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 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.”
“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 Aunt Ruth. 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!”
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.”
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.”
“And you’re back to that?”
“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?”
“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.”
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.
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 at an F-bomb from her lips) “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.
“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)