Stranger Things: The New Generation (Chapter 4)

This eight-chapter novella is a sequel to Stranger Things: The College Years, which should be read beforehand. Both are works of fan fiction based on the Stranger Things TV series. I do not profit from them and they are not part of the official Stranger Things canon. They are stories that came to me as I imagined the Stranger Things characters well after the period of the television seasons. There is plenty 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 these stories down.

                         Stranger Things, The New Generation — Chapter Four:

                            Mike of Melnibone

He got up Saturday morning, determined he would not let Dom’s assault ruin the best night of the year. Halloween was his; Elric his best costume ever. The crimson eyes and albino makeup would mask his black eye. He was going to have fun. Mike knew that Dom and his friends wouldn’t be at Ashlee’s. They wouldn’t be seen around people like her.

He still hurt and had to be delicate cleaning himself in the shower. Putting on clothes wasn’t fun either. But nothing was fractured. He dipped into the Elric makeup and spread the whiteness over his black eye. Not perfect: the mirror showed hints of the bruise, but it was hard to tell from a distance. Mike’s fury returned, looking at himself. He needed a strategy for dealing with Dom.

He dialed Tobias, who answered on the usual fourth: “When I want your opinion?”

“I’ll piss in your eyes. Denny’s in fifteen. I’ll be showing up with a shiner, so don’t cream yourself.”

Tobias paused. “Dom?”

“Of course.”

“You couldn’t use your power?”

“I’ll explain when I see you. I want my breakfast on the table when I get there.” Tobias’s house was closer to Denny’s.

“Sieg heil!”

Mike hung up and went down the stairs. “I’m leaving, mom!” he called out. He hadn’t spoken to her since she slapped him. Right under his black eye. He seethed reliving it.

“Wait.” She was already there, patrolling the front door area.

“What do you want?” he asked. His goddamn mother was omnipresent. She never slept — in bed around two, up around six, and on full alert for the rest of her twenty-hour day. Mike didn’t understand how anyone could function like that, and had thought it had something to do with her psychic powers. She had once told him otherwise: that she had eaten magical fruit from a witch named Baba Yaga, and had needed minimal sleep ever since. He told her she was full of shit. Let her play her stupid games.

“I’m sorry I hit you,” she said. “I shouldn’t have done that.”

“No, you shouldn’t have, you cunt.” He felt awful as soon as he said the word.

She was unfazed. His father had called her worse in his crippled years. “Fine. You can say what you want about me. Call me anything. I mean that. But I swear, Mike, I won’t hear you trash your father. If you do it again, you’ll regret it. I won’t hit you — that was wrong. But you’ll wish I had.”

“You remember I was almost killed yesterday, right?”

“I know that,” she snapped. “I want to help you and you’re not letting me.”

“I have to meet Tobias.”

“Can I at least hug you before you go?” She didn’t wait for an answer. “I love you,” she said, holding him.

He couldn’t help staying pissed at her. “Yeah. Can I leave now?”

She released him. “Go ahead. But let’s be clear. You lied yesterday. That was no stranger who attacked you — No, don’t lie to me again. I’m not stupid. If you won’t tell me what’s going on, I’m sure you have your reasons and they’re all bad. That’s your choice.”

“Gee, thanks.” He walked out the door.

 

Mike and Tobias ate like kings. Especially Mike, who had skipped dinner the night before. He had two omelettes instead of one, two sides of bacon, four slices of toast, sausage on top of that, and a Danish pastry to make it all stick.

They were rehashing Halloween II, Rob Zombie’s latest. If Whip It! was Mike Hopper’s film pick of 2009, Halloween II was Tobias’s. In Tobias’s fringe opinion, it was the best entry in the Halloween franchise. He and Mike had argued about it in August when they came out of the premiere. Mike remembered the debate like it was yesterday:

“No way, dude,” said Mike. “Not even a contest.”

“It buries the other films,” declared Tobias. “It’s the Halloween film I always wanted.”

“It buries all the stupid sequels, sure.” Had there been seven of those? Mike had lost count. “But not the Carpenter classic.”

“Yes it does.”

“And I think Zombie’s remake of that classic was better than this remake.”

“That shows why you’re clueless. This was not a remake. Don’t you remember the first Halloween II?”

“I repressed it from memory,” said Mike.

“Exactly. It sucked balls. But you liked this film.”

“Well yeah, Zombie always does a good job. He can make lemonade from anything.”

“But that’s just it. This film wasn’t a remake of that lemon. Zombie only remade the Carpenter classic. For the sequel, the studio told him to ignore the original Halloween II and do whatever he damn well pleased. And that’s what we just saw. His Halloween II is a masterpiece.”

“I don’t know, dude. It was good, but not that good. The classic is supreme.”

“The classic hasn’t aged well. The high school girls look like ladies in their late twenties — because that’s what they were back then. Except for Jamie Almighty Lee Curtis. Carpenter was a genius for his time, but Halloween is a bit boring by today’s standards.”

“Blasphemy.”

“As for Zombie’s remake of Carpenter, it was good — and slightly better than Carpenter’s, go ahead and cry blasphemy again — but it was trying to be too many things at once.”

“Now you’re a fucking critic. No wonder you talk out your ass.”

“You saw it with me, dude. Zombie’s Halloween was a prequel, a remake, and a Rob Zombie film, and those don’t mix well. What we just saw tonight was pure Rob Zombie.”

“I thought the dream Michael kept having of his mother and the horse was stupid,” said Mike.

“Don’t be dense. This Halloween II did everything sequels should do but never have the balls to do. How many slashers show the serious trauma caused by serial killers? Laurie was a fucking mess in this film. It was searing. Emotionally. A character film and a horror piece, and like I say, name me a single slasher that can match that.”

“Laurie was a mess because of her shrink. That bitch probably had more to do with Laurie’s fucked up mental state than Michael Myers.”

“You’re the one passing gas now.”

“Whatever, dude.”

“Come on, didn’t you love Loomis?”

Mike laughed. “Zombie got creative there. What an asshole.”

“He stole the show!”

Mike had to admit that Dr. Loomis was an immensely entertaining part of Rob Zombie’s Halloween II. The iconic psychiatrist had devolved into a vain celebrity who no longer gave a professional damn about Michael Myers or his victim Laurie Strode. He attended promotional events for his ridiculous book, scolded audiences who didn’t worship him, and viciously insulted his publicist for offering kind but unwanted opinions.

That last was an ongoing problem. For the past two months, Tobias had overused his favorite Loomis insult to the point that Mike had forgotten its original context. “When I want your opinion,” Loomis had fired, “I’ll beat it out of you.” Tobias had made a question and answer game out of the insult, and Mike had to be the constant creative one in supplying alternative response phrases. By now he had come up with at least eighty variations of “I’ll beat it out of you”. Of course, when Tobias used the insult on anyone other than Mike, he supplied the variations himself, and extremely vulgar ones at that. He had a vulgarity planned for everyone at Ashlee’s.

The waiter brought their bill, and by then Mike had conceded most of Tobias’s points. Zombie’s unusual sequel had grown on him since he downloaded a bootleg and watched it again. It also struck him that Halloween II was incredibly violent. Not banally or gratuitously; it was shot so effectively that you couldn’t help flinching with every vicious plunge of Michael Myers’ blade. That resonated in the wake of his own ass-whipping at the hands of Dom. Mike felt a superstitious dread: that his outing tonight would be marked by an act of extraordinary violence.

 

“Hallowed ground,” said Tobias.

“Yeah,” said Mike, taking in the night. He loved this place.

They were at Mount Tabor Park, where they had stopped on the way to Ashlee’s. Their first Halloween together had ended here in the wildest of parties conceivable to twelve-year olds, thrown by the rebel students of Mount Tabor Middle. There had been pot, fireworks, and wrestling matches in costume. Mike thought nothing could ever top the excitement of that night. He was about to be proven dead wrong.

