This nine-chapter novella is the first of two stories set in between the periods of Stranger Things: The College Years and Stranger Things: The New Generation. I advise reading those stories, as well as the third in that trilogy, Stranger Things: World’s End, before reading this one, which is supplementary and does not involve the Upside Down. Like the Upside Down trilogy, it’s a work of fan fiction based on the Stranger Things TV series. I do not profit from these stories and they are not canon. 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 the stories down.
The Witch of Yamhill County — Chapter One
Saturday, August 29, 1992
Jim Hopper hadn’t thought of Sara in days. And he resented the mess that was reminding him of her now.
He ran a red light thinking of her, without running the blue lights on top of his car. A horn blared to his right. He looked, and saw an angry face behind a windshield, hollering what had to be obscenities against presumptuous law officials. Hopper ignored him and sped on. Toward his redemption, if such a thing existed.
He had just left the sheriff’s office in McMinnville after a disturbing phone call. He was driving down to Bellevue now, and for the first time in this lousy shit-stained week, Hopper thought he might get some real answers.
A panic was over Yamhill County, and things that shouldn’t be. Kids stolen from their beds. Tales of a hut that ran on legs. The latter were fairy tales, surely. But the kids were really gone. He prayed he could find them before it was too late — and before parents called for his resignation, or even his blood.
The roll call ran through his head, for what must have been the fiftieth time: On Monday night, Krissa Monroe, a seven-year old girl from Amity, went to bed, and was missing by sunrise; she was reported to the sheriff’s office by her hysterical parents. On Tuesday night, Paul and Julie Gallagher, twin eight-year old siblings from Bellevue, vanished from their beds; they too were phoned in the next morning. On Wednesday night, Michelle Chase, a seven-year old girl, disappeared the same way; she was from McMinnville, but had been visiting her aunt and uncle in Amity. Nothing happened on Thursday night; no reports from beleaguered parents on Friday morning. Then, on Friday night, Jordan Wood, a seven-year old boy from Amity, vanished; the call came in only five hours ago, from his parents who were late sleepers on Saturday.
Each child, seven or eight years old, had been stolen (it was presumed) from one of two towns in southern Yamhill: Amity or Bellevue. There had been no ransom calls, and that was bad. Kidnappers who were in it for extortion usually got caught. Hopper feared the fouler strain of kidnappers: those in the business of trafficking and exploitation. That was a more damaging crime, and the criminals were harder to catch.
Then came the phone call Hopper had just concluded in his office. Something had happened on Thursday night after all. How this event related to those of the other nights was difficult to guess.
The call was from a teenage girl named Abigail Schwartz. She lived with her mother and young sister in Bellevue. The younger sister had been taken on Thursday night. Not stolen, like the other kids; but sold, apparently, by her own mother, to an old woman who needed a cleaning servant. Hopper couldn’t believe his ears. The woman had paid Abigail’s mother in gold — and a lot of it — for a contract of one year’s service. This woman, according to Abigail, lived in a remote hut somewhere between Bellevue and Amity. Which raised questions about the sightings of a “hut on legs” earlier in the week. The mother’s name was Betty Schwartz. Abigail didn’t like what her mother had done, and had finally rebelled today, by calling the sheriff’s office. Betty was only finding out about this now, as Hopper sped down Route 18 to question them both.
If Betty Schwartz was the kind of mother who would sell her seven-year old daughter into servitude, Hopper had a fair idea how she would react to her sixteen-year old daughter ratting her out to the police. It was a twelve-minute drive from McMinnville to Bellevue. By the time Hopper got there, Betty should be in a state. Hopper would feed her to the dogs if he didn’t get the answers he wanted.
It was the younger sister’s name that had him out of sorts. Sara Schwartz was the same age Sara Hopper had been when she was taken. Taken by cancer, and whatever forces saw fit to punish Jim and Diane Hopper for having a child who gave them happiness. He didn’t need this shit right now. The case was upsetting enough without ghosts coming back to splay open his wounds.
He soon arrived in Bellevue and found the Schwartz home right away. He got out of the sheriff’s car and looked over the place. It was a run-down sty that shouted poverty and distress. The car in the driveway belonged in a junkyard. He walked up to the front door and knocked on it.
In less than two seconds, a frightened teenager opened the door.
