The cardboard box was just out of El’s reach, sitting up on top another similar looking box, dusty but pristine from sitting untouched for so many years. She squinted up her eyes, settling back onto her heels and tensing, deciding to just do it the easy way and use her powers. It didn’t look very heavy anyways.
Before she could fully concentrate, a warm familiar shape pressed up against her back as long pale arms reached over her and snagged the box, bringing it down easily to her height.
“Hey, I was going to get that,” she huffed, not actually mad.
She used the chance to turn around and tickle her boyfriend’s exposed sides, making him yelp and nearly drop the box, which she quickly steadied with her mind, standing up on her toes to steal a kiss. Mike grumbled against her lips but was quickly mollified by the affection.
“I don’t want you tire yourself out lifting all this stuff with your mind,” he said as she pulled back and helped him set the box down. “I mean, it’s not even lunch yet and we’ve cleared out half of this attic. That’s pretty good… like almost too efficient. Becky’s going to think we threw all of it out.”
“Nah. She’s happy she doesn’t have to do it. I guess it makes her sad,” El said, focused more on the box then the gangly teen still standing behind her. “But it’s fun. There’s so much.”
They’d been digging through the stacks of boxes all morning. When Aunt Becky had said she wanted to officially move herself and Mama to Hawkins, El had been so happy she thought her heart might burst. After having only her silent sister as her companion for so many years, Becky had said she wanted to be closer to her newly-discovered kin, that El’s presence made Terry seem more relaxed somehow.
El was pretty sure part of it was that she was lonely, but she was more than happy to have her mother and aunt living closer. Hopper had driven her out to visit at her request years ago, and then Mike had started tagging along, eventually taking over the driving after he got his license. Becky seemed to enjoy the tall teen boy too, telling them stories about her and Terry’s childhood, their parents—El’s grandparents, she found out—and how simple life had once been. She was quiet about the time El was born though. Like maybe she was guilty, or just unable to believe that what her sister had told her had been true. El decided didn’t need to know anyways, the files Hopper had shown her from the Lab had told her the story.
And Mama had shown her.
Every now and then she still tried to talk to Mama, and sometimes it worked. The older women never left her chair, never said anything, but sometimes she was able to turn her head, there in the Void, and whisper, “Jane”. In the end she was always sucked back into the circle, the winding cyclone of painful memories that El would have to push out of. Sometimes she saw flashes of other things, not just the flowers and the gun and her and Kali. Sometimes there were flashes of strange people. Two women, one with dark skin and nice clothes, the other pale, who had smudges of black on her cheeks and under her nails, and a young man, who had no real distinct look but who had eyes that seemed to know. El didn’t know who any of them were, deciding they were strangers caught in the back her mother’s mind as she circled around and around in the unpleasant dream.
Mike never asked her exactly what she saw, he seemed to understand that he couldn’t truly know. She’d already told him that Mama had tried to save her, had tried to take her back from P—from Brenner. That she had been a baby, crying and helpless, when the monster had taken her away. How Mama had fought so hard, had tried to get her back. How Mama had wanted her. So much.
He always held her hand afterwards, on the drive back to Hawkins. Never asking, just being there where he knew he needed to be.
So when Becky had asked for some help going through the old boxes of thing, El had immediately known she and Mike would be perfect for the task. So far she’d opened up every box they’d come across, touching the old clothes inside, some from her grandparents and some from her mom and Becky. Clothes and keepsakes and blankets. Christmas and Halloween Decor. An extremely tattered set of the Lord of the Rings that had made Mike pause for a solid twenty minutes so he could page through them before setting them on the window seat designated as “keep”. They were told they could keep anything they wanted, especially El, and she had a neat stack of photo albums, a few floral blouses she had thought might fit her, and a pretty vase she thought Joyce might like.
Becky had promised them lunch at noon but El could hear Mike’s stomach growl loudly as she got down on her knees to open the box he’d so kindly grabbed for her. It was light, and when she pushed the flaps she almost gasped, reaching out to touch the pretty ballerina that sat on top of the wooden jewelry box.
