Halloween Sequel Marathon

Here’s what I have planned for a Halloween marathon. All of these are sequels, so that’s the theme this year. Including my own novella mentioned at the bottom.

Friday-Monday, October 26-29: Stranger Things, Season 2. (2017) It was released last Halloween, and with the huge delay of season 3, it’s a suitable time to rewatch it. Fans continue to debate whether season 1 or 2 is better, and for me it’s clearly the second, as it goes darker and deeper in ways I didn’t expect. With the innocence of Hawkins lost, the previous year’s events have taken a toll on everyone, especially Mike Wheeler. Most directors wouldn’t have scripted an Emo Mike; they would have facsimiled the season-1 Mike in a pointless sequel. In order for Eleven’s sacrifice to be felt, it had to hurt Mike Wheeler and cause him to stagnate. He’s no longer the spirited leader of last year, and that’s as it should be. His sister Nancy is also dispirited, which is another refreshing bit of realism. Barb may have been a minor character in season 1, but she certainly wasn’t minor to Nancy. Noah Schnapp and Millie Bobby Brown practically carry the season in their ferocious performances, and it’s honestly some of the best child acting I’ve ever seen. The biggest challenge of the season was how to reintroduce Eleven, and the Duffers nailed it. If they had reunited Eleven with the other kids too quickly, it would have cheapened her season-1 sacrifice. Saving her re-entry for the finale was the right decision, and few scriptwriters have the balls to make such decisions. Season 1 made us long for the simpler times of youth when kids were more independent. There’s some of that still in season 2, but it’s much more character driven, and focused on the inner turmoils of the kids, Hopper, and Joyce as they confront a much worse threat from the Upside Down. Mix all that with the Halloween theme, and this sequel season should become your #1 marathon priority.

Tuesday, October 30: The Exorcist III: Legion. (1990) Everyone knows The Exorcist II: The Heretic is the worst horror sequel ever made, and it’s also the worst horror film I’ve seen period. The Exorcist III is the true sequel, based on the novel Legion written by William Peter Blatty, who also wrote and directed the film adaptation. I can’t imagine Legion as the product of a film maker, no matter how talented, who isn’t also a novelist. It’s approach is patient. I remember when I first saw it in the theater (in 1990), and there were two scenes in particular that had me panic stricken: the Gemini Killer’s hideous recounting of his sins in the confessional booth before he kills the priest, and Lieutenant Kinderman’s first sight of Patient X in the psychiatric ward, who is revealed to be the wasted figure of Father Karras, who died in the first film. There are some who even think Legion is a scarier and better film than The Exorcist itself, and though I don’t agree with that, I do acknowledge that you can make a case for it. An acquaintance of mine described the film this way: “You can’t imagine anyone making this film who doesn’t 100% believe in manifest evil. It pull no punches and carries a tone which says, ‘This is not entertainment. This is a glimpse into the dark side.’ ” Of course, I would say that statement applies to The Exorcist, and yet in some ways I find Legion more deeply chilling. It’s way underappreciated, and I plan to be terrorized by it on the night before Halloween.

Wednesday, October 31: Halloween II. (2009) I’m not kidding when I say this is the best entry in the Halloween franchise. Carpenter’s classic (1978) and Zombie’s remake (2007) are usually the ones praised, and they are good, but the Carpenter original hasn’t aged well on me (a major reason being the use of actors in their late 20s to play high-school teenagers, which I find insufferable), while Zombie’s remake is a very mixed bag. It gave Halloween more bite for a 21st-century audience, but it tried to be too many things at once — a prequel, a remake, and a Rob Zombie film. In the sequel to his own remake, Zombie finally did everything on his own terms. This is not a remake of the original Halloween II, which was a shitty film in every way, like most of the Halloween franchise. It’s Zombie continuing where his remake left off, but going in a different direction taken by the ’80s sequels. It panders to no one, and Zombie doesn’t care whom he offends with scenes of nasty brutality. He gives serious attention to the trauma suffered by Laurie from events in Halloween, making Halloween II the rare slasher that shows what mindless killing really does to people. The character of Dr. Loomis almost steals the show: Malcolm McDowell is able to go places he could only touch in Halloween given the constraints of the remake. Here he’s a complete asshole, in love with himself as a celebrity, and no longer gives a damn about Laurie Strode or Michael Myers. He attends promotional events for his book, goes on tirades when when audience members don’t fawn over him, and repeatedly insults his assistant for offering him kind but unwanted opinions. I’ve seen Halloween II many times, and I’m going to enjoy it again this Halloween night.

Reading Material

On this front, allow me to shamelessly plug my fan-fiction novella, Stranger Things: The New Generation, which is the sequel to Stranger Things: The College Years. I will start posting the chapters to The New Generation on Sunday, October 28. Like the second season of Stranger Things, it’s set during Halloween, and I tried milking the theme for all its worth.

Advertisements

Four Models of Time Travel

Now that I’ve written a time travel story, I have a deeper appreciation of the genre’s challenges. It’s hard to make time travel work logistically and still have compelling drama. So here are my thoughts on the good and bad ways time travel has been handled on screen. I’ll focus on four models: (a) the single timeline, (b) multiple timelines, (c) the repeated loop, and (d) the universe fights back.

A. Single Timeline (Everything Predestined)

The most elegant model is the single timeline, or time stream, or universe, which amounts to a closed loop. In its simplest terms: the future time traveler was always in the past. Any “changes” made to the past are not changes at all, because they already occurred. It’s impossible to change the past, since the past has already happened. Which came first, chicken or egg?

A famous example of this model is used in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004). In the story Harry and his friends are saved from dying by their futures selves, and so Harry later realizes that he has to go back in time to save his past self. Everything plays out exactly as before, and there’s no change on the timeline.

A more obscure example is the romance Somewhere in Time (1980), which uses the trope of self-hypnosis as the means of time travel. A playwright named Richard Collier travels from 1980 back to 1912, after being haunted by an encounter with an old woman who approached him out of the blue and told him to “Come back to me”, then disappeared. He later learned that she was a stage actress named Elise McKenna. Through self-hypnosis he sends himself back to 1912, where he meets Elise and they fall in love; their romance is later interrupted when he unintentionally transports himself back to 1980. Like the Harry Potter story, this forms a closed loop: Richard sends himself back in time because Elise tells him to; but Elise can only tell him to because she has already lived through their love affair when he sent himself back in time.

The following three films are my favorite examples of the single timeline model, in which everything is predestined. When I say “predestined”, I don’t mean that in a philosophical or religious sense. Single timelines have nothing to do with the issue of free will. I mean simply that everything has already happened: the future self was always in the past to begin with. The future self is not changing anything or creating new events by traveling to the past; it’s impossible to change the past.

1. Predestination (2014). The gold standard of the single timeline model is based on a short story written by Robert Heinlein, and portrays what sounds impossible: four characters of different genders and living in different times are the exact same person: Jane from 1945-1963; John from 1963-1970, and then 1985-1992; the Barkeep from 1992+; and a terrorist known as the Fizzle Bomber sometime in 21st century. Again, they are literally the same person. (In the above photo, Barkeep John is on the left, speaking to younger John on the right, in 1970.)

This single person interacts with him/herself as follows: The Barkeep is from the late ’90s, but he has a time machine, and he bases himself in the year 1970, to await a meeting with his younger self. After listening to his younger self vent rage against a world that has treated him unfairly, the Barkeep takes him back to 1963, and drops him off for a night, where he impregnates Jane who is himself. She has the baby who is her own self, but there are complications with the birth that require a sex change surgery. After the operation, she takes the name of John. The Barkeep travels from the future to steal the baby after she is born, and he then takes her back in time to the year 1945, and leaves her at an orphanage, so that she can start growing up from the year 1945. The Barkeep takes John to the year 1985, where he becomes a counter-terror agent. In 1992 John encounters the Fizzle Bomber, and his face is maimed in an explosion. John now looks totally different — he has the face of the Barkeep. He acquires a time machine from his employer, and retires, traveling back to the year 1970 where he bases himself, to await the younger John, and fulfill the above cycle of events. Barkeep John returns to his time in the future, and at some point in the 21st century encounters the Fizzle Bomber again, but this time he sees that it is himself, much older, with grey hair and a beard. He vows that he will never become a terrorist and shoots the Fizzle Bomber on the spot. The movie ends with the clear implication that he will eventually become the Fizzle Bomber, as he is being slowly driven crazy by all the jumps he has taken through time.

Here’s how it maps out:

 

I don’t think any writer has ever outdone Heinlein on this concept — that four people of different genders can be the same person in four different time periods, and all from the same (closed) time stream. The filmmakers adapted it superbly.

2. Timecrimes (2007). A rustic Spanish countryside isn’t a typical setting for a time travel story, and the novelty is refreshing. A man named Hector travels back one hour in time, and then does so again, so that there are three versions of himself for the duration of that hour. During that hour, the second and third versions of himself uphold the initial sequence of events, sometimes intentionally, sometimes by accident. The only exception is when the third version of Hector tries to kill the second version (thinking that he’s protecting his wife from himself), but fails in the attempt. Everything plays out as before, and nothing is changed. It’s a fatalist drama of the single time stream, but it delivers plenty of surprises nonetheless.

