Reading Roundup: 2018

Here are the best books I read this year. I didn’t read as much as I wanted to (I wrote a novel this year), which is why there are only six picks instead of my usual ten.

1. The History of Jihad, Robert Spencer. Deciding between the Stranger Things book (#2) and this one was tough, but it has to be this one. First because Robert Spencer gets way more flak than he deserves, and second because The History of Jihad is the first of its kind. I have been astonished that there has been no comprehensive book on the Islamic jihad analogous to such works on the Christian crusades. Spencer’s book is the resource we’ve needed for a long time, covering all jihad theaters for the past 1400 years since the prophet and warlord exemplar Muhammad. Spencer relies heavily on primary sources and the words of contemporary witnesses, so the reader gets a good impression of how it was to experience Islamic holy war. Jihadists have always been candid about their religious motives — it is now, and has always been, a Muslim’s holy duty to subjugate infidels under the rule of Islamic law, regardless of how many Muslims actually take up that imperative — but people in the 21st century have denied this and grasped at every wrong explanation. Studies have proven that there is no correlation between Islamic terrorism and poverty, and jihad isn’t “just” terrorism in any case. It’s legitimized terrorism backed by core Islamic teachings. It’s to Islam as the Passover is to Judaism, and as the Eucharist is to Christianity, and as meditation is to Buddhism. That may be hard to accept but it is a fact. Spencer’s book will educate honest inquirers, and be dismissed as bigoted by the hard left — and even by those who should know better. It’s an important book, and I reviewed it by each chapter here.

2. Stranger Things: Worlds Turned Upside Down, Gina McIntyre. Behind-the-scenes books often recycle information you can easily get online, but trust me, if you’re a Stranger Things fan, you’ll treasure this book for all sorts of surprising details, let alone the stunning art and photos. Don’t let the shabby appearance fool you; it isn’t real. The book is made to look beat up and worn. (I was fooled when I opened my mail package, and I almost had a conniption.) There are profiles of all the characters, presented creatively. The boys are described on D&D character sheets, while El, Hopper, and Joyce get CIA files. We see how the Duffer Brothers brought Stranger Things to life, their plans for alternate storylines that got scrapped, and other nuggets of information. There is a Morse Code decoder included, which is an exact replica of the one Eleven uses with Hopper in season 2. And you get real use out of it, because throughout the book there is hidden code which provides hints of things to come in season 3. By far my favorite inclusion, however, is the 11″x15″ topographical map of Hawkins, which I blogged here.

3. God’s Court and Courtiers in the Book of the Watchers, Philip Esler. Esler is always a great read, and his most recent effort feels downright epic, especially if you love the Enoch myths as I do. The focus is on the Book of the Watchers (I Enoch 1-36), for which the dominant stream interprets heaven in terms of the Jerusalem temple, and for which Esler finds no basis at all. When Israelite authors around this time wished to present heaven as a temple, they did exactly that. In the Songs of the Sabbath Sacrifice and the Testament of Levi, heaven is the temple, God is in the holy of holies, and the angels are priests who sing God’s praises and offer fragrant sacrifices. One looks in vain to find any of these elements in I Enoch 1-36 — even if everyone sees them anyway. God’s Court and Courtiers in the Book of the Watchers is, then, a shot across the bow of a considerable body of scholarship. Its thesis is that heaven is understood in terms of a royal court, in which the king (God) is surrounded by his courtiers (the angels). While some scholars make occasional references to the Enochic heaven as a court, the idea is never taken that seriously, and it’s way eclipsed by the supposed idea that heaven is a temple in which the angels are understood to be priests instead of courtiers. Esler refutes that by first examining the angels (their duties, access rights, and mediation techniques), then the Watchers (their “defilement”, “great sin”, and their justice), and then finally the architecture of God’s abode. What becomes clear is that the temple metaphor is non-existent, and the court metaphor so obvious that how did it take this long for us to see? Full review here.

4. Free Speech on Campus, Erwin Chemerinsky and Howard Gillman. There is a certain adage this book seems built around: “Prepare students for the road, not the road for the students.” It sounds elementary, but college campuses are among the last places today you can be guaranteed a free exchanges of ideas. The majority position of students (58% of them, in 2017) is that they should not be exposed to ideas that offend them — an embarrassing repudiation of what academia has always stood for. Students are supposed to be stung, disturbed, upset, and thus provoked to reassess their current beliefs — and change the ones they cannot defend. And as the authors of this book make clear, those offensive ideas must include even hate speech. It’s illegal for public universities to ban hate speech, and private colleges should follow suit on this. The problem with “hate speech” is that it’s a catch-all label for shutting down unpopular views that aren’t hateful at all, like the toxic nature of Islam, theories of psychobiology, etc. Academic inquiry doesn’t care about student feelings, nor should it. Free Speech on Campus is the book to help make great thinkers again, indeed to help prepare students for the road, rather than the road for them. I wish it were required reading of every college freshman. I reviewed the chapters here, here, here, and here.

5. When Christians Were Jews, Paula Fredriksen. She was made to write a book like this. It builds on her earlier work and explains how a sect of apocalyptic Jews, who thought they were history’s last generation, grew into a Gentile church that became history’s first Christians. It’s vintage Fredriksen, and timely given that it came out the same month the Pittsburgh shooter opened fire in a synagogue. There are many books on Christian origins, but not all of them very good, and this has the right starting point (a la Sanders and Allison): Christianity was sort of a mistake that should never have been, growing out of a movement of Jews who thought the world was about to end. When the end repeatedly failed to come, the movement became more Gentile-inclusive and grounded in the present. The messianic prophet Jesus morphed into a divine being; the idea of his second coming was forged out of failed hopes. Today we understand Christianity as a universal religion distinct from Judaism, but that wasn’t firmly in place until four decades after Jesus’ death, especially after the destruction of the Jewish temple — the definitive proof of divine displeasure. The anti-Semitism of the New Testament is anachronistic, the first generation of “Christians” Jewish to the core. Hardly controversial, but this background doesn’t reach enough of the laity. In view of our current political climate, I hope the book helps.

6. Eleven Presidents, Ivan Eland. This book isn’t partisan and is certainly no respecter of persons. But it does hit Republicans hard for their misleading image as so-called “small government” executives, while shining the spotlight on two surprising Democrats (Carter and Clinton) who did a rather damn good job against expectations. Opposing historians who tend to favor U.S. presidents based on their popular appeal and charisma, Eland focuses on their actual policies, assessing the presidents since World War I who either genuinely believed in, or claimed to be for (a) military restraint abroad, (b) fiscal responsibility at home, and (c) liberty and freedom for all. That’s nine Republicans and two Democrats, and of those eleven, only five pass the test: Warren Harding, Calvin Coolidge, Dwight Eisenhower, Jimmy Carter, and Bill Clinton. (Though Eland acknowledges that Clinton is a mixed bag.) It is refreshing to see Harding and Carter get the praise they deserve, while Reagan is taken down. As Eland shows, Reagan has become the Republican equivalent of FDR, enshrined in myths that have made him a near demigod. If we’re ever again going to enjoy eras of prosperity at home, peace with our neighbors abroad, and a climate where individual liberties and freedoms are valued for all peoples, then the five good presidents should be our inspiration.

Stranger Things: World’s End (Chapter 10)

This ten-chapter novella is the third in a trilogy, the first two being Stranger Things: The College Years and Stranger Things: The New Generation, both of which should be read beforehand. They 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, World’s End — Chapter Ten

                       Death and all Her Friends

It was Christmas morning and a divine snowfall. Wet flakes the size of moth balls tumbled through still air and silence. Jane watched it through the window over her bed, and remembered a time when holidays were special. Her best Christmas of all, in a future now past. Here in the Colony the day was like most others, though with less work and larger suppers.

She rolled away from the window and slipped her arms around Will. He was snoring. “Merry Christmas,” she whispered in his ear. His grunting continued. He wouldn’t wake for another hour at least. She got up to make tea.

They had been living together since she saved the world, and sleeping together for almost as long. It had felt like a million sins at first. Since Mike Wheeler’s suicide forty-four years earlier, Jane hadn’t been with a single man. Not out of rigid loyalty. She simply couldn’t conceive herself in intimate terms apart from Mike, and she never wanted Mike Junior to have a stepfather. Her son’s death had changed that. Mike-less for the first time since Mike Senior’s return from the grave, she needed to be made whole again, and wholeness could only come from Will Byers. His needs were just as severe. He didn’t move around well, nor could he remain stationary without bodily rebellion: his piles objected when he sat; his joints dissented when he stood. His heart was still weak, and his kidneys were a problem too. He needed frequent naps. When Jane held him, that went a long way toward the same relief.

His needs hardly included sex anyway. They had made love three times since July, and she doubted there would be a fourth. Since his college years, William Byers hadn’t slept with a single woman. Not because he was gay (he hadn’t slept with men either); he was asexual. Stale relationships had driven home the truth: sexual intimacy couldn’t interest him. He beat off when he had the rare urge and was content to be single. But without Mike Junior he wasn’t good at taking care of himself. He missed his nephew terribly and had loved him more than he realized. It was inevitable that he would ask his mother to fill the void. She would have volunteered anyway.

In short, Mike Hopper’s death had guaranteed the union of his mother and Will Byers.

She put on her slippers and robe, shaking off the chill. Not a biting chill; it was a pleasant and natural cold, unlike the arctic assaults of winters past. The Pockets were gone, and weather patterns had stabilized.

“When’s Dustin coming over?”

She looked back, surprised to see him awake. His color wasn’t so good. She straightened the blanket over him, covering his feet. “He and Kira will be here for lunch and stay through dinner.”

He mumbled something inaudible. His eyes were already shut again.

She leaned over and kissed his cheek.

 

Later that morning, there was a knock on the door. She was making Will’s breakfast, and eating most of it out of the frying pan. He usually consumed a fraction of what he asked for. Greasy bacon scalded her tongue, and she swore a vile obscenity. The knock came again.

“Coming!” she yelled crossly. She rinsed her hands in the water pail and cursed again. Some of these Colonists couldn’t take a shit without supervision. She opened the door, and was shocked to see a crowd: many of her neighbors, and Donuil, the Colony’s craftsman.

“Merry Christmas, Jane,” they all said, with reverence she had never gotten used to. They looked picturesque in the snowfall, like carolers ready to sing. If they tried that, she would cut them off at the shins. She couldn’t abide well-wishers, and was in no mood for hollow cheer.

“Same to you,” she said, trying to feel charitable.

“We’re sorry to bother you,” said Donuil. “We just want to give you and Will a present.” He extended his hands.

She was about to protest, and then gasped at what Donuil held forth. It was a bust of her and Will, and it staggered her. The likenesses were extraordinary. Speechless, she took it in her hands. Will looked every bit the scholar, sitting the Council Chair, and she the Hag, standing beside him, with her hand on his shoulder. She was fierce and wild looking, but stately and grand. It was stunning to see herself, an emaciated crone, rendered so impossibly dignified.

“This is incredible,” said Jane, finally looking up. Donuil was a celebrated artisan but he had clearly outdone himself. “Thank you, Donuil. Thank you so much. Thank you all for coming.”

They saw how moved she was and were glad.

“Will we see you and Will at the Hall tonight?” her neighbor Barbara asked. There would be a communal supper there, even some dancing.

“Probably not. Will’s still laid up.”

“Well, happy holiday, Jane.” Everyone echoed Barbara.

“Thanks again. All of you.” Their gift had humbled her beyond expression.

 

The following September, Will died. His organs had finally shut down. Jane woke on that morning of the fourteenth to hug a stiffening corpse, and she stayed in bed holding it for a long time. Then she sent a neighbor to fetch Dustin, who arranged to have Will’s body moved to the burial ground. Dustin stayed with her all day. It was a bad one for her. People she loved kept dying.

That evening she sat in her living room holding the bust Donuil had made for her, marveling afresh at the depiction of Will. A classical sculptor couldn’t have done better. This was Will the Wise, preserved for posterity with detail more compelling than in any photograph.

Will, sweetheart. You should have lived longer.

There was certainly no natural reason Will Byers shouldn’t have lived eighty or even ninety years. His mother had died at eighty-five, and his senior brother was still somewhere in Europe. His genes had been top-notch; his vices non-existent; his diet healthy; his body lean and thin; his mental outlook positive. But there were the Upside Down traumas from childhood. The Demogorgon had planted a seed inside him, the Shadow Monster had been inside him, and each had left its mark. Of this Jane had no doubt: it was the shadow world that had taken Will to an early grave. It had destroyed Mike Wheeler through torture, ripped Lucas Sinclair to pieces, and shut down Will Byers through disease.

The day after the funeral — a solemn affair that venerated Will as a near saint — she went through his desk and took out the special accounting book he had once shown her. It was a ledger, but Will hadn’t used it for financial purposes. It was his private record of the twelve-member Hawkins Club, written in pencil. There were currently six names on the first page listing the deceased, and six on the second showing those who were either alive or unknown. On the first page, Jane added Will’s information to the bottom:

The Hawkins Club, Deceased

Name Year of Death
Age at Death Place of Death Cause of Death
Michael Wheeler January, 1987;       July, 1993 15 years; 22 years Hawkins, Indiana; Portland, Oregon Illithid Attack; Suicide
Jim Hopper April, 2007 66 years Newberg, Oregon Lung Cancer
Joyce Byers December, 2026 85 years Hawkins, Indiana Stroke
Max Mayfield July, 2027 56 years Sunnyvale, California Nuclear Bombing
Lucas Sinclair August, 2035 64 years Hawkins Colony, Indiana Demogorgon Attack
Michael Hopper May, 2037 (September, 2031) 12 years (43) Hawkins Lab, Indiana Gunshot
William Byers September, 2038 67 years Hawkins Colony, Indiana Multiple Organ Failure

It struck Jane that both of her Mikes had lived three lives: a normal one followed by a hideous one, and then a third life only moderately better than the second. Mike Wheeler had been killed at the age of fifteen and a half, and then resurrected to relish slavery and torture in the Upside Down. He was “liberated” from this hell at the age of nineteen by his girlfriend, only to fall on the slow road to suicide. Her son’s story seemed analogous: he too was effectively “killed” at the age of fifteen and a half, when his body started reverse-aging down to infancy; hitting his zero birthday, he rebounded into a third life, aging forward again until he died saving her. Mike Wheeler had been resurrected, broken, and left to recover from the impossible. Their son had been retracted, diminished, and then shoved back onto the highway of life to repeat its trials. Small wonder she had gone insane. She hadn’t deserved to outlive them.

On the next page, she erased Will’s information, and stared at the remaining five names.

The Hawkins Club, Alive or Unknown

Name Year of Birth Location
Steve Harrington 1967 Hawkins Colony, Indiana
Jonathan Byers (?) 1967 Germany (?)
Nancy Wheeler-Perry (?) 1968 Springfield Colony, Virginia (?)
Dustin Henderson 1971 Hawkins Colony, Indiana
Jane Hopper 1971 Hawkins Colony, Indiana

She wondered about Nancy and Jonathan. They had long fallen out of contact with Hawkins, and if Nancy were still alive, she could only have been miserable. Virginia was a double wasteland. The nukes had annihilated it, and then the shadow had turned it Upside Down. As for Jonathan, his fate in Europe was a mystery.