“Did your aunt say when lunch was? Like, eleven-thirty or noon maybe?” His girlfriend’s lack of response made him get down close too, curious as to what she had found. “What? Something cool? A first edition of the Hobbit, maybe?”
She snorted and gave him a soft shove, shaking her head as she reached in and picked up the jewelry box. With careful hands, she lifted the lid, letting out a sigh as it began to play soft melody, one that she of course didn’t recognize. But Mike did.
“You are my sunshine, my only sunshine, you make me happy when skies are grey,” he mumbled along, looking embarrassed but knowing El wouldn’t know the words unless he told her. “It’s pretty, El.”
“It was Mama’s,” she said softly.
“Theresa” was embroidered onto the silk inside. A few rings and necklaces were scattered about inside, tarnished from age, well worn. It felt alive, almost, like it had been present during so many memories, had seen all the things El knew she would never know. After a moment she closed the lid, the soft lullabye cutting off abruptly and leaving only the still silence of the dusty attic. Her hands shook as she set it down. She didn’t realize she was crying until a tear splashed onto her wrist, and she took a gasping breath as the weight of all she had lost pressed down on her again.
Her eyes squeezed shut, fingernails digging into her palms, thinking about how Mama had been so alive, more alive than the music box, and yet she was stuck, sitting downstairs in an endless memory of the worst time of her life. El knew she must have had good memories, like opening a present on Christmas morning and seeing such a pretty music box, each piece of jewelry containing a story as they had been set inside. All of it, stolen away from her. Stuck with strangers for company in the void of her mind.
Mike’s arms were around her when she back from the grief, warm and sure and gentle—just like him. He’d pulled her against his chest and the feel of him, so solid and real, reminded her that she couldn’t let the sadness win again. They were here to help Aunt Becky and Mama be closer, and that was a good thing. And she’d learned more about them and her grandparents—her family, maybe not the one she lived with, but the one she could have had, the possibility heartbreaking but comforting all at once. It felt good to know, to see the pictures of them looking so happy. Knowing Mama had been happy once too.
With another gasp of a breath she reached up and squeezed Mike’s arm, nodding to let him know it was okay to let her go. He dug a tissue from his pocket and handed it over so she could blow her nose. They were a staple now, always sticking out of his pockets, waiting for her nosebleeds or tears. He stayed quiet as she wiped her face, only relaxing once she leaned over and placed a grateful kiss on his cheek.
“Sorry,” she mumbled, crumpling up the tissue and putting it in her back pocket.
“It’s okay, El. You don’t have to apologize.”
He was offering her one of those soft smiles, that were honest but gentle, like he knew she needed to just let it out. Her heart swelled and she scooted closer, laying her head on his shoulder for a second, allowing herself to relax. His hand found hers and squeezed, like her heart in her chest as she remembered that while she might have had a different past, it might not have lead her to this future with Mike. That lab had stolen her past and her mother’s future, but not hers. Remembering that helped.
“I love you,” she spoke into his shirt, breathing in the sacred smell of him, an instant balm to any wound.
She could almost feel him smile as he rubbed her back, holding her closer. “I love you too. Always.”
There was another moment of quiet before she finally unglued herself from his side, carefully getting up as he watched and setting the musical jewelry box on the seat with the other treasures they’d found. When she came back he was already leafing through the box, mostly empty other than a scattering of photographs and posters on the bottom of it, some still sticky with tape on their backsides. She sat down next to him as he picked one up, the distinct shape and white frame around the edge making it obvious it was a Polaroid picture, something Jonathan had taught her about.
Mike had picked it up backside first, and El could make out “March 1970” scribbled on the back along with a heart. When he flipped it over he squinted, bringing it closer so they could see. It was only a little faded, despite being twenty years old, preserved in the dark box, and El realized the young woman was Mama, her dirty blond hair tangled over her shoulder as she pressed a kiss to a young man’s cheek, lips curled up in a smile. He was looking at the camera like it was the most beautiful sight in the world, the most joyous smile lighting up his face, brighter than the flash of the camera.
