Retrospective: Weaveworld

True joy is a profound remembering; and true grief the same. Thus it was, when the dust storm that had snatched Cal up finally died, and he opened his eyes to see the Fugue spread before him, he felt as though the few fragile moments of epiphany he’d tasted in his twenty-six years – tasted but always lost – were here redeemed and wed. He’d grasped fragments of this delight before. Heard rumor of it in the womb-dream and the dream of love; known it in lullabies. But never, until now, the whole, the thing entire. It would be, he idly thought, a fine time to die. And a finer time still to live, with so much laid out before him.

Weaveworld (1987) was a milestone for me, and the kind of novel that comes along once a decade. The fifties gave us Lord of the Rings; the sixties Dune; the seventies Shogun; the nineties A Song of Ice and Fire carrying up to the juggernaut A Storm of Swords. For me the epic of the eighties was and still is Weaveworld, a tale of magic-users fighting for their wonderland among human inferiors, and failing tragically. To say that it’s well written is an understatement. The prose is a feast and the narrative never flags. Clive Barker may have lost his mojo in the ’90s, but Weaveworld excuses those later sins. To review it is to spoil it thoroughly, so proceed at your peril.

The premise involves a race of magic-users who for centuries had carved out a niche for themselves in England, until forced into hiding. The magic-users are the Seerkind; their geographical wonderland the Fugue. At the novel’s start, both have been preserved in suspended animation (since 1896), shrunk and woven into a magic carpet. Now eighty years later, they are unwoven and unleashed again into the human world, fully unprepared for the hostility that awaits. On the one hand, there is the alliance of a rogue Seer and a nasty salesman, though they each have conflicting motives. The Seer, Immacolata, wants to destroy her kind for making her outcast, while the salesman Shadwell wants to sell the Fugue to the highest bidder and make himself rich. Or at least at first he does. When he sees its glory first hand, he decides that he wants to rule it and initiates a war in paradise. This ends up destroying paradise and most of the Seerkind with it. The salesman then retreats to a lifeless desert in the Middle-East and recruits Uriel (a demon that thinks it’s an angel) to “cleanse” England of the hundred or so remaining Seerkind.

The protagonists of this drama are Cal and Suzanna, drawn to each other as they try to save the Fugue from those who would sell, abuse, or extinguish it. And find themselves, in the end, by curious roads. They fall in love over their passion for wonderland, but never have sex, worried that physical intimacy might somehow diminish their potentials. When Suzanna has an affair with the Seer Jerichau, it’s not understood to betray Cal; and when Cal’s girlfriend Geraldine learns that he’s in love with Suzanna, she continues to support him. What Cal and Suzanna share enables the preservation of the Fugue as it’s destroyed at the end of part 2; and, ultimately, its recreation in the novel’s final pages.

Fantasy elements are fleshed out with the right amount of detail — not so much that it bogs down the narrative, but just enough to take the world seriously. There are four families of Seers: the Lo, who work magic through dance; the Aia, who do it by music; the Ye-Me by weaving (it was they who created the carpet to hide the Fugue), and the Babu through hieroglyphics. There are places in the Fugue worthy of the best fantasies: the Orchard of Lemuel Lo; the town Nonesuch; the Firmament; and the sacred Gyre that houses the Loom. Paradoxes erupt the closer one gets to the Gyre, and awful things happen when blood is spilled inside.

Horror elements are horrific by even Barker’s standards. Weaveworld isn’t a clean fantasy — as if the author of The Damnation Game and The Books of Blood could ever write such a thing — but a yarn of broiling terrors. The Magdalene and her by-blows are exhibit-A. The Magdalene is Immacolata’s wraith-sister, murdered by Immacolata while they were in their mother’s womb, and enslaved by the rogue Seer ever since. She has an appetite for raping human men and giving birth to their offspring within hours. These are the hideous by-blows — “bodies turned inside out to parade the bowel end stomach; organs whose function seemed simply to seep and wheeze lining the belly of one like teats, and mounted like a coxcomb on another’s head”. The by-blows are completely insane and starving to kill from the moment they are born, especially their violated fathers. Most creepy is that their faces bear a sick resemblance to their fathers. There are other horrors: the Hag (Immacolata’s other wraith-sister), the Rake, and of course, the utterly petrifying Uriel.

Barker has called Weaveworld a meditation on memory and how it fails us in the scheme of life’s mysteries. The first time the Fugue is unleashed (at the end of part 1), it is soon woven up again, as the Seerkind are still too vulnerable to live among humans. Cal begins to forget the Fugue’s wonders, and the more he tries remembering, the more he loses. It’s a bit like Raymond Feist’s Faerie Tale, which also explores the idea of forgetfulness: individual forgetfulness, but also long-term cultural forgetfulness, as myths become lost or distorted throughout history. Both are present in Weaveworld, and the climax depends on the latter. As the invincible Uriel arrives in England and lays waste to all and good, Cal is able to defeat the demon on a gamble — by making it remember what it was before the desert perverted it.

He pays the price for that confrontation, losing more than memory this time, but his mind. He goes catatonic for weeks, until Suzanna’s persistent care triggers a return to self-awareness; in the final pages they initiate wonderland’s rebirth. Few literary characters have bonded so purely. There’s Frodo and Sam; Blackthorne and Mariko; Thomas Covenant and Linden Avery. To that gallery we should add Cal Mooney and Suzanna Parrish — two “Cuckoos”, human inferiors, who saved the Seerkind from extinction.

The Twelve Children of Paris

U.S. publishers wouldn’t touch this book, but I never understood the fuss. The Twelve Children of Paris (2013) is hyperviolent like its predecessor The Religion (2006), but in a Quentin Tarantino-like way that’s hard to take too seriously.

Tim Willocks is a serious writer though. His narratives move like juggernauts and are weighted with philosophy. He has a gifted command of language. If his hero has a superhuman complex, the author uses it effectively to examine the worst of human nature — represented by the worst in himself.

That hero is Mattias Tannhauser, a former jihadist who left Islam to become an opium and arms merchant, and then, of all things, a crusader — a Knight of St. John fighting against the Muslim hordes at the famous Siege of Malta (1565). That story was told in The Religion. In this book he enters Paris during the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre (1572), which began as a royal stab against an elite group of Protestants but quickly degenerated into a full-blown massacre of Protestant civilians by the Paris militia.

Tannhauser has come to Paris for his wife, but learns that she has been abducted for unknown reasons. As carnage ensues, he goes on a slaughter-mission of his own, tearing up the city to find her. He still wears the cross of St. John (see book cover above), but he’ll decapitate Catholics as often as Protestants, thank you. His personal moral degeneration matches the city’s, and as a result he becomes a more believable character than the “superman” of The Religion. Most of the opposition he faces are poorly trained city militia, everyday thugs, and politically appointed knights hardly worthy of the title. In the first book he beat up his own size, or generally those who deserved it, and he joined forces against invading Muslim hordes. Now he kills without second thought people who scarcely get in his way.

His salvation, if he deserves any, comes from a group of children he rescues along the way. Some have been abused horribly, others are starving and destitute, and two are Protestant girls whose father has been burned on a pyre outside their home. The innocence of children is the thin ray of light in a city that’s become hell on earth.

If you liked The Religion, you should love The Twelve Children of Paris. What makes it controversial is what makes it a superior sequel.

