Friday, January 6, 1984
Hopper turned off his flashlight as he mounted the cabin's front porch and knocked twice, once, three time. U S. It was a self indulgent password he wasn't ready to own the significance of to anyone yet; not even himself. The locks flipped open and he walked in to find Eleven sitting across the room watching him. He knew she had these abilities, he'd witnessed her use them on a daily basis, but yet, somehow he still found it difficult to wrap his brain around them in practice.
"Hey, kid," he greeted her warmly and she gave him a small smile in return. "What did you get up to today?"
Eleven looked over at the television. The screen was black now, but Hopper has the sneaking suspicion that she'd been spending her whole days parked in front of it while he was at work. He couldn't blame her as she must get pretty bored, but he was pretty sure it wasn't good for her either.
Not long after Sara died, Hopper realized that he either had to find a way to turn off the memories or else be lost to them. He'd almost managed to keep them locked away, but every now and again, one would escape. Usually it was a painful reminder of the life he'd lost but sometimes, especially now, it was actually helpful to him. He unconsciously touched the blue hairband around his wrist and recalled the times when he worked the night shift opposite Diane in order to save on daycare for Sara. How Diane lectured him about the need for structure and routine and not just television even it if was PBS. Diane didn't need to know that their routine consisted of coffee and donuts before making their way to the park to hang out with the old men playing chess on concrete tables.
"So, uh, I've been thinking," he began haltingly as he removed his hat, coat and sidearm. "You have a lot of learning to do to catch up to other kids your age, you know? So we could being using our time to work on that."
"School?" she asked with guarded hopefulness.
"Well," he hesitated, not wanting to dash her hopes. "Sure, just not right away. Right now, those bad men are still looking for you and they'd just walk right into that school and take you. So we've got to be smart about this, yeah?"
"Yes." It was back. The reluctant I-know-I-don't-really-have-a-choice-in-the-matter-so-I'm-saying-yes-because-you-expect-me-to yes. God, how he hated that yes.
"There are some books I could bring you and you could work on them during the day. It would give you something to do other than watching TV."
And even though Hopper had never asked her to do anything unpleasant, other than to keep the curtain closed when she showered so that water didn't get all over the bathroom (and when she managed to drench the bathroom testing the limits of just how much she could leave the curtain open, he didn't even get mad at her), Eleven was leery of being given tasks to complete.
Hopper noticed the change in her facial expression and tried to lighten the mood, "I brought you something." Hopper reached for the shopping bag Eleven didn't realize he'd set down next to the cabin door and held it out to her. If anything Eleven appeared to be even more apprehensive. He didn't understand why the promise new things wasn't enticing to her. There was no way for Hopper to know that Papa's gifts always came with strings attached, so the timing of bringing up school work followed by a reward was an unfortunately familiar pattern to her.
Eleven swallowed hard and took the bag from his waiting hand because it was clear to her that was what he expected. The bag held a mismatched assortment of rectangular boxes, some with brightly colored designs and others with pictures of smiling children.
"Board games," he announced, answering the unspoken question. Hopper was rather proud of himself for having figured out a way to spend their evenings other than just awkward attempts at one sided small talk.
"Don't know how," she told him nervously.
"That's ok, I'll teach you after dinner, alright?"
She nodded and sat at the table to watch Hopper begin a meal. After the unfortunately incident with the dishcloth, Eleven was reluctant to use the stove again and Hopper decided to not push it.
They began with checkers. It was simple and required no outside knowledge. And unlike backgammon that was printed on the flip side of the checker board, Hopper could actually remember the rules. Hopper pulled out the black and cream game board and showed Eleven how to set up the little red and black disks.
"Are you sure that's where you want to move?" Hopper asked when Eleven so obviously put her last three pieces into harm's way that it couldn't have simple unfamiliarity with the game. She paused, finger still on the piece in question and tried to get a read on him. Eleven wasn't sure what to make of a game where the only two possible outcomes were for her to fail or for her to make Hopper fail and she was conflicted trying to decide which result he was looking for. Papa would not have wanted either.
She moved the piece in the opposite direction, effectively trapping one of Hopper's few remaining pieces and noticed that even though his face wasn't smiling, his eyes were. He did want her to win, after all. Eleven found that when her attentions were focused on the strategy of the game rather than the strategy of pleasing Hopper, she actually enjoyed playing. After the fifth round, Hopper checked his watch and was surprised to see it was almost 9:30 pm.
"Alright, kid," he told her and he leaned back in his chair to stretch his back, "that's enough for tonight. We should probably get some sleep."
Eleven nodded silently as she slid out of her seat at the table and headed into her bedroom. Hopper repacked the game pieces into the box, cleaned the small number of dishes still sitting in the sink and found himself smiling absently. It had been a nice evening, he'd found a way to connect with Eleven that didn't require her to talk too much and she seemed like she'd genuinely enjoyed herself. He was about to reward himself with a beer while watching the late news when he looked up to find her half-hidden by her bedroom door, staring out at him.
"Everything ok?" He asked her, having long since given up on waiting for her to start the conversation.
She shifted her weight from one foot to the other, not knowing how to express her desires and not sure how Hopper would respond anyway.
"Alone? Do you mean you're lonely?"
She nodded solemnly.
When Eleven first came to the cabin, she was so exhausted that she didn't fall asleep so much as lose consciousness. Once she physically recovered from a month of living in the rough, he was aware that she took longer to fall asleep, but it hadn't occurred to him that she might be lonely. Another memory slipped free. One about Sara in the hospital when she couldn't sleep because of the lights left on for the nurses and the sounds of the machines and the fear of knowing that death was hunting her. Powerless to do much of anything else, he read to her for hours. He vaguely remembered Diane telling him something about the educational importance of reading to children. He didn't read to Sara to make her smarter, he read to her to distract them both from the hopelessness of her situation, but Eleven could probably use both a the education boost and the distraction.
The only children's book in the cabin was tucked away in the flowered box labeled "Sara" and he wasn't ready to share that with Eleven. It felt disloyal, somehow.
"You want to watch some TV with me until you're tired?" he offered her instead, thinking he would get some appropriate books the next day.
Again she nodded and settled into the sofa while he turned on the news. In the time it took him to walk the ten feet from the TV set to the sofa, she'd already changed the channel. She suppressed an impish grin and he pretended to be annoyed. There weren't many channels to choose from, but when the weather was right, their rabbit ear antenna could pick up a station out of Chicago that played old movies after the prime time array of sitcoms and dramas were done for the night. "Stop here," he told her when he recognized a young John Wayne and Jimmy Stuart.
Eleven humored him because she wanted the company, though she had trouble following the plot of what exactly happened to Liberty Valance. Hopper watched Eleven's head bob up and down as she fought off sleep before she finally came to rest against his arm. He indulged himself in her soft little snores and stroked her hair that was just barely long enough to start to curl. He never would have guessed that when hair finally grew back, it would be curly. The painful thought that Sara's curly hair never had a chance to grow back crossed his mind and he quickly squashed it.
Tomorrow he would buy Eleven some of her own books and begin the monumental task of bringing her education current. But tonight he would let her sleep against his arm at least a little while longer.