“Abigail Schwartz?” he asked.
“Yes. Hi. Come in.” She held the door open nervously, and Hopper came in, removing his hat. He was in a living room smelling of sweat and cigarette smoke. Hopper had been smoking too much lately. And because he did, he resented the habit in others.
A frail woman in her thirties was there standing: Betty Schwartz. One look at her, and Hopper knew the type. She was ready for battle and armed with excuses.
Hopper was ready too. “Betty Schwartz?”
“That’s me,” stated Betty, throwing down the gauntlet. She wore faded jeans with holes, and a shirt with coffee stains. She was all bones and little flesh. Her lean jaw was thrust out pugnaciously, daring the sheriff to fault her in some way.
“I’m Sheriff Jim Hopper. Abigail tells me that you sold your younger daughter to an old woman.” Hopper couldn’t say Sara’s name.
“Abigail misspoke,” said Betty, glaring at her eldest. “I loaned Sara. For a year. I would never sell my own daughter. You better watch what you say about people, sheriff. And I’ll make sure Abby gets her facts straight.”
“Why did you ‘loan’ Sara for a year?”
“It was a contract,” said Betty, “We agreed, the old lady and I. She would take on Sara for a year and train her as a house servant.”
“Who is this woman?” Hopper wasn’t expecting a real answer. On the phone Abigail had said the woman called herself Baba Yaga. It sounded like a moniker, and there was no one listed in the county database by that name.
“Her name is Baba Yaga,” said Betty.
“Does that sound like a real name to you?” asked Hopper.
“It’s what she said. Don’t get smart with me!”
“And she paid you? For giving her Sara?”
“For loaning her Sara. We had a contract. We both consented.”
Jesus. “And she paid you in gold?”
“Yes.” Betty looked wary.
“Can I see the gold, please?”
“You can’t take any of it from me. It’s mine by consensual agreement.”
“Ma’am, you have to show me the gold. Now.”
Betty paused, indecisive, and then looked at Abby. “Get the sack,” she told her daughter. “On my counter.”
Abby rushed to do as she was told, disappearing into a bedroom. Betty didn’t take her eyes off Hopper.
“Ms. Schwartz, what’s your relationship to this woman, Baba Yaga?”
“Nothing,” she snapped. “I never knew her before Thursday night. She lives a couple miles east of town, in the woods somewhere.”
“Why would you give your daughter to a complete stranger?”
“I told you I didn’t give her away! I sent her to live with the old lady, so that she could learn a skill. I was doing both Sara and the old lady a favor.”
You were doing yourself a favor, you shrew. “Abby said on the phone that Baba Yaga was intimidating. That her face was deformed and scary for a child to look at.”
“Abby’s young,” retorted Betty. “And prejudiced against old people. The poor lady could barely walk. She had a walking stick. Are you a bigot too?” Hopper ignored the sally. He thought that Betty had looked scared for a moment, despite her defense of the old woman.
Abigail came back into the living room, carrying a heavy sack of coins. She handed it to Hopper, who set it down on the coffee table he was next to. He looked inside. The sack was full of gold coins the size of nickels. On the phone Abigail had said a thousand. “This is a thousand gold pieces?” he asked Betty.
“It’s what we agreed on,” said Betty, standing hostilely over him.
Hopper knew gold. A case he had worked on months ago required him to research the conversion rates to U.S. dollars. The quantity of gold in this sack was worth at least $60,000, possibly as much as $70,000. For a single, low income woman like Betty Schwartz, that was more than four years worth of income. Judging from the sty she lived in, the cheap clothes she and Abby wore, and the broken down car outside, Betty couldn’t be bringing in more than $12,000 a year. The gold explained a lot, granted — but only if you were a heartless parent.
He stood up. “I still don’t understand why you would send your daughter away for a whole year, under the care of someone you know nothing about. Haven’t you heard about the kids who went missing this week? They were all the same age as Sara.”
“Well, I heard about that,” said Betty. “Everyone has. But those kids disappeared. Everyone thinks they were abducted from their beds. What does that have to do with an ugly old lady who just needs a cleaning girl?”
“To not see your daughter for a whole year?” said Hopper, shaking his head.
“No!” said Betty. “That wasn’t the deal.”
“What do you mean?” he asked.