El grabbed it and Mike let her have the picture so she could examine it. The young man had dark brown hair, buzzed close against his head, light skin, and golden-hazel eyes. He seemed familiar somehow, the way his ears stuck out, and she tilted her head, brow furrowing as she tried to remember if she’d seen him in Mama’s dream circle. Surely she’d seen that face looking back at her from somewhere.
“Do you know who that is?” Mike’s question felt heavy but she shook her head.
He gently reached to angle the photo towards him, his own discerning gaze taking in the features, the wide smile and hazel eyes lit up with happiness. After a second he gave the photo a tug, taking it from her and sitting back, looking at her, and then the photo, and then her again. El frowned.
“What are you doing?” He kept staring at her, for so long she started to feel irritated, snapping out a, “What?!” and finally Mike lowered his hand.
“You just… he looks a lot like you. Whoever he is. Like the eyes and the ears and the smile…” He couldn’t keep his eyes off of her. “You sure you don’t know who he is?”
The clues were there, of what truth the photo held, and El suddenly felt her heart pounding. There hadn’t been any other pictures of him, not that El had seen in the albums—but those had all been before her grandparents had died. It was the first picture she’d seen of Mama looking older than El herself, like a young adult and not a teen. She sucked in a breath, suddenly desperate to answer Mike’s question for herself.
“No, I—” She shook her head, feeling everything start to tremble inside of her. “Do you think—”
Mike bit his lip, like he wanted to offer her hope but wasn’t sure yet. “Why don’t we go ask your aunt?”
He got up first, all elbows and legs, and quickly helped her to her feet. They climbed down the ladder in flurry, Mike pounding down the stairs behind her as she moved urgently, heart still pounding in her chest. She found Aunt Becky in the kitchen, putting sloppy joes together at the stove. She looked over her shoulder when she heard them come in.
“Oh, perfect, I was just about to tell you lunch was ready—” She paused as he noticed the look on their faces. “You two okay?”
Mike started to open his mouth but El stepped forward first, holding up the Polaroid with trembling hands. “Who is this?”
It was meant to be a question but came out sounding like an accusation. Becky set the wooden spoon down on the counter and turned around, surprise written into the lines that usually frowned on her face. When her eyes finally rested on the picture, she froze up, staring, just like Mike had.
Becky’s gaze finally moved to her niece, and she looked like she’d just seen a ghost. It was too much staring—why was she staring?—and El felt frustration bubble up.
“Who is it?!” The words whipped from her lips.
With a heavy sigh the older woman leaned back against the counter, suddenly looking like she’d aged forty years. “That’s… Andrew.”
There was a shuffle from behind El and she felt Mike step closer, his breath warm on her head as he spoke. “Andrew Rich?”
Becky’s eyes widened. “How—”
“There’s an old set of Lord of the Rings upstairs, that name was written in the front covers,” Mike explained, giving his girlfriend a worried glance before giving his attention back to her aunt. “Was he—”
“He was Terry’s boyfriend,” she cut in, already knowing the question. “Before—everything. They met in college, he was there to keep from getting drafted… he was a good man, smart, always said what he meant. Always took responsibility for his actions, however stupid they were.” There was clearly a story behind those words. “He really loved her… they were in love,” she finished evenly.
The silence loomed, neither teen able to find the words to ask, though Becky didn’t seem like she wanted to surrender. After another tense second, she let out a long a breath, nodding, giving them the answer they were to afraid to summon.
“He’s your father, Jane.”
It was only Mike’s arm around her waist that steadied her as the words she’d never thought she’d hear turned her legs into jell-o. “My father?”
She’d thought she didn’t have one, or at least one who actually mattered. That maybe she was a mistake—those happened, she’d learned—and that whoever had given her his genes hadn’t stuck around to help Mama. He’d never been mentioned in any of the files she’d read. He wasn’t in Mama’s dream circle. He’d never been talked about, in the tales Becky had told. For all she’d known, Papa had actually been her father. The pictures of him and Mama had always made her shiver, made her wonder, had he been the one to help create her? While Mama had been under his control during those experiments, had he been so desperate for a new subject that he’d taken it upon himself to make one?
