Endless Night (Chapter 1)

This nine-chapter Stranger Things novel is the long-awaited prequel that takes place before five other stories, which should be read in the following order: The College Years, The New Generation, World’s End, The Witch of Yamhill County and The Black Rose of Newberg. These are all works of fan fiction based on the Stranger Things TV series, from which I do not profit. 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.

This prequel serves as an alternate season 4. It assumes the events portrayed in TV seasons 1-3, except that it was Joyce Byers who died in the Battle of Starcourt, while Jim Hopper survived to continue raising Eleven. William and Jonathan Byers stayed in Hawkins, and their Aunt Ruth came to live with them and assume guardianship of Will. Also: Karen Wheeler had an affair with Billy Hargrove before his possession, and she aided and abetted him in abducting people for the Mind Flayer, though she did not become one of the flayed.

                                    Endless Night — Chapter One

                       Forgive Us Our Debts

 

Saturday, January 17, 1987

Every time they did it, it was for Mike the first time. He was the luckiest sophomore alive.

I love her. I love this girl. 

It permeated him like a possession; absolute and life-affecting. Love, at its fullest, was life itself.

He took El’s tongue as she took his, tethered in an unbreakable kiss. His fingers pressed up her shirt and over her slopes, kneading purposefully. She gasped and clutched him below. Her move inflamed him, and he spun a one-eighty, forcing her down on the bed, falling on top of her, still lip-locked. She rubbed him more, and it was too much: he needed air. He groaned into her throat and ran wetness down her neck, up her cheeks, impatient to engage below. They fumbled at each other, and their clothes were off in seconds, some of them worse for wear. No matter. She was his, he was hers; it was writ forever.

Mike Wheeler believed that on January 17 of the year he died. He was going to marry Eleven someday, and the four winds take anyone who said otherwise. They were getting a foretaste of that imagined union. Here in this house, on their honeymoon. Six days down, eight to go.

He moved inside her, doing his utmost to make it last; to put her over the edge. He was getting better at this — at making it better for her. It was the only change since Christmas Eve: the prolonged pleasure. In every other way it was the first time, rewound and replayed. They cried their ecstasy, astonished all over that it could be so good.

In truth, they made enough noise to wake the Upside Down — and possibly even his parents downstairs. Though that was a crap shoot. Ted Wheeler was oblivious to most things outside his personal space, and at 3:00 in the afternoon, Karen Wheeler was often passed out. Mike was sure of one thing: his parents had never seen the river like he and El had. He could hardly imagine his father getting an erection, let alone putting it to use. His mother, on the other hand, was all too easy to imagine in this context. People had died because of her frustrated libido, and forgiveness was in short supply. Hawkins didn’t forget.

When he spent himself, he withdrew and kissed her, lying back on his pillow. “You good?” he asked.

El nodded, snuggling against him.

“Did I hurt you?” It was becoming an insecure question, but he couldn’t help it. Whenever he took her, he was a beast.

“No. I keep telling you.” She wasn’t placating him. As always, she had responded to his aggressions with fervor.

But you’re never happy anymore. It was the unspoken rift between them, and pointless to bring up.

Since early December, El had been in a funk. Most people couldn’t tell, because her arrested development made her awkward to begin with; but Mike knew her intimately. Her life-spark had gone out, and she wouldn’t say why. Mike assumed it was the ongoing post traumatic stress. He and his friends could relate; Will especially. You lived in Hawkins, battled the Upside Down, and paid the price. El had extra baggage besides. Raised a lab rat for twelve years, she was still figuring out normal life after three. The way Mike saw it, she was entitled to a spell. Killing her virginity on Christmas Eve had restored her vitality — for a window of time. But sex wasn’t enough. Their lovemaking sessions were holding measures and little more. What El needed was the equivalent of an emotional enema. Mike laughed at the thought, wondering what such an enema would look like. A psychic purge maybe.

“What’s funny?” she asked.

“You’re funny,” he said, kissing her.

They lay for a while and watched a light snowfall through his bedroom window. It had started an hour ago and was supposed to stop before dark. Mike resented that; he wanted a storm. Winters were supposed to be full of blizzards. The winter of ’87 so far was lame.

