The hardest part of sneaking the girl into the Wheeler's basement was the amount of time it took to get to the house. Jessica stopped at every street corner to make sure Lucas and her brother appeared in her rearview mirror before continuing on to the next street. They were just lucky they lived in a small town and that almost everyone was already at home and not out on the streets.
Once in the basement, Mike let the girl have some of his clothes. She almost stripped in front of them, as if she had removed her clothes in front of people before and it was no big deal for her, but Mike quickly showed her where the bathroom was. When Mike went to close the door, however, she grabbed it and said, "No."
"You don't want it closed?"
"Okay, well, how about we leave it like this?"
He left the door open a few inches and she seemed okay with that, so Mike left her there to do her business.
"This is mental," Dustin said. "She tried to get naked."
He mimicked taking his shirt off and knocked his hat off his head in the process
Lucas added, "There's something seriously wrong with her. Like . . . something wrong in the head. I bet she escaped from Pennhurst, the nuthouse in Kerley County. Think about it. That would explain her shaved hair and why she's so crazy. She's an escapee, she's probably psycho."
"Like Michael Myers," Dustin said.
"Exactly. We should've never brought her here."
"So, you just wanted to leave her out in that storm?"
"Yes," Lucas declared. "We went out to find Will, not another problem."
"Hey!" Jessica snapped. "She's not just a problem, okay? She's a girl and she's obviously been through something traumatic or she wouldn't be acting this way. There's nothing we can do until we know more, but we couldn't leave her out there."
She eyed Lucas then especially, but quickly got back to the point.
"Are you sure she can stay here tonight?" she asked Mike.
"Sure. In the morning, she can sneak around the house, go to the front door and ring the doorbell. My mom will answer and know exactly what to do. She'll be sent back to wherever she came from and we'll be totally in the clear."
That was actually a good plan, as long as nothing went wrong.
"A'right, guys, head to the car," Jessica said. "I'll be out in a second. Get Mike's bike out of the car. Dustin –"
"I'm riding home. Gotta make sure Lucas gets to his house."
"Fine. Stay in lighted areas. I'm gonna stay a few minutes, make sure the girl settles in okay."
The two boys left, and the girl finally came out of the bathroom. The shirt and sweatpants Mike had given her were big on her, but at least she'd stay warm.
"We never got your name," Mike said but didn't get a response. Or not a verbal one, anyway.
The girl pushed the sleeve of Mike's shirt up, revealing a number etched onto – into – her skin in black ink: 011.
This girl didn't have a name. She was a number. She was Eleven. And wherever she had come from . . . it hadn't been a mental hospital, and they couldn't send her back.
"I've never seen a kid with a tattoo before," Mike said. "What's it mean? Eleven."
The girl, Eleven, pointed to herself, confirming what Jessica had already known. Dear God, this was Nazi Germany brought to life in Hawkins, Indiana. This girl didn't even know her maiden name; she only knew herself as the number inked into her skin.
Mike was processing more quickly than Jessica would have imagined possible for a boy his age, but it made her proud. She could see why he'd become the leader of his group.
"Uh, well, my name's Mike. Short for Michael. Maybe we can call you El. Short for Eleven."
Eleven – or El – had been staring at Mike the whole time he'd been talking. She now nodded in understanding and agreement.
While Mike continued talking to El, Jessica made a place for El to sleep. There was already a fort made of blankets in the corner of the room. A yellow sleeping bag was rolled up beside the blankets, so she placed it inside and rolled it out.
It wasn't a bed, but it was the best they had on such short notice.
Once El was inside, Jessica knelt before her and slowly took El's hand, the one that had the number on it. El didn't try to pull away.
"El, I'm Jessica, or Jess, if you like . . . This – this number . . . You were held somewhere. Right?"
And she was number eleven, which meant there had been others before her and maybe some after her. They might not have escaped. They might still be locked up. Or they might have been killed.
"Are people after you?" El didn't answer. "We can't help you if you don't tell us what's going on."
Jessica looked at Mike and nodded toward El. He knelt down then and spoke.
