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 story assumes the events portrayed in TV seasons 1-2. I was a bit unhappy with season 3, not least for the silly comedy. In my imagination of the summer of 1985, Joyce Byers died fighting the Mind Flayer; there were no Russians under a mall; Eleven defeated the Mind Flayer once and for all; 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 had an affair with Billy Hargrove, and she aided and abetted him in abducting people for the Mind Flayer until he was killed by the creature. Jim Hopper did engineer a break-up between Eleven and Mike, but not in the silly way portrayed in season 3.

                               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?”

“El?”

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.

“El?”

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.”

“Us?”

“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.”

“Will.”

“Yeah?”

“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)

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