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.

The stories assume the events portrayed in TV seasons 1-3, except that it was Joyce Byers who died in the Battle of Starcourt, while Jim Hopper survived to continue raising Eleven. William and Jonathan Byers stayed in Hawkins, and their Aunt Ruth came to live with them and assume guardianship of Will. Also: Karen Wheeler did have an affair with Billy Hargrove before his possession, and she aided and abetted him in abducting people for the Mind Flayer.

                               Stranger Things, The College Years — Chapter Eight:


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!”


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 in Newberg 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 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 again leave her house to attend anyone’s funeral. She had done so for Mike’s first death in ’87, and created a spectacle so outrageous that Hawkins residents were still shunning her. 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, 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 her father 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.”

“Lucas is,” said Will.

“Oh no,” said Lucas. “I’m not doing anything like that again.” He had given a eulogy at Mike’s funeral in ’87, that brought the house down. A great speech, but for a somber and formal occasion.

“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 ’84. 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 ’92: 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 made me a priority, no matter how it inconvenienced him.”

“It’s funny how friendships are,” said Lucas. “The best times he and I had were yelling and insulting each other. You can really reach people that way. When I see my ear in the mirror, sometimes I laugh actually.”

Jane cleared her throat. “He made me feel safe. I never knew what that felt like until I lived in his basement. And then years later, right before he died the first time. I stayed in his house again, and we were sleeping together, and his mother had it out for me… He protected me from her…” And you stabbed him in the back for it, by breaking up with him, right under his roof. Already she was losing it, and reached 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 his life was hell, 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 hated himself for punching her. 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 wasn’t 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.


Read about Eleven’s future in the sequel novella, Stranger Things: The New Generation.

(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.

The stories assume the events portrayed in TV seasons 1-3, except that it was Joyce Byers who died in the Battle of Starcourt, while Jim Hopper survived to continue raising Eleven. William and Jonathan Byers stayed in Hawkins, and their Aunt Ruth came to live with them and assume guardianship of Will. Also: Karen Wheeler did have an affair with Billy Hargrove before his possession, and she aided and abetted him in abducting people for the Mind Flayer.

                               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. Deeply and terribly. Only someone who had been abused and degraded by the Illithid 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.”

“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 went back into the bedroom 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.”


“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 either Joyce Byers or Ruth Garrett. 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. 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.”


“Religious studies.”



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 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 had no ear for gothic industrial but 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. 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: My Life in Music, 1/22/87-1/20/93. Her heart began pounding. 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 later destroyed it in front of her, when she broke his heart. Why would you do that to me? he had screamed, tearing apart the tape stream as hot tears flew. He had poured every atom of his love for her into that mix, and she had shat on that love. 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, terrified 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, and it was upsetting to read; the commentaries indicted her:

Side A

1. After the Fire, Roger Daltrey — Break-up song. Bitch El tore out my heart.
2. The Battle of Evermore, Led Zeppelin — Final Hawkins showdown. Master killed me.
3. Worlock, Skinny Puppy — Master raised me. Shredded me. Put 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.

Side B

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 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 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 on the hill, where Mike died before her eyes; she had chased his killer through the forest, blasted on all sides 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 its dark side. 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 promised 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. At the end of July on his birthday, 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.”

“Mike –”

“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)

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.

The stories assume the events portrayed in TV seasons 1-3, except that it was Joyce Byers who died in the Battle of Starcourt, while Jim Hopper survived to continue raising Eleven. William and Jonathan Byers stayed in Hawkins, and their Aunt Ruth came to live with them and assume guardianship of Will. Also: Karen Wheeler did have an affair with Billy Hargrove before his possession, and she aided and abetted him in abducting people for the Mind Flayer.

                               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.



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.


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 it spoke:

“Sa lizz gia.”

The voice was demonic and guttural.



She recalled the creature’s fluency in all languages plus its own. 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 Mind Flayer, 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.

