Joyce says it and Mike says it and Dustin and Lucas say it.
Papa only ever said Good. The best she could be was Good.
Brave is better, El decides.
She goes to live with Joyce and the Byers. Their house is already cramped, but Joyce gives up her room saying she can sleep on the couch until they figure something else out. Then Jonathan says he doesn’t want her to do that, so she can have his room, and he’ll take the couch. Will, in the spirit of things, offers the same.
Eventually, both boys are shoved into Jonathan’s room, Joyce takes Will’s old room, and El gets hers.
It’s a roundabout musical chairs, but they’re got plenty of renovating to do anyway.
Once they’ve all swapped around, Hopper coming by to help out with the big hole still in the front wall, Joyce takes her by the hand and leads her to the bedroom.
The door swings open and El feels nervous, but she knows she shouldn't be.
It’s just an empty room. Only it's not empty like Papa's rooms were. It's still nice, somehow, with a big bed and a window, looking right out at the yard.
"This is for you." Joyce says, squeezing El's shoulder.
"Mine." She repeats, crossing towards the bed. It has dark blue sheets and a thick blanket, even two big pillows.
El jumps up and flops on it, delighting as the bed bounces her back. She lets out a laugh, looking over at Joyce, hovering in the doorway.
"You like it?"
She nods, over and over and over.
She looks up at the blank walls, then over at Joyce.
“Do you want to put something up there? I never really got around to it, um, but we can get you something.”
El nods, but she’s not going to wait for a trip to the store.
She spends the day collecting pictures in the house; Will and Jonathan as babies, Joyce as a teenager. A drawing Will did of all four boys. She does the same the next time she goes to the Wheelers, swipes a picture of Mike off the mantel, and another of Nancy. Maybe it’s wrong, but they have so many anyway.
They all go on her walls, stuck up with scotch tape and some hard pressing. When it’s complete she steps back.
It’s different from Jonathan and Will’s room, with the big posters. And Mike’s, with his toys. But it makes her smile.
Jonathan makes breakfast in the mornings. Eggs and potatoes, usually. Toast.
Will says he can do French toast, too, but that's for special occasions.
She wonders how toast is different in France.
El eats gamely. It's all good, really. When Will's not hungry she'll finish his too, wolfing it all down until her stomach aches.
Then Jonathan and Will go to school, and Joyce sets her up in the kitchen.
The first day is the most awkward. Joyce doesn't want to ask too much about Bad Place, so she settles for asking what El knows about math and history and science.
"Did you ever go to school?"
She shakes her head. Not like the boys do, not like Mike does.
"Did you learn... Anything?"
She knows to read. She loves to read. She knows drawing and her numbers.
She knows Papa's science, but not the kind Mike does. He told her he was building a fake volcano in his science class.
"Can we do that?" She asks Joyce, and the woman breaks into a smile.
"Yeah, sweetie. Sure."
She uses Will's old textbooks at first, reading about founding father's and memorizing names of rocks, because she guesses that's important.
Joyce isn't really a teacher, she knows, but she does her best. She sets up math tables, first addition (easy, El thinks), then subtraction, multiplication. She likes math, she finds. There's only one right answer. All the pieces have to fit together, because if they don't, the whole problem is messed up.
“How’d you like it?” Mike leans his elbows on the table, even though his mom just told him not to. “Good, right?”
“My mom makes the best casserole. Last year, for Christmas, we had beef casserole, and macaroni. I think my dad passed out he ate so much.”
El smiles widely.
He pushes at his half-empty glass with his pointer finger, dropping her gaze.
“How is living with Will?”
“He’d be cool to have as a brother, I bet.”
Will doesn’t talk to her much, really. It feels like she knows him, only she doesn’t, at all.
He’s always nice, and he helps her when she doesn’t know how to ask for something or what to do about the dog always barking.
But it’s different then when she’s with Mike, or even Dustin or Lucas. They are no longer a foreign force, but Will…. Is.
“You wanna come over to play D&D tomorrow? We can go over the rules again. I know it’s kind of confusing.”
Mike twists his mouth.
“I kinda wish you’d come with us.” He whispers, almost under his breath. “I know Mrs. Byers is great and all, but I thought you could live with us. Um, with me.”
El sighs. She wishes, too. But Mike’s mom has a baby to take care of, and his dad does not seem to understand her, or want to try in the slightest.
Joyce holds her when she cries at night, calls her sweetie, and love and never makes her feel like… Like she doesn’t belong.
So she traded that for spending all her time with Mike. And it’s not like she doesn’t see him frequently, still.
He pokes at the glass again, and the water inside shakes, then stills instantly.
Mike looks up with a little smile on his face.
“Hey.” He says, and she smiles back.
She puts her hand on the green tablecloth, palm down. It’s shiny and smooth as she runs her fingers over it.