“Want some music?” he asked.

She nodded. “Instrumental.”

Of course. “Which one?” It would be Antarctica or Underwater Sunlight. Her favorites.

Antarctica,” she said.

“Yeah, ’cause it’s snowing,” said Mike. He jumped naked out of bed, throwing on his t-shirt and shorts. Then he went over to his stereo and removed the album by The Alarm, replacing it with Vangelis. Ethereal crystalline synths filled the room as he returned to bed. El smiled. She had good taste. Vangelis was a musical genius, and somehow with Antarctica the composer had summoned a landscape of blinding desolation. You could hear the ice between the notes.

They stared at the snowfall, mesmerized by the music. He held El close and ran his fingers through her hair. Neither of them spoke until the third track. “How’s she treating you?” he finally asked.

“Mike,” she said.

“Answer me. And I want the truth. Is that bitch giving you a hard time?”

“Don’t call her that. She’s still your mother. And you see how she treats me. She’s fine.”

“I mean when I turn my back. Or when she catches you alone. And I’ll call my bitch mother the bitch that she is.”

“She’s fine,” El repeated.

You’re lying.

It was no exaggeration to say that Mike Wheeler respected his parents as he respected the excrement he flushed down the commode every morning. His mother especially. Karen Wheeler had lost her son’s respect (and the rest of the town’s) after her affair with Billy Hargrove and brutal descent into alcoholism. Ted Wheeler had never had authority to begin with, no presence; he was only dimly aware of anything beyond his dinner, his newspaper, or the TV. Little Holly — a stentorian seven-year old — deserved better. She needed her older sister. But Nancy was in college. In her absence Mike lived by his own rules, and if his parents had a problem with that, he dared either one of them to object.

“I won’t stand for her shit,” said Mike.

El kissed him. “It’s our honeymoon. Don’t start anything with her. I can handle dirty looks.”

He kissed her back and grew hard again. Oh man. “El,” he said, almost embarrassed. “Can we go again?”

She groaned mockingly, but obliged him, and Mike made it good for her, slower this time, to the musical transcendence of Vangelis.

 

Their “honeymoon” was a two-week reprieve from Eleven’s father, Jim Hopper, now vacationing in Oregon. A vacation for him was a de facto vacation for her and Mike, and they had planned shrewdly. Nominally El was staying at Max Mayfield’s until his return, but she spent most of her afternoons and overnights on Maple Street.

Mike knew he was lucky. He was the only fifteen year old in Hawkins who could get away with living with his girlfriend, let alone shag her so openly. Not that his mother hadn’t tried killing the arrangement in its crib.

“Are you out of you mind?” She had slammed the lid of her crock-pot when he announced that El was moving in for two weeks. This was after school on Monday, January 12, hours after Hopper was safely gone. His flight to Portland had left that morning.

“You have a problem with that?” asked Mike.

“Michael, if you think you’re bringing Eleven home to sleep with, you’re dreaming.”

“El is going to sleep in my room, and what we do is none of your –”

“Over my dead body!”

“Fine!” he shouted. “Die like your shitty boyfriend! El’s staying over, and you better be nice to her!”

She stared at him, stunned. She was bleary-eyed from vodka but wide awake from shock. This was open rebellion. Mike stared her down until she lowered her eyes. “So this is how you treat your mother now, I guess.”

Mike stared at her with contempt. “You’re lucky to live here. Dad should have divorced you. Billy was the worst piece of shit who ever lived. I’m not married, and Eleven is a great girl. You don’t have a fucking say in what I –”

She slapped him so hard it sounded like a shotgun blast. Mike’s cheek bloomed, but he didn’t flinch.

Then Karen Wheeler broke down sobbing. The truth shone on her and it was none pleasant: she had fallen low — way too low to reclaim her standing in the family. She dropped to the kitchen floor and cried like a lost child, and Mike almost relented. She was his mother, and he instinctively wanted to comfort her. Then he turned and walked off, leaving her to vain regrets. Some things couldn’t be forgiven.