Retrospective: The Seven Altars of Dusarra

Ask fantasy readers if they’ve heard of The Seven Altars of Dusarra and you might get a blank stare. Even in my day it was an obscurity, a sword-and-sorcery novel in the vein of the early pulps, the second in a four-volume series. The Lure of the Basilisk is the first (which I ended up reading last and considered a rather unimpressive prequel), The Sword of Bheleu the third, and The Book of Silence the fourth. The third and fourth volumes are good too, but neither fired my imagination like the second.

The story’s hero is Garth the Overman, who is sent to a faraway city to rob the temples of some nasty cults. Planning isn’t his forte. You wouldn’t hire this guy for secrecy or low profile. He stumbles blindly into situations and relies on hack-and-slash. He kills people and then regrets it. He calls forth a citywide manhunt and has to sleep in horse stalls to avoid arrest. He’s a morally ambiguous figure like Conan, and the world he inhabits is like those of the classic pulp fantasies — decadent and grim, full of shady rogues, evil priests, and self-serving wizards.

The city of Dusarra in particular reminds me of Fritz Leiber’s Lankhmar, especially the Street of the Temples devoted to a variety of perverse deities. There’s Tema (goddess of the night), Andhur Regvos (god of darkness and blindness), Aghad (god of hate and treachery), Sai (goddess of torture and pain), P’hul (goddess of disease and decay), Bheleu (god of war and destruction), and finally, the one whose “name is not spoken” (god of death).

The cults are chilling if not outright ghastly. The priests of Andhur Regvos blind themselves, those of Sai practice torture and human sacrifice, those of P’hul have hideous skin diseases and enjoy spreading them.

Garth is supposed to steal whatever he finds on the seven altars. This is what he gets:

1. Tema, Goddess of Night. A huge diamond gemstone (a foot in diameter), that refracts moonlight into pure white light.

2. Andhur Regvos, God of Darkness and Blindness. A huge black obsidian stone (a foot in diameter).

3. Aghad, God of Hate and Treachery. Gold coins with blood on them.

4. Sai, Goddess of Pain and Suffering. A dagger, a whip, and a woman about to be sacrificed.

5. P’hul, Goddess of Disease and Decay. A mound of dust.

6. Bheleu, God of War and Destruction. A magic flaming sword (the Sword of Bheleu).

7. The Nameless God, Death. Nothing.

Garth gets into big trouble with the priests of Aghad, who plot an ugly revenge that carries into the third and fourth books. He makes a problem for himself in the temple of Sai; the woman he rescues wants to go free, but Garth has interpreted his instructions literally; he was sent to retrieve whatever he found on the seven altars, and while the dagger and the whip are what normally reside on the altar of Sai, he believes he must take the woman too. It’s an interesting twist that makes his job a pain in the ass, as he must now rely on his war beast to guard the woman from fleeing while he robs the remaining three temples.

The outcomes of those last three temples are varied in the extreme. The high priestess of P’hul actually allows Garth to take the dust from the altar — the only case in which he obtains his object without killing anyone or desecrating the temple; he even departs on friendly terms with the priestess. The temple of Death is the last one he enters, where there is nothing on the altar at all. (There’s supposed to be a book, the Book of Silence, which becomes Garth’s quest in the fourth novel, taking him to a city far from Dusarra.) In between those, his robbing of the sixth temple is the most pivotal encounter of the novel: at the altar of Bheleu he commits an appalling massacre (see the book cover at the top), and falls into his preordained role as the one who will usher in a new age of war:

The interior of the ruin was a single vast space; if there had ever been any internal walls, they were nothing now but part of the dust that served as the floor. The black stone walls and the tattered metal frame of the demolished dome were lit by a great bonfire that blazed in the center of the temple, and around this conflagration danced a score or more of red-robed priests, prancing about and chanting eerily, casting long black shadows that writhed across red-lit walls.

There was no sign of an altar, unless the bonfire could be considered that; it was certainly the focus of the worshippers’ attention. Garth blinked, and studied the leaping flames more carefully. Logs of all size were heaped crudely together; in the center, a single slim straight rod stood straight up, almost invisible through the flames. He blinked again. It was a sword. An immense two-handed broadsword; a truly magnificent weapon. He would take that sword, and wield the splendid blade among the worshipers until it shone as red as blood as it did now with heat.

Somewhere a part of him knew that was insane, this uncontrollable craving, but his rationality was drowned in a flood of unreasoning blood lust. An instant later, the reeling semi-hypnotized dancers were delighted to see him stride out of nowhere, roaring into their midst, red eyes ablaze; they knew at once, with the absolute conviction of the fanatic, that this was their god who confronted them. They screamed with ecstasy, the chant collapsing into chaotic raving; the earth rumbled beneath them, and lightning forked across the sky.

Garth wrenched the sacred sword from its place; his hands smoked with the heat of the hilt, but he paid it no heed, raising the blade above his head, and whirling it about so that it blazed in the firelight.

“I am Bheleu!” cried the monster in Garth’s body. “I am destruction!”

The blade swung up, and came down, hacking through a man’s neck, spraying blood into the scattered fire where it sizzled and stank. The worshipers cried hoarse approval; there was no trace of resistance. The eager warriors flung themselves in the weapon’s path as the earth shook and the sky raged, and the overman laughed. For a half an hour their god walked among his people, bringing the total destruction their creed proclaimed holy. The priests of Bheleu had been warriors, for their faith required it. None shrank from the dismembered and disemboweled corpses of their comrades. Instead they fought amongst themselves for the right to approach and be slain.

For me, this remains one of the most iconic passages in any fantasy novel. In 1981 it made me want more of the sword-and-sorcery genre, and it inspired plenty of ideas for my D&D campaigns. I had not yet read Michael Moorcock’s Elric books, but obviously the Sword of Bheleu owes a lot to Stormbringer.

In the post-Game of Thrones era we tend to think George Martin invented “brutal fantasy”, but as I see it, Martin essentially took the dark amoral elements of pulp fantasy (sword-and-sorcery fantasy) and brought them into high fantasy. Game of Thrones has the high epic sweep of Lord of the Rings, but it also has the cloak-and-dagger intrigue of pulps like The Seven Altars of Dusarra. There’s a lot I miss about those stripped down pulps that told straightforward stories, unencumbered by epic ambitions.

The Last Prayer

Some readers have asked me what I’m writing now, if anything. I do have something in the works, but sorry, it’s not another Stranger Things novel. I took the Stranger Things kids as far as I wanted and am satisfied with the results. Time for something new.

The novel I’m currently working on is called The Last Prayer. It’s set in an alternate earth, in the year 2020, where prayers are reliably effective, in varying degrees for different people — especially harmful prayers. (Benign prayers that actually work are rare, for specific reasons.) To keep society functional, a committee of spiritualists labor around the clock at intercepting and neutralizing harmful prayers from the ether. The plot involves a group of rogue spiritualists who form a cabal and begin intercepting the vilest and most toxic prayers to weaponize them for their own destructive purposes. The story is a bit wild, and I’m pleased so far with how it’s developing.

In the meantime, a friend recommended two novels: Lucius Shepard’s A Handbook of American Prayer and Chuck Palahniuk’s Lullaby. The first is a story of a man convicted of manslaughter who devises a means of prayer to survive prison violence — finding, to his astonishment, that his prayers actually work. Palahniuk’s novel is about a reporter researching a lullaby that is sung in African cultures to give a painless death to the old or infirm; he discovers that the lyrics of the song literally kill, whether spoken out loud or prayed in thought. I intend to read both of these in due course.