Her eyes watered and she had to close the ledger. Seeing the roll call brought home how fleeting friendship was. Life was over before you knew it, and the precious years faded behind the mists. She wanted nothing more at that moment than to go back to the room at The Blue Falcon and eat breakfast with her friends; to hear the boys yell about blueberry syrup and The Lord of the Rings; to dance with both of her Mikes in the barroom of The Glass Steeple. She would have traded her soul for her son’s time-travel ability, so she could go back decades and carve out a niche for herself in a gilded past. How would she go on from here?

“El?”

She turned and saw Dustin standing in the doorway. She set the ledger on the desk. “Dustin. Hi.” She was expecting this visit, for missing the morning Council meeting.

“Are you okay?”

She forced a laugh. “What does that even mean?”

“Yeah, I know.”

“Every day is bad.”

“Do you want to be alone?”

“No. I want to ask you something.”

“Oh.” He got nervous. “Please don’t ask me to marry you or live with you.”

She blinked. “I won’t ask you to marry me or live with me.”

“Well, shit. That was stupid of me. I didn’t mean to assume, or presume. I just meant that I could never be good enough for you. Like Mike and Will.”

“I can’t lead the Colony, Dustin.”

He looked alarmed now. “Are you serious? You are the leader now. We need the Hag.”

“No.” She couldn’t take the hero worship anymore. “I want you to fill the Chair.”

“Oh, I’ll fill it, for a couple of weeks. That’s what I was coming to say. You need bereavement time. But you’re not resigning. It’ll kill morale if you step down.”

“They’ll get over it.”

“El.” He looked at her plaintively. “There’s no getting over the Hag. No is the answer. You’re not quitting.”

“I’m sorry, Dustin, but I am. You could run the Council in your sleep. You’ll be fine.”

“What will you do?”

“Nothing. I just want to live in this house alone.” Every Colony member was supposed to contribute in some way, but she knew she wouldn’t have to. She was the Hag; the Colony’s deity and the world’s savior. She had paid her debts in full under the lab. But thinking of Donuil’s bust, and Will’s ledger, there was actually something she wanted, needed, to do. Something that would keep her busy for a while.

“Well… no one’s going to tell you what to do. You’re the Hag.”

“I’ll announce my resignation at the next meeting.”

“Your mind’s made up?” asked Dustin.

“Yes.”

“We’re still having dinner with you, every Thursday and Sunday.” He meant himself and Kira. “You’re not shutting me out, El.”

“Of course, silly. I’d make you both come if you didn’t.” She loved seeing Kira. Children were the jewels of the wasteland; a reminder of what was good in life.

They said good-bye and she closed the door, taking a deep breath. The idea had come to her as she spoke with Dustin. There was only one antidote to Will’s ledger of death: to make her friends live again.

She would write her life story.

It was laughable of course. She was no writer and could hardly construct a compelling sentence. But damned if she wouldn’t try. Her friends, her father, Joyce, and her son deserved to be remembered beyond oral anecdotes that were doomed to fade. Aside from Dustin, she was the only one left who could do them justice.

Nearly trembling, she went over to Will’s desk and opened the drawer containing a stash of notebooks. She took one and grabbed a pencil from the pen cup holder. Armed with lead and memories, she opened to the first page. Its blankness confronted her like a demand; she realized she had no idea how to start. She had so many stories to tell but no direction. She wondered how writers wrote. It was harder than it looked. Surely she could put down an opening paragraph. She looked at the page for a long time.

Finally she closed the notebook, put her head on the desk and cried. She was nothing. Just a killing machine made in a lab. She wished she were twelve again, when being nothing was excusable. She wanted to meet Mike Wheeler all over and feel good about herself for the first time. The night in his basement had been the start of her life. She remembered the rain, the hard rain, as hard as she was crying now, when the boys found her. Mike had given her fresh clothes, tucked her into bed under his table-fort, and smiled — her first smile of friendship. Maybe we can call you El. Short for Eleven. Her heart had swelled…

She sat up straight. That was it.

Wiping her eyes furiously, she reopened the notebook, daring the page to paralyze her again. She pressed the pencil down and wrote the words: I discovered friendship in the home of a stranger. She read it over, many times, until she convinced herself she liked it. Her story had a beginning.

She applied the pencil again, writing, erasing, crossing out, but never allowing herself to pause beyond moments. She was on fire now. Here it comes, Mike. My story; yours; Will’s; Lucas’s; Dustin’s; our son’s. I’ll get it right. I promise.

Clutching her memories like artifacts, Jane wrote and wrote, bringing her friends and family back to life.

 

                                                                     THE END

(Previous Chapter: The Hag)

Stranger Things: World’s End (Chapter 9)

This ten-chapter novella is the third in a trilogy, the first two being Stranger Things: The College Years and Stranger Things: The New Generation, both of which should be read beforehand. They 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, World’s End — Chapter Nine

                                        The Hag

Jane sat up in bed. Old fears and guilts threatened to rebury her, but she defied them. She cried Mike’s name, and clung to his memory like a talisman.

I need you to save the world.

She didn’t feel like a savior. It was all she could do to save herself.

Sanity had bridged the link forged by her son; her madness had been rooted out by his fire; she had been healed by the vitality of her past self. But the things which had made her deranged were already back, beating on the doors. With mountains of will she denied them entry. She would not be pulled back into the hell Mike had lifted her from. He was gone now, forever. Whatever it took, she would prove worthy of that redemption.

She tried to blink away tears, as memories filled a gap she hadn’t known existed. How could she have forgotten those days spent with her two Mikes? She had danced with one of them and nursed the other. How could memories of Middle-Earth be suppressed? She and the boys had become a fellowship; they had named her Galadriel. The showdown at the lab should, by rights, have scarred her for life. There had been a bullet with her name on it, and her son took it; died for it. He was dying right now in the past. She croaked his name again, for the tenth or twentieth time.

Stop your bleating.

Scorn was her only self-discipline. She wanted nothing more than to lie down and weep for eternity. But grief would have to come later. Mike’s final instructions — given to her moments ago, six years ago, or fifty-four years ago, depending on how you looked at it — propelled her into action. She swung her legs off the bed and readied herself for her friends. They wouldn’t hear this easily.

Moving to the door, she glanced in the wall mirror, and the sight of her face stopped her. It was a raw, wounded visage, a barely recognizable stranger. She had become a wasted hag; a traitor to her best dreams.

Swallowing bile, she marched to the door and pounded on it. When her caretakers arrived, she asked them to please find William Byers, Tobias Powell, and Dustin Henderson and then bring them to her. Surprised by her coherency and politeness, they told her to wait, and locked the door again. Fifteen minutes later, footsteps pounded down the hall, and the door banged open. Will and Dustin flew into the room, wild-eyed.

“Do you know if he’s okay, El?” asked Dustin frantically. “Did we succeed?”

By “we”, she knew he meant their younger selves from 1983.

“He’s gone,” said Jane. It was all she could do to keep her composure.

Will couldn’t. He fell to his knees crying.

Dustin looked ready to kill someone. “Dead?”

She nodded.

“The Pockets are still out there,” said Dustin. “So I’m guessing that none of us got to avenge Mike and kill that son of a bitch.”

“It wasn’t Morgred,” said Jane. “It was another man.” Sort of.

“It’s my fault,” cried Will.

“No, Will,” said Jane.

“How do you know what happened, El?” asked Dustin. “We could always remember up to the point he was supposed to take us from the junkyard.” By “we”, he meant Mike Wheeler, Lucas, himself, and her. Since that day in 1983, the four of them had lived with strange alternating memories of the van chase — sometimes there was a second Mike with them, and sometimes not. “But none of us could remember anything after that. Including you.”

“Listen to me,” she said. She had no idea how her son had retroactively affected their memories of the van chase and junkyard discussion in such a bizarre way. All she knew was that for her, he had unlocked the hidden memories which had followed those events; the memories they had forgotten when he returned them to the junkyard. “I’m going to tell you everything. Get up, Will. Both of you sit on the bed. This will take a while. Where’s Tobias?”

“He stayed for two days,” said Will. “Then he had to go back to New York.”

“Steve went back to the Colony on the same day,” said Dustin. “We had all given up by then. We thought the mission would take a day at the most, and probably less. But Will refused to leave, and I stayed with him.”

“What day is this?” asked Jane.

“The sixth,” said Will. “Mike left on Monday morning, and now it’s Saturday noon.” Jane thought Will probably would have stuck around the lab for sixty days waiting for Mike’s return.

“Yes,” said Jane. They had spent five and a half days in Mike’s past and their future. “Now listen, please, without interrupting. I’m going to tell you everything that happened. Will, you were in the Upside Down for all of this. Dustin, you lived through it, but you’ll never remember. Whenever Mike traveled with people, and then returned them to their present, they forgot everything about the trip. That’s what happened to us.” But now I remember. His fire showed me.

They listened as she told everything. For Will’s benefit, she clarified the van chase — their “sometimes memories” of two Mike Wheelers — which they had long ago written off as a hallucination from the Upside Down. The rest of her story was fresh drama: the surreal wish fulfillment of a desperate and lonely kid. A kid who wanted to taste friendship and magic in a world worth living in. Who had known the torture awaiting him at home, and paid for it in advance. And who had died causing the devastation he had tried to prevent.

By the time she was finished, all three of them were crying. Will renewed his self-blame; he should never have agreed to Tobias’s idea.

“No, Will,” said Jane. “You did right. So did Tobias. Mike wanted you both to know that. He found peace in the past. His last days were the happiest he knew since his first life. He met most of us, and became our friends. And he reached me. I’m better now.” He healed me. My son healed me from across time. And apparently in both timelines: the original one he came from and this new one he created by traveling into the past. Somehow in his infinite state, he had bridged the two timelines, so that his mother would suffer no more in either — and could save the world in both. A byproduct of this merging was the confusion of memory; alternating recollections of events that happened differently in the timelines. He had done things science had no room for. She would rather he be alive; she would rather he be okay than her sanity. But she would not cheapen his sacrifice by diminishing his miracle.

“El, you have no idea how glad I am that you’re well again,” said Dustin. “Really. But Mike was trying to save the country. From an Upside Down holocaust. He caused that holocaust, and the world still needs saving.”

“Just what is it you think that I do?” said Jane.

Dustin looked at her guardedly. “Do you mean what I think you mean?” She could tell he was doubtful, and Will too. She was emaciated and infirm. Healed, yes, but far from fully recovered.

“You know exactly what I mean.” She let it sink in. “I’m due for my medication in three hours. You’re not going to let them give it to me.”

Their eyes flickered with hope.

I’m ready, Mike.

“Instead you’re going to get Dr. Reardon,” she said. “And then all of you are going to show me this fucking Gate.”

To do what must be done.

Will and Dustin looked at each other, then back at her in awe.

“Yes, El,” they said in unison.

 

Calamity crouched in the cavern where her son died. Six years ago, technically, but for her it was fifty-four; she had been a child out of time. And yet it also felt like only hours ago when she relived the past. Whatever the timetable, Lassiter had shot her son, and she had squeezed his brains with more force than her constitution could carry. The room knew violence, and it was about to know a lot more.

For all her resolve, Jane felt small and lost, that she had no right to be here. She was raw with fear and self-coercion, and had been useless for far too long. Only the thought of Mike kept her facing down the obscenity in front of her. Her skin crawled at the sight of it. The Gate had sacs, four of them, which ballooned and deflated like human lungs — moaning on the inhale, hissing as they teleported their offspring, the Pockets, out into the world. Mike had created this thrice damned thing trying to stop it: the source of the shadow wasteland.

And there was more: something on the other side of the Gate, lurking in wrath. The Upside Down was prepared to defend itself.

She had taken no chances and told Dr. Reardon to vacate the lab. She didn’t want any of his people in the building, let alone this room, when she began her assault. Will and Dustin were outside too, and none too happy about it. Too bad. Her orders were non-negotiable. No one would die for her, today or ever again.

The shadow behind the Gate shifted, and Jane’s bowels turned to water as a tentacled mass pushed through. It was an aboleth: a small one, but still twenty feet long. It yowled and flailed its gross appendages, intent on tearing her apart. The Gate stayed open following its passage, and the air went dark with gleaming motes. Jane leveled her arm and began concentrating. Her power had been squandered for years on bed trays, orderlies, and profane nightmares; she was ready to atone for that waste.

It came slowly, as if it had forgotten its purpose. She deflected the creature’s swipes, but only barely. The aboleth lashed out again. Then the spores took action in a way that Jane had never seen. They swirled like a fermenting galaxy around her head, breaking her concentration and will. Her outpouring faltered. Telekinetic pulses bubbled through her, but the aboleth wasn’t impressed. She was choking, just as she had choked in the showdown of 1984, unable to find the key that would unlock her paralysis. Her father had been with her then. Flanking her like a guardian angel, Jim Hopper had gunned down demo-dogs on all sides as she confronted both the Shadow Monster and the first Gate. Had that really been fifty-three years ago? She’d been a kid. Now she was a hag. She still wanted her father at her side.

The motes whirled faster. The Gate’s tendrils rippled and hissed, and its sacs ballooned as if gloating. Then the aboleth trumpeted, and with horror Jane saw more shadows marshaling behind the Gate. It looked like a full fledged army: demo-dogs, demogorgons, and shriekers. The shadow had sensed her threat, and responded with an act of war. In moments, the fate of the world would be writ on her failure.

Help me, Kali. Her muscles trembled as she willed her lab sister to speak from the grave.

The shade of Kali seemed to fill her mind. Use your anger, Jane. It was her old lesson by the train car. Your real anger.

I am angry.

Not enough. Think of your son. And all the years you lost, hiding, instead of being there for him.

Jane felt hit in the stomach. Hiding? How dare Kali say that! It wasn’t really Kali of course — the shade was a figment onto which Jane was projecting her unresolved guilt — but it may as well have been. Jane’s rage escalated.

You lay in bed like a sow. Kali poured out accusations. Wallowing in despair. Screaming like a hag. You set up your son to fail.

Shut your shitty mouth! Jane could have torn her lab sister to pieces.

You retreated in denial from the world. You failed Mike Wheeler, failed your son, and ruined them both.

Jane’s scream was so ear-splitting it goosed the aboleth. The creature slid back wetly, raised its limbs in a protective arc — and let out a war cry taken up by the horde. Ire roared in Jane’s veins. She raised her arms forward, daring the vile creatures to come through. Each was an incarnation of Kali, to be pulverized into rancid mud.

Mom. It was Mike’s face now; Kali was gone. Focus on the Gate. I need you to save the world. Please.

Through her broiling rage, she saw the trap. If she used up her strength on the shadow army, she would be too spent to take on the Gate. Mike had healed her mind, but she was weeks away from solid health; maybe even months. But she had no choice. At that moment the army came through.

Throwing caution to craziness, Jane accepted a new danger. She went on the defensive, shielding herself with a wall of force from the demo-dogs that leaped on her, allowing the full horde to rush through the gap. Then she spread her arms like a crucifixion, and summoned a shock wave from hell.