Now they all sat at the dinner table: his mother and father, Holly, El, and himself. El was in Nancy’s seat. The snow had stopped and the setting sun bled through the window. Holly dominated everyone with endless complaints. She was in second grade now, which made her a sophomore like Mike in her mind.

“Here, El,” said Mike, passing her a huge bowl. He had served its contents to Holly, who wasn’t pleased about it.

“Thank you,” said El, taking it. It was filled with a creamy orange mess and littered with dirty parsley.

“They’re scalloped potatoes,” said Mike. The sauce is runny, he didn’t add. He was sure the potatoes were undercooked too. Once upon a time his mother prepared gourmet dinners. This was the era of passable meals, often just barely.

“Gross!” shouted Holly, who was holding up an oozing spoonful.

“Be quiet and eat, Holly,” said Mike, serving himself more of the mess than he wanted, and eying his mother across the table who ignored them all. She was in full passive-aggressive mode and looked like she wanted to hit someone. Her eyes were glassy, and she desperately needed a nap.

“You be quiet,” retorted Holly. “I want real food.”

“Here,” said El, passing her the hamburger patties. “Do you want a big one?”

Holly nodded and El served her. The meat was promptly drowned in ketchup (Holly used a fifth of the bottle) and then given the company of a handful of grapes. Holly guarded the grape platter jealously by her side. She elbowed her milk glass doing so… and the milk went everywhere.

“Damn it!” cried Holly.

“Language!” cried Ted Wheeler, as El rushed for paper towels. Mike helped her wipe up the spill. His father chewed his food, ruminating over every bite. A typical dinner at the Wheelers.

When everyone finished eating, Mike went upstairs and El helped his mother with the dishes. She did this every night, which Karen Wheeler accepted with a reluctance that resembled constipated resentment. Mike didn’t like leaving El alone with his mother — and tonight proved why. As they finished loading the dishwasher, Mike returned downstairs and looked in on them. He saw his mother grabbing El and talking fiercely. El was in tears.

Mike stormed into the kitchen. “Let her go!”

Karen Wheeler did that, frightened by her son’s wrath. “Michael, you calm down –”

He got right up in his mother’s face. He hadn’t been this angry in a long time. “What were you saying to her? What were you saying, you poisonous bitch?”

“Mike, don’t!” said Eleven desperately, wiping tears from her face. “It’s okay. It was nothing.”

“Nothing, my ass.”

Karen Wheeler moved to get around him, and he blocked her. It was all he could do to restrain himself. “I swear to God,” he said, “the next time you lay a hand on her — you say a single wrong thing to her — I’m going to beat the shit out of you.”

“Don’t you threaten me!” yelled Karen Wheeler. “I’m still your mother, whatever else you think of me!”

Mike let her go, and Karen Wheeler fled the kitchen sobbing. She ran upstairs to her bedroom and slammed the door. He turned and saw El, standing there miserable.

“What was she saying to you?” he demanded.

“You shouldn’t treat her like that, Mike.”

Mike felt a bit small for his threat. He would never hit his mother, of course, even when he felt like it. “El, tell me. Why did she grab you like that?”

“It was nothing. She doesn’t like me, that’s all. I don’t want to talk about it — it will only make you mad.”

He was madder not knowing. But he let it go for now.

 

Later that night Nancy called, furious. “Mike, what the hell is going on?”

“What do you mean?” he asked. His voice was steady but his fury began to build. His mother had obviously called her with a sob story.

“Did you grab Mom and make a fist at her?” asked Nancy.

Unbelievable. “Hold on. I’m going to the phone in your room.” Livid, he set the receiver down and walked into the living room. El was watching Holly play with her dolls, as Ted Wheeler dozed in front of the TV. Mike told El he needed her. El got up, promising Holly she’d be right back.

In the kitchen he handed her the receiver. “Hang this up when I tell you to. I’m going to take the call in Nancy’s room.”

El nodded, holding it to her ear.

“You can say hi,” said Mike. “It’s Nancy.”

El lit up. “Hi Nancy,” she said into the mouthpiece.