The stories assume the events portrayed in TV seasons 1-3, except that it was Joyce Byers who died in the Battle of Starcourt, while Jim Hopper survived to continue raising Eleven. William and Jonathan Byers stayed in Hawkins, and their Aunt Ruth came to live with them and assume guardianship of Will. Also: Karen Wheeler did have an affair with Billy Hargrove before his possession, and she aided and abetted him in abducting people for the Mind Flayer.

                               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, 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 — deeper than before — 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 marked whole now; no half measures. 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. His strength was inhuman, as it had been during his final days in Hawkins. Then he had used that strength to betray his hometown. Now he used it to kill for the master’s delight: he throttled beasts; murdered pets; 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 need more? The telepathic voice dripped venom.

Yes! Oh yes! Mike needed 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 portal to his old world. Not a Gate, precisely, but a passage accessible to him because of his mark. In the woods on a hill. Where a tree stood. A tree that had bridged the worlds until incinerated on the other side. That destruction had ripped open a passage unknown to anyone. Mike had climbed high in the branches and slipped through…

Into Hawkins five days ago, on the hill where he had died. The master’s voice vanished from his mind, but the past replayed worse torments. The creature had killed him here; it would kill him again. It had been ignorant of the tree portal for all these years; otherwise it would have used it long ago to wreak vengeance on the town that injured it. Mike knew that was no longer true. Two days ago the voice was back in his head. The master had tracked his scent to the tree, and slipped through after him…

In this world he wasn’t as reduced. 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 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 almost killed him. Your best friend. Why do you like me now, but not him?”

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 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. 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? Was it suicide? 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.”


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 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.


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)

Stranger Things: The College Years (Chapter 4)

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.

The stories assume the events portrayed in TV seasons 1-3, except that it was Joyce Byers who died in the Battle of Starcourt, while Jim Hopper survived to continue raising Eleven. William and Jonathan Byers stayed in Hawkins, and their Aunt Ruth came to live with them and assume guardianship of Will. Also: Karen Wheeler did have an affair with Billy Hargrove before his possession, and she aided and abetted him in abducting people for the Mind Flayer.

                               Stranger Things, The College Years — Chapter Four:

                                      Jane Air

When Jane Hopper heard the phone ring, she groaned aloud in bed. She was out of sorts from the heat, and didn’t want to move, let alone speak to anyone. She wanted an ice cold shower. Or something to shatter the fog of her afternoon nap.

On the third ring, her father yelled from downstairs: “Can you get that?” As usual. He was closer to the downstairs phone than she was to the one upstairs. Also as usual. She took her time getting up.

By the time she made it down the hall, the caller had given up. Jane felt a small victory. The phone was always for her father, unless her friend Nicki called. And Jim Hopper didn’t like missed calls. She turned a one-eighty and walked back to her room. Going through her doorway produced a moment of guilt. The door had a placard on it, with the name “Jane Air” carved in beautiful calligraphy. Her father had made that for her, and she loved him for it.

Years ago Jim Hopper had read Jane Eyre to her, which at once became her favorite book. To her it was “Jane Air”, since she still hadn’t known how to read. It was a pure name that suggested vitality and passion, and she became fiercely protective of the character in her imagination. Like Jane Air, Jane Hopper had grown up in an abusive environment, never knowing her mother, tormented in the Red Room that was Hawkins Lab. Mike Wheeler had been her Rochester, her crutch, the only one who had ever made her feel truly safe and at peace. And for this she had broken him, twice. She didn’t like thinking about the second time. The first had been bad enough. That was when she had killed the demogorgon and vanished, leaving him a lifeless shell for a whole year. During that time she had hibernated, in an exile that strangely reminded her of Jane Air’s homeless trek up to northern England, where she was found starving and taken in by new family. Hopper’s cabin in the woods had become her Moor House. If her father was worlds apart from St. John Rivers, there were still similarities — emotional repression, and a work ethic that subordinated happiness to duty.