Mike covers them with his hand, and they both don’t look at each other for a few moments.
“Now, other people are gonna tell you you want more peanut butter. Those people are wrong, El, are you listening? They’re wrong.”
She nods, seriously.
Dustin slaps the bread down on the cutting board.
She holds the knife in one hand, the jar of jelly in the other.
Dustin squeezes her shoulder.
“Godspeed.” He whispers.
She dips it in just like he told her to, spreads the purple mixture on the bread, thick but not too thick.
The peanut butter is harder, it sticks to the sides and on her hands. But El is determined, and as she presses the second piece of bread on top, she hears the boys let out a sigh behind her.
“Done!” She exclaims.
Dustin rushes to her side, takes the sandwich. He holds it up for inspection, tilting it back and forth in the light.
El waits for his decision. After a moment, he places it gently back on the board, and holds out his hand.
“Well done.” He says, and she breaks into a smile.
It is good, sticky and sweet. Mike gets her some milk and they all watch her eat it, down to the last bite.
Dustin claps her on the back.
“You’re a natural, El.” He says.
In her mind, she reviews the list of things she knows she likes.
PB&J. Chips. Eggos. Chocolate. Eggs. Casserole.
Nancy takes her shopping. She likes wearing Nancy's old clothes, and sometimes Mike's, and sometimes Will's, but Nancy says these are going to be just for her.
The mall is crowded, people brushing by them every which way. She thinks about holding Nancy's hand, but that would be too childish.
So she sticks to the other girl's side like glue, weaving among the different groups.
They buy her shirts in a department store, one soft blue, one light yellow, and one fiery orange. Nancy has her try them all on, then look in the wide mirror plastered to the wall.
She never dislikes how they look. They're colors, they’re pretty, and they're hers. She'd get more if Nancy wasn't slumping in the chair, hiding a yawn behind her hand.
They take a break for food, and as Nancy is explaining the different options (no store seems to sell pre-made Eggos, she's discovered), a boy comes up from behind and taps her on the shoulder.
Nancy spins around, long hair nearly smacking El in the face. She smiles a little when she sees the boy, which makes El relax.
"Steve." Nancy says, her hand still draped over the girl’s shoulder. "What are you doing?"
He shrugs, tucks his thumbs into his pockets.
"It's a lotta work to look this good, Nance." His gaze drifts down to her, clutching the red department store bag tight in her hands.
"Who's this?" He asks, and his cheeks crinkle when he smiles.
"This is El." Nancy squeezes her shoulder.
A look of realization comes over the boy's face.
"Oh, um, hey, El." He shuffles his feet, a little awkwardly. "Whatcha got there?"
He reaches for the bag and she tugs it into her chest, narrowing her eyes.
"No, no, it's cool! It's okay. I won't take it." He pulls his arms back and holds them up, as if for show. "Nancy's getting you some new stuff?"
Nancy brushes a piece of hair from the wig away from her face, and the gesture feels warm inside of her.
"Well, Nancy is pretty stylish." Steve cracks her a smile, and El finds herself returning it.
"Where's Samantha?" Nancy asks suddenly, something tense in her voice.
"Oh, uh, she's got a math test tomorrow, so. Working on that." Steve scratches his neck. "We, um, we're probably having a party next weekend, though. If you wanna come."
"Party?" El interrupts, looking up at Nancy.
"Sorry, sweetheart. 16 and up." He winks at her, and Nancy laughs.
"Yeah, maybe." She says.
She and Nancy get Chinese food for lunch, splitting half the menu between them. Nancy keeps asking if she wants to try this, wants to try that.
She wants to try it all.
“No, because- That’s not true, and you know it, you know it, Jesus Christ-“
El leans against the doorway to the kitchen, fists clenched.
Joyce grips the phone like it’s going to crumble in her hand, like she wants to smash it into the nearest hard surface.
“Because he’s watching Will, that’s why! I can’t just up and leave him alone here, they’re still your kids-“
She moves away from the kitchen, because something in her hurts to see Joyce like this. Screaming into the phone, angry and sad and horrible.
Will's drawing something in the living room. El watches him, knows he's listening to his mom's conversation too.
"Who is that?" She asks, and Will doesn't look up.
"It's supposed to be a wizard, and a princess, only I kind of messed up his staff. It looks like a cane, doesn't it?"
"No. On the phone."
Will sighs. She sees him grip the pencil tighter, bite down on his lip.
This is news to her.
"You have a dad?"
He looks up, a funny smile on his face.
"Yeah, everybody does." He pauses, looks embarrassed. "Um, I mean, I guess- not everybody."
El looks back over her shoulder, at Joyce leaning against the wall.
"I do." She whispers, and Papa's face flashes bright in her mind.
"Really?" Will's stopped drawing. "I guess he was pretty bad at it."