It had made her too afraid to ever ask, especially when she had Hopper now, with his gruff but affectionate fussings and grins. So far he’d been all she had needed, drowning Papa’s shadow with his tall figure and warmth.
But suddenly the truth was smiling out at her from a faded polaroid. A photo of two people so in love it took her breath away. Of a man with her eyes and smile, whose ears stuck out at the same angle.
“I’m sorry I didn’t—I should have told you before,” Becky was blathering, looking somewhere between nervous and guilty. “But I thought—”
“Where is—Is he—” El’s voice choked in her throat but Mike’s arm kept her steady and she managed to stare her aunt in eye. Part of her already knew he was gone, but there was still a flare of hope. “What happened to him?”
“He got drafted. They shipped him to Vietnam in 1970, probably right after that picture was taken. He didn’t—he never made it home.” The sorrow in her aunt’s voice filled El up as she let the cold reality set in. Another sad ending. “Terry called his parents so they could have him call her, when she found out she was pregnant. She wanted to tell him about you, that they were going to have a baby. But he’d already been killed.”
And just like that, the small flame that had burst into her chest was smothered out. The tiny flicker of hope that maybe there was more out there for her than just… the nothingness that she’d been given, died out.
“Terry told me back then she thought that asshole lab guy was behind it, that he’d called some big name in DC and had Andrew drafted. So he’d have less obstacles to get to you. I mean, I thought everything she told me back then was crazy, I didn’t really believe it but now—” Becky’s eyes were sad as they looked El up and down. “I mean, you’re real. So I guess all of that was too.”
“M-My—” The word felt stuck in her throat and instead she picked up the picture again, staring down at the face of the young man. Whose life had been snuffed out, so early. Mama wasn’t whole, but she was still alive. He hadn’t even had the chance.
Her fingers brushed over the photo. My real Papa. Tears filled her eyes again.
“He would have loved you, I think,” Becky said quietly, voice full of pain. “He loved Terry. If he would have been here they probably would’ve gotten married once they found out about you. And Terry—she’d dated a lot of stupid guys, but this one was good. He took good care of her. They really were in love, I think. When they’d come and stay here it was always like the house was full again.”
Becky paused, licking her lips, looking between the two teenagers.
“When he died, Terry was a mess. But even she knew he would have loved you. Because you were both of them. You still are.”
You were both of them. You still are.
The words echoed in her brain, somehow right, and El stared down, letting hers tear drip onto the only photo she had ever seen of her parents. Her parents. Sure, Hopper was her dad now, and he was warm and real—but these people had been so in love, they had been real too. So ready to love her too. And they’d never had the chance, either of them. It had been stolen from them, stolen from her .
Mike managed to get her to walk to the table, helping her sit down in a chair and then pulling up his own in front of her, leg jiggling up and down as he watched and waited. This was new territory for both of them, but El was still too shocked to even know what to feel. Other than more grief.
It was like she was falling through a grey sky, through misty storm clouds of emotion. Relief jumbled in, knowing she had a father who wasn’t Brenner, who had loved Mama and who would have loved her. Hurt at Aunt Becky for not telling her. Outrage at never having the chance to meet the man who was part of her. And hate—at the lab and the man there who had taken everything she should have had.
It was too much and she looked over at her boyfriend, scared and hurting, knowing everything was wrong but not sure what to do about it. “Mike?”
His arms answered the question in her voice, wrapping her up tightly, like they always did. But even his comfort couldn’t make the pain stop, couldn’t make the grief of her lost family stop stabbing her heart, over and over. The crying wasn’t quiet this time, full sobs wracking her body as she mourned her stolen life all over again, the wound suddenly open. It was too much. Losing Mama to her own mind had hurt, but losing a father who never even had the chance to know she existed? Who hadn’t been able to even imagine a tiny daughter, with his effervescent eyes and joyful grin, who had been sent away, never to return.
And it had been because of her. Because Brenner had wanted her.
