The tears stung in the back of El’s eyes as she trudged through the woods, letting sticks and branches scrape her bare arms as she passed.
You should be wearing a coat, she could hear Joyce’s voice scolding her in her head. It was an unusually cold day for April, and the rain wasn’t helping. El bit her lip to keep from shivering as cool droplets hit her skin. At least it’s only drizzling now, she thought, but it didn’t matter much since she was already soaked to the bone.
Pushing Joyce’s voice out of her mind, El continued through the forest. She tried not to think of how warm and cozy the Byers’ living room would’ve been right then, or how Will had probably saved her a cup of hot cocoa, or how Jonathan would’ve wrapped a fluffy blanket around her shoulders and told her that everything would be okay, since he knew she didn’t enjoy this weather. She tried not to think about Will, who was the only person that understood why El didn’t like these days, where the sky was one vast white expanse like the walls she’d been confined to her whole life, and the rain reminded her of the leaky pipe just above the room where she slept in that cold dark place, where no one cared whether she caught a cold from not wearing a coat.
And then the stinging tears came rushing out, all at once. The wetness mixed with the drops of rain so that she couldn’t distinguish where her sadness started and where the water from the leaky pipe ended. Even with her vision blurred, El continued on, until she finally found the place she was looking for.
Taking in a shaky breath, she dried her eyes with the palm of her hand. The clearing looked the same as it had so long ago, the rusty cars and that old bus they’d hid in. It was as if it had frozen in time, along with that moment.
What is wrong with you?
El felt like she should ask herself the same thing. She sat on the hood of the nearest car, her feet thanking her for the rest. Her worn chucks, hanging on by a thread, weren’t meant to make that trip. The moment of rest was cut short when she felt as if she was sitting on something. El felt the back pocket of her jeans and pulled out what felt like a small metal box. Upon further inspection, a wave of memories crashed over her.
“Will says they’re not good for you.”
Joyce looked up from the newspaper, cigarette hanging in her mouth. “What?”
“Cigarettes.” El responded, trying out the new word.
The older woman didn’t seem mad, like El thought she would be. She set the newspaper down in front of her and sighed. “El, sweetie…”
“I just want you… to be okay.” She interrupted.
Joyce stopped mid-sentence, and regarded the young girl for a moment. “Fine. I’ll try to stop, at least for a little while.”
Joyce laughed. “Alright, I promise. You can even have my lighter.”
El rubbed her fingers against the smooth metal surface of the lighter. After remembering the moment with Joyce, she felt tears threatening to fall. She didn’t deserve that kindness. Joyce gave her so much, and what did El ever do in return? For the past week, she’d been ignoring everyone around her. She could tell they were hurt, but what could she say? That she was making daisy chains with Nancy, and the flowers were too much for her?
El shook her head and flipped the cap off of the lighter. After watching Joyce do it so many times, flicking on the flame was like second nature. She watched it twirl and dance in the cold air, like a beacon telling her that maybe not everything was white and gray in the world that day.
She began to think that the flickering flame was much prettier than the daisies that adorned Nancy’s head. While the daisies had a delicate beauty, they were too easily crushed; compared to the flame, they were weak. The fire was bright and hot and burned everything in its path. It wasn’t crushed beneath El’s palms.
She caught a glimpse of her reflection in the metal lighter- head shaved, gaze unwavering, and lips curled into the slightest of smiles. Her eyes fell back on the flame, which continued to shine despite being buffeted by the harsh winds. El closed the lighter and started walking, her eyes shining brighter than any halo of daisies.
A cup of hot cocoa was waiting for her.