Take now, for instance. He was downstairs swearing up a storm (St. John wouldn’t have liked that part) over the broken air conditioner. This was how he spent his vacation week: repairing the outcomes of his failures. A month earlier he had bought a central air system and insisted on installing it himself. Jim Hopper, Sheriff of Yamhill County, did not believe in plumbers, technicians, or professional servicemen. He relied strictly on his own labor, and for that Jane had learned to put up with the inevitable shortfalls and curses. The latter came thundering from below — a stream of “shits” and “fucking shits” — and her heart sank. Another sweltering night lay ahead.

She followed the trail of profanity downstairs to the utility room. He was banging something with a tool, and there were far too many pieces lying around. The room was a mess. “Can I help?” she asked, not expecting an answer.

He paused working and glanced at her. “Uh, no, kid, I’ll be a while. Why don’t you order a pizza for tonight.”


Hours later, she was watching Pride and Prejudice to take her mind off the heat and greasy pizza that failed to digest. It wasn’t working. Jane Austen wasn’t Jane Air. The phone rang, and she gladly stopped the VHS player. “Hello?”


She sat up. Few people called her that. Her father used to, but had stopped doing so for reasons it hurt to think about. “Lucas?”

“No, it’s Will.”

“Will.” Her heart skipped a beat. “Hi.”

“Hi. How are you?”

She saw Will in her mind’s eye, a distant memory: screaming in rage, hugging Mike’s body. Begging his forgiveness.


Jane breathed again. “Yes. I’m fine. You?”

“Okay,” he said, in a voice that sounded anything but. “El… I have some news you won’t believe. Mike is alive.”

She froze. Will had misspoken. Mike Wheeler was long dead. She had cried over his corpse just as Will had. She had probed his vitals to be sure: he hadn’t been breathing and he’d had no pulse. Mike had confronted the creature they called the Illithid, and paid for his foolishness. It had levitated him in the air, spun him like a toy, and hurled him against the trunk of that damned shadow tree — with enough force to shatter bricks. She hated dwelling on that memory, even less the reason for Mike’s suicidal heroism. Why would you do that to me? he had screamed at her only two days before, tears raining from him like bullets. You ripped my heart out! Those accusations still kept her awake at nights. It wasn’t Will who needed Mike’s forgiveness.

She wiped her eyes. “Mike’s not alive, Will.”

“Yes he is. He’s here with us right now. He’s different — he’s really different, and he’s really messed up — but he’s alive.”


“I’m with Dustin. And we’re at Mr. Clarke’s.” He relayed the events of the past two days, up to the point when he tried calling her four hours ago.

Her heart was pounding by the time he was through. She didn’t believe this at all; she believed it entirely.

“But the last four hours have been hell. After I first tried calling you, he lost his shit and attacked Lucas. He dislocated his shoulder and bit a huge piece of his ear off. We had to rush him to the hospital.”

She couldn’t make sense of this. “Why…?”

“We have no idea. We were sitting here after dinner and a shower that I gave him. He actually seemed to be getting more agreeable. Then he went wild and attacked Lucas. We barely got him off.”

“Where was Mike when you brought Lucas to the hospital?”

“I stayed here with him. I’m the only one he seems to like.”

That was curious. Lucas was Mike’s best friend. On the other hand, Mike had always been extremely protective of Will.

“Who else knows about this?” she asked.

“Just the four of us. Mr. Clarke and Dustin gave a bullshit story at the hospital. And please don’t tell Hopper. We wish he was here right now, but we don’t want him making calls to anyone about this.”

She had zero intention of relaying news to her father that Mike Wheeler was among the living. It was because of Hopper that she had made the worst decision of her life. “What do you want from me?” she asked, already knowing the answer.

“We need you back here, El. I know that sounds crazy, but you might be the only one who can reach him — for better or worse. And also, we think the Illithid is back. Or at least I do.”

“You mentioned that, but I don’t see why.” Because the weather got cooler? That didn’t mean anything.