Guilt rippled in, drowning out the rest of it. If she’d never existed, Mama would be with—with her real Papa, and they’d be happy together. They might not have had her but they might have had another little girl, a normal one who didn’t snap necks with her mind, who wasn’t twisted and ugly inside, who would wear pink dresses and eat ice cream and was pretty and happy. Who would have grown up with them, safe and loved.
It hurt so much she couldn’t breathe.
She wailed, every bit of pain slicing out of her like knives, fighting Mike’s arms as he held her tighter, but then gripping onto him like he was the only thing in the world keeping her from being completely lost in the murky darkness of her grief.
And he was, rubbing soft circles on her back, whispering quietly in her ear, so her aunt couldn’t hear, but she could.
“It’s okay, El, it’s okay to cry,” he sounded strained, “you didn’t know.”
“H-He—” the words hiccupped out of her. “He k-killed them b-because of me.”
"What?! No! You can't blame yourself." His arms tightened around her, she could feel him tense up, his head shaking. “God, El, no, he killed them because he was a fucking psycho! He ruined their lives because he was terrible person who didn’t care about other people! He killed others too, before he even had you, and that wasn’t your fault.”
“I sh-should never have been born,” she whispered.
“No, El. Don’t even say that. If you hadn’t, he would have done it to someone else. He would have hurt so many more people if you hadn’t escaped and found us and stopped him.” His chest was heaving beneath her chin, heartbeat wild against her ear. “And then we would never have met, and I wouldn’t have you now. Hopper would still be popping pills and hating himself because of the ghost of his kid. He and Mrs. Byers wouldn’t have gotten together and they’d both still be struggling. I mean, Nancy and Jonathan would never have gotten together either. We wouldn’t have been friends with Max—or Steve. So much good came from you, El. Even if it came out of something bad, it’s still good.”
“And you, El, you’re the one that changed it!” He wasn’t done. “You could have just let him keep hurting you, you could have stayed there forever. But you didn’t because—because you knew you deserved love, El.” His voice was frantic but he didn’t sound scared so much as needy—he needed her to believe him. “Your parents would have loved you, your mom wanted to so much. And your dad would have too. Look at that picture, look how much they love each other! They made you with that love, El, even if he kept you from being loved, you knew it in your heart that you deserved more than what he gave. Because you’re made of love, El. And I love you, and Hopper loves you. The guys and Max… my mom and Nancy and Holly. Even your aunt, she messed up but it was because she loves you too. And I love you so much, so much, El.”
His words were like a thread, stitching her broken heart back together as the blood dripped down the needle, painful and messy but true. The lab would never claim another victim, and while she’d been there others had been safe. It was such a small comfort but it was all she had.
And he was right. They had loved her, her parents. They had loved each other. She was made from love, the same love she felt for Mike. The same gracious, powerful, beautiful love he felt for her. It had been inside her all along, the thing that had knitted her bones together, had formed her tiny fingers and hands before she was even truly alive. It was in her skin, on her lips, in every single one of her heartbeats.
It made sense, the longing she’d always felt. Alone in her cold room, waiting for the only person she knew to come and tell her she was good. It had been the thing that had made her believe that he was a liar, because how he could keep asking her to find monsters when he said he cared for her? How could he hurt her and make her feel worthless? Some part she didn’t know had told her she needed to get away, needed to find something better that had to be out there.
So she had, tiny and shivering and terrified, lost in a world she’d never had the chance to experience. And then there’d been a bright light and warm coat and a soft voice asking if she was okay. Just like he was now, staring at her with concern in his midnight eyes, worried and unsure of how what to do to make her feel better.
Just like that, the pain softened, still there but quieter, and instead her heart lifted, reaching for his that beat against her cheek with each passing breath.
Their lips met, and it was a quiet kiss, but so full of love that it stole the breath right from her lungs. It was always that way, so sure. So good. Like he could share the goodness that poured out of him with her, like suddenly that piece of her that was uncertain was right again. The part of her she hadn’t known she was missing until she'd found it.
If Mama had loved Andrew like this…
She realized what she wanted, pulling back rather suddenly and leaving Mike blinking.
“Are you—” he started.