An earthquake ripped through the lab, splitting it asunder. Bestial shrieks tore the air. Jane barely remained standing as power shot from every pore of her skin, shaking the ground and striving to claim the sky. She watched, both horrified and thrilled, as the building started to collapse. If any of Reardon’s people were still inside, they would be dead in seconds; punched to pulp by rock and ruin. Is this angry enough for you, bitch? But Kali was long gone. Jane was alone in her mind craving murder, and she would become her own collateral.

She howled like a madwoman as the Hawkins Lab caved in on her. Without thinking, she deflected the cascade of wreckage that would have flattened her to jelly. Collisions battered her bones as pillars over ten and twenty feet tall shattered against the shield of her telekinetic waves and rebounded in belts of rubble. Her arms felt like a miner’s after splitting stone. She shrugged off the pain; denied her exhaustion; cursed her lab sister with vulgarities she had never used. There was nothing that could touch her. Nothing at all.

The creatures of the Upside Down were pounded to death: thirty-two demo-dogs and three demogorgons smashed and broken under tons of weight. The aboleth too; its size counted for nothing against the crushing barrage. The four shriekers had burst; noxious pus flowed from their corpses. Jane gagged at the sudden stench of it, and then threw it off, breathing arrogantly. Nothing could touch her. She welcomed anything to try.

She was sealed underground, buried in the collapse. She didn’t care. Her wall of force had kept a ten-foot radius clean of stone and rubble, including the area around the Gate. It moaned through its cycles of contractions, unaffected by the carnage. She couldn’t afford to pause. The shock wave had drained her, but she had to close the doorway before more vileness came through. Ignoring her headache and gushing nose, she aimed herself at the Gate — and was slapped to the floor before she could muster any more power.

Enraged, she tried getting up, but it felt like a giant hand was pressing her into the ground. She realized the Gate was sentient. Mike’s power had invested it with reproductive ability, but also an intelligence that was self-preserving. It could draw on defensive measures. Bring it on. Whatever you have, I have more. Countering the portal’s might with her own, she pushed back and braced herself on her knees.

The Gate replied with an invisible kick to the side of her head, and she fell face down, almost losing consciousness. Blood ran from her left ear. This back-and-forth would kill her. Through bloodshot eyes she saw the Gate’s tendrils slither and sensed another strike coming. She had to finish this. The motes spun in mockery. Grunting, she looked up from her position on the floor and gave full rein to hatred and abhorrence.

She had never assembled so much hate; never known she had this much to feed on. She recalled her reflection in the mirror and accepted the rotten image on her own terms. Screaming like a hag, Kali had said, taunting her. Her lab sister didn’t know the half of it. Jane was a hag all right. She was Hag Hopper — and the Upside Down would fear her as such.

Particles circled her head but she ignored them. From her prone position on the floor, she reached out and hurled oblivion. The portal groaned like a walrus; she yelled back at it. The Gate roared back; she bellowed twice as loud. The interstice of the portal shook; she did not. Entombed in darkness and ruin, Jane the Hag faced down the door that was killing the world. Her first beam of power exploded one of the sacs, and the Gate puked out a yellow liquid. Jane took out a second sac. It spat another glob and moaned sickly, as if drowning in phlegm. Then she sat up on her ass and extended both arms. The other pair of sacs burst under twin beams of fury. Amber viscosity drenched the floor. With a final effort, she twisted in her force, using all she had. Today you die, cow. And die it did: the dimensional passage closed with an ethereal thud, rocking the cavern and indeed the world. Nothing of its signature remained. It may as well have never been there.

Jane crumpled on the floor, too abused to feel victorious. Her head felt like an anvil; her bones were a blaze of hurt. She bled from her nose and bled from her ear. She wanted Mike; needed out of this tomb. Turning over on her back, she surveyed the ceiling. Mike was gone. A pencil-thin ray of sunlight peeked through her prison. Using just enough power, she opened a rescue tunnel and shouted for help. Blades scraped her throat as she coughed up dust, bile, and foul air. Bitch. She couldn’t stop hating Kali, and it had to stop. When she heard the voices above — one of them was Dustin’s — she closed her eyes and let herself go.

But the hate followed, and in the darkness she gave herself to, Jane cried for her son and ripped everyone else to pieces.

 

They found her like that, bloody and battered, surely not alive. Yet she was, and mostly intact. Only her right arm was fractured. She would need care and bed rest, but Jane the Hag wasn’t dying any time soon.

The world’s victory was an invisible one. The shadow stopped expanding; the Midwest and South stayed a death zone. Millions of creatures prowled with few people to fight them. The Colonies would need walls for a long time. Jane worked miracles, but she couldn’t purge twenty states of what was already there. She was the Hag, not the Huntress; and she had fought her last against the shadow. It was for others to unmake the wasteland.

Her triumph had been different in 1984, when by closing the first Gate she had killed everything stranded in Hawkins. The demo-dogs were ruled by a hive mind back then, and their lives depended on the telepathic link to their master. Thanks to Jane, supremacist entities like the Shadow Monster and the Illithid were now extinct. She had slain them, and the Upside Down’s inhabitants had evolved autonomously. Praise be to Jane, they no longer needed a leash to their home world to survive in another. Whenever Jane won, she lost: three steps forward, thirty backward.

Mark Reardon didn’t count the backward steps. Not even the destruction of his own research. His ward had done what he hoped she could do, and what his team of scientists had vainly sought as alternative measures. She had vanquished a two-headed dragon: the Gate which produced the Pockets, and the lab which sourced the Gates. It was good that the lab was gone. In a display of deferential gratitude Reardon left the Colony a priceless gift: one of the lab’s e-pods. He and his team left for New York.

In the Colony Jane was worshiped. The Council appointed her Co-Chair with Will Byers, and they presided jointly over a community of renewed purpose. She was the Hag: loved and feared, an instant legend. Her moniker had been forged in the fires of the underground battle, and spread by the Council members who attended her recovery. All five had been present in the Colony’s hospice: William Byers, Dustin Henderson, Steve Harrington, Betty Hews, and Ruth Strohmeyer. This was two days after she had been pulled from the lab’s rubble.

“Don’t sit up, El,” Will had said. “If it’s too early to talk, we can come back.”

“I can talk,” said Jane from her pillows. Her body still felt like a truck had rolled over it.

The Council members sang her praises and told her the world was indebted to her. Jane had no use for platitudes and said so, drawing an awkward silence.

Dustin finally broke it. “That earthquake, El. Did the Gate do that, or was it something else from the Upside Down?”

“Neither. It was me.” They gaped at her. “I was about to be jumped on by an army of every shadow creature I’ve ever seen. It was the only way I could think of killing them all at once.”

“Are you fucking serious?” asked Steve.

“You… deliberately brought down the lab on yourself?” asked Ruth.

Dustin laughed. “I don’t know why anything you do surprises me, El. What’s your encore? A tsunami from Lake Michigan?”

“I was desperate,” she lied. The truth was that she had been reckless and wholly unafraid. Nothing could have stopped her from exceeding her limits.

“How did you close the Gate?” asked Will.

As she did before. By bleeding and breaking inside. “I showed it the Hag,” she said.

“The hag?” asked Betty.

It was who she was now. Eleven was overdue for retirement; a lab rat and prisoner. Mike had liberated her — from madness, guilt, and a longstanding sense of inadequacy. The Hag would never flinch from self-scrutiny; she would devour her own fears and shit out the remainder.

“El,” said Will when she didn’t answer Betty. “Did you just call yourself a hag?”

“The Hag,” she corrected him.

They didn’t know what to say, and Will looked concerned. “El, you’re not a hag,” he said. “That’s not what I see when I look at you.”

“Then open your fucking eyes, Will.” She laughed maniacally then, sounding like a hag caricature. Then her laughter became something more sad, and she cried as she laughed, everything finally catching up. Will and Dustin reached over the bed and hugged her.

Jane Hopper was thus immortalized. The Council decided it loved the Hag and voted her in as a sixth seat. She presided with Will as Co-Chair, but in practice she became a goddess; the patron deity of Hawkins. She resented that but was powerless to stop it. The Colonists glorified her. They reclaimed the word “hag” following her lead. It wasn’t theirs to reclaim — they weren’t “hags” any more than men were “bitches” and white people “niggers” — but they did so anyway, and on this point actually with Jane’s blessing. She hated being a divine celebrity. If people insisted on worshiping her, they could bloody well do it honestly.

 

Next Chapter: Death and All Her Friends

(Previous Chapter: Time Fire)

Stranger Things: World’s End (Chapter 8)

This ten-chapter novella is the third in a trilogy, the first two being Stranger Things: The College Years and Stranger Things: The New Generation, both of which should be read beforehand. They 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, World’s End — Chapter Eight:

                                     Time Fire

Mike Hopper walked between his sires, feeling like a prisoner on death row. He had shattered their faith in him, and for a fool’s errand. Tobias had warned him there was no clear proof about Morgred.

His father led the way, and Mike walked behind him flanked by Dustin and Eleven. Lucas followed them all. The boys didn’t trust him beyond what was necessary; they had caught on to his shenanigans. He was surprised they were still helping him at all. He had told enough lies to make his own head spin, let alone theirs. The fiction of traveling across worlds still had them hooked, but the logistics had snowballed, requiring him to invent more and more fictions on the fly. He hadn’t counted on getting sick, either on the jump to 2021 or to 2031. Nor that a weather change would tip them off so quickly from inside the lab. And he certainly hadn’t anticipated the fluke of calling Lucas his uncle.

They knew he was lying, and yet they were clueless about the truth. Their twelve-year old minds couldn’t guess it. Because he looked identical to his father, the illusion was hard to penetrate. Mike Wheeler was light-years away from parenthood. A look-alike his own age was a twin brother; or a clone; or a parallel self. Certainly not a son.

Upstairs he had almost confessed the truth. He didn’t like them angry and distrustful, especially Uncle Luc. But after so much subterfuge, the truth could have sounded like the wildest lie of all. His mother would not have grasped it; she didn’t know what a mother was. She once told him that she had learned about motherhood in Grandpa Jim’s cabin, as he read to her Anne of Green Gables. Grandpa had been flabbergasted by her ignorance of something that elementary.

He couldn’t tell them the truth in any case. He had set his feet on this path of deception, and accepted it completely. He deserved the consequences.

They came to the end of a long hallway and turned a corner. A new hallway led down to a pair of double doors; the ones his father had described. One of the doors was propped open. If the man inside wasn’t responsible for creating the Pockets, the mission could be a bust. At least they were still early. Mike had jumped to September 10, the day before the Pockets were created, to give themselves enough lead time.

His father led them straight into the colossal room without faltering. It was the make-shift lab he had described, and the bald-headed man was standing over a table, hooking wires to an instrument. When Mike saw the Gate, it sent dread through him like an awl. It was something out of a body horror film, alive and gleaming with dark intent. Tendrils snaked from a center radiating a phosphorescent glow; a blend of red, orange, and purple. A faint guttural moaning came from whatever was on the other side. Awful as this thing was, it was about to turn into something much worse, unless they could stop it. Uncle Will had seen that worse version in 2033, when he moved Mike’s mother to the lab. He had later described it as a “clamoring obscenity” — an organic mass that groaned like the dead, puffed up to twice its size, and shat Pockets across the land.

The man heard them and looked up in shock. Mike Wheeler stopped about ten feet from him. Eleven and Mike Hopper stood close to Mike. Lucas and Dustin hovered close behind, by the open doorway.

Their bold entry made the man unsure of himself. “Excuse me. Can I help you kids?” His tone didn’t sound helpful.

“Who are you?” asked Mike Wheeler, deliberately being rude.

“Tell me who you are, young sir! You’re all trespassing.”

“So are you,” retorted Mike Hopper.

The man’s gaze bored into him.

“We asked you first,” said Mike Wheeler. “No offense,” he added sarcastically.

The man turned to Mike Wheeler, then back to Mike Hopper, then to Mike Wheeler again. “You twins certainly are offensive. But let’s all of us introduce ourselves. I’m Dr. Daniel Lassiter, from New York City. I’m working in liaison with the Hawkins community, and they’ve given me permission to work here.”

Lassiter. The name meant nothing to Mike Hopper. Had Tobias gotten his facts wrong? Or did this man work for Morgred?

He decided to test the name. “Do you know a man named Charles Morgred?”

They all watched Lassiter’s reaction carefully. He appeared curious more than anything else. “Why do you ask?”

“Because he’s a steaming pile of shit,” said Mike Hopper, feeling reckless, and wanting to precipitate a reaction they could use to gauge this man.

Lassiter surprised them all by laughing. Then, without transition, he was serious again. “Are you saying that you know my assistant? Do you need to speak with him?”

“Is he here?” asked Mike Wheeler.

“He’s in town,” said Lassiter. “Getting supplies.” He was looking at Eleven now, and frowning.

“Do you mind if we ask you about your work?” asked Lucas. “What exactly is your project down here?” It was almost a comical question, with the Gate blatantly looming over them; the elephant in the cavern no one was looking at or acknowledging.

“Excuse me,” said Lassiter, ignoring the question. “How long have you boys known this girl?” He stared at Eleven with a look that Mike Hopper didn’t care for.

“None of your business,” said Mike Wheeler.

“Why do you ask?” said Lucas.

Lassiter’s full attention was on her. “Because she looks like the daughter of Terry Ives.” Then Lassiter smiled. To Mike Hopper that smile looked cruel as fangs. “Except that’s impossible. The daughter of Terry Ives would be an old woman by now.”

Mike Hopper was on red alert. Lassiter was no good. The name Terry Ives would mean nothing to his parents and uncles at this point, least of all his mother. If he remembered the stories right, Grandpa Jim and Joyce Byers had tracked down Terry Ives the same day these kids were being chased by the vans. But Mike Hopper knew the name. Terry Ives was his mother’s mother; the grandmother he never knew. She had been abused in hideous experiments back in the sixties and seventies, and given birth to his mother in 1971. His mother had then been raised in this lab for the first twelve years of her life, as a potential weapon against the Communists. If Lassiter recognized her twelve-year old self in the year 2031, and also knew of Terry Ives, then he was intimately familiar with the lab’s shady history and photo documentation.

“We don’t know any Terry Ives,” said Mike Wheeler. “Do you, El?” He, Lucas, and Dustin all turned to Eleven.

No one saw the gun in Lassiter’s hand except Mike Hopper, who was watching his every move. The man casually raised his arm and pointed his weapon at the daughter of Terry Ives. Mike Hopper’s scream shattered them all:

“Mom!”

He lunged between his mother and Lassiter without thinking. The bullet slammed into his chest with the force of a missile, and he fell to the floor. He heard his mother scream — and then verbal chaos flew over his head:

“Kill him, El!” (Mike Wheeler)

“Now!” (Lucas)

“Kill the son of a bitch!” (Dustin)

His mother screamed again, and he thought he heard a wet popping noise. He tried pushing himself off the floor, but all the signals were scrambled. No, he thought. This can’t happen. His family would be stranded.

He gave up physical effort as blood swamped out from under him. What a goddamn joke. It was ridiculous, really, how he had messed up something so simple. But he could absolutely not die. It would be disastrous. Clasping at consciousness, he acted on pure instinct and reached within himself as his life spilled away. He felt something stir inside him; an energy he hadn’t felt in ages. He pushed around inside his head, desperate for anything — and yelled in shock as he accidentally ignited his whole being on fire.