“It killed Mike, and Mike is alive. Shit is happening.”

Memories of the Illithid made her sick. She didn’t want to believe it had found a way back to Hawkins. Its powers of domination made the Mind Flayer look tame. It craved cold like all creatures from the Upside Down, but even worse, it gave off cold like a mega-powered freezer. Its presence in this world dropped the local temperature about ten or fifteen degrees. She remembered that horrible week-end — the night of January 24-25, 1987 — when the temps had plummeted from single-digit minuses to double-digit minuses. The creature had announced itself. And killed many people. Corrupted school admins, and used them to blow up the Hawkins police station.

Of course she had to go back. “Okay. I need you guys to book a flight for me.”

“Mr. Clarke is already on it.”



“Is he really that bad?”

“He’s… You can tell it’s him, but… just prepare yourself, El. It’s pretty bad.” Will was crying now.

“Okay,” she said, her eyes filling up. “I’ll see you.”


Her plane touched down the next day, Wednesday, 5:40 PM, at Indianapolis International. Dustin was there to greet her at the gate.

“Thank God, El,” he said, hugging her.

She was amazed how much he’d changed in three and a half years. “How’s Lucas?”

“Not good. I saw him at the hospital before coming here. He has a nasty infection from his ear-bite. Fever too. Mike almost tore his arm off. His ear is going to look that way forever.”

“Let’s get outside.” She hated airports, and she resented that it was so late in the day. This was the first time she had flown east, and those miles in the air had eaten three extra hours.

“What about your luggage?”

She raised her two carry-ons. “Here.”

He was impressed. “You’ll have to train my mother how to travel light.”

They drove northeast, and Dustin filled her in on all the madness that had happened since Monday night, going over the same ground Will had. He asked if Hopper knew she was here, and she assured him he was in the dark. Her friend Nicki had picked her up in Newberg and driven her to Portland International. Her father believed she was spending the night with Nicki in southeast Portland. He asked how Hopper was doing, and she told him the truth: he was the same fixture, annoying but eternally lovable; he took his job seriously; Yamhill County was in good hands. Dustin couldn’t say the same for Hawkins. Hopper’s replacement was an ass, and the arm of the law would be no assistance. Jane still hardly knew what she was supposed to do. It sounded like Mike was a beast, and if the Illithid showed up, she was hardly a match for it. It had almost killed her during their last confrontation; she defeated it more by accident than anything else.

At the exit to Dundee they got off IN-37, and the road started winding through tilled valleys and wooded hills that she recognized. Hawkins would be about a half hour from here, at the midpoint between Janney and Fairmount. She realized how much she missed Indiana. It was the place of her terrible upbringing, but it was also where she had found herself. In Hawkins she had formed her closest friendships. And shattered the most important one.

If Mike Wheeler tried killing her when he saw her, she wouldn’t blame him at all.

“I love this country,” said Dustin. Her window was down and she savored the fresh air. Will had been right about the weather. It was too cool and dry for this time of year. She had left ninety-degree humidity in Newberg, and what she felt now was so perfect it was hard to believe it might portend disaster. Determined to enjoy what little she could from this trip, she leaned back in her seat and took in the countryside. Lucas’s Mazda digested the miles between them and Hawkins.

She was almost dozing by the time they pulled up in Mr. Clarke’s driveway. Dustin’s watch said 7:35 PM. He put the Mazda in park and told her to brace herself. Gripping her courage, Jane got out of the car.

“This guy was the best teacher I ever had,” said Dustin, stretching after the long drive. “Better than all my MIT professors combined.”

Jane surveyed the area. It was a lot like Mike’s old neighborhood and triggered memories. Mike had hidden her in his basement fort, and shown her more kindness in four days than anyone else had in twelve years. That cellar-fort had been her liberation. For that she had rewarded him with the pain and hurt of a thousand Papas. She felt suddenly unready to see him.