"It's okay. My dad was too."
El presses her lips together. Will regards her for a moment, then scoots over on the couch.
“Here, do you think she should be wearing a dress? ‘Cause Lucas says that’s not practical.”
The stool teeters beneath her. El rocks onto her toes, reaching up, up, onto the top of the fridge.
She thinks maybe she could just use her mind (powers, Dustin calls them), but sometimes she likes doing stuff like this. The way Will and Mike and the boys do.
Her fingers touch crinkly wrapping and she grabs her prize, pulling it down to find-
Pretzels. Old, too. Gross.
She gets down from the chair and pushes it back into the table. Joyce likes a neat house, when she can.
The bag of pretzels crumples in on itself, then she drops it in the trash.
What she really wants is those chips, the extra crunchy ones Joyce brings home from the store for her. They’re sour and sweet at the same time, which is one of those combinations El’s beginning to discover she likes.
The rest of the kitchen cabinets are nearly bare. She chews on her lip for a moment. She could try to make something on the stove again, but last time the pasta spilled everywhere and the curtains caught on fire.
(Just a little bit.)
It’s Saturday. Which means Joyce is at work, and Will is at his new friend Peter’s.
Will hasn’t really told the other boys about Peter. El doesn’t know why, but Will gets all clammy and stutters when he talks about him.
Jonathan’s still here, she thinks. Maybe he’ll make her something.
The living room is empty as she passes through, kicking aside some of Will’s fallen pencils and crayons.
She hears a voice coming from Jonathan’s room. There's someone else in there. Maybe Will came home early. Only his voice is soft, but not that kind of soft.
She clenches a fist, pushing the door open as little as she can to see inside.
El lets out a sigh.
It's only Nancy, after all. She knows Nancy, so it doesn't matter.
She likes Nancy, too, likes her long curly hair and the way she always smiles at El. Likes her clothes that she gets to wear, jeans and skirts and pretty dresses. She likes when Nancy teases Mike too, because it makes him huff and complain, but in a nice way. Like he still loves her.
Sister. Nancy is El's sister too, sort of.
And Jonathan is her brother, sort of. But Jonathan isn't Nancy's brother, like Mike isn't her brother. Because you don't go to dances with your brother.
And you don't kiss your brother.
Nancy and Jonathan kiss differently from that one time she did with Mike. That was over in a second, both of them pulling away from each other even as it made them smile.
This is long, longer than she thought. But she can wait, Mike says Nancy yells at him when he interrupts her.
El lets out a cough involuntarily, a hair stuck in her throat, or dust from the fridge top, and Nancy's eyes fly open. Nancy inhales sharply, and then both teenagers are staring right at her.
El wipes her hand on her skirt.
"Jonathan." She starts, now that she has their attention. "Are we out of chips?"
Later that afternoon, Nancy sits her down and talks about other kinds of privacy.
"Sometimes," she begins, rubbing at her neck. "You want to be alone with someone."
El nods solemnly.
"Someone you like, right?" Nancy prompts, and she continues to nod.
“You know, you just, want it to be the two of you.”
El feels a horrible embarrassment creeping up on her face.
“It’s okay. You’ll probably think the same, soon. I think I had my first real crush at 12." Nancy rests a hand on her knee.
Crush. Not what it sounds, she reminds herself.
"Jonathan?" El asks, swinging her legs.
"No. George Travis. We were science partners."
El tries to imagine having a crush on someone else, someone who isn't-
Jonathan comes up behind her, hand bumping her shoulder.
"I gotta take Nancy back now." He says, and El looks up at him from her position on the couch.
"Sorry." She mumbles, drawing her knees up so she can duck her head behind them.
He smiles at her, and it’s a real one. She knows because he and Will both do this weird sort of smile, where El can tell they're happy, but it's like they're exaggerating it so they seem really happy.
But this is a fond smile, as he nudges her with his hand again.
"It's okay." Nancy answers for him. "We know you weren't spying."
Jonathan tucks his hands in his pockets.
"You want to drop by the Wheelers?" He asks her, but El shakes her head.
She lays on her bed when they've both gone, looking up at the ceiling. She traces her lips with her fingers, thinks of her own kiss.
The sun is nearly right overhead. She can feel it on the back of her neck, where her hair still doesn't cover.
It's warm enough to be out in shorts, finally. The winter snows are thawed and the ground gives a bit when she steps on it.
She looks out across the yard. Preps herself, takes a practice shot.
The rubber band snaps against her fingers when she lets it go, a sharp sting she wasn’t expecting.
El winces. She holds up her hand to take a look, fingers red where the rubber hit.
“Be careful.” Lucas warns, closing his hand over hers on the handle. “It bites.”
“Bites.” She repeats, pulling back on the band again.
Lucas presses a rounded rock into her palm, then gestures up at the trees.