Power exploded in and outside of him. It made the room lurch, and slapped everyone to the floor. For an instant, a convulsion of white fire hissed over Mike Hopper like a cocoon, and shrilled along the contours of his flesh. The onset of death had made him volatile as gasoline. The fire surged around and through him.

When the surge passed, it left flame spouting from a huge hole in Mike Hopper’s chest; the hole that had been made from the bullet. He was dying, no question. But he was wide awake, brimming with unexpected potential. His eyes dripped silver. He remembered how his time fire had burst from him on a Halloween night from an eternity ago, when he had killed four bullies.

The boys had risen from the floor and were kneeling over him, babbling hysterically. He turned his head left, and saw his mother lying still on the floor, her nose bleeding. Across from her, Lassiter’s body crumpled against the far wall. His eye sockets were red, pouring blood. His mother had shattered his brains. She had apparently thrown so much power at him that she passed out.

He knew he had limited time. It was the reason his power had erupted the way it had. The mission was a fiasco, and there was nothing for it. He had to get his parents and uncles back to their time.

“Mike!” The boys were shouting his name over and over again.

He tried to speak, but it was like lifting mountains. His throat was a thousand pieces.

His father was yelling at him: “Why did you call her mom??”

He deserved an answer; they all did. But he hadn’t the words for something so critical. He struggled to find his voice, to say something, anything.

A monstrous roar found its voice instead, shredding the air. The three boys jumped to their feet. Something was coming through the Gate.

Mike Hopper already knew what it was. Living in the wasteland had taught him the perils of blood. It was the first rule of the Colony that anyone who drew even a scratch of blood had to report it immediately to the wall patrol, and then check into the clinic to have the wound soaked and bathed. Lassiter’s dead face was covered in blood; his mother had a nosebleed; he had lost his own blood from the gunshot wound, until his fire arrested the flow. The room was a certified bloodbath; the Upside Down responded.

“Demogorgon!” shouted Dustin, as the creature of their nightmares crashed into the room.

The three boys screamed, and moved to form a protective guard around Eleven and Mike Hopper. His mother was still out cold. He was so much on fire that he felt he was dissolving into filaments. The demogorgon advanced on them all.

“Get the wrist rocket!” yelled Dustin. “Get the wrist rocket now!”

Lucas tore off his pack and opened it.

“Go, go, go, go!” shouted Mike Wheeler, pounding Lucas’s back.

The creature roared again.

“Take it out now!” bellowed Dustin.

Lucas whipped out the wrist rocket.

Mike screamed at Dustin: “Get the rocks, get the rocks, get the rocks!”

“I’m getting the rocks!” Dustin ripped into Lucas’s sack, bringing out a bunch of rocks.

“Give me one!” said Lucas. He took a stone from Dustin, as the demogorgon crashed its feet closer.

“Come on!” said Dustin.

“Go, go, kill it! Kill it!” said Mike.

“Fire!” said Dustin.

Lucas let the rock fly. It smacked against the demogorgon’s chest, much to the creature’s fury, but not much else.

“Give me another one!” Lucas shouted.

“Kill it!” said Dustin as he handed Lucas a second stone. “Bastard!”

“Kill it!” repeated Mike. “Go, go, go!”

The second rock flew, and ricocheted off the creature as before.

“Come on, kill the bastard!” cried Dustin, handing Lucas a third rock.

“It’s not working!!!” screamed Lucas.

“Hit him again!” shrieked Mike. “Keep going!”

The third rock hit its target, useless as before. The demogorgon halted, reared its head, and raged over their puny defiance.

Dustin handed Lucas a fourth rock, as the creature towered over them. Lucas pulled back on the sling as far as he could. He held it the rock suspended, as the creature’s five-pedaled head opened sickeningly. Lucas aimed carefully into the gaping maw. Mike and Dustin stopped yelling, holding their breath. Lucas fired.

The rock flew straight into the demogorgon’s mouth, choking the creature’s roar —

“Yes!” shouted Dustin.

— and then it lashed out furiously, swiping Lucas into its claws.

“Lucas!” Mike and Dustin both screamed his name and lunged forward, trying to grab hold of him.

Mike Hopper could barely see all of this. He had to use all his effort to lift his head. The demogorgon was dragging Lucas to the Gate. No! Not Uncle Luc. Not again.

Dustin grabbed hold of Lucas’s ankle, and then he was being pulled too. Towards the Gate and the Upside Down.

Mike Hopper strained to sit up. He felt he was hundreds of strings, barely held together. Mike Wheeler had left the demogorgon in order to rouse Eleven. His father leaned over her on the floor, yelling at her to wake up, wake up, and save Lucas. Her body remained limp; her nose dripped red; her eyes didn’t open.

With a final heave, Mike Hopper sat up screaming against the pain that sliced through him. The demogorgon was at the Gate with Lucas. Dustin had been thrown aside. Without allowing himself to think, Mike reached into the fire that defined him, that swirled inside him and out. He wrapped it in his will and let it build. The sight of Uncle Luc in the creature’s fist almost destroyed him. His hate for the monster and all things Upside Down escalated to a raging crescendo. An instant later, fire blew like a cannon from the hole in his chest and slammed into the demogorgon’s head. The creature shrieked and let go of Lucas, flailing its arms as it wailed and thrashed in the center of the Gate. Mike Hopper kept screaming and pouring fire. Everyone watched as the demogorgon’s biology accelerated through time, turning years older, decades, centuries. Finally, it collapsed into a grey sludge.

When he saw that Uncle Luc was safe, in the arms of his father, he reined in his fire. He lay back down, his chest still a fountain, sputtering whiteness.

The boys were over all over him again, shouting his name, begging him not to die.

“I’m sorry,” he wheezed. “I messed the whole thing up.”

“Sorry for what,” said Dustin, panting. “That was the most bad-ass thing I ever saw.”

“You saved me,” said Lucas. “Whatever I said or thought about you before, I’m sorry, Mike. You’re part of us forever.”

“It was amazing,” said Mike Wheeler, crying. “You’re amazing.”

He was also dying. Though not just yet. His fire was in flux, sustaining him, lending him an immense power. For all the good it would do.

“Tell us what to do,” said Mike Wheeler. “Your chest –”

A horrible groan suddenly filled the room.

“Oh my God,” said Dustin. He was looking at the Gate.

If it was another demogorgon, Mike Hopper welcomed it. He could take on twenty demogorgons in the state he was in now.

It was not a demogorgon. Nor a shrieker, aboleth, or any creature. It was the Gate itself — pulsating, expanding and contracting strangely. The kids stared, horrified. Were they witnessing the creation of the first Pockets? Had Lassiter already succeeded?

With a sudden intuition, Mike Hopper knew how to find out. Closing his eyes, he tapped his fire, and let himself drift through the ethers of time. It was astonishingly easy in his current state, like counting to five. Floating outside himself, he saw everything in time’s passage, and filtered what he needed. What he found appalled him. He couldn’t accept it at first. But his temporal omniscience showed the truth.

The first Pockets were appearing, displaced in a two-mile radius from the lab. The same distance he had been able to travel when moving through time. They didn’t come from Lassiter. When Mike blasted the demogorgon inside the Gate, the concentrated energy from his time beam had done exactly what he came to prevent. The two-mile radius would grow by another two miles each week, swamping Indiana within a year, and taking over an additional hundred miles in all directions every subsequent year.

Adrift through time, he then found Charles Morgred, in town buying supplies, just as Lassiter had said. In his time’s eye, he saw Morgred returning to New York days later, to take credit for creating the Pockets, and to receive worship as the end-times messiah. He would be assassinated within a year. Then he saw Lassiter, a year before, opening the Gate in the abandoned lab; the first stage of a terrorist plot. The second stage would have begun tomorrow, but Mike Hopper had just made Daniel Lassiter superfluous. He had brought on the Pockets a day early — on September 10, 2031 — at the same overall rate of expansion, but with more frequent accelerations: two miles per week, instead of Lassiter’s eight per month.

The revelation crushed him; he wanted to rage at the stars. He considered using his power to reverse what he started, but his omniscience ruled out the idea: any use of his time energy would make the Gate more powerful, its reproductions more rampant. It was his mother’s power that closed and destroyed portals to alternate dimensions. His power did the opposite: it opened and multiplied them. But his mother would be of no use now. She wouldn’t acquire the skills to close a gate until a year later, after meeting her lab sister Kali. This wasn’t on her. It was his fault entirely.

You were never a failure, mom. I’m the one who killed America.

Retreating from time’s ethers, he returned to his dying body. The boys were yelling at him to wake up, and his mother was awake and beside them now, looking dazed and weak.

“You can see it,” Dustin was saying. “It’s so obvious.”

“What are you talking about?” demanded Mike Wheeler. He sounded upset.

“The eyes,” said Lucas. “He has Eleven’s eyes. Dustin even called them girls’ eyes. Back at the junkyard.”

“So what?” Mike Wheeler was angry and yelling.

“Mike,” said Lucas, touching his shoulder. “He called her mom. He’s yours. Your son. Yours and El’s.”

“No he’s not!” his father said, throwing Lucas off him.

His mother watched them, not understanding a thing. For her, parentage was synonymous with an abusive medical doctor, and nothing more.

He had to say something. “Dad,” he called Mike Wheeler for the first time.

“Shut up!”

“Dad,” he repeated. “I’m sorry.” It’s not your fault. “I’m not from an alternate world. I lied to you. I’m from the future. When we stayed at the motel, that was your future and my past.” I’m still lying; it wasn’t your future, because you killed yourself. That wasn’t your fault either. “This lab is also your future and my past, but at a different point.” Something terrible happened to you, and you couldn’t go on living. “I came all the way back to get you, to help me change what happens in my past.” I always hated you for leaving me and mom alone. You were blameless. “To save the future of our world.”

His father was crying hysterically.

Lucas said gently: “Why didn’t you just tell us this?”

“I should have.” I couldn’t. “I wanted to be your friends.” Not a son or a nephew.

“Shit,” said Dustin, his voice breaking. He looked at Mike Wheeler and Eleven. “Hold him, you guys. He’s yours. Hold him.”

Mike Wheeler couldn’t do anything. He was too distraught.

Lucas and Dustin lifted Mike Hopper, avoiding the fire from his chest. They needn’t have worried. His flame didn’t burn hot like normal fire, and it was only deadly when he willed it. He told them they were safe touching it, and they propped him up against Mike Wheeler and Eleven. His parents held him, crying.

“El.” His father could barely talk. “He’s ours. Do you understand? He’s ours.”

His mother was lost. “I don’t… understand,” she said through tears. “How is he… ‘ours’?”

Mike Wheeler could only weep in fury, clearly not understanding it himself very well, and not equipped to acknowledge the full implications.

“Mike!” shouted Lucas. “It’s okay. Just hold him. You too, El. Stay with him.”

“He can’t survive that hole in his chest,” said Dustin.

Lucas leaned over his nephew. “Mike, are you dying? Can you get us back to 1983? I’m sorry, man, but we really need you.”

Dying, yes, but not yet. By God, not yet. He had just caused the world’s end. If he was to blame for that mess, he would do something while his fire kept burning. The more his life seeped from him, the stronger the fire whipped through his veins. He needed to use that somehow, do something.

Then, he felt infinity pour through him.

Hardly registering his parents’ embrace, he felt a range of possibilities: too many to choose from. He could fugit someone, as he had done throughout his first life. He could age life to death in minutes, as he had just done to the demogorgon. He could send others across time, without even touching them. He could stop time at this moment, if he really wanted to. He could do just about anything, except send himself anywhere; his body had become too fragile to be displaced. But he could look across time, speak across time, open impossible doors…

Okay. Let me get this right. Just this, if nothing else.

“Mom.”

“Yes?” Eleven’s tears were falling on him. She had no concept of motherhood, but knew it just the same. She had felt protective of him from the start, shielding him from his father’s anger when he saw them kiss; nursing him with maternal tenderness; refusing to take part in his inquisition.

“Let me hold you. Please.”

His mother leaned over him, confused and scared. She was a blameless twelve-year-old with the worldly knowledge of a kid who was five. She would grow up to be the best mother in the world, and then fall into madness, tormented by her failures. Her failures were nothing compared to his. She deserved the solace he could offer. If he could do this right.

Reaching up to her, Mike Hopper hugged his mother, enveloping her in his time fire. Do this right. Do it.

His argent flowed around both of them, lighting them like ghosts.

Mom. He reached across the years, and an abyss of pain. It’s me. Mike. Can you hear me?

At first there was no response. Then her voice floated back. Mike? It was the voice he had heard on his birthday, ten days ago, raw and torn. The voice of a soul being flayed. I can’t see you, honey, where are you? Without transition, her anguish turned to rage: Where are you hiding! You left me! I’m your mother, and you left me!

Mom. He touched her with his fire, a gentle flame now that secreted tranquility. He bathed her with it across time. I’m sorry I left you. I’m sorry we gave you away.

Her face, wasted and haggard, suddenly appeared in front of him, superimposed on her younger self. Mike? Is that you? Where is this? She sounded lost; forlorn.

I’m here at the lab. Underneath you. At the Gate. But not in your time. I’m six years in the past. And I’m here with you. And dad.

Your father? Her voice took on a cruel edge. Your father is dead. Are you mocking me, Michael?

He’s here, mom. I went back to 1983, when you and dad first met. I brought you both — and Uncle Luc and Uncle Dustin — ahead in time, so that we could stop a bad man from ruining the earth. You’ll remember this. In just a few minutes you’ll remember everything we did together. He hoped he was right; prayed he could do this.

Mike? In his head she sounded angry and on the verge of tears. Don’t you make fun of me, Michael! I’m your mother!

Mom, please. I’m telling you the truth. You’ll remember it. But I need you to save the world. We failed the mission — no, I failed it. It’s all on me. It’s up to you now.

The scream that filled his head almost severed the link he had laid across time. His mother had shut down on him, retreated into denial. His plea had made her furious. He looked at his younger mother in front of him, and saw that her adorable eyes had become black holes. At the end of those tunnels lay her own future of madness and rage.

It was now or never. Still holding Eleven, he gave up control, and allowed his body to become a staggering concussion of whiteness.

This time, the concussion had no outward force; it was directed wholly inwards, and flowed through one mother to the next, near and far. Blazing with whiteness, Mike Hopper became the crucible in which his mother was made anew from her own self. She was healed by the energy of youth and innocence — and she remembered what she had long forgotten.

“Mike,” she spoke out loud through the bridge of her younger self. Her voice was old and weak, but wonderful, and free of the rage that had abused her for so long.

He answered, telling her what he could never say; could never admit to himself: “I love you, mom.”

She heard him clearly, and gasped from across the time that separated them. Mike Hopper cried then, allowing the bridge to fall, leaving him with the one mother in front of him. He withdrew his fire, releasing Eleven, and she gaped, barely understanding what she had just been a part of. She would get it someday.

The boys were speechless and uncomprehending. He had to get them all back. That would be no problem in his magnified state of power, while he lasted. It wouldn’t be long now.

“Guys,” he said. “I have to get you home. You’ll forget everything when you’re back. That’s the way this works.”

“Whoa, what do you mean, we’ll forget everything?” asked Dustin.

