TV Pick List

Here’s an update of my TV pick list. Channel Zero is the most notable addition.

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1. Stranger Things. 2 seasons (so far). 2016-2017. Watching Stranger Things allows me to relive my ’80s childhood in the best possible ways, and reminds me how lucky I was to grow up in a time when kids were independent, didn’t have helicopter-parents, and had far more creative outlets for their imagination than what you get today online. That sort of vivacious freedom is hard to find today. Like Mike, Lucas, and Dustin, I went out with my friends and explored the world — in the woods or by the pond or across the sand dunes — and connected with my parents mostly at dinner time. The series is an homage to other things too, like old-school Dungeons & Dragons before the game became lame and commercialized. The kids are fantastic and their acting skills amazing, and this is critical to the show’s success. It was rejected my many network executives because the idea of kids as lead actors in an adult series was too daunting. As for which season is better, it’s a tough call, but for me season 2 tips the scales. I ranked the episodes here and here. And I was so inspired by Stranger Things that I put aside my disdain for fan fiction and wrote a trilogy that imagines these kids in their adult years, and their ongoing battles with the Upside Down.

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2. Breaking Bad. 5 seasons. 2008-2013. Stranger Things may be my personal favorite, but objectively I would call Breaking Bad the best show of all time. It starts strong and gets stronger, never flagging on its promises, and I dare say if the show writers had gone to ten seasons they probably could have kept the momentum going. They settle for nothing less than excellence. Breaking Bad is the revenge tragedy of a school teacher who feels that he’s been emasculated by the fate of cancer, on top of being screwed out of a business partnership that could have made him millions. He’s a chemistry genius but under-achiever, and puts up with endless teasing by his family, especially his DEA brother-in-law. By season five he’s a killer and a drug-lord — people have learned to respect him or else — and the journey to that point is a brilliant character evolution. The suspense levels are insane; even the worst episode is superior, though I did rank the best.

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3. Hannibal. 3 seasons. 2013-2015. I consider Hannibal the poster child of TV’s golden age; the aesthetic is that overwhelming. Think how David Lynch might reinvent Hannibal Lecter, and then throw in some of Cronenberg’s body horror and Argento’s insane imagery. The result is that Silence of the Lambs has been way superseded, something I thought impossible. Mutilations and gore are given transcendence. The first two seasons consist of original material taking place before the events of the novels. The third is two mini-seasons, the first half covering Hannibal (reversing the chronology of the books with Lecter’s exile in Italy and Mason Verger conflict; these are set in the time of Will Graham instead of Clarice Starling), the second half Red Dragon. Here’s how all the episodes rank. There were supposed to be six seasons altogether, and it’s outrageous that the show was cancelled. If you had told me back in ’91 that something of this astonishing scope and quality would ever make cable network, I wouldn’t have believed it.

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4. Game of Thrones. 8 seasons. 2011-2019. With only one season left, George Martin has become increasingly irrelevant to his own creation. Basically we’ve been getting the sixth and seventh books before they are published. And like the books, the series has been a game-changer in fantasy, with wild plotting, understated magic, graphic sex, constant backbiting, and heroes who die unfairly in every other episode. The focus is on court intrigue and politics, and no one takes the supernatural threat broiling up north seriously until too late. If I had to summarize Game of Thrones in a sentence, I’d say it’s about power and political ambitions, and what it takes to make people see beyond their local and petty interests if they can. See how the episodes rank.

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5. Channel Zero. 4 seasons (so far). 2016-2018. I tend to avoid anthology series, but there are exceptions where starting over each season with new plots and characters works. Fargo is a good example (though it doesn’t make my top-ten cut); True Detective and American Horror Story are not. You can’t do better than Channel Zero. It’s weird, well scripted, brilliantly directed, and pulls no punches. Season one’s “Candle Cove” is about a puppet show that only little kids can see on TV, and which turns them into killers. Season two’s “No-End House” is about a haunted house with each room scarier than the previous — and the last “room” almost impossible to figure out how you’ve been screwed over. Season three’s “Butcher’s Block” is about two young women who join a family of religious butchers who eat human beings, and who live in a perverse version of Alice’s wonderland. And season four’s “The Dream Door” is about a woman whose homicidal fantasy figure comes to life when she gets angry — sort of a psychological version of the Incredible Hulk. Season two is the one that really gets me. The college kids enter the haunted house looking for cheap thrills, but it turns into a prolonged nightmare that yields some of the most terrifying material I’ve seen on TV. Season three is a close second; it may as well have been directed by the show runners of Hannibal, it’s that good.

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6. Twin Peaks. 3 seasons. 1990-1991; 2017. The first season is classic, the second also very good though it lost its bearings a bit in the second half, and for my money the third is the best of all though it has certainly divided viewers. If you’re expecting more in the style of the early seasons, you will be disappointed. But if like me you think the prequel-film Fire Walk With Me is a masterpiece, chances are you’ll love season three and all of its weird and hideously disturbing elements. These are some of the most mesmerizing and esoteric hours of television you will ever see, a rare treat to lovers of dream-logic, painful no doubt to those who crave plain meanings. In the end, Cooper is able to use the knowledge he’s acquired from years in limbo to jump back in time and prevent Laura Palmer from being killed, and how this “resolves” is quintessential Lynch to be chewed over for many moons.

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7. Regenesis. 4 seasons. 2004-2008. Forget Orphan Black. This is the Canadian science fiction show that makes cloning and governmental conspiracies believable. Few Americans have heard of these Toronto-based scientists who work against bio-terrorism and disease, and it’s almost impossible to come by on DVD. Unlike most sci-fic thrillers, Regenesis isn’t so much about saving the day as learning to live with irreversible damage, and there’s a high body count among the main cast. It’s probably the most realistic ever seen in the genre, thanks to the scientific advisor who insisted on it. The first season features Ellen Page who plays the daughter of the lead scientist, and her story-arc practically steals the show: she befriends a dying boy who thinks he’s a clone. I love her scenes with Peter Outerbridge. See, for example, her ice cream scene (they talk about ebola) and her grief scene (when Mick dies).


8. The Fall. 3 seasons. 2013-2016. Don’t be put off by the controversy. In its unflinching look at violence against women, The Fall never glamorizes the the issue. I can see why some people think it does. As in Hannibal the aesthetic is intoxicating while the serial killer is less distant. Lecter sees his victims as mere pigs for food; Spector has grievances about justice. He’s protective of vulnerable people, especially children. He hates particular women, wants to “transform” them, and the intimate way he goes about his obscene killings makes us feel somehow complicit. Things get even creepier in season two when Spector bonds with a young teenager who craves sadomasochistic thrills. The performances from this girl are brilliant and takes the show to a new level. Some were disappointed with season three, but not me. The glacial-paced storytelling was used very effectively to give space in examining the evil inside of Paul.

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9. Damages. 5 seasons. 2007-2012. Glenn Close was born to play Patty Hewes: a high-stakes litigator who demeans her subordinates, fires people on a whim, disowns her son, and then tries having her own protégé killed. Each season escalates the bizarre relationship between Patty and Ellen, who respect without ever trusting each other. Some claim that Ellen’s willingness to have anything to do with Patty after the murder attempt undermines the show’s credibility, but the unlikely relationship is the point. When Ellen is able to transcend herself by forgiving Patty, it’s as much a self-serving forgiveness as a self-empowering one. She acquires power over Patty knowing her worst secret. The theme of forgiveness, and what it does to people in unforgivable cases, is precisely what makes Damages compelling. Without it, it would be a just another legal thriller.

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10. The Man in the High Castle. 3 seasons (so far). 2015-2018. Yes, this series is going downhill, but the first season remains a masterpiece, and the opening credit sequence is the best of any TV show I’ve seen in my life. Every time I hear the woman sing Edelweiss over the monuments of Nazi America I feel like I’m having a spiritual encounter. The show pulls off the impossible feat of making Hitler the guy you actually root for against his upstarts who think he’s gone soft. John Smith is the oddly likable American Nazi, ruthless in his career but a caring father and husband. Nazi America is portrayed as a creepy “Leave it to Beaver” world where rock n roll was never born, girls don’t wear pants, and boys graduate straight from high school to the military. But my favorite characters are on the Japanese west coast: Inspector Kido, who stops at no act of torture to preserve the honor of the motherland, and of course Trade Minister Tagomi. The first season’s final scene which sees Tagomi waking up to something unexpected is pure epiphany. The second season lost some of its edge in the second half with the departure of the show’s creator Frank Spotnitz, and the third season fell a bit short reaching too high. But I will keep loving this series until it jumps the shark.

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Stranger Things Trilogy: Word Counts

I am grateful for all the feedback I’ve had on my Stranger Things trilogy so far. I posted the first novella in August, and the second novella second in October, and the third will come later (though many have read the pdf, which I am willing to send). The third is the longest of the three, and almost half the trilogy. I compared my word counts to other writings, and it turns out the proportional lengths of my novellas are close to those of the books in C.S. Lewis’s Space Trilogy.