"You're in trouble, aren't you? Who – who are you in trouble with?"
"Bad," El whispered.
"Bad? Bad people?"
El nodded. Jessica noticed that El didn't seem afraid just then, but her eyes were the saddest Jessica had ever seen on a young girl.
"They wanna hurt you?" Mike asked. "The bad people?"
El brought two fingers up to her temple and mimicked pulling a trigger. It was pretty obvious what that meant, but what scared Jessica more was when El turned the two fingers at Mike.
"We're in trouble too," Jessica said, "for helping you. Is that it?"
So they couldn't let anyone know she was there. Mike's plan was out the window. Mike's mom had to be kept in the dark. She would call social services if she found out El was there and then El would be taken back to wherever she'd run away from. That wouldn't end well for anyone.
"Can we keep her hidden here?" Jessica asked. "At least until we can think of something."
It was unrealistic, thinking they could hide El for more than a day or two, but Jessica didn't want to just hand her over to the authorities either, not if they would just end up hurting her – or someone else. So they needed to keep her close, at least until they knew more.
"Mom rarely comes down here," Mike said. "It should be fine for now."
"Good." Then to El, "I don't know if this word means anything to you, but you're safe here."
Back to Mike. "You gonna be okay by yourself?"
"Yeah. Thanks for helping."
Once Jessica got home, the first thing she did was change and take a shower. She smelled like rain and the woods. After that, she tossed her clothes and the blanket from her car in the washing machine. The blanket had really come in handy since two soaked pre-teens had been in her car. The only reason she'd even had a blanket was because she kept one in her trunk for nice nights where she could go somewhere and just lay out and look at the stars. She hadn't been getting much use out of it because it was the beginning of November, but it had definitely been useful that night in covering the girl with only a t-shirt on. And why had that been the only thing she'd been wearing? Had she escaped with only a hospital gown or something?
It was already close to eleven – she would never be able to think of that number again without relating it to the girl they'd found that night.
She probably wouldn't be able to get to bed until after midnight, wouldn't get to sleep until after one. Dustin was already asleep when she checked on him. She was amazed he'd been able to relax so quickly. She was also slightly envious.
Jessica wouldn't have been able to sleep right away anyway. She still had about an hours' worth of homework to do, that she would have been done with already if she hadn't had to stop to make sure her brother and his friends were okay. She couldn't bring herself to be too angry, though, because, even though they hadn't found Will, they had found someone else who'd needed help.
Jessica made herself some hot tea and settled herself at the kitchen table. It was going to be a long day tomorrow.
It was a long day. Jessica was out of it by third period. She'd gotten maybe two hours of uninterrupted sleep, the rest of the night filled with dozing and jerking awake whenever the thunder rumbled too loudly and remembering the animal snarling she'd heard in the woods before finding El earlier.
At least she'd been able to eat breakfast that morning, and Steve had met her in the parking lot before school. The Steve part had been nice; the Tommy and Carol part had been less nice.
"What happened to you?" Carol asked, not out of any real concern, but because Jessica usually looked well put together. That day, however, Jessica had just thrown on whatever and put her hair up in a ponytail. She hadn't even tried to tame her curls, so now it was messy and bushy, a few strands loose around her face.
She'd moved past them and headed to her locker, where she found that Jonathan wasn't there again. She hadn't expected him to be, but it didn't make her worry any less. It meant that Will still hadn't been found. Statistics showed that the first twenty-four hours were the most crucial in a missing person's case, which was stupid, really, because most cops didn't consider a missing person an actual missing person until after they'd been gone for twenty-four hours. If those hours were the most crucial then why did you have to wait to file a report?
Before fourth period she caught up with Steve and the two jerks. Nancy and Barb were there too. Barb was Nancy's best friend. Jessica had met both of them before – Nancy because of Dustin's friendship with Mike, Barb because of school – and said hi to them in passing when she could. She wouldn't call them her friends, however.
