an army," Lucas noted, finally finding a page that he had previously marked. "They don't even have to be human," he added, cryptically.
"It's aliens, isn't it?" Dustin asked eagerly. "We're gonna have to find aliens."
"Dustin..." Mike sighed, covering his face with his hands. Lucas just rolled his eyes and shook his head, handing the book over to the nearest person, who turned out to be El, and asking her to read the paragraph he had marked with a post-it note.
"Napoleon’s most memorable— and humiliating— defeat," El began reading, "came at the hands, well, the paws of a fearsome band of... bunny rabbits?" she finished the sentence as a question, clearly surprised by what she was reading.
"The bizarre moment in European history," she continued after giving pause for everyone's similar expressions of confusion and disbelief, "happened in July of 1807, after Napoleon signed the Treaties of Tilsit, officially marking the end of the war between the French Empire and Imperial Russia. To celebrate the occasion, he proposed a rabbit hunt with his men and some military big-wigs."
She read a couple more paragraphs, detailing how Napoleon ordered the preparation of said celebratory hunt, before getting to the crux of the matter. "...something bizarre happened: The rabbits didn't scamper away in fear. Quite the opposite: They bounded toward Napoleon and his hunting party, not unlike revolutionary rowdies storming the Bastille. Napoleon and his buddies soon found themselves bombarded with a barrage of fluffy bunnies. Imagine Hitchcock's The Birds recast with rabbits instead of crows."
By this point everyone was cracking up. "Napoleon was attacked by bunnies?" Dustin was bent over and slapping his thighs, he was laughing so hard. "Oh, geez..."
"So, we have to find a rabbit in a park?" Max asked, wiping tears from her eyes as her own giggles tempered down. "That makes a little bit more sense." She was right; wild Cottontail rabbits had been known to wander out of the forest and pop up around town every once in a while, and it wouldn't be strange to find one in a green area like a park. They'd have to be really lucky for a rabbit to be around at the exact same time they were looking for it, of course, but at least it wasn't impossible.
"Yeah, but we still don't know which park we're supposed to go to," Lucas reminded them. There was no Central Park in Hawkins and there were multitudes of parks big and small around town that could fit the bill. "There's gotta be something we're missing that will point us to the right one."
"Guys..." Will intervened suddenly, sounding like he'd had a revelation. "There's a bunny-shaped springer at the playground in Liberty Park." His eyes widened as everyone turned to look at him, expressions ranging from intrigued to skeptical. "No, really. I remember because my mother mentions all the time that she used to take me there when I was little and I hated it. She even has a photo of me somewhere on it and I'm screaming bloody murder."
"Aww," Max cooed, chuckling. "That's cute. But why do you hate bunnies, Will? What'd they ever do to you?" she teased as the rest of them laughed.
"I was three!" Will retorted defensively, but he was grinning, too, so they knew he wasn't really upset. "It had a creepy smile, okay? It freaked me out."
"That's gotta be it, though," Lucas declared, and Mike had to agree. Trying to find a real rabbit and corral it so they could take a photo while at a local park sounded ridiculously complicated— too complicated and random for a contest like this. The idea of the rabbit in question being part of a playground made much more sense.
Moreover, it was the only real option they had at the moment. They could still be wrong; it could be some other rabbit-shaped object in some other park, and if this wasn't it, they were back to square one. But it was the only lead they had, so they had to at least try it.
They drove over to Liberty Park as soon as the school day was over, and found the springer straight away in the middle of the playground. There were a few mothers with their children around and they convinced one of them to take Mike's camera and get a polaroid of them with the bunny springer. They made Will sit on it, of course— he was smiling this time— and swore to make an extra copy to give to Joyce so she could have a before and after.
The next day, they all waited in the hallway outside Ms. Tanaka's office as Dustin went in to submit the photo and, hopefully, retrieve the flyer with the next clue if this one was correct. It seemed to take forever until Dustin finally turned around and gave them a not-so-discreet thumbs up.
He shouldn't have bothered trying to be circumspect, frankly, because the cheer that broke out a second later grabbed the attention of Ms. Tanaka and everybody else who happened to be walking down that hallway. The Guidance Counselor smiled at them for a moment, amused, before sending them all off to first period, and Dustin didn't get the chance to check out the next clue until he was sitting in geography class some fifteen minutes later, completely unable to focus on the professor's lecture about the Rockies.