My Stranger Things Trilogy

Volume Title Word Count Percentage of Trilogy
1 The College Years 19,094 24%
2 The New Generation 23,655 29%
3 World’s End 38,301 47%

C.S. Lewis’ Space Trilogy

Volume Title Word Count Percentage of Trilogy
1 Out of the Silent Planet 57,000 22%
2 Perelandra 82,000 32%
3 That Hideous Strength 118,000 46%

Not that Lewis’s trilogy has anything to do with mine, aside from these figures. I didn’t plan on each story getting larger; it just happened organically. I will say that while That Hideous Strength is arguably the weakest volume in the Space Trilogy, World’s End is the strongest in mine — according to everyone who has read it so far.

Stranger Things: The New Generation (Chapter 8)

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 Eight:

                              Retro Incendium

She let Mike finish school that year, but he would not return to Marshall in September. By then his body would be shrinking with a vengeance. Jane remembered how he had shot up over five inches between his thirteenth and fifteenth years. When summer came, he was well back into that biological time frame. There was no way he could pass for a junior in the fall. People would catch on.

Tobias and Mike made the best of that summer, and Jane savored their friendship, knowing it couldn’t last. She would later look back on that summer of 2010 as the last time her son knew happiness.

In the fall she started “home schooling” Mike and minimizing his contact with the outside. The residents of Tibbetts Street who had known him were all dead, so that simplified things in the neighborhood. She forbade Mike to linger on the porch and lawn. Only the Sinclairs and Tobias Powell entered her home, and of course members of the Hawkins Club when they flew out to visit.

Medical appointments would have been an insurmountable problem, but Will the Wise bailed her out. His old doctor from the Hawkins Lab, Sam Owens, had connections in Portland and was able to hook Mike up with a physician who kept his condition secret. Jane was indebted to Dr. Owens and surprised the man was still alive; he was almost ninety now. He had engineered her secret adoption by Jim Hopper in 1984. She never dreamed he would still be protecting her in the twenty-first century.

Mike took all of this amazingly in stride for the first two years. After that things got bad. Fast.

 

The spring of 2012 was the worst period. Mike’s voice warbled and he hit puberty in the reverse direction, snared once again on the trajectory of childhood. He was almost twelve: May 22 would be his thirteenth birthday, and thus his last day as a thirteen year old. He grounded himself in denial and resisted his hormonal impulses, insisting he was a teenager in his thoughts and actions. It was like trying to become a character from a novel or film. The background was there; he certainly remembered his teenage experiences. But they felt illusory and out of reach.

Tobias came to visit around this time. In two weeks he was graduating from Franklin High School. Marshall had closed in 2011, in an attempt to consolidate the city’s resources into fewer and bigger high schools. It was a narrow decision made by the school board (4-3), with the result that Marshall’s students were spread to Madison and Franklin. Tobias ended up at the latter and hated it; Mike was glad to have missed the whole mess.

Even so, it wasn’t right. Mike should have been at Franklin now, graduating with Tobias, sharing their experiences together, looking forward to the senior prom, and then to college in the fall. Tobias had been accepted at Columbia. Since their first year at Marshall, he and Mike had dreamed of attending Columbia together. They would conquer New York and move mountains.

Mike was eating lunch in the kitchen when Tobias arrived. Jane went to the front door and let him in. He was eighteen; a man now.

“Hi, Miss Hopper.” Tobias looked brittle. “Is this a bad time?”

It’s always bad. “No, of course not. Come in. Mike’s in the kitchen.”

“Mom?” Mike chirped. He had come to see who it was. “Hey! Tobias!” He ran and put his arms around his friend, who was now much taller than he. It used to be vice-versa.

Tobias returned the hug rigidly. “How’s it going, Mike?” These visits had become visibly difficult for him.

“Awesome. I got to show you my new comics.”

Tobias forced a smile. “Okay. Great.”

“I mean, if you want to see.”

“Sure.”

“Let’s go in the living room,” said Jane. “Can I get you something?”

“No, no, I’m fine.”

“Mom made roast beef sandwiches.”

“Really, I’m okay.”

“Do I want your opinion?” he asked, laughing. “Or did I get that right?”

Tobias nodded.

Mike punched his arm lightly. “You need to give me a response.”

Tobias forced one: “Then I’ll whip it out of you!”

Mike laughed.

In the living room they sat down in comfortable chairs. “So wow, you’re graduating in a few weeks,” said Mike.

“Oh yeah. Bye-bye Franklin High.”

“Yeah. I’m glad I wasn’t around when Marshall closed. I liked it. But I don’t know. I remember liking it, but I don’t really miss school that much. I mean, I miss you.” He looked down at his shoes, unsure of what to say.

Jane stood up. “You know what, I’ll let you guys talk. I’ll be outside if you need anything.”

Tobias looked grateful. “Thanks, Miss Hopper.”

Jane sat on the front porch while Tobias and her son talked for almost an hour. Toward the end she heard Mike shouting. She closed her eyes. She had dreaded this day. She heard Mike yell again, and then his feet pounding up the stairs. Tobias came and found her on the porch. His eyes were wet.

“Miss Hopper… I’m not going to see Mike anymore. I’ve been trying my best, but I can’t do it anymore. He and I are getting too different now.”

“I understand. You don’t have to explain.”

“Well, I tried explaining it to Mike, and of course he’s really upset.”

“So are you.”

He wiped his eyes. “He’s a kid again. About the age we were when we first met. We don’t… connect anymore.”

He broke down then, and Jane held him as he cried. “You were a great friend to him, Tobias.”

“He fucking hates me now.”

She had sworn to herself that she wouldn’t be angry with Tobias when this day came. Mike desperately needed a friend, but by now that was too much to ask of Tobias. He was an adult going to college. Mike had the age and maturity of a seventh-grader.

Tobias said good-bye, and Jane wished him the best. She never saw him again.

 

The next downslide was in November 2016, when a tycoon named Donald Trump crushed everyone’s expectations and was elected the forty-fifth president of the United States. Mike was a diminished eight year old, and was flabbergasted to see his two uncles suddenly united in fervent opposition to the new president. The Hawkins Club gathering in early December was worlds apart from the one seven years ago. For Jane, that was the only good thing about the ascendance of Donald J. Trump: it made Lucas and Dustin tight again.

Naturally, Dustin couldn’t resist a few parting blows at the lame duck. Like many outraged voters, he blamed Trump’s victory on Obama’s complete failure to address the plight of the middle class, not to mention his own black tribe. Lucas, in a rare gracious moment, conceded that President Christ Obama was hardly that after all. Jane could see Mike struggling to make sense of it all, but he was no longer equipped to digest politics. All he knew is that his Uncle Luc and Uncle Dustin were best friends again.

By summer he had winnowed down to a seven-year old, and it was at that point Mike started to lose his memories. Not lose, precisely; he remembered being older, taller, going to school, and his best friend Tobias who permanently unfriended him. He remembered liking books and movies that were scary, and couldn’t understand why. He remembered the War of the Uncles. But it was all turning dim and feeling like a dream. By August he disputed the reality of his memories. Jane got her first unpleasant taste of this development as they ate breakfast one morning:

“Mom?” he had asked.

“Yes?”

“Was Grandpa Jim ever real?”

“Was he ever real?”

“Yeah, or was he just one of the stories you read to me?”

She stared at him, upset by the question. “Mike, we have photos of Grandpa in the living room. You see them every day. You’re saying that you can’t remember Grandpa?”

“I don’t know. That’s why I’m asking.”

“All those times he came over for dinner? When he took you hiking and rafting? When he died in the hospital?”

“Sort of. But none of it seems real.” He frowned. “I forgot about those photos.” Abruptly he left the table and ran into the living room. When he came back, he was crying hard, and holding the picture of the three of them — Mike, her father, and herself — in her favorite family portrait. “I don’t understand things anymore, mom,” he sobbed.

She took him in her arms. “I’m sorry, honey; I’m sorry.” She felt utterly helpless as he kept crying. Since that cursed Halloween night, he had lived half his life backwards, and she was no closer to finding a solution to his regressive condition. Retro incendium. Dustin’s words haunted her. Burning backwards.

 

In 2021, the kids from Hawkins — Jane Hopper, Lucas Sinclair, Dustin Henderson, and William Byers — each turned fifty years old. It was a terrible year for their milestone, marred by national crises that heralded worse disasters. In February, President Trump put a complete stop on the immigration of all non-white peoples to America. Then, in September and December, two appalling decisions were reached on the Supreme Court.

The first was Carlson v. Dale, which overturned Roe v. Wade. The outrage spawned movements that made Antifa look pacifist. Violence shook the streets. Jane despised abortion, and would not have aborted Mike even to save her life. Were it not for her friends and father, she would have grown up to be a virulent anti-abortionist. Thanks to them (all men, interestingly) she understood why the issue was ethically challenging, and she had come to accept a woman’s right to choose. Now, after forty-nine years, that right had been torpedoed at the whim of six justices.