Steve was having a get-together at his house that night because his parents weren't going to be home – surprise, surprise! His parents were almost never home. His dad had a lot of company conventions he had to go to, and his mother went with him because he had straying eyes and hands and other parts of his anatomy that Jessica didn't ever want to think about. The point was that Mr. Harrington had to be kept in check, which meant that Steve was left alone most of the time. He had to find companionship somehow.
Steve invited all of them there in the group.
"It's Tuesday," Nancy stated, making it sound like the most scandalous thing she'd ever heard of, for which Tommy and Carol teased her.
Even Jessica laughed, but she was genuinely amused by the innocence of Nancy's statement. She wasn't being mean.
"It's not such a big deal," Jessica said. "You don't have to do anything you don't want to. And if you decide you're not having fun, you can leave."
"Does that mean you're going?" Barb asked.
Jessica shook her head and noticed when Steve's face fell a little. She hated disappointing him, but with everything that was going on she really couldn't afford to go to a party.
"My brother did something stupid last night, and I'm pretty sure he's planning on repeating the idiocy. I can't let him."
"So tell your mom," Steve suggested, doe eyes gently pleading. Really, those things were lethal. "Come."
"Well, I –"
"Oh, look," Carol interrupted.
Because of the tone of her voice, Jessica did look. Jonathan was there, a couple yards away from them, pinning a flyer to the board of announcements the school kept near the office.
"That's depressing," Steve said.
"Should we say something?" Nancy asked.
"I don't think he speaks," Carol quipped.
"How much you wanna bet he killed him?" Tommy said, earning a shove from Steve and an eyeroll from Jessica.
"You're such a jerk. Do you ever think before you speak?"
Jessica basically stormed away toward Jonathan, not really caring what the others thought of her. When she reached him, she was surprised to find that Nancy had followed her over.
Nancy telling Jonathan how much it sucked that Will had gone missing and how sorry she was was probably the most awkward conversation Jessica had ever witnessed, but when Nancy said that Will was a smart kid and he'd be fine because of it, Jessica gave her a small encouraging smile.
Soon the bell rang, and Nancy hurried off while Jessica stayed where she was. Steve's group had no problem leaving Jessica behind. Steve had hesitated for maybe a second before heading to class as well.
"So . . . about the flyers . . . do you need help?"
Jonathan shook his head. "You know your social life is taking a swan dive just because you're talking to me?"
"Oh, who cares? The only reason people even pay attention to me is because of who I hang around."
"I don't think that's true. You'd still be the school's Golden Girl."
"I hate that name."
"Why? I mean, I know why you hate it from Tommy and Carol because they see it as something bad, but the rest of the school uses it because you're so nice. And you're not like the people you hang out with. People respect you here, and it has nothing to do with how many beers you can drink at a time."
Jonathan gave an actual real smile, though he didn't show his teeth, but it only lasted a few seconds.
"Are you sticking around for the rest of the day?" Jessica asked, trying not to show how much Jonathan's words had touched her. She realized then that Jonathan Byers wasn't detached from reality at all; he just chose not to participate in the inane things around him.
"Nah. Hopper said ninety-nine out of a hundred times it has something to do with a parent or relative if a kid goes missing."
"Your dad," she surmised.
"Yeah. Gonna go see him. He's never taken an interest before, but . . ."
"You have to do something or else you'll go crazy?"
"Yeah. See ya."
Jessica watched as he walked away and then went to her next class. She didn't really care that she was late. The teacher didn't either, really, because she didn't make a habit of it.
The rest of the school day droned on in its normal boring way aside from the fact that Tommy and Carol kept looking at her as if they had no idea who she was. They acted as if she'd done something wrong by caring about Will Byers and talking to Jonathan. And Steve let them treat her that way even if he wasn't actively doing the same.
Having had enough of that kind of behavior Jessica went straight home after school even though she knew Steve would want to talk to her in the parking lot and try to get her to change her mind about the party that night. She might have been tempted if he hadn't been acting like a jerk the second half of the day.
It was good that she had gone straight home because her mother said Mike had called and needed to talk to her.
"When was this?"
"Fifteen minutes ago. He said he wanted you to call him back."