A branch snapped, and they looked over to see four costumed figures approaching them. They got closer, and Mike and Tobias recognized them. No.

“Hey, shitheads,” said Dom. He was Jack Sparrow, from Pirates of the Caribbean. That figured. All three Pirates movies were terrible. The other three costumes weren’t much better, though Darrel’s was the most inspired. He was the insane Nazi dentist from Marathon Man. Curtis was a lame version of Dracula, and Todd a generic zombie.

Mike was eyeing Dom’s pirate sword, which looked real. He wasn’t going to have a repeat of yesterday afternoon.

“I wouldn’t have recognized you, Hopper, but we followed you from your house. Your boyfriend is a dead give away. Doesn’t look like he even has a costume.”

“Who are you supposed to be, Powell?” asked Darrel. “The albino’s whore?”

Todd laughed uproariously.

“Dom, we’re not doing this again,” said Mike, as Dom got up in his face: the pirate bearding the Melnibonean. Even through his terror, Mike was disgusted. The real Elric would have carved up Jack Sparrow in seconds.

“Oh, we’re not?” asked Dom.

“No!”

“Well, whatever you say, your fucking majesty. Do all of you white niggers think you’re so high and goddamn mighty?”

“Anyone of every race is superior to you, Dom,” said Tobias calmly. “You’re fit for one thing only: to clean the shit out of our cracks with your foul tongue.”

Dom’s friends gasped. Dom kept staring at Mike for a moment, and then slowly turned his head to Tobias. “You know, Powell, you have a pretty foul tongue yourself. I think I’ll do you a favor, and cut it out for you.” He drew his sword — which was very real indeed.

“Yeah!” hollered Todd.

But Mike was already moving. He knew he was being suicidal, but he was still boiling with rage over his black eye and branded stomach. Dom’s attention was focused squarely on Tobias, and Mike was able to deliver a mean and hard kick to his balls. Dom fell to the ground, hissing through his teeth. The other three watched, stunned.

Mike dashed for his life. “Run, Tobias!” he yelled. But he didn’t get far when he heard a scream, and stopped and looked back.

Darrel and Curtis had Tobias pinned on the ground. “Get back here, Hopper!” called Darrel. “Right now!”

Mike felt sick as he walked back. “Let him go, Darrel.”

“I don’t think so. Dom has business with him. Right, Dom?”

Dom’s scrotum was slowly recovering, and he hauled himself to his feet. His face shouted murder. “My business is with the white nigger. You keep that fucking Jew on the ground.”

“Leave him alone, Dom!” shouted Tobias. Darrel kicked his leg.

Mike had to try summoning his power. It was almost two days, since early yesterday morning, that Hayley had torn his mind asunder. Maybe that meant the wall in his mind was gone, or at least weakened. He doubted it, but he had to try. He began concentrating.

Dom charged him, raising his sword. Mike drew Stormbringer, for all the good it would do. Dom’s sword would break his plastic plaything in half with a single cut.

The sight of Stormbringer at least stopped Dom for the moment. “Is that a toy sword, faggot?”

Panicking, Mike summoned the fugit, feeling the swarm fill his head. He pressed and found the wall still there, blocking his ability to translate the buzzing abstraction into anything useful.

Tobias shouted at him, and he barely jumped back in time as Dom’s sword slashed through the air where his head had been. Mike lost his balance but remained standing. He gave another mental push, but in his panic he pushed into the wrong region of his mind.

A wave of vertigo slapped him. Something was shifting inside his head, and seemed to split it down the middle. He dropped Stormbringer and fell to his knees, groaning. Dom’s friends laughed, and Dom shouted something in mockery. Mike had never felt pain this torturous. He could only hold his head and moan, wishing that Dom would hurry up and chop off his head to end his misery. His brain felt like bladed gears working at cross-purposes, or tectonic plates being violently realigned. Then the pain faded, and the wall was suddenly gone — no, not gone; broken down, rather, and reconfigured for a new purpose.

“Mike!” cried Tobias.

Dom’s sword swung in a vicious arc, cutting into Mike’s forehead as he knelt on the ground. Blood splashed, and Mike’s head was again in searing agony.

Roaring applause came from Dom’s friends. They cheered for more. Tobias swore at Dom, demanding that he stop. He tried moving towards Mike, but Darrel and Todd held him down. Mike looked up at Dom with burning fury, as blood poured down his face. Combined with his red Elric eyes, it made for an unnerving sight. Dom looked suddenly uncertain. Mike felt just the opposite. He pushed again — into the new region of his mind that had just opened.

A blast of white flame exploded from Mike’s eyes. He screamed at what he unleashed. And what Tobias saw he never forgot.

The flame shot out and engulfed Dominic Bragdon, turning him into a human torch. But he didn’t burn. The fire did something else entirely. Dom began transforming, and in fifteen seconds looked like a thirty-year old man. He dropped his sword and cried out: “What’s happening to me!” Tobias and the others gaped as Dom’s life played out before their eyes. He turned forty, then fifty. Mike yelled triumphantly, and kept fire pouring from his eyes. Dom’s hair sprouted long and grey. In another set of seconds his skin was spotted and leathery, stretching until it cracked and split. “Help me, somebody,” he croaked, sounding nothing at all like Dom. The skeletal avatar fell to its brittle knees, and its eyeballs shrank back into the skull. Hideously, it looked up at Mike with a silent plea. There was no mercy from that corner. Mike reined in his power until only beads of white flame were dropping from his eyes, like tears. He stooped to pick up Stormbringer. Full of incandescent rage, he swung the sword at Dom’s face. The skull exploded into dust, and the plastic sword was left stunningly intact. The rest of Dom’s skeleton collapsed into dust underneath his clothes.

Utter silence hung in the park. Mike looked down. He had just killed Dominic Bragdon. By a means no one would believe.

“No, no, shit, no.” It was Curtis.

Except for those who had just witnessed it.

“Tobias,” said Mike steadily, “Come over here now.”

Tobias was next to Darrel, rooted in shock.

“Move!” yelled Mike.

Tobias snapped into action, understanding. He moved away from the trio and joined Mike, who surveyed them with grim purpose.

“Hey! No!” said Darrel, clearly about to shit his pants. “Come on, Hopper!”

“Jesus, don’t… don’t kill us, man!” said Todd. “Please!

Curtis bolted — but not fast enough.

Ignoring his instincts that rebelled against cold-blooded murder, Mike tapped the new window in his mind. White flame gushed from his eyes and swept over Darrel, Curtis, and Todd. They tried to run, but the argent held them firm as pillars. They begged for their lives as they withered into ancient men, and like Dom collapsed into bones and dust. But it was very different this time for Mike. This time he wasn’t fighting in self-defense. He was committing mass murder, so that no one could spread tales of his dreadful power. He truly had become Elric: a figure of devastation with a strained moral compass.

He realized Tobias was saying his name. He was looking at Mike in reverence.

 

They burned the dusty clothes in a vacated parking lot. The fire roared, and Tobias embraced Mike under the stars. “Do you realize what I witnessed tonight? Elric of Melnibone killed the worst assholes of Marshall High. With sword and sorcery. Right in front of my eyes.”

“Yeah, I was there.”

“It was beautiful, dude. What you did reminds me of this youtube clip I saw of someone who had taken a photo of himself every day for almost thirty years, and then made a slideshow of the pictures. The clip took fifteen minutes to watch, so you could literally watch this guy age thirty years in fifteen minutes. You aged those bastards centuries in less than two fucking minutes.”

“Tobias.”

“What, man?”

“I’m sick. I killed four people.”

“You had to,” said Tobias without hesitation. “Dom completely deserved it, and there’s no way you could have let the others go. The world’s a better place without them.”