Lucas and Dustin couldn’t contain their fury. Lucas had two daughters, and Dustin’s daughter Olivia had had an abortion when she was a teenager. Carlson v. Dale, piled on top of the other Trump-era sins, was the last straw. They told Jane they had joined an underground support network for women who needed abortions. Jane didn’t want the details. She supported Lucas and Dustin and respected the movement, but she couldn’t be involved. Her personal revulsion for abortion was too strong.

The second decision was Trump v. Hennessey. In another 6-3 vote — and in an unprecedented display of judiciary arrogance, not to mention stupidity — the court declared the 22nd Amendment unconstitutional.  That amendment had gone into effect after Franklin Delano Roosevelt served four terms as president, and limited a president to serving two. According to the majority opinionsuch an amendment violated the intentions of Constitutional Framers like James Madison, who had intended longer appointments for presidents. To bar any qualified individual from running for president, regardless of the number of terms already served, cut the heart out of popular sovereignty. That principle, wrote the majority, was sacred: the People of the United States were the only source of governmental power; they, and they alone, were authorized to determine how many terms a president could serve; and they determined that in the voting booth.

The People of the United States, for their part, went ballistic. Jurists went insane. The Supreme Court had no authority to declare a constitutional amendment unconstitutional. It was an amendment. It was constitutional by definition. The only way to overturn an amendment was to repeal it through Congress. Aside from even this, the logic of the majority was risible. Whatever James Madison and other Framers had initially thought, they had ultimately rejected long-term service for fear of making a presidential monarchy — which was the precise goal of Donald Trump and his stooges on the court.

For all the public outrage, it seemed likely that Trump would get his third term. He had won the election of 2020 by a wider margin that the one he stole in 2016. The more enemies he made, the more his constituency snowballed. The country was more polarized than it had been during the Civil War. Unless the Democrats could produce a strong charismatic, Trump’s victory in 2024 looked like a slam dunk. He was reaching the disaffected and promising them gold; when he dumped shit on them instead, they praised him to the stars. Jane remembered Dustin saying that all presidential elections since John F. Kennedy were won by the most charismatic candidate. Party, policies, and even sanity were ultimately irrelevant; people were suckers for charisma. That would be the only way to oust Trump: by stirring the masses with as many thunderous speeches and glowing promises.

Mike was four to three and a half years old during those horrible months, and for the first time Jane was glad of her son’s affliction. He was young enough now not to understand anything beyond playing with toys and being entertained by company. That was suitable: she didn’t want him aware of Donald Trump’s America.

 

Her relief didn’t last. By the fall of 2023, Jane Hopper was having a nervous breakdown. She insisted to herself that she had it under control, until her body gave up on her. She was playing with Mike when it happened.

“No!” he said, grabbing her fingers. He was down to twenty months, and psychologically still in his terrible twos. He knew about thirty words, his favorite being the negative he was now shouting.

“No! No!” He was hitting her chest with his tiny hands.

“Come on, honey,” said Jane, trying to settle him on her lap and keep the panic attack at bay. She had them all the time now; the meds prescribed by Dr. Archambault hardly helped.

“Nooooo,” Mike was enjoying himself, trying to wiggle free. She tugged him down firm, and then her grip slipped. His sideways motion sent him to the floor on his little behind. She gasped, fearing an injury, and then saw that he was laughing and okay. She reached down to pick him up — and fell to her knees. Her breath wasn’t coming back. Oh God. She closed her eyes and tried to rein in the attack. Her body was sweating, and her arms shook as she pressed her hands against the floor to keep kneeling. Dimly she was aware of Mike pelting her with “no’s” and “mommy’s”, as he leaped around her laughing. She needed help. Lucas.

Her cell was in the kitchen. Standing up was out of the question. She lay down on her side and tried breathing slowly. Mike’s face appeared over hers, curious now. “Mommy?”

She held out a weak hand. “Here, honey.” He came into her arms and she cuddled him, as if to galvanize herself by soaking up his infant energy. Her tremors multiplied. Call Lucas for me, Mike. Use your iPhone. Absurd. She hadn’t allowed Mike an iPhone for years now. He could barely talk. Her chest tightened, and her vision swam. Breathe. Breathe, damn it. Come on.

Somehow she did and kept from passing out. Mike had wiggled free again, and was all around her, though not quite as entertained. He didn’t like seeing mommy stretched out on the floor. Nor, for that matter, did she.

She was finally able to push herself up when the worst of it faded. Then she stumbled into the kitchen and dialed Lucas, crying over what she had to ask of him.

 

Jane faded in and out; in to perform her necessaries, out to abstain from a reality which had become too cruel. She had lost the two people who meant everything to her. There was no one left who could reach her.

More than twenty months ago, she had relinquished Mike to Lucas and Raquel, begging them to adopt her son for the remainder of his infancy. She couldn’t watch him grow any smaller, and she couldn’t take care of herself, let alone him. In his final twelve months they fed him formula, and gave him the love and attention she could no longer provide. Another black mark in her catalog of failures. She had committed herself to the care of Mike’s doctor, Dan Archambault, who diagnosed her with an extreme anxiety disorder and recurring schizophrenia. Only strong sedation could get her to sleep. Dr. Archambault paid her house visits, appointed two nurses who rotated over her 24/7, and had Sam Owens from Hawkins foot the expensive bill. Jane’s panic attacks increased, and she lashed out in bolts of fury. When she dreamed, it was usually of Mike shriveling into a mangled fetus. Screams and crashes could be heard coming from the house on 74th Avenue and Tibbetts Street. The nurses routinely cleaned up after telekinetic tornadoes.

Lucas or Raquel, sometimes both, brought Mike over occasionally, so she could hold him for a while. They timed the visits to coincide with her more sedated periods. Those visits stopped after May 22. Jane’s instructions had been firm: after Mike’s “zero” birthday, she did not want to see him anymore. Lucas and Raquel were to continue caring for him until he was unable to survive outside a womb.

Was it days since Mike’s birthday, weeks, or months? Jane couldn’t say, and it didn’t matter. He was dead; and so was she.

“Miss Hopper?”

She opened her eyes. She had been dreaming of fetal compost heaps in the Upside Down. It was a recurring nightmare. She swam in a mountain of aborted and miscarried pre-infants. She dug through their corpses screaming for Mike. She never found him.

“Good morning, Miss Hopper.”

Dr. Archambault. He was at the foot of her bed. Why did he bother her anymore?

“I have some startling news.”

She was empty and broken. It was nothing newsworthy.

“We’ve been monitoring your son very closely.”

Her son was dead. So was she.

“By now it’s clear that he’s no longer aging backwards.”

Of course not; the dead don’t age.

“He’s aging forwards again. Normally.”

The words made a rift, distorting her sense of what was what. No. The doctor was tricking her, manipulating her mind, as doctors had been doing since her birth in the lab.

“Your friends are here, Miss Hopper.”

“El?” Lucas came in and sat on the edge of her bed. “Hey there.” He took her hand. “We think Mike is in the clear. He’s put on weight since May 22 and getting more feisty. He’s not dying. It seems like he’s going to grow up again.”

Her zone began to crumble.

“Will is here too.”

William Byers appeared next to Lucas. He was carrying something in his arms. “Hey El,” he said. “He’s okay. See? He’s going to be okay.”

When Jane saw her baby, alive and cooing, her edifice collapsed. All the pain and rage of the past fifteen years poured out in tears and anguish. She took Mike from Will — daring the gods to punish her anymore — and clutched him to her breast, repeating his name over and over.

And as Jane cradled her son, Lucas and Will feared for her future. She had raised Mike twice, up fifteen and a half years, and then back down again. The tail ends of those cycles had each nearly killed her. It was unlikely she could handle a third round. She was fifty-four years old, strung out, and barely sane. No one had any idea if Mike was still subject to his time-power in some way, or even why he had started to age normally again.

Worries would come later. For now, healing was needed — the healing of love and friendship. The room filled with both, and Mike Hopper burped happily, feeling every bit of it.

 

Read about Mike Hopper’s new trials in the third novella, Stranger Things: World’s End. (Coming soon.)

(Previous Chapter: The War of the Uncles)

Stranger Things: The New Generation (Chapter 7)

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 Seven:

                         The War of the Uncles

Everyone cried terrorism. National Security shut down Tibbetts Street for two weeks, denying survivors their homes. Those lucky few, including Jane and Mike, were rigorously interrogated, and found clean of ill intent. Most of the residents had simply vanished. The Llaza’s appetite left no remains. Survivors described horrors that kept the CIA swarming over Portland. Jane’s story was simple, superficially true, and profoundly false: she had come home late to find her son and his best friend hunkering in fear; she had called her friend Lucas, who had come; they had called the police when their cell phones worked again. As for Dominic Bragdon, who lived many streets down, he and his friends were presumed to have been trick-or-treating on Tibbetts when the horror struck.