My use of prayer is more tongue-in-cheek than the above two — and I’ll say upfront the pious won’t care for it — but I’m exploring serious ideas in the story as well. In the world I envision, prayers have an actual essence to them, and they appear as discrete objects to those equipped to manage them. In a world where anyone could die or suffer hideous tragedy on the whim of another, the prayer police constantly have their hands full. Stay tuned!

Eleven’s Showdowns (Age 12 to 66)

Here are the confrontations in which Jane Hopper, AKA Eleven, defeats a baddie. They are dramatic encounters involving high emotion and distress on her part, starting with the demogorgon when she was 12, and ending with the apocalyptic third Gate when she was 66. In chronological order they are as follows:

Vaporizing the Demogorgon (12 years old)
Confronting Ray the lab technician (13 years old)
Closing the first Gate on the Mind Flayer (13 years old)
Fighting Billy in the sauna (14 years old)
Leg surgery (14 years old)
Freeing Billy from the Mind Flayer (14 years old)
Killing the Shadow Worm (15 years old)
Destroying the Illithid (19 years old)
Battling the witch Baba Yaga (21 years old)
Capturing the serial killer Black Rose (26 years old)
Annihilating the Llaza (38 years old)
Closing/Destroying the third Gate (66 years old)

Here’s how they rank.

1. Closing the first Gate on the Mind Flayer (13 years old, in 1984). This is the showdown against which all others on this list are measured. It’s the demogorgon times five. It shows a girl taking life’s cold lessons and using that blackness to her advantage. Her friends have done what they can to help: Will has been exorcised, and the demo-dogs have been diverted by an underground attack. The momentum has piled like a juggernaut, and Eleven lets it loose. It’s really too much for her. She’s furious and exhausted and plagued by her own demons, not least the specter of Papa who taunts her once again: “You have a wound, Eleven, a terrible wound… and it’s festering, and it will grow… spread… and eventually, it will kill you.” And that’s what puts her over the edge, giving her the requisite anger as Kali taught her. Watch the scene here.

2. Annihilating the Llaza (38 years old, in 2009). The Llaza may be the most terrifying Upside Down creature, because it’s omnipresent and too abstract to nail down. In its ether-larva stage it attacks through the internet, corrupting computer files into horrifying images to break peoples’ minds. Jane’s 15-year old son, Mike Hopper, becomes especially vulnerable to the Llaza’s attacks because of his psychic powers. He is subjected to a terrifying perversion of the actress Ellen Page in his screensaver slideshow, and suddenly finds that he can accelerate time through people and age them to death in a matter of seconds (which he does to four high-school bullies). Mike Hopper is just what the Llaza needs: it has a trillion year lifespan and would take centuries to grow out of its ether stage. By provoking Mike to attack it, it is helped not harmed, and reaches adulthood in minutes, whereupon it comes smashing through Mike’s computer screen and assumes corporeal form to terrorize the world. Jane arrives home to find Mike hardly alive, frozen in his bedroom wall and functioning as the Llaza’s battery. She must fight a battle like she’s never fought in her life, and destroy this abstract creature without killing her son in the process. Read the gripping scene here.

3. Freeing Billy from the Mind Flayer (14 years old, in 1985). Eleven’s liberation of Billy is a crowning moment of triumph because she’s powerless, thanks to the Mind Flayer’s infection (see #7, below). What she does, however, is tap into Billy’s most vulnerable source of pain that she witnessed while inside his mind earlier that day. It’s a moving scene and one of Eleven’s most impressive victories. Essentially she frees Billy from the Mind Flayer through the power of love. Normally that kind of thing is cheesy, but it’s certainly not in this case. Oddly, the scene evokes Frodo and Sam’s moment on Mount Doom in Peter Jackson’s film. Frodo’s spirit was similarly crushed, he couldn’t stand on his own, and his memories of the Shire were conveyed with the same emotional appeal used by Eleven to reach Billy — with memories of his mother on the California beach. Watch the powerful scene here.

4. Destroying the Illithid (19 years old, in 1990). The Illithid: the Lord of the Upside Down. Mr. Clarke dies protecting the “kids” (who are 19-year olds now) from this horrible entity, and Jane then kills it — but not before it tears out Mike Wheeler’s eyes. As if it hadn’t done enough to Mike by that point. The history goes back to the kids’ sophomore year in high school, when they were fifteen. Jane had chased the Illithid after it murdered Mike, but it escaped, leaving a nasty pet for her to kill instead (see #10 below, the Shadow Worm). They had all thought Mike was dead, but the Illthid had powers of resurrection, and it raised Mike to be a slave in the Upside Down. For three and a half years (between January 25, 1987 – August 3, 1990) Mike Wheeler was tortured and treated like a beast. His escape and return to Hawkins brought the Illithid hot on his heels, and Jane finished what she couldn’t do before. But after years of torture, Mike is dysfunctional, and now on top of that blind and crippled. Read the unpleasant scene here.

5. Vaporizing the Demogorgon (12 years old, in 1983). Her first showdown is the heartbreaking sacrifice. It devastates Mike, who has just promised to take her in as a member of his family. It’s a rare case when a fake death works, because season 2 will keep everyone thinking she’s still dead until the very end. All the traits are in place that will define later showdowns: the nosebleeds; the hysterical exhaustion; the cost of using her powers; and the overwhelming guilt she suffers, knowing the Upside Down’s intrusion is her fault. Five decades of pain and tragedy lie ahead on account of opening the first Gate. But that accident also results in momentous friendships and new families. If Hawkins Indiana and Portland Oregon will suffer from the Upside Down, they will also be brightened by heroes willing to sacrifice themselves. Watch this foundational scene here.

6. Closing/Destroying the third Gate (66 years old, in 2037). In the post-apocalypse Jane is a raving lunatic and you can’t blame her. Life has dealt her one shitty hand after another. The east and west coasts are nuclear wastelands, and the midwest has been swamped by the Upside Down. Eventually all of America will be under the shadow. Her son is 12 years old for the third time, having aged backwards down to infancy, and then forwards again, stuck on the road of childhood. What mother wouldn’t break under fate this cruel? As William Byers takes care of Mike in the primitive Hawkins Colony (and learns that Mike has the ability to time-travel), Jane is cared for at the old Hawkins Lab, nursed by scientists who pray that her mind will heal. She’s the only hope of closing the new Gate and stopping the shadow invasion. This Gate is a monstrous entity — it has reproductive ability, constantly producing smaller gates (called Pockets) which materialize across America and unleash hordes of creatures everywhere. But Jane can’t save the world until she is saved by her son: Mike hatches a wild plan to go back in time (to 2031) and prevent the Pockets from being created in the first place. But through a terrible chain of events, it is he who ends up creating the Pockets and initiating the holocaust. Before dying in the past he is able to do one good thing — heal his mother across time, through the psychic link of the 12-year-old version of his mother he recruited (along with his father Mike Wheeler, and Lucas Sinclair and Dustin Henderson) from the year 1983. In the present, the 66-year old Jane tells the doctors her mind is healed and that she is ready to take on the Gate. Read that mighty scene here.

7. Leg surgery (14 years old, in 1985). Eleven’s ultimate battle with the Mind Flayer is waged within the confines of her flesh, and though she wins, she loses. Shortly after tearing the critter from her leg, she realizes her powers are gone. This leaves others to save the day: her friends bomb the Mind Flayer with fireworks, and Joyce and Hopper close the Gate. She actually saves the day too, without her powers, by liberating Billy (see #3 above), but the flayed infection of her body is the most violating attack she suffers in her whole life (aside from Baba Yaga’s assault in 1992, see #8 below). A creature burrowing inside you takes agony to a new level. When El screams during her self-surgery, it looks like her head will explode (a mall window shatters instead). It was a bold move for the show writers to strip El of her powers at the point she will need them most. Watch the visceral scene here.