Mike raced upstairs. He didn’t want to give El enough time to be interrogated. He tripped at the top and swore, massaging his shins. Stumbling into Nancy’s room, he shut the door, went over to her night table, and picked up the phone.

Nancy was talking. “Make sure –”

“El,” broke in Mike. “You can hang up now.”

“Okay,” said El. “Bye Nancy.”

“Good-bye,” said Nancy. “I miss you.”

“Me too.” There was a click.

“What you were saying to her?” asked Mike. ” ‘Make sure’ what?”

“Tell me about Mom,” said Nancy, ignoring his question. “Did you threaten her?”

That was a different question than before. “I didn’t grab her or make a fist at her. She’s a liar. I didn’t get physical at all.”

“But you threatened to.” She had dropped her first line of inquiry, and so El must have told her that their mother had distorted things.

“You bet your ass I threatened her.” Accused, he was in full defensive mode. “She’s been treating El like toxic waste.”

“That’s not acceptable, Mike.”

“That’s right. It’s not.”

“What you did is unacceptable. You can’t threaten Mom like that, even if you don’t mean it. El is upset.”

Mike was enraged. “What did El say?” Could he not trust his own girlfriend for two goddamn minutes? “What did she say!”

“What do you think she said? She’s not comfortable in a hostile environment.”

“Hostile?” Mike was ready to throw things. “Mom was the one who was hostile. She was grabbing El — making her cry.” Did El consider that hostile? “She hates El and thinks she’s not good enough for me. She’s a jealous, judgmental piece of shit.”

“I’m not defending Mom,” said Nancy. “I’m saying that you can stand up to her without acting like Conan the Barbarian.”

“Don’t be dramatic.”

“Dramatic is saying that you’ll beat the shit out of Mom.”

“Which I would obviously never do. So are you going to bitch at her now, and tell her to stop grabbing El, and lying about me?”

“Mike,” said Nancy, sounding strained. “Try walking a mile in her shoes.”

Mike closed his eyes. “People died because of her, Nancy.”

“I know that. But she’s alive, and she’s our mother. We can’t hate her for the rest of our lives.”

I can’t help hating her. “I have to go.” For all he knew, his mother was downstairs tormenting El again.

“Mike –”

He hung up on her.

 

Sunday dawned with more flurries. El was taking her morning shower when the walkie talkie went off: “Mike, do you copy?” It was Lucas.

Mike grabbed it off his desk. “Yeah. Over.”

“What did you think? Over.” He was asking about the latest episode of Miami Vice. The Friday night ritual in the Wheeler and Sinclair households. El liked the show too. Lucas would have called about this yesterday, but he had been out of town with family for the whole Saturday.

“To Larry. Over.”

“To Larry,” agreed Lucas. “And what payback. Over.”

The show writers had killed off Larry Zito, and the Miami Vice team — Crockett and Tubbs and Switek — had avenged their colleague in a blistering three-way shoot out. The shoot-out happened in a mall, which Mike could have done without. He relived Starcourt in that shoot-out. The rival gangs had opened fire on each other, and the vice cops rushed into the mall, happy to assist both sides. Everyone was gunned down, including the boss who had killed Zito. Mike wasn’t breathing well by the end. Joyce Byers had died in Starcourt; Mike’s friends had almost died too, throwing Satan’s Baby fireworks at the Mind Flayer; El had been bitten by it, and lost her powers for six months. He still had nightmares of that July 4th.

“Like I’ve been saying,” said Mike, keeping his voice level. “Season 3 is the best yet. Over.”

“I still like season 2,” said Lucas. “But this was great. They need to do more two-parters. Over.”

“What was it called again?” asked Mike. “The same as last week? Over.”

“Yeah. ‘Down for the Count’,” said Lucas. “Parts 1 and 2. Over.”

“Did it remind you of us? At Starcourt? Over.”

Lucas paused. “Yeah,” he said. “I almost expected Crockett and Tubbs to get pounced on by the Mind Flayer. The sight of any mall brings back memories.”

You were having “memories”? I was having a panic attack.