During the two-week shut down, Jane and Mike moved in with the Sinclairs. Lucas’s apartment wasn’t huge, but it had a guest room for Mike, while Jane took over little Audrey’s bedroom. This was to the initial outrage of elder sister Shannon, who had to double up with Audrey, though she quickly relented; she loved Aunt Jane as much as Audrey did.

For Jane, staying in the apartment raised grim shades. She and Mike Wheeler had lived three floors below, when the complex was called Ione Plaza. Only last year the name had changed to the Vue Apartments. Glitzy renovations couldn’t suppress Mike Wheeler’s ghost. She saw him at nights, sitting in little Audrey’s chair; heard the melodies of his guitar notes; felt the crushing weight of his eyeless stare that accused her of killing their son. He was the only thing I left you, El. She pleaded with him. No! I tried, Mike! I tried to save him! Her boyfriend’s face of judgment transformed into her son’s look of innocence, growing eyes that were identical to hers, and then burning white, igniting him like the head of a match. You saved me, mom! His voice scraped insistently, rising higher. You saved me! He was shrieking, and his face began to melt.

Jane screamed and woke up. Sweat drenched her shirt and little Audrey’s blankets. It was a little after midnight. A door down the hall opened, and Raquel was by her side in seconds.

“Your nightmares are scaring me, El.” Raquel had long ago swapped out Jane for El. Years of Saturday night visits made her family.

“I’ll be fine,” Jane lied. She wouldn’t be fine for a long time. The Llaza was the worst adversary she had faced from the Upside Down. The day after Halloween, Mike had described it to her in repulsive detail:

“I knew everything about it because I was the monster. I had its mind and memories. I knew every single thing about it. It had a trillion-year lifespan. When I attacked it with my fire, all I did was push it thousands of years into its adult stage.”

“And it made you do that?” she had asked. “Forced you to make it grow?”

“The next day it would have made me fill another street. Eventually that thing would have become the entire state of Oregon.”

“Michael, how on earth did it give you a new power?”

“It didn’t, it only changed what was there. Like, it shifted the framework of my mind so that my time power was way more severe. It was in its larva stage — or what we think of as a larva — when it traveled through the internet and preyed on peoples’ fears. It got inside texts and images that people love, to scare them and break their will. So it could dominate them. And fuck with their minds in other ways.”

“But it needed someone like you to come in to our world.”

“Well yeah, that’s why we haven’t heard stories about streets being taken over until last night.”

She rubbed his head and kissed him. “You’re one of a kind.”

“Not anymore.”

“And you’re sure about that?”

“When your power hit mine, it killed it. It’s gone, completely. I can’t even fugit people. I’ve tried.”

She couldn’t tell if he was disappointed or relieved, but she guessed more of the latter. “I killed a lot of people when I was young, Mike. Even younger than you. I’ll never judge you for what you did to those four boys. Your secret’s safe.”

“But what I was saying about the Llaza. It terrorized people through their computers. I remember all those people from its memories. Thousands of them. It was doing that for like a decade, ever since the internet became popular. It liked to possess family photos. It did that a lot. It broke people — made them crazy. It broke me.” But it had also needed him. Oh, Mike.

“I guess it sensed that Ellen Page meant more to you than your own mother.” She was teasing. Sort of.

He didn’t want to talk about that. “Well, it’s dead. Because of you. Badass mom.”

“I thought I ended up killing you.”

“Naw,” he said. “You’re too badass for that.”

No, she thought now, as Raquel held her in Audrey’s bed. Not badass. Just lucky. In her battle with the Llaza, she hadn’t had time to even think how her power might interact with her son’s. She was just trying to fend off the vile creature; to shield Mike from it, and to keep his own power from destroying her. She could have easily killed Mike, and it was a miracle she hadn’t. I saw him burn.

 

It was the second week of December and an early Christmas at the home of Jane Hopper. Assembled with her and Mike were the official members of the Hawkins Club: Lucas Sinclair, Dustin Henderson, William Byers, and Nancy Wheeler-Perry. Sheriff Jim Hopper of Yamhill County used to be a part of these gatherings until his loss to cancer two years ago.

Foodwise, it was also a late Thanksgiving. Platters of turkey, stuffing, greens, and turnips were passed around the table, repeating the menu everyone had gorged on two weeks earlier. This was how the Hawkins Club did it, so everyone could spend the actual two holidays with their families: Lucas in downtown Portland, with Raquel and his daughters; Dustin in Boston, with his wife Lynn and son and daughter, Rafe and Olivia; Nancy in Springfield Virginia, with her husband Craig and daughter Drew; and Will in Hawkins with his mother, the ever Jolly Joyce. Will, who lived in Fishers, was the only Hawkins Club member who still visited Hawkins. The town had too many ghosts for the others, and far too much pain for Jane.

“Score!” shouted Dustin. He and Mike were throwing ice cubes across the table, into each others water glasses. A long standing tradition.

“What are you doing these days, Dustin?” asked Nancy. “Besides annoying everyone?”

“Pissing people off is my top priority. But I’m still the senior software engineer at MIT.” His alma mater.

“Are you going to annoy Uncle Luc about Obama?” prodded Mike. Jane shot him a look of daggers, which he ignored.

“Obama annoys the piss out of me,” said Dustin. “And what he did last week was galling.”

Mike was smiling. “Yeah, Uncle Luc, what do you think about Obama’s decision to send all those troops to Afghanistan?”

“I think,” said Lucas, “that someone is being too obvious in trying to turn this family party into Afghanistan.”

“Mike,” said Jane.

He wouldn’t take the warning. “This is important, mom. Everyone’s talking about it at school. We’re supposed to be stopping the war, and Obama’s revving up. He’s doing exactly what Johnson did to escalate Vietnam.” He looked over at his Uncle Dustin expectantly. Jane seethed, knowing Mike didn’t give a righteous damn about the war in the Middle-East, much less about Vietnam. He just wanted a shitstorm at the dinner table.

Dustin laughed. “Our son of a bitch president is doing exactly as I predicted from day one. But I have a feeling your mom doesn’t want to walk this road.”

“Please,” said Jane. “Can we not talk politics?”

“They have a right to discuss their opinions,” said Mike. He belched and asked for the gravy.

“But maybe we should talk about something your mom can enjoy too,” said Nancy, passing the bowl.

“And me,” said Will.

“Hey, Captain Librarian,” said Lucas. “Why don’t you try taking an interest in politics for a change. Crack some of those books in your 300s section. But I agree with El and Nancy. We’re not repeating the Fourth of July.”

“And I agree with Lucas,” said Dustin. “It’s a waste of time to obsess our dipshit president.”

“He’s not a dipshit!” said Lucas, taking the bait, and slamming his glass down on the table. “He got a shitty hand dealt to him by George Dipshit Bush!”

Dustin laughed again. “I’m sure that if President Christ Obama committed mass genocide, you’d excuse it on grounds of the shitty hand dealt to him by his predecessor. It’s the oldest line of partisan horseshit, Lucas, and you’re a better person than that. Or at least you used to be.”

Lucas couldn’t control his rage. “Obama’s done more good in a single year than Dubya did in eight!”

“Really? How?”

Lucas flared: “First of all –”

“Yeah, I know he saved the Endangered Species Act. Good for him. A lot of presidents have done a few good things and still ended up shitty presidents.”

“He’s left a lot to be desired,” put in Will, trying to mediate, “but I wouldn’t call him shitty.”

Mike was loving this, and just warming up. “You really think he’s a shitty president, Uncle Dustin?”

“Your Uncle Dustin,” said Lucas, “is living proof of the adage that for a black man to succeed, he has to be pure as the goddamn snow.”

“And there we have it,” said Dustin. “When people like you are cornered with the facts about Obama, you play the trump card of your stinking black ass.”

There was a stunned silence. Even Mike was aghast.

Lucas finally spoke. “Say that to me again, asshole.”

Dustin leaned forward and enunciated. “I said, ‘The-Trump-Card-Of-Your-Stinking-Black-Ass’.”

Lucas threw back his chair and stood up. Jane had never seen him so livid.

“Guys,” she said. “Come on. That’s enough.”

“Not a chance, El,” said Lucas, not taking his eyes off Dustin. “Don’t ever throw race at me, Henderson. My esteem for Obama is completely color blind. It’s ear-fucking relevant. But it’s obviously relevant to those who over-criticize him.”

“And you’re full of shit, Sinclair. Most of Obama’s critics –”

“Dustin, please,” said Jane.

“– are bang on the money, and you know damn good and well I’m no racist. Obama is factually a lame-ass piece of shit. In all the ways that matter, he’s Dubya with a black skin — which fools people like you. He’s educated and he can speak — which also hoodwinks people like you. And he throws us bones here and there — again, duping you unbelievable blasted idiots.”

“This is my fault,” said Mike, suddenly hating the War of the Uncles.

“Yes, it is,” said Nancy.

Jane made a decision. “I’m ruling this subject off limits. I’m not watching you guys ruin your friendship over petty feuds.” She had seen it happen before, with her father and Mike Wheeler.