Mike rationally agreed, but his body objected. He fell on his knees and threw up again, as he had back in the park. He and Tobias had sworn a pact of secrecy, and to act as if nothing had happened after they burned the clothes. But Mike wasn’t going to Ashlee’s. He needed to be alone and was going straight home. His mother would be at Uncle Luc’s for at least another two or three hours, and for this he was grateful. When she saw the gash in his forehead, she would suffocate him with questions. Hopefully he could treat the wound tonight and disguise the worst of it tomorrow. Right now he was wearing a makeshift bandana torn from Tobias’s shirt.

Tobias said he was going to put in a brief appearance at Ashlee’s. Mike couldn’t believe it.

“Dude, I’ve been waiting since August to be Loomis, and it’s happening. You got to be Elric tonight — really, I mean. I’m going to be Loomis, and that demands a huge audience.”

“I’m sure you had a script planned for everyone. But you need to skip it.”

“I think not.”

“Then think again. You show up without me, everyone knows you and I stick together like glue. When the hunt begins for these four, people will remember I wasn’t with you. I’ll be a suspect.” Not that he was worried about being incriminated. The bullies of Marshall High were dust; their bodies may as well have vanished from the earth. But he didn’t want any interrogations.

“I see your point.” Tobias was crestfallen.

“Just go home and chill. We had enough tonight for twenty Halloweens.”

“See you tomorrow?”

“Yeah, come over in the morning,” said Mike.

“When I want your opinion?”

“I’ll age it out of you, motherfucker.”

“Ja wohl!” Tobias held out for a high five.

Mike could only shake his head.

 

Next Chapter: Regenesis

(Previous Chapter: D is for God)

Stranger Things: The New Generation (Chapter 3)

This eight-chapter novella is a sequel to Stranger Things: The College Years, which should be read beforehand. Both are works of fan fiction based on the Stranger Things TV series. I do not profit from them and they are not part of the official Stranger Things canon. They are stories that came to me as I imagined the Stranger Things characters well after the period of the television seasons. There is plenty 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 these stories down.

                        Stranger Things, The New Generation — Chapter Three:

                                   D is for God

Mike turned on his computer and watched the screen. It turned grey, and the apple chime sounded. “Don’t you dare,” he whispered.

It was 4:38 AM, and he had just risen from bed. He hadn’t logged on since Tobias came over the morning before. The Ellen virus (as he thought of it) had scared him so badly that he could hardly look at his computer last night. This morning he had to see.

The grey apple shimmered as the operating system loaded. “Don’t you fucking dare,” he repeated.

The desktop appeared, and with it the scene from Hard Candy where he and Tobias had left off. The image looked normal, if “normal” could describe any scene from Hard Candy. Hayley had Jeff strapped to a chair and was threatening to pour bleach down his throat. He would have to watch the film again. It was at this scene he had fallen hard in love with Ellen Page.

He realized he was hard, partly from thinking of Ellen, but also because he hadn’t masturbated in two days. Since Wednesday night his nerves had been too preoccupied for a good jerk-off. He got on the bed to beat off before his morning shower.

His computer sounded a boing!, and he yelped. Tucking his cock back in his sweatpants, he flashed a guilty look towards the door, and then the computer screen. The next Hard Candy image had cycled, and it looked fine. The boing! had come from his Yahoo Instant Messenger, which was up and flashing on the right side of the screen. Who the hell would be messaging him this early? He used Yahoo mostly to chat with Tobias, and Tobias was never up this early.

The message was from someone he didn’t know: &%#!$*@yahoo.com. The username glowed yellow in his menu, which meant that he had accepted this user as a friend at some point. Which he most certainly had not. He enlarged the window so that it filled his screen, and stared at the message:

— Do you know what she did?

He frowned, not understanding. Do I know what she did? “She” presumably referred to Ellen Page, or Bliss Cavender, or whoever had perverted Bliss’s persona on his screen. He thought for a moment, and then typed back:

— wtf are you???

He intended ambiguity with the acronym, so that “w” could stand for who as much as what. Mike didn’t know who or what he was dealing with. He saw under the message window that &%#!$* was typing a response. It came in seconds:

— You’re going to die up here.

His testicles froze at the threat. This had to be a messed up joke. He thought of Tobias again, but this wasn’t his style, let alone his time of day. Who had the hacking skills to force-friend him? Sweat broke out over his body. He read the threat again, and decided to roll with it. He typed:

— maybe u can die in bed with me. 🙂

&%#!$* was already responding furiously. The message came:

— I make the questions, and I do the answers!

This was getting old fast. He closed the discussion:

— removing u from my friends. bye

In the space of a few clicks, he unfriended &%#!$*. Make your questions and answers now, bitch.

As if in answer, &%#!$* reappeared in his friends list seconds after being removed. The circle next to the username glowed yellow, mocking his inability to get rid of it.

Furious, Mike closed Yahoo messenger — and got slammed by the picture waiting on his screen. It almost broke his sanity.

Gomer Pyle

It was a perversion of Hayley Stark that made her Hard Candy psychosis seem mild. Unlike the endearing Bliss, the character of Hayley already came with nasty looks. Mike had chosen plenty of those looks for his screensaver. What displayed on his screen now was something else entirely. Hayley looked possessed. She was in her black tank top against the blue-grey background of Jeff Kohlver’s kitchen, just like in the film. But she had traded in righteous fury for the cruel insanity of the Kubrick stare. Mike had seen many of Stanley Kubrick’s films, and this was Ellen Page as if she had been directed by Kubrick, in a tight close-up shot, looking up with her eyes while keeping her head angled down. She was Alex DeLarge in A Clockwork Orange; Jack Torrance in The Shining; and Gomer Pyle in Full Metal Jacket.

And she was grinning exactly like Gomer Pyle.

He felt his bladder empty, soaking his sweatpants. Tearing his gaze from the evil distortion, he scrambled for the computer’s back switch, but the pain came like an avalanche, before his finger could find the button. It was a blinding pain, worse than Wednesday night’s episode. He had never been this invasively attacked in his own home.

He found the button and held it down for a long time, already knowing it was in vain. He repeated his Wednesday night abortion, and pulled the plug.

 

Later that day, when he was walking home from school, it hit him. The messages sent by &%#!$* were lines from The Exorcist. He had seen the movie two years ago when his Uncle Will visited. His other uncles called him “Will the Wise”. He lived in Fishers, Indiana, where he served as the deputy director of the town’s public library. The Exorcist was Uncle Will’s favorite movie, which Mike found surprising. Uncle Will had been possessed by an awful creature at the age of thirteen and almost killed by it.

The first message from &%#!$* was the question, “Do you know what she did?” It’s what the demon asked Regan’s mother after forcing the girl to masturbate with a crucifix, which was by far the most shocking thing Mike had ever seen in a film. The second message was, “You’re going to die up here.” In the movie the demon said, “You’re going to die up there,” to a young astronaut who was attending Chris McNeil’s party. The demon had been predicting the astronaut’s death in space. By “up here“, what had &%#!$* meant? That Mike would soon die in his own bedroom?

He couldn’t recall the reference for the last message — “I make the questions, and I do the answers” — and had to Google it on his iPhone. He found it. In the movie Regan explains to her mother how she uses a Ouija board: that she makes the questions, and “Captain Howdy” (the demon) makes the answers. Mike had no idea what &%#!$* meant by making both the questions and the answers. Did that imply some kind of mighty omnipotence?

He took a shortcut through an alley between Bush and Rhone. When he got home, he was going to call Uncle Will. He should have done that yesterday instead of pestering Uncle Luc. They called him Will the Wise for good reason.

He thought he heard a sound, and stopped to look behind. He often used this shortcut, though his mother had warned him about alleys. He was about to find out why.