“Everything,” repeated Mike Hopper. “The motel, the movies, the restaurant, here at the lab — everything we did together since we left the junkyard.”

“No!” protested Mike Wheeler. “We’re not going to forget you. That’s not right. You have to come back with us, Mike. To rescue Will. And then stay with us, maybe, in our time. You have to. You’re a part of us –”

“I can’t, dad. I’m dying.”

“No!” his father screamed. “You can save yourself!”

“Mike,” said Lucas. “I don’t want to forget you, man. You saved my life.”

But I couldn’t save you in my time. He wanted to hug Uncle Luc again; wanted to hug them all.

“These were some of the best days I ever had,” said Dustin. “We became a fellowship together. I don’t want that erased.”

Eleven touched his face. “I want… to remember too.”

“You will, mom. You will. But not them. It’ll take a long time. You’ll be old when you remember everything. And when you remember, you’ll be well again.” He held his mother’s cheeks and kissed her shaved forehead. “And then you can save the world. Okay?”

She shook her head, not understanding.

“What we messed up today — what I messed up — can still be fixed, now that you’re well again. I know it’s confusing, and I don’t have time to explain. But you will understand. You’ll be in a room where doctors keep you locked up, and you’ll have to pound on the door, and ask for Will, Tobias, and Dustin. When they come, tell Uncle Will… tell him that he’s a great guy. I’m sorry I treated him so badly. And Tobias. I don’t want him feeling bad about this. I know he we will, but I’m glad he came. If he hadn’t come to visit, I wouldn’t have come back to get all of you. Please tell him that I forgive him. Tell them all what happened — what we did these past six days. You’ll know what to do afterwards.”

“When… will I remember this?” she asked.

He smiled wryly. “In fifty-four years.”

“Fifty… four?”

“Yeah. You have a while, don’t worry. But my time is out.”

“Ships,” she said.

“What?”

“You’re making the ships sail.”

“I’m sorry.” He could barely see, his eyes were pouring a mixture of tears and silver fire. “I was never counting on surviving this anyway.” He had expected a fifty-hour time illness upon his return. “Meeting you all was the best thing.”

The boys carpet-bombed him with demands, hysterical, unwilling to accept his death or their imminent loss of memory. He wanted to stay and offer them more, but he had come to the end — the end of himself and of his time. And at that end, he realized the simple truth: that those surrounding him had shown him happiness.

With a final expenditure, he furled them in his fire and sent them home, over their fading protests. When they were gone, a small space like hope opened in his heart, and he followed his dreams into the fire.

After a time, his body burned to a snowy ash.

 

For a while afterward, he lay in a tomb of oblivion, crushed in exhaustion. He knew he was effectively dead, but some part of himself floated through time, the last shreds of his power holding his awareness. The darkness swaddled him so pleasantly that he wondered why everyone feared death. But then his consciousness forced a change around him, and he became aware of sunlight, voices, and the junkyard to which he had returned his parents and uncles. He was looking down at them, as if from above. They were confused; dazed.

“Where did he go?” asked Mike Wheeler.

They all looked around.

“Other Mike!” called Dustin. “You forgot us!”

Lucas was shaking his head. “He didn’t forget us. He was full of shit. You were right, Mike, he probably was from the Upside Down.”

In their minds, they were still waiting to be taken to his alternate world. It was just as he had said: they would never remember the time they had shared together. Except for her, of course; when the time came. Now she was just as confused as the boys, searching the yard for any sign of Mike Wheeler’s twin.

“Did that son of a bitch take our bikes?” asked Dustin.

They canvassed the area again, stewing over the loss of their sacred vehicles. If Mike Hopper had still owned a face, he would have smiled. He had planned to send them back on their bikes when they returned to the upper room after killing Morgred. The dramatic turn of events had made that impossible. It didn’t matter. Grandpa Jim was coming. To rescue them from the bad men arriving by air. They would have stashed their bikes under the bus anyway, and not used them for the rest of their search for Will Byers.

As if in reply, a chopper appeared in the sky, drawing closer. The kids quickly forgot Other Mike, and raced to hide in the abandoned bus.

Knowing they were safely back, Mike Hopper let go of his awareness.

I love you all.

The thought was his last. It was, hopefully, what mattered.

 

Next Chapter: The Hag

(Previous Chapter: Father Child)

Stranger Things: World’s End (Chapter 7)

This ten-chapter novella is the third in a trilogy, the first two being Stranger Things: The College Years and Stranger Things: The New Generation, both of which should be read beforehand. They 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, World’s End — Chapter Seven:

                                  Father Child

One thing Mike Wheeler was sure of. There was more to Other Mike than met the eye.

He didn’t think he was a bad kid, by any means, far less a creature from the Upside Down; he had discarded that initial theory almost immediately. Other Mike had proven himself, and suffered for it with a vengeance. He was about to suffer again now. He emanated nothing but the best intentions, and after all, he was his own other self. It was true that parallel selves were sometimes so different as to be morally opposite — the Brigadier’s double on Doctor Who was a sadistic fascist — but Mike suspected those were rare exceptions. Other Mike Wheeler was too much like Mike Wheeler to be nefarious, and everything he had said seemed legit.

It’s what he didn’t say that was so troubling. He was wrenched by the loss of his friends, unable to grieve properly, and yet went on saving the world. Mike Wheeler could only aspire to be that strong, and he was frankly suspicious of those who were. The death of any one of his friends — Lucas, Dustin, Will, Eleven — would have shattered him into desolation and uselessness. He could not have sickened himself on a selfless quest so soon afterwards.

Then there were the schizo vibes. Other Mike was implausibly wise for his age, and yet emotionally fraught and hypersensitive. Mike had named him Gandalf, but the more he thought about it, his parallel self seemed to be a combination of Gandalf and the good half of Gollum. If there was a “Stinker” side to Other Mike, it would astound Mike Wheeler. But he was hiding something just the same, and whatever it was, it hurt — hurt so deeply that Mike seriously wondered if he welcomed illness as a masochistic means of purging his pain.

When they jumped to the lab, Mike experienced the same void of contradictions he had felt when they were whisked out of the junkyard. One moment didn’t lead to the next; time itself was a contradiction. In that instant or eternity, he floated inside himself like a spectator, inhabiting a frozen fireground unrelieved in all directions that were one. He was there for a split second; he was there for a billion years. Then he returned to the reality his flesh was made for, and he saw his friends appear around him.

“Christ,” said Dustin. “That In-Between is a trip.”

They emerged in a room the size of his home basement, and empty aside from a few cabinets nailed into the wall. A door with a glass window led to a hallway. Other Mike had said he was bringing them to a room on the third floor, far from the lower level, and hopefully from any chance of someone being close by. The room felt strangely warm for an abandoned building in the month of December. Had the lab been left heated when it was evacuated? Mike thought that seemed unlikely.

“It’s scary,” said Lucas. “You don’t breathe in the In-Between. It feels like you’re holding your breath for the rest of your life.”

Other Mike was already going into convulsions. Mike held him while Lucas and Dustin threw together a make-shift bed from the blankets and pillow.

“Try to be quiet, Mike,” said Mike Wheeler. “Like you said, we don’t know for sure how abandoned this place is.”

Being quiet would be difficult. Other Mike was going into an epileptic seizure.

“Shit!” said Lucas, and the boys restrained him as best they could. It took twenty minutes for the fit to pass. When it was over, Eleven held his hand. He moaned as fever raced through him.

“He’d better be right about the shorter duration,” said Dustin, already exhausted.

“Even ten hours is way too long,” said Mike Wheeler.

They had brought plenty of water bottles from the motel, which they had purchased from the soda machine, as well as some snack foods — not that Other Mike would be eating anything for a while. After checking out of the motel at 8:00 AM, they had retrieved their bikes from the motel storage. Prior to checkout, Dustin had managed to smuggle out the pillow and blankets to the storage without being noticed. Everything had translated with them: their bikes, Lucas’s backpack, and Other Mike’s pouch.

“We’ll do this just like we planned,” said Mike. “One person stays with him. Lucas, that should be you; he really likes you. Dustin and I will take El down to the Gate so she can kill this guy.”

“You want to do this right away?” asked Dustin.

“I want to get this over with,” said Mike. He looked at El. Like everyone else, she had dressed back into the clothes from their world. Other Mike had advised this since he would be taking them back to their world right after they finished. Mike didn’t see how it really mattered. “Ready, El?”

“Yes.” She seemed resolved to kill the Bad Man described by Other Mike.

He went over to Other Mike’s pouch and got out the folder, pulling out the maps of the lab, and looking again at the sketch of Charles Morgred.

“He looks like Charles Manson,” said Dustin.

“He’s going to look dead in a few minutes,” said Mike.

“Well,” said Dustin, “let’s do this.”

“And remember to walk quietly, you guys,” said Lucas.

“We don’t have your ranger abilities,” said Dustin.

The lab flooring would work in their favor. It was smooth and hard, and they all wore sneakers.

“And don’t yap,” said Lucas. “And don’t use any elevators.”

“We know, Lucas,” said Mike. “We’re not stupid.”

He left the room with Dustin and Eleven. From the third floor they needed to get to the underground on the opposite wing. They walked the long distance on the third level, and then came to a stairwell that according to the map led to the underground. They paused, listening, and then descended the stairwell as if it were a gullet into peril.

Mike sweated on the way down. He was finally going to see this Gate that had caused Hawkins so much pain. Back in his world there had been a funeral for Will. Everyone thought he had died. Mike had thought that too when he saw a kid’s body dragged from the quarry. He had lashed out at Eleven that night, and thought he hated her. But then she showed him that Will was alive. He had been in love with her ever since, but unable to tell his friends that. He had told Other Mike in the Blue Falcon. His other self understood; he had loved his own version of Eleven, and lost her. Mike hoped that their strike against Morgred would give him peace.

They came to the ground level and he hunched, fearing that Morgred had posted other men around the lab, ready to pounce. But nothing happened. They passed the ground level and kept going down. The bottom of the stairwell put them close to their destination. Other Mike’s map showed the Gate in a room behind a set of double doors. If those doors were locked or bolted, El would have to blast them open, and they would lose the element of surprise.

They had brought the flashlight from Lucas’s pack but didn’t need it. The underground hallway was lit, which indicated that someone was down here. Once the hall was behind them, they stopped at the corner. Mike peered around it before motioning Dustin and El to follow. The double doors were about a hundred feet down the hall. They drew close and stopped when they saw that one of them was propped open.

“Stay here,” Mike whispered softy. “I’m going to look inside.”

“Do it kneeling,” Dustin hissed. “Keep your head low as possible.”

Eleven grabbed his arm. “Be careful, Mike.”

He tried to look calm. “Yeah. Just be ready.”

Mike slipped down the hall, aligning himself with the closed door to conceal his approach. As he reached the door, he dropped to his knees, and peeked into the room. His eyes widened at what he saw.

The room was a giant cavern. It had been set up as a make-shift lab, and there was a man sitting at one of the tables with his back to Mike. There were devices hooked up on the table, with notes and paper scattered everywhere. The man was writing, and looking up occasionally at the devices. To the left was a cot with a sleeping bag draped over it. A few household items and food were set on a table next to the cot. The man was living out of this room.

Mike hardly noticed any of that. It was the far wall that sent fear through his bowels. There was no mistaking the Gate: huge, organic, and obscene. It echoed with faint murmurings from the Upside Down. Its snakelike tissues spread from the ceiling to the floor, and covered half of the wall. There was no toxic air; no sign of any floating particles that Other Mike had warned about. Apparently the Gate was contained enough at this point to prevent atmospheric spillage. But that wouldn’t stop willful creatures from coming through. How could anyone dare sleep in this place?

Mike looked at the man in the lab coat. With his back facing the door, it was unclear if he was Morgred. Mike stayed on his knees, willing the man to turn his head. Minutes passed. Mike cursed under his breath. Then, as he prepared to retreat in frustration, the man at the table stood up and walked to the table covered with household items, pouring himself coffee from a carafe. As he returned to the work table, Mike got a clear look at his face.

He looked nothing like the sketch in Other Mike’s folder.

The man sat down again, and Mike backed away from the doors, returning to El and Dustin.

“Is he there?” whispered Dustin.

Mike shook his head, and motioned for them to leave.

They hurriedly retraced their steps to the stairwell and up to the third floor, where they stopped in the hallway.

“There’s a guy in there,” said Mike. “Some scientist in a lab coat. But he looks nothing like the sketch. He’s older and nearly bald. His face is completely different.”

“Well, shit,” said Dustin.

“We can’t have El kill someone we’re not sure about,” said Mike.

El was all eyes. “Not… bad?” she asked.

“We don’t know, El,” said Mike.

“Maybe this guy works with Morgred, like a lab assistant,” said Dustin.

“Then where’s Morgred?”

“I don’t know.”

“He could be somewhere else in the lab,” said Mike.

Dustin was thinking about something. “Okay, listen. We need to find a room with windows to the outside.”

“What for?” asked Mike.

Dustin started walking down a smaller hall that left the main one. “Just look for any room that has windows. I want to see something.”

They found a lounge at the end of the small hallway, with windows overlooking the lab grounds. Dustin rushed over and looked out. “Shit,” he said. “Look guys.”

Mike and El looked out, and Mike wondered what Dustin’s problem was. Then he saw it. “There’s no snow anywhere,” he said. Which reminded him how warm it was.

“Exactly,” said Dustin. “And do you guys hear any power running?”

Mike shook his head; El gaped at him, not following.

“No,” said Dustin, “this building isn’t being heated. But it’s warm in here. Even though it was freezing when we got up this morning. It’s been cold and there’s been snow on the ground every day we’ve been in this alternate world. Which means –”

“We’re not in the same world anymore,” finished Mike. “We jumped universes again.”

“That’s right,” said Dustin. “We’re no longer in Other Mike’s world.”

“It makes no sense,” said Mike. “He said we were jumping within the same world. To stop Morgred.”

“Then Other Mike made a serious miscalculation when he jumped. Either that, or he’s playing us.”

“What?”

“I think we’re being played in some game of his.”

“That’s crazy, Dustin.”

“I don’t know, Mike, there’s something off about that kid. I think there’s a lot he’s not telling us.”

“He just bungled the jump,” said Mike. “It makes perfect sense. It’s why Morgred isn’t down there. We got lost in the translation, and jumped to another world by mistake.”

Dustin was shaking his head. “Then why is he sick? He told us that his sickness is caused only by return trips to his world, or, to a smaller degree, movement within his world. If this is another world — which it sure as hell looks like — then according to him, he shouldn’t be sick at all. Just like ours: he didn’t get sick when he came to get us.”

Mike had no answer. “I don’t know. But he’s not bad. He wants to save people. He risks himself for it. He could be dying in the room with Lucas right now.”

“I’m not saying he’s a bad person,” said Dustin.

El spoke up. “Not bad.” She was upset by Dustin’s accusations.

“I’m not saying he is, El,” Dustin repeated.

“Let’s get back to Lucas,” said Mike. “Tell him what we saw down there.”

“Yeah,” said Dustin. “And what we saw outside.”

 

“He’s full of shit, Mike,” said Lucas.

“No he’s not!” said Mike.

