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 hear of it. It was because of Jim Hopper that Mike was what he was. He 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. Nightmares — which had filled his sleep since his return to the living — got worse.
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 poured 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 Peter Murphy’s “Seven Veils”. She turned off the stereo.
He kept playing.
“That was Lucas on the phone. He and Dustin want to come visit.”
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.”
“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.
“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.”
“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.”
“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.”
“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.”
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.”
They had a pretty good year after that. Mike still screamed in his sleep, but his band had renewed him with purpose. He wrote songs and tested them on Jane. She didn’t have an ear for gothic industrial, but she took a sincere interest, which Mike misread as condescension. He cursed her for patronizing him; she took it on the chin with grace. He enjoyed playing for her anyway.
And for the first time since his return from the shadow, Jane dared to feel optimistic. At mealtimes they talked and even laughed, carrying discussions beyond the usual banalities. In February his band got a raise and played more hours. In early August (the second anniversary of his escape from the Upside Down), they took a vacation to the Oregon coast. Jane would look back on the summer of 1992 as the last time she knew true happiness with Mike Wheeler.
October was a regressive turn. Terror and angst overwhelmed him again. His nightmares became even more virulent, and in the third week of January he had an anxiety meltdown. They were eating lunch, when halfway through his sandwich he began shaking and sobbing for no discernible reason. She tried calming him in vain. He often relived his shadow torments, but this was worse than the usual panic attacks. She gave him a sedative that his doctor had prescribed for emergencies, and then walked him to bed where he collapsed.
As he slept she went into his small studio room. It was a shambles. On the table next to his music box was a cassette; a new mix. She picked it up and read the label: Soundtrack of My Life, 1/22/87-1/20/93. Her heart began to pound. It looked like a musical diary, the same kind of mix he had made exactly six years ago. His love letter to her. The songs had mapped his feelings between the time they first met in ’83 to their loss of virginity to each other on Christmas of ’86. Mike had made the tape the day after Martin Luther King Day, and then two days after that destroyed it in front of her, when she broke his heart. He had returned the favor, smashing the cassette and tearing apart the tape stream as hot tears flew. Why would you do that to me? he screamed. He had poured every atom of his love for her into that mix, and she had dumped his love down the crapper. She still had her copy of the tape; after he died she had sometimes played it to remember him. But she had sealed it in a storage box when she brought him back to Oregon. He never asked her what she had done with her copy.
It looked like this new mix picked up where the first one had left off, from the point of their breakup on January 22, 1987. She almost walked out of the room then, petrified of what the songs would reveal. Instead she opened the case and removed a piece of paper folded between the plastic and the cassette. On the paper Mike had scrawled song titles, band names, and brief commentaries. The handwriting was remarkably legible for someone blind. It was upsetting to read; the commentaries indicted her:
1. After the Fire, Roger Daltrey — Break-up song. Bitch El tore out my heart.
2. The Battle of Evermore, Led Zeppelin — Final showdown in Hawkins. Master killed me.
3. Worlock, Skinny Puppy — Master raised me. Shredded me. Poured nightmares in my blood.
4. The Chain, Fleetwood Mac — Damn your love and your lies, El. You broke the chain. Left me running in the shadows, on all fours.
5. Pictures of You, The Cure — In the shadows I forgot what everyone looked like. Family; friends; El.
6. Tower of Strength, The Mission U.K. — Rescue song. I escaped. El saved me.
7. Never Let Me Down Again, Depeche Mode — This, El. Never again.
8. Black, Pearl Jam — Back in the world. Blind. Everything black. Always afraid.
9. She Sells Sanctuary, The Cult — The world drags me down. El’s my refuge.
10. One, U2 — Love song. We carry each other, hurt each other, and do it again.
11. Losing It, Rush — Fading. For the blind who once could see, the bell tolls.
12. Asleep, The Smiths — Just want to sleep. Forever.
Mike had clearly arranged the songs in a chronological sequence to evoke their breakup (track 1), the battle against the Illithid two days later (track 2), his years in the Upside Down (tracks 3-5), his escape and her slaying the Illithid (track 6), and his return to the world and a life of misery (tracks 7-10). The last two tracks validated her suspicions that he was suicidal. He was playing the Rush and Smiths songs every day now. They sounded like a somber lullabies, though the lyrics were evidently darker than she’d thought.
She put the tape in his box, sat down and played the whole thing. She was already crying into the first track, and she didn’t stop until long after she left the room. His previous musical diary (for 11/7/83-1/20/87) had its dark moments but an optimistic trajectory. This sequel was as bleak as the grave. The Who’s lead singer tore her to pieces. Led Zeppelin played strings so haunting she relived that horrible arctic night in Hawkins, blasted by lightning and sonic concussions. Skinny Puppy sounded hideous. How could Mike want to relive that terror? Fleetwood Mac convicted her of capital offenses, damning her love and lies impartially. The Cure song was beautiful but despairing. As for the Mission, Mike often played “Tower of Strength”; to him she was the hero of that song. The Depeche Mode song was about a drug trip, but Mike had made it all about her. Pearl Jam was another favorite of his, and truly heartbreaking. “She Sells Sanctuary” was their day sex song; Mike blasted it at high volume when he hammered her on the living room floor. “One” had been their love song since the release of Achtung Baby a year ago, and she loved it; sometimes they slow-danced to it when Mike was especially pained. To her it described two people in love so much they were practically one. But Mike had explained the dark side of the song. According to one of the U2 band members (Mike called him “Edge”, but that sounded like one of his made up names, like “Eleven”), “One” was a nasty conversation between two lovers who had been through so much conflict and grief that it predicted the end of their relationship. After that tear-jerker she completely lost it through “Losing It”, and then couldn’t make it halfway through “Asleep”. She saw Mike killing himself and had to stop the tape. Don’t you dare, Mike. She wept on the floor of his studio. Don’t you leave me alone.
She chose not to confront him about the cassette, knowing it would enrage him. But she watched him closely in the following weeks. His fits of terror increased along with their fights. He picked the fights as usual, and wouldn’t let up until she was crying. He took her violently in bed, on the living room floor, even outside on the balcony. Mike had always been a sex machine, but he had eaten something at end of the summer of ’92 that put his hormones on a permanent acid trip. Since then he had taken her two or three times a day, sometimes even four, except on days she just couldn’t accommodate him and needed recovery from soreness. It was the one constant that remained unchanged. The aftermath of their sex seemed to be only way of achieving tenderness with each other.
Despite her promise, she didn’t call Will. It would crush him to see Mike like this.
Months 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 between escalating anxiety attacks. Towards 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.”
“I need your help. To 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 had held him so many times over the past two and a half years, when he woke screaming. Once she had recommended psychiatric help. He had told her never to float that idea again.
“He’s in my head all the time.” Terrorizing for the joy of it. “I mean he’s gone, but he’s there. I taste the ground he fed me every day.”
“I can’t do it anymore, El. There’s pain everywhere. I’m in the dark. I don’t blame you — I know I did for a long time. You can’t be chained to me forever. Fleetwood Mac, right? Break it again. Let me go. All we do is fight. You deserve better.” 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, his 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)