“Faggot.” Dominic Bragdon stepped out from behind a dumpster.

Shit. He didn’t have time for this. “Maybe you’re the faggot, Dom. You’ve been obsessed with me, and now you’re waiting in alleys where no one can find us.” Dom must have somehow learned of Mike’s route home, and gotten ahead of him after school.

Dom looked hard at him as he circled around Mike. “That’s right, Hopper. No one will find us here.”

Mike felt uneasy. “Get lost, Dom.”

“There’s something off about you, Hopper.”

If you only knew.

Dom had moved around so that Mike was now cornered against the alley dumpster. “We never seem to finish our little talks,” he said, closing in.

“Not much to say,” said Mike, and began concentrating.

Dom was watching him closely and decided he didn’t care for that look of concentration. He pounced instantly.

Mike was caught off guard. He jumped sideways, barely evading Dom, and cursed his complacency. He should have tapped his fugit power the moment he saw Dom.

Dom came at him again. Mike tripped dodging him, and landed on his ass, spraining his left ankle. He desperately looked around. He had never cried for help against bullies, because he hadn’t needed to. Dom had finally caught on to him. He needed just a few moments to concentrate. He jumped to his feet, scrambling backwards — and slammed into the dumpster he had forgotten about. There was no escape, and certainly no way around Dom.

Dom swung at his head and Mike barely avoided a hard fist. He was badly frightened. This psychopath wasn’t messing around. Dom launched himself, and Mike yelled, taking the full weight on his sprained ankle in order to kick at Dom with his other foot — a pathetic effort. Dom grabbed his foot and yanked hard, sending Mike down on his ass again. He pulled Mike to his feet.

“You piece of shit, Hopper,” he snarled.

Mike spat in his face.

Dom slammed his fist into Mike’s stomach, and Mike folded to his knees, pulverized. He couldn’t breathe. Dom pulled him up again, spun him around, and threw him. Mike’s head banged against the dumpster, and he sprawled on his hands and knees, scraping both. He tried yelling for help but his throat had forgotten how to inhale. Dom delivered a kick to his left eye, connecting both solidly and wetly. Terror gave Mike his voice back, and he screamed for help so loudly that everyone in the city should have come running.

No one came at all.

Dom grabbed him by the hair. “We’re alone, faggot,” he said, reaching into his back pocket. When Mike saw the knife, he screamed again. It was a Kissing Crane Stiletto, and the blade looked vicious.

“LET ME GO!” Mike bawled.

Dom pressed the tip of the knife into Mike’s neck, drawing blood. “I’ll let you go, as soon as I give you my autograph.”

Mike went limp and gave up all physical resistance. Instead he gathered his will and concentrated fiercely. He knew he needed tranquility, but that was impossible. His mind was a sea of pain. If he couldn’t pull this off, he was in big trouble. He summoned his power and the usual swarm filled his head. But there was that mental wall again, and it was more resistant than it had been yesterday in the cafeteria. He was aware of Dom pulling up his shirt. With renewed fury, he pushed against the wall. Nothing: the swarm buzzed and thundered against the inside of his head, hungry for release. Dom was saying something and grinning; then he held up the blade and repeated whatever asshole question was gratifying him so much. Mike ignored him and pushed again. Lifting a school bus would have been easier. Hayley had betrayed him, taking whatever Bliss had done to the next level. He pushed… pushed… pushed

… and then screamed as pain tore his stomach. The Kissing Crane went into his gut like a tub of butter, and blood ran everywhere. His power abruptly ceased; the swarm vanished. Dom cut straight down, from the top of Mike’s stomach to his hip. Then he made a curving arc, connecting the top part of the cut to the bottom. Blood flew again. It was the letter “D”. Like the crazy guy in that Stephen King novel, Dom had carved his initial into Mike’s stomach.

“SOMEBODY HELP ME!!”

Dom threw Mike over on his stomach and mashed his face into the pavement. “No one’s helping you, ass-wipe! And if you tell anyone I did this, I’ll use this blade to feed you your heart! Do you hear me?”

Mike was crying hysterically, utterly terrified for his life.

Dom yanked him up by the hair and put the knife to his throat. “I said, do you hear me?”

“YES!”

He threw Mike down and stood up. “Good. You have my autograph. That’s ‘D’ for ‘God’. Not ‘G’ for ‘God’. It’s the last letter that matters. Shitheads never get that.”

Mike stayed on the ground, sobbing uncontrollably.

“I’m your God, Hopper. You sound like a fucking sow.”

He walked off.

 

His mother was dicing peppers when he walked in. She gasped and put down the knife. “What happened?”

Mike ignored her and moved towards the hallway leading to the bathroom. She cut him off and grabbed his shoulders, staring at him. “Oh my God,” she said. He didn’t want to see himself in the mirror.

“I’m okay, mom,” he said in a broken voice.

“Sit down.”

“I need to use the bathroom.”

“Don’t walk away from me, Mike! Sit down.”

Angry tears came, and he tried to get around her. She touched his shoulder, and he felt a gentle force push him down onto a kitchen chair. His fury exploded: “Don’t do that to me!” he shouted.

She pulled up his blood-stained shirt. He wrestled with her, and swore at her when she used her power again to overcome him. She saw the “D” carved into his stomach, and her face grew furious. “Michael, who did this?”

He started crying again. He had never been assaulted like this, let alone maimed, and he always thought his power could protect him. It shamed him to be like this in front of his mother, and the fact that she had used her own power against him added insult to injury.

She pulled up another chair and held him as he cried, and apologized for humiliating him. Then she got a wet cloth and rubbing alcohol out of the cabinets, and started cleaning his bruised and bloody areas. When he calmed down, he gave a very censored account of what happened. Instead of Dom being his attacker, it was a complete stranger. If he identified his assailant, his mother would call the police, and he didn’t want that. The bite of the law would only escalate Dom’s rage. Nor did he want his mother fighting his battles in any case; not battles like this.

“So you have no idea who it was?” she persisted.

“No. I shouldn’t have provoked him.”

“No, you shouldn’t have. But what about your power? Are you sure it was being blocked, or was it just that you couldn’t concentrate because you were threatened?”

“I’m sure, mom.”

“Did you try using it after the attack?”

“Yes,” he lied. “I tried it coming home. There’s some kind of wall in my mind that’s blocking me all of a sudden. Did that ever happen with you?”

She thought. “No, not exactly. Sometimes I had a hard time calling up my power, but that was more an emotional problem. There was never anything in my head blocking it.”

“Well, I don’t understand it.” He wasn’t about to explain Ellen either. His mother wouldn’t understand his screensaver infestation any more than he or Tobias did. And Ellen was his private world. She was off limits to his mother’s scrutiny. When she had raced up the stairs Wednesday night to find out why he screamed, he gave her a bullshit explanation involving a bat perched outside on his window. “I want to go shower.”

“Mike, you’re shutting me out. You’ve been doing that a lot lately.”

He knew that his father had made an art of shutting her out. “Yeah, well, don’t worry, I’m not going to be like Dad.”

She went rigid. “What did you say?” Her tone signaled that he was on thin ice.

At the moment he was tone deaf. “I’m not going to be a shitty pathetic victim. I won’t turn into a mess.”

“Don’t talk to me about your father like that.”

“I just meant –”

She slapped his face. Hard. He gaped at her wide-eyed. “I know what you meant and you can keep quiet. You have no idea what it is to be a victim, Michael. Your father and I were prisoners for a long time. And he was tortured — beyond anything you can imagine. I’m telling you I want you to be careful so you don’t end up in the hospital or dead. It’s that simple. Don’t take the high ground with me when you don’t know what you’re talking about.”

She was angry — but so was he. He had been branded; his gut was marked. She could cut him some goddamn slack. “Piss off,” he said hoarsely, standing up.