The key is to understand that throughout the film there are always three Hectors in the hour duration. Hector 3 was always in the background, plotting his shenanigans against Hector 2. He fails to kill Hector 2, but he does injure him (as he himself had been injured in the same way), which causes Hector 2 to bandage his face and enter the forest with a woman whom he assaults. This prompts Hector 1 to investigate, which is what we see towards the start of the film: The first version of Hector sits on his house lawn looking into the forest with a pair of binoculars; he sees a woman being attacked by a “stranger” in a head bandage, and so goes to investigate, gets stabbed by the “stranger” (who is himself), and then flees up the forest path. He comes to an isolated shed where a scientist has created a time travel bath. The bath can only send people back in time for as long as it has been turned on, and Hector 1 hides inside it, not knowing what it is, and gets sent back in time one hour, where he becomes Hector 2. And so forth. The following diagram maps out the hour’s events:

 

What’s interesting is that Hectors 2 and 3 go out of their way to uphold the original events they’ve experienced (with the single exception of Hector 3’s failed attempt to kill Hector 2). On some level, the Hectors understand that changing time, if it were even possible, would wreak havoc by killing his own self. There is brilliant tragedy in the way Hector 2 finally returns home still bandaged and accidentally causes his wife (or who appears to be his wife from a distance) to fall off the roof of their house and die. This is why he goes back in time again, to become Hector 3: to kill Hector 2, even though this would result in his own death. Hector 3 fails, but he manages to save his wife by sacrificing another innocent woman in her place — who of course was really the one killed all along. Timecrimes is an underappreciated effort, and my second favorite of the closed loop model.

3. The Terminator (1984). Forget the lousy sequels — and yes, I’m including Terminator 2 in that indictment — the first is the only good one. Not surprisingly, it’s also the only one that forms a singular timeline in which nothing changes. In the far future, machines have taken over the world and are warring on humankind. A man named John Connor leads the resistance against them, and he stands a good chance of turning the tide. The machines become desperate, and decide to send back a terminator in time, to kill John Connor’s mother in the year 1984, so that she will never give birth to John — a preemptive abortion, in effect, before she even gets pregnant. However, the humans in the future learn what the machines are trying, and so they too send back a man, Kyle Reese, to protect Sarah Connor from being assassinated by the terminator. It turns out that Reese is John Connor’s father, but Reese doesn’t know this. In the past, while protecting Sarah against the terminator, he falls in love with her and gets her pregnant. The terminator eventually kills him, and Sarah succeeds in killing the terminator. Sarah knows she will have to teach her son someday that he is destined to lead the war against the machines, and that he will have to send Kyle Reese back to protect her, so that he (John) can be born. The spare robot parts left behind by the dead terminator ensured that machine technology will evolve in such a way that will allow the machines to take over some day. All of this forms a closed loop: neither past nor future is changed.

Unfortunately, the franchise ruined a good thing (as franchises often do), serving up sequel after sequel in which history changes in cheesy and non-compelling ways. In Terminator 2 we learn that the arm and chip of the first terminator technology was improved dramatically. Most significantly, the protagonists are able stop the apocalypse of Judgment Day — which means that not only will John Connor never lead a war against the machines (in the present timeline), he will never have been born (in any future timelines), since he has no reason to send Kyle Reese back in time. Films 3-5 try salvaging new drama from this, and the result is a mess. Here’s the plotting of all five films:

It’s not that there is anything wrong with the multiple timeline approach — as I explain below, I actually think it’s the superior model — only that the Terminator franchise didn’t use it well; the stories of T2-5 are lame. Let’s look now at the better ways the model has been used.

B. Multiple Timelines (Changing History)

Changing history is fun and offers high-stakes drama, but it’s hard to do right by. Most filmmakers blunder at some point. The idea is simple enough: the act of time travel automatically changes the past and forces the universe on to a different trajectory. It creates a new timeline, or an alternate history, a new causal chain, or a parallel universe — whatever you want to call it (see right diagram). Because it is a new timeline, it operates independently of the original one. That last part is what often gets muddled.

The most celebrated example of this model is Back to the Future (1985). Marty McFly goes back in time, and when he returns to the present, he finds that his parents are much more enjoyable people. For the most part the logistics are handled well, but there are some silly elements, as when for example Marty’s body starts to fade as he intervenes in the past, and starts to prevent his parents from falling in love. This misses the whole point of new time streams. Marty can’t possibly erase himself, because he comes from a time stream in which those threats to his existence never happened. If his parents don’t hook up, all that means is that there won’t be a version of himself born in the new timeline; it has no bearing on any versions of himself in or from other timelines.

Another fan favorite is Looper (2012), a thriller about time-traveling hit men. As a film it’s pretty good, but it gets hopelessly lost up its ass in mixing the two models. On the one hand, sending someone to the past creates a new timeline. On the other hand, that new timeline is treated as singular and closed, as when we see older versions of time travelers effected by what’s happening to their younger counterparts. So for example, when Young Joe carves “Beatrix” into his arm, it instantly appears on Old Joe as a scar. The problem is that Looper is supposed to be about a closed time loop when it’s really about a malleable future. On top of that, Joe’s sacrifice at the end is for nothing, because it won’t necessarily do anything to stop the Rainmaker’s creation. Looper does okay as a dramatic thriller, but it fails as a time travel story.

Here are two films which use the multiple timelines model flawlessly. And they’re excellent drama besides.

1. Deja Vu (2006). Arguably Tony Scott’s best film, Deja Vu is a film I could talk about all day. One critic has called it a digital version of Vertigo, for the way it explores obsession, fractured identity, and time travel. Considering the terrorist theme, Déjà Vu is surprisingly apolitical, and unlike Scott’s other films (like Man on Fire), it finds its solution not in revenge, but in the obsessive desire to go back in time and prevent the whole thing from happening — to save hundreds of lives, especially the one person you can’t stop thinking about, even if you don’t stand much chance of surviving the trip. Who else to play such a hero than Denzel Washington?

Denzel is Doug Carlin, a law official who has been recruited by a team of government agents who use a time machine to look into the past and solve difficult crimes. But Doug’s ambitions exceed theirs, and he persuades them to use the machine for time traveling purposes, so as to change events and prevent a ferry bombing from ever happening. First he sends a note back to himself, and when that fails (doing far more harm than good), he sends himself back, saving Claire and the hundreds of people from being killed.

People have criticized Deja Vu as if it aspires to the single timeline model. They say it’s impossible for Doug to have gone back in time, because he ends up saving the day. Since he prevents the ferry explosion, there is no crime to investigate, and so he will never be recruited by the surveillance team who use the time machine, and will never be sent back in time; the new future isn’t the old one. That’s missing the colossal point. The new future isn’t supposed to be the old one. Doug changed the past in order to save lives. This isn’t the predestination model; it’s the multiverse model, and the film clearly telegraphs that when the team of scientists debate the nature of time, and Shanti starts talking about divergent time streams.

Here’s a map of the time streams in Deja Vu:

It’s an excellent map, though hard to read; you have to click on it twice, then scroll around. I’ll summarize the timelines, and highlight in blue the events we see play out in the film.

There need to be at least four streams to account for all the nuances in Deja Vu, though there could obviously be more; we simply don’t know how many times Doug had to send himself back in time until he finally saved the day. But at a bare minimum:

  • In Timeline 1, the terrorist calls Claire about the availability of her Bronco van on Sunday evening, but because she can’t meet his deadline, he buys a Blazer van from someone else instead. He uses the Blazer to blow up the ferry Tuesday morning at 10:50 AM, and Claire remains safe and alive in this timeline. When Doug comes on the scene, he is recruited by the team with the time machine, and they use the machine to send a note back in time, to warn himself about the ferry bomber who is casing the ferry early Monday morning. Sending back this note in time creates Timeline 2.
  • In Timeline 2, the terrorist calls Claire about the availability of her Bronco on Sunday evening, but because she can’t meet his deadline, he buys a Blazer from someone else instead, just as in Timeline 1. However, the note sent by Doug to himself from the future (in Timeline 1) arrives on his desk early Monday morning around 4:00 AM, and his partner Larry sees it. Larry takes action and goes to the ferry, where the terrorist shoots him, but not before Larry puts enough bullet holes in the Blazer that causes the terrorist to seek out Claire after all. On Tuesday morning he steals Claire’s Bronco, kidnaps her, takes her to his house, and then kills her, burning her alive and dumping her in the river. He then uses the Bronco to blow up the ferry at 10:50 AM. When Doug comes on the scene, he goes to the coroner’s and sees Claire’s body (not in a red dress), and when he investigates her home, there is no message for him on the fridge. As in Timeline 1, he and his team use the time machine to send a note back in time, to warn himself about the ferry bomber casing the ferry early Monday morning. But later, he also demands that he be sent back in time (to Monday evening), so that he can try to save Claire. Sending back the note and himself creates Timeline 3.
  • In Timeline 3, the events start out exactly as in Timeline 2, but now Future Doug (from Timeline 2) arrives in a hospital on Monday night at 7:00 PM, where he is barely resuscitated. He wakes up on Tuesday morning at 8:05 AM, steals an ambulance, and goes to the terrorist’s home; he rescues Claire but gets shot by the terrorist, who gets away in Claire’s Bronco. Future Doug then takes Claire back to her house, where she changes into a red dress, and helps bandage him. In case he fails, he writes a message to himself on the fridge: “u can save her”. He leaves Claire at the house and goes to the ferry alone at 9:45 AM. The terrorist returns to Claire’s house, kills her, and dumps her body in the river. He then proceeds to the ferry, where Future Doug fails to stop him and is killed. The terrorist uses the Bronco to blow up the ferry at 10:50 AM. When Doug — Present Doug, who belongs to this timeline, and the Doug we first see in the film — comes on the scene, he goes to the coroner’s and sees Claire’s body, in a red dress, and when he investigates her home, there is a message left by his future self (from Timeline 2), saying “u can save her”. As before, he and his team use the time machine to send a note back in time, to warn himself about the ferry bomber casing the ferry early Monday morning. Later, he demands that he be sent back in time (to Monday evening), so that he can try to save Claire. Sending back the note and himself creates Timeline 4.
  • In Timeline 4, the events proceed exactly as in Timeline 3, up to the point that Future Doug (from Timeline 3) rescues Claire and takes her back to her house, where she changes into a red dress, helps bandage him, and he leaves the note to himself on the fridge. But this time he does not leave Claire at the house; he takes her with him at 9:45 AM to the ferry, even though he doesn’t want to. He does this because he remembers seeing the blood swabs in Claire’s trash bins in Timeline 3, which look exactly like his own right now from being bandaged; he realizes that if he doesn’t do something different, or against what he wants to do, events will simply repeat as before. The terrorist goes back to Claire’s house to kill her, but she isn’t there. He then proceeds to the ferry, where Future Doug and Claire both stop him and save the day, though Doug is killed in the process. The film ends at this point: The new Present Doug comes on the scene, and he will have no crime to investigate and so will not be recruited by the surveillance team. He won’t see the clues left for him by his future self on Claire’s fridge; and he won’t need them. In saving the day, his future self finally closed the loop. All he will have to account for is a dead body — his own — when it is found. He sees Claire on the ferry and gets an odd feeling of deja vu, as if they’ve met before.