“But it was epic,” continued Lucas. ” ‘Down for the Count’ is the best story this season. Or at least a tie with ‘Stone’s War’. And don’t say it. Over.”

“No way,” said Mike, provoked. He thought “Stone’s War” was overpraised. Guerilla combat in Nicaragua wasn’t Miami Vice. “And I’ll say it until you wise up. ‘Forgive Us Our Debts’ reigns supreme. Over.”

That episode had aired in the middle of December as a serious game changer. Until the last few minutes it played like a boilerplate Hollywood screed against the death penalty: a murderer named Frank Hackman didn’t commit the crime for which he was found guilty (shooting Crockett’s friend in front of his family), so it became a predictable last-minute race against the clock to produce evidence that would exonerate him. Which the righteous Sonny Crockett did, busting his tail against every impossible odd. Except it turned out that Hackman really did kill Crockett’s friend, which he smugly revealed to Crockett as he came out of prison a free man. And then drove away laughing his ass off. Fade to black.

The bad guys won often enough in Miami Vice, but this twist was outrageous by even the show’s standards. Crockett had jumped through every hoop to get an innocent man off death row, and the man was guilty of exactly what he had been convicted of. Fans wanted to shoot their TV screens. So had Mike, but he cheered just the same. Not just for the Vice nihilism, but because the twist so utterly torpedoed the episode’s politics. “Forgive Us Our Debts” was a sermon against capital punishment, but in the end a toothless one. It portrayed Crockett as a lone moral hero whose lines shouted all the dogmas of the liberal left. The villains were pro-death penalty crusaders without a shred of integrity — especially the attorney general, who would rather let a possibly innocent man be executed than do anything to ruin his chances in the next election. The moral grid was clear: capital punishment was wrong. It’s what the liberal show writers wanted you to believe. But the twist shattered that grid. Every viewer cried foul for Hackman’s blood, furious that he escaped the electric chair. On the spot, “Forgive Us Our Debts” had turned Mike Wheeler into a pro-death penalty advocate. When you crossed liberalism with nihilism, you were left with self-mockery.

Mike had obsessed the Hackman Twist (as he called it) since it aired, and found that it spoke to him on a number of levels. He saw debt all around him, and little forgiveness to show for it. He wanted to forgive his mother but couldn’t. And feared a Hackman Twist if he did. That she would spit right back in Hawkins’ eye and repeat her sins.

“You’re crazy,” said Lucas. “That was a shit episode. Anyway, what are you and El doing today? Over.”

“We’re going to walk around Danford Creek. You and Max should join us. Over.”

“Can’t,” said Lucas. “Got chores. Over.”

“Loser,” said Mike. “Over.”

“Lesbian,” said Lucas, cutting him off: “Over and out.”

 

Danford Creek was an all-afternoon event. The temps got a degree above freezing, and the hike was good exercise. Mike had forgotten how serene the landscape was, and El looked almost happy again. As for dinner that night, it was a subdued affair. His mother ate in the living room, and Mike wouldn’t let El near the dishes. Karen Wheeler felt triumphant: the kitchen was hers again. Exhausted from the hike and his mother’s melodrama, they turned in early. Mike had school the next day.

They showered before bed, and Mike took Eleven under scalding hot water. It was sex at its steamiest and most convenient: the mess washed away with no effort. They loved it and planned on another shower bang in the morning. After drying off, they put on shorts and t-shirts, and Mike fell into bed completely exhausted. El didn’t join him right away. Across the room she sat in his chair and blindfolded herself with her bandana.

He sat up against his pillow. “Whoa, who are you spying on?”

“Shut up,” she said. She flipped the switch of his radio box and turned to dial to white noise.

Mike hadn’t seen her use the Void for a long time. He watched as the radio hissed and her nose started to bleed. Five minutes later, she pulled off the bandana and silenced the radio. She came to bed in his arms.

“Who were you spying on?” he asked again. “I won’t shut up until you tell me.”

She snuggled against him. “You never shut up anyway.”

“You shouldn’t invade people’s privacy, El.”

“It was my dad,” she said.

“Oh. Well, you can spy on Hopper all you want. He deserves it.”

She smacked his chest.