“Didn’t Abby tell you? Baba Yaga said that Abby and I could come and visit Sara on the last day of every month, starting September.”
“I didn’t mention that part over the phone,” said Abby. “It’s true, sheriff. The old lady gave us visiting rights.”
Visiting rights. It was a prison sentence. “So… what then? You know where she lives?”
“Sort of,” said Abby. “You go out –”
“Keep your mouth shut while I’m talking,” snapped Betty. “The lady gave us a map that shows where her hut is.”
“Give me this map,” said Hopper.
Betty looked furious, then nodded at Abigail. The girl went into the kitchen, and then came back holding a brown fold-out. She gave it to Hopper.
He looked at it. A circle labelled “The Hut” was plotted a couple of miles east from Bellevue, in a secluded forest. It was vague and imprecise. Hopper thought of the dramatic reports his office had received earlier in the week. A local farmer claimed that on Monday night he saw a “running hut” off the main road of Bellevue Hopewell. The road ran for six miles connecting Bellevue to Amity, and the farmer saw the hut closer to the Bellevue end. It was a small log cabin, he said, raised high on giant legs that were racing on the ground parallel to the road. The farmer was a chronic drunk, and no one took him seriously. Then a married couple saw the same thing on Tuesday night. They had been driving home to Amity, returning from a vacation in Sheridan.
“Did the woman say anything about her hut being a mobile home?” He knew the question sounded stupid.
“A mobile hut?” asked Betty. “I’ve never heard of such a thing.”
“But she did make a sick joke about it,” said Abby.
“What joke?” asked Hopper.
“She said that we were welcome to see Sara, but to beware when we visit, because her hut ‘swallows people like the night’. Then she laughed.”
“A harmless joke,” said Betty.
“How did Baba Yaga get here?” asked Hopper.
“What?” said Betty.
“You said she needed a walking stick. Did someone drive her to your home? And then take her and Sara back to the hut?”
“She said she had her own transport,” said Betty.
“But we never saw it,” said Abby. “There was no car or taxi cab in our driveway. When she left with Sara, she went around to the side of our house. I went out to follow them, but I when I turned the corner they were both gone. It was really weird. It… freaked me out.”
“Do either of you have a photo of Sara that I can borrow?” he asked. The living room showed no signs of any family photos.
“I have one,” said Abby. She went to her room, and came back with a wallet sized photo of a little girl. Hopper took it, looked at it; his heart twisted, and he fell in love. The girl was absolutely adorable. Different hair: Sara Hopper had been blond; Sara Schwartz had hair like the night. But she was just as precious.
“Listen to me,” said Hopper, folding the map into his pocket, and putting the photo in his wallet. He looked at Betty. “Abby obviously didn’t like your little deal with this old lady. She did the right thing by calling us. You’d best not punish her for it. I’m going to get your daughter back. How do you feel about that?”
“I… I don’t know!” said Betty. “The lady was a bit creepy, but she seemed okay.”
“What you did was stupid and grossly irresponsible.”
“But I get to keep the gold, right?” asked Betty. “It’s mine.”
“It’s certainly not yours,” said Hopper. “That gold is probably stolen. And you obtained it unlawfully.”
“No, sir! It was a contract! We both agreed to it.”
“Your contract was illegal. You’ll be lucky if you don’t do jail time for selling your child.”
“I said I didn’t sell her, you piece of shit! I gave her to a guardian. The old lady. For one year. I would never give my children away.”
You would for the right price. “Ms. Schwartz,” he said. “I’m taking the gold.”
“No! He’s a thief, Abby, call the police!” Betty Schwartz stood in front of the table shaking a fist at Hopper, daring him to lay a hand on “her” gold. She looked absurd: a scrawny 5′ 5″ woman, defying a meaty sheriff who was 6′ 3″.
Hopper said nothing. He took a single step towards Betty Schwartz, and stared down at her with a look that promised ovens of hell if she didn’t wise up. At that moment he wanted to break every visible bone in her wraith-thin body. Some people had no right to be parents.
Whatever Betty Schwartz saw in Hopper’s eyes unsettled her. She stepped out of Hopper’s way and started to cry. He took the sack of gold.