“El is right,” said Dustin, playing the penitent. “I was in the wrong, and I apologize to everyone. I shouldn’t have spoken truth to Uncle Lucas. He needs his fantasies.”

Jesus, Dustin,” said Will.

Lucas was grabbing his coat. “You know what? Enjoy yourselves. I don’t need to listen to this shit.”

“Lucas, you’re not going anywhere,” said Jane.

“That’s exactly what I’m doing, El.”

“Don’t go, Uncle Luc.”

“Shut up, Mike! Be satisfied with the outcome you obviously wanted!”

Jane was shocked. She had never heard Lucas yell at her son like that. He was the only person she allowed to discipline Mike, and even in his angry moments, he had never been nasty with Mike before this. Mike was equally shocked, and speechless.

Lucas stormed out. Jane swept the table with a look of a hurricane. No one dared say a thing. “Mike,” she said quietly. “Go upstairs and wait for me.”

“What?!”

“Go!”

He swore an F-bomb, piled more turkey and stuffing on his plate, and stomped upstairs. If he was being banished, he wouldn’t go hungry.

Jane went outside and chased Lucas to his car.

Lucas was already inside, and rolled down the driver’s window. “El, I’m sorry I yelled at Mike. He’s not the one I was mad at.”

“He’s the one I’m mad at! He did exactly what I told him not to do. And you’re leaving because of it.”

He smiled. “Kids.”

“Lucas, please. Leave if you have to, but don’t hate Dustin –”

“El, don’t worry. Dustin’s my best friend and always will be. He and I just have to work out an understanding about how and where we discuss politics.”

“I’ve never seen you so mad. You reminded me of my father. And my old Mike.”

“Yeah, well, go easy on Mike junior. He got to me, but he’s just a teenager. Dustin was being a major asshole.”

She hugged him through the window. “Why is politics so ugly?”

Lucas laughed, putting the car in reverse. “I’m still a card carrying Democrat. Dustin shredded his card last spring. We’ll be political foes forever.”

He would be proven seriously wrong about that in another seven years, when a business clown and very dangerous demagogue won the 2016 presidential election.

 

It was a mild winter that passed in Portland, with the lowest snowfall seen in eight years. Tibbetts remained a ghost street. Buyers were bewaring, given the unresolved mysteries of Halloween night. Jane realized she missed the bustle, as she and Mike sat on their porch in early March, playing No-Limit Texas Hold ‘Em. They gambled with petty change. She finally cleaned him out, with a full house over his straight.

“Holy shit, dude, the way you played that.”

“You thought I was bluffing?”

“I knew you weren’t bluffing — you can’t bluff for shit, mom — but I thought you had a set, not a full fucking house.”

“Thanks for the confidence. And tone down the language a bit.”

“Whatever dude.”

“And you’re back to that?”

“What?”

“Calling me ‘dude’? I thought we passed that stage.” She had finally got him and Tobias to stop calling her “dude” last summer.

“You are a dude. You’re a badass dude. I never realized how awesome you are before you kicked ass. Last Halloween. You and Uncle Luc always told me about the Upside Down but I kinda wondered. Seemed silly. But you rock.”

She smiled. “I’m glad I meet your approval.”

“Yeah, you’re cool.”

Then she frowned. “Have you been feeling okay lately?”

“Yeah. Why?”

“You look a bit pale.” She touched his forehead. There was no fever, and on closer scrutiny he didn’t really look that pale. “I guess I’m wrong.”

“I feel a hundred percent. You worry too much, dude.”

“Yeah, dude,” she mocked.

 

That night at 2:15 AM, Jane woke and sat straight up in bed, wild-eyed, heart pounding. She knew what was wrong with her son. She sat immobile and erect for at least five minutes, going over it in her head, trying to convince herself she was a fool. She wasn’t. Terror crawled inside her. Don’t do this to me, God. Don’t.

She got out of bed and walked down the hall to Mike’s room. Violating her rule of privacy, she opened his door without knocking. The hallway light spilled in and showed him sound asleep on his stomach. She stared at him, torn. Part of her wanted to go back to bed and pretend she had a lively imagination. The other part of her acted. She sat on the bed and gently shook him awake: “Mike.”

He moaned and turned over. “Mom?”

“Get up, please. I need you to come with me.”

“What? What’s wrong? It’s… fuck, it’s two in the morning.”

“Do as I say. Now.”

He sat up, still half asleep. She grabbed his hand and pulled him off the bed. “Come on.”

“Where! Where are we going?”

“Just downstairs,” she said.

He was getting pissed, and demanded an explanation as she dragged him downstairs to the kitchen. She threw on the lights and stared at the pillar with pencil marks. She felt sick. She positioned Mike against the pillar and told him to stand up straight.

“What do you mean, I’m standing up!”

“Stand up straight, I said.”

“I am!”

She pushed his head up against the pillar, next to the pencil marks.

“You’re measuring me? Are you insane?”

She stared and saw exactly what she expected. His head didn’t clear the latest pencil mark.

“Mom?”

He had grown almost half an inch shorter.

She looked at his face and realized her earlier mistake. He wasn’t pale, exactly; his face was just… smoother, babier.

He was aging backwards.

She broke down crying then, as Mike, scared out of his mind, kept asking her what the hell was wrong.

 

“Merlin Sickness,” said Dustin’s voice over the conference phone.

“What?” asked Lucas.

“If you tell me you don’t know what I’m talking about, I’ll kill you and you’ll thank me later.”

Jane and Lucas were sitting in Lucas’s office at the Fish and Wildlife Station. They had met here to use his conference phone, and both Dustin and Will were on the line, calling from their homes in Boston and Fishers.

“I’m a biologist,” said Lucas, “and I’ve never heard of Merlin Sickness.”

“Hyperion, hello? You never read Dan Simmons’ series?”

“Oh yeah,” came Will’s voice. “I read those. The first two books anyway. When I was in Botswana. It was that girl archaeologist –”

“Rachel Weintraub,” said Dustin. “She goes to planet Hyperion to study the Time Tombs, which everyone avoids like the plague, and she gets worse than any plague. This creature called the Shrike touches her, and her body starts aging backwards.”

“How is she saved?” asked Lucas. “Or is she?”

“If you mean cured, no, she isn’t,” said Dustin. “She keeps aging backwards until she reaches her first moment as a newborn child, at which point her father hands her to the Shrike in desperation, as a sacrificial offering. From that point she gets a certain salvation, depending on your point of view.”

“This doesn’t help, Dustin,” said Lucas.

“It was a scary concept in a sci-fic novel,” said Will. “I remember being more terrified by Hyperion than by most horror novels. But Mike has something different from the Merlin Sickness. Rachel didn’t just age backwards, she lost her memories too.”

“Yeah,” said Dustin. “A day’s worth of memories every night she went to sleep, plus all her memories of everything that happened since she was touched by the Shrike. In other words, she woke up every morning with her memories in the exact state they were in when she was that age before. Her parents had to explain to their poor daughter what happened to her, from scratch every day — why they were so old and things weren’t as they should be.”

“That story was heartbreaking,” said Will. “But Mike has been retaining all his memories at least.”

“You don’t think this is breaking me apart?” asked Jane.

“That’s not what I meant, El.”

“He’s going to ‘grow’ into a baby in fifteen years, and then, what, die, when he shrinks into a fetus?”

“We’ll work this out, El,” said Lucas.

“There’s nothing to work out, Lucas! He’s aging backwards, just like we age forwards. It’s unstoppable.”

“Not necessarily,” said Dustin. “Mike lost his power, but how do we know he can’t get it back? If he can, maybe he can stop this reverse-aging.”

“That’s just it, Dustin. He never lost his power. We were mistaken.” I was mistaken. Badly. “His power isn’t gone. It’s still being used. It’s streaming constantly, everywhere in his body. That’s why he’s growing backwards.”

“How do you know this, El?” asked Lucas.

“Because all the clues were right in front of me. When I shielded Mike from that fucking creature” (she heard them all gasp; they had never heard her use an F-bomb) “I continued using my power against it, but in a kind of reverse — to push it away from Mike, instead of wrapping and compressing it. But he was being forced to use his own power, and my shield, which kept the Llaza out, also kept his fire inside. Mike flamed himself.” She had seen him burn; heard him scream in the black void.

“He told me he was fine.” You saved me, mom. You saved me. She hadn’t saved him. She had put him on a stony backroad to hell. “He didn’t realize his power was still in motion, working backwards on him.” Because of me. I killed my own son. “None of us could tell, because he’s aging downwards at the normal rate. It took me four months to catch on.”

“But if that’s true,” said Will, “then it’s a reason to believe something can be done. You’re saying his power is working. It just needs to be shut off.”

“He’s tried, Will,” said Jane. “He’s tried six hundred and eighty ways to Sunday.” It was now four days since Jane had measured Mike. During those days, she had kept Mike home from school and forced him to try reaching into himself. He couldn’t feel a thing. The special spaces in his mind for tempus fugit and real-world aging were either closed or gone.

“I’m thinking more about you,” said Will. “If you helped caused the problem, maybe you’re the one who can fix it.”