Mr. Clarke was waiting for them at the front door. “Well hello, Eleanor,” he smiled.

She frowned. “Eleanor?”

“You don’t remember?” asked Dustin. “Back when we first met you in seventh grade, and told Mr. Clarke you were from Sweden?”

“Dustin.” She spoke softly as always, but she was close to screaming. “Where’s Mike?”

“Yeah, of course. My lord?”

“Come in, come in,” said Clarke, letting them enter. “He’s in the guest room down the hall. Will is with him.”

“No broken bones?” asked Dustin.

“He’s behaved rather well since last night. Pretty subdued actually.”

“That’s about to change,” warned Dustin. He looked at her. “Ready?”

She nodded.

“I know you can handle yourself,” said Clarke, “but be careful.”

He knew nothing. She wasn’t handling this well at all. All the blackness of those final days with Mike were in her. And there was worse inside him.

As if she were walking on daggers, she followed Dustin down the hallway.


Next Chapter: The Master’s Toy

(Previous Chapter: At the Home of Mr. Clarke)

Stranger Things: The College Years (Chapter 3)

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.

The stories assume the events portrayed in TV seasons 1-3, except that it was Joyce Byers who died in the Battle of Starcourt, while Jim Hopper survived to continue raising Eleven. William and Jonathan Byers stayed in Hawkins, and their Aunt Ruth came to live with them and assume guardianship of Will. Also: Karen Wheeler did have an affair with Billy Hargrove before his possession, and she aided and abetted him in abducting people for the Mind Flayer.

                               Stranger Things, The College Years — Chapter Three:

                           At the Home of Mr. Clarke

The migration from Shed Byers to Castle Byers went fine, and they collapsed in their sleeping bags. Everyone rose at sunrise except Mike, who slept like the dead. They kept trying to wake him, but he only snarled and hardly opened his eyes. Will wondered if he was exhausted from recent events, or if he needed more sleep routinely now because he had gone through death.

They took turns watching over him that morning. Will went back home early before his aunt rose, and made breakfast for her before she left for work. He returned to the fort and relieved Dustin, who went home to check on Ma Henderson, who had been seeing a podiatrist since June. Lucas ran some errands.

By around noon they were all back, and Dustin had meals from Burger King. “Two whoppers for Mike,” he said, “if Sleeping Beauty ever wakes up.”

“We need a plan,” said Lucas, biting into his bacon double-cheese.

“I was thinking,” said Will. “What about Mr. Clarke?”

“You want to bring Mike to our old science teacher?” asked Lucas.

“I can’t think of anyone else I’d trust with this,” said Will. He cursed Jim Hopper for living in Oregon now. They needed him.

Dustin approved Will’s suggestion. “But we can’t just bring Mike over to his house. He’s a murderer, and we’re all accessories. We have to explain everything to Mr. Clarke first.”

“He won’t be home now,” said Lucas. “I think he works at the library during the summer until mid-afternoons.”

“We’ll go see him at four,” said Dustin.

“And hang around here until then?” asked Lucas.

“I don’t know. Does he ever wake up?” They looked down at Mike, who was snoring, his face locked in a grimace that implied bad dreams.

“At least it’s a nice day,” said Lucas.

In fact, the day was remarkably cool: a near perfect seventy as opposed to the eighties weather of the past few weeks. It was refreshing, but Will feared an intrusion from the Upside Down. He likes it cold. He shuddered, remembering the Mind Flayer inside him. They had finally dealt with that creature once and for all. But the Illithid had gotten away, and it was worse than the Mind Flayer. It had secreted an essence so cold that its presence effected the local weather. In January 1987 the creature had caused the temps in Hawkins to drop from an already -3 degrees to -18. Today was about fifteen degrees cooler than yesterday. On top of Mike showing up, Will didn’t like the coincidence. For now he held his peace.

Mike finally woke up at two o’clock. He was just as foul-tempered as the night before, though he allowed Will to feed him.