“We’ll be eating in an hour.”

“Save it,” he retorted. “I’m not eating your dinner tonight.”

“Mike!”

He went upstairs and didn’t come down until next morning.

 

Next Chapter: Mike of Melnibone

(Previous Chapter: Tempus Fugit)

Stranger Things: The New Generation (Chapter 2)

This eight-chapter novella is a sequel to Stranger Things: The College Years, which should be read beforehand. Both are works of fan fiction based on the Stranger Things TV series. I do not profit from them and they are not part of the official Stranger Things canon. They are stories that came to me as I imagined the Stranger Things characters well after the period of the television seasons. There is plenty 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 these stories down.

                         Stranger Things, The New Generation — Chapter Two:

                                Tempus Fugit

“You must jack off to Ellen Page every day.”

“Shut up.” Mike resented Tobias’s remark, precisely because he did jack off to Ellen Page every day.

“Which one was it?” Tobias was in his desk chair, and Mike was looking over his shoulder at the contents of the screensaver folder.

“That one.”

“This one?” Tobias pointed with the mouse.

“Yes!”

“Okay. I’m opening it.” Tobias double-clicked.

The Whip It! image filled the screen as it should have. Ellen was gentle Bliss Cavender again.

“Maybe the screensaver program triggers it somehow.”

“I don’t know, Mike. That’s not usually how viruses work.”

“Well, try it anyway!”

Tobias started the screensaver, with the offending JPEG set to rotate as the first image. He set the images to change every five seconds instead of five minutes, because they had to get to school. “If I didn’t know you better, I’d say you were on crack and imagined it.”

“I’m not on anything and I know what I saw.”

The screenshot displayed normally.

“You’re fantasies of this girl are messing with you.”

“Bullshit,” Mike whispered. The scene faded after a five seconds, and the next Whip It! image took its place.

They waited and watched the change of scenes. He and Tobias usually met at the corner of 79th Avenue and Tibbetts on their walk to school, but he had called Tobias this morning and told him to come over after his breakfast. He had kept his computer off since Ellen terrorized him last night, and refused to turn it back on until Tobias arrived.

The images cycled normally. Tobias made small-talk: “You know Ellen Page is gay, right?”

“Shut up.”

“I’m serious.”

“No she’s not.”

“Uh, yeah, she is.”

“Where did you hear that?”

“I didn’t hear it anywhere. It’s as clear as day.”

“You’re fucked in the head.”

“She’s a closet lez, and has no more interest in your cock than any other guy’s.” Mike knew Tobias was just trying to piss him off, and it was working given his frame of mind. He was still scared by what the screensaver had done.

The images turned to Hard Candy, and they too displayed without any signs of corruption.

“It all looks fine to me, dude. Want me to trash the JPEG anyway?”

“Yeah.” Just to be safe. But Mike knew that wasn’t the problem. The JPEG wasn’t corrupted. It had been corrupted by… something… but it was fine now. As crazy as that sounded.

Tobias went into the folder and trashed it, and they left for school.

 

Later that day they sat in the cafeteria, enjoying as much lunch as they could tolerate. Mike ate half his pork pie, toyed with his greens, and decided he’d had enough.

“I’m done,” he said.

“Hold on.” Tobias shoved his tray aside and took out his iPhone. “I want to sit for a few.”

“You want to play WordFu.”

Tobias began playing the game he had been addicted to for months. Kung-fu noises brayed from the cell as he hurried to make words of the letters that tumbled on the screen. He glanced at Mike. “What are you waiting for?”

“Play with yourself,” said Mike. They often engaged in WordFu competitions on their iPhones, but today it was the last thing on Mike’s mind. Instead he browsed forums where people complained about weird hacking problems involving JPEG files.

“Yuppies.” The jeer came from the next table.

Tobias didn’t look up. “When I want your opinion, Kate, I’ll smack it out of you.” Mike and Tobias were among the few kids at Marshall High who had iPhones. Most students had the standard fare: Blackberries, Razrs, Nokias. Mike was confident that iPhones would rule the new decade.

“iPhones suck,” said Kate, as if reading his mind.

Tobias let out a huge fart. Kate gagged and swore at him, though one of her friends laughed. But when the fumes lingered, they all got up and went to another table.

“You clear a place out, dude,” said Mike. He breathed through his mouth. When Tobias let loose, it was low tide at a swamp.

“Hopper.” A shadow fell over him, and he looked up to see Dominic Bragdon with his three usuals in tow: Darrel, Curtis, and Todd. All four were staring at him, and Mike felt his stomach tighten. “Move,” said Dom. “We want this table.” What they actually wanted was to pick a fight.

“Sit somewhere else,” said Mike. A stupid thing to say, but he wasn’t quite as scared as he should have been. After what Ellen did to him last night, bullies seemed a minor annoyance.

What did you say, Hopper?”

“He said your balls stink and your mouth is an unwiped shithole,” said Tobias without looking up from WordFu.

The four heads turned on Tobias. At other tables, kids looked on nervously.

“You’re dead, Powell,” said Curtis.

“He’s fucking dead, all right,” said Dom, moving around the table to stand over Tobias. “Give me that stupid phone.”

WordFu spat out its clacking noises, as if mocking Dom’s demand. Tobias ignored Dom completely.

“Did you hear me, shithead?” Dom was about to take this to the next level.

Mike sighed. He knew what he had to do. Reaching inward, he summoned his extraordinary power.

It began as usual, like a swarm of bees inside his head that thrummed until the din and pressure demanded release. His power seemed sluggish today. He pushed harder with his mind, but there was a mental wall he’d never come up against. Be calm, his mother’s voice reminded him. It was the key to control. He cleared his thoughts, and heaved again inside his head. The barrier resisted. He pushed again. The wall finally collapsed, and with a firm thought, Mike morphed the swarm-energy into a silent invisible flare — and threw it at Dom and his friends.

The effect was amusing as always.

“Whoa,” said Dom, looking around the cafeteria. “Why are we here?”

“We’re late,” said Curtis. “C’mon.”

Darrel looked like he had forgotten an appointment, and ran off.

Todd looked confused (though to be fair, that was his natural state of mind), and followed Dom out the cafeteria.

Kids at the other tables went back to their lunches, looking puzzled, some of them clearly disappointed there would be no bloodbath.

Tobias put away his iPhone. “I was worried there for a second.”

“I choked,” said Mike, lying. He hadn’t choked. Something had intruded in his psyche. He’d barely knocked down that wall in time to move Dom and his friends along. He wondered about his splitting headache last night. Was someone — whoever was behind the screensaver incident — interfering with his power? That made no sense. The only ones who knew of his power were his mother, his three uncles, and Tobias.

His power was the illusion of tempus fugit “time flying” — which he had discovered at the age of seven. When Mike “fugited” people (his Uncle Dustin had coined the word), one minute seemed like an hour; a half hour seemed like a day. Usually Mike used his fugit power on people he wished to avoid. Just two weeks ago he had gone to the public library and found Dom and his bullies loitering by the front doors; he had conveniently moved them along, as he had done just now. In his more vindictive moods, he could torment those who had no escape. So in history class one day, he had fugited Curtis, who kept looking at the clock furiously, wondering why the last five minutes of class seemed literally like five hours. Curtis had exploded from his seat and cut off Mr. Schubert’s lecture, demanding to know why they were being kept in class long after school ended. The teacher had rewarded Curtis with a week’s worth of detentions.

Mike’s power had recently become more unpredictable. Last spring he had fugited a poor loser who wanted to hang around him and Tobias. He was a nice kid but never showered, and he liked shitty top-40 music. The damn kid wouldn’t leave them alone, and one day after school Mike fugited him. The next day Mike learned that he had done more than just cause the kid to go home. The kid’s body had decided it needed six times the amount of food normally consumed in a day over the next three hours, and so he had gorged himself on nearly half the contents of his refrigerator, and more still from the pantry. That act of gluttony put him in the hospital. Mike still felt terrible about it.