That’s how you write a good time travel story. And it raises interesting questions about the phenomenon of deja vu. When we experience it, is it because we’re “remembering” things that happened or are happening to ourselves in different time streams in different ways?

2. Primer (2004). It’s the most realistic time travel film ever made, and not surprisingly, since it was scripted by a scientist. The plot centers around two young geniuses, Aaron and Abe, who accidentally create a time machine in their garage. They can use the machine to go into the past, but only as far back as when the machine was first turned on. This is actually how a time machine would probably work if we ever succeeded in creating one. A physics professor at the University of Connecticut, Ronald Mallett, has been trying to create a device like this for years now — by using a series of circulating laser beams that swirl into a time tunnel. Walking into this tunnel would allow someone to go back in time, as long as it was to a point after the machine was switched on. So if you turned on the machine on September 1 and left it continually running to December 31, you could go back four months, but no more. That’s how the time machine works in Primer, and also how the time bath works in Timecrimes, which I covered above.

The first time Aaraon and Abe use the machine, they go back six hours (which takes six hours to do, sitting in the box of the machine), and make good money for themselves in stock trades since they know how the market will perform. That’s the easy trip to understand, shown in the first chart below. By the end of the film, things have become so complex that it’s virtually impossible to keep up with all the multiple versions of the characters intersecting multiple timelines. To understand the full picture — which may take four or five viewings — click on the larger chart below the first one.

 

 

The logistics in Primer are handled with an incredible level of precision, and even if you can never keep all the details straight, it’s an amazing viewing experience, one that I keep finding myself drawn back to.

Anything goes?

It’s worth noting that while the multiverse theory is the one increasingly embraced by scientists, for others it seems like an inelegant solution. Steven Lloyd Wilson is one such curmudgeon, expressing his dislike as follows:

“While the multiple timelines model has the appeal of being logically consistent, it has a glaring problem. It’s a brute force hammer of solving the problem, like multiplying by zero to demonstrate both sides of the equation are equal. It’s just plain inelegant. It also has the story flaw of essentially rendering time travel moot. If anything that can happen, has happened in an alternate timeline, then the actions of the characters do not matter one bit. Going back in time and killing Hitler as a baby doesn’t change anything, because there is still an original timeline in which he doesn’t die.”

I fail to see how time travel is rendered moot by the fact that there are other timelines — millions of them, probably — in which events proceed either slightly differently or very differently. This is what scientists talk about all the time, even aside from the question of time travel. And to say that the actions of the characters don’t matter is nonsense. If I can go back and save the life of a friend by creating a new reality, that obviously matters to me. I don’t care how many alternate realities there are in which my friend dies, because I’m able to experience the new reality in which he lives. The actions of the characters matter to themselves, even if they don’t matter to critics like Wilson who want the “elegance” of all time streams producing the same result (which is ridiculous). Or as Doug Carlin says in Deja Vu, “You can be wrong a million times, but you only have to be right once.”

I believe the multiple timelines model is the superior model. It’s the harder one to nail down and make dramatically effective, but when done right, the result is sublime.

C. The Repeated Loop (The Do-Over)

In the do-over, scenarios are repeated until the protagonist triggers a reset, usually by dying, going to sleep, or getting knocked unconscious. The protagonist then wakes up and repeats the scenario again, making different choices, until he or she can finally escape the loop.

For whatever reason, do-overs are often saturated with comedy. Perhaps it’s because repeating yourself over and over again is something you have to roll with and play for laughs in order to keep your wits. In Groundhog Day (1993), the Bill Murray character relives the same day over again, until he finally obtains love and happiness. In The Edge of Tomorrow (2014), Tom Cruise gets dropped on the field of battle after brutal training sessions, continually killed and reset until he destroys a monster alien. In Happy Death Day (2017), the Jessica Rothe character keeps waking up on her birthday and getting murdered later in the day, until she figures out who the killer is (her sorority roommate). In all of these examples, the tone asks us to not take the story too seriously.

My favorite examples of the do-over are one that almost no one has heard of, and another that everyone knows.

1. All the Time in the World (2017). This episode from Dark Matter (season 3, episode 4) runs the gamut with hilarious comedy, emotional poignancy, and dark tragedy. For my money, it’s the best do-over ever scripted. One of the Raza’s crew members starts living the same day over and over again, and half the battle is trying to convince his fellow crew members that they are caught in the same loop, even though he’s the only one who can remember reliving the events. They never believe him, even though he can predict every little thing each one of them is about to say and do. Finally he persuades the ship’s android to teach him French, so that when the crew hear him speak a language he’s never known or studied, they’ll start taking him seriously. There is also a serious side to this episode, as the crew are able to use his foreknowledge of the day’s events to foil an attack on the ship. And once the source of the time loop is discovered (a device confiscated from a scientist), the android tries an experiment, and in the process, she experiences a tragic future where all the crew are dead except the girl Five, who is now aged and offers dire prophecies. Five also tells the android how to break the time loop. I have made a video-clip of Three’s French tutorial and his hilarious breakthrough in persuading Two. And also the end clip — Five’s doomsday prophecy of the far future — for a complete switch in tone.

2. A Christmas Carol (1843). Dickens’ classic is a variation of the do-over. Scrooge gets to visit the future of his current timeline, and even though he can’t affect the timeline directly, he observes things which allow him to change his actions in the present. So instead of the timeline he’s on which results in Tiny Tim’s death, he’s able to make a different choice, and create a new timeline in which Tiny Tim lives. A Christmas Carol is probably the best do-over ever written, though few people think of it as a time-travel story.

D. The Universe Fights Back

This is technically a multiple timelines model, because it is possible to change the past. But doing so results in cosmic disaster. The universe resists any attempts to reorder it, and nasty shit happens when those attempts succeed. That implicitly appeals to the single timeline model: the timeline “must be protected from change” at all costs — or else.

A famous example is Stephen King’s 11/22/63, in which Jake Epping goes back to prevent JFK from being assassinated. He finds it extremely hard to do; the closer he draws to saving Kennedy, things work strangely against him. He manages to save Kennedy, but the world eventually goes to hell as it’s torn apart by world wars. It’s a fatalist view, and a lot like the single time stream model: the past is destined to stay the past; if it doesn’t, then calamity rains down. So Jake undoes his mistake and allows JFK to die after all; this gets the universe back on track.

It’s a silly idea — that the cosmos would “care” about altered events so as to “react” against them — but it produces potent drama if done right. As in this story:

Father’s Day (2005). The plot is simple, and the resolution predictable, but only in way the tragedy often is; the drama is brilliant, and the acting Oscar-worthy. Rose persuades the Doctor to take her back in time to when her father was killed by a motorist, and despite being forbidden to alter the past, she saves him anyway, ushering in Doomsday. Everywhere on earth people are suddenly assaulted by Reapers, winged parasites that act like antibodies, destroying everything in wounded time until the paradox is gone. Rose’s father, realizing he should be dead, sacrifices himself to get the world back on its proper course.

As I said, the premise is silly, and it doesn’t help that script writer Paul Cornell can’t seem to decide whether he wants his story to be a multiple timeline or single. In a scathing review of Father’s Day, Martin Izsak writes:

“People today don’t seem to appreciate how ridiculous it is to try to protect a past timeline as if it’s the only one in existence, and will let the boogeyman out of the closet if it’s messed with. You can experience as many other versions [of a person, or an event] as you can time-travel back to, and it would be nearly impossible to make all the ‘right’ choices to re-live any of them exactly as you remember them. So the Doctor, sadly, makes an ass of himself trying to defend Cornell’s model of time, and rightly gets tripped up when Rose confronts him for being hypocritical about the heroics he proudly displays in almost every other setting he lands in… I officially present Father’s Day with the Wooden Turkey Award for being the stinker of the 2005 Doctor Who season.”

I actually believe that Father’s Day holds up as one of the best Doctor Who episodes of all time, despite the accuracy of Izsak’s criticisms.

Darkness Unto Light. The Cinema of Ingmar Bergman

If you live in the Boston area, mark your calendar this fall for the Ingmar Bergman centennial tribute. Carson Lund has written up the program notes for Harvard, and I can’t imagine anyone better suited to the task. He and I ranked Bergman’s films in a blogathon six years ago. (See his list here and mine here.) The centennial will be covering all the essentials.

Darkness Unto Light. The Cinema of Ingmar Bergman (September 7 – October 14, 2018)

“Of all the iconic images that Ingmar Bergman forged in his long career, the one that sits in the public imagination most potently as a totem of his imposing, death-obsessed oeuvre is that of Bengt Ekerot’s pasty grim reaper staring down Max von Sydow’s dumbfounded knight on a stygian coastline sometime after the sputtering of the Crusades in The Seventh Seal, his arm outstretched to reveal the great black expanse of his shawl and his stark expression all but ensuring an unfortunate verdict. As a composition, it is formidable, and as an encapsulation of the confrontational directness with which Bergman’s films tackle mortality and other unpleasant human inevitabilities, it’s hard to beat. But another image from later in the same film, equally as unforgettable, manages to better distill the complex weave of contradictory feelings that his films evoke—the idea that in death and illness and madness there is also always humanity and light and memory. That, of course, would be the money shot in the film’s coda, a distant sunset view of silhouetted figures passing from one life to the next atop a hill, not trudging to their demise but dancing, hands interlocked.