Lights were on in the house. Will’s pulse quickened. He suddenly wasn’t sure about telling Mr. Clarke. When he saw only one car in the driveway, he felt marginally better. Mr. Clarke had been on-and-off with his lady friend Jen. She would have been a problem.

Dustin killed the Mazda’s engine. “Are we sure about this?”

“No,” said Will. “But we’re doing it. Let me lead.”

“You’re the one who found him,” said Dustin.

When they knocked on the front door, it opened to the sight of Mr. Clarke in a stained apron, and the sound of rock music — World Party’s Goodbye Jumbo — booming from another room. Clarke was clearly surprised. “Well, well. Are these my prodigies from the past?”

“Hey, Mr. Clarke,” they replied.

“How nice to see you boys. I hope you don’t want to leave college and come back to middle school.”

“Your AV Club was the only good thing about Hawkins Middle,” said Dustin. “You couldn’t pay me to set foot in there again. Nice beard, by the way. But we need to speak to you about something majorly critical.”

Clarke looked them over. “I have spaghetti cooking. You hungry?”

“Always. But –”

Will took control. “I know this is weird of us, stopping by with no warning, but we really do need to talk to you about something important.”

“By all means.” Their former teacher waved them inside. “Go sit in the living room, and turn down the music. I’ll put the food on simmer.”

“Never figured you for World Party,” said Dustin. “Great album.”


It was a song about traveling the world with some kind of message, and opening oneself to hurt. Dustin knew the lyrics. Will had no use for such sentiments at the moment. There was enough pain and hurt in the real world. Right in one’s hometown, as it turned out. He shut off the stereo.

“Check out the CD collection,” said Dustin. “We should take Mr. Clarke to the next Depeche Mode concert.”

“Okay, guys!” Clarke came in with three bottles. “Have a seat, have a Coke.”

They took the drinks and sat. Dustin was direct: “My lord, this is going to be a shock.”

“Okay,” Clarke smiled. “Shock me.”

Will shifted in the couch. “We need to be clear about this.”

Clarke raised an eyebrow.

“This can’t — I mean, can’t — go any further than the walls of this house.”

“This sounds serious.”

“It’s going to blow your mind,” said Dustin.

“We found Mike,” said Will.

“Mike who?”

The boys stared at their former teacher. “Mike,” said Will. “Our Mike.”

Clarke blinked. “Mike Wheeler?”


Clarke looked at them carefully. “You… found his body.”

“We found his fucking body, all right,” said Dustin, “in stronger shape than any of ours.”

“This isn’t a joke,” said Will. “I found Mike outside my house last night. Apparently he’s been in the Upside Down all this time — the Shadow Dimension — and didn’t die like we thought. Like, three and a half years, he’s been there. He’s a mess. We don’t know how he got back to this side. To Hawkins. He’s really strong now. But he can’t talk.”

“He can growl,” said Dustin. “And make weird noises. Maybe it’s some critter language of the Upside Down. Or maybe –”

“Okay, stop,” said Clarke. “This better not be a joke. Where is he now?”

“At my place. I mean, Castle Byers.”

“Castle Byers?”

“My old fort in the woods. My aunt never goes there. Lucas is with him.”

“Can we take you there now?” asked Dustin. “Or after you eat?”

Clarke looked at them hard. “What is it you boys want me to do?”

“We need to understand this. We can’t just tell everyone Mike is alive. All things considered — the way he is — they’d lock him up like a lab rat. Can you look at Mike and tell us what you think?”

“Dustin, if what you’re saying is true, then Mike needs professional help — medical and psychiatric examination.”

“That’s a negative, my lord. For reasons stated.”

“I’m not a trauma specialist.”

“No,” said Dustin, “but you were right about the Shadow Dimension when we trying to find Will.” Mr. Clarke was one of few people who knew the real story about Hawkins Lab, and their own roles in defeating the cycles of threats from the Upside Down. The first of those four cycles had started on November 6, 1983, and the last (by far the worst) had ended on January 25, 1987. Dustin was referring to the first year: after Will’s supposed funeral, Clarke had explained the logic of the Shadow Dimension to the other boys. He had no clue at the time how right he was.