Abigail had remained still all this time, barely breathing. He could only imagine what was in store for the poor girl once he left. “Thanks for calling,” he said to Abby. “You’re a good sister, and you did the right thing.” Abigail nodded. She was starting to cry too, but out of fear for Sara, and embarrassment for her terrible mother.
Hopper reached the door and turned around. Betty Schwartz was on her knees, weeping over her lost fortune. “Listen to me carefully,” he said to her. “I’m going to get your daughter back. And once she’s back here safe, I’m going to be paying this home frequent visits, to make sure that you’re at least pretending to be a decent mother to both Sara and Abby. Do you hear me?”
Betty Schwartz went on crying. Hopper left without another word.
The map was vague but it was a start. It looked like Baba Yaga — or whoever the old woman really was — was hiding out in the woods near Deer Creek. The hut was two miles east of Bellevue, which was just a two or three minute drive along the main road. Then it was a mile north off the main road. How long it would take to find the hut along that stretch depended on how far the dirt roads extended, and how far deep into the forest the old woman was. Hopper would probably have to do some searching on foot; though maybe not much. If the map were reasonably accurate, it narrowed down his search window considerably.
Before starting the car, he looked at Sara’s photo again. Then he looked at the sack he had put in the shotgun seat. That’s a shit-ton of gold. Who lives in a hovel out in the middle of nowhere, and has that kind of money to spend on a cleaning servant?
He spun out of the driveway, and headed east on Bellevue Hopewell. It had been a while since he had driven this road, and the area reminded him of Hawkins. When he had taken the job five years ago, he had been struck by how much of his native state was embedded in his new turf. Half the towns in Yamhill County were town names in Indiana: Lafayette, Sheridan, Dayton, Amity, Dundee. Lafayette he could understand: it was founded by a nineteenth-century pioneer who had previously lived in Lafayette, Indiana. The pioneer had named it accordingly for the hero of the American Revolution. But the other four had no traces to Indiana, as far as Hopper knew. What were the odds? It was as if Hopper hadn’t truly left Indiana; like he was put in charge of an Indiana annex transplanted to the west coast. Yamhill County felt his. He had been fated to come out here.
His daughter, of course, had words for that. Jane would have taken his “fate” and shoved it a mile up his ass for all it had done her. Thinking of her made him feel worse. She turned twenty-one this year, and she was long past being the kid he still called her.
His transfer to Oregon in 1987 had required Jane to ditch the boy she loved — who had meant the world to her. Every boy had his heart broken at some point, but Mike Wheeler’s had been torn and shredded and fed back to him. Days later, he had sacrificed himself for the town of Hawkins, in an act that was either brave, stupid, or suicidal, depending on your point of view. Hopper thought it was probably all three — not that anyone cared what he thought. Mike’s reward was a prolonged nightmare: a shadow creature killed him, brought him back to life, and then ruined him plenty more. No one even knew Mike was alive again, trapped in a hell where he was tortured as a sacred privilege. Since that awful turn of events, Hopper had made a certain peace with his daughter. But she had never really forgiven him, or herself.
Then came Mike’s return from the Upside Down, and the renewed hostilities. That was two years ago. Mike had somehow escaped and crossed back into Hawkins, unable to speak, able only to harm those he loved. His friends had done what they could for him; Jane had flown back to Hawkins, without so much as telling Hopper a bloody thing. He couldn’t blame her. Then she had killed the creature called the Illithid, and Mike got his humanity back. But he was broken; horribly. His eyes were gone, his leg crippled. And he was so psychologically scarred from three and a half years of torture that he needed constant care. Jane had given him that; she had brought him back to Portland, got him walking again, and had provided for him ever since. She loved him, after all.
Hopper, for his part, footed the bills. He paid their rent, in effect supporting Mike as much as Jane. He gave them what they asked for. And mountains of grief on top. He hated himself for that. Mike was a good person, and Jane deserved a Nobel prize for her loyalty and love. But Hopper was a territorial father, who thought his daughter deserved the best life had on hand. Mike’s condition, both physical and mental, restricted her. It had come to blows over the screaming-match Christmas of 1990, and ever since then, Jim Hopper was banned from Jane and Mike’s apartment. He still had to pay most of their rent. He didn’t object. It was the penance he deserved.
Abruptly, he pulled to the side of the road and stopped the car. He sighed, looking at the car phone. He almost started up again, and then picked up the receiver. And dialed her number. It rang and he checked his watch. It was almost four o’clock.