“He is,” said Lucas, “and I think you’re willfully blind.”

He, Lucas, and Dustin were in a room across the hall from the one they had arrived in. El was tending to Other Mike. She had rushed over to him immediately when they got back, and insisted on caring for him. Dustin’s suspicions had made her angry, and she wanted no part of any conspiracy against Other Mike.

Nor did Mike Wheeler. “Lucas, this is how you treated Eleven,” said Mike. “You don’t trust people.”

“It’s not the same thing,” said Lucas. “I mistrusted El for the wrong reasons, and I admit that. I was jealous of you two. We have good reasons to wonder about Other Mike. Dustin is right: it doesn’t add up.”

“I like the kid too, Mike,” said Dustin. “But he needs to come clean. I don’t want to be part of a hit squad if I’m being duped.”

“I haven’t even told you guys what happened while you were gone,” said Lucas.

“What happened?” said Mike.

“Other Mike had a vomiting fit.”

“Yeah, he has those,” said Mike. “I cleaned up after two of them in the motel.”

“After he finished throwing up, he said something to me.”

“And?”

Lucas paused, shaking his head.

“What, Lucas?”

“He said, ‘Don’t leave me, Uncle Luc.'”

Mike and Dustin looked at him as if he had two heads.

“He called me ‘Uncle Luc’,” said Lucas.

“That’s mental,” said Dustin.

“That’s a fever of a hundred and five,” retorted Mike. “He’s delirious, Lucas.”

“I don’t know, Mike,” said Lucas. “That’s a pretty specific kind of weirdness.”

“Yeah,” said Dustin, “and he did hug you last night, after Return of the King.”

“Are you both retarded? You’re his best friend, Lucas. My best friend. His version of you was killed. And you think getting a hug and being called ‘uncle’ when he’s out of his mind means he can’t be trusted?”

“Maybe it’s nothing,” said Lucas. “I’m just trying to put every piece of weirdness together, and it only gets messier. You and Dustin say the guy downstairs doesn’t fit the sketch. The weather proves that we’ve hopped across worlds again. Other Mike says he’s been to a lot of alternate worlds. Maybe in one of these worlds, Lucas Sinclair is Mike Wheeler’s uncle. Which sounds ridiculous.”

“When his sickness passes,” said Dustin, “he’ll have to answer our questions.”

“Lots of them,” said Lucas.

Mike suddenly wasn’t sure he wanted to hear the answers.

 

They took turns napping throughout the day. While at least one of them nursed Other Mike, another kept watch down the hall. Mike doubted the man downstairs would have any reason to come up to the third level, but he took no chances. He kept himself, Lucas, and Dustin on a rotation guard duty.

At one point Other Mike’s color went so bad that Mike feared he really was dying. Dustin thought he looked green; Lucas said grey. Mike saw both colors. They debated his hue, and Other Mike begged for death. They hated seeing him like this. Eleven laid down on the make-shift bed with him and held him, sponging his face, giving him sips of water when he could swallow.

Finally his sickness passed in the evening. It had lasted ten hours, as he predicted. He was starving, and they fed him food and snacks they had brought from the motel. After that, Eleven took over watch duty in the hall, as the boys confronted him with their questions. She wanted no part of the interrogation, and it was just as well. His reaction shouted guilt: he was defensive, cagey, and entirely unconvincing in his responses.

“Just tell us,” said Mike Wheeler. “Are we in another parallel universe? Different from yours and ours?”

Mike Hopper nodded miserably.

“Shit,” said Dustin.

“Why did you lie to us?” asked Lucas.

“I’m sorry,” said Other Mike. “But Morgred needs to be stopped. This world needs saving. I was a stranger to you all, and I had to convince you. I thought if you knew this mission wasn’t for the benefit of my world, you might not agree to help.”

“So all that business of our other selves dying in your world was bullshit?” asked Lucas.

“No, that’s the truth. The demogorgon killed you all, except me, when we broke into the lab to rescue Will. But there’s nothing more to be done in my world. There’s no mad scientist trying to create Pockets there, like there is in this world.”

“Then why didn’t you bring us from our world to this one right away?” asked Dustin.

“Because… I wanted to spend time with you guys. I had just lost my friends. And I don’t know if there’s a Blue Falcon motel in this world, with a manager who bends rules for kids.”

Maybe, thought Mike. But that left other questions unanswered.

“Here’s another thing I don’t get,” said Dustin. “You keep saying you can get us back to our world with no time lost.”

“I can,” said Other Mike. “I’d never put Will at risk.”

“But if worlds run in parallel, how do you do that?” asked Dustin. “Are you saying you can travel to other worlds at any point in time in those worlds?”

“And if that’s the case,” said Lucas, “why did we have to wait three days to come to this world?”

Other Mike looked uncomfortable. “When… I travel to another world, my body remembers the entry point, and I can later travel back to that same entry point and time, or to the parallel time. But… I can’t just select any point in time. And I can never go to a future point. That’s why we had to wait the three days to come here.”

Mike thought he fumbled too much through that answer. And it left something else unexplained. “Then why did you get sick coming here?” he asked. “You’re not supposed to get sick at all when you go to other worlds. You were fine when you came to ours.”

“I… I don’t know exactly. Every world affects me differently. Some make me sick, and others don’t.”

“That’s bullshit,” said Lucas. “You knew it would be ten hours. On the nose.”

“I’ve… been to this world before.”

He was still lying. Lucas was right. Whatever Other Mike was hiding, he was going through extremely convoluted lengths to do so. Why would he risk himself for another universe after losing all the friends in his own? His fits of illness were life-threatening. Mike couldn’t make sense of it.

Frustrated and angry, he pulled out the sketch of Morgred — or whatever the hell the drawing was. “Where exactly did you get this sketch?” he demanded.

He could tell that Other Mike was hurt by his tone. “It’s from a reliable source.”

“That’s not good enough!” said Mike.

“Why should we trust you,” said Lucas, “if you won’t come clean with us? Friends don’t lie, Mike. It’s cardinal law with us.”

Other Mike stared at the floor.

“Jesus!” said Lucas, throwing up his hands. “Here’s another question. When you were sick, you called me ‘Uncle Luc’.”

Other Mike looked up at Lucas, clearly startled.

That’s a guilty reaction if I ever saw one. Mike suddenly questioned everything about his other self. Even allowing for the infinite variations across parallel worlds, Mike couldn’t fathom a scenario in which Lucas Sinclair was his own uncle.

“Any reason why you would call me that?” asked Lucas.

“No… I was sick… I don’t why I said that.”

“You’re full of shit,” said Lucas.

“Okay,” said Dustin. “Time out guys. Let’s try to keep this friendly.” He took the sketch from Mike Wheeler. “If this is from a reliable source, as you say, then where is this guy? He’s not the man downstairs tampering with the Gate.”

“I don’t know,” said Other Mike. He looked genuinely troubled by this fact.

“Well,” said Dustin. “Then what do you think we should do?”

“We need to go down there and talk to him,” said Other Mike. “Get him to talk. Ask him if he knows Charles Morgred. And be sure that El is prepared to kill him at a moment’s notice, if he’s working with Morgred.”

“What if we decide not to help you?” asked Dustin. “Will you take us back to our world?”

“If you won’t help me,” said Other Mike, “I’ll have to deal with this by myself. Then I’ll take you back. But I really need El.”

“Then you’re on your own,” said Lucas. “Without any of us. Especially El.”

“No.” The voice came from the doorway.

The boys turned their heads. It was Eleven, and she was furious. She had probably been listening there for a while. They watched her as she walked over to Other Mike, put her hand on his shoulder, signaling that he had her support.

“Oh boy,” said Dustin.

“Jesus,” said Lucas. “You shouldn’t protect him like this, El. He’s not your boyfriend.” He looked at Mike, expecting the real boyfriend to take action.

Mike hated this. “El, I don’t like this any more than you. But we really have no idea what we’re involved with here.”

Eleven didn’t budge. “I’m helping him,” she said.

Mike swore, realizing they had little choice but to see this through. He made a decision, and told them all to get ready. Lucas loudly objected, and Mike shot him down. He had made his decision, and that was the end of it.

“And who made you our dictator?” asked Lucas.

“I did,” snapped Mike. “So deal with it. He’s my other self, not yours. We’re doing this thing.”

“Okay, boss,” said Dustin. “How are we doing this thing?”

Mike Wheeler considered. And then he told them exactly how they were going to proceed.

 

Next Chapter: Time Fire

(Previous Chapter: Mother Child)

Stranger Things: World’s End (Chapter 6)

This ten-chapter novella is the third in a trilogy, the first two being Stranger Things: The College Years and Stranger Things: The New Generation, both of which should be read beforehand. They 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, World’s End — Chapter Six:

                                 Mother Child

Galadriel.

Eleven tried feeling like that mighty elf-lady as she followed the boys into The Glass Steeple. The restaurant was jam packed because of the holiday. Surrounded by people high on celebration, El didn’t feel like the elf-lady at all.

It wasn’t a question of power. After all the things she had done, especially after flipping a van, El believed she could hold her own against the Ring Lords of Middle-Earth. The grey and white wizards had thrown each other around with their staffs; she could do that without a staff. But that elf-lady was pretty, and despite Mike’s assurances, El knew that she wasn’t.

She had saved him from a foolish jump into that quarry. He owed his life to her, and he liked her, and so he told her she was pretty. It made her feel good, but she wasn’t fooled. Most people saw her as a freak — even that nice man at the diner who had fed her ice cream. Benny, she remembered his name. The first man she had met who wasn’t a bad man. In a place sort of like The Glass Steeple.

Despite the crowds, she and the boys were seated within minutes, next to a tree covered with lights and colored balls. A waiter set them water glasses and handed out reading material she couldn’t make sense of.

“That’s a menu, El,” said Mike Wheeler. He sat next to her. “I’ll help you order.”

“Sky’s the limit, Other Mike?” asked Dustin. “If so, I’m getting a Lobster Napoleon. With extra herbed potatoes.”

“You’re a hog,” said Lucas.

“Get whatever you guys want,” said Other Mike.

Other Mike troubled her. He was quiet and more serious than the other boys, but that wasn’t it; she was quiet and serious too. He seemed sad rather, as if sadness lay at the heart of him, much as he tried to conceal it. Dustin was defined by his humor, Lucas by his skepticism, and Mike Wheeler by his empathy. Other Mike seemed to live by a nameless sorrow that he had carried for far too long. She wanted to talk to him more, but her Mike might not like that. Mike Wheeler had become territorial with her.

He had held her hand during the movie, and that made her happy. She had feelings for Mike Wheeler that she couldn’t explain or understand, for lack of experience. There had been no other kids at the lab for many years. She could never go back there, and was prepared to do anything to avoid it.

Mike shared his menu with her. “I’m getting a filet mignon. But there are other good dishes here.” He rattled off a list of entrees, and did his best to describe their contents.

She didn’t understand most of it. “Do they have Eggos?”

“Ew, no. That’s breakfast junk. You need to expand your horizons.”

“I’ll get the same as you,” she said.

“You sure?”

She nodded.

“Two filet steaks, then. And you get a baked potato or french fries.”

Lucas settled on a pork tenderloin filled with stuffing, and Other Mike chose garlic shrimp with asparagus. Dustin, of course, demanded the lobster special with heaping piles of side dishes. The waiter took their orders and disappeared, and Eleven listened as the boys went on about the movie. It was all they discussed. Other Mike soaked up their joy and returned it manifold. He was different when he was happy; animated and alive, like Mike Wheeler. She liked seeing him like that.

The restaurant thronged with joy, and it dawned on Eleven that she had never been around this many people having so much fun. It was a perfect Christmas Eve; her first one that meant anything. When their meals came, they were garnished so beautifully that she almost didn’t want to eat her food and ruin the design. On her and Mike’s plates was a leafy dark green that Mike called kale, and which he said should not be eaten, though she could eat the sliced tomatoes and orange pieces on top. Her baked potato was cut open to accommodate ribbons of sour cream topped by sprigs of parsley. Her salad was so colorful she wanted a picture of it, by one of those “smart phones” that were popular in this world. When she began eating, she was glad that Mike had helped her choose. Filet mignon with A1 sauce, she decided, was a close second to Eggos.

By the end of their feast, the boys had each listed their five favorite scenes from the movie, in descending order of greatness. The lists had been strenuously debated and defended without compromise, and the number ones were non-negotiable. For Mike Wheeler, it was Frodo getting stabbed on the hill: “the Black Riders in their true form made me shit”. For Lucas, it was the race to the ford: “the best horse chase of all time”. Dustin lauded the cave troll attack in Balin’s tomb: “seriously guys, in that battle every Fellowship member shined”. For Other Mike, it had to be the breaking of the fellowship: “it’s what life is about — friendship, sacrifice, and separation”. They muddled over that one. Other Mike seemed a bit beyond his years, perhaps too much; like Gandalf indeed.

Eleven couldn’t list five favorite scenes, but the boys forced her to defend a number one. They were obviously expecting a Galadriel scene from her — and she did love the elf-lady — but her favorite was the old hobbit’s birthday party. She loved the Shire, loved the hobbit holes, loved Bilbo, and that was that. The boys applauded her choice.

She looked over into another room, where people were behaving like hobbits — dancing, laughing, and drinking. Dustin called it the barroom. It was just like Bilbo’s party in there. The song that was blaring was extremely catchy, and it made her want to get up and dance too; except she knew she would look silly.

Apparently Other Mike wanted to see her look silly. “Mike?” he asked.

“Yeah?” said Mike Wheeler.

“You should dance with Eleven.”

“Shut up,” said Mike Wheeler, turning red.

El blushed too, but she liked the attention.

“At the next slow song,” said Other Mike. “Come on, it’s Christmas Eve.” To Eleven he looked very serious about what he was proposing.

“I second Other Mike,” said Lucas. “I want to see you guys on the floor.”

“Stop it,” said Mike Wheeler.

“No stopping us,” said Dustin. “You’re stopping yourself. What do you say, El?”

Mike Wheeler looked at her, clearly nervous.

She looked at the dancers in the other room, and then back at the boys. “I… I don’t know how to dance.”

Dustin laughed. “Neither does Mike. He’s a goddamn clutz. I guarantee you’ll pick it up faster than he does.”

“Shut up, Dustin,” said Mike Wheeler, his face still burning. He turned to her. “Don’t listen to them, El.”

“Mike,” said Lucas. “Seriously? After everything this week? Dance with the girl.”

“Kids aren’t allowed in the barroom,” said Mike Wheeler.

“A feeble protest, Wheeler,” said Dustin. “No one’s going to throw kids off the dance floor on Christmas Eve. As long as you avoid the bar.”

“We’ll stop them if they try,” said Other Mike, all earnest.

Mike Wheeler rolled his eyes, and then turned to her. “El… do you want to dance with me?”

Lucas gave a thumbs up. Other Mike was nodding. Dustin raised his eyebrows, a clear demand.

She said yes, feeling confident with Mike at her side, and he took her hand. As he led her into the other room, neither of them saw Lucas and Dustin giggling like imps, and Other Mike brushing away a tear.

She and Mike reached the floor as a new song began. It was a stirring melody sung by a female lead; El liked her voice. Mike took her hands and set them on his shoulder, and then he put his arms around her waist. How was she supposed to move?