Then there were the two girls at the movie. They had been seated directly behind him and Tobias during Inglourious Basterds, and they wouldn’t shut their yaps. Talking during a movie was bad; talking during a Quentin Tarantino movie was a capital offense. Mike had casually turned around and whispered the line just delivered on screen to the girl fleeing the Nazi, “Au revoir, Shoshanna!”, and fugited the stupid loudmouths. Instead of getting the urge to leave, the girls’ bodies thought they desperately needed sleep, and they passed out in their seats. Which was fine and well — that certainly shut them up. But they didn’t start school in September, and they still hadn’t returned to class. Tobias had done his detective work and discovered that since that August night at the movies, the girls’ sleep at home had been plagued by nightmares so severe they had suffered nervous breakdowns.

Since that incident Mike had used his power sparingly and only on the purist assholes. Like Dom and his thugs. He couldn’t care less if he put them in the hospital or ruined them with anxiety.

“Never seen you choke before,” said Tobias. “The park after school?”

“Not today,” said Mike. “I’m visiting my Uncle Luc.”

“Uncle Awesome.” Tobias thought it cool that Mike’s closest relative after his mother was an African American. Even if not by blood.

“Yeah.” Mike looked at the cafeteria clock. “Shit. Time for class.”

Tobias raised his eyebrows. “When I want your opinion?”

“Oh, fuck off,” said Mike.

 

After school Mike headed northeast to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Station. It was a little over a mile from Marshall High, about the same walking distance to his home in the other direction. The walk refreshed him after boring classes and bullies in between.

Visiting his uncle always brightened his mood; he adored the man. Lucas Sinclair was one of his mother’s closest friends from childhood, and he had moved out to Portland when Mike was a toddler, after receiving his graduate degree at Yale. He had become something of a surrogate father to Mike, though he had a wife and kids of his own. Mike hoped that Uncle Luc was in the office today. If he was out doing field work, then this walk was for exercise.

He reached the station in twenty minutes, went inside and down the hall. The door on the left was open, and sure enough his uncle was at his computer entering data. When he saw Mike, he swiveled in his chair.

“Mike, my man! Is it that late in the day?” His uncle had a mutilated left ear, thanks to Mike’s father. The sight of it, as always, stirred complicated feelings for the father he never knew.

“Hey,” said Mike, dropping in the chair in front of the desk. “What trouble are you causing?”

“I’m compiling all the proof we need.”

Mike looked at him. “Yeah?”

“What we talked about last time you were here?”

“Oh. What was that?”

Uncle Luc sighed. “The marbled murrelet, genius?”

“Oh yeah. It’s going extinct.”

“It’s a threatened species, but those bastards made a petition last year to delist it, unless we could prove it still needs protection. That’s what I’ve been doing since then. I’ll be presenting my case in a couple months.”

“You’re badass, Uncle Luc. Saving the marbled murrelet. Sweet name for a species.”

“And you know what species, right?”

“Yeah.” Mike had forgotten. “It’s a frog.”

“Jesus.” Uncle Luc was disgusted. “I’m sure you must process at least some of what I tell you. Maybe the more simple stuff, like how to put a clean greeting on your cell phone — one that doesn’t ask for a blowjob.”

“Mom made me change that one.”

“I should say so,” said Uncle Luc.

Lucas Sinclair was an endangered species biologist who had raised fifty shades of hell during the years of the Bush administration. When President Obama restored protections for endangered species last March, it had been largely thanks to Uncle Luc’s lobbying efforts. In Uncle Luc’s opinion, George W. Bush was the worst president in history. That was hardly controversial; many people could list plenty of reasons why. But they usually omitted what Uncle Luc considered to be one of Dubya’s most egregious offenses: his last-minute torpedoing of the Endangered Species Act. Thanks to Bush last December, agencies with little or no wildlife expertise had been authorized to make decisions that could spell the death of endangered animals.

President Christ Obama — or PCO, as Mike teasingly referred to him, when he was around Uncle Luc — had reversed that decision in March and preserved the integrity of the Endangered Species Act. Uncle Luc had received a personal letter of commendation from Obama, and that letter had cemented his status as the messiah come again in Uncle Luc’s eyes. It had also ignited a political war between Uncle Luc and Mike’s east-coast uncle, Dustin Henderson. Uncle Dustin was not impressed with President Christ Obama. When the Hawkins Club gathered at the Hoppers last summer to celebrate the Fourth, the barbecue had become a battleground. Mike, his mother, Uncle Will, and Nancy Wheeler-Perry could hardly get in a word edgewise as Uncle Luc and Uncle Dustin flamed each other across the picnic table. Uncle Dustin, as usual, had the upper hand: Obama was a war hawk like Bush, and in some ways already worse. He was a fiscal moron, also like Dubya. He clearly had no designs on ending the drug war, and African Americans like Uncle Luc were stupid to think otherwise. Uncle Luc waxed wroth. President Christ Obama was not to be dissed. He fired back at Uncle Dustin — more on the strength of the four beers he had swilled than any reasoned argument. It was the loudest and nastiest holiday Mike had ever experienced; it was the best holiday of his life.

His uncles’ war entertained him like that ’70s sitcom All in the Family, and gratified him on the basest level. He played his uncles against each other, egged them on, and reveled in their discord. The War of the Uncles, as he called it, was still being waged by the end of October, though it had turned cold: Uncle Luc and Uncle Dustin stayed on their respective coasts, and relied on covert attacks and passive-aggressive comments in their texts. Mike wanted a return to open warfare. He asked if Uncle Dustin was coming out for Thanksmas, as they called their early December celebrations.

“You’re asking me?” said Uncle Luc. “He usually stays at your place.”

“I don’t think mom wants him out here with you. The Battle of the Fourth left a foul taste in her mouth.”

“Well, there’s your answer. Maybe Uncle Dustin should keep his distance for a while.”

“It’s such bullshit. People take politics too seriously.”

Uncle Luc frowned. “Is that why you thrive so much on those of us who do take politics seriously?”

“He’d better come out. He’s family, just like you.”

“He’s my best friend, Mike. I certainly have no objections to him visiting. But for a family holiday, maybe not. Until he gets used to our president.”

“Well… he shouldn’t have to show respect for someone just so people won’t get pissed off.”

“Are you trying to piss me off? Is this why you walked over here? To rattle my chain about Uncle Dustin?”

Mike paused. “Not really.”

“Good. Tell me what you did come over here for. I’ve got reams of data that need entering.”

He didn’t tell him about Ellen. He still couldn’t believe his screensaver had done what it did. But he described the incident with Dom in the cafeteria.

“You’ve never had problems using your power?”

“Never. Ever since I realized I could do it years ago, it flows whenever I want it to, basically.”

“Have you had any head injuries — falling down, or anything?”

“No.”

“I’ve no idea, Mike. You should be talking to your mother about this. She understands this stuff.”

“No, I don’t want her to know. Not yet at least. Please don’t tell her on Saturday.” His mother and Uncle Luc had dinner every Saturday night, alternating between his house and hers. This Saturday was at his place, with his family, over on the west side of the city. Halloween night.

“You have trouble talking to her.” It wasn’t a question.

“She’s too invasive. She hounds the shit out of me.”

“Mothers tend to be like that. My lips are sealed for now. But don’t sit on it too long, okay?”

“Yeah.”