"Right." She assumed Mike had stayed home that day because middle school hadn't been let out yet. "I'll get right on that."
She went to the kitchen, dropped her stuff on the floor, and grabbed the phone receiver off the wall. The only reason she even knew the Wheeler's number was because of Dustin sometimes spending the night over there.
Mike picked up after the third ring. He seemed slightly out of breath, as if the air had been knocked out of him.
"Are you okay?"
"Yeah, I'm great. Remember how you said you'd help anytime?"
"Yeah," she answered hesitantly, hoping her words weren't about to bite her on the butt.
"El pointed to Will in one of my pictures. She . . . she might know what happened to him."
"She didn't say?"
"No, but think about it. We found her on Mirkwood, the same place Will's bike was found. And she said bad people were after her. What if these bad people are the same ones who took Will?"
"You really think she knows?"
"Yeah, just let Dustin know when he gets home. I'll take care of Lucas."
"I'll tell Dustin, but Mike . . . I'm coming with him. I'm part of this."
"Why do you think I called?"
Once Dustin got home he and Jessica high-tailed it to Mike's, Dustin insisting on using his bike so he could catch up with Lucas and ride with him.
Everyone congregated in Mike's room as they arrived. Most of the stuff in it was science related, and it made Jessica feel really out of place. Science was not her subject.
Eleven was there, seated Indian-style, on Mike's bed. She had different clothes on than the night before. Dustin was quiet when he saw her, Lucas was very vocal about his dislike of the situation. He wanted to tell Mike's mom.
"No. Eleven made it clear we'd all be in danger if any adults got involved."
"Her name is Eleven?"
"El for short."
"What type of danger?" Dustin asked.
"Danger danger." Mike mimicked a gun with his hand like El had done the night before and pointed it at Dustin's head.
"No. No. No. We're going back to plan A. We're telling your mom."
"Lucas –" Jessica started, but he had already opened the bedroom door.
The door, however, slammed shut seemingly on its own. Lucas tried again with the same result, only this time the door also locked. A few game pieces seated on the shelf beside the door fell over, and everyone stood frozen.
What had just happened? And how? Doors didn't just close on their own, and they definitely couldn't lock on their own.
"No," Eleven said, simply but firmly, still seated on the bed.
They all turned at the sound of her voice. El's nose was bleeding now, the crimson liquid trailing from one nostril down towards her upper lip. El didn't seem concerned about it, but Jessica still reacted by rushing forward and trying to get El to lean her head back. She didn't mean to scare the girl, but she guessed she did because El's eyes widened even as she did as Jessica said.
"It's okay," Mike said. "She's not gonna hurt you."
Eleven's nosebleed didn't last long, and Jessica soon realized she'd overreacted, and remembered what had happened before with the door.
"Did you do that?" she asked El.
If Eleven could do things like that, Jessica was beginning to get a clearer picture of what had happened to her. She had escaped from a lab of some sort, maybe even the lab that was in Hawkins, though Jessica had always believed that lab had been some Department of Energy building for the government. They'd definitely had energy, if they'd been keeping her there.
When El didn't respond to Jessica's question she asked it again, adding. "Remember what I said last night? We can't help you if you don't tell us the truth."
"Yes," El forced out.
"I don't know how much she knows," Mike admitted. "I've been showing her stuff all day – or until Mom got back home, anyway."
Mrs. Wheeler was home and had been since that morning. She'd gone to the store with Holly after Mike had left for school. He'd doubled back once his mother had gone – his father had gone to work before Mike had even woken up that morning. Mrs. Wheeler had walked in as Mike had been showing El around the house and that was why they were both up in Mike's room.
Jessica looked the boys' way. Mike seemed almost unfazed by the way the door had closed by itself, but Lucas seemed a little freaked out. Dustin's face showed amazement.
Jessica felt a natural instinct to try to find a normal, logical, reason for the door to slam on its own – like a blast of air from an open window or something. Even though El had confirmed that she'd made the door slam, Jessica couldn't get her head around the concept. Things like this didn't happen outside of books and movies.