8. Battling Baba Yaga (21 years old, in 1992). Jane’s deadliest adversary isn’t an Upside-Down creature, but a Slavic witch: the legendary Baba Yaga who terrorizes countrysides and eats little kids. She travels the world in her Dancing Hut, which on the outside is a tiny log cabin with giant legs; on the inside it’s a thousand times bigger, with rooms filled with horrors worse than demogorgons. Baba Yaga’s appearance is deceptive; she looks like a feeble crone and hobbles around on a stick, but that’s purely for show, as she’s actually quite strong and fast, and practically invincible. Weapons don’t harm her, and she’s immune to psionic powers; only magic can kill her. When Jim Hopper goes after Baba Yaga thinking she’s a harmless old bag, he becomes trapped insider her Hut, accompanied by three kids who die one by one. Jane breaks in to rescue him, but her psychic powers are as useless as her father’s gun. They’re both powerless as the witch murders people in front of them, drives Hopper insane with black magic — and then rips off Jane’s left arm and eats it like a turkey drum. But then, just then, as Jane resigns herself to a dying agony, she gets an idea. Read the scene here.

9. Throwing Billy through a brick wall (14 years old, in 1985). It starts as a group effort with the kids trapping Billy, but he doesn’t stay trapped for long. The face-off between him and El is a ripper. She hurls a weighted-barbell at him; he throws it off, and lifts her up and chokes her; Mike clubs him from behind, and Billy prepares to kill him when El — screaming like a lioness — levitates him and throws him literally through a brick wall. How his bones stay in one piece is anyone’s guess, but then he is possessed by the Mind Flayer. (Apparently the final bit with El collapsing into Mike’s arms and crying wasn’t an act; Millie Bobby Brown was so drained from shooting the scene that she broke down, and Finn Wolfhard improvised accordingly.) Of all the showdowns on this list, this one is the most ass-kicking, and the inverse of the tender salvation Eleven provides Billy in the end (see #3, above). Watch the scene here.

10. Killing the Shadow Worm (15 years old, in 1987). The final ’80s conflict centers on the tragedy of Mike Wheeler and his death at the hands of the Illithid — the most powerful entity of the Upside Down. Eleven chases the creature through the woods, hell-bent on revenge. It’s night and she can’t see a thing; she has to use the Void to navigate. And it’s cold, a punishing -20 degrees, thanks to the Illithid’s ability to affect local temperatures. Thunder and lightning start assailing her, which makes no sense in the arctic cold of January, but it’s again the creature working its shenanigans. She keeps chasing the creature, but it makes its getaway to the Upside Down, and she will have to wait three and a half years for the opportunity to kill it (see #4, above). She runs into its nasty pet, however: a shadow worm over 40 feet long, with breath of nauseating poison. Barely able to function in the freezing night, she lashes out with her powers; the worm roars in fury, breathing its sulfuric poison; the lightning accelerates to a crisis. Eleven finally tears the worm apart, in as much sympathy for the creature as rage for Mike. After this night she’s never the same person again. Accepting her role in Mike’s death, she leaves Indiana for Oregon, to put behind a past that has defined her too brutally. Read the worm showdown here.

11. Confronting Ray (13 years old, in 1984). The next two involve human villains who are no match for Jane at all. The challenge comes on a personal level as she is forced to come to terms with herself as a person of extraordinary power. In the case of Ray, he is supposed to be her trial victim. Having joined a street gang led by her lab sister, she craves vengeance — as only a 13-year old can — for Papa’s crimes against herself and the mother she never knew. On the verge of killing Ray (one of Papa’s old lab technicians), she stops when she sees that he has a family, and that the man is more pathetic than evil. It’s a pivotal moment in Eleven’s character arc, the point at which she makes a conscious decision to not follow a path of revenge and homicide. Ultimately, her sparing Ray (to Kali’s fury) makes her realize that her home is back in Hawkins, with the sheriff who took her in, and with the boy who became her first friend and boyfriend. (I can’t find this scene anywhere on youtube, no doubt because so many people hate the Lost Sister episode. They are wrong: it’s a very good episode that gave Eleven a strong character journey in season 2.)

12. Capturing Black Rose (26 years old, in 1997). By now a single mom with a three-year old son, Jane has been recruited by her father to help him capture a dangerous serial killer known as Black Rose. The killer rapes and butchers attractive women in their 20s, and leaves plastic black roses in their mouths as a calling card. Jane narrows the killer down to one of four police detectives, which Hopper has trouble accepting; he has worked with them all, and they are first-rate cops. When Jane finally figures out which of the four it is, it’s by accident, and only after accusing the wrong detective and getting him arrested. As the innocent one is being interrogated, Jane is attacked by the real killer — who has no idea who he’s messing with, and she easily overpowers him. The intensity of their confrontation owes not to Jane’s endangerment, but because he killed Jane’s best friend Nicki, thanks to Jane’s recklessness. The showdown brings home to Jane how she sees the world: as a woman of power who doesn’t need to worry about threats of sexual violence. To her, serial killers are pests; to the rest of womankind they are as dangerous as demogorgons. Her friend paid the price for this blinkered perspective. Read the face-off here.

Endless Night (Chapter 9)

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 Nine

                         Endless Night

He woke in the dawn that wasn’t a dawn, the endless night that never changed. His stomach growled, almost its own animal. Food was never a problem; he could eat whenever and wherever. Breakfast, lunch, and supper — all of it was right under him, always.

A screech tore the air. It was a shrieker, close by. He was used to them now, but not entirely. They had blades for teeth, acid for saliva, and more destructive potential than the meanest demo-dogs. If you gave them wide berth, they usually left you alone; if not, you got chewed and dissolved, and were probably better off for it.

He pushed himself up on his hands and knees. It was how he walked now, most of the time; on all fours. The way the Master liked it. He felt the scars of yesterday and days before. Ten, twenty, thirty days… he had lost track of how long he’d been here. One moment was much as the next; one shadow like most.

Salivating, he tore up the ground with fists of iron. The earth was hard, cold and unyielding, but his body was equipped for the task. He grabbed a wad of earth, mangled it like clay, and shoved it into his mouth. His teeth took it hard, but they were made for this work too. His mark was deeper this time; subterranean, and darkly spiritual.

In every practical way, Mike was now a being of the Upside Down: a human frame that had been extended far beyond its limitations, at grievous cost. Mentally he had been pruned; transmuted into something primitive. Resurrection was like nothing preached in churches on the other side.

I shred you for the joy of it.

With that refrain, the Master had brought him back from the dead and claimed him forever. He had held Mike like a pediatric nurse and raked his talons deep. Mike had screamed into the boundless night. For his parents, sister, and friends. He begged his savior to stop, and when the creature obliged, he begged for more punishment. Being marked a second time, in the resurrected state, was a privilege in hell’s palace. It debased Mike entirely, robbed him of speech, and reversed his perception of friends and enemies. The ground made him salivate. He was nourished by pain; required long periods of sleep every other day. His nightmares eroded him. He started to forget his life on the other side, where night wasn’t endless and life too alluring. That old life seemed a dream — a dangerously seductive one. Nightmares were safe. They showed Mike his foundations; what he could rely on. His friends and family (and the girl he wouldn’t think about) had flushed him away. The Master, his savior, was eternally at hand.