“Such evocations of communal solidarity are rare in Bergman’s ruthlessly combative world, and so it’s fitting that this particular shot occurs in a liminal state beyond the narrative proper. With that said, Bergman’s characters, however wracked with doubt and despair they may be, could almost never be accused of apathy or complete surrender, and the crucibles they endure in pursuit of connection or just basic contentedness echo those of the filmmaker himself, whose six decades of cinematic production demonstrate a man fiercely contending with his demons through his art, occasionally pulling ahead and locating beauty if only to be dragged down yet again…”

Read the whole thing here.

Stranger Things: The College Years (Chapter 8)

This eight-chapter novella is a work of fan fiction based on the Stranger Things TV series. I do not profit from it and it is not part of the official Stranger Things canon. It’s a story that came to me as I imagined the kids in their college years, well after the period of the television seasons. There is a lot of Stranger Things fiction to be found online (see here), but if I learn that the Duffer Brothers do not appreciate fan fiction of their work, or if they order a cease-and-desist, I will gladly pull the story down.

 

                               Stranger Things, The College Years — Chapter Eight:

                                  Remembrance

Sunday, November 7, 1993

“Holy shit, Lucas. Did she remind you of Lunch Lady Phyllis, or what?” Dustin had stopped through the doorway, and was looking at the caterer as she left the house.

“Keep moving! I’m about to drop this thing.”

“Did she or did she not look like Lunch Lady Phyllis!”

“My fingers are breaking, you asshole!”

“Shit!”

Jane watched as they heaved the huge table into the living room and set it down where she told them.

“It’s been years since I thought of that cow,” said Dustin, catching his breath. “Remember how she hoarded all that pudding?”

“Thanks guys,” said Jane. They had carried the monstrosity up from her father’s cellar.

“Is that everything?” asked Lucas, indicating the platters and boxes of food the caterers had wheeled in.

“Yes,” said Jane. All of the Thai cuisine known in Asia seemed to be spread out before them. Appetizers of sweet and sour soup, spring rolls, kanom jeeb, and winter shrimp. Entrees of curry and rice, kra pao chicken, ginger pork, beef basil, and (for Dustin) a tamarind duck. And then her and Mike’s all-time favorite: shrimp scampi, with huge jumbo pieces bathed in spices, dipped in curry, and garnished with onions, scallion and egg.

“I think we’re ready,” said Will, emerging from the kitchen with a punch bowl of something orange-red that bubbled.

“Yeah, I think I’ll have some of that right now,” said Dustin, reaching for a cup.

“If you guys set the food out, I’ll get the photos,” said Jane.

They were gathered at Hopper’s house to celebrate Mike. It was just the four of them, as she wanted it, and Hopper had agreed to disappear for the day. The house was theirs. She was glad Will had made it. He was leaving for Botswana in less than two weeks and had plenty to do in preparing for the Peace Corps. They had all agreed to wait a few months to honor Mike in this way, so that his suicide wouldn’t be a fresh wound. And they agreed on this particular day because it was their tenth anniversary. On the night before November 7, 1983, Will had disappeared from Hawkins; the following day the other boys had stumbled across Jane (Eleven, as Mike had christened her) in the pouring rain. What they had shared since then was the stuff of novels and nightmares. It demanded the closure of something better than a funeral.

Jane had been adamant that there would be no funeral in any case. Mike’s second life had been depressing enough. She would not pollute his memory with more despondency. His mother was the only objector, and a disingenuous one: Jane knew that Karen Wheeler would never leave her house to attend anyone’s funeral. Her indignation was a posture filtered through alcoholic rage. She cursed Jane over the phone, blamed her for Mike’s suicide, and called her terrible names. Jane listened to the tirade unfazed. Mike had called her (and treated her) far worse. When it came to nasty invective, Karen Wheeler had nothing on her son returned from the dead.

It was Nancy she felt bad for. Jane wanted to include her somehow, and so in September Nancy had flown from Virginia to Oregon, leaving her three-year old daughter under the management of her husband. Nancy loved seeing her and Hopper again, and she had listened as Jane spilled all the agonies and trials of the past three years. She was glad that Jane was living with Hopper again. After Mike’s suicide she had moved back to Newberg almost immediately. The apartment at Ione Plaza had weighed on her like molten agony. She would walk into the living room and see Mike in his chair; hear his guitar harmonies; feel him on top of her at night trying to make insistent love. Two days of that was enough; she had fled the apartment and left the moving to her father. She still couldn’t go near Ione Plaza when she visited Portland. Nancy had wept as Jane talked for hours about her brother. It had been a supportive visit for both of them.

She was determined that today would not be a misery-fest. The guys wouldn’t be a problem. It was her own inadequacies she feared.

They filled heaping portions of Thai delicacies onto plates that were far too small for their appetites. Then they sat in Hopper’s living rooms chairs, and for a few minutes at least fed their faces in silence.

“So how does this work?” asked Dustin, breaking the ice. “Are we, like, each supposed to say something? I’m not really good with speeches.”

“You don’t have to say anything,” said Jane. “Or you can say anything. Whatever you want.”

She wanted the remembrance ceremony to be free-associative. Will had given her that word months ago, when she was trying to describe her intentions. No canned speeches or melodrama. The idea was to honor Mike through each others company and spontaneous conversation.

But she insisted on pictures. On the buffet table were five photos of Mike positioned between the food trays. The first was an AV Club shot of the four boys in seventh grade. Their smiles hurled enthusiasm, and they looked ready to clobber the world with new ideas. She was in the second photo, in a blue dress and red sash, next to the boys in their coats and ties: the Snow Ball of course. Lucas’s old girlfriend Max was in that shot too. The third showed the six of them again, from the riotous summer of ’85. Jonathan had taken that picture. The fourth was just her and Mike, on Christmas of ’86. The last one she had taken in the fall of ’91: it was Mike sitting in his apartment chair playing guitar, his eyes barren craters. He looked pained, thoughtful, and precious. It was her favorite picture of him.

“Well,” said Dustin, “I think it merits notice that Mike was a dungeon-master god. No one could run a campaign like he did.”

“He always did anything for me,” said Will. “He was there.”

Lucas nodded. “The best times he and I had were yelling and insulting each other. It was the way we related. When I see my ear in the mirror, sometimes I laugh actually.”

Jane said, “He made me feel safe. I never knew what that felt like until I lived in his basement.” Already she was losing it, and had to reach for a kleenex. Then she heard someone gasp.

It was Dustin: “Jesus, El, are you pregnant?”

Their heads swiveled. She had planned to tell them but wondered if they’d first notice. Reaching for the tissues had exposed the small mound in her stomach.

She blushed. “Yes.”

They were flabbergasted. “But… you said a long time ago that’s impossible for you.”

“It’s what the doctors told me.” The year after Hopper adopted her, she had had a physical and other medical tests, and was told that she could never have children. She had been born with special powers, apparently at the cost of other things.

“So the doctors were wrong?” asked Will.

“They weren’t wrong.”

“Is it his?” asked Lucas, his jaws still on the floor. “Is it Mike’s?”

“He’s the only one I’ve ever been with.”

Will was stupefied. “But how?”

“And hadn’t you guys been shagging for a long time anyway?” Dustin caught himself. “I mean… sorry, El… but I mean you were both living out here for almost three years. Why did… this… take so long?”

Jane had resolved to tell them the truth. She didn’t want to. They were here to celebrate the best about Mike Wheeler, not his worst. But they deserved to know. When Mike had lost his job and the band, he had begun his headlong hurtle into self-destruction. Days became hell in their apartment, the nights even worse. It came to a head on the Fourth of July. They had fought the entire holiday and ended as they often did on these occasions, in bed making wrathful love. It was the only way they could obtain any solace from the hurt. But this time Mike crossed a line: he had struck her. When he climaxed he punched her face, and she instinctively reacted by summoning her powers to restrain him. For the first time in her life, Jane Hopper had a bloody nose for two reasons at once. She had had words with Mike, then, that brought him low. She understood that he was hurting inside, but he could not hit her, ever again. She would not accept it. She was pissed off in the extreme, and if he couldn’t discipline his rage, then he would lose her.

Mike had cried and piled on apologies. He had fucked up royally and hated himself for it. He swore overtures and vowed to move out if there was a next time. She believed him entirely. He was appalled by how far he had fallen. But that self-recognition had only fueled his downward spiral, and at the end of the month he slashed his wrists; days later he jumped.

The week after that is when Jane had started feeling sick. She was nauseous, her breasts felt weird, and her period was late… but that couldn’t mean what it seemed. The doctors had been emphatic: her ovaries were as useless as the proverbial tits on a boar. She checked into a clinic and was told she was pregnant. She was stunned. She told her father who couldn’t make sense of it. Doctors knew their business when they pronounced girls barren. Then she wondered about something. The clinic nurse said she conceived during early July. She did the math, and remembered the night of the Fourth.

There was not a doubt in Jane’s mind that her pregnancy owed to the flare of her powers when Mike hit her. She had no idea why, or how she could affect her biology that way. She didn’t know if she was permanently fertile, or if another trigger during intercourse would be required for a future child. Right now she didn’t care. For now she was carrying Mike Wheeler’s child, and that miracle was all that mattered.

The boys were still speechless by the end. They were happy for her, but visibly upset at how Mike had devolved and by what he had done.

Will cleared his throat. “Do you know if it’s a boy or girl?”

“I want to be surprised. But if it’s a boy, I’m naming him Mike. If it’s a girl, Terry.”

“Well, shit.” Lucas wiped his eyes. “Mike lives on.”

“Fuckin’-A”, breathed Dustin.

“I want you guys out here when Mike or Terry is born. I mean, except you, Will — I know you can’t leave your Peace Corps post — but Lucas and Dustin, please try.”

Lucas and Dustin looked at each other, surprised, and nodded, not knowing what to say. This was unmapped territory for them.

“Both of you will be in the room with me, while it’s happening.”

Dustin choked on his duck. “You want us inside the hospital room, the holy of holies, while you’re pumping out baby Mike?”