“Mike has been in the Upside Down all this time,” said Will. “Like me, but he was captured by something worse than a demogorgon or even the Mind Flayer. It’s that creature Eleven sealed away but couldn’t kill.” Will didn’t like naming the Illithid. “We knew it was ultra-powerful but didn’t know it could raise the dead.”

“Well,” said Clarke, digesting all of this. “Why don’t you bring Michael over here, and we’ll see if we can figure this out together.”

“Can we do that?” asked Dustin.

“Could he stay the night if necessary?”

Clarke held up a hand. “One thing at a time, Will.”

“Hold on, there’s more,” said Dustin.

“Of course there is,” said Clarke. “There can’t be an end to a story like this.”

Dustin looked at Will. “You explain.”

It stands or falls here. “Mike is the one who strangled those kids,” said Will, letting that sink in. “That makes us accessories, I think. We don’t want you involved if that bothers you.”

Clarke blinked. “If that bothers me? Considering the bigger picture, worrying about being an accessory seems silly. Mike doesn’t seem to be in control of himself, based on what you tell me. And if there’s a portal that’s been opened from the shadow realm, then Hawkins is in trouble again.”

“Yeah,” said Dustin, “but the Upside Down is a closed issue. Hawkins has been normal for almost four years now. The guy we really need is Hopper. He’d believe us. But he’s out in planet Oregon, and his replacement is a joke.” Sheriff Nye was in fact worse than a joke. He believed the important part of his job was pulling over drivers who exceeded the speed limit by five miles an hour. “No one is going to believe that Mike should be absolved because of an alien from the shadow realm. And we’re not kids anymore. We could all go to prison.”

“Mike won’t just be a lab rat,” added Will. “He’ll be a criminal lab rat.”

Clarke nodded. “I see what you’re saying. But I know Mike Wheeler isn’t a killer.”

“He is now,” said Will miserably.

“Why don’t you guys bring him over.”

Dustin was on his feet. “Stay here, Will, I’ll go get them. Hey, Mr. Clarke, Mike is going to love your spaghetti. You should see the way he eats now. Like the goddest damnedest hog.”

“God only knows what he’s been eating in the Upside Down,” said Will.


“So where are you all studying now?” asked Clarke. He and Will were still in the living room, and Will was working on a second Coke.

“I’m at Grinnell.”

Clarke approved. “Grinnell is an excellent school.”

“Yeah, it’s awesome.”

“Chemistry major?”

“Yeah,” Will smiled.

“I always told you.”

“Well, I always knew. Dustin’s at MIT on a scholarship, and Lucas is at Tufts.”

“Still joined at the hip,” said Clarke.

“All three of us were supposed to go to Massachusetts. Williams was my first choice. It’s a three-hour drive to Tufts and MIT, but it still would have been cool.”

“Williams rejected you?”

“My aunt rejected Williams.” He didn’t want to relive her absurdities. “But I’m glad it turned out this way. I never want to leave Grinnell.”

“And let me guess: Lucas is biology, and Dustin either physics or engineering.”

“Biochemistry for Lucas, and yeah, Dustin’s engineering. Electrical.”

“I’m sure Lucas has a full plate. The bio-chem major is a demanding one.”

Will’s walkie-talkie blared to life.

Clarke stood up. “I’ll check on dinner while you get that.”

Will picked up the walkie-talkie. “Yeah?”

“We’re on our way. Over.” It was Lucas.

“How is he? Over.”

“I thought he was going to kill me. Over.”

“Mr. Clarke has dinner ready for us. Over.”

“Dustin told me and it’s a good thing. Will, he ate a pile of dirt. I couldn’t stop him. He would have killed me if I tried. He seriously ate handfuls of dirt that he ripped from the ground around your fort. Over.”