I am your mother-father. Bound to you by ties unbreakable. I shred you for the joy of it.

The next fistful of earth had a bonus: a demo-slug. Mike took satisfaction in eating the dog in its infancy. He killed demo-dogs all the time for the Master’s enjoyment, thrown against beasts that were ferocious enough to dismember him, but trained to lose against him at the last minute.

Sustained by earth and gravel, he ate until he was full, and then went back to rest. As always, his stomach hurt for a while after he ate. He remembered when food was different: delicious, cooked, and healthy. But that brought back memories of the people he had eaten it with, and those memories hurt more than his tummy. He pushed the shades away.

Another shrieker let loose. Mike pitied anything wandering close to it. Someday he’d probably be set against a shrieker. The Master needed his entertainment, and was easily bored.

He closed his eyes, curled up on the ground growling, and tried calling Gorn.

 

The worm often came to him, when it wasn’t being used or abused. It liked Mike and comforted him when his nightmares got bad. Gorn’s touch, physical and mental, neutralized Mike’s addiction to pain; pacified him; enabled him to live for short periods without raging in his mind. Mike didn’t think he could survive in the night without Gorn. The worm was his only friend.

But Gorn was sick. He needed comfort too. Mike helped, stroking the worm with telepathic whispers. Gorn purred, wrapping Mike in a massaging tentacle. They cared for each other, and the Master allowed it. Their relationship somehow amused him.

It amused him, perhaps, because Gorn wasn’t long for life. A worm needed its twin to survive and be healthy, and Gorn’s sister had died — slain on the other side of reality by a she-demon. (Mike refused to think of her: to open that door was to fracture the last holdout of his sanity.)

Mike felt himself being gently prodded. He raised his head to see the worm sniffing him over, and embracing him. He let himself be furled in the prodding tentacle, and then he and Gorn rested together in silent communion.

Please don’t die.

The worm moaned softly, stroking him. Mike wondered how he could have ever thought that Gorn smelled bad. His fragrance was redolent of the best aromas he recalled from his previous life: smells he couldn’t recall the precise sensation of, only that they were good. Though maybe that was because his perceptions had been reversed.

He snuggled against the worm’s stomach. I need you.

Gorn cried in pain that was getting worse. He stayed with Mike for a while.

 

Sometime later (a day or two or six or twenty), Mike woke to the sound of hissing around him. Demo-dogs; at least three. He whimpered, wanting to sleep more. The hisses became growls. Mike lashed out with louder growls, and the nearest dog retreated a step. Mike curled up and tried to shut them out. A dog from behind seized his ankle and bit into it savagely. Mike snapped his head around and barked furiously. Then he was being yanked and pulled backwards by a mouthful of teeth. The other two dogs chased after him, snapping at his head.

Mike yapped and snarled. He was dragged fifty feet more, and then his rage exploded. He flipped around on his back, reached up, and seized the demo-dog’s snout that was hauling him. The dog stopped to snap at him. Mike lunged, and then he was up wrapping the dog’s head in a choke hold. The dog yelped and twisted in his grasp. Mike plunged his teeth into the dog’s neck and wrenched the head violently from left to right. He heard bones splinter. Then he finished the job with his hands, crushing the head to a pulp.

The other two dogs paused, wary, and then they pounced. It was no contest. These were demo-dogs, not gorgons, and his mark made Mike a punishing brute. One of them he tore apart right away. The other one got a chunk out of his arm, but that was much to its misfortune. Mike took long minutes to kill it, making sure that it suffered.

He ate the legs of all three dogs, then curled up and slept by the carcasses. A warning to other predators.

 

The day came when Gorn died. On Mike’s seventieth, eightieth, (surely no more than) ninetieth day in the Upside Down. He despaired and sought his own grave, but his mark overruled him. It cared nothing for Mike’s desires, suicidal or otherwise.

Mike tried to cry; it came out as a high anguished howl. And then he ran. Not on all fours, as he usually did, as he was commanded to do, but as he used to, in his previous life on the other side. He ran upright, his legs pumping against the earth, his heart pounding. He ran nowhere especially, for there was nowhere to run in this land where the Master couldn’t find him. Mike didn’t care. He was running away, as far as his powerhouse legs could take him.

He howled as he ran, lamenting Gorn. You were my friend. I needed you.

There was a reply of ugly laughter, and then suddenly Mike was slapped to the ground, his two-legged race aborted. He coughed and caught his breath, not knowing what hit him —

— and then looked up. It was Him, of course. The Master, his eyes blazing in the endless night. Always there, to relish Mike’s fears and supply new ones. The creature’s robe swayed in the mote-filled atmosphere; the skulls around his neck gleamed. He laughed again, and then his unbridled mockery poured through Mike:

Oh, there are new and better friends, coming for you. New toys, new dolls, new rot to chew. They will hate you, ruin you, and do it over again, as true friends do. Look, child, here…

The Illithid stepped aside.

Mike saw his new “friends” and screamed.

And as they leaped on him with slavering jaws, he cried out for his family and friends, his real friends, wanting them back, promising them anything if they would come and take him back home again… home… to Hawkins…

Agony rolled over the land, and cries shook the skies. The Master kept laughing. The night took no notice.

 

THE END

(Previous Chapter: Westering)

Endless Night (Chapter 8)

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 Eight

                              Westering

When she woke the next morning and was told there was no shadow invasion, she went hysterical, insisting it was on the way. Max and Will had to shout over her before she accepted the threat was over.

The fact that she was in a hospital bed convinced her more than anything. She should have been back on the shadow tree getting sapped. Killing Maedred had wiped her out. The Illithid could have easily come back for her. But Maedred’s death is actually what saved her, and saved the world, according to Will. Inquires and arrests were ongoing, but the recorded conversations of two school administrators had divulged the nature of the shadow worms. Their ability to flip across dimensions depended on each other’s existence. By killing one worm, El had stranded the other in the Upside Down. She had “closed the Gate” once again. The shadow invasion died, and with it the Illithid’s dreams.

“It’s over,” said Will. “Really.”

It’s never over, she wanted to yell at him. No matter what she did, it was never good enough. The shadow always came back to Hawkins. Will’s mother had died for it. So had Max’s brother. And now Mike. The three of them in this room had the shared trauma that belied Will’s assurance.

“Where are Lucas and Dustin?” she asked.

“Dustin was here for a few minutes,” said Max.

“Not Lucas?”

Max lips went tight, and she shook her head.

No explanation necessary. Lucas blamed her for Mike’s death. He had been right about her from the start. She was the monster, and Hawkins kept suffering for it. The town needed to heal, and needed her gone. It was just as well she was moving out west.

The aftermath of these events was the worst ever. The high school was shut down for a month; the police station moved to City Hall. The tabloids screamed terrorism, and residents armed themselves. Hunting & Camping sold more firearms in a week than it normally did in a year. The mass murder of students, teachers, and police signaled an act of war. Someone, or some group of people, had a far-reaching grudge against the town of Hawkins.

Other residents just wanted out. Owning a gun meant nothing when the town was this compromised. The police were defenseless, the school system run by rapist killers. Houses went up for sale, at low price. Some sellers moved before they got any offers. Vijay Agarwal’s parents were gone in days. They were filthy rich anyway.

Susan Mayfield wasn’t rich, but she wasted no time moving straight back to California. When she had divorced Neil Hargrove after Billy’s death, he had magnanimously “given” her their house on Cherry Street, sparing them the legal mud-slinging. Now it was clear that she ended up with the shit end of the stick. The house would probably sell at half market value. Neil was the one who deserved this inequity. He deserved Hawkins. Like his shitty son who died here. No matter. Susan was ditching town anyway.