“Dad. Hi.” She sounded neither happy nor unhappy to hear him. Which was typical.
“Yeah, uh… I was calling, because, you know, we usually get together for Labor Day. So what you do say I drive up on Monday and take you out for lunch. Wherever you want.”
“That’s nice,” she said. “But you’re a week early.”
“Monday’s the 31st. Labor Day is the Monday after.”
“Oh. Shit.” He couldn’t even keep his calendar straight. “Okay, then how about it? Whenever the stupid day is?”
“Yeah, sounds fine.”
“I’ll try and be pleasant.”
“How are you these days?”
“Oh, I’ve had a shitty week. Kids are missing. They’re being stolen. Or sold. Or both.”
“What are you talking about?”
“Every night since Monday there’s been a child gone missing. From one of two towns. Amity or Bellevue. Except for Thursday night. But I just found out there was a child taken on Thursday night too.” Sara. “But she wasn’t stolen, like the others. She was sold by her own mother.”
“To an old woman, who calls herself Baba Yaga.”
“Baba Yaga? It sounds like a monster.”
“Yeah, it gets weirder. Earlier in the week people reported seeing a house that was running around on giant legs.”
There was a long pause. “Okay, you can stop.”
“No, really. I’m dead serious.
“It’s a prank, Dad.”
“One guy was a drunk, so we didn’t take him seriously. But the next night a married couple saw it, driving back from their vacation. Or claimed they saw it. A moving hut.”
“A moving hut.”
“On legs. And now I have a rough idea where this shack is supposed to be. The woman who sold her daughter told me.”
“So what are you going to do?” asked Jane.
“What else? I’m going out to East-Jesus nowhere, to find this hut that supposedly runs around on giant legs, and swallows people like the night.”
“You have Tim with you?”
Tim was one of his deputies. “No, he’s tied up in Dayton. And I’m about to send others to interview the parents of the kids who were abducted. I want to find out if the parents were ever approached by this Baba Yaga and asked to sell their children. None of them mentioned anything like that, but I want to be sure.”
“Shouldn’t you have backup? Baba Yaga sounds dangerous.”
“No, she’s just an old lady who can barely stand. I seriously doubt she’s the one breaking and entering into homes and stealing kids. Otherwise she would have done that with Sara Schwartz. Instead she bargained and paid her mother a lot of money. My theory is that someone strong and capable — maybe even two people — are stealing the kids, and trying to sell them to Baba Yaga, since she has a lot of money. If that’s the case, maybe some of these kids, or all of them, are at the hut with her and Sara.”
“You know what you’re doing, I guess.”
“I’m going to find out soon enough.” It was true that Hopper wasn’t worried about taking on a feeble old hag alone. But he didn’t tell Jane the other reason he was forsaking protocol. He was already treating Sara Schwartz as a personal mission. He was smitten by her, and didn’t want to share her rescue with anyone.
“You’re getting paid to have too much fun,” said Jane.
“I’m not getting paid enough,” he retorted. Which wasn’t true at all. Jim Hopper of Yamhill County had a handsome salary. But he had to whine; he had lost way too much sleep this week over the missing kids.
Suddenly there was a loud crash over the phone, followed by a profusion of male swearing. It sounded like a whole drawer of cooking utensils went over the floor.
Jane swore at whatever was going on. “Mike, Jesus Christ!”
From another room, Mike shouted back: “Fucking drawer wouldn’t open! And I cut myself, you bitch! Get me a band-aid, now!”
“Dad, I have to go.”
“Yeah, I can tell. Does he always treat you like that?” He bit his tongue as soon as he said it. Here it comes.
She paused for a long moment. Then her venom poured through the phone: “You don’t ever talk about him to me. Ever. Do you understand?”
“Yeah. Sorry.” He was pretty sure that Labor Day lunch had just been revoked.
“El! Get off the goddamn phone! Now!” Mike was slamming things around in the kitchen.
“Bye, Dad. And be careful.”
“An old hag in a mobile shack? What’s to worry about?” He hung up.
If Jim Hopper had known how much there was to worry about, he would have chosen a very different course of action that evening. He was heading straight into disaster; and many would pay the price for it.
Next Chapter: Circle of Death