Jesus, Mike. What did that thing do to you? “Okay,” Will said, upset. “Just get him here. We’ll work this out. Over.”

“He could also use a shower. That sponge bath didn’t do much. Over.”

Will begged to differ. Without that sponge bath, they would have all surely passed out at Mike’s feet. But Lucas was right; Mike still needed a proper cleansing. “I’m sure we can do that here. Is he okay riding in the car? Over.”

“I’m in the back seat with him and he looks pissed. The only way we could get him in was to keep saying your name. ‘Will’ seems to calm him down. What did you ever do? Over.”

“Nothing. Like I said before, he just snapped and felt bad for some reason when he attacked me. I didn’t do a thing. Over.”

“We’ll be there in a few. Over and out.”


Mr. Clarke’s spaghetti was the best Will had ever had, but it was a nightmare to watch Mike tear through it. Halfway through the meal, half of his dinner was either on the floor or his lap. Spaghetti sauce plastered his face and his hands. His silverware lay untouched. With his fist he shoved red drenched noodles into his bottomless maw, and scowled at everyone across the table as they watched him.

“You guys need to be thinking of a plan,” Mr. Clarke was saying. “Michael is welcome to stay here — under your supervision, Will — but there’s obviously nothing I can do for him.”

“I think we know perfectly well what our next step is,” said Will. “We need El.”

Dustin’s look said that Will was a moron. “El is the last person we want to put in front of Godzilla Mike.”

Lucas concurred. “She nearly killed him breaking up with him, and then did kill him when she couldn’t save him.”

Lucas wasn’t being fair on that second point, but they all knew what he meant. The first point was more straightforward. Eleven had broken up with Mike because her father got a transfer to the west coast. Hopper had inherited the estate of a deceased cousin in Oregon, and so had applied for a job there. In December, 1986 he was accepted as the Sheriff of Yamhill County and expected to start his duties in April. He had urged his daughter to break up with Mike as soon as possible. To make the parting in April less painful, he said. El had refused to break Mike’s heart over the Christmas holiday. Instead she chose a disastrous occasion: the week in late January that Hawkins was almost destroyed by a shadow invasion.

“I know that,” said Will. “But she might be the only one who can actually reach him. She meant everything to him. Besides, she’s the only one who can fight the Illithid.”

“Whoa, Will. She killed the worm. The Illithid can’t come back.” The twin shadow worms had been the minions and steeds of the Illithid, able to flip across dimensions without requiring a Gate. But their ability to flip had depended on mutual existence. By destroying one of them, El had neutralized the threat of the other, and stranded the Illithid in the Upside Down.

“Yeah, and there can’t be another Gate,” said Dustin. “I mean, no way.” There had been two Gates: one created by Eleven in 1983, which she closed the following year, and a second one created by the Russians in 1985, which Joyce Byers had closed right before she was shot.

“Mike is here now”, said Will. “I don’t know how he crossed back over, but if that thing tracks him –”

“I think we’d know it by now,” said Dustin. “Meaning we wouldn’t know anything, because we’d be dead.”

“Did you notice it got colder today?” asked Will.

“What you mean? It’s not cold. It’s been nice.”

“It hasn’t been this cool for weeks. Hawkins turned colder when the Illithid appeared that winter. Today it’s been at least ten degrees cooler than yesterday, maybe fifteen. The same kind of drop as before.”

Lucas was skeptical. “You’re reaching.”

“I’m not so sure,” said Dustin.

“Seriously?” asked Lucas.

“Well, I think Will has a point. I agree that bringing El here could send Mike over the edge. But we might need her. And if we need her, man, we need her. No one else can take on that thing. If it’s back.”

“Should I call her now?” asked Will.

“You have her number?” Lucas was astonished.

“She gave it to me in a letter she wrote soon after moving.” He had read that letter so many times he had its entire contents memorized. “I hope it hasn’t changed.”


Next Chapter: Jane Air

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