“Or Terry,” said Will.

Lucas said it would be an honor, and he would be sure that he — and Dustin — made it out here.

And with that bit of news the tension vanished. Their party became an unrestrained gabfest. They yelled over each other to be heard — even Jane. They hardly brought up Mike; they didn’t have to. They felt him in their fellowship and love for each other. It was just how Jane wanted him to be remembered.

Later in the afternoon, Lucas was resting on the couch. “Hey, Dustin,” he said. “Look.” He was pointing at Hopper’s fish tank, where a tadpole-like fish wiggled and dashed. “It’s Dart!”

Dustin laughed. “Hell, yeah!”

They all laughed.

Unsure about her future, but feeling good about it for once, Jane glowed in the company of her best friends.

 

(Previous Chapter: That Which is Broken)

Stranger Things: The College Years (Chapter 7)

This eight-chapter novella is a work of fan fiction based on the Stranger Things TV series. I do not profit from it and it is not part of the official Stranger Things canon. It’s a story that came to me as I imagined the kids in their college years, well after the period of the television seasons. There is a lot of Stranger Things fiction to be found online (see here), but if I learn that the Duffer Brothers do not appreciate fan fiction of their work, or if they order a cease-and-desist, I will gladly pull the story down.

 

                               Stranger Things, The College Years — Chapter Seven:

                             That Which is Broken

It was a given that Mike would move out to Oregon with her. No one else could take care of him, least of all his parents. Karen Wheeler had become a drunk since her calamitous affair with Billy Hargrove, and Ted Wheeler’s apathy had swelled to the point that he hardly registered surprise at the return of his long dead son who was crippled, disfigured, and blind. Nancy would have done all she could for her brother, but she had no time to even sleep. She was in Virginia working as a project manager for Kaiser Permanente, part of a team that was breaking new ground on facial feminization surgery. Perhaps predictably, she had married a colleague; their first baby was on the way. As for “baby” Holly — now a strident ten-year old — she fumed and expostulated under the ineffectual wings of Karen and Ted, unable to understand why her brother had vanished when she was small, only to return maimed and unable to appreciate the entirety of her being. Mike Wheeler needed to be far away from his family, and Oregon was as good a place as any.

Jane would have fought for him in any case. She still loved him and wanted to care for him. Her father put them up in the Ione Plaza apartments in downtown Portland. At first she had wanted to continue living with her father in Newberg, but Mike wouldn’t be a part of it. It was because of Jim Hopper that Mike was what he was. Mike resented it enough that Hopper paid their rent. Under the same roof with him was out of the question. No matter; she fell in love with Portland and realized how much she had needed to live apart from a parent. She was almost twenty.

The aftermath in Hawkins followed the usual pattern: everything was mopped under the rug. Sheriff Nye was instructed to leave Mike Wheeler alone. The official story was that Tony Morrow and Jake Taplitz were killed by a skinhead from Fort Wayne. The same for Scott Clarke: he had been a closet gay (the story went), and another victim of the Fort Wayne Neo-Nazi. Clarke’s sister flew all the way from New Hampshire and stormed righteously into Sheriff Nye’s office. Her brother wasn’t gay, she declared, and the sheriff had best “clear his name” or she would sue the Hawkins Police Department for slander. Sheriff Nye was out of his league.

For Mike Wheeler, the simple truth sufficed: he had been kidnapped and held prisoner by a psychopath; he had escaped, and was now living on the west coast; his perverted tormentor had been confronted and killed, and was no longer a threat to anyone. Details beyond this were vague, and those who pursued them learned to lose interest. The feds never learned of his resurrection; they simply assumed he had been taken into the Shadow Realm alive. Messrs. Byers, Sinclair, and Henderson admitted they had been wrong about their friend’s death. Mike spoke and acted normally now, and the feds never suspected he killed anyone. Whatever creature had caused Scott Clarke’s head to burst like a melon, must also have strangled Messrs. Morrow and Taplitz. In the end, there was no need to make a lab rat of Mike Wheeler.

 

“Do you want me to stay?” asked Jane. It was a fine Saturday in May, and she had plans for a hike up Mount Hood with her father. Mike clearly resented this, but wouldn’t cop to it.

“No,” he turned from her. “Go ahead.”

She turned Mike’s head back to him and told him to be still. She was sitting on his lap and dry-shaving the patches of hair he’d missed in the shower. He was a pro by now, but he sometimes missed spots. “I don’t need to go,” she said. Truth told, she wasn’t much of a mountain climber. The annual hikes were more a way of humoring her father. They had done Mount Jefferson last year. Mount Hood was probably much the same.

She finished with the razor and kissed his cheek. Since the Illithid’s destruction, Mike’s facial hair had started growing again. It was never clear why the creature’s mark would have affected him this way. His arms were no longer rods of steel; his muscular frame had receded to the wiry thinness of his first life. It was hard to think of him as resurrected. The term suggested a superhuman vitality that was forever beyond his reach. He was broken; shattered. She traced her fingers around the rims of his hideous eye sockets. Repulsive to most people, but he was still beautiful to her. Still her Rochester, and truly now. But this blindness would never heal.

“Go on, El. I want to be alone.”

“Friends don’t lie.” But lovers do. She could tell that he wanted her close by, so much that it ate him like poison.

It wasn’t that he couldn’t function on his own. Just the opposite: he’d come a long way over the past eight months. He had refused to enroll in a program for the blind, and had no medical insurance for the problem of his gimp. But with Jane’s daily commitment to him, he made fast progress on both fronts. She was his pair of eyes, guiding him; she was his physical therapist, carrying him, propping him upright, and massaging his muscles back to life. He learned to navigate the maze of their home; he walked and exercised until his leg was on fire. By Christmas he could get around the apartment pretty well, and he had even cooked a few meals with minimal supervision. By the end of March he didn’t need babysitting at all. Those months of training had given him cause to live.

They had given Jane close to a nervous breakdown. As she instructed him daily, he yelled at her through his failures; decried his miserable existence. She crawled into their bed at nights feeling battered, and allowed him to make furious love to her when he had the urge. He needed her; he resented her. He loved her, but couldn’t allow himself the luxury. He’d been there before, and she’d thrown him off a cliff. She would never forgive herself for that: she still loved him, and couldn’t conceive feeling that way about anyone else. Their relationship became a form of ritualized atonement — he making up for lost time, she paying the price for all he’d suffered. Good days were rare and beyond precious. Christmas wasn’t one of them. They had spent it with her father, and he and Mike had argued so violently that she thought it would come to blows. She had taken Mike home, and he had refused to come within a ten-mile radius of Jim Hopper ever since.

But on the last day of March, Jane pronounced him rehabilitated and got some of her life back. She took him shopping downtown to celebrate. They went to Powell’s Bookstore and had lunch on the Willamette River. Mike made good conversation, cracked jokes that made her laugh, and even flirted outrageously with their waitress (who happened to be a knock-out, though Mike had no way of knowing). The honeymoon didn’t last. After that day he became increasingly withdrawn, lacking the purpose his therapy had provided. He was homebound with nothing to do. He listened to music all day; lashed out and became short-tempered.

Jane did what she could to comfort him, but he needed more from her than comfort. He needed to share his pain, and yet couldn’t. He had been alone too long — for three and a half monstrous years. And he couldn’t open those doors without his traumas swamping him. He wanted her close by, but instinctively pushed her away.

“I’m not lying, El,” he said. “Climb your mountain.”

If she stayed it would only make him angry. So she went.

The following week Mike asked her to take him out shopping. He wanted to buy a guitar.

 

The crash came from the living room — a loud smack of broken glass.

“Mike!” Jane rushed in, fearing the worst.

It was bad. Mike was on his back, trapped inside the coffee table he had just fallen through. He had been standing on a chair to open a vent, lost his balance, and gone right through the glass cover. Huge shards pressed into him, and sudden movements were out of the question.

“Don’t move,” said Jane. “I’ll get you out.”

“Leave me alone!” he yelled. “I can get myself up!”

“No, you can’t! The glass is going to slice you!”

He swore and tried sitting up — and then let out a blistering string of F-bombs when Jane was proven right. Glass gashed into his side, and he lay back down.

Jane leaned over and held his shoulders, telling him not to move. He swore at her, saying she was worthless. She used her powers delicately, pushing against the glass shards until Mike was safe to move. She used her telekinetic waves to lift him.

“Stop that!” he yelled.

“Don’t fight me, Mike — No, don’t. Stop. Listen to me! Stop.” He fought her furiously; she stifled his efforts easily. “Mike, stop it!”

He was livid. “GET OFF ME!” he roared.

She had him out safely now. She set him down on the floor, pulled up his shirt where the glass had pierced his side, and grabbed a fistful of kleenex from a nearby shelf. He roared again, thrashed futilely, swore, and threatened things so awful her heart broke. He went on like that for a long time, and she just held him. He still hates me. He always will. When he finally exhausted his invective he began to weep. It was a deep and frightful weeping that came from the soul. Only someone who had been abused and degraded by the Illithid for as long as he had could cry like that. The tears soaked her shirt. She was scared for him, and for their relationship. He was reliving hell in those tears. Still losing against the creature long after she had annihilated it.

 

Spring became summer, and with that came the phone call she dreaded. She talked for a long time, and promised she’d try her best.

“Mike?” He was sitting in his chair, playing guitar to The Cult’s “She Sells Sanctuary”. She turned off the stereo.

He kept playing.

“That was Lucas on the phone. He and Dustin want to come visit.”

“No.”

He won’t budge. “They can rent a hotel room.”

“Forget it, El. Put my music back on.”

“They’re your best friends.”

“They’re not coming.”

“Mike –”

“No, I said! Drop it already!”

She wished he could see her fury. Her voice didn’t convey anger very well. Her facial expressions made up for it. “You put your music back on.” She left him and went back downstairs to call Lucas.

“Are you serious?” Lucas yelled.

“I’m sorry.”