“Did you catch him taking a raunchy shit?”

“Mike, stop. I just checked to be sure he’s okay.”

Mike knew she missed him. El hadn’t been apart from Hopper for this amount of time since she started living in his cabin three years ago. For the last two years, since her adoption, he and Mike had carried on a cold war against each other for the sake of El’s affections. He hates me, Mike realized, as much mom hates El.

“El?” he asked.

“Yes?”

“Why do you think parents are such jealous assholes?”

He never found out what she was about to say. A blast of thunder and lightning shook the sky and earth, and Mike and El jumped a foot in the air off the bed.

“What the fuck?” said Mike, getting up and looking out his window.

“Is it a thunderstorm?” asked El, sitting up.

“It’s below freezing. Way too cold for a thunderstorm.” Never in his life had he heard thunder in the month of January. He wondered if someone was exploding fireworks, but dismissed the idea. The blast they had heard was far more loud and reverberative. It had filled the whole sky. And lighting was unmistakable; the window had lit up like a solar flare.

“Mike.”

He turned from the window. “Yeah?”

She held out her arms. “Come to bed.”

“Yeah.” His body reminded him he was exhausted. He came to her, turned off his table lamp, and they fell fast asleep in each others arms.

 

Later he came alive in dreams. Dreams of Starcourt and Miami Vice. Of Will and Dustin, gunned down by drug lords. Of those same drug lords dissolving into pools of flesh that became the Mind Flayer and swallowed Max and Lucas whole. It pounced on Mike, roaring and dripping foulness. He cried out for El, but she was gone — if she had ever been present in this phantasmagoria. The creature closed in, jaws slavering. Mike saw the head of Joyce Byers in the back of the double-jawed throat; she was screaming for Will, trying desperately to crawl out of the beast’s stomach. The Mind Flayer snapped shut its jaws and swallowed. Mike saw the elongated lump that was Joyce Byers going back down its throat.

Mrs. Byers, come back. Will needs you. Hopper needs you. So do I. Mrs. Byers!

The Mind Flayer leaped, tearing into Mike and feasting as the demo-dogs had once feasted out of Bob Newby. Mike screamed as he was eaten alive. He screamed for Mrs. Byers, and for Will, and for Nancy —

— and for El, as he shot straight up in bed. He was pouring sweat and hyperventilating. He waited many minutes, but was unable to shake off the dream. It had seemed too real. He looked over at El, sleeping peacefully on her side. I couldn’t have really called her. She’d be awake. He tucked extra blanket over her, then got up to clear his head. He didn’t want that dream picking up where it left off.

Down in the kitchen he poured himself a glass of water, raised it to his lips, and then threw it down the sink. He needed something real. He opened his parents’ liquor cabinet and grabbed the first bottle he saw: Bacardi 151. Supposedly strong stuff. He removed the cap, and took two giant swallows. Lava raced down his throat and Mike almost dropped the bottle. He hacked and coughed, and kept coughing; he was burning inside out. How did his mother drink this liquid flame?

He stumbled to the sink and drank from the faucet, inhaling cold water until the fire went out. Already he was unwinding; feeling his mind numbing from the booze. And yet…

Something wasn’t right. He sensed a presence nearby — as if something from his dream had followed him back into reality. Like those Nightmare on Elm Street movies. There was supposed to be a third one released next month. At that moment Mike had no intention of seeing a Freddy Krueger film ever again. He couldn’t stop seeing Mrs. Byers. Jesus, Will. You had the best mother. She was better than all of us. He began crying, and started to head back upstairs.

At the staircase he stopped, feeling pulled in the direction of the front door. He looked at the door and shivered. The source of his dream was outside. That made no sense but he felt the truth of it. He had to see what it was.

Emboldened by insanely high-proof rum, he told his shakes to go to hell. He threw open the front door, stepping outside barefoot. The hanging thermometer read 24 degrees. He cursed the cold weather too. Daring anything to attack him, he surveyed the front yard. Clouds hid the stars and moon. Thin illumination came from Maple Street’s lamp posts. As far as Mike could see — and it wasn’t far — there was nothing out of the ordinary. But the awful sensation was worse. He wasn’t alone out here.