“I want to talk to Mama,” she breathed out, catching her breath as she looked up at her boyfriend, suddenly sure. “I want to ask her about him.”
“Hon, she can’t—” Becky interrupted them, looking unsure but then sagging a the determination on El’s face. “I mean, if you want to try, I won’t stop you.”
El all but jumped up, pulling Mike behind her, but as she passed her Aunt to go to the living room, the older woman reached out, gently setting an hand on her niece’s arm. Her eyes were pained, but sincere, embarrassed even.
“I’m sorry I didn’t tell you. I guess I thought… it would make it worse. But you still deserved to know. I’ll tell you anything you want to know… about then, before you were born. And your parents. If you want.”
El paused, considering her aunt’s proposal. She was still hurt, but she remembered how Hopper had tried to keep her in the cabin, wanting to keep her safe. It had come from the same place as this, misguided love. But still love.
She set her hand on her aunt’s, nodding. “Okay. I would like that.”
They shared a small smile, an apology and forgiveness in one, and then Becky let her arm drop and El and Mike left the kitchen, walking out into the living room where Mama was sitting, in a fresh nightgown and robe, staring at the TV. She was quiet today, which was good, it meant the dream circle wasn’t as painful. El smoothed some of her mother’s hair away from her face, tucking the dry, blonde strands behind her ear.
My hair is brown. Like my father’s.
She carefully set the polaroid in her mother’s lap, reaching out and squeezing her hand.
“Mama… it’s Jane,” she said softly, like she always did. “I’m here, Mama. Aunt Becky told me about—about Andrew. My… my father. She told me how you loved him. And how he loved you.” She bit her lip, fighting back the tears that threatened to spill again. “I’m sorry he was taken away from you. I’m sorry he couldn’t be my Papa, and you couldn’t be Mama, like we were supposed to.”
She had to take a long breath before she could go on.
“But you loved me, Mama. I know you did. And you made me so strong, because you filled me with love. And I found you again, and now I know it was because of you and him. Because you loved him, like—like I love Mike. I understand now.”
A single tear spilled down her cheek.
“Thank you, Mama.”
She let her head fall into her mother’s lap, the dry hands cool against her face as she pressed herself into the person who had made her. Who had tried so hard to keep her safe, who had lost everything fighting for her. How had she never said thank you before?
El closed her eyes, flicking the tv on to static with her mind, letting it fill her ears and thoughts, the darkness growing deeper. It took less time now that she was stronger, and she opened her eyes to find the deep shadow of the Void. Mama sat in her chair, staring at nothing as usual. El went to her reaching out, knowing it was the only chance she had for Mama to truly tell her something.
Their skin touched and then El was pulled in, to the dream circle, the fierce blur of memories repeating over and over. By now she was used to it, the baby’s sharp cry, the panic, the pain. Faster and faster and faster and—
It was slower this time, somehow. There was a distant heartbeat, pounding low in her ear, not her own, as the scene changed, the memory barely a flicker. Mama’s struggling figure on the table faded and then she was young and happy, laying on a bed next to the young man from the polaroid. Fighting over a folded paperback book, laughing, and then he let it go so she could have it and leaned down on his elbow to kiss her and she kissed back and it was only a few seconds, a tiny eternity, as they gazed at each other with eyes so full of love.
And then it was gone, as quick as it had arrived, and Aunt Becky’s face was there, telling her to breathe, and the dream circle started again, just as fast as before.
El pulled out into the Void, still holding Mama’s hand, kneeling before her, eye to eye. There were tears sliding down Mama’s cheek, her face the same blank stare despite the wetness beading her lashes. She didn’t move, didn’t turn and look like she had before, frozen in her stillness.
And then a single word whispered from her lips, like it had when El had first returned.
A heavy breath. Dim eyes. Blank face.
“Breathe. Sunflower. Three to the right. Four to the left. Rainbow. Four-fifty.”
The muttering started up and El knew she was lost again, stuck back in the endless circle. But she’d been able to show El what her aunt had told her. What Mike had helped her see. What had created her, what had fought for her, what had guided her through the horror of her childhood. The one thing that had never been truly taken away.