“El, that makes no sense! What’s wrong with him?”

Besides being blind, a gimp, and having his soul raped for three and half years? And that he feels like trash for putting you in the hospital and ruining your ear? “I don’t think he can deal with seeing you guys.”

“That’s crazy.”

“No it isn’t. He’s broken, Lucas. You guys are moving up in life. Seeing you shows him how diminished he is.”

“You’re moving up in life too.”

“Not like you guys. And you were his best friends. I’m the freak who brought him down.”

“Jesus. Can you please put him on?”

Someone swore in the background, demanding the receiver. It was Dustin: “Put that son of a bitch on the phone, El! We’re not hanging up until we talk to him.”

“He won’t come, Dustin.”

“Goddammit, make him come!”

But of course he didn’t.

 

By September, Mike was playing his own gigs at Band-Aids, the new strip club on Raise Avenue. Tuesday and Thursday nights, until midnight. He had hooked up with a band who had lost their lead guitarist to another band in Canada. The drummer usually picked him up and brought him home, but tonight Jane was his chauffeur. It was Thanksgiving Thursday, and the club was wild when she arrived. Mike and his band played a bonus hour and knocked off at 1:00 AM. As they left together, the DJ was playing a compulsive song called “Ultraviolet”, from U2’s new release. It was nothing at all like their ’80s music. Mike thought it was brilliant.

“You know Bono said he was trying to burn down the Joshua Tree with this album?”

“What’s the Joshua Tree?” she asked.

“Jesus, El, we have the CD. We plaaay the CD all the time.” He leaned over and kissed her cheek.

She giggled. She liked him in his silly moods. They were a rare reminder of old times.

She guided him to the car as he used his cane. It was a dual purpose cane, serving as his leg as much as his eyes, and he hardly needed much steering.

“You’re getting around well,” she said.

“Like Stevie Wonder.” He got in the passenger seat. “You should have been here tonight. It was a packed house and they loved us.”

Jane had no use for strip clubs. But she was happy that he got out of bed every day looking forward to something.

As she drove them back to the apartment, Mike sang her a gothic rock song, feeling his oats. She parked in the underground garage and they got out. They rode the elevator to the fourth floor.

When they reached their door, she stopped him. “Hold on.”

“What?”

“There’s a surprise inside.”

He was instantly on guard. “What do you mean? Come on, El, it’s late.”

“You come on.” They entered the apartment and went into the living room, where someone stood waiting. “Well, well,” said the figure.

Mike went rigid. “Will?” he croaked.

Jane could scarcely believe this was once the boy she had located in the Upside Down. Will Byers looked everything like a Grinnell scholar. He wore glasses, dress clothes, and a preppy sweater, and radiated the self-assurance he had craved but could never cultivate living under the same roof with Joyce Byers. Jane wished with all her heart that Mike could see him.

Will embraced him, and they held each other for a long time.

“Dude,” said Mike at last, “are you wearing glasses?”

“Yeah,” said Will. “So are you.”

Mike laughed. “Yeah. Well. Yeah. You know. Part of the performance. Did El tell you?”

“Mmm, you’re a rock star now.”

“Not hardly.” Mike couldn’t help sounding bitter, and Jane winced. It’s the way he always sounded now. Of course, the real reason he wore sunglasses was obvious.

Mike changed the subject. “What are you doing out here? It’s Thanksgiving.”

“I wanted to see my friend, and I wasn’t going to ask his permission. I didn’t want to be banned in advance.”

Mike flushed. “Oh, you mean Lucas and Dustin. I just… well, that was a bad time for them to come out.”

“They took it differently. They thought you were banning them for life.”

Mike lashed out. “I’m sorry their fucking feelings were hurt. If they put you up to this, get back on your plane.”

Jane had warned Will that Mike turned nasty at the slightest provocation. “Mike, no one put me up to anything. I talk to them. We were home again last summer, and we missed you. A lot. Your parents miss you too, if you can believe that.”

“Are you shitting me? My parents are nothing. I’m surprised mom is still alive. She drinks a fifth of whatever her poison is every day. I’m never going back to Hawkins, do you understand?”

“Fine. But don’t shut us out. Don’t shut me out. You were my first friend and still my best. I mean, after Jonathan.”

“You’re welcome here, Will. Always. Okay?”

“But they’re not?”

“Leave it, Will.”

He stared at Mike. “For now.”

 

“I’m glad you came,” said Jane. It was the Sunday after Thanksgiving, and Will had a flight back to Iowa the next day.

Will smiled. “I wish I could stay longer.”

“Me too.” She wished that more than he could know. “I haven’t seen him this happy since… before.” By “before”, she knew that Will understood her to mean the time prior to Mike’s enslavement in the Upside Down. Though if she were honest, his misery backdated a few days further, to the awful night she broke up with him. Almost five years now. “I think you’re the only person he genuinely likes anymore.”

“I’ll never forgive myself for letting that thing get him,” said Will. “You guys did everything to save me those first two years. We let Mike down.”

That “we” carried the sting of multiple accusations. “Yes. We did.”

“If he gets in a bad way again, you’ll call me?”

“Of course –”

Mike came down the stairs singing a Pearl Jam song. The lyrics involved tattoos and someone’s world turning black. Mike didn’t have the former but he understood the latter. He sat down with them. His sunglasses gave him an intense look. “So what have you been cooking in your test tubes, Will?”

“Oh,” said Will, “I forgot to tell you. I’m not a chemistry major anymore.”

“Really?”

“Religious studies.”

“What?!”

“Seriously.”

Mike was poleaxed. “That makes no sense. What happened to you?”

Will laughed. “Jonathan said the same thing. Nothing happened. I took this general education course on religion and thought it was way more interesting than chemistry.”

“So you haven’t, like, converted to anything?”

“No, no. This may surprise you, but most religion majors at Grinnell are agnostics or atheists. That’s still what I am.”

“I don’t know, dude, this sounds weird. Religion, of all things.”

“Will’s right,” said Jane. “My friend Nicki finished an Old Testament course at Lewis & Clark College, and she said it wasn’t like anything she expected. More like a history and anthropology class. She also said the professor was the best she’s ever had for any subject, and almost made her want to change her major.”

“Sounds slippery,” said Mike. “Don’t tell me Lucas and Dustin are getting into this religion shit too.”

Jane and Will exchanged a look. Since living in Portland, Mike had never brought up Lucas and Dustin on his own. And after the argument three nights ago, she and Will didn’t mention them.

“No,” said Will cautiously. “They’re still as before. Lucas actually published a biochemistry article under a professor’s guidance. An undergrad junior, can you believe it? And Dustin is creating some D&D computer game with three other MIT guys. Isn’t that awesome?”

Mike didn’t answer.

“It’s great,” said Jane, wanting to change the subject.

“Yeah,” Mike managed to say. “That’s great. Really. Yeah.”

 

A year and a half later, in the late spring of 1993, three of the Hawkins kids were reborn into the real world. Lucas Sinclair graduated from Tufts University in the top five percent of his class. He was going on to Yale to get a graduate degree in wildlife conservation. Dustin Henderson graduated first in his class from MIT. He too was pursuing graduate studies: engineering management at Colorado State. He had created two successful video games with three classmates, and the sales allowed him the luxury of a free summer. William Byers graduated from Grinnell College in the top ten percent of his class. He was joining the Peace Corps in the late fall, to teach high school in Botswana.

Mike Wheeler graduated from strip clubs to unemployment. He was fired by Band-Aids for using too many sick days, and disowned by his band for being a certified asshole. Through June and July he fought routinely with Jane, whose patience was nearing an end. At the end of July he slashed his wrists. He survived on a fluke. Jane worked part-time at the video store three blocks down from Ione Plaza, and she decided to come home that day for her snack break. She found Mike lying in a red swamp on the floor, went hysterical and called 911.

She stayed overnight with him at the hospital, watching him sleep. He woke periodically but didn’t respond to her presence.

In the morning he finally spoke. “El.”

She took his hand. “Yes.”

“Can you help me? Finish this?”

Oh, Mike. “Don’t ever ask me to do that.” Don’t you understand I love you?

“I still dream of him, El.”

The Illithid. She knew this. She had held him dozens of times over the past two and a half years, when he woke up at night screaming. They had discussed it on only two occasions. Each time she had recommended psychiatric help. After that he had refused to talk about his nightmares with her.

“He’s in my head all the time.” Terrorizing for the joy of it. “I mean he’s gone, but he’s there just the same. I still taste the ground he fed me all those years.”

“Mike –”

“I can’t do it anymore, El. I’m in too much pain. I’m fucking blind. I’m nothing in this world. I don’t blame you or the others. I know I did for a long time. You can’t stay chained to me for the rest of your life. Please. Help me… get out. Of this fucking life. All we do together is fight — my fault, I know, don’t worry. You deserve better than this shit.” He clasped her hand that was holding his. “So do I.”

She squeezed him and cried. She couldn’t answer any of this.

 

Less than a week later, Jane came home to an empty apartment. She had left Mike for only minutes to get a few groceries around the corner. He was gone. She flew into every room calling his name, and then lost her mind. She called her father and screamed at him to find Mike wherever he had gone. Hopper floored the gas from Newberg up to Portland, and then combed the streets downtown for hours. They put out an APB. Mike had vanished.

Two days later, Mike’s body was dragged out of the Willamette River. He had jumped from the Ross Island Bridge. A local taxi company confirmed that a customer fitting Mike’s description had paid for a ride to the bridge. He had tipped the driver two hundred dollars.

 

Next Chapter: Remembrance

(Previous Chapter: The Illithid)

Stranger Things: The College Years (Chapter 6)

This eight-chapter novella is a work of fan fiction based on the Stranger Things TV series. I do not profit from it and it is not part of the official Stranger Things canon. It’s a story that came to me as I imagined the kids in their college years, well after the period of the television seasons. There is a lot of Stranger Things fiction to be found online (see here), but if I learn that the Duffer Brothers do not appreciate fan fiction of their work, or if they order a cease-and-desist, I will gladly pull the story down.