Like so. It came naturally, and they found themselves slow-dancing with as much confidence as the surrounding adults. Many of them smiled at her and Mike, enjoying the sight of kids on the dance floor. The chorus kicked in, and to El it sounded haunting and sad:

We wrote our names along the bathroom walls…
Graffitiing our hearts across the stalls…
I’ve been waiting for my whole life to grow old…
And now we never will, never will…

As she and Mike swayed, she saw that Other Mike had come into the room, and was watching them by the entry. Lucas and Dustin were out at the table, laughing at each other. Other Mike looked terribly alone, and El wished that he could join their dance. But she knew her Mike wouldn’t like the idea. She gave what little she could, smiling at Other Mike over Mike Wheeler’s shoulder. He smiled back, looking more alone than before.

 

“Mike, El. Come on,” said Lucas. He, Dustin, and Other Mike had their coats on, and were on their way out.

She and Mike Wheeler had come back to the table for desert — chocolate fudge sundaes for all — and then returned to the barroom for another dance.

“Yeah, we’re coming!” Mike called. He kept his arms around her, and looked like he was working up the courage for something. “El?”

“Yes?”

“I guess we had our first date tonight.”

The word meant nothing to her. “What is ‘date’?”

“It’s when two people who like each other, you know, do things together. Like go to a movie, and then dance. Like we did.”

“Like friends?” she asked.

“No, not like friends. More than friends.” He looked at her as if expecting something.

“More?” She didn’t follow.

“I don’t know.” He looked suddenly deflated. “Maybe it’s stupid.”

She needed to understand this. “Mike.”

“Yeah?”

“Friends don’t lie.”

“Well, people who date each other, really like each other, and sometimes at the end of the date, they… you know.”

She didn’t know.

He pondered his next thought, then made a decision. He leaned forward, kissing her lips.

Shocked, she pulled back, inhaling as if starved for breath. She gaped at Mike Wheeler, not knowing what to say or do. He smiled gently at her, giving her time to process, and in moments she smiled back. Having his mouth on hers had been weird and a bit gross… but also kind of nice.

“Come on,” he said, taking her hand. “The others are — Hey!”

Other Mike had come back and was watching them. Her Mike lashed out at him: “You like spying on people?”

“No,” he said. “Sorry. I was just… Lucas and Dustin are waiting.”

“Yeah, well they can wait longer,” snapped Mike.

“Mike,” said Eleven. “Be nice.”

“Whatever. Let’s go.”

 

On Christmas Day they slept in until well after 10:00 AM. Between the late Christmas Eve and two previous days of nursing Other Mike around the clock, fatigue had finally pounded them. They had a gluttonous brunch, and then the boys spent the entire day anticipating the second movie, rehashing the first one all over again. Then they all biked to the theater for another 4:00 PM trip to Middle-Earth.

The Two Towers was breathtaking, no question, but El didn’t like it as much as The Fellowship of the Ring. The battle at the end went on too long. The boys loved the battle, but had different reservations. Apparently the movie makers had taken strong liberties with the book, and not always for the better.

“Helm’s Deep was a bust,” Dustin was saying as they rode back to the motel.

“It wasn’t that bad,” said Lucas.

“Yes it was. The elves had no business participating. It was cheesy. And so was the elf who did belong there.” Dustin was furious over the scene in which Legolas had used his shield to slide down a staircase in the thick of battle. He had sworn at the movie screen while other kids in the theater cheered.

“I liked the darker Faramir,” said Other Mike, biking close behind. “Tolkien’s Faramir was kind of boring.”

“Faramir was well played,” allowed Dustin. “But the whole Osgiliath detour with Frodo and Sam was stupid.”

All the boys agreed on that.

Eleven liked the talking tree and bug-eyed creature the best, and she said so.

“El’s right,” said Mike Wheeler. “Treebeard and Gollum stole the show.”

Other Mike’s favorite scene was the vision of Arwen’s future. “When she was crying over Aragorn’s dead body, then wandering in the woods all alone, with no other elves around. It was so heartbreaking.”

“The price of love,” said Dustin. “She made the wrong choice. She should have stayed with the elves and set sail.”

“Racist,” said Lucas.

“Ass-lick,” said Dustin.

“But anyway,” said Other Mike, “if you read the appendices in Tolkien’s books, that’s where they took Elrond’s dialogue from. When he speaks over the vision.”

“It was a good scene,” admitted Mike Wheeler to his twin. “But dude, you’re depressing.”

“No, what’s depressing was no Shelob,” said Lucas. “I was waiting for the spider battle, not a stupid Osgiliath scene.”

“You’ll get Shelob tomorrow,” promised Other Mike. “And everything else.”

 

Everything else turned out to be something else: an epic so tragic it was biblical. The first movie had staggered them, but The Return of the King was peerless. El thought she had been thrown into an actual war, and it terrified her. Black riders swooped down from dizzying heights over the White City. Enormous elephants crushed the city’s defenders under their heels. At one point a boulder came flying out of the screen, and the boys screamed, throwing themselves back in their seats. El believed it was a real boulder and reacted instinctively, throwing her power at it to save herself and the boys from being smashed to a pulp. Theater employees would later notice a gash in the screen.

But it was the last forty-five minutes that had them in tears: Aragorn’s desperate charge on the Black Gate; Sam carrying Frodo up the mountain; Frodo broken by the Ring’s power; Sam crying for Rose as the mountain lava closed in; the eagle rescue; Aragorn bowing to the hobbits at his coronation; and finally, the sailing of the ships, and Frodo’s good-bye. El didn’t like that parting. She was distraught by Frodo’s pain and Sam’s anguish. She felt that stories deserved happier endings.

The boys tried explaining it to her back at the motel, but she didn’t understand, and couldn’t fathom why they loved something so much that made them cry. Other Mike had a delayed reaction to the ship sailing, and a rather startling one. As Mike Wheeler struggled to convey why the elves had to leave Middle-Earth, Other Mike reached over to Lucas, gave him a huge hug, and wouldn’t let go.

“Whoa.” Lucas was taken aback. “Other Mike. Are you okay?”

He said nothing and wouldn’t let go of Lucas.

“Uh, that’s awkward,” said Mike Wheeler.

Lucas pried Other Mike from him. “Hey, what’s up, man?”

Other Mike was crying. El realized how hard their company must be on him. In this world, they had all been killed by the demogorgon, and yet here they all were, except for Will. His new friends; the same and yet not.

“Sorry,” he said in a choked voice. “The movie got to me.”

But El thought the movie was a trigger for something else. Lucas was Mike Wheeler’s best friend. The other Lucas who got killed in this world had obviously been Other Mike’s best friend too.

“It’s okay, Mike,” said Mike Wheeler. “I was crying at the Grey Havens too. And remember, you’re part of our Fellowship now. You can come and live with us in our world, if you want.”

“I don’t know,” said Dustin. “Maybe we should move to this world. Our other parents need replacement kids. The technology here is incredible. If we go back, we’ll never see Lord of the Rings again.”

“One thing at a time,” said Lucas. “We’re still fugitives, remember? In both worlds. We need to kill Morgred tomorrow, and then get back and find Will.”

“El?” said Mike Wheeler. “You’re still sure about this?”

She could kill a Bad Man. She knew the pain and hurt they caused. “Yes.”

“Speaking of Morgred,” said Dustin, “Can we see that sketch of him again? We should probably look over the lab layouts too.”

Other Mike produced them from his pouch. “Morgred is supposed to arrive tomorrow, so I’ll get us there in the morning. I’ll be sick again, but for not as long.”

Mike Wheeler frowned. “I thought you said it was return trips to your world that caused the sickness.”

“Those are the worst. But travel within my own world does it too. I should be sick for ten hours, instead of a whole day and a half.”

Lucas was puzzled. “You said the lab is abandoned now, because the demogorgon killed everyone. Why don’t we just ride over, and save you getting sick?”

“We’d never get in. It’s been locked down, and there may be government agents outside. The only way inside is to teleport. We’ll take a pillow and blankets from this room, so I can have something to rest on. We should also get some water bottles and snack foods from down the hall, since we’ll be inside the lab at least until I recover.”

El was looking at the map of the lab. The Gate wasn’t where she expected it to be. It was on the proper underground level, but in a different room. She couldn’t remember its exact location. She had escaped the lab right after opening the Gate, and parts of the building had blown apart in pure chaos. But she was sure the focal point had been far from the region marked on the map. She said this to Other Mike.

“There are always differences like that across parallel worlds,” he said. “Don’t worry, El, these layouts are accurate.”

“Yeah,” said Dustin. “Like Other Mike has his weird eyes. You know, they actually kind of look like your eyes, El.”

El thought that Other Mike looked irritated by that remark.

“I wish I could have seen my other self,” said Lucas.

“Me too, “said Dustin. “Was Other Dustin fatter than me, or thinner?”

“Shut up Dustin,” said Mike Wheeler. “That’s not appropriate. Your other self died.”

“Sorry,” said Dustin, looking at Other Mike. “Anyway, we should go to bed now. We’ve got our own Mount Doom ahead of us tomorrow.”

 

Next Chapter: Father Child

(Previous Chapter: Fellowship)

Stranger Things: World’s End (Chapter 5)

This ten-chapter novella is the third in a trilogy, the first two being Stranger Things: The College Years and Stranger Things: The New Generation, both of which should be read beforehand. They 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, World’s End — Chapter Five:

                                  Fellowship

He rose and fell from consciousness. His body was a spreadsheet of pain, on scheduled rhythms of torture. When he was awake, he could hear the air sob in and out of his lungs, as if his sickness had decimated his respiratory system. By degrees he believed he was going to die.

Somehow they had gotten him to the Blue Falcon motel. It was all a blur. Sometime that day or that night — time itself was a blur — his convulsions caused him to fall off the bed. He barely felt himself hit the floor; his body was in too much pain to register the fall. He lay face down, unable to turn over. Like a pinned insect he struggled, then collapsed in resignation. He felt himself lifted and placed back in bed. Minutes later, or hours later; it was the same eternity of torment.

Dreams swirled into his unconsciousness, making him lash out and cry. He relived his mother slapping him at the lab, shaking him back and forth, screaming into his face. Now he had effectively killed her, by wresting her and the others from their proper place in time with little hope of return. He could not time travel during these fits of illness, and hardly expected to survive a brutally protracted episode. Faces filled his tormented vision: his father, Mike Wheeler; his mother, Eleven; his uncles, Lucas Sinclair and Dustin Henderson. In dreams they screamed at him, punched him, and called him a traitor — Lucas especially. Mike pleaded for Uncle Luc’s forgiveness; implored his father to not kill himself; cried Uncle Dustin’s pardon; and begged his mother to get well. They hovered over him, merciless, like avatars dressed in violence. Please, Mike cried to them all. I wanted you to be my friends.

Later, he woke, to see himself leaning over him. His clothes were soaked with sweat and the blankets too. His eyes bled tears against a soft light coming from somewhere. His doppleganger was saying something to him, shaking him gently. He tried to decipher the noise, but it was like trying to hear underwater. He made an effort to sit up, and immediately fell into convulsions. His heels drummed the bed mattress; his fingers ripped at the blanket; a spasm racked his body, arching his back into an impossible position. He would have screamed if his throat had allowed it, but he was seized by lockjaw. Tiny gasps huffed through his teeth like shreds of pain. More faces swam into his vision — an almost-bald girl, two boys next to his mirror-image — and then all four faces morphed into the heads of demo-dogs. The heads shot open like flowers full of teeth, and tore into Mike’s body, feasting on the innards that spilled from him. Beaten, he gave himself willingly to the afterlife.

Much later, the afterlife spat him back. He was being held by someone as he leaned over a plastic bin, emptying the contents of his stomach. His body was shaking and his gut kept heaving. The floor beneath him was spinning. More vomit came — too much, it seemed. “Mike!” the person holding him yelled. “He’s throwing up blood!” Someone called from another room: “Stay with him, Dustin!” His stomach rebelled some more, then barely settled. He heard feet pound into the room, and then hands were lifting him into bed again. A different set of hands wiped a cloth over his face. Faces whirled above him in a dizzying ellipse, and he heard himself crying, begging, please, please, let me die. As he faded from the agony, a voice that sounded like his own trailed him into sleep: “Hang in there, Other Mike. We’re not leaving you.”

Mercifully, he was out for those last few hours. His body had been too smashed by the illness to acknowledge its torments any longer. When he finally woke, it was dark outside. He was in a king-size bed, and there was the soft light on a table at the far side of the room. Someone slept on a chair at the table, under blankets: his father, Mike Wheeler.

He sat up, shaking off the stupor of his ordeal that must have been a day and a half. He couldn’t believe he was alive. To his left a digital clock displayed the time of 5:42 AM. That would make it Friday morning. They had arrived on Wednesday at 3:00 PM. What had his new friends been doing for a day and a half, besides nursing him?

There was a water jug on the stand next to the clock. He was parched and drank deeply. A bowl of fruit sat behind the jug, and he grabbed it, shoving down the mixture of grapes and strawberries. It was always the same: when the time illness passed, it passed one hundred percent, flooding him with thirst and appetite. At that moment, the fruit and water tasted like the best thing he ever had. He could take on a full course breakfast next.

“You’re back.”

He had woken his father, who looked exhausted. Mike Hopper could only imagine what he had put these kids through.

“You scared the shit out of us. We thought you were dying a few times.”

Yeah. I was hoping it would happen. “It was a bad attack; really bad. Thanks for watching over me. Are we at The Blue Falcon?”

“Yeah,” said Mike Wheeler. “You were right about Mr. Farrow. He must really like kids.”

“He really likes cash,” said Mike Hopper.

“You have a shitload of it in that bag. How come I’m not rich?”

Mike Hopper shrugged and smiled.

“So this sickness. It happens to you every time you go between worlds?”

“Not always.” He had to fudge here. “Going to other worlds, like yours, is usually no problem. It’s the return trip to my world that triggers the illness.”

“You should have been in a hospital. If we weren’t fugitives — we assumed that you’re a fugitive too — we would have taken you to the hospital, or at least home.”

“I’m glad you didn’t. You don’t want to go near our homes.”

“We did go to our homes,” said his father.

“What?” He almost shat his pants.

“We took turns watching you, and biked to our homes. Don’t worry, we were careful. But they’re not our homes. There were no government people around them, and we don’t even recognize the people who live there. Where’s my home — I mean, your home — the Wheeler residence in this world?”

Mike Hopper felt a trickle of unease. There was only one home to worry about. Not the Wheeler residence: his grandparents Ted and Karen had long vacated their house; Grandma was dead from alcoholism, and Grandpa had bought a condo. Nor the Sinclair’s: Lucas’s parents had left Indiana for the warmer climate of New Mexico. As for Dustin’s mother, she had never moved, but she died in her seventies only a few years before 2021. There was no chance these kids would stumble across any of their future families. Joyce Byers, however, was still alive and living in the same house she had owned in the eighties. If his parents and uncles had biked over there, and seen an eighty-year old Joyce Byers…

“I live in a different part of Hawkins than you do. And we have to stay away from my home, believe me. The government people are all over the place. I’m a fugitive like you guys are. We have to avoid all our homes — Lucas’s, Dustin’s, and Will’s. They’re all dead in my world, but the government guys are grilling their parents.” This stream of lies came out effortlessly.