El sat up, pulling her head from Mama’s lap, feeling the wetness on her cheeks and under her nose as she turned to look at Mike, letting herself smile. He smiled back, getting down on his knees and pulling out his tissues, wiping her face and then dropping a kiss on her head.
“She let me see him. Them. Together.” It was almost a whisper, the memory sacred as it blazed fresh in her mind. “They were so happy. Like me and you. In love.”
“Of course they were,” he said without hesitation, his belief evident in his eyes as set the dirty tissues down. “I’m glad you got to see it. I’m… I’m glad you know.”
A wave of exhaustion hit, a mix of the intense emotions she’d experienced and from using her powers. Becky was watching them from the doorway and she seemed to notice. “Would you be interested in lunch now?”
Mike’s stomach growled in answer and El couldn’t help but grin up at him as he helped her to her feet. He had the decency to look sheepish before turning to face Becky.
“That would be awesome.”
The next hours passed as first they ate, and then Becky answered as many of El’s questions as she could, the guilt having left them both. In fact, El felt lighter somehow, a burden lifted. She was hungry to know everything, how her parents had met, how long they were together, what they liked to do. The answers rang similar, and she couldn’t help but glance at Mike occasionally, grateful that Mama had found herself her own Mike, one who loved her and understood her and took care of her.
Learning how Mama and Andrew had gone to protest rallies, had tried to change the world so it would be better, it gave her strength. They hadn’t been able to be her family, but they had given her so much just by trying to make things better. In a way they had, creating the first whisperings of discontent, his blood making the cry to end the war louder, her sacrifice creating the breadcrumbs that had led Hopper to find out the secrets of the lab that had stolen her life.
There were a few more pictures in that box, of the two of them sitting on a couch, Mama in his lap as they grinned at the camera. Long hair and bright smiles. So young and happy. El felt like her heart could burst.
When they finally finished, it was getting late, enough that they decided to head back with their treasures in tow, promising to return the next day to continue digging through the boxes. Becky even said she might come up and help, more open to the memories she’d seemed to shun before, as though maybe she’d realized they could create happiness instead of just pain. They loaded their treasures into Mike’s car, waving goodbye as they pulled away from the house, El watching over her shoulder until the white structure disappeared into the green of the trees behind them.
Turning back around, she slid over on the bench seat towards Mike, knowing she probably shouldn’t go without her seatbelt, but wanting to be close to him. Needing it, really. He hummed appreciatively as she tucked herself against his side.
“You know…” he started, glancing at her from the side of his eyes. “When we have kids, they’ll be just like you, all full of love. Someday, I mean. After college, probably?”
“You should go to college first,” she agreed, unbothered by the thought, adding her own. “Hopper would like it if we’re married.”
She smiled to herself, enjoying how much certainty lived in his voice. “And we should have a house. With a big backyard and swings.”
“And a slide. Slides are the best,” he said, tossing her a lopsided grin before he turned back to the road.
She pressed her lips to his cheek, agreeing happily. “Mmhm.”
“And they’ll be the happiest babies ever. Because we’ll make them out of love, just like you were El. And they’ll get to grow up and we’ll love them. We’re gonna love them so much.” He sounded excited and determined all at once, gripping the steering wheel harder. “So much, El.”
The thought was freeing, knowing that there was no more evil lurking behind her, ready to steal everything away from her. She would have Mike and whoever else joined them, tiny beings with golden-hazel eyes and dark hair and freckles. And she would love them, just as much as she loved Mike. And he would love them too, like he loved her. And for once, love would win, triumphing despite all that had tried to steal it away and erase it.
El felt sure, laying her head on her boyfriend’s shoulder and snuggling into his neck, breathing in his scent, loving every word he said.
With a smile, she pressed a kiss to his shoulder, nodding a yes to everything, about happy babies and how much they would be loved, answering what she already knew for certain.
“I know, Mike.”
Her heart still ached for her lost parents, but swelled despite it all as she thought of the future—where they could finally be safe. All of them.
She smiled again. “I know.”