“No way,” said Jane. “You don’t think I’ve thought of that? I was acting on instinct, in the heat of battle. I hardly understood what I was doing. And I was only acting against the Llaza. I had no time to think about how it might affect Mike. If I tried ‘fixing’ his power, for all I know, I could turn him into a fetus or a skeleton in seconds.”

“Well shit,” said Dustin.

“El is right,” said Lucas. “If there’s any way out of this, it has to come from Mike. He has the intuitions to guide his own abilities.”

“Except that he doesn’t,” repeated Jane. “He’s a blank slate now. He says there’s nothing in his mind to work with. It’s like whatever I did triggered a reversal, but it also made his mind a faucet that can’t be adjusted or turned off.”

“Retro incendium,” said Dustin.

“What?” asked Jane and Will at the same time.

“Retro incendium. Latin for ‘burning backwards’. That’s what Mike’s doing. Burning backwards.”

“Thanks for that Dustin,” said Lucas. “How do we stop him from burning backwards?”

No one had any ideas. They promised to keep brainstorming and stay in touch, and then hung up.

“El,” said Lucas, taking her hand, “we’re not giving up here.”

Jane hardly heard him. Her heart felt like ash. She was going to “raise” her son all over again, until she was cradling him and he needed formula to survive. She had done the math already: Mike’s birthday was supposed to be next month: April 11. Instead of turning sixteen, he would be almost fifteen again. From the point of Halloween, 2009, he had been fifteen and a half years old — fifteen years and 203 days, to be precise. He would age down to exactly fifteen years on May 22, which would become his new “birthday”, in effect. That meant on May 22, 2025 he would be an infant at the point he was born from her womb. What would happen then? She wasn’t counting on a stupid miracle like the one in that novel Dustin mentioned.

If there were gods controlling fate, Jane wanted nothing to do with them. She had lost Mike Wheeler to the Upside Down’s evil. She saved him from the Illithid, but the creature had ruined him so deeply that it killed him anyway. Now she was going to lose Mike junior because she had ruined him by saving him from the Llaza.

“El,” Lucas repeated.

“I can’t Lucas,” she whispered.

“What?”

“I can’t do this.”

“Come here.” He held her in his office for a long time.

 

Next Chapter: Retro Incendium

(Previous Chapter: The Llaza)

Stranger Things: The New Generation (Chapter 6)

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 Six:

                                   The Llaza

When Jane turned on to Tibbetts and saw the Upside Down atmosphere, she slammed on the brakes. She hadn’t seen those floating particles in over twenty years.

She looked down the street, paralyzed. Mike. Their house was two blocks down, and the Upside Down appeared to extend well beyond that point. She held her breath and opened the car door, stepping out to look. Except for the idling of her engine, Tibbetts Street was utterly silent. Stars shone in the sky, but their illumination barely penetrated the shadowy atmosphere congealing over the homes.

She had to get to Mike. It couldn’t be a coincidence that he was having so many problems right as something like this happened. She knew that he had lied to her — about the “bat” on his window that made him scream, and the “stranger” who almost killed him — and she cursed herself for respecting his privacy.

She got back in the car and looked at the clock: 9:49 PM. That could mean anything. Mike had said that Ashlee’s party would go until 11:00 o’clock, and she knew that he milked Halloween for all its worth. She prayed he was still there.

A scream pierced the neighborhood silence, and Jane threw open the car door again, peering through the motes and shadows. She couldn’t see anyone. She was about to get back in, when a figure lurched on a front lawn. She squinted. It was a woman staggering towards the street; Jane called to her. When the woman saw her, her eyes widened and she lumbered toward Jane as fast as she could. From behind her, a shadowy mass protruded from the house, reaching for her. The woman barely evaded being snatched when the ground vanished beneath her, and she was swallowed. Jane heard a guttural belch, and a sequence of muddy slurping noises. The earth had just eaten this woman alive.

Her heart thundering, she opened the car door and grabbed the cell from her purse. She knew she was breathing Upside-Down air and hardly cared. It was unpleasant to inhale, but apparently not toxic. Her father had vomited from being trapped down in tunnels bored by the Shadow Monster, but his body hadn’t paid any prices otherwise. It was cigarettes that had finally killed him, and she cursed him for not taking better care of himself. She could use her father right now. She dialed Mike’s cell phone number.

After the sixth ring there was a click, and her son’s voice spoke the usual: “I’m either in class, listening to music, or beating off. Do it at the beep. If it’s important.”

The beep came. “Mike it’s me. Call right away. If you’re at Ashlee’s, stay there. Don’t come home, I’ll pick you up. Call me back. I need to know you’re all right. Don’t ignore this message.”

She hung up and dialed Lucas’s landline, watching the street in all directions.

His wife answered. “Miss us already?”

“Raquel, is Lucas there?”

“Honey, what’s wrong?” Raquel didn’t like the way Jane sounded.

“Can you please get him?” said Jane. “It’s an emergency.”

She heard Raquel yell for Lucas, and to hurry his ass.

Lucas was there in seconds: “El?” he said. “What’s up?”

“You need to come over fast.”

“What happened?”

“My street is a graveyard.” She saw Mike dead and banished the thought. Please. Not my son. Please. It occurred to her that he was the same age as his father when he was killed by the Illithid.

“God, no! There was a shooter?”

“No, it’s the Upside Down. I’m not kidding. I’m at the west end of Tibbetts at 71st.” She and Mike lived two blocks down, at the junction of Tibbetts Street and 74th Avenue. Tibbetts extended for a half a mile between 71st and 82nd, and for all Jane knew, the entire strip was under siege from the Shadow World. “It looks the Upside Down is covering all the homes on Tibbetts. I just saw the ground open and eat a woman alive.”

“Whoa! If I didn’t know that you never tell sick jokes, I’d say this is a pretty sick Halloween joke, El.”

“Not a joke. I have to get inside my house and look for Mike.” Please. Not him.

“No, no! Wait for me, I’m leaving right now. You said you’re at 71st?”

It was a twenty minute drive from his apartment on the west side of Portland to where she was now. She wasn’t waiting twenty minutes. “In case you forgot, I’m not defenseless.”

At that moment Lucas didn’t care that Jane Hopper was one of the most powerful people on earth. He swore. “You’re saying the entire street is taken over? That everyone is dead?” She heard Raquel gasp in shock.

“It looks that way,” said Jane. “Maybe some people alive, like that woman, but they won’t be for long. Like I said, I can’t tell how far it goes –”

“I’m calling the police and coming over.”

“Don’t call them yet. I think whatever is on this street can easily kill people with guns. If I can deal with whatever it is, it will save lives.”

“Jesus. Did you try Mike on his cell?”

“Yes. He didn’t answer.” She insisted to herself that was a good sign. If he was still at Ashlee’s, he probably wouldn’t answer. If he was home he probably would. Unless of course he was dead.

“I’ll meet you at your home. I’m taking my cell, and you call me if I need to know anything — and call me as soon as you find Mike.”

“I’ll look for you.”

She hung up and put the car in drive, rolling past the block of houses on both sides of Tibbetts, and then crossing 73rd Avenue. She had to avoid a car turned on its side in the intersection. There was no sign of anyone in the car, or around the homes. The same was true for the next block. Her house came into view at the intersection of 74th, and she pulled into the driveway. Killing the ignition, she got out and stared.

There was no question her home was the primary source of the Upside Down pollution. Shadows and dusty twinkles poured out the windows and front door, most of which had been thrown open wide. Her rage began to build. If Mike had been harmed in the slightest, she would wreak a devastation that made the transformation on this street look like afternoon tea. She ran to the front door, yelling Mike’s name. To her shock, a figure appeared in the doorway, and she leaped up the steps to confront him.

It was Tobias. He was hysterical.

“Tobias! Where’s Mike?”

He couldn’t answer. In her four years of knowing him, she had never seen Tobias Powell shed a single tear. She knew what his tears meant now and refused to accept it.

“Tobias!” She shook him. “Where is he?” He continued crying, unable to speak, and she took him in her arms, looking around the downstairs area inside her home. Motes and shadows swam in the air, and the walls were smoky and black. The floors and ceiling had undergone a similar transubstantiation.

“Look at me,” she said. “Is he dead?”

He nodded miserably.

Her heart felt like an abyss. “Where?”

“In… the wall.”

The wall? “What do you mean? What wall?”

“Upstairs. In his bedroom.”

She steeled herself. “Show me.”

 

Staring at the impression of her son, Jane thought of Han Solo in those movies Mike Wheeler liked. Like Han, Mike Hopper was “frozen” into the wall above his bed. From around his sculpted impression poured a heavy concentration of shadow atmosphere. The floor was a mess; his computer had exploded into a thousand fragments.

“Be careful,” Tobias urged. “When I was up here before, something made an awful noise and came out of the ceiling at me. I ran downstairs, and you showed up after that.”

“Tobias, what happened here? What did you guys do?” It sounded accusatory, but seeing Mike like this made her feel angry and helpless.