 

Next Chapter: D is for God

(Previous Chapter: Elric and Ellen)

Stranger Things: The New Generation (Chapter 1)

This eight-chapter novella is a sequel to Stranger Things: The College Years, which should be read beforehand. Both are works of fan fiction based on the Stranger Things TV series. I do not profit from them and they are not part of the official Stranger Things canon. They are stories that came to me as I imagined the Stranger Things characters well after the period of the television seasons. There is plenty 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 these stories down.

                       Stranger Things, The New Generation — Chapter One:

                               Elric and Ellen

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

When Mike Hopper saw the package in his mother’s hands, he leaped from the couch.

“Is it your costume?” she asked.

“Yeah,” he said, taking it from her and tearing the box open. And it was.

He lifted the black fabric out of the box and unfolded it with reverence. It was a pullover garb as dark as night, and it looked like a good fit. Pants were underneath, just as black and comfortable looking. The gauntlets followed: medieval and badass. Next came the wig — long ropy hair of pure whiteness. Then the eyes: a deep crimson, with holes to see through, and which strapped on like goggles. Finally the sword, long and black, decorated with evil-looking runes. Plastic of course, but from a distance it sure looked like steel, and it was durable and strong. And last, at the bottom, a small jar of white makeup. These were the ingredients of Elric of Melnibone. Mike couldn’t wait for Saturday.

The costume wasn’t for trick-or-treating though; Mike was getting too old for that. Last year’s outing had put that beyond doubt. He had dressed as Heath Ledger’s Joker and threatened to put smiles on the faces of parents who were handing out candy. His knife had been fake; his intentions harder to be sure about. His mother had forbidden him to trick-or-treat ever again. But he would never give up costume parties. This year he found an online retail outlet called Thulsa’s Doom, a wet dream haven of pulp fantasy. He couldn’t believe his eyes when he saw the Elric costume.

Of all the fantasy heroes, Elric was supreme. Thanks to his Uncle Dustin, Mike understood Elric better than most kids, and why Elric used the evil sword called Stormbringer. Only evil could defeat evil in any meaningful way. At first that made no sense to Mike, and when Uncle Dustin explained more, it sailed over Mike’s head. He had been thirteen at the time, and the minds of thirteen year olds weren’t made for moral paradoxes. Uncle Dustin finally settled for an analogy with Frodo Baggins. Elric’s quest, he said, was a lot like Frodo’s. Both were for the cause of good, but other good things had to be sacrificed. Because of Frodo, the elves had to leave Middle-Earth and shut down their paradises; the magic of Rivendell and Lothlorien had depended on the One Ring’s existence. Elric was similar. Because of his mission, the Melniboneans had to pass from history. Frodo and Elric were tragic figures, said Uncle Dustin — but especially Elric, who had to destroy the earth and every person on it, so humanity could start over with a clean slate. Like Noah’s flood in the Bible.

Put that way, Mike finally understood: Elric kicked ass. He was unassailable. The world was doomed whether he won or not. His victory over chaos and evil was a sidebar; an afterthought.

That was a hero for Halloween.

Mike hefted the sword — a splendid version of Stormbringer — and imagined the hordes of chaos surrounding him. He cut left and right, and swished forward, spinning around the living room. He had to call Tobias and tell him.

“Impressive.” His mother was leaning against the wall, her arms folded.

He looked at her and stopped his sword play. “Yeah, and they got the eyes just right. Deep red, but still bright. Details like that matter.”

“Mike.”

“What?”

“Put that aside for a minute. Before I start work on dinner, dance with me.”

“What? No, mom, come on –”

She came up to him. At age fifteen and a half, he dwarfed her. “I have stuff to do.”

“Costumes and games can wait.”

“I have homework.”

“You won’t do that until tomorrow morning.”

Which was true. He rose well before sunrise and almost always did his homework after an early breakfast. He looked at her, nonplussed. “Well?”

She walked over to the living room computer and called up iTunes, opened her favorite playlist, and selected a song. Mike knew what song it would be, and it filled the living room with its dreamy, psychedelic rhythms.

She returned and took his hands. He rolled his eyes.

“No one can see you. It’s just me and you. Humor your mother.”

He did that, and they slow danced to Echo and the Bunnymen’s “Bring on the Dancing Horses”, which had been his parents’ favorite love song. On Christmas Eve 1986, they had lost their virginity to each other as the song played. Then they lost each other a month later. More accurately, he had lost her when she dumped him off a cliff. Two days after that he ended up committing a sort of heroic suicide. Mike was never sure how much he believed his mother’s stories of Hawkins and the Upside Down, but he trusted his Uncle Lucas completely, and Uncle Luc always backed up everything she said.

“Good moves,” said his mother, looking up at him.

“Yeah?”

“Your father taught me to dance like this. To our first song.” She meant “Every Breath You Take”, by the Police. Also in many of her playlists.

“Jeez. Are you trying to give me an Oedipus complex?”

She lightly swatted his cheek. “No, silly. It’s just we never see each other anymore, except at dinner time.”

Nonetheless. While he didn’t seriously think his mother was incestuous, she must have had some fleeting thoughts about the matter. All things considered.

Because except for his eyes, Mike Hopper may as well have been Mike Wheeler. He looked almost exactly like his father did at fifteen and a half, a lean 5′ 10″ with the same shaggy hair. Only his eyes shouted his mother’s gene pool. They were hyper-alert and full of curiosity. Years ago, when he was too young to know better, he thought he inherited his eyes from his mother because his father had lost his. His mother had explained that wasn’t how it worked, but he insisted on the fantasy until better educated. Like his mother, he could say a lot through those eyes without speaking. Like his father, he spoke a lot anyway.

She put her head on his shoulder and they finished the song. He had to admit it was a good one.

 

After dinner he rushed upstairs and tried on his costume. Everything was perfect. He grabbed his iPhone and dialed Tobias, who picked up after the fourth ring — always the fourth ring with Tobias.

“When I want your opinion,” said Tobias.

“I’ll pound it out of you,” replied Mike. “Dude, I am Elric reborn, check this shit out.” He snapped a photo of himself and sent it. He loved the iPhone 3GS.

“You look like an ass.”

“Still dressing as Loomis?”

“That sword is actually cool. How fragile is it?”

“I shoved it up my ass five times, and it’s still in one piece.”

“I fear you’ll upstage me.” Tobias belched into his own iPhone. “A Loomis costume doesn’t even look like a costume.”

This was disingenuous. Tobias was never upstaged by anyone. What Dr. Sam Loomis lacked in appearance, he more than made up for in savage humor, and of that Tobias had an endless supply. He would get all the attention as usual at Ashlee’s party, unless he came down with laryngitis.

They talked a bit more, and then Mike had to charge the phone.

“When I want your opinion,” intoned Tobias.

“I’ll skull-fuck it out of you,” finished Mike. “Later, shithead.”

“Die in your sleep, asswipe.”

He plugged in the iPhone’s wall charger, and then turned on his Mac. Per his evening ritual, he moved the Lazy Boy in front of the computer, and sat back to enjoy his hopeless crush.

The desktop came up with his personally made screensaver of Ellen Page. He grabbed the novel Stormbringer off his desk and began reading it for the eighth time. As he read, he glanced up occasionally. The screensaver cycled through a slideshow of Ellen, changing pictures every five minutes. Elric and Ellen: Mike was in his heaven.

He had first seen Ellen in the indie breakout Hard Candy, in which she played the lead role of Hayley Stark, a fourteen-year old who looked more like she was twelve. In the film Hayley hooked up with an online predator, went home with him, and proceeded to castrate him on his kitchen table. Mike had fallen instantly in love with this tiny avenging tomboy, and the knowledge that she was sixteen when playing a fourteen-year old who looked twelve kept his conscience clear. He had begun to obsess Ellen Page, moving backwards to her earlier obscure roles in Canadian films like Mouth to Mouth and The Tracey Fragments. Then came the Juno craze two years ago, and Ellen was suddenly famous.