“We didn’t try the house where our Will lives,” said Mike Wheeler.

Glad to hear. That could have given up the game. “He probably lives somewhere different too. The point is, the government is on to all of us, in both worlds.”

Mike Wheeler looked uncomfortable. “Can I ask you something?”

Mike Hopper nodded. “Yeah.”

“Do you miss your Eleven?”

Mike Hopper swallowed. “Uh, yeah. She was… really cool.”

“Yeah. I like my Eleven a lot. I think I love her actually — but don’t tell Lucas and Dustin that. I don’t want her to die. Or my friends.”

He suddenly hated the lies he had told. “Well, don’t worry. Things happen differently across parallel worlds. None of you are tied to the fate of your other selves.”

Mike Wheeler seemed to feel better. “Did you keep your Eleven in the basement? I kept her four days in my cellar without my parents or sister ever knowing.”

Mike Hopper laughed. “Yeah, that worked for me too. Parents are stupid,” he said, and then winced inwardly. Present company excluded.

“But how did everyone get killed except you?”

“It’s a long story,” said Mike Hopper. “We got into the lab and rescued Will from the Upside Down.” He paused, improvising. “Here in my world, Lucas didn’t get pissed off and go off on his own. We never got separated. So I got us all inside the lab, and Eleven got us to the Gate. We rescued Will from the Upside Down, but the demogorgon chased us. It killed all of us except for me. And it killed most of the lab personnel. The lab’s abandoned now.”

“Shit,” said Mike Wheeler.

“That’s why I need your help. I can’t do this alone.”

“How did you get inside the lab?” asked his father.

“Like I did with you guys.”

“What do you mean? You can teleport over distance — within the same universe?”

“Over short distances,” he half-lied. “That’s how I escaped the lab too, after everyone else was killed.”

“Jesus. You’re incredible. You really are a wizard. How can you do it though? Especially travel to alternate worlds. In the books and movies, that’s supposed to be, like, next to impossible.”

“I have a genetic mutation. They’re common in this world.”

“Seriously, like the X-Men? I’m going to come live here with you.” His next observation strayed into worrisome territory. “You know, your whole calendar is different here. We got a newspaper in the motel lounge yesterday. It said the year is 2021.”

“Yeah,” said Mike Hopper, prepared for this one. “Historians in my world figured the birth of Christ is off by about forty years. In your world it’s only four years. And our calendar goes by the adjusted date. So there’s almost a forty year calendar difference between our worlds.”

“And it’s December, not November. Tonight’s Christmas Eve, speaking of Christ. There are Christmas trees everywhere.”

“Calendars almost never line up across parallel worlds. It’s the people who run parallel to each other, and are usually the same age; but calendars are man-made and depend on historical circumstances.” He hoped that string of bullshit sounded impressive.

“And people talk on portable phones. You guys are advanced. Dustin was right, it’s so much the same, but so different too.”

“Yeah,” said Mike Hopper. Thirty-eight years in someone’s future did pass for a rather convincing alternate world.

“So, how exactly do you need our help?”

He returned to more truthful territory. “The Gate. In another few days, a man named Charles Morgred will arrive at the abandoned lab from out of state. He plans on doing something to the Gate that will wipe out all of America, not just Hawkins.”

“Morgred? Sounds like that traitor in the King Arthur legends.”

“Whatever, this guy figured out a way to make the Gate reproduce other gates on a massive scale — hundreds, thousands, tens of thousands, eventually millions. These smaller gates look like clouds and are called Pockets, and they’ll spread out from Indiana all over the country. They appear and disappear the next day, or a few days later, and never in the same place twice. Creatures from the Upside Down come out of the Pockets wherever they show up. Eventually they’ll take over the whole country.”

“That’s insane,” said Mike Wheeler. “How do you know about this guy?”

“Because his plan succeeds in another alternate universe,” said Mike Hopper, back to half-truths. “I’ve been to that one, and seen what his other self does.”

“Well, how do we stop him?”

“Eleven,” said Mike Hopper.

Mike Wheeler raised his eyebrows.

“If she’s like my Eleven was, hasn’t she killed people already? Not to mention whoever was in that van, probably.”

“Well, yeah, but… this is a little more cold-blooded.”

“I know, I don’t like assassination either. But it’s either this guy or millions of innocent people.”

“We’ll have to ask her,” said Mike Wheeler. “We’re not going to make her do anything.”

“Of course,” said Mike Hopper.

“Morgred.” His father pulled his blankets back up, ready for more shut-eye. “Anyone with a name like that probably deserves to die.”

“Hey, Mike,” said Mike Hopper.

“Yeah?”

“I know you’re tired, but I need more than this fruit. I’m starving.” He wanted a breakfast that could feed giants. “Omelettes, sausage, hash browns, toast. And like, now.”

Mike Wheeler smiled. “You’re definitely feeling better. I’ll wake Dustin up. He does the food runs. We had to use a lot of your cash — I hope that’s all right.”

Mike Hopper said that was perfectly fine.

 

Dustin was enraged. “Those assholes forgot the syrup!”

“Never mind, Dustin.” Lucas was helping him set out the food on the pitifully small table in the motel room. They were in the second bedroom, the one they had all used while at least one of them was nursing Other Mike. The boys had given the bed to Eleven while they graciously took the floor.

“What do you mean, never mind? El needs syrup for her Eggos.”

“She never has syrup with Eggos,” said Mike Wheeler. “She likes them plain.” They had bought a whole stash of Eggos at a grocery store on the night they arrived.

“She’s only tried them plain, you retard. When you were smuggling her Eggos to your basement, you had to pocket them dry.” He yanked out the napkins at the bottom of the take-out bags, swore some more, and then upended the bags over the table. “I specifically ordered blueberry syrup, goddammit!”

“Dustin,” said Eleven. She was in a sweatshirt and jeans she had stolen from JC Penney. “It’s okay.” They were all dressed in extra clothes Eleven had stolen for them, in a replay of her Eggo theft from the grocery store only hours before they were chased by the vans. That was definitely part of the family stories.

“It’s not okay for me, El. Waffles are wasted without syrup.”

Mike Hopper didn’t care about the waffles. He was swallowing just about every other breakfast item known to humankind. He thought he was in heaven. He remembered eating like this in previous lives, but the memories were fog. The spartan diets of the post-apocalypse were all he really knew.

“So how are we going to spend the weekend?” asked Lucas. They were all on board with Mission Morgred, and Eleven seemed fine with the idea of killing this man, who Mike Wheeler had described as the “baddest of the bad men”. But Mike Hopper had told them all that Morgred would arrive on Monday. That meant three days of waiting around.

“We can see a movie,” said Mike Hopper.

“Moovy?” asked Eleven.

“That’s a great idea,” said Mike Wheeler. “Special effects in this world must be awesome.”

“What is moovy?” asked Eleven.

“A movie is a story you watch on a big screen,” said Mike Wheeler. “Remember my television? It’s like that, only much bigger.”

“And you watch it in a big place filled with seats,” said Mike Hopper. “And you pay money to see them.” These too were a distant memory. There were no movies or theaters in the shadow wastelands. Even if you had old DVDs, they were as useful as frisbees, with no electricity for computers and playing devices.

“You have more than enough money,” said Lucas. “We could spend all day at the movies; all three days.”

His mother still looked confused.

“You’ll see when we get there, El,” said Mike Hopper, enjoying his mother’s nickname. He still couldn’t get over her shaved head. It made her look adorable.

Dustin got up from the table and grabbed the copy of The Hawkins Post he had brought in earlier. That made Mike Hopper nervous. He had explained the year 2021, but he didn’t want a scrutiny of local or worldly news. Things could look increasingly suspicious. Dustin found the movie section right away. Mike Hopper could have saved him the trouble.

“Let’s see… a couple of shitty romances… a stupid kid’s film… a horror film called Bladehead, we might want to see that… Prince of Foxes, I don’t know, it looks like a historical thriller…” He sat up straight. “Excuse me, The Fellowship of the Ring?” His mouth hung open.

“There’s a Lord of the Rings movie in this world?” asked Mike Wheeler, forgetting his breakfast.

“Holy fucking shit,” said Dustin. “It says this is part of a 20th anniversary screening of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy. Fellowship is tonight, The Two Towers is tomorrow night, and Return of the King Sunday night.”

“Calm down, you guys,” said Lucas. “It’s probably some stupid animated version like the one that came out five years ago.”

“No,” said Mike Hopper. “We had Bakshi too, and Peter Jackson is nothing like that. He was a horror film director before he made Lord of the Rings. Trust me, these films are super intense.”

“You’ve seen them?” asked Mike Wheeler. He had left his chair and was looking over Dustin’s shoulder.

“Yeah, but not in the theater. They came out before I was born, obviously. For the 20th anniversary, they’re showing the trilogy all across America, over the Christmas weekend.”

This was another half-truth. It was true that The Fellowship of the Ring had been released in late December of 2001, followed by The Two Towers in the same month of 2002; and then The Return of the King in 2003. It was true that Mike Hopper had missed all of those theatrical outings, but not because he hadn’t been born yet. He had simply been too young for them. He first saw the films when he was ten years old, in 2004, and he had watched the extended DVDs all in a single day. It was one of the best days of his life, seeing the best story of all time done justice in eleven hours. But he had always wanted to see Jackson’s films in the theater, on a huge screen with strong surround sound.

Thanks to his reverse aging, he had missed the golden opportunity of 2021. Right now, as he sat in Hawkins eating breakfast with his parents and uncles from 1983, he was a four year old toddler going on three, out in Portland Oregon with a mother who was mentally deteriorating. Neither of them was aware, nor cared, about the 20th anniversary screening of The Lord of the Rings.

This was the reason for his detour. Before killing Morgred, he wanted them all to see The Lord of the Rings. To color their act of saving the world in bold hues; to lend their mission a drama of epic proportions; and to taste pure magic at the age of twelve, when magic was still in reach. He had known nothing of magic or friendship in his current life.

“So you want to see it again?” asked Mike Wheeler.

“Oh yeah. I want to see it again. Just wait until you guys see it. It’s going to blow your minds.”

 

And blow their minds it did. The theater alone did that; it felt all space age, with flashing lights and digital displays. The snack prices were off the scales. The trailers were intense, almost like mini-movies with thundering music. Then the room went dark and the hush descended. The screen went dark. An ethereal voice that was Galadriel’s poured over the audience. And for the next three hours, Mike Hopper and the kids from 1983 forgot who and where they were. They were spellbound by the Shire; terrified by the Nazgul; overawed by Rivendell; exhilarated by the Balrog, and brought to tears by Gandalf’s fall; weirdly unnerved by the dark forest of Lothlorien; and completely overwhelmed by the breaking of the fellowship. Frodo and Sam looked across Mordor, grateful for each other on the hopeless road ahead. A haunting score played over the credits. The kids sat through it without saying a word. They were the last to leave.

Outside in the parking lot, his father faced him. “I can’t believe what we just watched. That wasn’t a movie. That was Middle-Earth come to life. It was awesome.” Mike Wheeler hugged him.

“Yeah,” said Mike Hopper, choked up by his father’s affection. “On a big screen it’s pretty unbelievable.” He was glad he had chosen Wednesday rather than Friday as his entry point. His plan had been to spend a full day with his parents and uncles before seeing the films, but his sickness had killed that idea. Had he chosen to arrive today, his illness would have caused them to miss the first and second movies.

“How can a movie like that even be made?” asked Lucas. “How can a Balrog look that real? Our world is pathetic.”

“It buries Conan the Barbarian,” said Dustin. “Last year we were saying nothing could top that movie. The giant snake in Conan is a toy compared to the Balrog.”

“We all need Middle-Earth names,” said Mike Wheeler. “Other Mike is obviously Gandalf because of his wizard powers, and El, you’re Galadriel for the same reason.”

“Gal-a-dree-elle?”

“Remember the beautiful elf?” asked Lucas. “By the fountain in the dark woods?”

“Holy shit, that was one of the best scenes,” said Dustin. “When she got all possessed and tempted by the Ring, and started roaring, I was cowering in my goddamn seat!”

“Yeah,” said Mike Wheeler, “and it’s nothing like you imagine from the book. Lothlorien was creepy in this movie. It was better than the book. How is that even possible?”

Eleven clearly didn’t understand a word the boys were saying, but she was loving it all the same.

“Did you like it, El?” asked Mike Hopper. She had sat next to Mike Wheeler in the theater, and he had noticed them holding hands through most of the movie.

She nodded, smiling. “Yes.”

“Arwen’s gallop to the Ford was my favorite scene,” said Lucas. “I can’t believe the way they shot her evasive action with the Nazgul on top of her like that.”

“Since you like Arwen,” said Mike Wheeler, “you’re Aragorn.”

“The ranger, as always,” said Dustin.

“I can live with that,” said Lucas. “They got the perfect actor to play that role. Who is he?”

Dustin made a preemptive strike. “Before you assign me anyone I’ll regret, I’m taking Gimli. He completely rocked. When he found Balin’s grave in Moria… wow.”

“Perfect,” said Mike Wheeler. “That leaves me.”

“Yeah, who are you?” asked Lucas.

“Frodo,” said Mike Hopper. They all looked at him.

“Yeah?” asked Mike Wheeler. “Why do you say?”

Mike Hopper weighed his reply. “Frodo was a natural leader. The other hobbits looked up to him. He had the darkest road to take. No one else could do it for him. And he was bound to fail. The Ring beat him in the end.”

They all looked at him, stupefied. Mike Wheeler looked nonplussed.

Mike Hopper laughed. “I’m messing with you. Just the first part: Frodo was the leader, and you’re a good one.”

Mike smiled. “Okay, I’ll take Frodo. But I don’t know, you have that actor’s eyes more than I do.”

“We actually have to wait for tomorrow night to see The Two Towers?”

“It gives us time in between to talk about the films,” said Mike Hopper.

“I just wish Will could see these with us,” said Lucas. “Listen, Other Mike, after we stop Morgred, you need to come help us find Will in our world. You’re part of us now.”

“Totally,” said Dustin.

“Lucas is right,” said Mike Wheeler. “You lost all your friends. You don’t have a party anymore, so you need to join ours. This is our Fellowship. The five of us. And it will be six, when we find Will.”

It was a tempting proposition. If not for all the ways that could change or erase his own past, and mess with theirs, Mike Hopper would have been on board. There was nothing in his own time worth returning to.

“Which Lord of the Rings character is Will?” asked Lucas.

“Who do you think, stupid?” said Mike Wheeler. “Will the Wise? He’s Samwise.”

“Yeah,” put in Mike Hopper. “Will is a great Samwise.”

Mike Wheeler put his arm around him. “I know you’re Gandalf and way older than me. But you’re also my brother. Okay?”

Mike Hopper could only nod. Way older. If he only knew.

“We need to celebrate guys,” said Dustin. “It’s Christmas Eve, and we just saw the best movie ever made.”

“Mike?” said Mike Wheeler. “Can you take us to dinner somewhere expensive?”

Mike Hopper’s smile was a clear answer.

 

Next Chapter: Mother Child

(Previous Chapter: Deep Burn)