“I wasn’t here. I don’t know what he did.”

“What do you mean you weren’t here?”

“I only came over when he called me but I couldn’t hear anything — some kind of interference. It was a messed up night, Miss Hopper.” He explained their aborted trip to Ashlee’s, and what Mike did in the park. Halfway through — when he got to the part of Mike kicking Dom in the balls — he was interrupted by a cavernous belching that spat from the floor. They froze and waited. Tobias resumed in hushed tones. When he finished his story, he looked at her nervously, clearly worried that she would call him a liar. He had just described her son murdering four people.

Jane believed every word of Tobias’s lurid tale, and she was certain that Mike’s newly acquired power was related somehow to this nightmare on Tibbetts Street. It was the reason he was frozen inside his bedroom wall. She had to get him out and was clueless how to proceed.

Without warning, the belching spat another alien obscenity, this time from the wall next to Mike. And from the Upside Down came a being of vacuous death.

It poured out of the wall, expanding, and then swept upward until it dwarfed her and Tobias and nearly filled the space of the bedroom. It was still part of the wall, like the black mass that had stretched out to snatch the fleeing woman and then devoured her underground. Whatever this monster was, it was omnipresent. Its skin was every house it had infected on the street; it was the ground, and the street itself. The shadow before her was a small part of it. The thing could manifest anywhere on the street, probably in many places at once, and somehow it was grounded in Mike. She saw Tobias flee the bedroom; there was nowhere to flee.

She realized that fighting the shadow would be useless. It was a drop in a swamp that needed full eradication. She had no idea how to achieve the impossible. She did what came to mind, and hurled her telekinetic forces at the shadow, more as a probe than a weapon, riding the waves with her consciousness in order to feel what the creature felt, to tease out its vitals and where it was weakest.

Almost at once, her power swept her into a flood of possibility. Her consciousness took her places she had never been. She felt as long as Tibbetts Street, as high as the homes on each side of it. She tasted the street’s tar, and felt the creaking in the wood of the houses. Motes flowed in and around her, glittering in her flesh, and extended for half a mile. Below her, in the ground, animals and critters scurried, cowering from the creature’s toxic presence. Mike had made the creature so mighty that it had brought the Upside Down to Tibbets Street. It was the Upside Down on Tibbetts Street, or more precisely, it was its infrastructure.

Without giving herself a chance to think about what she was doing, Jane locked her power with the creature’s — and then audaciously called it into herself, accepting the foul entity as her personal flesh.

At first the sheer pain and horror of it excruciated her. Its power was atrocious beyond belief, and she knew its name as she welcomed it: the Llaza. It ate into her vitals, flooding her veins with blackness. But desperate need drove her, and she hurled her forces in a way she had never done before, by attacking her own self, in her cells where the Llaza now fed and thrived. It was a strange battle, weird and horrible, waged within the confines of her flesh. The Llaza wasn’t discrete like the Demogorgon, the Shadow Monster, or the Illithid. It was a hunger that fed like a parasite. She could have fired her telekinetic blasts all night down the street, in every house, pounding away at manifestations of the creature everywhere while hardly damaging it at all. This way she struck at the roots of its parasitic existence.

In the void she saw Mike’s shattered soul as if it were limned in light. She felt his frozen tissues and poisoned bloodstream as if they were incused on her flesh. He was disastrously paralyzed but still alive. His heart limped at a rate so slow that he would have died without the life support of the creature. It needed him; so he could be saved. She clung to that thought like a thousand prayers.

Fury exalted her and carried her beyond her limits. As she sent surges of her power through herself, the Llaza responded with its own flares of power, and they tore inside her like a volcanic rupture. The clash of powers was too immense, and she almost died from it. Pain detonated in her skull, and a freezing agony that was the Upside Down’s signature yowled through the atoms of her flesh. She had to stop, or she would kill herself, long before doing enough damage to the Llaza. Then without thinking, she tried something else. Instead of assaulting the blackness within her, she seized the vile essence, wrapped it within spools of her power, and used her mental power to squeeze it down to size.

Somehow her intuitions paid off. Instead of blowing the creature apart within herself, she choked the life out of it, nullified it, and sent in spilling back outward in a lifeless cloud. Or at least a part of it; it was like the segment of a colossal snake. She had just destroyed a segment that straddled a block of homes somewhere between 77th and 78th Avenues. There was much more of it. The Llaza was huge, thanks to Mike; half a mile long — the whole street of Tibbetts.

She drew in another random segment of the creature and wrapped it around her telekinetic will. It was a hideously painful process; she never knew pain could be this thorough. She saw in her mind that she was now in a region close to 73rd Avenue. With a shock she saw Lucas there, and almost dropped her concentration. He was helping a little girl whose right arm had been torn off, trying to make a bandage with his shirt, and yelling furiously into his cell phone. The girl was losing too much blood. Jane reached out through the omnipresence she had carved for herself, caressing the fatigue out of Lucas, weaving her telekinesis in the girl’s wound to staunch the blood flow. As she did this, her control faltered; the Llaza roared in her veins, surging for freedom. She punished it, and herself, with furious inward blasts, keeping it jailed within her flesh. She barely withstood the shock. Then, as before, she spooled her power around it, smothering its essence on this part of the street. Six homes were freed. Inhaling air like it was her salvation, she readied for more.

She lost track of time as she proceeded down the street like this — the street that had merged with her flesh. Physically she was still in Mike’s bedroom; mentally she had transcended herself. She broke the Llaza apart, bit by hideous bit, rescuing anyone she could in passing. She couldn’t save everyone; at least a dozen people died — in their homes, on the street — and half were kids. Most of the residents on Tibbetts had already died anyway, before she arrived.

When she had liberated two-thirds of the street, the Llaza got desperate and went after Mike. His impression in the wall lit up in a blazing whiteness, and in her mind Jane could hear him begging the creature for life and freedom. With horror she realized the Llaza was trying to summon his power against her. To turn him against his mother. If that happened, she would wither in seconds, like Dominic Bragdon and his friends.

She tried shouting through the creature she was a part of, and thus him. Mike! Can you hear me!

Mom? His terrified voice came from a void.

Mike! She called through the black ether. I’m here! Can you see me? I’m getting you out! 

I can’t… see anything… I don’t remember… what seeing is.

I’m coming, Mike! Just hold on, I swear I’m coming! 

Mike screamed inside her head then, as the Llaza forced his power. A white blast ripped out of the wall and she barely dodged it by falling on the floor. She had no time to think; another blast would come in seconds, and from the way Tobias had described it, if it touched her, she would fry into a skeleton.

Relying on split-second intuition, she looped her power around Mike, holding back his fire as the Llaza tried hurling it at her again. She repeated what she had been doing, but in a kind of reverse, spooling a protective shield around her son as she pushed outwards against the Llaza’s suffocating essence. But Mike didn’t understand. In his ethereal dementia, he thought she was attacking him, and unleashed a torrent of white flame. Her shield protected her — but not him. Argent rebounded and filled Mike Hopper’s every atom. He burned like a star; screamed so the universe could hear.

So did the Llaza.

Tibbets Street convulsed as if pounded by an earthquake. The tremors tore through Jane’s arms and legs, throwing her to the floor as she spasmed and yelled Mike’s name. And with a sickening grossness, the Llaza — what remained of it — belched Mike Hopper out of the bedroom wall. Whatever she had caused to happen to him, it had tormented the creature beyond endurance. That torment ripped through Jane as well, and she lay on the floor in an agony that was nauseating. She saw Mike, unfrozen, kneeling on the floor, trying to stand. She couldn’t believe he was alive. She had just seen him burn with incandescent fatality. Her skin felt pulled in all directions. She was dying the Llaza’s death.

With a last effort she tried severing her connection to it to save herself. I’m sorry, Mike. She blacked out.

 

When she woke, Mike was kneeling over her. “Mom? Please. Say something.”

Her tongue felt like cement; her eyelids were mountains; and her upper lip red from a violent nosebleed. “Mike,” she croaked.

“Hey,” he said. He was smiling through tears and holding her hand. “You’re back.”

“I’m sorry,” she whispered. “I hurt you.”

“No, mom. You saved me. You saved me.”

It was a line from her past. From her other Mike. In 1983 she had kept him from smashing his body against the water of the quarry. Years later he had jumped off a bridge anyway. Her life was a series of ultimate failures. “I saw what I did,” she said. “Your fire burned you up. Because of me.”

“But it didn’t age me, mom. Something you did stopped that. You saved me.”

She had no use for consolation. She wanted nothing she didn’t earn. “Come here,” she said, and hugged him.

Footsteps pounded up the stairs. Lucas burst into the room with Tobias behind him.

“El!” said Lucas. Tobias cried out Mike’s name at the same time.

She could barely stay awake. Mike’s power hadn’t touched her, but she felt a thousand years old after what she had just done. The aftertastes of the Llaza scalded her tongue and throat.