Max rebelled. She wasn’t leaving her best friend and boyfriend. The danger was over. The feds were keeping a close eye on Hawkins. Her mother needed to “bitch up and grow a pair”. Susan Mayfield, for the first time in her life, smacked her daughter in the jaw. She would decide who was bitch and who was boss. They were leaving by the end of the week; they should have never moved out here. If Max didn’t like it, she could think of the body count; and how close she had come to being among that number.

So many dead, and bodies still missing: Michael Wheeler, Josie Barrett, Ron Seward, Katie Martin, Harry Graves, Samantha Bacon, Jack Grist, Laura Black, Daniel Latimer, Madison Wilder, and Seth Manor. And three teachers: Richard Rice, Gail Clements, and Percy Dowd. The fate of the administrators, on the other hand, was writ in blood. Deputy Headmaster James Carol had been shot six times in his office and left hanging by his feet. Headmaster Reece Ogden was shot by the same gun; once, by himself. The feds found him with three others in his office: the nude, tied-up corpses of Alex Heft, Liam Hendrickson, and Ross Whitaker. The headmaster had shot them before taking his life, putting a bullet up each and every one of their anuses; they had died slowly from blood loss and internal wounds. The feds found two bombs in Ogden’s desk; the same models that blew up the police station. The headmaster’s suicide note was even more incendiary: I skull-fucked every one of those miserable boys. And I sodomized the girls. You’ll never find their bodies. And if you did you wouldn’t recognize them.

You couldn’t blame Susan Mayfield and others who wanted out. Hawkins needed martial law.

Who Ogden worked for, or been allied with, was anyone’s guess. The feds found a tape in his deputy’s office: conversations between him and Ogden that went on about strange things: shadows, giant worms, and some “master” with terrifying powers and ambitions. Deputy Carol may have been a double agent, working both for and against his boss and the mysterious master. The information on the tape was suppressed, though on the orders of Sam Owens, some of it was shared with the “problem boys” — William Byers, Lucas Sinclair, and Dustin Henderson — who seemed to be involved neck-deep in these matters every year.

But as far as most people were concerned, it was Starcourt all over again: the terrorists were either commie invaders or Satanists. This time they had raped and mutilated people, and dumped them somewhere remote. Search parties ranged everywhere: as far north as Marion, west as Kokomo, south as Anderson; east as Muncie. Still no bodies; no closure for the victims’ families.

Mike Wheeler’s friends — the “problem boys”, plus two girls overlooked by the feds — knew the truth of it. Ogden may have played the role of a terrorist, and he was certainly a rapist, but he was an utter tool. The real terrorist of Hawkins was an alien who could smack down the Devil. Most of the missing people were now mindless brutes with too many arms, and they were far away in a dark world.

Including the one that had swiped Mike’s corpse.

They thought it had disappeared but it was hiding in the tree, and when El left the hilltop it was emboldened to act. It leaped down taking them all by surprise, snatched Mike out of Will’s arms, and dashed off. Lucas had led a furious chase which they abandoned right away. They couldn’t see in the dark, and the thrall ran fast; much faster than the Illithid. There was no way to catch it. It had probably caught up with the Illithid and escaped to the Upside Down. By now Mike’s body had been eaten, digested, and voided; it was fertilizing the shadow side.

No one, not even Eleven, ever discovered that Mike Wheeler had a direct hand in destroying the police station. His friends would never know that his suicidal lunge was born of shame as much as a shattered heart. Nor did anyone learn that he had been gang-raped. His violators were all dead. Mike would never speak of these things years later, in his second life with El. They hurt too much to acknowledge.

Jim Hopper returned from his vacation spewing wrath. He had been notified of the station bombing right away, and flown back to Hawkins a day earlier than planned. The explosion had reduced the Hawkins police force from 36 to 28, and had also killed three civilians. Of the eight dead personnel, five had been officers. One of them was Phil Callahan. Hopper didn’t take that well. For all his lashing out at the poor sob, Hopper had been fond of the man; they had worked closely for years. Officer Powell was devastated. Callahan had been his best friend.

That was bad enough for him to deal with. The death of the teenagers, especially Mike Wheeler, left him stunned and reeling. El didn’t hold back. She gave an uncensored account of all that had happened, including her honeymoon at Mike’s. Hopper couldn’t believe what she told him. He had thought she was virgin and would remain so until her twenties. Her voice slashed the air, silencing him. She outlined everything: the Illithid’s plot, the shadow worms, her horrible breakup (thanks to him), her kidnapping, her captivity on the tree, her rescue by Mike, and his suicidal sacrifice. When her father tried asking questions, she ran over him. By the time she was done, he had no questions.

Hopper hated himself then. For being away when needed, and for the way he had always treated Mike. He groped his way towards an apology, wanting nothing more at that moment than atonement. She shut him down again, and made clear where they stood with each other.

“Don’t ever talk to me about him.” Her eyes were guillotines. “You don’t speak his name to me. Ever again. If you do, you’ll never see me again. Understand?”

He looked at her for a long time. “Yes,” he said, across a new chasm of their relationship. “I understand.” She knew he would have done anything at that moment to undo Mike Wheeler’s death.

She looked away from him. “Don’t cook for me tonight. I’ll make my own dinner and eat after you.” And I’ll eat all the damn Eggos I want.

That’s how it went for the rest of the week, and all through February.

She wouldn’t have made it if not for Will. He spent time with her, bonding in trauma. He could more than relate: Mike was his loss too, and he was still grieving his mother. Will was her only remaining friend to speak of. Max had left Hawkins by the end of January. They had been best friends, and her absence struck El like a physical blow. She hadn’t realized how much she cherished Max until she was gone.

Lucas went into hibernation on Maple Street. He treated El much as she treated her father: like she wasn’t there. He too had been shattered by the loss of a best friend and girlfriend — the same two people El had lost. He blamed her and felt guilty for it. He was avoiding her to avoid his feelings.

Dustin castigated Lucas, but only once. Lucas didn’t mess around: the subject of El was off limits. Dustin knew better than to push it. He visited El a couple of times, and apologized to her for Lucas’ behavior, but he felt awkward about the mess. He too faded away.

It was too much: Mike, Max, Lucas, and Dustin, all suddenly gone from her life. And her father, who may as well have been. William Byers was her unconditional salvation for six weeks. She needed it after the funeral.

 

It was held on February 2: closed coffin, no body. El had despised these solemn affairs since the ceremony for Joyce Byers, and after the events of Mike’s funeral, it would be decades before she attended another.

She came alone in a taxi. No one else to drive her. She had forbidden her father to attend, and Lucas certainly wouldn’t pick her up.

The parlor room was the Snow Ball inverted. She walked in dressed for the occasion, all alone, and here for Mike; this was for him. But everything was black in place of the white and ice-blue. The music was dreadfully somber; organ music. Faces were stern, and no one was dancing. People should dance at funerals. The dead should be remembered with joy.

“Hey, El.”

She turned and saw a preppy looking kid in a suit and tie. “Hi Will.”

“I’m glad you’re here,” he said. “Did you come with Hopper?”

“No,” she said curtly.

“Oh,” he said. “Well, I’d ask you to join us, but, you know, Lucas…”

She saw Lucas and Dustin over at a table. Dustin waved to her. Lucas looked in another direction.

“Don’t let me keep you,” she said.