 

                               Stranger Things, The College Years — Chapter Six:

                                   The Illithid

If there had been any doubts in their minds about Mike’s self-knowledge, Jane knew they were gone now. His reaction to her was undeniable. Hers was compulsory. She caught Mike Wheeler and cried his name like an intercession.

He moaned and clung to her as if fearing an immediate treachery. Apologies bubbled in her throat, and she breathed them into his ear, knowing they weren’t enough. Nothing sufficed here. Mike was alive, but she had destroyed him in too many ways. He tried saying something but could only stutter, and tried again. His mouth twisted. He broke off from her in frustration and screamed at the ceiling.

“Mike!” she yelled. My God, what did that thing do to you?

Mr. Clarke appeared in the doorway, alarmed. “Okay in here?”

“I think so,” said Will, shaken.

“We’re okay, Mr. Clarke,” said Dustin.

Jane was definitely not okay. She was going to tear the Illithid apart, no mistake this time.

She turned to them. “Can we be alone for a while?”

“Yeah, totally,” said Dustin.

“Of course,” said Will.

They knew she could handle Mike if he turned on her.

 

“Do you hate me?” she asked. They were sitting on the edge of the bed.

Mike glared at her, twitching.

She took his hand — and he yanked his hand away and barked something harsh.

“What? What is it?” she asked.

He bellowed again. He was demanding something.

“What do you need?” I promise that thing will never take you again.

His response was to grab the front of her shirt and yank her up close to him. Clenching his fists, he tore the fabric like a veil. He stared at her breasts, held them, and then regarded her. She gaped at him, dumbfounded. He wanted this from her now? Of course he did. He had been reduced to a primitive output. It was the only way he could express himself, certainly to her. And she owed him this a thousand times over.

He gripped her harder and forced her on the bed, starting to work on her pants. Will was right. He’s inhumanly strong. But he was still no match for her. There was hardly a person on earth who could take on Jane Hopper. She could have effortlessly stopped this if she wanted to. She didn’t. Years of guilt and abstinence meshed with simple love for Mike — and desire exploded in her veins. She kept a submissive posture as Mike dropped his full weight on her, tearing off the rest of her clothes like a fevered rapist. She tried helping him out of his own, but he rejected assistance with a snarl. He literally ripped Lucas’s shirt off himself, ruining it. Jane felt a surge of anger when she saw the scars on Mike’s chest. She wanted to kill whatever had done that to him; she had no doubts as to the creature’s identity. Mike shed his pants and stood over her naked, as if daring her to object. Then he was on her again.

There was no foreplay; he hadn’t the capacity for such graces. He was immediately up and inside her — shoving back and forth, slobbering over her, grunting like a hog. She inhaled sharply and felt the heat grow in her sex. She determined to match his thrusts with as much fervor. It wouldn’t be hard. Mike was huger than he had been at fifteen, and his thrusts drew something extra from her in these uncharted waters of bestial passion. She clung to him and heaved upwards, exhaling affirmatives. He growled into her neck; dug his fingers into her back; and pushed in and out — as if worried that she might vanish into air any moment. No. I’m not leaving you again. Ever.

She could have easily drowned in this — in him, the sweetness, the pain, and the unchecked power that made it seem like she was flying. She envisioned herself high above open plains with stampeding buffalo barely visible, as they raced below to outmatch her. No chance: Mike’s thrusts lent her lightning speed. Nothing existed outside these Elysian fields and the painful world of give-and-take: humping and moaning in sheer oblivion. Then her climax came.

It flooded her like waves of lava, and the ecstasy practically blinded her for a few moments. She never dreamed sex could be this rewarding. It hadn’t been like this at all on the Christmas of ’86, when they had both been fifteen, nervous and far too delicate with each other. On that night Mike had been trembling, shaking like a high-rise on the verge of collapse; he spent himself quickly. The pleasure had been all his, and over in seconds. His climax this time came long after hers, and he fell on her, groaning an undecipherable lament. She shifted onto her side and looked into his eyes. Tears and sullen resentment stirred, and she cursed the abysmal night she’d broken up with him. “I’m sorry, Mike,” she whispered. “So sorry.” It’s not enough, I know.

It seemed enough for him now. They went to sleep in each others arms.

 

“El!”

Dustin –?

“ELEVEN!” He was pounding on the door.

She clambered out of the smog of sleep, and pried herself from Mike’s arms. He was waking up too. Why was Dustin yelling?

The door burst open, and she squinted as light poured in from the hallway. Dustin came in. He was alarmed about something. “Holy shit. You guys need to get dressed. We’ve got a problem.”

Mike growled.

“Yeah, keep that attitude, Mike. You’ll need it.”

“Dustin, what’s happening?” asked Jane.

“Will was outside on the porch. He saw the Illithid in a neighbor’s yard.”

Mike reacted by moaning in agony. Either he understood what Dustin was conveying, or he could sense the nearby presence of his tormentor. Jane thought it might be both. She leaped from the bed, pulling Mike with her. “We’re coming!” she said.

Dustin fled the room. She threw on her clothes and told Mike to do the same. He groped her and made mewling noises as she helped him into Lucas’s pants.

There was a sudden noise down the hallway, and a loud crash. Then a terrible scream from the living room.

“Stay here,” she ordered Mike. His eyes were round O’s of terror.

An electrostatic concussion suddenly boomed from the living room, and rocked the entire house. The air of a walk-in refrigerator came pouring through the bedroom door. She heard Will and Dustin shouting Mr. Clarke’s name hysterically. She didn’t like the way that sounded. She stepped into the hallway, preparing herself. She had to do it right this time. She would kill the creature —

From down the hallway and around the corner, stepped the Illithid.

The thing was as hideous as she remembered it. It had a humanoid body with an octopus-like head, and four tentacles moved sickeningly around a lamprey-like mouth. A pair of hateful eyes glared at her; it hissed and oozed coldness. The sight of it made her quiver with revulsion; the knowledge of what it had done to Mike fueled her rage. She felt her power build, and she readied to throw force at it.

From her blind spot she sensed a dash of movement. Mike.

No.

Mike leaped past her and threw himself at the Illithid; a bold and helpless gesture. The creature raised a clawed hand, and Mike’s body slammed against an invisible force field. He folded to the floor.

Jane screamed and unleashed her force, but the creature had quick reflexes. Its other hand shot up and deflected the wave of telekinetic fury that would have sent it smashing into Mr. Clarke’s wall. Its eyes were feral, promising murder. Then, unexpectedly, it spoke:

“Sa lizz gia.”

The voice was demonic and guttural.

“El-e-ven.”

Taunting.

She had never heard the Illithid speak during their previous encounter. She had assumed it was voiceless like the Shadow Monster, or perhaps that it could speak through a possessed host. No matter: she had no intention of reciprocating conversation. Blood was flowing down her nose; she ignored that too. Raising both arms, she prepared to blast.

The creature tittered and she froze in horror. A spasm went through Mike’s body on the floor, and he was suddenly standing upright between them, his lips pulled back in an obscene smile. That smile indicated ecstasy and torment in equal measure. He was cross-eyed and drooling spit, and his head snapped left and right; his limbs jerked sideways. He was being played like a marionette.

Then Mike’s mouth opened and spoke English for the first time in years: “Desist, bitch, or your fuck-boy dies for good this time.” Mike. Her rage built.

Behind Mike the Illithid gestured, straining to parry Jane’s forces and manipulate his toy at the same time. It had chosen the battleground wisely. Jane had never fought anything in close quarters like this, and if she didn’t discipline her fury Mike would be collateral. She recalibrated her blast to circumvent him, but it wasn’t easy. Mike was right in front of the damn thing, in a cramped hallway. Then the Illithid cackled, and her world turned.

“Watch this, she-dog!” Mike’s voice was a ruinous parody, but that’s not what made Jane’s blood run cold. He had his hand over his face, and his two front fingers were digging into his eyes. He intended to blind himself.

“Mike!” she screamed.

The sound of Mike Wheeler’s eyeballs popping out was sickening. Rays of blood hit the walls, ceiling, and floor. He dropped to his knees, holding his eyes forth like a penitent begging mercy. He wailed like the damned.

Jane poured herself into an apotheosis of energy. Her telekinesis supplied the power, but it wasn’t the right kind. Her lesson from Kali was useless here. Rage and anger had no place in the confined space with Mike. They would kill him here, possibly even herself. She suspended her wrath, or at least as much as she could. She needed subtlety and finesse; she gave the best answer she had.

She became glacial, a vessel of uncaring steel, by staring into reality. Mike hadn’t been killed, as they all thought. He’d suffered worse than death: enslaved, degraded, and tortured. Now stricken hideously blind. The redress for that wasn’t unbridled passion; it was cold hatred. Almost without transition, her telekinetic waves condensed from a tsunami into a highly concentrated beam. She let it loose straight over Mike’s head and into the Illithid’s, willing murder in every drop of her blood.

But it was fast; too fast. Its reflexes dated to the dawn of creation. It wasn’t huge like the Shadow Monster, but its power was titanic and belied its size. Jane could taste the power as her own clashed with it. Her beam was caught by the creature’s claw and diffused.

She gathered for another assault, her nose a fountain of red, and then Mike screamed horribly. His eyeballs were on the floor, bloody and forgotten, as a new agony tore through him. He was on his side, holding his left leg. There was a grinding noise; he screamed again, and his kneecap shattered. Then he fainted as blood poured from the middle of his leg. Jane began to panic. The Illithid was tearing him apart, piece by piece.

Now or never. Rage broiled in her bowels, but she morphed it into the dispassion she required. The sight of Mike ate at her like venom, but she used that too. She summoned more forces, and let them run through her like a riptide. They gyrated in her atoms until she could barely stand it. Every tendon of her body, and every ligament of her soul, felt strained. She funneled the energy into a new beam that grew so concentrated it looked as tangible as wet ink. At the last moment, she discharged it.