And then something hissed, and Mike’s bladder nearly broke. Only a huge vicious animal could make a sound like that. It came from across the street, on his neighbors’ front lawn. The Drapers. Mike could barely see anything over there.

He had to see. Ignoring his terror and frozen toes, he crossed the street. The clouded night draped everything in murky obscurity. He edged close to the Drapers’ lawn.

There was a deep rumble… and the entire front lawn began to rise.

Mike staggered backwards. What the –? 

As the lawn rose higher, its form revealed itself: it wasn’t the lawn, but a viscid beast that covered it for almost forty feet. A worm, with billowing worm-like tentacles. Mike knew without thinking that this thing was from the Upside Down. Chunks of earth fell from its razor-ringed mouth. The thing had been eating the Drapers’ front lawn as if it were cereal.

“This isn’t happening,” Mike whispered. “I’m still in bed.” Bullshit. You don’t always know when you’re dreaming, but you damn well know when you’re awake. And Mike Wheeler was definitely awake.

The worm saw him and reared like a cobra. It exhaled: another hiss. There was a smell of gangrene; a miasma of sickness and rot. Gagging at the stench, Mike dropped to his knees. Putrefaction clogged his throat, and he could hardly move or think. The worm’s face filled his vision. He groaned and threw up violently. He couldn’t believe how bad the smell was. He wanted to die, and vomited again. He thought of Will throwing up slugs, and knew this was something worse.

The worm hissed again, blanketing Mike in repulsion. He tried holding his breath, but his lungs cried for air. What they got instead his organs couldn’t take. He blacked out.

 

Mike… Mike!

He opened his eyes slowly. No one could be calling him. He was in Hell or Sheol or wherever the damned made their nest. Except that couldn’t be right either. He was moving — no, gliding. And the stench was still in his nose, though not as concentrated. With appalling certainty, Mike realized he was on the worm’s back. On its back.

Jesus, what’s happening to me?

He panicked and flailed, trying to jump off the creature, which would have surely killed him. A wormy tentacle held him fast. He was high in the air, he realized, at least a hundred feet above a ground obscured by swirling motes. He looked around, seeing motes everywhere. He was in the Upside Down, riding the worm. A shadow worm.

And it was flying fast.

Way too fast — way over a hundred miles an hour, maybe a hundred twenty. Could eagles fly this fast?

His useless throat tried to protest and hacked up silence. He was hardly breathing. The worm’s face, mercifully, was facing ahead as it flew, but its breath-stench still reached him by diffusion. The worm shot through a night that was endless as the universe itself.

Mike panicked and began screaming. The worm accelerated even more, letting out an ear-splitting shriek. The freezing air of the Upside Down slashed against Mike’s bare skin, threatening hypothermia. The worm shrieked again, and burned faster… faster…

 

“Mike!”

A door banged far behind him. He lifted his head and saw El across the street. He shoved himself up on his hands and knees. The ground swam beneath him, and he threw up. Sweat froze on his skin. Help me.

He was still on the Drapers’ front lawn. There was no trace of the multi-tentacled worm. Of course not. He had imagined the whole thing. Then he saw the torn chunks of earth and shredded lawn. He hadn’t imagined it — or at least not all of it. Maybe just the part about flying in the Upside Down. But he wasn’t sure. That horrible ride had seemed just as real. How had the creature traveled between worlds? You needed a Gate for that, and there was no Gate anymore. El had closed the first one in ’84, and Mrs. Byers had closed the second one opened by the Russians in ’85, right before she was shot to death. There couldn’t be a third Gate. No way.

El reached him and knelt down. “Mike, are you okay?”

He nodded, clutching her to steady himself. He was shaking; freezing cold.

“It’s freezing out here, and you’re in bed clothes.”

“I feel awful,” he said.

“You look green,” she said, helping him up. “Should I call an ambulance?”

“Just help me inside,” he said, leaning on her as they walked across the street.

“What happened?”

When they got back to his bedroom, he told her.

 

Next Chapter: MLK

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