“No, fuck that,” he said angrily. “I’m going to hang with you.”

She couldn’t believe William Byers had just used the f-word. She smiled gratefully, and he kept her company until the service began. He was returning a favor. At his mother’s funeral two summers ago he had broken down badly, in the middle of the service, and El had stayed by his side the whole way through. She didn’t want to make a scene like that today, but she had no illusions. This was Mike. She was avoiding the coffin area up front. The coffin itself was empty, but there were photos of Mike on display, and if she saw them up close, it would be over.

Then Dustin was at her side. “Hey,” he said, hugging her. “Sorry I didn’t come over sooner.”

She told him it was okay.

“Making any speeches?” he asked.

She was definitely not making any speeches. She couldn’t speak in front of crowds, let alone eulogize her boyfriend.

“Me neither,” he said. “But Lucas is. And don’t worry, he’ll come around.”

I doubt it. Lucas would never speak to her again.

Almost predictably, Karen Wheeler showed up late and drunk, supported by Ted. Nancy was behind them with little Holly. El’s heart lit up. Nancy must have flown back from college over the week-end. She’d be returning tomorrow, to get back to her classes.

As soon as Nancy saw El, she reached out to embrace her. She began crying, and El couldn’t hold back. This was the way of things at funerals. A taut energy leaped from one person to the next, turning over pain and venting sorrow. It was happening to others in the room. The process was therapeutic for some, but El wasn’t comfortable with public shows of grief. She thought it a vulgar way to honor someone’s memory.

But she was glad for any excuse to see Nancy again. They talked for a few minutes, and then the service began. She got through it better than expected. For all her dislike of these ceremonies, they brought out the best in some. The eulogies were well delivered and warmly received. Ted, surprisingly, did his son fair justice, and Nancy was simply perfect, moving people without melodrama. Then Lucas stood to eulogize his best friend, and brought the house down. It was the best of the service; El had to give him that. Lucas Sinclair was a true friend.

In other people, death brought out the worst. When the service was over, El noticed Karen Wheeler eying her, and braced herself as the woman stumbled across the floor, clearly intent on having words.

“Mrs. Wheeler,” she began, having no idea what to say.

Karen Wheeler cut her off. “I knew this would happen.” Her speech was slurred but venomous. “I knew it when Michael brought you into my home to use as his whore. This… this is what we have now. Are you satisfied?”

El’s heart was hammering. She had no hope of appeasing Mrs. Wheeler, or saying anything that could diffuse the situation.

“What kind of hero –” Karen Wheeler spat the word — “are you? You threw him off a cliff, and then he died for you! He died for you, you bitch! You useless hateful bitch!”

Everyone had stopped talking. They stared at Karen Wheeler, shocked by her vitriol. El remained still and silent. She could neither reply nor walk off. Either option would draw twice the amount of ire.

Karen Wheeler repeated herself: “You useless hateful –”

“Mom, stop it!”

El looked and saw Nancy behind dozens of people, over by the buffet table. El felt numb, like she was in a surreal nightmare.

Karen Wheeler either didn’t hear her daughter or ignored her. She swore at El again, and reached for her arm. The arm she had squeezed by the dishwasher. El stepped back just in time.

Nancy pushed through everyone to get to her mother, and grabbed hold of her. At first Karen Wheeler looked like she would desist. Then she yelled and pushed Nancy away — or tried. She ended up pushing herself backwards and fell down, dropping her glass of rum. El dimly wondered where Mr. Wheeler was. Probably in the bathroom, getting drunk in private.

“Mom!” shouted Nancy. “I said stop!”

Her mother wasn’t stopping. She grabbed her now-empty glass, managed to stand up, drew back her arm, and to horrified gasps threw the glass straight at El’s head.

It missed by a mile. And slammed into the forehead of one of Karen’s own neighbors: David Sadoski, a 77-year old banker. The poor sod went down like a sack of cement. People screamed and rushed to help the man. The parlor room erupted into chaos. Holly was crying hysterically. Finally Ted Wheeler revealed himself, pushing through and trying his best to restrain his wife. With Nancy he began dragging her out of the funeral home. Karen Wheeler screamed at the top of a drunkard’s lungs, calling El vile things; words she had never heard before.

She shouldn’t have come here.

To her left she saw Mike’s friends standing together: Will full of outrage. Dustin equally appalled. And then Lucas, rigid as stone, his face a wall of judgment — angry like his friends, but at her, not Mrs. Wheeler. El wanted to die. She could read the accusation on Lucas’ face: Couldn’t even use your powers to stop that glass, could you?

No, she couldn’t have. Not because she wasn’t supposed to show her nature publicly, but because she had frozen, thinking she, not someone else, would be hit by the glass, and frankly, in that moment, not giving a damn.

She took some relief in the absence of her father. He would have shown down Karen Wheeler in an all-out Battle of the Parents. El wouldn’t have that. This was on her.

 

February passed under two blizzards. Hopper announced his resignation and move to Oregon the day after Mike’s funeral. He wasn’t waiting for March to go public. With the police short-staffed, they needed time to search for a new chief.

Karen Wheeler barely avoided criminal charges. David Sadoski had been hospitalized thanks to her fast pitch, but he decided to let it slide. She displayed her gratitude by denouncing him as a banking thief while standing in his driveway. The Sadoski family had to call the police, and the officers walked her back home two blocks down.

During this time, El hunkered in isolation, barely speaking to her father, coming up for air only when Will visited. Usually his Aunt Ruth drove him over to the cabin, and when he was ready to go, Hopper took him home. The first half of March was the same routine, though El finally stopped silent-treating her father. He had paid the piper; his penance was over. They started eating together again.

It was St. Patrick’s Day when Lucas came calling. When she heard his Mazda pull up, she was outside and flying off the porch before he stopped the engine.

He got out and faced her. His face wore a look of remorseful appeal.

She kept hers noncommittal. Inside she desperately wanted amends, but her defenses were entrenched.

He walked closer. “Still a lot of snow in these woods,” he said.

She nodded. They stared unsure of one another, and then suddenly they were embracing. She clung to him crying as he apologized.

“There’s no excuse, El,” he said. “You needed friends, and I was an asshole.”

She wiped her cheeks. “I had Will. And Dustin, sort of. When he remembered me.”

“You should have had me too,” he said. “I’m sorry. Really sorry. Can I come in?”

“Of course.”

 

Hopper was still at work, and so they had the cabin to themselves for two or three hours.

“I really didn’t think you’d speak to me again,” she said, handing him a Coke. It was Classic, but he took it anyway.

“Me neither,” he said, sipping the soda and making a face. “I mean, I hate to say it, because it’s unfair to you. I resented Mike’s death — I still do — and I needed to blame someone. Besides shadow monsters. Something happened last week, and I realized I don’t want to do that anymore.”

“What happened?”

“It doesn’t matter,” he said. “It’s kind of silly.”

“Lucas, tell me.”

“It was the new U2 album,” he said.

“What?”

“I was listening to the new U2 album,” he said. “It came out last week. Mike couldn’t wait for it.”

“Oh.” She wasn’t sure she wanted to hear about music that Mike liked. There was a certain tape she still hadn’t played. “I’m not sure I can listen to that.”

He shook his head. “That’s not why I’m mentioning it. Just answering your question. The album is amazing. Every song is a masterpiece. And there’s this one song, the first one. It’s basically about getting away from everything — towns, cities where so much bad happens. Going to a place, maybe like heaven, or a place in the country not many people know about. Where it all doesn’t matter: where the streets have no name.”