Her recent film was Whip It!, and his absolute favorite to date. It had left his local theater only a week ago, and he had seen it four times. Ellen played a shy girl who preferred roller derby to the beauty pageants shoved down her throat by a domineering mother. Mike loved the film for many reasons. Bliss Cavender was an endearing character, and a rare role for Ellen who usually came with sass and snark. The film was saturated with ’80s homages, which fed Mike’s obsession with the decade of his parents. It was an underdog sports film, and a woman’s sport, refreshingly, yet it didn’t try so hard to be feminist. Roller derby was bad-ass; the girls who played it enjoyed mashing and smashing each other, gratified by the illegal hits that penalized them as much as their hard-earned scores. The soundtrack was terrific; Mike was smitten by the scene with Bliss and her boyfriend stripping in a swimming pool to the tune of an indie ballad. He had replayed that scene in his daydreams and jerk-off fantasies ever since.

Whip It!, as far as Mike Hopper was concerned, was the film of the year, and Bliss Cavender the sports hero of the 21st century.

It was Bliss who came up now on his desktop, from a series of screenshots he had downloaded from Google images. He had added the Whip It! screenshots to his ever-growing slideshow, which contained scenes also from Hard Candy, Juno, and the Canadian TV series Regenesis. The images were set to rotate every five minutes. With about a dozen shots from Whip It!, that would give him an hour’s worth of Bliss Cavender. Then the screensaver would cycle to the Hayley Stark pics, then to Juno McGuff, and finally Lilith Sandstrom.

In the current screenshot Bliss was in her Hurl Scout uniform, which Mike found sexy as hell. It struck him that his mother was a short tomboy like Ellen, and then he banished the thought. He’d had enough incestuous intrusions for one day. He kept reading Stormbringer, and imagined himself as Elric marrying a version of Zarozinia who looked like Ellen Page.

A few minutes later, he glanced at his computer screen and frowned. What he saw wasn’t right.

The desktop image of Whip It! had changed again, but it wasn’t any screenshot he had saved to his computer. He couldn’t have; it wasn’t a scene from the movie. It looked like it, but it wasn’t. Of this he was certain: he had seen the film four times. The picture was… a distortion. And a thoroughly unpleasant one.

Ellen was still in her Hurl Scout uniform, but the angle was wrong, and she was no longer smiling. She was glaring at him — at him, through the screen — as if he had done something to seriously affront her. It was a cold angry look that hinted at malevolence, and unlike any expression capable of being summoned by Bliss Cavender. He stared at the perversion, baffled. This wasn’t possible.

He waited for the next screenshot. Ellen’s venom bored into him, and his pulse quickened. Was someone hacking him? He thought of Tobias. This could be one of his goddamn pranks. But he doubted it. Tobias’s style was crude and x-rated. If Tobias hacked his screensaver, nudes would be a guarantee, and scatological supplements a strong probability. Mike had probably downloaded some kind of trojan. He knew that JPEGs could be infected with viruses and malware.

He waited, avoiding Ellen’s gaze. Well after five minutes, the unnerving image remained.

He rose from the Lazy Boy and sat in the desk chair, angry at the invasion of his privacy. He clicked everywhere over the desktop with the mouse, which of course did nothing. He called up the desktop manager and opened the screensaver, hoping to restart it and dispel the unholy bitch who was mocking his supreme fantasy. His face was close to the screen and he could almost feel Ellen’s malignancy pouring out. He double-clicked on the screensaver to restart it. Nothing happened. He changed the setting so the images would change every five seconds. Ellen didn’t budge; and her fury seemed to swell.

Mike’s own fury was growing. “Get off my screen, you cunt –”

Bullets of agony ricocheted through his head, and he yelled in outrage. It felt like a scalpel was dissecting his brain. He was suddenly terrified; something irrational was going on. He’d had enough. Fumbling for the mouse again, he jerked it to the upper left corner, pulled down the menu, and clicked on “shut down”. The mouse may as well have been disconnected. Ellen stayed put. If Tobias was behind this, he would pound the living shit out of him. He reached for the shutdown switch on the back of the screen.

His head cracked down the middle again, and he fell to the floor clutching his temples. He lay there wheezing, his face in the carpet, waiting a long time for the pain to recede. He was in more pain than he could ever remember. He had to get up and turn the damn computer off. None of this made sense. He pushed himself up — and froze.

The desktop image had changed again. It staggered him like the blow of a fist.

Ellen was still in her roller derby outfit, but the entire background to the scene had vanished and gone black. She was zoomed in now so that her head and shoulders filled the screen, and Mike screamed at the sight of her.

Her expression was no longer coldly malevolent. It was full of murderous rage. She looked ready to tear Mike apart. Ellen had become a vessel of toxic wrath that contradicted every aspect of her character’s being.

To Mike Hopper, that was a violation as bad as any rape.

His head exploded in agony and he was on the floor again. Moaning, he did the only thing he could. He reached for the cord and yanked it from the wall. His computer shut down just as his mother came up the stairs to find out why he had screamed.

 

Next Chapter: Tempus Fugit

Dissing Muhammad, Historicizing Jesus

In the space of two days, two ridiculous decisions were made.

The first was a European court’s ruling that you cannot blaspheme Muhammad. A woman called Muhammad a pedophile because of his marriage to the six-year old Aisha. In 2011, an Austrian court convicted her of “disparaging” Islam and slapped her with a fine. She fought the conviction on several grounds. For one, her statements about Muhammad were absolutely factual. For another, she wasn’t defaming the prophet but rather debating him as a historical figure. Finally — and most importantly — even if she were defaming him, so what? Sacrilege and blasphemy should be perfectly legal.

The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) upheld the Austrian court’s ruling, writing:

“Presenting objects of religious worship in a provocative way capable of hurting the feelings of the followers of that religion could be conceived as a malicious violation of the spirit of tolerance.”

Christ on a crutch. I realize the First Amendment doesn’t exist in Europe, but even so, this is a horrible dissent. Western societies outside America at least pretend to uphold some standards of free expression. Co-existing in a world with offense is something every mature person should expect. Here the court has made free expression a farce by effectively enforcing sharia (Islamic) law.

The second case was Youtube’s removal of an informational video on the historical Jesus uploaded by Anthony Le Donne. On his Facebook page Le Donne wryly notes that “it seems that historical Jesus research is now illegal”. Just last week one of my videos was blocked by Youtube, also for objectionable content; it was an All in the Family clip in which Archie Bunker explained why Native American Indians don’t vote (“they sell all their horses for booze and can’t ride into town”). Youtube has a history of being capricious, but when it starts banning mainstream historical research and a classic sitcom that won numerous Emmy awards, it shows the degree to which the collective mentality doesn’t care a whit about free expression.

Of course, in the case of Youtube, free expression has not to do with its First Amendment sense, which is about governmental censorship, and it goes without saying that Youtube is a private company and can legally ban whomever it wants (as is proper: their house, their rules). But that doesn’t mean it should. Private colleges can likewise silence students in ways that public universities cannot — but again, that doesn’t mean they should. Social media platforms like Youtube, Twitter, and Amazon are omnipresent and have a a virtual monopoly today over the means of online communication, and when they ban people like this, they set a precedent that is inimical to free expression in other contexts. If I were the CEO of Youtube, I’d fire the twits who censored those videos.

Shame on both the ECHR and Youtube.

Halloween Sequel Marathon

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

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

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

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

Reading Material

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

Four Models of Time Travel

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

A. Single Timeline (Everything Predestined)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s how it maps out:

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

B. Multiple Timelines (Changing History)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

Anything goes?

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

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

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

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

C. The Repeated Loop (The Do-Over)

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

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

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

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

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

D. The Universe Fights Back

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

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

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

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

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

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

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