"We never would've upset you if we'd known you had super powers," Dustin said, to which Mike punched him in the arm, and Jessica laughed.
She did not find Mike punching her brother amusing, but hysteria was building up inside of her and Jessica had no other way of getting it out other than crying, and she didn't want to do that. So she laughed instead.
"What Dustin is trying to say is that they were just scared," Mike explained.
"We just want to find our friend," Lucas added.
"Friend?" El asked. The confusion and curiosity in her voice broke Jessica's heart. She realized El had probably never had a friend.
"Yeah. Friend," Lucas said. "Will."
"What . . . is friend?"
"Is she serious?" Lucas asked; Dustin shrugged. "Uh, friend –"
"Is someone that you'd do anything for," Mike interrupted.
"You lend them your cool stuff," Dustin added. "Like comic books and trading cards."
"And they never break a promise."
"Especially when there's spit."
"Ew, we're not teaching her that," Jessica exclaimed. "It's gross, and unhygienic."
Lucas, however, had already spit in his hand to demonstrate and was now grabbing Dustin's hand. Dustin looked just as grossed out as Jessica felt, and he quickly wiped his hand off on his pants.
"A spit swear means you can't break your promise. It's your bond," Lucas said.
"And that's important," Mike took over, "because friends . . . they tell each other things. Things that parents don't know."
"Mike said you pointed to Will in a picture," Jessica said. "Do you know him?"
"Are the people who had you the ones who have him now?"
"Then how did you recognize him?"
El didn't respond, so Mike tried.
"Did you see him? On Mirkwood?"
"Wait. Where's Mirkwood? You mentioned it earlier, but –"
"The road we were on last night," Dustin said. "We call it that. It's from The Hobbit."
"Do you know where he is?"
"Game," El responded.
"Game?" Jessica looked at Mike. "Did you guys play a game?"
"No. The only game she could be talking about is D and D. She saw the board."
"Yes," was El's response.
Mike's mom was in the kitchen fixing dinner, so getting El back in the basement wasn't a problem. Once down there, she headed to the gameboard, knocked all the pieces off but one – a wizard-looking thing – and then, holding the piece, turned the board over. She placed the piece down on the dark board.
"Will," she said.
"I don't understand," Jessica said.
"That's Will's piece," Dustin explained.
"Super powers," he argued.
Jessica rolled her eyes and Lucas shook his head.
"Hiding," El said.
"Will is hiding?"
El nodded, and Lucas leaned over the board.
"From the bad men?" But El shook her head, eyes still focusing on the wizard thing. "Then from who?"
El picked up another piece and placed it on the board. This time it was a two headed dragon thing. Jessica had no clue what it was, but she knew it couldn't be good. It just looked evil. She suddenly remembered the horrible screeching she'd heard the night before in the woods.
"Okay, what is that?" she asked once she realized how spooked Dustin looked and how seriously Mike and Lucas were focused on the board.
"It's a demogorgan," Dustin said. "A demon prince."
"A demon prince? Naturally. Is there a way to kill this . . . demogorgan?"
"Well, in the game, yeah, sure," Mike said. "But we just want Will back."
"Do you feel the need to go back out tonight to look for him?"
"I don't think we'll find him. Not if he's hiding."
"Okay, good. You guys call if you change your minds."
"Wait, you're not staying?" Dustin asked.
"I can't. Mom will know something's up if I stay here too long. Right?"
"Right. Okay. You're going home, though, right?"
She'd contemplated actually going to Steve's get-together, but after the way Tommy and Carol had treated her, and after the way Steve had gone along with it, she'd decided she wasn't going to even bother. She'd felt more included and needed in her brother's group of friends than she had in Steve's life for a while now.
And she hadn't been able to be as open and deep with Steve as she'd been with Jonathan. He'd become . . . a shallow, rich, white boy. Only . . . she knew he wasn't. He only made himself appear that way in front of Tommy and Carol because he thought it was impressive not to care.
In a way, that was worse. Steve obviously didn't think people would accept him if he let himself be himself. All she knew was that she didn't like who he had become just to appear cool in front of other people.