She thought heaven was too good to be true, and had always distrusted the idea. But what he described reminded her of…

“Beaches,” she said.

He looked surprised. “Beaches? Well, maybe. It’s open to interpretation.”

Ever since entering Billy Hargrove’s memories two summers ago, El had been obsessed with the idea of beaches; dreamed of them. Max had shown her pictures near her old home in Cailfornia. And her father had told her there was a city in Oregon called Seaside, less than a two hour drive from the town they were moving to. People took vacations in Seaside, and stayed in resorts along the beach. She wanted to see Seaside, more than anything.

“And this song — ‘The Streets Without Name’ — made you want to stop blaming me?”

“It was the whole album,” said Lucas. “I’ve never heard music this deep. I mean, I’m not religious; I don’t like that stuff. But listening to the album over and over… it sounds stupid, but it makes you want to be a better person. It made me want to be better.”

“Better how?”

“I’m tired of being angry, El. Especially at you. I feel shitty when I’m angry all the time. I’ve felt shitty for the last seven weeks. I can’t do it anymore.”

“So I still deserve the blame. You just don’t like what blaming does to you.”

“No, you don’t deserve it. But tell me — and I’m not accusing you — why didn’t you just tell Mike you were moving to Oregon? He thought you hated him.”

“Because he would have blamed Hopper for taking me away, and then turned the whole thing into a three-month war. I know I was stupid. I should have just told the truth.”

“Well, yeah,” said Lucas. “You don’t worry about shielding parents. They’re adults. It’s their job to handle shit.”

“Believe me, I wish I could do that night over again,” she said.

They sat in silence for a while. Lucas hadn’t touched his Classic Coke beyond two sips.

“Did Will tell you about the tree?” she asked.

He nodded grimly. “Yeah.”

Hopper had gone out to the hill armed with gasoline. It was the day he flew back from Oregon, late at night, and she insisted on coming with him. It was personal for her; the tree had gotten inside her, like the Mind Flayer had gotten inside Will. She watched the tree burn to the ground — a half measure that was hardly satisfying. The plant was still alive on the shadow side. It was there she had been violated.

“I knew there was something about that thing,” said Lucas. “We heard your voice coming from, like, inside the branches, but it sounded so far away. And Max started using her knife…” He shook his head. “Stupid.”

“Do you miss Max?” she asked, changing the subject.

He shifted in his seat. “I can’t believe how much I miss her. She was out of town before I knew it. It hit me hard.” He paused. “We… saw each other the night before she left.” He left it hanging.

She got it. “Good for you.” Happy for him. And her.

“But I miss Mike more,” he said. “I knew him since we were six.”

I know. “I think about both of you every Friday night.” She was talking about Miami Vice, of course.

“Oh my God!” he said, sitting up. “Did you see it last week?”

“Yes.”

“Great episode. Definitely the best one for Tubbs this season.” In “Red Tape”, Tubbs had gotten so fed up over cops walking into booby traps every other warrant, that he threw his badge in Castillo’s face. Detective Ricardo Tubbs had quit Miami Vice, joined the bad guys, and it wasn’t clear until late in the episode what game he was really playing.

“I liked Theresa,” she said.

“Who? Oh, yeah. That one was okay. She was depressing.” In the mid-February episode, Crockett’s girlfriend turned out to be a junkie, and did bad things to supply her habit. Not least in sabotaging the police, through her close relationship to Crockett.

“He loved her,” said El simply. “He stood by her no matter what.” Like Mike always did for me.

They sat for a while without talking, knowing the other was thinking the same thing. That Mike would have loved the rest of Miami Vice season 3, loved the new U2 album, loved to be able to sit here with both of them, and talk each other’s faces off until late in the evening.

The whole thing hurt. It really hurt.

 

The final day came in April. She and her father were packed and ready; boxes had been shipped. Tomorrow the cabin would be in new hands. Hopper had found a hunter willing to pay a good amount for it.

It was a bad night for her; the last time she would sleep in her bed. She had been crying all day, and her head felt split down the middle. She lay there sleepless, until, drawn by some inner compulsion, she sat up and turned on her lamp. She looked across the room at the desk they were leaving behind. There was a new one waiting for her in Newberg. Hopper had seen to it over his vacation.

Out of bed and crossing the room; opening the top drawer. It was still there. She had put off deciding whether to leave it here, throw it in the trash, or take it with her out west.

Her hands trembled as she took the tape mix Mike had made for her. She had held it a few times, but was never able to play it. She kept seeing him smash his copy while shouting horrible things at her. You’re a shitty person! A lousy, shitty person! His pencil swirls decorated the cover, almost hypnotizing.

She took her walkman out of the suitcase and slid in the tape. Returned to bed. Put her kleenex box in easy reach. Leaned back and pushed play.

As the mix spooled, she relived moments with Mike; moments that he had intended to summon with these special songs. A Flock of Seagulls sang about falling in love, and she was twelve again, being kissed by him for the first time… Clan of Xymox lamented the pain of separation, and she was thirteen, stalking him in the Void, calling his name, trying to touch him, anything to let him know she was alive… The Police celebrated that stalker’s romance, and they were reunited, dancing in a hall of white and ice-blue… The Who raged about teenage wastelands, and she was fourteen, shopping with Max for her romper, dumping Mike in public… The Cure made her feel bad about that breakup, and she was sharing M&Ms with him… Thinkman sang about friendship at the end of adventures, and she was reunited with him yet again, after the mall tragedy and losing her powers, promising she would never, never dump him as long as she lived…

The play button popped up as the first side ended. She grabbed what must have been her twentieth kleenex. Her promises mocked her. Catharsis was the same thing as masochism. She ejected the tape and flipped it over.

On side B she didn’t get past the first song. Whatever point in their relationship Mike was referencing with the Depeche Mode song was lost on her. It brought her to their last days — their honeymoon, in his house, under his roof, where their bodies and souls came together, as one, here in this house

That song, an apogee of poetic intimacy, is what finally buried her. She listened to it sobbing, and then, exhausted by too much grief, she fell into dreams. Dreams of beaches and waters that softened good-byes. Where lost friends, dead or alive, rose from the depths and came ashore, if only to hold her briefly, and tell her she was okay, really okay, before dissolving into droplets and rolling away.

 

Their plane left on schedule. It was her first flight, and she would forever associate airports with loss and new beginnings. She was glad it was a weekday. If not for school, the boys would have come to say good-bye, and she couldn’t handle any more of that. The past two months had been a prolonged series of good-byes: deaths, eulogies, and reconciliations.

Her father gave her the window seat, and when the jet started down the runway, she thought of the worms. God, this thing is even faster. She had been half-stoned on tranquilizer when she rode Maedred, and climbing out of untold abuse when she rode Gorn, but she would never forget those terrifying hurtles through the air. As the jet accelerated, she almost expected it to flip into the Upside Down. Instead, she felt the ground give way — saw it happen out the window — and then the plane was in the air, closing the miles between Indiana and Oregon.

“Something else, huh?”

“Yeah,” she said. At that moment her love for Hopper was plain and uncomplicated — exactly how she wanted her new life to be. Knowing it would never be that easy.

And as they flew west, Jane Hopper, who had been known all her life as a number, finally said good-bye to Hawkins. To a past that had defined her too brutally. And to Mike Wheeler, whose death she accepted for what it was, and her own role in what killed him. I’ll remember you every day. I promise.

To do otherwise would deny her need to breathe.

 

Next Chapter: Endless Night

(Previous Chapter: The Hill of Evermore)