It went straight through the Illithid’s power, obliterating its defensive claw and vaporizing its head. The disintegration was absolute; the creature was headless, and the corpse toppled over. Jane Hopper had finally killed the most dangerous creature from the Upside Down.

And Mike — the old Mike Wheeler — was suddenly screaming in horrendous agony, hunched over on the floor, one leg useless, his hands over his blood-drenched eye sockets. “El! Eleven! Keep him away! Don’t let him take me! DON’T LET HIM TAKE ME AGAIN!!”

She fell next to him and pulled him close, prying his hands away from his face. He howled, shouting pain at her like an accusation. She couldn’t breathe. It’s over, Mike. She tried saying it.

“El?” A shattered voice spoke over her. It sounded like Will. She could barely look up and see him crying. “It killed him,” he said. “It killed Mr. Clarke.” In the other room, Dustin was pouring out grief. The best teacher he ever had. It was too much. Her head felt like a pressure cooker; her nose still ran. Mike went on screaming. Her vision swam.

“Call 911”, she managed to gasp, and blacked out.

 

Next Chapter: That Which is Broken

(Previous Chapter: The Master’s Toy)

Stranger Things: The College Years (Chapter 5)

This eight-chapter novella is a work of fan fiction based on the Stranger Things TV series. I do not profit from it and it is not part of the official Stranger Things canon. It’s a story that came to me as I imagined the kids in their college years, well after the period of the television seasons. There is a lot of Stranger Things fiction to be found online (see here), but if I learn that the Duffer Brothers do not appreciate fan fiction of their work, or if they order a cease-and-desist, I will gladly pull the story down.

 

                               Stranger Things, The College Years — Chapter Five:

                                The Master’s Toy

Mike Wheeler heard everything. From the moment the Illithid had confiscated his soul three and a half years ago, his hearing had functioned normally. On some level he even understood what he heard. But meaning had become a non-sequitur. Whatever he heard, his mind consigned to irrelevance. The master had given him new priorities.

His memory was also fine. He saw people he had known for many years, and remembered their names: Lucas, Will, Dustin, his old teacher Mr. Clarke. But the rules of memory had been reversed. A friend was no longer a friend, but an enemy. A tormentor, like the master, was a benevolent god. Strangers were up for grabs. Like those two kids in the woods. They had been innocent and full of love for each other, but their passion had triggered a memory from his other past. It was a memory full of hurt, and his mind decided that required redress. He had killed the boys accordingly.

There was no place for speech in this new core of being. Whenever he tried to speak, his throat didn’t cooperate. Braying sounds came out; he mewled and he keened. He still understood English, but it was scrambled in the output by the master’s mark on him.

His only communication was with the master. It was the only path open to him. The Illithid had established a mental link that functioned irrespective of distance. No matter how far Mike strayed in the Shadow World, the creature was in his head — shaping him by commands, caressing him with his will. Here back in his own world, the link wasn’t so strong.

That link had been established right as Mike was coughed back into life, terrified out of his mind. The Illithid had powers of resurrection over those it had killed personally, as long as it performed the rite within a day; the thrall had brought him Mike’s corpse in time. Mike hadn’t felt much different when he rose from death. It was after that, when the creature wove its mark into him, that he was truly born anew.

The master had cradled Mike in his arms on that smoky eldritch evening. Look at me, its voice oozed inside his head. I give you purpose. It had stroked Mike’s head. I torment you for the joy of it. And Mike had screamed, looking into the creature’s eyes which seemed like gates to hell. The tentacles around its mouth hissed like snakes, wrapping themselves around Mike’s head. A foul essence percolated and seeped into his skull. Mike had kept screaming — for his mother, his sister Nancy, and his friend Lucas. The Illithid had savored his terror and assured him there was no help coming from those corners. He was now marked; if he needed help, the master was there for him.

Mike Wheeler had then plunged into a hell of abject servitude. He crawled on all fours when the master called. He ate meals of dirt shoveled from the ground with his own bare hands. He feasted on salamanders, slugs, crawlers, leaves, and roots. He shouldn’t have survived, but the creature’s mark sustained him. Mike Wheeler was nourished on a diet of pain; strengthened by humiliation. He grew strong — beyond what seemed possible, given his narrow frame — and used that strength to kill for the master’s delight. He throttled beasts; he murdered pets; he fought in the master’s pit, against young demogorgons trained to lose by a thin margin. And at the end of each day, he sat in the master’s bosom, asking for deeper torments.

Yessss. You desire more? The telepathic voice dripped venom.

Yes! Oh yes! Mike desired more, and the creature obliged. It plunged its claws into Mike’s chest, and raked them down his torso, relishing every shredded ligament. Mike howled in agony, begging the Illithid to stop; he wept in joy, pleading for much, much more. He screamed himself to sleep every night, wishing he were dead; he chortled in his sleep, nursed on dreams of victimized privilege.

Sleep was the most important nourishment of all, and he got plenty. Every other day he slept sixteen hours instead of eight. Nightmares are the nectar of the blessed. Mike gibbered in full agreement. I shred you for the joy of it.

His hellish enslavement went on for three and a half years, until he stumbled on the hidden portal to his old world. He had reentered Hawkins five days ago, and the master’s voice vanished from his mind. He had known the Illithid wasn’t aware of the portal; otherwise the creature would have used it long ago to wreak vengeance on the town that had injured it. That was no longer true. Two days ago the voice was back in his head; the master had tracked his scent, found the portal, and come through.

In this world he could not make sense of the master’s voice. The language was alien and demonic, and it could not command him. The mark on his soul was frayed; the creature’s hold on him tenuous. The mark had demanded that Will be slain; he was a friend, therefore an enemy. But as Mike tried choking Will, something snapped — and his perception was remolded on the spot: Will was a friend and thus that. Mike could not kill him. Mike loved him, and needed to show that somehow.

Meanings began to shift and realign within his biochemistry. Vestiges of will rose within him, and clashed with the master’s imperatives. He was a vessel of contradiction. He enjoyed good food shared by his old friends, and had only a leftover appetite for the ground he walked on.

He cried inwardly for Lucas and Dustin, and desperately wanted their friendship back. But the output of those desires was still hatred and distrust. To go against his mark, something extreme was required — like the way he tried to kill Will. That lesson told Mike the best way he could have his friends again was to try hurting them.

That lesson had seriously backfired, and Lucas was in the hospital for it.

The problem was that Mike’s assault had been intentionally aimed at reestablishing friendship with Lucas. It ultimately treated Lucas as a friend. His biochemistry had processed those intentions accordingly, and the mark ensured that Lucas be torn apart as a vicious enemy: Mike doubled down and went for the jugular. With the whole force of his being, he had dislocated Lucas’s shoulder and bit a chunk of his ear off. He would have kept rending him into a hundred pieces, if not for the others’ interference. Mike railed on the inside for what he did to his best friend; he roared on the outside in triumphant joy.

Will had been a fluke. Mike could not intentionally try to bring his love to the surface for anyone — in any way at all — because intentions were precisely what the mark interpreted.

He was trapped. And the master was on the way. It would track his scent, reacquire him, and rain destruction down on his friends.

 

“You smell a lot better.”

Mike was jolted out of his thoughts of torture and decimated friendships. He was sitting on the bed in Mr. Clarke’s guest room, and Will was speaking from a chair by the window. It was evening — a cool summer evening in his native world. But he had been in the room all day, and Will’s appeals had blurred into a timeless now.

“But you’re acting worse. You realize what you did? Almost killed your best friend last night? Why are you all soft for me and no one else?”

He liked Will’s voice. He wanted Will to sit on the bed with him and hold his hand.

“Throw me a line, Mike. Come on. Give me something.”

He remembered first meeting Will, when they were kids in another lifetime. He had asked Will to be his friend, when Mike had none. And you said yes. You said yes.

“You’re not leaving us many options. So we took the initiative.”

It was the best thing I ever did — asking you to be my friend.

“I hope you don’t hate us for it.”

I never want to hate you.

“I tried, Mike. I tried to save you.”

You did save me. You said yes. You became my friend.

“It was too much for us. Those thralls were all around us. And you… you jumped at it.”

You weren’t my best friend. You were the most important one.

“You should have left it for her. What were you thinking? She could have killed it. You fucked it all up. Because you were, what, trying to kill yourself being hero? Because she broke up with you?”

Don’t cry. We’re here again. You and I. But he was crying too. Some of Will’s words had coagulated into meaning, and there was brutal history in them.

“Like I said, we took some initiative here.”

Take my hand. Please.

“They should be here soon.”

 

“Will?” It was Dustin knocking on the door. He came in without waiting for a reply, and looked at both Will and Mike. “She’s here.”

She?

Will had already risen from the chair when they heard Dustin’s car pull into the driveway. He came over and sat on the bed, and put his hand on Mike’s shoulder. “Okay, Mike. Listen. We brought someone here for you. I hope it was the right thing to do. Please don’t be mad.”

She?

She was standing in the doorway, with the same expression she had on the night of the Snow Ball Dance when she walked into the school gym and spotted him sitting alone. The sight of her then had righted his world again. The sight of her now went through him like an awl, so clear and piercing that his heart vaulted in response. Emotions raged inside him, in defiance of the master’s mark. Eleven had been his. He had loved her, and given her all that he had at the fragile age of fifteen. He needed her back, and fought for his will, straining against the prison of his mark.

And lost. The master’s reversals held firm: a friend was an enemy, an enemy a friend.

The result was ineffably astonishing. In their final days together, Eleven had become his worst enemy. She had cut his heart out and refused to own her decision; rendered him a worthless cipher — a toy to be played with by a demon she could not kill. She was treachery incarnate; she could never be trusted again. His mark unambiguously decided that she was his salvation.

El.

As he stopped all his efforts to welcome her, he was able to do just that.

Tears flooding his cheeks — praying this was really happening — he opened his arms to embrace her.

 

Next Chapter: The Illithid

(Previous Chapter: “Jane Air”)