“El,” said Lucas, kneeling over her next to Mike. “Holy shit — what you did. I don’t even know what you did. But it’s gone now. The Upside Down is gone. People are dead, but the homes aren’t possessed by that blackness anymore. The danger’s over. It’s over, El. You did great.”

“No,” she said, tears spilling. “I didn’t.”

“What are you saying?” demanded Lucas.

“She’s blaming herself for not doing enough,” said Mike.

No. That’s not it.

“I keep telling her she saved me, but she thinks I’m not okay.”

You aren’t. I saw you burn.

“You were awesome, mom, don’t you see?”

I was always too hard on you. You were right to call me names.

“Get her feet, Mike.” She felt her shoulders being lifted. “Let’s get her downstairs. Tobias, call the police.”

Mike and Lucas carried her out the room. “We got you, mom. You’ll be okay.”

I saw you burn.

 

Next Chapter: The War of the Uncles

(Previous Chapter: Regenesis)

Stranger Things: The New Generation (Chapter 5)

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 Five:

                                   Regenesis

Mike stared at his computer screen. He hadn’t turned it on since Hayley Stark became Gomer Pyle. But he needed answers, and he didn’t know where else to find them.

Because of the screensaver virus, or whatever it was, his ability to manipulate time had increased dramatically. Instead of causing the illusion of tempus fugit, he was now really making time accelerate, and at a rate so off the scales he had become a living weapon. He had no idea if he could discipline that power, though he obviously hadn’t tried; he had exulted in it and given it free rein.

He turned on the Mac and jumped at the chime. He was all nerves and sick. How long did the body strain under guilt of murder? He knew he wouldn’t sleep tonight.

The operating system loaded and his desktop appeared. He held his breath. A scene from Hard Candy filled the screen, picking up where the cycle left off. After the next two would come the Juno screenshots. He stood without moving, waiting. The next image displayed normally. As long as you watch it, nothing will happen. It’s only when you turn your back that shit happens. Just like in the movies.

He deliberately turned away, looking for a diversion. He realized he was still in his costume and started removing it; a reminder of his appalling crime. He felt like a combat soldier thrown on the battlefield for the first time. Reality was unforgiving. But he had enjoyed killing those guys too. There was no denying the conflict of biology: an aversion to killing members of his own species, offset by millennia of evolution that bred murder and ferocity into the collective gene pool. DNA made everyone Elric.

Oh God.

He rushed for the trash bin, and barely made it time to throw up what little garbage remained in his gut. He wished his grandfather were alive. Sheriff Jim Hopper of Yamhill County had died in 2007 from lung cancer. He had been an unshakable pillar, and that’s what Mike needed right now. For all his independence and teen bravado, he was a kid scared out of his mind.

He thought of Laurie Strode’s vomiting episodes in Halloween II. Like Mike she had killed to save herself, and as a result had devolved into a bipolar mess of sickness and nightmares. At that moment Mike wished he had never been born with a special power. He cursed his mother’s genes and blamed her entirely.

When the nausea passed he wiped his mouth, and then hurriedly shot a look over at the computer. The Juno scenes were cycling now, and the current one looked as it should. Juno was sitting cross-legged on her bed, gabbing into her hamburger phone.

As if on cue, his iPhone rang. He dug it out. “What?” he said.

“When I want your opinion,” said Tobias. That he could obsess after a night like this was incredible.

“You think this shit is funny?”

“You okay?” asked Tobias.

“I’m throwing up and I can’t stop shaking. Oh, fuck.” He started crying and tried to get it under control.

“Hey man, listen. Listen, Mike! You want me to come over? I should have followed you home.”

“No, no… it’s okay. I just need to lie down. And I need sleeping pills.”

“You don’t sound good. I’ll come over –”

“No, just come in the morning. First thing.” Thank the gods of justice tomorrow was Sunday and no school.

“You sure?”

“Yeah.”

“Okay. I just wanted to check in.”

“See you tomorrow.”

“When I want your opinion?”

Mike hung up and tossed the cell on his bed. He needed a Coke to settle his stomach and wash the barf taste away. He stood to go to the kitchen — and had a heart attack when he saw his screensaver.

He would have screamed at the top of his lungs if he hadn’t been so panic stricken from the events at the park. He coughed out ragged gasps and clutched his heart. This is killing me.

His favorite Juno scene blazed with the perversion that contorted it. Ellen was in her red sweatshirt, her stomach the size of a planet — her ninth month of pregnancy from the final act of the film. She should have been smiling crookedly, in her whimsical Juno-like way, but instead she was smiling like the Joker. Fierce vindictive joy splashed her face from ear to ear, promising catastrophe on any who made the mistake of looking at her. Mike tried looking away: it was like swimming in quicksand; the more effort he expended, the more he drowned in Ellen’s rapture.

Her visage ballooned and filled his inner mind. Mike braced himself for the usual headache; what came was a mental force of such weight that nearly ruptured his eardrums. Ellen’s gaze overwhelmed him, demanding submission to her will. A stirring began in the new region of his mind that he had opened tonight in the fight with Dom. No, he thought, suddenly terrified.

Ellen’s pupils swelled into wells of blackness, and devoured the last fragments of his will. He tried yelling for help — not that anyone could hear him — but his voice was useless. Inside the prison of his mind, Ellen’s face was twenty times larger and infinitely more manic. He cowered under the weight of her obscene joy, dreading whatever secret she was about to disclose.

Release me.

It was a voice of knives, grating inside his head. Release her? He’s the one who needed release. The stirring in his mind thickened, and it felt like Dom all over again.

Feed.

The voice was barely Ellen’s, permeated with a thousand hysterias and gutturals from the grave. Terror filled his bloodstream, as power accumulated behind his eyes. It was impossible he could survive what was happening to him.

Feed me.

White argent blew uncontrollably from his eyes, smashing his computer to smithereens. And from the explosion poured a blackness so foul it stung Mike’s nose like acidic gas.

The blackness was shaped like a colossal python, except that an open hole existed where its head should be: a huge mouth funneling down into the serpentine body. The blackness reared, towering over him, and the hole began to expand before Mike’s eyes. Its diameter lengthened to almost three feet.

His paralysis broke and he screamed, letting loose with more fire, this time intentionally. He would age this vile creature into oblivion. Silvery fire impacted the blackness, and the python howled, in a chorus of hellish voices. He rained more fire, willing the creature’s destruction.

And watched appalled, as the blackness grew before his eyes, amassing strength.

Instinctively, he threw more power at it, giving all that he had, until the creature’s words came back to him. Feed me, it had said. Horrified, Mike tried stopping his flow of power. It kept gushing from his eyes. He strained in defiance. His argent kept pouring — making the creature stronger, not weaker. The snaky blackness reared again, aiming to lash out at him.

Mike dove for his cell phone on the edge of his bed, and grabbed it as the creature closed over his feet and tore him backwards. He sprawled on the floor, almost dropping the phone, and felt the obscene mouth start to slide up his legs. It was devouring him like a real python, and he was going to die.

Mike pushed buttons madly, heard no ring, then frantically dialed Tobias’s number again. This time it rang. “Pick up, Tobias!” he screamed into the phone.

Tobias finally picked up, on the fourth ring: “I was flogging myself, you mean interrupting machine –”

“TOBIAS! IT’S KILLING ME!”

“– and when I want your opinion, I’ll fuck you up the ass for it.” Tobias wasn’t hearing him for some reason.

Mike felt his torso being squeezed and smothered, and head would be next. He shouted again, knowing it was absurdly useless: “TOBIAS, HELP! IT’S SWALLOWING ME!”

The creature’s voice poured through his body in reply:

We are here.

Mike’s head went under, then his extended arms. His phone fell to the floor, with Tobias’s voice barking questions from it. The cellar-voice from hell reverberated through Mike:

You. Me. Us.

Mike gurgled in darkness, swamped by bilious fluids. He was being ingested alive.

Feed me. Feed us.

Without volition, Mike erupted like a volcano, filling the creature with his mad white fire. He felt the serpentine body expanding hugely, giving him more room, and realized he could breathe again. Dark air began to whoosh around him, tainted by gleaming motes. But he was still immobile. He had become part of the creature, fused to it, as it kept growing and expanding on the strength of his fire. He protested feebly: No.

Yes.

The blackness surged through every pore of Mike’s body, then outwards through his home, co-opting the walls, ceiling, floor, inner plumbing — everything. It burrowed through the ground, merging with the front and back yards. It tunneled down the road, taking over more homes. Tibbets Street became a demesne of shadows and twinkling motes, and its residents died in minutes, as extensions of the creature erupted out of walls and floors wherever it needed to.

Mike saw all of this first-hand; experienced it directly as his consciousness merged with the creature’s. He realized that it had a name: the Llaza. A plane of origin: the Shadow; the Upside Down. Its history cascaded into Mike’s awareness, centuries of terror spilling into fifteen years of innocence.

The shock was too much. Mike faded from self-knowledge. As his flame went out, his final thought was trying to remember what his mother looked like.

 

Next Chapter: The Llaza

(Previous Chapter: Mike of Melnibone)