“See that branch? Go ahead and aim for that.”
She squints into the sun. The branch tips out over the Sinclair’s neighbor’s yard, stretching out almost endlessly into the sky.
The rock fits right in the rubber band, and she stretches it back, two fingers curved over. She tilts her arm back, angles her elbow, and-
It soars just above the branch, and lands out in the alleyway.
El lows her arms, clutches the wooden handle tightly.
“Nice one!” Lucas nods encouragingly, then drops his gaze to the ground again. “C’mon, we can find another good one. They gotta be pretty smooth, or it’ll cut the band.”
They search the yard for a good ten minutes until she pulls one out of the earth, mud digging under her fingernails. It’s nearly the size of her wrist, but smooth enough that it’ll do the job.
She holds it out to Lucas proudly, and he smiles from ear to ear.
She can’t see in the darkness, the water’s closing in around her, the mask too heavy on her head to take another breath.
Can’t see, can’t breathe, can’t move. Help, Papa, please.
Nothing but the silence of the water, her hand reaching out for the glass, hitting it as hard as she can, but still-
She wakes with a start to the sound of footsteps approaching her room. Months ago it would have shot fear through her, but now she knows who it must be.
El pushes herself back into the pillow and closes her eyes, counts five breaths like Joyce told her to.
Joyce is always good at making her feel better. Really good.
But when the door creaks open she’s not there at all. Instead it’s Hopper peering in at her, one hand wrapped around the door and the other rubbing at his forehead.
El feels self-conscious under his gaze.
That’s where you feel embarrassed about yourself, sort of. Like you don’t want to be who you are, in the moment, Mike explained last week.
She wants to be a normal girl, in the moment.
Hopper crosses to her bed slowly, carefully.
She wishes it were Joyce, who doesn’t hesitate to hug her. Hopper doesn’t even sit on her bed, doesn’t kneel beside her. For a long moment he just stands there.
“Eleven?” He whispers in the dark.
Who else would she be?
He sits at the very end of the bed at last, and the mattress creaks under his weight. Eleven wants to ask him for Joyce, but she feels him reach out for her hand.
He doesn’t say anything, just rubs his thumb over the back of her hand, right between her pointer finger and her thumb.
She counts her breaths again.
“We’re here.” He says, finally. “You’re not alone.”
Hopper’s there a lot, fixing the house and giving she and Will rides when Jonathan’s busy. Sometimes he stays the night too.
Joyce doesn’t mind, and Will doesn’t mind, and she doesn’t mind. Sometimes she sees Jonathan make that face, like he really wants to say something about it, but he never does.
El likes the way Hopper makes Joyce smile. She likes how he buys Will new drawing pencils and offers to fix up Jonathan’s car. She likes how he tugs on her hair, long now, past her ears.
(Joyce brushes it for her at night, tells her how lovely it is. One day she tries to do it like Nancy, only the pins hurt her head.)
Hopper brings her boxes of Eggos still, even when Joyce tells him she eats real food now.
Chocolate chip and blueberry and caramel and things she never, ever knew existed.
She doesn’t tell him when she tires of them, because the look in his eye as she smiles up at him makes her heart feel…. Big.
In November, she has a birthday party.
Joyce says they should call it an Adoption party, and Dustin says it’s a Finding party, and Mike says it should just be Eleven day.
She likes all of those ideas.
It’s in the Wheeler’s basement; the boys reconstruct her fort and Mike helps his mom make her a cake. They’re not entirely sure how old she is, so they just stick two ones on top, because that’ll always fit.
Everybody wears a birthday hat and she gets presents, brightly wrapped with her name on them. There are balloons and her favorite foods.
There’s a feeling building inside of her, so good she nearly wants to scream to get it out.
A happy scream, though.
Only she doesn’t know how to describe that when Mike sits down next to her on the couch and asks her how she likes it.
She settles for “Perfect”.
He tugs at the tie on his neck. It’s new, El thinks. Probably something his Mom made him get.
But he looks nice, with his hair combed too. He’s taller than he was a year ago this time, gaining inches on not just her, but Lucas and Dustin and Will, and probably Nancy soon.
She feels her cheeks getting red looking at him, like the girls in movies do.
Mike looks up at her, and her heart pounds just a little harder in her chest.
“El?” He clears his throat, his voice sounding deeper. “I’m really glad you’re here. With us. I’m really glad we’re friends.”
Across the room, Dustin is trying to force-feed Lucas a cupcake, and Will is standing at the end of the table, half-heartedly engaged in a conversation with Mike’s dad while really watching his friends’ antics.
Nancy is hovering by the music player, and her eyes flit over to the two of them.
The older girl gives her a smile, and El looks back at her companion.
“Mike?” She whispers back, like it’s just the two of them. Like it’s the first night she’s in his house, hidden under a sheet and lost, still.